Far down at the end of the dimly lit tunnel, I saw the lights of the commons and plodded along in that direction. The damp rocks bled water and dripped around me. My heavy steel boots clanged against the magnetized metal catwalk with every step and echoed down the tunnel. Out of nowhere, I suddenly felt very alone. Most everyone had gone into town hours ago.
A minute later, I passed into the bustling square, packed with the never ending parade of rogues and adventurers who crisscrossed the asteroid belt. There were also many of the two hundred or so long term residents who lived on Argos277. Service personnel. Maintenance personnel. Miners. Security. Argos277 had lot of security personnel. Target owned everything on the rock or had a franchise on it and piracy was rampant out here on the frontier.
I skirted the rowdy throng and headed for the Where The Stars Come Out At Night Café. There were three other little late night dives around the commons, plus a donut shop, a coffee shop, a sandwich shop, a media café and an ice cream parlor. They even had a couple of boutiques, but The Stars was the only real place to party in town.
Like any gold town on earth three hundred years earlier, people came to service the miners. Women, especially. One of them smiled at me going by. I ignored her and made my way inside The Stars. The guy who ran it, Welshy, had installed a real time projection of the passing sky on his ceiling. I saw Jupiter rushing by as I walked in.
The smoky atmosphere of the packed bar was made all the more surreal by holographic images everywhere you turned. I passed through several of them on my way to the back wall. The holograms were, for the most part, comprised of gyrating, suggestive images. Everything in that bar was designed to make you drink and want sex, the crowd on the dance floor included. At least Welshy kept the volume of that unending techno-music to a minimum.
I found a quiet corner and took in the scene. A droid waitress came by my small table a minute later.
“A modiva,” I told her.
“Ah, you like the cool blue.”
I nodded. I liked the cool blue. I had never figured out exactly what was in a modiva, but it tasted like carbonated popsicles.
“Cool blue is cool,” she said and left.
Droids. It was hard warming up to them, especially these Generation II models. Target must have gotten a bargain. He had a few dozen of them working around the base.
Before leaving Mars, I had crossed paths with a Generation IV model and thought it was an actual human being until somebody told me otherwise. A Generation IV model would have said, “Oh, cool blue. Nice choice. I love them too.” Not some comment that had been plucked from a play list.
The waitress came back a few minutes later with my drink.
“Will you be eating tonight?”
“Yeah. Patty said she had a burger for me.”
“I’m sure she will then.”
The waitress tapped at her clear plastic tablet and the cost for my drink popped up as a hologram at my table. She moved on to the next table. I took a sip of the modiva and watched Barnes. He had taken off his metal shoes and was floating around the bar with a droid call girl. I had visions of a rubber sex doll. Boor that he was, Barnes was soon simulating sexual intercourse with his date in midair, to great cheers and laughter.
The Generation II models were a far sight better than rubber dolls. Nice looking, in fact. Certainly better looking than most of the human trash that passed through these asteroid outposts, but they made love like a broken record. Feigned passions, feigned orgasms, and all out sync, like you had hit the wrong button.
Patty came flying through the bar at one point and noticed me.
“Hey Apollo,” she said, hovering over me. “Ready for that burger?”
“Yeah. I already told the waitress but check on it for me, all right?”
She pushed off the wall and went flying the other way, her blue hair swaying. I went back to watching Barnes. If somebody had to be lost in space, why not him?
Within minutes, Patty had returned with my burger. It never took long to sizzle up that artificial crap.
“Another one?” she said about my drink.
She flew off again. I bit in, trying not to think about what my burger had been a few minutes earlier.
Sometime later, as I was tossing back the last of my modiva, Barnes floated overhead with his droid fling. Botsies, men had taken to calling these pleasure models—short for robot, with the ending throw in for fun. Naturally, men riffed on the theme from there. Boopsies. Bopsies. The more scatological it got, the more you got a laugh.
“What the fuck, Apollo?” Barnes said from overhead. “You too good to join us?”
“I’m eating a burger.”
“Your burger’s done. Come on and join the party.”
“I’m tired, Barnes. And frankly in no mood to party.”
“Yeah?” he said, waxing serious all of a sudden.
While pulling himself down onto the chair next to me, he poked a finger at his date. She floated up towards the ceiling like a balloon. Seeing her blank smile, I shuddered. It was the uncanny valley. She was a beautiful blonde. She blinked like a plastic being.
Barnes leaned in close to my ear and whispered.
“We’re staging a revolt tomorrow.”
He leaned back to look at me.
“So, what? You’re not in?”
“I’ve got a contract to fulfill, Barnes, and I intend to do so.”
“Fuck that. Target let Casey just float off into never, never land today and for what? To save himself a few hundred federals worth of fuel?”
I stared off at the raucous bar scene, intent on ignoring Barnes.
“You don’t even give a fuck, do you, Apollo?”
“About what?” I said, looking back.
“Fuck you. About Casey. About fucking looking out for ourselves up here. That prick Target has no right to treat us like droids.”
I glanced up at Barnes’ bimbo blonde date and back at him.
“He didn’t tie himself off. Did I miss something here?”
“What a prick you are, Apollo.”
Barnes went to push himself off but leaned in closer to my ear before he did.
“There’s going to be a revolt here tomorrow and you’re either with us or you’re not.”
Barnes let that sink in and floated off.
“Better make up your mind, dickhead.”
I looked away without a word.
Barnes was soon lost in his debauchery again. I sat there considering his words. The supply ship was due in sometime the following afternoon. No doubt Barnes knew about that. This sounded like more than cheap talk.
While I was weighing things in my mind, a ruckus broke out at the bar. A couple of heavies were at the center of it, the usual space trash, drug runners, probably, just passing through and looking for trouble. It appeared that a beautiful young woman with short, black hair was the object of their attention.
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of her. She was wearing thigh high black boots and a black Naugahyde jumpsuit.
One of Target’s combat class droids stepped in to help settle the problem and one of the men took a swing at him. The droid sent him flying across the bar. When those combat models got involved, somebody usually took a ride.
There were screams and tables overturned, followed by laughter. The other heavy had his hands up as if to say, hey, we’re good here. The black haired woman had used this opportunity to slip away. The droid went to deal with what was left of the other guy.
Distracted, I hadn’t noticed Olga squeezing into the other seat at my table. My mind quickly scrambled for a means of escape but there was none. Fuck. I should never have made love to her. There were all kinds of red flags right from the start. She was a beautiful Russian blonde doll…and psychotic. Naturally I had let the blonde doll part override my better judgment.
“You’ve been avoiding me,” Olga said first thing.
“I haven’t been avoiding you.”
“Yes you have. I know when people are avoiding me.”
“Christ,” I muttered under my breath and looked up at the stars.
“Don’t swear at me.”
“I’m not. I’m swearing at Jupiter up there.”
The first approach having born no fruit, Olga tried maudlin.
“Why can’t you say something sweet to me?”
I shuddered visibly. The answer was, you’re insane and begging me to say something sweet repulses me even further.
I didn’t say as much. I just stared forward.
“You know, Apollo, I have another man who wants me. I just thought, you know, before I committed to him, I should be sure. You’re the only man I really wanted.”
She reached out and touched my forearm with her fingernails.
“Please, Apollo. I need your sweetness. Not what I got. Look how you treat me. As soon as you got what you wanted from me, pffff.”
She flung one hand out dramatically. I rubbed my forehead. It had started like this between us and had gone downhill from there. She lied and manipulated, then played the victim. She put words in your mouth, then watched you squirmed and tried to repudiate them.
What a cunning bitch. I wanted to be kind to her, but couldn’t.
“Look, you’re a sweet lady, Olga, okay?”
I had said this, hoping to defuse things. I should have known better. She leaned in closer and waved a finger at her lips, wanting a kiss now.
“What? You don’t want to kiss me?”
“No. I think it’s best if we’re just friends.”
She pulled away violently and sulked.
“Look. I’m glad you have this other man. I wish you the best.”
I glanced at the maelstrom of emotions twisting up in her face. There were tears, stewing in a sea of latent violence. I thought for a moment that peace might win out, but no. Olga tossed her drink in my face and stormed off. I had half the bar staring at me.
Christ. I could only hope that was the end of it.
While drying myself off, I noticed Barnes at the bar, downing shots with one hand, feeling up his droid sweetheart with the other and making a lot of noise with everyone around him. The prick had to turn everything into a spectacle. He was incapable of breathing without being the center of attention.
Distracted with Barnes, I hadn’t noticed the young woman with the thigh high black boots and black Naugahyde jumpsuit taking a seat across the table. She could have been a pin up, if not for the attitude. I had little use for the outfit, either. Dominatrix had never been my scene.
I gave her the once over and looked forward again.
“Not interested,” I said.
“Fuck you. I’m not selling,” she said.
“Sorry. You looked the part.”
“And I can see why women throw drinks in your face.”
I shrugged again.
“There are plenty of other seats in the bar.”
“I happen to like this one.”
I shrugged again and started to get up, in no mood for two insane women in one evening. She reached out with her hand, forcefully enough to stop me in midair.
“Look. Let’s not get off on the wrong foot.”
I gave her the once over again and sat back down.
“Just don’t toss you’re drink in my face and we’ll be all right.”
I sat there waiting. I knew she had something on her mind.
“I came over here to ask you about Casey. That bar waitress Patty said you were one of his friends.”
I glanced across the table at her. She kept glancing at two more heavies who had appeared at the far end of the bar. They took a seat, ordered drinks and turned to stare at us. The young woman lit up a cigarette nervously.
“You know them?” I said.
“No,” she said.
I had no reason to believe her and didn’t.
She puffed on her cigarette and tried look nonchalant but I could tell those two men had her worried.
“What’s your name?” I said.
“Kali. What’s yours?”
“Apollo. So you were Casey’s date tonight.”
“How did you know?”
“I put two and two together. You were looking for him and he had mentioned having a date tonight.”
“Can you tell me more about what happened?”
I looked away.
“Nothing. He was in a hurry and forgot to tie himself off.”
I looked back.
“I’m guessing you were the reason he was in a hurry. Putting two and two together.”
She shook her head slowly and looked away. I looked up at the image of Jupiter flying by again.
“And now he’s out there somewhere.”
“So why wouldn’t Target let you go look for him?”
I glanced at her and returned my attention to the two heavies.
“Because it was a waste of time.”
“And that’s it? Nobody even put up a fight?”
I glanced at her again.
“You had to be there.”
The waitress came and Kali ordered an Avanti.
“Ah, the red,” the waitress said. “Very good choice.”
She pulled out her tablet.
“Is this the same tab?”
“Yes,” Kali said.
“No,” I said.
The droid’s brain stalled in the confusion. I was waiting for smoke to come out of her ears.
“All right,” I said. “Put it on the same tab.”
The waitress came out of her brain freeze, punched in the price and left. Kali studied my face for a moment and leaned in towards my ear.
“Look, Apollo. The whole point was, I’ve got trouble and need a good hand. That’s why Casey was meeting me here tonight. I had asked him to join me.”
“What kind of trouble?”
Kali darted a glance at the two heavies and looked back at me.
“I really can’t discuss that right now.”
I started to get up and again Kali reached out her hand.
“Look, just hear me out.”
I sat back down.
“I was on my way in from an ice run to Iliad-4073 a few months back when a call came through from Destry’s people.”
My eyebrows went up at hearing the name Destry.
“Yeah, you know him,” Kali said.
“Who doesn’t? So, what was the message?”
“My instructions were to meet a supply ship here sometime this week. Supposedly I’m making a food run to Destry666 but some really weird shit has been going down ever since I agreed to take on this job.”
“Like when I was crossing the Kirkland gap between Hygiea and Eos, I spotted a Drake bootleg ship closing fast in on me. From the direction of Themis. No markings, no signature. At least from what I could gather viewing them on my long range satellite imagery.”
“And that’s it?”
“Yeah, well you try to outrun a hotrod like that for half an AU. I have a Drake SE that was souped up plenty before I took it off the lot on Ceres. I can outrun any stray patrol, but who knew what kind of fuel capacity they were carrying? The amount of times I had to stop, I expected them to pull up any minute while I had the fuel nozzle in my tank.”
“But that’s it?”
“What do you mean, that’s it?”
“I mean, that’s it. If you’re running the Kirkland gap from Hygiea to Eos, you may as well anchor with a loaded galleon along the old Barbary Coast.”
“Oh, an historian, are we?”
She pretended facetiously to be impressed.
“I’m just saying, what’s so unusual about crossing paths with a few scalawags while passing through that neck of the woods?”
“I’ll tell you what’s so unusual. I picked up on no less than five more ships tracking my movements on my way here, but not one of them tried to board me. They just hung back, keeping a close eye on things.”
“So you think maybe they’re waiting for you to load the cargo you were supposed to pick up here on Argos.”
“Well, what would you think?”
I glanced over at the two heavies. They were still sitting there, staring at us.
“If those guys are part of your welcoming party, I’d say don’t meet them in a dark alley anywhere.”
“No shit,” Kali said and sipped her drink. “I’m pretty sure they’re the ones who tracked me in from Themis.”
“Hmm. Well, getting back to your question, I’ve got my own plans. Besides, if you have a whole pack of wolves on your tail, I don’t know what difference I could make.”
“So you’re useless with a gun.”
“I didn’t say that. I just don’t like the odds.”
“There’s big money in it,” Kali whispered with a lean in towards my face.
I nodded and looked straight ahead. Yeah, money and adventure, and this Kali was starting to get under my skin.
“Okay, I get it, Apollo. You’re down to months on your contract digging holes for Target and don’t want to fuck it up, not even for a tidy little fortune on my end.”
I let Kali know she was getting warm with a little lift of my eyebrows.
We sat there for a spell watching the show in silence.
“So, what else is going on out there?” I said without looking Kali’s way.
“You mean, with the Federation?”
“It’s falling apart. The Russians and Chinese and Americans are butting heads again like they’re ready for war.”
“So what else is new?”
“Yeah. I don’t even bother to report in when I cross the border these days. Especially going in and out of the Russian sector. Their sentries are worse than the pirates. You don’t when to feel safe anymore.”
I nodded, not wanting to show my envy. It should have been my ship we were talking about. Shit. So, six more months and I’d be back on Mars, shopping for one.
Kali downed her drink.
“So, I take it you’re not game on joining me.”
I shook my head. She saluted me with her empty glass and stood up with a slap of her knees.
“Okay. Don’t know if I’ll ever be back in these parts again, or when, and you’ll probably be gone by then anyway, so best of luck.”
She started to leave.
“Oh, and hey,” she said, turning back. “Too bad about Casey. He seemed like a hell of a guy.”
I nodded. Kali pretended to tip her cap and left.