“You have GOT to be kidding me….” I stared at the column of numbers that ran down the right side of the tablet. It read like the national debt of a third-world nation. Maybe a third-world world.
“Hey, I’m not the dumbass who sucked sixty meters of actuator linkage into his engine…” Three folds of sweaty chin-fat jiggled with every word as Big Vinny pushed back from the desk littered with machine parts and work orders, his snarky reply crashing against the blank look on my face. With a grimy thumbnail he picked a fleck of pastrami out of his teeth, then shook his head in exhaustion. “Whadda ya want me to say? You fucked your motor, simple as that.”
“But I —“ An unruly crowd of words tried to stampede through the door of my mouth, but none of them made it out alive. I swallowed the corpses; dead thoughts sliding down the back of my throat on the oily taste of hydraulic fluid. My arms dropped to my side, gaze drifting out the scum-hazed window as a single phrase fell from my lips.
“He would have died.”
Vinny looked at me with a weary stare. “I know Tommy. Somebody you never seen before woulda died, along with the zillion other folks you don’t know who die every day. And the drink you could’a raised to respect the poor schmoe would’a cost you three bucks, not two hundred and seventy large.” Vinnie shook his head. “You gotta give up the Boy Scout shit Tommy, it never pays.”
I nodded, then shook my head, having no real idea as to with what I agreed or disagreed. As my hand dropped the tablet onto Vinnie’s desk I made one last effort to say something, then settled for a half-hearted wave as I turned and made for the door.
“I can give you a week Tommy, ‘cuz its Christmas and all, then I gotta start hitting you with dock charges. That beast ain’t exactly small.”
All I could do was nod one last time as the door closed behind me.
The stench of Vinnie’s office, a mix of sweat, old pizza and older beer, was swept away by the smells of the shipyard. The burned argon of TIG welders, the acrid scent of petrochems vaporized by de-scaling lasers. I stopped dead in my tracks, the onslaught of odors woven inextricably throughout a fabric of heat and sound and impact. All around me, men and machines cut the dead metal flesh from injured ships while others hammered and fused fresh parts over gaping wounds. A blaze yellow Maglev with a rotating beacon carried a couch-sized gyro off to the recycler. The concrete floor was pebbled with orange-hot bits of slag-spatter. If Dante’s vision of hell had an industrial floor, this would be it. I drew in a deep breath and took it all in.
God I love this shit.
Truth be told, this life, what little it might be, was all I ever really wanted. I’m damn good with my hands, and understand machines better’n I do most people. I got one hell of a crew—
My crew… A sick pain twisted in my guts. I don’t care what some big damn hero in a space cowboy movie tells you, love don’t keep a boat in the air. Money does. And when you trash an engine the size of a locomotive, we’re talking a shitload of money.
Money my crew was depending on, now more than ever. I didn’t need an ATM to tell me the bank balance was way, way short of two hundred and seventy grand. The partial haul in the ship’s belly, the shit we’d gathered before we saw the capsule, had some value but nowhere near what we needed. I headed away from the familiar sounds and smells of the shipyard, cutting through well-traveled alleys en route to the Grinder.
If only we hadn’t seen the damn capsule. If only it had been within reach of the tractor beam, we might not have sucked up an intake-full of debris. If only…
I rounded the corner at Kriegstrasse and saw Chow-Yen trying to wrangle the worn-out aluminum food cart up over the curb. The old man was more of an antique than the cart. But he was part of the neighborhood and not much happened out here that Old Chow didn’t know about. He might be just a simple food peddler, but the jiaozi he steamed up over a simple incandescent stove was to die for. I veered right, grabbed the two long handles and heaved up, easily lifting the aft-end of the cart onto the sidewalk. I gave him a short nod, patted a bony shoulder and continued without a word.
The Grinder was crowded, filled to the brim with salvagers and brokers, all gathered to celebrate not just the season but the recent bounty. I stood outside on the sidewalk and looked through frosted windows at the blurred silhouettes moving inside. Good times; at least for the vultures. The fighting at nearby Corsica had been brutal, with funerals and memorials for the vaunted dead and missing chewing up endless airtime. It was a time of fallen heroes.
But as soon as the guns fell silent and the camera crews moved on to the next story, the scavengers slid in. Early-pickins are the best; functional ordinance, comm gear, all sorts of high-margin scrap for those daring enough to lead the pack. If he was smart, the early bird could come away with a fat, mega-credit worm.
If he was stupid on the other hand… I shook my head and cussed under my breath. Salvage 101, don’t go plowing into a giant field of fresh debris until you know what’s in it. Slow is smooth, smooth is profitable.
Only I saw a lifepod, some teeny-tiny blip on a screen deep in the tangle of wreckage, the fading glimmer of a signature that the EMS boys in their shiny Cutlass must have overlooked. I could’a called for help, but the popsicle inside would have died long before another ship made it out.
A lot of pilots would have just ignored it, or maybe hauled it in like any other bit of scrap, hoping that family would pay a token of gratitude for bringing home a corpse. Others would shop a stiff to the medical research types, those guys always wanted fresh meat for one thing or another.
But oh no, not Tommy. Tommy’s gotta be the Boy Scout. Tommy can save this guy.
I looked at the windows of the bar, feeling the sounds of laughter and music pulsing from the other side of the glass. Darcy, Keller, Big Mike and TD would be somewhere inside, waiting for the news. Nobody expected a miracle, no abundance of holiday cheer, but hell they didn’t expect a disaster either. The taste of acid bubbled up the the back of my throat.
Not tonight, not on Christmas Eve. My shoulders slumped as I turned away. Just can’t do it tonight.
I plodded to my apartment building and into the elevator, enduring the lap of tired Christmas music that blared on the tinny speaker. Dashing through the snow, on a one-horse open sleigh…
If there was such a thing as Christmas Spirit, it could not be found in my heart tonight. I knew what waited for me in the morning, knew I had to bite the bullet and do it before talking to the crew.
Everything comes to and end sometime, I told myself, I just hadn’t expected it to come crashing down around my ears like this. Berrington had been pushing me to sell my boat for some time now, so he could add it to his fleet of ships. It was less about expanding than it was about beating someone else, a pursuit to which Berrington took with considerable delight. I knew he wouldn’t offer me half her worth in the shape she was in, but the proceeds would put my guys on solid footing until they could find other work.
Work, I groused as I swept my forearm across the sensor in my apartment door, for somebody who isn’t a total dumbass.
“Mr. Stovall?” The voice came from down the hall where a figure stood in the darkness. I stiffened, my right hand dropping away from the door towards my belt. I saw the figure freeze, both hands rising up just a bit, palms-up in the soft glow of the hallway ceiling light.
“No trouble, Mr. Stovall. I just want to talk.”
He didn’t advance, none of that close-as-you-talk-softly shit. His voice was dead calm. Even in the dim light I could see he was wearing a suit that looked expensive, tailored, even had the old-world twinkle of jewelry on his shirtcuffs.
Whoever he was, he wasn’t worried about getting jacked; in that get-up, in this neighborhood. That meant he was either very competent or very stupid, and as it seemed unlikely that two complete idiots could exist in the same hallway on Christmas Eve, I took him for the former. Still, no reason to be foolhardy. I turned to face him, my right side easing into my open doorway so my hand could rest unseen on the grip of my 10mm.
With deliberate slowness he reached inside his coat lapel, using two fingers to pull out a sleek tablet. He reached out, extending the device without taking a step. “Just an offer.”
“Sonofabitch,” I spat the word, shoving the ten back into its holster. “Did Vinnie even take a breath before calling you?”
The figure didn’t blink. If the name had any meaning, it didn’t show. He simply raised one eyebrow as he leaned forward, taking a first small step to bring the document closer. The screen carried a red and black CORPSEC logo, with a rectangle for a thumbprint. The Shadow tipped his head towards the device. “Your eyes only.”
My eyes narrowed. Whatever this was, it wasn’t Berrington. He had money yeah, good money for dockside, but this was something different. I stepped forward, took the tablet and looked at the screen. No name, no photo ID, just a small touchpoint. A thought crossed my mind – who the hell has my thumbprint? I pressed the pad of my thumb to the glass and the screen dissolved into scrolling pages of legalese that started with EMPLOYMENT CONTRACT : SALVAGE OPERATIONS.
If life had a sense of humor, it was a dark, sadistic one. This felt less like a bad joke than a kick in the balls. “Look, this would’a been great a week ago but I don’t have a boat any more, not a working one anyway…”
Shadow cut me off. “That’s being taken care of. Your ship is being moved to the Aegis Dynamics shipyard at Nedris-IV. Engine-swap will take about a week, during which time the remaining systems will be evaluated for repair or upgrade. Transport has been arranged for you and your crew…” His words blurred away.
My brain locked up, fingertips going a bit numb in the midst of scrolling through the document. I was stuck somewhere back in the conversation. “Did you say ‘replaced…?”
The Shadow carefully produced a second item from his lapel, some sort of Identicard. “This is his card. If you have any problems, and I don’t expect you will, the number on the back will get you to me.”
He took another two steps forward, walking with a fluid, tiger-like ease that seemed neither threatening nor concerned for its own safety. He was close enough I could smell dry cleaning and cologne. My haze remained when I took the card, an elegant piece of holo that carried the inscription Charles Sutherland, Executive Vice President, Defense Systems, Aegis Dynamics. The name meant utterly and absolutely nothing.
At a loss for words, I looked at him and shrugged.
“The escape pod,” he said softly as he walked past me and pushed the elevator button. The door slid open, music spilling into the hallway. He knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake…
He looked me in the eye and for the first time, smiled softly. “It was his son.”
As the elevator doors slid closed and the music dimmed, I heard him add
“Merry Christmas, Mr. Stovall.”