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.

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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.