I followed Dyan’s floating form into my cabin. 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 glittered 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 cultures. 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 barge long liners and tripper 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, 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 beeped, 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 an 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 com 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 thetime. 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 on 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 1,915 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 cabin. On some of the outlier class ships, refugees, squatters and runners used the boxes as long term housing. I’d seen lots of hard times on those ships and I wasn’t game for enduring them again any time soon. 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 but 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 off 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 as 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 certainly not forget. It took Dyan two passes in the cleaning to be fit for passing. Tender wounds opened in the process making the dust necessary process before he could even put on his clothes. We nearly didn’t make it out of the cabin before the departure tone. 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 trails 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 we 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. Am I transferring or do you want me to care take for a while.” There was a pause, “Lucien, you care take for a few cin, we don’t want a known jump. Keep the markers 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. “Countered at 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 set 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 one he had left that he could dock on a ship of the line. Unrated rogue vessels, typical in Dyan’s fleet, were unwelcome at best and more frequently crushed into scrap, crew still aboard. The craft had Dyan’s signature purple lighting on the exterior ports but was otherwise 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 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. “A cycle, yeah.” Dyan was visibly unnerved, “Just lemme talk here, Lucien. Some of this is just, well, just faffed.” 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, sprawled on the floor, to smoke, sirens, full alarms on life support and a faffing fire in tech! I shake the command crew awake, but 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 fueled 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 piss poor luck 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. There was a pale blue on the surface. “What’s that?” Dayn ran his finger over the design. “It’s called ‘ink’ another Earth artifact. The text has a message that the ‘best and most profitable’ place for my crew and ship are at these coordinates. It has a deadline; the end of the cin.” I shook my head, “a shake down job with ink and paper from a dead planet?” Dyan nodded, “Yeah. It gets wierder. The coordinates on it are so far off loop, the galaxy isn’t even mapped. I had to have the A.I. determine the probability of its existence.” I leaned back. “Dyan, this seems like a stack of splat. Something faffing joe knows about your weird space magician and is taking advantage and spooking you into wandering off grid.” Dyan shrugged. “I thought that too, until I took a flat credit grab and go job out of Santi Five. It was an easy pass. All up and on deck, nothing hard. It was just a faffing supplies run.” Dyan sat back down and got quiet. “I sent my Quickrunner with a crew of 10. Spira on helm, she’d been command since the Jenk thing.” Spira was Dyan’s sibling, they’d been on and off business partners over the years. I’d only met her once but she left an impression. Dyan stared at the floor as he kept talking, “5 cycles out they messaged that they had a stowaway. The video log showed it was my mystery client. I jumped on the com and got static. I sent a fire team, when they got to the ship, every one of the crew dead at their station.” Dyan’s voice was hard, tight, like gas slipping past a line cuff. “Spira was in the command seat, just sitting there, hand still on the panel. It was like something just turned them all off.” I put a hand on his shoulder, “I’m sorry, Dyan.” He stood and walked away from me, fiddling with the command. I let him breathe and tried to process what he’d told me. “She was solid, the only one of the kit of us that hadn’t tossed a rotation being stupid. Straight on the flight line.” Dyan’s voice broke and he coughed before continuing, “She knew that ship, knew the route. It was supposed to be an easy job.” His voice trailed off again. There wasn’t anything I could say so I just waited. 5 clicks passed before he squared his shoulders, “Whispers are starting. My guys don’t flinch but this is some faffed up splat. I’m paying double to keep a crew.” Dyan turned to me and the intensity of his stare pinned me, “This is blood, not just money. That’s when I came here. Lucien, I’m way outta my league on this one. I’m brawn, not brains. I need your help.” I looked at Dyan and paused long, “I need a drink.” Dyan nodded and touched his com, “two gronk to command.” The ship’s system answered, “Acknowledged.”