One Night at Kedasi (2)
2. Wealth and the Word ‘No’
Tom was nervous. He had been on Prota with Zip for almost a year but couldn’t get used to the speed of automatic drivers. Even in a luxury car, outfitted with the finest synthetic leather, calming music, and a general aroma of relaxation, he still felt like he was on the edge of death. Every slight rise or gentle bank reminded him that he had no control. Zip sat across from him, alternating between glares and exasperated sighs. Between them was an empty table that would have no doubt been laden for more prominent guests.
For the first part of the journey, they rode in silence. Tom passed the time wondering about fiery deaths at the hands of automated transport, and Zip stewed in silent anger. Nervous, Tom fiddled with various compartments around the transport cabin.
Almost immediately, a cheery, but admonishing voice played on the overhead speaker. “Please do not attempt to open any compartments. If you are looking for something, maybe you should try asking.”
Tom still wasn’t fully versed in human tone, but he was certain there was low level aggression present in the automated driver’s voice. “We were told there would be free drinks.” Strictly speaking, Tom didn’t drink much, but a deal was a deal.
“One moment.” Calming music played while the AI thought the request over. “Fantastic news. You are each cleared for one standard drink. Please, enjoy.”
The center table split open and a platform with two glasses of brown liquid rose from inside. Tom reached out and pushed his to Zip’s edge of the tray as a peace offering.
She glared at the drink, then back at him, and eventually let out a long breath. “Alright, it’s a start.” She picked the tumbler up, took an experimental sip and then drained it in a single gulp. “Not bad.”
“Why would you take a job without asking me first?” There was still heat in her words, but the drink was working at cooling it.
Tom ducked his head and fiddled with the knobs on his hydration suit. Strictly, it wasn’t necessary. The suit had never sprung a leak and had kept him perfectly moist, but it kept his many hands occupied. People seemed uncomfortable when they twitched about on their own accord without a task. “We need the money, and we don’t have to take the contract to get it.” The calculation was simple. “If we don’t want the job, we still get free drinks.”
Zip picked up the second glass and sat back in her chair. “Oh, Tom. Sometimes, I forget this is your first experience with humans.”
“Technically my second.”
“I don’t think getting picked out of a tank and dropped from orbit counts.”
“If it counts, you should have learned a lesson from it.”
Tom tried to think of a retort, but comebacks were not a strong suit. The fact was, nearly all of his interactions with humans had been unfortunate. Zip was right, he should have learned a lesson or two. Even still, he expected the best out of any situation; that was his nature. Instead of expressing his disappointment, Tom goggled at Zip in what he hoped was an approximation of anger. Humans were very particular about expressing the right emotion at the right time, and it seemed like he and Zip were in a fight.
Zip bit back a laugh and eased. “Good anger face. Look, Tom, there’s no such thing as free on Prota; you’ll learn that eventually. We don’t have to take this job, but turning it down isn’t going to be easy. Just, next time, have a little faith that I know what I’m doing.”
Tom bobbed his head in assent. In his experience, Zip did generally know what she was doing, with a few notable blind spots. “If we don’t take this job, can we talk about looking for a Union contract?”
Zip crossed her arms. “Really pushing me today.”
“If you lose The Hog, you can move on and join another ship. If I lose The Hog, I either barter passage home, or die on the street.” There weren’t many things Tom felt strongly about, but losing his captain was one of them. Zip was a decent human on a planet full of much worse. His chitinous appearance made him a pariah and led to the oft-used slur: Bug. Bugs were for squashing, or so the citizens of Prota thought.
“Tom.” Zip leaned forward, looking straight through him. She had a habit of doing that when she was being serious. The laid-back smuggler gone in favor of a genuine friend. “I will never leave you to die on the streets of Prota. When I plucked you off Crustacea, I took you on as my responsibility.”
“Thank you, Zip.”
“Look, I think we both thought the ambassadorship with the UCP was going to have a little more stability.”
“An understatement.” Despite many communications and negotiations from Crustacea, the killing of a United Commission of Planets ambassador by a rogue lobster faction was not an easy slight to overcome. What had started as an ambassadorship quickly became one note. The UCP refused all negotiations with Crustacea until the lobsters were dealt with. Easier said than done given an accelerated breeding rate, and a general lack of Crustacean desire to commit genocide. Tom was furloughed until such a time as an ambassador was necessary.
“And here I thought the UCP still had some sense of reason. Never thought I’d be the optimist.”
“That’s supposed to be my job.”
Zip cocked her head. “Was that a joke?”
Tom hoped it was. He bobbed his head.
“You’re getting better at that.” Zip leaned her head against the window, staring out at the horizon.
Tom did the same, trying to quell the fear that came with the action. Prota really was a beautiful place. Beyond the prime cities, huge swaths of untamed wilderness spread out in a vast web. Ordinary vehicles traveled low, between the city’s skyscrapers, away from true sunlight. At street level, the only light came from beyond hollow reflections in glass. Luxury cars had luxury permits. Their vehicle hummed along near the tops of the tallest buildings, affording Tom the first real view of the horizon that hadn’t come off a tablet or video feed. It was beautiful.
“What do you think this corporate goon wants, anyway?” asked Zip.
Tom had thought it over several times in the last twelve hours. “He must have been desperate to come to Marvin’s, no offense to us.”
“None taken. You’re right. Whatever this is, he wants it done off the books, and he’s not worried about precision.”
“Never a good thing.”
Zip nodded. “Never a good thing. He also didn’t mention a ship.”
Tom knew Zip would be more inclined to take the job if they could travel in The Hog. The ship was a safe space, the only bastion of home in a wide and dangerous universe. HE never thought he would find comfort in the belly of a metal swine, but now, he couldn’t think of anywhere else he would rather stay. He was about to respond when the vehicle banked decelerated.
“Well, that’s subtle.” Zip pointed out the window.
A gilded landing pad that would have blinded any non-artificial pilot glinted in the midday sun. The edges were encrusted in jewels the size of boulders, refracting rainbow light in a dazzling display. Past the landing pad was a wooden pagoda. None of the trees on Prota were suitable for timbering, meaning it was either synthetic, or imported from off world. The taxes alone would have bankrupted several families in the streets below.
“That is quite something.” Tom had to shield his eyes, the beams of light causing sharp splinters of pain, a downside of seeing one too many spectrums of light.
“Well, at least the drinks will be nice.”
“Starting to come around to my idea?”
Zip shook her head. “If we refuse a job from people like this, we’re dead by tomorrow.”
“Why do you say that?”
“People who build expensive rooftop structures aren’t used to hearing the word ‘no’. An assassin wouldn’t even register as a footnote on their budget.”
The transport set down on the landing pad with a gentle thunk as magnets in the surface locked it in place. Tom’s heart pounded in his head with the weight of his own mistake. Naïve. It was the worst insult he could think of for himself.
“Hey, Tom.” Zip reached out and put a hand on his carapace, a gesture they had both deemed as reassuring.
“Yes?” The translator skipped as his hands fumbled faster than usual.
“If we survive this, never mention The Union again.”