Chapter 2 - The First Joes and Janes

Chapter 2 - The First Joes and Janes


Damini Pai browsed a set of recovery orders. These orders were delivered directly to her retina, so they were literally for her eyes only. Of course, the military is based on redundancy, so a similar set of orders were also transmitted to Marcus Umbra. A map, apparently, was of some importance and needed to be recovered, and as Damini considered the nature of this map and how she might go about recovering it, Marcus planned his path to the Cordo system where the map was last seen.

These two individuals were not yet acquainted with one another even though they were both bounty hunters. Being bounty hunters, although their paths had crossed previously at least nine times, the vectors of those paths missed on average by six to nineteen seconds. When someone moves from one knife fight to another, so to speak, six seconds might as well be six years. Consequently, they had yet to make one another’s professional acquaintance.

Across from Damini: Levi Gluck. Gluck sat in seat H3. He had set his travel mag aside and was content to watch out the window. The blue of Earth’s atmosphere had given way to black, and since the current view had no clouds as reference point, the shuttle seemed as if it wasn’t moving at all.

Seated immediately to Gluck’s left, Luana Facundo reclined, her hands gripping uncomfortably the arm cushion as this was the first non-teleport bit of travel she had undergone. She was not used to this type of travel and frankly did not care for low-tech transportation. She certainly did not care for the smell of passion fruit that seemed to emanate from somewhere in the seats ahead. She could smell it, just a whiff of something wild that recalled to her the time she had recently hidden for months in the remote area of Azores. After her escape, she had made her way to Europe where she was able to gain passage on this transport. She would normally have just used a teleporter, but she feared her genetic pattern had been flagged. If that were the case, she would have materialized in the confines of a glass cage, which would, itself, be wrapped by a Faraday cage. Thus confined, never to get out, she would be delivered to the Polícia Judiciária. So, she sat where she sat, and she bristled against the memories elicited by the passion fruit wafting just this side of the Karman line and the glowing light of the space station, which was still some hours away.

*

Eighteen light years away, Skroku, a respected node of the Guq’uk, a droid-race of vast intelligence and immense universal sway, saw all this and more as it was his job to observe such things. After all, it was he who would first meet the human envoy in some sixty-two days. It was he who would one day sever Levi Gluck’s head from his shoulders, and it was his actions that would alternately save both Damini Pai and Marcus Umbra.
These events and more he could predict, but what he could not predict or ascertain was the source of the passion fruit. From where he sat in the ancient metal chambers formed of conscious Latum and Beryllium, this scent of passion fruit was odd. His olfactory sensors registered the aroma as lignin, cellulosic carbohydrates, cellulose and hemicelluloses—along with iron and carbon. As any third-division AI understood, this combination is a strange mix of common wood and steel. Since any third-division AI also understood that real passionfruit consisted of alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, gamma-carotene, phytofluene, beta-apo-12'-carotenal, beta-apo-8'-carotenal, cryptoxanthin, auroxanthin, mutatoxanthin as well as a healthy dose of alkaloids, the logical assumption was this smell did not emanate from actual passion fruit.

Why would the smell of passion fruit exist on this transport?

Whatever the reason, the more important question pertained to its function. Although Skroku understood that this scent of passion fruit was some type of fraud or facsimile, and although the AI knew this to be an approximate fact of about 99.9902 percent probability, its inability to ascertain the why behind the fraud as well as the function of that why was the reason it sent out a travel request on a transit frequency of .0033216.

The transport request was immediately approved, and he departed his chambers. Because this choice to investigate something so trivial as the false aroma of a passion fruit was unanticipated and because this choice to investigate would alter the original date of first contact between the Guq’uk and humanity, he began calculating the probabilities of all the ensuing consequences.

Strange, Skroku noted as he made his way to the transport base. Based on his calculations, Ms. Carrols was to get another once-in-a-lifetime selfie.

*

Having freed itself of the final vestiges of Earth’s gravity, the transport ship’s main thrusters shut off, and the massive ship relied on its own momentum toward an increasingly growing mass of lights in the black distance. Without the thrust of the engines, the ride became hauntingly still, and the red light on the dashboard in front of Luana’s seat switched to yellow, indicating passengers could move about with caution. Still not comfortable with this transport system, Luana kept her harness strapped. However, the smell within the cabin was becoming increasingly nauseating, so she finally unclasped the harness and eased up from her seat.

“Excuse me,” she said, and as she said this, she brushed Levi’s knee with a fingertip. Anytime you wanted to convince anyone of anything, even something as simple as moving out of the way, it was best to come armed ready to persuade, and a brush of her fingertips was meant to do just that. As she also wanted to exchange seats with him, she thought just a hint of sensuality might help her case. “Might you exchange seats with me?” she asked in a tone she felt was friendly enough for the occasion. “The scenery is wreaking havoc with my stomach.”

She noted how Levi noted her fingernail polish as well as the pocket strapped to her forearm. His eyes lingered on the fingerprint pads, which were goldish-copper, and when his eyes remained too long on the sensors in the middle of her palms, she softly closed her hands into fists.

“My pleasure,” he said, and as he brought his knees inward allowing her to squeeze past, she noted his sidearm as he lifted himself up then situated himself in her previous seat.

“Thank you,” she offered. Then she sat down. Closed her eyes. And breathed.

To Levi or to anyone else, her behavior should appear to be the normal behavior of someone wanting to calm her nerves. She focused on steady breaths and sensed she was being watched, but Levi’s eyes were once again on the window, which is where they had been the entire flight. She breathed again. Tilting her head, sniffing softly--there it was. She had it.

The smell of passion fruit emanated from three rows ahead. As she had an insanely keen sense of smell, she knew this prior to changing seats. However, what she could not decide on was whether the smell came from the blue-haired woman in that row or the man seated immediately to her right. Having changed seats, Luana could now obtain a haphazard, two-point triangulation of the smell, which was stronger to her left. Which meant the woman.

What was it? Did she somehow come from the Azores? The likelihood was so remote as to be easily and comfortably dismissed. Perfume, then? No, Luana thought not. There was something off about it. Not real passion fruit. Something woody with the hint of metal.

*

Josephine Carson noted in the reflection of the steel column that her blue hair was kind of showing the roots. Soon, she would need to have it re-dyed. She also noticed that three rows behind her, a brown woman with tech implants had changed seats with a man. This woman, who appeared to be resting, was actually watching her through near-closed eyes. Josephine’s hand immediately went to the butt of her blaster, but the holster was empty. She winced. Fuck. Her forearm was fitted with a bronze blade, but she preferred in any oncoming soiree to have the benefit of distance, which would enable her to pelt any opponent with bursts running upwards of six megajoules. Mid-sized weaponry, however, was forbidden on transports, which was why her holster was empty.

She decided to not give the woman too much thought. She would just keep an occasional eye on the metal column. See if the woman changed seats. Josephine closed her eyes. Breathed. Maybe she would nap for the next forty minutes prior to docking. Another breath, and she opened her eyes to see if the woman was still watching her.

“Excuse me,” said the woman, now at her side. “Mind if I take this unoccupied seat? The windows on this ship are really—-”

“I know,” snapped Josephine. “Wreaking havoc on your stomach. I heard it the first time you explained.”

“Thank you.”

“Sure. Have a seat. What do I care?” Josephine shut her eyes, still wishing for her laz-gun, still knowing full well there was no real way she could survive a firefight on a transport such as this. One shot would bring the entire thing down. A knife was the only option. With that in mind, she laid her right hand across her lap, keeping her left hand on the arm rest. If necessary, the blade sheathed in metal along her forearm responded to her will, and a quick swipe of her hand would bring it to bear upon the woman’s throat. That said, the woman’s implants gave her pause. The sensors in her palms--they might be some sort of detection tech. Or they might be those mini blasters some people used for self-defense. Also, those claws of hers that doubled as orange fingernails might pose a problem. Deciding she wanted no part of this woman, Josephine got up and moved one seat over and lifted the blinds and peered through the window. The station was still a decent distance away, and when she closed the blinds, she politely made her way past the woman and headed for the exit ramp where she stood. She knew why she was getting this attention, and she didn’t need anyone else sniffing about, as it were.

*

Standing in the center aisle waiting for the shuttle to dock, Josephine ran her fingers along a control panel attached to her upper forearm. The touch pad was linked directly into her nervous system through silicon-steel nodes that extended from the pad, through her arm, to her chest, and into her spine. From there, they travelled in equal-length branches to her temporal lobe and to receptors in her nose. The transport adjusted its trajectory with a burst from the engines, jolting the entire ship. With the turbulence, a brief shimmer of electricity disrupted the display on the control panel. As it did, Josephine’s entire body also shimmered--just for a micro-second. The shimmer was so quick that nobody on the transport observed it, not even Luana who was again watching her through half-closed eyelids.

However, from light years across the universe, Skroku saw it. And it disturbed him that he did not know what caused it.

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