CHAPTER NAVIGATION BAR
TALES OF BUFFALO COMMONS
" JOULES "
As her eyes dreamily fluttered open she caught sight of Luna drifting lazily by.* * *
How long had it been since she last stopped to appreciate this view? Joules couldn't recall.
She nudged herself back in the bed a bit, until she brushed against the form lying with her. Joules smiled as she nuzzled the small of her back against that firm arm and then, on a whim, she rolled over, gently bringing her leg and arm up over the magnificent body beside her.
Alex was still very much asleep, but even in slumber his regal form retained its stature. Joules took a deep sniff of him and drunk the heady air surrounding them with a smile. Her head came to rest on his chest and she listened to his heartbeat as she drifted off to uncharacteristic images of domestic bliss; with her as the trophy wife of Royalty.
When she awoke again, she was alone in the bed. That almost alarmed her but the King sized comfort quickly dispelled any alarm. She spread out under the sheets enjoying the simple hedonistic pleasures of it all.
“Why can't all sheets be like this?” she thought.
The rustling behind her drew Joules' attention and she rolled over to see the athletic form of Alex Poddington the Third dressing before the viewport.
“Well, well”, Joules thought with a chuckle, “two moons in one night.”
Alex must have heard the snicker as he turned to her with his own look of mischief. “So you are awake?”
Joules thought about that, she'd been sleeping deeply enough for him to climb out from under her. When was the last time that had happened? She sat up, taking in the room again. The Luxury Suites of the Izura Hotel at Station One were astronomically expensive but perhaps waking up feeling like you'd have a week's vacation in one night was worth the indulgence.
“Naw,” she thought as she looked at Alex again with a flash of desire, “better to find pleasant company to cover that and enjoy it with them.”
“Are you coming, luv?” Alex was referring to the fact that he was dressed and she was still in bed. He may also have been referring to the fact that they were supposed to be leaving for Buffalo Commons in thirty minutes.
“Merde!” Joules bolted from the bed and raced to the bathroom. It was ornate and she regretted not spending more time enjoying this also, but time was critical now and she rushed to get herself together.
Fortunately she kept her hair short for such a convenience. Joules freshened up with the expertise of a professional and was back out and dressing in six minutes flat. By the ten minute mark she was fully dressed, she didn't have a change of clothes so that was simple, and touching up her make-up with the in suite package. A mere thirty seconds later she was at the door with the playful, bright grin of an energetic minx; which he knew she was.
She slid her arm through his and leaned into him as they departed the room together.
Gilmore had been up all night but that was only because of the progress he'd been making. The middle finger of his prosthetic hand soldered the final power connection on the number two Quarkbooster, then he slid on the cover, closed up the panel and as he climbed down he cued the booster to retract.
By the time he reached the deck the outer hatch had closed over the housing sealing up the Starbus and once again returning it to its familiar profile.
Gilmore stood back admiring his work. There was still some fine-tuning still to do but the mechanical part of it was done. It had been a good night.
The carrying on at the far end of the bay disrupted this perfect moment. Gilmore turned to see Joules enter with someone. A stranger. A tall, good looking male stranger. Gilmore already hated him.
Joules looked at the Starbus with surprise. Gilmore had gotten the hull cleaned. A quick glance around the room showed empty cases. Could the work be completed? She let go of Alex and moved closer to her friend, “Am I ready to go?”
Gilmore didn't take his wary eyes off the stranger but he half double nodded, a nervous, unconfident nod that both conveyed absolute certainty and a lack of confidence at the same time.
“Who's that?” He whispered accusingly.
Joules turned with a grin, spreading her arms out in a welcoming hug that brought Alex closer, “Alexander Poddington the Third!”
Alex obliged and as they reconnected Joules closed her eyes with delight, smiled broadly and then looked at Gilmore oblivious to his disapproving glare, “He's booked me for transport to Buffalo Commons.”
Gilmore didn't understand that at all. What was this ponce needing a ride to the Commons for, and a grey ride at that? But before he could interject with his objections the bay door opened again and a group of identically clad people entered with their gear and some small containers on Float-Gravs. Gilmore instinctively moved back, looking for the shadows.
Alex turned stepping forward to greet his friends, “Everyone! Come in. This is Joules Capulet.”
Joules curtsied without realizing how serious her new acquaintances looked and how unaffected by her gesture they were.
“Welcome aboard!” she said as she turned and cued the front hatch of the Starbus open. “There's plenty of room and pull down seats in the ceiling. Make yourself at home.”
Every hair on the back of Gilmore's neck was up. He clung close to the ship as he closed the distance to Joules again and tugged on her elbow to get her back for a quick and quiet discussion.
“Who are these people?” He said without taking his eyes off them.
Joules looked at them briefly, taking in the dark clothes, what was that? Hunting gear? She looked at him with a shrug. “They're missionaries.”
Gilmore looked back at her with surprise. He couldn't have been more surprised if she'd said they were Hobbits. “Missionaries? Like religious…?” He didn't know the word.
“Yeah.” She replied. “Alex is their leader.” She thought for a second about some of the things they did last night with a mixed smile of pleasure and guilt, “or maybe their travel coordinator.”
One of the party, a swarthy member, paused before entering the Starbus to look at the craft admiringly. He commented to Alex before climbing aboard, “A good choice.”
Alex motioned him onboard quickly, with a hesitant glance at Joules.
Gilmore saw the whole thing but he wasn't looking at them now. There was something about the swarthy gent that he couldn't place. His mind was racing to figure out what it was while Joules babbled about the brilliant job he'd done over night. “You must be exhausted!”
As she said that it snapped Gilmore from his reverie. He brushed off the effort, tinkering was the sort of thing he enjoyed doing and having the opportunity to work on Joules' RIGEL built Starbus was always a pleasure. It reminded him of the more enjoyable bits of the 'old days'.
“I left the containers on board.” He added with a gush as she started to move off. Her passengers were aboard.
She flashed a smile at him, “Great!”
“What's in them? I tried scanning but the material is just…” more fumbling for words, “Dense.”
Joules reached into her pocket and found the rock, pulled it out and tossed it at him. Clumsily Gilmore caught it. “Just rocks. Don't ask me why but that's my cargo.”
Alex's head popped out from the hatch, “Love?”
Joules motioned back to the hatch as she started backstepping from Gilmore, “And those are my passengers.”
Gilmore took a step forward, “Be careful, okay?”
Joules stopped; she loved the puppy dog gaze Gilmore always wore. Despite being almost twenty years older than her he was like a little brother. She stepped back to him, planted another Continental Kiss on his cheek as she whispered, “You worry too much.”
She stepped away, turned with a girlish twirl and rushed for the front hatch leaving Gilmore there with a dark pit of worry in his gut.
“You don't worry enough.” He said to no one.
* * *
Joules climbed into the pilot's chair of the Starbus cockpit with half the systems up and operational before the cushion had deflated. Being a RIGEL built system she'd run through the 'MacManus 2000' and by this point the craft knew from the speed she climbed the steps to the cockpit what her intentions were. That and a checklist of instructions she popped off the night before – the moment the deal was consummated – well, a few moments before, actually.
The outer hatch of the bay opened and the assigned Pilot Guide, already in place, began backing up to latch onto the front of the Starbus, which had already triggered it's Grav-Plates for free float through the Harbour and out the Transitions.
Beside her, Alex sat in stunned appreciation. He'd never seen her in her element and marveled at the pace which she got them moving and out into space.
Only once clear of Station One and on approach to Earth, only after running the clearances for the documentation that gave them direct flight to Buffalo Commons, did Joules pause, lean back and take in his wonderful face again.
“How long are you down there?” It wasn't like her to talk about the future. The future was an undefined thing one discovered as one went. She almost apologized, but decided to play it out, partly because she really wanted to know, partly because a good poker player didn't show their cards unless they had to.
He measured his response carefully, perhaps he'd done this one time too often, “Typically they're six week assignments.” He looked at her directly. The eye-to-eye contact intended to convey his conviction, “We're on missions most of the time.”
Joules knew that. She shrugged unconvincingly, “So am I,” she said a little too defensively, “You know, busy, 'Gal-about-the-Cosmos' type.”
What followed was an awkwardness Joules usually avoided by leaving before they woke up. She couldn't leave; she had to pilot the craft though the densest traffic in the system. Why couldn't he take the hint and go?
After a near eternity of silence Alex excused himself and rose, moving aft to Joules eventual relief. It gave her a moment to take in the scene of a hundred UNSC Military craft congregating over the Great Plains of North America.
* * *
As Alex came down the steps to the lower ceiling of the cargo deck he was met with a group of twelve, mentally alert and tense individuals. Most who already had their weapons half drawn.
Alex waved them back, “She's not a threat. You can relax.”
The swarthy one didn't relax. He stepped forward, “This is a nice craft Alexei. Why aren't we taking it all the way?”
Alex looked at him, “Because Yuri, that's not the deal I made.”
Viktor Lexamsky piped in, “The deal should be renegotiated… or abandoned!”
“Gentlemen,” Alex said in his most calming voice, “Our legend is in place, our ride has bought into it and shortly we shall be at the LZ we designated without having raised any suspicions.”
“Humanitarians love the Starbus,” Yuri added, speaking to the rest rather than Alex, “we could proceed much faster if we kept this craft.”
Alex didn't like where this was going. “We're not going very far if search teams come looking for her, or did you fail to notice her friend at the Bay?”
Yuri looked at Alex accusingly, “Tell the truth Alexei, you like this one.”
Alex stiffened at the question of his allegiance. “He knew he was going to regret what he said before opening his mouth, “I did last night.”
The court of human opinion enjoyed that cheap shot at Joules' expense.
Someone else in the back added, “Then we should take the tart with us!”
This elicited a smattering of appreciative laughter and whatever gains Alexei had just made evaporated. Alexei's mood soured quickly, “That's enough! We do what we came here for,” he stopped to direct this specifically and forcefully at Yuri, “And we stick to the plan!”
* * *