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     Milk Run

       Ray Daley / Actions & Adventure / Science Fiction
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Milk Run
Milk Run
Raymond Daley
Copyright 23/5/12 by Raymond Daley


The steward looked bored. He'd made this stupid trip thousands of times, of course he was bored.

Time for the litany. Rephrase the lore and pass the mic.

The P.A. crackled, with a whine of feedback as he moved the mic too close to the speaker for at least the millionth time, promising yet again to never make that mistake. He tapped the mic to make sure, the familiar "thud-thud" confirming it was indeed live.

Show time!

"Ladies and Gentlemen, please ensure your seat-belts are securely fastened like so."

He demonstrated the motion with the dummy seat-belt used as a visual aid for those passengers too stupid to follow the verbal instructions.

"Our journey will take slightly less than five minutes so please remain in your seat with your belt secured."

The Coulter drive had made the Earth--Mars run affordable to everyone, it was cheap, it was reliable and it had been running for over fifty years now with an unblemished record.

From the corner of his eye the steward could see that man in 3F again, no doubt asking for a drink for what would now be the ninth time.

"Yes sir, how may I be of service during your trip?" said the steward, his smile set to dazzle, mood set to bored.

"Is there any chance of getting a drink on this piece of crap only fit for a museum?" asked Mr 3F.

That particular jibe might have been low but it was accurate, Miss Flick, as she affectionately was known to the crew was the oldest craft in the Laker Spaceways fleet. If it had been any other outfit she would have been retired for at least twenty years by now but her engines worked perfectly, she retained a full atmosphere with no loss and she was still half as fast as the newest ships available.

Not that Laker had any new ships.
They ran on the margins, they made a profit but only just.
Old man Laker bought cheap and ran 'til they stopped working.
Which so far was never, hence Miss Flick.

The passenger currently sitting in seat 3F already stank of alcohol, no doubt he'd been availing himself of the Earthside bars at McNair Spaceport of which there were many. Everywhere served you the first time, if you could order and pay then they didn't care. Likewise for the fourth or fifth time until they decided to throw you out and make you someone else's problem. And so on around every hostelry.

Until check-in time. Then you were the space-line's problem.

No doubt he'd purchased and consumed several packets of breath-mints to get him past the check-in desk, there at least he'd have been far enough away for them to not smell the reek of booze. He'd been standing upright, able to sustain personal locomotion, ergo - fit to fly.

Right now he didn't look in a fit state to be doing anything, not even sitting down. The steward had a private bet with himself how many times this guy had tried to sit in his seat before he finally hit it. Odds were good on ten tries at least.

"I'm terribly sorry sir, this is a hop trip, no refreshments are served aboard." He shot the lush that dazzling smile again, mostly designed to distract and confuse, taught in all good (and bad) flight attendant schools. As a Laker employee he'd attended the latter, thinking it was the former, not knowing better.

"No, a real drink! A gin, a vodka, a whiskey, heck, I'd even settle for a beer!" The man in 3F was starting to shout now, attracting the attention of the other passengers.

"Sir!" The steward turned on his firm but fair tone of voice, intended to calm and placate otherwise scare and intimidate. He did the crazy eyes, letting this passenger know he was getting the "shut up please" speech. "There is no alcohol aboard this craft. Now please settle down, you are upsetting the other passengers."

That was an outright lie and he knew it. Not about upsetting the other passengers, several of the families with younger children had already complained about him, about the fact that there was no alcohol on board.

There was, in the medical supply case, supposedly for emergencies only but the steward knew from past experience many pilots liked a tot or three before, after or even during a hop.

Medical case, item #12.

Medicinal alcohol, not for consumption.

Not only did it clearly state as such on the label of the bottle, it was also printed in the inside of the case lid in large red letters several inches tall:

CAUTION! DO NOT INGEST, MEDICAL ALCOHOL!
STRICTLY FOR EXTERNAL USE ONLY!

The steward could still recall that first time, he'd been on his fifth flight, still green around the gills, unused to the Coulter drive. The pilot had called him to the cabin and asked for item #12 from the medical case.

Being young and eager to please he'd grabbed it without question and hurried back to the cockpit expecting to treat a cut or open wound when the pilot had looked at him, asked where the tonic water was then preceded to consume half the bottle during his pre-flight checks.

This had shocked him greatly and he had reported the infringement as the rules insisted. At the end of that working day he'd been called in to see his supervisor who then chewed him out for tattling on such a well respected pilot, telling him he didn't want to hear of any such occurrences ever again. He'd learnt you didn't grass, you ordered replacements which were off the records. No logs were kept of refills, so it appeared that the medical case was always fully stocked, no matter what.

The man seemed to take the news as calmly as he'd expected, griping loudly to himself as the steward returned to his monitoring station. On the wall panel near the exit he saw the familiar red LED light up, indicating they were now over half way, passing the point of no-return with ease as always. This ship was now going to Mars. Or nowhere.

Nowhere never happened.

It was always Mars. Sometimes without a bump, other times with a few filled barf bags thanks to atmospheric turbulence and once without wheels thanks to a near-miss with Phobos. Lots of pilots almost hit Phobos, it was considered a rite of passage, you weren't a fully fledged Mars pilot until you'd at least clipped Phobos.

No-one ever even came close to Deimos. It was the ginger stepchild of Martian moons.

Right now the steward had his eyes on the recessed panel to his left.

Passengers walked past it every day and almost none of them ever noticed it, rarely was he ever asked about. The official explanation, it was nothing more than an extra storage locker. Stewards and flight crew knew differently.

Inside were a rack of stun-guns, intended for the passengers who got that far out of hand that extreme measures were called for. Right now the steward was beginning to think he might need to slide that panel open before they touched down at Viking Base.

Then it happened. He saw the fourth LED. The dreaded blue LED, not just on but flashing.

Bad things were happening.

These craft were designed to be able to alert cabin crew without the passengers knowledge. Strips of LED’s were set into the ceiling, above the doors, at each exit point. No matter where a steward was, they would see all the markers.

They were designed in such a way as to be only visible to someone standing, seated passengers never saw them thanks to tactically placed bulkheads and storage lockers.

White for take-off, red for point of no-return. Green which rarely flashed was a summons to the cockpit. Blue for danger.

He moved to the single seat designed for him or dead-headers, but that function was almost never used. These journeys were so short there was no point in ever sitting down unless it was on the last few hops of a very long day. Above the seat was the comm-phone, connecting him directly to the cockpit. He picked it up and waited.

No answer.

Clearly whatever danger the pilot and co-pilot were coping with was keeping them both from answering.

This was rare but not entirely unheard of, there had been instances in the initial prototype tests of the Coulter drive where ships had lost power, bad motivator units or fused fuzzy logic units were later found to have been the cause. These ships had drifted into Mars orbit where local shuttles had eventually rescued them.

The steward pressed the attraction buzzer switch, right then inside the cockpit an alarm would be sounding and a series of attention grabbing lights would flash on panels in front of both the pilot and co-pilot, alerting them to the comm-phone. This was always answered immediately. Thirty more seconds ticked painfully by.

No answer.

The steward slowly removed his finger from the switch and walked over to the main cabin door, this was normally left open to allow easy monitoring of the passengers and for the stewards to have free and easy passage about the craft. He quietly slid it shut, hoping none of the passengers had noticed.

He now had a soundproof shield between him and them, they would not hear any of the potential alarms going off in the cockpit when he opened the cockpit door. He placed his RFID ring on the sensor and the cockpit door unlocked,
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