by Michael Azzolino
“I’m not the greatest dogfighter,” Arven said, finally breaking the long silence, “but I have a gift for steering the bigger birds. It’s like I can extend my senses around the ship. It becomes part of me, like I can almost feel through it, you know?” He closed his eyes, trying to connect to the confidence he had when sitting in a cockpit. He felt the cold touch of Zebb’s metal hand, pulling him suddenly from the path of collision with a longshoreman. The towering Aaerran was a powerful looking brute, as tall as he was wide. Hoisted high upon one shoulder, he carried a shipping container usually carried by two or three men. Smiling with disdain, the longshoreman appeared disappointed for being denied the opportunity to knock the smaller man off his feet. Seemingly without effort, he shifted the load to the opposite side and, grunting at them dramatically, as he passed by. Arven laughed without considering the potential danger of the situation.
A massive observation portal dominated the ceiling of the central station hub. It provided a glorious view of the stars and swirling nebula beyond, a ring of spoke-like structures framing it all in. Arven considered his preference for seeing space like this, as opposed to displayed on screens. “I have logged more than enough simulator hours and flown plenty of sorties as a number two to qualify for the captain’s chair. I was sure that I’d get the big chair on this mission, but even my connections and personal investments weren’t enough to seal the deal,” Arven said.
Zebb thought of things he could say to help his friend feel better but decided silence was his better option. He pointed toward the narrow walkway, which was a lane created between two large stacks of numbered storage containers. Arven followed him through the nearest doorway. “So, we’re going through pre-flight,” Arven continued, “and I’m checking the output levels of the ship’s new Nexus Unit. I may not be in charge, but I want to impress whenever I can. The captain eventually shows up to the shipyard to meet the crew and prepare us for the voyage ahead. He told us his name and right off the bat, it sounded familiar. It took me a minute or two to realize that his last name was the same as my girlfriend — Harris.”
Three meters shy of the door, Zebb stopped and turned to face Arven, visibly wincing in anticipation of the next words to come out of his mouth. “They’re both around the same age,” Arven continued, “both possess that similar deep jade complexion. Naturally, I assumed they must be siblings and went to ask him directly.” He paused for a painfully long moment. “She was in fact, not his sister. She was his wife.” Zebb felt his jaw dropping but before he could react, the thick steel door behind him slid open with a massive release of pressure. He heard a familiar chuckle in a deep resonating voice.
“Zebb, you Ol’ titanium spatula! I got excited when I saw you on my books. I hope you brought me something delicious to eat.” His big voice didn’t quite match his small frame. What Fenell lacked in stature, he made up for with his immense presence and contagious energy. Zebb expected nothing less when he turned around than to see a beaming, ear-to-ear smile greeting him. He motioned for Arven to pick up his pace. He gave Arven one of those looks.
“Regrettably Fenell, we had a late run on my sausage porridge. They completely cleaned me out.” Zebb said, shaking the man’s hand. Deception was not one of Zebb’s more refined social skills, but with no regard for possible suspicions raised, he dared to dabble from time to time. Satisfied with the ruse, Fenell waddled back into the dwelling where he lived and conducted business. “Do not take a seat until you are instructed to do so,” Zebb whispered sternly in Arven’s ear.
The furnishings in this space were low to ground, made with excessive padding and covered with soft textiles. From the back of the room, a chorus of chemical burners hissed and popped, distorting the electro-chamber pop, playing through the house PA system. Fenell nestled back down into his overstuffed chair. Positioned on the floor, front and center before him was a beautiful hookah made of platinum. Taking up the hose and mouthpiece connected to the immense pipe, he drew deeply from it and invited Zebb to make himself comfortable. Zebb took a seat to Fenell’s left, declining to indulge.
“Fenell Tormet, I would like for you to make the acquaintance of my dear friend, Arven Tuttle, the pilot, the one I told you about.” Fenell flashed crowded teeth from behind lips made plump from polymer injections. Slowly the broker bowed his head toward Arven. With hesitation, Arven looked at Zebb for guidance. He wondered about what had been previously said about him, but that would have to wait for later, he thought. Aware of Arven’s discomfort, Zebb fought to suppress his amusement and motioned toward an open chair. Too oblivious to be confused or offended, Arven dove headfirst with childlike amusement into the chair on Fenell’s other side, landing initially feet up and squealing. He also declined to participate in the smoking.
“Any friend of Zebb-X is a friend of mine,” Fenell said, “I welcome you and offer peace and protection within my home. I understand your recent misfortunes have compounded into significant obstacles, potentially preventing you from achieving your ultimate goal.” This gave Arven a better understanding of what had been said about him before, but he wasn’t sure if he had missed a question that required him to answer.
“If you’re asking about my ultimate goals” Arven said, carefully choosing his words, “it would be to captain my own missions, to own a PAL, and to command my own ship! To keep the majority share of what I earn. To control my own destiny. To fall in love.”
“Very touching and all quite achievable rewards my new friend,” Fenell said, laying the smoking mouthpiece next to him. “Before we snap our fingers and make magic happen, I’ll need you to tell me everything you know about the pirate group calling themselves The Shadow Company. Spare no detail.”
(To be continued…)