When the tears came, I couldn’t hold them back, which only made how I felt even worse.
I don’t cry easily and I certainly don’t cry in public. In fact, the only time I ever remember crying in front of other people was at my mother’s funeral, and then I didn’t care what people thought of me.
Most of the travelers that came through the port were on business, so they were loading into the hovertaxis that would take them to their meetings. When I started sobbing, it was as if I’d developed a very contagious plague and suddenly there was a bubble of space around me.
I buried my face in my elbow, snorting back the snot that threatened to leak out onto the sleeve of my favorite sweater.
When the tears finally dried up, I took a deep and trembling breath.
That man, whoever had taken my MobiGlas, had not been an actor. That much I knew.
I’d seen men like that come into the Golden Horde before, and my father was always quick to point them out and quick to send me into the back to take inventory. There was something visceral about them, like they were predators set loose in a pen of sheep.
I’d been willing to delude myself up in the station, thinking that the captain could be an act, part of the trial mission that I was being sent on. But that delusion was shattered now.
It also made me realize that the company might have sent me with the wrong files, or they were the intended files, and had planned on sneaking them through station security. And this man, clearly a criminal of some kind, had known about them.
Which made retrieving them even more important. I pinched my arm, mad at myself for being so cavalier with the MobiGlas. If I couldn’t get it back, I’d surely be released from FTL, maybe even fined for my carelessness, and then I’d have to go back to my father not only a failure, but also in debt.
But how was I going to get the MobiGlas back?
As Captain Hennessy had said, I was a wet-behind-the-ears newbie. I didn’t know who this man was, or where he was going. And now he had a good ten minute head start on an electrocycle, while I was still on foot.
My stomach growled at that moment, reminding me of another problem. I was starving. Weak with hunger, in fact.
My father like to say that I ate like a bird, if that bird was a condor. I like to think I had the metabolism of a humming bird, but it meant I was always eating.
Giving up meant getting something to eat. It’s not like I had a way to find this guy.
I decided I’d find a spiced lamb kabob vendor first, while I considered my options.
When I grabbed the straps on my backpack, my hand hit the camera button and my face flushed with excitement.
I quickly unshouldered the backpack and rummaged through until I found my other MobiGlas, the personal one. I’d forgotten I had it, with (hopefully) a camera running, but who knew, with my luck?
“Please still be recording, please still be recording,” I muttered as I brought up the camera files.
I let the relief whistle out of my lips when I saw that it was still taking video.
Flashing back to ten minutes ago, I replayed the scene. The camera button was lower down, so it was showing him at an upward angle, looking right into his chest and chin. Then the view bounced around with me when he grabbed the MobiGlas and rode off.
I replayed the scene three times until I saw what I needed. The first was the license plate on the electrocycle, including the rental company sticker on the back. Unless he’d planned the whole theft weeks ago, including an incorrect file, I might be able to uncover his identity through the rental company.
The second clue, but the more worrisome one, was that he was wearing a deep-space jumpsuit under his leather jacket. I’d only seen his face when he grabbed the MobiGlas, but the camera recorded his chest.
It seemed probable that he had a ship hidden on-planet somewhere or in near orbit. Which also meant he wasn’t going to return the electrocycle.
But if I could find out where he rented it, it might tell me where he had touched down. It was a chance, anyway, but only if I was on his trail right away. Which meant I wasn’t going to get to eat.
Then I hailed a taxi, a diesel land cruiser rather than a hover since that’s all I could afford, and when the driver asked me which direction, I paused. I needed to be moving, even if I didn’t know where he was going. So I was going to have to make an educated guess.
South was the wealthier region, so it was doubtful he’d dropped in there. North was more industrial, so lots of security cameras. Which left west or east.
A quick review of the map on my MobiGlas showed me that the west side of New Alexandria was less populated. I found a village along the main roads and told the driver to head there. West also made sense because he was on an electrocycle, which needed roads, which the farms and country folk would still use.
While he drove, I started calling the area rental services, asking if a man too big for a bike had rented one recently. No one wanted to tell me anything until I told them that: one, it was my husband and he was trying to leave me and my new baby, and two, that he wasn’t planning on returning the bike.
I found the right company on the third try. It was out west, about a hundred kilometers from the city. I did the math on the taxi and realized I would barely have enough funds. If I needed to go any further west, I’d be broke.
Once I was settled into the seat, I had massive regrets about what I was trying to do. It would be safer to turn back, conserve my funds, and spend my time until the journey figuring out how I was going to earn the money to pay FTL back.
My other option was to just say the hell with it and stay on planet, finding a job appropriate for my skills, whatever those were.
But a little hard seed in me just didn’t want to let this opportunity go. I’d been planning and saving for years to get to this point. I couldn’t let a little bad luck keep me down. That, and I didn’t want to return to my father empty-handed and in debt.
I slammed my hand on the seat, earning a reproachful glance from the driver. And then my stomach growled, earning a smirk.
And right as a light rain began to sprinkle against the taxi windows, we passed a row of outdoor food stalls at least a kilometer long. Right away, I could hear the callers, yelling out their fare in their spacer’s drawl: fried cheese dumplings, tunnel bird stew, apple pops, quick beer, and the like.
We passed the stalls at a languid pace due to the traffic. If I hadn’t been so hungry, and staring longingly at each passing stall, I might have missed the behemoth, huddled under one of the awnings.
“Pull in here,” I said, and we stopped behind a huge transcontinental delivery truck with wheels as tall as me.
The behemoth was finishing up a pair of kabobs, spiced lamb, I guessed, based on the contented look on his face. Figures. He was still sucking the meat off the stick, so I decide to make a run for one of the stalls. I needed something in my belly, I was downright dizzy.
The rain had picked up, and I dodged through the crowd towards one of the food stalls with the shortest lines, wiping the water from my face. Fried cheese dumplings. I wasn’t a fan, but I wasn’t going to be picky either.
Despite the shortness of the line, it moved slow. I clenched my fists and willed it to go faster, but that only seemed to slow it even more. My stomach added a few grumbles to go along with my muttered swears.
And just as I finally reached the front and the stall vendor, a tan leathery man with numbers tattooed on his neck, asked in his lyrical drawl, “Whatchu want, ladybug?” I saw the behemoth moving to his electrocycle parked nearby.
When he got on and sped away, I cursed and ran back towards the taxi. The vendor called out after me, “I didn’t want cho business, anyway!”
I followed the behemoth in the taxi for another thirty kilometers and the whole time I had fantasies about food. Then the behemoth turned off the main two-lane road and headed down a gravel side path that ran between a couple of farms. It was getting close to dark, and the cloud layer made the light dim and flat.
I had the taxi go past, then circle back around, and go down the gravel road. Past the farms, the landscape turned to forest, though the trees were short and squat and had yellow-green leaves that smelled like eucalyptus through my open window.
When I saw the lander through a gap in the trees, I had the driver drop me off. He asked if he should wait, but I didn’t have the money for the ride back, so I told him to leave. He took my payment through the MobiGlas, which drained my account down to the dregs.
I crept down the path, noting the tire marks in the wet grass. When I made it to the edge of the clearing, I hunched down and looked around. Except for the steel-gray lander, marked with burns on the nose from numerous re-entries, the clearing was empty.
Crouched on my heels, a moment of rationality hit me square in the chest. What in the deep space was I doing here? This man was likely a killer, and at the very least, a criminal.
Closing my eyes, I listened to insects chirping amid the trees. Right at the moment I decided to abandon my foolish quest to get the company MobiGlas back, I heard a twig snap, somewhere behind me.
“Persistent little scrum,” said a voice, from about the location of the broken limb. “It seems Dario found himself an ally.”
The diction of the speaker rightly confused me. It was the smooth dialect of an Earther aristocrat, not a thuggish brute the size of a Vanduul warrior.
But I didn’t get a chance to see the speaker before something stuck me in the back and I went unconscious.