Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode four hundred and fifty-six.
Tonight we present Joe Monk, Emperor of Space: The Ladder
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Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.
Tonight we find Joe Monk, the last human and future Emperor of Space, standing in a swamp at the edge of the known universe.
Joe Monk, Emperor of Space: The Ladder
Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May
As the boxy shuttle touched down, Joe Monk – one-day Emperor of the vast stretches of void and the specks that litter it – patted the multiple pockets of his orange and blue jumpsuit in search of the plastic cubes the locals considered currency. He tipped as heavily as his expense account would allow.
It seemed only fair, the cabbie was actually a runabout from the export station further into the sun’s orbit, and their approach to the shanty town had made it clear there was no chance of a random fare heading back the other way.
The round being that piloted the taxi had been silent the entire trip, yet as soon as the craft lifted off Monk was missing its quiet thereness.
At the edges of the development it was difficult to differentiate what was wild growth and what was constructed shelter. With materials in short supply the inhabitants had taken to burrowing into the massive trunks that rose from the knee-high water, and scattered ladders had been nailed into the hardwood to build skewed platforms on especially stout low branches.
From behind reed mats strung across otherwise open windows he noted large eyes marking his progress
Soon, however, he was passing the homes’ inhabitants with increasing regularity. They were thick-limbed bipeds, their arms overlong for Joe’s liking. Their stout bodies were covered in a short layer of fur – enough to keep them warm during the planet’s chill night cycle, but not so long as to hide their lack of the dangling bits that Monk associated with romance.
While several nodded as he passed, there was enough potential in their muscled shoulders that the human’s simple instincts had him wishing he still carried a weapon. He’d lost the right when he’d been promoted out of his position as an agent of the law for the Council of Ten Stars.
The timber and scrub thinned, giving way to rough-hewn stilt houses. Here was a brown-haired giant dipping barrel legs into the water from a crude porch; here was an almost identical colossus using ropes to clamber up one of the wide trees to collect the fruits in its mist-veiled heights; here was a nearly perfect copy of the other two napping in a ragged hammock patched with moss.
Monk was beginning to spot the subtle differences between the locals. Though there seemed little sign in variation in the length of their fur, they’d taken to shaving their faces and arms in elaborate patterns. Ahead of him stepped a tall-necked Goliath with trimmed bands of broadening width climbing its biceps, and an inverted pyramid of slashes under its ostrich-egg eyes exposing the gray skin beneath. Further along Joe encountered another who’d cut an intricate series of labyrinthine spirals onto only the left side of their face. It did not take a former lawman to note the tight loops must must have required close and careful upkeep.
Between the fern fronds and tin-sheet roofs Joe caught sight of the tower that had guided his landing, and the sound of machinery began to grind through the insect song.
Now he began to see signs of black market activity: Lovely but inexpensive gems harvested from the mine and sold, unbeknownst to the suits that had set up the operation, upon porches and small slat-sided booths – at least until the inventory wranglers could arrive and realize the worth of what was slipping through their security nets; Sickly green ration blocks broken down into stews with a hefty dash of local vegetation despite strict corporate policy against such experimentation; Versions of the identical giant dressed in sliced tarps, their fashion meant to imply a sexuality that their naked forms were incapable of. Though briefly tempted to stop and speak with these members of the oldest profession, if only to determine what kind of services a race without apparent genitalia could offer to satisfy the others of its kind, Monk pressed on towards the mechanical roar.
Finally, with his boots soaked and his jumpsuit slowly filling with muck-laden water, the last human reached the heart of the remote mining settlement.
The rocket had settled as a single stacked tower and its fuel tanks jettisoned to be scavenged to form portions of the housing surrounding him. Two modules had also been deployed, likely in the final stages of descent, to act as outbuildings of a higher quality than anything the neighbourhood’s architects had, given their meager materials, been able to construct.
To the left of the column stood the cap to the open mouth of the mine, the cage elevator and winch system having arrived as a prefabricated whole, and to the right stood a similar shelter, though this half the size of the pit entrance. Its smell was acrid and clung to Monk’s nostrils and tongue, but it was a familiar reek – this was not his first encounter with the sort of trap intended to gather local animal life to be mashed into component parts and reconstituted into what the suits considered useful forms ready for labour.
As he watched a four-legged beast, likely having been lured this far into the camp by food scraps, approached the stench of pheromones and mating musk. Having appeared on its eastern side, an iris no larger than a watermelon slid open and awaited its arrival with endless patience, and before Monk could think to hiss at the compound-eyed animal, to perhaps save it from a gluey fate, the last of its pale green tail disappeared into the enticing tube.
“Dammit,” said Joe, really only to himself, and he was forced to wonder if he was already just as late in assisting the labour force shuffling about behind him.
Shrugging, he made his way towards a similar iris, this one his own size and dominating the face of the central spire.
Inside he encountered the first non-natural lighting he’d seen since arriving. No doubt the mine below was also lit with bulbs strung from the rocket’s core, but apparently there was no energy to spare from the craft’s nuclear heart to light the village that serviced the rock crusher.
The rooms inside were low, segmenting the tube to maximum efficiency. The bottom-most chamber was dominated by a ring of chutes, and Joe knew that if he’d arrived on market day there’d be a crowd of the giants, each carrying a basket, bag, or simply a cloth spread wide to catch their weekly allotment of the food blocks he’d spotted earlier in his inspection. Wedged between two of the chromed channels stood a ladder, but the chamber above was locked. Still, the very reason Monk had been reassigned from his law enforcement position was the cracking of a similar door – one that had been the entrance to a black market garment factory that turned out to be the property of a Planduckian ambassador’s son-in-law. The arrest had been upheld, though the fine was little more than a slap on the wrist, yet the Council of Ten Stars had quickly come back to Monk with the offer of a promotion.
It was only once behind his new desk that he’d realized how limiting his position truly was. He’d been raised in the silence of space, and being trapped on the core worlds, to vote once a week and spend the rest of his time in expensive restaurants in hopes of being seen by social scene columnists, had felt like a step down even if his pay had increased. It was not for a lack of information coming to him – rumours of improper operations abounded – yet how was he to take action when everyone around him was ordering freshly slaughtered shelmdon smothered in lemon sauce?
In the end he’d told Macbeth he was heading out for a weekend of fishing on the second moon, then he’d used his new found wealth to buy a berth on a trawler headed rimward. The complaint file he’d taken with him was simply the most recent to arrive, and may as well have been selected at random.
The lock popped with a satisfying electronic chirp, and the room above had the unsettling look of a surgery. There was a reclining table at the room’s center, large enough to hold the form of one of the mine labourers, and above ran a series of tracks and thick-cabled manipulation claws. The edges of the room were lined with tanks: More of the bodies slowly being formed from the fauna captured in the adjacent module. The tubs also seemed to drain into the chrome chutes he’d seen earlier. No doubt any nutrients left unused in the creation of new bodies was being processed, compressed, and delivered to the hungry mouths below.
For safety reasons – those of the technicians who’d constructed the craft, certainly not his own or the beings it built to labour – the next hatch up had a transparent window, and here Monk had to halt: He was not equipped to enter the bulk cryogenics chamber, he hadn’t thought to pack sub-zero gear while landing in a humid swamp.
Still, the telltale signs of Space Brains were all over the room.
Space Brains, of course, were the press’ sneering term for the frosted neurons of a great many races. Each sentient faction, at some point in its development, attempted to combat death through cryogenics, and it was generally before gaining enough awareness of the space beyond their own solar systems to enter the greater empire. Maintaining other people’s grandparents was an expensive business, and contracts were often formed with corporations looking for cheap labourers, generally to operate under unpleasant conditions. Any excess body mass would be cut away, keeping only the neural core, and then a factory rocket could be fired at any backwater in the universe to pile up resources until such time as a freighter was sent around to retrieve them.
Of course each entity was given an option, upon defrosting, to re-enter cryosleep, but the yes/no interface screen also included a running tally of their bill, and a warning regarding service outages if the total amount went unpaid for too long a window.
Technically such labourers were paid for their time, and it was a frequent talking point of the pro-Space Brain lobby that a non-company body could be purchased on the free market, but the statistics indicated it was almost an impossibility to save for even the lowest quality replacement while already making regular payments on their current body. Reconstitution was, of course, also invoiced.
Worse, the modular bodies, so foreign from the various races’ originals, were often of shoddy design and prone to rapid disintegration. The climates into which they were sent rarely eased the process.
That said, Monk knew this operation to be below galactic standard in almost every way. Minimum housing necessities had not been met – though rent would no doubt be extracted from each worker’s pay – and any work site of this size was obligated, under galactic law, to have at least a dozen non-indentured oversight foremen to maintain safety standards and proper corporate conduct.
Yet who wanted to ship away from their kids for a year or two on a copper-rich mudball? The distances involved meant a lack of supervision – or inspections – in exactly the places they were needed most. Though such locations were ripe for citation, which low-level inspector had the budget for such explorations, or the job security to indict the same interests that filled the Council’s pockets?
This abandonment also meant Monk didn’t have any shirt lapels to grab and immediately blame – but he had an idea on how to fix that part of the problem at least.
Back on Prendax Prime the cost of a meal at the chop house preferred by the majority of ministers – say a sweet Klebnarian porterhouse and a bitter Jandaxian whiskey, always signed-off on as necessary expense to cabinet business and thus covered by the taxpayers – was such that it was often jokingly stated you could live a year on belter pizzas for what an afternoon in a Prendax eatery would pull from your pocket.
That said, while they’d taken Monk’s gun, they’d also, at least, given him a credit chip.
Stepping from the cold metal floor to slowly settle back into the swamp muck, Joe reached into the depths of his jumpsuit and pulled out the only other item of value his new post had provided him: A small notepad with his position’s seal across the top and a tight block of legalese at its base.
Across the front of the top sheet Monk simply scrawled, “Closed for labour violations,” then he slapped the self-adhering slip to the right of the iris he’d just exited.
Though few in the camp could read English, the block of text at its bottom, translated into the dozen most common languages, clearly set out that whoever held the pad carried galactic authority, and Joe’s hooked thumb did the rest. He did not allow another worker to enter the mine head, instead pointing to the note, then back to camp. These were unmistakable signs in any language, and, besides, there was little eagerness to dispute his claim.
Finally, nearly twenty Earth hours after touchdown, he was sure the last of those below had ridden the cage to the surface module. It had required going down himself, to shout and prod through the small spaces, and it was only his experience of having been raised in the limiting confines of his ship that had kept the claustrophobia of the place from weakening his knees.
By the time he’d completed his roundup he’d gathered a decent surface crowd, including the being he’d come to think of as Left-Side – he or she with the intricately shaven spirals. With little else to do with their sudden free time, the throng seemed happy to help with his undertaking, and Left-Side soon became a fast friend in getting the others organized.
It took a dozen of them to pull the elevator’s cage free of its confines, but it was intended for deep-shaft operations and there was plenty of slack with which to entwine the trap module’s stink. A sound like laughter came from between the teeth of Left-Side and the rest as the button was pressed and the cable tightened its loops, eventually collapsing the outer walls of the protein gatherer. Then the high-powered winch – built to tote heavy loads of ore – pulled the crumpled unit across the muck, halting only once the damaged capsule was firmly lodged in the mine’s open maw.
Monk had considered doing similar to the central tower, but he dare not risk the frosty sentients inside.
The damage was well beyond the automated systems, so the computer had likely already launched a request for a repair crew. By the time the call center had issued a work ticket, however, he would have placed his own request to the Council’s law enforcement arm, and arrests would be made as the specialists touched down. He felt for the maintenance people, but they wouldn’t be imprisoned long: They were union, and the technician’s guild’s lawyers were to be feared. The shark-faced litigators of Fendex would quickly point out that the tool jockeys were simply following orders, and a game of hot potato would begin. Monk doubted it would climb so high as the boardroom responsible, but the stress of the litigation might better the quality of the next instant colony.
He would see at least. Joe planned on finding out not long after it was planted.
There was, though, a lingering pang of guilt regarding the amount of baked flat-bread the shuttle who had delivered him was about to begin shipping between the station and the camp, as it would still be a while before there was anyone at hand who could afford the return trip. He resolved that he’d simply have to tip well for every delivery.
He was, after all, the newly appointed Deputy Minister of Labour.
Flash Pulp is presented by https://www.skinner.fm, and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.
Intro and outro work provided by Jay Langejans of The New Fiction Writers podcast.
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