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Drop Out

This part originally appeared in the November 2011 issue.

Part 10

The following morning, 0430 Local Ship Time found Captain Fyyg on the bridge in the Big Chair. In front of him, and to the right sat Tam Murmisagli at the Sensor board. First Officer Milo Hertzog sat to the left at the Nav station, trying to give Tam a step-by-step on maneuvering the Waffles across the 60,000,000 km of mostly barren space approaching the Oort Cloud.

Fourteen hours into the 30 hour approach, and Hertzog was still butting heads with Tam over the finer points of starship piloting.

“Milo. Please, hon’. Quit trying to tell me how to do my job, would you? I’ve been piloting one of these things since I was ten years old. And living on one well before that. What in hell were you doing at ten, I’d like to know.”

“At ten I was still on my grandparents farm on Mica.” Milo replied.

“Hmmm,” Tam mused. “Cattle or sheep?”

“Sheep.” Milo clarified.

“Sheep.” Tam repeated, giving Herzog a sideways look.

“Is it true….?” she began, only to be cut off.

“When it comes time to castrate the flock,“ Milo started, “the knife is just not fast enough. And the robots they sell for the job are just so much dodgy trash. The quickest way when you’ve got a large flock is biting them off.”

“So it is true!“ Tam laughed. Hertzog grinned, adding, “Of course, there’s more than a single shepherd with the flock at such a time.”

“One would hope so, anyways.” The young woman said.

Suddenly, from the Big Chair the Captain yawned, then cursing, went into his usual diatribe “By Hades, but this chair is entirely too comfortable for a working man to sit in!” And yawning again and stretching, continued “It does it to me every time!”

“Welcome back, Sir.” said Number One. “We’re riding the System Plane, traveling at a constant 2Gs acceleration, and just…”

Tam looked up from the Sensor board and answered “43 minutes on my mark…Mark!”

“43 minutes from Midpoint, Captain.” Milo finished.

Stretching as he stood, the Captain said “Good. Good…”, then, informing the bridge crew of his intentions, “I have a pile of paperwork needs attention in my office. Anyone needs me, that is where I shall be.” he left the bridge, hands thrust into pants pockets.

Once at midpoint, Tam used attitude thrusters to rotate the Waffles one hundred and eighty degrees along the ship’s long axis so its tail was facing forward. A controlled burn followed for the computer-recommended duration to produce enough thrust to slow the Waffles to the point where its acceleration would have ceased very near the sixty million kilometer mark fifteen hours from now.

An hour or so after Midpoint, Second Shift came to relieve Milo and Tam. Kalifra, who was taking Milo’s place, was a tall woman, with knee-length blond hair, who hailed from Aretius, and had learned the basics of ship combat in the Imperial Navy.

“The Professor” who’d be taking Tam’s place, was in turn, no Professor, but he did know his rocks, and was a fair planetologist. He had learned to pilot a ship mining the asteroid fields.

Several minutes of small talk ensued with the shift change, then, grabbing an orange, Tam began peeling it as she moved off the bridge, her magnetic boots, built into a pair of salmon colored greaves from an old set of combat armor, clicking as she walked.

Several steps behind her, Milo watched the little brunette’s hips slowly glide from side to side, hypnotic-like, as she moved. It almost seemed to Milo as if the clicking were calling his name; click click click click---mi lo mi lo mi lo...

Hertzog had read about the sirens’ call in an old Earth legend, where sailors put candle wax in their ears to resist it. But looking at Tam seemed a different thing all together.

Feeling as if he were going to jump out of his skin if he didn’t do something, Hertzog increased his pace and tapped her on the shoulder. “Ya, what is it Milo?” she asked, chewing a pair of orange segments.

“What’ve you got planned now, Tam?” he asked.

“Gonna throw some darts, have a beer or two in the Crew Lounge. Try and unwind a little.”

“You?” she asked.

Instead of saying what he was going to do—paint miniatures and listen to a little Mozart, he told her “Same, I guess; throw some darts, have a beer.”

“Are you challenging me to a game of darts, little man?” she chuckled.

As the First Officer nodded, the woman linked her arm with his.

“C’mon then hon‘, Miss Murmisagli’s gonna school you.” and they headed for the Crew Lounge.

Down in the cargo bay, Thom was giving the once over to the vacc suits in storage; repairing or installing a radio where needed, double-reinforcing any patches that looked questionable, filling tanks and checking tank adaptors for a tight seal.

On the far side of the bay, Brodie and a couple of the Roosters manhandled the trio of Waffles’ Mosquito rigs from their corner storage. Had the grav powered palletmaster not been destroyed during the pirate’s attack, maneuvering these three monsters into place near the cargo doors would have been simplicity itself.

Each of the tall, ground-car-sized devices was essentially a none-too-bright, insect-like robot with multiple grasping legs, that once in space, flitted from one icy-body to another in the vicinity; and used its deadly-looking proboscis to drain away a slurry of raw asteroid ice to carry back to the fuel purification equipment aboard Waffles for later refining. Ordinarily they worked in large swarms, rather than the Waffles’ trio.

Brodie saw that one of the Mosquitos was one of the older Mk 11s, whose clog-prone filters requires an almost endless routine of pulling, cleaning and repairing. Brodie had acquired his expertise working with the Mosquito rig in a Ducal work-camp on Magnus, one of thirteen small moons orbiting the massive gas giant Makkitosimew. He had told Fyyg they needed another of the newer Mk 12s, so they could draw fuel without all the time wasting babying the older bug required.

Obviously the Captain hadn’t gotten around to it yet, and in all likelihood probably wouldn’t any time soon. Brodie decided the old bug would likely be causing headaches-a-plenty before the mission was over.

Stepping into the Lounge, Tam went straight for the dartboard that’d been hung between the bulletin board and the trio of refrigerators. The girl grabbed the handful of darts and yanked them free of the board with a single motion; the old, holed picture of the Captain that’d been held there dropping to the deck.

Meanwhile Hertzog reached into the Beer Locker (the first of the three fridges), coming out with a foursome of large brown beer bottles chosen at random; a pair of Hephaestus Dark, a Donald’s Pale Ale, and a single Olde Republic Stout.

Given her choice, Tam took the Olde Republic; opening the bottle on the table edge and taking several long pulls of it before setting it down on a scarred table. Using the table edge method himself, Milo opened the pale , and took a long sip before setting the bottle down.

Tam divided the darts and handed Hertzog half, telling him “And remember, doll, no using any of your implants.” as she motioned toward his head with the feathered ends of her darts.

“Certainly, certainly.” Hertzog replied. “Besides, my targeting system”, he tapped his left eye, “really only works with ship’s weapons. You’ll be happy to know I still throw like a girl.”

She took another sip of the Olde Republic, “I guess that means we’re evenly matched then, hon’.” Another sip of the stout and she urged Milo on. “501, First Officer. Go.”

The pair each took turns throwing, with neither the clear leader until finally, with both well past zero, Tam hit the double ring under the 18 and ended the game.

Halfway through a second game the Hephaestus’ were opened. One of the gunners, Thom’s brother Dave, entered on his lunch break, grabbing an acidic Eryth Cola from the fridge, and pulling a mysteriously-wrapped Everfresh Sandwich from a cargo pocket, he sat down and watched the game progress.

“’Cha playin’?“ he asked.

“501” they replied, almost in unison.

“Hmmmm. S’winnin’?” Dave asked as he pulled off the plain white wrapper that always made the purchase of an Everfresh such a mystery. He was pleased to find that this time it was his favorite, Philly Cheese Steak; microfilaments in the wrapper heating the thing through while he attempted to open it.

“The First Officer here has only eighteen, while I’m down to two hundred forty one.” Tam replied, slightly perturbed.

Milo won smartly in just two more throws.

“Throw like a girl, my ass!” Tam said, draining the last of her Hephaestus.

Hertzog smiled, face reddening.

Murmisagli dug around in the Beer Locker for some time, eventually coming out with a pair of large green bottles of Robot Steam, with the image of a big, rusty cog on the label.

“No more Olde Republic, but I think you oughtta like the Robot here….Smooth and strong, like a horse—or a robot, I guess.” she grinned, deftly popping the cap from both bottles on the table edge before passing one over to Milo.

She turned to Dave, who’d already eaten half his sandwich.

“Dave, honey, J’like a beer while I’m up?” she asked.

“Nah‘tanks.” the older Vasqes brother said, “Don’t drink.”

The pair sat down at one of the battered tables. Dave, sitting at a table near the door, finished his sandwich then had a couple of smokes, since, as a holdover from Pre-Atomic times, you couldn’t smoke in a weapon turret. Once finished, he got up and left; leaving Tam and Milo alone.

Hertzog took a sip of the Robot Steam, surprised by its alcohol content; higher even than the Olde Republic he’d passed up earlier. Rocking the folding chair back on two legs, Milo pushed his crush cap back, and, scratching the side of his aquiline nose, asked “So just how does a ten year old girl come to pilot a Starship?”

In the cargo bay, with all of the work of moving and performing routine maintenance on the trio of Mosquito Rigs finally completed, Brodie, Thom, and the other roustabouts decided to forego going all the way back to the Crew Lounge for their breaks, and instead dug a roundball from one of the lockers for a pick-up game of basketball; a half court, four on four game loaded with more than its share of personal fouls dealt-out, for the most part, by hard charging Thom Vasquez to the point where it seemed as if he were channeling the spirits of Atomic Era basketball greats, Elvin Hayes and Bill Laimbeer simultaneously.

Tam took a chug from the wide mouthed Robot bottle.

“My father—our father,” she corrected, “worked for the Packet Service. Not one of those that’re run by some Megacorporation, like Local Bubble, or Inter System, but the actual Imperial Packet Service. Twenty years and Daddy retired with a fairly generous pension, as I understand. I was pretty young at the time—five or six—so some of details are pretty sketchy now.”

“At some point we’d moved off Holt and onto some old junker Auspicious Venture-class merchanteer—just like the Waffles, here.” She rapped on their table with her knuckles. “Or almost, anyway.”

“We were all there of course: Mother, Daddy, my Uncle Tiger, me, my sister Sarah, and my little brother Henry—what an absolute nut!” she laughed.

“A merchant family! So you’re a Gypsy then?” Milo asked before taking another drink of the Robot Steam.

Tam grew stern and pulled away, “No Milo, a ‘Merchant Family’. ‘Gypsies’ are what they call us when they’re reporting on something they don’t agree with, or wanna sensationalize….” Tam accidentally hit her bottle and it crashed to the deck, exploding.

“Oh fuck!” Tam fumed at her clumsiness as she watched the cleanbot efficiently wrangle the mess.

In the next few minutes the pair was busy interrupting one another as each tried to apologize to the other, until they both started laughing at the ridiculousness of it.

“Anyway, “ Tam continued, “by eight I was doing little chores around the Black Betty. By ten I’d started piloting her. Dad had originally wanted Sarah to pilot; she being so graceful and all with her ballet, but sis had a bad case of the yips when it came to operating machinery. She did become a fair hand with the palletmaster, though.”

“Hmmm,” Hertzog sounded before finishing the last of his bottle. Slightly drunk and bright red, Milo smiled at the woman.

Smaller, and thus more drunk, Tam stood, smiling and rocking slightly.

“Well, enough about me.” she said, “I’ve got to get going…Guess I’ll see you around the campus!” she laughed.

“Oh?” the First Officer mouthed, surprised; unsure of just what to do now that the object of his desire seemed about to slip away.

“I’m heading home myself.” Milo suddenly said, “Would you like some company?”

Standing there thinking for a moment, Tam decided and said “C’mon darlin’, lets go!”, holding out an arm to him.

Linked arm-in-arm, the pair left the Crew Lounge. Taking a few turns down various corridors, they arrived at the Quarters Deck.

Hertzog’s cabin was the first door on the right, but he passed it up, walking Tam down to her cabin at the end of the hall, to the last door on the left, right next to the fire extinguisher.

There was a pause, then they bumbled all over each other as each tried telling the other what a wonderful time had been had, until they both laughed again.