Ferguis Okoullis Co. required that all civilians be escorted from the shuttle bays to their quarters and attended by members of the crew whenever possible when moving about the ship. Of course, whenever possible was going to be a whole lot less common once Rival Bay had sling-shotted through the magnetic gateway towards the outer system, and no one was around to check. However, Crimson saw their point: no one wanted prying little creatures digging around Keffler’s secret laboratory of botanical horrors, or cracking open the maser safe. Someone would have to play tour guide. Someone wasn’t Crimson.
Arrangements had finally been made, only a week behind schedule (Crimson had a call put out to Rullorrg, Chief Police Inspector of their hit list predicament. He’d promised them a compliment of officers to aid in the transportation of the civilians. It took a little while to organize). Not surprising, a shuttle large enough to fit 300 settlers wasn’t small enough to fit the Rival’s shuttle bays. Making multiple trips in the Boatman or any other craft was inadvisable at best, with hitmen potentially lurking anywhere by now. So despite the appeal of boarding the settlers in controlled, small groupings, they would have to settle for one, enormous passenger transport, and a direct connection by airlock.
From the Rival’s tiny bridge Andross had whistled when he caught sight of the incoming ship. “That’s a big one!” The passenger space bus, called the Hollgorrsh, looked like a five-story pleasure liner with frighteningly large engines, and none of the pleasure. It was beat up, and ancient paint had long since chipped and burned away in atmospheric pressure and fire. “Surprised they got it off the ground,” Crimson muttered. But if the settlers were hoping for something more glitzy in the Rival, they were going to regret their choices.
“How are we connecting with them?” Andross asked, eyeing the fat lateral wing arrangement, and the bulbous engines of the approaching space bus.
“Gangplank,” Crimson growled. He’d been briefed; Andross just liked to hear himself.
“Long enough to get from them to us?” queried the doubtful pilot.
“Hollgorrsh said they have a 1,000 foot gangplank.”
Andross leaned back in his pilot’s chair and beat a resigned rhythm out on his MiPie chest piece. He blew a snarky breath between his lips. “That’s gonna’ be like trying to hold two elephants together on the ocean with a 100 foot straw!”
“With potential space pirates.” She cherished a private thought. “I can have Clidjitt take the helm if you want.”
“Oh, I can do it!” Andross sat forward and cracked his knuckles. He flicked the controls and their attitude bucked. Rival Bay began an unnecessary pirouette. “Bimbo ballet…” he murmured, watching Qualvana, the Hollgorrsh and the stars spin a lazy circle in the view screen.
“Save some fuel for the journey,” Crimson muttered.
Outside the safe, vacuum-sealed starships spun the smoking green ball of Qualvanna, dictating their lives by its gravity. The space bus and generation seedship awkwardly pivoted and twirled in a silent game to match attitude and trajectory as they hurtled along in geosynchronous orbit. Space Traffic Control charted safe lanes for cislunar orbits at different altitudes to permit the commerce from multiple worlds. In a system of thousands of ships coming and going, it was a surprisingly efficient and obeyed order. No one wanted to lose atmospheric integrity to a careless collision with a dorsal wing, or cargo pod, venting their lives to the unforgiving suction of empty space. At times merchant vessels from a higher orbit broke formation to descend to the atmosphere, or ascend for the Gateways. But mostly the Rival and Hollgorrsh inhabited their own orbital lane. A sleek, reflective police cruiser drifted down from high orbit and hovered 40 kilometers off their starboard side.
Once aligned, the Hollgorrsh extended its port gangplank like a butterfly’s tongue. After tense minutes of trying and retying, Andross and the Hollgorrsh’s pilots succeeded in making a lock. The nearly kilometer long space bridge connected the enormous vessels.
Andross flicked on auto-control, and announced, “We are now… sitting ducks.”
Crimson clunked down to the habitat level. Fortunately the seedship designers had figured that access to the passenger quarters would be expedient. However, in a flimsy operation like this, it was still going to be awkward. The Rival’s airlocks couldn’t hold more than ten humanoid persons at a time. Leaving an open space-bridge between the vessels was too risky in case of any emergency. So with the complete sealing of both doors being achievable only every eight minutes (without loading time)—at that rate it would take them 4+ hours just to get all the colonists aboard. Then they would have to give them a tour of the habitat sections, and distribute them to quarters. Shaak-Rom and Braevel had been in charge of arranging a rotation of the crew to guide the settlers to the Circle, give them a quick briefing, and assign them rooms. Anticipating this strict schedule would eventually fail, he’d appointed two crew per group to invariably leave one to settle the remaining colonists while the first reported back to the airlock to receive more. Simultaneously Cort and Clidjitt were receiving the colonists’ goods and machinery in Shuttle Bay 1, with Gator standing by to help muscle it into place once the 30 minute oxygenation process was completed there. They anticipated multiple trips themselves.
With Andross at the helm, Keffler standing by to guard his Green House, and Crimson refusing to be on PR, only Shaak-Rom was left with nine crew to field the 300.
Crimson saw the boys loitering about the Circle. She called to the 3’9” Andromedan android, “Micron, they here yet?”
“Negative. Shaak-Rom and the others are by the airlock now.”
She spun right down the short hall and punched through the containment door controls. The containment room held Shaak-Rom, Braevel, Tager and Krevvenar. EVA helmets and hoses were hung along the walls, above the compartments storing the rest of the suits. Rival had 18 EVA slots, but only five were equipped. One day they’d get in trouble for that.
The airlock door was already decompressing on the nearside.
Shaak-Rom greeted her, “Crimson. Excellent. The first arrivals are just coming aboard.” The Trivven’s chiseled features and frame looked composed and ready. His white facial markings belied no apprehension, and despite his horns he’d be a good first point of contact for the passengers. Braevel on the other hand—face obscured by his watersuit’s visor, reflecting the inhospitable fluorescent bulbs of the containment room—looked like a plague medic. Tager might be normal enough, if the numerous ceremonial piercings through every fold his blue skin didn’t disturb anyone. And Krevvenar… well, his craggy, dark, complexion was like a shagbark tree with eczema .
If the settlers didn’t balk at the site of boarding a plague ship run by a devil, then they would all be on their happy way soon.
As the airlock door began to spin on its hinges, Crimson turned on her heal. “Have a good boarding.”
“You need to greet our guests!” Shaak-Rom’s no-nonsense karate-trainer voice stopped her, with her teeth on edge. “At least the first group. Councilman Joffs will be with them.”
Crimson turned back with a teenager’s angry slump. It was too late to argue, the door was rolling away.
About ten homely looking persons with green and pink skin, threadbare clothes, and frizzy hair stood looking at them, both hopeful and frightened, and clutching tightly to personal oddaments. A portly male stepped forward ; he had a beard that stood out like the root system of a wad of grass.
“I am Councilman Joffs,” he announced with plastic confidence. “Whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?” He looked for an authority figure among the dried and broken crew.
Shaak-Rom, somehow pristine in his multicolored glory, tilted his horns and waited for Crimson to speak.
She gestured unusually with her robotic arm. “I’m Crimson. This is my ship. Shaak-Rom will see to your accommodations. Um… have a nice stay.”
Spinning on her metal heal, she fled in a step-clump rhythm, before the councilman could speech-out his gratitude.