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The Amphora Project 1st Editionby William Kotzwinkle
?Sky mines,? hissed Lizardo, his throat inflating nervously as he gazed out the flight deck window at the ornaments of doom flickering in the darkness. His armored scales made a scraping sound as he wrapped his tail around the pedestal of his seat. ?No one mentioned minefields.?
?You worry too much,? said Commander Jockey Oldcastle, his formidable paunch pressed against the controls of their descending ship.
?That?s why we haven?t been killed until now,? hissed Lizardo. He was a navigator from Planet Serpentia. The pupils of his eyes were shaped like keyholes in an ancient lock, glowing with menace. In the rooms of his brain were recipes for poisons in all dilutions, from mild to murderous. Two fangs lay backward against the roof of his mouth. When they swung forward, they filled with venom and the recipient of it was going to go to sleep, for hours, days, or forever, depending on the mixture.
Jockey looked beyond the sky mines to the little moon below.
?Made for pleasure.?
?Only fools seek pleasure on such places. We don?t need this job.?
?We need any job we can get.? Jockey touched the controls lightly, taking the ship closer to the minefield.
Lizardo?s scaly claws clicked on the control face of his navigational equipment. He was preparing a flight plan for escape, back out through the minefield. Serpentians receive vibratory patterns from the metabolic processes of other brains, and metabolic tremors were now reaching him from the moon below. Amid the usual garbage of human and alien emotion he discerned the emanation of a hunting party?highly focused individuals on the prowl. As there was no game on the little moon, what were they hunting?
A voice came from the flight deck radio. ?Welcome to the Paper Lantern. Please don?t mind our little maze. It?s to discourage unwanted visitors. You?ve been cleared for landing.? The sky mines parted, allowing them to pass.
The moon was marked with ridges that resembled the ribs of a lantern, but, as descent continued, the ribs spaced themselves farther apart until the illusion of a lantern was dispelled. A carpet of lights rolled up from the night horizon, gained definition, and became the protective dome of a controlled environment?a pink translucent shell glowing from within.
?Let?s try not to dent anything too badly,? said Jockey. The burly pirate turned the ship nose up, and the Temperance, like an inverted candle whose flame was dying, settled onto a landing pad. When the engines quieted down, he walked back to the salon to join his passenger. ?Your higher education continues, dear boy,? he said to Adrian Link. Link was Chief of Soil, Plant, and Insect Control of the Agricultural Department of Planet Immortal, a weighty position for one so young. Link?s utility robot, Upquark, sat beside him, concern in his artificial eyes. His robotic analysis of the situation was that journeys with Jockey were likely to put Adrian at risk; the pirate always had some ulterior motive when he invited Adrian on a trip. I have much to contend with, thought the little robot.
Lizardo stepped past them and opened the hatch. He stretched his neck, gazing suspiciously left and right. A ring of white scales around his neck gave him the look of a priest, but any confessions he heard came with his claws wrapped around someone?s throat.
The others followed him out through the hatch, and a pneumatic bus shot them to the dome. As they entered the nightclub, Link stared up into the rosy dome and caught his breath. What at first looked like a moving tapestry proved to be the fluttering of wings. Rare butterflies were circling there.
?Did I lie?? asked Jockey.
For an instant Link couldn?t speak. Then he said, ?For once, no.?
The pirate flung an arm around his young friend. ?You?d see marvels every night if you joined all my expeditions.?
?My calculations indicate it is more likely you?d see the inside of a jail,? interjected Upquark. ?The incarceration probability for Commander Oldcastle is rated as extremely high.?
Jockey twitched his nose in the direction of a roasted magdabeest floating by him on a tray. ?Is that wakmaz sauce I smell??
?We came on business,? hissed Lizardo impatiently.
?What have you got for appetizers?? Jockey asked the waitress, as she led them to a table. ?Never mind, bring them all.?
Link?s gaze remained on the butterflies and moths animating the ceiling. None of them could be seen in the wild anymore; the artificial world of the Paper Lantern was one of their few remaining habitats. An enormous moth flew down and hung in the air in front of him, beating its velvet wings.
?Found a confidante?? asked Jockey. ?What does she know??
?Everything,? said Link in a low voice
?Then induce her to talk.?
?She already has.? Link?s eyes followed the Giant Death?s Head moth as it turned around to show the skull-like pattern of scales on its thorax. It fluttered toward the vase of scarlet flowers on the table, and the exquisite spring of its maxillae unwound into the center blossom. Link relaxed back in his chair. Letting Jockey drag him from the Agricultural Plain had been worth it for this single moment.
But Lizardo stared at the moth without appreciation. ?To have a little flying skull visit our table is not a good omen.?
Upquark said, ?An omen is a resonant subset in the total energy of a larger continuum. The odds that a moth could predict trouble are one in four million. I don?t think we have any cause for concern.?
The waitress returned accompanied by a floating tray on which were spread an assortment of plump, tiny creatures served in cups of their own archaic armor. ?Glyptodonts from Planet Almagest,? said Jockey with reverence. He speared one, placed it between his teeth, and let out a sigh of pleasure.
?Who?s that pig of a mercenary?? inquired a young lieutenant of the Consortium Guard, seated at a nearby table.
?Jockey Oldcastle,? replied his fellow officer, a captain not much older than the lieutenant.
?Wasn?t Oldcastle once in the Guard himself?? asked the woman seated with them.
?I couldn?t say.?
?Oh, come on,? said the woman, ?you don?t have to cover for him just because he was a fellow officer.?
?I?m not covering for him. I find his actions contemptible, and not worth speaking of.?
?Well, now you must tell me,? said the woman, but paused in her inquisition. A black-skulled robot had brought a bottle to their table. ?Wine from Planet Yesterday. Very rare, for the grapes of Yesterday are no more.? The robot uncorked the wine and poured it to precisely an inch from the top of the woman?s glass, while internally scanning her biofi: Katherine Livtov, known to her military customers as Kitty Liftoff. The owner of the Junk Moon, an artificial planet devoted to space debris.
?Please enjoy the light of the Paper Lantern.? The robot withdrew, and Kitty Liftoff pressed the young officers again for information about Jockey Oldcastle.
?Oldcastle used the Consortium Guard for private gain,? said the captain. ?He was lucky he wasn?t executed.?
?What were his private gains??
?Permit me,? said the lieutenant. His cuff communicator brought up the Oldcastle service record. ?Selling military fruitcakes on the black market. Apparently he sold several million fruitcakes before he was caught. Let?s see what else we have??
While the lieutenant ticked off Jockey?s offenses, Kitty turned toward the mercenary?s table. She dealt with pirates regularly, buying and selling their shipments of so-called salvage. She made a memo on her communicator to talk to this Oldcastle. The captain noted the entry sourly. ?Swine like Oldcastle deserve the disintegration chamber.?
The swine was licking his thick fingers. ?Ah, my friends, here we are at midnight, fighting the sautéed glyptodont. How one misses food like this on Planet Immortal.? He pierced another tiny creature from its armored cup, and closed his eyes to savor it.
Lizardo ignored his companions. The tremors he had sensed were growing more intense, which meant the hunting party was drawing close. He felt their cerebellar activity spiking; their plan for this evening was to capture a prize, and it wasn?t a butterfly. Was it a lizard?
At the other table, an alien mercenary was approaching Kitty Liftoff. He was humanoid of feature, but as if a jellyfish had once been in his ancestral tree. His arms were bare, and his skin faintlytransparent. Visibly coiled in the skin were barbed black threads which he could eject, their points containing a paralyzing toxin. He removed a battered hat, whose alien plumage was ragged. ?You have my Ghazi Night Runner??
Kitty had continuous elf lights going off around her as incoming data arrived on her Auranet. She shrank the elves, and brought up a holofile of the Night Runner: A miniature of the ship appeared in front of the mercenary?s eyes. Kitty pointed a long polished fingernail. ?Laser drive, laser power cells, wingtip laser cannons, and nine torpedoes in the bay. You?ll be secure in it.?
?I?m secure at all times,? said the mercenary, the barbs in his flesh uncoiling slightly, like a nest of disturbed snakes. Kitty wrapped her slender fingers around a glass, and this simple movement seemed perfect to the barbarian. She was certainly no younger than a hundred, but was still one of the great beauties. Her skin had been immaculately rejuvenated, and her black hair, parted slightly to one side and hanging straight down across her cheekbones to her jawline, was lustrous and thick. He forced himself back to the business at hand. ?Immediate possession??
?As soon as you?ve paid me, darling.?
?One year on all parts. Exterior damage isn?t covered.?
?I shall not drive it into a wall.?
?Someone may drive into you,? said the lieutenant.
?Why would anyone wish to do that?? replied the Man o? War, for such was the designation by which his species went in Consortium Guard identification schemes.
?Give me your interplanetary banking number,? said Kitty, ?and we?ll deliver your ship to orbit.?
?I prefer to pay in my own way.? Gregori Man o? War placed a mesh bag of jewels on the table.
Kitty looked at them only briefly before accepting the bag, for the barbarian had given her the value of the Ghazi Night Runner and then some. Men o? War never stinted when it came to money.
?They look like you pried them out of someone?s crown,? observed the captain. ?Anyway, have a drink with us,? he quickly added, for Men o? War were fearless in battle. They also had uncanny mechanical abilities; unfortunately, their emergency repair solutions, though brilliant, were unrepeatable, as they quickly forgot what they?d done. Consortium Guard generals always liked a few Men o? War on their rosters.
?One must have a fine carriage to fly around in,? declared the barbarian, whose uniform was ill-fitting, its lace collar filthy, as were the rosettes in his shoes, but he?d drenched himself in cologne. ?A pity I can?t fly it to your planet, but there you are, there?s a misunderstanding between myself and your police. It?s why I must conduct business here, on the little moon.?
?We could probably work out an amnesty for you,? suggested the captain, ?if you care to join us.?
?Ah, gentlemen, look at this face. It is the mask of crime.? The barbarian tilted his head at an angle to better illustrate the point. ?Vicious, venal, and vile. That?s how it?s described in the files of your Autonomous Observer. No, I?m afraid I can?t join the Consortium Guard. But here, oblige me, for I?m touched by your offer.? He opened the pouch on his azure sash and threw more jewels on the table. ?Please, help yourself. You insult me if there is not one for each of you.?
The officers obliged. They were young, a command was expensive to maintain, and a moment like this was why one came to the Paper Lantern?moon of the unexpected.
Gregori Man o? War eyed them tolerantly. Their youth had not yet been ripped away from them in galactical battle; they?d not seen great ships explode and the heads of their comrades go into orbit forever. To himself, in his native tongue, he softly sang a tune about a pilot stoically flambéed in a plane. Like many of his native songs, it seemed to have no point other than the depiction of a painful death met with contempt.
?I?m sure we could get you a full pardon and put you straight onto the flight deck of a Predator,? said the lieutenant, believing himself to be the tolerant one, of the barbarian?s slovenly appearance and his ridiculous scent. One had to take the alien as one found him, and exploit his genius.
?Sir,? said Gregori Man o? War, ?I am tempted, because I see you are an experienced man.?
The lieutenant modestly shrugged this off.
?But my business tonight,? continued the barbarian, ?is with this lady. I have bought a ship from her. You know its make and one day you may encounter it somewhere. Perhaps the circumstances will not be favorable to me. I beg that you renew your offer then.?
?But then we?ll be obliged to take you prisoner.?
?A thing I could not permit. So for tonight, while we?re still friends, let us have a few more drinks.?
The young officers smiled, feeling that this was as it should be, that they were brothers of the firmament, man and alien.
Kitty listened to it all, while anticipating that some day a wrecked ship would arrive at the Junk Moon with their blood on the control panel. Ships might be salvaged, men rarely. This presentiment gave Kitty a melancholy air. If you deal in arms long enough, if your office window opens out onto an endless vista of broken war machinery, you develop a philosophical side. The dented canopies of her junk fleet had held the latest bright young men; at night, when she was alone in her office, she imagined she heard ghost radios, from which commands crackled, mixed with laughter, sometimes music, and ending always in deathly silence.
Copyright © 2005 by William Kotzwinkle.
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