Wednesday, March 30, 2005

:::A Betting Man:::

Henrick Bjornson was bored with planet living. There never seemed to be enough adventure in it anymore. He had flown his plane, a craft that he had built himself with nothing but the basic principles of aerodynamics as a guide, through mountains and over deserts. He had seen many strange sights and was able to say without exaggeration that on more than a few occasions he had "barely escaped with his hide."

But that sort of life seemed to be ending for him. Heck, it had been almost a year now without a single mysterious or life threatening incident. All of the jobs he had taken had resulted in low, but steady pay with plenty of soreness but not much in the way of excitement or surprises. It had gotten so that a betting man would put his money firmly on the side of Henrick's survival into old age.

So Henrick had decided that the time had come for him to "make the ultimate leap," as he put it, "into the great black unknown." Unfortunately, Henrick was always a little unclear with his metaphors, and his use of this one combined with his recent spate of melancholy had left several people who knew him with the worrying impression that Henrick was planning to commit suicide - possibly by leaping off of something - instead of that he planned to book passage on a starship, as he had intended.

Henrick's first step was to sell his beloved airplane, a task that would sadden him but that he knew was necessary because he could not possibly take it with him, and besides, he would need the money. With that purpose in mind he had contacted a woman with the unflattering name of Dorg, who compensated for her uninspired christening by being an extremely shrewd merchant.

"This is your plane?" Dorg asked.
"Yep. Beautiful isn't she? I built her myself with nothing but the basic principles of aerodyn-
"She's a godforsaken antique. No one's built aircraft like this in a couple hundred years!" she said, reaching toward it, but stopping an inch away as if afraid it would fall apart if she touched it. "Does it fly?"
"Of course it flies! Look, this plane is a perfect example of how classical principles of design and the fundamental laws of-
"Look at these blades on the sides! I bet they used to use them to cut off the wings of other aircraft!"
"Those are propellers! They pull air over the wings to create the lift that allows it fly."
"Where are the ATs?" she asked, bending down to look under the plane.
"It doesn't need atmospheric thrusters. Look, it's…aw forget it. What can you give me for it Dorg?"
"Well, I won't be able to sell it to any pilots - they wouldn't know how to get it off the ground." She stepped back and squinted at it. "But I might have an idea for it. I'll give you five hundred."
"That's it? It's a working aircraft in perfect condition!"
Dorg just looked at him. Henrick sighed, closed his eyes, and stuck out his hand.

The next step for Henrick was to find the right starship. It couldn't be a normal passenger carrier. It needed to be something with a little more edginess to it - like a cargo shuttle that had room for an extra body in the crew quarters. He talked to cargo ship captains until he found one that reminded him of an old sergeant he used to know and who seemed a little cagey about the contents of his hold. They worked out a deal for Henrick to be a temporary member of the man's crew. He would go as far as their next delivery and then they would discuss whether he should stay on as permanent hand or not.
With any luck, he thought as he followed the captain toward the ship, they'll turn out to be smugglers or bounty hunters or something.

A month later, they were entering the atmosphere of another planet. Henrick had learned a lot since his arrival on board - mostly about the mechanical workings of a starship. The crew had taken to him reasonably well. He had thrown a lot of darts, played a lot cards, and cleaned a lot of engine parts with them. But despite the camaraderie, he couldn't help feeling a little bored. Danger and mystery had so far failed to find him. The only bright spot was that, try as he might, he had yet to learn anything about the cargo that they were transporting, and he felt that this was promising. After all, why keep something like that a secret unless there was some danger involved in revealing it?

The planet they were landing on was not unlike the one he had left behind. There were a few large city-states near the coastlines and on the major rivers, and then there were vast undeveloped areas of wilderness. Their ship headed down towards the outskirts of one of the urban areas. They landed on a flattened area of ground between foothills that, much to Henrick's delight, kept them well out of sight.

The crew rolled out a wheeled platform at least twenty feet square on which something large was covered by a yellow tarp. The captain approached him and said that even though it was a little out of the ordinary for a temporary hand, they were going to let him come along to help with the delivery. Henrick grinned in excitement, and quietly strapped his pistol on under his coat. Several of the other crewmembers had firearms as well, which Henrick took to be a promising sign.

The platform, although motorized, was not really up to the challenge of the hilly terrain, and Henrick and the other crew members had to put their backs into it until they crested the nearest hill. From there they could see a small group of people waiting for them with an atmospheric ship ready to transport the cargo somewhere else.

"This is it," said the captain to Henrick. "Those are the people we are here to meet."
"Who are they?" asked Henrick, trying not to sound excited.
"Antique collectors," said the captain with a smile. Henrick felt his hopes deflating. "Oh?" he said.
"We couldn't meet them in the city because of quarantine regulations. You see, our cargo is a rare item that we hope they will want for the museum, but all off-world antiques have to be kept under observation a minimum of a hundred miles outside of the city for a week to make sure that they aren't a danger."

"Afternoon," the captain called as they approached.
"Hello Joshua," a woman called from the front of the other group. There were eight of them total, all armed, but waiting calmly. Henrick's group numbered seven including himself and the captain.
"What have you got for me, Joshua?" the woman asked.
"I have here, a piece of antiquity. Under this tarp is an ancient relic from the early days of civilization. Not only will it be the only one in your collection, but it will, without doubt, be the only one of its kind on the entire planet."
Henrick sighed and looked aimlessly off into the distance.
"What is its condition?" the woman asked.
"Lord only knows how it survived this long so well preserved. It looks like it could still be used today," the captain said.
"Well, let's see it," the woman said. The captain gave a signal to one of the crewmen who jumped onto the platform, untied the yellow tarp, and pulled it back to reveal what looked a heck of a lot like Henrick's old plane.
He stared at it in shock. Yep, it was his alright. He recognized every scratch on it.

Henrick was not the only one with a look of disbelief on his face. The woman in charge of the other party was gazing at it with one eyebrow raised.
"Do you think I'm stupid, Joshua?"
"What?" asked the captain.
"I don't take kindly to people trying to swindle me," she said.
"Swindle you? I would never! This is the genuine article, Madame."
"That's no archeological find. It's a fake!"
"I assure you it is not."
"What is it, then?" she asked.
"Obviously, it's a war chariot," the captain said.
"What?" said Henrick, unable to stop himself.
"It's a war chariot!" the captain said again, throwing Henrick a look. "It was only recently discovered sealed in the tomb of an ancient prince on the planet we just left."
"No way," said the woman. "It's too ugly to have been sealed in a tomb with a prince. Where are the ritual decorations and the ancient writing? This looks like someone's old lawn mower."
"Lawn mower?" said Henrick. He could feel his face turning red. The captain tried to ignore him.
"Madame, just look at it." He pointed at the cockpit. "Here is where the warlord sat." Next he pointed at the propellers. "These were obviously used to slice apart anyone who got too close."
"No!" shouted Henrick. "It's not a chariot. It's a plane! Those are the propellers."
"Look, you shut up! Don't pay attention to him, Madame. He's only a temporary crewman that we picked up on the last planet. And anyway, how would he know?"
"Because I bloody built the thing!" Henrick shouted.
"I knew it!" yelled the woman, and she reached for her gun.
The movement was like the start of an avalanche. Everyone was suddenly either leaping for cover or drawing their guns or both.
Henrick's pistol was in his hand before he had even known he'd gone for it. He leaned backward, letting himself fall. He heard a shot from the woman's direction, and a bullet burned a line alongside his neck. He fanned the hammer of his gun with his left hand as he fell. He landed hard on his back, the air knocked out of him.
A second later, the shots stopped. After some more shouting, Henrick saw the face of the captain looking down at him from above.
"What do you mean, you built it?" he said.

Both crews got off fairly easy this time, with just some flesh wounds that would have to be stitched up. The woman had been the only fatality. The men with her were just day hires, so once their employer went down they figured there was no more point in fighting.
It turned out that this was the captain's first foray into anything other than foodstuff transporting, and the experience was something that he had decided not to repeat. The glares from the rest of the crew were enough of an indication to Henrick that he would not be welcome as a permanent crewman, which was fine with him, given the relative lack of intentional adventuring in the ship's future.
They did, however, allow him to buy back his old plane for five hundred dollars, although not without saying a few nasty things both about it and a certain female merchant who had sold it to them.

It was well into evening when the ship took off again. Henrick watched it go from the cockpit of his plane and considered his circumstances. He had very little money left to him and almost no food. In the morning he would have to fly out over an unknown planet with no idea of who was friendly and who would attack on site, what might be poisonous, or even what was considered an insult. A betting man would not put much money on Henrick's survival.

Henrick leaned back, closed his eyes, and let a quiet grin spread across his face.

posted by D @ 2:55 PM |

I love stories - especially speculative fiction, and I named this blog Brief Glimpses of Somewhere Else because I think of each story as a window into another world.

If this is your first time here, I recommend "Legacies" and "The Great Puzzle", both of which were nominated for a 2006 Parsec Award. You can also find "Timmy, Jimmy, and the Beast of Tagmart" as well as "Late Shift at the Souleater" in the podcast anthology Voices: New Media Fiction available at

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