They’d had a lift installed to get from the shuttle bay to the cargo bay. That’d been smart. But storing the felking spoors in the Green House had been idiotic! Cort’s electric cart only helped from the cargo bay to the edge of the Arboretum. Andross had dragged it across the threshold of the spinning garden-of-death only twice before he gave up. The first time he’d nearly gotten stuck and dragged up the wall with the stupid cart, and second time the centrifuge had dumped all three crates of spoors roughly on the floor. Andross’ cursing had only been cut short by the angry fizzing sound from within the purplish sealed containers. The outsides of the synth containers seemed taught with pressure from the mold, boiling like a pit of vipers.
Andross had been forced to lug the crates one by one from where they had been stacked in the unfinished portion of Keffler’s gardens to the edge of the spinning cylinder of the Green House. He’d coerced Cort and Clidjitt to help him until Queen Crimson came down and told them off for it. He was on his own for the massive task. But if she thought he was going to break and whine like a little girl, she had another thing coming.
He only dumped one other crate on its side. That had come once he started stacking the cursed boxes near the Green House edge. The lighter gravity there made his stack unstable and knocked one crate from its perch. Fortunately the grass slope was more forgiving than the metal decks of the Rival. It was only a few tense moments for Andross as he listened to the hissing inside the straining box, then it subsided. He safely resumed his personal internal grumbling.
It took four of the six hours on the Tradeways to load the blasted cargo back into the Boatman. Andross’ spine felt like it had been compressed like a telescoping rod by the weighty crates.
He hadn’t argued with the ridiculous punishment. Andross had heard Crimson’s bend-over-or-get-off speech a few times. Once directed at him. Slacking would get him fired. He had half a mind to quit too, if Qualvana was nice. He was overqualified to be stacking boxes in the cargo hold. It was a back breaking waste of his time. He nearly had his final pay transfer in hand and a beach house booked with some bikini clad bar girl at his elbow when Crimson’s surly voice interrupted his disembarkation reverie via the shuttle bay’s intercom.
“Andross. You there?”
The last of the cursed boxes was stacked. He was about to be in his bunk watching Linkbursts of Deathracers. “What?” he complained. She probably wanted the toilets cleaned; if she did she’d be down a pi—
“Suit up. You’re flying us down. And report to the Armory for your equipment. Looks like a dicey drop.”
The customary fizz of the intercom ended, and Andross felt his hopes perk for the first time since they’d nearly been eaten by the black hole. “Yes!”
His L3 and 4 vertebrae popped as they straightened at the prospects.
Making planet fall was always an exciting ride. Decelerating from orbit to puncture an atmosphere into a planet’s field of gravity was not only a bumpy ordeal, but gut wrenching. Changing from the artificial gravity of the Rival Bay to that of the Boatman, then compounding that with the gravity of a planet before automatic sensors disarmed the artificial fields was enough to toss most travelers’ lunches. People took medication to dull the cumulative effects of multiple grav-zones. Shaak-Rom avoided drug stimulation whenever he could. He found it helpful to have a task to do. Today’s was sufficient.
Crimson had tasked him with deploying the bulk of the crew for this drop. Apparently the spoors they were carrying hadn’t been such an innocent cargo after all. The Trader’s space port was a partially covered landing zone, such that whoever the pilot was, he would have to nestle the nose and bow of his craft under the shell of the half-roof. The back of the landing pad was walled, but numerous buildings surrounding the landing zone looked in on the transactions that happened there. They would need multiple eyes on multiple rooftops to even secure that much. Suddenly unsure of how dangerous a deal this might be Crimson was surprisingly compliant when Shaak-Rom suggested they might actually need spare the expense to land at a public port, then send some people over on foot to secure the rooftops before the Boatman ever touched down on the trader’s port.
It would be pricey; but after a moment’s consideration they’d agreed that local port authorities—and a clear passenger manifesto, stating they were simply disembarking with “personal items”—would mean they could keep their ground time to a minimum, without (hopefully) incurring the interest of any dangerous parties who might have learned of the true cargo they came to deal in.
Three grav-zones later, and Shaak-Rom was standing on a rooftop, overlooking the hazy green air and sprawling metropolis of one of Qualvana’s biggest cities. He was breathing hard through his respirator from the 3 kilometer run, but the sooner they were in position, the sooner Crimson could bring in the Boatman. Besides, the run had settled his displeased stomach.
He had had to issue everyone rebreathers. Atmospheric conditions of Qualvana weren’t the most oxygen rich he’d ever seen. Gasses that wafted through the air were either noxious or tranquilizing. His eyes watered as stinging plumes of steamy gas floated past. He was all right, as were Gator, Braevel and Clidjitt; but the Humans, Ilslavian, and the Vizavians all required goggles as well. For himself he sprayed his dreads with a semi breathable poly coating. It deadened quite a bit of his awareness, but he would not be able to function in the hostile environment any other way. A Trivven without his dreads was like losing both taste and smell, but it was also something more… Still, in single-sense training with the Legacy Knights he had endured more challenging trials.
It seemed an especially dangerous day, so he opted to wear his stone armor as well: another memento from the sacred temple of the Knights as a Duka, a sparring-trainer. Legacy Swords could slice through conventional metals like butter, and training with the dangerous tools was risky for the learners as well as the instructors. Only the mysterious, lava rock of Gripon could withstand the deadly swords. The complex composites of the porous stone swallowed light and energy in a way few scientist could explain. Body armor that could withstand a laser blast, was rare in the galaxies; it made Shaak-Rom’s armor all the more valuable since the demise of the Legacy Republic and the crushing of the Knights order. Today it would stand as a fearsome deterrent to any thugs and thieves seeking to filch a quick profit. There were few in existence anymore.
Each of the Rival’s crew were equipped with the maser-rifles. Deputized for inter-galactic bounty hunting with the Galactic Precinct gave them right to carry the non-lethal stun guns for security purposes. Some lethal armaments (or enhancements) could be legally carried in their line of work, but the conditions were specific. What various members of the crew might carry besides the Rival’s issued gear was something Crimson would neither confirm nor deny. This made Shaak-Rom grimace. Should any of them be caught using an unauthorized weapon in any system in the Precinct they would be the next names on the bounty lists. But the Rival’s employment contracts allowed for “personal safety gear.” That was a good of a legal loophole anyone could hope for. So he also strapped his Grip-stone baton to his back, like a stick on a tortoise shell. The blunt dueling rod had a few stories of its own. A leather wrap for a handle allowed him to pass it off as a short walking stick on the more-stringent planets. And he took comfort in its dull clicking against of his Grip-stone armor.
Cort, and the Vizavians, Olper and Tager, were stationed on nearby rooftops. Everyone had voice-chipped their readiness and positions, Olper being the last to reach his post. Shaak-Rom could even see the blue skin of Tager on the building top to his north-west. Most of the traffic was below them, expect for the occasional private-flight craft that buzzed the city on a curious hover technology that took advantage of the heavy air. But Qualvana was home to multiple indigenous intelligent species, something not often found in the universe. Whatever the Trader, Sulblorrg, was (heavy set and tentacle laden), another lighter boned, exotic winged creature that flew like a life sized moth also inhabited the steaming air. These flyers weren’t exactly a swarm, but as they passed at varying intervals and heights. It could make the area vulnerable to an air attack.
That said, nothing that Shaak-Rom or his lookouts had seen could be described as suspicious. Yet.
Shaak-Rom ‘bursted the Boatman, “Boatman, this is Outlook 1. We’re in position. You’re clear for landing.”
Minutes passed. Shaak-Rom hung his maser from its strap and lifted his tactical binoculars. The enhanced display zoomed 20 specs to examine the landing zone, the surrounding buildings, streets, and back to the landing zone. He toggled between normal and e-band scans. Heat vision was useless in the steamy atmosphere, but electrical surges on hand held devices could reveal advanced weapons. All seemed clear.
Presently heavy looking guards with pointy heads resembling the Trader padded out onto the space port. Lifting his binocs to the shell of the hanger roof, Shaak-Rom nodded inwardly—the Trader himself was prepared. Whatever these ridiculous spoors were, one had to move them carefully. At least for all his meticulous cross checking of the Rival’s preparations the Trader also prepared his own security staff.
At last the Boatman whirred overhead. The fat-bellied shuttle wore its wings like a flat hat, and hung hefty engines from each wing to propel it through the space and sky. Precision thrusters emerged from the long body and nose of the craft like a creature exuding retractable spikes, and it caught its own speed. The craft bucked as though on its own private air current, then lined itself up over the space port: Andross’ fast and flashy signature.
Shaak-Rom averted his eyes and narrowed them against a breath of stinging air, scanning for hostile vehicles or individuals. Out in the open, with half a kilometer between himself and the space port was not really his forte. He was a close combat expert. But he was the only one with extensive combat training and strategy on board. Still, he missed the simplicity of locking his horns against another tribesman on the thick forests of his homeworld, Tulperion.
Crimson had descended the Boatman’s ramp and, flanked by Gator, met with a representative of the Trader in a black suit. They appeared to be in lengthy deliberations, but at last an agreement was reached. Shaak-Rom marked the striking of hands, and the trading of payment chips. Crimson stepped aside and half-turned to the Boatman with a beckoning gesture. Presently and large barge of the purply crates of the troublesome spoors floated forward from the aft cargo hold.
“I’ve got something airborne coming our way. Fast,” Olper voice-chipped.
“I see it,” chimed in Tager.
Shaak-Rom lifted his eyes from the miniature figures enacting their mime of business to scan the heavy greenish sky. His hand shot to his ‘burster, “Crimson! Company! Get down!”
A rude strike skiff screeched up from the northwest, between buildings, and rose to a menacing height. Shaak-Rom could see at least three armored mercenaries on the open deck. The assault craft was a common model on several worlds. He had his maser in his hand, but it was a long shot for a stun gun. Already Tager’s weapon was tossing the yellow-white distortions through the thick air, but the wobbly blobs of energy flew wide of their mark.
A lash of red laser light ripped from the deck gun of the skiff, and struck the space port below. The blast shook the deck, upsetting the spoor cart and sending those on the landing platform diving for cover. The scream of laser fire was only slightly delayed. Shaak-Rom aimed through his enhanced scope, quickly adjusting for the height and distance and he squeezed the trigger.