Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Cold Distance : Chapter Eight

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
Chapter Seven

To Infinity and beyond!

CHAPTER EIGHT


“Wait, what? No. That wasn’t my second question!”
“Then you should pay more attention to your phrasing,” Alu said. His tone was dismissive but he didn’t send me away. 
I weighed my options and as if he were reading my mind, Alu continued. “I expect you to decide between Poosh and Leileu. You have been told the costs.”
There was an opening there and I dove it to exploit it. I wondered briefly if Madeleine would be proud that I learned something from her.
“Have you been honest with me?”
That took Alu aback. “Why would you think I have not?”
“You’re a thief. It benefits you to lie overtly and by omission. Perhaps you think you can bully me into making a hasty choice.”
“That’s enough,” Jugee said.
I didn’t hear him. “From the moment we met you have acted badly, ordering me here and there, interrogating me and offering nothing in return. Well, except for escape from the Clave and for that I thank you. You have demanded money, extorted is more the term, at a rate that is beyond unreasonable. This ship is efficient in design and function and it makes sense that with two AIs on board it is extremely efficient in its fuel usage.”
Nerves made me stumble over my words, caused me to be less effective than I had thought I would be in this kind of situation. I paused long enough to reset, pull in  a quick breath and let it out. Jugee took the opportunity to start in.
“Miss Holling, this is unacceptable in the -“
“Quiet, Jugee.” Alu gave me his full attention. 
It was obvious that Alu wasn’t going any further. He unclasped his hands from behind his back and folded his arms across his chest. Waiting for me to go on.
So I did. “You offered me transport before I had the chance to ask. You bullied me into it when you were showing off your deductive prowess. Which in hindsight shouldn’t have been as impressive as it first appeared. You’re a thief. You know things about the people you’re stealing from and you knew Madeleine, know her, well enough to be concerned that she’d stolen something from you when we got there. 
“You’ve done everything you can to keep me off-balance since we met. And - and, well, I’m tuned in now so it’s not going to be so easy. You’re going to have to actually deal with me - ME.” I slammed my fist against my chest for emphasis. “I don’t appreciate the treatment and you can go to Jommua if you think I’m going to stand for it one minute more.”
Silence rushed in to fill the void. I could feel the thrum of the ship’s drive under my feet and hear the hum that went with it but that was all the sound in the room for a full minute.
Until Alu burst out laughing.
“Jugee you owe me ten thousand ferune!”
Bewildered, I watched the Symbi’s smile widen, his eyes crinkle. “I don’t - understand.”
Alu took a breath and said, “I told you she was like her adoptive mother.” He burst into another round of guffaws that sounded like barking. Reaching out for his couch, Alu pulled himself down and reclined so he could laugh more deeply.
“Funds are transferred,” Jugee said, petulance creeping into his voice around the edges. In fact, his voice wasn’t as near as it had been before. 
“It was a test, you see,” Alu said, “we had a wager that you would crack under the pressure. It helped that Medayma Skartarine accelerated her timetable.”
“She was in on this? She set me up?”
“No,” Jugee said, still pouting. “No. We were there to retrieve a certain article from her directly. Alu had it in his head that you might want to test yourself by coming with us, joining us but I insisted that you wouldn’t be interested or if you were, not capable enough.”
Anger. Fury. Rage. Fire from my belly surged through my body and I fought to keep it under control. I took an extra two seconds to be sure I said what I wanted to say. Then I took two more seconds.
“I wouldn’t have put it past her to have engineered — this.” I threw my hands out to take in the entire flight deck. 
It wasn’t exactly what I wanted to say, so I bit back on my feelings to wait for the consequences of my outburst. In my mind I was sure they were going to space me long before we got to Poosh. I couldn’t face Alu so I examined the carpet under my boots. I liked the color, a dark maroon that blended in well.
“Ship,” Alu said.
“Ready and waiting!” The ship’s AI voice was mature like Madeleine’s but had a different tenor, more sonorous. Despite the eager tinge to her reply, I suspected something lay underneath it. Unsure of what it was, I filed that fact away as something to look into later. If there was a later.
“Ship, plot our course for Poosh.”
“Got it.”
“What’s the best time?”
“If I course correct now and fire the FTL no more than one hour after that, we’ll make it in three ships’ days.”
“Which are how long?” Alu was asking for my benefit, not his. I still couldn’t look up.
“Thirty bells total across three ten-bell cycles. Each bell is half an hour standard.”
“Do you understand that?” Alu addressed me.
Slowly I brought my face up but kept my eyes to my left, where my valise lay in a flight couch. After I swallowed I looked Alu in the eye and said, “Yes.”
No matter how I tried I couldn’t read him, he looked hard again but I thought I saw a flicker of compassion.
“Ship, set course for Poosh, best time. Set our transponder code to innocuous with a four bell rotation. Use set ‘Dodger’ and randomize it.”
“Roger, ‘Dodger’.” Ship seemed to enjoy the rhyme. 
“You need to rest,” Alu said. He sounded like an exasperated father. “But while you are resting I want you to consider this proposition: I am in need of an apprentice. You have skills, you are clever and a lethally quick study. You remind me of me in some ways. 
“This would not be easy. I will test you in ways you have never been tested and you will grow to hate me. But I believe that you might have a knack for what we do.”
“How long is the apprenticeship? Am I free to go whenever I want?”
“You are not a prisoner. You will stay because you want to. The length of your apprenticeship depends entirely on your performance. I will dismiss you if it turns out you are not suited to the job.”
Before I could ask the next questions, Alu went on. “We will drop you on the nearest settled world and you will have your ferune plus whatever you earn along the way. You need not fear for your well being.”
I didn’t know what to make of this. It sounded like I could go whenever I wanted but I would learn some trade skills. Illegal trade skills but…
“You’ll have my answer when I’ve rested,” I said. “Though I reserve the right to ask some questions.”
“Done.” Alu put out his scaly hand. 
I took it. 

To my surprise, I wasn’t repulsed at all by the feel of his hand in mind.


***


Jugee lit the way back to my room when I insisted on not taking the vator. “I want to learn the ship,” I told him. 
“You’ll remember better when you’re rested,” he said. I got the feeling that he was torqued at me. For losing ten thousand? I didn’t know.
I climbed down the ladder to the corner of the lounge where I’d come in from the lander. The vator was across the room. The door nearest me on my right opened.
“Your room,” Jugee said. The frame around another door lit. “That’s Alu’s room. Strictly off-limits. So are the other two.”
“I’d like to ask you a couple of questions, if you don’t mind.”
For the longest while Jugee didn’t answer. I waited, though, because I was genuinely curious. My eyes roved over the entire room now that I was relaxed in it, and I was surprised there wasn’t any art on the walls. Alu must not have been much of a decorator.
“Go ahead,” Jugee replied at last. 
“Thank you. Where are you in the ship?”
“You saw the frozen light lattice on our approach. That’s the backup mainframe. My quantum servers are housed underneath that lattice.”
“Oh.” I had a nominal understanding of the basics of quantum computing and had only ever scanned articles about frozen light systems. “So you’re a quantum AI.”
“Correct,” Jugee said. “I am a McCarthy MH1997 programmed by Talokian designers on the planet Urewgan in the Eathet system. I am programmed to behave as a thirty year-old human, in your case, using references to popular culture, science, politics and general interest topics within fifty parsecs and fifty standard years. That said, I can emulate a simulacrum of any of the two hundred forty seven sentient races, with permutations for regional and continental differences as needed.”
“Huh?” I was always elegant when I was dumbfounded. I can’t help it.
“It’s easy to interface with local satellite systems. Of course it helps that they don’t know I’m doing it.” He couldn’t help himself. Jugee was full of pride at being able to steal knowledge like that. His programmers were geniuses, really. I still marvel at what he did.
But that’s off-topic. He continued to tell me how great he was, how much he could do, how essential he was to Alu’s operation. Well, he called it ‘their’ operation. Finally he came to the point he’d been dancing around.
“My stochastic quantum optimizers give me storage for more information than would be possible to keep in any organic brain. But I’m not a computer, I am a sentient in my own right. I am a person.” If he’d had a body, he would have puffed out his chest, maybe he would have thumped his fist on it for emphasis. 
I stood outside my room, looking in at the bed. Its invitation whispered softly in my ear, promising soft covers and deep pillows to lay on. A place to really rest. It occurred to me then that I had no concept of the time. I’d napped for about two hours, and it took us three hours from the surface to arrive on the yacht and we escaped the embassy which took us another hour…
It was hopeless. No way would I put it all together. “Jugee? What time is it?”
“Five bells.”
My confusion must have shown, because Jugee quickly added: “It’s midafternoon.”
“Ah. Well, I shouldn’t sleep now,” I said but I didn’t mean it. The lack of adrenaline was more than noticeable and my energy levels were terribly  low. I was betting the walk would do me some good. “How about that tour?”
I was at a disadvantage in every conversation with Jugee. Without seeing him I couldn’t get a read on his emotions. The house AI back at Madeleine’s wasn’t nearly at his level so all my experience didn’t help me either. In the end I didn’t know if he hesitated or not because he could make calculations or reach deductions a thousand times faster than anyone else I’d ever known. 
“Fine,” he said and lit the hatch that I’d entered the ship by. “Gravity is off in the access tunnel but follow the lights and I’ll show you the servers.”
I went feet first into the access. With the hatch closed, Jugee guided me down ten rungs and had me follow the curve of the tunnel to my left. There was another hatch, one I hadn’t noticed the first time. I went through.
And came out on my hands and knees. 
“I turned the gravity on in here just because you’re going to prefer standing up but remember that you’re standing parallel to the access. You might watch your head, too. It’s short in here.”
When I got to my feet my hair touched the panels overhead. At my height, I’m not used to feeling the ceiling close at all. It was weird.
The space was filled by a loud hum punctuated by whirrs and clicks. Monitors and keyboards lined the tiny room. I imagined that if I was ever stuck in here I would probably feel claustrophobic quickly. 
“The main workstation here,” Jugee said flashing three red lights above a monitor, “is where all the ship’s AI functions can be monitored.”
“Right, because you two are separate.”
“I’m a person, Miss Holling.”
“Some would argue the ship AI is, too.”
“Yes.” Jugee stumbled over that, I thought.
“Just because you’re smarter doesn’t make you better.”
“You’ll notice that glass wall at the end of the room. That gives you  the view of the actual servers.” 
I walked to the huge window. That rainbow I saw on our approach to the yacht dominated the view, its light so bright that I couldn’t see the stars behind. Each beam crossed six others and within each was variation the likes of which I’d never seen before. “The lattice,” I said. “You said you were a quantum computer. That’s frozen light out there for an optical computer.”
”I’m sure that you could eventually understand it all and if you decide to go with us I may explain it. But for now this is all you need to know.”
My training as a diplomat allowed me to take the compliment and to know when it was appropriate to let a statement pass. “Well, it’s beautiful,” I said. “I bet Alu comes here all the time just to meditate.”
“I can’t say.”
“Jugee?”
“Yes.”
“Does he own you? I mean the servers being part of the ship must mean that you came along with it.”
In my gut I know I surprised him. He hid it well, though.”
“I am a free person, Miss Holling.”
“Dee. Call me Dee.” Yes, I was warming up to him. In retrospect, I’d probably already made my decision.
“I am a free person, Dee.”
“And yet you respond to him as if he were your master. How do you reconcile that?”
The hatch popped open with a hiss. My feet floated off the floor and I began to tumble. “What the -?”
“Time to go back,” Jugee said. “I will show you the food lockers, the kitchen, the composer and all the things you’ll need to do for yourself while you’re on the ship.”
Flailing, I grabbed for a handhold as I twisted and tumbled with the sudden absence of gravity. “Hey!”
“Anything can happen any time,” Jugee said. “You will have to learn to prepare yourself.”


***

I learned where everything was in relation to my apartment. Jugee’s attitude bothered me but I let it roll off so I could think about what I needed to do. 
Since there was no plan — and that was something neither Jugee nor Alu needed to know — I decided to go with them. I took time to discern the level of surveillance in my rooms without hiding it. Jugee dropped two eyes and four ears to the floor.
“Alu ordered all the rooms be audited on a regular basis when guests were on board,” he said. 
“Yeah? And how many guests have you had on board?”
“You’re the first.”
“How long have you been with him?”
“Long enough to know that I’m not falling into that argument with you again. I am a free person and it’s in my own interests as well as his to keep tabs on you.”
“So if there are a handful of eyes and ears in here that you’re showing me, how many more are there?” I waited for an answer which came in the form of ten more devices slipping out of their hiding places to the floor. “Come on, Jugee. There’s more, isn’t there?”
Two more, one over the door and one at the ceiling dropped.
“Keep the main camera there, facing the door, and the two-way comm.” I shucked off my jacket and threw it on the edge of the bed. “No spying on me. I expect privacy the same way Alu does. No coming in unless you’re invited. You can call if you want to talk to me.”
If he’d been a flesh and blood person, I imagined that Jugee would have been exasperated with me.
But that didn’t last long.
“Alu is asking for you on the flight deck.”
“I’m busy,” I said.
“It’s an emergency. You’re needed.” 
The door to my apartment slid back. “Now,” Jugee said.
Annoyed, I grabbed my jacket and climbed the ladder up to the flight deck. I cursed with every step.
“You should have taken the vator,” Alu said as I emerged from the ladder well. 
“I’m not your slave like some other people,” I said. I closed my jacket and joined him in the center of the flight couches. “Now what’s the deal?” My intention was to sound as pissed off as I could to show that I didn’t appreciate being ordered around.
Floating above the edge of the well was a large screen that showed empty space. 
“Coming in fast, Alu. From the far side of the sector, heading for Ffeine.”
“Keep it out of our systems as long as you can,” Alu said without taking his squinted eyes off the screen. “Ship, cycle the call signs.”
“What is going on?” I stood close to Alu without thinking about it, kept my eyes on the screen. “Oh Jommua. It’s the favring Clave, isn’t it?”
“They’re pinging us hard, Alu. I’ve got them looking in the ghost environments. If they punch through, there’s another layer just in case. They’re running bioscans too. I’ve shown the false schematics but this is new for them.”
“Ship?”
“We’re a pleasure craft on honeymoon from Arcl Six, heading for Okingery and just passing through. We laid over at Ffeine for two weeks. You are a well-known plasma dealer and Miss Holling is a beauty queen.”
Alu scowled down at me, snorted. “Maybe they will believe it.” When he returned his attention to the screen, he pointed. “There. Do you see?”
I peered forward and saw nothing but stars. Finally a pinpoint of light grew too fast in dead center of the screen. “Okay, there it is.” I felt a little better. Of course the ship and Jugee could register that kind of thing way farther than any Eye could see. 
“It’s not slowing,” the ship said. “Collision in forty seconds.”
“He will not smash us,” Alu said. “The Clave are never suicidal.”
My shin bumped against one of the flight couches. “I don’t know anything about them. Where they come from, how they work… None of that is available in any database -“
“Quiet. Later. After.”
“They’re hailing us, Alu.”
“Thirty-five seconds to impact. Their weapons systems are online and charging.”
“On the screen.” Alu immediately softened, allowing his body to slacken as he held his hands out in the universal gesture for I didn’t mean to piss you off.
In front of us the screen showed a green background behind the Clave’s badge: a hand with an eye in the palm. “By order of the Clave, declare your origin and destination. Failure to declare in ten seconds will result in your destruction.”
“We’re on our honeymoon!”
“Impact in twenty-five seconds,” the ship said.
“Declare, Jugee,” Alu said then faced the screen again. “I promise we are -“
“Origin and identity confirmed.” The screen went black then changed back to the original view of the star field. Their ship was flat and ovoid, no wings or fins, just a rock skating across the black water of space. It was plain, too, which made it even more intimidating, I guess. 
“They haven’t changed course, Alu.” Jugee sounded worried. “And they’re continuing scans, including the deep records in the underenvirons. Trying hard to crack the servers.”
“Ten seconds,” the ship’s AI said. “No change. They’re going to hit in eight, seven…”
“Change of course,” Jugee said. 
“Six, five.”
“They’re going to pass over us but will miss us by only half a mile!”
“Four.”
The ship lurched and I was thrown into the wall of the well, hitting it hard with my back and head. Alu had grabbed onto one of the couches to steady himself but he strained to stay  standing. My angle on the screen was distorted but I saw the exhaust of the Clave ship fuzz out the picture. When I realized I was holding too tightly to one of the braces for the rail, I relaxed a little. In a moment, the ship had settled back and I could get to my feet.
It hurt to stand up. I had taken a harder shot than I thought when I crashed into the wall. The couch nearest me seemed so far away I didn’t try to reach it. Instead I laid my arm across the rail and leaned into it.
“We’re clear,” Jugee said. “They’re in orbit now around Ffeine.”
“Okay,” I said. “You want my answer now?”
Alu held out a hand to slow me down. “In a moment. First, ship - lay in our course for Poosh and execute. Fastest route avoiding all known Clave sectors.”
“Done.”
“Jugee, check our inventory, reset the ‘Dodger’ cycle and -“
“Who died and made you boss?”
Alu stopped short. “Is there an issue?” He cast a sidelong glance at me, which I returned as stonily as I’d ever seen him give me.
“What will you be doing while I and the ship take care of everything?”
“I will be in my quarters.” He said it so coldly that even I shivered. His anger wasn’t hot, boiling or anything like I’d ever encountered. He was icy, harsh, biting. So of course he returned to me. “What is your answer?”
Just like that. No preamble, no subtlety or nicety, just the straightforward question.
So I gave it back. “I’m with you. I’m your apprentice.”



END OF BOOK ONE.


NEXT: BOOK TWO!

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