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February 3, 2012 — 1,190 words

Freedom Beer, Part 2

By Greg X. Graves

After he finished unloading the truck, Hank followed the police to the station to give his statement. He'd had to follow closely behind the squad car with his bitchin' hog, as quite a crowd had gathered to crane their necks and build rumors.

By the time that Hank swung the nose of his bitchin' hog onto the dirt lane that led to his ranch, the February sun had long fallen beneath the horizon. The chill of the nocturnal New Mexican desert poked its fingers into Hank's leather jacket. The motorcycle's rear light left a blood-red tail slinking through the cloud of dust kicked up by the wheels.

The only light on the property came from the groundskeeper's cabin.

Now that he came closer, he could also see a tiny floating ember of a cigarette glowing at lip-height on his porch. Hank pretended not to notice and let his motorcycle idle him by the interloper on his way into the shed. Once there, he quickly cut the engine to his motorcycle, removed his helmet, and leapt into the shadows.

He could see the entrance from his vantage point behind a rack of gardening tools at the back of the shed. Anybody entering would be backlit in the frame of the doorway. He selected his weapon from the rack in front of him and waited.

"Hello?" said a voice.

A silhouette entered the frame.

And what a silhouette, Hank thought. The woman – and Hank was sure that it was a woman – had a perfect hourglass silhouette. She wore a tailored jacket and a tight, professional skirt that led down to a set of legs that reached all the way to the floor. Tiny triangles of light shone from beneath her high heels.

Still, he knew to be careful. A beautiful body could be covered in guns. Or knives. Or the keys to a padlock, which doesn't sound so bad unless the padlock belongs to the gates of an alligator pen and you're on the inside. That had been painful.

Hank pulled a small flashlight off of his belt and flashed it in the woman's face while charging forward with his weapon.

"Who the hell are youuuuuooohhhh," Hank said, catching a foot in his stomach. The heel nestled into his belly button like a bear digging a hibernation den. From experience he knew what brand. Those were some Michael Hisenburgs. You could tell by the distance from the heel to the toe, and the offset from the centerline. This woman made quite a lot of money to afford designer shoes.

Hank let himself fall, then rolled to the side as the other heel stomped to the ground where his face had been only moments before. He hadn't let go of his weapon. He jammed the rake into the dirt and climbed up the handle. By pivoting on the ball of his foot he was able to swing it in a long, hissing arc.

The rake caught the woman square in the back and sent her tumbling forward uncontrollably – but only for a moment. With a powerful thrust she propelled herself into a roll, followed by a flip, followed by a perfect landing on her high heels. Hank was impressed.

"I can only assume that you're Hank Rockjaw." She held a knife in one hand.

"Who's asking?"

"The woman who is going to sue you for assault and battery."

"You can't sue me for assault. I didn't threaten you with violence. I just attacked you. Believe me, I should know. You'll face a counter suit."

"For what?"

"Criminal negligence. Did you arrive here in the daylight?"

"Yes."

"And you noticed the pines on my property."

"I couldn't miss them."

"They're part of our national forest system. If you start a fire you're wide open to criminal charges. And that is one smoking hot outfit."

The woman rolled her eyes and relaxed.

"Your reputation precedes you, Hank. Zelphia Dipthong, attorney at law." She extended her hand.

Hank shook it.

"Pleased to meet you, Zelphia. If you've been waiting here since the sun went down you must be parched. Will you have a drink with me?"

Hank led the way into his house. It looked like an ancient, well-kept ski lodge, made out of piles of logs. The ceilings soared. The floors creaked. The granite kitchen countertops shone. Soon the logs in the fireplace crackled.

Hank picked a bottle of wine out of his wine pantry.

"May I have a glass of water, please?"

"Of course." Hank gave her a glass of water. He dug the cork out of the wine bottle with a thumb and drained half of it in one, long chug.

When he looked down, Zelphia had placed an envelope on the counter. He picked it up and read the contents.

"You're serving me?"

"Yes."

"The trial starts tomorrow?"

"Yes."

"That ain't right. I've been sued many times and I'm supposed to have more notice."

"I tried to bring it to you this afternoon but you seemed very busy. I came here but a man told me that you volunteering at the liquor store."

"Hiram. My gardener."

"So I went down there but you seemed busy committing assault."

"Battery. I battered him. Nobody messes with a man's beer."

"Yes, right. You battered him."

Hank scowled at the letter.

"It also says that a certain Zelphia Dipthong is representing the plaintiff." He looked up. "Can a prosecuting attorney serve the summons?"

"Yes. I simply couldn't wait any longer to meet the man who caused the judicial system to create the charge of 'egregious punching' for my client."

"And what's your client's name?"

"Josh Spurlock."

"Asshole!"

"Save it for your defense."

"That bastard exploited a bunch of villagers in the Sonoran desert and forced them to work at his shoe factory because he'd bought up all the water rights. You know those fancy high heels? They were made at that factory by a bunch of poor Mexican villagers." Hank chugged the rest of his wine.

"What a heartwarming story. And then how did you resolve the problem?"

"To make a long story short, the sister of a friend of mine lived in that village and had just been fired for writing a letter to her brother describing the horrible working conditions."

"Yes, that's how you found out. But how did you resolve the problem?"

"I tried to buy the factory. I've done it before. Josh wouldn't sell. Asshole! So I did what any right-minded person would do: my friend and I drove for three days, found the place, found Josh, and I punched him so hard that he thought he was Frank Sinatra for three days."

"Please repeat your story tomorrow exactly as you've told me tonight." Zelphia turned to leave.

"For three days the asshole could croon."

"I'll see you tomorrow."

"One last thing before you go. Did you tell Hiram why you wanted to see me?"

"Yes."

"Good, because he'll have gotten my dress pants pressed."

"Is Hiram also your assistant?"

"And my attorney. He's had plenty of experience defending me in battery cases. You'll have your work cut out for you tomorrow."

February 3, 2012 — 286 words

Chapter 2p4 – Wait For Clearance

By Tim Sevenhuysen

While Milly deposited her backpack in the passenger cabin near the front of the Galactic Pelican, Tic went into the hold to inspect for any damage caused during loading. There were a handful of scuffs on the floor and one gouge in the starboard bulkhead, but the cargo itself looked okay.

"I'm all set," said Milly from the doorway.

"Great," said Tic.

"Are we ready to go, then?"

"Not yet." Tic checked the tightness of one of the straps the teamsters had used to tie down a big, bulky machine of some sort. "We have to wait for clearance to launch. Once we get that, we'll launch into orbit and start the Origami Engine up to charge for the jump."

Milly wrinkled her forehead, which made her look like an unhappy toddler. "That's a dimensional folding drive, right? Is Pelly a smooth flier?"

"Smooth enough."

"I went through a dimensional fold a couple of weeks ago, and it felt like my stomach got turned inside out," said Milly.

"That's common for your first trip," said Tic. "You must not have done much travelling before, then?"

Milly shook her head. "This is the first big trip I've ever been on."

"I did something similar when I was your age," said Tic. "I took a whole month to explore the solar system I grew up in. It was pretty eye-opening. I spent four days puking my guts out in a Rixxian hostel. If a guy with three eyes offers you a free drink, take my advice: turn him down and walk away."

Milly laughed. "I will. I'm not on vacation, though."

"No?"

"I'm actually on... Well, this sounds really pretentious, but it's kind of a quest."

[poll id="11"]

February 2, 2012 — 285 words

Chapter 2p3 – How Much?

By Tim Sevenhuysen

One of the teamsters heard the sound of money being exchanged and came hustling over. "We're nearly done, Mr. Bolter. While you've got your PAI out, why don't we settle up?"

"Overard is supposed to pay you," said Tic.

"That's not what we were told."

"Fine. Whatever. But I want a receipt so I can make sure he pays me back. How much?"

"It's a 50-litre base price, plus 25 for the hoverlift rental and a 4-litre fuel surcharge. With tax, 85.32."

"Urgh, what a rip-off." Tic started to set up the transaction on his PAI. To Milly, he said, "You can bring your stuff into the ship through the side door. Pelly—that's the ship's AI—will show you your quarters. And if she gets annoying, just tell her I'm out here selling her to a Cardaskian. That should shut her up."

"Okay." Milly hiked her backpack up on her shoulders and stepped past the teamster.

The teamster's PAI chimed.

"What was that?" said Tic. "I haven't hit Send yet."

"Uh..." said the teamster. "Late payment for a different job."

Milly popped up at his elbow. "Hey, you just got 85.32. Isn't that how much you're charging Mr. Bolter?"

The teamster tried to hide the screen. "Stay out of it, kid!"

Tic snatched the device and checked the notification. "This payment came from Overard. What are you trying to pull?"

"Er, administrative mix-up." The teamster wrestled his PAI back. "Our mistake." He stomped off to rejoin his team.

"Hey, thanks," said Tic to Milly.

She smiled sweetly. "You're welcome."

Now Tic didn't even have to see her hair: if she was capable of pulling a stunt like that, it had to be red.

[poll id="9"]

February 1, 2012 — 894 words

Freedom Beer, Part 1

By Greg X. Graves

"Thank you very much, Mr. Rockjaw!" Estelle said.

Hank's spine curved like a longbow. A dozen cases of beer weighed down his arms. He lumbered from the truck, down the ramp, through the backroom, up the aisle and finally slung them onto the floor.

"You're welcome." Hank wiped his brow.

"You're truly a lifesaver, young man! My stockboy Warren threw out his back. How, I don't know!"

"It's a mystery," Hank said.

"And how could I have unloaded the shipment by myself?"

"I don't know."

"You're quite the honorable fellow. Did you know that you're the only person in town who was available?"

Hank glanced into the back of the truck. It was pregnant with beer even though he was the one in labor. Everybody in town loved Estelle. Just a little less than they loved their lower cervical vertebrae.

"I asked everybody. They all knew that I needed help. But you were the only one to show! You're a gentleman. Always willing to help out somebody in need."

"A lot of this beer comes from my own brewery. Consider it family pride."

Estelle beamed. She obviously approved of family pride, especially when it provided her with a fresh, uncracked spine. Hank took this momentary pause as his cue to slip into the back room. Once he was out of sight he slowed to a saunter, plucked a beer out of a box, and took a seat. He cracked the beer and took a swig.

Rockjaw Brewery sure makes some tasty beer, Hank thought. This Trappist Ale is almost as good as last year's batch. Those laconic monks sure know their beer.

He wiped his brow, drained the beer, and grabbed another one from the box. That's when he looked at the label.

"Saint Secaire Brewery?"

He smacked his lips.

"It tastes almost exactly like Rockjaw's Lockjaw Trappist Ale!"

Hank scrutinized the label. The taste wasn't the only ripoff. The label looked identical to the one adorning Rockjaw's Lockjaw Trappist Ale. Nearly identical. The printer for Saint Secaire had obviously used higher-quality inks on nicer paper stock.

"I didn't sign off on the fancy paper!" Hank said. "Rockjaw beer has always been sold on taste, dammit! You can't drink a pretty picture!"

A commotion at the front of the store derailed his train of thought. Hank crept up to the doorway and listened.

"Yes, all of your money! I want everything that's in that fucking register, put it in the bag and also give me a nip of Goldschlager! No, two! Hell, make it three!"

"Okay, young man, there's no need to swear. You'll get your money. Only you're very lucky that Warren isn't here. He has quite a poor opinion of common theives," Estelle said.

"I knew that he wouldn't be here."

"How?"

"Because you went around the whole town and asked for help unloading your beer shipment because Warren hurt himself!"

Hank had heard enough. Despite his massive shoulders, thick torso and all-around sturdy build, he could move very quietly when he wanted to.

This wasn't one of those times.

Hank charged out of the back room.

The robber froze. In one hand he held a bag of money. In the other, a knife. He brought it towards Hank in a symbolic gesture; two combatants exchanging formalities before the savagery began. The knife acknowledged Hank as a threat. Hank's face, speed and fists the size of obese hams acknowledged that it would take a lot more than a small wedge of metal to deter him.

Hank smashed into the robber, who appeared to explode into a cloud of paper money. The crowd of dead presidents dispersed to reveal Hank Rockjaw holding the robber by the collar with one hand.

"Did you think that I'd be stupid enough to rob a liquor store with only one weapon?" The robber reached into his jacket and tried to pull a gun clear of his shoulder holster. Hank stuck a hand into the robber's jacket to keep it in place.

"This is a nice jacket," Hank said, glaring at the man who was trying to kill him.

"Do you like it? I stole it!"

Out of the corner of his eye, Hank saw a stack of boxes that he'd brought in earlier. They bore the label "Saint Secaire Tonguekicker Spiced Wine." Hank wanted to investigate, so he swung the robber into the boxes like a ragdoll wrecking ball.

"Ow!"

The stack toppled and a few bottles rocketed from between the flaps. They cracked open. Hank sniffed the air. The pungent tang smelled exactly like Rockjaw Brewery's Uvulatickler Spiced Wine.

The robber used the distraction to get his gun free. Hank knocked it into a puddle of spiced wine.

"Don't bring a gun to a fistfight," Hank said. His free hand swung up and connected with the robber's chin in a haymaker that could have put the Sun out of business. The robber's feet lifted up off of the ground. With his body trailing behind like the tail of a kite, the robber's head traced a perfect parabola through the plate glass window and into the open door of the police cruiser that had just arrived in response to the silent alarm.

Hank couldn't hear Estelle's thanks. He was too busy mulling over Saint Secaire while the blood stain of mulled wine spread across the floor tiles.

February 1, 2012 — 288 words

Chapter 2p2 – Glad To Have You

By Tim Sevenhuysen

Tic stood with his arms folded just inside the open docking bay door, watching the seemingly endless churn of people and machines making their way through the spaceport alley. He was watching for any sign of his new passenger. He didn't know what she looked like, but her name was Milly, and that sounded like a red-haired name to him.

A young woman carrying an overloaded backpack emerged from the melee near the docking bay across the alley. She held a thin, shiny, brand-new-looking PAI up in front of her face, then checked the number painted on the wall. She shook her head and turned to look in Tic's direction. Judging by her smooth cheeks and freckled face, she was at most nineteen. Her hair was tucked up inside a toque, so Tic couldn't see what colour it was.

She started across the alley and had to duck around a knot of boisterous mechanics, a few of whom sent wolf whistles in her direction. She blushed and frowned, but ignored them. Double-checking her PAI, she held her hand out to Tic. "I'm Milly Leon," she said. "Are you Mr. Bolter?"

"Call me Tic." They shook.

"I was so relieved to see your ad. I've been trying to find someone going that direction for almost a week!"

"Glad to have you aboard," said Tic, fishing his PAI out of his pocket. "So... I think I said 300 litres?"

"Oh, right, of course!" Milly thumbed through a couple of screens on her own PAI and then held it up next to Tic's. Both PAIs made a little chiming sound, and 300 litres were deposited into Tic's account.

The perfect passenger! thought Tic. The posting had actually been for 275.

[poll id="8"]

January 31, 2012 — 278 words

Chapter 2p1 – Fuel Isn’t Free

By Tim Sevenhuysen

Pelly clucked her virtual tongue. "Close your mouth while you chew, Mr. Bolter."

"Yeah, yeah, whatever," grumbled Tic, stuffing another strip of bacon into his mouth and smacking his lips as obnoxiously as possible. He swivelled in his captain's chair. The double-barrelled attack of bacon and a swivelling chair was starting to ease his stress headache, but the loud thuds and scraping noises from the hold were threatening to undo all his progress. "I hope they're being careful back there."

"Isn't that thoughtful of you," said Pelly. "You 'hope' they aren't doing irreparable damage to me..."

"Come on, Pelly," Tic protested. "You know I'd get you nice and refurbished if I could afford it, but I've got other problems to attend to, like getting as far away from this solar system as I can, for example."

"Then why haven't we left yet?"

"Because fuel isn't free. Once we've taken this shipment to Entulov 5 I'll actually have a bit of cash to work with."

"I notice that you've entered Haddock into my nav system as a waypoint." A chart of the galaxy popped up on the viewscreen, demonstrating the point.

"Yes, well, Libden is going to be watching me, you know. She'll have people on Haddock waiting for us to show up. So if we stop by Haddock briefly and then head to Entulov 5, she'll just think I'm tracking down her Adam Astrobot. That'll buy us time before she figures out I'm on the run and sends the Liberati after me."

Tic's PAI buzzed in his pocket. A notification was blinking on the screen.

"Oh, good," said Tic.

"What is it?"

"We've got a passenger."

[poll id="7"]

January 28, 2012 — 310 words

Chapter 1p5 – My Little Joke

By Tim Sevenhuysen

"Your action figure?" said Tic. Well, here it was, the moment of reckoning. He couldn't exactly say, "You see, my Lady, when I arrived back on Crux a few hours ago, I discovered that the item you commissioned me to deliver had simply vanished out of my hold. Isn't that amusing?" No, in this scenario the truth was very much not the best option.

So Tic blurted out the first excuse that came to mind: "It, uh, got sucked into some kind of weird hyperspace anomaly!"

Lady Libden squinted through her glasses at Tic for several long seconds. "BOLTER," she huffed, "YOU MUST THINK I'VE GONE COMPLETELY SENILE."

"No, of course not!" protested Tic. "Just my little joke, ha ha."

"WELL IT WASN'T FUNNY!" Libden shrieked. "I WANT MY ADAM ASTROBOT. WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH IT?" She struck the floor with her cane. Two of the Liberati stepped in closer to Tic and put their hands on his shoulders.

Tic went into Desperation Mode. "I, uh, I never had it! I went to the seller and he said he sold it to someone else who was willing to pay more."

Libden gave Tic another long, squinting glare. Then she nodded at the Liberati, and they let him go. "YOU'RE A SQUIRMING RAT, BOLTER," she said, "BUT I BELIEVE YOU. MR. DUNTER HAS DONE THIS TO ME BEFORE.

"HERE'S YOUR NEW JOB: GO BACK TO DUNTER, FIND OUT WHO HE SOLD MY ADAM ASTROBOT TO, AND TRACK IT DOWN. AND IF I FIND OUT YOU'VE BEEN LYING TO ME, YOU'LL BE VERY, VERY SORRY." She turned and stalked out of the docking bay, the Liberati at her heels.

"Well," muttered Tic to himself as he watched them leave, "that's one more client on my Do Not Call list."

[poll id="6"]

January 27, 2012 — 301 words

Chapter 1p4 – Gloria!

By Tim Sevenhuysen

Lady Libden was the last person Tic wanted to see right now. He'd held some vain hope that he might be able to take on some cargo and get off Crux before she even knew he'd arrived on the planet, but so much for that. He rapidly formulated and abandoned half a dozen desperate escape plans, but each was less viable than the last. He was trapped.

Steeling his resolve, Tic glued his brightest, bravest smile onto his face and jogged down the ramp with his arms held wide in welcome. "Gloria!" he beamed.

"BOLTER!" screeched Lady Libden.

Tic almost thought he could feel his cheeks ripple as the tsunami-like force of her voice washed over him. Libden was a short, round, blue-haired, red-faced old bat with a set of lungs that would make a fog horn jealous. Today, in supplement to the white cane she always wielded, she was dressed in a garish outfit made of feathers, fur, and sequins that seemed designed to offend both the senses and the sensibilities. She was surrounded by eight armed guards in crisp white uniforms and top hats wearing black half-masks. Tic shivered involuntarily, like he did every time he saw the Liberati.

"Mak, have you ever met Lady Gloria Libden?" he said to Overard.

"I, uh... No," said Overard.

"Perfect," said Tic, taking Overard by the elbow and propelling him out of the docking bay. "Best to keep it that way. Don't forget to send me those forms!" As Overard confusedly walked away, looking back over his shoulder, Tic considered making a run for it.

"YOU'RE NOT GOING ANYWHERE, BOLTER!" commanded Lady Libden, anticipating him. "YOU'RE GOING TO STAY RIGHT HERE AND TELL ME WHERE MY VINTAGE ADAM ASTROBOT ACTION FIGURE IS."

[poll id="5"]

January 26, 2012 — 308 words

Chapter 1p3 – A Bit of a Character

By Tim Sevenhuysen

Tic led Mr. Overard around to the back of the ship and up the ramp into the hold.

"Where have you been, Mr. Bolter?" said a matronly electronic voice. "Not getting yourself into any trouble, I hope!"

"Told you she was a bit of a character," said Tic to Overard out of the side of his mouth.

"I heard that!" said the AI.

Tic ignored the AI and turned back to his prospective client. "So, this is the hold. Plenty of space, lots of tie-downs. It's even got temperature and humidity control."

"Well it would," chimed in Pelly, "if you'd go out and get the replacement parts I need!"

"Shut up," said Tic. To Overard, he said, "What exactly do you need moved?"

"A few pieces of heavy machinery and about a dozen crates of parts," said Overard. "We're setting up a new factory on Entulov 5, trying to get the jump on an emerging market, you know. Our usual shippers only go to the Entu system monthly, and we can't wait that long."

"It'll take me three days," said Tic. "I can leave right away, but I'll want half of my pay up-front."

"We can accommodate that." Overard held out his hand, and Tic shook it. "I'll email you the appropriate forms and contracts when I get back to the office. The crates will be delivered when those have been signed." Overard took out his PAI and started tapping at the screen as he headed down the ramp.

Tic did a tiny, surreptitious fist-pump.

"Don't get too excited," said Pelly. "You have another visitor."

A banshee-like shriek assailed Overard as he stepped onto the deck of Bay 48: "YOU! WHERE'S BOLTER!?"

Tic ground his teeth. A voice that loud could only be coming from one person: Lady Libden.


[poll id="4"]

January 25, 2012 — 291 words

Chapter 1p2 – Takes Too Much Paperwork

By Tim Sevenhuysen

Tic led Mr. Overard out of the food court, through the spaceport's bustling retail area, and into an elevator that carried them up to the mid-size docking bays, where all kinds of different makes and models of ships were being noisily loaded, unloaded, fueled, serviced, and even bought and sold.

"I've never been to this area of the spaceport," said Overard over the din, his head swivelling back and forth to take in all the sights. "Normally we're dealing with much larger shipments, so I just sign some papers and tell them where to do the pick-up."

"Sounds pretty impersonal," said Tic. "When you're working with me, you get—hey, watch out!" He reached back and pulled Overard out of the way of an oncoming service cart carrying a massive, sparking booster block.

"Oops!" said Overard.

"Gotta be careful up here, Mak," said Tic.

"Thank you," said Overard.

Tic shrugged off the thanks. "Tough to hire me if you're dead."

When they reached Bay 48, Tic entered a code into the bay door controls. "This is my ship, the Galactic Pelican."

Overard eyed Tic curiously. "The Galactic Pelican?"

"The previous owner was a bit of a screwball," explained Tic. "Takes too much paperwork to change it. I just call her Pelly most of the time."

The bay door rose vertically into the ceiling, revealing a stocky silver freighter with a tapered nose and four cylindrical booster turbines built above and below the stubby wings.

"That's a pretty, um, 'unique' design, isn't it?" said Overard.

"It's a Gyrian import," said Tic. "Very reliable, these Gyrian ships, but the designers have some unusual ideas now and then. Strange sense of humour, too. You should see how they programmed Pelly's AI..."

[poll id="3"]