Talking is not permitted.
Look forwards, don’t engage with anyone.
Keep your hands to yourself and makes sure they’re clean.
Don’t look at other people.
Don’t look at others’ food.
Don’t look at individuals when they’re eating.
Sit still on your chair.
Make sure you wash your tray and spoon when finished.
Remember your number.
Remember your password.
These are the rules for eating. They are simple, and they will keep you alive.
They say slavery was stamped out a hundred years ago. And if you believe that, you’ll believe anything you’re told.
Stella didn’t know about the rules before she signed up four and a half years ago.
The truth is Star jumping costs big money, and if you want, you can go anywhere in the galaxy, as long as you’re prepared to pay.
With your life!
Money is time, and your time is money.
Five years, that seemed reasonable to Stella. What were five years when you were 18, dirt poor and desperate to get off world? Find adventure. Make a future. Live a new life on a new planet. That’s what Stella kept repeating in her head every single mealtime. That and the rules.
Once you signed up and were put into the debt mines or factories, it was too late. You were off your home world, unable to return.
No help was coming to rescue you. And you were stupid of you to try to rescue anyone.
The first thing the Star jump companies took was choice, then the debtor’s identity and every single right the debtors thought they once had. Heads were shaven. Clothes and belongings were banked. All communication with the outside world or those surrounding you was not permitted.
‘You’re here to work, not to play. Pay off your debt. Then you can jump.”
That’s what was screamed at everyone over and over again; as soon as they got off the shuttle, it started. Herded like terrified cattle into the dorms, stripped, shorn and deloused.
Break the rules, and you were punished with more debt.’
Debt ensured the compounds, dorms, eating halls, and mines were lifeless, silent and compliant.
By the third day, seven people had given up… permanently! People gave up every day.
Stella stepped forwards to the clean white serving counter, ensuring she did so in time with the others from her mining crew. It didn’t pay to stand out.
Who knew working in a mine in the dark with little to no machinery was a thing?
Stella had worked on one of the last mines in her home world. Machines did all the work. It was easy. It was partly why she’d signed up for mining. Her five years were going to be a tranquil ride, just sitting in a big truck or digger, watching the world go by.
But here in hell… People were cheaper than machines.
More environmentally friendly mining could occur when you didn’t have to blow up or dig up great mounds of earth; why do that when instead, human rats could crawl through the gem veins and pick out what was needed?
“Number and password?”
The cook behind the clear plastic screen held her serving tray, awaiting Stella’s permitted reply.
‘663-291, Apple Pie.’
Stella waited every day for this moment. For those precious torturous words to flow out of her mouth. To hear her voice outside of her head. To hear ‘663-292, Apple Pie,’ and ‘663-293, Apple Pie,’ said on her right and ‘663-290 Apple Pie,’ on her left. These simply lustful words still proved her ears had a purpose.
Why Apple Pie? For the same reason others had passwords like Chocolate Cake, Dumplings or Fried Chicken. It was a simple but effective form of torture.
Apple Pie… well, she hadn’t seen a piece of bread for the last four and a half years little on Apple Pie. Nutrient Soup was the only food, served cold, three times a day. Nutrient Soup… Stella shuddered; it was a nice name for slops.
“I need an extra serving.”
Stella’s mind swam in the glorious timber of the forbidden words and then reeled in the terror of realisation; something other than number and password had been said.
To her left, the cook stood shocked to the core. His white uniform, marred with unwashed stains, ladle mid-air. “Number and password.” Was awkwardly blurted out once more. Panic flushed his face a deep red.
“I need an extra serving. My wife is sick, back in our quarters; she couldn’t get up. I need to take her some food.” 663-290, stood shuddering in his grey work clothes, pleading his case. “She has to eat!”
The dining room, with its three hundred occupants, birthed a terrifying silence.
“Please,” 663-290 beseeched, his voice quivering with lack of use and fear. “Please, I need a tray I can take back to her. A little food, that’s all. Please!”
Footsteps echoed behind the ‘Apple Pie’ quartet. Terror running ahead of the reverberating chorus blossomed a feeling of dread in everyone’s heart.
Stella closed her eyes as tightly as she could. To be anywhere but here. Far, far away. Even the mine would do. Anywhere! Just not here.
The Coordinator, dressed in a black high collard jacket, stood behind 663-290, whispering in his ear. Her rough bulbous red lips touched his shaved scalp; it was done on purpose. The intent was simple; prove to everyone ‘not’ watching, that 663-290’s debt didn’t even allow him to own personal space.
Stella tried desperately to ignore her peripheral vision.
Talking is not permitted. Line up. Look, forwards don’t engage with anyone. Keep your hands to yourself and make sure they’re clean. Don’t look at other people. Don’t look at others’ food. Don’t look at people when they’re eating. Sit still on your chair. Make sure you wash your tray and spoon. Remember your number. Remember your password. The rules raced through her mind over and over again.
“No, she can’t get out of bed. She just needs to rest. If I could please just have her allocation. I know she hasn’t turned up to work, but she’s sick. Please, please, can I please have her tray?”
The Coordinator placed her pale white hand on 663-290’s grey and worn shirt shoulder, then whispered to him again.
“I understand, truly I do. I’m not trying to make trouble. But please she…” 663-290 was cut short, his dark eyes filling up with tears; the whispering stopped.
An echo of 663-290 collapsing onto the clean white tiles reverberated loudly as the dining hall occupants sat motionless, trying desperately to follow the rules. His howls rang out around the stillness like a vandal on the hunt.
“Not the infirmary, no! She needs to rest.”
Unwilling to bend, the Coordinator spoke aloud; her hard-blue eyes twinkled with delight; she was the ruler of her petrified court. “You have the choice 663-290. We can return your wife to your bunk, but she won't last the week. Late-stage cancer does that to a person. You could, though, support us in trying to save her life and let us keep her in our ‘state of the art’ infirmary. She’ll be returned to you in the next two days. Health. Fit. Alive.”
663-290 sobbed into his cupped empty hands.
“Well, that’s gratitude. We can shoot her now if you like and be done with the misery.”
The Coordinator’s black jacket rose, crested and fell on her matter-of-fact shrug. “The choice is yours, but whatever you choose, you’ll still owe us her time.”
663-290 yelled, “What’s the cost?” His dark eyes streamed with clear, cleansing tears as reckless abandonment allowed him to look into the eyes of the smirking coordinator. “How much?” prowled ominously out into the eating hall.
A sneer grew above the black jacket. “Ooo, I don’t know; how about five extra years… each? On top of what you both still owe!”
Stella held her breath. There were benefits of being alone.
As his eyes returned to the white floor tiles, the slumped soul of 663-290 gave a soundless nod in agreeance.
Without another word, the Coordinator turned on the heel of her black-soled boot and strode towards the food hall’s entrance doors. The echoing of her steps was interrupted only by 663-290’s whimpering.
Before she left the hall, the Coordinator turned and yelled, ensuring everyone winced under the lash of volume. “Let’s go for a walk 663-290; I need to reset your password… to Oysters Kilpatrick. Yes! Such a romantic meal for such a romantic deed.”
Stella’s focus turned once more to the cook, whose thin face showed there was no easy access to sustenance. Stella waited for his instruction. The nervous snow-white-haired man blinked and then spoke his allocated words.
“Number and password.”
“663-291, Apple Pie.”