The year is 2410, and the nations of Earth are at last united; but the environment is ravaged by nuclear fallout, and by genetically engineered viruses. There is hope of a longer, healthier life, on a colony such as Greenshoot.
Jack Buffalo, star-ship pilot, sat squarely in front of his television with a remote control in one hand and a glass of whisky in the other, flicking idly between the channels. He watched impassively the waving crowds in far-off places, brilliant laser shows, and smiling entertainers. He poured himself a little more of his favourite bourbon and started to relax. His mind drifted, to the precious moments of his marriage and the embarrassments of his career. Staring blankly at the flickering shadows cast around the room by the luminous screen, he almost fell asleep, but he was alerted by a change of tempo from the announcer.
“The crowds turned violent in the city of Eisenhower tonight, where local officials said the New Year event had been hijacked by extremists. Triple-S guards deployed sonic rams to quell the unrest, but later used deadly force to protect government property and hold the line against anarchy. This report contains disturbing images … ”
Jack watched as big parabolic dishes swiveled with impressive speed, beaming pain into a group of protesters that numbered in the tens of thousands. Still the mob advanced. Agents of the Social Stability Service stepped forward in full combat gear - oversized black helmets, antennae, assorted weapons. For a moment they reminded Jack of the giant insects in his alien nightmares. Maintaining a tight, disciplined formation, the triple-S guards fired their machine guns into the crowd until the gun barrels glowed red. The mob’s leading edge fragmented, and a shock wave slowly passed back through the confused mass of humanity, as the survivors turned and fled into the maze of narrow streets around Eisenhower’s central square. Jack shook his head sadly, and changed the channel again.
“The markets closed on this final trading day of the year with the interest rate at 6.5% and the jobless rate at 24.4%. In a surprise announcement today from the Department of Economics, the sterilization rate was raised to 2.1% to combat inflationary pressures, prompting a sell-off of stocks which closed down 0.1% on the day. You all have a happy new year.”
Jack tensed up when he heard that word - sterilization - but put the matter firmly to the back of his mind. He looked at his watch and saw it was already past eleven o'clock. It was time to decide. If he was going to the street party he would have to set off for the city centre soon. The violence in Eisenhower did not discourage him, for that was a regular trouble spot and centre for separatists and insurgents; but a dust storm was forecast and he wondered if it might blow in tonight. Faced with an hour's walk, fifty blocks, he decided instead to watch it all on the television, and pulled his armchair a little closer to the screen. Then there was a loud bleep - an incoming call from Monty Griffin, Jack's boss, the director of pilot training. Jack touched the remote control to switch the monitor to comms. His unshaven, lined face appeared on the preview, staring straight back into the camera. There was a hint of menace in his strong pointed jaw and the unblinking, penetrating eyes. He touched the remote again. Here was Monty through the wheel of his car, street lights blurring past in the background.
"Jack, it's Monty. I’m coming up 85th. Are you OK ?"
Jack cleared his throat. "Monty, I was getting an early night. Yes I'm fine".
"Jack, I have some good news. Could I come round for an hour ?".
"Sure. There's no party here though", Jack replied.
"We can have a couple of drinks, can‘t we ?", Monty said cheerfully.
He was grounded for alcohol abuse and now his boss wants to get him drunk. What the hell was going on ? Monty was driving like a maniac and would be here soon. Suddenly animated, Jack gathered the vodka and whisky bottles and stored them in a wardrobe, then cleaned the glasses which had accumulated a sticky residue at the bottom.
He opened the window to clear the tell-tale smell of alcohol, but a draft blew in carrying the scent of burning rubber. Jack poked his head through the small aperture and sniffed the air, looking up and down the street to see what might be on fire. He decided, on balance, it was better to seal the apartment and closed the window again. He looked around and realized how disorderly the place had become, but had made little progress tidying things away when the buzzer sounded. Jack opened the door to see Monty smiling in the hallway. Monty was modest in stature but immaculate, poised and dynamic. His hair, thinning when Jack last saw him, was now clean shaven and the bright hall lights bounced off his shiny pate. Jack, a big lazy bear of a man with a heavy frame and slumping shoulders, looked down at Monty but still felt the force of his personality.
"Happy New Year Jack. How are you ?", Monty said enthusiastically.
Jack offered only a tight-lipped smile and gestured for Monty to enter. Monty strode briskly into the room, looking excited and sweating a little.
"The roads were quiet tonight, a great time to drive. Now I’m working at HQ this is the fastest I get to travel. The sensation of speed though, through the tunnels, I just love it. Jack, the news is, we’ll just been told from the ministry that there’ll be a big push next year. Thousands of colonists to ship out ! More cargo too. And, exploration will be sending out another deep space fleet to the galactic centre. So we are short of pilots now !"
"Do we have any signals from that last mission to the centre, the one Tom Astor was on ?" Jack asked.
"We think they are OK, but there is some interference with the signals that we don't understand properly yet. The new ships will be carrying better sensors and might be able shed some light on it".
Monty set his hands on Jack's broad shoulders and shook him. "Jack, you are back on the rota. That's what you want isn't it ?"
Jack looked into Monty's steady, deep set eyes, then looked away in doubt. He wondered what sort of assignment he might get. Perhaps something no-one else wanted.
"I've taken responsibility for the alcohol test and we are going to delete that from the record. You were only a little over the limit. Hell everyone drinks don't they? I should have given you a break after your divorce from Truce - I thought the work, keeping you busy ... well you're only human and we all have periods like that. We all have to suffer a loss at some time. But we know you're a good pilot - and this is your chance to get flying again."
They sat down at the round glass table in a corner of the room. Both men relaxed a little into their chairs. Jack gave a brief hint of a smile and this encouraged Monty further. “You’re still young Jack. Have you met anyone since Truce ?”
“Yeah, of course I have. I was just thinking about Truce though. Did you hear sterilization is up over two percent now ? The payments will be much better than last year. She could have had a child and then had the sterilization as a one-child parent, and still made enough money to buy the house. She panicked over rising property prices - I mean she completely blew it.”
“I know, she let you down. That was big disappointment. But once you get out there, Jack, I think you’ll get a new perspective. This next year will just be amazing.”
"What have you got for me then ? What's the route ?", Jack asked.
"It's an S4-class vessel to Planet 36. The passengers, they will be a couple of high-level government people - interesting people. In cargo you'll have a few scientific instruments outbound. They need to get there urgently. And you’ll return with a cargo of antivirals."
"That colony’s called Greenshoot now isn't it ?"
"Yes Planet 36 didn't sound very inviting. We all have to refer to it as Greenshoot. Hey Jack, where's that bourbon you used to have ? I bet you‘ve got a case or two locked away in here."
Jack got up and retrieved a fresh bottle from the bedroom and put two large, sparkling crystal glasses he kept for special occasions on the table. He poured generously until Monty signaled enough with a waving finger. “The little S4 is fast. I guess six days to Greenshoot ?”, Jack asked.
“Maybe six days. But put some contingency in the plan.” Monty took a large gulp of whisky before continuing. “Your co-pilot is a rookie. His name’s Hugo. He has his doctorate for work on molecular synthesizers - he’ll be useful as a scientist too, to support the government team. With these new instruments they can monitor the environment better and ... uh ... I don’t really understand this stuff, but Hugo can explain it all.”
“Well, I don’t need to worry about all that”, Jack said, “I’m just the pilot.”
“Jack, you’re one of the best pilots we’ve got, honestly. Now let‘s see all these trophies you've collected.”
Monty walked around the room surveying Jack’s photos and mementos. The shiniest object quickly caught his attention. "A gold banana?”, Monty enquired.
“That”, Jack replied, “is the service medal for the Mole Mining Company.“
“Yep, it’s actually a model of their habitat. See the windows along the inner curve there ? And the exit ladders ? It was built to withstand -120’C in winter. It‘s a beautiful place they had there.”
Monty stopped again at one small picture by the door. “What ? You’ve got a picture of the President on your wall ? What the hell for, Wei Hung is a fucking Chinese !”
“But I’ve seen that picture in your office“, Jack answered, chuckling.
“In my office. That is a mandatory piece of office furniture.”
Jack walked over to the photo and they looked at the round, youthful face of the new President of the United Nations. “Monty, the way I look at it, this is the guy that has to justify why 10% of everyone’s taxes, including taxes from China, get spent on the space program. You just said when you came in, that the program is being expanded again. Therefore I say - he’s our man.”
Monty looked at Jack carefully. “Jack, on behalf of the department, I like your attitude.”
Jack had known Monty for a long time. They were the about the same age and were partnered flying bulk cargo in their early days. Then they lost touch completely until Monty turned up, unbelievably, as the new boss. How he got that job remained a mystery to Jack. There had been rumours that Monty had a political connection, or that he had hacked into the personnel computer, or bribed someone. The only good thing about the situation was that both men had enjoyed some good times that they would never forget, and because of that Jack felt he could probably trust Monty. But he wondered where Monty’s hostile attitude towards the Unity government had come from - that was new and seemed odd from someone doing so well for himself.
“I always thought you guys, I mean management, were so guarded, always saying the right things and being aware - aware of who’s standing behind you and listening in. And then you come out with that about Wei Hung !”
Monty looked worried. He seemed to be sweating more heavily. Perhaps it was the whisky, Jack thought.
“It’s a democracy and we can say what we like about those guys. This is called freedom of speech. Now, I need to schedule your simulator time, Jack. I think twelve hours will do, plus a full medical. So - get to the gym and get in shape.”
Monty emphasized this by pumping his arms, but drew no reaction from Jack.
“The new guy - Hugo - when do I meet him ?”
“He’s at a conference in some fancy hotel in Shanghai. Lucky bastard. Don’t worry Jack - he’s gonna be OK, I picked him out and he’s a real smart guy. Jack, I gotta go. I'll come see you before launch.”
Monty shook Jack’s hand and departed in a hurry. Jack, now feeling dazed by alcohol, returned to his armchair and screen, and in his mind pictured the fastest ship in the fleet, the tiny S4 Buzzfly. He felt a sense of release, a gentle surge from within. Life was not so bad after all.