Thursday, June 23, 2016

41: The Lady Fair - Part V

Entry 41 - Where Tori gets lost during her first illegal sale.

                The Pashreen System was a relatively prosperous place by galactic standards, but you wouldn't have known it looking at the streets of Lokar. Easily the planet's seediest city, it was packed with saffron-clad bodies, lighter specks against the rust red clay buildings made tall to accommodate more people in a smaller space. The packed dirt streets were canyons between the rising structures, the distorted shadows of laundry strung above them falling on the heads below, a minor but welcome relief from the harsh orange-red sun blazing above.
                Numerous types of bodies waded through the warm-colored currents, all of them tense enough to set Tori's nerves on edge. Anitha had warned her to expect this though. Pashreen's middle class, while plentiful, was tightly wound, knowing that the only thing standing between a pleasant life and only scraping by was one bad deal.
                Maybe that's why they're all so pushy, Tori thought as she followed Zaimak past the hawkers in the market set just outside the space port. He was easily two heads taller than everybody else dressed in hues of saffron and marigold, making him the easiest of their party to keep track of. Every once in a while she would see Anitha's dark head through the shifting bodies, but Dak was completely lost at his master's side. Trinetta on the other hand...
                "What's with all the yellowy colors? I mean, you'd think with all the red and stuff around they'd want something more eye catching to put on, but no, they're all in yellow and gold and yellow-gold – which is obviously just the technical term for pumpkin, right? – and...what would you call that one? Does that color have a  name or is just burnt yellow?"
                Tori pulled away from the younger Kittle pulling at her sleeve, but looked anyway. "I think that's ochre," she told her in a dull voice.
                "Huh." Trinetta stared, and then ran back to Tori's side. "Oh! Lookit those, Earth Girl! How pretty! Do you think that's real silver thread in there? It's certainly shiny enough, but how would you spin silver into thread anyway? Don't you Earthens have a story about tha-ah-Ah!"
                The younger sister jumped where she'd been walking behind Tori and scurried to her far side, grabbing her and keeping her between her and whatever had startled her. Tori rolled her eyes and scrounged for patience. Supposedly Trinetta was here to guard their rear, but all Tori had seen her do was window shop.
                The fair-haired brunette glanced nervously around Tori, the handful of shoppers she'd displaced when she'd bolted still casting sour looks at the both of them. Tori saw more than one rubbing bruised appendages.
                "What is it now, Trinie?" Tori asked, feeling like she was sixteen all over again and stuck babysitting.
                Trinetta blinked large plum eyes where she stood hunched over, clinging to Tori's arm for safety. "Those things!" She pointed at the line of brightly colored fabrics draped over their display rod she'd been admiring, woven through with winding designs in flashing silver. "They're not scarves!"
                Tori turned to look, slight frown creasing her forehead. "What are you talking abou-Orion's Belt! What is that?" she shrieked without meaning to.
                One of the scarves had just blinked at her.
                "See! See! I told you!" Trinetta hissed. Tori only nodded dumbly, unable to look away from the creature as it slowly closed its single eye and a long, thin tongue slipped out of what must have been its mouth, looking for all the worlds like a flyaway thread.
                Tori started pushing at the other woman's side, trying to get her to move even as they both kept an eye on the row of flat animals. "Let's get out of here. That thing is freaking me out," she muttered under her breath, hair on her nape rising on end.
                "I know, right?" Trinie agreed, moving slowly even as she craned her neck back to stare at the draped animals. "I can still feel it staring at us."
                "It's not the only one," Tori told her as she finally succeeded in pulling Trinetta away. Up ahead, standing in a recess so they wouldn't be trampled by the market goers, the rest of their party was waiting for them.
                Ducking her head, Tori arrowed through the various red and yellow clad bodies. Even dragging Trinetta by the hand behind her, it only took them a few seconds to wade their way over.
                Zaimak was his usual reserved self, but Anitha was tapping one steel toe impatiently against the dirt, Dak sitting between her and the four-limbed alien. Tori couldn't help but notice that even panting as he was in the heat of the sun and his padded jacket, Dak was the only one happy to see them.
                "Would you quit goofing around already Trinie?" Anitha snapped at her sister. "We're here on business, remember?"
                Trinetta pouted. "Aw, you're no fun," she mumbled. "Should've stayed on the ship with Mudge. Least he's funny when he yells."
                "You are always welcome to go back," Zaimak told her calmly. "I'm sure Anitha can handle the exchange."
                But the brunette only sulked harder, hunching her shoulders forward and looking away as she grumbled, "No, Cap'n. I'm good."
                Anitha grunted, then slipped back into the stream of too-hot bodies, eyes scanning those nearest before flicking up to take in the windows cut into the sides of the multi-storied buildings hemming them in on either side of the main road.
                Zaimak, however, looked over at Tori. He didn't speak, but there was still an expectant angle to his eyebrows, as if he was offering her the same option.
                Tori shifted under his peculiar, neon gaze. She really did want to go back, maybe scan the other ships at the spaceport for one headed more directly to her home system. Only there's no promise that they'll be any better than Zaimak. There's even a good chance a new ship will be even more dangerous given all the precautions he took when we left, even leaving Mudge with that fancy security system I saw. No, I'm already halfway there. Best to just stay the course at this point.
                But that didn't mean she wanted to drag this little side trip out any longer than she had to, which was exactly what she was doing by standing in the road staring up at Zaimak.
                She cleared the dust from her throat. "No," she finally answered, arms tucked across her chest, the drooping sleeves of her overcoat belling below her forearms. "I'm perfectly fine where I am."
                Zaimak gave her a slight nod, what might have been an upward turn tilting one corner of his mouth. If he knew she was lying, his overall neutrality hid it well.
                He followed Anitha into the current of people, calling Dak after him. The chimera got to his feet and shook himself out before trotting after him. Tori kept her eyes on Dak as she did the same, Trinetta once more taking up the rearguard.
                That was another reason not to go back to the Lady and wait in the dark. If she did, she would never know just what it was Zaimak was selling. And if she didn't know, then she couldn't tell the GCC authorities when she finally reached Polestar.
                Slowly, the small group made their way through the swarm of beings, the four of them strung out in a line that made it difficult at times for Tori to know if she was still with them.
                Which made it inevitable really, that she eventually got separated.
                "Man..." Tori muttered as she stared at the red wall blocking her way. She turned around to retrace her steps, but didn't see any sign of Zaimak or the others in the throng of saffron.
                She sighed loudly and ran her fingers through her bangs, the fine hair sticking out from between her fingers. "Oh, this is so not good," she groaned. "I have no idea where they were going. And now I'll never find out what Zaimak was moving either!"
                Head aching dully from the frown puckering her forehead, Tori stood at the mouth of the alleyway and scanned the bustling market for any signs of her party, careful to remain in the amber-tinted shade.
                "Nothing," she grumbled as she watched the ceaseless flow of orange-hued turbans and head dresses, some with plain cloth, others fairly dripping with gold and amber and ruby trimmings. The calls of the sellers mixed with the answers and protests of the buyers, assaulting Tori's senses like waves, rising and falling and crashing over her sun-baked head.
                After fifteen minutes by the chronometer set in her comm., Tori gave up. "Guess I'd better find my way back to the spaceport," she mumbled as she pushed herself off the building sheltering her from the noisy crowd. "Even that will take awhile and it won't do for them to leave without me." Sure Zaimak said he needed someone else to fly the Lady, but that didn't mean none of the others couldn't handle a short hop. In fact the odds were probably against it. For safety's sake if nothing else, one of them should know how to fly just in case something ever happened to their pilot.
                Like she gets lost at the Pashreen equivalent of the grocery store, Tori thought as she waved off a merchant shoving a melon under her nose and jabbering on in a dialect she didn't understand.
                Tori held up her hands and shook her head with an uneasy smile, but he didn't stop holding out his produce until another woman took it from him, pulling off a string of amber-colored beads from her head covering and laying two in his now empty hand.
                Tori turned around and walked away quickly, grateful for the distraction as she ducked her head, shoved her hands in her jean pockets, and did her best to avoid making eye contact with anymore melon-men.
                She turned left at the end of the street, doing her best to back track her earlier route. But there were so many roads and the market seemed to have consumed all of them. Her certainty quickly evaporated in the heat.
                "This is hopeless," she grumbled to herself as she shaded her eyes and tried to see past the glare of rust red and saffron heads. She had found her way back to a large intersection they had passed earlier. There was a little room to breathe here as the buyers stuck to the edges of the square with their stalls, and she was on a slight rise. Not quite a hill, but if Tori stood on the low wall sectioning off a tall pole – one of many whose purpose eluded her despite the wires stretching from its top to the various buildings around them – she could see into the small valley. The dull metal of the spaceport winked at her in the distance.
                "Finally," Tori mumbled as she hopped off the clay partition...and nearly landed on Dak looking up at her.
                Her eyes widened and a smile pulled at her face in relief. "Dak!" she cried, kneeling down and rubbing the chimera's narrow head with both hands. "Am I glad to see you, boy. Where's your master, huh?"
                She looked around but didn't see Zaimak standing head and shoulders above the saffron sea. "Did you get lost too?" She looked down at Dak's mismatched eyes.
                Dak met her faze and sneezed, blowing up a cloud of reddish dust.
                The woman sighed, dropping her arm across her knee. "Yeah, that seems about right. Well, I guess you'll just have to come back to the ship with me. Though I can't say Zaimak's going to be very pleased when he notices you got away from him..."
                She trailed off, only now realizing that Dak was still wearing his carrying vest. It was still weighed down by whatever inside.
                The weight of this unexpected opportunity suddenly pressed down on Tori's shoulders. She looked around again, half expecting Zaimak to appear at her side like a hologram, but he was still conspicuously absent.
                Brown eyes narrowed. Is he testing me? This is awful easy for a coincidence...
                She hunched farther down, hoping that would make her harder to notice if the others came looking for her. "Come here boy," Tori whispered, mind made up. "Come on Dak, there's a good boy."
                Dak whined, but came anyway, shoving his lean body against her knees and looking up at her with pleading puppy eyes.
                "Not that close," she chastised him, holding his collar with one hand and pushing at his flank with the other until there was space between them. "Stay still now, good Dak. Now, let's see what you have in here."
                The flap of the closest carrying bag was held closed by simple Velcro and Tori pulled it open, the expected rrrip lost in the noise of the market. A puff of chilled air brushed her face and Tori was surprised to find the inside refrigerated, like a grade school lunch box.
                What needs to be kept cold that's this small? she asked herself as she reached in to move aside the chill packs covering Zaimak's merchandise. She glimpsed small white boxes stacked on top of each other, but she couldn't read what was written across their identical sides-
                "Hey Earth Girl!"
                Tori jumped where she knelt and quickly closed the bag, almost sealing her fingers in right along with the chill packs. She looked up in time to see Trinetta weaving her way toward her, a wide smile on her face. Anitha wasn't far behind.
                "There you are," Trinie said as she skidded to a halt beside Dak. "We were starting to worry. And you found Dak!"
                She leaned over and vigorously rubbed Dak's head as Tori strangled a gasp into a gurgle. The flap wasn't all the way closed. Part of it had folded in on itself in her hurry. And with Trinie burying her face against Dak's neck and Anitha joining them, it was too late to fix it.
                Anitha raised a dark eyebrow at her, and Tori hoped she mistook her bright red face for sunburn. "You okay?" she asked. "You weren't answering your comm."
                Heart still beating erratically, Tori held up her unit. "Not getting any service out here," she told her, hoping her voice didn't sound too off normal.
                That versatile eyebrow didn't move, but Anitha cast a critical eye over the pole above their heads, wires radiating from it like dead tree limbs. "We thought that might be the case. They have these reception 'towers' all over the place, but they're more useful as drying lines than transmitters if you ask me."
                Tori nodded, only now noticing the faint hum of electricity emitting from the few wires free of drying clothes.
                "Don't worry though," the Troi'en continued. "If you stick around long enough Mudge'll fix you up with something more...reliable." She started to turn, waving Tori and her sister after her. "Come on, Cap'n's waiting. We're running late."
                She turned around and Tori quickly reached down and fixed the flap. She hoped Anitha hadn't noticed.
                Trinetta skipped over and threaded her arm through Tori's elbow as Anitha whistled sharply for Dak. "Don't worry," the younger sister told her with a beaming smile. "The first job's always the hardest. You'll get used to it."
                Tori didn't have the strength left to ask what would happen to her if she didn't want to get used to it.

* * *

                They left the body-cluttered market streets in favor of the winding back alleyways that lay half hidden by red clay walls. Metal doors, the color of rust and moss, glinted mutely in the heavy shadows, closed tight against the few sentients loitering out of the heat and chaos of market day.
                Tori averted her eyes as they passed a pair of men in the narrow space, nervously sweeping yellow hair behind her ear where it had been too short to be caught up in her ponytail. They had hard eyes and wore the traditional saffron robes, but they were too tall to be natives. Boxy bulges at their hips and padding around their chest told Tori they wore sidearms and body armor.
                Needing reassurance, she felt for the familiar outline of her plasma pistol against her hip.
                "The universe is a dangerous place sometimes, sweetheart," her dad had told her when he'd given it to her, the day before she left for her work study on the Helix 7. "But it's nothing God, guts, and good aim can't protect you from," he'd finished with a wink.
                Tori wondered what he would say if he knew she had started sleeping with it under her pillow.
                Probably get out of there. Come home, she thought with a sad frown. I tried Daddy. I swear I tried-
                Ahead of her, Anitha stopped so abruptly that Tori almost ran into her. The human woman blinked and gave herself a small shake. She needed to stay in the present.
                She peered over Anitha's smaller body in time to see Zaimak press a call button next to one of the unmarked doors. A buzzer must have sounded somewhere inside because it slid open after a short pause.
                Zaimak let Anitha enter first, her sharp eyes no doubt sweeping the room for unwelcome surprises before she stepped aside and let them in.
                Zaimak had to stoop near double to clear the small portal and Tori – who was relatively tall for a woman – had to watch her head. Trinetta breezed through behind them with a wide smile on her face, but Tori noticed the way her eyes flicked over the room like her sister before she leaned against the wall next to the door and whistled cheerily to herself.
                Tori stayed behind Zaimak's double shoulder with Dak, the animal sitting neatly and whining until she put a hand on his head. The room was small and dimly lit dark by the single window at the back wall, high up like they were in an underground cellar. With its bare walls and the one swinging bulb  overhead, Tori thought it had originally been meant for storage.
                An old table leaned off kilter in the center of the room, but no chairs. The two people already there had adjusted. The first, a man with broad shoulders and muscles well-defined by labor, leaned against the right wall with a scowl on his tan face. He was exactly what Tori had expected from a clandestine meeting in a converted storage room like this; strong, surly, and watching them with suspicious eyes. His companion, however, defied her expectations.
                She was sitting on a crate under the high window, an anxious look on her face that Tori understood very well. The same expression had been on her own face often enough the past few days. She was small, about Anitha's size, but without the Troi'en's obvious strength she looked...delicate, almost fragile, in her medium blue tunic and dark pants. She wore sandals rather than boots, and her pale feet were coated in red clay dust that didn't match the dark staining on her fingers. Both she and the man were obviously of Asian descent, with their black hair and dark brown eyes and fine facial features, and Tori thought they must be related. Their noses are too similar, she decided.
                The woman stood when they entered, fingers twisted anxiously together. There was a look of torn hope on her face and she was watching Zaimak intently.
                The starship captain dipped his head to her, top knot nearly brushing the flat ceiling. "Juni," he greeted her. "I'm relieved to see you received my message."
                Juni nodded, but the man snorted, drawing their attention. "Yes, you're message calling us away from the rendezvous we'd already prepped and cleared ourselves in favor of this dump you had so readily at hand-" He looked at Zaimak with such vehemence Tori's fingers held tighter to Dak for reassurance. "-yes I'm sure you pirates are very relieved."
                Zaimak's reserved expression took on a haughty coolness. "We are not pirates, Mr. Dodan."
                The man's face contorted. "Yeah, well I'm not seeing much of a difference."
                Tori's eyes slid to Zaimak, leaning sideways as she tried to pinpoint his reaction. Several possibilities, all of them bloody, flashed through her mind and she felt her spine stiffen in apprehension.
                The alien's eyes narrowed into reserved slits, the air around him falling several degrees, but otherwise he kept his feelings on the matter to himself.
                Zaimak pointedly turned to Juni, regulating Dodan to his peripheral. The man's hackles rose at the dismissal, but Anitha's fixed attention kept him where he stood.
                Juni had the decency to at least look embarrassed by her companion's bad attitude. "I apologize for my brother's suspicion-"
                "Justified suspicion," Dodan grumbled.
                A sharp look from Juni shut him up. "We are of course grateful for your help. Without you..."
                She spread her hands, but was unable to find the right words. Tori felt her irritation flare. Without you what? What's in the bag?
                Zaimak waved both right hands, wiping away her words and giving the woman a small shake of his head. "We did what was necessary."
                A rude snort. "You mean what we paid you to do." Even Tori was starting to tire of Dodan's running commentary.
                "That's what made it necessary." Neon eyes slid calmly to the man. "And you've only paid us half."
                Dodan scowled but his sister muttered a small, "Of course," and turned around to pick up the case she'd been sitting on when they had come in. She hauled it up on the slanted tabletop with a thunk and flipped the seals open with identical clicks. She opened it and spun it around for their inspection.
                Tori swallowed down her gasp, turning it into a unidentified gurgle. It wasn't currency, like she'd expected in spite of the siblings' many-patched clothes, but three ingots of carbonox, each as long as Tori's hand.
                "Is that- are those real?" she couldn't help but ask. Carbonox was a substance found in some asteroids, usually laced around the more typical metals and rocks. By itself it was weak and brittle, completely useless, but with a strenuous refining process it became the strongest binding agent in the Known. It was vital to the production of synthoid metals like the Steelite used in hull plating.
                But the process was difficult, and one misstep or any interference would ruin the metal. As far as Tori knew, the only established carbonox processing plant was somewhere in the Centauri Asteroid Field at the far end of the Way.
                Juni was nodding her head, a touch of pride at the edge of her lips. "Eighty-seven percent pure," she told them. "Fit to house even the most volatile reactor core. Not even the GCC expects such high quality for their Spindles."
                Tori couldn't completely shake her sense of awe, but Zaimak looked only pleased. Three full ingots of that high a purity could remodel an entire battle cruiser plus all of its satellite ships, and she remembered that he already had three other ingots somewhere in his possession. The small, practical voice in Tori's brain wondered what, exactly, he planned on doing with it all...
                From his wall, Dodan raised an expectant eyebrow. "And what did you bring?"
                Zaimak's eye lingered on the dully shining ingots a moment longer before he twisted around and spoke a command in an undulating word.
                Dak padded forward, vest jingling, to stand still before his master. Zaimak reached down and undid the vest from his beast's body. Tori leaned forward as he placed the vest on the table, keeping a grip on the bags to keep them from sliding to the floor. The sound of the Velcro was loud in the tight space.
                He pulled the top row of boxes out – they were taller than they were wide and he could pick up three at once in each hand – and set them on the table for Juni's inspection. Free of the chill packs, Tori could finally make out the lettering on the side. It looked like a brand name.
                Juni picked up one of the boxes and turned it over in her hands. Her face relaxed in relief.
                "There are twenty-five in each bag, all of them sealed. They were kept cool as per your instructions. The kavihi-lantem will still be viable," Zaimak rattled off.
                Tori jerked upright at the only familiar part of the complicated word. Lantem? Like, the medicine lantem?
                Juni blinked dark eyes up at him. "That's more than they took." Surprise muddled up the relief in her voice.
                Zaimak inclined his head to hide the sly smile pulling at his wide lips, but Tori was in the perfect position to see it. "It seems your supply ships weren't the only ones being stalked by the ogdyni. They were attacking anything with a medi-alert on the manifest and raiding the cargos. I felt loathe to let them enjoy their spoils, and decided you would know how to handle the surplus better than I."
                Even Dodan looked stunned. A breathless sound escaped Juni's mouth. "There is enough here for all three centers. This is more than enough until the GCC can send their escort ships to guard the replacement shipment." She looked close to tears. "Oh thank you, Captain. Thanks and blessings on your hands. All four of them!"
                The small woman jumped forward and wrapped her arms around Zaimak, the crown of her black head barely reaching the middle of his chest. A small Oof! was forced out of him, she ran to him with such force.
                Tori covered her mouth with a hand to hide her laugh. Zaimak stood there, totally bewildered by the embrace, all arms held out away from his body, not sure what to do with this unexpected show of gratitude.
                "Ahem, well, yes," he cleared his throat and muttered in discomfort, awkwardly patting her shoulder with one large hand. "The carbonox is all the thanks we require."
                He gripped her shoulders and carefully pushed her back before letting go.
                Juni smiled and wiped her eyes as Zaimak adjusted his shirt and arranged his arms. The woman's face flushed pink in equal embarrassment. "My apologies," she murmured. "Our reserves were running so low. If something had gone wrong, help wouldn't have gotten to us in time to save my patients. I am-" She had to wipe her eyes again. "-more grateful then you can imagine."
                Still awkwardly stiff, Zaimak inclined his head to her without speaking. A moment later, Dodan came up behind his sister, the chilled bags in hand, Dak's carrying vest left on the table behind them. "Come on Juni, we should head back before something goes wrong."
                Juni nodded, steadying herself. As she took one of the bags from Dodan, she still couldn't keep the smile off her face.
                She stopped at the door. Turning to face them, she bowed deep at the waist in an old world gesture.
                "Thank you," she said once more before leaving.
                Tori looked around as the door slid closed behind Dodan's broad back, a funny feeling in her stomach. Anitha and Trinie didn't bother to hide their excitement at finishing off the job, slapping their hands together up, down, and from the side, as Trinie talked about all the things she'd seen in the market she wanted and Anitha chided her with a roll of her eyes, reminding her sister it wasn't that kind of payout. Zaimak though...
                He looked pleased – which Tori had expected – but he wasn't eyeing the case holding his pay. Instead his neon eyes were watching the door, where Juni had last been.
                Is he pleased because he got paid...or because he helped her?
                Tori didn't know for certain, and as he collected the hard case the siblings had left along with Dak's vest, she knew Zaimak wasn't about to tell her.
                They were both very quiet the whole winding trip back to the Lady.

< Entry 40                                                                                                                                         Entry 42 >

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