Monday, April 1, 2019

April 2019 - Featured Story of the Month


 

The Live Ball Controversy




Sandusky, Ohio - May 25th, 2003

by Adrian Garrett 

Were Dark Forces Behind the Dragons' Magical Championship?

I've been covering this team day-to-day for almost twenty years now, this sport for my entire post-graduation career, and I've been a fan my whole life. Believe me when I say that I've never seen anything like it before. Not even close.

The Dragons were a team that seemed fated to win that year. Destiny. That word gets thrown around from time to time in pro sports. A series of lucky breaks seem to go a team's way over the course of a series, or a month, or even a full season. Every champion needs a lucky bounce every now and then. Occasionally, a team will seem to ride that luck for a full campaign, as if the universe itself—or some force in it—has pre-ordained them to be champions. The Dragons that season were like that, only to the nth degree.

Like I said, I've never seen anything like it, before or since.

Mostly, it was ordinary little things. A game-winning home run, a timely strikeout, an easy ball mishandled by an opponent. These are normal things you see over the course of a season; however, that season, it seemed to be happening nearly every night.

A dangerous ball down the line would land just foul if hit by an opponent; if it was off the bat of a Dragon hitter, then it would kick up just a hint of chalk, landing in play.

A Dragon pitcher, clearly gassed and throwing duds on the mound, would suddenly find a break in his slider so wicked, the opposing batter would swing himself onto the seat of his pants in the dirt at home plate.

An easy popfly to end a Dragon rally would suddenly get lost in the sun by the fielder, drop onto the turf, and extend the inning.

Over and over, all season long.

Nothing crazy, nothing unbelievable; but the sheer volume of moments added up to a team of destiny. Everyone felt it. By the end of the season, they seemed fated to win it all.

And as they began their run through the playoffs, it became more and more likely that the Dragons would be ending one of the longest championship droughts in both professional and semi-professional sports history. It had been more than a century—the club's entire history—and the Dragons had never won it all.

Yet despite more lucky bounces, timely hits, and every close call seemingly going their way, the Dragons found themselves in the heat of a deciding Game Seven in the final series. The championship was on the line and the Dragons were down to their last half-inning. Their final at bat.

Bottom of the ninth, down by one run to the defending champion Cougars. One out, with a runner—Kyle Kofax, the Dragons' speedy centerfielder—at first base.

Two outs away from their season being over. Two outs away from destiny being denied, their luck run dry at the most inopportune of times.

Two outs.

And then Francisco Garza hit a lazy bouncer right to the shortstop.



"You saw the video. You tell me what the hell happened."

- Dave Wilson, Cougars' left-fielder



It was an easy double-play ball. Even the speed of Kofax at first wouldn't be enough. A flip to the second baseman, over to first, and that was all she wrote. Season over. Another year added to the championship-less streak. So much for destiny.

Except the shortstop never managed to get the ball to the second baseman.

Years later, the shortstop, Phil Rogers, would insist that he simply mishandled the ball. The blood all over his hand and his glove he would explain away as a freak occurrence—the bouncing ball having caught him just right, splitting the webbing between fingers. Even when video of the play clearly showed him fielding the bouncer with his glove, securing it, and then reaching in with his bare hand, preparing to flip it on to the second baseman.

Not to mention that immediately after the game, eyes wide, hand wrapped in a bloody towel, he claimed that something had bitten him.

"The ball?" asked a reporter, drawing laughter from those nearby.

"Something."

Whatever actually happened to cause Rogers to drop the ball, what occurred next was even more bizarre.

The ball dropped at his feet, bouncing back between his legs. Rogers turned, reached down to scoop up the ball. And missed.

His fingers closed over the spot where the ball should have been, but it wasn't there. Still bouncing, the ball suddenly changed direction and rolled towards the outfield grass, as though propelled by some unseen force. As if Rogers had mistakenly booted it, although footage showed that he clearly hadn't.

"Guess it just took a wicked bounce," he said in the weeks following the game, shrugging. He didn't sound like he believed it.

Replays showed the ball impossibly changing direction in mid-air, moving laterally as if dodging Rogers's outstretched fingers. Upon landing on the dirt, the ball proceeded to roll—with purpose, some people claimed—away from the fielder and towards the outfield.

Rogers reach for the dropped ball put him off balance and he crashed to the dirt. He crawled after the ball on his hands and knees, still grasping after it.

The ball—by some accounts, consciously—scooted farther away from him, rolling with more energy than seemed possible, all the way to the grass.

By this time, speedy Kyle Kofax had reached second, and seeing the loose ball and struggling fielder, turned towards third base and accelerated.

Rogers, the shortstop, was in his path. For a moment, everyone held their collective breath as Kofax hurdled the player. Was he going to clear him?

Then, as if some invisible hand upon his back had pushed him to the ground, Rogers collapsed flat onto his stomach, whereupon he placed his glove over his head and gave up on the play.

Kofax sailed over him. Landed, legs pumping. Continued towards third.

Still, the play should have ended then, with Dragons on the corners and one out. Ahead by one run, the Cougars might have found a way to hold on for the win and the championship.

But that wasn't the end of the play.

Jared Albertson, the Cougars' third basemen, moving across the dirt behind Rogers to back him up, was close enough to run over and grab the loose ball.

He bent down, fielded it with his glove. And the strangeness continued.

As Albertson straightened up, eyes focused towards third base where Kofax was sliding in safely, the ball in his glove suddenly bounced up. An incredible time to lose control and juggle the ball!

Except Albertson claimed the ball "jumped". By itself.

To this day, he maintains that he didn't juggle it, didn't mishandle it. It jumped out of his glove. And right at his face.

Stunned, the Cougars' third baseman crumpled to the ground. The ball bounced farther onto the outfield grass. Albertson, his nose bloodied, leapt up and went after the ball.

Kofax, brushing himself off at third base, took one look at the loose, bouncing ball, and dashed towards home. He was the tying run.

By this time, Garza, the batter, was rounding first and digging for second. Luke Pierre, the Cougars' second baseman, was still covering the bag, incredulously watching his teammates knock the ball around like little leaguers.

To this day Pierre won't talk about the play or what he saw from his position at second base.

The crowd was up on their collective feet, yelling and cheering, sensing something mythical and magical was taking place. Their beloved Dragons, who had been carried through the whole season on the wings of fate and destiny, were being swept towards the end of a bitter, century-long curse; they were hurtling towards their long-coveted championship.

Albertson dove for the ball, missed (did the ball turn away from his hand?) and banged the ground in frustration. He picked himself up, ran after the (still) rolling ball, and somehow managed to boot the thing deeper into left field.

Kofax crossed home plate, tying the game.

The crowd roared, even as the left fielder for the Cougars, Dave Wilson, rushed forward to collect the ball. Albertson continued his pursuit and together the two fielders warily closed the distance, trapping the ball between them.

Ignoring good sense as well as his third base coach who was showing him the stop sign, Francisco Garza, the Dragon batter, rounded second and dug for third. All that either Wilson or Albertson needed to do was pick up the ball and throw Garza out at third, where the Cougars' pitcher was now covering.

Except the ball seemed to have other plans.

While the two Cougars tried to grab it, the ball bounced and darted and zipped between them. Off fingertips, off shins, off knees and gloves and shoulders. Finally, Albertson got a hold of it . . . only to see the ball squirt from his grasp, bounce off Wilson's head, and bound away from the pair.

Garza glanced over his shoulder, ran past the dazed Cougar pitcher, and headed for home. The coach stationed at third base—too shocked by the events he was witnessing—wasn't even waving him home. Instead, the coach held his head with his hands, watching the play unfold. His mouth hung open in disbelief.

In the outfield, Dave Wilson at last managed to pick up the baseball. Turning towards the infield, he wound up and prepared to fire a rocket throw towards his catcher. There was still a chance to get Garza out at home plate.

But the throw never came.

Video footage showed that Wilson dropped the ball suddenly, grimacing. As the ball landed at his feet, the left fielder shook his bare hand, face pained.

He, too, would claim immediately after the game that he had been bitten by "something".

"I don't know what," he responded curtly towards a follow-up question. "You saw the video. You tell me what the hell happened."

Analysis of the available camera angles by amateurs on the internet seemed to show something without explanation. Something impossible.

Many others, myself included, contend that the videos show only distortion caused by attempts to zoom in and slow down the footage.

However, the conviction of the believers is unshakable. They claim that the baseball in the available videos can clearly be seen chomping down on Wilson's fingers. That there is a mouth on the baseball, a mouth filled with rows of teeth. That the baseball is not a baseball at all, but some sort of living creature.

Setting aside the wild supernatural theories that arose based upon the supposed nature of a few pixels in the available online videos, there remains the simple fact that everyone watching in the stadium that day and at home on their televisions were witnesses to one of the strangest and most dramatic plays in the history of semi-professional baseball.

Francisco Garza crossed home plate and the Dragons won the game.

Everything else about the play might remain open for debate to this day, but not that. Not the final score.

And after enduring over one hundred years without a championship, after endless talk about a curse upon the team, after near glories and bitter defeats throughout the preceding decades, at last the Dragons were able to call themselves champions.


 * * *


So, are the fabled sports curses real? One thinks immediately of the Red Sox, the Cubs, the New York Rangers, and many other sports teams throughout the years, whom have at one time or another been thought cursed.

A bad trade. A greedy owner. A jilted former hero. There are all manner of potential incidents that the fans will point to, trying to find something to blame the failures of their team on. And after a while, maybe it becomes more than a bad run. An unlucky losing streak. Maybe it does become a psychological barrier to success, an expectation for disaster that feeds on itself and begins to manifest results that give the appearance of a team cursed.

So what is the truth in the case of the Dragons?

Was it a losing streak? Was it a curse? Were dark forces at work, keeping the team from reaching a title for over one hundred years?

And were similar dark magics used to defeat that curse?



"The price of this deal . . . was that Mason would get his precious championship, and in exchange, the team would be sold . . ."



In the aftermath of that final game, with replays of The Live Ball Play appearing all over the news and internet, rumors began to fly.

One of the most persistent: Daniel Mason, owner of the team, had suddenly and inexplicably gone blind before the start of the season. It's a fact that he began appearing in public always wearing a pair of shaded glasses. However, throughout the season, he was firmly tight-lipped regarding his vision, never commenting upon or answering questions regarding his sight.

Then, less than a week after the victory, his oldest son, Daniel Jr., was killed in a light aircraft accident.

Before the following spring, Mason had sold the Dragons to a mysterious and reclusive billionaire from Lebanon, Abdul-Zaman Khouri. Days after the sale, Mason's vision was said to have returned, reportedly leaving his doctors baffled. He no longer wears the dark glasses, which he was so often seen and photographed wearing during the magical championship season.

Did the Dragons' owner, Daniel Mason, make some sort of supernatural deal? Enlist some manner of magic to combat the negative energy of the Dragons' curse?

Was the price of that curse-removal the sale of his beloved Dragons to the strange Lebanese businessman, Abdul-Zaman Khouri?

Was Mason's son, Daniel Jr., part of the price of that championship?

One popular online theory to explain the circumstances of that magical year suggests that Mason made a deal with Khouri, whom either had the power himself or had access to those who could, by supernatural means, bring a championship to the Dragons. The price of this deal, according to the theorists, was that Mason would get his precious championship and in exchange, the team would be sold to Khouri after the season. Theorists further surmise that Mason's vision was a sort of collateral used in the deal. A cruel twist, when you realize that Mason got his championship season, but was unable to actually witness it! Perhaps afterwards, Mason grew reluctant to sell the team that had been in his family for three generations. The price of breaking the deal (say the theorists) was his son's life. Heartbroken and beaten, Mason eventually finalized the sale of the Dragons to Khouri. At which point, as per the agreement, his eyesight was returned.

Of course, all of that is merely one possible explanation for the strange events surrounding the Dragons' marvelous, magical championship season. It's simply speculation. Wild speculation, some would say. However, the play that earned them that championship, the Live Ball Play, is a matter of video record, even if debate continues about precisely what the video shows.

We may never know the truth of exactly what occurred that day, when the Dragons defeated the Cougars in one of the most talked about and analyzed moments in sports history. But then, isn't that better? Not knowing?

After all, if the truth were known, what would be left for us to discuss?



The author, Adrian Garrett, passed away not long after the publication of this article, due to sudden heart failure at the age of 49. At the time of his death, he was said to be working on an in-depth report concerning the reclusive Dragons' owner, Abdul-Zaman Khouri. That article was never finished and remains unpublished to this day. [-Ed.]



THE END
__________________________



Thank you for reading!

This story will remain free to read for the entire 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. Also be sure to check out my other published books and stories. Thank you so much!

The Live Ball Controversy:

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.