Episode 18: Death House

Andross projected less than four hours until the Boatman had to be loaded, manned, and tossed out of the Rival’s shuttle bay like a porcupine shedding quills. Crimson clumped down the catwalks and corridors towards the Green House. It was one thing to lose the incriminating evidence from the ship so they couldn’t be arrested. It was another to explain why they had set off the drug sensors without getting further detained on suspicion.

Fire burned in her veins and tingled at the electrical interfaces along her arm and hip implants. Curse Vaken Rae, and Rullorrg, and the Pincho System police. She wanted to see Rae fry, but every step of the way it was the Rival in the pan.

The ship passed around her like a black shadow, but suddenly her ocular receptors registered the open light of the stars pouring through the mouth of the Green House entrance. The artificial gravity wavered as she clanked down the deck, and suddenly she was standing on the long catwalk of an open sky-pane.

The six rotating faces of the Arboretum ballooned away, like a massive terrarium. Three of the faces were open to the stars, including the one on which Crimson stood. The other three were farmed and gardened, and irrigated to create a surprisingly living space in the midst of the austere steel-and-synth jungle gym of the generation seed ship. The rotating cylinder, generating its own sense of gravity, was like a massive bubble of Eden.

She paused, looking out over the deadliness of open space, confused by the near light speed velocity of the Rival. The long slashes of light from distance stars and galaxies were complicated by the Doppler effect, twinging the slashes of light with alternating red, blue, or white colors. In Mag-flight Crimson always felt the Green House was dimmer than its usual brilliant glare, and became a bit like an evening  garden party disco. Standing on the cat walk overlooking the kaleidoscope of rushing colors sent her Mindframe back to the ancient Earth Norse god, Heimdall, who forever watched over the trembling Bifrost bridge of water, sky, and fire.

But she couldn’t stand long. The rotating half-mile Green House mandated that she turn left and walk, lest she be swept up the wall and find herself waiting for the others on the ceiling. She and Keffler had determined early on, with volcanic tactility, that if they must meet at the Green House, they should meet on the “down” side, where the Rival’s deck met the moving cylinder. Up was subjective in space, and tempers shorter; so they had pre-set the meeting place. She could see the spec of Keffler, driving along the approaching garden-pane as it slid down the wall. As soon as Braevel met them they could let the garden carry them away.

Fortunately, Braevel was not far behind. “Hello,” he chirruped. Crimson made no reply and the fish-man fell into step beside her, bubbling to himself as he crossed the erratic gravity threshold. His water-suit boots clumped dully on the catwalk. For a moment they fell into a ¾ rhythm as Crimson’s one metal foot resounded as a downbeat between Braevel’s hard plas-synth foot fall. She was sure the weak gravity at the lip of the Green House was doing interesting thing inside the self-contained environment of Braevel’s suit, but for herself she enjoyed the easier weight, which allowed her to keep a flat rhythmic time with the sea-dweller.

They arrived at the Garden Pane, and if the smell of green things hadn’t reached them yet, it did now. They turned down the graded slope and even Crimson’s hard footstep was lost in the spongy turf and netted latex walkways. Keffler rode up towards them on his mobility chair and coasted to a halt a few feet away. “What’s the problem now?” he barked.

Crimson stared at the gardener. His old-style plaid shirt was faded and wrinkled, tucked roughly into his brown work trousers. A wide brimmed, floppy hat shielded his face from the ever-constant star light, but didn’t hide the speckled dark tan on his wiry arms and thin face. A scraggly, rusty steel wool beard poked out of his hard jaw. His mobility chair was a customized piece of gardening wizardry; pockets, containers, and racks were strapped, taped, and soldered onto the chair to hold fifty different trowels, ties, clippers, rakes, stakes and whatever else he might need at a moment’s notice. Swiss Army knife, her Mindframe dug up.

“Mag-gate sensors detected something that looks like drugs on our vessel.” Crimson replied, monotone.

“Really?” Keffler feigned shock. “We don’t have any of those onboard!”

“We won’t by the time we arrive at Kaldus Major.” Crimson said. “But we need to look like we do.”

“How’s that?” Keffler chewed the inside of his cheek, throwing his weight onto one elbow on his armrest.

“We’re ejecting the Boatman with the drugs, in Mag-flight, to meet us at the other end; meanwhile we need a legal substitute for what the drug-sniffing dogs think they saw on our ship.”

Keffler rocked back in his chair and slapped his thin thigh. “Ha haaa! That I want to see! You’re tossing the Boatman out like a rag doll at light speed?” he laughed again, looking left and right. “Which pane? I wanna’ watch!”

Crimson was on a timed mission. “Nothing’s happening until you two brains find me a drug substitute.”

Braevel lifted his rubbery gauntlet, “Technically I’m a medic, not a chemist.”

“And I catch eggs out of chickens’ butts!” Keffler grunted.

Why did organic beings insist of making her job difficult? There was a task to do; do it. She leveled her gaze at Keffler and made her human face do the talking, “You know your plants and their molecular structures back to front. Don’t tell me you don’t; I’ve heard you. And you…” she turned to the faceless reflective visor of the Duklagan, dancing with blue and red star light, “… you just cooked up an anti-drug with limited resources in an infirmary.”

Keffler maintained a steady chew on his inner cheek, but Braevel’s faceless visor swiveled left and right, between the two of them, visibly cowed.

At last the gardener sniffed. “Alright. Follow me.”

They followed the rocking mobility chair, tinkling and clunking with gardening implements, all the way to a long green house. It was what Gator called Keffler’s ‘Secret Lab.’ His private green house in the Green House, where all the scary alien plants he found and wanted to keep alive—to poison any hapless traveler foolish enough to enter looking for flowers—lived. Crimson instinctively leaned her robotic shoulder forward as they pushed through the clear plastic flaps at the entrance to the considerably more humid interior. She’d only been in twice before.

The quiet was eerie. All around them was an uncomfortable growing sensation. Bizarre tubular plants with colorful interiors were potted to one side. Hanging close to their walk way was a groping ivy with arms suspended to catch passersby. Whacky flora from alien worlds was the lure that brought Keffler on board. He reveled in exobotony in a way that seemed incongruent to his gruff demeanor. But as it was, his secret lab was stuffed with overflowing trays of small spiky flowers, cacti like colorful balloons, bloated fruit like star fish, and more exotic shapes and bushy over growth than Crimson’s Mindframe could process. The peaty, pollen-filled, steamy air, almost conjured a childhood dream for her. Like a chill it was gone.

Keffler’s voice rooted them back to the bizarre present. “Watch that. That’s poison. That’s poison. Don’t touch that…” He waved his free hand like a bored conductor, his other hand steering his chair. They ducked, weaved and skirted their way through the obstacle course.

“All right,” Keffler sighed, pulling a sharp right and drifting to a halt, “If yer gonna’ find a fake drug onboard…” he leaned close to examine a square tray of small plants, “It’s gonna’ be these guys.” Crimson grimaced. The short stalks protruded around bulbous, swollen pods, with white star-flowers frosted onto them like desserts.

“Oh!” said Braevel, scurrying around Crimson and bending from the thoracic spine to peer closer. His voice box sounded genuinely excited, “What are they? I’ve wondered since the flower-warts split.”

Crimson gave a chary glance from one to the other. Keffler for once didn’t sound angry, but downright pleased. “Syrric Polodus! From Grentulq III. Those babies have some medicinal uses, supposedly, on Grentulq, but I’ll be darned if I can get them to do anything expect give me a rash. The nectar on those things is squirmingly alive, and while I don’t think it’ll heighten your virility, it’ll probably do something illegal if you prod it enough.”

Grentulq? Crimson thought. That long? It had been three years with the gardener on board.

Braevel looked about to touch the sugary, wet flowers! Crimson cleared her throat. “You think you can make a plausible excuse for why a legitimate project went wrong and looks like drugs?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Keffler nodded, turning grumbly again.

“Fine. Get to work. You have eight hours until we arrive at Kaldus Major and the cops are there to welcome us.” Crimson turned to negotiate her way back through the steaming green house of death. She pulled up short. An oddly synthetic crate sat out-of-place on a wooden bench between green plants. She thought it looked familiar.

“Keffler. Is that…?”

The gardener craned his neck to see where her robotic hand pointed. For once he looked sheepish. “I… might have kept one…”

“You wanted them off the ship more than anybody!”

He shrugged. “It’s dormant. I decided to research them a bit. Keep it on ice—it’s just a small one!”

Crimson felt her anger do a flip and fall flat. “If it ever pops, I will not come bury your body.”

Keffler nodded, avoiding her eyes, accepting his fate.

She turned to stalk off, feeling like an ancient Earth steam engine. Bubble spoors.