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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Winston paused and shrugged his shoulders.
"Well, you have to be if you want to live long as a bounty hunter," he said
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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,
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.