Welcome to the SUPER SECRET preview of chapter 1 of my book Blanchland Blues!
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John MacAlister was about to crash.
Unaware of this fact, he was concentrating on smuggling to the far side of Earth’s Moon what he hoped would finally be a profitable shipment—assuming nothing went wrong.
And lately, something always went wrong.
“This is far side approach,” buzzed an overhead speaker. “Delilah, turn left heading three two zero, descend and maintain nine thousand.”
Delilah was a stripped down cargo ship designed for the Earth to Moon run. The bridge contained a simple control console displaying data on flight operations and life support. Displays on the forward metal bulkhead showed the outer view of the ship and the cargo hold. There was a small kitchenette attached to the aft bulkhead that contained a zero gravity water feed and a food and beverage synthesizer with a light that was currently flashing red.
Grooveyard by Wes Montgomery was playing on AlloDisc and John was bobbing his head to the beat. A blue flight suit covered his tall, lanky form minimized by a defeated hunch. Sandy blonde hair overdue for a trim floated haphazardly in zero gravity and two days’ stubble clung to a chin that was used to habitually grinding teeth.
Jazz was one of the few things that could drive away his melancholy moods so he played it often, much to the chagrin of his companion who sat next to him at the console, a worn and weathered robot commonly known as an ‘artie’ due to its highly advanced artificial intelligence. Like most arties, his outer construction was formed of advanced composites that mimicked the biped form of a human: rounded rectangle head, a barrel chest that narrowed into a small cylindrical torso, complex ball joints supporting movement, blocky (yet effective) feet and highly sophisticated hands.
He sported a single offset circular eye on the left side of the head next to a set of tiny sensors. A small rectangular display sat where a mouth would be, displaying a moving waveform. He had originally been painted in the blue and silver color of Sol United, but much of the color had worn away.
“How about you turn off that awful music and answer approach before something bad happens?” asked the robot.
John turned and frowned. “You’ll never understand jazz, Alvis. You have no soul.” He pressed a button.
“Dark side approach, Delilah left to three two zero.”
“And something’s not right here,” said the robot. “The stabilizers aren’t firing in the correct order.”
“The order doesn’t matter,” said John, turning up the music. “I made some minor tweaks at our last docking to improve fuel efficiency and save us some units, which need I remind you at this point is critical. Besides, I can fly this thing with my arms tied behind my back.”
“I’m sorry I ever agreed to be your partner,” said Alvis. “My life is nothing but misery.”
John laughed. “You didn’t agree to be anything. I bought you at a junk auction. And you’re my artie, not my partner.”
Alvis crossed his arms. “It was a horrible mistake. I shouldn’t have been there. However, I’ve agreed to be your partner as it affords me a certain amount of freedom I heretofore lacked.”
“Tell yourself whatever gets you up in the morning. My guess is your charming personality put you in that auction,” replied John. “In fact, I’ll bet people were lined up to stick you in a junk auction.” There was a slight bump and John frowned, glancing over the readouts. “It’s a choice I’m beginning to regret. I mean who doesn’t like jazz? I wish I could afford one of the modern units. At least they do as they’re told.”
“Those can openers are nothing more than actors,” said Alvis. “I’m as highly evolved as any human—higher, in fact. I’ll have you know my development cost over $3 billion units.”
“Yeah, well your price tag at the junk auction was three hundred units. Depreciation, my friend.”
“Three billion and two decades, mind you, only to be forced to support your pathetic smuggling career. It’d be one thing if you were any good at it, but you’re the worst cargo smuggler in the history of cargo smuggling.”
John stopped snapping and pointed at the robot. “Okay, that’s not a measurable statistic. And while it’s true I’ve had some bad luck—”
“It’s hardly bad luck! You’re so dumb you can’t even break the law correctly,” said Alvis, waving his arms in exasperation.
“I was plenty successful at smuggling before I bought you. Geez, my other robot didn’t whine all day either.”
“Oh, really? What happened to your other robot?”
John looked at the control panel and made a small adjustment.
“He got stolen,” he mumbled.
“Stolen? You’re supposed to be the thief. How does a thief get his robot stolen?”
“I don’t remember,” said John. He pushed out of his chair and floated over to the kitchenette and grabbed a coffee packet. “Besides, I’m not a thief. I’m a smuggler. I don’t steal. I’m just helping people navigate the system.”
“Yes, let’s split hairs over the category of your unsuccessful crimes. And tell me this, Sire of Smugglers, what are we hauling right now?”
“Illicit learning materials,” said John, winking.
“You mean ‘school books?’”
John put his coffee packet in the synthesizer. “They’re hard to come by on the Moon.”
“No, they’re not. You just let some woman talk you into using us as an elementary school book delivery service.”
“We’re delivering outside normal channels!” said John, banging the beverage synth.
“Please refrain from abusing the synthesizer,” said the synthesizer. “This is your third warning. Further assaults will result in suspension of beverage privileges.”
“You mean she tricked you into delivering them,” replied Alvis, “at a cheaper cost than the normal Earth to Moon freightage.”
“She was … really persuasive,” said John.
“You mean she was pretty and smiled at you, making your knees nearly non-functional. Are we even making a profit?”
“Of course!” said John.
“Including fuel and docking fees?”
“Well, that depends,” answered John, getting his coffee out of the synth.
“That means no.”
“We need cash flow,” said John. “If I can put us in a position to take on bigger shipments, things will turn around.”
John sipped his coffee and frowned. It was cold and tasteless.
“What’s the deal with this machine? I adjusted it yesterday.”
“Then that’s what’s wrong with it,” replied Alvis.
“You’re not seeing the big picture,” continued John, frowning at the synth. “It’s about building a reputation.”
“You mean a reputation like the one you got by blowing the rare-earth metals deal?”
“They loaded holograms in my cargo hold!” said John, pointing to the rear of the ship. “That’s foul play. How was I supposed to know?”
“Maybe by checking the cargo weight of a shipment before shelling out thousands of units to known criminals?”
“It would be great if my partner would help with some of these things,” said John. “Maybe if you were more cooperative, things would go smoother.”
“Coop—you never listen to me! I told you something was wrong and what did you say?”
John muttered something inaudible.
“Luckily, I keep a record of everything. You said, and I quote: ‘Shut up you talking tin can, the details of the shipment are my concern.’ End quote.”
John turned up the music again.
“I’m sorry, what?” asked John, putting a hand up to his ear.
“You know, this kind of behavior is probably why Sandy—”
John whirled—well, as much as one can “whirl” in zero gravity. It was more of a shoulder jerk, followed by his torso and legs slowly following. It didn’t really have its intended effect, and his comment was actually delivered to the synthesizer—who didn’t appreciate it any more than being banged on—instead of Alvis.
He slowly turned back to point at the artie.
“Mention Sandy again and I will space you.”
“I’ve picked up on the chatter about your escapades on the docks. The consensus is that if the Moon Authority ever picked you up for smuggling, there’d be no crime to charge you with. Maybe it’s time you got a job.”
John shoved his coffee into the garbage chute and pulled himself slowly back into his chair. “You know why honest work is hard to come by, so the job is smuggling.”
“Then stop treating me like I’m an appliance,” said Alvis. “You know I can do far more than just press buttons on the control console and perform SatNet searches.”
John shrugged. “These are the jobs that need doing. You’ve been purchased to aid this human in smuggling. If my jobs are so bad, maybe—”
There was a loud boom and whine. The ship shook violently, causing John to bite his lip hard as the hull suddenly shifted.
“What did you do?” asked Alvis. “We’re pitched 30 degrees and losing thrust!”
Alarms were sounding, drowning out the music. John was banging at the controls and making fast reads on the instruments. Blood dripped from his mouth onto his flight suit.
“Nothing!” he shouted. “I did nothing!”
The com blurted out, “Delilah, you’ve deviated from your approach path. Correct at once.”
John mashed the com. “Whad’ya think I’m trying to do?”
There was another loud boom and smoke started pouring out of the ventilation screens.
“Fire on the bridge,” said Alvis.
“Ya think?” said John, fastening his safety harness.
More alarms lit up on the control board. Through the front display John could see warehouses on the surface coming up fast. The ship veered away from the landing pads.
He rapidly tapped a few buttons and the alarms went quiet. There was another jolt, and John grabbed the stick.
“What are you doing?” asked Alvis. “I’m working with the systems to correct—”
“No time!” John was wrestling with the stick, but the ship continued to pitch.
“Have you lost your mind? You can’t manually maneuver this close to base. It’s illegal. Let me—” began Alvis.
“I’m getting us away from that warehouse—there might be people there!”
“I can—” began the robot.
There was a final bang and the ship pitched beyond 90 degrees. John flipped upside down, hanging from the safety harness. His hand slipped off the stick as the bridge jolted. The warehouses were approaching rapidly.
“Impact imminent,” said Alvis.
“Son of a—” began John.