Friday, November 30, 2018

December 2018 - Featured Story of the Month




The Shaken World


I was just starting to place my order with the barista when the most recent quake struck. I paused mid-sentence and steadied myself by putting both hands on the counter. The young cashier, a teen with her red hair cut short and a tiny stud in her nose, reached out and braced herself on the back of the display cases to either side. Between us, the computers and credit card terminals vibrated, and the tip jar rattled and shook.

When it was over—nothing serious, no damage—the barista and I made eye contact. The look in her eyes was the same as how I felt—not afraid, just flustered. Literally, shook up. This was at least the tenth mild tremor just today. These little tremblors had been ongoing for the past couple of weeks now, ever since the calendar changed to December. With each passing day, Christmas was a little closer and the quakes became more numerous, lasted longer. Coincidence?

I finished ordering my mocha and paid the girl, and then slid down the counter to await my drink. As I did, I couldn't help contemplate this spate of small quakes. I overheard snippets of conversations ongoing around me, and I could tell that others were similarly hung up on the topic. It was unprecedented. I mean, it wasn't like we lived in California or somewhere that traditionally experienced a load of quakes. This was Northeast Ohio. Lakeshore, just twenty minutes outside of downtown Cleveland. Not exactly Earthquake Central.

One of the other baristas called out my name—"Adam!"—and then handed over my mocha when I stepped forward. I took the cup and walked out into the main corridor of Lakeshore Mall. Sipping my steaming drink, I strolled through the wide corridor, packed full with holiday shoppers. I passed the long line of kids and parents queued up to spend a moment with a man dressed as Santa Claus so that the children might have their picture taken with the bearded man, and shook my head. The things that people would put up with once they had children.

I was just rounding the far end of the North Pole setup when I spotted a small kiosk tucked almost out of sight behind the cottage that was supposed to be Santa's, nestled in between two hills of white powdery faux-snow. Walking closer, I saw that it was a kiosk that specialized in Christmas decorations and trinkets. A few standing spinners were filled with tree ornaments, candy-cane shaped pens and pencils, small, medium, and large wreaths, mistletoe, and Christmas cards. Elsewhere, I saw teddy bears dressed like Santa Claus, snow globes, and miniature trees wrapped in multi-colored lights.

I stopped. Shrugged. Nothing too interesting. Just a little holiday kiosk, although—I glanced over my shoulder—kind of a bad location. Despite its placement right beside the North Pole setup, it was hidden from the view of anyone standing in line over there. Even people walking by could easily miss it. I'd nearly done so. And apparently I wasn't the only one. The mall was packed full with holiday shoppers—less than ten days until the holiday—and yet, only myself and one other man were standing here browsing at the strange kiosk.

I looked for and found the sign: Mandrake's Christmas Curios.

Stepping forward, I peered at the displayed wares. I didn't see anything unusual. It was all just standard Christmas fare.

My eyes went to the man within the kiosk. He wore a Santa hat, which flopped down to the right. His eyebrows were dark, well-defined, and met in the center of his brow, above his hawkish nose. He wore his facial hair in the style of a sinister-seeming goatee groomed to a point beneath his chin, with a greased, thin mustache extending several inches beyond his lips. He saw me and one side of those lips curled up into a smile that was almost a sneer. With the wave of a hand, he beckoned me forward.

I felt my feet carry me closer to the man and his kiosk.

"Are you Mandrake?" I asked. The man's grin now spread more evenly across his face.

"Indeed, I am," he said, giving the slight mocking hint of a bow. He was dressed in long flowing robes, which I wish I could say were Christmas-y. They were red, but a darker red—closer to the color of blood—than that shade which was commonly seen at Christmas time. A closer look revealed that his Santa hat was also this same, macabre red.

"Christmas Curios?" I asked.

"Indeed," said Mandrake, grin stretching wide for long seconds. "Is Christmas not a time of wonders and miracles?"

"Of course," I said, playing along. "But everything looks pretty standard. What have you—"

I was interrupted by the shaking of the ground underneath my feet—a fresh quake.


* * *

I reached out and steadied myself with the edge of the kiosk counter. The vibration of the tremor traveled through the surface to my fingers, and rattled up my legs, from my feet to my spine.

Within the kiosk, Mandrake appeared unconcerned. More than that, he appeared unaffected. Grinning at me, he casually stroked the length of beard hanging below his chin and arched an eyebrow, gathering my attention. When he was satisfied that he held it, his eyes swung over to the man beside me; entranced, my gaze followed Mandrake's.

The man beside me was a regular fellow. He wore a winter cap on his head—red and white, in the colors of the Ohio State Buckeyes—and topped with a red fluffball. His jacket was a heavy winter coat—the type everyone around the area wore this time of year. He looked about middle-aged, mid-forties, most likely. Just an average guy.

The earth continued to rumble.

And then I noticed: the man, like Mandrake, also appeared oblivious to the current tremor. Although the quakes had become an everyday—many times per day—occurrence, they were still unusual enough, the phenomenon recent enough, that everyone still paid them full attention. Mandrake, the strange man within the kiosk, notwithstanding. And now this man, a seemingly ordinary fellow. I looked closer.

The man in the Buckeyes hat ignored the shaking earth. And the reason, I realized, was that he was wholly preoccupied with something he held in his hand. I peered closer, noting from the corner of my eye that Mandrake's grin widened.

The man was fully absorbed in studying a snow globe. Must be a pretty amazing snow globe, I thought, to steal this guy's attention away from the quaking of the ground. Although, even as I was thinking it, I noticed that the earth had stilled.

The silence followed. A familiar silence that everyone was growing accustomed to rather quickly. The small tremblors disrupted conversations. When the shaking was over, a brief moment followed when conversation remained paused. Before things returned to normal. Life resumed.

The man watched the snow within the globe settle.

"Pretty neat," he murmured. He glanced over, saw me looking. "Take a gander at this, pal."

"What is it?" I asked.

"It's Lakeshore. Here, look." He held the globe up for me to see, rather than to take. I leaned forward, squinted. It was indeed a faithful re-creation of our small suburb. I could see the Lakeshore Beach Park and Yacht Club at one end. There was the high school, just as it appeared in real life, with baseball diamonds and a football stadium behind it. There, the sprawling commercial center which was Lakeshore Mall, where we were right at that very moment.

It was incredibly intricate, impressive in its attention to detail. I admit, I was surprised to see our small community captured in a snow globe with such exquisite artistry. The much larger, more obvious, nearby city of Cleveland I could understand, but for someone to make such a fine snow globe of our city . . . I was somewhat speechless.

"Pretty neat," said the man in the Buckeyes hat, as he held the globe up in front of me. "Right? Here, watch."

He began to shake the globe, stirring up the fine bits of white powder within, which simulated snow and gave the object its name.

The ground shifted and shook under our feet.


* * *

I stumbled and put my arms out to gather my balance. The man, as before, seemed unaffected by the shaking of the earth. Likewise, Mandrake chuckled as I gasped and strove to remain upright.

Then, as I watched, the man in the Buckeyes hat stopped shaking the globe. The ground beneath me ceased as well. The snow within the globe swirled and slowly sank down to cover once again the familiar contours of our suburb.

"Look at that," he said, sounding awed. He held up the globe, watched the snow fall as if seeing it for the first time.

I paid the man himself no attention. My eyes focused on the object in his hands. The miniature landscape of our city contained within the glass snow globe. My mind was reeling. The globe was causing the tremors. I'd just seen an obvious exhibition of its powers. But how could that be?

I reached out for the snow globe.

"Whoa, buddy," said the man. He jerked away from me, but my fingers closed around the object. "This one's mine. Get your own." He twisted and yanked the globe away.

Not thinking of what I was doing, intent only upon taking possession of the wondrous globe, I continued to struggle. My fingers closed around it again, and I pulled forcefully. The man stumbled back towards me, and then both of us had a solid grip on the globe. Back and forth we went, the glass object pulled this way and that.

Around us, I began to hear panicked shouts. I saw one of the fake pine trees, part of the North Pole setting for Santa Claus, topple over. A cloud of faux-snow dust rose up in its wake. The candy-cane shaped pole, at least a dozen feet tall, which was meant to be the actual North Pole, stood nearby, swaying.

Another quake was shaking the mall.

While I struggled to take control of the globe, I managed to glance around in awe at the obvious signs of the earth trembling. Despite what, by all appearances, seemed to be the strongest quake yet, I realized that I couldn't feel it in the slightest. My own two feet were firmly on solid ground. Such was the dissonance of witnessing the quake but not feeling it, I nearly lost my grip on the snow globe. The man in the Buckeyes hat grunted and strained, trying to wrench it fully from my grasp. I renewed my own efforts to take the globe for myself.

"Gentlemen," said Mandrake. Suddenly, the red-robed man was outside the kiosk, standing right beside us. His grin was gone, replaced by a look of genuine worry. His eyes followed the glass globe gripped aggressively by the two of us; both the man in the Buckeyes hat and I refused to let go of the object.

Mandrake cleared his throat loudly. "Gentlemen, please. Cease this behavior at once."

"Let go of my globe," snarled the man in the Buckeyes hat. He turned his head towards Mandrake, appealing to the robed man. "I had it first. It belongs to me."

"You haven't bought it," I countered. "It doesn't belong to you!"

"Mr. Mandrake," pleaded the man. "Please!"

"Whatever he's paying," I said, "I'll pay you more."

"Gentlemen," said Mandrake. He put his hands over ours, and presently the three of us were wrestling for the singular snow globe. "I'm afraid I must insist that both of you unhand the globe."

"That's not fair," cried the man in the Buckeyes hat. "I had it first."

"It's very delicate," insisted Mandrake.

Over the shoulder of the robed man, beyond his kiosk, I watched with wide eyes as the North Pole swayed one last time, and then fell with a tremendous crash across Santa's cottage. Several screams rose above the sound of snapping timber and shattering glass.

People were running; I could hear their aggravated, echoing footsteps fleeing the scene of destruction around Santa's cottage. I caught the man's eyes focused over my shoulder at something crashing to the ground behind me. Sensing that his attention was momentarily waning, I took the opportunity to strike out with my foot. The man grunted in pain and fell backwards, losing his grip on the globe.

The sudden shift in the force being exerted upon the globe caused both Mandrake and I to stumble. The earth pitched around us.

"Very good," the robed man panted. "Now you. Release the globe."

"I won't let go," I said through clenched teeth. "I want to buy it."

"It's not for sale," Mandrake hissed. "Now give it here. Before you drop it on the ground and—"

"I won't!" And as I spoke I kicked out at the robed man.

Whatever Mandrake had been saying morphed into a forced, audible expulsion of air—oof—and a pained grunt, as my foot made solid contact with his belly.

His fingers slipped off the glass globe and he stumbled backwards, settling heavily onto his tailbone on the tiled floor.

Off balance from the kick and further undone by Mandrake's sudden release of the globe, I staggered back. My arms naturally wind-milled as I sought to catch myself before I fell over backwards. As they did so, I lost my grip on the glass snow globe. It sailed several feet up over my head.

I watched it rising into the air. Time seemed to slow.

The globe made a cool arc, reached its apex, and then began a downward trajectory.

"By the Gods," cried Mandrake, somewhere on the floor to my left. "Catch it!"

I fully intended to. I wanted that wondrous object all for myself. I watched the glass globe fall, and maneuvered myself into position underneath it. The world seemed suddenly to settle into calm as the globe—no longer being shaken—floated down through the air towards my waiting, open hands.

It was mine!

Or it would have been. Except that the man in the Buckeyes hat, still intent on preventing me from getting the globe, struck with an outstretched leg. His foot caught the side of my left knee and my leg buckled. I collapsed to the ground, landing right beside him. He was struggling to his feet. I reached out with my hand, pulled him back to the floor.

All the while, my eyes never left the falling globe. Now falling well beyond my reach, destined for the hard, tiled floor.

At least the man in the Buckeyes hat wouldn't get it either.

Behind me, Mandrake muttered curses or who knows what in some strange language. It was beyond his reach as well.

Down it fell, the beautiful glass snow globe. Flakes of white swirled around the streets and buildings of my hometown, captured with impossible accuracy and detail therein.

That strange and magical globe, which could shake the very earth beneath our feet.

Down it fell.

To the hard, cold, unforgiving floor.


THE END
__________________________


Thank you for reading!

This story will remain free to read for the rest of the month.

If you enjoyed this story, please consider supporting me by purchasing an electronic copy for just 99 cents, or buying my short story collection, It's Always The Apocalypse Somewhere, from which this story is taken, or checking out any of my other published books and stories. Thank you so much!

The Shaken World:

It's Always The Apocalypse Somewhere
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Thursday, July 19, 2018

Adventure Guild


My new project, Adventure Guild, is an heroic fantasy/comedy webserial that follows the adventures and misadventures of a group of would-be heroes as they quest for fortune and fame.

Chapter One is up now.

It's free to read, and a new chapter will be posted every Wednesday.





Tuesday, October 31, 2017

They'll Never Cheer Again preview (Chapters 1-3)


 
TEN YEARS AGO
A brutal hazing incident leaves a freshman cheerleader hospitalized in a coma. In response, Casper Falls High School disbands both the football and cheerleading teams.

For a decade, the football field is quiet.


PRESENT DAY
The school board has voted to bring back the football team and its cheerleaders.

Ann Howard's twin sister, Lauren, is one of those new cheerleaders. While Ann deals with the challenges of being an openly transgender teen in a closed-minded small town, her sister's place on the squad and some of Lauren's new friends threaten the previously rock-solid relationship between the siblings.

Meanwhile, a murderous force has awoken, intent on vengeance and driven by a single powerful mantra: They Will Never Cheer Again.






They'll Never Cheer Again - out now!



An homage to slasher films of the 1970s and 1980s, They'll Never Cheer Again is my first full-length novel.

Out now!!  Available as a paperback and in electronic editions.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Philip K. Dick and Warehouse 13 and fanfiction, oh my!

So, having just recently finished a complete series re-watch of Warehouse 13, which is one of my favorite shows, I decided to give writing a fanfic a shot. Combined with my love of all things Philip K. Dick, the result is the short novella, "Do Warehouse Agents Dream of Artifact Sheep?"

You can find it archived at a couple different places:

Fanfiction.net: Do Warehouse Agents Dream of Artifact Sheep?

Archive of Our Own: Do Warehouse Agents Dream of Artifact Sheep?

Or, on Wattpad: Do Warehouse Agents Dream of Artifact Sheep?

There's even a mock-up cover.
It looks like this:


The very brief synopsis?
Pete and Myka are on the trail of an artifact that seems to create effects straight out of certain science fiction stories. Meanwhile, back at the Warehouse, Claudia has her own literary experience.

* * *

Don't watch Warehouse 13? Well, you should. But briefly, Pete Lattimer and Myka Bering are United States Secret Service agents recruited to work at Warehouse 13, a top secret installation in the hills of South Dakota. Their new job is hunt down dangerous artifacts, neutralize them, and bring them back to the Warehouse, where they are safely stored away. Pete is fun and impulsive. He gets 'vibes'—intense, intuitive feelings that he's learned to trust. Myka is sharp and detail-oriented. She grew up in a book store and has a photographic memory. She likes plans. Their boss, of sorts, is Artie. Artie has been a Warehouse agent for 40+ years. He grouchy and brilliant. Claudia Donovan is in her late teens, a hacker and all-around tech whiz. Snarky and brash.

Did I mention you should watch it? It's fun and sappy and exciting and tragic and full of . . . endless wonder?

* * *

Don't read Philip K. Dick? Well, you should. Get to the library or the bookstore.

* * *

Anyways,

I had a ton of fun writing this, so there may be more like it in the future. In the meantime, please enjoy!



Friday, January 6, 2017

Free Fiction Friday: "The Final Run of Earl Gardner"



[This story is also available in the short story collection, It's Always the Apocalypse Somewhere.]
* * *


The Final Run of Earl Gardner

Earl glanced in his side mirror. Flashing lights, red and blue, trailed away into the distance behind him. The sirens of the police vehicles wailed and whined. Earl chuckled, and pressed the power window button. The glass rose, cutting off the rushing wind and the screaming sirens.

Reaching out, Earl turned up the volume on his radio. "You boys wanna take a ride?" he called to the police officers, passive occupants of their self-driving vehicles. Earl whooped. "Let's take a ride!" He stepped on the gas pedal. The semi surged ahead.

It was the last such semi-truck in existence, he figured. Since the prohibition on human drivers had begun, Earl's right foot might be the last right foot in the world with free will. Certainly the last American right foot. He increased the pressure, watched the needle kick up past eighty. The last free right foot.

The big rig rumbled and shook as the speed increased to near ninety.

Ahead of him, driverless cars, sensing his approach, scattered like ants beneath the shadow of a giant shoe. He watched them, pulling calmly off to the shoulder in some cases, while those closest swerved recklessly, some to the shoulder, and others, right into the median cement retaining wall. Car logic processing its chances and those of its human passengers, and apparently deciding that slamming into the concrete was preferable to being run down by Earl's semi.

The trucker laughed mightily. His belly rolled and bounced. Reaching out, he undid his seat belt, sliding the shoulder strap out of the way. Let's see those suckers down there in those self-driving authoritarian monstrosities try that. Earl chuckled madly. It wasn't gonna happen, not as long as those things were in Drive.

The highway in front of him continued to clear itself, providing his barreling semi enough room to race onward. Flashing lights filled both side mirrors now, those self-driving cop cars peeking around his rear end on either side like timid little puppies. Earl leaned the truck over into the right lane then brought it back across to the left. The law hounds sniffing at his ass backed off.

Within those police vehicles, through the front windshields, Earl could see the animated, angry gesturing of the officers. Mere passengers, they gesticulated and motioned and waved at Earl, their lips flapping, four-letter words that Earl didn't need to hear to understand. His laughter grew manic and wild.

He put on his left blinker, then began edging to the right. Let's see what those so-called smart cars back there make of that, he thought. He reversed the directions, signaling right and gently drifting left.

He put on the hazards. Tapped the brakes. Honked his horn.

Ahead of him, cars continued wrecking in their haste to avoid the semi-truck baring down on them. Dozens of car lengths ahead, the self-driven vehicles moved off the road, signaling to one another their intention. Communicating via their antennas. Earl wished he could hear their talk—the frightened, panicked sound of those driverless vehicles, shouting warning to one another, cries of terror and fear as they slid off the highway, bounced off one another, turned into the wall. Tried to get away.

Earl laughed and laughed.

Park your truck, they had told him. Park it, buddy. That's your final run, pal. Out of the cab. Only he hadn't gotten out. He'd locked the door, cranked the engine. Belching and rumbling as he'd climbed through the gears, the semi responded to his every command. His feet on the petals, the shifting of gears, the turning of the wheel. The doors, Earl's to lock and unlock. The headlights. The blinkers. The belts.

Up ahead, Earl saw the next exit approaching. A glance down at his gauges told him that his final run was just about over. He might be the last remaining free driver, but even he couldn't make the truck move once the last of the diesel was gone.

Honking the horn, signaling left, flashing his brights, Earl shifted lanes to the right. Behind him, the wailing sirens and flashing lights moved with him.

A few vehicles, thinking that the exit ramp was going to be a safe haven, had pulled off the highway. Now, seeing the semi barreling straight for them, they jerked ahead, crossing over the shoulder and tumbling over an incline, their passengers safely strapped within. Earl whooped and hollered as car after SUV after van jumped off the exit ramp, throwing themselves over the edge, went tumbling down the slope. Earl honked his horn for the poor souls trapped within.

The ramp curved and Earl slowed his rig; still, he felt it go up onto the right-side tires and he very nearly lost it. Once it was back under control, Earl hunched over the wheel, sweating and panting, and glanced up at himself in the rear-view. This was it, he thought. Not the way he imagined when he was younger. But he would go out in the name of Freedom. What more could one ask for?
His eyes refocused on the road ahead.

At nearly sixty, Earl came roaring off the highway exit and straight through a red light. Self-driving vehicles passing through the intersection suddenly became aware of him. There was a mighty scramble as cars and trucks swerved wildly in every direction, bouncing over the median, spinning onto the shoulder, and even careening into one another, sliding and crashing and overturning.
Earl's rig went straight through the intersection, barely losing speed. He angled the big truck directly for the fuel station up ahead.

"Time to fill 'er up!" he hollered. He hooted and whooped as he crashed over the curbing. The shock bounced him out of his seat, and his head struck the roof of the truck's cabin. He held on tight, and as soon as he landed, pushed the gas pedal down one final time.

The rig growled and roared and raced ahead.

A few people saw him coming as they walked between station and pumps, and scattered out of the way. At the pumps, a pair of the self-driving vehicles sensed his approach. Earl could almost see the cars shaking with indecision. Should they stay put? Should they sprint out of the way? Forward? Reverse?

With a wild cry—"Freedom!"—Earl rammed directly into the nearest fuel island, smashing right through one of the pumps. Everything smelled like gas; there was a flash and an extraordinary noise. Earl's momentum carried him over the flattened pump to slam into a cowering, parked car. The little vehicle crumbled and stuck underneath the front of the rig and together they skidded to a stop against the brick wall of the fuel station.

"Hot damn!" cried Earl, watching in the side mirror as police vehicles swarmed all around, desperately trying to avoid pedestrians and other cars and each other.

An instant later, there was white light and roaring heat and fire.

The last free vehicle and driver were consumed by the flames of history.

The End

---------------------------------------

This story was originally posted in the /writingprompts group on reddit.com. It was written as a response to the prompt: "The government has banned all cars that aren't self-driving. You're a trucker making his last delivery before the ban goes into effect." The original thread can be viewed here.

Monday, July 11, 2016

An Excerpt From "A Precious Cargo" — Starship Perilous Adventure #1

by Alpert L Pine

[This story is also available in the collection, Blake Starwater and the Adventures of the Starship Perilous: The First Five Adventures]


A Precious Cargo 1

The spaceport on Santiago seethed with furious star crews. A restriction on the number of passengers that a ship could take on or off the planet meant that several of the less adventurous crews who made their money freighting around people from one part of the galaxy to another, were suddenly severely handicapped.

As Blake Starwater walked through the streets of the spaceport village, past pubs and cheap guesthouses, snippets of the conversation reached him. People were upset—not just crews, but passengers, too. Blake, who made his living taking on other jobs—the dangerous jobs that other crews wouldn't touch—was unconcerned. Blake didn't like passengers on his ship.

"Well what purpose does such a regulation even serve?" asked a Tunaman, leaning across the bar in Rocco's Joint, both elbows on the glowing plexi and taking up far too much space. The Tunaman's fins were trembling and twitching, suggesting he was especially worked up. The Rotini beside him was eyeing the nearer of the Tunaman's arms, which was inching dangerously close to the Rotini's drink—a tall glass filled with a bubbling, neon-green liquid. The look on the Rotini's face indicated that there was going to be trouble if the arm and drink came together.

Blake Starwater put his hand on the Tunaman's shoulder. The angry face turned to look back, the fishy features narrowing in recognition.

"Starwater."

"French." Over the Tunaman's shoulder, Blake caught the bartender's eye. "One rabbithop, please. French, what are you drinking?"

"Oh, Starwater." He waved his webbed hands. "Nothing for me, I've had enough. Soon, I won't have enough credits to buy drinks, thanks to this ridiculous new regulation. Have you heard, Starwater?"

"I've heard, French. Make it two," he told the barman.

"They're trying to ruin those of us who are just wanting to make a nice, peaceful living."

Blake reached out and took the two drinks, and placed his creditstick in the slot on the bar. The barman punched a few buttons on his side and the appropriate amount was deducted from Blake's account.

"Come on," said Blake, arm around the Tunaman. "Tell me all about it."

He led the Tunaman from the bar to a table against the far wall, beneath a portion of low, sloping ceiling.

***

"It's the passenger liners, you understand," said French. His fins twitched as he spoke. He wore the wetclothes of his kind, which kept his skin moistened. "The cruise lines, the star ferry companies. They're losing too much money and they're blaming it on us little guys." French took a big swallow from the drink Blake had provided. "As if me carrying five bodies rather than two is suddenly going to sink these big passenger liners."

Blake shrugged and ran a hand through his blond hair. "A lot of people are starting to go with the small guy. Your rates are cheaper, and there's the experience of travelling with a crew, being a part of somebody's home for a few days. What do you get on a big old passenger liner that compares to sitting around a table and sharing food cooked in somebody's kitchen?" Blake took a swallow of his own drink. "Think about it," he said philosophically. "Every one of those big boats is the same. The rooms are the same, the restaurants. The swimming pools, and gyms, and stars above, the entertainment. People want something more, nowadays. They want a personal touch. An experience."

"Which makes it all the more insane for them to pass this new law," exclaimed French.

"Well, the two largest starship lines are based off of Santiago. Isn't that right? They have a lot of political clout here."

"They have too much clout everywhere," said the Tunaman, finishing his drink. He set the glass down heavily on the table, fins dancing. "Sure, it's Santiago today. But this will spread. Mark my words."

"Maybe."

"Mark my words."

They slipped into silence. Blake sipped at his rabbithop, glancing around the interior of the pub. People were upset, but there seemed to be a lot fewer of them than usual. He couldn't recall ever seeing Rocco's Joint so subdued. Most of the other crews must be avoiding Santiago, he thought. Got wind of the coming regulation and are staying away. Or loaded up with their two passengers and already took off.

"Doesn't this mean that space on the private ships will be limited now?" Blake turned back to the Tunaman. "High demand. Fewer berths. Seems you can charge a premium price right now."

"Starwater, please. What do you take me for, a Salmonite? I'm not going to gouge, simply because I can. Besides, I'd have to downright steal from my passengers to turn what I can make from two into what I was able to make with five or six on board."

"Well, what are you still doing here, French? Plenty of other worlds in the sky."

"Oh, I'm going. We'll fly tomorrow. I'm actually only still here because I'm meeting later with a group of other captains who are upset and trying to get something done about this nonsense. We're hoping to engage with the frequent travelers, those who fly on crew ships regularly. Maybe if enough people make some noise." The Tunaman shook head. "I don't know. It's worth a shot anyways."

"French. Sounds like you're turning into an activist." Blake finished his drink, pushed the glass aside.

"Yeah, yeah. Care to add your voice to ours?"

"I'd love to, French. But I'm still looking for a job. Plus," Blake said, standing. "I don't like passengers."

The Tunaman sighed. "Well, if you change your mind. You can find me."

Blake nodded. "The local watering hole. Catch you later, French."

"Good health, Starwater."

***

Leaving behind the cluster of pubs and guesthouses at the south end of Santiago's Spaceport, Blake Starwater made the trek back across the paved landing field to his home, the starship, Perilous.

The ramp leading into the ship was lowered; Kitty lounged in a sunchair at the bottom, a bottle of microbrew beer on the tarmac beside her.

Blake stopped beside the Felioness and looked down. She wore a black bikini over her short yellow fur. Her face was as bare as any human woman's and similar in appearance except for the nose and whiskers. And the pointed ears atop her head, which poked through her blond hair. She glanced up at him from behind red heart-shaped sunglasses.

"Howdy, Blake. Got us a job?"

"Actually, no."

"Good," she said, grinning. "Because I did."

"Did you?"

She extended one of her shapely, fur-covered legs. "Quick, rub my feet."

"No," said Blake, swatting away the woman's foot.

"Rub it," she pouted.

Her foot, which was furless and five-toed, poked at him. Blake pushed it aside. "You said you got us a job?"

"Yeah." She gave up and lowered her leg back onto the chair. "But you're not gonna like it."

"Why not?"

"The client."

"What about them?"

"He," she said. "He's an eight-legger."

"An Aran?" Blake shivered. "I've dealt with them before." Not happily, he thought. A creepy race, although it's not their fault. They look just like . . . But he'd deal with this one, too. As long as it paid. "What sort of job?"

"Oh, a fetch job," said Kitty. "Are you angry?" She turned over onto her side, exposing her rump. "Will you spank me?" Her tail moved seductively.

"I'm not mad. It's a paying job, right? We need the money. Did he leave contact details?"

"He did. They're in the ship." She wiggled her tush at him. "Will you spank me anyway?"

"Put your butt away, Kitty. I'm not going to spank you."

The Felioness let out a disappointed sigh and reached down for her beer. Taking a swig from the bottle, she rearranged herself on the chair. "Suit yourself," she said. Momentarily, she began licking her arm.

Blake walked past her, up the ramp, and into the Perilous. In the cargo hold, OMBot greeted him.

"Got your new purifier disc seal," said Blake, pulling the small, rubber part from his pocket.

"Oh good," said OMBot, limping over. The cylindrical robot stood slightly taller than Blake's waist. It reached out a mechanical arm and took the component.

"Need a hand?"

"Har har, Mr. Starwater," said OMBot, and then beeped. "I get it. A hand. I'm a robot."

"I'm just asking if I can help, OM."

"I'm old, but I can still install my own purifier disc seal."

"Whatever you say."

The little white robot hobbled a short distance away. A smaller arm appeared and pulled open one of the panels on the robot's front surface.

Blake watched for a moment as OMBot grunted and strained to install the replacement part. Shaking his head, Blake crossed the hold and jogged up the stairs to the main deck. Time to contact this Aran, he thought, striding forward to the bridge. See exactly what this job Kitty had set up for them was going to involve.




2


Two large round eyes, solid black, stared unblinking on the screen. They were fixed on Blake. Two more smaller orbs were visible on either side of the Aran's hairy face. He grinned at Blake. Or grimaced—it was difficult to tell.

"Mr. Starwater," said the Aran. "So swiftly you contact me. I assume your associate explained my needs."

"My associate, yes. She mentioned something about a job. Mister . . ."

The Aran made a hacking sound which might have been a laugh. "Just simply Rufus will suffice."

"Rufus, then."

"I'd like to possess your services for a short time, Mr. Starwater. A simple little job. Securing some extremely precious cargos for me."

"Precious?"

"Precious, just to me, you see," said the Aran. "But to me, very precious indeed. Your ship comes highly suggested for especially this type of salvage."

"A salvage job."

The Aran moved back and forth, nodding his body. "Is this world, New Yellowstone, sounding familiar, Mr. Starwater?"

"New Yellowstone?" Blake closed his eyes and tried to remember. The name seemed to be one he'd heard, but he couldn't think why exactly he knew it.

Two of the Aran's legs came into view, deftly bringing a cup towards his mouth. A straw within the glass disappeared into the Aran's maw, between sizable fangs. The Aran made a slurping noise as he drank.

Blake shook his head. "I'm sorry—"

"New Yellowstone," said the Aran, removing the cup from view, "is mostly scientists' interest only. A massive mega-volcano exists there. Since this great eruption some days past, several teams still remain. Severe damage sustained by one of these orbiting observation stations has seen this one abandoned, still circling above New Yellowstone."

Nodding, Blake said, "Now I remember the name. The newsfeed said the planet nearly blew itself apart."

"Serious eruption, yes," said the Aran.

"What's it to do with you, Rufus?"

The Aran was quiet for a moment, the strange, hairy face making some complicated Aran expression. He said, "This place, one of these stations circling this world, my children's mother was there, you see?"

"Is she alright? Was she hurt?"

"She is deceased."

"That's terrible, Rufus. I'm sorry."

"It is a fact of our lives, this dying. She lays the eggs, she dies."

"Well, still," said Blake, clearing his throat. "I'm sorry for your loss."

"She is dead in this place, this station in the sky of New Yellowstone."

"And you want us to bring back . . . what exactly?"

"The children. Please, Mr. Starwater, go to this station. See if these eggs of my babies survive. Bring these to me."

"Eggs."

"Yes, please. Bring these to me."

"You say the station is severely damaged? What if your eggs were . . . I mean, during the, uh—"

"Space is no problem for these eggs. Nor loss of gravity. You must see if these eggs survive or not. If so, please, you must bring these."

"Bring them to you where?"

"This place. To Santiago."

Blake blinked. "You're on Santiago? Why didn't we just meet face to face, Rufus?"

The Aran grinned again. Or grimaced more. "I am shy. Species not the same as us, sometimes they are not so nice, you see."

Blake nodded. "I'll do it, Rufus."

"Splendid," said the Aran, some of his legs coming together excitedly before him. "Super."

"And your wife, Rufus? If we, uh . . ."

"She is mother of my children. She is deceased. Her remains a shell only. Not necessary."

"Okay," said Blake, rubbing his chin. "Alright. This sounds like something we can do, Rufus." Blake leaned forward, put his hands on the console. "Let's talk about money."

***

"We got a job, guys."

The Perilous was en route to the Syrus star system, where the world of New Yellowstone was located.

Kitty, making a face, said, "Fetching a bunch of spider eggs?" The Felioness shivered. "I'd hardly call that a job. More like a punishment." She sniffed at the contents of a container from the refrigerator.

OMBot made a beeping sound like agreement.

"It's a well-paying job," said Blake, watching a protein soup circle around inside the microwave. "Anyway, you arranged it for us."

"The eight-legger didn't say we'd be loading up the hold with spider eggs." She turned to Blake. "I'm sorry. Are you mad?" She twisted her hips to show him her round bottom.

"I'm not mad, Kitty. I'm happy to have a job and one that sounds simple enough at that." He withdrew the steaming plexi container of protein soup and walked to the table. "Hold full of Aran eggs notwithstanding."

Settling into his chair, Blake looked at the numerous empty seats around the table. "Awfully quiet around here." He sat in contemplation, soup momentarily forgotten.

Kitty, who had selected a dish that smelled acceptable from the refrigerator, hopped up onto the counter and sat swinging her legs, digging into the leftovers with a fork.

"I miss the old crew, too, Blake."

"I wish . . . I don't know." Blake shook his head. "I wish things had gone differently."

"I know you do," said Kitty. "But you made the right call. Maybe the others will see the light, and come back."

OMBot made a sound like parts were clanging around loose inside it, which Blake interpreted as a robot cough, or a particularly intense robot throat clearing. "It's a lot quieter with that lot gone, if you ask me," said the robot. "Although you didn't." OMBot's round head swiveled and considered Blake and Kitty. "Always so much racket when they were around." It beeped. "Good riddance, I say."

"Oh come on, OM. You miss them, too," said Kitty.

"Bah."

"No," said Blake, taking a spoonful of soup. He remembered the things which had been said that day down on Foresthaven. The kind of things that once said, couldn't just be taken back with a simple apology. A rift had burst into being down there, a chasm which might ultimately prove impossible to cross.

He put the spoon to his mouth, swallowed down the soup. "No, I don't think they're coming back, Kitty."

The Felioness, stared ahead, saying nothing.

She feels it too, thought Blake. They were on their own now, the two of them. And OMBot. He took another spoonful of soup. Well, at least now they had a job to focus on. A job was good. Jobs kept them flying.

OMBot rattled and clanged, metal grinding within, as it leaned against the wall. Snoring.

***

The journey took close to fifty hours.

Passing time on a starship travelling through space was accomplished in different ways by different people.

OMBot, for instance, would plug itself into the Perilous's mainframe so that the robot could be notified immediately of any system errors or emergencies. After plugging in, the old robot would promptly go to sleep.

Kitty, who slept long hours and napped frequently anyway, spent most of her Long Voyage time sleeping. If awake, she might be found in the kitchen eating, or in the common area doing yoga, working out, or lounging around, licking herself. Occasionally, Blake would catch her watching spanking videos on the main telescreen and send the Felioness to her room.

Blake would often spend Long Voyage hours staring through the windscreens at the endless blur of deep space outside the ship, running things over in his mind. Regrets mainly. Things he wished that he could change or do over again, do differently. There'd been a lot of that lately since Foresthaven.

The crew had splintered, and that was his fault. Kitty might believe he'd done the right thing, but losing three good friends, or what he had thought were three good friends, because of one decision really hurt. If it was such a good choice, how could the crew have been so divided over it?

Whenever he could manage to stop torturing himself with his thoughts, Blake would spend a few hours plugged into the virtual reality game, Condux.

Blake spent the fifty hours to New Yellowstone doing a combination of these: checking the status of his Condux campaign, in between bouts of soul searching out the windscreen. Sleep came grudgingly when he forced himself to lie down, but never lasted for more than a couple of hours.

 end of excerpt
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"A Precious Cargo" is available as a single adventure digital download, and is also part of the collection, Blake Starwater and the Adventures of the Starship Perilous: The First Five Adventures.