~ by Jon Stonger
“Get the money upfront,” hissed Doc hissingly in my ear.
We were sitting in a shady bar on the second planet in the Scorchemal system. A figure cloaked in a black hood sat across from us, his face hidden in shadow, which was mainly because of the hood, but the shadiness of the bar helped.
He named a figure.
I agreed immediately.
Doc seemed to choke.
There must have been something in his drink.
We agreed to meet surreptitiously, whoever that was, at the ship in an hour. Then we could make our escape from Scorchemal II, where Decker had stranded us. It all began with an innocent query about fuel levels, which I will tell in a flashback to make the log more exciting.
Captain Dave’s Exciting Flashback Log from a Day or Two Ago:
“How’s the gas tank looking, Decker?” I asked the ship’s chief and only engineer captainingly.
“I don’t even know where to begin,” said Decker.
“You could start by telling me how much gas we have,” I said.
“We don’t run on gas.”
“No,” said Decker. “We run on a variety of molecules quantum chromatically aligned at the atomic and sub-atomic levels, and then –”
“We could run on ancient gasoline,” said Doc, “if it was re-arranged into entirely different molecules. But that takes more energy than it’s worth.”
“Do not distract me with technical details,” I said. “How much fuel is in the tank?”
“We don’t have a tank,” said Decker. “Where did you hear about gas and tanks anyway?”
“I saw it in a vid. The vehicles they were driving had gas in tanks, so I figured we probably did too,” I explained.
“Excellent reasoning. Unfortunately, modern engineers do not have your attention to tradition, probably because they wanted the craft to go into hyperspace,” said Doc.
“Yes. The price of modernity. So how much fuel do we have?”
“The icon is on your computer,” said Decker.
“It’s under ‘Ship’s Resources.'”
“I don’t see it,” I said.
“It’s next to the ‘Communications’ toolbar.”
“Oh. There it is.”
“So how much do we have?” asked Doc.
“About a quarter tank,” I said. “We’ll pull over at the next system and get some more fuel and supplies. Decker, what is the next system on our course?”
“The Scorchemal system.”
“Good. We’ll stop there for resupply,” I said with captainly decidingness. “Perhaps we can find someone to engage us for an exciting and profitable mission as well. A princess to rescue, for example.”
“Scorchemal might not be the best place to stop. Its planets are very dense. Plus, the system has a very large hot sun, rendering most of the planets inhospitable deserts, and forcing ships to use a lot of fuel to simultaneously fly out of the gravity wells and use their air conditioning,” said Decker.
“And the kind of people you meet on Scorchemal’s planets are usually not the kind you want to do business with, if you catch my drift,” added Doc.
“Not only that, but they make hideous luggage there,” said Egbert as he levitated onto the bridge. “The material is so dried out, there’s no suppleness to them at all.”
“Hey, Egbert,” said Doc.
“Well, that’s how you humans take in oxygen, isn’t it? Respiration? So you’re all respirators.”
“Is that the new term now?” asked Doc.
“Yeah,” said Egbert. “It’s less offensive than ‘carbo’.”
“How do you know how offensive it is?”
“Oh, we talked about it at the last NCBSBA galactic web forum. We decided that referring to you carbon based life forms as ‘carbos’ all the time weakened the force of the epithet, and then it wouldn’t be as strong when we really wanted to use it. So now we call you ‘respirators’. We might change it to ‘respy’ for short, but that’s a topic for another day.”
“What if we’re more offended by ‘respirator’ than ‘carbo’?” asked Doc.
“Then you’re just weird. ‘Carbo’ is clearly the more offensive term,” concluded Egbert.
I was growing tired of the captainless dialogue. It was time for a captainly interruption.
“Noble crew,” I interrupted captainingly. “I have set a course for the Scorchemal system, where we can refuel and obtain supplies and maybe a dangerous and adventuresome commission.”
“I thought we decided not to go to Scorchemal because it costs more fuel to leave the system than we’ll gain by stopping there,” said Decker.
“You may have decided that, but I’m captain, and I have decided we need to refuel for the good of the ship. Plus, I’ve already plotted the course.”
“Dave, this course carries us directly into Scorchemal’s sun!” whined Decker.
“It’s Captain Dave,” I reminded him.
We landed at the Scorchemal refueling station. The harsh desert sunlight pounded down on the ship’s hull, forcing us to turn up the air conditioner. I only had enough credits to fill up about halfway, so that’s what we did. Feeling satisfied that the ship had enough fuel, we prepared to leave.
A warning light beeped alertingly on my console.
“Fuel? We just got fuel. Decker, why is the computer saying we don’t have enough fuel to leave the system?”
“Because we don’t.”
“But we just bought some,” I pointed out. “That was the whole point of coming here!”
“Right, but remember that the strength of the system’s sun combined with the planet’s gravity makes leaving the system very costly in terms of energy,” said Decker.
“Why didn’t you tell me this before we landed?” I asked. “Decker, you have endangered the ship and earned a demerit.”
“Excellent discipline, Captain. If the ship is endangered because a crew member’s information is ignored, then surely the crewman is at fault,” said Doc.
“Yes. I agree.”
“Dave, I’ve done some calculations,” said Decker, who had recently earned a demerit for having his information ignored.
“It’s Captain Dave.”
“The only way we’re going to have enough fuel to escape the system’s gravity is if we turn off the air conditioning while we leave the planet.”
“Ok,” I said. “Let’s try it and see.”
The warning light went off, and the ship began to rise from the planet’s surface.
“Decker, it looks like your coffee’s boiling,” said Doc.
“I’m not drinking coffee. That’s iced tea.”
Then Egbert came streaking into the room, his graspers beating frantically at a spot on his back, which happened to be both out of his reach, and on fire.
“Agh!” Beep! “Agh!” Blip! Blip! “Ouch! Put it out! Put it out!”
Decker threw the formerly iced tea on Egbert’s flaming lid, quenching the fire. I turned the AC back on, the warning light started beeping again, and we were forced to return to the surface.
“How much fuel do we have now, Captain?” asked Doc, who was tending to Egbert’s scorched lid surface.
“Oh, about a quarter tank.”
We parked the Delineator and set out towards the bar across the street. It was an exhausting journey for everyone except Egbert, who has solar panels. We made it, and were glad to enter the shady bar and have a drink.
The sun went down a few hours later, but the bar remained shady. Unsavory characters emerged from corners to get a drink or go to the bathroom, then returned to the corners to continue their unsavoriness. I looked around for a being unsavory enough to hire us and give us money to buy gas to get off of this planet, but savory enough that he wouldn’t kill us all and steal the ship.
After several hours sitting in the corner, Doc and Egbert approached the table, followed by a short being beneath a large black cloak. We negotiated passage to the nearby planet of Minusapolis, in the Sburbos system. This also turned out to be the being who we were talking to in the intro, so now the log has caught up with itself.
Captain Dave’s Log, Now Taking Place at the Same Time as the Beginning:
We met the shadowy figure at the Delineator. He used his PCW to buy us a full tank of gas and some snacks, as per our agreement. Surreptitiously, the other being we were supposed to meet, was nowhere to be seen, which I have since discovered is part of its nature.
The computer displayed no warning on takeoff, although I noticed that by the time we left the planet we were already down to ¾ of a tank.
“Man, escaping this planet sure takes a lot of gas,” I said to inform the crew of our loss of gas.
“Dave, we don’t run on gas,” said Decker. “We run on quantum chromatically aligned molecular –”
“It’s Captain Dave.”
The shady figure who hired us found a less than well lit, but not quite shady, spot in the corner of the bridge. We sat in silence for the first part of the voyage. I think Doc and Decker might have been intimidated by the figure’s dark and brooding presence. I, of course, was not, but I maintained the nervous and uncomfortable silence out of respect for my crew.
Egbert, perhaps because he had not updated his drivers on menace detection recently, broke the silence and engaged the dangerous passenger.
“So,” said Egbert. “Are you from around here?”
The passenger said nothing.
“You have friends on Minusapolis? Relatives maybe?” asked Egbert.
Silence. Doc and Decker glanced at each other nervously. I focused on letting the autopilot fly the ship.
“You don’t talk much, do you?” asked Egbert.
“Not really,” the passenger said. “I’m bound to a life of Silence by the Vows of my Order.”
“Really? That must get frustrating.”
“You’re talking now,” said Egbert.
“It’s not really a Vow of Silence,” said the figure. “It’s more like a Promise Not to Talk too Much.”
“That makes sense. So, what kind of order do you belong to?” asked Egbert.
“I’m a Ninja,” said the ninja.
“Never heard of ’em. What kind of work do you do?”
“Assassinations, sneak attacks, midnight stealth raids, that sort of thing.”
“Sounds like fun. I’m Egbert, by the way.”
Egbert extended one gripper. Yaa grasped it and shook.
“Nice to meet you.”
A few minutes later Yaa the Ninja had followed Egbert back into the vaguely defined regions at the back of the ship for a tour.
Decker walked over to whisper to Doc.
“Doc, do you feel any qualms about transporting an assassin on a mission? What if he’s going to kill someone? Doesn’t that make us accomplices?”
“I don’t know if it makes us accomplices,” said Doc. “It probably makes Dave an accomplice though.”
“I think I was accomplished before this mission, but I appreciate your recognition of my accomplishedness,” I said.
“What about moral qualms?” asked Decker.
“Well, philosophers have had a lot to say about problems like this over the centuries, and most of it isn’t very much fun to read. We’ll try to find out what his mission is, and then we can worry about it,” said Doc.
“I still have some qualms,” said Decker as he got up from his chair.
“Hey, while you’re up, you want to grab me a drink from the ARF?” asked Doc.
“Get me one too. Captaining is thirsty work.”
Decker started walking towards the back of the ship. Yaa the Ninja and Egbert were returning from their tour.
“One of the Ninja’s abilities is the ability to sense his surroundings. A Ninja can sense the approach of an attacker, even if he can’t see or hear him –”
At that moment Decker and Yaa collided with a thud and fell to the ground in a tangle of ninja and engineer extremities. Egbert levitated coolly over the two sprawled forms and approached Doc.
“Doc, help me with something,” Egbert said in a low tone. “I’ve been working on the idea of irony. I actually do have sensors that show my surroundings, and I totally knew that was going to happen. Does that count as ironic?”
Doc paused for several seconds, the corners of his mouth twitching upwards. He gave Egbert a nod and a wink.
“Doc, shouldn’t you be examining them to check for injuries?” I reminded him captainingly.
“I think they’ll be all right, Captain. Ninjas have quick recovery times.”
It was true. Yaa the Ninja was already on his feet and returning to his seat. Decker rose to his feet, started back towards his station, realized he had forgotten the drinks, turned back to get them, tripped over something, got up, got Doc and me a nice cool beverage, and returned to his post.
“It is true,” said Yaa. “Ninjas are exceptionally quick to recover from their injuries. It is part of our Special Ninja Training.”
“So tell us more about your mission,” said Decker.
“My mission is shrouded in secrecy.”
“That’s ok. Being Captain has it secretness as well,” I said.
“I can only say that I come on behalf of a group of disgruntled citizens of Minusapolis who are angered over a change in traffic patterns,” said Yaa the ninja. “There is a sizeable reward for the ‘removal’ of the being responsible.”
“Why don’t they just have him fired?” I asked. I wanted to know as many details as possible in case we were to play a part in this mission.
“In this case, the being is a Graklav Enormous Slime Worm named Orlathos, and he has grown too large to physically leave his office,” said Yaa. “The only solution is to ‘remove’ him.”
“So this is like a transportation thing?” I asked. “That sounds hard. How are you going to do it?”
“A Ninja never reveals his secrets. However, suffice it to say that I am an expert in the Tools of my Trade,” said Yaa.
“That’s good. You might need to get a bulldozer or a forklift or something.”
“A Ninja relies on Stealth and Surprise. A bulldozer would get noticed by security. Believe me, there are other ways to ‘take out’ a being such as this.”
“You have to get him out of his office without letting security see you? That’s going to be hard for a being that large,” I pointed out.
“A Ninja is skilled in the Art of Evading Detection.”
“So is the traffic really bad enough to justify this bounty? I mean, how bad can it be?” asked Decker.
“I will show you,” said Yaa. “But be prepared. These pictures are not easy to look at, even for one as well-trained as I. This is the picture before Orlathos took power.”
A video of hovercars moving seamlessly along broad highways appeared on the main monitor.
“And now the traffic after Orlathos.”
In the second video, nothing moved. There were hovercars magnetic bumper to magnetic bumper as far as the eye could see. Everywhere, cars were stopped at massive stoplights, none of which ever seemed to be green. On every side of the road, as well as above and below, strip malls and shopping centers spewed forth a constant stream of traffic, which backed up into the parking lots and in front of the eternally red lights.
“That is why the creature must ‘expire,'” said Yaa.
“Expire? I thought he was being removed,” I said.
Yaa just looked confused. He looked at Doc, who just shrugged. Egbert pointed a gripper at the last frame of the video, still on the monitor.
“That’s what you get for putting a carbo in charge,” said Egbert. “Sorry. I mean a ‘respirator’. I almost caught myself that time.”
Decker looked over at Doc with a worried expression. I didn’t know what the problem was. Certainly getting a Graklav Enormous Slime Worm out of an office was going to be a difficult task, but I was confident Yaa could accomplish it.
“Decker, I think morally we’re fine. Let me try a quick experiment if you’re still worried,” said Doc.
“Yaa, what are some other ninja abilities you’re not allowed to tell us about?” asked Doc.
“One of the most famous is our incredible Ability to Balance. Here, look. You see the edge of the control panel over there? I shall balance on it.”
With that Yaa the Ninja nimbly jumped onto the flat surface of the control panel.
“I will type a message with my foot while I’m up here to demonstrate my Balancing Powers. I . . . A . . . M . . . A . . . N . . . I . . . N . . .eeek!”
Apparently the letter ‘j’ was in an unbalancing spot. Doc and Decker moved to help the fallen ninja off the floor. His arms and legs were jumbled in a variety of directions. He got to his feet slowly, bent over and clutching his lower back.
“A Ninja does not express pain, but if I did, I would mention that I think I threw out my back.”
“Let me see,” said Doc medically. “Yep. Decker, grab his arm.”
“Ok. Got it.”
“All right,” said Doc. “On three.”
“Is this going to hurt?” asked Yaa.
“Only for non-ninjas,” said Doc. “One, two, three!”
Doc and Decker pulled. There was a loud series of pops. Yaa let out a gasp and sank gratefully into his seat.
“Still be-qualmed?” asked Doc.
“I think we’ll be fine,” said Decker.
We landed the Delineator on the outskirts of Minusapolis and parked in the parking lot of a giant shopping mall.
“All right. We’ll split up into two groups. Doc and Decker, you’ll take vehicle one. That’s our escape vehicle. Captain Dave and I –”
“Wait. I thought we were only hired to transport you to the planet. You didn’t say anything about helping with the mission,” objected Decker.
“Yes, but once you had seen the pictures of the loss of traffic flow, I knew you would not resist the call to bring justice to this planet,” said Yaa.
“It’s true. Calls of justice-bringing are hard to resist for a noble crew such as this,” I said.
“Aren’t ninjas supposed to work alone? Stealth and surprise and all that,” said Doc.
“Nope,” said Yaa.
“I looked it up on the galactic web,” said Doc. “You guys always work alone. It’s part of the code.”
“Don’t think so. Anyway, back to the mission,” said Yaa.
“How much do we get paid?” asked Doc and Decker simultaneously.
“The honor of working with a Master of the Craft should be sufficient.”
“How about another full tank and some more snacks?” I offered negotiatingly.
“Hm. You are a shrewd bargainer, Captain Dave. Very well. I accept.”
Doc and Decker made some strange choking noises. I hoped they weren’t coming down with something that would disrupt the mission to remove the Slime Worm from his office.
“Back to the plan,” said Yaa the Ninja. “Doc and Decker, you will be the backup team. I have two hovercars here. You will take one of them to the rendezvous at the Urban Planning Efficacy Service building. There, you will back up Captain Dave, Egbert, and me as we infiltrate the building.”
“Are you going to use the air ducts?” asked Doc.
“A Ninja does not reveal his Secrets.”
“That’s a yes.”
“Now, I will go into the back and load my weapons into your trunk, and we will depart,” said Yaa.
Yaa the Ninja walked to the back of the ship.
“Hey, nice swords,” came the voice of Egbert .
“What do you think you’re doing with those knives? Hey! You can’t just stick those in there like that! Watch it. Listen. Ouch.”
“Mission? Fine, whatever. Just let me do it. I have grasping arms.”
“I don’t care about ceremonial packing. Just let me . . . Hey! That hurt! You better be careful. I will kick your carbon-based ass.”
“Oh, trunk fu. Everybody makes that joke. Very original. Don’t you dare put that knife in there! Ok. That’s it! HI-YAA!”
There was a Thump!, followed by a Thwack! and finally a Thud!. A few seconds later Yaa the Ninja came staggering onto the bridge and fell over in a heap. Egbert was following after him, holding a long katana out in front of him in his graspers.
“Let’s see how you like it when people start shoving blades in your storage spaces!”
Egbert charged, aiming directly for the ninja’s, um, storage space.
“Egbert! Stop! You can’t do that!” yelled the crew in a jumble. I’m sure whichever one I yelled was the one that stopped him.
Egbert pulled up.
“What? That’s what he did to me.”
“Yes, but that can kill a human,” said Doc medically.
“He put blades into my storage areas, so I’m going to put one in his,” said Egbert. “That’s fair.”
“It’s not even close to the same thing, believe us,” I said. “Just put the sword down, and let’s get on with collecting this bounty so Yaa can buy us fuel and snacks.”
Doc looked at me in a strange way when he said this, but I’m not sure why. Fuel and snacks seemed a reasonable fee for helping with a construction project.
To his credit, Yaa had hovercars waiting for us.
“Ooh, I call the blue one!” I said, claiming my right as captain.
Egbert got in the back seat, Yaa in the passenger seat, and I drove. Doc and Decker got in their own hovercar.
It took us several minutes to find our way out of the mall. We could see the road and its non-moving traffic, but we couldn’t get to it. Every possible logical exit was blocked off by a barrier, usually with a tree or a flower bed planted in it.
Finally we found an exit, but it was pointed in the opposite direction from our destination.
“Left! How do we go left?” I asked no one in particular.
“Don’t worry. The Forces of the Universe will guide us to our proper place,” said Yaa.
We turned out of the parking lot and promptly stopped in traffic. I looked back and noticed Doc and Decker intently consulting their Personal Computer Widgets. After several minutes, they turned their hovercar in the opposite direction and sped away.
“I wonder where they’re going,” I said. “They better not have cheated and looked at a map.”
“I have a map loaded onto my processors if you want to see it,” said Egbert.
“No need,” said Yaa. “Ninjas have a superior Sense of Direction and Navigation.”
“Yes. So do Captains.”
Yaa and I gave each other a nod of understanding.
I waited patiently for an opening to hover into the other lane, and then from there turn around and not-move in the direction we wanted to go.
After several minutes, there was still no opening. I decided to make a move. Even though this was an alien craft, my captainly piloting skills would see us through.
“Yaa, you might want to put your seatbelt on,” I said.
“I don’t need a seatbelt; I’m a Ninja.”
I saw an opening, sort of. I gunned the engine, and cut to the left. Then I twisted the controls, bringing the nose up and moving us into the lane above us. With spatial intuition born of years of flying, I dodged the hovervan and stood poised for the next move.
Yaa smacked his head into the side window.
He got about halfway through exclaiming “Sweet Norwegian Snow Ninjas!” when my upward maneuver caused him to flip head over heels into the backseat and land on Egbert.
Egbert was using his graspers to help Yaa right himself when I saw another opening, this time in the oncoming lane below us.
I put the nose of the hovercar down, diving while torqueing hard on the front end to bring us swooping majestically into a space in the lane that was heading the right way. We narrowly missed an empty hoversuv and a hovercar full of Swampalonians.
Yaa bounced off the ceiling, then came hurtling sideways into the front seat. His leading leg made it over the seat.
Alas, his back leg did not. Yaa let out a ninja squeak and crumpled into his seat.
I hoped he didn’t have to decide anything anytime soon.
“Captain Dave, I’m working on my sense of irony,” said Egbert. “Would the statement ‘I don’t need a seatbelt; I’m a Ninja’ now be considered ironic?”
“Hm. I think you’ll have to ask Doc about that.”
We arrived at city hall late that night. Egbert pointed out he could have levitated there 14 hours ago, but Yaa and I reminded him of the importance of working as a team.
Egbert and I moved towards the front entrance while Yaa disappeared into the darkness. We would smuggle the weapons through security, while he snuck in the building. There, we would meet him and help him remove Orlathos.
“Doc and Decker, come in,” I said into my PCW. There were several seconds of silence.
“Yeah,” said Doc eventually.
“Where are you?” I asked.
“We’re here. We’ll be out in a minute.”
A few minutes later Doc and Decker walked around the side of the building, accompanied by two security guards. Everyone’s eyes looked swirly, and their noses were slightly blue.
I could only assume that Doc and Decker had been caught by the guards, and the guards had drugged them. I only hoped they had not revealed our mission!
“Don’t worry. They didn’t catch us, and we didn’t reveal the mission,” said Doc. “We were just outside having a smoke and a drink.”
“Smoking is bad for you,” I reminded him.
“Not this kind.”
“Hey Dave, aren’t you a little late? The UPES building is probably closed,” said Decker.
“First, it’s Captain Dave. What was the second part?”
“To answer your question, the UPES building is open all 29 hours of the day. Of course, various departments inside are closed at random times throughout the day and night,” said one of the security guards. His nametag read Ttrdytfgajh, so I didn’t even try.
“Well, which offices are open at which times?” I asked.
“Oh, they don’t tell us that,” said the other guard, whose nametag said ‘LJ’. “That would make it too easy, and then how do you know who really really wants to file their form? You can’t have just anyone come in and participate in bureaucracy.”
“You mean democracy,” I said correctingly.
“I think you heard me right the first time,” said LJ.
“Doc and Decker, you stay here while Egbert and I go inside. Set your PCWs to radio mode. We’ll let you know if we need some construction supplies,” I said quietly to the crew.
Egbert and I strode confidently into the imposing UPES building. The doors slid open to let us in, which made it slightly less imposing. I looked behind us to see if Doc and Decker were still covering their post, but they were gone.
“Doc and Decker. Come in. What is your location?” I asked.
There was a pause of several seconds.
“We’re around the side of the building with LJ and Ttrdytfgajh,” said Doc.
“And we don’t need to ‘come in’. We’re linked over a gamma encrypted local interference network, just like last time,” said Decker.
“Very well. Captain Dave out.”
There was a security checkpoint ahead. An elderly Swampalonian had been found with a pencil that was too sharp and was being whisked away for a cavity search.
“Don’t talk to me,” whispered Egbert. “When they ask, just say I’m ‘self-reporting’.”
“Good evening,” said the guard at the scanner. “What is your business here?”
“I’m here to file some bureaucratic documents,” I said.
“I see. And do you have these documents with you?” asked the guard.
“They’re in the trunk,” I said.
“What kind of trunk is this?”
“His name is Egbert.”
Egbert beeped sharply at me, which I thought was rude. Why didn’t he just talk? Wait. Weren’t we pretending he couldn’t talk?
“He has a name? Is ‘Egbert’ self-reporting?” The guard snickered. Egbert let out a series of low muted beeps, which would have been under his breath if he respirated.
“Of course he is,” I said.
The guard motioned Egbert forward and plugged a device into one of his portals.
“This will reveal what you’re carrying in here, and it can’t be lied to or tampered with,” said the guard. “Trunk! List the objects you are carrying.”
In a mechanical voice, Egbert began listing items
“One pair of underpants. Dirty.”
The guard chuckled.
“Several sets of documents, including several critical typos. Half a sandwich, rotten. Several magazines featuring naked humanoid females.”
The guard laughed again.
“I told you it couldn’t lie. The porno is how you know it’s telling the truth.”
“But I don’t have any pornography in there,” I protested.
“Sure you don’t. Ok, your trunk can go. Walk through the scanner.”
I did. I was clear. Egbert and I left the security area and walked towards the elevators.
“Egbert and I are leaving the security area and walking towards the elevators,” I said to Doc and Decker.
“We know. We’ve got your locations on our PCWs,” said Decker.
“Hey, is Yaa connected by PCW? Because talking to us really doesn’t help you guys meet up,” said Doc.
“I think he left his on the ship,” I said.
“Great. Keep us informed,” said Decker.
“Ok. We’re walking through the first floor hallways looking for an elevator.”
“Not that informed,” said Doc.
I assumed logically that the office of the boss must be on the top floor, since that’s where bosses live.
“The office of the boss must be on the top floor, since that’s where bosses live,” I said to Egbert. “Let’s go there.”
“I have a map of the building, you know.”
“Maps are uncaptainly. We will use my unerrable sense of direction.”
After several minutes, or maybe more like an hour, of carefully chosen movements through the building, we were somewhere on the fourth floor. I knew this because we passed a sign saying:
Welcome to the fourth floor. The office you need is closed (probably).
We were striding confidently down the hallway in a purposeful and non-lost manner when we heard a voice.
“Psst. Captain Dave.”
“I looked around, but I could not see where the voice was coming from.”
“What? Why did you just say that?” said the disembodied voice again.
“I was describing my actions aloud,” I said.
“You could call it that. Anyway, I still can’t see you,” I said.
“He’s above us,” said Egbert. “I have very powerful audio sensors.”
“How can he be above us?” I asked. “There’s nothing up there but air ducts.”
“He’s probably stuck in the duct,” interrupted Doc’s voice on the PCW.
“No way. He’s a trained ninja,” said Decker.
“Yaa? Where are you?” I asked.
“I’m up here. I’m stuck in the air duct.”
“Pull me through a black hole!” exclaimed Decker, even though he and Doc were outside guarding the escape route.
“Double or nothing Dave gets stuck going in to get him,” said Doc.
“There’s a grate in the office across from you,” said Yaa. “I need you to go in there and pull me out.”
“I’m on my way,” I said.
With captainly speed and quickness, I darted into the adjacent room and prepared to enter the duct.
“I’ve found the entrance to the vents. I’m coming in!”
“What do you mean ‘no’?” asked Doc.
“I mean ‘no’. I’m not telling you how I did it.,” said Egbert. “I’m not even admitting that I did it. Maybe Orlathos just left.”
“Fine. We’ll just use the location data and the audio recordings from your hookup to our PCWs to tell the story,” said Decker.
“Do what you want. I don’t know what happened to the Slime Weevil.”
“Slime Worm,” said Decker. “It was a Graklav Enormous Slime Worm.”
“Whatever. All carbos are alike.”
According to locator data, after Dave entered the air duct to extract Yaa the Ninja, Egbert went down five levels and into the basement, where the cafeteria supplies were kept. He spent a few minutes there, then returned to the main level and proceeded to Orlathos’s office, which was on the first floor, because Slime Worms don’t do well with stairs.
Captain Dave’s Air Duct Rescue Log:
“Wow. It is kind of tight in here. Can you still hear me?” I asked.
I got no response from the trapped ninja, so I continued down the vent. I came around a sharp corner. The interior of the vent was very dark, but I managed to see the outline of a foot in the gloom.
I reached out and grabbed the ankle and pulled.
“Hey! What do you think you’re doing?” asked a shrill voice that clearly did not belong to Yaa the Ninja.
“Sorry,” I said. “Wrong vent.”
“Do you want to regale us with your exploits against the Slime Worm?” asked Doc.
“I was never even there,” said Egbert.
“Have it your way.”
Egbert proceeded down the hallway, past the empty offices, towards the office of Orlathos, the Graklav Slime Worm in charge of planetary traffic flow. He reached inside himself . . .
“Hey! That’s perfectly normal. Don’t make it sound like that.”
And pulled out one of Yaa’s ninja swords. He held it in front of him in his graspers in case there were guards.
There were none, or, more likely, they were all outside smoking with Doc and Decker. Either way, Egbert entered the office with no problem.
Orlathos moved his bulbous slimy head around to see the intruder.
“Hey! You woke me up. Who do you think you are?” it gurgled.
Pause. Let the record show that Egbert deleted his own dialogue.
“I was never there,” said Egbert.
“Are you here to try to kill me and collect the reward? Hah! Your puny little swords will have no effect on me!” said Orlathos.
“Hey, what’s in the bag? What’s all that white stuff?”
“It can’t be. Sodium chloride? How did you know?”
“Please. I’ll do anything. Nooo! Aaaaaghghghghghghgh!”
There are several minutes of squishing, popping and gurgling.
When the voice of the Slime Worm returns, it is much squeakier and higher pitched.
“Hey. Get your graspers off me. You can’t do that. Don’t put me in there. I’ll get you for this!”
Egbert then turned and levitated smoothly out of the office, down the hall, and out into the night.
Captain Dave’s Air Duct Rescue Log:
I walked across the hallway to a different room and tried a different duct entrance. I suspected that Yaa had somehow changed ducts while I was searching, and that accounted for my encounter with the being in the other air duct.
I had to pull a desk over to the wall to stand on this time, but I managed to get into the duct. This time I decided to communicate with Yaa instead of grabbing another stranger’s leg.
“Yaa, can you hear me?” I asked.
“Yes, Captain Dave,” said Yaa.
“Good. Are you still in the vent?”
“No. I decided to go out for some ice cream.”
“Really? Can you get me some chocolate with sprinkles? In a cone?”
“No. I was kidding. It’s an old Ninja joke. I’m still stuck in the vent.”
“That’s too bad,” I said. “Now I want ice cream.”
“Ninjas don’t stop for ice cream in the middle of missions. That’s why it’s a joke.”
“Good point. Neither do Captains. Although we did stop for donuts during a chase once.”
“Really?” asked Yaa.
“Yeah. It was at a GITFAT,” I said.
“Oh, well that explains it. I love those. What kind did you get?” asked Yaa.
“I got Kraglorian Rock Donuts. I don’t remember what the crew got.”
“Some donuts would be great right about now,” said the hungry ninja.
“They sure would. Say, are you still in the vent?” I asked.
There was a pause.
“Are you in the same vent as I am? Because I think I see you up ahead,” I said.
“Indeed. I have a Ninja Flashlight. Wait. Ok, there. I see you.”
“All right. I’m almost there,” I said. “Wow. I think this one might be tighter than the other vent.”
“Other vent?” asked Yaa.
“Yaa, did you switch ducts a few minutes ago? Because I went in the vent and found somebody else.”
“No, I was here. I’m stuck.”
“You don’t seem to be moving too fast. Are you stuck too?” asked Yaa.
“Dave, you can’t be stuck,” said Decker suddenly over the radio-thingy. “The, uh, whole crew is relying on you to push through.”
“You can’t talk to him like that! It influences the bet,” said Doc angrily.
“I will not let you down, noble crew. And it’s Captain Dave.”
With the energy born of my crew’s reliance on me, I pushed onwards towards the trapped ninja.
“Captain Dave,” said Yaa, “can you move backwards?”
“Nope. Only forwards. I’m almost there.”
“If you can’t move backwards, how are you going to pull me out?”
I heard some muffled laughter and cursing from Doc and Decker on the PCW.
“I hadn’t thought of that,” I said. “I’m sure we’ll figure something out when we get there. Ok. I’m almost to your foot.”
“Watch out for the Ninja Reflex,” said Yaa.
I reached out my hand and grabbed Yaa by the ankle. As soon as my fingers closed around the joint, Yaa let out a mighty ninja yell and kicked backwards.
The kick missed my head and slammed into the roof of the vent. The sheet metal groaned and flexed, and I thought I heard some seams popping.
If Yaa wouldn’t let me get hold of his ankle, how was I going to pull us out? How were we going to get out if he kept kicking?
“Yaa, how can I pull you out if you keep kicking?”
“I can’t help it. It’s Ninja Reflex.”
I tried again. This time my hand barely touched the edge of his foot before he yelled and kicked again. The air duct shook and then dropped a few centimeters. I heard the sound of groaning metal.
I took a deep breath to maintain my captainly calm. There had to be a way out of here.
Stubbornly, I grabbed Yaa’s leg again. This time he managed to repress the reflex for long enough to let me get a good grip, but then he kicked out again.
This one must have hit some kind of crucial support, because the entire air duct let out a mighty screech and the section containing us tore free from the ceiling and fell to the floor in a shower of ceiling material and metal.
We lay there stunned for several moments. Yaa, using his ninja recovery powers, returned to his senses. He was able to grab the edges of the torn section and pull himself forward and out of the vent. He then grabbed me by the ankles and pulled me free.
“Dave? We heard a crash. Are you ok?” asked Decker.
“Yes. The section of the air duct we were in fell out of the ceiling. We are both stunned, but ok,” I reported to the obvious relief of my crew.
“So you’re not stuck in the vent,” said Decker.
“No. We are on the fourth floor.”
“Ha! I won one! I finally won! Take that! I knew you could do it!” yelled Decker.
“I thank you for your faith in my captainness,” I said. “Still, there is no need to be elated. We still have a mission to accomplish.”
“Actually, we’re pretty sure Egbert took care of that a while ago,” said Doc.
“He did?” I asked.
“He won’t admit it, but we had his location on our PCWs,” said Doc. “You guys should just meet us out front and we’ll get out of here.”
“All right. You’ll need to alert us to security locations inside the building so we can make our escape undetected,” said Yaa.
“Actually, you didn’t really do anything. You can just walk out the front door. We’ll be waiting out front,” said Doc.
Doc’s gambit was a dangerous one, but it had its own brilliance. Since we hadn’t actually removed the Graklav Enormous Slime Worm from his office, perhaps we could just continue the ruse of filing bureaucratic papers and continue on our way.
“Doc, that is a dangerous plan. Of course, a Captain never shies away from danger –”
“Neither does a Ninja.”
” . . . so we will try your plan. If it doesn’t work, it will be all your fault and you and Decker will have to rescue us.”
So Yaa and I walked confidently out of the fourth floor, somehow wound up on the fifth floor, found a set of elevators, took them to the basement to confuse anyone following us, then got off on the first floor.
“Wait. I must confirm something,” said Yaa.
As I waited in the lobby, Yaa moved stealthily down the hallway towards Orlathos’ office, which I seem to remember being on the top floor. It was impressive to watch a ninja in his element, as Yaa ducked into alcoves, rolled and sprinted silently down the empty hallway.
He returned a few moments later.
“It is true. He is gone. Let us make our escape.”
Brazenly, we walked towards the door, as if we had really just been filing papers. The guards stared at us intently. We walked past him.
The outer door slid open, and we stepped into the night air.
But where were Doc and Decker with the escape vehicle?
“Doc? Decker? Come in! We’ve made our escape from the building. Where is the escape vehicle?” I asked with no trace of panic in my voice.
There was a long pause. Had they been captured?
Then, thankfully, Doc and Decker again walked around the corner of the building, their eyes looking swirlier and their noses bluer than before. They waved goodbye to the two guards and joined us in front of the building.
“Captain Dave,” said Doc. “I think you’d better drive.”
“Of course. I’m captain.”
We got into the escape vehicle and accelerated away from the UPES building. We turned out onto the street and stopped at a red light.
“Well, at least there’s no traffic this late at night,” I observed. “We should be back at the ship in no time.”
After a few minutes the light changed to green. We accelerated, then quickly came to a stop as the next light was also red.
And the one after that.
And the one after that.
Each light only took a couple of minutes to trigger before it turned green, so in 25 minutes we had passed 13 lights and gone 2.2 kilometers. I hoped we would beat the morning rush hour.
“We might have to call Egbert on this one,” said Doc after the 14th consecutive red light.
“Where is Egbert?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I’ll contact him,” said Doc. “Hello, Egbert? Where are you?”
“I’m back at the ship. I’ve been here for hours.
“Did you already collect the bounty?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, but if I did, I would say someone’s making Gagh Blechch tonight, Graklav style,” said Egbert.
“That’s not a nice image. Doesn’t that make you accessory to murder?” asked Doc.
“Nope. I updated my morality drivers and downloaded a patch for ethical gray areas. If I did anything, which I didn’t, all I did was take an accused being into custody and deliver him to a judicial body.”
“An unrecognized, vigilante judicial body,” said Doc.
“Who pays well. Theoretically,” said Egbert.
“What are you guys talking about?” I asked. “I heard something about Gagh Blechch. That better not be what we’re having when we get back, because it is slimy and disgusting and I don’t eat dishes with tentacles.”
“I’m seeing if Egbert can help with the lights,” said Doc. “Just a minute.”
“Well, it’s not like he could use some algorithm on the ship’s computer to hack into the city’s system and turn all the lights green. That would be too farfetched,” I said.
“Actually, Dave,” began Decker.
“It’s Captain Dave,” I said.
As soon as the words were out of my mouth, the first light turned green.
And the next.
And the one after that.
“Look!” I said. “They respect my captainliness!”
We sped through the city and returned to the ship. True to his word, Yaa bought us a tank of gas and some snacks.
We escaped the planet just before rush hour.
Buy the short story collection Dames, Donuts and Death (The Adventures of the Delineator).
Buy the novel, The Way of the Empty Gripper (The Adventures of the Delineator).