You wouldn't guess, to look at him. Stringbean in a suit with everyman's face, quiet of voice, seemingly agreeable. An excellent salesman able to convince the clever and brave on the street that, yes, even they, with all their brawn, needed his protection. The cost being so little compared to the consequence of going without. He never called twice with his offer of help. A second call would only ever be to eliminate the problem. Stupidly brave men made for empty buildings and empty buildings could always be put to good use.
Right now, I want to incinerate this project. Having typed today's entry, a laborious task on the tablet I'm using this evening, I clicked submit only to be sent back to log in again. I had written a really good paragraph that I was very pleased with. Now this entry is crap because I can't remember exactly what it was I wrote before.
The setting had to be just so. Each item perfectly placed 'to the template', cleaned, polished and checked twice. Ms Jessop would tear strips off anyone that even looked like getting it wrong. "Exact" was a word often hurled from her lips – each letter perfectly placed with whip-like enunciation – eliciting a flinch from even the most seasoned professionals.
The test loomed large in her mind. It wasn't like taking a math test. There were no easy ways to cheat, not without a hefty price-tag. 'Vitamins' the coach had said. 'Vitamins' she told herself, over and over, with each improvement, each milestone smashed on the way past. Was this the price of winning or the cost of shame?
Like squash but not. Unless of course you mean to say "crush" or "supress", then it's the same, apart from that pesky 's' of course. Nothing like the edible kind though. Unless you have a speech impediment that prevents you from saying 's' (or even 'th'), then too it's the same, apart from the 's'. Hmmmmm, and here I was thinking "What a cool word!". Not any more 'quash', not any more. Not even going to quash you from my vocabulary.
We were hungry for the cold dark now. Fed up with the confines of the transport ship, even though it was bigger than most terran cities, it seemed like a small village with us all living in each others pockets. Gave you a keen understanding of why it was called 'space' and the hunger only grew stronger with time. Even alone in your berth it seemed like the walls were pressing in with the weight of people on board.
As proud as we were to wear the Terran emlem on our chest, it has to be said that the flower within the cartouche seemed an odd choice of decoration at first. We were told that it came from the ancient ritual of packing coffins with tansy. I took this to mean that only the dead (or soon-to-be dead) saw the small, yellow, button-like flowers. This I found mildly disturbing as I prowled the ship trying to put my fears and expectations to rest – I now noticed the flowers everywhere, on each vac suit I passed.
It was hard to get a good line on stopwatch without help from the cashier. A thorny individual at the best of times but a ready source of the ancient, hard money needed to purchase the prized ampules. It wasn't always an easy trade either. Sometimes you'd get off lightly and it'd only be your extra ration the cashier would ask for in return. Other times though it'd be a much harder trade, a cherished memento perhaps or a rare herbal tincture only made on Terra Original. Either way, you be obliged to accept.
It was never just as easy as going to a shop and buying a stopwatch shot or two. All of the timewarp substances were tricky to get hold of. The trade points moved from week to week, sometimes more often, and it was up to you to find out where they were. They didn't publicise it in any way other than word of mouth and you had to know who to ask. It wasn't exactly illegal to trade in stopwatch or the like but, it was frowned upon, the boot squads would find an excuse to shut down a trade point if they got wind of it.
I toyed with the idea of not writing tonight, giving it a miss, slacking off. I'd left it so late and just wasn't 'feeling it'. But, "No," I told myself "you must forge ahead, complete the task you've undertaken." Perhaps the quiet little voice inside was hoping this would, in some small way, make up for all the incomplete tasks I see around the house. Who knows? However, forge ahead I did, picking up the dictionary and closing my eyes I riffled the pages until I felt it was a good place. Gently placing my finger somewhere on the upper right side of the right-hand page, I opened my eyes and...
For a moment there my heart quickened and I thought "Yes! Salvage! There's a word I can do something with." Then I put my glasses on and, as a small sigh escaped my throat, found that I had blindly planted my finger on selvage.
So, instead of exploring a shipwreck full of possibilities, I'll quickly sew a seam in the fabric of my tiny universe and hide the edge on the fabric of my disappointment.
It was all about the same thing in the end. The war, the money, the black market trade, all of it. We signed up to the Terran forces to get our share. Our ancestors had travelled the void to find it, sent it back when they could, until one day someone figured out they could make some hard cash by selling to the highest bidder. Then only the rich-folk could afford it while the rest of us had to wait in line for a litre of liquicool. Yes, the condensate was water, but not freshwater. And the heating plants, the hot, stinking, flesh rotting heating plants, they were a nightmare. A nightmare we were all expected to work our share in, all except the rich-folk that is.
You really had to time it right so that someone had your back for the stop. It was ok when you had relief coming, so long as you let them know before the freeze. It was a bit disconcerting, for them at least, if they arrived just as you froze up, hand raised in acknowledgement, mouth open to speak. Thank the gods J'fish didn't send rookies too often. It was embarrassing for everyone, not to mention a time-waste, when the evacs got called in. They'd always arrive just as your time caught up and, while for you it was as if nothing had happened, the rookie would have been standing there waving his hand in your face for 20 minutes wondering what the hell was going on.
At first humankind couldn't come to terms with the many forms of life they came to meet out in the void. It turned out not all were humanoid, no surprise there, and while we did our best it turned out we were a pretty intolerant bunch of high living apes, also no surprise. For the most part the differences were on the surface and underneath we all thought the same thoughts, raised our kids and went our own way. Every now and then though you came across something that took a bit to get your head around. The oviparous races from M'akirtn B for example, they were something else entirely.
No sense in spending a lifetime thinking about what ifs though. It's not like any of us would break contract with Terran forces anyhow. You'd have more success and pleasure breaking your own face from what I've heard. It's not a simple matter of getting from under an unbreakable contract either. The fact is they can, and will, make your life an absolute misery outside of soldiering. Their tentacles reach far across the universe now, and they don't like to let go.
Things were going well enough when we got the call to check on Falling Through. The station looked like a huge water droplet falling, or flying, through the void as you approached. The atmos membrane was slightly translucent, you could see slight shifts in colour from spaceside, and had a reflective sheen that picked up even the minutest trace of starlight.
Falling Through was a hard science station and as such needed to be close to self sufficient. The geeks could hardly leave a half-baked experiment to dash out on a supermarket run. Long story short the scientists had geeked out completely and forgotten to call for hydro supplies, crops had failed and people were starving. A straightforward enough call-out but the thing that threatens to tear you up every time is that, by the time you get the call, it's too late to save them. What comes through as a call for help is nearly always a call to a funeral. There was never quite enough time.
Sometimes you could filter out the realities of life in the void but othertimes it all got to be too much and you had to head planetside for a time. Long ago they thought humankind would lose the need for a planetary existence. We didn't. Even humans born shipside found they couldn't go more than 700 days or so without setting their feet on real ground. No one really knew why either, although there were plenty of theories.
If you wanted to go far in this void-hopping life, you could always use a bit of help. In the Terran forces they called it patronage. Kind of true although it was questionable as to who was getting the most help sometimes. For all the 'help' I received I reckon I gave more than I got in the end. Sure, I've come far enough there aren't many I answer to anymore, but I almost gave them my life for that privilege, and more than once.
There were rules around using stopwatch. For example: use of only one dose per Terran Standard day (24 earth hours) is authorised; each operative must be paired up with an experienced time-runner while dosed; each use must be pre-reported. It was near to impossible to enforce these rules however, so the unwritten rule was, if you didn't cause an interplanetary fuss or completely fry your brain, nobody much minded how many timewarp tricks you turned.
Regardless, half the force ended up brain fried by the end of their time. We could have filled a regular zine with stories. I can imagine the masthead reading something like "Watching The Clock Melt" and it would be full of those stories about long term t-runners forgetting it was real time and trying some ridiculous stunt that got them dead.
The upload was taking far too long. I didn't want to end up with only half my memories intact again. Took ages to figure out what was going on last time and then I had to repeat the whole process, from an earlier back-up, which meant some of the short-term stuff was missing. Hopefully it was temporarily off-line, holding it's place, and would start again soon.
Someone had said it was like Vanuatu here. I wouldn't know. Couldn't even remember any of the major cities of Earth. The TSF had kept me out so long I hardly even identified as Terran nowdays. Thinking about it, I'm not even sure what I'd call myself. Void Hopper sounds too simplistic. You get to spend some long times planetside. Not enough to call the one place home, but enough that you don't ever consider being out in the void forever.
There were always the followers. Not all of them were very discerning as to who or what they'd follow either. Their apostolic urges overriding any good sense they'd learned as a youngster made sure of that. I'd kept my stopwatch use real quiet but there were a couple of gawkers that always seemed to be there when it all caught up. I got the feeling now that they'd appointed themselves as my minders. What the hell they'd do if there was any real trouble I didn't know, and that bothered me. I hoped they wouldn't make it worse when trouble does come around, as it inevitably does. How did they find out about me anyway? Like I said, I'd kept it real quiet.
According to records I'd been in the fleet an unspecified amount of time. Whether this was simply an error in the database or something more sinister I was yet to find out. It sure did bug me though. I knew the very date I signed up and, although it was an inordinately long time ago, surely it wasn't that unusual to serve at my age. People lived longer now than ever before, didn't they?