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Drop Out

This part originally appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Freelance Traveller.

Part 16

The following morning, bright and early, an enormous Sled carrying a large, metallic bladder, and sporting more than two dozen different hoses, like some sort of technological Hydra with many different feeds instead of heads, hovered some twenty meters above, and to the starboard side of the Chicken and Waffles; answering an order placed with its parent company for fuel the previous evening.

A trio of workmen leapt from the vehicle’s gondola; landing lightly with their grav harnesses. One of the three had the proper sized hose and feed system for Waffles held in both hands.

Tam sat on the low ferrocrete wall, hands in her coat pockets, watching the fuelmen wrestle the heavy feeder hose into Waffles’ access port before dogging it down-proper.

Upon the opening of a valve, the spattering, sloshing sound of refined hydrogen fuel sprayed and gurgled into Waffles’ empty tanks, filling the air all around with the racket.

Waiting for the slow process of the tanks topping off, the fuel wranglers mainly stood around, chatting with and up Tam as she sat there. An old Food Sled sporting the look of something that had been built from scratch slid in silently near the Waffles; Arabic music blaring, and offering fried Halloumi cheese; Koshari, a meatless, chili-like dish; Blintzes; funnel cakes; and the obligatory smokes for sale.

As if some magic portal had opened, another Sled crept in from out of nowhere; this one blared Indian Soul, with Koshari, Yakitori, grilled meat skewers, cucumber salad, and green tea for sale, along with beer.

Rounding the nearby Terminal building, a smaller Sled; this one playing Tibetan chants and bell music, and loaded down with Baklava, slid up out of nowhere.

The ground defense turret, situated in the forward quarter of the ship’s ventral surface, and mounting a 5Mw pulse laser controlled by the Heimdall, lazily tracked all three vehicles, ready to turn them to slag should anything unforeseen occur, and capable, in fact, of being able to destroy most vehicles.

The Waffles’ senior officers came out, eager to try the local fare. Both the trio of fuel workers and the Waffles’ crew bought an inordinate amount of the cheap cart food; almost wiping out the stock of all three entirely.

With her watch over fifteen minutes ago, Tam followed the officers back into the ship, leaving the First Officer outside to eat his Yakitori, his Anchor Watch having just begun.

When fueling had been completed, Hertzog signed the electronic pad one of the fuelers carried; allowing the transfer of the appropriate amount from the Waffles’ account.

While Liberty was for seventy-two uninterrupted hours for the crew, Both Kalifra and Dave had returned about a half hour earlier that morning; Kalifra having stopped and picked up a walking Dave as the Chilton chugged along. Joining the Officers for breakfast, the heavy cart food did its magic and sent the tired Tam, Dave and Kalifra toward a comfy dreamland; fat and happy.

Kalifra was dreaming of Aretuis, back when she was a kid—and a member of the sorority Shieldmaidens of Artemis. In her dream she was decked out for survival training proper, with black, reflective resin smeared under both eyes; a knife in a leg scabbard, and a small water bottle around her neck. She was tromping among the rocks and sand among the tall, flat, purple cactus, but instead of eleven or twelve, and with her shield-mate, Marti, Kalifra was her current thirty four, and alone.

Suddenly there was a light in her eyes, and Ilsa Frielander was in her face.

“Kali,” Ilsa said, “wake up now, girl. The Captain has a job for you.”

Once Kalifra had gotten her head around the idea of no more sleep, she hopped into the cold shower, while Ilsa waited, sitting on the edge of Kalifra’s bed. Tam lay asleep in her own bed maybe a meter away, smelling of booze, and snoring mightily.

“So what’s the job, Little Sister?” Kalifra asked as she towel-dried her knee-length hair.

“Prisoner Transport.” Second Officer Frielander replied.

“Ye Gods!” Brodie declared as he stretched his arms wide, almost giddy at the amount of space offered by the real king-sized bed in Carla’s walk-up. “This bed is huge! Nothin’ like the accommodations aboard the Waffles!”

Snuggled up to the big ape, slowly running a fingertip through the thick hair on his chest, Carla brushed her red bangs away from her face and gently kissed Brodie’s cheek.

Within an hour, both Kalifra and Ilsa were dressed in their patchwork sets of combat armor; Kalifra carrying the heavy laser rifle, and the Second armed with a gauss pistol and a derringer.

“Oof”ing at the weight of the heavy rifle, Kalifra asked “So why is it I have the rifle again?”

“You told me once,” said little Ilsa, “that you’d received Marksman training with that sorority of yours—the Maidens of Virtue, or whatever.”

“Shieldmaidens of Artemis. And I was only eleven at the time, Ilsa!” Kalifra protested.

“But a Marksman, none the less. Hellfire and Damnation, that makes you our expert,” the dark woman countered; checking her derringer to make sure it was ready, just in case.

“You ready?” Number Two asked as they stepped toward the large brig.

“Yessir.” Kalifra replied, opening the brig access while covering the prisoners inside.

“Prisoners in a line! Hands clasped at the back of your heads!” Kalifra snarled, as if she’d never retired from The Navy.

“You’ll be crossing from the brig here to the vehicle bay across the way.” she nodded toward the other bay, some five meters away.

“Inside you’ll find a Chilton grav sled. You will stop at the tailgate and wait for instructions to get in.” The tall blond said; the built-in speaker in her helmet giving everything she’d just said an air of detachment, Ilsa thought.

“Any attempt to escape will be dealt with most harshly!” Ilsa said to the crowd, her helmet’s faceplate raised; a slight frown visible.

Dave Vasquez sat in the Crew Lounge, sipping pomegranate juice and waiting for his Old Scout Chicken-fried steak dinner (with real Peruvian potatoes, or so the box said) to warm up in one of the small ovens in the galley. It was his birthday today, Day 126 Imperial Calendar, and he had mixed feelings about that; on the one hand, happy to have made it to a not always easy, seven years sober; but on the other hand lonely, since no one else aboard Waffles identified themselves to be among The Friends of Bill W—though Dave had some pretty good ideas about who probably should. In fact, what really bothered Mr. V was going to the Terminal building the previous night and setting up for a meeting, only to sit there alone.

As he sat there, eating his meal, Dave decided that he’d go over to the Terminal again tonight and set up once again for any others who might come in out of the storm.

The prisoners were marched, brig-stepping, to the vehicle bay containing the sled. As they were lined up at the sled’s tailgate, one of the prisoners, a burly fellow with a mustache decided this was exactly where his own plan diverged from that explained to him. Using a double-fisted smash, hands still in binders, he slammed Kalifra in the neck; the impact stunning the big blond for a second as he followed up with a savage kick to her collarbone; causing her to lose her footing and stumble back against the bulkhead. As she went down, the rifle twisted from her grasp and he was all over it. In a second he had the heavy laser rifle pointed right at her.

As she tried to lunge at him he fired, blowing a ragged hole through her bicep and shattering her suit’s rerebrace; blood everywhere. Kalifra wrapped her wounded arm around the rifle and pushed with her shoulder as hard as she could, trying to leverage the rifle upwards so he wouldn’t be able to fire on her again.

In the ensuing bedlam he fired anyway, scorching the bulkhead next to Frielander with one shot, and burning one of his fellow unarmored prisoners in half with the next; the dead thing falling thickly to the deck as two steaming piles of offal.

With her free hand she grabbed for his groin; punching him repeatedly with her armored gauntlet as she tried to a grab at his testicles. The prisoner slammed Kalifra in the head with the rifle’s butt so hard that she saw stars and the helmet-provided augmented vision winked out. With a last effort, she made a last grab. Successful, she pulled and twisted as hard as she could; causing the prisoner to drop the rifle in agony.

Second Officer Frielander fired her gauss pistol, catching the burly prisoner with a burst that hit just below the chin and climbed up his face; unzipping his head in an explosion of gore.

“MOST harshly! Did you not hear me?!” She yelled at the fresh corpse; then, to the remaining prisoners, ”Get in the truck NOW!” Ilsa screamed, waving her pistol in a manner that made the remaining prisoners fear they might all be killed then and there.

Kalifra was helped to her feet by Ilsa as the prisoners scrambled up into the grav sled.

“Captain!” Ilsa yelled over the comm. “We have a situation in the vehicle bay. Kalifra’s been shot. We need back-up ASAP!” Kalifra crumpled to the floor.

Ilsa bent down and quickly reached for one of a small pair of pull tabs on the right side of Kalifra’s armored breastplate. Pulling one, a huge does of pain killers was dumped into the big blond’s system.

Ilsa picked up the heavy laser rifle as Kalifra fumbled ineffectively for it as if drugged.

Hefting the huge rifle to cover the prisoners, Ilsa reminded them, “You’ve seen what this monster can do! Best you all sit tight…”

Captain Fyyg and the Doctor were on the bridge, discussing the delicious Yakitori they ate as they played chess. When Ilsa’s message came in, Fyyg leapt across the table, knocking the chess set and whatever food was left to the floor as he slammed the Emergency switch, yelling “Vehicle Bay!” over the comm.

Doctor Billings sat there for a moment, stunned. “Shot?”

Within a few minutes, almost every crewman still aboard Waffles had turned out. While a few thought it a drill, most were armed and ready for action. Tam, drunk and already asleep, stayed asleep. As part of the supporting wave covered the prisoners, others checked on Kalifra’s condition. Dave, acting as a guard, nervously watched the prisoners with a short barreled, heavy gauge shotgun in his grasp, while Number Two informed the just-arrived Captain of the situation.

“Herr Doktor!” the Captain said into the comm, knowing the old Doctor was still minutes away, “We shall be needing a stretcher team.”

Looking at the body and the blood spattered everywhere, the Captain just “tsk tsk”d for a moment, taking it all in. Then, looking at his Second Officer, he said “Leftenant Frielander. Get these vermin off my ship, please.”

Squatting down to talk with the wounded blond, Captain Fyyg took her good hand and kissed it before stroking her brow. “Don’t you fret, Donaldson. You Aretuisians are a tough breed, we shall get you fixed up right quick!”

“Thank you, Captain.” Kalifra replied.

An hour or so later, Ilsa and Dave, both in their dress whites, pulled the Chilton, loaded with the remaining prisoners, up to the building which held the Port Director’s Office, where Dave went in to see the Director and transfer custody of the prisoners.

“Respects from Captain Fyyg of the Chicken and Waffles, your Eminence,” Dave said, followed by his approximation of an actual, double-stomp military salute. “In our vehicle are five pirates to be bound over for Imperial Justice.”

The Port Director noted the incorrect use of the honorific, but decided not to make a point of it.

Out at the Chilton, the Director’s Guard were getting a very similar story from Ilsa. After pulling up the relevant paperwork on an arm-mounted data pad, one of the guards directed Ilsa to sign the document as a witness to Acts of Piracy.

Once the paperwork was done, the guardsmen escorted the prisoners before the Port Director. In the humidity, Hobson wiped his bald head with a rag. With five subjects, the Director could have easily determined. all five were summarily guilty. But, noticing one of the accused was only eleven, he instead decided “Piracy! Five accused! Four sentenced to execution. The child is hereby remanded to the custody of the Imperial Marine Corps.”

The child was thrown into a chair toward the corner of the room to wait for the Imperial Marines representative, while the remaining four were prodded and urged at gunpoint from the Director’s Office by his Guard. “Gibbet them.” the Port Director ordered as the procession left his Offices.

A few minutes later, from a nearby courtyard could be heard the multiple reports of the rifles of the Guard.

Later, in the Med Bay, Doctor Billings checked over Kalifra; once again coming to the conclusion that his patient was just too seriously injured for him, a general practitioner, to treat effectively.

“Doc,” the big blond began, “Me and my arm. We’ve been through a lot together.” she said, still loopy from the suit’s pain killer.

“Of course, my dear Kalifra.” the wizened Doctor replied before administering another dose of high-octane pain killers.

“Get a couple shots like Ilsa,’n be safe as houses by the weekend!” Kalifra decided, as the meds kicked in and she dropped off, unaware that the last of the wondrous metabolics had been used to heal the Second Officer’s leg .

“Nordel,” the Doctor said to the Captain, “Please give me a hand with Kalifra, would you? I’m going to put her into the Cryoberth, to get her stabilized.”

Grunting with the effort of moving the amazon into the freezer, Captain Fyyg told the Doctor, When we’re done here, we need to talk.”

Several hours into the afternoon, Port Director Walter Hobson stood outside the Terminal building and looked at the half dozen gibbets, man-shaped cages that’d been hung over the many pairs of the Terminal’s doors by work crews. Four of the cages were currently filled with the executed pirates from this morning, and while grim, the Director felt it sent some very definite messages: first, to Duke Eitr, to whom Hobson answered, that the Port Director handled his job swiftly and efficiently, and second, to everyone, that Nordic Prime had fully embraced the Emperor’s decree, “Suffer Not a Pirate to Live!”, which would, of course, make the entire Nordic Prime administration look good.

Thinking on it, the person the Port Director felt he had to thank for all this was that skinny Captain Fyyg of the Chicken and Waffles. After all, he could have easily spaced the pirates and no one would have blamed him had he done so. But this Fyyg, he had wanted to go through the proper channels. “Foolish fellow!”, Hobson smiled to himself.

Picking up a data pad, Hobson looked over the cargo manifests for outgoing bulk that week. He had a number of favorites to whom he usually gave plum assignments (in return, of course, for a split of the profits). With a flick of the stylus, he’d reassigned six heavy pallets of industrial-grade silicon and crystals bound for Heimdall and worth close to some KCr100, from the Hermit Squared over to the Chicken and Waffles.

Later, in the Captain’s Office, stood Doctor Billings before Nordel’s heavy desk.

“You wanted to see me Captain?” the ashen Doctor asked nervously.

“Yes, Heinz. When we lifted off of Hargrave with you, I thought the event would benefit us both. You avoiding your outstanding debts, and us getting a skilled Doctor. In the time since I have come to the realization that you are not the skilled surgeon whom we seek. I am sure there is a niche for you somewhere, but that is not here aboard the Chicken and Waffles.

“What?” the old man asked in disbelief. “What about…?”

“I know—‘What about Ilsa’s leg?’ you were going to ask. Now I appreciate everything you’d done for my Ilsa, Heinz, but that hardly counts as surgery, and was more a case of luck, really, having those metabolics aboard. If we did not have them, I daresay Ilsa would be limping about with a cane today, if not, in fact, confined to crutches or have some damned prosthetic! And I won’t even mention Kalifra!

“So this is it. I want you packed and off my ship here, on Nordic Prime, Heinz. If I were you I would pack my gear in a hurry and start looking for that niche!” the Captain said, pulling a large wad of bills from his trouser pocket, and hastily counting out the Doctor’s pay.

“Five, six, seven, and eight thousand Credits…”

The broken old man gathered his pay, gathered his few meager possessions from his room, his med kit from the Med Bay, and left the ship; walking out the cargo bay, right past Tam, who was sitting on a small, empty crate. She’d been reading Lewis’ classic Ecstatic Religion: A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession, but dog-eared the page she was on to stop and watch a pair of large grav Sleds approaching with cargo.

“Catch ya later, Doc!” Tam hollered innocently as the Doctor went by.

“Don’t count on it, you dumb little bitch!” the Doctor hissed.

Dumbfounded, Tam just watched the old man go as she smoked a C&J from a pack she’d found sitting on a table in the Crew Lounge that morning.

“Man, what a dick!” Tam chuckled, thinking on the Doctor’s ‘little bitch’ crack.