Kurt Hyatt makes his Garbled Transmission Magazine return with his short story, Galleyslaves.
Rann let out his breath. He felt as if he had been holding it for an hour. He licked a drop of sweat clinging to his upper lip and wondered if the outraged husband had gotten the numbers off his tailfin.
“Attention! The gravity stabilizers of this craft have failed,” shrilled a mechanical voice from the dashboard. “The automatic emergency landing system will now take over control.”
“Oh crap!” Smoke was now boiling from the propulsion compartment. The aircar lurched, spiraled down. Rann peered over the side at a cluster of buildings and what looked like a parking lot, floodlit and coming up fast.
There was a sound like a dozen trash cylinders being crushed, a plate glass mirror dropped and then a violent jerk. The ship’s motor whined up the scale, quit. Silence.
“Pull this support out of the way. Easy now, watch out for plexglass shards.” Voices in the fog. Rann opened his eyes, blinked at the crowd surrounding the crashed aircar. “You okay, Lieutenant?”
“Yeah… I think so.” He struggled from the driver’s seat, helped out by bystanders. He leaned on a wing and took in the wreck. His aircar tilted at a drunken angle on top of another one, crushed almost flat. A chrome ornament dropped to the pavement, rolling to his feet. It looked expensive.
“What exactly did I land on, anyway?” he asked the corporal holding up his arm.
“You really don’t wanna know, Lieutenant,” he replied, wincing.
“Because you just landed on General Sanchez” new Porsche air speedster.”
The space terminal floated like an enormous metal spider in orbit above the blue hemisphere of Nexal IV. Sitting at the bar in the main lounge Rann was into his fifth Faux Manhatten, morosely watching the busy hive of arriving and departing starliners through the forward viewport.
The bartender wiped his rag along the bartop and paused before him. His eyes widened in recognition.
“I’ll be deepspaced,” he said. “Flight Lieutenant Rann. Decided to do a little slumming at Nexal IV?”
Rann looked up and blinked. “Well, well, Tal Ernspiker. How they hanging, Tal?”
“Better shape than yours. I heard about the court martial.”
“Yep, busted me down to Private, dishonorable discharge and planted the old number twelve boot on my rear.”
“Yeah, I heard you had your fingers in several well-stacked cookie jars of Marine officer’s wives. Captain Wojinski’s little Flossie was the one what did you in, huh?” Ernspiker waved a reproving finger. “He who lives by the sword dies by the sword, my son.”
“Gee, thanks for the paternal advice, Dad.” Rann drained his glass and set it down beside four empties. “I’m on my way to New Earth. I hear Orion Space Lines is looking for pilots.”
Ernspiker pursed his lips and nodded somberly. “Gonna be hard with that Donald Duck on your discharge papers. Interplanetary Relief is looking for pilots on the medical supply run to Verdana but I don’t think you wanna go there.”
“Why not?” Rann demanded.
“Because Verdana is a quarantine planet for people having renaline leprosy.
Rann looked blank. “What’s that?”
“Real nasty disease. Boils, bleeding sores. Body parts rotting off. Contagious as hell. First symptoms are coughing up blood-.”
“I think I’ll pass on that one.”
“Well, here’s another drink and an option.” Earnspiker set a fresh glass on the bartop. “See that bunch sitting over there at the corner table?” He tilted his head toward a cluster of six bearded dwarfs in comic-opera uniforms: gold braid, epaulets and polished jackboots. “Them’s Glyphs from the military dictatorship in the Coe System. They stopped off to ferry some Nexals to New Earth but been stuck here ever since their pilot blew his head off replacing the charge clip on a force pistol.”
“Glyphs, huh?” Rann rubbed the stubble on his chin. “I hear they’re trying to raise money to buy arms to take over every planet in their system.”
“Yeah, and they’re not too picky about using piracy, humanoid smuggling, drugrunning-.”
“Excuse, please.” A Glyph was shoving a stubby finger into Rann’s ribs, glaring up at Ernspiker. “More beer. My glorious, ever-victorious troops need more beer.” His beard was at a level with the bartop. Close set little eyes swept to Rann and centered on the wings adorning the tattered flight suit. “You pilot?” he demanded.
Rann tossed back his drink and eyeballed the intruder. “Yep, nine years with the Terran Air Patrol, timephase certified.”
“Please to meet Colonel Doof.” He jammed thumbs into a belt supporting a force pistol and what looked like an antique cavalry saber. “We of the Glorious Glyph Imperial Army need pilot. Is great honor.”
“Sorry, pal, not interested,” said Rann, shaking his head.
“Please to make offer. We need to pick up more passengers on Dropoff before final destination on New Earth.”
“Sounds great but-.”
“I’ll be goddamned!”
The arrivals airlock has swished open disgorging a swarm of passengers. A huge Marine captain emerged from the throng and stood glaring at Rann. “Flight Lieutenant Rann. I always knew I’d run you to earth someplace.”
“Well, well. Captain Wojinski himself, in person.” Rann set his glass down and smirked. With the seventh Faux Manhattan surging through his bloodstream the angry red face and porcine eyes struck him as overwhelmingly hilarious. “So tell me, how is Flossie these days?”
“You sonofabitch!” A hairy paw groped for the holstered blaster at his belt.
“You better take this in case he means business.” Rann felt a nudge at his elbow and saw Ernspiker holding out a small shock gun. “I use this to knock out unruly drunks when they get outta line.”
Things began to unravel very fast. The enraged captain jerked out his weapon and the lounge was suddenly filled with lancing red beams, screams of passengers diving for cover and the howl of security alarms.
The shock gun went off in Rann’s hand with a bass hum, knocking him backwards and sending a shimmering wave of energy toward the ceiling, pulverizing the ductwork and dropping an information display module downwards. It landed squarely on the Marine captain’s head, sending him sprawling to the carpet.
“Nice shooting, Rann,” said Ernspiker, peering over the edge of the bartop where he had taken refuge. “You just missed the viewport by half a meter.”
“Damn, this toy of yours almost took my hand off.” Rann dropped the shock gun and messaged his knuckles. “Did you use this to knock out obnoxious drunks or blow holes in them?”
“Lucky shot, Rann!” Captain Wojinski stuggled under the debris from the display module, groping for his force pistol just out of reach. “But your luck’s about to run out.”
“You, pilot. Come with Colonel Doof!” Rann became aware of a persistent tugging at his sleeve. He looked down at a bearded and determined face.
“Huh…what?” he stammered.
“Earther Marine will be pleased to kill you. Come, my ship ready for flight.”
Fear and panic burned through the alcohol fumes as he watched Wojinski’s fingers close over the grip of his weapon.
“You want to stay and die, Earthman?”
The Nexal IV space terminal in the rear scanscreen shrank to a tiny dot then disappeared. Rann vented a prolonged sigh of relief and sagged in the command chair of the Glyph starcruiser. He was cold sober now and the panicked decision to let them hustle him aboard seemed less than a good idea. Doof and the other five saber-lugging dwarfs had departed to the crew lounge for a “military conference”. Sighing, he punched in the coordinates for Dropoff and felt a surge of power as the ship accelerated into timephase.
“I completely forgot how Earthmen were so freaking ugly.”
Rann swiveled the command chair to view a study in blue: pale blue skin and hair, luminous blue cat’s eyes. Beneath dirty coveralls and toolbelt were the unmistakable curves of a very well put together female form. An odd metal choker containing a pulsing red light encircled her neck.
He considered this for a moment. “So how many Earthmen have you met?”
“I went to the tech school on New Earth for a year.” She continued to study him with curiosity and a marked degree of distaste. “You’ve got some kind of disgusting growth on your face.”
“I may have overlooked shaving this morning. May I ask who is the charming and tactful person I’m talking to?”
“The name is Songg. I’m the ship’s engineer.”
“Mine happens to be Rann. But I would have thought you’d be the ship’s public relations specialist.”
A blank look indicated the jibe had gone over her head. The passageway to the cabin was abruptly crowded with tiny blonde females dressed in blue servant tunics. They stared, fascinated, at Rann, jostling each other for a closer look.
“This couldn’t be the rest of the crew,” Rann observed, taking in identical faces and bright, mouselike eyes. “Is my vision going out or do they all look the same?”
“They’re girls from Nexal IV. Females born in the same breeding cycle are identical.”
“Wife-swapping must be boring as hell there.” He raised an eyebrow. “So why are they aboard a Glyph starcruiser?”
“They’ve been offered… employment as maids and servants on New Earth,” said Songg in a flat voice. “Nexal IV is a dirt-poor shithole of a planet and they’re glad to take up the Glyph offer of transportation.”
“Hey, a job is a job,” Rann agreed. Something was missing from this equation. He watched Songg turn to look out the viewport, nervously fingering her red flashing choker.
The whispering from the crowd of Nexal girls exploded into a storm of giggles. One of them rushed up and kissed Rann full on the mouth. She scampered back to her friends and they all vanished, laughing down the corridor.
“What in hell was that all about?” Rann demanded, bemused.
“Looks like they’ve never seen an Earther male. Ahh’s friends dared her to kiss you.” Songg sniffed in contempt. “Nexal wedges have crap instead of brains.”
“Well, how about a little smooch from you?” He decided to pull her chain a little. “I bet you could knock my socks off.”
Sonng glared at him frostily then seemed to remember her mission. “Colonel Doof sent me to find you. He wants your ass in the crew lounge right now.”
It looked like the Glyph version of happy hour. Bemedalled dwarfs were sitting around tables in the ship’s lounge swilling beer amid overturned mugs and pools of stale suds. It occurred to Rann the starcruiser must have been built for people closer to his stature judging by jackboots dangling a foot or so from the deck beneath each stool. Surly bearded faces looked in his direction while he made his way to a center table occupied by Colonel Doof.
“Welcome to ship of Ever Victorious Glyph Empire,” Doof greeted him, his expression scarcely welcoming. He pushed a full mug across the table. “Sit. Have beer with Colonel Doof of the Glyph Grand Army.”
“Thanks, but I usually don’t booze it up when I’m jockeying a starcruiser through interstellar space.”
“Is good. Doof see you fine pilot.”
“Well, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.” Rann’s gaze passed a life-sized hologram of Ftt Dung Zugo, Beloved Leader of the Glyphs, to a wall hung with plastoid manacles and leg irons. Odd room decorations, he thought.
“Talk about what?”
“Listen, I appreciate you guys saving my butt back at the space station but when we touch down on New Earth I’ll be bailing out.”
Bushy eyebrows contracted over the little eyes. “You not want to join the noble forces of the Imperial Glyph Empire?”
“Maybe next time, General.”
“Is great honor to serve, Earthman!” Doof scrambled from his stool, pulling the hilt of his saber an inch from the scabbard. “This personal insult to our Great Leader, Ftt Dung Zugo!”
Rann sighed wearily. “So what are you gonna do with the sword, Error Flynn? Any of you gold-braided runts know how to drop this rig from timephase?”
“You soon see,” Doof sneered. He jerked his chin upward.
An avalanche of Glyphs fell on Rann from behind, dragging him to the deck. He struck out with his fists and felt something cold snapping about his neck.
“What the hell!” He struggled free, coming to his feet panting. A grinning circle of dwarfs surrounded him.
“You now part of Ever Victorious Glyph Army,” Doof declared, swaggering up to him. “Soon you welcome honor-.”
“In a gorth’s waste siphon I will!” He tugged at the metal collar about his neck. “Okay, what’s with the neckbrace, shorty?”
“You now wear the collar of obedience.” Doof held up a silver disc he had pulled from his belt. “Obey the commands of Colonel Doof and his invincible troopers and you will be treated well. Disobey…” He pressed a stubby finger into the disc. A wave of red pain shot through Rann’s body. At the end of an endless tunnel of agony he could hear Doof issuing orders to his underlings.
“Return the Earthman to his station on the bridge. When he recovers he will know he is now one of us.”
The stars beyond the viewport were a blizzard of rushing light. Rann became aware he was slumped in the command chair and a cool swab was being wiped over his forehead.
“Looks to me you accepted Colonel Doof’s offer of employment.” A pale blue face swam into view.
“I think he forgot to mention bonuses and perks.” He blinked painfully, squinting sideways at her. “A teensy little hint from the ship’s engineer before I went down there would have been nice.”
“Even an Earther as dumb as you should know why I couldn’t.” She pulled his head to face a polished console. Reflected in the metal Rann could see a choker with its red pulsing light identical to Songg’s. “Don’t get any rad ideas about removing it. The electrical field will kill you.”
“So were both rowers in the same galley,” he grunted. What’s going on here, anyway? Are those girls from Nexal IV really going to New Earth to work as maids and servants?”
“Ahh and her friends haven’t yet figured out they’re to be sold as sex slaves to the Orodi Underworld there. The Glyphs will be paid a tidy fortune to buy more arms to expand their empire.”
Rann frowned. His opinion of the Glyphs, never high, sank to a new level.
“So what’s your story?” he asked.
“I got the offer of a huge salary to be engineer on this ship. You see, I’m a Madon, from the Outer Rim.”
“Sorry, I don’t quite get the picture.”
“In Madon culture the quest for wealth is everybody’s main goal in life, the greatest honor,” she explained, as if reading out basic facts to a child. “It’s like religion on your home planet where everyone is kneeling before their invisible friends.”
“So instead you got the collar of obedience and the job of galley slave. How did this factor into your financial planning?””
Songg favored him with silence and a caustic glare.
“So why did they tell me to plot a course for Dropoff?” he asked.
“It’s a slight detour from New Earth,” she said. “There’s a small Earth colony where they plan to trick or seize more girls.”
Rann nodded thoughtfully, shaping an idea. “Charming and lovable bunch, out little employers,” he mused. “I think it’s time someone threw a wrench into their plans.”
“What are you going to do? Nothing stupid I hope, for both our sakes.”
“Well, first I’m about to make a slight course correction.” His hands ran over the controls. “Then I think I’ll head down to the crew lounge and toss down a few brews with my new and bestest buddies, the Glyphs.”
Songg gaped at him. “You’re going to do what?”
The Glyph shuttle touched down outside the settlement an hour before sunrise. Doors to the little huts were kicked open and the inhabitants roused from their beds by the troopers of Colonel Doof and herded into the village square. In a huddled and confused herd they awaited their fate.
On a wooden podium where the colony headman would announce work assignments and crop harvests a pair of glittering jackboots stomped up the stairs. A hush fell over the crowd.
“Greetings from the Glorious Glyph Empire,” Doof announced, his hand resting on the hilt of his saber while he looked out over the dim mass of villagers in the twilight. “We come to offer incredible employment opportunities on planet New Earth.
As members of Greater Glyph Co-prosperity Sphere we guarantee competitive wages, benefits and exciting travel experiences to females fourteen to twenty-five.” He held up a restraining glove. “No, please to not thank us. We of Invincible Glyph Empire happy to make fantastic offer.”
The crowd greeted his speech in silence. Finally, a figure emerged from the shadows and approached the podium.
“Where is our monthly shipment of medicine and supplies?” demanded a female voice. “And are you people mad to enter the quarantine zone without protective suits?”
Doof scowled. “Why I wear protective suit on Dropoff, fool?”
“You are the fool, little man. Don’t you know where you are?”
The first rays of the morning sun crested the treetops, washing over the crowd. Doof recoiled in horror at faces covered by suppurating sores, hands missing fingers and empty sockets where an eye used to be.
“Welcome to the renaline leper colony on Verdana.” The woman standing below him was missing lips and most of her cheek. “Perhaps you and the other little blowhards would like to come and give me a nice wet kiss and some tongue?”
“Back to the shuttle!” screamed Doof. They stampeded through the village, medals and scabbards jingling to the clearing where Rann had piloted the shuttle to a landing.
It was no longer there.
Rann propped his boots up on the bridge console and took a long pull from his mug. He had finally found something about the Glyphs he liked- they brewed a mean Earth-style beer.
“There you are!” Songg stood framed in the airlock leading to the command cabin. Clutching a wrench, her coveralls smeared with grease she had obviously emerged from some part of the ship’s machinery. “I just got a call in engineering from Colonel Doof demanding an emergency pickup. He says his men are sick, coughing up blood. Didn’t you receive it?”
“Nope. Turned off my comm set, too many boring conversations.”
“You did what!”
“You need to calm down, dear. You’re turning blue in the face.”
“You know, sphincter lips, this wrench would look really good bent over your head.” Her eyes flashed cobalt fire then widened as she noticed the sea of drifting stars across the main viewport. “The ship is moving! We’ve left orbit around Dropoff.”
“Actually, we’ve left the renaline leper colony on Verdana.” He took a sip from his mug and belched comfortably. “Wanna share a beer with me?”
“You must love pain, Earthman. When Colonel Doof-.”
Rann pointed to the obedience collar lying on the console. “I had a great time boozing it up with my Glyph buddies last night. Unfortunately, they tried to drink an expert drunk under the table and failed.” He held up a silver disc. “Looks like he didn’t notice me slipping this from his belt when he and his troopers were teaching me Glyph patriotic songs.”
Songg looked at him with a wordless plea.
“Sure, why not?” he smiled, pressing a button on the disc. The red light winked out on her collar, there was a distant click and she pulled it free from her neck.
Songg turned the collar over in her hand, pondering Rann. Something feral crept into the blue feline eyes.
“Thank you,” she said. “And I think it’s time I kissed you.”
“Hey, I thought you said I was ugly?” he teased.
“You sure are but Ahh told me you’re a great kisser.” She bent over, pressing her lips to his with a fiery passion. Rann was savoring this unexpected experience when he felt cold metal snap around his neck and the silver disc snatched from his hand. She jumped back, holding it out in triumph.
“And I had the idea the Glyphs were stupid,” she gloated.
Rann slouched in the command chair and eyed her calmly. “You have a plan, would be my wild guess.”
“Of course I have a plan! You know how much the Orodi Underworld will pay for this ship? I’ll even toss in those wedges from Nexal IV as a freebee.”
“And I thought the Glyphs were gorth crap,” said Rann, shaking his head.
“Don’t be a jerkoff,” she sneered. “I told you I was a Madon. And quite soon I’ll be a rich-.”
The starship suddenly took a lurch. A sound like a huge brass gong ran through the hull. The forward viewport was filled by the long grey dagger of a Planetary League starfighter.
“What is happening?” said Songg, her voice a whisper.
“Darn, I forgot to tell you. I set off a distress beacon when I brought the shuttle back from Verdana.” Rann’s grin was vast. “The distress signal also activates an audio log in the control
cabin so your little speech on financial aspirations has been embedded in a memory wafer.”
The feral light died in Songg’s eyes and she seemed to droop. Suddenly to Rann she seemed helpless, vulnerable and wholly beautiful. Wordlessly she handed him the silver disc and somberly watched him remove the collar.
The control cabin was abruptly crowded with League troopers, weapons at the ready.
“Hey, the cavalry to the rescue,” said Rann cheerfully. “Welcome aboard, guys.”
A husky sergeant lowered his charged particle rifle and eyed them suspiciously. “You the pilot of this craft?” he demanded.
“You noticed the pilot’s wings on my jacket, huh? Shrewd,” Rann replied. “I’m Rann and lady is Songg, the ship’s engineer.”
“Where is the rest of the crew?”
“The rest of the crew are Glyphs. If you’ll boogie down to the passenger section on deck twelve you’ll find a bunch of girls from Nexal IV they were taking to New Earth to be sold as sex slaves. As to the Glyphs…” He chucked a thumb at a rear viewport. “Songg and I marooned them on Verdana when we found out what they were up to.”
The sergeant frowned. “Verdana? Where the renaline leper colony is located?”
“Give the man with the big cannon a cigar.”
The sergeant signaled to his men. “Sanchez, take your team and search the rest of the ship. Cohen, come with me and we’ll see about those Nexals on deck twelve.” Shouldering their weapons they disappeared through the airlock.
Rann touched a button on the control panel and extracted a plastic chip. “Looks like I forgot to give G.I. Joe the memory wafer.” Looking at Songg he snapped it between his fingers and let it fall to the deck.
“Gosh darn it, clumsy me,” he said. “Seems like I broke it.”
Songg stared hard at Rann, as if trying to read his mind. She swallowed hard and chewed her lower lip.
“You know, skunk stool, I’ve said before you were stupid but this stunt you’re pulling is world class,” she said.
“What makes you think I’m pulling a stunt?”
“But I tricked… you said we…” she trailed off in confusion. “Why did you do it?”
A long minute went by while Rann studied her, searching the depths of her crystal blue cats eyes.”
“Can’t you guess?”
“You worthless bughumper!” Ernspiker planted his knuckles on the bartop and eyed a familiar figure emerging from the crowd at the Nexal IV main tube. “Never thought I’d see you again. Like a round of your usual poison?”
“One Faux Manhatten only,” said Rann, sliding onto the barstool. “I’ve got new responsibilities now.” He tried but failed to hide a satisfied smugness.
“So I hear. Pan Galaxy Spacelines hired you to run their latest starliner when it turned out the ship the Glyphs had been using had been stolen from them.” With a flourish he placed a freshly-filled glass before him. “Wanna hear some more good news?”
“Beats the hell out of bad news.”
“When you bugged out after the shooting fracas terminal security arrived to arrest your old pal Captain Wojinski. He put three of them in the hospital and now he’s in the brig on Asteroid Delta looking at hard time.”
“Hmm. Seems his Anger Management classes didn’t work out.”
“Must have been upsetting for Flossie.”
There was a chorus of feminine squeals. A flock of Nexal girls emerged from the tube and descended on Rann, hugging him and chattering excitedly in their language.
“Are my eyes going out or do they all look the same?” said Ernspiker, squinting at the excited group.
“Your eyes, you old fart,” Rann retorted. “The Planetary League gave us a lift to escort them home.”
“What about their former escorts?”
Rann shrugged. “Seems the League decided to leave them on Verdana with their fellow lepers.”
“Oh oh. I think we have more company.”
Songg was standing behind them, hands on hips and glaring at the flock of Nexal girls. Instead of toolbelt and grimy coveralls she was flaunting a slinky black dress which glided over the curves of her body.
“You wedges better vanish before I knock your little asses into the next star system,” she growled.
The girls understood the look and tone of voice if not the words. With embarrassed smiles and a final hug for Rann they scampered off.
“Tal, old buddy, I’d like you to meet Songg, my new chief engineer,” he said.
Ernspiker nodded nervously. “Pleased to meetcha.” The cold ferocity in her eyes worried him until she went to Rann and put her arms about him, nestling her head against his chest.
“He’s dumb and butt-ugly but a great kisser,” Song announced. “But if I catch him checking out any other wedge I’ll cut his lips off.”
“You probably noticed she’s a Madon. I’m learning some of the customs on her home planet.” Rann winked over the top of her head. “They tend to be fanatical when they’ve chosen a mate.”
“Well, I hope you learn fast, pal.” Ernspiker suppressed a smile, putting on a sage expression. “Remember son, he who lives by the sword-.”
“-will die by the sword.” Rann grinned. “Thanks for the paternal advice, Dad.”