Kim Kesler sucked down a beer in the Golden Nugget. Things were pretty quiet between gigs. He'd done some paperwork for the Guild related to grievances coming out of the Pallas Mining Consortium. That was a fly by night operation, a death trap run by Lubbers. He'd tried to get the Guild to shut them down but the Earthside morons at the Guild headquarters kept losing the paperwork. He was just the "secretary" of Local 7 out in the asteroid belt. The "great men" back at headquarters were all university-trained experts in labor relations. None had ever been within a million miles of Local 7. If he felt like this, Kim knew there'd be real problems within the Guild unless the Lubbers at Headquarters got a clue about life out in the Belt.
He looked around the bar. It was mostly deserted in the middle of the day. The spacers with jobs were at work and the spacers with families were at home. The Golden Nugget glistened with burnished chrome, silver, platinum and gold. None of that horribly expensive wood that the managers kept around themselves to flaunt their connections with Earth. Lubbers, Kim thought. Three rows of bottles climbed up the wall behind the bar. Each bottle contributed a rich splash of color. A huge mirror of polished silver filled the rest of the wall. At the end of the bar farthest from the door the display screen of the Guild job-board sat. It flickered momentarily as a new posting appeared, drawing the spacer's attention.
Kim squinted to read the job summary. The years had given him gray hair, a bald spot to comb it over and just enough nearsightedness to make reading the job posting an effort. General Interplanetary was a good outfit. Tough as nails, but they always made payroll and management was all Spacers. He wandered over to the display and called up the detail screen. The Sagittarius was a new ship and that looked good, too. Nothing worse than signing on to a worn out tub, work twice as hard for half the money under lousy conditions. Kim brought up a command menu and told the Guild computer that he wanted the gig.
The response surprised him with its speed. The display indicated an immediate acceptance from Captain Ginger Ramanujan. He smiled, remembering Ginger as a green newbie. She'd done well in the last 20 years and now she was a starship Captain on the Sagittarius.
Kim looked forward to working outside the solar system. It was too bad about Tolerude. The guy who'd invented the hyperdrive hadn't lived to see what Olga Miller accomplished with his invention. At least Linux Tolerude was famous in death.
Kim reported to the Sagittarius, with his gear and ran into Ginger at the airlock. Ginger's red hair and green eyes gave her an exotic look. She stood 5' 10" tall matching Kim's height. She smiled broadly when she caught sight of him. "Kim, you're a godsend. We're on a tight schedule and when Hans got sick…"
"Yeah, appendicitis. Time's been good to you, Kim."
"Same with you, Ginger. How's Glenn and the kids?"
"They're fine. Hey, if you can get suited up, we've got to get loaded ASAP."
"What's the hurry?"
"The Amarites are impatient and we've got a contract to exchange trade goods at Rigel."
"Aliens? You're trading with aliens?"
"Yeah, the Gemini made contact a few months ago. They want to trade but they're real sticklers. We're loading machine tools, life support gear and some specialized boring equipment. You'll be working with Sam Wight. He's expecting you at lock nine. Good to see you, Kim." Captain Ginger Ramanujan slapped him on the shoulder and ducked into the Sagittarius. Kim followed her until she started climbing into officer country while he descended to the crew's quarters.
He suited up and began loading the Sagittarius' hold. Most of the other crewmen were old-timers like himself. The cargo consisted of several sealed containers massing several tons apiece. Kim worked the loading dolly whose thrusters that overcame the inertia that prevented and then maintained the motion of the containers. It was a testament to Kim's skill and the respect afforded him that replaced the younger man who had been operating the dolly.
When all the cargo was loaded it half-filled the hold. The crew buttoned things up and the starship hastily departed for L4 where it was to receive the rest of the trade goods.
Kim strolled into the ward room, collected a cup of coffee and joined Dicky Fox and Sam Wight who were sitting there already.
"Hi, any grievances the Guild ought to know about?"
Fox gave him a dirty look. "Which Guild? The Lubbers' Guild or the Spacers' Guild?"
Kim winced. He didn't want to defend the Guild and there was Dicky putting his finger on the thing that bothered him the most about the union. "Ok, I'll take my Guild hat off. Uh, what do you know about the Amarites?"
Dicky looked at Sam who spoke. "We met them at Rigel where they've set up a trading outpost. Nobody's allowed near them. But they like manufactured goods and they pay in gold and fissionables."
"What do they look like?"
"Nobody knows for sure. Dicky here got a look at one of them in a space suit on the last trip."
"Ugly as sin. Three horns, glowing red eyes and a spiked tail."
Sam changed the subject. After a few minutes they broke up and Kim went back to his quarters until they arrived at L4 and rendezvoused with freighter F288.
More sealed containers made up the second half of the ship's cargo. Things went well until Kim came to container number 32. Kim was a careful spacer and always checked the manifest to get an idea what it massed. This one held machine tools, the same as the others Kim had loaded. So he set the dolly's thruster output the same as it had for the other containers. The result shocked Kim as the container lurched forward. An old hand at handling massive objects in zero-gravity, Kim immediately reversed the thrusters and brought the container to a full stop.
"Is there a problem, Kim?" Ginger's voice came over his suit radio.
"Uh, no. I just miscalculated something. I'm going to be loading this container a little more slowly."
"That's good. You do that."
Kim thought it odd that Ginger choose that particular moment to watch him load this particular container. He also thought it odd that this container should mass about a tenth the others despite a manifest that indicated equivalent contents. He slowly ramped up the dolly's thrusters and refined his mental estimate of the container's mass. The container smoothly found its way home in the Sagittarius' hold.
When the last of the containers were loaded, the Sagittarius signaled F288 that all was well and departed. The ship made its way toward Sol where it would transit through hyperspace to reemerge within Rigel. Kim lay back in his bunk and bothered by container 32. Bother became curiosity. Kim got up and quietly made his way to the rear of the freighter. The cargo hold was pressurized, so Kim slipped in.
A moment of nausea passed over Kim as he made his way to container 32. He'd heard that hyperspatial transition caused such sensations. He concluded that Sagittarius had transited to Rigel. He had to move fast. Nervous fingers fumbled a maintenance override code that opened the seal.
The front panel folded open revealing a lighted interior.
"Who are you?" A high-pitched voice came from the container.
"I'm Kim," he looked into the container and found a little boy sitting there. The boy had brown hair, dark eyes and chocolate brown skin. Kim's mind raged. Of all the soulless corporate tricks… What would aliens do with a human subject? he thought. Answers to this hypothetical question ranged from vivisection to display in an alien zoo. Fury filled him.
"Are you taking me to daddy?" the boy asked.
"I'll try, son." Kim heard a sound. Someone was coming. He desperately looked for a weapon. The best he could find was a pipe he hefted as a club. "Stay behind me."
The door to the cargo hold opened and two women appeared. The first was Ginger.
"Put the pipe down, Kim."
"Stay back. How could you, Ginger? What did the aliens pay you for this kid?" Kim screamed.
"Mr. Kesler, calm down. You don't understand," the other woman said. Kim recognized her as Olga Miller the president of General Interplanetary. This had to be big if the big Kahuna was involved, he thought.
"You'll never get away this." Kim raised the pipe.
A standoff ensued lasting for five minutes that seemed like forever. Kim wondered where the rest of the crew was. He assumed they either didn't know about the child, or sided with him if they did. The ship shuddered momentarily; another ship had docked.
A minute later a massive space-suited figure joined the two women standing in the doorway. The suit had an appendage coming from its rear to accommodate a spiked tail. Kim stood his ground as the alien in the space suit approached. Looking in the visor, he saw glowing red eyes and three horns within.
He waved the pipe menacingly. The boy peered between Kim's legs.
The alien turned to the doorway. Ginger nodded and the alien reached up to his helmet. Kim watched in fascination as the alien removed his helmet. Fascination turned to shock as he saw what lay beneath the helmet.
"I've come for my son. I think there's been some kind of misunderstanding." The "alien" turned out to be a tall, thin blonde-haired man with blue eyes. "No, the tail isn't real, either."
"My name is Linux Tolerude. That's my son, Depak."
"Tolerude? You're supposed to be dead."
"As far as I'm concerned, the more people who think so, the better."
"But the aliens, the Amarites…"
"Are as phony as this spiked tail."
"Daddy!" The boy yelled as he dashed past Kim. Tolerude scooped the boy up and hugged him.
"Mr. Kesler, you already know too much. Are you sure you want to know more?"
"I don't know. What happens if I know more?"
Tolerude laughed and grinned mischievously. "How would you like to be presumed dead and wear a space suit that makes people think you have three horns and a spiked tail?"
"What do you mean?"
"I'm hiring. You want a job? I'm not a union shop, but I would like to have an ombudsman. You may not like the fact that all my employees are presumed dead. If you sign on, you'll be on the inside. If you don't, it'll be complicated with you knowing what you do." Tolerude's good humor remained, but his grin faded into something that resembled sincere interest.
"Hmmm. You need an ombudsman?" Kim's mind raced. Tolerude was definitely a spacer and he'd be a lot easier to work with than Guild Headquarters. He looked the boy who was absolutely delighted to see his father who seemed to share the sentiment. Kim liked kids and decided he'd trust Linux Tolerude. "Why do you need an ombudsman?"
"I'm management. I'm not wild about you starting another local of the Spacer's Guild, but I would like someone who'll tell me when things aren't working."
"What if things don't work out?"
"I'll cash you out and go home. But it will be complicated since you're presumed dead. That's why good labor relations is very important to me."
Kim blushed at how wrong he'd been moments before. He felt ashamed at how he'd thought the worst of Ginger. He dropped the pipe and looked over at Ginger. "I'm sorry…"
Tolerude interrupted him. "Mr. Kesler, I think I understand what you were thinking. I appreciate the fact that you'd risk all to save my son. I don't think you need to apologize."
Kim looked back at Linux, "Uh, Dr. Tolerude, I think I'll take that job."
"Good. I'll buy your contract from Olga and we'll renegotiate it when we get back to Sirius."
"Yeah, welcome to the Sirian Confederacy. Let's see. Olga, how are we going to handle this?"
"You always come up with good ideas, Linux."
"Do you think the Amarites's reputation for being bad tempered would be helped if the alien caught Kim in the cargo hold and angrily killed and ate him."
"Sounds good to me," Olga answered.
"Depak, run and get a bottle of catsup." Linux put his son down and he dashed into container 32 a moment later, the boy rushed out with catsup. "Thanks. He poured some catsup into the palm of one of his gloves and smeared it around his space suit then repeated the process in his other hand. The result was suitably gory if you didn't look too closely. "Olga, make sure the security cam doesn't get a sharp focus image of me."
Kim joined Depak within container 32 and Ginger sealed it behind them. Depak told Kim about growing up in the midwest and making snow angels with his Grampa. Kim told Depak about what it was like to be a working spaceman. They felt the container move and waited in silence as they felt the container get pulled out of the Sagittarius' hold. After an hour, they felt more movement as they were loaded into a second ship. Another hour passed and the hatch opened.
"Welcome to the Fat Chance." Linux was less fearsome without his space suit. He was leaner and seemed genuinely interested in Kim. A small woman stood next to Tolerude. She had dark brown skin, full hair and a cigar clamped between her teeth. Little Depak yelled "mommy," dashed into her arms and gave her a hug.
"Hi, Kim, you remember me from the Big Bopper?"
"I remember the cigar."
"I told Linux we should recruit you. You'll like the Rock Garden, it's like the Belt, only better. We're building the first habitat on Home. That's what the rest of this shipment's for. Come on, I'll introduce you to the rest of the crew. Though you probably know most of them already."
Kim followed Tara and Linux with Depak walking between them holding their hands. He'd periodically tug at their hands and jump as his parents would pull him high in the air. Kim found the sound of Depak's laughter delightful.
Tara was right. Kim knew most of the crew. A lot of old friends who'd been reported dead, or just drifted out of his life were represented in the crew. There wasn't a Lubber to be found. Kim didn't have any official duties, so he stood on the bridge next to Depak as the Fat Chance dove into Rigel, transited through hyperspace and emerged at Sirius A. They landed on planetoid in the Rock Garden and then docked with an attached habitat. It looked like the habitat on Ceres where the Golden Nugget was located.
Linux looked at Kim when the ship was secure. "Well, what do you think?"
"I've died and gone to heaven."
Tara laughed. "You're no Lubber even if you are a union thug."
"Call me an Ombudsman."