Episode 62: Home Grown Drama

Keffler concept sketch. DanArt

Crimson hadn’t wanted to see it. She’d tried to avoid it. She’d tried to pin her eyes on the leader of the settlers and avoid contact with rest. But the vision haunted her Mindframe like a Tilganian mind-washing program. It was exactly what she didn’t want on her ship. What she’d spent a decade omitting from her existence:

A tender little girl, fearful and wide-eyed, tucked under the arm of her helpless, comforting mother. The pink eyes and green cheeks made no difference, the behaviors were recognizable across the galaxies. A picture of family life Crimson had instinctively avoided.

Crimson now paced her dark quarters, trying to fight the cold sweat of having hundreds of comely families, adrift in the universe and clinging only to themselves, running all over her ship like an invasion of ants. The hollow sound of footsteps in the corridor outside her own door made her lonely steel sanctuary feel thin and weak. Every odd clink from outside made her eyes flash in alarm to the crossbar of the door. They wouldn’t come in—no one was allowed in her cabin!

Torn between unreasonable thoughts, Crimson held her cybernetic hand with her human one. Could she make it to the bridge between passing footfalls? It was useless to stand behind the metal door and sweat like a baby…

“Crimson!” Barked Keffler over the intercom, “You’d better get down here, or so help me I’ll throw a shovel through a Sky Pane and we’ll all get sucked out a hole the size of a football!”

“Void of space!” Crimson cursed. Holding her breath she opened her portal…

 

*

 

It was as though the hallways had become a marketplace. The chaos outside her door was a battle of flailing arms, wielding bags and containers like clubs. Pushing bodies shoved their way around complaining, stationary ones blocking the corridor. Crimson waded through the carnage, nearly dragging her cybernetic leg, in attempts to not step of any of the squirming, seething passengers. She bit her lip and lowered her head, trying not to allow her trachea to contract. If she could press through the bumbling masses, the Circle would provide an open space, and relieve the pressure of crowded humanoids.

She held her breath, ignoring even Krevvenar and Olper as she passed them. Finally she broke through to the wider space, and higher ceiling, which dispersed the masses of confusion. Micron and P’Xak were attempting to brief a new wave of wide-eyed arrivals, and Tager and Mog Mog were trying to corral another down a branch of the cabin corridors. Crimson strode around the chaos, and headed aftwards. After a few dark minutes she reached the glowing octagonal hole of the Arboretum and the edge of the artificial gravity field. Her stomach fluttered, and she pressed on though the glare until the six Garden and Sky Panes of the cavernous Green House ballooned away below, above, and before her. From over her head Crimson heard angry voices.

Craning her neck she saw, Keffler, her ornery gardener and galley-chef high on the green ceiling, seated on the edge of his mobility chair, looking about to leap from his chair and strangle a trio of peasant-y Bulaxians. With grumble of her own, Crimson grabbed the catwalk rail and turned into the rotation of the spinning Green House, and began mounting the wall towards the argument.

Arriving at the correct Garden Pane, Crimson dismounted the catwalk and dropped onto the spongy turf. Already the rotation of the Green House had disoriented Crimson, and she had forgotten which way was “up” in regard to the Rival Bay’s general attitude. But now she was equal with Keffler and his invaders. It was a trick of perception—but being held to the same plane by the centrifugal gravity made it seem that she could understand their words better.

Keffler was caterwauling, “No absolute way am I letting those unidentified, sphere-hugging, customs-nightmares into my Green House!”

“They must go here! They must go here!” answered the foremost Bulaxian. He waved a pallet of mini plasticrates with a poofy tuft of vegetation sprouting from its cells.

“I’m telling you there ain’t no way!” Keffler growled.

Evidently a farmer of sorts, the overalled, hard-woven rustic shoved the plasticrates forward and insisted, “This is where they go! They go here!”

Keffler was brandishing a trowel and pushing the crates away with the point. “You bring those plants in here and I’ll get the incinerator!”

Crimson arrived: “What’s going on here?”

The farmer and his settler cohorts, also carrying crates of plants, stepped back and gave bewildered assessments to the female cyborg addressing them with terse authority. Apparently her appearance took them off guard, and they paused long enough for Keffler to spit:

“These sphere-huggers wanna’ pollute my ecosystem with their funky alien pollen!”

“This is where the things grow!” snapped the farmer in his heavily accented Universal. He shoved a hand too close to Crimson’s chin in an exasperated motion.

Crimson leaned away, spurning a careless touch. “No,” she stated flatly, “No unregistered plants in the Green House.”

“But they grow here!” repeated the farmer, as if his rudimentary explanations ought to have been enough.

“No,” Crimson repeated. “You’ll screw up the onboard eco system.” She opened her arms to catch the farmers in a flesh and metal barrier and herd them back towards the entrance.

Apparently not flustered by the invasion of their personal space the farmers resisted her, putting hands against her arms and refusing to retreat. Crimson planted her human foot. With a grunt she levered her cybernetic arm forward sending two of the farmers sprawling back on themselves. They cried out in alarm, and nearly dropped their containers of plants. Bouncing back they hurled angry words in Bulaxian, and looked ready to fight for their potted plants.

“Snake spit, don’t spill their dirt—!” Keffler snarled.

Crimson didn’t like where this was going. “I am the captain of this vessel. These plants do not come in here without my permission!” No effect. “They cannot come in until they have been examined and approved.” Still the stream of foreign expletives and insistence. They didn’t recognize her or her authority. “I will speak to Amborghent Joffs!”

It took a few moments and several repetitions, but finally she heard Joffs’ name appear amidst their alien language. Finally the lead farmer, his face a green and pink contortion of frustration and anger agreed, “Yes! Speak with Joffs. Speak with Joffs!”

“Okay!” Crimson gave her most placating growl. She moved back up the slope to the spinning rim of the Green House, and hopped onto the catwalk. Clumping down the wall to the mouth of the portal she batted the intercom. “Shaak-Rom, get Amborghent Joffs to the Green House. Now!”

 

*

 

The angry stand-off ended when the councilman arrived. He was especially pink-faced and his hair and beard seemed extra frazzled. He was slightly out of breath. At least three full revolutions had transpired, and they were once again on the ceiling by the time the red and blue Trivven brought the Bulaxian representative through the portal. Crimson watched impatiently as the councilman struggled in change of artificial gravities.

Joffs listened earnestly, but with deeply tired eyes. After a brief explanation of the carefully guarded eco system, Joffs nodded and turned to his planet-men.

Keffler butted in, “…If they haven’t ruined it already with all their accursed flailing!” He stabbed a crooked old finger at the intruding farmers.

Joffs nodded and turned again. He seemed to speak for a very long time, gesturing to Crimson and then to Keffler, and then the Green House. The farmers argued, interrupting all these explanations with points of their own. But eventually the firm outward palms of their rep, began to back them up. Offended but submissive, the farmers turned back to the habitorial decks.

Joffs turned back to Crimson. “I’m sorry. They didn’t know who you were. And they couldn’t understand why their plants were not good enough to be in your garden. Their plants will die if they do not get the right light and care. I told them we would work something out, but it could not be today.”

“I’m not having any—” Keffler began.

Crimson shot out a flesh hand to silence him. “We’ll need a complete read-out of what plants they wish to integrate into our eco-system. We can’t risk losing our crops, or the balance we’ve established.”

“If I have any doubts,” the grizzled gardener piped up from his mobility chair, “I’m batting the lot of ‘em through the airlock!”

Joffs nodded wearily. “Of course.” He turned and wobbled back towards the entrance. By now they were coming back round to right-side up. Shaak-Rom kindly took the councilman by the arm and guided him towards the mayhem of resettlement.

“Probably too late already,” complained Keffler, wheeling his chair around and scooting back down the hill towards his vegetable boxes.

Crimson stood in the momentary quiet of the Green House. She inhaled deeply of the pollen-filled air; the smell of living things irritated her. And they hadn’t had the last spat over Keffler’s private domain. She could feel it.

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Episode 61: All Aboard

Concept collage, Rival/Crew. –DanArt

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.

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Episode 60: Space Home

Shaak-Rom concept. –DanArt

“…I appreciate your honesty, Chief Rom. I will inform the rest of the council and get back to you.” Councilman Joffs, the representative of the colonists to the Rival Bay, was a portly humanoid with bushy chin hair. He and the colonists were Bulaxian, a greenish-pinkish race.

Shaak-Rom’s red jaw clenched and released. He did not wish to ruin Crimson’s choice of business plan, but with a price on the head of every crewman of the Rival Bay it was only right that they should inform their coming passengers that some risk was involved—at least while they were in Khibarran space.

“I assure you,” Shaak-Rom nodded, “That we are taking every precaution necessary to ensure the safety of your people. Security checks and screening is in place. We only thought you should know.”

The councilman sighed. “Of course. We will confer and let you know immediately.”

The Linkburst faded and Shaak-Rom propped his elbows on the Archive console to rub the heels of his hands over his eyes and up the base of his ribbed, cranial horns. It occurred to him that if the Bulaxians withdrew their agreement of travel because of his actions Crimson would likely terminate his contract. The fact that it would strand him on the noxious world of Qualvana would not be of any concern to her. It had been several missions ago that he had confronted her on her misconduct towards prisoners, but he had a feeling she didn’t forget such impertinence. Destroying their best chance at netting enough cash for a bristolite battery or two would most assuredly be grounds for dismissal in Crimson’s mind.

But it could not be avoided now. The deed was done. Drawing nearly 300 passengers—men, women and children—into an underworld grudge match without their knowledge or consent was unacceptable. Even if it cost him Shaak-Rom his own home.

How long had it been? Ten years? Ten years since the collapse of the Legacy Order—since the destruction of his entire universe; his life; his allies; his sister…. He had survived, and carried a few with him—Kaylex, Devron, and Milgin, among others. But the prices on their heads from the newly establish Imperium had made it impossible to stay on Zeramis, or any other planet in the galaxy. Maybe he should have stayed with Devron and the others. But their freedom fighting insurrection seemed too impotent in relation to the effort expended just to remain ahead of the Imperium’s Hunting Squads. And his grief over Shaa-mi’s death and the demise of the Order had driven Shaak-Rom to flee the entire galaxy. He spent 6 years working on the Freighter Borsogus Malis to earn his passage to another galaxy—it happened to be the Whirlpool. With his skills he thought private security would be the best place to begin–maybe as a trainer, again. No longer dwarfed by the mystical powers of the Legacy Knights, he was quickly singled out as an exceptional fighter, and sent out as a mission leader. It only took a few unsavory jobs protecting shady characters for Shaak-Rom’s stomach to turn him away from that lifestyle. In time he found the Rival, passing through, but needing recruits. Already drifting through space himself, it was a perfect match.

Losing his place on the Rival Bay made him feel as though he was tilting on the edge of the Hedlion Cliffs of his birth world.  He would truly be a homeless babe again. A vagrant, a refugee. Milgin’s words would always haunt him: Stay. You are a crucial piece to rebuild the Legacy. But there was no Legacy. And he did not even know if Milgin and the others yet lived.

It wasn’t fear that drove him from the Legacy Galaxy. He did not fear death. It was despair; grief; impotence. They were relicts of a bygone age, and holding onto the dead past. But the Rival had given him a purpose and a home again. If he lost that…?

Shaak-Rom expelled a heavy breath from his lungs, and pushed the thoughts aside. He had done what he thought was right. If it set him further adrift in the universe, what great difference would it make? Perhaps another six year voyage back to Legacy was no worse than any other recourse.

Spinning in his chair Shaak-Rom rose and left the Archive. He made his way along the grated catwalk towards the Circle, listening to the hollow clump of his boots as though they were his last on this ship.

Behind him the communications alert chimed: incoming Linkburst! Could it be Councilman Joffs already? A speedy reply seemed alarming at best. Gritting his teeth Shaak-Rom spun and trotted back to the Archive. Crashing into the chair again he struck the respond key. “This is the Rival Bay.”

Joffs’ plump figure sprang up from the console. “Yes. Hello again, Chief Rom.”

“Greetings.”

“The Council and I have reached a consensus.”

Shaak-Rom tried to mask his surprise. “That is most expedient of you…!”

“Yes. We are all present, and we have discussed the matter. While the circumstances you have outlined are less than ideal, we would like to continue with the resettlement via the Rival Bay, if you and your crew are still willing to take us.”

Shaak-Rom’s mouth opened before he knew what to say. “That is… most achievable. Yes, we are still able and willing to take you and your people.”

“That is well,” replied the councilman, “You might wonder why we are so willing to make this journey. Well, as you might imagine, it isn’t easy to find anyone going our way. And as for the danger… that is precisely why most of us wish to leave this sector. It isn’t what we bargained for when we came here, and we don’t want to raise our children in such a lawless and hostile environment.”

Shaak-Rom felt his business decorum returning, “Of course, Councilman. We will continue with preparations then. We are delighted to have signed with you, and we will do everything to provide you and your people with a safe and comfortable voyage.”

“Wonderful. How soon can we inspect the vessel and prepare for boarding?”

“Within the week! Our transport shuttle is scheduled for supplies in three days. We can have you and any other representatives come aboard at that time. If everything is to your liking we should be able to begin boarding after that.”

“Very well. Please send me the coordinates for the shuttle, and time of rendezvous , and we will be ready.”

“I will. Rival out.”

Shaak-Rom batted the Linkburst away and leaned back. A giddy lightheadedness filled him, and his head-tendrils flexed and stretched.

For now, things would continue.

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Episode 59: Love Your Machines

Bridge Four, Engineering. Gator and Crimson. –DanArt

The rude, cold light of the hallways. Down past the Circle and the Mess. Through the auxiliary crew compartments, and to the gaping octagon of the Arboretum’s opening. A temporary respite in the weak gravitational fields, before the stomach tossing change to the spinning Green House. A clanking trek across the Sky-pane catwalks. And the light headed descent along the wall to exit through the black-hole, back-end of the Arboretum. Cargo bays, shuttle bays, and the 750-meter journey to Engineering was behind her.

Diablos, thought Crimson, ready to lie down again. Where’s Gator?

The Megladyte was nowhere to be seen.

Engineering spread out before her like a nest of titanium serpent’s eggs. Bulbous reactor chambers hung from the ceiling and piled from the floor in gigantic proportions—eggs balanced in stacks for the circus! The entrance to Engineering was a glorified blast door, onto a platform with a railing. The floor dropped away then and it was a good fifty-foot drop to the actual floor. Usually one took the elevating platforms on either side of the entrance. From her vantage point Crimson could see down the four rows of reaction chambers to the distant Jump Core, a confluence of massive pipes and conduits that at this distance seemed far smaller and less important than it was.

But a yellow Megladyte stomping around between the spheres like a space invader through a metropolis in an Earth I’s monster “movie” she did not see.

Crimson clumped to the call station by the door and snapped, “Gator, I’m here. What’s the problem?”

It took a moment, before Gator’s baritone rumble came back, slightly out of breath, “Meet me up on Four.”

Bridge Four. The two of them had had to completely rebuild the access routes to the top of the hulking reaction chambers. Tiny catwalks were fine for limber humanoids toting a hydraulic wrench, but for an alligator the size of a mythical stone troll, something more substantial was needed. With much welding they had made bridges that Gator could comfortably use, carrying only a normal wrench the size of an Andromedan—she’d seen Micron next to Gator’s wrench; it wasn’t an exaggeration.

With a huff of resolution she swung her flesh and metal carcass onto the lift. The lifts were wide and flat without walls. Retractable railings could be raised and lowered depending on how big a thing you needed to take to the floor. Usually Gator left them up. Crimson rode the lift to the top of the massive chamber and hobbled along the wall-mounted platform past the first three bridges. At Four she turned and began towards the center of the room. Gator was not on the bridge. Begrudging the effort she’d put into getting here quickly she clumped to the center of the bridge and waited.

Bridge Four and Five were the centermost of the maintenance walkways. Around her hummed the reactions chambers, four huge vats equal with her, and four more below her. The others lined in ranks behind her to the entrance, and off to the Jump Core.

She waited. Her ears went numb to the deep buzz of the giant vats, and she shifted uncomfortably. Where was that giant lizard?

Finally she heard him. The thumping feet and the swishing drag of his tail across the grated floor of the walkways were well known to her. The lack of urgency in his gait annoyed her. He turned the distant corner of the far end of Bridge Four and lumbered her way. Was he humming a tune? Crimson’s annoyance grew.

She didn’t wait for him to arrive but barked, “What is it? You said there was an emergency!”

Gator stopped humming but didn’t reply. If she could read Megladyte features she’d say he was somehow pleased with himself, which irked her more. He thumped along, wiping his scaly palms on his overalls, until he arrived standing almost twice her height. He put his huge mits on his hips.

Crimson forced her robot and flesh arms to cross, and thrust her metal pelvis to the side, awaiting an explanation.

“Mmm, nope,” rumbled Gator, thinking back. “I said, you gotta’ look at something right away.”

“Well, what the chicken-spit is it?”

The Megladyte’s eyes were intent as he looked at her down the long snout. “Well, maybe not look at, but listen. Look and listen!”

Crimson was losing her patience, “What. Gator.”

“This,” Gator turned and looked out at the massive reaction chambers, he opened his monster palms; in that moment even he looked small against the enormous room that diminished towards its horizon lines. “Here,” he grunted again. Taking the railing with both hands he jerked it upwards. A section gave way. Twisting Gator placed it to one side, leaving a large, unprotected section of the glorified catwalk.

“Siddown,” he invited. To demonstrate the Megladyte crouched, put a hand to the grating, dropped his butt to the foot bridge floor and popped his legs over the edge. At this height his fiery shock of red hair was equal with Crimson’s head. His tail swished over the ledge and flopped funnily. He twisted to watch her, and waited.

Crimson felt a red surge of anger begin to boil her insides. He’d tricked her; there was no emergency. He just wanted to give her one of his pep talks. Only this time he’d dragged her all the way down here, instead of pestering her in her quarters. She felt her muscles tensing and the skin around surgical attachments pulling tight.

But as she inhaled for a loud expletive… she saw him: standing over her, starkly lit by the setting sun. Above him orange and gray clouds etched ribbons in the high ceiling of Xalon XII. She saw the big fold of his scaly, soft, under-throat and the long jaws of teeth. He turned the huge head towards her, with large instinctive eyes. His hands had descended and carefully scooped her up, a rigid, broken doll, and cradled her against his chest. At the time her mind was blank, like static, or perhaps a waterfall of unsorted, inconsequential data. Just pain, and awake, and alive. From some Earth I zoological encyclopedia her kaleidoscopic Mindframe recognized some of the shapes and conjured alligator. “—‘gator,” was all she’d managed. Besides the red blood on her own hand, he was the first thing she’d had seen.

If anyone could tell her to sit down, it was Gator.

Taking another deep breath she set her left heal over the bridge ledge. She cursed again as she saw how far away the floor below them really was. With her good hand she held the remaining rail and lowered it until her butt was almost down. Then she kicked her work boot out from under her and dropped the last six inches. Her metal ass and hand had caught her.

They waited. Crimson stared angrily at the bulbous reactors.

“What.”

“Listen.”

Crimson listened. The faint hum of the reactors. Nothing else.

“I don’t—”

Gator held up a gnarly claw.

She listened again. Just reactors.

Gator could see she was unimpressed. He tilted his head. “D8 is outta’ sync. And B4’s gotta’ funny rattle.”

Crimson scrunched up her face; he could hear that? She listened harder. After a long moment she identified it. There was a different timbre coming from below, to their left. And, after a longer moment, she thought she could hear a higher register from the distance. It was almost like a harmony of a really boring Gregorian Earth I choir.

“From up here,” Gator interrupted, “You can hear it all! You probably can’t tell, but the backup life-support is funky as well—I’m runnin’ a diagnostic.”

Crimson darted a suspicious look at the Megladyte’s acoustic meatus. “You don’t even have ears!”

“I don’t have big, flappy ears, like you!” Gator grunted, “But from up here, if you listen hard enough, you can hear it.”

Crimson sat for a moment, and tried again. She tasked her Mindframe to sorting out the decibel levels and tried to differentiate between the distant notes.

“It doesn’t come all at once,” Gator continued, “but you get to know how Rival ought to sound. You know when she’s sick, when she needs attention, if somethin’s come loose… she’ll tell you when and where she needs you. Just like us. Machines need love too, ya know.”

Crimson cast him another sidelong glance.

“I come up here sometimes just to think.” Gator leaned forward to drape his elbows over his knees. With his big belly it looked more like just leaning forward with his wrists crossed.

“What’s your point?” Crimson asked.

Gator looked at her again. “Crims. Most people go to the Green House to relax. You don’t like living things. But I thought you might like it up here. It’s big, it’s lonely. But… in its own way, it is alive. Rival’s our living beauty, and if we take care of her, she’ll take care of us.”

Crimson chewed on that. She didn’t know what he was saying. But he was trying to be nice.

He continued, “I know you want to find out what happened to you, Crims. And we’ll get there eventually. Just don’t forget to love your machines.”

He grabbed the closest rail, and heaved his heavy bulk up. Crimson leaned away from the swiveling mass of muscles and scales.

“I’ll leave it open for ya’,” he gestured to the spare railing piece as he thumped away.

Crimson sat there.

—‘gator. Annoying. But kind.

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Episode 58: Denial

Fan Art: theravenslanding.com, Zarecaspian.com

Darkness was Crimson’s only solace. Her robotic arm, shoulder interface, metal pelvis and heavy steel and titanium leg were a combination of dead weight and confusing electrical impulses, neither fully feeling nor fully numb. It was like having an arm, leg, and pelvis that all felt asleep, heavy as uranium, and only ever tingled in a vaguely dissatisfying way: to remind you that it was there… but not really. Sometimes she had phantom pains: deep in her consciousness the missing arm and leg still existed in a tangled memory of shooting agony. She preferred these pains awake, when she could steel herself against the sensation. Asleep it was as though the spectral limb attempted to graft itself back onto her torso for long, horrifying reminders of its former demise. Made sleeping was a bitch.

Mostly she just drifted in a semi-conscious state, her eyes half-closed and only vaguely deflecting the storm clouds of uselessness—emptiness—that waited for her waking mind. She allowed her Mindframe to run diagnostics, and counted the slow information flow like a droning blur of tiny, binary sheep. It prevented her from having to fully face the chasm of absent memories—the post-traumatic stress waking hours of an amnesia victim—and the torturous phantom spasms of deep sleep.

Her quarters were Spartan. Like her past, there was nothing (Well, the dark snatches of writhing biotic-fluid hoses, bone-saws, and piercing needles, that came to her in cryptic flashbacks hardly made good décor; so she preferred the plain metal bulkhead and utilitarian computing console that her quarters offered). There was a single, heavy chair that could support her metal carcass, and her reinforced bunk, welded to the wall. That made up her furniture. Her meager selection of tank tops and cut-off shorts (kept dressing as simple as possible) were shoved in drawers inset to the side wall. That way she didn’t trip over loose drawers. And the minimalistic clothes meant less she had to pull on over her dumb cybernetic limbs. It meant she was often cold, as their steel crate floated in the vacuum of space. But it was better than being too hot. Mounted on the opposite wall was a toilet, sink, and neglected shower. She washed with a cloth—although electrocution was always an easy option. In the early days the shower head jutted out from the wall like a splinter in her mind, tempting her. Now she ignored it most days; but she kept it installed, just in case.

She also kept it dark, the quarters. Better that way.

Because there was her Mindframe. Just kept ticking. Whoever had done whatever they had done, they seemed to have linked her into an encyclopedia of the history of Earth. Not Earth II. Earth, Earth. Humanity earth. The history of humanity, at the fingertips of her mind. Too much information. The essence of human memory surely thrived on forgetfulness: constantly dusting down and refining memories to images and flickers of things one liked, hated, or found notable in some other way. It was selective; allowed you to escape or imbibe as one pleased. She watched as others, Andross especially, candy-coated and selectively recalled the past at their leisure. Crimson was without a memory of her own self, unable to candy-coat or hate her own past. Yet the confounded weight of a billion pasts pushed at the back of her cerebral nerve like a rhinoceros. It had taken her time to learn how to push back, and keep the overload of information at bay. It only slipped through occasionally now.

But she lay on her back, with her eyes half closed, and tried the slip beneath the surface of flowing information and existential despair. With hurricanes of everything and nothing waiting to assail her at any given moment, she could do with an attack by underworld hitmen. It might provide a welcome distraction.

How many days? Day until they could feel like they were getting somewhere. Maybe she could hover here in binary limbo until the crew stuffed their ship with the settlers and they were on their way to find out where she had come from. Probably not. Someone would have a problem—

“Gator to Crimson!” the intercom shattered her fragile inner peace. “You gotta’ take a look at something in Engineering right away!”

Outside—glaring light and people. And she’d have to haul her leg across the half-mile of Keffler’s Green House.

“On my way.”

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Episode 57: Paper Pirates

Concept Art: Cort

Speed might have been essential, but nobody wanted to do the Opti-work. The resettlement agency Ferguis Okoullis Co. quickly put them in contact with Colonists Representative Amborghent Joffs and supplied them both with the massive contracts. Cort began reading it and nearly went cross-eyed as the pages rolled by. He called Clidjitt to help and the insectoid combed through it with microscopic fastidiousness. But the Brev didn’t want to fill in the forms.

Another 44 pages later, and Cort thought he was done. Page 45 made the large rodent hang his head in defeat: insurance.

 

*

 

“Snakespit! What do you mean we don’t have insurance?” demanded Crimson. Her voice sounded blurry through the intercom, as though she’d been sleeping.

Cort had been working at his private console in the Cargo Bay 1; it felt like going to work each cycle, and also got him in the right head space. And he liked the walk through the Green House. So, with another mess of Opti-work looming, he thought coming to the Bridge in person would be good for him. When she wasn’t there, he’d settled into the communications alcove. He would’ve replied to her brusque question too, but the grisly cyborg wasn’t finished, “What the heck am I paying Galactitrust for? I almost had to pawn my other arm and leg to get the policy! I know it covers passengers.”

Cort sighed as he rolled the nav-ball, and brought the summary up in front of him again. “Torzon Galactitrust Co./Coop does insure for passengers under the policy you’ve selected—up to 450 persons, if you want to know. But Ferguis Okoullis’s liability also requires pre-hazard insurance, which our Bekka & Xvhkkttr Pre-Hazard Insurance policy expressly excludes. At least above 18 persons; or over six, for distances over greater than…” he scanned for the figure, “64,000 lightyears. As of last lunar cycle. Coronis System. It could be different by now; previous changes were only two cycles before that.”

“Snake! Spit!” Crimson separated the words to punctuate her emphatic displeasure.

Cort scrubbed his furry knuckles in his eyes, and sighed again. “I mean, I can try and Linkburst Bekka & Xvhkkttr and ask them if we can easily add passenger pre-hazard, and what fees contract modifications incur… Probably take a week or two to get a reply from here. The galactic core ain’t close, if you know what I mean.”

“Di-ablos!” Crimson interrupted.

“I don’t think they’ll sign the contract if we don’t have pre-hazard.”

There was a long, white-noise-ish buzz that was either the intercom, or the sound of Crimson’s Mindframe fuming. Finally she grumped, “What about local pre-hazard companies?”

Cort stared out the alcove into the bleak hallway beyond. “Yeah, I suppose we could find something temporary…”

Even through the intercom Crimson heard his trailing thought. “But…?”

“Can Braevel do it?” he whined.

 

*

 

In a completely overwhelming sort of way Braevel was excited to have guests coming on board. Their infirmary was woefully under stocked for so many people. But the Medical Bay had once been intended to care for the needs of hundreds, so the capacity was there—at least for a team of astronautical scientists and medical professionals. A single triage medic with a zoology degree was not the same. He hummed a whalesong herding melody to himself as he rummaged through the first aid stocks, making notes on his Opti-pad, and throwing away out-of-date disinfectants and burn treatments. They would need a complete medical restock, and up-to-date medical information on all the passengers, and the native physiology. Then would he have work to do!

Braevel blew bubbles out his gill frills, and tried to imagine assimilating all the information that would be necessary to look after yet another formerly unknown species for a number of months. It would be exciting!

The intercom buzzed. Braevel slouched in his water suit for a moment. Normally any interruption was welcome in the boredom of their space hauls. But today he had work to do…!

He sloshed back through the barren pharmaceutical cupboards, past the diagnostic beds to the intercom. “Medical!” His translator’s humanoid, tenor voice always sounded quite pleasant. He liked it.

“Braevel, its Cort,” came the oversized gerbil’s voice. “Crimson says you need to sort out some pre-hazard insurance for the passengers. Something local and short-term.”

“Augh!” Braevel’s translator approximated.

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Episode 56: Check List, Hit List

space-rat-logo

Cort liked solving puzzles. He liked stacking, storing, and organizing. Finding ways to fit the crew’s equipment and supplies into the various stowage compartments in and around the habitorial section of the ship had been what got him the role of Cargo Bay Administrator. When it happened, he thought he had heard Andross grunt, “More like Official Packrat.” The oversized space rodent didn’t know what a Packrat was; but it sounded like a well-mannered being with good sensibilities. As it was, he was in charge of restocking the ship for their voyages, liasing with Keffler over the food needs, and keeping their equipment working, stocked, and their battery munitions charged and piled high.

Also he got the electric cart, which was actually pretty fun to drive around. With a remote control small enough to fit comfortably between his front paws he could make short work of even their largest restocks. And if he couldn’t, Clidjitt, the instectoid from Klittrectdiddon, could lift 50 times his own body weight, and he liked lifting and stowing things. The desert world where Cort came from had insects—arachnids technically. But you wouldn’t be friends with them. But Clidjitt? He was good people.

After the initial shock of having to board and settle 300 aliens, Cort had to admit, the challenge would be interesting. The colony seed-ship Rival Bay had been designed with so many passengers in mind. It could be fun—nice to have people onboard. Not that the crew guys weren’t cool. He’d signed up to be a part of the bounty-hunting Rival himself. They all wanted to make a few credits and bag a few low-lifes. When their egos didn’t get riled, and the boredom of a long jump wasn’t giving them jump fever, the crew could be as solid a bunch you could want to hangout with. But they didn’t always socialize, and they weren’t always the best companions in the lonely dark of deep space. And besides Crimson, there weren’t any females. But maybe a bunch of prying, wide-eyed, curious, run ‘o the mill, chatting, sphere-huggers would lighten things up a big. Especially for a Jump like Crimson was talking about.

Two weeks of searching for a resettlement agency with passengers migrating to Light Point left him in a different state of mind, however. Turns out nobody on Qualvana wanted to go that far, and most Gortassa (because the planet’s other people group, the Zeeplans, didn’t seem to leave planet at all) wanted to relocate to acidic gas-giants where they could breathe easily. Making the closest, most popular migration destination Pelban IV, 150,000 light years in the wrong direction. Not to mention the environmental hazard of trying to accommodate 300 ‘heavy air’ breathers, with children not accustomed to standard O2 environs. Talking with Braevel didn’t reveal any hope the kids could just “tough it out.” And talking with Gator about sealing up 215 living compartments with a sealed, self-regulating, self-refreshing atmosphere, and internal airlock—well, Gator was normally pretty amiable with softer, cute mammals onboard—but it didn’t look promising for prolonging a furry little Packrat’s life.

Cort sat back in this chair, away from his console. He licked the back of his paws and scruffed over his eyes multiple times to remove the hours of dead-end research. At this rate, they’d be better off hunting down the remaining criminals in Khibarra. If they ran out, they were only 32 hours from Berkatol…

Suddenly, another listing caught his eye:

Non-native colony transfer, Talconis System.

Non-native was good. If they weren’t heavy air passengers things would get a lot easier. It wasn’t as far as Light Point, but Talconis was vaguely on the way. Cort spun the nav-wheel and read further.

 

*

 

Cort hummed a little tune from when he was a pup in a litter of six as he hopped his way up the metal ladder to the bridge. He thought Crimson would be pleased with his discovery—as pleased as Crimson ever was. He scampered down the catwalk, and could see Gator’s yellow, scaly tail almost blocking the bridge’s entry. Loud as ever, Andross’ voice carried from inside too. Good: everyone was here.

As he approached Cort heard Gator’s bumbling baritone voice, “… I’m surprised it didn’t happen earlier, frankly. We’ve been askin’ for it!”

Crimson muttered something even Cort’s acute ears couldn’t catch. But Andross’ voice blared eagerly, a tone of challenge, “So what’re they gonna’ do? Who’s left to send after us?”

“Who’s left to send after who?” Cort piped in, squeezing past Gator’s rump, smoothing his neck fur against the opposite door frame as he went. An extra half-turn once through the door brought his furry tail after him.

Cramped in the glorified cockpit sat their dark eye-makeupped, cyborg leader, Crimson on one pilot station. At the other was Andross, no surprise, decked out in his MiPie fighter pilot flight armor. Behind them in the auxiliary stations were Shaak-Rom—the stripy, horned, red and blue Legacy Knight trainer from the legendary and distant galaxy of those guys—and Clidjitt, the friendly carpenter ant who could lift 50 times his own body weight in plasticrates. It wasn’t the roomiest bridge on a vessel this size, but with the fat bulk of Gator crouching in the back it felt like everybody was squished and the massive jaws were hanging low over all their heads. With their current orbital attitude, the swirling green atmosphere of toxic Qualvanna also hang heavily above them in the view screen, so yeah, cramped.

Everyone turned to look at him as he squeezed in, but it was Shaak-Rom who answered in his level, deep, voice, “Onboard Computer flagged up local Linkburst traffic about the Rival Bay and crew. A bounty has been placed on our heads.”

“That’s how it feels to be on the other side!” Andross crowed, “’Bout time, really!” The Swell of Justice: that’s what the crew called it. The Qualvannan authorities didn’t have the manpower to hunt down all their convicted criminals, and the Rival Bay had been a welcomed addition to their man-hunting efforts. Apparently the crooks were finally tired of “the Rivals.”

Andross continued, “So do we have to wait around for them, or can we go bag the bastard who put out the hit?”

“Only if they’re convicted criminals already,” Crimson growled.

“As you might expect, the bounty source is anonymous,” Shaak-Rom resumed.

“Still,” Gator grunted from above, “Whoever it is has balls: to mark out a crew of GP deputies…”

The Galactic Precinct carried more weight around the central galaxies. Out in the Khibarra system it was mostly a recognized but unsupported title. And being deputized to hunt bounties was slightly different than being deputies. Nevertheless, it took balls.

“Perhaps it is good that we are leaving system soon,” Clidjitt was saying. His clicking and hissing was followed only miliseconds later by the happy-go-lucky translator box at his neck joint.

“I say we go hunting!” Andross answered, “Root ‘em out! I’m sure there’s something we can dig up on them, dirt and all. Come’on Crims—you know you like taking down the Big Bads…”

Crimson glared back in response. It was true. Their fearless—perhaps feelings-less—leader usually went for the worst of the worst, and made everyone a little sorry if they settled for perps with less than murder or rape on their record. But she also hated delays. Tough choice. It’d be weeks of doom and gloom if she didn’t get a better option…

“I might have a solution,” Cort waved his Optipad. “Outbound colonists to Talconis. They’re off-worlders—for Qualvanna, I mean. Breathe O2. It wouldn’t get us all the way to Light Point, but far enough to score another bristolite battery. What I hear of Talconis, we should have plenty of hunting we could do to earn another.”

“Talconis! Eesh. Not really on the way, is it?” Andross complained, “Besides, what if your colonists are a trap? Funny they show up the instant a hit goes out for us.” He leaned back crookedly with a malicious grin and tossed a leg over the arm of his pilot’s chair. “Great way to get a 100 mercs on our ship with guns pointed at our heads!”

Cort rolled his rodent eyes. “It’s an established resettlement agency… Ferguis Okoullis Co. They’re legit.”

Andross wasn’t going to let his seed of doubt go to waste. He slathered on the sarcasm. “Established organizations are never run by gang money…”

“Oh please,” Cort returned hotly, “How would they even know we were looking for colonists?”

“It’s not entirely off orbit,” Crimson grunted, surprisingly in favor of Andross. “Anyone with a few spies could know what we’re up to.”

Andross rocked his swiveling chair back and forth in narrow-eyed victory.

Cort was going to pull out all his fur if his week of research was going to be shot to holes by a gunslinging gambling pilot. He scrambled mentally for secure footing. Looking at the listing again he snapped, “When did the hit get called?”

Shaak-Rom swiveled in his chair to check his sources. “It was flagged to my systems todaaaay…” his even voice dragged along with his search, “It seems the hit was posted four days ago.”

“Ha!” Cort announced. They looked at him, and he tossed the O-pad to the Crimson. “Three months ago! Cats and curses, Andross, I’ll bite yer fingers off if you make me hafta’ find a more perfect resettlement job.”

Crimson fumbled with her human hand to catch the airborne O-pad. Eventually snatching it like a crow’s claw she held it up and gave it a dark glare. Her thin lips twitched sideways. “It’s legit.”

The cramped bridge of five species waited for her call. Crimson’s dark eyes scanned the lot of them. She re-read the manifesto on the O-pad. Her jaw worked sideways as she stared them down again. “We’ll take it. Cort, Gator, work with Braevel and make arrangements for the colonists to come aboard. As soon as we can get out of here, we’re going. Don’t need to get into a turf war. Shaak-Rom, I want to you issue everyone masers for the duration of our stay. Everyone: extra security. Especially you Andross! I don’t want a fire fight we can’t win, or a sniper picking us off onworld. Watch your comms and don’t ‘burst anything you don’t have to. Armed accompaniment for Keffler if you need to do any supply runs before we ship out. Let’s do it.”

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