Mohr'lii leaned on the fence and sighed as he surveyed his herd. They grazed on the tough scrubs of his land in the cool air of a star-lit night. He'd gone all-in; spent everything he had on these two dozen head. With a little luck and some good weather, he'd be able to turn them over at the end of a couple seasons for as much as three thousand a head. That would be enough, he hoped, to pay off the loans and save a bit of extra for a ring.
A soft breeze tickled Mohr'lii's gills and gave him a sense of things to come. The air was still dry. Probably no rain for another three, four months. He could go that long, but he worried about his herd. His new buffalumps had full, fat reserves now, but those would diminish soon enough. Mohr'lii tried to have some faith in his enterprise. His people had been ranching in this region for decades, and their herds always prospered. He just had to take it one day at a time, tend to the needs of his herd, and the money would come. He'd be out from under the thumb of the bank. And he could buy a ring. For her.
Image by Retroroxi @ Deviantart
WARNING: this story contains some adult language, you can't say you haven't been warned!
The wind picked up again and blew Mohr'lii's spare shirt off the line where it had been left to bleach in the sun earlier in the day. Mohr'lii swore in alarm. It was his only other shirt. He stepped off the porch to retrieve it and found himself staggered by another strong gust of wind. All the buffalumps had their heads raised now. As they huddled together to form a wall, Mohr'lii turned into the wind to see whatever it was they saw.
A blast of scalding air accompanied by an ear-shattering roar and the thud of landing gear rammed into the hard-packed earth. Mohr'lii shielded his eyes from the blast of dust and grit, then peeked over his sleeve as the now-landed craft noisily released the locks on a hatch and rolled out a ramp.
The buffalumps panicked and bolted for the open plains.
"Wait!" Mohr'lii screamed at them. The plains were pocked with grump-holes which the buffalumps were sure to step into and break legs. Ignoring the ship which had just landed in his front yard, he ran after his herd whistling and emitting pheromone packets, trying desperately to calm his animals before any were hurt. "Wait! Heeere Bessie, good 'lumps, come on girls! Heeeere!"
Something huge and metallic ran past Mohr'lii in the dark. Whump, whump, whump, the giant footfalls passed him leaving a miasma of scents in its wake: steel, engine grease, mammal... alcohol?
The ten-foot-tall mechanoid biped had enormous pincers which it extended to grab a buffalump around the middle. The animal lowed in panic as it was picked up and tossed overhand into the gaping maw of the parked ship.
"Out of the way, little man," a female voice blasted out of speakers mounted on the mechanoid's shoulders as it nabbed a fifth buffalump. "I'm in a hurry."
Mohr'lii's jaw hung slack as he cast about, wild-eyed, for something to threaten the mechanoid or its driver with. "You can't do this!" he screeched. "Those are my herd! Please, oh God, put it down, wait! Please!!!"
"Were your herd," the mechanoid corrected. "You're being robbed, friend. Sorry and all that." She didn't sound very sorry at all.
Mohr'lii threw himself at the mechanoid, distraught. He caught the cold metal of the hyper-extending sprung legs in a close embrace and held on as if his life depended on it. "Noooo! Pleeeeease, I have nothing, nothing! You can't doooo this to meeee!" He released every pheromone he could think of up into the control cage.
"Get off!" the mechanoid jumped up and down a few times, rattling the teeth in Mohr'lii's head. He held fast. "Oooh, you are an annoying little man! I don't have time for this." Mohr'lii heard the hatch of the control cage unlock and open above him. He looked up to see a naked mammalian face framed with a halo of bright pink hair looking down at him in annoyance. "Fine, I will pay you. What do you use as currency on this barren dust-ball of a planet? Make it fucking snappy, little man, because I am a cunt's hair from just crushing you beneath my three-tonne foot. Talk!"
"Pay? What, I... Dokmar. We use Dokmar."
"Dokmar - what, like paper chits? For fuck's sake man, I fly a space ship, not a printing press! What do you trade them for? What's your currency based on? Economic theory - remember some! Now!"
"Okay! Okay! I, we, WATER! We trade for water!"
The female in the control cage looked amused. "Water? You're serious? Well, shit." Her face disappeared back into the cage and Mohr'lii heard the static blast of a comm being activated. "Marcie? I need a quick blast at 35.212, 78.992. No, 993. No, oh for fuck's sake use your discretion and see if you can avoid fucking killing me. I know you're - yes, I know. Okay, yes, thank you. Water. Yes, just a few cubits. Tah, darling!"
"Blast?" Mohr'lii cautiously removed himself from the mechanoid's leg. "What are you..."
Mohr'lii looked over his shoulder and saw a bright yellow flash light up the eastern sky. Mohr'lii had to shield his eyes but caught a brief glimpse of the column of fire that shot down out of the stratosphere. The following explosion knocked him off his feet and bombarded him with a hail of pebbles and debris. Just as he thought he was recovered, a second column, this time a gleaming column of water reflecting starlight, dropped out of the sky. He cowered again as he was showered by a very cold impromptu rain.
"There!" the female in the mechanoid declared, sounding very pleased with herself. "Your own bloody reservoir. I hope that'll pay for the cows, little man."
Mohr'lii stood slowly, his eyes growing wide. Where once he had 500 unbroken acres of dry scrubland, he now had a pond - a lake, an ocean! - of black water. So much water. Mohr'lii had never seen so much in one place. I'm rich. I am the richest man on the whole planet. In the sector! Oh my god, I made it! This is it!
Then the rumbling started. Mohr'lii thought it was another blast from space, an earthquake maybe. He saw the mechanoid back off a few paces and heard the female shout, "Wait, no! Bad Bessie! Bad cows - buffal-" and then the control cage snapped shut.
Mohr'lii stood and turned just in time to see the remainder of his herd bearing down on him, stampeding away from the new reservoir. The first buffalump knocked him down and the world went black.
Mohr'lii woke to a world of stink, noise and pain. His cheek was pressed into a mesh floor caked with buffalump shit. The animals were liquid with the stuff in their panic. They were also packed into this pen so tight that they couldn't do much more than bellow, stomp and shit, for which Mohr'lii supposed he should be grateful.
Hisssss. Mohr'lii felt an influx of fresh air as someone nearby opened a door. One of the buffalumps gave a particularly loud cry and then the room seemed a good deal less crowded. Hisssss, the door shut again.
Mohr'lii stood up and looked around. The small holding pen only contained a dozen buffalumps, a trough of feed, and him. He soothed the buffalumps as well as he could as he made his way to the door.
"Hey!" Mohr'lii banged on the door. "Hello? Is anyone out there? Look, I don't belong in here, I'm-"
Hissss. The door opened to reveal chaos.
The area was a huge labyrinth of metal staircases, mesh boardwalks, conveyor belts and piping ringed by countless storeys of sealed cells. There also seemed to be trebuchets affixed to lode-baring columns at either end of the empty space in the middle of the cavernous room, and these were being used to launch buffalumps at a very large golden reptile perched on the railings. The reptile seemed to enjoy snatching the airborne buffalumps in its maw-of-a-thousand-fangs, gobbling them down as if they were chasers to the main course, which consisted of whatever it could tear out of the holding cells.
A huge, reptilian biped grabbed Mohr'lii by the front of the shirt, hauled him out of the pen and shut the door behind him. "Don't get eaten," he bellowed at him and then sprinted off down the walkway towards the golden lizard.
"Eaten?" Mohr'lii felt queasy. He looked left then right and declared, "Could I go back into the pen? Please?"
"What, do you really want to end up as tinned meat?" The woman with the bright pink hair had materialized at his left, looking bright and perky despite the blood leaking from a cut to her scalp. "Come with me, little man. We need your talents." She took off down the walkway after the big reptile-man. Mohr'lii was relieved to see she was armed with a hand-held cannon that had a mouth as wide around as his head. He decided the best place to be was behind that gun.
"LAUNCH!" the pink woman ordered, and a buffalump cleared the cavern. The golden lizard caught it and roared a happy roar. "FURTHER LEFT, FOR FUCK'S SAKE! WE'RE NOT FEEDING IT!"
"I can go get a monofilament net, Capt'n," the reptilian man grumbled to the pink woman as they met up at the end of the walkway. "We could just-"
"No, no, again, no! We aren't going to hurt this thing, Jubs! We just need to coax him back in his cage. MORE COWS!" she bellowed back to the other end of the platform. "LEFT, THIS TIME! LAUNCH!"
Another buffalump sailed through the air, and this time the golden lizard had to stretch its neck a little to catch it. The pink woman looked annoyed.
"Erm, excuse me," Mohr'lii interrupted, looking pointedly at the hand cannon. "You don't want to hurt it? But this thing-"
"-is a one-of-a-kind nebula dragon, little man!" the woman looked incredulous. "Made of gold. Do you have any idea what it could be worth to the right buyer?"
"It would still be made of gold if it was dead, Boots," the lizard-man called Jubs grumbled. "And in the meantime, 'e's eatin' half the cargo." As if to demonstrate, the dragon tore open a holding cell and plucked some giant, tasty-looking green eggs out.
"If I wanted to trade in gold, Jubs, I'd have chosen another line of work." The Captain turned to Mohr'lii. "Little man, you've gotta use your funny animal mojo on my nebula dragon. Lead him back to his cage like a good little piper, okay?"
Mohr'lii almost fell over trying to back away from her. "What? No! I have no idea how to talk with a - with a golden dragon! No, no, mm mm, no way. I'm a rancher, just a simple rancher. And I want to go back to my farm now, thanks. I just-"
The Captain aimed her hand cannon at his face. All traces of amusement had evaporated from her demeanor and what remained was the resolution of a seasoned ship's captain.
"You like your head where it is, little man?" she growled at him. "You will help cage my dragon," she promised. "Or I'll open your skull up and find those hormone glands on my own."
Mohr'lii dropped to his knees and held his hands up in front of his face. "No, please. How about - how about I lead out my buffalumps? Maybe - maybe - maybe he'll follow them, you know, to whatever-"
"Little man!" The captain sheathed her gun and let a huge smile take over her face. Mohr'lii looked around him in bewilderment, as if the dangerous, cannon-wielding captain of a minute ago could still be hiding around a corner. "Now that's problem-solving talk! Come on, no more talkies. Move move move!"
"...so then the little man's antennae are all like, woobble woobble woobble." The captain, Boots, laughed as she wiggled her fingers at her temples, mimicking the movements of Mohr'lii's gills. "And the cows just line up to be eaten! I am not fucking shitting you! Then he just leads them down to the caverns and the nebula dragon is all, GLOM GLOM GLOM..."
"I'm Mohr'lii," Mohr'lii tried to interject. "And they're buffalumps." The five members of the crew roared with laughter, but Mohr'lii couldn't tell if they were laughing at him or the captain. She does tell a good tale, he had to admit. She was draped across a chair with her alarming pink leather boots resting on the table, taking deep swigs of an alcoholic beverage whose vapours had made Mohr'lii drunk. The more she drank, the funnier she got. Or seemed to get. Or thought she got. Mohr'lii couldn't tell anymore, but he smiled anyway. He was rich, and he had been made the hero of the hour on a strange space ship in orbit around his home. What a day!
"...anyway, it's a job well fucking done, kids! And Marcie tells me there's mining outposts on at least a dozen of the moons in this system, so I'd say we've found a place to stay for a while-" A few people cheered as Boots passed the bottle along. "-so drink up! Tomorrow's booked for an epic fucking hangover!" This time everyone cheered and Mohr'lii felt a strange sense of cameraderie, even though this wasn't his ship, and these weren't his crew. He was almost sad to have to go.
"Um, Captain? Excuse me, sorry, Captain... Boots?" Mohr'lii wound his way around the wayward limbs of the lounging crew to where the Captain was sitting and chatting with Jubs. "Sorry, right. It's just that, I mean I just wanted to ask – so, can I go home now? I mean, I helped you put the dragon back and all, and I'd kind of hoped I could-"
"Oh no, oh little man."
"Mohr'lii," he whispered, suddenly afraid of the tone of her voice.
"Morley. Morley, honey, you can't go home." Her brown eyes were big and round, like a luppy's. She took her pink boots off the table and leaned closer to him. "We've jumped away."
"Hm?" Her answer was so unexpected that Mohr'lii had trouble understanding it. "Jumped away?"
"Yes, honey. Spun up the quantum jump engines. Jumped. Left. We're not in your system anymore. We're not even in your sector. It's possible we're not even in your galaxy."
Mohr'lii's insides felt like they were filling up with rocks. "But, I, we - couldn't we jump back? You could just drop me off, I don't think-"
"Morley, Morley. Quantum jump engines don't work like that. The jumps are random. Even if I could spin up the engines right away, there's almost no chance we'd end up back in your system. I'm sorry. Look, we can drop you off anywhere, um, here, if you like. The mining colonies-"
But Mohr'lii wasn't listening. All my water, he was thinking. My land. My home. My girl.
"Hey, Morley? You alright there, little man? Maybe you just need a drink, hey? Maybe a shower and a nap? You smell like cow shit. We can set you up with new clothes, some quarters..."
I was rich. I had just got rich. He looked at Boots and felt the saddest pheromones start to drift out of his gills. Oh god, don't cry now. Boots looked concerned, then annoyed, then water started to pool up in the corners of her eyes. Mohr'lii couldn't take it.
"YOU'RE LEAKING WATER!" He collapsed to his knees, helpless to control the mix of pheromones wafting out of his gills. "How can you just LEAK WATER like that? You could have stayed on Rh'ell and lived like a GOD there, but NO! You STOLE MY BUFFALUMPS and KIDNAPPED ME and NOW YOU TAUNT ME WITH YOUR LEAKY, WATERY BODY, you FREAK!" The other crew members started to get worked up too, falling under the influence of his pheromones. I don't care, Mohr'lii thought to himself. Let them feel my sorrow and my loss. My rage and frustration! I just want to go home!
The quiet, quadruped twins who fed the cargo, collapsed into each other, shaking with sorrow. Jubs the reptilian turned on them in anger, demanding to know why they were so useless, had always been so useless. The shadowy weapon master shrank into a corner with the biggest bottle of alcohol, upending it down his throat and Boots...
"Right. Fuck this." Boots wiped the water off her face and stood unsteadily. "Sorry Morley, but life happened." With a cold, detached motion, she unholstered her hand cannon and stared him down. "Turn it off." She wiped her eyes with the back of the other hand. "Now."
"I can't!" Mohr'lii wailed despite the gun.
"Yes, you can, Morley. You have to choose to turn it off." She leveled the gun at his face. "Grow up and do it."
Mohr'lii lowered his forehead to the ground and closed his eyes. "I can't, okay? Just kill me!" he sobbed into the ground. He could hear people arguing and crying all around him, drunk on his pheromones. He waited, overwhelmed with grief.
Mohr'lii squeezed his eyes shut. The back of his head exploded in a starbust of pain, and then the world went black again.
How did I end up like this, Mohr'lii thought. The circular motion of the machine drying his clothes made him queasy, but he couldn't look away. His head ached terribly, though whether it was a hangover from his breakdown, the alcohol vapours, or the goose egg where Boots had pistol-whipped him, he couldn't say.
Boots and her crew had stripped him naked while he was unconscious, ostensibly to wash them, and him. You're part of the crew now, Boots had gently informed him when he came to on the floor of the mess hall. You can't smell like cow shit. When he had discovered they wash clothes here by submerging them in water, he had the most perverse desire to see it happen. He'd been sitting here ever since.
"I know you're there," he finally broke the silence. "I can smell you. Boots. Captain." She slowly came through the door and sat herself down on the railing next to him.
"Look," Boots broke the silence after a few awkward minutes. "I'm sorry we took you away from your home. But we were in a hurry, and you were out cold after almost being trampled, and-" Mohr'lii sniffed. "Hey, keep it together, little man. Another wild orgy of hormones like you caused back in the mess hall and I'll just pack you into a holding pen as cargo. I'm sure we could get a good price for you from someone, somewhere. Don't be a liability."
"What's the difference?" Mohr'lii said bitterly. "Holding pen, quarters. I'm trapped here now. What's the point of anything anymore?"
"Oh, for Christ's sake, Morley! Bleak fucking assessment, don't you think? You could join the crew. We could use a man of your talents. You've a way with the cargo, that's pretty clear. And you can get rich out here, you know? Once the payday comes, you can retire to the next lush green - or dry and barren, whatever toots your horn - planet we come across. You could do fucking worse."
"If I don't get eaten by a dragon first, you mean! What do you even do out here? What do you mean I have a way with the cargo? I haven't even seen your cargo."
Boots looked surprised. "What, you haven't figured that one out yet? You caught us in the act!"
Mohr'lii looked warily at the Captain. "You're buffalump hustlers?"
"What? No, they were just feed! We're poachers, Morley. We trade in lifeforms. We find 'em, catch 'em, keep 'em and trade 'em. We have over 15,000 different lifeforms on the Leapfrog right now."
"FIFTEEN THOU- how is that even possible? Your ship must be - how could we possibly-"
Boots waved her hand dismissively. "The how of it is too complicated to explain. We'll have to call it "early quantum state phenomenon". Only way to fit 5,000 species of mammals on the same boat, to say nothing of the bacteria, birds, reptiles, fish - well, you get the idea. Anyway, that's not important. The take-home point is, we can use you. I can offer you a contract. And you're free to go anytime you want."
Mohr'lii thought about for a few moments. He was too tired to be outraged anymore, and without panic clouding his judgement, it didn't actually sound so bad.
"But will I ever get home? Ever?"
Boots looked apologetic. "I really doubt it, Morley. The jump engines do tend to include the quantum states of the ship's occupants when calculating a jump destination, but you're just one little dude. I don't think that's enough weight to effect the odds of us ever jumping anywhere near your home again. Space is big. Really big. You won't believe how hugely mindboggling big it really is. We will jump a thousand times and you will see things you never dreamed of, but the odds of jumping to the same place twice? Impossible. Basically impossible."
The dryer slowly ground to a stop and the door popped open, inviting him to gather the toasty warm pants within. He gathered them up and put them on. "I guess I'm in, then."
Boots smiled from ear to ear and hopped off the railing. "Good! Day after tomorrow, the adventure begins!"
"Day after - what about tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow is hangover day. Weren't you paying attention? C'mon little man, back to the mess hall. We've drinking to do."
"Captain! Captain? Boots!" A woman's voice could be heard over the loudspeaker, growing in volume as if someone had their finger on the knob. "BOOTS!"
"Wuh, wuh? Effofftodaywuzcanzelled." Mohr'lii watched through the blurry crack in one eye as the captain propped herself up on one elbow where she lay on the floor and began drawing her hand cannon on the loudspeaker.
"I know Boots, but you have to come to the bridge. You have to see this!"
"Izzit Earth?" Boots slurred.
"No, it's - look, it's better!" That got the woman's attention. She clamoured to a stand and nudged Mohr'lii's face with the tip of her shiny pink boot.
"Okay, okay, we're coming," Boots kicked the rest of the crew awake and staggered towards the door. "Better be best ever or I'm'a gonna kill you, Marcie."
"It's best ever, Captain. Hurry!"
"Whaaaa!" Boots gasped as she pulled the camera's image up to occupy the full screen. They could all see it now. "Is that a - Marci, it's a - squee!" Boots jumped up and down and clapped her hands, hangover forgotten. "Space whale! Space whale! Guys, guys, we have to have it! Our first space whale!"
Mohr'lii watched the screen, growing increasingly alarmed as the space whale glided past a moon which seemed to be of comparable size.
"What? How could we - we could never fit that-"
"Hush, little man. You are new and lack wisdom." Boots silenced him. "It's bearing... 23.54 degrees, pretty quick though. We can send the big pod to scoop it up. Marci, have you sent a probe already? Have a profile for me?"
"Half a profile. It's solid silicon-based matter. Hasn't eaten anything for as long as I've been tracking it, but it emits a kind of chlorine gas-"
"Oh, swell. So much for my dreams of patting the space whale. Fine, fine - it probably feeds in the system though. Send some probes, maybe we can pick up a patch of whatever space-krill it eats. Blue and Belle, you guys can take a second pod hunting for krill-"
"This doesn't alarm you at all?" Mohr'lii interrupted, "How can you possibly have a pen designed to hold a solid silicone mammal the size of a moon?"
"We have every kind of pen." Marcie said in a matter-of-fact voice. She looked to be the same species as Boots, but Mohr'lii suspected she might actually be an artificial intelligence of some kind. "Any kind of pen. Think of something. Boom, we have one now."
"Yah yah, Quantum mechanics are fascinating." Boots sounded bored. "I want my space whale. Come on, Jubs. Morley, you wanna come?"
"No." Mohr'lii decided. Boots gave him the stink-eye. "I meant yes."
"Excellent." Boots said in a bright voice, rubbing her hands together. "Hangover day is cancelled! It's adventure day! Oorah!"
"It can't possibly fit." Mohr'lii stared out the window at the whale. "We could get lost in its pores."
"It will fit, Morley." Boots was annoyed, but Mohr'lii had already learned he didn't need to shut up until she unholstered her hand cannon. "We're bigger on the inside than on the outside, okay?"
"No, not okay. If that's the case, I think we should have a bigger cockpit! I want bigger quarters! I want a planet in my room! I want-"
"Little man." Jubs swivelled around in his chair and leaned an inch away from Mohr'lii's face. "It seems to me you're taking up too much space yerself." Mohr'lii shut his mouth and looked at the captain. She was busily banking into the space whale's path and didn't seem to be listening.
"Ready with the hatch, Jubs," she ordered. "I'm betting this thing can't steer too well."
"No sign of a propulsion system," Jubs confirmed, studying the completed scan Marcie had loaded up for them. "Hatch ready."
"Here we go!" Boots pushed down on the break and hauled the x-axis jet to the left. Mohr'lii braced himself, expecting to feel a lilting as they made the sharp turn, but the artificial gravity compensated perfectly. "Hatch!" she barked, and Jubs hit the button.
Mohr'lii heard the pop of the hatch locks and a deep moan that filled the whole ship. He tried to look out the windows to see what was becoming of the space whale, but the pod didn't seem to have anything like a rear-view mirror. Boots and Jubs seemed unconcerned, and after a few minutes Boots cracked a smile and hit the comm. "Did we get him, Marcie?"
"Sure did, Capt'n! Ten more minutes and he'll be all-in. Hold your course." Boots started half-humming a catchy song as they waited. "Okay, you can close the hatch." Marci's voice allowed them after Boots had been through the same verse of her song ten times.
"Squeeee!" Boots squealed. "Space whale! My very own space whale! I'm going to-"
"Captain!" Marci's voice interrupted them again, urgently. "Demos ships!"
"What?" The mood in the cockpit changed abruptly. Jubs sat up straight and started pulling up camera views on his screen, while a deadly-serious Boots hauled the pod back towards the Leapfrog. "Where? How many?"
"At least six. I'm still calculating-"
"Bring Blue and Belle back. Start spinning up the engines. We're going."
"Um, Demos?" Mohr'lii hated to ask.
"Bad guys," Boots said grimly. "The biggest intergalactic empire we've ever met. Their ships have faster-than-light capabilities. And big, big guns. Many big, big guns."
Mohr'lii's head filled up with questions. "Are they dangerous? Will they attack us?"
"Yes, yes. We've tangled with them before. Jubs used to be a prisoner, and we once caught - well look, those are long stories. The point is, we have a record, and if they find us here they won't exactly roll out the welcome mats. We have to run and hope we can get away."
"Hope?" Mohr'lii squeaked, "Wouldn't a jump take us far, far away?" He remembered the impossibility of ever finding his own way home again. Boots looked grim.
"The Demos cover a lot of the universe, as far as I can tell. And our probability of jumping into them, given... well, given our history with them, is unfortunately weighted pretty highly."
"What?" Mohr'lii had time to ask just before the docking clamps locked onto the pod.
"Unload the whale, Jubs. I'm going to the bridge." Boots unstrapped herself and climbed out of the pod. Mohr'lii scrambled to follow.
"What if they catch us? Will they blow us up? Board? Kill us? Capture us? I- Boots!" He had to run to keep up with her.
"So? So?" Boots asked impatiently, scanning the screens for information. "Where are we?"
"I'm calculating!" Marcie scrambled at her keyboard, then froze. "Oh shit. Sorry Boots, we're-"
"Is that a Demos ship?" Mohr'lii pointed at the viewscreen nearest him. A cluster of oblong ships with more windows than a city drifted nearby. Boots swore.
"Already?" she cried.
"We're the next system over. Barely 700 light-years." Marcie swallowed heavily. "Captain, what are we going to do? We can't spin up again for thirty hours."
"I know how my ship works," Boots growled through her teeth. She nodded at Marcie. "Page them. Maybe we can... stall. Or something."
"Stall for thirty hours?" Mohr'lii was skeptical. Nobody answered.
"Notorious Criminal Bramble Copperberry," an artificial voice boomed over the loudspeaker. "You are surrounded, outgunned, and outnumbered. Surrender immediately."
"Nice to see you, too." Boots picked up the microphone stand casually. "May I ask who you are? Don't you people have viewscreen technology yet?"
"Surrender immediately," the voice repeated. "This encounter need not be prolonged. Hand over Her Holiness and you will find your punishment lenient." The crew looked at each other uneasily. Mohr'lii could sense confusion in the air.
"Surrender sounds better than death," he hissed at Belle, who was closest to him.
"No, I don't think I will," Boots persisted, turning towards Jubs and mouthing, Her Holiness? "You deliver to us six hundred pounds of rations, six hundred thousand bars of iridium and a dozen barrels of scotch whiskey and then we will take Her Holiness to a neutral location."
The Demos voice was silent for a few minutes, then:
"Show us the Goddess."
Boots took her thumb off the comm button and looked at her crew. "We have a hostage," she announced. "Apparently. I want guesses about which one of my 15,000 charges it might be. Good guesses, correct guesses." Then she spoke into the mike: "Just a minute please."
The bridge erupted in discussion.
"One of those jeweled beetles from Dalari." Belle guessed.
"The nebula dragon?" offered Jubs.
"Might be one of the Demos guardsmen," Marci suggested. "From, you know, last time." She paused. "Oh wait, they're dead."
Boots pressed the comm button. "We require one solar day to prepare," she told the other ship. "We will contact you-"
"You will be given one hour," the Demos interrupted. "After which we will assume you have killed Her Most Holy Radiance and we will rain fiery death on you, your families, your homeworlds, and your races. You have been warned."
"Oh yah?" Boots shouted into the mike, but the link had been severed. "Dammit!"
"OH GOD, WE'RE GOING TO DIE!" Mohr'lii shreiked. The crew looked at him, then away in embarrassment.
"I'm open to suggestions here, folks," Boots conceded. "We have no idea which of these little critters is their Goddess. We can't jump for another thirty hours. We can't fight a dozen - hell, we can't fight one - Demos destroyers. That's what we can't do. What can we do?"
"Abandon ship in the pods and hope they can't hit such little targets?" Blue suggested.
"Throw buffalumps at them?" Jubs said. "Because that worked so well yesterday."
"I'd think they'd fear the golden dragon more," Mohr'lii said, missing Jubs' sarcasm entirely. "It was very big."
Boots' eyes grew wide. "Holy shit, Morley, that's an idea!" she declared. "We have at least five hundred space-faring creatures on board. We unload them. At them. Best case scenario, one of them is their Goddess and we use it for cover. Worst case, they cause some chaos and we... use it for cover. Hell, I bet that nebula dragon could really do some damage!"
"That bacteria from Freja IV could probably eat right through the hulls of their ships," Marcie suggested, and Boots stomped her foot in excitement.
"Yes, thank you, now we're thinking! Okay, 52 minutes and counting. Hazmat suits all around. We'll have to let the cargo out internally, so they don't see what we're up to. I want all ten pod bays farting out space monsters in half an hour." Boots assigned floors to each of her regular crew, then turned to Mohr'lii. "And you, little man, get the nebula dragon. Being as you're such close personal friends now."
Mohr'lii gaped. "But I still don't know how to-"
Boots looked tired. "Take your pick,. Morley. Risk the dragon, or die to the Demos. Don't be such a baby. You'll do fine." Mohr'lii didn't answer. "Great. Off we go, people! Move!"
"Come on, come on!" Mohr'lii had expected to be eaten by the dragon. He had not expected the dragon to be fat, lazy and very keen on napping. He wiggled his gills and released clouds of what he hoped was a very enticing female dragon pheromone. The dragon yawned and burped. It did not seem very aroused.
The first wave of space-faring life had already been launched and Mohr'lii could hear the battle from here. From the updates being screamed over the intercomm, he gathered that early champions of their cause included their space whale and Marcie's corrosive bacteria, but that a colony of jellyfish and a massive skeletal eel of living metal on which they had pinned many hopes had been killed early on. A second wave was about to be launched, and Boots was nagging Mohr'lii impatiently for what she was calling "the big guns".
"Come on buddy, up and at them!" On a lark, Mohr'lii changed the chemical mix in the dragon pheromone to something a little more towards the male end of the spectrum. He was relieved to see the dragon open one eye and appear to raise a golden eyebrow. "Oooh, it's like that, is it?" Mohr'lii almost laughed, and turned up the testosterone in the mix as high as he could. The dragon opened its other eye and heaved itself to its feet. Its long golden scales began to unwind.
Not wanting to know what might come next in a dragon mating ritual, Mohr'lii turned and ran. The closest docking bay should have been as close as he wanted it to be, from what he understood of quantum space, but the dragon must have had a say on the subject too. It slinked after him in a seductive manner, and Mohr'lii was sure this hallway now stretched on to infinity. The dragon seemed to have extended to its full length now, and Mohr'lii couldn't see the tail from the head.
Mustering all the belief he could, Mohr'lii turned and opened the nearest pen. "THIS IS THE DOCKING BAY," he insisted, and it was. Jubs and the shadowy weapon master were within already, and they beckoned him to a control booth. Mohr'lii wasted no time. The dragon was right on his heels when the door slammed behind him.
"LAUNCH!" He screamed, not caring if he was allowed to give that order. Jubs hit the airlock control and quicker than any of them could blink, the dragon was sucked out into space.
"He's out!" Jubs informed Boots via the comm.
"Sorry, golden buddy!" Mohr'lii found himself calling. He listened anxiously to the battle outside. All he could hear were explosions and an occasional wet thump against the outside of the ship. Despite everything, he really hoped they didn't kill his dragon.
"Jubs," Boots' cheerful voice broke in over the comm. "Marcie's going to wire you a visual feed. You guys have to see this."
The screen sputtered to a start. The nebula dragon shone gold against the huge black sky. Shone with a yellow light it didn't have before, Mohr'lii now saw. "Did we guess right?" he whispered. "Is he - she? - the Goddess?"
The light centred on the dragon grew with intensity until Mohr'lii almost had to look away. The dragon's body convulsed then, twisting up into a knot as if in pain.
"Is it-" Mohr'lii squinted at the screen. "-is it vomiting?"
A speck - just a pinprick against the black landscape of space - launched out of the dragon, containing all the light they'd seen moments ago. The now-diminished dragon turned and listlessly drifted away from the enemy ships, as if it wanted to come back inside the Leapfrog. The tiny ball of glowing light hung in mid-air.
"That's it!" Boots' voice rang out over the comm. "Is that the little jumping mouse we picked up last year? The one with the adorable tiny jewelry? Aww! I knew she was special. What a cutie!" Mohr'lii wasn't sure how appropriate it was to refer to the Goddess of an intergalactic empire as "adorable", but he kept that to himself. He was just relieved to see the Demos launch a little shuttle and not a barrage of torpedoes.
"Boots," Jubs cleared his throat after they'd watched the tiny drama play out for a few minutes. "We gave up our hostage. Wasn't there something about sneaking away in the chaos?"
"But... my space whale..." Boots sounded genuinely regretful. "But you're right, damn you. Get back up here, everyone. We're going to beat a tactical retreat."
"Wait!" Mohr'lii put his hand on Jubs' arm before he could close the airlock. The nebula dragon drifted lazily into the hold and curled up on the floor. "Okay, now." The door shut with a snap and the dragon fell asleep.
So that happened, thought Mohr'lii. They slowly pulled away, creeping off like a thief into the starry night.