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Dai O'Dell: "Don't Fear the Shadows" Chapter 03

From Our 'Verse

Dai O'Dell
Don't Fear the Shadows
Daijha
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© 2016, Daijha Ravenblood   All Rights Reserved.

Little Things

Chapter 3 – Chess and Strategy

Hank took his game winnings and slipped them into the side of his wallet where he kept their food budget. Then pulled half out and stuck that part with the parts budget. Times were lean. The game win increased their food accesses by almost ninety percent.  He would not have to leave Dai alone with her repair customers to go earn food money.  The line they drew in their expenses was harsh, but it helped them both keep the unforgiving reality of their funds close to mind. 

He ran his hand though his wild grey hair.  Smoothing it down immediately got rid that old wreck look. There was a soldier cut in there somewhere, but he always chose to cut it so it looked too long. This lead to his distracted look. Camouflage, that no one knew he needed. 

With him smiling now, his eyes picked up a softer look, humor peeked out.  But beware.  If you knew him, you knew that would be a very sharp, biting humor. 

No change in expression could hide the horrible deep scars that ran across his face down under his collar and across half his body.  He worked out a kink in his neck, flexing the muscles he had kept taunt bent over that game board playing the fool.

"So glad that's over.  My brain's gonna to need more than a whisky shot.   Anyone up for a game of 3-D?"

"You're challenged, sǒu. Prepare to be beat in a real game." Sid teased.

"You're pretty cocky, Ǎo."

"Sit yourself back down."  Sidney pat the chair next to her and then scooped her game pieces off the table into a box.  She flipped on the little round table's electronic game interface, waved her credit chip and up sprung a bright cube game board with virtual classic chess board pieces.  She flipped though the interface screen and the pieces turned to wild animals.  She frowned and fiddled again.  Now they were much fluffier beasts dressed in high fashion.

Hank snorted when he saw the pieces.

She tweaked their colors with her set dressed in bubble-gum pink.  "Well, sit down and make a move or your pieces will be in royal purple."

He chuckled and grabbed a chair.

His pieces settled into shades of blue, warrior animals, not fashion clowns.

Together they launched into furious opening moves to scatter the pieces across the cube before getting settled into the more serious strategy moves.


Dai smiled from her perch watching the game unfold.  This version was her game of chess.  With six older brothers she had learned hard and fast if she wanted to play for more than two minutes before getting skunked.  Hank had less experience.  He, and almost all the other folks here, still thought 2-D when they played.  She had never gotten settled into one reference frame and had often played this version of chess with the boards flat or scratched into the dirt.  One had to flex their mind to see the layers interact.

Sidney slowly gained the advantage.

Dai used the slight hand signals she had been taught to try and get Hank to pay attention to the action on the upper left side of the board.

He strengthened his position. 

She watched his eyes flick back and forth.  Hummm.  Looked like he could use a few more hints.  She watched closer and saw an opening.  She signaled.

Sidney sighed and then chuckled.  "Am I playing old Scar Face here, or am I playing you, captain?"

She jumped. Far too used to being invisible. "bàoqiàn."

"You could take them both on, Sid," spoke a voice from the watchers.

"No she couldn't," Hank spoke up.  "I think Dai could run rings around all of us.  We're much more earth-bound even with the fancy boards."

Dai found her voice.  "Not really.  But I did grow up with this and a lot of competitive older brothers."

"And fancy machines," Another added a bit sharply.

Dai paused before sharing a bit of her real life, "Sometimes."  They all assumed from her manner and speech patterns that she grew up on a bed of roses.  Sometimes she grew tired of the condemnation implied in that belief.  "But I've also played it with all eight levels scratched in the dirt.  It not that much harder if you play enough." 

There was silence.  Well, at least they believed her.  Or, were they not ready to challenge Hank?  Too soon.

She decided that tidbit was enough information.  She had better not mention the long afternoons she had played chess with her brother with no board while they plowed and harvested.  he feared more that they would think her a freak for that extra skill.

Hank filled the silence. "You should see what she does with that same spatial awareness when she's plotting courses."

"So she's a navigation genius?"

There was the doubt.  Much.  But, she did not blame them.  She was the youngest here by almost half.  Why was Hank bringing up …?

"You're a hot shot?"  A bit more of a challenge from another.

"I…  I… I'm just learning.  I'm just working on simulations." She offered weakly.

"Don't be modest, Dai."  Hank gave her an encouraging smile and then he turned.  "Her knowledge has gaps.  The war disrupted her schooling.  Didn't ever have a basic nav course.  I didn't know that.  I started teaching her advanced plotting less than 6 months ago.  Started her at the advanced level.  She filled in.  She didn't know the basic assumptions.  Didn't know we've used with the main flight corridors that were established right after the great migration from Earth-That-Was.   I like some of what she comes up with.  Different, but very efficient."

Everyone got in the discussion now, talking over each other.

"Yea, but if you leave the corridors, you ain't got the backup of other ships."

"Sometimes you want to be alone in the black."

"Sometimes you don't want Alliance cargo checks."

"Yea, but what's hiding out there in the shadows?"

"Those routes could take longer."

"But if you ain't spendin' much fuel…"

"Good places to hide, while still gettin' where you goin'."

The conversations continued around her, thoughtful arguments.  But the routes were now the main topic of conversation.  This seemed to be part of an older conversation.  With the questionable cargo they ran, course mattered.  She tried to track all the comments and filed them away to study.

Relieved to be forgotten, she faded back against the window again and went back to studying the room.  The Fix-it Fair captivity had left more scars on her than physical. She was too jumpy, too apologetic.  A trader captain had to project confidence that she could get the job done, whatever it was.  She was not there yet. She had to believe in herself.  

Breathe deep. 

Focus.

The music still called her, but gentler now.  The monotony had been broken.

Dai concentrated on the flow between the bar and the dance area.  Something bothered her.  The pattern felt different.  She was not sure what yet. 

OK.  Break it down. 

This was a Saturday.  What had changed?

She needed to figure this out. 

There would be a test tonight.

There was always a test.

She shifted her senses down like Hank had taught.  Just looking was not sparking an idea. She just had the feeling today was different.

She closed her eyes and tried to shut out the music.  It faded away. 

Dance steps.  Boots stomping down, maybe a bit too frantically. 

Laughter, a bit forced.  In front of her the sounds at the bar were wrong for only late afternoon, even on a Saturday. 

Drinks were being downed in one shot.  Glasses clinked down hard and were quickly filled by the bar staff.  Too many shots, too fast.  This crowd savored their drinks normally.

The mutter of voices came from the gamers still arguing navigation paths.  They could be ignored for now, but one eye opened watching for anyone to try and trip her up again.  Nothing there.  Eyes closed again.

The bar itself was too quiet, not Saturday night friendly.  At the bar folks were working hard to get drunk.  Too early to be downing drinks this fast.

Taking this little clue she opened her eyes again. 

Really look…  not just with your eyes, with your brain.

She put Hank's lesson into practice feeling she was finding the thread.  

Who was drinking?  Regulars.  Quite a number were wearing their Blue Sun coveralls and work boots.   OK, so they had worked overtime this Saturday.  They were not happy despite the extra pay. 

Others, looked like lower management.  Blue button-down shirts, but with better quality work boots showing they still earned their living on the warehouse floor.  They were drinking hard too.  They had drifted into One-Eyed Jacks as the closest bar, not their higher quality haunts outside the docks proper.  So, their priority for this Saturday was to get drunk quick as well. Another clue.

She would not be able to get the answer perched up here.  Maisie's Girls would be the one's listening closely.  Their pieces of conversations would mesh together for an answer, Probably.

There was extra bustle just then behind the bar.  Jack Kona strode in from the kitchen greeting his staff with his booming cheer.  He immediately dominated the space.  This was not just his muscular bulk.  He was built like a truck, his Earth-That-Was Polynesian genes shining though strongly.  He shaved head glimmered lightly in the bar's lighting.  It was his personality that put him in the center of everything.    He snagged a full apron, quickly ducked his head though the neck strap and turned to expect staff to tie.  He knew his arms were not that long.  He laughed heartily at some joke between the workers as he adjusted his eye patch that he had caught on the apron strap.  He pulled his order pad out of the charging units and snagged an "attitude" stick.  Automatically he checked its readings, returned it and found another charged to his satisfaction.   These little rods were not much longer than his large hands.  Nothing threatening, but powered on, were quite good at getting the attention of any drunk intent on busting up the place.  A word from Jack to his bartenders and others check power settings on the sticks in their apron pouches.  A number swapped their sticks.

Hummmmm.  Trouble expected?

Was she getting the hang of this "observing" think after all? 

Something had Jack coming in for his shift early and making sure he staff was on their toes, and looking to defuse trouble early. 

Could this be why Maisie had started up the lively dance tunes so early?  Or was it to slow the down drinking and get them on their feet.  That would be odd for a bar in one way, but then again, if the patrons were more sober, it was easier on the bar.  But then what about the information the girls would get?  Less if the patrons were on their feet? Probably.  However, maybe they would get talkative while euphoric from the dances and more than a little tipsy?  With a pretty girl's shoulder to lean on?  Maybe that was their angle.

Puzzling. 

She knew this was exactly the type of question Hank wanted her to answer. OK, she needed to learn people better.  They were the key.  This situation presented no risk to her.  She had at least an hour to solve it, or at least a part of it before she switched hats and started doing nao-repairing that would raise money for the ship repairs.  Mistakes were acceptable here.

Dai pulled her senses back again and closed her eyes.  One more try to solve this while she just sat perched away from the problem.

Slow breaths again.

She did not fight the music this time.  She stayed still, but let the peppy piano music carry her mind around the corner to the dance floor section of the bar.  Maisie still played, her fingers flying across the keys.  Her long mop of curly red hair was bound behind her but would be bouncing along to the song.  Today like most days she dressed in shades of green.  Her skirt was full and just below her knee.

Someone else sang.  She quickly ID'ed the sweet young voice as Carlie, the girl that had been with her at the Fix-it Circus.  She was amazingly resilient.  She had not had Dai's abilities and been valuable.  She was just a poor back-moon gal with no skills so at the circus she had just been a discardable whore.  Yet, she had kept her bubbly personality and never quit.  Carlie could have easily stayed in her comfort zone of the frontier but she had followed them to first to Kerry, then to Persephone.  Her personality helped her make her home here at One-Eyed Jack's and merged right in with the whole MacCarthy-Kona clan.

Dai could picture her standing right near that old upright piano, its warm wood gleaming from zealous polishing.  Big pink and white inlaid roses adorned its sides.  Carlie would be standing at the side of the piano.  She was new to the singing in public so she still held her body a bit stiff, but would still loosen up as she got into the song. Her head would bop on the faster song and her rainbow dyed hair would splash around her shoulders.

The piano player and young singer created a picture that would draw the warehouse men and spacers in.

Dai widened her recall and carefully drew the room in her mind.

As in the main room, the fixed wood bench edged the area walls except near the piano.  There was no stage though sometimes folks brought instruments to join the piano. Customers could bang out tunes during the slower hours.  A fiddle and a flute or two would join later on some evenings.

The rest of the seating were rustic looking chairs of plasti-wood and small round tables, but without the game controls.  As the evening deepened, chairs and tables would get pushed to the side as more and more of the area became dance floor.  Customers made themselves at home and they arranged the area to suit their own purposes. 

The saloon sat at a nice crossroad in Section 7.  It was located only two blocks off of the Section 6 warehouse district and the bus route from the main gate from the Blue Sun warehouse complex ran right in front, so naturally three quarters of the saloon's customers were male. This worked perfectly for Jack and Maisie. The workers, tired and stress from a day of manual labor, were ready to relax and party.  Maisie's Girls (and Boys) were famous thought-out the docks.  Customers could buy little light-up dance stars from a vending machine by the door and then buy the time of one of the girls by hanging that star on her necklaces. 

The customers paid for a dance or just to chat.  The winsome girls were great listeners and would sit with a whole table while the dance star was lit.  They would tease out how the day had gone for the harried workers for One-Eyed Jack's sold more than booze --their side business sold information, discreetly filtered.

Right now there would be not many more than a dozen of Maisie's Girls in the dance room.  More would start coming on shift soon.

They were not required to drink with the customers, but those that did were expected to keep nibbling the free peanuts that were lightly dosed with Clear Head™.  No drunks allowed on staff.  Rules were firm.

Dai could not hear much chatter now.  But she was not sure that was because everyone was dancing or just that the sound was buffered down.  She was not good enough at this "game" yet.  She could visualize the room and knew what the folks were normally doing, but she had hit a wall just trying to tell from sound.

The music still drew her much more than the mystery did.  What did this little thing matter at all?

She sighed.

By the sudden stop of chatter at the game tables she realized that sigh had not been silent.  Eyes flickered up towards her.  Their tight smiles were infuriating.  She felt more like twelve than twenty-two.  She quickly shut down her anger before it showed in her eyes.

"Are you just bored?  Or, was that a comment on my 3D chess skills?" Hank asked, with amusement in his voice.  He might be a hard task master, but there was kindness there.

"I-I… er I didn't…. I mean."  Any confidence vanished.  She shut her month.  This was a fail.  Again she stifled any more reaction.

To not dig herself any further into a deep hole she took a slow breath and started studying the chess board. Half his pieces were gone including two of the mid-board power pawns and a third was almost toast.  Sid was down only one power pawn and a lot less pieces but the other pieces were tumbled among Hank's.  She would win but it would be a long game between the two.

Dai stared longer, let her mind follow the path of the chess pieces in the board's jumble.  Both were still playing in 2-D while jumping the pieces between the boards.  They got no clout from the extra levels.  Chaos reigned.  She needed calm in this moment. She could make it with this board. She could do something, abet small.  "I can fix it."

Dubious laugher greeted her from all but Hank.  His expression stayed neutral.  "Seriously."

"Girl, you really think you can clean up the old man's mess?"

"I wasn't playing that bad," Hank protested ineffectually.

"You were losing, sǒu." Dai lightly taunted.

Sid stared between the two.  "So you want to finish the game?"

Dai nodded but did not move.

"OK, so if I let you butt in, you're going to make it worth my while?" Sidney teased.

This paused Dai.  Cash went to the ship and food, not on games.  When Hank went out and bet, he went out to earn money.  Today's win from the scammer guaranteed a few new parts and dinners for both.  "I don't earn any money until tonight… and that's only if the guys show up.  It's a new gig for me. I don't play on credit."

The light murmur from the gamers showed approval of the last bit.

"Oh don't panic and turn your pockets inside out, Niánqīng de.  I ain't out to break ya.  Big stakes – one order of deluxe cheese sticks!  Winner picks the dipping sauce.  We eat the evidence."  Sid's eyes sparkled.  There was no challenge, just good natured ribbing. 

Was this normalcy?  Was this just regular folks on a regular day?  She was not sure she was ready for this.  She could train, she could study, push herself to the physical brink, do everything that Hank requested.  However, after the manipulation, the running, the abuse, she did not feel ready to trust.  Then she remembered a saying of Hank's, he would pull it up when she reached a cliff and froze.  Said it was an old phrase from Earth-That-Was.  It was nothing that her parents had ever taught but then again, theirs was cultural.  Hank was infinitely more practical.  Fake it until you make it.  That gibe remark held a golden bit of truth.

Sooooo, time to fake it. 

One more breath. 

Find the calm

She stood up from her perch and climbed off the bench.  "Move over, sǒu," she said trying to mimic Sid's casual tone.

That was enough that Hank popped an eyebrow in surprise.

Dai slid into his seat.  First thing she did was adjust his, now her, playing pieces.  She modified the dark blue to a high chromatic blue with black streaks.  Hank's military menagerie morphed into vicious weir creatures, still recognizable but fierce. "Who's move is it?"

Sid's eyes pop but she made her move.

The first moves were slow but Dai picked up the speed.  Sid increased her moves as well.  When Dai captured her first piece, Sid jumped.  Dai had also changed the capture action from the default little flash to full holographic battle mode.  The character traits coded into the pieces meant her weir pieces bloodily shredded Sid's more delicate pink fluff pieces.

While the afternoon had been hard, the moves in the game jumped out at Dai. Relived to be able to do something she was actually good at.  She spend up the play again.  Two moves later, Sid's giraffe rook with a delicate ruff lay kicking on the board its throat torn out. 

The "dead" pieces lay on the board, their carnage faded, but not gone.

Sid fiddled with the controls trying to turn off the extra graphics but found herself just pushing non-responsive buttons.  Setting changes were locked out.  She could move her pieces but that was it.

This time a pawn chewed at the heels of her stately leopard queen.  Sid quickly moved her queen to safety up a few levels and the little pawn started nipping at her best positioned unicorn knight.  A few moves and the knight was locked in and then went down via another pawn.

Sid swore colorfully in Chinese.

Dai started chasing her pieces around the board pushing them into position but not closing the noose yet.  The images of the ghost pieces didn't bother her at all, she just played though the bloody battle field.  The boards dripped in glowing red.

Sid took Dai's only remaining bishop but realized after the fact she had been maneuvered to that undefended piece of the board.

All other gaming ceased around them.  The gamer folk gathered around the board cheering moves.  Bets for real money started flowing.  The betting odds were in Sidney's favor because Dai did not have enough pieces to mount a good defense.

Dai let the money build up and chased Sid some more.  She knew this part of the game well.  With six older brothers and the whole family moving often set-ups had always been part of the siblings' fun.  Mother might not have agreed, but it gave them a mischief outlet. 

The moves kept flowing as the two players positioned.

Drinkers from the bar joined and more bets were placed.  Some of the gamers placed a second round of bets now on Dai's side to at least recover the money they had already bet.

Sid played valiantly but Dai's pieces practically lunged across the boards.  The younger woman's playing style differed too much from how the older spacer knew how to play.

All too soon it was "check", "check", "check".  The stately leopard queen gave her life for her lion king. "Checkmate".  One last roar and claw strike.  The game finished awash in brightly colored holographic blood.

Silence filled the room for a moment.  Well almost silent, the piano still played around the corner.

The game board brightened and the blood vanished.  The pieces picked themselves up, healed.  Shook their little paws with their counterparts and then wandered back into start position before the boards shut down.

"Hǎo cǎi wǒ yìnxiàng shēnkè."  Sidney was grinning widely.

Applause thundered.

"Captain, what have you done to my game?"  Jack's voice boomed out.  He stood towering over Hank, but grinning.

"Just added some life to the beasties.  There are gaming palaces in the core worlds that have much more complex version of this.  I tweaked these last week when I repaired the tables."

"I've seen them.  Talk to me later.  I may wish to keep the mods.  But… next time, talk to me first.  No surprises."

"Yes, sir," came Dai's meek reply. 

With the game over, reality, and uncertainly returned.  She tried not to let it show, but suspected she was failing. 

The crowd dissipated as the gamblers settled up.  Hank had a nice folding wad now.  Not only did they have food for the week in his hands, but more parts.   The success brought a little smile. She shoved her uncertainly to the background.

A waitress brought the cheese sticks with Extra-hot Cajun sauce and a whiskey bottle and three shot glasses.

Sidney raised her glass to toast.  "Well won.  Will teach me to always believe Hank."

"Thanks.  I'm sorry I flipped the game so brutal."

"Nah, needed that, girl.  You sit there so quiet.  You needed to wake those Yúchǔn de hóuzi up. I know we can be a bit intimidating as a group, but keep doing what you did.  Just wade into the fray, swinging.  Folks'll move over."

Sid downed her shot.  They copied.  Sid refiled their shot glasses.

Dai downed it just as fast.

"Are you sure you want to drink 'em that fast on an empty stomach?"

"No worries.  I wouldn't try to drink Hank under the table, but I hold my own," Dai scooped up a heavily dipped cheese stick anyway.  It vanished in three bites and another followed.

Sid poured another round.

The whiskey created a warm pool in her stomach, leaching tension.