Science Fiction

Joy Ride

By Jude-Marie Green
Feb 18, 2019 · 5,701 words · 21 minutes

Photo by Jason Lam via Unsplash.

From the author: This is the first appearance of my action hero, No Peace. Sam Bellotto Jr published this in Perihelion SF in the February 2015 issue. Aliens and airships and skybattles, oh my!


Stealing an airship was easier than I expected.  Paddy, the airfield’s night watchman, spent most nights at the pub.  This night would be no different.  I only had to wait.

I strolled into Kearney's only pub around midnight, arm in arm with a good-looking black Irishman, and promised to share a nightcap with him.

“Later,” I said, dancing away from his too-slow hands.  Joe the bartender spotted me and shouted a greeting.

“Tam Delaney, a chara!” he said, waving me over.  “Come have a drink.  Warm yourself.”

Tam Delaney.  That's not my birth name.  Kearney is the only settlement on Emerald, and Emerald is a free-port.  Living here means giving up the past and embracing the peculiar mutt-like society of this faux-Irish town.  Everyone landing here takes an Irish moniker and gives up whatever they might once have been called.

Of all the places I've lived, this is my favorite.

“Light crowd tonight,” I said as Joe poured dark beer into a glass.

“They’re saving it up for tomorrow night,” he said, swabbing some dew from the wood-grained plastic bar.  “The plant-slam.”

“Mmm,” I said.  We were here waiting to become Kearney Plastics & Spaceships Inc.  This world’s first petroleum – excuse me, long chain organic petrochemical cracking plant had been assembled and pieced together in space.  Tomorrow night, the enormous building would be nudged out of orbit and dropped onto the oil field at Point Albuquerque.  We’d see a marvelous bright comet for an hour or so.  When the plant settled we’d probably feel a slight quake. Or a large quake.  We weren’t sure.  That was part of the fun.

“There are only 500 people on the entire planet,” I said.  “You must get 250 of ‘em in here every night.  Why’s that?”  I drained my glass and banged it onto the bar.

He filled it up again with dark beer, expertly wiping the spilled foam.

“Kearney folk are lonely,” he said.

I must have thrown him a skeptical glance, because he clicked his tongue.

“We’re lonely.  Our entire genetic history tells us we should be surrounded by life, but there’s nothing bigger than worms on this planet and no birds to eat them.  The world’s too quiet and it smells like an empty house.  People come in here and drink and sing together, to remember we’re not alone.”

For a moment his face reflected the sad lines of a friendless bachelor.  He was the camp psychologist, assigned here by the company for our own good, but who listened to him?  I patted his hand.

He moved away to pour drinks for his other customers.

I drummed my fingers on the bar, worried that Paddy would change his routine.  I shouldn’t have been concerned.  At two in the morning, the heart of the graveyard shift, he sauntered into the pub.

At least a dozen folk called his name.  Paddy settled in and I went out the back door, unnoticed.

The airfield was on the edge of town, a mere mile from Kearney’s town common.  I skinnied over the nominally-locked gate and jogged past the admin shack to the zeppelin mooring.

At some drunken council meeting we’d decided to name the fleet alliteratively.  Thus, our seven ships were known as Shillelagh, Siorc, Sleanhain, Selkie, Saileach, Sorcha, and Shamrock.  The Shamrock was the biggest, most luxurious cruise liner on the field, big enough to carry 150 passengers and more crew than was strictly necessary to fly her.  I’d been hired to steal her.

I assumed I was dealing with smugglers.  I arrived on Emerald months ago with a whole new persona.  I thought no one knew who I was.  But somehow the underground had found me.

My anonymous customers hadn’t told me why they wanted me to steal an airship I could have borrowed with a wink and a smile and I didn’t ask.  I just named an enormous sum.  They agreed, after split-seconds of hesitation, and sent me the details.

“Move some goods from Point A to Point B.”

“No problem,” I replied.  Smugglers, I thought.

I walked up the unsecured gangplank, mildly scandalized.  In this small town we all knew each other and no one expected a theft but the last pilot should have at least stowed the gangplank.  I climbed into the airship and through the hatch into the command room.

I knew my way around security and ignitions.  I'd had a look at this ship before, hanging on Paddy's arm with a boozy female act.  The fuse closet hung open, wiring pushed around and disordered.  No damage that I could see.

No pilot would leave an airship open and ripped like this.  I turned a 360, examining the command room, and focused on the kneehole under the captain’s station.

“Come out,” I said.

Nothing.

The chair was secured on a rail.  I pulled it out as far as it would go then bent to look in the kneehole.

“Come out,” I repeated.

A girl glared out at me and crawled forward.  In a moment she stood, arms crossed and mouth set in a thin smirk, the prototypical defiant teenager.  She was dark-haired, short and chubby.  I’d never seen her before.  I assumed she belonged with one of the families that had just arrived this afternoon.

“What’s your name?”

“Moira O’Kelley,” she said, rolling her eyes.

I grinned.

“I mean your real name, girl.”

“I got a new name just like everybody who comes here,” she said, her tone thick with disgust.  “My folks bought into that ad, you know, “Action, Thrills, Danger,” and all that.  We had to give up our real names.  I’m Moira O’Kelley from now on.”

“All right then, Moira,” I said, “I can’t leave you here.”  I paused.  What could I do with her?  What would I normally do with an inconvenient bobble in a plan?  But I was here in retirement, mostly, and determined to change.

“I don’t want to kill you.  You’re coming along for the ride.”

Her jaw dropped.  I guessed she hadn’t considered the possibilities.

I pointed to the ensign’s chair.

“Sit down over there and stay out of my way.”

“I can fly this, you know,” she said.

I eyed her.  “Joy-riding?  You wouldn’t want to be caught stealing this ride, girlie.”

“I wouldn’t get caught!”

“You were caught.”

I considered my options.  I could tie her up or put her to work.  “Can you handle comms?  Just monitoring for now.”

“Sure.”  She plopped into the communication officer’s seat.  “Is that all?  Too easy.”

I tapped the engine button and watched the lights cycle through the start-up phases from cold-red to ready-green.  Another tap and the motors started chuffing quietly.  The ballast lines retracted and the airship slid neatly off its mooring.  The navigation program signaled readiness and we gained speed and height.

“Have any alarms been raised?  You’re monitoring the town channels, right?”

Moira said, “The Kearney channel is live and quiet.  They’re clueless.”

I frowned.  “They will figure it out.  Let me know when they do.”

“Sure.  It’ll beep when the signal goes up above this maximum.”  She tapped a line on the monitor then gave me a once-over examination.  “So who are you and where are we going?”

I sighed.  “I’m Tam Delaney, just like you’re Moira O’Kelley.  I’ve had a hundred names you wouldn’t recognize, but now they call me No-Peace.  Wanted for murder, treason, piracy.”  I lifted an eyebrow at her.  “This is my quiet retirement.”

The girl sputtered into laughter.  “No-Peace!  Okay, I get it.  Who you are is none of my business.”  She snickered.  “So where are we going, No-Peace?”

My turn to laugh.  “Plant-slam zone, girl.  Front row seats to the big event.”

I thought she’d be scared.  She wasn’t.

“Out-STAND-ing!”  She bubbled over with questions.  “Why?  Are you going to take some pics?  You want to watch it land?  Me too!”

I’d forgotten that teenagers had two modes: sullen or over-enthusiastic.  I finally put my hands over my ears.

“Enough already!  Go play some games or something.  Jeez.”

She immediately switched to sullen mode, which was fine by me.

I sat in the command chair and put up my feet.  I was the only pilot the airship needed.  The slaved steering mechanisms worked well enough and the boat flew along at a steady 20 meters per second.  With luck, we’d arrive at the destination by daybreak.

I hadn’t advertised my piloting abilities since I’d been here.  I hadn’t flown for six months.  But I’d sat in the bar and absorbed the stories about the quiet of the skies.  On any other world birds and other flighted creatures would pace a ship, eyeing the competition.  But not here.  This planet’s skies were free of natural avians.  No bugs smashed against the zep’s windscreen.  There wasn’t even a lot of loose dirt.

I flew the airship, lulled by the silence.  What could happen on such a perfect world?  The sun pulled itself over the horizon and shined into my eyes.  Moira was asleep, twisted like a kitten in a plush officer’s chair at the comms desk.  A soft buzz from the console announced that we’d arrived at the plant-slam quarantine border. 

“Moira,” I said.  I could have let her sleep through everything, picking up the cargo, dropping it off, then bringing her home safe, but she’d wanted an adventure.  And I surprised myself by wanting her company.

“Moira!” I spoke sharply.  She started awake. 

“What?”

“Do your job, girl.  Check comms.  What’s the noise?”

Moira poked an arm out and punched some buttons. 

“Chatter is still under the alarm level.  Wow, is it always so dead around here?”

I said, “Yep.  Hope it stays that way.”

Point Albuquerque was an undifferentiated location in the vast plain.  Tomorrow night this site was due to be leveled by Emerald’s first petroleum processing plant.  Work teams had surveyed the ground weeks ago after the prelim geology report showed a huge petroleum field waiting close under the bedrock.  The plant would be shoved from orbit and slam-land.  The compression would shatter the local bedrock.  A week ago the area had been quarantined.  SOP, of course.  We wouldn’t want any people getting squashed.  Warning buoys, tethered to the ground but floating six meters high, blinked red.

“This location is quarantined,” Moira said.

“If it was legal they wouldn’t need me.”

She frowned.  “You can’t go through.  I mean, you can’t.  The buoys aren’t alarmed but they have a feedback system.  They’ll bring down the ship.”

“You sure know a lot about it.”

“I was gonna fly through it,” she confessed.  “You know, play chicken with the plant-slam?  But you can’t fly through the buoys.  I figured I’d just fly around the zone.  The show’s gonna be awesome.  Flames, dust storms, earthquakes.  The most excitement this place has seen for ages.”

“Excitement,” I repeated.

“You can’t turn ‘em off electronically, either.  You have to manually shut them down.”

“If it was easy, they wouldn’t need me.”

I pressed buttons to drop ballast lines.  Not enough weight to anchor the zep, but enough to keep her steady.  Then I opened the left port window.  The one nearest the buoys.  A release button on the sill dropped a nylon escape ladder out the port.

“Don’t go anywhere,” I said.  I climbed out the window and slid down the ladder.

The fence’s electrostatic field danced along my body.  Excitement, indeed.  The ground came up, as always sooner than I expected.  Sand gritted under my boots.  I hated that.  I felt safer in the air, always had.

The ladder self-tethered with ballast.  The first buoy flashed at me, warning red.  I pulled open the circuit box.  A small sliver of chip would keep the programming busy, like telling a computer to calculate pi.  And coincidentally would keep it from noticing a breach.  At least for a while.  The tingling along my skin diminished.

The first one done, I ran to the second buoy 50 yards away.  The ground was hard, barren of grasses.  I watched out for snake holes, rabbit holes, then realized there wouldn’t be any.  Nothing animal to trip over.  I finished the task then ran back to the tethered ladder.

The ladder cranked automatically back to the ship’s gondola.  I clambered through the portal, sweaty and smiling.  That had been fun.

“You coulda let me do that,” Moira said.  Sullen teenager mode.

No sense in arguing.  I countered with a question.

“Why’d you try to steal this one?”  I said.  “Any of the others would have been faster.”

I pushed buttons to retrieve the ballast lines while I waited for her answer.  Then I set the engines for full ahead.

She still hadn’t answered.  I turned towards her, surprised.  “Well?”

“It’s big,” she said as if that explained everything.  “And fast enough.  But I gotta ask.  Are we there yet?”  She grinned.

I grinned back at her.  “Yes, we are.”

I slowed the ship, scouting the perfect area.  They were all the same, flat and dry.  I finally just set the airship down, pushing the buttons to cast lines and bottom the gondola with ballast.  The gangplank rolled out automatically.  Vast empty plains of grass and stunted trees showed in the windows.

I stepped onto the gangplank, the girl close behind.  Nothing could be seen but weedy prairie grasses and stunted white oaks for miles around.  I’d expected the cargo to be waiting.

“Halloo!” I yelled, puzzled.  In my experience, smugglers were nervous and prompt.

Moments later I saw what had to be the biggest rat that ever lived.  The pony-sized creature poked its nose out from behind a clump of gray-green grass and then stood on its hind legs.  Cloth the same brown shade as its fur wrapped around its chest and upper arms.  A bright orange bracelet decorated its right wrist, just above its paw.

Several more rats appeared, all similarly dressed.  They wore colored bracelets, all different, some plain, some patterns, some with dangling charms.  The first rat hopped towards me and the others followed.

Moira said, “We’re picking them up?”

“Yes.  Hush.”

“Shrl I am called,” the first rat said.  She hopped close to me and extended her clawed hand in a human gesture.  “Shrl I negotiate.”

I took her paw and shook it.

“Tam I am.” I paused.  Stupid rhyme.  “Get your people inside so we can leave.”

“Shrl agreed,” she said.  She stroked my hand.  “Tam skin is so soft.”  She kept my gloved hand in her grasp.

I understood.

“Moira,” I said, “give the rattie… Shrl … your gloves.”

The girl blinked then pulled off her gloves and handed them to me.

“I don’t think this will work,” she said to me.  “Shrl wants something personal from you before she’ll trust you.”

The girl was right.  Shrl wouldn’t even look at Moira’s gloves.

“Tam skin very soft,” the rat said, stroking my hand again.

“Damn it,” I muttered.  The gloves I wore used technology I’d bought two planets ago.  Recording, alarms, GPS.  Plus certain weapons I didn’t want to lose.  But I needed to get the cargo loaded on the airship.  Fast.

A quick jab at the palm and the tech was disabled.  I skinned off my now-useless gloves and gave them to the rattie.  All my data, permanently gone.  I didn't like running naked.  Made me itchy.

“Gift,” I said.  I even sketched a bow to show my courtesy.

She accepted them and put one on her paw.  Her claws broke open the fingertips, but the glove mostly fit.  She smiled and waved her paw at her companions.

The creatures huffed with enthusiasm and hopped into the gondola.  They unloaded everything that wasn’t bolted down: the chairs, the tables, the entertainment screens.  One creature rolled the carpets and stacked them neatly against a bulkhead.  Another attempted to remove the hanging lights but couldn’t quite reach.  I watched as they dogpiled under the fixture and the one on top moved the lamp out of the way.

Shrl stood with me as the others left the barren gondola and swept into the grasses.  They disappeared, hidden seamlessly.  I looked at their leader.

“What is going on?” I said.  Shrl shook her head and hissed. 

Moira smiled.  “If they’re like the ones from home, they’re bringing their herd.”

She seemed to know a lot about these creatures, these rats, and their ways.  I filed the fact away for later consideration.

I heard something I’d never heard on this planet before:  the rumble of large animals moving over the ground.  In moments, a herd of sheep-sized four-hoofed beasts shambled into view.  They moseyed up the gangplank, prodded along by the ratties.

“Rats herding sheep, and here I thought I’d seen everything.”

Moira said, “Not sheep.  Barabek.  More like cattle.  They had them at home.  Dinner on the hoof.  Meat, milk, cheese, fiber for felting and leather for clothes.  The barabek make ‘em self-sufficient.”

She sounded like she was quoting a textbook.  Still, seemed reasonable to me.  I took MREs when I travelled.  This was the ratties’ version of meals, almost-ready-to eat.  They didn’t take long to crowd into the gondola.  Very little standing room was left.

“Hurry it up,” I said.  “I want to get out of here.”

They finished loading the herd into the gondola.  Moira and I stowed the gangplank and secured the locks.  I walked through the milling creatures, ratties and quadropeds alike.  Shrl followed us to the comparatively-spacious command room.

“I’ve never heard them speak English before,” Moira said as she slid back into the comms seat.

“You sure know a lot about these creatures,” I said.  “Tell me about them.”

“They were on the last station my family moved to, on the planet Grimaldi.  They prospected for petroleum sites, just like us.  Except we couldn’t find enough petroleum so we moved here.  Maybe they followed us.”

“Do you know their language?”

“A little,” she said.  She pursed her lips and whistled out some squeaky notes.  Shrl’s lip curled and Moira uttered a sharp snort.

Shrl snorted something in return.

“What did you say?”

“Just a joke.”  The girl grinned.  "She thinks I'm funny."

I sighed.  “Tell her to settle in for the ride.  We’ll have her group relocated in just a few hours.”

Moira rolled her eyes but managed to say the right thing.  Shrl balanced against the command console and she and Moira conversed in that rattie language of squeaks and squeals.  I listened for a while then turned my attention to flying the ship.  Their voices faded to a background drone.

The drop off was a location on the far side of the plant-slam zone.  I’d have to fix the buoys on that side too, but I looked forward to the exercise.  I checked fuel and battery and gas and found all the levels satisfactory.  We’d make it in just a few hours, no problem.

But I was worried that the radio was still quiet.  Moira had not reported any news.  Nothing from orbit where the plant was being nudged along even now.  Nothing from Kearney where someone must have noticed the zone buoys being violated.  Nothing from the usual broadcasts. 

"Moira, what's the status of the plant slam?  Get me an update."

She stuck a receiver in her ear and hit a switch on the board and listened a moment.

"Nothing, just the usual Kearney jibber-jabber.  Something about a party at Joe's bar."  She sat back, bored.  "I'm not even getting a text feed."

My stomach iced over.  "Only Kearney?  Moira…."  I reached over her shoulder and pushed a button.  Lights flared across the comms board.  Moira swiped at her ear, sending the receiver across the deck.

"You have to check all the frequencies!"

I smacked another button.  A small screen filled with a text scroll.  The plant slam was on schedule.  Party at Joe's.  An airship had been stolen and two security officers were going after it.

"Crap, girl, what have you been doing?  Playing video games?  I needed to know this!"  I probably was not yelling too loudly but the girl broke into tears anyway.

"I didn't know!  I thought there was only one channel!"

"One!  Business, entertainment, news, security, all on one frequency?  And you weren't even checking the text scrolls!  I thought kids lived on texts."

She was blubbering now.

"I didn't know.  Okay?  This is bigger and newer than anything I've flown before.  That's why I hired you, you're supposed to be the expert!"

I gawked at her.  "You?  Hired me?"

She glared up at me, sullen teenager mode, tears forgotten.

"I had the money, No-Peace, and you said yes.  It was your responsibility to do everything!  I was just helping."

I snapped my jaw closed.  Okay, I could put this behind me.  For now.  Answers later.

"Yeah, fine.  Right now, I need my glove back."

If the security ship found us, my passengers might be endangered.  I could not allow that.  I had tech in my glove that would neutralize that other ship.

But I needed the tech in my glove.  Which Shrl now owned. 

Maybe Moira could get it for me.

“Kid, ask the rattie if I could borrow back my glove for a few minutes,” I said.

“No way.  She’ll think you’re a liar.”

“Moira!  We have to fix this…”

“Not that way.  She’ll fight you.  And she’ll win.”

I glanced sideways at Shrl.  She was heavily-muscled and balanced well on her long hind claws.  I estimated that I could take her in a fight.  Why hadn’t I ever heard of these creatures before?  So many worlds, so many possibilities.  I guess it was inevitable that I’d miss a species along the way.

I gritted my teeth.

“Tell her she can give it to me or I can take it!”  I rotated my elbow, a slight flexing of joint and muscle.  A throwing dagger slid down against my wrist.

Moira saw it glinting in my hand.  Her lips hardened and her cheeks went red.  She balled up her fist, cocked back her arm, and slung a punch at me.

She’d never had fisticuffs training.  I shifted slightly away.  Her fist wandered past my shoulder.  Her body followed her am and she ended up half-turned away from me.  She was so off-balance I could have whistled and she would have fallen.  Instead I waited for her to get her feet under her again.

“You liar!  You… you’re awful!”  She started to gather herself up another punch.  I put a hand around her fist.

“Never mind, I have a better idea,” I said.  “Tell her to give it to you.  As a reward for defending her honor.  Or something.”

Moira said, “That probably won’t work.”

“Try it!  We are being chased by a security crew that will try to bring down this ship.  You didn’t know enough to pay them off.  They'll assume we're saboteurs trying to stop the plant-slam.”

Moira nodded.  “I’ll try.”  She turned towards Shrl and squeaked out a few words, rubbing her hands together.

Shrl snarled. 

Moira backed up.  “I don’t think she likes the idea,” she said.

And then Shrl fell to the floor, pulling her tail around her in the classic defensive posture.

“What the heck?  Kid, what did you say to her?”

“Nothing!  Just what you told me to say!”  Moira shouted.  “Maybe she’s epileptic.”  The kid pointed at the console.  Warning lights strobed frantically.

I looked up from the console and out the windscreen.  One of Kearney’s other airships sped too close to us, too fast. 

“Ah crap,” I said.  This smallest airship, the Shillelagh, had a two-person gondola.  I recognized the two men.  

“Hey, I know these guys.”  One was Paddy, the night watchman.  I’d shared drinks with them at the pub.  I waved.

Paddy raised a flame-thrower to his shoulder and aimed it at us.

Airships aren’t particularly maneuverable.  Plus, the larger, the clumsier.  Almost any move I could make in the Shamrock they could make twice as fast in their airship.  My ship, a cruise liner, had no weapons.  I stood by the controls, frozen in place.

Shrl pushed me aside, clicking her teeth.  She stabbed the motor control, revving the props and almost stalling them out. 

I yelled, “What are you doing?”

I shoved her out of the way before I realized what she meant to do.  I took over.

I opened the ailerons and pulled up the airship’s nose at the same time.  The Shamrock lumbered upwards and I held on tight to the panel.  Shrl fell to her paws and scrabbled to keep her balance.  She hissed encouragement at me.  Moira was pinned to the comms seat, unable to move.

The smaller airship passed just below our gondola.  I felt the Shillelagh’s hull scrape along the Shamrock’s bottom and it must have been just luck that nothing ruptured.  I swung the Shamrock around and aimed it at the other airship.

Shrl chittered and launched herself at me.  She caught me below the knees and I fell over backwards, partially on her.  She swirled around and straddled my chest, holding her claws at my neck.

I pushed her away.

“I won’t endanger your people, but I need to disable that ship, okay?”  I hoped she understood me because I had to fly the Shamrock and I couldn’t do that from the floor.

“Moira, talk to her!”

Moira squealed out rattie words.  The rattie jumped up, her teeth bared in terror, and squeaked.

“Shrl sees fire!”

I looked through the window.  The Shillelagh had turned towards us again.  The security guy on the left loosed a stream of burning napalm at our ship.  Luckily for us, they didn’t shoot straight.

Once again I made a long slow turn up and over the Shillelagh.  The flames licked the bottom of our gondola, bad enough, but didn’t touch the hull.  I needed to stop that action right now.

“Okay, hold on,” I said.  We were still on top of the Shillelagh.  I stopped the right-side motors and damped the acceleration.  The ship lost altitude and slid along the other ship’s top hull.  If they thought to bump upwards, they’d crush our gondola.

Instead they panicked and tried to flee out from under my airship.

“Wrong move, boys,” I said and rubbed my hands together.  My ship connected hard with the Shillelagh’s fins and ripped its tail structure off.  The command room was filled with the shrieks of stressed metal.  The tail pieces fell to the ground.  The balloon of the ship hung immobile in air then softly fell as it lost buoyancy.

Ratties scratched at the door and screeched in panic.  Shrl threw open the door and squeaked at her group.  I tried to not-think about what those maneuvers had done to my passengers.  Now that we were safe, I had to check the damage.

I didn’t see any bleeding ratties.  Plenty of barabek lay on their sides, bleating, feet sticking out.  I hoped that didn’t mean they were injured.

I looked at Shrl.  “Everything okay?”

She shrugged her narrow shoulders.  “Shrl fine my people are.  Excited!  Again we have survived.”  I believe I saw her smile.

“Super.  Stand by the gangplank, we’re going to land,” I said.

I ducked into the command room and chased after the two men.  Neither was injured.  When they saw the ship zooming towards them they ran.  I opened the bullhorn channel.

“You need to get clear of the plant-slam zone.  Stand down and we’ll take you aboard.”

The men stopped running and I repeated my message.  A moment later I set the Shamrock down.

Shrl and the ratties swarmed out of the gondola and surrounded the two men.  A few moments later, they all trudged back up the gangplank.  Shrl brought the men forward to me.

“Tam yours,” she said.

“I don’t want them,” I said.  The men looked a little the worse for wear.  “Jeez, Paddy, you should be ashamed of yourself.”

I addressed Shrl and her ratties.  “Go talk with these nice folk you tried to kill.”

Paddy shouted, “No, wait, we’re friends! Don’t….”

The ratties crowded the men.  I didn’t want to listen to protests and begging.  Moira and I retreated to the command room.

I gave her a thorough once-over.  She was young but she had the right stuff.

"So you want to learn to fly this big sassy ship?"

"No, I want to fly space ships.  My dad makes them, you know."

That's when I clued in to who she must be, behind the assumed Irish moniker.  She could afford my services, no problem.

"So you don't want lessons."

"Of course I want lessons!  I want to fly everything, even these planet-bound birds."

"Lesson one.  Draw up a flight plan back to Kearney."

"Back?  With Shrl's family?"

"Yes."  I reached over her shoulder again and pushed a button.  I'd seen the text scroll but wanted to hear it too.

 

The airship attack had been broadcast.  Camera angles from all over the Shamrock.  Inside and out.  I heard cheering.

“You Irish are weird people,” Moira said.

“Most fun they’ve ever had here,” I replied.  “Action, thrills, danger.  Just like the ad promised.”

#

I bypassed the airfield and set the Shamrock down in the middle of town common.  People ran out to grab the mooring lines and pulled us in to a gentle stop.  The ratties released the gangplank and stood looking into Kearney Town.

“We’re here,” I said to Shrl.  She scurried to her people and organized them into a landing party. 

I stepped onto the manicured lawn.  I’d never felt so happy to be off a ship.

A clump of people surrounded me, men and women.  They weren’t cheering.  They weren’t saying much, but I did hear my name, my Kearney name.  And 'No-Peace.' 

I bowed with a wide flourish.

“I hope you all enjoyed the show,” I said.  “Introducing Shrl and her people, new settlers on Emerald.”  I waved at the ratties who were busy herding their barabek.  Shrl stood up and squeaked then went back to her business.  “Moira here will answer your questions.  Come take a bow, Moira.  She was wonderful, wasn’t she, folks?”

Some of the crowd applauded.  Moira stepped forward hesitantly.  “Talk to them,” I whispered.  “I have some business to attend to.”

She didn’t hear me.  “Those are my parents,” she said.  “Mom!  Dad!”  She waved at two people I’d never seen before.  I slipped away.

The pub was dark and mostly empty.  A replay of the zep battle ran soundlessly on the screen behind the bar, outlining Joe with cinematic ghosts.  He leaned against the bar.

“Tam, a chara,” he said.

“Why’d you send the Shillelagh after us?” I said.  My hand tightened around the knife in my sleeve.  Old fashioned, maybe, but effective.  For a long time now, people I didn’t like had a habit of dying around me.  All of a sudden I didn’t much like Joe.

He shook his head.  “Those idiots were acting on their own.  Responding to the show, don’t you know.  Rescue the girl and capture the criminal.”  He wiped another glass.  "Live broadcast of your identity to a kid.  Lucky for you the constitution here doesn’t allow extradition.  You’re safe as long as you stay here.”  He chuckled.  "Everyone was in here watching the show after that."

"And drinking your beer.  This was all about the money."  I could understand that.  My hand relaxed and the knife found its sheath.

“Of course not!”  He sounded indignant.  “Kearney folk are lonely and bored.  They’re not bored any more.  They’ll be watching reruns of that broadcast until the electrons wear out.”  He smiled thinly.  “And I guess we can do something with those creatures.”  He shuddered in disgust.  “Pets or something.  People will have any damned thing for a pet when they’re lonely.”

“Uh huh,” I said. 

He shook his head.  “I'm glad you got the ratties out of the way.  Wouldn’t do to have them eradicated by a processing plant.  We’re just not prepared to handle that kind of diplomatic disaster.”

“'We'?  So you’re federal?”

He smiled.  “Hope that doesn’t bother you too much.  I know you’re not a big fan of the governing body, but I'm just here to observe.”

I laughed.  “That's what they all say.  Can I assume their presence here is unsanctioned?”

“Stowaways.”  He slammed a shot glass onto the bar.  “They arrived without resources, without transportation, without telling anyone.  I only knew because I checked the satellite scans.  Only biomass that ever turned up on this planet and it had to be on the plant-slam plain.  Filthy coincidence they settled there!”  He rubbed furiously at the bar’s beer-stained wood.

“Hardly a coincidence,” I said.  “These ratties are prospecting for long-chain organic petrochemicals.  Just like us.  They’re better at that than we are.  They’ve been here a week and Shrl says they’ve found two other oil fields in addition to the one we've found.  The company should hire them."

Joe snorted.  “Hire rats?  Unsanctioned … immigrants?  To do a job that we have people here to do?”

“They’re better at it than we are, Joe.  And they don’t have our tech.  We should team up with them: natural ability and our tech, we’d have this world mapped in no time.”

Joe considered my words.  “Maybe you can work that negotiation,” he said. 

“Is that a job offer?”

He drew a beer and put it in front of me.  “Yeah.”

Some time later I walked out of the pub, much richer than I thought I’d ever be again.  The plant-slam celebration had already broken out on the street.  Bonfires flamed and people and ratties drank together.  People danced around the fires, hand in claw with the ratties.  Other folk sang and mingled words with ratties’ screechings.  A loudspeaker announced that the plant-slam was imminent.

Shrl stood chatting with Moira.  Nearby tables were loaded with beer and roasts.

“Shrl happy are they,” she said.  “Happy is good.  Eat some barabek and be happy.”  She offered me a bite of roasted creature.

“Tam good?”

“Mmmm,” I mumbled around a mouthful of meat.  “Tam very very good.”

The End