Keel Hauled – Chapter 1

Chapter I – I’ve got them old “But you promised!” blues…

 

All he wanted was a quiet finish to this cargo run.

“The ship has established geosynchronous orbit thirty-three thousand kilometers above Briar Patch Colony spaceport, Captain Keel.” The ship’s AI said.

In the ensuing silence Jeremiah Keel, Captain-Owner of the freighter Rusted Nuts, rubbed his eyes and ran his fingers through his unruly brown hair. He felt a tickle in the back of his nose but couldn’t get the sneeze to come. Adding to that annoyance, his back was getting sore from the extended time he had spent in the pilot’s seat. It had been a long trip and thank God it was over. He glanced over at his First Officer and co-pilot, Mark Sandor. He had a sheen of sweat on his face that made it glisten like a polished ebony sculpture. “What’s up? You seem more nervous than usual. It was a long run, but nothing went wrong.”

Mark pulled a rag from his pocket and wiped his face and neck down. “We’ve sunk every available credit we have into this run. With so many other independent freighter companies being run out of business by B’Hirute trading houses, I’m worried about this delivery. Those bastards are getting more cutthroat every day. What if that happens to us now?”

“Not much we can do about that. We’re here and we need to make the best deal we can. Besides, this was a direct order through Markham’s Trading House, not a general post on the trading boards.” He unhooked himself from the seat safety harness. He stood up and stretched his two meter frame and walked to the back of the Pilot’s Bridge.

He punched the button for the ship-wide communications system. “Purser, please report to the Captain’s cabin.” He clicked off the comm. “Let’s get the ball rolling. Once we’ve gotten things set up, I want to get something to eat and a take a nap.” He left the bridge and headed for his quarters.

Mark finished shutting down the ship’s active mode, and followed a minute later. Upon entering the Captain’s quarters he found Keel at his desk, preparing to contact the planet below. He stood behind Keel and looked at the monitor.

At that moment, in walked Jon Blair the Purser. He was as tall as Keel but slim, with blond hair down to his shoulders. “Are we ready to contact the colony? I have all of the manifests ready.”

Keel nodded and initiated a call to the space port.

The monitor displayed the local planetary call sign and then the image of the control tower interior and one of the controllers. He  looked to be in his early forties, with shaggy black hair and a pug nose. “Briar Patch control tower, Controller Two speaking. Please identify yourself and state your business.”

“This is Jeremiah Keel, Captain-Owner of the freighter Rusted Nuts. We have a cargo delivery to make. Can you contact the appropriate officials for me?”

“Will do Rusted Nuts, hold please.” The screen displayed the call sign again for few seconds. When it switched back to the control tower, Keel got an unexpected shock.

“Keel, you rotten bastard, is that you?”

He looked at the face in the screen “Mac? What the hell are you doing down there?”

“I’m Controller One for Briar Patch. Are you still flying that bucket of bolts? They’ve been calling you a charity hauler; you’re so desperate you’ll haul anything for almost nothing. That’s quite a come-down for a former hot-shot fighter pilot.”

He felt his temper rising. “Why aren’t you in jail? Didn’t they courts-martial you?”

“They almost did. And it was because of your testimony! You told them I was selling fuel and supplies on the black market. Hell, a lot of us were was doing it. Why did you pick on me?”

“Because you were sloppy; you were so obvious it was a joke. We drew straws to see who would turn you in and I lost. How did you get off?”

“I turned in the mokes that were buying from me, and got myself a nice pardon. But I’ve been thinking about you Keel, hoping to settle the score.”

“Don’t get your hopes up. We’ll be in and out of here in a day or two.”

He laughed. “Maybe you will and maybe you won’t. I guarantee you’ll have an interesting time here, that’s for sure! I have the Colony Administrator ready for you; switching now.”

With that, the monitor lit up with the face of a distinguished-looking gentleman with a shock of white hair and a deep tan. “Good day, Captain Keel. My name is Carl Terennio. I believe you have some cargo to deliver?”

“Yes. And I’d like to get this over with and move on to our next job.”

“I’m afraid there’s been a change in plans, Captain. We no longer need your cargo.”

He felt his face get hot as he stood up. “What do you mean you don’t need my cargo? You ordered the damn stuff!”.

“I’m afraid a B’Hirute freighter docked three days ago and had the same supplies we needed at a much better price. It’s not something we could turn down. We’re not self-sufficient yet and we need to conserve whatever capital we can.”

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. When he exhaled and opened his eyes he was a bit calmer. “The damn B’Hirute do this all the time. They find out when and where a cargo is needed and cut in with cheaper prices and faster delivery. How am I expected to make a living when we can’t get a fair shake? I have a cargo hold full of equipment and medical supplies for you, and if you don’t buy it my costs on this run may wipe me out!” He glared at the man in the screen.

“We’ll certainly take the medical supplies. Lord knows we need them in this crazy place. Do you know anything about our quaint little planet?”

“Something about giant thorn bushes, that’s all I know about.”

“Those damn things can sprout anywhere in a matter of minutes. The root system is all through the human-habitable continents, and we always have injuries. At least we’re starting to get some medicinals out of the thorns. When we process them we can make a potent analgesic with no side effects. As for the farming and construction equipment, we may be able to take it off your hands if you will accept trade goods in return and help someone get a lift off Briar Patch.”

“What kind of trade goods are you talking about? Transmit me a list of what you have in mind. In the meantime, I’ll offload the medical supplies. I expect full payment for that portion upon delivery. As for the passenger, we’ll discuss it when I see you in person.”

“I’ll have the list transmitted within the hour. Payment will be transferred into your account as soon as the shipment is verified. And please, if you and your crew will accept my hospitality, please come to my office this evening. We’d like to have a reception to honor your good nature about this little misunderstanding. And we can talk about the passenger.”

“If that’s the best we’re gonna do, then I guess that’s that, Minister. I’ll bring some of my crew down tonight. When and where? And believe me; my mood will depend upon what trade goods you have to offer!”

“Thank you! Please be at my offices at the spaceport in six standard hours. I look forward to meeting you and your crew. I’ll have our Control Tower contact you right away with landing instructions; Terennio out.”

As he got up from his desk, Mac called him back.

“Transmitting coordinates now for your landing, Keel. I look forward to seeing you down here. I’m sure we can have lots of fun!” Mac said in a voice full of sarcasm.

Between the cargo issue and this nasty ghost from his past, he felt nauseous. “You don’t want to screw with me today, Mac, I promise you’ll lose big time!”

“Oh, don’t you worry; I’ll do everything by the book. You’ll see.” He was laughing when he ended the call.

“Great, I know he’s gonna pull something. I swear I’ll kill that bastard if he does.”

Mark said “What can he do? He’s just a traffic controller. If he does something stupid, people could get killed. I don’t think it’ll come to that.”

“You don’t know that asshole like I do. There’s not much I can do about him now.”

“We’re screwed, you know that, right?” said Jon, “Really, really screwed. Now we won’t even make expenses, let alone a profit. What the hell are we going to do?” His voice was loaded with frustration.

“There’s not much we can do right now; let’s wait and look over the list of trade goods. When it comes in get Maggie and meet me in the galley. Mark, call Tony and Tuk’ Zari and tell them the same thing. We need to figure out how to handle this situation and I don’t want to do that on an empty stomach. I’m going to the galley.” He left them to their own depressing thoughts and headed out.

“Jon how bad is it really? We’ve been in rough shape financially for a long time, but we’ve always managed to scrape by.”

“Unless we at least break even on this deal the only thing we’ll have left is the emergency fuel and repair reserves. That would let us make maybe two more runs, but with nothing to purchase a cargo with, we would have to do consignment shipping and you know what that means.”

He grimaced. “Yeah, stuff nobody wants to carry, like low-grade ore shipments if we’re lucky and hazardous material if we’re not. Hopefully, we’ll be able to work something out with the Minister. Let’s get moving.” He went to Keel’s desk and hit the intra-ship comm line for Medbay; “Tony, I need you to meet the Captain and me in the galley in about an hour. We have to figure out what we’re going to do with the little kink we’ve run into with our cargo.”

“What kink?” said the ship’s Chief Medical Officer, Tony Gavalio, “What the hell happened?”

“You’ll find out when we meet. I don’t want to go into it more than once, Sandor out.” Switching to the Cargo Masters office, he called, “Yo, Tuk! Who’s there?”

A gruff voice answered, “Tuk’ Mglin speaking. Zari and Hneer are inspecting the cargo. Malu is prepping the shuttle for drop. What do you want? I was sleeping.”

“You’re always sleeping Mglin, when you’re not eating or drinking! You better stay out of the brandy ration though; you know how the Captain hates it when you clean it out! Have Tuk’ Zari come to the galley in about an hour. We have to rethink this shipment; Sandor out.”

“Grrruh!” grumbled FerdiTuk’ Mglin, Third Cargo Officer, “Always something, nevermind.” She pushed her bear-like bulk back in her over-sized desk chair, which creaked alarmingly under her 300 kilos. She got up and stretched to her full height of two and a half meters. Her clothing consisted of a standard ship’s coverall, albeit in a huge size. She used her claws to scratch various parts of her anatomy where the coverall chafed a bit and to pat down the exposed fur on her head and face. Lumbering over to the airlock leading to the cargo bay, she let out a yawn that showed teeth and fangs any carnivore would appreciate, no matter what planet they were from. She rubbed her snout and thumped the intercom, “Zari, the Captain wants you in the galley in 3 haks. Are you done with the cargo?” Speaking in her native tongue, she sounded like the angry bear she resembled.

“No,” the Cargo Chief, GaluTuk’ Zari roared back, “and I never be if you keep calling me! What does he want?”

“Keeper of him am I? I drink his brandy; I don’t study him. That your duty-boundness be!”

Stifling a yawn, the female Kiru smiled and turned away from the airlock and went in search of a bottle of brandy, the clicking of the claws on her unshod feet a comforting sound.

 

“Come on, damn it, give!” said Keel, as he tried to get a cup of coffee from the galley dispenser to finish up his meal. He kept pressing the lever that should have poured out a stream of smoking dark brown liquid, but only gave off some rank smelling steam. After a few more seconds of futile effort, he turned away in disgust and threw his cup into the recycler. Grabbing a pitcher, he filled it with cold water from another spigot. Taking a new cup, he went to his table. He went over in his mind how bad this situation was. On a good day, the noise in his head was almost deafening, what with the running of the ship, keeping the crew in check, dealing with a floundering business and a whole raft of neuroses his childhood had left him with. Adding the thoughts of having the ship repossessed spun webs of depression through his mind that threatened to smother whatever vestiges of sanity he happened to claim at the moment. He felt his head starting to implode, when Mark walked in.

Nodding to Keel he walked over to the dispenser and proceeded to draw a cup of perfectly brewed coffee from the machine.

“Someday I’m gonna shoot that machine right in the spigot.”

Mark smiled, sat down and sipped his coffee. He knew how much Jeremiah hated being dependent on computers. Maybe he was a closet Luddite. “If you shot up every piece of machinery that pissed you off, the ship would look like a piece of Swiss cheese and run about as well. Let’s get going on what we need to do to stave off starvation and the Repo Man.”

“Don’t even joke about that. We need to make enough to buy some kind of cargo at our next stop. If we do dip into the reserves, I’m not sure how far we’d get. Everything has held up for the past year and a half, but you never know when something is going to fail. On top of that, the Tachyon Pump is past due for overhaul. How would you like to have it blow in the middle of a run up to tachspace?”

He grinned. “At least it would happen so fast we wouldn’t feel a thing! One second, you’re bumping along happy as you please, getting ready to go faster than light. The next, you’re a stream of unfocused tachyons headed for the boundary of the universe with no hope of reconstitution!”

“Christ, I thought I had a gruesome sense of humor! Anyway, what are your thoughts on this mess?”

He looked thoughtful for a moment. His face scrunched in a way that made Keel think it was made of foam rubber instead of flesh.

“Terennio said that they were starting to get some good quality pain relievers from the thorn bushes. What about trying to get an exclusive trader’s agreement for distribution? That would be especially good if the product works cross-species, like alcohol or chocolate. It would cost a bit to set up, but it might be worth the risk.”

“That sounds like a good idea. Talk it over with Jon. See what kind of time and money we’re talking about. If you can get something quickly, we might make this trip profitable yet! What else have you got?”

“Not much. I think we should wait until the rest of the crew gets here and bring them up to speed. I’ll bet we get a bunch of ideas when we get started.” He looked at Keel and saw a scowl on his face.

“A bunch of hair-brained ideas, you mean. Getting this crew to agree on anything usually involves threats with blunt objects.”

At that moment, Tuk’ Zari lumbered in and went straight to the bar dispenser. He drew a liter of brandy and took a seat at the far end of the table.

“Zari, isn’t it a little early to be drinking?” asked Mark.

Zari said in a deep, gruff voice “Today holy day for Kiru. Must drink to honor gods of home world.”

“Which gods, Zari?” asked Keel.

“Don’t remember. That whole point of holy day. Honor which ever gods happen to be hanging around.”

Jeremiah and Mark both laughed. It was a welcome relief from the stressful atmosphere that had been gathering.

“Has somebody been breaking into my Med Cabinet again?” said Tony Gavalio, who walked in with Maggie Templeton the Chief Engineer.

“Sounds like somebody started snorting some NitrOx from your gas stores, more likely!” she said.

Keel always felt that she had a strikingly beautiful face the color of Café’ au Lait, long dark, silky hair and the grace of a ballet dancer. But he also knew her looks belied her ability to swing a wrench and curse with the best of any engine room crew. He looked over at them and said, “You’re early, Tony. You never show up on time, let alone early. What’s up?”

“When Mark called me for the meeting he told me about a little ‘kink’ in the works; it sounded more interesting than the medical inventory I was working on.”

Kink is right”, said Mark, “the B’Hirute beat us here with a cargo of the same stuff Briar Patch ordered and the colony was in no financial shape to pass up the offer. At least they’re taking the medical supplies at the agreed upon price, but we don’t have much leeway with the equipment they ordered.”

Maggie said, “We need the money for the maintenance to the engines, not to mention the fact I’m running out of bailing wire for most of the rest of the ship. What do I use to fix the airlocks the next time they start blowing out? Or the galley starts dispensing nothing but grits?”

Keel chuckled and said, “Maybe you can cannibalize the coffee dispenser to fix the airlock. The damn thing won’t give no matter what I try, so maybe it’ll keep the airlocks plugged.”

“What do you mean?” she asked, “I used one of the last proc modules we had to get the whole galley dispensary system working after the last glitch!”

“Never mind about that, we’ve got more important things to worry.” Mark said. He wanted to override her tendency to drop what ever she was involved in to fix something that wasn’t up to her standards. “We’ve got to figure a way to keep the ship in space, holding air and us eating. As soon as Jon gets here we’ll get started.”

“Who’s talking about me again?” said the Purser as he strolled in and got himself a cup of coffee. “Hmmmm,” he said, as he smelled the aroma of the coffee, “Colombian today. Good stuff.”

Keel went for his on-ship side arm, the one that shot plastic bullets; it would damage flesh and softer metals, but not the ship’s hull or superstructure. Mark grabbed his hand, “I told you, don’t shoot up the machinery. You know how Maggie hates that!”

“What makes you think I was going to shoot the machine?” he growled. “Jon, get over here.”

Blair sauntered over and took a seat.

Keel said, “Since we’re going to get paid for the medical supplies, we’re fine there. The farming and mining equipment might get us some money if the list of goods they sent us is decent.” He turned to Jon and asked “How does it look?”

“Pretty good, actually. They’re loaded with that drug from the thorns, along with a decent quantity of rare earths that they’ve been mining. We should be able to get a good price for them. The strikes they found haven’t been advertised and we’re the first Earth cargo ship to come here since they finished the ore processing. If we can work out a consignment deal, we should do alright.”

Mark said, “Between those two items we might be able to set up a nice, stable run with a steady revenue flow. What do you think, Jeremiah?”

He looked thoughtful for a minute, and then said sarcastically, “You mean give up the adventurous life we live and settle down? Give up the lifestyle of borderline starvation and the occasional airlock blowout? Give up the opportunity to see what really happens if the Tach Pump blows while we spin up? Gee, I don’t know if I could stand the lack of excitement. I mean, my hair might stop turning gray, and my ulcer might settle down. Then where would I be? You idiot, what do you think I think? Some peace and quiet might be a nice thing for a change. When we get to the surface, snag the Minister and see what he thinks about us being his trading partner. Maybe this won’t turn out as bad as it first seemed. Maggie, I want you to charm the Minister’s staff and see if they can throw some repairs and upgrades our way. Load up on anything they’ll part with, even refurbished ones. “

“I’ll be happy with some new duct tape at this point,” Maggie said, “but I’ll push for all I can.”

“OK, thanks. Tony, I want you to work with the Medical staff on planet to see what this wonder drug can do. And see if there’s anything that we need to worry about. I don’t want to find out we became the sole distributors of the next heroin or MaxTime. Zari, make sure the cargo of ore is clean of any radioactives. I think this should do for now. We’ve got about four hours before we need to be there. Meet me in the shuttle bay in three hours.” With that, Jeremiah leaned back and closed his eyes. Everybody but Mark went their separate ways.

“They’re a good crew,” Mark said, “but you’ve got to ease up on yourself. You’ll give yourself an ulcer if you don’t calm down.”

He smiled, “Some days if I don’t feel stressed I don’t feel alive.”

“I need to get ready for the trip down. Which shuttle are we taking?”

“None of them; I’m still honked off so we’ll take my gig down. I’ll send Zari and his crew down with the shuttles when the time comes for the cargo transfer.”

Mark looked at him like he was a little nuts and said, “Are you sure you really want to show up in a fully loaded fighter-bomber?”

“Yes; especially with that rat Mac down there; I don’t trust him in the least!”

 

 

 

 

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