Shanghai

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic


Shanghai

 

A.J. Trook

 

 

The satellite was only six inches in diameter, a small gray sentient ball of sophisticated electronics placed in solitary orbit around the blue-green third planet out from the unassuming yellow dwarf in a little-explored arm of the galaxy. It performed three functions. The first was to track a specific life form on the surface of the planet below. It had maneuvering capabilities that allowed it to keep a constant vigil over its ward. The second was to detect any unauthorized ships that might enter the system. To that end it was equipped with sensors that could immediately recognize the unique energy signature of a faster-than-light drive system within a light year. The third function was to send a weekly hypercast status report to its creators, advising them that all was well or reporting any deviations from its first two functions. In over fifteen revolutions of this planet around its star, the satellite had never had cause to report anything out of the ordinary.

 

Quite frankly, the satellite was bored.

 

Which was a shame, because two days before its next report was due to be sent out, it was completely destroyed by a passing meteor and missed out on the chance to cite both violations at once.

 

-----

 

“Brilliant, Exxor. Just brilliant. Do you have any idea where we are?”

 

The navigator of the Dremerian Survey Cruiser Blanth shrugged. “Somewhere in Sector 623-114. The navicomp hiccupped. You can’t blame me for that.” He scowled, the gray skin on his bulbous skull pinched into unhappy creases around his huge black eyes and tiny mouth. “I should have the system recalibrated in a few hours. Then we’ll be back on our way.”

 

Mission Commander Hoovox, the other being on the bridge continued to pace, hands clasped behind his back. “But we’re behind schedule already. We’re supposed to rendezvous with the Chogg tomorrow, and we’re still short one humanoid sample.” He sighed, his pacing slowed to a halt. “If we’re late or short on specimens, you know we’re going right back to the cargo run from the Olerat mines to the Joxik refinery. This was our chance to prove ourselves and move up in the company.”

 

Exxor was about to respond when a light began blinking on his control station. He’d forgotten to deactivate the scanner when the navigation malfunction had sent them hurtling to parts unknown, and it had engaged in its preset function of sweeping the nearest planets for suitable life forms. He tuned the scanner and grinned at the resulting data. “Would you believe we’ve popped up within five light minutes of a planet with abundant humanoid life?”

 

Hoovox was suddenly peering over his shoulder. “Really?”

 

Exxor grinned. “See for yourself.”

 

Hoovox stared at the life readings. Already the Blanth’s sensors were cataloging physical features, population groupings and technology levels. The results were well within the parameters of the Chogg’s experimental requirements. Hoovox managed to keep from hopping around the bridge in an unleaderlike display of relief. Instead he slapped his hand on the ship’s communication system. “Mok! Watlen! Take the lander and head for the nearest planet. Find an isolated specimen, sedate it and bring it back right away.”

 

-----

 

Rusty Jim stared out over the waves, the salt spray causing him to squint. His tiny dinghy bobbed in the waves, the sail nothing more than a large sheet stolen from the bed of his room at the Green Serpent Inn. It was pulled taut by the wind, straining against a mast cobbled together from broom handles and bailing wire. Other than a slightly corroded cutlass, a keg of rum doubling as a seat, and a bucket filled with two-day-old biscuits, the little boat was barren of anything but seawater that occasionally slopped in over the sides. By the opinion of most people Jim knew, the dinghy was seagoing only in the sense that it was moving away from land at the time.

 

He looked back, satisfied that the governor of Havanna hadn’t launched any ships to hunt him yet. The smoke from the burning docks could still be seen, rising in a dark smudge against the southern horizon, but the island itself was long out of sight. Jim adjusted the sail, bringing the dinghy on a slightly westward heading. No sense making it easy for the angry governor to track him down. After all, the lovely lass at the bar had hardly mentioned that she happened to be the governor’s daughter.

 

Jim smiled at that. He doubted that he was the first wayward sailor to catch the eye of the feisty Marietta . It had been a short encounter. They’d not even made it up to the second floor landing of the inn when the captain of the guard and several soldiers had burst in looking for her. They spotted the surprised couple on the stairs and immediately charged, swords drawn. Jim had tipped his hat to Marietta , then shoved her down the steps and into the troops, sending them all tumbling to the bottom in a tangle of arms, legs, uniforms, and petticoats. Jim used the distraction to bolt to his room and out the window, the sheet clutched in gnarled fists as a makeshift parachute that did little more than tangle him up and keep him from seeing where he was falling. The wagon loaded with hay underneath the window had far more to do with his lack of injury from that jump, but the sheet was now being put to good use.

 

The sun was slowly sinking toward the horizon, and Jim hoped that it would make spotting him more difficult for anyone setting out from the island. By the time the last rays of sunlight faded, he planned to be far from the grasp of the outraged governor.

 

Satisfied with his heading, he sat down on the keg of rum. Granted, he could have done a little better on this trip, but with his ship impounded and his crew imprisoned, he didn’t feel like fussing about details. Pirates were a dying breed with the growing presence of the British and French navies. When they weren’t fighting one another or the Spanish, they were driving the average pirates out of business. The stocks in the town square were filled with the crew of one of Jim’s rivals, each waiting his turn at the gallows where their captain already hung.

 

Jim sighed, removing his hat and mopping his brow. Even at dusk, the sweltering heat of the Caribbean had him sweating. He watched as the sun sank below the horizon, leaving him in a pleasant twilight with only the sound of the waves and the creaking makeshift mast to keep him company.

 

He felt tired suddenly. It struck him as unusual. Jim was definitely a late sleeper. Sunset was often the first thing he saw each day. Nevertheless, he almost fell backwards out of the boat, managing to catch himself on the side and plop down in the saltwater next to the rum keg. He tried to right himself, but another stronger wave of sheer exhaustion slammed into him and he simply fell backward, smacking his head against the bucket and spilling the biscuits. His eyes crossed, and he tried to focus on the sky above him. His last thought was how odd it was to see a star growing brighter overhead. Then he passed out.

 

-----

 

Jim first became aware of an angry red clouding his field of vision. It took him a minute to realize that his eyes were still closed. He thought about opening them, but still felt groggy. There didn’t seem to be any urgency, so he relaxed.

 

Sounds around him began to register, and the part of his mind not content to settle back into a deep sleep tried to pay more attention. Gone were the soothing sounds of the Caribbean . Instead he heard an odd hum, and an unusual assortment of chirps, squeaks, and hoots coming from all around him. He tried to sneak a peek, but the minute he opened his eyes he regretted it. The light turned out to be a powerful lamp inches from his nose, shining on him with an intensity that rivaled the sun. He squinted his eyes shut and tried to cover his eyes with the back of his hands, but the restraints kept them firmly at his side.

 

Ah, restraints. The curious part of his mind began to take inventory.

 

He was on his back on some sort of hard bed or table. He was strapped down rather securely, with what felt like heavy belts across his ankles, lower thighs, waist, chest, and forehead. For all intents and purposes, he was completely immobile.

 

Whatever was making the sounds coming from around him was moving. It squibbled and gwawked as it circled the table he was strapped to. Suddenly a stabbing pain behind the ear made him wince. “Hey! That hurt, mate!”

 

“Do you understand me?”

 

Jim hesitated. He still heard the strange sounds that had been blibbering near him, but in his head he also heard the words. “Aye, mate. I hear ya.”

 

“Recalibrating.”

 

That word echoed in Jim’s head. It sounded familiar, but he couldn’t quite place it. More gibberish erupted from just above his head. “We are finished here, commander. I will transfer him to his designated containment cell.”

 

The light went out, and Jim opened one eye. “You finally be makin’ some sense.”

 

He felt the table begin rolling, and the low white ceiling began scrolling past as he moved feet first through a door and into a narrow corridor. Straining his eyes, he looked up at the creature pushing him along. It was a gray-skinned being with black eyes the size of his fist, tiny slits for nostrils, and a mouth no longer than his thumbnail. “Hey, mate. Where ya takin’ me?”

 

The creature looked down at him. “I’m taking you to a holding cell with the other bipeds we’ve collected.”

 

Jim smiled. “Ya did somethin’ to me head. I know ye ain’t speaking the Queen’s English, but ye sound like me old grammar teacher. Why is that?”

 

The creature frowned. “We’ve installed a translator unit behind your ear to ease the processing. Anything we say will be translated into your mental language.” The gray being tapped the side of its immense skull. “We all have one to facilitate communication.”

 

“Nice.” Jim settled into a thoughtful silence as they continued down the corridor. He watched as they went through two more sliding doors, made a right turn, then headed down another hallway.

 

“Mok! I’ve got the new specimen ready for his cell.”

 

“Roll him in, Watlen. We’ll secure him and the others, then lock down the cellblock.” The second voice was off to Jim’s left. “Can’t wait to get back to the Chogg and get some real food. Krebb can’t make a decent meal.”

 

Watlen pushed Jim through another door, then disappeared. Suddenly he heard a humming sound and the hair on his scalp tried to stand straight up. Then the restraints fell away. Jim sat up, stretching his aching muscles, then looked around.

 

He was in a square room with a single glass door. Watlen and another gray being he assumed was Mok stood on the other side of the door, watching him. He stared back at them for a moment, then looked around. The room had a wash basin and a chamber pot built into the wall. A bunk extended from the far wall. Other than that and the table he sat on, the room was empty.

 

He looked back at Watlen and Mok. “I don’t suppose a bit of rum might be forthcoming?”

 

They continued to watch him, their lips moving but no sounds penetrating the glass door to reach him. After a moment, they both turned and departed, the door sliding shut behind them.

 

Jim waited a moment, then tapped a ring against the glass door. A bluish glow radiated out from the glass and his finger tingled. Turning, he began examining the walls of his cell. Spotting a small panel, he removed his earring and used the hook to pry the panel open. As he studied the circuitry underneath, his grin slowly spread.

 

-----

 

“I can’t believe our luck, Exxor. A random jump lands us right next to a planet with a perfectly viable indigenous population.” Hoovox rubbed his hands together gleefully. “If we can get back to the rendezvous point in time, we’re sure to receive another sampling assignment. Perhaps we’ll be permanently reassigned to the Chogg!”

 

Exxor grinned. “The duty is more pleasant and more lucrative, to be certain.”

 

The door to the bridge slid open and Watlen and Mok entered. “The last acquisition is secured. For a primitive, he certainly seemed to take his abduction well. None of that horrified shrieking and cowering in fear.”

 

Hoovox shrugged. “Who cares? The scientists on the Chogg can test him to find out why. We’re going to make our quota! That is, as long as Exxor can get us there on time.”

 

“Another twenty minutes and we’ll be on our way.” Exxor tapped the controls of the navicomp. “The final recalibration is almost complete. We’ll beat the Chogg to the rendezvous point.”

 

Hoovox suppressed another unleaderlike giddy-dance. “Then get to your posts. We’ve got work to do.”

 

No one noticed the light on Mok’s security station wink momentarily. It was only on for two seconds, but since it only lit when a containment cell door opened, it would probably have garnered a great deal of attention.

 

-----

 

Rusty Jim tugged at his coat, frustrated that the very tip had been caught in the closing security door. He’d managed to override the cell’s locks by simulating a fire in the sink area. Unfortunately, the false alarm only lasted while he used his earring to bridge two circuits. As soon as he’d started to move, the door had begun to slide shut again.

 

With a grimace, he finally ripped the jacket, leaving the trapped corner dangling from the edge of the doorframe. Hurrying to the main control console, he quickly activated it, relieved that it was an older model. He hadn’t been on board a ship like this in fifteen years, and he was finding a new application to the Rusty nomenclature he’d earned from his crew. But memories of system operations returned, flowing like quicksilver through his mind. Soon he knew who was locked where and why. He made a note of several likely candidates and started opening cell doors.

 

-----

 

The stars were racing past as the Blanth headed to her appointment with the larger Chogg. Exxor leaned back in his seat, a satisfied grin curling the corners of his tiny mouth. “I just got a communication from Junior Navigator Xreen. The Glimiz was late to its rendezvous. We have an extra nine hours.”

 

Everyone on the bridge breathed a sigh of relief. Despite Exxor’s best efforts, they were still several hours behind schedule. The news of another scout ship’s delay was a true blessing for them. The Joxik cargo run had been a career dead-end, and all of them were thrilled at the prospect of being specimen collectors for the Dremarian Science division.

 

Hoovox settled into his command chair, relishing the thought of a possible promotion. “Mok, go down and check on our wards. Wouldn’t do to lose one during the trip.”

 

Mok popped up from his security station, where he’d been trying to correct a malfunction in the containment cell camera circuit. “Sure thing, commander. Needed to check on something down there anyway.” He hurried to the door leading off the bridge.

 

When the door to the containment cell opened, Mok was surprised to see the latest acquisition standing there smiling at him. “What are you doing out of your cell?!”

 

Rusty Jim grinned. “I’m busy with a bit of a recruiting drive, mate. Seems I need a crew for me new ship. Care to sign on?”

 

Mok’s stun pistol was in his little fist in an instant. “I think not. You’ll go back to your cell immediately.”

 

Jim sighed. “Ah, little lad. I think you misunderstand. I already have a crew. I’m looking for someone to act as bait. You’ll do nicely.”

 

A huge green hand dropped over Mok’s head and clamped down, completely engulfing the little alien’s face as it lifted him off the deck. Tentacles flew out from beside the door, quickly relieving him of his weapon and communication device.

 

Jim grinned as Voog carried the struggling Dremarian to his old cell. “Go easy on him, mate. He’s just too cute to squish. They all are. And one of them might have the passwords to the systems we can’t access yet.”

 

Voog tossed Mok into the holding cell and closed the door. “We have one of them, but I know that there are at least three more on board. Their weapons are quite effective.” He nodded his scaled head toward the multi-tentacled blob in the corner studying the pistol it liberated from the Dremarian. “We are only eight, with one weapon between us. Thanks for releasing us, but if it gets me killed, then I fared worse than I might have if I’d remained a prisoner.”

 

Jim smiled up at the hulking Korakan. “Ah, but let’s think about that a wee bit, shall we? They’ve snatched each of us from our home planet. We’re off to their labs for various scientific experiments. Not all of their test subjects survive the tests, mate. That’s a throw of the dice that I don’t mind turning in my favor.”

 

“How is it that you know so much about our captors? You told us yourself that they steal people from pre-space travel civilizations. Our people have been watching the stars for centuries, and we knew that other beings were out there, but we’ve had no contact with them. Have the Dremarians come to your planet before?”

Jim’s grin faltered. “Once. But that’s a story for another day.” He jerked a thumb at Mok, who was shouting unheard and beating on the containment cell door. “Right now we need to get the rest of these little scalawags in there. Then we’ll have time fer swappin’ sea stories.”

 

He hurried back to the brig’s control station. “Now let’s see what sort of trouble I can cause.”

 

Voog stomped over next to him. “How can you operate these systems? Among my people I am one of the more educated scientists, and these systems are centuries ahead of anything I’ve ever seen. No offense, but your mannerisms and dress indicate that you are little more than a barbarian on your own world.”

 

Jim shook his head. “We’ve got a saying on our world, mate. Never judge a book by its cover. What I lack in your extensive education I make up for in experience. And no sailor worth his salt ever survived the high seas by readin’ books about it.”

 

Voog frowned, the expression rearranging several important features of his face. “But how do you have experience with these systems?”

 

Jim chuckled. “That is also a story for another day. Just be ready to do what I say when I say it.” He turned to the motley assembly of aliens liberated from the Dremarian containment cells. “That goes for all of you! Captain Rusty Jim has deigned to accept you as members of his crew, with a fair share in the profits and a chance to get back at these little imps for shanghaiing us. Work hard and do what you’re told, and you’ll soon be back on your homeworlds or home among the stars. Once you know enough to make that decision, of course.”

 

He walked over to one of the matter translators the Dremarians used to create food for the prisoners. Removing the cover, he started fiddling with the circuitry underneath.

 

Voog looked down as a tentacle tapped his knee. G’k, the tentacled mass stolen from a world not far from Voog’s, looked up at him with a single watery orb. Voog heard G’k’s thoughts in his head. //Do you trust this Rusty Jim? He has freed us, but I sense that there is much that he has yet to tell us. I’ve tried to read his thoughts, but he carefully guards them. That he even knows to do so is further evidence that he is not what he seems.//

 

Voog looked at Jim, who was busy putting the cover back on the matter translator. A moment later, the light faded and Jim pulled a curved sword out of the distribution tray and held it up admiringly. Voog shrugged. “Whoever or whatever he is, he has freed us. For now, that is sufficient for me.”

 

-----

 

Hoovox scowled. “Where is Mok? We’re almost to the rendezvous point and he hasn’t come back yet. We need to get those specimens ready for transfer!”

 

Watlen rolled his eyes. “He probably went to his quarters for a nap. It wouldn’t be the first time he’s decided to fold a spontaneous rest cycle into a simple errand. I’ll go see what he’s doing.”

 

Hoovox sighed. “Of course. When you find that idiot, let him know that any deterioration in the quality of our specimens due to his inability to care for them will be deducted from his credits.”

 

-----

 

Watlen found himself disarmed and sitting next to Mok almost before he realized that there was anything wrong. “What happened?”

 

Mok frowned as he pointed at Jim. “Our last specimen seems to be quite handy with the ship’s systems.”

 

Watlen’s eyes got bigger. “Are they creating swords with the food dispenser?”

 

Mok nodded. “I would have expected them to try to replicate my weapon, but there’s no way to recreate the energy pack. It almost seems like the creature knew that.”

 

Watlen shrugged. “Maybe he just likes swords.”

 

“Maybe.”

 

-----

 

Exxor noted the time. Mok and Watlen had been gone for almost an hour with neither reporting back in. “You know, the fact that we can’t get any camera feeds from the containment area worries me. Do you think the specimens might have escaped?”

 

Hoovox snorted. “Pfft! Not likely. Are you suggesting that they opened their cells and disabled the internal sensors? I am the commander of this ship, and I don’t know how to do that. I rely on your engineering expertise for that. Is it that simple?”

 

Exxor bristled at the implied slight. “Certainly not! But I find it bothersome that we can’t see what’s going on down there.”

 

“Are the cell doors closed?”

 

Exxor checked. “Yes – I do have that information. The cell doors are still secure. But I can’t detect the life forms. Those sensors are off-line as well.”

 

Hoovox held up a hand ostentatiously, signifying his superiority in the debate. “They are sitting in their cells waiting for someone to feed them. Go down there and fix the cameras so I don’t have to send you on a fool’s errand that I’ve already unsuccessfully sent my fools on.” His gaze fell to the unoccupied stations of Mok and Watlen.

 

“No need for that, mate. You fools can save yourselves the walk for the moment.”

 

Hoovox and Exxor whirled around. Several of the specimens stood just inside the doorway, brandishing swords. The Koraken had a huge sword in one hand and Mok’s stunner in the other.

 

The creature from their last stop stepped forward. “You boys can call me Captain Rusty Jim. I’m afraid I’ve got to lock you up, but I wanted to thank you for fetching me from me planet. It’s been a long marooning, but I think I’m a better man for it.”

 

Hoovox gaped. “Marooned? You’re not indigenous to the planet we collected you from?” Lingering thoughts of promotion evaporated, replaced by fears of censure for abducting an unauthorized life form. “But your life signs matched those of the dominant species on the planet!”

 

Jim laughed. “Oh, I be from Earth all right. But this aint the first time one of you little gray fellows has seen fit to borrow me.” He turned his attention to Exxor. “Do me a favor, mate. Call up the records on Pulsar Pete.”

 

Exxor frowned. “Pulsar Pete, the interstellar pirate?”

 

Jim nodded. “One and the same.”

 

Exxor called up the files from the Blanth’s archives. The forward display screen replaced the passing stars with a biography on the notorious pirate. The text described the exploits of a specimen-turned-pirate who terrorized shipping lanes from one end of the galaxy to the other before finally being captured during a lucky ambush by the Dremarian fleet.

 

Hoovox and Exxor choked in unison. The picture of Pulsar Pete was a dead match for the humanoid standing next to them.

 

Jim smiled up at the screen, his language suddenly far more educated. “Ah, what a farce that was. No laws to deal with people like me. Apparently I’m immune from criminal prosecution in your legal system due to my status as a specimen. The solution was to send me home. I guess it was meant to be some form of absolution for me. I was supposed to settle back into my old life as a librarian, live out a bland life sorting through books, and die sleeping in my bed.”

 

He waved his sword under Hoovox’s olfactory slits, his pirate accent returning. “But you just can’t go back after living a life as a pirate. You’ll learn that soon enough as one of me crew.” He looked back at the aliens now loyal to him. “First mate, Voog – toss ‘em in the brig. We’ll deal with ‘em later.”

 

Voog stepped forward, gesturing with both sword and stunner for the two horrified Dremarians to head for the containment area. As they left, G’k remained. //What are your intentions, Captain?//

 

Jim was already accessing the Blanth’s immense database. “Well, I see from the roster that we have one last Dremarian on board who probably doesn’t have a clue that his ship is flying under a different flag. Might want to fetch him and see where his loyalties lie.” He stopped at a particular datafile, then laughed out loud. “And you might want to get ready for a little boarding action. I see that the Chogg is commanded by a Dremarian named Jobbel. If I’m not mistaken, Jobbel was the little rogue that shanghaied me the first time. I’ve got to pay my respects.”

 

He activated the ship’s AI. “Computer – time until our rendezvous with the Chogg?”

 

“Twelve hours, fifteen minutes.”

 

Jim nodded. “Plenty of time. Computer, give me the specifications of all onboard weaponry.”


Submitted: March 16, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Draxis. All rights reserved.

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