Triumph And Misery
AD 9026 . . .
GRUBHTRON GALAXY . . .
STARSHIP RUBY DARTON . . .
CARGO HOLD . . .
Zebulon Finnegan firmly gripped the rapier, then swung it backwards and forwards as he found its balance. He lifted the sword in front of his face, eyed his foe, then stepped sideways and steadied the blade in front of his body. Pointing the tip at his opponent, he positioned his feet in his fighting stance and prepared himself for battle. Zebulon breathed deeply to calm his nerves, and to relax his muscles. Regardless of his efforts, every muscle in his body was tense as he went through his mental checklist as he prepared himself for the fight.
The android stood before Zebulon, swinging his blade in the same fashion. However, the robot did it merely from programming, with no thoughts of preparing for combat. The android stood a good foot and a half taller than Zebulon and was at least ten times stronger. He wore a one-piece grey bodysuit that blended into the surrounding stacks of carbon fiber cargo pods, making him look larger and more menacing than he really was.
Zebulon stared at the android’s face. In their past sparring, he learned to focus on the white synthetic skin that stretched over its mechanical body. His head and hands contrasted against the dark background. That technique made it easier for Zebulon to follow him during maneuvers.
They posed in their positions about fifteen feet apart. Each held the hilt of the sword up near his face. The thin steel blades towered above their heads, waiting for the clashing of metal to begin. Zebulon’s heart raced.
“Are you ready to do this?” the android asked.
“I have never been more ready,” Zebulon said. “En garde!”
“En garde,” the android repeated. “Does this dress make me look fat?”
Zebulon shook his head. Seconds later, they sprang towards each other. Zebulon and IQ32 engaged swords in the center of the arena marked by the stacked cargo pods. IQ32 set the tempo as the metal blades rang with the repeated slaps. For an android, he was very dexterous. He did not move like a stiff robot, and swordplay elevated his fluidity.
They took turns on the offense, beating with diagonal and horizontal cuts and then parrying, in defense of the other. As the fight drew on, the maneuvers became more complicated and intense. With spinning twists, overhead chops, and behind the back blocks, the tempered steel whizzed around their bodies without a single touch to the flesh.
With great skill and precision, Zebulon used every move he knew to parry the android’s attacks and dodge his thrusts. This continued as Zebulon moved from defender to attacker and back to defender again as each tried to de-sword the other.
Privately, Zebulon had been working on his stamina. He used an old pod in the corner to practice hitting and increase his endurance. IQ32 could go on for days without tiring, so Zebulon had to last as long as he could. In the ten years of fencing lessons, he had never removed IQ32’s sword from his hand. Zebulon was determined to change that today.
Sweat beaded on his brow, below his almost-white spiky hair, and the slight perspiration caused his crimson, long-sleeved shirt to stick to his back. Already tiring, Zebulon tried as hard as he could to remove IQ32’s sword.
He accessed his photographic memory to hit his opponent with every move he was taught, but he just could not get the right positioning.
“Is that all you have—monkey brains?” IQ32 said, effortlessly fending off his attacks.
“No,” Zebulon replied between breaths. “I have more!” He turned with the android, the tips of their swords locked together as they circled and measured each other.
“Show me what you have—boy!” IQ32 said, his head twitching to the side.
With that comment, Zebulon’s frustration mounted and a deep anger welled up in his gut. Zebulon stepped forward struck like a coiled snake. He slapped IQ32’s sword, hitting the blade high and inside. Then he had a revelation. There was no way he was going to get the upper hand against the android’s nanotechnology and circuitry.
I need to do something to throw IQ32 off track. Something he’s never seen in our sparring before.
Zebulon had memorized the thousands of offensive and defensive moves. He was now seeing some of the same ones from the android.
This combination is familiar, Zebulon thought. I know what’s coming next.
Do it—Do it now! the voice inside his head urged.
Yes . . . now! he thought and steadied himself.
Zebulon opened the door to his wardrobe with his thoughts, levitated a boot from the floor of the wardrobe, and flung it at IQ32. The heel hit the android in the back of the head, causing IQ32 to pause for a fraction of a second.
That was all Zebulon needed. He slid the edge of his sword along IQ32’s blade, twirled his tip around and up, launching IQ32’s sword into the air. He stood for a second in disbelief as the sword flew overhead and landed with a loud clink on the metal floor of the cargo hold, sliding across to the base of a pod.
Zebulon lunged into the air and pumped his fist violently, still holding the sword.
“YES—YES—YES—YES!” Zebulon shouted, as he wildly leaped around his table. He savored the moment he became a “true swordsman” and reveled in the triumph. Ten long years he had wanted to do that . . . and now he had.
“Bacon Boy!” a voice shouted from his right.
Zebulon’s father stood between two cargo pods. His large hulking body filled the space. Every muscle in Zebulon’s body tensed up.
“Bacon Boy, let’s go!” John Finnegan barked. His sharp words bounded off the metal rafters. “We’re in orbit. A supply ship is about to dock and we have to accept and load her—that’s more important than your foolish sword fighting—get a move on!” John kicked the sword, sliding it towards IQ32.
As usual, his father’s words stung Zebulon’s soul. He hated that nickname and especially hated it when John called him that. All that was good a moment ago turned to poison. With sulking eyes, Zebulon watched his father turn and disappear around the corner.
Zebulon turned from IQ32 and shuffled toward his wardrobe. He strapped on his utility belt as IQ32 put the swords back in their place on the wall.
The android sat down with his back firmly against a cargo pod. He stretched his legs straight out and placed his arms at his sides as he reduced his functions to power save mode.
Choking back the mixture of emotion, Zebulon kicked the door of the wardrobe shut. The corner of the steel door caught his shin.
“Blorking door!” he said, cursing.
As he rubbed the sting away, he looked around at his meager surroundings.
The corner of the cargo hold was not the typical starship room. Two of his four walls consisted of the backs of supply pods stacked up to the ceiling. His green, military-issue cot was jammed into the corner. At the foot of the thin bed, a desk was wedged against the wall. The giant wardrobe stood against the pods and a round, metallic table that sat solitarily in the center of the room.
His father would be angry with him if he dawdled. Rubbing the intense pain away, Zebulon limped across the makeshift room, through the maze of pods and machinery, and met his father in the pressurized cabin of the docking chamber.
“What took you so long?” asked his father.
“Well, don’t let nuttin’ hold you up next time!”
He could tell it was going to be a horrible day by his father’s bad attitude. Zebulon needed his father to be in a good mood so he could ask him about having his fifteenth birthday party tomorrow.
Zebulon stood at ease, his legs spread apart with his feet planted on the metal grate. He had pulled his arms behind his back, his right hand clenched into a fist held in the palm of his left hand. Zebulon kept his back straight and his stomach pulled in, his chest slightly pushed out. He took a deep breath to calm his nerves. He did not like the confined spaces, especially that of the small pressure cabin. If he did not control himself, a panic attack would ensue.
Zebulon focused on his father’s back. John stood straight and stiff in his dark blue military uniform. He looked like a toy soldier standing at attention, arms held tight against his body and hands pressed against his trousers just below his utility belt. Zebulon tried to get his mind off of thinking about the closed in space they were in while the ship docked.
“Where’s the ship from?” he asked his father.
“Penal planet P347,” answered John.
“What’s the name of the prison there?”
Zebulon always asked the name of the prisons on the penal planets that they supplied. He liked hearing their different names.
“Zartacla,” answered his father.
“What kind of prison is it?”
John gave him a crusty look. “It is a maximum security prison.”
“Who do they keep there?”
“Some of the galaxies most notorious and dangerous criminals,” answered John, stoutly. “You’ll be there one day if you don’t shape up.”
“Then I’ll be notorious . . . or dangerous.” Zebulon said under his breath.
Zebulon waited for the supply ship to complete her lengthy docking procedures. He had been through them a thousand times at various ports with his father. However, with his phobia of enclosed and tight places, the process never went fast enough for him. Zebulon stood at attention, waiting for the steel door to open. Large claws would clamp the ship into place in order for them to begin loading or unloading the cargo through the breezeway.
Waiting behind his father, Zebulon’s palms began to sweat. His heart pounded in his chest, and he breathed more rapidly. The anticipation of thinking about asking his father for the party compounded his claustrophobia.
Finally, the large thud came from the other side of the door, the supply ship rocked, and the lights in the breezeway flickered for a moment. Then a second smaller ship flew in through the open bay doors, pulled up, and docked next to the larger supply ship.
What is that other ship doing here? There isn’t another one on the docking schedule, thought Zebulon.
John punched in a code on the pad in front of him and the large hull doors closed. After a few minutes, pressurized air blew down from hundreds of vents and they were ready to unload the ship.
John stepped through the door and held it open, “Secure the smaller vessel first,” he ordered.
“Affirmative.” Zebulon replied in his father’s military lingo. He knew that his father wanted him to act like one of the crew when he was working with him.
Zebulon double-timed it over to the smaller ship. The exterior was rough, scarred from what looked like hundreds of plasma bursts. There were several larger, charred, dents from what looked like encounters with small asteroids.
Zebulon crouched, grabbed the electrical umbilical from the power port, and connected it to the ship. The external door slid open and a massive, burly man stepped onto the dock. His thick-soled, black leather boots thundered down onto the concrete. Zebulon gazed at the Space Pirate towering over him. The pirate wore an oil-stained, red velvet coat that hung down past his waist, covering his sturdy canvas trousers. A velvet black, tricorn hat, adorned with a flamboyant bird’s feather stuck out over his forehead, shadowing his scraggly mono-brow and his sunken eyes. His tangled, black hair flowed nonstop into a mangy, braided beard that hung past the middle of his chest and covered the red sash he wore over his shoulder. The hilt of a dagger peeked over the top of his belt. By the looks of the brute, Zebulon suspected the pirate had a small plasma pistol hidden in the sash.
Droogs. Space Pirates. Miners. Smugglers. Some of them had even taken up the old-fashioned name of Buccaneers. Whatever you called them, they were not good, and trouble always followed.
Zebulon stood up and looked into the figure’s menacing, brown eyes. The man looked as if he had just stepped off the Jolly Roger. (The ship from one of his favorite Earth books.)
The only thing missing is a skull and crossbones flag, a beach, and a treasure chest.
The Droog, who was at least a foot taller than Zebulon and twice as big, hunched over until they were eye to eye. “What’r you looking at, pig boy?” Spittle sprayed from his mouth, hitting Zebulon in the face.
“Er, nuttin’,” said Zebulon, trying not to vomit from the stench of fermented apples, onions and rotten meat. He remembered Dampier from months ago. He didn’t like him then, and he didn’t like him now.
“Didn’t your father tell you, it ain’t polite to stare?”
“Didn’t your father tell you . . . don’t spray it, when you say it?” Zebulon said wiping his face with his sleeve.
Just then, John walked up. “Dampier, it’s been a while. What brings you to this part of the galaxy?”
The Droog stared at Zebulon another moment, shook his head, then turned and grabbed forearms with John. “I’m here to get supplies. You are a supply ship—right?” They pounded their chests in unison, as some kind of greeting. “By the way, you need to train your little piggy not to stare. I’d be happy to teach it a lesson for ya.”
John and the man laughed.
“Maybe later . . . it might do him good. Let’s get down to business first.” John looked back at Zebulon disapprovingly.
Four more Space Pirates, dressed in similar fashion with black coats, canvas trousers, chunky boots, and mangy hair stepped off the ship. Zebulon made a sour face as they neared, and he held his breath. They smelled as if they hadn’t showered in months. As they exited the ship, they each spit on Zebulon’s boots before they followed their captain. Zebulon stared at the Space Pirates and John with contempt. What he wouldn’t give to teach them a lesson or two.
Finally, the last two stepped onto the dock. They carried a large chest between them. Zebulon imagined what was inside. Electronics. Treasure. Jewels. Weapons.
“Okay, time’s a wasting,” John said as the doors to the larger supply ship slid open, revealing rows of stacked UIF cargo pods. “Get busy. You have to load 2000 units.” His father pointed to the stacks on his left. “Check your manifest, do a cargo sweep, load them, and I’ll be back to check it when you’re done.”
John turned and placed an arm around Dampier’s shoulder. Zebulon heard him talking into Dampier’s ear, “I have rooms ready for you and your men. You can wash up, get some rest, and then we can pick up where we left off last time—if’n you know what I mean.”
“Good,” Dampier said and walked off with John.
Zebulon watched John and the Droogs disappear through the doorway. Getting to work, he took out the thermoplastic TNAv buroprocessor out of the holster on his utility belt. He scanned the pods, matched them to the manifest, and activated the antigravity lifters. When he was done, Zebulon climbed into the cockpit of the Hortog. The top half of the electric machine was a giant robot with arms. The bottom half was designed with triangular tank tracks that allowed him to move in any direction, while giving him the stability to tow the cargo.
In the cockpit, Zebulon put on the Virtual Reality helmet and slid his thumb over the scanner that initiated the electric motor and released the machine from its clamps on the wall. When power levels were confirmed and balancers were in order, he slid his hands into the VR gloves and tested the robotic arms. Satisfied when they followed the exact movements of the gloves, Zebulon tilted his head forward and the machine sprung into action.
With the slight movement of the VR helmet, Zebulon directed the Hortog towards the first set of pods. He grabbed the floating stack with the robotic arms, backed it out of the cargo hold crossed the concrete dock, guided it up the ramp into the supply ship’s hull, released the cases and returned for another load.
It took over five hours to move and process 2000 units. Zebulon returned the Hortog to the cargo hold, parked it in place, turned off the machine, and removed the VR gloves and helmet. As the clamps from the wall extended and secured the Hortog in place, John re-appeared.
“Yes, I just finished.”
“Just finished what?”
“Just finished . . . SIR.” Zebulon said between gritted teeth.
John checked his work. “Right—let’s get this ship back to its planet.”
Zebulon followed John to the small chamber and the door closed with a giant thud sealing them from the docking bay. Zebulon looked out the small porthole window into the cargo hold. His claustrophobia took hold off him again. He suppressed his urge to scream and drop to the ground in a ball. He strained as hard as he could to keep his thoughts off his childhood nightmare—the time he got trapped inside a cargo pod.
Luckily IQ32 was there to let him out. He was only six at the time. It was from that day onward that he had developed a fear of closed-in places. Since then he got panic attacks whenever he was in a small confined space. The chamber classified as one of those spaces.
Zebulon stood up straight, took in a few deep breaths, and pressed his chest out. He mustered up his strength and choked back his anxiety as John went through his procedures.
The giant bay doors opened and a few minutes later the supply ship was released. Zebulon watched through the window as the vessel slowly flew out of the docking bay doors and descended towards the penal planet they were orbiting.
John completed the shut down process and the doors came together tightly. Satisfied, he tapped his watch, then spoke into it.
“Captain St. Clair, this is Cargo Master Finnegan.”
“Cargo Master Finnegan, go ahead.”
“Supply ship has deported, bay is sealed, and we’re ready to leave orbit.”
“Roger!” replied the Captain.
With clenched teeth, Zebulon stood behind his father as the bay pressurized. Knowing he was almost out of the small space, Zebulon fought back his fears and focused his thoughts on asking about his birthday. Now, he was about to burst from the anticipation as he waited for the right time to ask.
With John, there was never a right time.
A Special Request
Go for it—ask him! Zebulon thought to himself.
What if he says no?
What have I got to lose? I haven’t had a single birthday party in the last ten years.
What does it matter if he says no?
Okay—I’ll just ask.
“Er . . . father,” he said, in a soft voice as he choked down the butterflies and fought back the urge to throw up.
His father looked back at him. “What?”
“I . . . I was wondering . . . could I have a birthday party tomorrow?”
There, he said it. He put it out there. Now there was silence. Had he asked at the right time? Would his father say yes?
“What do you want a party for?” said his father.
“I—I just w—w—want one,” stammered Zebulon, looking up at his dad with pleading eyes. “It would be fun. Please, Father, can I have a party? I haven’t had one in ten years.”
“You don’t have any friends. Who would you invite?” his father snapped as he turned away.
Maybe asking for the party was a mistake. Obviously, his father did not intend to let him celebrate his birthday again this year.
“I know there are other kids on the ship. I . . . I could get to know them.”
“Why would you want to invite them? They don’t play with you. They are no friends of yours.”
“They are not my friends because you never let me hang with them,” Zebulon said to the back of his father’s head. He knew that his father would not like this, but if his father would not let him have a party, Zebulon would get into a good argument instead.
“What was that?” said his father, turning to face Zebulon.
“I said I have no friends because you don’t let me.”
“No. You have no friends because they are afraid of you,” said his father.
“You should hear what the kids say about you. They call you Bacon Boy.”
“They call me that because you call me that!”
“They also say there’s a ‘Wild Boar’ living in the cargo hold, and that he has a large snout and tusks, and eats anyone who strays into the cargo hold.”
“No. That is not true.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Well, if you didn’t keep me locked up in the hold all the time, maybe they wouldn’t say those things.”
“I keep you there because we outgrew our suite on the ship. When your brother was born there was no room—we had to put you there.”
“That’s what you say all the time.” Zebulon gritted his teeth. “What’s the real reason you keep me locked up?”
“Zebulon, just dematerialize it.”
“No, I will not demat it—tell me the real reason.”
“We keep you locked up to . . . to protect you.”
“Protect me from what?”
“I am done with this conversation, Zebulon.”
“Let me have a party then!”
“You love my brother more than me—don’t you?”
“He’s your real son . . . you’re ashamed of me . . . that’s why you keep me locked up in the cargo hold, isn’t it?”
“Yes it is. I know it,” shouted Zebulon.
“What do you know, boy?” his father snapped back.
Zebulon was taken aback by his father’s rage. He could be a jerk at times but this was something different. It was the ugliest, meanest look Zebulon had ever seen from his father. That did it for Zebulon. “I know that I hate you and I wish you were not my father!”
“Be careful what you wish for; you might actually get it!”
“Yeah, well—I do hate you and I do wish you were not my father.” Zebulon pushed past him, flinging open the door of the chamber just as the bay was finally pressurized.
Without looking back, Zebulon sprinted across the dock, turned at the cargo hold door, and ran through the maze of cargo pods. A mixture of emotions raged through his body as tears blurred his vision.
He hated his father.
He hated his mother.
He hated his brother.
He hated this cargo hold.
Most of all he hated being on this blorking ship.