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In A Starship's Wake

By Stephen Schamber

Chapter 3: Stops and Stoplights

    Tyrone twisted his head around as he heard their truck pull up next to the ship, but didn’t turn away from the cargo being loaded. The ten thousand rubber tree seedlings being loaded onto their ship were making him a little nervous. They didn’t usually carry cargo this delicate.
    Neither of the two men were wild pilots, but they mostly carried packaged goods. This would be the first time either was flying with cargo that could be seriously damaged if they had to do any hard maneuvering. The inertial drive did a good job of compensating for normal maneuvers, but they could still throw you off balance. In hard maneuvers it couldn’t modify the complex gravitational fields that kept everything pointed at the floor fast enough to prevent things from flying around; its priority was to prevent blackouts and serious injury to the people on board.
    Tyrone didn’t really expect any aggressive flying to be necessary on this trip, but they’d have to rely on their shields instead of their thrusters for defense if attacked. Tyrone didn’t like losing the option. Piracy was always a concern even in the Teton Sector, and was significantly more likely out in unaffiliated planets, because few had enough warships to patrol their own space. Temoran was home to less than one hundred million people and the planet didn’t have a unified government; anti-piracy work was minimal.
    Joseph and their new passenger approached him just as the first of the large racks holding the seedlings was driven aboard on a four-wheeled lift twice the size of their pickup. The girl had the apprehensive look of one who hadn’t been around starships before.
    “I’d thought they would be further along by now.” The cargo bay had six large clamshell doors, three on each side, which were sixty feet long so that shipping containers could be loaded easily. All six currently stood open, so it was easy for Joseph to see how far the work had progressed.
    “They spent a lot of time getting the water tanks loaded.” Tyrone pointed out the long cylinders at the front of the bay. “That alone is about a third of the cargo. You can expect them to fuss over the irrigation connections to every rack of seedlings too. They’re rainforest plants, they need a lot of moisture.”
    “I can’t argue with that, I suppose. I don’t want to have to water ten thousand plants by hand every day.”
    “Nor I. There’s going to be enough extra work for this trip anyway. We have to check each plant every day to make sure it’s at the right moisture level and adjust the irrigation system if it isn’t.”
    Joseph sighed. “I remember Mr. Carver saying something about that. It’s not like we have anything better to do during a week in FTL, but it’s still a pain in the neck.”
    “Well, that’s partly why it pays so much better than our normal cargo. Twice the money we would make hauling back a hold full of steel or something similar. It also makes it an opportune time to have an extra set of hands around.” Tyrone nodded significantly toward the girl, who was still looking at the ship.
    “Convenient timing then.” Joseph took the hint. “Allison, this is my business partner Tyrone Barret.”
    “Hello,” she said, timidly shaking the hand he extended.
    “Welcome aboard,” he replied, smiling gently.
    “I should show you where to put your things I suppose,” Joseph said. He led her into the ship through the cargo hold after the lift rolled back out and several workers began connecting irrigation lines. 
    Joseph returned a few minutes later. “She’s getting settled in. I put her in the empty cabin on the port side, forward from the living quarters.”
    Tyrone nodded. “I’ll remember not to go in there uninvited then.”
    “Neither of us ever goes in there except to clean anyway, I don’t think you’ll have a problem there. We don’t do much with our unoccupied cabins. We don’t even take on passengers that often.”
    “So what was the story with her? You didn’t really explain anything on the phone.” 
    Joseph quickly explained what he’d witnessed in the diner, their trip to the apartment and as much as he knew of the girl’s past. “There’s a lot more than dancing going on in that club. I think Terrence is going to be very angry when he realizes she’s gone. A thought that brings me great joy.”
    Tyrone grunted. “Not unreasonable.”
    “Oh, I forgot to mention one thing. You need to take her with you on your supply trip while I’m supervising here.” It figured. Tyrone gave him a hard stare. “What? She didn’t want to stay at her apartment for long. A good instinct, as it turned out.”
    “It won’t be a problem,” Tyrone relented. “I’m glad you thought this all the way through. Does she even know your last name is Carr?”
    “Yes. I did forget to mention it until after we left the diner though.”
    “Typical.” Tyrone rolled his eyes. “I can always count on you to stay out of trouble.”
    Allison returned around then, and Tyrone dropped it. He didn’t want her to mistake the teasing between him and Joseph for anything else. The truth was that although he might have taken a more planned approach, he agreed with Joseph’s decision.
    “Joseph says you need to get some things in town still?”
    “Yes.” She nodded. 
    “Alright. Come with me then. I have to get some supplies for the ship, so any stops you need to make shouldn’t be too far out of the way.” She followed him to the truck, and soon they were on the way out of the port again past a variety of other cargo ships.
    Tyrone would guess Nevarris had a population under fifty thousand. That wasn’t very big, but it was large enough for all the supplies a starship needed to be available, especially the household ones they needed at the moment. Living aboard ship required all the same things as living in a house; soap and cleaning chemicals, spare light bulbs and coffee filters, all were still necessary. The difference was mostly what they maintained, systems like air recyclers replacing yards to mow and rain gutters to clear.
    Tyrone pulled into the lot at a large store that Allison told him sold a lot of general and household goods. Tyrone didn’t bother to actually read its name. Even on a small planet, there were probably dozens of chains of similar stores, and he’d forget the name before he left the store. He wasn’t moving in and wouldn’t be back.
    “What do you need to pick up?” Tyrone asked as he browsed through the aisles, filling a cart with dish soap, glass cleaner and batteries.
    “Clothes, mostly. I didn’t take many from my apartment, I didn’t want an overfilled bag giving away what I was doing. Not that it did much good,” she finished ruefully.
    “Someone tried to stop you?”
    “Yeah. Joseph didn’t tell you that? He said he was going to fill you in after he showed me which cabin to take.”
    “He did, but he didn’t have time to go into detail about everything. He covered the important bits where a club owner named Terrence was trying to force you to be a stripper.”
    She gave him a confused look. “He told you his name was Terrence?”
    “Yes. Was it not?” Tyrone’s expression mirrored hers.
    “Yes, it was. It’s just that when he’s talking to me, every time he mentions him by name he uses the wrong name.”
    “Oh.” Tyrone tried to hide a smile. “Maybe he was trying harder to remember the right one when he told me.”
    “Or maybe he’s doing it on purpose?” Allison tried to watch Tyrone’s face sternly as she made the suggestion. She shouldn’t play any games that relied on bluffing; he could see her grin.
    “Possible, I suppose. But we’ve strayed from the topic at hand,” he diverted. “What was your trouble at the apartment?”
    “The building manager tried to stop me from leaving. He didn’t have the time to see how much was in my bag anyway, he was probably told not to let me leave once I came back.”
    “Well, he did a pretty poor job. Clothing...will there be enough selection here or do we need to go somewhere else for that?”
    She eyed the women’s department speculatively. “I could probably make do with what’s here, but there’s a clothing store about the same size as this place called Mary’s a couple blocks down. If we’d have time, their clothes usually fit me better, and there’s more selection.”
    “We’ll go there then. We have plenty of time.” As they passed the store’s grocery section, he surveyed the selection of local beers. He and Joseph liked to sample a bit from each of the planets they stopped at. One called Gray Owl caught his eye. “Ever tried that?” he asked Allison.
    “I’m not old enough to buy alcohol and my parents wouldn’t let me drink any at home, so no,” she replied with a shrug.
    “How old are you?” Tyrone asked curiously. “The age restriction on alcohol in Teton is eighteen, but I know that’s fairly low.”
    “Nineteen. The drinking age here is twenty, but you’re allowed to work as a server somewhere that distributes at nineteen. I moved to Nevarris not long after my birthday.”
    “Oh. Well, we’ll give it a try.” He put a six-pack in the cart and let the subject drop.
    They pulled up to Mary’s not long after. The place was indeed the same size as the dry goods store and it was filled mainly with women’s clothing and young women around Allison’s age. A few men came and went as well, but the men’s department was significantly smaller. It was more to provide men accompanying wives, girlfriends or daughters with the basics than to actually draw men to the store.
    “You know, clothing stores in the Teton Sector never seem to have carts either,” Tyrone commented, looking in vain to find one. 
    “Most of the time people don’t buy enough to really need them. They aren’t replacing their whole wardrobe.” Allison looked around for one as well.
    “Still, I always wind up holding half the store’s inventory while my wife is trying on the other half.”
    Allison laughed. “I think you’re exaggerating.”
    “Not by a lot.”
    “Well, I know Mary’s does have them, but I don’t see any. They must all be in use right now. Unfortunate, since I actually do have to replace my whole wardrobe.”
    Tyrone sighed. “Wonderful.”
    Allison laughed. “You won’t mind holding a few things, I hope?” She smiled winsomely.
    “I’m sure I can handle it.”
    Allison wasn’t dawdling despite Tyrone’s comment that they didn’t need to hurry. She whisked through the rows, picking out what she liked quickly and arranging a stack of things to try on. Once she had an armful, she handed it to Tyrone and assembled another. It took her less than thirty minutes and they were heading toward the changing rooms.
    Tyrone paid little attention to what she was picking out; he was busy watching for anyone that might be tailing them. He did eventually notice that he was mostly holding dresses, which struck him as a little odd since she was wearing denim pants. The second stack she carried was dominated by skirts and shirts. He pointed it out after an attendant had opened a fitting room for her.
    “I like dresses.” She shrugged with little concern. “Also, pants need to fit more precisely and I have long legs, so I have trouble finding ones that fit right,” she explained, hanging up the stack of clothes she still had. “Even if we aren’t in a hurry, I don’t want to spend that much time. I’ll get leggings on the way to the counter to go under the skirts. I already know what I need for those.”
    “Fair enough.” Tyrone shrugged and handed her the second stack of clothes. “I just wanted to make sure.” The door closed, and Tyrone fell back to watching for tails while he waited. A man walked past by himself, which struck Tyrone as odd. He wore a red jacket that looked oddly familiar, but Tyrone couldn’t get a good look at it through the clothing racks. The man didn’t turn to look their direction, so Tyrone could only watched suspiciously until he disappeared from view near the registers.
    The changing room door popped open again, and Allison stepped out with a pared down ‘keep’ pile on one arm. Tyrone helped her carry the rejects to a rack by the attendant who smiled politely, eying the rack with the resignation of one who worked in retail. They headed for the registers, pausing occasionally for Allison to pick out the other things she needed.
    It was as they were paying that Tyrone spotted the man in the red jacket again, sitting on a bench near the exit. This time he was certain he’d seen him before. The jacket was flashy red leather, intended for showing off. The same man in the same jacket had sat on a bench by the exit of the dry goods store and watched them leave.
    “Allison, take a quick look at the man sitting on the bench by the exit.” Tyrone gave the instructions under his breath as she collected her bags. His serious manner got her attention immediately.
    “The one with the wispy moustache?” They began walking toward the exit.
    “That’s the one. Do you recognize him?”Tyrone glanced at the man again quickly as they passed, not letting his gaze linger but trying to memorize all the details he could.
    “No, he’s nobody I know. Why?” They passed through the double doors into the parking lot.
    “He was sitting by the exit at the last store when we left too. Don’t look back at him, and walk slowly. I want to see if I can spot his car if he follows us.”
    Tyrone tried to catch the man in his peripheral vision as they ambled toward the pickup. It wasn’t hard to do. His coat was designed to be eye-catching, and wearing it to tail someone was the mistake of an amateur. He leaned against a similarly flashy muscle car parked illegally by the entrance, watching them to see where they went.
    “He’s definitely following us.” They got in their car and the man followed suit. He managed to be behind Tyrone as he pulled out of the parking lot. The man was demonstrating better skill at this kind of tailing than he had before, falling back a couple cars as they hit some traffic, but it didn’t help when the mark had already made you.
    “What do we do now?” Allison was twisted in her seat to watch the car in the side mirror on the right of the truck. Tyrone could hear the tension in her voice and tried to keep it out of his.
    “We look for a chance to loose him. If we don’t get one, we warn Joseph that we may be followed home. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves on that though. There’s still plenty of time.”
    The chance came sooner than Tyrone could have imagined. Putting a few cars between them wasn’t a bad strategy. Until a light turned yellow just a little way ahead of them. Tyrone punched it, Allison gasped,  and the pickup blasted through the intersection as the light turned red. The muscle car was caught behind all the other vehicles as they stopped, and Tyrone smiled.
    “So much for him. I’ll take a few turns, then we can head back.”

Published: January 21 2018

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