Note – This is the beginning of what may become a short story or novella.
Chapter 1 – Repay
“Lucien.” The voice penetrated what was an ungodly boring lecture on prevalent particulates in warp drive capacitor field sweeps. I glanced at the icon to pause the droning knowledge transfer. “Yes?”
“You have in inbound message from Dyan. Accept?” I sat up, somewhat startled to have any communication from the creature I last saw screaming spittle onto the transparency of a restraint vehicle after a near-riot on the party ship, Capaton Two. “Uh, sure.” Dyan’s pale violet face and dull black eyes clicked into view. “Dyan? What the hell do you want?” “Look, I know we didn’t part well, but I’ve got a line of a job. I need help with.” Since Dyan was calling me, that meant this wasn’t something his usual sinew bound crowd was up for, and it meant there must be a lot at stake for him to swallow his pride enough to communicate with me. “A job, eh? Must be a pretty dark gem for you to tag me. I suppose now is when I tell you I expect an apology.” Dyan’s eyes narrowed. “An apology?” “Yes, and a true one at that, not some simpering tock you toss to noobs.” Dyan was silent for a moment. I could almost hear his brain scrambling to find some other option. Seconds dragged before he resigned himself to answer, “Fine. Where?” His curt tone didn’t surprise me half as much as the fact that he had agreed. This must be some job.
Four cycles later, I met Dyan outside the club named, ‘Molten’ on Capaton Two. The non-descript exterior helped keep the common tourists from dropping into what was a notorious dive on an otherwise sparkling tripper ship. I stepped from the transport and spotted him leaning against the emergency exit door. He let his greeting start at my boots and slowly slide up my frame to finally meet my sidelong stare. “You look” he exhaled slowly, “…well, Lucien.” I shook my head, “And you, dearest Dyan, look as impudent and cocksure as ever. Like I said on com, this must be some job.” Dyan nodded before gliding off the doorframe. He was graceful as gas on Venus and just as dangerous. “Let’s get this over with, then we can talk business.” I stepped aside to allow him the lead, he was paying after all.
I waited while Dyan covered the entry for us both. The valet made quick work of the required body scan and retinal id, something new since the last time I’d been there. We made our way to the bar. “You still take the same drivel?” Dyan made as though I drank earth water or Plutonian ale. “Yes, with a shot of nitrogen down the side.” Dyan nearly sneered, “Oh , fancy, fancy.” “Yeah, better than the comet tailings you consider fit for consumption.” He turned back to the bar and I scanned the room. The dancers and players were mingling; all sweet bodied creatures from near and far, most working for tips and passage credits to supplement meager service earnings. Most. Some were here because it simply suited them. The center floor was empty, which wasn’t unusual this early. The floor valet was leaning on the podium when I approached. She didn’t even look up until I tapped the vid she was engrossed in watching. “Two for the main, an Apology.” She looked a little surprised. I suppose she must have been newer than some. Dyan handed me the drink and sipped at his gaseous concoction. The valet cleared the vid and brought up the controls, “Apology?” Dyan stepped to the podium, “Yes, a flipping apology. Me. Scan my freakin’ id and quit staring like you are a noob!” I frowned at Dyan, “chill, she’s new, so what. Act like you’ve got some couth.” The valet scanned Dyan’s outstretched wrist and whispered, “what duration?” Dyan met my look. “I wasn’t kidding about this. You cost me a year’s credit and at least two fed accounts. Not to mention that I covered damages and had to listen to that sloth of a council woman berate me for hour over the ‘lack of professionalism’.” Dyan sighed, “I know, I know. It isn’t like it was just me, but I get it, my crew, my cut.” I nodded, “exactly.” Dyan looked back to the valet, “Half set, full color.” She paled, “I’ll have to get a manager for override.” Dyan nodded and the valet scampered toward the back of the club. It was interesting to watch the message flow through the crowd. It started with an amorous couple near the podium and before the manager made it to us, it had attracted a significant following. The seats around the center ring began to fill and the energy of the room, once halting and bored became sharp with anticipation. The manager, in silver and black pinstriped slacks strode toward us. This was his business, but he knew sometimes inebriated youth made really poor choices. We weren’t inebriated nor young. He stepped beside Dyan to talk in whispered tones. I turned away to feign giving them privacy. Satisfied, the manager came to me next. “he’s your responsibility at the 12. All in, no sidling or I’ll have my boys break you and toss you in the ejection pits.” I nodded, “agreed, just have one of them give me a hand after, dude’s hard to lift.” Dyan glared at me. I was still surprised, and now terribly curious as to what would drive him to these ends. It would have to be spectacular. The manager took the controls from the valet and waved at us to enter the ring.
The center floor was actually two rings, inner and outer. Dyan stepped to the inner ring and I stayed on the outer. Clear energy fields flickered into place and I couldn’t resist running my fingers over the shimmering force. Each touch flashed white and radiated outward. The manager glanced up and had the good sense to take full advantage of the spectacle about to occur. He touched his lapel and spoke in secretive, hushed tones through the sound system. His voice floated to every patron. “Gentle guests, tonight we have a stunning surprise,” he hesitated to build the drama, “an apology is about to occur.” Murmuring ebbed through the crowd and more faces peered through the shields. Seats were dragged forward and the energy condensed around us. Dyan looked at me and I simply inclined my head. He stripped off his shirt, then bent down and stepped from his shoes. He looked back at me and I frowned. He rolled his eyes and unceremoniously dropped his pants onto his shoes and stepped out of them. He kicked the pile to the edge of the ring. Those who describe the nude form as glorious, likely haven’t seen one marred by hard living and time. Dyan wasn’t a beautiful nude. His skin shimmered in the bright lights, a lack luster violet hue, crisscrossed by thready blue-black veins. His pupil-less black eyes made me think of Earth’s sharks or the phantoms that roamed beneath the ice capped seas of Europa. His gaze was penetrating and try as I might, I could find no emotion in their depths. Untrue, but still first in my thoughts. The manager interrupted my musing. “Ready?” I nodded and the manager confirmed with Dyan again. “Half set, full color?” Dyan moved to the center of the ring before speaking. “Yes. Half set, full color, as Apology to Lucien.” The crowd murmured again in anticipation. The manager spoke to the crowd, “Half set is 30 clicks, no breaks, no mercy. Full color laser lashes set at half. Lucien accepts full care and medical at 12 clicks. Drinks are half price if he makes it to 12 and a free round if he stands to 30!” The crowd roared at the idea of good drinking challenges. Especially one they could just watch. Dyan met my gaze and I touched one finger to the shield. A single bright white laser flashed across the space and tagged him in the chest. It scored his flesh and raised a bright welt. He grimaced but stood his ground, jaw set. I raised my hand to the surface and touched my fingertips to the pane, the four lashes struck Dyan’s torso. He flinched. I slammed my palm to the shield and a broad bolt knocked Dyan backward onto his ass. He stood up, strode to the shield in front of me and punched the surface. Nothing happened, except that I punched back and the focused force threw him across the ring again. This time when he stood, a trickle of blood shown on his face where the force of the hit focused. He wiped it away and whispered, “fuck you, Lucien. You’re going to have to work harder than that.” The crowd laughed as his words floated over the sound system. I shrugged and sprinted around the outer ring, dragging my fingers along the surface, creating a spiral of lasers and wrapping Dyan in white hot pain. He roared defiantly. The crowd cheered again. It would be a while before I would get my Apology.
At 12 clicks, blood spattered the shield and floor and the bartender was swamped filling half price drinks. Dyan rocked back and forth in the ring while I worked to ensure he paid for our past entanglement. I slapped the glass lightly, over and over, at this point nearly annoying in their force. Then I leaned down and dragged my fingers upward from the floor. Dyan was caught off guard at the new direction of attack and the lashes wrapped around his legs and groin and buttocks making him wail in agony. I dashed around the ring again, laying strike after strike on the surface. The irregular orbit left no way for Dyan to anticipate the next blow. At 20 minutes, he was keening in pain, anger fully gone. Finally, as I was about to simply lean against the shield and let the lasers wrap his body he staggered to the pane between us. “Lucien, please, I’m sorry, please, I’m sorry! I didn’t know! They faffed me too!” I struck the field harder. The laser cut him open again. “Please! Argh!” The lasers continued to heed my demand for his recompense. Dyan stepped close to me and held my stare, “I apologize!” I slapped the shield and the energy caught him full in the face, leaving a new layer of bright welt on his skin. At 22 minutes, the damaged man staggered from another rigid strike and the crowd began chanting, “Dyan, Dyan, Dyan!” Perspiration stung my eyes as I stepped back and full-force kicked the shield. The power slammed Dyan into the far wall. Blood spattered over the transparent surface and Dyan stumbled toward me in an uncontrolled rebound. Sweat streamed through the blood on his face. I leaned backward onto the rail that separated me from the crowd and slammed both feet into the surface just as Dyan wailed a new apology. Panting, I watched as the energy blast from the double strike carried him ass over elbow and crushed him into oblivion on the floor. The crowd’s disappointment that their champion had fallen echoed in their groans. No free drinks. Barely 5 tics later, a beefy bar back touched my elbow as I stood staring at the crumpled form. The smell of sweat and blood overpowered the barroom air as the shields clicked off. I knelt at Dyan’s side and watched as a bloody snot bubble filled and flattened, showing that he was indeed still breathing. “Apology accepted, Dyan.” The crowd broke into cheers and hearty applause. The manager’s voices droned for a few moments and the audience applauded again; their normal boredom had been broken up by the unusual insanity of the apology. The spectacle, the theater of the absurd, had kept them rooting, drinking and placing side bets. I helped the bar back roll Dyan’s inert figure onto a hover stretcher and kept a protective hand on his chest as the beefy thug parted the crowd. The audience gawked and squawked as we passed, then ebbed back to pockets of indistinct commentary and play by play on the scene. The manager met us at the door, and nodded to acknowledge that I was holding my end of the evening’s event. Outside, the passageway was quiet and I tagged the icon on my com for transport. Beefy thug stayed with me until the shimmering glow of the transport rounded the corner. I tagged him a tip, “Thanks, I’ve got it from here.” Beefy grunted at my dismissal and headed back inside. The transport hummed to a stop and I touched the panel. A voice in my com noted, “35 credit fee for additional baggage. Acknowledge?” Baggage, yeah, “Acknowledged, you faffing bot.” The entry opened, that the flat voice in my com noted, “Faffing services are not available, would you like a listing of establishments in the vicinity?” I could hear my pulse in my ears. “Intelligent my ass.” I thought. “No, transport to current dwelling.” Dealing with the literal world of bots was, at times, trying. “Acknowledge, Lucien.” The stretcher bearing my ‘additional baggage’ glided into position as I settled into the seating.
Chapter 2 – Med Bed
I followed Dyan’s gliding form into my room. The illumination increased as I guided the stretcher to the bedside, I’d be taking the bunk tonight. It took a couple tries at overriding the tip prevention on the stretcher in order to slide Dyan onto my bed. I tagged the send icon on the hover. “100 credit service fee. Acknowledge?” I sighed, this guy was still costing me credits, “Acknowledge.” The stretcher shimmered and the fields collapsed to an efficient cube before floating away and out the door to return to its station. I stepped into the facilities and waved a hand over the reflective glass in the wall. The field shimmered open and I pulled a foil of medical dust from the shelf. Back at the bedside, I saw that the sheets and pillows were already trashed from absorbing Dyan’s fluids. I shrugged, opened the foil and unceremoniously shook the dust over the man. As it landed on his flesh, it shifted to a white color as the millions of virus sized bots triggered and began their healing work. I dumped Dyan’s clothes and shoes on the floor and then stripped down to go clean up.
The facilities slid closed and blocked the bloody form in my bed from view. I selected a long clean from the services panel and closed my eyes as the blue light and air began at the top of my head. It tousled my short hair and worked to get out the paste I’d used to stand the coarse strands into spiky rows. I’d cut my locks, for the first time since birth, as soon as I left my home world, Ryton. Tradition weighed heavy on the surface, but once I was out-world, I rebelled against nearly all of my history. I cut my hair, ate forbidden foods, and gleefully learned about the ‘ways’ of many other worlds. In a grock fueled fury, I’d even removed the stones of my home clan from my chest and arms. Granted I’d had them put back the next day, but for a cycle I’d been stripped of identity, a no one. The services worked their way down my form. It had taken me a long while to become accustomed to the cleaning routines off Ryton. I’d come of age while liquid still flowed and pooled on the surface. Those times are gone, replaced by artificial chem streams and dry pits. Politicians and corporate pirates changed the planet and the people when they bartered for Ryton’s place in the Planetary Conference. Last I’d had contact with anyone on Ryton, most of the population that remained were traditionalists barricaded in the harsh mountains or those too old or too poor to have other choices. Ryton had become a service orbit for ships. Few passengers went to the surface, preferring the comfort of their craft to the reality of a planet stripped to meet the demands of the travelers. Once the planet could no longer offer what the artificial behemoths of space needed, the port would “transition” to allow the “rehabilitation” of the indigenous people and xeriscaping of the surface. In other terms, it would be abandoned as unusable, be offered politically acceptable amounts of reformation credits for as long as anyone remembered that Ryton was once a vibrant and beautiful world. Then it would simply slip into history and fade away. Unless of course, new tech found it had some tangible value again. The service finished cleaning my body and I pushed aside my mind’s exhausted reverie. I rarely mused about home. I suppose the Apology reminded me of rituals from my youth. I checked on Dyan then went to the couch, shifted it to bunk and lay down.
I’d been asleep on the bunk, but not for nearly long enough, when I heard stirring from the bed. I opened an eye to see Dyan sitting on the side of the bed with his head in his hands. Patches of white glistened against his skin at irregular intervals. The bots were still laboring to heal the damage I’d left on him. “You want something to eat or drink?” Dyan didn’t look at me but nodded slightly, “Drink. Feel like I’ve been too long in radiation.” His voice made me think of gravel caught in a rotor. I stood to move to the tiny galley embedded in the wall. I retrieved a couple containers from the quick serve station and selected a breakfast from the menu grid. I stepped across and gave Dyan the drink. “Thanks.” I sat beside him on bed and selected warm on the container. Dyan tapped the neutral icon on the drink and promptly downed half of the room temperature liquid. Once mine finished warming I sipped at it. Dyan pushed the white sand around on his thigh and covered a seeping cut. The bots made short work of sealing the wound but it would be hours before Dyan was hale. “So, you want to tell me about this job?” Dyan glanced at me, “Not here, but yeah, when I can move without dripping blood on the floor. I’ve got a ship docked. I can show you what’s what.” I watched as the white dust flowed into a deep burn on his foot, “Fine, I’m going back to sleep. There’s food in the galley warmer.” Dyan just nodded and finished off his drink, wincing as he lifted his arm. He still smelled of blood and burnt tissue, sitting next to him was making my tired stomach roll. I walked back to the bunk and flopped down. Dyan wobbled to the galley and pulled a tray from the service. The additional smell of food did nothing for my churning gut and I pulled the dense fabric coverlet over my face. “Get through the facilities as soon as you can, Dyan, you reek.” I could feel his angry stare but he didn’t take the bait. Instead, he moved to the far side of the cabin and gingerly lowered himself to the bed. He balanced the tray in one hand and ate. I let myself drift off. Later, I startled awake mid-dream and saw that Dyan was curled on his side, back toward me, but deeply sleeping. The half-finished tray was tipped onto the floor and oozing unidentifiable sludge. I turned over, ignoring the source of the disturbance. Muttering under my breath, “By check out, not my mess.” I went back to sleep.
“Lucien.” The voice in my com seemed very far away. “Lucien.” The would just keep saying my name until I responded. “What?” I sat up on the bunk and rubbed my eyes. “In bound message from Billing. Accept?” Sheesh, I opened my eyes enough to look at my wrist dial. It was late cycle, I’d really slept. “Accept,” I acknowledged the com and listened as the bot detailed the tally of my stay. This had been an expensive visit. The pleasant little voice finished with, “Complementary breakfast is warming in the galley. Will you be vacating this cycle?” I thought about options, Dyan had a ship but if the job wasn’t par, I’d have to stay one at least another cycle before securing my next passage. I opted to skip the room charges and sleep in terminal if it didn’t pan out with Dyan. “Vacating this cycle.” The bot clicked, “Thank you, your billed total is currently 1215 credits. Departure in quarter cycle. Join us again on your next holiday. We appreciate you choosing Capaton Two gold level housing.” The com shut down. Gold level housing was a fancy term for an interior room two levels above a berth in steerage nestled between shipping crates, fluid recyclers, and hydroponics pods. Between Gold and steerage were the terminal slides. Those were sitting height body boxes set into the walls near the docks. They were a cheap place to get off your feet, and were charged in half cycle increments. No services, but generally safe on ships of Capaton Two’s class. Facilities and galley fare could be obtained in the Commons for micro fees. Seasoned business trippers and education level rovers used them as an economical alternative to a room. On some of the outlier class ships, refugees, squatters and runners used them too. I’d seen lots of hard times on those ships and I wasn’t game for enduring them myself. It wasn’t that I was above work ship passage, but I’d grown accustom to a little bit of luxury now and then. I grabbed a container of Ret and let it warm while I used the facilities. The room still had a faint odor of meds and blood by the air cyclers were doing a bang up job of keeping it from reaching the nauseating level it had previously. When I stepped out of the facilities, Dyan was up and had a container of Ret in one hand and a handful of grain and fruit filled tash bites in the other. He lifted the container is mock toast. “I’m alive.” I nodded, “Looks like the bots have most everything closed up.” I watched as he gobbled two more tash bites. “And it appears your appetite is back.” Dyan nodded, “Yep, I left you one. I’m gonna get cleaned, but I may need another dusting.” With him still nude, I could tell he would probably need more than just one more dusting. One of the gashes on his arm broke open when he gestured and was threatening to leave a trail of blood. “Go get cleaned and I’ll dust you before you dress. The bots can work under your clothes.” Dyan nodded and stepped past me toward the facilities. Just as we were face to face in the tight quarters, he stopped and his black eyed gaze held mine, “Did you accept?” I put a hand on his shoulder, “Yes, Dyan, we’re clear.” He looked down and nodded, “Good, I’m never doing that again.” I removed my hand, “Let’s hope not, it’s been costly all round. I’ve heard Jenk has 3 more on iron.” Dyan stepped past me, “Aye, and fully deserved. He brought the whole thing down on our heads with his damn plan and faffin’ up the timers to boot. Two of the Draken crew died from radiation poisoning.” I turned to the galley and took the last of the food. “I’m well aware.” I’d paid the damages on the whole fiasco. Credits and a ship each to the families, credits in fines and fees. I’d lost the business of two of my biggest clients. I had to fend of the competition calling my methods into question, my security lax and my crews bent on destruction. All the while the scavengers were picking off the customers who hadn’t initially bolted. It had been 4 cin of hard work putting things back together. Endless cycles of sleepless nights and constant trips to gain back what was lost in a few sets because of Dyan’s crew going rogue and Jenk’s fumbling thievery. Personal assurances only go so far when a failure is brilliant and as public as killing an Ambassador’s crew. Time and untainted successes are the only real cure, but Dyan’s Apology made it right between the two of us. Though, I’d not forget. It took Dyan two passes in the cleaning to be fit for passing. Tender wounds opened in the process making the dust a slow but necessary process before he could put on his clothes. We nearly didn’t make it out of the room before departure. Standing in the corridor, I slung my bag over my shoulder and looked at Dyan, “What dock are you in? I’ve got something to take care of first and I’ll meet you there.” Dyan cocked an eye, “No worries Lucien, I’ll head to the ship so you aren’t seen in the terminal or commons with me.” I nodded, “Business, Dyan. You know our customers.” Dyan nodded, “Bay 752, slip C. When?” I started away from him, “3 or 4 sets. I’ve got a trade to attend. I’ll be there before half cycle.” Dyan said nothing but turned and gingerly moved the opposite way.
I made my way to the upper Commons. I bought two new foils of med bots and stashed them in my gear. I also lingered at the view tables and bought a cup of fresh ret. It was nothing like the galley crap below. It was stim incarnate and I felt actually rested after a half cup and 30 clicks of staring into the mind-numbing streaks of warp stars as the massive ship traveled. By the time I made it to the Counselor’s Ward, I was back in my best mind. The trade went smoothly, no catches or inane contract inserts. I made standard mods to the language, they pushed, I pulled then finally signed. The deal done, I was the proud new owner of a crapped out minor planet 600 lights from the nearest common orbit. My com pinged, “Lucien.” I sighed, “Now what?” “In bound message. Anonymous sender. Accept?” Perfect timing, “Accept.” A deep, melodic voice toned, “Greetings, Lucien. Deal done?” I loved Ars’ voice, it gave me, well everyone actually, a warm, gooey feeling. Granted that ability was common with his kind. I’d done many deals with him or his pod over the years and they never flinched; not even after the Dyan disaster. “Yep. Deal done. You transferring or do you want me to care take for a while.” There was a pause, “Lucien, you care take for a cin, we don’t want a known jump. Keep the papers off deck. Standard rate, and a settlement?” The request wasn’t uncommon for Ars. We had a clean past in that regard and he trusted my skill. I quickly did the calculations in my head, “Look my friend…” I kept him as anonymous as any com call allowed, “…I can’t do standard. It’s too far off loop. There will be extra expenses in transport and talent. Plus, a settlement on that miserable gob will take a lot work. There isn’t enough fluid and the geology is young. Stabilizing will be expensive.” I paused for effect, not that it would do any good with Ars. “Standard plus 20% and you provide the ship, crew and tech.” There were a few tics before his melodic counter, “15% is what we offer.” I rubbed my forehead, “You’ve been a good client. 17% and we’ve got a go.” Ars laughed softly and the deep sound sent shivers up my skin. “Fine, 16% and you can come spend a 7 cycle with my pod.” A 7 cycle with Ars’ pod! Their aural talents were well known and highly prized. I caved, “Deal. Standard plus 16%, your ship, crew and tech and I have one, no-restrictions 7 cycle with your pod on Stenid.” Ars laughed again and made my whole body tingle. “Agreed.”
A few sets later, I was lingering on the gridwalks above the dock, watching the C slip and any passersby. The area was vibrant with workers, travelers, machines, bots, and rafts of goods moving between points. Noise. Constant noise. Nothing seemed unusual or out of place. I stepped onto a lift, and traveled down to the dockside. Dyan’s ship was nestled into the corner of the slip. A sleek Starhopper class sloop; it was a dec old at least but looked well-tended. The hull showed a few typical scorches, signs it frequented jump speed. It probably housed a crew of 30 and cargo room for 90 to 100 meg. Agile but sized enough for profit. At least he’d gotten back to business. He’d lost his other listed vessels in the mess. I imagine this was the only he had that he could dock on a ship of the line. Unrated rogue vessels, typical in Dyan’s fleet, were unwelcome at best. It had Dyan’s signature purple lighting on the exterior ports but was otherwise was a pretty subdued. I tapped the gangway com, “Permission to board.” I felt a scan and the ship’s AI answered, “granted,” and the entry hissed open. A butler bot slid to a stop in front of me as I exit the decom chamber. A slight beep and green blinking light beckoned me into the ship’s maze of corridors. Within a few clicks I’d stepped onto the bridge and Dyan swung away from the command. “Welcome aboard, Lucien.” I nodded, “Thanks, nice rig. I see you still favor the purple lights.” Most of the command was bathed in a soft purple white illumination. Dyan smiled, “Reminds me of home.” I took a seat to the side of the command. “So, let’s cut to business. What’s the job?” Dyan touched a few switches then joined me on the bench. “I got a message from an old worlder wanting to transport 50 meg of cargo to the crown city on Adise.” I shrugged, “So, pretty easy work.” Dyan waved me down, “Yeah, yeah, I’m getting to the point. The guy meets me dockside, credits, cargo, everything was smooth. He asks me if he could passage as well. I tossed out a price, he paid, the crew loaded and off we push.” Dyan was intently staring at the floor, “Lucien, you ever loose time? Just loose it?” I looked at him, “Sure, a few too many gronk or caps, wake up a cycle later. So?” Dyan was still staring at the floor. “Just lemme talk here, Lucien.” I just nodded, this was pretty unusual behavior for what seemed like a boring story. Except that Dyan had paid a pound of flesh to tell it to me. “Sorry, go on, I’ll shut it.” Dyan took a couple breaths and continued. “We are cruising off loop and out of the mains to avoid any scans. I figured the old guy’s got antiquities or something and I didn’t want a fight or fines. We were 20 cycles in and not a flicker of trouble. One click we’re cruising, the next tic I wake to smoke, sirens, full alarms on life support and a faffing fire in tech! I bellow the command crew awake, only 2 are alive.” I could help interrupting, “What the faff happened??” Dyan waves me down and continues, “We get fire out, get the ship straight, kick up back up life support and switch to minor thrusters. One of the crew comes to me, all pale and shaky. He hands me a com and points at the data. We were drifting for 55 cycles. 55!” He stood up and began pacing, “A few cycles later, we jettisoned two-thirds of the crew. Most of them hadn’t been with me for more than a cin. Young, strong and dead from dehydration or smoke inhalation. We couldn’t even save some of the ones we found alive after the fire. They were too far gone for the med bay bots. But you know who we didn’t find?” I looked at him, “Your passenger?” Dyan was starting to fume, “Damn right. No passenger, no cargo. Gone. No record of being boarded, not even internal entry door logs. Nothing! He faffing vanished and we were out for 55 cycles.” It took another set to get the rest of the details. Dyan was seriously pissed and seriously freaked out at the apparent magician. Still, this seemed like one of those things to chalk up to space ghosts or tech raiders. “Look, maybe you just got had by hot tech. Wiped and replaced the logs, bled the A.I., whatever. Maybe you should just let this go.” Dyan flopped onto the bench, “Come on, don’t you know me well enough to know I did that? Weird fap happens. It’s space for sun’s sake. I’m no noob to all this, but…” His voice trailed off. “But what?” I asked. He stood up and picked up a pale flat object from the command desk. “But then this appeared on my bunk.” I was confused, “Appeared? What is that? A com or something?” Dyan shocked me with his answer, “Its paper.” I had only seen a glimpse of a museum specimen of the stuff on a documentary vid about ancient Earth. I stood and examined the artifact Dyan held. “Before you ask, yeah I’m sure. I had it bio scanned off grid then had to kill the joe ‘cause he wouldn’t pass it back. He had to hack the universal index to even find it. It’s not a replica, it’s the real deal and its origin is Earth.” I sat back down harder than I meant to, “Earth!” Dyan sat next to me with the paper in hand. “Yeah. And the coordinates written on it are so far off loop, the galaxy isn’t even mapped. I had to have the A.I. just determine the probability of its existence because it isn’t known.” I looked at Dyan, “I need a drink.” Dyan nodded and touched his com, “two gronk to command.” The ship’s system answered, “Acknowledged.”