Friday, July 8, 2016

43: The Lady Fair - Part VII

Entry 44: Where Tori has never been more grateful for the number eleven.

                The system Zaimak's course led them to had no proper name, or if it had no one had bothered to record such trivial information. It was dominated by a large asteroid field, one Tori couldn't see the edges of from where they sat, and could have been anywhere from Juni's mining fields along the Milky Way's southern edge to the Sigma Asteroid Field that cut them off from the rest of their galaxy.
                "Reminds me of a ghost town," Tori said as she guided the Lady Fair through slowly spinning rocks half their size over.
                Mudge snorted next to her, hot air gusting out of wide oval nostrils. "If only," he muttered back. "Bad types like to use places like this to hunker down. The rocks and leftover radiation shields 'em from prying eyes."
                "Like ours?" Tori asked, eyebrows raised though she didn't take her gaze away from the shifting path they were on. She'd had to shut off the life-scanners that detected organic material along with the proximity warnings when they wouldn't shut up, wailing at every rock in sight.
                Mudge grunted an affirmative, his beady eyes gleaming as he concentrated on the larger asteroids. Tori wasn't sure why he was up here, only that he was filling the cockpit with the smell of unwashed fur and grease, and that Zaimak had sent him.
                He flung out an overgrown arm, nearly knocking Tori in the side of the temple with the thick bracelet around his wrist, some kind of portable circuit scanner.
                "There. We want that one."
                Tori shot him a scowl before turning her gaze back to the viewport. "For what?" she snapped at him.
                The mechlan snorted again, hot air rolling down Tori's neck. Her nose wrinkled at the stink.
                "For landing of course." He made the words into a question of her intelligence. "It's got a beacon on it. Land near it."
                Not eager for anymore screaming matches, Tori did as the old repairmech said. She circled almost a third of the craggy circumference before spying the beacon. It wasn't much more than a blinking light on a pole. Clearly readymade and temporary.
                She set down with barely a bump. Not bad for a small speedy target, she decided.
                She craned her head from side to side, trying to see who had left the beacon outside the viewport as she undid her restraints. "So where are these guys? Or do we have to walk from here?" She grimaced at the thought of struggling into one of the vac-suits she'd seen hanging just inside the airlock.
                Mudge straightened from where he'd been leaning his bulk against Tori's chair. "No, we sit here like good dano cubs. As for the others..." He squinted at her. "They're probably further in system, waiting somewhere cush."
                Tori spun her chair around to meet his eyes. "Then what're we doing here?" she demanded.
                The old mechlan sighed, long and loud, like he'd been saddled with some colicky infant. "Look girl, it's an old trick. Graverobbers'll pick a hunk a rock already set to coast past their home-sweet-home. They'll have visitors squat on it so they don't have to give them specific coordinates, and if they don't like what they see from far out, they'll save themselves some clean-up and dust the rock and their guests while they're far out."
                Tori's face went pale. "Charming."
                "You expected different from folk known as 'graverobbers'?" he pointed out.
                Tori frowned at the beacon brightening and dimming in rhythm just outside. She pursed her lips. "I guess not..."
                She blinked, forcing her mind clear. "How long do you expect we'll drift?"
                Ape-like lips curled inward as he thought. "I'd say an hour or two, more if they're paranoid. It'll give us time to run through our own prep."
                As Mudge turned and ambled to the door, Tori dreaded to think what that might be.
                The door swished open, but Mudge didn't go through. Instead he half turned to look at her, a shrewd look in his black eyes. "You still have that plasma spitter on you?"
                One hand automatically felt for the heavy weight strapped to her side. "Yes."
                Mudge curled his lips again and sucked his teeth before giving her a sharp nod. "Keep the safety off. These aren't folks to mess with."
                Oh that's a cheery statement, Tori thought as he left, the door locking shut behind him.
                After ensuring that the Lady's engines were ready for quick start and double checking that the central computer was still connected to her comm. in case of any other helpful calls, Tori followed him, not seeing much of a reason to stare out the viewport for hours.
                She was halfway to her quarters, thinking to grab another spar plasma rod for her pistol, when she heard Anitha's voice from up the central corridor.
                "I don't like this Zaimak. Deltoris and his lot are nasty, even by our standards, and we have no idea how she'll react when shots start flying."
                Tori's steps faltered. She wasn't trying to listen in, but Anitha was obviously talking about her.
                She stopped in the middle of the corridor as Zaimak's strong voice answered her. "If," he stressed. "We have no indication that Deltoris will take offense to our presence."
                Their voices were coming from a cracked open door just up ahead – the locking mechanism must have been broken for it not to close all the way and the sterile glow fluorescents slipped out in a sliver into the hall.
                Tori padded closer and leaned one eye to the crack. Anitha stood framed in the gap, her arms crossed argumentatively over her chest. Zaimak was almost out of sight, but if she leaned over, Tori could see him standing with all four hands behind his back, long fingers locked around opposite wrists. They were standing in what appeared to be an armory, with its various blasters, spitters, and all around sharpened points displayed against muted metal walls.
                Either that or this is Anitha's quarters.
                The small Troi'en woman snorted harshly, the light catching the red streak in her short hair, turning it vibrant. "With our luck it's definitely when. And the only provocation a whack job like Deltoris needs is the wrong kind of smile. And you saw her this afternoon." She gestured sharply with an arm, making Tori flinch away from the gap. "That was just from a kink in her itinerary. How do you think she'll hold up against a group of heavily armed weapons smugglers?"
                Zaimak turned and moved out of Tori's line of sight. His silence was loud.
                Anitha shook her head, short hair switching around her face as she looked down at her steel-toed boots. She ran a hand through her hair and shook it out with a loud exhalation. "Look," she started in a low, controlled tone, "I don't know what you're up to or what you want with Addison – don't deny it! We were doing just fine on our own after we lost Dimmi and suddenly you decide we need a replacement ten months later? No-" She wagged her finger at him, other hand striking a stubborn pose against her hip. "-this has your fingerprints all over it. But what I want to know is can your little birdie stick it when it counts?"
                Tori barely heard the question. Her mind was reeling, floating away like a lost balloon. It could only go so high before it popped.
                She barely heard Zaimak's answer. "I have the utmost trust in Tori Addison," he told her.
                "Right," Anitha muttered under her breath, sounding about as convinced as Tori felt listening to them. "If only it weren't untested."
                A rhythmic thudding registered past the ragged sound of her own breathing and Tori realized it was Anitha. Anitha coming her way. Anitha about to find her skulking by the door!
                Tori turned and fled, ducking into the nearest open space. She covered her mouth with her hand to try and hide the sound of her panicked rasping. Outside, she heard Anitha's boots ring against the deck. They grew louder...and then faded as she passed, grumbling under her breath.
                Tori remained frozen until she heard a heavy door thunk closed farther down the central corridor, then her knees finally gave out and she slid down the wall until her backside landed on a convenient crate. Her eyes flicked around the room, barely giving it a thought. She was in some kind of machinist's room – probably Mudge's – but she could only see the straight edges of metal where the light came in from the hall.
                What was going on? Zaimak talked about her like he knew her far better than their meager acquaintance would explain.  And their former pilot, Dimmi- Zaimak had made it sound like he'd left only a few weeks before meeting her on Kracus, but Anitha made it sound like he'd died...ten months ago.
                If he wasn't interviewing another pilot on Kracus like he said, then what was Zaimak doing in the Backwaters that night? Tori asked herself, eyebrows lowering over wild eyes. And...what does he want with me?
                Odd apezi or not, she couldn't fathom any answers that made sense. If this was some kind of trap, it was ridiculously elaborate. And if this was some attempt at actual help, then why not say so up front? Why these cryptic conversations? Why keep her in the dark?
                Her comm. started to buzz on the collar of her vest and she pulled it off to see what it was now. In the near distance, she heard the familiar trill of Zaimak's unit. She didn't give it much thought as she clicked hers on.
                The voice that came through was rough and irritated and, for some reason, in stereo. "Unknown ship you have to the count of ten to give me a good reason not to dust you."
                Tori  shot to her feet, shaking hand covering her mouth. What did you say to convince some stranger not to vape you? Were there magic words? A miracle? Should she just start counting and pray that she made it to eleven?
                Down the hall, dimmed by distance and more than one door, Zaimak answered his own caller. "Toro Base this is Captain Zaimak of the Lady Fair. We're here to place a bid."
                A rude sound came through with a garble of static as Tori realized through her fear that the surly pirate wasn't talking to her at all. Zaimak must have linked his comm. directly to the Lady's communications systems. "Sorry pal," the stranger went on as Tori quickly turned down her own volume so Zaimak wouldn't realize she was listening in. "Private party and you're not on the list. Right, so don't try and run. It'll hurt a lot less if you hold still-"
                There was the faint whine of something much bigger than a blaster powering up. Tori's heart was in her throat choking her. At this rate she'd be dead before they even fired whatever star-dusting-ship-melting vaporizer they were using to track them on the main base.
                "Before you do something you will regret-" Zaimak's composed voice rose over the whine of imminent doom, "-tell Deltoris his favorite Lady is waiting to see him again."
                The man on the other end chuckled, the sound rolling around his mouth until it was all crumpled in on itself. There was a muted conversation as he shared the joke with someone on his end. More mean laughter.
                "What? So Boss'll space me for letting you talk me into bugging him? Yeah right."
                The voice that answered the pirate was so hard Tori almost didn't recognize it. "Either you contact him or I will."
                The laughter stopped. Another background conversation that was too indistinct to comprehend. The only words Tori made out were, "-I'm not goin', you go-" They were highly strung and nervous.
                It all ended with a sharp, "Fine!" and the sound of what might have been a chair hitting a wall. Tori waited, the pause drawing out into a proper wait. In the background, the whine of the vaporizer hovered on the edge of her hearing.
                Finally, the man returned, grumbling curses under his breath and even more surly than before. "You're on landing pad three. Someone'll meet you there."
                She could hear the eyebrows raise, even two rooms away. "Anything else?" Zaimak pressed.
                More surly grumbling preceded very reluctant words. "Boss says ladies fine as yours are always welcome here and I...apologize for my earlier stupidity." It sounded like the words were being dragged out from behind his teeth.
                Tori imagined Zaimak nodding his head soberly. "Apology accepted."
                The man spit a blistering curse at him and signed off with a click that also managed to sound rude. Tori wondered if Zaimak had done that on purpose.
                She sat heavily on the crate again, feeling like she'd just run a race. Her heart was thudding against the underside of her ribs and there was sweat running down her temple. She felt cold and clammy, like she might be sick.
                Hands trembling, Tori leaned forward and rested her forehead against them to keep herself off the floor. "He's- he's obviously got a plan," she told herself, not as reassured by Zaimak's certainty as she wanted to be. " the plan."
                But it was getting harder and harder to trust in what she couldn't see, and the whine of that vaporizer still clung to her hearing, like an after image that wouldn't fade.
                Beneath her feet, the Lady shuddered as the asteroid shifted against its natural course.
                Tori straightened, sucking down her panic and packing her questions away. The weight of her pistol was reassuring against her side. She looked down at the chrono on her comm. unit, the numbers backlit in the dim room. Only forty minutes had passed since her talk with Mudge.
                "Guess the  whack job arms merchant likes us," Tori mumbled as she stood to get those spare plasma rods.
                It was not a reassuring thought.

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