2. An Odd Job

.

"What?" came a simultaneous retort from the crew.

"You heard me," Natsumi returned confidently, looking each of the five members in the face. "All of the pirates who volunteered to move my cargo were either killed or had their ships damaged by the Da-Ku. I have no one to help me now, and since that attack was your fault after all, I'm recruiting you to take their places... without pay."

They were sitting in King Daichi's chambers, aboard the space station The Pirate's Nebula; the larger-than-life pirate king had summoned the crew of the Kon-Rensa there unexpectedly while they were making preparations to depart. They had been tying up the meeting on their next course of action; they came to a unanimous decision to go into hiding, even though King Daichi and the rest of the Pirate's Nebula had forgiven them for causing such a commotion. No one was stupid enough to believe it wouldn't happen again, and Trey had been the first to suggest that they find a place to lay low for a while, until they knew that their trail had been lost. Before they could leave, however, the rogue pirate Natsumi had interrupted.

She was demanding that the crew of the Kon-Rensa aid her in her 'secret mission'. Apparently it was nothing more than moving a large cargo, but both the cargo and the destination remained unnamed, making it a very peculiar case. Natsumi was paying a great amount of money for volunteers to help her, but those volunteers were now out of commission. Now, Natsumi was demanding that Gama and his crew help her... for free.

Gama tried to sputter a response, too flustered to be intelligible- his three eyes blinked rapidly in confusion, making his entire wrinkly green face shake- but King Daichi interrupted him before he could get the words out. "She speaks the truth, Gama. I have been kind enough to drop the rest of the charges you owed me, as well as not hold you responsible for all the damages caused by the Da-Ku's attack. I'd appreciate it if you gave a little back for the problems you brought us." The green captain sputtered a bit more, then crossed his tiny arms and pouted like an old, old child.

"Why the stars would we accept the mission if we're not even getting paid for it?" Kaze argued back; the gray-skinned female alien shot Natsumi a look that would have frozen her in place, were she not already icy calm. "It's not like we got off easy. We had to go through more shit than any of you did. We've fought the Da-Ku three times now! Why don't we get something other than shit for that?"

Natsumi ignored Kaze, speaking again to Gama. "I heard you were looking for a place to hide away for a while. The destination I'm heading to- though it will remain anonymous- is very far away, and quite secluded. I'm sure you would be able to find an area in that sector where you could lay low, until the Da-Ku have called off their search. Since you need a place to hide, why not help me since it's on the way anyways?"

Gama eyed her suspiciously; he thought for a moment, then glanced up at his companion and first mate, Tanshin. The nine-foot tall wolfman stared down at him, his red cloak covering up his metallic skeleton of a body- he raised his one good eyebrow, answering Gama's silent question. Gama sighed, then nodded. "If you know of a good spot for us to hide, then alright," he answered. "I suppose we'll help you out this one time."

Natsumi smiled in victory; Kaze looked absolutely horrified with Gama's response. He avoided looking at her, giving a dour glare at King Daichi for tricking him into this.

"Very well then," Natsumi said. "We'll have to depart as soon as possible; I'm already behind schedule. I believe you were preparing to leave when I called?"

"Yes," Gama mumbled. "We still have some things to wrap up, though."

"Well you better hurry. Contact me when you are ready, and we'll begin to load up your ship." Natsumi promptly exited, leaving the crew of the Kon-Rensa standing awkwardly in Daichi's room.

"She's ordering us around..." Kaze growled in disbelief.

"I know, I know!" Gama sighed in frustration. "I don't like it anymore than you do. Let's just get this over with as quickly as possible." He shot another glance at Daichi. "I guess this is goodbye for now, old friend."

Daichi gave him a sarcastic smile, tapping his massive hooked hand. "Don't take it so hard, Gama. You could be a lot worse off, ya know." From his shoulder, his robotic parrot echoed him in its metallic voice. "RAWK! A lot worse off, ya know!"

Gama turned his dour glare to the parrot. "We'll be back again at some point, once this crap blows over. And I expect better treatment next time, including our parking space privileges!"

Daichi nodded. "You got my word, old friend. Take care o' yourself."

Gama turned and floated out of the room; the little green man hovered a good few feet off the floor on a semi-invisible disc of force, created by his telekinetic powers. Tanshin followed close behind him; the giant cyborg wolf almost always shadowed the captain's steps. Kaze turned to Ryu, leaning his muscular body against the wall, his giant sword by his side; he shrugged apologetically, knowing how much she loathed Natsumi. They followed the rest of the crew; Trey brought up the rear, tagging along with his friends. He put his discreet brown robe around him again, covering up his white and black outfit. More importantly, it kept the Symbion on his arm hidden from view. He didn't want anyone recognizing him again and causing a commotion. He was well known with the pirates now, and had made friends among them, but all he wanted was to get some peace and rest for once.

.


.

It had only been a few days since the Da-Ku attack. The memories were fresh in Trey's mind; he was still a little amazed that he had actually beaten them. He glanced down at the Symbion resting on his arm- the bone-white glove stared back at him with its yellow eye, floating in the blue gem on the back of his hand. Trey could also see the eye in the back of his mind. Before, he had been intimidated by it, afraid of the alien object; now, he had the nerve to stare directly back into it, and realized what a mysterious and fascinating thing it was. That eye shone with more than just light- it shone with intelligence, ancient wisdom, and inhuman confidence. It was like it knew all the answers, to everything, and looking back at it gave Trey a teasing taste of what he could find there.

But even though the two were linked- the Symbion had integrated itself with Trey's being, including his body and mind- Trey couldn't know everything it knew. He had to grow and learn in order to understand it, and use it. He had to learn to give in order to receive. He had apparently given enough to bring out the alien's true form, The Symbion Alpha, but it was mostly by accident. The form was a manifestation of his will; when he had become certain and confident enough in himself to protect his life and the good it represented, he had transformed into the bone-white giant that was Alpha. The Symbion formed a shell around him, increasing his speed, strength, and energy; it had given him the power needed to stop the Da-Ku Lords Soutei and Gokan, who had threatened to kill Trey and his friends.

It had almost seemed like a dream, though. Trey looked back and wasn't sure if it had really been him doing those things; he wasn't even sure if he would be able to return to Alpha form. The Symbion had told him he would find out when the situation called for it, and if his will was strong enough. Trey sighed to calm himself. If that was the case, then there was no sense in worrying about it now- he'd find out when the time came. He brushed the black hair from his face and returned to the present, focusing on helping Tanshin set up the power lift.

They had completed all the preparations to leave, but they had to wait on Natsumi to arrive with their share of the cargo. Ryu and Kaze were being lowered from the Kon-Rensa by the power lift, with Tanshin operating the controls above in the dock. Trey stood by, ready to assist Tanshin or get him something if he needed it. He inspected the strange lift, tracing the metal arm that reached out of the ship's interior; a crystal sat at the end of it, facing towards the lift below, which also had a crystal suspended on top by four metal bracers. The two were connected by a ray of energy, which could either pull or drop the large platform. Trey remembered when he had first seen it used; they had turned it into an emergency escape after killing the Da-Ku Lord Shinkou. That had been the first time Trey had met a Da-Ku Lord. They had come a long way since then.

I'm not really different, though… Trey wondered. I'm still me, just… more of myself. When I first came to this world I felt alone, and frightened... but now I have people I care for, and trust. I'm not afraid of this world as much. I feel strong enough to make a difference, to make my own choices. I want to play my part. Back home, on Earth, I wasn't afraid of that either; I guess I never really appreciated it as much until now.

You must first see the world without your security, the Symbion responded, its steady voice echoing through his mind. When you are left without safety, without familiarity, then you learn to appreciate what it was that you had. That is when you make the choice to surrender to the loss, or to get it back.

That makes sense... I haven't really changed. Trey smiled;The Symbion had always made sense of things. I've just found myself again.

Below him, Ryu and Kaze felt the metal platform touch ground. They stepped off of it; Kaze turned and inspected it to make sure things were in working order. Ryu gave a big stretch, then waved when he spotted some other pirates walking towards them.

"Hey! Ryu!" One of them shouted. Trey took a glance down, recognizing the pirates as the ones they had met in the bar; they were some of the volunteers Natsumi had hired. Kaze turned as well, her eyes focusing on only one pirate; she winced unintentionally at the lizard-like creature Yowai. He smiled and gave a shy wave at her.

Trey caught the slight movement, and remembered what Ryu had told him at the bar. Yowai was a Pterusian, an alien that caused something like an allergic reaction in Syrettas- the species Kaze belonged to. His body fluids, even the very sweat on his skin, was like poison to her, and would render her unable to use her natural shape shifting abilities. To make matters worse, Yowai was hopelessly infatuated with her.

Ryu waved back to the approaching pirates. "Hey fellas. What's good?"

"We heard yer takin' up our spots in the mission," one of them said with a smirk. "Did ya plan on destroying our ships and takin' our business from the start or what?"

"Hey now!" Ryu protested, raising his hands innocently. "What's with the accusations? It's not like we wanna do this. Hell, we're not even getting' paid for it!"

"Neither are we!" another pirate spoke up.

Ryu gritted his teeth. "If you guys really wanna start somethin' then come on, stop pussy-footin' around it!" He took a fighting stance, his bare arms bulging. "Come on, who wants to go first?" The pirates glanced around at each other, hastily smiling and waving Ryu down.

"Naw, naw Ryu! We don't wanna fight ya! We jus' wanted to pull a little guilt trip is all… no harm, right?"

.


.

Yowai had made his way away from the rest of the group, shuffling his webbed feet towards Kaze. The Syretta had turned towards the lift, pretending to do some work on one of the bracer bolts. He gave a cough, trying to catch her attention.

"Um… hey, Kaze. How's it going?"

Kaze turned slightly towards him, acting as if she hadn't noticed him there. "Oh, hey Yowai. What are you doing here?" She went back to the lift, turning on a loud blowtorch.

"I came… I came with a few friends!" Yowai tried to shout over the crackling. "We were just coming by to see… to see how you…" he grimaced at the blowtorch. "Well, nevermind! I can see you're busy! I just wanted to give you something!"

"What's that?" Kaze shouted back.

"I said I just wanted to GIVE you something!" He reached into his back pocket and took out a small, wrapped cloth. "Here! This is for YOU!"

Kaze finally turned towards Yowai again. Her eyes fell on the item, and she turned the blowtorch off.

"It's nothing really!" Yowai said loudly, forgetting that there was no more reason to shout. "I... uh... just thought you'd like it... " He finished much more quietly, looking embarrassed. He held it out in his hand, then realized that Kaze wouldn't approach him. She always refused to go near him at all. Yowai looked down at the item, then back up at Kaze, unsure of what to do. Suddenly, Ryu appeared, gripping the startled lizard in an arm lock and lifting the package from his palms.

"Don't worry lil' buddy! I'll make sure she gets the message." Ryu stepped over to Kaze and dropped the cloth in her hands. It fell open, revealing its contents.

Kaze lifted the small object from the wrapping, inspecting it curiously. It was a mechanical eyepiece, with magnifying and calculating capabilities. Kaze recognized it as something people used to stargaze. It was tiny, but elegantly crafted; it was probably a very expensive model with high performance.

"I know that you like mechanics and stuff, so..." Yowai trailed off, unsure of what else to say.

"Thanks. It was thoughtful of you." Kaze absorbed the item into her amorphous skin, resting it between the grenades and the knife she kept in her as well. Yowai visibly brightened when she accepted his gift. "I'm not one for stargazing, but I'm sure I can find some use for it."

"Of course! However it can help you. I'm glad you like it. I was really afraid you wouldn't, but I put it in that cloth so it wouldn't touch me just in case, and..." he trailed off again, realizing he was talking too much. Ryu and Kaze stared at him with concerned looks. "Well you get the idea... uh, I'll let you get back to work..."

Kaze waved goodbye to him as she returned to blowtorching the air. Ryu gave him a thumbs-up and a grin, to which Yowai replied with a weak smile. The lizard-man returned to his group of friends, eager to get away from the dock and his embarrassment.

.


.

Natsumi entered the dock just as the pirates were leaving. They were muttering and complaining about Ryu's harsh treatment; they all stepped back quietly and respectfully as Natsumi strode by them. She gave them a curt nod, never slowing her pace towards the giant starship before her. Trailing obediently behind her were automated lifts, carrying what appeared to be her secret cargo.

Gama watched from the bridge of the ship; he narrowed his eyes at the woman, wondering what she could be up to this time.

Kaze and Ryu still stood before the lift, arms crossed; they looked like bouncers ready to throw Natsumi out. She walked right up to them, giving the same curt nod she gave the other pirates.

"So you're ready to leave once this cargo's loaded?" she asked them.

"We've been ready, we're just waiting on you," Kaze replied acidly.

Natsumi shook a finger at her. "Now, now. I know how much you envy me, but on this mission you'll be taking my orders, so don't be smart."

Kaze shrugged. "It's hard trying to be stupid, though. Some of us haven't had as much practice as you."

Natsumi smirked. "Well you certainly have a smart tongue. Is that the reason Gama hired you as my replacement?" At this, Kaze's mouth dropped, then immediately tightened into a dangerous look. Ryu's arms slackened a little, and he looked between the two women in concern. "You did know that I used to be on his crew, didn't you? Before I decided I could do better on my own, I used to do the same things you'd do. All the stuff Gama doesn't understand, or is just too lazy to do himself." She sighed in recollection. "Those were the good old days… Until I realized I was meant for more than menial tasks, that is."

Kaze nodded. "And then you abandoned him when he needed you most, or so I've heard." Ryu flinched, genuinely scared of where this was going.

Natsumi shook her head. "No, my dear. That mission was impossible. I told them we should abandon it from the start, but Gama never did know when to quit. He almost got himself killed, and if I remember correctly a few other pirates did die."

"If you had been there with them, that might not have happened."

Natsumi smirked again. "I know I'm one of the best pirates out there, but no one is that good. Heading into an asteroid field of that density is suicide."

Ryu shrugged. "Well, since Gama and Tanshin are still alive, doesn't that make you wrong? I'd say they're the better pirates."

Natsumi didn't take her eyes off Kaze. "I'll take your opinion when you start speaking to my face, and not my chest." Kaze's own eyes widened, and she spun to Ryu. His head snapped up a moment too late, and then turned to Kaze sheepishly.

"Traitor!" She slapped him hard across the face, then suddenly morphed into an alien bird. Her leathery wings carried her up into the ship's dock, past Trey and Tanshin.

"Go fetch your captain for me, little girl!" Natsumi called after her teasingly, eyeing Ryu in a similar fashion. He gritted his teeth and turned away.

Trey, who had continued to watch from above, shook his head at the ridiculousness. "Man, what's with today? Talk about drama, huh Tanshin?" The wolfman only nodded, continuing to make silent calculations on the power lift.

Gama appeared momentarily, floating into the dock with an annoyed look on his face. He turned to the pair of spectators sitting around idly. "You two look like you're accomplishing a lot," he said sourly before floating out. He descended to the ground safely, always remaining a good few feet in the air because of his invisible disc. He eyed Natsumi with a serious look.

"Are you going to harass my team for the entire mission? Or do you just want to break them before we start?"

Natsumi faked a shocked look. "Gama! Why would you accuse me of such things? I was merely defending my pride as a pirate."

Gama nodded. "Yes, I know how much your pride means to you. If you don't mind, I've been waiting long enough to leave here. Can we load the cargo and go?"

Natsumi chuckled. "Always eager to get right down to business." She tossed Ryu the remote control for the lifts. "Here, big guy. I think you can handle the rest." She turned back to Gama, speaking as confidently as a commander to her soldier. "When you leave the station, find me and my ship. I will send you the coordinates then, and we can depart." She turned and left as briskly as she had arrived.

"That woman sure knows how to make an entrance," Ryu muttered. His eyes once again fell past her shoulders. "And an exit..."

Gama snatched the unused control from his hands. "Gimme that! And don't talk or think about her like that... she's evil incarnate, I swear."

Ryu turned to his captain, suddenly serious. "Hey, is Kaze alright? Natsumi said some pretty harsh stuff."

Gama nodded. "She told me. I tried to comfort her, but honestly there wasn't much I could do. She's not as upset about her part in the crew as she is about your carelessness."

Ryu winced. "I guess that means I better go talk to her, then."

Gama nodded. "That's an order."

While Ryu went to comfort Kaze, Gama loaded the cargo onto the lift. Above him, Tanshin turned the mechanism on, and the crystal-beam pulled the metal platform up and into the dock. Gama threw Trey the controls, telling him to get the cargo set up. Trey eagerly went about his task, glad to finally have something to do.

Gama inspected the cargo curiously. "These aren't normal cargo crates, are they Tanshin?"

The wolfman shook his furry head. "No, sir. I can't pick up anything from them." His red mechanical eye flickered with effort, proving his words. His energy scanner was detecting no trace of anything from the cargo boxes.

Gama raised his head to the ceiling. "Aiya," he announced, speaking to the ship's computer. "Can you scan these crates for us? Give us any information you can find."

From the bridge, Aiya completed her task. The android female - basically the hardware for the ship's computer - rested inside of her mechanical egg, which plugged her directly into the system. She looked over the crates, inspecting them from all possible angles. Finally, she announced, "Scanning complete. Nothing can be detected in the cargo crates."

"Nothing?" Gama rubbed his chin suspiciously. "They're ghost crates then… Natsumi wasn't lying about secrecy."

As Trey steered the crates around, he asked curiously, "Ghost crate? What does that mean?"

"It's a nickname pirates have for these kinds of cargo boxes," the captain answered. "They have a disruption shield around them, which cancels out any scanning devices that try to penetrate it. We can't determine the contents weight, or mass, or biostructure, or energy... or anything. It's like nothing is even inside them." He frowned. "They're very hard to come by, though. Why would Natsumi need so many?"

"Do you think this mission might be more dangerous than she let on?" Tanshin suggested.

Gama nodded. "I've thought so from the start. But if we can really find a secluded place to hide, well... those kinds of places are rare nowadays, what with the Solari moving in to occupy every free system. It might be worth it."

.


.

Yowai strode through the halls of the Pirate's Nebula, making strange trilling noises with his throat, his species' equivalent of whistling. The fin on the back of his head stood a little taller, as well. He was grateful that his gift had made any kind of impact on Kaze at all. He walked briskly, moving through the crowd with little difficulty due to his thin build, when he suddenly collided with a larger person.

He was surprised, as the man seemed to have moved deliberately in his way. He began to excuse himself, then gasped as something stung him from behind him. He turned slightly, catching a flash of silver before he collapsed against the large man in front of him. A pair of robotic arms caught the small lizard, quickly pulling him to the side. The woman in silver mirrored her ally, keeping their captive in between.

They entered a utility shaft, where there was no one around. The man placed the unconscious Yowai on the ground, then turned to his companion. "So this is the guy you were talkin' 'bout, sis?"

"Yes, Kuma," the woman in silver answered.

"Almost too easy. I miss the challenging missions." He glanced around, studying the shafts. "So you wanna get the ship? I'll head up to junction 7A and meet you there."

"Alright," his sister nodded. She turned to exit, when Kuma called again.

"Hey, Kimi. Do you think this is it?"

His sister nodded, her silvery blue hair swaying faintly. "Yes. Ryu will have no choice but to surrender. He could always beat us in a fight, but this time… this time it won't be a matter of strength. We'll get him." The bounty hunter strode out the door, intent upon her mission.

.


.

The Kon-Rensa left the Pirate's Nebula with Natsumi's ship, the Calipsis, following it at a safe distance. The crewmembers were all present on the bridge; Kaze had calmed down by now, and was now staying focused on her job as navigation co-pilot, announcing that Natsumi had sent them the coordinates. When Gama finally had his destination, he immediately tried to gather as much information on the place as possible.

"Ok, no more of this anonymous crap," he announced. "Aiya, give me the details of those coordinates and its surroundings." Behind him, Kaiya completed her orders from inside her egg; she rarely left it, and when she did she would never leave the bridge. However, she was always aware of everything on the ship, as well as around it.

"DESTINATION CONFIRMED," came Kaiya's soft feminine voice. "GUBRIS SYSTEM, SIXTH PLANET. LOW LIFE RATIO, DANGEROUS ATMOSPHERE. OTHER PLANETS SIMILAR TO THESE CONDITIONS; ONLY SEVENTH AND THIRD PLANETS INHABITED WITH INTELLIGENT LIFE."

"Anybody ever hear of it?" Gama asked the crew. They all shook their head, though Kaze had a puzzled look on her face. "Kaze?" the captain asked her. "What is it?"

Kaze shook her head. "It sounds familiar… but I can't place a finger on it. I have no idea why I'd know of such a place."

Gama tapped his fingers together. "Very strange… but good news for us! If there's no one around, that means we can hide out there pretty easily."

"We'd have to stay on board the whole time, though," Tanshin pointed out, "If the atmosphere is that dangerous."

"I'm sure we have enough supplies to last us," Gama responded cheerfully.

"I think Tanshin was referring more to running out of sanity than supplies," Kaze muttered under her breath.

They continued to follow the Calipsis for some time; Kaiya estimated their arrival in the next few anyecycles, so the crew sat at their stations looking bored. Ryu was balancing his sword by the pommel with one finger. Kaze was punching away at something on the computer screens; Trey couldn't make out what it was, but it seemed like a kind of videogame or something. Trey watched for a while, then glanced over at Kaiya's egg. He couldn't see the female android inside the glass; the fog that filled up the inside hid her completely.

He moved to Tanshin, covered to his head in that giant red cloak; the wolfman was staring at some point on the ground, his mouth tightly closed. Sometimes Trey caught himself wondering if he was still alive. He turned back to the stars before them; they flew past the massive bridge window like comets. Up ahead, Trey could make out the yellow arrowhead ship Natsumi was piloting. He slumped against the counter before him, bored.

Suddenly, a flashing light appeared before Kaze, interrupting her game. She yelled, "What the fuck!" then looked at the alert. "An incoming message from Natsumi... that bitch ruined my high score..."

Gama winced. "Kaze... I'm sorry for your loss." He bit his lip, then asked, "So are you going to put it through, or..."

"Why don't you do it yourself!" Kaze shot back. The captain looked around near his area, trying to find the button to do so- he realized his 'captain's chair' was really just a seat, without a single button on it, or a single control panel near it. He frowned, then got an idea. "Aiya," he asked politely. "Would you please send Natsumi's message through?"

"COMLINK CHANNEL OPENED," she replied. Kaze shot them both an indignant look before spinning around in her seat. Gama winced again, about to say something to her, but Natsumi appeared before them on a floating screen.

"Hello fellow pirates," Natsumi greeted them cheerfully. "Thought I'd let you know we're nearing the destination now. It'll only be a little while longer before we enter the Gubris System, so hold tight."

Gama gave her a tight grin. "Thanks, Natsumi. We'll do our best."

"Does your pilot need instructions on planetary descent?" Natsumi continued, causing the whole crew to bite their tongues. "Or can your ship's computer handle it herself?"

Kaze punched the control panel before her, and the comlink was canceled. She shot up out of her chair, her skin slightly rippling. Trey knew she did that when she got angry. She turned quickly and stormed out of the bridge, while everyone sat in chagrined silence.

"I really hope this mission is over with soon," Ryu mumbled.

"Don't we all…" Gama shook his head. "That Natsumi… she never could get along well with people."

"You used to say it was just her nature," Tanshin reminded him. Gama nodded, agreeing with his own opinion.

"That's true, but… it feels like she's gotten worse, ever since she left the crew during that mission…"

Suddenly, Aiya's voice boomed through the ship. "INTRUDER ALERT. UNAUTHORIZED ACTIVITY IN THE DOCKING BAY. RESPOND IMMEDIATELY. INTRUDER ALERT."