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   Chapter 5 No.5

Loderunner By Christina Engela Characters: 6076

Updated: 2018-06-30 12:02

The Celeste turned out to be a rather shiny little ship. Battered and dented, even scratched and scraped here and there, but definitely shiny. From the look of her, it seemed she'd run into Ding at least once. The tired old hull glinted brightly in the morning Ramalama. The skids were shiny new titanium upgrades, quite possibly the loderunner equivalent of a set of shiny new mags on a street rod. Yup. If this was a street rod, they would be spinners. One of them had a ground clamp on, which told Tim a few important things. Firstly, that the space port authority was obviously not too enamored of the Celeste, its owners or crew, and secondly, the ship wasn't going anywhere. Not till it was removed. And that cost something. Usually that most rarest of things – actual money.

'Lovely', thought Timaset Skooch from where he stood at the foot of the main ramp at the bow of the ship. He hoped his new acquisition didn't also have neon lighting around the number plates, or those annoying little blue lights on the windscreen washer nozzles. Ultra-violet light tubes on the undercarriage or cooling nacelles were a definite no-no. He suppressed an involuntary shiver as the taxi pulled off, leaving him behind to face this nightmare on his own.

"Mister Skooch!" Greeted a booming voice. It was coming from up the ramp. Jonn Deire was standing there, dressed as before, in a pair of old denims and a tweed shirt. The dark maw of the ships' hold loomed behind him. The shape of the mans' overgrown and unkempt beard indicated that he was smiling.

"Welcome aboard!"

"Thanks." Said Tim, before adding under his breath, "I think."

He shook hands with the man apprehensively. He was led up the ramp and inside, where he could see stacks of crates in the hold, which ran the length of the ship. One or two corridors crossed the open space where they adjoined the two sides of the ship, where, presumably, all the other places on the ship were. It wasn't very neat or well packed. Even he could see that, and he'd never even been aboard one of these before. All sorts of detritus littered the deck. He checked the undersides of his shoes.

"Oh – um, sorry 'bout that, mister Skooch." Deire apologized sheepishly. "Sometimes we carries cattle."

Assuring Deire that it was all right and his shoes needed a clean anyway, he let the man lead him deeper into the belly of the whale and more of the same. The corridor was narrow and grey. The sides were dull and not very clean, the carpets, where there were any, were frayed and worn. Stuff seemed to have been trodden into them, stuff the autocleaner droids couldn't get out. They did have autocleaners, didn't they? Frankly, saying that the ship seemed to be showing her age would've been a gross understatement. It was flaunting it, in fact.

"Red-horned wildebeest!" Deire continued, "You know, we have to pack 'em in real tight, or they fall over! You know what a mess that would make!"

"You must have a real ace cargo-master." Tim commented, tongue-in-cheek.


" Said Deire, pausing to give him a regretful look, before adding by way of explanation: "F.F.B. got him."

"?" said Tim, giving him a blank look.

"Florpavian Flame Bird."

"Oh." He said, getting the picture. "Sounds nasty."

"It was, mister Skooch. It was." Said Deire sadly. "Killed Wang, badly damaged three containers next to the cages too. Owners had to claim from insurance. Nasty business. Took days to collect all the bits and send them home. You have any idea what it costs to send human remains via courier these days?"

"Not really." Tim admitted.

"And that smell! Stays with ya a long time, mister Skooch. Whole crew wanted danger pay after that – and asbestos suits. Y'have any idea what that cost? An' funny thing is, nobody wanted to take over as cargo-master."

"Yeah, that is kinda funny."

Tim had seen a Florpavian flame bird once, in the Atro City zoo, shortly before the Exotic Birds Wing had to be rebuilt for the second time. They reminded him of the stories he'd heard about dragons as a boy. The head of the thing sort of hinted at one, looking for all the world like a giant lizard on two legs, but with bright blue feathers, not scales – which were always a little singed around the nostrils and beak and other more delicate places – which were usually bright pink, like the thing had been grazing on raw chilies all week long. Small scrawny wings sat high up on its back and seemed to do little more than fan the flames than anything else. It had raw acetone for blood, and walked around the surface of its home planet, Florpavia, eating raw chemicals and crapping crude plastic explosive everywhere it went. Its breath was noxious, and its hiccups deadly. Its coughs were feared by even the hardiest and athletic cargo-master or zoo-keeper. To say nothing of the um, flatulence. He'd seen an experienced zoo-keeper run once, flat-out too – at the mere hint of it. His young assistant hesitated. Vaporized, poor kid.

He'd long ago made his mind up that if he ever saw a zoo-keeper running he'd try his level best to keep up. Silent and deadly had nothing on it. When angry, the bird could incinerate a full-grown man in seconds at a range of twenty feet. Sometimes even on purpose. Aim was the thing. Lucky they were mostly docile and peaceable. Mostly. And that was just the female of the species. The males just moped around, looking for females and suffering acute indigestion and passing gas. For the most part they did nothing more menacing than sleeping all day and blowing smoke-rings from both ends. Trouble is they were far too nervous and, due to the digestive problems, had a dangerous tendency to explode without warning. 'Something to do with the plumbing', Deire told him. "Heartburn!" He said, and then nearly choked in his own spittle laughing about it. He knew Deire wasn't kidding. He'd heard the male birds could explode with the force equivalent to ten kilograms of C4 plastic explosive. He'd be running too, trying to catch up with the cargo-master and zoo-keeper.

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