Chapter 10 : Due-Pax, Late Night
Luke made a gesture, asking her to follow him down to the parking area. She waved to the Brigadier and ran after Luke since she definitely did not want to take the Mass back to the dorm, which was her home now.
She followed Luke to the underground parking area below the club. There were few vehicles left at time of the night. She was sure that Luke would have a fancy little car. After all, all said and done, he was from a family with lot of money. Instead, he walked past the cars to a separate area where rows of strange vehicles were kept. Peering at them closely, her eyes opened wide, as she realised what they were!
Two – Passenger Hover-Bikes!
She had seen them in Holo-Novels. They were showcased in the National Parade for the last few years. Mostly with police and military personnel riding them. The Emperor’s Guards had some of those new ones. She had not seen anyone else riding them. She had no idea how expensive these bikes were. Luke stopped next to one that was obviously custom built.
Seeing Dusk’s mouth open, Luke felt a little satisfied. At least it seemed to be a fitting exchange for her name calling a few minutes back. She had actually called him … somewhat of an anti-national, and definitely spoilt and money-grabbing … even though he was grabbing it for her. He, of all people, anti-national!
“Never seen a hover-bike before?” He asked her.
“Not in real life. All I have seen is news and in parades.”
“Well, this is actually borrowed. I can’t afford one myself yet. This is called a Du-Pax because it is meant for two people to ride it.”
As he approached, the lights on the bike lit up. A light whining sound came from the machine as it warmed up its engines and did a self-test to verify that everything was working. Suddenly the bike actually spoke to them.
“Good Evening Master Luke! I see you have a companion today. Will she be travelling with you?”
“Yes, she will.”
“Adjusting for size 34-C, additional weight, 52kg, error factor +/- 1.5kg …”
Dusk’s mouth which had finally closed, opened up again in shock. The machine had estimated her chest size and weight. And pretty correctly too in both!
Luke gestured to the bike, it rose up from the ground by a few cm and slowly came out of its parking slot. It came and stood next to Luke. Luke mounted the bike and signalled to Dusk to climb up behind him. As soon as her hips touched the seat, a transparent plastic sheet rose from all sides of the bike end sealed them in. They were in what looked like a flimsy protective cocoon.
As Luke touched the steering handles in the front, the bike rose another 10 cm into the air and slowly moved to the exit. Once it left the parking, its acceleration profile changed. It suddenly gathered power and pushed ahead at a speed faster than Dusk expected. The bike zoomed ahead on the empty roads, merging into the prime ‘Ring Road’ that connects the Academic Cluster to the Admin Cluster and then on to the Dorms. They were travelling at over 100 kmph, which was very fast for university roads and looked worse on a hover-bike. She felt like there was nothing between her and the road, as if she was doing skateboarding!
Luke turned back and said, “You want to see the true power of this vehicle? Then I will take you for a short ride round the campus before I drop you home… If you have the guts, that is.”
Dusk knew he was just needling her, so she bravely nodded her head. It was a computer-controlled vehicle. How fast can it go?
Luke pulled out a pair of tight-fitting Military Night Goggles and handed it to her. He waited for her to put it on as the bike slowed slightly. He touched a button and the bike responded. “Transferring to manual control. Safety Protocol restricted to critical preventive.”
And before Dusk could register what the bike was really saying, before she could realise she had been tricked, the plastic bubble around her retreated to its shell, leaving them open. A sudden rush of wind almost whipped her off the bike.
“Hold On!” Luke shouted above the wind as he turned the bike into a broader 4-laned perimeter road, without bothering to slow down. The bike actually tilted at 40 degree on the left side to compensate for the turn and creating a centrifugal force to hold them tight on the vehicle. Without thinking, Dusk held on tightly to Luke’s Jacket in fear of falling off.
Once on the perimeter road, Luke gave a full throttle and let the power of the bike kick in. If they were going fast before, now they were at insane speeds. The Perimeter road was not a straight road. It went over hills, valleys, under-passes, turned suddenly at strange angles as the road curved. Dusk saw bridges, pillars even trees rushing at her from the front definitely about to crash into her and then turn away!
In terror, she gave up on the jacket and put her arms around Luke, her hand going under his arms and then clasped tightly just below his diaphragm. She could feel the strong muscles of his thorax that obviously came from years of training and outdoor exercises. Her own body was fused to his, with her breasts pressed tightly against his back. But she didn’t care. All she wanted at that time, was to live through the ride and reach the Dorm alive. This bully had tricked her into agreeing into a terrifying ride in the dark night. She felt sure it was for what she said to him in the club. But at the moment, she was determined not to scream so he can’t get that satisfaction.
The goggles were reflecting some of the information in front of her eyes. It was showing the road in night vision, almost as if it was in the day, though the colours were not as realistic. It showed the map so now she could predict the route and knew when it will turn (hopefully Luke would not miss it), so she felt a little better as she knew when the bike will twist and to which side and that the things that she was seeing were not going to hit her.
Then she noticed the other information. The speed was 325 km per hour!!! All the terror that had gone came back, crushing like a wave. She was shocked. Such high speed, and that too, in manual mode? She turned her head to look at the side and she saw the trees, buildings and other structures passing in a blur and she realised that they were going very, very fast indeed. It was probably close to the maglev trains speed. And without the protection of a maglev line either. Her hands closed tighter around Luke.
The Perimeter Drive would generally take a couple of hours in a normal vehicle. But, Luke completed the entire ride in 20 minutes and returned to the point they had deviated from the ring road. At the point he pressed a button and the readings on the screens changed. The bike slowed sharply, the protective bubble came out and closed around them and the intense cold air warmed up little by little.
The bike said in a pleased voice as if happy to get its controls back “Transferring to automated control. Safety Protocol Urban Maximum.”
The bike return to a sedate pace and then slowed as it turned to the Dorm Cluster. It came to a stop in front of Dorm 6. The bike dropped 10 cm to come back to its standby position.
No one was in front of her building. So, no one would see her getting off such a bike. She was glad in a way. The last thing she wanted was to be thrust into the limelight again. She was most happy with a low-profile existence.
As she took off her goggles and got off the bike, her legs felt like jelly. They wobbled and she almost fell to the ground. But Luke was obviously expecting such a reaction since he put out a hand to steady her and hold her as she stepped off. Then he got off and held on, supporting her causally with his shoulders. That way, she wouldn’t fall and anyone looking at them would not realise that she was having a problem standing. They would see a couple who were back from a late-night outing and reluctant to part.
He reached with the other hand into a pocked on the bike, pulled out a small toffee and pushed it into her mouth. Her teeth were clenched, in the aftermath of the ride. But he manged to push them apart and put the toffee in. When his hands were in her mouth, Dusk resisted the very strong desire to bite them as revenge for what he had put her through.
He waved to the bike and it moved itself into a parking spot in the darker side of the entrance and shut down. It would wait patiently for its master to return. He then helped Dusk walk into the building.
As soon as they walked into the lobby, with Dusk still in Luke’s embrace, the red lights on the sides lit up. A grid of laser beams quickly slid into place, preventing them from entering the main building. Dusk looked at the grid in surprise and was about to put her hand out, but Luke pulled it back.
“What are you doing? Those are strong lasers! They will in the very least, burn your hand. The AI has realised that I am not a resident of this building and therefore, I have no business coming in at this time. Thus, the grid. Now, please, register me as your friends, to come in. Put “night-stay” as no. Time required 90 min. Then it will lower the grid.”
“I think I can go up on my own, Mr. Jones” she said frostily, though she was not as confident as she pretended to be.
“Come on, don’t be mean. We didn’t get off to a very good start, so how about a cup of coffee with me at the lounge. Surely you will not refuse that. I dropped you home.”
Dusk considered retorting that she would be better off walking back home than being on THAT ride! But she nodded and sent a request into the AI to allow Luke to come in with her. She felt a strange excitement at the thought of spending more time with Luke. In spite of the horror of the ride he took her on.
Luke did not release her till they were in the lounge. Then also he put her gently on the sofa. Dusk, but that time, felt her nervous system had returned to normal and she could have walked to her seat on her own. But she somehow, was reluctant to leave the comfortable feeling of his shoulders supporting her, with their bodies touching each other… strategically. She felt a sort of tingling feelings all over her body.
Luke sat opposite to her. “Ok, now you are alright. I can see your pulse rate has returned to normal. Your body reaction was not abnormal. In fact, the reaction was pretty standard for a novice rider. You have probably not experienced such fast rides before. Its good fun, though, to do it from time to time. Late night is the only time available for such a thing… Listen, I actually thought it would be good fun for you to do something that is different, something you have not done before. I was not making fun of you.”
Dusk was silent for a few minutes as she thought about what he said. Actually, the ride was invigorating, or perhaps would be, if it was not so scary. Then she remembered he had pushed something into her mouth.
“What did you feed me after we got off?” She asked.
“It’s a fast-dissolving neutrino, providing an ATV cocktail that goes immediately into your blood stream. It’s a newly developed aid. I hope you did not actually ‘eat’ the toffee. Because the outer layer melts, and the inner ingredients are absorbed into the blood vessels on the tongue. Once in the blood vessel, it will be pumped into the heart and then in less than 20 seconds get distributed to all parts of the body, supplementing the energy requirement of various muscles. That is why soon after it was put in your mouth, you started feeling better as energy levels in your body went up rapidly.” Luke explained.
Dusk nodded. Luke then said sheepishly, “I was worried you may decide to bite my fingers.”
Dusk giggled and said, “I was very tempted. I somehow held back. Come on! How can you be so mean as to do that thing, without warning me of what it would be like. Without the protective cover the wind was so very cold. My body is still cold. I hope I don’t fall sick because of you. I have classes tomorrow.”
Luke looked ashamed. He quickly got up, went to the service counter and returned with two glasses of alcohol. He gave one to Dusk. She shook her head in refusal. She had been taught all her life by her mother about the evils of alcohol, showing the patrons of the Tavern as an example.
“This will help, Dusk. Take it. You are at home, or more correctly in the dorm building, so it’s safe. You will need it to get the heat back in your body. And to take the edge of whatever effect the trip has on you. And one glass of diluted alcohol is not going to harm you… Hmm … I assume you have had alcohol before…” Luke coaxed her.
“No, today at lunch it was the first time. My mom always told me to avoid it. And in any case, who has the money to indulge in luxuries here?” she replied, finally taking a sip.
Luke looked at her strangely. How different she was from everyone else he knew! For someone used to drinking alcohol as a normal drink with meals, it was strange to meet someone who did not drink it. Stranger still where the reason was it was an unaffordable ‘luxury’. Perhaps it was time for him to take another look at how the common citizen lived. He was definitely out of touch with reality or she was an exception.
“Look Dusk, again, I am sorry for putting you through an experience you were not ready for. I sincerely thought you would love it.”
Dusk looked down, thinking of the trip. Then she looked up again. “Actually, I think it was worth getting such an experience. I have never been on a vehicle that goes at even 1/4 th of that speed. The rush was amazing. Just that, if I was forewarned, I would have been more ready and enjoyed it.”
Luke looked at the cute, beautiful girl in front of him. One so completely different from any he had met in his life. He did not know why he took her for that wild ride. Perhaps it was the fault of that old man. He was going to get Thompson for making him give her a ride. But then, he could have easily refused, Thompson would have got her a hover-car or even a taxi back to the dorm.
They sat comfortably in the lounge, looking at each other and sipping the drinks. There was a scattering of students in the lounge, all of who glanced at them at some point, looking with envy. Some of the boys present wished that the guy would leave and they could get a chance to meet the new student. She was not a regular else they would have seen her before.
Dusk suddenly asked him “Do you always eat alone? Is it really that you have no friends?”
Luke looked at her and grimaced. “Yes, I do eat along every day, almost every meal. Do I have friends? Actually, at the university, no. I know people, because I work with some of them. But they are not friends. I know people in my own classes, but they are younger and have a different way of doing things. I spend a lot of my ‘free’ time working… some for work I do for the Armed Forces, for example. So it’s not that I have frivolous time like the rest of them.”
“Also, my background does not match with the others. I am not like them, children of spoilt rich families. I don’t want to keep up with them. I don’t have much in common with them. They talk of what their families are doing, which party they attended in spring break, which party will happen in Ci’gazze next and which one from which noble family will be there. I can’t relate to it. And I don’t want to take my parents money and splurge to impress people. It makes no sense to me.”
Dusk giggled (why was she giggling so much, she wondered), “Yes, you don’t want to take money from your parents to splurge. The fancy Due-Pax came from the air, huh? You used your own money to buy it? Yeah! What a fraud you are! Do you think I believe your lies?”
For a moment Luke panicked. Did she really know about his background? That was impossible. Then he realised she was talking only in a narrow reference. He so desperately wanted that she should think of him as an ordinary boy. He did not want to admit to her that he had enough money of his own to buy a fleet of such vehicles…
He pretended to be embarrassed “Well, it’s not mine. It belongs to the Military. I am driving it around. Testing it and reporting to them what needs to change, what improvements, any deviations or faults. We hope some version of this will be available to civilian buyers soon. The manufacturer pays me for my design inputs. I studied tech, remember?”
“Ok, even if I accept that, I can’t accept that you do not fit into this environment at Uni-Viva. It seems to be just made for you… Apart from the age. There are, I am sure, many students who are not from the rich families but from professional families, or small businesses. They would not be like the spoilt brats you seem to dislike.”
“Yes, they are there. But they are not interested in a normal person or say from other professional families or even government employee families. All of them are here to meet those from rich families or from large businesses. Many thinks that is their ticket to wealth through marriage, but it rarely works since those boys and girls will prefer those of their own level and their families will also not allow it. The others are looking for connections to exploit in business or someone who will help them grow fast within the corporate world. Those are more likely to happen.
“But I am not interested in either of the options, and they are not interested in me because I cannot provide either of their goals. So even if they were of my background, it would amount to nothing. So, in the end, I am lonely. Even you, who are from a completely different background, will make friends faster.”
Dusk’s heart bled for him. He looked so morose. A real loner in a campus with thousands of students. A loner not because he wanted to be a loner but because there was no one who would be the proper fit for him. It was really sad. He would make a good friend. Perhaps he took her on the long ride today because there is no one else he could take. They were similar, she didn’t mind such things, maybe they can be friends.
Luke suddenly got up. “You have finished your drink? I think you should go to bed. You have another long day tomorrow. And your body has returned to normal after the punishment I gave it during the ride. Let’s move.”
He casually flicked a credit token to the machine to pay for the drinks and the usage fee for both of them using the lounge. She also hurriedly got up. She knew he had paid for her. She wanted to offer to pay for her drink but didn’t dare. For a few seconds, she regretted having so strongly refused the payment the Brigadier was offering to her. At least she would not have to count pennies and depend on someone else to pay for her food.
But that feeling went away as fast as it came to her mind. She was not like that. She was from a simple background and she would remain grounded. There was no meaning in taking on expensive habits that are difficult to remove later. She would simply have food where she could afford it.
As she walked into the elevator, she felt lightheaded. She must stop having drinks. It was not something her body absorbed properly. Or maybe, as Susco said, she needs to get used to it…
Luke walked with her up to the door or her room. As she walked along with him, she felt tired and suddenly stumbled. Luke caught her, just as the door opened for her to go in. She was pulled against him as he steadied her. She inhaled the smell of whatever perfume he was using, and his hands around her gave her a sense of comfort she had not felt before.
She got the feeling that his arms were reluctant to let her go. She herself felt reluctant to let go and to push herself out of his embrace. She looked up and saw him looking at her tenderly. Her head was already in a muddle, with the alcohol numbing her brains and her memory of his look when he explained how lonely he was … And without realising what she was doing, she stood on her toes and kissed him.
He was also obviously surprised, but he reacted quickly, pulling her into a closer embrace. And he kissed her back! Not just lightly as she had done but a deeper kiss, of the type she had only heard before. After a few minutes, their lips parted.
It took Dusk a minute to realise what she had done. Her face went red, she turned and ran into the room, pressing the button to quickly shut the door. She kicked off her shoes and climbed into her bunk-bed and buried her head in the pillow. She dreaded to think what Luke would think of her action. She never intended that!
Oh God! What had she done?
Damn that drink!
And the Sob-Story!