“Dammit, you got me again…”
Jorwei scowled as the holographic Blokka table began the endgame animation, culminating in the explosion of his virtual game piece. The rest of the display dissolved, and the table reverted back to its natural mirrored surface, leaving Jorwei staring down at his own reflection. The visage of a young Puzuru male looked back at him. His blue and white skin formed a camouflaged, almost jigsaw-like, pattern across his humanoid face. He looked up from the table, and ran a hand through his bright blue shock of hair, “I haven’t been dusted like that since I was a Puzlet.”
“You never play with a Soreshi worth his scales before,” sneered his opponent, a being with an obese humanoid body and the head of a python. Jorwei watched his opponent thrust a green scaly hand into a steaming bowl, only to resurface clutching a wriggling creature that resembled a cross between a rat and a fish. The Soreshi tilted his serpentine head back, and dropped the creature into his fanged gullet. His second chin, which ran the length of his ten inch neck, jiggled as the living snack made its way downwards.
Jorwei shuddered, “How can you eat that?”
His opponent replied with a wicked grin, “Soreshi hatchlings be raised on half steamed yumpins. Not like these, o’ course. See, back home they…”
Jorwei tuned out the fat reptilian’s ramblings, and gazed around the establishment known as Kudd’s Chuz. For midweek, it was crowded. Jorwei saw the proprietor, Kudd, behind the bar. His hawk-like head rested above the fur covered body of a hulking gorilla. Jorwei had never been to the Aviape homeworld, and always wondered what kind of environmental conditions could necessitate that particular brand of evolution. A large group of fish faced Mahimen, stone skinned Craglads, and Jorwei’s fellow Puzuru occupied most of the floor space. In the corner, he saw a handful of stocky, yellow skinned Yoblons tucking into a bottle of milky white liquor. A trio of voluptuous blue skinned Venovan women walked in, and Jorwei made a mental note to introduce himself after settling up here.
It sounded like the Soreshi’s story was winding down, so Jorwei took a swig from his bottle and said, “Fascinating. So, anyway, I owe you what? Fifty Tahlians?”
“A hundred!” snapped the Soreshi, “We play Mishinyo stakes, remember? Don’t try to scrib me, puzzle face.”
Jorwei held his hands out defensively, “Hey, yok-head, nobody’s trying to cheat anybody here! No need for the racial epithets.” He dropped a black card on the table, “There’s your hundred pecks,” and stood up to leave.
The Soreshi snatched up the card, “Don’t wanna play again?”
“Seriously?” shot Jorwei, “You take my money, accuse me of hustling… and you expect me to play again?”
The Soreshi gave a wide, fang filled grin, “I give you a chance to earn money back. One match: two hundred pecks… you choose the game map.”
Jorwei fought back a smirk, “Deal.”
* * * * *
“You scribbin’ yok!”
The Soreshi’s flailing arms knocked over the steaming pot of yumpins, as he scrambled to his feet. Every set of eyes, visual sensors, and antenna in the bar turned towards their table.
Jorwei stood up and spoke in a calm yet stern measure, “The third match was your idea, remember?”
The Soreshi’s flabby scales shook with rage, “You set me up! You pull Vorapsak move!”
“Everything okay over there?” squawked Kudd, as two of his bouncers, large fellow Aviapes, began walking over.
Jorwei looked back to wave them off, “Everything is tops, Kudd. You know how these matches can get heated.” The crowd gasped, and Jorwei turn back around to find the Soreshi pointing an electric shotgun at his chest. He sighed, “Now, why’d you have to go and do that?”
Jorwei heard the mechanical click clack of Kudd’s mecha rifle. “I don’t abide weapon brandishing in my establishment!” he bellowed.
Jorwei kept his eyes fixed on the Soreshi, “Mellow, Kudd!” he called, “Be mellow.”
The Soreshi growled, “You don’t scrib me! Nobody scrib me!”
“You’re upset. Understandable. I’m not looking to get toasted today, so, how ‘bout we call ‘no blood’ on that last match?” Jorwei’s finger tapped the black currency card on the table, “You can still keep the hundred Tahlians… as peace offering.”
The Soreshi’s eyes flitted down to the card for a second, which was all Jorwei needed. In one blindingly quick motion, he swatted the gun barrel to the side, and kicked the game table over. The Soreshi toppled backwards, and found himself staring up at the ceiling, the weight of the game table pinning him to the floor. His view of the ceiling became obscured, partially by the mottled blue and white face of Jorwei and partially by the business end of his own weapon.
Jorwei grinned devilishly, “I believe our wager was two hundred Tahlians. I’d like payment in untracked currency cards, please.”
* * * * *
Jorwei adjusted the shoulder strap of his new electric shotgun, as he stepped into the cool evening breeze. He walked across the street, and leaned against the guard rail. Stretching out before him was the endless ocean that covered the planet Roqua.
A few hundred mountainous spires, daring to break the ocean’s surface, comprised the totality of Roqua’s dry land. An eternity of watery erosion has left massive coves, surrounded on three sides by sheer rock, within many of these spires. At the center of one such cove, built directly into the cliff face, was the city of Pa Tahae. Was it a cesspool of crime? Was it the universe’s only truly free city? Did it actually exist, or was it just an underworld myth? The answer depended on who you asked.
Jorwei leaned against the guard rail that marked the edge of Pa Tahae’s Level 7. He hung his head out over the railing and looked down, past the six lower levels, to the crashing waves, some miles below. He looked up; an outcropping on Level 9 prevented him from seeing the city’s apex at Level 13.
“Waiting for someone?” asked a velvety voice.
Jorwei glanced to his right to see a middle aged Puzuru male. His motley skin was a muted mix of cream and off-white. His head was cleanly shaven, and he wore a nondescript tan robe. Jorwei nodded, “Tyrei.”
Tyrei returned the nod, and then noted the weapon slung casually over Jorwei’s shoulder, “I hope you didn’t kill a local for that.”
Jorwei gave a minimal shake of the head, “It’s a gift. The man was so impressed with my game skills, he gave it to me as a bonus.”
Tyrei narrowed his eyes skeptically, “I’m sure he did.”
Jorwei spit out over the railing.
“You come down here to teach me manners, Tyrei?”
“You weren’t answering your mobile comm.”
“I was playing Blokka.”
“You couldn’t take a break from your coin hustle to talk to family?”
Jorwei whirled on him, “We’re not family. Our mothers had the same father. That’s all.”
“In most cultures they call that family.”
Jorwei glared back, “What do you want, Tyrei?”
Tyrei clasped his hands behind his back, “I have work for you. It’s off world. High risk. High pay.”
“The risk or the pay?”
“Both, yok head.”
“No need for vulgarity. Your cut would be thirty thousand. As for the risk? I’d rather let the crew leader explain.”
“Thirty thousand isn’t that high…”
“That’s for one job. This crew is looking for a permanent addition. If things go well, you could be seeing that kind of money on a regular basis.”
Jorwei narrowed his eyes and studied Tyrei’s expression, searching for some hint of a lie. As per usual, Tyrei’s face betrayed nothing. Finally, Jorwei asked, “When do I leave?”
Jorwei took another second to gaze out across the dark blue expanse. He looked back, “Let’s go.”
After a quiet two minutes, they found themselves at the edge of the bustling Blue Bazaar. Level 7 housed more ship hangars than any other level in Pa Tahae, which meant it’s where most new arrivals landed. This, in turn, attracted hundreds of unlicensed merchants, all more than willing to help separate visitors from their hard earned Tahlians. Every vendor table in the market enjoyed shade from blue awnings, thus earning the Blue Bazaar its moniker. An awning denoted that the proprietor underneath it had paid for the “protection” of The Maven. Those merchants without blue awnings learned quickly the hazards of running an unlicensed unlicensed establishment.
The pair made their way through the crowd to an alleyway, where Tyrei pressed his palm into the sleek surface of a steel door. It slid open, revealing a brightly lit warehouse. Crates and containers were scattered about in disorganized fashion. A female Herbling, whose body looked like a thousand leafy vines had braided themselves together to form a humanoid shape, leaned next to a door on the far wall. She opened the door as Tyrei and Jorwei approached, and followed behind as they entered. Two figures sat at a table in the room’s center. One was a fellow Puzuru. His camouflaged skin was a mix of crimson and white, and his blood red hair was slicked back. He stroked his red goatee as he sized up the new arrivals. The other was another Herbling, but unlike the first, he was male and looked like a long stalk of broccoli with arms and legs. Jorwei’s attention, however, was more focused on the female Puzuru lounging on a nearby couch. Her skin tones took on a violet/white pattern. She was at least fifteen, possibly twenty years older than him, but a knockout nonetheless. She didn’t look up, seemingly more interested in whatever was displayed on her personal tablet screen.
The Herbling who’d let them in the room brushed past, grabbing a seat at the table. Tyrei spoke to the male Puzuru, “Deilan, this is Jorwei. His abilities are more than sufficient for the task at hand.”
Tyrei nodded to the female Puzuru, who had finally looked up. She returned the nod and went back to whatever it was she was doing. Tyrei turned to leave, whispering to Jorwei as he went, “Play nice.”
Jorwei sauntered over, dropping himself in the remaining chair. He addressed the Puzuru man, “Deilan, was it?”
Deilan leaned forward, “For real?! You never heard of Deilan the Devil?! Most wanted in a dozen systems! I’m the rawest rip-n-run man this universe ever seen!”
Jorwei shrugged, “If you say so.”
Deilan slammed his hand down, “I did just say so! Aren’t you listening?”
Jorwei nodded to the two Herblings, “So, do you have names? No wait, let me guess… you’re the infamous Chlorophyll Crooks!”
The vine covered female spoke in a rasp, “Syl.”
The stalk of broccoli bellowed, “Cabby”
Jorwei drummed his fingers on the table, “Well aren’t you a talkative pair,” then to Deilan, “So, what’s the plan, man? Who’s got the brains… the cranium? Or…” he smirked, “is that why I was brought in?”
Deilan stood up, “You calling me stupid?”
“That’s enough, Deilan,” called a voice from the couch. Deilan furrowed his brow and sat down. Jorwei watched as the Puzuru woman carefully poured an amber liquor into a glass, then swirled it for a few seconds, before finally taking a sip. She got to her feet, and casually strode over. Her mouth spread into a pleasant smile, “I’m sure our new friend meant no offense.”
Jorwei shrugged as if to say, “maybe, maybe not.” She either hadn’t seen it, or was pretending as such.
“What do you know of this neighborhood?” she asked.
“The Bazaar? A bunch of weird-types selling obscure trinkets… controlled by some other weird-type calling himself The Maven.”
She smiled again, “Nice to meet you.”
Jorwei made no attempt to hide his surprise, “You’re the Maven?”
“In this room, I go by Merci Themor. Out there,” she waved a hand towards the door, “I’m the Maven.”
Jorwei recomposed himself, “Well, congratulations on all your success. You want to tell me why I’m here? I’m not exactly interested in selling wares…”
She took another sip from her glass, “My operations have grown to a point where it is no longer economical to deal with smugglers on a piecemeal basis. I need my own crew to run regular swipe jobs.”
Jorwei arched an eyebrow, “And we’re it?”
Merci smirked, “Not exactly. Think of this as a trial run.”
“Seriously, have any of you ever seen any place so boring?”
Jorwei leaned against the glass as their ship sped past the frozen blue sphere that was the Tesup System’s fourth planet.
“Nothing on the planets but ice and old mining facilities. What a Bjordax-forsaken dung pile of a system.”
“Quit whining and get back to your station,” barked Deilan.
Jorwei turned around to face the bridge of their vessel. Deilan sat in the captain’s chair, having made a big show of claiming it for himself. Syl helmed the pilot controls. Cabby lounged in one of the two gunners’ stations. All four of them were wearing the seamless, featureless black uniforms of the Universal Law Enforcement agency. It was fitting attire, considering the fact that they were traveling in a stolen U.L.E. orbital cruiser.
Jorwei shot Deilan a sidelong glance as he moseyed over the second gunners’ station.
“Just to be clear, I’m going back because I want to. Not because you told me to…. and I don’t whine. I make keen observations.”
Deilan either ignored him or hadn’t heard.
“Syl, how much longer?” he asked.
“We should reach the anomaly in six minutes,” she replied.
Jorwei dropped into the chair next to Cabby. He leaned back, propped his feet up on the console, and said “You know, Cab, black’s not really my color. But you? You pull it off nicely.”
“Cabby look good in anything.”
Jorwei chuckled, “I think you and me or going to get along just fine.”
Cabby shrugged nonchalantly.
Jorwei attempted to keep the conversation going, “So, not to be presumptuous, but you and Syl know each other?”
Cabby nodded, “Syl and Cabby grow from same seedling crop.”
He then picked a sprout out of the broccoli-esque floret atop his head. He peered at it for a moment before popping it into his mouth. Jorwei’s face contorted in shock, “Seriously?!”
Cabby shrugged and said, “Cabby taste good too.”
“That’s kind of messed up, man.”
Cabby picked another sprout out of his head and head held it out, “You want to try?”
Jorwei was saved by the scratchy rasp of Syl announcing, “We’re here.”
He turned back towards the front view screen. Lights from distant stars, neighboring planets, and swirling galaxies dotted the astral landscape. However, there was one spot on the landscape, roughly three kilometers in diameter, that held no light. ‘Black’ didn’t do this spot justice. It was the complete and utter absence of light, as if the universe had forgotten to fill in this section of reality. It was an anomaly.
Some 47.5 trillion kilometers or roughly five light years away, an intergalactic freight liner just disappeared through a similar black spot.
Jorwei blinked as the anomaly in front of them flashed with white electricity. He rubbed his eyes, and opened them to see a titanic freight liner floating in the blackness. End to end, it was almost a thousand meters. Emblazoned across the liner’s green metallic hull was the minimalist image of a drill bit, wreathed in the vine of a Hua plant.
“Ochreans…” breathed Jorwei. Then to Deilan, “She didn’t say it’d be Ochreans.”
Deilan spit on the floor, “Ochreans… Vashnii… Yoblons… who gives a shit?”
“We should give a shit. Two thirds of that ship is likely populated with what they call the ‘serving caste.’ They’re barely a step above slaves. It’s a real sensitive issue between them and the Sentient Coalition.”
“And that’s supposed to mean something?”
Jorwei sighed, “It means they aren’t going to just roll over for a squad of Law Cogs. They’re going to be watching us very closely. We can’t give them the slightest hint that we’re not who we say we are.”
Deilan sneered. “Feel free to drop out, rookie. Deilan the Devil doesn’t quit on contracts.”
Jorwei threw his hands up, “Okay, see, that’s going to get us killed. You aren’t Deilan the Devil right now. You’re Squad Chief Flummerset. And we aren’t Jorwei, Cabby, and Syl. We’re Petty Troopers Linsbi, Quiil, and Yingswerth. We need to stay in character or we die.”
“Listen here, nublet, quit telling me my business or I’ll knock you into the next system!”
Syl’s scratchy voice jumped in, “They’ve responded to our hail. Transmitting the doctored inspection order now.”
“Dammit,” cursed Jorwei, “That’s what I’m talking about. It’s not a doctored inspection order. It’s an official inspection order. Stay the fuck in character, Syl.”
“Cabby thought her name was Petty Trooper Yingswerth,” Cabby said dryly.
Jorwei glared at him for a second before grumbling, “Funny.”
“They’ve accepted our inspection request,” rasped Syl.
She piloted them to the docking bay, setting the ship down within the pressurized hangar. The four would-be U.L.E. agents donned smooth, featureless black helmets. As Jorwei calibrated his mecha rifle, he wondered where’d they found a helmet big enough to fit over Cabby’s sprout-fro. The two of them slung black duffel bags over their shoulders as they headed for the exit.
Deilan growled, “I do all the talking.”
Jorwei added, “Remember, we’re only here for the kakara mineral bricks. The upside of them being Ochreans is they won’t want any of the ‘servants’ sniffing around the vault. It should only be the Head Steward and a guard or two. If we can keep our cool long enough to get to the vault, we should have no trouble overpowering them without raising an alarm.”
Deilan shot back over his shoulder, “Nobody worried about losing their cool ‘cept you, nublet.”
Jorwei made a mental note that he and Deilan were going to have a thorough ‘discussion’ about workplace etiquette when this was all over.
The four imposter U.L.E. agents gazed through smooth featureless black helmets at their lavish surroundings. Transparent walls stretched up two stories to an equally transparent ceiling. They could see stars, the anomaly, and the frozen blue glow of Tesup 4 in the distance. The Marbleen stone floor shone with a brilliant green finish. Islands of colorful plant life and artificial waterfalls had been installed at various points around the room.
Deilan whistled, “Whew… fancy digs for a cargo freighter…”
“I guess this is what happens when 99.9% of a planet’s wealth is held by 2% of the population,” added Jorwei.
Cabby had wandered over to inspect a plant covered in large pink and blue polka dot flowers. Jorwei gawked as he slid off his helmet, snatched up a flower, and ate it.
“Dude! Are you kidding me right now?!”
“Don’t feel bad. Begonians are dumb spore brains.”
“Keep your hat on,” Jorwei hissed.
Cabby shoved his helmet back on just as the door on the opposite wall slid open, allowing a half dozen Ochreans to enter. They were humanoid from the neck down; skin tones ranging from tangerine to burnt orange. Wide, strong jaw lines rested below a face with no nose. If one didn’t know any better, one could have mistaken their right eyes for scars; seeing as they were shaped like narrow vertical slits. Ears similar to fish fins pressed against the sides of their heads. The two in front wore the business fashion du jour; mandarin collared shirts and suit jackets that fastened at seams along the left side of the torso. The Ochrean on the right’s suit was green with a horizontal orange pinstripe. The one on the left’s was a shimmering hue of silver. The other four were clad in brown body armor and armed with fusion autoshots. The menagerie began to approach, and Deilan ordered, “Let me handle this.”
The U.L.E. “agents” and the six Ochreans met in center of the room. The four Ochrean guards hung back, while the two executives stepped forward.
The one in the silver suit spoke, “My name is Raajo Ruun. I am the Head Steward of this vessel. What business do you have waylaying us in such a manner?”
Deilan crossed his arms, “Listen here, Raajo. You’re talking to an officer of the Universal Law Enforcement agency. We got reports of fugitives hopping rides at the Mishinyo Rift waystation. You just came from Mishinyo, didn’t you?”
Raajo scoffed, “I assure you there are no criminals aboard this vessel.”
“You’re sure, huh? We still need to search the ship.”
“Unacceptable. I am a tenured member of the Ochrean Merchants Guild. I don’t have time for these trifling matters. ”
“You see this?” Deilan pointed to the U.L.E. logo on his chest, “Universal. Law. Enforcement. That means if I say we need to search the ship, we search the ship.”
Jorwei jumped in, “I assure you, sir, we will not be long. Our database has the schematics for Class 7 Freight Liners such as this one. We’ve identified only four viable stowaway locations.”
Deilan snatched back the conversational reigns, “You see? Cooperate and we’ll be outta here real quick. Keep dungmouthing me, and I’ll have to file a non-compliance report with the Coalition.”
Raajo sneered, “That would require both of us to undergo an activity audit. Do you really want to subject yourself to such a bureaucratic boondoggle?”
Deilan leaned in, “Do you?”
Raajo glanced to his green suited associated and nodded. He returned the nod, and then headed back the way they’d come. Three of the guards followed him as he exited the lobby. Raajo smiled at Deilan, “Please follow me.”
Raajo led the U.L.E. “agents” down a corridor and into an extravagant reception lounge. Plush couches surrounded tables that had apparently been carved from giant gemstones. Luminescent plants resided in golden vases. Standing in the center of the room were two Ochrean women. Unlike their male counterparts, the right eyes of Ochrean females were the same humanoid oval shapes as their left ones. They both had silky green hair, which flowed well past their shoulders. Each woman held a tray laden with glasses of bright yellow liquid.
Raajo smiled and held a hand out towards the women, “Allow me to apologize for my inhospitable behavior. You are only serving your purpose in an attempt to keep our universe safe. This is our planet’s finest distilled Kavdo. Won’t you please indulge me with a quick drink?”
Before Jorwei could even begin to object, Deilan slid off his helmet and ran a hand through his hair, “Now that’s more like it, Raajo.”
Raajo took two glasses from a tray and handed one to Deilan. He then nodded towards the other agents, “Won’t your colleagues join us?”
Deilan barked, “C’mon you squibs. Just cause we’re on duty doesn’t mean we have to be rude to the man!”
Syl and Cabby turned their heads to Jorwei. After hesitating for a moment, Jorwei set his rifle down and removed his helmet. Syl and Cabby followed suit, and the three of them accepted glasses from the tray. Raajo held his up, “To Law and Commerce. May they thrive in each other’s embrace.”
The “agents” raised their glasses in kind, and the five of them downed the yellow liquor.
“Woooo,” hollered Deilan, “That is some good brain gravy, Raajo.”
Raajo smiled and replaced his empty glass with a full one, “I’m glad you like it.”
The door behind them burst open and, before Jorwei could register what was happening, they had been encircled by a dozen armed guards. They closed in, stripping the “agents” of their weapons.
Raajo smirked as he swirled the Kavdo in his glass, “Now, why don’t you tell me who you all really are?”
Deilan wasted no time in dropping to his knees. He shrieked, “Please don’t shoot! I’m a real agent! These criminals hijacked my cruiser and forced me to go along with their awful plan! I swear!”
“Are you fucking kidding me?!” yelled Jorwei.
Deilan pointed at Jorwei, “That’s the one you want! He masterminded the whole thing! I had no choice! He told me he’d kill my family! My poor little daughter is all I have in this universe!”
“Tell me you’re not buying this shit, Raajo,” said an incredulous Jorwei.
“SILENCE!” bellowed Raajo. He downed the glass of Kavdo and grabbed another, “I’m trying to decide whether to turn you over to the real U.L.E. or simply flush you out the airlock. Now-”
“Please! Raajo! I’m telling truth!” cried Deilan.
Raajo pointed at him and spoke to his guards, “If that one speaks again, shoot him in the head. Now, as I was saying, flushing you out the airlock would be quick and I’d still deliver my shipment in time… However you all could have bounties on your heads, and while collecting would take considerable time, the compensation could make up for the trouble… hmmmm… decisions decisions…”
The door open and the green suited executive entered in a flurry. He rushed up to Raajo and whispered something in his ear. Raajo’s expression went from annoyance to frustration to resignation. He sighed, “Another crew of U.L.E. agents has just docked with us. Apparently there are ‘reports’ of smuggling in the sector. You all don’t know anything about this do you?”
Deilan open his mouth, but then thought better of it and simply shook his head. Raajo looked to Jorwei for conformation. He shrugged.
“Show them in,” commanded Raajo. The green suited executive scurried off. The next few minutes passed at an agonizingly slow pace. A lean Ochrean man, wearing the gray robes of the servant caste, entered carrying a tray of colorful canapes. Raajo casually tossed a handful of the foodstuffs in his mouth, washing it all down with yet another glass of Kavdo.
The door opened again, and the executive entered with two more guards and three helmetless U.L.E. agents. One of the agents was perhaps the largest Ochrean man Jorwei had ever seen. The other two were a pair of thin reptilian Soreshi. Jorwei saw the look of confusion flash across the new agents’ faces as they took in the scenario. Jorwei knew that look, that ‘hand in the goobi jar’ look. The Ochrean agent’s eyes met his, and Jorwei just couldn’t help himself. He smirked as he said, “You went with old ‘U.L.E.’ routine too, huh?”
In an instant, the Ochrean agent’s helmet connected with the face of the nearest guard. He snatched up his weapon and let off a pair of shots, dropping a second guard. Jorwei, Syl, Cabby, and the two Soreshi followed the Ochrean’s lead, each attacking the closest guard.
Jorwei made quick work of his guard and was stunned for a moment when he saw the gray robed servant drive the edge of his serving tray into the neck of a guard. He shook off the shock when he spotted Raajo sprinting for the exit. As Jorwei took aim, he saw a guard enter his peripheral vision. He dove behind a couch, narrowly avoiding the autoshot barrage. He let his momentum carry him into a roll, and he popped up at the other end of the couch to return the fire, drilling a mecha round into the guard’s gut.
Jorwei scanned the area for another target, but the fight was over. The bodies of fourteen guards and one Soreshi fake agent lay strewn about the room. The other Soreshi and the Ochrean agent knelt at the corpse of their comrade. Syl and Cabby were looting the guards for ammo. The Ochrean servant stood over the cowering form of the green suited executive. Deilan was still on his knees in the middle of the room. Jorwei was dismayed to see he appeared to be unharmed.
“Deilan the Devil, huh? More like Deilan the Dribbler.”
Deilan looked down too see that, yes, he had indeed urinated on himself.
The Ochrean in the U.L.E. uniform stomped up to Jorwei. He spoke in a gravelly voice, “Who are you people?”
“Jorwei. Now who are you people?”
The Ochrean responded, “My name is Haaga Viim.” He gestured to the Soreshi, “this is Shai.” He pointed to body of the dead Soreshi, “That was Plyth, who we is now dead because of you. What are you doing here?”
Jorwei snorted, “My guess would be the same thing you are.”
“You’re here to free the servants?”
“Oh, uh, no… we’re here to rip off the kakara mineral bricks.”
Haaga’s face darkened, “And you just had to pick this ship for your dowfa shit plan.”
“Um, weren’t you trying the exact same plan?”
“We’re all gonna die!” cried Deilan.
“Shut the fuck up!” shouted Jorwei and Haaga in unison.
“Are you the Manumitter?” asked a deep voice.
They turned to the gray robed Ochrean servant. Haaga stepped over to him, “I am. Are you my contact?”
The servant nodded, “I’m called Oorlo.”
“What the hell’s a Manumitter?” whispered Jorwei.
“One who frees slaves,” answered Syl.
“Not read much?” asked Cabby.
“Oh, shut up, Lettuce Breath.”
“So you see,” Haaga interrupted, “we didn’t have the same plan, in that, I actually had a plan.”
Jorwei folded his arms defiantly, “Yeah yeah, sure thing. So what now?”
“You can’t seriously think you’ll escape!” whined a nasally voice.
Haaga looked at the green suited executive, and casually drew a blade from his hip. He strolled over and grabbed the executive by the collar of his jacket. Haaga’s gaze poured over the trembling figure, “That’s a beautiful suit. I wonder how many of our brethren died harvesting the sylque required to make it.”
Haaga wiped the green blood of his blade as the servant, Oorlo, led them out of the lounge, through a deserted kitchen, and into a maintenance hallway.
“It should be a while before they think to check here,” he explained
“Why don’t we just go back to our cruiser and get the hell out of here?” asked Deilan. “That’s what they expect us to do,” answered Haaga.
“Probably have every guard left waiting in the hangar,” added Jorwei. Then, after a moment, he asked, “How many troops they got on this boat anyway?”
Haaga grunted, “You tried to jack this ship and didn’t even bother to research the security?”
Jorwei shrugged, “We like surprises, don’t we guys?”
“Cabby hate surprises.”
Jorwei sighed, “Great. Good team work guys.”
Cabby pointed at Syl, “Syl not guy.”
Haaga interjected, “Enough.” Then to Oorlo, “Lead on.”
They motley group hustled down the corridor until they came to door. Oorlo slid it open just enough to peak through.
“Let’s go,” he said. They followed him out of the corridor and into a massive atrium. The room was twice as large as the first lobby and was packed tightly with exotic vegetation. There were thick trees, and multicolored vines. Plants sprouted bright flowers, some of which sporting petals five feet in diameter.
“There’s another maintenance hall on the other side. It will take us to the serving quarters. Don’t touch anything.”
They crept along the winding pathways. Jorwei caught Cabby eyeing a flower.
“Don’t even think about it, man.”
Cabby made a point of glaring at Jorwei while he plucked and ate the flower. A high pitched beeping sound suddenly flooded the room.
Haaga whirled around, “Did someone touch something?!”
The reptilian, Shai, hissed ,”We have three minutes at most.”
Haaga growled, “Spread out and find cover!”
Deilan wasted no time in diving into a thick tangle of blue brambles. Jorwei found a bush that looked comfy and hopped in. He got himself situated and tried to see where the others had gone. Syl had shimmied up a vine covered tree, making her almost invisible. Cabby wedged himself in between two wide green tree trunks. The servant, Oorlo, was crouched amidst a thick plume of bright orange fruit. Haaga and Shai were out of sight.
The next minute passed at an agonizingly slow pace. Jorwei decided the shrill beep of the alarm was worse than any torture. Mercifully, the beeping ceased, but was quickly replaced by the muffled clicking of approaching boots. He heard an unfamiliar voice call out, “Over here!”
The air exploded with gunfire and indiscernible shouting. Jorwei crouched low, and began scrambling through the foliage. Heavy vines and wide leaves obstructed his view, and the cacophony of battle drowned out all other sounds. Just when he thought he had found a clear sightline, Jorwei’s foot caught on a thick root. His momentum was too great, and he fell forward, tumbling into a pathway at the feet of two surprised Ochrean guards. They took aim, and Jorwei raised his arm, as if it could do any good against a volley of autoshot. Then guards’ eyes went wide, as a new hole appeared in each of their chests. They collapsed to the floor, and Jorwei looked up to see Haaga step out from behind a giant red flower petal. Jorwei hadn’t known it was possible to be this relieved to see someone in a U.L.E. uniform.
“Let’s move!” was all he bothered to say. Jorwei pulled himself up and hustled after the large Ochrean. Haaga jumped off the path, and Jorwei followed suit. They sidled up behind a thick blue and green tree trunk. Haaga extended one finger upwards, “I’ll boost you up. Try to find a vantage point without too much rustling.”
Jorwei slung his rifle over his shoulder and placed a foot in Haaga’s clasped hands. Haaga hoisted him up with a surprising level of ease, and Jorwei found a perch amongst the branches. He brought his rifle around in time to see a tangle of two bodies come crashing out into the open. One was a guard. The other was Haaga’s reptilian comrade. The guard lashed out with a meaty fist, but Shai’s python-like head and neck easily avoided the blow. He countered by sinking his hooked fangs into the guard’s neck. The guard grabbed hold of Shai’s neck with one hand, and unsheathed a short blade with the other. The knife was inches from Shai’s throat when Jorwei’s shot exploded through the guard’s skull. Shai wasted no time in shoving the corpse off of himself. He didn’t even bother to wipe the green blood from his mouth before disappearing back into leafy cover.
Jorwei would’ve liked to gloat over his marksmanship for a moment, but a barrage of autoshot tore through the tree branches. He felt the heat of a round shriek by his ear, lost his balance, and felt off his perch. He hit the ground hard; the air fleeing from his lungs like an escaping convict. As he lay there wheezing, a pair of rough orange hands took hold of his shoulders, and yanked him up with little delicacy.
Haaga looked him up and down, “Can you still fight?”
Searing pain pulsed through Jorwei’s side and chest. Something had definitely fractured, but he managed to nod in reply. Without another word, Haaga took off into the brush. Every step burned in his chest, but Jorwei pushed through it and kept pace. After a few seconds, Jorwei noticed the sounds of gunfire had subsided. Other than the rustle and crunch of his and Haaga’s movements, the air was quiet.
Suddenly, the dirt and vegetation gave way to smooth stone and open air. They stood in a small clearing, surrounded on three sides by plant life. Two narrow paths wound back in the direction they’d come. The fourth side of the clearing ended at a door set into a high metal wall.
“You think that’s the maintenance tunnel?”
Haaga’s answer was interrupted by the electric whine of a charged autoshot.
“Flinch and you die!” growled a voice from behind them.
“Turn around slowly.”
Jorwei and Haaga turned cautiously to find a haggard looking guard holding an autoshot carbine in each hand.
Jorwei spoke calmly, “Okay, you got us… take it easy…”
“Shut up!” barked the guard, “Lay face down on the-” His words devolved into pained gurgling noises. The guard slumped forward and collapsed to the ground, revealing the lithe frame of Syl standing behind him. She reached down, and casually retrieved her dagger from the guard’s back.
Jorwei wiped a bead of sweat from his brow, “Nice timing, Syl.”
She responded with, “I believe that was the last guard.”
Haaga asked, “Have you seen Shai?”
Syl nodded, “He’s back that way,” then to Jorwei she added, “Deilan is dead.”
“They got him, huh?”
She shook her head, “Not exactly.”
Jorwei, Haaga, Syl, and Shai looked down at Deilan’s corpse. His body was extremely bloated, and his once crimson and white complexion was now pale blue. His body lay just a few feet from a tangle of blue brambles.
“Tubell patch,” explained Haaga, “very poisonous.”
“Why would they have it in here?” asked Jorwei.
“It’s an Ochrean thing,” answered Haaga, “you wouldn’t understand.”
“That’s racist,” grumbled Jorwei.
Haaga ignored him, “Where’s our contact? Where’s Oorlo?”
“He took three shots to the chest,” answered Shai.
“What about Cabby?” asked Jorwei.
“Cabby here,” bellowed a deep voice.
They wheeled around to see the walking stalk of broccoli stumble out from behind a tree. He limped over, and Jorwei could see a thick cloudy liquid trickling from a hole in his thigh.
Cabby responded dryly, “Thank you for telling. Cabby did not know.”
“Shut up, winklinker,” then Jorwei asked the group, “Anyone have any medfoam?”
No one responded.
“Well, shit, then we’ll have to cauterize it.”
Syl countered, “We’re Herbling. The heat will fry him.”
“If we don’t do anything, he’s going to drain out.”
Syl stepped off the path, and scooped up a big handful of dirt. She made a hacking noise and spit a glob of viscous goop into the dirt. She worked it all together in her hands, and walked over to Cabby. He grunted in discomfort, as she packed the sticky dirt wad into the hole in his leg.
“Fucking gross,” commented Jorwei.
“Now you the racist,” quipped Cabby.
The group of five found themselves in a luxurious yet cavernous hallway.
“I don’t think this is the maintenance tunnel,” commented Jorwei.
“You must be the smart one,” added Shai.
“Very funny, Scales,” retorted Jorwei, “You got anything useful to say?”
Haaga waved a hand, “Enough. We need to keep moving.” He looked back and forth for a moment, before finally settling on the stretch of hallway to their right, “This way.”
The ship was eerily quiet as they made their way down the hall. They turned corner after corner, passing multiple darkened and deserted rooms.
“Did we kill everybody?”
“No,” answered Haaga, “There are at least two more security squads somewhere on this vessel. Not to mention the flight crew, the servants, and that pile of dowfa shit, Raajo Ruun.”
The group came to a halt at a sharp turn in the hallway. Shai sidled along the wall, cautiously peaking around the edge. He barely pulled his head back in time to avoid the barrage of gunfire.
“I think we found one of the security squads!”
Haaga glared at Jorwei and growled, “Pull back!”
The group turned and made for a quick retreat, with Syl rushing out in front. Caution was foregone in favor speed as they rounded the corners leading back the way they’d come. Syl stepped out into the next turn and a blast of autoshot shredded through her torso.
Cabby let out a rage filled cry as her limp body collapsed. Jorwei grabbed his arm, and hauled him into one of the darkened rooms that lined the hallway. It was lined with long, cafeteria style tables and benches.
“Must be the staff galley,” Jorwei muttered to no one. Then to Cabby he said, “Quick, flip a couple of these tables over!”
Cabby wasted no time in hurling benches and upending tables with unchecked fury. The thundering of approaching boots filtered in from the hallway.
“That’s good!” called Jorwei, “Now get behind one!”
Cabby ignored him and, moments later, a cadre of guards stormed into the room. They were taken aback for moment by the sight of a giant stalk of broccoli holding a six foot bench. Cabby roared as he sent the bench flying through the air. Jorwei gawked with awe as the bench careened into the squad, toppling the guards like a bunch of orb roller pins. Cabby, his rifle lying on the floor, rushed forward, opting instead to continue the fight with his bare hands. His hands gripped the heads of two disoriented guards and brought their skulls together with a sickening crunch. Another guard managed to fire a shot into Cabby’s chest, but that only made him angrier. He lunged forward, taking another two shots to the stomach, wrenched the guard’s weapon away, and hit him in the jaw with such force that the guard’s head snapped back. Jorwei was pretty sure the blow had broken his neck. Cabby roared again and dove into the hallway amidst a hail of gunfire. The sounds that followed; the pop of gunfire, the shrieks of pain, the feral howls of Cabby, would haunt Jorwei for the rest of his days.
“Time to do something stupid,” grumbled Jorwei. He leapt up from his cover and sprinted through the door. A trail of bodies, blood, and bullet holes lead down the hall and around the corner. Jorwei cautiously crept forward, rifle held at the ready. He heard the crunch of a misplaced step behind him, and spun around. He brought his weapon up towards the darkened doorway where the sound had originated. He held his breath and felt his finger tense against the trigger.
Haaga and Shai stumbled into the hall from the darkened room. Jorwei lowered his rifle and exhaled deeply, “Zuul-dammit, I almost shot you.”
Jorwei noticed Haaga was helping support Shai’s weight as the reptilian clutched at a wound in his side.
“You alright?” Jorwei asked.
“My life expectancy is no shorter than yours.”
“He’ll be okay,” Haaga explained, “at least, as okay as any of us will be once this is over. Where is the large Herbling?”
Jorwei answered by gesturing at the surrounding carnage.
“Impressive,” offered Haaga.
Jorwei hefted his rifle, “Yeah, he’s something else.”
They followed the bloody trail until they heard shouting coming from around a corner. Haaga and Shai hung back, while Jorwei crept forward. He ducked low and risked a peek around the turn. Cabby lay on his side in the middle of the floor. His eyes were closed. Two guards stood over him, while a third crouched next to one of their wounded brethren. Jorwei was about pull back and report his findings when a stir of movement drew his attention. Cabby’s eyes fluttered open and, after a few blinks, his gaze met Jorwei’s. Jorwei mouthed the words ‘stay down,’ which seemed to amuse Cabby because he smiled wide.
“Hey, he’s awake,” noted one of the guards. He gave Cabby a kick in the back, “You still haven’t had enough, you dirt chewer? What’re you smiling about, mulch meat?” The guard followed Cabby’s stare until his and Jorwei’s eyes locked.
“Ah, shit,” muttered the guard.
“Ah, shit,” muttered Jorwei. In a flash, he was around the corner with rifle raised. He squeezed the trigger, putting a mecha bolt through the guard’s forehead. A splatter of green blood hit the other standing guard in the face. Before he could register what had happened, Jorwei’s second shot buried itself in his chest. The crouching guard dove for his weapon, and managed to get a shot off before catching a handful of mecha bolts in the gut. Jorwei threw down his rifle and ran up to Cabby, kneeling at his side.
“How you doing?”
His breathing was pained and shallow, but he managed to respond, “Cabby feeling tops.”
“I’m sure you are,” Jorwei glanced around the room, “You did good work here, man.”
Cabby smirked, “Cabby always good.”
Jorwei chuckled, “No doubt.”
Cabby smiled again and closed his eyes. A few more breaths shuddered through his body, and then his large frame lay still. Jorwei stood and turned around to see that Haaga and Shai had caught up.
“You’re hit,” Haaga said.
Jorwei looked down to see blue blood dripping from a gash in his leg. He shrugged, “My life expectancy’s no shorter than yours.”
Shai snorted. Haaga nodded towards Cabby, “My regrets for your comrade.”
Jorwei fought to keep his expression neutral, “So what do we do now?”
Haaga drew his pulse pistol, and approached the wounded guard. He kicked him in the legs, “I know you’re awake.”
The guard groaned and opened his eyes. Haaga tilted his head towards the door at the end of the hall, “What’s through there?”
The guard glared up at him with steely resolve.
Haaga squatted down and pressed the barrel of his pistol against the guard’s ankle, “At point blank, this shot will probably blow your foot clean off.”
The guard hesitated. Haaga made a show of wrapping his finger around the trigger. The guard’s voice squeaked, “Okay! Okay! The door leads to the bridge!”
“Any security detail in there?” Haaga tapped the pistol lightly against the guard’s boot.
The guard shook his head, “We were it.”
Haaga stood and said, “Thank you,” before casually shooting his fellow Ochrean in the head.
“Damn,” said Jorwei, “That was cold. You really hate your own kind, huh?”
“He was from the ruling caste. He might have been Ochrean, but he was not my own kind.”
“Got it,” Jorwei drew his own pistol and added, “Shall we put a cap on this shit storm of a day?”
The surviving trio of Jorwei, Haaga, and Shai limped their way down the hall, coming to a halt at the bridge door. Haaga and Jorwei readied their pistols, while Shai typed in the door code.
“Damn, you have the access codes? You guys really did a lot of prep work,” commented Jorwei.
“It’s called being a professional. Maybe I’ll show you how after this is over,” grumbled Haaga.
Jorwei couldn’t help but laugh. Haaga looked to Shai and nodded. The door slid open and they rushed into the bridge. The half dozen members of the flight crew shrieked in terror and dropped to the floor. Raajo Ruun frantically reached for a pulse pistol on the table next to him. Just as his fingers grazed the weapon’s grip, Haaga’s shot drilled through the besuited Ochrean’s right shoulder. The force of the shot sent Raajo sprawling from his chair. As he lay on the floor, his pained whimpering slowly morphed into a giggling fit. Shai and Jorwei glanced at each other with perplexed expressions and shrugged. Haaga glared down at the wounded executive, “What is so amusing?”
Raajo winced as he pulled himself up into a sitting position. He glanced at his limp bloody right arm, and then looked up at Haaga with a smirk, “You want to kill me so badly… yet, you’re only way out of this is to let me live.”
“How you figure that?”
Raajo used his good hand to unseal the seam of his suit jacket. He pulled the flap open to reveal a small square device affixed to his chest. A small green light blinked slowly. Haaga took an involuntary step backward in surprise. Raajo sighed, “I know… the whole ‘fusion-bomb-synced-to-my-heartbeat’ thing is so cliché. But you have to admit, it’s effective. Now go get in your stolen cruisers, and get the fuck off my ship.”
Haaga was at a loss for words. He looked at Shai, who could only shake his head, as if to say, I got nothing.
A casual voice chimed in, “I might be able to help.”
Haaga and Shai turned to see Jorwei lounging in the recently vacated captain’s chair. Jorwei cocked a finger towards Raajo, “Why don’t we just stick yok head over there and his cronies in one of the cruisers, and set ‘em adrift. Then we take this big beautiful piece of intergalactic transport. Wham!” he clapped his hands together, “You get to free the servants, and I get one of the biggest scores ever.”
“One problem,” sneered Raajo, “I activated the distress transceiver. The real U.L.E. will be here within thirty standard minutes.”
“Well, damn…” Jorwei feigned disappointment, “That does put a Klip in my plan, unless…” he smiled at Haaga and Shai, “I’d bet all the ale in Flanisi you two know exactly where the transceiver core is, don’t you?”
Without a word, Shai walked over to the navigation console. He knelt down, dug his clawed fingers into the console’s front panel, and pried it open. He plunged a long scaly arm deep inside the exposed tangle of wires. After a few seconds, there was a snapping sound. Shai removed his arm from the innards of the console, his hand now clutching a black metal sphere with two severed wires poking out from the top.
Jorwei grinned devilishly, “Well, would you look at that!”
Five minutes later, Raajo and the flight crew were bound and sitting on the floor of the stolen U.L.E. cruiser. Jorwei set the transceiver core in Raajo’s lap, and patted him on the head while saying, “Now don’t you worry. We’ve set the cruiser’s auto-fly to start heading towards open space. The U.L.E. should find you well before you crash into anything.”
As Jorwei and Haaga made their way down the exit ramp, Raajo cried out, “You’re dead men! You hear me? We’ll find you! You can’t possibly hope to hide an entire freight liner!”
They hit the hangar floor, and Haaga pressed the button to retract the cruiser’s ramp. Once it was closed and sealed, he turned to Jorwei and said, “He’s right, you know. Shai can fly this thing, but I don’t know of anywhere that would take us in.”
Jorwei smiled warmly and placed a hand on Haaga’s shoulder, “You ever heard of a little place called Pa Tahae?”