“Here they come,” Hamilton’s voice buzzed over the radio. Dutch nodded at The Kid sitting next to him and cracked a wicked grin. Gunning the engine, Dutch threw the rig into gear and the truck jerked into the middle of the country road from its hiding place in the cornfield, cutting Route 9. Somewhere in the darkness, a prison bus headed their way.
Dutch pumped the action on a shotgun, loading a shell into the chamber and handed it to The Kid. Searching for the other along the door panel, he took it for himself and opened the cab door, leaping to the potholed pavement below.
Dutch felt along his belt for his phone and dialed the Trout, connecting with an electronic beep. He held it to his mouth like a walkietalkie. “No shots,” Dutch said. “Shots get the skipper killed. Stephanie, ETA?”
“Two minutes, Dutch,” she said. There was stress in her voice and Dutch could tell she was concentrating hard. “Just picked up Hamilton. We’ll be there in one.”
Warner glanced at his watch, counting the seconds and searching for any lights in the distance. The Kid stood beside him, holding the shotgun like a magic totem. Dutch ripped it out of his hands and slammed the butt against The Kid’s shoulder to show him how it ought to be held. The Kid nodded, teeth chattering from nerves.
Dutch pointed at the dirt shoulder. “Go lay down over there.” Watching for a moment just to ensure The Kid could follow the most simple instruction, he turned his attention back to the watch on his wrist, mumbling. “And, don’t get up until the bus stops…”
The Iowa night was almost as dark as the deep space between Earth and the colonies. There were no streetlights that far out in the country and Warner was always surprised by just how dark night on the human home world could be. Weren’t there ten billion people? Where the hell where all of them?
“Thirty seconds,” Stephanie chirped through the phone. “We’re on their tail.”
“All right people,” Dutch said. He pumped his gun, up and down with one hand. In the distance, two small bright globes appeared at the end of the road, bobbing his way. “This is it.”
The skipper had been pinched earlier in the day. The Iowa State Police had somehow discovered that he was brokering a deal to transport weapons out to the colonies and were there to grab him. The contact got away and Dutch finalized the deal despite the law’s best efforts. But the skipper was still left to deal with.
By the time the bus driver noticed the roadblock there was nothing he could do. The airbrakes squealed as the bus slid to a stop just yards from slamming into the side of the hijacked rig. Stephanie brought the Trout up from behind, the hurricane force winds of the ship’s vertical take off and landing jets blowing dirt up from every direction. The cargo bay doors up front were wide open under the quarterdeck opened and the flood lights from inside were blinding. She landed the ship with a metallic thunk and scrape of the cargo doors on the pavement.
Dutch watched the driver. He jerked back and forth in his seat, looking in front and behind, his hands turning the wheel as he considered going past on the dirt shoulder. But the bus was top heavy and Dutch saw the driver knew it as well.
Marching over to the bus with the barrel of his shotgun showing wide for the driver to stare down, Dutch smiled and nodded for the man to look behind him. Hamilton, no one’s definition of a small man emerged from the cargo bay and approached from the rear. The Kid came from the side. Three scatterguns wielded by at least two who looked as if they knew how.
Dutch rapped his knuckles against the bus’ door with a wide grin.
“Turn off the engine,” Dutch asked like a man who wanted to help. The windows on the bus were bulletproof but the people that they were supposed to protect never seemed to remember. It was a quirk Dutch always found amusing. “Turn the engine off now!”
The driver, a fat man who stretched the seams of his uniform, raised his pudgy hands in the air but refused to take any action. Hamilton grunted as he passed Dutch and tossed a crowbar at The Kid. The Kid caught it and pried open the hood while Hamilton and Dutch made sure no one inside moved. Once inside the engine compartment, The Kid smashed the distributor cap with a few sharp blows and the motor sputtered out.
“All we want is Wolf,” Dutch said. “You let him out, we let everyone go. Pretty easy.”
The second guard in the bus ran down the aisle trying–with the butt of his own shotgun–to keep the eight reluctant passengers quiet. “No one’s getting out of here,” the guard said, a little more panicked than confident. “They can’t get in here, and we’re not letting anyone go.”
The bus driver let his hands fall to his lap and to the pistol in his belt’s holster. A smile began to stretch across his pudgy face. He swiveled in his seat and looked out through the closed doors with a self-satisfied grin.
“Listen up,” Dutch said. “You may not have noticed, but we’ve got a ship that can carry this bus easier than I can carry that kid over there. You either let Wolf out now or we drop you on some rock in an airless corner of space, understand?”
The driver glanced at the guard, a twitch of worry at the corners of his eyes. The guard shook his head in disbelief. “They’re not going to do it,” he said.
“Hooks,” Dutch said to Hamilton over a shoulder.
“Right,” Hamilton said. He retreated back to cargo bay in an easy stroll, throwing the shotgun over a shoulder like a man on a walk.
“Kid,” Dutch said. “Get in the truck. Prepare to push.”
The Kid dropped the crowbar and ran to the rig. Tossing his shotgun inside, he climbed in and started its engine with a roar from the floored gas pedal. He maneuvered the truck backward and forward until the truck came nose to nose with the disabled bus and waited, the engine idling with a wet diesel sound. Hamilton dragged two big hooks on chains from the cargo bay winch and placed them under the rear bumper of the bus, laughing the whole way.
“What the hell are you doing,” the bus driver asked, tickling the grip of his pistol with fat fingers.
“Going on a trip,” Dutch said, waving for The Kid to begin.
Hamilton switched on the winch and the chains pulled the disabled bus in with the help of the pushing truck. Had anyone in Iowa been closer than five miles, the screeching and grinding of metal might have stirred them from their sleep.
The ship shot from Earth’s atmosphere like a bullet and sped toward the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Dutch ordered the transponder killed so no tracking station could follow them amidst all of the other flotsam in space. In just a few hours, they set down on a spinning rock, alone and unseen by anyone who might chance by. Not that they would. Even within the Sol System, space was a very large place to hide.
Dutch took his time climbing down from the quarterdeck and stopped in the galley to fill a cooler with beer and ice. The part of the operation where they had to hurry was over and he was preparing for the standoff phase. The Kid was in the cargo bay, gun aimed at the doors, watching to make sure no one tried anything. Hamilton helped Dutch carry the cooler, a cribbage board tucked into the waist of his trousers.
Dutch and Hamilton unfolded a pair of lawn chairs next to the bus’ doors and set up a table with a deck of cards, the cribbage board, and an ashtray. They lit a pair of cigarettes, opened three beers, and dealt a hand. It was oddly homey considering that there was an abducted prison bus parked not ten feet away from them. The Kid took a beer and clanked it against the men’s bottles, drinking half to calm his nerves.
Hamilton was up on Dutch by three games to two when the guard knocked inside the bus’ window to get their attention. “We need food,” he said. “And trips to the bathroom.”
The two men glanced at each other and laughed at the balls of it.
“We’re not police,” Dutch said. He took a swig of beer. “You don’t get anything until we get Wolf. It’s that simple.”
“But it’s going to be a mess in here. And no one’s eaten in hours.”
“Yeah, well…,” Dutch said, scratching his head with the cards. “That’s not really our problem. Uh…?”
“Bob,” the guard said. It was more a question than an answer.
“Yeah,” Dutch said. “That’s not really our problem, Bob.”
“Morons,” Hamilton grunted. He dropped two cards from his hand into the crib.
Dutch stared at the cards for a moment as if confused by their presence. “Whose crib,” he asked.
“Mine,” Hamilton said. “I dealt.”
“Fuck. Always when I’ve got a good hand.”
“I hear some crying,” Hamilton said. “But I didn’t think we had any little girls on this crew.”
“Yeah, yeah…” Dutch tossed two atop what Hamilton dropped. They were points but he didn’t have any choice.
Bob rapped his knuckles against the bulletproof glass. He sat in the stairwell and held the shot gun limp across his lap. “Uh, hey?”
“What,” Hamilton and Dutch asked in unison. They were counting to thirty-one and the interruption was breaking the flow of the game.
“Can we at least get some water?”
“No,” Dutch said. Remembering that they were at twenty-one, he dropped a king. “A pair for two and thirty-one for four… And stop asking.”
The standoff was more or less entertaining for the first day or two. Dutch was determined to wait out the guards to get the skipper back but the humor was beginning to wear by the third day. Hamilton had begun thinking up new tortures and mind games to get the guards to open up while the kid circled the bus kicking its tires for want of anything better to do. Even Stephanie had come down and wondered aloud about whether the people inside shouldn’t be provided with food. Dutch shook his head and ordered her back to the quarterdeck. Any relief just make the standoff go on.
Wolf, for his part, didn’t say a word. His head rested against the window and a smirk curled the corners of his lips For a man in his early sixties he was dealing well with not having anything to eat or a place to relieve himself. And every time the guard or driver tried to ask for something and his first mate said no, he chuckled and rolled his head against the glass.
But everyone was growing bored and restless. The bus was beginning to smell like a latrine and its passengers were little better. Not that they had to worry about any more urine. The last person on the bus had relieved himself in the back corner almost a day before.
Everyone was suffering from some kind of dry mouth and a headache made worse by the dry air of the life support inside the Tomcat. The guards were the worst off. The ordeal had made them sweat more than the prisoners who stayed calm in their imitation leather bench seats. The driver had passed out at the wheel and Bob’s head weaved through the air each time he stood. As Dutch circled the bus, Kid on his heals, he hoped Bob would follow the diver’s example. Then the prisoners could take his gun and keys and let themselves out. But there was also the worry that Bob might try to go out in a blaze of glory first.
“How’re you doing in there, Bob,” Dutch asked.
“I need water,” Bob said, voice scratchy with thirst.
“Open the door and you can have all the water you want,” Dutch said. “You know, the sooner you open the door, the sooner I can drop you somewhere nice. Like that hotel on Mars. Or, hey, how about that resort around Saturn? What do you think?”
“Can’t do that,” Bob mumbled. His head lolled from side to side.
“Come on, Bob,” Dutch said. He slammed his fist against the locked door and several prisoner’s heads jerked up. “You’re an Iowa state trooper, not the UN fleet. Just open the fucking door already!”
Bob’s glazed eyes stared back through the window and Dutch recognized a fresh fire behind them. Pumping his shotgun, Bob aimed it at Mitch Wolf and wobbled over to the man Dutch guessed he was seeing two of.
“You drop us back on Earth or, so help me god, you’re going to be finding his teeth for weeks!”
Dutch stood on his toes to see inside.
“I know you’re not that stupid Bob,” he said. “You kill him, and we vent this bay. And that doesn’t get you anywhere, now does it?”
Bob pumped his shotgun again and a shell plinked against the window but the aim was steady on the skipper. “I’m fucking serious!”
“So am I. And which one of us doesn’t have to do something stupid to prove it?”
Bob glanced over his shoulder at Dutch, leaning against the side of the bus, cigarette between his lips and hands cupping a flame against the non-existant breeze. A tremble began to shake the barrel of the shotgun as stress overtook him. After the gun made a few wide circles, Bob relented and held it high, chin falling to meet his chest in defeat.
“Okay,” Bob said. “Okay. I’ll open the door.”
“Good,” Dutch said. He grabbed the phone from his belt. “Hamilton, Kid, Doc, I need you down in the bay, please.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to collect all of the weapons in there,” Dutch said. “Then toss them and any handcuffs you have out the front door. Yeah?”
Bob nodded and unlocked the gate separating the driver from the prisoners and pushed on the handle to open the door. Dutch took two steps back, pistol drawn but aimed at the steel floor. Bob tossed out the shotgun along with an ankle holster, the driver’s gun, a key ring, and two sets of handcuffs. Hamilton arrived and gave The Kid a swat on the head and The Kid went to collect them.
“Okay,” Warner said. “Now grab your buddy there and come on out.”
Dutch and Hamilton kept their guns at the ready but Bob did as ordered. He lugged his pudgy partner out and laid him on a stretcher the doctor had set up. Doc wheeled the driver away to the sickbay to re-hydrate the fat man. Hamilton handcuffed the state police officer.
“Skip,” called Dutch. “You can come on out any time now.”
Mitch Wolf pulled himself up off his seat and limped on limbs atrophied from days of sitting out of the foul smelling bus. The Kid unlocked his restraints.
“Nice work Dutch,” Wolf said. “Very nice work.”
With every prisoner unloaded and shown to the passenger quarters, Dutch and Hamilton suited up and depressurized the cargo bay. They killed the artificial gravity and pushed the bus out onto the barren little rock on which they sat. The lack of gravity and inertia allowed the terrestrial vehicle to float off into the blackness of space. The Iowa State Police prisoner transport bus flipped nose over toes through the asteroid field growing more distant in the blackness every second until it seemed to just disappear. The two men watched, bemused, for almost fifteen minutes before heading back inside.
They re-pressurized the bay, de-suited, and lined up the recently liberated outside the passenger quarters.
“Well,” Dutch said. “I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news. The good news is that if you want to be, you’re all free men. The bad news is that if you want to go back to Earth, you’re going to have to find your own way.”
“What do you mean that we’re ‘free men’,” asked a kid named Wayne.
“I mean that you lucked out and got freed along with our skipper,” Dutch said. “You can either get off at the Saturn resort with the lawmen or go out to the colonies with us. Up to you.”
“But we can’t go back to Earth?”
“No. You can. But you’ll have to do it from Saturn,” Dutch said “I don’t recommend it though. It’s the surest way to get pinched again.”
“Well, hell yeah,” Wayne said with a hoot. “I was arrested on my third strike. Ain’t no way I’m going back.”
“I’m not going to the colonies,” grunted an older man. “I was on a drunk and disorderly. All I had was a week to serve.”
“Like I said,” Dutch sighed. “The choice is yours. We have a day until we reach Saturn. You have until then to make it.”
Nodding at Hamilton to explain it a third time if need be, Dutch excused himself from the group and headed up to the quarterdeck. Wolf and Stephanie poured over the star charts on a heads-up-display. Dutch stood at the rear and watched them for a minute before making his presence known with the click of his lighter.
“I think we’re going to have a fifty-fifty split on who stays and who goes,” Dutch said.
“Figured as much,” said Wolf. “I wasn’t exactly traveling with a bunch of hardened criminals.”
“Yeah, well…” Dutch fell into the co-pilot’s chair and kicked his feet up onto the console. “Did Hamilton tell you we got the guns?”
Wolf grinned and reached up to stroke the steel bulkhead. “He did. Almost makes me wonder whether I’m even needed on this boat anymore.”
“I guess it’s a good thing you own her then,” Dutch said.
Wolf’s grin grew broader and he shrugged.
“Just thinking… With the take we’re going to make on this shipment plus what I’ve got stashed away, I could probably retire to a pretty little cottage somewhere on a very distant moon. Wouldn’t have much need for a boat like this. Might make sense to sell her.”
Dutch took a final pull on his cigarette and stubbed it out. “That a fact?”
“Why? Would you be interested?”