Rizu Mui market had accumulated over time like drifts of dry leaves in the harvest season. Situated on the first deck above the docks, the mayhem of the trader’s floor spread from wall to wall then climbed them eight terraces. Arden looked down on the whirlwind of trade from the cafe mezzanine seven flights up. The stalls, in their motley confusion of colors, were laid out in concentric circles with paths spiraling through that could end abruptly like an elaborate maze. The traders on the floor used this quirk of the layout to entice shoppers to them with whimsical patterns, signs, and warnings drawn or painted on the metal floor. “Wrong way!”; “Stop! You almost missed us.”; and “Welcome back.” were some of the most popular call outs. Curling ribbons of paint directed people to certain kiosks, as well as arrows, pointing extremities, and drawn creatures in slow migration.
This market day seemed unusually frantic. There had been an influx of new bodies in early hours; five large companies had docked offloading entertainment starved crews. Going to market was a welcome excursion when you lived in a shipboard box. Arden guessed it was also pay day for many. It would explain the general sense of glee and mania.
Arden turned from the railing to see a woman had taken his seat at the cafe and, it seemed, eaten his Gloss pastry. Even sitting down she was tall – with a long torso, slender neck, and covered in fine feathers from crest to claw to wingtip. Arden did a quick scan to see if he had mistaken his table for another. He stepped closer to the woman (a Selexais if ever he’d seen one).
“Excuse me. You just ate my tart.” Direct and straight to the key concern.
The bawdy minx licked her fingers before answering. “You let it sit here so long I thought you didn’t want it. I haven’t had a decent sweet in ages. That tart was actually too sweet if you want honesty. You were right to not eat it. Much too sweet.”
Arden chuffed. “I was savoring my cup of bah while it was first hot. Iblis grunts! Do you intend to buy a replacement tart?” Not quite as direct, Arden was feeling uncertain on how to press her to repay him. The tart was not pricey; it was more the principal of the thing. Who steals a tart?
“Are you the tripper Arden Nahi’koa of Koa Fali Stead?”
Arden looked at her a moment agape. The question had sounded so official, so ominous, he had to take a mental inventory of outstanding debts and possible infractions. She had mentioned his home on Kobai — was it something to do with his father? Would they send a giant tart thief to notify him of a death in the family?
“Who is asking?” He replied. It came out gruff, not really his intention but she had unsettled him.
“Silhapedax. People not of Selex origins shorten it to Sil – you can do that. Too long for most.
“I’m sure right now you’re thinking that you know my name. I won’t leave you to stress over it. Why waste time? Reylyn. She would have talked a great deal about me. We lived together on Maphun…during school…we were roommates almost the whole way through. Good friends. Like family. Dweki is your word for it. We were dweki.”
Arden recalled his sister’s stories about a roommate who could never stay out of trouble. And who talked incessantly.
“Silhapedax.” He drew the name out as though he were searching his memory. Mostly he just wanted her to stop talking. Iblis take the tart.
“Yes. My sister has told me of you. Was this a social pastry theft or did you have some business?”
“I need your help. When I told Reylyn that I would be at Rizu Mui she told me that I should look you up on the people finder. She told me you would be here at the same time my ship would arrive for the recreation leave. Reylyn said that if I asked you for help you would absolutely say yes because Reylyn and I are like dweki. She said you’re a good man.”
Arden smiled on the inside. That last sounded like his sister.
“What help?” Arden asked simply, seating himself at the small table across from Sil.
“I need you to take me back to Selex. It’s a family emergency. Urgent family business.”
“I’m not going to Selex. That’s sixty-eight days’ journey in the wrong direction.” Arden felt his vocal sac bulge slightly in agitation. Friend of Reylyn’s or not this woman’s manners were grating.
“This is important,” Sil insisted, “it’s crucial to someone’s life.”
“My commitments are important and crucial to my life. In my business, reputation is everything. There is a wedding on Asogra Xi in thirty-five days that I have deliveries for. That’s thirty days in the opposite direction.” Arden gestured with his head in the vague direction of the Reach.
Sil sat up straight and preened her crest feathers. “That’s easy enough. Just let the wedding people know now you can’t make it. Thirty-five days is plenty of time to find a new source for whatever frippery you were hauling. Maybe they have already changed their mind. Save you all that tripping.”
“Why me? There has to be at least one vessel docked that is already scheduled to hit Selex. Book passage with them.” Arden croaked. He would Flit Reylyn as soon as he was done with his errands.
“Arden,” she whined. “I don’t have the credits for that. Reylyn said you would help me.”
“My sister may always have the light from my center, but she does not make my schedule or run my business. I regret that she gave you false hope, but I am not changing my schedule. I will not be going to Selex for another year at least. I have too much business in the Reach.” Arden stood. “I have an appointment to keep.”
Sil looked at him like he’d just stolen her tart. Then she crumpled into a mound of feathers. “What am I going to do,” she whined at such a volume Arden croaked uncomfortably.
“Sil, please.” People at the next table halted their conversation to look at Sil and then Arden. “Sil, you are drawing attention. If you don’t stop moaning I will walk away from this table and leave you to deal with this on your own.” I should regardless, this is not my problem, Arden thought. He took a step towards the stairs.
Sil cleared her throat and squawked, “Stay. I will try to hold my emotions better.”
Arden was undecided. What good would staying do. He wouldn’t change his course —. Then he considered Reylyn, she such a person, better than him. His sister acquired friends with more ease than picking up sticker pods in summer fields. She had a radiant nature and always spared a sutsu to listen to friend or stranger. Arden admired his sister for it, though he usually found it foolish to invest so much time conversation. He let out a few slight chirps from his vocal sac as Arden denied his instincts and reseated himself across from the Selexais girl.
Sil’s story began in school, her family had not been pleased with the choice of Maphun, the university on Nemet. Her father felt that diplomacy for the people of Selex should be learned on Selex. Despite exemplary scores and honors bestowed, the family saw Sil’s education as a waste. After Maphun, Sil had accepted a contract to work with a small group of trade negotiators as their Selexais labor representative. Again, her father disapproved. He told her that the group she had agreed to work with were thugs of the worst sort. Sil went on to take the job. As it happened, her father had assessed the group correctly. Sil quickly discovered that they were being paid to create dissension, not improve the lives of the common worker. Their insidious machinations had caused riots, bombings, death. Sil was sick at her center for being party to it all.
On a day of a particularly nasty demonstration, a hooded Sil noticed a woman in the crowd who resembled one of her sisters. Sil slipped away from her cohorts to speak with the woman, perhaps help her out of the plaza to safe place. Sil had not had contact with any of her family in more than a year. Before she could weave deep enough into the crowd, a man with a club rushed up on the woman from behind and caved in her head with one swing. Sil had seen this as it unfolded – the man’s face before, his shoulders pulling back for maximum striking power, the way the club vaporised the side of her face on contact. It horrified Sil, and not just because she had hoped the woman was one of her sisters. The Selexais are hated by many in the habitable universe, but this was the first time Sil had seen the hatred first hand and played out for its own sake.
The man who killed the Selexais woman in the crowd had simply blended back into the fray. He did not check if his cruel work had finished her. The violence was his goal and he’d likely moved on to find another easy target for his rage. Sil slipped carefully to the fallen woman’s side to check for any sign of life. The damage to her head was such that Sil did not want to find her alive. To reassure herself that the victim was not family, Sil checked her pockets for an ID. In addition to a work pass identification (not family) the woman had all of her travel documents on her. In one small case she carried her documented life. A documented life.
Sil had six more years on her contract with the thugs. Just days before she’d been brooding on how she would rather die than complete another assignment. Without thinking much on it, she slipped her own work pass into the woman’s pocket and passed the clutch of travel documents and key cards into her own robe. On the ground beside the body was a Flit unit that seemed to match the broken band on the dead woman’s head. The unit itself was undamaged. She pocketed it and left her own in its place. As Sil stood she stepped on the Flit to give the scene authenticity.
For the next three years she had lived as Hexaksaloon, a low level engineer on an Efani ore barge.
“Did you know anything about engine maintenance and repair when you assumed her life?” Arden interrupted.
“The diagnostic machines do all the real work. I push buttons and make reports when asked. It is an easy job. I was so fortunate to stumble into it and on an Efani ship. They have no complaints about the Selexais and they can’t tell us apart. All the same to them.”
“One point I’m unclear on – if your family thinks you are dead why are you going home?”
In short, Sil had been following her family’s lives – as Hexaksaloon – on the social sharing branch of the Flit network. In this way she learned of a death in the family that resulted in an orphaned brood of five. Each of her sisters and the sister of the deceased had committed to raising one of the brood each. Once that was settled the family started combing through their more distant relatives to find a mother for the fifth. Homesick and miserable from being on the outside of the nest watching their lives happen, Sil had called up her mother’s ID on the Flit and initiated a conversation.
“I thought they would be crying and cawing for joy when they learned I wasn’t dead. As it happens, the group I’d been working with never notified my them of my death. The family thought I was still stubbornly refusing to talk to them because of Father’s protests about my life choices. So I’m going home to be a mother. I’ll have family again and a new role to play. Starting over with a chick in my arms. I hope it’s a girl. I would understand a girl better.” Sil opened her mouth slightly and nodded dreamily, raking a clawed hand through her long crest feathers.
Arden wagged his head slowly from side to side and murmured a long, thoughtful croak. “That story was worth the time it took to hear it. Though I do disagree with certain of your choices.” And doubt responsibility for another life is a good idea, he thought. “Maybe there is another way I can help you.” He pulled out his Flit and extended the interface for hand use. It only took a few taps to find that the next trip to Selex left that day and was still offering traveler fares. The rate was 680 credits for a berth and another 680 for food. Twenty credits per day of travel seemed more than fair, but 1,360 credits was more than he could reasonably spare.
“You have no money at all?” Arden asked.
“That’s a rude question.” Sil responded airily.
Arden chuffed, felling the irritation gather at his center. “I am looking for a transport to Selex. I am asking about your funds to see if you can contribute to the journey.”
“I don’t have anything. I spent what I had on buying out the last few months of my contract with the Efani. Used it all.”
“What about the end journey. There will be fees to reenter Selex, transport to the drop zone off the station, transport to your nest village. I’d calculate that as 100 credits for the officials, about 40 for the drop…I can’t even calculate the last because I don’t know where you live in relation to the drop. Will your family be there to pick you up? Can they pay for some of this travel cost?”
“My father would despise me if I asked him for credits, even to come home. Wrong way to start my return to the family.”
“Doesn’t he despise you already?” Arden asked in an undertone. He felt immediate shame at the cruelty of it.
Sil didn’t register insult. “Now that I have admitted he was right – that I shouldn’t have taken the contract – he has forgiven me. I am welcomed home.”
“So you need 1,500 credits plus the cost of ground transport.” Arden poked at his Flit screen thoughtfully. Kah Orekwa had paid for his journey already. His account had increased by 800 credits during Sil’s story. There had been some credits in the account already, and a fair amount in his emergency fund. He had supplies to buy, but he wouldn’t need even the full 800 for that —.
“Last time I paid for a trip home the fare was 78 credits. That was almost five years ago though.”
Arden made three short chirps as he realized what could be done. He tapped the outgoing message feature on his Flit and chose Reylyn.
“Mwaf, time this hissss?”
Arden saw a familiar hand on his screen searching for something.
“Reylyn, it’s Arden. Don’t disconnect.”
“Mwar fuh Arden. Middle of sleeping. Laaaate.” She whined.
“Try to focus Reylyn.” The view went sideways, righted itself, then turned sideways again and leveled. Reylyn was in view but her eyes weren’t open. “I regret the hour dweki, but I need you to pay attention.”
“What?” Reylyn asked without opening her eyes.
“I’m at Rizu Mui. Your friend Silhapedax found me.”
“It’s Sil,” the Selexais girl corrected. “Hi Reylyn. You can just call me Sil,” she repeated to Arden.
Reylyn opened one eye. “O. I forgot to mention that I’d talked to her and suggested she look you up. Hi Sil.” Reylyn croaked.
“Sil needs to get to Selex and I can’t get her there myself. I have to deliver my L’Tiru crop to Asogra Xi in time for the vintner to make the wine for the wedding. That’s in thirty-five days just in case you have another school friend you promised a trip to.”
“Only friends to or from the Reach. Understood. Back to sleep now.” Reylyn’s head began to slide out of view.
“Not done yet. Focus.” Arden spoke a little louder. Reylyn’s head popped back into view.
“Don’t like you right now.” Reylyn murmured in a low croak.
“We are of one mind sister. I need you to Flit me credits. Eight hundred credits would be fair, but you can send more if you like. Sil needs about 1,600 to get home.”
Reylyn’s eyes popped open as she chirruped involuntarily. “That’s a lot of credits.”
“Passage is 1,360 including food. It’s a sixty-eight day trek.” Arden explained.
Reylyn bounced her head lightly against the wall as she calculated the additional costs and weighed it all against her own finances. “I’ll send you 1,100. If you can give her the rest —? You will always have the light from my center dweki. Tell Sil my contribution to her getting home is now the motherhood celebration gift. I can’t afford anything else for a while.”
“Done and done. My light to yours Reylyn. Flit me to message when you are rested.”
Reylyn’s image broke in flecks of color as she disconnected.
Arden tapped another name in his people list. In moments a large, hairy face filled his screen.
“Arden!” The man hailed. “I haven’t talked to you in an age. How is your life?”
“Most excellent, Doerdah. Well met. How is your life?” Arden responded.
“I can’t complain,” the man replied with a toothy grin, “every time I do my mate bites me in the leg.” Doerdah guffawed loudly at his own joke. Arden heard the tell-tale laugh echo faintly up over the edge of the mezzanine. He stood and crossed the narrow aisle to look over the railing.
“Doerdah, are you in the market on Rizu Mui?”
“Not yet, I’m about two flights of stairs away.”
“I’m in the cafe. Could I ask you to come up?”
“Is that the one that sells your worm tarts?”
“Yes. And they are larva not worms.”
“Still gross.” Doerdah laughed. “I’m on my way. O, and there you are.” The man waved with gusto.
Everything Doerdah did was done with gusto. He was two heads taller than Arden, covered in a thick, tight indigo fur. His people came from an ice moon so the fur was a must. The first time Arden had met him, he was terrified of the hulking man with his full maw of pointy teeth and huge furry hands with thick, curved claws. Then Doerdah had started talking and had Arden laughing so hard he couldn’t stop croaking for the next two anecdotes. They only saw each other by chance in Waystations, but Arden always looked forward to their meetings.
He hurried back to the table where he found Sil licking her fingers again. Arden gave her a suspicious eye. “What were you eating?”
In a conspiratorial tone she said, “That man over there just got up and walked away from his food. He never even touched it. Food should not be wasted.”
Arden looked at the man who seemed to be engrossed in his Flit, hopefully unaware his food was gone. “But he’s sitting there now?” Arden pointed out.
“I know,” Sil whispered, “he came back.”
Arden looked at her in disbelief and then closed his eyes. This was not his problem.
“My friend Doerdah will be here in sutsu. Don’t be alarmed by his appearance, he is kind and funny. Please be more polite to him than you have ever been to anyone ever. I am going to ask him for a favor on your behalf.”
“O. I will do my best.” She preened and fluffed her wings out, letting them resettle slowly across her back.
Doerdah called Arden’s name from the top of the stairs and walked to him with one arm in a wide gesture of welcome. The other hand was leading a folded no-pull pallet. Arden met the man, accepting his brute embrace before they greeted Kobailin style with a tight bow.
“Does this caf sell any fermented beverages? I’m thirsty for something with a kick to it.” The big man growled amicably.
“Selexais spiced ale?” Arden suggested.
“For a start…!” Doerdah bellowed jovially. “Add to it two shots of star flare elixir to remind me of home.”
Arden offered Doerdah the cafe chair he’d been using. The big man lifted it as though weighing the chair in his hand. He shook his head and turned to his telescoping no-pull cart. In sutsu he had it unfolded and reconfigured into a sturdy seat, suitable to Doerdah’s bulk, that floated a handspan off the deck.
Once he was situated, Doerdah nodded a greeting to Sil and looked at Arden expectantly.
“Uuuh. This is Sil,” Arden jabbered, “a friend of my sister. Sil is from Selex and eager to return there.”
Doerdah nodded thoughtfully, eyeing Arden with mild curiosity. To Sil he said, “Greetings. Thanks for all the ale.”
She twittered a laugh and smiled at him with mouth open and half-lidded eyes.
Doerdah swung his attention back to Arden. “Those drinks aren’t going to walk themselves over here. Why so awkward, man?”
Arden didn’t want to leave Sil alone with his friend until the favor was asked. He also didn’t trust her to Flit for the drinks with his unit.
“Ah!” Arden remembered something in his pack. He fished through and found a credit stick. Following some swift calculations he tapped a number of credits onto the stick and handed it to Sil. “Can you get us the drinks – just an ale for me and a Gloss tart? There’s enough here for you to drink with us and grab a small meal.”
Sil looked at the stick like it was offensive. As she was opening her mouth to protest Arden pulled her hand to him and pressed the stick into her palm.
“There’s something I’d like to discuss with Doerdah. Please.”
Sil shuffled her wings in irritation but she took the credit stick and walked to the food booth.
“She’s a looker…,” Doerdah commented coyly.
“Don’t. She really is a friend of Reylyn’s. Sil is going through a transition and needs help. Reylyn told her to seek me out so that I could help. The problem is, I can’t do what she needs.”
“So you thought of me and that old Kitchtirazach charm. It’s okay friend, the first step to overcoming something like this is to admit you have a problem.”
Arden dipped his head and tilted it from shoulder to shoulder. “Doerdah, I am fond of your humor but in this case you are on the wrong path.”
“So you didn’t try to…?” The big man laughed at Arden’s frustrated chirrups. “Okay. Apologies. It’s a good thing you don’t need me to take care of that for you. The mate is allergic to feathers. What help?”
“Sil needs passage to Selex. Reylyn assumed I would take her, but that journey is out of my way for many trips to come. My sister and I are pooling credits to send her there, with hope on your vessel.”
Doerdah shrugged. “I’ve got room. I’ll give her a discount on the berth – food’s food, I can’t cut the price on that – but whether the cabin is full or empty it’s going with me. Let’s call it fuel cost. Not all of us have a vessel that finds her own fuel,” Doerdah finished with a wink. He pulled out an aging Flit tablet. “Are you paying the fare?”
“I’ll send you a one-time discount,” the man murmured as he prodded the screen with one dull claw.” Within sutsu he had clicked off his tablet and tucked it into a pocket.
Arden stretched his Flit to a wider screen and accepted the message. Doerdah had cut the berth rate to five credits per day. Arden booked the room and put Sil on the meal plan.
“Gratitude, friend. Look out for her on the journey. She does not live a charmed life and she doesn’t seem to have much sense.”
Doerdah huffed a breath. “That’s common among the Selexais. They are raised with the sense that the world belongs to them and that people of other homes hate them for their privilege. They don’t entertain the idea it is for their arrogance.” Doerdah put a rough hand on Arden’s shoulder. “I can out arrogant them by a star year. So we get along just fine. Are you lending her the credits?”
Arden clicked abruptly in his throat. “Khol’nara do not lend money. It’s an offensive practice. We give without expecting the gift to return.”
“On Skaul we have a proverb about scratching each other’s backs,” Doerdah looked pointedly and the slick cobalt skin of Arden’s back. “Maybe it’s a clawed and furred thing.”
“We sing to enliven each other’s center,” Arden chirped. “Does your back need a scratch from me for the kindness you shared?”
“I was asked to deliver a time-sensitive shipment to Sheoul Kress Station. You are usually heading into the Reach when we cross paths…. If you deliver it for me, I’ll keep the upfront fees and you can have the completion fee.”
“This is an acceptable exchange. Sheoul Kress is on the way to Brakkana. I picked up a passenger and cargo for Brakkana today.”
“The cargo may be missing a few authorizations…,” Doerdah rumbled low. Sil was approaching with servitor unit carrying the food and drinks. “If you dock on eight to eko’e’kial to spin, my client will receive the shipment at the doc and pay you there. It’ll be his problem to get it through dock security. Just have a plausible reason to be at the station that doesn’t have to do with the delivery.”
Arden lifted his shoulders mimicking a gesture he’d seen Doerdah make before. “On Sheoul Kress they love my fresh spinulaccha sprouts. Their Chef Ko’oy makes a popular dish with them and I have a standing request to drop in whenever a crop is harvested. I have a thriving crop now that will be ready in forty days or so.”
“Space farmer. Who ever would have thought we’d have space farmers?” Doerdah grumbled as he tipped the first elixir back into his maw.
“Thank you, Sil. Good news. You will be traveling with Doerdah to Selex. He’s a competent enough pilot, but his mate is an excellent cook. If you hold out your Flit I’ll tap you the fare sheet.”
Sil shuffled around her six plates of expensive sweet treats and held her wrist unit across the table. Arden waved his in the vicinity until he felt the low force roll of a completed transaction. “Where’s my Gloss tart?” he asked, putting his Flit away.
Sil waved a hand at him, then dropped the credit stick in his hand. “The stick you gave me didn’t have enough credits on it for everything so I had to adjust the order. No tart credits.”
Doerdah chuckled and tipped the second shot of elixir in his direction. “To the stars,” he pledged and threw the liquor into his throat.
<a rel=”license” href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/”><img alt=”Creative Commons License” style=”border-width:0″ src=”https://i.creativecommons.org/l/by-nc-nd/4.0/88×31.png” /></a><br /><span xmlns:dct=”http://purl.org/dc/terms/” href=”http://purl.org/dc/dcmitype/Text” property=”dct:title” rel=”dct:type”>Adrift</span> by <a xmlns:cc=”http://creativecommons.org/ns#” href=”https://eadard00dlesandcheese.wordpress.com” property=”cc:attributionName” rel=”cc:attributionURL”>t.s.wright</a> is licensed under a <a rel=”license” href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/”>Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License</a>.