Wednesday, June 29, 2016

42: The Lady Fair - Part VI

Entry 042: Where emotions come to a boil above a boxing ring.

                Afternoon faded into dusk, and dusk into night, but Tori couldn't sleep. To antsy, too uncertain of this new, convoluted, world she had stepped into, she didn't even try.
                Zaimak found her in the cockpit of the Lady Fair, slumped in the pilot's seat, her feet in their decorated toe socks perched on the edge of the control panel. The chrono in the dash said it was half past midnight, local time.
                "You have questions." His voice was deep and soft in the sleeping ship.
                Tori twisted her head back to see him, before returning to the viewing pane. The dark edges of the spaceport were backlit by the lantern light from the market beyond the wall. Despite the hour, the orange lights hadn't dimmed, much less darkened.
                Zaimak glided forward and took the empty seat beside her. He didn't demand she remove her feet from his dash, and simply steepled his long fingers of his upper hands together, the lowers resting in his lap. "You want to know why I took medicine from one people and gave it to another."
                Tori bit the inside of her cheek, resisting the urge to say that she already knew why; he'd been paid to.
                Swallowing down the retort, the words burning like acid in her throat, she said instead, "It doesn't matter. I'll be out of your hair in three days."
                She felt bright eyes boring into her, but didn't turn away from the lantern light flickering along aging metal. "You want to know," he said slowly, voice even softer, "if I saved someone by condemning another."
                Tori didn't speak. She ducked her head, eyes focusing on her fingers gripping her thumb too tight in her lap. She wet her lips as she asked herself over and over again if she really wanted to know the answer.
                When she finally spoke, her voice was barely more than a rasp.
                "...did you?"
                Air left Zaimak's nostrils in a long, drawn out sigh, the noise loud in the midnight silence. "No," he told her. "I left no bodies in my wake. Perhaps some minor irritation," he added with a sideways tilt of his head, as if that was commonplace enough. "But no ogdini died because of what I took."
                Muscles along Tori's spine relaxed with palpable relief. She let some blood back into her trapped thumb.
                "As you may have guessed already," Zaimak started in his rolling tongue, "the Dodans are from the Centauri Trill Asteroid Field. Juni runs the central medi-station. Her brother works in the mines, as does most of her family. She's currently treating several of her patients for a strain of aether lung, including a number of children. Sadly, because the carbonox refining process is so delicate, she can't use the more modern treatments, as the various waves involved fouls up the refining process. Their medication must be administered by hand.
                "Usually that's an inconvenience more than a problem. However almost three months ago, Juni's scheduled supply run was hijacked. They were sent a replacement, and the same happened again."
                "The ogdini?" Tori mumbled, the question drawn out of her  despite her feelings.
                Zaimak nodded slowly. "They stole the shipments."
                "What for?"
                Zaimak reclined deeper in the co-pilot's seat. Tori peered at him from the corner of her eye in time to see his expression curdle with derision. "Their own convenience. They use it to treat a persistent form of skin rash, similar to poison oak. They have their own treatments, but if they use them, then they won't have them anymore, whereas if they took Juni's shipments, they would have both."
                Tori's feet hit the deck with an indignant thump. "They use it as an anti-itch cream?" she shouted.
                Neon eyes glowed dimly in the semi-dark. It was hard to tell in the dusky light, and Tori was hardly in the frame of mind to decipher anything, but she thought she saw something akin to approval at her outburst.
                "Succinctly – yes."
                Already hazy from stress and poor sleep, Tori's mind stalled. She sat, leaning forward at an awkward angle, like someone had knocked the wind out of her. This was too ridiculous to believe. Sentient beings didn't do this. They didn't steal medicine from children to save themselves from a rash they could cure on their own. This was- This was-
                "I don't even know what this is," Tori muttered as she sunk back in the chair and stared at the few lights idling on the control panel without seeing them.
                "Madness," Zaimak supplied.
                Brown eyes flicked to him in the dark. A part of Tori wished he didn't understand what she felt so well. Another wished he knew her better and could tell her what she should do next.
                She refused to admit either one, already unnerved by his unreadable presence, and her eyes returned to the lights on the panel. She had the growing feeling he hoped she would tell him something as well. That she understood why he'd done it now, maybe, or that because he'd stolen from thieves that made this right. That a mad world required mad actions in return.
                She stayed silent, unable to give him what he wanted.
                She watched the engine light blink the slow off-on, off-on of sleeping machinery, the repetitive dim-bright of it hypnotizing her. Finally she rolled forward out of her chair and stood.
                "We have lift off clearance at o9oo tomorrow. Without anymore distractions we should reach Polestar Station in seventy-eight hours."
                She waited long enough to see the captain nod his head before heading to the bunk they'd given her to try and wrestle her mind into sleep.

* * *

                Things mellowed after they left Pashreen and Tori had to admit that, for smugglers and thieves, they weren't bad company.
                Most of the time, anyway.
                "Tell me why I agreed to this again?" she asked as she eyed the stiff tape Anitha was tightly wrapping around her hands. They were standing in the cleared cargo hold on a padded mat. She wasn't sure how she'd gotten here exactly, only that, in a stroke of insanity, she had actually agreed to be Anitha's sparring partner.
                Anitha gave a one sided shake of her head, dark hair falling across her face. "Because fair's fair, my friend. And I've seen you handle that plasma spitter of yours. You're going to need all the help I can give you. Just remember, I give what I get, so if you want the good lessons, then you don't just stand there like a stick."
                She finished prepping Tori's fists then pulled on her own boxing gloves, heavily padded for Tori's benefit.
                Anitha slammed her gloved hands together with a whump that had Tori flinching. Trinie must have read her mind because she piped up from the crate she was sitting on off to the side. "Face it Tor Tor. You're gonna hurt tomorrow. Hope you didn't have any extraneous pla~ans," she chimed.
                Tori shot her a mild glare as Anitha started jumping from foot to foot, loosening up her legs and stretching her arms at the shoulder. "Don't make me throw you in this ring Trinie," she mock-growled. "You aren't as strong as her but I bet you're sure stronger than me."
                "Ayi!" There was a clatter as Trinie sat up so fast she overbalanced and tumbled off her crate. She popped right back up, arms flying wildly, the bangles on her upper arms slipping down to her elbows. "No way! I've been her punching bag the last seventeen years!" she whined. "Let someone else have a turn for once!"
                Anitha snickered at her sister's drama and Tori cracked a smile. "That bad, huh?"
                A string of unintelligible syllables spooled out the younger girl's mouth and she slapped one hand down hard on her opposite bracer.
                Tori waited for an explanation but it didn't come, Trinie once more forgetting in her zeal that Tori didn't understand their native tongue. "I'll take that as a yes."
                "When I was an itty-bitty, I trained to be a ---" Anitha told her.
                Tori's eyebrows flicked together. She hadn't even made out a word in the string of sounds. "What?"
                "A warrior," Anitha clarified with a jerk of her chin. She feinted a throw and grinned wolfishly when Tori ducked. "One of the highest that protects the ador'en femaya."
                "Oh, I know that one," Tori said, eyes looking up as she searched her memory for the definition. "That's your, um, your 'highest lady'."
                "Highest Mother would be closer, but yeah."
                Before Tori could ask anything else, Anitha struck. She was almost too fast for Tori to keep up with, but being the only girl born among a pack of boys finally paid off and she blocked or avoided the worst of it.
                She brought her arms in closer as Anitha's gloved fist pounded against her forearms. The blows made her bones ache, the reverberations travelling up her arms, down into her chest, and up into her teeth so that they hummed.
                Tori had to bite back a burst of cursing. "You're pulling your punches," she strangled out instead.
                "Are you complaining?" Anitha asked with a grin.
                "Only if you break something," Tori grit out between her buzzing teeth, then followed up with her own swing.
                Anitha dodged it easily. Her moves were straightforward, almost simplistic Tori thought, but the raw power behind them was enough to stop a charging elephant. She'd taken off her knife belt for the practice match, but if she was this skilled hand-to-hand, Tori had to wonder at her what she was liked armed.
                "So these special warriors," the human said when they once more fell back into their circling pattern. "They're good?"
                "Best of the best," Anitha affirmed. "Even the washouts are fearsome."
                "Is that what happened to you?" Tori asked as she avoided another punch. "You washed out and came out here?"
                Anitha gave her another smile, but her eyes weren't in it. "Oh, no. It's far more sordid than that." Her eyes flashed and Tori felt like she'd just stuck her front teeth in fresh ice cream. "You sure you want me to tell ya, Addison? Because we have an agreement around here."
                "The Mutual Spill Yer Guts Pact," Trinie announced. Her voice was just as cheery as always, but Tori heard an odd strain in it now.
                She shot Trinie a quick look over her raised fists and got a punch in the side for her trouble. "The what?" she wheezed, but didn't drop her fists from her chin. Anitha nodded her approval.
                "It means Zaimak has an odd habit of collecting people with nowhere else to go," Anitha told her as she circled the human, her eyes dark with buried ferocity. Tori felt ice flood her battered chest. "And no one talks about why unless they don't mind shelling it out as well. So-” She slammed her gloved fists together and Tori flinched again. "-you want to tell us how a good girl like you ended up floating out with the flotsam, Earth Girl? If you do, I don't mind a recitation of my own."
                Tori tried not to shiver, and failed. "No," she mumbled, trying to pretend she wasn't hiding behind her hands. "No, I'm sorry. It's not any of my business."
                Anitha's dark eyes drilled into her another handful of seconds , and then she closed her eyes and gave a crooked shrug. "Suit yourself," she told her. "Now keep those hands up. If you go down in the first five minutes, you're going to embarrass me."
                "And Cap will be maaad..." Trinie added, her voice once more light.
                The danger passed and Tori fixed her attention on Anitha. Even holding herself back, the shorter woman was difficult to keep up with. In minutes Tori's hair was sticking to her forehead and neck with sweat.
                "Nuff!" she finally cried, waving Anitha back before doubling over, holding herself up by her hands on her knees. She gasped for breath before looking up at Anitha. "Ha-how do you just keep going?"
                Anitha tilted her head sideways after adjusting her gloves to make sure they were still tight. "Practice. Endurance grows over time, just like everything else. You'll improve in a few months."
                Tori staggered. "A few months?" she squeaked. "I can't take a few months of this kind of brutality."
                Her sparring partner cocked her head at her, honest confusion on her angular face. "Then how will you get any better?"
                Tori had gotten enough of her breath back to huff a laugh. "What makes you think I want to be better? If I'm going to practice anything, it should be my Barken Maneuver."
                "Bark!" Trinie supplied. Then, "Hey, I'm gettin' pretty good!"
                Tori shook her head but couldn't help the smile. Her lungs no longer felt like chill packs in her chest, so she straightened up in relief.
                Anitha's grin was eager and crooked. "Ready for another round?"
                "Ugh!" Tori let her head lull back as she groaned. Then straightened up, rolled her shoulders, and said, "Yeah okay, let's go."
                She raised her aching arms, ignoring the oncoming bruises as she restarted the circling rhythm. "You mind if I ask something else?" she asked tentatively. She'd come close to really stepping in it before and she didn't want to go face first this time.
                Anitha lifted her shoulders in a quick shrug and never stopped moving. "As long as you box and talk at the same time."
                Tori tried to copy Anitha's bobbing, circular, weaving pattern, remembering to keep her fists up, so Anitha got another jab in before Tori got to her question. "You said Zaimak...collects people?"
                "Only in the eccentric employer sense of the word," she assured her. "An odd apezi always attracts other odd apezi." Then at Tori's confused look added, "It's a bird with four legs."
                "Fitting," Tori said. "But then-" She managed to duck in time to hear Anitha's punch sail over her ponytail. "-why would he want me? I don't know what makes an apezi odd, but I always thought I was boringly normal. I'm okay as a pilot but not the best, I'm hardly beautiful, not that I think, oof-" She took a soft blow to the side when she was too slow. She tried to shake it off, but her voice showed the lingering strain. "Not that I think that's a factor for him. And I'm not exactly a, um, a..."
                "A criminal?" Trinie spoke the loaded word Tori had tried to avoid almost flippantly.
                Tori felt her face flush, and ignored it as she threw a one-two at Anitha's middle. By the time Tori's arms left her safe zone, Anitha was somehow behind her.
                "Oh ho!" Anitha laughed, the sound round in her mouth as she jumped from side to side, as Tori spun around. "You ask dangerous questions, Addison."
                Tori dodged and punched. "How's that?" she asked.
                "Cap means well," Trinie told her, "but sometimes his compassion compensator is set too high, specially around femmas."
                Tori frowned. "So, what? He saw a blonde in trouble and felt the incontrollable urge to pull her out of it?" That's why he'd picked her up on Kracus? Like she was some kind of rescue pet?
                She put more power into her next punch then she'd meant to, her fist cracking through the air where Anitha's head had been. It didn't land of course, Anitha bobbing out of the way like a ping pong ball, and there was an approving smile beaming past the edges of her headgear. "Better," Anitha encouraged her. And then threw two quick punches of her own, chest and gut. Both landed.
                Tori backed away with a groan. "This so isn't worth the shooting lessons," she moaned.
                A high pitched twitter bounced off the ceiling behind her. "Don't feel bad Tor Tor," Trinie said from her seat on the crate. "It's not your fault Earthens are such weaklings. With a measly gravity field like yours it can't be helped. Ours makes us strong!" She flexed her arms like a wrestler showing off before a match and did her best impression of a guttural manly growl that was immediately ruined by the giggle that followed.
                Irritation flared. "For the last time Trinie," she growled, "it's Earthlings!"
                She swung her fist around in as a right hook she'd picked up from play-fighting with her older brothers when they were kids. Anitha threw herself back, eyes wide in surprise, but Tori's fist still grazed her chin.
                Both women stopped, Trinie giving a small gasp off to the side. Anitha stared at Tori. Tori stared back, hands pulled in like a rabbit as she stared at Anitha, only now remembering just how bad an idea it was to attack someone from a race often called Stellar Amazons.
                "Um..." Tori mumbled, staring at Anitha like a deer in the lights of an oncoming bus.
                A thrilled laugh broke the standoff, high pitched and highly amused. Both competitors looked over to see Trinetta rocking on her box, dancing in place as she punched the air like she was in a real ringside seat. "Woo! Go Tori! Take her down!"
                Anitha gawped. "Hey! Who's side are you on here?"
                Trinie beamed, clearly laughing at her sister. "The Earthling's of course. Go underdogs! Bark!"
                A small nervous laugh was startled out of Tori, and she shied away when Anitha shot her an indignant look. "Oh, I see how it is. Gang up on the champion. Fine, but you're next Trin, remember that." She tapped her gloves together and pointed one at her sister, who pretended to shake at the challenge.
                A trill from Tori's comm. drew her attention. She straightened up, dropping her hands to tilt the glowing screen to a more readable angle.
                "It's the ship. I gotta check this." She jogged off the mat, flexing the stiffness out of her fingers before pulling her comm. off her belt and sliding up the dinged-up face protector and lengthening the screen.
                Alert: Incoming Transmission it read.
                "Accept," Tori told the unit, but a new message followed the first.
                Error. Protected frequency. Passcode required.
                Tori frowned. Well that's helpful, she groused. Then wondered, Why send a protected freq to a ship full of people instead of just the receiver you want? Because you don't know who you're calling? Or because you can't risk pinpointing them?
                She shook her head, determined to keep her nose clean. With less than twenty-four hours between her and Polestar, she had no desire to get herself tangled up in anything...messy.
                She walked to the Lady's intercom panel and pressed the somewhat sticky button made for a thumb easily twice as big as a human's. "Zaimak," she spoke into the wall panel, "there's a protected freq coming in. Know anything about it?"
                A moment of silence while Zaimak found a panel of his own, then-
                "Thank you Tori. I'll see to it."
                The speaker clicked as Zaimak closed the channel on his end. Tori turned around to find Anitha and Trinie watching her, waiting to see if she'd come or go.
                She lifted her shoulders and hands in exaggerated confusion. "I guess he'll take care of it," she repeated.
                "Cap usually does," Trinie said where she was now hopping side to side, slamming her now-gloved hands together. "Now come on you gaugons, I'll take you both on at once!"
                Anitha barked a laugh. "Yeah right. You can't even beat me solo."
                "Oh yeah?"
                "Oh yeah?"
                Trinetta was still hopping back and forth, shoulders hunched around her ears and gloves held high. A crazy smile was on her face as she bounced around her sister, throwing mock blows. She gave a high pitched shriek when Anitha pounced and pulled her into a headlock to mess up her hair.
                "You are so on!" Trinie cried after she wriggled free. "Come on Tor, let's pound her!"
                Tori held up her hands as Anitha gasped loudly and shoved her sister's shoulder. "No way. You didn't knock enough sense out of my head to get me in a ring with both of you."
                They didn't appear to miss her as they continued to dance around, taunting each other as they traded blows that would have sent Tori to the matt but barely left them winded.
                They were entertaining with their over the top jibes and artful dodges, almost like they'd choreographed the whole thing. Tori was still watching – occasionally shouting encouragements to one or the other to stay involved – when she felt the shift in the deck beneath her. It was subtle. She doubted anyone but her even noticed.
                "What's up Addison?" Anitha asked from the mat.
                "The uh,-” She had to drag her attention to the present. "Sorry, our velocity changed. I need to check that out." She'd already crammed her boots back on and was backing away to the hold's stairs, thumbing over her shoulder. Anitha waved her on, neither sister needing an apology.
                 Zaimak swept through the upper level door above that led from the cockpit when Tori was halfway up the stairs. He looked pale. Well, paler than usual anyway.
                His eyes found her, surprised to see her so close, and then he descended from the catwalk with rapid steps. Tori felt her heart stammer as he approached, his eyes tight, shoulders tense. Something was wrong.
                He stopped in front of her and Tori wished she was on a higher step so he wouldn't tower over her quite so much.
                Zaimak hesitated, then said, "I'm afraid there's been a change of plans."
                Below them, Anitha and Trinetta had stopped their rough-housing. They were standing with their heads close together, pretending not to watch, but Anitha was re-lacing Trinetta's gloves with such concentration that she had to be trying to listen in.
                For a moment Tori wondered why he wasn't telling them this, but then she realized the answer. They were his crew. He didn't need their permission to change anything. But it would be rude not to tell a guest when he'd altered the schedule.
                She narrowed her eyes at him. "How so?" she asked with distrust.
                There were only so many ways to retie laces, and Anitha and Trinie gave up to watch them openly. Zaimak barely spared them a glance. "An...acquaintance of mine has just informed me of an auction I must attend. If we alter course immediately, we just may make it."
                Tori's eyebrows rose high on her forehead. "Immediately? As in, right now?"
                He inclined his head slightly. "That is the generally accepted meaning."
                Her lips thinned and she shifted her weight to one foot, one hand going to her hip. He's picked a fine time to get a sense of humor.
                "Right now," she repeated, "or ten seconds ago when I felt the engines shift? Because you've already changed course, even though you and I both agreed that if I flew you to Pashreen, you would immediately take me to Polestar."
                She heard her voice heating up as the words tumbled out of her. This couldn't be happening, not when she was so close to finding normal again.
                "It is a small detour-” Zaimak assured her.
                "Your small detour. Your detour that is breaking our deal."
                "Addison, in another's hands, this merchandise will hurt many people. I am simply asking for a little understanding."
                "What I understand is that we had a deal." She jabbed her thumb into her chest, infuriated by his sudden switch to her surname.  A not so subtle reminded at who was captain here. "And I kept up my end. For some reason I expected you to keep yours." Her eyes bored into him. "Or is that only what you do for paying customers?"
                She didn't bother to keep her voice down so Trinetta and Anitha stopped straining their ears. Trinie shot her sister a look, nodding in the human's direction. The words Did you know she had it in her? written clearly in her eyes.
                Tori kept her eyes fixed on Zaimak's. The taller sentient had to crane his neck forward to meet her gaze. He didn't look cowed. Tori wasn't even sure he looked sorry. All she could see was pity.
                "Don't look at me like that!" she snapped, something inside her finally crumbling into dust. "People are hurt every day! Good people who didn't do anything wrong wake up one day to find their best friend gone and a crummy note in his place that he didn't even bother to give to her himself! For all I know he's dead and if I care anymore I'm just going to-”
                The small proper-self inside her head realized she was yelling and clamped her throat closed. Angry tears streaked down her face, their heat adding to the mortified burn creeping up her neck and across her cheeks. She was so tired of feeling like this, so tired of being lost in space. This wasn't her. She wasn't some lost and broken doll to be pitied and collected. She wanted to have her own place again, a place where she fit. She'd had that before, but Felix had taken it with him. Probably without even realizing.
                You idiot. She wished he was here just so she could shout at him. Don't you ever think about how you affect your friends? Did the thought even cross your mind you would hurt me when you left?
                It probably hadn't, she knew. He was terribly single minded that way.
                I used to find that adorable.
                She pulled back the anger rebounding around inside her but couldn't make it leave. "I can't stay here," she told Zaimak before throwing out a hand at the hold. "This isn't me. I need to be home. Where things make sense again."
                She snapped her mouth shut and blocked it with the back of her hand. That was more than she'd wanted to share. Until she reached her snapping point and started shooting at them, how she felt was none of his business.
                Zaimak soaked this in. Then removed one of the steps between them. "I understand all too well," he told her soft enough that the sisters couldn't hear. Tori narrowed her eyes at the cracks threading through his usual reserve, wondering how genuine this understanding was. "Something you didn't think you could lose has gone, and in your desperation to get it back, you abandoned everything else of import to you. Your stability has gone, your hope, perhaps even the foundation of who you think you are, and nothing makes sense anymore. You think if you go back, sense will return. Order and stability will return."
                He laid a long hand on her shoulder. "But you left that life for a reason, and if you go back you will feel as out of place in your childhood home as you do here. And because of the time it will take to reach Polestar, many other people will suffer with you. So I am asking you to believe me, to trust me, when I say this is important and that we have no time to spare."
                Tori met his neon eyes, not wanting to do anything of the sort, to accuse him of selfishness instead. But she kept seeing Juni standing in the doorway, framed by the dim light of the single bulb, the utter relief on her face as she bowed and thanked them. She couldn't erase it, and she was ashamed to say she tried.
                "Fine," she snapped, face drawn, although she wasn't sure if she was more frustrated with her buckled resolve or ashamed of her earlier outburst. "Do whatever you want. I haven't seen you do anything else."
                She turned away before she could see his reaction, and went for the main door at the back of the hold, carefully skirting the others' attention. She heard Zaimak relaying his new orders to Anitha and Trinie still standing in shock on the mat, heard them respond without questions or complaint. But then what did they have to complain about? Obeying him was part of their life out here.
                If you're not careful it'll be yours too.
                Clenching her fists at the unwelcome voice in her head, Tori lengthened her stride. But she couldn't outrun her own roiling emotions.

< Entry 41                                                                                                                                              Entry 43 >

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