Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Lost Calling - Chapter 11

Present Day
Near  planet Kor'Daren
Imhari system, Inner Laskaris Arm

"That is not what I was expecting," Arabel said, staring out the front viewport window. "It looks nothing like the schematics their ident is broadcasting."
"Captain Hakar warned me about that. It worried me at first, but I can't say I wouldn't do the same. The hull of this thing is still factory," Calrose patted her palm against the wall," but between you and Jett, the inner workings aren't exactly to original specifications."
"I guess," Arabel conceded.
They both continued to look out the viewport. The Dasaq'wen was still on approach. It had been decelerating for the past few hours as it neared the GRV. It had only come into visual range within the last few minutes and the two women couldn't take their eyes off it as it slowly crept closer and closer.
The Dasaq'wen began to grow before them, the distance shrinking and the true size of the ship becoming apparent. The ship dwarfed the GRV, easily twice the length of the little waste hauler, with massive bird-like wings that stretched out on either side. Its general form was sweeping and graceful without any sense of angular aggression, but as the ship grew closer, Calrose could see that the hard planysteel hull was a patchwork quilt of mismatched pieces as if the entire ship had been built a hundred times over from whatever was lying around.
"Are they here yet?" Jett called out from behind them, ascending the ladder from the lower deck. The two women jumped, unaware of his presence.
"They are approaching now. I have the ship in a stable position so the Dasaq'wen can attach to our airlock." Calrose responded, still staring out the window.

GRVs had a large cargo bay door at the front of its blunt nose, that would lower and double as a ramp for loading. Typically ships of its type would dock with another ship or station by flying into an air-sealed hangar deck and landing. It was also equipped for docking at waste management facilities which could accept the entire nose of the ship into a docking socket and air-seal around it, leaving the rest of the ship sticking out into space.
For the Dasaq'wen to connect with the GRV, they needed to use the rarely touched airlock system. Situated in the floor of the cargo bay, a series of circular airlocks could be opened to give access to another ship that has attached to the belly of the GRV via a docking umbilical.
As the Dasaq'wen approached, it rotated to bring its belly near the underside of the GRV. The comms light flashed on the cockpit dash. Flicking a switch, Keona's voice could be heard on the audio only transmission. "Docking procedure ready."
"Proceed," Calrose responded, touching the comm terminal attached at her temple. Turning to the other two, "Well, I guess we find out if our rescuers are really as trustworthy as we hope."
"In position, ready to deploy umbilical," the Krahl's voice was calm and steady.
Calrose pressed a few options on a data panel. Her stomach began to rise as if she were travelling over a hill. The artificial network of gravitons dissipated, returning them to micro-gravity. She felt her body slowly lift from the floor as she gripped the back of her chair to keep her steady. "Gravity-nets deactivated, you are clear for docking."
They couldn't see or feel the circular tunnel extend from the belly of the Dasaq'wen and attach itself to their ship. A digital representation of the process appeared on screen and suddenly turned green as the seal was made. Stabilizing arms reached out to grab onto thick protrusions around the airlock ensuring more than the umbilical tunnel was holding the two ships together.
"Docking successful," came Keona's voice again.
"Sounds good," replied Calrose trying hard to keep her voice from betraying her nervousness. "Your place or ours?"

- - -

Jett pulled at the final safety latch holding the secondary air-lock shut. The circular door hissed as it opened. That moment always gave Jett a split second of anxiety, worry over whether the seal was complete or if he just opened a window into vacuum flooded his mind then was quickly dissolved. On the other side of the opened hatch was the dark ashen blue face of a Bantonian.
"Mind if we come in?" the Bantonian said cheekily, a sardonic smile creasing the odd structure of his mouth.
"Uh," Jett stammered, then floated aside to open the way for the crew of the Dasaq'wen. "Come on in."
The Bantonians child-like frame floated up through the opening in the floor of the cargo bay. At least, it appeared to be the floor from the perspective of the GRV's crew, but the umbilical tunnel was also attached to the belly of the Dasaq'wen, and so for her crew, they were descending down through their own floor. It could be really disorienting for those unused to it, but the lack of gravity helped.
After the dark-skinned Bantonian emerged from the air-lock, he was quickly followed by the much larger Krahl. Members of Keona's species were always intimidating in person. Though she lacked the enormous mountain of muscle and scale that the males of her species sported, she was still a tall and formidable creature compared to human standards. Keona swam out of the tunnel with serpentine grace. The beauty with which the massive Krahl were able to move in zero-g was impressive.
"It is good to finally meet you all," Keona said to Captain Calrose and her crew, dipping her at a slight angle in the typical greeting. She waved a three-fingered hand toward the Bantonian that had preceded her. "This is Collumdriz Shol, our systems tech."
The Bantonian attempted a cultured bow, but it proved a much more difficult feat without the gravity-nets. "Call me Driz," he stated.
Before the greetings could be reciprocated by the human crew, more creatures spilled out from the tunnel. The smaller, pale blue-skinned, Bantonian emerged, his arms filled with diagnostic equipment.
"This is Uden," Keona's gravelly voice almost purred with pride. Her large claw-tipped hand gently sat on the Bantonian's tiny shoulder. "He is an incredibly gifted technician and engineer."
The Bantonian floated forward. "Udonnonet Casepion," he said simply.
"Just call him Uden," the darker Bantonian commented, "It's easier."
Jett moved toward the group, he greeted the small engineer in a generic dialect of Bantonian. Uden just stared at him strangely.
"He doesn't speak any Bantolic," Driz offered. "Not all of us do." The Bantonian eyed him suspiciously.
"I am very sorry," Jett apologized. He cringed at his own assumption that every member of a species would speak the ancestral tongue of their homeworld. He didn't know any of the languages of Earth. He had never even been in the Mynaterra Arm of the galaxy where the Sol system was.
Driz burst out laughing, unable to keep the dour look on his face.
"Driz," Keona warned, "you really have to stop doing that. We are here to help these people."
"Joke still funny," Uden grinned, it was clear he didn't fully understand the ruse, his broken Kheprilictic exaggerating a child-like naiveté.
"It is quite alright," Jett said, "I think I deserved that one. I will be happy to be working with you both."
Calrose moved closer to Keona. "This is Lazlo Jett, our engineer, technician, and resident wise-ass." The colloquilism went ignored by the non-humans who didn't understand it. Calrose turned to Arabel who was floating near the ladder towards the upper deck. "This is Arabel Creed, our systems specialist."
"Hello," she waved from the other end of the bay.
"We are pleased to meet you all," Keona nodded once again. Turning to the Bantonians, "Driz, if you would join Ms. Creed in looking over the ship's systems. Uden, you will follow Mr. Jett and see to the mechanical repairs."
"Right this way," Jett motioned, floating toward the rear bulkhead that separated the cargo bay from his engineering lab. Uden deftly pushed away from the floor, grabbing the ceiling and redirecting his momentum toward the back of the room. He moved like an energetic child in a micro-gravity playroom.
"Oh, and Uden!" Keona called after him. "Take Ori with you. She might be of some use back there."
The pale Bantonian reached down to his forearm, pulling back the cloth covering that protected his CDT in a little pocket. Tapping at the controls, he nodded with satisfaction turning back to look at the air-lock. A slender figure now emerged from the umbilical tunnel.
Calrose looked down as another member of the Dasaq'wen floated into her ship. But as the figure emerged she realized, it wasn't a crew member. It was a machine. A sleek, vaguely humanoid collection of metal floated into view. The synth's body plan appeared to be a cross between that of a human and a Khepriloi. It's head was very human-like, even sporting round optical sensors and the delicate hint of a mouth. It had a feminine cast to it, making it reasonable for Keona to call it a 'her', though Calrose really saw no reason to give synths any gender distinction. Unless she saw a synthetic being with the sentience to make such a declaration of self-identity, they would all remain genderless to her.
Ori, as Keona had called it, waved its arm in greeting. Though not one of the long humanoid arms sprouting from its shoulder, but instead waving one of the smaller arms that emerged from its hips. Calrose had heard many Khepriloi pointing out that humans would have been far more successful of a species, if they had more limbs. But seeing the small Khepriloi arms attached to a mostly human body was rather unsettling. The synth looked like a human torso welded onto the lower half of a Khepriloi and then dipped in shimmering metal.
"Hey!" the synth said enthusiastically, her excited electronic voice giving her waving arm more momentum.
Calrose stared at the thing. Who programmed this thing, she thought. Why give a repair-synth such a bubbly personality?
"Ori, I need you to assist Uden and Mr. Jett in having a look at those damaged engines," Keona pointed the synth's attention toward the two figures floating at the rear of the room.
The mechanical being pushed away from the air-lock opening, its springy Khepriloi legs allowing it to propel itself in the zero-g environment. It could easily have micro-thrusters tucked away in those mechanical legs, but Calrose appreciated that if it did, it had chosen not to use them within the confines of her small ship.
Jett, Uden, and the synth moved through the large bulk head door and into the rear of the ship. The dark-skinned Bantonian, Driz, followed Arabel up the ladder and into the upper deck. Calrose turned back to the Krahl. Alone with the creature she had been conversing with for nearly a week, all familiarity gained over that time was gone in the moments standing there face to face with the four-eyed reptile.
"We should let them get to it, I am sure we will have some answers in no time," Keona said. "Until then, would you like a tour of our ship? Perhaps a cup of tea?"
Things were now in full swing. Part of her brain was still waiting for the other shoe to drop, but this gang of rescuers was appearing more and more on the level with each passing minute. She couldn't all together trust them, but she also had no one else to trust in that moment. Jett and Arabel were easily within comm range if anything were to happen. For now, she had to give in to another part of her brain. That eager young pilot who would take any opportunity to see inside a new ship. The promise of tea was just as inviting.

- - -

"How long has your crew been together?" Keona asked Calrose as they floated down the corridors of the Dasaq'wen.
"Jett and I have been operating the GRV for a few years now," replied Calrose, intentionally leaving out any specific numbers despite being readily able to recall them. "Arabel just joined a few months back."
"She is quite young to be serving on a ship, is she not?"
"Yeah, I would say so." Thinking about the young girl, Calrose continued without thinking, "I was still trying to get into the Academy at that age."
They rounded a corner and entered the control bridge of the ship. It was much larger than the cockpit of the GRV, with space for seven seats and ample standing room, though for now they floated just above the plush seats that sat in front of elaborate data-terminals. It was much more complex than she had expected of a transport, and far more spacious than the small camera feed had led her to believe.
Keona pointed out a few things of interest before moving the tour along again.
"This is an impressive ship," Calrose said.
"Thank you. We are quite proud of it. Each of us has put a lot into making this ship a one of a kind home. We each have our own specialties and unique skillsets that have made this ship what it is."
"And what is it exactly?" Calrose was feeling brave enough to broach the subject.
"I'm sorry?"
"I mean, what is the purpose of this ship? I haven't seen any corporate or governmental insignia. Do you work for anyone in particular? I can't say I have seen many freelance transports." She said 'freelance' like it was a code word, a less than subtle hint at what she was getting at.
Keona paused in the corridor as if confused then suddenly smiled that sharp-toothed grin.
"You're asking if we are smugglers," she chuckled knowingly. Calrose was caught off guard by the odd noise of a Krahl chuckling. She had never seen one laugh, or act so...human.
"I suppose that is what I am getting at."
"A reasonable assumption to make given everything you have seen so far. And you are not far off. But I assure you, we are the furthest thing from pirates and drug-runners," Keona pushed off from the wall again, continuing down the hallway. "Come with me, perhaps I can explain better."

- - -

"The nav-computer and coord-dialer are definitely fried," Driz confirmed, his small body wedged into the tiny crawl space around the ship's main computer bank.
"I told you," Arabel huffed. "The data relays are completely blown as well, so even if it did work, there is no way any information is getting to the central processing unit. It is making it impossible to use any system even remotely tied to that panel."
"Have you tried rerouting the information from those processes through another terminal's relays?" the Bantonian suggested.
"Of course," the teenager replied. "I managed to get a couple systems back up and running that way, but nothing in astrogation."
"Hmm," he scratched his round hairless scalp. "Then it is going to take a lot more than just replacing the astrogation unit." He turned away from her and spoke into his personal comm unit. His slit-like mouth chittered in a language she didn't recognize and he began nodding at the response only he could hear. She had been told to keep an eye on the visiting crew members, but even this didn't qualify as anything too suspicious.
Driz turned back to Arabel. "Well, sadly, we don't have a spare astrogation unit to replace this one with. So we will just have to move on to other systems and mark this off as unfixable." Driz smiled showing the tips of broad rounded teeth.
Bantonian mouths were strange even compared to other non-humans. When not in use, they appeared as insignificant slits that stretched across broad cheeks. When speaking the thin lips almost trembled in a little waves. But the strangest sights came when Bantonians ate, or mimicked the subtle behaviors of other species. Given the need, their lips had two small fleshy protruberances that could act like tiny fingers, guiding food into their mouths. It reminded Arabel of large herbivores like the Renoceros, who would grab a branch with their finger-lip and strip it of its leaves. Even stranger, though, was when a Bantonian opened its mouth fully. revealing broad flat teeth and a gaping maw. As a child, she was horrified the first time she saw a Bantonian eat, its head tipping back as the jaw opened like an absurd fleshy puppet.
She couldn't help thinking of that strange sight as she watched the little creature mimic a broad smile.
"What's next on that list of yours?" Driz asked.

- - -

"No see!" Uden called through the small maintenance tunnel that stretched over the engine compartment. "Much damage."
"Well, just keep looking!" the synth called back, its electronic voice capturing the frustration that Jett was feeling. He had always marveled at synths. From the small objective driven machines he had been building since he was a kid, to the complex creatures that sported synthetic brains capable of learning.
"What is he doing in there?" Jett asked her, for it was easy for him to assign the gender to the sleek mechanoid with a young girlish voice.
"Mostly complaining it would seem."
Jett laughed. The Bantonian had been crawling through every tunnel and hole torn into the engine compartment, but all he would report back was useless observations.
"What does he speak? Perhaps there is a better way to communicate with him other than Kheprilictic."
"When he was added to our crew, he only spoke Kaitan."
Jett was surprised that a Bantonian would only know a single language and that it be the predominant tongue of the Nekrokai.
"Driz has been working tirelessly to teach him Kheprilictic, but Uden is easily distracted by the hundreds of projects he constantly has in the works. If a language were a piece of tech, he could figure it out overnight."
Jett could understand that. Toying with new pieces of tech was always more than a hobby for him. He often found himself laying awake in bunk unable to turn his mind off of his next idea. He felt bad for misjudging the little creature. It was easy to mistake a lack of language for a lack of intelligence. He could speak Bantolic and Kheprilictic, but would he want Uden thinking he was an idiot because he only knew four or five words in Kaitan?
He thought about asking the synth if she spoke Kaitan, but then thought better of it. He had already made enough assumptions about this crew today. Not all high-level synths had language processors. For most, learning a new language was just as difficult for them as it was for organic beings.
"Found," Uden said as he poked his round blue head out of the maintenance shaft opening. The Bantonian floated out pointing at the display on his CDT. The small computer attached to his forearm chirped with activity.
The three of them huddled as closely as they could in the zero-g. A recorded vid of the engine compartment was visible, the bank of engines just discernible by a weak beam of light emitted from behind the recording device.
"Blocked from damage," Uden pointed at a spot on the screen.
Squinting, Jett could just make it out. An entire section of the engine housing had broken off in the attack and wedged itself into the bulk head. The debris must have taken out the door servos in the wall. "That's why we can't get in there. Things looked pretty messed up, but we aren't going to know how severe the damage is unless we can gain access to that compartment."
"I think that might be where I come in," Ori announced dutifully. She turned to the Bantonian and spoke slowly, "Uden, if I force the doors open, is there any risk of further damage to the engines?"
"Doors no make much damage," he replied, smiling at his own understanding.
"Have any of the containment units been breached? Is there a risk of radiation?"
"No. No risk."
That was good, Jett thought. The engine compartment was mostly sealed other than the damage through which Uden was able to shoot the vid feed. It was a relief to know that if they got the doors open they wouldn't be unleashing a wave of radiation through the ship.
The engines worked like a blaster rifle. Energy was fed into a system that accelerated series of particles. These particles were then unleashed out of the back of the ship, propelling it forward. At a certain point in the process, the long chain of accelerated particles would begin to warp the space around them. The peak-drive then used this minute fluctuation in space-time to propel the mass of the ship close to the speed of light.
Jett had no idea at what point in the process the engine was damaged. As long as the containment shell surrounding the accelerators were intact, there was little risk of radiation leaking from the engines. But it could take days or even months for the unreleased particles to eventually wind themselves down.
Ori pulled herself toward the door of the engine compartment, her mechanical Khepriloi feet wrapped their finger-like digits around the frame of the door. Keeping herself from drifting away, she pushed both pairs of hands against the door. Pulling with the strong mechanical strength of robust artificial arms, she tugged at the door. But her metallic fingertips just slipped along the surface, unable to gain purchase on the heavy door intended to protect the ship from the engines.
"Wait," Jett said, "maybe I can help." retrieving a crowbar from a stock cabinet, he floated up to Ori's side. "This isn't going to be easy, but if you can hold onto the frame well enough to support me holding on to let me show you."
Jett grabbed Ori's shoulder and then climbed onto her back. She was slightly larger than a human and he could feel how sturdily built she was. Holding on to her and planting a foot against the wall beside the door, he manuevered himself as best he could to reach the door. Pushing the blade of the crowbar between the panels of the door he pulled on the end of the tool. It was an awkward sight as he tried his best to pry the panels apart in zero-gravity.
The panels slipped apart just enough that Ori could fit the fingers of her smaller set of hands in. The wall groaned as the force of her prying arms pushed against the broken mechanics holding the door shut. If she had been organic, Jett could have pictured sweat pouring down her brow and heavy grunts escaping her lips, but Ori stood there, silently opening the doors like a bipedal can opener.
She released her grasp when the doors had been opened enough that even her larger frame could squeeze through. "There. That should do it. Now let's see what's left of this engine."

- - -

"Cheese?!" Calrose laughed. "You're smuggling cheese?"
"Well, not just any cheese," a gruff voice bellowed from within the cargo hold. A robust man not too much younger than Calrose floated toward them from around a well secured stack of crates. "Haladathian rugoat cheese, to be more precise. A rare delicacy."
The man was a hulking pile of muscle, the thick cords of his neck supported a broad bearded face. He was obviously numan, as no ordinary human could get to be that size. Height was a hard thing to judge in zero-g, but she assumed he was much taller than her, and possibly as tall as Keona. But the lack of gravity didn't betray the bulk of the man. Muscles upon muscles held together a strong sturdy frame. Most numan genetic alterations were made just to help humans adapt to new worlds. This man was obviously a heavy-worlder, his body designed to handle the stress of a stronger than normal gravity world.
"Kando Varen," the man pushed away from the crates, accelerating toward her with an outstretched hand to shake. As he approached, his left arm shot out, lengthy and almost ape-like to grab a handhold and keep himself from plowing right into her.
She took the proffered greeting, though his large fingers nearly swallowed her entire hand. The heavy-worlder smiled, his teeth gleaming white above the curtain of black hair along his jaw. He had pale, kind eyes that peeked out from under thick eyebrows.
"Captain Rebecca Calrose," she returned the introduction after retrieving her small dark hand from the surprisingly gentle grasp of his. "So you travel the galaxy trading in weird dairy products?"
Kando laughed.
"Something like that," Keona chimed in. "Recent trade treatises in the area have made it impossible for the people of Haladatha to trade their goods off-world."
"Normally no one would care," Kando continued. "But Haladatha is a small moon and after centuries of production practices intended for off-world exportation, the malicious change in the trade treatise would destroy their economy. Without trade going out, there would be little coming in. Rather than let the economy shrivel up and die, they have turned to other means."
"For the last two standards," Keona said, "we have been transporting goods outside of the usual trade routes."
"And the local governments that enacted this treatise just look the other way?"
"Not precisely," the Krahl grinned.
"Who do you work for that asks you to break the law for the good of some wronged farmers?"
"We don't work for anyone but ourselves. We take on whatever jobs we equally agree is worth our time. We have fees for our services just like any other business. We aren't a charity. Just a freelance transport business." Keona smiled broadly at Kando, her pointed teeth making the gesture more sinister than intended. "Like you said Captain Calrose, there aren't too many of us around."
The largest alien Calrose had ever seen suddenly floated into the cargo bay. His massive bulk of dark red-brown fur made his muscular shape appear more bloated as it hung around him in the micro-gravity. Dwarfing even the statuesqe Krahl, the Zyggoram made the room feel just a little bit smaller.
The largest subspecies of the Zygoshans, Zyggorams were the sheep-like equivalent of heavy-worlders. He was a powerhouse of pure muscle and strength. He wore a simple flight-suit that seemed heavily altered to fit his frame. Over his generic clothing were a plethora of padded straps, belts and pouches, each holding attachment points for equipment and harnesses. Across one shoulder was a paldron of soft padded armor, commonly used to support heavy loads on the shoulder, but occasionally found as makeshift protection in a brawl.
"Captains," the Zyggoram grunted, his braided mustaches floating around his mouth. The line of bony protrusions that ran from his bull-like nose, over heavy brows toward thick curled horns, gave Zyggorams a permanent scowl to their face. To humans, they looked like eternally pissed off rams.
"What is it Zar?" Keona asked.
"Ori is back with the male human."
"Did they diagnose the extent of the repairs?" Keona asked the large creature.
"Not before the human got hurt," Zar replied nervously. He shot a glance over at Calrose, "They are with Nirea right now."
"Is Jett alright?" Calrose asked, suddenly worried, her mind a flurry of possible causes of injury in that part of the damaged ship.
"Come with me," Keona said. "I will take you to him. Nirea will be able to tell us more."

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