Roberts Space Industries

Serialized Fiction

Short Stories

ID:

17248

Comments:

23

Date:

September 25th 2019

The Second Run: A Sorri Lyrax Delivery
By: Thomas K. Carpenter
Writer’s Note: The Second Run: A Sorri Lyrax Delivery was published originally in Jump Point 4.1.

I stumbled into the airlock, wiping the last bits of a Teeyo energy bar from my jumper as the mechanism clicked into place behind me. The whoosh of air being recycled was muted by the blue-green steel walls of the synch-orbit waystation above Jata.

The ride up from planetside had been a bumpy mess. I should’ve known better than to eat after the fresh-faced pilot with far too much acne on his forehead had told me upon my arrival: “You’re my first real passenger, y’know, besides the training runs.”

But I’d been new once too, and he did bring me in alive, despite hitting every air pocket in the atmosphere, and then somehow, despite the physical impossibility, hitting a few more while we were in space on the final leg to the station.

I unhooked my backpack and stretched my neck while staring at the grey biodome I’d just left back on the rocky surface of the planet. I could still make out the sprawling facility that housed the Aegis production center, just as daunting from above as it had been when I was making my drop. I can’t say I wasn’t happy to be finished with that delivery for FTL. While the corporation claimed they were no longer focused on the military market, I saw far too many crew cuts to believe that bit of branding nonsense. Plus, seeing the Avenger-class ships in the showroom only reminded me of when I’d almost been killed during my first real delivery.

My gurgling stomach reminded me that most of my Teeyo bar had ended up on the floor, so I set out to find the falafel vendor I’d eaten at on the way down. The creamy hot sauce provided the perfect match to the crunchy fried chickpea mash in the wrapped sage-infused flatbread. I had an afternoon to kill while I waited for my next FTL delivery.

The waystation was a confusing maze. The original structure had been built with military security in mind, which meant the different sections were segregated by tubes, so each area could be safely cordoned off in case of an attack. Then later, when it started going civilian, and regular commerce started passing through, they added roomier areas with crimson carpet over the plasticrete, and places to eat and stay the night between journeys.

The walls had been painted with murals — actual hand-painted murals rather than the normal holo-crap — with happy families walking through hand-in-hand, or smiling businessmen pulling trade cases behind them. There were even a few paintings of the ridge-headed Banu on the walls, harkening back to when a significant amount of alien trade came through Jata.

I rounded the corner to the delicious smells of my falafel vendor when I heard a familiar shrill voice.

“What is taking so long? I’m gettin’ freezer burnt here. I put my order in three years ago,” declaimed Betrix LaGrange, rubbing her pale arms and stomping her feet for warmth in front of the falafel vendor.

Maybe if you actually dressed for the job, you pasty-headed twit. No space station manager or ship captain ever wants to spend their hard-earned credits on keeping people warm, I thought as I backed into the tunnel so Betrix couldn’t see me.

I couldn’t think of a worse FTL courier to run into. If a hyena had been transformed into a person and given perfect blonde hair, then that would be Betrix. She was sleeping with the dispatcher at headquarters, so she got all the premium deliveries and her routes actually made sense.

Rather than deal with that human scavenger, I headed towards the other vendor area. The food wasn’t as good, but at least I’d avoid Betrix. The falafel vendor probably had spit in the cream sauce after her nasty outburst, anyway.

As I chowed down on a questionable curry, I pulled out my mobiGlas and thumbed to life my dream ship: the Aurora LX. I had bookmarked the custom package I had spec’d out. Bare bones, but it was the perfect vehicle to branch out on my own as an independent courier. So much space-faring goodness, and I was only five more years of courier work away.

I blew a kiss at my dream ship, and switched to the local networks, bringing up the independent courier display. My display name was SILVERKHAN, a reference to my father’s bar, the Golden Horde. I lingered on my name before toggling my availability for hire into the ‘on’ position, then I quickly marked the locations I was willing to deliver.

Sorri’s first rule of the efficient courier: Never travel empty handed.

I smiled to myself as I repeated the rule in my head. Most of the other couriers I’d met during my first year with the company seemed to treat the job like a prison sentence, drudging through their deliveries with their eyes closed. There was so much more to do if you were paying attention.

A soft ding! in my ear alerted me to a job offer on the independent courier channel.

My jaw hit my chest when I saw the credits offered for completing the delivery. It was a colossal sum. At least fifty times my normal fees and it would take a year off my quest for the Aurora.

I had to convince my shaking hand not to just jam the ‘accept’ button and review the terms first. That was my second rule, a hard lesson from my first delivery: Nothing illegal.

The request entailed a traveling case that needed to be transported to Tyrol IV. The job was bonded, so I knew it wasn’t illegal.

Then I checked the delivery date, and realized why the fee was so high. They needed it delivered in less than sixty standard Earth hours. From here, Tyrol was five systems away, involving multiple jump points and a significant amount of in-system travel time, not even counting layovers or delays — which were frequent — so there was no way to deliver the case on time using the normal routes. The high fee was to entice independents who had their own ship to make the journey. It was a helluva-lot of fuel to make that trip, especially when there wouldn’t be time for taking other business, which again, made the fee astronomical.

As I stared at the red ‘accept’ button, I knew there were multiple couriers considering the same thing: can I make the delivery on time? Because if the delivery wasn’t completed on time, the payment fee minus the late delivery penalty minus all the out-of-pocket expenses would drain my savings. No Aurora, no falafel, no nothing. So the only couriers who would be seriously considering the job had their own ships. Plus, given the time frame, only couriers already in the Davien could take the job and still make the delivery date.

The Davien system, where I was currently located, was connected to Ferron, Kilian, Cano, Sol and Cathcart. The competition couldn’t be worse for this job — a job that I didn’t even have a ship to use for transport.

But cutting a year off my plan for the Aurora would be worth it. I loved being a courier for FTL, but I really wanted to be my own master, see the galaxy on my terms.

So I jammed my thumb down on the screen, sending my bio-signature to the broker to signify my acceptance of the job. As I did, an ephemeral shiver went down my back, a potent mixture of dread and excitement.

Then I actually looked at the job blinking on my mobiGlas, a countdown timer signifying the time remaining.

[ 60:25:05 ]

What the hell did I just do?

After a modicum of overwhelming panic subsided — I mean, it’s not every day you bet your savings on a delivery job that you technically don’t have the resources to make — I actually started having rational thoughts. Ones like: how the hell am I going to make the delivery?

While I didn’t have my own ship, there was one advantage I had over the others in taking the job: the case that needed to be delivered was here on the waystation.

But that didn’t explain why I would take a job that I knew I couldn’t deliver in time using the normal commercial routes.

Ring in Sorri’s Rule Number Three: Official routes are for suckers.

Using my mobiGlas, I quickly found a junker, Nomenclature, headed through the Cathcart system to the Nexus system. Going through Cathcart, a system known for pirates and an extensive black market economy would be risky, but if this junker was heading that way rather than other routes, they probably had some shady business, or were just looking to shave some time. Technically, this didn’t violate my second rule, nothing illegal, since I was just a passenger, but it left an uneasiness in my gut worse than when I rode up the gravity well with that wet-behind-the-ears transport pilot.

I sent Nomenclature a message, along with my credentials. Surprisingly, I got a reply back a few minutes later with a reasonable price. He gave me an hour to get to his ship, which gave me enough time to get the case before we left. I sent him a reply, transferred his fee, then pulled up the station map to find the pickup location.

After showing my courier credentials, and having my biometrics verified, I was the proud owner of one silvery metallic case.

I whistled as I examined it. The exterior was made of nano-mesh, and the lock was something exotic involving a smooth granite ball surrounded by alien symbols.

A shrug later, I was strolling back the way I’d come, headed for Nomenclature, when I heard my doom in a high-pitched greeting.

“Sorri? Sorri!”

I tried to ignore Betrix, but heard her soft leather boots scuffing up the carpet behind me as she shuffle-ran.

“Sorri!” said Betrix, digging her nails into my arm and stopping me. “It’s been soooo long. Let’s have a little sprinkle and catch up.”

Her mouth was set in a wide grin, but her eyes were the black soulless gaze of a shark. She danced her fingertips when she said the word, “sprinkle,” as if she were spreading fairy dust. It was her annoying way of saying, “let’s get a drink.”

I tried to dislodge my arm from her pincers, but she was surprisingly strong. “I have to go, Betrix.”

Her forehead wrinkled in faux-confusion. “But where are you going? My dearest David mentioned in passing that you haven’t any jobs booked right now.”

“Sightseeing,” I said, drolly.

Betrix made a show of noticing the silvery case hanging from my left hand.

“Well, what do you have there? If I didn’t know better, I’d say that was a freelance job. But I know you’re smarter than that, I mean, you know it’s against company rules to freelance . . . like, in an immediate termination kinda way,” said Betrix, tilting her head so her blonde locks fell attractively against her shoulder.

Besides general mischief, I couldn’t figure out what angle she was pursuing. “It’s a portable EVA. Just trying to be safe.”

For a moment, Betrix looked like she actually believed me, before she shook her head and said, “Portable EVA? How forward thinking. But you know, I thought it might be the delivery that was just posted up on the ICN.”

If I hadn’t already been so annoyed that I was being delayed by this bucket of pond scum, I might have been surprised that she worked as an independent courier, too. I figured with her dispatcher boyfriend, she had enough work to make a living.

But now I understood her angle. She’d probably been about to accept the job when I snatched it out from under her, and Betrix wasn’t the type to let things just drift.

“Nope. A portable EVA,” I said, strategically stepping on the toes of her soft leather boot and wrenching my arm from her vice-like grip. “Sorry. The stars need seeing.”

Stirred to anger like a hornet’s nest, Betrix said, “I know what that case is for. FTL will fire you when they find out what you’re doing.”

“Then why were you on ICN?” I yelled over my shoulder, a final barb that I couldn’t help.

One last glance caught the murderous glare in her eyes. She’d wanted this job badly. Probably hadn’t even realized that I was in station until she saw that the job was taken, and went to find out who it was.

What a spot of bad luck. Hopefully that was the end of it. I checked my mobiGlas to find I had plenty of time. I could even stop and get a bite to eat if I wanted. Though I wouldn’t feel safe until I was off the station and away from Betrix LaGrange.

Working with my father at his bar, the Golden Horde, taught me a lot about people. One of his favorite theories involved karma. Not the mystical, vacant-eyed stare kind karma, but the statistical proof-worthy karma that could be charted on a graph.

His theory went that karma was really all your little good and bad acts that created a sort of karma-web around you. If you kept doing good things — giving a customer a little extra rum when they’re looking a little bleary-eyed, paying for a taxi to make sure the wealthy businessman made it back to his hotel, introducing two lonely customers sitting at opposite ends of the bar to each other, or making sure the antique jukebox plays the couple’s favorite song when they come in for an anniversary — then the world would pay you back with interest at a later date when you didn’t expect it.

I mean, I’m not blind to what my father was doing. The extra rum — which didn’t cost him much since he watered it down — encouraged a larger tip at the end of the night. The taxi made sure a high-value customer made it back on future nights. The two lonely customers would feel obliged to the bar for introducing them and the anniversary couple would keep coming back year after year to relive their first memories. He wasn’t doing it out of the kindness of his heart, it was a calculated, monetary thing, but I thought his theory was sound, even if he were doing it for the wrong reasons.

Karma worked in reverse, too. Or at least I hoped so, when it came to Betrix and her shenanigans. Which was why I wasn’t going to do anything about her. Karma would take care of her eventually. That was the theory, anyway.

I was glancing over my shoulder, checking to see if Betrix was following me, when I heard the awful sound of a child wailing. I didn’t even have to look to know tears and snot were streaming down the girl’s face.

But what I didn’t expect was that the young girl, maybe seven years old, was being dragged across the carpet by a burly man in a suit while a woman, who I assumed was his wife by the way she was screaming and hitting his arm, tried to stop him.

A lump formed in my throat.

A quick glance around the sitting area told me what I already knew. The other passengers in the area were busy burying themselves in their mobiGlas, or getting up to go to the bathroom. No one, and I mean no one, was even looking at them. There were at least thirty people in the area and not a soul looked like they cared.

Even the security guard at the connecting tube was picking at his thumbnail as if it were the most interesting thing in the world.

Karma.

Shit.

A quick check of the time told me I could still make my departure ship. Though I have to admit, part of me actually was hoping there wasn’t enough time to interfere.

The dark-skinned woman, wearing shoddy clothing, was pleading with her husband not to take their daughter.

By her screaming, it didn’t take me long to figure out that this was the fallout from a separation and the husband was overriding court orders by taking the girl away from her mother. It was a far too common experience that kids were ripped away from one of their parents and moved across the galaxy. The overlapping jurisdictions and high cost of travel made it too easy for court orders to be ignored.

Once he went out the airlock with their daughter, the mother would most likely never see her again.

My hands turned to fists despite the impossibility of me stopping the burly husband physically. He looked like he spent a fair amount of time using the latest gene-therapies and working out until he had veins growing on his veins.

But I had no intention of physically confronting him.

As casually as I could muster, I moved behind the row of seats with connected holovids, and slipped the silvery case beneath a chair. Then I popped the lid off the nearest trash receptacle and started digging through the nasty food containers, unwanted papers, and discarded junk.

I didn’t have time to be choosy; the husband nearly had the girl to the airlock that led to a comfortable commercial vessel headed to Sol. The attendant was making the announcement about final boarding as I slipped behind the husband with a stack of folded papers in one hand and a plastic cup half-filled with some pale sugary drink.

“Abel?” I asked in my deepest authoritative voice. I’d pieced together his name from the wife’s screams.

The husband paused. He held his screaming daughter with one arm, and with the other fended his wife off from taking the child.

I saw the incredulous look on his face. He’d looked over expecting someone taller, and then had to look down to find me.

Holding out the papers in an official manner, I announced, “You are being served for violating the UEE Treaty Against Toxic Allowances in Demonstrable Air Emissions for Use of Transport and Endangerment of Local Species, surface code number six-point-five-five-one-point-eight-nine.”

He looked like I’d slapped him in the face with a bag of slugs.

“What?” he said, visibly trying to process the words.

So I repeated myself, going faster this time, “You are being served for violating the UEE Treaty Against Toxic Allowances in Demonstrable Air Emissions for Use of Transport and Endangerment of Local Species, surface code number six-point-five-five-one-point-eight-nine.”

I could tell he was trying to figure out what was going on. My spacer jumpsuit wasn’t giving him any clues, since I purposely wore clothing that looked semi-official, to keep people guessing about my real profession.

“That means that you have to report to our planetside branch to pay your fine before leaving system,” I said, shaking the papers emphatically at him.

He pulled his hand away from his wife, and started reaching out for the papers.

“As coming from an authority of the UEE, if you accept these papers you are legally bonded to pay all fines and fees,” I said.

An announcement came over the speakers: “Mr. Gorane, party of two, please enter the airlock. Your ship is departing.”

Abel’s head snapped toward the waiting transport where the engines had begun to spin up.

His focus was so split between the papers in my hand and the open airlock, that he momentarily forgot about his wife and child. In that instant, she kneed him in the groin, and snatched away the girl before running the other way.

“Alara, no!” he grunted, but realized he had no way of stopping her.

Then he turned on me, reaching out murderously in a half-crouch. That’s when I put the half-filled plastic cup in the way, and when his hand touched me, I flung myself backwards, tossing the sugary drink across the passengers waiting with faces buried in their mobiGlas.

While people may be willing to listen to a husband abduct his daughter over the clear legal objections of the wife, they weren’t willing to have a drink tossed on them. Even the security guard at the tube entrance came running over.

Mr. Gorane, sensing he had to cut his losses, fled into the airlock amid the shouting. An older gentleman in glasses helped me up.

Before anyone could question me about my role in the incident, I dumped the papers back into the trash receptacle and went to grab the silvery case. My heart nearly exploded out of my chest when I found the space beneath the chair empty.

In that brief moment when I couldn’t find the case, I had the horrible thought that Betrix had snuck in and stolen it. Part of that feeling came because I’d sworn out of the corner of my eye that she’d passed through the waiting area, but I was too focused on the husband to actually confirm her existence.

Then I realized I was looking at the wrong row. I grabbed the case and headed off towards the waiting junker, content that I’d done the right thing in helping that woman and her daughter.

I reached the airlock that was supposed to be connected to Nomenclature to find two very disturbing things.

One, Betrix LaGrange was standing at the airlock with a smug, holier-than-thou look on her face, and two, Nomenclature was no longer connected to the station. Through the thick window, I could see the thruster flares as the departing junker moving away from the station.

Which brings me to my fourth rule: Never get distracted.

A rule I had just stupidly broken for that woman and her daughter. I knew exactly what Betrix had done; she’d hurried past the scene and paid the captain of Nomenclature to leave without me. Even as I pulled up my mobiGlas to contact the ship, I could tell by Betrix’s radiating glow of superiority that it wouldn’t matter.

“Whatever you offer, I told the captain I would pay him more to leave without you,” she said, when she neared.

I quickly calculated that there was nothing I could do about it. The captain was headed to Cathcart, which meant he was a man of dubious morals. No doubt he was enjoying this turn of events, being paid twice for a job entailing nothing.

“Why would you do that?” I stupidly asked. I was shaking my head, even as the words came out my lips.

“I want that job,” she said, nodding towards the case. “I have a route lined up, and I can make the delivery. I’ll offer you ten percent of the fee to transfer it to me.”

“Route lined up? You mean your boyfriend’s set up FTL deliveries that gets you there without a credit paid out of your pocket,” I said, clenching my fists.

Betrix flared her nostrils, but kept an otherwise stoic expression. “I’m doing what I can, just like you are. I’ll give you fifteen percent, paid right now. Just hand me the case.”

The offer was tempting. Fifteen percent to do absolutely nothing except make a few swipes on my mobiGlas and hand over a heavy shoulder-straining case seemed like a good deal. Especially when I didn’t have a reasonable way to make the delivery since Nomenclature had left the station. Which was exactly why Betrix had made the offer.

Despite my overwhelming hatred for Betrix LaGrange, handing over the case for fifteen percent was the sensible thing. It was a sure-fire way to earn more credits towards the Aurora LX.

But I could have the whole fee if I made it to Tyrol IV without her and I wouldn’t have to let her win.

“No,” I said, simply and emphatically.

“No?” she repeated. “Twenty percent, but that’s as high as I’m willing to go. I have to give a cut to David, too.”

So that’s how she was doing it. He wasn’t just her boyfriend, he was taking a cut of her profits.

“No,” I repeated.

I couldn’t bring myself to work with Betrix after what she’d done to me. If I allowed it, she’d do it again later, using me like a subcontractor.

“Take the twenty or I let FTL know what you’re doing,” she smirked.

I knew right away that it was a bluff. No way she rats on me. With what I know about her, it’d be mutually assured destruction.

“Fine.” I said. Betrix swelled with satisfaction. “You want to comm them or should I?”

Betrix eyes narrowed and she shook her head lightly.

“You’re a stubborn fool.”

I turned my back to her as she stormed off, and brought up my mobiGlas, scanning through the other ships at the station, studying their destinations. Nothing, and I mean nothing, was headed to Kilian system for another three days. In fact, the only ship leaving today was Vita Perry, a Reclaimer, but it was headed towards Ferron.

A quick check of Ferron departures confirmed that going in that direction would put me further behind the delivery timetable.

There was always a way if you were creative enough. I just hadn’t figured out the angle yet.

I leaned my face against the cool window while aches made strafing maneuvers through my stomach. I didn’t have a spacer’s chance to make the delivery in time. Hell, I hadn’t even gotten off the first station and there were five more systems along the route. I was better off tucking tail and running back to Betrix, though I doubted she’d offer the same twenty percent after I told her to shove off.

What was I going to do?

[ 59:49:35 ]

To be continued…

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