Voyage to Earth

He awoke wondering where he was... on a medic. Why was... oh, hell, why was he being held down? And then the big question hit him—Who am I?
And who, besides the medic itself, which was only a robot, had imprisoned him? And why?
There was a tube leading into his arm... was he in a hospital? It smelled like a hospital.
The medic beeped, and said “condition improved, now stable.”
He must have had some kind of accident, but he couldn’t remember his own name, let alone how he wound up in a hospital.
“Computer!” he said, hoping the hospital computer could shed some light. It was apparently not paying attention, because it ignored him. He lay there strapped to the robotic table for what seemed like forever when the medic again beeped and spoke. “Condition improved, now fair.”
No answer.
Damn. “Medic!”
No answer.
Another eternity passed, and the medic reported “Condition good, patient released.” The straps came loose and he sat up on the medic, waiting for a nurse or doctor that never showed up. Didn’t someone have paperwork when a patient was released?
How you been, old man?” “Wild Bill! I haven’t seen you since... damn. You haven’t aged a day!”
“I’ve been in space, you quit. You know space travel slows aging. So how you been? I’ve been doing runs to Titan since the discovery.”
“Bill, it’s fantastic. My beer is the best selling beer on Mars, and they want us to export it to Earth. Can you believe it? And I have the cost down really low since I bought that warehouse to grow the ingredients in. I’m almost as rich as my wife!”
Bill laughed. “How is Destiny?”
“Oh, man, she’s doing better than me. She’s getting the damned Nobel Prize! She’s going to be famous. I’m so damned proud of her!”
“Damn, that’s hundreds of years old, not many prizes more prestigious than that. What did she get it for?”
“Her new telescope. She never told anybody but me, but her first PhD thesis was rejected; they didn’t think her theory was sound. After she got her doctorate she decided to prove her theory and built that telescope here. The results were that her theory was on the money. They replicated it on the moon and got the same result and it was a huge paradigm shift in the astrophysics world. I’m really proud. So we’re going to Earth. I’m taking a shipload of beer with me.”
“Yeah, you always liked beer. I remember your last trip.”
John laughed. “Fuck you, Bill, I’m not drinking it, I’m selling it. Earth is importing it from Mars.”
“Earth is buying beer from Mars? Even with the shipping costs? What the forgswaggle?”
“Young man!” an old woman at the other end of the bar admonished, “Watch your fucking language, asshole!”
“Oh, shit, I didn’t see you down there, Mrs... Ferguson, wasn’t it? Terribly sorry, it won’t happen again.”
“I remember you, too, you foul mouthed asshole. Now watch your fucking mouth!”
“Yes, ma’am. John, Earthians are buying beer from Mars?”
John laughed. “Rich dumbasses trying to be cool. Mars is cool now, I could piss in a can and they’d buy it.”
“I’m headed for Earth in a week, maybe I’ll be your captain. When you leaving?”
“About a week. Hope you’re running my load.”
“Maybe I will. Hope so, anyway.”
“Our friend Tammy’s going, too. She’s getting some kind of award for her work with the droppers and the discoveries she’s made, although it isn’t the Nobel. She found that Mars was perfect for curing dropheads; they hate low gravity when they’re high, so being on Mars helps when they’re withdrawing, as well as what she learned on the trip here.”
“I don’t think I met her when I was on your boat.”
“Probably not, although she was probably watching you have fun with the whores. She never said anything about it, though.”
“She was studying them. Her research led to a cure for drop addiction, which is what her award was for. Her first success works for me now, she’s the morning bartender. All of them are employed now, mostly in construction and robot repair.”
“Is Mars still short of robots?”
“Not since that factory opened two years ago.”
“I’m surprised you don’t have robots tending bar, then.”
“Screw that. People don’t go to bars to drink, they go to bars to socialize; bars are full of lonely people. If there’s nobody to talk to but a damned robot they’re just going to walk out. I do have a tendbot for emergencies, like if one of the human bartenders is sick and we don’t have anyone to cover. The tendbot will be working when we’re going to Earth, but I avoid using it.”
Bill took another sip of his beer. “How the hell did you learn to make such good beer, John?”
“Lots of books, lots of classes; I minored in chemistry, and lots and lots of trial and error.”
“Well, I can sure see why you’re exporting it. This stuff could make me an alcoholic! Damn but your beer is good,” he said, draining the glass.
“Want another one?”
“Well, I was only dropping by to say ‘hi’ but this is some damned good beer. Yeah, one more and I have to go, but I think I’ll take a case with me. Damn, but this is some good beer!”
An Asian woman walked in. “Lek!” John said. “Back so soon?”
“I forgot my purse,” she said, retrieving it from a drawer behind the bar.
“Lek, Meet my oldest friend, Bill. Bill, Lek here is one of my best assets. She’s been studying and knows five languages. That’s a hell of an advantage in a Mars bar, since we get people from all over Earth coming here.”
“Pleased to meet you, Lek. Where are you from? Chicago?”
She laughed. “No, but my English teacher was from Chicago. I’m from Bangkok.”
“You really speak English good!”
John laughed. “Not so good when I first met her but you could understand her.”
“It was nice meeting you, Bill, but I have to run, I have a class in half an hour. See you tomorrow, John.”
“Oh, Lek, you’re sure you don’t mind doing the evening shift when I’m gone?”
“No, I told you, it’s fine. Tips are better at night, anyway. See you!”
Bill said “Damn but this is good beer. Give me another one, John!”
He decided to look around the hospital to find someone and tell them that he shouldn’t have been released, that he had no memory. He used the rest room and went searching for help.
This, he thought, was the strangest thing... this hospital seemed to have no doctors, no nurses, no administrative staff, nobody. Not even any patients. He walked down hall after hall, and found nothing but locked doors and more hallways.
He started to panic, and muscle memory reached his hand into his pocket for a phone. There was none there.
That panicked him even further. Why didn’t he think of it before? It could have told him at least who he was, if not where he was and why.
He started running, down first one hallway then another, until he collapsed in exhaustion and anguish. He sat there in the hallway, head in his hands, sobbing softly.
BBill was, indeed, their captain. Of course, he was running a first class ship this load. First class ships had two dozen docks so passengers could take their own transportation with them if they so chose. John, Destiny, and Tammy took the houseboat up. A large chemical rocket took his huge load of beer up, enough to fill ten or fifteen railroad boxcars.
Bill met them at the dock, and John briefly introduced Bill to Tammy. Bill showed them their suites, and when the last of the half-dozen or so other passengers embarked and the robots finished moving John’s huge load of beer, Bill left orbit.
After settling down in their quarters, John and Destiny decided to have lunch in the commons. There was a very large, scary looking black man in a business suit sitting at the bar and sipping a martini. He took notice when they walked in.
“Excuse me, sir,” the large fellow said, “Are you John Knolls?”
“Yes, sir,” John replied. “And you are...?”
“Dick Martin, Mister Knolls. I love your beer! My houseboat’s half full of your beer, you can’t get beer as good as yours on Earth!”
“Well, thank you, Mr. Martin. What do you do?”
“I’m an engineer. I work for this shipping company. Had to go to Mars to oversee the installation of some equipment I designed. Sure will be glad when I get back to Earth!”
John laughed. “I’ll probably be glad to get back to Mars. After ten years of Martian gravity I’m going to hate Earth.”
Martin laughed. “I probably won’t much like it after two months on Mars, either. I’m sure not looking forward to the centrifuge. But I’m looking forward to getting back, they have a new toy I want to play with.”
“They didn’t tell you? We’ll be at over a gravity by the time we reach Earth.”
“Yes, between the two of us my wife and I hold nearly a third of the company’s stock. We can pretty much do as we please. It probably won’t take a week to get there. So, what kind of toy?”
Dick grinned. “Company toy. We’re getting some of those new molecular printers, can’t wait to try it out.”
“Molecular printer?”
“Yes, it’s a printer that builds objects molecule by molecule. You can get some pretty wild stuff from it. I feel like a kid at Christmas!”
Destiny had ordered pork steaks, fried potatoes, broccoli, and green beans cooked with pork bacon. “John,” she said, “The food’s here.”
“It was nice meeting you, Mr. Martin. Please excuse me.”
The large man went back to his cocktail and John sat down with Destiny as a portly, shabbily dressed, nerdy looking young man came in frowning, and ordered a double whiskey from the tendbot.
John and Destiny finished their lunch, John remarking that those were the best green beans he’d ever eaten.
Destiny laughed. “It’s the pork bacon.”
Pork was incredibly expensive because of Earth’s environmental regulations.
“Those pork steaks were pretty good, too,” John said. They had coffee and pie, and went back to their quarters. Destiny put on a new holo and they watched it, drinking Knolls’ Stout Lager.
They had dinner in their suite, and went to the commons for cocktails. Destiny ordered a zinger splash, and John ordered a Knolls lager.
The nerdy looking fellow fell off his stool as Bill came in. “God damn it,” he said, “this is why I hate passenger runs. At least the damned drunk didn’t start a fight.” He called a medic to take the drunk to his quarters.
“Hi, guys,” he said to the Knolls. “Destiny, John tells me you’re getting the Nobel Prize! Is he bullshitting me?”
Destiny laughed. “No, he’s right. We’re going to Stockholm.”
“Man, that’s great,” he said. “You must be really proud!”
Tammy walked in as Destiny said “Well, duh! Jesus, Bill, it’s the Nobel!”
John laughed. “Told you, asshole. I wouldn’t shit you about anything like that.”
“Hi, guys, Captain. What’s up?” Tammy said.
“Tammy, Captain Kelly here is my oldest friend. We went to high school together. Bill, this is our good friend Tammy Winters. I think you met her at the dock. I’ve known her for ten years or so and she and Destiny have been friends since college. She’s a scientist, too. She’s going to Sweden for the Rudolf Virchow Award.”
“Congratulations, uh, Doctor? What’s that award?”
Tammy smiled. “Just Tammy, Captain. It’s for my research in prostitute communities. It took the anthropology world by storm, but not near as big a storm as Destiny’s telescope caused!”
“Wow, you guys are going to be famous!”
Tammy laughed. “Destiny will, I’ll just make the other anthropologists jealous. I’m getting an APA, too, but you don’t get famous for those, either. Where’s that waiter? WAITER!”
Destiny laughed. “Yeah, I’ll be famous for fifteen minutes.”
A waiter came over apologizing profusely. John frowned. Tammy ordered. John said “I hate those damned talking robots, glad I’m not running these boats any more. Do they all talk now, Bill?”
“Yeah, most of them. Especially on passenger boats. Another reason I like cargo runs.”
The large black man walked in. John waved, and he walked over. “Hi, Mister Martin,” John said.
“Call me Dick, sir.”
“Don’t call me sir, call me John!”
Dick smiled, and asked “Did that jerk leave?”
“What jerk?” Bill asked.
“Fat dorky looking guy that was in here earlier. My God but he was annoying.”
Bill said “Well, if it’s the guy I think you’re talking about, he passed out. A medic rolled off with him.”
A thin, attractive black women walked in. “Oh, excuse me, folks,” Dick said, and walked over and met the woman.
An elderly lady entered. “Uh, oh,” John said. “Mrs. Ferguson. You’re in trouble, Bill. I wonder why she’s going to Earth? And how she got a first class ticket?”
Mrs. Ferguson spied Bill, frowned, and walked over. “Well, if it isn’t the asshole with the foul mouth! They’re letting a dickhead shitmouth like you be captain?”
“I watch my language when I’m on duty, ma’am. I’m sorry I offended you.”
Dick called out from the next table, “Blagger off, you busdown forgswaggled fognart!”
The old woman got a disgusted look on her face and left in a huff. Everyone burst out in riotous laughter. Bill shook Dick’s hand and bought him and his wife a drink. They were all becoming a little intoxicated. Another couple and a single man came in, but by then they were too drunk to worry about, or be able to remember, names anyway.
It had started to become sort of a party, but Bill and Tammy seemed to be hitting it off, and since ten years later John and Destiny still felt like they were on a honeymoon, went home to cuddle to a movie, cuddle to twentieth century music, and go to bed.
Quite a while later he finally came to his senses, sort of. He got up and decided to just walk around, looking for... anything, really, but especially people. Where was everyone? It would be nice if he could find a sandwich, too; he was starting to get a little hungry. That added to his already numerous worries.
He found no exits, no unlocked doors, no people, no sandwiches. It was hard enough to keep his fear below panic levels, but then what was obviously some sort of alarm went off. Was the building on fire? He stopped, with no idea what to do.
He looked up—weren’t there skylights showing stars earlier? But his memory was impaired, after all, not able to remember his name or anything before waking up on the medic.
He heard the first sounds that didn’t come from robots that he’d heard since awakening, and it scared him even more—the sound of hail. Perhaps there were skylights, but were now shuttered.
At this point he was aware that the alarm was almost certainly a tornado warning, and he couldn’t find the stairway! Maybe this building didn’t even have a basement, but who in their right mind would build a structure in a tornado zone without one? But without a stairwell, it might as well not have a basement. He huddled in a doorway waiting for the tornado to destroy him and the building.
Pork sausage again? You said it made you feel guilty!” Destiny smiled. “I told you, it’s because I’m frugal. Tammy says I might be nuts. But this is paid for, part of a first class ticket!”
John laughed. “Tammy’s right. You’re nuts!”
Destiny grinned and dug into the ham and cheese omelet with a side of pork sausage.
Bill’s eight o’clock adjustments needed no adjusting, and he wondered if the whole trip would be this easy. After all, it was only going to take a little more than a week, since their gravity would have increased to one point four before they docked, and Mars and Earth were pretty close right now.
John and Destiny were coming out of their suite as he was inspecting that section. “Bill,” John said, “you look like hell!”
“Man, I am so damned hung over... man. Me and Tammy sure tied one on. Damn, but I like that woman! Uh, don’t tell her I said that.”
John laughed. “She has PhDs in psychology and anthropology, dumbass. She already knows.”
“Well, shit!”
Destiny laughed. “Don’t worry, Bill, Tammy studies what she studies because she loves people and studies how to make them hurt less. She’d never hurt you on purpose, and I’d bet she knows you better than you know yourself. Doing inspections?”
“We’re just going for a walk. Want some company?”
“Sure, but I can’t let you downstairs. John knows that.” They were walking past the cargo area.
John and Destiny both started laughing. “What’s so funny?” Bill asked, perplexed.
“You!” they both said in unison. John added, “Computer: open C-17.” The door opened.
“What the...” Bill started. “What... Damn it, John, how in the hell did you do that?”
Destiny laughed. “Bill, only my dad and Charles have more stock in this company than John and I do. We own the damned ship. But to tell you the truth, I really don’t want to go up and down five flights of stairs.”
John laughed. “That’s one reason I retired. I hated those God damned stairs! Hey, come in here, I opened the door to show you something.”
“You opened the door to freak me out!”
“Yeah, but I still want to show you something. My new cans and bottle labels.” He opened a case and handed a can to Bill.
“Knolls’ Martian Ale? Funny name for a lager.”
John laughed. “I don’t just make lager. So what do you think about the new design?”
“I don’t know. Why is Mars white?”
“Because it’s ale. Lager is green and pilsner is red.”
“You going to pay me tuition? Look it up.”
Bill laughed. “Asshole,” he said. “Going downstairs?”
Destiny said “I don’t think so” in almost unison with John, who instead said “No fucking way in hell!”
Bill’s alarm went off. “God damn it,” he said.”
“What’s the problem?” Destiny asked.
“I can’t talk about it. John knows that.”
Destiny laughed. “You work for me, Bill. I can fire you, you know.” He looked at John, who said “It’s okay, what’s the danger?”
“A pirate.” John and Destiny looked at each other. “A pirate?” John asked.
Bill shook his head. “Beats the hell out of me, that’s what the computer said.” They all went to the pilot room.
Bill sat in the pilot seat. It looked like the pirate was trying to communicate. There was only one ship, which puzzled all of them. Bill let him communicate.
“Stand and deliver!” the pirate ordered. All three burst out laughing. “What the hell does that mean?” Bill said, and pressed a button. “What do you want, dumbass?”
“You will surrender your ship or be destroyed!”
All three laughed even louder; these ships were nearly impervious to weapons, especially the weapons available to pirates. An atomic explosion couldn’t even damage it unless it detonated less than two hundred meters away, and the pirates had no atomics.
“Do your worst,” Bill told the pirate, laughing.
Lasers and chemically propelled projectiles rained on the ship, of course with no effect. “Should I kill him?” Bill asked. It would have been easy.
“No,” John said, “Kill his ship, hit it with an EMP and have the company come out and snag his ass. That boat is surely stolen, the company might make some cash and you might get a raise.”
“I don’t know,” Bill said. “Bastards have killed our friends.”
“Everybody dies,” John said. “Not everybody spends their life in prison before they do. Give him an EMP, lots worse than an atomic, and you might get a raise. And he might run out of air or freeze to death before security reaches him.”
Bill disabled it with an EMP and called the company. The three of them started towards the commons for a cup of coffee before Bill finished inspections when another alarm went off.
“Damn it,” Bill said, pulling out his phone. “Ladies and gentlemen, your attention, please. We will be experiencing lowered gravity for a short while. Please excuse the inconvenience.” The three of them walked back to the pilot room, and Bill slowed the ship down.
Suddenly Bill said “Holy shit!”
“What?” John asked.
“There’s a ship headed right for that meteor shower we slowed down for, and he’s really hauling ass! It’s one of ours,” he added. “Didn’t see it until he passed us, he’s in full stealth mode.”
The sounds of hail stopped, the siren stopped, and yes, there were skylights; the shutters opened then, showing stars once again. Odd that the storm had started and ended so fast. The shutters must have closed before the clouds rolled in.
He started to continue his fruitless search.
A robot wheeled past, and he had an idea. The robot would certainly lead him to something.
It did. Down a hallway he’d not yet explored and probably had run past more than once in his earlier panic was a large door that stood wide open, the automatic pocket doors recessed. Inside was a huge room filled with tables and chairs, but still no sign of humanity at all. The robot he’d followed dragged another robot away. Puzzling.
At least he had somewhere to sit besides the floor. He sat down at one of the many tables to rest, thinking he’d have to figure out how to find his way back before continuing his search.
He just couldn’t stop wondering what the hell was going on. Was he being studied in some sort of weird experiment? Was he a prisoner by design, or by accident? Was he a criminal? Did he have a family?
Without even thinking he started praying out loud, “Oh, Lord, please help me...”
A mechanical voice chimed in. “Can I help you, sir?”
He looked up at the robot. “Yes,” he said, “how can I get out of this building?”
“I’m sorry, sir, but that is not in my database. Can I get you something to drink?”
“Yes, cold water, but first, where am I?”
“This is the commons area, sir. Would you like a menu?” Without waiting for an answer, the video screen displayed a menu.
“Yes, I’ll have a cheeseburger, brogs, and a caffeine shike.”
“Yes, sir,” it said, and started to roll away.
“Wait!” the man said. “What is this the commons of?”
“That information is not in my database.”
“Can you tell me what this building is?”
“I’m sorry, sir, but that information is not in my database. Is there anything else, sir, or shall I fetch your order?”
“No, go on.” It rolled off. He put his elbow on the table and rested his head in his hand.
The robot came back shortly with his water and shike and rolled away again.
“What the hell is going on?” he wondered aloud, again.
The robot came back in with his food and wheeled away. He ate, still not able to figure out how to examine his prison and still find his way back to this “commons”. At least he had food and drink now, which relieved him greatly and made exploration of this building far less, yet still, important.
Then he thought: A commons. A common area. People should show up here, perhaps he should just wait for someone to show up?
Several hours later and the skylight still showed stars. Was he in Antarctica? Or was he... Yes, that explained everything. He was on a space ship, but why? Where was it going? Where was the captain?
Was he the captain? Or... a horrifying thought came to him. Was he a pirate who had killed the captain and thrown the body out of the airlock?
Damn it,” John said. “What the hell is wrong with its captain? Pirates got him?”
“One of our ships? Not very likely,” Bill said.
“It must be. Why would that captain drive right into a rock storm?”
They watched the computer display in horror as the other ship went through the rocks. Bill spoke on the phone again, alerting the company about what had just happened. When the meteor shower passed, he sped the ship back up and they headed to the commons for their delayed coffee.
Tammy was in there with coffee and a stylus tablet, so they started to join her, but the obese drunk, now sober, walked up and said “Excuse me, Captain...”
“Yes?” Bill answered.
Bill saw the big knife way too late and found himself on the floor, bleeding from the abdomen.
“I’m the captain now,” the fat man said, waving the big bloody blade. “Nobody but me can get you to Earth alive.”
“Think so?” Tammy said. “Think again.” She kicked the knife out of his hand as a medic swiftly wheeled in, then she whirled around and kicked him in the head. He went down hard.
John was tending to Bill, and took his taser and handcuffs. Dick walked in with his wife as the medic rolled off with Bill, Tammy following.
“Oh, my God!” Dick exclaimed. “What happened?” John was cuffing the portly fellow. Another medic wheeled up.
“That asshole tried to murder my best friend,” John said.
Dick was wide-eyed. “We’re in trouble. How will we get to Earth without a captain?”
“Don’t worry,” John said, “I ran boats like this one for a quarter of a century.
Dick gave him a puzzled look. “You can’t be much older than thirty.”
John laughed. “Space. Times on a boat are different than standing still time, I’m almost fifty. We’ll be fine. Look, Dick, I have to make sure that asshole pirate is locked up and see how bad off Bill is.” He went to sick bay while Destiny took over assuring passengers in the commons that everything was going to be all right.
The flabby man was strapped firmly to the medic. Bill was pale, but awake. Tammy was there with him. John asked “How did you do that, Tammy? That was amazing!”
She grinned. “Lek gave me lessons, said she owed it to me for curing her drop addiction. I never thought I’d have to use it!”
Bill groaned. “John, what am I going to do? I have to get us to Earth, but it’s going to be a while before I can get out of bed.”
“Tell the computer to transfer control to me and I’ll take care of it. And the paperwork.”
“God, John...”
“Forget it, Bill. I want to get us there in one piece, too. Just get your rest and I’ll take care of things until you can get around again.”
Bill asked “What the hell was that guy’s problem?”
John shook his head. “Fucking pirate. Another one. I’ll question him when he wakes up. Look, I’m going to the pilot room to send paper and look at your schedules. I’ll come back as soon as I can.”
His thoughts were interrupted by the sounds of humanity—boots walking down the hallway, and cautious whispering voices.
He looked around the doorway and saw ten heavily armed, armored, and helmeted men.
“Oh shit,” he thought. He was captain, but didn’t even recognize his own boat, let alone how to run it, and now there were pirates who would surely murder him and steal the ship and whatever cargo it was carrying. He cowered in a corner, wishing for something to defend himself with.
They came in, weapons drawn, with the men in the back facing the other way and backing in. The man in front lowered his weapon and raised his face shield. “Jerry? Christ, man, what the hell is going on?”
“My name is Jerry? Are you sure? I don’t know who I am!”
“Jesus, Jerry, I’ve known you for years, you’re Jerry Smith. I was scared shitless for you, what the hell happened? Did you get attacked by pirates?”
“I... I don’t think so. I’d be dead if they had. The first thing I remember is waking up on a medic wondering who I was and where I was and why I was on a medic. I wandered around for hours, I don’t think anybody else is here.”
“Okay, Joe, check the pilot room. Rob, would you do an engine inspection?”
“Sure thing, boss.”
“Jerry, where are your phone and tablet?”
He shook his head. “No idea, but I was sure wishing I had them.”
They took Jerry to Earth with them while another man piloted Jerry’s ship there.
Look, Mrs. Ferguson, everything will be all right!” “But Miss...”
“It’s Doctor, Ma’am. Doctor Knolls. It will be okay! Really!”
“Doctor? You don’t look like a doctor. But there isn’t anybody to run the ship!”
“I told you John was a captain in this very company for over two decades, and he was the best. There’s nothing to worry about.”
“Well, frankly, ‘Doctor’, I’m afraid I simply don’t believe you. John’s been tending that bar for years and just isn’t old enough to have been a captain for that long. For that matter that foul-mouthed captain that got hurt is barely old enough to be a captain. And how long have you been in practice, ‘Doctor’?”
Destiny laughed. “I’m not that kind of a doctor, I’m an astrophysicist. A scientist. And John’s a whole lot older than he looks because he spent half his life in space. The faster the ship goes, the faster time goes outside the ship as far as the people inside are concerned. He and Captain Kelly are both almost fifty; they went to high school together. They just look young, John’s fifteen years older than me but he doesn’t look it.”
“Well,” the old woman said dubiously, “At least he doesn’t have a foul mouth. At least he’s a gentleman. I sure hope you’re not lying to me, young lady!” she added sternly, with a glare. “Where is he, anyway?”
“Questioning the would-be assassin.”
“Well, thank you, I guess. Bartender! Another martini, you mangy metal monstrosity!”
“Here you are, ma’am,” the robot said, handing her the drink.
“Fuck off, junkpile. God, but I hate talking robots!”
Destiny laughed. “So does John. Robot, give me a Knolls Ale and shut up.”
“I always did like that boy. He’s really a captain?”
“Yes. Over twenty years.”
“He’s really fifty?”
“Yes, like I said, space travel.”
“Gee, I should have been a captain!”
Destiny laughed. “You still live the same number of years, your time. It’s just that when you travel, more time passes on the planets than you experience.”
Mrs. Ferguson shook her head. “That relativity stuff is over my head.”
How are you feeling, Bill?”
“Better than I was before the robot did surgery. I still hurt like hell. Is my ship all right? Did the pirate wake up?”
“Yeah, she’s fine, just did inspection for you. Everything’s shipshape despite our acceleration. Surprising.”
“They’re doing a lot better job of designing and building these things than when you were captain. If that had been an old boat that went through those meteors it would have surely been destroyed, and it’s been years since one of the robots or wall panels caught fire. I’m worried about engine forty two, though, watch that one close.”
“Why? What’s wrong with it?”
“Do you know how an ion engine works?”
“Well, I can’t explain it to you then, but the wiring looks different than the wiring on the other motors. It worries me, I wish I was an engineer. I’m afraid that if we shut it down it will explode.”
“Like I said, I’m not an engineer but I can read a schematic, and since you don’t know how they work I can’t explain it, but it looks to me like they screwed up the wiring. Is the pirate awake?”
“Yeah, and I wasn’t the least bit nice to the asshole. He spilled, though. Seems that he was in cahoots with the pirate you disabled; that guy was early, or Skankley was late.”
“His name, Robert Skankley. He was supposed to take over the ship before the other pirate engaged, and the two of them would lock up the passengers in the other boat and either collect ransom or work them to death.
“You were targeted because of Destiny; Dewey would have paid a king’s ransom to get us back.
“Stupid pirates. How long is the medic going to keep you here?”
“It says sometime tomorrow, but I’ll be restricted to light duty. You’ll still have to do downstairs inspections for me.”
“Damn. I wish we hadn’t ordered full gravity.”
“You’ll be glad when you get to Earth and don’t need the centrifuge. I wish we had an engineer.”
“I guess. But we do have an engineer, Dick.”
“Dick Martin, the big black fellow. He’s an engineer for the company but I don’t know what his specialty is. I’ll talk to him. I’m going to go to the commons and see if I can do anything helpful there; they’re sure to worry since you’re stuck in sick bay. If Dick’s in there I’ll talk to him. Call if you need anything.”
“Thanks, John.”
“Don’t mention it.”
John could see why Bill was worried; you would expect all the wiring on all the motors to be identical. When he reached the commons, the passengers were already calm, even having a good time. Almost all the passengers were drinking and laughing, and he saw no sign of unease at all. Destiny and Tammy were sitting at a table. He walked up and sat down. “I expected everyone to be worried, considering what happened tonight.”
“It was Tammy,” Destiny said. “That’s her field.”
Tammy laughed. “It was gin. I couldn’t do anything with Mrs. Ferguson, but she listened to Destiny. At least after a few martinis.”
They chatted a while, and Tammy went to visit Bill in sick bay. John and destiny had two more drinks and went back to their cabin.
The next morning John did Bill’s eight o’clock pilot room duties, and as he headed past the commons on his way downstairs, he spied Dick standing by the bar drinking coffee, and sauntered over to talk to the large black man. “Excuse me, Dick.”
“Hi, John, what’s up?”
“Uh, its...” he looked around. “Kind of... can I talk to you in private?”
Dick frowned. “Sure.” They walked out to the hall. “You said you’re an engineer for the company, what kind of engineer?”
“Electrical, why?”
“Because Bill says the wiring on engine number forty two is different than all the other engines.”
“Oh, my God!” Dick exclaimed. He would have gone pale if his skin could have allowed it. “A Richardson Death Ship! We need to have everyone evacuate to their houseboats immediately and sit tight there.”
“What?!” Exclaimed John.
“No time, give the order to the passengers and I’ll explain.”
“Okay.” John spoke into his phone. “Attention, passengers. An emergency has arisen aboard ship. Please evacuate to your houseboats and wait there until things are normal. We apologize for the inconvenience. Thank you. Captain Knolls out.
“So what’s wrong, Dick?”
“Ten years ago, an electronics hobbyist was Mr. Osbourne’s intern. He found a schematic wiring diagram that was wrong, and showed it to his boss, the company president. Well, the chief technical officer and five engineers got fired for that bad schematic, and rightfully so.
“It was wired into ten ships, all of which had to be rewired. Every single one of those three hundred ion engines on each of the ships. We worried that someone would miss an engine and they’d have a death ship. You might make a hundred runs, but sooner or later that thing’s going to blow. And when it’s shut down is when it will blow.
“We called this model the ‘Richardson Death Ship’. This ship is one that had to be rewired, and it looks like they missed a motor.”
“But these things will take an atomic!”
“That’s why it’s so dangerous in here and safe in the houseboats. When that engine blows, all the force will be inside the ship; outside will be fine except right outside the docks by storage; we’ll open the inside door to the airlock and if it blows, the force will go there rather than to houseboat locks.”
“Let’s go talk to Bill.”
“You should evacuate until I can study the schematics and see if I can rewire it while it’s running.”
“No, I can’t. I’m captain until Bill’s back on his feet. Come on.”
AAn hour later, Dick met Bill and John in the sick bay, where the robot was just releasing Bill for light duty. “I can fix it,” Dick said. “I’ll need some wire and alligator clips, and a wire cutter.”
“They’re by each generator, forty two is closer to port. I’ll show you.”
“No, you and Bill better get to safety. No sense anybody but me gets killed.”
“No,” John said. “I’ll help. Bill, wait in your boat. How long will it take you, Dick?”
“Maybe an hour. There’s nothing you can do to help, and it’s incredibly dangerous.”
“I can hand you tools. That’s an order. Come on.”
The medic Bill was on rolled to his houseboat, and John and Dick climbed down into the bowels of the giant ship. John was indeed helpful and it only took forty five minutes. Dick stood up and brushed himself off. “Okay, you can shut it off now and I’ll take the board out, and the passengers can Re-embark.”
“We can shut it down from here,” John said, and did so. He addressed the public address, telling passengers they could come back on board, that the situation was resolved. He and Dick trudged up the steps at almost Earth gravity.
“I hope I’m getting paid for this!” Dick said, panting.
“Yeah, you’re getting paid. And you’re getting a raise, too.”
“How do you know?”
“I’m on the board of directors.”
“Look, Dick, everybody’s going to want to know what’s going on, explain it so they don’t really understand but are calmed down and satisfied.”
Dick grinned. “I can do that.”
“Dick, you’re a hero, you know. I’m buying you a drink when we get to the commons!”
Dick shook his head. “I’m no hero, it’s just that I’m the only guy who could do it.”
“Bullshit, you could have waited in your houseboat while I played Russian roulette in the pilot room shutting that damned engine down, but you risked your life. That makes you a hero.”
“John, you were there, too.”
John shrugged. “Nah, part of what a ship’s captain is paid for is hazardous duty. I’m used to it, did this for more than twenty years. Uh, please don’t let the other passengers know how much danger we were all in.”
Dick laughed. “I know company policy, don’t worry.”
They reached the commons and John asked Dick what he was drinking. Dick shrugged. “Martini, I guess.”
A robot wheeled over. “What would you gentlemen like?” it asked.
John answered “A martini and a Knolls stout lager, a shot of bourbon and for you to shut up, you metal monstrosity.”
Dick laughed. The robot said to him “And what would you like, sir?”
“God damn it, you stupid pile of wires, the martini is for him and I told you to shut up. Now shut the fuck up and get us our drinks and I don’t want to hear another word from you.”
The robot rolled rapidly away and Dick said “I hate talking robots, too.”
“Almost everybody does. Somebody should talk to engineering, I guess.”
“John, I am an engineer and I hate ‘em. But management wants to show off our superior technologies.”
Bill came in on his medic, now folded into a chair shape. “Hi, guys. Damned robot won’t let me walk.”
“Well, you probably shouldn’t, then,” John replied.
“I hate taking orders from a damned robot,” Bill growled. “Where’s that damned bartender? I could really use a shot and a beer right now.”
Others started in, and Dick got busy confusing the other passengers with what folks outside the technical fields call “technobabble”. The robot finally returned with the drinks, and Bill said “What took you so damned long, junkpile?”
The robot turned its camera towards John and froze. “Robot?” Bill said. “Bartender!”
But the bartender wasn’t going to move; lights weren’t even shining. It stood there like a statue. “Must have broke, maybe its battery or something came loose,” Bill said.
“Fuck it,” John said, “I’ll tend the God damned bar. Call for a server, would you?”
Dick had joined the others at the bar, speaking the engineer’s perplexingly complex jargon and baffling everyone, all but Mrs. Ferguson pretending to understand. “Damned kids today, they just don’t talk the same language!”
John walked around the bar as Destiny and Tammy came in. Destiny laughed. “Told you so,” she said. “He loves tending bar!” She walked around and kissed him.
“Damned robot broke, Bill’s calling a repairbot.”
Dick looked at the dead robot and said “That’s an R 15 XB. A repairbot can’t fix those.”
“Why not?”
“They’re brand new, I didn’t even know we had them in deployment and can’t figure out why they did, because the repairbots haven’t been fully reprogrammed yet. I’ll look at it.”
His wife laughed. “Dick’s happiest when he’s up to his elbows in wiring,” she said. “John reminds me of him.”
Dick tinkered with the robot while John tended bar and everyone else drank and chatted. Finally Dick walked back to his stool while the robot wheeled around to the other side of the bar. “Cool,” John said. “What was wrong with it?”
Dick snickered. “It’s a safety bot. Brand new and more bugs than a picnic.”
“Safety bot?” Mrs. Ferguson asked. “Oh, hell, why do I bother?”
“Well,” Dick began, “hundreds of years ago there was this guy named Asimov who wasn’t even an engineer, but was a biochemist who wrote fiction on the side. Well, this guy coined the word ‘robotics’ and dreamed up what he called the ‘three laws’. It was all fantasy, when he wrote it there were no robots and computers were brand new and so primitive they weren’t really computers, but some people called them ‘electronic brains’. This guy had his robots run by positronic brains.”
“So what’s this guy’s fiction got to do with that bartender?”
“The ‘laws’ were safety devices, and the company has been trying to program something similar into our robots. From what I could gather, this one had two conflicting demands and couldn’t cope and just shut down. I did a system reset and it’s fine. Guess I should file a bug report.”
He sat down with the captains and the scientists and ordered a drink from the server. “You told the robot to shut up, and the captain here told it to talk. It’s easy to fix, there’s a reset button right inside the panel. You’d think they could have programmed the repairbots to push the damned button when they couldn’t figure it out.
“Programmers... they need to learn engineering. Or maybe psychology. They should at least learn how a computer works, but I don’t think they teach that in programming school.”
Bill said “The stupid robot should be able to figure it out.”
Dick grinned and shook his head. “Robots can’t think.”
“But they’re networked with the computer, and it can figure ship trajectories. I can’t do that. They have encyclopedic memories, I don’t.”
“Do you know what an abacus is?”
“Of course, they used them thousands of years ago to do simple arithmetic.”
“So how many beads would it take for it to become intelligent?”
“I don’t get it.”
Mrs. Ferguson, sitting at the bar, overheard. “Well, at least I’m not the only one. How can something with that much knowledge be so stupid?”
“I get it,” Destiny said. “They used to have non-electronic books. Before there were computers, books were just lots of sheets of paper with information printed on them, bound together. A book held encyclopedic memories but had no memories of its own.”
“Exactly. As to how it does calculus, it’s pretty much done like an abacus works. Ever heard of a slide rule?”
John shook his head. “Nope.”
Destiny said “I do. They looked like measuring rules, but there was an inside part that slid and a clear piece. Line the numbers up right and it would do multiplication, division, logarithms, all kinds of math. Engineers used them before they had computers.”
“That’s right, and a computer doesn’t know that two times two is four any more than a slide rule does. When you tell it to tell you two times two, it takes the binary number two and shifts it to the left.”
“I don’t get it,” Mrs. Ferguson said.
“Neither do I,” John agreed.
“I’ll show you how to do binary arithmetic some time,” Destiny answered. “I had to learn it for that telescope. Speaking of which, will we be turning around in a couple of days, Bill?”
Somebody called out from the bar “the bartender quit again.”
“Damn it,” Dick said. He reset the robot and told it “Robot, do not talk. If someone asks you a question, display the answer on your screen. Do you acknowledge?”
The screen flashed “yes”.
“Stupid programmers,” Dick said.
Bill finished his beer and said “well, I’d better call it a night.” Everyone else partied on.
The next day was “turnaround” day, when the ship turned around and used its thrusters as brakes; they were two thirds of the way there by now, three days into the trip, and traveling at fantastic speeds. They would reach Earth two days later.
Bill was healing rapidly, thanks to the healing drugs that had been developed a century earlier. No longer confined to a wheelchair, he was using a cane to get around. He met John, Destiny, and Tammy for breakfast after his eight thirty chores in the pilot room.
“Did you guys order yet?”
“No,” John said. “We waited for you. Robot!”
“Yes sir?” the contraption said. “Are you folks ready to order?”
“Yes,” John said, “I’ll have scrambled eggs, toast, bacon, and hash browns and you’ll just shut up and bring our food when the rest have ordered. I want no noise from you, if you need to talk, print it out instead.”
Its screen printed out “yes si” and it froze.
“God damn it,” Bill said. “I’m hungry. Glad Dick showed me how to reset that damned thing.” He opened the server’s panel and reset it.
“Are you folks ready to order?” It asked aloud.
“Damn it...” John started.
Bill said “John, let’s get our food before you tell it to shut up, I’m hungry. It might lock up again.”
John frowned and repeated his order. The robot asked “pork or turkey bacon, sir?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
Destiny, of course, ordered sunny side up, pork sausage, and hash browns. Tammy had the same, and Bill had a steak and cheese omelette.
Drinking their coffee after the meal was eaten, John asked Bill how long before turnaround.
“Three hours.”
“Okay, I’ll do inspection in an hour and a half. I’m just going to sit in the basement while you turn around, I don’t want to climb those damned stairs twice. It’s heavy, we must be at Earth gravity by now.”
“One point two. We’ll be at one point four right before free fall.”
Destiny and Tammy were talking about fashion, celebrities, and mathematics. Mrs. Ferguson came in and ordered a martini. John looked at his phone and said “Right on time!”
“Mrs. Ferguson, always has a morning martini or four, usually at my bar. I hope that damned barbot doesn’t run all my customers off. But it’s doing the morning shift, and besides Mrs. Ferguson, stupid tourists, and captains getting in from a long run not many people are there then, anyway. Robot, more coffee and do it quiet.”
Bill laughed. “Well,” he said, “I’m going to inspect cargo, anybody feel like going for a walk?”
“Sure,” said Tammy. “I’ll go along.” They excused themselves, while John and Destiny drank more coffee.
TTwo hours later, John was at the ship’s lowest level inspecting the engines for Bill. He wondered why the robots couldn’t just medic Bill down, but he was used to machinery enough to know that it was pointless to even ask the question.
As he was inspecting the last engine, Bill called. “We may have a problem, John. The computers disagree about a reading on number one twenty, one says a slight overvoltage, one an undervoltage, and the other two read normal.”
“I ran across that on my last run. Probably nothing, I’ll check it out again.” He did, and as he expected there was an electrical fault in a connector that made an occasional spike or drop in voltage, too quickly for all four computers to measure at once. He shut it down and informed Bill.
Half an hour later they were weightless for a couple of minutes while Bill reversed the ship’s orientation, and then they all got heavy again. John inspected everything again, and to his surprise nothing was amiss. Something almost always broke turning them around when he was captain. He guessed that Bill was right, that they were building them better.
Except, he thought grimly, it had been a Richardson Death Ship.
By the time he reached the top of the stairs he was winded. “Damn,” he said out loud, “I need more exercise.” He went to his cabin, collapsed on the couch, and called Destiny. “Hon, I’m too beat to move. I’m going to have the robot make dinner, are you hungry?”
“Yeah, just have it make what you’re having. I’m in the commons with Tammy, I’ll be ‘home’ in a while.”
“Robot,” John said, “Two rare steaks, two baked potatoes; one with butter and one with sour cream, two salads with ranch dressing, and green beans made with pork bacon. Oh, and bring me a beer. And shut up.” He put a zero gravity football game on the video, San Francisco against Osaka.
Zero gravity games were popular in deep space, but there were no professional players out that far. John thought about buying a pro team and moving it to Mars.
Nah, he had too much on his plate already, what with the bar, the brewery, and the farm... and watching his stocks and bonds.
Destiny came in right before dinner was finished cooking, just as John finished his first beer. He got another, and Destiny got her third.
As usual, the commons was pretty full at dinner time; at least, the huge thing was as full as the small number of passengers could make it, which was very little at all. Bill came in and sat down with Tammy. “Where’s John and Destiny? I thought we were eating together tonight?”
She laughed. “Climbing stairs almost killed John.”
Dick was at the bar with a martini and Mrs. Ferguson, and his phone rang. “Excuse me,” he said, and answered his phone. After talking a minute he pulled the standard forty by one hundred millimeter phone into a tablet almost a third of a meter wide and about quarter of a meter tall.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Mrs. Ferguson said. “What will they come up with next?”
Dick studied something on the large tablet, which showed no sign of seams, then folded it back up and put it in his pocket. “Where’d you get that, Mr. Martin?” she asked.
Dick smiled. “Made it myself, prototype for a new product the company is rolling out.”
“How does it work... oh, hell, never mind, I wouldn’t understand it, anyway. But I thought you said you were an electrical engineer?”
“Does this thing look like there’s no battery? If it does, I designed it well. It’s a phone. It has radios and computers and microphones and cameras and all the other electronics in any phone or tablet. Of course, I didn’t design the whole thing all by myself, making this thing took teamwork.”
“Fascinating! ...HIC... Oh, my, please excuse me, Mr. Martin, but I think I had one too many of these. I think I’ll lay down for a while.” She got up and staggered. Dick and Bill helped her to her quarters and returned to the commons, laughing.
“She’s a character,” Bill said. Dick laughed.
John and Destiny never showed up; they were sleeping on their couch, having fallen asleep while listening to music and cuddling. Bill left after three beers, and the little party dwindled quickly after that.
The next morning, John woke up in bed to the sound of Destiny’s snoring. He didn’t remember waking up and going in there, but they must have. “I’d better let her sleep,” he thought, “she drank twice as much as me. She’s going to be HUNG over!”
The robot made coffee and he drank a cup while catching up on business, then went to the commons to meet Bill and Tammy for breakfast. Bill was in there by himself, and Bill asked “Where’s Destiny?”
“Still sleeping. I got a little drunk last night and she was wasted. Where’s Tammy?”
Bill laughed. “Same as Destiny. Wasted. While me and Dick helped Mrs. Ferguson to her room she had three cocktails. I only drank three beers and wasn’t even buzzed, but Tammy kind of went wild with the booze last night. She’s really going to regret it!”
The robot came by and took their orders.
“I’m still wondering what was up with the ship that went through those rocks,” Bill said. “I’ll probably never know.”
“Yes, you will. I found out this morning. It was a shipping run from the belt to Earth and the captain, Jerome Smith, got injured. Something in storage fell and hit him on the head and gave him a concussion. The poor guy got amnesia, had no idea where he was or even who he was.”
“Is he going to be okay?”
“Yeah, after therapy. We’re not sure how extensively those rocks damaged his ship. It’s going to be discussed at the next board meeting, poor guy couldn’t reach his phone or tablet that he dropped when he got hit, and the door locked behind the medic that took him to sick bay. We need to make sure nothing like that happens again!”
The robot wheeled up with their food, and they ate in mostly silence. When they were finished they continued to drink coffee as the robot cleared the table. John looked at his phone. “I wonder where Mrs. Ferguson is? She almost always has a martini by now.”
Bill laughed. “She was drunker than anybody. I’m sure she’s still asleep.”
Dick walked in looking rather rumpled, wearing a polo shirt and slacks rather than his customary business suit. He waved at Bill and John and spoke to the tendbot. “Eggnog, real eggnog with a real raw, unpasteurized egg yolk and milk and cinnamon and a double shot of rum. And shut up, for God’s sake!”
John laughed. Bill said “I’ll bet we’re the only two on board right now that isn’t hung over or sleeping it off. You missed a hell of a party...” when his phone interrupted him. He glanced at it.
“What’s wrong?”
“Skankley’s loose. Here, take a taser and help me find the bastard. I wish Tammy was awake, but she’d be way too hung over to be any help.”
“I’ll get the son of a bitch,” John said. “Lock yourself in the pilot room so I don’t have to go down those damned stairs again.” They went out as Dick nursed his eggnog.
John heard a woman scream and took off at a run toward the sound. There was Skankly, threatening one of the passengers, Mrs. Dillon, with a steak knife. John wondered how he got out and where in the hell he got hold of a knife. “Drop it, asshole,” John ordered. Skankley whirled around, and John hit him with the taser, took his knife, and cuffed him.
“I ought to cut your heart out right now, you worthless piece of shit. Any more trouble from you and you’re a corpse, got it?”
“Oh, you’d murder me?” the fat man snarled.
“Nope, self defense.” He cuffed Skankly to a chair, cut off all of Skankley’s clothing and started moving the rest of the furnishings out of the room as he called Bill, who joined him in moving furniture into the hall.
They went through Skankley’s belongings and found an electronic lock pick. Just then Bill’s phone sounded. “Shit,” he muttered. “More pirates!” he said to John. They went to the pilot room.
They were relieved that there were only thirty ships, so they were in no real danger. Bill wished again that it was a pure cargo run, so he could have a little fun angering the pirates before he disabled them all, but simply launched two EMPs and called the office to have them collect the ships and their pirates.
They reached orbit the next day without further incident, and John met his mother in law for the first time, who had traveled by ocean liner.
Bill and Tammy were married a month later at the rim of the Grand Canyon. After the ceremony and at the wedding party, Destiny asked Tammy where they were honeymooning.
“Mars,” she said.
“Mars?” Destiny responded. “Why Mars?”
“We’re taking more droppers there for treatment.”
John shook his head sadly. “Hell of a honeymoon with those monsters on board. More like a nightmare than a dream.”
Destiny laughed. “Tammy can handle them.”
“Yes,” Tammy said, “We’ve learned an awful lot about them in the ten years since that last trip. It won’t be a problem.”
“What about pirates?” John asked. “Still a lot left.”
Destiny laughed. “You know what happens when pirates attack a ship with Tammy and droppers!”
John leaned back and grinned. “You’re right. Poor pirates!”
Jerry did eventually get his memory back after a lot of therapy. His phone had been in his captain’s quarters, and he had been doing inspection in machine storage when a can of something that had been improperly stacked by a malfunctioning robot had fallen, hitting him in the head and knocking him cold. A medic had taken him to sick bay, leaving the tablet laying on the floor, effectively locking him out of everything. Clearly, some policies, at least, would have to be changed.
Jerry never captained another ship. In fact, he spent the rest of his life on Earth and never entered space again.



Plutus' Revenge

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