Perched on Emmett’s thin wrist, a Navy space jock delivered the pitch:
Forge your destiny.
Earn your citizenship.
Your path to the stars begins today.
Visit your local recrui…”
The hologram skittered into tangled knots of laser light as the train dove through the guts of bustling New Austin. The UEE’s proud peregrine was now just a flickering phantom in the dim cabin.
Emmett shut off his MobiGlas. The ad triggered over his music when the mag-lev passed an Origin Jumpworks dealership outside the tunnel entrance. More civilian-only vid-bait targeting restless teens eager to fly the sleek 300is motionless in showrooms above.
A digital read-out above the robot driver flashed:
OLD HALL – 11 MIN
Without the junkyard beats of faraway Cathcart careening in his ears, Emmett craved stimuli. He scanned his fellow passengers, careful not to stray too long on other dock workers stimmed up for their shifts. Not in the mood for artificial chit-chat, late for work again. Reroute.
The tunnel—an old mining shaft from New Austin’s colonial past repurposed into a makeshift mag-lev line—doubled his commute time from outside the city proper. Construction of Cronus Devices’ new manufacturing facilities above had warped his daily trip into something less elegant than straight ahead.
No more room to build up or around in the heart of the growing city these days, but down worked just fine. No nano-engineered New York couture to hawk in the dirt. No iffy Synthworld tech to build down here. Hole already dug. A convenient path from A to B in the shape of a crooked grin.
An old Tevarin sat across from him, watching.
“Pretty glowbird forget song?” asked the antique specimen from under his worn hood.
“Signal died,” said Emmett.
“Weak machine,” said the Tevarin.
“Cheap machine,” said Emmett. “Happens every night since this tunnel.”
“Fly away like glowbird sings, buy better toys,” said the Tevarin.
His gnarled hand, minus three fingers, formed a makeshift spacecraft. Up, up it went, in the charade of a take-off. Above his head it accelerated and burst through the atmosphere. Instead of a sonic boom, his hood vibrated with slow, muffled laughter.
“UEE game, not mine,” said Emmett. “No credits for new glass. Saving for a trip to the Ark. New job for me there.”
“What job, young rider?” asked the Tevarin. He looked at the hoverbike helmet strapped to Emmett’s messenger bag. “Deliver swag?”
“Librarian,” answered Emmett.
The Tevarin had 60 pounds and six inches on Emmett but leaned forward and low to make eye contact. The bottom of a crescent-shape scar jut down from his hood, across his cheek. He shook his head as if he didn’t understand.
“Sort data,” said Emmett. “Share data. Help others.”
The Tevarin nodded. “Remembering.”
“Spider?” asked Emmett. “Club for what?”
The Tevarin paused for a moment, then tapped a beat with his foot to the pulse of the mag-lev engine. He slowly walked his two intact fingers up a nearby support pole. When they reached the top, they straddled the pole and slid down playfully in a half-circle.
He quickly removed the fingers, pinched them against his thumb, and rubbed all three digits together, palm inward, in Emmett’s face.
Show me the credits. Emmett fought back a smile.
“Protecting dancers from drunk pirates is worth something,” said Emmett. “They let him enlist?”
“Tried in Prime, but Navy turns back,” said the Tevarin. “Afraid old warlord Corath’Thal seeks vengeance from grave.”
“Ghosts of Elysium haunt his young blood,” chimed in Emmett.
“You know our story?” asked the old passenger, surprised.
Emmett formed a spaceship with his right hand and swerved it by the Tevarin’s face in a miniature fly-by, reached up, and landed it gently on his own head. “Librarian,” said Emmett. The Tevarin fought back a smile.
“I tell him rob banks, go to prison,” the Tevarin said. “Marines will put him in drop-pod. Lovely ladies in Spider more fun.”
He clenched the hand that had been a spacecraft into a fist and put it against his heart. Then he opened both hands, worn smooth from years of labor, and showed them to Emmett, palms out, fingers up.
“More fathers ago than I still have fingers were wars with humans, but our kind drifts…”
Slivers of light from the exit ahead filled the dim cabin as it shook through the climb. The Tevarin knew the drill and gripped the support pole with one hand to keep his old bones from rattling loose.
“Don’t blame me, I just deliver pretty space flowers,” joked Emmett. “So Synthworld programmers downtown can decorate their offices. Or score points with their special friends.”
With his free hand, the old passenger pulled back his hood and revealed his face, cratered and still like some ancient moon that fought the spin of gravity and won. He looked at the Xanadu Botanicals patch on Emmett’s bike jacket, then flashed a Tevarin mean-mug.
“Space flowers and programmers don’t cut you, take all you have,” said the Tevarin, gliding his fingers across the scar on his face. “Have you looked into eyes of Vanduul raider, young learner? No fear. Only hunger. Human sees this, human misses shaky train with silent glowbird.”
Emmett looked down at his MobiGlas to avoid eye contact, not wanting to be sized up so easily by a stranger. He flipped it on.
As the device searched for a signal, he wished he spoke more of the old passenger’s language. All he remembered was yes, no and how to count from one to ten.
Leftovers from the Rijoran martial arts classes his took one summer as a child. Plus a few choice curse words he’d picked up at the docks, where the rare Tevarin in New Austin could translate his tenacity into heavy lifting until more lucrative opportunities emerged.
“In order to make room for others, please move to the rear,” repeated the robot driver.
The mag-lev made it’s first stop at Old Hall and the doors opened. The Tevarin stood, righting his heavy frame on the support pole and ducking not to hit his head on the roof of the cabin. He looked back at Emmett.
“May your way to the Ark be safe, young learner,” said the Tevarin. He pulled his hood back over his head and stepped off the train.
Emmett watched the alien silhouette become smaller in the window as the train sped forward. From a distance, in the dark, he almost looked human.
The rest of the Navy recruitment ad kicked in, abruptly. Emmett turned the volume down and considered subscribing to shut off the civilian-only commercials. Then he thought of the credits he still needed for his ticket to the Ark.
Almost enough. Almost there.