Monday, August 08, 2016

The Cold Distance : Chapter Seven

Welcome to the first adventure of Jugee & the Duchess:

Dee makes the hard choices, the ones that change people's lives. The result of her latest choice means she must put a lot of space between herself and her adopted home with the law hot on her trail. Her escape is cut off and she strikes a bargain with a mysterious alien and his companion to get off planet. 
As she learns more about her traveling companions, Dee must decide whether to join them or evade agents of the enigmatic Clave on her own. More hard choices are in her future and she has to make the right ones if she wants to live.

This is Book One, Way Out. It will run for four weeks from July 18th through August 11th. I'll be at Kansas City Comicon August 12th through the 14th where we can talk about it face to face if you like. Chapters will drop on Mondays and Thursdays at 7 AM Central Time. Feel free to comment here or over at my Facebook Page.  If you like it, please tell your friends. You know us writers are an insecure, superstitious lot.

Previously:
Chapter One 
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six

All ahead full!

CHAPTER SEVEN

Lights outlined a door to my right as it slid back. “This is your room. There are three others on this deck and all are off-limits to you. Understand?”
I nodded. “Yes.”
“I’ll give you a tour later. The refresher is on the left.”
Exhausted, I went inside. The door closed immediately and I was alone. My room was as chic as the one at the Riange. I yawned while I walked around, touching the walls and the light fixtures. The clothes on the bed were functional: sleek red leather pants, a short jacket with a v-neck undershirt, and knee-high boots with low heels to match. The leather was soft, well broken in. They were a stark contrast to the golden coverlet underneath them. The bed itself was king sized with four pillows, firm to my touch which suited me fine.
Four drawers in the wall next to the door to the refresher had everything else I might need, in exactly my size. When I closed the drawers I felt sticky and ill. Jugee must have measured me somehow. Upon further thought, they had all my clothes out of the valise. A good composer could have produced these items while we talked in the lounge. Of course that’s what they’d done. 
Which reminded me that I should be indignant about that when I wasn’t so debilitated. 
I undressed and took a shower. Relishing the hot water washing over me, I took my time without thinking about it. As I toweled off, it hit me that the water supply was limited here and I should be careful. Then I thought that it likely I would have received a warning about using too much water. I dressed, finding the suit the most comfortable thing I’d ever worn. I searched the room for a mirror and one rolled down to the floor.
Yeah, I looked good.

Aside from the dark circles under my eyes, which made me look like a Procyon. I waved my hand and the mirror rolled back up to disappear into the wall. Fatigue washed over me. I turned the corner around the foot of the bed and crawled up on it, boots, jacket and all. The pillows smelled good, so I snugged down.

***



Startled, I sat up straight. Wide awake. Nothing was changed. I was still in the room I’d fallen asleep in. I was not in the crush of people trying to escape a crumbling building. Not in the cabinet of a conference room with the door held shut. 
But the screams echoed off the walls. It took me too long to slow my racing heart, to even out my breathing. 
“Miss Holling.”
Jugee.
“Yes.” The echoes had faded back into memory or wherever my mind had dredged them up from. My heart slowed.
“Alu is asking to debrief on the flight deck. Do you need some time to ready yourself?”
Why was he so formal now? It sent the message that they were concerned, which meant that I should be concerned too. But they knew everything and still took me in. 
“Can I have five minutes to compose myself?”
“Alu says three. I will light the way for you.”
It hit me that I’d been passing out a lot since I met these two. Stress and fatigue and the shifting gravity had something to do with it, but maybe they did too. Maybe they were bad actors looking to push me into something I didn’t want to do. After all, no one would miss me now. And I got the sense they could drop off the grid any time they wanted to avoid the darmes, hide in plain sight. Even from the Clave.
Again I asked myself, what had I gotten into?
The door opened and I stood, smoothing down my hair, pulling my jacket straight. I drew a deep breath and followed the lights. First to the vator which took me up. When the door opened I traced the light path onto the flight deck. 
I wasn’t prepared for what the flight deck was or what it looked like. It stopped me dead in my tracks.
Clean and sharp are the adjectives that still stick with me. The deck was carpeted and the walls were painted a comforting shade of green. Four workstations circled the room with embedded keyboards and large screens; plush benches hovered in front of each station; the desks were large with space for a dinner plate on one side and a tablet on the other. In the center of the round flight deck, two steps down, four flight couches faced into each other.  Above was a digital board, one of the large round ones I’d seen at sporting events. It displayed a series of designs that faded one into the other after about twenty seconds or so. 
Alu reclined in one of the couches, my valise was closed on another to his right. He indicated I should sit across from him. 
I stepped into the well and paused next to the couch with one hand on the headrest. Alu’s face was inscrutable which made me nervous. Swallowing, I sat down and rested my hands in my lap.
After a moment, he looked up at me and asked, “Did you sleep well?”
“I suppose so,” I said. “I don’t know how long I was out.”
“Two hours,” Jugee chimed in. 
“And there is much to discuss. For instance, do you have an idea where you would like to be dropped off?”
My shoulders moved up involuntarily. In fact I hadn’t given it much thought, too much had been going on. “Where are you going?”
“Someplace you will not want to go, I am sure,” Alu said. “But we could take a slight detour toward Poosh.” 
His face was an absolute mask of impassivity. I couldn’t tell if he was angry, anxious or anything. Those cold, deep set Symbi eyes gave me no clue as to what he wanted or whether I was a burden. Jugee stayed silent, which of course was no help at all. 
“I don’t know enough about Poosh,” I said. “My education didn’t include much about anything outside of the system.”
“A decided lack in your education. Our business takes us to several systems. Eventually we will get to Leileu, but that will not be for quite some time. Are you prepared to pay for a long voyage?” 
His face changed as he asked the question, his left brow rising as he asked it. He surely doubted that I would want to incur an expenditure like that given that my funds were severely limited. This negotiation was not going my way. I needed to find a way to regain my stature here.
“Without knowing the cost, I can’t agree to any such charge.”
“That is a diplomatic answer.” 
“What are you charging for me to travel with you?”
Jugee chimed in. “Your weight and nutritional requirements - plus the calculated fuel cost - comes to just under fifteen thousand ferune. More for use of the composer for things like clothes and toiletries.”
My eyes widened.
“And that’s just to Poosh. If you continue on with us to Leileu it comes to forty-seven thousand.”
“I can’t pay that much,” I said. I could, but it would have left me with less than half that to live on while I established myself.
Alu held out his right hand, palm up, and pointed at the valise. “I have questions. Your answers may go some way to paying for part of the costs.”
Without taking my eyes off Alu, I nodded. I should have asked how much that would take off the price of passage but I was too stunned by the numbers to think with any clarity. 
“Be assured I have no interest in fleecing you,” Alu said. “I know how much money you have. I know enough about you to have some more questions. I believe you may be open to a business proposition.”
My guard went up. “I’m no doxy.”
“She judges too quickly, Alu. I told you.”
“I do not propose anything of the sort.”
“Then —?”
Irritation showed on his features. All the scales in his brow and chin slid together in a frightening display. If I didn’t know better I would swear that he was ready to tear my arms off. Twice now I’d seen real emotion in his face. 
“You make too many assumptions. You have not learned your trade well. Perhaps we will drop you at Poosh simply to be rid of you.” He waved a hand and made to get up from his couch.
“Wait,” I said. I counted three and went on. “Ask your questions. I’ll give you the best answers I can.”
Alu didn’t stop. He got up and left the well, headed for the door to the vator.
“I will give you answers,” I said as forcefully as possible.
The door to the vator opened but Alu paused. When the door closed, he was still on deck.

***

I’m uncertain how long Alu studied the closed door but it stretched out to what seemed forever. Prudence dictated I not push the issue so I sat in my couch, staring at his back while he decided what to do. He had all my attention when he was ready for it.
“I will know if you lie to me,” he said at last. He was so quiet I took a second to be sure I’d heard him correctly.
“I believe you will. So — truth.”
Over his shoulder he asked, “You have a cipher chip for translation, yes?”
“True.”
Alu turned slowly now, unforgiving once again. I nodded to emphasize my answer.
“How many languages?”
“The Seven plus thirteen others. All the languages and dialects in the Ffeinian system.”
“Total of sixty-one,” Jugee offered. “Her translation scores were first in her class.”
“Any machine languages?”
“A smattering of of Jiswis Architecture and less BASA.” I hated coding bur was forced to take a year. “My tutor got so frustrated he quit three times and I only barely passed the courses.”
“Visual and aural translation?” He was facing me now, his hands behind his back in the manner of a schoolmaster quizzing a troublesome student. Which was true enough.
“Yes. I wasn’t allowed the upgrade to understand the pheromone options of Gitsu, though. I wouldn’t trust my translations without that. The nuances of the language are too fine, mistakes could cause a lot of trouble.”
Alu raised his head to look down on me, seemingly satisfied. An odd feeling came over me, then, that I was pleased he was pleased. I shoved it down hard because I didn’t want his approval. I didn’t need it. He took two steps and leaned on the rail around the well. “Any other bodymods? Phone? DNA? Physical?”
“Just a phone.”
If he’d had a microscope I couldn’t have felt more on display as he considered the validity of my statement. There was no shading in anything I’d said, either. I had everything to gain by being honest with him because I really didn’t want to go to Poosh. That would be going backwards. Waaaay, backwards. Frontiers hold no romance for me, I’m an urban girl. Always have been.
In contrast I’ve always felt that cosmetic bodymods were for insecure people. I can achieve the same looks by modifying viewpointers, and in a much wider range.
“She’s telling the truth, Alu.”
A screen popped open next to Alu but it was masked so I couldn’t see anything but the barely lit outline. I assumed it was more information from Jugee, maybe the readings of his biometric scans.
Alu waved the screen out and stood straight. “Tell me about the contents of your case.”
Without looking at it, I launched into the list of the inventory which included all the wearable tech embedded in my blouses, pants, belts and shoes. I ran down the the entire list and didn’t leave anything out. He inquired about the specs regarding memory and processing speeds, interoperability and version upgrades. And I gave it all to him. Alu had it all anyway so I was being tested yet again. If they didn’t have everything - a categorical impossibility given what little I knew of them, especially Jugee - they could have easily figured it all out. I intended to pass their test.
When I was done, Alu continued his assessment of my demeanor. “Jugee?”
“Absolutely honest.”
“Good. As long as this continues I will be generous and take you to Leileu at the fifteen thousand ferune rate.”
Before I objected to the outrageousness of the rate, I held my tongue. Any respectable commercial line would charge only half that so I couldn’t be thankful. Except I was a fugitive at the moment and they were hiding me. So I looked Alu in the eye.
“Will you answer a couple of questions for me?”
He held up two fingers.
“What do you two do for a living? I mean, all this costs an impressive stack of djoffis. Probably several stacks.”
He chuckled. “We work for the University at Qarondepts, acquiring high value items for the museums. And other, anonymous, buyers looking to complete certain collections.”
The guffaw escaped before I registered it. “You’re thieves? You steal things?”
I clapped my hands over my mouth, horrified. I should never have insulted my host in so vulgar a fashion. I knew better, had been taught better. I backed up a step. I’d gone over a line I knew full well existed and now I was at greater risk.
“Quick to judge, I said.” Jugee’s reminder was cold with a tinge of glee at my gaffe.
Alu’s gaze fell on me, a storm I had no shelter from. His disdain was a physical thing that crushed the breath from my lungs. “There is truth in your assessment. Crude and cruel, but truth nonetheless.
“Yes, Miss Holling, we are thieves. And that is your second question.”

NEXT: CHAPTER EIGHT

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