Thursday, 13 December 2012

Aloin's Saga - Solo Traveller #13

“I’m open,” Aloin shouted, dodging between two of the stocky defenders. Bel Karmhen paused, jumped, and passed as a defender cannoned into him. Both men went down in a flurry of limbs. The ball arced over the court.

Time seemed to slow down for Aloin as his consciousness expanded. He was aware of the ball rising from Bel’s hand, even as Bel was thrown backwards by the defender. In Aloin’s mind’s eye, he saw the equations computing the ball’s velocity, and the atmospheric and gravitational effects upon the ball in flight, and the velocities and trajectories of the players swarming across the court.

Aloin took two long steps and launched himself into the air, aware that two more defenders were converging on him. He stretched out in flight, straining towards the point in space where the ball would be in time. His hand, fingers dagger-pointed, swept up as the ball flashed past, deflecting its course towards the backboard behind the goal. Even as he fell he twisted. The ball struck the backboard with a crack and rebounded. As the ball struck his hand again, stinging, he pushed back, flicking it up in a parabola. Shedding velocity, the ball shot through the goal hoop. With a bone-jarring crunch, the two defenders collided with Aloin, spinning him around and throwing him to the ground. The goal buzzer sounded and then the full-time hooter blew.

Slightly dazed, Aloin looked up and then took the hand offered to him. Bel Karmhen helped him to his feet. “Amazing shot, Aloin,” Bel said, his Kamperelian accent clipping the ends of his words. “You ‘kay? Needo and Jymi are pretty good blockers. Needo played for Karystar Tower United back before call-up. “

Aloin stretched, trying to pop the kinks out of his aching back. “I’m ‘kay,” he said. He had started to pick up some of the conscripts’ slang. “Great pass,” he added. “Could see all the numbers running, just like plotting for Jump. Set me up, extra fine. “

Bel laughed. “Navigators make pretty good shooters in Jumpball. Got time for a drink, after?”

Aloin checked his chrono. “Not due back onboard until 1500,” he said. He headed towards the public showers. “’kay, see you in the cafeteria.”

The Iridium Queen had been docked at Ektra Downport for nearly a week. The cargo of blades had been quickly discharged and sold. It was only then that Captain Lukk had discovered the 10% sales tax the Kamperelian authorities had imposed on all goods crossing the XT line. Protests to the Starport Authority had been met with the advice that, as the Kamperelian Navy was providing enhanced security within the Ektra system, visiting merchant ships were invited to contribute towards the cost of that enhanced security. When Lukk was tempted to point out that the Kamperelian Navy was actually an occupation force of dubious legal standing, Kiirgun was obliged to remind her that arguing about the legal status of a Navy patrol from the bottom of a gravity well was a potentially futile pastime, particularly when no longer in Imperial Space and so not under Imperial Charters or Regulations.

After a couple of days of light duties while Lukk hunted down another cargo, Aloin decided to investigate a sports facility and gymnasium attached to the starport. It was here that he discovered freely available pickup games of Jumpball, and a semi-regular group of bored eighteen to twenty-somethings to play with. Having established a friendship with Bel Karmhen, one of the regulars at the gym, Aloin learned that Bel and his compatriots were Kamperelian conscripts, performing their two years of compulsory military service as members of the Kamperelian garrison on Ektra.

For Bel, compulsory military service was just a fact of life. All Kamperelian citizens were called up for at least two years service upon completion of compulsory schooling. And while it was possible to gain a service deferment if attending a course of higher education, most citizens chose to perform their service and get it over and done with.

Bel had thought he had lucked out when he drew Offworld garrison duty. Any sort of escape from the bleak and dreary tower blocks of crowded, over-populated Kamperel was a lifeline to hope. Ektra was not what he expected, though.

Smaller than Kamperel, Ektra was a dry world with a very thin atmosphere. The population lived in a series of warrens that had been so mutually hostile as to effectively be at war with each other. The one thing they had agreed upon, however, had been their hatred of the Kamperelian Business Houses that had dominated the Ektran economy prior to the Kamperelian annexation. This hatred had spilled over, one seconday in 1051, to become the series of riots and massacres known as “The Night of Knives”.

The Kamperelian response consisted of six cruisers and a gross of thermonuclear bunker busters. When the firestorm burned itself out, a Kamperelian garrison dominated the warrens – a state of affairs that, over fifty years later, showed no signs of changing.

Aloin had been surprised at just how little Bel and his squad mates either knew or cared about the origin of the occupation. This was probably because the Kamperelian conscripts were disillusioned and angry. They had been told that garrison duty was a lighthearted lark, a break away from the grindingly grim reality of the barrack towers and prole estates of Kamperel. While bashing a few heads to keep the Ektrans down was little different from the casual brutality of the corridor gangs at home, the reality for the conscripts was that they had exchanged the vertical mazes of the towers of Kamperel for the subterranean warrens of Ektra – only the lighting and graffiti were substantially different. Even disarmed by their NCOs, bored Kamperelian conscripts were a constant source of incidents – both on their fellow troopers, and on the Ektran populace.

While Aloin liked Bel, and enjoyed the opportunity to get back into shape with a bit of Jumpball, he found the casual, simmering, undercurrent of violence amongst some of Bel’s squad mates very disturbing.

“Vacc suits!” Captain Lukk exclaimed, slapping a bill of lading on the table top in the Iridium Queen's Crew Commons. She beamed. “Tech Level 8, no fancy nonsense, keep the air on the inside, vacc suits. There’s an Ektran company, Gaspourishidaminda and Sons, that’s been making vacc suits for two hundred years. They’ve survived the annexation; the Long Knives; the Warren Wars; the Outrim invasions; everything, and they’re still in business. They refused the Kamperelian Business Houses; survived the nuclear bombs; and secured a contract with the Kamperelian Navy to supply basic suits for all non-Jump capable ships.”

Kiirgun looked up from reading the lading bill. “But, thirty tons?” he asked. “And Tech 8 vacc suits?”

“The Kamperelians love them,” Lukk said. “They have a lot of conscripts in their armed forces, and they like stuff that is simple, efficient, and idiot-proof.”

Aloin nodded. “Some of my friend Bel’s squad mates are pretty low wattage,” he said, tapping the side of his head.

Kiirgun looked at him with surprise. “Since when are you all friends with the Kamperelians?” he asked.

“Since ‘e been goin’ to the gym,” Miska wheezed and then snuffle-laughed. “Where you think his new slang come fro’?”

Aloin looked puzzled and then shrugged. Kiirgun laughed.

Captain Lukk tapped the tabletop with the stem of her pipe. “It’s going to take us a day or so to get all the export paperwork lined up,” she said. “But as our destination is in Kamperelian space, believe you me, this simplifies matters a great deal.” She tapped a series of commands on her handcomp and pulled up a local area starmap on the Commons main screen. “That’s where we’re heading, ladies and gentleman, the beautiful water world of Floranna.”

“Beautiful?” Holi smirked.

“That’s what the Kamperelian Ministry for Truth and Tourism says in their brochure,” Lukk replied. “I read all two hundred and nine pages twice while waiting for the export licence to be processed.” She held up a hand. “But fortunately, we are not going to Floranna itself, as it is a water world and does not require vac suits. Our buyer will be at the local High Port.” Elera Lukk smiled smugly. “This will be an easy run, and then on and out to Imperial Space.”

“When’s loading?” Aloin asked.

“0545 tomorrow,” Lukk replied. “We’ll look for an 1100 launch window.”

Aloin looked dismayed, and then shrugged. Miska snuffle-laughed and poked him in the ribs. “They still be here when we come back,” she whispered. “Those kids’re not goin’ no where.”



Commentary:
A hard post to write as nothing really happens during the lay-over at Ektra. Aloin's friend Bel shows up later (another NPC thrown up by a reaction roll) so I actually developed him a bit more here than as he features in my notes. I also took the opportunity to look more closely at how Kamperel came to dominate Ektra. All the information was in my notebooks from 20-odd years ago and just needed a little polish and cross-check against other material I've written on the Kamperelian government.

Jumpball, like basketball and tlachli, is one of those games were a group of, predominantly, young men get together and throw a ball around. This seems to be a very common, human, thing and something that will probably outlast the N.B.A.