Slipping on his new Daiihousi sunglasses, an impulse buy just before the Iridium Queen cleared Miazan Highport, Aloin took a deep breath and ducked through the crew hatch. He looked around, surveying the wide, wind-swept field of Golus Downport. ‘Not many ships in today,’ he thought immediately, and then drew his jacket more tightly about him as he became aware of the bitingly cold northerly wind.
Even though a faint heat haze shimmered over the ferrocrete apron, when he looked north he could see pockets of snow high up on the shoulders of the Jakabsan Range. It was then that it struck him, he had been aboard the Iridium Queen for five months, four of them offworld. During that time, winter had returned to the northern hemisphere of Golus, and the Olkathi younglings he knew from Tartesh were long gone on their annual migration into the deep southern desert.
The rumble of the main cargo hatch opening drew Aloin back to the here and now. Swinging down the access ladder, he ducked under the stubby wings of the Iridium Queen, quickly checking the exterior hull for obvious damage as he had been taught, and noting his observations on his handcomp. Rounding the starboard landing jack, he walked over to where Kiirgun was running out the ramp. “Starboard side clear,” he called out to the cargomaster as Kiirgun began working locking pins and straps free from the nets securing the containers in the hold. “I’ll just check port side – oh, and it looks like Customs is on its way,” he added, spotting movement amongst the vehicles parked near the concourse.
As Aloin finished his checks and flashed his report to Holi Pradeen, the ship’s Engineer, Kiirgun was completing the customs inspection of their cargo. Even as the inspectors trekked down the Iridium Queen’s ramp, the first of two cargo haulers was backing into position, ready for the offload. Sprinting to join Kiirgun, Aloin was soon hard at work, wrestling awkwardly shaped pallet-loads onto the hauler’s flatbed.
“And that’s the last of them,” Kiirgun puffed as he flashed a thumbs-up to the hauler driver. Aloin vaulted off the hauler’s cargo deck just as the large vehicle jerked forward and then accelerated away from the ship. Kiirgun quickly scanned the electronic manifest on his handcomp, signatured it, and forwarded it to Captain Lukk and the shipping agent. “Not bad, lad,” he said as they walked wearily up the cargo ramp and began to strike the crane, “five tons of machine tools offloaded in record time, and a healthy four million credit profit.” Aloin gaped at him.
“Don’t get too excited, lad,” Kiirgun continued, stowing the crane arm. “Once the bills are paid and the backers take their cut, we’ll probably only have enough left for a protosteak dinner.” He grinned. “But it will be a very nice dinner. And maybe next time I see a bottle of ’64 Celephaisian Rum in a concourse gift shop, the Old Lady will let me buy it.”
“Get me a pay day like today and I’ll buy you a vat of it,” Elera Lukk said, stalking into the cargo hold. Kiirgun flushed and then casually wiped his forehead with the back of his sleeve. “On it, Captain,” he said.
Over the next few days, in between driving Captain Lukk to meetings and prowling the concourse with Kiirgun in search of cargos, Aloin managed to phone home. To his disappointment, he discovered that his father was still working north of the Jakabsan Range on the Aldesarn Valley Project canal. The Project company had been busily recruiting as Autumn semester had drawn to a close and a number of Aloin’s school friends were now overseeing heavy machinery or working survey parties in the steppe lands that ran up to the polar ice sheet.
There was no word from Aloin’s mother, Imeneene. As far as he could learn, she was still offworld. Meccan Vesukka, Aloin’s father’s partner, had half-heartedly suggested that they catch up for dinner but, pleading an erratic work schedule and the likelihood of an earlier liftoff from Golus, Aloin had declined. He was grateful that Meccan had secured him a berth aboard the Iridium Queen, but he still felt awkward socialising with her.
As the days slipped passed, Kiirgun began to run short of manuals for Aloin to read through. Even Holi had to admit that all the routine maintenance was up to date, all the deferred maintenance had been completed, and if Aloin had to polish the Jump inducers again, there was a high probability he would wear through the metal sheathing. Even the reclusive Navigator, Miska Ilurrin was showing signs of boredom, playing adventure games on the crew commons wide screen rather than computing Jump solutions for all possible stellar bodies within 36 parsecs of Golus.
Finally, Captain Lukk arrived back aboard one evening, unannounced. Tiredly, she settled into a seat in the commons. Kiirgun brought her a glass of water and then went off to warm up some dinner.
“Well?” Miska asked. “Cargo?”
Lukk sipped her water and then nodded. “Yes,” she said, “we have a cargo.” She held up a hand to forestall comment. “Not the biggest, and not the cleanest, but it will keep us going a little longer.”
“Not the cleanest?” Holi asked. “What? Coal? Sand? Desert-beast doo-doo?”
Lukk shook her head. “Hot rocks,” she replied. “So you better break out the lead foil.” Taking the bowl of chowder from Kiirgun, Lukk stalked off towards her cabin.
“Hot rocks?” Aloin asked.
“Radioactives,” Kiirgun replied. “Hope your people don’t cut corners when it comes to sealing hot rocks in shipping canisters.”
A couple of nights later, a non-descript truck pulled up at the foot of the Iridium Queen’s ramp. Twelve pallets, each with a bright yellow armoured contained lashed to it, were swung off the truck and into the hold. Wearing full overalls and a rebreather unit, Aloin helped Kiirgun secure the pallets for takeoff.
“Double lock ‘em, lad,” Kiirgun said, handing Aloin another locking bar. “Holi says this stuff is pretty inert in this form, but it’s a real curse to mop up if it spills.”
The comm unit sparked into life. “You finished tying down?” Captain Lukk demanded from the bridge. “We’re lifting in ten. I’m closing the main hatch.
“All hands, “she continued, “secure for liftoff and get to your stations. Move it, people, there’s weather coming in from the west. If we stay any longer on this dust ball, we’ll get buried.”