Chapter Forty Eight - Back to Smudge

I berth at Smudge. Haven't been here for close to two years. Kind of miss
the old cess pool. It can't get worse than Smudge. That's the plus.
There aren't surprises.

The members of my crew are what you scrap off a shoe.

There's the geek who keeps the electronics and everyone alive, while
living in a permanent daze. There's the two loaders who spend their
time drunk in their own daze. There's my pilot who'd get a real job if
anyone would take him/her/it.

Going to Smudge is like going to the toilet.
Everyone has to go.
You don't discuss it, you just do it.

I got through the decade from September to May, tasted Hollywood life May
to October, and here I am.

I paid the bums and when they'd gone on their 'shoreleave', I wrapped myself
in the old cloak, went up Main Street, or whatever the teeming mass was,
enroute to my old pal, Ahmet.

No matter how many times I saw him I never failed to be amazed by how much
like a rat he looked. His skin was almost grey. I wondered if he worked at
appearing as if was dying of some disease, or if it was genetic.

For the past fifteen years he hadn't gained an ounce. I don't see how he
could stay so scrawny, unless he was infested with worms, which he probably
was. He spent more time on Smudge than healthy, so probably was dying of
pollution. It sure was taking him a long time, though.

I hated Ahmet a little less than I hated freshmen. I knew he'd sell his mother
for spare parts, (if he hadn't done so already).

He'd done me a dirty that would justify murdering him, but I never got around
to it. He had useful bits of data he'd drip like Chinese water torture. And he
was a benchmark. A touchstone. A scar. He was a constant.

Ahmet was bargaining with some idiot, when he finally saw me, I raised a
finger and moved away. He knew where I 'lived'. I owned a whorehouse a
few blocks away.

I entered, greeted whomever, up to the attic, into the airlock, stripped, into
the shower, while the room was being purified. No one was supposed to be
in here. It was private property. But as everything else on Smudge, don't trust.
Trust nothing, no one. Not even yourself.

Every germ that ever was lives on Smudge. I'm not a Eugenic with an
upgraded immune system who survives on super healthful food. I'm an
average human. Hence, I'll fill my flat with the strongest most powerful
bug killer, even though it's supposed to have been hermetically sealed
since the millennia I left.

I scrubbed my skin and six Smudge Bugs fell at my feet. I hadn't even felt
them. The soap I used stank, but was effective. I rinsed, washed again with
something less toxic.

When I was clean, I wiped myself down with a oil that was antiseptic, dressed
in a robe, had the mist removed from the living quarters,hooked up the air tanks.

When the room was habitable I entered. This was home. This horrible badly
and cheaply furnished garret on the top of a whorehouse on Smudge, the
sewer of the Universe was home.

It was 100% my place. There was no wife in it, there was no need to pretty
it for a girlfriend. It could be as crappy as I was.

I popped some crap in the micro, stuffed my face, took a dump. The sun was
creeping down, (I had windows in my garret) so knew Ahmet would be coming up the stairs.

Bazaars closed about an hour before. Bars, whores, gambling, a few
poison parlours might be open, but Ahmet would have his stuff loaded
on his ship, and his ship in orbit, before he'd knock my door.

Ahmet

I saw him on the monitor. I let him into the lock. He stripped, bathed, put on another caftan then came in with his big smile and ice cube eyes. We talked about my Hollywood experience, then I told him what I had.

"Doug, since you're a good supplier, I'll take your stuff now, but you won't get a good price."

"What?"

He poured himself a glass of wine, sipped, and off hand; "Doug, war is coming."

"War? Between who? The Smudge bugs and the Germs?"

"No. The Gennies."

"Gennies? War with us?"

"No, with each other."

I gave him a real scan, but one thing about Ahmet, he has the data.

"Hawking is backing the Sags," he drops.

"Who is what?" my face hurt from twisting.

"Hawking Corporation, the biggest in the known universe."

"Hawking?" I never thought of Hawking. I mean, yeah they built lots of stuff, had lots of subsidiaries, but they weren't thought about much. Sagir? A Corp would link with sophisticated Dalmar. Not near jungle Sagir.

Ahmet was reeling history;

"A few years ago there was an incident. A Sag was doing security on a Hawking boat. Dalmar attacked the boat. Hawking so incensed , he moved the trade route to travel Sagir space, not Dalmar."

Ahmet looked around as if he thought my squalid kotch could be bugged. We were lucky the lights worked.

"Hawking isn't the only company in the universe."

He shrugged; "Face it Doug, you or I would do the same thing..."

"What thing?" maybe I'm slow.

"Hawking charges one mill for xyz. Remington is aware Hawking isn't going to sell you xyz, steps in to fill the gap, xyz will cost one point five..."

"Greed..." I savour.

"Raw greed," he caressed.

"I bet Hawking is selling to Sag at bottom price."

"You win that bet."

"When is this war scheduled?" I flip.

"Sooner/later."

"Well, my friend, (I use the term loosely), I prefer not to be here if it starts. So how much for what I've got?"

"Fifty thou..."

"Fifty? My fuel costs more than that!"

"Well, hold it. When the war's over, five, six years, I'm sure I'll have buyers."

"I can't hold this for five, six years! How am I going to pay my crew?"

"Your crew?" He exclaimed, and Ahmet doesn't exclaim, "Doug, I'm talking war. Death, destruction, the collapse of business as we know it ...if Sagir and Dalmar go to war, maybe
you should look at a map to see how that takes in the known planets."

He tossed my wine down his throat.

"Doug, it's Ahmet talking. Sagirs had no economy. They stole what they needed, stole stuff they didn't know the use of. They'd come here and..." He shook his head, "...it was too easy to cheat them. I bought a bolt of firesilk for two hands of bananas and a dozen breadfruit. And the Sag thinks he got a bargain. For a yard of firesilk I could buy a ton of bananas."

I thought of Priam. Firebird paid for everything. He didn't show the slightest awareness that taxis and food had to be paid for.

"Now the Sags know money. They are getting shipments from Hawking, stuff they didn't know they needed. Hawking is buying their junk and selling it to idiots who like 'craft'. Stuff you sell to me as artifacts of forgotten civilisations, they're manufacturing today. And selling. And buying. And they know how to bargain. They know value. And they'll fight to keep it."

"Where's the profit to Hawking?" I ask.

"Well, their insurance rates are zero since the Sags are no longer attacking
their shipments. The Dalmar attack, but on big consignments, the Invictus rides shot gun..."

I nearly dropped my glass, "The Invictus?"

Ahmet bobbled his head.

The Invictus is a war ship too expensive for a military to keep.
To use that ship as security for cargo was to use the Hope Diamond for a paper weight.

"I'm not saying a word, Ahmet. Okay? But Sags? They don't have the head space.
I met Firebird and she was with a Sag who had permanent brain freeze."

"So you think. That's Priam Zal you're talking about."

I was about to ask him how he knew, but remembered, this is Ahmet. He knows everything.

"Priam Zal allowed himself to be captured by Dalmar. Allowed. He knew they
would torture and kill him, every Sagir knows the exact nature of the torture."

Ahmet gave me a look as if I'd really want to know the gory details, I didn't take
the bait, he went on.

"Priam Zal gave himself to the Dalmar. I don't know how, but within a few hours
he was back on Smudge. He had killed the crew."

He paused; "Gassan bought the ship and told me he found fifteen Dalmar dead,
torn apart as if by a wild animal."

I had read it. A year ago I'd read it, but had half and halfed it, but now...now it
gets true. Priam Zal. He had been so languid I thought he was brain dead.

"The Dalmar learned Firebird on Smudge, hired her. She captured Priam Zal, fell
in love with him, they came here...." Ahmet poured more of the cheap stuff,
continued; "Priam Zal may not talk much, but he's as dangerous as they come.
He is even more deadly than Gye Tomaka, the one Dalmar killed."

I didn't even bother to visualise.

"Almost every Hawking ship has a Gye Tomaka. The Dals don't know which one
they killed. It happened to be the right one,but they don't know it. And Hawking
doesn't let them know it."

"What's the scam? Get a normal fem to fall in love and use her?"

Ahmet shrugged; "Use what you have,"

"Well, Priam and Firebird ended long ago."

"No they didn't. They let you think that."

No. I'd seen Firebird. She'd been messed up. They had broken up. Maybe
they got back together, maybe Ahmet thinks he saw her with him, but I know,
the last I saw Firebird, she was alone. She'd even gotten an abortion.

"Ahmet, there's more to the story than Romeo and Juliet."

I meant it both ways; re Firebird, re Hawking. And he took it with both hands.

"Undoubtedly. But Dalmars are a pain in the ass. Example; when Firebird left
the Dal ship with Priam Zal it was in a Viper. She sold it to Gasan who sold it
to a smuggler called Brick."

"Think I heard of him..." I puzzled, "Brick Wall... yeah, that was his nom de guerre."

"Yeah, Brick Wall. Dalmar saw the ship, disabled it, killed Brick on the spot, put
his body into a launcher, fired it at Smudge, announced; "This is what we do to thieves."

I shrugged. Brick was an idiot. I opened handed. Ahmet wouldn't leave it alone;

"If they catch you in their space, or with something of theirs, they kill you. Bad
for business all around. They should of found out where he got it from, gone
to Gasan, Gasan would have said Firebird, so they'd know. But they didn't bother."

"Cause they knew," I defined. "They prob didn't expect Firebird to tumble for Priam.
But once they saw the boat, they knew. If they needed proof they could of done a
DNA test. They didn't have to ask. In fact, they only needed to know what ship it
came from. So Firebird joins their wanted list."

He shrugged, drank my wine, and I'm thinking...
(if war is coming, maybe it should find me home with a wife).

The Wives

Leaving Smudge I made a direct to Savorn I had this feeling I was in the wrong place.
Luckily, I had my address written down, and the taxi didn't ask questions.

It was night...the taxi told me it was actually three a.m. good enough.

I went to the door, made enough noise opening it (didn't remember the combination). As I came in, there was wifey, looking like a wifey plucked from sleep.

"Hi Babes!" (I didn't remember her name.)

"Don't take another step!" she said in a stage whisper, "I'm divorcing you!"

"Can we talk about this after I had eight hours shut eye?"

"Where do you think you'll get this shut eye?"

And on cue, from what was my bedroom, "Darla?" comes a sleepy man's voice.

"So, you trade me, for him?" I say, flashing my ginger hair.

"Yeah, cause he is here. And the children call him Daddy."

Now this woman was okay looking, not worth me busting a sweat over, (considering what I'd been bedding the past few months), so I decided to back out, take the car... it was my car, and go to wife number two.

I cracked a nut before leaving, cause it was going to be a long dry trip.

Wife number Two lived on Bathel.

For diversion, I get on the Gennie channel to know what was playing, and I'm about to tell David what is being said, realise David is not here. Outside of a few far and apart grad students, David Wong Pine was the only person who ever listened to me with that acolyte's ear.

On the Chat Channel I pushed a few words here and there. No one was taking me on. Then I picked up a piece of palaver about how Dalmar would wipe Sagir, and another one saying the only Sags left would be on Hawking Boats.

There had to be a clarity.

When you study ancient civilisations, they might be wrong in their attribution of causality. They might believe a god is throwing a lightening bolt, or making a wave; but they know what lightening is, they know the danger of a tsunami.

For Hawking to virtually create Sagir, (if Ahmet is to be believed, Sagir was a civilisation pre-money), can not be a matter of love.

Hawking has spent years creating Sagir society, they must be profiting from it, they must have a reason why they chose Sagir over the highly developed Dalmar.
Rivalry?
Were the Dalmar about to become traders?
They're Gennies.
They could certainly build anything better, faster and cheaper than normals.
That they hadn't might be cultural snobbery.

If there was war, Hawking wouldn't back the losers. That's fairly obvious. They must have worked it out to the last decimal place that Sagir would win...
but how?

The Invictus was one, but having used Sagirs as security for so many years...
there was more to it than that.

Hawking had been moving Sags around the Universe.
Putting them in position?
Yeah. Could be. In position....

"The skin colour of Sagirians is often darker,
but not always. When two light skinned Sagirs
mate, they appear no different from those of
Tellur or Molbe."

What about those from Dalmar?

I was too tired to push my brain any farther, concentrated on getting to Bathel. I pulled in, and considering my last encounter with wife, cracked a nut before going home.

I would of called first, but forgot the phone number.

I arrived by taxi at some reasonable morning hour. The wife was getting the kids ready for school. She actually appeared happy to see me.

The kids wanted to know what I brought them. I hadn't recalled they existed until I saw them. I smiled, handed out a few coins, then they were gone, leaving me and wifey alone.

We went up to bed and it was after, when I was looking at the pale green ceiling that I recalled her name was Simone. I remember why I married her, as well.

She left the bed, into the shower, down to cook for me, and I lay on the sheets, looking up at the pale green ceiling, feeling I was as close to home as I was likely to get.

I married Darla, that was Wife One, as she had been with me in Grad school, we'd gone out to Savorn together, it was convenient, seemed right.

She had a couple of kids for me, then I took a job on Earth ...yeah, that's how I hooked into the Museum of Natural History.

Darla kept annoying me for money, and when I realised that she was getting seventy per cent of my pay, I decided to get a little coin on the side.

The Museum had three sub-basements jammed with artifacts. Without exaggeration, what was in the sub-basements could have stocked five museums of the same dimensions. But they kept hording.

They kept outbidding, buying, gathering, accumulating stuff they had no space for. They bought a building a mile away to store stuff.

It was a cup and lip thing.

If it wasn't for Darla Ballbuster, maybe I'd not of met the wonderful world of smuggling. But with her squawking...and this was in the halcyon days of our marriage..I had to supplement my income.

I took a few items, just to see if there was a market. Someone who could have locked me up told me about Smudge.

Imagine offering to sell a small bronze lamp, (Etruscan provenience) to someone, (who if I'd investigated) had donated the small bronze lamp, (Etruscan provenience) to the museum fifteen years ago.

She didn't call the police. I'd of married her, if she wasn't married already. Her husband was always away, I was available, and as I say, I look good.

Women can say what they want, they may marry for money or position, but they like something pretty in their beds.

I met her when I was twenty six, a mere boy.
She was forty two.
She made me feel like a Gennie.
Although at the time I was just learning about them, I had innate comprehension.

One can't look as good as a Gennie and not be vain. To have my body worshipped by this woman, her eyes in love with what she saw, did a lot for my ego, which had been a little bruised.
Just a little.
Thanks to Darla Ballbuster.

The Lady sent me to Smudge, direct to Ahmet, and so began a very convenient and financially beneficial relationships.

Now this wife, Simone, I met this one here, on Bathel, when I took up a temporary post as curator at their museum. They didn't have much, not enough to steal, and Simone had been so nice to me I married her.

That was what had been missing in my relationship with Darla.
Nice. Being nice.

I left Simone, back to Earth, to the Museum, and took a part timer at Brooklyn College. I created a relationship between the Museum of Natural History on Earth and the one on Bathel.

I filled a ship with loaners, plus a lot of stolen stuff. The stolen stuff went to Smudge, the loners to Bathel, which allowed me time with Wife Two.

I don't remember much about wife three right now, cause Two is calling me for breakfast. She's cooked so much grease I think I'm going to be sick.

Patiently I say;

"Honey, I don't eat that stuff any more. Only vegetables and very lean organic meat, chicken, turkey, fish. Very little other stuff."

"Oh, I should have realised you were on that healthy food thing again!" she apologised.

That's why I married her.

I had lain in bed, letting her go to the kitchen. I hadn't said a word, playing in my own thoughts. When I finally drag in and tell her I don't eat what she's prepared,instead of hitting me over the head with a frying pan she apologises, and begins to prepare a fruit salad,

Nice.

Simone was nice. She was nice to me. She wasn't awed by my beauty, I don't think she understood lust, but was nice. Sometimes nice is enough.
Sometimes.

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