"Beam me up Qhur, we`re in a hurry!" Khark screamed through his communicator.
He was standing on the surface of Nibulus-4, also known as K`hmary by the natives. Like so many other M-class planets, it was filled with life and business opportunities. Khark loved it here, it was undoubtedly the favorite planet on his trading route. The indigenous population had just taken their first small steps into space, and this meant ridiculously high prizes for his merchandise. The K`hmynians knew that they would spend fortunes in time and energy trying to develop a technology of their own, so even though his prices where stiff, both parties prospered on their friendship.
"Will do" Qhur" his second in command answered.
The fifty kilometers that separated Khark from his spaceship were traveled in a matter of seconds. The view of the golden throne-room of his potential customer faded out, replaced by the light brown interior of his bridge. Khark was planning to sell such a devise to the K`hmynians at a later date, but right now they were still busy exploring the many practical applications of the tractor-beam devise he had sold them during his last stay.
"Where to captain?", Qhur wondered.
He looked up from his console, staring at the captain as he moved over to the command-chair at the center of the bridge.
"Nibulus-5, as fast as possible!" Khark said while dropping into the seat.
"Why are we going to….?" Qhur started, but Khark cut him off, screaming:
"I ask the questions here!"
Qhur could be so annoying sometimes. Kremm was much better - never an unnecessary word or sentence, no stupid questions, always straight to the point and eager to carry out the orders given to him. Khark was thinking about shifting their positions within the ship hierarchy, making Qhur the navigator and Kremm his second in command - but for the time being it was the other way around.
"Course set for Nibulus-5 captain" Kremm said.
"Excellent, put us into low orbit, and make it fast!"
Up at the bridge, the humming of the impulse-engine could hardly be heard, but in the rear of the ship it became both shaky and noisy during acceleration. The impulse-engines could take the ship up to full impulse if needed, meaning a speed very close to the speed of light. Getting up to full impulse was however very energy demanding, so Qhur usually shut off the engines at half impulse. At this point he would instead engage the warp-engine in order to increase cruising-speed. Thanks to these wonders, interstellar travel was both fast and easy. The warp-engine compressed the space in front of the ship together, allowing them to pass through more space at shorter time. It took almost a full K`hmynian hour for a beam of light emitted from Nibulus-4 to reach Nibulus-5, but in order to keep his promise Khark would have to make it there much, much faster.
"Disengaging impulse-drive and jumping to warp 3"
Kremm said as soon as they reached half impulse. Other species measured it differently, but within the Ferengi-language, warp 3 meant that the space in front of the craft was compressed three times, that the five kilometers of compressed space ahead of them would become fifteen as soon as they shut it off. At half impulse this became 1,5 real-impulse, or 50% faster than the speed of light. This was still not good enough for Khark though, so he didn't protest when Kremm increased to warp 6. The warp-engine was powerful enough to make warp 10, but this was not recommended inside solar systems. Unfortunately it was not only empty space that was compressed by the warp-engine, but also gravel, dust and gas. The navigational deflector-shield could take a lot of it, but in space as dirty as this it was barely holding. The heavy Nibulus sun had several dense rings of asteroids rotating around it, and now they where heading straight through one of them. The navigational deflector worked as a invisible plow of gravitons that pushed the mass encountered out and away from the ship hull.
"I could go faster but…"Kremm started to explain.
"Don't, this will do" Khark responded. He had kept a close eye at his panel up to now, so he already knew everything Kremm had to tell him.
"Arrival time in half an hour at present setting" Kremm informed.
"Good, that will give us fifteen minutes to find the lizard" Khark said.
They were going to Nibulus-5 to find an animal for one of the local rulers. When the southern kingdom of Nibulus-4 had managed to successfully set foot on the planet, the expedition had brought with them a pet for their king, and now the other kingdoms where wild with envy. This was where Khark came into the picture: The technological backwardness of the northern empire had made them desperate since his last visit, and the combination of despair and envy might make it possible for him to squeeze up the prize a bit further.
The product he wanted to sell was an ancient warp-engine he had found within a wrecked starship of unknown origin, drifting through space. His crew had tested it, getting a max speed of warp 2,8. Combined with K`hmynian rocket-technology, this could give their spaceships a max speed that was…. Well, ridiculously low as seen from the perspective of a Ferengi D`kara-class captain, but good enough for the northern kingdom who would get a fair chance of beating their southern rivals to Nibulus-6, a world of frozen water some hundred million kilometer outside Nibulus 5.
Khark leaned back in his chair, allowing himself to enjoy the view on the forward monitor. The relatively low speed of half impulse, warp 6 was not enough to make the stars move, but every now and then an asteroid flied past, dragging a long tail of white behind it. The K`hmynian home-world revolved around a star that circled the center of the milkyway much faster than the rest of the stars in the Alpha-quadrant. It was the humans who had gotten the odd idea of separating the milky-way into a cake of four pieces, even though they themselves had never explored the areas they called "Beta" "Delta" and "Gamma" quadrant. Khark found the idea pretty silly, mostly because it was odd to give names to places you had never visited - not even by satellite, but also because the map was fluid rather than static, each star moving at a different speed than its neighbor. The stars usually moved faster the closer they were to the black hole in the center, but Nibulus broke this rule by moving with the same speed as that of the core-suns and compressed gas-clouds that clustered at the very edge of the event horizon. It did so even though its position was far out in what the Ferengi referred to as "the safe zone", where things could have been stable and slow, if it wasn't for the many intelligent lifeforms that dwelled there.
According to Khark's computer Nibulus would use only twenty-five thousand years to bypass all the other stars in the Alpha-quadrant, and then it would continue half way through the Beta-quadrant before making its exit into the great black void between the galaxies. As a comparison, the Ferengi home-world used over a hundred million years to make a full circle, but at its present speed the Nibulus-system would do so in only a million, had it kept a proper orbit. The Beta-quadrant that it would pass into was mostly uncharted territory - at least to the Ferengi trade guilds. According to the calculations Khark had done on his navigational computer it would make its way through the Alpha-quadrant without coming into harm's way, but it was possible that it would crash into some big unknown star once out of Alpha. Wild-cat stars such as the Nibulus often ended their lives in violent collisions with other stars, but for this one it had turned out okay for quite some time, something the many life-forms thriving on its big rocky planets bore witness to.
"Zuik!" Khark suddenly screamed, looking in his direction.
"Yes sir?" Zuik answered.
Zuik was good at weapons, strong, fast, and he loved to boss people around. These qualities made him the natural choice for the position of away-team leader.
"Prepare the away-team"
Nibulus 5 was swelling up, its rough, yellow texture taking more and more space on the forward monitor. Zuik immediately got up from his chair, aiming for the doors to the turbolift that would take him back into the main section of the ship. Here the rest of the team was waiting at the transporter-deck, weapons and tricorders ready. Zuik had almost reached the door when Khark remembered the correct succession of orders. Standard procedure was to first ask science officer Ghoob to scan the planet, and then proceed with Zuik and his away-team once the conditions of the planet had been properly mapped. Ghoob was a good looking young man: Big outstanding ears, deep, accentuated wrinkles running diagonally across his nose, sharp teeth, and a thick forehead that bulged outwards – just like Ferengi females liked it. Actually, Ghoob and his handsomeness had gotten him into trouble with some of the merchants on board. Within the Ferengi-tradition, all marriages where pre-arranged. The selection of partner was based partly on the financial and tactical needs of the husband's family, partly on the wishes of the male getting married. Ferengi-females had nothing to say in the matter, and this lead to a situation where a handsome and still single young man like Ghoob became attractive for sexually frustrated females stuck with older and often physically unattractive males.
"Ready!" Ghoob answered after just five seconds.
This new scanning-gear they had installed was simply amazing. It had originally belonged to an odd looking hairy creature they had bumped into while dropping by an outpost for supplies and fuel. Unfortunately for him, the poor fellow loved to gamble, and so his ship traded hands. Most of it was still at the storage bay, all but the scanning-gear that had turned out to be far better than their old stuff.
"On screen" Khark ordered.
It turned out to be pretty much as expected - considering its size, color and distance to the sun. Breathable atmosphere, 0,8 G, rather cold, and very dry. The away-team would need some thick clothing, but as long as the animal they looked for was not lurking around the polar caps they would do fine without space-suits.
"Bio scan" Khark requested.
"Not within range" Ghoob answered. The basic features of a planet could be figured out from a distance of several million kilometers away, but smaller and finer details such as for example the mapping of life-forms required the explorer to get close and personal. While waiting for the planet to get closer, Khark passed on the description he had been given by king Shyyrom:
"It is between ten and thirty-five centimeters long, four feet, long tail and covered in blue fur"
"Cold or warm-blooded?" Ghoob wondered.
"Don't know" Khark answered, a bit annoyed at himself for having forgotten to ask Shyyrom about this important detail. Warm-blooded creatures could be tracked at their heat-signatures, and where as such quite easy to find.
"Carbon or silicon-based?" Ghoob dug further.
"I don't think king Shyyrom know what silicon-based is"Khark snapped back at him.
Like most Ferengi he had a short temper, and he hated it when his crew asked unnecessary questions, or question to which he had no answer.
Five minutes later they had reached low orbit, and some mingling-spots for the blue-furred lizards had been found. It was most fortunate that they lived in packs. In Khark's experience it was much more difficult to catch a specimen of individualistic species.
"You know what to do!"Khark said to Zuik.
Had he been a human he might have added something like "good luck" or "see you soon", but such phrases of courtesy where unfamiliar to the Ferengi. Zuik rushed into the turbo-lift, eager to gather his team and fulfill his mission objectives.
The turbo-lift traveled through a network of vacuum-pipes that went across the many levels of the ship. Internal G-stabilizers built into its walls allowed it to take tight turns at speeds that would otherwise have killed or seriously wounded its passengers. Thanks to the turbo-lift the passengers and crew-members of the ship could travel to their desired destination within no more then half a minute, despite the massive nature of its design. Teleportation was faster off course, but very energy-demanding. On their many voyages, Khark and his crew had never encountered a species that preferred teleportation over lifts and trams as their main form of internal transportation.
The turbo-lift started to move through the shaft that separated the bridge from the main body of the ship. This was where most of its 230 inhabitants lived. It was a good mix of merchants and system operators, many of them bringing their wives and offspring along. Only the bridge-crew and the ship captain lived in the command section up front. Not so long ago, Zaik had been a merchant himself, but his business had gone bankrupt and Khark had saved him from humiliating ruin by offering him this job. Now he was saving up credits in order to get back in business. He had decided to try something new the next time, getting out of the overcrowded spice-market where he had tested his luck so far. He was uncertain about where to start, but Khark's many successful dealings in high-tech starship equipment and weapons was most inspiring. It was a market that was difficult to get into though, he would need a lot of start-capital, and it would work best if he had his own ship.
That was all in the future though; right now he had to focus on the job ahead. A short "Pling" signaled that the turbolift had stopped moving. The door opened, and he walked out into the transporter-room. His crew was standing there, all wrapped into thick, warm fur – just as he had ordered. Without a word, Zaik walked over to his own locker and took out his clothing and weapons belt. Standard away-team weaponry was the traditional energy-whip for close combat, and a pretty standard one-hand plasma-phaser for the rest. A tricorder could also come in handy. There were five of them standing at the shelf beside the transporter pad - one for each member of the away-team. Zaik grabbed the last one and walked up to the others on the pad.
"Energize!" he ordered the operator by the door.
With the push of a button, the away-team faded out of the room while simultaneously materializing out of thin air down on the surface. While in transfer, Zaik came to think about containment for the animal they were going to catch. Even though the atmospheric pressure was pretty much the same as inside their spaceship and its target destination on Nibulus 4, it was never a bad idea to keep live cargo sealed together with some of the atmosphere they were used to breathe in. Then he started thinking about how odd it was that he remained able to think at all while being pulled apart and put together again at another location. He knew from experience that such thoughts only made his head hurt, so he decided to stop pondering on it, instead asking the science-officer when back at the ship.
"Did anyone bring a containment jar?"
He asked the second they were fully materialized and free to move and speak again.
"Right here" Kraak answered while shaking the box he held in his right hand.
It had the shape and size of a tool-box, but it was transparent and empty for the time being. The big, open landscape and the fresh air under the cloudless sky made him Zaik instantly happy. Giant yellow boulders with sharp edges laid scattered around banks of smaller rocks and sand. The sky above them was completely blue, and the ice-cold wind howled as it pushed its way through the maze of boulders ahead, sometimes picking handfuls of sand and dust with it before it fell to the ground again after a few seconds of flight. The clothing protected them well, everything except their exposed faces. When the gusts of wind hit it felt like being sprayed with ice-needles that made the skin feel numb and weird, specially around the ears. These where rough lands, no doubt about that.
"Good! Phasers on stun, and eyes open!" Zaik said.
Unaware of the technical limitations of plasma-phasers, Zaik took his out of the holster and opened the hatch to the mini-console hidden within its handle.
"Plasma can't stun" Kraak protested, but his voice was drowned by a powerful gust of wind that almost pushed them out of balance.
"It can only explode or penetrate" Hyxx added as he struggled to keep himself standing.
Thinking about it, it was rather logical that scorching hot plasma-beams had its limitations, but what about the energy whips? Zaik untied his whip from the belt and opened hatch to its handle-console. He fumbled around within the touch-sensitive menu for a few seconds before ending up with a positive result. The energy whips had three different levels of stun, one for small, one for medium sized and a third for large creatures. Upon his discovery he helped the rest of his team find the right setting, and then it was time to head into the valley below them. According to the bio-scan, this was a mingling-spot for the blue-furred lizards.
The wind gradually faded out as they moved deeper into the valley. It seemed to pass over their heads, making it a calm little refuge for lizards and Ferengi alike. Zaik and his away-team had arrived mid-summer, and at this time of year the lizards where all out in the sun, trying to get as much light as possible before the extreme winter-winds made it impossible to stay up at the surface. In other words this was the best time of year to catch them. The combination of poisonous blood and a vegetarian diet made it unnecessary for them to hide, so both males and females tried to impress each other with the thickest and bluest fur. This made them pretty easy to catch, it didn't take long before Zaik had caught a big and healthy looking specimen to put in the box. The poor thing had been completely stunned by the electric charge of the whip, its body frozen, tongue out and all four feet in the air. Kraak did a tricorder-scan to make sure that its heart and lungs remained active.
His away-team split up at the transporter-room, each returning to whatever activities they had engaged in before being summoned for duty. Zaik was heading back to the bridge with the lizard in the box. Its big but empty black eyes looked up at him through the transparent walls of its cage. Their eyes met for a moment while waiting for the turbo-lift door to open. Khark was pleased with the result, the box and the lizard rested on his lap through the whole journey back to Nibulus 4.
King Shyyrom the third of the northern kingdom was mighty impressed. His eyes rested on the exotic creature that stared at him through the glass container it had arrived in. It was a Hex-lizard, a small hairy creature not native to this world. The alien merchant had traveled through the big void beyond the planet to get it, all the way to Ke`hem`eshet. Named after a legendary hero from the old scriptures, the Ke`hem`eshet was a cold and barren planet where the K`hmary had only recently set foot. In fact it was the second planet where their species had landed, the first one being the equally barren, but much hotter Hemash, named after Ke`hem`eshet's little sister. Neither the Hemash or the Ke`hem`eshet landings had been the doings of the northern kingdom, whose only tribute to the field of space exploration had been a few puny robots who had gone to these places before the neighboring kingdoms had arrived in person. The situation caused Shyyrom considerable stress. His kingdom was falling behind and the alien merchant before him was undoubtedly aware of this. The highest bidder was always the most desperate, and right now this was king Shyyrom of the northern kingdom.
"And there are many more where that came from"
The Ferengi trader said in triumph. He had done what king Shyyrom thought was impossible, getting to Ke`hem`eshet and back within the hour, taking with him a Hex-lizard as proof. Hell! How was that even possible? Ke`hem`eshet was at least two hundred millions kilometers away, - even the southerners with their new and fancy ion-mass accelerators used many months on such a journey.
"This is not going to be cheap, is it?"
King Shyyrom looked up from the Hex-lizard in the jar. Its big black eyes had kept him under tight scrutiny during the last couple of minutes, but now they were replaced by the smaller, but much more expressive eyes of the Ferengi trader. The alien grinned in anticipation, knowing that a good deal was about to be made. Sensing his tension king Shyyrom smiled back, but it was a gentle, wry smile - perhaps mixed with a feeling of subtle apathy. The relationship between the Ferengi and the K`hmary where filled with golden opportunities for both parties, but all the K`hmary kings and nobles where smart enough to know that what the Ferengi sold them was outdated technology and second hand equipment.
"Oh, you know. A few tons of that, a few tons of this, friendly prizes"
Khark's grin was getting bigger, a line of sharp irregular teeth where revealed behind the light brown lips.
"Tell me what you need, I tell you what we have in stock, we make something out"
King Shyyrom said. His left arm reached out for the golden scepter that stood leaned up against the large and richly ornamented throne chair. The king had gotten chubby since their last meeting. Khark had noticed the change in shape the second visual contact had been established between the royal quarter and his ship, for it was quite drastic indeed. On his many travels he had learned that the various cultures, planets and races scattered around the Alpha-quadrant differed in their view on obesity. He didn't know if the K`hmary belonged to the positive or negative camp, so for the time being he figured it was best to keep his mouth shut on this subject.
"Need any help sir?"
He asked. The king struggled to drag himself out of the chair, even with the scepter to help support his weight.
"No thanks Khark"
The king moaned, already exhausted by the effort. Instead a young servant rushed out from wherever he had been hiding during their conversation. He eeled in under the right arm of the king and gave him a gentle push, just enough to get him up on his feet. King Shyyrom was not only obese, but also quite tall compared to the average K`hmynian, and in combination with his fine and expensive clothing, this made him a very impressive figure in the eyes of his subjects. In fact he was the only man Khark admired at on this planet.
Khark and Shyyrom left the golden throne-room, walking out to the big terrace from where the king overlooked his throne-city. The northern kingdom was not as culturally sophisticated as their competitors in the west and south, something that was reflected in the functionalist, almost brutal simplicity of their architecture. Up here in the north they had not yet understood that it was possible to use other building-materials then the concrete-like substance they dug out of the cuwubian mega-mushroom that dominated the planet. Its spores gave the atmosphere its characteristic sweet scent, and up here in the north the buildings where all made from it. Yellow, large, blocks as long as the eyes could see. All K`hmynian buildings - across all three kingdoms - where large and densely populated. Their interior design mirrored the social nature of their culture and lifestyle. The common housing-blocks held between two and ten thousand workers, while the equally big palaces held no more than a few hundred nobles. There where temples as well, but those where usually placed far away from the cities, and Khark had not yet visited one during his trips to the surface.
King Shyyrom pointed at various spots below, explaining some sort of plan he had made to improve the city. It was something about a new metro or tram he was planning to build, a attempt at loosening up the dense traffic a bit. The northern throne-city was poor and overcrowded, but Khark was absolutely certain that their king could give him a good prize for the warp engine he wanted to sell them.