Welcome to another episode of Casual Citizen. My experimentation with pseudo-A.I. voices has ended. The compromise I’ve reached to keep show production reasonable is that I will voice the game commentary sections and use an A.I. voice for the fiction which tends to be the longest portion. The vast majority of authors don’t narrate their fiction anyway so… boo!
by Alysianah Noire
No, for real, I’m actually back. It’s been a long time coming. Between real-life misadventures such as losing the first floor of my house in a hurricane. Relocating and accepting what would become the job from hell. To being diagnosed with two autoimmune disorders in November of 2020. Life has been, shall we say, hectic. And let’s not get started on Co-vid.
Since changing employers in June 2020 and establishing a healthier work-life balance, my desire and ability to return to creative pursuits have grown. I realize now that part of the issue was that I was actually sick. It wasn’t just the hellscape I was working in. Thanks to modern medicine and a boatload of prescriptions each day, I’m doing better. And although there’s no cure for autoimmune disorders, the daily prescriptions regime has returned my health to an even keel. Today, I feel more like myself than I have for a very long time.
What excites me most about feeling back to normal, is the ever-present desire to write and be creative. It wasn’t until I felt better and I’d escaped the pressure-cooker job that I realized how much joy was being sapped from my life.
An inability to finish my stories on a more regular basis is the main reason I stopped doing content. I dislike starting stories that I don’t finish as much as I’m sure followers dislike reading them. Struggling to find the time to breathe, let alone write, was a huge challenge.
A couple of months ago I hit on an idea for a cadence I believe will work. One that allows me to focus on my writing, which is how I arrived on this adventure. While continuing to share game commentary, how I started blogging. I’m moving into fixed seasons where I write all of the primary content in advance and add timely commentary for that week. With so much entertainment delivered in seasons, I figured people would understand that type of schedule.
All of the primary content for Casual Citizen Season Two is already in the can. I’ve written over thirty thousand words of fiction and ten thousand words of game commentary, that I’m excited to share. So, without further delay, welcome to Casual Citizen and Nightbus Season Two, Episode One.
The growth we’ve seen in recent months around C.I.G.’s ability to deliver timed events is encouraging. They haven’t been without issues. It’s alpha. Baby steps and all that. But I enjoyed them regardless. The standout for me is the Xenothreat. It’s the first time in a long time I’ve been excited to log into the game. Knowing without a doubt that there was content I could participate in without an excessive amount of sandbox-style planning.
I’m no longer excited by the various ship expos. I have more than enough ships. Especially ones that are flight-ready but lack their intended mechanics. Seeing more ships no longer holds any appeal. I want updates on the ships I’ve already backed. See progress toward what’s needed to deliver their mechanics. Beyond that, the shine of new ships has worn off.
I’ve mined for long enough. A profession I don’t plan to do in the released game. Even though I feel the mechanics have been done extremely well. I have no interest in bounty or cargo hauling. And box deliveries were broken for so long that I wrote that off as more frustrating than fun. Plus there’s little to gain from doing them.
Live Events, no matter the duration is motivation. Even when it includes mechanics I wouldn’t normally do. Like combat or grabbing boxes and hauling them to a location. It’s the context and server-wide participation that make it exciting to do. It’s the story that surrounds the doing. The scope and scale of being bigger than just me or a small group of others. It’s the largess that reminds me of open-world bosses in Guild Wars 2. Alterac Valley from World of Warcraft. Scenarios from Warhammer Online.
Guaranteed active content is why I’m looking forward to Theaters of War. Opportunities for quick-hit action. Versus the random roaming around getting a whole lot of nothing done. I like where Star Citizen is heading with the capabilities to host these events. I look forward to when there are more varied mechanics involved. But for now, I’ll take it.
I don’t always need events to be multi-layered or contain specialized mechanics. I didn’t bother to visit the showroom during the most recent ship expo. I skipped visiting the Javelin. Instead, I pulled out the 890 for a cruise with friends to watch the fireworks. Lacking swimwear, we stripped to our skivvies. And enjoyed a trip over to Microtech. We lined up the ship for a great view of the fireworks. Of course, shenanigans were involved. ChewedToy, the streamer I was with at the time, was tracked to our location by one of his viewers.
They arrived in a Mercury Starrunner and a tonk. Why wouldn’t we try to airdrop the tonk onto the 890’s hangar? I mean, what else would we do under the circumstances? Many deaths later, which were saved by the bell due to the available medbay. Eventually, 890 ran out of fuel. And we all fell down. Lots of laughs all the way around brought on by a spectator event.
I need more of these from simple spectator activities. To those with explicit mechanics that require group participation. Here’s hoping Xenothreat and Ninetails arrive with 3.14.
What are your thoughts on Live Events? Have you enjoyed them? Is it game-play you’d like to see more or less of?
I’ve been playing MMO games for over twenty years. I’ve played every triple-A title targeted for North American gamers. My long-time blog, Mystic Worlds, has a list of titles I’ve played and written about across the period of time. Among my habitual behaviors, is that I will eventually stumble into a place that feels like home for me in that game. It either strikes my fancy of where my character would live if they lived in the world for real or it speaks to a character from one of my stories and where their adventure would take place.
It will become a place that I visit frequently when I simply want to exist in the game. Gaze out upon that view and imagine or write a story. Sit back and chat with friends in-game or a guild voice chat server. Other times I’ll head there while working and that view becomes my window scape. And in every MMO to date, I’ve found that place.
In World of Warcraft, it’s the Herbalist’s hut in Red Ridge Mountains. Floating over Stormwind when flying mounts arrived. In Guild Wars 2, it’s the Cornicpian farm in Gendarren Fields. Marianople in Arc Age. Qeynos Harbor in Everquest 2.
I always knew it would be Crusader in Stanton. The Ghost in the Shell of Arc Corp is cool and makes me feel like watching that or the Blade Runner 2040. In the same way that I’m fascinated with deep space, I enjoy techno and steampunk. But nothing is home to me like rolling fields or whimsy. The palette, open spaces, flowering trees, and sweeping lines of the platforms, are nearly fantasy in space.
I haven’t found my specific spot yet but I will. It’s my new port of call. I used to float above Area 18 in a Caterpillar with all of the cargo doors open. Better view than any cockpit or vantage point on the 890 Jump. But with it being Crusader and all, I’ll rest peacefully in the Captain’s quarters aboard the 600 I when I’m alone. I’ll save the fuel-guzzling 890 for special occasions.
What’s your port of call in Stanton? What do you think of Orison?
What I feel compelled to do is write. Whether it’s retelling the tales of my gaming misadventures, creating guides and sharing tips, writing in-game fiction, or spinning my own worlds, writing is what’s dearest to my heart. I’ve been blogging about my gaming adventures for over fifteen years on my Mystic Worlds blog. And I still harbor the dream of being a published fiction author.
What’s new for me is audio and video. Recording and editing audio takes time. As does combing the audio narration with music and visuals to create a nicely produced show. All the while, I’m usually thinking, I could be writing or relaxing.
I’ve recorded two shows recently that never made their way into episodes. Writing is writing – so it’s always good practice but a shame they never made their way into production. So where’s the middle ground? You just listened to it. I’m using text-to-speech voice cloning. I’ve scribed to software that over time, learns my speech pattern and turns my narration into a digital asset I can use to automatically narrate text. It’s not perfect and is a bit uncanny valley at the moment. It sounds like me. Some of the cadences are correct. But it bears the hallmarks of a robotic voice. This is an experiment to see if audiences can tolerate this compromise for those who prefer audio to reading the episode transcript and fiction posted directly on my website.
What are your thoughts? Is this something you’d continue to listen to versus there only being a text version?
Night Bus is the part of the show where I feature in-game fiction I’ve written inspired by the universe and mechanics being built by the talented Cloud Imperium Games. As a long-time backer, I’m awed and inspired by the vision.
The short story collection featured this season is Pod City, The Fallen. It contains a cast of characters and settings that will eventually be interjected into my own IP. A universe that I’ve been developing simultaneously. Without further ado, here’s Shifting Sands Part One of Two.
The Star Citizen Night Bus is exiting the station. Please stow all personal items. The transport is departing in three. Two. One.
At a glance, it was hard to distinguish the pilot from the cockpit. His retro-reflective optical camouflage flight suit was the best money could buy.
The accompanying Kevlar XI undersuit fits like a second skin. Viper, from CosmoGen, was the closest legal approximation of the Titan Master set produced exclusively for the United Empire of Earth military.
John sagged back into the pilot’s seat when he reached his assigned hangar. The ship’s vertical take-off and landing thrusters roared to life as they rotated downward to support his descent. The spacecraft vibrated violently beneath him as he gradually lowered it into the hangar. Overhead, he watched as the bay doors closed, eclipsing the red glow of the hangar’s external location markers. John arched his back and rotated his shoulders. His eyelids felt like sandpaper scraping across his eyeballs. “Need to give up these twenty-hour shifts,” he thought to himself. It wasn’t like he needed the money.
John powered down the ship and popped open the canopy. He swung his body out of the cockpit and onto the side ladder in a single fluid motion. His muscles screamed at being made to expand after being in one position for so long. A few rungs from the bottom, he hopped down. “Much better,” he moaned as he bent over at the waist and shook out his legs. John used the mini datapad on his wrist to close the canopy and lock the ship.
The hangar John was assigned was 500 by 300 meters. It was designed to house four Hawk Mark V ships, side by side. John removed his helmet and pulled back the skull cap. Without it, his ears were instantly assaulted by the thunderous hum of the floor-to-ceiling life support system and localized gravity unit. The hangar, bored into the side of the asteroid known as Grim Hex, was self-contained in case of emergency. The smell of heated steel, lubricants, and neglected lavatories permeated every breath.
Owned by the failing Green Imperial Housing Exchange, the station was a defunct mining and refining facility drilled into a small S-type asteroid orbiting Yela. A decade passed its prime; Grim Hex now served as a civilian utility station. The hangar was empty, except for John’s ship, assorted crates, and random piles of tools on the floor. John took a slow walk around the spacecraft, examining the exterior. He knew from the ship’s status report it hadn’t sustained any substantial damage. Still, he wanted to see it with his own eyes.
The Hawk Mark V was a lightweight interdiction ship favored equally by bounty hunters and smugglers. Small and agile, it possessed an impressive arsenal of lethal weaponry and stealth tech. Shaped like a hawk, it boasted a retractable holding cell that fell from its belly. When the pod was extended, it looked like a hawk carrying its prey.
John walked over to the holding cell perched below the belly of his ship. He tapped on the exterior stasis panel to check the occupant’s vitals. The prisoner was stable, but the perp looked a little worse for the wear. It was unfortunate he’d insisted on being captured instead of surrendering. The abrasions on the right side of his face had stopped bleeding. Contrasted against pale white skin, the bruise on his cheekbone had darkened to a sickening blue-black with a purple halo. “Unnecessary shame,” John said out loud as he shrugged away concern. Fully sedated, the would-be smuggler was prepped for a smooth transfer.
John changed into civilian clothing. He secured his flight suit and accompanying accessories in one of the ship’s external storage compartments. Afterward, he sat on a nearby crate waiting for prisoner transport to arrive. Relaxed, he hummed to himself while browsing the local entertainment feeds on his datapad. He looked up when he heard footsteps echoing across the stone floor.
“My man, JJ,” a boisterous voice offered. He was tall and reedy, with olive-colored skin. The knit cap he wore off to the side of his bald head matched his dark gray jumpsuit.
“What’s up, kid?” John replied in kind as they bumped fists in greeting.
“How are the skies treating you?” Larry asked as he looked beyond John to the Hawk.
“Same as ever. Another day is another day,” John replied with a shrug.
Larry patted the underbelly of the Hawk. “I hear ya. One day, something like this will be mine.” He walked over to the holding cell and waited for John to join him there. “Sure you don’t want to transport this yourself?” Larry asked, gesturing to the prisoner.
“Pass. I prefer to fetch, not carry, especially if any sort of investigation is needed. Too many strings and paperwork for my blood.”
Larry laughed. “Can’t blame you and not going to complain. I appreciate getting a chit on the board today. Another paycheck and a few things on the side, and I can afford the Bounty Hunters license fee and few ship upgrades. ” He pointed to the external stasis pad. “May I?”
“Sure, he’s all yours now.”
Larry looked the prisoner over through the observation pane. The edges of the vertical head-to-chest window were frosted with condensation. “A few dents and scratches, but vitals look good.”
“He’ll tag out as a clean extraction. No worries there.”
“You still doing the seventy-thirty split for your transports?”
“That’s the deal. Pod hatch can be unlocked from the outside.” Pointing his thumb to the station entrance, John said, “I’ve got a couple of errands inside, then I need to leave the sector for a while to handle some personal business. Think you can be done in the next thirty minutes or so?”
“Easy. I have a hover cart, and my Argo transport is only one hangar over. I’ll have this one out of your hair in no time.”
“Great.” John extended his hand. Larry shook it. “Good doing business with ya, kid.”
“Same. Keep me in mind. Trying to get enough tosses for a step up the old ladder.”
“Sure, kid,” John said as he headed toward the station entrance.
John walked up to the bar and introduced himself. “John James, plain name, simple life.” 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 that 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 the station. The public space was a large rectangular room divided into distinct sections. 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 stretched across the floor.
Maggie pointed to the areas as she described them. “I’ve got just one room here. Pool tables there.” She pointed to the back left corner. “Holo gaming tables there.” Back right corner. Looking toward 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. Then, pointing to a door centered on the wall behind the bar, she added, “Back there’s the kitchen, my office, and restroom.”
“Just the staff?” He asked.
“Yeah. Public restrooms too much trouble. I kept finding empty syringes and vials. That Black Widow crap smells like 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. I 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 sort. 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. This work is only for here.”
“Okay – sounds good. It’s really just the one room, then. The kitchen looks secure,” John said, pointing to the hand scanner on the door. “The glass opening bulletproof?”
“Yep, I had that installed last year. Is this the kind of job you take? I know you’re contract bounty, but I was told you take freelance stuff too. You came highly recommended; I just wasn’t sure if this is your thing.”
As was his custom, John diligently using one finger to tap notes into his datapad. Noticing that Maggie had stopped talking, he looked up. John’s smile was genuine and raised his cherub-like cheeks high on his face. Dark curly hair rested on his forehead 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 pad, “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 stopped taking notes and gave Maggie his full attention. “Looks like I can fit you in. Friday and Saturday from 22:00 Standard Earth Time 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 holo tables where John had wandered over to. “How much does that cost?”
He chuckled. “My expense if we can agree, I can handle 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 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. Chasing smugglers and routing vagrants are my main meal ticket. I’m a senior security and bounty contractor for Crusader, Hurston, and a couple of others’ round here. I get first dibs, so that’s my priority. If I don’t take a gig, I lose it and eventually get bumped down the ladder for future work.” His tone was light. His voice even.
Maggie came to stand beside him. “I don’t know. I had trouble a few days back. It’s why I started asking around.” She wrung her hands. “It got pretty bad. I need those hours covered. The place is rowdiest then. The 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. I can shoot you a couple of names. Either one of these would do just as well.” He started humming as he reached for his datapad. His head bobbed slightly to the tune that only he could hear.
Maggie interrupted him. “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.”
“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. I 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. Even if they’re a bit red.” To him, she said, “Send the contract, and I’ll authorize it.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
“Can you start this week?”
John extended his hand, and Maggie accepted it. “Sure can. Will install the cameras on my first shift.”
Maggie hoped she wasn’t blushing. John was too young for her, and he wasn’t even particularly handsome.” But there’s something about him,” she decided inwardly.
“Pleasure doing business with you with Mags. Off to my next stop.” John slid his hands into his jacket pockets and sauntered toward the exit. Then, 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 fast 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 pad to verify the habicube eviction request he’d received earlier was still active. It was. Maggie’s pub was at the back of Quad-D, one of the cleaner sections on the space station. The work request was in Quad-A, the worst area. The quickest way there would be through the tunnels.
The tunnels, as locals called them, are a network of secured maintenance routes burrowed into the giant asteroid turned industrial facility and housing exchange, now a self-governing powder keg. A few dozen legit merchants had stayed after the mining operation shut down. Having invested all their life savings in establishing businesses here, they couldn’t afford to pack up and run when Green Imperial had abandoned their industrial division. Without local administration onsite, 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. Green Imperial retained control of the functioning self-service habicubes and continued to collect the revenue. But everything else on the station was an “as is” situation—no maintenance or repairs. When things stopped working on their now nearly defunct stations, 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, John 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 led the way forward. They hissed angry pockets of steam from cracked wounds. John started walking. His boots reverberated on the uneven craggy path.
Although it would be a reduced payout, John hoped the occupants had voluntarily vacated by now. The request was two hours old. He’d get his twenty-five percent fee for signing 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 perps to vacate the area with words or by force was better than disabling, capturing, and hauling them to a Law Enforcement Station, or worse, planet-side for processing. “Everyday flying free above terraforma is a good day,” in his book.
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, and fidgeted standing in line at the surplus warehouse where he bought non-perishable food supplies. John grunted, trying to maneuver around the other customers picking through clothing haphazardly tossed into “Final Sale” bins. If it wasn’t about his spacewear, he didn’t care overly much. Convenience was his priority.
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 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. Quad A was quiet. Fewer people than usual 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 grated metal staircase to the next level. John took the steps two at a time then turned left into Quad A’s shantytown. A dead-end of the lowest rate habicubes, fronted by illegal mylar tents. The smell of urine was overwhelming.
John coughed and covered his nose.
“Damn,” he muttered to himself. He hadn’t been on this side of the station for a while. With no merchants in the area, no one complained or paid 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 were like bread crumbs. A bloody palm smeared on a door frame. He eased his pistol out of his pocket and moved into the shadows along the opposite wall.
To Be Continued.
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
In addition to continuing to improve my writing and establish a disciplined schedule, I wanted to create a series of characters and places that could live outside of Star Citizen lore. I wanted the option of lifting the series outside of the Cloud Imperium’s IP if I felt it had legs. In my mind, this necessitated a single location that was unique to my canon. Podcity and it’s related stories, blend sci-fi, and elements of cyberpunk.
I’m very enamored of stories that create places that take on a life of their own. Hogwarts and Diagon Alley from Harry Potter. The Millenium Falcon in Star Wars. Claire’s dungeon apothecary in Outlander. Podcity is my first attempt to conceive a location with that intent in mind. An environment creative enough to stand as a character within the series. As much as I enjoy fantasy and science-fiction, I’m also a huge fan of cyberpunk. The fact that Star Citizen will include cybernetics lets me expand my story concepts to explore these aspects as part of my fanfiction, adding a bit of cyberpunk.
I’d been holding on to an image of a spherical habitat for a couple of years, that fascinated me. It initiated musings of modular living spaces whose purpose could be easily exchanged and connected to a structure that provided life support services. Like circular lego rooms, you can attach and detach different configuration to a port on the tower. Freely mix and match their purposes and locations. I’ve thought about the concept for over a year until the idea of Podcity floating in space solidified.
Within the Star Citizen universe, Podcity is located in Terra. Here’s the first description of the location, as seen in The Fallen, the first short story in the upcoming anthology…
Podcity, in geostationary orbit around Gen, was constructed an equal distance between the planet, and the outskirts of the Marisol asteroid belt. Ten floors of circular habitat capsules, attached to a central cylindrical core, Podcity floated as a bronze monolithic bubbled tower. Double rows of environmentally secured hangars attached to the top and bottom of the structure, allowed occupants easy access to their ships.
Podcity, in geostationary orbit around Gen, was constructed an equal distance between the planet, and the outskirts of the Marisol asteroid belt. Ten floors of circular habitat capsules, attached to a central cylindrical core, Podcity floated as a bronze monolithic bubbled tower. Double rows of environmentally secured hangars attached to the top and bottom of the structure, allowed occupants easy access to their ships.
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.
I just released Star Citizen Nightbus Fiction Collective Volume 1. Whew, that’s a mouthful. It’s a compilation of the fan-fiction I’ve written thus far for Star Citizen. It contains the serialized stories that were previously released in NB episodes 1 to 6, plus the narration of Maggie’s Origin Story.
Star Citizen lore and the upcoming MMO have inspired me to start writing fiction again and I’m enjoying it. As ever, I wish there were more leisure hours in a day to explore all of my hobbies but, I try to make do as I can. Smile Somehow, I’m going to begin making time to resume writing my own fiction while I’m feeling excited and motivated.
There’s more to come for my NB fan-fiction too. The next two pieces of fiction that will appear alongside my OpEd pieces will be “An A.I.’s Story” and “Murder on the 890 Jump”. A.I. will play around with the idea of telling a story with a non-human as the protagonist and Murder will be in the style of Clue, letting readers play along to guess the identity of the killer. These are both a few weeks out as I have other obligations to fulfill in between. Until then, I hope you enjoy this collective. Time stamps are in the YouTube video description.
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.”