Chapter 10 It Tastes Just Like Chicken
  The Asp sat on the pad, motionless, in the baking air of Fraser. Zearla hadn't moved in the sky. It was the middle of summerday, and conditions were just about as arid as they could be on a life-sustaining planet.

  In the airconditioned coolness inside the Asp, James Winston and Chuck Albright sat around the small table in the ship's living quarters. They were discussing their future. Little did they know that they were setting themselves on a course for a life of endless servitude at the hands of an Imperial Lord...

"You know, I really do think that Bunn is hiding something from us," said Winston. The signs had been easy to read.
"But where does that leave us?" asked Albright.
"Well - it's like this. Suppose he's telling the truth, and that ship really isn't in the registry. Then the ship is highly suspicious - people don't just forge registrations for fun..."
"And if he's lying?" asked Albright.
"If he's lying, then the ship once again is suspicious, because our friend Baron Bunn is covering something up," replied Winston.
"So you're saying we really are onto something with this ship."
"Precisely. However, I think we'll do some further research before running off. Jas?"

  Winston had been careful to take Jas's remote terminal with him when they went to find Zearla's registrar. His personal computer had listened and observed the whole sequence of events.

"Well, Jim, I have a suggestion," said Jas in her gentle tones.
"We are all ears," replied Winston.
"The AJNIB fitted me with some extra functionality when they broke into your house - "
"Broke into my house?" asked Winston, surprised.
"Yes, how do you think they stopped me from blowing the whistle on their entire recruitment process?" replied Jas, rhetorically.
"Well, go on anyway," said Winston in a slighly sulky tone.
"I think I can brute-force the security on their registry database. It might take up to twenty four hours, but I have a lot of confidence that I should be able to get in undetected," said Jas.
"That sounds like a good plan. In the meantime, we might as well find out more about this planet. Do you fancy discovering the local cuisine?" said Winston, looking over at Albright.
"You know, I haven't heard a better suggestion all day," replied Albright, without missing a beat.

  It only took a few minutes for Winston and Albright to leave the Asp and find an autoshuttle. The scorching heat was a good incentive to do so quickly. Strapping into the autoshuttle, Winston flicked through the directory to find something good.

"What do you think," he said, pointing out an entry to Albright.
"Kezdi's Tranchid Steak House, it sounds interesting. Wonder what a tranchid is?" said Albright, reading the entry off the shuttle's display.
"Well, we'll find out," replied Winston, who selected the entry. The autoshuttle made its way.

  The pair watched the scorched landscape through the window, as the shuttle sped across the terrain. Diurnal hybernation was obviously over - some machines had started moving around the land, presumably harvesting the prized wixerfruit. A few people were also out. Winston wondered how they could bear the heat. Maybe genetics helped somehow. It wasn't long before they began entering the town. Jeffries was a fairly small town, with a few highrises, but nothing that looked significant. Winston was quite surprised to see that the town was very green - covered in vegetation. Someone had spent a lot of money on an irrigation system. The shuttle began to descend. A fine mist sprayed over the small craft's windows as they descended below suspended water sprinkers.

"The charge is three credits. Enjoy your visit to Jeffries," said the shuttle.
"Don't mention it," said Winston, sliding his ident so the charge could be made.

  Winston and Albright left the shuttle. It was surprisingly cool in the fine mist that the sprinkers emitted. With Zearla directly overhead, it made the day seem very pleasant in stark contrast to the spaceport. The streets were lined with lush grass and medium-sized trees. Birds flitted between the branches in the bright sunlight.

"Someone's spent a lot of money on this place," said Albright, looking around at the greenery
"Yes - it seems so. I wonder where they got the money. I somehow doubt wixerfruit brings in that much income," said Winston.
"You're always so damned suspicious of everything," remarked Albright.

Winston paused and shrugged his shoulders.

"Well, you have to be if you want to live long as a bounty hunter," he said at last.
"Okay, okay...let's just get something to eat," replied Albright, eyeing the tranchid steakhouse.

  They entered the restaurant. It was a small and homely brick built building. The interior was dimly lit. Several wooden tables sat on the smooth stone floor. A large bar ran across the wall opposite the the entrance. A matronly looking lady was serving one of the customers what looked suspiciously like a pint of brown. A few people sat at the various tables, eating some quite strange looking meals. They all had a similar complexion to Baron Bunn, having lived under the scorching light of Zearla all of their lives. By contrast, Winston and Albright looked so pale that they might have been ill. It was quite obvious that they were offworlders.

  A waitress, a trim and attractive lady of about Winston's age came up to them. She had rather surprisingly green eyes, an olive complexion and black hair that was tied into a neat pony-tail.

"Greetings, gentlemen, please take a seat," she said, indicating the nearest table.
"Thank you," said the pair, almost simultaneously. They sat down at one of the wooden tables.
"So, what can I get you to drink?" she asked.

  The pair looked down the drinks list. It was actually a printed list. Winston was already trying to get over the surprise of seeing a genuine human waitress, and now he also had a printed menu. "How quaint," he thought to himself.

"What's Coke?" asked Albright suddenly.
"It's a dark, cold caffinated beverage. Lightly sparkling. I think you'll like it" said the waitress.
"Well, I'll try one," said Albright. The waitress looked over at Winston.
"Me too," said Winston. The drinks list seemed to contain a lot of unfamiliar things on it.

  The waitress walked away. A group sitting at one end of the bar suddenly burst out in raucous laughter. Winston tried to listen in, but he didn't get the joke. Strangely, he was beginning to get that out of place feeling he had when he left home to make his life in space as a teenager. He looked down the menu, and found something interesting. A 200-gram tranchid steak, mashed wixerfruit and corn. The only thing he recognised was corn. The waitress came back, moments later, bearing half-litre glasses full of a black liquid. Winston took a sip. It actually tasted quite good.

"Thank you, it's good," said Winston, to the waitress.
"What's a tranchid?" asked Albright, imagining it to be some kind of large cow-like creature.
"It's a local delicacy," said the waitress. "It's a large arachnid that lives in burrows under the surface of this planet. It's farmed all over the equatorial belt," she finished.

  Winston looked slightly shocked. Arachnid? That meant it was some kind of spider! The waitress noticed his expression.

"The meat is succulent and tender. You should try it," she said, smiling.
"OK, I'll give it a try," he said.
"I think I'll take one too," said Albright, somewhat uncertainly.

  The waitress took their menus and walked away. Winston thought that he shouldn't really be complaining. On Nirvana, Phekda, where he was brought up, mint chocolate dipped stick insects were a regular after dinner sweet.

"I think a tranchid is some kind of spider," hissed Albright, in a quiet but urgently horrified tone.
"Yes, I get that impression," replied Winston. "It's always good to try something new," he added.

  The door of the restaurant opened, and a man, obviously another off-worlder, walked in. He looked to be in his mid-fifties, but it was difficult to tell someone's age any more. He could have quite easily been over a century old. He looked around the restaurant as if he was looking for someone. Winston had a good guess as to who the man was looking for, and this guess was confirmed as the man walked straight towards their table.

"James Winston and Chuck Albright, my name is Igor Pounds. I have some information that you might be looking for," he said as he approached the table.
"Well, take a seat," said Winston. The man pulled a chair up, the legs of the chair sliding across the stone floor making a sound that made Albright's spine tingle.
"Okay, sorry for intruding. I took the liberty of checking the autoshuttle logs to find you. I come here because of my good friend Baron Jethro Bunn. He said you were looking for a ship," said Pounds.
"Yes, we're looking for a ship..."
"Well, I've seen the ship you're looking for. Jethro told me which one it is, and I checked my ship's logs. My ship recorded it leaving Maxwell Depot today. The logs show that the ship departed for Andceeth, supposedly going to Denver station. It's an Adder, and it looked like a trader's ship from the radar mapper log. It should be arriving in about ten days," said Pounds.
"That's rather slow for an Adder," remarked Albright
"Yes, it didn't look very well equipped. It might have had a rather old hyperdrive. It surprises me greatly that it was going to Andceeth, a disputed system," said Pounds.
"Well, in that case, we should probably hang around here for another 24 hours. I'd like to arrive when it does," said Winston. He also wanted to see the results of Jas's hacking attempts, but he didn't want to reveal this to Igor Pounds, especially if he was one of Bunn's friends.
"Well, don't let me disturb you any longer. Here's my contact card if you need to get in touch again. Enjoy your meal," said Pounds, giving both Winston and Albright a contact card each.

  Winston watched the man leave. How very odd, he thought. However, the information was a lead. But he needed to get the results from Jas before he left...if it turned out that Bunn was lying about the ship not being on the registry, and then having a friend tell him all about it, it would be extremely suspicious indeed.

  The waitress then came with their meals. She set a plate generously loaded with food in front of both Winston and Albright. It smelled exquisite. The tranchid was a whitish meat, and judging by the size of the patty, it came from a creature at least half a meter across. Winston couldn't quite shake the image of giant spiders out of his head. The mashed wixerfruit looked like...well, mashed potato.

  Albright had already started digging into his food, as Winston tried the wixerfruit. It had the texture of mashed potato, but he could see why it sold well off-world. It had a very full taste, and was slightly sweet.

"Chicken," said Albright, holding up his fork with a piece of the tranchid stuck on the end. "It tastes just like chicken."
"Why do all bizarre meats taste like chicken?" remarked Winston, as he tried some of the tranchid. Albright was right. It tasted exactly like chicken.

  SOME eighteen hours later, Winston was back on the bridge of the Asp. Jas had already hacked into Zearla's registry. Albright was resting in his cabin, but Winston couldn't sleep. He had to find out what Jas had found.

"Jim, you wouldn't believe what I found there," said Jas.
"Try me."
"Okay, well, the ship you're after is in the registry. However, the baron might not have been lying when he said he couldn't find it - the record is marked priveliged," said Jas.
"Go on..."
"Quebec Victor One Six Six is supposedly registered to an organization. It's called Nova Rodstein Associates - apparently a trade organization. However, that's not all. Zearla's registry only contains six hundred craft. Four hundred and ninety five of them are registered to Nova Rodstein, and all are marked as priveliged", stated Jas.

  Winston thought about the lush and well-kept town they had visited some hours ago. The money had to come from somewhere, and he now had a pretty good idea where it came from. Someone was being paid to bend the galactic ship registry rules...perhaps it was some kind of gigantic tax fiddle.

"Anything on this Nova Rodstein?" asked Winston.
"No, I've done a pretty comprehensive search. I've not found anything associated with that organization. It is very suspicious indeed," said Jas.
"Very. I think we're going to have to go to Andceeth and see if we can track this guy down. Something's going on to have that strange ship in the ASC's ship's QAR logs just before its destruction."
"Do you want me to wake Chuck?" asked Jas.
"Yes, I think we should get to Andceeth as quickly as possible. I'm not sure what we're looking for, but once we find the commander of that ship, I think we may be a lot closer," said Winston.

  Winston prepared the ship for departure. The ship was already fully fuelled. He started the drive, and watched with satisfaction as all the systems came online, just as they should. A few minutes later, Albright arrived, looking a little groggy.

"Sorry to have you woken like that, but we've got to go," said Winston, apologetically.
"Don't worry about it. What did Jas find?" said Albright, as he strapped himself into the right seat.

  Winston repeated what Jas had told him, as he strapped into the left seat and initiated the departure sequence. Jeffries Control gave them permission to depart. The Osprey X that had been on one of the pads when they had arrived in the Asp had long departed, and as the Asp took off, the spaceport was left deserted. Winston pointed the ship away from the town, and accelerated. It was time to leave this hellhole of a planet, he thought, as he set the hyperdrive for Andceeth, and touched the hyperspace button.

  The cool glow of witch-light replaced the scorching visage of Zearla. The ship's clock spun crazily, trying to keep itself synchronized with the normal universe. In what was just a few moments to the occupants of the Asp, several days passed for everyone else outside of witch-space. There was a flash of intense, blue light as the Asp dropped out of the witch space tunnel, to a location some 9 A.U. from Andceeth, but over seven and a half light years from Zearla.

Waiting at the other end, gathered around the Asp's pulsating hyperspace exit cloud was something that neither Winston nor Albright expected.

A Panther Clipper and four Osprey X attack craft!

© 2000 Dylan Smith.

[Onto Chapter 11]  [Back to The Edge]  [Back to AliothNet]  [Contact Us]