A Robot Named Clunk*
Copyright © Simon Haynes, 2011
Book one in the Hal Spacejock series
* originally published as 'Hal Spacejock'
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Hal Spacejock was hunched over the Black Gull's flight console, his face bathed in red light from the display screens. He was deep in thought, his expression serious, but it wasn't due to the scrolling error messages or the flashing warning lights. No, Hal was studying a small chessboard balanced on the fake, wood-grain finish.
"It's your turn," said the Navcom, in a neutral female voice.
Hal eyed the full set of pieces, all of them in their starting positions. "I'm working on my strategy. You worry about your move."
"I've already plotted the next ten games."
Sometimes Hal felt he'd be better off playing with himself … except he'd probably lose. "By the way, I've organised a meeting with the finance company. We're getting another loan."
"You haven't paid off the first one."
Hal gave a casual wave. "Don't worry about it. These people love lending money."
"Not if you don't give it back again."
"You fly the ship and I'll handle the cash. Got it?"
"If you weren't so fussy selecting cargo jobs, you might actually have some cash to handle."
Hal wondered whether he could remove half the Navcom's chess pieces without the computer realising. He glanced up and saw a baleful red lens staring back at him. Nope. "Wait a minute, what do you mean … fussy?"
"You refused that cargo of medicinal products."
"That was drugs, and you know it."
"The shipment of home defence equipment?"
Hal gestured. "Weapons. Obviously."
"And those men who wanted passage to Orthagon?"
"Escaped convicts. Broke and desperate."
"What about Jerling Enterprises? They seemed legitimate."
Hal snorted. "A front for the local crime lord."
"How do you know?"
"Instinct. I could tell by the way they spoke. And the cargo sounded shifty."
"What's suspicious about spare parts?"
"They're stolen goods, of course. Painting 'Robot Parts' on the crates might fool some, but I'm too quick for that old dodge."
"Very well, perhaps you could describe an acceptable job so that I might filter out the undesirables."
Hal went to move a pawn, then withdrew his hand. "Something quick and easy. Pays well, no risk."
"In the freelance cargo business?" The Navcom was silent for a moment. "Have you considered another profession?"
"No I haven't! I know there are jobs out there. You'll just have to find them."
"There may be suitable jobs elsewhere, but we're docked on Lamira. The range of freight work is somewhat limited on mining colonies."
"It's the only place we could afford the landing fees."
"Which you still haven't paid."
"I believe you're in charge of the cash. Incidentally, there's a call from Ground Control. Shall I put them on?"
"No, tell them I'm busy." Hal gestured at the board. "I want to win at chess first."
"Did it work?"
"Yes. They disconnected when I told them you were about to play a little pawn."
Hal looked up from the chessboard, where a typically one-sided contest had decimated his pieces. "What was that?"
"There's someone on the passenger ramp," said the Navcom.
"The loan arranger?"
"I cannot say. Our security camera was stolen."
"So how do you know there's anyone out there?"
"They're pressing the doorbell," said the Navcom patiently.
Hal stood, strode to a set of controls on the wall and pressed the upper button. Hydraulics whined as the heavy circular door swung open, and Hal ducked into the cramped airlock. Once inside, he used a second set of controls to open the outer door, but before it was half open there was a hair-raising growl and a huge robot squeezed into the ship.
Hal took one look at the grasping hands, jagged steel teeth and blood-red eyes and fled to the flight deck. He slammed the inner door and fumbled for the lock, but before he could activate it the door burst open. Hal dived for the access tube at the rear of the flight deck, hoping to escape via the cargo hold, but he only managed two steps before the robot cut him off.
Hal and the robot faced off for a couple of seconds, and then a short, middle-aged man strolled into the flight deck. He had a smooth, pale face and slicked-back hair, and his heavy overcoat was buttoned up to his neck.
"Who the hell are you?" demanded Hal.
"Vurdi Makalukar at your service," said the man softly.
Hal nodded towards the hulking robot, unwilling to point in case it tore his arm off. "Is this thing yours?"
"Brutus accompanies me on my rounds." Vurdi crossed to the console and turned the pilot's chair, grimacing as he saw the exposed stuffing. He looked around for an alternative and found none. "Let us begin," he said, sitting on the edge of the seat. "I represent Garmit and Hash, Mr Spacejock, and I'm here to —"
"You're the loan guy?" broke in Hal.
Hal gestured at the robot. "Do you treat all your clients like this?"
"Brutus usually breaks a leg or two first, but in your case I felt it wasn't necessary. After all, it's a relatively modest sum of money."
"Breaks a leg?" Hal eyed the hulking robot. "Do you get much repeat business?"
"None, if I do my job properly." Vurdi sat back. "Now, are we paying by cash or cheque?"
"I don't care. It's all the same to me."
Vurdi smiled. "I confess, I came here expecting the worst. It's most gratifying that you have the money to pay me."
"Pay you? No, you've got it all wrong. You're here to set up a loan."
The smile vanished. "You don't honestly believe that? Mr Spacejock, your computer has been fobbing me off for weeks. You're months behind with repayments."
"You mean it was a trick? You're not giving me any money?"
"I believe we're on the right track at last. You see, I'm here to collect back payments on your existing loan." Vurdi gestured at the robot. "If you're quick, you can stay out of hospital."
"I don't have anything to give." Hal spread his hands. "It's been quiet. Nobody's hiring."
"We must honour our debts, Mr Spacejock. Payment in kind perhaps? A limb or two?" The chair squealed as Vurdi turned his back. "I suggest you stand still, it'll be quicker that way."
"Quicker? What —" Hal dodged as the huge robot reached for him with hands the size of shovels. "Hey, call it off or I'll …" The threat died as banana-sized fingers grabbed him round the neck, and a split second later he was flat on his back.
The giant machine crouched over him and tried to push him through the cold metal deck, and as the steel grip tightened Hal saw his life flash before his eyes — a series of heavy landings interspersed with explosions and multiple fractures.
The lights in the flight deck dimmed, and then … darkness.
On planet Forg, a small crowd had gathered outside the local sky hockey stadium. Forgtown was not a prosperous area, and the refurbishment of the decrepit old stadium had been a talking point for months. Now opening day had arrived at last, and light blazed from the new ticket booths, glistening off the gold and silver ribbons stretched across the entrance. Suddenly, music blared from concealed speakers and a young man in a glittering gold suit pushed his way through the crowd. He slid to a halt before the ticket booths, threw his head back and raised an oversized microphone to his mouth. "Ladies and gentlemen, we are gathered here today to witness a miracle," he bawled. As he strode up and down, a technician struggled to keep him in the spotlight. "They said it would never happen! They said the people of Forgtown didn't deserve a new stadium!" The man gestured at a blank wall. "So who came to your rescue?"
On cue, a huge portrait was projected onto the wall. It showed a middle-aged man with a bristling black moustache, gleaming black hair and a thick cigar gripped in the corner of his mouth. "Please welcome … Mr Walterrrr Jerling!" screamed the young man. He stuck the microphone under his arm and clapped wildly, trying to rev up the crowd. There was a smattering of applause. As it died down, someone coughed.
Off to one side, Jerling took a last puff from his cigar and ground it to shreds under his heel. Then he strode up to the man in gold and took the microphone. He waved the crowd to silence with one hand, which wasn't strictly necessary as there was already a deathly hush, and then he began his speech. Unfortunately, nothing came through the speakers. Jerling glared at the young man, who took the microphone and fiddled with it.
"… Better get the bloody thing working or it's your job," boomed Jerling's voice, as the microphone was handed back. He recovered quickly. "Thank you for coming," he said, forcing a smile at the crowd of onlookers. It wasn't much of a turnout - young mothers with prams, old ladies clutching oversized handbags and a smattering of unemployed youths with nothing better to do. He began his lengthy speech, realised they were barely paying attention, and decided to skip to the end. "And so, it gives me great pleasure to open this refurbished stadium, and to wish the Forgtown Rhinos the best of luck for the coming season!"
The crowd clapped politely as Jerling snipped the ribbon. "I declare this stadium open!" he said, to further applause.
On the way to his limousine, Jerling passed a mother standing by her young son. The boy was looking up at a bunch of coloured balloons tied to the barrier, a wistful look in his eyes. On impulse, Jerling separated one of the balloons from the rest. "Here you are kid, look after it."
The mother beamed at him. "Thank you, Mr Jerling. I'm sure he'll treasure it for life."
Jerling made a casual gesture, indicating that such momentous gifts were easy to bestow. Inside, he felt the warm glow of a deed well done.
"But mum, I wanted the red one," whined the boy.
Jerling turned and strode to the car, ducked inside and sank back in the comfortable upholstery. The door closed and the car drew away from the crowds with a hum of powerful motors, quickly gathering speed. Inside, Carina Rinoret was sitting primly on the edge of her seat, briefcase on her lap. Her dark brown eyes studied Jerling intently, trying to gauge his mood. She didn't have to wait long.
"Sack that bloody MC," growled Jerling.
"Gold suits and spotlights … what the hell was he thinking? I'm a businessman, not a goddamn pop star." As the car turned onto the highway, Jerling tore the wrapper off a fresh cigar and jammed the tip into the door console. "What happened to the last guy?"
"Fired," said Carina. "You said he was dull."
"And did you see that crowd? Pathetic!" Jerling jammed the lit cigar between his teeth and dragged on it hungrily. "I saw Hinchfig on the news the other day. He had twice the crowd for his new stadium, and they were all cheering louder."
"I did suggest a virtual crowd, but you insisted on the real thing." Discreetly, Carina activated the air purifier. "The people we managed to bring in weren't exactly cheap, either."
"You paid those losers to show up?" Jerling stared at her in surprise. "I thought they were loyal Rhinos supporters!"
"The Rhinos don't have any supporters. They never win."
"Sack the players and buy some good ones."
Jerling took the cigar from his mouth and stared at her. "Wait a minute. Hinchfig fakes his crowds?"
Carina nodded. "He's got a brilliant programmer and a room full of computers. We should have the same."
"Forget it. They're overpriced, highly-strung, and always breaking down." Jerling blew out a cloud of smoke. "I'm not wasting money on computers either."
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