“Well,” sniffed the botanical prospector, “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 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 crates 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 its literary 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 free 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 big enough vessel 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 a 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.