Aaaaaand...we're back! :)
Tori showed up at the bar a good hour earlier than she was supposed to. She stopped just inside the doorway of the old icehouse and looked around at a largely empty room, duffel bag holding everything in the universe that was still hers slung over her shoulder. It was dimly lit inside, probably to hide some of the more disgusting stains, but that did little for the smell that made her wrinkle her nose when she walked in.
Reminds me of hops mixed with the stink of a high school locker room, the Earth-born woman thought as she carefully picked her way past the half-broken chairs and tables littered with mystery liquids and last night's customer debris. I hope this doesn't speak too much to Cipher's state of mind. He was the one that told us to meet here after all.
She cast another furtive look around, but didn't see the short man she'd come here to meet, just a couple of star crawlers and a grey-haired human asleep at the bar. This is not some place I want to be, the twenty-something thought as she hunched her shoulders and smoothed her yellow hair down over her neck since her shirt didn't have a collar she could flip up for some modicum of protection. She had to pass one of the star crawlers – a tall alien being she couldn't place with two sets of arms and some kind of four-legged animal laying at his feet under the splintered table – and gave him a slight nod and an uneasy smile when he looked up at her with startling neon-colored eyes.
The anxiety she hadn't been able to shake since leaving her university-licensed ship, the Helix 7, pressed down on her as their eyes met. Mistrust mixed with fear for her own safety grew too strong and Tori looked away and made her way to the bar as fast as she could without running. As soon as her hands found the slick wooden surface, shame swept over her. You're such a coward. For all you know he's a perfectly nice guy. Since when did you get so suspicious of everyone? You used to better than this. What happened to you?
She knew the answer to that question, but knowing didn't help her change it.
Tori pulled out the nearest bar stool, the legs scraping against the wooden floor. She felt a few cursory looks cast her way at the noise, but they quickly disappeared as the other patrons went back to ignoring her.
That was fine with Tori. She was young and fairly attractive and, right now, half expected to become someone else's campfire story by the end of the night. She hated to meet anyone in a place like this – especially a prospective employer – but this far out in the wilds of Kracus, there wasn't much of an option.
It was either meet him here or down in the copp-40 mines. We wouldn't get twenty paces in before the fumes laid us out on the floor.
Taking another look around at the interior of the Backwaters Bar, Tori began to wonder if maybe that still wouldn't be a nicer atmosphere than here.
She took her place on the stool, well away from the drunk still passed out from last night's binge snoring with his face plastered to the bar, and ordered a round of the local ale when the bartender noticed her. She didn't want to part with the credit chit it cost, but one look at the bartender's stern face told her if she didn't pay for something, she'd be kicked out into the mud without a second thought.
She tried to smile when he brought her the mug, but the expression felt foreign on her face and the man behind the bar didn't seem to care one way or the other, so she stopped trying. As he left, Tori took a sip...and had to resist the immediate urge to spit it back out.
She gagged the liquid down with a slight choking sound that no one noticed. Gah! It tastes like someone bled into it! Has the copp-40 leeched into everything here? It's in the water and the air and now the alcohol? No wonder the mine dried up- the copper's seeped into everything else!
The woman made a face and slid the mug off to the side as she reached for her comm. to check the time only to remember halfway through the motion that it was out of juice. A by now familiar sense of shame made her face burn and Tori lowered her head and put it in her hands. She couldn't even find a way to keep her comm. charged...
Oh God, she tried to pray through the desperation rising to dangerous levels in her chest, please let this meeting go well. If it doesn't...
She couldn't form words, even in her head. Panic-fed images of her stuck here – broke, homeless, covered in mud and with the smell of copper burning in her nose – sprang into her head and refused to leave her in peace.
Tori put her head in her hands and forced herself to breathe steadily. She didn't think having a panic attack in the middle of nowhere would help her any.
Business picked up around her as the afternoon slowly transformed into evening and people of all races trickled in, first alone and then in small groups. Despite the different skin tones, appendages, and breathing apparatuses Tori saw, they all had the same exhaustion oozing out of them, the kind that came from the bones, and their eyes were all glazed and unseeing. More than one pair were semi-clouded with cataracts.
I guess the copp-40 mine wouldn't be a better place to meet after all... Tori thought as she watched the miners from the corner of her eye. Poor people. With the mine closed, there's no work left for them within a hundred miles radius, and they never made enough to leave in the first place. They have nothing left to do but watch their meager savings drain away, if they had any to begin with.
One of the miners – his left eye the color of milk – must have felt her watching because he turned to her with a frown that looked to have been permanently carved into his weathered face. Embarrassed at being caught, Tori turned away, hunching her shoulders around her neck as she stared down at the worn surface of the bar.
A body threw itself onto the stool next to her and for a split second Tori though the miner had taken offense, or worse, interest. But the voice that appeared a nanosecond later was familiar.
"Early again, Addison? What happened to the freckle-faced undergrad I used to know that had to set her clock early just to get to class five minutes late? A red over here barkeep."
Tori looked up just as Gary Lambert flicked two fingers at the man behind the bar, getting a nod in return that he'd heard Gary's order. Tori took the momentary distraction to get a good look at her former classmate. He hadn't changed much that she could see. At just five foot, he was still a good head shorter than Tori, who was rather tall for a woman in her twenties, even with his medium brown hair spiked to give him a little extra height. He had a round face, slimmer than she remembered, with wide shoulders and a thick torso while his eyes were just noticeably too close together. The assertive smile bordering on arrogant was just as she remembered, although there was a bend in his nose that hadn't been there back at university.
"Probably the same thing that happened to the chubby short dude I remember coming to study group," Tori answered him as she gave him the obvious once over and tried to smile again. "You look good Gary," her eyebrows creased together in concern, "but what happened to your nose?"
Gary tilted his head to the side, smile broadening. "What this?" He tapped the crook in his nose. "Got in a fight on Tava Minor. Guy tried to jip me on the final payout."
Tori's frown deepened. "And then he beat you up? Did you call the authorities?"
Gary stared at her in confusion, but then laughed as the bartender placed his bottle of red beer in front of him. "Ah, good one, Addison. I forgot you had a sense of humor. Call the cops." He snickered under his breath as he took a swig of his beer.
Icy fingers ran down Tori's spine. This wasn't the Gary she remembered either. He'd always been quiet, practically shy. I would expect this from those frat boys he followed around like a baby duck, but not Gary.
He thunked the glass bottle back on the wooden bar with a gratified sound. "Today has been a good day," he declared with downright glowing satisfaction.
He didn't explain right away and Tori felt him waiting for her to ask so she hummed a half hearted, "Oh?"
Gary grinned, showing off a broken canine. "I got paid for one thing. A pretty penny too for hauling a load of circuit scramblers in under the radar." He winked at her again and Tori felt the ice in her stomach grow. "And if that wasn't good enough, I hear from my old pal Cipher that the Tori Addison, the golden girl of East Montana University, has finally defied her programming, dropped her high-and-mighty master's degree, and is looking for work under the table." He actually raised his glass to her and smiled like she'd just achieved the impossible. "Welcome to the dark side my friend. With you here, it's going to be a whole lot more fun."
Tori's stomach twisted and her mouth soured. He says all that like I'm lucky to be here...
Gary took another drink, but his focus was clearly still on her. "Cipher told me you left your last boat because of 'creative differences'. What's that even mean?" He chuckled like it was no difference to him why she had left, but Tori could see the curiosity burning in his light eyes.
Not wanting to get into it, Tori shrugged carelessly. "Well it's like you said, I was on the Helix as part of my work study with MIT. What was the point of sticking around after I dropped out?"
It was a tiny little lie, one that stuck in her craw more than she liked, but the truth was none of Gary's business. And the fear starting to tickle the underside of her palette might have played a small part in her decision as well.
Gary bobbed his head as he emptied what was left in his bottle. "True, true," he admitted. He nodded his head at her barely touched mug sitting off at her elbow. "Hey, you want something different? The local stuff is practically liquid metal. Complete piss if you ask me. "
Tori cringed at his crass word. No, this was definitely not the Gary she had known at East Montana. "No, thanks," she said a little too loudly. "I'm, uh, I'm good."
"You sure?" Gary raised his eyebrows slightly even as he signaled the barkeep. "I told you I got paid today right? So I'll pick it up."
Even if she had been so inclined, Tori wouldn't have accepted his offer. It wasn't anything solid, but there was the barest hint of something in his eyes that made her skin crawl.
She tried to get back to why they were here. "Cipher told me you need a pilot to make a run to the Houston port. What's the pay for crossing one edge of the galaxy to the other?" she tried to kid.
Gary shrugged where he leaned on the bar top. "Pretty good considering it's legal fare. They're shipping the last of the copp-40 to Earth for the electro-geeks to play around with. Why? I thought this was a done deal." He shot her a sly grin that Tori thought was supposed to be playful, but only make the goose bumps on her arms rise higher. "It's not like you have any other captains waiting anxiously in the wings from what I heard."
The walls closed in on her another few centimeters and Tori fidgeted in her seat, feeling the reassuring weight of her plasma pistol against her hip. "I...just want to know what kind of cash flow I can expect to have once we get there, that's all," she told him, wishing she hadn't hesitated. "It's a long way from Houston to Helens, even by shuttle, and they're some nice shops in Houston. I figured I could hang around for a few days, stretch my legs before tackling the final stretch."
Gary's face scrunched up in a look she didn't recognize. "You're going back to Montana?" he asked, something close to derision in his tone.
Tori kept her eyes on the cracked wooden handle of her mug. "Like you said, I don't have a lot of options. I just need a place to get myself together without worrying where my next meal's coming from, you know?"
It was a hard thing to admit, but the truth would not be denied. As far as her parents knew, she was still on the Helix 7, learning under her MIT-approved pilot as she worked for her masters and the legal licenses for starship flying that came with it. She didn't want to tell them she had dropped out anymore than she wanted to tell them it was all because of a guy.
Nervous tension laced the air around Gary as he followed her lead and looked straight ahead, new bottle in his hand. "Well," he said, for the first time sounding like the young man she had known just out of high school, "why not do that with me?"
Tori looked over at him, blond eyebrows creasing. She tried to think of something to say, but could only come up with the oh so intelligent, "Huh?"
Gary turned toward her, leaning one muscled forearm on the bar and giving her a smile that might as well come from a cologne commercial. "It's not like it would be charity," he told her. "The job's regular, the pay's pretty good depending on what we haul and for who. That-" He shrugged one strong shoulder. "-and it gets pretty lonely with just me running back and forth. The two of us together, maybe we could have actually have some fun," he said, his eyes leaving her face and going to her slender body.
Oh, she did not like that look. Not one bit. Feeling cold sweat start to collect on her forehead, Tori smiled nervously and leaned back a bare inch, just enough that there was space between them again. "Fun?" she questioned even though his meaning was obvious.
The smile took on a more self-deprecating edge as he shifted in his chair. "You didn't notice, but I had quite the crush on you in college. Followed you around like a puppy. It was pathetic really." He sounded like he hated himself for it.
Tori didn't say so, but she had noticed. He wasn't exactly opaque with his feelings now, much less six years ago when he was far less confident. She just hadn't said anything, figuring that since it was only a little crush, he would grow out of it. She had thought it would be kinder in the long run.
Now she kind of wished she'd nipped it in the bud. If she had, maybe he wouldn't be looking at her like he was trying to will her shirt off right here in the bar.
"But now..." He shrugged again, that blasted smile still on his face. "I'm different. You're different. Yeah, why not? Let's have some fun."
I would rather date a snake-oil salesman, Tori thought. "As flattering as a 'why not' attitude is," she said icily, starting to slide off her stool, "I'll pass. Thanks for the offer Gary, but I don't think this'll work out."
He actually laughed at her. "Pass? For what? You gonna try Copymart down the street?" He laughed again, the sound dark and mean.
Tori scowled at him. "I'll find something," she told him firmly. But the cynic in the back of her brain snorted. Find what? it demanded. Something meaner? Something darker? Gary might not be a choir boy, but he's bound to be a whole lot better than anyone else on this planet. You're not cut out for this whole subversive, underbelly sort of life. You can't legally fly because you never graduated. And you can't graduate because you spent every credit you had trying to find out what happened to Felix and Cor. If you want to get home, this is your only option left.
Tori squeezed her eyes shut and told the cynic to shut it. "There's always better opportunities somewhere."
She'd meant it simply as a stab at optimism, but anger swept over Gary's stocky features like a sudden thunderstorm. "Better?" he snapped, reaching out and grabbing her by the wrist before she could get past him. "I'm not some two-bit hack living hand-to-mouth, Addison. You're not going to find better."
The hairs on her neck were standing on end. "Let go, Gary," she hissed, feeling the eyes of those nearest starting to turn to them and not liking it. She had no idea who they would side with if it came down to it.
"Or what? The golden girl'll scream?" he sneered. "I hate to break it to you Addison, but that's not going to get you the kind of attention you want."
She groped for something she could leverage against him. "Or the nearest law office is going to get a very interesting tip about where the influx of black market scramblers came from."
His light colored eyes burned like the midday sun, but Tori stared him down. While his eyes were on hers, he couldn't see her left hand feeling for the butt of her pistol...
An ugly sneer spread across his face. "You haven't changed one bit, have you? You're still little Miss Perfect. So what? You're here collecting names for someone? Can't be local law because they're just miners some idiot gave blasters, so who is it? Hammond? The GCC? Carde? Who?"
He shook her hard, making Tori's shoulder ache. "Back off Gary!" she snapped, forgetting her pistol in her desperation and prying at his thick fingers, but his grip on her arm only tightened painfully...
And then something large and furry was jumping between them, nearly knocking Gary right off his stool. "Gah!" he screamed, trying to protect his face as a sound like rolling thunder growled out, deep and low, between them.