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The Astoundingly True Tale of José Fabuloso

This chapter originally appeared in the July/August 2023 issue.

Chapter 4

The next few days passed in a surreal blur. Servants came and left at their request, although they only occasionally brought exactly what they said they would. José wandered the suite sitting in different chairs and was delighted. M’Elise wracked her brains trying to work out what was cheap in Van Cove and how they could ever make a ship like a Narcissus break even. Squirrel tried to play the card of fashion designer with the staff and exchange advice for more clothes. Mostly the staff didn’t believe a word they said but seemed equally disinclined to tell the Dictator any of their reservations. O’Riley spent his time between drinking, trying to persuade the staff to refill the bar and telling scurrilous, mostly fictional, tales of his companions to the old man. The old man, in turn, had his fair share of stories himself but they were mostly about his digestion and other ailments which interested no one but José.

Eventually the bodyguards returned and unceremoniously escorted them back to the tunnel between the Dictator’s base and his private landing pads. The same dockworker waited with the cargo palette. She glared at them as suspiciously as before.

“What’s your problem?” asked M’Elise, who was in a testy mood. The whole point of tipping was for ensuring better future service and she wasn’t getting her money’s worth from this one.

“I’m just wondering after a landing like that how much damage you can do on takeoff,” she said back at M’Elise.

“Now that’s a challenge,” she said. “How about it, José? Do you think we can pull off the ‘bonfire of the vanities’ maneuver like on Rio de Carlotta?”

“OK” said José.

“Sweet god, no,” said Squirrel.

“Is it my imagination or is all of the staff here especially bolshy?” asked O’Riley.

“Wouldn’t you be if you had to work here?” said the old man.

“Point,” acknowledged O’Riley.

The final door opened and the gleaming sleek figure of the José Fabuloso was revealed. “Fabuloso!” cheered José.

“She’s a beautiful ship,” said the old man. “Pity about the crew.”

“She really is quite beautiful,” said Squirrel. “I hadn’t really seen her before.”

“As beautiful as some of the crew” said O’Riley, sidling up to her and putting his arm around her. She elbowed him in the ribs and professionally extracted herself.

“I hope she’s got as much bite given where we’re going,” said the old man.

“Enough doom saying,” growled M’Elise. “Beauty doesn’t pay the salary unless you shake down the customers. Tell ’em, Squirrel.”

“Yes, indeed,” said Squirrel, heading up the ramp. “It’s a natural advantage over those who are just righteous bitches.”

“Meow,” said O’Riley, following them in.

“Come on Dad,” said the old man to José who was stroking the side of the ship. “I think your calming leadership is needed before the crew dissolves into acid reflux. Though it would be a release…”

“OK” said José, waving goodbye to the dockhand.

The inside was much as they left it except the galley had been restocked with the mediocre produce of Vestry. “Wow. More pasty dumplings,” said Squirrel without enthusiasm.

“I like pasty,” said the old man. “The pain they give me is only mildly excruciating.”

“Any beer?” asked José.

“No,” said O’Riley. “Just Solar Corona.” José cheered.

“Yay! Espresso!” announced Squirrel.

“Save your grazing for later. Let’s get off this over leveraged loan over the rainbow bridge. José, the boards check out, we’re re-registered as the José Fabuloso out of Ulan Bator.” He cheered again. “Riley, get to Engineering and get the drive prep done. Squirrel, our ears need a rest, take a sedative and lock yourself in your room till we transition. Old man, sling a hammock next to O’Riley in Engineering.”

“I have a name, you know,” he said.

“I'm sure you do. Chop, chop, busy, busy, work, work, bang, bang people. We’ve got work to do.” She followed José onto the bridge ignoring the complaints and insults that followed her.

“Do you really want me to do a ‘bonfire’?” asked José.

“I suppose not,” said M’Elise.

“Please don’t cry,” said José.

“I'm not,” she said sullenly.

“You are on the inside,” he said and touched her with a single finger. “We’ll do well.”

She sighed and looked at him, forcibly willing her eyes not to grow moist. “We will.” She smiled and flicked on the radio. “This is the José Fabuloso. We are prepping for take off. Can you give us an exit vector to Van Cove?”

There was a pause. “Roger, Fabuloso. Do we need to disarm our active defenses?”

M’Elise shared an annoyed glance with José. “Are they heat seeking?”

“Only the best for you.”

“Bring ’em on.” She checked the fuel gauge.

“Maybe just a ‘pillar of fire’ this time?” asked José.

“Priming pumps for extraneous fuel purge once we clear the dock.” She grinned at José. “No one screws with us.”

O’Riley cheered as they played the footage recorded from the station cameras back once more. “Now that’s a pillar of fire. Saint Paddy’s blessing, how high is that?”

M’Elise tapped the screen. “There go the missiles.”

“I can’t believe they fired on us” said Squirrel, somewhat pale faced.

“Active defense,” said José. “They go off when they detect what they think is a threat. They aren’t very smart.”

“And pulling a teenage stunt like that is the pinnacle of brilliance?” asked the old man. “Dad.”

“I love how those missiles wander around like drunks looking for the loo” said O’Riley.

“That’s the heat seeking bit,” said M’Elise. “They didn’t know what to make of it. Cheap guidance hardware.”

“Expensive enough given the bill they handed you,” said Squirrel.

M’Elise laughed. “It’s a bluff. We were taking off from the Dictator’s port, not the system port. They extend their services as a courtesy, not an obligation. Durin’s own lawyer couldn’t make that stick.”

“So is her kink that she gets off on legal corpus?” asked the old man.

“Don’t knock it. She navigates law like José flies” said O’Riley.

“May god have mercy on our souls,” intoned the old man.

“Pretty fire” said José as the playback faded away.

“It is kind of pretty,” said Squirrel. “Gross irresponsibility aside,” she added.

M’Elise called up another screen. This was covered in graphs and bar charts. O’Riley groaned. M’Elise gave him a sour look. “I’ve been running the numbers”, she started. “Our only hope of making money with this very pretty dependency of Loki is in the luxury passenger trade.”

“You should have named it The White Elephant” said the old man.

“If we can keep the trade consistent it should pay the running costs, the deposit for annual maintenance, and a very modest salary. If we can scoop some cargo deals in tandem or some charter flights we can make enough bonus money to keep Riley in Whiskey and Squirrel in shoes.”

Squirrel rolled her eyes and O’Riley cheered. “What about me?” asked the old man.

“We’ll get you a packet of digestive biscuits. The kind with chocolate on top” M’Elise said dismissively. He grumbled something about the number of decades since he could eat chocolate under his breath. She continued. “But we have to put on a professional show to warrant the premium price.”

“I’m not dancing” said Squirrel.

“You certainly aren’t” said M’Elise with finality. “But you know how to talk completely worthless people out of their money. This is just the same. We just have to convince them that what they’ve paid for is worth it.”

“What makes you think you can pull this off?” asked the old man.

“Rich people aren’t very smart” said M’Elise contemptuously. “They don’t need to be. Whatever problems they have, they can solve with money. The one thing they hate more than anything else is the thought that someone is milking them for their money. All you have to do is convince them that you are extending yourself for them at great personal inconvenience for no additional charge. When in doubt let them talk about themselves. They’ll love you for that.”

“Same as drunks” said Squirrel. “No problem.”

“We’re going to have to confiscate your dresses though” said M’Elise.

“Clothing optional service. I love it!” said O’Riley. “What a great idea!” José clapped.

“I am not…” started Squirrel.

“… going to expose anything if I can help it” said M’Elise. The boys booed. “We need to make the décor in the Master Cabin more… luxurious. You’ve proven yourself handy with the needle. Make the clothes into something decorative.”

Squirrel didn’t look displeased. “Yeah. I can do that.”

“Where will I sleep?” asked José.

“When we have passengers you’ll move into my cabin” said M’Elise.

“Aren’t you two brother and sister or something?” asked the old man.

“Where do you get that from?” asked M'Elise in exasperation. “We don’t even look alike!”

“Let me guess” said Squirrel. “You get my cabin and I get punted to a hammock in Engineering.”

“Plenty of room in my sack,” offered O’Riley.

“You wish,” snapped Squirrel.

“No. You stay in your cabin and I get to go to Engineering” corrected M’Elise.

“Do we get a vote on this” asked the old man. “She’s short but she’s much cuter.”

“File it,” snapped M’Elise.

“Not that I’m complaining. But don’t you use the seniority system?” asked Squirrel.

“As the senior citizen here present…” began the old man.

“First of all,” interrupted M’Elise, “I don’t hate you that much. Second of all, you’re the steward. I’m the accountant. You need to be on hand to service our customers in all ways short of your former profession. I just have to swipe their credit chit.”

“Huh” said Squirrel, surprised. “You’re really giving me a chance.”

“We’re giving you rope” said M’Elise, pointedly. “If you hang us with it we’ll hang you out to dry. Besides, necessity makes for strange bedfellows.”

“I’d settle for a strange bedfellow,” offered O’Riley.

“I never knew you cared,” said the old man.

“I retract that request.”

to be continued…

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