Lannetay and Carnifor trudged across the rugged surface of Rubineker, on their way from the William Placard to the first colony dome. Their support belts allowed them to walk freely, and the short-range comm signal allowed them to speak without much risk of being overheard.
“Three hours in orbit.” Carnifor’s rant had been nonstop since they’d landed. “A micromanaged descent, hovering at the edge of the spaceport for an hour, another two hours on the ground before customs even came to look.”
Lannetay mouthed along, getting nearly every word. Then she spoke right along with her second-in-command. “Then two more hours while he scanned every square centimeter of the ship looking for contraband.”
After a few more purposeful steps Carnifor stopped. “I am sort of going on, aren’t I?”
“Even Olthan has this memorized.” Lannetay stopped with him and pointed to the customs agent a hundred meters ahead. “Mr. Nasal certainly does know how to irk people. He wouldn’t even give us his name.”
“A thirty percent tax on our cargo?” Carnifor picked up his harangue against Wantis and everyone who worked for them. “How can anyone afford to trade in their confederation?”
Lannetay resumed walking. “Now you know why poverty follows wherever Wrantiban appears.”
“It doesn’t make sense.” Carnifor nearly had to run to catch up. Despite her being shorter, she always managed to stay ahead of him by about a half-pace
Mr. Nasal reached the main airlock and slipped inside the colony dome. Carnifor shook his head in frustration.
“To a Wanti bureaucrat it makes perfect sense.” Lannetay smiled a bit at Carnifor’s rushing stride. “They control their entire economy – hatch, batch, and container.”
“They don’t control everything.” Carnifor grumbled wordlessly for a moment. “There’s always an underground. We might find somewhere to spend our extra eight thousand credits.”
“The Wantis haven’t been on Rubineker long enough to have an iron grip, but that also means a black market hasn’t been established yet.”
The two stopped at the airlock where Mr. Nasal had entered. Lannetay pressed a control to open the hatch and felt a vibrating buzz from the button. She connected to the colony’s Core and inquired why the airlock didn’t open.
“A fee of five credits per individual must be paid before entrance might be granted.” The Core’s dry recitation contrasted with Bill’s non-mechanical voice.
Lannetay rolled her eyes, and Carnifor muttered insults about Wrantiban. Lannetay sent to Bill, Could you send the colony ten credits so we may enter?
You must be kidding, Bill said. Ten credits is a lot of money for just entering a colony. And after taking sixteen thousand credits before even letting us trade!
Good thing we hid the food from the pirates or they’d have taxed that, too. Lannetay watched the ship’s account get debited as Bill paid, then pressed the control again. This time the hatch opened.
Thanks Bill, Carnifor sent as air filled the lock. Their support belts turned off and the far hatch opened, giving them access to the colony.
“They’re going to nickle and dime us to death.”Lannetay stepped into the colony dome and looked around. She’d expected to be met by some official, but nobody appeared.
Lannetay answered by rote. “Fractions of a credit. A dime is a tenth of a credit, a nickle half that.” She looked around. “Where is everybody?”
The transparent dome overhead covered a series of low buildings. The biggest had to be a factory of some sort. Smaller structures looked like dormitories, and a few tiny ones tucked into the mix had unknown purposes. One of those stood directly in front of the lock, and it looked newly built.
Lannetay indicated the shanty only a few meters away. “That could be a guard house.”
“Mid-morning, Lannetay. This time of day most people would be at work, so why not there?” He pointed to the big structure.
Lannetay walked toward the large building a hundred meters away. “Hopefully some colony administrator is there.” Bill, can you find out from their Core if there’s someone we need to contact to sell our tractors?
You still hope to sell those things? Bill asked.By the way, I can’t break into their Core. Security is too tight, and even if I forced my way in alarms would would be triggered. However, the dome you’re in only has fifteen life signs. The rest are scattered through the rest of the colony with almost none in the dome you’re in.
Carnifor pointed in the direction of another colony on the other side of some small hills. “The planet’s only farming dome has no use for all that equipment. With the Wantis taking over, we can’t give them any of our ‘gifts,’ can we?”
Lannetay was pleased Carnifor had avoided naming what their gifts were. Wantis might be listening. “We’ll see if we can find someone.” She kept her eyes searching for something other than empty roads and buildings that might very well be deserted.
Carnifor stepped ahead of Lannetay and opened the door for her. “After you.”
I tell ya, he’s got it bad, Lannetay. Bill laughed. He wants you.
Lannetay dipped her head in thanks and entered the factory, ignoring Bill’s jibe. She wasn’t interested in Carnifor. Too pompous. If anyone on her crew would catch her eye . . . No. Nobody.
“We’ll have to work fast.” Carnifor tried to beat Lannetay to the receiving desk, and failed. “If we’re on the surface for more than an hour the Wantis will charge us another thousand credits.”
Lannetay looked around for someone – anyone – to help out. The reception area stubbornly remained vacant. Office doors in the area were closed.
“Should we see if they’re locked?” Carnifor asked. “I hate waiting when something needs to be done quickly.”
Lannetay shook her head. “No, that’s just rude. I have a better idea.” She walked past the desk, down a slight ramp, and onto the factory floor. The two passed a sonic dampening field and the cacophony of machinery assaulted Lannetay’s ears.
A recharging rack at the base of the ramp held circlets which would project short-range deflectors to protect the wearer’s head. Lannetay placed one on her head, with Carnifor following suit.
The long, narrow room stretched into the distance, noisy machinery blocking Lannetay’s view of the far end of the building. Scorched industrial lubricant created a stinking, translucent miasma. A faint shout from Lannetay’s right drew her attention.
“What?” Lannetay called back. “I didn’t catch that.” She couldn’t even see who had spoken.
A graying man in a stained coverall emerged from the haze. He yelled, “You shouldn’t be here.”
Lannetay barely made out his words, so shouted back. “We need to speak with someone!”
“What am I, a decommissioned robot? Talk to me.” He pointed back up the ramp. “In the front office.”
As the man walked past, Lannetay deciphered the name “Olburq” embroidered on the coverall. The patina of dirt and grease on his clothing told of manual labor in a dirty environment. Back on the quiet side of the sonic field, Lannetay pulled off her headband. “I’m Lannetay. Nice to meet you.” She held out her hand.
He looked at his battered, filthy hand. “I don’t think you want to take this. Not someone dressed like you.”
Lannetay smiled, resisting the urge to make a quick spin to show off her calf-length pleated mauve dress. “I’ve been down and dirty before and probably will be again.”
Olburq dropped into the seat behind the reception desk and flicked on a holographic display of the factory. “I’m Olburq, former administrator of this colony. The Wantis use me as a go-between to the rank and file here. You must have come from that fancy ship what just landed. Nobody here would dress in high fashion, so you gotta be a new arrival.” He sniffed. “And you don’t smell like Wantis. Not even him.” Olburq glanced at Carnifor.
“We have a cargo we’d like to sell, and from the recent political changes that might be difficult.” Lannetay drew out a credit chip and thumbed a contact. The number “50” floated briefly over the coranium wafer. “Maybe you can help.”
If you're wondering more about these characters, their origins are detailed in Ebony Sea: Origins. If you appreciate this story, please share on social media, and consider supporting the author's ability to continue writing by purchasing the Origins story and leaving a review at the link above.