Vechkov Prague, private investigator-turned-freighter-captain, grows much more comfortable with his surroundings once he’s under the dome of Drescher Interstellar Spaceport.

He stops near one of the holokiosks displaying departure and arrival times for commercial flights. Pulls a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his trenchcoat pocket. He turns toward his Pyracani companion and offers the pack. “Smoke?”

“No, but thanks,” the red-furred Pyracani fighter jock replies, “Where we headed?”

A Castori stands in the passenger arrivals area, holding a sign that reads: “MINTAKA PARTY.” Vechkov nods toward the ursinoid. “Our ride.”

“You have Opodians out here?” the caninoid asks in a hushed tone as he follows the Ungstiri.

*The* Ungstiri glances over at Sionnach. “Opodians? Rings a bell. But that’s a Castori.” He stops a few feet from the short bear-like creature with the sign. “We’re here about the Mintaka claim.”

The driver gives a perfunctory bow and says: “Follow me, then.” He waddles toward the exit.

“Huh,” the Pyracani grunts, “Could’ve sworn … hmmm.” But nonetheless he follows both the ursinoid and the Ungstiri, still looking about in curiosity.

As they step outside again, Vechkov keeps his gaze veiled by the brim of his fedora. The Castori holds open the door of a dark blue four-door hovercar. “OK if I smoke?” Prague asks the driver.

“No,” the driver says.

“Ah,” Prague replies. He slides into the back seat, grumbling.

Sionnach grins a bit at the interaction, nodding gratefully to the Castori. “So who’s this meeting set up with?” he asks as he gets into the vehicle. Now it’s his turn to feel a bit uncomfortable as he becomes a passenger.

“Lamar Quinlan,” the driver answers as he enters the autopilot commands and sets the car in motion. “Consortium Agricultural Minister. We will arrive at government headquarters in sixteen minutes.”

“Fancy,” the Pyracani replies, frowning a bit. “I’m not really good with politics,” he says to Vech.

“Not here for politics,” the Ungstiri grunts. “Here for business.” The car eases into traffic flowing toward the center of the sprawling city of San Angeles.

“Not great with business either,” Sionnach mutters back, his muzzle crinkling in disgust.

Vechkov nods. “I get it. Just let me do the talking. You can growl and snarl every once in a while. I bet Quinlan’s never met a Pyracani before.”

“Should have brought my brothers along for that,” the relatively small Pyracani replies with an unamused chuckle.

The detective laughs. “I’d pay to see it.” The car maneuvers toward an offramp, past a sign that reads: “GOVERNMENT CENTER.” The sprawling Consortium government complex is visible a few blocks ahead.

The pilot snorts derisively, but still seems curious about what they are approaching. “Place is huge,” he mutters, “Reminds me of the temple district back home. Only shinier.”

“I just hope the corridors are narrow and the ceilings are low,” Prague ventures. The car whirs to a stop outside the main entrance. The driver steps out and opens the door on Sionnach’s side so that the passengers can depart.

“You’re a strange guy, boss,” Sionnach says with a faint chuckle as he slides out of the car and waits for Vech to take the lead.

The corridors aren’t narrow. The cathedral ceilings are daunting. “Hoopin’ hell,” the Ungstiri complains as a human woman with dark red hair meets them in the lobby.

“Minister Quinlan has you scheduled for fifteen minutes,” she says. “Please don’t exceed that time. We’re on a tight daily agenda.”

“Fifteen minutes?” Sionnach says, trying to grin, “We can probably survive fifteen minutes.”

“Let’s keep it to five minutes,” the gaunt, bald-headed man behind the desk says as the woman shows Prague and Sionnach into his office. “I’m due for a colonial affairs committee meeting. You’re here about the Mintaka claim. Which one of you is…Vechkov Prague?”

The Ungstiri raises a hand – the one with a tube of moss in it.

“That’s the material, is it?” Quinlan asks.

“It is,” Prague answers.

“We’re calling it Mintaka 001,” the minister states.

“Catchy,” the detective quips.

Sionnach shifts uncomfortably, looking around the room, not quite as if searching for an escape hatch. He seems more than happy to let the detective do the talking. He’s just happy he hasn’t broken anything. Yet.

“So that’s it,” Quinlan says, tapping out a sequence on his PDA. “The claim is registered. Leave your sample on the desk, please. Our experts will confirm the nutritional value. If we decide to move forward with a contract, my staff will be in touch. Good day.”

Prague tilts his head. Grunts. He sets the tube on the desk. Nods to Sionnach. “Guess we’re done.”

The pilot seems completely mystified as to what has just transpired. “That’s it?” he asks, blinking.

The red-haired woman ushers them out of the office, back into the corridor, and down the hall toward the lobby. She says, “As the minister indicated, we’ll be in touch once we’ve verified just how useful this food substance is for our potential colonization efforts.”

Sionnach nods absently to the woman as he finds himself in the corridor. “That’s it?” he asks of Vechkov.

“That’s it,” Prague confirms as the woman hustles away. She joins Quinlan as he walks down the corridor toward one of the hive of conference rooms. “If they want what we’re selling, then I guess we’ll get a contract to sign.” He shrugs. “Back to the spaceport, then. Drink? I’m buying.”

“Guess so,” replies the Pyracani, still flummoxed, “Seems like that was a conversation you could’ve had over comms, but … whatever works for you people. Aside from a drink, what’s the plan, now?”

Vechkov slides into the back of the waiting car while the Castori watches, blinking dark eyes. The detective squints. “It’s not just the brevity of the meeting that was weird, come to think of it. No one screened the tube. The gang on the Rucker took a lot more precautions, and that’s a fuel tanker – not the cradle of Consortium civilization.”

Sionnach climbs in, frowning, “Glad I’m not the only one who thought so,” he says, “But hopefully we didn’t just kill of the entire planet.”

The Castori chortles as he gets into the driver’s seat. “The building’s internal and external sensor systems completed full scans of you and your cargo before you entered the minister’s office. Had you any ill intent, or had the organic material proven hazardous, the local defenses would have been activated.”

Vechkov peers out the window as the car pulls away from the government center. “Huh. Good to know.”

“Seriously,” Sionnach replies, blinking a few times. He shifts uncomfortably in the rear seat, though continues to look out the windows.

The car returns to the Drescher Interstellar Spaceport, where the Castori opens the rear door for the offworlders. Moments later, Prague and Sionnach walk through the lobby. The detective leads Sionnach in Palazzo’s Pub and finds a corner table. “Might as well be comfortable while we wait,” he says.

“Sure enough,” the Pyracani replies, grinning. He looks around as he settles into a chair. “Never seen so many of you guys before. It’s a bit weird…”

“What’s weird about it?” Prague asks. A server bot whirs up to the table. He orders a vodka. The bot waits patiently for Sionnach.

“Not really sure,” the Pyracani says. He orders some sort of beer from the bot before turning back to Prague. “Even Ungstir doesn’t have so many,” he adds.

“Oxygen’s in much more limited supply on Ungstir,” Prague says. The bot returns with the drinks. “Makes people talk less too. Nice, right?”

“Guess so,” the Pyracani replies with a grimace. He sips at the beer quietly for a moment before speaking again. “Well,” he says, “I have to say that I didn’t imagine my trip to your part of space would be this interesting…”

“Oh, come on,” Vechkov says, chuckling. “Your homeworld’s got to be at least this fascinating.” He gestures with his vodka glass at one of the potted plants. “Some of your flowers are probably even real.”

“Well, yeah,” Sionnach replies with a nod, “We have plenty of flowers. And my own world is great. You should try it some time. Still, didn’t think I’d be flying around nowhere carting moss.”

It’s about this time that Prague’s PDA chimes. He taps a button, checking the incoming message. Bushy eyebrows inch upward. He almost smiles. “We’re in business. The claim’s approved and the Consortium’s fronting 750,000 credits in seed money to get the operation started on Mintaka. Once we’re online…” He continues reading the offer memo. “Three million in finishing funds to complete any planetside and orbital facilities. After that, we’re expected to strike deals with new colonies as they’re founded.” Prague lifts his glass in salute to Sionnach. “The Pride’s getting some upgrades.”

“Starting with a new hyperdrive?” the caninoid replies, raising his bottle with a toothy grin, “Congratulations, boss.” Clink.

By Brody

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