“Hit the skids, ya drunk!”
Jopp jumped back just in time to avoid the flailing body being hurled into the street. The body landed with a splash in a muddy puddle. Jopp looked up at the figure who’d done the hurling, who’s hulking frame looked to be made completely of stone. The figure looked that way because he was, of course, a Craglad; a race of anthropomorphic rock people…duh. He noticed Jopp and spoke in a gravelly voice, “What’s the word, J?”
“Hey, Mica,” Jopp replied.
The rock man held the door open, “Comin’ in?”
“In a minute, buddy.”
Mica shrugged, “Sure thing. I’ll make sure there’s a seat at the bar for ya.”
As Mica dipped back inside the establishment known as Comet’s Cocktails, Jopp caught his own reflection in the mirrored paneling. The visage staring back at him was just a hair above five feet, and was sporting pale yellow skin, a wide nose, and two short nodes protruding from a bare scalp. He’d put on a few pounds since dropping out of the academy, but he was still a dashingly handsome specimen of the mighty Yoblon race, at least in his own mind.
“Yer mother was a pebble!” cried a voice from behind him. Jopp turned around to see the formerly flailing body sitting upright in the puddle. Underneath the fine layer of mud, Jopp could make out the jowly frog-like features of a Bogtek.
“You’re a little late on the comeback, pal,” Jopp quipped, “The big guy already went back in.”
“Figgurs,” the Bogtek slurred, “Damn Craggies always makin’ trouble… We should be turnin’ ’em into buildin’s… not givin’ ’em jobs!” At the end of his blubbery green arm, a white card was clasped in his pudgy fingers. He raised it up, “My money’s jus’ as good as any damn Craggies!”
Jopp stepped off the curb, and walked up to the slovenly creature sitting in front of him, “I hear you, pal. These damn rock brains think they’re as sentient as the rest of us. Tell you what, loan me a couple pecks, and I’ll go buy us some ales.”
The Bogtek’s head nodded, causing two of his chins to bounce, “Shounds goooood…”
Jopp snatched the card, “Thanks, pal. I’ll be right back. You should get some rest.”
Within a few seconds, the Bogtek was curled up in the muddy puddle, and snoring loudly. Jopp slid the door open, and for a moment, the din of music and drunken chatter washed over the sleeping drunkard. He pushed through the crowd, and pulled himself up to an empty seat at the bar. The bartender, a six foot tall beetle, walked over and snapped, “We don’t serve scrogbags like you in my place.”
“You know, your cousin told me the same thing this morning… right before I scraped him off my boot.”
They stared unblinkingly at each other for a few long seconds. Then, in unison, their hard stares dissolved into laughter.
“Good to see you, Jopp. What’ll you have?”
“Flanisi Ale,” replied Jopp as he slapped down a white card, “and keep ’em coming. I’m celebrating tonight.”
“Must have been a big run,” said the bartender. He kept wiping down the counter with three of his hands, while the fourth picked up the white card. It had “100” displayed on a small digital screen.
“A hundred Tahlians is worth celebrating? Times must be rough.”
Jopp chuckled, “Nah, that ain’t my bonus. I swiped that from the racist yok Mica just bounced out of here.”
The bartender’s mandibles again clicked with laughter, “Serves him right. He was getting a little handsy with the female patrons. So what are we celebrating tonight?”
Jopp replied, “I just hauled a thousand tons of bio tech across the Kebdo system in less than a week.” The bartender set a green bottle in front of Jopp. He picked it up, “Thanks, Hale.”
“No problem…” Hale replied, “So I don’t mean to be sticking my antennae where they don’t belong, but you’ve made runs like that before. What’s so special this time?”
Jopp smiled, “I’ve just been given my first Tier Nine job.”
Hale made a sound not unlike whistling, “Tier Nine?! So when will you decide you’re too good to drink in a dump like this?”
Jopp chuckled, “I’ve always been too good for this dump. And besides…” He paused to watched Mica pull apart two anthropomorphic balls of fur who were in the midst of a physical disagreement. He looked back to Hale, “This place has too much charm.”
Hale snorted, “Oh sure, we’re just bursting with class.” He accented the point by spitting a foamy white substance on to the floor.
“Say,” said Jopp, “Where’s your brother?”
“Bopp’s not feeling well. Hey, I’ll be right back. I gotta go refill a round for these yoks.” He jerked a claw back towards a group of reptilian Soreshi, whose python-like head’s were huddled close in clandestine conversation. Jopp took a sip from his bottle, and spun around on his stool to scan the motley assortment of bar patrons.
Two Dronlas, walking hulks of red hued muscle, were chatting up a table of female Puzuru; humanoids with multicolored complexion arrayed in jigsawed patterns across their skin.
A healthy portion of the crowd noise was coming from a group of his fellow Yoblons in the throes of a serious bender. Dozens of empty bottles littered their table, as well as the floor around their table. Two of their party, however, were less interested in drinking and more focused on seeing how far they could shove their tongues down each other’s throats.
He saw a cluster of Kapua; sparkling glowing clouds. Jopp spent a minute pondering the logistics of how a sentient ball of gas would get drunk.
In the corner was a table full of Tahls, lean seven footers, their long purple heads tilted back as they chugged from glass mugs. Probably junior executives, celebrating their first bonuses.
“The trust fund crew is slumming it tonight,” Jopp quipped to no one in particular.
“Maybe daddy cut off the credit feed, and this is the only place they can afford with their actual salaries,” said a voice to Jopp’s left.
Jopp chuckled and turned to find the voice’s owner. He found himself looking into a dazzling pair of golden eyes. Attached to those eyes was a face bearing striking humanoid features and a powder blue tint. She brushed back a platinum colored lock of hair over a pointed ear node and smiled. Jopp returned the smile, “The name’s Jopp. And you are?”
“Nice to meet you, Jopp. I’m Loi.”
“Nice meeting you, Loi. So what brings a lovely lady like you into a place like this?”
She snorted back a laugh, “Is that really the best line you can come up with?”
Jopp was unfazed, “When you look this good, Sweets, you don’t need clever lines.”
Loi arched an eyebrow, “So you think you’re that attractive, huh?”
Jopp shrugged, “Hey, you’re the one who started the conversation.”
She gave him a wry smile, “Fair enough. Okay Jopp, I’ll tell you what; you buy me my next drink, and I’ll tell you exactly what a lovely lady like myself is doing in a place like this.”
This time it was Jopp who arched an eyebrow, “You got a deal, Sweets.”
* * * * *
The soft morning light felt like a laser beam on Jopp’s face as it shone through the bedroom window. He groaned as he attempted to pull himself up to a sitting position. His head exploded in pain as the hangover took hold. His hand fumbled along the bedside table until it closed around a small white bottle. He shook out a few green pills, and popped them in his mouth. The nightstand was, unfortunately, devoid of any consumable liquid. Jopp grimaced as he choked the pills down dry.
“Can I have some of those?” asked a voice to his left.
Jopp whipped his head around to see Loi looking up at him. He rubbed his eyes to make sure he wasn’t hallucinating. When he lowered his hands, she was still there.
“Hey yourself. Now quit holding out me with those Pain Drains.”
“Oh, sorry,” Jopp quickly handed her the white bottle.
“Thanks,” she said as she popped two of the green pills, “Oh man, I have one white dwarf sized headache.”
Jopp chuckled, “Yeah, me too.” He paused for a moment, “So… did we…”
“Do the nebula nasty?” she finished, “No, Jopp, I just like sleeping naked next to strange men.”
Jopp lifted the blanket to peer under the covers, “Hey, we are naked… damn, you’re in good shape.”
She tossed a pillow at his head, which he deflected. His expression got a bit more serious, “So, er, how… how was it?”
She gave him a coy grin, “I’m not sure I remember. Maybe you should remind me.”
* * * * *
Twenty minutes later, Jopp was humming to himself as he dried off from the hyper bath. The scent of a freshly brewed pot of wahu wafted into the lavatory. Jopp followed the scent into his rental suite’s kitchenette, where Loi was pouring a steaming blue liquid into two mugs. She looked up him and giggled, “Nice outfit.”
Jopp looked down to see he was wearing nothing but a towel. He shrugged, “If you got the goods, might as well show ’em off.”
Loi smirked as she handed him one of the mugs, “I hope you like it strong.”
Jopp accepted the mug and inhaled deeply. He took a sip and sighed, “Damn, that’s good wahu.”
“Thanks,” said Loi, “I thought about making us something to eat,” she opened the cooler cabinet, which was completely bare, “but you literally have no food.”
Jopp scratched the back of his neck, “Yeah, I spend like ninety percent of my time traveling. Doesn’t make much sense to keep food around.”
Loi opened another cabinet, revealing a dozen multicolored bottles. She eyed him skeptically.
“Hey,” protested Jopp, “Food spoils. Booze doesn’t.”
She closed the cabinet and took a sip from her own mug, “Damn, I do make a nice cup of wahu. Anyway, so I assume all this traveling is for work?”
“You got it, Sweets. I’m a transport pilot for Prime Partners.”
“Is that right?” She asked, “You any good?”
“Well, today I’m picking up a Tier Nine payload. So, what do you think?”
She shrugged, “I don’t know what that means.”
Jopp was confused, “You live on Forssa 6… ”
“So, this planet is the largest distribution center in the settled universe..” He puffed his chest out, “Only the best transporters get Tier Nine contracts.”
Loi snickered, “Oh, so you’re the best, huh?”
Jopp was unfazed, “You got it, Sweets.”
“So where will Prime Partners’ best transporter be flying off to today?”
“I’m picking up my payload in Pa Nui,” he glanced at the gamma cooker’s universal time piece, “and, shit, I’m running late.” He turned to head back to the bedroom, but felt a hand grip his arm. He was surprised to see the level of emotion on Loi’s face.
“Did you say you were going to Pa Nui?” She asked.
“Uh, yeah… the big city. Why?”
She bit her lower lip, hesitating.
“What is it?” Jopp asked again.
“Well,” she started, “I’m actually from Pa Nui… it’s… it’s just been a really long time since I’ve been back…”
Jopp arched an eyebrow, “You want to come with?”
She pulled back, “Oh no, I couldn’t impose. I mean, we just met, and are you even allowed to do that?”
Jopp snorted, “Hell no, I’m not allowed to bring people along. I’m not allowed to drink while working either, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the occasional sip once in a while. You spend a long enough time in my line of work, you pick up a trick or two to help get around some of the more annoying bureaucracies.”
“Are you sure you want me to come?”
Jopp scoffed, “Am I sure? Have you seen yourself? Yes, I’m sure.”
Her pale blue cheeks flushed violet, “This is crazy, but… okay, let’s do it.”
“Oh I’d love to,” Jopp said with a smirk, “but we really need to be leaving soon.”
She punched him in the arm.
* * * * *
Jopp had only been a half hour late arriving at Dispatch.
“How’s it you is always late to report in, but your shipments always arrives early?” The Station Boss, a being with the head of an owl and body of a gorilla, had asked.
“I think it’s because I’m tops awesome,” a grinning Jopp had replied. For once, his late arrival hadn’t been his own fault. Loi had needed to grab a few things from her place, which was just around the block from Jopp’s.
As he piloted the Class 4 Longstrider out of Forssa 6’s atmosphere, Loi commented, “It’s almost disconcerting how easy that was.”
“What do you mean?” asked Jopp.
“I mean shouldn’t it have been harder to sneak me on board? I’d have thought there’d be more security.”
Jopp shrugged, “Well, I have priority clearance, and the Deck Chief is a buddy of mine. I slipped him a few Tahlians to look the other way while you boarded.”
“Still, with the cargo being as valuable as you said it was…”
Jopp chuckled, “Oh no, we don’t have the good stuff yet. We’re picking it up in Pa Nui. The company’s just getting a little more bang for its buck by having me drop off this load of simchips at one of the casinos.”
“Which casino?” Loi asked, the faintest hint of trepidation creeping into her voice.
“Um,” Jopp checked his order summary, “looks like we’re headed to The Gilded Vixen.” He thought he saw her flinch at the mention of the name, but when he turned his head fully to look, she was all smiles.
“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” She reached over and squeezed his hand, “Thank you so much.”
Jopp winked, “No problem.”
She looked at the star speckled canvas of space stretching out before them, “So how long will it take to get there?”
“About a day,” answered Jopp, “We’ll hit the anomaly in twelve hours or so. Then, after the jump, it’s another ten hours to the city. That’s why Forssa 6 is such a transport hub; its got like three dozen anomalies within a day’s flight.”
“I’ve never seen one in person.”
“An anomaly?” Jopp asked.
“How is that possible? I mean, you’ve obviously done some planet hopping…”
“I’m not a pilot, remember? I’ve always been stuck back in the commuter cabin for the jumps.”
“Oh yeah… well, you’re going to see it this time. Not that it’s much to look at. I mean, it’s literally nothing.”
She nodded again, “Oh I know. Obviously I’ve seen pictures. I just think it’s going to be exciting to watch us go through.”
Jopp chuckled and shrugged, “Whatever you say, Sweets.”
* * * * *
Loi was in middle of her fourth trip to the ship’s galley when Jopp’s voice sounded over the commline, “You should get up here quick. We’re coming up on the jump.”
She entered the control room, and dropped down into her seat. She pulled a rations bar out of her pocket, tore off the orange wrapper, and started chewing. Jopp glanced over, “Another Rzackio? How do you eat so much, and still look like you do?”
She winked, “I exercise a lot.”
“Well, did you bring me one?”
She smirked, “No, but I brought myself a second one.”
Jopp opened his mouth to offer a retort, but a flashing light on his console caught his eye. He tapped a few icons, and the ship turned slightly to the left. He raised a stubby yellow finger, and pointed, “Well, there’s your anomaly.”
Loi stared out into the vast expanse stretching before them. For the most part, it looked exactly like you’d expect a random patch of space to look: shining white dots, with the occasional swirl of color, splattered across a black canvas. There was one glaring difference, however, which drew Loi’s eye. Directly in front of them, some miles out, was spot of utter blackness. Loi decided that “black” didn’t even truly describe what she was seeing. It was a true absence of light. It was literally nothing. The spot of nothing grew larger as they approached. Loi felt the ship’s speed pick up considerably. She was reaching for the safety restraints, before Jopp could say, “Strap in.”
The ship’s acceleration continued to increase. The spot of nothing now covered the majority of their view. Their speed increased again. The few visible stars around the edge of their view screen began to blur. More speed. The black nothing now filled up their view entirely. Then Loi’s vision went blank, as if someone had draped a white cloth across her eyes.
In a fraction of a second, her vision returned. Once again, she was looking at an average patch of space. A sensation like static electricity rushed through her whole body. She shuddered, “It’s been a while since I went through a jump. I forgot about the tingling.”
“Yeah, I barely notice it anymore,” Jopp commented.
“So, how far did we just go?”
“Well, if you want to get technical, we actually only travelled a few miles… that’s kind of the point.”
Loi punched him the arm, “You know what I meant.”
Jopp rubbed his arm, “Didn’t anyone ever teach you violence doesn’t solve anything?”
Loi folded her arms, and arched an eyebrow. Jopp held his hands up defensively, “Okay, okay. We’re about seven light years away from Forssa 6.”
She nodded, “And you said it was how long until we reach Pa Nui?”
“About twelve hours,” Jopp answered, “This part is going to be pretty boring. I just need to run a diagnostic to make sure the jump didn’t fry any of the ship’s systems. There’s really nothing between us and the city outskirts, so I’ll probably just set us on auto-fly.”
Loi gave a sly grin, “Well, I’m going to head back and take a nap. Once you finish all that, you’re welcome to join me.”
She stood up, grazed her lithe blue fingers against the back of Jopp’s neck, and headed down the hall. Jopp proceeded to set a company record for fastest diagnostic scan.
* * * * *
“Welcome home, Sweets,” quipped Jopp as the glowing mass of Pa Nui appeared ahead of them. A thousand multicolored towers huddled together atop a floating chrome hemisphere.
Loi was awestruck, “I grew up here, and it the view still gets me every time.”
Jopp chuckled, “I know, right? It’s like a small planet.”
“Or large moon,” added Loi.
After working their way through the spaceship gridlock of downtown, Jopp pulled them into the massive docking hangar of The Gilded Vixen. Jopp tapped away at his console, powering down the engines, “Rumor has it, this place is owned by some strangely flamboyant crime boss. Mr. Brahnto? Bronzo? Something like that.”
“I wouldn’t know,” was Loi’s only response.
Jopp stood up and stretched, “Whelp, let’s go check in with the Receivables Agent get this junk delivered.”
Loi stayed seating, “Are you I should come? I mean, shouldn’t I just wait in here while everything is unloaded? I don’t want to get you in trouble.”
The fearful undertones in Loi’s words flew right over Jopp’s smiling head, “Why would you want to stay here? Let’s go grab a drink. They’re not going to care if you’re with me. Did you forget the part where I said this place was owned by crooks?”
“Are you sure I can’t- er, I mean, shouldn’t just stay here?”
Jopp arched an eyebrow, “Yes, I’m sure. We’re done with this ship. We leave it here, where it will get reloaded for another transporter.”
“What about your big job?”
“Tier Nine cargo flies on something much bigger and nicer than this heap,” he kicked the base of the control console, “Now, c’mon.”
They grabbed their travel packs and headed up to the hangar deck, where a uniformed attendant was waiting. She was a silver skinned humanoid, with ornate blue tattoos covering most of the right side of her face.
“You with Receivables?” asked Jopp.
She replied, “No, I just like hanging out in casino hangars wearing this uniform and carrying this data tablet for fun.”
Jopp held his hands up, “Alright, alright. No need to get snippy.”
The attendant huffed, “Look, I got a dung load of intake today. What’s your delivery code?”
“P. P. I. C. 000039681277.”
The attendant tapped a few icons on her tablet, “Okay, twenty million simchips.” She held the data tablet out to Jopp, “Please sign off that all cargo has arrived in tact and undamaged.”
Jopp pressed his thumb to the tablet, which flashed green. The attendant pulled the tablet back, and began typing into it. After a few silent seconds, she looked up at them, “You can go now.”
Jopp opened his mouth to say something that would have likely earned him a smack across the face, were it not for the grip of Loi’s hand on his arm. They gave the attendant a wide berth as they circled around to the wide ramp leading out of the hangar. Jopp spoke up once they reached the lobby, “How about we decompress over a drink? Then you can show me your old stomping quadrants.”
A set of golden eyes followed the pair as they made their way through the swirl of light and noise that was the main gaming hall towards the bar. The body attached to the eyes was an average sized humanoid with steely blue skin and closely cropped yellow hair. He stood up from the tables, hurried into the quieter confines of the lobby, and pulled a mobile commline from his pocket.
* * * * *
“Hey, let me get two Flanisi over here!”
Jopp’s latest attempt to get the bartender’s attention went unnoticed as he was too busy giving schmoozing the trio of insectoid women.
“Having a little trouble?” Teased a voice from behind him.
Jopp ignored the voice and shouted, “C’mon man! The bug babes will aren’t going anywhere! Give me a drink!”
“I might be able to help,” the voice offered.
Jopp started to turn around, “Oh yeah? And how would you-” He found himself staring into the violet hued cleavage of a particularly buxom Tahl woman. His gaze eventually found its way upwards to the two oval shaped eyes set amidst her elongated head.
She brushed a pink hair tentacle back over her ear and smiled down at him, “Watch this.”
She leaned forward over the bar, putting her chest on full display. Within seconds, the bartender materialized in front of them.
“What can I get you?” He asked.
“I’d like a Cosmos,” she indicated towards Jopp, “and my friend here would like a pair of Flanisi Ales.”
The bartender looked at Jopp as if he’d just appeared out of thin air. He quickly retrieved two bottles and slid them over to Jopp. He then began mixing the bevy of ingredients that Jopp guessed went into a Cosmos. Jopp set a white card on the table, and grabbed the two bottles. He nodded, “Thanks for your help. That should cover the drinks. Have a good a one.”
She smirked, “Don’t you want to know my name?”
He shrugged, “Some other time.”
Jopp began to navigate through the crowded bar. He had made it about halfway when he stopped, and looked back at the Tahl woman. He thought, “What the hell is wrong with me?” He turned forward and caught a glimpse of Loi sitting in a booth. He smiled, “Oh yeah.”
The crowd parted a bit more, revealing that Loi was not alone. Sitting across from her was a male of her same race. The Venovan man had steel blue skin, and closely cropped yellow hair. They seemed very engaged in their conversation, so much so that neither noticed Jopp until he set the drinks down on the table with an audible thud. The man glared up at him. Jopp smiled back, then to Loi he said, “Who’s your friend?”
If she was at all uncomfortable, she didn’t show it, “Jopp, this is Yirn. We know each other from the old neighborhood.”
Jopp gave Yirn the biggest smile he could, “Nice to meet you, pal.”
“Yirn was just leaving,” she added. A few quiet moments passed awkwardly, while Yirn glanced back and forth between Loi’s icy stare and Jopp’s exaggerated grin.
He slowly pushed himself to a standing position. To Loi, he said, “We’ll catch up later.” He gave Jopp an appraising once over, and then stomped away.
Jopp dropped down into Yirn’s vacated seat. He grabbed one of the bottles and took a long pull. Loi stared at the table, not meeting his eyes. Jopp finally broke the awkward silence, “So, your ex-boyfriend seems like kind of a dick.”
She laughed, “He wishes. Yirn and I grew up together here in the Little Venova district.”
“Rough area,” Jopp commented.
“Only for outsiders,” she winked, “but I’ll protect you.”
Jopp beamed, “Lucky me.”
* * * * *
Pa Nui has no atmosphere, as it’s essentially a colossal floating space station, so the buildings are connected to each other by a honeycomb of enclosed walkways and tramlines. In an effort to combat citizen claustrophobia, the average causeway is actually three stories tall and at as wide as an eight lane road.
Jopp and Loi were strolling down a causeway that had been designed to resembled a garden. Rows of trees and colorful flowers lined the footpath, and the ceiling was clear, so as to provide a view of the twinkling starscape. Jopp had one arm wrapped around Loi’s waste, and the other clutched a green bottle.
“When do you have to leave again?” Loi asked.
“I have to report for pickup tomorrow at-” Jopp stopped talking when he saw the three figures suddenly blocking their way. They were all Venovans. The amber haired female and the male with hair like a disheveled mop were new to Jopp. He recognized the other male, and plastered on his cheesiest grin, “How’s it going, pal?”
Yirn ignored him, and spoke to Loi, “I told you there’d be consequences.”
“Consequences for what?” Jopp asked.
Yirn snapped at him, “This doesn’t concern you, squib kid. Now hit the skids.”
Jopp tensed, “What the fuck did you just call me?”
Loi rested a hand on Jopp’s shoulder to settle him. “Do we really have to do this, Lanin?” she asked.
The mop headed male, presumably named Lanin, stepped forward, “No, we don’t. Just pay us our cut and you can go.”
Loi spoke through gritted teeth, “Like I said to Yirn, there’s nothing to get a cut of.”
“That’s not what Big Bazz told us.”
“Well, Big Bazz is liar.”
“Humpa shit!” spat the female, “You keep his name out of your mouth! He’s done everything for us! What have you done…” she sneered at Jopp before adding, “besides whore around?”
“Alright, screw this!” interjected Jopp. “I don’t care what the history here is, but you all need to back the hell off!”
Yirn stepped right up to Jopp and leaned down, “What are you going to do about it?” Jopp glanced down to see that Yirn was now holding a knife in his right hand. With his left, he reached out and shoved Jopp’s shoulder, “Squib Kid.”
Jopp took a deep breath and smirked, “Yeah, I thought that’s what you called me.”
Jopp cocked back his hand that was holding the green bottle, and let it fly. Yirn attempted to shield himself, but Jopp hadn’t been aiming for him. The bottle connected with the side of Lanin’s head, and he crumpled to the ground. Before Yirn could process this, he felt Jopp’s shoulder driving into his gut, which sent them both tumbling. After they stopped rolling, Jopp found himself on top of Yirn. Before Yirn could register what had happened, Jopp gripped his collar with both hands, and then drove his thick flat forehead into the bridge of Yirn’s nose.
Jopp blinked away stars as he climbed up off the unconscious Venovan. He spun around to see that Lanin was starting to get back up. “Can’t have that,” he thought as he raced over. Lanin had just gotten to his knees, when he felt Jopp grab a handful of his disheveled hair. The next and last thing he saw was Jopp’s knee rushing up towards his face.
Jopp let the limp form of Lanin slip from his hand. He whipped his head around, scanning for his third and final opponent. To his surprise, he found her lying on the ground, with Loi standing over her unconscious frame. They made eye contact, and without a word, started sprinting down the causeway.
* * * * *
“So that was fun,” Jopp said as he handed Loi a cooling pack, which she applied to her bruised knuckles. He then walked over to his hotel room’s bar, and poured some red liquor in two glasses. He handed her one, and then sat down across the table from her.
“I suppose you want an explanation?” she asked.
Jopp leaned back in his chair, “Only if you want to give me one.”
Loi raised the glass to her lips, and down the whole thing with a grimace. “We were thieves,” she started, “The Little Venova district isn’t exactly known for its charm and appeal. You do what you have to, to survive. The four of us survived by running scams, cons, whatever you want to call it. Big Bazz was our mentor. He taught us the trade. Then one day, Bazz tells us he’s got a line on ‘the big one’. You know, the big score you see in every heist story that’s just too good to walk away from. For us, the big score was taimana gemstones. I was the inside man, so to speak. The day comes, and we all execute our parts perfectly. Yirn and Lanin take care of the physical security. Tris takes care of surveillance. I get in the vault…” she paused.
“…And?” Jopp was practically crawling across the table.
“And there’s nothing there,” Loi finishes, “No gemstones. No nothing. And the next thing I know, Universal Law agents are swarming the place. I was able to slip through a ventilation shaft, and got away. The others got jammed up. The next thing I know, word starts spreading through the neighborhood that I cashed out big and let them take the fall. We all know how that ends, so I scraped together whatever savings I could and bolted.”
“And you think this Big Bazz punk set you up?”
Loi shrugged, “Who knows?” She stood up and went to refill her glass, “It was a mistake, me coming back here.”
Jopp stood up, “Come with me.”
She turned around, “What?”
“Come with me on my run. Screw this place. Come fly around the galaxy with me.”
“How would that even work?” she protested, “You can’t keep sneaking me on every time.”
Jopp approached her and took her hand, “We’ll figure it out.” He looked up into her eyes, “What do you say?”
* * * * *
“What do you say, Sweets? Have you ever seen anything more beautiful than that?”
Jopp and Loi were gazing up at an Infinity Class UberHauler spacecraft. It was as tall as a two story building, and at least fifty yards in length. Light glinted off its dark blue finish.
“Wow,” was all Loi could come up with.
“Wow is right. You’re looking at the finest piece of transport tech in the known ‘verse.”
The sound of boots clopping on steel made them turn around to see the approaching Deck Chief, a middle aged Tahl with pink stubble peppering his purple face. His head was buried in a data a tablet.
“Which one of you is Transporter Wenslode,” he asked without looking up.
Jopp stepped forward, “That’d be me.”
“And who is this?” he asked, eyes still glued to the tablet.
Jopp waved Loi over, “This is my co-pilot.”
The Deck Chief finally looked away from his tablet, and down at Jopp, “The manifest doesn’t state anything about a second pilot.”
“If you check my employment contract, it states I have the option of hiring my own co-pilot as long as the expense comes out of my fee.”
The Tahl made no effort to hide his annoyance as he tapped away on the tablet. His eyes scanned the display for a few moments, then looked skeptically from Jopp to Loi, “I’ll need to see some credentials.”
Jopp looked at Loi, and nodded his head. She stepped forward and held out an ID badge, which the Deck Chief swiped across the tablet screen. After what felt like hours, but was really just a few seconds, the data tablet flashed green. The Deck Chief handed back the badge, “Looks good. Let’s just go over the route specifications, and you two can be on your way.”
Jopp mumbled under his breath, “Holy shit, it worked,” which prompted a quick kick in the leg from Loi. “Ow!” he yelped.
The Deck Chief glanced up, “What was that?”
Jopp smiled wide, “Uh, HOW long is this run expected to take?”
“The estimated duration is twelve standard days. You’re going to take the Ked-22 anomaly, then cross the Dayukon system to the research facility on Epireon’s moon.”
“Great! And the cargo specs are?”
“Let us see; two hundred thousand tons of raw Gemsteel.”
Jopp let out a low whistle, “Wow.”
The Deck Chief ignored him, as his attention was back to his tablet.
“Well, I guess we’re better be going,” Jopp started to put his arm around Loi, but she swatted his hand away.
The Deck Chief looked up, and eyed him skeptically, “Indeed.”
Loi smiled, “Thank you so much for your help.”
The Deck Chief nodded and silently walked away. When he was out of ear shot, Loi turned on Jopp, “I don’t know what’s more shocking; that this,” she held up the ID badge, “actually worked, or that you almost blew it with your big mouth.”
“How is that shocking? My big mouth always screws things up.”
She arched an eyebrow, “Fair point.”
Jopp started heading towards the ship’s boarding ramp, “Just be glad I had that extra set of creds.”
Loi followed, “Yeah, about that, why do you have a fake ID badge?”
“It’s a real badge. It’s just not mine. I forgot to renew my license one year, and I swiped that from this other pilot, Pliff. Then I just used a holo mixer to change the name and picture.”
“That’s kind of a dick move,” Loi commented.
“No, Pliff was the dick. He screwed me out of jobs for years. This was my little way of getting him back.”
They entered the ship’s central housing cabin. There were four beds, two couches, a table, and a large visual entertainment center. Jopp gave a flourishing wave, “Welcome to our home for the next twelve days. C’mon, I’ll give you a quick tour before we take off.”
“This ship is gigantic. Don’t we leave in like twenty minutes?” Loi asked.
Jopp pointed towards a door behind her, “The cargo hold is through there. It makes up eighty percent of the rig. See, we’re already four fifths done with the tour!”
Loi rolled her eyes, and followed him through another door. Jopp pointed to his right, “Through that door is the lavatory.” He pointed to his left, “And that’s the galley.” He pointed directly in front of them, “And the control room would be through there.”
Loi pointed, “What about those other two doors?”
“One leads to the engine hub,” Jopp gave a dismissive wave towards the other, “And we won’t be needing that one.”
“What is it?”
“It’s the dinghy.”
“It’s the escape pod. You know, if something catastrophic happens and we have to abandon the cargo. It’s mainly for lesser skilled pilots. I’ve never needed it.”
Loi clasped her hands and made a show of batting her eyelashes, “Oh my, how impressive!”
Jopp folded his arms, “You’re hilarious.”
She giggled and worked her hand around his elbow, “My big brave transporter, take me to the stars.”
* * * * *
The first few days of travel had been relatively uneventful. They had hit the first anomaly jump without issue, and were now about halfway across the Dayukon star system. Jopp was at the helm, with Loi lounging in the chair to his right. She looked up from the popular gossip feed on her tablet, “So, is piloting this ship very different from others you’ve flown?”
Jopp shook his head, “For the most part it’s the same. It just takes a little extra control when navigating tight spots.”
She nodded, “Oh,” and looked out the front view screen, “So where are we again?”
“We’re about midway through the Dayukon system.”
“Doesn’t this system have a small anomaly cluster?”
“Yep, and unfortunately, none of them take us where we’re going, which is the far end of the system. We have to cross it the old fashioned way.”
“How far away is the cluster?”
“Almost two hours away.”
Loi yawned, “I think I’m going to take a nap.”
Jopp’s glanced over, his eyebrow raised suggestively. She laughed, “No, I mean a real nap. You can still join me though.”
Jopp sighed, “Can’t. I need to stay up here for at least another hour or so. Once we’re past the debris cloud, I can run auto fly for a few hours.”
Loi stood and stretched. Jopp whined, “Oh c’mon. Don’t tease me like that.”
She kissed him on the cheek and left the control room.
It was a little over an hour later when Jopp heard a voice from behind him coo, “Hey there.”
He turned around to see Loi wearing considerably less clothing than she had been earlier. She smiled and held up a large blue bottle, “Care to join me?”
Jopp grinned, “Your timing is perfect. I’ve got a good six or seven hours until I need to be back up here.” He walked over and scrutinized the bottle she was holding, “This is some nice waina. What are we celebrating?”
Loi smirked, “You haven’t exactly struck me as someone who needs a reason to celebrate.”
“Good point,” agreed Jopp. He followed Loi back into the housing cabin, where they plopped down on one of the couches. Two glasses were already waiting for them on the table next to the couch. Loi popped the bottle of waina, and poured an orange liquid into the glasses. She handed one to Jopp, and then raised the other up high, “A toast.”
“A toast to what?” asked Jopp.
“How about to you?” she answered, “You’ve been so great this whole time. I don’t deserve you.”
“Nonsense, you totally deserve me.” A sly grin spread across Jopp’s face, “But, I am pretty awesome, aren’t I?”
Loi smiled again. If Jopp had been a bit more discerning, he would have seen that while her mouth was smiling, her eyes held nothing but sadness. But Jopp was not the discerning type, so he held his glass aloft and proclaimed, “To the best damn pilot in the universe.” He downed the glass’ contents in a single gulp. He wiped his lips, “That’s some good stuff.” He noticed that Loi had set her still full glass back on the table. “Don’t you like it?” he asked her. She didn’t answer. Then Jopp’s vision started to get hazy. He blinked a couple times, and dizziness washed over him. “I think,” he stammered, “I… I think… I need to.. to… ” He then collapsed on to the couch.
* * * * *
Jopp’s eyes fluttered open to an incessant beeping sound. He scrambled to his feet, and scanned his surroundings. Everything was still a little foggy, but he saw a flashing red button, which he assumed was the cause of that infernal beeping. He made for the red light, and tripped over some kind of box. After pulling himself back up off the floor, he completed his short trek to the flashing red button, and slammed his palm down. Mercifully, the beeping stopped. His vision started to clear, and he again attempted to assess his environment. He was in a small unfamiliar control room. He looked down at the console. There was a label next to the formerly flashing button. It read “Emergency Beacon.” The control room had no doors, only a circular hatch located in the center of the low ceiling. He peered out the front view screen. He wasn’t sure where he was, but he was pretty sure it wasn’t the Dayukon system. His foot touched something, and he looked down. It was a book. He looked closer. It was called “The Sentient Coalition Official Intergalactic Travel Manual: Escape Pod Edition.”
“The damn dinghy!” Jopp cursed, as he kicked the book. He spun around looking for something else to kick, and saw what he’d tripped over. Resting in the middle of the floor was a case of Flanisi Ale. Lying next to it was a letter.
Jopp spent the next three hours sitting on the floor, working his way through the case’s three dozen bottles. His eyes fell on the shredded remains of the letter. “So sorry,” “can’t understand,” and “no choice,” were some of the phrases that looked back up at him. It didn’t matter. Every single word of that letter was burned into his brain. He finished the bottle he was holding, and reached in the case for another. His hand came back empty. He kicked the empty case away, and struggled to pull himself up. With great effort, me managed to pull himself into the pilot’s chair. The screen was ablaze with alerts and warnings. The words were beginning to blur, but Jopp was able to work out that the pod had drifted into a planet’s gravitational pull. He made a feeble attempt to pull up, but it was too late. He was going to crash. In his last moments of lucidity, he saw the name of the planet flash across the screen.
He grumbled to himself, “What the shit is an Earth?”
A note from Pat:
I seriously hope you enjoyed that. If not, I promise I’ll do better next time! I swear! Please don’t fire me!
For those of you who did enjoy this, please keep your eyes, ears, antenna, and various other sensory receptors at the ready. A full Space Tripping novel will be coming out later this year. We’re just working out the kinks of publishing. More than likely, it will be an ebook… unless you happen to be a publisher? You are?! That’s great! Yes, of course, I’ll let you pay me incalculable sums of money to publish my book!
In all seriousness, thank you so much for reading this.
Hugs & Kisses,
Pat the Rambling Waffle