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.”

Episode 2.1 Drug Runners

Shaak-Rom in the Archive, concept sketch. DanArt

Optipad work: the curse of modern society. Shaak-Rom had been a combat trainer for the Legacy Knights—an ancient order dedicated to a code of chivalry and honor—and even they could not escape the ball and chain of legislature and admin. They had resisted every modern means of filing data, and clung to the pressing of plant fibers into parchments, and marking records upon them with ink, this dispensed from a fine leaking point called a quill. But even this antiquated means of recording information and fulfilling protocols was enough to make Legacy Master Zashivong Zamsei lament, “Paperwork is without honor.” Shaak-Rom agreed.

After the crew of the Rival Bay had been attacked by a gang of thieves bent of stealing their cargo it had been a fight-or-die moment—the combat that followed nearly legendary! But the legal implications could suck the life out of them even if they had not died at the hands of the spoor-thieves. Fortunately the Galactic Precinct permitted them to carry masers, which allowed Shaak-Rom to tick past most of the boxes on the endless pages of legal jargon that flashed by on his Optipad.

Crimson had tasked him with the security of the mission, and left him to sort out more loose ends than the edge of an unfinished tapestry. He had often served the Legacy Knights and their apprentices by oiling their boots, and folding their sparring robes. Crimson lacked the steady calm and chivalry of a Legacy Knight, but she was his commander. Even now Shaak-Rom saw the signs that she was descending into one of her dark moods; it was evident since he and the insectoid Clidjitt had rescued her from a pile of adversaries. She might not be roused from her dark quarters now except by a shipwide emergency or a bounty. He would do the Optipad work.

Once Qualvanan security forces, law enforcement, Species Protection & Fairness Organization, Bekka & Xvhkkttr Pre-Hazard Insurance were appeased—gorged with a plethora of “paperwork”—Shaak-Rom permitted himself to leave the communications alcove behind the bridge. He trekked to the Green House, stopping by his quarters only to retrieve his Grip-Stone baton. He wanted to try something.

He descended the catwalks to the lower levels and made his way to where the eternal light of the cosmic rays fed the spinning gardens of the Rival. Steeling his stomach Shaak-Rom walked through the artificial gravity fields into the spinning cylinder, and let the force of the Arboretum transfer the weight of his body mass outwards, holding him to the rotating floor with the approximation of gravity. He walked out onto the green fields of the garden pane, looking at the sky panes and other gardens above his head.  He could hear the sound of water bubbling from its recycling ports, into Keffler’s ponds, and even some birds clucking and singing among the plants. The sterile hollow-drum smell-lessness of the ship was replaced by the fragrance of warm grass and naturally photosyntesized air.

Finding a level square of ground that the human gardener Keffler had left between bushes and some raised flower boxes, Shaak-Rom unlooped his shirt and left it slip from his shoulders. He enjoyed the warmth of the Qualvanan sun as it peaked around the green planet through the sky pane above him for a long moment. He let it warm his red and striped skin, and rolled his head, neck, and shoulders. His dreads were free of the polymer spray that enabled him to breathe on-planet. Now he would enjoy the flavor of the trees and flowers and his dreads curled and flicked in enjoyment. He hefted the weight of his baton.

As a Duka, a sparring-trainer for the Legacy Order, he strove for the perfection and serenity of the Legacy. He had abandoned every trace of his native forms of Balankada to the superior discipline of the Knights, despite his lack of mind powers, and telekinesis. Nevertheless, his accomplished command of the martial art, and hard work, earned him his place in the combat academy training the young apprentices. He even became an appreciated sparring partner for several ascended Knights. He could, at least then, see his sister occasionally in the sparring halls of Ten-sha Temple…

But it was not the disciplined movement of the Legacy that slipped silently through his arms and legs as the Zeeplan spoor gangs of Qualvana swarmed the crew of the Rival. Balankada of his childhood; the forgotten, rhythmic , fierce, pulsing tribal dance—beat off the attacks.

A battle chant had even slipped out of his mouth.

Standing in the spinning terrarium of the Green House Shaak-Rom lifted his face and closed his eyes, imagining the orange light of his home world’s sun. The song climbed back from the depths of his memory.

Too ba ni,

may-may-ay!

Feeling the cadence, he began to move, dragging his baton through the air in a lazy arc and beginning the dance his ancestors.

*

Andross sat in the cockpit with both his booted feet kicked high on the control panel. He chewed on a toothpick, his head lolling back, looking out the dorsal window. Nothing but stars rotated in and out of view. He blew out a deep breath between his lips, nearly losing his toothpick in the process.

Crimson was pouting about something, and she’d forgotten to give them orders before disappearing. He considered hitting up the local newsbursts and police bands to see if there were any tasty bounties that might help them get a decent job, and a little excitement. But that would be borderline helpful. He decided against it. In just another hour, Clidjitt would be on duty and Andross could go hit the gym. Or sleep.

Suddenly the communications chimed. Andross catapulted back to properly seated, and stared for a moment at the red ‘encrypted’ light. No one was around. He answered.

“Hello, Rival Bay here. You’re paying for encryption; who are you and what do you want?”

A mostly handsome face lifted itself above the control console on the semi-holographic display. It was a bald head, with clean, humanoid features, but made distinct by spiked ridges where the eyebrows should have been. The figure smiled, “I am Vaken Rae, of Kannazzal.”

“Yeah?”

“I was impressed with the way your crew handled the situation here on Qualvana between the Zeeplams and the Gortassa. I have a valuable cargo I need to transport, that requires security measures equal to yours. Are you the captain?”

“You’d think. What’s your cargo?” Andross quipped.

“Flyer crystals,” said the drug dealer, dropping his chin knowingly. “100 grade.”

“Interesting,” said Andross arching an eyebrow and smiling. “Please hold.” He smote the display, killing the live feed. His other hand was already on the intercom. “Crimson, your gonna’ wanna’ do the talkin’!”

Episode 1.8 Spooriffic!

Concept collage, crew of the Rival Bay. DanArt

Sulblorrg’s security opened fire like their lives depended on it! Their long, hot laser blasts cut gouges through the ranks of attacking butterfly people. Crimson’s eyes flicked back and forth trying to choose a target as they swarmed the platform like locusts. Her throat constricted. They were probably considered a beautiful species. One landed roughly on the vehicle that served as Crimson’s hiding place. The vehicle rocked with the creature’s arrival. Instinctively Crimson blasted it with her maser. The close range blast of stun energy propelled the light alien into the air again before dropping it to the ground, twitching.

Crimson’s sense of life-preservation quickly became annoyance. The blue, red, and yellow butterfly assailants were not exactly attacking them, but pouncing on the escapee spoors.

Far from delicate creatures, the jointy, multicolored arthropods scrabbled for the fuzzy spoors, and fell about them in mats and tangles of strangely hinging limbs. Crimson watched them fight to corral the floating spoors with their wings, and then hook it with a long curling tongue. More and more of the plague of attackers dropped to the space port around them, and covered the cart and fallen crates with bodies. They tugged and fought to open the remaining boxes.

“Diablos,” Crimson growled. Heaving herself up she clanked out into the open. “Hey!” she shouted, “Get away!” Sulblorrg’s security were firing frantically, dangerously, in all directions. Butterfly people swarmed them like an airborne mob, attempting to take them down. Crimson hadn’t come 4 days, and an eternity of light years across solar systems, to lose her stupid cargo to a bunch of fairies from Shannara.

She fired repeatedly into the throng directly ahead of her. The wide blast of the maser plowed a path through the butterfly people like an Earth II leaf blower. Another danger occurred. Her crew from inside the Boatman, a reserve force in case of such an emergency, were opening fire into the mass of assailants. Crimson and Sulblorrg’s crazy security forces were directly in their line of fire. With another blast Crimson cleared a handful of butterfly people off Sulblorrg’s henchman, and shouted, “Get outta’ there!” To her own people she Linkbursted, “Shoot wide, you idiots!”

A butterfly person landed beside her, grabbing her maser arm. For a moment she looked into the alien face. Large, dark eyes with an iridescent sheen stared back at her from the sweetly human-sweetly insectoid face. Then it wrenched down harder on her weapon and two more joined the first. She yanked with her human arm: the last of her self-restraint. The trio of assailants could not be shaken.

With a guttural sound in her throat, Crimson brought the full weight of her robotic arm across into the face of the closest butterfly attacker. The piston-like blow smashed the attacker backwards. She back-handed the other two, and the strength of the hydraulics sent both the creatures flying with the sound of cracking bones audible even through her two ear pieces.

A sextuplet of hands fell on her back as more butterfly people engulfed her. She spun on her robotic heel and leveled the wave of attackers. The sky was growing dark above her. Suddenly she realized that protecting her cargo was not her only concern. The butterflies clumped around her, arms and legs falling across her head and shoulders, grabbing at her limbs and body.

Crimson struggled, her powerful cybernetic limbs wreaking havoc on the bones and wings of the closest attackers. But she couldn’t break her free. A strange chittering language buzzed outside her ear pieces, and more hands groped and grabbed her. The mat of appendages began to press her down.

Her Mindframe froze. Crimson gasped, trying to see, to fight for freedom against the press of machines and cables. No! she told herself. Wings and arms. Terror clutched her throat without permission, as gears, tubes, and hard metal clamps at her wrists and ankles froze her soul. A stabbing pain of fear flashed through her nerves like blue fire. She heard a bone saw, and felt needles and tubes in her arms and torso. Where was her crew? Where were the butterfly people? What was happening to her? She felt fiery pain as her skin sliced open. She screamed.

A strange bubbling sound, followed by a silly high voice yelled, “Get away! Shoo! Get away from her!”

Crimson could barely see through the mass of dark wires covering her.

The watery wawp of a maser wobbled overhead. Another voice arrived, chanting a tribal cry. Voices of alarm sounded from the chittering masses of butterflies. She heard the solid thwack of a pole on skin. Multiple times.

The wires and machines faded to a dark mass of arms and legs and wings. Around her was a violent clamor; bodies scattered and clambered everywhere. She was on her back. Suddenly a gap appeared at her feet. A massive bronze ant rose from the chaos, lifting piles of butterfly people like a sack. To her right the chanting voice became the whirling red and gray cyclone of a Trivven, beating back the hordes of flying attackers with a long pole.

More maser fire clapped and popped through the sky around them, and the butterflies erupted into the sky with a cry of high-pitched, alien fear. The burst of colorful wings lifted, revealing the Boatman, and the running figures of the Rival Bay advancing to secure the space port.

Clidjitt clattered over her, and whirled, his four barbed arms extended to ward off further attack. Shaak-Rom skidded under the insectoid’s umbrella of protection, arriving at her side with a bump. Before she could react he had yanked her free arm around his shoulders, and looped his two muscular arms underneath her. With a heavy groan he lifted her and her robotic pelvis, arm, and leg. For a moment she felt the porous solidity of his strange, rock armor.

Andross’ cheer of triumph in her ear piece scorched her eardrum. Members of the Rival Bay gathered around them as Shaak-Rom toted her back towards the Boatman. Crimson stiffened in anger. The taste of terror still stung her mouth like cold metal.

“Let me down!” she shoved against Shaak-Rom. Her own voice sounded far away and weak. She pushed harder, forcing the Trivven to relinquish his grasp. With a clank Crimson dropped to her feet.

Sulblorrg’s guards were attempting to catch a surviving spoor. Two of them, scratched and battered themselves, corralled and captured one of the furry purple bubbles with a crate and quickly snapped the lid shut.

Gator thundered up to Crimson like an earthquake. “You okay, Crims!” He clapped a scaly, clawed hand on her good shoulder.

Crimson nearly fainted under the weight, but she bit her lip beneath her rebreather mask, and leaned on her robotic parts for support. “Fine,” she growled.

“Quite a spectacle,” snorted an arrogant voice. Crimson and the crew turned to see a fat blue, nose-tentacle alien rolling toward them on a mobility platform of some sort. The triangular head on the fat, lumpy body looked like a birthday hat on a pile of a melted cake. “I’m afraid we may not have a deal, Crimson, if your spoor-load has floated away with the Zeeplans.” He gestured a fat blue hand to the absent hordes of attackers.

Crimson pulled herself up, hoping her voice would come across stronger than before. “I was born yesterday!” she sneered.

Sulblorrg—as it no doubt was—cocked his head not understanding.

Crimson opened her hand towards the toppled cart and boxes, and would have mock bowed if she’d had the strength. “Decoy cart. Only three spoor boxes for effect. Shipment’s still onboard,” she stabbed her thumb at the Boatman behind her. “We good, or do I need to call your fairies back?”

 

*

 

The rest of the transaction was a comparative breeze. Sulblorrg was thrilled with their decoy plan. He now seemed to think the horrific riot was a peaceful and successful spoor transaction. Payment was theirs within the hour. Unfortunately their victory was tempered by the number of fees they’d accrued setting up the dangerous trade. But it was still a profit.

Three grav-zones later, they were back on the Rival. Everyone who’d been planet-side had a sterilization shower on the Boatman before disembarking to the generation seed-ship. Who knew what was living in the green, oozy atmosphere of Qualvana? Crimson wasn’t having it on her ship.

On the flight up she was morose even for herself. She sat strapped in a back seat savoring the terror from the claustrophobic vision. It had been awful. But it was more than a psychedelic trip. It had been real; once, she thought.

Gator found her, hours later, sitting in the dark of her quarters.

“Hey. You in here?”

The deep growl of the compassionate beast dragged a response out of her. “I saw something, Gator.”

“Yeah, me too. If I could turn a light on…” the hulk of the Megladyte was silhouetted by the hall’s weak lighting. Crimson didn’t respond. In a moment Gator flicked on the room light revealing his yellow scales, red shock of hair, and a concerned look on his crocodile face. “You okay, Crims? The others told me you nearly got eaten alive.”

“I saw something,” she repeated. “Something of my past.”

Episode 1.7 Ambush

DanArt

Concept sketch Crimson. DanArt

Crimson cursed, and the sound of her own voice echoed in her rebreather. It was hot: humidity beaded sweat on her forehead and upper lip. She had goggles on to seal off the harmful atmosphere from her eyes and ear pieces for communicating with her crew; combined with her breathing mask, she felt like a clumsy scuba-diving enthusiast with nothing better to do than play dress up on land. Now, as Shaak-Rom’s warning popped in her ear piece, she realized again her survival could also never count on her speed. She was one step into her sprint before her robotic leg caught her, and dragged her dive-for-cover into a comical stumble-and-hobble.

Don’t be Tiberius Longus! Don’t be Tiberius Longus! warned her Mindframe. What? Crimson complained.

Hannibal. Of course.

Laser fire screamed down behind her and ruptured the landing platform with a blast of scalding air. The shove of shockwave nearly knocked Crimson to the ground. She was too far forward to return to the Boatman. Sulblorrg’s security would have to do for protection.  Already the black-clad, nose-tentacled matching alien security guards were returning fire at the flying attack skiff. Their laser rifles left funny singed lines of floating algae in the murky green atmosphere which then fluttered to the ground like cheap party string. Crimson half dove, half dragged herself behind a four-wheeled supply vehicle.

Forcing her cybernetic leg into a kneel she raised her be-goggled head to see what was happening. Red laser was raining and dancing to and fro, from the platform and the skiff. A wobbly distortion from a distant maser caught one of the skiff riders in the shoulder. He toppled off and fell beyond view. Gator, looking ridiculous in his massive breathing mask, and Andross, miniscule by comparison, crouched by the ramp to the Boatman’s interior. Several more of the crew waited, armed and ready within the shuttle.

She saw another thing: grappling hooks. The space port had a high wall around its far side, it had made it tricky for Andross to negotiate the landing, but he enjoyed it (not so secretly). Now climbing hooks over the lip of the perimeter announced the arrival of more unwanted visitors.

“Gator! ‘Dross! Ground troops on the walls!” Having a Linkburst line open was expensive, but it was also the fastest way to communicate with everyone. Voice chips could link most of the crew within a certain range. But with two teams, one on the Boatman and one in the city, they’d needed an immediate solution.

“Yeehaw!” Andross shouted back through the burst-feed. Already he was running under the Boatman’s wing, headed for a better vantage point.

Another blast from the skiff’s cannon rocked the platform, this time hitting the electric cart, laden with boxes. The cart jack-knifed in half, tossing crates like a chef’s salad. Crimson winced. Here we go… She checked her breathing mask was firmly in place.

Crates rained down. Then like a cascade of jack-in-the-boxes one, two, then three crates burst open. Bizarre explosions of purple slime followed by big, fuzzy, purply bubbles floated into the bio-luminecent sky, like lazy bumble-bees of moldy death.

Everything happened at once: Sulblorrg’s security guards yelled in alarm and surged forward to protect the spoors, firing rapidly. A klaxon sounded from somewhere in the green, hazy sky. Voices erupted in cries of attack from the lip of the space port’s wall, where attacker’s suddenly appeared behind their grappling hooks. Andross opened fire, followed by Gator, blasting attackers off the wall with their masers like targets in a gallery.

Crimson lifted her head trying to figure out where to join the fracas. A laser beam from the skiff sizzled over her head, dropping a streamer of burnt algae on her humidity flattened crop of purple hair. She ducked back, for once glad that her cheap hair product never fully stood it up straight: she would have lost whatever she had.

Aloud she said, “Right.” Sulblorrg was losing security guards. Maser in hand she spun on her robotic knee and popped up to take aim. The skiff was close enough.

Wawp! The maser’s strange funnel mouth launched a blob of stun energy wiggling through the sky. It broadsided the second of the skiff’s riders: a beautiful head shot. The armored assailant went rigid as though he’d just smacked into an invisible wall—energy overriding his brain’s signals—then he went slack and toppled helplessl y to the space port pavement.

A lucky shot from Sulblorrg’s guards struck the skiff’s laser cannon’s mouth, causing an explosion. The skiff, with the driver, twisted dangerously, spinning . Crimson bit her lip, and let the casual droning of her Mindframe measure the trajectory as she followed it with her human arm. A little lead…

Wawp! The stunned skiff driver was tossed from the careening craft like a bean bag, crashing into the wall of the space port with a satisfying, armor-crunching smack. The skiff sailed like a skipping stone over the space port wall, and Crimson listened to its collaterally destructive demise. Meanwhile the driver finished his drop to the space port surface.

She pinned her maser-supporting elbow against her hip with cocky impudence and looked at Sulblorrg’s heavily armed buffoons to gloat. They were watching the steamy sky with fear in their eyes. The keening alarm from some garbled bullhorn system, sounded both electronically cheapened and underwater. Apparently it wasn’t a security alarm. Andross and Gator hadn’t fully finished the fire fight with the grappling hook operators, and Crimson was about to lurch from her place to help them, before the assailants ruined her shuttle with their terrible aim.

But the sky was darkening: hordes of the light-boned butterfly people were descending in hungry swarms.