CHOP SHOP BY ALYSIANAH NOIRE
Audio version available on YouTube: Star Citizen Nightbus Episode 3
White hot lightning exploded inside her head. Or at least, that’s how it felt. Cami screamed and convulsed. Pain rippled through her like a jackhammer. She bucked violently. Rough hands tried to keep her still. She felt someone shove something between her teeth. All around, sensors blared, voices yelled and the klaxon boomed. She wanted to die.
She felt a sharp jab in her left arm. Instinctively, she rolled her head in that direction but… She couldn’t see. It was like staring into the sun from one eye and nothing from the other. Slowly a small measure of her pain receded. Her limbs felt heavy. The voices around her quieted. She was weightless and floating away. Wait. No, being carried. Cami tried to reach out but her hand flopped back down like a dead fish. She felt someone take her hand and squeeze it gently, before folding it across her chest. When darkness came for her, she wanted to resist. To tell Death calling him was a mistake. The pain was manageable now. She fought to stay conscious but her eyelids were like lead. Her world faded black.
Cami moaned. She could feel every beat of her heart as a pile driver behind her right eye. The vision from her left eye was blurry. She tried looking around only to realize her head was being restrained. She blinked a few times and her surroundings came into focus. Using her peripheral vision, she could see that she was in a makeshift medbay aboard a ship. The wall racks and wenches on the ceiling gave her the impression of it actually being a retrofitted cargo bay.
There was another medical cot with an autodoc to her immediate left. A stained curtain separated the two beds but they were drawn back. Across from her, she saw chipped and scuffed ship components painted bright yellow and the once white MISC logo, now gray and faded around the edges. Familiar with the layout, she knew that the storage containers bolted along the wall were blocking the Freelancer emblem. The medbay…cargo bay…whatever, sounded hollow, like being inside a tin can. It echoed the faint sounds of a monitor chirping out the rhythm of her pulse. The equipment in her field of view looked dated and dingy – held together with plexi and cable ties. A basin of blood soaked rags was on a metal tray at her feet.
She heard a mumble a short distance away but couldn’t see anyone. She tried to speak but it came out as a croak. “Wh-where…”
A man in a rumpled khaki jumpsuit hobbled into view. He was hunched over, age bearing down on him. His brown face was cracked like old leather. “Awake?” He clapped his hands together and nodded. “Rasa very happy see this.” His smile was genuine.
Cami tried speaking again, “Where am I? Wh-what happened?”
“Accident them say,” Rasa replied. “Came rushing. Nearly knock off orbit docking fast n reckless.” He tutted under his breath as he moved to read Cami’s vitals on the autodoc display. “Four carried you on stretcher. Had you topped off with Ops for pain. Surprised you lasted from Tanga. Near jump I guess.”
Cami’s reply had the halting cadence of someone trying to remember a dream – or nightmare in this case. “We were – I think. Lots of bottom feeding miners in Tanga. Harvesting fast, chasing heavy metals.” Her voice gained more confidence. “I was clearing a jam from the pul-pulverizer. Piece of shit barely worked. Usually take the raws over to Gray-Jaw, Jimmy Chi’s reclaimer for processing. This shift we were trying to stay out longer – make a few extra creds each. Luther and I were at it with rods, trying to clear the input tray. It started grinding and then there was a high-pitched squeal.” Cami shuddered. “Fragments spun loose and …” She started inhaling in short shallow burst as if suffocating.
Rasa, still standing near the AutoDoc controls tapped a button then moved to stand beside her. She felt an icy coldness creep up her arm that had the IV. Her body began to relax. The rising terror on her face melted away. “Rest. Over now. Be good soon. Can go home.”
He smiled down at her. “Yes.” He nodded several times. “Eye socket cleaned, stitched and gave plasma. Need patch few weeks.” He patted her hand. “But is good. Yes, can go home next day.” Enthusiastically he added, “And have change!”
“Change?” Cami struggled to keep up with what Rasa was saying but she was being tugged down into the darkness.
As if giving good news he said,“Yes, I do fair prices. Friends leave your share and add a bit extra, they say. Help you straight.”
Cami replied in a small voice. Her tongue heavy in her mouth. “But my – my eye? Fixed?” She went to lift a hand to it, only to realize they were strapped to the bed.
Rasa sighed. “Is gone. Ruptured. More force you dead.” An alert sounded. Rasa checked his mobi. “New patient.” He plucked at his overgrown salt-n-pepper beard while reading the details. “Quick fix. You rest.”
In a monosyllabic tone he said, “ Bed 2 – Curtains.” As Rasa stepped back out of the way, the curtains around Cami’s bed began closing.
She tried to shout but it came out as a whisper. “Wait… Please… Don’t go…. I need…” But it was too late. The curtains swished into place around her, blocking her off from the rest of the room. Her eyes closed to the step-slide-thump sound of Rasa’s retreating footsteps.
When Cami woke again, she was propped up in the bed with the curtains open. The bed next to her was empty but there was a stainless steel cart of beside it. Surgical tools, stained bandages, and used syringe lay on the top tray. Minus the restraints, she gingerly probed the area around her right eye. A wad of gauze was pushed into the eye socket and secured with medical tape. On top of that was an eye patch. She winced when her fingers skimmed the skin around the bandage. It was taut and hot to the touch. She looked up when she heard the cabin door swoosh open. It got stuck on the first attempt. She saw Rasa step back and then forward to try again. The tired look on his face brightened when he noticed she was awake.
“Good. Good. Let’s see.” He walked over to Cami’s bedside, his progress hampered by his left leg. It trailed behind until he pulled it forward with a quick jerk. Examining her injury, he lifted the patched and poked at his handy work. “Is good. Very good work,” he praised himself.
“Ouch!” Cami tried to pull back from the less than gentle examination.
He glanced at the AutoDoc. “Sorry, pain meds wore off. Can give one more dose.”
“Yes, thank you.” She sighed in relief. “Look, I need to have a replacement put in. How much does that cost?”
Rasa chuckled and shuffled over to the other medbay. “You got change but not that much.” He sprayed the bed with a potent antiseptic smelling foam before wiping it down. The task made more laborious by his hampered gait and limited reach. “Get home fine for now,” he grunted while he cleaned.
“There is no home. I can’t work like this.” she said, gesturing to her missing eye. “No papers for Breman. No work but mining in Tanga. Everyone pulls double duty on salvage and miners. No one’s going to hire me gimped.”
Rasa gathered up the used surgical instruments and placed them in a vial filled with blue liquid on the lower half of the cart. He balled up the bandages and chucked them into a nearby recycler. Sounding winded from the effort, he gingerly lowered himself on a nearby cushioned stool and swiveled to face Cami. “Be runnin?” he asked but didn’t wait for a reply. “Tanga. Breman. No one checkin’. No one wants these parts but lowers workin’ these rocks and folks like Rasa doing services,” he said, tapping his chest.
Cami looked away. “I can’t make it out here. If you know this place like it sounds, you know everyone is replaceable. Many waiting to take the next job. No one’s going to hire me.” She turned back to Rasa who was watching her intently. “Take all I have left. I’ll come back with more. I promise!” Looking around for her personal items she said, “Sell my mobi! It’s a decent one. Can get by without it.” Grasping at straws she added, “I’ll sign on with you a few weeks. Pay it off.” Gesturing around she added. “Place looks like shit.” Belatedly she added, “No offense. I can fix things and make minor repairs.”
Rasa sigh. “No need. Just hanging on ‘til gone. Sorry young one. No creds to even buy what’s needed not counting Rasa fee.” Cami dropped her gaze to her lap where her fingers were at war with the bed sheets.
“Friend have fuel station nearby. Lots come for supplies too.” Pointing aft he added, “We go. Can set beacon there a couple days. Ask about work. Rasa know the good ones.”
Cami’s voice was flat – dejected. “Sure. Thanks.” Resigned she asked, “Can you at least tell me what I need and how much it cost?” She didn’t know Rasa but her gut told her that he could be trusted. “This way I don’t get robbed when the time comes.” She tried for a smile but the edges of her mouth barely moved.
Rasa reluctantly agreed. “Sure. Need sleep first. Come back soon.” It took him two attempts to stand up from the stool before slowly making his way out of the cabin.
Cami tried to quiet the panic inside her chest. It had taken her two standard earth years to find a spot on Rally One, a trio of independently owned ships that worked together mining and salvaging their way through backwater systems like Tanga. Decent captain, crew and fair split on profits weren’t easy to find. She was assigned to the Orion but occasionally helped out on the Reclaimer and Prospector. Her dream was to someday buy a salvaged Prospector to restore over time and captain her own ship. She knew saving up that much alone was a long shot. Even so, she allowed herself to dream. It kept her going when profits were low and stomachs empty. When the shifts were long and the ship cold trying to conserve fuel.
Even with the ups and downs, the Rally organization had a good reputation among the low tier miners and salvagers. There was a line of people waiting to take her spot and Rally One couldn’t afford to hold it for her. She knew this and didn’t resent it, even though it made her gut twist to think about. They had families to feed. She just had herself. But the idea of finding a new spot was terrifying. Alone out in the black was a dangerous place. She wasn’t afraid of being hungry as much as she was the potential for violence. She’d fended off attacks a time or two, barely escaping. The memory made bile rise up in her throat.
Trying to steer clear of painful memories she focused on the present. She wondered how much “change” she had left and how long it would last. She knew how to stretch it. That wasn’t new. Unfortunately, she also knew that the local Tanga teams were full. That is, any crew she’d even consider. Her vision blurred as a trail of tears ran down one side of her face. She dashed them away. “There’s no crying in space.” She reminded herself.
When Rasa came back he was carrying a disposable tray with two containers on top. He still had dark circles around his eyes. Was he hunched over a bit more? He sat the tray on Cami’s lap. She picked up the containers one at a time and read the labels: Purecleen water with electrolytes and protein cubes. Space rations.
“Been five days. Tubes gone. Need start eating,” Rasa explained.
“We exam for cyber replacement.” Managing her expectations he added, “Just to see. Okay?”
Cami perked up a bit. “Yes. Please.” She set the tray beside her when she felt the bed begin to recline.
Making his way to the AutoDoc he continued, “After we head to fuel depot couple days and see.”
“Thank you – really.” Cami reached out and touched Rasa’s sleeve. “This isn’t your problem. I appreciate the help.”
“S’okay. Had family. Wife. Two kids. Hope someone help them before was over.”
“Over?” Cami hesitated. “Are they gone?”
“Yes. Lost all in Caliban. So few escape attack. Wife and daughter medics. Son captain in military. Me surgical assist.” He let out a long sigh, completely emptying his lungs. “Confusion during UEE retreat. Were separated. They never made out.” Rasa wiped at the corner of his eyes. “Will join in next life.” A sad smile on his face. “Soon.”
Cami was at a loss for words. She was missing an eye. Clearly not the end of the world, she tried to tell herself. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that in her case, it was. “Sorry for your loss,” was all she could think to say.
“Me too.” Rasa turned the AutoDoc on. When the status indicator went from yellow to green he said, “Eval Right Eye Replace” To Cami he added, “Hold Still. Eyes closed.” A head restraint extended from the medbay headboard. It cupped the upper port of Cami’s head and applied firm pressure, clamping her head in place. Cami laid still, her hands rigid at her sides.
The scanning unit positioned over the top of the bed whirred to life. “Initiating scan 1. Evaluation for cybernetic eye replacement”. A light blue beam swept up and down and side to side on Cami’s face. “Skeletal frame complete. “Initiating depth scan.” Two mechanical hands descended from the scanner. The metal skeleton fingers clicked as they moved. Each finger had probes for fingertips, wires looped from one joint to the next. Hovering a couple of inches from Cami’s face the scanner repeated. “Initiating depth scan.”
Cami heard a pop and a clang that echoed through the medbay. The spindly metal fingers splayed and groped like a crab caught by its shell, as they struggled to reach Cami’s face.
Rasa cursed under his breath. “Stupid scanner.”
Cami’s eye popped open. “What’s wrong?”
The AutoDoc chimed in. “Error initiating depth scan…”
The hands continued spasming over Cami’s face. She tried sinking further back into the pillow or turning her head but no luck. She couldn’t move without tearing her scalp. “Wait – turn it off.” Starting to panic she grabbed the head restraint with both hands trying to move.
“Is fine. Stop. Hurt yourself.” Straining, Rasa reached up and fiddled with a few screws and wires. He groaned from the pain of extending his back as he worked. “There” he sighed.
“Error initiating depth scan. Canceling request in 10…9…8…”
Rasa used the bed rail to support his weight as he walked to the opposite side of the bed and repeated the adjustments to the scanner. The cancellation countdown stopped.
“See? Fixed. Relax and close eyes.”
Cami looked at him skeptically. “You sure?”
“Yes, close eyes.” To the AutoDoc he said, “Continue scan.”
The AutoDoc whirred back to life. “Reinitiating depth scan.” The appendages lowered, placing sensors at exact points on both sides of her face – temples, brow and around her eye sockets.
Cami winced when she felt the pressure around her bruised eye socket. But she kept as still as a corpse. After a few seconds, the scanner retracted and announced that the depth scan was completed. Rasa told the AutoDoc to “Show holo”.
A wireframe holographic image of Cami’s face floated below the scanner. Rasa used his hands to twist the hologram in his direction. He spread his hands over it to increase its size. After reviewing it at different angles, he thumped the areas around the right eye, making the other elements disappear until only the damaged eye socket remained. Rasa told the scanner to display the dimensions. Numbers with lead lines pointing to various parts of the hologram appeared.
The Autodoc had retracted the head restraint when the scan was over. Cami pushed up on her elbows watching in wonder. She’d never seen someone use a hologram up close and was fascinated. “How does it look? Can it be replaced easily?”
“Can not the question. Cost is.” He replied. He commanded the Autodoc to send the dimension data to his mobi. He scanned the open market for a synthetic eye replacement that fit Cami’s measurements.
He knew the most affordable option would be an eyeball replacement made using a 3D bioprinter but even those didn’t come cheap. Lesser organs were more reasonably priced – blood vessels, ears and such, but the complexity of the human eye kept the price out of reach for most civilians.
When the mobi returned a price, Rasa’s eyebrows arched up to his hairline. He grunted, “Hmph.”
“What? How much?”
Rasa leaned in and let Cami see for herself. She caught her breath. “Oh. Wow.” There was nothing more to say. No favors to ask. It was completely out of her reach. A feeling of despair settled in her belly.
“You dress. We go refuel station couple days and see.”
Resigned Cami said, “Sure. Thanks for checking.”
It felt good to be up and around at least. Rasa had given Cami all of the personal belongings the Rally One crew had brought with her. She thought about trying to artfully cover the eye patch with her hair then decided against it. This was her new reality. Instead, she swept the shoulder length brown curly up into a high ponytail.
The Bremen fueling station Rasa used was privately owned by a man named Jim Haven. It was an “add as you go affair”. Fuel dispensaries formed an unevenly spaced arc around the back of battered Starfarer. The day they’d arrived, she’d seen the Starfarer carefully back its way into the arch to refill the dispensers. Once in place, customers looking buy supplies were allowed into the cargo hold to see what Jim had available. Rasa had left the ship to talk to Jim and others he knew. Putting out the word that he had a patient that needed work. No one had, or knew of anything, being available.
On the second day, Cami decided to quiet the nervousness in her gut by fixing a few things in the makeshift medbay. She’d asked Rasa if he had any tools. He’d pointed her to a container with a variety of rusted tools, cables, wires and plex-guns scrambled together in a heap. She spent an hour sorting out the contents and cleaning the tools before replacing the wiring and bolts on the scanner and fixing the cabin door that stuck when it slid open. The work hadn’t erased her sense of loss and concern, wondering what she was going to do next but it had passed the time. She was sitting on her medbay eating a bowl of soy noodles when Rasa came in. He clearly had something on his mind. “Bad news no doubt,” she whispered to herself.
Rasa rolled the cushioned stool over to Cami and sat down. “No luck. We tried.”
“I know and I appreciate it very much.”
“Need return my spot – is where customers come.”
“Understand.” She looked around the cabin noting where her things were. She’d gather them and get off here. Maybe pay for a ride to a busier location. “I’ll get my things and get off here. I’ll try to…”
Rasa put up his hands for her to wait and cut her off mid sentence. “You come with me. Stay.” Tapping his chest he continued. “I teach. You help. And fix things.”
Cami’s mouth fell open. She was at a loss. Was he serious? “Stay? Here?” It was tight quarters and no privacy in the sleeping berths. She could sleep in the medbay when no patients were here. It was safe. He was kind. It would give her time to figure things out.
He nodded. “Not hardly much pay. But have bunk and food and safe. Is safe.” He stopped speaking, breathing and closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again he said, “Rasa tired. Am waiting join family in next life.”
Cami heard a sense of peace in Rasa’s voice when he talked about being ready to join his family. So sure in his beliefs that he would. The calmness he radiated washed over her. “How can I possibly? I’m not a medic.”
“Do AutoDoc service only when Rasa gone. Go place where is less fee but more work. You young. Can do.” He smiled. “Leave if find better. Til then is home.” Gesturing around he said, “You keep when Rasa go. Scavengers don’t deserve. You have.”
Her mind was racing. Was he for real? Why do this for her? No one had offered her so much since the elderly couple had smuggled her and 5 other teens out of the state-run orphanage on Charon III. They used to deliver supplies a few times a year. However, the increase in attacks and bombings made up their minds to drop the route altogether. On their last trip, they’d offered to smuggle out anyone willing to go. Fairly poor themselves, they’d had little to offer but this chance at freedom. They’d dropped the lot of them at a space station in Tyrol with a few credits each, a sleeping roll and a few days of cubed protein rations. Those first few months had been terrifying. In some ways, more so than the civil war raging on Charon.
Cami returned from her reverie wide-eyed and dumbstruck. She found it hard to speak above the lump in her throat. “Are you sure? You don’t have someone else to leave this to?”
“No. All lost. All gone.”
Cami slid down from the bed and crouched in front of Rasa. Taking both of his hands in hers, she said, “Yes, I would like that. I will do all that I can to help.”
They were both crying now and not ashamed. Cami swore to herself that she would repay this kindness. She would help him. She would fix the ship. And she would learn all that he wanted to teach her. In time, he could just rest. She’d do it all and take care of him.
A different kind of future blossomed in her mind’s eye. Joy swelled in her chest and rung in her ears. She would repay this gift to Rasa and forward to someone else somewhere someday.