Episode 65: All At Once

Bridge concept sketch. DanArt

“Swing our tail pipe around and prepare to fire the main engines!” Crimson ordered. She pulled down the intercom panel and keyed in a direct line to Engineering again. Gator answered.

“What the heck’s goin’ on, Crims?”

“Mag mine. Suspected pirates. We’re gonna’ swing our tail around and try to melt through the diablos thing. Less than 4 minutes, full thrust.”

“Whoop-dee-do. I gotta’ tell you: every time we do this, things get a little worse!”

“You wanna’ explain to our passengers how we got picked outta’ mag-fall, crushed by a mine, and kidnapped by pirates?”

“Pirates!” a familiar but unwelcome voice on the Bridge: Amborghent Joffs.

Crimson spun around and levered herself out of the chair to face the frazzled councilman. “Not yet! If we succeed, we might yet get away! I need you and your people in their quarters and out of the way!”

Shaak-Rom was out of the Archive and standing behind the civilian leader. Joffs only took a step back, worry plastered his rotund, greenish face, but he was resolute. “I… think I should stay. At least until I know more.”

“We’re kind of busy!” Crimson snapped.

Shaak-Rom put a red hand on Joff’s shoulder and said, “Perhaps I can bring the councilman up to speed.”

“Fine,” Crimson waved her hand, “Just get him out of here!” She turned back to the intercom. “Gator! Prep the engines. I want any excess power to inertia dampeners.”

“Here we go…!”

She turned her attention to the view screen. It was still spinning, stars wheeling from one side to the other, but it seemed different somehow. Andross and Clidjitt were trading instructions:

“ …Stabilize with port thrusters.”

“Axis aligned!”

“Keep it there.”

“Are we in position?” Crimson asked, “Because I feel like I’m going to throw up.”

“It’s better not to look out the window,” Andross growled. His own eyes were fixed on the navigational display. The blip of the Rival Bay sat in shrinking orbit around a central point, like a tetherball coiling around its pole.

“When will we be in range?”

Clidjitt’s two claws typed with the precision speed of a classical pianist. “T-minus two minutes, twenty-five seconds.”

Crimson was back on the intercom. “Gator, two minutes to full thrust.”

His baritone rumbled sounded out of breath. “Almost there!”

Crimson tried to ignore the spinning stars. “Clidjitt, you gotta’ spare eye for pirates?”

The insectoid deftly made adjusted to Andross’ commands, while sparing a third pincer to flick across the scanner controls. “Still no significant reading beyond the mag-well.”

“Keep looking!”

Gator’s voice came back, “Engine’s primed and ready.”

“Good. Inertial dampeners to full.”

“One minute,” announced Andross.

The seconds counted by in slow ticks. Crimson felt her Mindframe trying to push an Earth I poet’s quote out her mouth—someone called Dickinson. She managed to keep it to herself:

‘Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch,

That nearer, every Day,

Kept narrowing its boiling Wheel

Thanks, Emily, Crimson grimaced.

“Approaching optimal burn range,” Clidjitt chirped.

“Standbye,” Crimson ordered. She switched back to shipwide communications, “All hands, prepare for full thrust! Passengers, brace yourselves.” She clenched her teeth. Twice in one year; too much.  “Bring the fire!”

“Firing!” Andross answered. The Rival began to shake from the aft as the engines rumbled to life. Then, like someone had pulled back and elastic band and let it snap, the Rival bucked. Crimson cursed, and was crushed to the deck by the force of a thousand Gs. She tried to push her face and chest away from the vibrating deck. The others were properly strapped into their seats.

The bulkheads groaned and rattled. Andross shouted over the protesting structure, “Full thrust! The mine is still dragging us in!”

Crimson propped her robotic hand on her metal knee and forced herself up, feeling like the ball bearing in an aerosol spray can. Straining against the force she keyed the intercom and called to Engineering. “A little more power, Gator!”

“Safeties are off!” replied the engineer.

She felt Andross increase the throttle. Triumphantly he yelled, “Rival holding position!”

“Give it hell,” Crimson growled.

“Crimson,” Clidjitt chirped, “I’m detecting another ship. It’s appeared about 1000 kilometers outside the event horizon. Bearing 311, mark 55. They’re coming our way!”

Crimson was struggling to seat herself into the scanning station behind the insectoid. “They must have figured out our plan! Are they armed?”

“The mag-mine is still disrupting our scanners. But spectrograph indicates a metallic object of about 20 meters by 50 meters.”

“That’s about the size of the Boatmam,” Andross inserted.

Boarding craft. Could be worse. One thing at a time, though. The panel behind them at the neck of the bridge flashed with a shower of sparks. Joffs voice cried out from the back; it sounded more like surprise than pain.

“Where we at with the mine?” Crimson demanded.

“Holding!” Andross said.

“One point five minutes!” Clidjitt replied, “sixty seconds and we’re free.”

“When will the pirate vessel enter the event horizon?” Crimson asked.

“At current speed,” Clidjitt referred the spectrograph. “Roughly a minute.”

“Standby,” Crimson warned, “He deactivates the mine to try and save his equipment we’re gonna go flying.”

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Jeremy’s Farewell

Hope by Daniel Cossette. Sprung Showcase 2016. Photo: Duncan Grisby

I met Jeremy through church, and was regularly inspired by his contributions to the services despite his difficult health issues. I’m a mime artist and contemporary dancer, and when I was given some complimentary tickets to an event I was performing at (Winter Lights, Anglesey Abbey)  I thought I would offer them to Jeremy. This was the beginning our friendship.

I began visiting him fairly regularly, and quickly learned there was more to the man than the wheelchair. He was a song-writer and poet. He connected me to a local writers group he’d helped to found. He even offered me his notebook, and said if I ever wanted to dance to one of his poems I would be welcome.

As I read through his notebook I realized it was more than a compilation of his poetry, but also thoughts, proverbs, quotes and song lyrics he’d liked over the years. But I also noted the deteriorating handwriting.

Finally, on one page he simply wrote with a trembling pen how difficult it had been for him the last two years. It was so heart breaking—and yet, on the opposite page, he’d written the scripture from James:  “Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way consider it an opportunity for pure joy. For we know when your faith is tested your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when it is fully developed you will be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (v 2-4)

I asked Jeremy for permission to tell this part of his story, and use these texts he’d written—I still used one of his poems for inspiration for the dance movement itself (a beautiful compilation called Take Me to the Sea)—but I felt that his faith through the extreme struggle of Parkinson’s disease would inspire many more people than myself.

Jeremy attended the premier of the dance, when it was performed for Queen’s College Contemporary Dance spring showcase 2016. He thanked me for honestly looking at what he had lost. I think it validated so much of the grief and hardship he’d been through.

In the dance I dance from a wheelchair. And while I didn’t return to sit in the wheelchair at the end, originally, I did stand by it, because the story hadn’t been completed. Today, Jeremy’s faith has been rewarded, and his hope has been realized. He is free of the wheelchair, and he has gone to a much better place.

I was honored to be given the opportunity to dance this piece for Jeremy’s farewell celebration. His funeral was small and only a few allowed to attend. But many more came to a special thanksgiving service, to celebrate his life, the inspiration he brought to us who knew him, and his new found freedom; as his close friend Greg put it in a separate tribute, “Jeremy is dancing with Jesus now.”

I was honored to dance a bit of his story here on earth. I titled the piece Hope.

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Episode 64: Scramble

rocket propulsion concept art

 

“Full scans!” Crimson yelled, “Where are they?”

“Scanning!” answered Clidjitt.

“Can we stabilize our attitude?”

“Tryin’…” Andross replied, both hands on the flight yoke.

Crimson sat at the scanning station, but the Brev—with his four arms and compound eyes—would have as many screens open and functional on his own display. She spun and barked at Shaak-rom. “Linkburst a distress signal on a broad range. See if the Gateway has any support ships to send to us.”

The white and blue stripes across the red, devil-horned, Trivven looked naturally like war paint. Shaak-Rom’s obedience was deadly efficient. He was already moving into the communication’s alcove as he asked. “What is our distance to the Gateway?”

Andross’s focus was forward on his instruments, but he answered, “’Bout three days at sublight!”

Even Crimson’s swear died in her throat. Three days. Fifteen minutes out of mag-fall. It made all the difference. Even the imperturbable Shaak-Rom had frozen, one foot and hand in the Archive.

“Go!” she shouted. For all the good it’ll do. The Duka Master disappeared into the alcove to ‘burst their distress.

“I hope you mounted some guns on this thing when I wasn’t looking…” Andross growled through grit teeth.

“Just try and shake us free!” Crimson snapped.

“You gonna’ full thrust again?” Andross challenged.

They’d broken free of a mini black hole just out of Berkatol when it had surprised them nearly a year ago. A narrow escape that she’d rather not repeat. But before she could get into a sequel argument with the hot headed flyboy, Clidjitt interjected: “We are inside the event horizon of the mag-mine’s pull. It was perfectly positioned to catch us, slingshot us out of the magnetic trade way, and keep hold of us.”

“Snake-spit, how big is that thing?” Crimson shook her head.

Clidjitt’s second right claw danced across some controls. “About 20 meters.”

“We’re not shaking it.” Andross concluded.

“Slow us down then.”

From the Archive Shaak-Rom’s voice could be heard recording their call for help, “Mayday. Mayday. This is private vessel Rival Bay, Serial Number: 8199673400Q. We are under attack. Magnetic-mine pulled us out of mag-fall…”

“Have we got any scanner info on hostile ships?” Crimson demanded.

“Negative,” chirped Clidjitt, “The strength of the electro-magnetic field is making it difficult for our sensors to take accurate readings.”

“What about the spectrograph?”

“Light reflections outside the mag-well are negligible.”

“If they’re out there, they’re cloaked,” Andross concluded, still focused, slowing their spiral.

Crimson tried to think, her Mindframe calculating the power output necessary for such feats. She shoved the scrolling numbers away. “That’s a lot of energy. A mag-mine that size and a cloaking device? There must be something big out there. Can we get a lock on any residue energy or exhaust?”

“Scanner resolution is pretty bad,” sing-songed the Brev’s translator.

“Is there any way we can break the mag-mine’s hold?” Andross asked, “We’re sitting ducks out here! When that thing pulls us all the way in, we’re definitely taking structural damage…”

The concept was simple—immaculately calculated—but simple. Fish the Rival out of mag-fall. Drag it in with a mag-mine (even an unarmed mine would smash large portions of the ship’s outer hull). Anything remaining intact was left at the mercy of mercenaries and scavengers. She could only hope the hits placed on her and her crew required proofs of death. Otherwise, if the mag-mine wasn’t armed with a warhead, the cloaking field would drop and reveal a heavily armed gunship. Only if the pirates needed proof, would they be forced to board and do the dirty work themselves. Vaporized atoms floating in space wouldn’t bring a payday capable to offsetting the cost of such an elaborate enterprise.

An awful lot of work for a grudge match. Bad losers.

“Information!” Crimson snapped. “The mag mine. Is it armed? Is it armored?”

“I’m not detecting any energy signatures that would indicate any kind of fusion device,” Clidjitt replied. “Its design suggests its primary function is magnetic field generation.”

“What if we gave it more than it asked for?” Andross said, “Throw the Boatman at it? Ram it.”

“Dumb idea,” Crimson replied, “We may need it yet.”

“What about projectile weapons?”Andross retorted, clearly on a roll. “We got anything onboard that might be big enough to crack that nut. A simple, armor-piercing round, accelerated by the magnetic field would impact the mine at 1,000 times its ordinary power.”

“If anyone does it’s an illegal personal item,” Crimson warned.

“Would be handy!” Andross rolled his eyes. “Doesn’t this rust-bucket have any anti-piracy measures?”

It should. In their line of work it would have made a lot of sense. But flying around the universe in a gutted, used seedship came without certain perks. And Crimson’s own lack of self-preservation had probably delayed her investment in customary precautions.

“Not really,” she answered, darkly.

“Snake-spit!” Andross said, tossing his hands in the air.

The pilot’s derision irritated her almost more than the pirates. “Hey! If you wanted the Nautilus you should have signed on with Captain Nemo!”

Andross gave an exasperated head shake.

Crimson’s mind kept ticking. Who knew that the remaining hitman of Qualvana would go to the effort of a space-based ambush? It was unlikely. But now 300 settlers were caught in the line of fire.

“How long until we’re drawn into the mine?”

“Approximately 20 minutes at current trajectory,” Clidjitt answered.

“Can we slow that down?”

Andross was a born pilot. Even his grumbling gave way to solving a flight based dilemma. “We can swing ‘round. Use our engines to slow the spiral—need continuous adjustments. Hafta’ be manual. But it should work.”

“How much time could you buy us?”

Andross looked at Clidjitt. The Brev was typing calculations into his display with his stickly claws. He narrated the results. “With minimal output… we could add one hour until impact.”

“Waitaminute!” Andross sat up straighter. “What if we torch that thing?”

They looked him.

“If we get close enough—angle our propulsion engines straight at it—and go for full thrust! Could we melt the sucker?”

Clidjitt went back to his controls. “Spetrographic readings indicate traditional Queriddium alloy, but I detect no special quartz or silica plating. It would probably take 5 minutes at 2,000 Kelvins to destabilize the mine.”

“Full thrust would put out at least 3,000 K,” Andross nodded.

Crimson was grabbing the intercom. She had to think for a moment to recall the code for Engineering. “Gator, prepare for full thrust!”

“What? Again?” came the Megladyte’s reply.

The cyborg turned back to her hotheaded pilot. “Not just a pretty face, fly boy.”

“Best of the best…” Andross admitted.

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Episode 63: Magnetic Personalities

Bridge concept sketch. DanArt

Five hours the Rival Bay and Hollgorrsh hurtled along at 20,000 MPH in orbit above Qualvana, touching by the fingertips of the straw-thin gangplank—the bulky generation seedship and passenger space bus momentarily frozen in synchronous ballet around the largest planetary body of the Khibarran System. All the while a sleek police cruiser hovered nearby, vigilant.

Crimson stormed like a human crutch up to the bridge, and positioned herself on the scanner array, watchful for suspicious vessels. Andross’ personality even seemed bearable compared to the bawling of children, the clamoring of useless pedestrians and their simpleton concerns on the habitorial deck. Gator, Clidjitt, and Cort managed to load all the cargo swiftly, and miraculously Shaak-Rom’s management of the waves of whimpering humanoids only took marginally more time than projected.

The intercom nearly surprised her. Shaak-Rom’s voice sounded weary but accomplished. “Airlock to Crimson, all passengers are aboard. Ready to disengage gangplank.”

“Finally!” Andross sighed, tossing his head back on the neck rest of his chair, as though his strength alone had held the two behemoth vessels intact for the entire 300 minute process.

Honestly Crimson was skeptical. “Are you sure? Are the headcounts confirmed?”

Imperturbable and without hesitation, the Duka Master replied, “Councilman Joffs has already verified the passenger and cargo manifestos. Everyone is aboard.”

“Airlock is sealed. Disengaging gangplank clamps!” Andross was forward in his seat and flipping switches.

Crimson swallowed her annoyance. She would prefer to give orders once and a while; but it was too late. The MiPie wasn’t good because he was slow. Instead she gave herself a task. “I’ll inform the Hollgorrsh. We’re pulling away.”

 

*

 

In the vacuum of space the docking clamps released and the thin gangplank withdrew towards the Hollgorrsh. With traffic control permissions obtained, and all crew to their stations, the Rival Bay fired her engines. She climbed higher angling their orbital pathway to ascend to the magnetic gateways. Qualvana had eight. With a course plotted, they rose to the highest orbital ring of traffic and joined the queue for the outbound tradeways. Ahead of them was a large shipping barge, fat and awkward, and a small passenger shuttle, bullet-shaped and made for short system jumps of under a week.

In twenty minutes the barge entered the massive ring, visible from the surface of Qualvana, if one could see through the steamy clouds. Before it had fully passed through the ring the magnetic conveyance system locked and pulled the massive load through. It disappeared with the barest of visible streaks.

Linkburst chatter from the control towers, invisible along the edge of the county-sized ring, kept them informed of progress. Within the hour the passenger system jumper was launched. Finally Rival Bay hovered into position. After the regulatory safety gap imposed by Qualvanan traffic authorities was appeased Andross fired the engines again and the Rival sidled closer. Clidjitt arrived on the bridge, his insectoid feet clicking on the metal deck. He liked to watch the ship enter mag-jump, and Crimson wondered what his compound eyes made of the event.

“Inertia dampeners to full power,” Crimson said.

“Come on, baby,” said the MiPie, watching the gateway disappear over their dorsal viewscreen.

The Rival Bay flew forward on the magnetic slipstream.

 

*

 

It was six hours to the Jump Launch site. Leaving Khibarra yet again. Andross was off duty, and Clidjitt took over. Crimson risked the journey back to her bunk; she arrived without incident. Her back and shoulder ached from sitting up at the scanner station.

Still, she was grimly satisfied. It had taken them nearly a month to finalize their journey—once signing on with Ferguis Okoullis Company. Now, after the strenuous boarding process, they were underway. She collapsed on her reinforced bunk and allowed the steel bed springs to hold her weight….

 

She had actually slept. Rare occurrence. Normally she would have felt guarded elation at actual sleep. But the hideous jerk that launched her onto the floor in a pathetic pile made her swear, even before she fully picked her stinging face off the floor. Even her Mindframe was spinning for useless references in her bottomless database without success. An emergency chime sounded before Clidjitt’s chipper voice piped, “Crimson to bridge. We have an emergency.”

Crimson groaned. She pulled her human knee and hand under her and attempted to assume a crawling position. What now? Her limbs were unresponsive.

Just dazed. With a clank she forced her robotic hand up to clamp onto the bed frame. Then, with grinding teeth, she pulled her cybernetic knee towards her and planted the foot flat. Her neural connections were still sluggish from the violent jolt. Her cheekbone throbbed as though it was already swelling from impact with the floor.

The insectoid pilot with four hands and eyes that could observe spectrums far beyond human limit was usually fastidious beyond perfection. If it was an emergency, human error (or bug error) wasn’t the problem. Something happened.

Staggering to the intercom Crimson slapped the call button. “Crimson to Andross. Shaak-Rom. To the bridge.”

Still struggling for control, Crimson wrenched open the portal and clumped out into the hall.

 

*

 

The boys were entering the bridge even as her head finally rose level with the walkway. She forced herself into a metronomic run. She arrived sweating and gasping.

Clidjitt was already explaining.

“Start again!” Crimson snapped between breaths.

The insectoid’s head spun nearly 360 degrees to see her. His mandibles clicked and buzzed. In a moment his translator announced. “We’ve been pulled out of mag-fall. Fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. Approximately three lightyears from the Jump Site.”

“Diablos!” Andross said, already in the co-pilot seat and reading displays.

“What caused it?” Crimson snarled.

“Still scanning… but I’m seeing magnetic distortions across the stars.

Crimson didn’t waste time trying to see anything against the slowly spinning starfield. Clidjitt had a claw reached across to the scanning station, and Crimson batted it aside with her metal arm and took the seat. She saw the results the same time Andross did from his panel.

“Grav-well!” he exclaimed, “What is with this quadrant?!? Another blackhole?”

Gator’s voice rumbled through the intercom, “Anyone wanna’ explain what’s going on up there?”

“Grav-well. Again. Standby.”

“I thought I told you, the last one was the last one!” Gator complained.

“Cut the chatter!” Crimson barked. To the bridge crew she snapped, “I want answers!”

For a moment Crimson thought her Mindframe had found an audio file of screaming humans. Then she remembered the 300 Bulaxian sphere-huggers they had on the habitorial deck. Voices carried. Shipwide intercom—not good with passengers aboard.

“Switch to private call channels!” Onboard procedures were going to have to be looked at if they survived this.

“Correction:” Clidjit chirped, “It seems to be a magnetic well of immense power, rivalling that of a black hole. We’re caught within the event horizon, if you can call it that. We were pulled out of the magnetic tradeway like a slingshot, and are still spinning. Diameter of the horizon is much smaller than our previous encounter with the black hole by Berkotal.”

“Is there a center?” Crimson asked, sternly, “Is light trapped?”

“I can see it!”Andross announced. He pointed briefly out the spinning viewscreen, and then to his display. “I’ve got a metal center. Spectrograph confirms: Queriddium alloy.”

The bridge crew understood simultaneously.

“Mag-mine,” said Shaak-Rom.

Pirates.

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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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