Wednesday, September 4, 2013
“No way, look at that gait. He’s never stepped foot off planet in his life,” Orn tossed another piece of fried close-enough-to-shrimp into his mouth. Ferra’d have him sleeping with the genie if she knew. Dwarves were supposed to be loyal, hardworking, and concerto ass flautists. Orn failed at the first two, so doubled down on the last.
“His knickers could be trapped in a gravity pull towards his ass,” his captain said, snagging one of the Dwarf’s bits of fried sea bug. “There’s no way you can tell who’s a virgin from their walk.”
“Oh my cynical, Sir,” he said mocking a small bow as he balled up the last of the sack and tossed it towards a recycle bin. It called out a cheery “Only You Can Prevent Decompression,” as it flared up his trash. They’d moved their little ‘basking in the glow of a job well finished’ party onto the main thoroughfare, watching the early risers pass through shops over-crammed with every tacky piece of paraphernalia the designer could get “Samudra: Gateway to Relaxation” onto. Most were decked in excessive sun bonnets, some with high frills thanks to a passing fashion interest in the headwear of pilgrims making their way through the nebula heavens to find god or something.
Orn hitched up his waning belt, the canvas overlay of his traveling pants slipping loose from their employment famine, and gestured toward a young man, human from the size of his legs and lack of brains. The example tottered about, failing to adjust for the microshift of gravity with each pass of the balancers. “Like watching a baby varg take its first steps, before it bites your face off,” he said to Variel.
She smiled politely, her own calculating eyes picking through the piles of tourists, some dragging still groggy spawn towards the shuttle deck. Another dawn, another day of fun, even if the kids screamed the entire time about not wanting to go, the parents screamed about not wanting to take them, and vendors screamed about giving another 10% of their monthly income to rent a scubaship. Fun. The middle class: backbone of the galaxy; it was a world she’d only ever seen from the outside more alien to her than a ship full of elves, a dwarf, and a mute Djinn.
“He may not be a space virgin,” she said diplomatically to her pilot, “perhaps he suffers from a debilitating inner ear infection, and he cannot stand still for more than a few moments before he takes a rather pathetic tumble.” The dwarf looked up at her deadly serious face, his mouth slightly agape, “You could have just committed seventeen violations of the ethics code of this quadrant.”
“Are you shitting me?” Orn asked, his hand slightly trembling at her stone face. Whenever he saw her this focused something was about to explode, occasionally something rather important.
She glanced down, one eyebrow raising in a decidedly elven maneuver, “What do you think?” And failed to maintain her straight face as a laugh broke free from her lungs.
Orn laughed himself, shaking off the momentary fear that she’d toss his Dwarven ass into some ethic’s jail for breaking part of her ship, “Never shit a shitter.”
“I’ll remember that the next time I meet a toilet,” she shrugged her shoulders and checked her hand, “It’s been nearly four hours, do you think they’ve finished the damn inspection?”
Variel and Orn were allergic to government oversight, one by habit, the other by genetics. Even seeing a badge sent them both into hives, it was one of the few things they could actually share aside from the greasiest food that could bottom out a robot’s gastrointestinal tract.
“I figure your husband’s got him pinned in a corner and refuses to let him come out. We’ll find his body, three months down the line, stinking up the place after he died in the walls.”
“Very funny, you’re a regular Braxl the Red you know that,” Variel responded, hoping the Dwarf wasn’t even a quarter accurate. “The last thing I need to deal with is wiping a ‘Death of Technician’ off my record. I’m only a few more months, half a solar year at the most from finally getting out of this lease.”
“You know,” Orn tapped his greasy chin, “if we took a few jobs from the Quest Log….”
“No,” she interrupted him in what had been an ongoing and never ending argument. Orn was about to make his standard rebuttal when her PALM chirped. WEST’s signature heavy beeping came over the line promptly as he hacked the accept button. “Good, they’re done,” she lit her palm up against the wall as the robot on the other end appeared.
“Owner number 23, I have news,” WEST’s voice was even more obstinate than usual. The technician must have been talking to it.
She bypassed the Owner 23 remark and asked, “Good or bad?”
“Let us settle on chaotic neutral. Your dimwitted friend asked our resident Djinn a question.”
WEST was clearly enjoying the show, hoping to drag this out for his amusement. “And,” Variel prompted, “what was it.”
“If he could have any wishes.”
The Captain didn’t even bother to disconnect her PALM as she raced through the busying corridors, a flustered Dwarf hot on her trail.
By the time she got back to her ship, she batted past a pair of lost virgins hunting for their bus and mistaking the happy jellyfish for the disgruntled cuttlefish. The Airlock door hung wide open, WEST’s doing, as she bolted through, and zipped past the embarkation room towards the sounds of her computer crying out “Warmer. Warmer. Hot!”
She skidded to a very out of breath halt at the sight of her Djinn holding the whimpering technician by his suspenders. They were wadded up inside his raging fists, as smoke poured from the cracks in the Djinn suit, clogging up the technician’s eyes. On the plus side, no one was dead yet.
“Gene,” she started calmly, holding her hand up to show she was unarmed, and accidentally projecting a smarmy WEST onto the standoff. The flicker of the computer pulled at the Djinn’s vision and the heavy head turned towards her, the fire raging so bright his eyes were nearly blue. Oh boy.
“Now, Gene, we don’t want any unnecessary bloodshed,” she said cautiously to her oldest friend. But the Djinn was barely listening, all his rage burning for what amounted to the greatest racial insult anyone could make to his people short of “You look like you could use a glass of water.”
The technician kicked valiantly against thin air, his soles providing little traction to the rising tide of an angry giant. “Help,” he gurgled to anyone within hearing distance, unable to see thanks to the acrid smoke.
“Come on, we’ve been through a lot. Seen things someone like this little flameless candle can only dream of,” Variel soothed.
The giant jerked a moment at her but still he stared the vertebrate child down, willing all his malice into a few flicks of the inner flame. Orn skidded to a halt behind his boss, trying to get in enough oxygen to fuel his very un-dwarflike sprint, as he took in the vision before him. “Right, well, I have some very un-murdering things to be doing on the bridge,” and he backed away as quickly as he came.
“Gene,” Variel laid her hand across the rock suit, despite the high heat scorching it, “put him down.”
Steam hissed through his shoulder cracks, but he lowered his arms until the technician’s boots met deckhead, and then he unclenched the fists. Segundo plummeted, his legs having lost most of the blood after he’d hung suspended in the air for twenty minutes. The computer took its sweet time in calling for help.
“Thh…thank you,” he muttered to the captain, rising unsteadily like that baby varg.
“It’s not me you should be thanking,” she looked at Gene still smoldering, but the blue was fading to a safe red orange, “by his people’s laws he could have ripped out your intestines and smashed your face through a wall for those remarks. It would be in everyone’s best interest if you apologized, now.”
Segundo shook his entire body, but looked from the woman who he thought saved him back to the one that was trying to kill him, “Ss..sorry, Sir.”
“Are you injured?” she asked, eyeing up some scuffed marks on his striped uniform.
“Nnnoo,” any thoughts of faking a minor injury for something major vanished in the face of experience dealing intimately with the criminal scum he was supposed to stop but had never seen before.
The proprietor and only person between Segundo and a crushed everything crossed her arms, as she very slowly asked the still trembling technician, “And you’re not going to make a universal case out of this, are you?”
Before the technician could respond, Variel uncrossed her arms and called out loudly, “ORN!”
By all rights the Dwarf should have been long out of range, but his shaggy head poked around the corner, “Yes, captain?”
She let the barb pass, not in the mood to rise to the Dwarf, “You shall escort our guest through the last of his tour, making certain to answer any and all questions he has, then you shall happily escort him off my damn ship.” Variel rose up on her toes, making her rather average height all the more imposing as she started down the technician. “Do we have a problem with that?”
“No, Sir,” Segundo saluted despite himself, his palm displaying the inventory checklist against Variel’s face. She didn’t blink in the blinding light, only leaned back away from him as Orn scooped in, grabbing the shaking kid’s hand.
“Come on, Squirt,” he said to the human towering a good three feet above him, “Best be getting out of here fast like.” He peered over the checklist on Segundo’s hand, skipping past long swathes of ship he had no interest in.
“Boring, boring, who cares, lost that, sold that, ah! The Bridge, now she’s a thing of beauty. Come with me,” and hauled Segundo away from the gathered masses. As his head knocked into the low hanging ceiling of the hallway, a chirp called out from WEST, “A virus upon you, I had ten gigs on the Djinn.”
Variel glanced over at her mute friend, and said simply, “Try not to kill anyone else for the day.”
Gene shuffled upon his feet, perhaps the only other one aware of the line the pair walked each day, but said nothing. His fingers fell towards his hips, silenced in shame. The captain touched him once on the cracking shoulder, despite the still raging heat, and smiled wanly. There wouldn’t be any shoving someone out the airlock, unless the technician tried to get cute.
Before she could turn to walk away, the airlock door slammed open hard, the operator too impatient and overpowered to wait for the computer to finish its job. A flurry of color burst into the storage room, bereft of anything but a few of the old cruise ships accoutrements Orn convinced her to keep on just in case.
The elf paused, trying to catch her breath as she eyed up the room. Her multi-hued skirts came to a dramatic flair, hovering as if she were caught in a perpetual wind, the pink stars sparkling with each beat of the elf’s heart. This was the most panicked Variel’d ever seen Brena, her stage makeup smeared until the fuchsia patterns mushed to form a half eye mask of a super villain, and the pre-programmed hair color already slipping to a black.
“My Dominant,” the elf called out, the closest the race could come to showing respect to something that didn’t share their particular brand of ears. It wasn’t a good sign.
“Yes?” Variel asked, weary showing in her voice.
“I request the aid of your hands.”
“I’m not a bored fop with more money than brains, you can speak like it’s 500 DC,” Variel shook out her words, more cutting with the local Bard than usual. Usually she’d at least let the wordsmith get a few purple sentences out before stalking back to her preferred century.
Brena’s tiny mouth turned further down, but she buried whatever curses floated through the devious brain, “My brother, he is in danger.”
“Maybe he shouldn’t have become an assassin, then,” Variel waved her hands as if the elf told her Orn got into the stash of licorice again. The captain turned to WEST, punching in a few commands but mostly waiting for the elf to bounce off.
“You do not understand, he could die.”
“Oh no, I got that. Death and dying, they tend to follow assassin’s around. Maybe you should take it up with his guild instead,” to emphasize her “this discussion is over” she began to hum softly under her breath, realizing horrified it was the same damn tune playing across every single elevator on the station.
But Brena reacted with the most force she’d ever seen from a Dulcen, as the elf spat upon the floor, her drawn on eyebrows pulling into a sneer. “That cursed guild, may it burn within the darkness of the forgotten sun for a billion turns. It was them that led him astray.”
Despite every neuron in her brain telling her to keep ignoring the elf and waiting for the latest crisis to pass, Variel turned back to the girl. This was enough of an invitation for the Dulcen to launch into the mantra she’d been preparing probably on the entire shuttle ride over.
“The guild marked the intended as a grade two at most, but the moment the cover of the entertainment began it became evidently clear he was a grade seven!”
“Yeah, my translator doesn’t speak murder,” Variel said, “Could you try explaining that one again.”
If her fury wasn’t burning for a distant bureaucracy of some of the highest security elves in the universe, she’d have turned on the captain. Instead, she flapped her arms in consternation, blowing off the air of calm the years of training forced upon her, “A grade two is ‘no combat skills, nearly null security.’ Supposedly wanted for gambling debts. But Magalar Dacre was clearly a retired member of the crest Knighthood.”
“Dacre?” Variel asked as deadpan as possible, her past flaring up from behind a wall she’d carefully erected. The Djinn behind her hissed as well, sensing the shift in his old friend.
The Captain rounded upon the Bard, grabbing onto the bare skin of her shoulders and pulling the oversized eyes to her own, “How do you know he was a crest Knight?”
“The arrogant cricket had the sword placed above his mantle,” Brena answered, confused by the turn of events. It’d been a long shot in trying to get the captain’s help. She rarely spoke to either of the elves, unless rent was due. But she was still grateful for the change in demeanor, even if it tugged on her fractured brain. She’d forgotten to take her meds again this morning, her brother would be angry with her.
Variel searched through the elf’s eyes, looking for something, an explanation, a revelation that this was all some elven joke and her brother was caught between a set of dumpsters, unable to finish his job or sitting inside a Samudra prison. But even as she dreamed up a magical scenario, she knew the truth, the assassin in her midst was good. Too good for the jobs he did take. That fact always bothered her.
“WEST,” Variel called to her ornery computer, “search through the shuttle schedules. I’ll need to break atmo over…”
“The northern hemisphere, in the Tau cluster of islands,” Brena filled in for the captain.
“Find the earliest flight possible,” she said, clicking off the interface before he could argue. Instead she pushed open her PALM and called for a connection to Ferra.
“Aye, I can explain,” her engineer’s voice was frazzled, obviously not expecting to hear from Variel so quickly.
“Did you get the injector doohickey replaced?”
“Yes and no.”
“Explain,” any joviality long drained from the captain’s demeanor. This was all business.
“Yes, I ordered it, no they haven’t delivered it. It’ll be another 12 hours to whenever some lazy shit gets off its tiny blue legs and sends it,” Ferra’s tone clipped through the storage room, occasionally overridden by the heavy whirr of machinery.
“Are you onboard?”
“Course, I’m back in the engines, seeing to my gardening,” she said as if Variel inquired if the elf ever visited the bathroom.
“Good. Tape up whatever you can on the injector and stick it back in until we get the replacement.”
“Now it’s gonna cost…what? You can’t be serious, this thing’s gonna crack in…”
“Do it,” and Variel cut the line before Ferra could complain, but still got some prime cut cursing before the PALM flashed dark.
She shoved past the deadweight bard, her mind flicking through all the possible security systems a man with a Knight’s pension, or more likely illegal pension, could pull off. Her feet thudded heavily through the storage room forwards to the galley, Brena trailing behind. The elf said nothing but watched her captain trying to scrape together a plan from something she’d found on her shoe.
“WEST,” Variel’s voice cut across the narrow hallway as she stepped through the porthole into the kitchen, “any luck on the schedule.”
“Yes, Owner 23, if you move your oversized flesh tube quickly enough you can take the shuttle at hanger G-75 in fifteen minutes.”
“Thanks,” she admitted, glad to be able to leave one bit of this madness to something else. Fifteen minutes to get there, another hour on the ride down. Brena’d better pray her brother’s a better hider than an assassin.
“Did you call Taliesin, warn him?” Variel asked, surprising Brena. She was somewhat certain the Captain knew neither of their names.
“He slipped into silent mode the moment he breeched the perimeter. There is no way to contact him.”
“This just keeps getting better and better.”
“Dominant,” the elf’s voice asked as her captain stuck her hand inside the dishwasher lock, a loud whirr reading all the data it could off her lifelines. “Captain, it is perhaps the wrong time to inquire this but, why are you extending yourself to assist?”
The dishwasher cracked open, ancient steam escaping as what were clearly not dishes shot out upon the white racks. Variel’s fingers weighed the options before her, pocketing a shield generator and scanning the ammo charges. “Dacre,” she said the name as one would an intestinal parasite, “whoever he is, is clearly hiding more than a Knighthood.”
She extracted a pistol, slipping a few excess batteries into her pockets, and a small submachine gun from the dishwasher armory. It was the only thing on the entire ship that required a DNA and palm print to unlock and she quickly altered it over to hold her few weapons. Variel eyed down the sight, always leaned a bit to the left, but if shouldn’t be a big problem with the mess she was about to jump into.
“What do you mean?” Brena asked, shirking momentarily from the arsenal before her. She’d never seen the options hidden in the dishwasher.
Variel cocked the pistol before slipping it into the hiding briefcase so no detector could find it, and then looked one last time into the elf’s eyes, “Knights don’t retire.”
She dashed out of the galley, calling out to her computer “WEST, get me those damn tickets now,” probably heading to her death for someone she’d traded at most a few words with.
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