I had been based out of Artemis Station for several years, doing long-distance runs to minor colonies and galactic backwaters. Six months to Vesta. Fourteen months to New Rockall. The occasional 10-week jog to Hyperion and back. Interstellar cargo is a boring industry, but the work was steady, and the pay was good.
The long periods of deep sleep freaked some guys out, but I didn’t mind it too much. I had no loved ones waiting back home who went on living—and aging—while I spent most of my time in a sleep chamber, exempt from the passage of time. Coming home to a new kid you didn’t recognize or watching everyone you’ve ever cared about move on with their lives without you must make you think twice about the job. Of the 200 graduates of my training group, fewer than 50 signed up for a second run. After my third run, I think I was the only one still with the company.
Earlier this year, I had finally clocked up enough seniority to bid for an Earthbound run. I’d always wanted to see my ancestral homeland, even if it was only a bunch of historical markers and scarred highways anymore. There wasn’t much going on anywhere in the Sol system, so cargo runs there were few and far between. The night when bids closed for the next cycle of runs, I stayed up until midnight so I could watch the matching algorithm work itself out in real time. When the bids came through and I saw COLE/JOSEPH—ARTEMIS/EARTH at the top of my dashboard, I silently cheered and immediately accepted the contract.
The cargo run from Artemis Station to Earth would take nine months and use a three-person crew rotation. Two of us would operate the ship as captain and chief mate while the third one slept, and we’d change positions every 92 days. I was excited to explore a corner of the galaxy I’d never seen and make some decent money in the process. With my seniority, I might even get to be captain during the six months I was on duty. As I checked in at the spaceport on departure day, I was eager, practically giddy.
And then I found out who my crewmates were.
I’d never served alongside Bradford or Chapman, but I knew them by reputation. They were classic space bros, the kind who went commando beneath their uniform jumpsuits and replaced all the films in the rec room database with porn. They ate, drank, and slept the ship life, exemplifying all the stereotypes of the swashbuckling interstellar “cargo dudes” that died out in my grandpa’s generation. Every spaceport bar had a story about “BradChap” skipping out on a tab, and every assay office had a storage locker full of sweaty jumpsuits and duty-free crap they left behind in guest quarters. When I saw their names on the crew roster, my stomach turned.
“Actually, I’m not sure I can do this run. Can I get a sub?” I asked the ops technician who checked me in.
“If you have six seniority credits to cash in,” she replied flatly. This surely wasn’t the first time she’d had a crew member skittish about serving with BradChap. I considered her offer for a moment, but it would take me forever to earn those credits back. After years of slinging boxes to third-rate outposts and failed utopias, I was finally able to bid for the best, highest paying runs. I wasn’t going to let a bunch of rumors screw me out of what was rightfully mine.
“No, thanks,” I said, pressing My thumb against the signature pad. Nothing was ever as bad as people made it out to be. I was sure everything would be fine.
Bradford and Chapman were waiting for me at the top of the gangway. They looked exactly like I imagined. They were large and bulky, like they enjoyed the spaceport’s all-you-can-eat buffet every bit as much as the fitness center. Bradford was blond and clean shaven, while Chapman had a dark brown buzz cut and a bushy beard. They waved as I got closer. Their jumpsuits were undone all the way down to their thick, hairy bellies. I waved back, and they smiled. They looked friendly enough. Maybe all the rumors about them were just that.
Despite practically everyone in explored space having a BradChap story, nobody knew exactly how old they were. To me, they both looked like they could be in their mid-forties. But they’d been with the company a long time, and you didn’t age during deep sleep. It was possible these guys could be 70 or 80, or even older.
“Cole, right?” Bradford grabbed my hand and nearly shook it off.
“That’s right,” I said, massaging my right shoulder. I nodded at them in turns. “Bradford and Chapman, I presume?”
“You got it, little buddy!” Chapman said. He wrapped his beefy arm around my neck and pulled me into his chest, rubbing his knuckles across my scalp. “This run is going to be a blast!”
I laughed awkwardly into the cleft between Chapman’s hairy pecs. “Glad to be serving with you guys,” was my muffled reply.
“Come on, Chap, let the boy get some air,” Bradford said, slapping his crewmate upside the head. “Nobody wants a face full of pec sweat their first day on the job.”
Chapman released his grip on my neck, and I smoothed the front of my jumpsuit. “Thanks,” I said. “This is my first time doing the Earth run.”
Bradford and Chapman looked at each other and then back at me. “You’re going to love it, little buddy,” Chapman said. “Best nine months of your life.”
Bradford took my shoulder bag and slung it across his chest. It looked tiny next to his thick, bearish body. They clapped me on the shoulders and led me onto the main deck of our ship, ACV Berengaria. The hatch closed behind me with an ominous hiss. There was no going back. I was stuck with BradChap for the next nine months. At least I’d be asleep for three of them.
As we walked the long corridor to the sleeping quarters, I struggled to keep up with their long, lumbering strides. I fell a few meters behind, and as I trailed them, I couldn’t help noticing the sweat marks on the underarms and backs of their dingy jumpsuits. It was clear that they seldom changed uniforms. When you’ve been running cargo for as long as I have, it’s not unusual to pick up some weird habits. But the presence of crewmates should have kept the slovenly ones in check. I wondered how they got along with other crewmates on their previous runs
, and whether I should have paid more heed to the rumors about them.
When we reached the sleeping quarters, Bradford took my bag off his shoulder and slid it across the deck into the corner. He and Chapman each placed their right fist atop their upturned left palms and looked at me expectantly.
“What are we doing?” I asked.
“Rock, paper, scissors,” Chapman said.
“To decide who goes to sleep first, little buddy,” Bradford said.
I sidled up to them and held my fist out. “One, two, three, shoot!” Chapman boomed.
I lost. Bradford and Chapman each pounded my finger scissors with their fist rocks.
“You’re up, Cole,” Chapman said. “Get yourself plugged in. We’ll put you to sleep after we clear the spaceport.”
“Wait,” I said. “Aren’t you going to play again? To see who goes after me?”
They both laughed. “No,” Bradford said, turning toward the door. “We’ll decide that later.”
They spilled out into the corridor in a flurry of shadow boxing and juvenile humor. I waited until their thundering voices and footsteps faded into the distance and then opened the supplies cupboard. I wasn’t looking forward to six months one-on-one with Bradford and Chapman, in whichever order I got them. As I slipped out of my jumpsuit to plug myself in, I hoped that whatever sleep I would get over the next three months would be restful.
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