I cried when the emperor died.
Not because of his death, but rather because I got kicked in my left kidney. If you’ve ever been kicked there before, you know how painful it can be. If not, like in my case, then you get to discover a whole new experience in gut-wrenching agony. I doubled down and muttered the first thing that came to mind. I think it was “space manatees don’t exist” or something along those lines.
I wasn’t thinking properly.
I had, like I mentioned, been kicked in the kidney. Tears ran down my face as I clutched my guts. It wasn’t so much the emotional kind of crying, although I was quite emotionally attached to my organs. We had a long history together.
“You are in Empire territory” the punter said, standing over me. “You watch your mouth if you don’t want to get your teeth kicked in.” He was built like a Type-6 Transporter ship, all bulges and symmetrical chunks of metal sticking out at places with no consideration for the laws of aesthetics.
“That’s not where the teeth are.” I mumbled, trying to play off the kick but failing miserably. Getting on my feet used to be such an easy task. I hoped the damage wouldn’t be permanent.
“Say again?” The kicking enthusiast asked. Lucky for me, his companions dragged him away, pointing out that it wasn’t worth getting thrown in the can for some ‘unaffiliated worm’. Their words, not mine.
“The locals here sure are friendly,” I grunted as I lifted myself and sat back on the stool I had been occupying before the incident. The Galnet News feed filled every screen on the tavern, reporting on Emperor Hengis Duvals assassination. I had not been sitting in the bar longer than 10 minutes before an ill-timed comment awarded me the warm welcome from the locals. It was a new personal record.
The old spacer sitting beside me chuckled. “Probably shouldn’t talk lightly about the Emperor dying then. This IS Empire space, after all.”
“Empire, Federation, what’s the difference?” a woman across the bar said nonchalantly. “The only difference it makes is what they consider illicit, so smugglers can make more money bringing it in. Only important thing is who profits.”
I raised my glass to that and nodded. The motion made me wince in pain. I wondered if I could get my kidney replaced, preferably for one that didn’t resort to blinding pain when blunt force was applied to it. “I’ll drink to that. I’ll risk a fine if it means a bit more cash for transporting the same stinking garbage from one system to the next.”
The woman looked at me knowingly. “You looking for a job?” She asked.
“I don’t know. Are you System Security? You have to tell me if you are. It was in some imperial decree by Lady Aisling Duval, wasn't it?”
The woman just laughed, stood up, and motioned me to follow. “My name is Kirea. Not with the authorities. But if you were System Security, I would have a different job to offer you. I… Facilitate things like that.” She said as I limped along. The pain was subsiding, but not nearly fast enough. I wondered if I had organ damage, and if my insurance would cover it. Probably not.
She made her way to the back of the bar towards a table with what looked like a particularly ugly goblin absorbed in a screen. She took a seat besides the creature and gestured the chair opposite her.
“This is Canico. Canico here has a special request”. She said, introducing the goblin who turned out to be not a goblin, but a diminutive person who would not win a beauty contest in any system explored so far. Canico lifted his huge, goggled eyes from the screen and stared at me.
“Most fortunate!” Canico beamed at me. The gesture seemed to shift the abundant wrinkles and creases that covered his face. I was unsure if he was very old or just crumpled all over. “Orbiter or from a planet? Never mind, never mind, no need to answer. You know where most of our animals originated from, right?” He framed it as a question, but it did not seem he expected an answer. He didn’t wait for one, either. “Earth! Well, many of them, or variations of what we have now.”
Everyone knew the pre-space faring history one way or another. Of how early humans had thrown organic life at every rock they deemed halfway habitable once they managed to escape the single planet they lived in. How they built stations and outposts in every system they thought they could squeeze some resources out of. Something we still do. Ask any explorer, you can’t get a moment of peace and quiet in space unless you fly out millions of light years away, and even then you will probably still run into some unsanctioned outpost with some half-crazed scientist researching rocks and alternative uses for them.
We don’t really think about Earth anymore. Kind of like how we don’t think about being descended from apes either. We know it, we just don’t like to bring it up. It’s our embarrassing formative years. Not that we ever stopped embarrassing ourselves, but it’s easier to pretend we were never tree-dwelling monkeys stuck in a single planet flinging poop each other. Makes carrying out our current questionable actions and attitudes easier.
I heard an old pilot say that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. I think we do it on purpose.
Most animals, from what I had heard, did not take so well to being blasted off planet. The majority found their new accommodations unacceptable to the point of death. Those who survived went on to destroy as much of the new environment as possible before people got the chance to figure out what was going on. I think they had been watching us and learnt a trick or two. After a couple of tries, the smart people in charge of animal relocation carried out treatments, genetic modifications, and selective breeding. With that done, they put them in habitable planets, space station ecosystems, orbital zoos, and, from my personal experience, the menus of most street food stalls.
Yes, I have read a book or two. Flying in space can get boring sometimes.
Canico carried on, speaking faster and with growing emphasis. “Now, think of the Cerberus Plague running rampant over so many systems. How is it that it only affects humans? No animal has any sort of infection, not even a similar kind of disease. Why do you think that is?”
“No idea, I’m not a scientist,” I answered, as if I needed to clarify that. “Are you a scientist? You don’t look like a scientist.”
“More like science enthusiast,” Kirea said, grinning. “Either way, he’s paying good credits.” She typed a number on her datapad. A large number.
“For a smuggling run?” I asked. “Sure. Just tell me what you need and where to get it. Get your people to have the cargo ready to load when I get to the station, and I will have it here for you as fast as my Diamondback can fly.”
“Well it won’t be quite as straightforward as that,” Kirea said, her ever present smirk taking a slightly serious shade. “I don’t actually have people there. You will have to procure the package yourself.”
“It’s quite a small package!” Canico chimed in before I could open my mouth in protest. “And quite accessible, too! All you need to do is walk in and walk out, simple as that, won’t even take space in your cargo hold.”
“That means nothing will show up on security scans. Makes your job so much easier, doesn’t it? I will walk you through it,” Kirea said. “It’s a scientific outpost called Hughes Gateway. I will provide you with the appropriate credentials. You go into the lab, pick up the case Canico needs, and fly out. Easier than your typical smuggling run.”
If my head were equipped with all the systems and sensors my ship had, every single alarm and warning light would be going off all at once. A job had those kind of caveats would warrant some warning.
But even behind the controls and with the safety measures and contingencies of a spacecraft I found myself repeatedly in trouble, so I don’t see how alarms would have made any difference anyway.
Kirea emanated ease and confidence, and even Canico had a charm to his small stature and crinkles and creases. It was just another job, if a little more elaborate. I had been to numerous science outposts. Security is always minimum, and they are populated by floating scientists finding amazing new uses for minerals. High security stations and docks won’t even allow you to fly close to them, much less dock.
What was the worst that could happen?