Yet again Tsilbora attempted to scan the star ship as it hung motionless just inside the ghostly nebula. She tried to punch a way through the electromagnetic interference it generated but it was no easy task. She watched through the view screen as lightning lanced out from the towering clouds of gas, it’s jagged brilliance playing across the bow of the stricken ship. Unknown energies pulsed within the nebula, spewing deadly bursts of radiation into the silent vacuum of space.
It was a stroke of luck that she had come across such a valuable vessel and Tsilbora intended keeping such a valuable prize to herself. She had stumbled upon it on her way back from a neighbouring solar system. In recent weeks the route she normally took had become a hotspot for Delrenian pirate attacks, so she had taken the long way round in the hope that this would be safer.
Her ship was armoured well for a civilian vessel and the weaponry it carried was equally impressive. However this was in order to offset its lack of speed and manoeuvrability. After all, Delrenian pirates were known for the lightning speed in which they executed their attacks and if it ever came down to it Tsilbora knew that she could never out run them.
She set the proximity field so that it would pick up anything bigger than a life pod approaching the salvage area and then allowed herself a moment or two of idle speculation concerning the price the abandoned ship might fetch. After another few minutes she had also constructed a mental list of potential buyers.
The console in front of her beeped three times in staccato to notify her that the scan was complete and she examined the results with eager reptilian eyes. Tsilbora was surprised to find that the ship was composed of an usual titanium alloy, one that Tsilbora had never seen before. The shields were down but undamaged and there were no life signs detected. Weapons analysis yielded a further surprise even more startling than the first. The unknown ship had no defensive capabilities or obvious weaponry.
Morons! Thought Tsilbora. No wonder she had found no life signs. They had probably been blown to atoms by a boarding party of Delrenian pirates, which would explain the empty cargo holds.
In view of the everpresent threat of discovery or attack, she felt tempted to rush the salvage operation. But Tsilbora pushed aside that urge and performed each and every task with studied thoroughness. There was too much at stake here to risk a botched recovery.
The exterior of the space craft had taken quite a beating from the nebula, so just to be sure she attached the towing beam to three different points in order to avoid undue stress on the outer hull as they travelled through space.
The journey was an uneventful one and after three weeks of breaking into a sweat every time she encountered another ship, Tsilbora made planet fall on Ethrizan Minor. It was the fifth planet in the solar system and only the second to support life. As a result it had become fairly heavily populated and cities covered most of the northern hemisphere. As for the Southern hemisphere, the environment there was much harsher and it had no cities except for the port of Danjat.
Only the hardiest could eke out a living in the iron hard sun baked dessert and most that did so, usually gave it up at some point and migrated to the northern cities.
Danjat loomed up ahead, it’s buildings encased in a heat deflecting bubble that sparkled in the blazing sunlight. The traffic controller accepted her authorization code and gave her the frequency to pass through the bubble and into the city. A few minutes later she touched down carefully in the gargantuan docking area.
What a relief! sighed Tsilbora. She teetered on the brink of exhaustion. Spending the last few weeks constantly looking over her shoulder had taken its toll and it showed. She leaned back in her seat and yawned, briefly exposing her black bifurcated tongue. She needed sleep badly but it was vital that Tsilbora claim the vessel as hers quickly before any of her rivals tried to dispute it.
There wasn’t much to it. All she needed to do was show the customs officer the video feeds from her logbook entries, prove that the ship was really empty and sign the forms. Downloading the appropriate entries took only a few seconds and she pocketed them quickly before striding off to find the customs office.
The officer who accompanied her to the alien ship was a lazy individual. He deeply regretted having to leave his comfortable chair to inspect some rusty derelict that this scaly female had probably stolen. Officer Hefkla had been enjoying a post lunch nap when she had burst in to his inner sanctum, all pushy and demanding. He had barely even had time to wipe the gelatinous green sleep deposits from his eyes before she demanded an immediate inspection. His eyes followed her sinuous form as she made her way across the metal decking. Ha! he thought to himself. I’ll make sure she isn’t disappointed on that count at least!
Tsilbora could feel his gaze sliding over her body and it made her skin crawl with disgust. But she merely continued her loose swaying walk in the hope that he would like the view enough to rush her paper work through. They climbed the ramp that led up to the star ship and when they reached the top she removed a wave length seeking device from her pocket. Methodically, she passed it in front of the locking mechanism until suddenly the door slid open and a cold blast of air escaped.
Hefkla peered inside dubiously. “Aren’t there any lights?” he asked. Tsilbora had already stepped inside and she answered him from the darkness.
“No. You’re not afraid of the dark are you?” she said. He scowled wondering if she was mocking him.
“Don’t worry I have a light,” she said. There was a loud snap as she activated her glow rod and using her free hand she threw another one to Hefkla. With a quick snap the area around them became bathed in an eerie green light and Hefkla could see that at least this part of ship was empty.
“Okay let’s see the next section,” he nodded. Tsilbora moved quickly onwards and soon all he could see of her was the green glow stick, floating along in the dark. He wished he could move quicker but he wasn’t used to the exertion.
“Wait up!” he cried.
Eventually he caught up with her and found her standing speechless in the cargo bay. Unsure of what had captured her attention he raised the glow stick higher in order to shed some light on the situation.
“What is it?” asked Tsilbora glancing back over her shoulder.
In front them stood a huge network of what looked like roots. Hundreds and hundreds of fibrous brown strands intertwined like tendrils of some monstrous vine. The whole thing pulsated and moved as though it was alive and every now and then Tsilbora caught sight of strange things hidden within the mass that were not unlike huge elliptical seed pods. The seed pods were transparent and pale gold in colour. Each one appeared lit from within but it was hard tell as the whole thing was constantly on the move.
Suddenly there was a loud pop as something inside it burst and at that point Hefkla turned and ran; something that Tsilbora had never imagined him doing. Instinct told her to follow him as he stampeded wildly through the ship.
“Code red! Code red!”Hefkla shouted breathlessly into his wrist communicator. “Docking bay 369. Requesting immediate assistance.”
“Confirmed officer Hefkla,” replied an ultra- calm female voice.
The moment their feet touched the metal walk way outside a high pitched siren sounded above them. Tsilbora looked up to see three attack class Haleron Reactor Jets attaching tractor beams to the derelict ship.
“Hey! That’s my ship God Damn it! What are they doing?” she shouted above the din. The down draft from the jets was almost too much to stand up against. But she wasn’t about to let them take her ship away from her.
Hefkla grabbed her by the arm and tried to drag her away.
“CITIZENS! CLEAR THE AREA! I REPEAT, CLEAR THE AREA IMMEDIATELY,” commanded a voice on loud speaker.
“Don’t you know what those things are?” cried Hefkla. She shook he head and waited for him to answer.
“You’ve got a nest of vortex wraiths in your ship’s cargo bay and they look about ready to hatch,” He explained his eyes bulging in horror.
“If you want to stay that’s you look out but I’m leaving,” he declared standing beneath an interplanetary transport matrix.
“No, wait!” shouted Tsilbora. “I’m coming with you.” She needed to stay with him as he was the only one who knew the ship was hers.
He waited for her to join him and then initiated the transport beam. Just as she dematerialised Tsilbora saw the jets lifting the derelict out of the docking bay and her heart sank like a stone. Each jet was carrying a full complement of Zenaton Shells underneath its wings.
“What are they going to do?” she demanded once they reached their destination. Their destination appeared to be a military base but it wasn’t immediately obvious whether or not it was occupied.
“You just stand there and watch. You’ll soon see.”
“And what are you going to do?” asked Tsilbora suspiciously.
“Let’s just say I’m formulating a contingency plan in case they fail,” he replied walking quickly towards the main building. Hefkla was hoping to find someone who could be bribed into letting him inside an underground bunker but if that failed he would have no qualms about using the micro blaster he always carried inside his jacket.
“What are those things?” cried Tsilbora sprinting after him.
“Stop wasting my time woman!” he snapped.
“Tell me!” roared Tsilbora grabbing him by the throat. Although she was petite, her species possessed much denser muscular and skeletal structures which meant that inch for inch she was much stronger than she looked.
“They’re on my ship, so I have a right to know.”
“I believe you have a form of locust on your planet do you not?” croaked Hefkla. Tsilbora nodded.
“Well imagine a creature many, many times bigger, that feeds on neural energy in just the same way that a locust feeds on vegetation. If those vortex wraiths manage to make planet fall every living thing with a central nervous system will be reduced to just that, a vegetable. So you’d better pray that the procedure works.”
The locusts on Tsilbora’s home world had legendary appetites. One summer she’d seen entire quadrants of agricultural land stripped of every single leaf and stalk. If these vortex wraiths fed on peoples neural energy and had similar appetites she shuddered to think about the devastation they would cause.
“So what’s the procedure when something like this happens?” she asked. Hefkla had stopped struggling now so she decided to run the risk of letting him sit up.
He leaned back on his blubbery elbows and looked up into the cloudless sky. Suddenly a high pitched explosion tore through the upper atmosphere sending blistering shockwaves tearing round the globe.
“That’s the procedure,” he said pointing heavenward. “Blow them all to smithereens.”
Tsilbora gaped at him as the ramifications of what he was saying sunk in. They must have towed the derelict up into the higher atmosphere and bombarded it with Zenaton shells, the only weapon that was known to be effective against them. The aftershock that they were now seeing was the neural energy being released from the bodies of the dead vortex wraiths.
“My ship!” Tsilbora lamented. “Who will compensate me?”
Havkla turned and spat in disgust. “A ship is just a ship when all’s said and done. You will get your compensation as long as you’re willing to submit the paper work and continue chasing up the claim. But think about this, if the vortex wraiths had taken your mind what use would a hundred star ships be or twenty billion baxla to spend in whichever way you choose? Can anyone be adequately compensated for losing their mind?”
She gazed at him, surprised at his undeniable logic.
“But for now I think you should concentrate on making a new list,” he said patting her on the shoulder. With that he walked away striding across the barren land.
“Make a new list?” called Tsilbora. “A list of what?”
“Priorities,” he shouted stepping onto the interplanetary transport matrix.