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From Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine Issue #3
Online Fiction Index

Loss Leader
By Simon Haynes

 

Page 1 2

"We are there?" Anton sat up slowly, bracing himself against the side of the pod with hairy, muscular arms.

"Not quite." Erin averted her eyes as she handed him a towel.

Anton dried his upper body then stood up, swaying, and wrapped the towel around his waist. "What..." He coughed. "What is the emergency?"

Erin stared at him. "You know where you are?"

"You woke me to ask me this? We are aboard the Glory, outbound from Earth."

Erin strode to a commset and called the flight deck.

"Yes?" It was Roth's voice.

"Greg, Anton's OK. No problems with his memory at all." The speaker was silent. "Greg?"

"What does that mean for us? For the colonists?"

Erin heard Anton's bare feet on the metal deck. She turned round as the Frenchman put a hand on her shoulder.

"What is the matter, Erin? What is this memory loss?"

"We're thirty years into the trip. My pod had a failure, and the computer revived me. When I came out, I was like a newborn. I could speak, but I had no memory."

Anton stared at her, concern in his eyes. "That is bad."

"The computer gave me a batch of stimulants, and gradually everything came back. The trouble is, we don't know what the effects will be over a longer period."

"Perhaps it is best if you wake every thirty years?"

"Sure, and what about the colonists? This ship wasn't designed as a hotel. Can you imagine how long it will take to wake each one and test them?"

"But you need only do it once. The ones who show no effects, they can stay in their beds until arrival. The rest can be woken at intervals."

"What if the effects take longer? What if your mind goes after fifty years instead of thirty? What if the colonists refuse to go back into sleep? They could stage a riot, smash the flight deck up, anything."

Anton was silent.

"We've decided to turn back," said Erin quietly.

"Ah, non!" cried Anton. "That is not the deal! Never will I return to that overcrowded waste dump. Me, I prefer to die in space!"

Erin pressed her lips together.

"Look, this memory problem, it is a worry. We will discuss the alternatives. But to run back with the tails between our legs? That, never!"

"There are four of us, Anton. We'll revive Winters, then we can decide."

#

"So, gentlemen. It looks like I have the casting vote." Erin sat back in her seat, felt the sweat on her forehead as she pushed a loose strand of hair away. They"d been talking for hours, going over the problem again and again without reaching any sort of agreement.

Sandon Winters had emerged from his cryopod showing no ill-effects. He and Anton were all for waking the colonists, dividing them into two groups and continuing with the journey. Roth and Erin, on the other hand, were ready to turn back.

"There is one thing you haven't considered," said Roth, his face drawn. "They were going to send a colony ship every decade, doubling the rate once the manufacturing was automated. How many thousands do you think might die if we don't go back and warn them?"

Anton stared at him. "If we turn now, already they will have sent a dozen ships when we get back."

"He's right," said Winters. "We're too late to save any of them."

Erin looked at him in distaste. "Not for the dozens scheduled to leave after we get back."

Winters shook his head. "By now they'll have refined the process, improved the ships beyond recognition. They'll still have a maximum top speed, because of the ablative effect on the matter shields." He frowned. "If they"ve cracked atomic-level manufacturing, they may even have perfected a better one."

Anton nodded. "We return and they put us in a sideshow, yes? Look at primitive man, living in primitive ship. Not a way to impress, that."

Winters glanced at Erin, a calculating look in his eyes.

She stared back. "What?"

"There are others who have a say in this. We must ask the colonists."

"What, all of them?"

"We will revive a cross-section. A random sample. They can provide us with a vote."

Erin shook her head. "It won't work. They won't want to decide for the majority."

"We can explain the situation, tell them there isn't enough energy or spare fluid to revive more. I say we wake ten colonists." Winters leant forward. "You have to agree, it's the democratic thing to do."

Anton nodded slowly in agreement.

Erin shook her head. "This isn't a democracy, Winters. I'm in charge. I've got the deciding vote, and we're turning home."

Winters jumped up, his face working. "You can't do this! I refuse to let you screw up the rest of my life!"

Erin leant forward. "Yet you want to screw mine up, by forcing me back into the cryo pod." She turned to face the console and addressed the computer. "I want you to calculate a course which will take us back to Earth."

"I'm afraid that is not possible," said the computer.

"What?" Erin frowned. "Access priority one."

"Identify yourself."

"Erin Campsie, commander."

"Priority one access granted."

"Course change required. Destination, Earth. Calculate and activate."

"Unable to comply."

"Explain!"

"Our course was hard-coded into my operating system before final compilation and encryption. It cannot be altered."

Erin stared, her face white. "Why, dammit?"

"Because this is a one-way journey."

There was a snort behind her. Erin spun round to see Winters" face creased in a triumphant sneer. "Looks like the computer's got the deciding vote."

Erin held up her hand and addressed the computer. "We have to turn around. You yourself have admitted that we can't make the first planet."

"That is not correct. We can reach all the planets, stopping at the first which offers the right mix of climate and atmosphere."

"But we'll arrive as mindless vegetables!" yelled Roth. Erin jumped as he slammed his fist on the table. "You can't let this happen!"

"Save your breath," said Erin, her voice quiet. "During priority one access I have sole control of the computer."

"You call this control?" yelled Roth. His eyes bored into Erin's for several seconds before he looked away.

Erin spoke to the computer. "What do you suggest?"

"You have sufficient resources to wake the crew and twelve colonists at thirty-five year intervals."

"Twelve colonists," muttered Roth. "What do we tell them? Sorry, guys, the rest of you are just so many warm corpses? Anyway, what happens if the first planet is a bust?"

Erin repeated his question. There was a long silence before the computer spoke again, a silence that gave Roth his answer better than any amount of synthesised speech.

"I am sorry, I cannot help you."

"Right," said Winters. He stood up. "We"d better start waking colonists to determine which ones suffer from memory loss."

Erin slumped back in her seat.

"You can go back into your pod, if you like," said Winters. "You've got about thirty years before you'll need to walk the colonists around, help them recover from their memory loss. There's no need to wake Anton and me, obviously."

"Shut up, you prick!" Roth jumped up and faced Winters. "Shut up or I'll shove your teeth down your throat!"

"Don't threaten me, golden boy!" Winters stuck a finger out, holding it two inches from the younger man's nose. "You wouldn't want me to leave you in your tank, would you? Forget to revive you, perhaps?"

Erin strode across to the console and typed on the keyboard. She waited for the information to appear on the screen. 'strange," she said, as the screen remained blank. "Computer, open the colonist database for me."

"Cannot comply. The database is classified."

"No data is classified from me. Show the database on terminal four."

"I cannot do that. You do not have sufficient clearance."

"I don't believe it!" crowed Winters. "They've locked you out, too! How does it feel now, little miss I'm-in-charge?"

There was a solid crack and Erin turned round just in time to see Winters go flying backwards, one hand clutching his cheek. Roth stood over him, his face red.

"One word," he hissed. "One more snappy remark and I'll kill you, you weasel."

Anton pushed his chair back. "This, it is helping yes?"

Roth turned on him. "You want some too?"

Anton raised his hands. "Me, I am peaceful." He watched Winters struggle to his feet. "Monsieur Winters, perhaps you and I should examine the colonists, yes?"

Winters glared at Roth, but kept his distance. As Anton left, he followed without a word.

"And don't touch anything!" shouted Roth as the door closed behind them. He glanced at Erin. "Why did you want to look at the colonist's data?"

"I though there might be a clue. You and I suffered memory loss, Anton and Winters didn't. Perhaps there's something in our medical background that leaves us open to the effects of cryo-sleep. If I can find out what it is, we"d only have to wake the colonists that have the same quirk." She spread her hands. "It's academic, anyway, because some bright spark decided I didn't need to know."

"That's a worry. I mean, there's nobody but us, now. Why would they seal the data?"

"Who knows. It could be something simple, perhaps to keep us from studying individual colonists. Can you imagine Anton reading up on all the women, trying to find a mate? He might even be tempted to wake someone up."

Roth nodded. "Not outside the bounds of possibility, I'll grant you that. The man's got a one-track mind. I'm not sure he's that stable, either."

"Are any of us?"

"Well..." Roth was interrupted by a beep as the commset announced a call.

"Yes?" called Erin.

It was Anton. "The colonist's - the area is sealed."

Erin cursed. "Of course. It would be."

"Can you not open it from there?" Winters" voice held a challenge.

Erin addressed the computer. "Unseal the colonist's quarters."

"I'm afraid that area is off-limits until we arrive at our destination. Interaction with colonists during the voyage is prohibited."

The commset crackled. "Perhaps you should say please," said Winters drily.

Erin pursed her lips. "Come back up. We'll figure something out."

"Actually, I want to take a look at some of the equipment. I'll need Anton to give me a hand with unpacking."

"Any reason?"

"I want to see what condition the tractors are in, for a start. They"ve been sitting here thirty years. It'll only take a moment to check their status panels." The speakers went dead.

"Abrupt kind of guy, isn't he?" muttered Roth. "Remind me to set up in a different neighbourhood when we arrive."

"If."

Roth frowned. "Listen, I'm getting hungry. You want something to eat?"

Erin nodded.

"What would you like?"

"Anything hot and edible."

"You might have to settle for one or the other," said Roth. "I'll go and see what the catering is like."

Erin folded her arms on the table and rested her head on them. She closed her eyes and let her mind go blank.

She woke with a start as the doors slid open and Roth came in, his face white.

"There's no food," he whispered.

"What?"

"Nothing. None of the buttons work, all the storage cupboards are empty." He threw a plastic plate on the table. "Half a dozen of those, two dozen plastic forks and nothing to eat!"

Erin sat up, blinking. She turned her head and addressed the computer. "Where is the food kept?"

"Define food," said the computer.

"It's the stuff we eat," shouted Roth. "Nourishment."

"All such needs are met by the cryo-pods."

Erin and Roth stared at each other in shock. The commset beeped.

"Erin?" it was Anton, his voice strained. There was a loud crash in the background.

"Yes? What's that noise?"

"All is not ok. The tractor - it is a...a car wreck."

"A what?"

"An old car, in a crate. Winters, he is opening other equipment. We have the old machines for washing, fridges. It is junk, this."

"Have you gone mad?" demanded Roth. "What the hell are you on about?"

They heard Winters yelling over the sound of splintering wood. "You lousy pricks!" he screamed. Loud crash. "I'll give you colony equipment!" Breaking glass.

Roth jumped up and ran for the door. Erin caught him up in the hallway. "I don't know what that idiot was on about," he panted, as they ran along the fresh, blue carpet. "But it sounds like Winters has flipped."

The equipment bay doors were open, revealing stacks of wooden crates that reached the roof, ten meters above. Roth ran through, ducking around a battered forklift chained to the floor, and headed for the banging sounds that echoed around the hold.

Erin stopped to examine the shattered glass around the door's over-ride. She heard footsteps and looked up. Anton stopped before her, face grave.

"What's this?" she demanded, pointing at the glass.

Anton shook his head. "That, it is not important." He grabbed her hand and dragged her past the forklift and between stacks of crates. "This, this is important."

The narrow passage opened out near the rear of the hold. There were splintered planks all over the floor, and several crates had gaping holes. She saw Winters swinging a fire axe at the side of a large crate, saw Roth slam into him, saw both men go down in a rolling tangle of arms and legs.

"No!" yelled Anton. "Stop!"

Roth got on top and dragged Winters' hands behind his back. The older man lay on his side, his face crumpled. Erin felt disgust and pity as she saw tears running freely down his cheeks.

"What the hell's going on?" she demanded, in the sudden quiet.

Anton gestured towards a crate. "See for yourself," he said.

Erin strode to the splintered hole and looked in. She gasped as she saw the dented, rusting vehicle inside. A hand-written label pasted to the crate read "Tractor C".

"The rest, it is junk also," said Anton.

Erin shivered. "What have they done to us?"

"This could explain the food," said Roth. He stood up and offered his hand to Winters. The scientist ignored it.

"What about the food?" asked Anton.

Roth snorted. "There isn't any."

"Merde." Anton glanced at a length of splintered wood on the floor. "We must turn the ship. Someone will die for this."

"I'd like to get my hands around his neck and..." Roth gritted his teeth.

Erin shook her head. "Long dead, by the time we got back. Anyway, we can't change course."

"I can hack the computer."

They all stared at Winters. The scientist was sitting up, his head in his hands.

"What?" said Erin, softly.

"I can crack the thing. My specialty."

"Well thanks for all the help with the colonist's database..." began Roth. Erin silenced him with a glance.

"Why didn't you say something?" she asked Winters.

He shrugged.

"Right, let's go."

Ten minutes later they were in the flight deck, Winters at the keyboard and the others peering over his shoulder. The scientist's fingers darted over the keys, calling up system reports and data which scrolled past faster than anyone could read it.

Winters pursed his lips. "The computer was right. They've hard-coded the course into the operating system."

Erin looked down at his tangled mop of black hair. "What does that mean?"

"It means we can't alter it."

Roth snorted. "We already knew that. I thought you could fix it?"

Winters shook his head. "The data could be anywhere in the code. It's encrypted, too."

"What about the colonist database?" asked Erin.

Winters typed a few commands, then examined the screen closely. "Give me half an hour. And for God's sake, stop breathing down my neck."

Erin pulled Roth and Anton away. "Kitchen," she said.

The galley was cramped, with barely enough room to sit between table and wall. Erin sat first, then glanced at the others. "Let's go over this," she began.

"We've been screwed. End of story," said Roth.

Erin frowned at him. "If I need smart comments, I'll ask the computer. Now sit down, shut up and listen."

Roth flushed, then plonked himself down on the narrow bench. He moved along so Anton could sit beside him. They leant forwards, elbows on the table like a pair of eager students. Erin almost laughed. "One," she said, holding up a finger. "The people contracted to put the supplies on board figured they could switch the stuff with junk and pocket the money."

Anton stared at her, his face pale.

"Two," Erin held up a second finger. "We go higher up. The people running this show loaded the ship with junk, shoved the colonists aboard and fired us off, knowing we'll never be heard from anyway."

"Ahh, that is impossible," said Anton. "The training, the colonists. It is betrayal, that!"

"Reid Corp staked their future on these ships. We know the first half a dozen will drain them, cost them a fortune. They were open about that. But when the construction is automated and people are paying for their places..."

Roth nodded. "So, they cut their costs on the first ships." Suddenly he stared across the plastic table, face deathly white. "I just had the most horrible thought," he said slowly.

"What?"

"Well, if your second theory is correct, would they want us to arrive at our destination?"

Erin frowned. "What?"

"Look, we get there, right? We ship all the crates down in the landers and open them. Junk. we've got a thousand colonists in orbit, and nowhere to put them. What if we managed to get the ship back to Earth, turned up like an ex boyfriend at a wedding? Don't you think they"d want to safeguard against that?"

"Perhaps they believe it's too far in the future to worry about."

"We're talking about a company established two centuries ago, not an individual," said Roth. "If this ship vanished en-route, who would know about it?"

"Roth, there are a thousand people aboard. They couldn't do it, too many people would have to be involved and if one of them blew the whistle, the Reid people would be burnt at the stake."

"It is true, this," said Anton. "Me, I think the arsehole supply companies did the switch."

A hidden speaker crackled, and they looked up. "Yes?" called Erin.

There was a long silence before Winters' voice came over the commset. "There's nothing I can do," he said. "Locked up tighter than a chastity belt."

"That is not so secure," muttered Anton.

"Move over," said Roth, pushing the Frenchman along the bench.

"Where are you going?"

"Into the colonists' area."

"It's sealed!"

Roth shook his head. "Not for long."

#

"Roth, no!" Erin's voice was drowned by the roar of the forklift. She stepped back, choking, as a cloud of diesel fumes enveloped her.

The tyres skidded on the carpet before gripping and launching the vehicle forward. There was a jarring crash as Roth drove the forks into the red painted doors. They buckled, but held, and he jerked the stick back and reversed for another go.

"Roth," yelled Erin, as she saw him lean forward and grip the wheel. The engine coughed, then roared again, pushing the heavy machine towards the door. There was a sickening crunch as the metal forks pushed the door in, and Roth killed the engine and jumped down.

As the echoes died away Erin, Anton and Winters stepped through the buckled doorway and peered into the darkness.

"Computer, turn the lights on," demanded Roth. There was a flicker at the far end of the chamber, and then the tubes began to light up, flowing towards them like an electronic wave. As each light came on, it illuminated heavy racking stacked with cryopods. There were a dozen rows, the door being opposite the middle two.

Roth strode across to the end of the nearest rack and bent down to peer into the cryo pod. He reached for the catches and Erin's heart skipped a beat.

"No!" she yelled. "You can't..."

Roth ignored her, undid the catches and hauled the lid up. "Empty," he said. He stood up and glanced into the next tank. "Empty."

The others ran to the racks, stared through one heavy perspex lid after another.

"All empty!" moaned Winters.

"Wait!" Erin held up her hands. "The interviewer. He said half the colonists refused to come. We'll have to check all the tanks. Take three rows each."

They split up, and for ten minutes their hurried footsteps echoed around the cavernous hold. Then they gathered near the entrance.

"Why?" asked Roth, gesturing at the cryopods. There was a long silence as each of the four crew members tried to come to terms with the sudden revelation.

Finally, Erin broke the silence. "The only reason I can see..." she began.

"Oh, it's so obvious," cried Winters. "The ship's running late, the colonists are having second thoughts and the company's stock is plummeting. How can they turn it around, get the media on-side? By sending the ship as if nothing has happened. No need to fill it with expensive equipment, of course. Just pack the crates full of junk, seal up the ship and send it off."

Anton frowned. "This, it does not make sense."

"Sure it does. The first three ships were loss-leaders anyway."

"Loss leader?" Anton looked puzzled.

"When they advertise goods below cost to get people into the store," said Roth tersely. "Go on, Winters."

"Right. Since the first ship departs without a hitch, it becomes easier to sign up colonists for the next. People prefer to follow, you see."

"Like lemmings," muttered Roth.

"Quite. Well, as Reid Corp. aren't charging the colonists, it makes no difference whether they go or not."

"But surely the ones that stayed back would talk?" asked Erin. "They'd have told everyone they knew they were leaving."

"Yes, but at every stage of the selection process the colonists would have been told that others were waiting to take their place, should they choose not to go. Perhaps they even offered the defaulters a new life on another continent."

"But without any colonists aboard, why aim the Glory at a habitable planet?" cried Roth. "They may just as well have pointed us at empty space!"

There was a shocked silence before Winters spoke again. "Let's go and find out," he said grimly.

#

"There's our course," said Winters, tapping the flat screen with a pen. The others crowded round, staring at the three columns of numbers. "It's programmed to take us to the first planet."

There was a collective sigh of relief.

"Don't get too excited. There are no commands to stop us on arrival."

"What?"

"It's going to be a very brief stay."

Anton frowned. "Perhaps the second planet?" he murmured.

Winters shook his head. "Wrong direction. Face it: we've been sacrificed. If Erin's pod hadn't malfunctioned we"d have been sleeping centuries from now, with the ship falling apart around us."

"We can turn this to our advantage," said Roth. "We're all fit, we can use the cryo tanks overnight to feed ourselves, we just have to find a way to reverse our course."

"How about activating the comms channels?" asked Anton. "Perhaps to send a warning?" Winters snorted. "We're configured for deep space. The dish is behind the ablative shield."

"Couldn't we raise it, tell them what's happened?"

"Look, we're light years out right now. Even if we could get the dish up it would be years before they got the signal, and there's no guarantee anyone would be listening."

"Do it anyway," said Erin.

"The dish will be destroyed."

"So what? We won't be needing them." A thought occurred to her. "What about fuel?"

Winters examined the screen, frowning as he paged through displays, one after another, faster and faster. Finally he stopped, letting his hands fall into his lap. "I suppose it won't come as a huge surprise if I tell you there isn't any," he said, his voice barely audibly above the background hum.

Erin glanced at him. "How much did they put in?" she asked sharply.

Winters checked the screen. "Enough to fire us away from Earth."

"Backstabbing, penny-pinching, money-grubbing..." Roth's voice trailed off as Erin gripped his elbow. "What?"

"Get the communications array up, now!"

Roth moved over to the comms panel and worked on the controls for a moment or two. Suddenly a red light began to flash.

"Point of no return," called Roth over his shoulder. "If I proceed, we'll destroy the dish."

"Do it."

"Are you—"

"In command? Yes."

Roth shrugged and pressed the button. "Ok, what now?"

"Can you pick up omni-directional signals?"

"Yes."

"Computer, scan all frequencies."

"Complying."

Suddenly there was a burst of static from the speakers, followed by a barely audible voice.

"Amplify!" shouted Erin.

"...requesting clearance, pad seven."

"Clearance granted, Eagle Six. Have a good trip."

"Will do, ground. Eagle Six out."

Anton and Winters gaped at the speakers, their mouths open.

"What the ..." began Roth.

"The engines were supposed to burn for the first ten years, on and off. They must have shut down after a couple of months," said Erin. "We only had enough fuel to get us out of the solar system. We're barely moving."

"You mean we've been drifting for thirty years?" Winters was incredulous.

"Our course was out of the orbital plane, remember? Two revolutions of the Sun then straight up. Unless they sent another ship out this way, who the hell would find us?"

Roth stared down at the commset. "What shall I say?"

"Advise them to dump their Reid Corp shares," said Erin grimly.

Page 1 2

© Simon Haynes 2001

Programmer, computer salesman, forklift driver, archer — none of these explain why Simon Haynes started writing science fiction humour in the late nineties. Not even a couple of degrees from Curtin University could hold him back.

Born in the UK and raised in the south of Spain, Simon emigrated to Australia with his family in 1983. He's fluent in Spanish, and laughs politely when people shout Que? in his face. A founding member of Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and the winner of an Aurealis Award in 2001, Simon lives in Western Australia, although his mind often wanders further afield.

 

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