Wednesday, January 13, 2016

37: The Lady Fair - Part II

Entry 37: Where Tori is saved by a strange animal and its even stranger master.

                Without Gary's hard grip anchoring her in place, Tori fell back, nearly upsetting the table behind her, much to a couple of the miner's displeasure. "Sorry, sorry," she breathed as she stumbled to her feet and backed away from Gary towards the door. Everyone was watching now, but Tori didn't care as she collided with something solid behind her.
                Hands caught her before she could fall and Tori wrenched away, heart thudding in her chest as horrible images of someone holding her down for Gary played through her mind.
                But the hands let go when she pulled back. Looking up, Tori saw it wasn't a human behind her, but the star crawler she'd passed when she had come in. The one with four arms.
                He looked at her with level golden-brown eyes. "Are you well?" he asked in a deep baritone.
                Tori stared at him, still holding her wrist with her other hand. Not sure what was happening anymore, she nodded and made a small, "Uh-huh," sound.
                The alien looked her over once more, but let it lie. Looking back to where his animal was still tackling the terrified human, he whistled sharply.
                The animal dropped to the ground, metal leg whirring as it tried to match the natural speed of the other three joints. The sound of rolling thunder still sounded through the crowded room.
                "Get your blasted dog away from me!" Gary shouted in panic as he pressed himself against the bar behind him.
                The alien male ignored him. "That's hardly a way to treat old friends," he said instead, words carrying through the room.
                "Yeah, what's it to you?" Gary demanded as he finally pulled his sidearm and leveled it at the animal but didn't fire. Tori saw with grim satisfaction that his hand was shaking.
                The non-human stared Gary down with ocean-calm eyes. "You're not the only one here to interview the lady." He inclined his head at Tori standing some feet away. "Miss Addison and I have our own business to conduct. I was waiting for you to leave, but by then I may not have much of a pilot to interview." He paused for a heartbeat. "And if you shoot my beast I will return the favor."
                Gary sneered. "I don't have a dog," he snapped.
                The star crawler raised a single dark eyebrow. "He is not a dog." Again he paused. "And you do have legs. More than one, so they are more common than my beast. He is one of a kind."
                Tori saw the gears turning in Gary's head – his love for his legs versus his intense desire to shoot the animal that had attacked him – but in the end self-preservation won out. Tori wasn't surprised, although a near silent sigh of relief left her lips.
                Gary lowered his gun but the animal continued to pin him in place, showing the tips of white teeth. "All right, all right!" he cried, voice slightly higher than it had been. "Just call it off!"
                The alien thought about it, and then with another sharp whistle, called the animal back to him. It did, however reluctantly, and Gary eyed the thing until it was safely back under its master's table. Then his eyes turned back to Tori.
                She shivered at the fury in them, embarrassment piled on top of his earlier temper. He started towards her, fist raised...
                ...and stopped when a large, dirt-stained hand landed heavily on his shoulder.
                Gary looked up into the face of the miner that had been sitting at the table Tori had run into. "My brother hires the local law," he rumbled, voice sounding like it had been scoured with gravel. "Care to see what 'idiots' he gives blasters to?"
                Gary paled. The guy towered over him and was strong from years working underground. Tori did not envy him his position as the miner and a few of his friends towed the smaller man outside.
                A tendril of relief threaded its way down her spine when the door finally swung closed behind him.
                Everyone in the Backwaters watched the door for another handful of heartbeats, and then almost at once, turned back to their various conversations from before. All except for Tori, the animal that had saved her, and its peculiar master.
                Giving into the pressing need to fill the silence, Tori pushed her hair behind her ear and said, "You have very good hearing."
                "It comes in handy every now and then," the star crawler admitted. He tilted his chin at her. "That was not the smartest thing to do, threatening him like that. Lambert's reputation paints him as easily defensive and eager to prove he is..." He stopped, cocking his head slightly. "You human's have a saying. Top dog, I believe it is?"
                Tori nodded, face set so the stranger couldn't see how close she was to falling apart. "Yes, that would fit. Although I never would have thought he was capable of any of that." She shook her head, a shaky breath escaping. "He used to be so sweet."
                "You knew him?" the star crawler asked as he reached down and lay his lower right hand on his creature's head. He had come out from under the table and was panting at the non-human's side, a startlingly blue tongue lolling out the side of his narrow muzzle.
                Tori nodded. "We went to school together. At least for a while. He was kicked out around finals. I never heard why."
                The pale-skinned being gave a muffled snort. Apparently he had.
                Tori realized she was still standing in the middle of the floor. Suddenly all she wanted was to be back in her rented room, door safely bolted and chained behind her. "Listen, thanks for the help and all, but I have to go-" she began to say.
                A high-pitched whine cut her off as a warm weight pressed against her legs. She looked down in surprise, heart stuttering slightly when she saw the star crawler's animal was now sitting next to her, staring up at her with big, pleading eyes.
                She swallowed down her sudden fear. The creature wasn't thundering at her, just watching and whining as it begged.
                "He likes you," the star crawler said.
                Tori looked up, hands held up away from the animal. "Is that good?" she asked him.
                The alien male resumed his chair, adjusting his dark brown vest over a short-sleeved light colored shirt while gesturing her to one of the open chairs at his table with another. "It is interesting," he told her. "Please, sit."
                Eyeing the creature warily, Tori slowly did. No sense offending the man that had helped her. Besides, it wouldn't hurt to let the miners put some distance between her and Gary. That being said, she still made sure to take the seat on the opposite side of the table, as far from him as she could get at a round table.
                "It seems only fair to tell me my name since I already know yours. I am called Zaimak," he told her, watching her once more with warm-colored eyes.
                Tori bobbed her head, not taking her eyes off of Zaimak. "Pleasure," she mumbled before inclining her head at his creature. "And Fido here?" she asked, eying the creature now sitting by his side. It no longer made that strange rolling-thunder sound in its chest, but she didn't want to get too close to it until she was sure it didn’t prefer to bite new friends.
                Zaimak glanced down at the beast that came easily above his knee. It was obviously a mutt of some kind — part canine, part unknown equivalent — tall and leggy like its master, it had short, silky hair like a Labrador that ranged from pale brown to a sandy orange color that ran along its back. Its ears hung longer than its narrow jaw and it had two tails, one that Tori would call ‘normal’ that curled over its back and another that was far more flexible that it kept curled wound around one of its back legs like a length of rope. Of its legs only three were natural, the fourth having been replaced with a metal prosthetic that attached at its shoulder and narrow chest.
                “I call him Dak.” Zaimak waved a long hand at the beast which looked up at him briefly before turning its big eyes — one dark brown, one neon pink — back to Tori. Its posture had eased and its dark blue tongue was lolling out the side of its muzzle as it panted. Tori saw it had a double row of teeth along its lower jaw; one stunted and grown askew from the base of the main teeth. “I assure you he is quite friendly after the initial shock of introductions has worn off. I don’t know why, but he is always intolerant of new smells.” He inclined his head to Tori. "That is why I was so surprised he took to you so readily."
                Tori eyed the creature again. It was sidling closer to her again, scootching forward without actually standing, until he was close enough to sniff up and down her thigh.
                She let him, hoping he wouldn’t take offense, and after an uncertain moment, Dak put his head on her knee and stared up at her with a doleful expression that was thoroughly canine no matter what planet it hailed from.
                Tori gave in and carefully stroked the beast’s silky head. “Dak the dog?” she asked Zaimak, raising an eyebrow at him. “A little alliterative, don’t you think?”
                “It’s not his name. It is what he is,” Zaimak clarified. “He is a hybrid between one of your Earth dogs and one of my own akrens, a common pet of my home world.” He rippled one shoulder in a shrug. “Therefore, a dak.”
                Tori looked up at him as she scratched Dak behind his soft ears. “And you bred them together because…?” she prompted.
                But he slowly shook his head. “I found him,” Zaimak told her. “Abandoned with his litter on Shinne."
                Tori looked at the table top as she tried to recall the planet’s position on the star chart in her head. “Shinne…” she repeated slowly. “Isn’t that near the Sigma Asteroid Field?” Her eyes narrowed as she remembered countless stories about smuggler’s and pirates hiding in the asteroid field that was so expansive it had destroyed the Hybridian Way trade route several hundred years ago. “What were you doing all the way out there on the edge of everything?”
                His expression hardened. Somehow she had insulted him, but thinking over her words, Tori couldn't see how. “It is not the edge of everything, merely everything you concern yourself with." There was a snap in his voice that she could see he was struggling to control.
                Zaimak shook his head. "Regardless, what I said earlier is true."
                Caught off guard by the sudden transition, Tori felt her yellow eyebrows twitch closer together. "Which part?" she asked.
                "That I am here to interview a pilot." He shrugged, the movement fluid with so many joints to ply. "However he never showed. I don't know why."
                "I'm...sorry to hear that," Tori said, not sure how she should respond.
                Neon eyes watched her again. "Perhaps," he murmured.
                "I also overheard," he continued purposefully, "that you were a master's student. What school?"
                Well it couldn't hurt to tell him. "MIT of Earth."
                "And I take it from your current state-” He gestured vaguely at the bar where she had sat with Gary with one hand while simultaneously taking in her unwashed clothes with another. "-that you did not attain all the proper licenses for flying the more...legitimate haulers?"
                Scowling slightly, Tori nodded. "I had to drop out for financial reasons," she admitted. The words were sour in her mouth.
                "I see," Zaimak intoned. Then he thought, the murmured chatter of the bar enveloping their table as he watched her with half-lidded eyes. Tori watched back, uncertain what to make of his interest. He couldn't possibly be implying what she thought he was.
                Finally, after studying her with whatever sensors he had at his disposal, Zaimak asked in a very inquisitive tone, "How would you feel about working for me?"
                Tori stared at him. "I don't know," she told him honestly. "I don't know you."
                He reached out one of his upper arms and took hold of his glass, picking up near the rim and swirling the amber liquid inside around to coat the sides of the glass. "True. And I do not know you as well, however we are both here, with matching needs." His eyes sparkled in the light briefly as if he was inwardly laughing at something. "And I do not believe in coincidences."
                The human remained silent for a moment, and then gave a reluctant sigh. "No," she muttered, "neither do I."
                It was not an answer and Zaimak did not take it as one. Instead he leaned back in his chair and waited for her to speak, idly sipping his liquor as if this was not at all strange.
                Eyes narrowed, Tori took the opportunity to do a little studying of her own. She'd already pegged him as a star crawler, and from the way he spoke and held himself, she felt safe in assuming that if he didn't own his own ship, then he was high on its chain of command. His clothes were layered – short-sleeved shirt underneath a pebbly leather vest along with long pants tucked into dark brown boots, the customary gun belt of someone who conducted shady business firmly wound around his waist – no doubt to ward off the chill of space that ships were never quite able to keep out. His face and hands were clean, Dak well groomed and cared for, and his shiny black hair, pulled into some kind of top knot at the apex of his egg shaped skull, lacked the grime and grease that Tori was, unfortunately, growing accustomed to.
                Business must be good, Tori thought. Or at least good enough.
                "And just what is it that you do, Zaimak?" she asked aloud.
                He shrugged again, the smoothness of the motion unsettling Tori some as she realized her own shoulders would pop right out of their sockets if she tried that. "Carry things from here to there." He said nothing more.
                Unease coiled in Tori's gut. But then what else should I expect? I already knew if I wanted to fly a ship home or anywhere else it would have to be under the radar. That's how I let Cipher talk me into this crazy meet in the first place. What makes flying for this guy any different than flying for Gary?
                She'd meant it as a rhetorical question, but considering how her interview with Gary had ended, she realized she did have one major concern. "And why should I trust you enough to get into a sealed up boat with you? I knew Gary for years and I still ended up with bruises." She eyed him suspiciously. "How do I know I won't get more if I go with you?"
                Zaimak actually smiled, revealing square, stubby teeth. "A fair concern for a young lady like yourself," he conceded. "However I think you'll be comforted to know my security is taken care of by two Troi'en sisters."
                Tori's eyebrows twitched up. Real life Amazons, she thought in mild surprise, relaxing slightly despite herself. "And I should just take your word?" she asked instead.
                "Of course not," Zaimak answered. He reached into his inner pocket and pulled out a square card the color and thinness of paper, but it shone dimly in the light of the room as he raised it in front of his mouth.
                Static paper, Tori realized.
                "The Lady Fair," Zaimak said clearly, letting the paper pick up the vibrations of his voice and transcribe them. "Docking ring 1, landing pad 7."
                He held the paper out when he was done and, warily, Tori took it. He was watching her intently again. "See for yourself before you decide anything. We won't be leaving until the day after tomorrow. Come by tomorrow if you have the time and we can conduct a trial run."
                Tori made no promises, just watched him as he stood. "Come Dak," he said before weaving his way through the tables toward the door, Dak following obediently at his heels.

< Entry 36                                                              Special Entry 3                                                   Entry 38 >

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