The worst part about being stuck in a holding cell wasn’t the interrogation, but the waiting until it got to that point.
Not that I was a hardened criminal or anything, just a bit of a wild child that ran with the wrong crowd for a brief time a few years ago. Racing hovers through the bazaar, painting the hand railing at the casino with a mild contact hallucinogenic, releasing a pack of spitting llamas into an Advocacy convention, that sort of thing.
My history was probably one of the reasons my father had agreed to let me join the courier service. He said, I just had steam to burn, or maybe a little anger that mom had died.
He was wrong on both accounts. Simple boredom, that’s all it was. That and a realization, born from a day when I was sitting in a holding cell just like this one, for one of our petty pranks, that sitting in jail and working in the family bar were just about the same thing.
At least in the bar, though, I could pass the time studying the patrons.
The holding cell was about as featureless as deep space, with a miserably hard chair as its only furniture. They wanted to soften me up, making me so bored I’d be willing to spill my secrets to them willingly. The fact that this actually worked on some criminals boggled my mind. How could they be so dumb?
But I had nothing to worry about. I’d done nothing wrong. I just wish someone would come in so I could tell them that.
After about three hours, a woman entered the cell. She was older, mocha skin, and severe lines around her eyes and mouth. She’d been beautiful once, but now those looks had been suppressed behind duty and a crisply-kept security uniform. Not even one dark hair of her military cut was out of place.
I gave a thin lipped nod.
“I’m Captain Hennessy. I’m in charge of this facility. I’m sorry about the wait, but I was down the street, on planet,” she said.
The sleepy annoyance was plain as a whistle on her face. They’d disturbed her from her off-time.
“I’m sorry you were bothered,” I said, truly meaning it. “But can you tell me why I’m being held? No one’s said a thing, and while I still have plenty of time to make my courier delivery, I get a bonus for speed. When you need a message delivered, nothing’s faster than FTL!”
I said the last part, the company motto, in a little sing-song voice, which cracked a tiny smile at the corner of Captain Hennessy’s lips. It disappeared as quickly as it appeared.
“A courier, huh? Nobody told me that,” she said, now scowling. She stood there for a moment, arms crossed, biting her lower lip, thinking.
“Nothing like a bureaucracy to gum up the works,” I offered.
She put her hands on her hips. “That’s my bureaucracy you’re talking about.”
I swallowed and pinched my leg. That was a dumb move.
“Look,” she said, “I want to get back down planet, but something on your MobiGlas triggered our new sensors. And we’re also not fond of people recording our security areas. We found a camera button on your backpack.”
I let out a yip of surprise. “Oh, I’d forgotten about that. It’s my first trip for the company, and my first trip off planet. I thought I’d record it all. You know, cause.”
I lifted one shoulder in a partial shrug. Captain Hennessy grumbled in the back of her throat.
“As for the file, I assume that’s my delivery,” I said.
The Captain pulled out her MobiGlas and started reviewing some information. The whole time she was biting her lower lip and sighing. I could practically sense her looking back over her shoulder as if she could see whatever location she was vacationing.
When the Captain frowned at me again, I knew I was in trouble. She might want to get back to her time off, but I could also see how crisp her uniform was, even on this short notice. She was a woman of duty and responsibility.
“The total size of the files on your device far exceed what FTL has approved for your level of security clearance,” she said, tapping her finger on the screen as she talked. “As a wet-nosed courier, you should only be able carry recipes for roast lamb and maybe a bicycle print. This kind of file size is normally only seen with major industrial projects, or complex systems. All that damn physics.”
When I opened my mouth, I planned on telling Captain Hennessy to contact FTL headquarters on Castra II. They would clear it up for me.
But I hesitated.
For two reasons.
The first was that it would take probably take days for the company to get back to Captain Hennessy. Not only would I have to spend the time in a holding cell like this one, I’d miss my delivery due date.
The second was less sure, more speculation. Rumor even. During the few weeks of training and orientation we received, mostly on the intricacies of interstellar travel and a pitifully weak self-defense class, an anecdote got passed around about our upcoming first deliveries.
It was said that the company usually sent new couriers on a fake mission, or “lead sled” in company lingo, for their first go. A way to confirm loyalty and ability. Some people even said they threw obstacles in the way, using actors and real-live officials, to see how the new courier would react.
So I closed my mouth and recalibrated my answer, first clearing my throat to give credence to my delay.
“I’m sure it’s a mistake of some kind,” I said. “Maybe they meant to give it to a different courier, or they didn’t realize my security status.”
Captain Hennessy clasped her hands in front. “Or they thought they could slip these illegal files by my station. Or maybe you’re working for someone else and only joined that service to utilize the security clearance it gave you. We only just installed this new detector, so no one would have known about it.”
Despite my innocence, I felt guilty. Mostly because I knew how it looked, and it didn’t look good.
I was about to go into ‘little girl mode’, a trick I’d used to my advantage more than once back on Castra II. I was only forty-five kilos if I’d eaten a big meal, and had petite, elfin ears. My father liked to claim that my mother, Abigail, was really a faerie queen that he’d stolen away from the fey, and that she hadn’t really died, just gone back home. It was a nice lie, and one I’d told myself more than once.
But then I looked up at Captain Hennessy. Really looked at her. I’d seen her type in the bar. Once, when she was younger, duty had given her a firm hold on a crumbling lifestyle. Maybe she’d had an abusive father, or a bad marriage, but the security service had given her a way to control part of her life.
I didn’t know if it’d work, but I had to take a chance. I let my shoulders slump and chin dip to my chest.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said, letting the words dribble out of my lips. “Even if it’s a mistake, I’m still going to miss my delivery and they’ll fire me. It’s just like my dad said, that I’d screw it up somehow. Now I’ll have to go back there.”
When I risked a quick glance up, I saw Captain Hennessy flinch, if only for a moment. It helped that most of what I said was true. I didn’t want to go back. And my father had said I’d screw it up.
But something from the Captain’s past had been triggered by my admission. Her brow was as tight as a drum, almost an overhang of tensed muscles, leaving her eyes drowning in shadow. She was squeezing her lips so tight they were pale as a corpse.
I rested my forehead on my palms, and waited. Captain Hennessy was forcefully tapping on her MobiGlas, and sighing between every fifth tap. She was mumbling something about a beach and never getting any time off under her breath.
“Sorri,” she said to me, more of a command than a question.
I looked at her with upward tilted eyes. “Yes, ma’am?”
“The amount of paperwork an attempted security breach like this generates is staggering,” said the captain, finger on her MobiGlas.
My stomach did a back flip. I could already hear my father lecturing me about my foolishness when I had to return home.
“And the only one that can approve that sort of nonsense is me,” she continued. “But what little I can find on you checks out …” she started shaking her head as if she couldn’t believe she was saying it, “… and I’ve been waiting nearly a year for this time off. If I have to deal with this, I’ll miss the whole damn thing.”
I held my breath, while she blinked and had a brief internal war with herself. I knew I wasn’t out of danger, yet.
Finally, she came to her conclusion, and I could tell it was the piece of the puzzle that tilted the decision my way.
“And I know a little something about a young girl not wanting to return home. So I’m going to clear this breach from the system and let you head down planet.”
“Thank you, Captain Hennessy,” I said as the relief flooded through my limbs.
“Now I need to go,” she said, an unexpected smile on her lips. “But I don’t want to see you again, right?”
I nodded enthusiastically.
After the captain left, one of the security agents came in with my stuff. He was shaking his head the whole time as if he’d just seen ghosts or a talking dog.
The shuttle ride down was brief and terrifying. A cloud layer had formed over New Alexandria, so there wasn’t even a good view on the way down.
When we arrived, I shouldered my backpack on, triggered the remote camera again, and headed for the exits at the starport, dodging around the crowds and keeping watch for signs. My legs were still jittery from the interrogation and the harrowing ride down. At least, Oya III shared a similar gravity with Castra II. I was strong for my size, and being a girl, but the layover in security had left me weak with hunger.
The first thing I planned to do was find a food stall in the bazaars built up around New Alexandria. When the starport had been built, the workers that’d come for the work had stayed in the camps, and eventually those camps became a ring of new constructions and shanty towns. The real wealth of the city lived further south, but I’d be going north to the WillsOp Corp installation.
New Alexandria was known for its spiced lamb kabobs, and I swore I could smell some. I was standing outside next to the hovertaxi lanes trying to get my bearings, using the map functions on the company-issued MobiGlas, almost tasting the hot spicy meat exploding onto my tongue, when I heard the quiet hum of an electrocycle pull aside.
I glanced up and into the face of a towering behemoth, who dwarfed his vehicle, making him look like he was riding a child’s bike. His hair was salty black, and his gristled chin matched the coloring of the hair. He had an overpowering body odor that made me wrinkle my nose.
I thought he was about to ask for directions when I saw the hardness in his eyes. Then his powerful, meaty hand reached out and swiped the MobiGlas from my grip, and as he drove away he gave me a look that said: follow me and die.
to be continued …
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