Aurra was startled awake by Doc’s gentle snickering.
“I wasn’t actually asleep,” she started to defend herself, but knew right away that Doc wasn’t fooled one bit. He took a seat in the empty co-pilot’s chair next to hers and regarded her thoughtfully. Aurra squirmed under his scrutiny. In the dim light of the cockpit that came from the various monitors, consoles and displays all around the two of them she probably looked worse than ever. The shadows under her eyes darker and the gauntness of her face more pronounced.
Doc let out a breath he had held since he sat down. “When last did you eat something?”
Aurra just shook her head, staring straight over the console at the black emptiness of space beyond the viewport in front of her, leaving the interpretation of the gesture up to Doc. Quietness descended between them, occasionally interrupted by the computerized voice that relayed system status updates and even that was hardly more than a murmur.
Aurra contemplated the vastness and harshness of space, the vacuum all around them held at bay by the walls of her ship, the freighter she was piloting. Out there, within her immediate field of view was nothing—dead space, as dead and empty as Aurra felt inside. The silent tug of wills that was going on between her and Doc was draining her even more. She felt like she was about to break; frozen by the coldness of space and about to be shattered into a million pieces and released into the void. Why was she still resisting? She didn’t even know anymore. So she relented. “Okay, Doc. Say what you’ve come to say.” She turned her head in his direction.
“Aurra you have to find a new co-pilot.”
She had known that this was what he had come to say. She tensed in reflexive response, like every time the subject came up. But every other time she had categorically refused to entertain the thought; this time though she was ready to admit that Doc had a point. She knew she was close, not only to complete emotional, but also to complete physical exhaustion. And regardless of all of her pain and heartache she was still responsible for her ship and her crew, small as it may be. She scrubbed her hands over her face, trying to rub the tiredness from her eyes. Then she stroked a hand over the short, black bristles of her nearly clean shaven head.
She used to have long hair, but she had shaved it off six months ago, shortly after Bryn’s death. Bryn—her co-pilot, her business partner, her husband, her lover. He had been her reason to exist. It had been a long, lonely six months, but she was realizing that more than anything she was tired of the grief. The last six months she had operated on auto-pilot, doing two people’s work on her own. She needed to move on; for her crew’s sake and her own. Still, it was hard to let go.
“We can’t afford to pay a co-pilot,” she eventually responded in one final effort to stave off the inevitable. And no experienced pilot in their right mind would hire on for the pittance she would be able to offer, no benefits neither, no days off, just a roof over the head so to speak and lots of work. And the ones that were prepared to take her terms? She probably wouldn’t want them within a hundred meters of her ship anyway. She regarded Doc wearily as a grin spread across his weathered face.
“I think,” he started, “I have found a solution.”
“What?” She challenged him, the sarcasm obvious in her voice. “Did you win a jackpot? Didn’t you say that playing the lottery was a fundamental waste of time and money?”
Doc didn’t take the bait. He just stayed infuriatingly calm as always. “Yes, I said that, and no, I didn’t play and therefore I couldn’t have won a jackpot.”
Aurra reigned in her frustration, born as it was out of exhaustion and despair. He might really have a solution if she could just make herself listen and get over the fact that he wanted her to replace Bryn. She tempered her tone and raised a questioning eye brow. “So what then? Skilled pilots don’t come for free.”
“This one does, he’s, well, almost free, we just have to buy him and,” he hurried on to say, “most importantly, he is on Horlus I.”
Aurra’s jaw dropped. “A slave? Are you out of your mind? And why would anybody have a pilot for sale anyway? Aren’t slaves for menial labor? I thought most of them can’t even read or write, never mind fly a space ship.” This was probably the longest, most emotional speech she had made in six months, Aurra realized.
Doc had realized it too and smiled at her. “Come, have a look.” He swished his hand over the touch display on the pilots console in front of him and after a few more commands the picture of a man who looked to be in his mid-thirties with a square face, dark crew-cut style hair, pale blue eyes and a long straight nose came into view. At the bottom of the picture a label read D-3248333. Attractive, Aurra thought, instantly feeling guilty. At least he looked nothing like Bryn. He is objectively handsome in a very masculine way, Aurra tried to reason with her conscience. Doc obviously saw the emotions play out on her face. “Aurra, you have to let Bryn go. He would want you to move on, to be happy again.”
“I know.” Easy for you to say. She sighed. “So who is this wonder boy and why is he for sale as a slave? You do realize I have a fundamental issue with owning a slave.”
“Yes, I know, but maybe we can make this deal work both ways. I’m pretty certain I know who he is. Look here.” He pulled up another picture, two actually. They were grainy as if taken through a zoom lens and magnified beyond appropriate resolution. One showed the back of a tall man in combat boots and dark fatigues walking away from the camera but his head turned to the side making his profile visible. The other was a head shot, but again the head was somewhat turned and the face partially obscured by shadows. Still, it looked like the same man except that his hair was long and braided into a typical officer’s queue.
“Okay, so? Who is he?”
“This, I believe, is Commander Garran Raulsten.”
It took Aurra a moment to recover from her surprise. “You mean this is the guy who single-handedly tried to overthrow the government on Horlus I? I thought he had been executed for treason? Why in Horlus’ name would they let him live and sell him as a slave?”
“That my dear, I cannot answer, but remember there would only be a very small number of people who could possibly identify him, no pictures of him exist outside of the recent media exposure during the trial.”
Aurra’s eyebrow rose even higher. “And those?” She gestured towards the grainy ones.
“Those are my own. I met him a few years ago when I was still on active duty.”
Before he had hired on as the ship’s doctor with Aurra and Bryn three years earlier, Doc had been a career officer and senior surgeon in the Confederate Forces on Horlus III. At the age of fifty two he was still far from military retirement, but he had simply walked out one day, resigned his commission and all benefits. He had never explained his reasons, and Aurra had never pried. She was a private person herself and how could you expect people to respect your privacy if you didn’t respect theirs. Still over the last six months Doc had started to become her confidant, while the rest of her crew, she realized suddenly, had avoided her as much as possible. She sighed and returned her focus to the matter at hand. “But his face was on the media daily for about two weeks. Wouldn’t anybody looking at these slave-for-sale pictures recognize him?”
“I had another look at the trial footage. I am almost certain they ran morphing software on him on the electronic feed from the trial to make any facial recognition impossible. You can never really get a clear picture of him.
“You didn’t look at the picture and think ‘oh, that’s the guy from Horlus I’ neither and—everybody thinks he’s dead anyway. They even broadcasted the execution live the day after the trial ended.”
“Yeah,” Aurra said pensively, “but if it wasn’t him that was executed then who?”
“Who knows?” Doc shrugged his shoulders. “Probably some other poor soul rotting away in one of their prisons.”
“You are probably right. So a D-class slave. Those are the cheapest ones, aren’t they? Why is he categorized so low? Even if they don’t advertise him as a pilot or engineer; he can still do more than the most menial jobs.”
“I think it’s because they crippled him.”
“Oh, man.” Aurra stared at the picture of the ‘slave’ she was entertaining to buy. “What did they do to him?”
“He’s listed as LBK and CES.”
Aurra rolled her eyes. “And in layman’s terms?”
“I won’t know exactly until I examine him, but I would say his legs are paralyzed and his left leg was amputated below the knee.”
“Woah.” Now both Aurra’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “You could fix that, couldn’t you?”
“It depends on the extent of the nerve damage, but with our limited financial means I don’t think there’s a whole lot I can do.”
“Hmm. Are you sure about this whole thing? You said you met him—you sure we are not inviting a first class psychopath on board? I mean, he did try to dispose a democratically elected government, after all.”
“I don’t believe that for one minute.” Doc answered rather vehemently. “This whole affair stinks. I think they just used him as a convenient scape goat to cover up something else and took him out of commission in the process.”
Aurra fell silent for a while, worrying her lower lip with her teeth. “Okay.” She finally said. “I trust your judgment on this. And I admit, I do need help, but I’m still uncomfortable with the thought of buying and owning another human being.”
“Well, we really can’t afford to buy him and just let him go. But let’s offer him servitude. Let’s say two years with an option to buy off the indenture. If he really is Garran Raulsten he should have access to enough money to leave straight away and we get reimbursed for our expenses and the money to hire someone else. Win—win, don’t you think?”
Aurra mulled it over for a moment. “Okay. I think that’s fair. We’ll be docking at the Horlus I freight terminal in 13 hours and 41 minutes. So how do we buy ourselves a slave?”
“Online. They will even deliver him right to our docking bay for inspection—no extra charge.” He added in a fake salesman voice that made Aurra chuckle.
She was surprised how good she felt about the situation; the fact that they were freeing him from this bond, giving him the opportunity to return to his old life. Bryn would have agreed and been proud of her for doing something so noble. For the first time in six months she felt like she could breathe again. She could think of Bryn without being bowled over by grief. She didn’t think she would ever be able to let him go entirely, but at least, it seemed she was able to move along now. She looked at Doc who, ever conscientious, seemed to be reading the fine print terms of buying a slave. “So how much is wonder boy going to set us back?”
Doc mumbled some ridiculously low price under his breath without taking his eyes of the monitor.
“Really? Is that all? Hell, at this rate let’s buy two. Get him and someone who can cook.”
She was definitely intrigued and curious to meet this man—for a very personal reason of her own.
Aurora - Part 4
Aurora - Part 4