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Zero G Lindy Hop
A novella from Cheeseburger Brown
CHAPTERS 1|2|3|...
Zero G Lindy Hop, a science-fiction story by Cheeseburger Brown; illustration by Matthew Hemming

CHAPTER 3


The corridor is wide, its sides dotted with doors, the middle dominated by a larger than life sculpture of a pelvis whose anatomically precise details form the works of a fountain. Various fat glowing fish sashay back and forth in the pool below, changing colours as they turn.

Mistress Glittervale gestures triumphantly, framing the door to the left of the fountain with a pose of presentation. "Blammo!" she grins. "This is it."

"What's with him?" asks Tas, shifting from one foot to another.

With a flourish Mistress Glittervale puts her hands on the shoulders of a robot standing at stiff attention beside the door. "This is your steward!" she squeals. "Due to massive issues right now I'm not actually able assign you a staff signal, so I've ultra-proactively moved forward with the next best thing -- a fully authorized personal guide. And with that I'm so utterly forced to leave you in his completely capable hands? I know you understand? You know: issues. Massive issues."

Tas squints at the thing. Gaudy purple carapace accented with iridescent swirls, masque fixed in an expression of saccharine gaiety. She looks over at Mistress Glittervale. "It'll show me safe through the maze?"

"Fully totally, and so much plus," Mistress Glittervale assures her and then, with a terrifying squeak she rushes forward and embraces Tas. "I'm so stoked. Tell me you're stoked, darling!"

"Stoked," mumbles Tas, keeping still until she is let go.

The door to the suite slides closed with Tasfoliana inside, cutting off the noise of those cavorting in the corridor and the authoritative clack of Mistress Glittervale's retreating footfalls. Tas closes her eyes and rubs her temples, relieved to be released to comparative peace if slightly dispirited to note that she can still feel the pounding of the music through the soles of her boots. She sighs, then looks up to see the purple robot staring at her with its plastic grin. "Oh," she says.

"Hi, Miz! Is this your first stay aboard a Capsheaf cruise?"

Tas cringes against the robot's high-pitched, sing-song voice. "Well, yop..." she admits.

"That's super! Let me tell you about some of our amazing --"

She holds up her hands in protest. "Reckon I'd just like a bit of quiet, see. Can you help me there?"

The robot steps aside and gestures to a door. "Miz, perhaps you would care for a relaxing rest in one of our critically acclaimed bedrooms, your frame cradled by what the Epsilon Indi Diversion Report calls 'an unparalleled mattress experience' and your every desire satisfied by a --"

She nods wearily as she pushes past him. "Yop, fine. Thanks and spanks."

"Miz, would you like me to accompany and assist you?"

"Nop."

She steps into the bedroom and seals the door behind her, leaning against it and taking a shuddering breath. The lights are dim in here, the only sound the hiss of ventilators. She pries off her boots and sits on the edge of the giant, round bed and then allows herself to lie back and sink into its softness. Slowly moving patterns of glowing dots undulate soothingly across the ceiling. She takes another deep breath. Maybe this won't be so bad after all.

She unzips her coveralls and kicks them aside, then squirms under the covers. She checks her watch, but neither her alpha nor beta have reported any errors. She dials down the adhesion and her watch drops off, leaving a little smelly circle on her wrist.

A third sigh. She is almost relaxed. Exhaustion makes her cheek bones hurt. She can feel sleep knocking at her mind's door.

And she can feel a soft pressure between her legs, gently probing.

Tas shrieks and leaps out of the bed, scooping up a boot as she rolls across the floor and then brandishing it over her head. A second figure stumbles out of the bed, trips over the bedding and ends up in a twisted heap of sheets on the floor. She rushes over and clubs the moving lump repeatedly with her boot.

"Come on!" protests the lump. "Hey!"

Tas whisks away the sheets. "Who are you?" she shouts. "What are you doing here? I've got another boot and I'm not afraid to use it, see!"

"Please don't hit me!"

Tas takes a step back, letting the boot sag in her hand. "Who are you?" she growls again.

He carefully gets to his feet, palms up and eyes wide. He is tall, brown skinned and naked, his lithe but muscular frame shining with oil. "I'm just your cunnilinguist, okay?"

"My what?"

"I'm on the bedroom staff, Miz! I'm provided for your satisfaction and satisfaction plus."

She shakes her head, cheeks colouring. She bends down quickly to seize her discarded coverall and then presses it to her chest, hiding behind it. "Don't need satisfaction now. Not today. I'm all for sleeping. That's all."

"I can help you relax," he says, reaching toward her.

She shakes her head again. "You have a uniform or something you could put on?"

He nods sadly, tries to smile, then wipes at his eyes as he dons a red thong and a sashless silk robe. He crosses his arms across his chest awkwardly. "I'm sorry if I've done anything to detract from this enhancement, Miz. I can fetch my debit stone if you want to dock me."

Tas flees the bedroom, hopping as she jams herself back into her coveralls. She dodges the steward and thus finds herself backed into a corner by the floor to ceiling curtains. She yanks them back, eager to lose herself in the stark and bottomless void of space. Instead she finds herself confronting a view overlooking decks and decks of unfettered celebration -- pulsing lights, undulating crowds, crawling words, flashing numbers, obscene displays. The infernal windows are internal!

Her shoulders droop. Slowly she turns around again. The sad cunnilinguist and the merry purple robot stand there expectantly.

"Miz, how can I best service you?"

"You're not going to give me a bad review are you, Miz?"

"Miz, shall I jingle for room service?"

"I could just rub your shoulders a little, if that's what you're into."

She waves them to silence. "Spot of peace," she says quietly. "All I want. Out of here, that's one. Back to my tube, that's two. Now which of you characters can help me? Either or neither?"

"Miz, I can guide you to any appropriate part of this vessel," says the robot cheerfully. And then, "The cargo hold is not appropriate. I cannot guide you there."

"What do you mean? I'll need to get there sooner or later, nop?"

"Miz, for the purpose of serving you I have been temporarily granted special read-only access to this vessel's full authentication and scheduling systems. You are not cleared to begin set up in the auditorium until next cycle. Appropriate access criteria will update at that time. On behalf of Capsheaf, I'd like to assure you that any inconvenience you experience is for your own good."

Tas grimaces, fists clenched. "Need to get out of this madhouse," she growls. "And you, cunnilinguist?"

"Just call me Flank."

"Can you get me out of here, Flank?"

"Well," he shrugs sheepishly, "I know where the hold is, but while I'm on duty -- um, technically -- I'm pretty much not authorized to leave the vicinity of your thighs."

Her head snaps up, eyes narrowing on a small facet of an authentication brooch embedded in the robot's breastplate. She looks over at Flank again. "What if we could fix you up some credentials?"

He frowns. "Pardon me, Miz?"

The corners of her mouth twitch. "Robot!" barks Tas. "Remove your outer carapace."

The robot and the cunnilinguist look at one another uncertainly.

Shortly thereafter the poor robot, its works exposed, has been forced to stand aside while Tas helps Flank close the seams on the purple metal plates enclosing his glistening skin. "It's a bit tight in the middle," Flank complains nervously. "What am I supposed to do if I have to bend over?"

"Hush," she says, lowering the helmet onto his head. Finally she snaps the masque in place over his features. His eyes blink behind the clear lenses. She knocks on the chest. "It's alright?"

"It's alright," he concedes gloomily. "But if anybody asks, you tell them this really turns you on. Right? Otherwise I could lose my job."

"Yop yop," she agrees. "Let's go."

He sighs. "Okay, Miz. Follow me."

They enter the bedroom, the naked robot slinking at their heels. Flank tries but fails to bend down to pull away the covers, so Tas does it for him. At the foot of the bed is a small, soft aperture. "We'll have to crawl down here, back to Arousal Dispatch," he explains. "From there we'll be able to grab a service trolley to get us to the nearest spoke."

Tas seems to be hesitating on the verge of the aperture. Flank furrows his brow. "...If that really is what you want to do, Miz."

"Just a sliver," she says, climbing off the bed and grabbing at her belt. She stops in front of the steward, a ratchet in her hand. "Don't take this personally, but we've got our needs, see."

The steward cocks its head. "Miz?"

She unscrews his glowing eyes and pockets them, then unhitches and removes a joint from his shoulder assembly. "Thanks and spanks, robo."

Flank straightens indignantly. "You're a kleptomaniac?"

"The show must go on," she mutters, pushing past him into the hole. "Let's move."

The staff serviceways are a welcome relief: industrial, utilitarian, barren and comprehensible. The lights are buzzing fluorescents, the walls scratched and nicked. Tas and Flank manoeuvre through a constant stream of robots and service personnel, each concerned only with their own particular duties. Eventually the pair comes to a rude little alcove next to a dingy tunnel.

Flank taps on the glass and reads the schedule. "Twenty minutes," he says, sagging against a bulkhead.

Tas sniffs. "Nop." She unhitches a tool from her belt and pries at the edge of the glass until the divider draws aside with a hiss. Her ears pop. She winces against the sudden rush of wind at her back as air floods into the comparatively atmospherically spartan tunnel. She reaches a control box, flips her tool, and uses the new end to make a few quick adjustments before drawing back and closing the barrier again.

Flank shivers. "What did you just do?"

"Made it look like there's a fault in the signal box," she says, replacing the tool on her jingling belt. "Should call up the service trolley faster, see."

A trolley grinds to a stop beside the alcove. The barrier draws back and they step inside the cramped cabin. Tas tilts her head and listens as little repair robots scuttle around outside, investigating the signal box. Finding no need for repairs they lock down and a second later the trolley shoots onward.

It slows at a second alcove for a gang of waste workers who, seeing there is a lady present, apologize for their odour. They get off just before the trolley switches orientation and begins its journey up a radial shaft toward the ship's airless spine.

"It would've been faster to take the passenger trolley," mutters Flank.

"Quieter this way," replies Tas, arms crossed and eyes closed.

"What -- you actually like being bored?"

She smiles without opening her eyes. "Let's just say I'm not afraid of it."

Compared to the phantasmagoria of the rest of the ship the cargo hold feels like home. Within seconds of their arrival the eyes of the Lagrangian cargo crew are peeking out at them from behind the storage capsules. Tas grins as one long-limbed fellow floats gently into plain sight. "It's Miss Tap Girl back for another whirl!" he croons.

She grins. "Couldn't stay away, see. Not when I know there's a hot milk and good fire down here in the quiet and the cold, skinnies."

"Our cold hold is your cold hold, Miss Dance and Prance! Come, pinch off a sac."

"A milk for me, please, and for my friend."

"Your tool cares for milk? It's a weird, wild world."

Tas and Flank follow the loaders back to their nooks where they keep their pretty things and hammocks, their pets and their clothes, a sort of colony of loader kipple squeezed in between the bulkheads. The revelation that Flank is in fact a young man and not a robot strikes them as entirely hilarious, and to celebrate they break the seal on an extra spicy udder and let flow the sharpest milks of all.

After much coaxing Flank is induced to try a sip, but he winces and shakes his head like a wet dog. "That's horrible stuff!" he cries, grabbing at his tongue. The loaders laugh even harder.

The Lagrangian nooks hang next to the staging area before the cargo hold's outer doors. On either side of the massive aperture are two great round portholes, and on either side of the portholes are turrets for controlling the grappling beams that manoeuvre cargo in and out of the spaceliner. When the cargo crew is good and milked up they kick off from the bulkheads and gather around the turrets, eyes glued to the darkness through the portholes.

"What bobs, skinnies?" asks Tas, pinching off a fresh sac for herself.

The foreman waves her closer. "Flotsam and jetsam," he says, putting one pale arm around her shoulder while pointing into space with the other. "Cruising lanes are stuffed with old stuff, if you follow my tumble -- garbage and treasure, crap and prizes. Navigational deflectors out there on the prow smack it all aside, and then it runs past us before being forgotten again. Look."

Tas steps closer to the glass, meeting her own reflection. Through it she spots a tiny, tumbling bit of something winking in the dark. One of the loaders drifts over beside her and calls up a magnification circle on the porthole, then dials the image up large: a small asteroid, potato-shaped and irregular. "It's only rock and roll," he sighs. "Let it free, jockey."

They sip their milks in silence for a few moments, then someone points out another few bits of scrap drifting back against the apparent motion of the spaceliner. The loaders peer at it through the magnification circle. "Tech!" they cry. "It's tech!"

"Time for fishing," says a young loader sitting atop one of the turrets. His long fingers flash over the controls and then he jams his hands into a set of waldoes. The grappling beam emitters swivel, mirroring his motions. "I wish I wish I wish to catch a fish!" he sings, actuating the beams.

The beams emit no visible light, but Tas can hear the projection system humming as it powers up. She watches as the bit of stuff outside the porthole begins to change trajectory, veering in toward the cargo hold.

Everyone leans in closer.

The foreman begins to nod. "Escape capsule," he declares, wiping a milk moustache away. "Triton class, wagering."

"Wager taken. Seven and a half."

Tas turns to look at the foreman. "Could somebody be in there?"

He shakes his head. "Tritons are a century obsolete, Miss Flat Feet. Not worth its newtons in reclamation."

The youth working the grappling beam nods in agreement. "Worthless as gills in a vacuum. Watch this toss!" He cranks back on the waldoes and pitches hard to aft. The projectors whine. The antique escape capsule zooms away, quickly exiting the liner's floodlights and becoming lost to darkness.

The loaders hoot. Flank kicks over to Tas, his unmasked face melancholy. "This is what you want to do all night? Hang around lobbing space trash?"

"Seems some fun," says Tas. She looks up. "Mind if I give it a try, skinnies?"

The youth disentangles himself from the turret and gestures to the chair gallantly. Tas climbs aboard. When the next bit of flotsam is spotted she inserts her hands into the waldoes and brings the beams online with a trigger squeeze.

"Catch it on the downswing, sweep it right in!"

"Attagirl, you've got the touch!"

"Easy, easy now..."

As Tas grimaces at the turret controls the loaders press their white faces to the porthole. "It's surely tech," mumbles one. "It's big," observes another. "I think...I think it's a -- ship. Angle the floods!"

Loaders scramble to refocus the exterior lamps as the wildly spinning object is drawn ever closer by Tas' deft working of the waldoes. She eases up on one beam as she slacks off on the other, then carefully does the opposite, each carefully timed reversal slowing the object's rotation by degrees. Gradually the derelict vessel comes into plain view, its pitted bronze hull reflecting the floodlights in winks as it turns.

"Miss Lubber is an ace jockey! It's true treasure, skinnies, treasure!"

"What do we do now?" asks Tas.

"Tuck it in closer, Miss Fancy Fingers. Let's bring it inside."

The crew jumps to action. Blue lights begin to rotate around the outer doors, the works clanking and hissing as the atmosphere exchange starts cycling. The youngest Lagrangian shimmies up to a control booth and slinks behind the controls, fingers flying over the console. He calls down that he's about to take over the grab with the inner-airlock's grapplers. "Let it free in three, two, one: mark!"

Tas relaxes her fingers against the triggers. She hears the inner-airlock grapplers buzzing, then a hollow boom as the loading doors seal. The airlock cycles with a chuff of pressurized gas, releasing the tinny, metallic smell of space into the hold.

Twin microgravity forklifts arrive to catch the ship as it passes inside, the doors drawing tight behind it. Mooring tethers snake out of the ceiling and connect to the hull with a series of dull thuds. The blue lights stop spinning and the projectors whine down, leaving the cargo hold in sudden silence.

The derelict ship leans into the tethers with a metallic groan.

The foreman whistles. "What a catch!"

The small spacecraft seems ancient, its design simple and its fixtures scarred; a central, bullet-shaped fuselage with three thruster armatures curled up against it, the top dome too grimy to see through. There are markings across the belly but Tas cannot decipher the script. "Anybody reckon that?" she asks.

The foreman nods. "Old letters, them. If I remember my kindergarten straight, she's called Variable."

"What'll you do with her?"

The loaders all turn to look at her quizzically. "Us skinnies?" echoes the foreman. "No, Miss Modestly Honestly, no. This here's your catch, right as up is forward."

The others nod. "Up is forward, what's yours is yours."

Tas swallows, looking between them. "You're yanking my tether, you skinnies who love a laugh. You are having a laugh, I reckon. Good fun, good fun..." She trails off as she takes in their earnest expressions. "Wait -- really? It's mine?"

They grin and nod. "Finders keepers."

Her eyes go wide as they rove over the captured ship, her mouth practically salivating as she spots part after part she's longed for. "The parts," she mutters, kicking forward numbly. "Oh Pop, the parts..."

Flank snorts. "I've never seen anybody get to excited over a hunk of junk before."

But Tas isn't listening. She's arrived beside the pitted craft and is already reaching for tools from her belt to start work on opening the hatch. The loaders pinch off fresh sacs of milk and toast her find, giddy as can be.

"Hold on, Miz," calls Flank. "You can't just barge right in -- I mean, you don't even know what's in there!"

"I know what's in there alright," she says without turning around. "About a million parts my performers have needed hard, and needed long." She grunts and something gives. The seal on the hatch breaks with a hiss. "I'm in," she says breathlessly.


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