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Strange Pulp 10: Pocket Full of Stars (Part 3)
A romp across Katzen Station, where the past comes back to kill.
Huzzah! It’s Part 3 of Pocket Full of Stars! If you’re enjoying it, why not—
Reading Time: 39 Minutes
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When I woke up, the shuttle was snug with Katzen Station and I had twenty-eight minutes to make my next flight. I thought the crew might raise eyebrows if they saw me tumbling out of the ceiling tile, so I burned fifteen minutes waiting for the shuttle to empty before I slipped away. As soon as the artificial gravity slurped my shoes against the carpet, I was running again.
During the war, leave on Katzen Station was the closest my shipmates and I came to Earth. I associated it with punishing hangovers, greasy food, filthy bunks, and overpriced sex. That night was the first time I’d been there in a decade or more. The first time I learned that Katzen had done something I’d never thought possible.
It got cute.
Gone were the pipe shops, the noodle huts, the blackjack parlors and massage stalls and cobblers who would sooner steal your shoes than fix their holes. They’d been replaced by kiosks hawking luxury watches and overpriced scotch.
Why go to space to buy blended scotch?
No one else seemed concerned. The chattering people who filled the hallways snapped vids for their feeds in front of a mural of the revamped Katzen logo and paid extortionate fees for mouthfuls of third-rate heavy smoke. I seemed to be the only traveler in a hurry, which made me stand out. Oh well.
I shoved, stomped, and elbowed my way to the departures board, where I squinted until I saw the Luna 2 docked on the station’s second arm. If I were lucky, it would be delayed ten or fifteen minutes—like every ship that ever left Katzen—but no. The fucker was leaving on time.
Missing that ship was not an option. If I stayed on Katzen Jude would find me and kill me, but I didn’t think she had the authority to stop the Luna 2 once it left for the E-Gate. As long as I made that ship, it didn’t matter who knew I’d passed this way.
Behind me, a pair of teenagers stared blankly at a paper station map. I tore it out of their hands and planned a route as I ran. The most direct legal path to the second arm was hardly direct at all—it called for two ion lifts and a long flight of stairs—so I cut through the staff area instead. I sprinted past the employee caf and a long bank of urinals into the baggage inspection department, where people in violet jumpsuits and smoked black masks picked through strangers’ underwear. I hopped onto a conveyor belt marked “ARM 2” and sprinted down its long, shuddering length. The inspectors were not amused.
“Hey motherfucker, you can’t be in here!” shouted one of them.
“Then let’s pretend I’m not!”
He threw out an arm, clipping my ankle and sending me sprawling across the belt. He raised a dented leather suitcase over his head. He was going to crush me with it. I kicked him in the face. The suitcase fell out of his hands and thudded into the belt, right between my legs. I scrambled up and kept running, praying that he wasn’t paid well enough to give further chase.
I threw myself through a rubber wall and emerged into Arm 2. I spun around, wasting precious seconds to get my bearings, and realized I was just a few hundred meters from my platform with three whole minutes to spare.
I tore down the hallway, rounded the corner, and saw the departures line. The ticket agent was waiting with a golden smile. The gate was not yet closed. My luck had held. I could breathe.
I don’t even like talking about this part.
Except for him.
I was charging past a comms bank when I spotted the most frightening person in the universe.
Nudging his hair over his ear.
Bending over the water fountain.
Blocking my path to the gate.
I dove into the nearest comms booth. I bit the knuckles of my shaking hand to stop a scream from ripping out of my mouth.
“Last call for the Luna 2,” intoned the melodic voice of the public address. “Last call. Last call.”
It had to be him.
Why the fuck did it have to be him?
Yoshi Falk was an adventure serial come to life. A trans guy with thick black curls and exceptional sideburns, he was the only person I’d ever met who feared neither life nor death. Capable of flying anything with wings, he could shoot, brawl, laugh, talk, dance and kiss better than anyone who’d ever orbited a sun. He preferred a slap on the cheek to a handshake, liked his coffee as bitter as engine grease, and was the finest lover this side of the Redline.
He also hated my guts.
We fell in love in the navy. As far as I can tell, that’s the only thing it’s good for. Like most kids my age, I got drafted at the start of the Last War, by which I mean I was bashed on the head while leaving a nightclub and woke up in uniform on an orbital defense platform armed with enough heavy weaponry to blow up Australia. I never met my commanders. I never learned which side I fought for. (From the little I’ve read about the conflict, the sides changed so quickly that no one really bothered keeping track.) I just knew that if I wanted to stay alive, I had to spend eight hours a day strapped into a gunner’s chair, hurling electric death at whatever coordinates the computer vomited up. To keep us docile, the computers dispensed jellied alcohol on demand. I ate as much as I could, spending two years in a state of near-blackout in a hopeless attempt to silence the voice, which passed the hours guessing how many people I’d killed that day.
Fuck that, gotta be more like 1500.
That building looked like a high school.
I wonder if class was in session.
I wonder how many kids were inside.
Each day at 5 o’clock, the screens shut off, our chairs unlocked, and we staggered out of the killing room towards our quarters, where relief came in the shape of Yoshi Falk.
Ostensibly he was a shuttle pilot whose daily run through the blockade kept us stocked with instant meals and alco-bricks. But smuggling was his art. Anything you wanted, he would provide.
Tired of government-issued pornography? He’d ferry up a crateload of mags that would satisfy even the most esoteric fantasies.
Missing your father’s cooking? He’d pay a visit to the old man and return with catering bins heaped with all the flavors of home.
Such pleasures satisfied my shipmates. Not me. From the first time I saw him duck out of the airlock, hair dangling over his eyes, leather jacket loose on his long, lean frame, I knew the only thing that could get me through the war was him.
We hardly exchanged two sentences before I dragged him into my cabin. For the rest of the war, I did my best to keep him there. It wasn’t simply the sex, although that was vital. It was the way he talked to me like he actually gave a shit about what I was going to say. After a lifetime among professional fakes, it was jarring to meet someone who was simply, irresistibly, honestly himself. He was the first non-entertainer I’d ever met who seemed capable of understanding our world.
He was also the first to whom I ever revealed my true name.
Falk hadn’t been drafted. He volunteered because Navy healthcare took surprisingly good care of trans soldiers, and to escape a home life in the Tokyo suburbs that was, incredibly, even more hellishly abusive than my own. When the war sputtered to a halt, he had nowhere to go, and so I took him on the road. Falk spent his discharge loan on a rusted hulk called the Miranda, which we outfitted with a cheap bed and a hold full of black market medical supplies. The former was for fucking; the latter for the embattled colonists of Osala, besieged by the tightest blockade in history, which Falk felt duty-bound to break.
It was the start of a fairy tale. I played every dive in the near spread, honing the illusions that still formed the foundation of my act, and he was always in the front row—howling at every joke, gaping in wonder at tricks he’d seen two dozen times before, elbowing the people at the next table and reminding them—sometimes quite forcefully—to applaud.
We had the Miranda.
We had the stars.
We had about ten perfect months before, as I’m sure you’ve intuited, it all went to shit.
We’d stopped for repairs at Lauriston Station, a dismal outpost on the lip of the Redline. It was the last stop before Osala, the last place to fuel up before Falk challenged the unbreakable blockade. For four nights, I headlined at the gambling hall. For four nights, Falk was in the front row.
On the fifth night, he wasn’t.
Nothing to worry about, I thought. He’s back at the ship, twisting a widget or checking a checklist. When I get back he’ll explain. He’ll wrap me in his arms and—
“Hey dickhead!” shouted someone from the crowd. “Quit drooling and make with the tricks!”
I dove into my act. When the lights were on, it was easy to forget my fear. When they shut off, the terror came rushing back. Forgoing the traditional after-show ritual of badgering the manager for payment, I leapt off the stage, not worrying about how silly I looked sprinting across the concourse of Lauriston Station in my stage makeup and tails. I took stairs three at a time, leapt over things, cursed and shoved and made a sweaty, panting ass of myself, only to arrive at the dock and discover what you’ve already guessed.
The Miranda was gone.
The logs indicated she’d pulled out of dock at the precise moment I started my show—a departure Falk had requested the day we arrived at the station. He left no message, no money, no explanation of why he’d decided to leave. Nothing but a gash in my heart.
I wasted years asking why.
Some nights, the answer was romantic. He was flying into a war zone and left me behind to keep me safe. It was the stuff of epic poetry—he flew to his death with my name on his lips.
But usually I blamed myself. I figured Falk was cheating or bored or had only been with me as a joke. It made sense, didn’t it? He was a leather-clad lion. I was a cockroach in a tuxedo who did tricks for money. Of course he ran away.
None of these answers satisfied, but they were the best I could come up with. I lost a lot of sleep turning them over in my head. It fucked me up for a long time.
But that was ages ago. Almost fourteen years, y’know? Once I got off Lauriston I went back on the road, and the road is for forgetting. I didn’t care about Yoshi Falk any more—I swear to the stars. I did not care if he lived or died.
It was only a coincidence that while all that flashed across my mind, I was crouched on the comms booth floor, sweat cold on my back. It didn’t matter that I stayed there, fighting for breath, until the Luna 2 shuffled off its docking clamps and sped towards the stars. It wasn’t important that once again, I’d sacrificed everything for Yoshi Falk.
I swear—it didn’t mean anything at all.
Once my breathing was more or less normal, I did what entertainers are trained to do in times of crisis. I called my agent. MEL looked miserable, but she always looked miserable, so that didn’t tell me much.
“What happened to not fucking up?” she said.
“I didn’t kill anybody.”
“It’s still a problem.”
“One of several. I missed my flight to Lyceum.”
“How soon can you book me another one?”
MEL treated herself to a very deep, very disappointed sigh.
“There’s not going to be another flight.”
“There’s gotta be.”
“Not while you’re Code P. That Jude, she’s fucking crazy. You know she called me?”
“What’d you tell her?”
“To fuck right off.” MEL’s face twisted into a magnificent sneer. “She didn’t like that. Our conversations are supposed to be privileged, but if she gets a court order, I don’t know. Murder is very unpopular right now.”
“Does she know I’m here?”
“Oh yeah. She called from the shuttle. She was very pissed you gave her the slip. Said she’s looking forward to blowing your head off and getting back to her life.”
“If you can’t get me a ticket, how about a gig? There’s fifteen liners docked on the second arm. Book me on the first one leaving port.”
“Not a problem. Have you got papers?”
She smiled. Normally you’d hate your agent to smile about your impending death, but that’s just MEL being MEL.
“Now he gets it,” she said. She finished her cigarette and lit another off the butt. I’d have killed for a mouthful of heavy smoke. Normally I don’t indulge but I could feel the law on my shoulder and Falk’s hands on my hips and I couldn’t decide which scared me more.
“I don’t need papers,” I said. “I can talk my way past anything.”
“No you can’t.”
“I can try. While I do that—”
“Find out everything you can about a magician named K. She was exceptional. Did shit in her act that I’d never seen before. Shit that had this guy Elwood Laabs chasing her. Shit that got her killed.”
“You want me to look into Mr. Laabs while I’m at it?”
“That would be divine. He was wearing a vest from the, fuck, what’s it called...” I rapped my thumb against the comms panel. MEL picked something from her teeth—a wonderful detail for a lifeless simulation—and waited for me to go on. “The New Horizons Initiative! Start there.”
“Any chance of me getting paid for all this detective work?”
“If there’s a reward at the end of this, I promise you’ll get your cut.”
MEL almost smiled. For a moment I thought she was on the verge of a pep talk or a little sentimental weeping, but bless her, she just ended the call. For a second, I could have sworn there was a whiff of her cigarette smoke in the air.
I got to my feet, smoothed my pants, and eased open the comms booth door just as the PA chimed once again.
“Now docked on Arm Three, Gate Nineteen—Shuttle A from Las Vegas/Bishop.”
Jude was here.
Three dozen supplicants clumped around the base of the Katzen job boards. They ranged from young to ancient, from sweatily desperate to slickly confident. None looked at me as I joined the back of the pack.
Dozens of ships left Katzen every day with crews that often numbered in the thousands. They were hiring cooks, techs, sweepers, engine cubs, waiters, prostitutes, mechanics, majordomos, smokers, and grunts. None required a magician, but three liners on the second arm sought “Gen-Ent,” a humiliating class of work that called for light magic, dancing, fire eating, the production of humorous skits, cooking, and song. I’d worked Gen-Ent in my twenties. It sounded bad on the front end and usually turned out worse, but even a lousy job was marginally better than death, so I made for the closest liner: a Blue Star supercruiser named the Emerald Eel.
I found her at the end of a frigid hallway whose dim light and thick grime were a welcome reminder that, despite Katzen’s face lift, nothing had changed backstage. Captain Walsh was in her office clutching a needle and thread, mending a rip in her uniform jacket’s arm. When I sat down, she set the jacket aside. She had knotted gray curls shaved bald on top and green eyes that sparkled against the surrounding gloom.
“Galaxy Greg,” I said. “Gen-Ent.”
“What’s your real name?”
I cocked an eyebrow.
“Sorry,” she said. “I’m new to this. The Eel hasn’t carried entertainers in decades. Been running conservationists on nature cruises—‘See the Beauty of the Colonies Before It’s Gone!’”
“Much money there?”
“Not enough. So it’s a standard leisure cruise now and that means...whatever you do. Can I see?”
I took a deep breath. I’d spent a decade trying to forget every routine I’d put together during my Gen-Ent days. When it came to singing, dancing, clowning, I was good enough, but they were all so far from my true calling that dabbling in them felt dirty. Except even my calling felt alien to me now, so what difference did it make?
I tilted her lamp at my face. That little crystal gave no heat, but it was still my light. As soon as it fell on me, I was at home.
I stood up, sort of. My foot caught on the leg of the chair, causing me to fall so hard that Walsh didn’t start laughing until she realized it was on purpose. I tried to stand up and fell down again, sprawling like a starfish, then tacked on two more increasingly outlandish pratfalls. By the last one tears were streaking down the pale white foundation that clouded her cheeks.
I offered her my handkerchief and acted shocked when it fluttered out of my hand. I chased it around the desk, barking profanities, and once I’d recaptured it I eased into some simple sleight of hand—palming a few paper-clips, crushing them into dust, then discovering them reconstituted in her desk drawer, linked in a perfect chain. I closed with a song—a hoary Irish lullaby my third mother had made me learn by heart.
“Doesn’t matter where they’re from,” she’d said, “all white people are suckers for Irish shit.”
“I see the moon,” I crooned. “The moon sees me, shining through the leaves of the old oak tree. Oh, let the light that shines on me...shine on the one I love.”
I sold it as hard as I could. That last high note echoed off the liner’s steel. Walsh’s tears flowed free.
“You’re too good for this ship,” she said. “But then again, so am I. Let’s see your papers and we’ll get you signed on.”
This was the delicate part. I put on an expression that was 70% charming, 20% pleading, and 10% absolutely fucking terrified.
“Papers,” I said.
“There may be a problem there.”
I’d rarely seen a smile die faster. Walsh tilted the lamp back towards her desk. My little stage went dark. I tried to conceal my desperation.
“My agent warned me this might be a sticking point,” I said. “But I can tell you are a woman of taste and distinction and—”
“No papers, no work. I don’t care how sweet you sing.”
“I’ll have it sorted before we hit the E-Gate. Until then, you don’t even have to pay me. Just consider me a particularly amusing stowaway.”
If she’d known more about entertainers, she’d have understood that I’d just violated two of our most cherished principles: never beg and never work for free. Just before she spoke I flicked my fingers. A card appeared in my hand.
It said, “Please?”
It made her smile. I thought I had her.
I was wrong.
“It’s not possible, Greg.”
“I’m the best you’ll ever get.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
I gave a little bow and got out of there before it occurred to tell station security that an entertainer with no papers was trying to sneak off Katzen Station. My mouth tasted rancid and my back was hot. I don’t care how calloused you are, it always hurts to get turned down.
I let it sting until I reached the corridor and then I put my smile back on. There were two more ships that needed Gen-Ent—the Star of Gdansk and Gianna’s Doe. One of them would be swayed by my charms.
I glided down the Arm 2 concourse, dodging spurts of lavender cologne from the ceiling and trying not to make eye contact with the cameras. I’d reprogrammed my suit into a touristy yellow and blue floral, but I could feel my bald head shining like a spotlight and knew I couldn’t really hope to hide. I’d have bought a hat but I had no money. I’d have stolen one—my hands were steady enough; they are always steady—but if someone spotted me and raised the alarm I’d be truly fucked. Fear dripped from my fingertips. There was nothing to do but keep moving and pray my luck would hold.
I was three gates from the Star of Gdansk when a trumpet sounded loud enough to split my eardrum. The man with the horn stood beneath a flashing pink logo—a flat line with a semicircle bulging out of it that I guess was meant to be the rising sun. Beneath it, in letters whose colors shifted hypnotically fast, were the words “New Horizons Corporate—Right This Way!” A few hundred people with big smiles and bad haircuts milled around the gate. They wore matching NHI vests, accented with leis and cowboy boots, polyester kimonos and furry Russian hats—souvenirs from a company retreat that had taken them around the world and back. Most of them sipped from meter-long plastic cups. The entire place smelled of spilled liquor and impending regret.
I squeezed the walkway’s rail. They looked like fools, but any one of them might have known Elwood Laabs. Any one might have ordered him to kill K. Any one of them might be able to give me some clue to what the hell was going on. It would be the work of a moment to hop the railing, to shove my way into the throng, stomping toes and poking bellies until I found someone to answer my questions. If no one could, I’d just have to sneak onto their ship.
So sneak on.
I’m running, remember? I promised the cop. First get to safety, then clear my name. Simple. Straightforward.
Ugh. That’s gonna take forever.
But it beats getting caught.
Down at the gate, heavy steel doors slid open. Behind them a sleek luxury cruiser waited to take the NHI crew home. A woman in a stained pink wig flipped on a microphone and whooped.
“Hello team NHI!”
The crowd whooped right back.
“Corporate Charter 114 is almost ready to board!”
This produced further whooping.
“It’s gonna be a long haul back to HQ but don’t you worry—I’ve checked with our crew and we have plenty of liquor and if we ever run out, I know my man here can always get us more.”
She pointed at into the crowd, which roared in recognition of what I guess was some kind of inside joke. I was turning away, certain that three weeks with these people would be worse than a kiss from Jude’s shotgun, when I saw the man she’d singled out.
He had beady eyes and a thick neck and an immaculate ginger bowl cut. He wore an NHI vest, same as he had when we met, but he was smiling now. And why shouldn’t he smile?
Elwood Laabs was alive.
He followed the mohawk to the gate, where he made a big show out of taking out his ticket and waving it under the scanner. The crowd cheered for that, too—these people would applaud a man for blinking—and Laabs was first through the doors.
Once upon a time, the gates at Katzen were accessed by ramps. They were cheap, reliable, and easy to use. The minds behind the station’s renovation decided to replace this ancient technology with ion lifts, which were fabulously expensive, constantly malfunctioning, and tortuously slow. Worse, they could only accommodate one passenger at a time, and the bank of lifts was blocked by a clump of chattering conventioneers. I elbowed my way through, ignoring their burbling protest, and threw myself into the lift. It was like leaping into a cotton candy machine. My ears buzzed and my tongue vibrated as I drifted slowly towards the ground.
I writhed, trying to make the damn thing go faster, but it was no use. I’d lost sight of Laabs and, no matter how hard I squinted, I couldn’t pick him up again. He’d boarded, I decided. So I would board too.
At last my feet touched carpet. I sprinted across past NHI employees who were at turns baffled and irritated and was preparing to bulldoze the woman with the mohawk when someone stuck out a foot and sent me sprawling.
I crashed into a bank of faux leather seats. Before I could get up, heavy hands wrapped around my wrist and yanked me to my feet. By the callouses, I could tell it was Jude.
She looked more tired than before. Angrier, like she was beginning to resent how the manhunt was cutting into her personal time. Her duster was buttoned to her neck. You could tell from the bulge that her shotgun was hidden inside.
“I’d hate to shoot you here,” she said, “and upset all these nice people. So how about we go to the bathroom and I kill you there?”
Those nice people were moving around us like a river split by a rock. They recognized that something unpleasant was happening between Jude and myself and they were resolute in pretending we were not there. I thought about calling for help, but even if they acknowledged me there was nothing they could do.
“I have to get on that ship,” I said.
“Don’t be such an idiot. The only thing you have to do is listen to the woman with the gun.”
“The man you think I killed—he’s on there. He’s alive.”
“So let’s go get him! Figure out what’s going on, why he killed K—clear my name so you can let me go!”
She unzipped her duster and stroked the handle of her gun. The last of team NHI passed through the gate. The woman with the mohawk took a quick look around and, satisfied that no one important had been left behind, hopped through the doors. They inched shut behind her. I writhed, wanting to run, knowing I wouldn’t make it three steps before Jude scattered my intestines all over the floor.
“You know how a Code P works?” she said.
“Only from one side.”
“I didn’t really understand myself until yesterday. You and I had our little chat in the hallway, remember? And then you ducked out and I went home and read for a while and then went to sleep. Got woken up in the middle of the night by three big, ugly cops standing around my bed, jawing about how my neighbor was a fugitive. ‘What’s your point?’ I said and they jabbed a needle in my neck. Told me to find you and kill you or the shit they shot me full of will dissolve my heart.”
Her chest was heaving.
I groped for words. I came up with, “I’m sorry.”
“Shut the fuck up.”
“What they did to you is monstrous. But I can’t fix it.”
“Actually, you can. Bathroom. Now.”
The gate clanged shut. I led Jude across the waiting area to the bathroom, hoping to get this done quick, hoping I’d still have a chance to catch the ship.
The bathroom was steel and blue ceramic, the air crisp with vomit and piss. Jude’s mouth was flat as she pulled her shotgun free. I spun around, aiming the widest, slowest haymaker in Katzen history at her jaw. Before I connected, she smacked me with the twin barrels of her mean little gun. My face rattled. I fell to the floor.
“I can’t believe I’m wasting my time on this,” she said. “I have a show tonight. Plus a meeting with a toy manufacturer that wants to make me into an action figure and I was also maybe gonna get in a jog. You are fucking up my entire day.”
“So help me, if you say you’re sorry again I will paint this bathroom with your guts.”
I shut my mouth. For the next few seconds, her threat hung in the air. I risked a glance up and saw that the gun was cocked but her finger was far from the trigger.
“Why haven’t you done it yet?” I said.
“I don’t like killing people if I don’t have to.”
“You’ve done it before?”
“In the war.”
I risked standing up. She didn’t stop me.
“I also served,” I said. She chuckled.
“Priscilla told me all about your war record. Dealing out death on the edge of space. Totally safe, totally insulated. I was in the mech infantry in Ecuador and Peru. When I killed somebody, I smelled it.”
“You talked to my mother?”
“We talk all the time. Tea every week. Cocktails on Friday.”
“I didn’t know Priscilla drank tea.”
“You can understand why she’d want a little companionship. Your other mothers are lovely ladies, but Priscilla is a woman of drive. She needs people who understand that. That’s why she never particularly cared for you.”
I’d lived a lifetime knowing my first mother didn’t like me, so this was no surprise. Still, there was no harm letting her think she was getting to me. I squeezed my eyes shut and covered them with one hand and soon there were tears dotting my cheeks. Jude smiled when she saw them. She didn’t seem to notice that, as I cried, I was edging closer to the bathroom door.
“She thinks I’m better than you,” said Jude.
“You’re lying,” I said, adding a little sob to my voice. “She didn’t say that!”
“It’s just about all she says. ‘Why can’t Greg book shows like you? Why isn’t he ever on the radio? Where’s Greg’s cereal boxes?’”
I slammed my fist on the wall and shouted, “No!” That was probably overdoing it, but Jude didn’t seem to mind. I was nearly at the door.
“And I tell her, well, it’s a shame,” she went on. She wasn’t even looking at me any more. Her reflection had grabbed her like a magnet; she was performing for herself. “The boy had every advantage. Lessons from birth. A magnificent family legacy. Every reason to succeed. And look at him. Can’t even hold down a job at Fang’s.”
That stung a little. What happened at Fang’s was fresh, and it was hardly my fault, and—
Forget it, Greg. Just make for the door.
“I mean, fuck Greg, I’ve seen your act.”
“My act is fine.”
“It’s as stale as ten year old bread. You’re still using a sprite. It’s pathetic.”
I’d gotten all the way around her by then. I probably could have made it through the door before she got off a shot. But now I was the one who was paralyzed.
“The classics are classics because they work,” I said.
“Only if your fundamentals are sound. Greg, you can barely palm a coin.”
I stepped away from the door. I’d like to say I’d settled on a clever new plan, some daring gambit that would neutralize Jude once and for all, but no. She’d attacked my work and I had to defend it. After all, it was all I had left.
“Flip me a coin,” I said.
“We’ve wasted enough time,” she answered, leveling her shotgun in the general direction of my stomach. So much for running away.
“I can do things with a coin that will make your head spin.”
“I don’t care.”
“Because you know I’m better. You’re very good on camera, Jude, but next to me you’re not shit.”
Without moving the shotgun, she dug into her duster and came up with a one buck silver. She flipped it across the room. I caught it with my left hand, but when I opened my palm, it wasn’t there.
“I said flip me a coin,” I said.
She looked down and saw the coin, back in her hand. She laughed, and I heard the nerves creeping in.
She flipped it to me again. Again I caught it, again it disappeared, again she found it back in her hand. Now the shotgun drooped.
“How did you do that?” she asked.
“The way my mother taught me.”
I opened my right hand. The coin was there. I dug my thumb under the silver and flipped it hard. It tumbled through the room, catching the greasy yellow light that poured down from the ceiling tiles, and Jude reached out to catch it.
It bounced right off her hand.
Now that was a surprise.
It takes no special training to catch a coin. Children can do it, even dumb ones. But Jude hadn’t come close.
The coin lay on the floor between us, light glinting off whichever dead person’s head they were decorating them with that year. Neither of us moved to pick it up.
“What did you do to that coin?” she said.
“It’s a trick piece. Specially weighted, isn’t it? Or it’s got some gyroscope in it, makes it move funny, makes me look like a fool?”
“That’s the same coin you threw to me.”
“Pick it up and see.”
She should have shot me. But Jude was as proud as I was. As foolish, too.
She reached for the coin.
She tried to keep the shotgun leveled as she bent, but it was impossible. As soon as the barrel drifted towards the ceiling, I kicked her in the jaw as hard as I could. Her head snapped backwards, smacking into the sink and sending a spray of blood across the floor.
The shotgun fired.
Buckshot ripped across the ceiling, blowing out the light and punching holes in the tangle of pipes that snaked above our heads. The result was darkness and a cascade of something that I firmly hoped was water.
I should stomped her into unconsciousness or torn the shotgun from her hands. I should have grabbed her by the neck and dragged her to the nearest airlock. But there was another shell in that gun of hers and I didn’t want to be there when she fired. I threw myself through the bathroom door and left my neighbor behind.
The gate was empty. The charter had gone. I tore its itinerary loose from the station agent’s pad. They’d go from Katzen to the E-Gate before embarking on a zigzagging, seemingly random tour of the colonies of the near spread—some for sightseeing, some for supplies. Only then would they make for their final destination.
NHI corporate. A planet called Batavia.
Where the fuck is Batavia?
The roller coaster, remember?
The roller coaster on Batavia. Where K learned to fly.
“Well how about that,” I said.
If I could plot a reasonably straight course to Batavia, I could be waiting for Laabs when he disembarked. With the way he and his colleagues were drinking, he’d be in no shape to fight. I grabbed a fat leather binder labeled, “Station Index,” and ran. Once I was swaddled in the fuzzy ion lift cloud, I flipped through the index, where every ship docked at the station was cross-referenced by captain, shipping company, cargo, port of origin and destination, looking for another that was headed for Batavia.
There was only one.
Class: Heavy Freighter
Mooring: Third Arm, Dock 72
Port of Origin: Campeche II
Cargo: Seeds (Var.)
Owner: Omaha Mercury Logistics
Chartered By: New Horizons Initiative
Captain: Y. Falk, Commercial Captain First Rank
Of fucking course.
If there’d been any other path I’d have taken it, but I think we can agree I’d exhausted all my other options. I was leaving Katzen with Falk or I wasn’t leaving at all.
I exited the ion lift and hopped onto the speeding walkway. After a pleasant thirty seconds cursing the gods and my luck and my first mother, I made for Dock 72. A sign informed me it was just fifteen minutes away. The thought made me want to vomit up everything I’d ever eaten.
I went to smooth my hair and remembered I didn’t have any. I straightened my lapels and searched for a casual smile. It didn’t matter that I didn’t want Falk any more, but it was cosmically vital that he still want me.
At the third arm I fell in with a parade of squat green longshore units dragging cobalt shipping tubes towards Dock 72.
Of course, the seeds were cover. Yoshi Falk would never waste his time with something so bland. Beneath the seeds he’d have secret compartments brimming with bootleg liquor or illegal cigars or some fabulous new psychotropic drug. I didn’t particularly care. None of his contraband would be as hot as me.
I followed the longshores through the gate, doing my best impression of someone who belonged. I thought I’d have to work to find Falk, but he was right there—in the brightly lit glass box that served visiting captains as their office while in port. He was leaning over his desk, scratching out notes on a yellow pad. My pulse quickened. I needed to get this over with before panic set in.
Entertainers never knock, because it suggests we might be unwelcome, so I simply opened his door.
I’ll admit I’d fantasized about this moment. Only once or twice, you understand, or possibly thousands of times. When I wasn’t imagining him dead, I’d picture him coming to my show. I’d spot him in the crowd and drag him up on stage, where I’d weave my act around him so elegantly, he’d never want to leave. Maybe we’d spot each other at an intersection, make mournful eye contact and say a silent goodbye as the light changed and we parted forever. Or I’d see him at a party, throw a drink in his face and stomp on his toes until he started to cry. Whatever it was it had to be beautiful and it was nice if it hurt.
But in my dreams I couldn’t smell him.
His scent hit me as soon as I stepped through the office—a cocktail of hair grease, engine oil, and corrosive soap. It smelled like being young. And that whiff of him, of how it felt to love him and be left behind, put a bit of madness in me. All my intricate plans dissolved, leaving me in the grip of Plan A.
A for Anger, that is.
A for Absolute Fucking Fury.
A for A Magician Is About to Make a Legendary Goddamned Scene.
I dragged him out of his chair with one hand and smacked his face with the other.
At least, that was what I was going for.
I was strong and I was quick, but Falk had always been a little bit quicker. He caught my wrist in mid-air, fingers coarse against my skin, and locked those pale brown eyes on mine.
I didn’t know if we were going to kiss or fight.
Either would have suited me.
I was ready, basically, for anything besides what he said.
“Do I know you?”
Now that’s a knife to the fucking gut.
“People don’t usually hit me unless we’ve met. But I just cannot place your face.”
My wrist relaxed. He let it go.
I rubbed the red marks on my skin. Age had treated him with infuriating kindness. His hair, spotted with gray, had coarsened without thinning. His mouth was flat, his skin taut and unblemished save for a few wrinkles dug in around his eyes, which only served to make him look intensely smart. His sideburns remained outlandish.
The son of a bitch looked impeccable.
“Yeah,” I said, trying to recover some of the swagger I’d carried across the threshold. “You fucking know me. My name is Galaxy Greg.”
At last, a smile broke out on his face—the flimsy sort reserved for unloved coworkers or charmless babies. A smile of pity.
“Oh yeah, Greg. From the Navy.”
“Of course. How you been?”
“Still doing the juggling?”
“Magic. And yes, yes I am.”
“Must be fascinating.” There was a brutal pause. “Something to drink? As I recall, you were a gin man.”
“Tea will be fine.”
He swept past me towards the bev unit, gave it a practiced prod, and waited as it gurgled out a cup of swamp water masquerading as Earl Gray. He handed it to me without letting our fingers touch. He did not ask me to sit down.
“What brings you to Katzen? Taking a cruise?”
“Looking for work.”
“Good place for it. Must be hundreds of ships here that need...whatever it is you do.”
I should have groveled. Turned on the charm. Jude would be awake by now, would be hunting for me, but nothing she could subject me to compared to what this man had already done. So I just stared at him, proud and furious, until he realized why I was here. His smile drooped.
“This is a freighter, Greg. Not a pleasure ship. There’s no passengers to entertain.”
“What about the crew?”
“You’re looking at it. Everything’s fully automated. The longshores handle the cargo; mech units take care of repairs; I’ve got a med unit in case I get a cold. The whole complement is just me and...”
“It’s quiet. Quiet’s good.”
I was making him uncomfortable. I liked that.
I leaned on his desk and picked up a little metal paperweight stamped with the Omaha Mercury logo—a T-Bone steak with wings. It disappeared into my hand. Falk did not look amused.
“So what are you hauling here?” I said.
“Seeds. Donation from the New Horizons Initiative for the Breadbasket.”
“They’re farmers. Don’t they have enough seeds?”
“There’s a famine. NHI figures they could use a few billion more.”
Electronic music chirped through the door at Falk’s back. Something cheerful. Annoying. Not like him. He winced but did not turn around.
“And what’s the secret cargo?” I said. “Firearms? Meds? The good kind of drugs? The bad kind of drugs?”
The paperweight reappeared in my left hand. I flicked it into the air and caught it without looking. Once again, it was gone.
“Can I have that back please?” said Falk.
“Look in your pocket.”
He dug into his coveralls and pulled out a slip of paper that read, “Other pocket.” He reached into the other pocket and—ta-da!—the paperweight was there. I think he almost smiled.
“It’s been wonderful catching up,” he said. “But as soon as this last load is stowed, we’re gone. If you don’t mind...”
I wanted to disappear in a puff of smoke or just strut out the door looking so perfectly irresistible that he would never make the mistake of forgetting me again. But it would be difficult to show Falk that I didn’t need him when, in fact, my need was a matter of life and death.
“Do you still like macaroni and cheese?” I said. “That was your favorite, wasn’t it? Bubbling hot, fresh out of the oven, with little bits of bacon and enough paprika scattered across the top to turn the whole thing rust red.”
Falk’s eyes narrowed.
“How long’s the trip to Batavia?” I said.
“Three weeks if you go direct. But we’re making stops on the way. Should take two months.”
“That’s a long time to go without a hot meal.”
“We have a gastro unit.”
“You’d be better off eating garbage. You need a cook. Someone who knows how to work in a freighter galley. Someone who makes the best mac and cheese the universe has ever seen.”
“I don’t eat mac and cheese anymore.”
He looked at the door, waiting for me to step through it. It wasn’t possible. Out there was nothing but Jude, her shotgun, and my mother’s disapproving glare. I stepped closer to him. He stepped away.
“I’m not going to beg,” I said, “because I’m afraid I might develop a taste for it. I’m not having a good week. I’ve got no papers, no money, no prospects. I need to get back on the road. I’m starting over.”
“We are too old to start over.”
“Get out of my office or I’ll have the sec units drag you out.”
“You’re getting soft. Time was, you’d have thrown me out yourself.”
He was starting to look angry. As happy as that made me, sec units meant an arrest, and arrest was something I was trying to avoid. I shrugged like none of it had meant anything and turned my back on the man who, once again, had left me high and dry.
And then, as occasionally happens to good little magicians, deliverance strolled through into the room. It had dyed green hair and a dress to match. It wore thick glasses and a serious expression and it was just over a meter tall.
“Falk, old buddy!” I cried. “I didn’t know you had a little girl!”
The girl climbed into her daddy’s lap and poked his nose and asked, “Were you guys talking about mac and cheese?”
She spoke with the practiced diction of a child who wants to be big. Her voice annihilated Falk. He just about ripped in half trying to look stern and sweet at the same time. I leaned on the wall and put on the harmless expression I once used while working kids’ birthday parties.
“We were talking ship’s business, baby,” said Falk. “Go back to your game.”
“Mac and cheese is not ship’s business. Mac and cheese is dinner.”
She fixed her gaze on me. Her eyes were dark brown and as bright as a newborn sun.
“Who are you?” she said.
“That’s a silly name. My name is Lennox. I’m six and a half. Do you make mac and cheese?”
“The best you’ve ever had.”
“Are you coming on our trip?”
“That’s up to your daddy.”
Falk shot me a look that could melt steel. I answered with a smile and, because I can be a bastard when I feel like it, a little wink. Lennox turned back to Falk.
“We have an extra bedroom,” she said. “I think you should put him in it.”
He chuckled like he was still in charge.
“I’d love to, sweetie, but there’s no room in the budget and the gastro unit can make mac and cheese any time you want.”
“Everything the gastro unit makes tastes like old poop.”
“He doesn’t have any papers.”
“You mean like identification?”
She sounded out every syllable—i-dent-i-fi-kay-shun—as precise as a talking dictionary. As a rule, I don’t like kids, but this girl was sharp and I was liking her more and more.
She tore a piece of paper from Falk’s pad and eased the pencil from his hand.
“How do you spell Galaxy Greg?” she asked.
I spelled it for her. Falk sat, silent and seething and increasingly crimson, as she carved out my name in precise block capitals, then handed it to me.
“See?” she said. “Papers.”
“Thank you,” I answered, folding the paper and placing it in my pocket with the greatest possible ceremony.
“Very nice, sweetie,” said Falk, eyes shut, migraine coming on.
“Hire him, Daddy. It’d be good for us to have somebody on the ship who likes to smile.”
She kissed Falk on the nose, hopped off his lap and wandered back into the other room. The door shut. The chirping music started again. Falk pelted his paperweight into the trashcan. It made a pathetic little ping. I tried not to grin, but I didn’t try that hard.
“All right, captain,” I said. “Where do I sign on?”
He answered with an honest to god growl.
“Here’s how this will work. You’re the cook. Not the babysitter, not the teacher, not the friend. You cook, you clean up, and you go back to your cabin until it’s time for you to cook again. You begged for this job and you got it. Don’t fuck it up—for you or for me and especially not for her. Be professional. Leave Lennox alone. And stay the fuck out of my way.”
He stepped closer. He was a touch shorter than me, but carried enough muscle that he seemed much bigger. The smell of him was intoxicating.
“Get out of my office, Galaxy Greg. I have work to do.”
The sound of my name hit me like an ice water bath. My mouth moved but no sounds came out, so I figured it was time to depart. I left him in the office, boarded the ship, and took a tour of my new home.
HF909 was a flying brick, its mammoth hold capped by a little wart that held living quarters barely adequate for three. The decor was neo-shag, all wood paneling and blacklights and deep green carpet, a style that had gone out of fashion the instant it was conceived. I was nosing around the cockpit when the comms ticket spat out a missive in big red letters—a bulletin from the state police.
MANHUNT! CODE P! DEPUTIZED BOUNTY HUNTER PRITCHARD REQUESTS HELP FINDING MURDERER MAGICIAN GALAXY GREG! SPOTTED AT KATZEN STATION! BELIEVED HEADING FOR NEAR SPREAD! KILL ON SIGHT! KILL ON SIGHT! KILL ON SIGHT!
I tore the paper from the ticket, stuffed it into my mouth, and chewed. I was still spitting ink when the engines roared and the bulkheads rattled and we left Katzen behind. I was alive, I was moving, but even I wasn’t stupid enough to believe I was safe.
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