Red Dragon Inn
Dreamweaver's Lair => Red Dragon Innsights => Motley Moxie => Topic started by: Lirssa Sarengrave on August 15, 2015, 10:48:31 AM
A tremble. The low growl of heat shielded aluminum-steel against the atmosphere. Then a sigh. Punching from blue-red into the black, the Motley Moxie relaxed into the gentle hum of space flight.
Lirssa also felt a shift: relaxed, untethered. Habit guided her hands over the controls as information about the ascent scrolled across the screen. "Spaceport, this is Motley Moxie requesting clearance vector 56A." As she spoke to the comm, she also sent through the cargo manifest.
A glance behind her to the pile of cargo. The stack of one hundred square plasti-steel boxes, each the size of a wolf, remained snug beneath the wide strapped netting. It had arrived early that morning. Eye stinging, stumbling to the cargo door type of early. That was her own fault, of course. "Stupid girl," she mumbled for the fifth time that morning.
"Hey, Lulu. You Dionysos bound?" The familiar friendly voice of Astor returned her call.
Oddly, as if getting used to eating a lemon, Lirssa didn't mind being called Lulu. It was welcoming, even. She smiled and rested back in her seat. "Yeah. Supplies for the pleasure cruiser."
"Don't misbehave there. Vector 56A clear. Safe flight."
"Thanks." Lirssa turned to the vector assigned, seeing the enormous, near city size ship half a parsec away. It rested like a drunken man among his precious empty bottles and his decadent dreams. Or maybe she just imagined it that way considering the ship's purpose. While other vessels moved smartly about their business, Dionysos remained fixed.
Misbehave. That required further definition by her way of thinking.
The catering and event teams hustled below in frantic order. Each person knew what task was to be done, and only diverged from it when the head chef or event coordinator yelled out a terse correction. Lirssa watched them from the event room rafters. It was just one of several rooms on the Dionysos constructed to house lavish entertainments from theater productions to grand balls. Or, as this event was, a birthday party. A grand, ostentatious, gorging on its own glory birthday party.
And Lirssa had been hired to perform. Lucky to be spotted on one of the performance decks last week trying out her routines there for an extra coin. Luck, as ever.
The neatly arranged mound of aqua-blue aerial silks rested at her back. She had been grateful for the loan of the event coordinator?s mage to get the material so high. Of course, she had been hired by the coordinator, Mr. Dunlap, so loan was not exactly the correct word. Still, the matter of getting the yards and yards of special made fabric up forty feet to the rafters had been settled with little struggle on her part, and Mr. Dunlap was looking quite pleased as he strutted in review of the organized chaos.
?Poppet?? Mr. Dunlap bellowed up to her. He was a cheerful ogre of a man who professed to know all the best tailors of Rhydin. Considering his boulder-like structure was styled in impeccable suits with coordinated cufflinks and ties, Lirssa had to agree he must know at least several good tailors -- if not all. There was no need to argue.
?All checked, Mr. Dunlap!? Even as she called down to him, she leaned over to check the security of her gear once more. No safety wires or nets, just the silks, the figure eight, swivel ball, and carabiners. Her fingers roamed over the gear as she viewed, checking with sight and touch.
?Good! You?ll start when the guest of honor is seated in that chair.? He pointed to the dais with its long table and the one peak-carved chair at its center. ?Music will start with your descent.?
?Yessir,? she smiled. She knew her routine. ?I?ll be coming down to dress now.?
?White and yellow, yes?? There was a nervous squeak to his question, like ice crushed together.
Lirssa rolled her eyes a moment while she finished the climb down. When she touched down on the floor with its strewn leaves and flowers, she turned a perfected smile to him. ?Yes, the costume is just as you designed, sir.?
?Oh, good. Good.? He sauntered over to her. A weighty finger that smelled oddly of cinnamon lifted her chin. ?My little bird of paradise.? Eyes grey as charcoal looked over her face. It was as if he was trying to remember something -- or forget. ?Now,? he turned with surprising agility, ?Corlina! Promise me you have not destroyed the cinnamon butter sculpture! It must look just like a thriving tree! Not a hacked down one!?
?Cinnamon.? Lirssa whispered with a laugh. That explained the smell of his hands. Likely he had his own taste testing several times over.
She turned for her designated dressing room, weaving and darting her way out of the paths of the other staff. Her eyes looked over the cavernous area as she went, imagining how her routine will look at the start in a few hours. It was an ornate oval that mocked the warmth of a wooden structure with its molded and painted aluminum, steel, and plaster. It was prepared for full cast shows with dress rooms and storage for props. There was an orchestra pit currently covered as the musicians were set up on the stage. It could house hundreds of performers in its wings.
This day, however, was just Lirssa -- and the orchestra. The dressing room was empty except for her satchel and the costume. The white and yellow leotard hung on the dividing screen. Sequins glimmered across the sheer portions of the full body costume. White and yellow patterned as feathers covered her torso and backside. An sheer panel in the shape of an inverted triangle ran from neck to navel. It was both modest up close and very much not from a distance. She would be covered from neck to knees, but most would think she in danger of exposing too much.
Lirssa ran her fingers down the sleeves and shook her head. As she had grown, expectations of what she should be had changed. But she was still just herself.
And she had to get ready.
[size=9](This performance happens on Thursday, just posting first part today for convenience)[/size]
The room was full except two seats on the dais that waited. Noise rose as murmurs became conversations became shouts. Each person tried to greet and speak with another. Lirssa tested the locks and wraps of her descent. The fabric wrapped around her torso and twined in pressure locks around her feet. Her hair was flowing free. Normally she would have bound it, but Mr. Dunlap wanted it streaming out from behind her during her routine. For her own part, Lirssa would have to fight for sightlines when the strawberry blond locks would block her vision. Still, it could be done and would be.
Music began. It was not her music. It was the music of an important entrance. The shut-up and sit down music. The gathering obediently, if slowly, obeyed the implied command. Seats were claimed at the tables arranged around the unmarked circle that was her place to perform.
Lirssa stretched a few more times, breathing slowly to get into her performance mind. Her face felt tight, but she dare not stretch it out. Mr. Dunlap had evidently found her own makeup not up to his standards, and now her face was painted and jeweled by the hands of an artist. And it itched. Another deep breath, drawing her thoughts away from her face and to the routine.
The music swelled, strings and brass in chorus to mark the arrival of the guest of honor. Lirssa did not know where Duke Robert Sorith?s duchy was, she had never heard of him before, but considering the price of such an event on a ship like Dionysos, his duchy was doing very well.
From the height of the rafters, it was hard to tell if he was anything of the typical fabled dukes with their aristocratic features always in handsome combination. The lady on his arm was the Duchess, and she was little more than a walking glow with the way the lights struck her golden orange dress and tiara. Lirssa fought the urge to make a snarky comment as she would have if they had been at a tourney. She was a silent performer this evening. It was her physical talents, not her snippy commentary required.
As the Duke and Duchess took their seats, the music altered into a beautiful lyric with the oboe taking prominence. Lirssa drew in a breath and dropped. The material unwrapped, a stream of silken aqua, as she tumbled out of it only to come to a startling stop five feet above the floor as her foot locks held her in a split. The gasps and applause had to be ignored, or she would start grinning like an idiot. Her role was a removed bird in flight, playing between air and water of a forest. She went through her routine, twining the fabric about her, changing her locks as each move required. As the music swelled, she wrapped the fabric in arm locks, took a run across the floor and swung up into flight, circling overhead.
Through the flight, she subtly changed the locks on one arm to let that length of fabric fall free, and turned the flight into a twirl by the other arm. Momentum and the aptitude of her body, she altered her position to slow the twirl and struck a leaping pose. Applause was more like a whisper as she focused on the task. People below became as indistinct to her as pebbles. The routine and the music consumed her. Her body was alive with the strain, the strength, to execute each maneuver in flawless precision.
Into the final minutes of the routine, she bound herself up through the climb, preparing for another freefall, feet in fabric locks. From the top of forty feet of fabric, she waited for the right measure of the music, and started her fall. The swirl of lights and sound, she counted her turns, and prepared for the stop.
A sizzling crack. Pain struck at her side. Screams. Shouts. Two more cracks. A sharp, metallic scent in the air. Music stopped and everything sounded wrong. Lirssa blinked, but all she saw had a halo about it, greying shadows drawing closer. She was upside down. The pressure to her head was increasing. Her foot was still in a fabric lock. She tried to reach up to undo it, but her body screamed in agony. Or maybe she screamed. Her throat felt so dry.
There were faces. Shadowy faces and garbled words. She could not understand them. An image here. An image there. People in anger and fear. Frozen tableaus. Someone spilled a hot drink on her. She felt it spreading across her costume. Mr. Dunlap won?t like that. It was getting harder to see. Oh gods? ?Get me down,? she whispered.
The cargo hold was empty. Hochi had left just a few minutes ago. It had been a profitable run, and Lirssa lay on the ship floor scanning through the list of jobs on her datapad hoping to find another like it. Profitable, not necessarily labor intensive.
Poor Hochi had taken the brunt of the cargo management, wrangling the droids, checking the cargo netting, anything that required lifting or shifting. He had done so cheerfully, but Lirssa was wary of asking him to help again. It wasn?t fair to him. Lirssa frowned a moment. She hoped she paid him enough for his time. She?d ask him later.
Moxie was quiet. Her hull kept most of Bravo Port?s ruckus at bay. In that seclusion, Lirssa took a moment to rest. The doctors had assured her that a two day stay in the medbay was sufficient, and thankfully so. Confinement was not a situation she felt suited to handle. But she was to return to her daily activities slowly. That was another thing she was ill suited in handling. She was, however, doing her best. The mending wound also reminded her often when she failed to meet the doctor?s requirements.
But she was worried. She had rental fees to pay to Port Bravo for housing. Plus fuel to keep her ship flying. Holiday season was coming fast -- too fast. She needed to get extra funds to the foster homes so they could plan parties and gifts. Plus all the gifts for her family. She loved the holidays. She did not like being wounded that kept her from preparing for them. And kept her from training.
It was enough. Lirssa stopped scanning the jobs, she was barely taking notice anyway as the worries kept piling up. As she closed her eyes, the datapad was lowered to rest on her stomach. She just needed a moment to relax. She would make a plan later. Take it one step at a time, not unlike wire walking.
In her stillness she heard the gentle whirring of the air compressors. A few clanks and squeals haunted from outside. She listened to her breathing and let worries rise up and fall away. A wince and flinch at a phantom pain in her side. Her fingers crept across her stomach to rest upon her sore side.
Beneath the silky soft cotton shirt was the crinkle of a square bandage. Beneath that a neatly mended wound. The medical technology on Dionysos was top of the line, but it was not magic. Not that she wanted magic; she preferred to heal on her own, but that would take time. Eventually the pink scar would fade to white. Lirssa knew the memory of that moment would, too. It was not like the sunglasses that still whispered in the back corners of her sleep, goading her into quickened fear.
Lirssa blinked her eyes open to chase away the forming image and its memory just as the datapad pinged. The unexpected sound made her jerk. ?Saints and proxies,? as her mother would say.
The device pinged again, and Lirssa slowly pushed herself up to sit before opening the com video link. The face on the other side was not familiar, but the uniform was. ?Lirssa Redbane Sarengrave al Amat.?
Oh crap. He had the entire name. He did not look very cross, nor particularly pleased. He was trim; an active officer by appearances. ?Yes, officer?? A few quick checks to the com stream verified its legitimacy.
?Dionysos judiciary department attorneys request a meeting to discuss the matter of the attempted assassination of His Grace, Duke Robert Sorith.?
?Oh, no, see I just want to leave that all behind, though glad no one was killed.?
The Dionysos officer looked to the right and then left of the screen as if suddenly lost. ?But, ma?am, you were injured. The only injured??
?Don?t I know it. By the way, you all did a fine job catching him-?
?Her before she hurt anyone else. Have to say that medbay is killer nice.? Lirssa wondered how long she would have to chatter before the officer completely forgot why he contacted her. ?Though I do hope no one has use of it. Have you had to??
?Use the medbay??
?Well, no, but--?
?That?s good. I?ve been to a couple in my life. One down here planetside I go to a lot, but that?s because I have a friend who is a doctor, and she--?
Suddenly another person leaned down into view of the vid screen. Her smile was tight, perfunctory, at odds with the soft waves of her black hair. Thin rimmed glasses framed blue eyes. ?Miss al Amat, you are going to meet with me at 9 tomorrow morning by Rhydin time. I?ll see you then.? And the communication ended. Damn.
?Miss al Amat. I?m pleased you could join us.? Us included the lawyer of Dionysos, Lady Silvie Marlton, and her assistant and recorder of the meeting, who sat quietly in his three piece suit in the corner watching a screen to be sure the dictation was taken accurately by the computer.
Lirssa wanted to tell the lady where she could stuff her pleasure, but when thought about it a second time it sounded more like crude flirting than an insult. Instead, she made an indifferent, ?Hmpf.?
The judiciary rooms on Dionysos were comparatively subdued to the rest of the ship Lirssa had seen. That was to say its opulence was in craftsmanship and cost of material than in extravagance and overabundance. If austerity could be snobbish, Lirssa had found it.
The table between her and Lady Marlton was a high polished black lacquer with shell chips arranged in an intricate design along the edge. All ten chairs suitably matched. A crystal pitcher with its own matching glasses rested on a mother of pearl, silver handled tray. Lighting brightened the cream and brown walled room from architecturally devised hangings and shelves. They hid the light source, but not the light.
?Please sit.? Lady Marlton continued while Lirssa eased down to a chair. ?I am surprised at your reluctance to assist in the assassin?s trial.?
As much a Lirssa wanted to rest back, she forced herself to sit up straight. ?Not my kingdom or my problem.? And she wanted to just get past it: get back to work; get away from the nightmares.
?You were shot.?
It was ridiculous. Lirssa snickered, shaking her head. ?I?m not sure why people keep feeling a need to tell me that. I?m rightly aware of the annoyance in my side. It?s keeping me from working.? She could feel her temper flaring and did nothing to keep it down. ?And besides that and changing the dressing, which just looks wonderful at the end of the day, my shrinking accounts gives me a daily reminder, too. So, what do I get? I get you keeping me from working what little I can.?
Lady Marlton pursed her lips, wrinkles gone sour. ?If you cooperate, this can much more quickly. I am sure His Grace would remember your assistance kindly as would the directors of Dionysos when looking to ship items in this sector.?
It couldn?t have been. Lirssa frowned even more. ?I?m thinkin? you?re gonna want me to pretend I didn?t just hear a bribe in there.? A flicker of a glance to the quiet gentleman in the corner. His hand hovering over a key. Probably paused the dictation when that part was spoken. ?Don?t you legal folk up here have ethics??
The way Lady Marlton bristled, fingers clenching together, Lirssa guessed. ?Nah, you were just thinking I wouldn?t. Caw, lady, you just tipped me over from not carin? to riled.?
?Listen, Miss al Amat,? Lady Marlton seethed, standing from her chair and leaning on the table between them, her fingers with their sharply manicured nails splayed, ?we have an assassin in custody. We can detain him for a short time, but we cannot take part in another system?s political scuffles. You, however??
?I was actually shot while employed by Dionysos. Doesn?t look good if you don?t take care of it, does it? Might lose some business. Folks might think their parties and such aren?t safe here. Can?t escape their troubles back home.?
Cooling, the lady stood back. Narrowing of eyes, she examined Lirssa. ?You understand more than you reveal.?
A shrug. Lirssa understood appearances; performing the right scene at the right time. ?Still doesn?t change what I said.? At the silence, Lirssa supplied in a slow staccato, ?Not my problem.?
A muscle ticked in the woman?s jaw, and her smile was crafted from ice and stone. ?Well then, time to have you learn what you don?t know.? A flick of her finger to the man in the corner and he tapped through a few places on the screen. ?Lirssa Redbane Sarengrave al Amat, you are charged with contempt of court. A hearing will be held in three days before a judge in Dionysos jurisdiction.?
?I?m what?? Lirssa heard her voice crescendo. ?You can?t do that!? It was more Lirssa hoped she couldn?t do that.
?I am doing it.?
?I don?t want to file charges. I can?t tell you what happened. I didn?t see what happened. Listen to me!? Lirssa tried once more to get her point across while the judge snarled and pointed at Lady Marlton.
?You have overstepped, Marlton. I will hear what Miss al Amat has to say, or you will find yourself in contempt.? He turned those blue, pupiless eyes on Lirssa.
She fought the urge to ask just how his eyes worked. Pupils were pretty important from her rudimentary understanding, but then again, the judge was obviously not human. While his face was of a similar shape with two eyes, though pupiless, there was no nose. His mouth worked in a box-like fashion, with two pairs of lips that would come together in the formation of words. It must have taken him years to pronounce common correctly with the way his mouth was constructed. Lirssa wondered what his home language was like.
?Now, you say you didn?t see anything??
?Yes, your honor. I was spinning down from the rafters when it happened. My hair was in my face, too. It wouldn?t have been, of course, because I usually put my hair up. But, Mr. Dunlap had his vision, and as a performer you try to meet the vision of the person that pays.?
Both the judge and Lady Marlton were looking at her in a way that made Lirssa think of clockworks. Something was going on behind their eyes, clicking into a new conclusion. ?What about before it happened?? The judge asked.
Lirssa opened her mouth and closed it. ?Before it happened??
The judge nodded. ?Something we will discover during trial. I understand the inconvenience, Miss al Amat, but if you do not agree to assist in this trial, I will uphold the contempt charge and you will be fined. You will meet with Lady Marlton tomorrow to answer questions. Good day."
Lirssa sat in Lady Marlton?s office once more. She was counting down. The lawyer had two more minutes before Lirssa left. It had taken thirteen minutes past their scheduled meet time to get to this point. Lirssa really had other things to do, and was not going to waste another morning sitting and waiting.
?Miss al Amat,? The words came even as the door opened. ?I apologize. I know your time is precious.? Every word was delivered in a crisp, even pitch. The lady was unhappy.
?Well, you made it under the cut off.? Lirssa should not have been so pleased in seeing the heat bloom in the woman?s cheeks. She just took Marlton?s unhappy into a new gear. Yes, far too much delight in that accomplishment.
?It seems you?ve made it under the cut off, too.?
Lirssa was not about to let Marlton get her off balance. Struggling to put meaning to the words, Lirssa sighed. ?Whatever are you talking about??
?The duke is requesting, adamant to be more precise, to have his birthday celebration go on as previously planned.?
It did not answer the question about the cut off, or anything remotely near it. Still, there was some angle to it that Lirssa was eager to work and get free of the mess. ?Should help with Dionysos?s image. No one would doubt the safety of the ship if the guy nearly killed shows up again.? Lirssa dared a hopeful smile. ?So, I can go, right??
The woman snickered. ?No. You are going to provide me with a complete story of what happened and when.? She grit her teeth. ?And then you can go. The board has decided to not extend the unpleasantness for the ship.?
?How very practical.? And very unexpected. The day previous at the hearing, Lirssa was convinced that a trial was going to fill much of her days in the immediate future. ?I appreciate them coming to this decision so quickly.?
Marlton flopped down her leather-bound datapad and sat. She did nothing to hide her disappointment. It would have been a name creating trial, no doubt. ?It had something to do with you. Everything to do with money.?
Everything to do with money. Lirssa felt a trickle of guilt slither between her shoulders. So much of what she did had to do with money. So much of what she tried to get out of, to alter, had to do with money. A grimness gripped at her heart.
?Now,? Lady Marlton adjusted her sleeves, stretching out her arms, and then punched through a sequence on the datapad, ?Who hired you, when, and for how much??
Lirssa woke to the musical notes of Moxie waking her on time for training. There was temptation to text her absence to Cane. Wasn't the drop in the ocean last night and it's accompanying cut to her head training enough?
Her hand reached for the communicator and then flopped away from touching it. That was lazy weakness trying to overtake her. It was also a very real desire for more sleep. After the time at Ms Jewell's fighting soiree, Lirssa had made the long trip back to Stars End to spend the next several hours reviewing possible commissions.
Long distance commissions. Performing in the musical had been a dream come true. It had also opened up the realization that she did not belong in the city any longer. She was as a satellite floating in an orbit around the lives of the residents; tethered by an invisible, mutual relation.
That recurring thought jolted her upright from her bed, tossing aside the bedsheets with a scowling huff. "Enough of that." She growled. She had things to do. A punch to the pillow cast the remnants of that thinking into the far corners of her mind, and she stood to get ready for the day. Training first. That would get her back in the right disposition.
Then flying. That would help, too. A nice long flight. And before her mind could start going down that path again, she pulled up everything that had to be done before she could go. She kept her mind busy and ignored the soft voice trying to trip up her day, like a needle poking at her.
From the entrance of the warehouse in Stars End, Lirssa could see the line of people -- in the broadest meaning of the word -- started from the landing of the second floor office down the stairs and behind the wall of storage bins. She felt her stomach churn, tying itself into knots, until it stopped in a painful nervousness.
A man approached from behind another wall of storage bins. His clean shaven face and tidy hair were counter to the abused, dingy flightsuit he wore. His hair was kept under control in the front by a series of cornrows that stopped at the top of his head to let the blonde hair wave free down to his shoulders. No piercings. No tattoos. Lirssa felt he might be better placed in a business suit, pin stripes even. "Pilot?" He asked, his hands shoved into the unzipped pockets of the flightsuit.
Lirssa looked past him to the line and nodded. "Yeah. Guess not for this job, though."
He smiled. The man knew his dental hygiene, too. "No?" He turned with an incline of his head to the line at the back. "Come on. Give it a try. Might be you win. Might be you get the contract."
"Might be." She agreed. But that 'might be' against more competition than she anticipated was shrinking to a more accurate 'likely not.' Others would know her tricks, too. She'd have to get Moxie through tricky areas of space at her very fastest and shortest.
But a contract would mean confirmed income. Meant knowing when she was flying and where in advance. Meant being prepared for the coming holidays.
She straightened her spine and lifted her chin, looking the man squarely. "Name's Lirssa." She offered her hand for a shake in greeting.
"Walter." He shook her hand.
The name didn't fit either, but she had no reason to doubt him. "Right then, Walter. I better get in line and sign up."
His grin remained, the nod a simple one as he turned back to whatever he had been doing in the maze of storage bins lining the warehouse.
Lirssa found her way to the end of the line. The warehouse smelled cold and sterile that far back. Someone kept it neat and tidy. A droid whirred up to her and she read it's screen. Another contestant in front of her turned around, and sneered. "You can read, yeah?"
The smell of the man's breath released from his brown stained mouth nearly made Lirssa gag. She knew she paled, but she could not help that. Instead, she turned her head a little to try and breathe in from over her shoulder and answered. "Yeah."
Fortunately, that was as much as the man wanted to say. Maybe Lirssa's luck would hold out. Might be.
It was too early for her ship to be pinging out urgent messages to wake her. That was her thought at least. She twisted in her bunk to look at the time piece magnetized to the wall, punched the light to brighten, and then groaned and flopped back onto the pillow.
It was too early. The long walk from the Gardens meant she had four hours of sleep. Four was better than nothing, she admitted. Curling up to grasp a few more winks, the pinging started again. It had never been so loud before. Maybe it was just the way her thoughts scattered like butterflies with each ping.
Feet to the floor, she realized she had slept with her clothes on. At least she had taken her boots off. That was something. The idea of the sludge of RhyDin and Stars End streets on her sheets was vile to contemplate.
Sock footed, she crossed the empty cargo bay to the helm. Roughly dropping onto the seat, she punched up the communique. "Who is dying?" She snarled.
"It looks like you are." Lieutenant Commander Vilari, call sign Inferno, smirked to her. "Did I wake you, buttercup?" His voice a sickly sweet taunt.
Lirssa crafted a smile, "You aren't stimulating enough to ever wake me, trust me." She had no idea why she said that. As if she had any experience.
Still, Inferno laughed. "We will never know, kid. You got a transport requisition?"
No. She did not want to say that. "Haven't even checked today." She had checked yesterday. The day before, too. There was one for tomorrow, but it was a quick land to stars job. Time short, pay small. She started to send the information for the next day's flight to Ansel with instruction to pass it on to Quinn if he was busy.
"Well you can stop checking. Got a trip for you. Pays well, but you're going to have to clear your schedule for the week."
IFL. Blast. Lirssa punched up on the companion monitor for the information. Did she want to be on schedule? What was it she wanted these days? Did not matter what she wanted. No fights for her this week. "Looks like I am all clear."
Cane. She would message him. It was polite; even if the message served more as a reminder than a cancellation.
"I'm all clear. What's the job, and what's the pay?"
"Tact team. Need you to get them in, wait, and get them out."
"Hey, now, I'm not military." Lirssa was already sending out the message to Cane that she would miss their fire party.
"Exactly. But you could have been. That is what I need. Need your flying skills, Lulu. You came recommended."
Lirssa let her head hit the edge of the helm as she muttered, "When will coach stop doing me favors?"
Inferno's laugh was as broad and deep as before. "Sending over instructions by messenger. First half of pay sent over when the documents are accepted." Paper. Nothing to be traced. Lirssa needed more sleep for this. But upfront half pay was promising. Promising enough that she did not say no.
"Expect it within the hour, and I need you out in the Black in two hours, kid." His good humor disappeared, like there was a switch he could shut off. "Get them there and get them back. Safe." It was as much a threat as it was an order.
"Hey, pilot? You can be such an ass, Charlie."
"What? Telling me I need to be all polite here? With where we're going?"
Lirssa drew in a deep, slow breath to control her temper and answered, "Something you wanted?"
"Whoa, damn! You're not a 'droid?" There were chuckles and muttered barbs tossed between the tactical team of twenty. They had stowed their gear under the seats bolted in the cargo bay floor in a perfunctory manner. From launch to six hours in flight, they had kept to themselves. Until right then.
"You could ask around, but not last I checked."
"Can I check?" Another voice piped up followed by more chuckles and the sound of thumps. A few soldiers called for that guy to not be an ass either. Lirssa scowled. She had set herself up for that one.
"Kendrick, you're worse than Charlie."
"Wouldn't want to give up my reign."
Not in the mood to hear more chatter or jokes at her expense, Lirssa called over her shoulder. "Charlie, did you have a question or just randomly shout to convince yourself of a working brain?"
"Hey now, my brain is always working."
"Sometimes the one in the pants, but yeah, always working." That had to be Kendrick. Lirssa did not look over her shoulder. That would be to give them an idea she was touched in some way by their banter.
This was a job. It was, as the first half of payment had proven, a very well paying job. When the directive had arrived, she thought the pay a just compensation for where she would be flying and then waiting. Waiting like a target for the Agrasian ship to just snuff her out of the Black.
Now she was considering asking for more if these soldiers kept up a conversation like this for the next twenty hours. Surely they would sleep some of that. Some? Most? That was wishful thinking.
"Right, Lirssa. Wait, Lirssa? What kind of name is that? Aren't you missing a vowel in there?"
"You're going to be missing one of your brains if you don't get to your question."
That earned a low mutter and more laughter from the others.
"What's our ETA, Lirssa?" Charlie's voice had dropped, serious and dark. All the laughter stopped. The team could turn on a pinhead from joking to business. They probably had to; find laughter in the moments and then slaughter in the next.
"Twenty hours until sector destination, then hunting down the ship will take some time."
"Right team." So Charlie was the man in charge. "Check your gear, eat, bed down. In your own ****ing beds now, Kendrick."
"A full eight of sleep? Gonna use my time wisely. Besides, I gotta make sure she's not a 'droid."
"Yeah, like you've not bedded a 'droid before, Kendrick. Now leave her alone. Something goes south, you want her remembering what scum we are?"
Lirssa finally did turn. The men and women stopped in the middle of their activity and just blinked at her. "Be asses all you want. It isn't like I don't hear and see stupid stuff everyday, but my job is to get you there and get you back safely. Don't get in my way of that, and I won't get in yours."
She turned back to the helm and checked over the monitors. A murmur drifted up to her. "Been awhile since we've had a pilot." The last word given with a measure of respect.
"Sorry about them." One of the soldiers came up to her side and crouched down. He had a week's worth of stubble. Some might call it a beard. He was neither old nor young, but experience was etched on his face and crowded his eyes.
Lirssa shrugged. An apology was nice, but not from one who had done nothing. "Are you not going to sleep?"
All but two of the team were secure in their makeshift pallets. Kendrick was thankfully one of them. "Later. On watch now."
"Watch?" A smirk, she looked sidelong at him. "Watch for what? A comet?"
When he laughed the lines around his eyes deepened. "No. Just in case. But what about you?"
"Two hours here and there." A silent ping on the monitor caught her attention. Information scrolled up. Merchant ship on similar course. She made a minor course correction. "You must have missed my last nap."
"Not me. I just got on watch. I don't miss a thing."
It amused and puzzled her. Looking to him, she asked, "Are all of you that confident?"
His lips pursed, fighting the grin that pulled at one corner of his mouth. "Yes. Some of us are even cocky."
"Kendrick," she supplied.
The laugh came back, and he looked at the floor between his feet. "He takes it to a new level." The man even looked a little weary when he said it.
"Oh, I know one or two people that might give him a race for the reign he is so proud of."
"Really?" In a moment of thought, he continued. "Not sure I could stand that."
"I can't." She smirked. A glance to the view. "There is something to be said for humility or at least earnestness."
He stood with a slow shake of his head. "With us, such things get you sidelined more than not. You have to know what you want to do and have the courage to follow it up. Thought most pilots were confident braggarts."
She grinned up at him. "Some are even cocky, too, but those that really know what they are doing, don't have to be."
He nodded and took one step away, then turned back. "Hey now, that was cocky right there."
A shrug, a cheeky grin, but Lirssa did not say anything more. She did not need to.
"Yeah, yeah. Hey, get some sleep." Thankfully the tone came out as more a friendly suggestion than an order.
She gave a little nod. But what he said and what was going to happen were not the same. She explained, "Next lane change will get me more time. I've got it all under control." Saying it out loud might convince herself as well as them.
In the twenty six hours of flight, Lirssa had learned all of the team's names; some were their true names and others went by a nickname. Charlie, Kendrick, Lilly, Turtle, Squirt...they were people. A few she knew even more than their names and their sense of humor. Eddie -called Barricuda- was the mage.
"I zero out other mages, if the mission calls for it. Throw a few sparks, cast about some flames, and then heal up the team when all is said and done." He told her while he sat on the floor next to her seat. He, like the others, were checking their gear. Again. It was a simple circle, looked to be of bronze, that he took an old cloth to.
Throughout the flight, when she was not sleeping, someone had come to talk with her. She had started to get the feeling that being "on watch" meant watching her. "Seems a lot to do for one mage."
"Lilly has some ability, too. A backup, I guess, but not many of us join up. That independent, self-centered, ****-all streak we magical people tend to have." His was no smirk, but a true smile that contradicted what he had just said. Of course, he had signed up, so he did not fit the mold.
Lirssa chuckled as she slowed the engine output and set them to re-calibration while she transferred to the sub-engine. "Not just mages."
"No," he admitted, " but seems pretty common among the type."
"Not you or Lilly, then."
Eddie grinned wider and tapped his chest. "I'm a team player."
"Well, team player Eddie, best you join your team." Lirssa checked the monitor. "We're in Agrasian space now. Just got to track the rabbit."
"It's a damn big rabbit." Charlie said coming up behind them. Eddie stood up and straightened. He only stepped away when Charlie gave a nod. "Any idea on how to track it down?"
With a slow nod, Lirssa answered trying not to sound like she was sassing. "I thought I would use my eyes." It did not come out without sass.
"Great. We have enough rations?"
She laughed and looked up at him a moment, then pointed to her secondary monitor. "There are two nebulas I can go coasting through the edge. That will muck up some sensory readings, but it will also play merry hob with anyone pinging into the nebula, too. There are some specific lanes big bruisers like Agrasian warships like to wander. I'll go hunting along them."
He clapped her on the shoulder like she was one of his team. "Good. Keep me informed."
Not sure the proper response, she said, "Right."
And then Lilly was there, sitting down with her own gear to check. When she smiled her freckled nose crinkled up. "Hi," she said.
"Hi." Lirssa replied and accepted that the watch would continue.
Lirssa looked at the monitor. One hour and seven minutes had passed. Moxie was tucked up under the Agrasian warship's sensor relay. A few skipping stone steps from nebula, rough ride across the engine wash, and coast up the aft spire of the ship and she had latched the ship on like a leech.
One hour and eight minutes. With her legs curled up close, arms around her knees, she watched the clock. Charlie had said one and a half hours, punched the timer, and then the team had processed the transition between ship and service port on the relay tower.
She had no idea how they were going to manage their mission in that short time. But then, she was not a soldier. The camaraderie had been fun, even in the brief time of flight. It felt good to imagine that she belonged to their group. They had accepted her, and Charlie was treating her like one of his own.
But that was where things went a little sour. It was great being part of a group, but bristled with the idea of taking orders. This was a job, and her accepting of it meant she took orders now. But every day? No. No, she would just have to learn to live as a satellite.
One hour and fifteen minutes.
"Move, move!" The communication frequency she had set up for the team suddenly came alive.
The noise filled the empty space of the ship. Voices, shouts, blasts, the screech of abused metal, and the shriek of abused bodies. "Barricuda, back us up!"
"Too many! Get out of here!"
"Target? Do we have the target!" That was Charlie.
"Copy that." Kendrick. "On our six! Move, move!"
"Logan, cover. Lirssa?" Charlie called. "We need an exit plan. Can't get to you."
There was no need to be secret anymore. Now it came down to be good at what she did. "On my way. Somebody activate their ping. I can't just hope I catch you falling out of a hatch."
A tiny dot showed up on her monitor. With a tug to the latch release, she gave a little push to the thrusters and twisted Moxie around.
It would take maybe two minutes for the fighters to scramble. She had to catch and carry away before they could get a shot on her. Her heart raced, but she was rather certain she was not scared. She was thrilled. That disturbed her for a moment. "Keep focused, Lulu," she murmured.
Glancing to the monitor, she directed Charlie. "This is going to be interesting. Close to a small service bay. Get there. I'm coming in." Hopefully the fighters would not blast up one of their own bays. Hopefully.
The theory the Agrasian would not shoot up their own bay was proved false pretty quickly. Lirssa went in full speed. With a quick switch, the full reverse and turn of the helm set the wash of her engines against a line of Agrasian firing at the team she was picking up.
A few blasts pelted against Moxie. Glancing to the monitor, she had a few more minutes before one broke past or fried her wiring. Her ship did not have weapons. She had told Inferno she was not military, that meant her ship, too.
When she noticed the tracer on the move towards her, she settled down and opened up the starboard hatch. The noise from outside crashed in just as the team did. Like marbles funneled and set free, they came clear of the door and scattered. A few carried others, and she heard Kendrick yell, "You have to heal them!"
"Move, Lirssa!" It was Charlie, but his voice lacked it's usual strength, breaking at the end.
As much as she wanted to count to make sure they were all there, she listened to Charlie's command, and the warning signal from Moxie, and hit the engines, sending a blast against the bay wall again as they shot back into the Black.
Her angle was off. The quick adjustment turned a collision into a scrape of her port wing. That sent them turning right into the oncoming fighters just as they exited the bay.
One deep breath, Lirssa unfocused her vision but focused her attention. It was as if she could see the entire area. Where a ship was going, how it would have to turn, the trajectory of its fire. In the spaces between, she wove her ship.
As she spiraled and turned to avoid being fired out of the sky, the argument behind her filtered forward.
"I can't." Eddie wheezed and coughed. She heard the sliding thump of someone collapsing to the floor. "I'm tapped out."
"You're gonna heal them." Kendrick. The anger in his voice was as palpable as heat from the sun. "It's why you're here."
The sound of a scuffle, Lirssa dared to glance behind her. Eddie was just letting Kendrick shake him. Lirssa could see the mage was worn physically and magically. "I can't," he whispered. "Use a med kit. Keep them alive until--"
"They don't have that long!" Kendrick shouted.
A blast skittered along the hull, and the helm complained by sending up a spark. Lirssa flinched, but everything seemed to be working still. The helm was sluggish, but maneuverable.
And Inferno had commanded her to keep them safe. Commanded. Threatened. It was all a matter of perspective. The fighters were still chasing, but Moxie was beginning to outrun. She still had to keep avoiding the fire patterns.
She could hand the helm over to another and help save the wounded crew, but then risked the whole team -- and her ship -- to the fighters following. Risk saving the few alive to try and save them all.
Lirssa bit her lip. She did not want to tell them. Kendrick in particular. There was something not right about him.
But letting others die to keep her secret was a thought that made her sick. There were too many times in her life when she had failed to act, gotten caught up in something and had to be rescued. If her parents, the Baron, so many others had been afraid to act because of their secrets, she would be dead.
"Kendrick!" She shouted. "Can you pilot?"
The silence was annoying. "Can you or can't you?"
"I can." He was right behind her. She had not heard him move at all. It made her jump.
"Take over." She looked up at him and saw the blast marks on his uniform ringed with blood. He was not in good shape either. That meant the others were much worse.
Not waiting for a debate, she moved away from the helm. The rattle of her chair as the larger man fell into it was satisfying. She rushed over to Eddie, sliding the last few feet on her knees. A lean of her head to try and capture his eyes. "I can help." Lirssa whispered. "But I need you to not tell people what I have done."
She did not wait for the promise; no matter if he gave his word or not, she was going to help. "Try again. Reach out to your talent." Laying down, she closed her eyes and opened up the fountain of power, reaching out.
And Eddie found her.
Inferno, Lt. Commander Vilari, stood at the closed port side entrance of Motley Moxie. The man was lock, stock, and barrel lean muscle and keen eyed; a rifle with a laser sighting personified. He was also confident bordering on cocky. Not Kendrick level cocky. As Turtle had said, that guy took it to a whole new level.
Inferno was also a good guy. The true kind of good guy. Not the ones that said they were and then acted completely differently. If there were pictures of people in dictionaries, beside noble would be a picture of Inferno. His picture would probably also show up by impatient. Then again, so would hers.
"Really." Lirssa sighed, strolling the rest of the way from the woods to the clearing where she had parked her ship for the day. "I told you I would get back to you via vid-com."
He nodded, slowly moving away from the entrance without having to be asked. Guess he was afraid she'd somehow slip by if he weren't directly in her path. It was a backwards compliment Or, she was going to take it that way. "You did, but you did not specify when, Lulu." A broad smile as if he had caught her in a trick.
Stepping to the port door, she keyed her entry code, not even hiding it from Inferno. Good guy, remember? She rubbed at her eyes with the heels of her hands, not needing to stop her walking as she did so. She knew what was inside and could go without seeing it for several steps. Then there would be a wall or cargo, but for those steps she was fine. "I left the duels early to get in touch with you. Have you no faith in me?"
His smile sobered. "Yes, I do, Lirssa. Which is why I'm calling on you again."
That was a compliment, no backwards about it. "Right, thanks." There was one other chair available on the bridge when she dropped down into her pilot's chair. She waved Inferno to it, but he remained standing. A few keys punched brought up her monitors from slumber. "So, you going to give me more specifics now?"
"Barracuda's gone AWOL."
Finding Barracuda, Eddie, should have been hard. He should have made it hard. Guess he wanted to be found. That usually meant a person was at the end of their rope. He had run. He had hid. And then he had given himself up as she rested Inbetween. Like Elliot before, once she had touched someone, she was pretty good at recognizing them. But the other person had to do the reaching out. She couldn't find him. So, Eddie had found her. He wanted this done. Whatever it was.
For a guy at the end of his rope, he was doing his level best to keep Lirssa away. Another electrical bolt sizzled against the stone column she hid behind. The air was dank, heat drew whispers of water from the puddles of water, leaking out of broken pipes lining the ceiling. Eddie had found a pretty smelly place to hide out. The basement of a waste management building in Stars End had a panorama of odors rarely found.
It also had lovely chemicals that liked to explode. When Eddie had decided to toss some fire her way upon her arriving, the large stone column was the best place she could get to. Hiding behind the barrels was just insane and she didn't have time to check their labels to see 'oh, this one won't blow up.'
"Eddie!" She yelled over her shoulder to him. "You going to tell me what is going on? You know I can't fight back. Did you bring me here to barbecue me?"
The laugh was tired, edgy, and it bounced around the basement in a manic chorus. At least the firing had stopped. Lirssa dared to look around the column and get a longer look at layout. The basement was about the size of a hockey rink. Man, did she miss going to hockey games.
Midway along the cement wall to her right was a cut out where the pipes along the ceiling cut through to the next room and whatever waited there. Fingers, curling into a fist and relaxing, rested against the edge of that cut out. Eddie was hiding there.
The rest of the room had its stone column support beams, barrels of boom-boom, or not boom-boom, products, and wooden crates. Lots of flammable things. Including her.
A small spark, like a pissed off firefly, zipped her way, pushing her back behind the column again. "How do you choose, hm?" Eddie's voice carried the curiosity of a child.
"Who you give that power to and who you don't?"
While it was tempting to give a grammatical correction, Lirssa did manage to correctly assess the timing was not right. And his question was one she constantly struggled with. "I'm still learning that, Eddie."
"If you had shared it with me, people would not have been hurt at all. Maybe people could be kept from getting hurt again. You could do that, you know. You could give me that power."
Lirssa rested her head back against the column, eyes closed tight. "Damn," she muttered. Eddie was a good guy. She knew he was a good guy, but he saw the answers to the multiverses problems in her. That scared her.
It wasn't like she hadn't given it thought. But who would she pick? Who would do the right thing every time, and what was the right thing? Sometimes there were absolute right and wrong, but that was rare and nearly always had death of innocents in its tally sheet. Other days were coated in the grey areas between, and finding a path, well, that just took living on the edge all the time and hoping the next step doesn't take you over. "Eddie, I helped you when you needed it to save your friends. But I can't save everyone."
You can't save everyone. Can you?
"I could have kept them all hidden, left without anyone getting hurt."
"And when the Agrasian came knocking? What then? What about the next guy and the next time? Eddie?" Lirssa was not the right person to help him with this. She didn't know the answers either. "Come on home. Let's get someone who can help you with these answers."
"You're the one. Answer me! Who do you choose?!" The air dried out in seconds, heat rising, mists intensifying and then burning away. Electricity and then fire slammed against the column, the heat penetrating her clothes. He was cooking her on a stone.
"Don't do this, Eddie! Don't make me do this." The cry did not carry over the roar of flame and snap of electricity.
She was running out of time. How could she do this? How could she do to Eddie what she had done to her Uncle? What she had done to those mages? This was a good guy lost.
And she was about to be baked Lirssa. "I can't answer you if I'm dead!" She yelled again, desperate to not make that last move. To strip Eddie of his power -- if she even could.
She doubted he had actually heard her, but maybe he realized the same thing. Dead Lir's tell no tales. "I could have saved them."
But he had saved them. This was something else. This was something older. "Eddie? Tell me what you see?"
Silence as smoke and acrid scent of burning cement filled the air. The silence was good enough for her. Then she heard Eddie speak. "A pipe. My feet. A charred column..." he sucked in a ragged breath that came back out again in a messy whimpering. "A barrel."
"That's good." She slid up to standing against the column. "Eddie. You need some help. We're going to get it for you."
Lirssa smiled and stepped from around the column. "Let me tell you a story I heard once. There's this guy, and he fell into a hole. A doctor comes by, and the guy yells 'Hey doc, I'm stuck in this hole, can you help me out?' And the doctor writes a prescription and throws it in the hole before walking on. A minister comes by, and the guy says, "Father, I'm in this hole, can you help me out?' The minister prays for the guy and walks on. Then a friend comes by, and the guy says, "Hey friend, I'm in this hole, can you help me out?' And the friend jumps in the hole. Guy asks, 'Why'd you do that? Now we're both in here!' And the friend answers, 'Yeah, but I've been in here before, and I know the way out.'"
Eddie shook and came to rest his head on Lirssa's shoulder.
[size=9]((The end parable I heard on West Wing))[/size]
"You know, go through a battery of tests, and you could just join up." Inferno stood just behind Lirssa's seat.
It was early morning. Moxie was warming up, and just a few more switches, the approval for the takeoff, and they'd be on their way crossing the dawn of horizon and into the black of space. Lirssa could not get there fast enough. "Independent contractor, Inferno, you know that."
He came around, his back to the wide panel of the viewport, and looked down at her. She did not look back at him. "Independent contractor who came looking for a flight with my team late last night. Looking for it."
Inferno had questions. The last statement practically crashed with a flood of them. But he would have to ask. Straight out, he would have to ask why she needed this flight -- this particular flight.
Last night had gone badly. Nineteen years, give or take, and she should have been able to brush things off. But they all just stood there. Shook their heads. Band-aid the broken instead of punishing the breaker. It was not okay. And she had to get away from it. Get to some place orderly.
There was too much anger still bubbling in her. It had kept her up most of the night. It had made her scream at the walls of the ship, run through the forest, and collapse on her bunk in frustration. It was the flight, the risk, that was going to get her back to center. She had to do some good somewhere.
And Inferno and his crew had supplied the answer. Best scenario? Four days. Two out, get the job done, two back. Lirssa thought about canceling the com connection, but if one of the foster homes needed to get in touch....well, there wasn't much she could do but direct them to someone who could help. That list was dwindling.
Damn it all. "Team set, Inferno?"
There were four days to get his questions answered. He was a smart man. He did not press. "Affirmative."
"Let's get out of here," and the moment the approval came through, her ship lifted off and shot to the sky, shaking free the trappings of gravity.
Moxie was parked in a clearing of forest northwest of town. It was a particularly nice day, so Lirssa was enjoying the walk in the woods, but it had already gone off plan. Not that she was worried. Canaan not being at the beach house or anywhere in proximity of the beach for their usual lessons had been unexpected, but not troubling. The warlock was likely distracted, or had been distracted and worn out, or any number of things that simply weren't her business.
So, she went about hers. There was still the gala (http://rdi.dragonsmark.com/forums/viewtopic.php?t=30685) that afternoon, and while getting clean in the Moxie's limited facilities worked for everyday, it was not going to work for today. Not with what she was overhearing about what Jewell and Amthy were going to do to Aric to get him ready. She really did owe him for agreeing to accompany her. She'll repay the debt somehow.
The wondering of how was completely cast aside when she finally reached the clearing, and Inferno once again was standing there. "Really?" She felt all joy in her day vanish, energy draining like air from a balloon, slumping her shoulders.
His smirk was too much. "No," she said lifting a hand to cut him off. She went past him to punch in the code to the entry. Inferno followed her inside. "Just need a pilot, Lulu. Don't even have to use your --" his voice cut off.
Lirssa's gown was hanging from a hook where straps for cargo usually latched. "As you can see, I've got other things to do today."
Whatever hesitation, or sense of decency, Inferno felt did not last long. "Timetable is good for twelve."
"And you expect me to Cinderella it?" It was unbelievable. Or believable. Everyone had their own agenda, and she just meshed herself into it. "Just go," pointing him to the door as if he could not find it three steps behind him.
"Not your ship. Just your skills."
"There are...I can't even count how many pilots out there. Some better than me, too. Go get their skills." She took out her duffle bag, shoving in her little black shoes and the appropriate undergarments, not caring in the slightest that Inferno saw them. Hair pin, earrings, and ring were more gently placed in a pocket of the bag.
"Sure." Leave it to Inferno not to try and butter her up by denying there were others who flew better than her. "But they don't have your particular view on life."
Whatever he meant by that, Lirssa had no idea. The bag zipper was given a harsh tug to zip shut. "What?"
"Can't trust them. Either straight as a rail and no leeway for the seamier side of our work, or so far off the rails they'd as soon as turn us over. You have a particular view that I can trust. And besides," he smiled. He could have a charming smile when he used it. Probably why he kept it in reserve. "We're accustomed to you. And you to us."
Lirssa had to give him that one. Some of the crew could be less than pleasant. She glared at Inferno with the particular hate of giving in because, well, she really had nothing better to do. "Fine. 2300. What am I flying?" Grumbling as she settled the strap of her bag on her shoulder, and then snatched the dress from the hook.
"A Raptor 2322."
Lirssa pushed Inferno out the door just as he spoke, and the surprise caught her slamming the door closed, the whir of auto-locks humming behind her gaping expression. "Oh for bloody sake."
The Raptor 2322 was a sleek machine no matter what the build was called. It had a bit more slope in its lines than the image Mr Matt had shown her, but likely that and other modifications were for it to be both more planet and space friendly. In space, of course, aerodynamics didn?t count for much, but want to take the ship into gravity bound, air current riddled planet atmosphere, better have a good design.
It was the largest vessel Lirssa had ever helmed, and the first since her academy days that had weaponry. When she arrived at the bay in Stars End late that night after duels, Inferno had been waiting for her. On a table next to him was a muddy green flight suit, a helmet that he said ?Will have to do, no time to size it properly,? and a blaster.
?No thanks,? Lirssa said with a nod to the blaster. ?Can?t believe you have me riding transport protection instead of helming the transport.?
?Pay is pay.? He countered and gave a nod to the locker rooms at the back of the docking bay. ?Get changed.?
Inferno had his full business demeanor on; curt and with a keen sense of where he was in the timeline of the mission. The challenge, of course, was to keep her own tendency to try and break through that attitude under wraps. There was a time and place, and if Inferno was offering a sidearm as part of the deal? This was not the time nor the place.
In the locker room, Lirssa put the flight suit on, rolling the sleeves to quarter length. For a helmet that had not been fitted to her, it was snug in the right places. That was when the memories hit, of course. The years ago at the academy. Every sound, smell, hearing Coach snap at her through the com to stop taking risks. Stop going where people could not follow.
The sensation crawled along her spine and up her scalp. A reminder of how the edge truly felt. Her heart skipped a beat and sped up. Tugging the helmet off, she ran her fingers through the length of her hair. She really should cut it. Just chop it all off. It was in the way.
Out from the locker room, Inferno stood with the sidearm in its holster out to her. ?No," she repeated and brushed aside. ?I?m doing the job, but I won?t carry that.?
It was just a milk run. Port side of a ship carrying ambassadors to some treaty signing. Wasn?t even deep space. RhyDin's star would still be casting light on them. That meant Inferno was keeping something from her. ?What aren?t you telling me?? She asked as they approached their Falcons. Engines were warmed. The glow faint, the thrusters all that were needed to break atmosphere. The big pulsers wouldn?t be fired up until they broke free into the black.
At the side of the Falcon meant to be hers, Inferno reached down to take one leg and boost her up to the side holds. There was no permission asked. Military precision to the task at hand: get her in the ship. ?You have all the information in that transmission you received last night.?
?Right, last night,? she glowered down at him. ?When this was supposed to happen, but got bumped to tonight. Why??
?One of the ambassadors wasn?t ready.? When he looked at her, there was no smile. ?Are you??
?Milk run, right??
?Yeah, sure. Let?s get it done. So I can, as you say, get paid.?
That got a smirk as he turned for his own ship, shooting back to her over his shoulder. ?Paid already.?
There?s always a feeling in the gut. One people are supposed to listen to, but they second guess. Surely not going to happen to me. I?m being paranoid. What made me this way? How fast that line of thought goes until you start analyzing something that happened in your childhood to make you distrust everyone.
Lirssa?s list was far too long to go through the whole thing. Too many moments; too many ways people left. Or said one thing when they didn?t mean it, just to get what they wanted. Everything in trade, you see. Best way to keep things simple and no sticky attachments.
For all that Bubber was harsh on her, training her with little pity or tenderness, he was honest. He had told her everyone leaves. He had told her that he trained her so they could both eat -- both survive. He had told her to trust no one, not even him.
But now she had a family. She had people that counted on her. Sure, no one really needed her, exactly. Someone could and would fill her place. But still, she couldn?t die today. The list of things she had to do in her daily diary, well, as ever it had ended with ?Can?t die today.? She figured it was a good enough mantra.
Over the com, Inferno broke into her thoughts. ?Let?s get into the black. Meet you at the coordinates.?
Lirssa ran her fingers over the instrument panel to the helm -- little more than a stick with a triangular grip. A few switches turned and she felt the stomach turning lift of the ship from the docking bay floor. The ship answered her gentlest touch, and she was glad she made it out of the bay doors without smashing her tail on the framework.
The thrill of power as she shot to the dark beyond zipped through her. She smiled. The cold and sterile glow of the city at night fell behind and was exchanged for the warm twinkle of the stars in a deeper black to welcome her home. Etoile, her parents had called her. They had known, like they had known so many things, that she needed to break free of gravity. She had too much of her own, and could crush people around her with it if they got too close.
At the coordinates, a dump ship that looked more like a steel and glass building set on its side with cigar-like tapering ends, waited. Inferno took up the starboard side. Two more ships were at the aft. Lirssa watched the commands come through the screen, the countdown to the jump. Jumps were not routine for Lirssa, and she took in a deep breath when that countdown went to zero. She pushed the button.
If anyone asked her to describe the feeling, she would have had difficulty -- though words were her play things to do with as she wanted. It was like being peanut butter between two slices of bread. For one moment, you felt both sides, and then it was done. Your momentum and your brain met up. It was an instant, of course. Less than a breath or a blink of an eye. Then the countdown to the end of the jump. Coordinates confirming orientation and destination. Peanut butter and bread once more, and then there.
There. Where two dozen ships opened fire. ?Damn you, Inferno.?
There?s a saying: he?s like a live wire. It meant dangerous, of course. Maybe reckless. At that moment, Lirssa felt like a literal live wire. Her skin was crawling, muscles twitching in infinitesimal irritations. She could have been covered in spiders for as much as she felt like her skin was moving. Sweat tickled and heated her body beneath the helmet and in the flight suit. She wanted out of them. She wanted to be clean.
Lirssa landed her Falcon in the docking bay, looking at the dull streaks of laser blasts along its hull that never smoked. There had been no oxygen for them to burn. It was quick, those hits. Like hit by a huge hammer, bright light, and then nothing. Twinkle lights in store windows during Yuletide. Laser fire still streaked in her vision if she closed her eyes too long. So she didn?t.
A droid opened the canopy and helped her from the ship, lowering her down to the floor. She stood. She managed it somehow.
?Hey, Lulu!? Inferno was beaming, sweat matting his hair down and decorating his flightsuit. The other pilots, those that had made surprise exit from the transport vessel when the battle began, were gathered about cheering the victory, hugging each other and patting backs. They were less than when they started. But that would be thought about later. They were alive.
Can?t die today.
And she hadn?t. But she was not in a celebratory mood.
?Lulu!? Inferno shouted again and trotted over to her side.
That was when she had hit him. The uppercut had done pretty well against Kruger and Kalamere. It did really well against the unsuspecting Inferno. He ended up on the ground of the bay. The cheers dying down as they saw their commander clocked. ?Don?t you ever!? Lirssa yelled at him, his eyes growing wider.
She turned on him, he was still laying on the ground, surprise keeping him there. And probably the pain of his jaw. There were footsteps coming fast behind her, but she heard Inferno call, ?No. Leave her be.?
And there were just one pair of footsteps that caught her just as she jerked the locker room door open. ?Lirssa,? he murmured.
She knew she was crying. No matter what she did to try and stop, the tears were there. ?Don?t ever do that again. I couldn?t see their eyes. If I?m going to kill someone?? She sucked in a breath. She had hurt people, one or two had lost their lives at her hands, but she had always been able to look them in the eye. She wanted to throw up.
?I know, Lirssa, but it had to be you. I needed you on this mission. I needed good pilots. People I could trust.?
She had heard that before. ?And because I can accept shady?? She snarled at him. ?Not that shady. I want to help people. Not kill them.?
?Sometimes one has to happen so the other can.?
She had no rebuttal to that. None that made sense. All she had was, ?Don?t ever,? and she shut the door on him. She had another job to get to.
The cantina had enough noise from the patrons and the music that Lirssa and Inferno had to lean towards each other across from the small round table to hear. A light touch of sweet smoke drifted along with each passerby. There was the crack of a pool game as the balls ricocheted off each other at the opening break. Glasses clinked, people laughed, and Inferno sat rolling his drink around in his hands. The amber liquid rocked back and forth. ?Not going to apologize, Lulu.?
She had water in her glass, but it only trembled to the tapping of her fingers on the table beside it. ?I did not expect you to.? It wasn?t the man?s style. Nor did he think he should. ?You did the job you were paid to do.?
?Got the team together that I needed,? he added. ?It worked.?
?And who cares what it does to the person?? It reminded her of Eddie -- Barracuda --, and how he cracked because she had done what she could at the moment. Done the best she could. But this was different, of course. This was taking away, not adding. ?Don?t answer. I know your answer.?
?Do you?? His smirk had enough sorrow to make her think again.
Good guy. Inferno was a good guy. ?Yeah, I do,? Lirssa replied softly. ?It isn?t like you to not tell me things. You?ve always been clear with me. I--? she paused, ?trusted you.? That list had dwindled to near nothing over the past several months. She looked down at her hands. One had to wonder, of course, if it was her, then, and not everyone else. Maybe she had changed.
Inferno didn?t argue that she could still trust him, or thank her for the trust that had been there. He moved on. Acted like he still had it. That?s one way to approach situations. Particularly when it worked. ?Got another flight for you tomorrow. Good pay, but your kind of flight. Just transport.?
?My ship still needs repair from a joyride I took.?
The snicker hollowed out when he took a drink that finished off his Ilirian ale. ?Really should stop doing that, you know. Gonna fly, get paid.?
?Yeah, I suppose. I guess I just keep trying to do a good turn in the hopes it comes back to me. But trade only works when both are playing the same rules.?
A grunt of agreement was all the man gave her.
Lirssa studied him, and in doing so realized she was studying herself, too. The way they were the same. The way they were different. Every part of him she instantly reflected back on herself. ?How?s your husband and kids??
The smile was instantaneous. The sharp, military man sunk away beneath the bright eyed, big grinning happy man. ?They are good, thanks.?
?Good. Tell them I said Hi.?
?What?s the job??
Inferno was back. It was a sight to see him change with just the switch of topic. Expression firm, confident, with friendliness a current byproduct of not killing anyone. ?I?ll send you details.? He stood up, straightened the jacket of his uniform and looked down at her. ?Try to live in the world you are in, Lulu, and not the one you imagine it to be.?
When he walked away, Lirssa fumed silently. She lived in the world. Mostly. Was it shameful to want it to be better? To expect people to think beyond the immediate gratification? Set sights on a goal and try to achieve it? Where was the positive hopefulness?
Where was hers? Setting herself up for a hard fall every time she was reminded that she had sought the best and found she had placed expectations too high.
It was her fault. The problem wasn?t she had changed. It was she hadn?t.
And with a lopsided smile, she stood up and left to go check on the repairs of her ship. Doubt she ever would change.
?Don?t push it, Inferno, or I?ll be forced to mock your name,? Lirssa threatened as she stepped onto her ship past Lt Commander Charles Valari -- Charlie Valari. It screamed to put in neon lights for a lounge act.
In truth, her anger at Inferno had been dealt with last night in the most peaceful way. As did all the rest of her stress. Sometimes, a person just needs to be held. Her body had felt like it was going to fly apart, and she just needed someone to hold her together for a little bit. At the duels, she found Mister Dris, or well he didn?t like the title, even if she did still think of that in her head. Dris was working, but Taneth had seen Lirssa needed to be on that caller?s couch, too, welcomed her, and Dris had just held her.
There?s magic in touch; even something so innocuous as keeping an arm around a friend so all the worries and voices whirling in her head settle down. By the end of the night, Lirssa was feeling better and ready to face the flight in the morning with Inferno and his crew.
A crew that included Kendrick. ?Good to see you, Lulu.?
?Is that my callsign?? Lirssa asked, because she could not honestly say it was good to see him. The thought chasing that was no matter what kind of player Kendrick was, he was also a good soldier, and had piloted them out of chaos while she was playing battery pack to Barracuda.
?Sure!? He grinned as if everyone knew that. ?We should see more of you, Lulu. I know I?d like to.?
Lirssa stopped and just looked up at him, her face lax, showing nothing more than pity for him.
?Don?t start, Kendrick,? Inferno pushed the soldier on to take a seat at the back of Moxie. Turning an apologetic half smile to Lirssa, he pitched his voice low, ?He?s good at his job.?
?Yeah, was just thinking that myself, so decided not to punch him.? She took up her seat at the helm. ?There?s no promise that thought will remain the overriding one for the duration though.?
Taking up the seat next to hers, he chuckled. ?Glad it is a short run, then. Just get us up to our ship. Quietly.?
?And that?s the trick isn?t it? Sneaking past Stars End and Gateway Station is something new for me.?
?Not exactly,? he countered with a smirk.
The engines warmed, and Lirssa kept the communications turned off as she skipped that part of the ignition sequence. ?And just what does that mean?? She did not look at him. He could not possibly know. That was back in her days at the academy, where she had been asked to leave. Those files should be long gone.
?Your recent spat of joyriding isn?t new. Took a pilot pod from school, broke atmo on the pole to stay hidden, and took a sporting run around the moons, right??
Okay, so he knew. That was a little disturbing, and Lirssa felt her shoulders tighten again. Not the best way to be flying. ?Geez, Inferno, what is it with you??
There was no apology in his eyes. ?You?re on my crew.? It was his only explanation.
And it told her everything she needed to know. ?Well, sit tight, and let me do my job getting you all quiet like up to your next shindig with death.?
It was a low grunt with a wisp of breath: a weary laugh. That was disturbing, too.
The communication had been brief.
"Show done?" Inferno had sent to her com device.
It had sat there waiting for her reply while she trained with Canaan.
After shower, she finally took up the device to scroll through messages and a reply back. "Yes."
There was no delay after that. Was he watching? Had he been waiting? Surely not. He just got to his messages faster. That had to be it.
"Good. Job for you."
"Face to face. Meet you at Stars End Bar. Two hours."
Two hours later, Lirssa strolled into the bar and Inferno moved from his chair near the window. Without a word, bottle of juice offered to her, and he moved to at able further back in the afternoon emptiness of the bar. "Need you to make a delivery."
Lirssa almost retorted that he could have sent that via text. It would have spared her the trip out to Stars End and avoided the shrinkage of her free time.
But that was just the point. Inferno would not have done so if it wasn't important. He was all soldier, pure business, but he knew not to mess with her. Particularly since last time.
With a clench of her fist, knuckles popping as the skin blanched white, Lirssa frowned, "Euphemisms are fun when flirting or writing poetry, Inferno. Let's limit it to those events." What is it about grape juice? It probably did not really quench her thirst, but it sure felt like it did. She avoided sighing like one of those advertising models after taking a healthy swig.
"Delivering Kendrick. He's got something to take care of a few sectors over. You need to rendezvous with his transport. Can't bring them in too close. Don't want them on Gateway's radar at all."
The grape juice was nearly spit out when Inferno told her whom she would be transporting. "Not just him, right?"
"Lulu, I promise you, his mind is going to be focused on his mission. There won't be room for him to be his usual self." He thumbed the paper label on his beer bottle. "And if he is, I give you permission to kill him."
"Like I need your permission if it gets to that point." There was not going to be a moment of debating what it would do to the team or the mission.
Inferno chuckled, drank from his beer, and shook his head. "True, but you have it all the same." He leaned forward a little, the muscles of his arm rolled as one hand clenched. "He won't. He needs to rendezvous at 0550."
Of course he did. Why ever would there be a flight that was not at some ungrateful hour of the morning? "Right," she snarled. "Pay?"
"Thought you should get hazard pay." His grin was sympathetic even has he joked. "3500."
"Appealing to my pocket book, eh?"
"Appealing to your heart, Lulu. I know what you do with most of those funds."
"My life is an open book."
"Almost. Want to tell me about him?"
Him. Inferno and his damn research. "No. That part of my life isn't open to you or working for you, got it?"
He held up both hands, forefinger and thumb keeping hold of the beer bottle. "Understood." With one last finishing swallow, he flipped the bottle over his head. It spun end over end to clatter and crash into the waste bin. Showoff. "So, take the job?"
"Yeah. Send a muzzle with Kendrick, right?"
He did not agree, but he stood up and nodded. "Thanks, Lulu," and he left.
Grape juice suddenly was not enough.
"Don't look so pathetic," Lirssa scowled at Inferno over her bottle of grape juice.
Stars End Bar was as quiet as the music box appealing for someone to put in some credits and give it a tune to play would allow. The room was spattered with sippers. No one was hitting the bottle heavily. No one was scowling or brooding.
Except maybe Lirssa. Inferno huffed a chuckle. "I'd say the same of you. That message that came though from Ortiz was just great fun."
"I haven't seen it." Before Inferno could pull out his com device, Lirssa's hand sliced away from her bottle. "And I don't want to see it. Look, you tracked me down. Do you have a job for me or not?"
"I did. Not sure you're in a good place to take it." Inferno was watching her carefully.
It unnerved her. Lirssa had kept herself busy. Between the studio, classes, stops at the houses, and work at the Foundation -- which now ran smoothly without her most times --, she had found a new rhythm to her life. It should have been enough. It should have broken past her longing for the stars.
The sky, though, had been taken away from her. It was a niggling madness growing in her. She needed to fly. "I am in as good a place as I ever am."
"No, you're in a craving. I can see it. Look at your hands, Lulu. You clench that bottle any harder and bones or glass are going to break. I can't have you at the helm of one of our ships that way."
"So, you think denying me the one thing that is going to make me feel better is the smart thing to do?" Lirssa hissed out the heat that broke a sweat out along her back. "Get me flying, Inferno."
Inferno shook his head, sitting back, the label of his beer bottle curled in bits on the table. "No, Lirssa. Not this mission. Maybe another one. I'll find you again when it comes around." He stood and paused at her shoulder. "Stop chasing it. It'll turn around and bite you. You know it." And he left already pushing buttons on his com device.
Lirssa growled and slammed the bottle on the table. Grape juice sloshed out the top and leaked from the now cracked bottom. Shaking her hand free of juice, she stood up and went to the restroom to wash it off.
In the mirror, she tried to see what Inferno did. And she couldn't miss it. Even as she tried to smile away the anger and the anxiousness, it was still there in her eyes. They were too sharp, a cut of green glass. When she thought of flying, of piloting her ship again -- any ship -- the sharp cut gained a fire to it.
Rattled, she shut her eyes and turned from the mirror.