WARNING:
CONTENT IS A WORK IN PROGRESS. POSTED SECTIONS MAY UNDERGO EDITING. YE BE WARNED.

In A Starship's Wake

By Stephen Schamber

Chapter 17: A Final Meal

‚Äč    Hickory Tower was home to many businesses besides the shooting range. Restaurants and retail stores dominated the commercial suites, attracting customers by locating themselves conveniently close to home. Joseph had taken note of a restaurant called Rothen Center he wanted to try, and the three now sat in a booth waiting for salads to arrive.
    Allison liked his choice; the atmosphere was cozy. The dividers between booths had planters in the top, natural materials covered much of the metal of the station, and the slightly dimmed lighting gave a feeling of privacy. She took her time looking over the menu. There were a lot of options, and only about half were familiar to her from Temorran.
    She was still wavering between experimentation and familiarity when the waitress arrived with their salads. Deciding on only partial experimentation, she ordered a burger with some unfamiliar toppings. Tyrone ordered a steak and Joseph a dish she’d never heard of called Goulash, causing Tyrone to roll his eyes and award his partner a disdainful look.
    “What’s wrong with goulash?” Allison asked as soon as the waitress had left and they had prayed.
    “Nothing.” Joseph smiled slightly and picked up his fork.
    Tyrone sighed. “Except that we make it all the time on Garden Variety Animal, so there’s no reason to order it when we’re eating out. It’s boring.”
    “You didn’t make it this week. What is it? I’ve never heard of it before now.” Allison took her first bite of salad as Joseph cleared his mouth to answer.
    “A ground beef dish with a few spices and other things added. Chopped onions, pasta and beans are almost always included. It can also be a soup with a lot of the same ingredients.”
    Throughout the day Allison had been catching herself staring at the armored Tetonites as they went about their business on the station. An armored man and his young family who were eating at a table near theirs. His helmet was off, strapped to one shoulder of his armor. She’d observed today that many walked around with the helmets off, keeping them attached to their waist or shoulder. The uncovered shoulder of this man’s armor had a symbol on it, a bundle of sticks with an axe head protruding from it.
    At the same time that she noticed the symbol, she realized she was staring again. Allison wrenched her gaze away from the young family and back to her food. Fortunately none of them had noticed her scrutiny. No matter how forgiving a people Tetonites were, inappropriate behavior wasn’t going to win her any friends. 
    If she wanted to get a better look at Tetonite armor, she should visit somewhere that sold it. Certainly they would answer her questions about it, once she figured out what they were. Based on her experience at the range today perhaps she should try learning to wear it. Joseph had provided most of her handgun instruction, but the other Tetonites near them had been happy to offer pointers as well. Two young women had even provided helpful advice on carrying a handgun while wearing a dress.
    “How many of the armored people have to be for their jobs and how many just wear it?” Allison carefully kept her gaze from straying back to the young family as she asked.
    Tyrone tilted his head as he considered. “I’d guess about a quarter have jobs that require it, including people with jobs that involve working in space. Most armor doubles as a space suit. The number that are actually security of some kind would be much lower.”
    “Most of them don’t have to wear it outside of work either,” Joseph said. “They just keep it on. It gets to be a habit.” Another bite of salad disappeared into his mouth.
    “What about the others?” Allison asked. “Did they have those jobs once?
    “Some,” Joseph nodded. Somehow he managed to clear his mouth to answer. “Others just think it looks cool. Some like the sense of security that comes with knowing their clothes can stop bullets.” He gave his partner a dark look. “We’ll be in that category.”
    The statement startled Allison so much she dropped her fork. Fortunately it landed in her salad. “Why?”
    “We decided we’re going to start wearing armor when we land in non-Tetonite ports,” Tyrone explained. “With the Temorran Kindred and the Ventalian Mafia both watching for us now, it’s the wise thing to do. It’s best to protect ourselves.”
    Joseph swallowed another bite. “We land on a lot of Unaffiliated planets, and often we don’t know much about them. We aren’t likely to run into the Kindred, but the Ventalians have a presence of some kind on a lot of Unaffiliated planets.”
    “Oh. I didn’t even know you two had armor.” Allison dropped her eyes guiltily to her food. She was glad to hear they did, but they wouldn’t need to use it if not for her.
    “We haven’t been using it very much,” Tyrone said. “I think the last time I used mine was to do a thruster inspection. That fellow that snuck aboard in Nevarris is the only time we’ve had any shipboard combat.”
    “Hopefully there won’t be any more,” Joseph added. Allison nodded fervently.
    The two starmen had warned her ahead of time that there would be a lot of people walking around Couradeen Station in armor. Even with that warning, she found it unsettling. Combat armor worn outside of police or security staff on Temorran usually indicated association with some gang or criminal enterprise. The wearers were belligerent and quarrelsome, and if they were visiting you it was probably to take something from you.
    Things were entirely different here, something she was beginning to expect of the Teton Sector. Despite her initial misgivings about the trend, she was starting to accept that the armor-wearers weren’t rowdy or hostile, just dressed differently. The general lack of concern from the Tetonites as they mingled was reassuring.
    All the armor was also making her curious about the nation’s history. Many appeared warlike, but everyone she’d spoken to was friendly and polite. The weapons and armor didn’t indicate hostility, only a national habit of being ready for an attack. She’d seen hints of that on Garden Variety Animal as well. She privately though anyone would be a fool to attack them, but maybe that was the point.
    “Are you still uncomfortable with all the armor or are you getting used to it?” Joseph timed the question so conveniently she wondered if he’d read her mind. 
    “Still a little uncomfortable, but it’s starting to fade.” Allison began scraping together the remaining bits of her salad. “It still startles me when it catches me off guard, but it’s getting easier to remember that it doesn’t really signify anything here.”
    Tyrone nodded and swallowed. “Nothing beyond a preference for wearing armor.”
    “Unless you count the implicit warning not to cause trouble,” Allison added. “And that part is growing on me. If Terrence follows me here, it should give him pause.”
    Joseph nodded. “If it doesn’t, it’ll give him something else. He’s used to the idea that he can bully everyone. Here he’ll have a tough time bullying anyone.”
    Their main course arrived, smelling delicious. Allison could tell just from looking that the quality was far superior to the diner, or virtually any restaurant she’d been to on Temorran. Joseph’s goulash was a tasty-looking ground beef dish, and she wished they had cooked it while she’d been aboard. She’d have to try making it herself. Her burger looked amazing, and was too tall to fit in her mouth. They fell to eating as soon as the waitress had left, and Allison immediately fell back on knife and fork to tackle the monster.
    “I wonder if I’ll ever be able to get my family to visit here.” Allison cut another piece off her burger; the first few bites had completely lived up to the smell. “My brothers would love this.” She waved her fork at her plate.
    “They would probably eat it with their hands too, wouldn’t they?” Joseph teased.
    “Probably.” Allison grinned. “I was thinking more of the size and flavor.”
    “Well, if you can talk them into it they might come one day.” Tyrone speared a piece of some unfamiliar green vegetable with a fork that already held a chunk of steak. “It’s a long way to travel, but passenger ships are usually faster than ours. It would shave off a few days.”
    Allison laughed gloomily. “But only if I can talk them into it. And that doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon.” 
    She had talked to her parents twice more in the days before they arrived at Couradeen Station. They still were not happy she’d decided to go to the Teton Sector instead of returning home. They also still had plenty of angry reprimands for her about leaving home in the first place. She lifted her head in time to see Joseph and Tyrone exchanging a disapproving look. 
    “Give them time,” Joseph said. “They’ll get used to the idea. I think eventually they’ll even accept that it was the best option. Your situation was a lot worse than any of us realized at first. Couradeen Station is a safer place for you than anywhere on Temorran.”
    Allison nodded, chewing on another section of burger. They had said going on to a different station might make her harder to track, but she didn’t bring it up. After seeing the size of Couradeen Station she was convinced she was safe here. The station administrators had taken steps to protect her identity. Anyone not from the station would have to physically search the place for her, and given its size they would likely be detected before they were successful. She’d have to remember to point that out to her parents.
    “I hope they will,” Allison said when she’d cleared her mouth. “Right now it seems like they’re never going to stop reminding me that I should have listened to them.”
    “Mmm.” Joseph grunted, rolling his eyes, then swallowed. “Ultimately you have to make your own decisions. Parents want what’s best for you, but they can’t always know the best choice for you to make.”
    Allison nodded, giving the starman a curious look. Last time the subject of her parents came up he’d sidestepped it, offering only that they wanted what was best for her. In some sense she wished she had listened to them, but they hadn’t really wanted her to leave the farm at all. She had obviously decided go against them too early, but she had to sooner or later.
    “I can’t pretend I wouldn’t like to have a few people around that I know,” Allison sighed. “For the past week all my friends have been people I just met, and that’s about to start over.”
    “Fortunately you’re around some good people,” Tyrone said. “It shouldn’t take long for you to make some new friends here. You already have some in the Carvers.”
    “I know. I just wish you two weren’t leaving.” She twirled her fork and eyed her burger, fighting back a wave of sadness. “I know that’s not really reasonable, but I’m more comfortable with you two after a week then I’ve been around else for months. You were the best possible friends at the best possible time. I’d be more comfortable if you were still around.”
    “We aren’t exactly excited to leave you behind, you know.” Joseph sounded as glum as she felt, and she lifted her head to meet his eye. “Staying is still the right decision for you. As you said at the Carvers, it’s a little difficult to be independent from a bedroom on Garden Variety Animal.”
    She arched an eyebrow. “I said that?”
    “Well, I may be paraphrasing a little, but the sentiment is the same.”
    “Yeah, that’s a good summary,” Allison admitted. “Staying on the ship really means I’m making you support me. I’d rather stay here and learn to be independent. It’s better than going home too, even if that was an option. Staying here by myself just makes me feel lonely.”
    “Well, don’t forget that we don’t stop being your friends when we sail away.” Tyrone gave her a stern look over the piece of steak on his fork. “We can’t be part of your daily life, but we’re only a message or video call away, and we’ll be happy to hear from you. You’ll have some friends here before long, but if you need people to talk to just give us a call.”
    “Okay,” Allison nodded. “It’s nice to know I have an open invitation. Not that I thought you were trying to cut me out of your lives or anything.”
    “Not even a little,” Joseph laughed. “In a few months we should have a second ship, so you may actually see us more often. Just not at the same time.”
    “Well, more frequent visits will be nice. Also, wouldn’t that mean I’ll get to meet Justine? I remember Tyrone saying she was planning to join him once you had another ship.”
    “She is, so yes,” Tyrone confirmed. “I’m looking forward to that. Joseph isn’t bad company, but Justine is far better.”
    Joseph laughed. “He’s not just saying that because she’s his wife either.”
    “Who’s going to be Joseph’s copilot then?”
    “We aren’t really sure.” Joseph shrugged, scooping up another spoonful of goulash. “Maybe nobody. We were originally planning to buy a slightly different type of ship that has a little more automation. Even Garden Variety Animal doesn’t actually require two people, it’s just better to have them. It’s a problem for another day.”
    They talked about little of significance for the rest of the meal. Joseph and Tyrone nailed down when they would be back to Couradeen Station for Allison, because she wanted to have it to look forward to. She told Tyrone about her new job and the Hickory Tower apartment, since he hadn’t hear about either yet.
    “Do you want to see it before we leave?” Allison asked Tyrone as they left the restaurant.
    The big man checked the time. “Sure, it’s not too late yet. We’ll still have plenty of time to get back to the ship.”
    They took an elevator down to her floor and Tyrone gave the place a quick inspection. He was impressed, and said as much. “Very nice. Mrs. Carver was right that it’s similar in quality to the ship, but the styles are completely different.”
    Once that was finished, they went back down to the two little carts and headed for the Carvers’ domes. They dropped the borrowed one off at a warehouse on one of the domes before returning to the ship. As soon as they returned they began to settle in for the night. Young though all three were, the long day had caught up to them; they had awakened at three in the morning by Couradeen Station’s standard time.
    Allison looked around her small bedroom wistfully as she prepared for bed. She’d been here little more than a week, but she would miss it all the same. It felt safe, and that was a major change from her previous living space. Still, she was certain that in time her new apartment would feel safe as well.

Published: April 29 2018

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© 2019 by Stephen Schamber