by Kurt Heinrich Hyatt
The shuttle settled gently onto the landing pad high above the Morban city. The airlock sighed open and Radner ambled down the ramp carrying his pack and toolbelt. He took his first shallow breath of the bitter, metallic-tasting air and squinted up at the blue glare from Morbus' sun. Despite all the years on alien worlds it was always the same uncomfortable shock to the senses in terms of gravity, light and sometimes weird and unsettling environments.
He entered a lift and as it descended he looked out over a bleak horizon of tombs and funeral monuments. How could these people live out their lives in a cemetery, he asked himself. A gate opened depositing him in a hurrying crowd of Morbans and little hump-backed vehicles rushing along narrow streets.
Passerbys paused in their stride to gape at this strange apparition in their world.
He stared back at little elf-like humanoids not more than four feet tall with pointed ears, long noses and the bright eyes of surprised mice.
A melon on three wheels emerged from traffic, jumped the curb and came to a stop before him, almost squashing two pedestrians. A long pink nose poked from a side window.
"Hey, you Earthman?" demanded the driver.
"I'm Santa Claus, sent down her to recruit some elves for my workshop," Radner replied.
An elfin face under a mop of unruly brown curls blinked. "I sent here to pick up new pilot engineer. You him?"
Radner eased the strap of his toolbelt over his shoulder. "Yeah, that's me. You from the starfreighter?"
A door in the melon was pushed open. "Get in, I take you there," the driver ordered.
Shoving his tools and pack into the cargo bin Radner squeezed himself into a painfully tiny seat. "So where are we headed, buddy?"
"Buddy? Please to notice I am female. Name is Dotto-ce," she retorted, slamming the vehicle into gear, tearing off into traffic, narrowly missing a gaggle of passerbys and a truck loaded with bags of fruit. "Buddys do not have firm and exquisitely shaped breasts as I do."
"I'm so happy for you." Radner winced as they ran over some small animal, leaving a fading wail behind them. "Can we drive just a teensy bit slower? I'm still paying on some dental work."
"This is me driving slow."
"Terrific. I'm gonna die on an alien world squashed inside a melon with a maniac elf," he grumbled, watching tombs and monuments hurtle past. A massive shape appeared over the gargoyles and sculpted spires. Dotto-ce brought the vehicle to a sliding stop in a screech of overheated brakes next to the boarding ramp leading to an ancient starfreighter.
"We here, Earth guy," she announced with a bright smile. "Come, I take you to see boss."
Radner squeezed himself from the passenger seat, retrieving his luggage. He gazed up at the ship.
"Goddamn, where did they find this heap?" he said, taking in a corroded and dented hull, landing struts dripping oil onto the pad. "An interstellar garage sale?"
"What you say?" Dotto-ce demanded, looking up at him. A vagrant breeze blew her mop of curls before shiny mouse eyes. "It fine ship, called Edgar C. Rutherford. It sexy like me."
"I'm sure the salesman threw in a set of dishes to go with it," Radner snorted.
A cargo hauler was unloading stacks of metal caskets onto a forkloader which rolled them up the ramp into the belly of the starfreighter. An enormous crowd of Morbans had gathered about the ramp, singing and throwing flowers at the caskets as they passed.
"Oh look, there Mr. Alphonse and friend," said Dotto-ce, pointing to two Earthmen standing by the entry hatch, supervising a crew of Morban dockloaders handling the metal caskets.
"Alphonse, huh?" Radner mused. "I'll bet he had lots of fistfights after school when he was in the fifth grade."
As they walked up the ramp Radner noticed the dockloaders were the meanest-looking Morbans he had seen since landing on the planet. Tattoos, numerous facial scars seemed to be in concert with the surly expressions sent his way. Constipated rats compared to the inquisitive mice he had seen at the shuttle pad.
"Mr. Radner! How delightful to have you on the Caring Heart Funeral Services team. I'm Mr. Alphonse." A lean figure in a black jumpsuit stepped forward and seizing Radner's hand began to energetically pump it. "You come highly recommended by the Engineering and Pilots Guild. We've been relying on an old and somewhat troublesome autocopilot since our former pilot engineer suffered his tragic accident." His handshake felt like a bowl of cold noodles.
"Yeah, I'm glad to be here," Radner replied, retrieving his hand.
"And may I introduce Mr. Blaid, who runs our crew of dockloaders."
Blaid's handshake was a perfunctory two pumps, a pale smile below cold, expressionless eyes.
"Welcome aboard, Mr. Radner," he said. "We've been without a ship's engineer since returning to Morbus from delivering the last shipment of caskets to Quan-Lan."
"Thanks. I've noticed a few overdue service jobs already." He watched a patch of hull coating flake off in the breeze to shower down on the mourners before the ramp. "When was the last recertification done?"
"And you've already met Dotto-ce, our invaluable housekeeper, gofer and girl for all chores," Alphonse carried on breezily. "Like you, she's a new addition to our team this trip. Why don't you have her show you to your quarters? I believe we should be ready for liftoff in an hour."
Walking down the passageway through the ship to the living quarters Radner was reminded of an old and rundown hotel. Worn carpet, sagging wall panels, darkened overhead lightbars. He became aware Dotto-ce had been chattering away at his side for some time.
"-- and the galley is on deck twelve, the rec room is on nine and if you please to take special someone for drink we have small bar in corner."
"Well, I don't usually booze it up before piloting a starfreighter into orbit."
"Perhaps time later then. Here your quarters and passcard." She leaned against him and smiled up invitingly. "My quarters next door over. Please to note it have same code as mine in case you feel later to stop and... socialize." Her little mouse eyes glistened with expectation.
"Yeah, thanks but..." He eased back a step. "I really need to get up to the bridge and see about getting this heap underway."
"Of course, you busy now." He felt tiny fingers pinching his rear before she turned and wriggled off down the corridor.
"A horny elf," he muttered. "What's next?"
The scene beyond the cockpit viewport was depressing as a cemetery. In fact, it was a cemetery, horizon to horizon, the setting sun glistening from polished stone. Radner settled himself in the command chair and started powering up the controls. Readings flashed across screens indicating operating systems in the green. So far. How old was this thing, anyway and how long did they plan on using it to ferry embalmed corpses from Morbus to their moon?
"Greetings, starpilot!" A crisp mechanical voice announced as a red surveillance eye winked on overhead. "Are we ready to blast off into the stars in search of thrills and adventure?"
"A model 94X autocopilot," Radner groaned. "Please tell me it's not a model 94X."
Starship technology had reached the point in the past decade where mere human skills could not cope with the complexity of interstellar timephase travel. To cope with critical decisions at microsecond speed autopilots were developed with advanced human decision skills. Unfortunately, the early models had a tendency to develop human personalities, either good or bad.
"My olfactory sensors have detected an odor emanating from your person," the model 94X declared. "Did you remember to shower this morning?"
"I may have missed washing my butt," Radner retorted. "Can we dispense with the bullshit and start the liftoff sequence?"
"My, we are in a testy mood this evening. Initiating plasma startup."
A tremor ran through the hull. More status lights came to life on the control panel.
"I have received clearance for liftoff from Morbus Ground Operations, o smelly one," the 94X declared.
"There must be an autocopilot override somewhere here," Radner sighed. "Accidents with a dropped wrench also happen."
The ship slowly rose, the city lights growing smaller as it rose into the night sky. Abruptly, it seemed to stumble, then recovered. A red light flashed briefly on an overhead display. Then the clouds beyond the viewport melted into star-dusted black velvet.
Radner frowned, running his hands across readouts. "What was that?"
"Engaging artificial gravity, entering into orbit about Morbus."
"Hey, bolt bucket, did you detect any problem on liftoff? A chip light just went off."
"My inputs say all systems performing within design perimeters," the voice intoned. "Very likely a minor glitch. Perhaps you were not aware the Edgar C. Rutherford was not constructed last week?"
"Is there a problem?" Blaid was standing in one corner with his arms crossed, leaning against a bulkhead. Radner had no idea how long he had been there.
"Not according to dim diodes here."
"What is our estimated time of arrival at Quan-Lan moon?"
"We need to complete one rotation in orbit to align ourselves to correct flight trajectory. I'd estimate about five hours from departing Morbus," Radner explained. "So what happens to our cargo when we arrive?"
"Ah, the remains of Morbus' dear departed. A space tug will be waiting to take the fifty caskets down to our new mausoleum," he said. Behind the bland expression Blaid seemed to be savoring some private joke.
"You know, I would think the Morbans would want to be on hand for the interment of their dear departed, don't you agree?" Radner remarked.
"Our insurance carrier won't allow passengers on the Rutherford," Blaid replied. "I understand Mr. Alphonse is contemplating having Interplanetary Adventures get involved at a later date." He eased himself off the bulkhead. "Well, Mr. Radner, you seem to have the situation well in hand so I'll leave you to your duties. Until our arrival, then."
Radner watched him depart through the airlock and frowned. Something really funny was going on and he had no idea what. He felt a chill when another thought came to him. What exactly did happen to his predecessor the last trip? He turned back to the controls.
"94X, I need you to engage --"
"Automatic ship guidance system engaged."
"Thank you ever so much." Radner rose from the command chair and stretched. "I'm going to my cabin and get my tools. I want to see it that glitch came from the plasma engines. Think you can generate enough volts to monitor the ship while I do?"
"Of course. You might wish to take a shower first.
Radner stifled a yawn and jammed his passcard into the slot
before his cabin. Damn, he could use some shuteye, he thought. He had spent the fourteen hour timephase flight from Earth to Morbus sitting next to an obese Aghaid who generously passed gas the entire trip.
The door swished open revealing a pile of diminutive female attire. Bra, housekeepers smock and impossibly small thong panties.
"What in Zog's Ass..." He walked into the bedroom cubicle and hit the lightbars.
"Hi, Earth guy!" said Dotto-ce, stretched out on the bed wearing a transparent pink nighty. "Please to notice big surprise for you."
"Big surprise is right." Radner swallowed hard. "Listen, cutie, I've had kind of a long day-."
"I warm up your side of bed."
"Gee, how thoughtful of you, but-."
"Please to take off clothes now," she ordered, smiling seductively as she pulled the nighty up revealing surprisingly shapely legs. "Dotto-ce ready for you to trade saliva and bump her brains out."
A buzzer sounded on the comm set by the doorway.
"Saved by the bell," Radner said under his breath, hitting the button. "This is engineer Radner, who's this?"
"Your bestest pal in command central," said a mechanical voice.
"Yeah, 94X, what's happening up there?"
"I have located the source of the alarm signal you received on liftoff."
"In the cargo hold, level twenty."
"Okay, let me check it out."
"Did you remember to wash your odiferous posterior, Mr. Radner?"
"Why don't you blow me?" Radner jabbed the button off and turned to his guest.
"Well, Dotto-ce, looks like duty calls," he said. "It might be a good idea if you went to your cabin as I might be gone all night. Catch up with you later, maybe." He picked up his toolbelt and threw it over a shoulder.
Dotto-ce swung her legs over the edge of the bed and pouted. "Okay, I go." She padded across the floor and poked him in the stomach. "Do I at least get kiss?"
"Um... I guess so." He bent over, the long pointed nose almost poking him the eye as their lips met. It was like being wet-kissed by an amorous gerbil.
Are you queasy around dead bodies?
He had heard this was a favorite phrase of the tour guides bringing visitors to the planet cemetery which was Morbus. Funny how the phrase came to mind as he entered the slidegate to the dark and gloomy cavern of the hold. Metal caskets containing embalmed Morbans stacked row on row under dim podlights. There was a sepulchral stillness but for the muted pulse of the pulsephase ship's main engines. He flicked on his lightbar and popped the lid on a circuit box, groping in his toolbelt for a meter.
Something glinting in the darkness by the pallets caught his eye. He shone his lightbar over two caskets which had toppled from the stack during liftoff. Both had broken open when they hit the deck.
And both were empty.
"What in Zog's Holy Jockstrap?" He ran his light around the empty caskets then across the rows stretching off into darkness. He knew there was one thing he had to do. Steeling himself, he flipped the locks on the nearest casket and opened the lid.
Down the rows he went, opening caskets only to see shiny metal boxes empty but for a child's toy, a hair ornament or a favorite lapreader. Of the former inmates, not a trace. He leaned against the pallets, deep in thought. Every cargo hold he had ever worked in had at least one surveillance eye. He ran his lightbar around the hold, spotting one halfway up a wall.
"Well, whatever happened to those stiffs someone sure didn't want to leave a record," he mused, inspecting a cable torn from the wall. "But I'll bet my next paycheck they weren't too smart about the internal backups in these things."
Prying open a cover in the base of the eye he extracted a chip. He inserted it into a portascan from his toolbelt and powered it on.
The tiny screen glowed into life. There were the four tough-looking Morban dockloaders he had met at the boarding ramp at work, cracking open the caskets, pulling out the embalmed Morbans. They were dragging them to the waste disposal chute at the end of the cargo hold, dumping them into the bin like trash. Then they shot them out into space.
"Holy gorth crap," he whispered. "Mr. Alphonse is gonna love seeing this."
"I hear there is a meteor shower every night this ship leaves Morbus with its load of dead Morbans on its way to Quan-Lan moon," Radner explained, standing by the big desk in the starfreighter's executive suite. "Fifty meteors from fifty dead Morbans falling through the sky. Blaid's jolly little gang has been dumping them out the disposal chute each time the Rutherford has left the planet."
"So I see. How very distressing." Alphonse was studying the images running across Radner's portascan.
"You guess is as good as mine why they were doing this. I mean, your new mausoleum on the moon must be full of empty caskets."
"This could very well be the case." Alphonse continued to watch the images. He seemed to be taking a long time.
Radner's attention wandered along the cabin walls to the main viewport. There was a sizeable stress crack on the lower left corner. How long did they expect to run this landfill of a ship on their transport operation?
Alphonse suddenly looked up from the portascan and sighed.
"You know, Mr. Radner, I find myself always underestimating the ingenuity of ship engineers." He closed up the device, dropping it into a desk drawer.
Radner stared down at him. "Come again?"
"Your predecessor made the same discovery our last trip out. Sadly for him he was making repairs outside the ship when he ran out of air, poor lad."
The airlock swished open revealing Blaid and his four Morban dockloaders. Blaid had a force pistol in his hand and was pointing it at Radner's heart.
"Well, well. If it isn't Smiling Beauty and the Four Dwarfs," said Radner. He turned back to Alphonse. "I know this sounds like a stupid question but can you tell me what the hell is going on?"
"It's the least I can do." Alphonse favored him with a knowing grin. "There isn't a new mausoleum on Quan-Lan. There never was one."
Radner tried not to look as confused as he felt. "Now this makes a lot of sense. These caskets you've been hauling from Morbus --"
"Platinum. The Morbans make their funeral caskets from pure platinum. It's as common on Morbus is zinc is on Earth. A little light shining through the darkness, young man?"
"So there is no Caring Hearts Funeral Services. It's all a sleazy scheme to grave rob the Morbans," Radner sneered. "I'll bet there's a sizable pile of caskets sitting on Quan-Lan moon right now waiting for you to haul back to Earth."
"My, my, you are bright. I can't wait to see what kind of a meteor you make."
"Moving on to this subject," Blaid interrupted. "I think another engineer running out of air might be a trifle redundant. Let's make this one a defective space suit heater."
Alphonse nodded. "Very good. Also, we need to ensure he has his tool belt on him. The authorities on Morbus had questions why the last engineer was working outside the hull without it."
Two of the Morban thugs stepped forward and seized Radner by the arms. Blaid gestured toward the airlock with his force pistol.
"Shall we take a stroll down into the hold, Mr. Radner? I believe there is a piece of equipment outside the ship which needs your expert attention."
The blast of gas sent him spinning into a weightless black void. His flailing hands struck an antennae protruding from the ship's hull and he pulled himself toward it. The long oval of the starfreighter bisected the grey cresent of Morbus while an ocean of unfriendly stars seemed to mock his plight.
"Attention!" crackled a metallic voice inside his helmet. "Sensors have detected a circuit malfunction in suit integrity. You have five point eight minutes of heating control available."
"Thank you so much for this wonderful information!" Radner twisted about, searching the hull for some means of entry. He knew there were several emergency airlocks available but suspected the entry controls were overridden so he would waste his time and suit heating trying to gain entry. His arm bumped the toolbelt about his waist and he smiled grimly as an idea came to him. He hit his jets and moved along the hull to the viewports of the executive suite.
The atmosphere inside Alphonse's office was festive. Blaid and his four Morban dockloaders were lounging about his desk passing around a newly-opened bottle of Umas brandy. Alphonse had just refilled his glass when he noticed something moving outside the viewport. The bottle slipped from his fingers as he watched a glove holding an impact tool sliding along the plexglass to a stress crack on the lower corner.
There was a pulverizing impact and the viewport exploded outwards, blasting the cabin's occupants into the void.
"And there goes another example of underestimating the Ingenuity of ship engineers," Radner observed, watching them vanish from sight into orbit around Morbus.
"Attention! Suit heating power is now exhausted!" announced the voice inside his helmet. "Please reenter a controlled environment immediately."
The next breath of air he drew into his lungs seemed to carry splinters of ice. A wintery cold crept through his suit. With numb, clumsy fingers he sought to maneuver the jets toward the broken viewport. His glove rested on the threshold a moment before emergency bulkhead snapped down, sealing him off from light and warmth and life.
He floated away from the hull. The utter cold of outer space seized him in an arctic grasp. He coughed and a trickle of blood ran down his chin.
A figure in a diminutive space suit floated from nowhere. A faceplate swam into his vision behind which was a pair of bright eyes and a long rodent nose.
I must be hallucinating, he thought, and all became blackness.
He came into a world of white light, an enveloping chrysalis of pale effulgence which gradually focused to a row of lightbars. Gradually he became conscious of the sharp tang of antiseptics, rough starched sheets covering him. A face floated into view, freckled and wearing a smile.
"Welcome back to the land of the living, Mr. Radner," a nurse said, running a scanner over his chest. "How are we feeling today?"
He blinked and swallowed painfully. "I feel like borgg puke."
"Yeah, and you look like it too." The freckled face was replaced by leathery jowls and amused grey eyes.
"Thank you, Doctor, for your charming bedside manner," Radner retorted. "Can you tell me when I get to leave? I hate morgues."
"Do I look like a doc?" He felt his hand in an iron grip.
"The name is Tal Norland, chief engineer of the starcruiser Parthenon. Just thought I'd stop by and check in on a fellow wrench turner laying about in our sickbay."
Radner turned his head to see an oval viewport framing an ocean of stars. "How long have I been here?"
"Long enough. When your rust bucket of a starfreighter had the cabin blowout the old 94X autocopilot had a panic attack and sent out a distress call," Norland explained. "The Parthenon happened to be the closest ship in this star sector."
It was all coming back to him now. Stacks of empty funeral caskets in the hold of the Edgar C. Rutherford. Stolen caskets of platinum. "Say, there's something you people need to check out --" he began.
Norland chuckled. "I know just what you're gonna say but we don't need to check out nothing. We found your portascan in a drawer from the cabin what had the blowout." His eyes crinkled with merriment. "That spacer Alphonse accidentally hit the audio record when he dumped it in the desk. The captain of the Parthenon and the big shots from Morbus shit a brick when they reviewed it."
"I took the surveillance scan to Alphonse, not knowing he was in cahoots with Blaid." Radner suddenly felt foolish. "Pretty dumb of me, huh?"
"Not as dumb as the Morban High Council who signed the contract with these bozos. Anyway, the Homeworlds sent an investigation team to straighten out this mess."
The nurse handed Radner a glass of some hot liguid and he drank gratefully. He was starting to feel more or less normal. "So what happens to me now?"
"You're unemployed. The investigation team took one look at the Rutherford and condemned her on the spot. However..." A slow smile spread across the craggy face. "We do have an opening for a skilled ship engineer on the Parthenon, if you're interested."
"Yeah, I guess I am," Radner replied, returning the smile. "Just don't ask me to do any viewport repairs in a suit with no heating."
"No problem. I hear your last repair attempt didn't go so well."
Radner realized there was a dim bulb in his brightening world. "I was trapped outside the hull with a dead atmosphere suit. How did I get back inside?"
"When the alarms started going off that little Morban housekeeper looked out a viewport and saw you. She got herself into a suit designed for the dockloaders and pulled you in through an airlock, saving your miserable ass." Norland shook his head. "Can you imagine her doing that?"
No, he couldn't. There was more to Dotto-ce he realized than a pink nightie and a libido running over the red line.
"We put her up in the officer's section of the ship. You might want to pay her a visit and say thanks."
Radner stared out at the grey crescent or Morbus just coming into view.
"Yeah, I guess I had better," he agreed.
The airlock to Dotto-ce's cabin sighed open. She held a half-eaten snackbar in one hand and a hairbrush in another. The housemaid's tunic had been replaced by a slinky red dress she had acquired somewhere.
"Earth guy!" she exclaimed. "Pleased I was to visit you in sickbay but now you here."
"Noticed that, huh?" He held out a bouquet of bright flowers. "I found out how you Morbans grow crops with all those tombs cluttering up the planet. Hydroponic gardening. They sent up a shipment of veggies, fruit and these."
"Flowers for me?"
"Defensive driving class was my second choice."
Dotto-ce took the bouquet and looked up at him, her elfin eyes shining. The snackbar dropped to the floor.
"Anyway, I heard what you did for me on the Rutherford. I thought I could show my gratitude by taking you out to dinner or something."
A tiny fist grabbed him by the front of his shirt and jerked him into the cabin.
"Right now, Dotto-ce prefer 'something', Earth guy."
The airlock closed behind them.
"Our sky shuttle is now approaching the Chancellor's Palace on Truk-Do, Morbus' second largest city. Note the unusual orange marble on the mausoleums below us," the tour guide announced. "And I do believe it's almost time for the weekly meteor shower, folks. Usually on this side of the planet we can witness the spectacle of fifty meteors... wait, here comes the first one!"
All heads in the shuttle turned to the night sky, their lapscanners raised to capture the event.
"One... two... three...," the tour guide intoned. The last meteor flared out. The crowd murmured its disappointment.
"Well, folks, I suppose six is all we're going to see tonight..."
© 2011 Kurt Heinrich Hyatt
Bio: Kurt Heinrich Hyatt's work has appeared or is scheduled to appear in Space and Time, Explorers Anthology, Allegory, and Aphelion, among others. His most recent Aphelion appearance was Stiffing the Blademaster, in June 2012.
E-mail: Kurt Heinrich Hyatt
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