But no matter, eh? You get on with it. My name's Bert. I drive a cab here on in the City of Lights on Bethdish, which is God's armpit if you ask me, but then again, the rent's cheap and a body can make a living if he knows his way around.
My shift ended about an hour before, so I double-parked the hovercar I use to taxi fares around the City Center section on the street and wander into the Mare Inebrium for a few cold ones before heading home for the night.
So Max saw me walking in and made sure that a pint of good dark is sitting on the counter when I got to the bar. We exchanged pleasantries in the usual fashion, though I'm sure that he doesn't really think that about me, and I've never even met his mother. I propped myself up against the bar and survey the nights patronage. Weird crowd they get here, never figured it out. Most places, folks stick together. Humans over in this bar, D'rrish in that one. Folks don't mingle with folks who ain't folks, if you get my drift. But this place seems to have a psychic "Leave your species at the door" sign in bright neon hanging outside, so people tend to mingle here and there's only the usual amount of trouble.
Over in the corer, a dark-eyed man in a silver shirt was having an animated discussion about politics with a fellow in a black vest and his Wookiee. Meanwhile, the curly-haired fellow in the wide brimmed hat was milling about the room, constantly apologizing to folks who trip over his scarf. He's an interesting fellah, but a bit of an enigma, if you catch my drift.
I was about two-thirds down my third pint when I noticed her. I'm not sure how she blended into the crowd, and I sure didn't see her come in. She was medium-height, with long chestnut brown hair and ice-blue eyes that seemed to be lit by a soft inner light.
Now, I'm not much of a mover, or a pick-em-up-easy guy, but I could tell this girl was special. I don't know why, but I just had a feeling we would hit it off. So I made my way over to her table and introduced myself.
"Good evening, miss," I began glibly. "M'names Bert. I'm sort of a regular here, but I don't recall seeing you around before?"
She glanced up at me, or maybe through me, as though she were concentrating on a space just behind my ear. But she smiled, a slow warm smile that invited further conversation.
"Hi. No, I've not been here. Well, not in a very long time."
I laughed. "You don't look nearly old enough to have been here a long time ago." It was strange, but normally these are the sorts of things you say to a gal just to perk her up and get closer, but I really meant it this time. Sometimes I even surprise myself. "Is this seat taken?"
"Not at all, please sit down. I'm Leah."
After that, we fell into easy conversation. I told her about working the city as a hovercar for hire, and about the day to day comedies and tragedies of Bethdish. She said that she was a student at the University, studying political science.
"Interesting field, y'know" I said, knowingly. Especially when you've got a case study like the Great Devourer, eh?"
"Ah, that's what we call the current controller. He's a piece o' work, I'm one to tell ya. I'm surprised that you don't hear that on campus."
"Oh, well, I don't pay that much attention to local politics. I'm more interested in stellar government."
"Oh, I see. Plan to do a little planet hopping, do ya? Fun stuff." I said.
Her eyes lit up. "You've been offworld yourself?" she asked, eagerly.
"Oh, yeah, well, I did a little planet hopping when I was a teenager. That was a good time to be an intergalactic vagrant. You could easily make your way from Homestar to the Rim on just your wits and odd jobs. And you could always hire yourself out as a cabin boy. Or girl." I smiled at her.
"It sounds wonderful." She had propped her head on the tops of her folded hands, and focused on me as if I was the center of the universe. I don't have to tell ya what the effect of a gal doing that is on a fellah.
"Well, I don't wanna make it seem like it was all glamour. Adventures, they can be dangerous. When I was 17, I was working as a ship's hand on a ship called the Starwave. Luxury transport ship, mostly rich old folks going to bask under sunspots for their health on resort worlds on the Rim. Anyway, they made two runs a year from Homestar to the Rim and back again, so hiring on was a great way to see the sights. We were about 6 weeks out when the first trouble hit.
"Now, we don't have as much trouble with pirates these days, but back then, you had to keep an eye out for privateers. So, I had just gotten onto my duty shift when the lights went red."
I paused a moment to signal a passing waitress for another pint. Storytelling, I can tell ya, is a dry business. Still, I could tell I had an entranced audience, so I didn't so much mind. Suitably refreshed, I returned to my tale.
"So anyway, we immediately went into emergency mode, closing up bulkheads and herding the passengers into safety zones, when the captain comes on the speaker. Seems there's a real, honest-to-god, right out of the holo-serials, pirate frigate off the port bow, and he wants us to surrender and prepare to be boarded. Now, these luxury cruisers, they ain't exactly unguarded, but often with these folks, ya just wanna give 'em some money and let 'em be on their way."
I notice I'm no longer telling my story just to the girl at my table. A few others have started to listen in as well. A rakish blonde guy dressed in black propped his feet on the table next to ours and smiled mysteriously at me when I noticed him. He's another regular here...goes by the name of Roberts, as I recall...but I digress...
"Next thing we knew...thanks for the refill, Max...next thing we knew, there's about a dozen of these latter-day buccaneers fanning out over the ship with rifles, looking all fierce and skuzzy. Seems a bit of a laugh, when you think of how many able-bodied spacemen there were on board, but we were all under orders not to try any heroics, since there was still a ship with big guns just outside our airlock and we didn't want to all get blasted into smithereens."
"So Joe and me, Joe was my cabinmate, and one of the best buddies you'd ever hope to have, we realize that the only way we're getting out of this thing alive is if someone somehow can manage to get over to that other ship and get its guns pointed in some other direction. Now, we both knew that the captain wouldn't hear any of it, since so far all the pirates seemed inclined to do was eat our food and drink our booze and maybe liberate a few ne'er-do-wells out of their diamonds and rubies, and that beats floating around some backwater spacer lane as so much dust any day of the week. But Joe and me, we're kids, and we think we're invincible, and we plot among ourselves to do exactly that."
"Considering how its exceedingly unlikely the pirates are going to let us just waltz across the bridge between the airlocks and enter their ship, we decide to get in a back door. See, their ship had big old block-thrust engines. A big block of solid-state fuel is atomized in a special furnace, and the energy released from the molecular dissociation is channeled out these giant pipes on the back of the ship. Completely useless for deep-interstellar, of course, but if yer just hopping from system to system in a local cluster, its cheap and easy to maintain. Just the thing for these jerks to hold folks up on the spacelanes. The other thing we knew about that little guy is that it only carried a small crew, fifteen or twenty. So there couldn't be too many folks left behind to man weapons, if any (cause the pirates could've been bluffing).
"So what Joe and I proposed to do was to put on enviro-suits, slip out the repair hatch on the starboard hull, and then sneak into their ship via the engine port.
"We managed to get over there with pocket thrusters, hugging the shadow that the two linked ships cast to keep from being seen. When we got up to the back of their ship, we grappled hold of the thrust cone and walked into the blast tubing."
Her eye's widened as the implication struck her. "But, if they had decided to start their engines..."
"...I wouldn't be here telling you this yarn, miss. And we knew it, believe me. Those old ships weren't the gleaming arrows to the future like you see 'round here these days...you'd hear lots of creaks and rattles and hisses, and every one of them made us about to jump from our suits. We made our way into the tube about 200 yards before we found a hatchway that lead down into the engine maintenance compartment. From there, it was fairly easy to work out way through the maze of machinery to get to the actual engine room. Luckily, it was empty when we popped out of the airlock."
Leah shivered, no doubt thinking about those big atomizers springing to life with someone in the tube. Come to think of it, looking back, I can't say I'm so calm about it myself.
"We had a couple of small pistols that we'd liberated from the ship's armory on the way out, and we pulled them out and started stalking through the halls, peering around corners as we went. I don't know about Joe, but every spy-thriller holo I'd ever seen was flashing through my head...I swear, I could even hear the background music playing. All of a sudden, we came round a corner face to face with one of their crew. I'm not sure who looked more surprised!"
"He was right in front of me, so I immediately lashed out with a right cross, but he put an arm up to block me. I reached up and grabbed his wrist, and we started to struggle, each trying to get a shot at the other. I guess he wasn't much older than me at the time, a kid really, and he obviously either didn't notice Joe or forgot about him. He had me pressed against the wall and was about to lay into me when there was a sharp cracking noise and he slumped to the floor. Joe had found a fire suppresser mounted on the wall and clocked him with it. We tied him up and left him gagged in one of the side rooms."
"Unfortunately, now we knew we had a tighter schedule to work with, since it was only a matter of time before the kid was missed by someone. I felt like we'd almost gotten to the front, and sure enough, about another 200 feet and we came to a ladder going up and down. This was obviously an old out-of-service military vessel, since there was no lift to take you to the bridge, but that was both a blessing and a curse. We had a greater risk of meeting someone coming down the ladder, but it would probably be easier to plan how we wanted to move onto the bridge when we got there with no lift doors opening up to announce us."
"I tucked my pistol into my waistband and started to climb. Joe came behind me, a little slower because he kept his sidearm in one hand while doing a sort of one-handed monkey-climb up the ladder behind me. We went up about 50 feet or so before we came to the well where the ladder gave access to the bridge. It was even better than I had hoped...an arching doorway shielded us from view. Peering out, we saw two more crewmen on the bridge. One was sitting in the command chair while the other sat in the weapon master's console."
"Now, one thing to keep in mind if this was a military vessel is that the command chair could control any system on the bridge at will. So it's not so simple to just get the one guy and think things are going to fall into place. I'm trying to figure out how we can get out of this without actually shooting somebody, and an idea occurs to me. I catch Joe's eye, and nod my head towards the ladder, then I fish a coin out of my pocket. Joe presses up against the bulkhead wall by the door, and with a flick of the wrist, I ricochet the coin down the ladderwell.
"What the hell was that?"
"I dunno. Go check."
"Here comes the hard part. As soon as the guy steps into the ladderwell, Joe grabs him from behind and clamps a hand over his mouth, pressing the pistol into his back. Across the way, I put a finger to my mouth and indicate that he should not make noises that would upset my friend. His eyes get wide, and he nods emphatically."
"Now this whole plan revolved around the other guy not noticing what went down with his friend, and luckily, it worked. I peek around the doorway, and he's sitting there with his feet propped up on the padded railing that went around the command chair. I figure if I'm real quiet, I can sneak up behind him. I duck low to the ground, and slowly make my way down from the ladder section to behind the slight dais where he was sitting. Slowly, I raised my pistol until it was right level with the back of his neck, then gently pressed it against him."
"I'd not be moving if I were you, fellah," I said, In what I hoped was my best Jim Coldnair voice (You probably don't remember him, he was an actor who played all the big tough-guy roles in the holo serials when I was a kid.)"
"This guy freezes stiff at the feel of the metal barrel on his skin. "Put yer hands up where I can see 'em, and then step away from the console." I march this guy over the ladderwell, and we tie the two of them together and lash them to the ladder."
"It's about here that Joe and I stop running on adrenaline and realize that, holy smokes, we actually pulled this off!"
I take a long pull on the fresh pint that Max has brought to my table.
"We quiz our two prisoners and find out that, sure enough, there were only three of them left on board. And we had them all secure and under gun. I tell ya, it's a feeling to know that you put a plan together and pulled it off." That old fraud Hannibal is sitting in the corner grinning at me and chomping on one of those foul cigars of his. I wonder how long he's been paying attention.
"We made radio contact with the Captain and let him know what had gone down. Without the threat of the pirate ship's guns on them, they were able to overtake the other dozen or so that had boarded, and the lot of them were tossed in the brig. Me and Joe got promotions out of the deal, and a hefty reward for both the capture of the pirates and the return of their stolen military ship."
"Gosh, it sounds so exciting." I'm glad to hear this, 'cause I was afraid I had bored her with my story. Funny thing is, I usually embellish the heck out of that story, but for some reason, tonight I told it straight.
The crowd around us begins to thin out, and I signal Max to drop both my drinks and hers on my tab. He nods across the room at me and goes back to polishing glasses and setting them up in the rack.
"I guess I should be getting on," she said.
"Let me drive you. My cab's outside." I gave her a cockeyed grin. "No charge."
"I'm only a few blocks from here, it's ok."
"Well, let me walk ya then. This isn't a bad neighborhood or nothing, but still, its very late, and you are alone."
She smiled that smile again...the one that made me quiver slightly. "That's very sweet of you, Bert. I'd like that."
We stepped outside and the cold night air swept across us. I quickly pulled off my leather bomber jacket and slipped it over her shoulders. "Here, lets not have you getting cold."
We walked the several blocks to her home, discussing nothing in particular. A sidewalk vendor about 2 blocks from the Mare was selling flowers, so I bought her a particularly red rose from his selection. She pressed close to me and held my hand, which made me feel very warn and comfortable to my surprise. Even more to my surprise, I realized I had no intention of trying to fish an invitation inside from her.
We came to a house in one of the nicer residential blocks near the spaceport. "It's my Dad's." she said, making a face as if to say what she thought about living at home at her age.
"Beats pounding for rent." I said, grinning. "Look, I really enjoyed the company tonight, and I'd like to see you again, if you don't mind, sometime?"
"I'd like that a lot," she smiled. I let go of her hand, and she turned to face me. Wrapping her arms around my neck, she drew her tiny frame up close to me and planted a kiss right on the lips. Not a quick peck like you'd get from your sister, but a long soulful kiss. "Goodnight, Bert," she said, a bit wistfully.
"Hey, don't be glum, kiddo. I'll be round." I waved as she slipped into the house. I floated the whole way back to the Mare, and was unlocking my cab before I remembered! I loaned her my jacket, but forgot to get it back. I guess I was so warm inside from the kiss (not to mention several pints) I didn't notice the cold.
I quickly fumbled a couple of anti-intoxicant pills from the glove compartment and popped them into my mouth, then glided the hovercar onto the street. No big loss I thought, I'll just pop by her house and pick it up. It's only been 15 minutes.
I pulled up in front of Leah's house and walked briskly to the front door. After ringing the door bell, I thrust both hands in my pockets to protect them from the chill. I had to ring twice more before it finally slid open.
An old guy answered the door. He had a neat mane of silver hair, and a heavily lined, but distinguished, face. "Can I help you, young man?"
"Yeah, I'm sorry to bother ya so late, sir. I loaned something to your daughter, Leah, and I was wondering if I could get it back?"
The old fellah peered at me like I'm touched in the head. "I'm afraid you're mistaken, son," he said, starting to close the door on me.
"Sir, please, I know she's here, I just dropped her off at this doorstep not 15 minutes ago." He stopped.
"Perhaps you had better come inside." He opened the door wide to let me into his sitting room. "Have a seat."
I perched on the overstuffed sofa that faces the fireplace. The old guy paced back and forth in front of me, before stopping at the fireplace, and taking a picture frame down from the mantle. He handed a portrait shot of Leah to me.
"My daughter was a political science student at the University," he said. "She was scheduled to travel to Homestar to spend a summer working as an intern for one of the government agencies."
"She must be terribly excited," I said. "She told me how much she wanted to go offworld."
"Yes, she was terribly excited, young man. Unfortunately, she never got the chance. There's was an engine failure, and her transport exploded on the pad. There were no survivors."
I gaped at him. "You can't be serious!"
"I'm afraid I am. Whoever it was you spent the evening with, it was not my daughter. Leah died on this day 25 years ago. She's buried in the cemetery on the hill"
My head was spinning as I attempted to reconcile what the old man had just told me with the memories I had of just that evening. I didn't know what to say to explain myself. I apologized profusely to the old man for interrupting him, and walked in a daze back to my cab.
"Up on the hill," I thought to myself. For no reason I could think of, I suddenly set off in a mad dash down the street. I came to the cemetery gates and vaulted over them with one hand planted on the stone columns. Breathlessly, I dashed up to the small hill that stood at the back of the plot, on the other side of a small fountain. The moonlight allowed me to read the inscription clearly.
Robert Wynne ("Doc") is a gentleman rogue and a scholar of truth. He has been, at alternate times, a writer, an editor, a salesman, a teacher, a freelance computer consultant and a charming vagrant. You can reach him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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