by Danielle L. Parker
|part 1 of 11|
Jim Blunt, Captain of the starship Pig’s Eye, earns a living the hard way at the raw edge of human space. Caught between Earth’s long arm and the unwelcome attentions of humanity’s alien rivals, the Asp, the captain sometimes finds himself in more trouble than even an outlaw trader can handle.
The projector made a faint whir in the darkness. Brightness ran across the facing screen. The light, reflecting back, struck upon the old-fashioned glasses worn by the man operating the machine.
“There. The only native life form rated above the intelligence of a dog in the original survey reports. A zook. That’s what we call them. I’ll spare you their scientific name, since I don’t suppose you know Latin, Captain. They have about the intelligence of a five-year-old child. Look like orange-haired trolls mated to overgrown rabbits, don’t they?”
“And a damn nuisance they are,” the second man interrupted. John Tolman’s round red face shone with pent-up emotion. “Constantly underfoot. Eat everything and anything. Always mating in plain sight, and delivering litters of more cursed pests on one’s doorstep. They poop copiously in public places, and squeal like butchered pigs, all night, until no one can sleep!”
Jim Blunt stirred his coffee. “Sorry. I’m not an exterminator.”
Dr. Arlen Greene, behind the projector, cleared his throat before he replied. “We’re not asking you to kill zooks. They’re pests, of course, but we live with them. We have to: they’re a protected native species, under our charter constitution. If we cleared the zooks out, we’d have to give up our legal status as a protectorate of Earth.”
Jim Blunt raised a brow. “I thought your world — Thimble? — was inside the Rim. How’d you manage to become a protectorate of Earth?”
Greene nodded. “In terms of stellar location, yes, we are inside the Rim. But years ago, the first human colony made a special deal with Earth. We’re not a full member of the human association, it’s true.
“But the agreement formally recognized by the Aspian Empire in the Treaty of Dupre gives us benefits we’d be loath to forgo. We have military protection from Earth; exclusive trading rights and privileges; monetary and scientific support as long as we adhere to the charter constitution.
“Good stuff, mostly: democratic elections; civil rights for citizens and an independent judiciary; protection for native species and plant life; free trade. The association — and the constitution we agreed to — have been good for us, all in all. We’re prosperous.”
“Good, you say?” Tolman snorted. “The association with Earth is our life-blood. We don’t dare jeopardize it! Otherwise we’d be just another struggling, poverty-stricken, pirate-ridden, Asp-infested Rim colony!”
Jim Blunt squinted at the screen. The fat mop-headed creature smirked back at him. A sprig of vegetation stuck out of a corner of its wide silly mouth. The zook looked like the village idiot, happy and foolish.
“What’s the problem in paradise, then? Other than zooks, of course.”
A silence. Then, with a heavy sigh, Arlen Greene manipulated the projector once more. The image changed.
“This is the problem.”
Blunt lowered his cup. He whistled. “Guess that might be a problem.”
“It’s big,” Tolman said. “Much bigger than a man, Captain. About three meters tall. Nearly as wide. And it’s fast. Believe me, it’s fast, and it’s nasty.”
The creature had the look of a crab, something of a spider, and worst of all, a hint of the humanoid. Blunt had trouble grasping the overall shape. The bipedal monster had buff-colored plating, with stiff orange wires sticking out from beneath the armor like hairs from an unshaven armpit.
It stood half-erect, leaning upon the bony knuckles of long arms. An apparently random number of clawed and weirdly angled limbs sprouted out of its hind parts. Its head was enormous and crab-like. Stalk eyes sprouted like mushrooms over the crown. Its maw, gaping wide, was lined with crystalline serrations that might well scissor steel.
Overall, it was the weirdest being Blunt had ever seen. It looked half-finished and cobbled together, like something Dr. Moreau had thrown in disgust out the back door of his laboratory.
“Those wiry hairs,” said Dr. Greene. “We found out the hard way they’re poisonous. The venom isn’t fatal, but it does temporarily paralyze the victim. I leave you to guess why. It keeps a larder. We rescued a child from the first we found.”
Tolman struck the table with his fist. “These creatures weren’t on the original survey reports. We never saw them — no one did! — until this year. They suddenly appeared out of nowhere, and now... now they’re everywhere! People have been killed by these damn monsters!”
“That’s unfortunate,” Blunt said. “Why don’t you ask for help? You said Earth provides military and scientific support.”
After another silence, the doctor shut off the projector. He adjusted his glasses fussily, then removed them and polished the lenses industriously and lengthily with a pocket tissue. “I’m afraid we haven’t told them about the new life form.”
Dr. Greene sighed once more. He rubbed his reddened eyes and replaced his glasses on his long, slightly bent nose. “Because we don’t dare. The spider-crabs are intelligent. Not very, of course, but enough to be a problem. Unfortunately, under our charter constitution, we can’t kill intelligent indigenous life forms. We’ve been told you’re a man who takes care of problems. It’s a matter of life and death for us, Captain. We need help.”
Tolman leaned across the table. His loud voice dropped to a whisper. “If you take care of this problem for us, we’re prepared to pay you a great deal of money for that, and for your complete and utter silence.”
Copyright © 2010 by Danielle L. Parker