Jane’s profession as a smuggler left him no stranger to being pursued by law, but this particular cargo of alcohol contraband had been sought out by a very persistent breed of feds. Jane turned the engine off and the humming stopped. He landed.
Jane crossed fingers and leaned forward in the captain’s chair. The drilling station emitted empty signals into space, creating a deaf spot over the area. That should confuse any probing signals and hide the ship’s location. Jane picked up the receiver and dialed the telephone again, just to make sure.
“Check. I-D 1-8-0-2,” he issued the command as meticulously as possible. The robot often got it wrong.
“No signal,“ a tin man voice replied.
Jane rubbed the sweat off his hands. If the satellite couldn‘t bounce the signal off of the ship, the feds couldn‘t find it either.
Jane grabbed his shemagh and left the bridge. He paced behind the back of his crewmate at work in the cargo hold as crates emerged out of the hidden belly of the old-fashioned “Blackbug“ series, converging in the centre of the room to materialize as a stack of illicit goods.
Drew rolled up just enough of his work gloves to wipe the nose off with the back of his hand and cast a large shade beside Jane.
“Quite a large pile when you put it all together,“ Drew said.
“Mm, yeah,“ Jane grumbled. For how much effort he put into acquiring the alcohol, the stack would have been a lot more full in the best of days.
“Still one of the largest batches as of late. Fetches good offworld.“
“Yeah. Too bad that’s not where we’re selling. Were I the Syndicate, I couldn‘t resist the purchase. Take a file, Drew.“
A small, translucent gear-like disk spinned with the iris of Drew‘s eye. A printer rumbled, producing a picture of the cargo.
Jane squinted. “I should have never gotten you that thing. Gives me the creeps.“
“Yep,“ Drew said. “It‘s technology.“
Drew snatched the paper away from the plastic clutches of the printer and handed it to Jane.
“Helps with that,“ Drew said. “Besides, it‘s no luxury purchase.“
“I‘d like it to help with that,“ Jane pointed at the cargo.
“Maybe it will.“
“Transponder codes,“ Jane smirked.
Drew spent most of his time moonside looking for ghosts. A myth derived from local folk to explain the failing of their livelihoods.
Drew must have caught that. “Work‘s bad,“ Drew frowned. “People quit the trade. A pair of Blackbugs gone missing just last week. Even Norman joined the Syndicate.“
The last one stung the most. “Yes,“ Jane said, “the feds.“
“No,“ Drew shook his head, “it‘s not just that. Just few months ago you were ferrying off my pad. But this has been going on a while.“
“Hey,“ Jane pulled the lever on the cargo door. “I know things have been running tight, but we‘ll make it work for us without needing to chase some fricking legend, okay?“
The cargo would be too sweet. Even for the Syndicate.
Drew shrugged. “All I‘m saying is it was better in the past and this place is called the smuggler‘s moon. Had to be for a reason.“
The cargo door dropped in a familiar thump, opening the ship up for the arid wind. Even up here grains of sand whirled, dancing around the metal stair treads, which in turn spiraled around the launching pads from which they sprung. This makeshift structure embraced the drilling station so much so, that a good number of the launching pads were blocked by their own passageways and put out of commission. Yet, even more construction poles lumbered overhead—a testament to ascendance of its Syndicate owners.
Jane stepped onto the platform and paced towards the elevator. Drew dragged a backpack out, closed the cargo door and stepped in with Jane.
The moon presented its comely side once the elevator descended past the enlargement. Several smaller drilling towers surrounded the main station—remains of an abandoned mining operation—dotting the entire moon‘s surface along the shapes of petrified red sand.
“Lovely place, really“ Jane said, turning to the crewman, who picked his nose and rubbed his hands onto overalls. The elevator’s shadows danced on his blank gaze. Drew had a plain face but Jane thought him to be anything but simple.
“Not a fan of the scenery?“ said Jane.
“No, it‘s not the scenery. It’s the moon.“
“What‘s wrong with the moon?“
“Well, it’s not the moon, it’s its people.”
“What‘s wrong with them?”
“They’re a bunch scumbags and crooks.”
“Drew,” Jane placed a palm on his friend’s shoulder, “we’re a bunch of scumbags and crooks.”
“Yes. But we’re crooks we can trust.”
Jane smiled. An eloquent point for a man picking his nose. The elevator stopped. Drew peeled the door open and threw his backpack onto the other side of the rails. “Be careful, Jane.“
“I will. And where are you going?“
“Chase some fricking legend.“
Jane held onto his headwear as the wind tucked at his shirt. A man rested arms on rails on the opposite side of the footbridge. Jane reached into a pocket and pulled out a note. A truck passed the road below hurling a cloud of red particles up. Jane lifted an arm to cover his face, but the desert was determined to bite into his cheeks. Jane brushed the sand off the note and straightened it against the wind. Among the chequered squares the worn off pencil read ‘Mr. Doux’.
He emerged out of the dust cloud coughing and approached the man. Jane pulled his shemagh down to his nose.
“I‘m looking for Doux.“
The man let go of the rails, put his briefcase down and turned to shake hands. “Hello, Jane,“ Norman said.
Jane clenched his fist thrice in a row.
“It‘s nice to see you in one piece,“ Norman smiled.
It better be, Jane thought. “What are you doing here?“
“Wanted to meet you before you see Mr. Doux. I do work for him, after all.“
“Work for the Syndicate.“
“Yes,“ Norman paused. “I do. Do you hold it against me?“
“Not so much as ditching the crew.”
“Jane, I didn‘t just run off.“
“Looks to me that‘s exactly what you did. Right in the middle of a job.“
“We got nearly caught three years ago. You take more risks every run just to make up for the losses.”
“Did you know Drew had to close his pad for good? He‘s flying with me now.“
“Look at Drew. And look at me.“
Norman stood slender, overdressed for the weather. His coat flapped around his sweat stained vest with shoulder pads too large to match the chest, jutting out of the back like a hump. A fish out in the desert, Norman‘s demeanor reminded of a planetside‘s intelligentsia, rather than the hardy types on the moon. The kid had stuck with crew for years. He deserved a break.
Norman sighed. “I can‘t jump higher every time you ask me to.“
“Alright,“ Jane nodded repeatedly, “alright. How is the Syndicate treating you?“
“It‘s safer with them,“ Norman shrugged. “They do legal work.“
If that were the case, they wouldn‘t be meeting me, Jane thought. “And the pay?”
“You work for someone, so the pay‘s shoddy, but it‘s work.”
“Suppose that‘s good. You‘re here to take me to the boss?”
“Actually,” Norman said, “I wanted to talk to you.”
“I think I’ll just say it. You should join the Syndicate.”
Jane clenched his jaw.
“It’s good we tried,” Norman said, “but it didn’t work.”
“Im serious,” Norman said. “I know about the missing Blackbugs.”
“You don’t know shit.”
“I know reports came in a few days ago about a vessel on a moonside run. The Syndicate won’t like it. They’re the ones buying, right? Isn’t that why you’re here, to sell?”
Jane’s heart sank to his knees.
“We can work from within,” Norman said. ”Move up the ladder together.”
“I won’t be their glorified delivery boy.”
“The Syndicate won. It’s over. . .”
Jane paced the walkway, frowning. The Syndicate wouldn’t pay. He was dead in the water.
“It’s good to kick when you’re down,” Norman said, “but you need to be more cynical. They ousted us. You have to know when to give up.”
“Like you gave up?” Jane said. “Fuck no.”
Norman lifted the briefcase on the rails, patting it on the side. “I have the papers, if you want to change your mind.”
Jane grabbed onto the briefcase. “Is that what this is?” he shook it by the edge. “Is that what they asked of you?! Come here, be all buddy-buddy with me, pretend this is all off the books, then pitch this bullshit?!”
Norman glanced down the footbridge. He held the briefcase in place. “Jane.”
The men latched onto it, pulling. Jane grabbed the handle and gave it a good tuck. He pulled it free. The case opened and the contents spilled. He held the case and watched the sands flip the papers, scattering to the wind.
“I want to help you.” Norman said.
“Take your briefcase back,” Jane closed the case and handed it to Norman. “And take your offer, too. Oh, and . . . tell the Syndicate they really fucked it up this time.”
Jane pulled his headwear back up, crossed the pedestrian bridge, station’s streets filled with empty warehouses, rose the elevator and navigated the labyrinth of stairs until he reached his pad and plunged into the captain’s chair.
Norman lay with the enemy and Drew had a date with lunacy—it had never been this quiet on any Blackbug that Jane flew.
He pulled the shemagh off, flung the cargo’s photo on the desk and raised his legs on the table.
The chair squeaked. Jane listened up. The fridge buzzed louder than it should. A decoupler shifted, giving way to rust. The faucet dripped in even intervals. The cargo hold picked up the sound of running rodents, echoing it louder and louder to lead the chorus of appliances.
He failed Norman, he wouldn’t fail Drew.
Jane sticked the picture to the cathode screen above. He sat straight, tucked the keys in and turned the engine on. The ship hummed with life.
The siren bleeped red across the room, alerting to the presence of a federal cruiser. How are they even here?! Jane thought. That’s bullshit!
The cruiser had pinged the ship and the feds have been narrowing on the signal. The screen blinked with 70 seconds. Jane pinched in Syndicate’s coordinates. The TV lit up with a number with far too many symbols. Nope, not by far, Jane thought. He dived to the moon.
Jane grabbed the receiver and dialed the phone.
“Check I-D 1-8-0-2.”
“Signal,” the tin man said. “At. C3.”
Shit. Jane slammed the phone and set the heading west. He would cover more ground against the moon’s rotation. He gained distance, then dialed the phone again.
“Check I-D 1-8-0-2.”
The tin man beeped. “Signal. At. C2—”
Jane hit the hook switch. 50 seconds. “Check ID 1802.”
Another reset. “Check ID 1802.”
Jane tossed the phone aside. He flipped a radio switch, activating the first channel. “Drew, if you can hear me, I need your help. I really fucked it up this time.”
The light beneath the switch burned red—no response. The clock ticked down to 35 seconds.
Noo, no, no, no, Jane thought, not by the moon at least!
Jane flipped the second switch to Syndicate Station. “Your route is infested by feds, you owe me the coordinates to the closest deaf zone.”
25 on the clock. Jane stared at the light on the radio. It flashed and cut to black—someone ended the call from their end. Jane’s eyes widened. They set me up, he thought. “You crossed me!” Jane shouted at the broken line. “I don’t care who you are if you cross me!”
He switched to the general channel. “Attention scumbags,” Jane interrupted, taking more than one pilot aback. “The Syndicate has been setting your friends up and are a bunch of fuckrudders for doing so. I have the transponder codes. If any of you don’t guide me to a cluster in a deaf zone, you can kiss your codes and your livelihoods goodbye!”
Jane stared at the panel’s lights. The clock hit 15. Ahh, fuck me, he chose a random landing spot. The rightmost light flicked green—an anonymous channel was transmitting.
Jane flicked the switch. “Be quick.”
“Tower cluster,” Norman said, “D2.”
Jane punched in the coordinates and set the engine to full. The room shook, Things came off the table. The TV screen twisted to the other side. The ship plummeted down in a mostly controlled fall.
The sands engulfed the ship. Jane squinted. A drilling station emerged ahead. He pitched the Blackbug up and braced.
The table slammed into him. Jane raised his hands overhead and rolled along with the room. Something tapped him on top of the head and the room span.
Jane clenched teeth, shut eyes and braced for pain. It didn’t come. He opened one, then another. The screen hung above him. Jane stared into the black to gain any resemblance of control. Optimistic about his healthy ribs, he turned it on. It read ‘2 seconds’.
Jane brushed the debris off himself and stood. The more expendable items littered the room, but most equipment was properly attached. Engine worked and the ship was mostly fine. The first switch on the radio panel lit green. Jane turned it on.
“You alright?” asked Drew.
“Yeah . . .”
“Heard you crashed.”
“No. Feds. Probably both.”
“Sorry I couldn’t get to you. Glad you’re alright, though. Made a lot of noise out there.”
“Yeah. For a moment I lost hope, but then I brought it back at a later date.”
“To be honest, I’m surprised you escaped at all.”
“I didn’t. Feds had me pinged. Ten feet off the cluster and they’ll have my trajectory.”
“That’s not good Jane,” Drew paused. “What will you do?”
“No clue,” he said. “Don’t want to ditch the ship.”
“How did you make it?”
“Blasted a bunch of nonsense about having the transponder codes. You know, to soften people’s hearts. Then Norman came around.”
“I guess it does. Ironically, the codes are the one thing that could save me right now.”
“Actually, about that. I found something.”
“I don’t know. Can you still connect to my chip from your setup?”
“Okay. Watch the screen in a bit.”
Jane sat down, changed adapters and fired up the TV. Drew’s shape emerged in place of the static.
Drew looked proper nomad with a veil protecting his body and a headwear fluttering before his eyes. He lay on the sand, holding the chip in front of him. Drew tensed his lips and rotated the chip outward. The camera wobbled as he pressed the chip into the eye. A barren valley filled with drilling towers lay below.
The camera zoomed in; excited electrons transmitted shortwave signals back into the lense. The microchip generated a colourless image. The ground level flickered up close. The signal penetrated petrified sand dunes deep into the soil.
Beneath the dunes ran a large cable. It sprung the first tower to the second, then the second to the third, fourth, fifth. The line stretched in a web, connecting to the biggest, centermost tower at an electrical enclosure size of a cargo container. The cables linked the towers, and the cables linked there.
The camera panned east, west, north. The outer lines kept stretching into the desert.
Jane gaped. What the hell is that?
Tower clusters created deaf zones. Since all towers were linked, they all emitted the same blank slate for a signal.
Jane creeped to the front window. He pressed against it and looked up. A drilling station casted a meek shadow by the ship. Hope I have a shovel, he thought.
Jane cursed. For every grain of sand scooped away two others took its place. The drilling station provided little shelter from the elements. The desert was stormy, vision poor, morale shit. Jane slammed the shovel in. A thud.
Jane rushed to brush the sand off the surface, touching upon the enclosure’s door. He ran hands across the heated surface, hoping to bump in on a handle.
The hammer of a gun clicked behind him.
“That sounds familiar,” he said.
“Hands up,” said the gunman.
Jane turned head sideways. The gunman pointed a revolver at his skull. Further out a Syndicate bossman stood flanked by two other men. One of whom was Norman.
Saving me just to hand me in?
Jane raised hands. “Mr. Doux, you came in so soon! I didn’t properly prepare for the visit.”
“You’re dumb, then,” Doux said, brushing his thick hair across the balding head. “Every bossman is combing the desert.”
They must really want the cargo.
“Keep the shovel. What’s your code?” Doux said.
“The code . . .” Jane shifted. Transponder code . . ?
“Fine,” Doux grumbled, “we can do it this way. Get the ID.”
Wait, what ID?
A goon jaunted into the ship. He came out moments later.
Wait, the ship’s ID? What do they need that thing for? “I thought this was about the cargo?” Jane said.
“Isn’t it?” said Doux. “I don’t understand where this greed comes from.”
The goon opened the container. It was an enclosure alright—one that was filled with wires, electronics, devices. Norman watched the goon as he typed in numbers on the main panel.
This was definitely not about the cargo.
“Greed,” Jane scoffed. “You work with the feds. Set me up. Not just me, I wager.”
“Just fools like you,” Doux said. “Fools who don’t want to play ball. Yeah we have a little agreement, so what? They get the smugglers, we get to get by. I don’t get it. I buy the goods—you get paid. Who cares what I do with them afterwards? But once in a while a few greener smugglers try to run planetside. And make me shoot them. Pity that. You’re the first to figure out the transponder system.”
Wait, Jane thought, the transponder codes are real?
He watched the numbers on the panel. 1802. There was no code. Or any ID could be a code. The towers would transmit anything entered into the signal and since they were connected . . .
Jane thought of a way to set the gangsters against each other. He stared Norman down. “He helped me escape, then handed me back in. Very selfish of him. Risking public good of an organisation to advance a personal status.”
The goon raised head from his work. “I don’t see any data in here. The seal wasn’t even broken.”
“What the hell is going on? He never knew?!” Doux exchanged looks with Jane, then gaped at Norman. “Shoot the glutton!”
The gunman turned. Jane leapt. The barrel banged. Norman’s clothes shredded. He fell.
Jane dropped the gunman to the ground. The gunman grabbed the gun with both hands and stretched his arms up. Jane pressed close against him and put a lock around them. The gunman kicked and prodded, limbs flinging sand. Jane twisted the gun away and elbowed. The revolver fell. He elbowed again. And again. He elbowed until the blood painted the sand with a different hue of red.
Jane rolled out of the bloodied sand angel. He grabbed the revolver and aimed it at Doux. Doux aimed at him.
“This never works,” Doux said.
“It hasn’t worked yet,” said Jane.
The goon pulled out another gun. Jane found himself in a two way standoff against the gangsters of capitalism.
“As far as shootouts go,” Doux said. “This one’s a keeper.”
A body in sand rustled. Norman coughed. He stood slowly, but steadily, peeling off layers of cloth around the gunshot. Under his heavy, shredded suit of garments lay a bullet-proof vest. It spelled ‘D.E.A.’.
“A fed?!” the goon gulped.
Norman groaned. “You’re under arrest, Doux. I knew the Syndicate’s been smuggling over the quotas, but I didn’t know how. You’re just as greedy as everyone else.”
“You know what I think?” Doux spat. “I think this is no sanctioned operation. I think you have no backup. I think you’re just some jumpstart agent throwing his life at a chance for glory.”
“It doesn’t matter,” the goon said, “he’s a fed!”
“Fuck him a fed,” Doux pouted, “shoot him again!”
”You do it,” the goon bleated.
Jane scooted to the side, inching his way to Norman.
“If you do,” Norman said. His pose straight, confident. “The feds will take you in. They will take your family in, your friends in. Then they will take your dog in. His friends and family as well. And I can’t promise that what will happen in custody will be done under federal law or that any law will be involved at all.”
The goon dropped his weapon.
“I may not shoot an agent,” Doux looked at Jane. “But you’re not even a federal clerk.”
Jane jumped behind Norman. He locked the neck. Norman struggled, grunted. Jane held him from the back, controlling movement. He pointed the revolver at Norman’s neck.
“Now,” Jane stepped backwards, toward the ship. “I’m not entirely certain if there’s a way to leave without dragging a certain problem along, but at the current circumstances this seems like an excellent short-term solution.”
Jane eyed the men as he pulled Norman into the ship.
“Good luck with the federals,” Doux grinned.
Jane watched Norman as he lift the ship off, setting it into circles over the Syndicate’s position.
Norman crossed arms as wind rushed in through the open cargo door. Blood rushed into Jane’s head.
“How long have you been in the DEA?” he clenched teeth.
“Three years,” Norman glanced at Jane’s side. He saw the revolver. “I never meant to put you in danger.”
“You don’t call this danger?”
“I’ve only meant to make it look like you had the codes. Then pick you up and have you reemerge from there. With full support. I had no idea you’d announce you had the transponder codes to the world.”
“Well I’m sorry my little streak of self-preservation inconvenienced you.”
“We’d both have won.”
Norman sighed with relief.
“—I should be more cynical.”
Jane pulled the trigger. Vengeance caught Norman between his eyes at around 400 m/s. He tumbled to the floor.
Jane cleaned the gun and dragged the body, throwing both overboard. He picked the receiver up.
“Drew, are you still on site? I have a very specific request with a very specific set of instructions. Oh, and if you can do me a favor, I want the camera pointed at a certain place.”
Sarah stared at the tracking panel behind the back of the Radar Intercept Officer.
“Maintain air readiness. I need that ship, Thomas.”
She would not become another Chief of Operations to have a common smuggler escape the clutches of a federal vessel. Her predecessor made that mistake.
The officer nodded. A single drop of sweat fell down his neck on otherwise immaculate uniform.
“We have it pinged, ma’am. It’s only a matter of—”
The radar bleeped.
“Target’s away,” Thomas said, “leaving atmosphere at air defense area at sector D2.”
“ID?” Sarah said.
“That’s our guy,” Sarah smiled. “Get ready.”
The radar bleeped again. “Another signal,” Thomas said. “Twenty miles off. 1802.”
“Another 1802? That’s impossible.”
The radar bleeped again. Multiple 1802s appeared all over, even on the opposite sides of the moon. More signals popped up. The bleeping became a continuous buzz.
The crew scrambled. Technicians rerouted equipment. Radar officers ran subsequent scans with same results. Engineers ensured there were no problems with the system. Five minutes later Sarah watched the signals disappear. The smuggler would be long gone.
“Wait,” Sarah pointed. The radar cleared of all but one signal. “These coordinates persist. Thomas?”
Thomas shrugged. “I really don’t know, mam. It’s the same signal.”
“Take us there.”
Jane crossed hands under his head and stretched legs on the table. His elbow hurt blisters, but he had plenty of alcohol to go before he unloaded on the planet.
Jane watched TV live. A small group of men stood over a body. The sand fanned away in a square pattern from four bright lights overhead. The lights shone brighter. The belly of a federal cruiser lit the sky. It’s four engines descended on the shapes below.
Murder of a federal officer was the worst of all crimes.
Simonas Juodis is the common writer with a plethora of unpublished short stories, half finished novels, few years of practice and writer’s block aplenty. A man’s man, he entered Writers Arena not due to his skill or past glories but out of sense of purpose behind a single aim—to crush Thomas A. Mays.
You see, Simonas was one of the first readers of Mr. Mays, having received personalized copy of his first book. Simonas continued to hang out on the blog of Thomas A. Mays, developing a strange sense of camaraderie with him. These warm feelings of kinship made Simonas feel uncomfortable, therefore he chose to strike at Thomas in a literary battle of wit, entering the competition.
Simonas is from Europe’s country of Lithuania, where history is from and where they’re still dealing with dragons. This combination of perspectives offers an element of surprise against opponents and results in unique storytelling for the readers.