Baz Patha was slouched down in the co-pilot seat in the poorly lit command center of Clear Runner, a cargo transfer ship. As a Gordelian, he was already short and pudgy. Slouching just enhanced his appearance as a dark gray, noxious blob of flesh only restricted from further spread via containment within a flight suit.
He was glumly reviewing the data screen that monitored the environmental status of the various containment chambers. Everything was fine. Everything except his mood.
“Don’t know why you can’t just consider it,” he grumbled. His lips curled in disdain over an uneven arrangement of fangs, and his moist snout wrinkled under a set of deep-set eyes.
“Because, Baz,” his companion answered, “we’ve gone over it a hundred times. We need to have a completely empty ship when we reach our last stop. We’re scheduled for a Class 1 inspection on Rendel 5, and I don’t want there to be any problems with any cargo or passengers. The cleaner we are when we get there, the better the inspection will go.”
The pilot was Takia Starseeker. A biped, like Baz, she was of the Illoni race. Average in stature compared to the other bipeds in this part of the galaxy, her blue skin and black eyes quickly identified her species. A series of antennae ran from her temple to the center of her forehead. The other noticeable difference which Illoni had over other bipeds were their hands. Four-fingered, with an opposable thumb, their species also had a pair of chitinous digits – one on either side of the fingers. The digit below her thumb was short and stiff, more of a spike than another thumb. The curved digit outside of her little finger was also chitinous, but it was on a joint that allowed it to swing over to form a pincer with the digit under the thumb. It was often suggested by other races that an Illoni’s ability to hold on to things with their pincers was directly related to their unwillingness to let go of their opinions on how things should be done.
Baz slid out of his seat.
“Cargo is fine. Going to check on our passengers.” Baz stomped out of the command center through the pressurized door.
Takia observed his departure with a smirk.
Walking down the walkway on his stumpy legs, trying to discharge frustration without punching the walls, Baz passed by the Structural Review Maintenance Droid that the crew had dubbed “Static” because of its faulty speech modulator.
“How is the flight going?” Static queried in its fuzzy monotone voice. Programmers had learned long ago that attempts to include tonal changes in droids often led to confusion among the various space-faring races, many of whom had very specific inflections in their speech patterns. A flat tone conveyed nothing but the words that were used.
“Flight’s fine. The captain’s off trajectory, though,” Baz responded.
Static had heard this expression often enough to understand that it was not meant to be taken literally. Still, it wanted to understand the cause for such a statement. The droid set down the tools it had been using and followed the Gordelian.
“Is she not feeling well?” Static asked.
“If anything, she’s feeling too well. Full of sparks and oil this morning. Just looking for an argument.”
Static persisted in his questioning.
“What is it that she wishes to argue about?”
Baz finally paused outside one of the transport shafts that led to the passenger section of the craft. If it had been any other droid, then Baz would have waived the question off. But Static had been with them for a while. Plus, it had the ability to interpolate information it gathered from random conversation and apply it appropriately in the nuanced relationships between crew, passengers and troublesome visitors. The droid would have made a good wingman in the dating scene.
“When we picked up the last bunch of characters that we have below,” Baz said as the doorway to the transport shaft opened, “they found out that we were going all the way to Rendel 5 and they asked if we could take them there. Well, Takia thinks that she told them that everyone would be put off at the next stop, which is just a cargo exchange center. But I distinctly remember them saying as they came aboard how good it was that we could carry passengers all the way to Rendel.”
At this point, Baz stepped away from the transport shaft and gestured back in the direction of the command center.
“What does she think they are going to do if we try to strand them at a cargo station?”
Static straightened up a bit – he always bent over slightly when talking to anyone who was shorter. Then it replicated an action that it had seen bipeds do many times, putting one robotic hand on its mid-torso and raising another hand to the point where he would have a mouth on his head assembly, if he had a mouth. Which he didn’t.
“Do you mean those three ascetics who were dressed in various shades of brown and gray? The ones who conducted a brief ritual before boarding the ship?” Static asked.
“Yes, those exact passengers.” By this time, the doors to the shaft closed. Baz waived his hands for the door sensor. “Why do you ask?”
“Well, it’s just that I recall that they said they wanted to add friends,” Static replied in his buzzing monotone.
“What?” Baz asked incredulously. “When did they say anything about companions?”
The response came from behind the droid.
“When I was telling them that they would have to disembark at the next stop.” Takia had snuck up behind Static so that Baz could not see her approach. “Couldn’t prove me wrong, so you decided to press your case among the crew?”
The shaft doors opened again.
“Listen, captain,” Baz spat. “The droid asked me a question, so I answered him.”
“And I was just explaining how I thought the passengers wanted to increase their numbers, not leave the ship.”
Takia smirked and shook her head.
“They asked about where we were going, I told them where we were going. They asked if they could stay with us, and I told them no. They asked if we were taking any of the other passengers to Rendel 5, and I said no. That was the end of the conversation.”
The shaft doors closed again.
“That was not the end of the conversation,” Baz insisted as he waived his arm to activate the door sensor again. “When you turned away briefly to tell the loading droids to hurry up, our guests talked some more about the need to get to our final stop. When you turned back, they asked if this could be the final arrangement – meaning their staying with us to Rendel. You said ‘yes’ to that!”
The shaft doors opened once more. Baz scooted through the doorway.
“I did hear them suggest that,” Static agreed, stepping into the transport shaft. “But previously, if you recall, they asked about having fellows join them to their final destination.”
“And I did hear them suggest that,” Takia replied as she followed them into the transport shaft. “Shortly after their suggestion of having friends join us is when I explained to them that ALL passengers would be put off at the next cargo station.”
The transport tube pressurized and they were whisked down to the passenger level of the ship. The argument continued as they exited the tube.
“But I don’t think anyone ever corrected them about having their companions come aboard at the next stop,” Static persisted as they marched towards the passenger compartments. “Furthermore, their use of our word for ‘friends’ - ”
“It doesn’t even matter,” Takia said with her hands stretched out. “Whether I told them that they or their friends or their pets could stay with us to the final stop, everyone is getting out at the next stop. We have to be completely empty when we get to Rendel!”
Static slowed to keep pace with the Gordelian.
“I don’t think anyone asked about having their pets -”
Baz waived at the droid to indicate that it should stop talking.
Upon reaching the central gathering chamber for the passenger section, the crew found that the aliens in question had already assembled there - a reddish-brown, tri-horned Abboxite, a light green, gangly Dendorilian, and a pink-furred, rotund Zeefiy.
“Hello, friends,” Takia began. The trio exchanged hesitant glances between themselves. “We are approaching the next stop. As you will recall, I specifically told you all that you would have to disembark there.”
“Oh, we had no question about that,” the Abboxite responded in a deep, resonating voice. “We did not intend to go any further.”
“Agreed,” the Dendorillian piped up. “We were only suggesting that we hold passenger space for our… ah… friends.”
The Zeefiy wobbled in agreement.
Takia put a hand to her head.
“As I had made perfectly clear, no one is travelling with us to Rendel 5. No one,” she emphasized. “You are disembarking at the nest stop AND we are not taking on any new passengers.” With that, she turned and walked out of the chamber.
The trio of passengers exchanged another series of looks. If Baz didn’t know better, he thought they might be communicating telepathically.
They finally arrived at the cargo exchange center, and Takia broadcast a message throughout the ship that everyone needed to be careful as they exited out on to the landing pier.
Surprisingly, the trio of passengers exited the craft without hesitation, although they were immersed in deep conversation while reviewing information pads.
Baz gave his standard commands to the droids that would be unloading the ship, while Static used this opportunity to review parts on the exterior of the ship. Captain Starseeker kept an eye on the passengers she had just kicked off of her ship.
While they were all gathered on the landing pier, another trio of aliens approached from the dock entryway – a bipedal, armored figure of average size, a four-legged, sharp-toothed Gandoo, and a tall, muscular alien of unknown origin who was carrying what appeared to be a form of blaster-lance.
“This could be trouble,” Baz said almost to himself. He had become so accustomed to peaceful off-loadings where his hands needed to be free to move things around, that he had neglected to bring out his own blaster rifle.
“Excuse me,” Takia glared at the three passengers who had just come off her ship. “You’re going to have to tell your friends that weapons are not to be carried openly towards an off-loading ship. That’s just standard protocol.”
“No, no,” the Dendorillian protested. “This is not our… friends, as you call it. They paid us to reserve spots for them in your passenger quarters. They are… ah… mercenaries.” The green alien seemed to have difficult with that last word.
“Now that I think about it,” Static announced, “I had wanted to mention earlier that the word they had used for ‘mercenary’ in their language is quite close to our word for ‘friend’. Just goes to show, these translator cards we all wear -”
Takia’s glare cut off the droid. Then she turned her attention back to the approaching armored figure. She slipped her own pistol out of its holster. The three former passengers backed away from the line of firing and began reciting what Baz expected to be some sort of prayer.
“There has been a misunderstanding,” the captain said in her most commanding voice. “You will not be boarding this ship. Turn around and depart from the landing pier. NOW!”
While its arms remained at its side, shoulder-mounted blasters popped out of the figure’s armor. They simultaneously fired bolts of electricity at Takia, who was sent flying backwards and collapsed in a pile on the ground. She was twitching and gasping, clearly still alive but in quite a bit of pain.
The mercenary faced Baz, who had instinctively raised his arms.
“Any more questions?” the mercenary asked without any hint of expecting an answer.
Baz glanced at his droid companion.
“Looks like we’re taking some passengers to Rendel 5 after all.”
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Great story, characters and content. Kept me engaged throughout, very well written. Kudos!