Caught in the Act
The robotic harvesters ignored Gil Terry as he stole the tons of glowing green mushrooms they had spent the past month plucking out of the permafrost. These mushrooms, after being processed and formed into pills, let users eat all they wanted without gaining weight. In raw form, the mushrooms sold for more per ounce than gold.
The robots dug, they sorted, they boxed, they stacked, they dug some more. They didn't care what happened to their harvest after that. Stealing from robots was easy pickings, the kind of pickings Gil liked best.
Gil couldn't stop shivering. He was as cold as he'd ever been. He could barely feel his feet, his nose was in the early stages of frostbite, his remaining hand was turning blue, his telescoping beetle eye wouldn't extend outwards, and only four of the joints in his cricket arm still bent. To protect himself from the sub-zero cold here on Verlinap's Northern Pole, Gil wore the best thermo suit he could afford, an ancient and outdated model designed for a large insectoid. To make it fit, Gil tied off the three middle legs and sewed up the thoracic sack. He wore it upside down, putting his head through the waste hole at the bottom of the carapace bump. The result wasn't pretty, but it worked. Usually. For the past half hour, Gil's only warmth had come from the flaming sparks his overworked suit produced in a hopeless effort to energize itself.
Gil and his personal service robot, a no-frills fetch-and-carry model Gil called Can Head, loaded the final crate of stolen mushrooms aboard Gil's ship. Selling these mushrooms would give Gil the money he needed to turn himself back into a complete human being.
Awhile ago, Gil unwisely placed a large sports bet. The game's final score brought new meaning to the term loser. When Gil couldn't cover his wager, his hardnosed, cold-hearted bookie surgically removed Gil's right arm and one of Gil's eyes. It was collateral, said the bookie. He promised to cryo-store Gil's parts for three years. If Gil paid off, with interest, he could have them back. If not, grafted-on human parts had become a status symbol for hard-shelled aliens. Even aging, flabby, alcohol-sodden parts like Gil's sold easily on the flesh market.
The bookie outfitted Gil with low-end substitutes, nothing fancy, nothing even species-specific. The bookie replaced Gil's arm with a Saurian cricket leg. Gil's telescoping eye came from a Venusian dung beetle.
A few weeks from now, Gil's bookie would close out the debt. Gil's parts would be lost to him forever.
The proceeds from this load of mushrooms when added to the funds he'd already socked away from other shady escapades would give Gil enough to pay off his bookie and get back his parts. After a few hours of simple surgery, he could start functioning as a normal human being again.
Then it was hoo boy, watch out universe. The old Gil's back!
Gil's rickety four burner, the Big Devil, groaned to life. Several times a year, ships like this one plodded across the galaxy collecting convicts for transport to Purgatory, the remote planet used as a prison for convicted criminal lifers. These ships were slow, cheaply made, flimsy vessels. They were officially designated as Minimal Function Single Trip Prisoner Conveyance Ships. The crews who flew them, and the prisoners they carried, called them more simply One Way Tickets. Like the convicts they ferried, One-Ways were destined to remain on Purgatory forever after. By law One Ways had to be taken apart after they finished their flights. This prevented convicts from commandeering them and using them for escape. Because of the ships' shoddy construction, disassembly was a quick and simple process. Remove a few bolts, disengage a couple of magnetic fields, and a One-Way fell to pieces. Their crews flew home in single-burner Swifters.
In the outer regions of civilization, laws carried as much weight as anything in outer space. Zero. In reality, One Ways rarely got disassembled. Intact, flyable One-Ways appeared all the time on the black market, illegally resold to smugglers, pirates, and freebooters like Gil. They were risky transportation. Since they were never meant for long-term operation, they were built using marginal components and primitive technology. They broke down regularly. Failures ranged from the annoying and disabling to the catastrophic, a spontaneous disintegration or worse, a thousand megaton explosion of the ship's leaky propulsion drive.
One-Ways had another peril. To visually identify One-Ways as prison ships, they were made of unpaintable day-glow red metal. Star Patrol vessels were authorized to destroy illicit One-Ways on sight.
Gil took his place in the command pod.
"I have a comment," stated Tin Can.
Here it came. Gil knew from experience. Tin Can was about to spout another of its irritating 'shame on you's'. Tin Can had belonged to a straitlaced traveling missionary. Gil had won the robot in a poker game. If Gil had known that Tin Can would harp on and on about the shady nature of his work ethic, he wouldn't have pulled that extra ace out of his sleeve. Gil wanted to rid Tin Can of its annoying goody-goodyness. Unfortunately, the robot was an old model and came to Gil without an instruction manual. Gil had put the Big Devil's diagnostic system to work tracing Tin Can's ancient circuitry, but the ship didn't have nearly enough computing power to do that and run the ship too. Gil would get it done eventually, but until then….
"Interplanetary Statute 462, paragraph 93, subparagraph 4 makes what you did illegal. As to the ethics…."
"Cut the crap, and let's get out of here."
"…the New Book says…."
"…and I quote…." Tin Can reached for the thruster control. It never got to finish its sermon.
A high density ion beam swept the Big Devil. Tin Can's grappler melted off. Its dorsal energy pump withered away in a smoky, searing flash of red, orange, and green. The useless, destroyed robot toppled backwards and fell to the floor.
Moments before he blacked out, Gil felt a sharp, searing pain which he knew signaled the end of life as he knew it.