The following morning Tentalu came into view. Lanie was actually looking forward to landing. Now she would be able to purchase a few things she wanted, and would feel more self-sufficient. She planned to buy a few things for One as well.
One had made it clear he wanted to stay as her companion as long as she didn’t treat him like a dumb animal. His life would be made easier if he relied on her for food and shelter.
Lanie decided to try her hand at a manual entry to the planet. Her hands moved swiftly over the control panel. Quickly finding out it was too much for one person, One jumped in and helped, keeping the ship from crashing.
“Phew! Thanks buddy! How did you learn to do that?”
One rolled his eyes at her and silently climbed up her arm to her shoulder.
As soon as they docked, One and Lanie exited they ship. Ku was waiting for her.
“How did it go?” Ku said wringing his hands.
“Okay I guess-”
“Why the hell do you have a Bakta on your shoulder?” Ku asked incredulously.
Lanie smiled, “Cute, huh?”
“Filthy little creatures…”
Lanie heard One give a sorrowful moan, “Hey Ku, He’s my buddy! Pretty smart too. He helped me land the ship!”
“Uh yes, they called me right away when they found you were trying to land on your own. Well, what number is he?”
“Um, his name is One.”
“Oh my forsaken universe! One?”
Lanie turned to look at One who shrugged, and then back at Ku. “What?”
“That means he’s the first one! He’s an experiment gone badly at best. Destroy him, Lanie!”
“I will do no such thing!” Lanie patted One, who had started to cry. “I’m going home; I’ll talk to you later.” She pushed by Ku.
“Don’t worry One, you’re safe with me.” Lanie cooed. She completely ignored Ku, who yelled over his shoulder to her.
He called after her, “Remember who you work for! If you want to get paid, you’ll come back here right now!”
Lanie stopped walking. She whispered to One, “Don’t worry, I’ll protect you.” Turning around, she walked back to Ku. “I’m keeping him.”
“Don’t ever let him out of your sight then.” Ku warned, waving his hand in the air. “Now, I see you have the cargo. Did you meet DuBont?”
“I spoke to him over a speaker, but he asked me to have a drink with him. I refused.”
“Oh dear…How did he take that?”
“Not very well, but I smoothed it over saying I didn’t feel well and didn’t want to spread germs.”
“Brilliant, you couldn’t have known this, but he is afraid of catching a disease from anyone.”
“What will I do next time? He made me promise to meet with him next time.”
“We will find a way to disguise you, there wasn’t time for this trip.” Ku reached into a pouch hanging from his side. “Okay, this is your pay. You will find I was very generous. You should be able to get everything you need.”
“Great! I need a translator for my eyes next. I couldn’t read that book you gave me.”
“Oh sorry. Let me give you a name of someone then. You’ll want the best, it could cause blindness if you get one of poor quality.”
“The universal tool for the written language goes into your eyes, just like the other tools it takes over a portion of your body.” Ku hands her a card. “This guy is painless and very good.”
“I like the painless part, thanks” She said.
“All right then Lanie, you are free to go. Come see me tomorrow and we’ll talk about another job.”
Lanie smiled and walked pass Ku, “Okay. Later then” She was anxious to go shopping. Not knowing very much about the currency here, she wasn’t sure how far these coin-like objects would go. The more she thought about it, the more she thought she should talk to one of her friends first. She knew right where to find them.
The glass had been replaced on bar’s window that Lanpel had unceremoniously been thrown out of. The memory of it made her smile as she went through the doors of Bahatma’s Bar. Just inside she scanned the crowd for a familiar face, “Kondelk!” Lanie yelled and waved.
A wide smile fell across the face of her friend when he saw her, “Lanie!” He waved her over and as she got closer his smile faded, “What the hell is that?” he said pointing at her shoulder.
She grinned, “This is One, my new traveling companion.”
“Please don’t hurt me.” A squeaky little voice came from the back of the supply closet.
“What?” Lanie whispered, and then in a normal voice, “Who’s in there?”
“You promise not to kill me?”
Lanie paused a moment, “Sure.”
“Well, I don’t know what you are, or if you can hurt me!” Lanie sighed, “Look, just come out of there.” She backed up further.
After a few seconds of rustling noises, the ugliest thing she had even seen, crawled slowly forward. It looked like a rat that was a victim of lab experiments. It was making very worried noises.
“Ewww, what are you?” Lanie said softly.
“Ohhh, I’m sorry. I know I’m not very pretty. All I know is I’m a Bakta and my name is One.”
Lanie instantly felt bad she reacted with open disgust, “No I’m the one that sorry.” She reached forward to pet it, and then drew her hand back; still not sure she could touch it.
One sat still looking very apologetic for its appearance.
Trying to be hospitable she asked, “Are you hungry?”
“I’m starved! That’s what I have been doing in here, looking for something to eat!”
“Did you come from that last planet I was on? What kinds stuff do you eat? Are you a girl or a boy?” Lanie started rummaging through the food supplies.
One held its ears, “Questions! Questions! Slow down!” Then sighing heavily, “Yes I stowed away to get away from those damn lizards. I will eat anything that doesn’t eat me first!”
Lanie stopped and looked over her shoulder at him.
Holding its hand out in front of itself, palms facing her, it shook them, “But not YOU!” he paused, “And lastly I am a male.”
Lanie held a dinner she didn’t care for in her hand. “Here, this is a good one.” She injected the required amount of water and heated it before setting it on the floor. “There ya go.” One dug right in, Lanie could see he was indeed starved. He made gross little noises and occasionally wiped his mouth with his arm.
When he couldn’t force another bite down, One looked up to see Lanie staring at him, “What? I was hungry!”
Lanie smiled, “No I could see that. I was just thinking you’re kinda cute after all…in a …weird…sorta way.”
One smiled at her.
“Okay One, go take a bath in the sink and we gotta deal, I need someone to talk to.” Then it suddenly hit her, she had been talking to him. She touched the necklace, “Amazing.”
“A bath? What’s that?”
“Just as I expected.” She said under her breath, “It means you use water and soap on your body so you don’t stink!”
One looked confused, “I stink?”
“Yes you do.” Lanie left him to sort it out. Walking to the front of the ship, she sat at the control panel. Everything seemed to be running smoothly. In looking over the panel, Lanie realized they added a few things, she now had weapons. They also added a few more gauges to keep track of air quality, and the atmosphere outside the ship having to do with radiation. “Boy, it will take me forever to pay off my debts.” She said aloud. Maybe that was the intention.
Lanie was shaken from her thoughts by One, who was sitting by her ankle shaking the water off his body. He was in the midst, of some serious licking when she reached down picked him up by the scruff of his neck. Kicking and screaming, he quieted when she deposited him on her shoulder.
“Why’d you do that?” He asked.
“So I don’t step on you. I’ll be a good place for you to be so you don’t get lost when we’re outside the ship.”
One nodded, “Okay that makes sense.” He watched Lanie fiddle with a few knobs on the panel then asked, “Do you know what you’re doing?”
She sneered at him sideways, “Kind of a smart ass for a rat, aren’t cha?”
“I’m not a rat!”
“What are you then?”
“I’m a Bakta, we are scavengers, yes, but we are way more intelligent than the common Earth rats.”
Lanie picked him off her shoulder and placed him on the control panel so she could see him when she talked to him.
“I wish you’d warn me when you’re gonna do that!” He said squealing.
Lanie smiled down at him, “Sorry. How is it that everyone I run into knows all about Earth?”
“We’ve all been around for a very long time. We evolved faster than you. To be honest, Lanie, most of the species I know think of your planet as being inhabited by a people with very low intelligence.”
Studying him a minute, she felt the need to defend her race, “Well, maybe we are a little behind the rest of you, but we aren’t like wild animals.” She said, quoting Ku.
“That’s true as well; they are smarter than you, some of them anyway.”
Lanie frowned at him, “You might want to stay on my good side. Stop making me sound so inferior.”
One just stared back at her with his beady little eyes.
Over the next few days, on their way back to Tentalu, One and Lanie had many discussions. He was easy for her to talk to and he was a fountain of information. She did consider him a pet, but also a friend. One was quite entertaining. She even caught him singing to himself one morning.
“What kind of a song is that, One?” She asked.
“It’s a prayer.”
“Really? You guys believe in an afterlife and stuff?”
“See what I mean Lanie? Sometimes you say the stupidest things!”
“What? What did I say?”
One sighed, “You are so arrogant…so arrogant that you think this all happened by accident.”
Yes he is so much more than a rat.
Lanie started walking towards it, "Captain Lanie Romein, I'm here to pick up cargo for Ku. Can you have someone empty my hold quickly? I'd like to get back as soon as possible." What she was really saying is, she didn't want to spend any more time on this planet than was needed, she was afraid. More so because as she converged on the tall figure at the end of the tunnel, she could see he had a lizard-like appearance. It had facial features that were defiantly reptilian, and scales covered what parts of the body that wasn't covered by clothing, which was a loose tunic and trousers. Nothing surprised her, but she was definitely creeped out by this, she assumed he was a male by the deepness of his voice.
"Already being done."
"Please accept our hospitality and join our leader, DuBont, for a drink."
That would involve taking off her helmet, she was warned against it. The darkness of the visor kept her anonymous. "No, I'm sorry, maybe another time. I have never been to your planet and I would like to take a few moments to look around."
"No one is allowed on the surface, Captain Romein. We live below, and there is really nothing to see besides the mines."
Lanie would never get tired of hearing someone call her that, she smiled, "If you don't mind I will take a quick look and be on my way."
He nodded, "This way please."
She followed the lizard man out of the tunnel down an incline into a darkened room. Once her eyes adjusted, she could see she was underground. Blinking, she looked around. Lanie stood paralyzed as she watched what appeared to be humans being lead further underground, she turned away sickened, having no way to help them.
Her attention was drawn to someone calling her name.
"This way please."
"Where are those people going?" Lanie pointed to the stream of people.
"They work in the mine."
Lanie nodded, and then followed her guide, who took her to a room with better lighting. He showed her a map.
"The surface has been poisoned. We all live underground. The prisoners –"
"Prisoners?" Lanie interrupted.
"Yes, prisoners...they work in the mines." He drew aside a curtain and a section of the mine was revealed. The conditions were crude, the people were dirty, and the lizard guards whipped them if they didn't move fast enough. It was almost too much for Lanie, she felt faint. She couldn't afford to be at their mercy.
"I must get back to my ship, I'm not feeling well." She turned and retraced her steps back to her ship with her guide right behind her.
"I will check on the progress of the load, Captain Romein."
Lanie continued on into her ship. She felt sweaty, and she could hear her own breathing inside the helmet. She was startled when a loud irritated voice spoke over the communicator.
"Captain Romein! I understand you are ready to leave but on your next visit, you will honor me with a moment of your time or we will not be able to do business, is that understood?"
"I apologize, DuBont, for my horrible manners. As your man can attest, I am not feeling well, and thought it best to be on my way. I assure you; next time I find myself on your planet we will tip glasses."
DuBont's voice was lower, calmer, "I see. I will hold you to your promise then. I know you work for Ku, but I like to know who I deal with."
"Understandably, I look forward to meeting you upon my return." Lanie lied.
"You are free to go. The cargo has been switched. We will see you through the atmosphere and then you are on your own."
"Thank you." Lanie closed the hatch to her ship, and within minutes she could tell she was airborne.
A short time later, they told her to prepare to be released. Following directions from Ku's people she set the auto pilot to take her back home. Home, now a relative term.
She settled in and prepared for the long trip but her thoughts were disturbed by the visions of the humans in the mines. Lanie scoffed at the thought, she called them humans, as if she wasn't one of them anymore, maybe she wasn't. A million thoughts ran through her head, how could she help them? Shaking her head to clear it, she tried to think about something else. It would sneak back, and she would have to push it away.
Something else kept Lanie annoyed, a ticking or tapping, and she couldn't figure out where it was coming from. As soon as she heard it and tried to zone into the sound, it would stop. She finally rose from her seat and walked near where the sound was coming from. Moving a few things around she heard a little moan. She jumped backwards, looking for a weapon.
Excited at the thought of meeting Hootie, she blurted out, "Can you do that thing and transport over here?"
"I can't leave my ship unmanned. Are you on auto pilot?"
"How about I tether to your ship and transport you here?"
"Great, stand still."
In the blink of an eye, she was on the other ship and looking at the back of Hootie's fuzzy head. He slowly turned around, "Hi Lanie."
She gasped; his skin was almost the same color as hers. "Uh Hi!” She walked closer to him for a better look, "How is it that your skin is so pale, are you a hybrid?"
"Yes, I am the first generation hybrid. It was a nice try, but we are of no use to anyone, we're sterile."
Lanie frowned, "Don't say that!"
"It's true I'm afraid. It was the purpose of the experiment."
"Still, you have other uses, right?"
"I'm probably what you would consider an outcast. I will never have a family so I'm used for my technical potential. As long as I perform my job, they leave me alone."
"What do you do?"
I fly the perimeter of the planet and report what I see and I take occasional trips to Earth to ... pick up things."
Lanie nodded, "Alone?"
"Don't be. I'm okay. I have some friends; we do stuff when I get time off. And I like going to Earth."
She smiled, "I guess what I do isn't much better. I'm delivering and picking up stuff for Ku." Shrugging her shoulders, Lanie pointed out the coordinates.
"Oh no really? Did he tell you what it was?" Hootie was grinning from ear to ear.
"No, but you are going to tell me aren't you? Is it illegal?"
It probably SHOULD be! What you are picking up is an aphrodisiac, what you are delivering; I have no idea, maybe just payment."
"Oh man..." Lanie laughed, “Why that ol' devil..."
"Seriously Lanie, where you are going is very dangerous, did he tell you that?"
"Yes he warned me to stay low and keep my helmet on. Is there any reason to believe Azano might be on this planet?"
"Hard to say...I doubt it, it’s not a very pleasant place. I did do some checking around on Krayton and haven't really come up with anything. I'll let you know if I do."
"Thanks." She put her hand on his shoulder. Lanie thought of him as her only real friend in space.
"Well! I have to get going so I'll send you back to your ship. Since I tethered to your ship you're taking me in the wrong direction."
"Oh yes of course." For some reason her cheeks felt hot.
Hootie kissed her on the forehead and before he drew his lips away, she was back on her own ship.
Lanie was able to see his ship swing out of view and continue back to his planet; she was alone again. Over the next few days she fell into a routine to help past the time. Starting a project, Lanie began to plot where she had been. It was a rudimentary drawing but she would get help with it when she got back to Tentalu, where she now lived. When that thought passed through her conscious, she paused and repeated it aloud. "Tentalu, where I live." It made her feel odd to hear it, she no longer even felt like an earthling.
This planet was called Degratro, the one she could now see drawing nearer. She would arrive tomorrow. No wormholes existed in this area so it was longer trip than most. Lanie knew her time on the surface would be limited; she would have to make the most of it. When they switched the cargo, she would do a little snooping.
With the new improvements to her ship it hummed like a kitten, but she was so in tune with it, she could tell instantly when something changed, something was different. It was the sign of an excellent captain. She felt the change, and she was beginning to check the gauges when she realized she was being pulled into the planet’s atmosphere below. Looking out the window she couldn't see very much, the angle was wrong. Lanie tried to wait patiently to land.
A charge of electricity went through her; they expected her and called her Captain! Lanie cleared her throat and tried to sound professional, "Yes, This is Captain Romein."
"We have you in our control. Please refrain from using any type of landing device; we will assure you of a safe and gentle landing."
"Thank you." Seemed odd, but she allowed it. Objects started to come into view as she gazed out of the window. Towers and skeletal remains of buildings were scattered about as far as she could see. Lanie frowned as she wondered what kind of place this was.
"You are safe to open your hatch and disembark."
Without answering, she opened the door to leave. A mobile tunnel had been attached to her ship, it caused her to pause and look down the tube. About five hundred feet away, someone stood at the end.