“Kid,” Wolf said, taking his tea and swatting at The Kid as he would a dog that kept getting underfoot. “I swear to Christ, you’re really starting to make me mad.”
“Sorry, sir,” The Kid said, pulling his long hair back into a pony tail to keep it out of his eyes. “Is it the tea?”
“No,” Wolf said. “The tea’s fine. It’s you always being around. Doing things like this. You’re not getting any more money for this.”
“I know, sir.”
“I just wanted you to know.”
“I do, sir,” The Kid said absently, craning his neck to look out the forward port at the blackness that stretched endlessly in front of the ship.
“Next rock we find with oxygen, we’re leaving you there.”
“Pain in my ass.”
“Hey Kid,” said Otis, the pilot, glancing up from his navigational computer screen. “You can get me some coffee if you want.”
“You can get your own damned coffee, Otis,” Wolf said. He kicked his feet up on the console. Blowing over the top of the tea, he mumbled under his breath, “Lazy son of a bitch.”
“If I have to get my own coffee, why do we even have him,” Otis protested. “I mean what’s the point?”
“He’s supposed to help out whoever needs help,” Wolf said. “Not be your personal servant.”
“I can get you coffee if you want, sir,” The Kid said.
“Does no one listen to me,” the Wolf asked. “For Christ’s sake, Kid. Go down and see if Raj or Suzuki need help and quit screwing around.”
The Kid’s chin fell to his chest and he skulked off the quarterdeck, down the corridor past the small dining room, and into the cramped engineering section. Leaning against the hatchway, he watched Raj sit on his knees striping wires from a circuit board. When finished, he flung the naked boards over his shoulder with no care as to where they landed.
“Anything I can help you with, sir,” The Kid asked, just a whisper, not wanting to interrupt Raj’s intensity or risk actually being assigned anything to do.
Raj peeled off the last wire from the green board, tossed it over his shoulder and paused, tapping the palm of his hand with the side of the component. He looked up at The Kid and frowned. “Not unless you’ve suddenly somehow picked up the skills to manually rewire the plasma input control.”
“Uh,” mumbled The Kid. “No?”
“No, huh,” Raj said. He stood, knees popping, and dusted off his gray work trousers. “Amazing. Well then no, Stewart. I don’t need your ‘help’.”
“You still mad about last time,” The Kid asked, stuffing his hands into his pockets.
“You mean last time when you nearly shorted out the entire life support system because you didn’t provide a ground,” Raj asked. He took the last circuit board over to the workbench already over stacked with a random assortment of computer parts. “Or do you mean the last time when you ‘accidentally’ reversed the larboard IFG polarity and almost killed us all from inertial force?”
“Uh, either,” The Kid said. He offered a shy shrug of contrition. “Both? I don’t know.”
Raj pulled his work stool over and mounted it like a rider on a horse. He flipped on the soldering iron to begin modifying the component and shook his head. “Yeah. Me neither. So get out of here, Kid, before I show you what plasma burns look like first hand.”
The Kid zipped up the front of his blue crew work coat and tugged it back down. He repeated the zip-zipping a few more times until he was certain that Raj wasn’t serious. Still, he backed cautiously away from the hatchway like he would a ticking bomb until he arrived at the down ladder. With one last nervous glance over his shoulder he descended into the cargo bay below to see if the ship’s first mate, Suzuki, required his services.
He found Suzuki moving crates from one side of the bay to the other by alternately pushing and pulling on the large boxes, choosing the method depending upon which seemed to work best at the moment. They were filled with the latest cargo and, though no one had told him exactly what it was, he figured it was probably liquor. They were headed to Al Gharbiyah and everyone was jumpy about choosing the proper landing spot. It wasn’t the most return on risk the crew of The Trout had ever seen but booze runs to the dry planet always put a few clusters into their pockets.
“Need any help,” The Kid asked. He zipped his coat up again so as not to dirty his one clean shirt with labor.
Suzuki stopped and studied the crates that remained, wiping the sweat from his face with a kerchief. “Yeah,” he said. “I need to move these boxes so Raj can get to the computer systems below the deck plate.”
“Why don’t we just turn off the grav and move them that way?”
“Huh,” Suzuki said. “Why the hell didn’t I think of that? Because they’re filled with glass, idiot, and if they’re not on the ground when we turn it back on it’s a big damned mess.”
“Ah. Yeah,” The Kid whispered. He cocked his head, the wheels inside cranking on the problem.
“So pick a box and push it.”
After another moment, The Kid positioned himself behind one of the crates. It was almost as tall as he was but weighed twice as much. He tried pushing with against the middle, but the force went unregistered. Putting his shoulder against it and shoving with all the strength in his legs carried it less than a few centimeters before he had to reposition himself.
In half an hour the crate was just over halfway across the cargo bay. The Kid stopped and leaned against the liquor-filled monolith, panting with exertion.
“Jesus,” he gasped. “Why the hell did we put so much into one crate?”
Suzuki, finished nudging a crate against the far bulkhead and crossed the bay to begin work on another. Looking for a moment at the next crate like an insurmountable task, he bent over, hands on knees and breathed deep, shaking his head. He laughed at The Kid’s, not because it was a dumb one but because he had begun to wonder the same thing.
“So we can get as much off as quickly as possible,” he said, coughing out a shallow chuckle.
The Kid slid down the side of his crate and sat on the cold steel floor. The background thrum of the Ion-Plasma power plant reverberated up through him.
“Well, if we use the tractor to get these things on and off, why not just haul them with it?”
“Carbon monoxide,” Suzuki grunted, sitting down himself. He pulled a cigarette case from his trouser pockets and lit one, taking a moment to let the spots clear from his vision. “And the petrol bill isn’t coming out of our, well, my end.”
“Great,” The Kid sighed.
“Hey,” Suzuki said, a sudden thought popping into his head. “Where the hell is that troll of a bunkmate of yours?”
The Kid shook his head, too out of breath to answer. He didn’t know, nor care. The last person he ever wanted to see was the first mug in his face each morning.
“Son of a bitch,” Suzuki said. “I don’t even know what that guy does when we’re not nat-grav.”
“Son of a bitch,” Suzuki sighed. He pulled himself up off the deck, hands searching the crate for grips to help his trembling and tired legs. “Alright, Kid. These things won’t move themselves.”
The Kid nodded and climbed his crate in the same manner, taking a moment to ensure his weak knees would hold. Positioning himself behind his box, he shoved and the crate’s moved another few centimeters. Another forty-five minutes saw the two oversized boxes in their new locations and another pair in transit.
“Cullers! Get your ass down here and give us a hand,” Suzuki called.
The Kid’s head jerked first to first mate’s red face, dark eyes filled with killing intent, and followed it to see Edgar Cullers, leaning against a bulkhead. A gorilla of a man, hair covered his body everywhere except his face. As if to feed everyone’s expectations of him, he peeled a banana with fingers as thick as sausages and finished it in two bites.
“Skipper doesn’t pay me to move the cargo,” Edgar said, his mouth full. “I just defend it.”
“Cullers, I swear to all that’s holy, I’ll shoot you myself if you don’t do some work around here.”
Edgar grinned a mouthful of crooked teeth where they weren’t missing. He peeled himself away from the bulkhead and lumbered over to The Kid. Edgar greeted him with a slap across the back of his head.
“Look’s like you’ve got all the help you need.”
Grabbing The Kid, he put the boy into a headlock, scraping his knuckles across The Kid’s skull. The Kid swung his arms and legs wildly, fighting to get out of Edgar’s grasp. Edgar giggled and jerked The Kid back left and right.
“Cullers,” Suzuki sighed. “Let him go. At least he’s useful.”
“Sure,” Edgar said. He released The Kid and pulled him up, holding the teenager by the shoulders. Edgar pressed his hands into the boy’s chest and shoved, The Kid flailing backwards across the cargo bay. The Kid’s feet couldn’t keep up with the momentum and he fell, twisting in mid-air to land face first, sliding another few feet until stopped by the friction of steel deck plates.
“What,” Edgar asked, holding his meaty hands up in a protestation of innocence. “If he can’t stay on his feet, that’s his problem.”
The Kid pulled himself up off the deck with the help of a nearby crate, straightening his jacket and trousers. His nose bled and he swiped at it with a small hand, feeling tears beginning to well in his eyes. He sniffed to hold them back. After a year of abuse from Edgar he knew it that any tears would soon dissolve into sobs of frustration.
Pulling himself together, The Kid charged at Edgar, his right arm flung backward to throw a punch. Edgar tensed, ready for the incoming fist. But The Kid stopped half a meter away and a swift left leg swung up with all the force the boy could summon, it’s target the man’s crotch. Edgar’s knee broke inward to parry the blow and most of The Kid’s force ended up in the bigger man’s thigh. Edgar’s eyes opened wide with the realization of what The Kid had meant to do.
“You little bastard,” Edgar said, reaching for The Kid’s collar. The Kid, cursing himself for missing, ducked the man’s butcher block hands and retreated around him.
“Stop,” Suzuki said. “Stop both of you.”
“I’m going to gut you as soon as I get my hands on you, you little shit,” Edgar roared, a fat finger aimed at The Kid’s.
“You can try,” said The Kid. “But I’ll kill you in your sleep.”
“God damn it,” Suzuki said. “Both of you, shut up!”
The first mate backed over to a console, his eyes keeping overwatch on the bunkmates. He punched the intercom button for the quarterdeck. “Skipper,” he said into the open channel. “I need you down here.”
Edgar’s face was bunched mask of furry as he tried to stare down The Kid. The teenager remained tense, ready to juke and run if the bigger man came at him. Suzuki placed himself between the pair and waited for Wolf to arrive. A minute later, the Captain, with Otis and Raj behind him, entered the cargo bay and observed the situation.
“What’s the problem here,” Wolf asked.
“Edgar’s pissed that The Kid tried to nut him,” Suzuki said, careful keep an eye on the two.
“Well, this has been a long time coming,” Wolf said. He moved between the feuding pair and tapped Suzuki on the shoulder to relieve him. “Do you two really want to do this?”
“You’re god damned right,” Edgar growled.
“Do what,” asked The Kid.
“Fight it out,” Wolf said. “I’ll let you two fight it out, clean, bare knuckled. Just so long as this shit between you stops.”
“Come on, Kid,” Edgar said. He kicked at the deck like a bull about to charge. “Let’s dance.”
“Clean,” the Captain confirmed. “First one down loses and that’s it.”
The Kid studied his opponent and weighed the possible outcome of the fight. At one hundred and sixty pounds, The Kid was lean with just enough muscle to not look scrawny. On the other hand, Edgar weighed an easy two-fifty and a great deal of that bulk in his arms. Edgar’s arms were as big as The Kid’s thighs. Plus some. Any punch Edgar managed to land was going to take him down but he couldn’t pass up the chance to try to bloody the man a little. Even if it was only with his own.
“Let’s do it,” The Kid said, peeling off his jacket and then his shirt. His feet began a little shuffle of a dance and he rolled his head once on his shoulders.
Edgar didn’t bother to strip. Once Wolf was out of the way, he charged the teenager and swung with all of his might at The Kid’s head. The Kid ducked the furious but slow punch and backed up a step. Edgar swiveled on his heel to face him. But his momentum was going the wrong way. He was off-balance and on one foot. The Kid swept in and delivered a swift, accurate uppercut to Edgar’s jaw.
Edgar didn’t stumble backwards. His bulk was carrying him forward and only another solid object would stop his momentum. When the blow connected with his jaw, his mouth snapped shut and his brain switched off like a light. Physics became Edgar’s master. He fell forward, still twisting, and landed with a heavy thump, sliding across the smooth deck plating half a meter.
The Kid juked out of the way, ducking a weaving before he realized what had happened. He stopped shuffling and dropped his hands to observe his unconscious tormenter lying on the deck, snorting like a pig through his nose. The bay was silent except for the rumble of Edgar’s breathing and the ever present hum of the engines and hiss of the life support system. The Kid turned, a look of surprise in his wide eyes and saw that the rest of the crew stood just as shocked.
“Well,” Wolf said, blinking. “I’ll be damned.”
Suzuki worked to close his dropped jaw and his lips curled into a grin as he looked up at the skipper.
“Damned is right,” he said. “It’s just like Dutch Klein’s fight in thirty-nine.”
“One Touch Dutch,” Wolf said. “Son of a bitch.”
As grins and laughter spread across the members of the crew, The Kid turned red with embarrassment, a shy smile on the corners of his mouth. But before he could join in, the dull throb in his right hand became a sharp stinging. Rubbing it, the pain intensified exponentially and he shrieked in agony.
“Raj, Otis,” Wolf said over his shoulder, his smile as broad as anyone had ever seen it. “Take our Dutch here to the infirmary and have a look at his hand.”
Raj lifted himself off the small box on which he sat and nodded toward the unconscious lump on the deck. “What about Cullers?”
“Suzuki and I’ll take dumb nuts here back to his bunk.”
Wolf approached The Kid with the closest thing to pride The Kid had ever seen. He clapped him on the shoulder and his hand squeezed tight.
“Well done, Dutch. Well done.”
“Thank you, sir,” The Kid croaked.
“You really think you’re going to screw me out of my cut,” Edgar said. He blinked in small flutters as sand kicked into his eyes with the startup of The Trout’s vertical take-off and landing jets.
“Screw you,” Dutch asked. His tone was one of injury at the accusation but no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t surpress the grin that left his eyes small slits behind the protective goggles. “I’m not screwing you. I don’t make crew decisions. That’s the skipper’s call.”
“This isn’t any way to treat a man recovering from a concussion.”
“Yeah, well,” Dutch said. “That you earned.”
He kept his finger of his good hand on the trigger of the pistol that Wolf had given him. Though he had the advantage of sight over Edgar, it didn’t mean the bigger man might not try something.
“You want a second shot at me?”
“The next shot you get from me’ll be fatal,” Dutch said.
“The hell am I supposed to do on this goddamned world. No money. No ammo for my stash. What am I supposed to do, huh?” Edgar kicked at the sand around him in frustration but all it did was stir up more for the jets send into his eyes. “Son of a mother god damn it,” he cried as he tore at them with his fingers. “I always knew this crew was dirty!”
“Just head north,” Dutch called over the rising scream of the engines. “You’ll either hit Al-Azziziah or water! I’m sure you’ll figure out how to survive!”
“You better hope that I don’t ever find you, ‘Dutch’,” Edgar called back. “Because if I do, we’re going to even some debts!”
“I look forward to it,” Dutch replied as he backed into the open cargo bay of The Trout. He kept his weapon trained on Edgar as the doors closed but he saw that he need not have worried. Edgar was consumed by the miniature sandstorm and was swinging at the stinging grains like a man in the middle of a bee attack. As the doors banged shut and sealed with the hiss of pressurization, Dutch lowered his gun and turned to find Captain Wolf watching from the bay hatchway.
“How’d that feel,” Wolf asked.
“More satisfying than knocking him out, actually.”
Wolf chuckled once and pulled himself away from the wall, almost meandering over to the bay doors. Putting his arm around the boy, he walked Dutch out of the bay and towards the quarterdeck as if strolling along a garden path.
“Here’s how it breaks down, Dutch,” Wolf said. “You get the ten percent Cullers made at the end of every job. Starting with this one. That makes you a full member of the crew. But you’ve got to do your part, you understand?”
Wolf glanced over his shoulder at the bay doors and sighed.
“Goddamn I’m glad to be rid of that guy.”