Aphelion Issue 245, Volume 23
November 2019
 
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Chump Change

by Kate Thornton



Even the most sincere declaration of undying affection usually involves a catch, and the declarations issuing from the speaker of my companion were no exception. The catch here -- well, there were two catches, actually -- consisted of the fact that the companion was a cut-rate heap of metal, plastic and duct tape and also the fact that it was not programmed to express affection.

It was a navigation device, programmed to get my rust-bucket from one sector to another without ending up in the uncharted hollows of deep space or the solid interior of some piece of space rock.

Having it tell me it loved me was disturbing on so many levels, but navigational malfunction rather than any sudden feelings it may have unaccountably developed was my main concern.

"Oh, crap," I said to my human companion on the bridge of the Linda Rae, my co-pilot. "The nav's on the fritz again."

He grunted and reached for his toolbox. N'Doro is six and a half feet of solid, gorgeous hunk. Not the brightest LED on the bridge, but beautiful. I really don't need much more than eye candy as my freighter is too small for any real co-piloting but too large to escape the Corporation's picky rules, so I am stuck with the requirement for a co-pilot without actually needing one.

N'Doro fills that bill admirably. Okay, he gets a little rowdy when we are in port, altercations being the natural result of good looks combined with dim wits. But on the road, he is pretty, quiet, and cheap.

Not that we are an item. I usually go for something a bit brighter than N'Doro, but sometimes that's pretty hard to find, so I make out as best I can.

Running a junk freighter from one outpost to another might not seem like the romantic adventure of a lifetime, but after a stint as a Corporation pilot, it sure has its moments. I'll carry anything that fits -- and only the condition of the Linda Rae dictates how far and how fast we go. My time as a Corporation pilot stands me in good stead in the outposts. I am still fit, still young enough to look good, and still get mistaken for a Corporation drone when it suits me.

At the moment, however, we were pretty much stuck in Cernan until I could scare us up a cargo run with some advance money to get stuff fixed.

The bars in Cernan are neither the sex palaces of Mare Tranq nor the lavish drug pits of Toshiba Station, but they generally serve up a nice combo of drinks and gels from about a gazillion different places and there's always humanoid company to be found. Not that I am a stickler about the humanoid part.

"Stay, N'Doro," I told him on my way out. "You can hit the bars when I get back, unless I get lucky and we fly." I needed to find some business and for that N'Doro can be a liability. I'm not saying we crash landed on Cernan, but stuff sure did start falling apart just before touch down at the public docks.

Stinky Puffer's isn't quite as bad as it sounds, the name of the place being an inept translation from some local tongue. It smells, like most other places in Cernan, of canned air, plastics and smoke. The native inhabitants have a sort of smoky odor that tends to permeate the city. I don't find it unpleasant, but after a few drinks I start worrying that I left the stove on somewhere.

I hit Stinky Puffer's first because it has stiff drinks and a decent ladies' room. After a couple of good drinks, the ladies' room assumes great importance and it's nice if you don't have to share it with garbage, vermin or men.

I sat at the bar, on the side reserved for pilots, nodded to the others and ordered a local specialty. It was blue and gelatinous and tasted of mint and fresh air and a slight summer breeze, although I knew it was my imagination that supplied the details. I didn't want to know what was in it.

"Looking for company, pretty lady?" The companion droid was configured as a woman, but as I watched, it changed into a reasonable facsimile of a human male. They were clean, safe and expensive, but after trying one once, the thrill was gone. They didn't actually offer company, but they were programmed to do anything you wanted. Anything.

"Uh, no, thanks," I said. I turned back to my drink. There wasn't much of a crowd, and I didn't want to have to work every bar in town to get a cargo. Usually I have enough fuel and supplies and the Linda Rae is in good enough working condition so I can bargain for cargo runs. But this time I was at a real disadvantage and hoping no one would figure that out.

I was facing the decision of whether to buy another drink when a full glass appeared on the bar before me. I pasted on a smile and turned around to see who had bought me a drink.

Just my luck -- I hadn't seen Dan Hollifield since junior high. Okay, maybe a bit more recently than that. We flew a Corporation star cruiser together, just the two of us and the thirty or so other pilots necessary to fly something that big. It was a while back, before I walked out and threw in my Corp uniform for a life of well, no uniforms.

That uniform looked damned good on him with a captain's stars on the collar. I tried to remember if I had ever seen him out of it, but frankly, those days were sort of a blur. That can be a good thing.

"Hey, long time..." He waved away a couple of companion droids and brought his drink over, taking the empty stool next to me. "You look great," he said, eyeing my worn jumpsuit and scuffed boots. "You haven't changed a bit."

He wasn't too far off the mark -- I had kept my figure. But I had changed. Maybe it didn't show or maybe he was just being polite. After my father died in an accident -- or was murdered, depending on who you talked to -- I took over his old ship, the Linda Rae, and quit the Corp. Quitting was a big deal as they were pretty much the only game on forty planets, and being a former Corp pilot usually meant you had been bounced out for some grisly reason. Very few just walked.

"Hello, Dan. Nice to see you. What are you doing here?" I meant in Stinky Puffer's, of course. It wasn't the classiest of joints for a Corporation captain.

"Gotta ship in, some diplomats here for a conference. You?"

"I'm looking to pick up a run," I said. Might as well see if he had any leads. "Got anything?" I had my best and perkiest smile on and came close to twirling a lock of my hair.

He leaned forward and studied his drink. It was pink and looked suspiciously like a Tom Collins. He twirled the tiny umbrella stuck in a piece of ersatz fruit. "Uh, actually, I was hoping to find you here. I saw your ship in the public docks and thought maybe you could help me out."

"Me? Help you out? Sure, what do you have in mind?" I was hoping for a cargo run, but if he wanted something else, something that might involve a few credits to fix the ship, I could be interested. He was nice-looking, reasonably clean and humanoid. I've done worse.

"Look, I don't want to talk about it here. Can we go somewhere?"

I thought about that. My ship was not suitable for company, especially with N'Doro aboard. Presumably Captain Hollifield's ship was not suitable, either, what with it being a Corp ship full of diplomats.

Stinky's seemed like the kind of place that would have a back room, I had just never needed one before. I flagged down a bartender and asked if there was a private room available. The droid displayed a small video of several rooms, including one that looked fur-lined and came with toys.

"Just a quiet place where we can talk privately," Dan explained. The bartender showed us a picture of a small office and Dan nodded.

Once in the room, Dan locked the door and set a scrambler on the floor to prevent anyone from watching or listening. It seemed extreme.

"Uh, no one's gonna walk in on us, and if they do, well maybe they'll learn something."

"Hey, Cooks," he said. No one had called me Cooks in a long time. It was short for Cookie and had a story behind it, one I'm not going into here. "I'm not gonna get you all hot and sweaty. I just want to show you something important."

I was already sweating. "Okay, so talk."

"I found something that I know the Corporation would want if they knew it existed. But I found it and I don't want them to have it, so I want you to take it to Toshiba for me. There's a guy there who can protect it for me until I can figure something out."

"What is it?" The Corp wants anything that's worth anything. And if you work for them, anything you find, produce, invent or give birth to is automatically theirs anyway. It's how they stay in business, well, one of the ways.

A Toshiba run could be lucrative and who knows, maybe I could do a double run with someone else eager to get stuff to a place like Toshiba.

Dan glanced at the door, checked the scrambler again, then shot me worried glance.

"Hey, it's me," I said. "Whatever it is, it wouldn't be worth my livelihood, Dan. And I don't steal from or rat out my friends. Ever. You already know that or we wouldn't be here. So it's your turn to relax."

"You're right. I trust you. It's just...okay." He took a breath and stared off into the corner. "A couple of weeks ago everything was fine. Predictable, I mean." He looked back at me. "I like predictable, Cooks."

I nodded. It was one of those things that kept us from ever being more than friends. I like unpredictable.

"Anyway, a few weeks ago I had a run to Earthside. I hadn't been there for years. I had forgotten how dirty, dangerous -- and beautiful -- it is. You know what I mean."

I knew. The mother planet was quite a place. If you had been born anywhere else, it sorta pulled you toward it. If you had been born there to start with, you never really left. It was an old place, a product of evolution rather than design. The cities were dirty, the politics corrupt and the level of crap in the air made a respirator necessary even for natives. Nothing grew there and it was covered with empty deserts and poisonous seas. But there were a couple of wide open cities that were pilgrimage destinations for half the known universe.

"I stayed in New York in one of the Corporation's big hotels. It was really nice, lots of space, windows, sunrise, the whole bit. We all got the standard caution about going outside, but I just had to, you know? I put on some local clothes and walked around. I found a little place to eat and that's probably where I picked it up."

I backed away. "Uh, you're not carrying anything contagious, are you?" Damn, the last thing I needed was some exotic disease.

"No, no, it's nothing like that. I ordered dinner and just had them bring things, anything the waitress thought was good. She was Earthborn and good company, and she sat with me while I ate. It was a wonderful meal, Cooks. Maybe the best I ever ate. And Tula, that was her name, was charming. She told me stories about the restaurant and her family and how none of them had ever been offworld. Can you imagine?

"After coffee -- real coffee from the hydroponics plants -- I handed her my credit card. But she asked if I could pay in currency. I was embarrassed to admit I hadn't bothered to get any. She took my card and disappeared into the back of the shop. She was gone so long I became alarmed and thought about all the cautions I had ignored.

"She came back with my card and a receipt and that was that. We shook hands -- it's still the custom there, even though it feels unsanitary to me. I didn't notice the coin until I got back to the hotel room to shower."

"What coin?"

"There was a coin stuck to my credit card. I didn't notice it until I took everything out of my pockets. I dumped it all on the counter and saw this coin stuck to my card. I peeled it off, ran it under the sterilizer and thought I'd keep it for good luck or something. I didn't change any money because I didn't want to have to learn some local currency, so I had no idea what it was worth."

Earth once had hundreds of currencies, much of it in weird old coins of silver or gold, metals now too common to have the value of rarity. They turned up all the time, mostly as good luck pieces and jewelry, hardly any of them worth more than a credit or two unless they were really old and in museums or something.

"But here's the weird part. I threw it in with my soap and stuff and now they're all new."

"Huh?"

"The soap -- you know the little travel packets? I had a couple of them, pretty beat up and one of them almost empty. You know, the usual travel stuff. I threw the coin in my travel kit and when I got back to the ship, everything had been, well, renewed."

"Whaddaya mean, renewed? Someone took out your old stuff and gave you new stuff? That doesn't make any sense, Dan. Besides, a travel kit is worth what, three or four credits, max?" My dreams of major repairs to the Linda Rae started to shimmer and fade. Maybe Dan was cracking under the strain of piloting a Corporation cruiser. It happened.

"Cooks, the kit magically renewed itself. And it wasn't just the soap. I threw the coin into my sock drawer. Yeah, you guessed it: new socks. So I tried it in my cooler. I had one bottle of Corp brew in there, but the next time I checked, there was a shiny new sixpack."

My dreams of repairs and a flight outta Cernan with credits in my pocket fizzled, popped and vanished. Poor Dan. Poor me.

"Look, I'm not crazy!" he insisted as I edged toward the locked door. "I don't know how it works, but it does. The thing makes stuff all new."

He jammed a hand into his waist pack and drew out a coin. "It's true, Cooks. Look, here it is."

I took a look. It was silvery, a couple of inches across and ridged on the edges. The side I was looking at had a picture stamped into it, a large bird of some sort looking over its shoulder, and some writing I didn't recognize in teeny tiny script. Dan flipped it over in his palm -- the reverse side looked like a miniature landscape with more writing. It was old and worn a bit. I had seen coins before -- almost every world had them, even if they were just ceremonial. It looked like it came from Earth, but I'm no expert.

"Okay," I said. "Pretty coin, old coin. Probably not too valuable unless it really can perform tricks. But Dan, are you sure the coin made those things happen? I mean, are you sure you didn't, you know, forget you had some new socks and maybe someone left you a sixpack as a gift or something?"

He ran a hand over his face and I could tell he wanted me to believe in the coin. "Look, even if you don't think any of it's true, will you at least take it to Toshiba for me?"

"Uh, I'd need the credits in advance, I got a few things to fix on my ship..."

"That's okay," he said, relief in his voice, "Here's half up front, I'm figuring your usual rates and a twenty percent bonus as the item is so valuable. I just, you know, need someone I can trust."

I sighed and put the credits in my wallet. If you can't trust me, well, who can you trust? "Who's the contact on Toshiba?"

"Lester Snipely. He's got the resources to protect the coin and he'll know what to do with it."

Lester Snipely was an old acquaintance of mine. We went way back, back as far as stealing a ship on a pirate run when I still worked for the Corporation. Those were the days. It was nice to know he was still in business. Maybe I could squeeze a little something out of Lester at that end. I smiled. Things were looking up.

Dan's flushed face sported a happy grin. "Okay, Cooks -- I'll meet you back here," he checked his chrono, "how about tomorrow? I'm only in town for a few days. Will that be long enough to get your ship ready? I can buy you a drink and give you the package."

"Okay, and thanks, Dan," I said, mentally figuring out the repair schedule. There would be plenty of time to replace my bad systems, get a real bath at one of the fancy bath houses on Cernan and still make my date with Dan at Stinky Puffer's.

"Hey Dan," I said as he turned toward the door. "Take care of yourself."

"See you tomorrow," he promised.

I watched him leave. If the gizmo did what he said it did, we were sitting on something really special. People -- and I use the term as loosely as necessary in that sector -- got killed for a whole lot less all the time. I didn't want anything to happen to Dan, especially with the promise of more credits just for a quick run to Toshiba and a visit with Lester. I had a moment of worry, but then I thought of the work ahead of me and turned it off. Dan was a big boy and I had enough money to get the Linda Rae fixed properly.

I went back to my ship, contracted for extensive replacements with the mech bots, paid up front, and let N'Doro hit the town.

I watched some of the repair work, then went back to town to find a good bath house. I wanted the works -- real water, real soap and a real scrub by someone who knew precisely how to rub a human woman.

I found just what I was looking for and spent several hours getting clean and sweet smelling and remembering what all my personal equipment was for.

With a healthy glow, I returned to the ship in time to see the mech bots haul away the old protesting navigational system and replace it with a state of the art model that took up half the space on the bridge. That made room for a new console. I had plenty of credits, so I ordered a redo on the bridge interiors, something I had wanted for a long time.

N'Doro was still out -- I knew I'd probably have to trawl the bars or the local lockup for him in the morning. I had as good a dinner as could be found on Cernan and found a nice, quiet place to sleep. The ship would be noisy all night with repairs, and I wasn't looking for company, so a hotel sounded good.

The next morning I found N'Doro at the third bar I checked and had him hauled back to the ship where he spent a while in the refresher before passing out in the co-pilot's chair. The repairs were finished and the ship looked good. I ran all systems through a shakedown, then moseyed on out to Stinky Puffer's to meet Dan.

Dan never showed.

I waited all afternoon, fending off companion droids and freebie drinks. Finally I hopped a transport over to the big Corporation dock for a gander at Dan's ship. If he changed his mind, he was out the advance he had given me. It was a sizable sum, though, and I was pretty sure he was determined to get his coin to Lester.

His ship was gone. The mech bots confirmed it had sailed that morning with a full crew, including all the captains.

I was dumbfounded. Dan paid me a lot of money and then took off without a word. That wasn't like him.

I walked back to my ship, a long way, but I wasn't in a hurry. Had the Corp found out about his coin and spirited him away? It wasn't the most unlikely scenario, although it assumed the coin thing was real, and I wasn't ready to believe that yet.

When I got back, N'Doro was awake and the ship looked good. I still had plenty of Dan's money left over and I couldn't wait to get out of Cernan, but I didn't want to leave without knowing what happened to Dan.

Finally, I had to admit there was no reason to stay, so I charted a course for Toshiba. Might as well drop in on Lester and see if he knew anything.

We were pretty far from Cernan when N'Doro handed me an envelope.

"Your friend gave that to me for you. He said to give it to you when we got out of Cernan."

"When was this?" I asked. "What friend?"

"Last night at Stinky's. Some guy, said he knew you."

I opened the envelope. There was nothing in it except a coin, the coin, by the looks of it. I turned it over in my hand. Dan must have had an idea that the Corp knew something about his find and took extra precautions.

But that would mean the Corp believed it could do what Dan said.

We had a way to go before we got to Toshiba, enough time to try it out. I put the coin in my wallet with all the remaining credits, my pilot's card and a piece of stale gum. I figured I could check when we landed, see if my money had magically turned into a fortune. Then I could drop the thing off with Lester. After all, I had promised Dan.

When we landed at Toshiba, I called Lester and set up an appointment, then checked my wallet. Just like I thought -- my credits were still the same as in Cernan, and my pilot's card hadn't changed.

The piece of gum, though, had turned into a brand new pack.

I started down the dock to meet Lester, waving when I saw him, but a couple of Corporation security guys were headed toward my ship, so I turned around. Lester saw what was happening; he knew we would meet up eventually.

I had a chance to try out all the new ship's systems as we winked out of that sector in record time.

I knew a million places to hide from Corp drones and laid in a course a long way out of their jurisdiction. I had a spiffy almost-new ship and plenty of money. I also had Dan's coin and a new pack of gum. I put the ship on auto pilot and got the coin.

I put it in the cooler and smiled at N'Doro. It was gonna be a long trip. A little extra beer wouldn't hurt.

THE END


© 2011 Kate Thornton

Bio: Kate Thornton has a lot of time on her hands, an overactive imagination and over 100 short stories in print, some of them in her short story collection, INHUMAN CONDITION Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Look for it at all the usual places and check out her website, always badly in need of updating. Sadly, Kate's ability to actually get paid for writing means that her appearances in Aphelion are rare and precious things...her second contribution to the Nightwatch universe, Death Valley, appeared back in July 2006!

E-mail: Kate Thornton

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