Jasper, the Lone Smuggler

You are reading: The Final Bounty

Written by Jsimmons17 on 15 Jun 2017 03:32.

“NOTHING WORKS ON THIS DAMNED MACHINE!” Jasper Candor shouted, swinging a piece of spare pipe at the control panel for the gravity plating. Since he swung at it from some place near the ceiling, all it did was send him spinning into the bulkhead of the tiny command center of his ship. Jasper was a thin, dark haired human of about 25, but his face and body carried the scars of a hard life, and his eyes were sharp and suspicious. Though the space was small, he could generally maneuver it easily, when the gravity plating was working. He could never get the hang of zero Gs.
“The Husk” was a large, beetle shaped ship, but almost all of its bulk had been converted to a massive cargo hold, leaving the only places suitable for human habitation to be a few tiny rooms in the fore of the ship. It was currently floating in orbit around a large, muddy looking planet, which, according to the smell of the cargo Jasper was carrying, was a terraform colony, halfway through the process of being turning into some kind of farmland.
Poking its tiny, silver head out from behind the control panel, a robotic cat looked at his human with glowing, incurious eyes. Tail lashing the air lazily, he blinked at the young man as he scrambled for a handhold. “A ship can be piloted in anti-gravity. It would be more practical to wait until we docked to shift the cargo.” It said in a mechanical voice that was neither male nor female.
Jasper glared at his cat. “Just fix it, RIAD,” he ordered, at which the cat stretched, held to the panel by magnets in his paws, and whisked his tail into a port in the panel, designed for just that purpose. RIAD, which stood for “Robotic Independent Activator Droid” (and a few other choice acronyms) had come with the Husk, and functioned as it's co-pilot and maintenance unit. His tail and each paw contained retractable tools for nearly every occasion. Unfortunately RIAD was also a cat, and possessed all the willfulness of his species, so after a few minutes, without any warning, Jasper came crashing down to the floor of the cockpit as the gravity plating was repaired.
“Gravity works,” the cat purred as its human picked himself up off the floor and strapped himself into the pilot’s seat. RIAD padded over to the main control panel where Jasper was flipping several switches and pushing buttons. “I just want one delivery where nothing breaks,” he mumbled as the cat jumped into his lap. The cat said nothing in reply, and they moved into the planet’s atmosphere.

———————

They landed in a half-formed field, met by several people in work clothes and rubber boots. It was raining, and RIAD refused to come out to the cargo bay as Jasper opened the doors. His ears popped as the air pressure equalized, and the people stepped inside. One man, holding a dripping black umbrella, stepped forward to examine one of the seven metal crates in the hold.
“You kept the bay pressurized the entire time?”
“Yeah, and that will cost you extra,” Jasper negotiated. “I usually keep the cargo in vacuum, and this little stunt nearly blew out my grav array.”
“You will be compensated,” the man said, and Jasper looked him over. He was a large man, fat and balding. His rubber boots extended well above his knees but above that he wore a suit that was obviously made of fine materials, though it had been soiled by several days of damp and mud, and it was wrinkled like it had been slept in.
“Open the crates,” the man ordered, and several men with crowbars came to lever the lids open.
“What’s in them, anyway, fertilizer?” Jasper asked. “It reeks, I’ll be decontaminating my hold for days.”
“We need to discuss your payment, Mr. Candor,” the man said, leading Jasper away into the rain, but not before the first crate had been pried open, and Jasper heard a cough as a rank smell hit the already muggy air. There was a hiss from deep inside the bay as RIAD saw what had been inside. Squeezed inside the large crate were about six humanoids, green-skinned with big black eyes. Jasper recognized their species as Thirin, a race of gardeners that made up most of the labor force for this part of the galaxy. Jasper’s eyes darkened.
“I told you my policy for shipping live cargo…” he muttered, as RIAD braved the rain to leap onto Jasper’s shoulder where he paused in the bay doors.
“We charge double for live cargo,” the cat hissed. “42 humanoids will be 8000 credits a head. ”
“We arranged for 4000 a crate,” the man protested. “28000 credits, no more.”
“That was before you tried to trick us,” RIAD insisted, clawing into Jasper’s shoulder, making him grunt. “336,000.”
The man frowned, and put his hand in his pocket. “I can give you 40,000.”
“That will barely cover my expenses,” Jasper said. “280,000.”
“That’s ten times the original price, 56,000. Double.”
“100,000. Final offer.” RIAD finished, and Jasper knew that RIAD would have the last word. The cat was an excellent negotiator.
Grumbling, the man forked over the credits, and Jasper counted the shiny metal chips in their plastic envelopes. This muddy planet had proven to be a much bigger profit than he’d anticipated. The last of the cargo was shifted, and the man descended from the bay. Jasper went to close the doors, when suddenly there came a call of “FIRE!”
Jasper hit the deck as blaster-fire filled the cargo hold. RIAD, hackles raised, and silver fur standing on end, shot across the bay to the inner door, using the specially designed cat-door to enter the living spaces. Jasper made a dash for the controls and slammed his hand down on the close button.
“RIAD, Take off! Take off!” The Husk rose painfully slowly as blaster fire grazed its hull. Jasper ran to the cockpit and lunged for the seat, yanking the controls so the ship lurched awkwardly upwards. From below them came a faint “boom” and a whistle, and a large pile of mud came shrieking up from the ground.
“What in the world, are they using the Tera-pult?” Jasper glanced down at the planet they were leaving behind.
“It doesn’t matter, if we take a hit, we’ll never be able to—“ RIAD was interrupted by a massive CRASH, and the control panels around them flickered and died. The Husk hovered for a moment, halfway out of the atmosphere, before it began a stomach churning glide backwards, twisting until its front-heavy design followed gravity again. Jasper stared at the fast-approaching ground as RIAD thrust his tail into another control panel.
The forward engines caught them and the Husk rocketed out of gravity’s reach backwards, leaving Jasper sprawled across the control panel, unable to pull himself up because of the Gs. Finally, the pressure let up, and the Gravity Plating took hold, and Jasper slumped into the captains chair.
“That’s what you get for not strapping yourself in,” RIAD meowed. Jasper glared at him.

———————

They hovered in orbit above a gas giant, half a system away. Jasper was asleep in his tiny bunk, with RIAD curled up on his chest, the cat’s tail twitching near the captain’s ear, when a beep came from the cockpit. RIAD’s ears twitched, and he sat up. There it came again. Brushing his tail under Jasper’s nose, the cat leapt lightly onto the floor and padded into the cockpit, where the autopilot had been rigged to keep them in orbit.
“Beep,” went the comm unit. RIAD jumped onto the seat and flicked a paw towards the answering button.
“Greetings,” the image on the screen was of a clean-looking woman in a fancy grey pant-suit. If she was at all surprised to see a cat on the receiving end, she took it very well. “I have a proposition for your captain. The mark is a simple one. Stationary, inanimate cargo. My employer believes that it will be profitable.”
“How profitable?” RIAD asked, lashing his tail curiously.
“3 million units, should you return.”
“3 million, are you scamming me?” Jasper said from the doorway, his hair in disarray, but his eyes fixed on the screen. RIAD jumped out of the way as Jasper sat in the seat.
“Mr. Candor, I presume,” the woman said.
“Yeah, that’s me. I won’t be scammed by some lady in a suit, I want to talk to your employer.”
“‘I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” the woman responded. “While the target is simple, retrieving it has been known to be… dangerous. Are you willing?”
“I can handle anything, ma’am,” Jasper said.
“Good, the Coordinates will be wired to your ship. You will receive payment upon delivery of the cargo. Coordinates to the rendezvous will be wired to you when you have retrieved the object.”
“What’s the object?”
“Unknown.”
“Why’s it so valuable?”
“Classified.”
“Why me?”
“Because you have a reputation as someone who can give my employer what they want.”
“That’s true, I can.”
“Then, by all means, Mr. Candor. The coordinates have been sent.”
The screen went dark, and the human and the cat were left in the waning light of the gas giant. RIAD’s eyes glowed, shining a dim green light on Jasper’s face, which lit up his own eyes like a demon’s.
“3 million creds…”

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