As mentioned on Casual Citizen Episode 32, at the end of my content writing cycle, I will produce Casual Citizen or Nightbus, as well as combine all the content into an eBook. In addition to working more on my own fiction, I’m also teaching myself interior book design and self-publishing. This gives me the opportunity to use one of my guilty pleasures toward a future goal. I hope you enjoy.
You can easily find directions on YouTube if you want to actually import the associated format into your Kindle, iPad or Nook. Otherwise, go for the Print or EPUB format.
As mentioned in the show, I’ll be compiling the content produced during a cycle into an eBook/eMagazine for those who might enjoy reading the articles as chapters with the ability to use bookmarks and whatnot.
I hope you enjoy.
Audio Version on SoundCloud
Many see Terra Nova as the shining jewel of the United Empire of Earth. For them, Sol and Earth represent a ruined despotic past, Terra Nova, a progressive future. Despite the limited access to planetside property, the star system’s population has kept pace with its notoriety. A multitude of facilities float between Terra III, called Terra, and the military occupied, Terra IV, named Genn. Residential habitat rings, harvesting platforms, rest stops, and utility stations punctuate the space between these two planets. Like a spider’s web, the necessary trappings of humanity swirl out from this nucleus to the system’s furthest asteroid belt, Marisol. Beyond there, to the scantily habited expanses surrounding the system’s Jump Points.
Podcity, in geostationary orbit around Gen, is constructed an equal distance between the planet, and the outskirts of the Marisol asteroid belt. Six floors of circular habitat capsules, attached to a central cylindrical core, Podcity floats as a bronze monolithic bubbled tower. Double rows of environmentally secure hangars are attached to the top and bottom of the structure, allowing occupants easy access to their ships.
Gilles sat in Deluna, the Podcity pub located on the first level. Being a sphere, it was circular with curved cushioned booths lining the walls. The bar was in the center, surrounded by mismatched bistro tables and chairs. Seated at his favorite booth, Gilles examined his scotch and unconsciously drummed his fingers on the scarred lacquer table. It was minutes away from closing time. He was the last patron in the place. Like a soothing white noise, he could hear Maggie, the pub’s co-owner, humming and clinking glasses behind the bar as she cleaned.
He swirled the melting ice cube around in his glass. “Time to move on,” he thought to himself and proceeded to down the remainder in a single gulp. He was knocking the ice cube back and forth in the empty glass when a shadow fell over him.
He looked up to see Maggie standing there, with her ever-present smile in place. Streaked with light gray strands, her hair was in a messy bun at the top of her head. An aging beauty, he often mused about the life that had brought her here, as a partner in Podcity.
Maggie spoke first. “Last to go as always,” she mused.
Gilles responded with a slight shrug of his shoulders. “Convenient walk home.” He pointed up unnecessarily as Maggie would know he lived in pod 3 on the fourth level.
“Alone. Brooding in this booth…” Her voice trailed off.
“That a problem?” He asked sitting up from his slouched position and wondered if he’d done something wrong.”
“Not at all,” she replied with a warm laugh. “Just curious. Not my business.” She leaned in and whispered jokingly, “It’s a bad habit according to John.”
Gilles regarded her. This was the most they’d spoken since he’d arrived to rent his habitat pod. Gilles found her pleasant enough. Still, he preferred to keep to himself. He sensed Maggie was preceptive. John, observant. And together, a good partnership. Sometimes he wondered if they were romantically involved.
The silence had stood between them a moment before Gilles spoke. “I’ll get out of your hair,” he said as he started to rise.
“You’re a neurojacker aren’t you?” It was half question, half statement. Gilles looked up in surprise then quickly masked his expression. “Sorry,“ she continued. “If it’s a secret. I’ve not mentioned it to anyone.”
Standing to his full height, Gilles assessed her more closely. He knew she was intuitive yet he hadn’t expected this. Panic sparked in his chest for a moment wondering if she had an ulterior motive. “How…?”
Maggie looked around the space, confirming they were alone. “Don’t worry, it’s nothing you did that gave it away. It’s the way your hair lays at the base of your head.
Subconsciously, Gilles patted the hair at the nape of his neck.
Maggie blushed under his stare. “I uh… I’ve — known a few.” She tilted her head to the side, and a mischievous expression formed.
Gilles relaxed a bit. She didn’t seem to mean him any harm. Which was a good thing, he liked it here and wanted to stay. “I used to be, yes.” He stared down at the table, seeing a different time and place. “Lifetime ago. Unhooked for years.” He looked to see her staring at him intently as if trying to peer into his soul. “Long stupid story. It’s passed now.”
From behind her back, Maggie produced a bottle of the pub’s best Scotch and two glasses. “Sounds interesting.” She sat the items on the table. “You’re free to tell me to mind my own business.”
A chuckle rose in the back of Gilles’ throat. No one had cared enough to ask him much of anything. Or bother to see if cracking his hard veneer was worth the bother. To his surprise and bemusement, he wanted to tell her. Wanted to exonerate his surly demeanor with the cause. He motioned that she should sit and he sat down after. His hands clasped in front of him on the table. He stared passed Maggie. His eyes glazed over, as If in his mind, he’d disappeared from this life, to relive another.
Maggie quietly poured them each a shot and carefully placed the drinks down, as Gilles began his tale…
“Gilles,” I chided myself, “what the hell were you thinking?”
It was suicide, attempting to smuggle someone from Outsider Territory in Leir. I wasn’t equipped for combat, and I’d activated my ship’s quantum drive stabilizer a millisecond too late. Three combat capable ships surrounded me in a triangular formation, their interdiction snares scrambling my quantum drive like eggs in a skillet. There was no way we were jumping away from this situation. I’d engaged the damage control unit to reinforce the ship’s armor but it wouldn’t last for long. They were slowly draining my ship’s capacitor. In a little while, we’d be sheep for the slaughter. We were alone in this fight. The EMP drones I’d deployed in an attempt to momentarily disable the ships when they first appeared, were quickly destroyed.
Adrenaline surged through me. My nervous system tingled, groping for the cauterized neurojacker comm-ring embedded at the base of my skull. However, it was dead – no active signals there. Yet like an amputee, my body kept searching for the cybernetic connection to a ship it had previously known. The base of my skull burned. A blinding pain, like white lightning, ricocheted through my cerebral cortex – phantom synapses firing. I swallowed down bile.
I had the Constellation Phoenix locked as my primary target. My hand hovered over the controls to start firing. I quickly pulled it back. Could I clear a path? I thought better of it. My aged and sadly maintained Star Runner couldn’t blast through or evade Buccaneers. The good news was that they weren’t firing – not yet anyway. It was probably better I didn’t ignite a shootout I wouldn’t win. If they blew the ship to bits, Reya could survive another resurrection. For me, it would be permanent lights out.
I spared a second to check her vitals on the remote control tablet perched next to me on the dashboard. She was cocooned in a semi-functional transport capsule with a hacked hook up to a black market AutoDoc. The sniper shot to her shoulder was healed, but she was unaccountably weakened by the exertion of the escape. The life support system on the capsule wasn’t operational. Gilles had jerry-rigged those systems from the AutoDoc and into the capsule. The voice comms and internal access control modules were also busted. She was helplessly watching the events play out on the interior camera view of the cockpit and watch was all she could do.
She couldn’t verbally communicate with me, but her vitals said it all. Her pupils were dilated. Her heart rate skyrocketing and rapid breathing on the verge of hyperventilating. I knew the signs – she was going into shock. I adjusted her oxygen flow and mixed in a safe sedative. There was no point in us both going out fully conscious.
I was a former Special Forces Captain, in the UEE Navy and a decorated neurojacker. I’d been honorably discharged under questionable circumstances. Most things I’d touched since then had turned to shit. I was ex on a lot of things. Including it seemed, good judgment and common sense. There’d be no resurrection for me. There could have been if I’d had a couple of billion UEC for a chop-shop to switch out more of my organs for synthetic clones. Well, that is, if the butcher didn’t kill me trying. Living low profile running small data courier jobs in high-security areas barely kept the ship moving and me fed. The cost of seeing a reputable cybernetic specialist was out of the realm of possibility. My plan to fly under the radar until I regained my societal bearings had failed miserably.
I stiffened when one of the Buccaneers scanned down my ship, the wispy blue light rippled over the ship – once, twice. “Yes, I have what you’re looking for,” I muttered to myself. “Keep your head, man. Just keep it together.” I checked to see if I could recycle my rather weak but better than nothing, shield booster. Not yet and probably better if I saved the juice I had left, for the real action. I took a deep breath and deactivated the damage control module for the same reason.
Shit! I hadn’t earned enough money to do even moderate repairs on this old circa fourth-hand piece of shit, I’d purchased off a ship trader passing through Nyx, two years ago. Just getting the data storage racks operational with back-ups and emergency power supplies, had emptied my pockets and I’d been broke since. I laughed at the irony of the situation. I’d balked at doing illegal data jobs, and here I was trying to smuggle out a body. It was very likely, I was going to die for my troubles.
I’d survived multiple assassination attempts. Never had more than superficial wounds during fifteen years of decorated service. Now I was going to kick it in this bucket. I was suddenly aware that other than Reya, no one would miss my existence. And I wasn’t entirely sure she’d miss me either. In our current predicament, I felt more like a sucker than her lover. She’d sworn we could get away easy – quietly and without a fuss. She’d been horribly wrong, and I’d been naive for the first time in my life, wanting to believe in a happy ending.
Short on credits and trying to pay an overdue loan is how I met her. I was doing a contract gig on Mya, in Leir. Galaxian, a new nightclub the size of a small starbase, had become all the rage. It was bankrolled by the Outsiders, the militant regime that had run the UEE out of the system. Now led with a modernist view, designed to attract young reformists, they spared no expense in offering their citizens diversions.
I was stand-in security, having been recommended by a friend. Someone who hoped the work would help me pay him what I owed. He told them I did good work and was no friend of the UEE military. The security manager appraised my six-foot-four athletic build, muscular hands, war-ravaged face, and handed me a standard issue security kit without a single question.
I equipped the items as his sidekick wasted his time explaining them – infrared contacts, a voice-activated stun glove, and nostril inserted air purifiers.
“In case of extreme emergency,” his slushy voice instructed, as he dangled a vial in front of my face. “And it had better be an emergency,” he warned. The vial contained vaporized 3-Quinuclidinyl Benzilate. A military grade incapacitation agent, it was positively lethal in its ability to debilitate a target. On the streets, it was called Red Alice because of the blood red vial, red vapor, and red warning label with strange flowery lettering.
That night, the club was hosting a celebration for its premier client, Silas Takin, reportedly a high ranking member of the Outsiders. They expected a huge crowd but no trouble in particular – nothing outside of the usual intoxicated behavior. All in all, it should be a routine night I was told. The payout was shit yet better than nothing. After a quick briefing that included all members of security on duty that evening, I was escorted to my primary station and given final instructions.
The interior of the club was cavernous, blue and white lights pulsed with the beat of the music. Around the sides were two tiers of VIP seating with guards controlling access to the spiral stairs. In the middle was the largest dance floor in Leir. Five levels fanned out like flower petals, each circular petal surrounded by thin chest high safety railings.
I was standing outside the upper deck VIP booth when a woman sauntered in with a group of high rollers. The sea of patrons parted as this particular party made their way to the stairs. From the commotion, I could tell the premiere guests had arrived. The club manager ran down to greet them; fawning and fussing like a sycophantic idiot. He bowed and shook his head so many times, he reminded me of a bobble-head doll.
There was only one woman in their crew. She was tall and statuesque. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d learn before the night was over, that her name was Reya. Her body was banging in a black leather jumpsuit that had the back scooped out dangerously low. Her bare arms were lean and muscled. Her dark olive skin shimmered like she’d dusted it with gold. Her platinum blonde hair was cut into an extreme Mohawk with a wide strip of hair down the back that brushed her waist as she moved.
When the group turned in my direction to take the stairs up to the VIP area I was guarding, I wasn’t prepared for her wide lavender eyes, intelligent and piercing. Nor her full lips and the quizzical slant to her eyebrows. Her eyes sucked the wind out of me. But her smile, as it came slow and knowing, stopped my heart and she knew it. She must have seen the look I had on my face thousands of times, yet it still seemed to amuse her. She smiled a bit wider, and I stopped breathing altogether.
As her entourage brushed by me, she held my gaze and fell behind a couple of steps. Silas, clearly her partner, yanked her forward to his side. They were seated in the most exclusive section of the VIP deck with a private restroom, bar, and buffet. I lost sight of her as a crowd of adoring fans circled their table. Shortly after, I was called downstairs to assist at the door.
The night progressed slowly. Nothing of consequence happened in an Outsider installation. It was widely known they stacked armed security at least five deep in every area. It was an easy gig, hence the crappy pay. I occasionally popped out one of my nostril purifiers to inhale the legal intoxicants pumped into the air. I was told it was a unique house mixture that induced euphoria. As it wore off, it made you hungry, thirsty and horny, all of which could be satiated at the club for a price.
I was feeling no pain, as I manned the scanner, the patrons walked through to enter the club. There was no shortage of attractive human peacocks preening the multi-leveled dance floor. By the third unplugging of my nostril, I’d forgotten about the hottie in a leather jumpsuit with the mesmerizing eyes. That was until Kylon, a sallow-faced waiter, approached me with trembling hands. I thought he was going to spill his tray of drinks all over my boots. I wasn’t sure why he’d sidled in so close to me. I was just about to back him up when he spoke. He kept looking over his shoulder and trying to whisper in a room full of screaming dancers and booming music.
“Asshole,” I thought to myself. I couldn’t hear a word the idiot was saying. He had the nerve to look at me agitated. I was about to turn away when he grabbed my forearm. “What the? Was this idiot looking to get knocked out?” I did him a favor and turned away again. However, he was a persistent little cock. He scrambled back in front of me, waving a piece of paper in his fist which he thrust in my direction.
“You do not want to mess with this,” he said, shoving the crumpled note into my chest. He crooked his head up toward the premiere VIP section.
I followed his gaze. Reya was standing at the railing, the woman with the eyes, looking dead at us. Her eyes locked on mine and she smiled. Her body was gyrating ever so slightly to the music that was playing. Without looking down, I took the paper being ground into my chest. When I did, she moved away from the railing and disappeared into the crush.
Kylon regained my attention. His voice quivered. “Silas is not letting that go no matter how much she wants it.” Although the club was ice cold, Kylon’s forehead was sweating profusely. “I never gave you this,” he said. “If it comes to it, I don’t fucking know you.”
I smiled. “Relax kid, you don’t know me.” I absentmindedly shoved the note in my pants pocket. ”I’ll toss it somewhere safe later. I got nothing going on for someone like that.”
He looked me up and down, his eyes emphatically agreeing.
“And I don’t need the trouble.”
Kylon’s shoulders relaxed before he turned to walk away. In the end, I didn’t take Kylon’s advice or heed the alarm bells blaring in my head.
The blue LED of my communication module flashed. I flipped the switch to accept the incoming message. Silas’ face appeared. He was seated in the co-pilot’s chair. I could tell by his surroundings, that he was aboard the Constellation Phoenix.
“This is all very unfortunate business, Gilles.” His tone was calm and unhurried. “I was expecting – hoping for better from you.”
Stay cool I told myself. Stall for time to think. “Sorry to disappoint – nothing personal.”
“Stealing from me is personal,” he retorted.
“Freeing,” I said emphasizing the word, “isn’t the same as stealing.”
Silas smiled. “Eh, I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt that that’s what you believe…” He paused and leaned forward into the console, his face filling the screen on my end. “If you return her to me right now we can end this without violence.” He leaned back and crossed his legs. “The scanner identified an active transport capsule. Jettison her out. We’ll scoop her up and be on our way.”
I had to laugh. I wasn’t that stupid. “Just like that?” I asked.
“There is the small price of being banned from Leir or any other region that falls under our control or jurisdiction, now and in the future. I’d probably avoid Nyx and Cathcart too. I have many friends there.” He became speculative. “I really did expect more and had greater plans for – someone with your -” he groped for a word, “background. You could have been an asset.”
“My loss I’m sure.” I surreptitiously checked my gauges. The ship was still snared by quantum jamming devices, while the capacitor was holding at sixty percent. I sounded calm, even though my mind was cycling all the angles looking for a way out.
Pride in his voice he said, “I move slowly. Time is the test, you see. I give contestants enough time to reveal their truest self before handing out keys to my inner circle.” He laughed, “You clearly failed. Don’t take it too hard. You’re not the first to succumb to her.”
Not the first – that punched me in the gut harder than I would have expected.
Silas was suddenly amused by the circumstance. “You’re definitely the one with the highest pedigree to fall at her hands – neurojacker.” He prolonged the last word.
Bitterness twisted at the corners of my mouth. “I’m not a jacker any more, as I’m sure you know.”
His pondering demeanor vanished. “Yes, I do know. I was willing to fix that little problem for you. Possibly provide a medically extended life but… You screwed that up so let’s dispense with the bullshit!” He sat up, all pretense gone. “I’m patient to a point. Hand over Reya and get out of my sight.”
I didn’t believe I’d live two minutes after jettisoning Reya out of my ship. Once she was secured, I’d be blown to bits. As for her, I wasn’t sure she’d escape unscathed. Yet she didn’t seem any worse for having done this before if what Silas said was true.
Desperate to stall for time or concoct a way out, a plan formed in my mind. If I could pull this off, we might have a chance of escaping completely. Or if I could drag this encounter out long enough, for a UEE security patrol to pass through that might provide a diversion. The UEE no longer actively controlled Leir but they secured both sides of its jump points, to ensure safe passage was being allowed.
I didn’t have anything to lose, so I gave it a shot. “I can’t jettison her out. The unit is only partially functional.” Moving as little as possible, I groped in the compartments under my dash, looking for a weapon. I came up empty. “She’d die within minutes,” I lied.
While Silas’ face remained impassive, a slight tone of agitation sounded in his voice. “Suit her up and send her out.”
“Can’t do that either.” I saw his jaw muscles tighten. Mockingly I continued, “Surprisingly, she went into shock when your ships showed up and snared us. I had to mix a sedative in her oxygen to calm her down.”
That brought Silas out of his chair. “You drugged her? Sonofabitch! Do you even know what the hell you’re doing?”
I heard his pilot for the first time, “He’s lying – just stalling…”
I replied to the anonymous voice. “Prove it.”
Silas whirled on his pilot, “Shut up!”
Stalemate. Now everything depended on how badly Silas wanted Reya back unharmed. He apparently wanted her back for reasons that were still unknown to me. At what cost did he want her back, was the real question. What was he willing to risk?
I pressed my advantage. “I don’t know why you want a woman who clearly doesn’t want you.” I let the statement hang in the air before continuing, “If as you’ve said, she’s done this before.” Narrowed eyes glared at me through the comm module. “At this point, I don’t care why. I just want to get out alive.”
“A man in my position must collect debts owed. Not to do so is dangerous.” He leaned in, and his smile was lethal. “It would send the wrong message. She owes me her life on a debt.” His wicked sense of humor returned. “It’s business ole boy, not personal.”
She owed him her life. That was news to me that I didn’t let show. “Tell you what, I’ll extend a Topside Docking Hatch. You come across and get her – alone. I assume you’re equipped with a TDH passage tube.”
The unseen pilot spoke up again. “Fuck that boss! Blow him and that cunt to dust and be done with it.”
Silas’ agitation unloaded. His sizeable form sprung from the chair, disappearing from the monitor. I heard the impact of a solidly delivered punch and the sound of crunching bone. Probably a broken nose if I had to guess.
Silas returned into my field of view. Still addressing his pilot, he roared, “I already told you to shut the fuck up.”
I seized the opportunity. “See, that’s what I’m talking about.” I gestured toward the off-screen pilot. “I don’t trust your henchies. I met a few. A little volatile for my tastes. Probably just giving her to you isn’t going to be the best bet for me.”
“Don’t take me for a fool,” he warned, “people die that way.”
“Let’s keep it simple. You come on board. See that she’s fine. Your men escort my ship to the closest utility station outside of Leir, and I disappear. The girl and the ship are yours.”
“We can escort you there without me coming on board,” he countered.
“True, but what would stop me from taking off with Reya once we’re out of your control bubble?” I asked. “Maybe you can shoot me down before authorities arrive. Maybe not. Either would cause a ruckus and draw attention. And as it happens, I’m not overly inclined to interact with UEE security myself.” I shrugged. “Looking for a win-win.”
Silas’ suspicions were raised. “You’re correct in assessing my arm doesn’t reach that far – yet.” His distrust showing he asked, “Why warn me of that?”
“You’re not stupid, and I want out alive.” I forced my voice to adopt a non-committal tone. “It’s your choice. You come over unarmed – I’ll scan you, and one-on-one we can jump to the closest secured station.”
I waited for a response. Silas said nothing. His eyes burrowed into me. This was my best chance to get out of this alive. I needed to get him across, overpower him and keep him as a temporary hostage for safe conduct out of here – with Reya. I’m sure he was aware of that possibility. It was a long shot, but that didn’t matter. I was dead unless I tried something.
“There’s no reason to trust a thief,” he interjected into the growing silence.
“As it stands, I’m a dead man.” He didn’t refute my words, so I nodded. “That being the case, I’ll self-destruct the ship and take the temptress with me. I’ve nothing to lose.” Let’s see how he takes that missile across the bow. No reaction from Silas. “On the other hand, you could blow us to dust as your pilot suggested or stalemate until my ship runs out of oxygen.” For dramatic effect, I made a show of checking my gauges. “Six hours, eight minutes and fifteen seconds from now.” I relaxed back into my chair. “Either way, dead is dead. I can only die once.” I was gambling solely with her life. It was all I had of value to offer.
For the first time since our attempt at a secret escape from Silas’ lair, I unstrapped myself from the pilot’s chair and stood up. “You let me know how you want to handle this from here.” I shook out my legs. “I’m going to check on Reya.”
My heart thundered in my chest. I did my best to assume a confident walk to the ship’s rear – out of range for the comm module’s camera. When I was clear, I took a steadying breath. My hands shook. I balled them into fists and released them over and over, trying to calm myself.
I’d rolled the dice using her life, and I wasn’t sure I had the right. What other choice did I have other than sacrificing myself? I hadn’t known Reya long, and even though feelings of the four letter word hovered, my self-preservation instinct was strong. I assured my conscience, this was the best I could do for both of us.
I hurried down the narrow passageway, kicking fallen crates and equipment out of my way as I went. I jumped down the small steps leading to the cargo bay and rushed to the transport capsule. The capsule hovered in the center of the room utilizing magnetic repulsion to float above the cargo plates embedded in the flooring. Soft white lights came on inside the capsule, as I approached. Through its observation panel, I could see Reya. She was in the form-fitting undersuit, curled into a loose fetal position. I walked to the attached AutoDoc console and meticulously checked at all her vitals. She was fine – sleeping peacefully. I tapped a button to stop the sedative being mixed into her oxygen supply. I leaned over the glass panel for a closer look.
Reya rested on the gelfoam interior. The surface had oblong silver colored sensors with trailing circuitry embedded in the foam. The wires zigzagged across the surface like a hieroglyphic mural. Pinprick sized lights blinked at regular intervals casting tiny polka dots on her olive skin. Part of her attempt at a disguise, her head was shaved entirely, revealing a tattoo of the Asian symbol for freedom. “Cross your fingers,” I whispered against the glass.
I’d given Silas enough time to stew on my insane proposal. I raced back up to the flight deck. On the way, I rifled through the supplies stowed in the side compartments for any kind of weapon. At Reya’s insistence, there were no “real” weapons on board. If we got stopped by authorities for any reason, she didn’t want me hauled off for violating the terms of my military discharge. The best I could find was a small titanium pipe that fit into the palm of my hand.
“You’ll have to do,” I said, concealing it in my palm.
When I got back on deck, Silas was stepping into a flight suit. I stood by the comm but didn’t bother to sit. “That’s not necessary…”
He cut me off. “In case there’s an accident.” Warning in his tone he added, “If there is, my men will open fire immediately. Then the three of us can finish this in hell.”
“Sure – just drop the suit once you’re safely sealed in the TDH bay so I know you’re not coming across with anything.”
We were both acting overly gracious which spelled – TROUBLE.
“Certainly,” he replied.
I reached across the pilot’s command console and initiated the TDH. I heard the instruments whir into motion as I walked briskly to the mid-deck.
Over my shoulder, I yelled, “Meet you there.”
When I entered the midship area, the TDH chamber was almost finished adjusting its internal compression. The LED on the circular traversal tube began flashing… 85% complete… 90% complete… 100% complete.
The audio confirmation rang out in a flat digitized female voice. “Topside Dock Hatch ready for deployment.”
I fat-fingered entering the correct launch authorization code into the side panel.
“Invalid authorization code,” was the computer’s reply.
I punched in the code again.
“Topside Dock Hatch launching in… 5… 4… 3… 2… 1.”
The clear container rose slowly from the floor and up through the tube that connected it to the ceiling. I heard the gears lock into place when it reached the outside, followed by suctioning noises as the ship carrying Silas, hooked on a flexible passage tube. Several more seconds passed.
The TDH LED glowed red and announced, “Warning, Topside Dock Hatch accepting passenger…” There was a loud thud, like someone falling forward into the chamber. “Warning, Topside Dock Hatch accepting passenger…” I heard the TDH reseal itself. When the LED went steady green, I moved back.
Silas was stepping out of the flight suit as the chamber lowered back down. We watched each other warily. I stood still, my hands at my sides in a false relaxed stance. Silas was a couple of inches taller than me. I was bulky. He was lean and agile. All I needed was to connect my fist concealing the pipe with his head, and I’d be in the pilot’s seat on this escapade.
“Turn around,” I yelled loud enough for him to hear through the chamber. He obliged, doing so with his hands raised over his head.
“Now you,” he shouted back when he was done.
I did the same. My large hands facing upward and lightly cupped, successfully concealed the rod. “Okay?” I asked. He nodded his reply. He moved to the back of the chamber as I approached to open the door. I quickly tapped in the security code in to open the compartment.
The computer stated the obvious, “Topside Dock Hatch releasing passenger.” There was a popping sound as the door slid open. Silas cautiously stepped out. I backed away from the unit, opting to leave it open versus staying in range, to reseal it.
Silas surveyed the interior of the compartment while keeping an eye on me. New eyes would see the scarred and dented walls, panels missing off several non-operational modules and debris – wires, discarded micro-panels, and power cells littered the floor.
I sized him up while formulating a plan of attack. He was going to fight back and probably decent at it given his reputation and temperament. I didn’t want to jump the gun at the wrong time.
“Nice,” was all he said after giving the interior a once over. We both knew that nice meant, “What a shithole you’ve got here.” He didn’t waste time after that. “I want to see Reya.”
“Sure. She’s in the cargo bay.” I pointed to the rear of the ship.
“After you,” he said waving me forward. “You’ve the advantage. It’s your ship. Places to hide weapons and spring an attack. You’ll have to indulge me in not wanting to be jumped from behind.”
I made like it didn’t matter to me who went first and headed toward the stairs. I walked the short distance in the corridor, slightly turned in Silas’ direction the whole way. When we entered the cargo bay with Reya, I moved to stand against the far wall.
I watched him check her vitals carefully. I squirmed when he adjusted two of the settings. He held his hand up for me to be silent or stay where I was, I didn’t know which. I wasn’t ready to attack, and there was no sane reason for him to risk his safety coming on board if all he wanted was to hurt her. He could have done that from the safety of his ship.
He kept an eye on me as he walked around to the front of the capsule. “Did you know that she only has one lung?” He could tell by my reaction that I didn’t. “She suffers from a rare clotting disease.” He peered into the capsule window then quickly brought his eyes back to me. “We’ve tried a couple of artificial ones, for some reason, they don’t take. Humidity and heat are her friends.”
His hands brushed over the top of the capsule in a caressing motion. He backed himself against the wall of the room on that side. I instantly realized I’d already made a mistake. Earlier, I’d put Reya’s safety in between us to hold him off, now he was returning the favor. Touché. His body went rigid. Damn, he was about to spring something.
I tried to defuse the situation. “She’s safe as you can see. Let’s head back and get this going.” I could see he wasn’t buying. Regardless, I kept selling. “In a few, we can be through a jump point, and I’ll be on my way.”
“Really?” His body language suggested we weren’t going anywhere. “This was a dangerous game you played – and at my expense.”
Playtime seemed to be over. I braced myself and leaned into an attack stance. My voice dripped acid. “Game – is that what her life is to you?”
He ignored my statement, continuing down his own line of thought. “She’s never made it out of my station before,” he said, “let alone onto a ship and out of the region. That’s a disastrous precedent that has to end here.”
It was on. Panther tracking panther, we circled each other, the capsule in the middle. I gripped the pipe until the whites of my knuckles were showing. It didn’t matter if he noticed at this point, he’d come in with a plan of his own.
“Must be my pedigree,” I sneered. “Looks like I exceeded your expectations after all.” My combat training kicked in, in a split second I assessed the situation – his position, the proximity of the capsule and all viable directions of attack. It was time to strike.
The world slipped into slow motion. I crouched low, inhaled then lunged diagonally across the capsule, aiming for his throat. Like a displaced egg, the capsule wobbled as my knees brushed over the top. He jerked to the side, avoiding the full force of my attack. I clipped the left side of his chest. He hit the wall behind him, momentarily losing his footing. He swung a wild right as he struggled to steady himself. When he did, he started punching left — right — left.
I raised my forearm to block the rain of blows he attempted to deliver. From my crouched position I saw an opening. I punched up into his chest. I felt one of his ribs crack. His breath left him in a rush. He staggered backward. In one fluid motion, I bolted upright and advanced. The titanium pipe clenched in my fist. I cocked my right hand back ready to make a dent in this fucker’s head.
Silas scuttled sideways then quickly rolled under the capsule to the other side of the room. The capsule rocked between us. He favored his left side and was panting.
“Not as out of practice as I’d hoped,” he said through clenched teeth. “This isn’t going to end well for you now.”
We were both shuffling side to side, trying to gain the upper hand on the next strike.
“Was it ever going to?”
“Might have,” he gestured toward the capsule. “I have a reverence for fallen angels. When the righteous come face to face with their gods and realize it was all lies. You and the military. A decorated hero cast out… Reya, a former operative.”
That statement rocked me back on my heels. “Former operative?” I whispered.
His mocking smile taunted me. “You barely know her.”
I prepared to lunge at him again when he yanked at a gold chain hanging around his neck. I stopped short. From the chain hung a blood red vial with a red label and flowery print. It swung like a pendulum as he held it high. Our eyes locked. FUCK – for the first time I noticed air purifiers jammed up his nostrils.
He read acknowledgment in my eyes and smiled. “Time to die,” he sneered.
Fueled by desperation, I rushed forward, slinging the capsule out of the way with my left hand. It careened around the room bumping into crates and hitting the side walls. The compartment echoed the collisions like war drums. The life support and monitor chords tethering the capsule to the AutoDoc snapped. Fluid sprayed wildly around the cargo bay while a litany of alarms rang out from the medic console. I dropped the pipe and grabbed Silas’ wrist – the one holding the vile. My other hand had him by the throat, trying to restrict his movement.
Events shifted into fast forward. Silas alternately punched me in the head and hammered at the bend in my arm, trying to break my hold on his throat. With only one hand, I couldn’t exert enough force to choke the life out of him, but his face was turning beet red.
I locked my eyes on the vile. Nothing else in the room mattered. “Hold on no matter what,” I told myself.
Thumping sounds started echoing from within the transport capsule. Reya was awake inside, trying to get out. She screamed my name and pounded frantically. “Gilles! Gilles – I can’t get out.”
Precious seconds ticked by while Silas and I struggled in our death grip. He successfully avoided my attempted knee to the groin. When I’d leaned forward to put weight behind the attack, Silas grabbed a chunk of my hair. Quick as lightning he yanked my head backward, thrust his arm under mine and wrapped his free hand around my throat. We were locked hand-to-hand and throat to throat.
Reya cycled between screaming and coughing – banging with all the energy she had, trying to escape her coffin. Silas and I bumped around the room thrusting each other against every solid surface. As each tried to gain leverage over the other, hitting the capsule was unavoidable, it continued to bang violently around the room. On one collision, the rotation ended facing forward. Reya’s face was momentarily visible in the window. Her eyes were wide with terror. We bumped it again, and it spun in the opposite direction.
A ragged plea echoed from the capsule, “Please… help. I… can’t… brea—.”
More seconds passed while Silas and I wrestled. I had him pinned against the wall again. Reya went silent. I looked into Silas’ face, intent on finding a way to choke this son-of-bitch to death with one hand. There was a look of madness in his eyes.
“You… did this,” he growled.
A new terror ripped through me. I wrenched my head and looked at the silent capsule. When I did, Silas swung us around in an arc. His hand holding the vile was pointed toward the closest wall. He leaned in that direction. Off balance, our collective weight sent us careening toward his goal. The vial crashed into the wall, wedged between it and his hand. Bloody fragments broke away and fell. Red vapor exploded into the air. Neither of us released their grip on the other’s throat. Even so, we both knew who was going to win. In a few seconds, I’d be incapacitated and sometime after, dead by his hand – if I was lucky.
My head swam, the room started to rotate. I kept the pressure on his throat. I tried to grab hold with my other hand but couldn’t manage the effort to raise my arm. My grip slackened. My knees buckled. Against my will, my hands opened. Silas stepped out of my reach. A blunt kick to my chest toppled me over. The floor rushed toward the side of my face. It hit the floor with a resounding crack. In a haze, I saw Silas rush to the capsule.
He banged at the controls to open the pod. “Reya! Hang on – here, I’m here love.”
My eyelids turned into bricks supported by toothpicks. I willed them to stay open with all the energy I had left. The lid on the capsule popped up. Silas wrenched it the rest of the way open. He stooped low into the capsule. I heard snapping sounds as he ripped away the remaining monitors attached to her body. He rummaged lower, and when he came up, Reya’s torso was supported in his embrace.
I watched through slitted eyes as he reached into his pants pocket and inserted what he’d retrieved, into Reya’s nose. He slapped her on both the sides of her face. His hand left blood stains on her cheeks. “Wake up,” he shouted. She didn’t move. He put an ear to her lips.
I croaked a question too low to be heard, “Alive?”
Silas lifted her motionless form. Cradling her like a child, he stepped past me. I couldn’t move my head. I strained my eyes to watch his departure. As he angled sideways to navigate out the door, one of Reya’s arms fell limply at her side. Her arm, slight and still; her wrist fragile and slack; her hand – a finger twitched once… twice. My face was numb while my heart rejoiced. My head throbbed as if on the verge of imploding. Time to sleep my body crooned. I begged it to wait – wait until she was out of sight, but I was falling, dropping like a boulder into darkness.
Gilles looked up at Maggie. He immediately schooled the tortured look on his face. He blinked and exhaled. Returning to today. Two years and three months since he’d last seen Reya. He used to know down to the minute, but he’d stopped that bit of madness.
Maggie’s voice came as a whisper. “You’re alive,” was said as a statement of something to be thankful for.
“It would seem,” came Gilles’ reply. The dim lighting of the pub, the solemnity of his voice, and silence that echoed around them cast a funeral-like pall. “When I came to, I stumbled to the cockpit. Nothing had been damaged. I found a recorded message on the comm module. Silas had decided to keep me alive as leverage. For all of his purported disdain, he must have sensed that I meant something to her. He already knew how I felt.” Gilles noticed the shot glass in front of him and downed it. “If I stayed away she was fine. If she stayed, I was fine. We were each other’s hostage.”
“Shit. That’s wicked.” Maggie who’d been on the edge of her seat slid back and leaned into the booth.” She exhaled. “Thanks for sharing that. Explains a lot.”
“Does it?” His voice was flat.
Maggie’s voice was warm with compassion. “You don’t live here.” She waved her hand around the room. “You’re still back on that ship.” Her smile vanished. She looked away, before continuing. “I know a thing or two about being trapped and choosing freedom. At all cost.”
Gilles watched Maggie. He was perplexed by her revelation. He’d assumed her life hadn’t been perfect or she wouldn’t have ended up out here on the ass end of Terra. Sure, it was much better than other systems. Still – her skills and looks… Life should have netted a bit more. “So,” he thought to himself, “she has a mystery – likely a secret too.”
The silence between them lingered until Maggie righted the mood. “Butterfly choices…” Her smile returned – albeit somewhat diminished.
“What’s that?” Gilles asked.
“Never know how far a single step will ripple,” Maggie replied.
At that moment he decided he preferred the happy Maggie. The businesswoman he assumed had no cares. That image was cracked and he realized, she was probably right. Maybe that was never her. Just the one-dimensional image he saw through his preoccupied haze. He met her eyes, he needed to discern if this was a problem. She looked at him as she always had. Kind and curious but there was a bit of sadness in her eyes. “We’re good?” He asked.
“No reason not to be. I don’t gossip. You can trust me.” She hesitated then continued.” If you’re okay with it, I’d like to tell John.” She put her hand up. “Just enough. He and I don’t keep secrets. John should know just in case trouble arrives – for whatever reason.”
After a moment’s reflection, Gilles agreed. “I guess that’s fair.”
“Ever consider doing security again?”
“Nah. Like it here and staying local.”
“Good to hear. I meant for us. Podcity. We like hiring staff with multiple skills.” In a slightly apologetic tone, she said, “keeps overhead down.”
Gilles smiled. “Makes sense.”
“ We’re looking to take on a couple more. Maybe the three of us should chat. If you have any interest.”
The offer caught Gilles off guard, and it showed. “Uhm — Yea, sure. Why not?” He brushed a hand through his hair. “Can’t hurt to consider.”
“Cool. I’ll speak to John.” She rose, taking the two glasses and the bottle of scotch with her. “Time to shut the doors.”
Gilles got up, stretched and sidestepped out of the booth. “Yep. Thanks for the drink.” He headed for the door. Over his shoulder, he said, “See ya tomorrow.”
You can learn about John and Maggie’s life before Terra in Nightbus Fiction Collective Volume 1. The Exterminator introduces John James. Maggie Schlotz Origin story tells about her life as a paramour prior to escaping to Stanton. You can find the Nightbus Fiction Collective Volume 1 on my SoundCloud Channel.
Alysianah Noire | Copyright 2019 All Rights Reserved
Audio version on SoundCloud
Ten thousand UEC per day. That’s how much Zora needed to earn to keep her life on an even keel. Maintaining the Terrapin, her sole source of income, was her first priority. Having a roof over her head was second. More than a convenience, leasing an apartment helped eating cheap and eliminated renting storage compartments for the crates of equipment she’d amassed over the years. Sure, it was a tight fit squeezing it all in, and living in what amounted to a cramped one-room mini-warehouse, but it worked.
Zora had used the first few days after arriving on ArcCorp to settle into her new life based out of Area 18. Today it was time to earn real cash. Time to start making her daily quota before she ate up too much of her rainy-day stash. She was determined that by hook or crook she’d make a successful go of this.
Leaving the chaotic group, she’d been a member of the past three years was a painful decision. Ultimately, Zora decided she wanted to build an independent future. To her, it seemed contract work for general purpose teams was drying up in Stanton. At critical mass, the corporate-owned planets wanted you on their payroll and under their thumb, especially on Hurston. In Stanton, you either worked for a megacorp, earning slave wages you gave right back to them for housing and upkeep, or you eked out a living working for small contract brokers — or worse. While the private brokers shelled out higher pay and offered solo work with more flexibility, it was served with a side order of uncertainty. As a freelancer, no one owed you your next gig. Plus, some of the jobs were dubious at best. At least you decided on your own if you wanted to partake or not.
Zora was prepared to do whatever it took to make this venture successful. She was exhausted by group decisions, cliques, and in-fighting. Wanted more than being at the end of someone else’s leash. She had her morals, scruples, and whatnot. Nevertheless, she’d decided in advance, that they’d take second place if it came down to it.
Lounging on her narrow and thinly padded bunk, Zora’s legs were slung across a box she used as a nightstand. She had her mother’s liquid brown eyes. Her father’s full lips, broad nose, and pecan colored skin. Dense auburn coils with hints of red were piled high on her head. She bit her lower lip. “Stop thinking about it,” she told herself. “Parting on bad terms was their fault, not mine.” Tapping on her mobiGlas, she grumbled, “I’ve got a right to leave if I wanna.” Although she tried to minimize it, having to sever contact with the only so-called friends she had in the area stung.
Zora sighed and returned to scanning through today’s job postings. She’d invested in a mobile Trade and Development Division account that allowed her to apply for contracts directly on her mobiGlas, a holographic tablet she wore on her wrist. There were many low-pay listings readily available for captains with hoopty ships. She’d have to string several of them together to make decent money, which wasn’t ideal. It would take longer and cost more in fuel. Besides, she had a capable ship to command. Her Anvil Terrapin, shaped and built as tough as its namesake, was in excellent condition. She’d purchased a bit above her capabilities not having experience in reconn or tactical exploration. For now, she’d use it for what she knew and grow into the rest.
“Hmm,” she muttered to herself continuing to flip through the listings that only required minimal experience, “these can be back-ups. Enough of ‘em that they’ll be around for a while. Let’s see if we can kick the dust off something better.” Already dressed and ready to roll, Zora wound her way through her haphazardly stacked crates of gear and belongings to head out the door.
The sights and sounds of Area 18 assaulted her senses as she exited the building. Brightly colored neon signs flickered. Holographic billboards stood several stories high. Vendors selling from mobile carts, the exotic aromas mingling together made her stomach whine for a taste, as her mouth watered. Hover trams swooshing by at regular intervals. Chattering pedestrians darting in every direction. Zora blinked, took a deep breath, and luxuriated in the energy. She was used to living in the oppressing black of deep space. Walking scuffed gray passageways aboard aging utilitarian ships. Breathing dingy recycled air. While ArcCorp, as a company, wasn’t known for caring about the local environment of their cities or how their residents lived, they didn’t skimp on technology or easy access to services. Sure, the buildings and residents were packed in like oiled sardines, but there were very few things you couldn’t lay your hands on, one way or another around here. For some, this was slumming it. For Zora, it was a definitive step up.
“I could get used to this.” She smiled to herself as she meandered her way toward Zone 1, her long confident gait, outpacing most others. Her eyes greedily scanned the storefronts she passed. Casaba’s fashionably dressed mannequins, in particular, caught her attention. Having civilian clothing wasn’t necessary, practical or a priority living aboard a ship fulltime. Now… She looked at her reflection in the oversized window pane.
She was decked out, head to toe, in her full set of Microid Desert gear. Light and smooth as leather, the tan Microid fiber hugged Zora’s curves, fitting snuggly over the flight suit. For extra protection, she wore a light brown breastplate. A utility belt with extra ammunition and emergency supplies rested low on her hips. A khaki green scarf covering her head was wrapped crisscross around her necked and billowed out behind her. Her helmet, which would conceal her face entirely, was propped under her left arm. All combined, it was an odd outfit for walking around ArcCorp but perfect camouflage when doing illegal salvage on the dusty, windswept waste heaps of Hurston.
Zora tugged at the frayed edges of her neck scarf. Gazing at the color coordinated top and pant sets displayed in the window, she said, “Soon…” Turning away, “business first.”
On her first tour of the area, she’d noticed several small contract companies had offices along the passageway leading to Zone 1. She’d also made a few discrete inquiries about opportunities before deciding on ArcCorp as a home base. She already had a profile of her work experience, ship configuration and weapons expertise on a few message boards. She’d even parted with the extra coins and taken on the associated risk, of obtaining an account and security token to access the dark web, a hub of local black market activity. Doing the latter wasn’t the sort of work she was after, but a girl needed options in her hip pocket.
Just as Zora entered the passageway leading to Zone 1, an alert sounded on her mobi. It was a job posting from BIT, Buggly Independent Transport. She stopped to read the details. “Damn, this looks good,” she murmured, “but…” her voice trailed off.
During her search for possible clients, Zora had come across Reggie, the owner of Buggly Independent Transport. BIT offered short-hop conveyance work that required light combat experience. Reggie didn’t intend for there to be trouble, but he wanted couriers who could handle themselves in case it arrived. Pilots who can think on their feet was how he’d phrased it. Zora had the impression that while delivery was important, protecting the package was the priority.
She hesitated, torn between checking in with the brokers right here, who might not have anything versus racing off to BIT, who had a job for sure. Zora scanned the windows along the dimly lit area. She could see lights flickering in a couple of the brokers’ offices. “Shit.” She hadn’t planned on her first contract being with BIT, but this new listing alert was among the highest paying. Could she scoff at an 8K job offering sent out to a limited list of contractors? No, she couldn’t. At the very least, she should check it out. “Let’s see what’s up.” Zora made a U-turn and quickened her pace as she headed back toward Buggly’s spot.
Buggly didn’t have an office. He had spots. Places you could find him during certain times of the day. To know when and where, you had to have met him previously, and have been given a cipher to decode his location which he artfully buried in his job postings. Based on this one, Buggly was near the center of the Area 18 Plaza.
TO BE CONTINUED
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?
“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.
“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.
Maggie rolled away from him, relieved his session was over. She sat up and swung her legs over the side of the bed. It was out of fashion but she wore her hair loose and natural. The Auburn waves undulated down below her shoulder blades. She clutched the bed sheet to her chest, about to stand up and wrap it around herself. She stopped when she felt him reach out and rub his knuckles up and down the small of her back. She winced as he slowly traced his fingers along the bruises he’d left there. It took all of her composure not to flinch away in revulsion.
“You really should come with me to Kilian. MicroTech is building a new facility there. They landed a contract to make exclusive components for military devices. ”
“What’s that got to do with Revel & York?”
“You know these executive types. They need their luxury hangars, especially in less than ideal climates. I’ll be administering the design and construction.” He folded his arms behind his head. “Will be there for a couple of years at least. If you come, I can help you start a small business. A modest shop of some kind. Lots of activity in the area.” He looked around her apartment. “Your place and things always look so chic. You have a knack for it.” He leaned over and coiled a fist full of her hair around the palm of his hand. “There you’d only have to worry about pleasing me. We could be seen together in public, no questions asked.”
She yanked her hair out of his grasp and stood up. “What about your wife?”
“What about her?” He stretched and yawned. “She’s not coming. Doesn’t like to travel and damn glad of it.”
“I bet you are.” She thought to herself. Aloud she said, “but you’re glad of her money and so am I.” She felt him rise up behind her but this time she was faster than he was. She bolted off the bed and moved out of arm’s reach before turning to face him. He wasn’t bold enough to hurt her while she was looking directly at him. She seethed on the inside, “coward!” To him she sad, “I need to straighten up. Another customer coming soon.” He glared at her, hands balled into fists.
Larry was tall dark and handsome as they say. It was his soul that made him ugly. He backed off the bed into a standing position. “You know that disgusts me.”
Playing innocent, she cocked her head to one side. “What’s that?”
He ground his teeth and flexed his jaw before answering. “The idea of other men,” he spat.
She wanted to laugh in his face. Instead, she said, “Sorry, love. You know you’re the only special one.” Placating him felt like chewing on glass. She did it because he was her highest paying and most frequent customer. She needed him for a while yet.
He dressed quickly. Jerking on his clothes in anger. She walked him to the door feigning concern for his feelings and gave him assurances that she would consider his generous offer. And she would, just not in the way he thought.
Maggie wondered why anyone married these creatures. She could respect the single men looking for diversion and satisfaction. Or the older lonely ones. Unfortunately, Larry’s species was much more common, especially among the clientele of licensed paramours. It helped them feel less grimy in their illicit behavior and unfaithfulness.
Maggie sat across from Kitty. She was on the sofa trying not to be consumed by the avalanche of brightly colored fluffy pillows. Kitty was sitting cross-legged on her bed. Her face was heart-shaped and matched her plump girlish figure. Maggie was her polar opposite. Tall, lithe with keen features, and almond shaped brown eyes that dominated her face.
Kitty looked at Maggie expectantly, her bright blue eyes framed by three-inch artificial lashes that made a clicking sound when she blinked. Her surgically altered lips were set in a perpetually plump pout. “So what’s this idea you wanted to talk about? Haven’t heard you that excited in ages!”
“Larry mentioned something that got me thinking about changing my line of work.”
Kitty made a sour face. “Larry? Eww, surprised you’re smiling after seeing him,” she interrupted.
“He has his uses.” Teasing, Maggie said, “We can’t all have romper room sessions.” Waving her hand at Kitty’s outfit she continued, “I don’t think they make those in my size.”
Kitty popped to her feet on the bed, overturning several pillows and life-sized stuffed unicorns. She struck an innocent pose and pressed an index finger to the corner of her mouth. In her best apologetic child’s voice, she replied, “I know. Kitty sorry, Maggie big-limb giant.” She spread her arms wide. “Come, Kitty make it all better.” They both guffawed.
Referring to Kitty’s current outfit of pink ballet slippers, thigh high pink-n-white striped tights, multicolored tutu and pink leather bustier, Maggie said, “I don’t know how you wear that shit all day.”
Stealing a line from Maggie she said, “it has its uses,” and flounced down into a sitting position. “So what’s this idea?”
“In the past, Larry’s mentioned incentives offered to folks who settle on newly terraformed planets or bring new businesses to underserved areas. He’s being shipped out to oversee construction of new Revel & York hangars in Kilian. He wants me to go with. Would help me start a small business of some sort for income with him being my only client.”
Kitty’s eyes widened in horror.
Shaking her finger Maggie said. “Not to worry. Fuck being tied to that asshole.”
Patting her chest feverishly, Kitty said, “Thank God. Almost gave Baby a heart attack.”
“His offer got me thinking though. Why can’t we start up a business in a system where subsidies are being offered on our own? Even without a grant, if we can find a reliable lead on a developing community and the inside track on a prime location, we’d be in decent shape.” Maggie leaned back for a minute to consider. She looked around Kitty’s apartment. It was the same size and configuration as her own albeit themed for her clientele’s tastes.
Their quarters were larger than average being corner units. They had space for an oversized bed, formal sitting area, kitchenette and a bathroom with a double sized shower and Jacuzzi. The coup-de-gras, however, was the breathtaking view. A feature very few others had on the Granada space station. These suites were usually reserved for corporations, high-ranking government personnel, and military officials. Their ability to acquire them was the benefit of being a licensed paramour paying top union dues. The Paramour Union bid for and championed getting their members the best accommodations. They argued it kept up one’s spirit and attracted a better class of patrons. And they were right.
There were many nights when Maggie soothed her aching body and bruised soul by staring out of her apartment’s lavish floor to ceiling windows. The view of Vann from this distance was mesmerizing. Predominantly covered in ice, it was a pale blue ghost in the perpetual night sky of deep space. She could lose herself for hours watching ships pop in and out of quantum, arriving and departing from Granada, the largest residential and commercial space station in all of Croshaw.
Her life here was far from perfect but she’d seen worse. Her parents were hard working but unskilled laborers. Clinging to their faith, they shunned modern birth control options and struggled to provide for five children. Her early years were spent in slums of overly crowded resource-stretched cities. Her teens, living in what amounted to little more than tins cans with oxygen, on congested space stations. When she was eighteen, she’d set out on her own, determined to have better.
Her career as a paramour had provided comfort and predictability. She knew the rhythm of every day before it began. She wanted for nothing and had over the years sent money to her family who begrudgingly accepted it. Her father, all that was left of their tragic clan, was ashamed of her and refused to visit. His voice echoed in her head. “Glad your mother isn’t alive to see.” Maggie had always wondered at the stupid saying. She couldn’t imagine anything she could ever do that her mother being dead was preferable. “Jackass!”
Kitty scrunched up her face confused. “What hon?”
Maggie blinked, coming back to the present. “Nothing. Look – we can do more than this. See more than this.” Glancing around the room, “have more than this.”
“I don’t know. This is pretty good.” Kitty grabbed a nearby unicorn and hugged it to her chest.
“I’m being serious Kitty. Are you gonna be rocking that outfit when you’re 50? 60? If not, then what? Not planning that part now, is how we end up eating out of trash bins later.”
Kitty sighed and dropped the baby act. “I know what you mean. I think about it sometimes but it makes my tummy hurt.”
“No shit. It’s risky and scary but I don’t want to do this forever or wait until it’s too late. I could maybe squeak by opening something alone. But my savings can’t cover relocating and starting a business.” She looked up to gauge Kitty’s reaction. “Together we could. Don’t think it can be just you and me. We’d need a third to be safe.”
Kitty warmed to the idea. She knew Maggie to be a level-headed person. “Men do it in business all the time. I have a few clients that love telling me about their big deals and how savvy they are, all the while wanting to play patty-cake with ‘lil me.” She giggled. “I agree though. There’s safety in numbers.”
“Exactly! You, me and Bosha could do it. We’re good friends and trust each other.”
Kitty hopped off the bed and sat on the sofa next to Maggie, her face alert. “Think three is enough? There’s travel, start-up costs, license fees and we have to live on something while things get going.”
“I was thinking we should focus on finding a place where we could live on the premises in the beginning. That way all money is going to the business location minus food.” She poked Kitty in the ribs when she saw her make a face at the idea of cohabitation. “Temporary girls club!” She poked her to the point of tickling. “Popcorn and pillow fights,” she laughed while Kitty squirmed.
When she stopped laughing, Kitty took a slow look around her room. “I haven’t shared a room in ages.” Momentarily slipping back into her shtick, “Baby likes her stuff.”
“So does Maggie. We can have our stuffs again later. You in?”
Kitty got up and went to the window. “This view…” She leaned her cheek against the cool glass. “How far you think we’d have to go?”
“I honestly don’t know. It wouldn’t be immediate. We can take our time and shop around.”
Turning back to face Maggie she asked, “How are we gonna get the inside track on something?”
Maggie looked at her cockeyed. “C’mon. You don’t think between the three of us we can find a client who can scare up the information?”
“True.” Kitty turned away again.
“You in? I can’t do this without you, Kitty.” She hesitated. “Don’t mean to pressure but you, me and Bosha been each other’s rock for years. Two might could make it but…”
Kitty faced the room again and took a deep breath. “I’m in. Not leaving Baby behind!”
Maggie jumped up from the sofa and clapped her hands. “Excellent! Now the work begins.”
Maggie had waited over three hours for the time-delayed response from Richard. She was sitting at her dining table, half of which served as a desk. Watching his reply on the vidMail she could see how much he’d aged in the years since she’d seen him. Widower-hood wasn’t doing him any favors. His bushy hair was completely gray, including his eyebrows. He’d gained weight and his gentle face was completely lined with age. His hazel eyes, however, were still kind.
“Good to hear from you, Maggie. It’s been a while. My work in Goss is going well. Kind of you to ask. I’m surprised and relieved to hear that you’re contemplating a different career.” Chortling as though it were a shared joke he said, “Lord knows you are good at what you do but I always suspected you could do more.”
Maggie glowed on the inside from his sweet words. It wasn’t something she’d heard much. To her father, all of her choices seemed a day late and a credit short.
Richard continued. “I made contact with a few leads to see what was available and I think I lucked up on a sound opportunity in Stanton.”
“Stanton?” Maggie paused the playback and searched for the Stanton star system on her data pad. Not much information on it other than it contained four super-earths and the locals were in a quarrel about ownership with the UEE. She pressed play on the tablet again.
“It’s a rare find of four planets that are geologically capable of supporting life. Pioneers and separatists have been freely making use of the star system since its discovery but now that the UEE is strapped for cash and resources, they’re claiming eminent domain.” He rolled his eyes as if he wasn’t necessarily in agreement. “We’re not sure what’s going to happen with the planets themselves BUT there’s an asteroid belt actively being mined which ensures a certain level of commerce. Banking on that, Green Imperial Housing Exchange is building a station and trading post inside one of the asteroids. It won’t be luxurious. Nothing the likes of Granada but it’s a safe bet it’ll attract a high amount of traffic, especially during the early years of terraforming the system’s planets.”
Maggie traced the outline of Richard’s face on the display. She knew him to possess exceptional business acumen. More importantly, he was a good person.
“Friend of a friend knows the leasing agent. I took the liberty of transferring them a security deposit to hold a location that meets your expressed requirements. Things are moving quickly though. You only have four weeks to arrive on-site with a six-month rent deposit and to sign the papers. They don’t want absentee landlords or people squatting on locations. If you miss the deadline the security is forfeited. I hope this arrangement is agreeable to you. I think it’s an excellent opportunity. And selfishly, it would allow me to see you occasionally since I pass through there on business. You can repay me the deposit in credits or …” A huge grin spread across his face. “… or in services. Good luck. Hope to see you soon.”
Maggie was dumbstruck. He’d already secured a place! “Holy shit.” Her excitement immediately gave way to the harsh reality of the looming deadline. “We have to raise the money, pack up and be there in four weeks.” She bolted up from the table and began pacing.
They probably had the credits for the rent but then they needed more to turn it into — whatever business they selected and have funds to live off of in the interim. “Might have enough if we liquidate everything we own.” She chewed on a fingernail but abruptly stopped, not liking the taste of the red glitter lacquer on it. “Only keep bare necessities to take with. Live off space rations for a while if we have to.” She cupped her forehead. “Kitty’s not going to like that idea.”
The fifteen days since her conversation with Richard had been a blur. Getting rid of her big-ticket items had been the easy part. The station had a waiting list for her apartment. They were more than happy to take it off of her hands furnished. She was bunking with Bosha, who’d found someone to take the lease on her smaller apartment and was willing to wait until she departed if Bosha paid the first month’s rent which she did.
Dealing with Larry had been infinitely harder. She’d physically moved in with Bosha before canceling her client sessions to avoid anyone showing up looking for an answer, particularly Larry. The messages he’d left had quickly escalated from concern to outrage to threats. He’d refused her offer of meeting in a public place to discuss her change in circumstances, claiming someone who knew his wife might see them. He eventually relented when her final reply said that if he didn’t want to meet in public there was no point in contacting her again.
Maggie was sitting alone at a bistro table on the observatory deck of the Tip Top, watching customers come and go. Tip Top was a popular gathering place for drinks and a light meal owed to the glass walls and spinning platform which afforded an amazing view of the space station and Vann.
Being one of the few public locations with an exterior view at all, it was also a favorite spot for visitors to congregate. She’d asked the hostess for a table at the back edge of the round dining room. She didn’t want to be sitting front and center if her conversation with Larry became contentious. Not that she should care. She was leaving. Still…
She checked the time — again. Larry was uncharacteristically late. She regretted not taking the coward’s way out by leaving him vidMail the day of her departure. But she didn’t want him harassing anyone he thought knew her or contacting the Paramour Union. This way if he did, she could respond that she’d done everything in a professional manner. In which case, they’d put him in his place and threaten to blacklist him if he persisted. Although she didn’t plan on needing the union again, it was better to play things safe. No point in burning a bridge she might have to cross again one day.
Deciding that she was only waiting another ten minutes, she looked up from her watch, to find him staring at her from the entrance. “Here we go.” He had that look on his face. The one he wore when contemplating how far he could push her. Maggie schooled her expression into a mask a calm aloofness.
The room was full, with a line of people waiting at the entrance. Occupants were dressed to be on display. She watched Larry weave his way toward her. He wore a chest hugging shirt, slim fitting pants, and an aged leather duster. His swagger was attractive and he knew it. He’d planted on his patent slanted sexy smile. They both noticed a few heads swivel in his direction. When he reached the table he leaned over to kiss her but she pointedly turned away.
“We’re not sweethearts,” she said.
“We could be.”
“How easily you forget that you’re married.”
He waved away the statement and sat down across from her. “That’s a circumstance. Nothing more.”
Maggie rolled her eyes. “If you say so.”
“So — why the cloak-n-dagger routine? I’ve been seeing you for almost four years. Or rather, I’ve been paying you for that long.” He looked down his nose at her.
Maggie wasn’t taking the bait. Nor was she insulted. She always considered him and all of her other clients business. He couldn’t hurt her feelings by stating the obvious. “You seemed not to understand my change in status.” She sipped at the goblet of red wine in her hand. “The new tenant says you’ve contacted her several times looking for me.” She put the glass down and leisurely folded her hands on the table. “She doesn’t know me. We’re not friends. It’s a business arrangement of her taking over my lease. Period.”
He put both of his arms on the table when he spoke. “You’re living somewhere. I want that address.” He leaned forward with a menacing smile. “I’ll get it eventually. Station’s only but so big.”
Maggie made a mental note to tell Bosha that they needed to be more careful entering and exiting the apartment. Bosha’s place was on one of the lower floors with modest accommodations and less security. “I already told you, the friend I’m with isn’t fond of visitors. She works from home.”
“Still claiming it’s a she?” He asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Not claiming. Telling.” She reached for the wine glass but he grabbed her hand instead.
“I don’t believe you. How are you living?”
She resisted the urge to jerk her hand back. He was being civil. Well, his brand of civil anyway. “On my savings. Like I told you, I’m entering a new line of work and making a fresh start.”
He toyed with her fingers alternately rubbing them gently and applying uncomfortable pressure. “I think that’s a great idea. I can help you.”
“I think you missed the ‘fresh start’ part of that. Fresh means not being a paramour OR a mistress.” She looked him directly in the eyes. Here was a fact he couldn’t refute or weasel around.
He laughed. “Not likely. Think you’re the first whore to say that?” She pulled her hand out of his grasp. He narrowed his eyes and looked around to see if anyone was watching. “Pipe dream. Nothing more.”
“Well, it’s my pipe to smoke.” She stood up and let her mask fall away. Her eyes raked over him with disgust. “I’ve suspended my license and notified the union about potentially unwanted contact from a client. An accusation they don’t take lightly. If you contact me again, in any way, I’ll notify them and you’ll be blacklisted.” She stepped back from the table when he rose. He lurched for her arm but she leaned out of the way. The glasses and cutlery on the table rattled violently. Heads swung in their direction.
Conscious of the sudden stares he said, “We’ll discuss this again. You’ll see things my way before it’s all said and done. I promise you that.”
There was a palpable threat behind the statement but she refused to let him see her acknowledge it so she tossed her hair and laughed. “Bye Larry.”
Fearful of Larry’s threats, Maggie convinced Kitty and Bosha it was better to be gone as soon as possible. They each took extra care when leaving or returning to the apartments. Maggie did her best to conduct as much of her final business as she could using video conferences. She sold her remaining possessions through third party merchants to avoid sharing information with potential buyers. Unfortunately, moving up their timetable compromised how much money they earned for liquidating their assets. It also landed them with horrible travel arrangements to Stanton by having to take whatever was cheapest and readily available for three.
An hour before they were due to board a Starliner to Ferron, as the first hop on their journey, Kitty still hadn’t arrived at the departure gate. Waiting passengers milled around the pressurized ramp leading to the ship or sat on the rows of cushioned benches. Bosha and Maggie were sitting alone on a bench near the glassed wall watching the ground crew prepare the Starliner for departure.
The Starliner was one of Crusader Industries premiere passenger transport ships. It was long and narrow, with sleek lines accentuated by red racing stripes. Maggie watched the ground crew refuel and load cargo. She wished they’d been able to go with their original plan of securing private cabins. Unfortunately, that was no longer option with their accelerated their departure arrangements. Bosha’s voice interrupted her wishful thinking.
“No surprise Kitty’s late.” Bosha was moderate height and full figured. She wore a tan cowl-hood sweater over a tight fitting jumpsuit that emphasized her curves. She had the hood up. The exaggerated folds draped against the sides of her face, contrasted against her mocha colored skin and covered her tattooed scalp. Her voice was deep and sensual. “It’s going to be real interesting to see her ‘off stage’ interacting without her — uh — props.” Both women smiled.
“She’s not responding on her mobi either.”
“Probably on silent. Old habit and all.”
“If she misses this flight she’s screwed. These are nonrefundable passes.”
“She’d find a means to cajole her way on the next one. I’m fairly certain of that.”
Maggie exhaled and tried to relax but another thirty minutes passed and still no Kitty. The boarding light turned on and passengers were beginning to enter the ramp to board the ship. Maggie and Bosha were near the door, standing off to the side, craning their necks looking for Kitty. Maggie gasped when she spotted her. She grabbed Bosha’s hand and squeezed it so hard, her knuckles turned white.
“What the…” Maggie’s mouth fell open. She saw Larry arch his eyebrows and smirk while holding Kitty in a death grip, slightly in front of him. One side of Kitty’s face was red, her eyes were watery and her upper lip quivered. “Think fast,” Maggie screamed inwardly.
Larry abruptly forced Kitty to stop walking and she almost tripped over her own feet. People brushed passed the two on their way to the boarding ramp. He crooked a finger at Maggie, pointed to her and then Kitty as if to gesture an exchange.
Bosha, now fully aware of what was going on said, “No fucking way. The balls on this fucker!”
Maggie watched in horror as he began slowly backing up, heading toward a secluded corner. No way could she follow him there. Realistically, what could he do if she just screamed? She didn’t think he was armed but she couldn’t know for sure. She suddenly remembered a prime lesson from self-defense training about never allowing yourself to be taken to an isolated location. Her mind raced. Wouldn’t he just let Kitty go if she boarded the ship? “Shit!” Her stomach roiled.
“What are we going to do?” Bosha asked.
Maggie was about to say she had no idea when an idea came to her. She dropped the small valise she’d been carrying at Bosha’s feet. She smoothed back her hair and walked forward. Behind her, she heard the gate attendant announce final boarding.
She saw Larry sneer when she headed in his direction. Half way to him, at the end of the line of passengers still boarding, Maggie spotted a young man alone, bringing up the rear. He was wearing a bomber jacket with cargo pants and looked pretty fit. She stopped in front of him and gave him with her most divine smile.
“Sorry to bother you.” She laid a hand on his chest. “My friend isn’t feeling well and needs help boarding.” She pointed toward Kitty and saw Larry’s eyes narrow. “That gentleman there was kind enough to help her this far but he’s not boarding.” She used a hand to slowly brush her bang out of her eyes. “Buy you a drink on board if you can give us a hand?”
The young man’s face brightened. “Sure, no problem.”
“I’m Maggie by the way,” she said while simultaneously hooking her arm in his and moving him along.
With an excessive sound of being pleased, she cooed, “Marvelous, don’t hear that one much these days.” She noticed Larry stiffen as they approached and she tightened her grip on Xavier’s arm. “Kitty, this wonderful gentleman has offered to assist you to the ship.” She kept her eyes trained on Kitty’s face, praying she’d play along. “I explained that you’re not feeling well and need assistance getting to your seat.”
Kitty looked the part. Her free arm was hugging her stomach and beads of sweat were trickling down the sides of her face. “Uh — okay. Th-thank you,” she stammered.
Larry interjected himself. “No need. I can help them both.” Dismissively he added, “You can run along.”
Xavier raised his eyebrows, bent his head to one side and cracked his neck. He’d felt Maggie’s grip on his arm tighten when Larry spoke. “Don’t think that’s possible unless you have a boarding pass.” He turned his attention momentarily to Maggie and smiled. “I’m here to help either way.” He extended a hand to Kitty who grabbed it like a life preserver. He felt Maggie begin backing away and so did he, gently tugging on Kitty.
Behind her, Maggie heard Bosha say, “C’mon on last boarding” with a raised voice. Followed by, “Hang on, those three there are coming.”
“Good girl,” Maggie thought. Correctly assuming Bosha was pointing them out to the attendant.
Larry went rigid and he momentarily yanked Kitty back to him. Bless Xavier, who didn’t let go or give in. He continued tugging Kitty while stepping backward one foot at a time. Hurried footsteps come up behind them.
“Excuse me, but you have to board now. Please hurry,” the young woman in her black uniform with red trim commanded.
Kitty fell forward, into Xavier, as Larry let go. Maggie grabbed her arm and the three of them hurried away toward the boarding ramp.
“Sorry for the holdup,” Larry said in a silky voice to the attendant. “I need a boarding pass.”
Maggie overheard and turned her head in horror.
“I’m sorry, this flight is booked. Next available departure is in three hours.”
“I have standing first class status. Surely…”
“My apologies Sir, there are no seats. As soon as I get them boarded, I’ll be happy to assist you in booking passage on the next flight. Please wait here.” She turned and rushed Maggie, Kitty, Bosha, and Xavier through the tunnel.
While the quartet was walking down the main aisle of the ship looking for their seats, Maggie turned to Xavier, who was directly behind her. “Thank you. I will happily buy you a drink or several after take off.”
“You don’t have to but I’ll gladly oblige if it’s not an inconvenience. Boring flight ahead and not tired enough to sleep through it.”
“Happy to.” They were nearing the middle cabin where Maggie knew their seats to be. Spotting the row she said, “We’re over there. Come by when you’re ready.”
“I’m up a bit further. ” He walked passed them then turned back to Maggie. “Not to pry but I hope you have help where you’re going. It’s easy enough for that bozo to follow you on the next flight.”
Maggie grinned like a Cheshire cat. “He could if that was our final destination but it’s not. We have many more flights to go. Doing it on the cheap and last minute is taking us via a very circuitous route.” She exhaled. “We’re good now. Thanks again.”
He winked at her. “Excellent. See you later.”
Note from the Author: This story is an experiment of writing a short piece of fiction that will be narrated by multiple people, each telling the story from their point of view. Look for the narrated version in Star Citizen NightBus Episode 7. You may want to read Cami’s initial story, Chop Shop, before continuing.
My eyes do not see, alike reflection gazing back at me. More than just reversed, it twists and turns from circumstance of birth.
Cami was in the captain’s quarters aboard Gray Jaw. The gentle hum of the ship enveloped her, its life force rumbling through her bones. Gray Jaw was parked in its stationary position at the top of the upside down horseshoe alignment of Jimmy’s other Starfarers, each connected to the next by makeshift platforms. Together, they acted as a refueling station and trade post for the inhabitants and transient workers in Tanga’s asteroid belt.
Cami studied the holographic star map she was using to plan her trip to Stanton. The glowing blue orbs representing Tanga and Stanton were raised above the surrounding star systems. Wispy green lines floated in the air between them, illustrating the available jump points. Gnawing at her lip, she studied her options.
She looked up when she heard the door slide open. It was Jimmy. He was dressed in a utilitarian black jumpsuit, the upper half hanging open around his waist. His black T-Shirt had his company’s logo of a shark devouring a spaceship in the upper right corner.
“How’s it looking?” His voice was deep and raspy belying his youth.
“Pretty good. Several options.”
“I’ve made it through those parts a few times no problem,” he offered. “Question is how fast you need to get there versus taking a longer safer route.”
“Exactly what I’ve been thinking about. No matter what, I have to pass through unpatrolled space.” She used her fingers to illustrate the options. “Once if I take the longer route through Terra. Twice using the shortest route through Pyro.”
Jimmy came up beside her. “I’ve done both safely.” He rubbed at the stubble on his chin. “Do you have fuel for a longer trip?”
“I’ve got my cybernetic eye implant surgery covered but I’d have to postpone fixing the AutoDoc on medbay two.” Unconsciously, she poked a finger under the patch across her right eye and scratched around the empty socket. The phantom itching and pain had subsided over the last year. These days, it only flared up when she was anxious.
Jimmy flopped down in the high-backed chair at his desk. He crossed his legs ankle-to-ankle on the edge of it and leaned back. Like its owner, the room was sparse and neat. The bed inset into the wall was made. The storage cabinets against the far wall closed and secured. No personal items on display. “Nyx is the litmus test and you need to fly through there regardless. If it’s quiet good chance Pyro is too. Those two act like Siamese twins most times.”
“That’s been my experience. I don’t go that way often. Supplies too pricey. But I hear stories.” He stood up and pointed to the locations on the star map. “When you exit from Breman into Nyx don’t move until you’ve done a good sweep. The interference from the Jump Point will mask your ship if you stay within its signature. Do a directional scan toward Castra and then Pyro. Pay particular attention to unlicensed ships and the direction they’re going. Also, run a deep scan for deployable objects like interdiction devices and EMP snares.” He pulled a mobi out of his back pocket. “I’ll send you the common signatures for those. You can upload the info to your scan database. If the path to Pyro is clear immediately quantum there. If not, head to Castra.”
Cami nodded her head. “Like having the option. If there’s trouble, I’ll take the longer route and skip the repair supplies.” She gave Jimmy a warm smile. More confidence in her voice she added, “Thanks for the tips.” She turned off the star map and the holographic image blinked out of existence. “Structurally the ship’s in good shape. I’ve done small repairs here and there when I could. I can’t say as much for the A.I systems and weapons. They’re old as dirt and not something Rasa paid much attention. A simple assisted landing doesn’t work.”
Jimmy chuckled. “He was old school. Flew everything on manual. Plus it’s a salvaged Freelancer he cobbled into a medical ship for the living space. I suspect A.I. systems and whatnot were beyond his reach.”
Cami agreed. “Luckily they’re not systems I need regularly.” She exhaled “Damn – I miss him.”
The statement hung in the air between them. Jimmy sat back down and his eyes were unfocused as he spoke. “Same. He was a good man. I remember the first time he came over to do trading. He was a cheap old git. He’d help anyone he could but he’d haggle you down on a price to the point you were almost paying him to take it.”
They both laughed and the lump in Cami’s throat eased. Rasa had started as the stranger who’d fixed her up after the accident that had claimed her eye, offered her a home, and new life. He ended as a father figure who’d taught her a trade and left her everything he owned. “He went peacefully which is what you want. But…” Her voice trailed off.
“The suddenness of it. Yep. We were all shocked.”
“I – I didn’t get to say goodbye. Be there so he wasn’t alone.” Her voice cracked. “He’s with his family now which was all he really wanted anymore. “
“True, he spoke of them often.” Jimmy blew out a breath that vibrated his lips. “Worlds keep spinning and so must we.”
“True enough.” Shaking free of the memory she said, “I better get going. Heading out after I get some sleep.”
“Anything happens, you call and we’ll be there double-time! Enough around here owe you. Fixing them up even when they can’t pay. Don’t know why you think you need to change yourself. Fine like you are.”
Cami smiled and self-consciously touched her eye patch. “Thanks. I’ll be back before you know it.”
“Give me a shout when you’re heading out.”
“Will do.” Cami gave Jimmy a mock salute, turned on her heels and left.
A blue-gray sky framed the horizon. Sherman, the city in the sky, sparkled through a ring of puffy clouds encircling its home, Mount Ulysses. Below, the denizens of Castra buzzed to life, their crescendo reaching deafening levels at the Covalex Shipping Hub.
A battered and aging Hull B was docked at Covalex departure gate E101. Workers with hover-carts scurried beneath it like feeding a queen bee. The pilot, a middle-aged man with a growing paunch and an affable smile, was sitting in the cockpit.
Silas looked out the left side of the cockpit at the departure status for E101 — again. “Hurry the hell up,” he screamed at the display. He gnawed on his fingernails and craned his neck to see how many workers were actively transferring goods to his ship. “This place is insane. Should have known the trade office would be a clusterfuck of queues. Now, this!”
He regretted going to the Trade and Development Division before queuing up to retrieve his contracted load. This was his first trip to Castra and his first time buying goods on the side for resale. He’d greatly underestimated the crowds and lengthy process of purchasing goods on credit. “Shit. Hope I haven’t completely cocked-up.” He wiped his sweaty palms down the front of his shirt. “Had to try something,” he reminded himself. He could barely make the next payment on the ship as it was. His stomach twisted in knots remembering the high alert message he received demanding payment or they’d seize the ship in five standard earth days. This was his livelihood. Without it, the rest of his life would slowly unravel. Resentment bubbled to the surface. “Fuckers,” he spat, “not like I planned on being sick.”
Things had been going well for Silas up until he’d been hospitalized. He wasn’t rolling in credits but he was holding his own. That ended abruptly when he suffered acute renal failure. The synthetic replacement surgery and recovery had required a four-week hospital stay. During that time he’d lost a majority of his customers. On top of that, he now had medical bills and overdue payments on his squalid one-room apartment and his ship.
Silas needed this to work! The combination of this new contract to deliver goods for MicroTech and his scheme to sell goods on the side would give him a sliver of breathing room. But it was all contingent on getting the top payment from every delivery. Which meant his delivery of OptiGlas to MicroTech had to be on time. If not, they’d reduce his fee and all of this will have been for nothing. He started chewing his fingernails again. The repossession clock was ticking.
Silas checked the cockpit dashboard for the hundredth time, monitoring how many of the ship’s cargo spindles had been filled and secured. Three of the four cargo rods flashed green. “Almost there, baby! The price I got on this surplus is going to put us over the top when we resell it on ArcCorp.”
He pulled up the ship’s route planner and tapped in his new estimated departure time. Silas’ eyebrows arched up to his receding hairline. “Shit, that’s not going to work.” Using his original flight plan of Castra to Hadrian to Terra to Stanton would put him at MicroTech several hours late. Nervously, he tapped in the command to see alternate routes.
The planner displayed four options. The fastest being Castra to Pyro to Stanton which would get him to MicroTech with an hour to spare. “Damn it.” He flipped open the mini mobi he wore on his wrist to check the latest security bulletin for Pyro. He waited as the report scrolled down the screen.
“Hmm, only yellow warnings. Let’s check these out.” He reviewed the details of each warning. “Intermittent outages at a single comm array.” He rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Doesn’t sound too bad.” Decided he said, “Gotta go for it at this point. Let’s do this!”
The ALL SECURED light flashed on the cargo status panel. “Yes! Time to get moving.” He used the external cameras to take a cursory glance around the outside of the ship and engaged the [STAND CLEAR] signal. A siren sounded, warning others that the Hull B was taking off. In a single fluid motion, he applied vertical thrust and raised the landing gear. When he was sufficiently above the station platform he locked in the coordinates for the Pyro jump point and engaged the quantum drive.
Silas relaxed into his seat as the drive roared to life. For a split second the ship seemed to slip backward, collapsing into itself before ricocheting forward, pinning him in place.
The opening of the Pyro to Stanton jump point tunnel was a vortex that gaped wide. Inside, diffused white light streaked its opaque curved and twisted form. The walls undulated and pulsed, lethal as a cobra.
Keokuk slammed the button on the cockpit controls to open comms again. “This is my last offer,” he growled. “Jettison the cargo and be on your way.” He paused before continuing. “Taking out my turret was a lucky shot. Don’t push it. I can still blow you to dust.” The crackling of static was the only reply he received. He pounded his fist on the dash. “Stupid cargo haulers. Dumber than a crate of rocks!”
Keokuk knew he was half bluffing. Blowing up the Hull B he had pinned in the narrowed part of the Pyro to Stanton jump tunnel wouldn’t get him what he needed – the cargo it was hauling. If he backed off now, the whole operation was at a loss since his ship had taken damage. He cursed under his breath again, wondering what kind of fool was risking his life for cargo digitally marked as being owned by MicroTech. Surely, it was insured. The Hull B pilot would lose the payout but it’s not the end of the world.
“C’mon dumb ass. Let’s get this over with,” he shouted into the void. Keokuk re-checked his weapon status. Three of his four Tarantula GT-870s were operational and he had plenty of ammo left. Ammo he didn’t want to use. What he did want, was for this idiot to give up the cargo and go away. He wasn’t sure how long his mates would be able to keep the comm array servicing this end of the tunnel disabled, preventing this prick from calling for help.
A thought suddenly hit him. He wondered if he’d taken out the Hull’s comms preventing the pilot from responding. “That would suck.” From his ship’s position, slightly lower than his target, he couldn’t see into the cockpit even at maximum zoom. For all he knew, the pilot wasn’t even in the cockpit anymore. Perspiration rolled down the sides of his face. The faulty temperature controls on his EVA suit allowing condensation to build up on the faceplate of his helmet.
“Fuck it. Giving this clown one last warning then I’m blowing him to smithereens, cargo or no cargo,” he grumbled. “Screw them and the UEE. I gotta eat too.”
Keokuk seethed with anger remembering how the UEE had actively encouraged families to settle in Lier to establish mining colonies. He and his family had risked everything for the opportunity to start fresh and build up a business of their own. It was hard work and long hours. After three years of back-breaking mind numbing labor, they started turning a small profit. The trouble in Lier began a short time after.
A socialist group called the Outsiders quickly gained popularity. Within a few months, they’d staged a coup and seized control of the local government. It happened so quickly most residents didn’t realize what was occurring until it was too late. Once in power, they started confiscating private property and businesses for the common good. Or so they said. Instead of mounting a defense, the UEE abandoned the system, leaving the citizens who’d settled there at the mercy of the socialist government that was forming.
“Gutless assholes,” he spat. “Me and mine gotta eat and get up enough to get the hell out of there for good.” Keokuk hammered on the dash to open comms again. “Final warning. You got five minutes to drop all the cargo or Imma blow you out of this tunnel.” His voice dripped acid. “Next thing you hear gonna be Tarantulas in your face!”
Joys are his to wear. Mistakes his to bear. Speck of the same creation. Birthed from a shared womb. I owe him. He owes me. We owe you.
Lacking the functionality to fly her ship on auto-pilot, Cami meticulously followed the Pyro-to-Stanton jump tunnel coordinates she’d downloaded from Jimmy’s star map. She was a couple thousand meters away from the most difficult part of traversing the tunnel. She mentally prepared herself for the drastic narrowing of the route while it simultaneously did a vertical dip and slanted to a 45-degree elliptic shape. “Just take your time,” she reminded herself as she reduced speed. Up ahead she could see the undulating tunnel begin to narrow. “You got this.” She rotated the ship to match the skewed oblong shape of the contracting passage ahead. The Freelancer passed through with little room to spare. “Sweet. Stay focused.” Checking her radar she saw two ships ahead. “Nooo – stupid radar.” As she approached, her distance from the ships ahead decreased, as though they were standing still. “Don’t flake out on me now. That can’t be right.” She thumped on the radar panel. As the two ships came into view, an emergency communication request flashed.
“What the?” Spooked by the alert, she tipped the throttle too far to the left, losing her wing alignment within the precarious path. “Shit!” She reduced thrust again and readjusted the ship’s rotation. Cami had no idea who could be trying to contact her or why. She wasn’t even sure how. She’d noticed a few minutes ago that long range comms had died halfway into the tunnel. Has to be a ship inside,” she thought. “I’m a registered medical vessel. Wonder if someone’s hurt?” She took a moment to consider, half hoping whoever it was would stop trying to contact her but they didn’t. “Well hell!” Unnerved, she accepted the incoming request.
The voice coming across the comms was shaky and talking fast. “This is Captain Silas Martin of the Roving Wreck, Hull B class carrier requesting assistance. My ship is disabled 1.5 kilometers ahead of you. I’m under attack by a pirate Freelancer. Requesting immediate assistance! I say again, requesting immediate assistance!”
Cami’s mouth fell open. Was this guy for real? Her forehead started throbbing – instant migraine.
“Mayday! You there?”
“Yes — I don’t see how I can help. This is a medical ship. Give them whatever it is they want.”
“It’s just one guy. Greedy bastard wants the full load or he’s threatening to destroy the ship and the cargo.”
Her voice rising Cami replied, “Are you crazy? Give it to him!”
“He’s bluffing. No money in it for him if he does. I’ll lose everything if I surrender this cargo.”
“Better that than your life. Don’t know what you want from me. I can’t call for help either. Only have short range comms available.”
“We’re in the narrowed part of the tunnel facing each other. He can’t turn around and I destroyed his turret.”
“If you come up behind and open fire at the same time I do…”
“You’re out of your freakin’ mind!” Cami’s blood turned to ice. She could feel her heart hammering. A blinding pain ricocheted in her right eye socket. She swallowed down a mouth full of bile. “Not helping you attack someone! For all I know, you’re the aggressor. Get real! Besides, this is a registered medical vessel. Abiding by UEE conventions I can’t…”
Silas screamed. “This nut is going to kill me. You gonna just wait to pick up my corpse?”
Cami shouted back. “He won’t if you give him what he wants.” Cami worked to calm herself. “You said so yourself. Don’t be a fool. Give him the cargo!”
“This is all I have. He might as well kill me. I’ll lose everything anyway.” Silas bit back.
Remembering how trapped and hopeless she felt during the civil war raging on Charon III, she tried reasoning with him. “Look, I know it feels that way. Like it’s this or nothing but I’m sure that’s not the case. I’ve been…” Before she could finish another comms request flashed. “What now?” Cami had a sinking feeling about who was on the other end of the incoming request. She accepted it. Figuring it was better to be informed than not.
“This is Keokuk of the Endor warning the approaching medical class Freelancer to stay clear. I don’t engage service vessels. Mind your business and you’ve nothing to fear.”
Cami was somewhat relieved but this seemed to corroborate Silas’ story that he was being attacked. That made this Keokuk person a criminal even if he followed the polite conventions of war. Anyway, this wasn’t a war, it was piracy.
“Thank you for that.” She hesitated. “But what you’re doing is a crime. Why not let this guy go and we can all be on our way safely.” Beads of sweat formed on her brow. She clenched her hands in her lap to stop them from shaking. “Comms could come back any second and there’d be two ships calling for help. Stop now. No harm, no foul. Let’s all get out of here in one piece.”
“If that idiot took the time to contact you then he’s not taking me seriously. Think he just signed his own death warrant,” Keokuk replied.
Cami grimaced, fearing she’d said too much. “What? Wait. No! I didn’t say that. I mean, I can see the situation for myself and you contacted me.” Panic rose in her chest like a specter, stealing the air from her lungs. Shit! Had she unwittingly escalated the situation??
A cruel chuckle emitted from the comms speaker. It was loud and the echo reverberated around Cami’s cockpit. “Don’t take me for a fool,” Keokuk spat. “His time’s up anyhow. It’s my cargo or it’s no one’s cargo.” He laughed again. “You gotta nice voice. Probably a nice person. Don’t make me kill you too.” The comm connection closed.
Cami stared at the closed connection status. There was a throbbing pain behind her right eye socket. Her hands were shaking violently as she reached to re-open comms with the Hull B.
“You-You there?” No reply. “Look you better hand over the cargo. He’s not playing.”
The comms speaker crackled. Then a distorted reply. “You spoke to him?” Silas asked.
“He’s dead serious! PLEASE just give him what he wants. It’s not worth…” Before she could finish, Cami heard the roar of weapon fire. Horrified, she froze, her mouth hanging open. The slow and measured boom of ballistic cannons echoed in the narrow tunnel. She quickly set her targeting system to lock onto the Hull B. Its forward shield was quickly depleting and the ship was taking damage. Although it was shooting back, its rapid fire laser cannons pelting the Freelancer’s shields, the Hull B was not going to win this fight. Its midsection was billowing smoking and spitting sparks.
Cami was immediately transported to her childhood of being trapped in the chaos of a civil war. She’d lost both her parents before the age of five. Her life at the orphanage had been grueling and precarious. They had basic services when local repair crews could fix them. They ate when supply ships could make it through. Over the years, fewer tried. She grew up believing that this war was her only future until a kindly old couple offered to smuggle out as many of the teenagers as their ship could carry. They’d declared they were old, tired and things were too dangerous to come back again. As much as they hated to stop including the orphanage on their trade route, they didn’t have a choice. They had their own family to worry about.
The resounding hit of a missile shook Cami out of her reverie. The mid-section of the Hull B was completely engulfed in flames. The Freelancer’s left wing and weapon were gone. She wondered if perhaps, this was all he had in the world. His last stand against the encroaching dark. “Like eight teens being dropped at a space station with bedrolls and two days of rations,” she whispered to herself. Without having intellectually committed to a course of action, her instincts took over.
Cami cycled her target lock to the Freelancer and slowly advanced. She wasn’t wearing an EVA suit and there wasn’t time to put it on. If her hull was breached, she was dead. She had no missiles. She wasn’t even sure her Behring laser cannons would fire. Bound to this course, she inhaled and opened fire.
Space, a vast silence echoed back at him swallowing his soul. His listening ear poised for reclamation, defamation, accusation, examination. Leaked, hacked – kept or sold.
A short distance away, Huyn watched local security route pirates camping the Stanton side of the Pyro jump point entrance. Hornets protecting their nest, security ships buzzed in and around their opponents, exchanging warning shots and occasional direct fire.
Huyn sat in the cramped cockpit of his Drake Herald. Instrumentation, data cores, sensors, transistors and other technical devices lined every available workspace. Color-coded indicators flickered at varying intervals. A light show that only a trained information agent or hacker could decipher. While waiting, he amused himself by eavesdropping on the communication channel used by the Stanton security teams. Having a conversation with himself, the hazard of long periods alone in space, he repeated fragments of what he heard. “Everything under control. Target two and three bugging out. Heading to reenable the comm array.” Hyun saw two of the Hornets fly toward array #126. This was followed by radio silence that coincided with a focused fire exchange between the remaining Hornet and a Buccaneer.
The Buccaneer was moving at top speed trying to circle strafe the Hornet. But the Hornet pilot wasn’t having it. He kept changing speeds and trajectory while returning fire. Suddenly, the Buccaneer’s left wing was on gone. “Oh — shit,” Huyn said to himself. “Time to give up kid.” A second later the Hornet landed a volley of direct hits, blasting the Buccaneer into an expanding ball of orange-blue flame, white smoke and spinning ship parts. Huyn shook his head. “Well, that was stupid. Never understand some folks.”
When things settled down, Hyun was the first of the waiting ships to approach the jump point. The Herald, with its bug-like shape, hovered at the entrance. A ball of dread formed in the pit of his stomach. No matter how many times he went through them, Hyun never became acclimated as some did, to the gut-twisting sensation of entering and exiting a jump point. “Nothing for it. Let’s get this show moving.” The inner coordinates were already stored in his navigation system, allowing him to use auto-pilot. Hyun pressed back into his seat and closed his eyes for what should be a very quick ride through the serpentine tunnel into Pyro.
The ship slowly approached the vortex until it was sucked in and began traversing the light streaked tube of interspace. Huyn was about to relax for the remainder of the ride when sensors blared and his ship A.I. came alive. “Warning front collision. Increasing forward shields.” His eyes popped open. “Emergency brake applied. Warning front collision.”
Huyn braced himself. “What the hell??” His head slammed the back of the pilot’s seat as the Herald came to a full stop. Ahead, in the narrowest turn of the elliptic shape of the tunnel, there was a smoking wreck of ships. A decimated Hull B was between him and the spinning fuselage of a Freelancer. Dozens of metal crates floated around the two ships. Furthest away from him, he spotted another Freelancer. This one had the markings of a medical ship. Its turret and the right wing were on fire. Inside the cockpit, electrical sparks flashed like lightning.
Hyun had never seen a three shipwreck inside a jump tunnel. Of course, he’d heard of wrecks happening. Unskilled pilots traveling through one for the first time could fall victim to the precarious turns and sudden dips. But three ships?? Ship A.I. should have warned the approaching vessels of the wreck or — something!
As he reached to turn on his comms to alert the Stanton-side security agents, he wondered if this was the result of something else. Pirates were known to roam Pyro and would pass through here into Stanton. But who stages an attack inside a jump tunnel?? “Damn, you’d have to be pretty desperate,” he tutted to himself. “That or fucking crazy.”
John slipped from shadow to shadow until he was across the aisle from habicube A19. To prevent the security system from locking them out of the room, the delinquent guests had placed a metal object at the base of the sliding door to keep it open. His pistol locked and loaded, he crossed to the other side, flattening himself against the wall to the left of the door. He heard an argument brewing inside.
There were two distinct voices. The man’s voice was agitated and traveled from side to side as if he was pacing. The woman’s voice was hushed and seemed nearer to the door. Her responses were clipped and defiant.
The man, “We need to find a ride outta this rat trap. That bitch is starting to smell.”
“We need a plan before you get us killed,” the woman replied.
“Don’t have much time. Room money’s run out. Someone might be on the way already even in this dump of a station. Need to get moving.” Resolved he said, “Yeah, let’s get moving.”
“Pass. Rather take my own chances.”
“Suit yourself. I’m better alone. You’ve been useless anyhow,” he replied.
She laughed at him with a hint of loathing. “Too bad you can’t fly a ship even if you manage to steal one,” she said smugly.
“There is that. Guess that means you’re coming with me.”
“No, I’m not,” she replied mutinously.
“That’s not sounding friendly,” John thought to himself. Sensing that the scene he was hearing play out was about to escalate, he leaned forward to peeked through the door opening.
The room was steeped in filth. Empty food and beverage containers littered the floor. The woman had her back facing the door. She was in stained and perspiration soaked halter top and jeans. Her brown hair was cut short and plastered to her scalp. The man was tall, lanky, bald and wore what looked like a prisoner’s uniform. He was standing in the far right corner next to the bed inset into the wall. Blood soaked sheets covered a lump on the bed.
“You wouldn’t have made it this far without me. I’m calling the shots.” The man raised a pistol toward the woman, a broken handcuff swinging from his wrist.
John had a clean shot if he could quickly thrust his hand in the opening. He hesitated for a moment considering his options. As though the man’s sixth sense of being watched had kicked in, he turned his head in John’s direction and their eyes locked.
The man pivoted his weapon in John’s direction and leaped toward the door. Whether to close it or grab the woman as shield John couldn’t know. What he did know was he couldn’t let this door close. John thrust his hand through the door opening while simultaneously dropping to the ground and began firing. The muzzle of the Gemini flared and smoked with each recoil. The woman who’d been standing fell to her knees screaming. Had she been hit? Couldn’t worry about that now. John pulled back using the door as cover.
Continuing to advance, the man screamed obscenities as he was hit. “Not taking me. Fuck you. You’re gonna die!”
John kept firing. Inside the room, blood splatters rained like confetti. Inches away from him, the man’s body finally fell forward, his skull hitting the slab floor with a sickening crack.
John vaulted to a standing position. He pressed his shoulder through the door forcing it open while reloading his pistol. “Station security,” he said with authority. Training his pistol on the women he shouted, “Don’t move.” Looking down at her, he doubted she’d move. She was in a ball sobbing hysterically.
When the woman calmed down enough to speak, John asked her name. She didn’t answer immediately. Leaning against the wall opposite here, he waited patiently for her to respond.
Trying to regain her composure and pointedly looking away from the corpse on the floor she said, “Diane. Diane Shea.”
“What happened here? This guy kidnap you?”
Diane’s pupils were dilated. Black orbs in a milky white sky. It never occurred to her to lie. Her voice was unsteady as she spoke. “No. Not really.” She wiped at the mascara-stained tears leaving black tracks down her face. “We were on a slave ship headed to Kins.”
Incredulous, John replied. “Wait. What? Nah, not legal in UEE space. Not even to transport. Going to have to sell me something else sister. Tell me straight and I’ll be straight, that’s my motto.”
“I was in Yulin with… Guess you’d call him my boyfriend. Guess I knew he was running a scam. He was taking bets on Sataball. Things didn’t work out. We ran up a bill at the hotel we were staying at and he skipped out on it and me.” Her voice trailed off.
“He left me there sleeping. I couldn’t pay it. No one to call to ask to pay it.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Sentenced to three months indentured service.” She inhaled deeply and shook her head back and forth. “Like that shit wasn’t bad enough the assholes transporting us decided they could get more for the women if they sold us on the black market instead of transporting.”
The pain in her voice was too authentic to doubt. John eased up and prodded her gently to continue. “Kins huh. How’d you get here?”
“Ronnie,” she glanced at the corpse on the floor then averted her eyes again. “Hatched a plan to get us all out if someone could fly the ship.” She paused, transfixed by the blood on her hands. Suddenly revolted, she began scrubbing her palms up and down the front of her jeans.
John’s voice broke her out of her trance. “And?”
“And I can…fly a little. Enough to get us in the air anyway. Autopilot somewhere safe.”
Diane took it as disbelief. She briefly looked up at him. “I’m a dropout of many things. One of those being civ flight training.”
Diane explained that when they realized the ship was stopping for fuel in Stanton, they hatched a plan to lure one of their two captures into the female holding cell. Lara, an unlicensed prostitute who’d been snatched, volunteered to be the bait since she was dressed for the part.
Things hadn’t gone to plan. The guard was small but put up a huge struggle. After someone had grabbed his key and let Ronnie out of his cell, he’d killed the guard. Things went from bad to worse after rushing the cockpit ended in a standoff. Hoishee was hit and died instantly. The pilot bio-locked the controls while returning fire and quantum jumped to here.
Diane’s voice was steadier. “We think he also called for back up. Ronnie said we needed to run and take our chances so we did. He grabbed what he could on the way out – anything we might be able to sell quickly. Lara was hurt. I found the medkit and a coat to throw over her to hide the injury.”
“How many of you were there?” John interrupted.
“Four. Me, Ronnie, Lara, and Hoishee.” Diane cupped her face in her hands. “No one was supposed to die. Just wanted to get out of there.”
John looked at the bloody bundle on the bed. “That Lara?”
“Yes. Ronnie sold what he’d grabbed to rent this room and get some food. I tried… did what I could but I’m no medic. When we couldn’t stop the bleeding I gave her all the pain meds to — to stop her screaming. It was making Ronnie crazy. He started shouting and threatening to drag her off and dump her.” A shudder ran through Diane from head to toe. “I gave her all the pain meds in the kit and held her hand ‘til she was quiet.”
“You mean until she was dead.”
“Yes.” Diane’s legs were starting to cramp. She stood cautiously, raising her hands up when she saw John put his hand on the pistol protruding from his waistband. “What happens now?”
“There are dead people here. Someone has to answer for that. The ship you arrived on could still be here. More dead bodies.” He shook his head in disgust. “When you’re looking for trouble, you find it, I always say.” John looked Diane up and down seeing if she had any pockets. “You armed?”
“No. Never had a weapon. Was lookout in the cargo hold. I saw what happened in the cockpit on the remote camera.” Pleading in her voice she said, “I just wanna go home. Can’t you just let me go? They were going to…” Bile rose in her throat. She clamped both hands over her mouth and swallowed it back down. Wrapping her arms around herself she said, “It’s not right what they were going to do.”
“No, it’s not right. Fucking scum.” He spat. “Delinquent checkout for this room was logged for a security check. There are bodies here that have to be accounted for.”
“Do they what?” John asked.
“Have to be accounted for?” Diane asked meekly.
John rounded on her. “You were looking for trouble and found it. Don’t you think Lara’s family deserves to know she’s dead? What about this Hoishee person. I don’t know what Ronnie’s story was but he might have someone who’d like to know the same.”
“He was a drifter and a thief. This was his third stint doing time he said. Got no tears for him.” Deflated, she exhaled a sigh that completely emptied her lungs.
“Look, under the circumstances, you’ll probably be set free after the investigation.”
“After this kinda scared to take my chances. Know what I mean?”
John knew exactly what she meant. Everything would be hearsay about who’d done what. A lawyer friend once told him that if there’s a body, there’s a trial. People feel safer if someone’s feet are held to the flame when there’s a corpse. In this case, though, the ship logs could validate the story of being picked up in Yulin and a destination set for Kins that was later altered, diverting them to Stanton. But the deaths within the Stanton jurisdiction – they’d want someone’s hide for those. Right or wrong, examples were often made to make the next person think twice.
“I feel for ya kid. Having fun-n-games turn to this.” He flipped open his mobiGlas and set the status of the eviction request to completed. He’d finish the official report later. For now, he wanted to prevent anyone else from being assigned the case since he was already on site. John turned his thoughts to the unpleasantness ahead. He’d have to secure the prisoner and take her planetside for processing. Turning to Diane he said, “I’m going to have to cuff you.” He saw panic in her eyes. “I am NOT going to hurt you.”
“Don’t do this.” she pleaded. “It’s not right. Not my fault,” she said her voice rising. “Fuck those guys. If we hadn’t stopped them, they were going to sell us!”
“You’re right. Absolutely right but it’s not my job to make those judgments,” he said moving forward cautiously. “Live right and it’ll be alright. Just doing my part of the job. Local authorities will do the rest.”
Diane dropped her head and her shoulders sagged, resigned to her fate. When John was in front of her and about to ask her to turn around so he could cuff her, a thought occurred him. Where was he taking her? Grim Hex was in the Crusader vicinity but not managed or policed by that corporation. His official contracted work on Grim Hex was to evict delinquent guests and prevent damage to the functional habicubes. This situation no longer fits that scenario. Diane was certainly willing to leave and wasn’t that always his first course of action? Mutually beneficial agreement to vacate? He couldn’t imagine the ream of paperwork associated with reporting this situation. Damn it, he’d be planetside for hours and that’s after figuring out where to take her.
He reached to pull handcuffs out of his back pocket but paused mid-action. “Can you get out of here if I let you go?”
“What?” Diane looked up in confusion.
“If I cut you loose can you get off this station? Anyone you can call for transport?”
Diane brought a hand up to her mouth. Thinking, her eyes darted back and forth. Finally, she said, “No — not really,” dejection in her voice.
“Shit.” Exasperated, John said, “Can’t leave you here. Will end up in more trouble or worse.”
Grasping at straws Diane offered, “I can find work real quick or work for a seat on a ship out of here.”
“This isn’t that kind of station. Little to no work here but lots of trouble. Is only a few steps away from anarchy.”
“Oh. Should have guessed. Little we saw, the place is a dump.” An idea occurred her. A small ray of hope. “Could you maybe help me? I’d find a way to pay you back. I swear.”
“Not really my thing. I like to keep things simple. Don’t ask favors. Don’t do ‘em. Keeps everything on a level playing field.”
“Oh. I see. Well then so just let me go. I’m not your problem.”
John considered this option. He wondered how he’d feel if the next he heard of her, she was a corpse on Grim. Or worse. He did believe there were things worse than death out in the cold black of space. “Even if you find work, you wouldn’t earn enough to pay for a place to stay while saving to get out of here.” He didn’t mean to direct it at her but there was a bit of agitation in his voice. This was becoming the opposite of keeping it simple. And he had other work requests to process.
“That’s not your problem. You think I was headed to a luxury hotel? Sleeping in a stairwell is better than that.” Diane flinched when John suddenly took two strides and was suddenly next to her. When she realized that she wasn’t his target, she moved out of his way.
John entered his authorization code into a keypad on the door. A small panel slid open revealing an LCD display. He accessed the room’s status sheet and set the occupancy rating to “non-functional” | cause “Safety hazard. Air purification unit irregularities” | access permissions “security and maintenance only”. He closed the panel and turned to Diane.
“I’ve set the room to inoperable until it’s been repaired. I’ll call the local Search and Rescue Authority to collect the bodies. After that, you can stay here while you work on getting off the station.”
Diane’s mouth fell open. “Really? How much time does that give me? How long til a repair crew shows up?”
“Forever. Nothing gets repaired on Grim Hex. The company that owns these Habicubes collects revenue that’s readily collectible and that’s it. No maintenance crews. Shops are locally owned and maintained. But I don’t advise overstaying your welcome. Lots of trouble to be had, especially on this strutt.”
A small bit of relief came over Diane’s face. She closed her eyes and inhaled. When she opened them, she looked into John’s eyes and tentatively reached for his hands. John let her grab his hand and give it a shake. “Thank you. I won’t be trouble. Will be out of here as fast as I can.” She crossed her right hand over her heart. “Trust me. I’ve learned a scary lesson. Outta here as soon as I’m able.”
To her, he said, “Sure thing. Do right and it’ll be alright. Remember that okay?”
She nodded her head in agreement. “How will I get in and out?”
“Going to take you to a friend of mine. Nice woman. Get you a meal and maybe she has…” He looked at her blood and dirt stained clothes. “Something you can wear for now. In the meantime, I’ll get you a keycard that will access this habicube. With any luck, the bodies will be clear before you come back. Hopefully, an acquaintance of mine is working Search and Rescue today. I’ll slip her their names. Corpse retrieval team will clean up biofluids. That’s a public health hazard. For the rest this mess, you’re on your own.” John opened his mobi. “You know Lara’s full name or anything that might help ID her?”
“Lara Billingsley. Think she was a runaway from way back. She mentioned earth several times.”
“Sorry. No. Hoishee was pretty quiet the whole time. Calm compared to me and Lara. She didn’t say much. Got the impression this wasn’t her first run-in with being detained by the Banu.”
“What about the ship you were on? Need to see if it’s still here.”
“Was a rigged up Cutlass Black. Had the name Vipers Den painted on the outside. I heard them mention holding up in Spider after they’d collected on us.” The horror of the past events washed over her, raising goose pimples on her flesh. Hugging herself Diane said, “Sorry, that’s all I know.”
“It’s a start. C’mon lets get you out of here for a while. I’ll flag the bodies for emergency pick-up to move things along.”
Maggie looked up from wiping down the bar to see John walking through the door with a bedraggled young woman at his side. Maggie recognized the jacket the woman was in, as the one she’d seen John wearing earlier. “This looks interesting,” she mused to herself. When the pair reached the bar she said, “Didn’t expect to see you back here today.”
“Wasn’t part of my day’s plan either, Maggs. This here’s Diane.” Turning to Diane he said, “This is Maggs. The friend I was telling you about.”
“Rated a friend already?” Maggs said. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“You are and it’s meant to be one.”
Maggie smiled. She was instantly charmed – again, even though she felt a request for a favor coming. “Nice to meet you, Diane.”
“Same,” Diane said in a low voice.
“I kind of need a favor, Maggs.”
“Happy to help if I can.”
John relayed the events that had happened since they’d last spoken. He hoped the retelling of it and the choices he’d made wouldn’t offend her. He was glad not to see any condemnation in her expression as she listened. Unbeknownst to John, Maggie would never have reacted that way. She’d been around too long and had seen too much to be shocked by what he’d told her. In fact, she was happily surprised that he’d decided to help Diane. It didn’t seem in character for him to skirt the law, being the man of specific values and dictums. She was glad he’d bent his rules this time.
Maggie showed Diane into the employee restroom to clean up and change into a pair of overalls she kept in her office. She made her a plate of food to eat now and an extra to take with her. She suggested Diane eat and rest a bit in her office while the rest was being worked out.
John and Maggie were sitting at the far end of the bar having a drink. “You did the right thing, I think,” Maggie offered. “I can give her couple hours a day of work in exchange for food or credits. Whichever she prefers. Will also put the word out with folks I trust.”
“You’re the best, Maggs.”
“You’re a good guy, John. People told me you were and they were right.”
“You mean good guy as in violating my contract by falsifying the condition of the habicube? Getting a stranger a keycode to live there free? Lying about how I know the dead girl’s name?” He shook his head thinking about what he’d done.
“Life’s not always black and white, John.” She interrupted his ready reply. “I know. I know. You have your way of doing things. That’s all well and good when it’s possible.” She put her hand on his shoulder and waited until she had his full attention. “You are a good man, JJ. In this situation, it was the right thing to do.”
John smiled and shrugged his shoulders in acquiescence. “If you say so, Maggs.”
“I do. ‘Cuz even good people paint outside the lines sometimes.”
Audio version available on YouTube: Star Citizen Nightbus Episode 5
“John James, plain name, simple life,” John introduced himself. Followed by “Or you can call me JJ. I’ve no preference.” He reached across the bar toward Maggie and gave her hand a friendly shake.
Maggie immediately warmed to his disarming smile. Was it a trick of the light or were his eyes sparkling? “On drugs more like,” she thought to herself. Shit! She might have to find someone else. But he’d come so highly recommended. She stepped from behind the bar to join him on the other side.
Maggie was in her late fifties with spiky gray hair she kept long on the top and cut close on the sides and at the back. The lines on her face aged her beyond her years. But the fact that she’d been a beauty in her youth was evident.
Maggie and John were standing at the bar of Maggie’s Red Dragon pub, a popular hangout on Grim Hex. The public space was a large rectangular room divided into distinct quadrants. The decor was a cheap gaudy attempt at the Asian Revival design that had been popular two or more decades ago. Circular black and white rice paper chandeliers with missing panels hung from the ceiling. Scarred wooden dragons acted as vertical beams, the blood red paint chipped and faded. A rumpled threadbare gold and purple lotus patterned carpet was spread across the floor.
Maggie pointed to the areas as she described them. “I’ve got just the one room here as you can see. Pool tables there.” She pointed to the back left corner. “Card tables there.” Back right corner. Pointing to the front half of the room where they were standing,“Up here is all dining.”
John absentmindedly scratched at the three days of stubble on his chin as he listened. He didn’t say anything so Maggie shrugged and continued. Pointing to a door centered on the wall behind the bar she said, “Back there is the kitchen, my office, and restroom.”
“Just staff?” He asked.
“Yeah. Public restrooms too much trouble. Kept finding empty syringes, vials. That Black Widow crap smells like a rotting flesh. Vagrants sleeping, couples fucking — you name it.”
John laughed. He could imagine that and worse. “Hex customers aren’t known for their manners.”
“Drug busts in the men’s room. Last of it for me. Walled it off from this side and renting it out as a commercial stall on the other. Young kid doing tats out of the space. Name’s Ronnie. Seems like a good kid. Pays on time. Customers welcome to eat, drink, ‘n party here. Take care of their other needs elsewhere.”
“I’ve walked through some of those elsewheres,” he joked. “No entrance on this side to the tat place?”
“Nah. Registered as a separate location. This work is only for here.”
“Okay. Cool. It’s really just the one room then. Kitchen looks secure,” he said pointing to the hand scanner on the door. “The glass opening bulletproof?”
“Yep, had that installed last year. So this the kind of job you take? I know you’re bounty but was told you take freelance stuff too. You came highly recommended just wasn’t sure this is your thing.”
As was his custom, John diligently tapped notes into his mobiGlas. He preferred the palm size translucent version. It fit easily into his pockets – pants or a jacket. He especially liked that if necessary the display could be enlarged into an interactive holographic image.
Noticing that Maggie had stopped talking he looked up. His smile was genuine and raised his cherub-like cheeks high on his face. Dark curly hair rested on his forward just above a bushy unibrow that arched gently over gray eyes. “I do most any security work on contract if I can fit it in comfortably. If I can’t, I’ll refer you to someone.” He continued tapping in notes. “No point in stressing to squeeze it.” Looking up he said, “Or stressing you if I can’t be here when needed.” His face back on his mobi, “I like to keep it simple. Works best that way.”
Maggie nodded her head, still uncertain if that meant he was taking the job or not. “Okay…”
“John James, plain name, simple life, is my motto.”
“Uh sure,” was all Maggie could think to say again.
He closed the mobi and gave Maggie his full attention. “Looks like I can fit you in. Friday and Saturday from 10 PM until close which is?
“Right!” He walked away from Maggie to survey the space himself. “I’d like to install security cameras in each section.”
Maggie walked toward the card tables where John had wandered over to. “How much does that cost?”
He chuckled. “My expense if we can agree I can take emergency calls when the place is quiet.” He saw her eyebrows arch up and smiled. “Only local — emergencies. I discount for the time I’m out.” He sauntered back toward the front and leaned on the bar. “Cameras are my eyes and ears. Also, solid evidence if you need if you insist on pressing charges. I prefer to work things out in other ways but here, you’re the boss.”
With concern in her voice, Maggie asked, “You expect that to happen often? Being away during my shift?”
“Never know. Just a precaution. This is side work for me. Filler. Routing pirates and vagrants are my main meal ticket. I’m a senior security and bounty contractor for Hurston, Crusader, and ArcCorp. I get first dibs ‘round here so that’s my priority. If I don’t take a gig, I lose it and eventually, get bumped down the ladder for new work.” His tone was light. His voice even.
Maggie came to stand beside him. “I don’t know. I had trouble a few days. Is why I started asking around.” She wrung her hands. “It got pretty bad. I need those hours covered. Place is rowdiest then. Station’s been seeing more traffic lately. Some looking for work or to shop. Others for trouble.”
He reached out and took one of Maggie’s hands. He patted it like they were old friends. “I hear ya. Totally understand.” Humming quietly to himself he flipped open his mobi. “Let me shoot you a couple names. Either one of these will do just as well.” He returned to humming while he scrolled through his contacts. “Neither are A level cuz they’ll have the same problem as me. Local corp work comes first.” His head bobbed slightly to the tune that only he could hear.
“Oh, I hadn’t realized. I just asked around about who’s best…”
“That’d be me,” he said absentmindedly. “Here we go. Try…”
Maggie cut him off. “Several said you’re the best and actually a good guy. Everyone said that — good guy.”
“I try, Maggie dear, I do try. I keep it simple. Live right. It’ll be alright. That’s my motto.”
“Well if you think it will work…” She hesitated. “I’m up for giving it a try.”
He looked up and graced her with the full force of his penetrating gaze and smiled. “Trust me, it’ll be fine. Wouldn’t steer you wrong. Do no harm is my motto.”
Maggie caught her breath. “Well damn, “ she thought to herself, “His eyes actually do sparkle.” To him, she said, “Send the contract and I’ll authorize it.”
He pointed his mobi at Maggie and swiped his finger from it to her. “There you go.”
“Oh — sorry, don’t have a mobile one. Will pick it up off the one in my office.
“Can you start this week?”
He extended his hand and Maggie accepted it. “Sure can. Will install the cameras on my first shift.”
She hoped she wasn’t blushing. He was too young for her. He wasn’t even particularly handsome. “But there’s something about him,” she decided inwardly.
“Pleasure doing business you with Mags. Off to do my rounds.” John slid his hands into his jacket pockets and sauntered toward the exit. Over his shoulder, he added, “Don’t hesitate if something comes up before then. You’re one of John’s now. I’ll come as quick as I can.”
Maggie patted the sides of her hair and wiped gently at the edges of her eyes as if that could erase the heavy crow’s feet nesting there. “Okay. Sure. Thanks.” Her voice cracked on the last and John gave her a knowing look. She turned away, her cheeks flaming.
“Now for the main event,” John said to himself. He checked the work queue on his mobi to verify the habicube eviction request he’d received earlier was still active. It was. Maggie’s pub was at the back of Hex-D, one of the cleaner struts on the space station. The work request was in Hex-A, the worst area. The quickest way there would be through the tunnels.
The tunnels, as they’re called by locals, are a network of secured maintenance routes burrowed into the giant asteroid turned mining station and housing exchange, now a self-governing powder key. A handful of legit merchants had stayed after the Imperial Green mining operation pulled out. Having invested all their life savings in establishing businesses here, they couldn’t afford to pack up and run when the mines dried up and the criminal element began infiltrating the station, trying to secure a foothold in Stanton.
Industrious opportunists stayed too. They squatted in available spaces, installed personal generators and opened for business. Imperial retained control of the functioning self-service habicubes and continued to collect the revenue. But everything on the station was an “as is” situation. No maintenance or repairs. When things stopped working on Grim Hex, they stopped working forever.
John whistled as he made his way to the closest maintenance tunnel. He unlocked the massive vault-like door with his access code. As the door retracted, he ducked his six-foot-four stocky frame through the opening. It was pitch black inside. He pulled out the flashlight he kept clipped on his belt.
With no maintenance crews on the station, lighting in the tunnels was spotty. A good distance ahead, he could see a pinprick of yellow light flickering. He panned his flashlight around him and forward to get his bearings. The jagged walls of the tunnel glistened with sweat. Rusted pipes overhead lead the way forward. They hissed angry pockets of steam from cracked wounds. John started walking, his boots echoing every footstep.
Although it would be a reduced payout, John hoped the occupants had voluntarily vacated by now. The request was two hours hold. He’d get his 25% fee for swiping in at the location as evidence he’d checked it out. It would be easier for everyone if they were already gone.
Persuading vagrants to depart on their own was his preferred solution. Convincing would-be pirates to vacate the area with words or by force was better than disabling, capturing and hauling them planetside for processing in his book. “Everyday flying free above the rock is a good day,” was his motto.
Seasonal supplies and the mandatory annual physical required by his contract were the only times John went planetside. He was impatient waiting at the medical facility. He fidgeted waiting in line at the surplus warehouse where he bought non-perishable food supplies. He grunted trying to maneuver around the [other customers] picking through clothing haphazardly tossed into “Final Sale” bins. The streets were the worst, especially on ArcCorp. The teeming throngs of yackers brushing by and bumping into you at every turn. It made his skin crawl to be scurrying among them on the anthill.
John was almost at the other end now. He could see the door clearly from here. He pulled his Gemini L86 from the back waistband of his pants and checked the magazine. It was full. He reached down and grabbed a fresh magazine one from the bottom right pocket of his cargo pants. He put away the flashlight. Just before stepping through the exit, he slid the pistol into his right jacket pocket and the fresh mag into his left.
He emerged from the tunnel and waited until the door locked behind him. Strut A was quiet. Fewer people than not normal around. He wondered why but kept moving. He nodded to a group of guys decked out in grunge gear, hunched around a fist-sized glass vial full of red smoke. “Red Alice”, he mused to himself. A popular psychotropic drug that caused temporary paralysis when overdosed. Just beyond the group of men, was the metal grated staircase to the next level. John took the steps two at a time then turned left into Strut A’s shanty town. A dead end of the lowest rate habicubes, fronted by first-come-first-served cardboard sleeping spots and perfumed in urine. With no merchants on this side, there was no one to complain or pay for security to keep the place civil.
The cube he was looking for was second to last on the left. As he approached, he saw a bloody trail leading to the door. Drops of blood on the gray slab floor like bread crumbs. A bloody palm smeared on the door frame. He eased his pistol out of his pocket and moved into the shadows along the opposite wall.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Audio version available on YouTube: Star Citizen Nightbus Episode 3
White hot lightning exploded inside her head. Or at least, that’s how it felt. Cami screamed and convulsed. Pain rippled through her like a jackhammer. She bucked violently. Rough hands tried to keep her still. She felt someone shove something between her teeth. All around, sensors blared, voices yelled and the klaxon boomed. She wanted to die.
She felt a sharp jab in her left arm. Instinctively, she rolled her head in that direction but… She couldn’t see. It was like staring into the sun from one eye and nothing from the other. Slowly a small measure of her pain receded. Her limbs felt heavy. The voices around her quieted. She was weightless and floating away. Wait. No, being carried. Cami tried to reach out but her hand flopped back down like a dead fish. She felt someone take her hand and squeeze it gently, before folding it across her chest. When darkness came for her, she wanted to resist. To tell Death calling him was a mistake. The pain was manageable now. She fought to stay conscious but her eyelids were like lead. Her world faded black.
Cami moaned. She could feel every beat of her heart as a pile driver behind her right eye. The vision from her left eye was blurry. She tried looking around only to realize her head was being restrained. She blinked a few times and her surroundings came into focus. Using her peripheral vision, she could see that she was in a makeshift medbay aboard a ship. The wall racks and wenches on the ceiling gave her the impression of it actually being a retrofitted cargo bay.
There was another medical cot with an autodoc to her immediate left. A stained curtain separated the two beds but they were drawn back. Across from her, she saw chipped and scuffed ship components painted bright yellow and the once white MISC logo, now gray and faded around the edges. Familiar with the layout, she knew that the storage containers bolted along the wall were blocking the Freelancer emblem. The medbay…cargo bay…whatever, sounded hollow, like being inside a tin can. It echoed the faint sounds of a monitor chirping out the rhythm of her pulse. The equipment in her field of view looked dated and dingy – held together with plexi and cable ties. A basin of blood soaked rags was on a metal tray at her feet.
She heard a mumble a short distance away but couldn’t see anyone. She tried to speak but it came out as a croak. “Wh-where…”
A man in a rumpled khaki jumpsuit hobbled into view. He was hunched over, age bearing down on him. His brown face was cracked like old leather. “Awake?” He clapped his hands together and nodded. “Rasa very happy see this.” His smile was genuine.
Cami tried speaking again, “Where am I? Wh-what happened?”
“Accident them say,” Rasa replied. “Came rushing. Nearly knock off orbit docking fast n reckless.” He tutted under his breath as he moved to read Cami’s vitals on the autodoc display. “Four carried you on stretcher. Had you topped off with Ops for pain. Surprised you lasted from Tanga. Near jump I guess.”
Cami’s reply had the halting cadence of someone trying to remember a dream – or nightmare in this case. “We were – I think. Lots of bottom feeding miners in Tanga. Harvesting fast, chasing heavy metals.” Her voice gained more confidence. “I was clearing a jam from the pul-pulverizer. Piece of shit barely worked. Usually take the raws over to Gray-Jaw, Jimmy Chi’s reclaimer for processing. This shift we were trying to stay out longer – make a few extra creds each. Luther and I were at it with rods, trying to clear the input tray. It started grinding and then there was a high-pitched squeal.” Cami shuddered. “Fragments spun loose and …” She started inhaling in short shallow burst as if suffocating.
Rasa, still standing near the AutoDoc controls tapped a button then moved to stand beside her. She felt an icy coldness creep up her arm that had the IV. Her body began to relax. The rising terror on her face melted away. “Rest. Over now. Be good soon. Can go home.”
He smiled down at her. “Yes.” He nodded several times. “Eye socket cleaned, stitched and gave plasma. Need patch few weeks.” He patted her hand. “But is good. Yes, can go home next day.” Enthusiastically he added, “And have change!”
“Change?” Cami struggled to keep up with what Rasa was saying but she was being tugged down into the darkness.
As if giving good news he said,“Yes, I do fair prices. Friends leave your share and add a bit extra, they say. Help you straight.”
Cami replied in a small voice. Her tongue heavy in her mouth. “But my – my eye? Fixed?” She went to lift a hand to it, only to realize they were strapped to the bed.
Rasa sighed. “Is gone. Ruptured. More force you dead.” An alert sounded. Rasa checked his mobi. “New patient.” He plucked at his overgrown salt-n-pepper beard while reading the details. “Quick fix. You rest.”
In a monosyllabic tone he said, “ Bed 2 – Curtains.” As Rasa stepped back out of the way, the curtains around Cami’s bed began closing.
She tried to shout but it came out as a whisper. “Wait… Please… Don’t go…. I need…” But it was too late. The curtains swished into place around her, blocking her off from the rest of the room. Her eyes closed to the step-slide-thump sound of Rasa’s retreating footsteps.
When Cami woke again, she was propped up in the bed with the curtains open. The bed next to her was empty but there was a stainless steel cart of beside it. Surgical tools, stained bandages, and used syringe lay on the top tray. Minus the restraints, she gingerly probed the area around her right eye. A wad of gauze was pushed into the eye socket and secured with medical tape. On top of that was an eye patch. She winced when her fingers skimmed the skin around the bandage. It was taut and hot to the touch. She looked up when she heard the cabin door swoosh open. It got stuck on the first attempt. She saw Rasa step back and then forward to try again. The tired look on his face brightened when he noticed she was awake.
“Good. Good. Let’s see.” He walked over to Cami’s bedside, his progress hampered by his left leg. It trailed behind until he pulled it forward with a quick jerk. Examining her injury, he lifted the patched and poked at his handy work. “Is good. Very good work,” he praised himself.
“Ouch!” Cami tried to pull back from the less than gentle examination.
He glanced at the AutoDoc. “Sorry, pain meds wore off. Can give one more dose.”
“Yes, thank you.” She sighed in relief. “Look, I need to have a replacement put in. How much does that cost?”
Rasa chuckled and shuffled over to the other medbay. “You got change but not that much.” He sprayed the bed with a potent antiseptic smelling foam before wiping it down. The task made more laborious by his hampered gait and limited reach. “Get home fine for now,” he grunted while he cleaned.
“There is no home. I can’t work like this.” she said, gesturing to her missing eye. “No papers for Breman. No work but mining in Tanga. Everyone pulls double duty on salvage and miners. No one’s going to hire me gimped.”
Rasa gathered up the used surgical instruments and placed them in a vial filled with blue liquid on the lower half of the cart. He balled up the bandages and chucked them into a nearby recycler. Sounding winded from the effort, he gingerly lowered himself on a nearby cushioned stool and swiveled to face Cami. “Be runnin?” he asked but didn’t wait for a reply. “Tanga. Breman. No one checkin’. No one wants these parts but lowers workin’ these rocks and folks like Rasa doing services,” he said, tapping his chest.
Cami looked away. “I can’t make it out here. If you know this place like it sounds, you know everyone is replaceable. Many waiting to take the next job. No one’s going to hire me.” She turned back to Rasa who was watching her intently. “Take all I have left. I’ll come back with more. I promise!” Looking around for her personal items she said, “Sell my mobi! It’s a decent one. Can get by without it.” Grasping at straws she added, “I’ll sign on with you a few weeks. Pay it off.” Gesturing around she added. “Place looks like shit.” Belatedly she added, “No offense. I can fix things and make minor repairs.”
Rasa sigh. “No need. Just hanging on ‘til gone. Sorry young one. No creds to even buy what’s needed not counting Rasa fee.” Cami dropped her gaze to her lap where her fingers were at war with the bed sheets.
“Friend have fuel station nearby. Lots come for supplies too.” Pointing aft he added, “We go. Can set beacon there a couple days. Ask about work. Rasa know the good ones.”
Cami’s voice was flat – dejected. “Sure. Thanks.” Resigned she asked, “Can you at least tell me what I need and how much it cost?” She didn’t know Rasa but her gut told her that he could be trusted. “This way I don’t get robbed when the time comes.” She tried for a smile but the edges of her mouth barely moved.
Rasa reluctantly agreed. “Sure. Need sleep first. Come back soon.” It took him two attempts to stand up from the stool before slowly making his way out of the cabin.
Cami tried to quiet the panic inside her chest. It had taken her two standard earth years to find a spot on Rally One, a trio of independently owned ships that worked together mining and salvaging their way through backwater systems like Tanga. Decent captain, crew and fair split on profits weren’t easy to find. She was assigned to the Orion but occasionally helped out on the Reclaimer and Prospector. Her dream was to someday buy a salvaged Prospector to restore over time and captain her own ship. She knew saving up that much alone was a long shot. Even so, she allowed herself to dream. It kept her going when profits were low and stomachs empty. When the shifts were long and the ship cold trying to conserve fuel.
Even with the ups and downs, the Rally organization had a good reputation among the low tier miners and salvagers. There was a line of people waiting to take her spot and Rally One couldn’t afford to hold it for her. She knew this and didn’t resent it, even though it made her gut twist to think about. They had families to feed. She just had herself. But the idea of finding a new spot was terrifying. Alone out in the black was a dangerous place. She wasn’t afraid of being hungry as much as she was the potential for violence. She’d fended off attacks a time or two, barely escaping. The memory made bile rise up in her throat.
Trying to steer clear of painful memories she focused on the present. She wondered how much “change” she had left and how long it would last. She knew how to stretch it. That wasn’t new. Unfortunately, she also knew that the local Tanga teams were full. That is, any crew she’d even consider. Her vision blurred as a trail of tears ran down one side of her face. She dashed them away. “There’s no crying in space.” She reminded herself.
When Rasa came back he was carrying a disposable tray with two containers on top. He still had dark circles around his eyes. Was he hunched over a bit more? He sat the tray on Cami’s lap. She picked up the containers one at a time and read the labels: Purecleen water with electrolytes and protein cubes. Space rations.
“Been five days. Tubes gone. Need start eating,” Rasa explained.
“We exam for cyber replacement.” Managing her expectations he added, “Just to see. Okay?”
Cami perked up a bit. “Yes. Please.” She set the tray beside her when she felt the bed begin to recline.
Making his way to the AutoDoc he continued, “After we head to fuel depot couple days and see.”
“Thank you – really.” Cami reached out and touched Rasa’s sleeve. “This isn’t your problem. I appreciate the help.”
“S’okay. Had family. Wife. Two kids. Hope someone help them before was over.”
“Over?” Cami hesitated. “Are they gone?”
“Yes. Lost all in Caliban. So few escape attack. Wife and daughter medics. Son captain in military. Me surgical assist.” He let out a long sigh, completely emptying his lungs. “Confusion during UEE retreat. Were separated. They never made out.” Rasa wiped at the corner of his eyes. “Will join in next life.” A sad smile on his face. “Soon.”
Cami was at a loss for words. She was missing an eye. Clearly not the end of the world, she tried to tell herself. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that in her case, it was. “Sorry for your loss,” was all she could think to say.
“Me too.” Rasa turned the AutoDoc on. When the status indicator went from yellow to green he said, “Eval Right Eye Replace” To Cami he added, “Hold Still. Eyes closed.” A head restraint extended from the medbay headboard. It cupped the upper port of Cami’s head and applied firm pressure, clamping her head in place. Cami laid still, her hands rigid at her sides.
The scanning unit positioned over the top of the bed whirred to life. “Initiating scan 1. Evaluation for cybernetic eye replacement”. A light blue beam swept up and down and side to side on Cami’s face. “Skeletal frame complete. “Initiating depth scan.” Two mechanical hands descended from the scanner. The metal skeleton fingers clicked as they moved. Each finger had probes for fingertips, wires looped from one joint to the next. Hovering a couple of inches from Cami’s face the scanner repeated. “Initiating depth scan.”
Cami heard a pop and a clang that echoed through the medbay. The spindly metal fingers splayed and groped like a crab caught by its shell, as they struggled to reach Cami’s face.
Rasa cursed under his breath. “Stupid scanner.”
Cami’s eye popped open. “What’s wrong?”
The AutoDoc chimed in. “Error initiating depth scan…”
The hands continued spasming over Cami’s face. She tried sinking further back into the pillow or turning her head but no luck. She couldn’t move without tearing her scalp. “Wait – turn it off.” Starting to panic she grabbed the head restraint with both hands trying to move.
“Is fine. Stop. Hurt yourself.” Straining, Rasa reached up and fiddled with a few screws and wires. He groaned from the pain of extending his back as he worked. “There” he sighed.
“Error initiating depth scan. Canceling request in 10…9…8…”
Rasa used the bed rail to support his weight as he walked to the opposite side of the bed and repeated the adjustments to the scanner. The cancellation countdown stopped.
“See? Fixed. Relax and close eyes.”
Cami looked at him skeptically. “You sure?”
“Yes, close eyes.” To the AutoDoc he said, “Continue scan.”
The AutoDoc whirred back to life. “Reinitiating depth scan.” The appendages lowered, placing sensors at exact points on both sides of her face – temples, brow and around her eye sockets.
Cami winced when she felt the pressure around her bruised eye socket. But she kept as still as a corpse. After a few seconds, the scanner retracted and announced that the depth scan was completed. Rasa told the AutoDoc to “Show holo”.
A wireframe holographic image of Cami’s face floated below the scanner. Rasa used his hands to twist the hologram in his direction. He spread his hands over it to increase its size. After reviewing it at different angles, he thumped the areas around the right eye, making the other elements disappear until only the damaged eye socket remained. Rasa told the scanner to display the dimensions. Numbers with lead lines pointing to various parts of the hologram appeared.
The Autodoc had retracted the head restraint when the scan was over. Cami pushed up on her elbows watching in wonder. She’d never seen someone use a hologram up close and was fascinated. “How does it look? Can it be replaced easily?”
“Can not the question. Cost is.” He replied. He commanded the Autodoc to send the dimension data to his mobi. He scanned the open market for a synthetic eye replacement that fit Cami’s measurements.
He knew the most affordable option would be an eyeball replacement made using a 3D bioprinter but even those didn’t come cheap. Lesser organs were more reasonably priced – blood vessels, ears and such, but the complexity of the human eye kept the price out of reach for most civilians.
When the mobi returned a price, Rasa’s eyebrows arched up to his hairline. He grunted, “Hmph.”
“What? How much?”
Rasa leaned in and let Cami see for herself. She caught her breath. “Oh. Wow.” There was nothing more to say. No favors to ask. It was completely out of her reach. A feeling of despair settled in her belly.
“You dress. We go refuel station couple days and see.”
Resigned Cami said, “Sure. Thanks for checking.”
It felt good to be up and around at least. Rasa had given Cami all of the personal belongings the Rally One crew had brought with her. She thought about trying to artfully cover the eye patch with her hair then decided against it. This was her new reality. Instead, she swept the shoulder length brown curly up into a high ponytail.
The Bremen fueling station Rasa used was privately owned by a man named Jim Haven. It was an “add as you go affair”. Fuel dispensaries formed an unevenly spaced arc around the back of battered Starfarer. The day they’d arrived, she’d seen the Starfarer carefully back its way into the arch to refill the dispensers. Once in place, customers looking buy supplies were allowed into the cargo hold to see what Jim had available. Rasa had left the ship to talk to Jim and others he knew. Putting out the word that he had a patient that needed work. No one had, or knew of anything, being available.
On the second day, Cami decided to quiet the nervousness in her gut by fixing a few things in the makeshift medbay. She’d asked Rasa if he had any tools. He’d pointed her to a container with a variety of rusted tools, cables, wires and plex-guns scrambled together in a heap. She spent an hour sorting out the contents and cleaning the tools before replacing the wiring and bolts on the scanner and fixing the cabin door that stuck when it slid open. The work hadn’t erased her sense of loss and concern, wondering what she was going to do next but it had passed the time. She was sitting on her medbay eating a bowl of soy noodles when Rasa came in. He clearly had something on his mind. “Bad news no doubt,” she whispered to herself.
Rasa rolled the cushioned stool over to Cami and sat down. “No luck. We tried.”
“I know and I appreciate it very much.”
“Need return my spot – is where customers come.”
“Understand.” She looked around the cabin noting where her things were. She’d gather them and get off here. Maybe pay for a ride to a busier location. “I’ll get my things and get off here. I’ll try to…”
Rasa put up his hands for her to wait and cut her off mid sentence. “You come with me. Stay.” Tapping his chest he continued. “I teach. You help. And fix things.”
Cami’s mouth fell open. She was at a loss. Was he serious? “Stay? Here?” It was tight quarters and no privacy in the sleeping berths. She could sleep in the medbay when no patients were here. It was safe. He was kind. It would give her time to figure things out.
He nodded. “Not hardly much pay. But have bunk and food and safe. Is safe.” He stopped speaking, breathing and closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again he said, “Rasa tired. Am waiting join family in next life.”
Cami heard a sense of peace in Rasa’s voice when he talked about being ready to join his family. So sure in his beliefs that he would. The calmness he radiated washed over her. “How can I possibly? I’m not a medic.”
“Do AutoDoc service only when Rasa gone. Go place where is less fee but more work. You young. Can do.” He smiled. “Leave if find better. Til then is home.” Gesturing around he said, “You keep when Rasa go. Scavengers don’t deserve. You have.”
Her mind was racing. Was he for real? Why do this for her? No one had offered her so much since the elderly couple had smuggled her and 5 other teens out of the state-run orphanage on Charon III. They used to deliver supplies a few times a year. However, the increase in attacks and bombings made up their minds to drop the route altogether. On their last trip, they’d offered to smuggle out anyone willing to go. Fairly poor themselves, they’d had little to offer but this chance at freedom. They’d dropped the lot of them at a space station in Tyrol with a few credits each, a sleeping roll and a few days of cubed protein rations. Those first few months had been terrifying. In some ways, more so than the civil war raging on Charon.
Cami returned from her reverie wide-eyed and dumbstruck. She found it hard to speak above the lump in her throat. “Are you sure? You don’t have someone else to leave this to?”
“No. All lost. All gone.”
Cami slid down from the bed and crouched in front of Rasa. Taking both of his hands in hers, she said, “Yes, I would like that. I will do all that I can to help.”
They were both crying now and not ashamed. Cami swore to herself that she would repay this kindness. She would help him. She would fix the ship. And she would learn all that he wanted to teach her. In time, he could just rest. She’d do it all and take care of him.
A different kind of future blossomed in her mind’s eye. Joy swelled in her chest and rung in her ears. She would repay this gift to Rasa and forward to someone else somewhere someday.
Audio version available on YouTube in the Star Citizen Nightbus: Episode 1, Episode 2 and Episode 4
ArcCorp Area 18 | Sleep Pod Barracks #21
Fog laps at the edges of a dimly lit street. Debris turns to mush in shallow pools of rain. Vermin scurry, snatching morsels from overflowing trash bins. A neon marquee flickers intermittently then fades to black before restarting. Letters scroll by identifying Pod Barracks #21, a row of nondescript cement towers. You’re asleep inside sleep pod 16. Over the hum of the air recycler, you hear the rat-a-tat of raindrops pelting the pavement. Ugh, just what you need. Your chest rumbles when you breathe. You shiver and wipe beads of sweat off your forehead.
You’re asleep inside sleep pod 16. Over the hum of the air recycler, you hear the rat-a-tat of raindrops pelting the pavement. Ugh, just what you need. Your chest rumbles when you breathe. You shiver and wipe beads of sweat off your forehead. “Not yet. More sleep.” Exhaustion drags you back under. Your eyelids clamp shut. Heavy as a stone, you plummet into blackness. Time stands still until…
BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. A loud beeping ricochets around the pod. You flay a hand over your exposed ear as if swatting a mosquito. Yawning, your wits begin knitting themselves back into place. Alarm clock!
You groan. Your stomach grumbles. From muscle memory, you whack the button on the panel overhead. Ahhh, sweet sweet snooze. Curling into a ball, you grab a fistful of blanket and drift back to sleep.
Precisely fifteen minutes after hitting snooze for the second time, your sleeping pallet begins vibrating. Muscles and joints protest. You groan but can’t afford to be late. Gingerly, you roll over onto your back, turn off the alarm and flip on the lights. You take a moment to wake up more fully and gain your bearings.
You’re in a stark white claustrophobia-inducing fiberglass tube. Pinpricks in the ceiling cast diffused light. Cubbyholes of varying sizes line the curved side walls. Your UEE Citizen dog tag and mobiGlas are in the cubby closest to you. Yesterday’s uniform and work boots are in a heap at your feet. You peek through the slatted window behind you. Dawn is creeping up over the horizon. At least it’s stopped raining – for now.
Propped up on an elbow, you grab your dog tag and slip it over your head and clip your mobiGlas to your wrist. You inch toward the pod’s entrance by sliding on your butt. Before deactivating the door lock with your heel, you check that your PJs are still snapped shut. The pod door hisses as it retracts. You scoot into a sitting position, your legs dangling out over the edge of the sleeping pod. Your slippers are hanging on a nearby hook. You mindlessly put them on while rummaging in the wardrobe inset into the wall on your right.
You hop down into the growing throng of residents preparing for the zero-five-hundred shift change. They’re in various states of undress. You nod ‘morning to familiar faces, fellow transients, and low-wage workers at an industrial facility or loading dock here on ArcCorp. You check that you have everything you need to get going. A bathroom kit is wedged under your right arm. Work boots attached by their shoelaces are slung over the opposite shoulder. A freshly laundered uniform is on a hanger in your right hand. When you turn to head toward the restrooms, you see Naomi. Punctual to a fault, she’s already dressed in the drab and common olive colored jumpsuit you all wear. Waving a hand back and forth, you croak out her name – once…twice.
It takes her a moment to figure out who’s calling her. When she realizes it’s you, she smiles and heads your way. “What’s doing?” Her voice is light and cheerful. Curse her, it’s too early to be chipper.
“Not much. Heading to the salt mines.” You hold up your uniform as evidence.
She laughs. “Ouch, still shuffling crates?”
You nod in disgust.
Her mouth puckers as if tasting something sour. “Damn. Short on experience but you’ve got certs.”
You’re seized by a coughing fit as you’re about to reply. You have to clear your throat a couple of times before you can speak. “Tell me about it.”
As your coughing continues her face takes on a yikes look. “That sounds nasty.” She mockingly takes a step back. “Taking anything?”
“Didn’t want to spend the creds. Trying to get outta this dump. At least get a real room.”
She laughs. “You and me both!” She adopts a more serious tone. “Still salty I never got moved to the shift manager dorms like my contract says. But who the hell am I going to complain to here?”
You rub your throat which is starting to burn. “Exactly.”
“I don’t push ‘cuz it could be worse. We dropped a hundred freshies last week. No warning.” No free ride off-world like their contract says. They’re basically screwed.” Punching you on the shoulder she adds, “These days steady creds, couple meals and a bed is the dream.”
Pointedly looking around, you reply with disgust, “Yeah… it’s the dream alright.” Inside you’re disappointed with yourself and situation. Most of all, your stupid choices that landed you here.
Naomi’s voice pulls you out of your reverie. Checking her mobi she says, “Better get moving. Don’t be late. I’ll catch you later.”
You nod in agreement and turn to walk away. Over your shoulder, you call out, “grub later?”
“Sure – meet you at G after the shift.”
The wait in line for an all-in-one restroom cube was less than five minutes. With the exception of a small mirror above the pull out washbasin, the interior and all of the fixtures are made of stainless steel.
You use the pull-out toilet to relieve yourself. The smell of the disinfectant used to make you gag but you’re used to it now. You wash your hands, face and splash water under your arms. That’s as good as it’s getting today. Brushing your teeth, you take a good look in the mirror. Bleh, you look exactly how you feel. Your cheekbones are more pronounced, body leaner and arms more defined. Wide-eyed wonder has been replaced by dark rings of harsh reality. You run a hand through your severely short haircut. It suits the new you that’s evolving. You aren’t the same person who eagerly waved goodbye to parents, a comfortable home, and a scholarship because “I need adventure in my life before settling down! C’mon dad, I need to see more than this planet. There’s a universe to explore!”
Unfortunately, having your business associates steal your ship, stranding you on ArcCorp, wasn’t the grand adventure you had in mind. No way gonna message home for a hand-out. And couldn’t hit up friends either, all of whom were at university with tight pockets of their own. You’re better than these first few mistakes. Pointing a finger at the reflection in the mirror you assert, “If granny made it out here on her own, so can I!”
Through bouts of coughing, you slide into your jumper and put on work boots. You chuck the paper slippers in the recycler and ball up your PJs. Dressed in a clean uniform you feel a bit better. You stop by your sleeping pod to grab a plastic laundry bag. The front of the bag is stamped with your UEE ID barcode. You shove yesterday’s uniform and PJs into the bag. Heading toward the back entrance, you drop it down the laundry shoot. Bracing yourself for the weather you exit the barracks.
Towering industrial buildings box you in on all sides, stealing the meager sunlight of an overcast sky. The air is thick with moisture. You shiver as a clammy breeze snakes down the collar of your jumpsuit. You check your mobi. Good – just enough time to make a quick trip to the Area 18 Med Unit. As much as you loathe spending the credits, you can’t see how you’ll make it through the day without something. You mutter to yourself as you approach the Area 18 Medical Unit. “Better not be crowded…” Tan walls, shiny floors, and uncomfortably bright lights. They’re all the same – medical facilities. A twinge starts in the pit of your stomach as you enter the triple-wide sliding glass doors. They hiss and whomp as they retract.
You wrinkle your nose at the potent antiseptic smell. Instantly, your mind is transported to five years earlier when you and your parents were frequent visitors to the hospice facility where your grandmother had been placed. Days turned into weeks of visiting every day. Watching — and waiting for her to die. She’d lived to a ripe old age. Feisty and fearless, roaming the galaxy in a souped-up science ship with granddad. She even kept at it after he was gone. Seeing her crippled and deflated by age was hard to watch. The remembered loss grabs you by the throat, threatening to suffocate you. The pain of it, as lethal today, as it was then.
Throw the throng of people milling around while waiting to be seen, you spot the QuickMeds dispenser across the waiting room and sprint to it. Eyes front, you block out everything around you except the display case. Your nose pressed against the glass, you scan the medicinal options. “What the hell? This is crazy.” You contemplate not buying anything. You can tough it out another… Before you finish the thought you’re seized by a hacking cough that near doubles you over. That seals it. You can’t afford to be dismissed from the shift altogether. “Freakin’ spacelane robbery!”
You choose a moderately priced antibiotic and a low priced cough suppressant from the QuickMeds LED display. A 60/40 mixture stem should do it. After confirming your purchase and authorizing payment, the dispenser begins to whir. You hear faint metallic clinking noises. You anxiously tap your fingers on the glass while watching the progress meter inch toward ‘Ready’. When it’s done, a metal drawer slides open from the bottom of the dispenser. You grab the package and go. On your way out the sliding doors, you pop the top off the stem, exposing the head with its pincushion of needles. You quickly jab it into the left side of your neck. Wincing you say, “shit better work.”
Walking briskly through the growing crowd of pedestrians, you arrive at loading dock J42 with a few minutes to spare. You hurry up the stairs, turn right and swipe your ID to open the security gate. A Freelancer MAX is parked on the landing pad. Quasar is painted with gold metallic swirls encircling the letters like a tornado. You recognize the ship and it’s Captain. He unloads cargo here a few times a week. Being that this landing pad is for smaller cargo vessels, the Quasar is the first of many Freelancers you expect to unload today. There will also be the occasional Avenger or Hull A. But in these parts, the boring Lancer is king.
You’re not a fan of the Lancer’s design. With its elongated forward cabin, slightly bigger than the neck on which it rests, the Lancer has always reminded you of pictures you’ve seen of tortoises found on Earth. Not an attractive shape for a ship in your eyes. But you ain’t going to complain by starting with a small one today. You walk forward to join coworkers who are standing around Zone Manager Rodrick. You put on your work gloves as Rodrick begins speaking. He’s a no-nonsense ex-military guy with a booming voice.
“Listen up!” He waits for silence. “We have a newly registered Connie arriving on platform J45. It’s going to take a bit longer to process her through. To stay on schedule I’m going to switch things up.”
Rodrick checks his mobi before continuing. “I’m leaving a few of freshies here to process the MAX. It’s business as usual.” He points over his shoulder to the man standing by the ship’s cargo bay. “You all know Captain Chuzen.”
You look to where Rodrick is pointing to see Captain Chuzen talking in a huddle with his crew.
Rodrick checks his mobi again and begins calling names. “Bryony as cargo inspector.” Wait. What? That’s you! You hesitate. When you don’t move, Rodrick looks up and calls your name again. Coworkers standing nearby give you the “Are you stupid? look”
You gain your composure. “Sir… Yes, Sir, I’m here.” You separate from the crowd and walk forward. Thomas, the actual inspector for J42 gives you a “What the fuck?” look as you go by. You shrug your shoulders in his direction.
Rodrick calls out the rest of the assignments. Thomas has been assigned to lead the team processing the new Connie. Damn, you’re jealous of that one. You’d rather be unloading crew, getting a chance to see inside the Connie, than leading the team processing a tortoise.
When all’s said and done, you have three cargo movers assigned to you. Rodrick hands you the Inspector mobi and says, “You know your way around this right?”
You nod your head. “Yes, Sir.”
He continues. “The ship’s manifest, travel log and cargo list are loaded. I want this done quickly.” He makes eye contact with the others in the group. “An Aurora CL is scheduled to touch down in 30. I want the MAX gone before it arrives.” Everyone nods their head.
As Rodrick is about to step away, Thomas comes forward. “Sir, I think I should stay here to make sure this is processed quickly. I can walk Bryony through it and join the J45 team right after.”
Rodrick looks surprised but not annoyed by the interruption. “Bryony can handle it. I need you with the other team. First time processing is a full inspection, as you well know”, he says in an admonishing tone. “It’s gonna take more time and I’m not having my schedule jacked over it.”
Thomas starts to speak but Rodrick cuts him off. “Is there a problem?”
You look at Thomas quizzically wondering, “What’s your problem?” There’s a long silence. Thomas’ eyes cut toward the MAX. You and Rodrick both notice and look in that direction too.
“No, nothing. Just trying to make sure regular customers get good service.” Thomas replies.
Rodrick claps Thomas on the back. “Captain Chuzen’s not goin’ anywhere. He’ll forgive us a hiccup or two.” Looking pointedly at you, he adds, “But that’s not going to happen is it?”
You stand up a little straighter and add a little bit of base to your voice. “No, Sir! It’ll be like clockwork, Sir.”
“Excellent” Rodrick slaps you on the shoulder and walks away with Thomas trailing behind.
Scanning through the manifest you notice a discrepancy between the ship logs and its approved route plan. The log shows an unscheduled stop in Cathcart. “Probably just an oversight. Last minute change of plans,” you shrug. Around you, the team is preparing to unload the cargo. Joey, a hefty bald guy in his early thirties, is hoisting himself into a mech suit to handle the heavier crates. The suit hydraulics hiss and clank as he stretches and retracts the arms, and tests rotating the hand clamps. The other two, Rhon and Alya, grab hover carts for the smaller crates. The platform vibrates under your feet as Joey lumbers toward the Freelancer. You head toward Captain Chuzen.
You approach the Captain of the Quasar, your hand extended in greeting. His meaty hand grabs yours and gives it a quick shake. Captain Chuzen’s hair, wide sideburns, and beard are all immaculately trimmed. His hands are callous free with manicured nails. No bruises, no tats mar his skin. If not for the Quasar jumpsuit, you’d mistake him for the office type, not a space trucker.
“Morning Captain. I’m Bryony. I’ll be overseeing your inspection and unloading today.”
Captain Chuzen’s staring off in the direction Roderick and Thomas went. “Where’s Thomas going? He usually handles my ships. He keeps it quick and simple. Suits are schedule.”
“He’s helping Roderick with a new Connie coming in on LZ J45.” Adding more confidence to your voice you continue. “We’ll get you done as fast.”
Distractedly Captain Chuzen replies, “Sure kid. Let’s get moving.”
“Excellent.” Flipping through screens on the inspector mobiGlas you continue. “One thing to clear up first.” You raise the mobi up so Chuzen can see the display. “There’s seems to be a discrepancy between your ship log and your approved flight plan.” You gain the Captain’s full attention. But his only reply is a grunt.
You continue. “Yes, it’s showing an unscheduled stop in Cathcart. Ship appears to have docked at Spinward for roughly 2 hours.” Hesitantly you add, “I think that’s part of your company’s no-fly zone regulations?” Rethinking how that might have come out you say, “Not that it’s our business. We just have to perform a different kind of inspection for ships with stops outside of UEE space.” Chuzen’s eyes narrow and his silence makes you nervous but you press on. “’Cuz of… the kinda… of stuff happening there. Robberies. Hijackings and uh — contraband.” Emphasizing this isn’t an uncommon situation you say, “Not a big deal on our end. Just different forms and takes a little longer. But we can still get you out of here in about the same time as usual.”
Captain Chuzen is staring you up and down like sizing up an opponent. You don’t want to be his opponent. You just want to get this done quickly. Beads of sweat start forming on your forehead as the silence stretches out. Are the meds wearing off?? You wipe your forehead on the back of your sleeve. Clearing your throat you suggest, “Maybe you had an emergency? If you can state the reason and add it to your official logs, I can re-sync and get the inspection started.” Pointing toward the ship you add, “We’re already starting to unload. This really isn’t a big deal.”
Like flipping a switch, Captain gives you a wry smile, puts his arm around your shoulder and pulls you in close. You’re not pleased by the gesture which violates what you consider your personal space. But you go with it since he’s talking.
“You see kid it’s like this.” He continues in a conspiratorial tone. “Sometimes when we’re ahead of schedule we like to take a break. Blow off some steam. Stretch our legs. Have something other than space rations. “ His tone is nonchalant. “We may wander off course for a bit of recreation.” He steps back and waves his hand in an “it’s not big deal” manner and concludes, “No harm. No foul.”
You’re surprised they could get away with that undetected. I mean, it’s in the ship logs. That’s how you know that they went to Cathcart. You scratch your head in confusion. “But that stuff shows in the ship logs?”
“Not by the time we go back for inspection,” he laughs. “Forgot to take care of it before hitting Stanton. In more of a hurry than usual.” He flicks his thumb off the end of his nose and winks.
You’ve got no reasonable response to that explanation. Like what the hell? “But…” He cuts you off.
“You get paid extra to unload ships faster? Or extra creds for playing inspector on my ship today?”
“See what I mean! Me and the boys stopped in Cath for a bit of a stretch. Have a real meal planetside. We don’t report it ‘cuz we don’t want anyone getting the idea to add more stops on our route. Beaners love “more work same pay” thing, stiffing civs like you and me.”
Your throat is starting to itch. You want to cough but Captain Chuzen is leaning in too close. You’d cough right in his face. Another beat of very uncomfortable silence follows as you hold back your cough and really have no idea what to say.
“Not even your job. You want the hassle of more forms to complete?”
You clear your throat and swallow the urge to cough. “Not really. Haven’t seen those forms before myself. Above my pay grade.” There’s an echo resentment in your tone.
Chuzen seizes on it. “See what I mean. That’s my point exactly! More work, same pay.”
That last bit got you thinking that maybe he’s right. You nod your head slowly at first. “You’re right.” A little something extra for today could replace what you spent on meds this morning, get more to help sleep better tonight or a full meal., Is that really too much to ask? But you’re sure nothing extra is coming for acting as inspector on this ship. Shrugging your shoulders you concur, “like you sad, Not my real job anyway.”
Captain Chuzen claps you on the shoulder. “What’s your ID kid? I’ll shoot you some cred as a thanks.”
It’s tempting but you know that’s strictly against regulations and could cost you your job if anyone found out. Shit as it is, it’s still a job and it’s the company that should be compensating you for doing the extra work. Shaking your head you say, “No. Not necessary. Let me hurry up with the interior inspection then I’ll validate the off-loaded cargo and get you on your way.”
Relaxed and jovial Chuzen replies, “Great. Going to stretch my legs and throw one back at G-Loc. Buzz me when you’re done.”
“Sure thing. Won’t be long.”
Walking up the rear ramp into the primary cargo bay, you nod as you pass Joey. He’s busy stacking three crates precariously on top of each other. You wonder what he’s about when you notice that Alya is coming up behind you.
Alya’s the new kid on the dock. For a quick second, it stings that no one tries to get your attention anymore. Then you remember that you don’t want that kind of attention anyway. Alya’s still into being who she was before she landed here — the ass end of Stanton. Well near it anyway. From what you’ve heard, Hurston is even worse with its pea-soup smog and a shortage of living accommodations. Rumor has it workers have resorted to sharing sleeping tubes. You pull a face at the mere thought.
You turn your attention back to Joey. “If that falls and gets damaged you better have another gig lined up. Rod will have your ass. ”
Joey laughs and raises his voice unnecessarily. “I got this kid. Gonna help you do it in record time. You know I’m the best mech operator we got.”
You watch Joey glance to the side to see if Alya is paying him any attention. She’s not. She’s stacking smaller crates on the hover cart, scanning them as she goes. A lock of hair falls forward and blocks her view. She tries pushing it behind her ear but that’s near impossible with the oversize padded gloves she’s required to wear. She gives up in a huff after three attempts. You chuckle, remembering when that was you.
Realizing that Ayla isn’t going to pay him any attention, Joey’s resumes his normal speaking voice. “We do this super fast and maybe Rod gives you this zone. Stick Thomas elsewhere.”
While it would be music to your ears if they officially bumped you up, why would Joey care? You ask him. “Nice for me. Why do you care?”
Maneuvering himself down the ramp he replies, “I ain’t gonna get it and something about ole Tommy boy don’t sit right. Count close and see what you make of it.”
You’re not a fan of Thomas yourself. He’s always hunched over like he’s trying to fold in on himself. And there’s something about his eyes. They’re shifty, always darting around like a trapped rodent. Beyond that though, you don’t know of any wrong he’s done. And what did Joey mean by that last comment? Count close? You want to ask him but he’s out of earshot now and there’s no time waste. You’ve got a job to do and just enough time to do it.
You do a perfunctory scan of the main and secondary cargo bays, swiping the radar wand across the walls, ceiling and, floor as you go. When the door to the crew cabin swishes open, you’re surprised by the cleanliness. The bunk beds inset into the walls on each side has been made – more or less. The random personal items stashed in the cubbies look neatly placed. You’re instantly jealous of the personal Spectrum LCDs hung above each bed. You’d kill to have one of those to pass the evenings with when your creds are low and your stomach is grumbling.
Continuing to move forward, you notice that immediately after the berths, there’s a toilet shower combo on one side and a cramped single counter kitchenette on the other. Standing in the middle of the aisle, you can almost touch the door to the commode and the food prep station on the other side. That must make for interesting situations. You thought your accommodations were small. You’re not eating and shitting within arm’s reach. But the truth is, you’d switch places in a heartbeat to get outta here. You continue casually scanning your surroundings. So far the ship has a clean bill of health. No illegal substances detected. You expect to encounter the same as you enter the flight deck.
When the door opens onto the flight deck you stand there for a moment taking it all in. You remember the pride and elation piloting your own ship. And this is not too shabby. Not too shabby indeed. You might not like the look of the ship from the outside but the interior is winning you over.
The flight deck contains four high back cushy seats, perfect for long hop travel. There’s one for the pilot, co-pilot and two additional passengers. The Quasar’s been around the ‘verse a few times but the components show very little wear and tear. They’re substantial — meaty, like an oversized breakfast. You check the time on your mobi – still 15 minutes to spare.
You step down to the pilot’s seat and survey the instrumentation. You wistfully glide your hand above the controls. Feeling a bit audacious, you slide into the pilot’s seat. The dash is massive with slots for personal storage — beverage holder, small firearms, whatever. The field of view reminds you more of a ground vehicle or passenger transport vessel but you sort of like it. The struts are thick and blocky which makes sense for an industrial ship with a reputation of long reliable years of service. Definitely a step up from the Aurora that you got swindled out of, leaving you stranded on ArcCorp, scrapping for survival. A call comes through on your mobi. You almost jump out of your skin!
You answer it. “Bryony here.”
It’s Joey. “Cargo’s in transport hangar.”
“Great. It’s a go here, coming out.” You exhale. Time to hop back to it. You walk briskly through the cabins, your footsteps echoing in the now empty ship. You break into a jog when you hit the rear exit ramp.
You head over to the transportation hangar. Just a fancy name for the section of the landing pad that has a protective tarp over it and is reserved for pickups. Two ArcCorp trucks are standing by to collect cargo and transport them to their next destinations.
Joey, still in his mech suit is standing by the first stack of cargo. “Record time,” he brags. “Stacked, scanned and Trans ID’d. Needs your sig and it’s done.”
“Cool! We killed this with time to spare. Thanks!” You mock bump fists with his mech hand. As you quickly survey the piles, you notice one of the crates is a good distance from the rest. Rohn and Alya are approaching. You point to the lone crate. To no one, in particular, you ask, “Why’s that one way down there?”
Alya shrugs. Rohn and Joey look at each other.
Joey answers. “That one – blue Big Box crate always goes there. Thomas has us separate it out for special delivery.”
You screw up your face and cock your head to the side. “Really?” You don’t recall having seen that in the past. “You sure?” Rohn and Joey nod in agreement. That seems odd. Big Box is one of the more expensive and secure storage containers from Stor-All. They’re tough specialty crates. With a titan-grade metal exterior, a ribbed body skeleton and a cushioned super-reinforced ablative rubber interior. They’re used for fragile important cargo.
You scan through the Quasar cargo manifest. Nothing but common ship components and raws. You don’t see anything that would warrant the Big Box. Worse you don’t see the container listed in the inventory. So why is it here? Why is it being set aside?
Noticing the consternation on your face, Rohn shrugs his shoulders. Even through the padded jumpsuit, he looks starved. As if a sudden breeze would blow him off the platform. “Been doing this for months Bry. That crate from Quasar always goes there. You just never noticed. Don’t ever operate the mech suit or come up here to talk to Thomas while he’s doing the final sign off. It’s legit according to him.” He points a thumb over his shoulder. “Just go with the flow. We’re done with time to spare. Let’s catch a quick break.”
Rohn had a point. If you call it now, you’ll beat the best unloading time for the Quasar for the quarter. But something is itching at the back of your brain. “Sure, you all take a break, I’ll call it in.” You check your mobi. Ten minutes left to spare. You watch the team walk away, chatting among themselves. Joey is pulling up the rear clomping along in the Mech suit.
Just before entering the Employee-only habicube that’s next to the platform steps, Joey turns back to you. He puts his hand up in the air with his fingers splayed open and then starts folding them down one by one. You flip your hands palms up and shrug. “What??” Slowly he pops each finger back up. Then it hits you — he’s counting. Oh. OOOOOOOH. Your eyes bulge. When he realizes you get his meaning he shoots you a thumbs-up and you do the same in return.
Like puzzle pieces, things falls into place, forming an uncomfortable idea. An unscheduled stop. Thomas and Captain Chuzen’s concern about who’s doing the inspection. An unlisted crate set aside for special delivery. “Well… Fuck!” you curse under your breath. “Really? I need this shit?” Then again, it doesn’t have to be my problem if it’s been going on for months. You can sign off and it will be business as usual.
You walk over to the container. It’s only 2 feet by 2 feet. Too big to sneak past passenger security but small enough to fly under the radar of someone carting it off. You pass over it with the scanner. Nothing detected. You use your temporary inspector code to fiddle with the settings, changing it to a high-grade scan. Still nothing. They could be using scan protection tech.
Taking the few extra credits Chuzen had offered, is sounding good about now. But are you that desperate? You note the chills are slowly starting to return as the meds you took this morning wear off. Still — aren’t these the same kind of people that tricked you into disengaging your ship’s transponder code before stealing it and dumping you here? If Chuzen and crew ever get caught, it will be too easy to trace if he’s ever made payments to ArcCorp personnel. That’s not the kind of mess you want to be mixed up in. Sign off and mind your business. Whatever’s inside is eluding detection by the equipment you’ve been given. Wash your hands of it. Maybe Roderick will suggest a little something be thrown your team’s way for beating the standing record. Anything – any little gesture will help you out.
On the inspector mobi, you access the cargo authorization file for the Quasar. You tap it once to display the inspection outcome section. You press your thumbprint in the Inspector authorization code slot. You inhale and hold your breath as your finger hovers over green indicator for “inspection passed”. Your heart thuds in your ears as your finger is poised to tap green. At the last second you slide it over and press “yellow” – failed and “red” possible contraband detected. Feeling lightheaded you back up and flop down on the nearest crate.
Head in hands you ask yourself, “Why Bry, why?” But you know the answer. Right is right and wrong ain’t. Your mobi emits the three beat signal for priority message. It’s from Roderick. It reads On my way with security DO NOT MOVE! “Fuck me!”
You’re alone, sitting at a table in the back left corner of the G Loc, a popular bar in Area 18. Well, the only bar actually. You have a raggedy cap you grabbed out of the lost and found at work, pulled forward to obscure your face. The orange murky lighting helps you to fade into the background. Your eyes unfocused, you stare at the holographic menu hovering above the table top. Music is booming and your leg is shaking but not in time with the song blaring out of the speakers.
Every time you notice the doors open, you crane your neck looking for Naomi. Damn, she’s usually punctual to a fault. Another group of loading dock workers saunters in. You look away and slouch down into your seat. Area 18 is a big place but news like yours travels quickly. Never in years in a million years could you have anticipated Roderick’s reaction or what had ensued when he arrived with security in tow.
Caught daydreaming, you’re startled by the sound of someone flopping down into the seat next to you. It’s Naomi. Relief washes over you. Then you notice she’s staring at you with an OMG look on her face. Clearly, she’d already heard — something.
No hello or preamble. “What the frak happened?” She asks in a hushed tone. She leans in waiting for a reply.
You slouch back into the chair shaking your head. “So you heard.”
“Pretty sure most have. Went to your sleeping cube. Saw goons hanging outside your door. Then remembered we were meeting here.”
“Well that sucks. Not much in there worth having but still…”
She looks like she wants to shake you silly. “Well — what the hell happened??”
You inhale. “I’m actually starting to think that I’m a drama magnet,” you say with a wry smile.
That puts a small smile on her face. She crosses hers and leans back into the booth. “Just might be.”
“Probably already know that I got assigned as temporary inspector on J42. Things were going good. Finished early. Except for 2 hiccups. Unplanned stop in Cathcart on the ship log and unlisted container.”
“New ship? Crew?”
“Nope. Regulars. Initially fell for the excuse for the unscheduled stop.”
Naomi shrugs. “It happens. Crew has things to do that aren’t necessarily the company’s business.”
“Flying the company’s ship?”
Another shrug. “On time. Cargo intact. Who cares?”
“Yeah, I can get with that. Was willing to let that part slide. Right up until I’m told that setting aside a particular container is a routine thing. Something Thomas manages as a special request.”
“Oook, now we’re moving into shaky territory.” She agrees.
“But this is ArcCorp. Who cares? Not like the Corp is doing us any favors.”
“True, there’s that. I’ll give you that and I nearly let that slide too. It’s ArcCorp, where fucking the likes us over, is on someone’s daily to-do list.” You lean forward, more intensity in your voice. “What happens if today of all days, that special delivery gets policed in transit and they backtrack to the inspection?”
The possible ramifications dawn in Naomi’s eyes. “You’d be fraked is what.”
You nod in agreement. “And then some! So at the last sec I called it in.”
“Still don’t understand how you ended up fired for it?” Her mouth slants down and she has a sore look on her face. “Ain’t right.”
“I’m okay with how things turned out – in the end anyway.”
You explain how Roderick had arrived in a near rage with a team of security. Joey, Rohn, and Alya were coming back just as Roderick had shown up. Security put all of you in handcuffs and rushed you off the platform. You were frantic not understanding what the hell was going on. When you tried speaking to Roderick but he told you to shut up until you were spoken to.
You unconsciously rub your wrists. “It was scary and embarrassing being dragged across Area 18 until we reached the security building.”
“I bet. So what happened?”
You continue your tale. You’d each been placed in a separate security holding cell. While you were anxiously waiting to speak to someone – anyone, you saw them marching in Thomas in handcuffs and then the crew of the Quasar a short while later. They hadn’t been in restraints and in fact, seemed to be talking in a carefree manner with Roderick.
“My stomach hit the floor when I saw Chuzen prancing in full of confidence and Roderick seeming to eating it up.”
One by one you saw your team escorted into what you realized later was an interrogation room. You were the last to be taken in and pushed none too gently into a metal folding chair across from desk with two people on one side of it. Roderick and a security officer. You explained what you’d seen and done in painstaking detail. You were questioned about your actions repeatedly. When they’d had enough, Roderick asked the security officer to leave the room.
Once it was just the two of you, Roderick’s face softened. He removed the handcuffs, pulled his chair next to yours and sat down with a sigh. “Rough day kid and you done good.”
A look of extreme confusion had covered your face. “I – I don’t understand what’s happening.”
“We’ve had a drug smuggling problem for quite some time. We could occasionally catch the users but not break into the cartel managing the operation or how the narcs were arriving.” Smiling he said, “You just gave us our first break.” He stood up and paced the small room while he talked. “I doubt ArcCorp would even care if not for the accidents caused by narc’d up workers. It messes with their safety rating and slows down production.”
“I’d heard about two guys losing a limb on the large engines assembly line.” Scratching your head you say, “Last week wasn’t there construction worker who dropped a scaffolding down 8 stories over where they’re building the Galleria?”
“Yeah, got the whole project temporary put on hold until the safety investigation is over. Stuff like this costs the company hundreds of thousands of creds per incident and it’s adding up quickly these days.”
“Oh” is all you can think to say. You’re still shaken by what’s happened.
“This whole dragging you all in here is for your own safety. We think the group working out of here is rather sophisticated and we’re after the big fish. We’re going to be able to nail Chuzen but we need to find who they work for and who else is falsifying inspections. I want to protect you four so here’s what we’re going to do.”
At this point, Roderick sat down next to you again. He dropped the managerial tone and spoke to you like a friend. He explained that he was going to have your inspection findings scrubbed from the record. He’s going to claim that he and security had come by to do a spot audit and found the crate, which by the way, was filled with vials of hallucinogen class narcotics.
He’s going to say that since it was your first time inspecting a shipment you were late and hadn’t gotten to validating the off-loaded cargo. For their own protection, your team was being given a company paid transfer to another Arc facility with a 2 weeks bonus pay. He’s leaving Thomas in place even though they know he’s on the smuggler payroll. But now that they know that, they can use him to catch the next crew that comes in and then they’ll nab him.
“Wow, umm okay. But don’t you think anyone will catch on?”
“They make think something is up at first but once a few months go by, they’ll be bold enough to restart their operation. Plus now we know what to look for at the other landing zones and can update the security procedures accordingly.”
“What if they don’t use Thomas again? Seems like he gets off the hook.”
“We’ll be keeping him under close surveillance,” Roderick said with a smile. “He’s not conspiring with them for free. Likely used to the extra income. Even if they don’t seek him out, he’ll no doubt contact them for more work.”
You nod your head in agreement. “Gotcha.” Nervously you ask, “What about me? Do I get the 2 weeks bonus and transfer option?” Your gut twists. You want off this rock but if it just means dropping you on another where you have to start over? That’s not sounding so great. At least here you have a couple of friends and Naomi. The idea of slugging it out alone again is depressing.
“No, I have something different for you in mind.”
You stop for a moment to gauge Naomi’s reaction. Her mouth is gaped open and her neck craned forward in rapt attention. You wonder if she’d miss you as much as you’d miss her? She has such an easy way about her. She makes friends easily. Always liked and well respected. You on the other hand — no so much. You’re private, quiet and often prefer the company of the ideas spinning around in your head, than conversing with others. You keep the friends you gain but don’t gain them very often which is by choice. You miss home, your friends off at university and now you’ll miss the few you’ve gathered here too. You sigh.
Naomi kicks your foot under the table over your sudden silence. “No stopping now!” She exclaims, “what’s the plan for you?”
“He’s worried that the cartel would come around asking me questions and might not be that nice about asking ‘em. They just lost a lot of creds having that crate confiscated.”
“Those goons outside your door,” Naomi whispers.
“Exactly. So I have to get gone too but with a different kind of bonus.”
Her eyes widen in surprise seeing the smile on your face. “How much?” she says in a near shout.
“Shhhhhhhh!” Noticing the couple at the table next to you glance your direction, you pull the cap down lower over your face.
“Oops — sorry.” She giggles and her excitement is infectious.
You’d been trying not to be too excited least the rug get pulled out from under your feet. And you’d miss Naomi unless…
You lean across the table toward her and show her your UEC balance on your Mobi. She gasps in response, her eyes growing wide. Now you’re smiling too and giggling like a child.
Whispering she says, “That’s leave for good money.” In awe, she adds, “Start over money. Wow!”
“Or ship for two money?” You let the question hang in the air.
Naomi’s eyes bug out and her eyebrows arch up to her hairline. “Me? You’d take me?”
“Of course! I wouldn’t leave you behind. You’ve been a good friend to me.”
“What would we do? Where would we go?”
“What do you want to do? We can decide together.” Your stomach twists waiting for an answer. You want her to come, to help her out of this place. But you also have selfish reasons. You don’t go back out into the black alone. You’ve got more advanced skills than Naomi but she’s got the life experiences. In your mind, that would be a great mix.
Naomi leans back into the booth. “I need a drink and you’re buying,” she says with a smile. “Holy shit!”
She sounds happy. Does that mean she’s coming? “That mean you’re in?” you ask outright.
“Oh yeah, I’m in!” She nods several times for emphasis. Her eyes dart side to side as if working out a problem in her head. “Maybe we get you off here tonight and lay low somewhere cheap to make plans.”
Relief washes over you. “Sounds good to me!”
With a wry smile, Naomi asks, “Ever been to Terra? It’s the most expensive ticket outta here. But lots of resources to figure out what you want to do next. That money won’t get you setup in place like Terra but can get all the supplies you need for whatever…”
You correct her. “The supplies we need.” The idea of it makes you giddy and lightheaded.
“Yeah. What we need.” She laughs. “Holy frak, I can’t even… Holy shit, we’re outta here!”