Crucible, Track Three: Rex

An early incarnation of one element of the Crucible story. Art by Smuzz back in the 1990s

An early incarnation of one element of the Crucible story. Art by Smuzz back in the 1990s

Gobbet Three, Track Three: Rex

It isn’t being a Ra’at. For one thing, no-one trusts you, ever. Although this is hardly surprising as Ra’ats are notorious for being the biggest thieves and con sentients in the known globes. For another, no-one appreciates Ra’ats for their ground-breaking love of adventure and exploration. Particularly the Ra’ats themselves who, whilst appreciating the discovery of the new may well lead to ultimate wealth and happiness, are generally terrified when experiencing these bold new journeys of discovery.

Rex was no exception to this dichotomy of personality (though he was braver than most), especially when a T-Port dropped him into a totally new part of the Web – so new that it wasn’t even on his much-prized Map, which he turned over again in his hands. Then turned upside down, sideways and back again, hoping to identify at least one familiar spoor point.

A small race (compared with Humans, anyway), Rex’s map was about twice his three foot seven height, and managing to fold it properly, even in the relative stillness of this new Tube, wasn’t easy, despite the renowned dexterity of his species.

Cautiously, he looked up from the map at the new Tube, hoping that the ongoing construction work by a myriad droids would give hm some clue as to whether this Tube was a Lateral or a Vertical, or perhaps even an Exploratory (which would eventually become a Vertical in a few hundred years). But the activity of the robots within this gigantic cylinder – well-lit and gleaming new (no Lurker nests or sailflits here) – gave no clue as to direction, either Centre or Out.

He looked in on his map again, his snout sniffing at the various potential site marks he knew well, then holding his head in the air again, hoping to catch a familiar scent.

Nothing.

Sighing, he immersed himself in his map again, now desperate for some clue as to his current location, no matter how small. At least, he thought with a grin, this is a new tube and a new tube means their may be new money chances here…

“Lossst, are we?” hissed a voice from behind him. The hairs on the back of Rex’s thick neck stood up as one. There was no mistaking that sibilant voice style and the lack of a scent to warn him of its approach meant only one thing: Phantoids. But green or black?

Shivering, he lowered his map and stared at the three ethereal creatures surrounding him.

Black. Thank Comm! He had a chance!

“Yes,” he began. “The T-Port seems to have dropped me here, and -”

“Aw, it’s only a Ra’at,” squeaked one of the Phantoids, its voice dripping with a disappointment reflected in what passed for a face on these four-dimensional beings.

“They’re no fun at all! They know all our tricks!”

“Lost, he says,” added another, momentarily solidifying his appendage to pull Rex’s prized map from the Ra’at’s shaking hands. “Lost, when he has a map like this!”

“We could run rings round the Hunters with this,” growled the third Phantoid, larger than the other two, and perhaps what these strange creatures might call a leader. “How much do you want for it?”

“You have to be living to buy things, bug!” came a shout somewhere from Rex’s right. “And you three ain’t going to be doing much more of that!”

The air around Rex was suddenly alive with energy: lasers, taser whips, UV Intensifiers – for a moment, as he dived for the floor, just as the Phantoids dove through it, he thought the Zeffa had finally caught up with him for the energy cube scam he pulled on Dargon.

“Did we get ’em?” came a scream above the blaster fire, “Did we nail the ferkin 4ds?”

Rex looked up, noting the clean look of the new tube was now a tarnished mess around him, pocked with what looked like high level energy shells and still blazing red from laser fire. A Frenk lurched out of a blanket of acrid smoke, pointing an ugly looking assault weapon in his face. He was dressed in full battle fatigues and sporting more cobalt grenades than Rex thought he would ever be seen close to, let alone wearing.

“Let me guess,” he chirped, slowly getting up off the floor. “Phant hunters, huh?”

“233 Platoon”, snapped the Frenk. “And you ain’t a Phant…

“- Bright boy,” which is unusual for a Hunter, thought Rex.

“But you was collaborating with ’em,” added the Frenk, glaring now, his upper incisors glinting as his lizard mouth twisted in rage and red eyes narrowed, glaring at his diminutive quarry. “And in my book, that’s just as bad.”

He prodded Rex with the snout of his weapon, while scratching the back of his scaled cranium with his tail. “I oughta kill you now, before -”

“No-one kills solids on my hunts without my authorisation!” shouted an irate Vran that now ambled out of the now dissipating smoke. He was a big fellow for his species, mused Rex: two metres if he was a cim, three wide, sporting a mish-mash of ancient battle armour over his bulky frame that concealed almost every piece of his grey skin.

The Vran looked Rex up and down, assessing him with every one of his sensory nodes (you couldn’t call the mess of hairs and peculiar lumps running across the Vran’s upper trunk eyes in a Humanoid sense). “This here’s a Ra’at, Ghren,” he announced, as five more Hunters and a record ‘bot now arrived on the scene, emerging from four different maintenance covers Rex cursed himself for missing when he first entered the tube.

“So? What makes a Ra’at so unlikely to be a Phant lover, Drook?”

Drook sighed in a sing-song whistle with that disc makers in Harvik would kill for. “You have a lot to learn, trainee. Ra’at’s just don’t collaborate with Phants. It’s bad for business.”

“Which is what, exactly?” Ghren still hadn’t moved his gun away from Rex’ head, so the Ra’at used this opportunity to push it away now.

“I’d be interested to hear a Vran’s take on Ra’at society, too,” urged Rex. “Just for future reference…”

“If you’re hoping it’s any different to the other 156 sentient species I’ve encountered in my existence, you’re going to be disappointed,” Drook muttered sternly, never taking his eyes from the Ra’at. Then he raised a forelimb, urging his Phant Hunt team members closer.

“Listen, Ra’at – we know you’re here because of the New Globe. Just don’t get in our way, and we won’t get in yours.”

“There’s a New Globe? Out here?” Rex could hardly contain his excitement, but managed to keep a neutral look in his eyes. ìBut there wasn’t a SunOut…”

“Maybe you were in T-Port and missed it,” suggested Drook. ìWhat time span are you working on?”

Rex glanced at his chrono and gasped. “73 days! I’ve lost 73 days!”

“Looks like you’ve been in stasis, Ra’at. Better call your loved ones to tell them you’re still alive – oh, wait: Ra’ats do’nt have loved ones, just potential business partners.

“Oh well, maybe they’ll think you’re dead and have seized your assets. That would be a shame.”

Rex looked hard at the Vran. “You don’t like Ra’ats much, do you?”

“Never have. Never will,” snapped Drook. “Not likely to change that impression, either. Now get lost so we can get on with our business, OK?”

“All right, all right! I’m going,” offered Rex, and started away from the Phant Hunters.

“Shuttleport’s that way,” shouted Ghren, pointing in a completely different direction.

“I knew that,” said Rex, turning quickly toward the way Ghren indicated. “I was just testing your sense of direction.”

“So has this New Globe opened yet?” asked Ghren of Drook as the Hunters moved off. Rex strained to over hear their conversation, several business plans racing through his mind at the thought of new ‘clients’ who’d never heard of his species.

“Nah. They’ll be in isolation for at least another two SunOuts, I reckon.”

“My uncle was there when they let out the Gardon,” offered a tiny Shrelp, struggling with a rocket launcher twice its size.

“Oh?” asked Ghren, “What happened?”

“I don’t know,” sighed the Shrelp and the Hunters finally moved out of earshot and Rex picked up the first spoor mark indicating the direction to the shuttleport. “The Gardon ate him…”


Down the Tubes © 1982, 1999, 2019 John Freeman. Art by and © Smuzz/SMS. All rights reserved. This work is published on the internet on the understanding that you, dear reader, are free to download this material for real-time browsing and off-line browsing on your own computer.You are further granted permission to print a single copy of these pages for your own private use in reading off-line off-computer.

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