[This story is also available in the collection, Blake Starwater and the Adventures of the Starship Perilous: The First Five Adventures]
As Blake Starwater walked through the streets of the spaceport village, past pubs and cheap guesthouses, snippets of the conversation reached him. People were upset—not just crews, but passengers, too. Blake, who made his living taking on other jobs—the dangerous jobs that other crews wouldn't touch—was unconcerned. Blake didn't like passengers on his ship.
"Well what purpose does such a regulation even serve?" asked a Tunaman, leaning across the bar in Rocco's Joint, both elbows on the glowing plexi and taking up far too much space. The Tunaman's fins were trembling and twitching, suggesting he was especially worked up. The Rotini beside him was eyeing the nearer of the Tunaman's arms, which was inching dangerously close to the Rotini's drink—a tall glass filled with a bubbling, neon-green liquid. The look on the Rotini's face indicated that there was going to be trouble if the arm and drink came together.
Blake Starwater put his hand on the Tunaman's shoulder. The angry face turned to look back, the fishy features narrowing in recognition.
"French." Over the Tunaman's shoulder, Blake caught the bartender's eye. "One rabbithop, please. French, what are you drinking?"
"Oh, Starwater." He waved his webbed hands. "Nothing for me, I've had enough. Soon, I won't have enough credits to buy drinks, thanks to this ridiculous new regulation. Have you heard, Starwater?"
"I've heard, French. Make it two," he told the barman.
"They're trying to ruin those of us who are just wanting to make a nice, peaceful living."
Blake reached out and took the two drinks, and placed his creditstick in the slot on the bar. The barman punched a few buttons on his side and the appropriate amount was deducted from Blake's account.
"Come on," said Blake, arm around the Tunaman. "Tell me all about it."
He led the Tunaman from the bar to a table against the far wall, beneath a portion of low, sloping ceiling.
"It's the passenger liners, you understand," said French. His fins twitched as he spoke. He wore the wetclothes of his kind, which kept his skin moistened. "The cruise lines, the star ferry companies. They're losing too much money and they're blaming it on us little guys." French took a big swallow from the drink Blake had provided. "As if me carrying five bodies rather than two is suddenly going to sink these big passenger liners."
Blake shrugged and ran a hand through his blond hair. "A lot of people are starting to go with the small guy. Your rates are cheaper, and there's the experience of travelling with a crew, being a part of somebody's home for a few days. What do you get on a big old passenger liner that compares to sitting around a table and sharing food cooked in somebody's kitchen?" Blake took a swallow of his own drink. "Think about it," he said philosophically. "Every one of those big boats is the same. The rooms are the same, the restaurants. The swimming pools, and gyms, and stars above, the entertainment. People want something more, nowadays. They want a personal touch. An experience."
"Which makes it all the more insane for them to pass this new law," exclaimed French.
"Well, the two largest starship lines are based off of Santiago. Isn't that right? They have a lot of political clout here."
"They have too much clout everywhere," said the Tunaman, finishing his drink. He set the glass down heavily on the table, fins dancing. "Sure, it's Santiago today. But this will spread. Mark my words."
"Mark my words."
They slipped into silence. Blake sipped at his rabbithop, glancing around the interior of the pub. People were upset, but there seemed to be a lot fewer of them than usual. He couldn't recall ever seeing Rocco's Joint so subdued. Most of the other crews must be avoiding Santiago, he thought. Got wind of the coming regulation and are staying away. Or loaded up with their two passengers and already took off.
"Doesn't this mean that space on the private ships will be limited now?" Blake turned back to the Tunaman. "High demand. Fewer berths. Seems you can charge a premium price right now."
"Starwater, please. What do you take me for, a Salmonite? I'm not going to gouge, simply because I can. Besides, I'd have to downright steal from my passengers to turn what I can make from two into what I was able to make with five or six on board."
"Well, what are you still doing here, French? Plenty of other worlds in the sky."
"Oh, I'm going. We'll fly tomorrow. I'm actually only still here because I'm meeting later with a group of other captains who are upset and trying to get something done about this nonsense. We're hoping to engage with the frequent travelers, those who fly on crew ships regularly. Maybe if enough people make some noise." The Tunaman shook head. "I don't know. It's worth a shot anyways."
"French. Sounds like you're turning into an activist." Blake finished his drink, pushed the glass aside.
"Yeah, yeah. Care to add your voice to ours?"
"I'd love to, French. But I'm still looking for a job. Plus," Blake said, standing. "I don't like passengers."
The Tunaman sighed. "Well, if you change your mind. You can find me."
Blake nodded. "The local watering hole. Catch you later, French."
"Good health, Starwater."
Leaving behind the cluster of pubs and guesthouses at the south end of Santiago's Spaceport, Blake Starwater made the trek back across the paved landing field to his home, the starship, Perilous.
The ramp leading into the ship was lowered; Kitty lounged in a sunchair at the bottom, a bottle of microbrew beer on the tarmac beside her.
Blake stopped beside the Felioness and looked down. She wore a black bikini over her short yellow fur. Her face was as bare as any human woman's and similar in appearance except for the nose and whiskers. And the pointed ears atop her head, which poked through her blond hair. She glanced up at him from behind red heart-shaped sunglasses.
"Howdy, Blake. Got us a job?"
"Good," she said, grinning. "Because I did."
She extended one of her shapely, fur-covered legs. "Quick, rub my feet."
"No," said Blake, swatting away the woman's foot.
"Rub it," she pouted.
Her foot, which was furless and five-toed, poked at him. Blake pushed it aside. "You said you got us a job?"
"Yeah." She gave up and lowered her leg back onto the chair. "But you're not gonna like it."
"What about them?"
"He," she said. "He's an eight-legger."
"An Aran?" Blake shivered. "I've dealt with them before." Not happily, he thought. A creepy race, although it's not their fault. They look just like . . . But he'd deal with this one, too. As long as it paid. "What sort of job?"
"Oh, a fetch job," said Kitty. "Are you angry?" She turned over onto her side, exposing her rump. "Will you spank me?" Her tail moved seductively.
"I'm not mad. It's a paying job, right? We need the money. Did he leave contact details?"
"He did. They're in the ship." She wiggled her tush at him. "Will you spank me anyway?"
"Put your butt away, Kitty. I'm not going to spank you."
The Felioness let out a disappointed sigh and reached down for her beer. Taking a swig from the bottle, she rearranged herself on the chair. "Suit yourself," she said. Momentarily, she began licking her arm.
Blake walked past her, up the ramp, and into the Perilous. In the cargo hold, OMBot greeted him.
"Got your new purifier disc seal," said Blake, pulling the small, rubber part from his pocket.
"Oh good," said OMBot, limping over. The cylindrical robot stood slightly taller than Blake's waist. It reached out a mechanical arm and took the component.
"Need a hand?"
"Har har, Mr. Starwater," said OMBot, and then beeped. "I get it. A hand. I'm a robot."
"I'm just asking if I can help, OM."
"I'm old, but I can still install my own purifier disc seal."
"Whatever you say."
The little white robot hobbled a short distance away. A smaller arm appeared and pulled open one of the panels on the robot's front surface.
Blake watched for a moment as OMBot grunted and strained to install the replacement part. Shaking his head, Blake crossed the hold and jogged up the stairs to the main deck. Time to contact this Aran, he thought, striding forward to the bridge. See exactly what this job Kitty had set up for them was going to involve.
Two large round eyes, solid black, stared unblinking on the screen. They were fixed on Blake. Two more smaller orbs were visible on either side of the Aran's hairy face. He grinned at Blake. Or grimaced—it was difficult to tell.
"Mr. Starwater," said the Aran. "So swiftly you contact me. I assume your associate explained my needs."
"My associate, yes. She mentioned something about a job. Mister . . ."
The Aran made a hacking sound which might have been a laugh. "Just simply Rufus will suffice."
"I'd like to possess your services for a short time, Mr. Starwater. A simple little job. Securing some extremely precious cargos for me."
"Precious, just to me, you see," said the Aran. "But to me, very precious indeed. Your ship comes highly suggested for especially this type of salvage."
"A salvage job."
The Aran moved back and forth, nodding his body. "Is this world, New Yellowstone, sounding familiar, Mr. Starwater?"
"New Yellowstone?" Blake closed his eyes and tried to remember. The name seemed to be one he'd heard, but he couldn't think why exactly he knew it.
Two of the Aran's legs came into view, deftly bringing a cup towards his mouth. A straw within the glass disappeared into the Aran's maw, between sizable fangs. The Aran made a slurping noise as he drank.
Blake shook his head. "I'm sorry—"
"New Yellowstone," said the Aran, removing the cup from view, "is mostly scientists' interest only. A massive mega-volcano exists there. Since this great eruption some days past, several teams still remain. Severe damage sustained by one of these orbiting observation stations has seen this one abandoned, still circling above New Yellowstone."
Nodding, Blake said, "Now I remember the name. The newsfeed said the planet nearly blew itself apart."
"Serious eruption, yes," said the Aran.
"What's it to do with you, Rufus?"
The Aran was quiet for a moment, the strange, hairy face making some complicated Aran expression. He said, "This place, one of these stations circling this world, my children's mother was there, you see?"
"Is she alright? Was she hurt?"
"She is deceased."
"That's terrible, Rufus. I'm sorry."
"It is a fact of our lives, this dying. She lays the eggs, she dies."
"Well, still," said Blake, clearing his throat. "I'm sorry for your loss."
"She is dead in this place, this station in the sky of New Yellowstone."
"And you want us to bring back . . . what exactly?"
"The children. Please, Mr. Starwater, go to this station. See if these eggs of my babies survive. Bring these to me."
"Yes, please. Bring these to me."
"You say the station is severely damaged? What if your eggs were . . . I mean, during the, uh—"
"Space is no problem for these eggs. Nor loss of gravity. You must see if these eggs survive or not. If so, please, you must bring these."
"Bring them to you where?"
"This place. To Santiago."
Blake blinked. "You're on Santiago? Why didn't we just meet face to face, Rufus?"
The Aran grinned again. Or grimaced more. "I am shy. Species not the same as us, sometimes they are not so nice, you see."
Blake nodded. "I'll do it, Rufus."
"Splendid," said the Aran, some of his legs coming together excitedly before him. "Super."
"And your wife, Rufus? If we, uh . . ."
"She is mother of my children. She is deceased. Her remains a shell only. Not necessary."
"Okay," said Blake, rubbing his chin. "Alright. This sounds like something we can do, Rufus." Blake leaned forward, put his hands on the console. "Let's talk about money."
"We got a job, guys."
The Perilous was en route to the Syrus star system, where the world of New Yellowstone was located.
Kitty, making a face, said, "Fetching a bunch of spider eggs?" The Felioness shivered. "I'd hardly call that a job. More like a punishment." She sniffed at the contents of a container from the refrigerator.
OMBot made a beeping sound like agreement.
"It's a well-paying job," said Blake, watching a protein soup circle around inside the microwave. "Anyway, you arranged it for us."
"The eight-legger didn't say we'd be loading up the hold with spider eggs." She turned to Blake. "I'm sorry. Are you mad?" She twisted her hips to show him her round bottom.
"I'm not mad, Kitty. I'm happy to have a job and one that sounds simple enough at that." He withdrew the steaming plexi container of protein soup and walked to the table. "Hold full of Aran eggs notwithstanding."
Settling into his chair, Blake looked at the numerous empty seats around the table. "Awfully quiet around here." He sat in contemplation, soup momentarily forgotten.
Kitty, who had selected a dish that smelled acceptable from the refrigerator, hopped up onto the counter and sat swinging her legs, digging into the leftovers with a fork.
"I miss the old crew, too, Blake."
"I wish . . . I don't know." Blake shook his head. "I wish things had gone differently."
"I know you do," said Kitty. "But you made the right call. Maybe the others will see the light, and come back."
OMBot made a sound like parts were clanging around loose inside it, which Blake interpreted as a robot cough, or a particularly intense robot throat clearing. "It's a lot quieter with that lot gone, if you ask me," said the robot. "Although you didn't." OMBot's round head swiveled and considered Blake and Kitty. "Always so much racket when they were around." It beeped. "Good riddance, I say."
"Oh come on, OM. You miss them, too," said Kitty.
"No," said Blake, taking a spoonful of soup. He remembered the things which had been said that day down on Foresthaven. The kind of things that once said, couldn't just be taken back with a simple apology. A rift had burst into being down there, a chasm which might ultimately prove impossible to cross.
He put the spoon to his mouth, swallowed down the soup. "No, I don't think they're coming back, Kitty."
The Felioness, stared ahead, saying nothing.
She feels it too, thought Blake. They were on their own now, the two of them. And OMBot. He took another spoonful of soup. Well, at least now they had a job to focus on. A job was good. Jobs kept them flying.
OMBot rattled and clanged, metal grinding within, as it leaned against the wall. Snoring.
The journey took close to fifty hours.
Passing time on a starship travelling through space was accomplished in different ways by different people.
OMBot, for instance, would plug itself into the Perilous's mainframe so that the robot could be notified immediately of any system errors or emergencies. After plugging in, the old robot would promptly go to sleep.
Kitty, who slept long hours and napped frequently anyway, spent most of her Long Voyage time sleeping. If awake, she might be found in the kitchen eating, or in the common area doing yoga, working out, or lounging around, licking herself. Occasionally, Blake would catch her watching spanking videos on the main telescreen and send the Felioness to her room.
Blake would often spend Long Voyage hours staring through the windscreens at the endless blur of deep space outside the ship, running things over in his mind. Regrets mainly. Things he wished that he could change or do over again, do differently. There'd been a lot of that lately since Foresthaven.
The crew had splintered, and that was his fault. Kitty might believe he'd done the right thing, but losing three good friends, or what he had thought were three good friends, because of one decision really hurt. If it was such a good choice, how could the crew have been so divided over it?
Whenever he could manage to stop torturing himself with his thoughts, Blake would spend a few hours plugged into the virtual reality game, Condux.
Blake spent the fifty hours to New Yellowstone doing a combination of these: checking the status of his Condux campaign, in between bouts of soul searching out the windscreen. Sleep came grudgingly when he forced himself to lie down, but never lasted for more than a couple of hours.
end of excerpt
"A Precious Cargo" is available as a single adventure digital download, and is also part of the collection, Blake Starwater and the Adventures of the Starship Perilous: The First Five Adventures.