HAGAR walked into Mama’s Place, looking for nothing more than something to eat and a drink. While there were whores of either sex who worked there, good food and booze were the main draw for many of the pilots who stopped here while on Dunmore Station.
Mama’s was a small hole-in-the-wall bar located on the far side of the seedier section of Dunmore Station. Mama was a tall black man who dressed in colorful women’s gowns and boas, wore gaudy makeup, usually sported one of a variety of interesting wigs in outrageous colors, and looked feminine, but was all man underneath his feminine outfits. He was shrewd and nothing got past him, which was why his business had survived in this backwater station.
Mama sashayed up to Hagar as he made his way to a stool at the end of the bar. “Handsome, it’s been a long time since you’ve been here.”
Hagar looked at Mama. Hagar knew he wasn’t handsome. Large was the kindest thing that could be said about him. His shaven head usually loomed above the crowd and he was bulky from a lifetime of heavy lifting, his nose crooked from when it was broken on his broad, flat face. But his brown eyes were kind, and he had a ready smile for most people, with an easygoing way about him that let him get away with a lot when he was dealing with the authorities.
“Hi Mama,” Hagar rumbled, giving him a hug.
“I was wondering when you were going to remember that I was alive,” Mama scolded.
“Been busy,” Hagar said somewhat sheepishly.
He had been, smuggling a couple of loads of parts for a few people he didn’t want to think about. Jobs like that kept him going when good jobs got a little scarce, as they’d been lately. He hadn’t been in this part of space for a couple of months, wanting to keep that part of his life separate from here. Mama didn’t like it when he went to those types of people for work, and he didn’t want to worry the man he thought of as family when he did those kinds of jobs. “But I have a load of whiskey that I think that you might want.”
It wasn’t exactly smuggling, but the whiskey hadn’t gone through customs on the way here. Mama would use it to stretch out the legitimate but more expensive whiskey he sold. Hagar figured out that the only one getting hurt here was the government. The small manufacturers who could afford to ship their wares out into space didn’t make much money if they dealt with the combines who ran the shipping lanes, so the small traders smuggled for them. He had just enough legitimate alcohol so that a quick look at either his cargo or the manifest should pass. If that didn’t work, it wasn’t like the military wouldn’t look the other way as they took part of his cargo as punishment. The problems usually happened when either side got greedy. When that happened, people got hurt, usually the smugglers, who ended up with no cargo and a damaged ship if they were lucky. Dead if they weren’t.
“Got someone that you might want to meet,” Mama told him. “He wandered in a couple of weeks ago.”
“I just want to eat,” Hagar protested.
Mama worried that he was alone too much. Getting a partner would be a good idea, but it had to be someone he could trust. He was barely limping along at times, so having a second person on board would let him take some of the bigger jobs out there. That would almost cover having to split his profits with another person by allowing him to make a larger profit on bigger jobs. The question was trusting someone enough to do so.
“I know that, honey.” Mama rolled his eyes. “I heard it too much from the rest of the girls here. But he’s been looking for a ride off the station for a week or so now.”
Mama called all the whores who worked in her place girls, no matter what sex they were. “He’s this little thing that wandered in,” Mama continued, “and I just couldn’t turn him away. It’d be like kicking a kitten.”
“And so what’s this kitten doing?” Hagar asked drily.
He looked around the place; it was still a bit early, so it wasn’t that crowded. But the best thing about Mama’s was that it was open twenty-four hours, a small bit of timelessness in the rest of the universe. Once you walked in here, time seemed to lose all meaning, which a lot of the pilots appreciated since many of the free traders worked alone or in pairs, usually on some sort of crazy schedule. Company and a place to relax was something they all enjoyed. He had recognized all the whores who were in the place and hadn’t seen anyone new. But then Mama hadn’t said the new one was working for her that way.
“He turned out to be a halfway decent cook,” Mama told him, “and he cleans up after himself too. Something I think you’d appreciate.”
Hagar grunted at that as he sat down. Mama gestured to someone on the other side of the room to come over and talk to him. Hagar got an impression of dark clothing and slenderness. When the man got closer, Hagar noticed that he was medium tall, wearing shabby clothing that just didn’t fit him right. Hagar was willing to bet that the man’s wardrobe was all something he had gotten out of a secondhand store, or worse. His black hair was pulled back in a tight tail, and his hands were full of dirty dishes.
“And I’ll also take that whiskey off your hands for the usual price,” Mama continued without missing a beat.
“And how can I help you, Mama?” the kitten asked.
Hagar studied the other man closely, wondering what Mama was up to. The man’s voice was low and husky and he was very attractive, with pure Asian features and no accent. He had never really gotten the country, as Mama called it, out of his own speech. You could tell Hagar was from the Scandinavian Cooperative as soon as he opened his mouth. This man didn’t sound like he was from anyplace.
Hagar was surprised, since most Asians stayed in their section on the other end of known space, a very long hyperspace jump from here. Mama’s was in the American/European settled space. The Russian Collective was between them and the Asians, along with small pockets of odd settlements, survivors from Earth, which had been lost long ago.
“You can serve Hagar something to eat, some of that nice stew you made,” Mama said, “and then you can help him unload his ship.”
“As you wish,” he said, bowing slightly before turning to the kitchen.
“You got a name, kitten?” Hagar called out.
He didn’t miss the slight hesitation or the way the man’s spine stiffened at the word “kitten.” Touchy for all that he acted like a servant with Mama. He found that interesting. But for all his snippishness, the man was fragile. Hagar was wondering why no one else saw it. However, Mama might have, which would explain why he let him stay here. Mama also was perpetually shorthanded in the kitchen, most people not wanting to deal with either the clientele or hours of the place, so that could also be a reason the man was here.
“Shibito,” the man called back.
For some unknown reason, his answer made Hagar shiver.
SHIBITO made his way back into the kitchen, moving around the cramped quarters easily. After a few weeks of working here, he was almost comfortable in the space. He placed the dirty dishes in the cleaning area and rinsed off his hands before dishing up a bowl of stew from the pot simmering on the small heater, grabbing some cornbread for Hagar. He’d load the dishwasher after he had fed Mama’s friend. He got back to the bar to hear Mama and Hagar arguing about the price of the whiskey Hagar had in the hold of his ship. Shibito thought that he should be outraged at the thought of smuggling and evading the authorities, but he found that he was amused instead. His thinking had changed since he’d left home.
“What kind of name is Shibito?” Hagar asked him as he dropped off the food.
“Mine,” he told Hagar shortly.
Shibito hesitated, knowing he sounded like an ass. It would take far too long to explain to someone who wasn’t of his culture the meaning of his name. But he couldn’t afford to anger someone who could take him off the station. He also knew it would take only one call to the authorities to put him in some real trouble. He didn’t doubt that there was some sort of search being done for him, quietly for now, but as time went on, he knew being subtle would be thrown to the wayside. He had to get away from here and home before that happened.
Mama chuckled and shook his head, breaking the tension. “That’s about the only answer we get out of him.”
Hagar shrugged and Shibito was glad he wasn’t angry at his short answer, but he sensed it took a lot to make this one angry. “What does his IDent card say?”
Mama laughed, “Well he’d need one of them for me to see his name, now won’t he?”
Hagar stared at the both of them in shock. Shibito smiled and bowed before he moved away. He didn’t have one of the cards and there was nothing he could do about it right now.
“No wonder you called him a lost kitten,” Hagar said, digging into his food.
Shibito returned to the kitchen to finish the load of dishes and clean up his work area a little. He went back out to the bar after he was done to see if Hagar wanted seconds, and that was when he felt his stomach twist, which usually meant something bad was going to happen. If he had paid attention to that warning before, he wouldn’t be in this mess.
Shibito anxiously looked around, before gradually sensing the presence of a large group of men moving toward the bar among the usual traffic in this area. He didn’t have a lot of time before they were here, and even if they weren’t looking for him, he still couldn’t afford to be caught by them. What little margin for safety he had had was gone. He had to get off the station now.
It wasn’t often that the military in charge of Dunmore left their section of the station. They usually only did so to show the citizens who lived there that they were “cleaning up” the maze of corruption that filled the lower levels of the station. Stupid, as were most of the activities that went on here, he had learned, but they kept a station like this working. He had been as ignorant of that fact as those who ran the station were. But the military finding him here wasn’t something he wanted, because while this station wasn’t in the Nipponese Imperium, he was willing to bet that those who were looking for him in the military had ties here, or at least contacts to try to recover him if he had been dumped in this area of space. He had to leave now, and it didn’t matter what he did to get off this place. He’d make his peace with himself after he was safe.
He walked up to Hagar, trying to remain calm, and said to him, “I’ll do anything you want if you get me out of here right this instant.”
Hagar looked startled at the offer. Shibito tried to look innocent and sexy at the same time, projecting an aura of harmlessness. But he was seconds from shouting this offer out to any of the pilots in the bar, not caring about anything but getting off this station.
“You really don’t have any papers?” Hagar asked him with a grin.
Shibito tried to fight his growing panic as he sensed security getting closer to the bar, spreading out to question everyone in this area. He could try to run on his own, but he didn’t think he would get too far. He knew there really wasn’t any place on the station for him to hide, having tried to do that for a couple of days before Mama took him in. He had barely gotten onto Dunmore before he realized he wouldn’t be able to get off as easily without any sort of identification, since you needed one of those small plastic cards to do anything here, unlike where he had grown up. Mama having a soft heart was about the only thing that saved him. But it looked like his luck had run out. And after seeing the other pilots who hung around Mama’s, Hagar seemed to be the safest. He actually was Shibito’s only option right now, but he was trying not to think about that.
“What do you think?” Shibito asked him softly. “If your answer is going to be no, I have to make a break for it now.”
He was aware that other people were now spreading the word that the military was coming into the area to “clean up” the bad element on the station. A lot more of the customers started to try to casually leave the bar, wanting to avoid the military whether they had a good reason to do so or not.
Hagar’s grin got wider; he was clearly aware that he had Shibito squirming for his favor. “And what’s in it for me?”
“I can cook,” Shibito started, hoping the man would settle for help on his ship and not insist on sex but doubting it; the man wasn’t an idiot or a eunuch. “And I can do some grunt work and help with your ship. Gossip is that you ship out alone. Wouldn’t it be good to have help for a little while?”
He didn’t repeat his initial offer, but he could see that Hagar was thinking about it. Shibito tried to look sexy but knew it wouldn’t help him. Hagar was more interested in dealing with the difficulty of getting out of here without any trouble than he was in getting a piece of tail out of the deal. Shibito could almost see the man calculating the odds in a manner very unlike the cheery friendliness he had previously displayed. Hagar might look big and harmless, but he was far from stupid.
“And what about the load of whiskey in my hold?” Hagar asked him with a grin. Shibito was betting he thought it was a leer. Instead of feeling disgusted by it, he was amused. Hagar acted like what he was, a genuinely nice man—a rare thing on this station.
“Are you going to be able to unload it right now?” Shibito shot back. “Because I really don’t think that either one of us wants to get caught in this sweep.”
Hagar looked thoughtful at that one. Shibito could guess that Hagar was thinking, trying to figure out if the authorities were on a crusade, if they would take all his cargo, fine him, and maybe impound his ship. Even Shibito knew Mama would understand if Hagar bolted, and there would be no hard feelings there. Shibito noticed that Mama looked like he was close to panicking for some reason. Mama may be many things, but stupid wasn’t one of them—Shibito had learned that fact early. If Mama was worried about this, then Shibito knew it was time to get out of here. He just hoped Mama got out of whatever the military was looking for without getting hurt.
Hagar leaned over and grabbed Shibito, pulling him close and kissing him roughly before pushing him toward the back, saying, “You got a point.”
Shibito didn’t bother wasting his time arguing with the other man. He had said “anything,” and Shibito knew what that meant. Getting out of here without the authorities stopping him was the most important thing. If it was at the cost of spending time on his knees or his back, he’d still think he had made a good bargain. It was better than being shipped back to the planet he just escaped from. Hagar looked and felt like a decent man, more so than any of the other pilots who had been in Mama’s over the past couple of weeks.
Shibito stopped long enough to grab his pack and let Hagar tug him along behind him. They started to dodge and weave among the back alleys of the station to avoid security, finally getting to the docks.
“AS MUCH as it looks good in the vids to just blast out of here,” Hagar started, “this isn’t a vid, and we are going to have to go through some sort of check before we get out of here.”
“What kind of check?” Shibito asked him. They were standing at the edge of the port, just on the verge of the industrial area of the station.
“Filing a flight plan,” Hagar told him. “While we can just walk up to my ship, leaving here is another thing. And it isn’t like the authorities don’t know that sometimes not everything on the manifest is legit. Getting out of here now is a signal that I have something to hide.”
“Why don’t we just get to the ship?” Shibito said. “We can figure out something later.”
“We?” Hagar asked, feeling amused for some reason by Shibito’s use of the word “we.”
“Well, we both are going to be in trouble if we get caught,” Shibito told him, echoing his reasoning. “Because I think this is serious.”
“From the way that Mama looked,” Hagar stated, “I think you’re right.”
He didn’t want to say any more than that. He had a clean record for the most part here, but some checking on the part of the authorities might show that the Midgard Serpent hadn’t been flying on the straight and narrow all the time. And it wasn’t like there were a lot of ships around here that matched his hull type. The Serpent was about twenty years old and had been made in the Russian Collective. He had updated the computer systems and the interior, but there was very little he could do about the hull. A ship’s design wasn’t something you could disguise easily.
Hagar noticed Shibito looking at a public terminal on the edge of the docks, studying it carefully with a frown on his face. “I’ll catch up with you,” Hagar heard him mutter.
Hagar stared after him. “You were the one who wanted to get out of here,” he said.
“Something I just have to do real fast that I just remembered,” Shibito told him.
“The ship leaves in ten minutes, whether you’re on it or not.”
Shibito turned and looked at him. “I know.”
Hagar hesitated for a second, wondering why suddenly Shibito wanted to stop. But he wasn’t going ask him about it. He wanted to get off Dunmore Station as soon as possible, before the military cleanup spread and he was caught in it. The military didn’t always play nice with the independents. “I’m on dock seven, the Midgard Serpent. I’ll leave the hatch open as long as possible.”
Shibito nodded. “Thank you and I’ll be there.”
Hagar turned and strode away, hurrying to his ship, hoping he succeeded in getting off the station without too much trouble.
SHIBITO didn’t bother watching Hagar leave, intent on what he had to do. He went over to the public terminal, after looking quickly to make sure that he didn’t see anyone. He really didn’t have a plan, just some vague intention of trying fool the computer into believing that Hagar’s ship should be allowed to leave. He frantically tried to remember what little he knew about the protocol about a ship leaving a station or filing a flight plan, which wasn’t much since someone else had always dealt with those details before.
He laid his hands on the interface screen and tried to use his talent to hack into the station’s administrative system. It took a couple of attempts, but he was able to get into the main computer system for the station. It hurt and he knew he was pushing his limits working as quickly as he was. He hadn’t done this in a while, not since he had woken up on that hellhole planet he had escaped from. He sensed more than felt the pain of the headache that was forming because of what he was doing. But he needed to do this to get off this place. If he damaged himself a bit in the process, well, it wasn’t going to be any worse than what had happened to him before. He was amazed that he was able to use his talent. Not fully and not too well, but it was enough for now—it had gotten him into the computer.
Shibito looked around quickly in the system, searching for the server for central command so he could insert Hagar’s permission to get off the station, coded so it looked like it had been filed a couple of hours ago, and change Hagar’s arrival date to a day earlier. It wasn’t perfect, but it would do. He felt old and slow, fumbling at things that had come easier for him only a year ago. He slowly disengaged his mind from the system, hoping that he hadn’t taken too long and that Hagar was still waiting for him.
He was tired and had a slight headache, but he had been able to manipulate a database like he had before, even if he was much slower than he used to be. He had thought he had lost that ability when he woke up almost psi-null with shredded shields on that planet, some backwater hell he hadn’t even bothered to find out the name of. But it looked like time had allowed him to recover from the drugs given to him.
Shibito straightened up and started running for the ship, hoping—knowing—he’d make it to the ship on time. He was never so happy to see an open hatch as he was then and dived through it, landing gracefully in a ball as it started to close. He rolled and came back up on his feet, hoping Hagar hadn’t seen him do that. He wouldn’t be able to explain to the man why someone who was working as a cook at a place like Mama’s moved like that. It showed that at one time he’d had some sort of military training. If that were so, why was he avoiding the military now? Or where exactly did he get that training? Hagar might ask a lot of questions he didn’t want to answer.
HAGAR was surprised at the message he got from Dunmore Station’s central command when he queried them on when he could leave, since he had only docked about an hour ago and had filed a plan to stay for a couple of days at the least.
“You’re cleared to lift off,” Dunmore Station’s flight controller told him when he asked for clearance. “Your flight plan’s in order. Have a good trip.”
“Thank you,” Hagar told them and started his preflight check, hoping Shibito had managed to get aboard. If the other man hadn’t, then it would be no loss, but he was curious to see what Shibito’s offer of “anything” covered. Hagar waited for the last possible moment to close the hatch. He then slowly pulled out of the docking ring, easing into the traffic flitting around the station, and headed over to the nearest jump gate.
Hagar tried not to be surprised as he saw Shibito come stumbling onto the bridge, trying to adjust to the movement of the ship and failing. He made his way to the copilot’s seat and collapsed into it gratefully.
“You made it,” Hagar commented before turning all his attention to getting to the jump gate.
“I was lucky,” Shibito said softly. He leaned back in the chair and watched Hagar pilot his ship, easing them through Dunmore Station’s gate and into hyperspace.
That comment made Hagar look at him oddly for a second. Hagar didn’t know if it was considered “lucky” not to miss the ship you were going to have to whore on. He didn’t think Shibito was looking forward to this, but it was better than dealing with the military; almost anything could happen to a man as attractive as Shibito if he were in the hands of the military. Hagar watched him out of the corner of his eye. Shibito looked tired more than anything, but Hagar realized that the man might be having second thoughts, or more, about what he had offered. Hagar almost grinned. A bargain was to be considered a bargain, no matter how it came about. He’d be gentle with the man, since he had no interest in holding him down and forcing him; he’d see how far the man was willing to go. But he actually didn’t have to tell Shibito that right now either.