Prose Header


by Ronald Linson

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5


We made Millie and Alisha as comfortable as possible in the prep room, laying them out on blankets. The ointment in the first aid kits from the shuttles was barely enough to cover their faces, but the sedatives were more useful. The UV burns would probably heal without too much scarring, but who knew what kind of damage the X-rays had done internally. To be sure, they would need some expensive nanosurgery. Maybe I would too, as well as everyone else who had been outside tonight.

I roused Ethel from her bed, and when I explained the situation, she was more than happy to serve as a nurse. After one look at her patients, she swore up and down that yogurt was good for burns. I figured it couldn’t do any harm, so I left her to it while I tried to get in touch with Wallace.

And the son of a bitch had a “do not disturb” message, even though the call was flagged as an emergency.

“What’s the matter?”

I looked up. Zack Taylor stood there, hands in his pockets, looking genuinely concerned.

I sighed. “It’s my stupid boss. He won’t even accept emergency calls, and he’s set up a block on outside communications.”

“Oh,” he said, brightening. “Here, gimme.” He took the tablet from me and sat down.

“What are you doing?” I asked as he examined it.

He made a noncommittal noise, flipped it over, popped out the power cell, plugged it back in, turned the tablet back over, and held down the power button. The configuration menu appeared and he selected a few options, then handed the tablet back.

I stared at the workspace. Most of the icons were grayed out. “What did you do?”

“I set it to maintenance mode,” he said. “You can access anything native to the operating system, but it won’t run third-party software.” He pointed at the tablet, a smug gesture. “And that includes the comm. Block.”

“Could it really be that easy,” I mused, tapping the communications icon, then choosing “External” from the list--and then the “Who do you want to contact?” window opened.

I felt like dancing. “Thank you, Zack,” I said, reaching out to squeeze his hand. “You’re a genius with this stuff.”

He virtually leapt from his chair, face red. “Yeah, sure,” he said, glancing nervously around. “I gotta go.” With that, he practically ran from me.

Shaking my head, I searched the drop-down menu and chose the entry for the Colonization Board. I held my breath while it connected.

The face of a young woman appeared on the screen. She had straight black hair and canary yellow eyebrows, indicating that she was an artificial intelligence. “Greetings,” she said cheerfully. “This is the Colonization Board. How may I help you?”

“My name is Trina Napolitano,” I said and gave her my employee ID number. “I’m the tour guide on Isn’t She Pretty, and there’s a serious problem.” I told her the current situation, then I launched into the events that led up to it.

She interrupted me before I was halfway through. “Please hold,” she said, and her image froze.

Within moments, a man in a green uniform blinked onto the screen. He had a brown crew cut and matching eyebrows--a human being. “Colonization Board Internal Security. What’s the problem?”

I related the events of the last several days. He listened patiently, if dispassionately, not even interrupting to ask questions.

When I had finished, he displayed no reaction at all. “We’re diverting the Hammurabi to your position. ETA: four hours, ten minutes.” He broke the connection.

The Kendalls had come into the prep room during the call, so everyone was accounted for, except Jackson, who Ethel said was sleeping off a bottle of whiskey in his room.

I stood, slipping the tablet into my pocket, and clapped for attention. “Okay, everybody, start packing. The tour is over.”

* * *

By the time I got everyone safely up to the orbital station, Wallace was in his office. The door was open so I just went in. Short of it being locked, I wouldn’t have knocked or rung the bell anyway. He was reading, and didn’t notice me until I was almost at his desk.

“Miss Napolitano,” he said, “What are you doing up here?” ” He blinked. “And why are you wearing your suit?”

I grinned at him and slapped the visor closed. “You said you’ve never been down there. I figured I’d bring you a little souvenir.”

I unzipped the suit’s tummy pouch and pulled a fist-sized piece of coral glowing with a ghastly violet light from a wad of insulation , and tossed it onto his desk. It bounced once, then rolled off the far edge into his lap.

* * *

My cabin on the CBV Hammurabi was spartan. It had a single narrow bed attached to the wall opposite the door, and a recessed alcove with a sink and a toilet. That’s all.

On the second day out from Isn’t She Pretty, I was sitting on the bed, back against the wall, counting the rivets on the ceiling when a loud buzzer sounded. The door clanked and opened with a hiss.

Rayder Flint stepped through, followed closely by a guard, who glowered at me. Rayder told the guard to wait outside. The bald, bull-necked man shot me a murderous look before taking up position just outside the open door.

I stood, pointlessly smoothing my black jumpsuit, and said nothing.

“Well,” Rayder said, “aren’t you going to ask the question?”

“What question?”

“That’s not it,” he said, smiling wryly. “The standard question in this situation is, ‘What are you doing here?’”

I was wondering that, but I was in no mood for games, so I just stood there, silently waiting.

He sighed. “And to which,” he said, “I would have replied, ‘I have good news.’”

Startled, I took a step forward. “What?”

The guard growled and put a hand on his sidearm.

Rayder grinned. “All but one of the charges Wallace leveled against you when you tried to sterilize him have been dropped,” he said, more loudly than necessary for the guard’s benefit. “You admitted to throwing the coral at Wallace, so the assault charge sticks.”

“You really aren’t a businessman,” I said. “Are you?”

“I am,” he said. “Most of the time.” He produced a thin wallet and flipped it open. A silver holographic badge flashed on one side, and the words on the other identified him as a Colonization Board internal security consultant.

“Ah, that explains a lot.”

“Right,” Rayder said, putting away the wallet. “The Board will drop the assault charge if you testify against one Hubert R. Wallace.”

I laughed. “Hubert? His name is Hubert? No wonder he said, ‘Call me Wallace.’”

“It is,” Rayder agreed, grinning. “Are you willing to testify?”

The decision wasn’t hard. “Of course!”

“I believe that’s a ‘yes’ for the record,” Rayder said, his head tilted slightly away from me, no doubt speaking to an unseen audio pickup. “Great,” he said to me. “Now, we’ll clear up some paperwork, and then we’re all set.” He turned to go, gesturing for me to follow.

“Wait,” I said. “What is Wallace being charged with?”

“Lots,” Rayder said. “Fraud, embezzlement, misappropriation, five or six more. He cut lots of corners, as you already know, and committed sabotage to collect bogus insurance claims, sometimes even double- or triple-dipping.”

“The shuttle,” I said.

“The shuttle,” he agreed, “and other things. Honestly, I can’t believe he expected to get away with it.”

“And what about Jackson?” I asked.

“He wasn’t complicit,” Rayder said.

I shook my head. “I don’t know about that. He worked on everything. How could he not have been?”

“He’s a mechanic, not an engineer. There’s a difference. An engineer would have caught the sabotage, which was software based, a Trojan horse program Wallace installed himself.”

“Jackson’s going to testify too?”

“Sure,” Rayder said, nodding toward the door. “Come on, let’s go.”

In the hallway, the guard winked at me as he closed the cell door, then sketched a salute at Rayder before walking away.

“I hope the Board is going to forget about making Isn’t She Pretty a tourist trap now,” I said as we headed away from the brig.

“Not at all,” Rayder said.

I stopped and grabbed his arm. “What the hell? I told Wallace it was a stupid idea when he hired me. Even if everything had been done right, it still wouldn’t have been safe.”

“They know that,” Rayder said. “Wallace used a targeted advertisement for the tour, but he didn’t specify that it was only for trained survival enthusiasts.” He sighed. “If I’d known, I’d have pulled the plug at the start. It wasn’t part of my initial briefing.”

“Survival enthusiasts,” I said, skeptically.

“Right,” Rayder said. “This time, they’re going to take their time and make sure it’s as safe as possible.”

“Ha,” I said. “Like Wallace, I bet not one of the Board’s muckity-mucks have ever been there and seen what the planet can do to you.”

“No, you’re probably right,” Rayder said. “That’s why they put me in charge of the new program.”


He grinned. “And I’m going to need an experienced hand to help me run things.”

I stared at him. “Are you seriously offering me a job?”

“Sure,” he said. “What do you say?”

“I’ll say yes, on one condition.”

“What’s that?”

I poked him in the chest. “When I tell you something is stupid, you listen.”

Copyright © 2018 by Ronald Linson

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