The First Ambassador to Crustacea (2)

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2. A Job

Zip stared out at the multicolored mind bender that was warp speed travel. Huge strands of spaghetti-like matter looped around the outer edge of the cockpit’s viewport, but never collided with it. Instead, they faded into a slurry of cosmic disturbance in the wake of the galaxy’s finest ship, Nana’s Hog. Zip felt at home in the captain’s chair, hell, even felt at home in the near silence that was wherever ships went when they were at warp. For the first few years of interstellar travel, scientists had tried to illuminate the concept with helpful manuals and pictures, but found eyes glazed over rather quickly. So, instead, ships now opted for a bright red one-pager labeled ‘Warp Speed’. Beneath it, printed in simple, bright yellow letters were the words: “It just works”.

That had been Zip’s experience. Warp speed was confusing in a way that only cosmic spaghetti occasionally beset by ship-eating space monsters could be. So, rather than worry about it, Zip trusted in the single page. As long as she had that and the glowing monitors in front of her, assuring her that the hog would hold up, she was A-OK. The little man, the one curled up in the cargo hold, preferring the company of fish flakes to others; that was a different story.

            A job was a job, Zip never questioned that. This paycheck was about as mediocre as the rest, and the crybaby in the hold was far from the worst thing she had carried in the Hog’s belly. Thinking back, he was definitely one of the safer items, but somehow, still among the most unsettling. Zip tried to keep a positive atmosphere on her ship. Despite the forward-mounted tusks hiding two fully automatic, anti-matter guns, she thought of herself as a peaceful person. Nana’s Hog was a pleasure cruiser, that just so happened to dabble in legal and illegal cargo transport.

            She turned off the feed showing the cargo hold, tired of looking at the sad man. In its place, she pulled up a page on their destination, Crustacea. Before she had a chance to stop it, a short video began to play. It started with calming music and lapping waves. The specialty surround speakers she had installed in the cockpit made it feel like she might actually have been close to an ocean. The camera opened up on a wide, watery surface, likely CG, but convincing enough.

            “Crustacea,” began the narrator, “is a place like any other. Untouched by human intervention, it is an observable bastion of nature at its most wild and free.”

            Zip rolled her eyes. Nature was dangerous when it was wild and free, Earth was a perfect example of that fact. Most of humanity left, but those who didn’t were quickly overtaken by the nature that hadn’t had a choice in the matter. Or at least, that’s what reclaimers said whenever they got back from their parcel runs. On Zip’s dash was a relic of one of such runs. Mounted just above the diagnostics computer was a small statuette of a man in a white jersey, wearing a forward-facing cap, and holding a wooden bat. When Nana’s Hog jostled, the man’s head bobbled back and forth like he was having the time of his life.

Zip didn’t know much about what Earth had been, but the reclaimer that brought her the item said it was from an ancient form of baseball. She laughed to herself at the thought of someone trying to use a wooden bat in the modern form of the game. They wouldn’t even make it past the buzz drones on first line, let alone the opposing team’s crusher. Zip touched the figure, feeling the small amount of dirt and grit left on its surface. Hundreds of good luck touches had nearly worn it clean, but a small amount of grime clung to the object’s surface. The filth represented a small piece of humanity’s cradle, Earth. That alone was worth the price she paid.

            “While not much is known about their society, the citizens of Crustacea have sent several messages to the UCP.” A bright logo flashed across the screen, demonstrating the hundred rocket crest of the galaxy’s finest attempt at order, and bringing Zip’s attention briefly back to the video. “What initially came across as a series of angry clicks was painstakingly decoded over a decade.” Stock video of lab technicians working on computers played. “The first message was a simple one. You may have forgotten us, but we have not forgotten you.”

            The words put an uncomfortable prickle in the back of Zip’s skull. Messages from Crustacea were exactly why she was currently headed at warp speed toward the blue planet. While her employers hadn’t given her much to go on, she had done enough research to make some general assumptions. Pilsen, currently sitting in her cargo hold, moping, had been a high-ranking senator. The orders for the mission had come from the highest possible office, and the pay was bad, but better than most. That could only mean one thing, danger. Given Pilsen’s spotty track record of backing one of the dumbest men in the galaxy, Zip assumed that she was in the middle of political retribution.

            She turned off the documentary and keyed in the commands for a weapons check. If she was going to be in the middle of a political firefight, metaphorical or otherwise, she wanted to be the one bringing the fire. Zip didn’t know much about crabs other than what they tasted like boiled, deep fried, or drowned in butter. Given humanity’s oppressive relationship with the species, she didn’t expect negotiations were going to be all that friendly. In addition to the front-mounted cannons, Zip had packed old faithful, a collapsible machine gun capable of taking matter out of the air and turning it into micro projectiles. Yes, it was highly illegal in most societies, but it made her feel safe, like a teddy bear that occasionally spat out hunks of compressed material fast enough to disembowel the boogeyman.

            Zip turned the display back to the cargo hold. Her heart skipped a beat. Pilsen wasn’t there. Before she had a chance to check the rest of the shipboard cams, a ping came over the intercom letting her know someone was outside the cockpit door. A quick check revealed that the tiny, moping man was now standing outside, asking to be let in. Zip wasn’t fond of her passenger but wasn’t fond of sitting alone with her thoughts either. After a brief moment of consideration, she turned off her screen and keyed in the release and the cockpit’s metal door irised open.

            Pilsen stood, looking slightly less dejected than he had in his earlier self-pitying stupor. “Hi.”

            Zip briefly considered whether Pilsen was good-looking enough for a warp speed fling, thought better of it and turned back to the monitors. “I see you’ve decided to come out of the cargo hold.”

            “Yes, well, I figured it would be better to get to know the one other person saddled with this miserable journey.”

            Zip shrugged. “I’ve certainly had worse. At least Crustacea looks pretty.” She broadcasted an image of the planet over the cockpit’s viewport. In a fraction of a second, the multicolored spaghetti of warp speed disappeared and was replaced by a great, blue ball. They were viewing the planet as it would look from their descent.

            “That’s a lot of water.”

            “Yep.” Zip keyed a few more commands. “This is our landing site.” A small strip of land, barely visible in the unending ocean popped up on the screen. Palm trees surrounded a few utilitarian buildings next to a landing pad. From above, they looked like stranded, sad, grey blocks.

            “And our accommodations, I presume.”

            Zip laughed. “Sample the crab hospitality all you want, but I will be staying right here.” The bunk she had assigned Pilsen wasn’t necessarily comfortable, but she doubted any species composed of primarily chitinous armor could do any better. Besides, sleeping next to the bigger pair of guns was always a safer idea.

            “Don’t you think that might offend them?”

            Zip shrugged. “It might, but not offending them is your job. I just fly the ship.”

            Pilsen gulped and sweat beaded on his brow.

            “What do you know about why we’re headed down there anyway?”

            “We received diplomatic—”

            Zip cut him off with a wave of her hand. “I’m not looking for the talking points, I’m looking for your gut reaction. Why did President LaVain give you this assignment?” The answer was clear, but she wanted Pilsen to say it out loud so she could justify landing with the weapons warmed up.

            Pilsen’s face briefly contorted in a bubble of rage, but just as quickly deflated. Exhaustion was plain in his eyes. “Because it’s humiliating.”

            The tension in Zip’s shoulders relaxed a little. Humiliation meant the president probably wanted to keep Pilsen alive. Still, she didn’t trust the blue orb on their screen. Something about it just gave her the creeps. “Well, Pilsen, I can guarantee I’ll get you to your humiliation safe and sound.” She flipped a switch and the image of Crustacea disappeared, replaced once again by interstellar nonsense.

            “Thanks for that, I guess.”

            “Could be worse.” Zip motioned for him to take a seat.

            “It could be?”

            “You could be traveling with someone who doesn’t keep a stash of bootleg puffin rum in the glove compartment.”

            Pilsen took a seat, but his eyes went wide. “That is highly illegal.”

            “Politicians and their rules.” Puffin rum had been banned in just about every territory for two reasons. The first, animal cruelty. While long since off the endangered species list, using puffins as both labor and a primary component in distilling hard liquor was considered bad form. There were several brands that had created robotic equivalents, but it didn’t taste the same. The second reason, and in Zip’s mind, the real reason it was illegal, was the hallucinogenic, short-lived drunk that came with a single shot. Puffin rum lasted all of ten minutes, making it the perfect drink for a quick bout of relaxation during an automated warp jump.

Zip opened up a compartment in the ship’s center console and pulled out an unmarked brown bottle. Next to it were two glasses and a sizeable pistol that usually shut up any conversations about legality. “You look like you could use it is all.” Zip poured herself a small glass and left the bottle out. “With where we’re going, we both need it.”

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