Aphelion Issue 274, Volume 26
July 2022
 
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Gold Soldiers

by Rob Bliss


"This is a joke!"

Cyrus stormed off after handing the mini-DED super-Q digital handicam to Wanda, his assistant, who handed it to her assistant, Sepper.

Sepper clipped it to his belt, lens down, cap off, but found he had to keep tugging up the right side of his belt so his cooder shorts wouldn't fall down.

He chased after Wanda and Cyrus to the airavator. Standing with his nose an inch away from the cam panel which hung open, wires sparking, still to be fixed as soon as the fibre-optic electrician's union came to an agreement with the electrical production management.

Sepper sweated as the airavator rose, only half listening to Cyrus as he complained to Wanda.

"They always do this, right when I've got a couple of dozen squadrons on the brink of war!"

He felt inside his pockets for a pack of herbal cigarettes. Wanda had worked for her boss and Captain/Director (CD) long enough to be able to read his body language better than her own handwriting. She knew the exact pocket of her own desert camouflage cooders where she kept an emergency pack of cigarettes -- second pocket down her left leg, three up from the knee.

She had them out, flicked open, with a thin red reed between her fingers and the filter aimed toward Cyrus's lips while he kept searching his body for his own missing pack.

"We set out with everything ready to roll," Cyrus said, grabbing the reed with his lips and sucking in for the cigarette to self-light, the green line along the edge of the reed shortening one-tenth down its length. "They know we're doing a war epic -- they know we need extra funding for this!"

"They didn't specifically say," Wanda added as she tapped a finger against the scrim board which she held in one arm like a baby. Pages vanished and new ones appeared as she dabbed her fingertip against an arrow icon in the corner of the pad. She flipped to a page that showed a graph, detailing the financial STD (Spending-To-Date) of the war epic, "Gold Soldiers". It had already cost 250 million, but that was a mere drop in the bucket compared to what the film had been allotted for its completion. "Said they wanted to talk about it."

"Who did?" Cyrus snapped his eyes to Wanda, as she pushed her glasses up the thin ridge of her nose.

"They did."

"But ... 'they' as in ... or ... not them!"

"No data exchange, let me put it that way."

Blood slipped away from Cyrus's face, down his neck, and through his heart to fuel its rapid beat. He thought about everything that made him who he was. The films he had made which had grossed more than any other movies in history, his advances to the art, the ships he had commanded, bringing back cinematic masterpieces with each mission. He had proven his reputation again and again, so that his name was as good as gold.

Why did they want to talk to him directly?

The MSS (Movie Studio Ship) Dora Day had sailed forty production missions, making on-board, inter-space, and off-world films, ranging from light horror comedies to epic war romances, plus the occasional documentary if a slush fund could be provided. Every actor, crew member, technician, set designer, and sub-director had signed on to take part in the epic, foregoing their own projects while on board. Funds for supplies had tripled for the shoot because they wouldn't be docking at an established Crown Studio port for the entire time line of its mission: a two year cruise.

The UDMs (Ultimate Decision Makers) had a lot of money riding on the production. But Cyrus Gleem had captained the Dora Day on a variety of small to grand pictures before, and the money men knew they would see their cash returned a thousand fold. They were assured the ship would return to the studio planet unscathed, barring asteroid fields and the occasional comet, but the insurance Act-Of-God clause would take care of the repairs.

Even despite going over budget on fifteen of his previous films, Cyrus's reputation wasn't harmed back on the Crown home planet. So, again, it made no sense why the UDMs would shut off funding, and why they wanted to speak with him without first sending some kind of textual communiqué. Was there really a need to see the powers-that-be face to face?

Two thousand ships and one million actor and crew members waited for the ultimate decision. And they all expected to be paid for the down time. Each second meant money burned. Cyrus had developed the keen ability to never blame himself for going over budget. Someone always found a way to slow down the production, despite the schedule being developed by advanced computer algorithms, and that was including unpredictable factors.

Cyrus rushed off the airavator, and Wanda and Sepper were pulled along in his slipstream. Wanda tucked the scrim board under her arm, feeling a cool spot of wet on her shirt press up against the hair of her underarm. She reminded herself to shave -- a standard chore back home that became a wondrous luxury on a shoot.

The cameras, lenses, digital note pads, rolls of high-tensile duct tape, and tools hanging off Sepper's belt slapped against his thighs or wound around his waist as he manoeuvred around set pieces, hopped over camera dollies, and weaved through crowds of bored extras. People who smoked and ate, fully dressed like aliens as imagined by people from the 3150s, although some of the make-up and costume designs were new. Sepper had seen most of the alien designs, but the artists would often change their minds at the last minute. Which meant Cyrus would send the extra back into make-up and wardrobe to change into the pre-arranged alien while he and the artist tried to keep their screaming and death threats to a dull roar.

A personal coaster with driver awaited the CD. Cyrus and Wanda sat on the back as it began to coast slowly forward before picking up full speed. Sepper caught up to it and climbed onto a side seat.

"Bridge," Cyrus told the driver, as he pulled a Comm-stretch out of the coaster's rear panel. Before switching the Comm from its loudspeaker setting to a secure inter-radio channel, he turned to Wanda, pointing at a stretch hanging its plastic head over her left shoulder. "Are you patched in?"

"Not to the bridge."

Cyrus pulled the stretch over his shoulder to rest against the crook where his collarbones met. The stick mic already curled over his ear rested its pick-up a half-inch away from his chapped lips. He bent it away to jut out from the side of his head like an insect antennae.

Clicking the stretch mic, Cyrus took his tenth and final puff off the cigarette and flicked it behind the coaster, hitting the back of the head of an extra dressed in aluminium. The extra felt nothing, but was confused about the origin of the muted metallic ping.

The coaster rose to two feet above the steel grid floor as it headed down the long lit corridor of the ship's C Arm. Sepper clung on, trying not to become hypnotised by the curved wall of the corridor speeding passed.

The wall seemed to beckon Sepper to fall. Each time he rode the coaster, the assistant to the assistant to the CD had visions of slamming against a corridor wall and bouncing off it like a rubber ball, despite his clothing being made of a polymer-cotton blend. As he lay bleeding and dying on the floor's steel grid, everyone who passed would be afraid to help him because of his position in the film hierarchy. And then a documentary crew would swoop down to capture his final moments, making him the star of a small film on the dangers of coaster travel within an MSS.

"Kran," Cyrus called into the stretch. "Give me a status on the ships."

"What's going on, boss?" Kran, Bridge Sub-Director, asked through tinny static.

"They stopped us."

"I've got two thousand ships either ready to start firing or to film the carnage! Who stopped us?"

"The Crown."

A pause held Cyrus's eyes on the stretch mic.

"This a joke, right?" Kran's voice finally echoed back.

"Ditto, don't know. Tell the subs on the ships to hold, maintain their marks and fire settings. Shields can be lowered for now. Crews to hold on stand-by. And keep a close eye to see if the Crown burns through to the bridge's Exter-Patch."

Another brief pause. With utter fear, Kran looked at a specific, sometimes lethal, communication panel on the bridge with utter fear.

"Kran?"

"Yeah, okay. But I'm not answering it."

"You won't have to, I'm on my way. How's Viola holding?"

"Are you kidding? Can you take care of that one, too?"

The coaster picked up its maximum speed, rising to ten feet off the grid. The driver had sent out a signal to have all traffic lights in a straight line through C, B and A Arms to remain steady on green. Only the CD's coaster had this clearance.

"Just tell her to stay in costume, there's been a slight delay."

Cyrus could feel a layer of sweat bead above his hairline, and then instantly cool with the rushing wind. Wanda was busy spitting out strands of hair, trying to keep it looped behind her ears. Sepper stared at his hand clenching the arm rest in order to concentrate on one of the few objects around him that didn't appear to be moving at an immense speed.

"She's not going to buy that," Kran called back. "She'll want details."

"Make it a plasma slip, a burst hyperdrive coil --"

"Been there, done that. Tried those ones and many more on her the last time her food arrived one degree below how she likes it."

"Hang on."

Cyrus unkeyed the stretch, breathed slowly for a few moments, then looked at Wanda. Despite the hair whipping her face and clouding her vision, she could feel his glare.

"Umm ..." she began, pushing hair away as she untucked her scrim to see its read-out screen. It usually offered an answer to all of Cyrus's problems, except for anything personal. Specifically, how to deal with a megalomaniacal actress.

She wrapped her fingers over the top of the scrim board, forearms resting along the screen. She pushed her glasses up a few times and tried to untangle hair from around the thin silver frame. Cyrus hung his eyes on her, dog-like in their pleading desperation, afraid she would say she couldn't help him.

"Her image!" Wanda shot out.

"How so?"

"We tell her it dropped a few points on the exchange, and you personally refuse to resume shooting until it goes back up."

Cyrus spat out a fingernail he had been chewing too deeply, then licked away the blood that ran along the edge of his cuticle.

"But why did it go down? Specifics."

Wanda's fingers drummed against the scrim, accidentally flipping through hundreds of screens. Displayed were the names, addresses and banking information of every cast and crew member on board; the four-dimensional co-ordinates of the ship's location; planets which had been shot for location possibilities, and those which still had to be explored for their cinematic potential.

Wanda's eyes sparked wider. "Anna Kilon and Todd Wexler just announced they're pregnant!"

"That's good!" Cyrus echoed, snapping his fingers. "And a surgical documentary crew have already been in there to shoot the first few weeks of the foetus. Over the next nine months at least, the dream couple are hot!"

"Too soon for Viola to get back and start a fan protest against it," Wanda added.

"But how does she compete? We have to give her a fighting chance, otherwise she'll demand to go back home immediately. And then she will be stopping this production."

"Attempted suicide, competing pregnancy with a non-celebrity father, recently found genetic twin, stalker, lawsuit against the Crown. Or a mish-mash of all of the above?"

"We'll whip something up, sell it to her wholesale."

Cyrus keyed the mic and related the tragic plot and possible sub-plots to Kran, telling him to run with it, embellish whenever possible, but to stick to the main story line. If Viola got tougher with her questions, then Kran should direct her to Cyrus, who would think of a new plan to direct her to someone else. Which probably meant over to Wanda. At all costs, however, the star should be kept distracted from the truth and fully enraged.

The coaster began to slow and descend as they reached the end of B Arm and entered A. Sepper's grip loosened, but only slightly. He didn't trust a slow down because it could easily change into a speed up, or worse, a sharp turn. He noticed the deep ovals made by his fingertips in the cushion of the armrest, now past the first knuckle. He was sure he had drooled on himself as the G-forces had drawn the spittle out of his mouth, but he wouldn't yet chance to look at the mess smeared down his chest.

Eventually, the coaster raced through A Arm to the southern end, heading toward the Bridge's airavator. Gliding the remaining distance, the coaster passed its last green light and floated down from ten feet to one, turning around to face the direction it came from. Softly alighting backwards, Cyrus and Wanda were able to take one step off the coaster onto the floor, and then a second into the airavator.

Sepper wasn't as lucky. He couldn't feel his legs, much less various other parts of his anatomy. He blinked repeatedly and held his eyes closed as long as he could. A residue of dizzy centrifugal force seemed not only to be blurring his vision but also still making an attempt at throwing his eyeballs from their sockets.

He pawed his way along the length of the coaster, heading in the rough direction of the airavator, homing in on Wanda's voice as she impatiently beckoned him to keep up. He increased his speed by hobbling like a man without feet, hopping from numb limb to limb, hoping they didn't collapse from under him.

Wanda pulled him inside and the airavator ascended, pinning Sepper to the floor. As he adjusted to the speed, the feeling returning to his legs, he climbed up the wall and leaned against it like a losing marathon runner.

Wanda cleared her throat while nudging Sepper in the ribs. His head leaned back comfortably in the corner of the airavator, eyes closed as he drew breath back into his lungs, panting like a dog. His eyes rolled over to look at Wanda, as she glanced down at his feet.

The tools, lenses and camera had finally won. They lay in a heap, cushioned by his shorts, his shirt tails fortunately long enough to keep him covered passed his waist.

The sting of exhaustion rushed through his body, draining the last of his energy, making him feel as though he would never feel the sweet kiss of good fortune. He was even too drained to cry.

Sinking to the floor, he grabbed his pants and pulled, hoping everything would rise with the belt. Of course, not everything did. He listened to tools drop as he pulled and re-fastened his belt.

The airavator door opened to the low blue light that illuminated the bridge. Cyrus and Wanda rushed out while Sepper stayed inside the airavator to pick up the tools and slowly clip them back onto the belt, hoping to get the balance correct so fewer accidents would happen. He knew they still would, but he also knew it was his fate to always attempt to repair that which was destined to fall apart. He had signed his contract.

The members of the bridge crew looked up from their respective control panels, faces shadowed by fluorescent lights at each desk. Those who only appeared to be looking were actually leaning back in their chairs, faces darkened, trying to get some sleep during the delay. Dadda, the First Navigator, opened her eyes a crack when she heard the familiar sound of Cyrus's swearing.

He met Kran at the Exter-Patch Board, a hyper-link messenger screen, direct to the Crown planet. A small blue light on the frame of the board was pulsing and emitting a low, soothing tone. It sent shivers up the spines of everyone in the room, except those who were asleep.

"I answered it," Kran said, hesitantly pointing at the button as though it would come alive, leap off the panel, and devour his finger. "I had to, no choice, imagine what would happen if I didn't!" His entire body, including his tongue, shivered with fear.

"It's okay," Cyrus said, placing a heavy, comforting hand on the sub-director's shoulder. "You did the right thing."

"Do you want me to …?"

"No, not yet."

Cyrus stood, arms akimbo, as he looked at the slowly flashing button, realising the pulsing tone was synchronised with the throbbing in his temples. Wanda, standing behind him, watched the Crown logo float across the patch screen, bobbing as though it were on a gentle sea. Cyrus exhaled all the breath from his lungs and rolled two fingers against his eyes.

Slowly, he turned from the screen and squatted down to face the main window of the bridge, a narrow strip of thick plasti-titanteflon that curved around two-thirds of the bridge, set lower than the average eye level. Which gave the bridge crew the feeling that they were working and living inside a bunker, peering out occasionally to the stars to see what life was like on the outside.

Life outside, however, was at a standstill. Two-thousand irregularly-shaped stars and moons sat peppered within Cyrus's view. They were all ships, half functional, half prop, able to shoot a ray of light that could inflict heavy damage, but not if the target ship's shields were up. The war would look impressive, but remain harmless. Except to the audience.

The ships that hadn't been reconstructed to look more menacing than a cargo ship were the camera crafts. Designed like puffer fish, cameras stuck out of their metallic hides, pointing in every direction to ensure that every angle was captured with the fewest numbers of retakes. Even a fake war could run up a bill.

Every type of camera was in place on these ships, with every available feature. There was a camera to shoot strictly in black and white, another exclusively for slow motion. Every range of the spectrum was available as a shooting medium, including infrared, x-ray, ultraviolet, and gamma-scope.

One of the newer features of camera technology was known as VRI, Virtual Sensorama Implantation. "Gold Soldiers" was the first movie to use this technique, and several special theatres had been built as exclusive tools to properly debut the movie in.

Audience members would unknowingly be injected with a fibre optic implant via the ergonomically-designed chairs, which would then weave its way into the central nervous systems of each member. Hallucinations would accompany and enhance the movie.

Special effects wouldn't just be astounding, each audience member would feel a deep sense of déjà vu, thinking they had seen the new effects somewhere before, thus enhancing the appeal and mystery, and giving the audience an eerie feeling when they left the theatre. The romantic story line would touch each member subconsciously, making each person realise that their own personal romances were petty compared to the one on screen. Women would fall in love with the leading man, and men with the leading woman (or in whatever gender sexual-orientation combination), and they would sacrifice their life savings to see the film again and again. Advertisers would pay millions to buy a 0.5 second spot in the hallucinations.

And once word got out amongst the other production studios, ships would be launched to make better and better (or at least more and more) films, all using VSI as its main shooting tool. Cyrus knew that in many ways his fake war would produce a real war within the media. The pay was good.

That was why shutting down production on such a goldmine made no sense. Cyrus went back to the patch board and stared at the floating crown icon. He glanced at Kran, who had backed farther away from the blue light.

"Did you tell Viola?"

Kran nodded. "She's pissed."

"One problem solved, at least."

Hands shaking on his hips, Cyrus tried to make himself feel the same kind of anger he had felt when Wanda first told him about the shut down. But he was too nervous to recall how to feel anger.

It was rare to speak to the home planet after lift-off. Updates and clips of the film's progress were transmitted, approved, edited, and re-sent all by computers. Everyone involved in the process liked it that way. It helped keep everyone sane.

But the fact that the Crown didn't want to communicate in the language of binary, preferring instead old fashioned chit-chat, was a cause for worry.

Cyrus nodded to Kran, who began sweating anew as he approached the glowing blue button. He pressed it, and pulled back his fingers as though they had been burned.

Lips framed by a grey goatee appeared. Nothing more to the face. The mouth was the only identification necessary for confirmation to be made that it was the Crown speaking. And only this amount prevented hackers from tapping the signal to inform website chat rooms about the latest updates on the film.

"Hi, Cyrus," the goatee said casually.

"Sir. Hello. I just arrived."

"It's a big ship, isn't it?"

"Yes, sir."

"Lots of financing under your feet."

"Yes, sir."

"Finance makes the galaxy go round, as we like to say."

"Couldn't agree with you more, sir."

The goatee paused.

"We're having a bit of a dilemma, Cyrus."

"What can I do to help?"

"Well ... we don't know what it all looks like."

Cyrus ignored the overwhelming urge to spit that was building inside his mouth.

"Um ... sir, I believe we sent back cells and clips on time. Was there a transmission error?"

"No, we received all the usual data. But, understandably so, you've had to alter some of the ships somewhat, yes?"

"Yes, sir. We've made cruisers, destroyers, fighters, all shapes and sizes to suit the variable codes, fill the quotas. Even a few new designs --"

"Ah!" the mouth opened. "That's what we're talking about. The new designs."

Cyrus beamed like a new father. "Yes, sir, nothing ever seen on screen or DED before. This will be a landmark epic which, I assure you, will --"

"Oh, we believe you, Cyrus. But we need to see those designs."

"They weren't sent along, sir?"

"They were not sent along, no."

Cyrus glared at Wanda, who was quickly tapping through her scrim, trying to find page one of the thumbnail lists of new designs.

"Your numbers didn't add up to two thousand. And you are using the full two thousand, aren't you, Cyrus?"

"Yes, sir. I'm looking at them now." Cyrus stooped to see through the bridge's window, wishing it were a little wider, or a little higher.

"You're counting them?"

"Well, I'm sure there are two thousand, sir. I've had repeated counts initiated by all sub-directors. Repeatedly." Saliva grew in his mouth and thickened, trying to choke off his words.

"Can we see them too, Cyrus?"

"Of course, sir." He swallowed hard and attempted a laugh, but it emerged more as a dry cough. "Must have been a slight error, maybe a trans glitch. I'm sure they were sent. The designers are working non-stop. And I don't have to tell you, sir, that they're quite the creative bunch."

Cyrus was switching between a comforting smile when he looked directly at the patch screen, and a threatening glare when he watched Wanda flip through her scrim.

She had found the correct thumbnail list, but the new designs it displayed were no longer new. They had been incorporated into the main design schedule long before the first ship had had its first piece of exoskeleton welded on. Frantically, she kept flipping.

"How's everything back on the Crown, sir?" -- Cyrus realised it was the wrong thing to say, trying to make small talk to his potential executioner.

"Fine, Cyrus. If you could re-send those new designs. We will be waiting for them. The accessory corporations cannot hold off smashing their molds forever, as the saying goes. We, the Crown, have ordered several million units of each character, command module, war ship, even miniature planet terra-forming kits. This will be a big sales season, Cyrus. And all for one reason alone." The lips of the mouth seemed to fade into grey as they tensed. "Do you know what that reason is, Mr. Gleem?"

"The new designs?"

"The new designs ... for the new merchandise. Which translates into profits which will reach new heights for us all. Gross percentage, Cyrus. Continuing production capabilities, Cyrus. Prolonged ship and shoot command, Cyrus. Gainful employment, Cyrus."

"Yes, sir." Phlegm finally choked the words into a guttural hack. "Touché. Quite right. Sir." His face had paled to a shade of grey similar to that of the mouth.

Wanda's head snapped up from the scrim with a look of terror. She spun the board around to face the CD.

A grid of icons covered the screen, all shrunken into tiny logos which depicted a computer crossed by a paintbrush and a hammer. Written in large print, using a font of steel words riveted around their edges, was: "Property of Local 28DS".

The ship's Design Standard union had taken possession. Cyrus tried to recall if they had submitted any grievances lately, any which hadn't been mediated and solved, or at least paid off and swept under the rug.

"Uh ... duh ...," Cyrus replied to the scrim and the dancing, locked icons.

Wanda pointed back to the patch board, where the goatee was waiting.

"Is there a problem, Cyrus?"

"Sir. No, sir. Just an eensey-weensey difficulty that will be taken care in a few seconds. You don't have to stay, sir. The designs will be in your possession within a minute."

"We will wait," the goatee replied, its lips relaxing slightly open, as though ready to widen into a gaping maw.

Cyrus tried not to be sucked into the mouth. He looked away from the patch and was about to tell Wanda what he desperately needed her to do to save his job, and life. But she was gone, already knowing what it was.

She quickly tiptoed back into the airavator, where Sepper was shifting his supine body around on the floor like a caterpillar, trying to find a comfortable nook inside, exhausted from so much terror. Pants tied tightly around his waist, all materials securely clipped on.

Wanda pressed a thumb down on his esophagus until the slow choke woke him in panic and silence. She leaned down and whispered in his ear.

"Get the head of Local 28DS up here now." She picked up Sepper by the collar and would have dragged him if he hadn't found his feet somewhere beneath him. "He has the designs of the new ships locked down. The Crown has never seen them."

Sepper understood the gravity of the dilemma, and snapped awake instantly. He rushed into a back room of the bridge, away from the stare-down between Cyrus and the goatee, which was actually a stare-down between the entire bridge crew and the goatee. Anyone who had remained asleep for the entire transmission had been saved from the hypnotising chewing-out of mortals by their god.

A small white cubicle tube opened as Sepper stepped on a rubber "Welcome" pad just in front of the curved door. He stepped inside and punched a large green button which displayed a mouth with wavy audio lines radiating from between its teeth.

"How may I direct your --"

"28 DS main office," he interrupted.

The patch immediately switched to a man sitting back in a cushioned leather chair, dipping his fingers into a cup of strawberries.

"Twenty-Eight," the man greeted, not looking at the screen.

"This is Sepper Piat."

"Sorry?"

"Assistant to Wander Tull."

"Oh, yeah?" The man's eyes shifted slightly to look at Sepper's reddening face in the screen.

"Assistant to Cyrus Gleem."

The man's heavily-lidded gaze turned and opened slightly to eye the patch. He sucked a strawberry through his teeth as his fingers dug deeper into the cup for another.

"Okay."

"The new designs for the last ships were not submitted to the Crown."

"Really?"

"They were locked down." Sepper knew the man well and hated him for several reasons, many of which he was recalling at the moment. Still, he was trying to remain professional.

"Is that right?"

"By you."

"No kidding?"

"Why?"

The man sucked in air through his nose and yawned into his fist. He licked strawberry juice off four of his fingers before answering.

"Took you guys long enough to get around to asking."

"The Crown is on the Exter-Patch."

"Let them stay there for all I care."

"Can you unlock the designs? Please?" Sepper hated himself for being nice, and promised himself to devise a way to poison the strawberry-sucker.

"Maybe."

"You're shutting down the whole production."

"No we're not. The Crown is."

Sepper closed his eyes, breathed, thought about the Gallon Moon. A tropical vacation spot for singles, where his toes had been gently massaged by the foam of rising ocean water. Stained orange by an unknown, but virtually harmless, parasite in the water, his feet became a badge of pride when he returned to work, displaying them with sandals. Wanda had thought he looked cute, which wasn't exactly the kind of reaction he was going for, but since it came from her, it was acceptable.

"How can we settle this right now?" he asked quietly.

"Start talking."

"I have been. What is the discrepancy involved?"

The door slid open. Wanda stuck her head in, saw the man on the patch as he burped into the cup while tipping it up and dropping two strawberries into his mouth. He spat one back into the cup. Chewing, he looked at her, eyes a little wider. Then he winked.

"Dammit, Cal, what are you doing?" Wanda yelled before she had a chance to let the sound-proof door slide to a close behind her.

"I think you know," Cal said, holding his mouth open, letting his tongue loll over his bottom lip. He raised the cup high and let a strawberry roll out and land perfectly on his tongue. Cal rolled the fruit into his mouth by leaning back in his chair.

Wanda felt her eyes burn as she looked at the screen. The burning moved to encircle her eyes, then travelled up to her forehead, laying down the beginnings of a migraine that would encompass her entire head and face.

"This is ridiculous," she said, blowing a strand of hair away from her mouth. "You're shutting us down."

"No I'm not."

"That's what he said before," Sepper included.

Wanda turned her angry face to her assistant, though Sepper mistakenly thought the look meant she was angry with him too. "Could you step outside for a moment?"

Sepper, somewhat hurt, opened the door as he backed out, maintaining eye contact with Wanda. Outside, he let the sound-proof door slip close, then pressed his ear against it, though he knew he wouldn't be able to hear the continuing argument inside.

"You're being an ass!"

Cal swung his legs off his desk, crossed his arms, and leaned his face in close to the patch screen.

"You gotta give me a chance. That's all I ask."

"That's why you're doing this? I'm not impressed."

"Not even a little?"

"If this gets me fired, we are both S.O.L., buddy, because I will take you down with me."

"So then it's a small price to pay, isn't it, to not get fired."

"What?"

"One dinner means you don't get fired. And I swear you won't have to pay for a thing, not even ... the dessert." Cal licked a finger.

The corners of Wanda's mouth curled downward. "You are so disgusting. I don't have to keep the food down, do I?"

"You can do anything you want with it. Just one dinner, that's all I'm asking."

With a deep crease appearing between her eyebrows, Wanda stared at the eyes on the screen. Then she looked away, feeling bile rumble in her stomach.

Cal was smiling, waiting. He bit off the end of a strawberry and licked his lips. Wanda felt disgust ripple down her spine.

"Fine!" she yelled at the screen.

"Thank you," Cal said, then pulled out a mini-scrim from his breast pocket.

He tapped it a few times as Wanda kept her eyes intent on the 28DS icons on her scrim. The logos disappeared and were replaced with small pictures of the new ship designs.

Wanda was out of the tube before Cal could set a date, time and location for the blackmail date. She ran with the scrim held out in front, her arms straight as though she was surfing through the air, trying to catch up to the perfect wave. Or swimming away from a shark.

She flashed the unlocked designs to Cyrus, who quickly gestured to the Exter-Patch panel. Wanda extended an auxiliary clip from the back of the scrim and jammed the fibre optic head into a port on the panel.

"We have them now, sir!" Cyrus beamed, swallowing the thick saliva in his throat. "Small delay ... all is well ... right, sir?"

The designs sped back to the Crown, skipping through communication wormholes owned and operated by Crown Corp.

The grey goatee smiled.

"Thank you, Cyrus. Very nice. The merchandisers will be pleased."

Wanda tapped a few pages away from the designs after they had uploaded. She then watched a line that marked the funding ticker that fuelled the ship and its epic story. The line rose into the red, meaning money was again available. Even to be burned, if vital to the plot or character development.

"Thank you, sir," Cyrus continued to beam, playing with a piece of fingernail that he had peeled off while waiting for Wanda to return from the cubicle. "I promise this will never happen again."

The goatee smiled broadly. "Oh, we know it won't. Ever."

The mouth faded away.

Cyrus watched the blank screen, afraid but prepared in case the goatee returned. But, instead, the Crown icon resumed floating around the screen. Cyrus inhaled again, deeply, sucking in fuel to yell at those responsible.

But Wanda was the closest.

"What the hell --?"

"I'll explain later."

Cyrus exhaled, but didn't feel entirely better. Wanda had the herbal cigarette pack out again, with a reed extended. The CD jammed it between his lips and inhaled, feeling the fear that had been gripping his spine slip down the rest of his body and absorb into the floor.

"Tell everyone we're back," he said to Wanda and Kran simultaneously.

The members of the bridge crew who had witnessed the scene slumped into their chairs and were ready to relax, preferably in a warm bath of champagne. Those who had been asleep were awake and ready to watch the biggest starship battle ever funded.

Kran relayed the good news to the sub-directors on all the ships, as Cyrus stood at the main window, his face pressed close to get the best view. His chest felt lighter, though his stomach could have used a new coating of Popidol, extra strength.

Two thousand ships waited, hanging in an endless sea of black, shields raised and laser cannons warmed. Waiting for the call.

"Ready, aim -- action!"

THE END


© 2012 Rob Bliss

Bio: Rob Bliss has a degree in English and Writing from York University (in the "Greater Toronto" area in Canada). His stories have been published in SNM Magazine, Pulp Metal Magazine, Blood Moon Rising, 69 Flavours or Paranoia, and Schlock Webzine.

E-mail: Rob Bliss

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