He was going to be late.
This bothered Kalen, though he wondered why. He should have been used to it by now.
He never intended to be late for things, but he always seemed to manage it. He had been late for all of the most important events of his life. His graduation ceremony; ten minutes. His wedding; an hour and five minutes. His investiture as Governor Elect of Hanna City; a whole day. As he struggled to tie the sash of his long robe of office Kalen smiled, wondering how his late wife, Allanah would have reacted. Kalen's smile broadened as he imagined her tutting and fussing around him claiming, as ever, that his tardiness would be the death of him. He wished she were here. Allanah would have been so very proud.
The door chime to his private rooms sounded. Kalen muttered curses under his breath, untying the knotted sash for the third time. He walked past a table strewn with papers, data pads and a barely touched breakfast until he was sure the door would 'hear' him.
"Come in, come in!" Kalen called, turning back to the dressing room.
Behind him, the door whispered open and a tall, willowy woman glided in. Her long, rippling chestnut hair was tied back, held in place by delicate golden wire. Her robes were simple, showing no badges of office or family symbols. Though barely out of her teens, the young woman carried herself with a grace and maturity that belied her age.
"I won't be a moment, Mothma, my dear," Kalen said. "I'm almost done."
"So I see, Senator," the young intern said. She smiled at the sight of the chaos of Kalen's rooms. As usual, the curtains had not been opened, leaving the quarters in a barely lit gloom. The Senator had clearly slept in. Mon Mothma walked to the windows and keyed the curtains to open. The crisp blue light of a cold Coruscant morning washed through the room, seeming to create eddies and currents in the dust motes that glittered in the air.
Quickly and efficiently, Mon Mothma began to sort through the Senator's papers. She found and organised his speech, putting both the hard copy and data pad versions to one side. On top of these went the Senator's appointments schedule. She added a data pad containing maps of Coruscant and Mon Mothma's own list of recommended restaurants and places of entertainment near the Senate Building itself, a list Mothma had built up from her knowledge of Kalen's own preferences.
"Damn and blast this thing!"
Kalen's exasperated cry brought another smile to Mon Mothma's face. She found Kalen, as she had expected, still trying to tie his sash. Mothma batted aside Kalen's hands and quickly arranged and tied the sash.
"To think that others are always congratulating me on our people's simple choice in our robes of office," Kalen grumbled good-naturedly. "They obviously never tried to tie one of these blasted things."
Mon Mothma finished, taking a step back. Kalen, grinning broadly, turned a complete circle, arms raised slightly as though to say 'Here I am!'.
"Do I pass muster, Mothma?" Kalen asked.
"You will do, Senator. Though I'm sure Allanah would have had something more to say..."
"About my running late again, no doubt," the Senator finished. "I swear I would never have agreed to your appointment had I known you would be the very incarnation of my dear wife's ire," he added, smiling as he spoke. "Now, where are my papers?"
The communicator console in the main room began to bleep an attention seeking demand. As she went to answer it, Mon Mothma called back over her shoulder.
"Your papers are on your desk there," she said. "Make sure you take the pile on the left. Your case is by the door." Mothma switched the comms board to receive. "Senator Kalen's quarters. How may I help you?"
As Mothma dealt with the enquiry, Kalen took his papers and data pads, stuffing them into the soft case that had been slumped on the floor where he'd dumped it by the door that previous evening. Now ready to go, eager to attend his first full sitting of the Republic's Senate, Kalen paced the room impatiently.
"Yes, the Senator will be available for interviews, but I'm afraid that his schedule is full until tomorrow," Mothma told the person who had called. "You were informed of this fact yesterday during both of the conversations we had then."
Kalen didn't hear the journalist's response, but he smiled as Mon Mothma switched into frosty yet efficient mode.
"I'm sorry, the Senator is not in the habit of squeezing in anyone into his schedule. Had you read the briefings I sent to your offices, you would have been aware of his arrival and projected timetable well in advance."
These negotiations were going to take some time. Kalen waved to attract Mon Mothma's attention. She raised an eyebrow. Kalen pointed up, indicating his intention to head for the docking point above, and Mothma nodded before turning back to her conversation.
Kalen nodded to the various guards as he topped the broad stairs from the accommodation level. While the rooms below had been decorated with wooden carvings, trailing plants, beautiful paintings and woven floor coverings, all from Chandrila, the docking point was necessarily functional.
Able to be shielded during bad weather, the port was open to the Coruscant sky at that moment. A wind blew cold, making Kalen shiver slightly. He considered waiting longer for Mothma, but the cold made him impatient. He walked to a nearby comms panel and pressed the button to call the nearest skycab.
The metallic license spun around Alech's long, blue fingers. The Duros paused for a moment, turning the shiny new card so that the bright morning light played and danced across the embossed logo of the StarGlow Cab Company. Alech Jirsh smiled grimly and went back to absentmindedly flicking the card back and forth through the fingers of his left hand.
Alech's cab, an ancient machine that its Duros pilot was convinced had been old during the reign of Queen Rana, bobbed gently under a pedestrian overpass near the Senatorial District. Strictly speaking, cabbies were not permitted to do this, but very many of them did. If proof were needed, graffiti in a hundred languages decorated the underside of the overpass, all of it put there by Coruscant skycab drivers. The overpass shielded the cabs from sensors, allowing the cabbies a moment's rest. It also allowed them to hover near the lucrative pick-up points of the Senatorial District without having to pay for one of the official waiting bays.
Alech was on his own this morning, having missed out on the usual pre-Senate sitting rush because his 'boss' wanted a word. LU-1E was a former traffic control node-droid, retired after the last round of hardware upgrades. The StarGlow Cab Company had bought a load of LU droids to help with their local co-ordination. Unfortunately, LU-1E had developed a personality twitch; he was thoroughly rude and sarcastic, with an irrational desire to pick on organics.
As he scanned the graffiti, Alech counted dozens of references to LU-1E, none of them polite, several of them suggesting illegal options for the final resting place for the disliked droid, and at least two that defied the laws of physics. This morning LU-1E had chosen to berate the Duros cabbie, the newest recruit to the regional office, for a downturn in his passenger numbers. The meter-high, barrel shaped droid had been positively irate, using choice words and phrases it could only have heard around the service bays.
It didn't matter to LU-1E that the skycab Alech had been assigned was old, dilapidated and extremely unappealing to more well-to-do, high tipping customers. It didn't matter to LU-1E that the cover for the passenger compartment on the cab wouldn't work, leaving potential customers exposed to the elements. It didn't matter to LU-1E that the tractor field passenger containment was a little 'bouncy' for the tastes of most clients. It didn't matter to LU-1E that keeping Alech back caused him to miss the early rush to the Senate building. All that mattered to LU-1E was that it could pick on Alech Jirsh; the new guy.
The Duros pilot was contemplating adding another impossible, but potentially satisfying suggestion as to the parenthood of the former droid-node when his comms panel flickered. Alech immediately allowed his cab to drop out from under the sensor blind spot and was duly rewarded as the comms panel lit up with a call from the Chandrillan Senator's apartments, looking to get to the Senate Building.
Alech was delighted. Anyone running this late was inclined to tip well if a cabbie could get them to their destination quickly. Alech, possessed of the remarkable Duros awareness that made his species such excellent pilots, knew all of the short cuts.
The call accepted, Alech gunned the cab's engines and sped off into the morning traffic.
It had taken Mon Mothma far longer than she would have liked to get through to the journalist that he was not going to get his interview today. He had made some vague threats about turning up at the interview being recorded by one of the other networks; Mothma had simply told him that she would let them know he was coming. In the end, she had theatrically hummed and hawed and finally admitted that she might be able to fit an interview in the following morning, first thing. The time slot suited all parties, and the journalist was suitably grateful. He hadn't needed to know that the slot had been set aside by Mothma for just such a situation.
Holonet producers were just so badly organised.
Turning back to the Senator's apartment, she noticed the data pad sitting under the table. Allowing herself an audibly hissed breath of frustration, the intern picked it up. It was the data pad with the maps of Coruscant and the restaurant list.
Her pace brisk, Mon Mothma made for the stairs up to the docking point.
Senator Kalen paced back and forth, watching the streaming rivers of the traffic lanes in the crowded skies above Coruscant. Many miles away, a junction point appeared the very essence of chaos. Craft of all sizes and shapes switched up and down through the sky lanes, seeming at any moment to be within centimetres of disaster. Yet the traffic computers and their droid nodes, in a way that was impossible for most organic minds, very precisely controlled it all.
As he watched, it occurred to Kalen that the traffic lanes were an embodiment of the very essence of Coruscant; seemingly chaotic and verging on catastrophe, while in fact being beautifully balanced and precisely organised. He wished he'd thought of that earlier; it would have made an excellent introduction to his speech.
As he stood, trying to figure out how to use his minor revelation, the comms panel chimed to warn Kalen his sky taxi was about to arrive. Turning to the docking walkway, the Senator was in time to see the blue, high-domed head of a Duros rise up, seemingly from nowhere. Slowly, smoothly, the side of the cab drifted up into view.
Kalen was delighted that it was an open-top taxi. It reminded him of the rides Allanah and he used to take when they were courting. He walked across the docking platform and out onto the narrow walkway. The slightly dented side door of the cab slid aside with a visible shudder. Kalen sighed to himself as he saw the stained and torn interior. This would teach him to sleep in.
He settled into the lumpy seats, hoping that he wouldn't pick up any new 'colours' on his pale robes of office. The Duros had turned to watch him as he settled down. Kalen noted that the cab didn't smell, and this cheered him slightly. The cabbie, content that his charge was sitting comfortably, nodded and switched on the tractor field in the passenger compartment. Kalen felt it grab him. The slight movements of the cab seemed to cease. Instead, it felt to Kalen that the whole of Coruscant seemed to rock ever so gently.
When Kalen had first arrived on the Scintillating Planet, his every journey had been in closed vehicles with few, if any, small view ports. He was looking forward to seeing the sights, but was also keenly aware of the time. He leaned over, conscious again of the clutching containment field, and called out to the Duros.
"I say, good fellow. Your best speed, please, to the Senate Building. I am in rather a hurry," Senator Kalen asked. "There's a hundred credit bonus if you get me there in under ten minutes."
The Duros turned, with a huge lip-less grin, and nodded enthusiastically.
"Yes sir! No problem at all!"
The pilot turned back to the passenger tractor field controller and keyed something into the panel. Kalen felt the field strengthen its grip on him. As he tried to get used to this, a flicker of movement at the top of the stairs from his apartments caught his attention.
Mon Mothma actually stopped short with shock when she saw what Kalen was sitting in.
She was so stunned that, when the senator waved cheerily to her, she waved back. Abruptly, she caught up with events, calling out the senator's name and quickly heading for him, hoping to catch him before it was too late.
It was too late.
Kalen waved to Mon Mothma, who was looking at him oddly. She must have been surprised, Kalen reasoned, that a cab had appeared so quickly. His intern started to head for the cab, and the Senator noticed that she was carrying a data pad.
Kalen turned to the cabbie, and was about to ask him to wait for Mothma when the cab fell away beneath him.
Alech had seen the female approaching, and recognised the look that so many of his potential customers gave him shortly before they called another taxi. The Duros wasn't about to let that happen; there was a generous one hundred credit tip in this, and he wasn't going to lose it.
Alech Jirsh switched his sky taxi's repulsorlift engines off.
Kalen's words were lost somewhere; he didn't know where. They went away at around about the time he forgot how to do anything except hold on tight.
Initially, the taxi seemed to fall away from him by some considerable distance, a matter of many perceived kilometres, before the tractor field 'seatbelt' remembered about him. The feeling that it was Coruscant moving, and not the cab, confused Kalen's subconscious which, in turn, compensated by making him feel intensely dizzy and ill. His breath came in short gasps, restrained by a growing tightness in his chest.
The sheer terror of the drop kept Kalen's snatched bites of breakfast held down tightly, saving the Senator at least one indignity.
The apartment building whistled past Alech, his cab, and his passenger, so close that he could easily have reached out and ground his fingers to powder on the stony surface. Flashing indicator lights and urgent computerised voice warnings predicted imminent disaster.
Below the plummeting vehicle, the building curved outward, widening to encompass innumerable less salubrious dwellings than the senatorial apartments. Alech was well aware of the approaching 'ramp'. His innate ability to fully perceive and comprehend three-dimensional space and all of the objects within, both moving and stationary, was part of what made Duros such excellent pilots.
Alech trimmed the cab's flight path, swinging the nose around and down. In the space below, a slow moving traffic lane stretched off towards the Senate Building. Sending power to the cushioning repulsor 'bubble' that surrounded the cab Alech let the vehicle maintain the terminal velocity of its downward momentum. The gentle curve of the building swept up to meet them.
Despite the inertia and motion compensators built into the cab, both pilot and passenger were slowly, inexorably pushed into their seats as the sky taxi shot down the building's side. Alech still had not engaged the main engines. His huge red eyes took in the traffic in the sky lane, the radar on the cab, and the information on the instrument panels on an almost sub-conscious level.
The curve guided the cab, progressively redirecting the momentum outward. At the final instant, at the end of the curve, as the bottom of the cab struck sparks from the ornate edging of the apartment building Alech fired up the engines, using them to fully push the hurtling cab at otherwise impossible speed out into the sky lane.
In a near meditative state, Alech guided his cab with a gentle touch, threading it expertly, though precipitately, through the slower moving craft in the river of traffic. Wind resistance took time to slow the taxi down, and its pilot intended to take full advantage of that in pursuit of his bonus.
A massive sky bus drifted down and around a slower moving Republic consular transport. Alech allowed the bus' repulsor field edge to within a metre before he brought his vehicle around, up and over the sky bus. This manoeuvre lost him the last of the extra speed gained back at the apartment building, and five minutes had already passed in the allotted ten.
Ahead, a traffic junction point resembled a bizarre, gravity defying waterfall as ships, sky busses, private transports and a myriad other vessels rose and fell into different directional streams. Getting caught in that would slow the trip and lose Alech his bonus. Instead, the Duros headed for his next short cut.
He braked hard, allowing the sky bus to continue under him. Alech again pointed the nose straight down and, as the bus cleared the way, used both the engines and gravity to propel the sky cab down towards the surface of the planet.
Buildings and walkways rushed up to meet the sky cab as it plummeted into the gloom of the artificial canyons. Alech brought the nose of the cab up as slowly as he dared, aiming for a particular avenue, hoping to maintain as much velocity as he could.
The cab burst through a nursery flock of young hawk-bats, scattering the shrieking creatures. Alech felt a moment of regret at the fatalities his passing had no-doubt caused. This thought was swiftly put aside as a network of interlacing public walkways demanded his attention.
Under normal circumstances, Alech would not have trusted the controls of the taxi to take this bobbing, weaving route. At speed, he felt the passage was easier. Momentum and the repulsorlift bubble created a guiding tunnel effect through the superstructure of the linked walkways. All that was needed was the occasional directional push and subsequent correction to keep the cab on course.
Travelling at such speeds also made it difficult for the terrified pedestrians in the walkways to get a clear glimpse of the taxi's registration.
Beyond the walkways Alech could see the beginnings of the clear, brightly-lit open space around the Senate Building. Between the cab and its destination was a narrow canyon between a number of buildings. Beyond that, a final passage at ninety degrees through a smaller tributary of traffic heading for the main stream.
There was one minute and thirty seconds to go.
Staccato flashes of alternating light and dark peppered the cab as Alech directed it at the passing traffic. His mind absorbed the sensor information that told him the positions and speed of the approaching craft the cab's course would pass before, behind, over, around and under. Alech grinned a broad, triumphal grin and shot into the traffic.
One minute to go.
The bright morning light cast everything around the Senate Building in silver and white. The Duros headed directly for the Senatorial drop-off point. The security station flashed a message asking for the pass code to allow the cab to land there.
"Pardon me, Senator," Alech began, threading the taxi between two towering statues. "Could you enter your clearance code on the pad beside you, please, and hit 'send'?"
Security called again, their message a degree more demanding. Alech slowed the cab slightly.
"Senator, your code please. Security won't allow me to land otherwise."
Alech risked a brief glance behind him.
A customs snarl up at Coruscant caused the transport carrying the body of Senator Cann Kalen to arrive behind schedule at Chandrila. As a result, and true to past form, the Senator was late for his own funeral.
HTML formatting copyright 2001 TheForce.Net LLC.