Gator sat in his workshop in Engineering, and felt his eyes crossing over his long snout. He’d routed the Ballerrg’s information stream to his private workstation in a corner he’d staked out for himself down in the engine room. Cort called it his lair. It looked a bit like that: hanging hoses and springs, large pieces of spare machinery propped, leaned, and piled all around for convenient reach. Gator was a tinkerer. More importantly his “Lair” was bigger than the bridge and the communications alcove. He could work comfortably here. And people tended to knock on something before they bothered him inside, even though he was visible through the cracks.
But after a full day of scanning the endless stream of encrypted messages from Qualvana, Gator was getting nowhere fast.
“Crims,” he called, thwacking the intercom, “We need help.”
Crimson stomped down the corridor. It was unavoidable. She’d have to ask him, and several others. Sometimes she could choose the bounty and get them set up with the job before anyone else heard about it. If it took less than a day, nobody seemed to mind. If they had to look at a planet in the windows for longer than that, everyone got whiny and wanted shore leave or something. In this case, it was going to be complex enough to need additional brains, and the obligatory opinions that came with them.
She reached the door to the Circle and the living quarters, and flung it open.
Shaak-Rom jumped back to avoid a contusion.
The striped devil flashed his pointed teeth at her. “Ah, just the person I was coming to see.”
Crimson glared at him. “Yeah. Me too. Come on.”
In the end, not only Shaak-Rom, but Crimson, Clidjitt and Cort piled into Gator’s workshop for the briefing.
“Mmm, atmospheric,” Cort hummed, hopping up on a crate and hunkering down to a seat on his haunches.
Crimson had wedged herself onto a busted converter coil, between bundle of steel bars and a portable metal masher—portable if you were 8’4” and ate wilderbeasts carcasses for breakfast. Her Mindframe was strangely silent about the odd scene around her. If she were a little girl, sitting in a dimly lit underbelly of a cavernous engine, among sharp metal objects, accompanied by the devil, giant lizards, bugs, and rodents, it would likely have been a nightmare. Instead it was just work; and they had an annoying puzzle to solve.
Shaak-Rom had insisted they call the others; Clidjitt had a strange awareness of trades and trade routes, and Cort had been in the Khibarra system with another crew, before the Rival. Once assembled, Gator read out the facts. He ended, “… to sum up: Lomblurrg; mad surgeon; mechanical engineer; works the slave trade; illegal ‘enhancements’ to slave miners for the Skeddium mines. Caught; convicted; gave police the slip. Where is he?”
When finished Shaak-Rom added, “Gator has obtained a machine from the Qualvanan Police that allows him to decrypt coded transmissions to and from the planet, but he doesn’t know what he’s searching for. We need some guesses as to where this butcher may have gone, and how we can identify his new base of operations.”
“If he has one,” Clidjitt piped up, as bright as an eight-year-old, his mandibles clicking.
“Did you say you can break encryption?” Cort said, his gerbil head tilting.
Crimson was bored, “A present from Rullorrg.”
“Is that possible?” Cort asked, “Is it legal?”
Gator, looked down. Crimson opened her human and robotic hands, “The cops gave it to us!” she pleaded.
It was Shaak-Rom who brought them back to the task: “The point is, Lomblurrg was modifying slaves out of an illegal operating theater on Qualvana. Now no one knows where he is.”
“Before we hit the ground running, and try to scare up information the hard way on a case that’s two years old,” Crimson continued, “We thought we’d try and find a clue, and maybe catch a transmission from here.”
The zoo of animals stared back at her, a variety of blank, and incredulous expressions.
“Skeddium,” she barked, “What is it? Where does it come from? Street names, codes! What would Lomblurrg’s low life slavers call it, and where would they go for it?”
Clidjitt raised a pincer, and bubbled and hissed a response. The quirky high voice of his translator chirped away cheerfully, “Skeddium is a rare soft metal, which can be either used in its liquid form for elite designer zero-g transports, home décor, or can be broken down to enhance high speed technology and computer systems. Found in meteors and planets with dense rock formations, the mining of Skeddium is difficult and expensive.”
“Unless you use slaves,” Shaak-Rom growled. He was sitting on another crate, and his red elbow draped across hydric-spanner, and fingers interlocked hand-to-hand.
“Yeah, ‘enhanced’ slaves,” Cort nodded, getting the picture.
“Everybody loves a volunteer,” Crimson said dryly, her lip curled.
Cort waved a furry finger, “I was in Khibarra System 14 years ago, on the freighter Bacron, but I remember we had to avoid the Umdatsia Cluster, because of reports of pirates. Umdatsia’s a meteor cluster that orbits parabolically with Qualvana. Don’t know if it’s close at the time.”
“A meteor cluster could provide ample mining opportunities if there are deposits of Skeddium in this system,” Clidjitt piped in.
“Now we’re getting somewhere!” Gator rumbled, turning back to his console.
“Yeah,” Cort twitching his whiskers, “Assuming Lomblurrg didn’t just jump system.”
“Be surprised,” Crimson growled, hopping off her seat and clumping over to Gator’s shoulder to peer at his screen. “Scum like this doesn’t walk away from a lucrative job—not when the police are stretched so thin. He’s obviously crazy enough to plant booby traps for the police if they ever did come. He’s in town.”
Shaak-Rom sat forward from his repose, “If he’s not in the Cluster itself, is there another place he might have set up base.”
Cort’s hind leg came up to scratch rapidly behind his ear. “Wellllll,” he said, the words dragging slowly, dredging up memories, “The Bacron had business of Qwent. That’s why we had to take the long way around the Cluster. It’s smaller, and colder than Qualvana. More an industrial world.”
Crimson had leaned around Gator so far she was nearly pushing the buttons for the Megladyte. “Look that up…!”
Gator’s fat, yellow-scaled fingers waved her off and typed in the appropriate search enquiry.
Meanwhile Clidjitt was clicking his claws, and cleaning the spines along his fore legs. “Programmers of the high speed processors that use Skeddium sometimes call them zip-threads, or ‘silk.’”
Gator’s two-fingered typing worked quickly. “Ohh yeah, here we go. Lot’s on Skeddium and Qwent. Umdatsia Cluster’s got it all right.” He flicked the holo-display with the nav-ball and dropped it into a search query screen. Dragging in a selection of transmissions from Qwent to Qualvana, and sorting the lists. He grunted. “Yep. There’s a couple of suppliers. Big ones with supposedly good reputation. Get me closer to Qwent and we could pick up planet-specific transmission signals, and I’ll have all the dirty suppliers too.”
Crimson cast about the lair until she spotted Gator’s intercom. Hanging on the button she called, “Andross, you there?”
“Bored and waiting…!” came the pilot’s voice, like a lazy slinky over a shallow step.
“Set us a course for Qwent.”