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Status Quo - Chapter 31

Written by: Paullell

 Daray grins happily at Lana as they snuggle together. “More dangerous than the running for our lives bit?”

 

She breathes in Lana’s scent and shuts her eyes to concentrate on the warmth of their bodies pressed together and the soft, silky touch of Lana’s flesh and the night gown. “Talk about emotionally distant, after my parents were killed I just sort of shut down. I started working as a Pincher, keeping myself separate from everyone. Putting myself in harm’s way just to prevent myself from growing roots of any kind.”

 

“Then all the changes to my body,” she sighs. “I didn’t think I’d ever be able to find something like this, someone like you. You know, I have no idea if I’ll ever really be comfortable in my skin again, but if I can, I know it will be because of you. We’re going to find out what’s going on with your life Lana. And we’re going to fix it. I know I said this before, but I want to make sure you know that I don’t want to trap you, or make you feel beholden in any way. I want to be your friend. And more. But, partners… equals. I would love it if you wanted to stay after this is all sorted out, but I’ll understand if you want to go make a new life for yourself.”

 

She sighs as her breathing calms and starts drifting toward a sleep pattern, arms and legs twined around Lana who can hear not a heartbeat per se, but a steady, rhythmic flow of life’s blood through her veins.

 

The constant thrum of the ‘Neophyte Serendipity’s’ engines creates a subtle white-noise backdrop as the pair lay in bed and the ship hurtles through the void of space, bound for Mars, and an uncertain adversary.

 

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Lana giggled at the comment about running for their lives.  “Oh, silly me I thought that was part of falling in love with you.”  She listens to Daray open up about her parent’s deaths and her emotions, nodding in complete understanding.  “I know you don’t want to trap me.  I can’t talk permanence yet.  I just can’t think that far ahead with everything that is going on right now but when this is all over and we know for certain who is after me and why.  Maybe then… maybe.”  She yawns and falls asleep almost mid thought, comfortable and feeling impossibly safe in Daray’s arms.

 

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The next day aboard the ‘Neophyte’s Serendipity’ is fairly uneventful, aside from another sparring match in the cargo hold between Riana and Daray that went on for the better part of two hours, during which time Vincent invited Lana to assist him with some basic chores around the ship. He explains the inner workings of the ship, its engines, and controls, and even allows her to take the helm and play with the controls herself, then asks for some help preparing food for a late lunch, explaining that they are planning a ‘community movie’ night for the evening, and would be having popcorn and watching some old science fiction movies from the 21st century that Riana had dug up during her studies of ‘humans’.

 

He very pointedly ignores all of the noise issuing from the cargo hold, despite the fact that it sounds like the ship is being torn apart, and suggests that Lana do the same, so much as she might be able to do so.

 

When the two women reappear, Daray’s face and hair are coated in a thick layer of perspiration (although it looks as though the skinsuit has either absorbed or outright shed any of the moisture), and the long, tight braid that Lana had previously tied in her hair was pulling loose in several places and looked more like a frayed rope than a braid of hair. Riana on the other hand, looked absolutely perfect, save for the rapidly disappearing, dark purple footprint on her left jaw. She is all smiles and grins, and moves straight to helping with the cooking and other tasks as if they are a pleasure to do.

 

Daray grunts at the group and stalks off to the shower, returning a few minutes later in what looks like a loose, cropped, mid-riff-revealing t-shirt and pair of shorts, the rest of the skinsuit having turned transparent. She flops down in a chair and sort of glares at Riana, arms folded across her chest, and hair piled up around and behind her like a solid curtain of knotted strands.

 

After the meal, ninety percent of which, Daray consumes again, there is some time alone for the couples that allows Daray to explain that, while she had done a better job of keeping control for much longer, she had still been ‘destroyed’ by Riana, and that, if it weren’t for that lucky kick to her head, it would have been a complete loss. She is still quite grumpy, although between time around the dinner table and alone afterward, she is eventually calmed down, and even cheered up, by just being near Lana. She seems to be able to recharge her batteries just by watching, and listening to Lana, no matter what she is doing or saying, and after a couple hours is smiling again, and doing things to help out.

 

The movies are a five hour marathon of some ancient science-fiction trilogy long since forgotten by the masses. They were about a young kid learning about his secret history from an old wizard who claims to have known the boy’s long-dead father. They are joined in their adventures by a smuggler and his companion, and a couple of robots, who all then go on to face and overcome an evil, intergalactic dictator and his armies. There is plenty of action, and terrible acting, obviously fake spaceships (Daray and Vincent both laugh outright at the sounds of explosions in space, while Riana seems completely riveted and enthralled by the entire experience), energy swords, and magic tricks performed with the mind.

 

The following day, Mars is looming in the viewscreens. A giant, red-orange ball of dust that is peppered with the scintillating jewel-domes that represent humanity’s foothold on the world. As they make their approach to Hector, it can be seen out the forward viewport on the bridge where everyone is invited to be during the landing. The ‘city’ is really more of a collection of inter-connected, transparent, geodesic domes, most of which cover hundreds of acres of the planet’s surface and bear a distinctly green tinge beneath the diamond-hard protective domes. Between the massive greenhouse domes, placed at fairly regular intervals, are much smaller domes that seem to be filled with small structures, and connecting all of these facilities is a labyrinthine network of tubes that allow vehicle and mass-transit access. 

 

In all, Hector covers hundreds of square miles of the red planet, creating a sort of shiny green bruise on the planet’s surface. At the city’s western edge is a massive canyon, that extends several hundred miles away from the city, and connects with what looks like another large dome. It’s difficult to tell from a distance, but it looks as though the top of the valley is being covered with transparent panels in some sort of effort to seal it up, perhaps to make it a part of the greenhouses of Hector.

 

The spaceport is a wide, sprawling affair, composed almost entirely of wide, flat stretches of concrete and metal. Rather than spending time pressurizing and depressurizing whole hangers, they seem to have settled on the much faster technique of allowing ships to land, then connecting pivoting causeways to them in order to on and off-load goods and passengers. The causeways feed back into a central mass like a network of streams and tributaries, joining a much larger river, and then eventually, a large lake or sea. 

 

After landing and connecting the ‘Neophyte’s Serendipity’ to its own causeway, Daray helps Lana get her things packed, straps her baston back across her back and then meets Riana and Vincent in the cargo hold where they are supervising the unloading of a few crates. Vincent is busily shouting at someone about the price of tea in Barsoomian-China, so it is Riana that smiles warmly to the pair as they enter the cargo hold from the ship proper.

 

“Daray, Lana, it was a great pleasure to have you both aboard. Vincent is taking on some cargo bound back to Earth Station. Unfortunately, my leave is only for a few more days, so I have to be getting back to the Kestrel, but I want you to know that I will be making some inquiries into what is going on with your personal records Lana. If I come up with anything, I will send APRIL a communiqué immediately.” 

 

“Thanks Ree.” Daray shakes the purple-haired elf’s hand before turning to Vincent and clapping him on the shoulder and grinning as she moves down the ramp around the small crew of laborers as they go about their business. “And thank you too, you pirate!”

 

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Lana enjoys her time with Vincent and proves to be a surprisingly apt pupil at the helm.  After a surprised inquiry from Vincent she confesses that a client of hers loved to talk about his ship and flying and she must have listened to him talk for hours about the subject he most loved.  She also added that this was the first time she had ever had an opportunity to put theory to actual use.

 

Lana is not quite as good at ignoring the noise coming from the cargo area.  She winces each time she hears a particularly loud thud.  When they are finally finished with their workout, she listens sympathetically to Daray as she vents her frustration.  She laughs herself silly at the movie in the evening and wakes fairly early the next day so that she can watch the approach to the Mars space station.  She is dressed in the body suit and coat that Daray had purchased for her.

 

“Thank you both SO much Riana.  And I appreciate anything that you can find out.”  Lana gives them both hugs and then follows Daray down the ramp.  Soon catching up with her, she reaches out to hold her hand as they make their way through the busy area.

 

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Vincent is quite pleased with Lana’s skills at the helm and makes several very encouraging comments, suggesting that Lana would make an excellent pilot.

 

“You’re very welcome Lana. Please, take care of one-another, and be careful whom you trust.” Riana offers Lana a serious look along with her hug.

 

Daray happily accepts Lana’s hand as they move into the facility, squeezing it reassuringly and offering Lana a smile. She’d made a stupendous effort to get her hair in order that morning, spending an hour combing it out, then another hour trying to restrain it somehow to keep it from getting in her way. She’d finally ended up just tying it behind her head in a ponytail, and adding several more ties down the length of the mass, to keep it together in a single, thick rope. Her own outfit is much like Lana’s, a dark purple, almost black body suit with a few bands and accents here and there, under a long, cropped, bolero-style jacket.

 

The spaceport’s spiderweb of tunnels grows busier and busier as the pair get closer to the central hub of the facility. The people there seem to be much more ‘normal’, in that there don’t seem to be as many cosmetic alterations to their bodies, which makes Lana the target of many interested, appraising, and even disdainful looks as they move through the corridors.

 

Once inside the main facility, the tight, clear-covered tunnels give way to a huge dome filled with hundreds of people and numerous heavy-lifting vehicles, all busily going about the tasks of hauling goods in and out of the facility.

 

Almost immediately upon entering the larger structure, they come to a counter, manned by a rather gruff looking man who eyes them both suspiciously as they step up to his customs station.

 

“Good morning… Ladies…” His tone suggests that he thinks he knows exactly what they are about, and that he doesn’t approve at all. “Welcome…” again, his attitude suggests that the word is anything but what he means to say, “to Hector. Local time is 9:27 am. Please state the nature of your business here, and your intended duration of stay.”

 

He presents an ID scanner for them to pass their chipped hands in front of as he speaks.

 

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At first Lana tries to pretend that she doesn’t notice the intense interest and derision of the people around her.  For a moment her tail starts to droop under the weight of their stares.  Then she squares her shoulders and mutters under her breath.  “Screw you people.  I’m my mother’s daughter and I’ve never been ashamed of the way I look.”  

 

Her walk changes from casual to nearly a strut.  She brushes her free hand through her blue and white hair and looks directly into the eyes of the people around her.  Her expression is one of confidence and aggressive sensuality as she silently dares them to say a word.  She almost wishes she had worn one of her other sexier outfits so she could really rub their noses in their own snobbery.

 

As they walk she eventually notices some parents hurrying their children past her before they can point or ask the normal children’s questions of why does she have a tail and does blue hair feel different.  Lana compensates for her embarrassment by shooting a devastatingly sexy look at the man behind the family that had just passed and he stops as if she had stunned him. He drops the box in his arms as the person behind him runs into him which results in him tripping over the box and falling to the floor.  Lana shoots Daray a guilty look after they pass the mess.  “Oops.”

 

When they are addressed by the customs officer Lana starts to offer her hand automatically but then stops as she tries to think if this will be a problem.  She bites her lip and offers her hand, hoping that the sergeant had indeed erased her wanted record as he had said he was going to do.

 

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Daray grins widely at Lana’s reaction to the people in the spaceport, knowing if anyone could turn the situation around with style it would be her. When she causes the small traffic accident, Daray can’t help but laugh at Lana’s almost-innocent self-admonishment.

 

When Lana’s hand passes the scanner, it beeps. This is a normal reaction for the equipment, but in the air of uncertainty surrounding them, it seems like an alarm. The man looks at his holographic screen for a second then allows Daray to scan hers.

 

“It says here that you are both currently on Venus Station.” He glowers at them. “How did you get departure clearance without getting through customs and the port authority?”

 

Daray turns a knowing glance toward Lana, then stands up to her full, nowhere-near-imposing five foot, barely two inch height, and somehow still manages to look confident in front of the towering customs officer. “There was some kind of police action going on as we were leaving. We’re here taking care of a family emergency, so we had to leave quite suddenly. Some big guy checked us out after we explained what was going on. He scanned us and put us on our ship himself… What was his name honey? Sergeant something… Kul… Kal…”

 

She snaps her fingers a couple times, pretending to try and recall the name and hoping Lana will pick up the play.

 

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Lana nods and pretends to ponder as well.  “Oh Daray, you know I have no memory for names.  It was Bob… Or Bill.  Killian maybe.  Or Kargor.”  She purses her lips and taps her finger against them as she pretends to try to remember.  She also opens her mind and tries to see the color of the customs officer’s aura.  “I’m sorry, I’m just not certain.  All I was paying attention to was our receipt for the transport and our luggage.”

 

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“Which didn’t stop them loosing MY luggage!” Daray puts on a good pout, and opens her arms as if to illustrate how empty of luggage they are.

 

The custom’s officer’s aura is largely indicative of his lack of enthusiasm. Whether for the job he is doing, or the current situation, is uncertain.

 

“Killgore! That was his name! Big guy. Broad shoulders. Imposing manner. Booming voice. You know, I think he had the hots for you honey. I’ve rarely seen such a look on a man’s face…”

 

The customs officer rolls his eyes and manipulates his computer terminal for a moment before looking back up at the pair with a disinterested sigh. “And what is the nature and intended duration of your stay in Hector?”

 

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Lana smiles cheerfully and pipes up again.  “Family emergency.  Well not exactly family.  See Dirk isn’t exactly related, but his grandmother knew my grandmother so the family goes way back.  Anyways Aunt Petty, his mom... but not really my aunt you see; called and said there had been a horrible accident and we needed to come right away.  I grabbed Daray and we just threw everything into the suitcases and took off for the docking bay to get a fight but then half way here we get another call that it was only a broken leg and he was fine and heading home but we were already on our way and Aunt Petty said she had been wanting us to visit for a while anyways so here we are!”  She grins at the man as though that rambling and complicated excuse should clearly explain everything.

 

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Daray nods her agreement, offering the man a winning smile and leaning into Lana’s shoulder.

 

The customs officer stares at them for a long moment, his aura shifting into a distinct ‘how do I always get the idiots’ shade. Finally he consults his terminal for a moment, then nods to himself. “Yes, it says here there was a police action on Venus Station a couple of days ago. Soldiers were screening travelers and searching ships.” He raises an eyebrow as something interesting catches his eye. “One ship got through the blockade… but it was intercepted and two fugitives were captured and killed.”

 

His eyes lift up and offer them both a hard stare before he waves his hand through the display. They can see their images on his holographic display, the borders of which turn green as his hand passes through them and his face twists into a poor facsimile of a polite smile. “When you leave Hector, please remember to get through customs properly ladies. Enjoy your stay and Mars and, for the love of god, don’t stay very long. I’m not sure the planet is equipped to deal with the likes of you for any length of time.”

 

Daray takes a moment to pretend like she’s thinking about his words, then changes her smile to a look of exaggerated confusion and responds with, “Huh?”

 

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Lana also schools her face into an expression of confusion.  “Thank you, I think…”  Her voice trails off and she shifts the bag on her shoulders and proceeds past the customs officer and further into the station, much to the relief of the line forming behind them.  “I don’t think he liked us very much Daray.”  She gives Daray an amused look as they walk away and he can no longer see her face.

 

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The man watches them go by, his aura already changing to a more relieved color as he eyes the grumpy traveler behind the women.

 

“You know, I got that distinct impression.” Daray agrees. “OK APRIL, where’re we headed? And is there a place to stash the luggage on the way?”

 

-The address for the cafe in question is on your HUD now Daray. Your cover residence is still set up and available if you wish to stop and deposit your traveling items before heading to the cafe.-

 

“My cover?” Dray’s voice is truly surprised by the mention.

 

-Yes Daray, your initial assignment from Solidarity Online included a cover story of being the daughter of a whiskey producing family from Hector. You were supposed to be visiting Tranquility to explore options for expanding distribution into new channels.-

 

“Oh crap! I remember that! Damn APRIL, that was like, two years ago. Are you telling me I have a place here?” She turned a curious gaze toward Lana as they walked toward the exit of the spaceport.

 

-Twenty-one months, eighteen hours, forty-six minutes, eighteen seconds. The residence is a small apartment near a whiskey production facility about ten miles from the cafe. Technically it is the property of Solidarity Online as it was not among the assets transferred to your possession as compensation for the accident. However, it is still listed in Solidarity Online’s records as being reserved for your use, and thus, it remains empty and available.-

 

Daray blushes a bit when APRIL mentions the settlement, turning her head to the side and hoping Lana doesn’t see the reaction. She doesn’t want her friend thinking she is some wealthy thrill-seeker trying to lure her into some sort of arrangement. “Uh. Thanks APRIL. Can you put up the address please?” She steps up to a curb and flags down a public transport in order to keep Lana from seeing her flushed face.

 

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Lana hadn’t been paying much attention to the conversation, it was a dull voice in her head and she had been thinking her own thoughts about traveling to the café where her life was slowly being erased from.  Despite Daray’s face being turned away from her Lana can’t help but notice the flair of yellow green to her aura.  She wonders briefly what about the conversation embarrassed her but slips her hand into Daray’s and smiles winningly at her to let her know that she didn’t notice anything worth being upset about.

 

“That sounds great.  I didn’t really want to be lugging this bag all over the city.  I cant believe we’re getting so close it will be nice to finally have some definitive answers instead of questions and suppositions.”  

 

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Daray squeezes Lana’s hand firmly before opening the door of the vehicle that had stopped for them and helping her inside with her small volume of luggage.

 

Climbing in behind her, she tapped the address of the SO safe-house into the console and swiped the back of her hand across the panel. Once the transaction was complete, the door closed behind them and the vehicle headed out.

 

Watching Lana’s face for a couple of minutes, Daray finally clears her throat to break the silence, then says, “I don’t want to get your hopes up just yet Lana. Theres no guarantee that we’re going to find anything at all here. We can probably track down this hacker, but I’m not sure he’s going to lead us anywhere helpful. It sounds like he’s just some peon that’s been hired as a ruse.”

 

She sits quietly for a few more minutes, wondering if keeping her past from Lana is any better than someone else trying to destroy Lana’s past. 

 

‘It’s not like we’re married or anything. I mean, I love her. I’m sure of that. I’ve never been so sure of anything in all my life. But… She doesn’t want to get tied down and neither do I. Why does it make me feel so weird to be holding this back from her?’ 

 

Her thoughts roll around in her head for a moment before APRIL answers, her own voice coming through quite clearly in Lana’s ear. -Because you care bout her Daray. You know she does not want to feel obligated, or ‘kept’ as she puts it, and you are afraid that full disclosure may scare her away. It is a natural, human, feeling that you are experiencing. Psychology would dictate that full disclosure is the best course of action, however both you and Lana have proven numerous times in the past four days that the difference between textbook and practical psychology is significant. I am afraid that I can not offer much in the way of suggestions on how to proceed.-

 

As APRIL finishes speaking, Daray turns red again, and sinks back into the seat as she turns toward Lana with a scared animal look forming on her face. The realization that Lana was still tuned into APRIL’s communications dawning on her.


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