WOLF IN SPACE
"Where do you think he is?"
Huw Davies turned his head and looked at the other man as he approached. He smiled slightly and went back to staring at the tower in the early morning sunlight. Atlantis was on the pad, silhouetted against the dawn sky. She looked... poised. Ready. He looked down at the ground and then turned to look at the other man.
"I don't know, Jack. But if I can I'll find out."
Jack Crichton smiled back at him, tentatively. "Look," he said, "You and I both know that we are on the edge here. Michaelson is raising hell over this project. If you go up and you don't find what you and DK have been claiming..."
Huw nodded. "I know. I know. If this falls through then I'll have egg all over my face. DK too. But we're right. I know we're right." He looked at Atlantis again. "I know we're right."
The slight smile came again. "How did you know where I was?"
Jack Crichton grinned. "Because this is where John was on the morning before his launch into the unknown. If you're gonna look for him, if you are going to tread in his footsteps, it's best to put yourself in his shoes." He paused and then reached into his jacket pocket, pulling out a long fat envelope. He looked extremely embarrassed. "If..." he paused and then blew his cheeks out with an explosive breath. "Hell of a thing, Colonel Jack Crichton feeling like a damn fool. If... you see him. John, I mean. I know it's a chance in a million, I know he could be dead or a hundred things I don't want to think about... If you see my son, give him this. Tells him a few things. Like how much I miss him." He held it out in an oddly formal gesture.
Huw stood up and turned to look at him, before slowly taking the letter. "I will, sir." He looked back at Atlantis. "Okay. Lets go. Lets do this."
The space centre was abuzz when they got in, technicians and control personnel busy preparing for the flight, astronauts getting ready, journalists looking more nervous than the people who would be in actual danger and the odd politician trying to look important. Huw only saw one person – DK. A nervous DK, a DK with a fist full of papers but who looked calmer once he saw Huw.
"Wow, you didn't run off," he muttered, "You trying to replicate Farscape 1 in more ways then one? Don't scare the shit out of me again – I almost thought that you didn't trust my calculations!"
Huw looked affronted. "Hey, half of those calculations are mine, don't forget!" Then he smiled grimly and held his hand out. "Luck."
DK shook it. "Luck," he muttered back, "And a fair wind to sail."
"And a good eye to steer." Jack Crichton completed the saying. To take the solemnity out of the moment DK grinned.
"Ol' Sour Grapes is in command, bitchin' again," he said. "You'd think he'd spent enough wind trying to get this thing shot down. Keeps going on about how wormholes are impossible and how it's all a waste of money that he could be spending better in other places."
Colonel Crichton snorted. "Man only knows one thing – how to turn a million into a cent. He's clogged up the works for two decades trying to get his pet projects off the ground and none of 'em flew far." He looked at Huw. "Reminds me, half the press corps have been ragging me on the spelling of your capsule again. Want to know what the hell it is and why it doesn't sound the way that it's spelt."
Huw looked affronted. "Blaidd. Pronounced Blaith. Welsh for wolf. You did tell them that, didn't you?"
The older man snorted. "Yeah, but they didn't believe me. Good thing you're wearing that patch," he pointed to the rectangular symbol on Huw's shoulder, showing a red dragon on a white and green flag. "Adds to the news story, a Welsh astronaut going into space. Otherwise Michaelson would have shot us down."
DK nodded and then looked at his watch. "It's time."
============================================================= As Atlantis rode on a column of fire into the sky, carrying Blaidd One in it's shuttle bay, mission control was oddly quiet. In most people's minds was the memory of what had happened almost two years before, when Commander John Crichton had ridden a similar shuttle to an unknown destination.
DK was busy going through his checklist even as the launch was in progress, muttering under his breath, ticking off the data list.
"Orbital velocity...check. Solar activity...near as damnit, check. Atmospheric conditions... perfect. Similarity to Farscape One mission... 99.21%." He looked up into the face of a pensive Colonel Crichton. "We're ready sir. Once he gets into position we can start the procedure."
"It won't work," drawled a voice from a nearby workstation. Colonel Crichton turned and looked at a thin man with pale hair and cold eyes. A nametag with the word "Michaelson" was hanging around his neck and he looked spitefully complacent. Rumour had it that only Michaelson's mother and his wife had ever known what his first name was, and one was dead while the other was frigid to the point of a living coma.
"I'm sorry, but this is a waste of money, as I know I've told you. Your son is dead, Crichton, and using this mission in a useless attempt to disprove that is a sad waste of a life."
Jack Crichton resisted the temptation to smash Michaelson's teeth in. It was a familiar sensation.
"John's module was never found," he shot back. "Not even a square inch of its hull. It ended up somewhere else. How else would you describe what those radio astronomers saw?"
Michaelson sneered again. "Yes, I read that report too. Clutching at straws is a phrase that comes to mind."
"If this works, we'll have a new form of travel, and..." He was cut off by a voice in his earpiece.
"Canaveral, this is Blaidd One. Prepare for orbital insertion. We are go, repeat go, for orbital insertion."
DK nodded. "Blaidd One, this is Canaveral. Permission is granted; you are go, repeat go for orbital insertion. Godspeed, Blaidd One."
A ghostly chuckle came over the air. "Engaging in three... two... one... engaging and I'm a damn atheist, DK!" A slow rumble punctuated the last few words as Huw lit off his engines.
The display at mission control tracked his progress. Slowly at first, but then increasingly quickly as Blaidd One picked up speed and started to use the gravity of Earth to slingshot him round the planet. To one side of the display there was a series of images of the module, from telescopes in his path, from the shuttle, from the International Space Station and even from the Hubble Space Telescope, which had been hastily reprogrammed.
"Hope you're getting this telemetry, Canaveral," came the transmission from Blaidd One.
"Confirmed, Blaidd One," said DK, staring at his stopwatch. "Prepare for event insertion in five... four... three... two..."
"Here goes fuck all," said the amused voice of Michaelson.
The screen in front of DK lit up. "ONE!" He shouted, "Electro-magnetic wave in sight, prepare for impact in three... two... ONE..."
"I SEE IT... ENTERING WORMHOLE... KEEP TRACKING ME..."
The sight in the transmitted images to the side of the main screen was just incredible. Jack Crichton just stared at them, tears running down his face... the module was entering a... a blue whirlpool in space, a rent in the face of the universe. "My god, he did it... fly, boy, fly! You fly... and find John..."
Whoops were going up, breaking the astonished silence, as the pictures flowed back from the surveillance of Blaidd One.
"HOPE YOU'RE GETTING THIS CANAVERAL...IT'S A WILD RIDE...JUST ABOUT HOLDING HER... I CAN SEE THE OTHER END... CYMRU AM BYTH, CANAVERAL..."
The screen flashed as the transmission from Blaidd One ended. The wormhole flashed out. Silence returned to the control room.
Jack Crichton wiped the tears from his face and then, ignoring several large signs that forbade smoking, pulled a large cigar out of his pocket and lit it with an old Zippo. Then he leant forward and flicked some ash onto the shoe of a stunned Michaelson, who was staring at the screen in total shock.
"What were you saying about fuck all?" he grinned.
============================================================= The other end of space turned out to be oddly similar... apart from the total lack of Earth nearby. And the moon. And the sun.
Huw Davies hung in space and looked out of the module window in a great deal of shock. It was one thing to talk about a wormhole, but it was another thing to navigate it, let alone get to the other side. Bits of him that he hadn't known existed felt bruised. After a moment his brain re-engaged and he started to look around properly. He did not recognise any of the stars, let alone the constellations.
Fortunately Blaidd One was a leap forward from Farscape One. He had faster, smaller, lighter computers, better sensors, larger engines. He flicked a few switches and waited patiently for a report. While he waited he flipped the module over and stared around at another angle at the stars. After a few moments he paused and unzipped his flight suit just enough to be able to reach into an inside pocket and pull out a small photo. He smiled sadly down at the image of a dark-haired woman with a crooked smile.
"I wish you could see this..." he murmured and then pinned it to the viewscreen of his module. "Another part of the galaxy..." The computer beeped and a small screen lit up. He peered down. Boiled down the report said that he was in another part of the galaxy. Definitely in the Milky Way, but a long way from earth. It couldn't be more specific then that.
He stared around. There were no planets in the immediate vicinity, but there was a small gas giant about six hours burn away. He had about... seven hours burn worth of fuel. What the hell. He'd always known that this was a one-way trip. The whole point was to prove the theory. He had nothing to go back to. And here he was, in unknown space... Huw Davies flipped his module round and aimed it at the gas giant. "Oh bloody hell... lets go sightseeing!"
============================================================= Etil Mar was in a very, very, bad mood as he lurched through the door and lunged for the control panel. He looked down at the targeting sensors. "Tallis!" He thumbed the comms button again. "Tallis!"
"Yes, Etil, what is it – I'm a bit busy here..." came a strained voice in response. There was another crack of displaced energy and Etil glimpsed a flash outside as a prowler sped past, its weapons still hot from the shot.
"Tallis, I need you to free that frelling turret now before they burn us front to back!" "I'm doing my best here – its not my fault that this ship is 600 cycles old... give me a microt to free this frelling thing..."
Etil pushed his sweaty brown hair back and looked down at the tactical display. There were now just two prowlers out there – the third had spun away somewhere after he had got a snap deflection off with the now-jammed gun turret. All he could do now was shoot blindly on one vector, and that might as well transmit how defenceless the ship was to the prowlers. He looked back up at the viewscreen and then down again.
"Tallis, we need that weapon!" he bellowed.
"Almost there..." came the answer.
He fed in the data and targeted the lead prowler, poised... after a sub- microt he noticed that he was still wearing his ID wrist tag and, in a sudden burst of fury, he threw it across the room. It bounced off one wall and into the doorway, where it was picked up by... Etil held his breath for a moment. Then he looked back at the screen. He couldn't afford a distraction now.
She walked up behind him and touched his arm. "Tallis is almost done," she said softly. "It's all down to you now, my love."
He turned and looked at her, distraction or not. Laytar. She was a Ralkan, tall, yellow-haired and utterly lovely. He loved her, irrecoverable contamination or not. He had to do this. For himself. For Tallis. For her...
"It's free, turret is tracking, blow them to frell, brother!" came the shriek over the comms.
Etil spun back to the console, fingers blurring... the turret came free, tracking the two prowlers, which were closer then they should have been, encouraged by the lack of firing. The sensors blinked once for a sighting and then twice for a lock and then the first prowler was gone, a million glittering fragments of metal and flesh. The second prowler jinked in a standard three avoidance manoeuvre... straight into a second aimed blast from the turret.
He slumped against the console in relief as Laytar rested her head against his shoulder. She muttered a few words of an old Ralkan prayer for the dead under her breath.
Etil looked at her fondly. "They were trying to kill us, you know."
"I know, but they were still sentient beings and... a prayer to the stars never hurts." She looked back up at the viewscreen. "What happened to the other one?"
He grimaced. "I hit it with a quick deflection. It spun off somewhere, no engines, no guns." A shrug. "I don't know where it ended up."
Steps behind them made them both turn. Tallis entered wearily, her toolbox almost dragging at her legs. She slumped into one of the piloting chairs and glared at her brother.
"'Don't worry,'" she quoted sarcastically, "'I've pulled the right orders and we'll be able to take over the ship easily because it's old and is going to Ton Mory for decommission.' Why the frell didn't you tell me it was an old MT-300 transport? This thing is held together by the dirt gumming the frelling bulkheads together! Hello, Laytar, good to see you out of your stinking cell. Can you please knock some brains into my brothers' head?"
Laytar smiled and inclined her head to Tallis. "Thank you," she said, shooting a significant look at Etil, "for freeing the turret. You showed great skill." Etil made a guilty face. "Yes, thanks Tallis."
Before Tallis could say anything in response they were interrupted by a low chime from the console. Etil thumbed a control and swore. "There's another ship out there!" "The other prowler?" asked Laytar.
"No... no." Etil stared at the three-dimensional image on the console. "I don't know what the frell it is. I've never seen that design before. It's approaching us slowly."
Behind him Tallis and Laytar craned to look at the image. Both frowned.
"It looks so... small. And primitive..." muttered Tallis.
Laytar tilted her head. "I don't think it's a peacekeeper or Sebacean design. And the way that it's approaching us I don't think that it's hostile. Does this ship have a docking web?"
Etil shook his head. "No," he said. "It's nowhere near as sophisticated as a Leviathan. It has something similar though – a tracking beam that can pull objects in. I think... I think I can pull it into hold three. The controls are automated so that should be easy... but I think that we should be there to find out who the frell is in that thing, just to be on the safe side."
============================================================= Huw was gaping by now. As he had approached the gas giant he'd seen flashes of light off to one side, flickers and shards. The closer he'd got the more he'd wondered what was out there... and then he'd seen it, a dull grey wedge hanging in space, firing off green bolts of energy seemingly at random. A bit closer and he's seen the flickering black shapes that were attacking it, firing their own energy blasts at the... the thing. Ship maybe. It had stopped firing at the other vessels attacking it, he had no idea why and the thought that he was witnessing a battle between aliens – aliens – stunned him. Here he was, in another part of the galaxy, watching a space battle.
"Whoa," he whispered, "Luke Skywalker eat your heart out!"
There was a sudden movement on the top of the big ship and then something – maybe a turret or something – flashed again, firing a green bolt of light. There was a flash as it hit something and Huw swallowed convulsively, knowing that something had just died, and then another bolt obliterated another of the angular shapes attacking the ship...
Then nothing. Huw stared at the ship and felt his heart start to slow down a bit. The battle was over. His heart speeded back up again. He was in a battle area, he was flying a craft approaching that big bastard of a ship that had just destroyed two other craft and he was stupid! He growled and started to turn Blaidd One around.
There was a sudden shudder and the module stopped dead in space. Huw frowned and punched the engines hard, hearing the whine as the pumps shot more and more fuel into the bell-shaped engine cone at the rear of Blaidd. Nothing. But now he was travelling backwards, towards the ship, towards an opening that was appearing in the side of it.
Huw groaned. "Oh shit. Tractor beam. I hope that Darth Vader isn't over there, I don't want my brains fried."
============================================================= It was a hanger. Sort of. Big, anyway. According to the computer there was a breathable atmosphere out there. And a big, very forbidding door. Huw popped the hatch to Blaidd and took a cautious sniff of the air. It was breathable and oddly musty. He got out slowly and stretched his legs before looking around carefully. No-one else was there, no cameras, no Darth Vader. He undid the strap of his helmet and looked at the door. Nothing, but there was a control mechanism of some sort next to it. He walked over. There was some sort of writing on the mechanism, but what it said he had no idea at all.
Then he jumped as a loud whining noise started – the door was opening. Huw stepped back slowly as the door eased back – and someone walked through, a brown-haired, brown-eyed man dressed in black.
Huw stared at the man. He was human! No tentacles, no ooze, certainly no breath mask and loud breathing... But he was holding something that looked very much like a gun. And he was pointing it straight at Huw.
"Chakara wellis? Toval? Toval is?" The man said in a strange accent. Huw slowly raised his hands in what he hoped the man understood to be a non- threatening way. "Okay, hello," he said, "I have no idea what you just said but I am not armed, I hope you can see that."
The man tilted his head, his eyes narrowing. Then he said something totally incomprehensible to the doorway. Two more figures stepped into view. The taller one made Huw catch his breath. She was elegant, with long yellow hair tied back and dark blue clothing and an air of dignity. And red skin. And what appeared to be three breasts. An alien.
The other was a few inches shorter than him, a dark-haired woman with dark green and black clothing and a tool-belt made of some sort of plastic. She was beautiful. She also had something that looked like a gun, but she handled it in a less familiar way then the man did.
Both were looking at him with confused expressions on their faces.
"Hello," Huw said carefully. "I don't suppose that you speak English either?" The alien woman clasped her hands in front of her and smiled. "Icarass morga? Tikon?"
"Nope, no idea what you just said."
The two newcomers turned and carried out what appeared to be a conversation in what sounded like two totally different languages to Huw. The man snarled something and then subsided but waved the gun in a very threatening manner. Huw understood why when the alien woman rummaged amongst her pockets and then started to walk very slowly towards him.
"Anan," she said reassuringly, "Anan." She held up a device of some kind – it looked like a long handle with an odd device attached to the end. Then she pointed at Huw's hand and mimed her grabbing it and pushing the device against it. Huw stood there for a moment with a hundred bad films running through his mind. Then he slowly extended his right hand. She smiled in reassurance and slowly reached out with the device.
It felt cool when it touched his hand and then she pushed a switch on the device. There was a faint pshh noise and the area of skin around where the device was touching went briefly cold.
Huw felt briefly dizzy, shaking his head to fend the feeling off. Then he looked up to see the three all staring at him.
"Whoa," he muttered, "What the hell was that?"
"Translator microbes," said the alien. "They colonise the base of the skull and filter everything you hear to turn it into your language. Can you understand me now?"
Huw's eyes went round in shock. "Uh... yes?"
"Where are you from? Your craft is unfamiliar – are you from a lost Sebacean colony?" spat the man, who was still pointing the gun at Huw.
"Sebacean? What's that? I'm from Earth. I'm a human."
The black-haired woman one-handedly pulled out a device from a pouch in her trousers, which she pointed at Huw. He flinched slightly, but all it did was make a quiet beeping noise. She... there was no other word... boggled at the device.
"He looks Sebacean, but he's not Sebacean," she said slowly. "Slightly different arrangement of internal organs, some very strange bacteria inside him, no internal heat-suppression gland... he's an alien."
The other two stared at him, but Huw sensed a very slight easing of the tension that filled the hanger.
"I don't suppose that any of you know a Commander John Crichton?" asked Huw tentatively.
He was astonished when they suddenly lowered their guns and stared even harder at him. "Crichton?" asked the man. "The Crichton? The human from planet Earp who's been scaring the dren out of Peacekeeper Command for the past two cycles?"
The alien gave the other two a cool look. "He means the planet Earth, if I've got the name correct."
The human-looking woman stared even harder at Huw. "Are you from Crichton's planet?"
Huw, totally astonished that they had heard of Crichton and totally nonplussed at their awestruck reaction to his name, just nodded. "I was sent to find him... sort of. How do you know of him?"
"He's... infamous. He's a prime enemy of... the people we used to belong to." The man looked at the others. "Look, we have to get out of here. Put him in one of the holding cells while I plot a course to... I guess the Uncharted Territories until we get a better idea of our plans." He looked back at Huw. "Welcome to our part of space, earpman."
============================================================= The transport swivelled and moved off into space, leaving the shattered debris of the battle behind. Off to one side the last prowler hung in space, its drive unit smashed beyond repair, weapons inactive, caught in the deepening gravity well of the nearby gas giant.
Officer Corbrin felt the dizzy beginnings of oxy deprivation, but continued to work at tracking the movements of the captured transport with its cargo of traitors and prisoners and wandering aliens. Labouring for each breath he loaded every image from his monitors into a report, encrypted it quickly and sent it off to Peacekeeper Command.
There was no way that help could arrive in time – he knew that he was dead. But PK command had to be told of what had happened here.
Just before he passed out for the last time, starting at the swirling gases in the atmosphere of the planet in front of him, he hoped that his eldest brother was having a more successful time as the personal pilot for Captain Scorpius...
============================================================= The holding cell was larger than its name suggested. There was a bed, what was presumably a toilet, along with an odd-looking washbasin, some sort of cabinet and a light that went on and off when he waved his hand above a sensor pad. There was also a very secure looking door with small slats spaced at regular intervals in it – so that any guard could look in easily, Huw thought.
They left him alone for several hours, which was fine with him. He had too many thoughts crammed into his head.
Okay, the wormhole theory that he and DK had spent so many long months on had worked. That was a plus. Shame he couldn't let anyone on Earth know that he had got to the other end without his brains turning to jelly.
There were aliens at this end of space. Okay. Yeah. Aliens. The concept made him dizzy. And aliens that looked like humans. That was a bit scary, but at least they didn't look like Daleks or Cybermen.
"Probably a good thing," he muttered, "As one are buggered at the first sight of a set of stairs and the other are allergic to gold. Large drawbacks if you're trying to take over the universe."
He lay on the bed and let his thoughts swirl around him for a while, unaware of the argument about him that was going on not too far away.
============================================================= "Are you mad? We can't trust him – he just turned up out of nowhere!"
"Etil, he is human – the same as Crichton! He probably has knowledge of wormholes, so we can't let him fall into the hands of the Peacekeepers."
"Tallis is right, Etil. My love, think about it. The Peacekeepers would kill him for bringing contamination to them, or would dissect his brain for the knowledge he brings. And he could be a valuable ally."
"Trust is something at is earned! An ally relies on trust and so far I do not trust him!"
"He's only been here for a few arns! Plus he knows Crichton, a name which could help us in the Uncharted Territories. And this is a big ship and we need all the hands we can get to run this bucket of dren..."
That was the clinching argument. Etil clenched his fists and then dropped his shoulders in aquiesance. "Alright. But, if he betrays us, I will kill him myself." He stalked from the command centre.
Laytar sighed as she watched him leave. "I do love him. But the taint of the Peacekeeper has sunk very deep within him."
Tallis shrugged. "He'll get better. Give him time. Time and no-one hovering around him with orders to kill and imprison people." She looked at the Ralkan and smiled slightly. "It's a good thing you came when you did. Otherwise he'd have turned into the thing he most hated – a real Peacekeeper. Now I'd better tell our odd guest that he's free. Sort of."
She walked down the corridor that led to the alien's cell and looked through the door vents at him. He was lying on his side, his tousled head facing the light module. There was an odd two-dimensional image propped against the module, which he appeared to be staring at.
Tallis punched in the correct code at the door to deactivate it and then pushed a button to open it. The door swung open and the alien, seeing her arrive, sat up on the bed. He was, she was suddenly startled to realise, rather good-looking.
"No guns in my face this time?" he asked.
"No," she replied, leaning against the doorframe. Her pulse pistol was a reassuring weight against her thigh. "How did you get here? Was it by wormhole?"
He stared back at her. "Yes – that's how John got here after all. You know about them?"
She looked at him carefully. "There are people – according to the files that I have decrypted against orders – who would love to extract all the information that you know about wormholes, from your brain, one molecule at a time. Regardless of whether you'd survive or not." The alien looked back at her.
"Huw Davies." He held his hand out, palm held vertically. She looked at it. "Is that some form of earpman greeting?"
"Yes," he said smiling wryly. "It shows that I am not carrying weapons concealed up my sleeves. We are supposed to shake hands. And I am from Earth. Not earp."
She thrust her own hand out, palm held at a vertical angle and shook it slightly. "Odd custom."
"No," he said, sounding amused, "Your hand is clasped in mine, and then we shake hands together."
"Oh." They tried again. His hand felt warm and dry to the touch. She felt oddly reluctant to let go of it.
"Do you have a name?" he asked. She nodded. "I am Tallis Mar. You've met my brother, Etil. And Laytar. We are... running from our past, as it were."
"I saw firing earlier on... when I was approaching your ship."
"They were Peacekeepers. We faked sensor readings of an attack, so that the other three crewmembers took to their prowlers – those ships. Then we destroyed them."
She shrugged. "We were desperate to get out of the Peacekeepers. Um... they were a military organisation originally, but they have expanded into something... darker. More dreadful. They are monsters. It was kill them or die ourselves."
There was a moment of silence. Then she asked: "Can you make a wormhole to get back to Earth?"
He looked hard at her. "You're not one of those people who're looking to extract wormhole knowledge from my brain one molecule at a time, are you?"
She smiled and shook her head. From here she could see that the two- dimensional image he'd been looking at was some sort of image of a woman. Tallis frowned inwardly at why she resented that fact slightly.
"No," he said slowly. "Not just now. I know how to open one in Earth space – it's a question of conditions and speed and sun spot activity. But here? I wouldn't even know where to start." He looked at her and a faintly derisive expression crossed his face. "Is wormhole knowledge my ticket to survival with you people?"
Tallis looked quizzical. Ticket? The human was using strange language again, the way that the records said that Crichton did. She shook her head firmly. "No, we are offering you a ride here. You can't exactly survive on your own in that primitive ship and the peacekeepers would stick you in an aurora chair and siphon everything from your brain before you'd finished saying hello. We need help in running this old ship and as we're running for our lives we're looking for all the help we can get."
He stared at her, looking slightly dazed. Then his face cleared. "More then I expected. Okay, it's a deal." He stuck his hand out again.
She was confused. "Haven't we already met each other and proved that we are unarmed?"
Huw grinned. "The gesture is also used to signify a satisfactory end to negotiations. And to say goodbye as well."
Her hand met his and they shook hands again. Tallis smiled back. "You earthmen are frankly mad – your social interactions make no sense at all."
============================================================= The first commerce planet that they came to was like being assaulted by a dozen different films at once. There were so many people, so many aliens, so many smells, so many images that frankly threatened to blow Huw's mind. He was almost run over twice by car-like vehicles, until an exasperated Etil sat him down at a bar and told him to get his head sorted out. Etil, he sensed, did not trust him. Come to that, Etil trusted only two people – Laytar and Tallis. Telling him to stay put, Etil had led the others off on various errands, with Tallis promising to return in a short while.
Huw sat in the chair, which had moulded itself to fit his body, sipped an almost beer-like drink that Tallis had bought for him, and tried to absorb everything that was going on around him. The bar reminded him of the cantina scene in Star Wars – if Lucas had either been drunk or on some very heavy drugs. Something that looked like a slug crossed with a cockroach was in one corner serving drinks, various multicoloured creatures were huddled around various tables and there was some sort of card game going on in the other corner. By the rising noise level, Huw wondered if someone had just been caught cheating.
Oddly enough no one was going anywhere near him. Occasionally the serving... thing... would glance at him with what looked like a hate-filled glare. Huw shifted uneasily in his chair. He glanced down at the black clothes that he'd borrowed from Etil after being told that his flight suit smelled of frell knows what.
There was a scraping noise and he looked around to discover that Tallis had reappeared and was sitting at the table clutching a drink and looking smug.
"Cargo hold two is a frelling gem mine!" She held her drink up and chugged a large portion of it. "All that ore was high-grade stuff. Would have been a shame to let the peacekeepers keep it. We aren't rich, but we are now officially well off. We have enough food to keep us going for a while. Which reminds me..." She handed over a cloth-wrapped package. "Open it on your lap – it might make some of the clientele here nervous."
Huw transferred the package onto his lap and carefully unwrapped it. It was a holster... and the same kind of handgun that Etil had. He looked up at Tallis, baffled. "Are we expecting some sort of attack?"
She frowned at him. "Aren't the people of your planet at all defence- minded? Apparently you-know-who took to the guns here like a Hynerian to food cubes!"
Huw smiled. "Yes but you-know-who is from America – a country on Earth – which has more guns than some small planets! Still – thank you. I know that it's dangerous out here." He quietly buckled on the holster and tied the thigh straps on. It felt strange but oddly reassuring. "Where have the others gone?"
"Laytar is looking up an old friend. There are rumours that there's a secret Ralkan colony of exiles somewhere in the Uncharted Territories. We might be able to shelter with them for a while. Etil is busy selling the contents of cargo hold one. Processed steel struts are very valuable here, you know. This kind of commerce planet is always growing, so they need building materials on a regular basis." Tallis chugged the other half of her drink and then stood up. "Same again?"
Inclining his head slightly at the bar thing, Huw grimaced. "I don't think that Chuckles there likes me that much. Keeps glaring madly at me."
She stared at him blankly for a second and then frowned. "Small laughter? I don't think my microbes got that one right."
He sighed. Every day he was reminded that English and Sebacean were uneasy bedfellows. "The barman. Thing. Whatever."
Tallis followed his gaze and then turned back quickly. "Don't look at him directly," she hissed. "Werr'Rets hate direct eye contact. Look at his carapace instead and smile a lot."
He did so and the thing stopped glowering after a short time and unbent enough to waggle a limb at him.
"This place is weird," Huw started to say and then was interrupted by the arrival of Etil, hand in hand with Laytar. For once the Sebacean's scowl had been replaced by a smile and there was a small blue flower in the Ralkian's hair. They sat down, gestured for a drink and grinned fixedly at the bar things shining carapace. It placed a free container containing some sort of yellow nuts on the table, added the drinks ordered by the newcomers and them scuttled off, waving two more limbs genially. Huw gazed at the nuts curiously.
Etil, whose smile had hardened slightly at the sight of Huw, followed his gaze. His lips formed a new pattern which on other people looked like a genial smile but on him appeared to be an unfamiliar configuration of muscles. "Gorak," he said.
Huw looked baffled for a moment, thinking that his own translator microbes were malfunctioning.
Etil grinned again. "They're Gorak nuts. A speciality here." The grin widened. "Very... hot. Very hot indeed, earthman."
The two men stared at each other. In the privacy of his own head, Huw counted to ten slowly. Then the grin broke through his outer defences and his hand reached out to grab some of the nuts. Etil's face flickered slightly and then he grabbed a couple. Then, still staring at each other, they both ate them.
Tallis chugged her second glass and looked at the two. She seemed amused. Laytar tilted her head and appeared to be studying the table. Occasionally her mouth almost twitched into a smile.
Huw chewed the nuts briskly and then swallowed. For all he knew they were deadly poison to his species, but after a fortnight of being sniped at by this alien, enough was enough. He had to draw the line somewhere.
Etil also swallowed. Not a flicker of emotion crossed his face. Then, slowly, a faint flush broke out on his forehead. The human looked back at him stonily, totally unmoved. A minute passed. The flush on Etil's face deepened and spread to his cheeks, but still nothing moved on his face. Huw was still unmoved.
When a small torrent of sweat started to roll down his face, Etil finally broke and dived for his drink, downing it in one and then slumping in his chair, coughing violently at first and then glaring back up at Huw, who was still sitting there unmoved.
It took a short while, but finally Etil waved his empty glass at the human. "You..." he said wheezily, "can eat Gorak! Well done... I was the champion on my old ship..."
Tallis broke in. "Yes, you madman, for eating one, not three!" She stared at Huw. "You earthmen must have tongues made from Leviathan skin to cope with that."
Huw smiled and finally grabbed his own drink to chug it. "I used to eat chicken vindaloo all the time back home. Very hot. That was easy compared to home."
Laytar snorted and then squeezed Etil's hand. "When you two males have finished your bonding ritual, will you tell them our news?"
Her lover nodded hurriedly, called for another round of drinks and then leant forwards. To Huw's surprise the look that the Sebacean gave him was almost civil.
"We maxed out on the building materials. The merchants almost came to blows over who would deal with us, but it's all sorted out. We'll be okay for money for a while. But Laytar's trip was the most profitable."
She smiled brilliantly. "We know where my people are – the colony they founded here. It's about 30 solar days away. It's a sanctuary for exiles. Even if it can't be a home, it's still a place where we can find friends."
"Friends..." said Tallis slowly. The word seemed almost familiar to her. "It's been a while since we had any of those..."
============================================================= Being the commander's faithful lieutenant had its advantages. He could break people – not just their careers, but people physically – who crossed him if he had a good enough reason. But there were always drawbacks, the biggest of which was the fact that he was working for a half-breed. Half Scarran to be precise, which always made him twitch slightly – inside his head. He dared not let that switch, that slight flutter of nerves, show on the outside. Not if he wished to live.
He pulled his tunic fully straight – not that it had been that crooked – and paused before the door. Then he pushed the intercom, letting a quiet chime sound inside the room beyond.
The door opened and he went in at once. Hesitation was something that the commander noticed.
He found the commander standing next to a viewscreen, his head tilted and his arms folded. On the screen a blue shape pulsed slowly and then flashed out of sight. Then it reappeared with the same shape, pulsed again and vanished. Again and again and again.
"You have something for me, Braca?" said Captain Scorpius.
"Yes sir," he replied, producing a small data crystal. "High command has notified all units of a mutiny in sector seven. An old transport vessel was taken over by two renegades, who destroyed their fellow officers, freed a political prisoner and then stole the transport. Pilot Etil Mar and technician first class Tallis Mar."
Scorpius turned from his perusal of the blue shape and looked at Braca, who stared stonily back. The days when he flinched slightly at the sight of the Sebacean-Scarran half-breed were long over.
"Why should this concern me? What relevance does it have?"
Braca held up the crystal. "If you will allow me, sir?" His commander nodded slightly. The crystal slid into the port and an image of the transport sprang into being in the air.
"One of the other officers on the transport, an officer Corbrin, had his prowler disabled in the battle. He recorded this ship approaching the transport." Braca adjusted the control and the display changed to show a small white triangular ship. Compared to the transport it looked indescribably primitive. Scorpius audibly caught his breath. Then he went to his chair, spread his uniform tails and sat down, leaning his chin on one hand.
"Not Crichton. Not in sector seven," he said musingly. "They'd never risk Moya so deep in Peacekeeper space. And I notice some slight design changes compared to Crichton's pod. Someone new. Have you been able to peel the image back to see the pilot?"
Braca touched another control. "Yes sir," he said. "Here."
A face appeared. It looked very... human. Scorpius leant back and regarded it. "He is to be detained in sight, Braca. He and whoever is on that transport. What happened to it?"
"Officer Corbrin said in his last report that it disappeared on a heading towards the unknown regions. His prowler was destroyed soon afterwards when it hit the atmosphere of Gretann Five." Braca waited while Scorpius paused again.
"Any relation to the Corbrin who was my personal pilot when we liberated my chip from Crichton?" he asked after a while.
"They were siblings sir. There is one other brother."
"Have him brought here. I think we need a tracker with the best motivations of all – revenge."
Scorpius got up and went back to the display, where he pressed a button. The blue ripple that he had been looking at earlier reappeared. "How do they do it?"
"Sir?" asked Braca, confused.
"Earth is one planet. Small and from the information we have been able to glean, primitive. Yet the inhabitants have enough grasp of wormhole theory to put not just one but two spacecraft into our sector. What do they have that we lack?"
There was a small crunching noise. Braca looked down to see the shattered remains of a data crystal dribbling out of Scorpius' gloved hands.