03 Aug Chapter 26: Shipment
The shuttle drops through the upper edge of the atmosphere at an incredible speed. Well, I don’t really know how fast we’re going but by the way the shuttle is vibrating it feels fast. I’m strapped into my skycradle for the descent but I still have a clear view out the window of the blackness of space slowly changing to a pale blue. A faint edge of orange light generated from the heat of reentry rings the bottom of the window.
Gian and I are about to land on Lefhran, a mountainous planet close to Threa. Laik was crushed when I told him he needed to stay behind, but there are too many fires burning at Mizem right now he needs to deal with. I promised him he could come along on the next project.
Rills isn’t here because in a turn of events that surprised everyone he landed a large booking at the recording studio. I’m glad Gian could take time off though, I can always use the help and companionship.
The shuttle deceleration pushes me deeper into the skycradle. I catch a glimpse of a mountain peak, backlit by post-dawn sunlight. I was smart and bought a guidebook this time, which says there’s no flat land on Lefhran, only mountains and water.
We pass down through more dramatic scenery before finally touching down on the landing pad. Outside the shuttle terminal the street is lined with ornately detailed wooden buildings topped by sharply angled peaked roofs. Gian and I hail an incline taxi, which are specially designed to keep you level while going up and down the steep city streets. It works by having the passengers sit in a large glass sphere in the middle of the open vehicle. The sphere then rotates based on the angle of the slope to stay level. I tell the driver the address Laik gave me and he accelerates uphill.
This time the suspicious purchase order Laik uncovered came from our food division. A distributor on Lefhran has been paying five times more than they should for deliveries of one of our snack product lines. The treats are made by a subcontractor off-world, which is why it slipped past our radar for so long. Laik gave me the address of the distributor and the order reference code but couldn’t find any other info.
It’s a strange but enjoyable feeling to stay completely level as the taxi navigates the sloping streets. At the edge of a touristy area the driver stops and points to a multi-tenant commercial building. I pay him and we make our way to the back of the building where the distributor is located.
A bell attached to the door jingles when we step inside the front office. There’s a long customer service counter across from a variety of display racks for sale. We’re the only ones here.
“Cevs, what are you planning on doing? It could be risky just to walk in here.” Gian is shifting her weight between one foot and the other.
“I don’t know, I’ll just play it by ear.” I spin one of the display racks around. A large man with a mustache comes out from behind a beaded curtain and leans on the counter.
“What can I do for you two youngsters?”
I put on my I-know-what-I’m-doing face. “We’re from Threa. We’re here about the shipment. Reference 04885.”
The man steps back, surprised. He runs around the counter to the front door and locks it. “They told us we weren’t supposed to ship it out for two days.”
I frown at him. “Our instructions were to come do an inspection.”
The man starts twisting the ring on his finger in circles. “This is very abnormal.”
Gian plays along. “We just do what they tell us to.”
“Okay, stay here, I’ll get a sample.” He runs back through the curtain, tangling the beads in the process. Gian looks at me and I shrug.
A minute later the man comes back with a plastic-wrapped fruit pastry. He thrusts it at me and says, “Here, keep it. Now get out, I don’t like either of you being here. And tell them to send some grownups next time.”
I take the pastry and unlock the door myself so we can exit. I look back and add, “Have a nice day.”
Gian and I walk out of the building and around the corner. I can now get a good look at the pastry and its packaging—seems normal to me. I pull on the top end of the plastic to open it.
“Wait!” Gian says. “Maybe it’s poisonous.”
I sniff through the opening and get notes of berry and artificial butter flavor. “Smells fine.” I peel the plastic back and take a nibble. “Tastes fine.” I take a bigger bite and pain shoots through my teeth. I shriek.
“Cevs, what is it? Are you going to die?”
The pain goes away quickly. I inspect the crust and notice a dark grey shape poking through the red gelatinous filling. “I’m fine. There’s something in here though.”
I gingerly pull the grey object out from inside the pastry. I clean it off as best I can. Gian leans in to see it more clearly. “It’s a bullet.”
I inspect it more closely. “I don’t know much about this stuff but I think it’s a high-caliber bullet. And not a regular one either—the tip looks like it’s made of ceramic.”
Gian’s forehead is scrunched up. “I’m afraid to ask why someone is hiding bullets in junk food.”
“I’m afraid of the answer.”
A mini three-wheeled delivery van with the logo of the distributor we just visited rushes past. I think fast.
“Gian—they’re moving the shipment. Our visit must have spooked them, we have to follow that van!”
I scan the road but it’s deserted of taxis or other cars, so following doesn’t seem to be an option. I watch the van as it enters a tunnel at the end of the street. I run after it to get a clearer view of the sign above the tunnel entrance.
It says ‘Seaport Parkway.’ I half-remember something in the guidebook about a scenic road. I spy a pedestrian coming our way and shout to him, “Does this road have any exits before the seaport?”
He gets nearer and responds, “No, it’s the express straight there. It’s a beautiful drive.”
Gian catches up to me. She looks dejected. “They have too much of a head start. We’ll never see which way they go at the other end.”
“I disagree. This way!”
She follows me downhill towards the touristy part of the street. We reach a stretch where one side of the avenue drops off into a cliff face. There are food stalls, gift stands and street performers along the railing, which we zoom past until we reach an archway along the cliff that has ‘Seaport Speedway’ painted across it. I head under the sign.
Gian stops. “What’s this?”
“You’ll see.” I wave at her to follow and we descend a few steps into an old wooden building. I buy two admissions from the ticket booth and we get in a short line. Soon we’re in a room which is open to the view on one side. The opposite side houses a row of hanging chairs, each attached via a steel pole in the back to a rail far above our heads.
An attendant pulls one of the chairs forward and motions for me to sit in it. He buckles a strap across my waist as the chair starts moving towards the opening. I hear Gian being buckled in behind me and say, “But I’m afraid of heights!”
I look back at her. “Now you tell me.”
My chair is almost at the opening. All I see is sky, the sea, and the overhead rail curving downward out of my line of sight. As the chair I’m in leaves the building the view opens up wider and wider—steep mountains on each side framing a central sea. The scenery and the ever increasing speed I’m now going take my breath away. I look down and see the rocky cliff face fall off sharply below me.
I whiz past steel supports holding up the rail every few seconds as it takes me down through a forested part of the cliffside. Suddenly I’m deep in the trees as they shoot past on both sides. The rail curves and my seat lifts up and to the left as I fly out of the forest. I’m now above a blue-green lake and the angle of the track is taking me closer and closer to the water. My shoes look like they’re about to graze the ripples as I pick up even more speed from the increased incline. At the other side of the lake the track curves around a waterfall, and as I speed by it feels like I can almost touch it. Misted with spray now, the track shoots me out and off an even larger cliff; I can barely make out the details of the boulders below they’re so far beneath me. To my right I see the parkway where tiny cars curve around multiple switchbacks.
The rail is taking me closer and closer to the rocks below. I follow the rail with my eye and it appears to vanish into a craggy slope. Intellectually I know that I’m not going to be smashed into a jagged rock wall but the animal part of my brain is screaming.
The rail bends into a sudden dip and I’m plunged into a narrow vertical canyon. Smooth, undulating stone walls breeze by and water flows below me. The track curves left and right to follow the meandering ravine. Finally the canyon abruptly ends and a 180 degree view of the sea opens up before me. I can see the streets of the seaport and the docks beyond.
The track curves up here, slowing me down before it levels out and enters a brightly painted building. An attendant catches my chair as it skids to a stop and unbuckles me. I turn around to see Gian’s chair pull up right behind mine. Her eyes are bulging in their sockets.
“That was fun, I want to do it again,” I say. She gives me the stink eye.
Once Gian regains the ability to walk we exit and head towards where the parkway empties out into the seaport. The narrow roads are jammed with tourists, pushcarts, taxis and pedicabs. It occurs to me that we made such good time we’ll probably be waiting a while until the van appears. I spy a cafe right by the parkway exit with sidewalk seating we can wait at. The traffic is moving so slowly we should easily be able to follow the van on foot when it arrives.
I snag a table with a good view of the road while Gian goes inside to get us some drinks. Maybe it’s the endorphins talking, but I feel great right now. I wish there was some way I could bottle this up. Hmm, I should talk to Laik about that…
I snap out of my daydream when Gian arrives with our beverages.
“Was the speedway really that bad?” I ask.
“I was petrified at first, but then I let go and enjoyed it. Until that second big drop, when I hated you again.”
I laugh. “I deserve it.”
“I am really loving being here though. It’s such a breathtaking spot.” She leans her chair back on two legs. “Going back to work will be such a letdown after this.”
“Is the hospital a mess?”
“No, everything’s running smoothly enough. It’s just… the job is kind of boring. Well, not boring in that there’s nothing to do—I’m always dealing with some crisis or calming down some prima donna MD. The work is just so clinical. There’s nothing that excites me about it.”
“I know what you mean; the first thought you have each morning isn’t ‘I can’t wait to go to work today!’” Tourists block my view of the road for a second. I’m keeping one eye on it for when the van emerges.
“Exactly. I want to do something that makes me feel like that.”
“I always wanted that too but eventually realized not everyone can do their dream job—the world only needs so many actors and sports stars. Have you looked at the city job board?”
“I’ve thought about doing that, but… My mom was so happy when I took over for her at the hospital, she’d be devastated if I left. And the affliction has already been so hard on her.”
“You can’t live for your parents, you know.”
“I know. One part of me doesn’t want to disappoint her, but the other part just wants to say fuck it.”
“Gian—if the affliction didn’t exist, what would you be doing right now?”
“Oh, good question. I guess I would be going to a university. That’s a weird thought. Goofing off in class, studying in the library, getting wasted at frat parties. Isn’t that what people did back when there were college campuses?”
“I’d probably be in juvenile detention.”
She laughs. “You’d be sultan of the cellblock. Kids would come to you begging to be allowed to kiss your ring. And you’d have a huge, hunky guy as your prison bitch.”
“I’d have all the guards under my thumb. My cell would be decorated with expensive silk wallpaper and throw furs.” We laugh.
Gian tilts forwards in her chair and lets out a deep breath. “I’ll give the hospital another year. Or maybe six months. If it gets any better, great. If not, then I’ll look for something else.”
“That’s the spirit.”
“Hey, isn’t that the van?” Gian spots it first. The three wheel contraption rolls past us in the heavy traffic. We get up from the table and follow it on foot, making sure to keep our distance. At one point I stop and look at postcards on a rack so I don’t get ahead of it. The van eventually parks at one of the docks. There’s a cargo ship berthed there. A crane is lifting wooden containers up onto the ship’s deck.
We get as close as we can without being conspicuous. A kid leaves the van and pulls cardboard boxes out of the back, stacking them. He then detaches a hand truck from under the rear axle and loads the boxes onto it. He trucks them down the dock to within reach of the crane.
Gian whispers, “We still don’t know if those are full of bullets.”
I then see something that turns me to ice. On the deck of the ship is an Oliot soldier. He’s not wearing a uniform but I’m certain that’s what he is. The haircut, the walk; his whole demeanor all yell Oliot.
“Those boxes are definitely full of bullets,” I say. I don’t like this development one bit. “It’s critical we find out the name of that ship so we can track it—do you see it anywhere?”
Gian and I scan the side of the boat but they’ve either painted over or covered up the name. She sighs and says, “I don’t see squat. Could we sneak down there and find some paperwork at a guardhouse or something?”
“Nah, too risky.” We sit and ponder for a minute but don’t come up with much.
Gian perks up. “Wait, I think I read a while ago that they christen ships by mounting a brass plate on the bow—”
“With the name of the ship on it!” I finish. “You’re a genius. We just need to find a rowboat or something to get us right up to the hull. Let’s see if we can find one on the other side of the dock.”
Not that I’m a fan of boats at the moment but this is too important. We make our way as nonchalantly as we can to the far side of the dock. There are no boats of any kind moored here so my plan is a bust.
“What do you want to do?” Gian asks, looking dejected.
“I think I see a possible alternative—this way.” I walk towards a metal ladder attached to the side of the dock leading down to the water. It’s old but it looks sturdy enough.
Gian is biting her lip. “Are you sure that thing’s safe?”
“No but I’m trying it anyway.” I carefully make my way down the ladder and maneuver myself onto a metal platform hung from under the wooden dock. It looks like it connects to a series of suspended walkways that lead to each shipping berth. The black water below is almost touching the bottom of the perforated metal I’m standing on. It’s dark and dank this close to the water and there isn’t much headroom.
Gian joins me and frowns. “I’m not sure about this.”
The metal floor and support bars of the walkway leading towards the cargo ship do look kind of rusted. I take a tentative step forward and don’t fall through. “Let’s just take it slow and I’m sure we’ll be fine.”
I test each section of metal walkway before I put my full weight on it. Some sections are more rusted than others, but so far so good. The whole walkway contraption creaks and groans with each step.
“WAIT, what is that?!” Gian freezes in place and points at the murky water under our feet. I see a small grey fin sticking up above the ripples move out from below the walkway and off to the left.
“It’s a shark,” I reply. “Didn’t you read the guidebook? It said that Lefhran is a shark spotter’s paradise. There are over a thousand different species on view.”
“Sharks?!? There are sharks below us??” Gian shrieks.
“What, you’re afraid of sharks too?”
“Yes, I’m afraid of anything that might eat me!”
I smile. “The vast majority of sharks don’t eat people, they’re nothing to be afraid of.”
“Well then I’m freaked out about the minority that do eat people!” Gian is white-knuckling the rusted handrail.
“I’m sure you’re not very tasty anyway, don’t worry about it.” We’re getting closer to the busy part of the dock where the ship is, so I signal to Gian to keep her voice down. There are stretches where the metal floor panels have rusted away and fallen into the water, causing us to have to hold onto the handrail and carefully tightrope walk over the metal support side beams. I hear Gian gasp behind me—I look down to see another shark fin go by.
We’re almost next to the bow of the ship. As we get closer I look for the brass plaque but can’t find it. Maybe this boat never had one, or it was removed? Let’s hope not.
“Cevs, look down there,” Gian whispers, and points at where the water is lapping against the ship hull. A dingy metal plate flush with the curving hull of the ship pokes up from below the waterline. I can tell that there’s writing on it but the walkway isn’t close enough to read what it says.
“Gian, hold my feet.” I reach out as far as I can to grab a rope dangling from the side of the ship. Once I have it I flip my legs over to the water side of the handrail.
“What are you doing?? You’ll hurt yourself,” Gian implores.
“I need to get close enough to read the plaque.” I lodge my feet through the handrail support bars and using the rope lower my whole body till I’m horizontal right above the rippling water. I’m almost low enough now to read the writing. I don’t have enough strength to hold this pose for long though.
“CEVS! On your left!” Gian urgently whispers. I turn to look and a huge shark fin is coming straight for me. I pull in my stomach and bend my body up as far as I can to let it pass. It grazes my shirt as it glides silently beneath me. I can just see the outline of a shark that has to be at least twice my size swim out of sight. I relax and look at Gian. All the color has left her face.
Not wanting to waste any more time, I stretch myself to get as close to the hull as possible. I can just make out the letters now: MAKKIS CLIPPER. “Gian, you got that?”
“Yeah, now let’s get out of here before a shark eats you.” She’s not going to get any argument from me.