by Jay Lake
"Sic Transit, Gloria Mundi speaking."
Ora Lee Uris was profoundly glad to hear the groundside agent's voice through the static of the inefficient colonial telecomm system. The lack of video annoyed her -- old friends such as Gloria and herself could communicate a great deal with a few well-chosen facial expressions. "Gloria, this is Ora Lee. We've got a situation."
"Are you declaring a Ship's Emergency?" asked Gloria. She acted as groundside agent whenever the Sic Transit -- First Deadly Sin was in port.
"I'm not sure..." Ora Lee looked up the street from where she stood at the primitive comm terminal. Churned mud and piles of rotten wheat dominated the view. The smell of the triticalophagic fungus which was ravaging this colonial world filled her nose like beer gone sour. Low-rise wooden buildings dotted with mold and moss sagged along each side of the street. In the distance, three men shouldered the back of a wagon axle-deep in the street mud. Nieu Fishkill had been a disappointment, even judged by the loose standards of early generation colonial settlements.
"It's Morty. He's in trouble."
Gloria sighed. Ora Lee could imagine Gloria's dark face mottling with stress before she settled into solving the problem. "Morty...please, no...not another Morty problem. Captain's going to have an aneurism."
Hot anger raced through Ora Lee. She felt her face flush and her lips flare. Now she was glad for the primitive audio-only telecomm. "It's not his fault!" she screamed into the clumsy plastic handset. The connection clicked and hissed. Gloria didn't answer, but Ora Lee could hear her breathing.
"...not this time," Ora Lee added.
"Not this time. Right." Gloria was all business again. "What happened to your boyfriend?"
Morty Ballou, fattest spaceman in the Empire, had a way of finding trouble. Or perhaps more accurately, thought Ora Lee, trouble had a way of finding Morty. Weighing in at slightly over three hundred kilograms, Morty pushed his way in and out of restaurants and bars on dozens of planets with the implacability of a tidal wave on an open ocean world. He seemed to be a magnet for oddballs and malcontents everywhere they went, as if he spun his own gravitational field out of cellulite and muscle mass. Unfortunately, since the rather spectacular temple incident at (NAMEOFPLANET), Morty had been on Captain's watch list. The destruction of property and public endangerment charges arising from Morty's spectacular attack of indigestion were narrowly balanced by the fraud and attempted murder counter charges Captain had been able to lay against the temple in question.
And now trouble was back.
"He's been kidnapped," said Ora Lee. She felt miserable.
"Kidnapped?" Gloria clearly could not believe her ears. "Who could possibly make Morty go somewhere he didn't want to?"
"Farmers." Ora Lee sniffled. "Farmers with pitchforks and kinetic sidearms. They threatened me. Morty agreed to go with them if they'd leave me alone."
"Farmers? What would farmers want with Morty? No one eats more than him. He's their best customer."
Morty sat in the back of the little archaic alcohol fueled flatbed truck. It groaned along the muddy lane, wheels churning as the truck fought heroically to bear the load of Morty's weight. The three farmers had struggled to get Morty into the cab, giving up only when his weight tore the running board off their vehicle.
"Heh, fat man, you!" The youngest farmer sat in the back with Morty, pitchfork held at port arms. He was red-haired, pale and muscular with hollow, tired eyes. He would have been big beside anyone other than Morty.
"Mmm?" Morty wondered when they would be eating.
The farmer grinned. "Big man, you. Lots thinking, doing, eh, they let eat so, you?"
Morty burped by way of response. A burp from Morty was a sort of multimedia olfactory/sonic art form. Generally Morty's eructations began as gas bubbles deep in his 300 kilograms of gut, working their way up through the stomach and esophagus, acquiring a diverse following of tastes and odors on the way and magnifying themselves in Morty's great throat and mouth until what emerged was rather like a protein volcano. The great belch echoed in the damp, open air in the back of the truck. The young farmer's lank, short hair laid back on his head as his eyes rolled involuntarily in their sockets in response to an overwhelming review of Morty's recent food intake.
The truck screeched to a halt, slewing in the mud as the driver over braked. Morty was thrown against his young captor, luckily jamming his copious chest against the haft rather than the tines of the pitchfork. The already stunned youth made a sort of gasping moan as he was pressed against the truck's stakebed side. The wood splintered, then gave way against the combination of Morty's great weight combined with the slight counterpoint of the young farmer's not inconsiderable bulk. With a majesty common to great freighters sinking into the ocean, or perhaps the toppling of some seismically doomed megalithic tower, Morty, the farmer and most of the side of the truck toppled into the mud.
"No weapons on him, I have said so, me!" screamed the leader of the three farmers, a horse faced man waving a brass kinetic pistol. "Attack him how, you?"
Morty stared up out of the mud into the brass muzzle of the kinetic pistol. "Uhh...no weapons..." he said, adding "...me."
The third man began jabbering at the leader in a language Morty didn't know. "¡Shazz a'bha zeytana!" he yelled. Both of them whirled and stared at Morty, aghast.
"What?" Morty asked, levering himself up on his elbows. He so hated gravity wells. They made him feel heavy.
"Where Kassov? Where him?" asked the leader.
"Kassov?" Morty felt a motion under his chest, a sort of heaving of the mud in which he was lying. "Oh, Kassov! The boy."
It took almost ten minutes to free the screaming Kassov from the mud beneath Morty's belly.
Their names were Shabain, Zaleel and Kassov. Morty felt sorry for them. Their families were starving, their crops dead from the triticalophagic fungus which ravaged farms all over Nieu Fishkill. Sympathy didn't pay freight, as his uncle always said, and Morty wasn't sure what could help the farmers. Certainly not himself.
They apparently thought differently.
Shabain prodded Morty with one foot. "Big man, you. Truck of Zaleel springs break, she, you."
Morty shrugged where he sat on the complaining wooden floor of Kassov's hovel. "I didn't ask to come."
"Sides break, springs break, expensive, you."
"Hungry, me," said Morty.
Kassov began groaning from his cot. In the fall from the truck, Morty had cracked several of Kassov's ribs and apparently broken his wrist. "No! No!" shrieked Kassov.
"Now hold you ransom for, we," said Shabain after sparing Kassov a glance.
"Ransom for what?" asked Morty. He wondered when the next meal would be served, given how little these farmers seemed to have.
"Ransom for us," Shabain said proudly.
"Freedom fighters, we," added Zaleel.
"It's your planet," said Morty. "What's to be free from?" Besides gravity, he added silently.
Shabain darkened. "Government. Taxes. No services, no help in famine."
"What do I have to do with it?" asked Morty.
"Steal offworld man, you," said Zaleel, "attention pay to us, government they."
"Ransom for freedom," added Shabain.
Morty's fund of political astuteness was already exhausted by the complexities of the discussion. "When do we eat?" he asked, for what he was pretty sure was not the first time.
Shabain and Zaleel laughed. "Eat, us? No food, no eat."
Morty's stomach growled, loudly enough to set the dog outside barking.
"What in the name of all seven pestilential planets in this god forsaken scrofulous solar system are you going to do about this?" Ora Lee Uris screamed into the Portmaster's face.
Ora Lee stood less than one meter, fifty in her stocking feet, but when she got angry she could fill a room the way Morty Ballou filled a swimming pool. Angry she was now. Gloria Mundi stood near the door, strategically placed to offer assistance or make a quick exit as prudence dictated.
The Portmaster, a gangly dark-haired Fishkiller named Ganzis, didn't seem to know what do with Ora Lee. He looked to be somewhere between shrieking in terror and physical attack. Ora Lee knew how to take advantage of men like Ganzis -- take the offensive.
"Well? I'm waiting for an answer." She had practiced that yell, to get the shrillness out. She wanted to sound like an angry teacher, not a flustered mother. Morty generally gave her plenty of yelling practice.
"Ahh...Gospozha Uris..." Ganzis glanced over at Gloria Mundi, a mute appeal for help.
"She's not talking to you, I am," shrieked Ora Lee in Ganzis' ear, which she grabbed for emphasis and easier access.
Ganzis winced, rubbing his ear. "I am Portmaster, I," he said. "Not Law and Order. You talk to Law, you, they help this much better. I help ships, not vanishing drunks."
"Vanishing drunks?" Ora Lee's voice whipped right through shrill and cut on upward into registers which would normally induce the howling of dogs and shattering of window glass. With a frustrated spluttering, she cocked a fist and swung a roundhouse punch into Ganzis' jaw. "Vanish this!"
Ganzis lay on the floor, moaning and rubbing his jaw. Ora Lee stepped back away from him, shaking her hand back and forth to work out the shock of the punch.
"That's one way to get an interview with Law and Order," said Gloria.
Law and Order, in the person of a tall, black-skinned offworlder whose uniform named him Justicier Kije, stared at Ora Lee Uris. She stared back, snared from toes to nose in a coilfield restraint, propped like a statue against the wall on a bare wooden floor in a sparse, stained, dimly-lit room which looked like it was frequently used for exceedingly direct forms of interrogation. In the distance she could hear Gloria's voice, a low mutter of freedom arguing counterpoint to official intransigence.
And assault charges, she admitted to herself after a moment.
Kije spoke in a slow voice, like mist rising from a grave. "If I release the cephalic restraint, you speak with me as a civilized Imperial?"
Ora Lee nodded. When they had dragged her in, she was cursing Portmaster Ganzis, his family, chattels, servants and employees back several generations, as well as impugning their eating habits a number of steps down the food chain and questioning the virtue of every female Fishkiller of any species. Kije, more direct of action than the native Fishkillers, had extended the existing limb restraints to full body restraint in order to effect a restoration of peace and calm to an increasingly bumptious Law and Order squad.
Kije flicked a button on a small computer slate. Ora Lee felt her throat expand slightly as the coilfield fell away to her shoulders.
"Thanks," she said, taking a deep breath.
"Good start," said Kije, his voice still deep and dark.
Ora Lee said nothing, preferring to stare Kije down. She found it very difficult to swell up in righteous indignation while still wrapped in the coilfield.
Kije stared back for a while, licking his lips occasionally. Ora Lee noticed that even in the dim room, his eyes were visibly a startling green. "Well, Gospozha...Uris," Kije said, consulting the handheld. "I think it lucky for you I stand duty at the Portside Law Station. My Nieu Fishkillian colleagues quite stung by your invective."
"Why aren't you doing something about Morty?" Ora Lee demanded.
Kije consulted the slate. "Your demand something to do with your felonious assault on the person of the Portmaster?"
"That high gravity...bumpkin..." Ora Lee bit off the more colorful nouns which came to mind. "He...he...wouldn't listen!" She almost cried, at that, but let the anger carry herself. Stars only knew where Morty was or what those slow-witted grain pushers had done with him.
Kije almost smiled. His lips twitched. "And not listening an offense in your culture suitable for response in the form of physical assault?"
"No..." Ora Lee sniffed, experimentally to see what effect it might have on Kije. "...but my boyfriend,Morty, he's in danger."
Kije laughed. It was short bark, quickly drowned in his expression, like a great seal rising from the waves in the night to vent its feelings before vanishing. "Danger? On Nieu Fishkill? The murder rate here less than one in two million. No one hurt badly in assault on Nieu Fishkill."
"Except the Portmaster," said Ora Lee.
"Except Portmaster Ganzis," agreed Kije. He flashed a smile, teeth gleaming in the dark like pearls in the water. "This possible extenuation of circumstance, please explain."
"Morty...he's my boyfriend..." Ora Lee threw in another sniff. "We were walking through town, on that muddy street, Perspiration Way or something..."
"Prosperity Boulevard," Kije interrupted.
"Right. Mud, sweat and tears, that's what it was." Ora Lee groaned at the memory. "This antique little ground car, like a truck, with wooden sides in back, pulled up. Three clod thumpers jumped out, with brass guns and pitchforks, and told Morty they'd kill me if he didn't get in the truck."
"Kill?" asked Kije, his eyes narrowing.
Ora Lee nodded. "Kill. So he got in, and off they went. I called Gloria Mundi, our Groundside agent -- she always handles crew and cargo issues in port --"
"I made her acquaintance," said Kije.
"Right." Ora Lee sniffed again, feeling clever little tears well in her eyes. "Because we're offworlders, we went to the Portmaster first, but he...he didn't believe me."
A deep, screaming roar went by close outside. The entire building shook as a blast went off. Kije slammed his slate onto the floor and raced to the door, colliding with Gloria who was running in.
"What happened?" Gloria screamed as they both fell down.
"Get away, woman," Kije yelled, pushing Gloria off.
"No violence, huh?" yelled Ora Lee at the two of them. "What was that? Bubblegum?"
A sharp scream echoed from outside, quickly cut off. Kije and Gloria both stepped back as a figure in Sic Transit combat armor pushed through the door, bristling weapons in several directions. The gloved hand went up, sliding back the face plate.
"What in hell have you done with my sister?" yelled Ayna Lee Uris, her voice magnified to combat volume by the pickups in her suit. Kije and Gloria both stumbled back, stunned by the ear-bleeding sonics of Ayna Lee's voice. Large even without her armor, in her armor Ayna Lee looked like a cybernetic vision of Morty.
"Oh, shit," said Ora Lee. "Just when I had it under control."
Morty ate oatmeal. Morty ate gruel. Morty ate wheat cakes. Bread. Stale bread. Moldy bread. Bacon rinds. Stewed raw wheat. Morty even ate the grease from the bottom of Kassov's wife's little oven.
"Did I hear a dog outside?" he asked hopefully, licking the last of the catchpan from the bottom of the oven's firebox. "That was pleasant, but I'd like some dinner soon."
Shabain, Zaleel and Kassov stared at him with eyes opened so wide they looked like boiled eggs with little black yolks. Shabain had an expression of horror on his long, horsey face. Zaleel looked more stunned, Morty thought, his small features drawn outward like bread dough well kneaded. Kassov just sat with his mouth open, displaying bad Nieu Fishkillian dentition and a pallid tongue.
"~Zabala ni shazz~" whispered Zaleel.
"Shazz to you too," said Morty pleasantly.
Shabain snorted. "Kidnap we did, you, offworld man, because no food have us. Now eat you like government."
"Need who taxes when got him, we," added Zaleel darkly.
"No food left for days," wailed Kassov, finally prodded back to action in the face of trying circumstance.
Morty essayed a small, cautious burp, a brief aftershock from his earlier eruption. All three Fishkillers yelled, jumping back against the wall.
The primitive telecomm unit on the table jangled. The sudden noise startled Morty. As he hopped in his chair, it collapsed under his weight, dropping him onto the floor. The floor groaned under his weight, emitting distinct splintering noises. The telecomm unit continue to jangle undisturbed.
Zaleel darted toward Morty, grabbed the black plastic handset, and drew it to his face. A coiled cord connected to a base unit which seemed to Morty's eye overly large, even for low tech telecomm.
"¿Zha?" asked Zaleel.
A voice was audible, stammering and yelling at Zaleel. He nodded once, twice, then said, "Yes," before leaning over to drop the handset back on its base.
Morty remained on the floor. He was damp and cold, so he began feeding fragments of his late chair to the small fire in Kassov's small fieldstone fireplace.
Zaleel cleared his throat for attention. "Attack on Fishkill Port Authority commit, ship yours. Very angry, your people."
"Value have you, after time, yes," said Shabain, glowering. Morty smiled and fed the last of his chair to the fire. He began eying the table speculatively.
"Remission of taxation for your corpulent person, gain we," added Kassov, suddenly brave in the face of the destruction of his little hut by Morty's mere presence.
"Gain we dinner," said Morty, "else I'll become irritable."
Kassov prodded Zaleel in the ribs. Zaleel ran out of the house yelling, "Food, food...edhi, edhi!"
Kassov's neighbors brought food. All afternoon and into the evening they brought food. Morty was given to understand that Zaleel had persuaded them that food was the price of freedom. To keep himself warm while dinner arrived, Morty burned everything in the hut, including the plastic telecomm unit, which stank in the fire.
By the time the night was dark and cold, Morty had eaten a basket of raw yams, three crocks of baked sweet potatoes, two loaves of dark bread, four loaves of light bread, a tin of congealed animal fat, three sheaves of stunted carrots, a dozen lightly boiled potatoes, two heads of cabbage raw, two more heads of cooked cabbage, four jars of pickled pig's feet, and a single egg the size of his head, scrambled with pig's blood and some local herb which closely resembled paregoric. He finished with two pies, one made of sweet potatoes and brown sugar and the other of some kind of heavily spiced meat folded in with small preserved fruits.
The frightened farmers and their families gathered outside Kassov's hut to marvel at the man who had eaten a week's worth of food for the entire collective at one sitting, and trade rumors of the might and anger of Morty's shipmates from the Sic Transit -- First Deadly Sin. Morty listened to the buzz of their gossip, enjoying the rumblings of his stomach. The flavor of his breath informed him that the scrambled egg was locked in mortal combat with something else deep in his stomach, possibly the congealed animal fat.
Morty looked around for a bucket, in case he needed to throw up, but none was within arm's reach. He didn't feel like getting up off the floor. In fact, he didn't feel too well at all.
"Kassov!" bellowed Morty. He was hoping for some sympathy, and even with the broken bones Kassov seemed the kindest of his kidnappers. "Kassov!"
Kassov stuck his head through the open door. "Yes?"
"I need a..." Morty never finished his sentence. The rumbling sensation, like a missile leaving its tube, overtook him as dinner found its way back through Morty's gullet and up into his throat. He felt the stinging blast of acid laced air in his sinuses as the contents of his vast, copious stomach boiled into his mouth and out into the room. Arcing like a powerful fountain, the orange-brown mass caught Kassov full in the face, with enough back splash to cause the crowd outside to dissolve in shrieking panic.
Morty heaved, spasms rippling his stomach, coughing in great, shaking movements which caused the weakened floorboards beneath him to give way. He fell through into the mud below, splinters from the boards cutting into his thighs and his butt.
Outside, the screaming reached a new crescendo amid a deep roar from the heavens. Morty gave a last, satisfied, echoing burp as the noise of air-to-surface missiles began to scream through the ruined hovel. Exhausted by the labors of being in captivity, Morty allowed the rumble of a heavy close support air attack to lull him to sleep.
Ora Lee Uris surveyed the ruined hut. The burly, hollow eyed kid, Kaspov or something, stood beside her bound in a coilfield. Kaspov cried.
Morty snored. He sprawled in a hole in the plank flooring, surrounded by plates and dishes, a trail of drying vomitus down the front of his coveralls. Ora Lee noticed that the hut was remarkably ill-furnished, with nothing but a cookstove and the stone fireplace beside which Morty slept. Behind her, Justicier Kije interviewed two men leaning against a ruined truck.
"Good thing I was here to chase those yokels off," bellowed Ayna Lee in Ora Lee's ear. Ayna Lee was always loud after flying a ground attack mission. Her transorbital fighter didn't have the kind of noise buffering a dedicated atmospheric combat craft did.
"Yeah..." said Ora Lee. The burly, angry men who had so frightened her now seemed pathetic. The horse faced leader had fallen to his knees and hugged Kije, begging in badly mixed Imperial Standard and Fishkillian to be taken into custody and taken away from the horrible Fat Man. He even begged for higher taxes.
Kije walked up behind Ora Lee. "Excuse me, Gospozha Uris?"
Ora Lee and Ayna Lee both turned. "Yes!?" bellowed Ayna Lee as Ora Lee nodded.
Kije waved Ayna Lee off with a strangely shy grimace. She stepped away, winking at Ora Lee, before lumbering off to chase some local kids away from her fighter, which stood steaming in a mud field nearby.
"Can your sister take him," Kije waved at the snoring Morty, "away in her spacecraft?"
"It's a transorbital fighter," said Ora Lee automatically. "But, yes, she can lift about half a ton of freight. Which could just about be Morty..."
Kije nodded. "Under the circumstances, kidnapping, threatening an Imperial citizen, so forth, I think he can excused. Sic Transit -- First Deadly Sin still to answer for destruction of government property, destruction of private property, armed violations of airspace, miscellaneous charges. Law and Order reasonable, perhaps, with appropriate donation to Benevolent Fund."
Ora Lee looked around. "Uh, Gloria!"
"Maybe another deal made," whispered Kije, grabbing Ora Lee's arm.
Oh, stars, thought Ora Lee, here comes the touch. Bribery was a way of life on the colonial frontiers of the Empire, but it still always surprised her. Especially from a man as apparently straightforward as Kije. That's why Gloria was the Groundside Agent -- very little surprised her and nothing bothered her.
"What deal?" asked Ora Lee, prying Kije's fingers off her arm. "What will it take to get Morty back with all the charges dropped? Against everyone, including those poor farmers."
Captain was going to spit blood about paying Morty's ransom this time around, she thought.
Kije glanced around. "Introduce me to your sister."
Ora Lee drew in a great breath and screamed at the top of her lungs, "Ayna Lee Uris!"
- 30 -