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Drop Out

This part originally appeared in Freelance Traveller’s April 2012 issue.

Part 15

With the battered old Chilton done with work for the night, Thom, Brodie, Dave, and a few of the Roosters piled onto the sled’s bed, with Kalifra covering driving duties while sipping a green bottle of something. As they pulled away from the ship, they could see Tam in the glare of a nearby spotlight. She’d pulled Anchor Watch, and was sitting on the edge of one of the wide, ferrocrete steps which followed a meter-or-so rise up to a large disc of the same ancient stuff some forty meters across, which made up Landing Pad Zero One; merchant ship Chicken and Waffles’ current berth planet side. For a moment the sled was lit by the spotlight’s disc of light before being swallowed up by the encroaching darkness.

Sagging against the remains of an ancient handrail, and wrapped in the reassuring, musty-canvas warmth of a beat-up surplus Packet Service jacket, Tam luxuriated in another slow, soothing drag off her very last Clove & Jasmine as Wolf 424’s glaring sun dropped, at last, below the horizon; the last shreds of fuchsia-smeared clouds fading away with the coming of deep, indigo night.

Stubbing out the smoke on the bulbous knee-guard of a battered, salmon-colored greave, she gave the C&J a last appreciative look before carefully dropping it, first into the remains of its battered pack, then into a cargo pocket of her worn boiler suit; smiling at the gold-trimmed, saffron-colored paper; happy in the knowledge that the butt’s remaining five centimeters would be good for another dozen or so drags before it was finally gone.

Yawning with boredom, the girl rubbed her bruised shoulder before setting out around the perimeter of the landing pad. The walk was meant to provide an unrestricted visual of the ship’s exterior by, what the Captain always liked calling “the Mark I Eyeball”. Cursing the walk, the ship, both the Captain and his use of technical-sounding names for body parts, and the entire cursed planet, Tam gave the Waffles a quick once-over; its great, gray bulk old, dented and covered with a patina of carbon, grime and leaking hydraulics that the smaller freighters, regardless of frequency or thoroughness of a maintenance regimen, never seemed able to keep in check.

Sitting there, bathed in the pad’s powerful yellow-white floodlights, the ship looked absolutely, unremarkably normal, like it did every time she had Anchor Watch, Tam decided; reporting just that over the comm to Captain Fygg.

For the fifty-or-so meters the floods’ glow extended beyond the pad itself, there was nothing to see but a chaotic swirl of thousands of tiny insects, drawn by the light, and flying haphazardly over the wiry, blue-gray turf.

As for just what might be sitting out there beyond the light’s edge, well, that was anyone’s guess as far as she was concerned. Tam knew that while her poor night vision allowed her to see nothing in the inky blackness, the unblinking eye of the ship’s computer—the old Heimdall—and its sensors was, at that and every other moment, scanning the surroundings for any and all threats, indifferent to day or night, and waiting patiently to inform its living masters of any and all changes.

Like most shipboard computers, the Heimdall-5600 aboard the Waffles could be referred to by brand name only in the most general sense, with the computer-proper having long ago acquired any number of warranty-voiding subsystems, hardware and software add-ons or upgrades, unscheduled and ill-advised rebuilds, emergency repairs and the like until, at some point, the only thing the medusa still had in common with the factory model was the name on its outer casing; and sometimes even that would be changed.

Tam pulled off her black tam; running her fingers through thick dark hair, and scratching at her itching scalp as she stepped up to the number two airlock; the crew’s portside entrance just abaft of the bridge.

Rapping on the glass of the airlock, she motioned for Captain Fyyg to let her in. Instead he motioned for her to move away from the door and continue her watch.

Rapping again, she yelled through the glass “Girl’s gotta go!”. A few seconds later the airlock opened.

The Chilton’s headlights lit up the terminal building as the sled, curving to the left, approached.

“Oh fuck! This is where we’re going? Here?” Thom bitched, “This is where I dropped off the passengers’ luggage earlier!. The passengers are in there, man! I don’t wanna see passengers. I wanna see some working gals!”

“Relax, little man,” Brodie told him, ”you’re drunk. Just because there’s one doesn’t mean there’s not the other. I’m sure some of Nordic Prime’s finest are in there ready and willing to haul yur ashes, kid!” Brodie made a wolf’s whistle and pantomimed a curvy female figure using his large hands.

As the sled approached the building, Kalifra cut the power and slid the thing sideways into a marked parking spot at a pretty good clip; tossing all aboard but herself out to tumble onto the ferrocrete lot. With grunts and curses the disheveled crewmen staggered to their feet. Kalifra laughed and laughed and laughed.

After her third or fourth time of slowly meandering around the Waffles, Tam sat down against the handrail again. Rummaging through a pocket of her worn boiler suit; the thighs of which had been worn smooth and shiny with one-too-many applications of greasy, grimy hands; her fingers touched on the familiar mass of her trusty can opener, and the reassuring weight of a stubby, paper-wrapped roll of coins—well, closer to half a roll anyway—of heavy, golden Yuan with the Imperial Capitol’s skyline in relief. Her fingers raked through an assortment of loose coins which she pulled free to look at.

Minted on more than a dozen different worlds, the large silver Jiao, each purportedly meeting an Imperial standard of 25mm across by 2mm thick, seemed more a suggestion as Tam looked at the varied designs: Shiny standards from Olde Earth with Princess Maracathe, now former Imperial Regent, staring sternly, stage right, at some unguessable Future; small, thick, gunmetal-colored coins from Thurston, with a raised dragon-coiled lotus, and the Good Luck glyph in Chinese on the reverse; Thin, bright pieces from Aretius, with a pair of female homesteaders standing under a decidedly serene half sun-half moon and flanked by an impressive looking bull; among others.

Entering the terminal, most of the Waffles’ crew, out on liberty, were lead directly into the Passenger Lounge, where a passenger could, after staking out his own territory (as defined by the more comfortable furniture), could hunker down and wait for a connecting starship if it were a matter of hours. For those waiting an especially long time, rooms could be let at nearby hostels for what most space travelers would consider exorbitant rates. In the back corner of the big room, next to the Information Center, sat a small, robot-run bar. The Passenger Lounge was now filled mostly with the passengers who’d been on the Waffles.

Searching, the crew found one of the local bars, Ponchito’s, which appeared to meet their needs, with music, subdued lightings, intimate little club tables scattered across the floor, and cozy booths along the wall opposite the main stage. The joint had an M-shaped stage; with it running along both side walls and the back wall, with a main strip of stage projecting forward from the back stage to about halfway out. At several points, poles ran between floor and ceiling.

Dave Vasquez watched the others leave for the bar before turning to the Information Center.

“Friend o‘ Bill Dubbayah.” he said. Some minutes later, in the empty room he’d been directed to, Dave checked the closet for supplies. Getting the coffee pots going, he also got out the free packs of smokes and stim stix, as well as copies of the ubiquitous Big Book.

“In lieu of seeing any smoking jackets and beast-heads mounted on the walls, I’d say this joint is what passes for a Gentlemen’s Club here!” Brodie said as an aside to his friends as he stepped up to a big redheaded women working the floor, “Hello. Precious!” he said, putting his left palm in hers and circling her waist with his right arm; securely grabbing a hold of her buttocks.

“Nice to meet you…?” she said, pressing herself up against the ape as they danced.

“Brodie.” he said. “Brodie Le Boucherre.”

“Carla.” the lisping redhead replied, “Carla, just Carla.”

“I’ll have you know, doll, that big redheads drive me absolutely nuts!” The big ape whispered to the woman as they moved across the floor. “Parched?” the geneered chimp asked as they moved by a waitress.

“I could have a drink, I suppose.” the redhead said. Brodie agreed, ordering two glasses of Zobravka, a drink Brodie had enjoyed while on Driscoll’s World. Brodie, demoralized, was told they had no Zobravka in the bar, but did have Peach Brandy. A fruit lover, Brodie was all for it The ape ordered the same several more times until both were very tipsy and fell into a booth together, laughing; the pair groping one another under the table while Brodie lit the butt of his cigar. Across the rest of Ponchito’s, other spacers, were engaged in similar scenarios; some already consummating the evening’s festivities with couplings in various locales.

Adding the total value of the Jiao while summarily disregarding the smaller, almost worthless copper and silver Fen, Tam figured she had enough change for something, or maybe a couple of different somethings.

Out beyond the landing pad, on the edge of the spotlight’s magic circle, Tamara’s eyes had focused on a pair of squat, somehow familiar-looking machines she’d discovered in her turns around the Waffles. She looked at the hand full of change, then the machines, then back to the change, and back to the machines again.

Small cache of change in one hand, the little brunette pushed the hair that’d fallen into her face back and hooked it behind large ears before pulling the last draggled C&J from its pack, Tamara looked it over for obvious bends or imperfections before gripping it between her teeth. As she scraped the edge of her thumbnail across the tip, the butt ebbed to sudden life. She took a long, slow drag of the thing; drawing the blue-gray smoke deep and holding it for 20 seconds or so; the ball of anxiety she always felt with a trip planetside ebbing away as she exhaled the vaguely almond-flavored smoke. Taking another drag, Tamara focused on a particular section of the ferrocrete retaining wall that circled the landing pad; trying to decipher the innumerable layers of graffiti scrawled there, and wondering just who wasn’t going to make it back from Liberty this go-round.

Carla had her back pressed to the cold ferrocrete of the outer Terminal wall, near the vehicle park out front; Brodie supporting her weight with a strong hand under each knee as she bounced; the ape up on his toes as they worked toward mutual finish.

In the cab of the nearby Chilton, Brodie noticed Kalifra was grappling with one of the Waffles’ former passengers; some wealthy higher class swell; Brodie thought.

Several minutes later, with Kalifra and her friend rocking the grav vehicle and fogging up the old sled’s windshield, “That was great, ape boy!” the wilted redhead said enthusiastically before giving Brodie a long, deep kiss. “If I were the sentimental type,” the working girl continued, “I’d say lets get married, Brodie.” the woman chuckled, giving the ape a very tight hug. “And you could take me away from all this.”

“Sure doll. Sure.” Brodie laughed. “You wanna go back in the terminal, maybe find something to eat? It’s been a while since I was just able to talk to a normal woman—not passenger or crew.”

“That’d be great!” Carla said, “I’d been working The Thing out at Fossburg last weekend when the show opened, and I came to the Downport today to make sure I caught it!” The big redhead explained “Which worked out for us, sweety.”

“Dinner and a Show?” Brodie asked. “Why that sounds almost civilized, Carla my dear.” Looking close at the redhead, Brodie sighed, “I suppose I’m paying then?”

“Comes with the gig, I’m afraid.” she said.

Savoring the last few heady puffs of her absolutely last C&J, Tamara watched as a great mass of low clouds, bellies dark and swollen with the promise of rain, rumbled in from the east; bringing occasional snatches of cool breeze with their approach, and banishing before them, if only temporarily, the oppressive stillness and humidity.

Eyes closed, breeze blowing her thick brown hair, for a moment Tam could’ve sworn she was still on Driscoll’s World—three or four Transits back—there on the balcony of their last accommodations planetside; when Captain Fyyg had paid for several suites at the Park Hilton with some of the profit from their last delivery, a swanky old hotel in Old Baltimore (the city having aged well-past its original “New Baltimore” a hundred or so years prior), with a choice spot almost under the eves of the trees in the massive Peoples’ Park and Bird Sanctuary.

Opening her eyes, Tam realized just how much she’d missed the sounds of birds. She remembered the Sanctuary had boasted more than 1,500 different species of avian from Olde Earth. She’d taken the estimate with a grain of salt, after all, but here on Nordic Prime, there were no birds, just a few species of none-too-melodic flying reptiles, which, the Library program had assured her, once stuffed with lemon grass and skewered with onions and peppers and deep-fried, tasted not too dissimilar to chicken.

The thought of mock fried chicken made her hungry, and her stomach gurgled audibly as she approached the pair of familiar-looking machines, realizing that it’d been some six hours since she'd split an Everfresh sandwich with Chicken and Waffles’ agoraphobic Engineer, Gibby, who was still safely tucked away somewhere inside the ship.

Having been seated at a small table in the now slightly-better-lit Ponchito’s, Brodie and Carla, and numerous others picked at their authentic Mexican meals waiting for the show—whatever it might be.

Looking, Brodie noticed that in the interim, the poles had been removed somehow.

The house lights dimmed as they continued eating. A single man stepped out onto the stage dressed like one of Olde Earth’s cowboys. Music began playing, and he began to sing.

“Oh what a beautiful morning.
Oh what a beautiful Day…”

Alone, apparently no one else in need of communion that evening, Dave sat quietly, browsing through The Big Book; reading snatches of text here and there; assuming anything he ran across was something he was supposed to read. He stopped to read over the powerful lesson of page 449 several times in an effort to let go of some things he just plain couldn’t control. While the entire book was packed with powerful lessons, Dave’s favorite had to be 449’s. Following his reading, Dave started repeating his mantra; eyes closed.

“I Don’t Know Anything, I Don’t Know Anything, I Don’t Know Anything, I Don’t Know Anything, I Don’t Know Anything, I Don’t Know Anything, I Don’t Know Anything, I Don’t Know Anything, I Don’t Know Anything, I Don’t Know Anything…”

At a few meters from the ancient-looking machines, it suddenly dawned on Tam where she’d seen one of these things—a “FoodBot”—before. It was in one of those big, glossy-covered coffee table books—all about old time robots—sitting on a table in the Port Director’s office back on Hellas.

Excitedly wiping the grime from the thing’s small display screen and giving it the once over, Tamara was saddened to find that the FoodBot was, in fact, no more of a proper robot than she was, and fit only the broadest definition of robot—a mechanism designed to perform a task

“FoodBot my ass!” the woman mused, giving the metal box a kick; “This is a fucking vending machine…”