If you arrived here by mistake and are looking for the start of this story, you can find it here.
It turned out there was a restaurant on the grounds of the museum called Gertie’s. I’d never heard of it, though it was apparently long established. As we entered, I took in the old-fashioned wood-trimmed walls, long redwood bar, and separate function area filled with individual white linen-set tables. Its old world grandeur reeked of authenticity, despite being a little threadbare around the edges: a complete change to the garishly artificial theme-world decor common these days.
I ordered a Tea Room Clubhouse with all the trimmings, the cheapest thing on the menu, and hoped Dollie had similarly frugal tastes. I hadn’t eaten out since losing my job, and this would put a fair dent in my pension.
She ordered the Cattail Island Platter, and I swallowed when I surreptitiously checked the price. I’d be living on instant noodles for the rest of the month.
“You were an engineer up there?” She nibbled on a breadstick in a way that made me wish I was a carbohydrate.
“That’s what it said on my name tag. I spent most of my time making sure people did what they were supposed to.”
She raised a luxuriant eyebrow. “That doesn’t sound like the kind of job where you end up losing limbs.”
What could I tell her? That space can be deadly irrespective of what you’re doing? That I was in the wrong place at the wrong time? Or that I’d been curious and nosing around where I shouldn’t have been? “Call me lucky.”
“With that kind of luck you sure don’t need enemies.” She pursed her lips. “No offense, but when I saw the stories it struck me as fishy. Don’t they have safeguards to prevent that sort of thing?”
They did. And I thought I’d properly locked off the Hopper I’d been using. Despite that, it had floated up to me silently, and the hardened pincer-like manipulators had clamped down on both my legs and an arm. If it hadn’t been for my suit’s built-in trauma-relief systems—and Logan’s untimely intervention—I’d have bought the big one. “Accidents happen.” The memory made my words come out as a growl.
The food arrived, and Dollie dug into the lavish platter, continuing after several mouthfuls. “You don’t have to tell me what happened if you don’t want.”
The subject was too personal, and the pain in my arm and legs reminded me every day how stupid I’d been. “Do you often pick up stray men?”
“Not just men.” Her eyes widened, as if challenging me.
“All part of the job, I guess.”
Her smile turned into a slight pout. “Only sometimes. If you really want to know, a friend encouraged me to get an AeroMobile license. I found I enjoyed it, and I like meeting people. It’s tough getting established, though. I don’t have enough drivers to cover everything. That limits how much business I can handle, and because I don’t have the volume, I can’t pay the rates needed to attract more drivers.”
“That must be a struggle.”
Dollie shrugged. “What isn’t? All the easy pickings were scoured clean decades ago. What’s the alternative, though—give up?”
She was right. Life only ever got more difficult. Sea levels kept rising along with the temperature. Coastal cities like Baltimore had been hit especially hard and were now largely flooded out, with old sea defenses breached. Other parts of the world were even worse.
“You strike me as the kind of woman who usually gets what she wants.”
“I don’t suppose you can drive an AeroMobile by any chance?”
“I can fly anything.” I’d certainly flown most industrial space vehicles and more, though my license would have been automatically canceled due to my medical treatment. “But my license expired.”
We finished eating, batting conversation between us filled with the lightest of innuendo. I might be slow sometimes, but even I could tell she was flirting with me. Part of me hoped that was all it was. After losing three limbs it’s hard to feel masculine, even with regeneration, and besides—relationships cost.
I pulled out my credit chip, but Dollie lifted her hand. “Put that away, Joe. You think I’d let a guy on the wag pick up the tab for lunch? It’s not like this is a date…” She smiled. “Is it?”
Wag was the slang term for the BUI, and rarely used in a good way, but I didn’t get that feeling from her. “I can’t let you pay. Not after all the hassle I’ve caused.”
Dollie pulled her hands to her chest in a mock swoon. “Handsome and a gentleman? You’re the kind of guy mothers warn their daughters about. Probably with good reason.”
My ears tickled as they obviously reddened. “How about we go Dutch?”
“Is that a new position?” Her tone was low and suggestive. “I’m game.”
This time, my cheeks tingled as well. “Equal split I mean.”
“Sure, whatever you want, soldier.”
“I’m not a soldier.”
“A spy then, maybe?” She waved her credit chip at the machine, and it flashed green. “Flying through space killing bad guys and seducing bad women. Tragically stopped in his prime after being injured by enemies of the USP.”
“Your imagination is as amusing as it is twisted.”
She handed me the chip reader. “You have no idea!”
I brandished my credit chip at the reader, but it didn’t flash. Dollie had paid the whole bill. “Hey, I thought we were splitting it.”
“Too bad. Now I own you.”
“You think I’m that easy?”
She slipped out of her seat, and her nose wrinkled. “Ooh, I do hope so.”
The museum was a classical building, with an entrance styled after a Roman palace complete with tall fluted columns. This far from the water it didn’t need to be on stilts, though the corners of the stone and concrete exterior were tinged gray-green by the typical algal deposits.
Inside was meticulously clean, however, from the arched entrance hall to the high glassed ceilings that gave everything a light, airy feel. The exhibition wasn’t what I expected. The paintings were vintage images of women in various states of undress, staged in a variety of provocative poses. Dollie explained they were “pinup girls,” popular in the twentieth century, and that the art had been largely banned before that century was out.
Dollie was something of an enigma, and her interest in the paintings was another part of the puzzle. I couldn’t understand what attracted her to them so much, or why she’d thought to ask me to view them with her. On top of that, the pictures were risqué enough to make me feel uncomfortable looking at them in her company.
“Why were they banned?” I asked. We were admiring a picture of a kneeling woman blowing bubbles out of a pipe, painted by someone called Zoe Mozert. Most of the images were flirty rather than pornographic, though this one was completely nude, and I forced myself not to stare too closely.
“Well, they weren’t banned, exactly. But a lot of people thought they were demeaning, so the paintings and even artists were ostracized and shamed out of polite society.”
That seemed ridiculous. Even a luddite like me could appreciate the skill that must have gone into making them. The Crazy Years. That was the term commonly used to describe the period from the mid-twentieth to mid-twenty-first century when the whole world seemed to flip out over everything for no apparent reason, while completely ignoring the real problems that finally slapped them in the face, giving us the messed up planet we now lived on.
“They hated everything, especially sex,” Dollie said.
How could you hate that? Sex was sex, people were people—mix and match according to individual taste. And this stuff was tame compared to the VoyPorn now widely available. “I guess I’ll never understand what it was like back then.”
Dollie wrapped an arm around mine. “Let’s see the rest.”
It was almost three in the afternoon when we finally made for her AeroMobile once more. It had been a pleasant afternoon, totally unexpected, but much appreciated. It was a long time since I’d shared time, or a meal, with anyone, especially a beautiful woman. And despite my encounter a few days ago and current situation, basking in the warmth of charming company had helped me relax and feel vaguely normal again, though I wasn’t sure what normal meant.
The walk through the grounds was refreshing. They’d managed to keep most of it green and flourishing, though I hated to think at what cost. The trouble was, what was next? Dollie had pretty much led everything since my release, and I was beginning to wonder what she expected from me.
“Relax, Joe, you’re on edge.” She pulled me to a stop, and her eyes locked with mine. “I understand.”
“You do?” That was more than I did.
“You’re like a bird with a broken wing. You need time to learn to fly again. I know what that’s like.”
She smiled, but I sensed a sliver of pain behind it. “Maybe one day you’ll find out. Right now, though, we’re just two friends enjoying each other’s company, okay?”
I didn’t understand, but it was fine.
She snuggled against me again and batted her eyelashes. “I reserve the right to change my mind and seduce you at any time, though.”
I didn’t know how to respond, but a couple walking by burst out laughing. The guy winked at me. “I’d let her if I was you, bud.” The woman he was with slapped his arm and dragged him away.
“What are your plans now?” Dollie asked.
“Head home, watch the free community channels on the 3V until the bars open.”
Her eyebrows lifted. “Not much of an existence. I’d have thought after what happened, you’d take it easy.”
If I’d never worked in space I might have agreed with her, but in ZeeGee you learned to rely on yourself first and foremost. “Don’t worry. I plan on giving my liver a rest—for a few days at least.”
“Then why hit the…?” Her jaw clamped tight. “Tell me you’re not planning to do the vigilante thing like some dumb 3V star.”
“Someone set me up and did a damn good job of it. All I want to do is find that Tawnee woman. If nothing else, she should be able to give me an alibi.”
“You’re a damn fool, Ballen.” Dollie unlocked the cab door. “Did it not occur to you that she was in on this heist? Hell, she’s probably the one who hit you with the zom shot.”
It had occurred to me and certainly made sense. I remembered the strawberry kiss she’d delivered, then everything had gone blank. Was that when she took me out? I’d also remembered the bartender’s name—something Ridge—and he could very likely lead me to her. “You’re probably right, but I have to see what I can find out.”
“Let the cops do their jobs. It’ll be safer all round.”
“You think they’re going to look very hard when they already have me in their sights?”
She walked back to me and put her hand behind my neck, staring into my eyes as if searching for my soul. “I thought you were smart, not some gung ho jock type. Guess I was wrong. Get in, I’ll drop you off as promised.”
The light mood from earlier had evaporated, and we didn’t speak much as we headed to my place. When we landed, I felt like I’d lost a hundred credits and found fifty cents. As I climbed out of the car, Dollie put her hand out to stop me.
“How long is it since you were last on Earth?”
I had to think about it. I hadn’t spent any great length of time down here since I first started working on the High-Rig, and that was almost ten years ago. “It’s been a while. But I’m used to the gravity. I always kept up with high-gee workouts, along with shots to avoid too much muscle wastage.”
Dollie avoided my gaze. “Things have changed a lot down here. Every year gets tougher and people get meaner. Despite everything the Argus Eye does for us, there are places around here that aren’t safe.”
“Thanks, I can look after myself.”
“Really…” Finally, she looked at me. Her eyes flashed, but I wasn’t sure if it was anger or sadness. “Just… be careful.”
After the elegance of the restaurant and museum, my glamorous social housing apartment seemed even smaller and grimmer than usual. It bothered me, and I knew why—it reminded me of the futility of even dreaming about any kind of relationship, especially one with a woman as classy as Dollie. Art shows and lunch out? I’d be broke in less than a week, and “fresh air” might be free on Earth, but it was strictly low calorie.
“Face it, Ballen. You’re a bum.”
I sat on the single chair in my unit and opened the equally community-provided 3V. It provided access to educational content, job listings, and a few “entertainment” channels that specialized in programming that was high on worthiness and low in content. I still had my personal Scroll, of course, which had been shipped from space along with me, but I couldn’t afford an Access Plan that would give me anything more interesting.
Why was I fighting these charges? I’d be better off if they locked me up. An agonizing stab seared through my legs and arm, sending my brain spinning into shock. Neural dissonance was never fun, and it often hit me when my thoughts were at their darkest.
I checked my pockets, but I didn’t have any nerve-tranq on me. There should be more in the poky bathroom, if the cops hadn’t confiscated it.
Halfway there, another blast hit me. My legs gave out, and I collapsed like a pile of soiled bed linen. Another victory for ace-engineer Joe Ballen as I flopped around on the floor like a turtle on its back. The room’s comm-link buzzed, but I was in no shape to answer it and lay there gasping for breath as burning spikes darted through my limbs.
“Joe, this is Logan. I wanted to touch base and see how you’re doing.” The system had gone into message record mode. Logan Twofeathers had called me every month without fail since he’d dragged what was left of me back inside the High-Rig. His voice was deep and rich, despite the cheap comm-system distorting the sound.
“Everything is crazy up here, as usual. The schedules they’re pushing are verging on dangerous. They don’t seem to realize things take time and you can’t jump on everything at once. We sure could use you back to buffer the demands.
“You remember Zandusky? You’re not going to believe it, but that big mug got himself hitched. Legal contract and everything. Some gal he’d been talking to over the Net. Her in Mombasa, him on the High-Rig.
“Anyway. He asked for some leave—to consummate the marriage. The company granted it, naturally. But he was back in less than two days. Seems the bride came complete with a whole gaggle of in-laws, and all of them planning on living with the happy couple after the fact.” Logan’s laugh boomed through the speakers. “Poor guy ran away so fast, he’d be signing up for a deep space tour if the ‘Tollers let us run any.
“Well, no point me wasting money talking to a machine. Call me back when you get this. Don’t worry, I know money’s tight. I’ve paid for a return call, so you’ve no excuse, my friend. Logan out.”
The system beeped to indicate Logan had hung up. He was a good guy and a good friend, better than I deserved. I just wished he’d lay off with the “we need you back” bullshit. I couldn’t go back to space as much as I wanted it, not with all the nerve rebuilding. The MedTechs said I was suffering from psychological rejection and it was all in my head, but the agony in my legs and arm shouted otherwise.
Nonetheless, Logan’s always-calm voice had helped, and I managed to crawl to the bathroom. I reached up, grabbed the nerve-tranq, and swallowed half a dozen of the pills. Bitter medication for a bitter pain in a bitter man. It was a good fit.
Null Vector was an eccentric name for a spaceship that hauled tons of cargo through space, but it resonated with me well enough. That was the story of my life now. A point with neither magnitude nor direction summed up my existence, and the fact that it was likely to end up costing me what little freedom I still had, carried a strange irony. Like the ship, I was lost in life and heading nowhere. The only difference was that if I vanished, no one would bother looking for me.
How do you carry on when you’ve lost the one thing that made all the hardship, striving, and stress worth it? How do you continue when you’ve lost the only ambition you’ve ever had? I’d dived into a bottle and was ready to drown there, but it wasn’t working fast enough for my taste.
After wallowing in self-pity for fifteen minutes, the stabs eased until it felt more like an unpleasant case of pins and needles. It would fade more, but it was enough I could move again. I put some coffee on and dragged myself into the shower—a basic unit that threw water but offered no massage programs—letting the scorching water further ease my battered limbs.
The four-day stubble on my head itched, and I quickly ran a razor over it. No one wants a mass of hair floating around in ZeeGee, and even though I was no longer a spaceman, the habit persisted. When I’d finished, my scalp tingled, and I checked the mirror. “No luck, Ballen. You’re as ugly as ever.”
The pizza had been delivered and was tucked away in my delivery chute. After a day and a half, it looked as appetizing as the remnants from the bottom of a degreasing tank. But I zapped it into some semblance of life and chewed on a slice, while checking the Help Wanted section.
There were plenty of companies looking for project managers with engineering experience, but all of them required an AeroMobile license. It had never seemed like a big thing when I was rarely on-planet, but now it was a metaphorical albatross firmly draped around my neck. The other problem was that the jobs I was qualified for were all in space and out of reach. Logan knew how much I wanted to return, but it was a hopeless dream.
Despite my black mood, I opened the Licensing Interface and entered my details. To my surprise, my license showed as dormant rather than canceled. The system graciously offered to reactivate it for the bargain price of two hundred credits—a quarter of my monthly funds—as long as I successfully completed a vision test.
The test was no problem: my eyes were unaffected by the accident, and I’d maintained an exacting routine of taking my trantopan treatments to avoid neuro-ocular blindness caused by living in space. But I didn’t see how I’d survive for a week or so with nothing to eat or drink.
The wall lights dimmed, indicating the sun was setting. There were no windows, but the lighting followed the outdoor pattern unless overridden. It was designed to encourage residents to stay in touch with the world outside, although why that mattered I couldn’t say.
A regular thump came through the ceiling. My upstairs neighbor was watching the insanely dangerous game show Flamingo Hazard again. Contestants had to tackle an obstacle course where the “hazards” were pink-painted hydraulic excavator arms linked to automatic targeting systems. Despite the obvious dangers and numerous injuries, the show was never short of victims, with a top prize of ten million credits.
I looked up Hagar’s Bar. They didn’t open until nine. It was obviously one of those places that appealed to the late-night mob: people such as me who didn’t like to face the world during daylight hours, when it was harder to wallow in your own tiny well of self-pity.
The Maggie would get me there easily enough and, as long as I didn’t take too long, would bring me back, saving the cost of a cab. I wasn’t planning on drinking anyway. All I was looking for was a lead on where I might find my recent “friend,” Tawnee. Despite what Dollie said, she was still my best chance to establish my innocence.
As I chewed on more of the rubbery pizza, I considered calling Logan back. He only wanted the best for me, but I couldn’t face him. He had a way of seemingly peering right through me and seeing the black poisonous chancre that surrounded my soul like a coiled viper waiting to strike. Why trouble him any more than I already had? Like everyone else, he’d be better off not having to worry about me anymore.
Maybe I should try and get my AeroMobile license back, after all. It would open up some opportunities, even though finding the money would be hard. I reached out to close the licensing screen, and a stab of neural shock made my hand twitch. I yelped. Instead of hitting the cancel button, I’d tapped the renew option, and a message saying Processing was pulsing in the middle of the display.
“Dammit. No!” I tapped multiple times on close, but the interface ignored me. After a few seconds, a message confirming payment flashed up, and I groaned. Even with Dollie’s generosity at lunch, I was going to have a hole in my finances the size of an asteroid.
—– To be continued —–