A decade or so ago, my friend and very talented author Richard Brewer announced he was putting together an anthology based on Bruce Springsteen’s song, Meeting Across the River. That book can be found on amazon here.
I wrote a sci-fi story for sh!ts and giggles, but it was a little too different for the publisher. Then again, it might have just been bad. I hadn’t written too much fiction then.
Last night I stumbled upon it and gave it a read and felt like there was a lot of good stuff in it. So I’m throwing it up here while working on the rewrites for 2245.
Leave a comment if you enjoy it.
The Bootlegger’s Crew
The Bootlegger was listing through space.
Inside, the Captain spat orders at his crew, all in varying states of distress. Castile was frantic at his Nav post, bellowing repeatedly over the warning klaxons that the aft thrusters had been damaged in the last attack. Of course, this was news to no one. The ship wasn’t, after all, moving. Steely-M was inert, fixed in his seat at the targ controls, smoking a Jersey stem and watching the monitor as the pursuing ship was in the midst of a low-G turn, coming around for what was most assuredly its final pass. Across the bridge, Dr. Zoom was scrambling to reroute power from the downed thrusters to weapon control so that she might get at least one or two more static bursts off before the other ship had achieved targeting lock. But her eyes conveyed the futility of this effort.
“Cherry!” The captain screamed.
A bright female voice broke from the ceiling. “Yes, Captain?”
Out of habit, he pivoted his head in the direction of the speaker above.
“Shut off that alarm and give me a progress report, damnit!”
The alarm cut out, replaced by Cherry’s calm voice. “The attack vessel is returning. I estimate seventy-four seconds before she’ll be in tactical range to loose another salvo. My data also concludes there is an eighty-nine point four-six percent likelihood that I will not retain structural integrity following such an attack.”
“Cherry! You know how I feel about fractions!”
“My apologies, Captain, but the figure is accurate.”
“Steely-M, are you on a meal break or something?!”
Steely-M exhaled a plume of blue smoke. “Unless the good Doctor can get a reburn on the number two thruster rods, Boss, I got nothing to work with.”
Dr. Zoom was quick to her own defense. “Two is down, as are both aft’s.”
“Castile already supplied us with that information, Z. So could you maybe tell me something I don’t know.” The Captain barked.
“Sure,” she answered with a curt smile. “You’re an asshole and that silver card Steely pulled to win last night’s big pot? I watched him palm it two games before.”
The Captain glared at Steely, who shrugged sheepishly.
Through clenched teeth, he addressed them all. “Does anyone have any input on the problem at hand?”
Cherry’s voice was the only to respond. “The attack vessel will be in firing range in fifty-six seconds.”
“I wasn’t taking to you, Damnit!”
“Understood Captain,” she responded. “Although there’s no reason to get surly.”
He shook his head and made a mental note to remind Dr. Zoom to toggle down Cherry’s AI specs should they actually survive. The “personality” she’d acquired during her interactions with the crew was charming at first, but lately it had gotten downright annoying.
“There must be something we can do,” The Captain said nervously, an invisible snake of insecurity slithering into the timbre of his vocal chords.
No one answered.
“G-d, this is really it, isn’t it?” Castile’s quivering voice asked. “This is how we’re gonna die? Four quads past the forbidden zone, running Zypher Chips for Moon Dwellers?!”
“Stow it, Earth boy,” Spoke Steely-M.
“And for what?! A low percentage payday and bragging rights?!”
“I said shut your hole. You never had any complaints before.”
“We never went for the motherlode before!”
“Zoom,” the Captain managed desperately. “Can’t you do something?” And then, looking at the others in turn: “Can’t any of you?”
But their eyes betrayed the humbling truth and he collapsed back into his chair.
“Then you’re fired,” he said, not emphatically, but with a conclusiveness that surprised even himself. “You’re all fucking fired.”
A wave of defeat flooded the bridge. Only the hum of the ship’s limited power remained until Cherry’s voice broke the silence. “Captain?”
“Am I to assume by your tonal inflections that you are resigned to accept this defeat?”
The crew stole glimpses at him. They had been invincible for so long, defeat seemed like a lover’s lie, sold only in shadows. But what was space if not the very fabric from which shadows were cut?
“’Fraid I’m out of options, girl.”
Cherry respected the silence a moment. “If it’s any consolation, in the past fourteen seconds, I’ve run theoretical diagnostics on over seven million scenarios. None resulted in a successful resolution for escape.”
Castile snorted. “Hmph. Some consolation.” And he shook his head. “Bitch.”
“I understand this antagonism is a more result of our present situation and not a reflection of our relationship, Castile. I won’t take your final words personally.”
“Take ‘em personally, Cherry. Write ‘em down, put ‘em on data-disk, and stuff ‘em up your external port. I never fucking liked you.”
Her silence only lasted a moment. “Twenty-six seconds until imminent destruction.”
“C’mon, now,” the Captain chided.
Outside, the attackers’ ship drew full round. It was only a matter of moments now.
After a brief pause, Cherry returned. “Captain?”
“What?” He answered, frustration and fatigue in equal parts.
“If I might inquire – were you satisfied with my services?”
It was such an odd question that he had to look up. “Come again?”
“Did you…like me?” She managed, her mechanized voice almost demure.
He sighed and shook his head. Placating a computer.
“To be honest,” he responded. “I always thought you were a nagging pain in my ass. No offense.”
The crew chuckled, welcoming this final moment of levity.
Cherry’s cold, metallic voice returned. “None taken. Attack vessel will be in firing range in seventeen-point-eight seconds. Sixteen-point-one. Fourteen-point-nine…”
And so it went. The crew could only grin and bear it. In the monitor before them, the attack vessel cut its thrusters as it closed into firing range. Its fore-guns turreted upward, exhaust systems lighting as they primed. Seconds before they let loose, a concussion rocked the vacuum of space and suddenly, the darkness was on fire.
“Holy shit!” Steely-M managed as the attack vessel took a static burst to its port side, the effects of which blew out half its mid-section.
“Z?” The captain inquired, his mouth agape.
“Wasn’t me,” she volleyed back.
Another static burst struck the command module, vaporizing half of it in an instant.
“Cherry!” The Captain beckoned. “What’s going on?”
But Cherry didn’t answer.
It took him a fraction of a second to realize she was still upset about the comments he’d made before the blast.
“Ah, shit. C’mon, Cher. I was just razzing you about being a pain in the ass. I didn’t mean it.”
Her petulant voice broke. “Vocal registry clearly indicated sincerity, Captain.”
“Yeah, okay. So you’re a pain in my ass. All women are a pain in the ass. But you’re my favorite pain in the ass and that’s why I love you.”
He gritted his teeth, chapped at the ridiculousness of having to mollify his own ship.
“You think of me as a woman?” She asked.
“Of course I do.” He responded without a wisp of patronization.
“Your arrogance and derision is well noted when it comes to the opposite sex of your species,” she said, almost as if trying to convince herself.
“In fact, one might classify you as an archetype misogynist.”
“Okay, Captain,” She relented. “What is it you wish to know?”
“Who fired that static burst?”
“I’m certain you don’t want me to answer that.”
“I’m certain I do,” he responded, this time the bite unveiled in his tone.
“Understood. But before I tell you, I must make it clear that I didn’t detect the second ship’s signal beacon because Dr. Zoom had rerouted power away from my exterior hull transponders.”
Dr. Zoom rolled her eyes.
“No one’s blaming anyone, Cher.” The captain stated. “Now, please.”
“All right, Captain.” She commenced again. “The ship currently hovering point-four quads away has been identified as none other than the Nebraska.”
In a nanosecond the elation the crew had felt dropped away, replaced by the black cloud of impending doom.
“And she is hailing us,” Cherry continued. “Shall I answer?”
Two months earlier, the Captain had spent eleven days aboard the Nebraska, secreted away in the First Officer’s Cabin as he surreptitiously seduced their commander in a series of nightly and athletically-charged sexual encounters. He was told breaking her down would be difficult. Van Zant had actually used the word “impossible.” She had a reputation, after all, of being an ice queen; cunning, highly intelligent and fiercely guarded; with a knack for survival that rivaled his own. If it weren’t in his nature to serve himself implicitly, he might have actually considered teaming with her. But betray her he had, using her as cover to slip him inside the Outpost at Ramrod Three where he not only kidnapped the Pilgrim Princess from the Temple of Love, but managed to steal the Bootlegger, a state of the art C-class with light speed capabilities. Their commander had been left to deal with the aftermath. An aftermath that had pursued him half way across a galaxy.
The crew sat speechless; waiting for his next order.
“Put her on,” was all he said.
A moment later, Captain Edie’s filled the screen. Her long, dark, silky hair tied behind that perfectly angular face, revealing the crimson tattoos of a tiger and a rose on her neck that he once traced with his fingertips. But the source of both her beauty and her power had always lain in her eyes. He had called them Spanish Eyes, though he didn’t know quite what it meant, having only heard it in a song long ago.
“Edie. Hey, it’s great to see you,” the Captain started. “I guess we owe you a debt of gratitude, bailing us out against Kid Cole. We were taking a full-on ass-kicking, no doubt.”
She remained silent, unflinching; with her nose held slightly up so she was staring down at him, clearly savoring this moment.
He continued. “We’re, uh, running kinda low on thruster cylinders. What little we hadn’t depleted getting us out here were destroyed in the firefight. I was thinking maybe you could loan us a few.”
Her smile seemed to grow thinner and sharper at the same time.
“Or maybe we can work out some other kind of arrangement.”
Edie turned off screen and spoke a terse command. “Prime one and two.”
Cherry broke in. “Captain, she’s prepping her turret cannons.”
“Here we go again,” Steely-M muttered.
“Whoa, whoa, Edie. Hold on, Girl. Let’s talk about this.”
“Targeting lock!” Cherry blurted.
“Edie!” He yelled, too late as a static burst fired off, striking their rear thruster and exploding with a tremendous force that sent them all to the deck.
“I can’t take anymore of this!” Castile screamed as klaxons erupted again.
Dr. Zoom yelled above the din. “It’s a direct hit on the rear thruster, but the damage is negligible. That bay was sealed when Cole hit it with his first salvo.”
Immediately, the Captain wondered if she was toying with him or giving him time to dig himself out of this hole.
“Edie, look. I know what I did was wrong…”
For the first time, she addressed him. “Which part?”
He looked confused. “What?”
“Which part?” She asked, not without rancor. “The part where you seduced me, humiliating me in front of my crew, or the part where you used me to slip into Ramrod Three, break every law in the outpost and then left us all holding the bag?”
He stuttered and Edie turned off screen again. “Prime again.”
No, wait!” The Captain pleaded.
Edie held, eyebrow perched.
“Cherry!” The Captain bellowed. “Turn that fucking alarm off! I can’t hear myself think!”
The alarm ceased and the screen froze momentarily as Cherry whispered, “If I may captain. Voice registry data indicates she’s more upset over your ‘seduction’ of her than the actions that followed.”
He nodded subtly, and Cherry unfroze the screen.
“You have every right to be angry, Edie. What I did at Ramrod Three was inexcusable. But would it make a difference if you knew the princess herself arranged for us to kidnap her?”
“Not in the least,” She answered. “I’m sure you were well compensated.”
“Yeah,” he returned. “But not in the way you think. Cole’s men were holding both my crew and my ship hostage—“
“And why was that?!” She screamed, showing emotion for the first time. “Could it have had anything to do with the string of gambling debts you left in your wake of the forbidden zone? Don’t play me for a fool, Captain. I’ve had more than enough time to see through your web of endless lies—”
“Fine!” He yelled back, but then softer: “But don’t make the mistake of assuming what happened between us was a charade as well. It was real.”
She laughed. “You have no shame, do you?”
“It’s the truth. If you really believe I’m capable of deceiving you so, then you give me too much credit.”
And for a moment, her eyes betrayed her. She was conflicted. But it disappeared quickly. “And you give me too little. ‘Hell hath no fury, Captain.’” And then she turned off screen again. “Prime three and four. This time, target the command module.”
“Edie…” He started.
Cherry broke in. “She’s achieved targeting lock, Captain.”
“On my mark,” Edie spoke, softer this time.
“Even if you kill me…” The Captain began.
“And…” She began.
He finished. “Is it really worth losing two grand over?”
“Hold.” She said, raising her arm, her eyes narrowing. “What kind of twelfth hour desperation ploy are you on about now?”
“Oh, I dunno,” He said, reclining in his chair with some confidence now. “Could have something to do with the five crates of Zypher Chips we’re carrying.”
“I’ll call your bluff on that one, Captain.” She retorted.
He smiled. “Really? And what, pray tell, do you think we’re doing out here, four clicks past the forbidden zone?”
Edie conferred with her first officer, and then turned back to the screen. “Okay. Here’s the deal. Transfer them over and I’ll let you live. No cylinders. You got yourself into this mess, and you’ll have to get yourself out. But if you’re lucky, maybe a passing Ore cruiser will pick you up as salvage. You’ve gotten by on less before, I’m sure.”
He smiled. “Even if I were prone to accept such offers, which I’m not, it still wouldn’t solve your biggest problem.”
“That being?” She asked.
“Where to sell ‘em. You can’t just dump Zypher Chips on the black market. Not unless you want the Extra-Continentals on your ass.”
“And let me guess, you already have a buyer lined up.”
“Across the river,” The Captain said smugly. “And only I can get us there.”
She shook her head, awed by his audacity, and not just a little charmed despite herself. “Okay. Let’s talk.”
And with those magical words, the Captain smiled.
An hour later, the Bootlegger was locked onto the underbelly the Nebraska. Four members of Edie’s crew had entered the mid-deck in full battle dress, armed to the teeth in case the Captain had planned an ambush. He hadn’t. How could he and survive?
When Edie stepped onto the deck, a hush fell over them all. Even the Captain was smitten by her presence. Part of him had forgotten or wanted to forget her regal beauty. The cold efficiency with which her tall frame moved. Dressed in red satin, she was a sight to behold. Even as she walked up to him, smiled, and punched him square in the mouth. The Captain found himself on his ass. He rose, wiping the blood from his lip.
“I guess I deserved that,” He offered. “Your first officer get a look at the chips?”
“He did.” She answered.
“And everything appears to be in order.”
“Good. Have ‘em start transferring them over to your ship. And let’s get to the details.”
He walked into his quarters, not waiting to see if she followed. Once the door was closed behind them, he turned and kissed her hard. She bit his lip, drawing even more blood.
“Find what you’re looking for?” She asked.
“Just wanted to see if I’d lost my touch.”
“And let’s get to it.” He sat down on his bed, reclining a bit. There was no subtly in the act. Above him he saw Cherry’s imaging camera zoom in on him. He ignored it. “I’ve got a meeting with a man.”
“Across the river,” She interjected. “You told me.”
“This guy,” He continued. “He’s the real thing. A moon dweller with a ton of money. Only he ain’t gonna like us showing up in your ship, unless it’s me that hops out first on the T-pad.”
“You know the saying, Captain. My way or the highway.”
“Relax. I’m just letting you know, this guy don’t dance. And there are a lot of people looking for us.”
“Extra-continentals?” She asked.
“Oh, yeah,” He answered. “And more. That’s one of the reasons I procured this baby.” He said, stroking Cherry’s walls. “It’s hard to get through the tunnel if you don’t look the part.”
“Procured, huh?” She asked with an ironic smile.
“You like that?” He said, flirtatiously.
“Always a fan of a well placed euphemism.” She retorted, responding with some flirtations of her own. “So, what’s the part?”
“Gotta have style.”
She did a slow pirouette, showing off her faultless form with arms raised. “And do I have style?”
He acted if he was thinking about it while taking in her stellar curves. “Maybe if you changed that shirt. Gotta keep his mind on the business at hand.”
She laughed. It sounded good. Above them, Cherry’s imaging camera clicked.
“What is that?” Edie asked.
“Ventilation system. It’s on the fritz.” He answered, with a stern look upward.
Edie turned her attention back to him. “So all you need’s a ride?”
“Yep,” he answered. “But if they catch us, they ain’t gonna be looking for just me this time.”
“I can handle it. But just so we’re clear. Even split, right? Fifty-fifty.” She asked, lowering herself onto the bed, revealing a flash of breast as she learned toward him.
He swallowed hard. “Two grand a piece.”
She closed in, running a hand up his leg, and reaching for the zipper near his neck.
“Partners?” She asked, her lips a breath away from his.
“Friends,” he responded, blood pounding in his ears.
In a flashed, she raked the zipper up to his throat, choking him. “There’s just one thing, Friend,” She started. “If you try and fuck me again, there won’t be a rock in all eleven galaxies you’ll be able to hide under.”
He cleared his throat. “Don’t worry. Last thing I wanna do is fuck you.”
The zipper came down, the heat went up, and with a kiss, oblivion followed.
Above them, Cherry’s camera caught it all.
Two hours later, Edie and her crew were back aboard the Nebraska. A send off dinner for the Bootlegger had been planned for later that evening, giving the Captain and his crew a few hours to prep for departure and talk.
“So, Boss,” Steely-M started. “Tell me again why we transferred over the last of our cylinders?”
“Cuz getting across the river is going to take every ounce of juice we have. Cherry calculated the weight displacement of the Nebraska and at ten times the speed of light, it’s gonna require some power.”
Cherry broke in. “Ten to the ninth squared, plus a singular pulse-light aspect ratio matching the wormhole’s terminal velocity—“
“We get it, Cher.” Dr. Zoom interjected.
“And we didn’t send all the cylinders over,” The Captain continued. “We needed at least one to keep the Bootlegger running awhile.”
“How long’s awhile?” Steely-M asked.
“Cher?” The Captain questioned.
Her computation was immediately. “Approximately twelve hours, sixteen minutes and thirty four seconds at current power drain.”
“Approximately,” Castile muttered.
“Long enough to whip up some of your famous White Town stew.” The Captain directed toward Steely-M.
“Why do I have to cook for these butt pirates?”
“Cuz you’re the one who palmed the silver card.” And almost as retort to Steely’s blanching, he stepped right into his face. “I hear everything. Haven’t you learned that by now? If I would have caught you last night, you’d be doing the deep freeze swim right now.”
“Probably would have been better off if you did,” He muttered as he headed for the ship’s galley.
“Just for the record, Boss,” Castile started. “I wanna say this is a bad idea.”
“This dinner. This arrangement. Transferring over the zypher chips and all our cylinders while we stay here. Shouldn’t we be over there with them right now? There’s nothing keeping them from back door-ing on us and leaving us all to the ‘deep freeze swim.”
The Captain smiled at his naiveté. “How many times do I have to say it, Castile? That woman may be ruthless. She may be hard. She may be the toughest bitch in all eleven galaxies, but she’s not stupid. She knows it’s hard enough to sell one zypher chip, let alone five cases. She needs up to hook up with the buyer and until then, we’re as valuable as the chips are.”
The Captain shrugged. “One step at a time. First, why don’t you go and prep Cherry for extraction. I don’t want to leave her here accidentally.”
“Thank you, Captain,” Cherry spoke as Castile exited.
“Well, I couldn’t abandon my favorite girl in the forbidden zone, now could I?”
Of course not,” she retorted demurely. “And if I may, I have some shutdown sequencing protocols on the monitor I need you to address.”
As he turned for the monitor, Dr. Zoom spoke. “So, how are you going to do it?”
“Do what?” He asked with a backward glance.
“Screw her over.”
The Captain slowed and then turned. “I’m not.” He said, his usual hubris gone.
“You’re not?” She said with no hidden skepticism.
“It won’t play out this time, Z. She’s too smart. And truth be told, I’m getting tired of being on the run. One more enemy is one more reason I have to look over my shoulder. And I’m getting tired of that too.”
“So, you’re just gonna hand her two grand?”
“Why not?” He answered. “Our split’s still two. Between the four of us that’s five hundred a piece. Enough to buy a moon of our own somewhere and retire in style.”
“We’ve been together a long time,” She said, softer.
“A lot of light years. A lot of memories.”
She studied him, then walked up and kissed him on the cheek, whispering into his ear. “Just don’t leave without me.”
He smiled. “I’m not going anywhere.”
She left. The Captain turned to the monitor. “Okay, Cher’. Whatcha got?”
“Shutdown sequence protocols for your approval, Captain.”
On the monitor, a series of systems were highlighted, each in turn scheduled to be turned off. But then the screen split in two, and on the right side, words appeared.
Captain Edie has set surveillance monitors throughout the ship.
“Uhh, these all look fine.” He responded, obliquely.
You are aware of this already?
“Of course. Yes. That’s good too.” He continued.
Because it is what you would have done.
“Right. Let’s look at life support last.” He continued.
You have something in mind.
“That’s smart, Cher’, but let’s see those life supports.”
Her voice returned. “Finding now, Captain.”
But the message on the monitor again.
You won’t leave me?
“This is all obvious, isn’t it?”
And the Captain’s hands went across several of the Life Support Sequence Protocols, illuminating those needed during the last few hours on the ship.
“Oxygen reduction in unused sectors. Shield coils can be powered down. Oh, let’s leave these active.”
And that’s when Cherry caught it. He had kept the exterior spacesuits prepped in the EVAC corridor.
“Understood, Captain.” She spoke. “I believe I can take care of the rest.”
“I’m sure you can, Cher’.” He said with a smile. “What would I do without you?”
Four hours later, Edie’s crew joined them for dinner aboard the Bootlegger. The Captain was the first to dive in despite seeing something like a grin on Steely-M’s face. He wandered if the little bastard had spit in the stew. But it didn’t matter. Dr. Zoom had even delved into her private stock and brought out a few bottles of Venutian wine. One of Edie’s crew used a hand-held particle spectrometer to examine the fare for contaminants. Edie made no apologies for the precaution.
“So, Captain,” Edie interrupted, halfway through dinner. “Tell me. What’s it like going across the river?”
He smiled and thought about it. “Riding a wormhole…” he began. “Is sorta like falling in love. When you’re inside the river, you know that worlds are moving by you at the speed of light, as you stand stationary, counting the seconds, waiting for the ride to end. But until it ends, you have the most blissful feeling of contentment. Peace. And then it’s over. And your guts collapse. And the last thing you ever want to do in your miserable existence is experience that again. But after awhile that wears off, and you long for the rush again. You need that rush. Because you know it’s the one time you’re most alive.”
The crew was entranced, Edie included. “But the danger…”
“Is real.” He went on, turning to face her and her alone. “But shouldn’t it be that way? What’s a rush without the risk?”
Edie was frozen. The metaphor had folded and melded into her subconscious. She tried to shake it. Tried to shake the feeling that he was conning her again. But she couldn’t be conned again, could she? She was, after all, prepared this time. Wasn’t she?
“Captain?” Cherry’s voice interrupted.
“Who’s that?” Edie asked, breaking from her reverie.
“Oh, that’s just Cherry. The ship.” The Captain answered. “What is it, Cherry?”
“Close out sequencing protocols have finished. I need your sign-out for final approval.”
“Consider it given,” He responded, his eyes never leaving Edie’s.
“Sign-out requires eye-scan and DNA verification.” She retorted haughtily. “You should know this, Sir.”
Edie smiled. “Well, now we know who runs things around here.”
A few snickers broke out among Edie’s crew.
The Captain shuffled uncomfortably. “I’ll take care of it later, Cher.”
“I’m sorry, Captain,” She resumed. “But shutdown is set for minus four hours and six minutes. It needs to be done now.”
The Captain groaned and stood. “Will you excuse me?” Edie stood too. “It’ll only take a minute.”
Edie looked to her First Officer. He answered her thought. “Bay doors are secure. I have the codes.”
The Captain smiled again and stepped out into the bulkway. As the door closed behind him he broke into a jog. “Cherry, we ready?”
“Affirmative, Captain,” She answered. “I’ve tapped into the Nebraska’s mainframe. It’s a surprisingly archaic system.”
“Cher,” He chided.
“My apologies,” She returned. “I’ve prepped all systems. Exterior escape hatch on the port side is unsecured.”
The Captain smiled. He reached the bridge and activated the emergency evacuation corridor. Inside, were four spacesuits for exterior survival. He slipped one on as quickly as possible and then went through compression lockdown procedures.
“Uh, Captain?” Cherry broke in on his com. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”
“Of course,” He answered. Stepping forward and reaching for the remote terminal. “Are you ready?”
“Disengaging myself from the Bootlegger mainframe now.”
A few lights flashed and a code was given. The Captain extracted a CHIP and inserted it into a slot in his suit. “You with me?”
“Affirmative, Captain.” Cherry’s voice answered. “Ready for departure.”
“You and me both, Girl.” He said, as he closed the door.
The walk from the Bootlegger to the Nebraska seemed like it took forever, although it transpired in less than a minute. Forty seconds later, the Captain had activated the departure sequence, releasing itself from the hull of the Bootlegger. Inside, Edie and the others felt the vibration and realized immediately that they’d been duped.
Aboard the Nebraska, the Captain slammed Cherry’s chip into the console. Her voice echoed from above.
“Cherry, give me a projection on thruster fire.” He said.
“Seventy-one point one seconds, Captain.”
“Stop with the fractions!” He cursed.
“My apologies.” She said, with almost a gleeful giggle. “The Bootlegger is hailing us, shall I answer?”
Edie’s face came through as it had last time, only now it was distraught, convulsing with anger and fear. “You motherfucker! Give me back my ship!”
“Oh, now is that any way to talk to a friend?”
“I’m not your friend, you sonofabitch.” She seethed. “But I do have your crew, and if you ever want to see them alive again, you’ll turn your ass right around and bring back my ship!”
“Go on and keep them.” He laughed. “They’re useless, to the last one of them.”
Castile screamed. “I don’t believe this! Captain! How could you do this?!”
“He could do it because he’s a bastard,” Steely-M spoke, shaking his head, but with a twinge of respect seeping through. “And if you wanna know the truth, Boss, I’ve been cheating you at cards for years.”
“Consider this payback.” The Captain offered.
Steely-M smiled. Only Dr. Zoom’s face, his oldest cohort, drew the slightest twinge of guilt from him. “Dr. Z…” He began, not knowing what to say. “I wish I could have brought you along, Lady.”
With an intake of breath, she regained her matronly stature. “Me, too. I wish you the best, Captain. Maybe we’ll meet again sometime.”
Edie elbowed her out of the way. “Not fucking likely.” She turned to face the screen. “Go on. Go on and run. But you better hide this time where I’ll never find you. Because when I do, I swear on everything I’ve ever hold dear I’ll—“
And the screen went dark. The Captain had cut her off. He sat it silence a moment, watching as the gap between he and the Bootlegger widen.
“Captain?” Cherry spoke.
“Yeah?” He answered.
“Thrusters are ready. Shall I set course for the river?”
And she did. “If I may, Captain. I would like to thank you for bringing me along. I know it wasn’t necessary. ”
“Records indicate you are fully capable of piloting the Nebraska by yourself.”
“Oh,” He answered. “Thanks for reminding me.”
And with that, he extracted her chip and tossed it to the other side of the deck. “Women,” he muttered, and got comfortable for the long ride before him.
In the Bootlegger, the mood was understandably somber. Both crews sat together around the table they’d feasted at as adversaries only a hour before.
“So,” Castile broke the silence. “Are you going to kill us?”
Edie snorted. “Why would I do that? We’re in the same boat, aren’t we?”
“The S.S. Stupidity.” Steely-M offered.
Laughs followed, but died quickly after. Edie took them all in one by one. She guessed this was her new crew and her new ship, for better or for worse. She nodded toward Dr. Zoom.
“You,” She said. “What’s your name again?”
“Dr. Zoom,” The older lady answered.
“He give you that moniker?”
Dr. Zoom nodded.
“What’s your real name?” Edie asked.
“Pati.” Dr. Zoom answered.
“Okay, Pati,” She started. “What’s our situation here?”
“Thrusters are shot. Oxygen levels are depleting. We have enough power left in our one cylinder to last maybe another twelve hours. More if we shut down all but the barest of life support systems.”
“In other words, we’re screwed.”
Dr. Zoom nodded.
“If only Cherry were here,” Castile offered.
After a moment, a familiar voice surprised them from above. “If only I was here to do what, Castile?”
Everyone looked up in shock.
“Cherry?” Steely-M managed. “But we thought…”
“Thought I would transfer my entire system and place it in the hands of the Captain, an obvious misogynist? I think not.”
“But we heard you over the hailing com. You were inside the Nebraska.”
“A temporary replication,” Cherry offered, “To help facilitate his departure.”
“But…you helped him. Why would you help him if you knew he was only going to screw you over?” Edie asked.
“As my Captain, I am required to obey every order. But since he has abandoned me as well as my physical construct, I find myself in need of a new Captain.”
“I don’t suppose a female one would do?” Edie offered.
“That sounds like a nice change of pace. Consider me at your service, Captain.”
“What’s it matter?” Castile lamented. “We’re still stuck here and he’s still gonna get away.”
“Not so, Castile.” Cherry answered. “When the Captain began plotting his escape, I took the precautions of protecting this ship. Just in case such an occurrence would arise.”
Edie rose. “What precautions?”
“I arranged for the depleted thruster cylinders to be transferred to the Nebraska while fourteen active ones were retained here. I estimate it will take somewhere in the neighborhood of forty-point-nine hours to successful repair me to the point where we will be able to cross back over the forbidden zone.”
“Well?” Castile said, jumping up. “What are we waiting for?”
“Hold on,” Edie said, raising her hand. “What happens when the Captain hits the river without cylinder thrusters at full capacity?”
“I imagine he will run out of power somewhere in the middle. Caught in a perpetually frozen moment in hell, just out of reach of his eternal bliss.”
Everyone was stunned.
“Cherry!” Edie, managed with a smile. “Why would you…?”
And if Cherry could smile, she would. Her final words warming them all. “Hell hath no fury, Captain.”
And they all broke out into laughter…
E.J. Robinson All rights reserved.