The Balloon Trick: An Absolute Zeroes Story

He recognized the pistol as an A-series Kendler 73. It was modified with what looked like an extended magazine and a shortened trigger pull. The color was customized into a shimmering green that kissed gray in the right places. It was a solid gun. It was a gun that the owner should be proud of. He just wished the barrel wasn’t pointed at his face.

“Where are the relics, Rumble?”

“You’re going to have to be more specific. Are these actual antiquities are are you referencing the pair of older women Tix and I were drinking with earlier?”

The man with the gun scowled and tightened his grip. “You know what I mean, you damned -”

“Hey, now. No need for that. It’s right…” He pointed directly over the man’s shoulder, past the handful of men with him. “There.”

“How dim do you think I am?”

Rumble smirked at the same time with several animals began screeching. The native name for them was ganthrum but Tix just called them Palgannan tiger-lizards (not to be confused with the tiger-lizards on Inner Springer which were smaller, less temperamental, a different color and really only tangentially similar beyond loping like tigers and being reptilian). They had come upon a full pack in the “nonexistant” back room of a local exotic pet vendor and purchased the lot of them.

They had been expensive, but the amount he and his partner would make hocking the ancient merchandise would triple it. Maybe even more. Plus nothing beat the looks on the faces of the men trying to keep him from his payday as ganthrums, notoriously prone to violent actions when lumped together in tight confines, thrashed their way around the landing pad.

Each of the tiger-lizards had a dozen balloons tied tightly around their tails. They waved around wildly, a whimsical counterpoint to the gnashing of teeth and slashing of claws. With soft slaps, they bounced off of the fuel pumps scattered about.

This was good. This was key.

David Rumble knocked aside the gun in his face and headbutted the confused man holding it in the side of the chin. With his right arm, he spun the man wrapped him up, back tight against his chest. With his left hand, he pulled his own pistol and pressed it against his hostage’s temple. The other men were now torn between defending themselves from the animals and rescuing their leader. They trained their guns on the smuggler.

“Ah ah ah!” Rumble said, loud enough to be heard over the ganthrum snarls. “Those balloons are full of etherium! You know how combustible that stuff is. You light me up, the whole pad will blow.”

“Rush him, then! He can’t risk shooting me, either!”

“Ball bearings with a water pressure projection system. Enough to scramble your brains without any of the burn.”

The man in his arms cursed and his people watched warily as Rumble backed up to the loading ramp of Shadowlark, the ship he bought and that Tix Trobly couldn’t stop working on.

“I’m up!” Rumble shouted back into the belly of the ship.

The engine began thrumming and he could hear the thrusters prepping to ignite. The ramp began lifting up and Rumble snickered as he saw the men on the dock scrambling to get as far away from the ship as possible.

“Wait! The etherium! If you let him take off-”

“There was never etherium in those balloons. The fuel tanks have fire shielding, besides. Good God, man, how the hell did you pull a crew?”

He pushed the man off the ramp. It was high enough that the landing hurt but not so high as to cause permanent damage. Tix would have pantsed him beforehand, but there was no need to add insult to injury.

The relics were secure in the cargo hold. He was uninjured. It had all gone smoothly. Rumble holstered his weapon and made it to the cockpit. Tix was lounging in the pilot’s seat with one hand on the lift controls.

“You know, there’s one thing I don’t get.”

“What’s that?” Rumble asked.

“We knew where they were going to be waiting for us. There were a half a dozen ways we could have got everything back to the ship and taken off without a confrontation. Why the tiger-lizards? Why the balloon fake-out?”

“For the story, my friend. Rumble and Tix wouldn’t be worth half a damn if we couldn’t get the job done without some flair.”

He settled down in the co-pilot’s seat and pulled a bandana from his back pocket. With practiced motions, he tied it around his head, obscuring his eyes.

“You’re just going to take a nap?”

“You’ve got it, Tix. I trust you. Now shush. Chicanery always tuckers me out.”