Every Undertaker’s Friend
by Trek Journeyman © 2016
Chapter Fifteen Start at Chapter 1.1
Fifteen dead. All circus crew. Some had been in the hold, the rest had been on the bridge or in engineering.
The signal detected by the AI had set off three charges. A bomb had been hidden in the hold, another on the bridge, and a third in engineering. In the horror of the loss, nobody noticed the peaceful sun rising in the south. All attention had been focused on triage and damage assessment. Joseph had fallen asleep in his quarters moments before the explosions. Jessica, Erica, and India had relaxed, outside near the campfire. Kenya was in the women’s dormitory.
Those who perished were not well-known by Nate. But some had been kids he had played with the night before.
The explosion in the hold killed all the large animals, but there were few of them to begin with. Many of the smaller animals had died too. Pretty much anything alive in the large hold died. Following the explosions and rescue efforts, Gary went aboard to assess the damage. He first inspected the bridge, then went to check on engineering. The damage was bad, but he expected that.
It appeared that during the time Esparza was in control of the circus ship, he had installed the bombs. It was the sabotage efforts by Gary and Joseph that had the unintended effect. Esparza feared witnesses might come in response to the beacon. If the freighter couldn’t fly, he would kill the least valuable crew members. Hence the bomb in the hold where he would have locked them up. It had been a rather large bomb with an excessive amount of shrapnel.
The other two bombs were meant to make the ship useless. The planet they were on was too far away for anyone to salvage a ship, let alone repair it. And that was Gary’s verdict. The ship was to stay.
Esparza and Marco had returned to their camp to find the freighter and Nombeko’s ship missing. It was nearing morning when they came within sight of where the ships should have been. Only Esparza’s ship remained. Franco and Nombeko lay dead where the freighter had sat.
Marco stood motionless, staring at his brother’s body. He was not a man of feelings, unless one counted the cold hatred he felt for Joseph. He didn’t notice the dead pigs, but Esparza did. Neither man mourned the loss of Nombeko. Later, Esparza would feel relief for the credits he was no longer going to pay Nombeko. He rifled through Nombeko’s flightsuit to retrieve the payment he made earlier.
The dead bodies of several pigs littered the former landing zone. Esparza assumed the pig-like aliens had killed the two men. Curious, he looked them over. He found their feet matched the pig tracks from the other night. Further scrutiny of the area revealed many boot prints, some leading over to his ship. Had the circus crew somehow killed the pigs, or had the pigs taken the ships? Realization hit him like a bat, he should go look his ship over. Only human tracks were at the base of the ramp.
Inside he found the damaged sensor panel.
Assuming the freighter was currently fleeing the system, he leaned over to the comm panel. Esparza initiated a pre-programmed signal. Whether it was Joseph or the pigs running away with the other ships, he wasn’t going to let them have his prize. He stared at the display for a minute, waiting for confirmation the signal went through. Just as he was about to give up and leave the cockpit, he saw what he was waiting for. Three simultaneous return signals told him his bombs had detonated.
There was nothing left to do now but take off. He would try to find the freighter. It would be floating dead within range of the planet. The odds of finding the freighter were long, but it was still worth the attempt to recover the gold and surviving crew for slaves. On his own, he loaded his ship with everything useful abandoned by the circus. Shortly after Marco brought his brother’s body aboard, they made for orbit. Neither man noticed the smoke at the other end of the island. They had launched in the opposite direction. Franco was placed in cryo, his brother still in shock from the sudden loss. Above the planet, they might find the ships if Esparza were to scan the island with the optical targeting system. But that didn’t occur to him.
Back on the island, four hours after the explosions, Nate and Joseph had their hands full. They were supervising the transition of the circus crew into the remaining ships. Joseph preferred to keep families together on the same ship. The others were split according to abilities. Nate took on the families and those without any ship handling skills. Those skilled in space flight, such as navigation or engineering, went on Nombeko’s ship. Joseph would command that ship. After all, he and his crew had run his circus freighter for many years.
By noon they were ready for lift off. The rest of the voyage would be crowded and uncomfortable as the families staying on Nate’s ship took over the spare quarters. Nate and Gary would share Nate’s bunk on rotation as they split cockpit time for six-hour shifts. The galley was set up to house the single women, and the hold would hold the men. Nate didn’t know what arrangements were set up on the other ship.
None of the women Nate was familiar with knew anything about space flight. They included Erica, Jessica, Kenya, and India. They had been assigned to Nate’s ship. The surviving animals were split between the ships. the more people friendly ones went with Nate, while the more serious animals went with Joseph and the crew experienced in handling them.
For the first two days, everyone got on well. After that, the cramped conditions began to affect individual moods, especially with some of the animals running loose. The kids were assigned to clean up after those particular animals. Meal times seemed intrusive to the women in the galley. They spent much of their time prepping food. Being the single man he was, Nate’s galley had a replicator fueled by nutrient sludge. That had been taken into consideration the day of lift off. The women cooked nearly nonstop for half the day. They were determined to avoid the sludge as much as possible.
Food supplies would be plentiful for a while. The circus crew had processed most of the larger animals for food storage. Some of the smaller animals could also be used for food. Half of the original food stores had been stored in the freighter hold. The other half had been stored in the dormitories and family quarters. All that remained had been split between the two ships.
There was no room for any recreation activities, except in the hold. It was too small for much, especially after bedding and sitting areas had been set up. Nate had computer consoles in each of his two spare quarters. The families assigned to those rooms were reluctant to allow more than a few of the others access any given day. The families spent most of their time holed up in their closet sized rooms. It was now their own personal space. Nobody else aboard, except Nate and Gary, had personal space.
Several kids ran about the passageways at all hours of the day. Nate found himself waist deep in kids, literally. Surprising Erica, Nate was exceptionally patient with them. He took more time to play with them than she ever thought possible, for a killer. Her feelings about his past began to change, slightly.
Conversations between the two ships told of similar issues. They were just as moody and crowded over there on Josephs new ship. Nate and Joseph came to an agreement about a possible solution. At risk of extending the duration of the voyage, something they all dreaded, they would land on every habitable planet they came across. The intention was to spend two nights on each planet. That would give everyone time to stretch their legs and their moods.
By the end of the first week they entered a star system with a single habitable planet. Within an hour of entering the system, they learned they weren’t alone in the system. A pair of ships were making their way into an asteroid belt. Could they be pigs? Or maybe the slavers Esparza was supposed to meet? Nobody suspected it could be Esparza. He had only a single ship after all. Whoever it was, they were high-tailing it into the belt in response to Nate’s arrival.
The planet was a desert world, lacking any ocean sized bodies of water. They landed near a lake in the northern latitude. That evening everyone had a feast and played games in the cool evening air. It was a welcome relief from the crowded ships. Some planned to sleep outside on the ship exteriors. Others set up tents and made their own campfires. Nate and Joseph sat together, sipping Caffs by the fire as they cooked a serving of meat from a circus horse. Joseph held a forlorn face as he cooked the meat.
“I’m going to miss this guy. He was a good horse, almost a friend.”
“Hey, I don’t mind eating your friends, but why are you going to eat him if he was such a good friend?” Nate said, not expecting an answer.
Joseph groaned. “I can’t do this. You’re right. I thought I could, for survival and all. But I can’t do it.” He handed the meat to Nate who gladly took it.
“Meat’s meat to me, unless its my friend,” he ribbed Joseph.
“I’ll go round up some sludge. I think that’s all I can eat until we use up the animals. Well, at least Hamilton here. I think I can handle everything else, but the dog and cat meat.”
“Suit yourself. I look forward to the cat myself. I heard those cowboys from America favored mountain lion above every other meat available. Including things like deer, elk, and bear.”
“That may be so, but they never bottle-fed those cats, eh?”
“Doubt they even had bottles back then.” Nate pulled the horse meat away from the fire to check it. It looked ready and he plucked a small bite-sized piece from it. Satisfied, he placed it on a plate with some steamed veggies.
Fifteen minutes later, Joseph came back with a heap of sludge made into a soup of some sort. By then only the veggies remained on Nate’s plate. He had eaten the meat before Joseph returned.
After his first bite, Joseph asked about the ships they saw. “Do you think it could have been the pigs?”
Erica and Jessica joined them, their own plates heaped with food they had cooked up in the galley. Curious to hear Nate’s response, they sat quietly.”Its possible,” he said.
“Could it have been slavers or pirates?” asked Jessica.
“I don’t think so, If it were they wouldn’t have run,” Nate said.
Erica caught his eye before asking a question. “Could it be Esparza?”
“There were two ships. Unless he finally meet up with his pals, but they were too far to tell.” His face was set, to be as reassuring as he could make it look. “I launched a pair of probes to keep tabs on things in orbit. One went off toward the belt. If anyone comes near us it’ll give us ample warning and an idea of what they look like. The AI will recognize Esparza’s ship.”
“Do you always think that far ahead Nate?” Jessica couldn’t hide her admiration for Nate. He was just the kind of man she desired. Tough, brave, smart, and ruggedly handsome.
“Never turn your back on the frontier. It’s always there, waiting to drop your temperature to ambient.” He met her gaze, a laugh in his own eyes.
They ate the rest of their meal in silence. Later, as they finished and the silence become awkward, Nate turned to Joseph. “What are your plans now? A large part of your circus is gone?”
“We can begin again. We have our gold and our lives. Some credits too.” Then he smiled. “I’ll sell Nombeko’s ship and buy another freighter. His ship is a good one. Not as good as yours, but it will sell for way more than our old freighter was worth. If we get there that is.”
“We’ll get there,” claimed Nate.
“What will you do?” Erica asked Nate.
“Find a mountainous area on a comfortable planet, I love the mountains, settles my soul. Not a lonely planet though. One with some people and good weather. Neighbors are good to have, so is good weather.”
She sat quietly. She didn’t know how to respond, to tell him she had a similar yearning to find a home. The circus life was too transitory for her to value it.
“I’ll mortgage my ship for enough to buy a large stretch of land. I’ll build myself a homestead and raise some animals. Maybe I’ll grubstake Gary to open a full service maintenance shop. One for any ship no matter the size. Of course it’ll be at the opposite end of my land. I do like my peace and quiet.”
“A mountain home would make for beautiful sunsets,” Erica said.
“Yes it would. It would be lonely, even with good neighbors,” Nate commented.
Erica noticed her father shift uneasily. Joseph was well aware of where this conversation was headed, and she knew it too. He looked at Nate, uneasily at first. Then his attitude shifted as he thought about all Nate had sacrificed to get them where they were. He followed them, even though he had turned down the offer pf pay to join them. He got shot and nearly died. He took on aliens for them too. And now he was risking everything if they were to encounter Esparza’s slavers. Joseph knew where this talk was leading them. He felt nothing but approval as he realized there would never be a better son-in-law than Nate Aluissi.
“So why don’t you marry?” he asked Nate. He saw his daughter blush and Jessica grow a wide grin.
“Yes, why not, Nate Aluissi?” Jessica blurted.