Two adventurers are on their way to an alien world, but their cargo is not what it seems
|The small cargo freighter's heat-shield glowed as it fell through the dusty grey atmosphere. Below, turquoise jungles spread out to the horizon, carved into pieces by thin blue rivers like cracks in stone. A settlement emerged from dim shapes by a shimmering lake.
The craft drifted towards the spaceport at the edge of the city. Rows of brightly painted red ships lined up on the launchpad. Others of the same type patrolled over the city in formation. Jeck knew where he was headed - an opening in the middle of the spaceport that led to an underground hangar.
“Permission to land,” he requested over the comm channel. He sat casually in the pilot's seat, with one hand on his thigh, the other dancing over the controls. He wore the typical loose grey clothes of a pilot, sunglasses perched on his spiky black hair.
“Permission granted,” came the reply.
“Are we going to pretend to be a couple?” he asked the woman sitting next to him. Her black hair had been styled into a perfect sphere as was the latest fashion. She wore a similar outfit but she didn't look like a pilot to Jeck.
Umbra turned slowly towards him and hummed. He couldn't see her eyes behind her dark glasses, but he could guess what her answer would be.
“No,” she said. ”We're just two traders here to drop off our cargo and refuel. Let's hope we can get through the spaceport without any fuss.”
The freighter flew to its designated parking spot and landed on the spacious steel surface with a clang. A pair of reptilians in brown overalls approached the ship and beckoned for them to leave the vessel.
"I hate croc prople," sighed Umbra.
"Because they treat females as second class citizens?"
"Partly that. But considering what we know now, we can't trust them."
"Just act as if you don't care," said Jeck.
“Don't I always?”
They stepped out into the fresh air and inhaled deeply. The oxygen content was high on Pumador. Jeck had heard that the planet's inhabitants – human and otherwise – were known for their athletic ability.
“Smells like a mountain valley,” said Jeck.
“Anything smells good after being stuck in that ship,” said Umbra.
A reptilian approached them, electronic pad in hand. His emerald tooth-filled snout towered over the two humans and gave him a dangerous look. His droopy yellow eyes fixed on them, and his long spiked tail snaked idly out the back of his costume. His expression was impossible for Jeck to read.
“Greetings and welcome to Pumador City,” he boomed in a surprisingly soft voice. “My name is Kengor Varnarder, I'm your customs inspector. Is this your first time visiting?”
“No,” said Jeck. “Third time.”
“I have your ship's details here. Your name is Jeck Argon?”
“And is this your...mate?” he pointed at Umbra.
“I'm Umbra Lorez, his cousin.” The croc turned back to his notepad without looking at her.
“I've been looking over your ship's manifest. I see you are transporting organic goods. As you know we have a fragile ecosystem here on Pumador, and we don't want any external contaminants. What are these goods?”
“Three hundred frozen turkeys.”
“What's a turkey?”
“It's a type of bird from Earth. For eating.”
“Never heard of it. It says here you flew from Verzengo, but you say your cargo is from Earth? How is it that you come from the opposite direction?”
“There is a small human exclave at Verzengo. One of the moons there is famous for its turkey farms.”
“How unusual!” The reptilian looked them up and down, his snout twitching as if he was sniffing them. “We will need to examine your ship. You can wait in our hospitality suite. We'll come and ask if we have any more questions. My colleague will guide you there.”
They had no choice. They followed the other croc through a set of doors and numerous corridors until they came to a small room. As soon as they entered the door slid shut behind them.
Unusual stains covered the metallic floor and the cushioned seats, and there was a toilet designed for multiple species in the corner. It was little better than a cell.
“Who would have thought those turkeys would cause so much trouble?” said Umbra.
She scanned the walls and nodded to Jack at a small black device high up on one wall. Of course they're watching us, thought Jeck.
Umbra sat down next to him on the bench. “They could at least have provided us with entertainment,” she said.
“I'm afraid we'll have to make our own,” said Jeck.
“I'm afraid of that too,” Umbra smirked.
They waited about an hour before the metal door whirred open. Kengor was on the other side. They stood up.
“Please sit down,” he said. “We have examined your ship. I'd like to know more about these goods.”
“Of course,” said Jeck. “What do you need to know?”
“The animals you are transporting look a lot like bionic military units.”
“Are you serious?” asked Jeck. Umbra stifled a laugh.
“Very,” said the reptilian. Jeck tried to remember if he had seen a croc smile. “Do you know the cyborg assault dogs of Sirius? They have powerful legs and a large empty body cavity capable of holding a weapon, very much like your cargo. Also we have evidence that these...turkeys as you call them...that they have been genetically modified.”
“They certainly aren't military units," said Jeck. "Anyway they're frozen and have been dead for months. As for the modifications, they have been altered over the years to make them larger and taste better. The original Earth turkeys are disgusting and dry - and extinct now. But these ones are delicious.”
“I've never seen these creatures before.”
“They're for Christmas,” said Jeck. “Surely you've seen them at Christmas time?”
“Is Christmas some human holiday? What is it for?”
Jeck stuttered. “Nobody knows the origins, it goes back tens of thousands of years. The purpose was to celebrate midwinter - the darkest day of the year. People would come together, exchange gifts and eat turkey and other foods.”
“How strange! You celebrate your home planet's orbit around the sun?”
“If you put it like that then it sounds strange.”
“On our own home world there are no seasons. We celebrate when the two moons align, every eighty-seven days. But I'm not here to discuss holidays.
He continued. “Apart from the frozen creatures we found nothing unusual. However, I have two requests before I can let you go. Firstly, I'd like to inspect your optical device, it showed up on our scanner.” He pointed to Umbra.
“These are normal glasses,” she said. She took them off and handed them to Kengor.
He looked at them curiously, turning them over in his hand. "How do they work?"
Umbra took the glasses back and touched her finger over the leg. The lenses changed from dark to light. “Very useful for sun glare in space,” she said.
She moved her finger in another way and the lenses changed shape. “This allows me to focus on far away objects,” she said.
“Interesting,” said Kengor. “Why do so many humans have such poor eyesight?”
Jeck shrugged. He remembered an animated croc cartoon he had seen that showed humans as weak, near-blind creatures. He hoped that was not a common view among the reptilians. Then again, if they think we're harmless maybe it's for the best.
“That seems in order,” said the reptile. “My second request may take a little longer. I was wondering, could you prepare one of these turkeys to eat? I'd like to taste it.”
“Of course,” said Jeck. He's checking to see if we're lying. Umbra laughed aloud.
“Is your cousin all right?” asked the croc.
“She'll be fine. She's just hungry.”
The two humans sat on one side of a long metal desk. Green-tinged sunlight shone through the window. Outside, the top branches of bizarre ancient trees swayed. Their long turquoise leaves grasped upwards like fingers waving at them.
From a door opposite them, an old ape-like creature with red fur in a colourful suit entered. He carried a clear bottle of liquid.
“This deserves a celebration,” smiled the ape. “Rum?” he waved the spirit in his hand.
“No thanks, Balnos,” said Umbra.
“I'll have one,” smiled Jeck. Umbra looked at him blankly.
Balnos poured two glasses. “Are you sure?” he asked Umbra. “It's made right here on the planet, from the native loblom fruit. I strongly recommend it.”
“Go on then,” she said, sighing. The ape filled another glass and passed it across the table.
“Those turkeys have been well received. The human ambassador has distributed most of them to people in the city. Although I hear a customs inspector insisted on tasting one.”
“He did,” said Jeck. “Thankfully I could find the right settings to cook it in their kitchen. He didn't suspect a thing.”
“Now, about the plans...”
Umbra removed her glasses and stroked her finger across one side. The leg opened up and a small sphere popped out. She handed it to the ape who smiled widely and popped it into a computer behind him. A display lit up with star maps and ship symbols.
“The croc rebels are preparing a wide strike across the whole sector,” said Umbra. “We don't know when they are going to attack, but with knowledge of these plans we should be able to minimise the damage.”
“Excellent,” said Balnos. “In the next few days I will dispatch pilots towards human space to spread this information. From what we can tell, the rebels do not have widespread support among the croc people. But they have sympathisers in many important roles throughout the known worlds, not just in reptilian systems. That includes your inspector friend.”
“Kengor?” asked Jeck.
“Yes. About two moons ago one of the croc generals insisted that his relative be added to Pumador's inspection team. We thought it odd but didn't see any reason to refuse. Be thankful that his appearance is more fearsome than his wit.”
“Who else is involved?” asked Umbra.
“Many crocs. This goes nearly all the way to the top. We must hope that they will not proceed with this madness. Although they could attack at any moment."
"As they say, every star system is a bubble,” said Jeck.
“You did well. I must thank you both for your work and of course you will be rewarded.” He lifted up his glass towards them and grinned. “Oh, and Merry Christmas.”