Thursday, January 28, 2016

38: The Lady Fair - Part III

Entry 38: Where Tori gets in trouble. Of course.

                 Against her better judgment, Tori arrived at The Lady Fair's landing platform early the next afternoon. Kracus was too small for an official spaceport, but they did have a small row of docking rings to accommodate the frequent shuttle traffic that had once ferried the copp-40 they dug up to the processing plants in the next town over.
                Tori stood at the bottom of the ring waiting for Zaimak as she rubbed the toe of one muck-covered boot against the heel of the other, trying to dislodge a leaf that had gotten stuck there. Ring One rose like a Ferris wheel above her head, maybe a third of its platforms occupied by various small to mid-sized ships. She studied the different vessels, trying to see if she could tell The Lady Fair from the others, but at this distance all she could really see were the edges of propulsion systems and the tips of sensor dishes.
                She slowly paced away a few steps, neck craned back to try and get a better look. There's the shuttle from Evenport I took out here, she thought when she saw the faded red wing tips of the atmospheric shuttle, shading her eyes to get a better look at its neighbors. The ring was starting to move now, the platforms swinging slightly with the new momentum, and Tori watched each one avidly as they passed. An old R2-4100. A run down Terra freighter, talk about ancient. And next is- oh! A sky sprite! Pretty.
                "Looking for a ship more to your liking?"
                Tori managed not to jump at the sudden appearance of Zaimak's voice. She spun around, dropping her hand to her side, and found him standing nearby, his upper hands clasped behind his back while the lower hung easily at his sides.
                "Hardly," she remembered to answer. "How can I look for something I like better when I haven't even met your Lady yet?"
                He gave her a slight smile. "True." He chuckled as the old creakings and squeakings of the docking ring slowed. "Well now is your chance. Here she is now."
                He nodded at the docking platform behind her as the rusty noises finally stopped. Tori turned to see just what kind of ship she would be dealing with...and froze.
                The Lady Fair was as enigmatic as her captain. Of unfamiliar make and origin, Tori could no more place where she had come from than she could Zaimak. But she was beautiful. Of middling size, she was still smaller than the Helix 7 and looked to only carry a small crew, maybe seven people tops. True to her name, painted in fluid script across her flank, The Lady Fair had been designed with grace in mind, the main body gently sloping up from a rounded tail. Wings that could handle brief hops through atmosphere spun off the body like frozen mercury before curling in on themselves to form rings the purpose of which Tori could not readily discern. She could see no bolts in the metal, no rivets or weld marks on the hull, exposed or cleverly disguised, and Tori had the most absurd notion that if she touched it, the ship would feel soft beneath her fingers.
                "She's...not what I expected," Tori said slowly, afraid of insulting the alien.
                Zaimak chuckled again. "She never is."
                Tori stood before the platform, bag forgotten in her hand as she stared up at Zaimak's 'here-to-there' ship. She had the absurd feeling that the Lady was watching her, like a third party, where she perched on the platform, silent and strange.
                "I can see you're taken with her," Zaimak spoke from her shoulder, his pleased smile evident in his voice.
                Tori pushed a wayward strand of hair behind her ear, still taking in the Lady's appearance. "I've never seen anything like her," she told him truthfully.
                Zaimak made a strange sound in his throat. "And I doubt you will again. She is now one of a kind."
                There was no mistaking the pride in his voice, however the slight upward curve of his mouth was far subtler. "I can't place her design. Is she new?" Tori pressed, still concerned about the lack of visible fastenings.
                But he shook his head. "No, quite antique actually. I rescued her from a Jumble scrapheap some years ago and have been patiently restoring her to her former glory." He eyed her dove gray exterior, its surface matte in the weak light. "I am quite close to finishing now."
                Tori narrowed her eyes at the ship again. That could explain it... she thought slowly. Restorations always took time – especially if you insisted on searching for authentic parts – and with ships it was double difficult since they could be grounded for years while the owner found the correct pieces to what was essentially a functional jigsaw puzzle.
                Unless you wrap it, Tori amended. True to the name, hull wraps fit snugly around the outside of a ship, and while they couldn't take the place of important systems like propulsion or communications, they could be wired into everything that made a ship livable in space – life support, heating/cooling, vacuum-response systems, the works.
                At least that explains why I can't see how she's held together, Tori thought, some of her unease fading. Although I've never heard of anyone flying a wrapped ship so regularly before. Usually it's just to get them in or out of zero-g, or to a new junkyard so you can look for parts.
                It was strange, but as long as the wrap didn't get in the way of the forward view, Tori saw no reason why it couldn't be done.
                A careful touch on her arm jerked Tori out of her head and she looked over to see one of Zaimak's hands on her arm. He gestured with another at the ship.
                "Come," he said brightly. "Let's see how the two of you get along."

* * *

                The Lady's insides definitely showed the work she was undergoing. Inner plating had been removed, revealing multi-colored wires and piping stamped with alien script, presumably for identification. The renovations cut the size of the main corridor by half, making it a bit of a squeeze for Zaimak, but only snug for the human following him. They passed a handful of doors, most closed, but even peering into the few open ones, she saw none of the other crew members Zaimak had to keep to run the Lady Fair.
                At least until one popped right up in front of her face.
                "Hey Cap, more test flights?"
                Tori stopped short at the unexpected voice. They had just come into the main cargo hold – a large, rectangular room that had crates pressed against the walls awaiting delivery. A large wide door, currently closed, was in the opposite wall, and over it was another, only half its size, with stairs leading up to it.
                The woman that had spoken stood on the landing just outside the upper door, leaning an elbow on the safety rail and watching them with keen eyes. She wasn't human, Tori realized, taking in the peculiar upward slant to her plum colored eyes and the thin, feathery-looking tendrils that extended off otherwise average looking eyebrows. The tendrils swept back and up away from her face to disappear into her dark auburn hair.
                Other than that there wasn't much that set her apart from Mankind. She was short, practically stocky, and well muscled. That plus the long, curved knife attached openly to her belt marked her as a fighter of some kind, although what kind in particular Tori could only guess at. She was dressed in the dark pants and sleeveless vest-shirt of an experienced star crawler, complete with steel-toed boots and stiff leather gauntlets on her forearms dyed in geometric color patterns. Her dark hair was cut to a practical length that barely swept her shoulders when she moved.
                She reached up to sweep her bangs away from her strange feather-cles, smiling at Tori with half-lidded, perceptive eyes, and Tori saw there was a colored streak just next to her right temple – red or red-violet she thought, but it blended in so well with her natural hair color that it was impossible to tell for sure in the low light.
                "Yes, we were just headed up to the helm to see how she does," Zaimak answered her, moving out of the way now that there was room enough to do so, so the women could see each other properly. "Anitha, this is Tori Addison. Miss Addison, Anitha Kittle of Troidek." He leaned closer to Tori and added in a slightly lower voice, "She is part of the security team I mentioned earlier."
                The Amazon. Tori blinked, then summoned up a flattish smile as Anitha took the stairs down to their level and she held out her hand to the shorter woman. Then had to bite back a yelp as her hand was nearly crushed in Anitha's grip.
                "Let me guess," Anitha was saying with a wry smile. "Earthling?"
                Tori swallowed her squeak and wondered, not for the first time, if there was some kind of unspoken signal she gave that told every star crawler she met where she was from. There must be something she was doing or pronouncing differently than the myriad of humans that had grown up in off world colonies and space stations.
                "Y-yeah. Montana. That's, um, the upper part of the northwestern hemisphere. Below Canada."
                The look of confusion on the Troi'en woman's face cleared and she smiled. "Oh! Canada. Right."
                Tori gave a little shake of her head. There were roughly three major places in the Solar System that everyone outside of it knew; Floating Paris, the Yellowknife Bay Martian colony, and for some reason, Canada.
                Anitha glanced over Tori again before turning her guarded eyes to Zaimak. "Mudge was looking for you earlier. He's down in front."
                Zaimak nodded. "I'll see to it when I am done here. Miss Addison and I shouldn't take too long."
                Anitha nodded, and then flicked two fingers at him over her shoulder as she walked away. "I'll tell Trinie to batten down the hatches." And then she was sauntering through the doublewide door and Zaimak was leading Tori up the stairs Anitha had just descended.
                "Here we are," he finally announced as they came to the head of the ship. The Lady was small enough that the cockpit was situated near the front – not central and protected like Empress class cruisers and larger craft preferred – and she had a clear viewing pane instead of a digital screen.
                Tori released a quiet sigh when she saw the controls. There were many spread across the tri-panel board that wrapped around both pilot and co-pilot's chairs, but they were all easily recognizable. She'd been afraid the controls would be just as foreign to her as the ship's design.
                "Looks like a standard Red Star guidance system," she said as she swept a wayward strand of hair behind her ear, brown eyes going over the boards. "With a slow burn sublight and matching Tevvik-class hyperdrive. Very nice." She nodded appreciatively. "You did a good job restoring her up here. I can't even see where you pulled the predecessor."
                Zaimak gave a small derisive snort. "I would not take credit for this," he told her primly. "She was like this when I found her and I simply haven't found a viable replacement to fit her with yet. If I had, I would not need to hire someone to fly her for me."
                Tori smiled as she put her hand on the back of the pilot's chair and swiveled it around. "Well lucky me then," she murmured.
                She sat on the edge of the chair, reaching forward and pulling the Lady out of standby. "I take it you want a test flight?"
                She heard more than saw Zaimak take the other seat. "Lap the planet," he affirmed.
                "The magic three?"
                But he shook his head. "Just once will be sufficient."
                Tori shrugged. Most people wanted at least a double lap to prove you knew what you were doing. I guess Zaimak's either a really good judge of skill or he's supremely full of himself.
                The woman frowned, hand pausing over a selection of out of place buttons that didn't match the surrounding panels. She didn't understand what they did altogether but from their separate components...  "Is that an ignition rocket?" Kind of outdated, she thought, but it shouldn't get in the way.
                Zaimak slid into the chair next to her, its larger dimensions better suited to his height and added limbs. "One of the original systems they were unable to remove."
                Tori frowned as she bypassed the strange panel and ran through the rest of the start-up. She didn't remember seeing any kind of thruster cones... "Those circular spaces the wings curl around?" she guessed.
                She caught the nod of his head. "Wings in shape only. The open spaces contain versatile energy fields. They are quite common where she was built."
                The gentle hum of the engine traveled through the Lady's hull, unwinding the knots that had tensed up in Tori's neck and shoulders. "I've never heard of tech like that before," she murmured, concentrating more on the strange ship than the strange man.
                "No," Zaimak hummed as he watched her. "You wouldn't have."
                The board indicated she was ready and Tori took the yoke with one hand while signaling the docking ring's Control with the other. "Ring Control, this is Lady Fair on platform Gamma-345 requesting liftoff clearance."
                The speaker set into the control board fizzled with static a brief moment before a watered down voice answered back, "Lady Fair this is Control, bringing you topside."
                "Thanks Control," Tori responded automatically before settling back into the strange seating. Her heart was pounding in her throat and her stomach was all in knots as she felt Zaimak's quiet eyes absorb her every move, but at the same time a small, familiar thrill made her fingertips tingle. She hadn't been in front of a control board for almost a month now.
                I really, really missed this.
                She took the slow ride up to the top of the ring to settle herself, routinely checking the Lady's displays to make sure everything was in order. When they were nearing the top, the curve of the planet becoming more distinct as the sky enveloped them on all sides, Tori touched the switch for the intercom. "Attention wayfarers-” She used the generic term for practicality's sake. "-strap in for liftoff. We're leaving in ten."
                By the time she clicked off the intercom the ring had come to a stop. She gave it another few seconds so the slight swinging could stop before keying power to the engines. Once their distinctive whine reached the edge of her hearing, she took the yoke, found the pedals beneath her feet, and pulled them smoothly into the air.
                There was a slight bump as they left atmo, the transition not as smooth as Tori would have liked. She cringed just slightly, but she didn't think Zaimak noticed. For his part, he sat silently in the co-pilot's chair, one set of arms resting on the arms while the fingers of his others steepled in front of his chest as he watched the sky fade from blue to black around them. Tori couldn't tell what he was thinking, but she could see that he wasn't watching the instruments to check her progress; he just sat there, watching the sky.
                Tori made a face but didn't say anything. Found myself a bit of an oddball, she thought as she touched another switch on the control board and carefully leveled off in the thin atmosphere. Only wants one lap even though I could just get lucky for all he knows and now he won't even look at the instruments. Has he already made up his mind not to hire me? Why else would he run such a shoddy test flight?
                Eyebrows creasing slightly at the insult to her skills, Tori fed more power to the engines. Well if he's already made up his mind there's no use playing it safe, is there? Might as well see what this Lady can really do.
                They jumped forward, both Zaimak and Tori pushed back in their seats before Tori found the sluggish acceleration compensators meant to keep that from happening and balanced them out with their new speed. She quickly adjusted and smoothly angled the Lady's nose away from the star-lit void and guided her along the curve of Kracus, their underbelly skimming the atmosphere like a metallic flying fish.
                The planet itself wasn't much to see – brownish continents interspersed with brackish looking bodies of water – and Tori completed her rotation without incident. When they were almost within sight of where they had left, Tori asked Zaimak without turning her head from the controls, "Do you want her back in the docking ring or would you prefer the spaceport in Evenport?"
                Zaimak had opened his mouth to answer when the intercom clicked on without Tori's permission.
                "Zai," a feminine voice, higher than Anitha's and heavily laced with static, popped out of the speaker. "You might want to check the dorsal scope. Looks like our friends from Capital Town decided to drop in for tea."
                Tori had no idea what the unknown woman – Probably the Trinie Anitha mentioned, Tori thought – was talking about, except that Capital Town was a derisive term backwater yokels liked to use for law enforcement. Yokels...and the fringe folk that made their living by less than honest means.
                Icy feeling crawling up her spine, Tori felt a cold sweat start on her forehead. Oh no, she moaned to herself, what have a I gotten myself into now?
                Reminding herself she didn't know which Zaimak was yet – although it was hard to reconcile someone who spoke so well with boondock habits – Tori watched the captain from the corner of her eye. Creases had formed in his high forehead as he frowned at the image he'd pulled up on his section of the control board, presumably from the dorsal scope.
                "What is it?" Tori asked when she couldn't see what the scope showed him.
                A rumble similar to the one Dak had given Gary in the Backwaters Bar rolled from Zaimak's chest up into his long throat. "People you do not wish to meet," he told her, answering her question without actually answering.
                Tori wasn't having it. She reached over and keyed up the display screen on her left side, directing it to the dorsal display.
                Her eyes went wide when she saw the blocky, red striped bird descending on them. "That's a Protector-class enforcer," she identified it. "But they were pushed out of use years ago!"
                Zaimak made a noise that could have been a snort. "Not out here," he told her. "A good number were purchased by the natives of Ogdyn."
                "That's the capital planet of this system," Tori remembered.
                "They prefer to use them as law enforcement," Zaimak affirmed. "And it appears we've caused them offense."
                Tori raised her eyebrows at the alien without taking her eyes off the enforcer. Outdated as it was, it had been heavily modified with enough laser batteries to easily shoot them down. " 'We'?"
                Zaimak ignored her prodding and leaned back in his chair with a whistled sigh that sounded very much like a flute to Tori. "I'm very sorry, Miss Addison, but it looks like you'll be stuck with us for some time yet."
                "Excuse me?" Tori asked, one eye flicking to her instruments. "If you think you can just keep me here, you've got another thing coming," she snapped, not nearly as calm as she made herself sound.
                "No, not me." Zaimak pointed at the ship staring them down with a digit. "Them. The Ogdyni are quite zealous in pursuit of their laws and they aren't exceedingly fond of mercy. Our best hope is to outrun them now, which means we don't exactly have the time to drop you back off on Kracus." He shot her a look from under dark eyebrows as his different hands retuned the control board. "But if it helps, I was truly impressed by your handling."
                Tori gaped at him, a small part of her mind realizing he was only now pulling his safety restraints across his chest. Her subconscious took the cue and directed her arms to do the same. "Wha- no! This is nuts. You can't make me stay with law breakers!" she cried even as she heard the click of her restraints locking into place.
                Zaimak raised a slick ebony eyebrow at her. Of all the words in the ten thousand languages, he obviously had expected her to choose something more...colorful.
                "And besides-" Tori lifted her chin stubbornly, ignoring the way her face burned with embarrassment. "-I haven't done anything wrong. You're the ones that have to worry about being caught."
                Zaimak leveled his neon eyes at her and Tori fought hard to keep  her hands from trembling on the yoke. He'd all but admitted he was a criminal and she threatened him? Why had her common sense picked today of all days to take a vacation?
                Finally, he looked away, his attention returning to his display. "All perfectly true," he admitted. "However the Ogdyni have a very limited view of the world. To them it will be very difficult to explain not just your presence here, but all your worldly belongings now sitting in your room."
                Tori glared at him, wishing she'd never left her bag outside the door. "I don't have a room," she grumbled, even knowing they could easily toss it somewhere before she could get out of these infernal restraints.
                The captain only tilted his head to the side just slightly. "It doesn't help you share a few key descriptive features with our last pilot."
                Her embarrassment fled and was immediately replaced by a fear that threatened to freeze her in her seat. He had to be lying. Truth mattered. And she wasn't a criminal!
                "They are getting closer, Addison..." Zaimak's baritone warned.
                She tightened her grip on the yoke. What do I do? her panicked mind whimpered. What do I do?
                A roiling, deep throated noise burst over the ship's comm., making Tori jump and Zaimak clutch at the arms of his chair when she bumped the steering and sent the Lady skittering sideways.
                "Sorry, sorry!" Tori babbled without thinking as she quickly corrected the Lady's placement only to be tossed sideways in her chair as something impacted against their near side.
                "What are they doing?" Tori shrieked, her voice rising soprano high as she scrabbled for the controls.
                Zaimak's voice was calm as he reached forward and flicked a switch. A transparent gold film rose over the view screen. "They're firing on us," he stated as more bolts from the capital ship struck the gold netting and were absorbed by the shield.
                Tori's mouth hung open as she tried to avoid the green rain with little success. There were so many that no matter where she moved them, the Lady was always in one of their paths. "But why? We didn't do anything!"
                "Of course we did. We moved in what was obviously an escape attempt."
                Tori stammered. "But that wasn't obvious at all!" she shrieked. "I only bumped the stick with my hand."
                Another bolt struck the shield just over the viewport and even Zaimak cringed. "Yes, and I think given the circumstances you should bump it again in an 'away' direction."
                This time Tori didn't argue. The laser fire was growing heavier and she could definitely see spiderweb cracks in the gold-hued shield from the strain.
                She twisted the Lady Fair around, away from attacker and straight towards the scarred face of Kracus.
                "This is not the away I meant, Addison!" For the first time Zaimak sounded nervous.
                "I'm working on it!" Tori snapped back in an unusually commanding tone. Flying through atmo felt like swimming through soup after their little jaunt in the vacuum, and Tori pressed the Lady faster than was considered safe. She checked the rear viewer and found the bulky protector ship behind them, spitting energy at their tail.
                She swallowed hard as a stray bolt hit the ground and vaporized a pine with a trunk not even three Zaimaks could encircle with all their arms. "There's nowhere to hide down here, Addison," Zaimak snarled as he simultaneously held onto his seat and flipped switches that would send power to weak spots in their shield.
                Emotion brought on by six months of living in fear and uncertainty finally come to a boiling point. Tori grit her teeth until her jaw creaked, her fingers white where they gripped the stick. "I am not hiding," she shouted as she readied the Lady's ignition booster. "Now put those extra arms to use and hold on to something."
                Zaimak froze for a split second only. Then he clamped all four hands down and braced himself for whatever Tori had planned.
                The protector ship was gaining, their rear shield pitted where the extra energy had overrun the relays placed along the Lady's hull.
                Tori's eyes flicked to the control board. Still not ready...
                But they were quickly running out of maneuvering room. Another volley hit the tail and, with a flicker, their shield finally failed.
                "Addison..." Zaimak definitely sounded worried now.
                A light blinked on the board, its alarm lost in the noise of an atmospheric firefight, and Tori felt a grim expression take over her face. "My name is Tori!" she shouted over the noise-
                -and then let go of the Lady's steering.
                She briefly registered Zaimak's squawk of disbelief in an alien language she had never heard, and quickly pushed it away as she grabbed two levers, pushing one as she pulled the other as far as its track would allow.
                Their nose shot up as the ignition boosters roared to life at their backs, sending them up at an alarming rate. Both pilot and captain were slammed against their chairs, their stomachs telling them they were at odds with the planet's gravity.
                And then suddenly all that force was gone. Tori gasped as they broke through Kracus's gravity well and the ship's artificial generator kicked on, telling them the deck was once again 'down' even though they hadn't changed positions.
                The sudden shift made Tori nauseas, but she pushed it down as she keyed power to the sublight engine and took hold of the stick once more. The engine added to the momentum they'd already gathered from the booster and shot them off far faster than a conventional sublight could manage on its own.
                "Hyperdrive?" Tori demanded over the sound of her pulse in her head.
                Zaimak had anticipated her. "Vector is green and locked," he replied, all four hands busy.
                Tori looked down and saw the green indicator for a safe faster-than-light route and punched it without a second thought.
                The last thing she saw before the Lady shot forward at speeds too fast for the naked eye to follow was the blocky protector ship struggling to rise out of Kracus's atmosphere to take a final flurry of potshots at their afterburners.

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