Throwback Thursday: Space Cowboys #2 – “One In Every Port”

by mshrm

You could say, according to the rules that these things are judged by, this was the episode where the series jumped the shark. 

The “mules” that were mentioned weren’t literal animals. They were the four-wheeled ATVs stored in the hangar bay for light cargo hauling on-planet. The ship also had a white Ford panel van tucked away for larger jobs. According to the setting history, during the escape from Earth, humanity ended up sharing the designs for just about any TL 8 object you care to name. With TL 9 factories, it became possible to fabricate all these items. With asteroid mining, metal and stone are cheap. With advanced solar power technology, in space, comes cheap energy. The bottleneck becomes the designs. Therefore, out on the edges of the solar system, you find a lot of seemingly “retro” technology, built from open source designs dating back to the early 21st century.

The most precious object on the ship, pound for pound, was the antique cuckoo clock hanging in the dining room. It was old, it was handed down from previous generations, and it was made from wood. Anything made from organic materials was rare and precious, anything from Earth-That-Was, doubly so.

The crew finds themselves in need of a translator because they all speak Portuguese, while the population of Agamemnon mostly doesn’t.

The Apple Fleet gets mentioned, but not much explained. When the ship made port, I would generally hand out a newspaper. The gimmick was that part of the docking service was the printing of a single-page news sheet with a combination of news selected according to the crew’s interests. I used the newspaper articles to give background information and set the scene. For this session, one of the big stories was about the Apple Fleet, a sort of mad rush of ships taking advantage of the favorable orbital conditions to deliver Agamemnon’s apple crop to Ceres. Every so often, the orbits of the two align, and it’s a relatively short hop from one to the other. At the other extreme, they’re each on opposite sides of the sun, one can’t even make direct radio contact, and the trip becomes too long to be economical. The Apple Fleet was a big deal on Agamemnon, along the lines of harvest time on a farm.

What Happened:

When the cargo doors opened to the docks on the Ag’, two people were waiting for the crew of the Cabra: Dr. Melika “Mel” Nanika, also known as “Big Sis”, and a representative of the customs office, a “Walken” model clone indentured to the spaceport. The family reunion was cut short as the rep explained how things were going to go. It would take nearly two and a half days for the customs office to inspect the load. Furthermore, Solo and Samale discovered that corrupt union dockworkers would require a bribe – which they paid – to expedite the unloading once the inspection was finished. Meanwhile, Dr. Nanika dropped her duffel in her new cabin, and the others discovered the high incidental price of entering Agamemnon – including the daily air fee.

Once the formalities were complete, the crew headed out on the mules to celebrate. While taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the flea market, they discovered their need for a local guide, when young “Short Round”, a local guide and Portuguese translator, pointed it out to them. He led them to the Drum, a revolving cylinder habitat within the Ag’, but accidentally lost the second mule in traffic while animatedly discussing the local music scene with Solo. While waiting for the others to catch up, Solo and Dr. Nanika both won a few dollars at three-card monte, but cut their games short after Samale pointed out the third player in the game: the ruffian who would follow and mug any big winners.

Inside the Drum, Short Round led them to the Mangled Puppy franchise, where they met “Salty” Sal, the general manager. The crew spent the night in the establishment. After everyone had a haircut and a bath, they split up.

Samale went upstairs to the dance club, where he encountered two attractive hostesses. He ended up spending the night with both, but spent some extra money on their drinks and dancing along the way.

Dr. Nanika went with Solo and Bubba to the basement bar. There, she used her knowledge of advanced psychology to pick the likely targets out of the herd, so to speak. Taking advantage of her advice, the twins were successful in their “cougar hunt”. They took their new friends back to the ship at the end of the night, leaving big sis behind.

Hal also ended up in the basement bar, where he met “Captain” Jack Bickram, an elderly sailor with two missing legs. They ended up drinking together (on Hal’s tab), telling stories, for the rest of the night.

The next day (29 June 2517), the crew, some more hung over than others, gathered for a late brunch and strategy huddle. Everyone eventually agreed that Ceres was a good destination, being a large, terraformed, highly-developed and high-technology world in a favorable conjunction with the Ag’. However, as the conjunction was moving towards its close, they were coming in on the tag end of the Apple Fleet’s departure, meaning most goods had already left. Samale and Solo hit the streets, seeking freight for the trip. By the end of the day on 30 June 2517, they had scared up a freight load of 290 tons of aircraft, which wasn’t nearly enough to fund the trip.

While the two face men searched, the others went about their business. Captain Jack found Hal at his own business – drinking – on the evening of the 29th, and passed along the word on the street: the Mafia, being strong on Agamemnon, had caught Hal’s entry on the ship’s crew list, and wanted a word with him. The ship was under surveillance, and a couple of hard men were on their way to the Mangled Puppy that night.

With the help of Captain Jack and Short Round, Hal took refuge among the lower-class parts of town. The others continued to search for the means to get off the Ag’ while still showing a profit, but to no avail: no passengers were looking to get to Ceres, and the cargo that was available was beyond their price range.

Just as it seemed that all hope was lost, Hal ran into an old friend from back on the tree farm, Sen Yung. Sen explained that he had come upon good fortune, and was now working for a wonderful old Chinese gentleman, David Lo Pan. When he heard about the Hal’s and the crews’ troubles, he offered to see what he could do. Hal and Sen arranged to meet again the following day.

On 2 July 2517, Sen met with Hal and extended an invitation. Lo Pan would meet with the crew’s representatives for dinner. Everyone went to the meeting except for Solo, who was still seeking honest work. Lo Pan turned out to be absolutely ancient, in a wheelchair, and mostly silent. His majordomo, another Walken, did the negotiating. He offered to finance, at no interest, a deal between the crew of the Cabra and some other of his associates. He would loan the crew $2.8 million to buy 14 tons of biotech, which they could then take to Ceres at a likely profit. In return, they would avoid taking in passengers, while quietly taking in a single individual. This individual would spend the trip to Ceres in isolation, accepting no questions or communications. The ship would land at Botany Bay Spaceport on Ceres, following a given flight plan. During a section of their approach, the passenger would leave the ship through one of the airlocks (presumably performing a High-Altitude, Low-Open parachute jump or the like, though this was left unspecified). On the ground, they would report no passengers.

After some discussion, and calling in Solo’s remote opinion, the crew agreed. Over the course of the next few days, they picked up the financed biotech, as well as a few loads of freight for cover. They smuggled Hal back onto the ship in the crates. Shortly after, Captain Jack came calling, and asked Hal if maybe there was room on the boat for one more hand. He pointed out that he had worn out his welcome, some, having stood against the Mafia, and that he could work his passage. The crew put it to a vote, and decided to let him on-board, giving him a hammock in the engine room – convenient for getting around on two canes, due to the lack of effective gravity.

On the night before leaving, Solo met their clandestine passenger, code-named “The Signifyin’ Monkey”, at the airlock. A disturbance further down the docks had lured away prying eyes. The Monkey was an elf – extraordinarily tall and slender, from being born and growing up in ziggy – and moved with remarkable stealth and poise. Without a word, he looked over the best passenger room on the boat, nodded once, dropped his single carpetbag, and showed Solo the door.

On Turn-Around Day of the six-week trip, Solo added a bottle of his homemade wine to the Monkey’s dinner tray. Later, he found a $100 bill and a note requesting further wine… which led to tense discussions concerning how Lo Pan would take the interaction: was it enough communication to break the contract?

Finally, the Cabra landed. On their final approach, as expected, one of the new airlock lights lit. Samale cleared the alert, Bubba cleaned the records, and Solo headed down to the passenger room and the airlock with a bucket of bleach. By the time they landed, all forensic traces had been wiped away by thorough cleaning.

The biotech cargo, as advertised, sold before the boat hit the ground, to great profit. Between the cargo and the freight, Bubba was able to fill the fuel tanks, and arrange for another refill when the boat lifted. Everyone’s share was considerably larger than the last, causing much rejoicing. As the crew gathered to hit the planet, the door opened to reveal a preteen girl: “Hiya, Dad.”