Episode 41: Ground Work


“Couldn’t be avoided,” Tager smirked. He blew a cloud of misty air from his lips, and stamped clumps of powdered snow from his boots. He, Olper and Jumondo stood in the temporary shelter of a metro car: chain-pulled public transport pods that protected the pedestrians from 70% of the elements. Bah, he sniffed and wiped his blue nose, it blocks most of the wind and snow.

“What?” asked Jumondo. The 8 foot, fat-lipped, lion-troll looked like he’d been rolled in granulated sugar. Ice and snow crystals clung to the furry beast’s coat and face; frost on his decorative brass arm bracelets made Tager wonder if the Grobaxian was regretting his cultural ornamentation in the cold. You couldn’t tell. Both of his tree-trunk thick arms were casually lifted to hold the commuter rails along the metro’s ceiling.

“The ground work,” grunted Olper from inside his nest of winter clothing. In addition to his turban around his face, he’d also wrapped a massive scarf and a covered it all with a furry hood. Only his steely gray eyes could be seen beneath his Xritz Gem, Chimom Ring, and (the only piece of his eyebrow jewelry that Tager envied) the legendary Thlycan Ring.

Many people mistook he and Olper, both blue-skinned Vizavians, for brothers. Hardly so. His and the tribesman’s origins couldn’t be more different. Olper, the seasoned desert hunter, earned his jewelry in the endless South Sands—a guide through perils only wealthy off-worlders would pay to survive. Tager was a city brat. His jewelry had come from a stint with the army, a few private security clashes, and then a row of intellectual achievements: ear and lip piercings. Other races only saw piercings and jewelry as decorative, but for Vizavians it was rank, qualifications, and upbringing. Of his own ornaments, it was his jeweled nose-stub, the Clandak Diamond, that was his most prized achievement: when he’d argued his masters against the esteemed Welger Tek in a theatrical monologue The house of Lords rose to their feet in applause, and Tager’s Premise of Criminal Psychology was accepted. But Tager would have relished the chance to bring down a Thlycan…

“Word around ship is they’ve got a fancy new tracking device,” Tager said, “Supposed to make it easier to find the bad guys. But here were are, freezing our tails off, shaking down the locals for information.”

“Yeeeah,” rumbled Jumondo, nodding his head slowly and looking for a bright side, “We’re off ship!”

The metro car clacked to a halt with the finesse of a pinball. Tager stumbled heavily, and forced himself up using the passenger hand grip. The doors squeaked open and they stepped out into the whipping winds of Qwent. A row of abandoned, boarded shop fronts stood before them, and drifts of brown snow led around the corner to a leaning stack of low-class apartments. City riff raff, mostly from colder worlds, huddled in bunches, wrapped in raggedly coats. Some sheltered barrel-fires from the whipping wind. If it weren’t for the encrusting ice and heavy, brown snow, Tager snorted, the decrepit buildings would probably fall down, and the street litter would be blowing around.

“All right boys, we’re desperate for work.” They’d been getting nowhere with Lomblurrg’s picture, and few would talk about the Skeddium trade. But someone offered them a tip: if it was Skeddium work they were after, then the Gwolporb Projects were the place. Tager was tired of the traditional approach. He was taking the lead.

Stooping his shoulders and channeling the chill air into a protective shiver he nosed his way into a ring of furry Valacians. They had noses Tager could associate with the giant fruit bats from his home world’s Caves of Vizos. They were big, too, and stereotyped to be ornery. It was a foolish group to approach; he hoped even they knew that—gain him the surprise.

“Excuse me,” Tager said through his shiver, “I heard they’re looking for Skeddium miners. We just need some work…!”

Five large, belligerent bat-faces looked at him. They had the dirty clothing of hard laborers themselves. Tager maintained his innocent-plea face. His audacity paid off—it read as pitiable ignorance. A long, furry arm lifted and a sharp claw pointed. “Silk miners there,” growled the unhappy worker.

Tager looked to see a dark alley between two grimy buildings that looked like they’d invented claustrophobia. “Thank you,” Tager nodded emphatically, portraying relief and fear.

The Valacians shouldered him out of their circle of warmth, and Tager gestured for Olper and Jumondo to follow. They stepped out of the harsh wind into the dingy alley, and picked their way through the shadows over the refuse and sludge. Jumondo grumbled every time his shoulders brushed against the dank walls of the crowding buildings. They climbed over a couple of drunks, and found a recessed entryway where more forms huddled together under coarse blankets. Voices of pain and argument echoed through cracks in the grim tenements. Blank stares and hollow coughs from the residents below greeted them.

“Silk mines…?” Tager asked, “Skeddium? Work?”

One creature, a strangely amphibious looking alien, wrapped in a manky old fur hat regarded them with an empty look. Then he too pointed a suction-cup finger, into the dark interior of the building. Tager and the others thanked the amphibian and stepped over the unmoving denizens.

Tager exchanged an appropriately desperate and hopeful glance with his compatriots, trusting they’d follow his cue. He’d have to give them some acting pointers, but they did follow

Thicker layers of grime replaced the thinner, frost covered grime of the entryway. They came to a barrel chested Gortassa with a plastic breathing pouch hanging around his nose tentacles. He shoved a green hand in their faces, impeding their access.

“We were told this is where we get work…” Tager pleaded.

The Gortassa sized them up, then grunted. He stepped aside, pulling back a large plastic tarp. Humidity hit their faces, as the heavy stinging atmosphere of Qualvana leaked out on the rugged interior. A hanging lamp cast dismal light through the green haze. A second Gortassa with a sharp eye and chipped desk tapped away on a personal computer console. Tager sucked in one last breath before entering the nose-burning atmosphere.

“What do you want?” said the Gortassa, looking up but not lifting his head.

Tager gestured around, “We’ve come looking for work. Heard the mines take anyone.”

“Oooh, volunteers,” gurgled the recruiter, with a touch of irony. Then he measured them from head to toe, taking in their clothes. “You don’t look like miners.”

They were better dressed than most in the Gwolporb Projects, Tager knew. He tried not to look too confident or weak. “We got ourselves into a bit of trouble,” he laughed nervously, opening his palms hesitantly. “Lost a lot of money. Wouldn’t hurt us to have some work… off-world even. Heard they’re always lookin’ for miners—could even give us enhancements. Paid by the kilo, we heard.”

“Ahhh,” nodded the Gortassa, slowly assessing them again. “Well, we have a… special… program for hard workers. The money’s good. You need some surgical implants to better interface with the mining equipment. But if you boys are interested in making the big money, that’s the quickest way. You have your credentials?”

Tager cast a nervous look around at his compatriots, and hoped they wouldn’t say anything. “Uh, no…! We were hoping to see some of the equipment first.”

The Gortassa seemed offended. “Can’t see anything until we have your credentials and the contract signed. Then we take you to our facilities and give you everything you need to make back your money. But I can’t show you that. You might try to steal our stuff! Not until we have a contract!”

“Oh no, we wouldn’t steal anything! It sounds good; it sounds good,” Tager nodded eagerly. He tried to gather the other’s support. “We’ll get them!” he promised, “We’ll come back as soon as we can!”

“Hurry!” the recruiter leaned forward, “The next ship for the Cluster is leaving soon!”

Tager made a show of hurrying his buddies out as though they’d fallen for the pitch. The recruiter had bought their story; now they only had to take the recruiter’s bait to meet their quarry….