Episode 1.4 Chipped

After hiking back through the Arbotretum Crimson dismissed Shaak-Rom with a curt, “Get some rest,” and clumped off to her own quarters to take her own advice. She had been sleeping before this whole thing started…

System jump drives: Kladerine Collective technology that had been butchered and shared out to the rest of the galaxies. The exotic species of hundreds of worlds would still be trekking around in clunky, sub light-speed vessels like the Rival Bay if it had not been for the once benevolent, now defrauded cooperative of technical gurus who had invented the Jump Drive. Oh, they called it something else, but the Universal Language reduced the miracle of science to a childhood expression.

It wasn’t wormhole tech either. The Pilgravians and Solazge and maybe a few others used something along those lines. It no doubt helped that neither of them had traditional humanoid or organic forms to lose in the poorly documented ‘twisting’ that occurred in such wormhole transitions.

No, the ‘Collectine’ Jump was still flying through space technically. But it was wizardry for all anybody knew. Crimson had put her Mindframe to it once, to crunched through the equations that a few rogue scientists had tried to ‘make accessible’ to the plebian masses. Something about pulling cosmic strings like a bow then releasing them with enough tension to bend through Space/Time. Something like that. Even her cybernetic implants did little to help with that.

Regardless, in 32 hours they would reach Khibarra.

It was a big step up from the age of stone-wheel anti-matter combustion and nuclear fusion. Photon sailing was just a thing for the nostalgic, and the Sail Races of Bodyssee System.

 

A day and a half, roughly, of jump time. Earth II operated on a 22 hour day, and Crimson hadn’t seen any reason to deviate from that method. She assumed she was from Earth II. It must have been familiar to her subconscious. Her Mindframe seemed to recall facts about the galaxies most extensively from there; it was the human home world (except for Mars in the Sol System; but that was so far afield in the estranged Milky Way Galaxy it was sometimes considered more of an ancient sect of humanity than the initial colony world after Earth I). Twenty-two hour days made for 7-hour-and-20-minute shifts. A random number she had to admit, but it seemed a reasonable length for most crew to work. Many races throughout the cosmos were used to longer days, so complainers were fairly rare. If anyone griped about it, they were welcome to get off at the next stop. She kept contracts short like that.

They had a pecking order aboardship. She was the top. Andross thought he was second, but Gator actually was. Anybody could be conscripted to help with anything that went wrong. That mostly meant Gator pulled people into his services for labor duties maintenancing the massive ship. Even Crimson helped, and she made anybody who shirked work do double until they either fell in line or got off ship.

Gator kept their first day full once they hit Jump to Khibarra. After that the crew had some down time to spend as they wished. Once in system, they had sub light propulsion to take them where they needed to be along magnetic tradeways. Six more hours until they reached Qualvana: their port of call.

*

Egg fu yung had brought Andross to the table. It was still hours to Khibarra System and then 6 more to Qualvana. Dinnertime was the most excitement he’d had all day. Basically a day off-duty, save for a shift monitoring the cockpit. He ditched his MiPie flight armor for a comfortable t-shirt and trousers, beat Krevvenar five times at darts, shot some hoops in the cargo bay alone, and did whatever else he could to stave off boredom until dinner. He slumped heavily into the bench in the mess hall. Just off the circular common area in the crew cabins, the kitchen/mess was another glitz of the ancient ship’s former glory back when space flight was a thing of the dark ages. Whoever the inhabitants of the generation seed ship had been, they’d left enough room for large shifts of the several hundred colonists to dine together. Andross was just glad Crimson had had the sense to drag two tables closer to the kitchen serving window so they didn’t have to carry food across the whole room.

The smell of that crazy old gardener’s cooking was a scent for sore nose. Whatever the eco-king had concocted was finally going to soothe Andross’ hollow stomach; one thing he didn’t mind about riding around the universe in the dumpy old Rival was the food.

He allowed his hopes to brighten slightly when Cort, the Ilslavian space-rat, and Shaak-Rom the red, white, and blue Trivven showed up. Maybe they could have a few laughs or Shaak would tell some crazy stories from the Legacy Order. Andross had left the brawling bars of Talconis VII and the high stakes races for this gig. Jumping punks and criminals was fun, but the incessant waiting between worlds and systems… Andross would almost rather face the Tax Man. Now that they were doing some dairy run for some funky spoor traders—spoors that could explode and poison the whole ship—there was little to look forward to at the end of the journey.

“Com’on boys and girls, I’m starving!” Andross banged his spoon.

“Hey! Don’t break my plates…!” The grumpy gardener-chef scowled over the serving counter from the low vantage point of his mobility chair, “… again!” He shoved a heavy pot onto the stainless steel work surface.

“Maybe it wouldn’t break if there was some food on it.” retorted Andross.

“Maybe I’ll throw yours out the airlock, and you can put it on your plate yourself!” Keffler wheeled his chair around and scooted back into the kitchen for something.

Cort stepped over the table’s attached bench and sat down the way any large rodent might sit at the edge of its food dish (if it were dressed in a dirty cover-all with a utility belt). His rodent hands and feet were furry, and the little sucker could scamper all-the-heck over the ship like it was his own plastic playscape.

“Ohhh, you look so cute when you sit like that!” Andross cooed.

Cort’s beady black eyes hardened and be bared his buck teeth, “Gimme’ yer finger.” He snapped his incisors.

Shaak-Rom, goody boy, carried the pot of steaming food to the table. His blue and white striped flesh-locks—living tentacles dangling from his head—twitched near the food.

“Hey!” Andross snipped, “Keep your dreads out of the soup!”

The Trivven set the pot on the table, piled high with egg-and-vegetable clumps, and bared his teeth in a sharp-toothed smile. “Smells good, doesn’t it.” His dreads flicked again… smelling the food?

Andross grimaced openly. What do those things do? He wondered. The similarly striped horns that rose from the Trivven’s red head were obvious: dangerous, heavy, boney protrusions that likely wooed females and gouged rival males. But the sometimes animate, sometimes innate dangly bits… Anybody’s guess.

The crew continued to filter in. Braevel, the medic, Krevvenar, Olper. Others were on duty. Some always came late.

Andross plunged his spoon into the pile of steaming fu yung and plopped several onto his plate even as he saw Crimson enter the Mess Hall. Her clanky foot gave her away before she appeared and strode between the empty tables. She could have been a pretty woman except for her crude robotic arm and leg, and unusually flat chest. The attractive face was lost under the dark eyes and expression; the purple Mohawk fallen sideways (and sometimes into her face) made her look like a gothic Mist-prostitute. Not that he minded a little Mist, or a prostitute. He would be the laughing stock of Talconis VII, working for woman like Crimson, if she wasn’t every bit as tough as an angry Legacy War vet. But she had needed a pilot, and he needed to get off-world for a bit.

The bounty hunting was a fun gig. He was a quick learner with the maser rifles, and side arms he’d carried as a precaution for some time. Converting the empty shuttle bay for a practice range had given him a chance to get better with his pistol at a range longer than a meter. He’d only really needed point-blank skills on Talconis. The funnest bounties the Rival’s crew took on were the ones that ran. It was like Missile racing on foot. But since Shaak had joined they’d taken to planning their raids a bit more. It was a shame really. A little disorganization provided the extra element of chance that made it more exciting. Besides, half of the bounties crumpled to the ground pleading for a second chance. Never gave a body a chance to fire a maser. They shouldn’t waste their only chance at the fun ones.

“Andross,” Crimson quipped. Her voice was lower than he liked his women. “Save some for the rest of us.”

Andross shoved a wad of the glorified veggie omelet into his mouth, and relished the warmth on his palate. “Hey!” he said around the mouthful, “You’re just lucky I waited!”

Keffler drove up with another pot, this one filled with a rudely tossed salad. “Three-a-piece, flyboy!”

Andross threw his hands in the air as he swallowed. “Unless you’re a giant lizard! Speaking of which, is the big lug eating tonight? Don’t want to see the show, if I can avoid it.”

Cort and a few others grumbled audibly, but Andross defended himself. “Hey, if I wanted to see a croc death roll, I’d watch an Earth II nature special Link-burst!”

“Hey, midgets, where’s the grub?” the booming, raspy voice of the enormous space-a-saur Gator thudded into the Mess like a natural disaster, tail swishing along the floor looking for hapless princesses to crush.

Keffler tossed a hand behind himself, “Veggie tonight, Gator. Yours is in the deep freeze.”

“Righto!” Godzilla passed them by, and stomped off into the kitchen to forage for his own kill.

Andross let his groan be heard around the table. “Here we go.”

“If you have a problem, you can have it in your cabin.” Crimson was halfway through dragging her robotic leg over the table’s bench. Andross wondered if she left her mascara to fade down her cheeks, or if she really just looked like that.

“Hey! I just didn’t want to see another wildebeest get mauled.” Andross folded one elbow across the table and slouched himself in front of his dish.

Shaak-Rom added his baritone voice to the pig-pile. “We all have our own ways. Our brother must eat to fill three times our stomachs.” The stripey devil forked his own food into his mouth, but Andross noticed a weird tentacle dribbled on his plate, maybe tasting the egg.

In a moment the heavy tread of Gator returned. A massive, frozen flank of dark, raw meat hung in his huge paws. Andross froze in anticipation, his eyes tracking the Megladyte, waiting for the gruesome show. Gator sat back on his tail like a bean bag chair, close to the table where the crew sat. His jaws opened like scissors to receive the sacrifice. With a snap, half of the carcass tore off. Then the reptile tossed back his head and snapped and choked the poor frozen animal down with much slavering and slurping. Andross shook his head and tried to think pleasant fu-yung thoughts.

“So how long will this spoor business take?” Andross said, trying to squint his left eye to avoid Gator’s feast.

“Time table’s posted in the log,” Crimson growled.

“Yeah, but, anything on the police bursts? Do we have any bounties when we get there?”

“We’re in jump, you wanna catch a wave?”

“I’m just sayin’, feels like we’ve cashed in, doin’ a milk run like this.”

Crimson erupted like a solar flare. Her usually sluggish robotic arm fired like a piston, smashing the table with enough force that few egg patties were left on their wobbling plates. She rocked to her feet, her metal thigh colliding with the table and pushing the whole thing, crew and benches included, a several inches back with a loud screech. Her human hand was on his shirt, and her nails scratched him through the cloth as she yanked him forward.

“You will respect my decision! The payoff is more than adequate for this job, and we need the money for repairs! We’ll be back hunting down slime the instant we’ve off loaded these diablo spoors, and you can load them on the Boatman yourself! Now get outta my Mess!”

Crimson released Andross’ collar fiercely, nearly pushing him over his seat. Before he could respond, she heaved her own leg over the bench and stormed off through the Mess. A down-thrust of her cybertnetic arm made yet another table jump like a clown’s see-saw, and then Peg the Pirate was gone.

Andross cursed. “Over react much?”

There was venom in Keffler’s laugh, “Never poke a cyborg, kid.”

Andross glowered, and sat back down.

“You heard the lady,” rumbled Gator. His hard predator eyes mixed with the bloodied jaws for a complete picture of horror. “Show yourself out.”

“You gonna make me?” Andross snapped, “Besides she’s left—”

Gator rose to his feet, dropping the half-shank of cow on the neighboring table, and sporting his crocodile grin. “I would love to make you.”

“All right, all right!” Andross tossed his hands, “It was just a joke, big guy.” Throwing his egg back on his plate Andross made sure to make a dragging sound with both the plate and spoon as he yanked away from the table. He channeled his sarcasm into his boots as he stomped off, muttering, “What’s everybody’s problem?!”

*

Crimson flicked the nav ball on her personal console as if the speed of her wrist could bat the anger away like a fly. Andross was right: what were they doing? She’d taken a cushy sounding trade job, and all the while criminals were traipsing free through the solar systems, wreaking havoc. The only problem was she was right too: there was nothing in the database from their short stint of Berkatol that could give them a lead on slime either back on Berkatol or in the Khibarra system. She spun the nav ball roughly, sending the digital display flying.

A heavy clanking on the grate outside her door told her Gator was out there before his meaty hand thumped on the bulkhead. She thought she heard her name, muffled through the reinforced wall.

Crimson slouched back in her chair, and stared darkly for a moment at the scrolling display. With a begrudging sigh she levered herself up and clanked across to the pressure sealed door. Giving it a hefty crank she released the door clamps, and swung it open. The terrifying visage of a primeval predator crowded the space in the hallway, as Gator hunkered to try and angle his snout to see her.

“You okay?” his gravelling bass voice asked.

Crimson jutted her jaw in thought, and turned darkly back to the interior. She resumed her post by the endless, useless datastream. Gator set about the task of grunting and maneuvering his bulk inside. Once in he squat-waddled closer and sat back on his tail.

“Andross is right; we’re wasting time.”

“My engines don’t think an easy payoff for some nifty repairs is a waste.”

“We should be out hunting.”

“Hunting what? Space squid? We’ll make Qualvana soon enough.”

Crimson’s mood wasn’t going to budge that easily. She remained dark, inwardly burning.

Gator cleared his massive throat. “Um, you readin’ that?” He pointed to the dizzying display.

She refused eye contact.

Gator reached over her good shoulder and with a touch of his index claw he stopped the rotating display. He rested his arms on his knees. “Look. Andross is a bork.  You made a good call for the ship an’ crew.”

“We’re just so diablo… Useless!” she finally vented. “We’re doing nothing!”

“Hey! If you’re bored you can pull double duty until we reach next port!” Gator quoted her favorite threat to lazy crew. “I’ve got a diablo ship to run here!”

She glared up at him. If she had any sense of humor she would have probably laughed. She wondered if she had one before she lost her arm, leg, and humanity. Gator’s crocodile grin was infuriating.

“So…?” he pushed, “You getting’ off at the next planet, or not?”

Again, her ultimatum to the whiners.

“Screw you, you frikkin’, salamander.” Her words lacked sincerity. It was the best she could do.

Gator caught her meaning through the dark cloud of hostility. His smile widened, and he plopped a massive paw over her head and pulled her shock of purple hair forward with a heavy hand. Then he waddled around and wedged his bulky frame out the door.

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