Read Back From the Dead Online

Authors: Rolf Nelson

Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Military

Back From the Dead (8 page)

BOOK: Back From the Dead
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“Been a while since I had more action on leave than in the field,” Harbin says. “Felt good to be in a non-contract fight where the only rule was ‘win’.”

“Too bad about your getting shot, though,” says Helton. “The leg seems to be healing nicely. No noticeable limp.”

“Shouldn’t be. The Boss and the Wife both frown on getting damaged outside the line of duty. On duty as well.”

“I’m sure they’d cut you some slack, given the situation.”

Harbin grunts disagreement. “Part of my job is to teach people how to
not
be careless and die from stupid. I wasn’t careful enough when I boarded the tramp ship and let myself be gassed and dropped in the desert. That would be unforgivable if we hadn’t managed to get ourselves out of it.”

“Your boss must be a serious hard-ass.”

Harbin shrugs. “He’s among the best, but he doesn’t suffer fools or stupid mistakes lightly. Working for him is tough. Fighting against him is tougher.”

“Next time we’ll just have to take a ship with better armor.”

“Hard to find. Most ships don’t have it. Generally it’s useless.”

“Like souvenirs?”

Harbin shoots Helton a dark look. “There’s a first time for everything. Normally they’re as useful as a screen door on a spaceship.” He shrugs fatalistically. “Been a while since I was one-upped on getting shot and living to talk about it. That’s something to tell your grandkids about. Any more ideas about the book?”

“Nope. At least it’s open, now. Lots of damaged pages, but they are seriously tough. Some sort of metalized carbon nano-tube stuff, I think. No idea who made it. Can’t go back without government clearance, and they’re not letting us anywhere
near
that prison mine again. Haven’t told the authorities about the cave or the book. Ah, well. It all worked out okay. Good guys lived, bad guys mostly died, official investigation started–”

“Likely just a whitewash–”

“-but started anyway. Some official reward cash and …” Helton looks over at a few young ladies sitting nearby, “a couple of cute new friends who owe me their lives.” One with a kid next to her smiles back when she notices him looking at her.

Harbin grins. “Don’t let it go to your head, Hero.”

“After a near-death experience, you think about things. Long-term, life sort of things. I do, anyway.”

“Been there. Were I younger and single, I would again, too. Met my wife that way, just after…” Harbin is silent for a moment. “Being close to death does make you think about life. The closer you get, the deeper you see into yourself. No real risks, no deep thoughts.”

“Feels good to have more control of my life again.”

“Any plans till your flight pulls out next week?”

Helton shrugs. “See the sights. Meet people, hopefully a cute one. Get a new coat. Find a game. Try to stop being amazed that I actually landed something without killing anyone.”

“If you call that a landing.”

“Picky, picky, picky. We walked away, didn’t we?”

“Technically. If you define ‘walk away’ broadly enough,” Harbin says grudgingly. “All things considered, you did well. You did your family proud.”

They clink their glasses, lean back in their chairs, and drink.

Cards

Five men and three women at a card table in a discreetly lit, respectable entertainment establishment. All are nicely dressed and there are a lot of chips on the table. Helton has the smallest stack, but it’s still substantial. Half a dozen people stand around watching.

Helton eyes his cards and the lone ten of spades in the center of the table, then tosses in a pair of chips. The woman to his left folds silently. The next player pushes in two chips to meet and raises by three chips of a different kind. The onlookers murmur.

Four men and two women and the three of diamonds. A dozen people are now watching. Helton’s heap of chips is about average, compared to the others’. He pushes a stack of ten brightly colored chips into the center, adding to the large pile already there, prompting surprised exclamations from the observers. The long-haired woman beside him slams down her cards in disgust.

The man to her left has only ten chips of the same kind left. He eyes the pot nervously and looks at his hand, then his chips. He swallows and pushes his stack in. The next player folds.

Three men and the nine of clubs and two dozen watchers. Three quarters of the chips not in the pot are in front of Helton. A grim, skinny man with long flowing hair, a goatee, and dark glasses has most of the rest. The last man — average build, sharply dressed, short hair, tendency to tremble — has only ten chips left. Helton looks over the other two players’ stacks and pushes forward a pile, about half what Grim Guy has remaining. The dealer rakes the pile closer to the pot but carefully keeps it separate. Trembler trembles: he’s forced out, or at least can’t win from a large side pot. Grim Guy matches Helton’s bet, and again the dealer keeps it slightly apart. Trembler trembles more.

The dealer looks pointedly at Trembler. “All in with a side pot, add money, or fold?”

“No.
No
. You can’t force me out like this. You CAN’T! I
need
the whole pot!”

“Shut up,” says Grim Guy. “You know the rules.”

“You CAN’T!”

“If you cannot add money to match, you’re only in the main pot,” the dealer says calmly.

Trembler’s desperate now. He looks around at the other players and the crowd, seeking a way out. “But … but … how … How about my ship?”

The crowd hushes. Both Helton and Grim Guy study him. “Your ship?” Helton asks flatly.

Trembler sounds scared at first, but gradually convinces himself. “Yes.
Yes
. I have a starship at the port over in Adelaide. I… I’ll put the title in the pot to match you. It’s worth far more than that, and–” He cuts himself off, fearing he’ll scare them into refusing. Grim Guy and Helton look at each other. Then at Trembler. Then at the pot and side pot. “Hey, it’s not
that
unheard of,” Trembler protests. “Some
famous
ships have been won in card games!”

“Title?” Grim Guy asks. Trembler pats his vest pocket. The crowd murmurs in surprise. But Helton is suspicious.

“Verify it before accepting?” he asks.

Trembler produces a slim packet of fancy paper with a credit-card-sized sheet of plastic bonded into one corner. The dealer brings out a handheld scanner unit. He scans Trembler’s face and hand and the smart card in the corner of the title. The scanner beeps, and its readout displays: “100-percent ownership of the twenty-thousand-ton starship
Tajemnica
verified.”

The dealer nods to the other players; the ship is Trembler’s to bet. “Are you pledging this ship, the, uh,
Tah-JEM-ni-ka
as collateral?”

“It’s
TA-zhem-NEETZ-ah

“Ah, okay. You pledge the, er,
Taj–
… ah this ship, for the bets on the table for this hand, of your own free will, and promise transfer of ownership to the winner, effective immediately, if you do not win fairly?”

“I do.”

“Do both of you accept this asset title as a matching bet, going to the winner of this hand?”

Helton nods. “Yup.”

“I…” Grim Guy pauses, a long, tense pause. “Yes.”

The dealer nods and places the title on top of the pot on the table. Helton pushes in enough to match Grim Guy’s remaining chips. Grim Guy goes all in.

“It’s a contract,” the dealer says. “All bets matched and called.” The players stare at each other. “Show your cards, please, gentlemen.”

Trembler lays down his four cards. A full house, using the nine of clubs in the center to match his nine of hearts, with a trio of fours. The crowd gasps and exclaims.

Grim Guy smiles. He puts down his cards. Also a full house. The nine of clubs matches his nine of spades, and he has a trio of jacks. Trembler shakes and twitches more spasmodically, sweat breaking out on his brow, but he doesn’t say a word, as everyone now stares at Helton.

Helton holds his hand silently for a moment, looking at the pot. Then, ever so slowly, he tosses them down, one at a time. Two of spades. Two of hearts. Two of clubs. Two of diamonds. Four of a kind, beating two full houses. The crowd explodes in cheers and congratulations.

Grim Guy just grows grimmer, and Trembler seems to faint dead away. The Dealer pushes the pile of chips towards Helton, who sits still, staring at his winnings with a growing smile.

TAJEMNICA

Spaceport

A graceful, midsized, low-orbital ship knifes through the airspace high above a city, the modest spaceport of Adelaide. A wide and tan plain stretches to low mountains, the blue sky above has scattered clouds, and an unassuming city sprawls away to one side of the port. The fifty-passenger, sharply streamlined flier descends towards the landing field, a simple and dusty facility with six evenly spaced concourses radiating out from a large central building. Along each concourse are pairs of landing pads, small ones close to the center, larger ones further out, and a narrow landing strip on one side for the occasional aerodynamic-lift sport craft. A dozen ships of various sizes and shapes are in port.

The main road leads from the end of the widest concourse toward town. Meandering away from the other arms are narrower roads leading to warehouses and industrial areas scattered along that edge of town. A few smaller pads are scattered about near some of the beige outbuildings farther from the main terminal, with a collection of ship parts, wreckage, tarp-covered heaps, and personal aircraft and spacecraft. The flier zips down, heading for one of the midsized landing pads.

Helton sits in a window seat looking out eagerly from the cabin of the flier, dressed in a new traveler’s coat with nice clothes underneath. Next to him sits Floyd, a young man in shabby-looking clothes, also craning his neck to see out the window.

“Wow. Twenty thousand tons?” Floyd says. “Good-sized ship. Two hundred meters or more. Must be one of those on the outer ring.”

“Hope so. They look nice. Shiny.”

“Name doesn’t ring a bell, but I’ve been away a few months. Must be new here.”

“Guess I’ll know soon enough.”

Helton stands at an information counter in the spaceport concourse central hub. The young woman at the counter shakes her head. “I’m sorry sir, no ship registered by that name here.”

“Are you sure? I had it confirmed before I left. It’s
my
ship. It must be here.”

“Nothing on the computer. Do you know if it landed in the last thirty days?”

“Actually, I, um, I’m not sure when it came in. Won it in a card game.”

The Info Clerk is apologetic as she digs for more data. “Sorry, no commercial or private craft by that name registered with the port on any landing pad.” She tap-tap-taps on the computer. “No landings or takeoffs in the last year by any craft with that name.” Tap-tap-tap. “No fuel requests under that name. No quarantines on it. No bonded cargo listed as being from it. Or for it. No passengers, either. If it’s here, it’s a
Flying Dutchman
.” Info Clerk looks up at Helton, shrugs her shoulders and spreads her hands silently.

“Is there anyone else here that I could talk to?” Info Clerk shakes her head. Helton takes a deep breath and leans on the counter.

She glances over Helton’s shoulder, sees Floyd, waves him over. “Glad to see you’re back.”

Floyd looks inquiringly at Helton, and gets a tired head-shake in reply. Surprised, he looks at the Info Clerk. “Not here?”

“No. He says he checked before coming, but…” she shrugs.

“Could it be one of the hulks?”

“Maybe. Boneyard ships are a different company.”

Worried, Helton says, “Boneyard?”

“Ships that can’t fly,” Floyd explains. “Old wrecks and such. Used for parts and parties. Not likely, though. None of them are that big, unless it’s a small ore hauler. They’re something like 30k gross tonnes, I think.” Helton acquires a pained expression.

“I’m headed that way. Work out past the end of Concourse 4. We could take a look out there first so I can check in, though there’s nothing anywhere close to that mass out there. Maybe one of the old guys knows something about it.”

“Well, it’s a start. Lead the way.”

Floyd heads down the concourse, Helton following.

Allonia

Helton walks along a dusty road on the outskirts of the port between a generic beige warehouse and a tarp-covered, dusty, crusty, old ship. He stops and looks at the number on the outbuilding, and he mutters to himself. “1701. Well, there’s the right building, and he said across from it.” He looks at the ship. Back at the building number. Back at the ship. He makes a skeptical face and shakes his head.

The ship is a little more than 70 meters long, and half that wide. It looks like it’s been there forever. Streaked, dirty, large tarps over parts of it, uncertain color underneath the crud and graffiti. It’s a very simple and angular design, like a flattened hexagonal prism with sharply pointed ends. It seems to be resting directly on the ground, without landing struts or gear holding it up. On one side a fold-away boarding ramp is lowered; it’s about 1.5 meters wide and it looks massively thick. Open at the top is an old-fashioned airlock hatch, slightly inset. Dimly visible in the shadows, something is closed across the hatch on the inside. Overall, it looks like a mostly intact wreck of a
very
old ship, but with an abandoned-building-in-a-spaghetti-western vibe. A tarp flaps in the wind and under it he catches a glimpse of lettering. He steps up to get a better look. On the hull beneath, hand painted in fading, chipped paint, is the name
Tajemnica
.

“Well, well, well. So here you are. At least the rest of the chips were worth something.” He sighs in resignation. “Not quite what I was led to expect, but free’s a good price. Let’s see what sort of mysteries are inside.”

He mounts the stairs cautiously, but they feel rock solid. At the top of the stairs is a scan pad with a dim light next to it. Inside the airlock hatch is a simple, home-made screen door. He holds his title up to the scan pad and pushes a button. Nothing happens. He holds his hand to the pad. Nothing. He folds the title, slips it back in his breast pocket, opens the door, and steps through into the dark interior. The screen door closes with a sharp
bang
behind him. He pulls out and turns on a small flashlight, revealing a cramped, narrow passageway into the ship, about 3 meters long, with another heavy-duty airlock hatch at the end, also open. He moves cautiously inward. As he passes through the inner hatchway, he hears a slight scuffle off to his left, and he casts his light beam around.

BOOK: Back From the Dead
11.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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