© Magnus Graham
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“Ready to sign, Mr Cuthbert?”
Of course, the man sitting across the table from her wasn’t exactly in much of a position to answer the question.
He looked as though he wanted to scream out in pain – an agonising wail that would have worried neighbours clamouring to the front door, most likely. Or maybe he was trying to shout for help at the top of his voice... Or perhaps he’d had enough and was now desperate to simply sign the contract he’d recently dismissed as derisory and insulting. No, that wasn’t it, that wasn’t it at all. Samuel Cuthbert’s frightened eyes hadn’t once strayed towards the parchment sitting on the table between them. Even the bundles of cash credits stacked up beside it seemed to hold no interest for the aging landlord.
Of course, there was a good reason why little more than a frustrated mumble escaped from the terrified man’s mouth. Even before he’d been unceremoniously secured to the chair – his very own tattered leather seat, where he had no doubt spent many a gleeful hour totting up the week’s takings – an old cloth had been forced into his mouth before his lips were sealed tight with duct tape. It was the same roll of industrial strength silver tape that had been used to bind his arms and legs to his favourite chair.
After a few more seconds had ticked by, the landlord desisted with his pitiful attempts to cry out. Instead, he now looked content to concentrate on his breathing, noisily sucking air in through his nostrils, before expelling it through the same snottery orifice.
Cheryl Eris felt a distinct urge to lean across the table and gently pinch the helpless man’s nose between her thumb and forefinger. The mere thought of such a simple spontaneous act of cruelty brought a warm glow; she visualised the poor creature sitting across the table, imagined watching him twitch and writhe until his body went limp. She wouldn’t give in to temptation, of course. After all, she was a guest in Mr Cuthbert’s home. ...An unexpected guest, admittedly, but a guest nevertheless. His gaze had lingered on her, eyes blinking in apparent disbelief that such a fine woman would call upon him at such an early hour. He’d certainly welcomed her inside eagerly enough. She’d told him she had a business proposition for him. Right from the off, she’d warned him – albeit rather coyly and in a flirtatious manner suggesting nothing of what was to come – that she liked to drive a hard bargain. Killing the man, she suspected, might in some way violate her own moral code, such as it was. Besides, she wanted the man’s property portfolio and Samuel Cuthbert was hardly likely to sign the contract she had gone to all the trouble of drawing up if he was dead.
Instead she pursed her brightly painted lips together and settled on a self-satisfied smile. It was a cruel predatory grin that wouldn’t have looked out of place on one of the more deadly species of shark inhabiting the oceans of Delphin, the larger of Horizon’s two moons.
Like anyone successful in business, Cheryl Eris prided herself on being able to conduct negotiations from a position of strength. There were plenty who were of the opinion that she liked to push the envelope a tad too far in this respect. Yet, in her own mind at least, she stuck diligently to the same basic principles employed by any corporate negotiator worth their salt. So often there were fine lines between success and failure, and she fully intended to fall on the right side of that line. Ruthlessness often brought its own rewards. And anyway, no matter what others might think, the man on the other side of the table was being offered a choice... in a manner of speaking. She had gone out of her way to make that abundantly clear from the outset. Samuel Cuthbert was perfectly entitled to reject the deal being offered... painful as that rejection was proving to be.
As her eyes looked into his, Cuthbert appeared to wince and shrink back into his seat. In no particular rush to have him sign the contract – that would happen in good time – Cheryl Eris sat appraising the man with whom she was ‘negotiating’.
For a man not likely to see seventy, the notoriously tight-fisted landlord looked surprisingly spritely. A shame then that he was only sixty two, she thought to herself, as she suddenly recalled the man’s true age. Still, he was certainly in rude health by the lowly standards of bombed-out waste dumps like planet Horizon. Cuthbert was more lean and wiry than most; even his shock of grey hair, hair that was currently striking out in all directions, had a wiry quality to it. It was difficult to glean much from his face of course, largely due to the fact that, at present, it resembled an over-ripe tomato. Even the dollops of sweat trickling down his cheeks took on the appearance of rainwater running down a piece of fruit.
Casting her gaze around Samuel Cuthbert’s sitting room, Cheryl Eris looked distinctly unimpressed. Like so many of the properties for miles around, his home was cluttered and uncoordinated; furniture seemed to consist of a mismatch of pieces – no doubt much of it scavenged from the abandoned towns and cities to the north. There was a framed photograph of a younger Samuel Cuthbert and a female companion, plain and uninteresting enough to be his wife. The picture was old. Cuthbert had lived alone for many a year. No doubt the woman was long since dead.
Sitting back in her chair, Cheryl Eris crossed her legs before smoothing her light cream dress – the one with the pretty floral patterns that she liked to think leant her a look of coy innocence. “Well now, Mr Cuthbert, perhaps the contract is beginning to look a little more appealing,” she said, arching an eyebrow as the hint of another shark-like smile threatened to reveal itself. “I must congratulate you on your courage. I had no idea you were such a shrewd negotiator.”
The words were meant as one of her little jokes, of course, but nevertheless, she added another bundle of credits to the pile on the table. She thought she saw a flicker of defiance, of anger even, in the old man’s eyes. But, real or imagined, it was gone all too soon. Now Cuthbert was looking down helplessly at the wires hanging loosely above the table, the wires that led to the relay box in her lap. Reluctantly, his eyes seemed to follow the wires in the other direction, right up to where they disappeared between the buttons of his sweat-soaked shirt: One of the wires was secured to his chest; the other sneaked its way further down his torso.
As his facial expression altered and his eyes began to resemble the sad and pathetic eyes of a chastised puppy, the landlord cocked his head to the side. Standing directly behind his left shoulder was Stamper.
It had been Stamper - the steroid pumped mountain of a man - who had so effortlessly secured Cuthbert to his seat. Now he stood motionless, his hands planted squarely behind his back and his narrow pig-like eyes staring forward. Stamper was the most loyal and devoted of Cheryl Eris’s private security team. He never questioned an order; spoke only when required to, and, above all, was utterly devoted to the woman he served. His immediate task complete, he now stood stock still, a six and a half foot tall sentinel ogre, an ogre with little in the way of a mind of his own.
“No, Mr Cuthbert, you’ll receive no pity from him, I’m afraid.” Cheryl Eris pushed out her bottom lip and shook her head in mock sympathy. Ever since she could remember, she’d always enjoyed having the fate of others in her control. Mocking those unable to help themselves was just an additional perk. “Mr Stamper is utterly devoted to my every want and whim,” she continued breezily, enjoying the almost seductive tone of her own voice. “He follows the commands I give him and carries out his duties without a second thought. He’s a pretty impressive specimen, don’t you agree, Mr Cuthbert? ...Arguably my finest creation. Looking at him now, it’s hard to conceive just how much progress he has made since I first took him in. Believe it or not, Mr Cuthbert, a little over two years ago, Stamper was nothing more than a pitiful weakling... much like yourself, in that respect. He also had a weakness for drink and for gambling. He had oh so many self destructive tendencies and had squandered every opportunity life had given him. He was a weak man, a pathetic man without a modicum of self discipline. Now look at him: pretty impressive, wouldn’t you agree?”
The landlord’s gaze swung away from Stamper. Cheryl Eris studied the old man’s flushed features, looking for signs that he was indeed impressed, or perhaps even a little envious of her human dog. Instead, the bound man seemed to be regarding with what looked suspiciously like... contempt! All of a sudden an anger burned within her. Seizing the relay switch from her lap, she turned up the electricity. In an instant, Cuthbert’s wiry frame became rigid as the electrical current threatened to lift him from his seat, despite his bonds. This time she held the flow for a good thirty seconds while her anger dissipated and she released her victim from his latest round of torment.
Samuel Cuthbert was thrown back into his tattered leather seat as if he were nothing more than a rag-doll. That would teach the stupid little man to show her a little more in the way of respect. As Cuthbert sat, his tortured body twitching as he struggled to recover from his latest jolt of electricity, Cheryl Eris’s thoughts turned to other matters.
Over the past two and a half years her powerbase had grown considerably. Her fortified compound on the south side of Port Kalrin – more than two miles from where she was now in the heart of the old town – was virtually impregnable. Her security force was growing. And like Stamper, each of the tough men and women who had pledged their allegiance to her, were growing fitter, stronger and better equipped to prove their loyalty in battle. She had bought up property, taken over the running of several small businesses, and what’s more, for the most part, she had achieved this largely unnoticed by those who would soon have cause for concern. She was rather proud of the fact that she – an incomer to this pathetic little world – had managed all this while flying pretty much under the radar of Port Kalrin’s criminal fraternity.
But soon things would change; her empire was pushing into the heartlands of so called bigger players. The time was fast approaching when she would announce herself to this ransacked world she had been forced to call home. Very soon even the mighty Elias Ransom himself – the undisputed king of the black market in these parts – would tremble before her.
Her eyes narrowing, Cheryl Eris stared across at the latest casualty of her expanding empire with undisguised disdain. She tried to imagine Elias Ransom where Samuel Cuthbert sat now, yet frustratingly the image eluded her. Instead she opted to turn up the power once more and watched the pathetic little man twitch and jig. She was now growing weary of ‘negotiations’. The time had come for Samuel Cuthbert to stop procrastinating and sign his damned business interests over to someone more deserving of them. Sooner rather than later, he would sign the contract on the table.
His eyes darting nervously across a baffling array of instrument readings, Jesper was oblivious to the nervous twitch in his left leg. Clinging to the controls of the Little Rascal, he was hoping that if he held on tightly enough, his breakfast would stay where it belonged. Just keep her steady, he told himself. We’ll be on solid ground soon enough.
Six months had passed since Jesper had accepted the post of first mate on the battered old planet hopper and – no matter how many times Stig told him that a bit of turbulence was perfectly normal – he could never quite shake the feeling that their chosen mode of transport was little more than a coffin with thrusters. Entering a planetary atmosphere was a hazardous time for any spacecraft, but in a short range shuttle with too many miles on the clock and too many buttons that didn’t work, the odds on a safe landing were a damn sight longer than they should be.
“You hold her steady, yes!” Stig shouted, struggling to make himself heard above the din of a shuttle threatening to tear itself apart. “I’ll go sort out the landing gear!”
As the Little Rascal’s owner and captain clambered towards the cargo hold Jesper peered nervously out the narrow cockpit window, only to find his view obscured by onrushing clouds. Soon they’d be through the clouds, the planet below would reveal itself to be a verdant paradise and the worst of their ordeal would be over. Or at least that’s what he hoped.
As the sound of a large hammer striking metal rang out from the cargo hold, a warning light started flashing on the control panel. Jesper ignored it: warning lights had a habit of illuminating the Little Rascal’s control panel and Stig was rarely concerned by such trivial matters. Best to hold her steady and pray that the landing gear will be in working order when required.
The shuttle’s landing gear was often troublesome, particularly after an extended period travelling between worlds. The fact that it had a tendency to freeze was part of the shuttle’s character. Or at least that’s what Stig claimed often enough, usually before setting about the offending machinery with a sledgehammer and blow torch.
The deafening sound of metal striking metal intensified, echoing noisily around the empty cargo hold, reminding Jesper that even if they touched down safely on Horizon, they had no goods to trade and precious little in the way of cash credits to keep them fed. Six months ago Stig had promised that within a year they’d both be rich. But over time Jesper had come to the realisation that his business partner’s promises should be taken more as statements of intent, dreams and aspirations, all too frequently fuelled by alcohol or weed.
As the clouds thinned out, allowing brief glimpses of a war ravaged world below, another warning light lit up the control panel. This one looked brighter than the first and seemed to be flashing with a great deal more purpose. Jesper eyed it irritably for a moment, his forehead creasing into a frown, before his eyes widened as he picked out the words PROXIMITY WARNING blinking on the consol. Immediately he shifted his gaze to the radar. There it was, a blip on the screen, very close by and on a collision course. Wiping a greasy hand over the radar reading, Jesper attempted to sweep the offending object away, hoping that the blip would prove itself to be nothing more dangerous than another of Stig’s toenail clippings. It wasn’t. And now it was very close and closing by the second.
“Stig!” Jesper bellowed out as loud as he could. “I think you better get up here now!”
“What is it?” Stig shouted, appearing from the cargo hold, only to be thrown to the cockpit floor as the Little Rascal banked heavily to starboard in a desperate manoeuvre to evade whatever it was that was about to canon into them. “What the hell are you doing?”
Suddenly there was an almighty crash and the shuttle was thrown into a tailspin. The cockpit lights shorted and the shuttle’s interior was plunged into near darkness; only the intermittent red glow of a dozen blinking warning lights illuminated the consol. Stig was thrown around the cockpit like a rag doll, while Jesper wrestled to bring them back under some sort of control. Eventually he succeeded, only to emerge from the clouds to find the planet below was rather closer than he’d have liked.
“What are you doing to my beautiful baby?”
Stig struggled to pull himself up from under the consol. Blood ran down from a nasty gash above his left eye, but other than that he appeared in remarkably good health for someone who had just taken such a terrible pummelling.
Surprised to see his friend emerging from the floor next to him, Jesper felt the need to explain. “We’ve been hit!” he shouted, realising he was telling Stig nothing he hadn’t ascertained for himself.
“Do not worry. Give the controls to me and everything will be okay.”
“I don’t think the engines are working!”
“They will work for me; you will see.”
As Stig took over in the pilot’s chair Jesper’s attention shifted to an orange glow coming from outside the port window. The portside engine was on fire! The Little Rascal had many quirks, but this was new territory.
“I will get us to the ground,” said Stig, sounding more confident now he was at the helm, but still oblivious to the engine fire.
“Oh, I don’t doubt that!” Jesper stammered, still staring in disbelief at the flaming engine. “The bloody engine’s on fire!”
“What!” Stig shifted his attention to the source of their latest problem. “It is nothing,” he decided, with some measure of confidence. “I can fly her in with one engine. You really do worry too much.”
Jesper threw himself into the spare seat, hoping his friend wasn’t being overoptimistic. Stig put all his energy into slowing their descent, but the controls weren’t responding as they ought. The shuttle was no longer spinning, but there was no doubt about it – they were still in freefall. With a look of confusion, he turned his attention to his right and studied the starboard engine, looking for signs of damage. Jesper did likewise, his forehead creasing when he saw nothing untoward.
“Oh, that is not good,” Stig muttered ominously.
Jesper caught on to his partner’s anxious expression, realised belatedly that the engine wasn’t turning and felt the abrupt need to go to the toilet. “You said everything would be okay! You told me not to worry! Am I now to believe that in actual fact you were lying to me? Just this once, Stig, I really want to believe what you are telling me.”
“We have a problem!”
“Yes, we’ve already been through that, but you told me not to worry. You said you’d get us down safely!”
“I said I’d get us down.”
“You said you could land with one engine!”
“Yes, I could... If we had one engine that actually worked!”
The look on the Little Rascal’s owner and captain’s ashen face was surely testament to the fact that even he now fully grasped the seriousness of their predicament. Jesper regretted more than ever his decision to leave the relative safety of his home world of Tisiphone. Back there his friends had laughed at his decision to leave, told him that flying on any P200 planet hopper – never mind a planet hopper in as sad a state as the Little Rascal – was a one way ticket to oblivion. The general consensus was that he’d be dead within a month. So far he’d lasted six, but with the planet Horizon now far too close for comfort, even he had to admit that he was unlikely to see seven.
The Little Rascal plunged towards the rugged terrain of the wastelands, not far from the old sea port of Port Kalrin, which was, at least, pretty much their intended destination. Just a little further south and they would plummet into the ocean. At least then would be some illusion of safety, a very remote chance of survival. Instead, what lay below was nothing more than the ransacked wasteland that was sure to claim their lives. Ragged rocks jutted out from an arid soil, as if placed there in order to inflict maximum devastation on any flying craft unlucky enough to find itself without power.
Just then, without warning, the shuttle wobbled slightly and the rate of their descent slowed. Jesper’s frightened eyes turned towards the portside engine. The ball of flame and much of the acrid black smoke had vanished and the engine appeared to be doing its job.
Stig pulled hard on the controls and the angle of the land below them began to alter. “Hey, hey! Did I not tell you that everything would be alright?” he shouted, a relieved grin spreading across his face. “Captain Stig is right again, yes?”
Jesper made no reply. He couldn’t even breathe. Eventually his body remembered how, and as the shuttle began to fly a horizontal course, barely twenty metres above the ground, he sat back in the co-pilot’s seat sucking in extravagant amounts of recycled oxygen, much to the amusement of his friend.
“Ha, you always worry too much. Your face is so funny. You really shouldn’t give out such bad vibes; the shuttle doesn’t like it.”
Jesper could scarcely believe what he was hearing, but any powers he had to articulate his feelings had deserted him.
“Good vibes are what keeps this baby in the air,” Stig elaborated, gently patting the control panel in order to emphasise whatever stupid point he was trying to make. “I am always telling you, yes: A shuttle as good as our baby here will stay in the air for the rest of your life, if you trust her right.”
For once Jesper didn’t feel the need to contradict the absurdity of his business partner’s statement. The idea that the Little Rascal would remain airborne until the moment of his death was not something he had any great difficulty in accepting.
Stig switched his attention to the radar and watched as the object they had collided with fell to the ground, not more than a few miles from their current position. Easing the battered old shuttle around more carefully than he normally would, he set a course for where it had landed. Whatever it was that had almost killed them certainly merited closer inspection. Besides, with no goods to sell and little in the way of cash credits, the two-manned crew of the Little Rascal didn’t exactly have more pressing engagements to be getting on with.
* * *
The object turned out to be an escape pod from a Wanderer class freighter. It had taken twenty minutes to break open the locking mechanism, but it was certainly starting to look like time well spent. Stig let out a long whistle, while Jesper stood open-mouthed, staring at the goods, scarcely believing what his eyes were seeing.
“You see, Serendipity is smiling down on us, no?” Stig was grinning from ear to ear, like he was looking down upon his best scavenge ever. “This lot is worth a little risk, yes?”
“A little risk,” muttered Jesper, weighing up the prize before them against what they’d gone through to get it. “We almost died!”
“What is almost?” Like so many of Stig’s questions, this one was purely rhetorical and more than a little irritating. For him the fact that they had almost been killed was already a fading memory. “I see your cargo shorts are nearly dry.”
Jesper felt a wave of irritation washing over him. He couldn’t recall the exact moment he’d lost control of his bladder, but at some point whilst hurtling towards the surface of Horizon, he had pissed himself rather spectacularly. That was sure to be something Stig would remember for a long time to come. Even if much about their latest landing succeeded in seeping out of what passed as Stig’s brain, he would always recall the fact that his friend had wet himself.
The capsule had crashed into a hillside, well away from civilisation. For miles around there was nothing except rocks, the odd bush and the occasional gnarled tree. Nothing stirred. Even the warm breeze blowing inland from the south did little to disturb the eerie tranquillity.
“How much do you think this lot is worth?” asked Jesper, swatting a couple of flies away from his crotch. “I mean, it’s a good scavenge, right, but hauls as good as this don’t just drop out of the sky for no reason. It must belong to someone.”
“Look, I told you, Serendipity is looking out for us, yes?”
“Well, she’s got a funny way of showing it. We should be dead.”
“Perhaps she just wanted a laugh. Gods do have a sense of humour, you know. Maybe she thought it would be funny to watch you piss yourself... I thought it was funny.”
Jesper wasn’t convinced. His friend’s habit of attributing any stroke of good fortune to the idea that Serendipity was watching out for them made little sense. Ever since he had shipped off Tisiphone with Stig, bad fortune had routinely outweighed good, yet Serendipity’s name was never mentioned when things weren’t going so well. Somehow that didn’t feel fair.
Both men continued to stare at the contents of the escape pod. About five tonnes worth of vacuum packed medicines and high protein food stuff shone invitingly in the sunlight, like the contents of an unearthed treasure chest. Eventually it was Stig who broke the spell. “You may be right,” he said, rubbing the stubble on his chin, scanning the horizon for signs that they weren’t alone. “Someone is sure to come looking for this lot. We need to get loaded up and get the hell out of here before they get here.”
Jesper too switched his attention from the contents of the capsule in order to look out over the wastelands. “I don’t see anyone,” he said, shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun.
“Still, someone will show up... eventually. We must have knocked the pod off its intended course. I say we get everything in the cargo hold, as quickly as possible.”
“But how would anyone know to look here?”
“Same way they knew where it would land before it collided with us. The capsule will be fitted with a pulse signal. It’s an old smugglers’ trick: the goods get discreetly launched out of a passing freighter – most likely the same freighter we hitched a ride on – before they’re collected off the ground planet side, usually by the kind of people who are best avoided. Many freighter crews have a lucrative sideline running black market goods. Like providing docking facilities for short range shuttles hitching a ride between worlds, it can mean the difference between making a profit and breaking even. I think we should get to work fast. We don’t want to lose what Serendipity has so graciously provided.”
“You mean you don’t want someone to steal from us what we’re about to steal from them.”
“Something like that, yes.”
* * *
Half an hour later, almost all the goods had been loaded into the cargo hold of the Little Rascal. Labouring in the baking summer heat of Horizon’s wastelands was not a notion that either of the shuttle’s two man crew would normally entertain. Work in general was something both were particularly adept at avoiding. Unless, of course, the payoff was more than worth the effort. With this job it wasn’t just the heat that made things difficult. It had been almost a month since Stig and Jesper had last set foot on solid ground and the artificial gravity of freighters and space stations never did quite match that of the planets and moons on this belt.
With the cargo hold almost full, Jesper stopped to take a drink of water from his canteen. It was then, as he swallowed the first gulp of lukewarm liquid, that he spotted a dust cloud in the valley below. The cloud was a little way off, but it seemed to be moving purposely towards them. “Stig!” he called out, lowering the canteen from his mouth. “I think we better get moving. It looks like we’ve got company!”
Stig rushed down the cargo ramp, before surveying the valley through a pair of binoculars. “Two land vehicles; four men on horseback... No fliers!” he confirmed, passing the binoculars to his companion. “They won’t get here for another ten minutes... probably. Come on, let’s get the job done and get the hell out of here!”
“Shouldn’t we just go now? Chances are they’ll have weapons that will reach us before that.”
“No way! We load everything. It’s not as if they’re going to blow us up, anyhow.”
“And how do you figure that out?”
“They won’t risk hitting the cargo, that’s how.”
“I hope you’re right.”
“Of course I’m right. And what’s more, I’ve been doing some thinking. I know a great place, not far from here, where we can stash the goods until we get the shuttle running smoothly again.”
“Can we afford to get her fixed up?”
“Of course we can, stupid. We’ve got a fortune on board. Here’s the plan: After we stash the goods, we take a small cargo with us to Port Kalrin. Then we sell what we need to so we can pay to get the Little Rascal fixed, retrieve the cargo and get off this crappy planet before anyone knows we were even here.”
“Isn’t that a bit risky?” Jesper countered, handing the binoculars back to Stig. “...Selling the goods in Port Kalrin, I mean. That’s got to be where they were headed for in the first place.”
“You are always worrying too much, yes? In a couple of days we’ll be off this world and heading somewhere where we can sell for a good price. Until then, all we need to do is lay low and chill out.”
Five minutes later the Little Rascal was fully laden and spluttering northwards at low altitude, black smoke trailing in its wake.
“So long suckers!” Stig called out needlessly as he struggled to hold a straight line away from their pursuers. “I always told you we were going to be rich!” he yelled. “Now do you believe me?”
(Thanks for reading, and thanks to all those who reviewed the first version of this story... and my other uploads, of course. Your comments, criticisms and observations have been most helpful. I hope to have further chapters of this story uploaded in the near future).