Krissa Price’s face was tired. She’d rather smile at a full force duster than simper at these fools another moment. They needed her, so they gave polite gestures and sweaty handshakes, all the while assuming she was too poor or too stupid to live among them. It never occurred to them she would rather lose an arm than do any such thing. But here she was, head aching from showing her teeth and hoping she looked pleasant enough to satisfy. Because as much as she hated it, she needed them too.
Like most folks, she’d heard the stories growing up of roads that connected every settlement and city from Litchport to New Reidson. Even saw an old yellowed map once, in the cabin of a rusting landship, of the dizzying paths. Anyone could travel whenever they pleased without fear. That was before the cold and the hot and the dry, though. Before mountains of dust swallowed the world and most of the people in it. Now only a few cities remained. Rusting shells of what they once were, they'd become mostly metal labyrinths full of valuable scrap and vicious raiders. Settlements like Pelwall represented what was now considered civilized life with food, water, ruthless enforcement squads, and a thriving underground slave trade.
“All ready, Operator!” Karzen yelled as he unloaded the last crate from the hold. His booming voice carried around the hub, causing people to look up from their tasks. Krissa saw more than a few wide-eyed stares from the settlement officials around her when they spotted the large man strolling closer. He was twice the size of anyone there, both broad and tall. The big man took little notice of the other though and busied himself cleaning the treads of the ship, more delicately than most would think possible from such a large man. He worked hard not to scratch the expensive white paint that kept the ship cool. She smiled as she watched him. He was better protection for Lodestar than any the settlement could provide, even if he refused to strike a man or hold a weapon.
Her mood soured quickly as her Speaker appeared. “Kris!” Trephor Spence stepped carefully from the cabin where he’d stayed in the relative cool, “it’s a beautiful day to make some riches, yes?” The thin man beamed at the people around her.
“Don’t call me that,” Krissa ran a hand through her short red hair. She’d made it to middle age in this waste, and still, Trephor was without a doubt the most vexing person she had ever met.
“Ah, of course, Operator.” He smirked at her. The man was an arrogant, lazy, cutthroat fool, and Lodestar was too good to carry him. He was another unfortunate necessity of the world, though. Speakers were the only way to the best hauls, and half the settlements wouldn’t let you dock without one. The fact she had to pay the ungrateful rat to be a part of her crew just salted the wound.
“Where are we going with the goods?” She tried to keep her tone neutral, but some irritation must have lingered because the Speakers’ grin deepened. He loved to get under her skin and, knowing her situation, did it regularly.
“Warehouse just off the main road Operator. They’ll be waiting.” Trephor adjusted his black linen shirt before walking off with the group. No one who did an honest day’s work in this dust-soaked world would wear black. But everyone knew Speakers didn’t have to do real work.
Krissa turned back to Karzen before following. He had been joined by a man that would have been intimidating if standing with anyone else. Arlox Kold was just as broad across the shoulders and even more heavily muscled. Still, his head only came to Karzens’s chest. The majority of his broad face obscured by a bushy black beard giving him a slightly comical look beside the big man. The large variety of weapons strung at his waist and many other hidden places distracted from the look somewhat. As her hired gunman, he was also a necessary evil of the business, but he earned his keep and followed orders at least.
“Arlox, I’m going to deliver these goods and collect. See to the ship, yeah?”
“You sure I shouldn’t walk along?” Arlox gave Trephor, who had stopped to chat up some hub workers, a glare. “I don’t mind,” he ran his hand over the pistol on his hip as he spoke.
Krissa grunted. Arlox may have been the only person on Lodestar who hated the Speaker more than her. “No, there’s a lot of GAC out today, and I don’t want trouble. Just watch the ship,” she turned up the dirt path that led into the settlement but turned back and pointed at the gunman, “just keep an eye out for paying passengers and don’t scare them away this time.” She fixed a smile on her face once again before joining the crowd and heading deeper into Pelwall.