THE SHIP, PT. 3
1868 words by Stanley Lieber
It was Lunsford, all right. QCL Corp.
I really didn't need to verify.
I had spellchecked over three hundred individual songs, processing each of them manually. One at a time because Lunsford refused to let anyone use the automation. All of his interns were on leave for various reasons. He'd popped out of his office a couple of hours ago and handed me this improbable stack of leaves. One leaf per song! Then disappeared just as quickly as he'd arrived. Meanwhile, at an access junction to the abandoned floor, my own "interns" were spreading porn onto the mesh like so much organic peanut butter onto a bland tasting sandwich. The security exposure revealed by last night's scans would heal itself by lunch time, possibly even before I could put Lunsford in the freezer and be on my way. Potentially troubling, but as a strictly practical measure I was confident of my chances. For various reasons it paid to keep positive.
I cracked open a Gray Pop and chugged it back. Frothy, neutral-toned agents coated my throat with perpendicular cells. It was refreshing, and also damned delicious. Honestly, I should have been focusing on losing the extra pounds I'd picked up while working on the this assignment. Only a week to go before I'd be shipping out again. I'd appear obese and would probably be mocked by my teammates. I glanced down at my belly, hesitantly. All right, shit, I thought to myself, I'll purge the perp cells before heading to bed. So much for the perks of the job. I hated forcing myself to vomit.
Presently, I belched.
Which temporarily alleviated my sea sickness.
I squeezed my eyes shut and strained to hear my heartbeat. The sounds of the machinery in the room ran my thoughts aground. Wave upon wave of diverse electronic complaint, crashing together in a ubiquitous aural foam. So loud that I couldn't feel the reassuring pulse of my circulatory system clicking against my inner ear. I wondered: Am I finally dead? Or am I being recalled to base? What is the meaning of all this?
Then reason, and balance, resumed.
Meaning was irrelevant.
A new disturbance in my visor window. Some of the security from upstairs was leaking onto the public layer. Wonder what the pajama shits are? Text 667-SHITZ to find out!
Well. It was old-fashioned stuff but it would work. That is to say, if my interns could keep their hands out of their pants long enough to smear it into place properly. I crushed the empty Gray Pop can on my forehead and tossed it into the trash bin. There was groundwork to be laid before my part of the assignment could proceed. I scanned the progress reports again and made sure that the numbers were leveling according to plan. We were on schedule. Barely. A relief, but the boys were only onto the B tab by now.
We were going to need more time.
It may have started as a reaction to the percept team's sudden loss of attention. It may have been something else. What was positive was that things were not going well for the team stationed upon the top deck of the USS DOM DELUISE. Piro's prodigious organizational efforts notwithstanding.
"You men, eyes on the horizon," directed Piro.
A waved sloshed over the deck, knocking a couple of the team off of their feet. They immediately righted their gaze to stern.
"Not what I meant," said Piro.
"Water's getting choppy," hollered Thomas Bright, emerging from belowdecks. "You sure you don't need to get your folks strapped in?"
"We'll be fine." Piro reinstated his leg to the side of the railing and propped himself against it with his elbow. Somehow, he maintained the appearance of standing upright. He motioned towards the sun, which was only just now slipping below the the horizon.
Thomas interjected again. "It's no wonder they were having trouble, staring into the sun like that. Probably ruining their eyesight."
"Worrying about that is my responsibility," said Piro, clearly irritated that Thomas had raised the issue in front of his men.
"Hey, fuck-s'cuuuuuuse me. I'm here on behalf of the boss. He's trying to mentate down there. Only, the ship's rocking back and forth too much. Making him nauseous."
Piro's face didn't change. "Understood."
Satisfied, Thomas returned belowdecks.
Piro kicked one of his men in the seat of his uniform. "I said eyes on the horizon."
We were in before Lunsford got back.
I sat down behind his desk and played around with his knickknacks. Action figures, mostly. Even one of himself. Though it must be stated that the depiction was idealized, anatomically enhanced almost beyond recognition. There were some doodles carved into the arm of his chair, apparently with a pocket knife. What a barbarian. Inside his desk I found several unopened packages of Magnum prophylactics.
He burst through the doorway of his office just as I had one of the Magnums out and stretched over the barrel of my gun. I suppose it painted an odd picture for him. Well, shit, I thought, break time's over.
My first shot punctured the digitally enhanced prophylactic. The rest of the flexible, translucent material blew away as I carried forward with renovations to Lunsford's frame. Pieces of the Magnum had ended up all over the place, and I laughed when I saw that a small fragment had become stuck to Lunsford's cheek. The debris and flesh dispersed in their usual fractal pattern as I emptied the rest of my clip into his face.
Mission accomplished, then.
By the time Lunsford had settled to the floor, my interns had caught up with me. They proceeded to scoop up any and all items of interest. I fished in Lunsford's pockets for a cigarette and came up with some off-brand that must have cost even less than what I normally smoked. I stripped off my necktie and tossed it onto Lunsford's lifeless chest, chased it with a flick of ash, and then, with some effort, produced a fair amount of Gray Pop spittle. A signature, of sorts. We gathered up what we needed from his office and left the body for housekeeping.
"USS DOM DELUISE, your one-stop shop for Redaction Day savings," Lt. Commander Wetbeard sighed into his mouthpiece.
"This is Plinth. I'm calling on an outside line because the intercom in my stateroom is non-functional. I need you to contact Piro and send him down here for me."
"I'll get right on top of that, boss," said Wetbeard, straightening smartly in spite of the fact that no one could see him in his watch seat.
A low-flying aircraft became momentarily visible to the percept team and the ship rolled to starboard.
"Did you feel that?"
"Feel what, boss?"
"I'll send Piro down right away, sir. Anyway, it looks like he could use a break."
"Tell him we'll have Thomas steer the team for him, while he's belowdecks."
Lt. Commander Wetbeard stared at his phone. While his rank as Lt. Commander was merely a job title, and not an actual rank in any known naval organization, he was still conflicted over whether or not to question the orders of Plinth Mold. It had been some time since Wetbeard had needed to contemplate the ramifications of any of the orders that were issued to him. His mind ran several possible scenarios as he awaited the flash of resolute intent which would signal that a suitable course of action had been selected. Accordingly, the two conflicted halves of Lt. Commander Wetbeard engaged in an extended negotiation, exchanging discreet packets of information at last-century speeds. As if to unclog the apparent bottleneck, Plinth Mold severed the uncomfortable silence by at last continuing to speak.
"I'm sending him up now," Plinth said, and hung up.
And with that, Wetbeard's crisis was resolved.
In all, fifteen of my team were disqualified from active service based upon their performance in the Lunsford simulation.
I began to seriously consider retirement. No, really this time. It wasn't bad enough that I'd been busted down to mission pre-visualizations; I had to be roundly insulted by the lackluster passel of students assigned to me, as well. I fairly ached to commit government-sanctioned violence against an entrenched detachment of radical dissidents, or at least to fire a loaded weapon at a stationary target in a taxpayer-funded firing range. My desires, however, were irrelevant, owing to my present status at the Farm. They'd even revoked my weapons certificates so that nothing in my personal arsenal could be activated or equipped. For now, the weapons would lay idle, stubbornly refusing to aid in the national defense. Naturally, I was still responsible for their maintenance. It was a textbook example of bureaucratic entanglement: an asset simultaneously existing in two contradictory states, never collapsing, one way or the other, into coherence. During the first six months of my demotion I was convinced that soon I'd be slipped a deep-cover assignment which would exploit my new status as a pseudo-civilian. It would hardly be the first time I'd enjoyed such an arrangement. But no one ever contacted me. No such assignment ever materialized.
Maybe I had missed a cue.
In truth, there was a given reason for my demotion. I won't go into detail, but suffice to say that around 1991 it was suddenly considered bad form to tally a large number of civilian casualties in the course of a single mission. My superiors had cunningly rewritten the rule book after I'd already been deployed to the field. Oh, there were extenuating circumstances, to be sure, but, as with the review board who oversaw my case, I'm sure you have better things to do with your time than listen to me complain about how I was sabotaged by the petty reprisals of middle-management. I'll just say that it was no coincidence a former student of mine had become my new case officer shortly before we shipped out, and that the offending mission was my first under her command.
Chrystal Pepsi. An officer for whom I'd flatly refused to die.
It's conceivable that she may have sensed my lack of faith in her abilities.
Taking a peek at the paperwork and gradually realizing the scenario I was being slotted into, I was furious. It's unprofessional to admit this, but I'm certain my feelings toward C. Pepsi affected my performance during the mission. It's likely that she was cognizant of my opinions even when she first floated my name to lead the team. Hence, a typical sort of trap. Her bid to leapfrog my years of experience by simply removing me from the game board. This was exactly the kind of thing I had taught her to do to other people.
And, well, it had worked.
I missed the Chief. I missed my old life.
I was used to being a target, but that didn't mean I would just sit around and do nothing about it, once I found out.
It was time to reactivate my guns.
To be continued...