Short Tales by Paul J Fleming

‘I cannot believe I let you talk me into doing this! We are expending vital fuel and sustaining numerous hits on an errand of – how did you phrase it? Delivering festive merriment and joy,’ Ezri said rather sternly as she gripped the edge of her console whilst the Erstwhile lurched once more under a heavy barrage from the pursuit cruiser they were trying to evade. ‘I for one am not feeling very joyous or even slightly merry at this moment in time if you are interested…’

‘Talked you into it? You were right there when we all agreed on this, so don’t start complaining now. Anyway, nothing to worry about, it’s going to be fine’ replied Maddox as calmly as he could manage whilst quickly making a few course corrections to avoid the next salvo. ‘Anyway, you’re not programmed for either of those emotions are you, so how would you know?!’

The Erstwhile pushed downwards in response to his commands, through the imposing cloud layer below them, whilst their running lights cast red and green glows either side of the hull across the dense grey clouds.

Quietly Maddox hoped that the cloud layer would obscure them enough for him to shake the patrol vessel which they had picked up in orbit, and who had dogged their progress ever since.

Suddenly, the cloud bank in front of them lit up as explosive charges detonated in their path.
Maddox grabbed the control yoke and yanked it over in a moment of desperation whilst shouting obscenities at the ship which was following to their aft but still in a higher orbit than they were at present.

‘If you would like me to open the comm channel they may be able to hear you better Captain, however your insults are misdirected. Those charges were launched from the area below us. I do believe our friend has reported in and the local protectorate garrison is launching anti-aerial charges in our direction.’

Maddox heard Ezri’s words and gritted his teeth. Maybe she was right after all, this was proving to be more troublesome than even he expected. The thought of their human subjects having even an inkling of joy at any time of the year rankled with many of their Martian overlords. It seemed to make the local populace more belligerent than at other times and less subservient to their oppressive demands and wishes.

Garrison Commanders enlisted more militia for ground control operations at this time of the year than at any other, and the injury rate for patrolling Militia also increased substantially. It was without doubt their personally least favourite time of the year. Anything which further fuelled the rabble they were charged with monitoring was undesirable, and it just so happened that Maddox had one of these things stashed in his cargo hold.

‘Yes, they just want to dissuade us from trying to put down anywhere. Chances are they know full well what we’re transporting and they’d rather both it and us went up in a fiery ball in the sky as opposed to getting anywhere near the labour camp,’ said Maddox as he gritted his teeth and hung onto the controls with intense concentration.

Another zig-zag as the clouds once again flared with light as more charges erupted to their port side, rocking them as the shockwave hit. Sparks flew from panels within the flight deck as systems surged with power, the ship had just taken a tremendous wallop and she was trying her best to protect those within as best her ageing systems could manage.

‘And they are coming rather close to their goal Captain. That last explosion has caused damage to the aft of our port thrust nacelle. I am now reading reports on the diagnostics that the reactor is beginning to overheat, we are facing a shut down to prevent it going critical,’ Ezri reported in an almost matter-of-fact manner from her station.

Maddox glanced over to her, his mind racing as to how they should face this new problem. Losing your reactor and main power in the depths of space was unfortunate and irritating, but generally with these old ships you could wait for them to cool off, repair any damage and then restart to get under way once more. Within the gravity well of a planet, especially one with such a strong pull as the Earth, was a disaster. The Erstwhile did not have wings, she relied on her thrust nacelles and without power they would be offline. In short, they were as aerodynamic as a rock.

‘Okay then, take the safeties offline and keep the reactor going as long as you can. We may be pushing this to the limit, but I’ll be damned if I’m going through all of this to let everyone down now,’ he said with fresh determination to see their task through coursing through his very being.

Ezri did not respond, being immersed in her work to disengage the safety protocols and monitor the reactor stability manually. If she were a simple flesh and bone organic being Maddox may have had reservations, but her digital nature allowed her to uplink directly with the ship’s on board computer and make those necessary minute adjustments with lightning fast speed.

Maddox redirected their flight path, taking them downwards out of the cloud layer much earlier than he would have liked. They were close to the supply depot landing pads for the labour camp, but still too far out for him to put the ship on the deck and them to cart their cargo through the wastelands. If for no other reason that those who inhabited the wastes would not think twice about any message of joy they were trying to bring before setting upon them.

If he could fly close enough to the ground though, it would negate the anti-aerial charges which were being flung in their direction by the mass drivers within the Protectorate, so it was one less thing to worry about. Now he only had to content with the patrol ship behind them which was also breaking through the cloud layer, spitting bolts of energy after them.

Suddenly the comm system crackled into life, a female voice which Maddox recognised all too well breaking through his intense concentration.

‘Ho Ho Ho Cap’n Maddox. Nice to see you made it here in one piece, and I see you have picked up a little friend. How nice. Would you like a little assistance or are you going to be stubborn as usual and not let me pull your backside out of the fire once again?’

Maddox sighed and closed his eyes for a moment. Amanda Blackwell. He knew she had probably been tailing him to render assistance, probably at the request of the worry warts at Phoenix, but that did not make the gloating he would have to suffer any the less bearable.
Another flash of energy streaked past the viewport infront of him, focussing his thoughts.

‘Nice to see you too Captain Blackwell. Whereabouts are you? If you can see our shadow then by all means persuade him to sod off. I’m getting a little sick of him trying to put holes in my ship!’ Maddox replied.

‘Give me a minute then Maddox, we’re up top but will be with you shortly. We have you on the scope and are about to descend, so hold it together for a little longer.’ Blackwell replied and Maddox could almost hear her grinning through the words.

The Erstwhile swooped dangerously close to the ground, then swerved left and right as Maddox piloted her through the broken down husks that remained of the broken city waste below them. The turbulence effect of the ship passing close by caused a few of the more weakened buildings to crumble in her wake, the masonry falling to the debris strewn streets below.
In a flash of thought Maddox hoped like hell that the scraps who made their existence in the wastes amidst these precarious structures were nowhere near, even though they would not have the same consideration for him if he were to be caught by them, he respected them as people and wished no harm on them. They could not help their situation, they could only make the best of the bad fortune that life had dealt them.

A movement from ahead of them but at a much higher altitude caught his attention, the clouds began to swirl suddenly only moments before the bow of the Star Dancer burst through, her trajectory altering rapidly to level out and head directly towards the Erstwhile.
Maddox could not help but look upon the sight heading for them with amusement, as the very nose of the ship was glowing a dull red colour from her rapid descent through the atmosphere to reach their position in the shortest time. There was that old Earth fable about Reindeer pulling a sleigh, one who had the red nose and guided them all safely on their journey.
As the Star Dancer spat forth multiple streams of energy towards their pursuer, Maddox had to concede that the story probably split there from reality as he was sure he had never heard of Rudolph firing lasers at anyone, but nevertheless as the pursuing Martian Patrol craft banked away and Blackwell brought the Star Dancer alongside the Erstwhile as Maddox increased their altitude, he had to believe the story had once again rung true.

‘Captain, we now have a red light on the reactor. Core stability reaching critical, we have to shut it down or we will take the local area around us out when it blows.’ Ezri reported calmly from her station over to his right.

‘Only a few minutes more Ezri,’ Maddox said as the supply depot loomed up ahead of them. His relief was quite evident in his tone as he spoke. ‘Lets put her on the deck, forget the landing pleasantries. Down in three, two, one, we’re down! Okay, shut her down!’

‘Confirmed Captain, reactor now shut down under emergency procedures. We are showing fractures to the manifold cover Captain, without repairs I would advise that running the reactor at anything more than fifty percent capacity would be detrimental to our well-being. If we are to effect repairs then we’re going to be here for a while.’

Without her having to spell it out, Maddox understood just how close they had come. A fractured manifold cover was only mere moments from an eruption if the reactor was still running at full pelt.

‘Okay Ezri, hopefully the authorities will be a little understanding if we let them know the trouble we were having. Maybe we’ll even have the chance to stay in port for a short while to slap on a few patches, for now though let’s deliver our cargo!’

The Erstwhile and the Star Dancer sat aside one another on the supply pads, their work done for the moment the trusty steeds could enjoy a moment of planet side respite from the rigours of space and freight hauling.
Their Captains and crew were also enjoying the festivities that were under way, a frugal but much welcomed feast prepared by the inhabitants of the labour camp and laid out along the tables which were in the shadow of the large Norwegian Pine tree which they had offloaded from the hold of the Erstwhile and the younger members of the camp were scampering too and fro with adornments to place upon the branches. Very soon the assembled members of the camp were standing back and admiring the symbol of festive joy which had been delivered into their midst.

Maddox was busy making the last minute adjustments to wiring, coupling the to the terminals on the portable generator he had acquired on Mercury, as they had plenty and he had been sure they would not miss this one going wandering. With a shout to Ezri and Blackwell, he fired it into action and a line of lights illuminated around the large tree, causing howls of joy from both young and old members of the camp.

Their joyous rapture was suddenly curtailed and silenced as a rumble of concerned muttering wafted through the crowd and all fell into a subdued silence, the source of their sudden reticence being the armed squad of Martian Militia soldiers who were marching into the opening, led by their Garrison Commander. With a few shouted orders, he brought the squad to a halt as he continued his approach by a few steps and then he also stopped moving, simply looking about at the gathered faces and then casting his gaze towards the tree at the centre of their festivities.

‘I do not recall anyone applying for permission to erect this effigy within the camp. Nor do I recall any flight plan for a delivery vessel, such as the one who broke our orbital cordon and ran from the patrols. Not only one ship, but two it would appear,’ he remarked as he gestured with his left hand over towards the landing pads where the Star Dancer and Erstwhile sat. ‘By rights I am now empowered to remove this symbol by any means I see fit  I also have it within my power to impound those two vessels, arrest their Captains and crew and confiscate all of these items I see on the tables as they may be contraband under the camp regulations.’

There was a rising murmur from the assembled residents of the camp, the offence at the commander’s presence and his threats quite obvious in their faces although none dared to make the first punitive move against him for fear of retribution, not only against them immediately but against their entire family. It was one method by which the Martians retained control within the camps.

Commander Lannister was more than aware of the resentment bristling under the surface and held up his hand to beckon for silence.

‘I said I have the power to do so, however I must applaud the effort that has gone into this. Both here on the ground and as we witnessed in the skies only a short time ago, as well as from the reports in Norway of a ship landing in an unauthorised area, removing one tree and then departing hastily. I think I now have the answer to that little mystery,’ he remarked offhandedly whilst casting a sideways glance towards the ship Captains. ‘However, I do believe there is a certain latitude I can allow for such transgressions, especially considering the seasonal significance for many of you here. In fact, I am here to support your celebration, not condemn it. This is why I have brought this escort detail along with me as I had to ensure my contributions to the festivities arrived unmolested,’ remarked Lannister, unable to with-hold the grin that broke out on his face any longer as he looked into the surprised face of those assembled about him.

‘We have a shared heritage,’ Lannister said as the clothing, blankets and food parcels were distributed amongst the eager recipients. ‘Martian and human alike. Whilst we may be at odds on many issues, I hope that in this season of festive cheer and goodwill to all we may at least put our differences aside for a short time, that is if you would allow us to join your celebration?’

As handshakes were exchanged and the excitement of the festivities overtook the crowd, Maddox took a moment to sit back and watch the interactions.
Both Martians and Humans were sharing stories, laughter and generally co-existing in harmony for this briefest of times. It gave him hope that one day peace such as this may be the normal way of life, but for now he elected to enjoy the moment.

‘With my learned experience to date, I still find myself lacking when it comes to predicting the outcome of certain events where humans are involved,’ said Ezri as she appeared through the crowd and took up a position at his side to watch the celebrations as they unfolded. ‘Apparently Martians too. I wonder how he will justify this interaction to the company when he is filling in his reports later on?’

Maddox smiled as he took a healthy swig of the drink he had been given.
‘I’m sure he’ll think of something. That Lannister seems to have a lot more going on under his peaked hat than he lets on I believe. Anyway, Martians as they are now are only the descendants of the human colonists who left to set up home on that red planet so I’m not surprised that they not only share a tendency for irregular behaviour but would acknowledge the celebrating of Christmas. They just need a little reminder of what its all about, that’s all! Peace and goodwill to all, Martians and Humans alike!’

‘There is a precedent in human history during a period of intense warfare of the early twentieth century when troops of opposing sides exited their trenches and came together for a brief time to share in festivities and play a game called football. Obviously this event could be associated with that historical one and….’

‘Ezri?’ Maddox interrupted her flow of analysis as he feared she was going to over analyse the whole situation.

‘Yes Captain?’

‘Shut up and just enjoy the party will you?’ he said with a smile, raising his glass towards Blackwell and nodding in acknowledgement of her timely intervention.

‘Yes Captain.’ She paused briefly then turned to face him squarely. ‘In the tradition of the party and season then, merry happy christmas Captain!’ she remarked as she held aloft a small sprig of mistletoe between the two of them and pursed her lips.

‘That’s good enough,’ he replied with a beaming smile and kissed her under the sprig of mistletoe. ‘Merry happy christmas to you too Ezri, and to one and all!’

— Happy Christmas to everyone!
— Hope you enjoyed this quick tale!
— Paul J Fleming