Captain Tobias Jump was experiencing extreme distress, going from sweet dreams to wide awake in an instant. The warm squishiness which had wriggled between his toes while he slept, feeding on dead skin layers and athletes foot, departed for safer territory at high speed, which, for the barely sentient slime mold, was perilously slow. It glowed brightly in bioluminescent green and flowed through a ventilation vent to relative safety.
"Wilson!" Cap'n Toby, captain owner of Lucille, a slightly younger light interstellar transport, Osprey Class, surplus from the Jingkillii War, bellowed and then regretted it. The hangover was pedestrian compared to one or two much more memorable benders, such as after Jayda and Max bought it, or after the 'Longest Night' of the war, but Toby was pushing seventy standard. He really had to give up the cheap back-alley startown booze...
Sotto voce, he went on complaining. "Why can't we have a decent ship's mascot, a cat or a dog? How about a rat or a monkey? Something mammal, hmm? But no! We gotta have us a jumped-up jellyfish, coz it's six kinds of fun having it nibble on my toes-"
"And it's much more hygienic than you'd think, Cap'n," Wilson butted in. Jared Wilson was their lifesystems tech and medic. His hobby, no, his religion, was xenobiology, which he pursued every chance he could get. After landings he was always the first of their little crew to pop a hatch and taste the air, even on worlds that were well-known stops in Lucille's wanderings.
"Wilson, I don't care... I want unmolested toes!"
Toby realized that they now had an audience, spilling out of the mess at the end of the passage. Jack was standing, head ducked slightly to avoid banging it, just under three meters of strapping young Martian. Kristin was hiding behind him, mouse-eyed and nervous. That was some improvement over six-months back, when Toby had mentioned spacing her after Jack had sneaked her onboard, and she'd spent the entire night in tears. She'd made herself useful and had stopped crying every time you said 'boo!', but he just had to stop collecting strays like this. Behind them, the paying fares poked their heads out of the Mess.
Toby ground his teeth and made himself smile.
"Just a little minor ship's business, Mr. Green; ma'am." Toby nodded at Dawson Greens and his 'personal assistant', Priscilla Lovelace. She smiled in her warm, polite, but somehow distant way. Those grey eyes of hers gave her away if you paid attention; in unguarded moments they went cold and took her light-years away.
"Well, if that's all, I'll get back to breakfast, Captain. Miss Kristin has made something like an omelet, although I don't suppose it has any eggs in it." Dawson smiled to take the poison out of the sly dig, or maybe, just maybe, there had been no insult intended at all. Toby was constantly on the defensive, always expecting the rich man too look down on his little kingdom, 'this old starship', as the Captain had overheard Dawson call it.
In point of fact, Dawson Green wasn't 'the wealthiest man in Human Space' anymore, and hadn't been in some time. Certain slight reversals of fortune had rippled through the interstellar economy and taken the Green business empire down a couple of pegs; that and a divorce. Still, it was strange but fortunate that Dawson had stooped to charter Lucille for a few weeks and with a nice fat retainer, too. It just had left Toby out of sorts; more out of sorts than usual, anyway.
The little 'jumped-up jellyfish' had poked light-sensitive stalks out through the vent and the tips fanned out like a spray of fiber-optic cable. Cap'n Toby found himself smiling at the damned thing, for at least his life was interesting, full of surprises and a bit of an adventure. The critter glowed brightly in happiness and went off down the vent, patrolling. The man chuckled to himself and went into the mess in search of these 'not-omelets'.
The Sea People knew what it was to fly under the waves and they had always dreamed of flying over them as well. Long after they conquered the interiors of their islands and island continents, they sought after air-flight, to join the joyous, piping, screeching flyers. They wove seaweed and other fibers into nets and bags and then sails, carved wood and built rafts, then ships, mastered fire and then pottery, copper, bronze, iron and finally steel. They had built gliders for a thousand years, discovered hot air balloons, and steam power. Heavier than air-flight eluded them until long after they discovered fire-ice and began to capture and distribute it.
Internal combustion engines eluded them, but not jet propulsion, not stuttering, buzzing jets...
The sled-mounted jet engine slid down the rails as serial explosions of fuel and air popped off in the round, reinforced steel box of a combustion chamber. First the pop, then a little hop and the flapper valve opened to let in air which mixed with methane gas piped into the chamber, then another pop which slammed the flapper valve shut and propelled the sled on its cable down to the surf, where it floated and accelerated for more than a dozen breaths out into the little bay-
The sputter-jet propulsion engine mark seven blew out and a flaming jet of methane sent the raft sideways before the safety valve cut in. The cable played out a little more before Little White Spot hit the brake and engaged the wind-powered crank to wind the remnants of No. 7 back in for a post-mortem.
"That'll be a five hundred star fine for scaring the fish, and I had twenty to thirty breaths, so I win the pool," Village Headman Meewinnikka observed, then belched. "Good pickled eggs, by the way."
"Two hundred stars; just the engine, not the tank. And it pains me to say this, but it was seventeen breaths, so I pay Spot," Blue Sky Tail countered. The Headman grumbled, but left with the money and a cheek-bump, 'All-is-well'.
Tail's mate, Joyful Morning Sky, padded down to the beach and bumped cheeks with him and with Spot, then again with her mate, with interest. "Mmm, I smell pickled eggs... did that old thief leave any for me?"
"A few," Tai said and pushed the little barrel of pickled Thunderfoot eggs over. The bottom of the short barrel was still covered, even after she helped herself to a double paw-full and lay on her back in the sand to nibble contentedly, snapping playfully when Tail stole one and whistling a nursery rhyme about dancing Thunderfeet and their drovers. Tail wrapped his lithe, furry body around hers and laid an ear against her ample belly.
"My, they're active this morning!"
"Wonder why? They've gotten used to explosions, but when my hearts skipped and then took off, so did theirs." Her eyes closed and she added, "I told you we needed to reinforce the flapper valve..."
"We don't even-" Tail stopped as Spot pointed to the blown-out front end of the sputter-jet. "Wind and wave... you're a witch."
"You say the nicest things, dear."
Paulo looked up from his game as three people came into the lobby of the flop-house. The usual lurkers-on disappeared fast as they got a good look at the three, and Paulo felt his stomach take a slow roll. He belched and put the bottle in his hand back under the counter.
"Can I help you?"
"In fairy tales, it's always once upon a time," the intense dark man said. He smiled, showing perfect teeth. There was a false humor in his eyes that made Paulo even more uncomfortable. "Once upon a time, a prince and his maid went on a strange quest find a lost treasure, or convince the genie to go back in his bottle..."
"But those fairy tales were pretty grim, you know. Grimm, even, as in the brothers' Grimm who first collected them-"
"Look, I don't have any money here, and I don't want any trouble..."
"Shh, of course you don't. I just have a few questions-"
"Stop interrupting! Speak when I give you leave to, and be honest and concise. Be the soul of brevity and wit, even."
Paulo was nodding.
"Good. Now, let me begin with a picture; did these two stay in your establishment? I will know if you're lying, so please, don't."
The woman was wearing a revealing formal gown and had her hair up in some confection of lace and floral accents, nothing like the short hair and thread-bare coveralls she'd been wearing during the week she and the man, a tall handsome fellow with salt and pepper hair and a pleasant, easy smile, had been here. But Paulo had remembered those eyes, not unlike the cold eyes of these three, maybe with a little more real warmth to them...
"Interesting. Where did they go?"
The corpse would tell no tales and the flop-house was a burning shell, with no survivors, no witnesses. The man sat in the back of the aircar, making notes as they flew back to the cruiser. He looked up at the bodyguard who sat across from him.
"You don't approve?"
The hulking naval infantry rating in plain clothes shook her head, 'no'.
"Not afraid of me?"
"Sir, you're just a man, sir. I am afraid of what's behind you, sir."
"Reason and purpose; Duty. Trust in me and do your duty, rating. You can do no more than that and you should strive never to do less."
"General Robert E. Lee, sir."
"Yes, I suppose," the dark man muttered. He looked up, a question plainly on his face.
"His side lost, sir. A good man, all in all, who fought for the wrong side. Probably got more people killed than ever needed to die-"
The dark man smiled. "Don't worry about me being a good man, doing the wrong thing, rating."