SCIENCE FICTION  
Picture of a Hollith 

KRAGON'S GOLD

by Tony Chandler
        I know aliens.  They're my specialty.  But even the best of us 
make mistakes, right? 

        I was tired too.  We had been flying hard for seventy-two hours 
straight.  Dtang gripped the ship's one small steering wheel, 
his ebony knuckles showing the tension of his tight grasp.  We 
were almost there, which was good, we had both missed two sleep 
periods as we neared our destination and the 'energy pills' were 
beginning to lose their effectiveness. 

        Kragon had chosen his booty planet well.  A large loose 
asteroid field completely encircled the one lone planet and the star 
it orbited, and most of the asteroids were only a few dozen 
meters in size.  Too small for any maps, but large enough to 
shatter your shields, and then maybe your hull.  If there were 
any seeking mines, and knowing Kragon there were, we would have 
to fly through at top speed to avoid their scans.  Which is 
always inadvisable in the middle of an uncharted asteroid field. 

        But there was the promise of treasure. 

        "I'm hungry." 

        I looked over at the hulking form.  Dtang was big even for a 
Hollith.  In the dim glow of the lights from the console, his 
dark skin was barely discernible from the space that shined 
through the port side window next to his head and pointed snout. 

        "We'll be in the middle of those asteroids in a few minutes. 
Can't you wait?"  No doubt my exasperation carried over into my 
voice. 

        The huge Hollith bared his fangs at me.  So, I figured he 
couldn't wait. 

        "How about a little specialty from Earth?"  I asked tiredly, 
hoping he would decline. 

        A low growl rumbled from him as he used a huge hand, one of 
four, to scratch the side of his face. 

        "What this specialty?"  He snarled questioningly. 

        "Peanut butter sandwich.  Sticks to your ribs.  Good protein 
actually." 

        "Hmmmph!  Never heard of this food!"  His stomach growled 
momentarily.  A sound like a low-level nuclear explosion. 

        "Yes, Dtang needs something to fill belly,"  The large red eyes 
turned towards me.  "Make me this Earth specialty.  And,"  he 
added with a pointed claw as I tiredly got up.  "Dtang real 
hungry, want it really stick to ribs." 

        Holliths were not known for their manners, but I needed him. 
Captain Kragon had just kissed this universe good-bye. 

        Dear old Kragon.  That Pirate of pirates,  Cutthroat of 
cutthroats, (well, you get the picture)  had finally bought the 
farm.  Probably a blaster to his back, knowing the multitude of 
enemies he had.  Yeah, there wasn't a Trader or Pirate that he 
hadn't either cheated or robbed in this quadrant of the galaxy, 
not to mention the less savory organizations such as Planetary 
Governments, Royal Houses and Intergalactic Corporations. 
Actually, it was more surprising that he hadn't been killed 
years ago. 

        However it happened, Kragon had spilled the beans on one of his 
major treasure hoards.  Such a deal. 

        But that meant, I knew, a number of other ships filled with his 
former enemies were blasting their way to the same destination. 
Naturally, I was willing to share.  It's just that I couldn't 
trust some of these other low-lifes who were heading for the 
same destination. 

        Now, I'm not a pirate, far from it.  Besides, it wasn't really 
stealing.  It didn't belong to anybody at the moment.  I'm 
closer to an Independent Trader, though I don't really fall into 
that category either.  Let's just say I'm a Galactic 
Opportunist.  And goodness knows there are plenty of them, for 
someone who knows what he's doing. 

        Which I do, most of the time. 

        Anyway, I wouldn't take it all, just enough to see me through a 
few decades of easy living.  Problem is, not everyone is as 
generous as I am. 

        So, I hired Dtang.   He could handle himself pretty well, as 
long as the odds weren't more than, say, eight to one. 

        I stumbled back to the small kitchen and had the computer make 
a sandwich up, the way I like 'em.  See, I'm almost addicted to 
the stuff.  I eat it every day.  I crave it.   So, I lay the 
stuff on thick.  And because he was bigger than me, well, I 
instructed the computer to make it about three times the size of 
a normal sandwich. 

        But I had forgotten how Holliths eat.  If you can call it that. 

        As I sat back down in the darkened forward section next to him, 
I handed the two pieces of bread stuffed with an inch of the 
thick brown specialty. 

        He took it with his lower right hand and stuffed the entire 
thing into his mouth! 

        My eyes opened fully as I watched in horrified fascination. 

        He started chewing, at first,  with rapid, appreciative 
motions.  Seconds later the muscles in his cheeks began to bulge 
as they began to work in ever slower motions as that sandwich 
began to adhere to his mouth's interior.  Strange noises began 
to come from somewhere deep inside his throat. 

        It was then that I remembered that Holliths don't have noses, 
like normal aliens, they have to breathe through their mouths. 
And poor old tired Dtang was going to need a breath soon. 

        And wouldn't you know it, right then, the scan alarm went off. 
We were on a collision course! 

        I noticed the first asteroids go by our view ports. 

        Dtang steered calmly around the first few.  But his chewing 
motions got slower and slower as his eyes widened. 

        I didn't start to get nervous until he stood up in his chair, 
his ebony face a little paler as he tried to chew and breathe. 
The look on his ebony face was enough to freeze my blood.  But 
still those four muscular arms gripped the steering wheel. 

        With the alarm blaring in my ears I decided to take over the 
wheel. 

        I couldn't even pull one of his fingers off  the wheel  with 
that death grip of his!  I looked into his strangled face.  I 
had no doubt he was going to suffocate before he could swallow, 
or we were going to smash into a million pieces. 

        I began to change my opinion of peanut butter. 

                                                * * * 

        "I have a ship approaching at maximum speed!" 

        Natalie Bronde walked over and peered down at the instrument in 
front of the young officer. 

        "They are traveling at a very high rate of speed.  Easily 
beating us to the target,"  the junior officer replied matter-of-factly. 

        "Put them on-screen,"  she ordered. 

        The main screen came alive; in the center of the star field a 
ship came into view.  The body of the ship emphasized how sleek 
and fast she really was.  As the small crew watched, something 
amazing began to happen. 

        The ship veered drastically.  And then it began to roll 
continuously, first in one direction, then another. 

        "He has inadvertently entered a thick portion of the asteroid 
field." 

        The large reptilian Captain joined them with those words.  His 
massive hands stroked the green scales of his chin. 

        "They're flying a little hot to be in the middle of an asteroid 
field." 

        Now the ship on the screen began to veer rapidly as it evaded 
the thick population of asteroids.  Rolling, it flew up and over 
one asteroid, then breezed around another, and then flew 
precariously close under a third.  The ship was still flying, 
rolling and swerving at a blinding speed as those watching began 
to grow dizzy. 

        "They are very courageous,"  the junior officer said with 
unabashed awe. 

        "I have never seen such magnificent flying in all my years as a 
raider," the deep voice of the captain said with admiration. 

        "Looks like he's drunk,"  Dran Rork said simply. 

        The First Officer was the same alien species as the captain. 
He looked at the newest crew member of the Impaler.  "Natalie, do 
you have an ID on this ship that is trying to beat us to 
Kragon's planet?" 

        Eyeing the alien pirate evenly, she paused before speaking. 

        "Hran,"  she said to the young officer who had first alerted 
them.  "Run a check." 

        As first one name, and then three more identifying the ship 
came across the console, Natalie looked back on-screen with both 
contempt, and a rekindled hatred. 

        The ship on-screen righted its flight with a sudden jerk, and 
then headed straight for the Impaler. 

        "Helm!  Hard over!"  The Captain screamed. 

        Grabbing the corner of the equipment to keep from being thrown 
bodily across the small bridge, she looked over at the Captain. 

        "They can't possibly know we're here.  We are still cloaked?" 
she asked. 

        As the turn neared completion, the ship they were viewing 
rolled upside down and then veered off in a direction opposite 
to its original direction. 

        "True.  I think it was nothing more than coincidence." 

        "Shall we go to red alert and destroy them ship to ship?"  Dran 
asked with obvious enthusiasm. 

        All eyes returned to the view screen where the ship was rapidly 
growing smaller. 

        "We outgun them easily, though they definitely can outrun us," 
the Captain thought out loud. 

        "I suggest we let them pass, let them get into orbit first, and 
then attack them on the  planet.  We'll have surprise on our 
side,"  Natalie added with emphasis. 

        "Yes, yes.  I do not relish fighting a ship with such a 
spectacular pilot at its helm.  If they can shoot half as well 
as they fly...they could be more of a match than we want." 
Captain Sarec said with a nod. 

        Dran snorted angrily as he walked quickly away. 

        The ship on-screen finally pulled into a tight turn and 
returned to its original course.  Only a slight rocking of the 
ship spoke of its not being on automatic pilot. 

        Natalie half-smiled/half-snarled with remembrance as the ship 
on the screen grew smaller. 

                                                * * * 

        Dtang was wheezing horribly through his pointed teeth.  Brown 
peanut butter clung in gobs inside his cavernous mouth.  I could 
tell, my face was inches away.  And mine were one pair of hands 
out of three pairs grasping the wheel as we tried to right the 
ship again. I had decided that I had better help him steer, just 
in case he suffocated in the middle of one of his strangled 
maneuvers.  But now we were through the worst of the asteroid 
fields, and Dtang had almost chewed his way through the thick 
muck. 

         Hollith breath mixed with peanut butter will never be bottled. 

         I swallowed queasily. 

        As Dtang managed a final, huge, gargantuan swallow, his gasping 
breaths returned to a semblance of normalcy.  I fell back into 
my chair.  It was then when I realized how badly my stomach had 
cramped.  I needed the toilet desperately, but I waited for 
Dtang's reaction before I made a move. 

        He was silent for only a few moments when he slowly turned 
those burning red eyes on me. 

        "WATER!" 

        I jumped up immediately and got him some.  Right after my trip 
to the bathroom. 

        There's nothing worse than an angry Hollith.  He slugged it 
down with a single gulp, swishing it around his mouth to loosen 
up the last clumps of that Earth delicacy.  He opened his mouth 
as he handed the empty glass back. 

        A healthy belch erupted.  He smiled very strangely, as only a 
Hollith can. 

        "One more peanut butter and Dtang will be full.  Get it!"  I 
again jumped up.  "Good Earth food" were his parting words. 

        Believe me, I had the computer make the next one with a little 
less peanut butter. 

        We found the small planet close into the star's system, well 
inside the ring of asteroids.  A quick scan showed we were the 
first.  I had never doubted it, the Lightning's Thunder Star 
engines are the fastest known in this part of the galaxy.   This 
year, anyway. 

        The ship's scanners soon found the faint trace of electronic 
equipment.  No doubt these would be automated guarding devices 
to keep the treasure hoard safe while Kragon was away.  Which he 
was now, permanently. 

        Dtang landed on a small plain near our target.  We would more 
likely get by the main defenses on foot than by ship.  My hand-
held scanner began blinking rapidly as I put my hand up.  This 
would be the most dangerous part. 

        Successful pirates like Kragon usually had several treasure 
caches hidden away, no need to put all your gold bars in one basket, 
so to speak.  But each would be guarded by the most 
sophisticated weapons systems, and Kragon, with all that money 
flow, would keep them upgraded with the latest military-grade 
hardware available. 

        It was common knowledge that most never made it to an 
Andarian's gold cache.  But I am better than most. 

        We had almost made it to the clearing when I held my hand up 
for a stop.  The clearing was the most obvious path to the cave 
the ship's sensors had picked up.  And being so obvious, the 
defenses should be easiest to pick out.  Also it's so much easier  
to miss things, such as automated weapons, in the thick of a jungle  
if we tried to make our way that route.  Yes, the clearing would offer us  
our best chance at detecting Kragon's hidden toys. 

        I pointed to the scattered bones amidst the tall weeds about 
two hundred feet away. 

        "Weapons?" 

        "Booby traps,"  I whispered back. 

        Dtang looked confused, which was almost a natural state for 
Holliths. 

        "What is this Booby trap?" 

        I adjusted my scanner and frowned.  There was some sort of 
interference, and it seemed to have natural sources.  My heart 
rate increased as I worked its settings more.  There were mines; 
that was obvious from wide dispersal of bones. 

        I easily picked up the gun emplacements in the thick vegetation 
around the clearing.  They were too obvious and I quickly hacked 
into each of them ( they were older systems), not disabling 
them, they probably had a subroutine to detect such a blatant 
attack and override that.  No, I just added a few things to 
their sensors so we could walk by.  But an overconfident gold 
digger would now keep going, not looking further for the mines 
still hidden. 

        "It traps Boobies who stumble into it." 

        "Oh," Dtang nodded, and then looked away still confused. 
Holliths aren't known for their brains.  Just their strength. 

        But then I made out a pattern.  I still couldn't pinpoint the 
mines under the ground, but I did notice vaguely, through the 
planet's internal interference points scattered throughout the 
clearing, spots that had just a twinge of denser interference. 
I picked up a large rock and handed it to Dtang. 

        "See that patch of wildflowers,"  I said. 

        Dtang nodded. 

        "Throw it there." 

        Dtang reached back and hurled.  It landed squarely.  And just 
nanoseconds later the ground erupted with an ear-shattering 
explosion. 

        "OK, walk closely behind me and we'll make it through." 

        We began our winding path through the clearing with confidence, 
and it was our quick progress that saved us.  We were almost 
halfway across when the gut wrenching sound of an Andarian 
mortar lobbing into the sky came to our ears.  But the explosion 
came too fast.  Both of us looked over at the flaming overgrowth 
of vegetation. 

        "Jungle has grown over that emplacement," I said, tuning my 
sensor to detect this "third" layer of defense. 

         I found it...rearming. 

        "MOVE!!!"  I screamed. 

        With my eyes glued to the scanner we danced through the 
clearing like a couple of intoxicated and grounded humming-
birds.  Within seconds the sound of approaching, massive death 
was on its way.  Only twice did I jump madly sideways as we came 
too close to one of those "spots" in the interference. By then 
the whistling death approaching from above was almost deafening. 

        But we both just managed to leap over the fallen carcass of a 
massive jungle tree on the other side of the clearing as the 
explosion ripped the clearing with its earth-shaking blow. 
Shrapnel cleared the green overgrowth all around us many feet on 
into the jungle.  I looked over the tree trunk and found the 
side facing the clearing chewed almost beyond recognition from 
the tiny shards. 

        "The first one would have gotten us if that tree's branches had 
not grown over its path,"  I said simply. 

        Dtang's rapid breathing was his only response. 

        "We should be fine until inside the cave; from there it gets 
nasty.  I would expect at least one attack droid, and a number 
of other toys waiting for us.  In the walls, the floor, and even 
the ceiling of the tunnel.  And there will be charges over the 
cave entrance, it's a given.  To seal in any intruders, but it's 
also the oldest trick in the book."  I winked. 

        "And then the treasure room?"  Dtang huffed. 

        "We'll cross that problem when we get there,"  I grimaced.  But 
I had come prepared as I patted my utility belt.  I pulled out my 
favorite device, though it would not be needed this day. 

        "Ever see one of these?" 

        "What this is?" 

        Smiling, I rolled it in my hand like a baseball. 

        "These are hard to find, Dtang.  Quite illegal, you know.  I 
picked it up at the edge of the quadrant as my payment from one 
of the last government jobs I did." 

        Dtang's ebony face still showed doubt. 

        I put it back in its pocket.  "I use it when fire-fights get 
too dangerous.  It has the remarkable ability to drain off the 
charges of any  type of blaster within a radius of fifty meters." 

        Dtang smiled widely, baring his fangs.  "Dtang like this thing." 

        'So did I,' I thought silently as I started my scrambler. 
There were two more automated guns on each side of the cave 
entrance.  One by one the lights on my scanner showed them 
going silent.  'But the one  drawback to my weapon's Drainz 
device was that once it was used, it took it almost two hours 
before it would be ready for another use.  So I could use it 
only once, in essence.' 

        Dtang and I scrambled forward.  I chuckled out loud as we 
passed by one of the silent gun emplacements.  But I pulled up 
short of the tangle of vines that draped the ground of the dark 
entrance.  My scanner showed the expected charges above the cave 
entrance, except they were no longer functioning.  This puzzled 
me but a moment, and then I just accepted this 'gift'. 

        "It is safe?" Dtang asked. 

        "All clear."  I whispered confidently. 

        We pushed some of the vines away as we stepped among the tangled 
mesh.  And then it felt like something was pulling my leg clean 
off.  I didn't even have time to scream. 

        I hung there upside down staring into the red eyes of Dtang. 
He was hanging upside down helplessly right beside me.  And if 
his leg felt like mine, he was none too happy.  Nor was I, at 
being caught by so low-tech a trap.  Still, it was temporary. 

        "So,"  he grunted.  "Dtang thinks we must now be Boobies." 

        "It's all right, we'll just cut our way out.  Nothing major."  I 
said.  Irritated, I reached for my blade. 

        But the surprises were just beginning. 

        Two surly looking Andarians  appeared moments later with 
blasters set to kill.  Not a good sign.  Quickly they cut us 
down and led us into the dark interiors of the caves.  And then 
in some deep dark orifice of the caverns, we came to him. 

        Kragon! 

        I started to have trouble breathing. 

        He looked bigger in real life, standing there almost as big and 
muscular as Dtang.  Kragon was Andarian, so short, gray fur 
covered his mighty torso, except for his shoulder-length jet 
black hair. 

        "So, what have we here, Razon?"  Kragon growled. 

        "I do not recognize them, sir.  They are none of  your known 
enemies." 

        Kragon stepped right into my face. 

        "Who are you, human?  And why did you come here to die?" 

        "Wrong turn?"  I half answered. 

        He pulled out his blaster and ground it into my ribs.  And then 
he smiled, which I didn't like either. 

        "So, a petty thief.   Wanting my treasure after hearing about 
my most unfortunate demise.  Right, human!" 

        I looked at Dtang, who shrugged and rolled those red eyes. 

        "Well, I figured you wouldn't be needing it anymore..."  I 
grimaced against the blaster he pushed harder into me. 

        "Well, puny human.  I have staged this little party to rid 
myself of a few of my enemies.  I counted on their blind greed 
to bring them here after I leaked out this location.  And if the 
mined asteroid belt didn't get them, or some of my other 
devices, they would find me and my crew waiting here for them. 
You have ruined only some of it.  For which you will pay." 

        "Kragon!"  His first officer growled, pointing to the tunnel. 

        Kragon turned to another Andarian who had just stepped into the 
circle of light. 

        He raised the clenched fist salute before his bowed face. 

        "Our sensors report that several ships have just ended a 
battle above the planet.  Two ships were destroyed." 

        Kragon grinned.  "Two less of my enemies." 

        The guard continued.  "One has landed.  It is the Impaler, and 
the crew is even now coming.  It is expected more ships will 
arrive soon afterward." 

        Kragon returned his blaster to his holster. 

        "Take these two and chain them.  They are small game.  We'll 
deal with them afterwards." 

        The guards removed the blaster from my right hip and the 
assault blaster from its holster on my back.  I held my breath, 
but they took my utility belt anyway.  I could have spit. 

        We were led deeper into the mountain.  The two guards finally 
stopped near a pile of shackles and chains.  Holding out his 
four burly arms, they prudently chained Dtang first. 

        I stood there in the dim light, my mind working furiously on 
some kind of plan.  But for once, nothing came to me.  A few 
minutes later the sounds of blasters told me that a fire-fight 
was under way.  It lasted only a few minutes.   And, I figured, 
we didn't know if we would have any better treatment if somebody 
did beat Kragon.  Still, I hoped for the newcomers. 

        Dtang and I remained silent between the two Andarians.  I knew 
Dtang was waiting for an opening, and I hoped that I could make 
one for us.  But the timing had to be right. 

        And then we heard the sounds of footsteps coming our way. 
 

(continued)
 

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