Episode 2.15 Survivors

Keffler concept sketch, DanArt

Crimson watched the Pincho police carry off the small spoor crate, filing out of Keffler’s personal green house. She waited impassive, but from Keffler’s pinched right eye and protruding lips she guessed the gardener was more than a little steamed up by the inter-system customs crackdown.

She didn’t care. When she gauged the police were out of earshot, she leaned into the gardener’s ear; her voice black, burning motor oil, “If you ever make an insinuation like that again, I will break every working appendage you have left, no matter how much Potency Wood you have in you.”

The ornery gardener cast his weight onto his further armrest and darted a fierce look up and down, measuring her seriousness. She let her fury burn through her eyes into his for a moment, and then stalked after the police.

In under 20 minutes the investigation was concluded. In less than 50, they were off the ship. Crimson climbed to the cockpit to boil.

*

Braevel didn’t tend to eat with the crew as such. His water-suit made it impractical. Most of the cooked food wasn’t to his liking anyway. But often he sat with them at mealtimes. It was the only time they tended to gather as a group. With the domed observatory window, and conversation, it could be quite nice. Kaldus Major filled the window with blue most of the time, but at intervals the Rival angled away, and the smaller Kaldus Minor shone hazy brown in the distance.

Of course those on the Boatman were not with them, and Crimson, too, did not show up. Those that were left gathered one by one, while Keffler scraped and banged together a meal with less civility than usual. Upon hearing yet another pot crash violently onto the counters within the kitchen, the ornamented Vizavian Tager leaned into the group and explained, “I heard they took his bubble spoor.”

“Ah!” Braevel drew circles with his gauntlet, his finger swishing inside the watery suit. Apparently their little concoction had been unnecessary. He hoped the Syrric Polodus wouldn’t suffer for having so much of its nectar drained.

Finally Keffler’s chair whirred into the Mess and he tossed a big pot into the middle of the closest table.

“There it is,” he grimaced, “Eat it or don’t.”

Shaak-Rom stood up, plate in hand, and leaned over. His red lips split in a smile, exposing his pointed teeth. “Mmmm. Spa-get-ee…” Using the hooked fork from Keffler’s culinary arsenal Shaak-Rom pulled out a clump of the stretchy noodles.

“Oh! Meatballs today!” Braevel chimed in cheerfully. “You really have outdone yourself!” He did like meatballs; they tended to sink slowly and were more fun to eat in his personal tank.

Keffler shot him a guarded glance, “It’s a special frikkin’ day. The cops stole my stuff. We nearly chucked the Boatman into a comet. What’s next? Just be glad yer eatin’.”

“Why’s that?” asked Jumondo. The Grobaxian’s massive shoulders and hairy jaw both lifted in alarm at the thought of not having food.

Keffler sniffed. “I was told to pack enough food for Andross and the bug for two days. Now they got a Megladyte on board!”

“And P’Xak,” Shaak-Rom said sitting back down to hunch over his portion. His striped tentacle dreads dangled over the food, twitching.

Keffler gave a short laugh, “Oh, great.”

“I did not realize he was still on the Boatman helping Gator when Crimson sealed the shuttle bay.”

“Is that what happened?” Braevel cocked his head, finally understanding.

“Had I known, I would have erased our logs more correctly.” Shaak-Rom shook his head. “An important detail that nearly cost us our cover story.”

“Oh I don’t know,” Braevel chirped, trying to console the duty-bound Trivven, “Crimson covered it, and apparently we’re not the first ship to have records not up to date.”

“Yeah, well,” Keffler jutted back in, “four humanoids on two person rations for two days would be bad enough. But make one of them a Megladyte, and we might only have one crewman return.”

The crew thought about this for a miment. Braevel wasn’t sure if it was another human ‘joke’ or a real possibility.

“Do they have water?” Shaak-Rom asked.

“Hmm? Oh yeah,” Keffler grumbled, seeming distracted. “Cort and I keep the Boatman freshly tanked up. They’ll be peeing like sieves.”

They fell into silence again; each helped themselves to piles of the pressed wheat noodles in the red sauce. Braevel began to think of the health concerns of the hungry pilots, and what preparations he should make to receive them. Keffler continued to brood. Finally he grunted, “All right boys, don’t leave any left overs.” Then he drove off.

*

Crimson couldn’t go to her room. There was no one else to fly the Rival Bay. At the moment they were safely settled into a cislunar orbit. The sun, YG98729648, or Pincha to the inhabitants of Kaldus Major, rose approximately every hour with their rapid rotation. She sat casually, her booted, human foot propped up on the console.  Below her Kaldus Major looked surprisingly like Earth II—like Earth I for that matter—according to her Mindframe; blue, green, white, mountains, forests, ice caps, shallow seas… But it did nothing to make her feel connected to her humanity. Her cold, hollow pelvis, and hauntingly numb leg and arm left her nothing. She rotated her robotic left wrist and closed the metal fingers, glaring at the primitive action.

Bumping and a caustic curse came to her from down the catwalk. Keffler. She did not want to talk to him; for a moment she considered sealing the bridge, blocking him out. It would be pointless.

The whirring of his electric chair brought the rattling contraption to the back of the cockpit.

His gravelling voice rattled mercilessly, “Ya’ know for a tin can, you sure took that personally.”

She stood up so fast she nearly broke her seat from its support rod. “I warned you Keffler! I run an all male crew, not because I’m your sex toy, but a slave driver. If you or anyone else wants a piece of me, so help me I’ll—”

“You’ll what?!” spat the gardener, eye glinting fiercely in the light of the blue planet. “Break every working appendage I have left? Try it, princess! I’ll take you over my bad knees and spank your tin cheeks!”

Crimson sucked in a sharp breath and lurched over him, balling both her fists. Keffler remained slouched in his chair, about as intimidated as a coiled rattlesnake.

“I’m not done!” he puffed, “You keep walking around this place like you think the universe owes you something. Well, it doesn’t! There’s only one constant in this universe and you know what it is?”

“Gravity,” Crimson sneered.

“No.”

“Light.”

“No.”

“Dark matter.”

Keffler rolled his head like pinball, “No! Oh, fer crying—what’re trying ta do, woman, win a science fair?”

Death,” Crimson spat sarcastically, playing into his hand.

“No! Pain. Pain is the only constant in this crazy ol,’ messed up, spinning, black merry-go-round of a universe. It happens to everybody in one shape or another. It either kills you, or you survive!”

“Oh, and you’re a survivor?” Crimson jeered, spit flying off her lips on the ‘v’s.

“You don’t know anything about me!” Keffler snarled back, “I lost everything! But I’m not gonna’ sit around Earth II, pining for Earth I. Yeah, the universe sucks! But if it’s gotta’ suck, then it might as well suck interesting. That’s why I packed my crippled butt onto a flying cupboard: to see what else is around the next corner—besides pain! The sooner you get it the sooner you can get on with your surviving business.”

Rage surged along the implants on her spine, and the blood in her veins pounded against every metallic and synth interface. It one movement she wrenched open her heavy leather belt buckle with her good hand, and yanked down her denim shorts, exposing her metal pelvis. In another swift movement she peeled off her sleeveless top. She tried to fling it away; it caught on her robotic elbow joint, and dangled like a rag. She stood before him bare chested and exposed. Whatever life and curve her breasts had once had was dry and flat. Her skin was pale. Jagged scars and red irritation showed when her skin met the crudely grafted prosthetics. Robotics took over well before any chance of finding human reproductive organs. “You call this surviving!”

Keffler sat there. He did not feign shock, or embarrassment. Instead he maintained an even chew on the inside of his cheek, scowling. Deliberately he raked his eyes down her pale chest, middle, and robotic pelvis; suddenly she regretted her choice. Keffler’s eyes snapped back to hers. His face registered no change in emotion.

Be shocked, damn you! thought Crimson. Her rage stood frozen, impotent against a strange wall.

Keffler finished his chew. His sandpaper voice was low.

“Yeah, I know.”

She didn’t know what to do. She looked at the shirt hanging awkwardly from her metal elbow. Put it on again and Keffler would win. She felt nothing; but for some reason her tear ducts pulsed. Nothing came out. “You’re a jerk, Keffler!”

Keffler was impassive. “Yeah, you’re a jerk.”

Angrily she turned her head away, to Kaldus Major and the rising sun.

The hum of Keffler’s motor turned her back. He was maneuvering around to leave. But he stopped and said, “If yer human half gets hungry, I left spaghetti in the walk-in fridge.”

He drove away.

Crimson jacked up her shorts and re-buckled the belt. She put her shirt back on. Then she turned and plopped back in the pilot’s seat, facing the window for her third dawn that day. She didn’t know where the anger had gone; but for the moment she felt quiet.

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Episode 2.14 Customs and Contraband

Cloak and dagger wasn’t really Keffler’s style. He was more of a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy. If you wanted a bed-of-frikkin-roses kind of guy, you had to go somewhere else.

And usually, when they were bagging criminals, Keffler didn’t have much to do with the actual mission. Not his cup of tea. Humanoids weren’t much his cup of tea. Too full of crap. All this sneaking around lately, with a large heap of bull-crapping people on the side was new territory.

Then again, maybe it was fun. Likely bite them in the butt, though.

Keffler powered his way over to the maintenance elevator between the Mess and the crew quarters. It was set back a bit, and he was usually the only one to use it. For some reason Crimson and the party-antlered police chief followed. Keffler whacked the call button and the screen flung open, followed by the garage doors. He wheeled himself inside and banged a tight circle to land next to the inside control panel in a well-practiced maneuver, the back end of his chair nearly catching Crimson and the police chief in the sides. They stepped in once it was safe, and three other Picho police. The rest of the officers stared at the full maintenance lift in bewilderment, looking like a bunch of crustaceans after a seagull had picked through their heads.

“Use the flim flam stairs, you space-bottled morons!” Keffler snarled, flicking his wrist at the dumbfounded underlings. He struck the control panel and the doors closed. He grumbled, “… ‘Think they’d never seen a full elevator…”

In a moment the gray doors were lumbering open, and Keffler zipped out ahead of the others, and trundled around towards the Green House. The police and Crimson strode to keep up.

The artificial gravity weakened near the entrance to the Arboretum, and Keffler sped through it and hung left to stay on the catwalk between the ship and the sky pane. He knew his gardens well enough to see the second garden pane was just coming round from the ceiling. GP2 was where he had built his personal green house, and kept the more exciting plants he had found (and/or the ones it was best if they didn’t cross pollenate with the others). If he rode at top speed he could outpace the Arboretum’s rotation and ride up the cylinder towards the ceiling, but Crimson’s warning voice held him back and he waited for the escort to catch up. He didn’t have much over the lucky brats who still had working legs, but if anyone could demand he slow down for someone’s benefit, it was Crimson.

“Didn’t realize our fine guests couldn’t keep up,” he grumbled.

Crimson’s dark eyes silenced any further remarks, and the police chief, to his credit, didn’t respond.

After a while of marching, they at last came to GP2 and turned right to descend the slope of grass and shrubs. They passed Keffler’s heavy spruce glades, still young trees, but promising O2 generators for the future. Potted apple trees stood in three lines on their right, and then came the GP2 irrigation pond. It was Keffler’s favorite with the Fijillion Lily Pads, and the alien Whorler Reeds. Beauty and utility. Finding alien plants that were both benign, and compatible with Earth II flora was a quest all its own—finding ones that encouraged fertility in the soil, and rejuvenated their little ecosystem were gems in a galaxy of ‘takers.’

But takers were fun too. He had plenty of those in his green house. He had to keep mice just to feed the Herribus Rat Trap. Keffler chuckled to himself picturing one of these space gonzo’s poking a finger in that one. Wouldn’t be pretty…

They pushed through the plastic flaps, and the heavy moist air met them like a crowded classroom in summer. “Don’t touch anything,” was all her said to his followers.

Crimson was playing nice. She expounded, “Several of these are experimental hybrids; poisonous. Especially pointy ones.”

A smile crimped Keffler’s left eye. That ought to put the fear of pollen rods in them. He imagined the line of officers narrowing to single file and eyeing his plants suspiciously as they carefully edged past. Good.

Suddenly he exploded: “What in a thousand galaxies are you doing man! Put that down you imbecile!”

A pair of officers were already in the green house, with their scanning implement, one holding a trail of ivy in his black gloves. They straightened, their coral-esque head growths clacking into a low misting pipe, and stumbled awkwardly back.

“No! Don’t—touch! Stop!” Keffler babbled racing ahead, and seizing the closest officer by the wrist. The Pincho stopped thrashing and looked bewildered. Keffler didn’t release him for a long moment. He was drawing a deep breath and summoning his worst maldictions, when one of them spotted their commanding officer.

“Sir! We’ve isolated the reading to in here, but the humidity is making hard to find the exact source.”

Captain Ratu Tallar was starting to feel in charge again. He muscled his way up to his men and grabbed the scanner in his large, gloved hand. He turned to Keffler. “Any ideas where we should be looking?”

Keffler figured he had to make this good. He chewed the inside of his lip for a minute, “No—” he said slowly. “Well, maybe, I suppose. Depends on what you fella’s consider illegal…”

“Drugs, mostly,” said Tallar, with eyes that said he was serious.

“Huh,” Keffler grunted, as though that concept was novel. “Well, I suppose it could be a little concoction the doctor and I was working on. Some of the boys on board have a little problem, ya see…” Keffler whipped out a piece of rubber hose he’d been cutting earlier and held it up, only to let it flop. One of Tallar’s men snickered. Keffler drove past the captain and led the rest of the way to the workbench where his and Braevel’s makeshift still was dripping modified nectar into little jars. “It’s all right here. First dose seemed a little more potent then we reckoned. Not only does it enhance the men, it seems to entice the ladies.” Keffler tapped the brow of his hat and nodded discreetly towards Crimson. “Even the robot ladies.”

Tallar watched him with caution. One of his men, who looked the oddest, with a dome of brain coral on his noggin, brought the scanner close. It clicked and beeped for a few moments. Keffler waited with eyebrow raised.

The police officer looked up, “Nope. Not it.” Tallar looked about to release a monsoon, but suddenly the police officer’s careless scanner drifted past another object. It whirred and beeped frantically. The officer squawked and gripped the instrument with both gloves, waving it side to side. “It’s here!”

“Oh, snake’s spit!” Crimson groaned.

The police descended like bees on a honeycomb, hands slapping onto the purplish crate.

“Don’t open that!” Keffler barked, desperate, “That’s a Berkatollian Bubble Spoor!”

The officers—who already had the crate in headlock-of-prying immediately released the container unit—nearly dropped it in their haste to put it down.

“Bubble spoors are illegal in this system,” Tallar growled.

“It’s dormant!” Keffler added hastily. “Kept it frozen. Thought I’d study it a bit after our last job.”

Tallar looked to Crimson, “Is this true? Did you know this?”

Crimson’s teeth were not going to unclench, but words still came out. “You have our log book. We made a delivery of bubble spoors from Berkatol to Qualvanna, just before coming here. I recently learned that crewman Keffler kept one for personal study, but did not know they were illegal substances in this system.”

Tallar blew a long breath between thoughtful lips. “Unfortunately our neighboring system embraces this vile substance. But its worst properties are not felt by the inhabitants of that ecosystem. Here, however,” he said, assuming an authoritative stance, “such goods are strictly embargoed. You’re bubble spoor will come into the custody of the Pincho Police, and not be returned to the bearers. If you dispute this acquisition you may appeal to the Higher Court system for a hearing on behalf of your case. Thank you for your cooperation.”

“Come on,” Keffler crowed, ears tingling with rage. “But… what about the Syrric Polodus, and the… the Potency Wood?”

Tallar’s men were already confiscating the spoor crate. Tallar was half turned to go, but he looked back. “Syrric Polodus? Why would you have that? That stuff gives me a rash.”

2.13 Cops and Robbers

“Shaak-Rom! Are you done?” Crimson yelled up the catwalk. If her electrical components would allow her she probably would have anxiety. As it was, the elevated heart rate only irritated her and made her ornery. Earth II hornets would probably steer clear.

“Done!” said the red and striped, tribal devil. He tripped over his own boots squeezing out of the tight workstation behind the cockpit. Sometimes they called it the Archive. If the cockpit ever snapped off at the neck, taking the bridge crew with it, whoever was left had a chance of being able to run most of the rest of the Rival’s business and some critical systems from emergency backups in the Archive. Just so long as they didn’t want to fly anywhere. But it wasn’t built for convenience. Fortunately Shaak-Rom was a master of several martial arts; he broke his fall with a graceful stumble and rebounded off the passage way’s opposite bulkhead with the heel of one hand. He trooped towards her. “Gator, Andross, and Clidjitt never existed on this ship. Gator had a lot more disk history to rewrite…”

“Fine. We have visitors,” Crimson growled, not waiting for him to reach her before she turned and stalked off; he’d catch up to her cybernetic stagger quickly.

“Who’s on deck?” Shaak-Rom asked, nearly there already.

“Tager. Cort.” She needed friendly, ignorant faces. No one was ignorant, so friendly would have to do. Mog Mog and Jumondo looked like bouncers. Keffler and Braevel were busy. Micron was illegal in 17 systems. Of Krevvenar, P’Xak, and the Vizavians, only Tager tended to smile. And Cort was short and fuzzy.

“I’ll call them,” Shaak-Rom said coming even with her.

“Already did.”

*

Outside the Shuttle Bay they waited for the air pressure to normalize. The police corvette sat in the hanger, glimmering with reflective polish. The long body and engines confirmed Crimson’s suspicion that running a police blockade had never been an option. The amber lights inside the bay rotated, mesmerizing.

“So. This is fun,” Cort said. The space-rat cracked his rodent knuckles.

“So many visitors,” Shaak-Rom contributed, showing his pointed teeth with an ironic smile.

Tager smoothed his black hair with both hands using the Shuttle Bay’s pressurized window as a mirror. He cocked his head right and left, checking out the glints of gold from his facial jewelry. “It’s like a parade through here. We should charge admission for this party. What’s our story this time?”

Crimson’s hard eyes never left the confusing contours of the sleek corvette. She couldn’t ascertain if the reflective curves were for additional visibility in the vacuum of space or a precursor to cloaking technology. “No story. We’re deputized GP bounty hunters, looking for bounties in the Pinchava system. We don’t know what set off their drug alarms. We’ll comply fully with them as they search our ship.”

“What if they find Rullorrg’s surveillance devices?” Cort sniffed, twitching his whiskers. His large black eyes were honest and practical. Crimson tried once again to find an Earth II parallel for the space rodent. He had a furry tail, not fleshy like a rat’s….

“Then they’ll have searched better than Vaken Rae, a drug dealer with something to lose.”

Cort pointed his nose at the corvette and sniffed as though trying to gauge the Pincho Police. “Let’s hope not.”

The lights clicked green, and klaxons signaled it was safe to open the Bay. Immediately the ramp to the corvette opened with a hiss. Cort keyed open the door and hopped down from his electric cart, leading them in.

Booted feet descended the corvette’s ramp. The Police uniforms looked like white, trimmed-down EVA suits, crisscrossed with black hoses. The figures themselves had ruddy faces, and their heads were crowned with strange formations where hair might be on other humanoids. It looked like coral.

Most cultures put the leader at the front. But the collection of different coral-shaped heads parted and the commanding officer strode up from the back. A large asymmetrical rack of porous Elkhorn coral circled his skull.

“I’m Captain Ratu Tallar of the Pinchava System Police. Are you the commander of this vessel?” His eyes pointed to Tager, who stood last in line.

The Vizavian smirked and straightened his black leather jacket.

“I am,” Crimson grunted. “I understand your scanners thought they spotted something illegal on my ship.”

Captain Tallar shifted his attention to the cyborg female. “We detected trace evidence of something that could be illegal substances. Are you in possession of any intergalactic drugs or weapons, as banned by the Galactic or Pincho Precinct?”

“We’re deputized by the Galactic Precinct,” Crimson continued, her voice as flat as a monk fish. “Why would we have any contraband on board?”

Tallar shifted his weight, resting both hands on his utility belt. He was packing heat. “That is for me to determine.”

“Of course,” Crimson grunted, “You’re free to search the vessel. All our optipad-work is in order.” She waved a pad with her human hand.

Tallar gestured to his men. One came forward and took the optipad from Crimson, while the others began to pull scanning equipment off the corvette. Tallar gave the pad a cursory glance and stepped up to Crimson and her people. “Is this your entire crew?”

The smile on Crimson’s face was fake; it disappeared as soon as she spoke. “No. They’re at work.”

“I’ll need them assembled.” Tallar sighed and looked around routinely. He was comfortable with control.

“I’ll have everyone gather at the Circle. Would you like to follow me?”

“Of course.”

2.12 Maneuver Me This

Inspirational art: space travel

For a moment the Rival Bay rolled starboard on its sagittal axis. Any beached space-whales in the solar system might have been envious of the awkward, asymmetrical generation seed ship banking and rolling, hurtling by on the sub-lightspeed magnetic superhighway.

If Andross had planned it right, they had a 14 second gap between any oncoming traffic, and the nearest comet doing its biannual loop through the Pinchava System. The weight of the Boatman was different now that Gator was onboard. Crimson hoped Andross, and especially Clidjitt, had factored that into their calculations for escape speed.

“You’ll be in my magnetic wake for a few seconds Boatman.” Crimson reminded them, via Linkburst feed. “Just try not to burn me when you break free.”

“Roger,” Clidjitt’s speech box chirped. “Initiating thrusters.”

Crimson could hear Andross’ voice bossing backseat commands at the insectoid. She didn’t have visual relays to the body of the Rival but her sensor display could now pick up a second body flying within their vicinity. Collision alerts suddenly flared red on her screen. She ignored them.

“You’re clear. Get outta’ here!”

The Boatman suddenly disappeared as the jamming device activated.

“Thrusters to 8.9 output,” reported Clidjitt. The Rival rumbled and shook.

Andross’ background voice was saying, “Give it more juice…!”

Ten seconds. “Get outta’ here!” Crimson repeated.

“Thrusters 9.5!”

Crimson could hear the rattling of the Boatman through the Linkburst.

“Go, go, go, go, go!!!” Andross shouted.

“Thirteen seconds!”

A squeal and a crackle exploded through the ‘burst feed. It took Crimson’s Mindframe a millisecond to sort through the overloaded speaker output and decipher the cheers: “Yeeehaa!”

Boatman away!” Clidjitt reported.

“Good work,” Crimson grunted. In Mag-flight you could never see oncoming traffic, but Crimson’s Mindframe imagined the sensor blip of an oncoming ship as it streaked past them. She swiped the back of her human hand across her eyebrows, dashing away the sweat. She could still feel adrenaline. That was something.

From the background of the ‘burst feed she heard Andross again, “Whoa! Comet!”

“We have cleared the comet!” Clidjitt clarified.

Good. “See you in two days, Boatman. I’ll lose you in a moment.”

“Roger that, Rival we’ll see you when—”

They were gone from ‘burst reception.

Crimson extended both mechanical and organic elbows to their full extension, hands on the controls, leaning back in her chair. Then she relaxed her spine, letting her left shoulder weigh her down for a moment. She straightened.  In four hours they would have police visitors. Had to be sure they were ready.

Episode 2.11 Countdown

Inspirational art: space travel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Andross.”

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But worse still…

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

But the Megladyte lacked interest, “Okay…”

“Are you done in time?” she demanded.

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

“What do you need?”

“At least another hour!”

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

“Peaches.”

 

*

 

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

“Stand by, Boatman. Initiate launch.”

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