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Husband, father, and writer working on a short story project and submitting my novel, The Windsmith, to agents.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Zack’s Rules of Life

Zack’s Rules of Life, Number 12: When borrowing money, never borrow it from the mob.

Especially when said mob hires four hundred pound aliens known as Vraks.

“Come on, Zack,” the Vrak that was holding me a good meter off the floor said. His breath smelled of a sickening combination of cheap alcohol and stale hot dogs. “Mr. Spumoni wants his money. He told me to collect either the money, or you. Which is it going to be?”

Vrak’s are strange aliens, about seven foot tall at the shoulder and look like small, fury elephants, complete with tusks, that have a hand on the end of their trunk. Said hand was currently wrapped around my neck, making it difficult to actually answer him. I expressed this by pointing to my throat and making inarticulate gasping sounds. It took a few moments, during which I could feel my face actually turning blue, before he got the point and dropped me to the floor. I collapsed in a heap, but was ignored the pain in gratitude for the oxygen I was sucking into my lungs. I whipped the tears from my eyes and looked up at the alien between coughs. He was glaring at me impatiently. It was a very human expression, coming from such a non-human face, and that made it all the more intimidating. This, in retrospect, may have been done intentionally.

“Guido,” I said, “good to see you.” I coughed for effect.

“My name,” the Vrak said very slowly. If he had teeth, he’d have been saying these words through them. “is Qued’no, not Guido. If you call me that again, I will break your legs. Mr. Spumoni said nothing about you being mobile when I bring you back.”

Another thing you need to know about Vraks is that they are a warrior race. Their home world is set up along the lines of one big military, with everyone being a soldier. There are no true civilians in Vrak society. Children are just considered new recruits, training in all the disciplines they need for whatever job the military government has decided they will do. Most end up just being grunts, at least for a good portion of their early adult life. Some, however, are considered too violent or undisciplined for even the great Vrak training houses and society to control. These are either killed outright or, worse, ‘Dishonorably Discharged.’ This means that they are flung out to an unsuspecting galaxy. My friend Qued here is one of those.

You might wonder why I know so much about Vraks. Let’s just say that I wasn’t always a civilian, and leave it at that.

“Sorry,” I cough again. “My poor human ears don’t hear much of a difference.” Vraks like to think that humans are all def, what with our tiny ears and all. They also don’t understand sarcasm.

“Listen, Qued,” I say, pulling myself into a standing position. “I was just on my way to get the money, so I could pay Mr. Spumoni.”

“I’ve heard this all before Zack,” Qued said. I don’t remember talking to this particular Vrak before, so I’m confused by his statement. Then, he qualified it. “You’re kind always has the money somewhere else. You never have it on you. And then I’m forced to remove a limb.”

My eyes go wide. He’s reaching for my leg with his trunk.

“Woah, there, Qued,” I said. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. If I recall my contract correctly, I still have three days to make my payment back to Mr. Spumoni.”

The Vrack stops for a second to consider this, his trunk hand rubbing the underside of his chin in another disturbingly human like gesture.

“Yeah,” he said after a long think. “Yeah, you do. So?”

“So,” I said. “in order for me to GET the money, I have to take this job. It’s not supposed to take longer than a two days, and I’ll be back in time to pay Mr. Spumoni.”

“I’ve heard this before, too,” he said, narrowing his eyes.

“Yeah,” I said, realizing that he probably has, “but I got proof.”

I whip out my data pad and punch up a command, then turn it his way. He pulls it out of my hand and raises it to his eyes. I can see his mouth move as he reads it.

“Sell swords?” he reads. “Do people still use swords?”

“It’s a phrase,” I say, snatching my pad back. “It means mercenaries. This guy’s paying a lot of money for a milk run. And to top it off, I’m just applying as the pilot. Isn’t a think in this universe I can’t fly. I’m just going to drop this guy off where he’s going, let him and his armed thugs get what he’s after and fly back. Easy peasy.”

“Yeah,” Qued said. I noticed that he said that a lot. It was never a happy word when he used it. “Just as long as you come right back to Mr. Spumoni when you return. In fact, I think I’ll be waiting for you. I got the registration number for that ship. You just make sure you got the money when you disembark from that ship. And if you’re later than three days, don’t disembark at all.”

He turns and walks away, all four feet pounding the floor. I gulp. Then, I shake my head. What am I worried about? A rich alien wants some flashy bodyguards to help him pick up something of his, probably a fancy painting or statue, and bring it home. Milk Run. What could go wrong?

*****

I turn around the corner to where the rich boy’s ship is supposed to be berthed, and stop in my tracks. There’s actually a line. I know this guy is offering good money, but a line? And most of the people (and I use that term loosely) in line are armed to the teeth, some quite literally. A quick scan reveals only one or two that are not. I figure those to be my competition for the pilot job. In the mean time, I stand in line, like everyone else, and wait for the airlock doors to open.

When they finally do, it is to surprisingly less fanfare that one would have thought. The creature that came out was one that I had never seen up close before, but I recognized it right away. The race are called neuvonians, and really, it’s down right impossible to tell the men from the women at first glance. They all tend to look mostly like crabs, about three feet wide and just as tall, complete with three eye stalks, six legs, an exoskeleton and an pair of muscular arms that end in three digit pincers. Humans had little contact with the Nuvonian Empire, which was on the other end of known space from us, so it was odd to find that the rich boy in the ad was one of them. They were basically friendly, but were known to be arrogant and selfish. As soon as this one showed it’s blue shell, most of the people in line disappeared.

“Welcome,” it said in what sounded amazingly like a human woman’s voice. I found out later that the voice came through a translator that was attached to her shell. “I am the Duchess Shalena. I am here to hire four sentients to aid me in the recovery of my property. If you are willing to aid me on this quest, please step forward. I will begin interviewing now.”

With the line shortened, it didn’t take long for the Duchess to pick her crew. Her interview with me was pretty brief, seeing that I was the only pilot left. She made it pretty clear that I was to follow her every order, and I made it pretty clear that I was only doing this for the pay. She seemed to like my honesty with her, and we signed a contract. The amount she was paying, including a bonus if we were successful in a short period of time, would not only pay Mr. Spumoni, but leave some over afterwards for me to get off this damn station.

When all the interviewing was done, the five of us entered her ship, which she informed us was called the Dalliance, a joke her fifth husband seemed to think was funny. Besides me and the Duchess, there was another vrak named Kor’do, who had blond fur as opposed to the normal dark brown fur vrak’s sported. Kor’do wielded a plasma rifle and had the look of a seasoned vet. I wondered briefly what he did to be working with non-vrak. Next to him was Leeann, another human, who claimed to be a computer and security specialist. That meant she was a hacker and a safe cracker. She was also a looker, not to mention the only other human in the crew, and so I was happy to have her along, whatever she called her self. Rounding out our little troup was a man from a species I’d never seen before. He said in name was Dek, but that was about all the info I got from him. His was a solid mass of muscle; with chalk white skin and eyes that were pure black orbs. There was no hair that I could see. He other wise looked human. He didn’t carry any visible weapons beyond a knife in his belt, but I figured he was well armed.

It was obvious that whatever the Duchess was after, she needed disreputable people to get it, which probably meant that this little job was less than legal. Which was actually okay with me, as long as I got my money. None of us were much for standing on ceremony, and so the Duchess gave me the location of our job, and I set course. The Dalliance was amazing. Completely state of the art, combining cutting edge hard technology with the latest in bio-tech, something neuvonians are known for. Beyond her sleek curves and comfortable interior, she was a joy to pilot. The controls were intuitive, in more ways that one. The more I used them, the more they reacted to me and my needs.

Once the ship was in hyperspace, there really wasn’t much for me to do, so I joined in on the debriefing that was happening in the main hall. This room was a combination mess area and study, complete with couches, some data pads probably pre-loaded with books on them, and a library terminal. I saw that everyone was there, and apparently, they had been waiting for me before starting. I grabbed one of the mess table chairs, spun it backwards and sat on it, my arms folded over the back. Shalena’s eye stalks looked at me, bent down slightly and looked back up. It almost had the appearance of a nod or bow. Then, she addressed us all.

“I have hired you all,” she said, “to help me prevent a war.”

She paused for effect, but no one said anything. I think we all thought she was joking. I mean, come on, the ad read that she was looking to retrieve something that was stolen from her. How does that relate to stopping a war? Shalena pushed a button on the table she was standing by, and a holographic image sprung up form the center of it. It was showing several jewels, most of which looked like bracelets, but one looked like an oddly shaped crown, like it was designed for a truly huge head.

“These,” the duchess continued, “are the crown jewels of the Neuvonian Empire. They have been held by the current dynasty for over four thousand years, before we had achieved space travel. And they were recently stolen. It seemed like an impossible task, with all the security we had around it, but stolen they were. And our cameras caught the man responsible.”

The image shifted, and what came next surprised me. The image displayed a humanoid clearly taking the jewels out of a specialized glass case. What made the image even more shocking was that he was wearing the uniform of a United Nations of Earth marine.

“What would a human marine want with the crown jewels of the neuvonians?” Kor’do asked. “I mean, they don’t even border each other, or even compete for the same uncharted space.”

“That’s not just a marine,” I say. I go up to the screen and point out several of the badges displayed on the screen. “These indicate that this man is part of a special forces unit. And this one indicates that said unite reports directly to the president himself.”

Everyone paused for a second, and Shalena did that same strange head bob. “Can you tell me anything else about this picture that would seem odd to you, Mr. Zack?”

“Yeah,” I said, my head nodding. “If this really were some kind of op preformed by this kind of unit, and that seems unlikely given what these men are trained to do, then there are several things wrong. First off, he wouldn’t be wearing that uniform, never mind one with identifying badges. Secondly, taking out the security cameras would have been the second thing on their task list. This picture was obviously a set up, designed to frame humans for the act. I haven’t the slightest idea why anyone would want to frame us for such a thing.”

“Indeed,” the duchess said. “However, my people were unwilling to look at the evidence closely. My appeal of their decision was also rebuffed. The people back on my home world, however, would never believe that this video was anything but the truth. They will demand war. So, I figure the only way to stop things from escalating into total war is to get the jewels and bring them back.”

“And that’s where we come in,” Kor’do said.

“Exactly,” Shalena said.

“So,” Leeann, “what’s the plan? Do we know who really stole the gems?”

“I do not,” Shalena said. “I do, however, have the ident-signal for their ship, and have traced that signal to a system in the uncharted areas.”

“Wait a second,” I say, something else bothering me about all this. “How does a duchess get this kind of information? The video, the knowledge about human military uniforms, the ident-signal of the enemy ship… that’s all gotta be classified information, otherwise your government would have to mount this operation on their own, even if it was just to make themselves look good.”

The duchess’s eyestalks bowed once more. “You are correct,” she said. “The answer to that is quite simple. My late husband worked closely with the military, and I called in several favors that were owed him to get this information.”

“Okay, then,” Leeann said. “What do we know about where we’re going?”

“Next to nothing,” the duchess said. She pushed the button again and the image changed once more, to that of a small solar system. “There are five planets in this system, only two of which are capable of supporting life.”

The image zoomed in and showed two of the planets, the second and third. In orbiting around one were three small moons, and the second had a single moon, but something else orbiting around it.

“I believe that this is a space station,” she said. “I believe that this is where our target lies.”

“Seems like they’re doing their best to remain hidden,” Leeann said. “We can’t just fly in, they’ll shoot us down before even contacting us.”

Suddenly, Dek grunted. “I think this is where I come in.” It was the most he’d said since I met him. “I know how we’re going to get in. Listen closely, because I don’t repeat myself.

*****

Our ship sailed into the system, straight towards the station, with power off and our engines at minimal power. They did take a few shots at us, but they were mostly warning shots. After our ship continued to head straight towards, very slowly, they scanned us. Eventually, they put out a tractor beam and pulled us into the station. When their people came onboard to search the ship, they found it empty. Even the cargo containers were empty, according to their scans. I even overheard one of them say that he hoped he got assigned this ship as his own when they erased the computer and added it to their fleet.

After they left to go get some computer techs, we came out of hiding. We were all crammed into one of he large cargo containers. It was uncomfortable, but it worked, and so I was willing to over look having a vrak ass in my face. I looked over at Dek.

“How did they not find us,” I asked, “even with the up close scanners?”

He held out a little device, about the size of a human thumb. “This blocks scans, makes it look like there’s nothing inside. I’ve gotten into places far more secure than this station using this before.”

I wondered briefly what it was he did for a living that he had such a device. I let it go, however, as we got to work. We snuck out of the ship before the tech crew came back. The duchess informed us that it would take them several hours to crack the security encryptions on the ship before they could start erasing everything. We should have plenty of time to get the jewels and back. I, unfortunately, had to go with everyone, as there was no way I could stay hidden on the ship.

Leeann took over at this point. I learned on the journey to the station that she was used to work for a large corporation, and her job was breaking into competitor computers and getting useful information. She left to do some work for the government, something she found far more exciting. And she left that when she found that private interests would pay her far more than either the corporation or the government. Her job at this phase in the plan was to find our target and get us there. It only took her a matter of seconds to hack the computer and find the room where the jewels were. Now we just had to get there.

Dek took over once more. It was apparent that he was really good at sneaking around places, as he practically disappeared before my very eyes. If it weren’t for his rough clothing, I would swear that he was invisible. Sadly, it turns out he’s not so good at keeping the rest of us hidden.

As we rounded a corner, a guard spotted me, the last in line, sneaking across the hallway. With no warning on his part, he fired, and lanced a hole through my leg. The pain was excruciating! It felt like a white-hot bar of metal shooting through my knee, and extended up and down my leg as fire, straight up to my eyes, which felt like they were going to bug right out of my face to escape the flames. I passed out a few seconds later.

When I woke up, I found my self in prison. It was pretty normal looking, if a little small. One look around, however, told me it wasn’t normal. There was a wall missing, leading to another small room where a guard stood. I knew instantly that this was a military facility, and the missing wall was a force field. I’d seen these before. Escape was not a possibility, and my guard was only for show. I looked at him and was surprised to see that he was human. And not just that, but wore a UNE Marine uniform. This wasn’t a fake, either.

I decided to play along as the dumb prisoner, and toss my shoe at the force field. As expected, the field flares to life and bounces my shoe back at me. I’m sure if I had touched it, I would have been gifted with a fine electrical shock. Not enough to really injure, but enough to keep me from touching it again. The guard didn’t even turn to look at me. This guy was a professional. I was contemplating my next move when I heard the unmistakable sounds of gunfire outside the door. My guard raised his own weapon, but did not actually move from his post. The gun fire stops and there is silence for a few seconds. I look at my guard wondering if he’ll even move towards the door. Just when it looks like he will, the door bursts open and blaster fire comes in. The marine ducks and fires back. It’s a brief battle, but eventually whoever is outside hits his target and my guard falls to the floor dead.

I look up and find, to my surprise, Kor’do stands looking at me. Without a word, he moves across the room, slings his gun around his trunk, and pulls off the key card from the guard on the floor. He then opens the force field. I am so dumfounded that I simply sit there and stare at him.

“Well,” he grumbles, “you coming human, or would you rather just stand there?”

“You came to rescue me?” I ask.

“Of curse,” he replies. “You’re part of my team.”

“But… I’m human,” I say.

“Look,” he says, dropping the key card and grabbing his weapon once again. “I’m not happy about rescuing a human any more than I am sure you are about being rescued by a vrak. But, as I said, you’re part of my team.”

“No one has ever done that for me before,” I say, almost under my breath. He hears it, though.

“Well, there’s a first time for everything,” he said. “Now, come on. We’re going back to the ship to wait for the others. Climb on.”

I pause, unsure I heard him correctly. “Climb on?”

“My back,” he says, obviously upset. “Climb on my back. Unless you can walk?”

I realize that with the hole in my knee, walking is out of the question. So, I awkwardly climb onto his back.

“The others,” say, catching up to something he had said earlier. “Where are they?”

“They went after the target,” he says, leaving the room.

When we get outside, I am greeted with another surprise. On the floor is another dead marine. Next to him, however, is a dead vrak wearing the uniform of their military.

“Hey,” I start to say.

“I know,” Kor’do says. “I’m not thrilled about this either. Apparently, this little conspiracy goes further than any of us initially expected.”

With his lead, we both head back towards the ship. We only have one fire fight on the way, where Kor’do managed to take down two more guards, both vrak military, outside the Dalliance. We got on board the ship and he takes me immediately to the pilot’s chair and I set about warming her up. Kor’do opened up a comm. channel.

“Leeann,” he said, “We’re back on the ship, ready to go. What’s your ETA?”

The comm. crackled, and then there were the sounds of gunfire. “We’ve got the target, but we’re running into heavy resistance. The three of us are holding our own pretty well, but we’re running out of hallways to dodge down.”

Kor’do and I look at each other. What the hell can we do? The Dalliance is unarmed, so it’s not like we can fight back. I’m pretty handy with a blaster, but it’s not my specialty. Not that I could go out there anyway, lame as I am. Besides, I’m sure that Kor’do could out shoot me with his eyes closed. But what good can he do against this whole base apparently filled with professional soldiers? Apparently, he thought he could do more than I did.

“Keep the engine’s warm,” he said, then heads towards the airlock.

“What?” I say. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“To get the rest of my team,” he says, turning to focus one eye on me. “I realize none of you are vrak, but your still my team, and that means something to me. I plan on going to help them and get them and the target back to the Dalliance. Keep the ship ready to go as soon as we’re aboard.”

Without another word, he turns and leaves, and I am left aboard the ship by myself. I listen in on the comm.

“Leeann,” Kor’do said, “I’m on my way.”

“Rodger,” she says, as if she expected that. “We’re on deck twelve, section two, corridor A.”

Then, I sit for a moment and think about my situation. I’m sitting in a state of the art yacht, waiting for a team that is likely dead as they face overwhelming forces. This mission is screwed, and it’s been so from the beginning. I could easily leave now, and it probably wouldn’t make a single whit of difference. If it’s true that this set of jewels would start a war betweens humans and neuvonians, and the neuvonian government isn’t all that interested in the truth of the situation, that war is likely to start even if they do rescue the jewels. What good is it risking my own life for a doomed mission?

Then, it occurs to me that my life is likely forfeit if I return to Mr. Spumoni without money. However, I go back to the yacht. I can easily sell this for ten times the amount I owe the mob. I could pay them, and purchase a small ship and go into business for myself. It would be easy. So easy, in fact, that I find myself actually taking the ship out into space, orbiting the station. I could just go out a few thousand klicks and head to hyperspace and put this whole business behind me. Then the comm. comes back to life.

“We’re under heavy fire here,” Leeann is screaming.

“I’m on the other side of you,” Kor’do is saying, “but there’s too many for me to break through. I can’t make it to you.”

I look at my computer screens and see where they are. Then, I see something that is nearby both of them, and I realize that there’s a way for them to get out. There’s a way I could get them and pull this mission off. I just need to give up everything I was just thinking about, and put my team before myself. I take a deep breath. I really want to just leave and sell the ship. It would be so easy, so very much easier. Instead, I punch open the comm.

“Kor’do, Leeann,” I say. “Listen up, I know how to get you guys out of there.”

“Speak to me, human,” Kor’do says. Leeann doesn’t reply.

“About ten meters away from you’re positions, to the station’s west side, is an airlock,” I say, looking at the map. “Head there.”

“What good will putting us in a dead in do, Zack?” Leeann asks. I can hear the blaster fire pass by her.

“You’re not going to stay in there,” I say.

“Are you mad?” I hear, and realize the voice is Dek. “You’re honestly suggesting that we throw ourselves out an airlock into the void of space?”

“Yes,” I say. “I can pick you up from there.”

“Pick us up?” Leeann screams. “We’re not leaving a bar, Zack. We’re jumping out into cold space. You’re talking about doing something impossible!”

“It’s not impossible,” I say. “Just very improbable. But, I’ve done it before. I can do it again. Trust me.”

There’s a brief pause, and then Leeann comes back. “No,” she says. “No, it’s too dangerous. We’re going to find…”

“We’ll do it, human,” I hear Kor’do say. “Leeann, do as Zack suggests. He’ll get us.”

There’s another pause. “You’re both crazy,” she says. “We’re on our way. ETA, two minutes.”

I watch the computer to monitor their position, and then take manual control of the ship from the computer. I maneuver my way around the station to position the ship by the air lock they are heading to. Setting up geosynchronous orbit with a planet is relativity simple. Planets are big. Setting up a stable orbit like this with a station without docking with it is more difficult, and it takes a pilot of the highest skill level. Thankfully, I am such a pilot.

“We’re at the airlock,” Leeann calls over the comm. exactly two minutes later. “all of us,” she adds.

“Go ahead and open the air lock,” I say. “Expel all your breath and close your eyes just before doing so.”

There’s a frustrated noise on the other end, then I heard Kor’do. “Okay, human. Opening the air lock in three… two… one…”

I see the tell tail burst of oxygen coming out of the opened air lock and briefly see three small figures leave them. I’m just slightly off on my figuring where they were and have to adjust. I move quickly, they only have a few seconds. I already have our own airlock open. I just need to scoop them up. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Finding something as small as a person, even a big one like Kor’do, is very difficult in space. Thankfully, I have their comm. signals to lock on, which makes it easier. I swing the ship around and move it in quick short bursts. When the computer indicates that all the comm. signals are onboard, I close the air lock and re-pressurize. Then, I punch the after burners and when I get far enough away from the station, I jump to hyperspace.

*****

Later, we’re resting in a quit, little moon that takes all kinds of medical patients and doesn’t ask questions. I’m checking in on Kor’do. The other’s are all fine, if suffering a little from vacuum exposure, but on the mend. I have heard that Kor’do may loose a leg, though.

“You did well, human,” he says when I walk into the room. “You did well.”

I nod. I come up to him and offer my hand, and he reaches out his trunk and awkwardly takes my hand and we shake. I feel a strange sensation of loyalty to him in that moment. I realize right then and there that I have made a friend. And not just any friend, a good one.

Which reminds me of Zack’s Rules of Life number Six. But that’s a different story.

The End

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