|Forum Home > Now This Ain't No Frak > Let's make a deal. (part 2)|
James had been to Avalon two or three times before, as a young child. His father had brought him and his mother along for a few week-long conferences of Earth Fleet's Admiralty. Commander Welthammer had worked during the days, and then joined his family in the evenings as they toured the planet's museums and beaches and grand parks and tremendous monuments.
Staying on any planet made James anxious and uncomfortable. He'd known that he wanted to be a spacer as long as he could remember. Life at the bottom of a gravity well was just too boring.
But Avalon was different from other planets. It was a true utopia: perfect climate, perfect soil, air that was crisp and oxygenated ever-so-slightly above normal so that a person always felt youthful and energized. Even the manmade structures were all flawlessly maintained and beautiful. It was no wonder that mankind had made the place its second homeworld… and a definite wonder that anyone who'd set foot there ever chose to leave.
Now James gazed at the planet through one of the Resolve's viewports. The atmosphere's pearlescent glow looked warm and welcoming. A slight shiver in James' back quickly set his skin crawling and he looked away from the window with a shudder.
James turned to find a woman with rust-colored hair and huge black eyes giving him a worried look.
"Shuttle pod's ready," she pointed a thumb over her shoulder. "Are you all right?"
Tanya Kaul had joined the Resolve's crew just over a year ago as a second pilot to back up Ed Ramsey. That was back when their finances had looked healthier, and James thought it would be worth it to get away from the helm himself and focus full-time on managing his little freelance business. Admittedly, he'd also had something of a crush on the young lady; though she'd shown no interest and now seemed to be having something of a fling with the ship's engineer, Stephen Faraday.
"I'm good," James assured her, "just…" He glanced back at the window.
Tanya cocked her head, "Just… what? Admiring the view?"
"Have you ever read the Odyssey?"
"No," she shook her head. "What is it?"
"Old book," James said. "It's a miracle they ever got me to read it in school. Anyway, I was just thinking this place reminds me of something from it. The island of the lotus eaters."
"Well," Tanya replied, "I'm sure that would be insightful if I knew what it meant."
James shook his head, "Never mind, I'm just procrastinating. Not really looking forward to this trip."
He started walking down the corridor to the lift. Tanya followed.
"Are you sure you don't want one of us to come with you?" she asked. "Just to fly the shuttle, I mean."
"You know, I am actually a fully qualified small craft pilot. I spent six months of my life doing practically nothing but flying shuttles. I have a license."
"Yeah, but you're really bad at it."
James groaned. "No, I'm going alone. I'm nervous enough about this whole thing as it is. If something goes awry, I want the rest of you as far away as possible."
"It's not too late to back out," the mirth was suddenly gone from Tanya's voice.
"Why does everyone keep saying things like that?" James asked through clenched teeth. He paused at the lift and looked at his pilot. "What's your plan for getting paid if we just walk away from that drive? Do you think this ship makes a profit just hauling intra-system cargo? Do you think we could even afford fuel that way?" He slammed a palm against a bulkhead to vent his frustration.
Tanya held his gaze for a moment before speaking, and the sadness in her eyes threatened to break James' heart.
"We don't all get to do the things we love, Captain," she said finally. "It's not many people who even get the chance. How many people on your crew do you think are living out their dreams?"
She let out a long sigh, then looked down at her feet and shook her head, "Anyway, that's probably why we tell you things like that. Sometimes you seem like the last kid in class to catch up to the lesson."
James realized that his fists were clenched. He had a terrible urge to punch something, and with much more violence than before. It took a few breaths for him to relax his arms.
"I've already signed the contract. If I walk away now I'm going to spend the rest of my probably short life dodging furry assassins. So I think I'd much rather go on chasing fairy tales for the moment. I'm going down to the shuttle."
By his tone, he hoped to communicate that he wanted to go alone. Tanya apparently got the message, as she stayed right where she was while he boarded the lift. She did not meet his eyes before the doors closed.
* * *
James had expected a typical spaceport bar. Spaceport bars were an acquired taste, but one which James had quickly taught himself to love. They ranged from greasy, rowdy holes to quiet, respectable havens. James imagined that spacers tended to gravitate towards atmospheres which were the opposite of conditions aboard their particular ships, looking for a brief vacation between flights. Captain Welthammer preferred the quieter, cleaner sort of bar himself. Not that the Resolve was dirty or obnoxious, James just didn't mix well with crowds of boisterous strangers.
The Golden Tong turned out not to be a spaceport bar, however. In fact, it wasn't really a bar at all. It was a tenth-crown-a-dozen franchise restaurant on the edge of a small public park nestled in the warrens of Avalon City. The sort of place working-class families went to have a monthly night out and eat food which had been overcooked to hide the fact that it had been frozen for much too long. It had a bar inside, but it was brightly-lit, polished affair. And at two in the afternoon, there was only one other patron sitting on a stool. An elderly man and his wife were the only patrons, eating their lunch at a table by the window.
James tried not to look at the other man at the bar as he sidled over. It had to be his contact, but it would be bad form to try and simply skip the formalities. Plus there was always the slight chance that he was wrong.
"Hi!" the woman tending the bar chirped as he sat down. "What can I get for you?"
For a moment James completely forgot what he was doing. The bartender was impossibly cute and looked to be about James' age; her smile could melt ice.
"Uh…" James blinked a few times, trying to remember his instructions. "Uh, club sandwich and a San Angeles Shaker, if you please."
The bartender's smile fell. "A San Angeles what?"
"Shaker. You know, the drink?" James made a gesture like pouring glasses.
"Oh! I'm sorry, I don't know that one. It's only my second week."
James shook his head, "Just get me a rum and cola, then."
She made the drink, then scampered back to the kitchen for his sandwich. James sipped from the glass before glancing over to the other man sitting at the bar. He was leaning resting the side of his head on his hand and looking right back at James. He was well-dressed, but his face was haggard and tired.
"The Cats take their sweet time, don't they?" he said.
James looked over to the door the bartender had gone through. It was still closed, so he shrugged and said, "I came when they told me."
The other man nodded, "Got something for me?"
James pulled out a thin plastic box from inside his jacket and handed it over. The man took it and turned it around in his fingers a few times.
He raised an eyebrow at James, "Do you know what this is?"
"I find my reputation is better when I don't ask about things like that."
The man chuckled, "That's often for the best." Then he slid the box apart and pulled out a thin electronic device from inside. A credit chit. He winked, and James realized he'd been holding his breath.
As he exhaled, his contact pocketed the credit chit and box. Then he drew out a package of his own. It was a metal cylinder about the same size as the glass James from which James was drinking. He offered it to James.
"Now, this," he said, "trust me when I tell you that you really [i]don't[/i] want to know what it is."
James had not been curious; he just wanted to get this whole game over and done with. This warning just made him even more eager to be on his way. He put the cylinder in the same jacket pocket in which he'd kept the box.
The other man slapped some cash down onto the bar and stood up. "Can't say I'll miss this place," he said to James. Then he walked to the exit.
James grimaced; he really wished he could do the same. But he was stuck for a while longer.
After a few minutes, the bartender returned with his sandwich on a plate.
"Oh," she said, looking at the money on the bar, "he left."
"Mm," James grunted, not wanting to acknowledge that he'd even noticed the other man.
"Oh well," the bartender said. She set the plate down and reached under the bar. "We'll pick him up later."
"Huh?" James said, as four Imperial Security troopers wearing red and gold armor marched out of the kitchen door.
The bartender pointed a gun at his face. "You're under arrest," she said. "Please don't make me shoot you."
Never trust the bartender... why is it that James always seems to get chased by Imperial Security? I'm curious to see where this is going.
P.S. Thanks for telling me about the "Come and Take It" flag. I see that EVERYWHERE now; at least I know the context.
I realized after I put it up that "Imperial Security" might not actually be a thing in the HTE, what with the feudal power structure of the Empire, and that instead it might still be just the Emperor's Guardsmen taking on the role of civil security on Avalon. I think I'll try to justify them as more of an internal secret intelligence agency than general police, though, and perhaps their influence just wanes within the larger Empire after a while.
And I'm glad you found the story useful!