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The Iceman's Lament

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Tom Kelly is a disgraced former space pilot hauling ice on a distant planet, A stranded news crew thinks he'll make a great story but with much darker secrets to hide, he'll do anything to stop them.

Scifi / Adventure
John Kilkelly
4.8 12 reviews
Age Rating:

Tricks for lower-gravity situations

It had been such a nice evening, Tom Kelly reflected later.

He’d been sitting peacefully at the bar of the Scurvy Dog, slightly drunk, contemplating the liquid swirling at the bottom of his glass and staring out through the tall, diamond-hardened windows of Eleanor Station at the terrifying desolation of Phoedrus and the aching beauty of the galaxy beyond.

He belched quietly, happily, relaxed now after a hard run down from the north across the plains and through the mountains with two hundred tons of freshly-cut ice. It was calm out there tonight. And clear. It made him think of Arizona, or perhaps the Mojave, back on Earth, as if you could take a stroll around and look up at the stars with the chill of the desert night on your face.

Toxic of course, he thought idly. Without a radiation-hardened pressure suit the oxygen in his blood would boil within a minute, eyeballs bulging out on their stalks like a fish pulled too quickly from the deep. Not a pretty way to die.

Not the worst either, he sniffed, continuing to swirl the remains of his drink, gazing out at the rooster-tail of dust kicked up by a departing hauler.

A voice broke into his reverie.

“Another, Tom?” Todd the hatchet-faced bartender.

“Yer…one more.”

Todd slid over a fresh tankard of ale. Just enough to take the edge off the day, Tom thought, as the foaming head began to settle, and it was a damned fine ale: good as anything he had drank on Earth, brewed right here at the Scurvy Dog from ingredients grown at the Eleanor Station farm.

“What do you call this one, then Todd?” he called out, after a long draft.

“Redemption, Tom,” Todd called back. “Redemption Ale.”

And Tom burped happily again.

Ain’t that appropriate, he said to himself.

A small knot of new arrivals were grouped at the tall windows, cocktails in hand, marveling at the sight. Eleanor Station had few windows as large as this and normally the view was obscured by the storms that scoured the surface of Phoedrus: solar winds and blowing dust making it impossible to see more than a few hundred meters. But tonight was clear and the new arrivals pointed out at the craters and the distant mountains.

“Fresh meat, Tom,” Todd pointed his chin towards them. “People who ain’t heard all your stories yet.”

Tom sat on his hands, leaning forward as if he intended to pick up the glass of ale with his teeth. He was trying to drink it more slowly, trying to nurse it out until he could finally drag himself away to his cabin for a few fitful hours of thrashing around in his bunk.

He was a voluble sort, normally. But now he glared over at the newcomers: resentful of their enthusiasm, their glossy off-planet clothing, the way they bobbed gleefully in the novelty of lower gravity.

“Old age & treachery will always overcome youth and skill,” he told Todd.

Todd snorted and moved off to serve a gang of miners who had just arrived, safety gear hanging from their belts, coated in dust and smelling of hydraulic fluid. Several of them raised arms in greeting at Tom and he nodded back.

He looked over again at the new arrivals. They were getting hammered, he observed, their table littered with drained shot glasses and this was unsurprising given the long and tedious journey to the outer rings of the Deccan system: He watched them out of the corner of his eyes. They were all young, he noted, two women and a very large man and they didn’t look like miners or haulers. Scientists probably, given their smooth features and soft hands: out here to map the ever-shifting surface; improve upon the life-support systems and the habitats.

He was a mere slip of a lad himself but somehow these new people made him feel a lot older. He was conscious now of his battered frame, his filthy overalls and his four-day scruff of beard.

One of the women looked familiar. He couldn’t place her. Asian, sort of…glossy black hair piled carelessly upon her head. He frowned. Definitely he knew her. And yet they had never met.

“Do me a favor,” Todd called out as he turned to mix more of his signature Phoedran cocktails. “Change the record…put on the Cannonball.”

Tom shuffled behind the bar to where Todd’s ancient and priceless record-player sat high on a shelf out of the way. It was an honor: Todd didn’t let anyone else touch the thing, shipped up from Earth at such ridiculous cost, along with the thirty or so equally-ancient jazz albums that had come with it.

He handled the LP by the edges, placing it over the spindle, letting it plop delicately onto the turntable, easing the stylus into the groove: a hiss of static and then the tinkle of high hat, the plump resonance of bass, the mournful keening of sax.

“Cannonball and Nat Adderley,” he proclaimed. “Village Vanguard 1959.”

Todd nodded in approval, his worried expression easing.

“Lieutenant Iceman!” a booming voice yelled, a grimy hand descending to grip Toms shoulder.

“Yeah yeah,” Tom said tiredly as a miner by the name of Mongan yanked a stool out from the bar and placed his ass upon it.

Mongan nodded at Todd for a drink. “Back from the Pole, huh? How’s the road these days?”

“Same as it ever was, Vincent” he said. “Chicks everywhere….”

Mongan thought that was hysterical and pounded Tom on the shoulder again but Tom’s attention had drifted back to the newcomers. They were dancing, laughing at how easily their bodies bounced in the low-grav, their movements exaggerated.

“I don’t know how you do it, Lieutenant!” Mongan yelled. Miners always yelled. “The ice road…what is that, nine hours up there?”

Tom shrugged. He’d been a miner himself when he’d first arrived on Phoedrus and it had been a humbling experience: the terror of the elevator descending four kilometers from the surface, the crushing weight above him, the narrow tunnels closing in, utter blackness like a blanket of death. The bulk and clumsiness of his pressure suit and the narrow slit of his helmet visor making it all the worse. Every time he’d gotten behind the air hammer and rammed it into the seams of ore, he was convinced he was going to bring it all crashing down around him.

“Fucking place,” he muttered now into his beer.

A shot of whiskey arrived in front of him. Todd nodded at Mongan, who lifted his matching shot.

“Bottoms up,” he called. “Isn’t that what you say in England?”

“Never heard anybody say that, actually,” Todd scowled.

“Jesus Vincent…” Tom downed his shot. “No more of those…”

“Let’s go dance with those girls then” Vincent yelled.

“Alright,” Tom slid back his chair.

He knew her. It was bothering him now. He hitched up his hauler pants, prepared to approach her. She’d been a passenger, he thought, on the caravelle he’d commanded, ferrying space workers and UNSA personnel between the space platforms and the newly-opened planets of the Deccan system. Or maybe he’d monopolized her in some other bar…

“Tom, Tom…” Mongan was plucking at his sleeve, “I was just kidding.”

“What?” He looked back at the miner, puzzled, then back at the girl. “JeezChrist,” he muttered, “she’s beautiful.” He began to make his way across the floor.

“Tom!” Todd called out sharply from behind the bar.

“Th’ hell is wrong with you people?” he called back. What was she, a movie star or something?

The crowd of newcomers was sitting now. He pasted a big smile on his face as he approached their table. Her eyes flickered up at him, then down, away, an expression of extreme annoyance crossing her face.

“You can do all kinds of great tricks in low grav,” he announced, neatly executing a cartwheel. Dust cascaded from his overalls as he came upright. Several people at the table coughed. She looked at him askance. And then the large man was sighing, unfolding his frame with certain weariness, as if he had done this many times before and would really just rather enjoy his drink without some disheveled truck-driver distracting him.

“Well now…” Tom said as the man, the Minder, heaved up in front of him.

“Fuck off mate,” said the Minder, casually,” if you don’t mind.”

“Tom!” Todd was coming out from behind the bar. He caught a glimpse of Mongan downing another shot and grabbing the back of a chair.

Puzzled, he looked up at the Minder, a towering pile of recently-arrived Earth meat, wondering what the deal was. He looked back at the girl. She glanced up, away, and then he recognized her.

“Ah, right…” Now he understood. No surprise that she had her own Security. Lucy-something….Lucy Lin? Famed investigative reporter from Channel Ten. Had her own show now, not that he watched the inter-galactic news feeds that much.

There was a hand on his chest, the Minder looking down impassively but impartially at him. There was no guile there, Tom decided, no malice. Just doing his job after all.

“My mistake,” he said, smiling sideways at the news-star.

But then the Minder gave him a shove and Tom went flying. He picked himself up just in time to see the Minder turning back to his table, straightening his clothing, easing his giant frame back into his seat.

“Tom!’ Todd was tugging at him. “C’mon now.”

“JeezChrist,” Mongan was saying, bobbing at their side. “Fucker just pushed you…”

“Mongan, shut the….” Todd began.

And Tom crossed the floor back to the table of media people in three long strides.

“Tom!” Todd called again, in vain.

“Other tricks for lower-gravity situations,” Tom grinned as he sent the Minder bouncing off the diamond-hardened windows.

Things went downhill from there.

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