Interstellar Public Relations
So what’s it like flying in spaceships and cavorting around with aliens? Well, it’s the most fun you can have with your jumpsuit on, that’s what! Now I’m not going to say that it’s all fun and games, but I get to do most things Captain Jack Stardust and his intrepid crew did on those vid shows I grew up watching as a kid.
The name’s Hank Iowa by the way, and I handle Interstellar Public Relations on-board the Johnny Cash.
“Hank!” a high pitched alien voice called from the corridor.
I unhooked my harness and pushed up from my bunk and shoved my media reader with the latest issue of “Blasters and Beam Guns,” displaying on it into a drawer.
I replied, “Yeah what’s up Xa’tik?”
The Arietisian floated her blue feathered head through the door. “Hank, Captain wants you topside when we set down on Gliese G.”
That made me curious. “Is the Captain expecting trouble?”
She clicked her beak. “Well, how you say, better sorry than safe?”
That meant the Captain was expecting trouble. As I was the best gun hand on the ship Captain Mara mostly kept me around for when ‘public relations’ became strained and running the septic tank vac.
“Thanks for the heads up, Xa.”
She looked at the ceiling then back at me. “What heads up?”
I forgot bird brains didn’t fully comprehend our slang. “Thank you for telling me before we touched down.”
“Yep.” she whistled. She then pushed off the bulkhead and flew down the corridor.
I pulled aside the curtain covering my wall of weaponry. If the Captain was expecting trouble, I’d like to be wearing full body ceramic and slinging an M62 Rail Rifle. Unfortunately I couldn’t afford to be so high profile.
I pulled on a well-worn pistol belt and fed the cell chamber on my Smith & Rem Model 721 Plasma Ejector Pistol. Even though it was a fine weapon, knowing the Captain’s history of dealing with folk who weren’t usually pillars of the community, I wanted something with a few more Megajules behind the barrel.
I pulled the folding Nell-Tek ZU-17 Ion Carbine off the wall and loaded a fresh e-mag into the weapon. Slung over my shoulder, the smuggler scum probably wouldn’t see it until it was too late.
After lacing up my boots, I slipped a flexible ceramic sheet into my jumpsuit carrier pouch and swam after my feathered shipmate. I slammed right into Zor.
“Watch self, Io-wah!” he said as he scrambled for a grab bar. For some reason he didn’t like calling me by my first name, but rather my place of origin: Iowa. I noted that was probably one of the longer sentences I’d ever heard him utter.
“Sorry Zor, I didn’t see you there.” He probably thought I was blind; his massive hairy 150 kilo frame was hard to miss. I noticed he was carrying a Mark III, Becruxian Boarding Blaster, a not too subtle weapon. It had a nasty spring loaded bayonet underneath its three rotary barrels. Apparently his species didn’t get the memo about bayonets going out of style during the early 20th century.
“So, looks like Xa told you about the Captain’s misgivings with our clients?”
The overgrown ape-man-thing just grunted.
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
He grunted again and pushed his way down the passage, using the occasional ladder rung for forward motion.
I shrugged and swam after him.
A few moments later we made it to the bridge. Captain Mara was shouting at the display. She obviously didn’t like the genetic heritage of the person on the other end of the feed. I caught the last rung and stopped my flight down the corridor. Zero G was the second best thing about my job. The first was writing off ammo as a business expense.
“No I will not renegotiate my fees less than two AU from delivery!” she yelled at whoever was dumb enough to torque her off.
The little man on the screen defensively held up his hands. “Hey Captain Mara, don’t blame me. I’m just the middle man. If you’re unhappy with the arrangement, you can blame the client.”
“I was happy when I signed the deal moonside on Titan, but now you’re trying to sly me on a paperwork oversight.”
The man’s face flushed. “Look, it’s out of my hands.”
Mara crossed her arms, bobbing slightly as she stood weightless. “How do I know you didn’t assange the paperwork? Do you want Port Control to get involved when we land?”
He grimaced. “All right Mara, you win. I’ll have one of my subordinates fix the problem… this time.”
“Pleasure doing business with you, Gustov.” She said as she cut the feed, “Lousy dung cow.”
After a few seconds I cleared my throat. “Captain, you send for me?”
She turned and smiled, brushing a lock of red hair out of her eyes. “Iowa, good. I see you’re armed.”
“Always am, Ma’am.”
She caught a grip on a ceiling handle. “True.” She looked out the bridge window letting in light from the red dwarf Gliese. “I have a feeling we’re going to have… local trouble when we touch down. These low rent slugs might try and take the cargo without paying.”
Zor grunted; it was his favorite vocalization. “We get shoot ‘em?”
The Captain nodded. “Probably, but I’d like to avoid a firefight if at all possible. No shooting first, Zor.”
He almost whimpered but wouldn’t show his displeasure too openly. “Aye Cap-tan.” He strapped himself in for the descent.
Xa was already on her acceleration couch, punching keys with her slender fingers, plotting our entry into the atmosphere. I glanced at the captain, her face hard and emotionless. One had to have a good poker face to be a captain, since showing weakness to the scum we dealt with was a good way to earn a quick trip to the morgue, or a shallow unmarked grave.
I pulled down a jump seat from the back wall and strapped in. There wouldn’t be much for me to do until we landed. Besides I don’t like reentry. Knowing that if even one tile on the ceramic heat shield failed, the Johnny Cash would turn into a fireball was disconcerting.
After a short, bumpy and uncomfortably warm ride later, we were cruising toward our landing zone. In the twilight we set down in the rocky valley near what some people might call a road. The smugglers or “undocumented entrepreneurs” were waiting for us with a trio of ancient surplus Deuce trucks. My blood pressure spiked as I saw one of them had a M2A4 heavy machinegun mounted above the cab. Even though the original design was over two hundred and fifty years old, it could still punch mighty large hole in things despite lead throwers having become obsolete for the last century.
As we made our way down to the hold I whispered to Zor, “If anything happens I’ll take out the heavy machine gunner first. You lay down suppressive fire on whatever gun hands they have.”
He grunted in the affirmative and walked past me, claws clicking on the deck as he went. What the Becruxian lacked in verbal skills he made up for with his knack for violence.
We climbed up top and opened the massive cargo doors; they slid open, revealing the cargo we’d been hauling for the last three weeks. The Johnny Cash had no openings on the sides or bottom, only the top. That way while loading or unloading, bandits, raiders, or any other nefarious villains couldn’t drive right in. Some called this design the Portable Castle. I called it inconvenient.
Xa fired up the deck crane and I rode the hook down into the hold. In a moment I had the first vac-safe pallet hooked up to the cable. “All right Xa, take it up,” I said into my headset.
“Roger, going up,” she said. The diesel motor revved as the crane began lifting the cargo in the heavier-than-earth gravity out of the dark hold. Illumination down here wasn’t a high priority.
I heard Captain Mara say through the radio. “This shipment is cash on delivery.” I could tell she was on edge. I pressed the earpiece further in to try and block out the noisy crane.
A muffled reply from the undocumented entrepreneurs came back. “Gustov said you’d take a cred transfer.”
“Stop the crane!” Mara yelled. “Yeah, one you’d get canceled the minute we clear grav off this dustbowl.”
The pallet stopped hanging precariously in the air. I squeezed between a couple of crates, and headed toward the top hatch ladder.
“Looks like we have a public relations problem,” she said to both the smugglers and me.
“On my way Captain,” I replied as I tried to avoid tripping over cargo and killing myself. I tapped my headlamp and its beam pierced the darkness.
The smugglers began shouting insults about the captain being a dim feminine canine attempting to reproduce with someone’s leg. This drop wasn’t going to end well.
My ion carbine caught on a crate as I tried to slip past. I managed to pull it around in front of me. As I climbed on top of an intermodal box, I readied the gun charging the ion chamber.
The captain was stalling. “Slim, we can work this out. Why don’t you hand over cash and I’ll forget you called me…” a burst of static filled my earpiece.
“Iowa, where are you?” Xa asked from her position on the crane. I knew she was rather exposed up there.
“I’m at the ladder now,” I said as I grabbed the bottom rung. On the way up I hit the top hatch button and the manhole opened, letting in the dim red Gliese twilight.
As I popped my head out the hatch I heard a sickening sound. The charging handle from the truck-mounted Browning slid back and forth, twice. I slowly unfolded the stock on my carbine, locking it into position.
Mara glanced down at me from the corner of her eye, then back at the smugglers, “If you have any issues with how I run my ship, you may file a complaint.”
“File a complaint?” The leader of the smugglers asked. “You ain’t no government bureau. Who are we gonna give it to out here, eh?”
“I have a competent public relations officer on-board. I’m sure he’d love to help you.”
That was my cue; it was time to earn my pay. The captain had a policy of dealing with dangerous scum that I agreed with wholeheartedly. “Shoot first, and shoot the most.”
I jumped out of the manhole and brought up the ZU-17. I centered the red dot on the machine gunner’s head and squeezed the trigger. A bolt of brilliant blue light streaked across the gap, striking him in the neck. Unfortunately, as he died the last impulses from his brain caused his hands to clench, depressing the thumb trigger.
Heavy 12.7mm slugs filled the air, striking the crane. Xa screamed and leapt spreading her vestigial wings to glide down behind the upper deck wall. Zor opened up with his Boarding Blaster, cutting down smugglers where they stood. I transitioned to the men and aliens holding Lazguns and fired double taps.
An angry bee flew past my ear and I decided to hit the deck. Captain Mara stood dumping her e-mags full of plasma energy down at the men below. From where I lay I saw Xa crouched down behind an open bay door. She clutched her Arietisian lazgun like a magic talisman.
“Xa, get to the bridge!” I yelled.
She shook her head as an Ion pulse slammed into the cargo door.
“Run! I’ll cover you!”
She was frozen. I cursed and crouch ran towards her.
The captain hit the deck and reloaded with her back against the wall. “Hank, I need you to handle more complaints!”
I grabbed a frag and pulled the pin, “Take a number!” I yelled as I hurled the handheld explosive over the side. A couple seconds later the muffled explosion filled the air. Hopefully the grenade would make them put their heads down, at least for a moment. I ran at a full sprint to the terrified bird girl.
“Move, move, move!” I grabbed her wingarm and we ran.
I shoved her towards the bridge hatch, and she caught on as I flicked the lever on my carbine to auto. I sprayed Ion bursts over the side at anything still standing. Blue bolts of death leapt from my weapon toward the smugglers. How many troops did these guys have? They came out from behind rocks and scrub, firing small arms.
Thankfully they weren’t that well equipped. Over half of them were carrying centuries old AK-47 pattern rifles, but those could still kill with a lucky shot.
As I shifted my aim to a group of gunmen off the port side I caught a plasma round in the chest. It knocked me on my backside and I couldn’t breathe. I looked up and saw Zor dumping long strings of blaster fire from his weapon. It finally clicked empty and he took cover to change blast pods.
“Io-wah, gets up! Shoot!” He called as he dropped the empty pod to the deck with a resounding clang. His people never built anything lightweight.
I was burning; smoke drifted up from a hole in my chest. I opened the carrier on my jumpsuit and pulled the flexible ceramic plate free. A white hot piece of plasma was busy trying to melt its way through. I discarded it and grabbed my last frag. With shaking hands I pulled the pin and lobbed it over the side.
As dirt filled the air I somehow made it to my knees and managed to point my carbine over the side. I couldn’t aim well because everything was blurry, but I walked the Ion bursts toward the smugglers crouched behind one of the now flaming trucks.
A brave smuggler climbed up and grabbed the spade grips on the M2 machine gun. I shifted my aim and pulled the trigger. It didn’t fire. I dropped the e-mag and fumbled for a fresh one in my jumpsuit.
Captain Mara, on her feet again, dispatched the would-be machine gunner.
“Thanks.” I called.
“Don’t talk! Shoot!” She yelled as she held down the trigger on her handgun.
As I was about to give up hope on surviving this encounter I heard the air breather engines spin up. Xa’tix must have made it to the bridge; now, if we could survive long enough to get airborne.
Zor locked in a spare blast pod and spun up the tri barrels. The red blasts of energy streaked toward the smugglers, who despite their losses hadn’t run away. Whatever the captain was delivering, they wanted badly.
“Mara, what’s the cargo anyway?”
“Weapons. What else do you think these guys want?”
I couldn’t argue with her logic. Gliese G was a wild and dangerous planet full of bandits, warlords, smugglers and used spacecraft salesmen. Down the road another truck approached. It was protected by a thick snow removal blade, it wasn’t slowing down.
“Captain, that truck is gonna ram us,” I said as I finished loading a fresh e-mag.
She glanced at it between shots. “Boys, stop that truck!”
I fired a long burst, but the thick steel plow was only scorched. I slung my weapon and ran toward the crane. “Zor, cover me.”
He grunted and continued shooting, seemingly insulted that I had to tell him to shoot at the bad guys.
I scrambled up the ladder and into the cab. Shattered cubes of tempered glass were scattered everywhere. I wrenched the horizontal control and the boom swung across the deck out over the side.
As the truck left the road and bounced over the rough terrain I hit the quick release. The pallet of weapons fell, crushing the cab of the truck. As it rolled to a stop the smuggler troops piled out, firing their weapons. A plasma bolt struck the cab of the crane, sending glass flying.
Something warm and wet ran down my cheek. I hit the stow button and the crane began to lower itself back into the cargo hold. Unfortunately, it took about twenty seconds to lower, which seemed about nineteen too long.
I smashed the muzzle of my carbine through the weakened glass and fired at the smugglers. One fell from a couple shots to the chest, but the rest kept coming. More energy and slug weapons struck the crane. I crouched behind the controls, trying to keep from being deep fried when I felt the ship lift off the ground.
“Xa I could kiss you!” I yelled through my headset as I was pressed against the deck.
After we were safely out of the kill zone she replied, “I don’t mate with primates.”
“Woah there Xa, kissing doesn’t mean… never mind.”
Captain Mara chuckled. “Don’t try to explain human behavior to her, you’ll just hurt yourself.”
The battered crane entered the hold and I climbed out on shaky legs. Somehow I’d managed to survive. Unfortunately, we weren’t out of the lava fields yet. We didn’t have enough fuel to break orbit and probably weren’t vac worthy after all that shooting.
A couple of hour’s flight later we landed at G-Town, the first settlement on this remote world. I joined the captain on the bridge. She bandaged my bleeding cheek and told me our next move.
“Iowa, we need to sell the cargo, minus the pallet of pulse laser carbines you threw away, repair and refuel the ship, and get off this tidally locked rock as soon as possible. I need you to call in a favor from your friends.”
“Yes Ma’am,” I said as strongly as I could. I felt like she had just kicked me in the gut. The last time I’d been here I hadn’t exactly parted on the best of terms with Norg. “I’ll see what I can do. Can I take Zor with me?”
“Sorry, I need him here.”
I nodded and left. I drove the small side-by-side off road rig down the extended ramp and headed toward Worker Town.
I stopped in front of “Norg’s Come Get Drunk.” and removed the vehicle’s engine controller. A couple of diminutive things from the Mu Leporis system eyed it greedily until I uncovered my Smith & Rem. They decided they had pressing business elsewhere and vanished.
The eternal twilight of this zone was strange; keeping track of time was often difficult since there were no days or nights. The planet revolved around its tiny star like the moon did around our home. One side of G was always blistering hot, the other ice cold. Only in the twilight zone could life be sustained.
I entered the dim cantina and found my way to a booth. The loud but cheerful Ophiuchian music added to the atmosphere of this odd alien-owned establishment.
Norg a rather pudgy alien with thinning hair stood behind the counter busy blackening something I guessed was meat. When he saw me he shot me a look that seemed like he wanted to cut me up and toss me on the grill, next to the steaks. The Rigelian handed his spatula to one of his workers and made his way over to me.
“Hey spacer, this seat taken?” His bulbous green skin shifted as he sat.
“How ya been, Norg?”
He glared at me. “Norg still runnin’ this dung hole, what ya think?”
“Sorry well you should be, leavin’ the way ya did. You remember what Norg told ya before ya skipped out?”
“Umm… something about running me off with a chefs knife?”
Norg scratched his third eye. “Yeah, somethin’ like that.” He coughed into his three fingered hand and continued, “So let Norg guess… yer in a bind and ya want ole Norg to save yer sorry keister?”
“Knew it! Ungrateful fluid bag!” He pounded the greasy table with a stubby fist. “Ya think ya can skip out o’ here, go on adventures and when ya gets in trouble come crawlin’ back for help?”
I started to stand up.
“Sit yer no good fer nothin’ behind back down.”
“Hank, ya wanna know somethin’?”
I sighed. “Yes.”
“Norg am a Rigelian of word, unlike you, Iowa.” He wiped a bit of ooze off his brow. “Made a promise to your dad to take care of ya. And Norg will, but don’t havta like it. So what’s the problem this time?”
I cleared my throat and related our situation. He listened with a scowl on his pudgy face and only interrupted to ask clarifying questions. When I was through he sat with his arms and tentacles crossed, scowl firmly affixed.
“Alright Iowa, uncle Norg will help ya out. Can move yer smuggled cargo, fix yer ship, and refuel but yer gonna do a favor for Norg.”
He did. It hurt. Quite a bit.
“What was that for?”
He laughed so hard I thought he might end up rolling on the floor. “Ya done asked for it!”
“Funny, slug nose.”
Norg wiped a tear from his third eye and continued. “Needs ya to deliver a load of contraband from here to Gamma Cygni, gratis. Ya know… free.”
“When did you start smuggling?”
He chuckled. “Before Iowa was born. What ya think ole Norgie made all his misfortunes on food, booze, an’ floozies?” Pointing at the Arietisian bird girl gyrating up on stage, covered only by her natural plumage.
“You’ve got a point.”
“So are ya takin’ Norg up on his offer?”
I shook his greasy hand and left the cantina. After kicking the Mu Leporisians who were busy trying to steal my tires I drove back to the ship.
Captain Mara didn’t particularly like the deal with Norg but we would keep the Johnny Cash flying, and that’s all that really mattered out here.
A few days later we had a repaired and fueled ship, a hold full of cigarettes, booze, and Chia pets. All items strictly forbidden yet highly valued on the black market in Gamma Cygni.
“Not bad for a ‘public relations’ man,” the Captain said as we lifted off.
“Let’s hope I don’t have to deal with any more complaints where we’re going,” I replied.
She got a wicked look in her eye, “If we stopped having complaints, you’d be out of a job now wouldn’t you?”
I shrugged. “Guess you’re right.”
As we slingshot toward the jump point I returned to my bunk and fished out my media reader copy of “Blasters and Beam Guns,” to drool at the new Siglock, P880 Particle Projection Pistol. It looks like I’ll have to save some creds and pick one up.
The name’s Hank Iowa, and I handle Interstellar Public Relations, with a blaster.