The Neal James Website


Monthly Short Story


“Just get me a berth!” Gregg hissed to the figure opposite him.

            “My, but aren’t we the impatient one?” Rognak smirked in reply. “What did you do, assassinate the Governor?”

            Tyler Gregg was in a fix, and he suspected that Rognak Haag knew it. He had been trading across the Ferion Cluster for longer than he could remember and had managed, until recently, to keep well under the radar of the Quergs. The Quergs were a race of enforcers employed by the Governor’s office to keep order on Belidus, a relatively minor outpost of the Harradin Empire, and Gregg had fallen foul of their regulations regarding ‘membership’ of the guild over which they enjoyed a monopoly – he had failed to pay his subscription allowing him to trade within the Harradinian borders and they were now hot on his trail. The Interstellar, he hoped, would take him well out of their sphere of influence for a good portion of the remainder of his life.

            “Rognak!” Gregg jabbed a finger in the Boradian’s face. “My life’s on the line here; have you no empathy? No., of course you haven’t – you’re a fixer; fixer’s have no soul! I need to get off this planet – and fast! What is there that’s leaving?”

            “Tush, tush,” Rognak reprimanded with as much sarcasm that he could muster into his version of Earthtongue. “We haven’t discussed my remuneration yet; how can we possibly reach a deal when our terms are not on the table.”

            “Okay,” Gregg said, calming down a little. “What’s the price?”

            “Well,” the Boradian said, leaning back in his chair in the corner of the bar where he tended to conduct his business. “Considering your state of urgency and the fact that you’re going to need papers to get on the ship, I’d say that I’m going to be seriously out if pocket even before we look into my fee.”

            “I’ll need a change of appearance as well,” Gregg said, shaking his head. He was beginning to think that paying the dues would have been the easier option after all. “The Quergs will find me in no time if I stay as I am.”

            “Hmm,” Rognak agreed. “That will inflate the price and we’ll have to find some way of concealing you until the ship has left its space dock. How much do you have?”

            Gregg reached into the depths of his pack and drew out a leather bag. Pulling open the draw string he tipped a number of small shiny metal bars into his palm. Rognak’s three eyes widened in anticipation; Grondinium – one of the rarest commodities in the galaxy, and Gregg seemed to have a bagful of it. A dozen bars would be enough to buy him a large new home for him, his partner, and their ever expanding brood.

            “This enough?” Gregg asked, sensing that the balance of power was switching to his side of the table.

            “Twelve would do the trick, yes,” Rognak said, trying hard to conceal his excitement. “The ship is scheduled to depart tomorrow morning, so you will need somewhere to lie low until then.”

            “And I bet you know just the place, eh?” Gregg replied with a sigh.

            “As a matter of fact, I do,” came the reply. “However, it will cost you a little extra for the additional risk that I would be running in concealing you from the Quegs.”

            “So, what is there that’s leaving, like now?”

            “Nothing today, but there’s only the Interstellar tomorrow, but it’s…”

            “I don’t care what it is – just get me on it!” Gregg demanded.

            “You don’t understand,” Rognak said, becoming suddenly quite serious. “You need to…”

            “What I need is to get out of here, and if that ship can do that for me I need to be on it!”

            “Gregg,” Rognak protested. “The Interstellar, it’s a…”

            “Is it fast enough to evade capture?”

            “Well, nobody will be coming after you if…”

            “That’s enough! You have the money – get me on board!”

            “Olay,” Rognak said, shaking his head.




Gregg, now a considerable sum poorer after his negotiations with the Boradian, hunkered down in a small room at the back of Rognak’s home and resigned himself to waiting out the hours until his flight from Belidus. Despite the meal which His benefactor’s partner had provided, he spent a restless night until the early light of dawn woke him from a fitful slumber. He was up and about before the rest of the occupants, and made himself a drink in the small kitchen area at the rear of the property while still hidden behind the drapes at the windows.

            “Come,” Rognak’s voice startled him. “We have to get you out of here and down to the departure dock without delay. I can’t run any more risks in having you here.”

            The journey through the back streets took some time, dodging in and out of narrow alleyways, but they eventually arrived at their destination where they were met by a large figure in a dark cloak. A further exchange of Grondinium occurred, something that Gregg protested about to no avail – it was pay up or miss the departure. Saying a not too fond farewell to Rognak, he boarded the Interstellar where he was allocated a rudimentary cabin to the rear of the ship.

            “This the best that you can do?” he asked his escort. The non-committal shrug was all that he got in reply, and he slung his bag onto the bed and sat down to await departure.

            Gregg had no idea as to the destination of the ship – not that he cared overmuch – and very soon he experienced that small tell-tale lurch to his stomach that told him that it had made its first jump into hyperspace. The Quegs would have very little chance of catching him now. Of more concern to him was the still substantial amount of Grondinium in his pack. Of the fifty pieces that he had ‘acquired’ from the crooked merchant on Belidus, there still remained thirty-five – sufficient to buy him a comfortable existence almost anywhere in the galaxy. The Quegs on his tail were the result of that merchant paying the Governor a bribe large enough to, he believed, ensure Gregg’s early demise. He needed to conceal the small bars – each one no longer than half the length of his thumb – and had come prepared.

            Delving into his pack, Gregg removed a number of self-closing columinum sheaths. These were hermetically sealed and large enough to accommodate one bar each. He swallowed each packaged item – nobody, he believed, would suspect that this would be his method of concealment. That night, he slept better than he had done for a number of days.

            The following day – if, indeed, it was daytime – he awoke and left his room. Entering what appeared to be a common area, he found food and drink readily available and a number of fellow travelers partaking freely of the refreshment on offer. Gregg found it odd that none of them were speaking to each other, but shrugged it off and joined a queue at the head of the food table. There was a mixture of alien races represented in the room, but bearing in mind the riches that were already concealed in his gut, he ate sparely and drank little, choosing to sit alone at one corner of a table at the end of the room.

            “Why’s the door locked?” he said to a nearby individual when he tested the handle of one of the doors at the end of the room.

            “Stops us getting out of here,” the alien said, waving a claw around the area. “They wants us where they can finds us,” it said.

            Gregg took another look around the room; it was certainly a very large enclosed area, and the individual rooms bore a strange resemblance to old photographs that he had seen of prisons on Earth way back in the twenty-second century. He felt compelled to ask another question of the same individual.

            “Where’s the ship headed?”

            The alien looked at him in some surprise. “You don’t know?” it asked.

            “No,” Gregg said. “Why else would I be asking.

            “Botny,” came the reply, followed by a sinister-sounding laugh. “We’s all going there.”

            Gregg returned to his room and looked around it with fresh eyes. There was a bed, a wash basin, two cupboards and a toilet. This was no ordinary room, he thought to himself; this was a cell. He returned to the common room and approached the same individual.

            “Why are you here?” he asked.

            The alien looked at him in surprise. “I’s a criminal,” it said. “We’s all criminals. That’s why we’s all here. You not know?”

            Gregg raged at what had happened. Rognak had double-crossed him. The Boradian had taken his money and sold him down the river. Clearly Botny was some kind of penitentiary and he had no idea how long he would be destined to remain there. The Interstellar, he knew, was one of the fastest vessels in the quadrant – obviously the intention was to consign all of the criminals to the penal colony as quickly as possible – but to what end? Execution? Hard labour? There was no way of knowing until the settlement was reached – if, that is, they ever got there. Gregg returned again to his cell and began to think.



Taking over the ship was, when the opportunity came along, quite simple. Guards, in teams of six, came through one of the doors every other day to check on the numbers still in their charge – it had been rare for any individual to die on the journey, but now unknown. The loss of a prisoner meant a reduction of bounty money for the crew, so care was taken to ensure that as many healthy inmates arrived at Botny as was possible.

            The plan was executed perfectly, and Gregg had tutored all of his companions well. The team was overpowered in moments, disarmed and restrained. With access doors at both ends of the room now open, the thirty incarcerated made their way forward towards the control room. The ship was manned at the bridge by a crew of only six and, untrained in combat, they quickly surrendered. Now that the Interstellar was theirs, the inmates were free to choose their own fate, but it quickly became apparent that none of the others knew the first thing about piloting a spaceship. Gregg approached the controls and within minutes had worked out how to fly the thing. Bringing up the vessels start charts, he set a new heading as far away from Botny as was possible and powered the engines up to trans warp speed.

            “What now?” the same alien asked. He had been at Gregg’s side throughout the mutiny and saw the Earthman as his safest bet of coming out of their escapade alive.

            “We do what we want, my friend,” Gregg replied. He turned to the rest of the group. “Anyone want dropping off anywhere, or are we all coming along for the ride?”

            Amidst a murmuring of several alien languages, and some quick translation of Gregg’s offer, there were no dissenters to the proposal and once duties had been allocated the new crew of the Interstellar settled into a new routine. They abandoned the former crew on the nearest habitable planet and left the sector.

            The Interstellar travelled the galaxy over a number of years, trading in a variety of commodities – sometimes legally, sometimes not - and its crew became wealthy on the back of a number of opportunities that came their way. Gregg’s original haul of Grondinium, now finally retrieved from his gut after a routine of daily passing and swallowing, had made him independently wealthy and taking his share of the booty accumulated during his time as leader of the group, he sold his share in the vessel and made his way back to Belidus – there was one final score to settle.

            Rognak too had prospered during the intervening years, and now occupied the palatial home that the Grondinium obtained from Gregg had made possible. His children had grown up and the eldest, a daughter by the name of Silvania, was widely regarded as the beauty of the city. It was to this young female that traveller from the outer reaches of space made his approach. At a city festival, Silvania became enamoured of the handsome older male. He had a bearing which spoke of authority and power, and his manners were impeccable. Introducing her new admirer to her father, she smiled in that way that all daughters do to get their way; for Rognak it seemed a perfect match. The man had all of the attributes that would be required, including a fortune in Grondinium, a home which matched the style of his own, and his own space transport. He was also, he had claimed, to be the owner of a line of merchant vessel ploughing its way across the galaxy.

            Not to be fooled, Rognak had the man checked out, but was happy, finally, to agree to the marriage of his daughter to this individual who called himself Botan. Botan and Sylvania led a happy life on Belidus and the trader was welcomed into Rognak’s business as an advisor on trading links across the quadrant. Though initially successful, Rognak’s ventures, driven by his greed, became riskier and riskier. Losses mounted, but being the kind of individual convinced that he could always gamble himself out of a hole, Rognak failed to heed Botan’s cautionary words. The words, less cautionary with each failing venture, drove Rognak further and further into his self-inflicted mire. On the day that his creditors beat a path to his door, Sylvania’s father capitulated and threw himself on their mercy.

            Botan had offered, albeit less than enthusiastically, to refinance Rognak’s business but knew that the Boradian’s pride would not permit it. Consequently, he watched from the sidelines as the enterprise collapsed leaving Rognak and his family homeless and penniless. Succumbing finally to his daughter’s pleas, Rognak reluctantly accepted the offer of help from Botan. When that offer crystallised, however, it was not the easy ride that he had expected.

            “Work for you?” he asked in astonishment. “I thought that you meant for us to be partners.”

            “Partners? No, Rognak, you cannot be a partner when your own business has failed. I did try to caution you on a number of occasions about the risks that you were taking but you would not listen.”

            “Yes, that was foolish of me,” he replied. “But I’m wiser now – it won’t happen again.”

            “No, that’s for sure, my old friend,” Botan said. “How does it feel to be duped?”

            “Excuse me?” Rognak said. “What do you mean?”

            “You don’t recognise the man you double-crossed and sold into incarceration, do you?”

            “I don’t…. no!” he exclaimed. “You cannot be!”

            “I am,” Gregg replied, removing the disguise which had formed part of his daily attire. “Older now, for sure, but as vengeful as ever.”

            “But, my daughter…”

            “Is well-loved and will come to no harm. You, however, will never see her again if the subject of this conversation come to her ears. Do I make myself clear?”

            Rognak slumped into a chair and held his head in his hands. Fate had truly played a cruel trick upon him, and all of his earlier scams and betrayals had now come home to roost. He had tries to warn Gregg about the Interstellar and its role as a transport ship, but he words fell on deaf ears. The man noe held the lives of him and his family in limbo – there was nothing for it but to agree.