Balloon Harvest By Nick Anderson If he wasn’t such an idiot, he would have seen the warning light flashing on his display. He wouldn’t have been blaring god awful pop music, singing along off-key, and he would have heard his weather console’s verbal warning that he was, in fact, flying directly into a storm. But he kept true to his character: a complete moron. He was balloon harvesting. It was the last one before his inventory was full and he would be cleared to return home. He saw it on his radar, and blindly flew directly into a cyclone. Unprepared for the gales or the change in air pressure, he lost control and plummeted. If he were a better pilot, he would have been able to flatten out quickly, but he was as lousy at piloting as he was at singing. Acceleration still at full throttle, he dropped another two hundred miles, but finally flattened out. And right in front of the loser harvester, who had done nothing to deserve it in his life, was an oyster. * * * I knew something was churning through his giant, vacuous head the moment he hunched over the bar. We were in a tavern on a royal sailboat. This particular sailboat was just short of a mile in length. It could carry five hundred crewmembers, a thousand royal knights, and a few hundred merchants, peddlers, and various other servicemen. It floated along the surface of the rust-colored clouds. Sails extended down into the clouds, hanging from horizontal masts. Top-sailing like this was relatively safe compared to sub-sailing, but the vessel had a row of engines that circled around it in case it dropped beneath the clouds. If it actually dropped, however, it would undoubtedly sink. He was a short and bald black man, wearing a scratchy hemp tunic uniform that was dyed navy blue to announce his insignificance to all of Jupiter. He was grossly overweight, well over two hundred pounds, barely fitting his uniform. The only thing about him that ever impressed me was that gravity had failed to crush him under his own weight. The idiot stared forward, left leg shaking, hyperventilating on the stale ship air. Sweat beaded at his temples. Oh yeah, he was ruminating on something all right. I had been in the bar all evening, waiting for a sucker like him. But before I could start a conversation, two royal guards surrounded him. They told him he had docked in an inappropriate bay and had failed to check in with his supervisor. They said that he should come with them. He tried to protest, mentioned something about a fall, but he couldn’t lie on his feet. That’s where I came in. “Hey! Came as soon I could. Are you all right?” I thanked the guards for checking in on him. “And who are you?” said the skinnier one. His partner, a bulkier man, remained silent. “I’m Rajiv. Uh, his sister’s fiancé.” Never use a real name. “She was at work, see, but I have the day off. He messaged her something about a fall, so she asked me to find him.” I loved going the roundabout way. Say all the main points to your story, but jumble them around a bit to make them think. While they piece together your story, they lose track of the story you are covering up. “So, wait. He messaged his sister?” I smiled. Hooked. Now I looked like the suspicious one. But the thing is, I could talk my way out of it. Always do. Once they were satisfied with my story, they forgot all about his. The bulky guard gave us each a look-over, but left with his partner. “Thank you so much,” said the idiot. “Hey, I’m on your side. You looked like you could use some help. Anyway, what are you hiding?” He stared at me blankly. “What do you mean?” I could tell as soon as he started lying to the guards. “You have something. Some smuggled goods – perhaps you stole them yourself? Look. I can help you.” “I don’t have anything. Just wanted a beer.” “See? That’s one excellent reason you need me. You can’t lie.” I grasped his puffy arm and stared into his dull brown eyes. I’m pretty good at looking serious when I have to. “You can trust me.” To be honest, I thought it was over right there. It was the feeblest attempt at persuasion I had made in years. But he believed me! The idiot told me everything, all about the oyster and how he got it. When he was done, I sat there, shaking from excitement. An oyster. Mine. I opened my mouth, but stopped myself. I had to say the right thing, or it was definitely over now. Luckily, I didn’t have to. “Hand it over,” said a woman behind us. The bulky guard from before, but she was apparently female. With her helmet on, her square body and huge jaw made her look like a man. Gross. I put on a charmingly bemused smile. “What?” “The stolen goods. Now.” Clever, clever woman; I didn’t like clever women. This time, I didn’t bother lying to her. I told her the truth, which sometimes can get people to do exactly what you want them to better than any lie. Then you wait for their response. “Take me to your boat,” she said to the idiot. Without question, he stood up and led her out of the bar. I followed. I made up some lie about my boat being nearby. Like I would dock mine on a royal sailboat with guards like her running around. “You stay right there, Rajiv,” she said. Something wasn’t right. The other guard was nowhere to be seen, and her broad frame was much stiffer than it had been earlier. I took a step forward. A dare. “You know what I hate about you pirates the most? You never give up. Walk away.” I smiled. I had her figured out. I sauntered my way over, and she didn’t do a damn thing. She ignored me and told the dolt to keep going. We put on oxygen masks and took an elevator to the top deck, which was compartmentalized into dozens of docking bays. His boat was unimpressive, a standard harvesting vessel: one-man, a large cargo for balloons, and unable to leave the atmosphere. It could handle the winds fine, but a good storm would knock it out of commission. See, if the king gave his harvesters weather systems good enough to actually keep them all alive, he wouldn’t be able to make a profit. The dolt lowered his ramp, and I moved to walk in. The guard pulled her gun on me. I stopped. With her eyes covered by her helmet, I couldn’t read them. But I guessed she realized that I had figured her out. She was going rogue. “I-I want him to c-come in,” the dolt stammered. “It’s my b-boat.” What an idiot. I had totally forgotten I had told him he could trust me. The woman holstered her gun and we walked in together. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. He had left it on the floor as if he had dropped it the moment he had thirsted for beer, but its thick skin was undamaged. Normal balloons were wrinkly and puce in color, but oysters were smoother than a woman’s backside, and more colorful than a Jovian sunset. They were smaller and had less of the precious compound gas, but the biggest difference between a balloon and an oyster were the pearls. They were small, lighter-than-air crystals, like a frozen bubble. They were pretty, but no one on Jupiter had the riches or the stupidity to buy one. Unlike the gas that was used as fuel, the pearls served absolutely no purpose. Earthlings, however, adored them. They would pay anything to get their hands on one. I heard that fathers bought them for their daughters’ sixteenth birthdays, to set them in a tiara and make them feel like little princesses. When they were in limited supply, finding an oyster was like winning the lottery. But for the past twenty years, there have been no oysters found on Jupiter. Until this idiot nearly crashed into one. I decided to be a good friend and take care of the guard, his number one enemy. Second after me, obviously, but he didn’t know that. The oyster had hypnotized her. Probably filling her with the happiness that her ugliness had continually denied her at the end of blind dates. I knocked her over the head, buckling her legs. She reached for her gun, but three hits to her huge jaw – an easy target – knocked her out. Cam and I exchanged pleasantries (I used another fake name, of course), and I told him to lift off immediately. No one on Jupiter was going to buy any pearls, and although there might be some buyers on the moons, it was risky that close to the king. By royal decree, all balloons belonged to the king, and he wouldn’t be too happy if he caught us with an oyster. We had to take them to the only buyers superficial enough to not care how we procured them; we had to take them to Earth. This boat was incapable of leaving the atmosphere, but mine was designed for interplanetary travel. I gave Cam the coordinates for our next location and went to check on the woman. I didn’t want to leave her in the station. I did it for the same reason she didn’t shoot me on the ramp: it would draw attention and Cam’s boat wouldn’t leave the docking bay. I removed her uniform and gun before tying her up. I didn’t try anything too serious, mostly because she repulsed me. Arms and legs covered in hair. With her jaw, she looked like a gorilla, and I wasn’t into gorillas. I put on her uniform, and it fit me quite well. Where we were going, I wanted to remain anonymous. The uniform and helmet would throw them off my trail. The dolt asked why I was wearing it, and I said that I was his “bodyguard,” that I was there to “keep him safe.” He believed me, and I almost lost it at the irony. I sat toward the back, chewed on some synthetic food cubes, and stared at the oyster. I couldn’t believe my luck – to own something so valuable. I started thinking about all the things I could buy, but deep down, there was only one thing that I wanted. An escape. This oyster was my ticket out…. I came out of my blissful daze when I hit the ceiling. Cam, true to himself, had been too busy following the coordinates and flew directly into a cyclone. It knocked me around quite a bit before I was able to seize the controls and level out. I told him to take the controls, and watch his weather console this time. I stood up, and got knocked to the ground. The woman tackled me, throwing punches and kicks. She was dressed only in her underclothes – a baggy bra and an unflattering pair of underwear. Because she was so muscular, I admit that it took me a while to overpower her, but I managed to pin her. But when I felt the hard metal press into my chest, I realized she was only after her gun. “Get off me, perv,” she said. That was pretty insulting. I reluctantly gave her back the uniform, and confessed where we were headed and why. A girl with a gun usually gets her way. “You’re an idiot.” I realized she wasn’t talking to Cam. “Me?” “You think you can waltz into the Pirate’s Den with an oyster in tow and expect to make it out alive?” “I’ll dock in the same bay. It’ll be easy.” “Too risky. There has to be another way.” But there wasn’t. The longer we stayed on Jupiter with an oyster, the more stops we made while looking for another interplanetary boat, the less likely we could keep it hidden. We needed to get off the planet fast, and every other plan we came up with took too much time. But the real reason we had to go to the Pirate’s Den was that I needed my boat. With all the loot I’d plundered over the years, I invested almost all of it in her. I had purchased a top-notch royal navigation system, paid off some programmers to improve it, and even made some tweaks myself. It could fly in and out of storms almost by itself. I also made sure it could handle whatever interplanetary travel could throw at me. The perfect vessel. The woman gasped. “Oh god! It’s still on! I would have disabled it right away, if I hadn’t been knocked out!” “What are you talking about?” I asked. “The homing beacon on Cam.” See, all harvesters have a homing beacon hidden somewhere under their skin. The king used it to tell where all of his harvesters were at all times. If they had sunk their ships into the metallic core or if they had tried to make an escape with an oyster, he would be instantly notified. “So the royal fleet is after us?” She nodded. I punched Cam in his chubby face. The idiot! I cursed myself for not taking care of them both sooner. I thought I was playing it safe, but I was really taking more risks. Then I had a brilliant idea. I yanked out the homing beacon (ignoring Cam’s whimpering pleas), and scrambled the code in a way only I could trace. Then I attached it to the oyster. “We get close to the Den and release it. Given the weather and the speed of my boat, we’ll have thirty minutes. We’ll catch up to the oyster and harpoon it. Then we’re off to Earth.” Before we got to the Pirate’s Den, I set it off. Cam and the woman were nervous, but who cares what they think? It’s not like it’s their oyster, anyway. The Pirate’s Den came into view. We were shallow enough in the atmosphere that the clouds glowed, illuminating the ship, but so deep that only the closest portion could be seen. It was once the flagship of the royal fleet, before it was stolen by Captain Holt in one of the greatest heists of history. It was armed with hundreds of missile launchers, harpoon launchers, and laser cannons, all of which were hidden beneath the smooth, aerodynamic surface of the ship. It was designed for sub-sailing, a much more turbulent way to sail than top-sailing because of the unpredictable and powerful wind currents found deep in the atmosphere. To sub-sail, it was designed with dozens of triangular sails all around it, each one made up of foot-long squares that could fold and unfold on command. They would do this uniformly within one sail, giving the impression that the sails were instantly disappearing and reappearing, catching gusts of wind when the time was right to propel it in the correct direction. The material was thick enough to repel the sharp debris that the winds often carried. These sails helped the vessel sub-sail without sinking to the deep atmosphere. No one knows what exactly happens down there, but no has ever heard from a sunken ship. We were cleared to dock. On a sub-sailing vessel, the docking bays were internal. I had hoped that it would be the same dock as my boat, but by the looks of it we were going to have to cross nearly the entire vessel to get to it. To get anywhere in the Pirate’s Den, one had to walk through a large, crowded corridor fifty feet wide and nearly a mile long. Venders and their stands lined along the walls, selling supposed freshwater from Earth or some other sham. I had to push aside some of the more aggressive salesmen and beggars because we didn’t have the time. The ship was five times over capacity, mostly refugees but also mercenaries and pirates. There were some royal officials that wore their uniforms proudly, as they were pirate spies within royal ranks. The woman guard must have been glad to wear her uniform, because it came with some respect. Without it, though, men would see her as a whore. There were plenty of pirate women, but they all stayed clear of the Pirate’s Den, where men were savages and viewed any woman as their potential purchase. Even in her royal uniform, she was getting unwanted eyes. Not halfway across the vessel, I got a summons from the captain. Damn. The exact thing I was trying to avoid. To skip out on the captain’s summon was an unforgivable offense. On top of that, he would know I was up to something. The captain’s quarters were large, with many men smoking cigars and conversing over tables. Because it used to be the quarters of a royal captain, the room had its own food synthesizer, and a small line of men waiting for meals. On either side of a throne were half a dozen beautiful women in lingerie. They eyed the guard, as if she were a threat. Smoke filled the room from the cigars and the fire pit in the center. On the throne sat Captain Holt. He was an older man and had seen plenty of action in his prime. He wore a black leather trench coat. Leather was a rare commodity on Jupiter; only the merchants on Titus or the dukes and duchesses on Europa could afford it. Imported directly from Earth were the embossed gems and woven gold in the leather design, and the thick leopard pelt that wrapped over his shoulders. It was a robe befitting the king himself, if not so sinister. His black beard curled over his chest. He kept a curved blade over his shoulder and two pistols at his hips. He wore Earth jewelry on his fingers, wrists, and neck. He prized most, however, the Jovian pearl he used as a glass eye. It glowed in the dim firelight. It’s a hilarious story how he got it – swiped it off the Queen’s crown while she was giving some planetary address. Captain Holt was the richest man beyond Mars – aside from the king himself. His crew had sucked Jupiter dry of most of its wealth. A true noble man, he was the antithesis of the king. Millions openly called him their hero, and millions more who were quieted by royal suppression. He had grown weary in his age, however, and had most of his crew carry out his missions for him. Those missions, too, were scarce and had lost their passion. Once a hero, he was now a shadow of his former self, someone who had given up his cause. A failure. “Welcome back to my boat,” he said to me. “Your boat?” I scoffed. “Without me, you wouldn’t have it at all.” “I haven’t forgotten,” he said indignantly. “I thought your memory might be failing you these days.” He ignored my comment. “What brings you back to the Den?” “Cam here’s a harvester. He’s found an oyster.” This time, I tried a trickier tactic. Tell the truth, but sell it like a lie. If they buy it, they’ll think you’re up to something, but suspect anything but the truth. I hoped Holt would suspect it was nothing more than a petty con. “Have you now? Interesting. And who is this lovely woman?” He licked his lips. “I’ll take her off your hands, for a good price.” “She’s a new recruit, not a whore.” It came out harsher than I had intended. He rubbed a ring with his fingers and raised an eyebrow. He analyzed me with his one working eye. I tensed up, purposefully. “Why are you really here.” I held back a laugh. Hooked. “Why don’t you just let me to my boat, and everything will be okay.” We walked out of the captain’s hall, and continued to my boat. The woman guard looked at me funny. “Thanks back there.” I hated the way she was looking at me. It annoyed me. “For standing up for me.” I scoffed. I told them I had to take care of something. I started a conversation with two men in hemp tunics that were ogling the woman. I laughed; I couldn’t believe they were paying me. I caught up with the others, right when the two men jumped the woman and started dragging her off. Cam started to barrel after them. It was the perfect opportunity; both of them were busy. I made it to my boat and fired it up. Then that bitch, in a rage, snuck up from behind me and tackled me to the ground. It was less fun this time, now that she was in uniform. She kneed me in the groin. “Would you stop getting rid of me already?” I laughed. It was hilarious! I couldn’t get rid of her; it was a game I couldn’t win. Her stubbornness actually impressed me. Cam appeared and stared at me with an open mouth. “Y-you did that? You t-told those men to t-take her?” “Like they would have done anything between her gorilla legs.” They both started yelling at me, and I told them all to shut up, that I had the oyster on the radar. They got quiet, of course. They weren’t too sure about me, but they still thought they were getting a share.