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Drop Out

This part originally appeared in the August 2012 issue.

Part 18

As the throbbing double-tone of the N-Space Klaxon sounded, Gibby sat at his stool, this time a pillow clenched over his head as the Chicken and Waffles tore itself free of the chaotic vortex that is Transit Space and dropped, like a rock into a pool of water, back to Normal Space. A few seconds later, the automated, cool, female voice of the Waffles’ Heimdall-5600 computer decreed “Return to Normal Space. Elapsed time eight thousand eight hundred forty seven minutes. Return to Normal Space. Elapsed time 6 days, 4 hours, seven minutes.”

The Waffles had dropped out of Transition fairly close to what the purchased navigation chip had promised; though at some thirty seven degrees below the System Plain.

“And there she is, everyone,” Brodie, who’d been monitoring the Sensor board, announced over the com. Flicking a switch, the Tri-V displays all over the ship lit up with the display of red Augereau, with its single planet, Heimdall.

One down side to visiting very wealthy worlds like this was that the ship’s comm was already being assaulted by hundred upon hundreds of messages advertising any and all manner of goods and services to be had the second Waffles had entered the system.

One of the computer’s security subroutines would be busy for a majority of the ship’s advance toward Heimdall, chewing through a virtual mountain of messages and determining just what may be of interest to the ship or its crew.

As the Waffles approached, the massive Highport could be seen orbiting the planet. Its main structure was a cylinder showing thousands of lights and hundreds of different-sized bays. At the top of the cylinder was a structure vaguely resembling a reaching, eight-fingered, double-thumbed hand with ships docked all round.

Communicating with Heimdall System Control, Tam, on the stick, was told to dock at Ring Number 10725; maybe seventy meters above the knuckle joint on what passed as the index finger, starboard side.

As the port bridge airlock was mated with the docking ring, the airlock light went to green, and a docking clamp closed over the mated pair, showing a solid connection with the Highport and making it decidedly difficult for the ship to tear off anywhere without the proper clearance.

Some Captains were enthusiastic brokers in their own right, sweating and squabbling over half a percentage point, or a handful of credits. Captain Nordel Fyyg was not one of these.

When Fyyg had first come aboard Waffles under Captain Peel, he found she was a woman who believed in letting a brokerage house earn their money doing what they do best.

After several back-and-forths with Lanning, Murrow and Jericho, the brokerage house Fyyg continued using after Captain Peel had gone, the Waffles’ shipment of silica and crystals from the mines of Nordic Prime had reached a best price of KCr360; a respectable profit on the cargo. LM&J’s fee of KCr72 on the deal left Captain Fyyg and the Waffles with more than a quarter-million credits.

Setting aside Port Director Hobson’s traditional ‘Patron’s Cut’ of one third as the Founder of the Feast, as it were, and Crew Salaries, Fyyg was still looking at something like KCr148 of pure, golden profit after the lighter came to take the load off the Chicken and Waffles.

Firmly attached to the Highport like some sort of lamprey, the Waffles, temporarily a parasite, was getting its juice from the Highport, so the ship’s power plant was running at its lowest level. An anchor watch rotation was assigned, and Liberty on Heimdall followed, with the spacers typically spending as fast as they could, while Gibby, who only rarely left the ship, stayed behind, tinkering with the drives and other systems aboard, and reading his ancient, Atomic Era, Elmore Leonard Westerns.

Unlike the law in Leonard’s shoot-’em-ups, the law on Heimdall was strict, and weapon possession of any type by offworlders was prohibited. Even possession by natives was itself fairly limited.

As the Waffles’ crewmembers waited to go through the pat-down, Captain Fyyg stood arm-in-arm with Second Officer Frielander. Nordel laughed to himself, wondering at just how many of his crew might try something as juvenile as to sneak something past the Customs officials.

The officials let the Captain and Second through with a nod, unmolested, but all the others, including First Officer Hertzog, were stopped and given a thorough going over. Three of the crew ended up being disarmed but let through.

Once through Customs, the crew were in the Highport proper, with its multiple galleries and shops and restaurants and stores, designed, like their counterparts everywhere, to separate a sophont from his hard-earned credits. They scattered, some in groups and others singly, to the four winds, to succumb to that purpose.

The Highport must have had at least five hundred restaurants of all kinds, as well as street-corner kiosks and wandering carts.

Brodie wanted a sit-down meal somewhere. The Captain, Ilsa, and Dave all agreed. The only problem with eating with Brodie was the fact that, given a choice, the big chimp always went with the same thing every time—Wu’s House of Larb.

“No!” Ilsa put her foot down right away. “We just ate at the Wu’s on Nordic Prime,” she said, laughing at the remembered writhing penis on the joint’s billboard.

“And it was great, right?!” Brodie asked.

“Well, it was very good, I must admit,” Ilsa admitted.

“Need I say more?” Brodie asked.

“Just because a place is good, doesn’t mean…” she reasoned, only to be cut off by both the Captain and Dave with almost simultaneous “NO!”s.

Crestfallen, Brodie put his hands in his coat pockets and sulked. “Okay then, where do all the rest of you want to eat?” Brodie asked as he fished a handful of pistachios from a pocket.

“Well, let’s get off of this slidewalk and see if we can get our bearings, ja?” Captain Fyyg said, stepping off the moving sidewalk with Ilsa, the two still arm in arm. Then Dave jumped. Then Brodie hopped off the mechanized sidewalk.

“All right then,” Captain Fyyg said, patting Ilsa’s arm. “Look!” he said.

Within their immediate vicinity alone there was a Galaxy Pizza behind them and a Monster’s Mongolian Beef directly across from them. Two doors from the pizza joint was a kiosk called Taste of Mexico, selling hot pretzels and churros. Three more doors down was The Thai House. a Thai restaurant. Next to that was another kiosk called Thai Palace, selling larb and spring rolls. On the next floor across sat Cleveland’s Real BBQ, selling BBQ in many different forms (including the popular mix with spaghetti). Next to them was Chicago’s Old World Dogs and Spirits, a restaurant with the Windy City’s best. In a kiosk next door, with a sign reading Jamaican, was a Caribbean stew place. A few doors down from them was The Glazed Hole, a donut and beer stand, and, at the end of the corridor, where it turned off towards the right, sat an old Olde Earth Diner (where there were no robots, ever), a very small joint called Cajun Place, and finally, two small food carts, one with a sign reading Gyros, the other reading Yakitori.

As they all looked around, stunned at the choices in just this small bit of the place, Captain Fyyg asked “So where do we go?”

“All I know is I want a hot pretzel. Beyond that I don’t care.” said Dave as he looked behind him at the Taste of Mexico kiosk. Dave, who also spoke Spanish, attempted to speak to the employees, only to discover no one at the kiosk spoke it.

A few minutes later, munching a pretzel and holding another in reserve, Dave asked “So where do we go?”

With the ball firmly dropped in the others’ court, the decision fell to Fyyg and Ilsa, since Brodie would automatically vote for Wu’s.

Taking the lift up a level, the gang soon settled in at Chicago’s Old World Dogs and Spirits; with drinks all round. The restaurant was a cathedral to excess, with large eight-inch-thick beams overhead and rows of sturdy tables made of the same wood, ten meters long, jutting out from both side walls. A wide lane ran down the middle, patrolled by servers, both human and robot, armed with pitchers in an effort to keep the customers’ cups full at all times. The place featured several dozen different dogs, as well as chili and cheese fries, deep dish pizza, and a willingness to happily add cheese (or even double cheese) to any order.

After an enormous and elaborately fixed dog, some fries and several beers each, it was time to go.

Of course, once ready to go, the others were set waiting for ten or fifteen more minutes for the endless pit that was Brodie to gnaw through three more dogs, the rest of the table’s fries and two more beers, before he ordered a wedge of Fried Cheesecake on a Stick.

As Dave and the Captain read a large, wall-mounted map and discussed the best way to get down to the planet, Ilsa begged the giant chimp for a bite of his cheesecake.

“Oh fuck that!” he said, shooing her away with a large hand. “You were there. You know you could’ve bought one of your own at any time.” The ape protested.

Hugging the big ape, she looked deeply into his brown eyes with hers and the big chump felt as if a charge had passed between them. Then she smiled sweetly.

“Hmmmmm.” he mulled, “Okay, you can have a bite, but just a little one…” he answered, hesitantly passing the sharp-featured little woman the treat. Ilsa, never one to pass up free food had somehow mauled the treat with a single, massive bite; turning Brodie’s Cheesecake on a Stick into some mangy-looking bit of something on a stick.

“Uh, no thanks,” Brodie offered, “you can finish it off.”

Hugging the ape close, raven-haired Ilsa thanked him again after taking the last bite and tossing the stick into a nearby trashbin.

“It kind of reminds me of Ras Malai, a sweet my mother makes during Diwali, back home,” she smiled.

“Home. And just where do you call home, doll?” Brodie asked, taking in her striking features.

“Calcutta on Olde Earth is my home, proper. But I haven’t been there in years.”

“And what’s this ‘Diwali’ anyhow?” He asked.

“A Celebration of Good over Evil, which falls, I think, on Day 284 this year…” she started.

“Oh, Good over Evil is fine by me.” Brodie said, concluding he didn’t really need to hear all the particulars as he took a sip from a mug he’d brought out of the restaurant with him.

After a thorough study of the convenient yet highly-confusing giant wall map , it was decided that in order to reach Heimdall proper, they’d have to get on the Grav train, which was handily identified on the map by a wide yellow line. The train came down, at least two kilometers straight down the inside starboard wall of the finger they were in; stopping a hundred meters or so from their current location before heading down for at least another twelve or fifteen kilometers before getting lost in the haze down near the arboretum.

The gang got to the turnstyle not too far from the front of the line and waited. When the train stopped and passengers disembarking stepped from the gravity holding them to the starboard wall’s down, to the gravity of the deck’s down, things looked peculiar.

With many seats empty, Captain Fyyg and Ilsa took the odd steps from deck to wall and sat in their seats. Brodie had a bit of trouble with his drink as he made the transition, but soon they’d all made the adjustment to the Grav train’s orientation, and down was now the starboard wall beneath them.

A few minutes passed and the Grav train tore noiselessly down the length of the finger; passing through ring after ring of mercantile sprawl and warehouses mixed with housing areas. They quickly entered the deep green of the steamy forest habitat, then slowing, came to a large, wooden landing where the yellow line finally terminated inside a huge, ancient-looking pagoda.

As Dave and the Captain looked at the confusing artwork that was the large map outside the grav train station, they heard a familiar voice not too far behind them. Sitting in a red Adirondack chair a few meters back was Tam, spectacles on as she read through an Audubon book, The Birds of Olde Earth (pocket edition). Finishing with a drink order to a serverbot, she turned her attention to her crewmates.

She sprung to her feet suddenly, giving the rigid, double-stomp salute she’d learned as a kid, greaves clacking.

“Sir!” she barked, freezing until answered by the Captain’s very casual salute.

“And just what brings you here, Miss Murmisagli?” Fyyg asked.

“I saw this big green area on the map.” she waved at the greenness all around them with both hands. “I wondered what it was, and rode on out on the Yellow Line, same as you, darlin’.”

“And?” Ilsa asked.

Tam cocked her head to the side slightly and listened. “Birds, baby, birds!” she whispered, smiling. “Been so long since I heard me a real, honest to goodness Earth bird!…Now I’m not saying they’re all from Olde Earth here, but a lot of them are.” She smiled wider, smoothly taking the Long Island Iced Tea from the serverbot and tossing half a handful of jingly Fen onto the thing’s serving tray as a tip.

“So where we headin’ off to, hon’?” Tam asked as she sipped her drink and gave Ilsa’s arm a squeeze like she was a 12 year old at her first sleep over.

On the map a narrow green line separated the yellow line from the Landing Field.

After several kilometers of hiking, the Waffles crew found the green gave way to industrial sprawl buzzing with airborne activity. The place was whirling chaos, with vehicles and small craft of all size and types landing, taking off, or in flight, with all jockeying for position, no apparent rhyme or reason to their traveling.

Fyyg tried hailing a cab, but his existence at one of obviously many clearly-marked taxi stands wasn’t acknowledged and the mad rush continued to whir about them.

Then Brodie stepped to the taxi stand and putting thumb and index finger to his teeth, let loose with a high-pitched squeal of a whistle which, to Tam, almost made it seem as if time had stopped.

Dropping neatly to the stand with safety lights blinking to inform any ground traffic of a landing, as if on cue, was one of those old, heavy, powerful, streamlined, classic-looking Archers with the bulbous fenders and suicide doors, the kind you always see on the Tri-V.

The driver hit a switch and the door kicked opened; the Waffles’ group pouring inside.

“Right! And where are we headed to, this glorious day?” the shaggy, raspy-voiced fellow asked from around a toothpick. With the manipulation of a button on the dash, the door closed quietly and the cab took slowly to the air.

“Well, I suppose The Showroom.” Captain Fyyg told the driver, as he looked closely at the hack license on a clear glassteel partition a few centimeters opposite.

“The Showroom it is then.” the scruffy driver in the Hawaiian shirt answered. Then he asked, “Will you be wanting to go there direct, or by shuttle?”

“I had thought you could drop us at a shuttle pad. But if you’re telling me you can get us to the surface directly, why, I’m all for that!” the Captain decided.

“It is, in fact, quite doable, Master.” the cabbie answered, “But fast and direct costs.”

“And what sort of fee is it that we are dancing around, Herr Fugatti?” the Captain asked, remembering the driver’s name from the license.

“For strangers, rubes, and chumps, it’s three thousand credits. But for friends who take the time to read my name off my hack plate, there, it’s only two thousand,” Fugatti replied.

“But that’s for one of us through the door.” said Brodie. “How much extra are we looking at?”

Fugatti rapped on the door of his cab, saying over his shoulder, “It’s all listed right here on the door, plain as mayonnaise if you’d looked. But okay, as we’re airborne I’ll summarize before we really get started: Each additional passenger is two hundred creds. You need to put anything in the trunk, that’s another hundred.” said the beady-eyed Fugatti.

Brodie quickly added the numbers. “Twenty eight hundred credits.”

“Definitely doable, Herr Fugatti,” Fyyg said.

As if a racer given a signal, the fierce, old Archer took off like a rocket; muscling its way among the hectic flow of traffic; taking unscheduled lane changes and bypasses with studied familiarity, though the passengers would be hard pressed to see any sort of order in the melee.

Then the cab had made it through the swarm and Ilsa was thrilled to be alive. The cab did a few quick maneuvers, and suddenly the machine was cruising through what appeared to be back alleys, closed galleries, and even tight maintenance access tunnels. Everyone seemed nervous with the combination of the tight quarters and the speeds being traveled, until at last the ancient cab broke out into the velvety blackness of space; busy Heimdall turning below.

“Now, a shuttle is a fine way to travel, but it’s gonna land you kilometers from your destination. And it’s slow,” the cabbie said, looking over his shoulder at his passengers. With a push of another button the glassteel partition that separated operator from passengers receded. “My cab here,” he motioned to the surroundings, “can set you on the bloody front steps of The Showroom!

“Now, straightline travel ’twixt here and the ground should take around four hours at three thousand creds. If I push the pedal here, I can get you there in two hours, if you think that sufficient,” the hack said, “But two hours demands a lot out of the old Archer here…”

Captain Fyyg interrupted, “Would ten thousand Credits total handle all eventualities?”

Setting the cab on auto pilot, Fugatti reached into a cooler on the seat next to him and passed back several bottles of tonic water to whoever wanted one; keeping the one and only bottle of Dhali Lama for himself.

The remainder of the trip passed uneventfully as everyone chatted. When the big Archer pierced the cloud cover, Fugatti flashed the cab’s warning blinkers briefly as he descended, landing just as he said he would, right on the steps of the massive building.

As the others headed inside, Brodie decided to stay out on the steps, sitting and watching the people and vehicles move about as he sipped his water. Watching the old Archer rise and eventually vanish out of sight, Brodie decided, “Man, that’s one swell ride. I’ve gotta get me one of those!”