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   Chapter 1 No.1

Loderunner By Christina Engela Characters: 11657

Updated: 2018-06-30 12:02


For my dear friend Kae Colley and her son Michael, to whom I wish much joy and laughter on the other side.


Imagine if you will:

Somewhere in the depths of space a somewhat ordinary, boring-looking medium-sized yellow star cast weird-looking shadow-puppets across the dark interstellar wastes that currently belonged to the Terran Empire. Nine planets spun around it in suitably eccentric orbits – tiny slivers of matter that had rolled up into little balls and wished the rest of the universe would just bugger off and stop staring.

When the Humans arrived here they settled on one of them and (in polite company) called it Home. Since it was a frontier world where roughing it was a way of life, there was very little at all to laugh at. So one bright su – um, day, they called the star Ramalama – and named the two tiny moons of their new home Ding and Dong. (This is something of a local joke.) Since that time, the Terran colony known as Deanna flourished and prospered to become the bustling third rate world it was today, which in case anyone is wondering, was a bright February morning in the distant future.

A couple of decades before, the first colonists set up their basic settlements, which were cut from the wood of the local forests. Over time, these four little settlements became towns, which spread with the rapidly growing population, to form the urban sprawl now called Atro City. This medium-sized city was the largest on the planet.

Deanna's prime business was mining Lantillium, which was used to line blaster emitter barrels and the cores of warp engines (and to a lesser degree, to line the special coffee cups and jugs used to serve Hot Stuff Blend).

As the entire basis of trade and commerce in the known universe (other than actual money) was interstellar transport, it was fairly obvious to anybody who saw the mine dumps on the equatorial plains of Deanna that it was a very important activity. Very large loderunner transports would arrive to pick up megatons of ore for shipping to other nearby colonies whose main business was ore processing and manufacturing, while also delivering cargoes of consumer goods and luxuries from other places within the Terran Empire. Needless to say, with a population of over two million, Deanna had other activities as well.

According to the Galactic Tourist Guide, Deanna was a prolific tourist destination – having miles of white sandy beaches, bright clear sunny skies most of the time, with only a gentle breeze and hardly ever a storm.

For the gaming fishermen there was the Whatoosie River and its native cocka-snoek, the main game fish of the resident Skegg's Valley Dynamite Fishing Club. Cocka-snoek were wily and tough and rather too bright for mere fish. You wouldn't catch much with a rod around here. Many inexperienced visitors would find the bait stolen from their hooks, which punctuated the discovery that their lines had somehow got snagged and tangled irretrievably around some underwater obstruction – sometimes tied together with neat little bows. Often, several direct hits with hand grenades were needed to stun the creatures long enough just to catch them, gut them and fry them, but these former military types had become experts at it. For a modest fee, tours could be arranged via the booking office, which included an overnight stay on the banks of the river where one could drop off to a great night's sleep after a satisfying meal of cocka-snoek done on an open fire, and the sound the bits of shrapnel made rattling in your stomach.

The Landlocked Ocean was shallow, fresh and filled with all manner of interesting native life forms. The most popular of these was the shoals of braking dolphins that frolicked in the fresh shallow waters of the Greater Equatorial Fishbowl. These were small hand-sized marsupial creatures very similar in shape and behavior to Terran dolphins. They were warm blooded semi-intelligent air-breathers. People would come from light years around to see the endearing little creatures swimming in the blue ocean of Deanna Their pouches tended to slow them down quite a bit, and sometimes the tourists would be treated to the sight of a shoal of braking dolphins actually swimming backwards in the strong current – making a spectacular underwater display when they accidentally swam through the tour boats' propeller. They were too small to train to retrieve mines or torpedoes, but somebody did once train a few to retrieve unexploded hand grenades in the Whatoosie River, with tragic, if not predictable results.

As far as weirdness was concerned, Deanna was probably the center of the universe. This was very probably the only place where Chicken Little would be right at least once a year. Its main claim to fame was having a small moon that occasionally fell out of orbit, usually at awkward moments – like when lots and lots of people were watching. The smaller of the two moons, known as Ding, was only about fifty feet around and consisted of solid titanium and was also a known hazard to shipping. The Department of Tourism kept putting it back, never getting it quite right. Sometimes it would take up to four large space tugs to put it back into its low orbit, at the right altitude, speed and vector – but only after the Tourist Office had spent some quality time polishing the marks and scratches off it. (Can't afford to have a shabby moon with fingerprints all over it, can we? I mean, what if someone saw?) It seemed it was scarcely back in its low orbit than some careless pilot would knock it down again. Its larger sibling, Dong, is about a kilometer in diameter has been described as a large piece of nothing much with a flag planted on it.

Deanna was an interesting place for anyone to live, bearing in mind the word 'normal

' only means 'statistically prevalent' or even 'demographically dominant'. What was demographically dominant on Deanna was jeans, boots and tweed shirts. Cowboy hats kept the heat of Ramalama off your head if you didn't want to look like yesterday's bacon 'n beans before you turned thirty. Anybody who was anybody drove fancy hydrogen powered SUV's and ATV's. Everybody else had plain old electric Jeepo's or used public transport or walked.

Where would tourism be without a little luxury and a taste of night life? There were several cities on Deanna, all moderate in size, but the largest was the capital, Atro City. For the connoisseur of fast-foods, Albrechts' famous hotdogs and coldcats were sold fresh from his stall (Albrecht's Takeaways) on Lupini Square. For the sake of his own mental health he had temporarily removed Hot Stuff Blend from the menu. The city was home to Atro City University, which taught everything from algebra and make-up application to advanced stamp collecting; and it was also home to the planet-famous bounty hunter – Beck the Badfeller. Beck was a legend in his own lifetime. If Deanna had any folklore, then Beck the Badfeller was one of its main features. He was the local version of Robin Hood, the Davy Crockett of Deanna. The Local rumor mill had it he was so good he could find the missing day in a leap year. Once, so the story goes, he even found a missing sock.

Beck the Badfeller might be the best bounty hunter on Deanna, but if you were looking for a private investigator, then Timaset Skooch was your man. Timaset Skooch was a former Sheriff's Office Deputy in Atro City. After seven years of getting shot at for not much money, he decided it was time for a change. He did get paid better than when he was a Deputy – but not as regularly. Sometimes lately, he even got shot at for free. Hmm. He supposed that was the tradeoff.

It was a mild winter's evening in 'Japp's Saloon and Speakeasy', in the northwest corner of the only legal red-light area of the city. (The S.O.D.s believed in crime management.) Timaset Skooch leaned back in the aluminum framed chair, checking his cards carefully while wearing his best poker face. Across the table from him sat Jonn Deire, a large man who was trying very hard to out-poker face him and who didn't enjoy jokes about his name much.

Three other men were sitting on the other sides of the table, opposite each other. One was a man called Gary Beck and the other was a gentleman who went by the name of Peeping William. Jimmy Skoda was tall and lanky and lost in the world of cards for the moment, while William seemed to be holding something behind his back, with his cards lying face down on the table. He had a rather bored expression on his scarred old face, which had a shadow on his forehead cast from the paint stain on the lamp shade above the table. It was shaped rather like the head of an obsidian crow. Gary Beck didn't like obsidian crows much. (One had got him killed once, but that was another story.)

"Your turn, Will." Said Beck cheerfully. "Oh, sorry." Beck reached across the table laden with playing cards, cash and whisky glasses to pick up Peeping William's cards, and played for him. "Oh-kay – sorry, nothing there this time, Will!"

Peeping William was a wanted man and Gary Beck was the bounty hunter that found him – which brings us to why Will was looking slightly bored. Beck arrested Peeping William over an hour earlier, and was forced to wait while Beck finished another card game with his hands cuffed securely behind his back. Well, at least Beck was nice enough to let him play a hand or two, figuratively speaking. Will just grumbled something and rolled his eyes.

"C'mon bounty hunter – I ain't got all day!" Grunted Deire.

"My turn again?" said Gary and put down a four of blacks. "Sorry."

Ignoring the apology, the surly Jimmy Skoda plonked down a four of reds.

Jonn Deire picked up eight yellowed and dog-eared cards from the pile, grumbling 'garrn' under his breath, while chewing on a frazzled looking toothpick. Skooch threw down a five of reds and said nothing. There was an impatient pause as the players waited for Beck to remember he had to play for Peeping William, who was still grumbling softly and rolling his eyes at intervals.

"Sorry, Will." He said, dropping a five of yellows. Then he threw in one of his own, a seven of yellows. Skoda followed with a nine and scratched his overgrown chin thoughtfully, eyeing the kitty lying in the middle of the table. There was plenty of money there, as far as small-time casual gamblers were concerned. For Skooch it would help keep the wolves away for a few weeks. The kitty got off it, stretched and yawned before lazily dropping off the edge of the table. Undisturbed, the players continued. Jonn Deire began tapping his fingers on the table rather nervously. Well, this was the moment of truth for Timaset Skooch who was next in line, wondering how fortune would favor him. Deire played a nine of blacks. There was an almost indefinable click as something slotted into place for Skooch, who dropped the eight of blacks on the pile. He cried out elatedly.

"How about that – Uno!"

"Oh, damn – Uno again!" Jonn Deire exclaimed, slapping his cards down on the table in disgust.

"The pot is mine, I believe!" Said Skooch, joyfully reaching for the pile of notes and coins as the assembly of players and spectators began to break up.

"Gentlemen." Said Jimmy Skoda, getting up to leave.

Seeing a sneaky movement from the corner of his eye, Beck the Badfeller reached across and pushed Peeping William back into his chair.

"Not you, Will!" he said. "I'll be with you in a minute." Then he looked directly at him, smiled and said "Great game, Tim. Still, take it easy – you can't win 'em all, eh?"

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