Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Confrontation at Pangar Nine

Captain Rudy Smith reflected on the irony of it all. He’d survived countless battles as a fighter pilot in the first three Solartine Wars - in some cases surviving when he had no business surviving – and yet now he was about to die at the helm of a commercial cargo transport making a routine intergalactic run with nothing more than a mundane shipment of industrial chemicals and communications equipment. Only his third assignment since leaving the military for the more lucrative corporate world, and he was already in a more precarious position than he’d ever found himself in before.

Smith attempted to read the vessel’s damage assessment on the screen in front of him, but after a few minutes he sighed and realized that it was pretty much a waste of time. His ship, the SS Nonix, was probably doing well to be in operational condition at all considering the massive bombardment it had endured just a few minutes ago at the hands of the Mildrenian pirates. Never mind that Smith had used almost the entire fuel reserve executing the wormhole jump that had allowed for their escape. They were probably safe for the moment, but the ship was stranded and the Mildrens don’t give up easily. The Nonix would soon be found, and Smith knew that the next time there would be no way for him to prevent the pirates from boarding the ship. And it was also generally accepted that suicide was a preferable option for his crew compared to what the Mildrens like to do with their victims.

Being a Class 78 cargo vessel, the Nonix was designed to require a very small flight team, usually just a captain and two or three more individuals depending on their capabilities. The ship primarily was operated and navigated by computer, and often times the crew did little besides tend to minor equipment problems and coordinate freight transfers with the docking planets. The 78’s were built for the sole purpose of transporting large amounts of bulk cargo cheaply and quickly, and therefore did not have the kind of defense systems one would find on the more secure XYX series transports. Due to the ship’s vulnerabilities, they were generally loaded with merchandise of little worth to pirates and shipjackers. But as Captain Smith had just found out, sometimes the vagabonds simply didn’t care.

Running his hand through his graying black hair, Smith exhaled forcefully and contemplated the proper course of action. He decided to ask his crew to meet with him on the bridge; there he would advise them that while he would continue to explore all options to get them out of this mess, the situation was looking grim. If boarded, he would tell them, he planned to flip the so-called “suicide switch” which would within seconds fill the cabin with Xulyrt gas. This would kill the crew instantly and with any luck take a couple of the Mildren bastards with them.

Ten minutes later, the crew - all three of them - had made their way to the bridge along with Captain Smith: Hanngush 33-9, Smith’s cyborg co-pilot; Nabbboq, the ship’s Tsubian engineer, and Faavrogg Mont, the freight coordinator from the lonely outpost of Qu-Grittnen.

“I know everybody is busy trying to keep this ship together, so I’ll get right to the point,” Smith told them glumly. “As you know, we have survived a vicious attack at the hands of the Mildrens. As it stands now, we have escaped them but according to the damage logs we simply do not have the capacity to withstand another assault. Nor do we have fuel reserves capable of getting us to any Federal ports.”

Smith paused, glancing at each crewmember’s face for a reaction. There were none. He wasn’t telling them anything they didn’t already know.

“Given the reputation of the Mildrens, I have decided that if they find us, and I believe they will, we will not be able to prevent them from boarding this ship,” Smith continued. “As your captain, I plan to comply with standard procedure if this happens and employ the suicide switch. As per Federal law, if any of you object to this self-terminating course of action, you may now invoke your Jowtersh rights.”

As Smith expected, there were no objections.

“At this point, however, I would like to emphasize that I am not giving up and plan to exhaust every option in order to bring the Nonix to safety. I also welcome any suggestions or ideas.”

Smith paused. “Because, frankly, I don’t have any myself.”

An awkward silence followed for the next few seconds, and then Hanngush slowly raised a mechanical arm to speak.

“Sir, while I would never suggest this otherwise, given the situation perhaps we should consider Pangar Nine? According to my charts, it is within our range and perhaps if we are allowed to dock there we could offer our cargo as a bribe in exchange for passage to a more, uh, suitable outpost?”

Smith stared straight ahead, lost in thought. The possibility of attempting to land at Pangar Nine had crossed his mind, but he had quickly dismissed it. It had been eons since Federal Starcraft were allowed anywhere near that system. The last time a cargo ship had attempted an emergency docking there, in fact, the Nyr-Roimms blasted it to bits with a beewtryl cannon.

Even so, Hanngush might be onto something with his idea to use the Nonix’s cargo as a bribe, Smith thought. The ship was carrying a pretty nice collection of Hweenblurters and several tanks full of liquid nooxofil, a chemical abundant in the inner regions but difficult to come by in this part of the galaxy. It was probably worth a try, he decided.

“Hanngush, that’s not a bad idea.” Smith said. “Illegal, of course, but under the circumstances I think our friends in Gyndonocia would understand. Set an immediate course for Pangar Nine. Have Nabbboq redirect power from the quadrothrusters to the hypo-conductor plates if needed. Mont, come with me and let’s get a quick inventory of what we have to offer the Pangarians.”

Before the crew could leave the bridge, however, a blast rocked the ship. Smith was thrown forward, catching himself on a Pyllinam monitor.

“What the hell?” Smith exclaimed. “That wasn’t from a Lnormill ray! It felt more like a quadro-helium redax beam or something!”

“Captain!” Hanngush had made his way over to the front Bulard panel. “The vorostratus scope indicates that we are under attack by a Henuliort Juy-Ast ship using twin golluck sprayers!”

Smith ran over to take a look for himself. Sure enough, readouts indicated an Irru class Tarmo fighter, carrying the markings of the Booklumghum Federation of Mo-Yu-Tyheng. The very same warship that was responsible for multiple harynings at the battle of Darnsforz. Only the Yeeefu’s anti-xos cannons could possibly stop them.

Smith knew that the Nonix was in serious trouble.

Another blast. This time, the impact ruptured a govee tube above the ship’s secondary retty, causing thick poinnooas mist to fill the bridge.

“Faavrogg!” Smith cried out, “See if you can stabilize that asternatium by vogalizing the tyricnal klinbirators!”

“Negative, captain! The third ulogginaucht basin has snapped and I can’t grott the poletination spheres without some sort of virrulaumo retractor!” Faavrogg was in a near panic, a large chunk of sharp yuloplasm embedded in his lower tranjular region.

Captain Smith stared straight ahead. The Tarmo fighter had maneuvered into attack position, its dewentar ray pointed directly at the Nonix’s outer shurt. The attacker’s beguplanktar relegnared the Nonix’s vadeenvedar at the looputanistic werttentrat!

Smith quickly reached for the suicide switch. Better to die a Kullollich’s death than to suffer as a Rylanjulanio, he thought as he flipped it.

Friday, May 19, 2006

It Seemed Worse Than It Really Was

It seemed worse than it really was – blood was pouring down from the tip of my left thumb onto my palm and staining the cuff of my white oxford shirt. But it really wasn’t a deep would or anything, the hammer of the Glock 19 9mm handgun has simply ripped off a patch of skin when I fired it. I was obviously holding it wrong by putting my thumb back there; it didn’t occur to me in the heat of the moment that the hammer would pull back when the bullet was discharged. It did, and when it snapped back into place it took a small patch of skin with it. It was a mess, but the adrenaline made sure that at least for now it didn’t hurt much. I guess I should have taken the time to learn how to shoot the thing but no crying over spilt milk.

Speaking of adrenaline, I regretted not firing more than two shots into Tyler. Not because he needed them, but I just wished I had taken advantage of the opportunity to fire more shots. Then again, my thumb was a bloody mess thanks to the hammer of the Glock 19 9mm handgun pulling back and taking a patch of skin with it. The last thing I needed was to create the sort of situation where my own blood would be dripping all over the place. No doubt the police would find it and trace it back to me. They probably would not buy my story as to why Tyler needed to die.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Tyler had become an antenna. We’d be at lunch somewhere, having a perfectly reasonable conversation, and he’d suddenly start repeating words in this trancelike, monotone voice: “Arbor…truce…subjective...ignore…violet…mucus…retention…caustic…evaluate…” and so forth, for about three or four minutes. Then he’d snap out of it and resume the conservation just like nothing had happened. But I knew, man. That was no random sequence of words, Tyler was an antenna. It was code. Part one of the code that was being picked up by Tyler and transmitted to somebody else. Me? Perhaps.

I don’t know what the code meant. If I did, it would be too late. To understand the code is to carry out its instructions. Maybe I was to become a transmitter like Tyler, unwittingly passing the code on the main target. Maybe I was the main target and would begin the countdown to things once I got the code. I knew our only chance was for me to blast Tyler before he got to part two.

So that’s what I did.

I left him there in his car, bleeding, just like me, except worse. I ran down 4th street towards a gas station, hoping to find somebody who would tell me that I did the right thing.

I got to the gas station and there was an old black man behind the counter, the tag on his blue gas station vest revealed him to be “Otis”. Otis looked at me, and then my thumb, still bleeding like crazy from the gun.

“You blasted him, right?” Otis asked me. “He was an antenna.”

I smiled. “I didn’t enjoy it, but you do what you have to do.”

Otis nodded and bit his lower lip. “What now, partner?” he asked. “They know about you now, and Tyler was not the only antenna. They made sure of that.”

“It’s a fuckin’ Catch-22 man.” I said. “You can’t identify an antenna before a transmission, but once you are exposed to a transmission, you might be under its influence.” I paused, my mind forming a disturbing thought. “Perhaps I’m an antenna myself now? I may have only killed Tyler because his code told me to. They wouldn’t need him anymore once I got the transmission. Shit, how can I tell?”

Otis considered this possibility. “I’m not feeling it, man. I don’t think it’s you or else I would have already killed you. Sometimes the code comes in sections over a period of days or weeks. You probably just got the first one.”

I nodded.

“Take care of that thumb. The police are going to be here soon and you don’t want your blood all over the goddamn place. You won’t be able to blast any antennas from a jail cell.”

I realized he was right and headed for the bathroom. I noticed there was only one other customer in the store, a very tall man who looked like he was about to pour a half-gallon of milk over his head but had stopped, his body frozen except for his eyes.

“Milk will stop the transmissions, but it will kill me,” he said in a muffled tone of voice.

I ignored him and headed into the bathroom. Once inside, I washed my hand off to remove the blood and took off my stained oxford shirt. I was wearing a tank top underneath. Before I could dry my hands with a paper towel (my thumb was still a bloody mess), there was a knock on the door. It was Otis.

“It’s okay. He poured the milk. It’s over.”

I smiled. “It’s over for today, Otis. But we cannot be sure that the transmissions have ceased. There could be more.”

Otis was silent. I opened the door to find him back behind the counter.

“Finding everything okay?” he asked.

“Sure, I just needed to take a shit,” I told him.

The tall man was gone. I looked down at my thumb. It had stopped bleeding.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Kitty Pox

“Mommy, where to kitties go when they die? To Heaven?” asked six-year-old Janet Yelton.

Terri Yelton took a slow drag from her cigarette and exhaled. “Doubt it. They just die and they’re gone. Now shut up.” She was trying to watch her soap operas.

Janet ignored her. “I bet they go to Heaven, at least the nice ones.”

Terri flicked her cigarette ash in her daughter’s direction. “I said shut up, smart-ass. Why aren’t you outside?”

It had been a piss-poor year for the Yelton family already, at it was only July. Andy Yelton disappeared back in March, and all his clothes, the good truck, and all the family’s meager savings disappeared along with him. Sally Jae Minnower down the street also disappeared around the same time. Not that anybody in the neighborhood really blamed Andy, except for the fact that he left a little girl without a father and a wife with no means to pay the rent. So Terri and Janet had to move into Terri’s sister Hallie’s place for the time being. Terri was in the process of trying to get her welfare payments increased now that she was a single mom, but that’s about all the motivation she was able to muster as far as a career went.

“I’m not going outside,” Janet said. “If I go outside I’ll die, just like the kitties are all dying.”

Terri rolled her eyes. “Girl, you are out of your goddamn mind. Nobody’s going to die from being outside. Now get out of my sight, you’re pissing me off.”

“But the kitties are all dying. They have the pox,” Janet said. “The pox.”

“Listen, honey,” Terri said sweetly, employing a different approach. “I’m trying to watch my stories. If you’ll go and play for just the next hour or so until they’re done, we’ll go to McDonald’s for supper.”

“But I don’t -”

“If you don’t want to go outside, then go play in your room. I’ll come and get you when it’s time to go to McDonald’s.” Terri had no intention of actually taking the brat out to eat, but she’d have time to come up with an excuse later.

Seemingly defeated, Janet slowly walked out of the living room of the small house back towards the bedroom she shared with Hallie’s three-year old son Jason. Terri snuffed out her cigarette in a plastic ashtray on the coffee table and leaned back on the couch, wondering to herself if Hallie had any potato chips or Twinkies anywhere in the kitchen.

Moments later, Janet returned to the living room, this time holding the limp, lifeless body of Precious, Hallie’s pet cat. Its gray fur was matted and had fallen out in patches, and its open eyes, normally yellow, were the color of blood. It appeared to have been dead for several days, even though Terri had shooed it off the couch less than an hour ago.

“Jesus Christ!” Terri exclaimed, jumping to her feet. “What the hell happened to Precious?”

“Precious is in Heaven,” the little girl explained as she continued to walk towards her mother with the feline corpse held out in front of her. “She was one of the nice ones, but she got the Pox. The Pox, the Pox, the Pox…”

“Get that thing away from me!” Terri screamed, backing away towards the front door, her face contorted with fear.

“Mommy, don’t you want to eat Precious? That’s the only way to get immunity from the Pox. I can eat half of her, and you can eat half, and then we won’t get the Pox.” Janet opened her mouth and clamped her teeth around one of the cat’s hind legs, struggling to tear off a piece of its flesh.

Terri was in shock. “For God’s sake, Janet, put that fucking thing down! I mean it!” By this time she had reached the front door and fumbled with the lock as she attempted to open it without looking, as her eyes were glued to her daughter and the dead cat.

Janet lifted her head away from Precious, her mouth covered with cat fur and blood. “Don’t go outside, Mommy. The Pox is in the air. You can’t see it or taste it or smell it or see it or touch it or hear it but it’s there. The kitties are the first to go.” She took another bite.

Terri finally got the front door unlocked and opened. But as she turned to run outside, the sight of dozens of dead cats in the front yard stopped her cold. They had not been there two hours ago when she had run out to buy cigarettes, but now they blanketed the lawn, quiet and still. Terri turned back around.

“The kitties are the first to go,” Janet said, calmly. “You’re next if you don’t eat some of Precious.”

In a daze, Terri stepped back into the house and approached her daughter. Janet held the carcass out to her mother and Terri accepted it, taking a large bite out of Precious’ left front thigh.

Behind them both on the television, Terri’s soap opera had gone to a commercial break.