Roberts Space Industries

Serialized Fiction

Short Stories

ID:

17365

Comments:

18

Date:

November 27th 2019

The Second Run: A Sorri Lyrax Delivery (Part Three)
By: Thomas K. Carpenter
Writer’s Note: The Second Run: A Sorri Lyrax Delivery (Part Three) was published originally in Jump Point 4.3. You can read Part One here, and Part Two here.

Part 3: Act Like You Know

Dodecahedron had already passed through the Kilian system, and was well on its way through Ellis towards the Magnus jump where it would then continue on its way to Stanton. The complete opposite direction of where I wanted to go. Under normal circumstances, the pilot of the ship would have honored his agreement and have already dropped me off at a starport so I could continue my journey to Tyrol IV and finish my delivery on time. Normal circumstances might also indicate a place to sit that didn’t involve slightly-above-freezing ship flooring and a less than insane number of wooden games and puzzles in my general vicinity.

But nothing about Dodecahedron had been normal thus far. Now I was going to miss the timetable and I was out more funds that I couldn’t recover. At the rate I was going, I’d use up my ship savings and be back at zero year soon.

I hadn’t given up, but I didn’t have any more ideas about how to convince him to take me to an Ellis station. I’d threatened to destroy his puzzles, but he calmly replied that he would cut the oxygen supply off and throw my body out the airlock. I thought it was a bad joke at first. But since I hadn’t registered my trip on Vita Perry, nor the transfer to Dodecahedron, no one would ever know that he’d killed me. I was at his mercy.

Based on the twisted games on the shelves, I should count myself lucky that he hadn’t knocked me out and cut me into tiny pieces.

I didn’t even really know how to read him. Men like him never came into my father’s bar. Occasionally, we’d see ‘proper folk’ — that’s what my father called anyone who could speak for more than ten minutes about a subject not involving making, fixing, or operating something — wander in when the sky chose to drench them, looking for a dry place to hunker down. They’d ask for a menu and when my father would point to the list of eight items we cooked on the wall, they would wrinkle their noses like mice sniffing a trap. To be fair, “cooked” was a liberal use of the term. We had a vat of semi-regularly changed synthetic oil that served to flash-fry the various food-like items we carried. My father only had the food because the late night drunks wanted something to soak up the alcohol before they tried to take a hover back to their apartments. I imagine many of those meals were hurled out the window at vomit-speed to rain down on unfortunate pedestrians.

So I only had my brief interactions with Senet Mehen and his museum of puzzles to judge him by. Mostly, I was at a loss. In my mind, I could replace him with a sorting robot and a programmed auto-pilot, and the ship would go on doing business without a hitch.

And maybe that was the problem. He didn’t understand, nor care, about people. We were a blank wall to him. Heck, my initial message to him was a spam comm. I should have been more suspicious when it got a reply. Normal people knew enough about Human nature to ignore messages like that. Instead, all he cared about was his puzzles and nothing else, which, honestly, seemed a little sad to me. I wondered about the kind of childhood that would drive him away from Humanity, to hide in a box flying through space.

It might seem hypocritical for me to think that, given my plan to do something vaguely similar, but it wasn’t the travel between the star systems that interested me. I wanted to know the people at each destination, learn about their customs, be grossed out by their meals, dance awkwardly at their parties, laugh at their jokes.

Frustrated and chilled, with no way to influence Senet Mehen at my disposal, I stared at the puzzle tower on the table. The jagged, fractal-like pieces were meant to scissor together in three dimensions, creating a wooden sculpture.

On their own, the pieces seemed impossible to decipher. I’d put together jigsaw puzzles on my mobi when I was a young girl, but with those there was always a picture to give a clue to the final result. With this one there seemed to be no target shape to shoot for. The maddening interlocking pieces had to be fitted together in ways that seemed random to create the final shape, and the only clues the creator had given were in the form of wispy lines on the individual pieces.

I wasn’t a puzzle expert by any means, but I was surprised by Senet Mehen’s inability to solve it, if, as he said, it was only supposed to be of a moderate difficulty.

Which got me thinking: what if didn’t require raw problem solving skills but something else which Senet Mehen lacked?

I didn’t know how long I had until we reached the Magnus jump point, but if I could figure the puzzle out before then, I had a chance.

I quickly started organizing the pieces, trying to understand how they fit together. At first, I tried to match the geometric shapes, but decided that Senet Mehen had probably tried that, so I shouldn’t bother. That line of thinking eliminated a few other strategies. Basically anything involving geometry, physics, or mathematics.

Each piece had wispy ink-drawn lines that made me think of map contours. They tickled my memory, but I couldn’t pick out what they were trying to represent. Each section was thin enough not to give enough information.

Rather than look at the pieces, I thought about what they could represent that Senet Mehen wouldn’t be able to figure out given a significant amount of time. When I caught my reflection on the highly polished table I knew the answer: faces.

Senet Mehen knew nothing about people, therefore he wouldn’t know how to interpret faces. I’d heard that sociopaths saw others as interchangeable and disposable in their self-mythologized universe.

It didn’t take me long to construct a partial face given a dozen pieces. A woman’s wind-swept hair and forehead with arched eyebrows formed on the curved wooden section.

In case Senet Mehen was watching me on a video feed, I stopped solving the puzzle and quickly mixed up the pieces. Then I started taking pictures and used my mobi to study them further. In doing so, I figured out that the goal of the puzzle was to make interlocking sheets. The faces helped you put the sheets together and then the sheets had to be fit together to form a larger picture. The shapes of the outside pieces would create a wooden head.

After organizing the pictures I took and writing a few instructions, I went to the intercom at the front of the cargo bay.

“Hello, Senet Mehen. I need to speak about the puzzle you have on your table,” I said.

“I’ve already explained that I will not be intimidated, and destroying anything will only put your life at risk,” he said.

“What if I told you I know how to solve it?” I asked, as my lips curled into a grin.

After a few moments, he replied, “I’d say you are a liar. I checked my feeds and the puzzle looks exactly as it was when I left it.”

“Oh, I haven’t put it together,” I said, “but I figured out how to do so. The rest is a formality. It was quite simple really. I’m surprised you didn’t figure it out months ago. How long ago did you say you started working on it?”

The comm crackled with static and then I heard a muffled rage-scream through the metal wall.

I had his attention, but was a little worried I’d pushed him too far. I listened for the recyclers to stop their humming.

After a few minutes, he replied, “What do you want?”

“Drop me off at Green. The planet’s not far from the Magnus jump point, so it wouldn’t be out of your way,” I said, taking a deep breath. “And in return, I’ll tell you how to solve the puzzle.”

“No, it’s a trick. There’s no way someone like you—”

Heat rose in my chest. “Someone like me?! Yeah, maybe I grew up slinging drinks to gristle-faced workers, listening to their complaints — not all unwarranted! — about how they’ve spent their lives getting screwed. But at least I tried to get out. To be better. I may be common to someone like you, but I figured out your damn puzzle, in a few short hours, I might add, and if you want to know how to put it together, I’ll send you a file explaining the missing link that’s kept you from solving it. But I won’t send it to you until I’m safely off at Green, no earlier, no later. Do we have a deal?”

The outburst felt entirely too good, but I worried I’d gone too far. The silence was oppressive.

When the comm crackled to life, I closed my eyes and crossed my fingers.

“I will reroute my journey for Green in exchange for the solution,” he said. “Prepare for disembarking in five point two hours.”

Relief flooded my limbs. I sunk to the floor and put my head in my hands. I was back on track. In fact, since Ellis was a jump closer to Tyrol, by the end of this whole mess on Dodecahedron, I’d wind up saving some time.

When we neared a small transfer hub on a far orbit around Green, I took off the EVA suit that I’d been keeping on for warmth, and started searching for a ship headed to Taranis system once my mobiGlas linked up.

There were no wet-eyed goodbyes when I left Dodecahedron, but I stayed long enough for him to check the solution. His eyes widened when he saw why the puzzle had resisted his efforts to solve it.

“That was quite remarkable. Do you have time to look at another puzzle that’s been plaguing me?” he asked.

I was so incredulous at his offer that I almost forgot to respond. “No, sorry. I have another ship to catch.”

“Ah,” he said. “Farewell and good luck.”

I’d landed in time to catch a low-rent transport to Bethor on the surface of Taranis III and didn’t want to miss it. I made Filigree Angel with time to spare.

The ship was wonderfully boring with my newfound love for beige carpets and comfortable seating. The journey was uneventful, but despite the lack of stimulus, I couldn’t sleep. Landing at Bethor would put me over halfway to my destination. In fact, I found two more trips that lined up perfectly, getting me to Tyrol IV with a half a day to spare. I could practically taste the credits rolling into my account. One year closer to my dream ship, the Aurora LX. I hadn’t dared name her yet, feeling that was too presumptuous, but when that day came, it would be glorious.

[31:05:05]

The approach to Taranis III was spectacular. The storm-covered planet crackled with electricity. The northern hemisphere was cast in darkness, which highlighted trails of glowing gas that weaved through the upper atmosphere. It was like giant luminescent constrictors, a thousand kilometers long, were snaking through the sky.

The only blemish I could see on the planet was a blue domed station hovering high above the equator. Bethor was home to a large settlement of Tevarin and Human refugees and expatriates; basically, anyone looking to escape the reach of the Empire for one reason or another. The cloud city was one of the more civilized parts of uncivilized space.

No time to fully appreciate it, though. I’d have to come back one day when I didn’t have a countdown hanging over my head. It was only a brief stopover before I managed to book another ship to Tangaroa in the Helios system.

[22:13:56]

Other than the pilot who liked to sing a little bit too much for my taste, the flight to Helios was as smooth as could be. It was the traffic outside of the Tangaroa transfer junction that was the problem. Ships were backed up in a long queue waiting for clearance to land at the busy station. About half of them were starliners filled with tourists who had come to vacation along the ocean planet’s temporary beaches or subsurf beneath its massive waves. Another place to add to my running “come back and visit” list.

It was about another hour before we were able to land and by that point I really was regretting not having the EVA suit with me. Jumping out of the ship would have been preferable to hearing another verse of the pilot’s favorite song, “No Room for Love.”

After moving through the security, I made my way across the station towards my next flight. The press of people was a little overwhelming and with the exhaustion of the trip settling on my bones, I almost didn’t see her before it was too late.

Betrix LaGrange was coming out of another tunnel, blonde hair bobbing to a beat as she was listening to her mobiGlas. She stopped momentarily to adjust her right shoe.

I used her distraction to turn and walk right through the nearest door. A male voice cleared his throat. I looked around and realized that the door I had chosen blindly was the men’s bathroom.

I moved into a stall before anyone else came in, sat down, and contemplated my next move.

What was Betrix doing here? Did she have a plan to steal the case from me or was this pure coincidence? Suddenly, the way to Tyrol IV seemed laden with danger.

I checked my messages from FTL, finding a list of deliveries due in the next two days. Somehow, I’d been signed up without my consent and the normal protocols about such things overridden.

“What the—?”

It clicked into place. Betrix must have had her boyfriend overload my schedule to force me to make a decision between keeping my job at FTL and making it to Tyrol IV. The due dates were manageable, assuming I left right now and headed back towards Sol. There were enough deliveries that if I missed them, I’d be put on probation, which in company terms was just a formality before firing. Canceling jobs once you accepted them was nearly as bad.

I punched the plastic wall as hard as I could. It hurt.

“Is there a problem?” came a deep voice from the other side.

“No TP,” I said, lowering my voice.

A roll wrapped in white cellophane was shoved under the wall. The quick response caught my notice, so I leaned down. On the other side of the wall was a stack of toilet paper, neatly placed into rows or stacked into towers and pyramids. The gentleman in the next stall seemed to be hoarding them.

“No thanks,” I said. “I have some napkins.”

Turning back to my current dilemma, Betrix had me cornered. I knew she was counting on me to abandon the delivery and save my job, so she could swoop in and take the case from me when I did. I bit my lower lip. I’d survived a life-support malfunction and a space-faring lunatic. I wasn’t going to be stopped by little-miss-hagfish.

The toilet on the other side of the TP-hoarding gentleman flushed, which reminded me where I was hiding. While squeezing my nose closed because of the smell wafting under the wall, I studied the list. If I made the freelance delivery, and then prioritized two of the other six deliveries using non-commercial ships while ignoring the rest, I would barely stay above probation. The gambit would cost me more credits against my expected returns, and I wouldn’t be able to make a mistake for another two years, but it could work.

Of course, all that was counting on Betrix not having some other backup strategy in place, like knocking me over the head with a hammer or something equally desperate. To be safe, I should make sure to get to my flight without encountering her.

Exiting the stall, I was greeted by a janitor in a blue-green jumpsuit and company hat, with a spray bottle in one hand and a rag in the other. His cart was loaded down with cleaning supplies. He acknowledged my gender with a heavy blink, before moving on with wiping down the sink.

I wrinkled my forehead and nose, not because of the awful smell still lingering in the men’s room, but due to an idea that came to me like a supernova.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Would you like to make a few credits?”

[20:58:44]

The janitor’s clothes weren’t as baggy as the EVA suit, but they did the trick. I wasn’t as worried about my outfit as I was the silvery case. Which was why I’d bribed the janitor to borrow his cart, too. The silvery case was buried beneath the cleaning supplies.

Betrix had positioned herself near a tunnel to the other section where my departing ship was waiting. She was scanning the people as they went past her.

I kept my head down, so the hat covered my face, and kept moving. The station was busy enough that Betrix would have to focus on looking for the silvery case. It was quite distinctive. I had to hope that was enough to get me past her.

As I neared her position, I held my breath. Betrix was standing on her tippy-toes trying to see over the crowd. As I approached, I was certain she’d notice my baggy jumpsuit and realize it was me beneath the hat.

But as quickly as I approached, I was past her and headed down the tube. Another fifty meters further, I took off the jumpsuit and liberated the case, leaving the cart where the janitor told me to. Then I hurried towards my destination, hoping they’d let me board early in case Betrix came looking for me.

The departure gate was in sight when I saw the security detail close the door. My mobi indicated that I wasn’t late. I was confused until I noticed the displays on the wall listing all commercial flights cancelled.

Was Betrix more powerful and desperate than I had given her credit for?

A few irate customers had already lined up at the commercial counter. I knew I wouldn’t learn anything there, but I spied a knot of security guards talking by a vending machine. As discreetly as I could, I feigned fixing my boot laces, while I listened to their conversation.

“. . . don’t know why, just that we’re on lockdown . . .”

“. . . it’s a medical quarantine. A code yellow, so not deadly, but they don’t want it to get out. Makes people act loopy. Heard that the first guy who was sick had pulled out his hair one by one . . .”

“. . . dammit, this means I’ll miss my son’s sataball game . . .”

“. . . at least we’ll get hazard overtime . . .”

“. . . they say how it’s transmitted?”

“. . . a contact virus, so unless it got picked up by the foodies, it shouldn’t spread too quickly . . .”

Crite. Quarantine. Who knows how long that might last?

With the commercial ships shut down, there’d be no way off the station, unless I could find a captain willing to break quarantine. As I started walking back towards the main terminal, I dug through the ship list, looking for small ships with newer ID numbers. Those would give me the best chance, since they probably needed the credits most. The likelihood that they would take me was small, but I had to try.

I’d identified three ships that might take me when I heard my name spoken with well-worn disdain.

“Sorri Lyrax,” said Betrix, standing with her arms crossed. “It doesn’t look like you’ll be making your delivery.”

“If you haven’t noticed, nobody’s leaving the station, which means you too,” I said. “Neither of us is going to deliver the job right now.”

When the self-satisfied smug smile appeared on her lips, I knew she had a ship waiting that would take her and the case directly to Tyrol IV. Betrix wasn’t above using unorthodox methods either, it seemed.

“Hand over the case. You had a good run, but it ends here. I’ll give you five percent, as a token gesture of good faith,” she said, holding out her hand.

“Why do you even want this job so bad?” I asked.

“I’m saving up to buy a ship, you ninny,” she said. “An Aurora LX. Best long-range hauler for a freelance courier. Comfortable as sin. I have a replica patent leather captain’s chair in my apartment on Saisei, just waiting to be installed in it.”

The fire in her eyes practically glowed. Though I didn’t agree with her methods, I knew exactly what drove her. It was what was pushing me to take chances with every delivery. Knowing this made me realize, as much as I loathed to admit it, that we might actually have something in common.

“Why?” I persisted.

“What’s with all the questions?” asked Betrix, glancing around as if she thought it might be a trick.

“Humor me, and I might hand over the case,” I said.

Betrix visibly recoiled, as if that act seemed ridiculous under the circumstances. She almost ignored my question, but then her lower lip tightened, as if memories came bubbling up unwarranted.

“I never want to be stuck on any planet. Ever. Space is the only place you can be safe and free,” she said.

Whatever fire was burning in her eyes became eclipsed by darkness. I didn’t even want to know what had caused her that amount of pain. And as much as I hated every slimy inch of her guts, I wanted to give her a hug.

While I mulled the insane idea that I was about to offer, I noticed something odd going on with the nearby fruit vendor. He’d taken his wares and dumped them onto the floor and was sorting them into groups by shape and color. The passengers in the area were giving him a wide berth.

It wasn’t the only oddity in the vicinity. A businessman had dumped his suitcase on the ground and was putting his clothes into piles. In the distance, I saw a group of people in yellow hazard suits marching in our direction.

Crite.

“Look, we shouldn’t be fighting,” I said in a hurried breath. “We both want the same thing. We’re both smart, savvy and driven. But our competition is costing us credits, when we could be working as a team. What if we made the delivery together, and then pooled our credits to purchase an Aurora and had it modified for a crew of two? Yes, I know, we’d probably still hate each other, but it’d only be for a year or so, and after that, I’m sure we could earn enough to purchase a second ship and take our separate ways. Before you say no, think about it. It’ll knock years off our plans to be on our own. If we’re willing to put up with each other, I’m sure we could have a ship by the end of this year and be on our own within two.”

For a brief and wonderful moment, she was a totally different person. There wasn’t a shred of the self-absorbed, manipulative, hateful . . . sorry, went on a roll there. I gathered that no one had ever made an offer to work with her before. Suddenly, her stand-offish and often vicious behavior made sense, despite not knowing what original pain had caused it.

Then her features slowly started to harden, as if the frost in her soul was freezing its way up. By the time the words, “No, not ever,” reached her lips, I’d already formulated a new plan.

Fine. But don’t ever say I didn’t try.

I tried to move past Betrix, but she grabbed my arm. I swear she was an android in disguise by that grip.

“Let me go, Betrix,” I said.

“You’re not making that delivery,” she said, as she reached for the case.

I tried to pull my arm free, but she wouldn’t let me. The people around us began moving away, sensing the conflict. The people in hazard suits were approaching, and they were starting to notice us.

“Not now, Betrix, or you’ll get us both thrown in a private quarantine,” I said.

Either Betrix didn’t hear me or didn’t care, but she kept tugging on the case, trying to yank it from my grip. The yellow-suited authorities had shifted their path and were coming directly for us.

When I realized she wasn’t going to let go, I yelled, “She’s got it! She’s got it! She’s got the virus!”

Rule number six: Act like you know.

In moments of panic or confusion, be the person who takes charge so you can ensure the chaos forms around your needs.

It was another lesson that I’d learned from my father. On the occasions that the corrupt local police would come into the Golden Horde to solicit bribes, my father would ensure that an “incident” would occur down the street at the moment they arrived. In truth, he had a friend in the department who usually warned him when they were coming. My father would always be outside during the incident — usually a small fire, or reported purse-snatching — and he would start yelling at the police to go put out the fire or stop the thief, who was never caught. Despite their intentions in collecting monies rather than doing their job, they hated to be seen not doing simple police work when someone was highlighting a problem.

Thus, the hazard-suited folk, despite having multiple obvious virus outbreaks within visual distance, would tackle Betrix LaGrange when she tried to run away, or the other people in the terminal might see that they “weren’t doing their job.” Societal peer pressure is a bitch.

In the ensuing chaos, I slipped away then took off in a full sprint down the passage. At this point, it was total bedlam as a panic gripped the people in the station. I ran, not in the direction of those three ships, but in search of the ship that Betrix had hired. I just had to figure out which one it was first.

I thought it might be difficult until I pulled up the destinations of all the ships at Tangaroa. Two ships were headed to Tyrol IV, but one of them was commercial, which meant the other was Betrix’s ride: the aptly named Vengeance Valkyrie.

After a five-minute sprint across the station, my arm was shaking from carrying the silvery case. I had to hurry as more yellow-suits were arriving by the minute. Announcements went over the PA, asking everyone for cooperation. Uneasy fear hovered over the people like a dark cloud.

Signs of the virus could be seen everywhere. One woman in a white research jacket was disassembling the seats in a lounge using a screwdriver. She had the posts sitting in one pile, the seat backs in another, and was busy trying to rip the fabric loose to make a third. Another man was smearing condiments from the food area on the wall by color, while a third had pushed over a vending machine and was ripping out the guts to sort.

Vengeance Valkyrie was in a private bay. I ran towards the ship, waving the silvery case. The lift came down but when I pressed the button to send it up, a disembodied voice spoke through the comms.

“You’re not Betrix,” he said, in an accent I wasn’t familiar with. It sounded like he was trying to hide a formal education.

“I’m her partner. I got the case here, but she got detained. She said to make the delivery without her,” I said.

“That still doesn’t change the fact that you’re not Betrix. She hired me, so I’m waiting for her,” he said.

“How else would I have known to come for your ship if she hadn’t told me? Hurry up and let me on. If we don’t leave soon, they might bring in gunships to ensure a tight quarantine and you won’t get your bonus,” I said, guessing Betrix had offered one.

When static was my answer, I pressed the button again and said, “I’ll up your fee twenty percent.”

“How do I know you don’t have this virus that’s in the station?” he asked.

“I haven’t touched anyone,” I said, but realizing he wouldn’t understand that context, I elaborated, “the virus is transmitted by contact. I overheard the security talking.”

After a moment of silence, he said, “Twenty-five.”

“Deal,” I said, hoping that wasn’t too much.

When the platform started lifting into the ship, I wanted to breathe a sigh of relief, but until we were back in space, I didn’t dare.

The room behind the cabin wasn’t large, but it had a take-off chair. I strapped myself in after shoving the case beneath it.

“Ready!” I yelled, hoping he could hear me through the door.

I worried he wasn’t going to light his engines, especially when the internal lights switched off, leaving me in near-darkness, but then I felt a sudden wash of vertigo and realized we were moving. He’d untethered us from station gravity and we drifted away, spinning. The momentum dragged us towards the planet. Through the whirling viewport, I watched UEE emergency response vessels descend on the station.

The ship began to pick up speed as we hurled towards the planet. Sparks flashed across the viewport. I began to worry that the pilot had died, when at what felt like the last moment, he switched on the engines and propelled us through the atmosphere, coming out on the other side of the planet, away from the station and the incoming UEE ships.

After successfully escaping the quarantine, the ship headed towards the Tyrol jump point. The captain invited me into the forward cabin.

He was a ruggedly handsome man in his late thirties with olive skin and dark messy hair that went to his shoulders. He looked more at home in the wilderness on a wind-swept hilltop surrounded by alien trees than in a ship cabin. His teeth were a little crooked but that made his smile more endearing.

“Satchel,” he said, offering his hand.

We shook and I felt a warm tingle travel up my arm. Maybe this final leg of the journey wouldn’t be so bad after all.

“Care for an orange?” he asked, offering the fruit after plucking it from a bag. “Helios has some of the best oranges. They taste like sunshine and beaches.”

“Sure,” I said, brushing his hand lightly when I accepted the orange.

He gave me a smile that made my face tingle.

Feeling a little worn out from my sprint through the station and general lack of sleep, I peeled my orange in quiet as we sped through the great emptiness. Using my fingernail, I broke the skin and started ripping back the peel. I put the orange against my nose. He was right. It smelled like sunshine. Sweet sugary sunshine, but sunshine none-the-less. I inhaled deeply. The smell took the edge off my exhaustion. Before I could rip off a wedge and plop it in my waiting mouth, I noticed Captain Satchel doing something strange in his lap.

He had his orange already peeled, but instead of eating it, he was piling up the identically sized pieces and arranging them on his leg. As soon as we shared a glance, I saw the fear in his eyes. He had the virus, which meant that I had it too, and we were too far away to get help.

[18:15:25]

To be continued…

End Transmission

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