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.

Episode 1.6 When Spoors Pop

Shaak-Rom in Gripon armor, concept collage

They’d had a lift installed to get from the shuttle bay to the cargo bay. That’d been smart. But storing the stupid spoors in the Green House had been idiotic! Cort’s electric cart only helped from the cargo bay to the edge of the Arboretum. Andross had dragged it across the threshold of the spinning garden-of-death only twice before he gave up. The first time he’d nearly gotten stuck and dragged up the wall with the stupid cart, and second time the centrifuge had dumped all three crates of spoors roughly on the floor. Andross’ cursing had only been cut short by the angry fizzing sound from within the purplish sealed rain-pods. The outsides of the synth containers seemed taught with pressure from the mold, boiling like a pit of vipers.

Andross had been forced to lug the crates one by one from where they had been stacked in the unfinished portion of Keffler’s gardens to the edge of the spinning cylinder of the Green House. He’d coerced Cort and Clidjitt to help him until Queen Crimson came down and told them off for it. He was on his own for the massive task. But if she thought he was going to break and whine like a little girl, she had another thing coming.

He only dumped one other crate on its side. That had come once he started stacking the cursed boxes near the Green House edge. The lighter gravity there made his stack unstable near the top and knocked one crate from its perch. Fortunately the grass slope was more forgiving than the metal decks of the Rival. It was only a few tense moments for Andross as he listened to the hissing inside the straining box, then it subsided. He safely resumed his personal internal grumbling.

It took four of the six hours on the Tradeways to load the blasted cargo back into the Boatman.  Andross’ spine felt like it had been compressed like a telescoping rod by the weighty crates.

He hadn’t argued with the ridiculous punishment. Andross had heard Crimson’s bend-over-or-get-off speech a few times. Once directed at him. Slacking would get him fired. He had half a mind to quit too, if Qualvana was nice. He was overqualified to be stacking boxes in the cargo hold. It was a back breaking waste of his time. In his mind he already had his final pay transfer in hand and a virtual beach house booked with some bikini-clad bar girl at his elbow when Crimson’s surly voice interrupted his disembarkation reverie via the shuttle bay’s intercom.

“Andross. You there?”

The last of the cursed boxes was stacked. He was about to be in his bunk watching Linkbursts of Deathracers. “What?” he complained. She probably wanted the toilets cleaned; if she did she’d be down a pilot—

“Suit up. You’re flying us down. And report to the Armory for your equipment. Looks like a dicey drop.”

“Right.”

The customary fizz of the intercom ended, and Andross felt his hopes perk for the first time since they’d nearly been eaten by the black hole. “Yes!”

His L3 and 4 vertebrae popped as they straightened at the prospects.

*

Making planet fall was always an exciting ride. Decelerating from orbit to puncture an atmosphere into a planet’s field of gravity was bumpy and gut-wrenching. Changing from the artificial gravity of the Rival Bay to that of the Boatman, then compounding that with the gravity of a planet before automatic sensors disarmed the artificial fields was enough to toss most travelers’ lunches. People took medication to dull the cumulative effects of multiple grav-zones. Shaak-Rom avoided drug stimulation whenever he could. He found it helpful to have a task to distract him. Today’s was sufficient.

Crimson had tasked him with deploying the bulk of the crew for this drop. Apparently the spoors they were carrying hadn’t been such an innocent cargo after all. The Trader’s space port was a partially covered landing zone, such that whoever the pilot was, he would have to nestle the nose and bow of his craft under the shell of the half-roof. The back of the landing pad was walled, but numerous buildings surrounding the landing zone looked in on the transactions that happened there. They would need multiple eyes on multiple rooftops to even secure that much. Suddenly unsure of how dangerous a deal this might be Crimson was surprisingly compliant to Shaak-Rom’s suggestion of tactical support from neighboring rooftops—that they might actually need to spare the expense to land at a public port, and send some people by foot to secure the rooftops before the Boatman ever touched down on the trader’s private port.

It would be pricey; but after a moment’s consideration they’d agreed that local port authorities—and a clear passenger manifesto, stating they were simply disembarking with “personal items”—would mean they could keep their ground time to a minimum, without (hopefully) incurring the interest of any dangerous parties who might have learned of the true cargo they came to deal in.

Three grav-zones later, and a healthy run, and Shaak-Rom was standing on a rooftop, overlooking the hazy green air and sprawling metropolis of one of Qualvana’s biggest cities. He was breathing hard through his respirator from the 3 kilometer run, but the sooner they were in position, the sooner Crimson could bring in the Boatman. Besides, the run had settled his displeased stomach.

He had had to issue everyone rebreathers. Atmospheric conditions of Qualvana weren’t the most oxygen rich he’d ever seen. Gasses that wafted through the air were either noxious or tranquilizing. His eyes watered as stinging plumes of steamy gas floated past. He was all right, as were Gator, Braevel and Clidjitt; but the Humans, Ilslavian, and the Vizavians all required goggles as well. For himself he sprayed his dreads with a semi breathable poly coating. It deadened quite a bit of his awareness, but he would not be able to function in the hostile environment any other way. A Trivven without his dreads was like losing both taste and smell, but it was also something more… Still, in single-sense training with the Legacy Knights he had endured more challenging trials.

It seemed an especially dangerous day, so he opted to wear his stone armor as well: another memento from the sacred temple of the Knights as a Duka, a sparring-trainer. Legacy Swords could slice through conventional metals like butter, and training with the dangerous tools was risky for the learners as well as the instructors. Only the mysterious, lava rock of Gripon could withstand the deadly swords. The complex composites of the porous stone swallowed light and energy in a way few scientist could explain. Body armor that could withstand a laser blast, was rare in the galaxies; it made Shaak-Rom’s armor all the more valuable since the demise of the Legacy Republic and the crushing of the Knights’ order. There were few in existence anymore. Today it would stand as a fearsome deterrent to any thugs and thieves seeking to filch a quick profit.

Each of the Rival’s crew were equipped with the maser-rifles. Deputized for inter-galactic bounty hunting with the Galactic Precinct gave them right to carry the non-lethal stun guns for security purposes. Some lethal armaments (or enhancements) could be legally carried in their line of work, but the conditions were specific. What various members of the crew might carry besides the Rival’s issued gear was something Crimson would neither confirm nor deny. This made Shaak-Rom grimace. Should any of them be caught using an unauthorized weapon in any system in the Precinct they would be the next names on the bounty lists. But the Rival’s employment contracts allowed for “personal safety gear.” That was as good a legal loophole anyone could hope for. So he also strapped his Grip-stone baton to his back, like a stick on a tortoise shell. The blunt dueling rod had a few stories of its own. A leather wrap for a handle allowed him to pass it off as a short walking stick on the more-stringent planets. And he took comfort in its dull clicking against of his Grip-stone armor.

Cort, and the Vizavians, Olper and Tager, were stationed on nearby rooftops. Everyone had voice-chipped their readiness and positions, Olper being the last to reach his post. Shaak-Rom could even see the blue skin of Tager on the building top to his north-west. Most of the traffic was below them, expect for the occasional private-flight craft that buzzed the city on a curious hover technology that took advantage of the heavy air. But Qualvana was home to multiple indigenous intelligent species, something not often found in the universe. Whatever the Trader, Sulblorrg, was (heavy set and tentacle laden), another lighter boned, exotic winged creature that flew like a life-sized moth also inhabited the steaming air. These flyers weren’t exactly a swarm, but they passed at varying intervals and heights. It could make the spaceport vulnerable to an air attack.

That said, nothing Shaak-Rom or his lookouts had seen could be described as suspicious. Yet.

Shaak-Rom ‘bursted the Boatman, “Boatman, this is Outlook 1. We’re in position. You’re clear for landing.”

Minutes passed. Shaak-Rom hung his maser from its strap and lifted his tactical binoculars. The enhanced display zoomed 20 specs to examine the landing zone, the surrounding buildings, streets, and back to the landing zone. He toggled between normal and e-band scans. Heat vision was useless in the steamy atmosphere, but electrical surges on hand held-devices could reveal advanced weapons. All seemed clear.

Presently heavy looking guards with pointy heads resembling the Trader padded out onto the space port. Lifting his binocs to the shell of the hanger roof, Shaak-Rom nodded inwardly—the Trader himself was prepared. Whatever these ridiculous spoors were, one had to move them carefully. At least for all his meticulous cross checking of the Rival’s preparations the Trader also prepared his own security staff.

At last the Boatman whirred overhead. The fat-bellied shuttle wore its wings like a flat hat, and hung hefty engines from each wing to propel it through space and sky. Precision thrusters emerged from the long body and nose of the craft like a creature exuding retractable spikes, and it caught its own speed. The craft bucked as though on its own private air current, then lined itself up over the space port: Andross’ fast and flashy signature. Then, in a surprise maneuver, the MiPie swung the shuttle around and shunted it down and backwards, landing with the aft bay doors closer to port’s covered porch. Shaak-Rom  watched through his binocs as the heavy security guards tumbled and scrambled for cover in the hurricane of the Boatman’s afterburn. The Trivven snorted. Andross had done it. Taken the Trader’s men by surprise… but it would make the transaction a safer exchange.

Shaak-Rom averted his eyes and narrowed them against a breath of stinging air, scanning for hostile vehicles or individuals. Out in the open, with half a kilometer between himself and the space port was not really his forte. He was a close combat expert. But he was the only one with extensive combat and strategy training on board. Still, he missed the simplicity of locking his horns against another tribesman on the thick forests of his homeworld, Tulperion.

Crimson had descended the Boatman’s ramp and, flanked by Gator, met with a representative of the Trader in a black suit. They appeared to be in lengthy deliberations, but at last an agreement was reached. Shaak-Rom marked the striking of hands, and the tapping of payment chips. Crimson stepped aside and half-turned to the Boatman with a beckoning gesture. Presently a large barge of the purply crates of troublesome spoors floated forward from the aft cargo hold.

“I’ve got something airborne coming our way. Fast,” Olper voice-chipped.

“I see it,” chimed in Tager.

Shaak-Rom lifted his eyes from the miniature figures enacting their mime of business to scan the heavy greenish sky. His hand shot to his ‘burster, “Crimson! Company! Get down!”

A rude strike skiff screeched up from the northwest, between buildings, and rose to a menacing height. Shaak-Rom could see at least three armored mercenaries on the open deck. The assault craft was a common model on several worlds. He had his maser in his hand, but it was a long shot for a stun gun. Already Tager’s weapon was tossing the yellow-white distortions through the thick air, but the wobbly blobs of energy flew wide of their mark.

A lash of red laser light ripped from the deck gun of the skiff, and struck the space port below. The blast shook the deck, upsetting the spoor cart and sending those on the landing platform diving for cover. The scream of laser fire was only slightly delayed. Shaak-Rom aimed through his enhanced scope, quickly adjusting for the height and distance and he squeezed the trigger.

Episode 1.5 Bad Deal

Six hours along the magnetic tradeways, and Qualvana was in view.

Something the Kladerine Collective hadn’t been able to compensate for was the Uncertainty Principle. The inability to know the exact position or speed of reality made the ageless permanence of the cosmos an ever-shifting illusion. Even before their technologies were bartered, reverse-engineered, and barbarized one could never pinpoint exactly when she would arrive, or where. Half a millennia earlier the major spacefaring races convened a council and designated arrival parameters for each major system. Like giant landing and takeoff zones, ships had to commute to the Jump Sites before initiating a system jump. The longer the jump, the higher the uncertainty. If you didn’t want to crash into anybody else jumping in or out-system, you had to aim a little bit further afield.

Once in-system, magnetic gateways indicated the entrances to the fast track in to the inhabited worlds. Some ships with Jump Drives still only had sub-light propulsion for in-system travel. Given the time debt that could be accrued, even travelling just below light speed, powerful magnetic lassos, linked from gateway to gateway, created superhighways of commerce throughout the system. It could increase a ship’s overall top speed a hundred times, and bring time debt, and space collisions to almost nil. Of course, there were hefty tolls. Private and public enterprises hadn’t missed the opportunity to bank on in-system trade. It was the way of the galaxies.

As the Rival Bay surfed the magnetic freeway en route to their target planet, a green twinkle of light slowly grew in the forward view ports. Qualvana swelled like a luminescent melon, growing larger until it could’ve won a prize in any world’s farm fair.

Crimson always tried to be on the bridge as they approached a planet. It was one of the few times that she felt something was bigger than her beef with the universe. The magnetic gateway would decelerate them just as the glowing sphere of whatever world it was exploded in their view screen, threatening to swallow them whole. Then the Rival would be released from the magnetic guidance and for just a moment the ship would buck, momentarily losing attitude and fighting for cislunar orbit. The view screen would go from planet-filled to the endless void of the star speckled night. For just a moment Crimson could feel the deadly vastness of space, the embrace of a living world, and a tingle of ice up her spinal ports made her feel she might fall off the Rival and die, lost in the oblivion.

Not today. They had a diablo delivery to get the heck off their ship and into the hands of a bubble-spoor trader named Sulblorrg. As the green, swirling clouds of the bio luminesent world below disappeared and the Rival bucked, Crimson grit her teeth. She didn’t have time for it.

“Set us into orbit. Send a burst to the planetLink for Sulblorrg that we’re here, and the cargo is intact. I want it off my ship as soon as he gives us port coordinates.”

Clidjitt’s insectoid hands clattered over various controls, as his mandibles twitched. The voice box beneath his chin translated his clicks and buzzes. “One spoor-trader, comin’ up!”

Andross had wanted to be on the bridge to catch the Rival out of mag-fall. He was good, too. But Clidjitt was more than capable, and less obnoxious. Besides, Andross was on spoor loading duty.

Clidjitt’s high pitched translator voice chirped, “I’ve got you a live Link to Sulblorrg.”

Crimson dropped herself into the co-pilot’s chair, and thumped the console with her human hand, beckoning, “here.”

Clidjitt swiped the call to her screen. In a moment the quasi-holographic image produced a triangular looking alien head, with nose tentacles.

“Sulblorrg?” Crimson asked.

“No. Request encrypted Linkfeed.”

“Encrypted? Why? Is Sulblorrg there?”

“Encrypted Linkfeed please.”

The alien struck out the feed.

Diablos!” Crimson swore at the black screen. “That’ll cost extra! Is he even there?”

Clidjitt gave his best imitation of a shrug. “Do I do it?”

Crimson flicked her wrist with a sigh of permissive exasperation. What choice did she have?

“Scanning local encryption services…” Clidjitt narrated. His was an insectoid race: the Brev. For most intensive purposes he looked like a giant ant from Earth II. His dark bronze exoskeleton was fully articulated: abdomen, thorax and head could swivel 360 degrees independently. Spiny hairs protruded from his arm (or leg) appendages, and you didn’t want to get your clothes—or skin—caught on those hairs. He could sit, comically, in a humanoid designed chair on the back of his abdomen, like a mammal on its rump. Crimson was just glad that usually when he did this was at the pilot’s seat, with his stinger tucked safely under the control panel.

Brev benefitted from compound eyes, and could see things on spectrums most humanoids couldn’t, and with a field of nearly 360 degrees (again). She’d been glad to add another pilot to their roster after Andross, expensive as they were. But an insectoid with the ability to lift nearly 50 times his own body weight made him stronger than probably even Gator, and his vision alone had helped them avoid ambushes at least twice when tracking down dangerous bounties (including their latest capture of Ulsang Jax). She’d heard Brev could space walk without pressure suits, and could withstand incredible degrees of radiation. Another race she was unclear about why they hadn’t taken over the universe. Clidjitt described himself as a bit of an “odd shell” for being a pilot, but still took a genetically inherent interest in carrying and stacking things. He often volunteered to help Cort in the cargo bays, and Crimson had to deny him permission to help Andross stacking the bubble spoors for off-loading.

“Got one,” Clidjitt chirped, “Calling Sulblorrg back.”

Crimson tapped the console impatiently with her human fingers. If this spoor-trader didn’t pay well, she was going the dump the biological hazards down his throat.

Once again the pointy headed alien appeared on her screen.

“I sincerely hope Sulblorrg is on the other end of this line,” Crimson growled.

“Encryption verified,” announced the Qualvanan.

“Then send it here!” a fat, bossy voice commanded. Presently the image flickered and changed. A heavier looking triangular alien with longer nose tentacles sat back from the screen, evidently lounging in a comfortable chair.

“Sulblorrg I presume. Are you ready to quit jerking me and my crew around, or am I dumping this cargo into your thermosphere?”

“You were very foolish to broadcast my name and your cargo like that. You’re lucky I’m still willing to deal with you. I hope you have high security.”

“What are you talking about?” Crimson demanded.

Sulblorrg chuckled, a filtered sound through the net of his facial tentacles. “Spoors are a highly sought commodity on Qualvana. I shall provide you with the coordinates and specs on my private secure spaceport, and require a full security assessment from you and your ship. If anything is not to my liking, we shall not have a deal, and you can dump your cargo wherever you wish.”

Episode 1.4 Chipped

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

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

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

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

Regardless, in 32 hours they would reach Khibarra.

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

 

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andross cursed. “Over react much?”

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

Andross glowered, and sat back down.

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

“You okay?” his gravelling bass voice asked.

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

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

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

“We should be out hunting.”

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

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

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

She refused eye contact.

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

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

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

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

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

Again, her ultimatum to the whiners.

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

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

Episode 1.3 The Rival

concept art: the Green House

Hopefully Crimson’s survival would never be hung on her powers of stealth. Her robotic left foot echoed like a cooking pan on the catwalk. Whoever thought that mechanical replacements would enhance performance hadn’t really thought through all the implications of the cybernetic-organism. Even with everything technology could do, whichever mad scientist brokered her arm, leg, and ovaries on the Pawn Market, had failed to give her state-of-the-art upgrades. There were things she probably could do that other amputees couldn’t—at least since Gator had upgraded her Mindframe link, and synchronized her spinal implants to her appendages with his hack box—but she’d seen people across multiple worlds with lighter, more stylish prosthetics that looked like they belonged in the age of space travel, rather than some pre-apocalyptic world that failed to account for stairs. The first time Crimson would have to sneak by a guard she’d not only get caught, but probably sent to the Reprogs with the other faulty droids moonlighting as organic citizens…

It was the weight that sucked. A little synthel-plas or poly would have done wonders where her titanium casings and hydraulic joints lurked. Yeah, she could probably crush the metal hand-railings along the Rival Bay’s bulkheads, but it was 4 years since she’d woken up on Xalon XII without a name or a past—nothing but her own human, bloodied hand for reference—and still after 3 hours of lugging her own metal ass around the half-kilometer seed ship she was ready for a whiskey and her reinforced bunk.

She made her way past the variety of communications and research closets behind the bridge (glorified cockpit, really). At the grated stairs she adopted her practized vault-and-clump technique, to descend as quick as any other crewperson, to the habitation level below. These were the one luxury item of their floating home; having been designed for colonization, the Rival sported enough living space for roughly 300 persons of humanoid dimension, family groups mostly, providing the far less demanding crew of 16 (give or take) that Crimson kept around with plenty of personal space. She made her way around the old, circular common area and between the medical facilities, heading towards the narrow neck of ship that led to the Arboretum. Despite the out-of-date comfortability of the living quarters, Crimson kept the most of the ship at a ‘business minimum.’ Parts and plastics had been stripped or stolen long before she and Gator ever set eyes on the Rival, including most of the cabin features that weren’t bolted down. But whatever niceties had been added, since they set Rival floating again, she kept the access ways and bulkheads at an industrial neutral. One: she wouldn’t have to kill herself painting every time they replaced a part, and two: she frankly didn’t give a darn.

Behind Medical Shaak-Rom fell into step. She first saw his horns coming up the ladder from the below decks. The muscular Trivven was handsome in a tropical smoothie sort of way. The blue and white stripes of his horns and dreads off-set the bright red skin and large white circles around his eyes. She’d once seen him with his shirt off in Medical—more stripes on his back and arms, and circles and shapes on his carven chest, bespoke a primal beginning to a race that likely avoided predators on a herd scale. From the front the exaggerated eye markings and shapes could look like a scary face to a really big, really dumb predator—she supposed. Her Mindframe tried to find an Earth II reference for civilization that operated like a herd, but nomad didn’t quite cut it. Whatever his background, the fast, strong, zebra-devil mercenary was a solid contributor to her crew since she had picked him up eight months ago. He was useful, and followed some personal code. That’s why he now held the armory keys.

Even his voice was strong; “Armory is fine. A few crates shook loose, but the weaponry is intact.”

“Good,” Crimson nodded curtly, not stopping or looking at him. Her shaved scalp itched, and she ran her hand through her own purple Mohawk. He’d stopped calling her ‘captain’ after a month of telling him off. He did tend to follow her around still. In whatever order or sect he’d belonged to he must have been somebody’s right-hand man.

The tight walk way continued on, Crimson clumping after it. Already natural light was ahead. Abruptly the bulk head jumped back, opening the grated platform into a large octogonal frame. The artificial gravity wobbled here, where designers planned for the simpler effect of the rotating hull to create a sense of gravity. It was like walking into a washer machine. A strange, Edenic washer machine, of natural light, green foliage, and running water. Crimson stood for a moment to observe the Arboretum—or as they called it, the Green House. Most people hurried through the fluttering grav fields as quickly as possible to save their stomachs the confusion of which way was down; but Crimson took the moment to enjoy the lighter pressure on her shoulder and back.

It had its own aura of ancient wonder. The massive cylindrical cavity of the seed ship had been designed to sustain life for hundreds of years. Generations had likely lived and died aboard the vessel on a journey to a better world. If they’d only gotten to Blacardo, the crappy, used-spaceship, junk world where Crimson and Gator got the Rival Bay, they’d been galactically disappointed. Knowing it would never sell without a Jump-Drive the salesman had retrofitted it with a slap-on engine and field generators, without dismantling the antiquated rockets, still useful for lifting off planets and escaping black holes. The Green House had looked like a big, abandoned trash can with a spider’s web of rusty catwalks crisscrossing its multi-faceted pressurized windows, and it smelled of distant compost. But Keffler had transformed it in only a few years. “What’s the pay?” had been his only question.

Now the ramshackle crew ate fresh vegetables and fruits, enjoyed eggs from Earth II chickens, and several other perks few private crews could claim. When not on duty they could come and sit on the lawns Keffler manicured to keep people out of his experimental gardens. Filter systems kept the waters fresh and running so that the enormous Arboretum boasted two small ponds with fish, mostly coy but a few other edible varieties, besides the piped irrigation systems for the boxed veg gardens.

The Green House was divided into six faces, three sky panes, and three garden panes. Stepping into the rotating cylinder was always disorienting, and of the passing garden and sky-panes you never knew where you would find Keffler. If she set out in the wrong direction Crimson had been forced to walk the entire half-mile circumference of the rotating landscape, passing from catwalks across the face of the light-catching windows, to the grass and paths of Keffler’s handiwork. Sections were still underway, and wherever he was, Keffler never appreciated the interruption.

Fortunately she spotted him in his mobility chair on the garden pane passing beneath their feet. (It was always a pain when he was on the ceiling.) Crimson and Shaak-Rom stepped into the centrifuge of simulated gravity. Crimson stood on her robotic leg for a moment chewed her own grim amusement as she imagined the muscular, composed Shaak-Rom secretly clenching his stomach muscles. Then they descended the green lawn into the valley of trees, flowers, and raised vegetable beds. Crimson enjoyed the soft impact on her spinal column, from the springy earth through her robotic pelvis.

They struck a path of latex traction strips and made their way to where Keffler was glaring at his flattened sunflowers.

“Well,” sniffed the botanical prospector, when they arrived, “you’ve killed them.” As though the uncharted black hole had been her fault. Keffler wore a flappy, wide-brimmed hat, which shaded his face from the eternal cosmic light of the stars. Never shaven, never bearded, the grizzly older man seemed to think dirt made a good skin cream, and a scowl a nice expression. A thin plaid garden shirt tucked into his work breaches, which tucked into his boots. His pockets, boots, and mobility chair were stuffed with trowels, and clippers, and other tools. He had rigged his chair to release the seat on a swivel to better lean out over his precious plants. Humans were rare in the wide galaxy, and when she met them Crimson found they tended to mean something. But whether Keffler meant the pursuit of exotic growing things, or ‘leave me alone,’ Crimson hadn’t quite figured. Either way, she stayed clear of his private glass terrarium, where all the poisonous, bizarre plants he had collected did whatever man-eating galactic jungle plants do. As long as the mad botanist kept their kitchen stocked, she didn’t care.

“How are the bubble-spoors?” Crimson asked.

Keffler chewed the inside of his bottom lip, evaluating which toxicity he should inject into his reply. He kept it mild, making a sucking sound on his teeth. “Still hissing and stinking. Maybe lost a few spoors. Might grow again. Don’t know who’s gonna buy garbage like that.”

Crimson put her right hand on her flesh hip, and looked at the gardens and star fields above her. “I hear they fetch a good price in the Khibarra System. You won’t have to put up with them for long.” For some reason, when she spoke with Keffler her Mindframe dragged up vocabulary that was almost as old as the intergalactic gardener. Fetch? She shook her head internally.

Keffler batted his chair’s joystick and pivoted on the spot to drive away. “Well, make sure you sell the lot of ‘em.” He grumbled. “They take up too much space.”

They followed him for a while until his unknown gardener tasks veered him off on a side path to some botanical dilemma. Crimson and Shaak-Rom followed the path to the end of the Arboretum and back up the hill. To her right Crimson could see the blue and purple rain-pods of the bubble-spoors piled on an unfinished area of the garden. She could imagine the seething pressure of the fermenting spoors, inside the reinforced, sealed containers, and wondered what would have happened if they had opened into the Green House’s closely managed environment during the black hole incident.

In the time they had walked the distance of the rotating Arboretum, they had done two full rotations and then some. She and Shaak-Rom were forced to walk left along the mouth of the Green House, along the catwalk path to descend the wall towards the floor of the Rival Bay: a dark metal hole after the bright forest of Keffler’s domain. Here at the edge, the centrifugal force held a person to the ground, but wasn’t heavy enough to prevent the feeling of light-headedness.  Combined with the fact that the walkway was now suspended, on their left, over the sky-panes to open space, made this Crimson’s least favorite part of the long walk to the engineering decks. But it was less than 20 meters to the Rival’s floor, and in a moment she and Shaak-Rom hopped awkwardly into the shaky gravity field of the mirror-opposite octagonal frame of the Green House’s anus.

Hard artificial reality closed over the pair as they entered the belly of the beast. Crimson resisted the half-hearted urge to punch the metallic bulkheads. They passed the reinforced windows leading to the shuttle bays. The port side bay housed the Boatman: their one shuttle for planet-side runs. Without the Boatman they wouldn’t set foot on a planet again—barring a crash landing. Space docks could occasionally host the oversized generation seed ship, so they wouldn’t be completely stranded on board without it; but the Boatman was their only other link to other worlds. Crimson blamed her Mindframe again for the irony of it’s name, and hoped the macabre allusion wouldn’t bite her in the butt one day. The other bay was empty—and if the shuttle bays weren’t a half-level down they would use it for additional storage more often. But as it was, lugging junk up and down the stairs wasn’t usually worth it.

Beyond the shuttle bays were the actual cargo holds. Cort had reported them in order. Where the oversized space-rat had gotten to since she didn’t know, but for now she didn’t mind.

Finally their course led them to the balcony rail overlooking Engineering. The multi-story facility would have been cavernous, if it wasn’t crammed with so many faceless industrial vats of titanium and steel, held together with massive welded nuts that the galaxies’ biggest squirrels would have drooled to see if only they’d gotten the pun. It conjured images from her Mindframe of steam engine boilers, but bolted to both the floor and ceiling with such a claustrophobic closeness that Crimson felt like she was trapped in a bubble-spoor.

A massive figure suddenly reared up in front of them. A fat crocodile thrust vertically on two legs nearly a meter taller than them, with a wicked smile and a shock of fiery red hair, stood there with a wrench in one hand big enough to stun a rhinoceros. “Not dead yet!” rumbled the reptilian giant. At least he seemed reptilian: the yellow scales and alligator jaw were what led Crimson to call him Gator since he first found her naked half-body on the barren pains of Xalon XII (the Mindframe interface was tenuous in those days). With a mane like a punker lion at a tomato-throwing contest, he must have been a mammal, technically. But somehow such a question seemed beneath their friendship. She’d since learned a thing or two about the dangerous and crafty race called Megladytes that Gator came from, but he himself rarely fulfilled the stereotypes. Downright reliable, in fact.

The reptilian monster flipped the impossibly sized wrench before shoving it in a holster on his hips like a sidearm. The animal wore clothes, an inter-galactic phenomenon Crimson still didn’t understand, and he wiped his scaled paws on his bulky belly to rid them of grease.

“How’d we hold up?” Crimson asked. It was the same gruff, monotonic voice she used with every member of the crew. But she meant it sincerely.

Gator remained casual; “I’ll be tightening nuts and bolts for weeks. But she did it.”

Crimson dashed a maternal look around the bulbous engineering section. She did. Aloud she said, “Jump drive all right?”

“Still clinging on!” Gator thumped his tail, pleased. “Whatever tape that guy used is pretty good.”

“And in-system travel?”

“I’ll have a knock around,” growled Gator, reassuringly, “But at the moment it’s working.”

“Good. Have a look around the rest of the ship too. See if structural integrity is fully intact.” Her voice stayed the same, but she paused to replace an apology. “We fried the console to the cockpit door.”

“Always somethin’,” Gator chirruped, as though he’d expected it. He leaned side to side collecting tools in a box. For a massive, barrel-chested space gator, he was surprisingly fast and agile. “I’ll have a look around. Inertia fields probably just have a junction behind the cockpit. I’ll make sure nothin’ breaks off and falls into space.”

“Including the bridge. Thanks,” Crimson replied. “You’re the only person I trust on this boat.” She suddenly shot a glance sidewise at Shaak-Rom, “Except for you, of course.”

The red-and-painted Trivven adopted a wry smile, the white circles encompassing his eyes and forehead lifted. He seemed un-threatened.

“Bubble-spoors?” Gator asked.

“They’ll live to pop another day.”

“Phew! I’d hate to have to clean them off the sky-panes. Never mind the insides of our lungs.”

Before she’d been half replaced with robotic parts Crimson might have shuddered in agreement. Why any race considered the toxic, fermented spoors a delicacy was beyond her. But the galaxies were full of weirder stuff. If they could turn a quick profit for their run to Berkatol, having safely delivered the criminal Ulsang Jax, they could stand a bit of neighborly trade. Usually they kept their business to deputized bounty collections. But someone had marked the arrival of the Rival Bay into Berkotallian space as a vessel big enough to safely transport the spoors to nearby Khibarra. They’d contacted Crimson only minutes after they’d delivered Jax. It was lucrative. She was just glad that they hadn’t over-estimated the Rival. The run in with the rogue black hole might have left the seed ship floating derelict in space, even after they escaped the gravity well. She wondered if her organic components died, consumed by mold, would her Mindframe keep on ticking…? Thoughts of a weak spinal tap, arm, leg and metal pelvis twitching on the Rival’s deck made her shove the image away with a grimace at the corner of her mouth.

She checked her internal clock. “Right. Just over an hour before system jump.”

Gator hefted his massive tool box. “I’ll make a quick sweep of critical systems.”

She nodded and turned on her robotic heel. Shaak-Rom followed.

Episode 1.2 Post Facto

The distant roar of the Rival Bay’s engines was additionally muted by the bizarre effect of the inertia fields. Even as the hundreds of g-forces barraged her from the front, a peculiar electro-magnetic tingling pulsed through her, trying to convince her biological components that she wasn’t being squashed. The familiar shaking of the Rival’s cockpit, however, did not seem to lessen under the influence of the structural support fields. First the cabin surged forward, the old ship bending beneath the colossal force, then it began to shake like an epileptic in a fit. Crimson had thought they would both die when she and Gator had broken gravity that first time, and launched the Rival into space after getting a deal on the derelict seed ship.  A seed ship wasn’t the typical fare of a free-lance pilot-for-hire, but it was better than nothing; and Gator was large enough to turn half of the nuts on the engine coils by hand, without the old-fashioned hydraulic wrench the spotty salesman had thrown in. It had seemed like their only viable option at the time. But it was die or starve to death back then; so they took the chance.

Now as the mercenary pilot Andross, a 1U Missle Pilot—or MiPie—gunned the thrusters, Crimson grit her teeth. Com’on ol’ girl. I promised I wouldn’t do this to you again; don’t fall apart now. Back then she and Gator didn’t know if they would have a comet’s chance in the universe. Now they knew. And they had a crew. It’d be a shame to lose it to a baby black hole…

“Are we moving?” Crimson shouted over the rattling cabin. “Clidjitt! Where’s the event horizon?”

The insectoid in the co-pilot seat didn’t even seem to have buckled in. Andross’ movements appeared sluggish in the mega-tons of conflict gravity and energy. But the bug with the exoskeleton seemed nonplussed, his three free arms spinning the nav-ball, and flicking switches easily. The whirring clicks of his insect mother-tongue proceeded the funny high-pitched voice of his translator box hung around his neck by only a second or two. “Calculating…! Black holes are something of a mystery—about 500 kilometers aftward!”

“Chicken spit!” Crimson twisted her waist away from the cybernetic portions of her pelvis and used the left arm, the robotic one, to flick on her own display. Already her Mindframe was calculating faster than the shaking onboard computer could load. How many megatons of output did Rival ha—

Andross wasn’t calculating, “Five hundred and one! Five hundred and two! Com’on, baby!” The human pilot was a high-stakes racer from a gambling planet. Humans were few and far between out in the wide galaxies. When you met one, it usually meant something. Andross stood for act first, think later.

“Confirmed!” Clidjitt burbled, “We are gaining distance of the event horizon!”

A deep groan from the bulkheads behind the cockpit confirmed the stress load the miniature black hole exerted on them. Crimson grit her teeth harder. A shower of sparks burst from a door console behind her.

Then, with an exponential tail-off the terrifying rumble of gravimetric pressure eased, like the popping of a vacuum seal.

“Yeeeehaw!” Andross cheered.

“We are exiting the gravity well,” Clidjitt announced. “Distance to event horizon 500,000 kilometers and rising.”

Perfect calm.

Crimson blew a sigh through her teeth. “Next time Charybdis. Status?”

Clidjitt flicked his way through a number of routine checks. “All major systems appear to be functioning… damage to three external sensor arrays, and some minor systems seemed to be fried.”

Over the intercom Crimson called, “Report, all sectors.”

Gator’s crocodile snarl asked, “Sooo, did we go planetside, and I missed it? I was hoping for shore leave…”

“Black hole. What’s your status?”

“Black hole!” His voice trailed off in a series of expletives. Crimson envisioned the Megladyte’s massive jaws craning this way and that as he scanned the engine bays for answers, his voice dropping away from the intercom mic. “As good as can be expected after a full thrust. I’ll be knocking things back into place for a while… Structure’s holding, s’long’s you don’t need right angles anywhere…”

“Let me know,” Crimson nodded.

“Keffler here,” came the chief botanist’s voice. Crimson thought she heard him swear. “I prefer earthquakes! Everything’s tossed like a salad…”

“Injuries? Damage?” Crimson growled. Grumbling was the botanical prospectors favorite pastime when he wasn’t farming some rare vegetable or nursing some poisonous flower. But he knew how to keep the Rvial’s kitchens stocked with plenty of fresh foods, and that was something in space. She just didn’t let him run the place.

A raspy sigh resigned his answer. “Sunflowers are flat as a hurricane… hafta check the bubble spores.”

“Do that. Report when you know. I’m coming ‘round.”

Shaak-Rom reported all were fine in the crew cabins, despite minor bruises or scrapes; Crimson sent him to check the armory. Braevel accounted for Medical Bay. Cort reported the cargo bay was fine; mostly empty at the moment anyway.

Crimson unbuckled from her seat and levered herself up. She hovered over Andross’ shoulder like a cloud of dark matter. “Care to explain?”

The MiPie didn’t intimidate easily. He swiveled his chair around. “Hey! I was on course when the blammed thing opened, or whatever it did. Maybe if your ship had seen it on a newsblasts or something…!”

“You flew us into a black hole—within 500 kilometers of the event horizon. A piece of cosmic dust could’ve knocked us into the pancake factory!”

Andross sneered through a sarcastic squint, “Sensors can’t see Nuthin’! I was on course and flyin’ straight. Don’t think you appreciate how hard it was to control this boat while we waited for you to climb up here and make your decision. You ‘don’t want anything happening with your say so.’”

They were her words. The pilot had called her to the bridge when the black hole latched onto them. They probably had the MiPie’s quick hands to thank for not drifting to their doom. She sometimes found it irritating that he wore his Missile Suit whenever on duty. The pressurized pilot armor made him look like a space pirate ready to hijack a passing freighter; but if it got him in the zone…

“Well done.” She sneered back, “If anyone on his ship ever authorizes a full thrust without my say so, it won’t be gravity you’ll have to worry about crushing you.” She raised and flexed her robotic hand. “You have duty ‘til system jump. Make sure that gravity monster doesn’t chase us.”

Andross winced in defiance. Clidjitt was more helpful. “I shall stay and help watch for further anomalies.”

“Fine. And send an advisory to the Berkotal Space Traffic Commission. They’ve got an issue out here.”

“Righto!” chirped the insectoid.

Sometimes she wondered where his translator got its vernacular.

She turned and clumped out the door, smelling the electric ash of the fried door console. As the step-clank of her cyborg gait echoed down the grated catwalk, Andross quipped, “You’re welcome!”

In the Imperium Navy that would be insubordination. But this wasn’t the Imperium, or any other navy. Besides. He’d done a good enough job; he could be afforded the last word…

Episode 1.1: Charybdis Maw

Crimson stomped up the grated catwalk to the bridge, her robotic foot clanking heavily. Andross’ summons had crackled over the intercom only moments before the Rival Bay had begun to tremble. She had been asleep—as asleep as her cybernetic implants let her anyway—mostly unconscious, with a routine diagnostic running checks in the background; it was like counting sheep. Incessantly.

Now the trembling of Rival was more pronounced. Crimson supported herself with her human hand gripping the rail, and her robotic one clumsily pressed against the other. The bridge hatch in sight she called to the mercenary pilot, “What is it?”

“Gravity well,” Andross replied, “Unknown specs. Not charted in this system.”

Crimson dropped herself roughly down the single step into the bridge with her metal foot, and clumped to the view screen. Looked like empty space. “Are we stuck?”

Andross—buckled into the pilot seat—had his hands over the controls, making continual course corrections. “Kind of.”

Diablos,” grumbled Crimson.

“Still in the shallow end, I think. Rival’s a big girl. We ain’t sinkin yet. But close.”

She fell into the co-pilot seat and grabbed a head set.

The intercom met her as the ear piece clamped into place. Old-fashioned radio static mixed with the bass rumbled of Gator’s reptilian growl in a half-discernable transmission for the engine room, “… what’s going on up there, Bridge?”

“Unknown gravity anomaly,” Crimson snapped, “Standby. Andross, status.”

“We’re three hours from system jump, when this sucker pulled us off course. Lucky I was flying manual…”

The intercom interrupted again, “Green House to Bridge, this is Keffler. My plants are all wilting down here, any chance you can stop whatever you’re doing?”

“Get off the line Keffler,” Crimson growled. To Andross she snapped, “Scans!”

“Think I was born yesterday,” retorted the merc pilot. A 1U Missile Pilot from the gambling tracks of Talcomis VII, Andross was a hot-headed brawler and a show-off who raced for high stakes. He had a knack for driving things, fast and accurate. The monolithic converted seed-ship Rival wasn’t really his cup of tea, but of the three qualified pilots on board, everyone had to pitch in. The MiPie already had the sensors sweeping the area, and a second after she said it Crimson knew it; but she didn’t regret irritating him. Andross continued, “Sensors got nothing’. Star charts got nothin’ on this system either. Could be a cloaked Mag Mine, but I’ve never heard of one big enough to pull in the Rival.”

Mag mines: magnetic traps left by scavengers and pirates hoping to score a load of booty from hapless transports or lone luxury yachts. A mine large enough to catch the Rival wasn’t impossible, but the size of it would require a cloaking device of impractical mass. Not to mention the pirate ship and crew needed to board a vessel like Rival would border on battlecruiser.

“What’s on the Star Log from Berkotal? Anything on the recent newsnet?” They had just cashed in a bounty on Berkotal . It had provided them with some interesting farm goods to trade out-system. Keffler had grumbled a bit, but made room the Green House for the artificial Rain-Pods, to keep the… bubble spoors… safe and happy. Standard orbit procedures, and the Rival was supposed to interface with the local planet’s newsnet and flag anything pertinent to in-system flying.

“How should I know?” Andross’ dark eyes stabbed her way, “Rival didn’t catch it, I sure as spit didn’t.”

Crimson spun the nav-ball and her display rotated the recent newsblasts to the front. She rested her robotic arm on the console edge to relieve her tired shoulder, and used her right hand to stroke the nav-ball over the headlines.

She heard the clicking on the metal bars and rungs behind her even before the insectoid voice of Clidjitt burbled and clicked into his translator. The comically high voice of the translator chirped, “What’s going on?” Rival shuddered again against the gravitational pull of the invisible force.

“Don’t know. Gravitational anomaly.”

“Mag mine?”

“No.”

She didn’t have to look to know the third pilot was suspended halfway between the floor and ceiling; his rotating thorax, abdomen, and torso, permitted him to cling like a spider from his six arms/legs and peer over their shoulders with his compound eyes. The bug might even be able to see the gravity field for all she knew.

The intercom crackled again, “If we’re broadsiding a star,” rumbled Gator, “I’d like to know…!”

“Standby for full thrust,” Crimson replied curtly.

“Nothing on the newsblasts,” Clidjitt narrated unhelpfully. He reached his stickly insect arm past Crimson and stole the nav-ball from her, with his spindly four-clawed hand. A line of wiry insect hairs poked close to her face, and Crimson dodged the prickly embrace with a curled lip. She unhooked her robotic arm from the ledge and weaved under the nosy insect, levering herself to standing behind Andross. Clidjitt floated over the back of the chair and lowered himself into an awkward perch on the co-pilot seat, his claws flying over multiple control panels at once. Already he was giving his eerie, hypnotic stare out the front view port, but probably reading every display at once, including Andross’. “…Checking last known logs of surrounding systems,” Clidjitt continued.

Crimson left the bug to it. Andross’ display bleeped, and he announced, “Scans got nothin’. A mini black-hole for all the sensors know.”

Crimson’s Mindframe grasped for references: “’But when she swallowed the sea water down, we saw the funnel of maelstrom…’” Dammit, Homer.

Impatient, Andross asked, “What do we do now?” Hardly compliant, it was a challenge. He’d already decided what he wanted to do, but wanted to know if she was ‘man enough.’ They’d had the ‘captain of the vessel’ discussion before. Fortunately a rematch would have to wait; they wanted to same thing.

“Angle us out. Full thrust. Inertia shields to full. Drain what you have to.” Into the intercom she announced. “Gator, Keffler, we’re raising the inertia fields—hafta break a gravitational pull. Buckle up; prepare for full thrust.”

“This’ll be fun,” Gator’s voice replied.

The Rival Bay had only lifted off from a planet, breaking its gravitational field, twice since Crimson had taken command. Once leaving the shipyard planet, and once the first time they’d had to refuel and purchase a shuttle so they’d never have to do it again (They bought the shuttle then on credit, being than broke; it’d since been paid off, but the Rival had several more centuries  of ship loan). Both lift-offs they thought Rival was going to break up. Seed ships were meant for one voyage only. Taking off again hadn’t been part of its design plans.

Clidjitt swiveled his head (or torso) to look towards Crimson. She wasn’t sure if it was a necessary gesture, or a learned one. His translator buzzed, “Nothing on the system news, but interstellar reports have rumors of a baby-black hole, or a ‘gravity monster’ that’s been eating ships and things from Khibarra System.”

“Gravity monster?” Crimson and Andross asked simultaneously.

Three of the insectoid’s six knobbed palms turned upwards in a shrug. “Local space authorities, and stellar-biologists disagree as to whether it’s a live creature, using gravity to capture ships and asteroids as its prey to compress into food.”

Besides the ambient trembling of the Rival’s decks and hull silence greeted the insectoid.

“It’s only a theory. All attempts to gather data from the mini black holes have been captured and crushed. But it disappears, moves and reappears…. Or else, this chunk of the galaxy has a case of intermittent black-holeitis.”

The joke might have been funny another day.

“Right,” Andross growled, turning to his instruments. “Full thrust. Grab yer guts.”

Crimson dropped back to the auxiliary seats. “Inertia shields to maximum!” over the intercom she announced, “All crew, strap yourselves down!”

Clidjitt was reaching across and making the adjustments on Andross’ panel while the pilot wrestled the Rival into the correct orientation. Already the engines were warming up, and the familiar rattle 800 meters away echoed up to the cockpit. Andross swatted the insectoid’s hand away. He grabbed the thruster control.

“No lunch for you, monster.”

Crimson set her jaw. “All hands, brace.”