Volume 32, Number 3

Pirate Hotdogs

Scott Coon

Captain Nathans sat in his paddy wagon shuttle, which sat on a platform surrounded by the void of space and by the haphazardly constructed Mercury Incorporated's Processing Station E12 orbiting Sethlans-2. The forty-kilometer-wide station was a tangled knot shaped like a meatball mushed together by a child. Over the decades, management kept slapping on more housing, more smelters, more cargo bays, more anything. It grew out in all directions, sometimes spiraling back in and around itself, creating a twisting madhouse of modules filled with alleys and void spaces like the void space currently around Nathans' paddy wagon and the police motor pool platform it sat upon.

In the cargo pocket of his spacesuit, his phone buzzed. He pulled it out and slid his faceplate open. There was a one-word message. COLD.

"What's that about?" Applegate asked as he emerged from the back.

"That?" Nathans said of the message on his phone as he put it away. "I'll explain later, farm boy. Why'd you want to come to the 'big city' anyway? Not enough excitement down on the ag' colony?"

Deputy Applegate took his seat beside Nathans in the cockpit and opened his faceplate. This was Applegate's first mission with the department, which was why Nathans chose him as his copilot. Today's operation was going to get complicated, and Nathans needed to keep an eye on the noob.

Applegate shrugged. "It was so quiet, I didn't feel like a real cop." He turned on the dashboard screen and logged in. The green text reflected off his glossy black armor as he scrolled through the recent and active crime data.

Nathans put his phone away. "Well, real-cop, get off the computer. We have a big download coming in. We're riding with the CHIEF."

"You mean the Sheriff?"

"Nope, CHIEF. It stands for Corporate High Intelligence Enforcing Fiats… or something."

Applegate squinted. "Fiats?"

"Or something. It's some kind of artificial intelligence thingamabob."

"I'm confused."

"Then let me unconfused you." Nathans tapped the badge on the chest of his spacesuit. "We're public servants but not really. Out here, Mercury Ore and Refining sets the agenda, and they do it by a points system."

The green text vanished, replaced by a slowly filling progress bar.

"It's a 1 to 100 point system, with a 100 being the highest priority," Nathans continued. "Mercury's local executives set the points, and we chase the crimes with the highest points. Feel like a real cop now?"

"But we're human beings… with judgement."

"Exactly. That's what the CHIEF is for. He's gonna make sure we follow the points and not our brains and stuff. It's why he's riding along. Well, his extension software is riding along. The actual CHIEF is in a server in an undisclosed location somewhere in the station."

The bar finished filling and the crime data returned to the screen.

"I am CHIEF, Corporate High Intelligence Enforcing Fiats," said a monotone voice from every speaker in the cockpit and their helmets. "Please proceed to this location." A map appeared over the windshield.

"We're on it, CHIEF." Nathans saluted the dashboard.

He pulled back on the stick, lifting them off the police motor pool platform. Around their bulky paddy wagon, six small sleek interceptor shuttles also rose into a hover. So did one heavy shuttle with a ten-meter-wide dish on its back and a half-dozen high-capacity air tanks in tow behind it, each as big as their paddy wagon. All were painted black, even the air tanks. They appeared clean and sleek against the scuffed and muted greys of the station ambling around them.

On the dashboard screen, Applegate scrolled through the identifications of the other vehicles. "That's a lot of gear behind us. What are we doing, exactly? I mean, all those interceptors, and that's a forcefield truck, right? And all that air?"

"Your mission target is the Pirate Hotdogs unlicensed food dispensary," said the voice.

"Pirate Hotdogs?" Applegate blinked. "A food truck? Like literally?"

"Yup, a food truck." Nathans tapped both accelerator pedals, easing them forward. The other vehicles fell in behind. "Them Mercury executives have decided the most important thing in the universe is stopping illegal food trucks."

"For the love of reason, why?"

"Who knows." Nathans shoved the stick forward and jammed both accelerators with his feet. He dove the shuttle at full speed through the tangled chaos of modules, scaffolding, and jutting equipment. Applegate clung to his seat, knuckles white. Nathans yawned.

"Maybe one of them execs is a health nut," Nathans mused as he dipped and swerved. "Maybe they're bucking for a promotion." He veered into the path of a small antenna and dish assembly, intentionally ripping it from the wall. "Maybe they're just jerks and don't like people getting joy from their food." As they emerged from the station into open space, the communications debris came with them, tumbling out into the darkness.

"Holy cow crap!" Applegate pressed his face against the side window and watched a meter-wide dish spinning off into nowhere.

"Whatever the reason," Nathans continued uninterrupted, "Mercury has decided that illegal food trucks are the scourge of the universe and we gotta stop them."

"That…?" Applegate panted. "That antenna, the array… you did that…?"

Nathans shrugged. "Repair crews need work." Guided by lines and arrows on his windshield, he followed the CHIEF's course across the craggy face of the space station. "The repairs keep them from getting laid off and stuck out here, unemployed, homeless, stealing food or whatever. Then we gotta arrest them, then there's the paperwork, and it’s a whole thing. So, oops, accidents happen."

Applegate didn't know what to say to that. He kept watching the dish fly into nowhere, feeling like he was an accomplice to something. When he could no longer see it, he turned back to the crime data on the dashboard.

"Food trucks? But what about this other stuff?" He scrolled to the most recent data. "I mean, there are more important things like… there's a shuttle being stolen right now—a police shuttle!"

Nathans glanced at the report. "Well, Mercury says it's only rated 47 out of 100. That's way too low."

"Uh…really?" A new crime popped up. "What about this. Someone's stealing water…and power cells. It's in progress, right now."

"Probably pirates. Not real pirates, dumbasses who live on the stations and dress funny. Eyepatches on good eyes. Ridiculous. But yeah, that's more points but still only rated a 55."

"What about that?" Applegate demanded. He pointed off to the left where, about a kilometer away, Big Dish Six sat upon the lumpy horizon. Its grand bowl, a two-hundred-meter-wide concave patchwork of various greys, was tilted toward them. Across its surface crawled a black and yellow construction vehicle, painting a wide red line behind itself.

"That's a stolen vehicle." Applegate tapped the report on the dash. "And vandalism. We can add vandalism."

"Probably just teenagers. And altogether, only a 68. Still not Pirate Hotdog points."


A police cruiser bolted out of a nearby tunnel through the station and raced across the surface. The cruiser was bigger and slower than the six interceptors in their convoy but much faster than the wagon.

Applegate frantically tapped another report. "That was it. That was that stolen police shuttle. The one that—"

"Still a 47."

"Your mission target is the Pirate Hotdogs unlicensed food dispensary," repeated the CHIEF.

Applegate threw his hands up. "And what number it that!"

Nathans shrugged. "100 out of a 100."

Before Applegate could wrap his head around that information, Nathans dove back into the station's void spaces. He weaved left, right, up, and down while Applegate's head spun. The deeper they got, the more narrow their path. Soon, no antenna, dish or protruding light was safe from their fat wagon. Somewhere behind them, the heavy shuttle with its ten-meter dish had turned back for the surface.

After a half-kilometer of rampant destruction, the paddy wagon emerged into a large clearing that formed a tilted cube over a hundred meters wide. Dim light from the windows of the surrounding modules gave the place a grey glow.

On a landing platform below was a dome forcefield filled with air. Inside it, two men loaded boxes from a cargo-shuttle to a smaller shuttle-truck. Across the top of the shuttle-truck were large red letters that said PIRATE HOTDOGS. As the police armada descended, one of the men jumped in the food truck and took off down one of the many tunnels. The interceptors left the convoy and gave chase. The larger cargo-shuttle remained.

Nathans put the wagon down inside the forcefield. The other man walked to the nose of their shuttle and stood there smiling and waving. He wore no suit, only a t-shirt, shorts and sandals. Nathans unsealed the driver's hatch and got out.

The man walked around to greet him. "Hello, I'm Frank Hoffman. What's the problem, officer?"

"You know the problem." Nathans walked behind the cargo-shuttle and looked inside.

Applegate followed.

The cargo bay walls were lined with stacks of boxes all labeled hotdogs. Down the center of the hold, twenty metal skeletons grew laboratory meat to become future hotdogs. The meat moved the metal bones, plodding upon treadmills to achieve that authentic texture. A soft jangling came from the plastic tubes that fed yellow fluid to the red, skinless walking beef and pork.

Applegate gagged.

"You prefer killing animals?" Hoffman asked.

"No… on my colony, we didn't have ranches so… I mean… I've seen it on holovision, but…"

Hoffman chuckled. "Noob."

Nathans received a message on the wrist of his suit. "Well, the guys say they lost the food truck. Come on, Hoffman, help us hook up your truck to our tow hitch so we can arrest you."

"Sure thing, boss." Hoffman smiled.

Applegate stood back watching, baffled by Hoffman's full cooperation and apparent joy. After locking Hoffman in the back, they headed out. With the cargo-shuttle in tow, Nathans somehow maneuvered his way back to the outer surface, smashing many dish and antennae along the way.

After rejoining the dish shuttle and interceptors, the convoy started back to headquarters with their prisoner and evidence, traveling across the vast landscape of ridges and hills. Applegate said nothing and returned to scrolling through all the active crimes he wasn't allowed to respond to.

The CHIEF repeated its refrain and offered a new map to a new sighting of the Pirate Hotdogs food truck.

"But there's a computer network relay satellite being stolen, like right now," Applegate pleaded, his hopes refusing to be fully dashed.

"Your mission target is the Pirate Hotdogs unlicensed food dispensary," said the CHIEF.

"Yes, Sir, CHIEF." Nathans dove back into the funhouse maze of void spaces.

Applegate kept his eyes on the green text and away from what was happening beyond their windshield. "I guess that satellite is only rated a 74," he griped. "Not a 100. Just like this food riot is only an 81."

Still spinning and swerving, Nathans spared a look at the screen. "Oh, that section? That would be the orphans raiding the kitchens again. They should feed those kids more."

"Orphans? But it says riot?"

"Yeah, that's them kids for ya."

From the dashboard compartment, Nathans extracted a grey cube the size of a fist. "Sorry, missed breakfast." Steering with one hand and shaking the food cube at Applegate with the other, he said, "How they turn corn and whatever into this tasteless brick is beyond me. I mean, does this look like anything that grows on an ag' colony?" He pulled a hard left, sending a storm of crumbs over Applegate, who focused on not puking.

After another jolting series of turns, they flew through a forcefield and into a crowded shuttle bay. The convoy came to a hard stop. Before them, in the middle of a myriad of parked shuttles, surrounded by a line of hundreds of patrons that zigzagged all over the parking lot, was the Pirate Hotdogs food truck.

Hovering just inside the forcefield, the police vehicles spreading wide to block the exit. Nathans' phone buzzed again. He fished it out.

Applegate gawked at him. "You're checking your phone? Now?"

Nathans shrugged and checked his phone. Another one-word message. WARM.

"Does that have something to do with that COLD message from before?"

"Yup." Nathans turned on the external speakers and mumbled to the hundreds of people waiting in line, "Everybody like freeze or whatever."

Applegate gawked at him again. "Or whatever?"

Nathans shrugged.

In the parking lot below, everyone had apparently chosen whatever. All at once, the hotdog felons fled the line, piled into their shuttles and lifted off. A wall of speeding vehicles hurtled toward the paddy wagon. Applegate cringed and screamed. Nathans took another bite of his food cube. The stream of vehicles gushed around them, flowing out into the alleyways of the space station.

"They're getting away!"


"Aren't we going to do anything?"


Clenching his teeth, Applegate reached across the cockpit, grabbed the stick, and pushed them into the path of a random perpetrator. The shuttles bounced off each other before skittering across the metal parking lot and screeching to a stop, about thirty meters apart. Above them, the shuttle bay quickly emptied, leaving only the police convoy and the downed perpetrator behind.

Glaring at Applegate, Nathans said, "Why'd you do that? Now we gotta arrest them."

"Isn't that our job, arresting people?"

"Your mission target is the Pirate Hotdogs unlicensed food dispensary," said the CHIEF.

Nathans huffed. "And I lost my food cube." He got out. "You noobs show no respect these days, I'll tell ya. No respect!" He slammed the hatch.

Applegate decided to ignore that baffling outburst. He put on his professional face and got out. The shuttle they'd knocked down was a private four-seater with two people inside, each barely old enough to drive. They both had bathing suits peeking out from under their summer clothes. They identified themselves as the Sabrett twins.

"What's with ramming us?" the boy demanded, still sitting in the cockpit. "You're lucky this shuttle's rented or I'd be pissed."

Applegate stood over the boy, unable to form words.

"We paid for hotdogs but didn't get them," griped the girl. "You think we'll get them later? We should be first in line, right?"

Nathans pulled the girl out her side of the scuffed-up shuttle. "Does my uniform have a hotdog on it?"

The girl looked him over.

Nathans groaned. "No, it does not have a hot dog on it. Now get in the wagon."

"You're under arrest," Applegate declared.

The girl cocked her head. "Not for real, right?"

Nathans let out an elongated sigh that covered the whole thirty meters back to the paddy wagon, where he shoved the girl in back with Frank Hoffman. Applegate brought the other one.

With Hoffman's truck still in tow, they left the four-seater behind. While Nathans recklessly lead the convoy back toward the surface, Applegate closed his eyes and waited to die. To his surprise, he did not. Instead they escaped the station mostly unscathed, another cloud of debris following them out.

As the armada turned toward headquarters, the stolen police shuttle emerged from the station and zipped past their convoy, again unchallenged. This time it was towing the stolen computer network relay satellite.

"Hey that was the—"


"And it was towing the—"


"And we're not—"

"Your mission target is the Pirate Hotdogs unlicensed food dispensary," said the CHIEF.

Applegate almost said something but stopped. What was the point? He slouched in his armor, his unfocused eyes lingering over the pointless scroll of active crime reports and their disqualifying point ratings. They'd made three arrests and impounded two vehicles in one day, but Applegate never felt less like a cop.

Suddenly, out ahead of them, far from the station, a bright yellow explosion filled the darkness. It quickly contracted into a small ball of red fire before dimming from sight.

Applegate sat up. "What the holy hell?" He checked the crime data. "Someone blew up a tug-drone and hijacked about a megaton of ore!"

"Pirates," Nathans said. "The real kind, the ones that steal from ships. They probably blew up the tug-drone and stole the barges. Yup."

"The computer rates it at a 97." Applegate bounced in his seat, his face beaming. "Should we go after them? A 97!"

"It ain't a 100, is it?"

"But, a 97—"

"Your mission target is the Pirate Hotdogs unlicensed food dispensary," said the CHIEF.

Applegate drew his fist back but resisted punching the computer. Instead, he fell into a deep hunch. Gazing out the side window, he watched the teenagers still defacing Big Dish Six. As he watched the expensive piece of hardware being turned it into a giant smiling clown face, he knew it was still not a 100.

"Please proceed to this location," said the CHIEF. A new map appeared over the windshield, but their destination was moving, quickly and toward them.

As Applegate watched the dot race across the windshield map, the Pirate Hotdogs truck shot out of the station's void spaces and zipped past the nose of their wagon. It came so close that Applegate could see that the letters of the truck's name were made to look like hotdogs.

"Your mission target is the Pirate Hotdogs unlicensed food dispensary," said the CHIEF.

"On it, CHIEF." Nathans accelerated.

The hotdog truck zigzagged across the outer surface of the sphere-like station. The cumbersome paddy wagon stayed close behind. Hoffman's heavy shuttle fishtailed from the wagon's hitch. While the heavy shuttle with its ten-meter dish and its towed train of air tanks stayed behind the wagon, the interceptors broke formation to flank the food truck. But the interceptors weren't intercepting. They were corralling, driving Pirate Hotdogs toward the two-hundred-meter wide Big Dish Six, now painted to be a giant smiling clown face with an eye patch.

The food truck put down on the surface of the tilted dish, next to the stolen construction vehicle. The interceptors spread out, trapping them there. Nathans brought the paddy wagon into a hover with the interceptors. The heavy shuttle landed next to the perpetrators and turned on its ten-meter dish, creating a forcefield that covered the entire bowl of Big Dish Six.

Applegate couldn't believe it. They were actually going to arrest someone on purpose! But then everything stopped. Nobody moved in or demanded the criminals come out. They just stopped. "What're we waiting for?"

"It'll all make sense in a minute." Nathans phone buzzed. He pulled it out to find a two-word message. RED HOT.

Applegate yelled, "What the hell are those messages about? What's been going on all day? And why does that giant clown face have a hotdog for a mouth?"

"It'll all make sense in a minute."

Every speaker in the cockpit and in their helmets came alive with the CHIEF's monotone drone. "Officer needs assistance. Officer needs assistance."

Nathans asked, "What's up, CHIEF?"

"Illegal incursion into secured server facility."

"You mean where you are, CHIEF? Applegate, what's the number on that one?"

"It's rated as a 99 but… the Pirate Hotdogs truck…"

"Officer needs assistance," repeated the CHIEF.

"All right, CHIEF," Nathans said, "tell us where you are if you want our help."

"The CHIEF sever location is classified."

"But someone's breaking into your location," Applegate said. "We need to know where you are so we can help you."

"Your mission target is the Pirate Hotdogs unlicensed food dispensary," said the CHIEF.

Nathans nodded. "Saving him is only rated a 99, not a 100."

"Officer needs assistance," repeated the CHIEF. "Illegal incursion into secured server facility. The CHIEF sever location is classified. Your mission target is the Pirate Hotdogs unlicensed food dispensary."

Applegate looked to Nathans. Then he looked to the big truck still projecting the forcefield over Big Dish Six. It was emptying its air tanks, the jetting grey mist visible at a distance. He looked back to Nathans, his eyes begging for answers.

Nathans promised, "It'll all make sense in a minute."


"Wait for it."

"Officer needs assistance. Your mission target is the Pirate Hotdogs unlicensed food dispensary. Officer needs mission Hotdog. Your assistance is the unlicensed food target. Officer is Pirate dispensary. Hotdog needs assistance. Pirate. P-p-p-pirate. P-p-p-p-p—PRRRRRRR—"

The green text on the screen in front of Applegate flickered and died.

"Oh no," Captain Nathans said in a flat indifferent tone, "the computer system is down."

"Someone killed the CHIEF?"

"Looks that way." Nathans grinned. "Let's say we let these people out of the wagon and go get some hotdogs."


Nathans put the paddy wagon down on the dish next to the Pirate Hotdogs truck and the stolen construction vehicle full of teens. Without checking the air pressure or closing his faceplate, he opened the hatch and hopped out. Applegate got out and watched slack jawed as Nathans freed Hoffman and the Sabrett twins. Before Applegate could object to that, a huge door-ramp opened in the face of Big Dish Six. From it came a shuttle-truck towing a train of water tanks, empty tubs, fully charged power cells and equipment trailers.

"Who are they?"

"They'd be the pirates," Nathans explained, "not the real pirates, just the ones that stole power cells and water and stuff." The pirates parked and started unpacking. They wore long coats, fake swords and eyepatches over healthy eyes. They waved to Nathans. He waved back.

"And here come those orphans from that food riot," Nathans said as a column of kids came up the ramp.

Each kid carried a box brimming with buns, relish, mustard and other condiments. They piled their boxes by the Pirate Hotdogs truck. Then they headed for the large cargo-shuttle still attached to the paddy wagon to unload its hotdogs. Meanwhile, the fake pirates in their bandanas, puffy shirts and eyepatches setup lights, speakers and a line of hot tubs. In short order, the lights came on and the speakers blared music. As soon as the first of the tubs were bubbling and steaming, the Sabrett twins stripped down to their bathing suits and jumped in.

"What the hell is happening?" Applegate begged.

Before Nathans could give him an answer, the stolen police shuttle raced up the door-ramp and landed next to them. It was no longer towing the satellite. From its cockpit came a slim young lady with long brown hair.

She smiled as she approached "Hey, I told you I'd find the CHIEF. All I had to do was hijack that satellite, like I said. That plus you keeping the AI transmitting all day totally helped me zero in on it. Can you believe the server was in a janitor's closet in a lady's room in this dish?"

Applegate gasped. "You killed the CHIEF?"

Nathans put his arm over Applegate's shoulder. "She was sending me them text messages, letting me know how close she was."

"Ms. Kunzler, professional hacker, at your service." She offered her hand.

The befuddled Applegate shook it. Then a man approached. He wore a black apron with a red skull and crossed bones on it. Nathans shook the man's hand and said to Applegate, "I'd like to introduce you to the proprietor of Pirate Hotdogs, Oscar Mayerson."

As Applegate shook another hand that he should've been cuffing, a mass of shuttles descended upon the dish. It appeared to be the same mass of shuttles that had gotten away from them in that parking lot. The vehicles landed all around them, the passengers piling out and rushing to get in line for hotdogs.

Someone handed Applegate a hotdog and a soda. It wasn't until that moment that the Deputy took in the entirety of the situation. A large well-organized party had sprung up around him. Looking at the hotdog in his hand, garnished with mustard and relish, he muttered, "All this stuff, this whole day, it was all a setup."


"But we're breaking the law."


"But the law…"

"It's a dumb law from dumb people," Nathans said as someone put a hotdog in his hand. "I say, to hell with those people. We have a right to eat what we want, and our employers shouldn't have a say in it. They employ us, not own us. I mean what's next, the CEO claiming right of prima nocta?"

Applegate stared at his hotdog, not eating it, his face drooping. Nothing made sense.

Nathans nudged him. "I know, you wanted to be a real cop and all but…hey, how about after we have a couple hotdogs, we go after the real pirates. They won't get far towing all that ore. And I mean it, we'll actually catch them and everything. I promise."

"Really?" Applegate asked mournfully.

"Really," Nathans promised. "After the hotdogs."