Episode 2.11 Countdown

Inspirational art: space travel

When she got back to the bridge Crimson’s rattling Mindframe dropped all its calculations, and spit out one equation: “Aw, crap.”

Andross was still sitting in the cockpit, rummaging around the nav-displays with Clidjitt; Andross—full of Flyer Crystal residue.

“Hey, Mama Robot,” Andross twisted his chair around with the grace of an arthritic frog, “I was just explaining to the insect that the M in  is not that of the Rival but the imaginary mass of the Mag-lock. We are recalculating to compensate for the difference not from us to a planetary body, but the imagined force of a body that can draw an object through a solar system at the speed of light. It’s kind of like the kid brother of a black hole…!”

“You’re going on the Boatman.” Crimson grunted.

Andross’ swollen hands rose in impudence. “Heeey, there ya go! I knew you’d come ‘round.”

“Yeah,” grunted Crimson, “I need all the Flyer Crystal evidence off my ship. That includes you. You’re still not flying the mission.”

“Oh, come ooon! I could do this with my eyes closed.” He gestured his exasperation, but Crimson could detect the clumsy, slowness to his movement.

I could have you shoved in a hermetically sealed container pod with sensor dampers until the cops are gone. Don’t make me delta-v my mind.”

Andross wiggled like a bobble-head. “That’s not technically correct. You would have had to say: don’t make my mind reach delta-v…”

“Andross.”

Ballistic and orbital mechanics rolled the MiPie’s eyes in a slingshot effect. “Okaaay.”

*

If she ever got to see Vaken Rae again, she would personally crush all his knuckles in her robotic hand. Shaak-Rom was in a back workstation, frantically falsifying the crew list, hiding Andross and Clidjitt’s payroll records. The crystals were loaded onto the Boatman, but it all hinged on Gator getting the Doon-tau jammer up and running. Currently he was having problems; P’Xak was helping him. Besides that, Keffler and Braevel reported having difficulty with their little science experiment. Time was running out.

Crimson sat in the cockpit alone, her Mindframe clicking over loudly, counting the milliseconds as their window for the launching the Boatman approached. She straddled the flight desk, poised for action, staring into the tie-dye funnel of spectral color changes.

Her right middle finger was on the intercom. Only the first knuckle flexed to press the call button. “Gator: status.”

“I’m working, Crims,”came the rumbling reply, impatient and deep in his scaly throat.

“Five minutes to decompression,” she growled, equally flat.

“Tell Andross he may have to ride an air explosion…!”

Depressurizing a full shuttle bay of air was illegal in some systems, due to the short supply of purified oxygen. Not only that, it was dangerous; sudden depressurization could break a million little things as the weight of 100,000 pounds of air burst into the vacuum of space. It was impractical, wasteful, and irresponsible. Then igniting a shuttle’s fuel thrusters right into the cloud of O2? Chernobyl.

But worse still…

“Andross isn’t flying,” Crimson shook her head, hissing her ‘s’s more than she realized. The flamboyant pilot was good, but the fact that he was on board a vessel didn’t automatically make him the pilot. Andross had wooed everyone to believe it was so, including himself.

But the Megladyte lacked interest, “Okay…”

“Are you done in time?” she demanded.

“I completely dismantled it, Crims! We didn’t want it hangin’ around. And there ain’t no instructions to rebuild it!”

“What do you need?”

“At least another hour!”

The math was simple. “You have half that. You’re on the Boatman for this one. Depressurization in 3 minutes. See you in a couple of days.”

“Peaches.”

 

*

 

Being a chunk of flesh sitting on a mechanical frame had its advantages at times. When the Shuttle Bay was empty the countdown was complete. Gator radioed his success only 96 seconds earlier. She left it to them, and allowed her Mindframe’s components to guide her hands, bringing the Rival Bay to the exact angle necessary for ejection. The bay doors opened. Clidjitt was good. She hoped he was up for the challenge. She struck the intercom.

“Stand by, Boatman. Initiate launch.”

“Launch!” came the insectoid’s shrill reply.

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Episode 2.10 Death House

Inspirational art: space travel

Andross projected less than four hours until the Boatman had to be loaded, manned, and tossed out of the Rival’s shuttle bay like a porcupine shedding quills. Crimson clumped down the catwalks and corridors towards the Green House. It was one thing to lose the incriminating evidence from the ship so they couldn’t be arrested. It was another to explain why they had set off the drug sensors without getting further detained on suspicion.

Fire burned in her veins and tingled at the electrical interfaces along her arm and hip implants. Curse Vaken Rae, and Rullorrg, and the Pincho System police. She wanted to see Rae fry, but every step of the way it was the Rival in the pan.

The ship passed around her like a black shadow, but suddenly her ocular receptors registered the open light of the stars pouring through the mouth of the Green House entrance. The artificial gravity wavered as she clanked down the deck, and suddenly she was standing on the long catwalk of an open sky-pane.

The six rotating faces of the Arboretum ballooned away, like a massive terrarium. Three of the faces were open to the stars, including the one on which Crimson stood. The other three were farmed and gardened, and irrigated to create a surprisingly living space in the midst of the austere steel-and-synth jungle gym of the generation seed ship. The rotating cylinder, generating its own sense of gravity, was like a massive bubble of Eden.

She paused, looking out over the deadliness of open space, confused by the near light speed velocity of the Rival. The long slashes of light from distance stars and galaxies were complicated by the Doppler effect, twinging the slashes of light with alternating red, blue, or white colors. In Mag-flight Crimson always felt the Green House was dimmer than its usual brilliant glare, and became a bit like an evening  garden party disco. Standing on the cat walk overlooking the kaleidoscope of rushing colors sent her Mindframe back to the ancient Earth Norse god, Heimdall, who forever watched over the trembling Bifrost bridge of water, sky, and fire.

But she couldn’t stand long. The rotating half-mile Green House mandated that she turn left and walk, lest she be swept up the wall and find herself waiting for the others on the ceiling. She and Keffler had determined early on, with volcanic tactility, that if they must meet at the Green House, they should meet on the “down” side, where the Rival’s deck met the moving cylinder. Up was subjective in space, and tempers shorter; so they had pre-set the meeting place. She could see the spec of Keffler, driving along the approaching garden-pane as it slid down the wall. As soon as Braevel met them they could let the garden carry them away.

Fortunately, Braevel was not far behind. “Hello,” he chirruped. Crimson made no reply and the fish-man fell into step beside her, bubbling to himself as he crossed the erratic gravity threshold. His water-suit boots clumped dully on the catwalk. For a moment they fell into a ¾ rhythm as Crimson’s one metal foot resounded as a downbeat between Braevel’s hard plas-synth foot fall. She was sure the weak gravity at the lip of the Green House was doing interesting thing inside the self-contained environment of Braevel’s suit, but for herself she enjoyed the easier weight, which allowed her to keep a flat rhythmic time with the sea-dweller.

They arrived at the Garden Pane, and if the smell of green things hadn’t reached them yet, it did now. They turned down the graded slope and even Crimson’s hard footstep was lost in the spongy turf and netted latex walkways. Keffler rode up towards them on his mobility chair and coasted to a halt a few feet away. “What’s the problem now?” he barked.

Crimson stared at the gardener. His old-style plaid shirt was faded and wrinkled, tucked roughly into his brown work trousers. A wide brimmed, floppy hat shielded his face from the ever-constant star light, but didn’t hide the speckled dark tan on his wiry arms and thin face. A scraggly, rusty steel-wool beard poked out of his hard jaw. His mobility chair was a customized piece of gardening wizardry; pockets, containers, and racks were strapped, taped, and soldered onto the chair to hold fifty different trowels, ties, clippers, rakes, stakes and whatever else he might need at a moment’s notice. Swiss Army knife, her Mindframe dug up.

“Mag-gate sensors detected something that looks like drugs on our vessel.” Crimson replied, monotone.

“Really?” Keffler feigned shock. “We don’t have any of those onboard!”

“We won’t by the time we arrive at Kaldus Major.” Crimson said. “But we need to look like we do.”

“How’s that?” Keffler chewed the inside of his cheek, throwing his weight onto one elbow on his armrest.

“We’re ejecting the Boatman with the drugs, in Mag-flight, to meet us at the other end; meanwhile we need a legal substitute for what the drug-sniffing dogs think they saw on our ship.”

Keffler rocked back in his chair and slapped his thin thigh. “Ha haaa! That I want to see! You’re tossing the Boatman out like a rag doll at light speed?” he laughed again, looking left and right. “Which pane? I wanna’ watch!”

Crimson was on a timed mission. “Nothing’s happening until you two brains find me a drug substitute.”

Braevel lifted his rubbery gauntlet, “Technically I’m a medic, not a chemist.”

“And I catch eggs out of chickens’ butts!” Keffler grunted.

Why did organic beings insist of making her job difficult? There was a task to do; do it. She leveled her gaze at Keffler and made her human face do the talking, “You know your plants and their molecular structures back to front. Don’t tell me you don’t; I’ve heard you. And you…” she turned to the faceless reflective visor of the Duklagan, dancing with blue and red star light, “… you just cooked up an anti-drug with limited resources in an infirmary.”

Keffler maintained a steady chew on his inner cheek, but Braevel’s faceless visor swiveled left and right, between the two of them, visibly cowed.

At last the gardener sniffed. “Alright. Follow me.”

They followed the rocking mobility chair, tinkling and clunking with gardening implements, all the way to a long green house. It was what Gator called Keffler’s ‘Secret Lab.’ His private green house in the Green House, where all the scary alien plants he found and wanted to keep alive—to poison any hapless traveler foolish enough to enter looking for flowers—lived. Crimson instinctively leaned her robotic shoulder forward as they pushed through the clear plastic flaps at the entrance to the considerably more humid interior. She’d only been in twice before.

The quiet was eerie. All around them was an uncomfortable growing sensation. Bizarre tubular plants with colorful interiors were potted to one side. Hanging close to their walk way was a groping ivy with arms suspended to catch passersby. Whacky flora from alien worlds was the lure that brought Keffler on board. He reveled in exobotony in a way that seemed incongruent to his gruff demeanor. But as it was, his secret lab was stuffed with overflowing trays of small spiky flowers, cacti like colorful balloons, bloated fruit like star fish, and more exotic shapes and bushy over growth than Crimson’s Mindframe could process. The peaty, pollen-filled, steamy air, almost conjured a childhood dream for her. Like a chill it was gone.

Keffler’s voice rooted them back to the bizarre present. “Watch that. That’s poison. That’s poison. Don’t touch that…” He waved his free hand like a bored conductor, his other hand steering his chair. They ducked, weaved and skirted their way through the obstacle course.

“All right,” Keffler sighed, pulling a sharp right and drifting to a halt, “If yer gonna’ find a fake drug onboard…” he leaned close to examine a square tray of small plants, “It’s gonna’ be these guys.” Crimson grimaced. The short stalks protruded around bulbous, swollen pods, with white star-flowers frosted onto them like desserts.

“Oh!” said Braevel, scurrying around Crimson and bending from the thoracic spine to peer closer. His voice box sounded genuinely excited, “What are they? I’ve wondered since the flower-warts split.”

Crimson gave a chary glance from one to the other. Keffler for once didn’t sound angry, but downright pleased. “Syrric Polodus! From Grentulq III. Those babies have some medicinal uses, supposedly, on Grentulq, but I’ll be darned if I can get them to do anything expect give me a rash. The nectar on those things is squirmingly alive, and while I don’t think it’ll heighten your virility, it’ll probably do something illegal if you prod it enough.”

Grentulq? Crimson thought. That long? It had been three years with the gardener on board.

Braevel looked about to touch the sugary, wet flowers! Crimson cleared her throat. “You think you can make a plausible excuse for why a legitimate project went wrong and looks like drugs?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Keffler nodded, turning grumbly again.

“Fine. Get to work. You have eight hours until we arrive at Kaldus Major and the cops are there to welcome us.” Crimson turned to negotiate her way back through the steaming green house of death. She pulled up short. An oddly synthetic crate sat out-of-place on a wooden bench between green plants. She thought it looked familiar.

“Keffler. Is that…?”

The gardener craned his neck to see where her robotic hand pointed. For once he looked sheepish. “I… might have kept one…”

“You wanted them off the ship more than anybody!”

He shrugged. “It’s dormant. I decided to research them a bit. Keep it on ice—it’s just a small one!”

Crimson felt her anger do a flip and fall flat. “If it ever pops, I will not come bury your body.”

Keffler nodded, avoiding her eyes, accepting his fate.

She turned to stalk off, feeling like an ancient Earth steam engine. Bubble spoors.

Episode 2.9 Trajectory

Inspirational Concept: Rival Bay

“Cort, I need you to load the cargo onto the Boatman.” Crimson’s order came over the intercom.

“Getting ready early?”

“Police scanners think they saw contraband on board. We have no such thing.”

“We don’t?”

“Do it.”

“Okay.”

She had that tone of voice. The Ilslavian had been running on the tread-wheel in the gymnasium; it was fun! And it generated energy that fed back into the ship’s systems. But loading the cargo would be exercise enough. The space-rodent hopped down, shook his head and smoothed his fur with his front paws. To the cargo bay.

 

*

 

“See, the Mag-ways run vaguely parabolic orbit-pathways towards their destination. There’s no such thing as a straight light in space. Not for objects.” Andross felt alive for the first time since his idyllic crystal flight had imploded around him when the Creature from the Black Lagoon stabbed him with that wretched anti-drug. Since then every movement dragged with pain, like the cartilage in his joints had turned into sand. But choreographing a dangerous, mid-flight, space ballet at near light speed was enough to gives him chills of forgetfulness. Besides, flying was what he did—with style. He had insisted they give him the pilot seat just so he could call up the nav-display while he talked. “All we have to do is eject the Boatman on the port side, to the outside of the magnetic curve with enough boost to reach escape velocity of the Mag-ways.”

Can you even escape the Mag-ways?” P’Xak asked.

“’Course you can!” Andross piped. “It’s just very dangerous.”

“Ordinarily cargo wouldn’t even clear the magnetic field,” Clidjitt joined, “it would either be pulled along or get crushed trying to escape the pull.”

“Leaving the Mag-ways early is a bit like trying to reach escape velocity from planetary gravitation while travelling at light speed,” Andross finished, “That’s why people don’t do it.”

“I have a question:” Gator piped up, “won’t they have us on long range scanners by now? Surely they’ll see us if we dump anything, now that they’ve tagged us as potentially having contraband on board.”

“We’re roughly 60 AU* out from Kaldus Major,” Crimson said.

“That’s a ‘yes,’” P’Xak griped, swinging his boomerang head shield away in disgust.

Andross opened his hands. “But they might not be watching!”

“Or they might,” Gator countered.

“It’d be stupid for a vessel to dump their cargo in Mag-flight.”

“Except we’re doing it!”

“Boys.” Crimson’s voice dropped like a flyswatter. “We have to assume that they can see if we eject the Boatman out of Mag. So how do we do it, and not be suspicious?”

Andross leaned heavily back in the pilot seat and blew an impatient breath through his lips. “Do we have a jammer?”

“They’re illegal,” Clidjitt chirped.

But Crimson and Gator exchanged glances. Andross saw it and smiled hopefully. “We have one?!”

“The Doon-tau job,” Gator rumbled as though apologizing for the memory.

“An old one,” Crimson growled, “and dismantled. Can you get it working again?”

It was Gator’s turn to blow exasperated air through his nostrils. “Yeah… a little tape! And luck.”

“Do it.” She turned back to the nav-display that currently showed them clicking forward along a curved blue line. Already they were within the orbit range of two of the uninhabited planets of the system. “Where can we safely eject the Boatman so it can coast the rest of the way in?”

“Without hitting asteroids, or other space traffic?” Andross said, scratching his head.

“Preferably.”

“… And still close enough they it won’t take thousands of hours to reach Kaldus Major once off the Mag-way,” Clidjitt added.

Andross spun the nav- ball and typed a few commands. The display shifted to another section of the blue line. “I’d say here. Should only take a day/day-and-a-half for the Boatman to arrive. The curve is still good. I can figure out the force necessary to get the Boatman free of Mag-pull.”

Crimson leaned over his shoulder to see. “That gives us… less than 4 hours to get everything ready. Fine. Clidjitt and Andross, you do the calculations on the exact timing on where and when to eject the Boatman. Gator, you dig out the Doon-tau jammer and make it work. Take P’Xak if you need help.”

“I can do myself,” Andross assured her, “When I was a MiPie racer I did crazier stuff than this without computer calcu—”

“You’re not driving.” Crimson growled, “Clidjitt has the Boatman for this.”

Somehow that silenced him.

Crimson hit the intercom. “Braevel, Keffler. Meet me at the Green House entrance, bow-side.”

“What do you need them for?” Gator asked, even as he was squeezing himself around to perform his task.

“The police want to find something that looks like drugs,” Crimson said, following him out. “We need to cook up a legal substitute that could have set off the drug dogs.”

“Ooo, chemistry!” Gator snorted. “Too bad we don’t have any bubble spoors left. I’m sure those are illegal substances most places!”

 

 

 

*(AU = Astronomical Units. 1 AU = 8.3 minutes travel at the speed of light. –doctor nogrod)

Episode 2.8 A Crazy Plan

Five hours in Jump put them outside the Pinchava System. A lucky arrival placed them only two hours from the entrance to the Magnetic Tradeways. Given the time of year, they were fortunate that Kaldus Major still on the closer side of the system to Qualvana’s rotation. They would only have to skirt around the co-orbital Kaldus Minor to reach their intended goal. Even so, with eight uninhabited planets to pass, and four magnetic gateways, it was still a solid 22 hours until their arrival at Kaldus Major.

In Crimson’s Mindframe it was just the way of space. To borrow ancient Earth I politician’s Franklin D. Roosevelt’s words, “To reach a port we must set sail –Sail, not tie at anchor. Sail, not drift.” The crew busied themselves helping Gator maintenance the engine systems, or Keffler in the Green House. Shaak-Rom ran security simulations. Time ticked by.

*

Without Andross in the cockpit, Crimson and Clidjitt were the only two pilots on board sharing duty at the helm. So it was Crimson’s voice which crackled over the ship wide intercom, “Every crewman with navigational experience to the bridge.”

“Uh boy,” grunted the massive Megladyte. He had been tightening bolts on the port fusion chamber’s bulkhead. It rattled a bit in Jump and he liked to keep it snug. The enormous spherical fusion unit hovered a meter-and-a-half from the deck at its lowest point, where the chamber sat on struts and exhaust pipes suspending it off the floor. For most humanoids it was downright spacious, but for a full grown (possibly slightly overweight) Megladyte, it was tight squeeze. Adding a poly-fiber dolly under his back made it even tighter, but it meant less comical wiggling if he could suck in his gut enough to pass each strut. Fortunately he wasn’t deep into his nut-and-bolt hunt, when Crimson’s summons came.

It wasn’t the tight squeeze that alarmed him about Crimson’s order, though. He had limited flight experience, but he had gotten himself off Scathrod. And he and Crimson had gotten the Rival Bay up, running, and to several ports before they’d hired Andross. But if she was calling a conference of the navigationally minded on board, they’d run into some kind of a spatial snag that didn’t pose an easy solve.

He sucked in his belly and gave a two handed shove to roll himself out from under the fusion chamber; he only got stuck for a moment when his 1 meter adjustable wrench got hooked on the deck grate. Then it was a half-kilometer march up to the cockpit.

 

 

At the cockpit Gator was surprised to see the new guy, P’Xak. He had leathery gray skin, and a boomerang shaped forehead. Gator hadn’t asked, but he wondered if the guy could do echo-location with the large crest or something. Clidjitt and Crimson were already present. Gator wasn’t about to try and fit into the cockpit if he didn’t have to; he stayed in the corridor and leaned against the pressure seal. “What’s up?”

“This.” Crimson was a pale human, always had been since he’d found her on Xalon XII. She was half swiveled around to face the collection of pilots, and used her right hand to swipe the control panel almost as if to say, ‘I told you so.’

A red warning light flared and an automated voice announced, “Private Vessel: Rival Bay; Serial number: 8199673400Q. Alert from: Customs and Contraband Department, Pinchava System: possible traces of illegal substances detected on board your vessel. Your disembarkation gate will be: Kaldus Major. Inspection required upon arrival. Police action necessary upon failure to cooperate.”

Gator levered himself off the wall. “Ohhhh,” he groaned. Of course they would have screening sensors of the magnetic gateways! Experienced smugglers would have all kinds of kinetic shielding. Good thing Rae hadn’t searched their ship for adequate shielding devices while he was worried about police surveillance. Only now the Rival stood a chance of being caught red-handed with a galactic sized shipment of illegal drugs on board.

“We got this message from the third gateway,” Crimson said, her dark eyes boring holes in all three of them. “They must have scanned us at the first or second and had the message waiting for us. We have 8 hours until we drop out of Mag-flight, and they’ll have a police barricade waiting for us.”

“Can we just hop back onto the Mag-ways,” P’Xak asked. His voice was hard and he tapped his fingers rapidly on the passenger seat arm.

“Gateway Traffic Control is sure to be alerted, and refuse entry,” Crimson stated curtly.

“What about out-running them,” P’Xak continued.

“I’d be surprised if the Rival Bay could outrun a Pincho police cruiser.” Clidjitt replied. His high-pitched translator voice sounded ever-carefree, accompanied by the buzzing and clicking of his insectoid mouth. “And even if it did, it would take us months of in-system flying to make our way to the nearest magnetic gateway. They would never lose us of long range scanners.” He turned his antennae towards Crimson and asked, “What about talking to them? We can just tell them we’re working for the Qualvanan ISB.”

Crimson’s robotic hand tightened into a steel fist. “Unfortunately we have no documentation from Rullorrg that we are working for him; it would have been too risky with Rae snooping all over our ship. It’d be our word against theirs. Even if we could wait for a Linkburst from Qualvana, the whole operation would be in jeopardy because no drug dealer on Kaldus would want to touch us.”

“What about dumpin’ the cargo?” Gator asked, knowing it was a futile question.

Crimson’s flesh hand clenched as well. “Not an option. We’ve come this far to skewer these bastards; we’re not leaving ‘til they’re behind forcefields!”

Gator sympathized, but he was also right. “Yeah, but we havta’ get it off ship before they board us or we’re the ones behind forcefields, right? We wouldn’t have anything, sure, but our commission and our freedom.”

Crimson stared at Gator as if she were trying to convert her human eyes into lasers. He loved the little meat bag; and it wasn’t the first time she’d tried to death-laser him. He crossed his fat, scaly arms and waited.

To his surprise she said, “You’re right. We need to get it off ship. I just… need your help to get it back again.”

Just then an aluminum clicking and bad tempered mumbling interrupted them from behind Gator’s back. “You guys started the diablo meeting without me?”

Everyone looked to see Andross slowly picking his way along the catwalk on crutches. He moved like a crippled old man. After a long moment he arrived equal with Gator and snipped, “Whats-a-matter? They run out of maidens to eat in the engine room?”

“Don’t make me push you over with one finger,” Gator snorted.

“Andross, what are you doing?” Crimson interrupted.

“You called for all crew with nav experience,” Andross said, offended.

“You’re supposed to be resting.”

“The fish-man pumped me with enough of his juice to give me arthritis for the week, but I don’t have diablo Alzheimer’s.” He hobbled his way over to the second workstation along the back of the cockpit and painfully lowered himself into the seat. “So what’s going on?”

At first no one was going to speak, so Clidjitt provided the sing-songiest version of the plot they’d heard yet. Andross listened with a diligent student’s angelic countenance—as if to spurn Crimson’s objection.

But when Clidjitt finished Crimson picked up, as though it had been a flawless military brief. “I want to angle the Rival so we can dump the cargo out while in Mag-flight with enough velocity to receive it on the other end after we pass security inspection. It might take a day or two for the cargo to arrive, depending of gravitational variances. I need you nav-brains to help me pull it off, without it crashing into a heavenly body or rogue comet.”

Andross shrugged, “Or you could just load the contraband onto the Boatman and eject it from the Rival. It’d be more like two or three days,” he corrected her, “but the Boatman with a small support crew should be able to reach Kaldus Major no problem. Assuming we can figure out the exit trajectory from the Mag-way.”

Crimson asked the invisible question: “Is it possible?”

Everyone else exchanged glances.

Clidjitt affected a shrug with his exoskeleton. “I suppose so.”

Gator laughed, “Yeah, why-the-crazy not!”

The cyborg commander’s eyes flitted around each crewman’s face, as she considered. She said, “Do it.”

Hades-yes!” Andross cheered. “I’m definitely going on the Boatman!”

“You’re not going on the Boatman,” Crimson growled. “Clidjitt. You’re going on the Boatman.”

“Okey-doke,” replied the insectoid.

“Come onnnn!” mewled the human.

Episode 2.7 Drink or Drive

Braevel concept.

It took Braevel several days to concoct the anti-drug. Or at least he hoped he had done it. In that time the lump on Andross’ head had subsided. The skin-plaster still held the cut closed where he had struck the temporal line of his skull—just off the corner of his eyebrow—on the hard grating of the shuttle bay deck. But Braevel didn’t think it would scar. Although he had heard that some soft skin races preferred prominent scars. No, in this case long term damage had most likely been avoided. He just waited for Crimson before administering the anti-drug.

Braevel hummed and bubbled to himself as he tidied his beakers. In some senses it was ironic, the fragility of these humans compared to his own. Their soft skin was so susceptible to puncture and tearing. Not at all like the tough scales of the Duklagans. At his scaliest Braevel had even taken a harpoon in the chest at the cost of only a few drops of blood (it was a stupid dare by his fellow Skypher-hunters, and Braevel had to admit alcohol was involved… but still!). And yet, here on an air-ship, a careless turn and Braevel could tear open his water suit and be in danger of suffocating in minutes. He was potentially more fragile than the humans. Ironic, he hummed again.

The infirmary doors rolled open automatically; they were among of the few automated doors of the vessel. (Pressure seals could still lock them closed in case of a hull breach somewhere in the vessel, but engineers had rightly guessed that carrying a sick or injured person through a two-handed, crank-sealed portal was going to be unwieldy.) Braevel turned in his water suit to see Crimson stalk in.

“You got a cure?” she demanded.

“Ah!” Braevel piped triumphantly, lifting a gloved finger, “I believe I do. I had to take several samples of Andross’ blood, to try it. It’s not the cleanest chemical reaction, I suppose you could say, but nothing that will harm him long term, I think. First I had to find a dissolvent for the crystalline itself, very insidious that, and then—”

Crimson held up her cybernetic hand. “You said its safe.”

Braevel halted his report, surprised, “Uh, yes.”

“Do it.”

“Right…” the Duklagan twisted around looking for his phial of anti-drug. Finding it, he selected a syringe and needle and drew 1,000 ml. “No need to be sparing…” he explained and Crimson’s dark-rimmed eyes narrowed at the size of the needle and dose. “Besides, I’ve had to circulate a good pint of plasma into his system to help dilute the foreign element—which I shall call a toxin, since it has no nutritional value—”

Crimson’s dark stare silenced him again. She didn’t seem to care. Carefully Braevel administered the anti-drug. The difficulty was that though the crystals left a residue of slowly reacting molecules, some had already dispersed through the nervous system. There was little anyone could do for most drug highs, even with as many advanced civilizations as there were in the galaxies. Little more than rest and time could help someone down from a ‘high.’ But since the Flyer Crystal ‘goo’ lingered in the system for up to a week, Braevel believed he could neutralize enough of the un-dissolved elements that Andross would have a chance of being back on his feet faster than normal. Plus, with the added benefit of increased blood plasma, and a solid round of vitamins and minerals, the body might just have enough nutrients to carry him through.

“Is it working?” Crimson demanded.

Braevel shrugged, large enough to lift his air-suit’s shoulders. “Should be.”

“When will we know?”

“In less than a week,” the Duklagan shrugged again.

“We arrive at Kaldus Major in five days. I want both my pilots by then.” She paused for a moment to stare at the incapacitated pilot, pinned with tubes to Braevel’s multiple machines. Then she nodded curtly to Braevel and stalked out of the infirmary.

 

*

 

In a few hours Crimson got the summons on the intercom that Andross was awake. That seemed to be good news. But one look at the woozy MiPie and she knew he’d be out of it for several more days. He was cranky at having been woken from his hallucinogenic sleep, and looked a bit puffy.

“Why the… diablo… didn’t let me sleep!” Andross slurred.

“You’re an idiot to get yourself juiced, that’s why,” Crimson scowled. “If we have to do a drug test in the next month I could lose the ship, our commission, and everything.”

Andross whined and clumsily lifted a fat hand, taped with tubes, in front of his face. “Why my hands hurt…?”

Braevel sloshed over to the bed side and bent his visor closer as well. “It appears my solvent has worked, and bonded with the residual crystal molecules in your bloodstream. But it’s expanded them a bit in the process. Sorry about that. I’m running your blood through my dialyser, plus taken steps to ensure there are no clots. The swelling should go down in a few hours.”

Andross groaned. “…Hate this job…”

Crimson grit her teeth, trying not to imagine what was happening in Andross’ body. “Yeah, well, you got us this job, so… Good work.” The job wasn’t finished, but Andross had saved their cover and probably a fire fight in the shuttle bay. If the Illegal Substance Bureau was going to get their man, they’d have Andross to thank for it—even if they couldn’t know.

Andross dropped his hand back to the infirmary bed. “… ‘Wanna… bonus…”

Braevel swiveled and gently took Crimson by her good arm. The cool water-suit felt at once dry and moist at the same time. The medic steered her a few of steps away.

“I’ve done a few more tests,” He said. The intuitive programming on the translator kept his tenor voice low, “And while I think the Flyer Crystals in the bloodstream are neutralized, it’s difficult to say how much has already affected his nervous system. He might be back on his feet soon, but I don’t know how fit he’ll be for duty.”

Crimson didn’t like the sound of that. She tried to look through her own displeased reflection in the Duklagan’s visor to the pleasant fish-monster within. “How unfit?” She asked.

“Oh, you know,” Braevel shrugged, “The usual: drowsiness, light headache, shouldn’t operate heavy machinery…”

Crimson wasn’t amused. “Like a space ship.”

Braevel threw up his hands lightly. “Not if we value our lives,” he chirruped.

Episode 2.6 Wool

Concept collage, crew of the Rival Bay. DanArt

Shaak-Rom moved quickly through the massive seed ship. The less Vaken Rae and his men could take in, the better. They climbed the final cat-walk stair and Shaak-Rom strode down the hall to the communications alcove. He stepped past the door and stood between the bridge and the drug dealers. He tilted his rack of horns to his left. “In there.”

Rae stepped to the side and said, “Nae, Slie.”

The two Kannazzallians slipped passed him and squeezed into the small workstation. Just three hours before Shaak-Rom had watched as Rullorrg’s technicians had been installing a bug to track the drug dealer’s payment records. Now as the painted Trivven stood over the drug dealers he hoped desperately the ISB techies were good at what they did. He draped his hand casually over the butt of his maser.

Rae was watching him. Shaak-Rom tried not to wince as the drug dealers wrenched off the panel below the desk. Instead he took a deep breath. “How far is Kannazzal?”

Rae’s face remained a placid brook of confidence. “A week. In jump.”

“I thought so. What brought you to Qualvana?” Besides drugs?

Rae smirked, “Well it wasn’t the women!”

One of his lackeys piped up from below the desk, “Nae likes the tentacles!”

Shaak-Rom took a chance. He bent to peer in on the alcove, exposing his back to Rae. His own fleshy dreads on high alert to detect any shift in the hallway’s air, or body heat. “Hey I’m Trivven. No judgment here. How’s it look? Good?”

The thorn-browed Kannazzallians were wedged tightly under the desk with work lights in their hands. Shaak-Rom didn’t tell them there was a maintenance light inside the panel.

“Old piece of brak,” commented one. “You fly around in this?”

Shaak-Rom shrugged. Rullorrg’s techies were good. There was nothing suspicious in sight.

“Looks clean,” surmised the other.

“And now the bridge,” Rae said.

Shaak-Rom straightened, blocking his path again. The drug dealer’s smile was gone. Shaak-Rom shook his head, “We don’t have a comm. Port there. Just a feeder.”

“I’ll be the judge of that.”

Rae’s lackeys stood adding their weight to the drug dealer’s demands. Shaak-Rom didn’t need a sixth sense to feel their hands move to concealed weapons. He tensed.

Foot fall on the catwalk distracted them all. Shaak-Rom used the moment to grip his maser and slide his finger around the trigger. A distinctive step-and-clank gait proceeded the purple fauxhawk of the cyborg commander. Crimson drew herself up the stairs with both hands on the rail and strode the distance between them. Behind her, toting masers, were Mog Mog, the pile of living rock, and P’Xak, with his boomerang head-shield.

“Any problems?” grunted Crimson.

“I was just telling your compatriot that I need to see the bridge of your vessel.” Rae said innocently.

“I told him we don’t have a comm. Port in there.” Shaak-Rom reported. Now they could look all they liked; four on three were odds not even Rae would challenge.

Crimson shoved her way between the drug dealers with her robotic shoulder and motioned to Rae. “Just you.”

Suddenly compliant, he followed her. She stood in the midst of the cockpit and opened both arms. “Happy?”

Rae only bothered with a cursory glance, half a step onto the bridge. He smiled. “It seems we’re in business.”

*

The half-a-kilometer march through the generation seed ship back to the shuttle bay was politely quiet. It wasn’t long until Rae’s shipment of contraband was fully loaded and concealed in the cargo hold. Then, with an invisible sigh of relief, Shaak-Rom watched the drug dealers disappear up the ramp of their freighter.

Crimson and the crew retreated outside the shuttle bay and sealed it. Spinning lights signaled red, and alarms everywhere tolled the siphoning of the shuttle bay’s air. It would be at least 30 minutes until the bay was clear and they could eject Vaken Rae and company off the Rival. They had pulled it off, it seemed. The external threat to their safety was lessening for the moment; it allowed them to think about other things. Most of the crew headed back to their duties. Shaak-Rom had something else on his mind.

The yellow Megladyte with the red mohawk turned to go as well. He grunted, “I’ll make sure Rae didn’t leave any bugs of his own!” The enormous space Gator stomped heavily, maneuvering his bulk around to head back through the ship.

Shaak-Rom swallowed his on intimidation; it was for the crew’s safety. He laid a red and striped hand on the scaly arm of the Megladyte. Gator paused.

“Oh right. Here ya go, Roms.” The space crocodile handed over the maser rifle.

Shaak-Rom took it and tossed it beside the others on the electric cart. As anticipated, his white eye-circles were sufficiently narrowed to communicate his displeasure, and keep the Megladyte waiting.”Somethin’ else?”

Jerking his horns sideways, he stepped to the left of the corridor. Gator thumped almost uselessly a step to the side with him. Shaak-Rom squared his shoulders to the massive beast, keeping his hand on his own maser. “If you ever make a threat to this crew or captain, or an attempt at those crystals…” Shaak-Rom said, his voice low through his pointed teeth, “I will personally bring you down.”

It was a bold statement. Not only was Gator clearly senior on the Rival, and Crimson’s right hand man, but twice Shaak-Rom’s size. But he didn’t care. Gator’s look in the shuttle bay over the Flyer Crystals was too deadly to ignore. As keeper of the Rival’s arsenal and their mission’s security Shaak-Rom would make sure Crimson and the crew were protected.

Gator stared at him for a long moment—immobile as a log in a river. Then he tossed back his head and laughed.

Crimson, Cort, and all the others still left in the hallway turned to look. Shaak-Rom tried not to fidget, and kept his eyes locked on the reveling crocodile.

Gator swiped a scaly hand under his double-lidded eye. “Oh man, did I get you too?”

Shaak-Rom suddenly wondered if he had missed something.

Gator dropped a massive paw on the Trivven’s shoulder, “Stripes, I don’t want no crystals. That was an act. I knew Andross would get stupid if I riled ‘im up.”

“That was an… act?” Shaak-Rom stumbled verbally.

Gator puffed up his chest and cackled, “You and Rae bought it!”

Shaak-Rom felt his eye circles turning the color of the rest of his face, but he stood his ground. He’d seen death in the eyes of Tulperion’s gigantic wamerocs. “But your eyes,” he insisted.

Gator opened his palms and barked, “Megladyte!” like it was some sort of explanation. Still chuckling the massive beast lumbered around and thudded away.

By now Shaak-Rom’s attempt at subtlety was wasted. Cort hopped up beside him. Shaak-Rom looked at him for hope. “Did you know he was not serious?”

The space-gerbil’s whiskers twitched in amusement, “Dude, their whole culture is built on deception. They don’t teach you that in Legacy School?”

Shaak-Rom slung the maser strap over his horns and dropped his weapon on the cart with the others. “No. I have never seen one like him in the entire Legacy Galaxy.”

Cort shrugged. He spun the electric cart around and gave it a free-handed push so Shaak-Rom could take the weapons back to the Armory. “Gator’s not much like his kind. But don’t play poker with him.”

Episode 2.5 For The Cause

Welcome Wagon, concept sketch. DanArt

Fortunately Crimson’s well-practiced hard-stare didn’t waver. “You can make your searches…” she replied. But she was already sipping another breath to begin making excuses when Gator interrupted.

“Oh, yeah! Been waitin’ for a chance like this…! I finally get to Fly again!” The towering yellow monster took an eager step forward. He shot a smug glance at Andross, “Sucker.”

“Hey! No way!” barked Andross, “I volunteered first!”

“I’ll happily Fly you both,” Rae smiled, casually taking a dual-needle cartridge from his packet, and removing the plastic cap.

“No!” Crimson almost shouted. Then she finished, “Only one.”

Andross rolled his eyes, and made the most irritated sounds he could without using words.

“I’m not having half my crew floating to Kaldus Major,” Crimson continued. “I need my engineer conscious; and you’re on parole.” She stabbed a finger at the space crocodile. “Andross, you.”

“Yes!”

Gator bared his teeth. The murderous glance he gave the cyborg captain alarmed Shaak-Rom. But he stepped back, growling at Andross, “Pig.”

Andross almost skipped forward. “Do I get a recliner?”

Rae seemed amused with the process, but he shook his head, “Sadly I didn’t bring one.”

Andross shook his head, “’sallright. I don’t need one.”

Shaak-Rom doubted that. He watched Vaken Rae for a reaction, and the drug dealer’s smile only became more slippery. He reached out a hand and another Kannazzallian stepped forward to place a crystal pack in his hand.

“Uh uh,” Crimson growled, “One of those.” She pointed to the open shipment crates, glittering dully in the shuttle bay’s lighting.

Rae shrugged, “As you wish.” He retrieved a fresh pack from the shipment, and stabbed the dual needles through the plastic bag. Instantly the crystals liquidized and disappeared into the syringe. Andross stepped forward. Shaak-Rom winced as the dual needles were adjusted to align with Andross’ tear glands. “Prepare to fly,” smiled the Rae. He injected the drug. Andross inhaled—looked about to speak—when suddenly he went limp, dropped to his knees, and unceremoniously flopped to the deck. Rae stood poised over him for a moment, needles still in hand. Then he smiled to Crimson. “It seems we have a deal. I shall only now require a search of your vessel for police devices and we can all be on our way.”

Crimson threw a hand to Andross and Shaak-Rom. “Get him out of here. See to it that Rae gets a look around.”

Shaak-Rom grabbed the intercom, “Braevel to shuttle bay. Andross is down. Bring the z-g cot.”

Braevel’s voice came back, alarm in the translated tenor voice, “Oh no! Has he been shot?”

Shaak-Rom regretted his choice of words. “No, just took a dose of the crystals. Get him to medical.” He cut off the call and turned to Gator. “Let them examine the shuttle and cargo bays. Show them our arrangements. I will take Rae to communications.”

The Megladyte nodded, still sulking dangerously.

“Is there a problem?” Shaak-Rom challenged him, anger rising like an itch in his horns.

“No,” the space-gator replied flatly.

“Good.” Shaak-Rom turned to Rae. “Follow me.”

Rae seemed to be enjoying his visit. He nodded to two of his Kannazzallian guards, and they made to follow. Shaak-Rom stopped. “Just you.”

Rae came equal with the Trivven. “They go, or we have no deal.”

Shaak-Rom knew every delay was suspicious. “Fine. But tell them to touch nothing. We want no more evidence of you here or your cargo.” He turned without waiting for compliance and led them out of the shuttle bay.

Outwardly he remained calm and moved quickly. But his mind was hurtling back and forth like a gazelle between predators. He was outnumbered. Had Rae discovered Rullorrg’s surveillance devices on his own, Shaak-Rom could have incapacitated him without much difficulty—or else kept him at gun point until they could negotiate his peaceful departure and the termination of their deal. Now there were three. By necessity he needed to lead them, exposing his back. Crimson had wanted as few of the crew present as they thought they could spare. Face recognition among criminals seemed undesirable. Unfortunately the experienced crew were already in the shuttle bay. Only three rookies (veteran only of the Ulsang Jax hunt) remained, likely, in their crew cabins: Mog Mog, P’Xak, and Micron. They would be unarmed and Shaak-Rom had the armory key ring. Worse, he and the drug dealers were headed for the bridge. If Rae decided he wanted the Rival Bay for himself, it would be crucial for Shaak-Rom to stop him single-handedly. He could stop two for sure; the third…?

He led the drug dealers towards the Green House. Already light was spilling copiously into the metal hallway as the Rival Bay rounded Qualvana to catch its sun. Keffler! Shaak-Rom thought wildly. He had a one-in-three chance the gardener would even be on the correct Garden Pane. Without pause Shaak-Rom strode through the change in gravity into the spinning Arboretum. He quietly relished the sound of a stumble and grunt of discomfort from the drug dealers behind him as they stepped into the lighter gravity and onto the moving grass. “Mind your step,” Shaak-Rom said, with all civility.

Where are you, Keffler? He grimaced.

A sharp voice rattled at them from behind a row of short fruit trees. “Hey! What’re those stinking, space-muckers doing in here?”

Shaak-Rom grit his teeth; his wish had been granted. The Gardener came dashing around his potted orchard nearly riding on two wheels. Beneath his wide brimmed hat his dark eyes flashed angrily. Shaak-Rom used the opportunity to switch his maser to his left hand and raise his right in peace. “Try not to talk to our… clients that way. Crimson has permitted them to see our communications alcove and check everything is in order.” He moved between the Gardener and the drug dealers.

Diablos in the sky! Well, I don’t care where they’re going, I don’t want them in my Green House. Bunch of space-muckin’… cans of Collectine sludge… Ugh! They can put whatever Crimson says they can in the blasted Cargo hold, but not in my Green House!”

Shaak-Rom had been holding his breath. The Gardener had suddenly changed his tone when he noticed Shaak-Rom frantically tapping his free fingers on his thigh and circling them. Then he quickly dropped the Armory key-ring into the grass.

Keffler continued his rant, with careful subservience: “Next thing you know we’ll be having a blasted market out here on the gardens, and then what will happen to my grass? Dead, you hear! It’ll kill everything.  I don’t want them, or any other trash-toting, sky-scrappers in here…! So… Get outta’ here!” He waved a surly hand, and used his other to maneuver his mobility chair around, covering where the gold ring fell.

Shaak-Rom nodded and moved off, saying to Rae, mostly truthfully, “Ignore him. He’s always like that.”

They continued on across the long garden pathways, by a small fish pond and irrigation trenches. The medic Braevel hurried passed them with a curious tilt to his water-suit helmet as he guided the zero-gravity cot. Shaak-Rom only nodded.

After several more minutes they ascended the hill to the forward part of the ship and began their climb to the bridge. Hopefully Keffler would know what to do…

Episode 2.4 Occupational Hazard

Ultra4

Rival Bay concept art

 

Oxygen: the life gas of the galaxies was precious enough that even on a large vessel like the Rival Bay there was no careless venting of air into space. Shuttle bay procedures required the draining of the air before opening the shuttle bay doors. It turned the shuttle bay into a massive airlock. And it was time consuming. Shaak-Rom wasn’t sure if it was a convenience or not that the Rival docked smaller vessels like the Boatman.  Was it easier to land shuttles in the depressurized bays, than connecting by the telescopic gangplank? The Rival had one of those that they often used to connect to larger space-based stations. But apparently the age of the seed ship, and model of the airtight gangplank made it incompatible with most smaller craft.

So, he and Cort, the Ilslavian space-gerbil, had to verify that every hole, humanoid size and smaller was checked and double checked for the operation. They’d made a special modification to one of the larger ports before Chief Police Inspector’s techies arrived: a remote-controlled, mounted maser canon. If Vaken Rae tried a hostile takeover, he would be vibrating in a puddle of his own saliva before he made the door to the hallway.

Then they had to receive the cloaked pod for the Illegal Substance Bureau techies delivering the surveillance package. Even with the cloaking device shielding the pod, Clidjitt had to maintain the Rival’s attitude to keep their opening bay away from the planet, and time it with Qualvana’s other manned satellites that none would see her open a door for “no reason.” It was a tricky game of saber-tooth and rodent, or as Cort called it “Them and Us.”

Shaak-Rom chuckled aloud, but wondered internally how big a cat-of-prey must be on Gobe if chasing a 1.5 meter-tall bipedal desert rodent constituted “them and us.” Many of the crew called Cort a rat, but Shaak-Rom was sure he more closely resembled a gerbil. Usually the Cargo Bay Administrator didn’t mind what they said. He just did his job.

But when Crimson had given them the task list, the furry CBA had wiped his paws on his cover-alls. “Cheese, Crim.”

“We have to do it, or this whole thing could go to the poles on us.” Crimson’s dark-rimmed eyes never flinched. Sometimes she seemed like she was all robot.

“Yeah, we can do it…” Cort replied, licking his fingers and smoothing the fur and whiskers from his face, “… long as we don’t eat, sleep, or drink between now and then!”

The hard line of Crimson’s thin lips finally broke. “I’ll have Keffler bring you something to keep you going.”

“Can I get the be-dazzled twins to help out?” Cort asked, referring to the Vizavians, Tager and Olper.

“Whoever you need.”

Cort sighed, “Alright…”

Between them, it was a busy day: mounting a canon, and venting the Oxygen in time for the ISB techies. Then they had to refill the shuttle bay and surreptitiously install the necessary surveillance—in the shuttle bay and the communications alcove. Once done they had to re-vent the bay, and get ISB off ship, all in the calculated gaps between satellites with unfriendly eyes.

Keffler arrived while they were still installing Rullorrg’s security recorders. He tossed a human food, sandwiches, to each of the Rival crewmates. Rullorrg’s ISB techies looked hungrily at the food, their nose tentacles lifting. Keffler just snorted at them. “What? Police canteen didn’t pack you momma’s boys a snack?” He reversed his mobility chair, cut the wheel, and zoomed off leaving a smug track of rubber.

Once everything was done, ISB gone, and the ship was theirs again, Shaak-Rom had equipment to issue.

“Everyone armed?” Shaak-Rom had asked.

Crimson, in a darker mood than usual, look tempted. Her lips stayed sealed tight but moved progressively left across her face. The labored moment was enough to make Shaak-Rom consider his own strategy.

“No,” they said simultaneously.

“We need Rae to think we’re on favorable business terms,” growled Crimson.

“What about Foam Pistols?” a smaller, belt-secured tool that left the eyes and nasal passages whining for mercy upon discharge.

“That’ll work. But concealed.”

Once everyone was assembled and equipped Shaak-Rom arranged them in place, just in time to receive Vaken Rae and his lackeys. Most of the crew stood in ready formation outside the shuttle bay’s pressurized windows. They watched the massive doors clang silently open. Already waiting outside was a sleek upper-class Qualvanan transport. It maneuvered smoothly, and backed in to the open half of the bay beside the Boatman. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, but Shaak-Rom was eyeing the extra sets of access ports along the belly of the craft—potentially illegal, mounted guns…. Landing skids deployed, and Rae’s transport touched down.

Amber lights flashed, and the massive doors closed once again. “Fill it,” barked Crimson.

“…again!” Cort sniffed, standing on his electric cart to reach the controls and see through the window comfortably. His furry fingers keyed in the code.

In moments the hissing sound of rushing oxygen reached their ears as it filled enough of the bay to carry the sound to them. Shaak-Rom thumbed the safety on his maser gently to assure himself of its position. On for now; but it wouldn’t be when Vaken entered the room. He, Crimson, Gator, and Andross each held a visible weapon. Cort, Krevvenar, Jumondo, concealed Foam Pistols. Clidjitt had nothing, but the insectoid was 50 times stronger than an average humanoid, and had an exoskeleton. If a fight broke out, he was probably the only one who was guaranteed survival. But he loved to carry things in his mandibles, over his head in the manner of his people; he was part of the cargo team. Olper and Tager were hidden inside the Boatman, also armed—just another precaution.

After a long while the amber lights held constant; then they switched to green.

“Open the door,” Crimson ordered.

Krevvenar hefted the latch, and the pressure seal gave way. The door swung open even as the klaxons for Rae’s cargo ramp were sounding. Crimson and the crew entered and assembled at the foot of the descending ramp.

Any resemblance of an innocent, well-to-do merchant vessel was lost as the black leather, booted, and black-clad crew of Rae’s operation clomped down the ramp towards them. To Shaak-Rom the puff of air from the Qualvanan vessel, though pure enough for normal standards, carried a stench of self-satisfaction that no O2 scrubber would likely evict. Vaken Rae and several other Kannazzallians, blue, bald-headed, horny browed aliens with a superior lift to their chins led the pack. Tough looking Gortassa with guns slung behind their backs followed. Their nose tentacles lifted to absorb as much as they could from the less active atmosphere of the Rival’s galactic standards.

“Captain!” Rae greeted, opening his black-gloved hands, “A pleasure to do business with you.”

Shaak-Rom darted a look sideways to see Crimson. He saw her jaw muscle bulge and wondered if she would sacrifice their plan on the spot. She remained eerily silent. Finally she managed a nod to Cort. The Ilslavian twitched his whiskers and hopped forward, drawing the electric cart after him. He announced, “I’m in charge of cargo. How much you got?”

Rae swept a generous arm up the ramp. “Quite a bit.”

Two more Gortassa steered a zero-g cargo tray down the ramp towards them. Red crates sat stacked corner to corner. They stopped beside Rae, who gestured Crimson forward. She at last grunted, “Let’s see it.”

A nod from Rae, and the closest Gortassa punched a code and released a red crate’s lid. It lifted and revealed tightly packed, clear sealed bags full of tiny sparkles. There was a moment of speechlessness; Andross whistled.

“But first!” Rae interrupted everyone’s private thoughts, “I have a few questions: Why would a crew deputized by the Galactic Precinct agree to do a deal like this? You haven’t been contacted by the ISB by any chance? Maybe talk of a set up?” the drug dealer smiled casually, as though he already knew the answer.

“No,” Crimson replied flatly, “But 100,000,000 sounded like a good enough reason to make a quiet trip to Kaldus Major. You weren’t thinking of blowing the whistle on us, were you? Cuz’ I’d implicate your butt from here to the Martian High Order.”

Shaak-Rom internally applauded. She had casually batted his accusations away, subtly tossed it back at the drug dealer.

Rae smiled, “And jeopardize a good business relationship? Never. But I shall need some proof. My men will search this bay, the cargo storage area, and the communications array for bugs. And then one of you must show me you are not afraid to fly. Or we have no deal.”

Shaak-Rom tightened his stomach muscles. The ISB had mounted several clever bugging devices; some better than anything Shaak-Rom or Gator had ever seen. But Flying? If a blood test ever made it to the Galactic Precinct in the next month showing that a member of the Rival was using crystals… the entire ship could lose its commission, and possibly their freedom.

Episode 2.3 Fishing for Trouble

Braevel inspiration

“All crew to the Circle,” Crimson’s voice crackled over the ship-wide intercom. Not that Coeleobraevel heard it that way. Braevel, for short, among the other crew, had installed a special sub-router which both broadcasted the message under water, and translated it into Vassaquailossian Whale-Song. But even through the most melodic voices of the twelves seas of his homeworld, Braevel did not miss the hot impatience of Crimson’s order.

Braevel blew a sluice of water through his gills and wriggled through the water once again to his air-suit. The over-familiar water-tight suit was like a chubby water balloon. It was held in humanoid shape by retaining gaskets, joints, and a helmet that rivalled most EVA suits. It also kept a layer of water next to his scaly skin at all times whilst out of his tank (which was nice), and allowed him to breathe comfortably through his neck gills (if you didn’t mind the taste of your own scales after a while). He could easily load two compressed water tanks on his back which freshened the water supply for longer stints abroad. It only tasted slightly carbonated then, but definitely gave him the hiccups. That was the price of seeing the universe…

At least a trip to the Mess he could do with just his normal suit, no tanks.

 

Being from a water planet had its own advantages and disadvantages: his quarters were twice the size of most; but he’d had to pay for the complete installation of his tank. He’d known it though: Duklagan’s weren’t exactly a spacefaring race. The air-suit was only the first of a long list of expensive items he’d had to save up for since deciding to explore the cosmos. With Skyphers at 20,000 a head, High-Altitude Birding had been a dangerous but lucrative way of making it possible.

Now as Braevel sloshed along the hall leading towards the Circle—the round meeting area between the quarters, Mess, and Medical—he both enjoyed his own personal “atmosphere,” and was slipping slightly on the algae in the feet of his suit. Never had space exploration been quite so slimy. Rarely touching any of the environments he visited made it seem a bit like he was only a tourist or voyeur, but he was possibly the most widely travelled Duklagan in Vassaquailos’ history.

He would write it all down, and maybe one day return and become famous—and buy himself a nice coral palace on a reef somewhere.

He squish-squashed into the circular common area between the crew quarters. Many of the crew had already arrived and seated themselves in the maze of curved, dirty-white couches that formed a mini amphitheater. It was merely two shallow tiers down to the floor in the middle, and once was likely an announcement or entertainment area for the inhabitants of the generation seed-ship. Now it served Crimson for her crew briefings.

Braevel mused over what he would write about his motley crewmates. There was the muscular Trivven , Shaak-Rom: a striped and red fighter with horns like a large bull flarfus. Olper and Tager the Visavians, with blue skin and more jewelry than a sunken ship. Clidjitt, an insectoid, 100 times larger than any of the little water skimming pests of Vassaquailos. And Cort, the space rat: a massive version of the vermin that often drowned and polluted the oceans currents. Others were still arriving, including Krevvenar, Gator, and Jumondo. Braevel chuckled at his own humorous descriptions. He had gotten rid of his hiccups from the mission on Qualvana, but they didn’t know that; no one seemed to take his slight jiggling out of order. Behind Gator came Crimson and Andross, and almost at the same time arrived Keffler, the maimed one. Humans: they would likely require a whole chapter in his book. Each one was so vastly different it was difficult to tell which were actually genetic traits and which were not.

Andross flopped on the sofa furthest back, and Crimson stalked to the center of the circle of couches. Keffler zipped to the edge of the circle and wedged his mobility chair between the two couches closest to the hydraulic lift that got him from the Arboretum to the rest of the crew. He never seemed to appreciate these interruptions to the spinning garden kingdom he was building. Whatever experiments he was caretaking in his greenhouses seemed infinitely more important. But he occasionally allowed Braevel to tour his wild glass houses in the Green House, as a fellow scientist of sorts. Really Braevel was a glorified zoologist on his world. But along the intergalactic tradeways this was only a few short qualifications away from medic: a terribly paid post, since space travel regulation required medics on virtually every craft. But it was the quickest way to book passage off Vassaquailos and into the night skies.

“I’ll be brief,” Crimson was saying. Now his transmitters carried her voice directly into the water for his ear frills to pick up.

Surly as ever, the female cyborg captain—oddly the only female onboard—continued, “We’ve been assigned a job, by the Qualvanan Illegal Substance Bureau. We are to pick up and deliver a load of Flyer Crystals to drug dealers on Kaldus Major. They’re going to record the whole thing, bust the perps, and give us a pat on the back and a couple of credits. Your jobs will be to load the cargo, guard the cargo, and deliver the cargo, while keeping your mouths shut. Anyone got any problems with that?”

No one did. The benefit, Braevel bubbled to himself, of having a deputized bounty-hunting crew, was that they were all legal, if barely. Gigs for the Galactic Precinct were good, if you could get in somehow, even under a ship’s charter. No one would sacrifice—

“Yeah, um, I’ve got a question?” Andross had flung his arm over the back of the couch after waving it for attention. “Do we get to keep any of the, um, evidence, as a reward?”

Well, almost no one.

Crimson’s dark eyes hardened at the human pilot before scanning the rest of the crew. Her purple shock of hair seemed to fall down into her face these days, more than stand up. One eye was mostly obscured, but it probably kept the water in his suit from boiling as her eyes swept across Braevel, along with the others.

Crimson stated her position in no uncertain terms: “If anyone touches any of the merchandise except to complete the dummy transaction, I will personally float them out the airlock.”

Andross wobbled his head to goad her. “It’s just a question…!”

“Are these poachers comin’ on our ship?” Keffler piped up. It was usually the humans who had to voice their opinions in these briefings.

“They’ll come as far as they need to, to deliver the goods,” Crimson replied.

“Yeah, well, not in the Green House. Spoors are one thing, but I’m not having the body-countin’, credit-stealing, blood-poisonin’, space trash in my gardens.” The maimed one’s voice was rough and angry too. Braevel always wondered why it did not further anger the cyborg female when Andross’ attempts at humor always did.

Crimson only replied, “They won’t come further than the cargo bay.”

Everyone seemed settled with the plan.

“Standby for further instructions,” Crimson finished with a glare.

Everyone stretched and stood to depart, but Crimson stabbed flesh finger at Braevel. He stood, his suit sloshing, and slid easily down the two steps to where the female had to look up into his polished faceplate.

“Can I assist with something?” Braevel asked. His own voice, bubbling and clicking, sounded funny translated by the Universal Communicator. He’d chosen a pleasant tenor male humanoid voice. He was learning universal for himself, but it was slow going.

“Yeah,” Crimson grunted. “I want you to dig up everything you can on Flyer Crystals. How to detect them in the system, and if you can find and synthesize an antidote.”

“Of course. I’ll see what I can pick up from the local medical databases.”

“Good. I don’t want anyone taking shots; and I don’t want anyone suffering from shots if they have to take it.” She turned and clanked out of the pit of the Circle and back towards the Bridge.

Braevel wondered what it was she feared.

Episode 2.2 Bait and Switch

Rullorrg’s ‘burst. concept sketch. DanArt

Crimson cursed as she vaulted up the catwalk stairs to the bridge. She hoisted her body along like it was a bulky appliance going to the trash compactor. Gator thudded along behind her, every inch of him filling the corridor. From the top of the stairs Crimson sent her surly shout down the hallway ahead, “What, Andross?”

The cocky MiPie arched his back to throw his head over the seat back into view of the oncoming pair, “Oh you’re gonna’ love this one, Mama Bear!”

Under informed Crimson stomped the rest of the way, and heaved her cybernetic arm onto the neck-rest of the co-pilot seat.

Andross was muttering to himself, “Robot-bear? Mama Robot?”

“What is it?” she snapped.

Andross acted as though he was all business. “Got a vendor on the line. Said he likes your work—” He gestured to the dried blood on her scraped face, “—quality, um… stuff.”

Another two clanks, and she was in the co-pilot seat. “Here,” she grunted.

The holo-board popped “up.” The thorny-browed holographic vendor, from his chest up, seemed slouched casually, and he fingered a lighter-square, illegal in 7 sectors including Agrelius, home sector of Earth II.

“Who is this?” Crimson asked.

The vendor condescended, “Did your captain not tell you?”

“I’m the captain,” Crimson stated, slicing her eyes only briefly at Andross; he shrugged. She continued, “I hear you’re interested in what we do.”

The alien considered her words, then proceeded. “I am looking for a vessel with security measures equal to yours who can protect a valuable cargo and deliver it discreetly to its recipient on Kaldus Major.”

“How discreetly?” Crimson grunted again. She smelled a rat. She didn’t have to look to sense Gator’s suspicion either. The Megladyte was filling the doorframe, and probably looked like an enormous floating head of scissored teeth on the vendor’s screen.

“Have you ever flown, Captain?” replied the man with a hooded smile. His emphasis, and the lift of his thorny eyebrow, incriminated the question.

Crimson narrowed her eyes at the man; she checked the link was encrypted. Then she looked to Andross. He squirted both his index fingers into the tear glands of each eye, and made a silent explosion shape with his mouth.

Crimson came back to the screen, impatiently. “Only in space.”

“Ah,” the drug dealer opened his hands, “Then you don’t know what you’re missing!”

“You should demonstrate on yourself for me,” Crimson said, keeping her voice level.

The dealer changed to a serious tone, leaning forward on his elbows, “Captain, I’ll be brief. I will give you 100,000,000, to take my cargo to Kaldus Major to the arranged buyer with no questions asked, and no local or galactic interference. Half transferrable here and half on completion. Do we have a deal?”

“I’ll think about it,” Crimson lied. She swatted the image out. “Pig.”

Andross spun his chair lacsidasically, “Soooo, that’s a no?”

“Space jerk.” Gator croaked.

Crimson stood to leave. Fire burned in her veins, and made her optical relays seem red. Flyer Crystals. She couldn’t name a personal friend who’d experienced it, but then again she couldn’t remember her own past. She’d heard though. Sometimes a single injection could leave you floating for a week. What happened to your body after that was anybody’s guess. More than one naïve girl had suffered at the hands of that ‘flight,’ after getting the drug in a club or public place. “Take us out of orbit!” she barked, “If scum like this is hanging around on Qualvana—”

Communications chimed again.

Gator and Andross looked to Crimson. She nearly whirled and crushed the control console with her robotic hand. Instead she had to twist twice as far to snap the respond button with her human one.

“What?” she demanded.

It was not the drug dealer. An ugly Gortassa, one of the heavy set, pointy-headed native races of Qualvana sat there. A thick mat of nose tentacles dangled over his mouth as he spoke. “I’m Chief Police Inspector Rullorrg of the Illegal Substance Bureau. We have just monitored a conversation between you and a known trafficker of the narcotic flyer crystals.”

“Snake spit.” Crimson shook her head.

Gator piped up unbidden, “You monitored that? That was encrypted!”

“We have our ways. We’ve been watching Vaken Rae for some time.”

“But encrypted ‘bursts are completely undetectable!” Gator continued in his rumbling baritone. “If you can catch outgoing transmissions you’ve got a galactic decoder!” Crimson spun half way around to angle her displeasure at the giant space alligator, but it was sheer admiration in his voice.

Chief Police Inspector Rullorrg gave a satisfied burble that might have been a chuckle. His tentacles trembled. “If only all life’s problems were that simply solved.” He turned his attention back to Crimson; “You are the captain of the… Rival Bay?” the inspector spun through some files with an off screen nav-ball.

“Yes.” Crimson answered slowly. “But we weren’t going to deal with this… Rae.”

“On the contrary, Captain,” the Chief Police Inspector said, “I would like it very much if you did.”

Crimson’s eyebrows did a chest bump over the bridge of her nose. Gator bombasted “What?!”

The Chief Police Inspector sighed and reached for a spray bottle. He began misting his nose tentacles and wiping them with a cloth as he began to speak. The motion was fairly casual and familiar. Cleaning his glasses…? Crimson thought with a little disgust.

He said: “One of the peculiarities of Qualvanan law, which you may discover if you spend some time here, is that a criminal is not proven guilty until caught in the act. The best convictions happen, in the case of illegal cargo, just as any electronic transfers are being finalized. It’s a cumbersome requirement, but with all the loopholes today’s technology and legal systems can provide, it’s how we do it. Implications and intentions aren’t enough. We need Vaken Rae’s transaction to happen, and we need to see it when it does.”

“You want us to be your bait.” Crimson liked this even less than Rae’s offer.

“I want,” the inspector said, putting down his spray bottle and leaning forward, “Vaken Rae behind a level 10 forcefield, getting spanked like an Eppellion pony.”

Andross laughed out loud. Crimson stayed on task. “What’s in it for us?”

“I’ll let you keep a quarter of his offer, and you’ll have a badge of cooperation from the Qualvanan Authority—quite handy in this sector.”

Crimson scoffed. “I don’t come here that often.”

“Thirty-five percent, then,” said the Chief Police Inspector.

“And an encryption detector!” Gator barked.

“Thirty percent,” said the inspector, “… and I’ll see if I can have my lab boys talk to yours…”

Crimson felt the weight of Gator’s eagerness on the back of her neck. She was sure she’d regret this: she let out a hiss. “Done.”