The Strict Dress Code
of the Reclamation Miners’ Guild
by Kyle White
part 1 of 2
Hank Parcils couldn’t decide which crisis to face first: the pirates racing toward his reclamation blimp or the run in his pantyhose. Both were equally problematic.
“EmBee, arm the cannons.”
The MainBrain computer didn’t respond. That’s what Hank got for buying a third-hand MB, but it was all he could afford. With Guild elections tonight, he had to maintain a specific profit margin, or he wouldn’t qualify to run for office.
To calm himself he smoothed the creases in his red silk Polynesian summer dress. He was careful not to muss the pattern of embroidered rubies and sapphires. He had almost been ready to leave when he had snagged his pantyhose. The slightest imperfection in his outfit would disqualify him from applying for office. Those were the Guild rules. He needed to find a replacement pair, but how could he afford them? The pair he was wearing had cost him a half million credits on the antique-clothing market.
He rushed across the small control room toward a human brain encased in a clear sphere and tapped on the glass. “Wake up, EmBee.”
Hank pounded harder. “You ball of gray crap, activate now, or I’ll—”
The holo-phone strapped to his wrist vibrated. Hank looked down. The holographic caller ID projected a pair of big lips. Hank answered.
“My external speaker is broken. I had to call your phone.”
The lips smirked. “Who else would it be? I need repairs.”
“At least change my fluids.”
Hank flinched. The electrolytes in which the brain floated were milkier than the owner’s manual recommended. “I will, but right now, arm the cannons.”
“You pawned those to pay for your dress, remember?”
Hank cursed. He had dismantled the reclamation blimp’s defenses two weeks ago and sold them to another miner. Hank paid Guild taxes. He deserved protection. The weapons had been unnecessary.
“Send an urgent message to the nearest Guild defense ships.”
Lights inside EmBee’s dome-shaped sphere flashed. “There are no patrols in the area. They’ve been reassigned to guard tonight’s election.”
That meant nothing prevented the pirates from reaching his ship. The jellyfish-shaped blimp hovered about 10 meters off the ground. Beneath it dangled hundreds of mechanized arms that sorted the salvage.
“Take evasive action. Get us out of the pirates’ firing range.”
“Can’t. You delayed refilling the helium tanks to save money. There’s barely enough to maintain hovering altitude.”
“Then fly us—”
“Away? You canceled repair work on turbine number three. We couldn’t outrun a gang of vicious butterflies, let alone pirates driving suped-up cars.”
Hank placed EmBee on hold and speed-dialed his lifelong friend Jose. The phone rang, but no one answered, not even vid-mail. The dissolution of their joint mining venture hadn’t gone smoothly last month, but they were still best friends... weren’t they?
Despising the only option left to him, Hank reconnected with EmBee, and said through gritted teeth, “Contact the pirates.”
“And tell them what? You look pretty?”
“Blast it, EmBee, you know I have to dress like this.”
“Yeah, yeah. ‘To exclude undesirables, only those Guild members with the financial wherewithal to purchase historically authentic female attire are permitted to vote’,” the computer quoted from the Reclamation Miners’ Handbook.
“That’s right,” Hank shouted. “I finally have the money and the clothes. I can vote and run for office. When I’m elected, I plan—”
“Save the campaign speeches for someone who cares,” EmBee said. “The pirates?”
“Pretend we still have cannons,” Hank said.
“How do I do that?” EmBee asked. “Make a gun shape with the mechanical hands and shout ‘Bang!’”
“I don’t know. Do something. Open a dialogue. Find out what they want.”
“That’s obvious: money.”
Hank shuddered. The one thing he didn’t have to offer if he hoped to win tonight’s election.
“Stall them. Negotiate. If you have to.” Hank swallowed back the bile that burned his throat. “Offer them the standard Guild-approved bribe.”
“I have a different suggestion,” EmBee said.
“No. I don’t have time for one of your stupid ideas. Do as I say.”
“Hrumpth.” The lips vanished.
Hank paced and stressed about money. He had to maintain a certain balance to run for office and his margins were already thin. The bribe might take him to the edge. He started to access his bank account when he noticed the time display on his phone and froze. Less than three hours until the election. He had to find a replacement pair of pantyhose.
Jose might have a spare pair. Even if their friendship had been strained, Jose knew how much winning the election meant to Hank. Jose would help him if he could. They had grown up together scrounging the abandoned cities for enough recyclables to survive. Two orphans who had learned to think quick, fight hard, and protect their turf.
No answer. Again, not even vid-mail.
Damn it. Hank had to find replacement hose. He called up the phone’s directory and started dialing again. Nine calls later, a salesclerk at Fredericks of Neu Hollywood advised they had a pair of stockings guaranteed to fit Hank’s long legs and big feet.
“One million credits?” Hank glared at his phone.
The projection of the salesperson nodded. “These are a very good year. Circa 2013.”
Hank glowered at the image of the snobby little man. “Fine, I’ll take them.”
“Very good, sir. Let me confirm your bank balance.”
“I don’t have time. My credit’s good; my account’s on file. Ship the stockings to me rush.” He ended the call before he became too angry. Friggin’ gougers.
With one eye on EmBee and the other on his phone, he decided he should check how his investment in the speculative futures market had done today. Jose said SPECFU was a fool’s game. Fortunes were won and lost in minutes, but Jose was just jealous. Whenever he invested, he had no luck and lost money, whereas Hank had been on a winning streak lately.
He touched his phone, ready to call up a summary, when the lips glowed on caller ID. Hank answered.
“I can’t stall any longer,” EmBee shouted. “The pirates are preparing to attack.”
“Did you offer them the standard bribe?”
The pirates never refused easy money, just as Hank never wanted to pay it. “Offer them the standard bribe, plus... uh, five percent.”
EmBee’s cloudy fluids gurgled. “They get a bonus and I get sewer water?”
“I’m sorry. I’ll make it up to you after the election.”
After the election. Hank’s heart raced and his skin itched. He had to arrive on time tonight. Early registration wasn’t allowed. Only after verification of funds and clothing could candidates announce their official intentions. If he missed the deadline, he would have to wait another ten years. He couldn’t do that. He represented a new generation. One that had clawed its way out of the picked-over surface cities and into the more lucrative landfill-mining business. Times were changing. The Guild needed to change too.
“Incoming,” EmBee cried.
Outside, an explosion shook the blimp. Hank activated the viewscreen and surveyed his ship for damage. Not a direct hit but a warning shot. The mechanical arms dangling below the blimp continued to sort recyclables with the precision of archeologists. Not every piece of refuse equaled profit. It took time to sort the treasure from the trash.
Another blast jarred the craft. “EmBee, get us out of here.”
He checked his phone. The holographic lips formed a thin line, but didn’t speak.
“Don’t you go comatose on me.”
The computer’s lights didn’t flash. Instead, the brain sloshed in its slime-coated sphere. Useless hunk of gray matter.
Hank sat in the chair before the manual control panel. He started to type, but couldn’t remember the access codes. He shouldn’t have to. That’s why he’d bought a MainBrain three weeks ago to do the work for him.
Another blast refreshed his memory and he transmitted the command after a few abortive tries. Outside, his Trash Trawlers, about the size of a Basset Hound with six legs and a scoop for a head, stopped plowing the landfill’s many layers of dirt. Leaping, they attached to the blimp’s dangling arms.
Two nearby explosions almost knocked Hank from his chair. He glanced at the phone. The lips were gone.
He turned and touched the readout on EmBee’s sphere. Full power. Wires connected. The computer should be operational, but gave no response. Hank spun back to the control panel and dredged his memory for the right codes. He pressed some buttons and sighed with relief when the helium tanks hissed, but his stomach also cramped. The hiss was too faint to offer real comfort. Even if the tanks drained at full capacity, the blimp’s cells wouldn’t inflate fast enough. Besides, the gauges indicated the tanks were less than a tenth full. It was impossible for the blimp to gain a quick escape altitude.
Why did everything have to be so difficult? This should be his special night. He had the profits, the clothes, and the promised votes to win. If he didn’t stop the pirates’ attack — and get his pantyhose — he would lose everything.
A familiar tune from the holo-phone filled Hank with new hope. Jose’s signal. A round face with buzzed short hair and a goatee appeared. Hank answered.
“It’s lucky you called,” Hank said.
Jose glowered. “You know I don’t believe in luck.”
“Not that old argument,” Hank said. “I’ve got pirates on my ass and a run in my hose.”
“On my way.”
Jose’s holo vanished. Things would be A-OK now. Jose hadn’t let their recent arguments taint their years of friendship. He would always be there for Hank, just as Hank would always be there for him.
He checked EmBee again. Still no sign of brain activity. Hank would have to fly the reclamation blimp manually. Another explosion outside, but still no direct hit. What were these pirates playing at? They could have destroyed Hank’s blimp by now, unless...
A chill goosepimpled his bare shoulders. Unless, they meant to board the ship instead.
Glancing at the viewscreen, Hank noticed the pirates’ old cars. They raced across the solid ground, but bogged down when they hit the freshly excavated areas of the landfill. The quicksand-like layers might slow their vehicles, but it didn’t affect their weapons.
Hank magnified the viewscreen. In the back of a pickup truck stood a man holding a crossbow loaded with a grappling hook. They did intend to seize Hank’s ship.
He worked the control panel. The blimp groaned and shifted. Its cells ballooned. The ship rose slowly and vibrated hard enough to rattle Hank’s teeth. Below, the pirates fired.
The grappling hook shot toward the viewscreen’s camera. Hank flinched. He turned the ship’s rudders and the craft shifted. The hook shot past, barely missing. Hank laughed.
Stupid pirates. Not going to capture his ship.
Smoke filled the viewscreen as a surface-to-air missile from a different vehicle rocketed toward him. Hank’s bladder almost released as he struggled to work the controls. He tried to dodge the incoming rocket, but the lack of turbine number three made a quick maneuver impossible. The explosion shook the ship and sent it into a spin. The readouts indicated the hit had been low-yield. Not designed to destroy, only cripple. Hank’s mouth went dry. He needed some firepower too, but with no cannons, he had nothing, except...
He accessed a map of the landfill. To the south lay just what he needed, but getting there meant flying over solid ground.
The blimp lurched forward. Hank clung to the middle of the excavated area, forcing the pirates to loop wide or sink. When he had only a firm surface area to cross, the pirates closed in quickly.
Hank needed a way to slow them down, but his lone idea twisted his stomach like a pretzel. Not wanting to, Hank opened the cargo bay and ejected a shipping crate full of salvage. Two things happened simultaneously.
The big box crashed onto the hood of an ancient station wagon. Debris scattered everywhere, blinding the pirates’ other vehicles.
And Hank’s blimp soared higher. His pulse raced as he realized that if he dumped his entire cargo he could reduce enough ballast to save his ship... but he’d also lose millions of credits. Just the sight of the old tires and aluminum cans covering the station wagon made him want to retch.
No. He’d stick to his first plan. He urged the blimp forward. It limped along. The two functioning turbines shrieked like a herd of skinned cats. Hank had to reach the southern tip of the landfill before the pirates regrouped.
It didn’t take them long. Abandoning the station wagon, the pickup and a Humvee skirted the debris and raced after Hank. Where was Jose? His landfill was less than five kilometers away. He should have arrived by now.
More warning blasts shook the reclamation blimp, but Hank didn’t slow. His body jittered with anxiety as he guided his injured craft to the spot on the map. The pirates edged nearer, but not close enough. Did they sense his ploy? Hank wobbled the blimp, displaying the damaged arms to lure the pirates closer. He wanted them to think he couldn’t fly any farther. If the devils called his bluff, he had no Plan B. Sweat trickled down his back and he frowned, knowing the moisture would ruin his body glitter.
The pirates drove into position. Hank instructed one of the Trash Trawlers to short-circuit its solar batteries. They flared bright orange. The Trawler released from a dangling arm and plunged. That alone wouldn’t be enough to destroy the pirates, but what lay beneath their cars might work.
The overheated Trawler smashed into a subterranean pocket of methane gas. The resulting explosion incinerated the pirates and their cars. A shockwave sent the reclamation blimp corkscrewing higher.
He had won. Hank slumped across the control panel, breathing hard. Two and a half hours until the election. He dialed Fredericks of Neu Hollywood. The image of the snobby sales clerk appeared. “Where are those pantyhose you sold me?” Hank shouted.
The little man smirked as he held up a package. “Right here.”
Hank lunged as if he intended to leap through the holo-phone. “I paid extra to have those rushed to me. I’ll have your job—”
“You wouldn’t qualify, Mr. Insolvent.”
It took a moment for Hank’s fury-filled mind to process the word. Insolvent. Bankrupt. Failed. “That’s not true, I have money. My Guild bank account—”
“Has zero credits as of the last update. You’ve wasted enough of my time. I have real customers to serve.” The clerk’s image disappeared.
Hank used his holo-phone to call up his bank account. A string of zeroes flashed at him. He redialed EmBee.
The holographic lips drooped. “Wha... what?”
“Where is my money?”
“You over-invested in the speculative futures market.”
“No, the SPECFU tip was solid. It was no-fail profit,” Hank said.
“Still, the market crashed. You never should have set your bids to automatic.”
“But I have my reserves.”
“No. You drained those buying vintage clothes and jewelry and—”
“You.” Hank rose from his chair and towered over the MainBrain computer. The brain’s electrolyte fluid turned a dark brown. “I bought you from a Guild fire sale. You’re a spy sent to stop me from winning the Guild election and shaking up the status quo. The pirates’ attack. My missing money. This has all been a plot.”
“I’m... not a... spy,” EmBee said before his lights flickered and went dark.
“Traitor,” Hank shouted. He made a fist and started to smash the computer’s sphere when the proximity alarms shrieked.
“What now?” Hank asked as he spun toward the viewscreen. He expected to see more pirates, but the actual image was much worse, testicle-shriveling worse. Racing toward him was a massive black dirigible. Imprinted on its side were giant white letters that read REPOS-R-US.
His phone rang. When he answered, the hologram of puffy-faced woman hovered above his wrist. “You Hank Parcils?” she asked.
“I got orders from the bank to repo your ship.”
“But I’m not behind on my payments.”
She shrugged. “Paperwork says you’re a credit risk. Guess the bank called your loans.”
Hank terminated the call. How could this have happened so fast? But he knew how. All those times over the last few days that he had meant to check his bank balance. Jose was right. Fortunes were won and lost in mere minutes, but preparing for the election had been more important.
On the viewscreen, the repo dirigible neared. It lowered its towing clamps.
“You’re not going to take my ship,” Hank bellowed as he sat at the manual control panel. Determined to flee, he typed some commands. The remaining turbines wailed; the helium tanks gave an empty click. The ship lurched forward.
But not fast enough. The repo dirigible latched onto Hank’s blimp, trapping it. The death of his dreams sucker-punched him.
* * *
Copyright © 2013 by Kyle White