The air was hot, the sun beating down on them relentlessly. Tai swiped a hand over his face, wiping away the accumlation of sweat that just popped back up. It had never occured to him that other planets could get this hot. Intellecutlally, he knew, he had read about the climates on other planets while in school, but books do nothing to prepare for reality. The cool, calm weather of his home was months in the past and since then Tai had survived a snowstorm, two hurricanes (and wasn’t that fun to learn about), and now this hot hellhole. And he had no one to blame except himself and the strange feeling of guilt and grief that seemed to flow out of the cosmos and surround him occasionally.
Sighing, he trudged along behind the Cruiser’s captain, listening to the man communicate with the first mate still on the ship. The two men were talking about the upcoming trade that those on the planet’s surface was heading toward. Their cargo followed behind them on three strange creatures that humped backs and long necks. Tai didn’t like the smelly creatues which was unfortunate snce his task was to watch over the cargo and the beasts. As he walked along a surge of pain and grief enveloped him, nearly driving him to his knees. He stumbled, catching himself on the harness of the nearest beast, causing the animal to make a low moaning sound. The captain looked back at the noise and hurried back, grabbing Tai around the waist and helping him stay standing.
“So soon?” the older man asked, letting Tai lean against him. “They are coming closer together.”
Tai nodded. When he signed on to the Cruiser, he thought it would be prudent to inform the captain about his strange affliction, just in case something happened at an inopportune moment. At first he thought the older man would deny his commision but both the Captian and the First Mate just smiled and brought him on, helping him through the episodes.
“I think I might be getting close,” Tai whispered, sagging as the feelings left him.
“Close to what?”
“What or who,” the young man sighed. “I don’t know.” He found the strength to stand on his own, smiling his thanks at his captain and friend. “I don’t know what I’m heading toward, but I’m definitely getting closer.”
“Maybe we’ll search after we finish this trade,” the captain said, smiling down at Tai before starting back in the direction of the settlement they were deading toward.
Tai smiled ruefully and followed, prompting the beasts into moving again.
He was tired, body aching and mind numb. He had been wandering again, not willing to tie himself to anyone or anything, just drifting through space like some lost creature. The simple act of living had begun to drag on him and there was no end in sight. Life had become so painful that he had even stopped looking for Angel. Helian, Master of the House Aureli, had to have known that Angel would never be found. He had only given into to Spike’s plea to make the pain worse. After all, why go for the kill when you can go for the hurt.
“Everything going well, Tai?” Erna, the First Mate, asked, stopping the young man walking up the ramp.
“I’m fine,” Tai answered with smile. “As I told Captain, I think whatever is calling to me is getting closer.”
“Really?” Erna said with shock. He blinked and then grinned. “Do you know what it is yet?”
Tai shook his head. “Not yet, but I’m starting to think it’s someone not something.”
“Someone?” Erna’s grin turned to a leer. “I wonder…”
“Perv,” Tai laughed, slipping past the older man.
“Captain likes me this way,” the First Mate said over his shoulder.
Shaking his head, Tai headed to his bunk. Now that their trading was over he was at loose ends until they lifted off again. As he walked through the halls to his bunk he could hear Sal, the Navigation Officer singing as she plotted their next course.
“It’s dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew, Where danger is double and leasures are few, Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines It’s dark as a dungeon way down in the mine,” she sang, her voice soft and sweet, echoing down the corridors.
Tai didn’t know where Sal had learned all the old Earth songs, but she sang them often, ringing through the halls. There were songs of mines and coal, of love and life, of death and decay, all sung sweetly. The singing had worried him at first, until Erna had explained that Sal sang to keep herself focused while she worked. When he asked her about it, she had smiled widely at him, eyes shining and said her mind like to wander.
Slipping into his bunkroom, Tai stripped off his sweat drenched clothing and jumped into the sonic shower, letting the waves of energy sweep sweat and dirt from his skin. Standing beneath the waves of blue and red, he thought about how strong his episode had been. He had never felt the emotions that strongly before. When the shower shut off he left the small shower stall and walked naked toward the bed, flopping down on the flat surface. Lying there he thought back, considering all the episodes. Over the years they seemed to waver in strength, which had led him to the original thought that who or whatever was responsible for them was always on the move. Now, he was closer than he had ever been to finally find the cause and all he could feel was waves of fear.
With a sigh, Tai flipped over and forced himself into slumber.
“I’m not here to see her, Xander.”
“Well, Giles is in his office, Willow’s out with Kennedy and Spike took Dawn to the movies.”
“Not here to see any of them either.”
“Who you here for then?”
The shrill scream of the take off alarm jerked Tai out of his sleep. He stumbled out of his bed and into the harness on the wall, strapping him self in and hitting the button to let the bridge know he was ready. Moments later the now familiar feel of the ship leaving the surface of the planet plastered him to the wall, only the harness keeping him from falling to a heap on the floor. Letting the pressure flow through him, Tai did the deep breathing techniques Erna had taught him to deal with take off. Most planet born people hated the feel of take off, leaving travel through space to those born in there. The captains of ships had the tendency to hire only from space born since they were used to the feeling and were less likely to quit after their first take off. That fact had made it harder for Tai to hire on to a Cruiser. Planet born, on the small side and his episodes all conspired to keep him from reaching space. Thankfully he was a genius, knew over forty languages and could rewire just about anything. Captain and Erna took that into account when they smiled, nodded and signed Tai’s hire slip.
“Hey, Tai, we need you on deck,” Erna’s voice echoed over the comms as they pulled out of take off and the ship settled into flight.
“On my way,” he acknowledged, slapping the release on his harness. He landed in a painful lump on the floor and grunted as he forced himself to his feet and then into clothing. Not that anyone cared if he walked around the ship naked. Captain and Erna were bonded and had been for longer than Tai had been alive and Sal’s species was asexual. Still, when he did forget clothing, Erna always made some comment that had Tai blushing and running back to his bunkroom to get dressed.
The trek to the bridge went fairly quickly as Tai took all the shortcuts he had found over the months on the ship. Pausing to catch his breath, he pushed the sensor to open the door, slipping in almost unobserved as Captain and Erna argued about something.
“Sir?” Tai said quietly, breaking the bonded pair out of their quarrel.
“Ah, Tai, we’re heading to pick up some new cargo and a few paying transfers,” the Captain said, smiling at the young man. “We need you to head down to the next planet surface and collect the transfers.”
“Me, take the shuttle down and pick up people?” Tai squeaked. “You do remember I don’t pilot the shuttle very well, right?”
“You pilot fine,” Sal said quietly from the navigation console. “You just need to relax a bit.”
Tai snorted. “I can’t relax when I’m piloting. It makes me nervous.”
“You’ll do fine,” Captain assured him. “Besides, I need Erna with me to pick up the cargo a planet over and people don’t react well to Sal.”
Tai glanced at Sal with her too large eyes, fairly violet skin and bright blue hair. ‘Don’t react well’ was an understatement. “Fine, do we have coordinates and info?”
“All being sent to the shuttle. You have until 0500 ship’s time to get ready.”
Waving a hand, Tai trudged back to his room. He hated piloting and thankfully he wasn’t made to get behind the controls for the shuttle, or the ship, very often. Back in his room, he sat on his bed and groaned, he hated this so much. Most of the time he only piloted the shuttle to pick up cargo, never living beings, and really never people. He really wished that he was going with Captain to pick up the cargo instead of picking up people. Piloting the shuttle with passengers wasn’t going to endear him to said passengers. This could possibly loose money for the ship.
Lying back, he tried to sleep and ignore the anxiousness filling him.
Checking his ticket, Xander sighed and looked for the ship named on ticket. After a few minutes he found a small shuttle with the name of the ship stencilled on the side. Slinging his back over his shoulder, Xander approached the rear hatch, looking for the pilot.
“Hello,” a deep voice said from the darker interior.
“Hi,” Xander replied, forcing a smile on his face.
“Are you from Steinberg’s,” a tall man asked as he walked down the ramp.
“Yes. I am Xander, and the cargo’s right here,” Xander pointed to the bag on his shoulder. “There’s been a change of plan though.”
“Mrs. Steinberg has asked me to accompany the cargo to its destination,” he said quietly, holding up a hand when the man would have objected. “It is not against the ‘Hawk or any of the crew. Mrs. Steinberg would just rather have someone she knows handling the cargo.”
“Captain isn’t going to like this,” the tall man muttered. “I’m Erna Sanjoia, the First Mate on the StarHawk. Captain Pryce will be with us shortly and I’ll let the two of you work this out.”
“I have a direct line to the Steinberg’s if the Captain would like to use it to clarify the situation,” Xander offered.
Erna sighed and shrugged. “He just might take you up on that. For now, head inside and out of this star-damned weather.”
Nodding, Xander shook off a much dust as he could and headed inside the shuttle, taking a seat near the middle. From his vantage point he could see Erna supervising the loading of some other cargo onto the small shuttle and he could also see when the captain walked up. The man looked vaguely familiar but Xander couldn’t place the face. Heaving a sigh, he pushed to his feet and went to talk with the captain. If Captain Pryce aborted the contract it would be up to Xander to find a new ship to take him and the bag on his shoulder to their destination.
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