As I settled onto the olive-gray seat and strapped the malleable plasteel harness around my chest, the last words of my father as I left the Golden Horde, my father’s bar, echoed in my head.
“Nobody ever made a livin’ in space that didn’t regret it. It’s all warmongers and thieves up there. Nobody worth knowing. So when you’ve had your fill of adventure, scurry back home. I’ll keep your spot behind the bar warm for that day you get some sense behind that thick skull of yours, Sorri.”
Even as I tried to get the harness to snug tightly – you could fit two of me inside it – I could still hear the tone in my father’s voice as he said the word adventure. It sounded like he’d just taken a bit of apple crisp and found out it’d really been manure.
Waiting for the last passenger, I shivered and rubbed my arms, trying to get warm. They kept it as cold as the beer locker back home.
I’d pulled on my favorite woolen sweater, the one my Uncle Cab had given me, but even that wasn’t enough to stop the cold from leaking into my bones. The sweater was the color of sunsets, something I knew I’d miss, traveling through the darkness of space as a courier for the FTL Courier Service.
This last passenger better be worth the wait.
But even the cold, or the echoes of my father, or waiting for the last passenger couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm.
I was in space at last!
After all the arguing with my father, the scraping together of funds from my tips, the entry tests, and sleeping on hard beds as I went through the training at the FTL office here on Castra II — I’d finally made it.
I rubbed my fingertips along the crack that separated two plates in the smooth wall. The Solar Jammer, a modified Caterpillar turned commercial transport, wasn’t exactly a sexy-sleek Idris but like a first kiss, it wasn’t the looks, but the experience itself.
I started to settle into my seat, when a memory goosed me. I’d forgotten that I wanted to record everything I could from my first trip, so I could send back a video to my father, letting him know that everyone wasn’t a thief, and that you didn’t just ‘fall into a space battle as simple as going to the store.’
I clipped the remote camera onto the straps of my backpack and checked my personal MobiGlas to confirm it was recording. When I was finished, I shoved it back into the bottom of the backpack. The FTL Courier Service didn’t really want us to carry our personal units, but they also didn’t like personal software running on company issued hardware. I figured it was a good compromise.
I was checking my company MobiGlas for messages when the last passenger arrived.
He ducked beneath the overhead bin and gave me a smile that would have made the devil proud.
He was handsome, but not the kind you see on the holovids. He had a scar on his lip that made his smile into half-smirk, half-sneer.
Just from his looks and his professional attire, I guessed he was a salesman. I hate salesmen. They always came into the bar with an attitude like they owned the place. Like they were better than us. Probably a Citizen, as well.
It was better this way, I decided. The courier service frowned on striking up conversations while on business. Didn’t look good for potential customers and created security risks.
So I went back to checking my MobiGlas, confirming my transport and connections once I arrived on Oya. I had seven days to get the files on the MobiGlas to the WillsOp Corporation, which was plenty of time, but I thought doing it in a third of the time would leave a good impression on my employer.
Then the co-pilot brought an animal carrier down to the gentleman across from me and strapped it into the seat.
Big brown eyes ringed with gold stared out from the cage.
The words fell out of my mouth before I remembered I wasn’t interested: “Is that a red-tailed lynx?”
The handsome passenger had been adjusting the harness for his longer frame when I asked the question. He glanced up, one eyebrow arched.
Well, I thought to myself, my father always said I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.
“I had one when I was a kid. I wouldn’t take a picture without Sasha in it,” I told him.
“Sasha?” he asked in a melodic voice. “I assume that’s the name of the lynx?”
I gave him a well-of-course shrug.
“Animal breeder?” I asked.
He looked me right in the eyes. Gray with specks of green. Eyes that had seen things.
“Now why wouldn’t you assume it’s my pet?” he asked, skin crinkling around the corners of his mouth.
“My parent’s own a bar up north on Castra II. I’ve met all kinds of people, all kinds, and you don’t strike me as a red-tailed lynx kinda guy. They’re too active and need space.”
As if it knew it was being discussed, the lynx pushed its furry face against the wires.
I wanted to reach out and rub the little grayish tufts of hair that stuck out from its ears, but the captain announced we’d be leaving the station for the jump point.
“You never answered my question,” I said.
The man gave a short, incredulous laugh. “You’re a bold one. You know, typically people introduce themselves before they start interrogations. I’m Dario Oberon.”
The Solar Jammer lurched as it left the station and I felt the gravity shift to the ship’s system.
“Never been fond of names, myself. Maybe too much time spent as a bar rat. Half the customers never gave their real name and the other half didn’t deserve theirs. I’m Sorri Lyrax, if it matters.”
He had a smile you could hang your heart on.
“Sorri? Given or earned name?” he asked, with a twinkle in his eye.
“Both,” I said, lifting one shoulder in a half-shrug. “And the answer?”
The Solar Jammer banked and headed out towards the jump point, pressing me into my seat and Dario against the harness.
“Not for a lady friend,” I mused. “A business venture? Something to grease the wheels, I’d say.”
Dario leaned forward, furrowed his brow, and pursed his lips in faux-thought. “And why would you say that, Sorri Lyrax?”
“Pets are terrible gifts for a lady friend, and you seem too smart for such a rookie mistake. As for the business venture, I saw the way you shook the hand of the co-pilot when he brought the lynx down. I’ve seen that smile and firm handshake a million times. My first guess was a salesman, but your confidence is real, not worn like a flabby second skin.”
He gave a tilted nod. “All this from a few minutes’ time?”
“Growing up like I did was like getting an advanced degree in human behavior. If you bothered paying attention,” I said.
Part of me was screaming inside to keep my mouth shut, but the other part liked impressing Dario. My father’d always made me stay in the background, and let the customers talk. It was nice to be in front of the counter for once.
“And I’m guessing since you’re travelling without luggage, you deal in intellectual property,” I said. “Probably something lucrative like ship designs or something like that.”
When the twinkle in his gray-green eyes turned as cold and hard as deep space, I knew I’d said too much, but the look disappeared just as fast as it’d appeared. The roguish smile resumed its seemingly familiar place on his lips.
Dario showed me his teeth. “Now that we’re at cruising speed, would you like to pet the lynx? She’s quite docile.”
“I’d love to,” I said, noting that he’d changed the subject, but I quickly reminded myself that I was on company business and intrigue was the last thing I should be involving myself with.
Dario handed the lynx over, careful not to release the creature. The lynx wrapped its red-tail around my arm and snuggled its face under into my armpit. I’d have lynx fur all over my woolen sweater before we arrived, but I didn’t care.
Before long, with the warm body of the lynx on my lap, and the soft fur soothing my fingertips as I brushed its back, I fell asleep, the excitement of starting a journey faded.
When I awoke, Dario was tugging the lynx from my arms. Outside the Solar Jammer, the orange and blue planet of Oya III was coming into view. A massive, cyclonic sand storm could be seen swirling across the Great Desolation on the northern continent. It was said the storm had been raging for the last three decades. Thankfully, I’d be landing on the green patch in the southern hemisphere, in the metropolitan city of New Alexandria.
Dario was busy on his MobiGlas when we arrived, so I didn’t bother him. I had to confirm my ride down the gravity well to Oya III planetside. I’d gotten a deal by signing on as an overflow passenger, but I had to hurry if I wanted to make the lander before it left. Traveling super-economy left no guarantees for seats.
By the time I made it out of the Solar Jammer, Dario had gone on ahead, which made me a little sad, since given the size of the UEE, I’d likely never see him again.
The antiseptic smell and bright, colorless tiles of the customs gate assaulted my groggy senses. Approaching the gray-green uniformed Security, I adjusted the straps on my backpack as I pulled out my papers, including the FTL Courier Badge, and readied to hand them over.
After stepping through a scanning device that gave off a high-pitched hum I could barely hear except as a vibration on the back of my teeth, I held out my identification to the broad-shouldered guard with a seemingly bored expression.
His MobiGlas gave him a bright beep and his expression went from boredom to annoyance to aggravation. Before I could do anything else, he reached out and grabbed my arm, squeezing hard enough to leave a bruise.
“That’s a security breach alarm,” he said, his ire firmly directed at me. “You’re coming with me.”