© Paul Kupperberg
chapter one (continued)
They probably knew what had happened to him by now. His friends, who had witnessed the ship blasting off from the Factory spaceport with Merlin onboard, had likely spent a few hours debating whether or not to tell what had happened. But in the end, they would’ve done the right thing. Which meant that Mom and Dad were, even now, both worried sick and angry as all get out. No, this would definitely not go over well with them, especially in light of their family discussion, just the night before, about Merlin's chronic lack of responsibility. They’d forgive him, of course...
...If he got out of this alive.
For the six hundred and twenty-seventh time since the ship’s massive steel hatch had slammed shut behind him and he had been slammed to the floor by the tremendous g-force of lift-off, Merlin looked desperately around the cargo hold. There had to be a way out of this, he thought. Humanity had been travelling in space for... well, a real long time. Thousands of years. Merlin wasn’t sure exactly how many thousands, but it was a lot of them. And in all that time, it had become routine, so there had to be a way to...to do something in his current situation. A way to steer. A radio to call for help. Something!
There had to be, but, really, there wasn’t. Not in this ship. Why would there be? It was never intended for anything but hauling surplus corn flakes to the sun for incineration. No one was supposed to be on board. Especially Merlin.
“Why’d I ever take Waldorf’s dare?” he groaned. He knew better than to be fooling around at the spaceport. How many times had his father warned him? “Don’t go fooling around at the spaceport,” his father would say. “It’s dangerous.”
But Waldorf kept teasing him, calling him a scaredy-kilcth. “C’mon, Merl,” he said as they sat on the apron of the spaceport on their duocycles with the rest of the gang, looking up at the huge cargo ship that was still being loaded with corn flakes. “All of us have been inside one of ‘em. Except,” he said, giving Merlin a meaningful look, “you.”
Even as he dismounted from his duocycle, Merlin knew this was a bad idea. He still knew it as he looked into the grinning faces of his pals, and grew even more certain of it as he edged his way towards the waiting ship. The enormity of the sheer badness of this entire idea only grew as he slipped around the robo-loaders dumping ton after ton of corn flakes into the cargo hold and glanced back at his waiting friends. They had all done this and they were all okay.
Any yet...this was still a bad idea on so many levels.
“Just because everyone else jumps off a building doesn’t mean you have to as well,” his mother had often said to him.
Except, when you’re fourteen years old, you kind of do have to.
Or be branded a scaredy-kilcth and spend the rest of high school the object of mockery, various varieties of wedgies, frequent Wet Willies, and the occasional but painful beating.
So, Merlin took a deep breath, crossed his fingers and, hoping for the best but expecting the worst, climbed into the great ship. He figured hanging inside by the hatch for a full ten second count before jumping out should do the trick.
He had just silently mouthed the number five when the hatch closed.
Which brought him, true to Mom’s wisdom and Dad’s warnings, to a collision course with the sun.
Because he was a total weiner, more afraid to tell his friends he was afraid than he was afraid of something like, oh...this happening.
Because of corn flakes and his having the misfortune of being born and raised on a whose sole purpose was making flakes for this sector of the universe. Huge colony and factory ships had been sent out ahead of the settlers bound for neighboring Sectors to settle Riboflavin and begin the immediate production so as to have boxes of breakfast food ready for shipment to every newly settled planet within a thousand lightyears as soon as the colonists landed.
Just about every major company of everything from soft drinks to clothing to pet food owned manufacturing planets in every corner of the Known Universe. Wherever there were to be humans, there’d also be a market for consumer products. It had been done this way since mankind had begun its migration to the stars.
The Riboflavin team had landed, and even as the massive factory-cities were being constructed from the starships that had carried them across the thousands of lightyears from Earth, began planting every farmable acre of the planet's fertile surface with genetically enhanced corn. The orders from the home office were to begin immediate and full production in each of the six factory cities and keep it going.
Riboflavin's factories did as they were ordered...
... And the corn flake planet never heard from the home office again. No word to cease production. No orders on what to do with the corn flakes they had already—and continued—to produce. Nobody called. Or came to tell them to wrap it up, show's over, everybody go home, thank you very much.
So for six hundred Terran Standard years Riboflavin made corn flakes. Tons and tons of them, every day. Pretty soon, there was no place left to put them, which lead some brilliant committee to come up with the idea of building huge transport ships to rocket the massive overload of flakes into the sun. Ever since he was four years old, Merlin wondered why they had not instead:
(1) Just stopped making corn flakes altogether, or
(2) Built ships to take everybody home...or send even someone to Earth for instructions.
But when he had asked his parents about this, his father—a quality control inspector in Plant 17, Flaketown-4—had simply fixed him with a disapproving frown and said, "Because corn flakes is the reason Riboflavin exists, and following instructions from the home office is the way we do things around here, young man. Now finish your flakes and get yourself to school!"
So, he was millions of miles out in space, on his way to becoming a crispy critter in the heart of the sun. Merlin had to admit that, as bad as he always believed his life was, he had finally hit the absolute bottom on the “life sucks” meter.
There was something strangely comforting about that thought. At least he was off Riboflavin and would never have to spend another boring second thinking about boring corn flakes. And, once the air in the ship gave out, it would probably be over pretty quickly anyway. It wasn’t much comfort, true, but it was better than nothing.
Well, you know, other than the situation being hopeless.
And that was the thought that ran through Merlin’s head as a Slarkbogger Salvage-Destroyer came up behind the sun-bound cargo ship and trained its massive ion-cannons on its tail.