Love and Starships: Chapter 9
Francis pulled her head up from the pillow and studied the digits on the clock for the second time in ten minutes. Even though she had for once the opportunity for a little more time to sleep in, her body would not accept the offering, nor would her mind calm itself and allow her to peacefully close her eyes again.
Francis attempted to pull the soft blankets up around her in a more comfortable fashion. Just as she got settled, the comms terminal hummed with an incoming transmission. Francis pushed off the blankets with a huff and slumped down to the floor, eventually standing and pulling her chair over to the screen.
“Yes?” She answered not a second after pushing the ‘accept call’ button. Skee peered at her through the system, his face noticeably close to the camera lens. He double checked his own screen before scooting back several centimeters.
“Francis, are you there?” He asked, his eyes blinking rapidly.
“Of course, who else would answer?” She said, trying her best not to sneer.
“Indeed, I wonder who else would answer at your room.” Skee pondered aloud. Francis ran her hand over her face to hide the rolling of her eyes. “Did I catch you at an inconvenient time?” The alien asked.
Francis looked down at her wrinkled tank top before adjusting to better cover her otherwise bare breasts. She casually sat up to better hide the depth of her cleavage from being easily visible to the camera. “No, I was just lounging around in bed. By the way, how did you even find out the comms code for this new room?”
“I received it from your human friend, Crewman… Trisha.” Skee nodded. “I encountered her during breakfast. She asked me if I had seen you in passing.”
“You must have told her about the mission today, then.” Francis said with a sigh.
“It was a topic of conversation.”
“No doubt you’ve infected her with some second-hand stress now.”
“Infected?” Skee asked. “Well, she did seem more attentive while discussing the mission. She was intent on making sure you knew the way to the shuttle hangar, citing that your sense of direction was poor.”
“In those exact words?” Francis said, tilting her eyebrow.
“I am paraphrasing.”
“So, I suppose somehow she talked you into making sure that I don’t somehow screw something up, or delay the mission, right?”
“Hmm.” Skee hummed. “I don’t believe you are capable of doing anything of the sort intentionally, but I replied to Crewman… Trisha that I would know how to get to the shuttle hangar if you did not.”
“How convenient.” Francis responded sarcastically.
“I understand that the location of your new quarters are just slightly divergent from the path I would take to arrive at the hangar.” Skee explained. “If you would like me to accompany you there before we depart, I could… stop by.”
Francis looked over at the clock beside her bed. “We have… a couple hours, right?”
“That is correct.” Skee nodded. “If my assumption is correct, you prefer to… take your time… when readying yourself.”
Francis leaned back and in the chair and draped her arms over the back. “I guess you can say that, yeah.” She laughed. “I’ll be ready though.”
“I will leave you to prepare yourself, then.” Skee said. “I will come and knock on your door to notify you when our departure is near.”
“Thanks, Skee.” Francis said, leaning forward to touch the ‘end transmission’ button on the interface.
Several hours went by. Francis had attempted to squeeze in another thirty minutes of sleep, but the anticipation of the mission kept her up. She had pondered which meal she wanted to eat for breakfast, finally deciding on oatmeal and black coffee. After sitting around for a while digesting the food and reading from her tablet, she went to the bathroom to finally shower.
Francis’s hair had just dried when a knock came to the door. She double checked her clock; reading 13:04. She quickly stood up and pushed at her hair to hold it in a neat shape before moving to the button for the door. Her eyes met Skee’s as the mechanism slid open.
“Hello, Francis.” He greeted.
“Hey.” She answered, glancing to either side of him down the hallway to check for any other crew-members who might be suspicious. Her eyes returned to the alien before she stepped back to allow him space to come in. “It seems you didn’t have trouble finding this place.”
Skee held his ground. His eyes seemed to follow Francis around, specifically his gaze locked to her head.
“Is there something wrong?” Francis asked, feeling at her bangs.
“There is something I didn’t consider.” Skee answered with hardly a pause.
Francis studied the alien’s complex, puzzled face. “Well, is there something we can do about it now?” She asked, glancing back at the clock that had jumped forward a minute. “I don’t want to cut anything close with the mission.”
Skee took a single step into the room and pointed at Francis’s hair. “I believe we will be required to wear bio suits in order to cross from the shuttle to the Skapele’s structures. They don’t have a docking hatch it seems.”
“I’ve read the procedures of those like we were required to do.” Francis assured.
“Your hair…” Skee said, jutting out his spindly finger. “It doesn’t have too much mass to fit into the helmet?”
Francis rolled her eyes up to get a glance at the bit of bangs hanging over onto her forehead. “Ah, well, I guess I could get it into a pony tail.”
She quickly turned back and entered the bathroom to pick up her brush. She began pacing the room as she picked at the thick curls. Skee watched on as she slowly bunched up the hair behind her head, eventually returning to the bathroom to retrieve the hair tie from the day before. “Better?” Francis asked as she gave her coiffure one last nudge.
“I am amazed to see such a transformation.” Skee admired. “I think that should suffice.”
“It’s really nothing special, Skee.” Francis sighed. “Shall we go then?”
The hangar was down one floor, and on the opposite side of the deck. Francis followed directly behind Skee, watching his back as he marched quickly down the hallway. He stopped suddenly as they reached the door. It opened automatically for them, revealing the massive room on the other side.
The hangar held various stacks of cargo piled against the three walls. The forth wall was a massive set of doors. They had been propped open half way, leaving a simple forcefield in between the safety of the ship and the vast darkness outside. Francis pulled her eyes away in time to see Skee leaving her behind as he headed for the shuttle craft that had been assigned to their mission.
Inside the cramped ship was a man already dressed in one of the clunky looking bio suits, save the helmet. “Welcome aboard.” He greeted, looking at Francis who had hurried to slip in just after Skee. “Name’s London.”
“Like the city on Earth.” Skee stated. He had already began to take a spare suit out of one of the compartments behind the cockpit.
“Yeah.” The pilot responded apathetically. “You can call me Rick or Richard if that suits you better.”
“Francis.” Francis offered her name.
“Nice to meet you.” London said as he fiddled with the controls. “Seems like you’ve heard that you’ll need to suit up. There should be one your size back there, babe. We’ll be on our way shortly.”
Francis frowned as she opened up the locker. The suit was brand new and smelled of fresh plastic and other chemicals. Skee took a seat on one of the long benches to finish pulling his own outfit up over his slender legs. Francis stepped into the baggy legs of the suit.
“Shuttle Hangar bay to the bridge.” London spoke into the headset he had placed over his ears. “Requesting clearance for launch.”
A muffled voice came through the system. The pilot flipped one of the many switched on his dashboard, closing the rear hatch with a slow pneumatic hiss. Francis, having finally got the suit up over her shoulders, sat down and buckled herself in. She stared at Skee, who had finished pulled the zipper up his back and closing the clasp.
The shuttle began to rumble with a low buzz. Francis felt her stomach jump up into her chest as the ship pushed itself off the floor of the bay. London poked at the controls to nudge the ship forward and through the forcefield. Francis held her breath as the doors loomed by, eerily close on either side of the ship.
“Bridge, we are clear.” London confirmed with his comms systems. “Setting course for the coordinates.”
“Have you managed to secure your suit?” Skee asked.
Francis looked over at him, confirming who he was talking to. “Almost.” She responded, attempting to pull at the zipper in the middle of her back.
“Turn around.” Skee asked. Francis pulled against the seat belt to aim her back at the alien. “Your range of motion is lacking, it seems.”
“Yeah, it’s awful trying to get out of a dress on your own too.” Francis joked. She felt the zipper reach the base of her neck before turning around.
“Enough flirting you two.” London called back.
Francis felt herself blush. “We’re not…”
“Hey whatever, just be ready to hold on in case we have some turbulence; we’re not too far off from the asteroid belt.” London explained.
“As our pilot, I should hope that you have the skill to avoid them.” Francis scoffed.
“As my passengers, I hope that you can suppress the urge to vomit all over my ship if I happen to need to do some maneuvering.” London shot back.
“You will be happy to hear that Reedeens’s stomachs are quite steady.” Skee remarked.
“I’ve heard that some asteroids in a field like this can be as small as a marble.” Francis noted. “How do you plan to deal with that?”
London picked his hand up off the controls and smacked the metal header above the pilot’s seat. “The hull shouldn’t have any sort of trouble. Believe me, this isn’t my first rodeo.” He explained.
The craft went silent for a few moments before Skee leaned across the row towards Francis. “What is a… rodeo?” He whispered.
Francis sighed and yanked on her gloves. “I’ll tell you later.”
The craft neared one of the larger asteroids in the field, looming in the shadows. Francis could make out the man-made looking sections of the rock, jutting out at perfect angles from the surface. Bits of clear panels shined in the glow of the nearby star. London pulled back on the throttle and the ship slowly began its controlled glide in closer towards the object.
The shuttle found its way into one of the crevices that had small lights adorning the entrance. The shuttle touched down upon its landing struts with a hiss. “No problemo.” London boasted.
Skee pulled a helmet out of the locker. He examined the clear glass for a few moments before flipping it over in his grasp.
“The bridge says that they should be expecting you.” London said, leaning back towards them. “There’s a little airlock through here.”
“You aren’t coming in?” Francis asked.
“I’ll make my way in some time.” The pilot said as he fiddled with some of the switches and gauges. “Just need to do some realignments.”
“And what about something to defend ourselves with?” Francis said, standing up to take a look out the windshield. “I’m not trained with an energy tazer. Are you, Skee?”
“Like the Commander said, the Skapele shouldn’t try anything, especially with the Aishou upon us.” Skee said.
“You two aren’t the most threatening of folks, so if it seems you two are just there to say hi, I doubt these aliens will even bat an eye.” London said as he disengaged the ship’s first airlock. “Don’t forget to put that helmet on before you head out the hatch.”
“Of course not.” Francis scoffed and pulled her helmet out of the locker.
Skee had already climbed up the ladder to the hatch on the ceiling. “I will head out first.” He said, placing the plastic dome over his head and locking it to the ring on the suit.
Francis watched as he disappeared through the first door. The air inside whooshed loudly as it was depressurized. The light beside the door flashed red for a few moments before turning back to its green state. Francis shoved her own helmet upon her head and climbed the rungs up to the hatch. It was heavy. Francis squeezed by and into the cramped airlock. Her hands held tight to the handholds inside. Her ears popped as the pressure was released with a loud whistling. She felt the sudden feeling of weightlessness overtake her as the top hatch opened up.
Skee’s gloved hand reached down for her. Francis took it and the alien pulled her up and out of the ship. His toes pushed off from the hull, sending him deeper into the asteroid.
“Can you hear me, Francis?” Skee spoke through the suit’s speaker.
“Yes.” Francis said, her eyes closed. She could feel Skee’s hand wrapped around hers.
“Open your eyes.” He asked, his grip becoming slightly tighter.
Francis cracked her eyelids slightly. Built almost seamlessly into the rock wall was a metal doorway. Lights on the ground directed them closer. Francis took a quick glance back at the shuttle sitting upon the ground, and behind it, the stars dotting the vast blackness outside.
The jolt of Skee making contact with the wall drew Francis’s attention back. He placed his hand to a control panel, causing the doorway to open up for them. Francis pushed off with her toes and followed Skee inside. The doors closed after them. Her feet found tread once again as the pressure returned to the lock. Skee removed his helmet as the second set of doors opened. As Francis undid the seal on her own, she noticed those who had come to welcome them.
The Skapele were shorter than the average human, with greyish dotted skin. They had a ridge of bone or possibly cartilage extending from the bridge of their nose to the back of the neck, with no hair to speak of. The two individuals who had come for them looked like working men, with slightly tarnish clothing, albeit somewhat more well-kempt than one would expect.
“Greetings, crew of the Aishou.” The first Skapele spoke up.
“We are pleased to make your acquaintance.” Francis announced. She held her arms at her sides, mirroring the alien’s body language, her training telling her not to do anything that would unknowingly offend. “I am Crewman Arnold, and this is Skee.”
Skee folded his hands and helmet behind his back, saying nothing. Francis looked over at him, hopeful for some words of aid.
“Your captain tells us you were interested in our mining operations.” The second Skapele asked. “When your other ship came through here several cycles ago, they seemed surprised to see our people in this area, it seems.”
“This is quite the desolate place.” Skee finally spoke up.
The Skapele turned to him and nodded. “That is correct, Reedeen. You may be surprised to know that we have others of your kind living inside this complex as well. Or perhaps you already know.”
Francis glanced towards Skee who had barely moved a muscle.
“You may put your suits up in this room.” The second Skapele spoke up, guesting at a series of hooks on the wall. “We can shortly discuss the trades your captain asked for once you get settled a bit.”
“Trades?” Francis asked, tilting her head.
“Of course.” Skee interjected proudly, stepping forward into the room. “We can set up the communications relay to our ship.”
The first Skapele stepped out silently. “We will bring you something to drink.” The second said before turning to follow the first.
Francis waited for both aliens to be out of sight before releasing a long sigh. “Wow, nerve wracking.”
Skee reached behind his back and pulled down his suit’s zipper. “Keeping your composure is important while dealing with certain people, especially when they are more talk than action.” He commented as he slipped the suit down off his shoulders.
Francis managed to pop the zipper down her back and slide out of the suit on her own. She quickly shoved it onto the hook beside Skee’s, propping the helmet up on top.
The interior of the station was dirty and filled with various hard plastic crates, some labeled with a script Francis couldn’t recognize. Back in one of the bright rooms was a low table with a sitting area made up of dirty, ripped cushions and wobbly chairs.
Francis knelt down to one of the cleaner-looking cushions and brushed it off before sitting carefully down on it. Skee took a seat in front of the table, his legs crossed slightly. The door at the far end of the room opened, revealing a medium sized, lanky, yellow alien on the other side.
The Reedeen looked back and forth between the two, its eye locked to Skee for a second longer. She marched into the room holding a pair of mismatched glasses, one in each hand, filled little more than half full with a cloudy liquid. Francis’s lips fluttered as she attempted to conjure up a few words. The Reedeen placed the drinks on the table in front of both of them before nervously departing once again.
Skee turned to look at Francis as the alien left the room. “A female.”
Francis sat up from the cushion and grabbed the glass cup. She stared into the questionable, lukewarm liquid for a moment, avoiding the urge to quench her thirst.
“What do you think?”
“May I ask you to be more specific?” Skee replied.
“She looked kind of nervous. They obviously sent her out intentionally, probably so that we could see that she was… in proper form.”
“She did not seem malnourished or showing signs of mistreatment.” Skee said with a nod. “It occurred to me… sometime on our voyage over… that having one of my people as a… slave in a place like this… is illogical. We don’t have the same strength as other races, nor the endurance to work long hours.”
“A servant, then?” Francis offered.
The door opened again without warning, and one of the Skapele from before stepped through into the room. “Our chief is currently occupied with a directorial matter.” The alien announced. “As his second in command, he wished for me to give you a tour of our compound, and to confirm our available inventory we currently can present for trade.”
Skee stood and waived down to Francis. She promptly sat down the drink and stood up from her cushion, brushing off her behind. The Skapele waved them through the door, Skee entering first.
“Crewman Arnold.” The Skapele spoke up. “How do you find Reedeens?”
Francis turned around to the alien, who had begun to squeeze by to take the lead. “I’ve only ever met one.” She shrugged, looking at Skee. “But I know that Skee is amicable.”
“Amicable.” The Skapele repeated. He began to saunter down the dim hallway. “Yes, I can agree with that. They tend not to contest with what happens around them. It is as if they are content with… whatever.”
Francis turned her gaze to the ground, staring at Skee’s ankles as they continued down the hallway. The Skapaele stopped suddenly at a closed door, causing Francis’s feet to meet the back of Skee’s boots. The yellow alien looked back at her. She turned her head up and mouthed a quick ‘I’m sorry.’
The Skapele slowed to a stop in the next room, turning to a long corridor of windows. “I welcome you two to our enterprise, here.” He announced, placing his palm on the clear material.
Francis gathered up the courage to look up at the exterior. The view was dotted with asteroids of various sizes, floating around haphazardly in the void. A distant rock was lit with bright lights as a team of men swarmed it on tethers, prodding at it with heavy tools. “Amazing.” She remarked.
“These rocks are rich with flouro-trietheline.” The guide explained. “There is a black hole several light years away, which has been slowly pulling this field towards it for many decades now. We discovered this about four years ago. When the debris was pulled far away enough from the particular star here, the gasses were sequestered by the porous rock of the asteroids, where they sublimated.”
“You had much luck to find this system.” Skee interjected.
“We were concerned when your previous ship… the Seeker… had arrived to take our resources from us… such a big ship.”
“That’s understandable.” Francis said.
“We do use the compound in its gaseous state for our environmental control systems.” Skee explained.
“Luckily, your… GSS seems… amicable as well.” The Skapele added. “Your Commander Steward, though, has arranged a trade. Some titanium for our tools in exchange for some of the mineral. Our chief will discuss the terms of the trade when he is available.”
“Understood.” Skee announced.
The Skapele turned and continued down the hallway. The next room was in the middle of the asteroid. Much of it seemed to have been hollowed out and replaced by several levels of man-made supports, with a rickety lift in the middle. Suspended on grates on the levels around the room were more crates, each seemingly dirtier than the last.
“Our last inventory shows us having 150 tons of the FTL.” The Skapale announced. Skee and Francis followed after him as he made his way into the lift. It began rising slowly with the push of a button. Francis held tightly to one of the hand railings as it bumbled its way upwards. Two levels up, the alien halted it.
A small laugh echoed about the suddenly quiet room from behind a stack of boxes. Francis leaned to look behind the crates, when a small alien ran out and across the lift to the opposite platform.
“Shun’lk.” The Skapele called out. “Come, meet our visitors.”
The small alien ran back out onto the lift. It was several feet smaller than Francis, and while having similar features to Skee, it had also a ridge like that of the Skapele with similar dotted markings.
“This is my son.” The Skapale announced. The small boy presented himself in front of Skee, looking up at him.
“You look like mother!” Shun’lk exclaimed, jumping up in front of Skee.
“Then…?” Francis hummed, looking at the gray alien. “That Reedeen is your…?”
“My wife, if you want to use human terms.” The Skapele nodded. Skee peered at the small hybrid before placing his hand atop it’s head. “Nice to meet you, young one.”
Shun’lk giggled and ran off again. The Skapele sighed and activated the lift once again, heading upwards. “I shall see if the chief is available to talk now. I shouldn’t hold you here longer than we need to.”