Entry 039: Where Tori and Zaimak strike a deal, and Tori meets the rest of the crew...all in a very confined space.
"That," Zaimak said once they had reached superlight speeds and were safely away, "was remarkably clever Tori. You are a supremely competent flier."
Tori shot him a sideways look from where she leaned her forearms against the crossbeam of the steering yoke. She felt like she'd just run the hurdles and dove straight into the school's anti-grav circle for laps. She was on the brink of demanding where he got off using her given name like that before she remembered she'd all but ordered him to not five minutes ago.
"No Captain," she said instead, "just a supremely incompetent faller."
Zaimak actually laughed, a deep, pleasing sound that rolled out of him. "Well said," he told her.
The corner of Tori's lips twitched up. It was nice to make someone else laugh. Life had been rather humorless since Felix and Cor had left.
A loud shout cut the expression short. "Zaimak!" a gruff voice bellowed through the open door at their backs. "What in the name of all the gears on Jumble was that? You said you could handle our escape vector. From where I was clinging to the bulkhead rivets, that did not feel like handled!"
Tori caught the captain's look of strained patience before he hid it away. Pushing off from the control board, he spun the co-pilot's chair around and rose just in time to face a furious mechlan in grease-smeared coveralls and red-brown fur just starting to turn gray around his round muzzle. His umber eyes, circular and deeply set in his face, scowled out at Zaimak.
"And what kind of scrap flying was that anyway?" he demanded as the captain took his time standing. "Misusing the booster like that almost overloaded the sublight altogether. We coulda lost the whole propulsion system!"
"Scrap flying?" The words were shocked out of Tori's mouth.
A wry smile came onto Zaimak's face as he glanced at the human. "Really? I thought it was quite clever. It certainly did the job."
The ape-like mechlan snorted, lips curling over his teeth in frustration. "You would," he grumbled. "And of course it did. We were halfway to lightspeed without a hyperdrive! Now who's the mouse?"
Mouse? Tori frowned. She hadn't even realized he'd noticed her sitting there stiffly in her chair. "I'm the one that just saved your fur with my 'scrap flying'," she shot back. "And there was never any danger to the engine. I'm not so green as to just dump it cold into the speeds we were going. I eased her in."
"Yeah, well the stress nearly killed her. And if she had blinked out, just where would we be now, huh? Facing the jeers of a bunch of Ogdyns with nasty overbites, that's where." He answered his own question.
Tori glared at him with brown eyes. "Then I guess you would've just had to use that one-way ticket I saw when Zaimak led me up here."
The mechlan's small eyes widened briefly before narrowing, his lips pursing in anger. The emergency engine commonly called a 'one-way ticket' was the tool of the desperate. Capable of giving off just enough power for one short jump at near lightspeed, it had originally been meant for escape pods. Now it was the favorite method of ditching pursuit like the kind the Lady had just left behind.
The mechlan glowered at her, but Tori refused to look away and held her chin high.
"Hrmph," he eventually grunted, leaning back against the console behind him and crossing his over-long arms over his hairy chest. "Not as stupid as she looks, Zai. What grain silo did you pull her out of anyway?"
Zaimak lifted a long finger to forestall Tori's retort. "No need to be rude, Khan. And I noticed her intelligence for myself," he said as Tori sat back in her chair and glowered at the mechlan. He ignored her, probably too busy measuring the firm star Zaimak was giving him. "So I'd appreciate it if you don't scare her off."
The grease-smeared mechlan huffed hot air and curled his lips in. "If you would quit picking the wimps I wouldn't have to do anything."
Before Tori could do more than thin her own into an unhappy line, the tramp of boots came up the mesh gangway that connected the cockpit with the rest of the Lady. Her eyes swung over and found Anitha and another smaller woman with similar features and the same plum eyes following her.
Anitha grinned. "Well lookit you. You made it in one piece." She jerked her thumb at the mechlan as she stepped inside and leaned a hip against the inner wall. "I see you've met Mudge. The brunette with the springs in her soles is my sister Trinetta."
"But everyone calls me Trinie!" the girl all but chirped, waving like a little kid. Even without the introductions, it would have been obvious she was Anitha's sister. Although smaller boned and lighter colored, she had the same plum colored eyes and similar feather-cles sweeping off her eyebrows, although they were far shorter and dyed sea foam green. She had pulled her light brown hair into a high tail on her head with a long leather thong embellished with the same design as the ones on her own gauntlets. Her clothes were lighter but served the same purpose as Anitha's, and while she looked just as fit, she carried a blocky blaster at her waist instead of a knife like her sister.
She turned to the mechlan. "I thought you're name was Kahn."
For some reason that got a long gruff grumble out of him as he turned scowled eyes on a grinning Anitha and a giggling Trinie. They shared a sneaky look. "It is," he growled.
"But we call him Mudge cuz he's such a curmudgeon!" Trinie cried, then giggled again and hid her wide smile behind her hands like a kid stirring up trouble.
Tori stared. Obviously the physical differences aren't the only things that set them apart.
Zaimak had taken back control of the conversation by the time Tori came back to the present. Almost immediately she wished she hadn't. "-I don't see what the problem is," Anitha was saying. "We have the cargo and we lost those bolt heads from Ogdyn. Let's just get to Juni and finish the job." She shifted against the curve of the wall with a sour twist of her lips. "We could use the payday."
"The problem," Zaimak spoke patiently, "is that the Ogdyni know where we're going. There are only so many mining outposts that all but begged them for their stock of KV-H in the last ten thousand years. They'll reach it long before we're even halfway there."
Mudge scratched at the back of his head. "I dunno, Zaimak," he muttered. "They are pretty dense."
"You don't have to be smart to outnumber someone," the captain argued.
"Yeah, but that's what we're here for!" Trinie announced in a cheery, high pitched voice. She had a long blade in her hand, from where Tori had no idea, and she flipped the stiletto knife between her fingers, a smile on her face that had Tori shrinking in her seat hoping the girl didn't notice her.
Anitha nodded in agreement, brash smile on her face. At least until she saw what her sister was playing with.
"Trinetta!" she shouted, grabbing the stiletto from her sister. "What have I said about taking my things?"
"Ow!" Trinetta cried, popping her now-bleeding finger in her mouth and staring at Anitha with wide eyes. "Anitha that hurt," she mumbled around it.
"Of course it hurt," Anitha said, shaking the blade at her. "It's a weapon, not a toy!"
They kept shouting at each other, the noise quickly filling the small space.
Resisting the urge to stick her fingers in her ears, Tori looked over at Zaimak where he stood with his eyes closed, pressing at his temples with one pair of hands while the others remained out of his way.
"Is this a common thing?" she asked him under the noise as Mudge waded in with a harsh shout to, "Shut it or I'll make you!"
"The arguing?" Zaimak muttered with a stern expression. "Unfortunately."
Tori looked at the three vocal people again. From what little she knew of them, that didn't surprise her. "No, I meant the whole crew trying to fit inside the cabin at once." Worry crossed her face as another thought occurred to her. "This is all of them, right?" She wasn't sure if she could take more.
Zaimak chuckled. "Yes, this is them. And where do you think they prefer to argue most?" he asked with dry humor before raising his voice over the din. "That is enough from all of you."
Grudgingly, the voices left off, their owners watching the captain with wary eyes. Well, except for Trinetta. She had gotten distracted by the arrival of Dak and was now bent over, out of sight, as she murmured, "Oh there you are Dakky! Did you have fun playing in all that mud yesterday? I bet you did! I bet you did!"
The others ignored her, Zaimak looking at Anitha and Mudge in turn. "Now the KV-H will keep until we find a way to get it to Juni. In the meantime, Mudge, I need you to see to the Lady's burns. Anitha, find another way to get Juni her product , preferably one that doesn't bring us face to face with the Ogdyni again."
"You got it Boss," and, "Right, Boss," mixed with Trinetta's, "Don't you mean face to snout?"
The rest of the party stared at her, and then Anitha left with a put upon sigh and a slow shake of her head, Trinetta trailing after her with a whistle for Dak to follow, leaving Tori sitting in the pilot's chair in complete confusion.
As fazed as she was it took her a couple of extra seconds to realize Mudge was still loitering near the door. His circular eyes kept flicking between Zaimak and herself, a dark look in them clearly stating he wished she wasn't here to listen.
He's not the only one, Tori thought.
"So how should we do this?" she asked suddenly, voice more brittle than she liked as she twisted around to double check the Lady's status. "Obviously this isn't the great fit we were both hoping for. " That's putting it nicely. "But I should be able to swing around to the far side of the planet. You can just drop me off there." As much as Tori didn't like the place, the next planet with a decent amount of outgoing travel was nearly two days away. And she wasn't about to be stuck with these people for that long.
Mudge's guttural laugh had her hands pausing over the board.
She fixed him with a look. "Something caught in your throat?" she asked with warning in her voice.
He shot her a mean smile that managed to question her mental state without lowering himself to actually asking. "You got a death wish?" he demanded. "The Ogdyni will be all over the sky by now. We're not going back there. You're just gonna have to come with us."
"What?" The word exploded out of her. "But- you can't just take me with you. You've got to take me back. Take me back right now!"
Mudge gave her a look. "You want to go back to that mud ball?"
Tori scowled back. "No. I want to get home. But apparently I can't do that without breaking the law and forgoing everything I've held dear for the last twenty-five years, so take me back to the mud ball!"
She was shouting by the end, but she didn't care. She finally had her plan – scrap though it was – and she was going to see it through.
The pair watching her shared a look. Tori couldn't translate Zaimak's expression into words, but Mudge's clearly groaned 'not another one'.
"You said you hailed from Earth?" Zaimak asked in pleasant tones.
Mudge slapped overlong fingers over his eyes and muttered darkly under his breath.
Not sure what was happening, Tori gave a very slow nod and a hesitant, "Yes..."
The captain stroked his chin in thought. It was so quiet for a moment that Tori could clearly make out Mudge's repeated, "Don't do it, don't do it, don't do it-”
"How about this."
Mudge groaned and scrubbed at his facial hair with both hands.
Zaimak ignored him with a polite smile that unnerved Tori more than anything. "We have some business to finish in the Pashreen System. You take us there, we complete our exchange-”
An illegal exchange, she thought grimly.
"-and in return we will take you to Polestar Station not three days distant. You can make your way home from there." He switched his attention to the still grumbling mechlan. "And we can find ourselves another pilot from the prospects there. Is that agreeable to everyone?" His eyes flicked between them.
Tori thought it over in her mind, then gave a sharp nod. Polestar Station was the GCC spindle space station assigned to her home system. They had regular shuttles to all the major planets, including Earth, so it would be an easy thing to get home from there.
Mudge snorted loudly through his wide nostrils. "S'pose they can't have any worse pickings than the last time," he growled with a look at Tori.
"Excellent," Zaimak concluded before she could do anything but scowl. She would have tried anyway, but there was an edge to the captain's voice that reminded her she'd never had a say in it to begin with. "Then if you two will kindly resume your duties...?" Neon eyes snapped to each of them but Tori looked away before they found her.
"Excellent," he said again decisively as he straightened his outer ware. "Did the engines really suffer, Khan, or were you merely making a point?"
Mudge huffed. "Her little stunt put a strain on her, but nothing blew." Beady eyes scowled at Tori. "This time. I can make minor repairs in, erm..." He scratched at the ruddy fur on his cheek as he thought, then shrugged one wiry shoulder. "Call it half an hour."
"The new course will be laid in by then," Tori told him stiffly without prompting. "Just tell me when you're done and we'll go."
The mechlan gave her a muttered semi-assent before slouching out of the cockpit. Back to whatever grease pit he swung out of, Tori thought, lips pressed into a thin line. She spun her chair back around to face the control panel but even that familiar sight didn't calm her as usual. She could feel Zaimak's eyes on her and she had the unnerving feeling he was waiting to see if that little encounter had finally broken what he believed was a very fragile state.
She gave herself a shake. Fragile my afterburners, she told herself, straightening in her chair and setting her face. You can do this. You'll get through.
Tori started the process to drop out of hyperspace so she could lay in the new course with sharp flicks of her fingers. Her new captain, apparently, gave her a studious look before turning to leave. "Set in a course for the Pashreen System's capital planet. We'll have a better idea of what needs to be done by the time we get there."
"Wait!" Tori called after him, swiveling around. "Where are you going?"
Zaimak waved the rounded-rectangular comm. unit at her. "To call Juni. Did you think I wouldn't warn her that we'll be late with delivery?" He raised slick eyebrows at her.
Tori shook her head. "No just- You trust me enough to leave me alone up here?"
"I suppose I must, mustn't I? Although it's not like you'll take us back to Kracus," he said with a knowing look in her direction.
Brown eyes narrowed at him. "And why not?"
He shrugged, his four arms rippling. "For the same reason you showed up at the docking ring today," he told her. "You were even more desperate to leave that place than I was."
With that he left, leaving Tori to stare at his back until the round white door slid closed behind him, leaving her alone at the Lady's controls.
As she faced the controls to key them out of hyperspace and start the systems check for the hyperdrive, Tori wished hard that Zaimak wasn't right.