[Authors' note: The plot and Personal Ads are taken from "101 Plots" by Jo and Lesley Grant, 1997. The Tambourine bar is from "101 Rendezvous", copyright 1997 by BITS]
Maria, I miss you. I'm sorry I turned you in. I needed the money. Come back to me? A.
"You've got to be kidding me," Vishnu Lubbock said.
"It's true. Or so they tell me," Donald Conan Garcia y Vega answered. The Chief Engineer of the Grendelsbane filled his glass from the pitcher on the table. "Someone in Tsapralis system is breeding unicorns."
Lubbock, Captain of the Beowulf-class trader Grendelsbane, leaned back in his chair. "What, actually breeding horses with horns in the middle of their foreheads?"
"I've heard that, too," interjected Isabelle Nguyen. The slim Franco-Vietnamese woman was Lubbock's father's cousin's daughter and the steward of the Grendelsbane. She had the high cheekbones of her father's family and the curly hair of ther mother's. "But I've also seen a picture of an ancient tapestry, from the Eotechnic Era, showing a unicorn sitting in a woman's lap."
"Ouch," said Pepper Sprey. The petite First Assistant Engineer pushed a lock of pink hair away from her eyes. "A horse in her lap?" She thought it over. "A horse with a horn in her lap... sounds a bit naughty."
The men chuckled, but Nguyen waved the joke aside. "It was small, and had a beard. Like a goat. I know what goats look like, you know. My family raised them."
"I thought your family traditionally raised rice," Chief Garcia quipped, and gave her a gap-toothed grin.
"My mother's people were goatherds for centuries," Nguyen snapped. "And cheese makers. Anyway, if someone is breeding unicorns, they're probably goats whose horns are forced to grow together in a spiral. Every picture I've ever seen of a unicorn -- goat or horse -- shows a spiral horn."
"They'll be breeding Jabberwockies next," Lubbock said with a smile.
"I can tell you're absolutely fascinated by the depth of my knowledge," Nguyen said, and gave him a cold stare.
"Just teasing, Isabelle," he said quickly. "You're obviously the expert on this subject, and I won't argue the point with you. Goats it is."
Chief Garcia raised his glass. "A toast: 'Goats it is!'"
Everyone at the table raised their glasses on high and shouted, "Goats it is!"
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They drained their glasses, and Garcia went to the bar for another pitcher. Lubbock checked the time on the chronometer built into his thumbnail, then glanced up at the stage in the center of the room. The Tambourine was a popular hang-out for artistic types who came to see the nightly dance reviews and other live entertainment. On weekends a small troupe of the Dancing Insects of Thrarg performed for the crowd. The ten-legged insectoids had quite a reputation, and Lubbock was looking forward to seeing them. But they appeared to be running late, and the magician on stage at the moment wasn't doing anything new or interesting. Why doesn't he just throw a rope up into the air and disappear? Lubbock mused. We paid a cover charge of Cr5 apiece to see dancing bugs.
Garcia returned with the beer. "The Thrarg show up yet?"
"No," Sprey declared. "And I'm getting tired of waiting." She banged the flat of her hand on the table top twice and bellowed out, "Where's the damn Dancing Insects?"
People at nearby tables turned to stare at the Grendelsbane crew members. If Sprey thought she might get a chant started she was very wrong. The Tambourine was known for its relaxed and jovial atmosphere.
"Take it easy, Pepper," Lubbock warned. "They hardly ever have trouble here, and if you try to start something they'll boot you out."
Sprey pouted and refilled her glass. "Paid five stinking 'cruds' to see dancing insects," she muttered.
Lubbock stretched his legs and inadvertently kicked something under the table. "Sorry. Did I just kick you, Isabelle?"
"Huh? No, not me."
Lubbock turned to his Chief Engineer. "Sorry, Don."
"Wasn't me either."
Lubbock frowned. He lifted the edge of the table cloth and twisted about to peer under the table. He was rewarded with the sight of a small, grime-encrusted woman lying unconscious in a pool of her own sick. "Hey, gang. Look under here."
They did so. Sprey began to giggle. Garcia grinned from ear to ear. Nguyen tsked.
"Poor thing. Should we tell management?"
"Nah," said Garcia. "She's not bothering anybody down there."
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Lubbock studied the woman's features. "She looks awfully damn familiar."
"Hey, she does look familiar."
"Now that you mention it.... "
"I know I've seen that face before."
"Okay," said Lubbock. "We agree she looks familiar. But does anyone know who she is?"
"One of your old girlfriends, Captain?"
"A unicorn breeder?"
"Bunch of comedians." Lubbock dropped the table cloth back into place. "Well, let's not let that beer get warm."
They had achieved the philosophical and quantum state of the pitcher being both half empty and half full when they heard movement under the table. Nails dug into Lubbock's pant legs, and the creature from under the table clawed her way out into the light. The woman struggled out and up into a posture resembling, in a weaving sort of way, a standing position."
She stared bleary-eyed around her, coughed once and belted out, "Bloody bollocks, mates! Let's 'ave 'nudder drink! And which of you tossers 'as the bloody time?"
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"It's nearly twenty-one thirty," Lubbock said with a glance at his thumb chronometer."
"That all? Gah! Gimme a gin and tonic, then, love." She stopped to consider something. "Twenty-one thirty Thursday night, isn't it?"
"Get out! Friday? Can't be. Blind me! I'll miss me ship!" The woman turned about, took a step and toppled to the floor.
"She's no fun," Sprey observed.
The other crew members got up out of their seats and helped the poor sod off the floor and into a chair. She planted her elbows on the table and dropped her face into her hands. "Christ and Buddha! I have to get to the departure lounge. Call me a bloody taxi, someone."
Garcia grinned and opened his mouth. "Don't say it," Lubbock warned him.
"We'll get the manager to call a cab for you," Nguyen said.
"Good. Be sure to tip the cabbie good, love. I really got to get to the departure area."
"Um, you do have money, don't you?"
"Nah. Spent it all, didn't I."
"Well that's just bloody marvelous," Lubbock observed.
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"Do you have your ID card on you?" Lubbock asked.
"Nah. I left it wit' me manager, didn't I. Dint want to lose it while I was carousing." The woman lifted her head and looked around. "And where the bloody hell are me mates?" She swept her reddened eyes around the room. "If those wankers went and left me here alone, I'll castrate the lot of them, won't I just!"
"Do you suppose your so-called mates got you drunk and robbed you?" Lubbock suggested.
"Nah, that's a quirg, that is. Why would they heft me pocket change, hey? We each get a bundle of dosh every time we blast the roof, don't we? Look 'ere -- I've got to get to the ship tonight. I'll pay you later on somehow." She waved a hand in the air. "I dunno... thingies and such. T-shirts or something."
The four members of Grendelsbane's crew looked at each other.
"What do you think we should do, Captain?" Nguyen asked.
Lubbock sighed. "In her state, if she's turned out of the bar, way-layers will get her. She has no money, so they may rape and beat her instead."
"If we take her to the departure area we'll miss seeing the Dancing Insects," Garcia reminded her.
"We don't all have to go with her," Sprey suggested.
"But it'll take at least two of us just to help her stand and walk."
Lubbock chewed his lower lip as he came to a decision. "Two people assisting a drunk can't fend off a band of way-layers. Safest if we all go. We can see the bugs tomorrow night." As if on cue, the god Murphy sent the master of ceremonies out to announce the arrival of the Dancing Insects."
"Ship High In Transit!" Sprey swore.
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It took all four of them to get the woman to the door and out into the street. A light breeze came from spinward, corkscrewing its way down the length of the cylindrical habitat. Overhead, sunlight reflected by one of the three huge mirrors blazed through the frozen lake that took up one-sixth of the interior surface area and giving the impression of blue sky. The inside of the rotating habitat was divided into three land sections and three of frozen water.
They had to traverse a third of the cylinder -- two kilometers -- to get to the highport. "Where's that cab you called, Don?"
The Chief Engineer pointed. "That must be him, just pulling up." They hustled their charge over to the black and white checkered vehicle. Five passengers crowded into the back, and they made sure the strange woman was near an open window. ("Fresh air'll do you good.") Lubbock settled into the front beside the cabbie and said, "To the port, please, and hurry."
The grav vehicle sped along the road toward the port area which was a long, tube-like appendage that stuck out of the long axis of the habitat like a fat spear pointing at the sun. It was here that ships docked, as many as three hundred at a time, and the tube was full of warehouses and offices and workshops.
The unnamed woman leaned against the door and let the wind whip her face. Lubbock glanced back at her and hoped she wouldn't be sick.
"Which ship are you taking?" Nguyen asked the woman.
"Huh? Oh, I don't remember the name."
"Do you have your ticket?"
"Nah, me manager handles stuff like that, doesn't he."
"Figures she wouldn't have a ticket," Sprey said. "Hey, honey, do you know the berth number?"
"Yah, I was third after me older brother and sister." She sank down a little further in her seat.
"What's your destination?" Lubbock asked. "What planet are you going to?"
The woman lifted her head. "Planet? Uh, don't know. The one that goes 'round Callahan's Star. Goes 'round and 'round and 'round.... "
"She's passed out," Nguyen said.
Lubbock worked his commo unit out of his pocket and activated it. "Captain to Grendelsbane, do you read me?"
"Grendelsbane here." The voice was that of Second Mate Cheng Hua. "What can I do you for, Captain?"
"Hua, I need to know which ships are due to depart for Callahan's Star this evening."
"Stand by, Captain." Lubbock waited patiently. "Captain, I'm getting a call from Port Authority. Mohammed Ivanovitch was arrested for disturbing the peace and needs a bail-out."
First Mate M.I. Smith was supposed to be spending his evening of liberty at Aphrodite's Haven. "Disturbing the peace? At the brothel?"
"I don't know the details, Captain. I can query P.A. if you like."
"Negative on that. Get me that info on ships heading for Callahan's. Smith can wait."
"Aye, sir. Stand by.... Okay, there's three of them this evening. No Regrets, a subsidized liner, left a half hour ago. The others are free trader Zheng He and the passenger liner Copenhagen. Departure times are twenty hundred hours and twenty thirty hours respectively."
"I know the Captain of Zheng He. Can you patch me through to him?"
Cheng Hua put the call through. "This is Deng Xi, Master of the Zheng He. What's up, Grendelsbane?"
"Xi, this is Vishnu Lubbock. Are you missing a passenger? A small woman heading for Callahan's Star with some other people."
"Negative, Vish. I've only three passengers this trip. Vargr businessmen, all aboard."
"Okay, thanks. Buy you a drink next time we meet up."
Roger that. See you soon."
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The next call went to the Copenhagen. They were waiting on half a dozen passengers, four of them women. Nguyen and Sprey were unable to wake their ward to ask for her name. Should have got her name sooner, Lubbock realized. "She says she has friends and a 'manager' on board. The manager is carrying her ticket."
"We copy that, Grendelsbane. Stand by while we make inquiries."
Lubbock checked the time. They were running out of it, but the taxi had now entered the tube at the sunward cap of the city. "Take us to berth Forty-Seven, cabbie."
"Grendelsbane, this is Copenhagen. We found a Freeman Arness who is holding a ticket for one of this charges, a female about thirty years of age. Be advised, we are due to depart system in ten minutes."
"Roger that. We're nearly at your berth. Have Freeman Arness meet us at the door. There's a cab fare to be paid. Grendelsbane out." Lubbock shoved the commo back into his pocket. "Apparently, this is not a wild goose chase after all," he said to his crew.
The taxi finally pulled up to the terminal entrance and spilled its contents onto the walkway. The still unidentified and semi-conscious woman had to be propped up. A group of men came running out of the terminal. The leader was decked out in a business suit, but the others wore T-shirts that read "4Play Roadie."
"Omigod!" Sprey exclaimed. "She's... she's.... "
"Nightwing!" the man in the suit cried out. "I've been so worried about you. Your bandmates said they left you alone in a bar as a joke after you'd passed out. We've barely got time to get on board."
The lead guitarist for the Plutonium Rock band 4Play fell into the arms of her roadies who hustled her into the terminal. Lubbock felt like such a goof for not recognizing the woman. Half of his crew owned copies of the band's Concert of the Century, Death of the Computer and Dancing on the Moon. And now that he thought of it, he'd seen posters for their current "Mondium Overdrive" concert tour.
Arness turned to leave, but Lubbock grabbed his arm. "You have to pay the cab fare," he reminded the man.
"Oh, right." He pulled out a Cr50 note and handed it to the cabbie. "Keep the change." He then ran into the terminal.
"You're quite welcome!" Chief Garcia shouted after him.
"Hey!" shouted Sprey. "Don't we get an autographed picture or a T-shirt or something?" But the band's manager was gone from view.
"Well, there's a story to tell your grandkids," Garcia remarked.
"Who won't believe a word of it," Nguyen added.
The cabbie leaned out of the window. "You guys want to go somewhere?"
"Yeah," Lubbock answered, remembering the plight of his First Mate. "Take us to the Police Station."
Wanted: the #$&@! who stole my 4Play albums. Huge reward. I'm coming to get you...