by Nathan J. Kailhofer
"No, Hart!" he shouted. "If you're going to shoot yourself in the head, do it right!"
Before I could utter a word of protest, Hallan snatched the 9mm pistol out of my hands, pointed it at his grinning blue alien head, and pulled the trigger. I snapped my eyes shut at the sound, but I didn't need to -- Hallan had a hard head and a warped sense of humor.
When finally opened my eyes, I saw Hallan dig the bullet out of the wall of the crate we were sitting in. He smiled at the trophy and put it in the pocket of his purple coverall. He was going to add it to the necklace of other ones he already wore, but whatcha gonna do? He was my partner and I was stuck with him. Sometimes he was even funny.
The Boss said it wasn't really a crate; it was the Temporary Crew Lounge. Well, that was 100% pure bull crap. It was a crate, a smelly 12-foot plastic cube, and it was one sorry place to spend your day. The plastic card table and broken water cooler were little help in making my job bearable.
I quickly snatched my gun off the table and put it back in its holster, next to my stun grenades. I balanced the weight of the gun with my launcher and flares. On my head was my headset, but it was so old it only worked for short distances. The whole works was sorry equipment to use where we had to go, but that's all the Restaurant would spring for. It all shoulda been shoved through the trash vent twenty years ago.
Hallan grunted. "When's our next stop?"
I checked my watch. "Fifteen minutes or so. What, are you in a hurry or something?"
"Of course. I work in the kitchen when we get back."
It was my turn to grunt. "So? I have to wash dishes when we get back. I'm in no hurry."
Well," Hallan granted, "if I had to wash dishes, neither would I, but I work in the kitchen. Hart, I don't understand why you put up with half of the things that you do."
"Comes with the job."
Hallan laughed. "Not if you were a Hepado, it wouldn't."
I snorted in derision and left to check the computer. It said we were on-course and late. Yup, that's the way we did things. We left the Restaurant, which is in Earth's orbit, and took off across the galaxy. We hit six stops in hick parts of the galaxy and returned by mid-afternoon. Except we were supposed to be done by eleven in the morning.
I supposed at one time zipping across the galaxy as we did must have been some glamorous dream. Well, it wasn't. It was just a job, like any other. I suppose it was always like that. First, it's a new frontier, an untried thing. Later, it's routine. I didn't really know, of course; I just drove the truck.
My "truck" had great speed -- it only took us half an hour to get to Vega. Nobody knew how fast that really was. I guessed by old standards it probably flew at Warp 72, but, as I said, I didn't really know.
My job didn't require me to know, and that was fine with me. Hallan and I just loaded the truck and delivered the food. We delivered Route 43. The restaurant, Hobbes Food, had the contract to deliver to many of the senior citizen stations around our neck of the galaxy.
Humans can only eat human food. I never considered myself to have a sensitive stomach, but I have yet to find a food from another planet that didn't make me lose my lunch or break out in green blisters. People and livestock from Earth just couldn't eat what was out there, so the only way to get it was to grow it yourself in imported dirt under carefully controlled conditions. Except, it cost more to do it that way than to just have it delivered. I know, synthetics were state-of-the-art and they could keep you alive, but those bowls of extruded goo tasted... Well, it was bad, OK? Old people don't like bad food, and that's why they needed to get food from Hobbes. Practically every space liner coming out of our solar system had a Hobbes vending machine in it.
A rap on the door jerked me out of my thoughts. When I opened the door Hallan was there with a nervous expression, so we must have been close to our first stop.
"Isn't it almost time, Hart?"
I glanced at my watch again. Yes, we were landing in seconds. "Yeah," I told him. "You can have the Nav Chair."
How Hallan addressed me stuck in my craw. "Hallan, for the ninety-seventh time this week, my name is not Hart! It's Art. You know, Arthur."
Hallan mumbled an affirmative as he nervously buckled himself into the chair. For a reason that I didn't understand, Hallan and all other Hepadoes always added an "H" to every name they said. It was some sort of cultural thing, like those purple jumpsuits they all wore. What this meant to me was that when he gave up his own name and culture for ours he adopted the name 'Allan', but I had to call him 'Hallan'. Likewise, he was really an 'Epado,' but called himself a 'Hepado.'
Hallan wasn't nervous about the landing -- he was nervous about my driving. There was nothing wrong with my driving, of course; it was just that he was a Hepado, and Hepadoes couldn't grasp driving or piloting something. Thinking about it gave them fits, but they were perfectly fine otherwise. Heck, Hepadoes and their over-muscled hides were the work backbone of the galaxy, but they couldn't drive.
I drove the truck and Hallan did the lifting. Oh, I did my share of lifting, but I couldn't hope to have competed with Hallan's strength. He wasn't going to panic and punch something into the computer, either. He knew that if he typed anything in, he would have been piloting the ship, and that would have been enough to make his hearts stop.
A hard jolt tried to knock me out of my seat as we landed.
I reached over and entered the starter code. There was a loud grinding wail as the drive engine started. My other hand hit the master switch for my monitors. They snapped on, and I kicked one to clear up the fuzziness.
I often wondered why the delivery ships we drove used such an antiquated system for driving. The Boss says we do it that way because it's the most effective way, but it was really because he was just too damn cheap to buy anything better.
"Alpha Tango Foxtrot Delta five five niner calling Vega IV Traffic Control Center. Respond."
A synthesized voice answered, "ATFD 559, Vega IV TCC."
"Vega IV TCC, ATFD 559. Request. Grant traffic clearance. Small Vehicle Tunnel J-179. Destination: Senior Citizen Center 236."
"ATFD 559, Vega TCC. Request granted. Traffic clear. SVT J-179 to SCC 236, 30 seconds. 80 kilometers per hour. Confirm instructions."
"Vega IV TCC, ATFD 559. Confirmed instructions. End Transmission."
Computers set me on edge, so I waited silently for the 30 seconds and then took off down the tunnel at 50 miles per hour. Yes, I knew I was really doing 80 kph, but to me it was 50 miles per hour. The Federation made metrics mandatory before I was born, but I was too damn stubborn to use them.
Totalitarian, I thought. Governments shouldn't have the right to tell you how to measure something.
A few minutes later the tunnel took a sharp right and opened into a huge cavern filled with buildings. The road followed to the back of the settlement and then to loading dock of the cafeteria building.
I called to Hallan over the intercom, "Hallan, we're there. You get the crates ready while I get them to open the door."
Our door opened with a touch of a button. There was a three-foot gap between the truck and a foot-and-a-half-wide ledge in front of their door. I then sidestepped carefully over to the monitor near the door.
"Yes?" a voice asked without turning the viewer on. The voice was female.
"It's Art. We're here with the food."
The viewer snapped on and the angry old lady's face regarded me sourly. Grandmothers supposedly looked friendly, but they sure weren't when they were hungry.
"You're late, Hart. Again."
"Sorry. They got us the food late."
"That's what you said the last eight times."
She looked unimpressed. "I don't care. I want the food here earlier. Period. That's what I told your boss."
"I know. The last eight times."
"He said it must have been your fault, Hart."
"I'm the new guy, so it's my fault. Wait until tomorrow and it will be someone else's fault."
She glared. "I want my food now!"
"You have to open the door, remember?"
"Open it yourself."
Sigh. "See you in a few minutes."
The monitor blinked out. "Hallan! Get the pipe! The damn door's broken again!"
This was not our first experience with this entryway. To open it manually I had to reach down and lift -- but the door weighed two-hundred pounds. Hallan could lift the door with one arm, but he didn't fit on the ledge. I had to open the door, lift it up over my head, and hold it there until Hallan could jump over and finish the job by jamming a strong piece of pipe under the thirteen-foot door.
As I bent over, I realized this was only one of the things I really hated about this job, but I lifted the door anyhow. Barely.
Next came the problem of getting the twelve-foot square crates into the thirteen-by-fourteen doorway. Sure, they fit, but not very well. It was a little easier than it might sound because the crates come with a lift/drive unit built into their bottoms. You inserted the controller that looked like a pogo stick into a hole in the bottom and hopped on. One pedal controlled lift and the other speed. The handles turned pretty much like those on a bicycle.
This was all just fine until you tried to drive those crates over that three-foot gap. Controllers were programmed to carry the crates three inches over whatever surface they're on. The gap was about eight-feet deep, which meant you could pilot the crates directly into the wall below the door, making one heck of a dent, not to mention spilling all of the food in the crates.
To get over a gap, Hallan had to drive the crates one at a time at full speed toward the opening. As it neared the doorway, I jumped on the front, which made the lifters over-compensate. Then I had to leap off, so that the crates could stay aloft long enough to get though the doorway. The crates made it, but it meant that my aching body hit the opposite wall and then fell eight feet each time a crate went through.
It hurt a lot.
Hallan wasn't afraid to drive a crate. Somehow, the Hepadoes viewed moving a crate in a completely different manner than driving the truck. I didn't understand it. I just drove the truck.
We unloaded six "fulls" and picked up five "empties" in this manner.
Shortly after that, we were back on our way through space to our next stop.
Hallan glanced at me. "How much longer?"
"We'll be there in about five minutes."
Hallan looked reassured. "Then finish telling me. What does the female human do once she gets on top?"
* * *
Tavi was the most god-forsaken world there was. Its population consisted of fifty aged survivalists and a half a zillion semi-intelligent Schlaags. Two pieces of land stuck out of the gray ooze that festered over the entire surface of the planet. One of them was a fair-sized island where the survivalists lived. The other was a barren rock just big enough for our truck to land on. We would have rather landed on the big island, but the damn survivalists would have shot us out of the sky if we tried.
It always beat the hell outta me why people who were supposed to be survivalists would insist on getting food delivered to them. To me, that would be like ordering a pizza from a cave, but I didn't really know. As usual, I just drove the truck.
The small rock was three miles from the island across Schlaag-infested ooze. The 175-degree F ooze was opaque and had the consistency of thick gravy. It was poisonous to humans, but I would never have lived long enough in it to be poisoned. If I fell in, a Schlaag would have swallowed me in two seconds.
No one knew exactly what a Schlaag looked like. They were covered in too much slime. I take that back; the last three drivers knew what they looked like -- from the inside out. The word 'Schlaag' had two distinct parts: the 'schl,' which was the sound a Schlaag made as it jumped out of the ooze, and the 'aag,' which was the sound uttered from the Schlaag's victim after it jumped.
Really, I didn't make this up. I saw one jump a full twenty feet up in the air. A ten-footer. Schlaags came in all sizes, from a foot long to so big that it swallowed a crate in one gulp.
The only way to tell if one was going to jump is to be up in the air yourself. I had to stand on top of one of the crates as we went. If I saw a bubble in the slime, there would be a Schlaag under it, and I pumped bullets into it until it went away. For a big bubble, I used a grenade.
Schlaags didn't always attack, as I said. Sometimes they made surface runs and sometimes they tried to swallow a crate from underneath. I couldn't do a thing about what was underneath us, so Hallan drove in a random zigzag pattern.
They were semi-intelligent because every day they pulled something different. They kept getting better at it, too.
Luckily, the ooze was thick, and the Schlaags were usually slow. The hard part was the fault of the damn crates. They stayed three inches above the ooze -- even when bucking over a wave.
"Hart, I'm almost ready," Hallan informed me.
"I'm not," I replied. "Did you tie them together yet?"
"All ten, Hart. I tied the milk crate to the top of the first one."
"Ok, you get them hovering and I'll get into my suit."
Out of my own pocket I bought a black flight suit, like all those hotshot spacers wore, complete with helmet, visor, mask, and black gloves. The suit, gloves, helmet, and my own boots protected my body from the corrosive ooze. A mask in the helmet filtered the noxious vapors out of the air that Hallan, of course, was immune to. The helmet was also equipped with a heads-up display that projected onto the visor. Sensing equipment helped me find them and the HUD pinpointed the targets. The whole works cost me two weeks' pay.
The door opened as Hallan climbed on the control stick between the first and second crates. It was located there because Hepadoes were not edible, although the beasties had swallowed him three times. He told me he was spit out each time and it was kind of fun.
The door closed automatically behind us. I saw the Schlaags, swimming a hundred feet from the island. For some reason, they didn't come any closer than a hundred feet to land. Before we got to them, Hallan had us up to about fifteen miles per hour. That was about as fast as we could go without me falling off when he made a turn.
A little one, about a foot in length, leaped up out of the slime, high enough to get on top of my crate. Instinctively, I drew my pistol and fired. It was blown into two pieces: the tail, which fell back into the sea of ooze, and the head, which fell to the top of the crate. Once there it buried its teeth into the crate and kept biting. I punted it into next Tuesday.
"Breaking left," Hallan barked over the headset.
My HUD picked out a bubble. I grabbed my grenade launcher and fired. It exploded, spewing the grey ooze high into the air. I saw the body rise to the surface, already being devoured by smaller Schlaags.
I heard a 'schl' and dropped. A shadow passed over me and little dribbles of slime peppered my backside. There was a loud splash as an eight-footer landed on the opposite side of the crates.
"Hallan." I barked into the headset. "Right. Five clicks faster."
Hallan complied, and I tried not to fall as I emptied a clip into several Schlaags that had gotten too close for comfort.
The crates lurched.
"Hart!" Hallan shouted, "What the hell was that?"
"I don't--" I answered, snapping my head around. What I saw scared the living crap out of me. On top of the tenth crate was the biggest devil I'd ever seen.
For the first time in my life, I really saw one of the bastard beasts. Like a lizard, but kinda like a shark, too. Its mouth was wider than I was tall, and filled with long, pointed teeth. But it was those eyes that got to me. They were a foot across and totally white. They hung on the side of its head like a fish's, but they were totally white. They looked so god-awful unholy against the blood-red skin.
"Hart!" Hallan shouted. "We've stopped moving! Hart!"
I snapped out of it and fired my grenade launcher into it as if it were a shotgun. Pieces of beast and pieces of crate ricocheted everywhere.
When I had only one grenade left, I spun around to see how many more were coming and got an even bigger surprise. There wasn't any crate behind me. Those bastards had eaten the first two crates!
I slipped and fell on the back of the huge Schlaag who was half inside the crate I had been standing on and was gorging itself on the food within. It didn't even notice I was there.
My body moved all by itself, jumping back up faster than humanly possible, and I leaped to the next crate. My last grenade detonated at the base of the half-eaten crate, cutting it loose. I ran and dove between the first two good crates. There was a control stick there, so I hopped on it and tried to get the crates to move.
They wouldn't go.
Then, just when I thought it couldn't get worse, Hallan's body surfaced between the crates. He was lying, face down in the slime -- with one of his legs missing.
He moved. I got an arm underneath him and lifted him as best I could to me. He was breathing.
"Hallan HKrunischterg of the Clan HGerdthrek," I screamed at him, "make this thing go!"
Hallan made a small sound and showed signs of waking. He blearily opened one eye and grinned one of his biggest grins.
"Hart! That was great!"
"Drive this thing or we're dead!" I shouted at him.
He grabbed the stick and planted his single foot on a pedal. "I got it, Hart."
I grabbed the top of the crate and started to climb up. The moment I got my head above the crate, I found myself eye to eye with a small Schlaag, so I did the first thing that came into my head.
I punched it.
It worked. The thing skidded across the crate and fell over the side. With it gone, I scrambled to the top and dispatched the three others on the four crates we had left.
"Hallan, take us right fifteen degrees, and go as fast as you can!"
Hallan did as he was told, but I forgot how fast that really was. The wind pushed me off-balance; I fell, sliding along until my legs were dangling over the side of the crate. I had no grip. Looking down, I saw a Schlaag swimming in the slime next to us, keeping pace easily.
I dug into my boot and drew my survival knife. With a primal scream, I embedded it as hard as I could stab into the top of the crate. It dug in about four inches, giving me a place to hold on. The Schlaag jumped at me and I heaved my legs out of the way at the last instant. It fell back into the slime, squealing a sound the likes of which I have never heard in my entire put-together. The demonic sound had three of four tones to it at once, and none of them could have been made by anything living.
Suddenly, we were over land. We made it!
The crates slowed to a stop just before the gates of the encampment, so I jerked my knife out and dropped to the ground. My left leg wouldn't hold any weight and I hit hard, striking my side on a sharp rock. I swore, turning over to look for the problem.
My flight suit was torn and there was blood running down my leg. There was a long gash on the side of my calf and sticking out of a deep wound in my thigh was a jagged white tooth.
A wave of sudden agony struck me. The screams came when it pulled out. My hand jerked into a pouch at my belt and pulled out the miniature medi-kit. Universal antitoxin sprayed on the huge gaping hole and I hoped to Christ that it worked on Slime. Two pressure bandages held in place with good, old-fashioned tape seem to stop the blood.
My head fell back and I tried not to see through the tears in my eyes. Goddamn, it hurt. Frantic, I jabbed a shot of painkiller into my leg. I lay there, panting, until I could see straight again.
"Hallan!" I shouted. "Where the hell are you?" I couldn't see that big bastard anywhere. He wasn't there. The stick was there, but no Hallan.
My God, he hadn't fallen in the slime... I hobbled to the edge of the island and looked for him, shouting his name. I couldn't see him.
I saw a Schlaag swimming a hundred feet from the shore, in its way pacing back and forth across the sea of slime. I drew my gun and emptied my clip into it. Without satisfaction, the pieces sank into the ooze.
I sat down heavily on a large rock and swore vehemently. I kept on doing it until a large blue hand clapped down on my shoulder.
"Hart, are you all right?"
I fell off the rock and hit my helmet hard. Hallan leaned over me.
"Hallan!" I shouted, relieved. "Where the hell did you go?"
"Are you all right?" Hallan asked again.
"No, goddamn it." I shrieked at him. "I got freaking chewed on."
"You'll be OK," he announced as he picked me up. "I ran to call the HBoss and tell him about the crates we lost."
"Ran?" I questioned. I looked down at his -- two -- legs. "How --?"
Hallan laughed. "Everybody but humans heals that fast."
As Hallan carried me, I had to ask. "What did the Boss say?"
"He said that he never heard of anybody more inept than you. You're supposed to go see him the moment we get back."
"Me? Why not you and me?"
"Because I was just moving the crates. You were the one responsible to see that they got through the Schlaags."
The survivalists let us in and we gave them what we had. I asked them to let us have the ship land on the island to pick us up. They said no, so I poked my gun in the ear of the leader and asked them to compromise. I realized that it wasn't a good choice for my career, but I knew if we had to drive back, I'd get eaten.
They blasted a path through the slime with their defense cannons near where we were to go. This killed a lot of the creatures and drew them away from us as they fed on the dead bodies. It let us get to our ship.
* * *
After I got out of the infirmary, I sat down heavily in the break room. I looked like hell, with my suit stained with ooze, my leg bandaged, and with a more-than-humanly possible tired look. I hung the tooth around my neck on a plastic band.
"My god, kid!" an old geezer muttered. "Rough day, huh?"
"You could say that, yeah."
The old man moved to sit next to me. "What route did you do?"
"J. Herbert Christ!" he muttered, shivering. "I did that route once. Almost died."
I looked at him. "Once?"
"No body does it longer than once. It's in the contract. Why, how many times you done it?"
"Four weeks. Twenty times."
All of the drivers in the break room goggled at me with surprise.
The old driver gagged. "The Union rules forbid that."
Union? "What Union?"
"Space Drivers Local 1,947. You joined it, didn't you?"
"Nobody said a damn thing about it."
"You mean you never joined?"
"I guess not," I replied with a shrug.
The others looked away with contempt.
"You scabs get what you deserve," he man spat, leaving my table.
What the hell? I tried to ask them how to join, but none of them would even talk to me.
A bellow across the room caught my attention. It had come from my boss.
"Hart Foster, get your ass in here!"
I limped over into his office. I plunked down in the empty chair. It was a nice padded chair; too bad the slime ate holes in it.
"What the hell happened to you?"
"Well--" I began.
"I said you were responsible for those crates! How the diseased crap could you let them get eaten?"
"Jesus, you moron! Those things are expensive!"
"And why the hell were you so late at Vega IV? She's called to complain about the last nine times! No driver we've ever had was that bad!"
"Shut up!" he bellowed. "I don't want to hear your excuses! Get out here! I'm sick of seeing you in here! Get the hell out, Hart!"
I stood up. Somehow, my gun found its way to right in front of his face. I pushed it forward until the barrel was between his beady little eyes. Warning lights flashed in the corners of my eyes, but I just couldn't stop. A guy's got limits, you know.
"Bob," I said, "my name is Art. If you say wrong one more time, you're dead."
He looked unimpressed. "I get threatened better than that twenty times a day. Get out of here! Go wash some dishes or something, you useless waste of space!"
My finger started to close on the trigger, but then I stopped and put the gun back in its holster.
I was stuck. I hated this job, but it was all I could find. Nobody gave a damn if I died doing my job -- labor was cheap -- so I wasn't going to get any help there. Killing Bob was legal and all, him havin' insulted me first, but if I erased him, where would I have gotten a job next? 'Shot last employer in the head' didn't read too well on a resume. I'd have to move to some hick planet or join the Marines or something. I had an OK house in an OK town on Earth. That was nothing to shake a stick at. Without a word, I turned and limped out of the office.
I walked to the dish room. Jane, the lady who worked there, was the only friendly person on the whole station. She said hello and told me a joke to cheer me up.
As I tried to gather dishes while relying on my one good leg, a young kid walked in.
He looked at me as if I was the devil incarnate. "What're you doin' here?!"
"I work here."
"Not any more. You're fired."
I looked at him blankly.
"Didn't the Boss tell you?"
"Too bad, Hart. Give me your guns and suit."
"Drop dead! This is my suit."
"So fork over the guns and hit the road."
I couldn't fathom this. "When did you get hired?"
"I took the job yesterday morning. I was supposed to show up now."
I didn't really know why I didn't go off on him. I guessed it was because I had never been fired before.
I was never so ashamed and embarrassed in all my life. All of my self-confidence was gone. I felt so small, so unimportant. I couldn't breathe right.
Everything seemed to move around me in slow motion. It was strange, as if I had never seen it before. Someone asked me something and his words didn't make sense. I sat down against my car in the parking port. I sat there and tried to figure out why I had had been canned.
Was I that bad? Why me? That stuff wasn't my fault!
Was I that bad? Really?
I saw someone by the doorway. It was the kid, and he had my gun on. He was practicing a quick-draw, and he was bad at it. I limped over to him and snatched the gun from his hand.
"Don't play with it, kid!" I snapped. "Do you know anything about the route you're getting?"
He put a snotty tone in his voice. "I know it's mine, and not yours."
I clamped his neck in a vise-like grip and lifted up until his face was a few inches from mine. "You listen to me, you little shit! The eight drivers before me died on that route."
The kid regarded me with disbelief.
"No," I chided him. "I'm telling the truth. Look it up in the log. And let me tell you something else: you're going to get blamed for everything that goes wrong while you're the driver. Everything! Boy, are you going to hate Vega IV and Tavi."
The kid started to struggle, so I dropped him.
"Another thing, kid. Don't trust your boss. He's a son of a bitch, and he'll dump on you. He didn't even have the guts to fire me to my face. He sent a messenger boy. Remember that."
I put the gun back in my -- his -- holster. "Take it home with you and practice. You'll need it."
I turned to go.
"If it's as bad as you say, why did you do it?"
"'Cause it was my job. It was a bad job and I hated it every single minute that I did it, but it was my job. Now it's yours.
Ancient words welled up, infernal words that plagued me. "Do it well or don't do it at all."
Hallan was waiting by the car.
"Whaddya want?" I asked.
Hallan smiled at me. "I quit when I heard they'd fired you. I want to go with you."
"I'm only going back down to Earth, Hallan. Go back to work."
"So?" Hallan asked. "I don't like that kid. I like you. I'm going where you go."
Somehow, I smiled. "Well, Hallan, I've always wanted to be a fisherman. I'll drive rich stiffs around and let them catch sharks and other big fish. Think you can handle my boat driving?"
He grinned. "It's gotta be better than your spaceship driving."
My old man told me once that a real hero wasn't the guy who got the glory. A real hero was the person who worked in the background and never got any recognition. What was a hero on a battlefield without the poor bastard who spent his whole life in a plant making ammunition? Dead, that's where. Nobody was ever going to pin a medal on that poor guy's chest, but he did it anyway. And he did it all right the first time because he cared about his work.
No one would ever know what I had done in my job. No one was going to sing songs of my battles. No reporter was going to break down my door to tell my story. The only things I had to show for it were a below-average paycheck and an interesting scar on my leg. That, and Hallan.
That's better than nothing.
Who said life was fair, anyway?
Story copyright 2004 by Nathan J. Kailhofer email@example.com
Illustration © 2004 by Andy McCann firstname.lastname@example.org
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