As time dragged on, doubt began to grow. Ludovico had confidence in his engineering skills, but to most of the crew, he was still a stranger. He repaired what he could, but they could only do so much. He explained while removing his gloves.
“There’s the lack of spare parts, of course. The Space Whale has bit off nearly half the ship. Fuel, food, tools, tons of it was released into space. Without a pit stop or money, any issue that slows our momentum could strand us.” He began to head towards his bunk. “I’ve done all I can. Keep an eye on the sensors. I cannot permit myself to starve to death out here without finally achieving my goal. I am so close to that Stone-”
“Don’t worry!” Captain Elias slapped Ludovico on the back as he walked past him. “Out here, we’d all be killed by pirates long before that happens.” He gave an evil smile, “Or worse.”
The Kogim Colony
“Approaching a Kogim colony station!” reported Valkyrie. The whole crew gave a rousing cheer. She lurched into port like a wounded soldier.
Three Kogim guards approached: one looked part shark, one part seal, and another was a lizard man. With them was Yana, who had managed to grab a lift and reach the colony before them. She listened to Brian, Marvus, and Parvus tell the story of the Space Whale she had managed to avoid while packed the boxes of medicine.
Harook simply observed from the window of his lab and took a deep breath. He missed having a tribe. On the one hand, every Kogim was different, and he was aware of the possibility that he was building up this moment too much. But on the other, after all the adventures, he needed a rest. These were his people. And he missed them.
The basic shape of the Kogim colony looked ellipsoid: the center was a flat multi-leveled ring where the inhabitants lived, while a dome enveloped it above and below. From the center of the ring to the top of the dome, sprouted a huge tree – the colony’s Life Tree. Above that tree, an artificial sun slowly arced across the inside of the dome. Below the tree, roots like tentacles extended into space. Harook explained to anyone who cared how the pods attached to these roots would burst open on occasion to provide the momentum to adjust the space station’s position.
The crew walked down the loading ramp towards the guards and explained their delivery mission. A few short moments later, a short Kogim girl with large white bunny ears and a twitching, whiskered nose welcomed them to their colony. Quickly, she gave the guards some directions in Kogim, apologized that Cho couldn’t be there, and told them to follow her to Faerox instead.
Extent of the Damage
Two engineers arrived with the bunny girl who began analyzing the ship with great interest. They poked and prodded the large sheets Ludo used to cover holes on the side.
“Are these… from the inside?”
Ludo pointed. “Floor. And that one’s from the walls.”
“ I see… and these, I suspect, are…?”
“Cut up chairs and tables. To cover gashes from Silver Fly wings. Poor Valkyrie has been through so much.” Ludo gave her a pat.
“Interesting, interesting. Yes. It was a miracle you arrived when you did. This will definitely be a challenge.” remarked one.
“We may have to import some parts.” said the other.
“I suspect so. We should contact the nearby human traders and see if we can flag a passing salvager.” One of them circled the ship. “Hm… Yes, this will take time. A week?”
“Yes, yes, I think so. But perhaps, with the proper modifications.” He smiled.
Suspicious, Ludovico volunteered to stay back and help, mentioning wanting to “get a peek at Valkyrie’s insides”. Marvus and Parvus grabbed some boxes and followed the group. No one acknowledged the strange comment Ludo made (except for Parvus’s shudder).
“Good luck, Valkyrie,” said Captain Elias as he walked out with the others.
Snowdrop, The Tour Guide
“Hello there! Welcome to Oakenhowl! Kogim Colony 246-82C. My name is Snowdrop and I’ll be your guide.”
“We appreciate it, Snowdrop,” Elias introduced his crew. “So where are we going? And who is Cho? Or Faerox?”
“Chochuschuvio Chesttuskis the leader of our humble colony. ”
“-Cho is fine-”
“-But Faerox has been the one who takes care of the medicine shipments. She’s our savior. Of course, she wouldn’t be able to do anything if it weren’t for the wonderful delivery folks, like yourself. I know we’re out in the middle of nowhere, it couldn’t have been easy. But… I appreciate it.”
She stopped walking to face them. “We all do.”
Kogim Space Travel
Before they exited the hangar, they took the chance to look at various Kogim ships. Few humans get the opportunity to see the inner workings of aliens, so of course, they had to take advantage of this. Long ago, when the Kogim and their animals arrived, the CGU reserved the edge of the Outer System, adjacent to the Wastelands, for Kogim. This area became known as Refugee Space. Over time, this “temporary” arrangement became permanent. After all, they were alien, and it couldn’t have been more obvious than when looking at their methods of space travel.
Instead of traditional metal ships, the Kogim harbored gargantuan beasts of burden – from salamanders with wings to whales, some hundreds of meters long, with clear bellies. Their eyes were transparent windows. Stomach pouches opened into ramps constructed of half-metal/half-living tissue. As the crew passed by these openings, they could see the walls pulse. The crew caught stranger things farther from their ship half hidden in shadow… odd beasts with tentacles, some with bulbous flesh balloons, and more. It was dizzying in its unfamiliarity, like a lucid fever dream.
Like most Kogim creations, they bred the basic model and then used genetic engineering to specialize the result further. If its user requires additional interfaces or functions, their engineers implanted the living ships with cyberware. Harook explained what he could about how they were made, but told them that he could never explain what it was like to fly inside of one. Of course, this just made them curious. Yana almost asked if it smelled inside of one, but managed to resist. Meanwhile, Brian wondered how much damage a raging Moditian could do. The walls were flesh, right? Neither wanted to come off as insensitive tourists, so they bit their tongue and continued on, content with the wonder of seeing something so different.
A Different Kind of Space Station
Suddenly, they were struck by the smell and feel of grass. Brian shielded his eyes from the sun. Sun? For a moment, he was confused. He was told this was a space station, but it couldn’t be. The sun was too warm and comforting, the sky too blue and cloudy. There was no similarity between this place and the garish neon of Blue Heaven or the industrial alleys of Kingdom Come. After weeks spent cooped up in a broken metal can, this location had more similarity to heaven than any space station he had ever visited.
“So… What the hell has been going on here?” asked Yana. “This place looks great.”
“A disease. It’s been rampant through a lot of the Kogim colonies. I’ll let Faerox explain it better. But let me just say, you should be glad you’re visiting after Faerox has come to us. It was a lot worse here before.”
She continued to walk them through various villages and towns to the large building that represented the town hall. The buildings appeared natural – crafted from mud, vine, and tree – but the people themselves carried all sorts of advanced technologies. Everyone who could have an animal next to them did, including Snowdrop. Waiting outside of the aircraft aviary was a giant white bunny the size of a dog, who proceeded to hop in step next to her.
The people were various kinds of anthropomorphic animals. Some looked human with few animal traits, like Snowdrop. Others only shared the vague shape of a human. Everyone looked strong, and except for the children, had a weapon on their person. It was a wonder that they were all considered the same species and continued to breed. Once again, Yana resisted asking any question on the subject.
The Savior of Oakenhowl
The party stopped at a wide, grey warehouse. Geen and blue mold shifted and moved on its outside walls. Harook recognized the breed as something anti-bacterial, it helped to sterilize this area. Snowdrop led them to a laboratory drop-off location marked in the back. There to meet them was Faerox, flanked by three scientists in white lab coats, a dog person, a fish person, and one Kogim with bluish translucent skin, red eyes, and tentacles for hair.
Next to the other Kogim Faerox looked out of place. Her all-black attire and chains wrapped around her waist seemed more appropriate on an Inner System hacker than the softly smiling pharmacist in front of them. To complete the look, she had a sleeve of tattoos from her right ankle to the upper right side of her neck, back, and chest depicting hundreds of intricately detailed animals. Mammals, fish, insects, birds, and even space beasts were all in there.
Harook also noted that, like himself, she had mixed features. She had cat ears, and a forked tongue, yet her fangs didn’t resemble a snake’s nor her claw’s a cat. A slightly hardened pattern of scales covered her revealed arms, but on her back, this pattern morphed into something feather-like, as if wings were textured onto her body. It was impossible to guess what her bonded animal was. Was it a chimera, too? The Kogim have more animals than even he knew about, plus they were always breeding new ones, so it was possible. The alternative was that she lost old friends. To lose such a partner for the Kogim was torture. Harook would never forget that feeling. He wouldn’t wish that fate on his worst enemy.
“Are these my angels?” she asked warmly. “Thank God. Just in time.”
“Just in time.” The raven on her shoulder repeated. A green snake curled around her feet and lifted its head as if to ask for a pet. Dinnae obliged. The snake hissed appreciatively.
Faerox seemed appreciative, too. She immediately gave them all a big hug. It was so pleasant that they didn’t even mind her slightly canine nose giving a quick sniff. The scientists then brought the boxes of medicines inside, leaving one for her to examine. Her brown monkey tail curled around a vial and lifted it to eye level. As it got closer and farther, her eyes, somewhere between cat-like and snake-like, slowly shifted between white, red, yellow, and green. On her face was a serious expression, even while Snowdrop’s giant white bunny rubbed against her, ignoring the snake.
“We missed our last shipment. This… This is…, ” she smiled. “This is perfect. Let’s test it and read the documentation but it looks like they made the proper changes. I’m sorry if I cry, I was afraid something had happened. We have very strict deadlines.”
She put the bottle back in the box and one of the security guards brought it inside.
“I understand the legal and physical troubles of bringing experimental drugs through Refugee Space. Between the wild space beasts and human pirates, I honestly can’t blame your delay. Don’t you worry. You will be paid handsomely, you just have to talk to Cho.”
She had a beauty and light to her that was contagious. But so did Yana, and Captain Elias wasn’t one to let that affect business.
Paying With Pets
“’Dangerous’ is right. Our ship was nearly destroyed. Not to mention the collateral we lost. It was a loan from a major corporation.” Brian and Dinnae traded looks. He wasn’t exactly a huge help during that ordeal. “Any chance we can get compensated for that?”
“I’m afraid Cho handles all the business. We are not… well, there’s not a lot of money this far out. And the price was already agreed on. However…” She patted the raven on her shoulder. “I am also the Caretaker of the Greenhouse and Menagerie, where our great variety of animals and plants are stored. Young Kogim go there to establish the bonds they’ll have for life. Now, I can’t do exactly the same for you, as you are human. But, I can provide something close, a lighter form of this same bond. Any chance some of you would like to pick out a pet? I promise it will speed up training and friendshi-.”
“Yes!!!” Dinnae and Yana shouted in unison. Even Brian thought an animal that would take light training but still watch his back would be quite useful indeed.
The Captain shook his head but didn’t bother disagreeing. He was already outvoted.
“Fine. But, we’re getting our payment first.”
“I have to report this new shipment. But let me at least show you your choices first.”
Faerox and Snowdrop led them to the Greenhouse and Menagerie, a veritable jungle in a glass house. She sat in a throne-looking chair carved into a giant redwood tree. On one side of the throne was a perch for her raven, while her snake curled around the other post behind her.
“Feel free to explore around but if you have an idea of what you want, I can direct you to it. Now, don’t grab a new buddy unless you can handle the responsibility, okay? I’ll tell you what you need for each individual pet.”
“Me first! Me first!” Yana raised her hand. “I want a kitty! Wait, no. A puppy!”
From Faerox’s shoulder, her raven flew off into the depths of the indoor forest.
“Quick! Give her a follow!” Faerox smiled.
And off Yana went, chasing the bird. In time, she came back with a cheery, black puppy licking her face.
After Yana, Faerox directed Dinnae to two rats. Brian asked for something powerful, a predator. Faerox directed him to a large cat, similar to a panther, but with a longer tail, a scale-like hair that presses against its body, tentacle like appendages coming out of the side of its body, multiple sets of eyes and the ability to turn invisible. When directed to its location, it took awhile to find it. Eventually, Brian realized he was being hunted.
As the panther struck, Brian dodged out of the way just in time. There was a short scuffle, where Brian emerged victoriously. His genetically modified strength and speed giving him the advantage enough to pin the creature and keep out of the way of its jaws and claws.
“You’re dangerous.” He smiled. Quite useful indeed.
Just Between Us Kogim
Harook requested a Giant Bat. This confused Faerox. He was Kogim, he should already have an animal buddy. Harook explained that one day he hoped to undo the bond that was forming between him and the sponge/mold that was attached to him. It was ruining his personality, empathy, everything that made him Harook. On that day when he finally succeeded, it would be nice to have another animal ready. Faerox nodded.
“I understand how strange the interactions that govern this process can be. I’ve had my own issues… if you couldn’t tell. Unfortunately, the majority of research on our bonding process is stuck in our home world. I wish you the best of luck, friend.” She looked sad. Her raven flew off, Harook in tow.
“I’m off to meet with Chochuschuvio. But please, play with your new friends. Develop some rapport. It will make the process a lot easier when I perform a soft bind later. Snowdrop will call you when Cho is ready.”
The time passed surprisingly quickly. Even for Harook, who explored the alien plants, while the others amused themselves with their animals. There was an abundance of plants with strange properties that he just couldn’t ignore. One gave the ability to temporarily breathe underwater. The rest that he grabbed would require tests in his laboratory. For the first time in a while, Harook felt giddy at the possibilities.
“Alright, everybody! It should be time! Gather up, gather up!” Snowdrop shouted. “It’s time to meet the big guy.”
(Continues in Part 7 – Time to meet the Chief.)