Portals by Barry M Vass by Barry M Vass - Read Online

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Summary

In the year 2075, overpopulation has grown to unprecedented levels and unemployment is approaching 50%. Oil and most other natural resources on Earth are long gone, and forced colonization to other galaxies becomes the law of the land. In the midst of all this, a group of would-be prospectors crash-land on a distant planet, in another galaxy, and, with no real hope of rescue, begin to explore their hostile new world. And what they find amazes them.
Published: Whiskey Creek Press on
ISBN: 9781611603767
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48

PORTALS

by

BARRY M. VASS

WHISKEY CREEK PRESS

www.whiskeycreekpress.com

Published by

WHISKEY CREEK PRESS

Whiskey Creek Press

PO Box 51052

Casper, WY 82605-1052

www.whiskeycreekpress.com

Copyright Ó 2013

Warning: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 (five) years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.

Names, characters and incidents depicted in this book are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of the author or the publisher.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

ISBN: 978-1-61160-376-7

Cover Artist: Harris Channing

Editor: Marsha Briscoe

Printed in the United States of America

Dedication

For ABV and ELT: two peas in a pod.

Chapter 1

We were about fifty light years past Orion, heading in the general direction of Cetus, when disaster struck.

A section of toilets ruptured, or maybe it was one of the slime-growth tanks—they were both in the same area on the ship. I was too far away to know what really happened. But when zero-gravity plumbing lets go in a positive-gravity environment it always sounds pretty much the same. At least that’s what they’d taught us back on Earth.

In any event there was suddenly a huge hole in the side of the transport. From what I heard later, stars were visible. People were bouncing around, screaming, and quite a few were sucked through the rip right into space. A number were already wearing space suits, but at that point we had no way to get them back.

We were on the slaver Perseus, heading for some unknown destination. Cheap labor. They never really told you where you were going. Once the Colonial Work Force got their hands on you, your life was pretty much theirs to do with as they pleased. And the CWF never felt the need to share.

Calling the Perseus a slave ship was probably wrong. There were a lot of convicts, sure, but the bulk of the passengers were simply poor unfortunates whose benefits back on Earth had run out. Or who couldn’t find a job that paid anywhere near what it took to survive. See, once you’d exhausted your unemployment benefits and still couldn’t find work, your name and identity number were automatically given over to an alphabet soup mix of federal make-work agencies. And once they fed your number into the system, you had to report when and if they called you. That was the law. While the Colonial Work Force was well down the list, a sort of last resort, a call from them wasn’t exactly welcome.

By this time, 2075, humanity back on Earth was bursting at the seams. Population control had never worked. And of course everything was pretty much automated so jobs were increasingly hard to find. Not that there was anything much worth finding anyway. All of the good jobs that paid anything had been shipped overseas before we were born. You could find a service-industry job that paid 80 credits an hour, but it was hard to live on that with prices the way they were.

And so colonization and transporting people out to suitable planets in other galaxies had become accepted procedure. Just to relieve the stress on the old home planet’s resources…

Still, those chosen by the CWF weren’t exactly thrilled by the idea of forced colonization. It didn’t seem right, and it certainly didn’t seem fair.

And then food and other resources back on Earth began to run out. The Food Riots of 2045 and 2047 went a long way in convincing people to get off the planet and take their chances elsewhere. If there wasn’t enough food and you couldn’t afford to buy it anyway, what was the point of staying?

So here we were onboard Perseus, reluctant passengers zooming through space, heading for some unknown world. Hopefully it would be a better world with good air, a warm climate capable of growing food, and land unencumbered by billions of other people. We didn’t have a choice by this point. And going back wasn’t an option; we’d been ejected from the home planet like so much debris.

But the Perseus was an old rust-bucket, long out of service and under-maintained. All of the colony ships were like that. There simply wasn’t enough money to keep them in any kind of operating condition. Planetary resources were stretched to the absolute limit. So if and when your number came up, you sort of hunkered down and took the ride, hoping for the best but always expecting the worst.

I was back in my room when the explosion occurred. Well, it wasn’t really a room. It was more like a small closet with hooks on the walls that you could hang yourself on to sleep. The ship had some gravity in the common areas, enough to give you some slight weight; maybe 20% Earth-normal. It was enough to hang yourself up by the collar anyway, or to move around without drifting away.

There were four of us assigned to that particular cubicle. Two convicts; and another man, Drew Ridley, who’d lost a tech business back home and then lost everything else when robotics had expanded faster than anyone had ever expected.

And then there was me, Danny Jones. I wasn’t a convict exactly, but it’s kind of hard to make ends meet with what they give you on the dole these days. So okay, I knocked over a few liquor stores in my time, just to get a little ahead. But these robots they have manning everything nowadays aren’t so easy to fool. And consider the technology! My last heist was over almost before it got started when a liquor store drone notified the police robots over some faster-than-light closed circuit. I can still hear the automated sirens in my head…

So here I was, heading God knew where, when either the toilets or the slime-tanks blew out.

I was the only one in the room at the time, hung up on my hook, snoozing. What else was there to do at three Zulu hour? The door was shut, which probably saved me.

As I’ve said, people were yelling and screaming as they were sucked down the long passageway toward the breach. It was a terrible commotion. After what seemed like an eternity the fail-safe mechanism activated. Bulkhead doors began slamming down, echoing throughout the starship.

But the hole must have been too large to isolate. It undoubtedly went through several containment zones.

I unhooked myself and sort of drifted down to the floor. Sirens were going off in the outside passageway.

The first thing I grabbed was my oxygen mask. Strapping it on, I noticed that it was suddenly freezing cold in the little cubicle. Ice was forming on the metal bulkheads. Zero atmosphere will do that. I was wearing a coat but it was one of those synthetic retreads that are never really good for much. I zipped it up and reached for someone else’s jacket.

Slowly sliding open the door, I heard the first automated announcements blaring around me:

Abandon ship, a cool female voice said. Move quickly but calmly to the escape pods. Abandon ship…

Well, they didn’t have to tell me twice. I was nothing if not interested in self-preservation.

All of the fail-safe areas had at least one escape pod tucked away under the floor. The first thing they told you when you came onboard was to memorize the location. I turned and saw several men struggling with a floor panel as they tried to gain access.

I pushed off the door and swam down the aisle. There weren’t all that many people around. Cushions, clothes, and the remains of a few redi-meals floated in the air.

One of the kneeling men turned to me. Hey! he shouted. Give us a hand with this!

So we did as best we could in the low gravity, cursing as the need arose, finally getting through to the escape pod.

Everyone there piled down into the miniature starship. I counted ten, including myself: six men and four women. Everyone was nervous and anxious as they breathed rapidly into their oxygen masks.

Let’s get the frick out of here! someone yelled.

The escape pod was a narrow, tube-like affair with a series of hardened portholes on the sides. As such, it was purely Spartan. Designed to hold 25 bodies, it was now less than half-full. We looked around, but there was no one else left in our section.

We strapped ourselves into the seats. Someone up front hit the go button and the ship released, then ignited and rocketed out into space. The big transport flared behind us as it died.

Everything was fully automated, of course. No one was really panicking, but we were all a bit rattled.

Goddamn CWF! a woman yelled. Doesn’t anything ever go according to plan?

Everyone was nodding. We knew that the escape pods were well-stocked, carrying enough food and water to sustain 25 souls for three months. So we’d be okay, at least in the short run. And then there were always the portable slime-growth tanks to consider, although I really didn’t want to think about that option just then.

The pods were also rumored to have the latest in robotic guidance, a system so sophisticated that it was supposed to take you (within five light years) to the nearest planet capable of sustaining human life. The key words here of course were supposed to. You never knew with robotics these days. And of course five light years was a hell of a wide window…

But we were optimistic. What other choice did we have?

The escape pods were also equipped with a locator beacon so CWF could come and pick us up whenever another work-ship arrived in the quadrant. Hopefully this would be before the food ran out.

Good help was hard to find. At least we hoped it was in this section of the universe.

Chapter 2

It was an inviting world, as far as we could tell from inside the pod. We could see purple skies, blue grass and plant life that was pretty much yellow or red. A few ocherous clouds scudded past overhead. There were two suns; one greenish-yellow, another blood-red. And there were three moons that we noticed, although there could have been a few more farther out.

The escape pod had put us down in a perfect three-point landing in the middle of a large field. A steady wind blew across the grass. We could see a large body of water about a half-mile off to our right. Everyone was looking around for cows or other sentient life-forms.

So okay, here’s the thing about planets that are capable of supporting human life. With that kind of forgiving environment, usually you have to expect that there is some sort of native animal life already in place. And quite often the critters aren’t exactly hospitable. We’d all heard the stories about the settlers on Andromeda IV who’d been eaten by tree-hanging sloths and the colonists out by Arcturus who’d been stung to death by giant wasps. This being the case, we weren’t exactly in a hurry to get outside.

An hour after we landed, one of the women noticed some creatures approaching from the far side of the meadow, opposite the lake.

I was up by the science panel with several others, watching the atmospheric readings scroll past. Not that it would do us any good. We’d exhausted most of our fuel just getting here, so leaving if the air was bad and going somewhere else wasn’t much of an option. We’d barely make it back into orbit. Our escape pod was stuck here, and we would have to make the best of it until a rescue party arrived.

Correction: if they ever arrived. There were quite a few stories going around about colonists being stranded on second-class worlds for years. I checked again to make sure the locator beacon was activated.

Say, a woman named Kayleen said. Would you take a look at those…things over there?

So we did. We all bunched around the portholes on her side of the ship and stared.

There were twelve of the animals, traveling in a tight pack. Maybe three feet tall and twice as long, they looked for all the world like squirrels crossed with mountain lions. Their puffy gold-and-brown banded tails twitched around, and razor-sharp fangs were in evidence. They possessed darker fur on the body as well as nervous, overly-busy claws. Occasionally one would stand up and sniff the air.

What the hell are those critters? one of the convicts, a man I knew as Dwight, muttered.

Take a look at those teeth, another woman commented. That’s definitely a predator.

I was standing behind the others, bending down as I watched the creatures approach. They don’t exactly look friendly, do they?

There were several grunts of assent. The animals were slinking closer.

Dwight glanced over at me. He was an older man with a gray crew-cut and a hardened face. While he had been assigned to my cubicle, I barely knew him. Where are the weapons? he asked.

I guess they’re back in storage, I answered. They’re packed away with everything else.

He shook his head. A hell of a lot of good they’re going to do us back there.

Isn’t there something up here in this cabin? Drew Ridley asked. I noticed that he was twisting his hands nervously together.

We broke up and began searching the small ship. A frazzled-looking woman named Roxy found a small knife in a tool chest under one of the seats, and I located a stun-gun in a locker up front.

Dwight frowned when he saw the weapons. Frick. I don’t think these will do much good against a bunch of those things. He took the stun-gun from me and balanced the small weapon in his hand.

Two of the lion-squirrels suddenly jumped on the roof and began prowling around. Several others got up on their hind legs and started gnawing on the portholes. There was a general drawing-in of breath inside the cabin.

Dwight leaned close to me. What can we expect to find in storage?

I shrugged. I know there are pulse-rifles and pistols, probably a few disrupters. Disrupters, while not lethal, had the effect of scrambling brain waves and motor functions of most sentient creatures for up to four hours. Didn’t you read the material they handed out?

He grinned at me, feigning slyness. I’ve never been much of a reader, Danny. Don’t get me wrong, but I just never saw the point. There’s too much to absorb.

Okay…

Kayleen ran up to us. Hey! she yelled. Isn’t it possible to send an electrical charge through the hull? That might discourage these things. At least it would let them know we’re not a free meal…

I found myself nodding. Yeah, I think you’re right. I saw that in one of the scans.

Kayleen was brunette, maybe thirty, with a chunky body encased in the standard CWF work coveralls. You didn’t find many petite sizes in our line of work, at least not that I’d seen before.

We went up front and began pouring through the interactive instructional read-outs.

After a while she leaned over. Here it is: how to generate an electric charge through the outside hull. She pointed at the directions. All you have to do is throw three switches…

I do?

Well, yes. I had the idea. I found the instructions. You have to activate it. I shouldn’t have to do everything. The corners of her mouth tugged upward, not really a smile, but it was probably the closest I was going to get under the circumstances.

We moved over to the console. I threw the indicated switches and a sudden, sharp crackling noise came from the roof. The animals up there went flying off, howling and hissing. They landed on the grass, shook themselves unsteadily and then began loping off. The rest of the pack turned in the harsh light and followed them.

Everyone in the escape pod was clapping and cheering. Kayleen solemnly shook my hand.

Dwight clapped me on the shoulder. That was nice work, you two. Now, how do we get into the cargo hold?

Uh, well first of all you have to go outside…

There’s not another way? What if those things come back before I can lay my hands on one of the pulse-rifles?

I glanced toward the back of the escape pod. Well, I guess we could use that knife to cut through the wallboard. That leads to storage. But there’s no telling what circuits we’ll damage.

He was thoughtful for a moment. Hell, we’re not going anywhere anyway, are we? And besides, aren’t these pods limited to a single use?

That’s true, I guess.

He turned, got the knife from Roxy and went to the rear of the ship. He began slicing into one of the panels.

After perhaps a minute there was a flash of electricity and he was thrown backward.

Electrocuted, Dwight was our first fatality. We’d forgotten to shut off the electricity running through the hull.

Evidently it ran through the back panels as well.

Chapter 3

We stayed in the ship that first night, eating redi-meals and discussing our options.

It never really got terribly dark outside. The yellow sun set in front of us, but another two moons rose in the heavens, casting a harsh purple