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 Despite the out-of-date comfortability of the living quarters, Crimson kept the most of the ship at a ‘business minimum.’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.