Entry 027: Where our heroes' message is received...by multiple parties.
The woman Tori knew as Madison Flynn stepped off the commercial shuttle and onto Abidobe Station with a cursory look at her new surroundings. Like all of the other Spindle Stations she'd been to, this one was built of light grey metal, easily assembled/disassembled chairs, and various potted plants in different colors set against the walls in a fruitless attempt to give the place some color.
"The locals add enough of that on their own," she thought as what looked like a legless marionette floated past in a cloud of undulating, wire-like appendages.
The woman was in a decidedly worse mood then when Tori had last seen her. Her blonde hair was a little drier from using nothing but harsh hotel shampoos. Her shoulders were a little more tense from hours upon hours of sitting in uncomfortable spaceline seats. Her face a little more pinched from being away from home far longer than anyone had first anticipated, to say nothing of the bags under her eyes that cover up could only do so much to hide.
She followed the line of fellow passengers to the customs desk where she handed over her ident card, one of many.
The station worker seated behind the safety shield picked up the card and eyed it with a bored expression. His skin was an unpleasant shade of orange and he had a throng of finger-length tentacles where most beings had a mouth. A beetle-shaped translator bot clung to the collar of his uniform to make things easier for both parties.
He grunted a sound like someone pulling their boot heels out of thick mud. "Welcome to GCC Station 36 in the Dupril system Miss...Tulia Briers," the bot translated for him in a more amiable tone of voice, hesitating as it processed the foreign name. Unlike its wearer, it lacked the bored undertones, having been programmed for pleasantness. "Please state your destination and business here."
Tulia Briers was not her name either, but she smiled at him like it was. "My brother and I are meeting a business associate. The station is considered neutral ground."
He made a wet squelching sound as he logged her information and handed back her card. "We are pleased to help you amend whatever discord, cultural disharmony, external or spiritual conflict, or righteous indignation keeping you from living in peace with other sentient beings," the bot chirruped. "But please remember that while all stations sponsored by the Galactic Cohesion Council fall under the Neutral Territory Act of Central Year Eighty-Seven Twelve, any and all violations committed during your stay will be prosecuted and may result in your banishment from all GCC Stations. Please respect the rules of the station and we wish you a fruitful endeavor."
She nodded as she took her card and slipped it into its proper slot in her purse. She'd heard this disclaimer many times before. "You got it," she affirmed before moving along, leaving him to deal with the next visitor in line.
As soon as she was away from the customs officer, she let her smile drop away. The space beyond the customs desk was more open and she slouched her way to an empty row of seats not far away. A violet-red fern sat in a decorative pot at the end and the smell of various foods wafted around on the artificial breeze caused by the air conditioning system. The wall facing her was lined with various small kiosks selling things to eat, but she wasn't hungry. Besides, she was sick of travel food.
The woman sat there, irritable and uncomfortable, more than ready to give up on this ridiculous chase. Even the fern was having a better day then she was as it lazily draped leafy tendrils over her nearest arm.
She shook it off with a grumble as her younger brother emerged from customs a few minutes later.
"Aster!" she called out, sitting up in her chair and waving a hand over her head to get his attention. Very little of what she'd told Tori had been the truth in its purest form. Yes, the teenage boy with her was her brother, although not by blood, and yes, she had at one point in her life been known as Madison Flynn, but not anymore. She did work for her uncle, so to speak, however what she was doing now was more of a favor than a job.
"And a heaping major one at that," she thought as her brother jogged his way over to where she sat, his single carryon bag slung across his body. Like her, he had packed light, only expecting a simple pick up and taxi job rather than the full fledged goose chase they were on.
"Next time Magnil asks for something this big I'm holding out for two weeks paid vacation on a beach somewhere. And none of those rinky dink hotels he usually goes for. I want something nice."
Aster, blonde and lanky at just fifteen and wearing black pants and the loose short sleeved shirts his age group back home favored, threw himself into the chair next to her, making the whole row rock. He smiled easily and tossed his single bag to the floor at his feet before shoving it under the chair with the heel of a black boot.
"I just got word from Kizaly. She'll be here with the Windjammer in less than an hour. Hanger L16."
He settled back in his chair with a happy sigh. The woman slid him a look, a sly smile tugging at the corner of her slender lips. "Someone's happy to finally be headed home," she observed. "What are you so keen to get back to?"
Aster missed the tone of her voice that usually preceded sibling mischief as he stretched his legs out in front of him and slouched down in the seat. Between his place at the finest military academy on the planet and having to 'maintain the public image' he rarely got to slouch anymore. It felt good.
He shrugged. "I was starting to worry that I wouldn't make it back for the start of the next term is all. First day back is next week and at this rate, even if we crawl there, I'll still get home early." His grin grew wider. "I might get to actually enjoy some of my vacation."
"Well, there's a first time for everything, I guess." His sister shook the moving plant off her arm. "And here I thought there was someone special you wanted to get back to. Like, dare I say it, a girl?"
Aster turned red around his ears as he slanted her an irritated look. Stubbornly changing the subject, he nodded at the plant still trying to send creeping vines up his sister's arm. "That's a red fern from Tortuga, you know. They're not really rare, but it is strange there's one all the way out here." He reached over and picked up the overly affectionate plant's tendril and rubbed it between his fingers which only made it curl faster around his wrist. "I think they're sometimes called touchy-feelers."
He grinned at the pun, but his sister sighed and shook her head. Like his parents, Aster had an affinity for all kinds of flora. If he had had any kind of real choice in his future, she had no doubt he would be studying botany like his mother and father had before him. "Don't encourage the thing," she complained.
"You could always move seats," Aster reminded her.
She grunted and slumped down in her chair until the base of her skull hit the back of the chair. "Don't wanna move," she groaned.
Aster shook his head as he disentangled the Tortugan red fern from his arm and sat back in his own chair. "For someone so dedicated you sure can be lazy."
"The laziness balances out the dedication," she mumbled, eyes closed. She was so tired of sleeping in the narrow, coffin-like cots they had on the major flight lines. Small-time transport ships like the Helix 7 were usually a little nicer since their success relied on impressing a small group of steady clientele, but they also had other duties that made the trip drag out. Chasing down Darl'markins' information as they were, she and Aster just hadn't had the time to waste with their crawl.
She sat up a few minutes later with an explosive sigh and ran a hand through her dried out yellow hair. "He said this was going to be easy," she told Aster, unable to keep her frustration in for one moment more. "He said this was a simple pick up job. He did not say we would have to slingshot across the known universe and take seven shuttles and ten major flights in under a month."
Aster made a face, uncomfortable at being caught in the middle. But then he'd always been kinder when it came to his assumptions. "That hardly seems his fault, Rel. How was Uncle Magnil to know they were going to be found by that sell out on Carpathia?"
"Well he should have expected it," she insisted. "Isn't that his job? To expect the unexpected?"
Aster smiled nervously. "I think you're giving even him too much credit Relia-” he started to say only to stop as his comm. unit gave off an annoying trill.
He pulled it out of his pocket and flicked it open, his sister sitting up and reading over his shoulder curiously. "What is it? Please just say it's your girlfriend nagging about when you'll get back."
Aster frowned at her, ears turning red again. "I don't have a girlfriend."
Relia raised her eyebrows. "Boyfriend?"
She leaned in close. "It's not one of those things from Im'm or whatever that's both at the same time?"
The glare he gave her was absolutely priceless, and absolutely everything she'd been hoping for. "You keep going and I'll tell Sunny about the summer when I was five-”
She held up her hands, trying desperately to keep her laughter in. "All right, all right. Sorry ba'bo. I'll be nice now. I promise." She pointed at his flashing comm. "What's it say."
He frowned at her a moment longer before turning back to his unit. He read the message and his frown only deepened. He started to shake his head. "You're not going to like it."
Relia sighed. "That describes this whole trip," she grumbled, all business once more. "Just...let me have it."
He handed over the comm. as he spoke. "Kizaly was monitoring all of the chatter around here when she came in. She said she just picked up a broadcast in an old code. One of ours."
That caught her interest. "How old is old?" She asked as she pushed a strand of hair behind her ear.
Aster shrugged. "Older than me."
"Me too," Relia murmured as she read the transcription, "but I know it from some of Magnil's books."
Aster waited for her to translate the message, but she stayed silent, lips moving slightly as she read to herself.
"Well?" he finally prompted. "What is it?"
She finished translating it and clapped him on the shoulder before standing abruptly. "Tell Kizaly to speed it up. We'll need to leave pronto. I'll go get the new flight plans for the Windjammer filed with the station authorities."
She was walking away before she'd even finished. "Hey wait!" Aster called after her. "What's it say?"
Relia finally realized she still had his unit, turned, and tossed it to him. He caught it easily enough. "I'll tell you on the way there!" she promised.
* * *
Kla burst through the double doors of the communications room like a rampaging typhoon.
"Where's it coming from?"
Her voice boomed through the room, making every being in it freeze before throwing themselves even harder into their work.
The head of the room stood very nervously nearby, tablet held too tight in his hands. "Ah, Director Kla," He managed not to stumble over his own tongue as the typhoon descended on him. "We're still running the message through the computer, so we only have half of it so far-”
Kla planted a hand on his chest and shoved him aside, long fingers spread wide. "I don't care what it says. I want to know where it is coming from."
She went to manipulate the holographic screen and stopped when she saw the liquid crystal monitor sitting on the desk in front of her.
She straightened up and turned around, fixing the fidgety man next to her with a piercing stare. "What is this?" she asked a little for loudly to portray calm.
The man's fingers crawled along the edge of his company tab, turning it in his grip. "Well, we're not exactly working with images are we? All of our budget goes into sound equipment." He gestured out behind him at the main expanse of the room, filled to the brim with state of the art recording, tracking, and sound equipment.
Kla didn't bother to look. For all the high priced machines and people running and maintaining them, she knew them to be nothing more than switchboard operators. D&S Industries ran on information, research and trade secrets that, if they got out to rival companies, would ruin them. As such, O'Dowell and his late partner Stein had invested in high security intra-office and outgoing calls. Nothing came or went without these switchboard secretaries knowing where it came from, who it was going to, and what it said.
Which only made the current situation all the more frustrating. They'd only caught it on chance – their equipment was so sensitive that it had caught the message even though it was tightly beamed to some unknown, off planet, destination – and even now they had no idea where it was coming from.
"But I have no doubt who sent it."
Kla grinned as the overpaid operator sidled up to the computer and sorted through what information they had gathered on the signal.
"It appeared at five thirty-two last night," he started with the general information near the top of the screen. "It lasts for fifty seconds before repeating. We can't understand what it says because it's in some sort of code-”
"Source switchboard man. Give me the source," Kla ground out through her teeth.
"Uh, oh," the man hemmed and hawed as he bent over to type on the keyboard, the physical keys creating a tremendous noise.
"No wonder they've been replaced by light boards. The headaches they must have caused!"
The head of the room straightened up, a deer-in-the-headlights expression on his face. "We, uh, we don't have a specific location-”
Kla took a menacing step forward, eyes spearing into him.
"But, um, ah, the general location is, uh, is this area right here." He pulled up a map of the city and the surrounding land. A large circular section of the salt flats was highlighted blue.
She slid the man a look that made him pale. "That's in the middle of nowhere," she told him. "He couldn't possibly have survived out there this long."
The man blinked at her. "Who couldn't have, Director?"
Kla smoothed the sensitive skin above her brow ridges. The continued clacking of keyboards filling the room behind her was starting to make her head spines curl.
"Never mind," she told him, remembering O'Dowell's directive to keep Felix's presence here to herself. "How long will it take you to pinpoint the exact location?"
His jaw moved up and down as he thought. "Maybe I can have something in...a couple of hours?"
That would never do. "Make it one." She raised her brow ridges when he went to argue and he stopped. "Someone could be dying out there. We need to reach them as soon as possible."
"Should I alert the authorities?" he asked before he could think better of it.
Kla held in her derisive snort. "Like they can do anything but get in the way."
She didn't say that of course. Mundane people like the one fidgeting in front of her felt safer when they thought civil servants acted independently. And when they felt safe they were generally more cooperative.
She saw no reason to tell the man any of this. "Mister O'Dowell has already notified the proper people. They will handle it."
She left before he could ask any more awkward questions. An hour was scant enough time to gather men and gear, but she would make do. It was her job after all, and she was very good at it.
* * *
Felix woke in the pre-dawn hours to someone shaking him. He lashed out, violent dreams melding with sandy reality, and nearly caught Cor in the head with the wrench he'd been sleeping with ever since they'd set up camp.
Cor caught the wrench head and redirected it into the dirt. "Would you quit playin' around with that thing?" he snapped. His voice was a rasp, like someone had rubbed the inside of his throat raw with sandpaper.
His harsh voice cut through the last shreds of Felix's nightmares and he blinked his eyes open, fully awake. "What happened to you?" he croaked out, setting aside his wrench as he sat up in his sleeping bag. The desert night air was cold against his skin, or at least the parts that weren't covered by the overlarge security shirt. "You look even worse than before."
Cor scowled at him, sitting back on his heels as Felix sat up. His eyes were dull and bloodshot with dark bags hanging heavy underneath. His skin was ashen under the tan he'd picked up in the desert. Even the air around him felt sluggish, his static field shrunk down to within an inch of his skin rather than its usual extended sphere.
"Well let's keep you awake fer thirty hours straight expendin' energy and see how you look at the end," he snapped in exhaustion.
Felix's temper threatened to snap, but he held it in check. "I offered to help you out," he reminded him. His own head was still healing and there was a dull ache behind his eyes, but it was a familiar pain. He often got it when he didn't have enough sleep.
"Still catching up I guess."
He looked over at Cor to see him sitting on his haunches. He looked like he was about to pass out then and there. "Did you get the message out?" Felix asked.
It took Cor a moment to nod. "Managed to hold the transmission fer twenty minutes, give or take. It should've reached the Spindle Station as it passed us, but Ah don' know if anyone heard us."
"Well," Felix amended, "anyone we want to anyway."
Cor hesitated, then nodded again.
Ignoring the weariness pressing down on him, Felix pulled himself out of his sleeping bag and stood, stretching out the aches and pains that came with sleeping on stone and laboring away day in and day out for over a week. Funny though, the longer he was out here, the less he noticed them.
"You get some sleep," he told Cor as he pulled on his boots, first checking for any spiders or lizards that might have crawled in during the night. A dark purple beetle fell out and scuttled away, indignant at being disturbed. "I'll pack up camp. We'll leave when it's light enough to see where we're going."
Cor didn't argue like Felix had expected. He rubbed at his face with one hand, feeling the gray and brown stubble covering the lower part of his square face. "Careful when ya pack up the transmitter," he muttered. "She's feelin' a mite touchy this mornin'."
"On her last legs?" Felix needed to know.
Cor huffed a laugh. "Only cuz she was like that when we found her. It's a miracle
Ah could breathe life back inta her at all." His cant grew thicker in his overtired state.
"I'll treat her like royalty," Felix assured him. "Now go to sleep. You're going to need it."
Cor stood with difficulty and crawled into his own tan bag. Felix heard him snoring not a minute later.
He turned his focus to their camp. He wasn't sure if he remembered how everything fit in the packs, but how difficult could it be?
"Probably harder than it looks," Felix conceded. "So far everything I do is."
But he managed. He packed up their equipment, scattered the remains of their fire circle, and when he and Cor left under the orange streaked sky a few hours later, they left nothing behind but the village ghosts.