Monday, January 7, 2019

January 2019 - Featured Story of the Month



A Customer Review


At the All-Mart near the mall, Joe Singwell was politely asked to leave. Baffled, he allowed himself to be led to the exit doors before anger replaced his puzzlement. A security guard walked beside him to the parking lot, and left him there fuming to no one.

A little later as he entered the Diamond Discount Pharmacy on Lake Street, one of the cashiers rushed up to him, apologized, and told him to please come back again another time. On the sidewalk outside the store, he watched as the cashier—a squat middle-aged woman—reached out and turned the sign on the door so that to Joe it read, Sorry, We're Closed!

He looked around and saw that there were still other cars in the parking lot. Through the window, he could see at least one other person inside shopping. What was going on?

Well, he thought, to hell with them. He'd been shopping at this drug store for years. If they didn't want his business he would just take it elsewhere.

That very same evening, trying to finish up the last of his errands for the day, Joe stood in line at a Bullseye department store. He waited, tapping his foot with a general low-grade irritation, while the teenage cashier rang up his items one by one. One by one by one. Presently the barcode on a gallon of orange juice wouldn't scan. The cashier turned the juice around and examined the code.

"What's the matter?" Joe asked.

"One moment, sir."

"The price tag said $4.99."

The cashier didn't reply, began pressing buttons on his screen.

Joe fumed. He ground his teeth. His foot kept on tapping, tapping. Now he began rapping the edge of his credit card against the checkout counter.

"Just a moment." The cashier punched in some numbers on the keyboard. At last, the offending item scanned, the computer beeping pleasantly.

When everything had been rung up and totaled, Joe slid his card. There was a beep. Joe focused on the card terminal, waiting, but was not prompted to sign. There followed a second, not-good beep.

"Sir," said the cashier, "I'm afraid I can't finalize this transaction."

"What?" Joe looked up. "Then get someone who can."

"The system has declined your—"

"Impossible, there's plenty of money on it."

"Well, it says—"

"I just used it earlier," Joe added, although he hadn't.

"The card is fine," the young clerk said.

"Then what's the problem?"

"The system is declining you."

Joe sputtered.

"You are Joe Singwell? Address 62035 Redbird Lane?"

"I am."

The cashier nodded at his computer screen, cleared his throat. "Mr. Singwell, I'm afraid that, due to poor reviews from other local retailers, we're unable to serve you this evening, sir. Very sorry about the trouble."

Joe laughed. "Poor reviews?" He motioned towards the credit card reader. "Come on, kid. I don't have time for this. Run it through again." Bringing his card back out, he held it poised above the reader. "Can I slide it?"

"You can try," said the cashier, pushing a button on the screen. "But I imagine," he added, as Joe swiped his card a second time, "that it will say the same thing." A pause. The same not-good beep. "Yep." The cashier looked up at Joe apologetically. "It's declined your transaction again."

"This card is fine," Joe said, teeth clenched.

The cashier nodded. "I understand, sir. Again, I apologize, but the system is declining you. You, Joe Singwell, due to a poor rating."

"Listen here, you little prick," Joe snarled. "I'm getting pretty pissed off right now. I know my card is good, I pay the bill every damn month. I don't know what the hell this ratings business you're talking about is, and I don't care. I want you to take my card and ring this goddamned shit up."

"There's no need to swear," the cashier replied, calmly. "This is exactly the sort of thing mentioned over and over in your reviews. Abusive, aggressive, blows the smallest inconvenience or issue out of proportion."

"It says all that?" Joe leaned forward, but the cashier turned the screen away. "What other shit does it say there? What the hell are you reading?"

"This is a new retail resource. A database which allows us, and all other retailers enrolled in the program, to share information about our potential customers. It allows the companies to make informed decisions about whom to let into their stores and to let purchase their products."

 "This is bullshit. I didn't agree to be on there."

"You don't have to agree to be on here. Buying anything anywhere, making a transaction with any retailer, means you are tacitly agreeing to have the details of the transaction be on record."

"Tacit-who? Look, kid. I don't need this shit, or you and your goddamned fancy words. I just want you to finish ringing me up so I can get the hell out of here." Joe thought back to the previous incidents that day—being asked to leave All-Mart, that strange reception at the pharmacy. "Damnit. Tell me what the hell that review thing says about me."

"Well, for instance, there is one review here. Did you recently return a toaster oven to one of our competitors?"

"Yeah, but—"

"And despite the return policy being posted quite plainly at multiple locations within the store, as well as on each receipt, you attempted to return the oven without your receipt and beyond the stated timeframe for returns."

"Yeah, but those rules are just—"

"And then when informed of the store's return policy yet again, and when offered store credit in the form of a gift card—even though the store was in no way obligated to offer you such a thing—you began yelling and slamming the counter, swearing loudly, and calling both the young female employee and the manager present unrepeatable names."

"Those damn fascists," Joe muttered, remembering the incident.

"Or here," continued the cashier. "At the local grocery store: you routinely pick up items and then later deposit them in various, incorrect places around the store."

"Oh, now it's a crime to change my mind?"

"It creates extra work for store employees, who could better use that time directly serving customers."

"That's their damn job," Joe grumbled.

"Furthermore, it directly affects other customers, who may be unable to find an item they wish to purchase because it has been moved from its correct location."

"Look, that's happened, like, one time."

"It's been recorded each of the last five times you've been there. In addition"—and now the cashier leaned forward, reading directly from the screen—"'customer is often rude, argumentative, and uses inappropriate, foul language'. And look here, you often use the express lane despite having more than twelve items."

"This is some goddamned ridiculous bullshit, you know that? You little punk. I don't have to stand here and take this—get a damned manager over here."

The cashier sighed, picked up a telephone receiver. "Manager to Six, please."

Joe smiled at the young man, anticipating a change in his fortune. Both their fortunes. He'd get this kid fired, by God! Within a minute, a sharp-dressed, skirted woman approached. Obviously the manager.

"Tacitly watch this," a smug Joe told the cashier. He opened his mouth, ready to explain the whole thing as he saw it to this lady manager.

She nodded to him in courteous acknowledgment, "Good evening, sir," and then turned her attention directly to the pimply young kid. Joe's mouth hung in the air.

"What's the issue, Kevin?"

Joe stood, trembling with a growing fury, while blood rose to his head. He listened to the cashier recount their present conversation, gesturing several times as he did so to the screen from which he had been reading those review things. The woman nodded often, made sounds of understanding, studied whatever the cashier indicated. At last, she turned to Joe.

"Thank you for your patience, sir. I understand the situation has been amply explained to you."

"You must be joking." Joe felt himself shaking, and there was a pain growing around the area of both temples.

"I'd like to offer you this coupon," said the manager, holding out a slip of paper, "for your next visit. We would like for you to return. Just get those scores up a bit."

Joe did not take the coupon.

"We do maintain a 3-star level here at Bullseye, and your average review of 2.90 is just below where we would like our customers to be." She leaned in close, lowering her voice. "To be honest, this business of going over the head of an entirely competent, lower-level employee because you believe that a manager will simply acquiesce to your demands is precisely the type of behavior that will keep on earning you poor reviews. I'll cut you a break today, because we have a broken door sensor. It should have stopped you ever getting into the store. So you did have a valid reason to be upset, although the cursing and the poor attitude certainly aren't needed."

"I have a bad attitude?" demanded Joe. "You people have the shitty-ass attitude, you got that?" He broke into a very long and very curse-filled rant—an inspired monologue—which hit all of the major swear words, utilizing several variations and compound-constructions for many of them; he dabbled in some sexist comments and tossed in several off-color instances of a term for the female reproductive organs; then, as a finale of sorts, he even added a few bits of physical violence (kicking a cart, knocking over a display).

By now, two security guards and a uniformed police officer were approaching. Joe stalked away from the register area and brushed passed the officer and the security guards. They turned and followed him towards the exit.

"I'm afraid," the manager called after his retreating form, "I'm going to have to write that review after all. And it won't be a positive one." She shook her head.

Beside her, Kevin let out a long whistle. "What a nutjob," he said.

Belinda, his manager, gave him a brief, disapproving glare, before a smile cracked her face. She laughed lightly. "I'm sorry, Kevin. That was an ordeal, huh? Why don't you run back and take a breather? I'll cover your register for as long as you need."

 * * *

"Sir?" The thin man with glasses cleared his throat. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to leave. Perhaps come back another time." The bespectacled manager smiled. Behind him, standing quietly with hands clasped together, a security guard watched. The badge on the guard's breast gleamed.

Joe nodded. With a weary sigh, he turned and exited through the door which he had only moments earlier entered. The manager and the security man walked along with him.

"You know," Joe said, when they were standing outside, "this is crazy."

The last three weeks since the incident in the Bullseye had been much the same for Joe nearly everywhere he went. Again and again, he was shooed away, asked to leave; or if not banished, then followed around stores, up and down aisles, by watchful security men. Watching him.

"I am sorry," the manager replied. "But here at the Wholesome Health Hut, we take customer reviews quite seriously. Unfortunately, your customer history isn't presently up to our standards."

"Yeah, yeah," Joe muttered. "My rating."

Ever since the reviews had come to his attention, he found himself more and more often being turned away from a variety of different establishments. At first, like the incident at the Bullseye, he responded with outrage. But this seemed only to aggravate the situation. In just a matter of days, he accumulated several more poor reviews, which only added to his problem. Now he was being denied service almost everywhere.

"How can you turn people away?" Joe asked. "You're a grocery store. How's a person supposed to get food? It isn't right."

"There are other alternatives, of course," the manager said. "Although we hope that you get your rating up—we'd love to have you back as a customer. In the meantime, I believe there is the chain grocery store over on Center Road. They offer special membership conditions for customers such as yourself. And of course, the majority of the fast-food restaurants." The bespectacled manager shivered as he spoke of them. "Many of those still cater to all classes of customer."

"Yeah, yeah," said Joe. He turned and began to walk out to his parked car. "Thanks for nothing."

 * * *

Joe drove across town to the chain grocery store. It was always his second choice behind the Wholesome Health Hut. The produce in particular was always inferior. Often over-ripe, over-priced, and not locally grown. And now he had no choice but to shop there anyway, all because of this new customer review nonsense. He felt himself growing angry simply thinking about it, but forced himself to relax. That's exactly what they want, he thought bitterly. These damn fascists.

At least, he thought, taking a sip from his cup and then replacing it in the car's cupholder, he could still get his Sunburst coffee. His rating hadn't dropped that low yet; however, it had dipped enough that he was now having to pay their premium, high-risk customer prices. That pissed him off, of course; and that first time he had yelled at the barista and earned himself yet another poor review. But after swearing up a storm and promising that he wouldn't ever be back there to buy coffee, he returned three days later. That's as long as he could last: three days. What was he going to do, not drink coffee? He loved Sunburst coffee.

So he joined their high-risk customer program, and got his card. It worked just like any rewards program. He was charged a higher rate than regular customers, whose ratings were in good standing. After some number of drinks, five or six, he was able to get his next coffee for the regular price. It was a lousy program, he thought, glumly. What kind of reward was a drink at the regular price? But goddamnit if he didn't need his Sunburst coffee every morning.

Presently he pulled his car into a spot, parked, and entered the grocery store. No one came to stop him or block his way, or prevent him from shopping. He was allowed to wander the aisles with his cart, getting the items he needed without hassle. He noticed with a twinge of irritation that he was careful not to put any items he changed his mind about just wherever he could stuff them out of sight, like he previously would have done. He glanced around for cameras or for anyone watching him, thinking more than once that there was a security guard keeping tabs on him. Or was he just doing his usual rounds? Joe couldn't be sure. Christ, he thought, they're turning me into a damned paranoid.

His cart filled and everything on his list crossed off, Joe made his way to a checkout lane. He glanced around nervously, expecting any moment someone to approach and inform him that he couldn't purchase anything after all, that a mistake had been made. But no one came, and momentarily he was unloading his cart onto the conveyer as the female shopper in front of him took her change from the cashier and moved to collect her bagged goods. Joe watched her walk away, and then turned to the clerk—a young man—who smiled in greeting.

"Hello, sir. Do you have one of our cards?"

Joe fumbled through his wallet; he did indeed have a card for this place, because even though he didn't care for it, he shopped here sometimes since this chain store was closer to his home than the Wholesome Health Hut across town. He found the card and handed it over to the clerk, who scanned it into the system. There was a beep.

The cashier offered the card back. "Mr. Singwell?" Joe nodded, bracing himself. He took back his member card and mechanically returned it to his wallet. He was so tired, he wondered if he would have the strength to scream and shout when the cashier told him to leave. Except the cashier said no such thing. Instead, the young man began scanning his items.

Joe said nothing, watching the cashier scan and bag. Any minute, he thought, this little twerp is going to tell me I can't buy this stuff after all. Joe clenched and unclenched his fists. At last, the final item was scanned and placed into a bag. The cashier punched a couple buttons on the screen and then looked up at Joe.

"I can tell you've had a bad time lately," the young employee said. He leaned forward towards Joe, lowered his voice. "Between you and me, my rating was pretty low there for a while, too. I've been practicing being a better customer, and sometimes when I'm working, I like to give folks a break." He pressed a few more buttons on the screen. "I'm going give you the valued member discount, today. Knock a few dollars off that total for you." He smiled, face full of kindness.

Holding his credit card in his hand, preparing to swipe it, Joe paused. He looked at the credit machine. "What's my new total?"

"There it is," the clerk said, pointing.

"Christ! That much?" Joe muttered. "That's still pretty damn expensive." He slid his card through the machine.




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!

A Customer Review:

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.