NovaDog Space Fugitives And Frankfurters

Jako Langst and the Silver Skull

”This is the place? ”

”This is the place. ”

Jako looked up at the ominous black cube floating in front of them. It dwarfed the S.S. SyKo so totally that Jako almost felt like a bona-fide dwarf!

”And you
e sure this is the place? ”

Syldie pinched the bridge of her nose and exhaled like an angry bull. ”Yes, ” she droned, ”I checked a hundred times. Nothing else is here! The closest other station is some mattress store thats fifty warp-hours away, and surely they wouldn offer us 890000 Novabits just to deliver a mattress, right? ”

”I dunno, ” yawned Jako. On some days, Syldie complained that she had two states: one was sleepy and the other one was enthusiastic about playing Dangerlactic Online. ”I always thought those stores were kinda suspicious. ”

Syldie rolled her eyes. She looked down at the pilot interface, where the order details were displayed in large print- that way, she didn have to wear her prescription pilot goggles to read them.

Rap twice on back of cube to activate landing deck.

”Man, ” she muttered, ”This is giving me seriously strange vibes. ”

They had been waiting around back of the cube for five minutes. Syldie hoped something would happen and that she wouldn have to go to the trouble of suiting up and tethering herself to the ship, but the enormous cube-shaped station was as irresponsive as it was intimidating.

”I got an idea, ” mumbled Jako.

”If you
e going to suggest I use the rocket gloves, hold your tongue. ”

”Itsh worf a thry ”, said Jako with her tongue clamped between her teeth. Syldie remembered her earlier idea to hire a new assistant with the gig money.

”Whatever. Look- Im gonna ram the ship into that thing twice in rapid succession and hope that counts. ”

”Whatefer yhou shay. ”

”You can stop talking like that now. ”

Jako made a show of opening her mouth wide and retracting her tongue. ”Ach, my aching tongue, ” she groaned theatrically. ”Whyd you make me do that? ”

”Hey, I didn make you do anything! ”

”You said to hold my tongue. ”

”I know you
e familiar with that idiom! Youve used it before! You just like to get on my nerves, I suppose. ”

”No clue what you
e talking about. ”

Syldie white-knuckled the steering wheel and rammed the ship twice into the cube, all while burning a hole in Jako with her eyes.

”Now, ” she hissed, ”When the client comes out, you let me do the- ”

With a whirr, the ship connected to the cubes AirComm network and the face of a stern, sharply-dressed goblin woman popped up on the cockpits holoscreen. Her eyes moved from Jako to Syldie and back again with all the precision of a metronome. No sooner had she appeared than Syldie had changed her demeanor, switching out her disdain for politeness and folding both hands neatly in her lap. She hoped the woman hadn seen their spat.

Jako opened her mouth in greeting, but she felt a sharp bump under the control panel. Right- Syldie wanted to do the talking. Whatever.

”Good evening, maam! We
e with SyKo Courier Service. ”

With? Jako nearly giggled. They were the whole courier service- there was no with.

”Excellent. Please present your IDs. ”

”What? Oh, yes, of course! ” Syldie pulled up the pairs Novathenticator cards on the screen and blooped them over to the goblin with all the finesse of someone who hadn been asked for ID in many cosmic years. The pendulum swung back and forth.

”Satisfactory, ” she said.

”Thats wonderf- ”

The comm screen was already gone. Syldie grunted- she hated being interrupted almost as much as she hated the idea of being stuck in a dead-end courier job for the rest of her indefinite life.

Just then, the cube vibrated, and a sleek landing bay clicked out of its side like a CD tray… right below the ship.

”Imagine if it had come out and knocked our ship back! ” Jako exclaimed.

”Maybe it wasn luck. Maybe this place has a hundred landing bays and they just slid out the one we were closest to. ”

”A hundred landing bays? I dunno, Syldie. What kind of station has that kind of space? ”

”The kind thats massive and shaped like a cube and requires a secret gesture to enter, I reckon. ”

”Good point. ”

The ship made an ungainly landing and the bay pulled back into the cube. Jako and Syldie stepped out and into a dark, cold room that Syldie half expected to be a torture dungeon when the lights went up.

”I think I mightve, um, gone blind, ” whispered Jako so loudly that Syldie reckoned someone outside the cube could have heard it. Just then, the lights clicked on row by row, revealing a luxurious, sleek lounge unlike any landing bay either of the elves had ever seen.

”Your assignment is upstairs with the boss, ” said the goblin woman from directly behind them, pendulum eyes swinging. They whipped around to face her and Syldie wondered how in the world she had even gotten there without them noticing.

”Sorry, up what? ” asked Jako. Syldie would have kicked her in the shins, but that might have compromised the 890000-Novabit offer; it wasn worth losing that kind of money no matter how angry she was.

The opposite wall slid up and revealed a minimalist marble staircase with glowing handrails. If this place has walls that turn into doors and a hundred landing bays, it ought to have elevators, too, she thought. She would have said it out loud, but that ever-important number, 890000, popped back into her mind every time she stopped thinking about her grievances.

Jako gently placed her foot on the first step.

”So, ” she begun, twirling her hair with her finger, ”Does this thing have some sort of on switch? ”

”No, ” Syldie muttered, rushing over and grabbing Jakos hand. ”No, sorry, that was a joke. ”

”A joke? ” Jako started. Syldie gave her a covert wrist twist. ”Oh! ” She chuckled nervously. ”Yes, it was… a joke… ”

At least Jako was cooperating.

”Look, come this way, Jako, just follow me. ”

”But I- ”

”Follow me. ”

Syldie, making sure to exaggerate her strides, attempted to demonstrate how to climb stairs to Jako, who still seemed unsure. It was such a basic thing… for Polar Elves. Not so for Florans, unfortunately.

”Stop, ” said the goblin woman.

”What? ” said Syldie and Jako in unison.

”That won be necessary. ”

”Im sorry, Im afraid Im having a hard time understaaaaaah! ”

Syldie had no time to finish her sentence. The stairs were shaking underneath her! Was the station under attack? Was her life in danger? She reached for the ray gun she always kept in her trusty backpack, but found that he had neglected to even bring it. Scarcely thinking, she grabbed Jako and held her tight. If things blew up, she didn want to lose her partner-in-crime- no, not crime. Her partner in business.

A few moments later, the stairs begun to rise.

Syldie gasped in recognition and withdrew her arms.

”Im sorry, ” she muttered, face flushed red.

”No, thats fine. I liked it, ” said Jako.

Syldie kicked the wall behind her to get the anger out.

”You really do like to get a rise out of me. ”

”I don know what you
e talking about. That said, my response wouldve been the same whether I was trying to get a rise out of you or not. ”

Syldie delivered a flurry of blows to the handrails and the redness slowly drained from her skin, leaving it a healthy shade of bubblegum pink.

”Remember, Jako, I do the talking when we go in there. ”

”Sure, but you gotta take the responsibility if you say something wrong! ”

”How come you never do that, then? ”

The taller elf shrugged. The stairs slowed to a stop without so much as a clunk, and Syldie longed to examine the mechanism that made its motions so smooth. Breaking open the elevator would lose the duo their 890000, though. The money was the only thing keeping Syldie in check- if only it also worked on Jako, she mused.

After a short session of How To Climb Stairs with Syldie Gatzer, the duo stood in front of their mystery clients door.

”So, who is this? ”

”How should I know? There wasn a name on the order! ”

”I don see why you accepted it, ” said Jako, putting her hands behind her head in her best anime boy impression. Syldies eye twitched and she grabbed onto Jakos coattails- after all, she couldn reach her collar.

”Haven you ever been broke? Haven you ever looked into your bank account and seen tumbleweeds rolling around? Jako, haven you ever wanted something more? ” She tried to shake her partner vigorously to drive her point home, but ended up shaking herself against Jako instead.

”Of course I want more. But I guess what I want is too special to be bought with money, ” she stuck her nose up. ”You wouldn get it. ”

e right, ” snipped Syldie, ”I don . ”

”Ahem, ” said a deep voice. Jako and Sydie turned to see a dwarven man in a navy blue suit with shoulder pads bigger than saucers staring up at them from the doorway, one eyebrow raised, looking less than impressed. Syldie rearranged herself, but didn manage to hide her embarrassment.

”So, how long have you been there? ”

”It matters not, ” replied the dwarf. ”Enter. ” The elves did as he asked without another word.

They made themselves comfortable in his little monochrome office as best they could, feeling like technicolor oddballs in a black and white world. He cleared his throat and they turned their attention to him.

”I am Beaufort, ” he said. If Jako had heard him speak in a voice chat, she would have assumed he was a 15-year-old trying to sound like an adult with the aid of a voice changer. ”I am the CEO of the company that has decided to contract you to deliver a very important item to a very confidential location. ”

”And what company would that be, sir? ” asked Syldie.

”That is for me to know and you to never find out. ”

Syldie almost choked on her spit. Was this guy for real? She coughed. ”Sorry, I just had something in my throat back there. ”

”Yes- shes telling the truth, ” helped Jako. Syldie gave her a momentary glance of disappointment. Beaufort didn look convinced, but Syldie decided shed just try and let it go.

”You will receive the item in a four-by-four-by-four fortified Orichalite box. You must bring it to the coordinates listed in the order we submitted. If the box is damaged, either on purpose or by accident, or if you attempt to open it, it will explode. In addition, the order will be called off. ”

”Itll explode? ” asked Jako, voice quavering, jaw open.

”The order will be called off? ” asked Syldie in the same tone.

”Good luck, ” said Beaufort. He pressed a button beneath his desk and the couch Syldie and Jako were sitting on slid out of the room and into the hallway. The door fused shut behind them and faded into the wall.

”Man, ” Syldie moaned, ”Whats up with the architecture in this place? ”

They took the stairlevator back down into the landing bay, where the goblin waited for them.

”Thanks for your help, Miss… ”

”Affine. Dr. Affine, in fact. I did not help you, and you will earn nothing in sucking up to me. Your assignment is in front of your ship. Please deliver it as soon as possible. ”

”Oh, wait, one more thing, ” recalled Syldie. ”There wasn a time limit on the order. Was that a mistake, or? ”

”We do not make mistakes. ”

Syldie nodded and raised her eyebrows so far they threatened to pop right off her head.

The assignment- that is to say, the box- sat on the landing pad. It was made of orichalcite and about the size of a cube-shaped watermelon, with intricate silver bezeled edges that screamed his is important, so don mess with it, you numbskulls!

Jako picked up the box and moved to shake it to hear what was inside, but Syldie stopped her when she saw Affine glaring from across the room. Careful not to make any worse of a first impression than they already had, the duo boarded the S.S. SyKo, avoided the gaping holes in the floor near the entrance, and rattled off into space as soon as the landing bay slid out enough to allow it.

The coordinates were punched in, the box was secured on a shelf in the cockpit, and the old FTS drive flared to life, putting and sputtering the SyKo into warpspace. It was only then that Syldie allowed herself to rest.

”Finally, ” said Jako. ”Now we can shake it. ”

As Jako went to get the box, Syldie suddenly reached for it first and held it behind her back.

”Whats the problem? ”

”Look, normally Id let you, but remember what they said? That thing will explode if we damage it! ”

”Ill just shake it lightly, don worry. ”

”Last time you said youd shake something lightly, you ended up breaking it in half! ”

”Ive learned my lesson. ”

”No can do. We
e getting this job done, and well do it without blowing ourselves up. ”

”Id survive the explosion, ” harrumphed Jako.

”You would, huh? But what about me? What about the ship? Did we ever cross your mind or were you too busy thinking about yourself? Don answer that. ”

”Okay, whatever you say, boss. ” She readjusted her goggles. ”So, like, theres no time limit, right? That means we can do whatever we want on the way, right? Right? ”

e not doing anything on the way! We
e practically broke, so we
e just gonna warp there in one go and get this whole mysterious thing over with. ”

e no fun. ”

”Look- think of this as one big opportunity to play as much Dangerlactic Online as your heart desires. ”

The Florans eyes lit up and she unbuckled her seatbelt, floating up the ceiling.

”You don have to tell me twice, boss! ”

Jako only called Syldie oss when she was trying to be annoying. Syldie wouldn let Jako see that it got to her… well, she wouldn if she had a choice. Her face always went red and it gave things away immediately, much to her annoyance.

After a few minutes, Jako had floated back to her personal chamber- the only personal chamber on the ship (Syldie always slept in the cockpit). Steely vibraphones and arpeggiating synthesizers echoed faintly down the hall- the theme song for Dangerlactic Online. Syldie pulled her pointy Polar Elf hat, which doubled as a noise-cancelling pilots helmet, over her ears, but she could still hear the music in the back of her mind.

Jako entered pilot simulation mode.

”Welcome, Captain, ” said Deputy Eltany, the tutorial character for the game mode and a fellow Floran elf. There was more dialogue, but Jako skipped all of it- she knew how to play. This level was the second EX challenge in the summer Space cruise pilot event, where you could by swimsuit skins for your crew- Jako didn have enough money, so she settled for putting up a picture of one of the skins as her desktop background. Echo! had ended service a few years back and entered cache mode, so there were no more events, but she still wanted to reach 100% affinity with all the characters and unlock every story before quitting. That could wait- she had a whole ship full of passengers to protect.

”Cephalo Mothership detected! Captain, stay vigilant! ”

She had come across the mothership in every other attempt at this level, so she knew where it was. She should be the deputy instead of Eltany, she thought. Oh, wait, no, she was already the captain. Itd be a downgrade… maybe she could be both.

The round red timer in the corner ticked down the seconds until the mothership would enter the cruisers danger zone and initiate battle. Jako would have to use all of her pilot wiles to get through this- and shed need a can of ElectroNite, too. As she reached for the mini-fridge, which she knew the location of by heart even with the goggles on, she felt something collide with the ship and felt her brain rattle inside her skull.

An RNG mechanic? That was new!

The rattling stopped and she was able to get a can out of the fridge. When the timer hit zero, the first attack- a flock of missiles aimed at the passenger cabins- whistled towards her. It was easy to avoid by tilting the ship so the bow deflected them, especially since she had turned on the bow shield before the timer had run out. Her health was at 100- what had that collision been, then?

It didn matter. Maybe it was a bug. She swiftly swung past a second round of missiles and activated her starboard shields for the next attack, the heat-seekers she had flubbed earlier. This time, there would be no interruption!

”Turn! Turn now, or else! ” The voice blared in her ears, and the heat-seekers rocketed towards the cruiser. ”The life of your passengers depends on it! Turn! Turn! ”

She didn have to be told twice!

She lurched to the left, and the missiles whizzed harmlessly past. She chuckled to herself and took another sip of her eleventh can of Electro-Nite 24-Hour Energy. Now all she had to do was evade them a second time, and shed be home free- at least until the next attack. With the smirk of an experienced master pilot, Jako lurched back to the right and watched the seekers detonate harmlessly into the void.

”Heh, ” she snickered. She didn know what the next attack was, so she activated all her shields- a technique known as DefLoading in the Dangerlactic community. It tanked her speed, but that was alright- she had put all of her event stat points into the shields! She was practically invincible. Now all she had to do was-

”Jako! ” a voice rang out in the abyss. Not again!

”Hold your horses, Syldie! ”

”Jako! What in the universe are you still doing playing that game? ”

”You said this was my chance, ” groaned Jako as a heavy-duty Starcruncher projectile crumbled her bow shield and eliminated 50% of her health bar.

”This isn about you, dummy! The ship is under attack! Get out here! ”

…Under attack?

On one hand, this was an awful, awful situation, one that threatened to compromise their job and maybe even their lives.

On the other hand, she had been waiting for this her whole life.

”Engage the shields! All of them! I don care if it tanks our speed! Ill be right there. ”

”Shields? What
e you talking about? This thing doesn have any shields! ”

Right- this wasn a luxury cruise ship. It was a dinky camper, and besides, half the parts were broken.

”Uh, then, use an evasive maneuver, ” Jako said, deflating. Her fantasy slipped away further with every second.

”Where? Where can we go? Look at that thing! Look at that thing and tell me again to use an evasive maneuver! ”

She pulled herself into the cockpit and almost immediately felt like vomiting.

The other ship was easily twenty times the size of the SyKo; moreover, it was shaped like a giant skull, with two smaller (but still giant) bone-shaped ships hovering next to it on either side. The skulls eyes blazed- they were made up of hundreds of projectile launchers!

”Down, ” rasped Jako. ”Move down! Quick, go below the skull! ”

”What? Why? ”

”The eyes! They
e- ”

In a terrifying blaze, the eyes lit up and hundreds of projectiles poured forth.

”You said it yourself, ” Jako said, shaking Syldie out of her deer-in-the-headlights state. ”We
e getting this job done, and well do it without BLOWING OURSELVES UP! ”

She didn need to be told a third time- she ducked and powered on the ships one remaining thruster, spinning through warpspace and coming to a hesitant stop a hairs breadth away from the main skull.

”Do we have any offensives? Missiles, deflectors… a giant sword? ”

”No! No, what kind of ship do you think this is? ”

”Then what do we do? ”

”You tell me! You deal with this kind of stuff every day! ”

Jakos enthusiasm was gone, and dread was setting in. The flotilla of projectiles they had just avoided went off, one by one, in space, sending particles of… paint… to and fro.

”Paint bombs? ” asked Jako. ”Then they weren trying to kill us? ”

The holocomm fluttered to life. The silhouette of a broad-shouldered man with a robotic arm and a tricorn hat faded in through the warp static.

”What do you want with us?! ”

”We want somethin that was taken from us, ” he said in the second-deepest voice theyd heard that day, curling his hand into a tight fist. ”And we believe ye have it in yer possession. ”

”Whatever it is, we don have it! ” Syldie screamed. ”Please! We
e just humble couriers! We
e almost broke! ”

Jako glanced momentarily at the mysterious box on the shelf just out of view of the holocomm.

”Ill give ye but one more chance, ” he breathed. ”Surrender now. ”

”No! No, you
e crazy! ”

”Very well, en, ” he said, smiling and revealing a mouth full of sharp metallic teeth. ”Well ave what we want by force, and well get our hands two nice new servants as well. ”

”NOOO! ”

The holocomm shut off and the cruel laughter of what Jako assumed was the pirate captain echoed in the cockpit. Syldie had no time to react- three massive robotic claw arms were making their way towards the SyKo, and even if the de-warper was activated now, itd only activate in twenty seconds. There wasn enough time. Was this the end?

There was no GAME OVER screen. Then again, this was real life.

The ship thumped from side to side as the robotic claws closed in. The engine slowed and the lights disengaged, stranding Jako and Syldie in darkness, only the warped stars and the rapidly-closing-in maw of the skullship visible outside.

”Listen, Jako- if we die here, I gotta tell you something. ”

”Yeah? ”

”I want a new assistaaaaaaaaant! ”

The mouth of the skull snapped shut.

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