Friday, October 31, 2014

14: Ship for Hire (Part I)

Entry 14: Where the Helix 7 is in dire straits...

                Kla had been right when she'd told Torrik his client list was about to become suspiciously empty. The Helix 7 had barely made it to Foltavia in the Arca-Stran before the air scrubbers that had given Cor and Felix such a headache broke down completely, their more delicate components slagged beyond recognition. And with no one willing to give them work so they could pay to repair them, the crew was stuck in port waiting for anyone with enough money to hire them for a private gig.
                Tori had the feeling they would be waiting for a while yet.
                "Maybe they had the right idea about jumping ship." The human muttered to herself as she leaned back in her room's only chair. She stretched her arms high above her head, trying to pull the knots out of her back from sitting hunched over the desk for too long. With the Helix grounded until they scrounged up enough work to pay for their repairs, there wasn't much for a co-pilot to do and Tori had spent most of her down time getting ahead on her next essay for her History of Aerospace Aviation class.
                "'A History of Comparative Ship Design Between Aviciian and Benxuli Cultures.'" She read with a yawn. "Boring."
                The lengthy title stared at Tori from her school-issued tablet, the cursor blinking steadily at her from the beginning of the first paragraph, waiting for her comparison of two of the spacecraft industry's leading designers and how they'd gotten there.
                She stared at the cursor, fingers poised over the holographic keyboard linked to the tab' as she waited for the words to come. But her mind remained blank.
                With an aggravated sigh, Tori slumped back in her chair, hands falling into her lap. It had been almost a week now since Felix and Cor had disappeared without a word and her mind had been focused on them almost the entire time. It made school work difficult, although once she was in the zone it was a decent distraction.
                Too bad the zone was eluding her today.
                "I give up." Tori grumbled as she slouched to her feet. "Time for a coffee break."
                She leaned over and turned off the tablet's screen, not bothering to save her progress since there was still no progress to save. The glowing white keyboard winked out of existence as soon as the tablet entered sleep mode and Tori picked it and the keyboard projector up before sliding them into the bag sitting on her bunk.
                She folded the desk tray up into its place along the wall for safe keeping and lifted the chair into its similar alcove beside the door, hearing the double click that meant it was locked in and wouldn't fly around the room during take-off, before slinging her bag over her shoulders and heading out. Maybe she could get more done with a change of scenery. There had to be some place outside where she wouldn't expect Felix to come around every corner.
                The Arca-Stran Archipelago was a peculiar set of planets, long inhabited by peculiar people. It sat at the far end of the Hybridian Way, close to the black hole field left behind by the destruction of the Sigma Sector. Strung  out in a curving line like pearls on a necklace, the archipelago was made up of twelve different spheres of various sizes, each rock close enough to its neighbors that you could make out continents with your naked eye in broad daylight. Even now at just past eleven in the morning, Tori could see the washed out sphere of Arca-3 hanging in the powder blue sky above her. It was closer than the moon was to Earth and its lush forests tinted the sky green around it.
                It was thought in some of the scientific circles that the archipelago had once been a perfectly average planetary system, but that the explosion of the Sigma star had knocked them closer together. Whatever the reason, the close proximity of the planets in the archipelago wrought havoc with their individual gravity fields, making them fluctuate throughout the day as their rotations brought them closer and farther apart.
                The strange gravity and out of the way nature of the place was probably what had attracted the archipelago's earliest inhabitants – the carnival bands of Gorja Minor. They liked to practice their various routines in the lesser gravity fields as a precaution against injury, gradually working their way up to stronger gravity as they become more proficient with their stunts.
                Tori came to the end of the street that held the small space port where they'd docked and looked around as she waited for the traffic signal to change. Tall concrete colored buildings stretched over her head around her, not high enough to make her feel closed in, but with enough stories that the higher levels could see the Gorjan's training grounds just outside the city from their balconies.
                The Gorjans had raised a fuss when some of their number had founded the city and started encouraging more people to come. From what Tori had heard, the elders had been worried that Foltavia City would 'civilize' their practice grounds and defeat the entire purpose of coming here. But after some complicated negotiations (not to mention family squabbling and a handful of threats of disownment from the caravan elders) the Gorjans had allowed construction on the condition that all settlements were limited solely to Arca-2, where Tori now stood.
                Tori couldn't help but agree with the older Gorjans as she waited for the chance to cross the street. Sure, the convenience of having a city so close was undeniable, not to mention a ready audience available year-round to test different shows, but it would have been a shame to let people build over the entire archipelago. Tori had seen the meadows and forests as they'd come in and if the other planets were anywhere near as beautiful, Tori thought they were worth keeping around. Although it helped that most of the scenery here reminded her of home.
                The signal changed and Tori and the crowd that had gathered around her crossed the street. The part of town that housed the space ports had looked like most other planets – covered with ship grease and oil stains – however the farther she walked, the more bits and pieces of carnival influence peeked past the city facade. Colored flags hung between blue-tinted trees planted at regular intervals next to the sidewalk and flickering holographic murals decorated the industrial glass windows set at ground level. Street musicians added life to the otherwise mundane sidewalk while their partners juggled and tumbled on mats to the applause of passerby.
                Tori stopped to admire an artist creating chalk drawings on the brick wall of a shop as people threw coins into the hat the tumbler next to him was passing around for his efforts. The artist – a young Farrusion with willowy arms and a tall forehead that slanted back from the rest of his face – was obviously well traveled and very gifted. Tori recognized the Azure Fields of Mancali sitting next to a drawing of the red-purple rockscape of Arca-6. There was even a scene of Earth sitting near the top of his display with horses grazing in a wide pasture.
                "I should really give Mom and Dad a call while I'm here." She thought as she tossed a coin into the artist's pencil case and walked on.
                There was a little cafe a few blocks over that served homemade apple pie just like mom used to make and Tori wound her way through the streets of Foltavia towards it. With everything going on like it was, comfort food was desperately needed and the fact that it was a little taste of home was icing on the cake.
                The waitress sat her down at a patio table where Tori could watch the people going by and, after taking her order, left Tori to get herself situated at the round table. She set up her tablet and keyboard – the projection changing from white to purple so Tori could see it clearly against the table's bright yellow tablecloth – the waitress returning with her apple pie and coffee before she could make any headway on her paper.
                She might as well have just left her tablet back at the ship for all the work she got done. Tori sat there for twenty minutes just staring at the blank page, occasionally drinking coffee and eating pie to try and distract herself from the fact that she was getting absolutely nothing done.
                By the end of her second cup, Tori gave up, clicked off her tablet, and leaned down on the table with her arms folded around her head.
                "Everything's just going so wrong." She thought dismally. "First that fire and then Felix and Cor disappear to who knows where. And now the captain just sulks all day around the ship. At this rate we might as well pretend to be a lost line of the Gorjan caravan for all the good it'll do."
                She sat up and propped her chin on her fist with a scowl. "And what's with all our clients suddenly backing out anyway? We haven't had this much trouble getting a job since Cor insulted the head of Tortuga's shipping collective. I mean I can understand Irket and Mike looking for better deals somewhere else – we haven't known them that long – but Captain's known Francesca for years..."
                "Bad day?"
                Tori looked up at the question, sure she didn't recognize the voice, but still positive that it was talking to her. She had to squint past the noon sun, but Tori saw the woman at the next table over was looking at her in mild concern. She was maybe two or three years older than Tori and had yellow hair too bright to be natural and an athletic build. A brightly colored scarf was looped around her neck in wide circles despite the mile heat. She must have been waiting for somebody because there were two glasses on her table, but only the one in front of her had been touched.
                Tori straightened up. "Yeah, kinda." She answered the woman. "Work's not going so well and classes are kicking my butt."
                "Oh? They have a university here?" She asked in surprise as she took a sip of lemonade.
                Tori shook her head. "Not that I know of. I'm a grad student at MIT." She tapped the top edge of her school-issued tablet. Usually she would have clarified 'on Earth', but given the cafe's Earthen influences and the human target audience, Tori felt safe in assuming the woman had heard of the ivy league university before.
                She had. The woman's eyes flicked towards Tori's tablet and saw the school initials and mascot emblazoned on the back. "Ah. I had a friend who went there. What's your major?"
                Tori leaned her arms on the table and smiled shyly. "I'm studying aerospace engineering." She told her.
                The stranger's eyebrows went up and she whistled low. "Wow, tough choice."
                Tori nodded politely, somewhat uncomfortable as the focus of their discussion. People were always saying how smart she was, especially when she told them where she was enrolled, but she had never felt all that smart. And compared to guys like Felix she felt downright dense at times.
                She looked down at her keyboard of purple light, the worry creeping up on her again. Unwilling to be sucked under out here in public, she quickly stammered out, "I'm Tori, by the way."
                The woman smiled politely at her. "Madison." She supplied. And then sensing Tori wasn't about to say anything more she offered, "So are you from Earth or do you live out here and e-commute to class?"
                Tori shook her head. "Definitely commute. I can barely pay for the lectures, much less room and board." She fidgeted. "I'm sorry. I hope I'm not interrupting your lunch."
                Madison flapped a hand at her. "Nah, I'm waiting for someone anyway."
                Tori glanced around at the numerous tables around them on the patio, most occupied by young couples. "Is your date running late?" She asked, taking a guess.
                Madison blinked in confusion, looked at the second glass on her table, and then shook her head and laughed at herself. "Oh,  no. My boyfriend's off working on Hybridia at the moment. I'm waiting for my brother." She tilted her head to the side and took in the empty chair across from Tori. "And what about you? Are you waiting on your man or is this you-time?"
                Tori felt her face turn pink as she looked down at her keyboard again. Truthfully, she'd been waiting on one man in particular for a long time now, but either he'd never taken the hint or he didn't like her that way to begin with. Of course, it was Felix she was talking about...
                "He gets so nervous he'd probably end up swallowing his own tongue if he ever tried to ask me on a date." She thought with something between wry amusement and frustration. She'd thought about asking him instead once or twice, but had always dismissed it. She kept telling herself it didn't matter who asked who first, but with Felix it did. She couldn't read him well enough to know how he felt about her like some of the other guys she'd dated. And he was so focused...for him to go through the emotional turmoil of asking her out for coffee meant she was somehow in the ring of that focus. Otherwise...
                "Otherwise I'm just another talking head."
                Madison was still waiting for some kind of answer, so Tori bit the bullet and admitted, "No, it's just me."
                Sensing she had just stepped on some kind of button, Madison mumbled a quiet, "Ah." Then, suddenly not knowing what else to say, she looked away and fidgeted in her seat. She checked her comm. sitting on the table nearby, just so she had something to occupy her hands with until the awkward silence passed.
                There must have been a message waiting for her because Madison frowned and let out an annoyed huff when she saw whatever was there. "Dang it Astrum," she muttered, shooting to her feet and grabbing her purse where it hung over the back of her chair. She looked up, feeling Tori's curious eyes, and held up her handheld unit. "My brother," she explained hurriedly as she laid cash on the table for the drinks, "as usual he's got himself in over his head."
                Tori blinked, twisting around in her chair to keep the other woman in sight as she wove through the tightly packed tables. "Is he all right?"
                Madison flapped a hand with a distant frown. "Yeah, I've just got to run. Listen, it was nice meeting you and, um," she hesitated, coming to a stop next to Tori's table, "I know it's none of my business, but good luck," she gave Tori a semi-embarrassed smile as she nodded at the empty chair, "with whoever it is you're waiting on to catch a clue."
                Tori blinked, face heating up. "Is it really that obvious?" She mumbled.
                Madison shook her head. "Only to those that have been there before."
                Not sure what else to say, Tori mumbled, "Thanks."
                Madison nodded and smiled at her before darting for the door again. "It was nice meeting you!" She called back over her shoulder before disappearing into the shaded interior of the cafe.
                Tori waved half-heartedly, but she was already gone. Thinking that was the end of it, she turned back to her tablet and saw that the screen had gone dark after too long without input.
                She didn't bother to turn it back on. Instead she clicked off the keyboard and lay the tablet down flat on the table. There would be no comparing ship designs now. Not while she was so distracted.
                She paid her check and left, but didn't return to the space port. Instead she made her way to the middle of the city where there was less color and more of the general city official buildings that could always be found in major cities across the galaxy.
                The Arca-Stran Visitor's Center was a short, square structure made of milky white stone. It's name was marked in the broken, rectangular characters of the original Gorjan's language with the more widely-understood translation posted on a sign by the sidewalk in Key. Small, square windows were set deep in the stone at regular intervals, one on top of another, showing three separate floors.
                Tori signed in at the front desk and got directions from the clerk. She took the elevator to the second floor and found the emptiest communications room available. Vid-phone booths lined the walls and she chose the one farthest away from any of the other off world visitor's there. She heard the dim sound of the white noise curtain encircling her booth like a curtain, muting the noise from the other people, as she dialed up the privacy settings as high as they would go. She had managed to keep herself under control on the walk over here, but she felt the tears pricking at the back of her eyes and her nose was starting to run. She tried to be discreet about it, but with the white noise curtain making it impossible for anyone outside to hear her, discretion really didn't serve a point.
                She sniffed and wiped her nose on her sleeve as she put in her parents' home frequency and prayed her dad hadn't changed his routine and was out with the horses somewhere away from the house.
                The connecting symbol marched monotonously across the screen a moment, and then with a faint brrng noise, her mother's face appeared on the monitor.
                Her brown eyes lit up when she saw who it was. "Tori!" She cried as she finished wiping her hands on a dishtowel and tossed it on the counter off screen. "I was gonna call you soon. Your brother Lance is engaged! Can you believe it-?"
                She stopped, well worn worry creases appearing on her forehead as she leaned in close to get a better view of her daughter. "Sweetheart, what's wrong?" She asked with a mother's concern. "What happened?"
                A tear finally slid down her face and Tori finally lost it. She started to sob, her shoulders shaking with the effort as she tried to calm down enough to speak.
                "Oh Mom," she managed to talk through the tears, "these last few days have just been so awful!"
                And with a breath-stealing sob, she told her mother everything.

< Entry 13                                                                                                                                            Entry 14.5 >

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