They made their way to The Vapour Trail, one of the classier establishments in Corsar.
The human, Trick Satin, and his crew had taken over most of the bar, scattered amongst a dozen or so tables drinking merrily, their laughter drowning out the frustrated-looking singer.
If you lived under a rock and weren’t familiar with Captain Satin, commander of the largest pirate fleet in Morpheus, at the very least you would be able to recognise his crew. Trick liked them to wear shiny, black vinyl bodysuits, the tighter the better, regardless of how well suited their bodies were to such an unforgiving fabric. They were a walking BDSM nightmare and armed to the teeth, their loyalty to Trick unfaltering.
Trick was just as flamboyant. He was always shirtless, proudly displaying a flat, scrawny chest covered in star tattoos and leather pants that sat under his bony hips. His thin, black hair sat at his shoulders and his handlebar moustache was manicured to perfection.
How Trick had garnered so much power was a mystery, but despite appearing harmless he had a feared reputation as a brute enforcer and his fleet had never been defeated.
Powerful men tended to have exquisite beauties on their arms and Trick was no exception. His long time companion and beloved consort was a human named Ronald who donned a perfectly coiffed, blonde pompadour hairdo and a shimmering blue suit that was tailored to every sharp angle of his body.
Ronald always looked bored and his nose was permanently raised in the air. Trick fussed over him constantly, indulging his every whim, anything to keep the young fop happy. It looked like an awful lot of work to Sal, whose longest relationship had been with her hair straightener.
Trick spied her across the room just as he had managed to put a smile on Ronald’s face by ordering him another bottle of Arpatheian sparkling wine, which cost about the same as the new thruster Sal was struggling to afford.
Sal marched Takka forward and presented him before Trick and his crew.
“Nice work, Sal. Very nice work. Let me keep the mask, I’ll add it to the bounty. You know Morvans. They can get bitey,” Trick said.
He snapped his fingers and his two largest men, hulks that Sal knew as Draka and Hacksaw, dragged Takka away to a back room, most likely never to be seen again.
Trick snapped his fingers once more and another of his crew whipped out a tablet, giving several short taps to the green text on screen before seeking Trick’s approval.
Trick gave a nod. “Annnnnnd you’re paid. Gees Sal, I thought this one was going to be tough but you’ve proven me wrong again. You’ve got a real knack for this. Maybe you should come and work for me.”
Sal cringed as she looked over Trick’s crew. “Vinyl makes me sweat.”
Trick laughed. “I know it’s a little kooky, but don’t they all just look so delicious!” He gave the stocky, bearded man beside him a pinch on the cheek. The man remained expressionless.
“Gosh, Trick can’t you see you’re making her uncomfortable?” Ronald sighed, sipping his wine. “She doesn’t want to join your gaggle of goons.”
“I don’t know.” Sal asked, “What’s the pay like?”
Ronald batted his eyelashes. “Money problems?”
“Well, thruster problems. Mine are on their last legs. I’m hoping this bounty will cover repairs.”
Trick furrowed his brow. “You’ve got that sprint-class ship, don’t you? That model is a relic you know, I’d wouldn’t be surprised if it was the last one still flying.”
“By the sounds it’s barely doing that,” Ronald giggled.
Sal tried her best not to glare at Ronald too menacingly. “Yeah she’s a mess, but she’s my mess.”
“You could buy a whole new ship with some of these bounties you’ve been cashing in,” Trick said. “Ships with better tech, more reliable. I mean, how much thruster fluid are those things leaking on the daily?”
Sal scratched her chin. “A manageable, non-lethal amount…. but it doesn’t matter anyway. No ship is faster than Light Tripper, everybody knows that and all that new tech you’re talking about, that goopa will get you picked up by every tracking mod there is. Light Tripper is invisible.”
Trick nodded. “She is that, isn’t she. I might have another job for you and your beloved ship.”
Sal pulled up a chair. “I’m listening.”
“You want a new thruster for that sprint-class? What if I told you I knew exactly where you could get one, on the house? I have a mechanic who owes me a favour and I would love to pass that favour on to you, in exchange for another favour of course…”
“Of course.” Sal knew how these things worked.
“I have some merchandise that requires collecting, unfortunately there’s a planet that doesn’t seem to like me very much. I get within a mile of it and they try to blast me out of the sky. Seems the current lord of the land has forgotten about our bargain. He’ll get his soon enough but for now, I need that merchandise.”
Sal hoped that next few words from his mouth wouldn’t be the ones she was dreading, but there they were, clear as day.
“You’ll have to go to Lotus 5. Your invisible ship should dodge Moby’s sensor towers just fine.”
Sal was out of the chair like a shot. “Sorry. No can do.”
Trick grinned from the corner of this mouth. “Wouldn’t have anything to do with the big bucks on offer for dear old dad would it?”
“You know about that?” Sal gulped.
Ronald rolled his eyes. “Sugar, everyone knows about that. I’d bet my baby blues that some lucky pirate already has him tied up nice and snug.”
Sal glanced over her shoulder towards the door. She liked to think better of the people of Agrios, but they were bounty hunters after all.
“It’s a free thruster, Sal, even if you had the credits, you’re not going to find parts for that ship in Morpheus and you were just bragging about how awesome she was. Were you lying?”
Everything Trick was saying was one hundred percent truth. Sprint-class parts weren’t just lying around, especially not free ones. Light Tripper’s old tech wasn’t detectable by sensors and radars.
She could do this, in and out without Moby even knowing they were there.
But then there was that other voice in the back of the head, the one that had kept her and Morgan alive all this time. Why the hell would we go to the one planet that had a price on her father’s head?
Then it came to her, as it always did, the reminder of her dream, of more than this.
Hope is why they would go to Lotus 5. Hope.
Sal held out her hand. Trick howled and clasped it with his own. Both clenched tightly, eyes locked in unspoken agreement.
“I’ll send you the cords.”
“If I manage to even get her there. Might have to get out and push.” Sal grinned.
Trick pinched her nose. “That’s my bahama mama. Now get out of here, before someone kidnaps Morgan.”
Sal nodded and exited The Vapour Trail just in time to see Morgan tossed out of the adjacent bar. At least he hadn’t been kidnapped.
“No tabs for you, Morgan,” a woman yelled. “And don’t come back.”
Sal walked to her father, picking him up and dusting him off.
“Find something to eat then?”
Morgan steadied himself. “I wouldn’t eat anything in there,” he yelled. “Rats. Rats the size of dogs. I saw them with my own eyes.” He ran wavering hands through his hair. “Did you get our credits?”
“Trick paid us out. Also gave us another job. Payment is a new thruster.”
Morgan scrunched up his nose. “No cash? Thought I taught you better than that, girl.”
“This could be the only thruster in the galaxy, Morgan. It’s worth more than credits. Without this ship we’re just… land-locked pedestrians walking around without purpose. Stuck.”
Morgan whipped off his hat and held it against his chest. “That’s deep, Sal. Got me right here. You’ve convinced me.”
Sal frowned. “It’s on Lotus 5.”
“Are you insane! Why not just hand me over to robot Moda and split the bounty between yourselves!”
“Don’t tempt me.” Sal pointed a stern finger. “I’m making a call. Light Tripper needs this part. I need this part. You can stay here if it’s too dangerous for you.”
“Too dangerous?” Morgan was taken aback. “You’re looking at the man who single-handedly defeated a pack of charging wilderhordes with nothing but a pocket knife and a roundhouse kick. Danger is my middle name.”
“I thought it was Montgomery.” Sal smirked.
“It changes from time to time.”
The original plan was to spend the night in Corsar, but as usual, fate had other ideas. Instead Sal paid Dallas what they owed and headed back to her bunk on Light Tripper, pottering the hours away sorting through her Earth treasures, waiting for the next disaster.
It came sooner than expected when she heard the familiar grinding of that damned thruster and Morgan swearing himself silly in the cockpit.
Sal tapped the wall holo-panel and a map with their position was projected. They had just passed the red moon of Spoke, which meant Lotus 5 was not far away. Still, she had hoped they would be closer before this happened, close enough that she could give the thruster one last jolt and maybe catapult Light Tripper into the atmosphere and let gravity do the rest. Looks like she was going to have to get out and push after all.
Sal’s growling stomach reminded her that she hadn’t eaten since yesterday’s protein chip, but who needed the necessities of life like rest and food. They were luxuries for a girl whose ship wasn’t held together with tape. She hurried to join Morgan in the cockpit.
“Think we’ll make it?” he asked.
The red blinking light was now screaming to be acknowledged. Sal hissed at it, covering it once more with Morgan’s cap.
“We’re screwed if we don’t,” Sal replied. “If she gives out up here, we’ll eventually lose power, then the life support before suffocating to death.”
Morgan gulped. “Could be worse ways to go.”
“Oh, I’m thinking about those too,” Sal mumbled. “Those Denians from Enos could catch up with us, board us and eat our faces off. Or we could get picked up by marauders, sold into slavery and spend our lives working in a pleasure pit.”
Morgan shrugged. “You know, I think I’d do alright in a pleasure pit.”
Sal cringed. “I hate to break it to you, but you are no 10.”
“Rude,” he mumbled.
Sal took her seat. “By the way, are you ever going to get around to telling me why Moby has this bounty on you?”
Morgan coughed uncomfortably. “I’m sure it’s just a misunderstanding around a debt he alleges I owed him and my possible non-payment of the alleged debt.”
Sal rubbed her temples. “But I gave you the credits to pay him. You said, Thanks Sal, I’ll be right back, just paying Max Moby.”
Morgan was twitching. As if on cue, a cloud of smoke began wafting from the engine room and Light Tripper sounded a message through the ship. Warning. Thruster over load.
The ship was moving slower. Sal didn’t like the sounds coming from below deck, but she wasn’t going to risk having her face burnt off while investigating. Instead she decided ignorance was the best course of action, blocking out the crackling noises and seeping heat, instead focusing on Lotus 5 growing larger in the view port.
From here it was grey and dreary, a massive sphere of slate that was hard to distinguish from the bleakness of space. The landscape was unforgiving, jagged slate spires and crooked valleys between settlements, all of it shrouded in a wispy mist that drifted over the planet’s surface.
When it wasn’t raining there was lightning that scorched the rock terrain and you’d be lucky to go a week without suffering a slate storm, when the winds stirred up the coarse ground so wildly you’d choke to death without an oxygen mask.
Of course even with a mask, you’d still have to survive a night with the cragons, leather-skinned scavengers that roamed the outlands. Morgan described them as jacked-up demon dogs. Sal had never seen a cragon or a real dog, just pictures and constructs, but it wasn’t hard to get the point. Cragons were to be avoided if you enjoyed your body in one piece.
As charming as Lotus 5 didn’t sound, it was still heavily populated. Mining paid well and was one of the few legal occupations in Morpheus. The slate was a powerful additive when mixed with fuel and could give a turbine more power than any other carbon. The rock also yielded some of the most precious gems in the galaxy, well worth the extremely dangerous working situations and abundance of charred lung amongst the miners.
Sal considered it safer being a bounty hunter.
Light Tripper pierced the atmosphere roughly, rivets shaking loose and welds struggling to stay put, but before it all fell apart they broke through the clouds, hovering above a small settlement.
“There,” Morgan said, pointing to a patch of rock. “That’s Soma.”
Sal frowned. “How do you know it’s name? Trick just gave us cords.”
“I’m a well trained navigator, Sal, I know my way around…”
“How do you know, Morgan?” Sal rolled her eyes. “You’ve been here before? When? Who do you know down there? Who is waiting to kick your ass?”
“Not that it’s any of your business, but I think Benny might be the mechanic Trick has put us in touch with.”
“Benny? Moonshine Benny? Are you serious?”
Morgan shrugged. “It was your idea to come here, sweetheart. I’m just the pilot.”
Sal looked at her father sternly. “Listen to me, old man. We can’t afford to stick around too long. In and out. No gambling. No drinking. We get the thruster fixed and we go. Okay?”
Morgan pinched her chin. “Sally…”
“Don’t call me that,” she groaned, shoving away his hand.
Morgan persisted. “Hey, where did we go…” He began to sing… terribly.
“Days when the rains came?
Down in the hollow.
Playing a new game.
Laughing and running, skipping and jumping.
In the misty morning fog our hearts thumping and you, my brown eyed girl.”
Sal’s frown was immovable, but Morgan was undeterred.
“Do you remember when, we used to sing…”
Sal released a long, loud breath and dislodged the lump of worry in her chest.
She sang. “Sha la la la la la la la la la la dee dah. La dee dah.”
“That’s my girl.” Morgan turned on the comm. “Come in Soma, this is Morgan Tripp, captain of Light Tripper, requesting permission to land.”
“I’ll be damned. Morgan Tripp,” coughed a man. “Lowering shields for you.”
Soma sat within a crater of dark slate encapsulated by a giant particle shield dome. It kept out unwanted visitors and harboured the town from slate storms.
The way to tell a good quality dome from a tragedy waiting to happen was the flickering. With a good dome you’d never know it was there, crystal clear and seamless. Soma’s dome had a ripple that reappeared every few minutes, like a stone dropped in a pond.
Sal was now compelled to check the condition of the ship’s oxygen masks. She had a feeling they might need them.
A section of the dome opened, allowing Light Tripper to pass through and Morgan put her down on the landing pad with a thump and a sputter.
“Alright, let’s get out of this thing before it goes boom,” he said, hurrying to the airlock.
As the door lowered they were greeted by a tall Warwrackian man who was mostly humanoid, save for the line of silver metallic studs down the centre of his face.
“Morgan Tripp,” the man greeted with a smile.
Morgan shook his hand. “How are you, Benny?”
“Can’t complain.” Benny wiped his hands thick with engine grease on his overalls. “Hear you got a thruster that needs fixing? Trick must like you, he’s willing to wipe my debt.”
“How did you get mixed up with Trick? You never go off planet,” Morgan asked.
“Didn’t you know? Trick owns a settlement not far from here, uses it to lay low when he needs to. Runs a pretty good dice game when he’s here. Hasn’t been for a while though, Moby’s chased him off. I’ll have my boys take a look at your thruster, it’ll take a few hours though. You in a hurry?”
“Yes, actually,” Sal interrupted.
“Well hey there, Sal.” Benny smiled. He was suddenly concerned with his appearance, wiping the slate dust from his face and inadvertently replacing it with grease. “You still taking care of this old bastard? I’m surprised you’re not out on your own by now. Heard about that Libraton you took down a month back.”
Sal fondly recalled the encounter. Takka had been child’s play in comparison. That Libraton on Ventus was huge, massive. Sal borrowed a dashcraft and ran him over six times before he stopped twitching enough to gag and bag him.
But Sal wasn’t here to be flattered. “Thanks, but I’d just like to get the thruster and get gone.”
“Okay sure,” Benny replied. “Why don’t you come into the bar while my boys get to work. A drink maybe? Just brewed up a fresh batch of shine.”
Sal sighed. He wasn’t called Moonshine Benny for nothing. Being a mechanic was just his day job. Benny’s credits came from brewing a potent batch of shine that kicked the goopa out of you after one sip.
Morgan was already licking his lips, but he quickly noticed Sal and her ominous stare piercing through him. He coughed. “Not for me. Maybe just a coffee and some grub.”
Benny cocked a stunned eyebrow. “You’re a good influence on this guy, Sal. Go on inside, tell them I sent you. We just got pork chops on the replicator. They kind of taste like chicken though.”
Morgan gave a longing sigh. “Everything does, Benny. Everything does.”
He headed for a building that was little more than a rusted steel cube. It stood over two levels and housed Soma’s premier bar, restaurant and hotel experience. Sal had seen worse and that wasn’t a complement. When Morgan was far enough ahead, she grabbed Benny’s arm.
“I got a favour to ask.”
Benny’s sentient face studs stood alert.
“Don’t sell him any dust, alright? Or moonshine.”
“Sal.” Benny sighed. “He’s a grown man. I’m not his mama.”
“Please.” Sal’s dark eyes were pleading more than her words would allow. “I need him to be functional, just for a few days.”
Benny relented. “Okay. If it’s that important to you. Hey, while I’ve got you here.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a thin bar in shiny, blue wrapping. “I traded some engine parts for a crate of these this morning.” Benny peeled back the wrapping. “It’s food, from Earth. The box says chocolate. I know you love Earth stuff, so…”
Sal would normally be weary of taking candy from the pockets of aliens, but immediately made an exception. Chocolate from Earth was not something you were offered every day.
“Go on, have a bite.”
Another dubious suggestion. Why not, Sal decided. Of all the ways she could get killed in Morpheus, death by chocolate seemed the most pleasant.
Sal took a bite, savouring the smooth taste in her mouth long after she’d swallowed.
“Wow.” She whimpered.
“I’ll have my boys load a box or two for you.”
Sal narrowed her gaze. “What’s the catch?”
Benny gasped, appearing offended, but that only lasted a second. “I heard you might have some protein rations. Interested in a trade?”
“Why the hell would you want to trade chocolate for that goopa?”
“Got a buyer from a mining camp south of here. Some of his… labourers…”
Sal frowned. That meant slaves.
“They can’t digest chocolate, turns their guts inside out. They’re paying good money for rations.”
“Oh they are, are they? Why do I need to trade with you then? Why don’t I go straight to the boss?”
“You’re right,” Benny sighed. “I’ll just take that back.”
He snatched at the bar in Sal’s hand. She lashed out with a snarl and quickly tucked it into her jacket.
“Fine. A box for a box.”
Benny’s piercings shivered. “You’re a good kid, Sal. Morgan’s lucky to have you.”
She had heard that all her life. Those on the outside looking in and only seeing what lingered on the surface. They didn’t see Morgan’s heart, the man who had cared for her with nothing but love and kindness her entire life. Who taught her to fly, who taught her to fight. Who could make her laugh and cry in the same moment. Who shared the pain of her nightmares and the fear of her power. Who had made her strong. Yes, Morgan was suffering now, a slave to his vices, but that’s not the man he was. Sal would take care of him, clean him up, until he was ready to be that man again.
There was that hope again. Something Morgan had instilled within her. That kept her going.
Yes, Morgan was lucky, but so was she.