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Fish Story, Part 2

Posted on Apr 12, 2010

[Part 1]

I squeezed into the cramped cockpit and wedged myself between the back of Ayren’s seat at the navigation console and a locker labeled WEAPONS. (I’d checked it already — it was locked, of course.)

Ayren leaned back against the headrest and looked up at me. “You’re all right?” she whispered, and I nodded as another laser blast rocked the little craft. “I was afraid you were getting tossed around back there.”

“I was.” We were getting shaken up like beans in a tin can, and I had banged every extremity against metal bulkheads in my little sortie from the cockpit.

“They’re just shooting across my bow.” The pilot, in front of us, stretched forward to peer out the cockpit window, speaking not to us but simply thinking aloud. “Close enough to knock us around. Man, that is some precision shooting. Why aren’t we dead?”

The fat chef, overflowing the copilot’s seat next to her, gripped the armrests with white-knuckled fingers. “Can’t this thing go any faster?”

“This is it, pal.” The pilot scowled at the chef. “Maybe your employer doesn’t have the inside track you think he does. How could he get that transporter information and not know my ship’d be no match for those cruisers?”

Another scarlet laser blast seared past the window, jolting the ship in its wake. “Did you find a replicator?” Ayren whispered.

“Yes.” I crouched down till I was face to face with her. “It’s gumblejack, all right. But you won’t believe this–”

“Oh, here we go. They’re moving in for the kill,” the pilot announced, slumping back in her seat and turning to the chef. “I can’t exactly say it’s been nice knowin’ ya, Von Muon.”

The chef whimpered.

Out the window, we could see several of the immense cruisers passing us to surround us, matching our speed and holding a steady distance of perhaps a kilometer.

Ayren’s eyes were wide as she stared at me. “If they were going to kill us, they’d have done it already, wouldn’t they?”

“I don’t know, sweet,” I whispered. “I hope so.” I kissed her mouth quickly. “I love you.”

She smiled nervously out of the corner of her mouth. “I don’t want to die,” she said, a mere murmur.

A tingly wave of electricity passed through us, and my hearts stumbled over a couple of beats. Me either, I thought, and clutched Ayren’s hand. But we were still alive moments later when every console in the cockpit spit out a shower of white sparks and systems whined as they shut down. Lights overhead and on the consoles flickered out, and the air-recirculating fan above Ayren’s head sputtered to a stop.

“Some kind of electromagnetic pulse,” the pilot said. “We’re dead in the water.”

Something was approaching from one of the cruisers: just a moving dot of light at first, heading directly for the cockpit window, and as one, it seemed, we all four leaned back as if we could escape it and then exhaled our held breath as the little probe — no bigger than a football — attached itself carefully to the window and extended an antenna toward its mother cruiser.

“This is Captain Frakes of the GSC Julia Child.” The crackly voice came through the window from the probe. “Your ship is disabled. We estimate you have less than half an hour before the ambient temperature inside your ship drops to below freezing, and one hour before you begin to choke on your own C02. Surrender is your only option. We will bring your ship within our shuttle bay. Any resistance will be met with force. Any injury to the hostages will be dealt with severely.”

I burst into a fit of relieved giggles — hostages! Ayren gave me an uncertain smile, wondering, I was sure, whether the stress of the moment had broken me. But it was simply that I was suddenly struck by the ridiculousness of our situation. “We have you surrounded.” I mimicked the captain’s authoritative tone, giggling all the while. “Drop the fish and come out with your hands up.”

Ayren drew me to her, and I lay my head in her lap and laughed myself silly.

***

GNN’s dining critic is pushing his way through the massed diners and reporters, the air thick with hovercams, his own following closely over his right shoulder, till he reaches the line of Gumblejack Security officers blocking access to the ramp to the airlock of the captured ship. “The terrorist’s ship, the SOL 3000 light freighter we heard about earlier, looks to be undamaged. Could mean our hostages are unhurt… And here they come now! According to Gumblejack’s reservation records, they are Dr. and Mrs. Smith of the city of Spielburg, planet Hollywood. Here they are!” Gumblejack Security officials hurry the couple from the airlock and down through the pulsing crowd. GNN’s hovercam shoots up above the dining critic’s head, zooming in for a dizzying shot of the hostages and seeing only a blond head on a tall man’s body and a womanly fall of long reddish hair next to him. “Who will you grant your first interviews to?” the dining critic shouts. “GNN will double our usual fee for an exclusive!” Reporters from other networks — having finally arrived on the scene — shout, “We can guarantee a miniseries!” and “Our network has fewer interviewee suicides!” But the hostages keep their heads down and are ushered through the gauntlet and into the private corporate wing without commenting.

***

Ayren relaxed in a wing-backed chair, her head resting against a wing, her tired eyes closed. I paced restlessly, pausing now and again to stare distractedly out the window at the Rialthan landscape or at the monitor across the room offering GNN’s live coverage of the press conference.

“You know what?” Ayren said with a little laugh. “I’m starving.”

I fingered a little statue of a gumblejack fish — an ugly little thing in its natural state, all huge scaly fins and kinked whiskers — then replaced it on the desk. “Well, I think we’ll be dining elsewhere tonight.”

“You never got your gumblejack.”

I was about to reply that I’d lost my appetite for it when the office door opened and the Taylor Brandenberg entered — as if she’d just walked off the monitor, and indeed, since her press conference had been held just outside, she had. The clicks of her high-heeled shoes on the hardwood floor echoed through her cavernous office as she approached us.

“Miss Tabeth,” she said, as Ayren stood and Brandenberg clasped Ayren’s outstretched hand between both her own, a single, marble-sized garnet flashing on her left ring finger. Then she reached for my hand. “And…”

“Just ‘Doctor’ will do.”

She squeezed my hand before she let go, and then with practised ease leaned against her desk and crossed her legs so that the high slit of her skirt revealed her bare, darkly tanned thigh. When she spoke, her voice was smoky and hoarse, but her accent was colonial — she wasn’t from old Earth money and had probably actually achieved her position from hard work, not patronage and nepotism. Unless, of course, her accent was as much a ploy as the rest of her demeanor.

“I want you to know,” she said, her eyes shifting between Ayren and me, “that Gumblejack’s Incorporated and I myself personally regret the inconvenience and danger you were put in. My lawyers have asked me to remind you, however, that the waiver you signed when you made your reservation does exonerate Gumblejack’s of any responsibility in event of terrorist attack.”

I didn’t remember any waiver from my previous visit (although, of course, my previous visit may have been in the future), but I took a stab at a bluff. “I wonder whether the courts would uphold that clause if Gumblejack’s was the instigator of that attack.”

Brandenberg stared at me for a moment. “Excuse me?”

I sat on the arm of Ayren’s chair and crossed my legs in casual imitation of Brandenberg. “I find it an amazing coincidence that this… incident occurred not just on the very day, but at the precise hour that the biggest news organization in the galaxy was holding a luncheon here.”

“Doctor, news organizations hold functions here all the time.” Brandenberg smiled charmingly and shifted so that her skirt slipped away, baring more skin.

I shook my head at her obvious attempts at distraction. “Our unplanned presence on that ship must’ve caused some complications. I imagine you were simply planning to tell your security people to blow that little ship out of space. I mean, a thief of an employee and his accomplice: there wouldn’t be too many questions. But two innocent diners?” I glanced at Ayren — she looked surprised and a little mystified at my accusations.

Brandenberg shot to her feet now, outwardly calm but with a crack of anger in her voice. “Doctor, I resent the implication that I had anything to do with a violent attack on my own restaurant, and that I would have such careless disregard for human life. The chef has been fired, of course, and the company will press charges, but summary execution without a trial?” She smirked with what could have been pangs of guilt or dismissal of the suggestion.

I had a millisecond of indecision — could she not know what was going on in Gumblejack’s kitchens? — and then rejected it. “Stolen gumblejack was bad enough, of course, but you’ve got an even bigger secret to keep, don’t you?” I paused for a moment and looked away, reflecting. “The chef may not have realised — I did steal his sample away just as we arrived on the ship — but it would have become known eventually.” Now I turned my gaze back on Brandenberg, who cocked her head coolly — so confident! — waiting for me to continue. “I managed to get to the replicator on the ship before your security goons confiscated the sample.”

I paused for a long moment. Then:

“How long have you been serving replicated gumblejack?”

Brandenberg just stared at me, stone faced, but Ayren gasped and asked, “How did you know?”

I didn’t take my eyes from Brandenberg. “Replicated materials have a regularity to their molecular patterns that their natural versions don’t have, like the straight seams of machine-made clothing or the perfect angles of a house built by robots. The replicator showed me that perfect pattern.”

In the silence that followed, the door to the office opened and a woman’s voice called out, “Taylor, what the hell are all these newspeop–” and then shut up when the woman — the pilot — saw us. “Oh.”

“It’s all right, Magda,” Brandenberg called to her, sighing. “They know.” She waved the pilot away. “I’ll be with you in a moment.

“My private pilot,” she said to us, “or ex-pilot, I should say. She wanted out. She’ll get a new identity and a new life on some farflung colony.” Brandenberg collapsed into the high-backed chair behind her desk, shoulders slumped. “The chef had been a problem for a while — disaffected, unhappy. The theft was actually his idea. I got wind of it and arranged things so it would happen when I could take maximum advantage of it.”

“People were hurt in the dining room,” Ayren said in that tone of hers that encompassed accusation, hurt, and disdain.

“None seriously,” Brandenberg said. “They’ll all get free meals in the Eden Dining Room and the networks will give them a spin on the talk-show circuit, if they want it. It’s probably the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to them.”

She turned to me. “And regardless of what you think, Doctor, I really wouldn’t’ve had that ship blown from space, and not just because a friend of mine was on it. The chef is worth much more alive. His trial will get huge ratings on GNN, in which I am heavily invested, and it’ll bring in even more customers.”

I shifted on the arm of the chair. “But you didn’t need replicated gumblejack for a publicity stunt.”

Brandenberg swivelled to face out the window. “The rivers are overfished, Doctor. Have been for years. The gumblejack was in danger of extinction. Their numbers have been increasing, but for now I’ve no choice but to use the replicator. Hardly anyone can tell the difference.”

“I can,” I said quietly.

Brandenberg pushed her chair away and resumed her position on the edge of the desk, all business again. “If you were going to talk to the press, Doctor, you’d have taken advantage of those cameras out there. What is it that you want?”

I didn’t even have to think about it.

***

“There’s another one,” Ayren said as the fishing rod wedged into the fissure jerked at the end of its taut line. “These things are practically suicidal.”

I reeled in another plump gumblejack and removed it carefully from the hook. “And aren’t you glad that they are?”

“Oh, yes.”

We’d found a pleasant spot near the major river on Rialtha’s northern supercontinent — a rocky outcropping over the water with a grassy clearing behind it — and built a fire in a little stone circle we made. Moments after I’d cast my line in I had my first catch, and a few minutes later — after some quick work with my Swiss Army knife — four succulent little fish were filleted and frying away over the fire.

And then, at long last… gumblejack. Ayren watched me with a little smile on her lips as I reverently eased the delicate, tender filets off the frying pan onto two plates. She reached for a plate, but with a look and a waggle of my finger I forestalled her. Taking her plate in my hand and balancing it carefully, I flaked the golden meat with the camp fork, eased one morsel onto the tines, and held it out for her.

She grinned indulgently, and made a show of licking her lips, teasing me. Oh, but once she tastes it…! She took the fork into her mouth, closing her eyes, and I drew the fork back through her pursed lips. And waited.

She didn’t move for a moment, just sat as she was, rocked back on her heels, hands resting on her knees. And then her shoulders slumped and she opened her eyes and gave a delighted little moan. “Oh, gods.” It was barely a whisper. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever tasted. It’s like… like…” She shook her head and laughed and leaned forward to kiss me square on the mouth.

“Ambrosia steeped in nectar,” I said, passing her plate over.

“Better.”

We lingered over those first gumblejack like we lingered over lovemaking in the mornings, not in a hurry for it to be over, savoring every sensation, prolonging the pleasure. And I was glad I was able to introduce Ayren to this delight here, out in the open of this glorious wilderness, and not in the tourist trap of the Main Dining Room.

Now the white-blue sun was dropping behind the mountains far on the horizon across the wide river, and those first four gumblejack were long gone, and four more after them. Ayren balanced another log on our little fire and watched the flames shoot sparks into the air, then she stretched back in her camp chair next to me. “This is very romantic, Doctor,” she said with a smile.

I dropped the still-squirming gumblejack into the cooler and rebaited the line. “Well, we’ll have to do this more often, then,” I said as I cast the line into the river once again.

“Do you think we’ll really get the chance? What’s to stop Taylor Brandenberg from reneging on our agreement?”

It hadn’t taken much to get Brandenberg to agree to let me fish out my own gumblejack. The contract — quickly drawn up by a legal computer to avoid involving a lawyer, another set of potentially loose lips — probably wouldn’t hold up in any court, but the situation would never get that far.

“Until she starts serving real gumblejack again,” I said, wedging the pole back into the fissure in the rock, “she knows all we have to do is grant an interview to any reporter in the galaxy. Our password for the planetary shield is good for a while yet.”

“And once the password gets changed, you can just keep hopping back to the time when it gave you access, right?”

I let my jaw drop in mock indignation. “But that would be wrong!”

“Yes, of course.” Ayren grinned wickedly. “And there are probably Time Lord laws against it, too.”

I laughed now, and leaned in close to her. “Sweet, there are Time Lord laws against everything.” Especially this, I thought as I kissed her mouth tenderly.

“Mmmm… What was that you were saying earlier about gumblejack being better than sex?”

“Er.” I blinked. “Did I say that?”

“Mmm. But I’m not sure I agree with you. I need a more direct comparison.”

The cooler nearly full of delicious little gumblejack, we headed back to the TARDIS, eager to indulge in my other favourite sensual pleasure.

  • Nice diversion. By an odd coincidence (is there another kind?) I had fish for lunch today. Not better than sex, but it was only Earth fish, after all.

    One other thing: please don’t take a year for chapter 9 of you-know-what, okay?