Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Galactic Consultants, Chapter 3

Chapter 3
Rex and Bay made the jump into subspace (the correct noun is actually the tear, however no one uses that, because it sounds bad) aboard a big grey and blue government boat with an upturned hull and huge, X-shaped hyper vac-thrusters in the back, their sleek Jumpship secured safely to the outside of the boat like a lamprey eel to a shark.
Rex had taken a tranquilizer and dozed through most the trip, since the idea of subspace travel made him queasy. Not the travel itself, mind you; merely the idea.
There’s actually very little unpleasant physical sensation to subspace travel, other than slight pressure on the chest, and an occasional tingle deep within the bowels. However, while passengers press and tingle inside the ship, the ship itself pushes through shifting, squeezing dimensional planes much the way a kidney bean does through the nasal passages of a two year old at the grocery store who’s just learned how to regret.
This was why Rex and Bay were sitting in their uncomfortably sticky Plasti-Skin seats while their comfortable, elegant Jumpership suffered the lightless ravages outside.
It was also the reason Rex drugged himself heavily every time he flew.
That reason went something like this:
Sliding unprotected between dimensions has a very strange effect on living matter, one that has become known to great minds of the universe (at least those interested in this kind of thing) as Dimensional Radiation.
Dimensional Radiation has little to no noticeable effect on non-living matter. Living things, however, are affected quite severely.
The technical difference between a living and non -living collection of atoms is its ability to replicate and reform structure from internal coding. In essence, “life” is defined by internally-driven change (so says my therapist)- or at least, change over a forward progression in time. Mutation, development, etc. And with change comes a fair amount of probability.
The fingers of Dimensional Radiation have the nifty little ability to reach into a being’s developmental past, and beyond that even into its genetic past, into the little cracks history where chance branched in certain ways to make it exactly what it was, and start flipping switches.
More simply: any living organism entering subspace unprotected emerged at his or her destination with a randomly chosen history.
This could mean a brand-new hair color. Or perhaps a new baseball sized tumor growing out of the side of the head. Or an entirely opposite (or in one horrifically memorable case, previously unheard of) set of genitalia.
The worst casualties of the ill-fated virgin run of the unfortunately named ship Transition were the species transmogrifications, where a few unlucky beings came out the other end of the subspace-tubule a step up or down the evolutionary ladder, and simultaneously confined the rest of their ancestors to a similar fate.
So close your eyes and imagine (on second thought, scratch that- keep them open. Hard to read otherwise) taking your honeymoon to a faraway section of the cosmos, previously unreachable except via crio-sleep, in a brand-new faster-than-light ship. Which is nice, because you don’t have to come back to a whole lot of aged-to-death friends. You’re headed to a place called Bearon V, for instance, which is supposed to be beautiful, in a shiny, new, previously untested cruise ship. You depart, and doze off in the plush leather seats with a cool, exotic drink in your hand.
Now imagine you’re shaken from your sleep by lots of screaming, your significant other has swapped genders and you’re an orangutan.
There were staggering amounts of lawsuits. One of the more prominent ones was filed by Rex’s great uncle twice removed (and once devolved). Rex’s mother’s side still suffered from the occasional unsettling urge to climb a tree, chitter, and fling organic waste in order to resolve disputes.
As a result, all subspace-capable ships built after the Transition were protected by vigorous stasis fields (a large, simplified consciousness), since consciousness exists as a barrier to chaos which only death and really good tequila can truly disrupt.
However, Rex always thought while listening to the hyper-vacs power up, if the field generator, and the three or four required backup generators all happened to fail at once: uh-oh. Kiss your genitals goodbye, because depending on how your genetics worked out, you might be able to do exactly that.
The probability for this type of occurrence was literally (by regulation) near infinite to one against on government ships, however Rex was never one to let being a hairsbreadth from absolute safety keep him from stressing the hell out, so as a result, he was dozing peacefully in a dreamless drug induced coma.
Bay, alternately, figured correctly that he could hardly avoid disaster by worrying about it, and spent the majority of the trip attempting to get a green stewardess from near the galactic core and the female bassist of Neurotica, a popular hyper-punk group also aboard, to have a threesome with him.
Rendella, the bassist, regaled him with stories of how her band had made their audiences lay half-submerged in gelatin to achieve harmonics that induced physical euphoria in most humanoid races. Bay, in turn, had told both her and the stewardess about a few states of euphoria he’d learned to induce in the Beta-Epsilon Systems and was even successfully getting them to flirt with one other when the “fasten your seatbelts” sign had lit up and he’d been forced to return to his seat with only a couple of tec-com frequencies to show for his troubles.
The ship squeezed into existence with a very audible PLOOP a scant few thousand miles from an asteroid based spaceport in a brilliant, dustly little yellow star system.
The beta thrusters in back engaged, shoving everyone rudely back against their seats, and after a few moments of wafting in the icy silence they coasted into the spidery metal arms of the docking bay.
There were several click-hiss-gradually-lowering-hum combinations as the refueling lines and the air-scrubbers attached, and the ship settled into port.
A loud, nasal voice creaked in over the onboard loudspeakers. It was in fact so nasal, Bay wondered if the owner must have at least two or three noses.
“We will be stopping for a scheduled refueling. This will take exactly seventy-five standard units of time (about an hour and a half, says the writer). The air inside supports oxygen, methane, and nitrogen metabolizing entities. GAF breath-a-packs are available from the stewardesses at a small charge.
“If you can digest living organisms I’d suggest you try the chilled Intestinal-Vector Leech Soup at the restaurant RAURARLG. If you can’t, I suggest not. Beings left outside this transport when it departs will have their craft snail-mailed to them at their owner’s expense. Have a nice period.” It cut out with a crackle.
The floor lights blinked on and the overhead lighting intensified from dim to annoying.
Bay looked around. The stewardess had disappeared somewhere to perform her duties.
He unclipped and stood from his seat, and bid a warm farewell to Rendella, whose band was transferring to another transport. At her insistence he promised to call, which, he later reflected, he actually might, for she had been kind of interesting in a done-lots-of-drugs type of way, then injected Rex with a shot of pure adrenaline he kept with him in his bag.
Rex jolted awake in a serious of violent convulsions.
Once he’d regained control over his jaw muscles, he said, “What the hell was that for?”
Bay shrugged and grimaced. “We’re stopped at a spaceport,” he said, “Thought you might want to absorb some of the local culture.”
Rex looked at him, blinking away watery eyes, and whined, “Do I have to?”
Bay shrugged. “They have food.”
Rex leapt up from his seat, and bolted past Bay, and paused only briefly at the arched exit to yell back, “What are you waiting for? Come on!” before disappearing down the loading hall.
Bay sighed, and followed along. Rex had a habit of finding the most exotic and strange cuisine any particular locale had to offer and stuffing himself with it, then asking Bay, often through mouthfuls of food, whether he was “putting on weight do you think?”
Bay had at first thought peculiar behavior was specific to Rex’s species. Upon research: not at all. And this caused Bay to experience the curious mix of appalled curiousity and dire annoyance Rex tended to induce in sentient minds.
At least it got him out of the damn ship. Rex fed was Rex relaxed (well, slightly). And when Rex was relaxed, (which was VERY rarely) he could actually keep semi-decent company (again, both slightly and rarely).
Bay took one last, good stretch, tried to shake Rex from his mind, then strode out into the spaceport.
Just at the second, precisely one thousand, six hundred seventy three feet and six inches to Bay’s Left, through the hull of the transport, the hard vacuum of space, the service pod, a re-fueling clerk named Frank, several layers of frozen rock, the inside containment hull of the spaceport, two ships, and three sleazy massage parlors, was the fourth Person Whose Opinion Actually Matters, although she was far too involved in the world around her to ever know it.
And currently she was very involved in trying not to seriously injure herself or anyone else while running full-out through the crowd, which is a very hard thing to do. In fact, on the planet GSE, the Galactic Stock Exchange, there are beings who have become very wealthy teaching graduate-level courses on how to effectively run through crowds without doing any law-suitable damage.
Erikka (Erie, to her friends) had never taken one of those classes. In fact, she spent most of her time trying to put as much distance between herself and places like planet GSE as possible.
Systems of conventional numbers and strict probability tended to upset her. They went against her research. Research she was doing because she was very, very, very smart.
She didn’t think so, mind you. This is ME (the author) telling you that. I mean, she didn’t think she wasn’t, I suppose- she just didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it, figuring it was a bit of a waste of her resources, which is generally also pretty smart.
This was also why she could navigate a crowd at high speed without hurting anyone, while following a shape-shifer who had stolen something she was willing to kill for.
“Her little blue box” she ruefully remembered calling it, breathing hard and pumping her arms. She dodged a couple of cephalopods haggling over crystal storage chips, and rolled under a flalleel-worm soup wagon.
Why this rock? Why was it, that of all the places in the Galaxy, even in this god-forsaken ass-backward end of it, did there have to be shifters on this rock?
She bowled over a hairy humanoid, who roared in offense, and kept running. The shifter was just a flickering brown trench coat in front of her-
She really didn’t think the thing had realized how she was tracking it. It wove like a crystal lizard, changing course and shifting suddenly to become a kindly old man, or an insectoid, or a nitro-head in a breath-a-pack suit, all of whom were wearing the same ratty brown trench coat which, believe it or not, wasn’t that hard to spot when it was desperately darting through an otherwise ambling crowd.
So at least it hadn’t planned this out, she thought, deftly squeezing between two purple amphibians. Which meant it probably didn’t know what it had.
Which was the best-case scenario. Four of these things had tried to steal the blue box within the last hour. This one was almost succeeding.
It made sense- these shifters seemed to manipulate their forms on the quantum level, which means they had to be tapped into sub-space continium in some way. They could probably just sense the little blue box, or something like that.
Which was in itself, frustrating.
The shifter ducked under a fruit-synthesizer stand and turned down a darkened alley. She balked only momentarily, then leapt over a street-cleaner droid to give chase.
Her eyes grudgingly adjusted to the darkness. Water dripped everywhere, and unpleasant things shifted in the shadows.
One of the benefits of spending most of your time living in an orbital station- no real day-time meant great night vision. She picked out several slavers and drug dealers hunched in the nooks and crannies, muttering ominously to one another.
She fixed her gaze dead ahead.
The shifter was clearly visible now, halfway down the twisting alley, running full out in a scaled biped form, it’s prize glowing a ghostly blue between it’s claws.
She immediately began to sprint, nimbly hopping over the tentacles that drunkenly reached for her, and the hands that tried to snag her jacket as she ran past.
“Hey, sweetness! What’s your hurry?” She heard something belch, and ran a little faster.
More water fell, and puddles erupted under her feet. Up ahead she saw the shifter come to a t-junction, hesitate, then turn right.
Ten seconds later she was there- she kicked off the parallel wall and was off, down the twisting corridor.
Dank smoke billowed from grates in the walls and floor. She shielded her nose with her hand and kept running, catching glimpses of the blue light bobbing a few yards ahead.
Suddenly, it took a sharp left—her shoe had caught on something! She was falling!
She hit the wet ground on her hands as it knocked the wind from her. Something pulled her boot weakly. She looked down at it. Yick.
She kicked at the thin, sickly arm that had snagged her through a floor grate, felt it hold with surprising force.
Cursing, she reached in her pocket and found her the small, heavy ovoid there. She hit a button, and the bottoms of her shoes exploded in a flash of green plasmatic flame. The thing screeched from down below and recoiled dejectedly.
She smiled triumphantly, then looked up and stood.
The blue light was gone.
“HELL!!!!” she screamed in frustration, and planted the steel toe of one of her boots into a nearby storage crate.
It couldn’t be!
She took off sprinting, and turned the hard left where she’d seen the shifter go. To her immense relief the alleyway dead-ended a few feet later and there it was, a small, terrified shape scrabbling at the bottom of the wall, trying to climb.
It heard her footsteps, turned and hissed at her, clutching the blue box to its chest. It had relaxed into truest form, which is to say quite a bit like a giant rat.
Its bald tale whipped excitedly behind it.
“Sstay back!!!” It hissed, protectively proffering its claws.
She stopped for a second, taking a moment to catch her breath. It spoke Standard Lang. Maybe it could be reasoned with. She stepped forward, cautiously, sliding one hand into her pocket, past the hard little ovoid onto a large, heavy coin just beneath it, just in case.
It made a quick, jerky motion and hissed. She leapt back with a cry. Sharp claws zipped through the air where she would have been. She clenched her jaw.
“I don’t really have any reason to hurt you,” she said, and meant it, ‘Other than you having that box.”
“Mine!” The thing hissed, and turning, and with a desperate effort, scurried up the wall.
“Hell!” she cursed again. What a day.
She stepped quickly close to the wall, and moved her hand from the coin to the ovoid again.
She pressed the small, black button.
The bottoms of her boots lit up with green plasma and fire. She floated six inches above the pavement-grate, frictionless.
She did a quick turn in the alley, just to get her bearings, notched up the power to 65 percent, jumped directly at the wall and felt the gravity shifter take hold, and then resumed her chase of the shifter, straight up the wall.
Meanwhile, a ways away, a GAF scanner zipped along Bay as he stepped into the muggy port and credited his account for the heat he was bringing into the spaceport, just as it would again (deducting, this time) when he left it.
The low-ceilinged loading area was mostly huffing ventilation grates, and was occupied by all manner of traveler sprawled out on benches (and one family hanging asleep from the ceiling) and discarded newspapers.
Beyond that, the ceiling rose sharply into darkness above the streets.
The street itself was a living sea of creatures of all parts of the cosmos. Tongues of all rhythms, pitches and textures assaulted his ears.
Innumerable shop signs glowed in innumerable alien scripts, selling everything from (mostly horrid) exotic delicacies to (mostly bootlegged) electronics to (back to horrid again) sex.
Bay breathed it in smiling. This was his kind of town.
He focused on finding Rex, which was good, because there had been a small and annoying buzzing nagging at the back of his mind. He was unsure why GAF was calling them back in. Bay generally made sure his superiors wanted to see as little of him as possible. And being unsure was not something Bay was particularly used to.
He found Rex a few hundred feet into the bustle, hunched over a white and blue porcelain bowl, slurping some desperately wriggling white-noodly things beside a cart where he’d obviously gotten them.
The cart owner, a small insectoid in a conical hat and a burlap cloak sat perched impassively on its corner.
Bay, in the interest of saving time, said, “Rex, you’ve lost weight.”
“Thank you!” Rex replied happily, grinning widely at Bay through a mouthful of very clearly still wriggling food, “These are excellent! You should have some!”
Bay, who made a habit only to eat the flesh of the living once it had ceased to be what it was and died, politely declined.
“Wanna get the bill?” Rex asked, and Bay nodded, riffling through his knapsack for the silvery FGC’s at the bottom that comprised his and Rex’s expense account.
He offered the insectoid one, and spiny little hoods lowered over its yellow eyes until they were slits. Bay stopped where he was- this was generally a gesture of hostility among insectoids.
“You can’t pay with that.” It said in a squeaky, electronic voice. Bay noticed the small translation unit strapped under its chin.
Bay rummaged and held forth two FGC credits, more than enough, and was about to speak when the little thing whipped a matter-de-centralizer from beneath it’s burlap cloak.
The gun powered up with a whine and a hum of red light.
Bay stopped. This was definitely a gesture of hostility. Woops.
“Where the hell do you think you are, government swine?” It asked. Rex turned towards them, interested yet unalarmed, and kept slurping.
“Um, well, actually,” Bay replied quite calmly and politely, “We’re GAF certified Consultants,” and flipped over his wrist to show his identi-plant and handed the bug one of his silvery cards, which glowed to life with his full name and rank. “And FGC credits are all we have to pay with.”
The insectoid’s eyes widened, and it almost dropped the de-centralizer. “I’m…so sorry.” It said, stammering. “I…I’m a huge fan!”
Bay smiled patiently.
“Now,” he said warmly, “Since FGC’s are unacceptable to you, can I autograph something for you instead?”
Two minutes later they strode along side by side through the hubbub, Rex noisily finishing the rest of his flalleel-worm stew from his new porcelain bowl, donated by YvX, the extremely lucky insectoid, who was at that moment selling Bay’s signature to the highest bidder for enough to franchise his soup business and buy a small fleet of transport ships.
Bay had made YvX promise not to point them out as they walked away to be absorbed by the bustling forms, so as not to cause a riot.
The signature of arguably the most influential man in the Galaxy went some ways in this sector. Bay often sold it in situations when he needed a lot of real money very quickly, or didn’t wish to be de-centralized over a bowl of soup. Either or.
“Ruummmm!” Rex said, made while finishing the last of the flalleel-worms, followed by a long and happy slurp and a loud belch.
“Glad it was satisfying,” said Bay.
“Indeed it was,” said Rex, “Thanks for the shock-wake. The air’s a little…yellow here (and it was), but the food’s not bad.”
“These places are mostly like that,” said Bay.
“Hm,” Rex said.
They walked silently for a minute, people watching. Which is actually dangerous to do in spaceports for too long; you risk sensory overload.
Suddenly, Rex turned to Bay and blurted, “I didn’t mean to get on you about the girls back on Sceratone, by the way.”
Bay looked at him in genuine surprise.
“No, well, I did,” he amended. “It’s just that…I…” and then trailed off.
Bay waited for him to continue, almost bumped into a crotch-high streetcleaner droid, and quickly lost the battle with his patience. “Yes? What is it just?”
“It’s just that…” Rex began again, then looked uneasily at Bay, “I don’t presume to tell you how to do your job,” (Bay grimaced, because he was pretty sure that was EXACTLY what Rex was about to presume to do) “And I concede that you’re entirely much more experienced and successful than I am at this…but it seems as if we spend a lot of time…you know…faffing about.”
He blushed a deep crimson and turned his face to the ground like a child who’s broken something expensive. Bay stared at him in shock.
“Faffing?” Bay asked, more confused by the use of “faffing” than by what Rex had said.
“Yes faffing,” Rex said, “I can certainly see the appeal in the lifestyle…believe me, some of these women…” he blushed an even deeper crimson, but struggled on, “it’s just, I tend to feel…”
“Anxious?” Bay ventured.
“Yes! Exactly right! How did you know?”
Bay shrugged.
“Anxious, spending so much time…” Rex looked into Bay’s eyes searchingly. Bay gazed back at him, squinting slightly.
“You know, forget I said anything.” He finished, and studied his shoes.
“No, I think I get it,” said Bay lightly.
“Are you sure?” Rex breathed, “because I’d never want you to think I was insulting you…”
“Oh,” said Bay, battling very hard to repress a horrible little grin, “I wouldn’t worry about it. Do you think I’m hurting anyone by enjoying the fruits of my successes?”
Rex paused, objections thundering in from all angles. “No, but-“
“And how would you describe our job as Consultants?” Bay said.
Rex opened his mouth, then shut it. “You mean the code?” He finally asked.
“Eh,” Bay said, his eyes doing that sharpening thing that made Rex both afraid and jealous at the same time, “just do it in your own words. If you had to describe our job to someone who’d never heard of us before, how would you do it?”
“Well-“ Rex began, obviously frustrated, “I suppose I’d say our job was to fix things, well, situations, so that they worked out the best for everyone.”
Bay grinned and nodded. “Everyone?” he asked impishly.
“But!” Rex jumped, aware he’d just barely missed the mark. “All GAF taxpaying citizens.”
“Fair,” Bay said, “Now, you know what I think, but do you consider yourself…no one?”
“Well, of course not!” Rex snapped
Bay frowned and raised his eyebrows at him as if to say, was that so hard?
“I’m not sure…” Rex said.
“How much good have you done for the Universe recently?” Bay asked imperiously.
Rex paused for a moment, then answered truthfully, “I mean, none directly, if you want to get technical...”
Bay nodded. “So, I guess YOU HAVE been foffing, or whatever the hell you said.”
Rex stared at him, started to get mad, stopped, looked concerned, opened his mouth, shut it, the got mad again and asked, “Can I do the next one then?”
Bay stopped, and turned towards Rex, and was grinning that very upsetting lopsided grin he did right before something bad was about to happen.
“Absolutely!” he said, looking honestly pleased, “Glad you asked!” then turned on his heel and stepped between two bright red cepholopods haggling over a pile of crystal storage chips. Rex watched him go, feeling very strange, until a huge, very unexpected smile overtook his face and he loped excitedly after Bay.
He almost ran right past him, as Bay had stopped just beyond the cephalopods, and was staring up, looking mildly concerned.
Rex followed his gaze.
About sixty or seventy feet above them, what looked to be a giant rat with a blue-glowing mouth in a trench coat, was scuttling quickly along the parabola of a power cable between two rooftops.
Behind him, seemingly skating on thin air, was a very frustrated looking girl with high, arched eyebrows and green flaming boots.
“Weird” Bay said. Rex nodded in agreement.
The shifter stopped, balancing tenuously on the wire, holding the little blue box between its fangs. The blue ghost-light pulsed distressedly.
Erie slowed, approaching it, masterfully moving her feet in figure eights to maintain balance. The boots were heating up from the effort of maintained levitation. She glanced at the gauges on her toes—she only had about thirty seconds left in either of them.
She took a deep breath. Okay.
The shifter was at the nadir of the wildly wobbling wire, perched on two legs, the other two stuck straight out in the air, tail straight out, twitching to maintain position.
The thing was breathing very hard, and sweating, and holding the blue box between it’s very sharp teeth. It glanced back at her nervously.
She hovered closer.
“Hey there,” she said as gently as she could, “No reason to be afraid now…”
She glanced down and noticed they’d acquired an audience. Great.
She looked back at the quivering shifter.
“Wants it!” It said around the box, dripping spittle.
“Okay,” she said appeasingly, hovering within arm’s length. She waited till its eyes flicked away for balance and quickly snatched the heavy coin from her pocket, palming it.
The thing’s wild eyes flicked back to her.
“Mine!” It screeched, and tried to take a step forward. Erie’s heart leapt as the wire swung wildly.
Down below the audience was taking bets.
Rex was debating weather or not he could catch the girl if she fell. Bay had already decided that was stupid and was scanning the crowd for a squishy looking service droid.
Erie’s boots began to beep in warning. She tried to settle her shaking hands.
“Look,” she said, speaking very softly and slowly, “I’m sure we can work out some sort of arrangement.”
The beeping on her boots rose in pitch and doubled in tempo.
She tried to keep her voice steady.
“I can pay you…” she said.
“Don’t want your money!” the thing rasped, “Mine! Want the…TASTY!!!”
And with that it took an ill fated step forward, swung below the wire, dangled by three ragged fingers for a second, before tumbling downward, screaming and shifting wildly.
Below, money changed hands.
Bay saw the gleam of something blue float away from the screaming shifter’s mouth before he grabbed a little cleaner droid, which was very confused by all this, and spun it under where he thought the thing would land. Shoving bodies aside, he reached for another droid for the girl, who would probably follow.
Erie watched in horror as the thing tumbled down towards the crowd. Without hesitation she flipped face down, flared her boots, and exploded toward the ground with a burst of speed. Her stomach lurched and the air screamed around her, but she drew the coin from her jacket pocket.
Rex, unsure of what else to do, moved beneath the quickly falling girl and extended his arms. The screaming shifter smashed into the service droid and Rex jumped back, yelping.
The air howled around Erie’s head. She saw the shifter hit, saw the faces of the crowd grow larger… saw a service droid spin out just where she was going to land, dodged it, and just a second before impact whipped her legs down and hit the ground in a burst of green flame.
Her spent boots powered down. She stood in a cloud of clearing smoke. A few of the crowd clapped.
The shifter, regaining consciousness, saw her, panicked, and started to struggle to free itself of the wrecked service droid (rest in peace, XR301).
She flicked the heavy coin over in her hand and it expanded a full three feet into a heavy lead pipe, pounced on the shifter, and smashed his head with it.
The crowd gasped.
“Stupid! Shifter!” she yelled, trembling (the exclamation points, in this case, indicating strikes with the pipe), “This! Is! Not! For! YOU!” The rat writhed and hissed and began switching rapidly between many different skin tones and textures.
“Don’t! You! E! Ven! Know! What! This! IS?!?” She finished finally, dropping the pipe with a clank in exhaustion.
The trench-coated thing on the ground up at her as if he was surprised she was finished.
She grabbed his legs and held him upside down for a second, shaking him.
“Now where is it?!” she screamed, eyes wild, trying desperately to quell pulse of the adrenaline in her veins.
There! She saw the small black box on the ground behind the wrecked droid. She dropped the shifter back on the droid and snatched it up, shoving it violently into her pocket and zipping the damn thing closed.
The shifted hissed weakly at her once more, defeated.
She regarded him grimly for a moment, breathing hard, then screamed, “Now, GET!” and thumped a heavy boot into his ribs just to show she was serious.
The rat gave one final hiss and flashed yellow teeth at her, then scurried between legs of the crowd and out of sight.
“HELL!” she yelled, put her hands on her knees, shook the sweat from her brow and tried to catch her breath.
“You okay?” she heard a level, confident voice ask.
She stood. The rest of the crowd had moved on- two men stood watching her.
“Yeah,” she said, still struggling to catch her breath. “Although that’s the fourth shifter in as many hours that’s tried to steal my…property. Apparently there’s a market for anything stolen off-world or something.”
She looked up at the two men. The shorter one in the flowered shirt, standing with his legs a little too far apart nodded sympathetically. The taller nervously cleared his throat.
“You know, because of the fluidity of their endoskeletal supports, physical violence isn’t that effective against most humanoid shifters. You might wanna try a non-lethal directed energy weapon next time. I mean, if you want,” Rex said, sounding much more like he was reading a textbook than he could have possibly intended.
She nodded, “Thanks. Good to know.”
“Would you like an escort back to your ship?” Bay asked.
She considered this for a moment.
“Well, being as currently you’re two friendly strangers on a strange rock who apparently have a penchant for effective methods of incapacitating shifters, I’d probably have to ask who the hell you are, first,” she said.
Bay nodded and stepped forward fluidly, flicking on his identi-patch. He handed her a silvery card, which glimmered. That invention of that effect had cost GAF the equivalent of two star cruisers, and he was very proud of it.
“I’m Bay, and we’re the GC’s,” he said, smiling his winningest smile, “Maybe you’ve heard of us?” He was concentrating on smiling at her so much that he even forgot to do the ‘The Duke’ thing.
She looked at the card, and her eyebrows raised and her mouth dropped open slightly. She’d heard of them.
Rex bounded up next to Bay, bobbing up and down excitedly.
“I have cards too,” He said, “I just give so many out that the new batch is in the mail.”
Bay glanced at him, trying, as he often did, to light Rex on fire with his eyes. Rex continued to bounce nervously and refused to combust. Bay sighed. One could dream.
“Wow!” She was saying, glancing between them, face bright. “Imagine that! Yeah, I recognize you (indicating Bay) from the hyper-casts! This is so cool!”
Bay nodded, very convincingly gracious.
“I was on one too,” Rex said, bobbing faster, “I mean a couple. You might not of seen them.”
“Then Hell yeah you can walk me back to my ship!” She said, grinning madly. What a hell of a day. “What are the odds!?” She bent to pick up her pipe.
“I can carry that-“ Rex began.
“No, it’s fine,” she said, and pressed a small, square button inlaid on the rounded surface. The pipe shrunk itself flat like a coin and fell to the ground with a plink. She picked it up.
“Cool,” Bay said, “Is that a mass transference mechanic?”
“Built it myself,” she beamed, unzipped a pocket and dropped the coin inside. A ghostly blue light played across her face.
“I thought MY job was hard,” Bay grinned as they turned to walk out into the crowd.
“I’m sure it is,” she said, wiping the sweat from her brow.
“No it’s not!” Rex yelped, “I mean, it is for me! I mean, it’s—DAMN! Harder for him than me!”
“What brings you out here?” Bay asked.
“Oh, just work,” she lied, rolling her eyes. “I’m a mechanic. On a clunker that takes forever to scrub out. I’m in charge of stewarding the ship until it leaves and I transfer.”
“Sounds fun. Which way?” asked Bay.
Rex bobbed and wove along behind them, very upset because they were doing that thing that he hated where two people walked side by side and didn’t leave room for the third who very obviously wanted to be part of the conversation.
“Sector B,” she said, “Thanks again.” They turned. She grinned mischievously.
“Yeah, freelancing’s great. I’m quitting soon. My agent works out of the Zix system, and you know how they can be.”
Bay nodded knowingly. They could be, and almost always did be, very pugnacious.
“Show him the color yellow,” he said.
She gave him an odd look, which accented her eyebrows nicely.
“No, seriously!” he said, “I stopped a war there that way. Big yellow flags. Triggers endorphins. I think their sun changed color at some point- that’s why they’re all like that.”
Her eyebrows went up even further and she laughed like crystal shattering.
“Good to know,” She said.
“I know just as much as he does!” Rex managed, then ran shin-first into a street cleaner droid and hopped around, cursing.
“So what about you?” She asked. “Your ship need a mechanic? Or does your boss just not like you either?”
“Believe it or not,” he said, “We fly coach.”
She gaped.
“No way. The GC’s fly coach?”
“Seriously. Your taxdollars at work.”
“Wow! That’s-“
Just then, the speaker system blared, “Last call, The BatFilly Seven, making all stops to the eastern clusters, last call!”
“Hell!” She said, and spun around towards the source of the sound.
The box in her jacket pocket swung up and arched through the air, leaking blue. She had just enough time to see a hand reach for it before she whipped out her pipe, expanded it to its full length and CLONKED the head attached to the hand—
Rex’s head snapped to the right, back center for a second looking very, very upset, and then he fell in a heap.
She gasped and dropped the pipe again, which clanked again.
“Shit!,” she said. “Shit! Shit! Shit!”
She looked toward Bay, who was wearing a surprised expression that didn’t quite seem to fit his face.
“Whoops,” he said.
“Oh my God!” she said, “It…force of habit! I didn’t mean to!”
“No! Of course not,” Bay said, which was followed by one of the few awkward silences he’d ever experienced as they both stared down at the man on the floor.
Rex’s head was turning purple. Bay didn’t know if that was normal for his race.
She was becoming visibly upset.
“It’s really alright.” He said.
“Are you sure?” She said, “Because I’d feel really awful if—“
“Naw. He’ll be fine.” He said reassuringly. “Happens more than you’d think.”
“Really?” She asked.
He shrugged. “Actually yes.”
A small clearing was forming; all manner of necks were beginning to rubber at them. For the second time in one horrible day.
“Shit!,” she said. “This looks really bad, but I gotta go! If I don’t get back to my ship before it goes, I…uh…could lose my license…”
“Oh.” Said Bay. He looked down at Rex.
“I’m really, really sorry” she said, “Tell him I’m sorry?”
“Yeah, okay,” Bay said.
“Will you?” She said. “I’m SO sorry.”
Bay sighed a bit. “Yeah, it’s fine.”
“Okay.” she said, “Thank you! Well, it was nice meeting you! Sorry!!!”
And with that she snatched the box off the ground and darted off into the crowd. It took Bay a full minute more than it would have normally to realize he hadn’t gotten her tec-com frequency, which was really too bad.
She was already too far away. He could barely make out the back of her head bobbing and weaving through the crowd. Ah, well.
After a moment, he looked down at Rex, and sighed a final time. Rex looked heavy. AND he’s just eaten.
With a grunt Bay hefted him up onto his shoulders, swaying a bit under the weight.
Rex’d be fine. The GAF nano-mites in his blood were rebuilding anything broken almost as fast as the damage had been done. He didn’t envy Rex the headache he’d have though. On the bright side, he was no longer talking.
He staggered for about five feet, then said to himself, “Nope, not today,” and dumped Rex on another one of the streetcleaner droids, reprogrammed it to follow him, and led the struggling little thing back to the transport.
Rex woke up an hour into subspace, with one of the worst headaches of his life. Bay was sitting next to him, jacked into the ship’s Gali-Net and bobbing his head to Neurotica third album, which actually wasn’t that bad for solar punk.
Rex tried to say something and was instantly assaulted by several different varietys of pain-and-white-flashy thing. His shaking and foaming at the mouth caught Bay’s attention. Bay removed his headphones.
“You alright?” Bay said, already knowing the answer.
“No,” said Rex, hating Bay for making him speak because he was pretty sure Bay already knew he wasn’t alright.
Rex passed out again.
Bay cracked his thumbs and let his head loll back on the dampish, slightly sticky PlastiSkin headrest, rested his arms on the dampish, slightly sticky PlastiFrim armrests, and tried to tune out the hum of the subspace engines tuning up outside, though even they seemed to endlessly drone “GREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEY”.
He hadn’t noticed it previously, but everything on government vehicles was grey. Very officially non-committal. Wouldn’t want to offend anyone with…well, interesting pallet choices or anything. On a certain level Bay understood. He had seen riots and worse (the Zix system, for instance) started over less.
The ship was still mostly empty, with only a few army grubs sitting in a tight group in the back, and a couple of long-haired, half-crazed GAF postal workers smattered throughout the rest of the cabin gibbering softly to themselves and clutching their mailbags.
Bay could finally feel the sun and sand (and sex) seeping from his bones, leaving a considerably lighter (though desperately less entertaining) desire and readiness to go consulting.
As if on queue, his tec-com lit up with the face of the GAF high commander like a Sceratonian sunset.