The Advantage is Decadent and Depraved

by Bobby Harrell

It was then and there I decided to kill the bastard who made me drink all that rotgut and sleep in my EVA suit. Prying the helmet off, I watch it drift towards the ceiling of the shuttle. 

Luckily, I had a sick bag ready, just as the smell hit me. Old air scrubber fluid, weeks old body odor and that frying bacon smell of cramped humans floating in a beer can. 

“Rabbit,” I screamed. “Rabbit, I am going to kill you, then myself, by opening the airlock. It’ll be a mercy, I swear.”  

Rabbit drifted in from the cockpit, the reek of patchouli and marijuana coming off him in tidal waves. Long ears, and his habit of jumping at the mention of a freight run earned him his name. He was naked from the waist up, his jumpsuit stretched out in less gravity like extra arms at his sides. “Born to fly, Forced to work” was tattooed over his left nipple. 

“No one made you drink all my moonshine,” he says slowly. “I told you to take it easy.”  

I reach down to untether myself from the floor and feel my gorge rise again. “How was I going to stand another minute in this outhouse of a capsule? How far off are we?” 

About an hour, Rabbit says. Force Fed magazine paid for my zero-gee flight from San Francisco to Orbital Three, which left me with enough credit to convince Rabbit to fly me. But after two weeks in this goddamn death trap of a shuttle, I think he owes me. 

“What are you supposed to do out here?” Rabbit asks as he floats a cold packet of coffee to me. I gulp it down through the straw. 

“Fleet’s got a brand new carrier about to make way. State of the art. Want to see if it’s any better than the one that took me back from the war.”  

“I still can’t believe they pay you to write about this shit,” Rabbit says on his way to the vacuum shitter. “Some of us have to work for a living.” 

“If it makes you feel better,” I say, “they don’t pay me much.” After a rubdown with an antibac cloth and a change of jumpsuits, I feel less like a shaved ape. 

I’m back in the EVA suit and strapped into the copilot seat just before coming within range of Station Alpha’s scanners. Some no-neck with too much authority roars at poor Rabbit over comms for confirmation of access codes before he blows quote that piece of shit outta his sky end quote. Rabbit’s too stoned to muster anything resembling anger. Which is good. Last time I saw him angry, Rabbit had already cut one miner across the forehead with a broken barstool and was getting ready to put the hurt on three more. He’s fast, too. 

“Transit Eileen Gutierrez to Advantage, over,” Rabbit says. 

Rabbit flies Lydia into the massive maw of the station. It feels like being swallowed. I want to puke again. 

Rabbit tries to hug me as I’m heading out the airlock and for once I let him, because he’s not all that bad for a hippie type. Payment in full goes from my hand to his suit pocket. I put my helmet on and the doors cycle open. The umbilical walkway is partially transparent, so I get a good look at the station’s guts. Industrial on an almost planetary scale. Cargo loaders swimming in lesser gravity with containers twice their size like sucker fish with too big a bite to swallow. Out here I get my best look at the Advantage

The carrier I rode home on looked like an orbital construction platform, all antenna and asymmetrical flanges, emergency yellow. This thing’s sleek, black and curved, with the flight deck facing backwards, slung underneath the main engines. It vaguely reminds me of a stapler. Something in my stomach slides left and I focus on getting to the other side of the airlock. 

Waiting for me is a very green ensign. Curly black hair cut tight. The uniform, some cross between a flight suit and a dictator’s utilitarian business suit, sits crisp and smart. He’s so young that I gain ten years just looking at him. 

 “Ms. Gutierrez?” The ensign says. I crack open the helmet and a blast of cigarette smoke hits him dead in the face. Between coughs, he tells me there’s no smoking on board. I extinguish the cig and turn on the fan. The smoke gets sucked back into the suit. 

“Better?” I say. 

“If you’ll follow me,” the ensign says. “I’ll show you to your quarters.”

If it seems like I’m being an asshole, it’s just because I can’t stand myself. I’m such an introvert outside of a job that being a shithead helps me overcome my timidness. 

 The carpeted decks in this section of the ship have that industrial glue smell people mistake for new. Some workers in bright green jumpsuits are tearing plastic wrap off holographic emitters, directing bots to vacuum up random dust. 

The pain’s a constant companion. The EVA suit braces most of my body, dealing with years of low grav travel. Bones become more fragile. My spine lengthens without gravity to hold it down. THC pills and nerve dampers help. 

Some of my stash is prescribed. The rest is recreational. I take too much too often. Let me be honest to myself about that, if no one else.

 My quarters are no bigger than a Martian jail cell, only cleaner and neater. Crisp linen sheets on the twin bed. Warm ambient light from the edges of the ceiling. The ensign leaves me to it, visibly happy to be going. I have that effect on people. 

I sit down on the bed, wanting to sleep for two days straight. I’m exhausted just from walking here. My breath comes with a small clicking sound. Instead, I place my helmet beside me on the bed and start running a sweep. No easily spotted bugs, audio or visual. Some sensors for fire and hull breach. Modify the fire so I can smoke in here. I place a clear plastic sensor next to the door. Hard to see on sensors and the naked eyeball, it tracks whenever someone other than me passes through the door. This isn’t paranoia. Being cautious with the military is just good sense. 

A blinking icon appears on the corner of the wall just above eye-level. Calendar reminder. I snap two fingers and an invite takes up the majority of the wall. Subtle. 

Meet-and-greet with the ship’s Executive Officer in Lounge 3 in half-an-hour. Best I get ready. 

I send a few programs into the ship’s systems through the fire alarm security vulnerability. They’ll signal when they’ve found what I’m looking for. 

Lounge 3 ends up being three tram stops from my closet of a room. The doors hiss open and representatives from Buzzfeed, InterStellarCast, Al-Qarr look any direction but mine. Everyone else has a good look then goes back to their drinks. My reputation precedes me.  

Mikki Anders waves me over from the bar. Mikki’s a good one. Covers military affairs for the Crease. Great reporter. Owner of massive locs and self-proclaimed blackest woman alive.  

“Who did you piss off to get assigned this?” she says. 

“That’s hurtful, Mikki,” I say. “I have great interest in the Fleet’s maintenance of military superiority.” 

“Bullshit,” she says. “Ten to one you’re here about the cost of this carrier, too.” Did I mention smart? 

She’s about to continue when the door hisses open and what can only be the XO comes in, flanked by two lieutenants. He’s a grizzly old bastard, square cut grey hair, trimmed beard, hands the size of construction gauntlets. He rubs those bear claws together and smiles like a shark. 

“Welcome, everyone. Welcome. I’m Executive Officer Trent Lantham. Now, before we begin the tour…” 

I raise my hand. “Eileen Gutierrez, Force Fed.” 

Lantham frowns. Mikki puts a hand over her eyes. 

“We’ll have time for questions at the end of the tour,” Lantham said. 

“What’s the retirement age for senior officers in the Fleet?” I say. 

“I’m not sure what that has to do with…” 

“Because the last time I checked it was 50. You’re 53, according to your bio.” 

Lantham frowns deeper. “I have special disposition…” 

“Given by Admiral Takanawa when you personally led the mission that rescued her granddaughter from pirates off Saturn Station. Must have been a rough mission, seeing as how there’s no helmet cam footage of it.” 

The skin under Lantham’s haircut is flush. Anger issues, according to his last psych eval. 

“Are you insinuating, Mizz Gutierrez, that I’m responsible for the lack of helmet cam footage?” 

“No,” I say. “I’m just thinking out loud.” 

Then we glare at each other for a few seconds. 

“Now,” he says, almost gritting his teeth. “The tour.” 

The other reporters follow him out of the room. 

“What the fuck was that?” Mikki said. “He was never going to tell you anything. You’ll be lucky if you don’t get kicked off the ship.” 

“Then I’d better stay out of his way,” I say, walking out. 

Lantham’ll be so busy trying to be personable that he won’t miss me for a while. 

I’ve got a few places to check out, data to sample and sift through. Plus press tours are boring, scripted shit. 

First, I turn on my displacer tag, confusing on-board sensors for a while. Then I pull up the map I built from leaked info about the Advantage

The tram drops me off at the ship’s largest med bay. I put the suit’s ears out. Data starts to trickle in. Wartime capacity of the med bay is 200. Only 9 of the beds are in-use. Skimming patient info tells me it’s basic stuff: fractures, bruises. 

One guy’s getting treated for pain med abuse. Speaking of, my spine’s on fire. 

“Excuse me,” I say to one of the nurses. “I’m sorry to bother you. I must have eaten something nasty on-route to the ship. What would you suggest for a throbbing headache and general hatred of the universe?” 

The nurse stares at me.

“Where is your security badge?” she says. Shit. 

Then someone else comes up. I’ll call them Doc. Not an actual doctor. Blue scrubs. Thin, of Indian descent, hips you can grab onto. It may have been a while since I got laid. 

“I’ll take care of this, Keenan,” Doc says. “How can I help you, Ms. Gutierrez?” 

“Only on board ten seconds and I’m already well known.” 

“We’ve been briefed about our guests,” Doc says. “And you’re the only one confined to a suit at the moment. I like your work. Does the International Surgeon General actually prescribe himself antipsychotics?” 

“No,” I say. “But he should. He’s batshit insane. Hangover cure?”  

“Bloody Mary’s are nice, but I think I’ve got something else for you in the pharmacy.” We walk across miles of curving floor to a frosted sliding door. Doc locks the door behind him. 

“Okay,” he says. “How much do you want?” 

It occurs to me then that Doc is trying to sell me drugs. My lucky day. 

“Well, I’m coming down from some uppers, so opiates would help. The Alzheimer’s cure, because I’m a little sleep deprived and that hangover cure.” 

I pay with an anonymous credit chip. The hangover cure ends up being an IV canister and some caffeine pills. Waste of time. I ask Doc why they would risk getting court-martialed by selling on a military ship. 

“Because I get paid next-to-nothing,” they said. “Fleet spends more money on making a pretty hospital than actual medical equipment. And because I get bored easily.” 

Once I’m adequate, I stroll out of the med bay and take in the recycled air. There’s something wrong with this ship. Or maybe I just hate the idea of it. The future now before it works properly. 

Another tram stop, another datapoint to exploit. The Simulation Chamber was supposedly designed to practice emergency procedures with the crew, along with occasional recreational use. Carriers can spend years in space during a tour of duty. I’d have killed for a little reminder of Earth back when I was enlisted. Or something fun that wasn’t drinking until I blacked out. I pop the Chamber door open and walk inside. Its neutral state is like the inside of a golf ball: grey panels curving at ceiling and floor. I step up to an operating panel and have the suit send some commands. 

The chamber hums and bright light flashes from the walls. The floor changes to holographic grass. Trees sprout from them. The room grows in depth. A horizon behind a wide open field. 

From behind a tree trots out a centaur. Usually the torso of a human and the body of a horse. Only this one’s switched. Giant black eyes look out of a horse’s head with brown fur and a diamond shaped white patch between the eyes. The fur continues past hooves where there should be arms. At the waist the human part starts, but with the largest set of Combined genitalia I’ve ever seen. The centaur flicks its head in a way I have to assume is come hither. I make a note of who’s listed as the program’s owner and move on to other simulations. There’s a few orgies, which are boring after you’ve been to a few. I check to see if anyone’s run anything remotely combat related in the past two weeks. Nope. 

Humans. Can’t chuck them into space without them wanting to fuck. 

I walk the decks for a while to clear my head. Next on the list is… I’m near some gymnasium when my feet give way. I stumble, but the suit manages to keep me upright. I do a med check, but its green across the board. Something’s up. I’ve been getting high since I was ten years old. This feels like nothing I’ve ever done before. 

Then I remember Doc and his “hangover” cure. I tell the suit to search for pathogens or poisons. Gotcha. That asshole dosed me with Asteroid Miners Fever. Guess Doc wasn’t on the take, unless you count Fleet as a racket. There’s no cure, but it works its way out of your system in a few hours. The bastards are more prepared for me than I thought. The hallway swims in front of my eyes. If they think I’ll give up and go back to my room, they’re full of shit. 

I try to tell the suit to steady me, but the buttons have been moved. I’ve got to find somewhere to rest. 

My memory skips. I’m in a large room with massive bulkheads ahead of me. A few lobsters….crewman…are working on an eggplant…fuck… there’s got to be a chair somewhere around here. Skip. I’m sitting down. Finally. I try to follow a thought, but I only get so far before having to go back and try it again. There are people staring at me through a window. Are they trying to kill me with their eyes? Can’t connect with the suit. 

I get up and walk out in a daze. The screaming alarms and lights shake me out of it. Time to see what’s going on. I tap into the nearest data node as crewmen rush around me. 

The Captain’s signaling the station. External sensors ping several unrecognizable ships.  

The deck lurches under my feet and the suit topples over. 

My head bounces off the deck. 

Things go black. 

I’m gone for a while. When I come back, the alarms are still sounding. Somebody’s shuffling around nearby. 

I lean up and touch my head. 

“Fuck,” someone says. “This one’s still alive.” 

My eyes crack open. 

Two men in patched EVA suits are standing in front of an exposed vent. Plasma cable is coiled at their feet, torn directly from the wall. 

“Either of you have any pain killers?” I say. 

The nearest one, head shaved clean with a maze of scars across his forehead, grins at me with rotting teeth. Lot of pirates smoke meth before raiding a ship. Funny the things you remember when you’re piss scared. 

“I’ve got just the thing,” he says and a sharpened length of steel comes out of a leg holster. 

“I don’t think you understand,” I say as he surges forward. 

The baton pops out from underneath my right gauntlet. The steel glitters in the red alarm light. 

He raises the sharp high and I slap him across the cheek with mine. 

Runny white pours out of his mouth. 

Riot baton. Makes you leak out both ends. I had my taste once while covering a food riot in New York. Knew I needed one for my collection. 

His friend is confused about what happened, which gives me enough time to get to my knees and smack up with the baton. It catches him on the nose and he pukes on his friend. 

Time to run. 

I’m several doors down the hall when the lift opens and a dozen sailors pour out of it, stun pistols at the ready. I dive down on my knees and put my hands over my head.  

Fun fact. Stun pistols can actually kill you. Stops your heart at higher doses. Sweat pools in the suit. Boots pound down the hall. 

“Who the fuck are you?” one of the sailors screams into my ear. 

“Reporter,” I say. 

“Nice try,” he says and disables my suit’s power core. With my arms zip tied behind me, I’m not going anywhere. 

They actually high five each other as they drop the puking twins next to me. 

The Advantage’s brig is not nearly as nice as the rest of the ship. It’s a metal box with plastic molded benches and one toilet. The two assholes who tried to kill me keep glaring at me from across the room. I’ve been peeled outta my suit like a crab. I’m so weak I can barely keep from sliding onto the floor. Only thing I’ve got going for me is the guard glaring at us from the other side of the doors. The moment he takes a break or gets the nod to take a walk, it’s going to be none. I’ve spent enough time in jails to figure that out. 

The door behind the guard slides open. My jaw sets. An ensign comes in. He whispers something to the guard. Here it comes. The guard pulls his stun pistol out. 

“Get against the wall,” he says. Only the gun’s pointed at the two pirates. 

“Let’s go, Guiterrez,” the ensign says, pushing in a float chair. “XO wants to have a word.” 

“Can’t I just stay here with my friends?” I say. Hate radiates from their eyes, but neither pirate moves a muscle. The ensign loads me very gently into the float chair and it follows him out of the brig. 

Lantham’s waiting for me in his office, his back to the door. His desk’s made of actual wood, large enough to serve as shelter during planetary bombardment. He swirls a glass of bourbon around as he stares out a port window. The implication is clear. The float chair parks several feet away from Lantham and the ensign retreats out the door. 

“Do you know what I love most about this job?” Lantham says. 

“The view?” I say. 

Lantham chuckles. “I’ve been staring out portholes my entire adult life. The view never changes. No, getting to serve as XO of this ship. Brand-new. Gleaming in the night.” 

He turns and glares at me. 

“Well, it’s mostly good. I’ve been learning a bit about you since our encounter earlier. Studying your articles. Lot of violence in them. Lot of drugs being taken.” 

I shrug and fire crackles up and down my shoulders.

 “I write about my life.” 

“It makes you an untrustworthy journalist,” he says. 

The bourbon rocks in his drink clink together as he takes a big pull. 

“Along with a danger to my crew and other guests. Trespassing on government property. Hell, how do I know you didn’t help those pirate bastards onto the ship? I’m just guessing, but with what we’ll find in your suit and in your bloodstream, you’ll be lucky if you can get a job writing obituaries. Fleet has its own narcotics policies, thankfully more strict than the rest of the universe.” 

I can see we’re getting to the point. Finally. 

“What is it that you want?” I say. 

Lantham props himself on his bunker of a desk. 

“I want a written apology that will be sent to the far corners of this station, along with my command staff. I want this apology read out loud to the guests that were at the reception. And if you don’t do that, your chair might malfunction and drop you out an airlock. Am I being clear, you little shit?” 

I have to say, I’ve been threatened by a lot of people over the years, but this guy’s got them all beat. 

“Of course,” I say. “What’s my deadline with the apology?” 

It catches the man a bit short. 

“ASAP,” he says. 

“Got a tab I can use?” 

He doesn’t let me near his terminal and he has nothing else in the room that would transmit for security purposes. So Lantham orders the chair to find my EVA suit, which a few technicians are turning inside out. 

I shoo them away and haul myself back inside the suit. I’m a sweaty gross mess, but I don’t have time to clean up. Lantham wants this done within the hour. So I bring down the helmet’s visor, lock it in place and light up a cigarette. My fingers dance over the touch keys inside the suit, words appearing on the visor. Time gets so short I go full voice recognition, which makes for shit copy, but I clean it up after. 

My meetup with destiny happens in the reception area. 

Lantham taps a spoon on a flute of champagne. 

“Before we celebrate our victory over the pirates, I believe Ms. Gutierrez has something she’d like to say.” 

I walk up to the mic. 

“Thank you, XO.” I face the crowd. Mikki’s in the front, eyes sympathetic. “My remarks are being downloaded to your sites even as I speak them.” 

Lantham had to verify every word before it went out. 

He’s standing just to my right, a small smirk playing across his lips. 

“Earlier today, I made some accusations about Executive Officer Lantham’s storied military career. That he had erased helmet cam footage of the rescue of the Admiral’s granddaughter. I’m here to say today that those accusations were false and that I apologize to the XO for any embarrassment my statements may have caused him. A malfunctioning engine core set off an EMP which wiped the hard drives.” 

I turn to look at Lantham. I make sure our eyes are locked when I speak again. I want him to see me say the words. 

“Along with that is evidence of other accusations I’m about to make right now. Such as the fact that the Advantage is a trillion credit project that not only doesn’t make our Fleet stronger, but will cost lives.” 

Lantham shoots me a death glare and whispers into his lapel mic. No doubt he’s trying to stop the downloads. Only he can’t.

My suit’s spent the past few hours burrowing into the networks onboard. Any intelligent programs probably think my digging is part of its normal functions. 

“Along with records of millions spent on luxury accommodations for officers, when most crewmen don’t even have hot water, are deep scans of the ship itself.”

 I’m really going to owe Rabbit for that one. He’s the only one that could do the scans without getting caught. 

“I’ve highlighted in my reporting the thousands spent on its infrastructure and hull, when the ship budget shows it should be millions. It’s why the Advantage couldn’t uncouple safely when the station was attacked. There’s about a million in damage to the station and the ship.” Which would probably have been hushed up if I hadn’t just announced it in front of these bloodhounds. 

“Funds diverted from the budget into an extremely expensive simulation chamber used mainly for sexual activity, along with building a cigar lounge, bar and pool. But not all of the money went into these frivolous things. Some of it went into a particular account. One that was very difficult to source.” Until I was let right into the office of the person I was gunning for. 

“You’re retiring next year, right, XO? I wonder where you’ll go. Anywhere, I suppose, with the millions you’ve siphoned away…”

Lantham leaps at me, fingers splayed like claws, pure fury boiling out of his eyes. He gets an armored gauntlet to the face, which knocks him out cold. 

He flops to the ground and I stare down at him. What did he expect? That I’d fold because he threatened to kill me? 

I hit my comm. 

“Rabbit. Now would be a good time to leave.” 

I’m running for the launch bay as fast as the suit allows. Just because the information is out there doesn’t mean someone won’t kill me as revenge for the XO. There were more partners in this scheme. They just need tracking down.  

Chatter on the shipwide comm goes berzerk. 

“This is the XO. We have a spy onboard. Stop Eileen Gutierrez from leaving this ship at all costs.” Fuck. He’s never going to stop lying. Doors slide open and confused crewmen stare at me as I rush past them. Some of them try to latch onto the suit and drag me to the floor. Problem is, the suit’s slow at first, but once it has momentum, it’s hard to stop. 

Case in point, an entire platoon of sailors comes to a halt in front of me, plasma rifles at the ready. I plow through them and keep going. I’m trying not to hurt them. Change of plans. 

I find a semi-empty hallway and pull down a latch on a wall. A door hinges up and I squirm into an emergency pod. An engineer stops to stare at me. 

“It’s anarchy!” I say, closing the hatch back. I strap into the seat and yank the emergency releases. The capsule tries to fling me against the hatch, but the straps keep me in place. Fire frames the small porthole in the hatch, then the Advantage. There’s massive scarring across the ship’s hull. I catch a few thousand frames with my suit’s camera. 

“Rabbit, you copy?” I say. 

“Roger,” he crackles in my ear and I breathe a little easier. 

“I’m about to hit this capsule’s locator. I need a super-quick catch.” 

“I figured as much. This is beginning to be an expensive trip for you.” 

“Not me,” I say. “Force Fed. But you’ll get paid well, Rabbit. Hell, I’ll probably get a bonus. Maybe even a column.” 

“This is your life?” he says. 

“Is there any other way to live?” I say. I can almost hear him shaking his head over the comms. The capsule shakes and veers sideways away from the ship. I pop a few uppers and sip on my emergency stash of bourbon in the suit and reroute comms through Rabbit’s ship. Offers for articles from other sites are rolling it, but Force Fed’s still outbidding them. For now. They’ll probably take the cost of being sued by the military for hijacking a capsule out of my pay, but it’ll have been worth it. I lean back into the seat and think about the next story. 

back to the 2022 !Short Story Contest
home/ Bonafides

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One Response to “The Advantage is Decadent and Depraved”

  1. Krysta Harrell Says:

    Bobby is a natural! Like painting a beautiful landscape with words! You feel every sentence as if you are there.

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