E. Paige Burks
Chasing Stars - Chapter Two
With their ship having safely made it into orbit, Benjamin shrugged off his jacket, throwing it on the ground. He used a towel Elda had brought him to wipe at his clothes, but the stench was oppressive. He tried to ignore it as he turned to the knapsack on the table in front of him.
“So, let’s see it,” Elda said from the doorway.
Benjamin moved slowly to pull open the flap, letting the bulge roll out from the bag. A thick, oblong rock clattered to the surface, spinning for a moment.
“That’s it?” Elda asked, coming closer.
Benjamin pressed his lips together hard, lifting the rock in his hand. “This is it,” he said softly. “The last bar of trimondium.”
“And what does it do, exactly?” Elda asked.
“It can power a thousand space ships, or power billions of homes for years,” Benjamin said, setting it back inside his knapsack. “For the right price, it can advance any civilization by thousands of years.”
Again, a smirk pulled at Elda’s face. “Do you have a buyer?” she asked.
Benjamin returned her smirk. “In fact, I do.” He turned away from the table and headed toward a ladder that went up toward the cockpit. He could hear Elda’s metallic footsteps on the rungs behind him as he reached the top. “Did you set our coordinates?” he asked as he eased into the pilot’s chair.
“Of course, Captain,” Elda said, moving to sit in the co-pilot chair. “Although I have no idea why you’d want to go to such a dead area of space.”
Benjamin looked at her as he flipped a switch. Elda was a C2000 housework bot. She wasn’t meant to be a co-pilot on a ship. She was built to clean homes and feed kids, with a smooth blue outer shell that was meant to be easy to clean. She didn’t really have hair, more so just a rubbery mass shaped to mimic hair on her head. The only thing remotely human about her was her face, which was made to convey facial expressions so as not to scare babies. If it hadn’t been for her flawed programming, he would have never brought her on board.
“It’s a good thing I’m the captain, then, isn’t it?” he asked.
Elda feigned a sigh. “I suppose.”
Benjamin shook his head as he tilted the controls forward. “I shouldn’t have ever let that guy install this new software on you,” he murmured. “It’s made you insufferable.”
Elda turned to him and smiled. “But without it, who would save your ass from Larconian Maulers?” she asked sweetly. “You know I wasn’t programmed to do that before.”
Benjamin pressed his lips together tightly, nodding slowly. “Let’s just focus on the task at hand, okay?”
Elda turned back to her console. “You got it, Captain!”
**** The ship was floating lazily through space toward their coordinates. Benjamin leaned back in his chair at the helm and sighed, sleep pulling at him.
“You should rest, Cap,” Elda said as she appeared in the doorway. “You had a long day.”
Benjamin looked over his shoulder and narrowed his eyes at her. “Last time I let you navigate alone, you nearly steered us into the gravity well of an asteroid belt.”
“My calculations indicated that it was a faster route,” she said, a hint of indignation in her voice. “Also, there was only a 12.379 percent chance that we would have been hit.”
Benjamin pressed his lips together and shook his head as he leaned forward in his chair. “The answer is no,” he said firmly. He’d almost been tempted, but recalling that event made him feel like he’d never sleep again. He looked up as the console pinged, a holographic map appearing before him. “Besides, we’re almost there.”
Elda moved toward her co-pilot chair, sliding into it. She flipped a few switches, the ship propelling itself forward a bit faster. In the distance, the planet of Spiravita was growing larger, nestled inside an asteroid belt and circling a binary star cluster. Benjamin noted that it was a nice blue, much like the pictures of his own home world he’d once seen; before industrialization took over and turned it into a bundle of lights and sounds.
Their ship flew closer, banking as they hit orbit. A city came into view, nestled in the heart of a mountainous valley. Despite its serene settling, it was anything but welcoming. Benjamin took the controls and guided the ship toward a landing port on the edge of the city.
“Prepare for landing,” he told Elda.
Wordlessly, she moved to her feet and began to prepare for their journey. Soon enough, they were both standing at the end of the loading bay, the cool air rolling over the mountains and wafting through the streets.
“This is lovely, Captain,” Elda said as Benjamin pulled his bag over his shoulders.
“It is, isn’t it?” he asked, leading the way from the landing port and into a cobbled street.
“Maybe we should stay here a while,” Elda said, following a step behind him. “Take a vacation.”
Benjamin snorted as he shoved his hands into his pockets. “No chance,” he said quickly.
Elda frowned. “We never get to do anything fun,” she pouted.
Benjamin turned to her then as they walked up to the door of a non-descript, innocent-looking building. “This’ll be plenty of fun,” he said with a mischievous grin.
Elda sighed in exasperation as he pushed the door open, the smell of smoke and alcohol floating into the street.
The lights were dim inside, but there was a dull hum of voices as he and Elda pushed their way through the crowd. A bar was set up in the middle of the room, with tables littered about the walls. A rowdy game of cards was already taking place in the back, and Benjamin glanced over as a roar of laughter went around the table.
“Where’s our buyer?” Elda asked, hovering at his elbow.
“He’ll be here,” Benjamin said, leaning against the bar. He surveyed the room. “We’ll know ‘im by a yellow rose in his hat.”
Elda snorted then. “A yellow rose, eh?” she asked. “Sounds like big money.”
Benjamin nodded as he suppressed a grin. “That’s the plan.”
They stood silently at the bar for a long time, their eyes shifting around the room. Benjamin had almost forgotten what it was like to be around so many species of aliens. He recognized the Spiravite behind the counter, but the rest were from worlds much farther away than his home planet. Spiravita was known for its lax laws and was a notorious hangout for smugglers and ne’er-do-wells.
“Cap,” Elda said suddenly, catching his attention. She nodded her chin. “There.”
Benjamin turned slowly in the direction she’d indicated, his eyes widening when he saw a hat with a yellow rose pin lying on a table. He glanced at Elda. “Yellow rose,” he said. He stood up straight. “Keep your eyes peeled.”
Elda nodded as she accompanied him toward the table. As the crowd parted, she could see a burly man sitting at the table, the hat near his elbow. She let her hand rest against her hip, where a blaster was holstered. She didn’t like the looks of the burly man one bit, but she kept her mouth closed as they approached the table.
“You looking for some trimondium?” Benjamin asked as he slid into the seat across from Burly Man. Elda stood at his elbow, and even she seemed surprised when a small figure next to Burly Man leaned forward.
A sudden harsh clicking sound emanated from the figure’s mouth, which was hidden under the hood of a cloak. Benjamin looked up at Burly Man, frowning.
“He says not here,” Burly Man said, his voice a thick Russian accent. His eyes shifted around the room, his meaty forehead wrinkling in distaste. “Too many eyes.”
Benjamin felt uneasy as he looked up at Elda. “Okay,” he said, moving slowly to stand. “Where to?”
Burly Man rose to his feet, towering easily over both of them, the figure slipping out behind him. He was hunched as he shuffled toward a staircase, his hood and cloak covering him completely. “This way please,” Burly Man said, indicating that they should follow the figure.
Again, distrust filled Benjamin and he glanced at Elda. He knew she knew what to do if things went south. They followed the hunched figure silently up the stairs and down a narrow hall. At the end was a door, where another big body guard was waiting. Benjamin couldn’t help but stare at him as he opened the door for them, realizing he was a Carnour. He’d never seen one of the cat-like aliens up close, and his eyes were unsettlingly bright and catty.
“Leave your body guard at the door,” the Carnour said suddenly.
Benjamin was caught off-guard by the smooth, sultry tone of his voice. He turned to Elda, nodding his head. He could see that she wanted to protest, but he held up his hand. “I won’t be long.”
He stepped inside the room, feeling impossibly trapped as the door shut behind him. He watched as the hooded figure moved toward a table set with two chairs, indicating for him to sit. Once he did, a hand slithered out from under the cloak and into the hood. There was a soft hiss as the figure set a mouthpiece on the table.
“Do you have it?”
Benjamin felt surprise fill him at the sound of a woman’s voice. “Of course,” he said, feeling indignant suddenly. “I wouldn’t be here otherwise.”
“Let me see it,” she demanded.
Benjamin leaned back in his chair. “Let me see your face first,” he countered. “You don’t get to parade me up here and demand things from me.”
The woman laughed softly. “Same as you always were, Benjamin.”
He felt his heart catch in his throat. “What did you say?” he managed.
The woman suddenly pulled back her cloak, revealing a head of silver hair and deep, piercing blue eyes which reminded Benjamin of his father.
Benjamin jumped to his feet, reaching for the gun strapped to his leg. His teeth were clenched tightly. “Are you kidding me?” he growled.
The woman stood, smirking at him. She let the cloak fall away, revealing the deep blue of her GLOW standard-issue uniform. “You’ve had time to contact us,” she said sharply. “You were given plenty of chances to turn yourself in and return to the corp.”
Benjamin shook his head angrily. “This is bullshit and you know it,” he snapped.
The woman crossed her arms. “You watch your tone, young man,” she snapped.
“I’m not going back,” he said angrily. “Especially not with you.”
She nodded. “I knew that would be how you feel,” she said easily. “That’s why I took the liberty of disabling your bot.”
Benjamin turned his head toward the door, despite not being able to see beyond it. “I swear, Aunt Amanda, if you trash her—”
Amanda tilted her head. “You’ll what?” she demanded. “Continue to make my life harder?”
Benjamin scowled darkly at her. “I didn’t ask for you to do this,” he snapped. “I’m doing just fine on my own. I don’t need you to try to ‘set me on the right path’ or whatever it is you think you’re doing.”
Amanda’s face softened. Despite her stunning features, age was beginning to creep into the lines on her face. “This is not the life your father wanted for you,” she said gently.
Benjamin rolled his eyes, ignoring the twinge of guilt in his chest.
“He wanted you to rise up through the ranks, like he and your mother did,” she continued. “He wanted you to see the universe and do good for people.”
“I can’t go back there, and you know it,” Benjamin said stonily. “They won’t take me back. They don’t want me.”
Amanda offered a hint of a smile. “What if I told you that I’ve arranged for everything?” she asked. “That you’ll be given a clean slate.” She glanced away. “Relatively.”
Benjamin shook his head. “I won’t go,” he insisted. “I won’t be a dog for the GLOW.”
Amanda sighed, knowing she couldn’t get through his pig-headedness. “Then I’ll have to arrest you,” she said, her tone suddenly businesslike. Her eyes shifted to his pack. “With the amount of trimondium you’re carrying, you won’t see sunlight for the next 40 years.”
Benjamin frowned. “Would you really do that to your own flesh and blood?”
“I’m a soldier first,” Amanda said. “If you won’t take the deal, that’s the only option.” She shook her head. “We can’t let that fall into the wrong hands.”
Benjamin clenched his fingers around his gun, wondering if she was bluffing, and how far she was willing to take it. He suddenly drew his weapon. “No deal, Aunt Amanda,” he said, leveling the barrel at her. “Me and the trimondium are going to walk out of here, and you won’t stop me.”
Amanda didn’t seem fazed as she arched a brow. “Why are you always so difficult?”
Benjamin didn’t have time to react as sudden burning pain coursed through him. He dropped to his knees, realizing he’d been tazed as he slumped to the floor.
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