A small crowd gathered around the makeshift food truck hovering just off landing pad A00.  Port Olisar, the aging starbase stationed in the trade lanes above Crusader, was coming to life. Local cargo haulers, miners and, small service crews, called the dilapidated two-story four-strut structure home. It’s drab green walls peppered with vending machines and spartan habicubes were a convenient distance between Hurston and the Aaron Halo asteroid belt. More importantly, it was demonstrably cheaper than the flea-ridden low rent apartments on Hurston.

Rusty Del Maco’s food truck, a steel gray Freelancer with pale blue racing stripes was pockmarked with dents and scratches. He’d parked the stern of the ship facing the long side of the landing pad.  The ramp was down and touching the landing pad just enough to allow customers to enter on foot. This was Rusty’s way of avoiding landing fees which helped him keep his merchandise as cheap as possible. If security came by, he closed up for a time, moved to a different pad and reopened when the coast was clear. Rinse and repeat, every day until he was sold out. Scratching out a living in the bottom tier of the Stanton populace often required skirting the rules and being inventive.

Charles was a soft-spoken loner with few acquaintances. He wore his age well. At forty-four, he was clean shaved with a thick mop of auburn hair. Most people mistook him for being in his early thirties. Recently, however, he started noticing frown lines at the corner of his eyes and creases on his forward. Shuffling forward at the back of the line to enter Rusty’s, he opened up his mobiGlas and flipped to the cashflow app.

The app showed a graph with two lines. A green line showing is revenue and a red one for expenses plotted across sixteen weeks. Twelve of the weeks were actual activity followed by a four-week projection. Charles let out a breathy groan that fogged up the faceplate of his helmet. The green line was in a gradual but steady decline. Seeing it right in front of his eyes, there was no denying the eventuality. Even though the red line of his expenses was flat, the projection showed the green line for his income, would fall below expensed in two weeks.

“Shit,” he exclaimed to himself and bumped into the person in front of him. Without looking up, he used a hand gesture to say, “Sorry.” Consumed by seeing his predicament, he continued to shuffle forward, his eyes focused on his dwindling cash flow. His head popped up when the person in front of him gave him a friendly punch on the arm. He saw the man mouth his name in an exaggerated fashion. Dropping out of his fog of concentration, he realized it was Kleaven.

Kleaven pointed to his mobi and tapped two fingers toward his mouth on his helmet. A common gesture indicating that he wanted to talk on a private channel. Charles nodded.

A second later, Kleven’s voice echoed in Charles’ helmet. “Charlie!” He said with warmth. “Haven’t seen you in a bit. How’s it hangin’, man?”

“It’s — hanging. Same old…,” Charles replied, his voice trailing off at the end.

“Yeah? Good to hear.” Making a gesture of a big belly Kleaven asked, “How’s the fam? Still on Hurston?

Charles nodded.

“Must be nice having ‘em close by.”

Remembering an all too recent conversation with his wife, Celeste, Charles hesitated. The way things were looking, they’d discussed giving up their one-room flat on Lorville and using those funds to upgrade Charles’ ship to a model with living accommodations. This would allow them to consolidate down to one lease payment a month and give Charles’ the opportunity to go after larger payloads.

Charles had been solidly against the idea of dragging his family around like hobos. While Celeste preferred it to the risk of losing the ship or having an eviction notice or their UEE record if they couldn’t keep up with the rent. Of course, they were just rumors, she hoped, but she’d heard of families being snatched up by Hurston Dynamics and forced into slave labor schemes until the debt was paid off. The mere idea chilled her blood she’d told him. She also didn’t want him pressured into going back to work for Hurston, to be permanently maimed at one of the factories or weapon testing ranges. Sure, times were hard and precarious freelancing in Stanton. This way, however, they at had a small amount of control over their lives. It also made the possibility of paying off the loan on his ship more attainable. In turn, that would end the restriction on them leaving the system, a condition of their loan agreement.

Returning from his reverie, Charles realized he hadn’t replied. He cleared his throat. “Uh — yeah, doing good. Yeah, thanks for asking.” The pair were walking up the ramp and into the food truck. He grunted. “Bills is all. Same shit. Different decade.” Smelling food, Charles’ stomach grumbled loudly.

Make your own carton of noodles stations lined the side walls of the cargo bay. On the left, the noodles were accompanied by a variety of vegetables, tofu, and toppings. On the right, cheap cuts of fatty meat strips were available for an additional cost. The back wall had racks of pre-mixed cartons that were mostly broth with a sprinkling of noodles, vegetable scraps, and stale biscuit.

Charles broke off from the conversation and headed for the back wall. He grabbed a carton, biscuit and walked to the coffee station. Kleaven followed behind him.

“Really man?” Kleaven asked gesturing at Charles’ food choice. “That bad, uh?” He continued when Charles made no reply. As if it were necessary, which it wasn’t, he leaned in and whispered, “Wait here a sec. Sorry but I gotta get something real to eat. Have a tip for ya.”

“What kind of tip?”

“Just hang for a sec. Let me get something and we’ll talk.”

Charles furrowed his eyebrows and checked the time on his mobi. “I gotta get going to make my quota for the day.”

“It’ll be worth the wait,” Kleaven promised. Over his shoulder, he said, “Meet ya outside in a few.”

Charles shrugged his shoulders as he walked toward the cashier who swiped his card, then he shuffled down the ramp and waited off to the side of the growing crowd.

Back on the landing pad, Charles scanned the area around the pad, wondering when station security would show up. The crowd was twice as large now. They’d get wind of it shortly and he’s just as soon not be around for it. Besides, he had a list of possible hauling jobs to follow up on. He didn’t really have time for Kleaven and his schemes.

Kleaven was a nice guy. Chatty and sometimes, overly helpful. He made a living, with his fingers in as many pies as he could, in and around Stanton. Not all of his ventures were legal. Or as Kleaven liked to say, they could be interpreted as illegal in a certain light. This was followed by a Cheshire cat grin and a wink.

Charles chased down the last bite of his rock hard biscuit with the final swig of soup and decided he’d be on his way. He turned and headed back toward the station to have his ship retrieved from storage.

Charles was at the airlock when Kleaven caught up to him. Panting he said, “Hang on. I wanna help ya out a little.” Leaning over wheezing, he continued. “I know you’re the straight-up kind. Admire that ‘n all. This is legit. Just a free,” he did free in air quotes, “tip. K? Nothing more.”

Charles considered him and felt a bit bad about bolting but time was money in his world. “Sorry, in a hurry to get rolling. Need to grind hard to come out on top next couple weeks.”

“Trust me, man, I hear you. Nothing more than a tip. It’s solid but gotta move on it fast.” Kleaven pulled Charles aside as others approached the airlock. “There’s going to be an overstock of medical supplies here after 13:00 hours. Should be enough that the stock will last for a bit but not long.” He did a thumbs up move. “Coincidentally, the planned delivery of medical supplies for that death trap Green Imperial is…” Kleaven smiled and gave Charles an exaggerated wink, “… going to be a few days late. Not like anyone’s dying over there. If the supplies get turned into other stuff.” He made a motion of jabbing himself in the arm and sniffing something off of his hand.

Charles interrupted Kleaven’s growing performance. “How the hell do you…” Waving his hands he added, “Forget it. Don’t wanna know. Don’t want anything kinda trouble.”

“What trouble? You ain’t cooking the stuff or converting it. You’re just hauling supplies. What folks turn it into after that isn’t your problem.”

“I dunno, man.”

“What’s to know?  Just buy medical crates from Olisar, ferry them to Grim. Profit. But ya gotta move quick. The favorable pricing won’t last.”

Charles wrung his hands, tilted his head and stared at Kleaven without speaking. An uncomfortable silence developed.

“This IS legit on your end,” he insisted. “One freebie piece of information.” Throwing up his hands, two cartons of noodles dangling in the left. “Use it or not.”

Charles inhaled and at the moment made his decision. “Okay. Thanks, man, ‘ppreciate it. “I’ll refuel in advance.” He checked the time again. “Maybe see if I can find a quick side run since there’s time.”

“Sounds good. Just make sure you’re at a purchase kiosk by 13:00. This won’t fail.” He reached out his fist for a bump and Charles obliged.

“Thanks, man, for real,” Charles said.

Looking at his cartons of food and wiggling his eyebrows, Kleaven said, “Cool. Am starved. Gotta run to appointments. Stay safe out there, bro.”

~~~

At precisely 12:45, Charles was standing at a Trade and Commodities console at Port Olisar. Two other customers were waiting nearby. He pretended to be checking prices and fiddled around on the machine to prevent losing his spot. Noticing that he was still on the console, the Admin asked if he needed any help. To which Charles lied that he was setting up a large variety load. The Admin said something under his breath but turned away.

While biding his time, Charles had already decided to approach this cautiously. He couldn’t afford to take a loss of any kind. He’d scoured newsfeeds and commodity tickers checking the buy and sell prices for medical supplies over the past ninety days. This gave him a fair idea of whether or not he’d buy at the time that the supposed surplus.

He started perspiring a bit in his suit. It wasn’t a common practice to be helmeted up while inside the station. Today, however, he wanted to be ready to race his ship over to the pickup landing pad if things worked out. At thirteen hundred hours, he refreshed to the terminal data and checked commodities for sale.

His jaw dropped open. It was there – crates of medical supplies 25% lower than the recent historical pricing. He inhaled and cautioned himself that he still had to get a favorable buy price which he couldn’t ascertain with 100% percent certainty without traveling to Grim Hex. With this in mind, he put in a modest purchase order of 15 standard cargo units. After confirming payment, he ran at full speed to his ship.

His Cutty was already sitting on landing pad B02. He’d tipped a flight training student to sit in the cockpit keeping the ship flight ready. He’d also left instructions that if the ATC sent a message that he had to move off the pad, to strafe the ship sideways off the pad and wait there. As luck would have it, traffic around Port Olisar was slow today and his ship was right where he’d left her.

He lowered the back ramp and jogged to the cockpit, his boots pounding out his arrival. Dispensing with politeness, he spoke quickly into the comms channel he had the kid turned to. “Thanks, kid. Time to go, immediate lift off.”

A muffled voice replied, “ Got it.” as they squeezed passed each other in the mid cabin. One racing in and the other running out. Charles zipped the ship over to cargo loading dock and was the first in line. He gave the foreman his purchase order code and six drones began loading his ship. Getting the cargo on board and dust-off had happened in record time. Within ten minutes, the crates were on board and he was setting his quantum drive to Grim Hex.

This ship’s computer having identified a clear path to his destination, the ship rocketed deftly

through the asteroids surrounding partially abandoned station. Charles tried to relax a bit but he couldn’t. His stomach churned at the possible outcome if the buy price wasn’t at least at its historical norm. He couldn’t let his mind drift there. For now, he had to stay focused on the task at hand. The first of which was to arrive at his destination unscathed.

The ship exited quantum with a sonic boom. A burst of crackling white light rippled the space around it. The Cutlass black hovered is space, its repose an in-flight bird of prey. His finger already poised over the control, Charles pinged the area for nearby ships and activated his defensive warp stabilizer to reduce the chance of being interdicted before he reached the station’s air defense turrets poised to instantly nuke any ship that came near the station armed. Sure, they were pirates but the station needed a modicum of decorum in order to conduct business.

The only ship the radar returned, was the vector image of the junk in the trunk bumble bee shaped Herald approaching a landing pad.

“Excellent,” Charles whispered to himself as he activated boost and shot toward the landing pads like an arrow. No time for landing permission or being placed in a hangar. He landed directly on a pad for cargo delivery. He’d pay the small fine or tip someone to forget the incident. It was Grim Hex after all.

After setting her down fast and sloppy, Charles bolted toward the airlock. After entering the burrowed out asteroid turned space station, he never broke speed, as he wound his way through the dark and dank interior.

Charles burst through the doors of that Admin’s office like a lunatic, drawing a condemning star from the young female behind the counter. Her opinion counted for nothing as he raced to the closest console. He held his breath while initiating a buy request. He entered in the SCU he was carrying and his eyes bulged when the buy price was displayed. It was up by 10% and he’d bought at a 25% discount. His heart racing, he pressed confirm but didn’t exhale until the final confirmation screen displayed. He clicked okay and logged off the system.

Holy shit. It was a legit tip. He had to make another run. This kind of profit could give him enough breathing room to keep his family on Lorville while continuing his search for a consistently profitable trade route or a long-term contract. “Okay, one more,” he told himself as he ran at a breakneck speed to repeat the delivery.

~~~

When he returned to Port Olisar and the buy price was still the same, he doubled his purchase order. Loading him up the second time had been slower, much to his alarm. The station was hitting full throttle with ships coming and going on all sides. His gut unknotted when he was back in the air with the second load. And he breathed a sigh of relief when he arrived safely again at Grim Hex to find the buy price was still favorable. It was only 5% above normal but still a great deal. He’d also noticed on the second trip that more ships were now lining up to make deliveries. This would consume valuable time during each run. Combined with the price dropping, he couldn’t and wouldn’t, risk more than one more trip.

Back at the Trade and Commodities Office on Port Olisar, Charles was greeted with a line of other haulers using the consoles and conducting business. It was a half-passed sixteen hundred hours at this point, each trip taking roughly an hour there and back. The Admin Office was now in full swing. He fidgeted in line, constantly peaking out to the left and right of the people ahead of him, screaming inside his head for everyone to hurry the hell up!

By the time he reached the console, crates of medical supplies were only 10% discounted from their normal price. Shit, he’d already decided this was his last trip and this confirmed it. He squared his shoulders as he purchased a full cargo hold’s worth. Final trip. He inhaled deeply, filling his lungs to capacity and ran back to his ship.

Sitting in the cockpit, waiting for his turn to pull into the loading dock at Port Olisar was pure torture. He constantly refreshed the price ticker app on his mobiGlas but there was always at least an hour lag in pricing updates. He was still okay if the current price held at 3% above normal payout. When the crates were loaded he bolted like a bat out of hell, dinging a drone that was drifting passed him. A flying infraction popped on his HUD. Fuck it, he’d pay the fine later.

He was giddy with relief to find a free console available when he dashed into the Admin Office at Grim Hex. He could breathe now and began to feel excited about calling Celeste with the news. But wait — something must be wrong with the terminal. Medical supplies were missing from the sell screen. He hopped on to the next one and the same thing happened. He called out to the clerk. “Hey, these consoles are glitching out. Commodities missing from the selling page.”

“Let me take a look,” the clerk said, as she came from around the counter to stand beside him. She was a petite redhead dressed in midnight blue jumpsuit. “Oh, that. Yeah, it’s a glitch. Should to be fixed in the next software update.”

Charles let out a sigh of relief.

“When we’re no longer buying an item, it should be listed in gray text and have a ‘stocked’ indicator beside it instead of disappearing altogether.”

Charles’ ears rang like a gong was being pounded at the base of his skull. “Ww-what?”

The clerk turned to him and smiled patiently. “Whatcha lookin’?” She asked.

“Med supplies.”

“Those are definitely stocked. Won’t buy again for a few. Even then on the lower side of pricing.” Walking back around the counter she added, “We had a crazy run on those today for some reason. Really odd. Definitely, all stocked up,” she said, accentuating the word ‘all’.

Charles stood with his mouth hanging open, helmet cupped in the crook of his arm. He couldn’t speak. Couldn’t think.

The clerk tilted her head. “You okay? Can I get you water?” Without waiting for a reply, she walked to the small fridge on the far wall behind the counter. Her head poking side she said, “What about juice?” Returning to the counter, paper cup in hand, “I know how you guys forget to eat ‘n hit low blood sugar.” When Charles didn’t reach for the cup himself, she placed it in his hand. “My dad was a hauler. Happened to him lots.” She smiled, as though thinking about her father was a fond memory. “You should sit for a bit.”

Charles backed into one of the chairs lining the back wall and fell into it one without looking. He had no words. He wasn’t sure he could keep the cup of whatever he was holding down. He drank it, all the same, thinking she might go away if he did. He needed silence. Silence. Breath in. Breath out. Yes, you’re okay. Keep breathing. Flex your eyes and focus on the floor. Yeah. Okay, the room’s not spinning anymore.

Through his haze of panic, Charles heard the echoing of new footsteps. A new voice speaking. Followed by the clerk’s voice. More footsteps. Another voice. People moving about the small room. Coming. Going. Life moving on.

THE END