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

In A Starship's Wake

By Stephen Schamber

Chapter 2: Not Empty-Handed

    Allison met Terrence more or less by chance several months earlier in a small town close to her family’s farm. She was there picking up an order of supplies. It was one of the first times her parents had trusted her to make the trip alone. She’d started talking to him while getting lunch, and wound up telling him about wanting to leave her family farm to go get a degree.
    Terrence offered her a way to do that. Her family didn’t have enough money to pay for school, and she’d intended to get a job in a larger town for a while first. Terrence told her he ran a business in Nevarris, one of the planet’s larger star ports. It earned a lot of money, and that he said he could find a job for her there. 
    He hadn’t mentioned that the business was a strip club. It wasn’t until her first shift that she learned that. She found that entire concept revolting and would never have come if she’d known. That was probably why he hadn’t told her. 
    Once she’d moved there over her parents objections and found out, she didn’t want to admit she’d been wrong and go back. She was only working in the kitchen or making drinks at the bar and told herself she could cope, and for the most part she could. 
    She couldn’t chase away the innate sense of wrongness gnawing at her heart every time she went to work. Every time she looked up and saw one of the scantily-clad girls dancing on the stage, or going into one of the private rooms, it made her skin crawl. She had no idea how far things went there, and she didn’t want to.
     Despite initially promising that she could just keep working in the kitchen and at the bar, Terrence started suggesting she should be one of the dancers. She told him what she thought of it and that she wasn’t interested, but he didn’t listen. The suggesting became pressuring, and the pressuring threatening. It finally led to the ultimatum he’d given her in the diner that morning.
    For the fifth or sixth time at least since getting into Joseph the starman’s truck, Allison wondered if she was making exactly the same foolish mistake. It had started much the same way as her move to Nevarris, with a chance meeting in a diner.
    There were some important differences though. Joseph had seen her clearly in trouble and offered help. Terrence on the other hand had seen her on an errand and offered to make all her dreams come true. She’d long since realized that was a warning sign she should have paid attention to. 
    Another difference was that Joseph, consciously or not, was making an effort to answer all her questions completely. Terrence was fond of reminding her that he’d never lied to her, and it was almost true; lies had been rare. For the most part, he’d just kept her in the dark by not explaining any more than he had to and by dodging her questions. 
    She’d been quizzing Joseph since they got in the truck and he had yet to do the same. After learning the cargo they were loading was rubber tree seedlings, she had asked why such a thing would be shipped to a space station. He spent several minutes explaining space-borne farming operations and the uses of rubber. He finished by saying he had only the roughest idea of how the substance was harvested from them, and if she wanted to know about that she’d have to ask the farmer when they arrived.
    Another difference she’d noticed was that the two got angry about very different things. Terrence got angry whenever she disagreed with or questioned him. Joseph, in contrast, hadn’t been angry or offended in the slightest when she questioned his motives. He implied she was wise to do so.    
    Joseph was angry about the way Terrence had treated her, and after that realization struck she felt more relaxed in his presence. He wasn’t likely to shout at her. Joseph had been so distracted by being angry at Terrence that he’d forgotten to introduce himself until they were halfway across the parking lot, for which he’d sheepishly apologized. 
    “Okay, I’m satisfied now.” Joseph’s comment brought her out of her nervous reflections. He turned the truck back onto the road Allison had already pointed out that would take them to Terrence’s club. She and many of the other workers lived in an apartment building across the street. Joseph was taking her back there to pack a few things. She didn’t relish the idea of going in there again now that she’d decided to run, but she also didn’t like the idea of leaving with nothing.
    “That we weren’t followed, you mean?” He had mentioned something about that as they left the diner, but Allison’s mind had been on other things. It was only fifteen minutes from the club on foot, and it dawned on her that they’d been driving around for about that long.
    “Yeah. I didn’t think it was likely, but you never know. How far is it to this place?”
    “Not far. A couple more blocks.” Her heart started beating faster as they got closer. 
    Soon the club itself was in sight, a gaudy two-level storefront with lots of neon lights advertizing what it was. The most obnoxious were off right now, since midmorning wasn’t particularly busy, but the club was still open. She pointed the building out. 
    “The apartment is the brick building across from it. Terrence either owns it or knows someone who does, because none of the club workers pay rent.”
    “Does anyone else live there?”
    “Not many. The noise from the club at night keeps people from moving in.” As they drew up to the buildings, Allison’s stomach suddenly clenched in fear. “Don’t stop, don’t stop!” she whimpered before Joseph could slow down. She shrunk down in her seat to avoid being seen through the windows. She saw him turn down the next side street instead before she clenched her eyes shut.
    What if someone figured out she was running and kept her from leaving the apartment once she was inside? Or worse, what if Terrence had given orders that she wasn’t to leave again until her shift? She had never seen that happen, but she knew the building manager would do it if Terrence told him to. She had a sudden, terrifying vision of the fat man bolting her door from the outside.
    She opened her eyes, and the vision vanished to be replaced by an ordinary, small-town residential road seen through a windshield. Her heart rate slowed as she recognized her surroundings. She wasn’t in any danger yet. Joseph had pulled over a few streets back from the apartment.
    “Going to be okay?”
    She glanced over at the starman. The concern in his voice was mirrored on his face. She nodded. “Yeah. Sorry. I started worrying that they might try to keep me from leaving again.”
    “Is that likely?”
    “No.” She shook her head. “Nobody monitors that. It’s just...if they realize I’m running, they might.”
    Joseph rubbed his chin, thinking. “Well, are you likely to actually run into anyone? A few people might see you through their windows, but generally nobody stands around in the halls of an apartment building.”
    “I don’t know. More likely than when the club is busy.”
    “They have no reason to suspect you just for walking through the building. You live there.”
    “I’ll be walking through looking upset and scared though. What if they figure out why?”
    “Taylor just threatened you to force you to do something you don’t want to. You have a completely legitimate reason for looking upset and scared. They have no way of knowing that you’re more afraid of something else.”
    Joseph using the wrong name again barely registered with Allison. She hadn’t considered that she had a ready-made excuse if anyone asked her what was wrong. Now that she considered it, there were probably a few residents that had known of the ultimatum before she did. Jeremy, the building manager, certainly would know, and she could think of a few others.
    “Oh no.” Allison sighed with resignation more than anything else, and explained what she had just thought of. It had brought another realization. “I won’t be able to bring that much with me. If I try to walk out of there with everything I own, Jeremy will assume I’m trying to run and chase me.”
    “I hadn’t thought of that,” Joseph admitted. “Well, you don’t need to bring everything.” He nodded toward the purse by her feet. “Anything valuable that’s small enough to go unnoticed and a couple changes of clothes should fit in there. Tyrone can take you to buy anything else you need before we leave.”
    Allison did a quick mental inventory of what she should bring and where it was; her few valuables and some supplies she would need. “Okay. I’m ready, let’s try again.”
    “How long do you think it will take you?” Joseph put the car in motion.
    “Not very, I don’t have much to get and it’s all easy to get to. A few minutes should be all.”
    “Good. I’m going to park on the street outside the apartment. You go in and gather your things, and if you don’t come back after ten minutes I’ll come in to look for you. While we drive, I want you to describe exactly how to get to your apartment from the front door.”
    She did that, and was surprised to find focusing on that task helped block out the fear. It was still there, but when they rounded the corner it didn’t swell up to paralyze her again.
    “What will you do if they come ask why you’re parked here?”
    Joseph chuckled. “It’s unlikely. If they notice me they’ll think I’m a lonely starman on a long run trying to talk myself into going to the club even though I know it’s wrong. And if they ask, that’s exactly what I’ll say.” The truck rolled gently to a halt. “Alright, let’s get this done. In and out as quickly as you can without drawing attention.”
    Allison got out and tried to stroll casually toward the three story concrete building. Her heart was hammering as she opened the door and walked in. Jeremy was in the office, but he was watching TV and didn’t even notice her. She quickly climbed the stairs to the second floor and walked past half a dozen doors to reach her own flat. Once inside she bolted the door.
    She had a hunting knife in the kitchen that she’d brought for cooking, despite Terrence telling her not to bring any weapons. It was more suited for cooking, but it could be a weapon. She took it out of it’s drawer on the way the bedroom. There she put her few valuable pieces of jewelry in her purse, followed by all the money she’d had hidden in the apartment. She’d worked at the club for several months and had quite a bit, but most of it was from tips. Terrence paid the club workers by depositing money into accounts he set up for them at the local bank, where he could monitor their money. 
    Allison hadn’t been entirely comfortable with that, and had visited the bank regularly to transfer the money to her home bank account. She only knew he monitored the accounts because he’d asked her why she was making such large withdraws if she was trying to save up money for school. She’d made an excuse about wanting all of it to be in one place, which had led to her first argument with him and frequent mockery in the following months. Now she was glad she’d done it, though she had no idea if she’d still be able to access it from the Teton Sector. At least it was safe.
    Detouring to the bathroom, she added all the toiletries she would need, then tried to fit as many changes of clothes into the purse as possible. Even choosing only her thinnest and tightest clothing, she could only fit three sets; the bag just wasn’t big enough for more. She’d have to buy some. Setting the knife carefully on top where it was accessible, she closed the bag.
    She still had three minutes before Joseph would come in, but she saw no reason to wait longer. As she headed for the door, she grabbed up her computer and her favorite book. She carried them around with her often enough that it wouldn’t raise suspicion.
    Glancing around the apartment one last time, she realized she hadn’t actually brought that much here with her from home. She’d consciously avoided bringing things that were important or sentimental. The only things she was really leaving behind were household things she’d purchased here and clothes. Perhaps on some level she’d know this wasn’t going to work out. She tossed her unit key on the floor, walked out and closed the door.
    She wasn’t as lucky the second time past Jeremy. He looked up from the TV as she came down the stairs. “Where are you going?” he asked suspiciously.
    “Outside to read.” She didn’t stop moving. Her heart was hammering harder than ever, but her focus was on getting back into the pickup. The truck equaled safety. She knew the fat man couldn’t heave himself out of his chair fast enough to catch her before she reached it, as long as she kept walking.
    “Wait a minute!” He began the five-second process of rising from his armchair. “Terrence said...”
    Allison never heard what Terrence said. She hit the door at ‘wait,’ and as it closed it cut off the rest of the sentence. He must have fumbled with the latch on the office door, because she was almost at the truck before he got out of the building. He lumbered up to a plodding run as she opened the passenger door, waving his arms at Joseph and shouting at him not to go anywhere. The starman pulled gently away from the curb as soon as she was in her seat, and the fat man dwindled away in the side mirror until they rounded a corner.
    “Was that the building manager? Jeremy?”
    “Yes.”
    Joseph grunted. “What does he weigh in local gravity? Five hundred pounds or thereabout?”
    Allison gave him a nervous smile as her heart rate started dropping to normal. “Thereabout.”
    Joseph grunted again. “Local gravity is a bit lower than standard, too. He should take better care of himself.”
    Allison giggled. “I’m glad he doesn’t, frankly. If he did, he might have stood a chance of catching me.” The adrenaline and the euphoria of the successful raid on her apartment was making her a bit giddy.
    “Fair enough.” Fortunately Joseph was still level-headed. “Next stop is the docks then. It’ll be my turn to supervise the loading soon. Tyrone has some errands to run in town, and I’m sure he’ll be willing to take you to buy whatever you need to. Have you ever seen a starship up close?”
    “Nope.”
    “Well, you will in a few minutes. Brace yourself, it’s not nearly as exciting as most people think.”

Published: January 14 2018

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© 2019 by Stephen Schamber