The six months on Planchar, waiting for the Acid Rat to be fully repaired, gave Joey time to really become one with the team. He and Vic spent a great deal of time flying the Iron Butterfly. June even taught Joey how to fly it.
Joey flew it the day they all went back to Earth. He and June stood on the scorched Earth waiting for the rest to disembark.
He and June had spent a great deal of time together. During the move off their base from Munchkada to Planchar, at the request of Chancellor Pitrine, the two of them had grown closer. Much closer. He put his arm around her shoulders and she slid her arm around his waist.
He would have smiled, as her touch always made his smile, but the complete emptiness of the streets unnerved him. Nothing moved. Not even the air. Everything had a red haze in the hot, stale air. The sun burned far brighter than it should have and if it weren’t for the special sunglasses June had gotten him, he was certain he’d be blind.
Vic exited the Acid Rat first. He no longer wore his black pants, black boots, black vest with his white shirt. He now wore white pants with a red shirt.
Argmon, next off the ship, had healed. He refused to have any prosthetics to replace his missing arms. He looked lopped-sided with two arms on his right side.
Finally Dexter waddled off the ship. They’d probably all be dead if it hadn’t been for Dex. The suspicion Joey felt for the tri-ped had dissipated over the past six months and they’d had quite a number of their own little adventures.
Behind the three of them, a large cart carrying two coffins exited the ship.
“Where are we?” Joey asked.
Vic put his arm around Joey’s shoulder and pulled him away from June. “Kid, if you’d been on Earth, you wouldn’t have lived to see this place. This is San Diego in the future as you would have known it. I came back here and didn’t find anything to explain what happened on the planet when the sun went mini-nova. I don’t think I’d want to. It’s bad enough to just look at it and know that everyone is gone. It’s just you, June, and me, kid.
“I tell you what, I don’t feel as bad as I thought I would. I thought it would be hard coming back for the third time, but I think knowing that I’m not alone anymore, or even alone with June, I feel somehow better about it. You know what I mean?”
Joey guessed he knew, but seeing everything intact and no people, he didn’t like it. He felt sick looking at it.
“Kid, don’t dwell on it. Let’s get going.”
Vic led the way down the street.
“Where are we going?” June asked.
“Well,” Vic said as he turned around and started to walk backward. “I’ve got to bury my dad.”
“Who’s in the other coffin?” Joey asked.
“I figured since none of us knew where Joop-Nop came from, I’d bury him here as well. He didn’t do much on the ship, but he didn’t deserve what he got.”
Vic turned back around and kept walking. Joey sidled along side of him and matched his step. Vic held his head high as he walked. Joey did likewise.
They came up on an ancient cemetery. The headstones all bore marks of age, but because no more air moved, they had to have eroded long ago. They were ancient even before the sun went mini-nova. That put things into perspective.
Vic made his way through the headstones unerringly and stopped in front of a small, flat headstone and bowed his head. June pulled Joey back.
“Give him a minute.”
“That’s his mom’s grave. I guess he’s going to bury his dad here too.”
“Yup,” Vic said, raising his head. “They were meant to be together. Even if dad lost it in the end.”
Vic turned and picked up a shovel off the cart. Joey looked at Vic’s clean clothes.
“You’re not thinking of digging a hole, are you?”
“Oh hell no.”
Vic placed the shovel in the ground and gave it a turn. A section of dirt moved aside as easily as opening a door. He then pulled a control from his belt and pressed a button. One coffin rose off the platform and with the control, he guided the coffin into the hole, turned the shovel, and the matter was over.
“Quite impressive,” Joey said.
June hit him. Vic knelt down and pressed his closed fist to his head. He could have stayed there for a long time. Joey looked about the cemetery. Maybe his parents were buried here as well. Maybe he could find their grave site.
“Don’t,” said June. Almost all of these graves…”
“I’ve got to look.”
“Okay, if you’ve got to look, there’s a directory inside the office. That’s how Vic found his mom.”
Joey didn’t even wait for June to stop talking before he sprinted to the office. The glass had been smashed out, presumably by Vic. The map on the wall had faded in many areas and the writing, tiny writing, was barely legible. None of the plots were in any kind of order. So many graves. So many dead people. How could anyone…
“Provoski,” he muttered to himself. “Joey Provoski…Senior.”
Tears welled up in his eyes. The next plot he saw Alice Provoski. The writing had nearly faded away, but he could see their names. He had to see their grave. He just had to.
He ran from the office. He barely noticed June, Dexter, and Argmon sitting on the cart with the second coffin. He ran through the cemetery. Their plot sat at the far end. He ran the entire way. By the time he arrived in front of two crumbled head stones, he had to gasp for breath. The hot air made it extremely difficult to breath.
Please have lived a long life. Please. Please.
He looked first at his mom’s. The writing on the stone was all but worn away. 1966-2056. She’d lived to be ninety. Ninety years old. At the base of the stone only partial words could be made out. Joey’s imagination filled in the blanks. “I will never forget my baby boy, Joey.”
He wiped the tears away with his sleeve.
On his father’s it read “I go now, to be with my boy, for I’m sure he has gone ahead of us.” And the date, Joey had to read it twice. 1963-2097. he’d lived to be one hundred-thirty-four. Joey sat looking at the dates, amazed his dad hung on so long and right up until the end he thought about…
Joey crumbled to the ground and cried. If only he could have been there. Somehow the finality of his parents being dead brought the reality of what he’d gone through to heart. He could have easily continued living in ignorance, but he had to know. He had to see for himself. That didn’t make it easy. He pounded the ground with his fist.
He could have been there five minutes, or five hours. The sun hadn’t moved in the sky, and his friends waited, patiently. All four waited for Joey to return on his own. The second coffin was no longer on the cart.
June hugged him as soon as he returned and Vic slapped him on the shoulder.
“That’s as tough as it gets. Trust me on that one.”
And Joey did. He trusted Vic. He would trust Vic with his life for as long as they both lived.
Vic smiled and adjusted his sunglasses. “Should we go see who needs something shipped?”
B.T. Justice scratched at the wall with a rock he’d procured from the yards. Yards where big rocks were made into small rocks. Yards where he had to toil in the sun for hours a day and he’d lost nearly all of the paunch he’d once carried around. If nothing else, the six months he’d spent on the prison planet, Brakthanian, had gotten him into the best shape he’d been in since attending the academy.
He wanted out. He needed out. He needed a hamburger. None of that would happen though, and he knew it. Today, just like every other day, he’d go out to the yard and hear the warden shouting over the P.A. system “All you criminals need to think about why you’re here toiling under the hot sun making big rocks into little rocks.”
The pain of sore muscles he’d gotten used to. The annoying and constant prattle of the warden he hadn’t. He doubted he ever would.
Only one thing kept him going: getting out. Getting out of the prison and tracking down Vic and Argmon of the SS Acid Rat. The crew that had eluded him and defamed him and gotten him thrown into prison. It was their heads he saw each time he brought him hammer to bear on a rock. It was their skin he scratched, not the wall, to mark off the days he’d served.
The six months were nearly up. Soon, very soon, he’d be out. He wouldn’t be a Sheriff anymore, but that didn’t matter. Only one thing mattered. He had to find the SS Acid Rat. He had to put an end to them.
“Buford T. Justice! Get up. Time to go to work.”
Justice eyed the guard. He stashed the rock back under his mattress and rolled out of bed. The guard led him to the yard.
The sun hadn’t crested over the peak of Lifesaver Mountain, the name given to the mountain because it saved the prisoners from the first three hours of direct sunlight. They’d work a couple hours more before lunch, then sweat away the afternoon under the blazing sun. If it hadn’t been for that mountain, many a man would have died.
B.T. Justice looked up at the peak of the mountain. A ship, a large blue and gold ship, crested the mountain and descended down toward the prison. A blue and gold ship that Justice recognized as the Apprehension. A smile crossed his lips.
“Junior,” he said under his breath. “Bring me a hamburger.”
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Vic looked at his crew; no, not his crew anymore. His friends. He didn’t know how to break it to them. How did he tell Argmon that the shipping business would close its doors? How did he tell June, a woman who would rather spend time in space to help her forget about Earth, that he didn’t want to fly any more? And Dexter, hell, he didn’t really even understand Dexter or the tri-ped’s motivations. Joey would probably take the news best. He’d only been with them for a short time.
All of them rushed, but Vic held up his hands. “No hugging! No hugging! I’m still in bad shape. I don’t need any rib crushing hugs right now.”
In all honesty, he did. Even though he wore new clothes, he noticed that June and Joey wore new clothes as well, and he looked good, he wasn’t certain as to his condition.
The smell of food, real food, not hospital food, entered his nose. All thoughts of telling them anything faded until he could eat a decent meal.
“Is there anything to eat?”
June smiled and led him to the table where the remains of breakfast sat. “I can order you something. The government is picking up the bill.”
“I don’t want to wait that long.” Vic put his hand to his stomach. It rumbled in response.
“Well, there’s plenty of left-overs.” Joey picked up a plate with a half eaten omelet.
Vic sat and ate. He only paused when he finally looked at Argmon and noticed the bandaged left side of his friend. As if feeling responsible for June and Joey being here wasn’t enough, now his father had gone and wounded Argmon. Another burden he’d have to carry thanks to his father.
“How are you doing?”
Argmon patted the bandages and shrugged.
“I’m sorry that happened.”
Argmon shook his head and chuffed.
Even though Argmon didn’t blame him, Vic still felt guilty.
But why should he? He hadn’t made his dad pull the trigger. He’d tried to stop him as best he could. No, he shouldn’t feel guilty for what his father did.
He couldn’t shake the feeling. He hadn’t gone back to see if his father had survived. He hadn’t come searching for his father sooner. He hadn’t stopped when everything his father had done to try and stop his shipping business. He had driven his father to do what he did.
“Vic, stop,” June snapped at him.
“Stop what?” Vic looked at her, confused.
“Feeling sorry for yourself. Like all this is your fault. We’re all big enough to make choices for ourselves.”
“I’m sorry, Vic. I just don’t want you to take the blame for everything that happened. You weren’t there when I pushed the button in your father’s machine.”
“But it was my father’s machine that sent you here.”
“Vic,” Joey said. “I did the same thing. I went in there and pushed that button.”
“Yeah, but my mom put you up to it. How do I not take blame for that?”
“Because you’re not your mom,” said June.
“I understand that. I should have never come after my dad. I should have stayed home and torn that machine apart.”
Joey sat up. “The hell you say. I mean, I didn’t have a bad life, but I always dreamed of something better. I never thought I’d end up in outer space. Granted this isn’t anything like what I had expected it to be like, but I’m here. I’m alive. I didn’t die a nobody back on Earth like everyone else.”
“But you didn’t get to live out your life either. You’re here instead.”
“And maybe I’m supposed to be here.”
“You two calm down,” interceded June. “Now this isn’t getting us anywhere. We’re not going to talk about who’s at fault. Vic, I wanted to talk to you about the business.”
Finally it was out. Vic put the fork back on the plate, wiped his cleanly shaven face with his napkin and looked up. He looked from one to the next. Argmon, Dexter, Joey, and finally June. He had to word this carefully.
“I’m getting out of the shipping business.”
June gasped. Joey wrinkled his brow as if he hadn’t heard right. Dexter blinked his eyes out of synch. Argmon barked and yowled.
“Stop! Stop. Stop. I’ve had a lot of time to think about this. After what my dad said and after he stuck a knife into me, I did a lot of thinking about what he said.”
June held her hands up. “He’s wrong.”
“Just give me a minute to explain. I don’t think he was wrong. I mean, he’d built his machine to search the galaxy, to answer the mysteries of life, and to discover the unexplored. What did I do when I got here? I went to work. I didn’t go seeking any greater good. I didn’t do anything my father would have. I’ve wasted time I could have spent doing things for the benefit of people, not just for myself.”
“But Vic, you have.” June shook her head. “Look at the people here on Planchar. They worship you. You’ve brought them a shipment of something that could save their people and their planet from possible destruction. When no one else would help them out, you took a risk and you did.”
“I nearly got us all arrested.”
“But you didn’t.”
“Then I took us on a bet. A dare. And I nearly got us all killed. I acted irresponsibly.”
“If I even knew what that meant…”
“You make snap decisions. That doesn’t mean you should stop the shipping business. It just means maybe you need to take some time before making a choice and maybe even a little input on those decisions. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”
“Huh?” Vic sat up in his chair. “What do you mean?”
“What I mean is I wanted out. I almost left. On Munchkada I had an appointment to buy my own ship. I thought I could do this job better than you. I don’t need to do this job better than you. What I need is for you to listen to me. And not just me, but all of us. I need you to stop being so headstrong and listen to us. Your crew. Your friends.”
Vic looked at the food on the table, not really seeing anything. He had to process all that. Was she right? Did he just need to listen? Had he really been doing what his dad would have been doing? No, but then he wasn’t his father, was he? He’d grown into his own man. He’d started a business with Argmon and they’d done quite well for themselves. They’d done quite well for everyone on the crew.
He looked up. June crossed her arms. She didn’t look stern as if she’d intended to be mean, but she looked ready to counter anything he could say against not staying in the shipping business.
Joey, his innocent face still bruised from his battle with Mike, looked more grown up somehow. As if the week he’d spent in space had somehow brought him into manhood. He had an edge now and didn’t look like the soft creampuff Vic met.
Dexter, well, he was still Dexter.
Argmon narrowed his eyes at Vic, waiting for an answer.
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Joey tried to scream, but the gag prevented him from doing so. He twisted and fought his bonds to no avail. June also thrashed in her seat trying to get free and get to Vic. He could feel her trying to break free.
Dexter, after the first blindingly fast kick, kicked Hector a second time. Joey had taken one of those kicks and it had knocked him out. Hector looked to be affected, but he didn’t go down. He took blow after blow from Dexter.
Dexter kicked and knocked Hector through the balcony doors. A final kick and Hector flew over the railing. No scream ever came. Hector just slipped over the railing and disappeared.
Vic groaned. This prompted June to begin her thrashing once again. Dexter darted over to June and untied her hands. She stood up and promptly fell back down into her seat. Dexter next untied her legs. She untied her gag as she hurried over to Vic.
Joey felt his bonds slacken and he pulled at his gag. Once his feet were free, he rushed to June’s side.
“Check on Argmon. He was shot.”
Joey didn’t question, he just reacted. Even when he heard June say, “Hold on Vic. I’m going to call a doctor. Hold on, oh God please hold on.”
A wash of sorrow erupted from June and flooded onto Joey, nearly knocking him to the floor next to Argmon.
The big dog-thing had taken a hit, that much Joey could make out, but with all the blood, it was difficult to tell where. Argmon still breathed, but lay in a massive pool of his own blood.
Joey finally figured out what wasn’t right about Argmon. The shot from the blaster had taken his two left arms. They had been blown away in an explosion of blood. Joey gagged, then vomited behind the door.
“Joey! How’s Argmon? A medical crew is on its way. They’ll be arriving at the balcony any minute. Joey?”
Joey felt much better after throwing up. He looked over Argmon’s wounds. As best he could tell, the blaster had cauterized the destroyed limbs. The only blood must have been from the destruction of the limbs.
“Argmon? Argmon?” Joey nudged the Shathar. “Argmon, wake up.”
Argmon’s throat rattled, but he didn’t move. The big guy would live, Joey felt certain of that.
“He’s going to be okay, but he lost two arms.”
“What?” she screamed and ran into the room. “Dammit, where’s that medical car?”
She disappeared. Joey didn’t know what to do next. He couldn’t lift Argmon. He had no medical training at all. He felt helpless.
Sirens filled the air and bright green and yellow lights flashed about the room. Joey backed out of the way as four heavily muscled men entered the room and in a matter of two minutes, strapped both Vic and Argmon onto stretchers and disappeared back out the balcony, leaving June, Dexter, and he alone in the wrecked rooms.
“What happened?” Joey asked, still staring out the broken balcony doors.
“I heard them say they need to pick up one more down below. That must be Hector. Dex, I think we all owe you our lives.”
“Eep. Eep. Eep.”
“Don’t be modest.”
“Eep? Eep? Eep?”
“I’m sure Vic and Argmon will be fine. They’re in good hands now. Vic lost a lot of blood…”
“Argmon too. Look at it all.”
Joey wrapped his arms around June and hugged her, fighting back tears as he did. No matter how strong June sounded, her fear radiated out from her. When she started crying, he did too.
When they broke apart, June called the front desk. New rooms were found and all three went to the same room. Dexter took the couch while June and Joey took the bed. They’d exchanged their robes for pajamas, but that didn’t matter. Sleep didn’t return.
When the sun did finally peek up, all three got up without a word and got ready. June phoned and found out where Vic and Argmon had been taken, so they left the hotel and took a cab to the hospital.
Vic had been put into intensive care for a severed artery and punctured lung, but Argmon was released. His left side where the two arms were missing had been bandaged. Argmon not only looked tired, he looked downright beat. They returned to the hotel with him, not being able to get in to see Vic.
June and Joey talked about Earth and the differences between their times. They didn’t laugh or joke, but spoke in somber tones about Earth.
It wasn’t until the following day that they were allowed to see Vic, and only then for a brief time. And even then, only June had been allowed to go inside. All the while Argmon stood with his head pressed against the door as if he’d be able to commune with Vic through the door somehow.
“So when do you get out of here?” June fought to keep her emotions in check. She could feel Vic’s pain deep in his gut. She didn’t want to make him talk a lot, but she needed to know a few things.
“Soon.” Vic coughed.
“Can I bring you anything? Anything special you want when you get out?”
His voice came out low and strained as he spoke. “A beer…and a smoke.”
“That’s so like you.” She didn’t want to beat around the bush any longer. “Vic, your dad, he’s dead.”
Vic closed his eyes and nodded. “I kind of figured that must’ve happened if all of you were still alive. How’s Argmon?”
“Well, your dad shot off two of his arms.” Vic winced at this news as if he’d lost the arms. “The Chancellor said there may be hope for prosthetics being that they were sheared off cleanly and if he would accept them, the city would present them as a gift.”
“Argmon’s not one to take charity.” Vic coughed again. “You don’t have a smoke on you, do you?”
“Vic, we need to talk about the business. About the shipping.”
“Yes, we do, but here isn’t the place and this isn’t the time. We all need to talk together when I’m doing better. The doc said my lung is nearly healed, just some excess fluid or some such thing. I’ll be out of here tomorrow.”
“I think that’s a great idea. Tomorrow. With everyone. We can have dinner and talk. As a team, not a crew.”
“Miss, I’m afraid your time is up,” a mechanized voice said.
“I’m going to miss Tootsie,” replied Vic and he closed his eyes.
June took his hand and gave it a quick kiss before leaving.
Back in the waiting area she let the others know Vic would be out the next day. They adjourned to the hotel, dined, and slept. During breakfast, Vic arrived.
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The old man’s eyes, beady and black like death, bore into Vic’s face. His face, wrinkled and covered with a thin beard and moustache, frowned.
“What are you doing here? I thought you were dead.”
Vic’s dad, Hector, stepped to the side of Joey, releasing his grip and allowing Joey to gasp for breath. He wore long, pale-red robes tied off at the waist with a thin, black belt.
“That was your first problem. You thought. Never did you think properly, did you? Always you thought you knew better. Always you thought you were right. You haven’t changed. Not one little bit.”
“Dad, you don’t look so good.”
“Don’t I? I waited for seventy years for you or your mother to come and save me.”
“Dad, I didn’t know. You even said yourself that time moves differently…”
“Don’t talk back to me. I wanted you to suffer as you made me suffer when you left me to rot back on that planet. A prisoner. That’s all I’ve been since I got here. A prisoner. I wanted to roam the galaxy and make it give up its secrets. I wanted to see everything. I should have been allowed at least that. But no, I was captured and jailed and because I wasn’t a telepath, I couldn’t defend myself. Each word I spoke just lengthened my sentence.”
“I didn’t know…”
Hector pounded his chest as if to free his voice. “Do you know how difficult it was to see you arrive? My boy. I wanted to hold you and tell you how glad I was to see you, but I couldn’t. I wanted out. And you showing up, nearly helping me to escape. When the escape pod ejected from the exploding ship, I waited, and waited. I waited to see you come back and save me. To save Bakcha.”
Argmon growled at this name. The name of his brother.
“Bakcha tried everything to signal to you, but your ship just kept pulling away. Bakcha fought and resisted, but they killed him. Do you understand? I had to see him die. I had to see you leave.”
“Dad, I saw the ship explode. Argmon saw the ship explode. We didn’t think anyone could have survived.”
“Even if you hadn’t come back for me, I could have forgiven that. I could have understood. I escaped from there three years ago. I came to find you. My only son. The fruit of my loins. The one to carry on my legacy. And what do I find? My son, a common criminal, gallivanting about the galaxy doing petty jobs for petty people and squandering his time with a petty business.
“I didn’t build my machine to come into space so I or you could use it to become a crook.”
“So you tried to kill me?”
“Not at first. I tried small things to deter you from your path of crime. I made things difficult for you. I reported you several times to GCP Central Office so they could start a case against you. But that did no good. Your crimes, they said, were so small that they couldn’t be bothered with trying to collect you.
“Two years ago I put a plan into action. Two years I’ve been trying to bring you down, boy. I couldn’t see you continue to run our family name into the ground. I hired Mike and we started to watch you from afar, then I saw how you picked up miscreants and outcasts. Mike fit into you crew quite well, don’t you think?”
Vic’s mouth fell open. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“I didn’t know Mike had a screw loose or I would never have used him. I didn’t want you dead, not at first. I had him try everything to get you to stop. Damn you’re a stubborn one. Even with your ship on fire and on the verge of breaking apart and being pursued by the authorities, you still didn’t stop. Even after your ship crashed, you still didn’t stop. I’m convinced now that nothing will ever stop you. Ever. Except this.”
Hector pulled a dagger from his belt. Vic, even in his weakened state, knew his father, old beyond belief, couldn’t fight.
“Dad, what are you thinking? I’m your son. I don’t want to fight you.”
“Then you make this all that much easier.” Hector swung his arm back and swiped the dagger across Joey’s face. Joey winced back.
“Hey! They’ve got nothing to do with this. You leave them alone!”
“Oh, so you’ll stick up for this lot, will you? Where were you when I needed you? You never tried to help me. You left me, your own father, to rot on that hell hole of a planet. Do you know what being locked up that long can do to a person? Do you!”
Spittle flew from Hector’s mouth as he raged. He gnashed his teeth and lunged at Vic. He stopped when Argmon growled, pausing for a moment to pull a gun from the folds of his robes. He raised the gun and fired it at Argmon. With a howl Argmon fell to the ground.
“No! Stop this. These are my friends.”
“And you’ll all die soon enough.” Hector tossed the gun to the ground and rushed Vic with the dagger.
Vic sidestepped and tried to grab his father’s wrist. He was rewarded with the blade puncturing his hand. A sharp intake of breath and he pulled his hand back and gritted his teeth. Hector look frenzied by the blood and pressed his advantage. With a scream he leapt at Vic.
Vic did manage to catch Hector’s wrist, but the weight of the old man pushed him backwards. The back of his legs caught on the bed and he fell over backwards.
“Yeeeeooooowwww!” Hector screamed.
With the weight of Hector behind the point of the blade, Vic couldn’t stop its advance. The pain wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be as the blade entered his stomach. He closed his eyes and coughed up blood. It couldn’t end like this. After all they’d been through. It couldn’t.
Hector leaned down and whispered into Vic’s ear, all of the insanity gone from his eyes. His voice sounded like that of a priest. “I couldn’t let you disgrace me, Victor. This is the way it has to be.”
Vic couldn’t move even if he wanted to. The blade in his abdomen felt like it sucked his life out.
“Be still now, Victor. It’ll all be over in a moment.”
Vic tried to raise his arms, but he couldn’t move. No! It couldn’t end like this. After all they’d been through only to die at the hands of a crazy old man. It just couldn’t end. Not now. Not like this.
“Dad. No. Please.”
As his vision faded, Vic heard something hit the door and crash it inward. A green blur crossed his fading sight and he his father’s weight disappeared. Vic laid his head back and heaved a struggled breath.
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Vic woke screaming and sweating and sat bolt upright. The waves of pain sent his body crashing back down. The doctor had given him a heavy sedative, but his dreams forced his mind to waken. In his mind he had to watch as Argmon was ripped from the Acid Rat and into the vacuum of space and Mike tore June and Joey to shreds just as he’d done to Joop-Nop. Then, over and over, Mike pounded his fangs into his shoulders, reopening the barely-healing wounds.
Vic grabbed his nightshirt as if pulling it off would help him catch his breath. He took a gulp of water from the glass on the night stand and spilt some on himself. He even poured a small amount into his hand and washed his face with it.
“Why? Why am I having these dreams?” He looked over at Argmon sleeping on the bed on the opposite side of the dim room. The Shathar hadn’t moved all night as best as Vic could tell. He envied his friend.
Vic caught his breath and got out of bed. He didn’t need any more sleep. He relieved himself and strode out onto the balcony. Fresh air. That’s what he need. A good lungful of fresh air.
The balcony overlooked the heart of Contaminar. Though the air still had the sting of pollution in it, Vic still wanted to be in the open air; something he had never needed before. Strange that he needed it now. Not just strange, but highly out of character.
He liked the cramped confines of the Acid Rat. He’d spent more time on that ship than anywhere else in his life. Why should he suddenly long for the open spaces? Could it be guilt? The guilt of losing crew members and systems weighed on him, but not to the point he’d want to give up his life of roaming the galaxy.
Could it have been the guilt of putting the sole survivors of Earth into jeopardy? He’d put himself at risk when he was alone and it never bothered him before. So why should it bother him now?
No, it wasn’t that. Something else clung to the back of his mind. Something he’d forgotten about. Something he needed to take care of. He’d taken care of securing the remains of Joop-Nop and Tootsie (Tootsie hadn’t survived the crash and couldn’t be fixed). He’d eluded the over-zealous sheriff. He’d made his delivery for Almo. He gave an initial statement to the authorities about Mike.
Mike! Damn! The boss. That’s what he had forgotten about. He turned and went back inside, closing the balcony door behind him. He’d gotten everything off the ship. Everything that is save the box Mike used to talk with ‘the boss’. He must’ve hidden it, but where? They’d taken everything off the ship except the Iron Butterfly.
That had to be it. Mike had stowed away on the Iron Butterfly. He must’ve hidden it there. Could he have been in contact with ‘the boss’ just before he attacked June and Joey? It had to be there.
“Argmon. Argmon! Wake up.” Vic tossed his bedclothes on the bed and dressed in the new clothes Chancellor Verbiddi made available. “Argmon!”
Argmon growled and rolled over to face Vic.
“We need to get to the ship. We need to check out the Iron Butterfly.”
The growl from Argmon said “Do it tomorrow.”And Vic new better than to argue.
“Fine, you stay there and sleep. We need to check out the Iron Butterfly. Mike had something on that little cruiser that he communicated with the person who hired him. It’s still got to be there. We need to get it and put this whole thing to rest.”
Argmon needed no further prompting. He sprang to life. A quick shake of his head and fur and he looked ready to go. Vic finished dressing and headed for the door. He reached for the knob and stopped. Something pulled him back into the room. He cocked his head and tried to listen. He couldn’t hear anything, but he felt something. Something that wasn’t right. It felt different than the nagging sensation he’d forgotten something, almost like someone inside his head…
Vic rushed to the door between his room and June’s. Locked! He hit the door with his shoulder then wished he hadn’t.
Argmon pulled him out of the way and bashed the door down with a solid hit. The darkness of the other room felt heavy, almost panic filled. Argmon started to go in first, but Vic pulled him back and listened into the room. There should have been some reaction from June and Joey. They couldn’t be sleeping that heavily. Not to sleep through the breaking down of a door.
Not only wasn’t there any noise of them getting up, but he couldn’t hear any noise of them breathing in their sleep. The room felt wrong. It felt evil. Just as he had been drawn to the room, he now wanted to rush out of the room, to get away from it.
“Come and join us,” an aged voice said softly.
A tingle of recognition ran down Vic’s spine. He knew that voice, but from where? Why should a voice he knows be hidden inside this room?
“What have you done with June and Joey?”
“Don’t worry. They’re safe, for the time being. Take a seat.”
A chair slide across the floor and stopped just in front of him. Argmon growled a deep growl. Vic put his hand up. “Let’s see what he has to say first.”
Vic sat the chair aside and didn’t sit down.
“Suit yourself. Either way, you’ll be dead soon.”
The flatness, the almost businesslike way the man said this froze Vic’s blood. It hadn’t been said maliciously, or evilly. Just factually. Vic looked at the chair, but remained standing.
“Where are June and Joey?”
“They are still here and they are with me. I assure you that they will not be harmed until I have dealt with you.”
“Who are you?” The familiarity of the aged voice begged to be identified. Vic knew this person. He had to. There couldn’t be any other explanation to how he could hear the voice and feel comfortable and nervous at the same time.
The lights came on. June and Joey sat in chairs facing Vic. They’d been tied up and gagged. Vic felt June’s thoughts and fear immediately, her eyes wide with fear. Joey looked as if he wanted to struggle, but a hand on his shoulder caused the kid to wince in pain with pressure applied.
The hand, that of an old man, was attached to someone Vic knew well. Very, very well. A man that shouldn’t be here. A man that Vic had seen die. A man that he knew to be dead for seven years now. A man that couldn’t possible be here in this room now. It just couldn’t be. It couldn’t.
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Part 3: Payoff
Joey popped a piece of fruit into his mouth. He could have eaten any of the food on the table, but he started with something that looked a lot like melon, but tasted more like butter. The smooth, creamy delight slid down his throat like taking in a bit of heaven.
He looked back at the table, certain that anything he tried next would taste just as good. Since he’d arrived in this new reality, he’d only eaten a scant amount and his stomach demanded he eat.
“What next?” he asked himself. The reddish meat? The yellow and blue vegetables? Some cream or sauce? He took a swig from a glass of green wine and grabbed a chunk of the meat.
“Hey! Where are your manners?”
June walked into the room wearing only a thick, pristine-white robe and drying her hair with an equally white towel. It had been her decision for the two of them to share a room. Vic and Argmon shared an adjoining room — that door presently closed and locked — and Dexter had taken up residence in a third room. The hotel rooms had been provided to them while they waited for the ship to be repaired. Vic said it would take at least a few months for that to happen with the extent of the damage both from the landing and the stress of skirting two black holes.
“I didn’t think anyone was watching,” he replied, wiping his hand on his robe and leaving a streak of gravy across it.
“What am I going to do with you?” she asked, shaking her head. She tossed the towel onto the maroon couch and took a seat across the table from Joey.
“So, feel better?” Joey hadn’t realized how bad all of their conditions had been. They all arrived back on Planchar with torn clothes and covered in black grime from the fires on the ship, not to mention the multitude of cuts, scrapes, and bruises each of them had suffered. A doctor had been dispatched and done a patch up job on each, all save Dexter who escaped with little more than a bump on the head.
“Much. It’s been weeks since I last had a shower and didn’t have to worry about how long I took.” She heaved a heavy sigh and leaned back into the chair. “I just hope everything turns out alright.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean we’ve still got to bury Joop-Nop. None of us even know where his home planet is, so we were going to bury him here on Planchar.”
“Not to mention the computer for the Iron Butterfly and Tootsie and even SPX-39 are all gone. Plus we’ll all be interviewed regarding Mike and what happened with him. There’s still so much we need to talk about.”
“Wouldn’t they split us up if they were going to interview us about Mike?”
“Why?” June looked confused for a moment then she laughed. “They can tell if you’re lying. Remember, you’re not on Earth anymore.”
“Oh. Is that why they let us collect all our things from the ship.”
“Well, that and they also did a complete scan of the ship. Anything they needed they already got.”
“Oh.” Joey felt silly for having asked. He hadn’t even considered that in a place where space ships are common, why wouldn’t the criminal investigation equipment be equally superior.
June sat up and scooped a serving of meat onto her plate followed by some of the blue vegetables. “Argmon may be a good cook, but he’s limited by the variety on the Acid Rat.”
Joey joined in the serving of food. “Why aren’t we all eating together?”
“Well, both Vic and Argmon were given sedatives. The doctor didn’t want Vic up and about for the rest of the day and light duty if any for at least two weeks. He also gave Argmon a sedative because he’d been awake for nearly three days and his body couldn’t take anymore. He gave them each a vitamin shot and said they’d wake up hungry. So we’ll just save them a bite to eat.” June’s smile faded and she ate.
They exchanged few words during the repast. The flavors of the food and the feeling of his stomach swell put Joey on a food high that couldn’t be beat.
When June had finished, she got up and went to the bed. She flopped down onto it. Joey, not knowing if he should join her, said, “I’ll just sleep over on the couch.”
“The hell you will. You deserve to sleep on this bed as much as I do. Get over here.”
Joey flushed. He’d never shared a bed with a girl. Girl hell, June was a woman. He felt the food inside his full belly shift around unnervingly. He took a long draught from his wine glass, finishing it, and went to the bed. He laid down, trying not to lay too near June.
“What are you doing way over there? This is a king size bed and I’m not going to bite you.”
“Well.. uh… I just…” Joey scooted over slightly.
“Oh for Christ’s sake.” June grabbed him by the robe and pulled him toward the center of the bed. “There.” She put his arm around herself and nestled her head on his chest. “Just relax. I have the feeling we won’t be waking up until some time late tomorrow.”
Joey smiled a wide, boyish grin and gripped June’s shoulder. Leaning his head into her hair, he could smell her, just her, for the first time. The clean, fresh scent of her hair and her body lingered in his nose and as his heavy eyelids fell, he slept.
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Vic’s mind raced. What to do first? Check the ship? Check on Argmon? Get out and make sure the delivery is done.
“June, help me out.” Vic struggled with his seat belt. He had to get out. Panic overtook him being strapped in with so many things to do. He’d never felt so helpless.
Once June had freed him from the seat, he sprang up, as much of a spring as he could manage that is, and climbed the ladder and made his way to the cockpit. The canisters had toppled backwards and rested against the rear of the cargo hold.
Still no response. Vic passed the bunk room and lounge and started to climb the ladder to head to the cockpit, but stopped when he felt a breeze on his face and the stench of pollution assaulted his nose.
He came to the realization to what that meant quickly. “No!”
Climbing to the top of the ladder, Vic could see outside, the entire front end of the ship missing. Only the ragged fragments of metal showed where it had been torn free.
Gone. They were both gone. His first friend he’d met in space, the one he’d traveled the stars with and shared many adventures with. Gone. Argmon, in order to save the lives of the rest of the crew had remained in the pilot’s seat until the end. The ship could be repaired. They had money enough to repair the ship, but Argmon…
Vic’s lower lip trembled.
“Vic?” June called up. “Vic why can I see daylight? What’s happening?”
Vic didn’t answer. He climbed back down and looked at her, the look of confused shock on her face. Joey stood behind her and placed a hand on her shoulder.
“No. It can’t be. It just can’t be.”
She shook off Joey’s hand and bolted for the ladder. Vic caught her and hugged her. She beat on him, fighting to be free, but stopped and sobbed into Vic’s chest. Vic placed his head into her shoulder and cried.
“It’s not fair,” June wailed. “It’s just not fair. Damn you! Damn you and your stupid business!” She pushed him away violently. “To hell with you and everything you’re about!”
June turned and pushed Joey out of her way.
Vic looked at Joey. Vic wanted to say something, but the lump in his throat prevented him from doing so. He patted Joey on the shoulder and they slowly followed June.
It’s over. It’s really finally over. Vic thought. He had June and Joey and Dexter and if they really wanted to, they could certainly try again, but to what end? The Acid Rat, Argmon, Joop-Nop, Tootsie, Mike, even SPX-39. All gone. All based on a whim, a dare, a bet. Only four of them would walk off this ship. No amount of money was worth this.
Vic wiped his face before he walked down the exit ramp, followed by Joey and Dexter. June had already left and ran into the city. She had a tracking device that he’d be able to use later to find her, if it came to that. For now, though, she needed time to be alone.
A crowd gathered around the Acid Rat and fire craft extinguished the flames both on the ship and in the town. Argmon had brought the ship down on a long street and they’d nearly made it to the landing pad they had started this bet from. It felt like a million years ago.
No cheers greeted them on this arrival and no delegation came out to congratulate them. People just gawked and stared. What else could they do?
“Make way. Make way!” someone shouted.
The person happened to be Almo and his small companion. Vic didn’t even know if they’d made it back on time and frankly didn’t even care.
Almo’s face spoke of anger. Vic put his thumbs in the pockets of his pants and waited.
“It’s not possible! It’s just not possible. No one could make that run in less than twenty four hours. I refuse to accept it. You cheated somehow.”
Before Vic could respond, another man broke through the crowd. Chancellor Verbiddi pushed his way to stand next to Almo. “What is the meaning of this? There’s a mile of destruction here. Who’s responsible for this?”
Almo pointed at Vic. “It’s his fault.”
Verbiddi’s shocked expression spoke volumes. “Is this true? Please tell me you didn’t do this.”
Vic shrugged. “I’m afraid it’s true. My ship crashed. I went to Raado to pick up a shipment for Almo here and he said he needed it within twenty four hours. I did my best to comply.”
“Twenty four hours to Raado? No one could make a trip there and back in such a short time.”
Joey spoke up, “We used the gravity of a couple of black holes to speed us up.”
Almo and Verbiddi exchanged gaping looks of disbelief. Almo stomped up the ramp and looked into the ship. After several seconds of staring into the ship he spun around.
“The containers are damaged, I’m not paying.”
Verbiddi shook his head. “Are you saying that you did send them for this delivery?”
“So based on your unrealistic expectations, they tried to deliver and upon their return they destroyed part of the city as well as their ship?”
“It would appear so,” Almo said, cocking his head back and narrowing his eyes suspiciously at Chancellor Verbiddi.
The Chancellor rubbed his chin and looked from Vic, to Joey, to Dexter, to the ship, and finally at Almo. “Based on what I’ve been told, Almo Petrino, and I know your shady dealings despite your monetary contribution for the shipment of tonindrium, you are the one responsible for the damage suffered to the city. Therefore not only are you going to pay for this shipment that Vic has delivered, you are also going to pay for the repairs of his ship. Furthermore, you will also be paying for the repairs of the city and a hefty fine. I don’t know what you were thinking when you made this deal, but your irresponsibility caused all this to happen and you shall make proper restitution.”
“But…but…but,” Almo floundered for words.
“I suggest, Almo, that you leave my sight before I decide to include a lengthy jail sentence on top of what you’ll be paying.”
Almo tried to say something, but only squeaks and jabbering spewed from his mouth. Finally the little one, Paul Petrino, started pushing Almo off the ramp.
“Let’s get out of here. Let’s get out of here,” the little one kept saying.
Once they had left, Chancellor Verbiddi turned to Vic. “Vic, I am sincerely sorry for what has happened to your ship. I hope that is the extent of your losses.”
“I’m afraid we lost more than that.” Vic looked at the ground. “I think V&A Shipping is going to close up shop. Even if Almo pays for repairs, I don’t think the SS Acid Rat will be doing any more business.”
“I’m truly saddened to hear that. You have done so much good. In fact, in the twenty four hours you’ve been gone, the load of tonindrium you brought has been put to use clearing our air. With all the joy you have brought us, I would hope that you would reconsider. I’m sure someone somewhere in the galaxy could use your services.”
Vic smiled. “I’m sure you’re right, Chancellor. But after a trip like the one we just did, the expense has gotten too high. Far too high.”
“I understand. I shall make sure that proper compensation is made by Almo. You are welcome to stay on Planchar for as long as you and your crew wish. Every convenience will be made available to you.”
“Thank you.” Vic shook Verbiddi’s hand the Chancellor walked off into the crowd.
“So, kid, what should we do now?”
Joey stared wide-eyed out into the city. “I hadn’t gotten a good look at it before. This city is huge.”
Vic chuckled and slapped Joey on the back. “Kid, you ain’t seen the half of it.”
Screams and barking from the crowd caused Vic to look. People moved out of the way and one head rose above all others with long arms, four of them, covered in yellow fur urging people to move faster.
“Argmon!” Vic yelled and ran down the ramp to greet his friend.
June pressed her face into her hands. She wanted to cry. She wanted to scream. She wanted to hit something, or someone. The maelstrom of emotions inside her battled and raged and made her ache.
Why Vic? Why did you have to be such an ass. Why did you have to take that stupid bet? Why did I have to push that stupid button that got me here? Why did Mike have to be a murderer? Why did Joop-Nop and Argmon have to die? Why? Why? Why?
She sat in an alley, on a strange planet, in a strange, polluted city, behind strange smelling garbage, and felt her sanity slipping. This all had to be a strange dream. Just a big dream. She would wake up any minute and be fifteen once again and lying in her bed back home. Any minute. Any minute. All she had to do was escape this dream.
The tears on her face told her that wouldn’t happen. This wasn’t a dream and she would never go home again. She’d been there with Vic and that was the reality she needed to face. Here people would die. Stupid decisions could be made and bad things were bound to happen. She just needed to distance herself from the stupid decisions maker.
But that meant she would distance herself from Vic and Joey. The only other two surviving people from Earth. No matter how much she wanted to be free of them, she also needed them. Like a child with a security blanket, she needed them. A tie back to her home world. Something she could touch and feel to let her know that even though the Earth as she knew it lay destroyed, a small part of it remained.
June beat her fists on the side of her head. She wanted to hit something. She had to hit something. Nothing made sense, yet it all made perfect sense. If she returned to the ship, she had to make sure Vic knew exactly how she felt. He wouldn’t be the one making choices for everyone and putting lives in danger because of stupid decisions. Everyone on the crew would have the same voice. Everyone.
Taking a deep breath and closing her eyes, June steeled herself to go back and face the devastation of the Acid Rat. She stood, and walked out of the alley.
Sitting back in the alley, she had heard the noise, but hadn’t identified it as being voices. People, thousands of them, had sprung up out of nowhere and now surrounded the ship. She’d just run into the first alley she’d seen and the way had been clear. Now she needed to push and fight her way back to the ship. Their heads in her way made it difficult to see anything, but she guided herself by the ship and pushed her way toward its hulking wreckage.
When finally, after being pushed, prodded, elbowed, and stepped on more times than she could count, she emerged at the ramp of the Acid Rat.
Vic instantly saw her and shouted something. Over the din of the crowd she couldn’t make out anything, but his smiling face and his arm around…
She ran up the ramp and wrapped her arms around the big beast. He reciprocated by picking her up and hugging her with all four of his arms. He smelled of smoke and singed hair, but he lived. He had somehow lived.
Argmon put her down where she could hear Vic talking a thousand miles a minute. “…and I never knew the ship had an ejection pod. Apparently once the ship suffers so much damage, the pod ejects automatically keeping whoever is in the cockpit alive. Argmon is alive! Isn’t that great?”
June smiled, laughed, cried, and hugged Argmon again. He had survived the crash. All five of them had.
All of them exchanged hugs. Joey she hugged the longest. Something about holding him made her feel warm inside. Something about his innocence led her to believe that everything could still be alright.
When she’d gotten her emotions back under control she leaned in to talk to Vic. “We need to talk.”
He smiled and nodded. His smile shone differently and not just because his moustache had been burned mostly off. She could sense a turmoil of emotions from Vic. Emotions that mirrored her own confused jumble. She smiled back. They would talk. Later. Much later.
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Sheriff Justice rubbed the stubble on his chin. He’d need a good shave once he had the SS Acid Rat in custody. A shave, a massage, and a long nap. He’d have to look his best when they arrived back on Bamda. Parades were sure to ensue as well as interviews, media appearances…
“Sir, we’re getting a transmission from Planchar.”
“Put it through.”
A tight smile crossed his lips. He’d called ahead so the local authorities on Planchar could detain the SS Acid Rat. This must be their call to notify him that they’d succeeded. All he would need to do was collect the ship and return to Bamda. Of course he’d owe a debt of gratitude to the local Sheriff, but he’d make good on that debt.
The vibration of the ship had settled to an annoying buzz that tickled his feet. They couldn’t be more than twenty minutes from the planet if that. The speed at which they traveled spurred his adventurous spirit. For a brief moment he thought of himself traipsing across the stars and going from planet to planet…
“Sheriff B.T. Justice, you are to maintain your present course en route to Planchar. If you deviate from your course, your punishment will be even more severe. I am waiting for you.”
The image of Counselor Pitrine caused the thin-lipped smile to curl into a snarl. He narrowed his eyes and glared at the officer that had put the communication through. The officer held up his hands with a look of complete surprise. He’d been duped. They must have been turned in by the Planchar local authorities.
Justice stood straight, adjusted his uniform, and turned to address the counselor.
“Counselor Pitrine. What a pleasure…”
“I’m warning your Sheriff Justice. If you deviate from your course and force me to pursue you, you’ll find yourself on Brakthanian for the rest of your life making big rocks into little rocks. Stay on course.”
He leaned conspiratorially down to the officer and whispered. “Could we change course even if we wanted to?”
The officer typed on the controls. “Sir, I think our brakes are out.”
“Well, we can just reverse the engines.”
“Sir, the engines are not responding. They may have been damaged during the pursuit.”
“Are you telling me that we have no engines and no brakes?” Justice asked, louder than he needed to.
“Counselor Pitrine, I’m afraid you may want to clear a path for us. We’re coming in fast and have no way to slow down. I shall have to use the atmosphere of Planchar to slow us down.” He leaned back in to the officer. “Get those engines running.”
“Sheriff Justice, I’ll not take your comments lightly, but I must insist that you not approach the planet. You must slow your speed, you’re coming in far faster then we anticipated.”
“We just used two black holes to increase our speed and the gravitational force has hindered the operation of our systems. I’m afraid that we won’t be able to slow down.”
“Well…uh…We shall clear a path for you. But you are not to land on the planet.”
“I’m afraid we may not have much of a choice. If we don’t have brakes or engines, we’ll have to circumnavigate the planet in order to slow our speed and then land.”
“Negative! We will track your ship’s course and once you’ve slowed enough, we shall use tractor beams to tow your ship. Once we have your ship under control, you’ll all be placed under arrest.”
“Daddy, er, sir, I have an idea.” Junior’s face beamed. There was no time for such foolishness, but the boy persisted.
“What? Cut audio on the transmission.”
“If we slingshot around the planet, it’ll slow us down, but we can then use the thrusters to break orbit and head here.” He paused to point to another planet in the Planchar system. “They’ll take up pursuit, but due to our speed, they’ll never catch up. We’ll slingshot around that planet, back to Planchar, now clear of the blockade, and head down to the planet surface and pick up the Acid Rat and be on our way.”
“You get your stupidity from your mother. Get out of my way!” he hit Junior with his hat.
“Counselor Pitrine, we’ve nearly got what we came here for. Dammit, turn the audio back on. Counselor Pitrine, we’ve nearly got what we came here for. Just let us pick up our target and be on our way.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that. You’ve broken more laws in the past two days than the entire crew of the SS Acid Rat has broken over the past several years. I’ve deployed twenty drones to intersect with the Apprehension. They will slow your ship as you traverse the planet. I’ll see you in my office in one hour, Sheriff. Don’t be late.”
The image of Pitrine faded from view.
That was it. It was over. Finally all over. Not just the chase, but everything. And without anyone to blame it on. He’d spoken to Pitrine several times. He thought about trying to talk his way out of it in order to catch the Acid Rat and get back home, but Justice was painfully certain that would come to no avail. Not even a clever plan from Junior would see them out of this one.
“I need a hamburger.”
“Daddy, I need a hamburger.” Junior walked away.
“Now the boy gets that from me.”
Justice sat in his chair and planted his face in his hands.
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The vibration of the ship had softened, of that June could be certain based on the speed that the light overhead pulsed and flickered. Twice she’d vomited as the continual shaking had the effect of being on a merry-go-round too long.
They had to be out of the gravitational field of the first black hole for the shaking to have slowed. Perhaps they were now escaping the pull of the second black hole and nearing the neutron star that would slingshot them to Planchar. She didn’t know and didn’t want to think about it anymore.
“Eep? Eep? Eep?”
“No Dexter, I’m not going to throw up again. I’m feeling better. It’s just the shaking. I need it to stop. At least Joey and Vic are out of it. They’ll be fine.”
June looked up and out the door of the weapon’s room. Mike’s body had vibrated across the floor and was now in view.
“Tootsie,” she said and cursed herself. Tootsie’s systems were all tied up and she waited for the annoying buzz that she couldn’t respond.
Instead a beep resounded. “Yes, June. How can I help you?”
“Tootsie? Why aren’t you navigating the ship?”
“My processors are now freed up. We’ll be clear of the neutron star shortly and should be on the ground on Planchar in fifteen minutes based on current speed calculations.”
The weight that held June’s shoulders down for the past day lifted. Soon they’d be back. This would all be over. They’d make this delivery and…
“Is the police cruiser still pursuing us?”
“Yes. It is currently five minutes behind us. They took a slightly more aggressive route and gained on us over the past two hours. I lost their transponder for a short time and thought they had destructed, but they only lost focus on two of their main antennas. That has been restored.”
“How do you know that?”
“I’ve been in continual contact with their ship. I didn’t want anything to happen to the Apprehension. Vic left me with instructions that I shouldn’t do anything to upset him, and if that ship had followed us and been destroyed, that would have upset him. So I assisted their craft through the…”
“You assisted?” June asked incredulously.
“If that ship had been destroyed it would have been due to our not stopping and that would have garnered the attention of Galactic Central Point Central Office. So I helped them through knowing that it would be better to have them catch us instead of them being destroyed and us facing Galactic Central Point Central Office.”
That made a bizarre sort of sense. “Thanks Tootsie.”
“Eep. Eep. Eep.”
“It looks like we’re going to make it Dexter.”
“Eep. Eep. Eep.”
“I don’t know what I’m going to do after this. I mean, if Vic gets that payoff for this load, that’s going to be quite a lot of money.”
“Eep. Eep. Eep.”
“No, I don’t think I’ll go into the shipping business. I’ve had about as much of this as I can take. Still, I don’t think I want to just up and leave Vic all alone. Or Joey either.”
“Eep. Eep. Eep.”
“You may be right. I guess we’ll just wait and see what happens after we land.”
Tootsie interrupted. “Hold on, we’re going to come out of hyperspace hot. Sensors show a barricade around the planet.”
“How are we going to get around that?” June asked, mostly rhetorically, but Tootsie still responded.
“I’ve already contacted the lead ship and we’re clear to pass. The blockade isn’t for us.”
“Who is it for?”
“I couldn’t get that information. Regardless, we’re coming in fast. I can slow us down, but we’re not going to slow down all the way before we hit the….”
Tootsie faded into a static hiss. She’d never done that before. June wiped her sweaty hands on her pants as the vibration of the ship worsened. Vic and Joey had gotten the lucky end of this nightmare. At least they could sleep through to the landing.
A warning light flashed to life and warning siren sounded; the same fire warning.
“Nothing we can do about that one!” June yelled to Dexter.
“Eep! Eep! Eep!”
“We’ve entered the planets atmosphere.” Tootsie boomed over the noise.
“Why are we shaking so badly?” June asked in a shout.
“I’m using the friction of the atmosphere to slow us down. I’ve lost my brakes and several systems are down. We also don’t have any landing gear.”
“Tootsie, just get us on the ground as softly as you can. I don’t want to hear any more about what’s wrong.”
“We’re in gravity’s hands now. I’ve done all I can. Argmon is steering us as close to the landing site as he can. I’ve already contacted those around the area that we need a long slide area for landing. The area is being cleared and we’ll be on the ground in two minutes.”
Two minutes of pure hell. The ship was falling out of the sky at break-neck speed and Tootsie, despite being loud, still sounded calm as ever. Of course, she was a machine, but still June had thought she’d sound a little bit concerned.
June gritted her teeth, closed her eyes, and held on. Coming in hot with no brakes, what a way to end this run.
The vibration stopped for an instant, then started up with a vengeance, rattling every part of the ship. June wanted to say a prayer, but honestly didn’t see the need at this point. If they were going to die she just wanted it over with already, but if they were going to live, well, she just wanted to be on the ground and off this ship.
The two minutes disappeared in a blur and the vibration gave way to a thunderous slam that had to be the ship coming in contact with the ground. The ship lurched from side to side accompanied by a deafening screech that could certainly wake the dead. June opened her eyes and wasn’t surprised to see both Joey and Vic wide-eyed. Vic opened his mouth and must have said something, but June shook her head and pointed to her ears. Nothing would be heard over the screeching.
The sound lowered to a dull roar and groaning as the ship slid to a stop. The sensation of rising in the air frightened her. The ship had stopped, hadn’t it?
As if in response to her questioning, the ship slammed back down and all the lights on the ship went out.
“Destination, Planchar, arrive,” Tootsie said flatly.
June rubbed her ears, but that didn’t stop the ringing. She wondered if anything would at this point.
Vic rubbed at his moustache. Joey gripped his head. Dexter unbuckled, seemingly unfazed by the events, and ran from the room in a blur.
They were back, but had they made it on time? For Vic’s sanity, she hoped so.
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A heavy bang followed by a massive jolt of the Acid Rat tossed Vic from his rack and onto the floor. The intense pain that shot through his body forced his tired brain to activate. The smell of smoke hung in the air.
Vic rose to his hands and knees. The ship vibrated so badly he fell twice before being able to keep his balance. His entire body, down to the stem of his brain, ached. Just keeping his eyes open proved to be a struggle. But this was his ship and he was the captain. He needed to find out what was going on.
All other bunks were empty. He stepped in something on the floor and nearly slipped, but managed to keep his balance by putting his hand on the wall.
Walking along the passageway proved to be nearly impossible with all the vibration. His vision permanently blurred, Vic’s stomach leapt into his throat and he vomited. Again he collapsed to his knees. He could have been there a minute or an hour, he didn’t know.
A lurch of the ship bumped him into the wall. He sprang to his feet and began to make his way to the cockpit. Argmon needed help. Even if it was only moral support, Vic needed to be there with him. Pain be damned he would make it to the cockpit and sit in the captain’s seat until they landed back on Planchar. Nothing would move him from that chair this time.
By the time he neared the cockpit, he had to crawl; the vibration of the ship was so severe that he couldn’t remain standing. He fumbled his way into his chair and took several breaths before looking at Argmon.
Argmon’s face looked haggard. He’d been awake for what had it been? Two days now? Three? It didn’t matter, Argmon was not just a crew member, no one on the ship was just a crew member. They were his friends and he’d let them down. He needed to make things right.
“Argmon. Let’s stop.” Vic’s voice quavered with the vibration of the ship.
Argmon hadn’t moved. Vic placed his hand on the pilot’s shoulder. “Argmon?”
With the slightest gesture Argmon pointed to a small display. Vic looked at the shaky image. He noticed the blue and gold.
“They’re following us? Through two black holes?” Vic couldn’t believe it. Something so minor as to be considered petty theft to GCP Central Office, yet this Sheriff still pursued them. Never had any continued pursuit off planet and the few that had never left their own solar system. Never. The zealousness of this one couldn’t be explained by anything other than obsession.
“If we stop, they’ll catch us, won’t they?”
Argmon nodded slightly and chuffed.
“Either that or we’ll plummet into a black hole. So we’re stuck. We need to finish this course, or we’re done for.”
Again Argmon nodded.
Vic massaged his temples. Too far. This had gone way too far.
Tootsie responded with a deterring buzz.
“Is Tootsie tied up helping you pilot?” Vic asked.
Argmon nodded once.
“Is there anything I can do up here?” Argmon shook his head. Once.
“Okay, I need to check on the rest. I want to make sure everyone is strapped in. We’re almost beyond the second black hole and damn we’re moving fast. Once we’re around it, it’s a short jaunt around that neutron star and we’ll be coming in hot to Planchar. Unless I miss my guess, we’ll be there in an hour.”
Argmon didn’t respond. Vic didn’t know whether to be happy or dismayed by that.
Instead he got to his feet and set out to find the others.
The kitchen and captain’s quarters both sat empty. That didn’t surprise him. What did surprise him was the black ceiling. Smoke had billowed up and into the cockpit. A heavy fire had to have broken out, but from where? Vic followed the smoky trail, slowly, and held onto the wall to keep his footing.
The lounge also sat empty. He looked in each bunk and found those empty as well. On the floor, though, he saw what he’d stepped in.
“Joop-Nop? No! What happened to you? Who could have done this? Certainly not the vibration of the ship?”
Vic took the time to scoop up as much of Joop-Nop as he could and placed his remains into a trash bag. He gently placed the bag onto a rack and buckled it in.
Vic took a moment and tried to think of what could have happened. Joop-Nop couldn’t have just fallen apart because of the vibration of the ship. Something, or someone, must’ve torn him apart. But who?
He set out for the cargo bay. His answers had to lie there.
“God let June and Joey be safe.”
With everything else that’d gone wrong, he couldn’t bear the thought of something happening to one of them. He knew June to be tough, but he felt more responsibility for them being on the SS Acid Rat than the rest of the crew. The rest he’d offered to help and they accepted. June and Joey merely pushed a button on a machine his father built. They unwittingly found their way to this ship and it wasn’t fair for him to drag them around the galaxy. It just wasn’t and he intended to set things right as soon as they landed on…
Vic saw the charred top of the container. A huge fire had broken out indeed. Why hadn’t it been put out straight away? The computer from the Iron Butterfly had been efficient in putting them out, why had this one raged?
Unless someone disabled it? Who? Oh God! No! Could Mike somehow?
Vic looked down into the cargo bay. Joey leaned up against the fire-damaged container.
“Joey!” Vic yelled. The vibration of the ship was so loud that he knew Joey couldn’t hear him. Vic made his way slowly, painfully slowly, down the ladder. Three times he had to wrap his arms around the rungs to keep from being tossed to the floor.
He worked his way around the container to Joey.
“Kid! Wake up!”
The yellowish streak leading away from Joey didn’t look promising, but it couldn’t be blood, it had to be from Mike. Vic confirmed this thought by the broken arms laying in its wake as well as chunks of flesh that could only have come from Mike’s body.
Joey had a number of small cuts on his blackened face, but he looked alright. Vic laid Joey down and felt all over the boy’s body looking for any sign of broken bones or damp spots in his clothes that might indicate he bled.
Joey looked beat up, but nothing worse. His pulse remained steady.
“That’s one blessing, eh kid?”
Vic struggled to drag Joey and finally had to stop. The strain proved too much for Vic’s body. He’d have to find Dexter and June. He’d never be able to get Joey and himself buckled in before they arrived at Planchar.
A lurch knocked him down. He winced as he shoulder hit the floor.
Around the corner of the container Mike sat, his body broken. Yellow goo oozed from the remains of his body. Even though Mike had tried to kill him, Vic cried at the sight. Mike had been a good crewmember and friend. He’d been a little odd at times, but after a year with him, Vic felt his heart crushed by both his deception and his death.
“Why’d you have to turn out to be a bastard? Why!?”
Vic continued to work his way past Mike. Several times he stumbled. He laid on the floor and didn’t want to get up. He just wanted to stay there and die. Joey was okay, June had to be okay. It must’ve been her that put the fire out. Or Dexter. Either way, Joey would be alright. He might get a little banged up on re-entry, but he’d survive.
Hands rolled Vic over onto his back.
“Vic! Vic?” the voice sounded far away as if in a dream.
“Eep! Eep! Eep!”
“Take him to the weapons room. We need to get him buckled in. I’m going to see if Joey is alright.”
June! She was alright. June and Joey would be alright. As Dexter dragged him across the floor, Vic closed his eyes and smiled. They were going to be alright.
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