tagSci-Fi & FantasyHardship Troopers

Hardship Troopers


©2011 Drake Collins All Rights Reserved.


Cam Zyzerbachus, born 23 years ago on a planet called Arceus Echelon, had a fairly ordinary childhood. His parents opted for a natural, non-engineered birth. Most people in his parents' financial bracket could afford to genetically manufacture their kids, from their future height and hair color to artistic or physical proficiencies. Cam's parents figured they'd do things the old fashioned way and let nature decide these things.

Typically, genefactured (genetically manufactured) kids stuck out like sore thumbs. There's something to be said about parents who have dark skin, hair and eyes pushing a baby in a stroller that has purple hair, blue eyes and alabaster skin. For many of these people, babies were accessories, stylish fashion statements. It was the hip new application of biotech that people could use to show what control they had over the power of creation. Having a kid wasn't enough of a gift, no. They needed a Mr. Potato Head Jr..

Cam grew up in a middle-class family, his father was a retired sailor and his mother was a homemaker. He lived a sheltered, easy life. There was always plenty of food on the table and a firm, steady roof over his head. When he was little, he assumed everyone had it this way. Naïve. He learned later on in life that most didn't have it that good. Most didn't have access to the modern luxuries his family had. His father urged him early in life on a path to join the Royal Navy, which one could do as early as sixteen. He knew deep down, though, that that was never in the cards for him.

Inside, he wanted to see how the other half lived. He held a bit of self-contempt for the cushioned life he'd enjoyed and wanted to impose a more challenging life on himself. Thankfully, he was always a good kid and never gave his parents problems so he never had to endure military school or anything like that. He recalled with great clarity the night he made the decision, though.

He was in the backyard of his childhood home. It was night time and the firmament of stars was just a blanket of glinting glimmers in the darkness. He was lying on his back just staring up at them wondering what all was out there. He knew that, with the money, he could find out. He'd seen the brochures in the travel agencies. He wanted to see it all with his own eyes because, if life was about anything, it was about experiences.

Some of his father's Navy buddies who had connections off-world got him a spot with an interplanetary peacekeeping outfit. They'd go planet-jumping doing sentienistic charity work; helping deliver food to needy alien colonists, donating medicines, building schools as well as diplomatic bridges for human-alien relations.

They were provided daily meals, a small living quarters on a star freighter and an even smaller monthly paycheck. Thankfully, it wasn't about the pay. It was about seeing different places, having new experiences and meeting a diverse range of sentient life, none of which was human. He was allowed to learn just how small a part he was of the intergalactic community in which I lived.

He remembered a little tarian boy he'd met on Hydrian Leptos, the tarian homeworld. The tarians were a lithe, cat-like race. Surprisingly timid, considering they were equipped with retractable claws capable of scalping a human in a single blow, they were a humble, peaceful people. Cam remembered giving this tarian boy a little trinket he'd carved out of wood and painted. In receiving it, the boy gave the most adorable smile in return. His family immediately accepted Cam as an honorary member of "the tribe". Cam realized that beauty can come in the most unfamiliar, unexpected forms.

Over time, Cam had fun and learned more about alien cultures than he'd ever imagined he would. After broadening his cultural horizons for several years he decided to return home to Arceus and build himself a future. However, he didn't want to make it easy for himself, either. He tapped his father's old Navy buddies for another favor; a job. They pulled some strings and made it happen. I wasn't picky or choosy. I just wanted something that would pay and give me something to do a little closer to home. They knew people who ran an off-world orbital station. It'd be an office job in a mostly automated working environment, a position he gratefully accepted.

Now, an Arcean year later, he was a packing clerk for a mining conglomerate called Amalgamated Metals. For the most part, he resided on Samaran 17. It was a bulky, run-down orbital station; a monolith of human and xolothian engineering constructed on the tarian moon of Phaedros Six. It was an oblong, jagged, ugly-looking hunk of oranium that was encased in cold plasma deflection shield technology and powered by dark matter-transmutation engines. It was also home.

"Sammy", as the natives called it, was about three miles long, a mile thick and was populated by nearly a hundred-thousand humans, tarians, saracians, thorans and kylaxians. The bulk of the population, though, were humanoid synthetics; walking, talking service automatons.

The station operated on a six-revolution week cycle and each day was simple: 'First Day', 'Second Day', and so on. Sammy orbited Arceus at a distance of about three hundred and fifty miles in the toposphere.

Samaran 17 was a colony outpost/docking hub for mining starships from as far as a half a light-year out. There were mining colony outposts scattered throughout the galaxy but Samaran 17 was the biggest, as well as one of the oldest. Most of the miners lived, worked and died on the same colony ships they were born on.

They would never venture out, never dare to try. Some couldn't afford it. Some preferred to have their feet on solid, steady ground rather than being bound by artificial gravity to the inner hull of a starship for months or years at a time while being propelled at near-light speed. These hard laborers were basically owned by the companies they worked for. Not Cam. He volunteered. He went there on his own accord. He had no regrets.

The company he worked for, Amalgamated Metals, owned almost the entire quadrant; a system that consisted of fourteen worlds, eight of which were populated by a diverse range of alien intelligences, all of which had mining colonies on them. They built the colony cities, the hospitals, engineered the core drillers and the construction droids. They even had a sub-division that dealt in military hardware.

The military sub-division, Scythe, specialized in cloning, biological warfare, advanced weaponry and unmanned scanning drones that were deployed to uncharted planets to look for the minerals that kept Amalgamated Metals' profits constantly in the black. Better than just "in the black". Last quarter alone they pocketed what would've been a cool forty billion on Earth, in good ol' Amerasian bluebacks, or 65 billion uni-creds.

A few solar revolutions after humans made the first connection with non-human intelligence, one of the first things that was established was trade. Some say that math is the universal language. Maybe for physicists and scientists, but what allows for survival between two comparably intelligent lifeforms is trade. The free market. Some human handed a volarian a Diet Coke in exchange for some khorus seeds and that was that.

The exchange rate in the Trellian system was volatile and you couldn't tell from one week to the next exactly what your credits were worth. Luckily, the universal credit system made it easy for any alien whose species was recognized by the CODW(Consortium of Developed Worlds) to bring in any of their homeworld's currency and have it be worth something.

Between regional territory conflicts and the politics that accompanied them, it was amazing that anyone could remain civilized enough to make a profit. Thankfully, the private military operatives (PMOs) that were genetically manufactured, incubated, trained and armored up by Scythe made it easier for Amalgamated Metals to ply their trade.

Scythe would usually send these clones as envoys to negotiate with off-world real estate agents. Easy to negotiate when you've got a cadre of mindless, jack-booted, trigger-happy automatons that are jacked up on muscle-enhancers and equipped with the best armor and weapons that money could buy to speak on your behalf. They didn't have to say much. AM's lawyers were almost as feared as the PMOs.

The territorial conflicts were legendary, though. Some had raged for thousands of years. The chigasi and forlans had been involved in armed conflicts over oranium caches that were buried inside meteors that would pass through the spatial-border orbits of each of their home planets.

The chigasi would complain that the forlans weren't packing up and leaving a particular oranium meteor fast enough when it'd wander into chigasi orbit range. The forlans would do the same when the meteors breached their home world's orbit range. Negotiations usually ended in large explosions and hundreds of bodies. All for some shiny rock. All for money.

That's why Cam was happy where he was. Samaran 17 wasn't a fabled vessel where every man was a king. It wasn't a gleaming, technological marvel or an example of aesthetic beauty in design, but it was home. Sure, it had crime and corruption, but so did everywhere else. It was old and rusty and most of the internal tech was hopelessly obsolete. There was disease and grime and filth, but all within acceptable levels. There hadn't been a terrorist attack in over twenty solar revolutions and crime was steady.

You could walk down an alley at night and odds are you'd make it home in one piece. More than you could say on some of the colony ships. Some of the ships were like floating prisons where the inmates roamed uninhibited. AM's security forces made sure that the economic integrity of the colony ships was maintained. AM didn't give a crap about the workers, but it cost less to maintain order than it did to hire new laborers, should they get killed as a victim of the high crime rates. It was only sensible to them if it was cost-effective.

No, Sammy was quaint and livable. Cam's living block was always fairly quiet. The architects had planned for a lot of people to live and subsist in a relatively small space so all the streetside shops were tight and compact. You'd be lucky to fit five people in your average drink shop. You were always making involuntary elbow love with perfect strangers. The walking lanes outside were narrow, only around two body widths, and if you wanted to go far your only option was to wait for a mag-lev tram to come by, which they did every few minutes. No one owned personal transports, except some of the bigwigs working for the company.

City-states like Garreth de Voldro on the trade world Venn was basically a megamicro-sized version of Samaran 17 with all the architectural dimensions scaled down. Albeit, a lot darker and grimier, but a city nonetheless.

When Cam's father served in the Malanari Royal Navy down on Arceus he worked on a Mariner Class medical frigate called the Trident Glory and told Cam that Sammy was just a bigger version of that medical frigate he paced the halls of for the eight years he served. Clunky, unforgiving, unapologetically economical in design. The architects of Sammy must've had guns to their heads and were told "Design with utility in mind." because there was a reason for every scrap, pipe and bolt; where it was, why it was there and who had to maintain it. Nothing was designed willy-nilly. Nothing superfluous.

You didn't find any mellow, soothing colors on Sammy, either. No pastels. Nothing soft. Everything was either dull, melancholy grey or splashes of headache-inducing neon hues which the shop signs all seemed to employ. No one could walk five feet without bumping their heads on one of the signs. It was information overload.

There were so many signs that no one even paid attention to them. The air generators made sure the denizens there didn't suffocate. Thankfully for the citizens of Samaran 17 the engineers built those things to last. But the place wasn't built for convenience, comfort and especially not to be easy on the eyes. It was built by the company for sheer efficiency.

The buildings grew out of the ground like steel sprouts. The external piping even looked like tree roots, but there was no vegetation anywhere, except for the rare potted plant that'd get smuggled in from Arceus. Small potted plants actually became a sort of novelty item and, thus, the traders made a decent living fleecing the workers who couldn't afford shuttle trips to and from Arceus themselves for one. On the company dime, employees were only assigned the smallest possible living space on Samaran 17.

Cam's quarters was about twenty by twenty and little of that was actually navigable. He had a lot of trinkets and useless possessions that cluttered the little space he had. The flickering neon red from the restaurant sign across the block would beam in through his window slats at night and illuminate all of his junk. He loved that for some reason.

Cam's mother told him that first time they visited that the place seemed cold and oppressive. Of course, she said it in that protective, motherly way. She was just concerned about her little boy. If it were up to her, the whole place would be made of that spongy stuff that seems to be all the rage with the toy companies. She'd have the whole place kid-proofed.

Be that as it may, there was never any unrest between the classes because there were no classes on Samaran 17. Only one class; the working class. Only the proletariat. There wasn't any pressure to adopt mannerisms that weren't theirs. They had no one to aspire to, no one to impress. Everyone there were equals and they weren't going anywhere. That's what Cam liked the most. That's what he loved. There, you felt like part of a family where no one looked down on you. There was security and solidarity.

The differences between them and some of their brethren on other worlds was that they were content with our status. There weren't any uprisings or political divisions. They were beyond that. All they had was work. Their work lives weren't detached from their real lives. They were one and the same, inseparable.

AM didn't pay much, but it was enough to make a decent living. Some of the workers would send huge chunks of their pay to their families off-world where making a living was an even tougher proposition.

Cam didn't mind his job, though. Sure, it was a little mundane and predictable but it gave him purpose. As a packing clerk for AM, he spent most of his day in a saccharine setting. He worked in a mostly sterile, uneventful office, surrounded by computing terminals. He had his own bathroom and a tiny desk. He'd receive digital shipping manifests from the incoming cargo ships transferred up by the droids in the warehouse and docking bay.

The few humans that worked in his department were mostly tolerable. Like everyone else, they had their moments, good and bad.

Archie was the master mechanic and handled diagnostics and repairs on-site for the docking droids. Sure, he didn't shave often and his distended gut always hung down under his shirt, but he was a genuinely nice guy. Cam bought him rounds over at Anchorpoint, the local watering hole, maybe once a week. Cam feared, though, that Archie would have a coronary and drop. He'd already undergone several over-the-counter nano-bot "pipe-cleanings" due to clogged arteries and was well on his way to another.

Marti was a good guy, too. Back on Earth, he would've been referred to as an "Indian". He practiced an ancient religion called Hinduism. His ancestors apparently prayed to lots of six-armed, blue-skinned women. He worked in accounting a few floors above Cam. He didn't see Marti often but whenever he did he seemed like a cheery chap. Had a couple of kids and a wife. Then again, the looping data-streams in the video-frames he had in his office of his kids running around giggling and his wife kissing him on the cheek could've been fabricated. It wasn't a common practice but it did happen.

J'Ahnnatharius was a darian and worked with Ko'Lokk, a thorian, in the docks. Cam didn't understand a word they said and since their neural translators usually spat out incorrect translations of alien languages he had to try and piece together what he thought they were saying to him. They both always came off as personable, although Cam thought that Ko'Lokk had a strange general dislike of humans. But they both brought Cam gifts on his birthday every year so they were good in his book.

J'Ahnatharius had even brought Cam a spear tip that was given to him by his grandfather when he was little. Supposedly, it was a great honor so Cam accepted it happily.

Moto worked in SR, sentient resources. The SR reps were the one any of the aliens onboard Samaran 17 went to when they had any complaints or concerns. Ironic that the corporate office would assign that duty, in Cam's department, to a synthetic lifeform.

Moto's bulging bug eyes were always a little off-putting for Cam but they designed his voice to be the most soothing one in the office, so he rolled with it. Nothing much made sense where Cam worked, though, so a synthetic SR rep didn't surprise him.

That left the on-site head technician who handled all the repairs on the computing terminals at the station; Cam's terminals and the ones out on the dock floor and the warehouse. It used to be Hamolde, a saracian intellectual. He was a bit of a brainy, inaccessible type. He was the only alien that Cam's neural translator actually made more coherent.

Hamolde's head was always in the clouds; buried in numbers, equations, circuit boards. Cam theorized that he'd one day marry a terminal, if he only could. Hamolde loved working on them. So much so that corporate was moving him to one of their newest colony-ships, a state-of-the-art darling they named Artemis Cloudfarer.

So, Hamolde was on the way out the door so they brought in an assistant to replace him. Her name was Maximillia von Barlaphon, a human from Mandra Bay down on Arceus Echelon.

Mandra Bay was a fishing town. A lot of homeless aliens seemed to gravitate to the area. Runaways, too. And slavers and pushers. Law enforcement down there left a lot to be desired and unless you had a license to fish karfa then odds are you weren't employed.

If Maxamillia grew up there, odds are she wasn't well-balanced. On first sight, you would've made that assumption, too. She was technically a human female but you had to take a few seconds to make that observation.

Along with a shaved head, tats all up her arms, lower torso and lower back and a scowl that could strip the paint off the side of a nebula cruiser, she didn't exactly look like she just came from giving the valedictorian speech at the local university or from some upscale finishing school. She was definitely a hard-chargin', fast-livin', running-on-a-knife's-edge type.

The first time Cam saw her he noticed scars on her arm. Cut marks, most likely. And it wasn't like she was a poser. She wasn't trying to be rock hard because she was, but it didn't seem like it was her only option.

She had the eyes of an old soul; someone who had lived far beyond her true years, even though she was likely around Cam's age. Her eyes looked like they'd been plucked out of a war weary space pirate who'd spent a few decades dancing on the edge of hunger and desperation. There wasn't any passion or hope in those black irises. They were dim and tired, beaten down.

She was really quite attractive, even with her raccoon-eye make-up and perpetual mean mug. Her unique look evoked the imagery of the lovechild of a hoverbiker gang leader and his horned, vampiric succubus concubine. The first thing Cam thought when he saw her, after noticing the scars, was "That's the cutest grease-monkey I've ever seen in my life.". He was justified in thinking so.

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