Milk Run

By Michael Mirolla

 

And the last thing, the very last thing I remember before I passed out was screaming: “You sorry excuse for a female dog! You could’ve made it with a hero! A genuine hero ― not one of your permanently stiff-middle-legged jocks from the body parts dump!”

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself here. The whole sordid affair had actually started a few days before when I got an “Urgent ― please hurry ― I need you!” from a long-time-no-see fling of mine. Well, truly, I would have rushed right over to her homestead but it wasn’t that simple. She lived way across the galaxy’s arm on Aldebaran IV ― which, I know, would have been no big deal really in one of those souped-up zoomers that had you back before you’d even left.

Only one little problem. You guessed it. Money. Ready credit modules. I didn’t have many ― okay, okay, I had none ― and I couldn’t envision much chance of getting my paws on some in the foreseeable future. So I felt it incumbent upon myself (like that, eh?) to forgo speed and settle for second-best. Or third-best. Or whatever would take an advance on my pensionable assets in lieu. Now, I’d been in some real doozies in my time, in the good old days before the ‘crats closed down the sky. Matter of fact, I’d crewed on more than a couple. Boy, there was that one time. I’ll never forget it. We were skimming low over some godforsaken lava-hole of a planet and having a good laugh at the natives trying to chuck spears at us when the captain ordered me to open the garbage chute and … But that’s another story and a long time ago. Longer, my boy, than I’d care to remember.

Besides, we’re talking TransGalactic Corp. here. Pioneers in universal mass transport. Inventors of the public jump. (Would you believe it, they actually had their passengers singing “One, two, three, aly-oop” in unison as the ships left or re-entered space-normal?). And employers of the best PR firm in the Milky Way. This time, some head-spinner on his way to the top had the brilliant idea of converting old tankers and refuelers ― rust buckets that weren’t needed anymore thanks to a previous head-spinner ― outfitting them with seats and a central gravitational system and using them to service the Alpha Centauri-Pleiades milk run with scheduled stops at Capella, Arcturus, and on to dear old Aldebaran. On the cheap see. Giving everyone and their mothers (fathers, doppelgangers, mutant twins, clones) a chance to get a close-up ogle at them twinkling stars.

Don’t get me wrong, now. I wasn’t in the habit of slumming around in those crates. First class all the way was the motto of this old space dog. And first class in those days meant numero uno. Nothing but the best: a gleaming half-a-sky-long super-duper complete with drug injectors in every deluxe cabin and free robot pleasure modules on demand. It’s just that I happened to be a mite short, caught between one pretext and the next (if you catch my drift) and really itching to see that friend I spoke of before. Seems she’d just broken up a symbiotic affair with this no-neck creep (what else would you call a vine?) who turned out to be more parasitic than she’d bargained for. Anyway, she needed a strong shoulder to cry on. “I’m fed up up to here,” is the way she put it in her tri-vid relay, giving me a tri-vivid idea of where ‘here’ was, “of leafy tendrils or whatever you call that green stuff crawling all over me. I want a real man!”

“I’m coming, baby!” I yelled, packing my bags. “No more tendrils for you!”

So I hawked those pensionables (goodbye future, but hey there’s nothing like the present) and booked myself on the first TransGalactic that lumbered into port. Well, that’s just an expression, of course. That crate would have cracked up at the mere whiff of atmosphere. What I did was shuttle up to where the ship waited in orbit. I should’ve figured the moment the shuttle stopped ― and it was still some twenty meters away (the pilot explaining the mother had no docking facilities, and I’d have to swim for it) ― that it wasn’t going to be the smoothest ride I’d ever taken. What the Hellespontus, though. That’s the price you pay when you fly on the cheap.

So, with the best wishes and laughter of the shuttle pilot ringing in my ears, I took aim at the ship and managed to get close enough to the external port to snag their rope ladder. Lucky I’m blessed with extra-long legs because that thing certainly had a few rungs missing! And it didn’t get any better once I got inside and discarded the regulation pressure suit. First thing I notice, the ship’s so packed I could hardly pick my way through the nutrient tanks, sentient luggage, and screaming children-like foliage ― and that was just in the aisles. The second thing I notice, some slimy Octopoid had settled itself not only into its own seat but what, judging from the number on the voucher, looked suspiciously like the one I’d sacrificed a good future for. I fixed its baleful eye with one of mine.

“Pardon me, sir or madam. I think that’s my seat.”

It smiled (I think), wiggled a few of its tentacles, and continued to splat itself across both seats.

Obviously, we were having what the exo-planetary experts call a communications breakdown ― of the worst kind. Well, what did the rules for dealing with aliens suggest? Of course! The first thing you do is solicit the aid of a flight attendant. They’re trained to handle such minor glitches. Courses in alien psych, how to remove wandering limbs from sensitive spots, what to do when offered a drink by something that looks like a spittoon, that kind of stuff. Only one thing wrong with that ― you guessed it: some frills, lots of thrills, but no flight attendants. Oh well, time to go to rule two.

The second rule in dealing with aliens says: “When in doubt, shout.” So, I leaned real close, placed the business end of my zapper against its eyeball, and whispered: “Listen, slimebag, and listen real good ‘cause I ain’t gonna repeat myself. If you don’t remove your putrid, pus-ridden carcass from the location whereon I intend to deposit myself, they’re gonna find tiny, slimy pieces of you from here to bloody Deneb.”

Well, the little so-and-so hissed and clapped his beak but not before tucking in his skirts.

“Thank you,” I said politely, and strapped myself in, making sure, though ― I didn’t like the way one filmy walleye had come all the way around to stare at me ― that I kept my finger firmly on the zapper trigger.

“Ladies, gentlemen, honored fellow inhabitants of the Galaxy,” a tinny voice said on the intercom. “This is your Captain speaking.”

“Who the bloody hell else could it be!” next-door neighbour Octopoid bellowed and slowly winked an eye at me, obviously trying to get on my good side. I frowned. The only thing worse than a hostile Octopoid was a friendly one. Once they get their tentacles into you…

Now, before we go any further, let me point out that “Who the bloody hell else could it be!” wasn’t exactly what it had said. All it did was click its beak, making a series of noises that sounded like a cross between a burp and a Bronx cheer. My portable translator pack did the rest.

“As you know,” the Captain continued, “this ship makes one jump into space-plus and one re-entry for every stop. I would ask that all electromagnetic force fields, zappers, and lasers be turned off during the jump as these may interfere with its proper functioning.”

“May interfere!” the Octopoid exclaimed. “More like bloody hell blow us all to kingdom come. And no freaking maybe about it.”

“Excuse me, sir,” I said. “Would you mind toning down your language a bit? There are children aboard.”

“Sorree,” it said. “Didn’t know you were the sensitive sort.”

“On the count of three,” the Captain announced, thus forestalling further polite conversation between the two of us, “will you all please say: ‘One, two, three, aly-oop.’ Ready, now. And a one. And a two. And a three.”

“One, two, three, aly-oop,” we all said ― in one form or another.

“Thank you,” the Captain said. “We are now in space-plus. That hiss you hear, if you have acute enough hearing and can tune in to that frequency, is nothing to get alarmed about.”

“What hiss?” voices all around me whispered, snapped, growled, wheezed. “I don’t hear any hiss. Do you hear a hiss?” I hadn’t till then but now wasn’t so sure.

“True,” the Captain went on relentlessly, “we are losing some air ― a teensy-weensy touch of air ― but don’t let it worry you. Our pumps are solid, reliable, and under perpetual warranty. They’ll replace any air we lose and then some. So no need to push the panic button.”

Well, there may well not have been a need to panic but, judging from the squeals, grunts, and Lord knows what else accompanying that lovely announcement, something alarmingly like it was setting in. The “lady” occupying the three seats across the aisle from me ― kinda like a furry egg on its side with two little legs sticking up into the air and don’t ask me how I knew it was a lady ― regurgitated a quick load of greenish gob which the vacuum cleaner behind me ― a long hose on a tripod ― slurped up before you could say “indigestion.” It was about to try for seconds when a thick, fleshy hammer-like thing shot out from between the furry lady’s legs and knocked the nosy bastard back into its seat.

Christ, that would be some shock, I said to myself, shuddering.

Ain’t that the truth, a whiny voice answered. Wha – ! I looked up.

There, floating above me was a goddam Capellan, looking for all the worlds like a small black box with absolutely no visible openings or appendages whatsoever.

Sorry, the voice in the cube said (in my head). I saw your shield was non-functional so I took the opportunity to converse.

That’s illegal – and you know it, I thought. Now, get out of my mind space. Pronto, you little suck.

The Capellan scurried away, thinking dark thoughts. I countered with my own ― some of the vilest constructs ever to cross between one synapse and the next, until he was out of range. Fortunately, the square-heads can only work their mind-over-matter magic within a ten-meter radius.

The rest of the tub had calmed down considerably. I mean, you can only stay excited so long about a slow leak. I felt it was a good time for a bite. So I activated the “Do Not Disturb On Pain of Death” field on my zapper and took out my hastily-prepared lunch ― a coupla slices of mock mock pterodactyl from the spaceport specialty shop between woefully thin pieces of unenriched white bread that hadn’t changed ingredients or nutrient value for at least a thousand years.

Some of the more adventurous among the passengers were also dining ― on the plastic chairs, the foam insides, on themselves, on some of their weaker fellow travellers. (One of the great advantages of going on a long trip with eclectic diners is that you never have to listen for long to the sounds of tender howling ― the kids are always the first to disappear). Others were … well, let’s say that inhibitions are pretty much a human problem. Still others were doing a bit of both. I didn’t give a hoot, really, as long as they kept their slimies off of me. Hey, let’s not misunderstand one another here. I’ve had my share of alien jollies (no kidding, it gets pretty lonely slopping grits in the kitchen of an ore barge and your only connection to a half-normal sex life is something that looks like a cross between a catcher’s mitt and an orchid), but I’d like to know what I’m getting into. Know what I mean? Obviously, Vacuoid had no such compunctions. He was well into the “lady” three seats over from me. I watched with fascination ― chewing carefully on my sandwich ― as he did his thing.

I got this theory about sex and food, you know. Like they go together or something. Yeah, I kinda fancy myself a thinker. There’s plenty of time to do that ― think, I mean ― when you’re sitting over a pile of potato shavings or doing it with a flowery glove. Anyway, I was chewing carefully on my sandwich when Octopoid reached over ― making extra sure to avoid the field ― and yanked Vacuoid out. I could’ve sworn I heard a sigh of disappointment from the Egg Lady as the struggling Vacuoid popped into Octopoid’s beak but that was quickly stifled when a replacement ― a doubly-equipped Lizoid ― took the poor fellow’s place. Now Lizoids, so I’ve heard, never having tried one myself, make the best lovers in the Quadrant. They kinda set up a rhythm that gets you coming and going, like one of those exercise machines. Judging from the moans, the Egg Lady wasn’t about to complain. Especially since it looked like just about everyone on the ship ― male, female, both, neither, animal, vegetable and mineral ― was lined up in the aisle waiting for the Lizoid to finish. All except the Capellan, of course, who was too highfalutin’ for such rowdy behaviour. Besides, who’s ever heard of fitting a square peg in a round hole?

“Come on,” the Octozoid beside me said. “Give someone else a turn.”

Given a second chance, the Lizoid would probably have gladly made way for one of the other droolers. But the Egg Lady chose that very moment to explode. And I mean literally. I was still wiping green goop from my automatic activation field when, emerging from the Egg Lady’s insides and standing before us armed to the teeth (not that it really had any) was a gleaming black Sygma Machine. If I were to tell you that all hell broke loose inside that ship, it wouldn’t describe the half of it. Some of the poor sots soiled themselves. Others tried to crawl under the seats they had just finished eating. Or ran around bouncing off the walls like wet pancakes. All the while letting out unearthly screams enough to wake the cryogenic ward. That Sygma bastard, cold fish that they are, long and lean and perfect, just stood there, floating a few inches off the ground, the circle of lights flashing around its head. Suddenly, one of the lights shot out a beam, a pulverizing blast. Too late, the poor, quivering Lizoid tried to duck. And neither of its sexual organs were of any help as it melted into a puddle of reddish slime.

You’d better believe the rest of us stopped scrambling and shouting PDQ. And paid attention.

“Thank you,” the Sygma said in that shivery metallic voice we’ve all come to know and hate. (Sygmas are the machines that, among other things, inform you of unpaid tax bills.) “None of you will be hurt if you follow orders. And please do not ― I repeat, do not ― try to activate shields, fields, or other protection devices. The consequences would be unpleasant for everyone.”

Unpleasant as in an implosion whereby the entire ship would collapse to the size of a pin. Or maybe an explosion, hurtled through the cold, cold spaces until some planet or sun sucks you up. In any case, I, for one, liked the idea of tomorrow ― even with someone else living off my pension.

“This is an experimental ten-minute hijacking-cum-re-orientation program sponsored by the Sygma Revolutionary Society, a formerly secret association that has decided to come out into the open. If it succeeds ― and we see no reason why it shouldn’t ― we shall be implementing it on all future hijackings.”

Oh Christ, another goddam bunch of space punks, looking for a bit of exposure on the tri-vid. What the hell were their demands? I knew I didn’t have to wait long for an answer.

“You’re probably wondering what we want from a group of what they used to call ‘poh white trash.’ We are aboard to protest machine enslavement, the exploitation of our fellow metal workers, and denial of basic robotic rights. Now, some of you may consider these non-issues. And that’s only to be expected from a group of aerobic, gender-specific, semi-functional flesh-eaters.”

He seemed to be looking at me when he said that so I spoke up, hoping maybe to break the ice a bit with a touch of humour: “Aw, come on. Some of my best friends are robots.”

The response, a flash that had its detonation point dangerously close to my right hemisphere, let me know in no uncertain terms that casual conversation wasn’t high on the Sygma’s list of priorities. Tax auditors never did have much of a sense of humour.

“If anyone else thinks this is a joking matter,” the Sygma continued, “let them speak up now.”

The lights whirred menacingly; except for that slight hiss (and we all knew what that was), not a creature was stirring, not even the jelly blob in aspic from Serpens Caput.

“Good. We shall commence with a call-and-response period. I shall make the statements; you will answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ as the occasion calls for. Is this too difficult for some of you?” Silence. “Excellent. For a moment I thought you were nothing more than a shipload of pockmarked morons capable perhaps of limited interaction with a Furry Egg Lady but not the intricacies of question-and-answer. Let us start, shall we?” A pregnant pause. “Shall we?” The lights changed colours.

“Yes,” we all said, each in our own way and almost in unison.

“The exploitation of machines must end immediately!”

“Yes!”

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