Episode 4- The Good, The Bad and the Prickly

"Buddy, want some primo herb or what?"

Pryll was not having one of his better days. Scratch that, he wasn't having one of his better lifetimes. Three cycles ago, he had it all planned out. He risked his sacks swiping a brick of the finest r'Ganau. Made it to the freighter ports and managed to get himself dropped of at this little rim planet, that was just ripe for the picking.

He checked it out, the civ was still pre-light which meant that it was out of the jurisdiction of the squids, just get in, get a few folks hooked, and start the pipeline rolling. Sure Jubba would spray himself when he found out that both he and the r'Ganau was missing, but once Pryll showed up with a shipload of credits, Jubba would finally make him an overseer.

"I tell, you this stuff is primo. Best you've ever had."

Well, that had been the plan, anyway. A bit too late Pryll realized the reason the place wasn't crawling with squids.

"Yes, it is of good quality, but it would be better if it were fresher. It does have a rather interesting aftertaste though, I'll give you $20 for the lot."

Pryll typed the number into a device and his eyes went wide, including the ones that were beneath the latex mask he was wearing. "Half a Cred? I risk my quills and he's gonna give me HALF A CRED?"

"Messeur, I am being most generous in my offer. I do not believe you will find anyone else willing to pay that amount for a kilo of dried oregano. No matter how exotic you claim it to be."

Pryll fought back his rage. The human chef was right. The stuff was worthless on this planet, a lesson he learned very quickly after a few violently unsatisfied customers. Fortunately the smoked r'Ganau did give them a more palatable taste. Something he would share with the others if he ever got off this miserable rock.

Pryll took the money and left the r'Ganau. Who was he kidding? Right now the safest place for him was here on this forsaken chunk of debris. If he even thought to show his face anywhere Jubba would have his quills in a blender. Pryll realized that he was a dead Guaw no matter what else happened. Pryll found he could no longer hold back his tears and his armpits grew wet.

He stumbled out into the street in front of the human dining establishment and looked at the local version of half a cred. His stomachs rumbled. He wasn't really hungry, but yesterday's meals didn't sit that well. He made a mental note that next time he should remove the pointy bits. He needed some taj to calm his stomach. 'Good luck finding a taj on this back water.' he thought to himself.

A pair of humans walked by, the female sipping the contents of a cup. The steam wafted up and Pryll caught the scent. It didn't smell quite like taj.. no.. it smelled.. better...

"Excuse me!" Pryll raised a hand to get the female's attention. The male stopped and looked back to Pryll. Pryll stretched his brows in order to make the mask look friendly. "Could you tell me where she got that?"

The woman looked at Pryll curiously, "The tall double espresso mocha?"

Pryll's translator had no idea how to even begin with that statement, and the device's AI put that in no uncertain terms. Pryll nodded in confusion.

"Oh, there's a Starbucks just around the corner." The woman helpfully pointed down the street.

"Ah, thank you." Pryll slapped his forehead in thanks and walked away from the somewhat bewildered woman.

He walked into the shop and scanned the dizzying list of beverage choices. A somewhat disgruntled looking off-worlder, well, Pryll assumed the being was an off-worlder, and a rather poor one at that, because the being had to resort to a number of screws, bolts and other bits of metal to keep his face in place. Pryll was happy to recognize a kindred spirit but was savvy enough to know that Jubba could have sent goons.

"So, like, can I help you?" the Serf asked.

"Yes, taj?" Pryll asked.

The being looked at Pryll like a dagg that just didn't understand.

"I'll have a... uhm..." Pryll's translator offered s suggestion. "A tall double mocha espresso"

"Coming up."

Pryll waited for the beverage to be served, agreeing to the suggested extras that the being offered, not really knowing what they were, but figuring he should get everything at least once. He paid for the beverage and took the warm styrofoam container from the shelf.

Pryll stepped outside and quaffed the drink in one draft. Once his scalded neurons sent the message, he spent the next few minutes silently alternating between trying to scream and breathe. It wasn't taj, but it did take his mind off of his stomach, at least for the moment.

About thirty moments later, the beverage hit his bloodstream.

An unknown period later Pryll found himself in a rather gaudy hotel room located in somewhere called "Las Vegas" surrounded by hundreds of copies of the local half-cred.

It took about three milliseconds for Pryll to sum what had happened. He tore through his pockets looking for two things. He found the first almost instantly and carefully uncrumpled the styrofoam container. The other device took a fair bit more digging, but finally he pulled out the Insta-Chem pocket spectrum analyzer. He had gotten an old one from his days in R&D and had kept it for sentimental reasons, but it still worked. Pryll carefully scanned the dried contents looking for the ingredients. He carefully filtered out all known compounds, and commonly occurring ones. Mostly it was water, sugars, several acids and artificial coloring elements, just a few unknown components.

Pryll ran the compounds against sets of known biologies, and removed the inert, fatal, and just plain annoying ones. It left just one compound. One that was nearly universally addictive. Pryll found a primitive research system to identify the local compound. A quick search and he found the name.

It turned out that getting the substance was surprisingly simple. It turned out that the only hard part was getting several metric tons of the stuff off of this chunk of rock.

Phil stared at the slow drizzle coming from the coffee maker, the scent tormenting her. She could almost feel herself willing the dark brown liquid to pour faster. Rhino wasn't sure if Phil's intense scrutiny was actually causing the coffee to brew faster, but if it kept Phil from throwing the 'fridge down the hall again, he didn't mind.

The stream slowed to a steady drip as the last few drops sizzled against the burner. The pot was out and Phil was pouring her first cup of the day.

"It tastes better if you let it finish, you know." Rhino suggested as she handed the pot to him.

Phil cocked an eyebrow. "You really want to take that chance?", her voice not really hiding the subtle threat.

Rhino smiled back at her, "No, not really. You really ought to switch to decaf or something."

Phil laughed hard at that one. "Wait a minute? I spend eight hours a day pounding transports and plasma cannons back into shape, then get hauled off to Borneo to track down and tie some Gallach into uncomfortable knots for trying to sell Drall Particle Aligners and barely get time for my two hour beauty nap, and you expect me to start my cheerful and pleasant day with decaf? You've been using your head too much" Phil poked Rhino's impenetrable forehead for emphasis.

Rhino deflected the jabs, both physical and verbal, and took his first taste. It was too strong, of course, but then it usually was whenever Phil made it. Rhino set about the task of repairing the coffee so that it was close to drinkable.

"You're one to talk. You know if you took that kind of care and attention to your cannon I wouldn't have to keep patching it back together."

"Just because you have no regard for the classic art of coffee preparation doesn't mean everyone else has to suffer the consequences."

The alert claxon rang out. Phil sighed heavily and washed it down with another gulp from her mug.

Jack stuck his head into the canteen. "Ah, there you are. We've got an alert in San Diego. Shouldn't be much. Looks like a routine. Roger called for transport."

Phil shrugged as Rhino looked at his now perfect cup. She gulped hers down blissfully unaware of the temperature. Rhino took a few careful tastes from his, then put the cup down to head out toward the main bay. Phil turned to leave as well, looked at Rhino's cup, then drained it as well.

Phil had to admit, Rhino did know how to make a decent cup of coffee. She'd have to steal more from him in the future.

"Hi, welcome to Home Depot. Can I help you?" The orange smocked sales drone asked Pryll.

"Uhm, I'm not sure really. I've got kind of a specialty project "

"Well, that's our specialty here? Are you putting in a new bathroom or finishing your basement?"

"Well, no, It's more an outside project. Would you happen to carry trans- linear ancharrah phase banks?"

"Trans…linear…"

"It can be used, but I'd prefer if the neutrons weren't depleted."

The bright eyes of the helpful sales person began to dim a tad as the slow fog of confusion started to fill his head. "I... don't… know.. if we carry.."

Pryll sighed heavily. Looks like he'd have to do this the hard way. "Well, do you have any polycrystalline gravatic neutralizers?"

The salesman just stared at Pryll for a few seconds. "Is this some kind of weird college joke?"

Pryll cursed the backwater planet he was stuck on. He'd really have to go primitive.

"What are the biggest pumps you have?" Pryll said and rubbed his elbows in frustration.

"Well, we just got a shipment of sump pumps on aisle 9."

"How many liters per second can they do?"

"Uhm, I'm not really sure. You should ask Dave. He's our plumbing expert."

"Fine, I will ask this Dave. Is he dressed like you?"

"Yeah, we all have these smocks with our names on them."

"Ah good. What about fuel lines? Do you have any that can handle, say several thousand liters per minute?"

"I think Dave might be able to help you there too."

Pryll realized that he should have just asked for this "Dave" person from the start.

"And shielding. Do you have any form of high impact polymers that can sustain impacts by objects moving at greater than 11 kps?"

And suddenly Pryll realized, he was back to square one. Pryll warbled thanks to the increasingly bewildered youth and strode off toward the plumbing section to find this "Dave" individual.

The next day Pryll waited by the side of the road for the first truck to arrive. He flagged down the vehicle and it pulled over.

The driver checked and then re-checked his instructions. He looked out the dash beyond Pryll at the miles of nothing that surrounded them. Eventually he realized that it was going to be one of those weeks, did a bit of paperwork and climbed out of the truck.

"You, Mr. Pie Rell?" The driver asked.

Pryll accepted the complement and agreed.

"So, uhm, where do y'all want this stuff?"

Pryll pointed to a dusty area just off of the main road.

"I don't see a road, and this truck can't go down dirt.."

"No, you may unload your equipment over there." Pryll said as he handed back the forms.

The truck driver pushed his hat back on his head and cocked an eyebrow. "You sure, there buddy? This stuff ain't exactly Styrofoam, you know…"

Pryll said nothing but simply indicated the location again. The driver shrugged and called back to the truck. It took most of the afternoon for most of the equipment to be unloaded from the trucks. Pryll simply stood and watched the humans wrestle the gear over to the spot he had indicated. As the trucks headed back toward the city, Pryll got to work. Easily hauling the equipment toward the rusting structure barely standing next to a long abandoned barn.

Flarm was leaned back in the pilot's seat of the GC transport. Jack, Phil, and the others were, once again, running through the wide open, sandy jungles of some backwards country (and on this planet, "backwards" meant REALLY backwards) chasing down some escaped critter dangerous to natural flora and fauna. It happened once a week, like clockwork.

As was his habit, Flarm relaxed by bringing the transport into a stationary, high- atmosphere position, and then playing computer games until they were ready for retrieval.

"I've got your numbers, I've got ALL your numbers!" The computer game said.

An alarm, almost like the ringing of a phone, went off, and a red light winked on to his right. With a sigh, Flarm flipped a switch to turn it off.

"Phil's gotta fix that altimeter alarm," he grumbled to himself. "Damn thing goes off every time I hold at less than an eighth-G."

"YARD SALE!" the computer game said, then made a loud explosion sound.

"Ha!" Flarm chuckled, "you'll never beat my ping."

Again, the alarm went off. This time, Flarm looked at the display.

"What the snanx?" he said, suddenly sitting up straight. "That's not the altimeter alarm, it's the proximity warning!"

The display on the screen showed a three-dimensional grid stretched over a full-color view of the planet. Winking directly below the transport was a red dot, it was getting closer.

Flarm popped the controls into manual and a three-handed steering column slid out from the panel in front of him. He leaned it forward slightly, and the nose of the transport mimicked the motion until he was looking straight down at the planet below. From this vantage point, the object moving toward him appeared as a twinkling star.

"Magnify 200 times," Flarm said, touching an area of the screen. The computer responded by magnifying the area he touched two- hundred times. What Flarm saw not only caused him to flare his four nostrils in surprise, but soon dropped him into a fit of uncontrollable laughter.

"What the hell is that?" He laughed. "WHO the hell is that?"

He'd seen similar structures before; the design was common on almost every planet with any agriculture to speak of, simply fill a large container with water, then prop it up on tall legs. Gravity then provides whatever water pressure was needed. Humans had water towers all over the place.

This water tower, however, was different. The framework of the legs, ordinarily open to allow expanding and contracting, had been packed with primitive rockets of varying sizes. A small cockpit had been built on the top of the tower, nested in controlling wires, that ran out of it and down the sides to the rockets.

"What the hell are they stealing?" Flarm asked nobody in particular. "Can't be water, it'd be easier to just take that from the frost giant at the edge of the system."

"Scanning," the computer said. "Scan completed. Central storage contains C8- H10-N4-O2."

"Ho snanx," Flarm said, whistling through his ears in appreciation. "That's a serious buzz."

Pryll strained to keep his hands on the main controls, The tower rattled and thumped worse than a cheap Brakkian honeymoon suite as it tore through the upper atmosphere, and although that wasn't always the worst place to be, Pryll sadly found himself violently vibrating alone.

Ah, if only he could have had a few pressure straps and a small piece of fruit on a string, but then he was kinky that way.

A blurred flash caught Pryll's attention. He tried to wiggle his eyes to counter the vibrations and was moderately successful. He was closing in on something. Pryll tried to grab his binoculars to see what it might be. Fortunately the primary solids had burned themselves out, but now the secondary chemicals kicked in.

The cockpit began to fill with a greasy smoke. Pryll reached behind and made quick use of a fascinating piece of Human technology called "Duct Tape". Sure enough a few quick wraps resealed an exhaust heater line and things were back to normal. Pryll managed to grab the binoculars this time, but had lost the image.

Perhaps it was just a flash from a satellite or something. Pryll turned to adjust his transmitter to see if he could pick up a ride. From the corner of his eyes, he saw the flash again. This time it was much larger.

Pryll again grabbed for the binoculars and quickly pulled them to two of his eyes. That's when he saw it.

First off let's get a few facts straight about the soon to be departed Pryll.

It wasn't the fact that the lack of a proximity alarm suddenly making itself very noticeable that caused Pryll to vent waste through every possible orifice. Nor was the fact that there was a fully armed and well shielded mid- range transport now coming out of Earth shadow less than a hundred kilometers away that accompanied the replay of Pryll's life before his eyes. No the thing that made Pryll panic and accidentally rip the jury- rigged guidance system clean off of the main control support was the fact that the well armed mid- range transport he was currently hurtling toward at greater than escape velocity had the simple gold shield and moon of the Galactic Customs on it.

Pryll's rocket spun wildly out of control. His ship raced within meters of the transport where a curious purple wasp like being watched him attempt to regain some control over his vessel. Pryll slammed and pounded on anything that he could. He pulled arcing wires out in a vain attempt to reign in the craft as it began it's reentry.

Sadly, the only thing that Pryll was finally able to activate was the emergency booster rockets. Unfortunately it was at the absolute worst possible time.

In the hills beyond Mexico City there was a momentary flash and thud. Minutes later the sky filled with a fine white powder. Some folks reported that they felt a bit more awake that afternoon.

"And in international news tonight, US authorities have denied launching a missile that landed near Mexico City yesterday afternoon. There were no casualties and the alleged missile apparently landed in an unpopulated grazing area for local cattle. NASA, FAA and the Mexican Aeronautics Board are investigating the crash site to determine where the object originated, and what it's purpose was.

In other news, Mexican Rancher Jorge Cisneros prize winning heifer has been recorded by Guinness as setting a new land speed record of 60 miles an hour."

The TV in the corner of the GC break room droned on.

Carla sat a the table, struggling to grasp what Roger had said. "You're saying you know that caffine is addictive?"

"Oh, horribly so. That's why I don't dare touch the stuff myself. It seems you humans have built up somewhat of a tolerance, or maybe you're just naturally like that so the caffine doesn't really do much to you."

"But.. But, you let Phil guzzle the stuff! Aren't you worried about what that will do to her? Shouldn't you say something?"

Roger rolled his eyes a bit, "Am I worried? No, quite the opposite. I'm actually trying to think of a way to hang on to a few tons of the stuff and add a pound or two each morning."

Carla looked at Roger in a combination of anger and disgust.

"Am I worried about what it will do to her? I can only hope that it continues to do so. Here, let me show you something."

Roger pointed a remote at the TV. He typed in a long series of numbers and then started flipping channels up and down. Finally, he settled on some sort of riot scene. Bodies were flying through the air as were very broken looking items of furniture. In the middle of the destruction was a person dressed in what looked like a long black robe. He swung a huge hammer seemingly randomly as others heaved anything or one nearby at him.

"Hmm, looks like a slow night, here, let me turn up the volume a bit."

Roger tipped the volume up to "1" and the speaker seemed to buzz with a deafening chorus of crunches and screams in a strange guttural language. Carla recognized a few of the words. She had heard Phil yell them at various bits of less than cooperative machinery. She had apologized for her language later.

Roger muted the TV again.

"Sorry, it's not as good as it normally is. Still, I think you get an idea of what traffic court is like on Phil's home world."

Carla's mouth hung wide open. Her eyes were almost as wide open.

Roger grinned as he turned to look at Carla. "You know, if you started flapping your arms in a seductive way you could pull in 40 Creds a night at a bar I know. Granted, we'd have to paint you purple and how do you feel about a heavy argon environment?"

Carla switched to "confused" again. It was an expression that Roger found less than challenging to produce, still, it was rewarding in it's own little way.

Roger continued, "Ah, nevermind, I don't think you'd ever be able to squirt anything from your armpits. Still, there's nothing quite as calming as a nice hot cup of coffee, is there?" Roger looked up toward the TV again. Several of the jurors were jumping up and down on the plaintiff. "And we can all sleep better because of it."