Tager, Olper, and Jumondo sat in the darkness trying to recover. Poor inertia shielding in the cargo pod had left them to the tender mercies of sky-rocketing g-forces as the budget transport hauled them off-world. Without restraints they’d tumbled into a tangled pile at the back of the container, bones rattling, struggling to inflate their chests against the pressing weight. Felt like a can of paint in a mixer. Tager had narrowly avoided blacking out. One of the slaves, still invisible in the darkness, had thrown up. Zero gravity had finally released them, and the stomach particulates, to float freely around the dark interior. Normally zero-g was fun in short bursts. In this case Tager looped his arm under a grab bar, pinned myself against the wall and tried not to be touched by anything floating by.
Hours passed. They hadn’t eaten in two days. Zero gravity and an empty stomach made Tager feel like a helium balloon. The air was thin and warm, rank with the smell of bodies and vomit.
Jumondo shuffled beside him and rumbled, “Tager. Air’s getting’ thinner.”
“Rest,” Tager grunted, not opening his eyes to the blackness. He tried to place his head back against the cargo pod (a gesture of lying down in the weightless environment) and take his mind to days as a child swimming in the public pool of Kreyjoss City’s youth center. He used to enjoy holding his breath and floating in muted stillness. He reinforced the memory to maintain a state of calm.
For the umpteenth time, one of the other slaves had his panic attack. Desperate banging came from the far end of the cargo pod. The voice was feral, probably Lascan, and Tager didn’t need to activate his voicechip’s translator to guess at the words. Get me out of here. I can’t take this anymore. We’re suffocating. Can anyone hear me? At first he and Olper had tried sharp commands to get the creature to stop wasting their oxygen. Then only annoyed warnings. Finally they stopped, saving their own breath and sweating quietly.
This time Jumondo stirred, and Tager felt the furry troll brush past him in the weightless dark. They heard the frantic voice go up in surprise, then change pitch in desperation. Then with a bodily thump two weights collided with the side of the pod. The voice continued to scrabble about for a foothold in the dark, but clearly Jumondo held it back. Finally it wobbled to a simpering tremor. Eventually the troll brushed past Tager again, slow and languid, and settled back against the pod.
“Not sure… we’ll make it.” His bass whisper came between shallow breaths.
Tager reach out to affect a comforting touch. The furry arm was wet with perspiration, and the brass armband unpleasantly warm. The larger races suffered more in these cases; they also consumed more O2.
Suddenly the transport shuddered, and an even tremble vibrated the pod’s walls. Beyond their container they heard the transport’s frame creaking under a new stress. Suddenly a thousand little hands patted their skin from head to toe. Then artificial gravity returned with a vengeance. The little hands became an irresistible force, slamming them down. Tager and his shipmates didn’t have far to fall, but brutal drops in the darkness told him the others had been floating freely. The crushing weight of normal weight proportions made Tager’s limbs feel like lead, and the warm air oppressive in its thinness.
Their frightened friend scraped and moaned in the darkness.
“Reeeest…” Tager intoned uselessly to the unseen slave.
Without a chronometer, time was impossible to gauge. Minutes? An hour? Tager felt his hair growing more and more lank on his forehead. His breath shallower.
A tinny clank and a whir, far outside their container. An opening transport door!
Tager sensed no direct change in oxygen, but his ears popped fiercely. Outside there was activity and a number of voices.
After a long time, the end of the container pod banged; the doors cracked, then groaned and opened. Blinding artificial light. A gust of air poofed into the pod. Tager gasped gratefully, trying to fill his starving lungs. He attempted to rise; gravity and weakness told him no.
Silhouettes like a brood of medusas stood in the shuttle bay’s scalding yellow light. They lumbered in, devolving into a posse of rough looking Gortassa, nose tentacles lifted. Through his squint Tager thought he glimpsed holstered side arms. Several sported poles with hooked ends. They shouted at the slaves in Qualvanan and Universal, “Up! Get up! Come on!” and a variety of curses.
One brute hooked Tager’s arm with his pole and roughly yanked him forward. Tager stumbled, and tried to stand between the guard’s yanks. His limbs were sluggish and clumsy, as if strapped with ankle and wrist weights.
Rough and unhelpful the Gortassa shoved them out of the container onto the deck. Olper crashed past with another two handlers. His turban had fallen around his shoulders in a disheveled, sideways clump, revealing a balding blue scalp. Three or four more guards prodded Jumondo out, who staggered on all fours like a primate. Then their bedraggled Lascan, and other companions. Everyone had splatters of vomit on them.
Like pig herders the Gortassa steered them in a clump through the lack-luster, industrial loading bay towards a grimy airlock.