An Impossible Price, pt. 3

My Sword & Laser Anthology retreat is over, so I'm back and posting again. Sorry for going away, but I really needed to get my head around that piece!

He handed the tablet back to Dana and opened the inner door of the delivery compartment built into the apartment bulkhead next to the door. Inside he found a substrate module enclosed in plastic, but with no label, just a note. He plucked the note from the packaging and scanned it.

A gift for you and your A.R.U.W.D. - MS

He grimaced. “It’s from Sobol.”

“Isn’t she the one who saved your life?”

“Yeah, don’t get me wrong, I haven’t forgotten about that. But she’s also the one holding the strings that were attached to that save, and I don’t know how many of those there are yet.”

He owed Madeline Sobol big time for getting him off of Haruna, a potentially lethal and uninhabited junkyard world. She’d granted him use of a ship, an act of charity that seemed destined to plague him with hidden costs. Receiving more gifts on top of that sounded warning bells in his mind.

“What does it do?”

“No idea. I’ll have to get it analyzed before I install it. Looks too small to be a vocalization module. Too bad, it’d be easier to deal with him if he could talk.” He could talk to the small bot with no problem, but Aru lacked the ability to speak in return. He communicated visually by outputting text to nearby displays.

An Impossible Price, pt. 2

Dana gave a half-smile and grabbed a couple of breakfast bars, tossed one to him. “Sorry, I’ve been swamped. There’s nothing better.”

“No problem,” he said, the breakfast bar package torn half-open. “It’s better than I’ve had in a while.”

She studied him while they ate. “So how bad is it?” she asked, voice carefully neutral, between bites.

His stomach roiled a little. Felt like his intestines were knotting. “It’s …”

He wanted to say “It’s not that bad,” but the words died on his tongue. “It’s … a lot.” Her eyebrows rose. “Upwards of five hundred thousand.”

It was a curious and disquieting sight. He’d always of ‘watching the blood drain out of her face’ to be little more than a phrase that writers, or maybe morticians, used when they needed to be poetic. He’d never actually seen it happen in front of him.

“It’s really bad, I know,” he said quickly, “but I’ve analyzed it carefully—I had little else to do for most of the trip home—and with Aru’s help, I figure—”

“Aru?”

“He’s an autonomous bot, helps me control the ship. He’s part of the deal. It’s a long story. With his help, I figure—”

Dana wasn’t listening, but she wasn’t exploding with rage, either. She had a distant look in her eyes, calculating. Hope rose in Corwin’s chest; this was exactly what he’d hoped to see. Dana worked in interstellar trade logistics, and he could almost see estimates and predictions running behind her eyes. “I’m going to have to meet this Aru,” she said finally. “Go over the numbers. I assume he has more specifics than you do?”

Corwin nodded and took his tablet out of his pocket. He started to hand it over, then noticed a message alert awaiting his response. “A package was delivered to the Night Star's hangar. I had it rerouted to your apartment.” No sooner had he read Aru’s message than the door chime sounded, and a glance at the door confirmed that the delivery had been made. Curious; he hadn’t been expecting anything.

An Impossible Price - pt. 1

The hatch sealed shut behind him, cutting off the stream of shrill verbal abuse being hurled at him. Corwin angrily left the habitation block and hailed transit back to his ship.

“How did it go?” The message popped up on his tablet as he returned to the hangar. Aru, his constant companion in the weeks since he’d found himself captaining the Night Star to regain his former life.

“Not as well as I’d hoped,” he replied, trying not to let his own anger into his voice, “but pretty much like I expected. She’s beyond pissed.”

“The captain’s cabin is prepared, or will you be taking rooms on the station?”

“No, I’ll stay here. I’m deep enough in debt.” Interorbital Regula Station had been home for the last several years, but living in orbit, while convenient in some respects, was far more expensive than living surface-side, especially in the hotels. “Besides, she just needs time to process. I’ll give her some space and go back later. It’ll be fine.”

Later turned into the next day; he was asleep almost before his head hit the pillow in his cabin. The next morning he made the return trek.

He palmed the indicator, sounding an alert in the apartment he shared. A minute or so later, the door snapped open, and there she was; Dana. Tall and beautiful, rich brown hair and guarded eyes. Well, it’s better than the flame throwers they were last night, he told himself. His lips were a stolid set line and he nodded at her.

She stood aside to let him in. The place was tiny, but felt like a palace next to the cramped quarters aboard the Night Star.

“Where’d you sleep? Have you eaten yet?”

That was encouraging; he’d half-expected more yelling, but her words, while a little sullen, sounded far more calm than last night. “Went back to the ship. No, I haven’t eaten.”