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An Outlaw Galaxy short story
by Bill Smith
www.BillSmithBooks.com | www.OutlawGalaxy.com
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Br'okkin was sitting in the Friendly Bruiser Tavern, half-enjoying his drink when his transcomm went off. As the small communications device beeped, the heads of a dozen other pilots popped up. Most of them automatically reached for their energy pistols.
Br'okkin took another drink, savoring the odd little concoction. It was called a "Mechin's Death" if he'd heard the bartender correctly. It was sour and bitter and burned his throat. It matched his mood perfectly.
He reached for his transcomm as it nagged him with another beep.
"That's me," he told the others, sheathing his wrist claws back into hiding. They'd instinctively flexed out when he started at the sound of the transcomm's chime. He normally didn't let that happen -- people tend to get alarmed when they see four-inch claws shoot out of your wrists -- but he was tired -- exhausted to be truthful -- and on edge after his tense meeting with Dak'Wyynt.
He silently appraised his own warped reflection in the glass. We're off the hook. Just relax a little.
The others returned to their food, burned and overspiced to hide that it was most likely spoiled, their drinks, watered-down, and their card games, crooked. As would only be fitting in a place such as this, he thought with a smirk that revealed his fangs.
Br'okkin checked the transcomm's vid screen. The identifier code indicated that his partner was calling.
"What's so urgent?" he asked with a sigh.
"I found it," his partner said in a high-pitched squeak. The boy-man was excited. Br'okkin was concerned that he might hyperventilate.
Br'okkin shook his head. Humans seemed to be such excitable creatures. It's a wonder they've survived at all, much less managed to spread across so much of the galaxy.
"Found what?" Br'okkin asked suspiciously.
"A ship! You remember that starship yard on the edge of town?"
Br'okkin vaguely recalled a junkyard out near the starport. It had a handful of rusted-out hulks on display.
What has he done?
Br'okkin closed his eyes as he shuddered. "Go on."
"Just meet me there."
Br'okkin let out a long, aggravated whistle. It started in his chin wattles, then fluttered up through the twin pairs of nostrils that flanked his deeply set eyes. "Am I going to be irritated with you?"
"Just get down here. Hurry up!"
Br'okkin looked at the transcomm. It would have helped if his partner had sent along an image or vid, but no, audio only. That meant one thing: He's hiding something.
He tried to picture what kind of vermin's nest Dushan had allowed himself to be talked into buying.
Br'okkin knew he should have taken care of this, but there was other business to tend to here in Yimbo Outland. I can't do everything.
He sipped from his glass, savoring the last of the bitter, yellow liquid. He was tired. His back ached because of the crash landing. And he was still jittery after fighting to retrieve what was left of the cargo and then talking Dak'Wyynt into not spacing the both of them for this foul-up.
Now Dushan buys the first ship he sees. He sighed. I suppose it's better to have a task done poorly than not done at all.
He eyed the transcomm. "I'll be there in ten minutes."
He snapped the device off in the middle of Dushan's excited, prattling response and slid the transcomm back onto his belt. He slid some coins onto the tabletop to show the proprietor that he wasn't skipping out without paying. That could get you into trouble here in Yimbo Outland. Painful trouble.
He stood and started towards the door.
"Hey, Br'okkin," one of the pilots called out. He was a human, tall and lanky, with grey hair that he'd tied off into a ponytail that ran down to the middle of his back. He looked a good bit smarter than Dushan.
Maybe it wasn't the whole species that was wanting. Just his partner.
Br'okkin stared at the man. "You want something, friend?"
The pilot grinned at his companions. "I heard you got yourself a new ship."
The other pilots looked away, chuckling.
Br'okkin's blue-green eyes slitted. "What do you know?"
"I was up at that lot and saw your partner checking out the, ah, merchandise." The pilot leaned back in his chair and twirled his fingers in the air as he grinned. "You'll see for yourself. Wouldn't want to spoil the surprise." He smiled at his friends, then looked back at Br'okkin and added, "Good luck."
That was enough to trigger roaring laughter from the others.
Had Dushan been here to back him up, Br'okkin might have stood up to the man and taught him the error of flapping those fleshy pink lips in front of a Ryz'Sarrim...but alone, outnumbered -- it wasn't worth it. Br'okkin was big and strong, but he wasn't dumb, no matter what the stereotype was. He wasn't going to start something he couldn't finish.
He turned towards the door and stepped out into the stiff breeze that blew down from the northern mountains, blinking as the grit flew into his eyes. The street's loose dirt was warm under his bare footpads.
He hated being made fun of. Especially by a human.
But at least I have a ship again. He started towards the starship yard. I can be thankful for that.
Dushan easily spotted his partner as Br'okkin wove through the street crowd. The Ryz'Sarrim was hard to miss, his triangular red head rising nearly a foot above the rest of the people, waving back and forth on the long, snake-like neck that swung with each step. Br'okkin held his left hand cupped above his eyes to block out the glare of Gahuvin's sun. As usual, his right hand rested on the energy pistol holstered to his hip.
Over the three years they'd been together, Dushan had gotten fairly good at reading Br'okkin's body language. He was moving fast, like he did when he was anxious...and Dushan saw the alien's wrist claws flexing in and out.
Oh, boy, Dushan thought. That's not promising.
Dushan glanced back at his new acquisition. It was a good ship, a Kitellus-36. Sure, it was an older freighter, and slow, but with plenty of cargo space. It had an odd-looking offset triangular hull, with the forward point of the triangle off to the far left of the vessel. To the right side, two long tubes projected forward, looking like giant spears that almost reached as far forward as the nose. The tubes held sensor arrays and shield projectors.
At the back of the ship, a pair of underpowered stock engines fed thrust through a pair of exhaust cones that pointed out from the squared-off rear part of the triangle. Surrounding the engines was an elaborate system of six individually adjustable maneuvering fins that fanned out from the engine cones like a pinwheel. The cockpit was directly amidships, a round bulge atop the hull, with a single, feeble-looking laser cannon, turret-mounted on top of the bridge section.
"Well, it's going to be a good ship," Dushan told himself, almost believing it. He glanced back towards his partner, who was now almost to the yard. "Now I just have to convince him."
He waited patiently, watching as the alien's claws kicked up clouds of dust with each step. Br'okkin walked straight towards him, a pout on his face that Dushan had long ago learned to be wary of. Time to sell this....
"There she is," Dushan said, his face beaming with an insincere smile as he crossed his hands over his chest and proudly nodded towards the ship that sat in the corner of the yard.
Br'okkin took a few steps past Dushan. His hand still shielded his eyes. Despite modification surgery, which had only partly corrected the sensitivity of his eyes, he could barely see in illumination levels that humans considered normal.
I guess only being able to see in the dark isn't a problem if you're from on a world that's cloaked in perpetual twilight.
Br'okkin stared for perhaps half a minute. Whatever he muttered was drowned out by the winds that rolled across the fields. Loose slabs of hull plating whistled as they were jostled against the lot's sales shed off to the right.
"Got the hull plating free," Dushan added with a beat that! smirk.
Dushan saw the big Ryz'Sarrim deflate, his shoulders slumping, his long neck dropping the small, triangular head to eye-level with his partner as he turned towards him. The skin around Br'okkin's eyes had turned from its normal dark blue to a greenish-yellow mottling. That coloration meant he was worried...or angry.
Dushan had gotten rather used to that shade of color over the past couple of years.
Br'okkin's four nose flaps fluttered, a gesture that was the Ryz'Sarrim equivalent of a groan. "You're kidding, right?"
He turned back to stare at the lowly freighter.
Dushan noticed that the ship seemed to list off to one side whenever the wind gusts picked up. Faulty landing strut. Wish I'd been told about that. Ah, we'll get that fixed soon enough.
Dushan shuffled towards his partner.
"She's got a lot of potential," he offered, raising his hand to reassuringly grab Br'okkin's shoulder.
"Don't touch me," Br'okkin warned, not taking his gaze off the ship.
Br'okkin looked at Dushan and notched his head back and forth, snake-like. "Do I just not understand human humor? Because now would be a good time to say, 'Hah, got you! The ship I really bought is over here,' and then you'd lead me towards something that looked like it might actually get off the ground." He stared at his friend, baring his fangs briefly. "Tell me this is some kind of prank, like Farizei likes to play on the other gods. Now would be a really good time to say that, Dushan."
Dushan looked down at the ground, drawing a pictograph in the dirt with his boot. He said nothing.
"So you really spent our hard-earned money on that...that...." Br'okkin spat in disgust. "Words just fail me this time. I know you have a death wish, Dushan, but why do you have to take me with you?"
Dushan raised his hands as he circled around in front of Br'okkin, putting himself between his partner and the ship. "Now wait a minute. Don't rush to judgment. It's all in how you look at it --"
"What I'm looking at is about to fall over when the wind blows!" He raised his head back up to its normal height and stared down at his friend, ears fluttering in irritation. "Don't tell me you spent all of our money on that...that...vreskk'jlel tsiz'ga!"
Ryz'Sarrims were masters at profanity, but that was one curse that Dushan had never heard before.
"It is a pile of junk," Br'okkin added, just to make sure his contempt was unmistakable.
"All of our money? No, course not," Dushan muttered defensively. "Only about...thirty-six thousand Phaixes. Plus I'll need some more for parts and modifications --"
"Thirty-six thousand," Br'okkin repeated. Dushan watched his partner's face scrunch up in concentration as the alien did the currency conversion in his head.
"Blast you, that's nearly nine thousand Steds!" Br'okkin shouted. "On that pile of trash? What in the Three Cursed Barons possessed you --"
He lowered his head and scratched under his chin wattles, deep in thought. Then Br'okkin looked up, peering at his friend, his eyes now narrow slits. He started stalking towards the ship, his claws digging deep into the soil. Clouds of dust followed each furious stab at the ground.
Br'okkin talked to himself as he marched towards the new vessel. "That's it. You are possessed. Back when those Kniddian fiendlings captured you. You swore you were fine, of course, but I should have known better. I let my emotions get in the way of what needed to be done. I should have taken you to a Purification Temple and left you there. Sure, Zizack's troops would have grabbed you, but that's Fate now, isn't it? If I'd have done that, I'd still have the FlareRider, still have my money -- and blast, I might even be able to hire a pilot that knew how to repair my ship instead of blowing out the shields while Warlock's fighters were blasting away at us. But no, I believed you, kept you on as my partner...and now you're possessed. Possessed by a great spirit of stupidity that's throwing away our money on a ship that can't even stay upright when the wind blows, much less fly! Oh, I should have listened to Tal-Tek when he warned me about partnering with a human --"
Dushan watched his partner go, muttering to himself, "Now, I was just going to explain to him that the Kitellus-36 is one of the best freighters in this arm of space. I should know -- my father had one. But no, now he has to go off and be rude about it." Then Dushan frowned as he replayed Br'okkin's rant through his mind. "Now, wait a minute --"
He took a deep breath and ran up in front of the Ryz'Sarrim, holding up his left hand and pointing an accusing finger at his partner. "You were going to leave me on Ansignar? Do you know what Zizack was going to do to me? How could you --"
"I didn't leave you," Br'okkin snapped. Then he shrugged and smiled, flashing his fangs. "I just wanted to."
"I...I suppose I feel better." Dushan folded his arms across his chest. "You know, I never abandoned you -- and don't get started about that time on Tsuen'keel. There was no sense in both of us dying. And I came back for you!"
Br'okkin sighed. "Yes, you did." He rolled his eyes and snorted. "I still don't know about this --"
Dushan raised his hands for emphasis, almost pleading. "Think about it, Br'okkin. This ship is a Kitellus-36. It's a classic!"
"It's at least a century old."
"One hundred and twenty-six, as far back as they can trace it. This ship -- now she's ugly as Jas'nivin's Mother to be sure, but she's got some fine engineering. Rock solid, can take a pounding -- and that's important considering the company we keep."
Br'okkin growled softly and kicked at the ground, sending pebbles spraying across the lot. "Well, we sure aren't going to be running away from anyone in that barge."
"Now, Br'okkin, give her a chance. Sure, she's nothing special with her stock running gear -- slow and ungainly, a yepper-sow on ice. That's all true. But that's not what she's gonna be when I'm done with her."
Br'okkin frowned. "You? You couldn't plug in a power cable if you had a roadmap and bright flashing lights showing the way --"
"Fine, when we're done with her. But don't look at her as she is now. Think about what she could be. She's a real mechanic's dream --"
"A 'mechanic's dream'? Now, where did you hear that?"
"Well, the salesperson said --"
"He did, did he? Where is he?"
"She's out getting lunch. Addey said she'd be back --"
She? And then Br'okkin knew exactly how Dushan had allowed himself to get talked into buying this pile of scrap. You hide any old piece of junk behind a pretty face and some flirting and you could sell fire-flares to a furnacemaster from Volcrinnix. It was the oldest trick in the book. But it worked -- at least on humans, anyway -- and that's why it was still in the book.
Br'okkin shook his head as he looked at Dushan. "A 'mechanic's dream.' Do you know what that means? That's a polite way of saying, 'I got this ship so screwed up that even I don't know how to fix it. Here's some parts...now, you try.' That's what a 'mechanic's dream' is."
The rest of the tirade was in Ryz'Sarrimian. It was a crude, guttural language even when it was being used in polite conversation. Br'okkin's rant sounded downright vicious. Dushan was glad he didn't know much of the language beyond, "Where's the restroom?" and "No, none of the kith-tripe for me, thank you, it's poisonous."
Dushan took a step back, put his hands on his hips and waited for Br'okkin to finish.
When Br'okkin seemed to have fully vented, Dushan raised an eyebrow. "Feel better? "
Br'okkin growled, but then he shrugged. "I'd feel better if you got our money back."
Dushan stared up at his partner, hoping he would be convincing. "All I ask is that you hear me out --"
Br'okkin gasped in exasperation. "But --"
"Now, wait," Dushan pleaded. "Br'okkin, I agree with you. This ship as it is now is a piece of junk. As it is now. But with some modification, it's going to be better than the FlareRider. I promise."
Br'okkin was ready to start in again, but Dushan gave him a stern look.
Finally, the Ryz'Sarrim asked, "How do you know? What makes you think you can work wonders with this ship?"
Dushan paused and let out a slight smile. His partner might finally be ready to listen to him. "As I tried to explain earlier, my father owned one of these ships when I was kid. I worked on it for years. Yes, this ship is big and bulky, but we're going to use that to our advantage. Now, just listen! First, we're going to take out the stock engines and replace them with a quad deck of Calibiee K19s."
Br'okkin looked doubtful. "What are you going to do, replace the entire power core? Can the spaceframe take the added stress? Have you even run the numbers on this?"
Dushan nodded. "Well, I'll need to put in some extra bracing, but as for the power core, that's the beauty of this project. I've got a set of four supplemental generators -- Gaspick A-class -- already lined up."
Br'okkin nodded slowly. "A-class, huh? You could run a customs cruiser with that kind of power...but they're restricted. Illegal for a civilian ship like ours. How'd you get your hands on those?"
Dushan winked. "They're not illegal everywhere. Granted, they're a bit on the used side, but I can rebuild them."
Br'okkin pulled at his chin wattles as his nostrils puffed in and out. "You really think you can do this?"
Dushan grinned. "I've got all the mechanicals sorted out. With the right adapters and crossfeeds and splices, I can patch --"
Br'okkin's eyes narrowed, suspicious.
Dushan held up his hands. "'Patch' really isn't the right word. I can, ah, modify the systems. The numbers aren't perfect, but, they're close enough. I mean, it's only starship engineering. You don't need to be that precise. Look in the engine rooms of half of the ships out here and they'd give a factory engineer brain spasms, but those ships fly. And so will this one!"
Br'okkin took a deep breath. "You're sure about this? You're talking about all kinds of modifications, using new parts rigged to work with rebuilt systems of questionable reliability...with only cobbled adapters, molecular fuse tape and a whole lot of prayer holding it all together. If you're wrong about this, we could end up stranded in interstellar space, watching our life support dwindle away and hoping that our distress drone doesn't get picked up by pirates."
Dushan nodded. "This will work. And the setup'll give us more power than some ships twice her size. Power for more speed, to feed the improved shield generators and blaster cannons I've got coming -- and all of it neatly disguised as civilian grade equipment, so the inspectors will pass right by. This ship is filled with crawlways where we can tuck all of the 'questionable' components into hiding. And all of that extra space gives us room for more smuggling compartments."
Br'okkin found himself nodding, almost involuntarily, as he studied the ship. "Well, if we do all that...she might perform like you say she will." Then he turned back to his partner. "But I don't understand. Why go to all of this trouble? We could just buy a newer ship to get this kind of performance --"
"Sure," Dushan agreed. "We could go out and get a Capessian Hyper-66g or one of those new Pel'arrins if we had what, a hundred and fifty thousand Steds? You have that much laying around? I sure don't."
Br'okkin said nothing.
Dushan raised an eyebrow. "So, we don't have the money. Maybe we could borrow it? Let's see, if we go to a bank...now, will they be offering a loan to two men with no legitimate credit history, with 'smuggler' penciled in under occupation, and with no collateral except the ship itself, which could get blown into millions of tiny bits?" Dushan raised an eyebrow. "Not likely. Am I right so far?"
Br'okkin nodded. Everything Dushan had said so far was undeniably true and they both knew it.
"Thought so." Dushan smiled. "So, a bank is out. That puts us in the position of having to borrow money from Tal-Tek or one of the dozens of other gangsters in the Five Systems. And whoever it is that loans us the money now owns us. You know how that works. Between jacked up interest and penalties, getting the runaround when it comes time to get paid for the runs we take...by the stars, we'll never get out from under that kind of debt. And when our financier gets tired of us -- or feels that we're starting to have a bit too much success -- we'll have thugs showing up to steal the ship and rough us up in the process. And that's if we're lucky."
Br'okkin nodded. "I see your point."
"I knew you would." Dushan smiled. "Now, I want you to picture what we could do with this ship. It's an ancient freighter. Customs agents are going to see us hobbling into port and burst out laughing. They'll never give us a second glance. And this specific ship has a clean history. No prior incidents. Any time they do an identity check on her, she'll come up clean. We can nod and smile and say, 'Oh, no, sir, nothing to see here. You just move along.' And they will."
Br'okkin smiled at Dushan, then started for the boarding ramp. "You know, Tal-Tek might've been wrong about you, Dushan. You're pretty smart for a human."
"Thanks for noticing," Dushan said as he held his chin up proudly. "And Tal-Tek was wrong about you, too. You're pretty charming for a Ryz'Sarrim." He stared up at the ship. Their ship. "It may be junk...but it's our junk. Ready to check her out?"
Br'okkin looked up into the dim interior. "At least I can see in there. Why not?"
He sprinted up the freighter's ramp, Dushan following and gesturing excitedly, hands flying in the air as he relaxed and started chattering. "You know, having the FlareRider get shot down...and almost getting captured by Warlock...and fighting off those mercenaries...that was all just a stretch of bad luck. It's behind us."
"I'm sure it is," Br'okkin muttered as he reached the ship's engineering room. He looked around, his four nostrils flaring out. He turned to Dushan. "What's that smell?"
"Er, I don't smell anything," Dushan said, smiling nervously.
Br'okkin frowned as he peered around the room, then glanced up the access tube that led to the upper deck. "Well, I certainly do. Remember, my sense of smell is about one hundred times keener than yours. Smells like hi'neha sweat and mildewed cimm-pods...and wet sqarrif fur...."
He stopped, inhaling sharply. His mouth formed an "o" as he recognized the source of the odor. He whirled around to face Dushan. "This ship smells like Throc'jin. A whole herd of them."
Dushan rocked his head back and forth, a guilty look on his face. "Well, yes, Addey did mention that the prior owners were Throc'jin...but she assured me the entire ship had been sanitized."
"You're just a human. I suppose you could overlook the stench. But I'm a civilized creature --" Br'okkin looked down at him. "We're never going to get the odor out. Great...just great...I'm going to have to wear a filtration mask inside my own ship."
"When we're done with it, this is going to be a wonderful ship!" Dushan raised his hands and gestured around the room, simultaneously shifting a few feet to the left to block Br'okkin's view of the frayed power cables. He made wild swoops of his hands as he dramatically narrated his vision. "Think of it -- fast, deadly in a fight. The scourge of every customs service in the Five Systems and pirates alike! I can see it now. Come on, just imagine it, Br'okkin!"
Br'okkin shook his head in disbelief.
"Trust me," Dushan said.
"That's what you said exactly three minutes before you 'fixed' the FlareRider's shield generators and we lost the entire system. Now, let me see, what happened next?" He stared at Dushan, eyes narrow and his breath coming in short, angry gasps. "Oh, yeah, we got blown out of the blasted sky!"
He turned and climbed up the ladder that led to the bridge, cursing under his breath.
Dushan watched his friend go and then looked around the room, studying the engineering console, the power core and drive feeds. "This ship's going to be beautiful when we're done with her."
He heard a faint buzz-crackle, followed by a sizzling sound. The smell of crisped electronics brought him back to reality. "But there's a lot to be done before that."
The piercing whine of the power core filled the room and Dushan's eyes grew wide. He jumped for the ladder, shouting, "Br'okkin, wait! She's a bit touchy when you first fire up the generators --"
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