Dante looked up from the cave moss he’d just spat on, scowling behind his cracked yellow sunglasses.
“You just met me and you’re telling me how to live, huh?”
“I’m asking you not to poison this planet,” Tali replied, her grip on her chisel tightening as she worked on dislodging a particularly stubborn piece of purple crystal from the ship’s underwing.
His shrill laugh—almost a forced bark—echoed around the damp cave walls and Tali frowned as she scraped at the metal of the wing, any remains of the previous cobalt paint job now long gone.
“That’s kinda melodramatic—”poisoning”. It’s just moss.”
“I’ll accept that. ‘Poisoning’ is a stretch too far. No-one will take you seriously if you spend your life exaggerating.”
“Whatever, come and help me with this.”
Dante laughed again and picked up a rusted chisel to get to work on the other wing. He attempted an unsuccessful stab at a thick crystal cluster and then laughed it off, pretending that the work was beneath him as he hurled the chisel to the ground.
“When you said you had a ship, I was expecting something a bit…grander,” Tali said, finally loosening her own crystal cluster, which shattered into fine purple shards about her boots.
“Do you know how expensive this ship is? It’s a piece of shit, granted, but even in this condition, it could feed us both for a lifetime.”
“How did you get it, anyway? I wanted to ask before but…you know. Tricky to do when you’re being chased by Guards.”
Dante looked away, purposely avoiding her eyes. Tali knew that look–it was the same look the market-thief children gave her when they were trying to pretend that their pockets were not stuffed full of jewellery and modification chips.
“This isn’t your ship…” she said, lowering her chisel.
“You know I have a problem keeping my hands to myself when it comes to beautiful things…”
“Dante!” Tali cried, making him jump, “I don’t want to spend my life rotting away in a Vedra jail because you took a liking to someone else’s ride!”
“Relax,” he said, straightening a hull panel which promptly fell off and landed on the ground, “no-one on Vedra’s gonna miss this hunk of junk. These crystals are, like, what, one year’s growth? Minimum. If someone cared about this ride, they would’ve come back for it by now. Probably belonged to a scavenger or a marauder who crossed someone one too many times.”
Tali weighed her options. She had fought for so long to avoid any trouble with the law, never stealing or robbing, even when she had no food, and no roof above her head. She had always been so envious of the wealthy travellers who passed by the stone steps of the Vedra library that she sheltered under, and she always marvelled at their moving tattoos and their augmented limbs. Tali had always secretly thought herself quite plain, with unmodified dark skin, and hair that she kept tied back because it was practical to do so, but she longed to change her brown eyes to purple, or to give herself wings so she could fly free whenever she wanted. But the chance to finally ride in a ship and see home again…it was too alluring a dream to tarnish with the reality of handcuffs and imprisonment. Tali said nothing, and silently continued her chiseling.
The hot Vedra sun was beginning to set by the time the ship had finally been picked clean of cave crystals. Stripping it down had made the vessel look even worse: rust patches and missing hull panels stuck out against the light blue of the patchy paint job, and Tali was beginning to doubt if it would even lift off the ground, let alone get them to Paskion. Tali looked it up and down, and walked around it to inspect the exterior. She did a single loop around and finished next to Dante, placing her hands on her hips as she surveyed the ship from below.
“It’s a piece of shit,” she concluded.
“Don’t talk to my child like that,” Dante retorted with a soft grin as he placed his hands on the rusted entry hatch. He tried–unsuccessfully–to turn it, and proceeded to pant and strain for almost two minutes until Tali moved to help him, twisting the hatch open with one strong push. She pulled down the ladder and Dante immediately jumped on it, the frills of his woven poncho whipping her in the face as he sprung onto the rusted rungs. He was up into the cockpit before Tali could say anything, so instead she stayed silent, and tightly gripped at the ladder railings as she climbed up into the vessel.
Tali had often dreamed of this, and the ship’s interior smelled as she had always imagined: of dust and metal and sweat. True, their ship wasn’t exactly the well-polished, high-end vehicle she had so often yearned for, but she had always had a talent for seeing the best in everyone and everything, and looked past the rust and worn displays, seeing only the freedom of exploring a thousand planets spread before her. Paskion seemed real now, less a dream than a destination for the first time since she had left it behind. She remembered very little from the day her parents had decided to take her away, not even being four years old, but she remembered the tall forest trees that had grown by her home, and the birds that had sung in them. But, then, she remembered how tight her mother’s grip on her arm was as she lead her up into their ship, and how tense her parents were as they look at news on the info-screen. Tali had come to recognise “politics” as a bad word, but at such a young age, had no idea that her father had been so despised for speaking out against how the government treated its mine-workers and its fuel collectors. Tali knew very little of her father’s work, and her mother only told her that he worked in a laboratory, measuring things in glass tubes that smoked and fizzled when he added silver spoons of powder to them.
Her reverie was interrupted by a sudden whoop from Dante as he leapt into one of the pilot’s seats, spinning around on it and placing his boots up on the dashboard, his untied laces falling either side of the ignition lever.
“Let’s get going!” Dante grinned. Tali pulled the ladder up inside the hatch–wondering how much it would cost to have an automatic ramp fitted to the ship–and tightened it into place before moving to sit into the seat beside Dante. She looked out through the large front window–the strengthened glass thankfully not cracked or chipped despite the rest of the ship’s issues–and smiled, taking in the full sight of the cave entrance. Despite the sinking sun, Vedra looked beautiful from their heightened position. Tali had never been up this high before–Vedra had few mountains or trees to climb, and the ones it did have were permeated with poisonous climbing plants that would scratch the skin off of anyone who tried to ascend them. She looked to Dante and, for the first time, took him all in. His hair–a dark afro that was flecked with coarse sand from their earlier escape–was currently home to his sunglasses, rounded and yellow. His jeans were ripped and frayed at the hems, but most of the damage was covered by his large woolen poncho, which was woven with purple and black wool in an intricate hatched pattern.
“Let’s go,” Tali smiled.
For a few moments, they sat in silence, waiting for the other to do something.
“Yeah…let’s…go?” Dante said, again, hoping this might spur something into action.
“Uh, you gotta hit the prep button.”
“Right, right…” Dante said, his hand hovering over one of the dozens of buttons lining the dashboard.
“You know how to fly, right?”
“Pssh! Of course I know how to fly! I’m just not used to a ship in this bad of a state. I’m just getting myself familiar with it.”
It’s a standard dashboard configuration Tali thought, but said nothing as she reached over to help Dante. Her knowledge of flying was far from perfect, having never been inside a ship, but the hundreds of novels and crinkled, dog-eared manuals that she had pored over had taught her well, and she had imagined herself in a pilot’s seat for so long that she did things without thinking, letting her memory of diagrams and figures rule her hands. Dante jumped as the ship spluttered into life, all the panels lighting up, flashing NO SIGNAL signs at the pair.
“I’m hoping that’s just because we’re in the cave, not because the signalling system is messed up,” Tali said as she strapped on her seatbelt. She gestured for Dante to do the same, but he scoffed, and she didn’t push him. As soon as she hit the lever, the ship lunged forward, and Dante was thrown from his seat onto the dashboard.
Tali laughed as they sped through the cave. It was far from a fast ship, but it was rattling along swiftly enough to dislodge a few of the more stubborn crystals that had lain hidden in the conspicuous parts of the vehicle, and Tali was relieved to see the fuel gauge panel flashing at a solid 90%.
Dante scrambled to compose himself and tried to put his seatbelt on as nonchalantly as possible, throwing it about his waist as if it were a satin scarf.
“I hope the mapping system is configured to reach as far as Paskion.”
Dante gave her a defiant look.
“But Toruta first…you know I gotta get paid.”
“I’m not going back on our deal,” Tali sighed, “besides, we wouldn’t be able to get there in one go. We’d have to fuel up first, so I’m not going to kidnap you just to take you to a refuelling station.”
“Good,” Dante said.
Their deal had been simple enough–Tali had broken Dante out of one of the jail cells she’d been hired to clean, with the promise of a ship to get her back to Paskion. Agreeing to it had broken every rule Tali had ever put in place for herself, but she knew it was most likely her only way of ever getting in a pilot seat.
She looked at Dante and, for the first time, noticed his light blue eyes. They made him look almost innocent, pale and bright like a Paskion summer sky.
“Those aren’t real, are they?”
He laughed as they breached the cave, and pulled upwards into the clouds.
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