Ash looked over the docket for the day. It had been a pretty good day so far. He had gotten some good tips, and only three tourists had vomited in his ship thus far. He had just gotten finished unloading a bunch of them.
“That was the last load coming in?” said the large woman who had been in charge of signing his paychecks the last few weeks.
“Seemed like it to me,” said Ash. “Which means I guess I’m off for now, unless you have anything else for me. Know any good watering holes that won’t be too touristy?”
She chuckled. “That you can afford on this salary? Not many,” she said. Despite that, she scribbled a name on a battered old business card. “This place may suit you okay.”
Ash sighed. Sounded about right. He was only just keeping afloat. His dad used to say that a ship was a hole in space that you poured money into. He looked down at the business card.
She nodded to him. “See you tomorrow morning,” she said as he headed back to his bunk on the ship.
Ash grumbled to himself as he went into town. He really, really wanted to be spacebound again. Too much time with dirt under his boots made him antsy. But since that wasn’t going to happen until he could afford some serious repairs in order to make Songbird spaceworthy again.
He investigated the business card that Cleo gave him again.
The name of the place was Athena’s. Because of course it was. He shrugged. He’d noticed that guys on this planet tended to kind of filter into the background. Maybe that was for the best. He just wanted a couple of cheap shots to help him get some sleep.
“Hell with it,” he said, hopping up a bit. At least it wouldn’t cost him anything to get into the island proper; he got free use of the shuttle service as part of his deal with Cleo.
The streets were pretty busy when he got there. It was a little after dinner time, by his reckoning, and the restaurants were starting to empty out. He really hoped he wouldn’t have to fight tourists for a seat in this place.
It was a relatively swanky place. At least for his take. But for now, it was quiet. He found himself a place at the bar, far enough away from the speakers as tall as he was, and asked for some of the planet special–tallen gimlet.
He gave it a dubious sniff. It had a kind of fruity, earthy aroma to it. Then he shrugged and drank it down. “Same again,” he said.
“Be careful little one. Too much of this will knock you on your ass.”
Ash shrugged. “My ass is little. It’s not that hard to move.”
Ash looked over. And then he looked up. He thought he had gotten used to the women of Isocrateria, but even among the giants, she stood out. One of her parents had to have been a battlecruiser.
“Not that my ass is any of your business,” he added, as he sipped his second glass.
She sat down next to him, and the seat groaned.
Most of the women on the island, even though they were tall, were graceful things. Thin, curvy sometimes, but always statuesque.
She was much more athletically built, and he could imagine the hours she had spent to fill a frame that tall with enough muscle to look intimidating. “Well, it’s in my bar, so.”
“Didn’t see your name on the door, unless it’s Athena,” said Ash. “I mean… I suppose it very well might be, knowing this city.”
She smiled. “What kind of narcissist would I be to name the bar after myself.”
“A not very creative one?” said Ash, shrugging. “Whatever. Something I can help you with?”
She shrugged. “Maybe? Where are you from? You don’t look like you’re from around here.”
“Not that it’s any of your business, but no, I’m not,” said Ash. “I’m not really from anywhere.”
“So you’re a spacer then?” she said, turning to face him. Despite her size, she was quite young, maybe even younger than him. “Where’s the farthest you’ve ever gone?”
Ash looked over at her. “I used to go all over,” he said. “Been to galaxies across all sorts of sectors. Ishtar, Marduk, even Tiamat once. But…” he trailed off. He downed the rest of his drink. “That was a long time ago.”
“What happened?” Jayna asked, “Come on, come up with me to one of the private booths.”
“Why?” he said, shrugging. “What are you hoping to get out of all this?” He gestured at himself. “If it’s meaningless sex you’re after, trust me, you can do better for yourself.”
She laughed aloud. “I don’t want to have sex with you. I just…” she looked down at her own glass. “I’ve never been off-world before. I’m curious. And it’s too loud here to talk properly.”
Ash looked down at his glass. “Buy me another drink,” he said. “And sure, why not. Not like I have anything better to do.”
She smiled. “I’ll do us one better.”
She leaned over the bar, and flagged down the barkeep, pointing to the top shelf. He shrugged and grabbed an unopened bottle probably worth more than a month of fuel on Songbird and handed it to her. She flashed her chitstick and then grabbed his glass. “Come on.”
Ash looked at the bottle. “…for that, I’ll tell you whatever you want,” he said, following her. They were led off into a little private booth with cushy seats. Soundproofed, too.
She plopped down, and pulled her hair out of its bun. “So… why can’t you go everywhere anymore?”
“Why else?” said Ash, giving himself a refill. “My… family used to be shippers,” he said. “Dyed in the wool spacers. We’d make our way all across the universe. But… that’s all over now.” He sighed. “Our ship’s all I have left. And she’s a glorified tourist shuttle right now.”
“Do you still have the connections?” she asked, pouring another glass herself.
Ash cocked his head at her. That wasn’t the response he’d been anticipating. “Probably one or two, I guess,” he said. “I had to… burn a lot of bridges.”
She looked out to the dance floor. “So… if you could get off world again, if you could hook up with those people again. Do you think the ship would still haul?”
Ash gave her a look. He tipped back his glass and took a swig. “Lady, I don’t know what kind of scam you’re running, but I don’t want any part of it,” he said, standing up. “Thanks for the drink.”
“Wait! I’m not running anyt–”
But Ash was already out of the booth and heading down the stairs.
The next couple of weeks were business as usual. People needed to be moved, and Ash had to move them. It was… difficult. He was going stir-crazy.
One day, after offloading the latest gaggle of pleasure-seekers, Cleo called him over to her office.
Ash took care of the immediate maintenance, and then headed in the direction, making sure to leave his coveralls on board the ship.
When he came in, she was behind the desk, looking over some stacks of paperwork.
“You wanted to see me, boss?” he said. “Is this about seeing if you had any more work for me?”
Cleo looked him over and shook her head. “Not quite, kid. It might be a little slower going for the next few weeks. With the Games in tow, no one wants to head off island,” she said, flipping her folder open.
Ash sighed inwardly. “Oh,” he said. “Alright, then. Was that all?”
“For now. We might get some dignitaries coming back from Achatea who were out on a retreat or something, but other than that we’re going to be in down time for quite some time. The Games last a month or so,” she said. “I’ll get you your paycheck for this week though.”
“Thanks, boss,” said Ash, as Cleo tapped on her tablet.
“I know it’s been rough, but you’re a good worker,” she said. “Hang in there.”
He held it together until he left her eyesight. He thought that was pretty good, all things considered.
Before he completely turned into a disaster though, he noticed someone sitting out in front of his ship.
“Hey, get off of that!” he yelled as he dashed toward it. “That’s private property, you- what?”
The young amazon from the bar looked up. Her eyes were watery, as if she’d just been crying, but there were no tears now. “Sorry. I didn’t hurt her,” she said, referring to the ship.
“…you again?” said Ash, curiously. “What are you even doing here? How did you find me?”
She shrugged. “There are only so many tourist docs off of Isocrateia. This ship seemed too big to be made for shuttle work.”
“You’re very clever,” said Ash. “Now leave.”
She shook her head. That’s when he noticed the two black steamer trunks sitting next to her feet.
He looked down at them. “If you’re looking to move to the mainland, I guess I could do that.”
Her expression darkened and Ash realized that she was easily two of him put together. “I don’t want to go to the mainland.”
“Tough titties, then,” said Ash, pushing past her. “Get out of here before I call my boss.”
“I want to come with you,” She said quickly, all of it coming out in one word. “You have to get me off of this planet. I have money, I can pay for any supplies you need until we find work,”
“No,” said Ash. “Absolutely not. I am not taking some random- how much money?”
“Enough to get us started. Enough to take us to the other side of the galaxy,” she said with a smile. “As long as you take me with you.”
“…why?” said Ash. “Wait, who’s us? Me taking you for a ride doesn’t make us an us. I mean, if you’ve got money, you could get a ride anywhere you want.”
She shook her head. “I don’t want to go anywhere. I just want to go.”
Ash bit back a retort. On the one hand, he really didn’t want to have to drag somebody else along. But on the other… he could relate to that.
“Songbird needs some pretty serious repairs before she’s spaceworthy for any length of time again,” he said. “And after that… we’ll see.”
She looked at him and gave a shy smile. “I can help you do the heavy lifting.”
“…you certainly can,” said Ash, sighing. “Alright, then. If you’re willing to foot the bill for the repairs, then you’re welcome aboard, miss…?”
“Jayna Kostas,” she said.
That gave him some pause. He’d seen that name plastered everywhere in the past few months.
He narrowed his eyes at her.
“If you come with me,” he said, “am I going to have some very expensive professionals coming to retrieve you?”
She shook her head. “No. I … I told them I was leaving.”
Ash wasn’t sure if he believed her. He did believe she was his best bet at getting spacebound again. “Consider yourself a probationary crew,” he said, offering her a hand.
She shook his hand and then grabbed both steamer trunks. “I paid Cleo. Told her that you’d be terminating your contract. She was cool with it.”
Ash let out a laugh. “What’re we waiting for, then,” he said. “C’mon.”
“…and we’d been flying together ever since,” said Jayna.
“Not long afterwards, I used some of my dad’s old contacts to get in touch with Martens,” said Ash. “And that was business as usual, until we ran into this weirdo over here.”
Zane obligingly raised his hand.
“We ran together for maybe… two, two and a half sol-years before that happened,” said Jayna. “We picked him up during a routine stopover on-”
“Hold up,” said Zane. “There’s, um, some stuff that came before that. If you don’t mind, I’ll fill in a couple of the blanks.”
“By all means,” said Luisa, through a mouthful of popcorn. “This is gripping.”
Zane nodded. “After the escape, we set out in small groups, dispersing as we went,” he said. “A few of the more well put-together ones tried their best to coordinate us, but by and large, we agreed that the less contact we had with each-other, the better. So by this point, I was travelling with… Johnny.”
Ash, Jayna and Mari gave him a look. Zane looked sheepish.
“I never really wanted to bring it up,” said Zane. “But… I’m doing better than I have been in a long time. I want to get it out there.”