Pandora’s Crew Chapter 1

Pandora’s Crew
by
Gorg Huff and Paula Goodlett

 Chapter 1

 Revolutions, Mr. Dickinson, come into this world like bastard childrenhalf improvised and half compromised.
 Attributed to pre-space statesman Benjamin Franklin.  
 Location: Concordia Station, Free Space
Standard Date: 01 16 630  

+++ Danny Gold settled into the bar stool and waited for the robo-tender to roll over. He was wearing ship’s slops. No one would know he was the captain save for the captain’s interface cap he wore. And the cap was worn and old. Still, he was an attractive man, so handsome as to be almost pretty, with golden hair and striking green eyes, and a body that put one in mind of a dancer or martial artist.
+++ He looked around. About half the augmented reality emitters were out in this bar, and on a station they weren’t kept dark to conserve energy. The half-real atmosphere was due to lack of repair and it gave the bar a drab, worn feel. As you moved through the low power fields, the bar flipped from richly decorated to bare walls and back again. The drab, worn feel was strengthened by the plastic of the bar. It was yellowing from age and scratched, even though the duraplast was as hard as iron.
+++ “Parthian Banger.” Danny didn’t know if there was such a drink as a Parthian Banger, but he liked to give the robot bartenders a hard time. The robo-tender would usually look at him, confusion in its sensors, and ask what the drink was. Danny would then describe some alcoholic concoction and get his drink for free. The robo-tenders were built that way.
+++ Not this time.
+++ After a couple of moments and a lot of arm waving, the robo-tender put a wide glass filled with greenish goop with red and black specks on top in front of him.
+++ Ain’t that just the way my luck has been running, Danny thought sardonically, then passed over the station credit chips for his drink and took a cautious sip. It probably wouldn’t actually be poisonous. The robo-tenders were programmed with basic species’ profiles and there weren’t all that many space-going species to begin with. Still, accidents did happen. But Danny wasn’t worried. He had a greater tolerance for drugs and poisons than most people. Which made it especially hard to get drunk. In this case, the green goop tasted like something somewhere between avocado and mango. The specks on the top were peppers of some sort. Hot peppers.
+++ Danny gasped. He waved his hand. “Water!”
+++ It felt like five minutes of fiery hell in his mouth, but was probably less than thirty seconds before the water got to him. Danny gulped it down. “What the hell is that?”
+++ It was probably Danny’s imagination, but the robo-tender seemed to be quite satisfied as it answered. “The Parthian Banger is an aphrodisiac for Parthians. It is made by blending aspercodo from Darvin Six, powdered jalapeño originally from Old Earth and crushed fog bugs from Paradise in the Heaven system.”
+++ Weird, Danny thought. Just weird. Parthians didn’t mate, except for the breeding caste and breeding was all they did. The breeding caste never left the home system, so why would Parthian spacers need an aphrodisiac? The Parthians didn’t have their own interstellar capable ships. They bought them, and even the smallest hyper-capable ships were expensive, so the Parthians didn’t have much of a presence outside their home system.
+++ Danny had never actually met a Parthian, but had seen images of them, and analyses of their culture—if you could call it that. They were hive creatures, according to the research from . . . Danny called up a file in his internal data base. The scholarly papers were funded by the Cordoba-Jackson clan. Which made sense, since the Cordoba-Jacksons ran that corner of the Cordoba Combine. Parthians were not made for independent thought or action. They had bones that merged into shells and spiky porcupine-like hair, no heads, eyestalks and mouth stalks. They were remarkably ugly, from a human perspective.
+++ Danny shuddered, just thinking about them. “Glass of milk.” The cool white liquid would act as a chaser for the way-too-spicy drink. With the chaser ready, he gulped down the evil brew. Danny’s biggest flaw was also his biggest virtue. He was stubborn about following his own rules. If he bought a drink, he drank it. The milk followed the Parthian Banger as quickly as he could manage.
+++ Danny might have broken his rule, just this once, if he had known the consequences of his actions . . . or maybe not. In any case, the robo-tender, through malice or a lack of programming, declined to mention the effects of the drink.
+++ “Gimme a Paguly Stroke,” Danny ordered.
+++ He got the robotic confusion he was hoping for. “A Paguly Stroke,” Danny explained, making it up as he went along, “is two shots of New Kentucky Bourbon and a shot of thon juice.” Danny turned his head and slipped into the field of an emitter. The robotic arms of the bartender took on flesh. When the robo-tender passed him his free drink, Danny sipped it and thought about how he got into this mess. Was it when I diverted to find the jump point? No. I was in trouble before Casa Verde station.
+++ Danny ordered another drink. This time he had to pay for it. Then, giving up getting drunk as a bad job, he stood up and left the bar. As he was leaving, Danny sniffed. There was a faint scent that wasn’t part of the normal bar aroma. Danny’s sense of smell was enhanced by genetic modification. It was more discerning than a normal’s, and that let him categorize and discount known smells. This smell was kind of spicy and didn’t fit what he would expect from a station bar. Also, he couldn’t place where it was coming from.

***

+++ Checkgok was not one of those Parthians who took being away from the clan as license for perversion. When the scent reached it, Checkgok did its best to avoid the stimulus. Checkgok was—by the standards of its race—a fairly handsome neuter female. Its body was shaped sort of like a flattened oval, covered with spikes a bit thicker than hair and not quite so thick as a porcupine’s spines. The spikes were longer and thicker on top of its body. It had no head. The eyestalks and the mouth-hand protruded directly from the front of its body, the eyes going up and the mouth down. Both were flexible and in constant motion. Like all Parthians, it walked—scuttled—on its fore and aft legs using the center pair as heavy object manipulators. Its mouth doubled as a hand for delicate manipulation.

+++ Checkgok’s eyestalks swiveled and extended, searching. Scent isn’t a great way to locate something, especially in a space station. Checkgok made the obvious guess about where the scent was coming from. It must be the group of Parthians who crewed the Fly Catcher. Probably the captain and first mate. The captain was a neuter female and the first mate a neuter male. Both were—in Checkgok’s opinion—reprehensible . . . individuals . . . who had, more than once before, attempted to subvert Checkgok’s loyalty to clan.

+++ Its guess was quite wrong. Its attempt to avoid the captain and—especially—the first mate, led it to run right into Danny Gold. Checkgok weighed just over three hundred pounds and was—depending on its stance—from three to six feet tall. It was moving fast at the moment, which put its body low.

+++ Danny fell on it.

+++ Going from three foot scuttle to a six foot extension was reflexive. Given the circumstances, Checkgok couldn’t help it. Its spiky, hair-like protrusions would not have punctured a Parthian, female or male, neuter or not.

+++ Unfortunately, human skin is rather less resistant than Parthian cartilage. Now blood was involved, which carried all sorts of implications in Parthian society. It wasn’t that much blood; the punctures weren’t deep. The amount was not nearly as important as the mere fact that blood was spilled.

+++ Besides, Checkgok wasn’t thinking too clearly, what with the pheromones coursing through its system. Checkgok got a full load of pheromones when Danny fell on it.

+++ It was as high as a paper kite.

***

+++ The incident in the station corridor might have ended with no more than a few scrapes, but Kesskox, the captain of the Fly Catcher, had just about given up on persuading Checkgok to see reason. Checkgok was an excellent merchant in terms of calculating what might be of value at the next port, but unwilling to see the advantages of a bit of extra on the side. It was also—in Kesskox’s view—a supercilious snob with delusions of grandeur. Kesskox, like just about every Parthian on the station, scented the pheromones. It took her a while to find the source.

She arrived in time to witness the last of Checkgok’s semi-coherent rambling apology and offer of . . . kothkoke.

The human was trying to wave the whole thing off. “No harm done. Right. You’re apologizing. I accept.”

Captain Kesskox shook with laughter, her eyestalks twisting. “And you sneer at us. That one doesn’t even have the right equipment.” She chittered a laugh, realizing that she had Checkgok just where she wanted it. Checkgok offered kothkoke as apology and the human accepted it. “Did I hear correctly? You have sworn kothkoke to this monkey? What will your high and mighty clan think of this?” She chittered again. She couldn’t help it and didn’t feel like trying. Though more resistant, Captain Kesskox was a bit tipsy on Danny’s scent  herself. Unknown to anyone, milk acted as a booster for the intoxicating effect. Checkgok, having gotten a full dose—a pheromone bath—was quite drunk. “A slime toad would be better than you, you perverted, dishonorable cheskek.” While cheskek, if directly translated into English, might well be taken as a compliment since it meant something close to “individualist,” to a Parthian it was a deadly insult. On a par with suggesting that a human preferred sex with the corpses of babies of their own gender and that they ate the corpse afterward.

It was also, even in Captain Kesskox’s own estimation, altogether too close to the truth—which just made it hurt worse. She screamed and attacked.

“Oh shit,” the monkey said. Somehow it had wandered into the path of conflict.

Checkgok leapt. Checkgok was a lot faster than Kesskox expected and clearly not going to let its monkey be harmed. Using forelimbs, middle-limbs and hind-limbs, it moved itself toward Kesskox while moving the monkey out of her reach. Checkgok weighed a touch over three hundred pounds. Captain Kesskox doubted that the monkey weighed half that. The monkey ended up against the far wall and Captain Kesskox was suddenly faced with a very angry bookkeeper.

Concordia Station Infirmary
Danny woke in a white room, one in considerably better repair than the bar. The emitters were all operating here, and he was getting feedback on heart rate, oxi content of the air, and a host of other data points that together announced “infirmary.”

“You have a mild concussion.”

Danny looked blearily toward the voice. The . . . doctor? Yes, she must be a doctor. White coat. Medical PDA in hand. Yep. Doctor. Tall, blond, female. Smith, the nametag said.

“Which is less than you deserve,” added another voice.

Danny winced. That had to be the voice of station security. Station security sounded the same all over the galaxy. He peeked in the direction of the last voice. Yep. Station security.

“What did I do?” Danny asked plaintively.

The station security officer sneered at him. “Aside from advertising yourself as a Parthian sex toy, starting a riot and a diplomatic incident? I haven’t a clue. Have you started a war we should know about?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Danny insisted, not for the first time in dealing with station security. In this instance, it was even true.

“Did you or did you not consume a Parthian Banger?”

“What’s a Parthian Banger?”

The doctor snickered wickedly. “You are, apparently. Though from what I understand, you’re under-equipped for the endeavor.”

The cop gave the doctor a dirty look, then returned her attention to Danny. “All right. You want to tell me what happened after you left the bar?”

Danny considered. He really couldn’t see what he had done that was illegal. On the other hand, cops tended to find incriminating evidence in just about anything. Almost, he asked for a lawyer. Then he remembered the state of his finances. He was the next best thing to dead broke. He was broke, aside from his ship, and the ship was in hock to SMOG Savings and Loan in the Drake Combine. Which was why he was at the unaligned, very much gray market, Concordia Station.

And on Concordia Station, if you desired an attorney and could not afford one, you were shit out of luck. Danny was surprised to learn that Concordia Station had lawyers at all. Or cops, for that matter.

Danny struggled to sit up. He decided to try and play the cooperative innocent. “I was walking along the corridor when this Parthian came scooting around the corner. We ran into each other and I tripped and landed on it. It was an accident, Officer. It, ah . . . stood up, I guess, and banged me against the ceiling. Hurt like the dickens. Then it went back down and let me off. I was a bit scratched by its spines, but not too bad.” Danny creased his forehead, thinking. “It apologized and it said a bunch of stuff in Parthian. Well, I accepted its apology and was about to be on my way when this other Parthian showed up. They started arguing. At least, I think they were arguing.”

Danny paused, trying to remember. “It was about half in trade and half in their clicks and whistles. That’s the last thing I remember before I woke up here.”

The cop was looking at him like he was a perp running a scam, but the doc was trying hard not to laugh. Danny didn’t have a clue what was going on.

Concordia Station Security Cells
Security Officer Janis Marten looked at the bug in front of her. It was the first Parthian she ever saw in person, and well, it just looked like a big, furry bug.  “So what exactly is your story?”

Station security put both Checkgok and Captain Kesskox in pheromone free cells. However, they didn’t feel it necessary to wait for the effects of the pheromones to wear off before questioning them.

Captain Kesskox, still a bit drunk, chittered more laughter and waved its midlegs. Might as well. Any hope the captain nourished of blackmailing Checkgok was gone. Now there was a public record.

“Checkgok has sworn itself to the human. After all its protestations of loyalty to its clan and devotion to duty, it has betrayed clan and the whole Parthian race. I expel it from my ship.” Kesskox did it out of spite, mostly.

Just wait until she got back to home world and spread this story.

***

Janis left the cell and went next door. She pulled up a seat and started to question the other bug. “You’re sworn to Danny Gold? Is that right?”

Checkgok waved a midlimb and Janis tried not to flinch. That arm . . . leg . . . whatever it was . . . looked like it could squash her like a . . . well, bug.  “Mischance. I blooded him. It was an accident.”

Janis finished taking it all down. “Captain Kesskox says you’re a traitor to your clan and its throwing you off the ship.”

Janis wasn’t quite sure what the clicks and whistles meant, but it didn’t sound to her like Checkgok admired Kesskox.

Checkgok eventually calmed a bit. “That squekket.” It waved its two center arms. “It throws me off, it loses the cargo, tell it that. The cargo belongs to Clan Zheck and I am the representative of the clan.”

Janis peered over at it. “Ah . . . that’s not what the captain is claiming.”

Checkgok’s eyestalks waved and its mouth-hand scrunched up in an expression Janis couldn’t interpret. “Over two-thirds of the cargo on the Fly Catcher belongs to my clan. I have control of it until it is returned to my clan, unless I willingly abandon it or die. Only then does Captain Pervert have access to it. The fool has ruined itself.”

“So the cargo belongs to you?”

“To my clan.”

“Can you prove that?”

Checkgok’s eyestalks reared back at the question, in what Janis guessed might signal feeling affronted. “Yes, of course. Check the contracts. They are on record in the station files. The Fly Catcher is leased to Clan Zheck. The cargo is Clan Zheck cargo. The cargo that is not Clan Zheck is not actually authorized to be there. Captain Kesskox calls it ‘off-the-books’ cargo.”

“Oh, really?”

There was, Checkgok noted, an interesting gleam in the security officer’s expression. Checkgok was unsure what the expression meant. This was its first trip away from the home world. It had made trades in dozens of human systems, primarily by developing an encyclopedic knowledge of what was wanted where.

Trade was not new to the clan or to Checkgok, but the cutthroat practices of the outworlds were not what Checkgok was used to. Checkgok lifted its left midleg and scratched an itchy spine hair. “May I have access to the net? So that I can show you the pertinent contracts?” Checkgok would watch the reactions of this monkey and perhaps learn a bit more about reading the species. Doing so would keep Checkgok’s thoughts away from its disgrace and the consequences.

Janis motioned Checkgok over to the computer. “Oh, yes. Please do.”

They went through the contracts together. For a fairly large sum of money, Fly Catcher and crew was leased—in total—to the Clan Zheck. The trade goods were provided by the Clan. A manifest was included.

The bug pointed at an entry. “When we left the home world we went to Green World, a monkey world.”

Officer Marten glared at it. “Watch your mouth.”

“Excuse me?” Checkgok looked at its mouth. Parthian eyes were arranged in such a way that it could indeed do so. It was sometimes necessary, though it seemed rather pointless at the moment. Checkgok thought it was being polite. The security officer apparently disagreed.

The officer glared a bit more. “I was talking about that ‘monkey world’ crack.”

“Crack? What is crack?” Checkgok was fairly sure she wasn’t talking about a crack as in a break.

The monkey looked at it. Strangely. “You really don’t know, do you?”

“Know what?”

Officer Marten sighed. “Let me give you some language lessons. Monkey is a derogatory term—an insult—when applied to a human.” The security guard moved its shoulders up and down. “Not a real bad one, I’ll grant you. It would be like calling you a . . . Well, I don’t know what your equivalent would be. Something from your world that is related to your people a ways back, but didn’t evolve intelligence, or at least not much.”

Checkgok considered. “Like a kikikes?”

“Got me. I don’t know anything about your home world’s fauna.”

“Got you? What is got you? I don’t have you.”

Janis bared its teeth at Checkgok. “It’s an expression. It means you’ve asked a question I don’t know the answer to.”

Checkgok was beginning to understand. “Then, ‘watch your mouth’ is another expression?” It swiveled the eye stalk it was using to watch its mouth back to looking at the station officer.

“Yes. It’s a warning to be careful of what you’re saying.”

Checkgok nodded its mouth. It didn’t have a head to nod. ” ‘Crack.’ Is that an expression?”

Janis nodded. “Yep. A crack is an insult.”

Things were beginning to come clear. Checkgok now knew why the captain and crew encouraged it to speak in a certain way and leave the “in person” dealings with humans to the first mate. The “useful idioms” it was taught were insurance to prevent humans from wanting to deal with Checkgok directly. That—in turn—was to allow them to skim a bit on every deal. They really were cheskek, concerned with themselves rather than their clans.

Checkgok knew what to do now. Apologies were always acceptable. It knew that much.

Concordia Station Infirmary
Doc Smith grinned when she removed the bandages. Danny wondered why until he saw himself in the mirror. “Oh, shit. What the hell happened? Doc, what is this?”

There was a set of spots on his chest. Red ones, blue ones, black ones and green ones in a distorted galaxy pattern. “What about these dots? I wasn’t that drunk.”

Doc Smith’s voice was a bit strained. Like she was trying not to laugh. “I was a bit worried about that myself, so I took a couple of samples and did some reading. It doesn’t appear to be harmful. The Parthian’s spines have a resin on them that acts like ink. You got an instant tattoo. Removing it would be cosmetic. Not covered by station insurance.”

Danny groaned. Part of the station fee when docking a ship was basic medical insurance for accident or injury suffered by crewmen on the station. Very basic insurance. It covered emergency treatment and that was all. It was there so the station wouldn’t get stuck with the medical expenses of indigent spacers.

Which was altogether too close to what Danny was these days, except for the Pandora.

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