Episode 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.”