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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June sat up abruptly. Something wasn’t right. She coughed and rolled out of the bunk as the smoke overtook her. She stayed for several moments as she coughed and hacked trying to get a clear breath. Vic hadn’t moved, but Joey’s bunk sat empty.
She braved the smoke and pulled Dexter from the upper bunk and dropped him to the floor. He may end up with a concussion, but at least he wouldn’t die from smoke inhalation.
The smoke-filled passageway blocked her vision. Even on her hands and knees the haze blurred everything. For the first time she closed her eyes and reached out with her mind. Always the emotions she’d felt from others, she’d never gone in search of them. If Joey wasn’t in his bunk, he could be in danger.
She reached out and felt an immediate grip of terror. Not fear, but absolute terror. Something terrified Joey to the point he was certain he was about to die.
June crawled toward the cargo bay. Something told her that’s where Joey was and he needed help. As she crawled along his feelings changed. His emotions shifted from fear of dying to sadness to acceptance of his peril.
Emerging into the cargo bay she saw what scared Joey to death. Joey hung off the end of one of the containers and Mike — how had Mike gotten out of Tootsie’s stasis field? — pulled on his leg. Mike wouldn’t fall because of his spider appendages, but Joey, Joey would fall to a certain death.
Then Joey let go, grabbing onto Mike as he fell. He punched, kicked, and finally freed Mike from the side of the container. Both of them tumbled end over end down toward the floor of the cargo hold
“No!” she screamed in futility.
Mike punched back, but never stopped Joey’s relentless fury of blows. All the way down Joey punched and fought. June wanted to turn her eyes away, but couldn’t. She had to know how it all played out.
Joey, by nothing short of a miracle, ended up on top of Mike. Mike hit the floor first, his abdomen bursting and spraying yellowish gore in all directions. Joey bounced off of Mike and hit his head against the container.
She lost him after that. He had to be alright. He just had to be.
The ladder’s rungs took forever for her to climb down and the intense heat stopped her half way down. The first container burned and sent acrid, black smoke up into the cargo hold and finally into the rest of the ship.
“Tootsie!” She screamed. No response returned. Tootsie’s systems were still tied up navigating the ship. It just wasn’t worth it any more. Not at all.
“Computer? Whatever your name is!” The computer from the Iron Butterfly had kept the fires under control. It didn’t respond either.
As quickly as she could, she made her way down the rest of the rungs. Dead or alive, Joey would have to wait until she got the fire out. They kept some basic fire fighting gear in the weapons room. She just hoped it would prove enough to extinguish the tower of flame that now threatened the cargo doors of the SS Acid Rat.
She ran into the weapons room, grabbed the extinguisher — it had a shape like a rifle blaster except with a wide opening at the end — and ran back to fight the fire.
June aimed and pulled the trigger. Flames disappeared instantly, but still expelled a glut of smoke into the cargo bay. She worked the tool, aiming it higher and higher, but she couldn’t be certain if she moved too fast to get all the flames out. The black smoke grew thicker as the fire died out.
When she thought all the fires had been extinguished, she collapsed to the floor. Her eyes burned. Her lungs burned. Her head throbbed. Her muscles ached. She wanted to fall into a deep sleep and never wake up.
She couldn’t do that. Vic and Dexter were still alive and hopefully Argmon was as well. Their position in the ship demanded that she evacuate the smoke and refresh the air. She’d have to do this manually as well as Tootsie and the Iron Butterfly’s computer were both out of commission.
She crawled and clawed her way toward the engineering room. Her body didn’t want to move, but she had to. She just had to get there and flip the switch to turn the ventilators on and refresh the air inside the ship. She had…
A hand grabbed her wrist. She started. She looked up the arm and into Mike’s hairy face.
“No! I saw you die.”
Mike didn’t respond. He only had three arms left, and of those three, two hung limply on the sides of his decimated body. One eye twitched and refused to open and his lips peeled back in a wicked sneer as if he could actually stop her.
June shook Mike’s hand free and he collapsed to the floor. The fright had forced her to take several quick breaths, refreshing her slightly. She stood and staggered into the engineering room.
The controls had been jammed, most likely by Mike, but she easily regained control. She hit the switch to activate the ventilators. Once the light came on and she saw the graphic on the screen showing the air being recycled, she crumbled into the engineering seat and passed out.
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“What are you two laughing at?” Sheriff Justice asked with an air of annoyance. They’d been giggling and snickering like a couple of school girls for nearly five minutes and his patience had been pressed. If he had his riding crop he would have whipped them into silence.
One of the officers turned and looked up, his eyes wide with fear and he swallowed hard. “Well, sir, we were just looking at the speed at which the SS Acid Rat was pulling away. We’re already moving at the limit the ship will move yet they’re pulling away.”
“Am I on a ship of idiots? Are all of you that stupid? Of course they’re pulling away from us. They’re near a black hole and it’s pulling them along. It’s called gravity! We’ll move as fast as they do in a few minutes. If we were to try and go around, they’d get away.”
“But sir,” another officer chimed in. “Won’t our ship fall apart?”
“If that old hunk of junk can go in between two black holes and come out on the other end, so can we. The Apprehension is…”
A force caused the ship to lurch and Sheriff Justice lost his balance. He fell into the lap of one of the officers. He fought to regain his balance.
“What was that? Were we hit? Did they fire at us? Oh, tell me they fired at us.”
“Sir, they’re over two light years away. We’re far out of range. We came into the gravitational range of the first black hole. They’re on the other side now and we’ll lose sight of them for about an hour, maybe two, until we come out on the other side.”
Finally reports that he could use. “What’s our current speed? And what’s their speed? I want to know if we’ll be able to over take them before they reach Planchar.”
“Based on calculation, our speed is nominally above top hyperspeed. Their speed is currently three times normal hyperspeed and increasing.”
“Okay, will we gain on them?”
“Taking normal hyperspace theories into account along with the fact that no one has ever traveled at this speed, let alone come this close to a black hole, and survived…”
B.T. Justice took off his hat and started hitting the officer with it. “I asked a simple yes/no question. I don’t want a dissertation on quantum physics. Will we gain on them?”
The officer cowered and shielded his head from more hat assaults. “It’s not quantum physics,” he said and ducked more. “But no, we won’t gain on them. We’ll get there about thirty minutes after they do.”
Thirty minutes. They could do a lot in thirty minutes. They could leave the planet again. They could hide the ship as well as themselves. They could get away and he’d return home and have to face Pitrine with his hands empty. If he showed up with the crew of the SS Acid Rat then he’d be able to sway the government on Bamda to allow him to stay and not face prosecution. He had to catch that ship under any circumstances.
“Open a channel to Planchar. I need to place a call.” Justice seated his hat neatly back on his head. “We’ll get them this time. Oh yes, we’ll get them this time indeed.”
Something pressing into Joey’s chest woke him up. A fog still clouded his mind as he opened his eyes and saw Mike sitting on him. Several fast heartbeats passed before it registered the danger.
“Ah, you’re awake,” Mike said with a wicked smile. “I prefer my food to be awake.”
Joey reacted as fast as he mind would allow. His knee came up and connected with Mike’s abdomen. A hushed curse through gritted teeth earned a wider smile from Mike. If Mike had been human, he’d have been hit in a sensitive area, but as it was, the blow only glanced off his body.
With widened eyes Mike leaned his back and dropped his fangs. Joey gasped as the long white teeth descended. Without a thought he wrapped his hands around the fangs and pushed up. The fangs were smooth and slippery, but only pointed, not sharp as Joey had suspected they would be. His hands slid to the base of the fangs and kept going.
This appeared to catch Mike by surprise and the sudden burst of adrenaline that surged through Joey’s body helped him force Mike’s head up and into the rack above. Joey couldn’t think of anything to do once he had Mike held there, only slightly pinned.
Mike could think and reacted. He punched Joey in the stomach. Joey’s hands slipped slightly and Mike dipped down. Mike punched again and lowered more.
Joey forced back and pushed mike back up. He couldn’t let the fangs come any closer. Tiny drops of poison had already started to flow to the ends. Yellowish drops of death.
He raised his knee again, blocking another punch from Mike, and rolled his body away from the wall. This pinned Mike against the wall and Joey nearly fell out of the bed, but he held fast to the fangs.
Mike punched with three balled fists and knocked Joey out of the bed. He felt the air escape his lungs in one huge huff and he bumped his head on the floor as he fell.
He had to get up. If he didn’t, Mike would surely kill him. Where was Vic? Dexter? June? Had Mike already killed them too? Was he the last? Too many questions and no time to stop and ask. He stood as quickly as he could. Mike still struggled to get out of the rack, his arms tangled in the blanket in the confined space.
“I’m going to enjoy sucking your innards out, boy.”
Mike’s fowl tone frightened Joey. He did the only thing he could think to do. He grabbed the top bunk and kicked Mike, twice for good measure and ran from the bunk room. He had seen Dexter asleep in the top bunk, but if Mike wanted to kill Dexter, he’d have done that already.
In the passageway Joey thought of running up to the cockpit. Perhaps Argmon could help him. But what if Argmon was already dead? He’d be no help. The lounge would also be a dead end. He didn’t like the sound of that and turned and ran toward the cargo bay. The thick black smoke made it difficult to judge distance. He didn’t know how close to the edge he was. And where did all the smoke come from? They had put the fire out and he could see the scorched control panel that had exploded. That was the last thing he could recall.
Joey coughed and ran. The black smoke tasted oily and bitter. It made his eyes water, but he ran for his life. Mike surely wouldn’t pause. Joey didn’t even dare a glance back for fear that Mike would be upon him.
Through the smoke he could just make out that one of the four large containers that now filled the cargo bay loomed in front of him. The gap from the top of the ladder to the top of the container, which conveniently sat about two feet below the level of the passageway floor, was about fifteen feet away. Joey had never been the athletic type, but being driven by fear and a desire to stay alive, he chanced the jump knowing that going down the ladder spelled certain death.
He kicked off the edge without pause, certain his heart stopped as he flew. When he crashed to the top of the container and his heart started up again, he tried to breath relief, but the black smoke in the cargo bay was thicker and made breathing difficult. He coughed, trying to clear his lungs. That’s all he needed was to escape a killer and be killed by smoke inhalation.
He didn’t have enough time to think about his lungs filling with smoke before he saw Mike spring from the passageway to the container. Joey rolled out of the way as Mike landed.
“I love to play with my food,” Mike said, the wild look in his eyes letting Joey know he wasn’t fooling around. The smoke didn’t seem to be affecting Mike. Not at all.
Joey looked at the next container. The smoke wasn’t so bad on that one. If only he could get up and run, but Mike would be on him. He would have to fight. He would have to fight Mike and his truly powerful spider body. It hadn’t been so difficult defeating Mike by sitting on his back and pounding his head with Tootsie’s metal box. He didn’t have any such luxury this time.
“I’m going to kill you slowly. Don’t think this will go quickly. I think I’ll take an arm first. That’ll slow you down. Just one arm.”
Mike’s fangs retracted and twitched out as he advanced. Joey backed up and fell on his rear. Standing and looking at Mike’s crazed expression terrified Joey, but sitting and looking at Mike, eye to eye with the insane spider with a man’s head, Joey gave up. He could feel the tickle of nausea and his vision blurred and darkened. He was passing out. God he was about to die and he wasn’t even going to see it coming.
No! Joey steeled himself and sat as upright as he could. If he was to die he wanted to see it coming. He couldn’t just take death lying down. Slow, fast, whatever, he didn’t want to just fall over and let Mike kill him at his leisure.
Mike crouched and sprang at Joey. Joey laid back flat and Mike, who had been aiming high at Joey’s head, flew over him.
“No!” Mike screamed and grabbed Joey’s arm with one of his hind hands.
Mike’s flight dragged Joey along and over the edge. Joey lashed out and took hold of the edge of the container. Mike’s grasp on Joey’s arm slipped, but he managed to catch his leg. Joey reached up and held on with both hands as if his life depended on it, because his life did depend on it.
“Don’t worry, I can hold on for both of us,” Mike said with an evil laugh. He had grabbed onto the side of the container and started pulling hard on Joey’s leg. “Perhaps I’ll start by taking a leg!”
Joey felt his fingers slip. He took a deep breath of fresh air. He could catch his breath, but how long would that last? He was certain he’d be dead at Mike’s hand any moment.
Joey kicked and planted his free foot in Mike’s bearded face. The fangs retracted fully and Mike pawed at his face. Joey kicked again landing another full force kick. Mike howled in agony.
Joey had a sudden thought. He could die by Mike’s hand or die by asphyxiation, or he could be killed by Mike and if anyone else was still alive, they’d have to face Mike.
Joey kicked again.
He had to do something. Joey felt his foot grabbed once again. Mike pulled fiercely. Joey knew, deep down, that he was going to die be it at the hands of Mike, this fire, or the ship plunging into a black hole because everyone else certainly must be dead. He wasn’t meant to be in space. He shouldn’t have pushed that button. He didn’t belong here. But he didn’t belong back on Earth either. All those years of torment at the hands of bullies.
Joey let go.
As he fell, Mike pulled hard. Joey reached out and grabbed onto Mike and punched him hard in the face. Joey grabbed Mike from behind and planted his feet on the side of the container and pulled Mike off as well. Mike lost his grip and the two fell, end over end, toward the hard, steel floor below. Joey continued his barrage of blows into Mike’s face as they fell. He wasn’t going do die without a fight and he wasn’t about to end up a meal for a spider. He punched once for Brad, once for Chad, and once for Thad. Mike’s face changed into all those faces that had done him wrong over the years.
Joey felt them hit the floor and heard the awful squish below him as Mike’s body exploded. Joey bounced off Mike’s body and into the container, hitting his head and knocking him out.
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In her past June had felt alone. She’d also felt frightened. Even frightened and alone. But sitting in the bunk room aboard the SS Acid rat with three unconscious crew members and a third that didn’t have the ability to help, she was consumed by it. It ate at her very being as she fought back tears to bandage Joey’s head.
Dexter also looked to be in bad shape, but not as bad as Joey. Of course it could just be the amount of blood coming out of Joey’s head, or it could be that despite being on board with Dexter longer, she liked Joey better. She enjoyed having his company and talking coherently with someone and not fighting.
The bandage was already red, but she needed to tend to Dexter and she also needed to take care of Vic.
“Just stay out of the way.” June wiped tears from her eyes. “Actually, get pillows and blankets if you can.”
“Yes.” Joop-Nop galloped to the storage locker in the bunk room. His locomotion would prove to be a benefit.
The computer from the Iron Butterfly chimed up. “All fires have been extinguished.”
“All? I thought the one in this passageway was the only one.”
“No. Three more fires are burning.”
“In the cargo bay.”
In the cargo bay? Why would anything down there catch fire? “What started the fires?”
“I don’t know. I don’t have full access to Tootsie’s systems.”
“What do you have access to?” She asked. “No, never mind. Can you put a stasis field over these three?”
The computer paused. “No. I do not have access to that field.”
June finished with bandaging Dexter and pulled Vic into the bunk room. Joop-Nop returned with two pillows, dropped them to the floor, and left to get more. Finally the little slime ball was being useful.
The vibration of the ship worsened. June tucked a pillow under Joey’s head and one under Vic’s. Joop-Nop returned again.
“I need you to keep an eye on these three while I see if Argmon can come back and help me move them into the racks.” She felt bad after she said it when she looked at its only eye stalk, but she didn’t have time to say anything better. She ran from the bunk room and up the ladder. She raced along the passage way and to the cockpit with Argmon.
“Argmon,” She tried to catch her breath. “Vic, Joey, and Dexter are all hurt. I need your help getting them into racks so they don’t bounce around. The ship is shaking a lot and I’m worried they’ll get hurt even more.”
Argmon shook his head almost imperceptibly, but he wasn’t going to move. In the view screen the stars moved faster than she’d ever seen them move before, even when Vic and Argmon pressed the ship to its highest limits of speed. So far Joey had been right with the ship being able to withstand the forces of gravity from the black hole, but soon they’d pass into the pull of the second black hole and would be pulled from two sides and not just one. Would the ship hold up then?
“Argmon, it’s not worth it. We need to stop.”
Argmon motioned with his snout to a rear view from the ship. June had to squint to look through the blackness, but something sat hidden there. She touched the display to make it larger. She gasped and made the image larger again.
The police cruiser from Bamda in its blue and gold glory followed them, though it was far behind in pursuit. If they stopped now, they would be overtaken and, of course, arrested.
“I guess it’s do or die now, huh?”
Argmon didn’t respond but instead steeled his glare at the view screen and the display of numbers across the top of the control panel. June didn’t know what the numbers meant, but she knew that the ones in red weren’t a good sign.
She would have to get the others into the bunks on her own. She didn’t know how, but she’d have to try. Without a word she left Argmon to pilot the ship.
Another rock of the ship slammed June into the wall causing her to hit her head. Her vision blurred for a moment and she nearly lost her balance. A second jolt and she stood upright again, her eyes seeing double.
She fought the shaky floor, but managed to get back to the bunk room.
“I know what they need Joop-Nop!” June snapped. Her ears were ringing. She needed to be lying down as well, but there wasn’t time for that. She had to do what she could to get them back into the racks.
“Another fire.” The computer interrupted. “Now extinguished.”
June hefted Dexter, easily the heaviest of the three, into a lower bunk. She more pushed and rolled him into it, as lifting Dexter proved an impossibility.
Next she struggled to get under Joey. Although in his youth, he weighed nearly as much as her. She’d never tried to lift her own weight, and it proved to be quite a feat. She placed him in the bunk just above Dexter.
Vic she also didn’t want to carry, but he needed gentler handling. Dexter and Joey had only been knocked unconscious by the blast from the computer. Vic had deep wounds and his delicate condition wouldn’t hold up to too must jostling.
As gently as she could, she dragged him across the floor, holding him by his feet. When she got him near a bunk, she dumped his feet into the bunk and sat on the floor. Her breath came in short gasps. Her mind reeled and her vision still hadn’t fully returned. The vibration of the ship didn’t help matters, nor did her frayed nerves. She wanted to go home. Just go home. Why were they all so stubbornly trying to get this shipment back to Planchar? Why?
June took a deep breath and righted herself and got her arms under Vic’s body. Only a few inches she had to lift him. Only a few inches. Vic weighed only slightly more than Joey, but after getting Joey and Dexter into bunks, Vic’s slack, un-cooperating body didn’t go up high enough. She struggled to hold him in the air. She didn’t want to drop him for fear of hurting him more, but she had to put him back down.
Gritting her teeth, she tried again. Once he was in the rack, he would be alright. Possibly even safe from the vibration of the ship. With her last ounce of strength she lifted Vic up and leaned forward, pulling, pushing, and getting Vic into the rack.
Once he was in place, she laid upon his chest. She didn’t have the strength to move off him.
Had she the power left in her, she would have leapt off of Vic, but her movements were considerable slower. Still, she got off him and lay on the floor.
“Another fire in the cargo bay.” The computer reported.
“Where are all these fires coming from? June asked, gasping for breath.
“The fires are…” the voice faded into a static followed by a loud feedback and then silence.
June sat up. “Computer?”
“No kidding. I never knew you were a genius.”
June instantly regretted snapping at Joop-Nop like that.
“Thank you Joop-Nop. I’m sorry I snapped at you.”
“Well, I am. I need some rest. I’ll be right here in a rack when you get back.”
Joop-Nop left the room and June crawled in the rack just above Vic. She didn’t want to, but she closed her eyes and fell asleep; a deep, dreamless sleep born of exhaustion.
Mike tossed the remains of the Iron Butterfly’s computer to the ground. He’d trash Tootsie too, but he needed her to keep the ship flying, even if it had to be by force. The Iron Butterfly he didn’t. They’d swapped out the computers, that much Mike remembered. A good ruse, but a failed one.
With Tootsie too occupied with keeping the ship flying, and as best Mike could tell at great speeds, even beyond regulation hyperspace speeds, he would finally be able to get a good fire going. The Iron Butterfly’s computer had kept putting them out. The only way to get them all off this ship without damaging the ship too greatly would be to fill it with smoke. Tootsie, too occupied with keeping the ship flying, wouldn’t be able to ventilate the ship.
He had also gotten into the engineering room and set the controls so Tootsie wouldn’t be able to slow down, even if she wanted to. Not until the crew left the ship and he was the only remaining occupant. The boss would be so proud.
Mike scurried around the cargo bay and collected all the flammable material he could find. He’d nearly run out of items to burn and had resorted to lighting the containers Vic had gotten from Raado. It didn’t matter what they contained, just as long as the paint on them would burn. That’s all that mattered.
The blaster he’d gotten from the weapons room, one of June’s, had been adjusted to produce a fine, hot point. He focused the point on a small pile of already-scorched tarp. It took several seconds, but finally caught. Mike unclenched his jaw and backed away to admire his work. The fire spread quickly onto the container’s painted exterior and black smoke billowed up from it. He had picked the container closest to the ladder to the rest of the ship so the smoke would spread quickly.
Mike wheeled about. Something with strange branch legs and an eye stalk stood at the top of the ladder to the cargo bay staring at what Mike had just done. Mike noticed a small amount of greenish slime in the middle of the body.
Mike leapt with astonishing speed and scrabbled up the ladder. He had to catch Joop-Nop before the creature could reveal the plan. The boss wouldn’t tolerate another failure. Mike wouldn’t allow himself to fail this time. Even though the boss said no more killing, this one had to die.
At the top of the ladder, he saw Joop-Nop slip into the bunk room. Mike raced across the floor and without a thought of anything else he reached and caught Joop-Nop by one of its branch legs.
Mike paused. He saw Dexter, Vic, Joey, and June all in bunks and apparently sleeping. His eyes darted from one to the next. The all looked hurt. Beyond that, they all looked like easy prey.
Mike grabbed two more of Joop-Nop’s appendages. His breathing had slowed and he didn’t notice the black smoke now filling the passageway. All he could see was food. Involuntarily his fangs lowered slightly. He needed to eat. Just one. How could the boss know one of them didn’t die in an accident. Especially if the body never left the ship. His own people wouldn’t question.
He ripped off one of Joop-Nop’s appendages causing a squeal of pain. Mike hardly noticed. With four of his hands he slowly, mercilessly tore Joop-Nop to pieces despite the squeals of pain and protest. When he dropped the limp, slimy goo that remained of Joop-Nop and wiped his hands on the floor, he looked over each of the bodies.
The boss expected at least Vic and June. He had no intention of eating either of them. He focused on Dexter for a moment. He would love to eat the little one. It was his fault that everything had gone wrong in the first place. If Dexter hadn’t knocked Mike out, he would have been able to kill off Vic and June with no trouble and would have done away with the rest of the crew as well.
But no, Dexter would have to await his fate with the boss as well. That left one. Joey. A tender young human. Soft and sweet. Mike’s fangs dropped down and his eyes widened. Yes. Just a bite. Something to satisfy the craving. Killing Joop-Nop hadn’t done anything. He wanted to feel his prey squirm and fight. Joey had fight. Joey had also been instrumental in the failure. The boy had to die. Mike crawled up into the rack with Joey and raised his fangs.
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