2334 CE – Year 130576 of The Station
Space is a cold place. The cargo ship had some climate control, enough to keep most goods fresh, but not enough to make it comfortable for any spacefaring species.
A good jacket was important in space. Luckily, Benn Starr had one, made of rugged brown canvas with a thick wool lining. It was part of an old mechanic’s uniform, from Benn’s last job on a pleasant green moon called Tor 5.
Benn reached into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out a small tube of red foil, about the size of a crayon, containing a row of sugary red tablets. Each tablet held a dose of tetracyclozine, a hallucinogenic drug commonly known as “zeen”. A handful of empty wrappers; blue, green, and orange, tumbled from Benn’s pocket onto the floor below.
Zeen tablets were one of the most popular hallucinogens available. At low doses, users experienced four to six hours of sustained minor hallucinations combined with euphoria and heightened audiovisual sensitivity. At higher doses, users could be rendered comatose, locked in all-consuming hallucinations for hours on end.
Benn opened the foil packet and took out a whole tablet. Benn was addicted, yes, but some zeen fiends went through a pack of tabs in a day, and he wasn’t like them. At least, that’s what he told himself. Half a tab was usually enough, but the ship was slow, and Benn was bored, so he tossed the entire tablet in his mouth and bit down, chewing the crunchy, candy-like disc and releasing the drug into his body. The tetracyclozine burned slightly as it slid down his throat and seeped into his gums. Over the past two years, Benn had come to relish that sweet burn.
The hold was wide, with a tall ceiling, its floor a dizzying maze of stacked shipping containers. The other passengers sat against the sides of these crates, on makeshift beds and sleeping bags of all shapes and sizes, congregating in open spaces between the big, standardized metal boxes. As the zeen took hold, it all began to shimmer, vibrating in waves like distant desert heat.
Benn was the only human on the ship, but that didn’t bother him. He was a spacer, born far from Earth, orphaned at an early age by some inconsequential battle, in another nameless interstellar war.
Benn had wandered the stars for as long as he could remember. Unlike many humans, he neither hated nor feared aliens, because he was raised by a ship full of them. They taught Benn well. Compared to most aliens, humans lived short lives, but they were quick learners. The human child did a bit of everything, learning about starship mechanics, navigation, trade, alien languages and customs; information which would save his life a thousand times over, once he’d grown up and struck out on his own.
Benn sat on the dirty plate metal floor, leaning back against a crate, bundled in his jacket and trying to enjoy his trip. He pulled out his headphones and listened to some music, mellow electronic stuff, the kind he usually liked when he was on the tablets. He tried to zone out, to rest his mind, but the red zeen gripped him, and he felt his whole body tingling.
Reds were Benn’s least favorite variety of zeen, but they were all he had left. The drug came in seven colors, each affecting a different area of the brain, amplifying a different set of emotions. Reds amplified the emotions of rage, lust, and fear.
Benn ground his teeth, a common side effect of red zeen. He clenched his fists. He was angry, and his anger ran deep. He wanted his ship back.
Benn built The Raft himself. He bought a tiny old junker of a shuttle, gutted it, and made extensive modifications, giving the ship a fusion stardrive, weapons, secret smuggling compartments, faux-leather seats, and new computers with a powerful ai at their core.
The Space Marines took it, and Benn wanted it back. They’d caught him in restricted space, on his way to an asteroid controlled by the Station where miners were in open revolt, seeking to barter their palladium ore for weapons.
When Benn saw the Station’s marines coming, he fled, crash-landing on the planet Baz and fleeing into the wilderness, with the Space Marines hot on his heels. It was a good thing Benn had a well-packed survival kit, because he had to walk for four days to reach the nearest spaceport. There, he boarded the first ship to the Station he could find.
Benn hoped his high would die down a bit before he got there. The Station was not a forgiving place. Home to approximately 15 billion life forms, the Station was a powerful interstellar city-state, projecting influence with trading posts and penal colonies across the Verge and the Outer Rim, all protected by the Station’s mighty fleets and brutal Space Marines.
“Human” Growled a deep alien voice. “Wake up, puny human! We’re almost there.”
Benn opened his eyes and looked up to see an alien standing above him. At about seven feet tall, this Kylossian male was, in fact, only average height for his species.
The Kylossians were bipedal arthropods, with long, powerful limbs and dextrous, claw-like hands, all encased in a thick exoskeleton. Their mouths were made up of four prongs, each sporting a single row of jagged teeth. A set of Kylossian teeth was the product of millions of years of evolution. The Kylossians were carnivores, whose ancient martial custom was to consume any beings they defeated in battle.
“Hey, man, what the hell?” Benn demanded, scrambling to his feet. The zeen hit him hard, his ears filled with static, and his vision slipped, turning hazy and red.
“Look at this filth!” The alien exclaimed, in english. “Poisoning his mind.” He added with contempt.
A Vastrian with dark blue feathers walked up behind the Kylossian, placing a talon-like hand on his shoulder. “Relax, Gorix.” He urged his friend. “We don’t need a fight now.” The bird wore a human-style leather jacket, and had a large jolter pistol at his side. Colorful beaded strings hung from the feathers above his ears, in the traditional custom of Vastrian wanderers.
“Don’t hold me back, Zoref!” Shouted Gorix, pulling free of the Bird’s grip.
Benn drew his gun and aimed at the Kylossian’s head. “You should listen to your friend.”
His pistol was almost two-hundred years old. A small square taser module was set underneath the barrel with industrial glue. It was useful, but only the steel bullet in the chamber could hurt the Kylossian.
Designed to pierce body armor long ago, in the time of the old nations and their old wars, steel bullets helped save earth from Kylossian domination when they invaded in 2284. A shot to the head would crack through Gorix’s exoskeleton and kill him almost instantly. Benn planned to take several shots, just to be safe.
“I’ve killed a thousand humans!” Gorix proclaimed, pointing at Benn with his claw. “Your species is pathetic. When you die, you bury each other in the same dirt where you grow your dainty little crops!”
Benn looked him up and down. The Kylossian had scars across his chest and shoulders; marks where his shell had once splintered or cracked. The ‘natural’ lifespan of a Kylossian was about 200 years, though the average Kylossian died in battle around age 44. Benn realized that Gorix probably fought humans on Earth decades ago. It was bitterly ironic, that this alien had been to Earth, while Benn himself had not.
“So what should I do with your remains, crab-man?” He asked with a scowl.
“Bah!” Roared the Kylossian. “Typical human arrogance!” He took a step towards Benn, who did his best to gather his scattered senses. The haze washed over him and he staggered slightly.
“You humans are only brave with a gun in your hand!” Gorix shouted as he lunged forward, but Benn regained his footing and stepped back quickly.
“You really want me to blast a hole in that shell of yours, crab-man?” Benn said, pulling back the hammer on his pistol.
The Kylossian growled and snarled. “See how you fare without your trinkets and toys, Kurok! You’re so soft, you can’t even walk naked on your home planet!”
Zoref whispered something to Gorix.
Benn debated pulling the trigger. Even if his friend calmed him down now, this Kylossian would remain a threat until they reached the Station.
But Gorix’s bird-like friend was reaching for his jolter. These rudimentary energy weapons fired a deadly jolt of electricity, like a concentrated bolt of lightning. Benn wasn’t about to get zapped. Ideally, he could avoid being eaten as well.
“You look like a reasonable guy.” Said Zoref, looking Benn in the eye, and resting his hand on his jolter. “I think you should relax.”
Just then, an explosion shook the cargo bay. Smoke drifted among the shipping containers as the Space Marines moved in, rounding up the refugees and firing indiscriminately at any who fought or fled.
A marine stepped through the smoke towards Benn. The soldier was humanoid, shorter than the others, too small to be a Jravidian.
Benn had them in his sights, but something made him hesitate.
The marine stopped, lowering their laser rifle slightly. “Hands up!” They commanded, in English. Benn kept his gun raised.
The standoff continued until Gorix the Kylossian shot out from between two crates, striking the marine like a meteor and knocking them to the ground, where they grappled desperately with the mighty alien.
The Space Marine put up a good fight, but they were being steadily overpowered by the Kylossian. The alien dazed the human with a hard strike to the head with its claw, then clamped the human’s helmet in its jaws.
Just as the human’s helmet began to crack, a flash of metal emerged from the shadows. It was an Anthrotron, a humanoid robot which was, at the time, the dominant life form on Earth.
The robot grabbed the Klyossian from behind, using its titanium hands and mechanical strength to pull the alien off and throw him to the ground. It placed a metal foot on the Kylossian’s throat.
“That’s enough.” Said Zoref. He’d been standing, like Benn, watching the fight unfold, but now he had his jolter drawn, aimed at the robot’s head. The robot pulled its foot away, meeting the Vastrian’s hawk-like eyes with its black glass lenses. The robot then left as quick as it came, leaping suddenly upwards and latching onto the roof with the electromagnets in its hands and feet.
Benn eyed the motionless marine nervously, while Zoref tried to pull Gorix to his feet.
“What happened?” Asked Benn.
“The robot cracked his shell.” Answered Zoref. “He’ll heal, but it’s gonna take a day or two.” The bird shook his head. “It kills me to leave him here but if I try and move him it’ll just injure him more, and then I’ll get caught too.”
“So run.” Said Benn.
Zoref nodded before disappearing around the corner.
As Benn moved off in the opposite direction he saw the marine move. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw them sit up and take off their cracked helmet. He saw a soft human face, full lips, and sparkling eyes, beneath a messy mop of short, thick black hair.
She looked up and saw him, their eyes met, and time seemed to stand still. Then she was up and after him, following his every turn among the maze of crates. She was quick, her armor was light, and she was gaining on him.
She stumbled, and Benn thought he was free, but she grabbed a shock charge from her belt and hurled it at his back. It latched on and sent electricity jolting through his body. Benn fell to the ground, shaking uncontrollably.
He woke up in a cell, its walls, ceiling, and floor made of smooth white ceramic. There were no windows, there was no door, the room’s only feature was a small black viewscreen embedded in one of the walls.
Benn tapped the screen and it flickered to life, he was met with a message in pixelated text, read aloud by a generic, female-sounding automated voice. It sounded choppy, the words stitched together from the Station database by an algorithm with no regard for tone, pitch, or other subtleties of human language.
“Hello, you are currently a prisoner of the Station.” The voice spoke from a small speaker beneath the screen. “Please wait patiently for processing. We hope your incarceration is comfortable. For further information, please press a number on the screen.”
The numbers one through four appeared onscreen, listed vertically.
“To hear your accused crime, press one. To view your remaining incarceration period, press two. To select nutrient-matter input preferences, press three. To view your legal rights, press four.” The voice began to repeat itself in Chinese.
Benn pressed two.
“Your remaining incarceration period is INDEFINITE.”
Benn pressed one.
“Your accused crime is ILLEGAL EXISTENCE. If you believe you are innocent of ILLEGAL EXISTENCE, please press two now.”
Benn pressed two.
“We’re sorry, non-citizens do not have the right of appeal. Please wait patiently to be processed.”
He growled and tapped the screen fervently.
“We’re sorry, non-citizens do not have the right of appeal.” Repeated the computer. “Please wait patiently to be processed.”
“Piece of shit…” Benn said under his breath. The numbers one through four reappeared. He pressed four.
“Records indicate that you are a NON-CITIZEN. As a NON-CITIZEN your legal rights are NONE. If you wish to exercise your right to NONE, please press one. Otherwise, please wait patiently to be processed. Thank you.”
“Fuck me.” Benn sighed.
The numbers one through four appeared again on screen. Just for the hell of it, Benn pressed three.
“Records indicate that you are HUMAN. Food options for HUMAN include GREEN FOOD PASTE and ORANGE FOOD PASTE. Press one for GREEN FOOD PASTE. Press two for ORANGE FOOD PASTE.”
The green paste was most likely soy-based, and the orange one was probably made from lentils or carrots. Benn pressed two.
“Thank you. You will receive ORANGE FOOD PASTE.”
“Great.” Benn mumbled. He slumped down against the back wall of the cell and waited, resting his head and dozing off into a restless sleep.