When we arrived back at the Xing, Roland pointed at it and said “You’re… uh… sure you can fix the converter?” Couldn’t blame him, I might have thought the same if I saw a ship cobbled up together like that. What could we do when the only materials came from a junkyard?
“It’s a long story- how we put together this ship- but it is running beautifully.” I assured him. Estella did the same.
Roland looked skeptical. “If ya say so…”
“So what happened to the original converter again?” Estella asked him with a conspiratorial smile.
“Uh… Sam… you said something ’bout a story?”
“How about we tell it over a drink?” I exchanged a glance with Estella before leading the way into the ship.
“I’ll let Hue know what’s going on,” Aurora said before walking off. I nodded.
At the lounge, I hopped on over to the mini-bar. “What do you fancy? A beer or something stronger? A Chen Xing special perhaps?” I was clenching my hands under the counter where no one could see, trying to reign in my temper over Roland’s shifty talk. Turned out the guy was way smarter than he looked. He must have picked up on my feelings nevertheless. “I do somethin wrong?” He asked.
“No, what makes you say that?” I tried to sound casual.
Roland paused over the choice of beverages and then seized a beer. “You sure you ain’t mad or somethin? Ya look sour.”
“Oh, that’s just my norm. Isn’t that right, Estella?”
Estella nodded. “Yeah, once you get to know her she’s really easy to get along with, so long as you’re an honest sort.” I caught the emphasis on the word honest and was sure that Roland would too. I looked over to him. He choked on his beer and then tried to pretend nothing happened. I grinned at that. Time to bare my fangs.
“Why the big reaction? Do you have something to hide?” I narrowed my eyes at him.
“Hide? What? No. Um, I’m just a worker, doing my job like the boss wants. And I don’t want the boss getting mad. He hur… um, he puts a write-up in yer file, I mean.”
Estella let out a deliberately noisy and dramatic sigh, shaking her head. “Treating Sam like she’s stupid never ends well for anyone, last guy who did that….” She let her voice trail off with a regretful look. I gave her an appreciative nod.
Time to ease up a bit. “If we keep it amongst us like buddies, then the boss ain’t gonna know, you know? So what’s with the blast marks? Anyone with eyes can tell what they are.”
Roland looked across to Estella to get her promise of silence and then continued fidgeting some more before he let out a sigh, took a big swig of the beer, and looked towards the side, stubbornly avoiding eye contact with us. “There’s folks who don’t want no illium plant on this world. Say it brings in unkindly types.”
“Hell, I’ve lost control before and damaged stuff in a fit of rage.” Estella lied with a shrug meant to convey nonchalance. “If that’s what happened, it happens to everyone once in a while.” I figured that was her way of getting him to elaborate.
“I’m no techie so I don’t know what an illium plant does. What types of unkindly types?” I figured I would go the direct way, plus what I said also happened to be 100% genuine.
“It’s some kinda thing to do with refuelin deep explorer ships tryin to find somethin out there. But ya know, once ya got a illium plant, regular folks gonna come settlin and takin up space. But I don’t care about none of that. Just doing my job, ya know?”
I nodded, pretending that I understood.
Estella seemed to have read my mind or perhaps she really understood. “He likes the quiet life, a plant like that comes on line and pretty soon you got families, kids, industry and cities springing up around your ears. Gets to the point a fella can’t throw a stone without hitting someone else’s home, or hear’em self think over the racket from people bein people.
“Yeah, that’s the talk. You musta heard ’em cause that’s what they’re sayin. Me, I don’t mind. There’s always more work somewhere and people don’t bother me none.”
I replied with a noncommittal “Right”. A pistol shot rang outside. I rushed towards the noise. Aurora had a slip of girl pinned down not far from the ship. Our little ‘hostage’ was screaming and struggling against Aurora like a wild cat, looking ready to scratch Aurora’s eyes out.
“What’s going on? Where’s H squared?”
“This kid and her pals grabbed him when I ducked inside to get some wire for the converter.” Aurora gestured to the trash pile, “They dragged him in there.”
I called out for H squared but got no response.
“How many were there?” Estella walked up, pulled a flashlight from her hip pouch and passed it over to me. I accepted it and started moving over to the trash pile.
“About five or six?” Aurora replied, “Didn’t get a real accurate count, they had him mostly in the pile by the time I got out here.” She indicated the girl she had pinned down with a movement of the head. “Except for this straggler.”
Roland trailed over after Estella. “Ugh, stupid gutter rats. Just drown it. Do us all a favor.”
“They’re not armed with anything but trash, so go easy on them.” I heard Aurora raising her voice.
“He’s hardly serious.” Estella tried to smooth over the tension, “Though a bath might not be a horrible idea.”
I turned back momentarily to give my stance. “Yeah, we will do no such thing. It’s just a kid.”
“You even try to put me in water and I’ll gut every last one of you.” The girl screeched her defiance.
“Now what’s the big idea of hating water? A hot bath is the best thing in the world, well, after getting to sleep in in winter.” I said.
“Then get talking, or I’m giving you a full on bath, with soap and everything.” Aurora threatened her while frisking her over for hidden weapons. I could see a smile that she was trying hard to suppress. “Why’d you take our pal, and where’d you take him?”
“I ain’t a snitch,” she replied with as haughty a tone as she could manage, which did not amount to much.
“I’ll wash her clothes too. Maybe even give her a hair cut.” Estella chimed in. The gal knew her timing.
“And you can’t threaten me, cause I’ll take you all out if you even try it. I can hold my breath for a long time. Like 30 seconds, or even longer.”
I shone a flashlight at the trash pile. There was actually a ‘tunnel’ into the trash that went underground. I groaned. “We have a tunnel crawl ahead.”
“Oh, go ahead. Try to find them. They’ll gut you in the dark before you even know they’re there. We’re fierce.”
“Right, kiddo, you are as fierce as kittens to full-grown tigers.”
“Oh, well in that case-” Aurora took out a candy bar from her pocket. “I guess we’ll have to do things the easy way.” She tore the wrapper off with her teeth and held the candy bar where the girl could see it. “Let’s start off with something simple then, what name do your friends call you?”
Defiant silence. Aurora passed the candy bar to Estella with a wink.
“They call me ‘I’m gonna gut you.'” The girl tried to ignore the candy bar but her eyes kept travelling back to it.
Aurora gave the girl a temporary cold treatment by enquiring about the size of the ‘tunnel’.
“Several feet and then it turns. That’s why I was groaning.” I replied.
Estella played the bad cop part well. She broke off a piece of the candy bar and started eating it slowly. “Oh hey, nice, chocolate nut, my favorite. You want a bite?” She offered the kid. “I’m gonna gut you? I.G.G.Y. Iggy, I like it.” She smiled happily.
“I’m telling ya, yer wastin time. Them gutter rats a useless bunch.” Roland interjected.
“How far does it look to go down?” Estella asked me.
The girl made a frustrated noise. “That’s not my name. It’s what I’m gonna do to all of you. You’re so stupid.” She kept eyeing the chocolate.
Estella dangled the candy bar so close to her that she could take a bite of it. “Well, unless you tell us your real name, it’s going to be Iggy from now on.”
The kid snapped at the bar like a snake and smirked at Estella. “See, I can bite all of you that fast.” She announced triumphantly with chocolate smearing her teeth.
Aurora continued letting Estella have the limelight by starting a theory about why H squared was taken. “Someone wants him, guessing they paid the local rat patrol to bring him to them, probably to fix something.” She glanced over at Roland. “We were a bit open about Hue doing the actual repair work, then again one of those kids was the one from the bar…” Looking down at the girl, she continued, “Wherever they took him I doubt they’ll hurt him once they realize how useful he is as a mechanic, so we got a little time, unless you want to rush the tunnels and over take’em? Kids will move slow hauling Hue’s unconscious butt along.”
“Maybe we’ll call you Nipper.” Estella made it sound like this was a result of deep thought and her subsequent gesture- patting the girl’s filthy hair- was entirely unconscious. “Up to you Sam, I trust your judgement.”
“Nipper is dumb. Iggy is dumb. You’re all dumb. Where’s more chocolate?”
“Or Bitesy. Your choice.” I told our little captive. “So who volunteers to stay behind and look after Bitesy?”
Estella smirked at my comment. “Chocolate is for people with names,” She held the candy bar up in offer. “So what’ll it be? Nipper? Iggy? Or?” She let the sentence dangle tantalizingly alongside the candy.
The kid made an exaggerated sigh. “It doesn’t matter, my friends are just gonna kill you all anyway”. Looking keenly at the chocolate, she finally said. “It’s Guppy. Don’t laugh, or I’ll gut you.”
“I’ll hang back and watch the girl, get her cleaned up a bit, see what I can learn about the situation.” Aurora smiled at the girl. “Guppy is pretty.”
“I’m not pretty. I’m dangerous.” The girl glared back at Aurora.
“All right, me and Estella will go do the tunnel crawl then. Roland, what are you doing?” I didn’t want him unaccounted for and running amok on our ship.
“I’m gonna sit here and look after the converter. You can waste yer time with them.”
Satisfied, I let Estella know it’s time to get a move on.
Estella nodded her assent. “I can probably sense them down in the tunnels with my talent, might help us pick our way through the maze.” She smiled warmly at Guppy. “I have a plant in my garden called a Magenta Guppy. It has this beautiful purple and gold flowers shaped like a bird’s eye, most beautiful thing when it blooms in the moonlight.”
A tear formed in the corner of Guppy’s eye and she snuffled. Then she went on to describe exactly how her friends were going to kill everyone in that strangled voice. I did not quite know how to react. Children were confusing to me.
Estella passed the remainder of the candy bar to Aurora. “We’ll be back, stay alert, whoever hired these kids may come sniffing around again.”
I started heading towards the tunnel, impatient for action. But Aurora stopped me so I could hand her the advance pay and also told us where to find her and Guppy when we came back. The girl made another retort.
Estella snickered as she followed me into the tunnel. “Knowing Aurora, she’s probably going to wind up adopting the kid,” A pause for reflection. “She seems to have a soft spot for the down-trodden.”
I shuddered at the idea of having Guppy on board with us every day. “That will be fun indeed.”
Me and Estella squeezed into the opening one after the other, trying not to get snagged on bits of protruding metal. The tunnel was so narrow that we had to crawl. It turned dark not very far in.
From behind me, there was a sort of cluckly sound and a soft blue tinted light came on. “Glow stick, should work well enough in here.” Estella explained.
“Thanks, saves me from putting a spotlight in my mouth to light the way.”
After worming our way through somewhat regular bends and twists, we came to a fork in the tunnel. “Which way?” I asked Estella, hoping that she could sense H squared somewhere ahead.
“Dragging Hue, they probably left some marks.” She offered, by which I assumed her power did not work here. I crawled down the left fork which seemed more well-used. Then a feeling came over me that perhaps the right was the correct path. Too late to go back so I just noted it to Estella.
“Good idea, if we start back tracking now we’ll lose them for sure, and I trust your judgement, let’s see where this leads.”
The tunnel continued on. I thought I heard the distinctive mumbling nonsense of H squared somewhere ahead. I felt my entire body go back into relax mode, a subtle but important difference. A few more twists and turns and then there’s a faint light visible, reflecting off of the next corner.
“See, I knew you picked right the first time.” Estella whispered eagerly.
I smiled. “We should hurry up.”
Estella put a hand on my leg and squeezed it briefly. “I heard something around the corner.” She whispered.
I inched forward on my stomach and peeked around the corner. A piece of metal was jammed between the floor and ceiling of the tunnel. It would have been easy for the unsuspected to knock into it.
We carefully negotiated our way around the trap. An opening stood in the tunnel around the next corner, with a ladder going down. A head of unruly hair was in our vision for a moment before it got swallowed by the ladder.
“The trap’ll stop ’em. They won’t be able to make it in here when the whole top caves in.” A voice drifted up from below. I signaled Estella to hurry.
We looked down the ladder onto a large cave, where the kids all gathered around a confused looking H squared. On one side stood a small man in large clothes with an iron crown surrounded by a few armed toughs. Jake Camden, our long lost ‘friend’.