"This is Keona Hakar of the transport vessel Dasaq'wen," the Krahl said slowly, enunciating every word in Kheprilectic, ensuring her words were as well understood as possible. "We have received your distress beacon and have come to offer assistance."
The Krahl female wasn't as large and bulky as Calrose remembered the males of the species. She was big by human standards, but on the viewscreen, the pilot appeared sleek, her scaled arms filled with long wiry muscles. She was also a brilliant blue-green color with patches of lighter greens that spattered across her face like freckles. Blue-green colorations in Krahl were rare enough, but it was the combination of her skin color with the brilliant golden plumage on her head that made her stand out. Krahl females, unlike other species of reptiles, were the more colorful. They sported long scale-like protrusions on top of their head. At a distance they looked like sharp pointed feathers arranged almost hair-like on their scaly heads. But they were actually a strange structure that evolved from modified proto-feathers from their ancient ancestors. Upon closer inspection, the plumage looked more like quills than feathers, a gift from their evolutionary past on Kra Lok. The Krahl evolved from a line of creatures that were just beginning to branch out from their reptilian ancestors and take on more mammalian traits. A similar chain of events has played out on a trillion worlds, usually culminating in mammals who then have a higher likelihood of evolving sentience. But things were different on Kra Lok and the Krahl were the only sentient species of reptiles discovered in the galaxy.
The Krahl stared out of the screen, her four eyes as brilliant gold as her plumage. She sat waiting, obviously looking into a blank screen on her end.
"Well, here goes nothing," Calrose said, thumbing a switch on the control panel. A smaller viewscreen opened in the corner of the other showing what the cameras on the control panel were transmitting to the alien ship. Calrose and Jett were quite visible on the tiny viewer, and after a few moments it was apparent on the face of the reptilian creature, that their return feed had gone through. The slight delay gave Calrose some confidence that the approaching ship was still a ways out, giving her a little more time to assess the situation and get to know their rescuers.
"This is GRV-219," Calrose stated. Jett nudged her softly and she blushed a little, "The Gravy. We require assistance in repairing our damaged engines or transport to the nearest port."
"Wot you do yer engine?" came a tinny, heavily accented voice from off screen. A large round head popped into view from beside the Krahl pilot. The pale ash-blue Bantonian stared into the screen with enormous expressive eyes.
The creatures always reminded Calrose of children. They only stood about a meter tall, with large eyes and big humanoid ears that predominated their facial features. Their blue coloration and clammy skin helped with the reminder that they were alien. And despite their child-like features, they were often quite old.
"We were attacked, 'rats took out our engines," Jett explained. Calrose glanced over at him, silently urging him to not divulge too much to complete strangers.
The Bantonian's massive eyes widened even further with excitement. The deep blue orbs shot over to the Krahl, begging the commander like an infant wanting candy. "We fix like, yeh?" he asked her enthusiastically.
"We can't go fixing every hunk of junk floating out in space, Uden," a second Bantonian appeared. This one spoke much clearer Kheprilectic and his dark blue features had more of a scowl on them.
"Why no?" the lighter skinned Bantonian asked. The Krahl commander turned away from them, ignoring their growing conversation.
"Why were you attacked? What do you carry?" the Krahl eyed the screen suspiciously as if trying to find evidence of deceit hidden in the cockpit behind them. "Is your ship armed?"
"We don't know why were attacked," Calrose replied. "We carry nothing of value and are not armed with any weapons. This is a standard issue GRV."
"And what type of craft is a GRV?" the Krahl asked.
"A GRV," Calrose said simply. "A waste transport. That is why we cannot figure out why we were attacked. We're nothing more than a glorified garbage truck."
The Krahl sat nodding to herself as she listened to the delayed message. "Thank you, please excuse us for one moment."
The feed went black.
"Now they decide if it's worth helping a ship with no value," Arabel said from the corner of the cockpit. She looked up at the other two when they turned to address her. "Most systems don't even need large scale waste disposal systems. We have nothing to offer in exchange for their help. If they even help us at all."
"Let's just wait and see what happens before we give up all hope," Calrose replied. She turned back to the terminal watching the blank screen. "They don't seem too threatening."
"A Krahl and two Bantonians in an old transport. They seem alright to me too Captain," Jett said. "But we should be used to surprises by now."
"I agree, we take whatever precautions we can," Calrose responded. "We keep an eye on them and talk to them as much as possible before they arrive. But there is only so much we will be able to do once they get here. They know exactly where we are and that we can't get too far. Whether they mean us ill or good, there is little we can do about it."
The screen lit up once again. The new image was of the entire cockpit of the alien transport. It was certainly much larger than the Gravy. The wider angle now showed a much larger crew than they anticipated, but it was a good sign that their would-be rescuers seemed to be putting all of their cards on the table.
The Krahl still sat at her control console, she was flanked by the two Bantonians, the pale skinned one wringing his hands in excitement, a goofy grin on his tiny mouth. Behind the Bantonians were two large figures. An imposing numan obviously built for high-gravity worlds. He was large and muscular and nearly comparable in size to the Zyggoram who stood next him. Zyggorams were the larger of the sheep-like Zygoshans, his black mustache and beard braided and tied neatly. But next to the hulking curled-horned Zyggoram was another horned creature Calrose had only ever seen once in her life. Despite studying their language since she was young, it was still a shock to see a Salacean.
Salaceans were a species that often bothered many humans. They were very humanoid in all the right ways, but undeniably alien. The Salacean standing on the deck of the Dasaq'wen was clearly female, as all Salaceans were. The single sex creatures evolved from an odd mixture of organisms unlike anything that evolved on Earth, and with thousands of generations of genetic engineering and parthenogenic reproduction, the result was a creature remarkably humanoid.
Calrose recalled reading about the large amount of crustacean genes in Salacean DNA but had no idea how that resulted in a creature that looked like a beautiful woman. To most gynophilic humans, Salaceans were gorgeous. They were tall curvy creatures of feminine beauty. Certainly attractive, if one could get over their more alien features. Early contact with the Salaceans and the Heritage League worlds did not go well. Millennia of religious zealotry and xenophobia did not set up ideal conditions for the meeting of humans and something that resembled the demons of ancient religions.
The Salacean on the viewscreen had a timid beauty. She shifted her weight nervously, the odd movement reminding Calrose of the Salaceans' animal-like legs. When fully clothed, their lower limbs merely looked like a human walking on the balls of their feet. The creature looked over at the captain with her large almond shaped eyes, a piercing blue that stood out against her red-bronze skin.
"This is my crew," the Krahl waved at the figures surrounding her. "We have decided that we will help you. We offer an exchange. If we are able to fix your ship, we will do so in exchange for knowledge and any spare parts your crew can provide. If we are unable to repair your ship, we will take you to the nearest port, and take your ship as salvage. If the latter situation occurs, we will gladly split any profits made from the salvage with your crew. We hope you find this acceptable."
Calrose thought about the offer for a moment. She muted their feed but did not pause the transmission. Turning to the crew, "What do you think?"
"It's better than nothing," Arabel replied.
"Are you seriously offering up the Gravy as salvage?" Jett interjected. "I know you hate the name, Cap, but you love this ship as much as I do. Are you really willing to give it up so easily?"
"I don't want to give up the ship, Jett. But what choice do we have? If the engines are beyond repair, this ship is useless to us. We have no access to funds even if we could get to a port, we'd end up having to sell the ship just to get by. This is the best offer we are going to get. And I can't imagine anyone else popping by to offer us a ride."
Jett crossed his arms over his chest. He opened his mouth as if to protest, but he knew that Calrose was right. There was no other options left on the table. He had gone over that engine compartment a dozen times since they went through the gate. Even if a miracle worker was employed on that ship, there was little chance they could fix the engines. He sighed, already giving up his beloved ship in his mind.
Calrose nodded to the others and unmuted the transmission. "We accept," she replied simply.
- - -
Over the next days, the human crew of the GRV were slowly introduced to the crew of the Dasaq'wen. Captain Calrose read over the ship schematics sent from the Dasaq'wen. Her tensions were easing as she got to know the approaching ship and its crew.
The Dasaq'wen was once a standard Wendin-class transport, created on Desellic IV, but Keona Hakar informed her that she had seen to a number of alterations over the past few years as its captain. The broadcast ship-ident still read like a transport right off the factory line, but in truth the ship was heavily modified. It was capable of doing more than the average transport of its class. The Krahl failed to go into detail about why, but the wry reptilian smile told Calrose all she needed to know.
Their rescuers were smugglers. She didn't get the impression it was anything too illicit. Probably just small time black market goods to make a few extra bucks. It wasn't unheard of in most regions of the galaxy. In many places it was expected of any transport ship to also be hauling undeclared goods for someone. Calrose didn't know if this was one of those lawless regions of space or not, but she got the impression as she chatted with the crew, that they weren't the type to put themselves into too much danger. They seemed more the type to run production goods between trade systems than drug-smugglers hauling stim for a cartel.
"If you send us some of your diagnostic schematics, Uden would be happy to start running repair simulations so we know precisely what we can do when we get there," Keona said mentioning the lighter skinned Bantonian. She spoke Kheprilictic better than any Krahl Calrose had encountered. It must be her native tongue. Something that was easily forgotten with Krahl as they couldn't escape their distinct accent. The protruding turtle-like beak of their mouths making it harder to form certain sounds. Even if it was the only language it had ever known, a Krahl was identifiable by its speech alone.
"I am sure we will be able to figure everything out when you arrive," Calrose replied. She had warmed up to Keona, but she wasn't quite ready to hand over ship schematics. If they were pirates, they were first class actors, but even if they weren't she had to keep some information to herself.
Keona Hakar smiled again, blueish lips parting to reveal the unsettling sharp teeth of an ancient carnivore. "I understand your caution, Captain Calrose," she made a subtle single nod of her reptilian head. "I assure you we mean you no harm, but caution is never a poor quality on anyone out here."
"Where is here anyway?" Calrose asked, suddenly shocked that it hadn't come up earlier in conversation. The safety of her crew and her ship came first, figuring out a way home was lower on her list of priorities. Remembering she had just denied Keona a list of repairs, she clarified, "Our nav-computer and coord-dialer are gone. We have no idea what end of the galaxy we ended up on."
"Cold jumps will do that," the Krahl said coyly, "but having no nav-computer to figure out where you are can be even worse."
"Tell me about it."
The image of Keona blinked out and was replaced by a visual mockup of the star system. "We are in the Imhari system, located about twenty-three parsecs spinward from the border between the inner and outer band of the Laskaris arm." The map zoomed in and the details of the bodies orbiting the system's solitary star came into focus. The viewer stopped at a large orange and green planet. She recognized it as the only point of interest outside her cockpit viewport. "This is the closest planet to your location. It is called Kor'daren on most galactic maps."
"Is it inhabited?" Calrose asked, her mind finally thinking about where they might go, now that she was getting information about where they were.
"It is a tethys world," Keona responded. The tethys were the countless sentient and semi-sentient species spread across the galaxy who had not evolved to a state ready for interstellar travel, or they were peoples who had outright refused the offer of joining the Republic among the stars. Most tethys merely lacked the technology or even the desire to leave their homeworlds.
Some tethy cultures understood and accepted their neighbors from the heavens, opening up new avenues for trade. But most were left to their own devices on backwater worlds that just weren't worth the time of the Republic species. War, colonialism, and even genocide weren't unheard of in the history of Republic governments dealing with tethys worlds, but it was rare. It was far easier to find and conquer one of the other countless planets orbiting a near infinite sea of stars, than it was to deal with trying to take one from a helpless species. Then again, it was easier to wipe out a native intelligence than to engage in war with a well settled star-faring race.
Calrose shuddered, not wanting to think about the possible cruelty being enacted on unseen worlds. "Do you know much about the indigenous intelligence?"
"Very little. Our systems have only basic astrogation data for this area. As far as I can tell," two of her four eyes shifted, scanning a separate screen of information, her voice switched to the monotone of someone reading aloud, "Local populations are at a stone-tool level of technology. That's about it, I would need an anthropological resource to know what other information has been found out about them. My guess is that the Republic has left them alone. No reports of off-world activity there except a few scientific expeditions a century or two ago."
"Why would a gate be constructed near a tethys world?"
"Your guess is as good as mine. Our nav-computer scanner reads the local gate as being constructed about six thousand standards ago. Good luck finding any Khepriloi old enough to remember why they needed a gate way out here."
"What about the other worlds in this system?" Calrose asked.
"Only one other with a breathable atmosphere. It is a wild world," the Krahl waved a hand dismissively at the mention of the laymen classification of planets with indigenous life, but no sentient beings. "The rest are mainly gas giants and a couple frozen wastes on the system rim."
"So what would bring you out here?"
"There is a derelict trade port stationed near the star. It was abandoned a few standards ago, but since we were on a route through this sector, we thought we would check it out, see if anything was still salvageable."
"The station wasn't as abandoned as we were expecting, " Keona rolled all four eyes to the right as if thinking.
"Pirates?" Calrose's voice sounded more worried than she had wished.
"No, surprisingly. A synth-clan has taken over the port, they are working to repair it. I'm not one to salvage from anyone claiming a place as home, even squatters."
"A synth-clan," Calrose muttered. Synths were more than just the little creations Jett had thrown into space to elude their attackers. The term came from synthetic lifeform, and was really a catchall for any form of robotic life. Some were simple machines built to do a solitary job, but others were highly complex artificial creatures with synthetic brains made to think and reason.
There had been a lot of controversy across the galaxy since long before Calrose was born, of whether synthetic beings that were created to look and even think like sentient beings were sentient themselves. A growing faction of humanoid synths had taken up the cause and began forming independent clans, nomadic groups that sought out a living on whatever world would accept them.
Calrose's ancestors escaped from a region of space ruled by the Heritage League, a bigoted theocracy that despised all nonhuman beings. She whole heartedly disagreed with the philosophies that compelled the humans of that region. She could never hate a creature merely because it wasn't human. She had adored her professors at the Academy, excelled at learning the languages and dialects of other creatures, and had even counted numans and xenos among her closest friends growing up. She understood the unspoken deal with the tethys. Every species should have the option to evolve and adapt to a level of technology capable of taking them off their world. Every tethys species should be given a choice to join the Republic as a space-faring race, or stay on their own world. But she didn't understand synths. She had encounters with synths on almost every ship and station she had been aboard. Numerous synths even functioned as traders, pilots, and engineers. But they all seemed to only do what they had been programmed to do. She had never seen them thinking and acting on their own volition. Perhaps she was jealous of that fact.
Calrose thought about that moment all those years ago aboard the Yucari. Perhaps if she had been more like a synth then, she wouldn't have frozen, backing down from a direct order. She shook her head, shaking off the memory. No, she had just made a mistake, she thought. Did synths make their own mistakes?
"Captain Calrose?" a strange nasally voice brought the captain back to the viewscreen.
"Sorry," Calrose blinked. On the screen, the tall Salacean stood with Keona. "Yes?"
"I am Nirea," the creature placed slender fingers across her chest, indicating herself, "I am sorry to interrupt your conversation, but might I borrow Keona briefly?"
"Of course, I should probably check on my own crew."
"Thank you, Calrose," said Keona. "I expect us to reach your location within the next twenty standard hours. Perhaps we can all get some rest and the next time we speak can be in person."
"We'll see you then," Calrose smirked nervously. She shut down the communication feed without any other goodbye. Less than a day away. Her stomach felt tight, knowing that the other ship would be their soon. She desperately wanted to get out of there, but she was still cautious of the approaching Dasaq'wen.