Episode 56: Check List, Hit List

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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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