Thursday, August 04, 2016

The Cold Distance : Chapter Six

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

Engage!


CHAPTER SIX

At the moment I was pushed back into the couch all I could think of was holding tight to my mother.
The building hailer shouted at us in the Seven Standard Languages. “ATTENTION. ATTENTION. AN EMERGENCY HAS BEEN REPORTED. ALL TENANTS MUST EVACUATE. ATTENTION. ATTENTION. AN EMERGENCY HAS BEEN REPORTED” blah blah blah.  I can hear that in my head without any effort. I’ll never forget it. Everyone crowded into the halls, trying to get to one of two stairwells. TWO stairwells in a building a mile long. There were dozens of vators but of course they were at the basement because of the emergency. We didn’t know one of the stairwells was closed. Of course we lived in the poorest part of the city, and in the poorest of the tower blocks. We lived on the 87th of one hundred forty-three floors and our apartment was small as was everyone else’s. 
Mama had me in her arms and I held tight to her. So tight she asked me to relax enough so she could breathe. Papa pulled us along in his wake, shoving people aside with a violence I’d never seen in him. I was nine.
It was — a complete disaster.
Hm?

That - it was. Well, it was the day my parents died. Sorry to digress.

Thank you.
Where was I?
Right. Escape velocity. My second time leaving a planet to travel in space. With two people I didn’t know and who I wasn’t sure I could trust at all. 
“Are you all right?” Jugee sounded concerned.  “We’re three seconds from the end of the burn. You’ll be okay.”
“Th-thanks,” I said. 
When gravity let me go I slumped in my seat. I realized there hadn’t been a big rumble of the boosters pushing us out of the planet’s grip. I wondered again what Alu did to afford such extravagance. The werlibug was easily a million ferune and a transport like this one had to be at least as much if not half again more. And this was only the lander. What was the ship going to look like?
“Counter measures, Jugee?”
“Normal spread, closer range, Alu. With the other five ships leaving the planet at the same time, we won’t stand out.”
“Good work.”
I looked out my window. It wasn’t a port, it was a full window. In fact, I could see the blackness of space dotted with a few stars for about two hundred degrees around me. Ffeine glowed blue-green below and Alu tilted the ship to starboard. “Hail the ship,” he said.
“We’re good to go,” Jugee replied. “Miss Holling’s vitals are returning to normal, given the conditions.”
“Pursuit?”
Jugee said, “None so far. Which approach are you taking?”
“Half an orbit then pull a backstop under cover. Misdirect toward Nicoss Station.”
“Dropping the drone now, shifting signals.”
“Good.”
I had no idea what they were talking about. If you’d made me guess then I would have been dead wrong. 
“The drone is matched with us, Alu.”
“Initiate signal swap.”
“New ident engaged. Launch records at Baeleweck are changed. Surveillance logs corrupted. They’re expecting the new signal at the L1 station in two hours.”
“Separation, then.” Alu moved a digital slider. I watched the control panel as best I could. As Alu moved his scaly finger down the screen I noticed that our ship gave birth to a new ship on the display.
I couldn’t contain my curiosity. “What’s going on?”
“We’ve disguised ourselves,” Jugee said, “and dropped a decoy. Alu is slowing our speed so the decoy maintains our original heading. Meanwhile I’ve inserted new records of a launch from Baeleweck destined for Nicoss.”
“Focus, Jugee.”
“I can multitask much better than you,” Jugee said with a hint of irritation. “You focus on piloting the ship.”
Alu didn’t reply and the cabin was colder for it. 
“We’ll do this again and that’s how we’ll rendezvous with our cruiser.”
“What’s it called?”
“Too much talking,” Alu said from the pilot’s chair. “Do not give away all our secrets, Jugee. Or are you trusting her now?”
The werlibug flapped its wings and the conversation was over. I admit I sulked a little. Who were they that they didn’t trust me? I mean, all I did was betray the person who saved me from a terrible orphanage and a potentially awful life. What was not to trust?



***

In silence, Alu piloted the lander and Jugee laid down so many false trails I think he was the only one who could ever follow it.
“There,” Alu said, pointing straight ahead. “That is the ship.”
I said, “That’s not a ship. That’s a -“
“Pleasure craft.”
“Yacht.” Jugee whirred his wings for emphasis.
All I could do was whistle. I wanted to ask about, well about everything about the yacht. From where I sat it was capital-h Huge. And beautiful. Long and sleek with three engine bells on the back, three fins near the back and a sphere at the top. It was beautiful as starships go. It turned as we approached and I leaned forward as far as I could to get a closer look.
“Is that some kind of rainbow there?”
A lattice of colored beams nestled in the shaft of the ship. It ran all the way from the back of the sphere to the middle of the fins. As it rotated toward us I saw it took up half of the bulk of the ship. 
Neither Alu nor Jugee answered my question. I didn’t ask again. My curiosity was up. Just who were these two?


When the lander docked, its roof was on the belly of the yacht, and we had to climb up into the big ship. I tried to open the buckles on my restraints but they didn’t budge. Alu flowed past me and hauled himself up the rungs and out. Jugee flew up and hovered in front of me. The secure box from the embassy dangled from his legs.
“Your first test is to free yourself and join us in the common room. You have five minutes before we depressurize  the lander.” With that, he was gone up the hatch. Just to make sure I knew how much I had left, a clock opened in the air and counted down. I struggled against the restraints.
There had to be a trick to opening the buckles. I slapped at them, pulled at the latch, yanked on the belts. Of course I had no hope of using muscle to get loose. My next thought was to try to slip out but the harness was snug under my arms and came up over my belly and chest. I was stuck and there was no mistake about it. I’d spent almost two minutes on these attempts, desperation increasing with each foiled attempt.
Then it hit me. It’s a flight harness. It’s supposed to keep me tight against the couch, keep me from floating away in zero gee. I relaxed. The belts were loose now, ready to catch me if need be. I reached up to take the buckle and gently pulled at the latch.
It opened.
Damn, I thought to myself. I’m really stupid sometimes. 
There were two minutes and eighteen seconds left. 
I climbed the ladder. When I came through the hatch in the yacht, gravity pulled me to my left. My teachers back at the Academy always warned us about how there is no up or down in space. We’d gone on a field trip to a simulator but it was truly inadequate preparation for the real thing. 
Half in and half out of the lander I reached across to my right, looking for rungs that would allow me to climb forward. My heart raced faster when I saw the clock had followed me and now I had less than two minutes to reach the common room. I pulled myself out of the lander and pushed upwards. The hatch ahead was closed and the indicators said it wasn’t sealed. Behind me I heard the hatch to the lander swing shut. A rush of air was followed by heavy bolts throwing themselves home. Like it or not, I was committed to going forward. 
Look, going from gravity to heavy gravity to no gravity to gravity again is no fun. It’s hard on your body, takes a lot to get used to. Well, it took a lot for me to get used to, anyway. I had zero training at that point and all the shifts in weight had exhausted me. I wanted to rest. I had a minute ten to get to the common room. 
Then the thought hit me: what would they do if I didn’t make it? Somewhere inside me was a reserve of strength that got me up that ladder. I reached over my head and turned the wheel to the left.
The hatch opened so I climbed through and fell on the other side. Gravity had switched again. Of course, it’s a pleasure craft, I thought to myself. They want to maximize the space by using artificial gravity. This was one tricked out ride.
But I was breathing heavy and my heart threatened to burst out of my chest. Forty-five seconds left. I hauled myself up, braced against the wall and the clock - that damned clock - stayed in sight with every move I made. Forty seconds. I leaned to my right and got the hatch shut. It immediately locked and vacuumed secure. Now to figure out where I was and how to get where I needed to be in thirty-five seconds.
“Follow the lights,” Jugee said. His voice came from everywhere. When I turned around I saw an LED line on the wall flashing. I walked toward it.
“You’ll have to move faster to make your deadline.”
I jogged, still fatigued, following the lights as they lit up ahead of me. A door slid open and I peeked in. It was a vator. Twenty-seven seconds.
The door closed and I waited for the lift to take me wherever it was going. Up, it turned out.
Admittedly it was a short ride. Five seconds. I reached the common room with six seconds to spare. The clock stopped and popped out of existence. 
Alu stood there with his hands behind his back, impassive, assessing me. I stood as straight as I could, sweating, trying to catch my breath. That’s when the room started spinning.
“She’s going to pass out,” Jugee said. His voice soothed me, grounded me. It was the last thing I heard before it all went black and I heard my head hit the deck.
***

I came to with the room still whirling around me. I closed my eyes tight to wish away the vertigo, to catch my breath again. I thought about where I was yesterday and I shivered. 
“Is she all right?”
Alu’s voice was far away. I heard the tink of glass on glass.
“She’s conscious, vitals are normalizing again.”
Sure didn’t feel like it. I rolled to my left, everything tilted along with me. My right hand  fell on the carpet which is when I realized there was carpet under me and not a metal deck. Small favors. I opened my eyes a crack, then a little more. Nothing happened; the room was still. The carpet was lush and had a smell like the summer garden at the embassy. For the moment, it was a comfort. I breathed deep and pushed up to a sitting position.
I felt normal. My head throbbed where I smacked it on the floor but otherwise I was okay. Slowly, I collected myself and got to my feet.
Alu had his back to me but I saw a glass of dark liquid in his hand. 
“Please make yourself comfortable,” he said without turning around. He stood next to a table where my valise was open. Everything in it was now arranged around the open case.
“Hey,” I said, “hey, you can’t just go through my stuff like that!”
“Then you should have chosen a more challenging combination,” Jugee said. “Your birthday times Medayma Skartarine’s and taking the square root of the result is insultingly simple.”
“Jugee, do you have the secure box from the embassy open yet?”
“No.”
“Hm.” The Symbi turned, sipped his drink. “Do you have any idea how to open the box?” He watched me intently, looking for some hint, probably, that I would lie to him.
“Yes.”
“Will you help us open it then?”
I cocked my head and narrowed my eyes. “Is that payment for the ride out of here? I’m assuming we’re still in orbit around Ffeine.”
It took him a long moment to consider it, but Alu assented. “Opening the box will pay for your passage to the next station.”
My smile widened as he said it. The box was coded for me, Madeleine said so in the message she left for me. I remembered then that they had gone to get something from her too, but it wasn’t there. Now I wondered if there was a clue in the box, I wondered how she could be sure that I would go back to the embassy. It was enough to make me crazy if I dwelled on it.
The muscles in my legs started to shake. 
“You should sit,” Alu said, indicating a sofa on my right. “Jugee, the box.”
The werlibug flew the little box to me as I collapsed into the soft cushions of the sofa. I held out my hands for Jugee to set the box in them but he dropped it on the sofa instead. The muscle spasm subsided as I picked up the plastic container. 
“You know these things are laced with titanium fibers, right? It feels like plastic and is lightweight, but nearly impossible to smash open.”
The werlibug perched on the table near Alu. Implacable, Alu and the werlibug waited for me to live up to my promise. I decided to have a little fun with them.
I cradled the box in my left hand, holding it on top my fingertips. Then I waved my right hand over the top in a slow circle, once, twice, thrice. “Bim skala bim,” I intoned and kept moving my right hand, splaying my fingers as wide as possible.
“Just open it,” Jugee said. “Stop playing games. You’re not impressing anyone.”
Alu sipped his drink again.
“Fine.” I sandwiched the box between my hands; first with them pointing the same direction, then moving my left hand underneath to point opposite my right hand. My elbows were straight out from my body when the box began to glow blue, then green. I withdrew my right hand and the top of the box opened.
I set the box on my lap and opened the lid all the way.
Inside were two things, a thumb drive and a small envelope with my name on it. I looked up as Alu came near me. He looked down with interest then held out his hand. “May I?”
For all my bravery, for all my bluster, I was terrified of him. I was right back in the crowd with my parents, feeling the clawing fear that I must have felt then. Something tried to scrape its way through my stomach with sharp claws.
“The envelope is for me,” I said. Much quieter than I wanted to.
“You shall have it in a moment.” Alu took the box. He walked away from me to examine the contents of the box.
Jugee jumped in with both feet. “The key was in your DNA, wasn’t it? The box read the DNA from the sweat in your hands and cross-referenced it with your palm prints. You probably had to maintain a certain amount of pressure to twist the lock open once your palm prints and DNA samples matched.”
I shrugged. “Sure.”
“No,” Jugee said. “Is that right? Is that the process? I”ll examine the box and find out anyway.”
“Fine. That’s how it works.”
Truthfully, I had no idea. Madeleine had showed me once and told me that when I saw that box again, the same one Alu had in hand, that I was to open it. Everything Jugee suggested made sense. They call ‘em secure boxes for a reason. Only the intended recipient can open it. Otherwise, the boxes are impervious to all but the most brute force.
Alu slotted the drive. “Jugee, review the data. I need to know if Medayma has betrayed us after all.”
As an afterthought, Alu held out the envelope. He didn’t turn around. “Jugee will show you to your quarters. Clean up. Fresh clothes are laid out for you on the bed. We will debrief in one hour.”
I grabbed the envelope and turned to face the common room. 
Now that I took time to take it all in, it was unlike anything I’d seen outside of the embassy. The couch was plush and deep and soft and I hadn’t noticed it. There were three armchairs of the same material. I was so tired at that point that I could barely stand up. So much had happened so quickly that I hadn’t processed any of it. Which is part of why I passed out onto that ultra lavish carpet. 
Sleep was the cure, I knew.  But I didn’t know when I would get any. And I still didn’t know anything about my traveling companions except that they had skills I’d only ever seen on screens.
And what did that make me?





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