“You have such a boring life, Mini. Honestly, don’t you ever look out the window and wish you were out there in the thick of the galaxy, rather than stuck in here with space bums and GAMs?”
I spread my mouth wide in the nervous smile I was used to giving Claudia – all teeth, no lips. “Oh, I don’t know. It’s okay here, I guess.” I gestured at the packed diner before us. Humans and aliens shoveling down their food with differing degrees of coordination; it wasn’t paradise, but it would make for a manageable hell.
Claudia, with her perfect human features, groaned. Her brown eyes flickered, her mouth pulled tight, and her thick brown ponytail fell limp over a shoulder. “You are so boring for a halfy.”
Ah yes, a halfy.
I ignored Claudia and moved around her to a waiting customer. He was a big guy – a bull Crag if I wasn’t mistaken. He towered over the two Galactic Army soldiers (GAMs for short) who sat to the side of him. He sure looked hungry.
Crags were a big race, all tough lizard skin, muscle, and bone. They found their trade as mercenaries, security, or general brawn. There weren’t too many creatures who would be happy to take on a charging Crag, gun or not. They had a reputation for being to the point, gruff, and sloppy. Most of the other girls wouldn’t serve them, but I didn’t mind so much. I’d serve anyone who was hungry.
Working in Marty’s Space Diner wasn’t heaven – but it paid the bills and was safer than working planet-side on the colonies.
“Meat.” The Crag’s massive, brick-like hands pounded on the bar.
“Okay,” I nodded, “A kilo?”
The Crag hit the bar twice, and the plastic rippled like he was flicking water in a puddle. The GAM by his side was quick enough to grab his drink before it spilled.
I took that to be an order of 2 kilos and thumbed it into my order pad.
Yep, that was my job. I took orders, cleaned up after patrons, and smiled. Something a cheap robot could do, but Marty always liked the human touch. He said it added authenticity to have real people serving customers. Marty was all about making things authentic. He kept real bottles of liquor behind the bar (well, the bottles were real, the liquid substances in them could only be classed as industrial solvents), and always had a chef’s special (which was the same every single day, making it the chef’s regular). He’d gotten real fixtures, too. He’d ripped up old flight chairs from decommissioned fighters and freight ships and even had old control panels with plate plastic over them for tables. He only got the place cleaned once a year. His philosophy was that frequent fumigating killed “De bugs, but dirt and grit added to the atmosphere.”
All this made for a dirty, smelly, old diner. Still, the customers liked it.
“Excuse me, ma’am.”
I spun. Only one type of person bothered with manners in a space diner. Sure enough, I came face-to-face with a GAM, and by the looks of it, a ranking officer.
“How can I help you, sir?” I smiled as I took out my order pad. Marty always told us a smile sells a dinner in a diner.
This GAM was wearing standard black fatigues with the sleeves rolled up until under his holo-insignia of the Galactic Army. He looked youngish but tired. He had jet-black hair cropped to a neat, regulation half centimeter. His hair was made all the blacker by his dark uniform. He blinked with hazel eyes and closed his lips to make a half-smile that lifted one cheek.
“Oh wow,” Claudia whispered from behind me as she pinched hold of my apron ties, “Oh no, I have this one. Go on a break, Mini. I’ve got this one covered.” Claudia pushed past me, head tilting to the side. “Can I take your order, officer?”
The guy frowned with confusion, looked at me then back at Claudia. He shrugged, looking more tired by the minute. In my opinion, he needed a nice spiced Tika tea and maybe a bowl of hot pot – that would put the color back in his cheeks.
No one was interested in my opinion – I was a halfy working in a diner. I backed off, untied my apron, and headed for the doors that separated the bar from the rest of the room.
I didn’t need a break. Still, I could always—
Something grabbed my ponytail and pulled me backward. I let out a shriek, not loud enough to carry through the packed diner, more like the sound a tiny mouse might make if you stood on its tail.
“Oh, ahh,” I protested as whatever it was still had a hold of my hair. “Could you please—”
“Wh-ite,” something hissed.
I tried to wriggle free but to no avail. “Could you umm, could you please not grab my hair? Um, excuse me—”
“Let her go.”
The pressure pulling me down released, and I popped back up like a balloon in a lake. I patted my hair straight, trying to massage the pain out of my scalp.
“Are you okay?”
I turned to see my ranking officer with a hand flat on a short alien’s shoulder. My officer no longer looked tired – his face was pressed into a stern but alert look.
“Ah, yes. I—”
The alien, a species I had never seen before, looked at me with what could only be classed as human-like surprise. His blood-red face twisted into—
He lunged at me with one long hiss.
“What the—” My ranking officer pushed forward and grabbed the alien around the middle, pulling him back before his outstretched hands grabbed the hem of my skirt. “Remain still,” he snapped, getting down on one knee to maintain a better hold of the red guy.
I put a hand up to my mouth and blinked, too stunned and far too polite to say anything. Claudia would have taken the opportunity to sock the tiny alien, but Marty always told us manners get “Ya tips while attitude gets you bruised.” Though all tips went to Marty, I always maintained a pleasant persona around patrons.
“Wh-ite,” the alien hissed again.
I patted my hair. It was the only white thing about me. It wasn’t just white – it was pure white. It was right up there alongside full sunshine hitting snow, the clean fur of an Arctic Fox, or the light of a white dwarf star. It was one of the first things people looked at, and the first clue I wasn’t entirely human. I looked almost like a human; I was normal height, normal build, and I had honey brown skin. The hair and my supernova-blue eyes would always give it away. So they’d call me halfy: half human and half something different.
None of that mattered right now. The only thing I cared about was the angry, red thing trying to steal my hair. That, and we were making a scene. The alien was hissing like a broken valve, and my gallant officer was grunting trying to hold him in place. GAMs were moving over to us, space bums gathering around for a better view.
“Sir, what’s going on?” A trio of huge, armor-clad GAMs walked up behind the ranking officer, one leaning down to wrap an arm around the alien’s middle.
“I have no idea.” My officer straightened up, pulling down tightly on his top and staring straight at me. “Do you mind telling us, ma’am—”
The alien wriggled free. It ducked down under the GAM’s arm, did the cutest of roles, then sprang at me with the agility of an Elurian monkey cat.
This time I shrieked. No more of the prissy, extra-nice girl; I saw this flash of red shooting toward my face with no time to duck. It collected me right in the middle of the chest and sent us both slamming back onto a table. The world tipped as the table pitched backward, sending me sliding to the ground, wailing like a broken klaxon.
I lay there, my legs splayed over the side of the table, my skirt disheveled. Heaven knows what view I was offering my ranking officer. That didn’t matter. The alien was sitting on my chest, staring at my face with his bobble-head cocked to the side. He was about two-foot-tall, wore a brown robe tied around the middle like a Franciscan monk, and had mottled blood-red skin.
My ranking officer vaulted over the table, tackled the alien, and slammed him to the ground with a grunt like a charging Crag. The other GAMs made their quick way over and soon had, what one would hope, a better hold of the escapee.
I watched them blankly, my brain overloaded. I realized my skirt was still up around my middle, my legs practically in stirrups as they rested on the table. I scrambled up as my officer leaned down to offer me a hand.
I flattened my skirt from every angle and concentrated hard on not meeting my officer’s gaze.
“Are you alright?” he asked, voice less of a snapped command than it had been before. “You should go to the Med Bay, you took a tumble.”
“Oh, I don’t think—” I began, stumbling to tell all and sundry I was okay, that this was nothing, and that nobody should be bothered by me. I didn’t get that far – Claudia swept up behind me and put an arm around my shoulders.
“Oh my god, officer, you’re a hero!” she proclaimed loudly.
I waited for my officer to flick his gaze to Claudia, maybe smile, maybe even chuckle at such welcome praise. He didn’t even look her way, just kept his gaze on me like the rest of the world was blocked out by blinkers. “Do you know this Kroplin?”
“What’s a Kroplin?” I caught a hold of the end of my long ponytail and stroked it compulsively.
He pointed at the red alien.
“I, well, no. I’ve never seen anything like him before. I mean, that is, what I mean to say is, I’ve seen aliens before,” I chuckled nervously, “Of course I have – I work in a space diner. I—”
“You haven’t seen him before,” he cut in, saving me from drowning in my own babble. He turned to his men. “Call security.”
I watched as he massaged his forehead with the palm of his hand, that hint of weariness still scrunching his eyes. “This was meant to be shore leave,” he mumbled under his breath.
The crowd was dispersing around us, thankfully. Even Claudia moved off, apparently realizing my officer was far too tired and busy to pay her any attention. Soon it was just us in the center of the room: the Kroplin, my officer, the other GAMs, and me.
My officer was busy barking more orders at his men, compulsively checking they had a firm grip on the alien. I wondered if I could leave. They didn’t need me now, did they? I would only get in the way if I stood here like a chunk of space debris.
I moved off, patting at my skirt to ensure it sat straight and neat. I could feed Hipop, my pet, or perhaps have a quick lie down.
“What are you doing?”
I turned to face my officer, a nervous smile stretching my lips to a thin line.
“You are going to the Med Bay,” he supplied, answering his own question.
“Oh, I don’t need too, I fe—”
“You’re going to the Med Bay. Name?”
My eyebrows squeezed together in confusion.
“What’s your name?” he repeated, voice slower, lips collecting around each word.
This guy wasn’t big on conversing in whole sentences. He was to the point like a sniper rifle at twenty paces. “I don’t have a last name. I mean, I might have, but I don’t know it—” I babbled again, but cut myself short by sucking in a gulp of air.
He looked at me, and it was clear he thought I was the oddest thing this side of the Milky Way. “Sorry, what? Do you have a last name or not?”
“No, I don’t have a last name, sir.”
“Well, I’m Commander Jason Cole. You’re going to the Med Bay now, Mini. Someone from Station Security will meet you there.”
“Oh, I…” I protested, but it was ever so half-hearted. I didn’t need to go to the Med Bay. The alien had been a surprise, sure, but I wasn’t hurt. The more I looked at the guy sandwiched between a trio of GAMs, the more it felt like he’d never intended to hurt me. He… it was hard to put a finger on it. “I don’t need to go—”
“N-o-w.” His tone wasn’t angry, but it wasn’t pleasant, either.
“O-okay, Mr Cole. I – I mean, Commander Cole.” I turned on my heel before this scene could continue to bleed more embarrassment.
I resisted the urge to pick up the overturned table and straighten it before I went as I was sure Commander Cole wouldn’t approve. I jogged for the door, not turning back once.
I would head up to my quarters.
I walked quickly to the lifts that connected the shopping district, where Marty’s was, to the living quarters. The sooner I was out of the public eye, the better. I reached down to key in the Accommodation Deck, but another hand got there first.
“The Med Bay isn’t on the Accommodation Deck, Mini.”
I jumped and gave another pathetic yelp. I couldn’t help it – when I was startled or scared, I would always cry out like a three-year-old in a sea of clown masks.
“It didn’t take a genius to realize you don’t follow orders,” he said as he keyed in the code that would take us to the Services Deck.
Now, hold on. I wasn’t some GAM under his command. I had nothing to do with this man. Why should I be expected to follow his orders?
I said none of this. I looked at my shoes and moved over in the lift to let him in.
I was aware he was looking at me from the side as the lift set off with its characteristic shudder. This station was old but so large that risking one’s life with the lifts was the only way to travel.
No matter how hard I tried to pay attention to the rattle and shake of the metal grating under my feet, I couldn’t block out his stare.
He sighed and rubbed his forehead again.
I slid my gaze to the side, glancing his way. He pinched the bridge of his nose, his eyes squeezed shut. He looked fatigued, frustrated, and irritated all at once. He needed a cup of steaming hot Tika tea and a good lie down, perhaps even a plate of biscuits. Instead, he was taking me to the Med Bay.
The poor guy was obviously under a lot of stress, and here I was adding to his burdens.
“Look,” I turned to him, not fully – just enough so it was polite, but not enough that I faced him front on in this tiny lift. “I will go to the Med Bay, I promise. Thank you for saving me back there, and I’m sure if you go back to the diner they will give you a nice Tika tea on the house.” That was a lie – Marty didn’t believe in the concept of “It’s on the house.” To Marty, we were in space, and there were neither houses nor free meals in space. It would come out of my pay.
He blinked his eyes open and crossed his arms. He shook his head.
I turned quickly, aware of how much of a clumsy fool I’d been.
The seconds ticked by as we waited for the lift to make its shuddering way to the Services Deck. You could almost hear it clunk around us like a great grandfather clock timing the awkwardness and embarrassment.
I should have enjoyed the silence while it lasted. As the doors opened to the massive Service Deck, the questions began.
“Why don’t you have a last name?” The Commander powered on ahead of me, pushing through the crowds like he was a searing hot iron through snow.
“I… it’s complicated,” I mumbled as I barely managed to keep up. The Med Bay was all the way on the other side of the Services Deck. I was hardly an emergency, and I’m sure the Commander could see that – he was playing things by the book. Yet it would still take minutes to reach it in this thick crowd. Several ships must have come in at once – there were people, GAMs, mercenaries, space bums, and all sorts milling around before us.
There was that charming brevity again. He didn’t sound curt or rude, just excessively short of time. The problem was, there wasn’t a short answer. For a girl who worked at a space diner, I had an unnecessarily complex life. “I’m a Floater.” I paused, waiting for him to add something, gasp, or acknowledge the statement at all. Most people would at least raise an eyebrow when they found out about my unconventional early life.
Not this guy. He kept marching, obviously waiting for me to illuminate while keeping it short, of course.
A Floater was an unattractive term used to describe orphans found in space with no traceable records. Perhaps a GAM ship would come across a wreck pirates had scavenged only to find they’d missed a bouncing bub when they’d slaughtered or kidnapped the crew. Or maybe a colony ship would go nuclear, and the infant would be the only person they’d managed to get to the life pod. So until these children were found, they would literally float around in space – Floaters.
Once found, they were usually adopted. The children of conflict and general misfortune were one thing, but babies found floating, unattended in the vastness of space, were another. Something about it always pulled at the heart’s strings. They were lucky to be alive, so fortune saw to it they were adopted quickly.
I was a different case. Far stranger.
I hadn’t been on an embattled cruiser or found alive in some half-wrecked hull. I was almost literally dropped on the doorstep of the GAM Headquarters: Station One. I was found in a single person cruiser, in stasis, with the navigation set to drift their way. It was the single laziest case of abandonment ever. My parents or guardians hadn’t even bothered to nip into the closest planet and deposit me at a hospital or with some appropriate childcare facility. No, they had set a cruiser to drift and sent me on my way.
Perhaps my parents had hoped some kindly old admiral, with an emotional connection to any soul unfortunate enough to be lost in space, would adopt me and set me up in a life of fortune. It hadn’t happened that way. I was sent straight to a planet-side orphanage on Earth. Unlike the other Floaters, I was never adopted. Few parents, especially humans, were happy taking in an unidentified halfy. Humans, or pure-breed aliens, people could manage – but halfy babies were always a gamble. Who knew how the DNA would combine, what results it would have? Human DNA could combine with surprisingly few alien races, and most results were never pretty. So halfies were treated with general disdain – they were too strange, too in-between.
I’d grown up in an orphanage. The old Matriarch there, Mother Mirabella, had become my surrogate mother.
The short of it was, I had no last name, only the nickname the GAMs who’d found me had given me: Mini. Now, how was I going to give the Commander the quick version of that?
I chewed my lip, hoping the Commander would move on. It wasn’t a fair line of questioning, anyway. Why should I tell him about my irrelevant past when he wasn’t going to tell me about his? How would he react if I asked why he was so tired, or how he’d gotten that scar along his jawline, or even why, for a GAM commander, he appeared to have a tattoo on his upper right arm?
“You weren’t adopted?” He didn’t give up. “Didn’t the government assign you a last name?”
The government assigned people identity codes; they rarely scrolled through the pages of the galactic phone book to pick out a surname for unfortunate orphans. “Ah, no.”
“Why are you on this space station?”
I pressed my lips against my teeth and smiled wanly. “I just am, I guess.” It was a poor answer, but it was the only one I could give. I hadn’t chosen to come to this huge chunk of rusting debris out in the middle of nowhere colony-space. I had drifted here. At least out in the further reaches of the galaxy people didn’t care too much if you were a halfie Floater – as long as you served them their mind-destroying alcohol. That, and I’d always been drawn to the Rim – to the outer reaches of known space. I didn’t have the guts to go adventuring – I was a self-confessed, easily scared, clumsy, pathetic scaredy-pants. Working on one of the outer space stations as a waitress was all I could manage. Still, the pull was always there.
This time he slowed and turned his head toward me. “You get attacked by one of the calmest, most spiritual races known; you don’t have a last name or a traceable lineage; and you move out to the reaches of colony space for no reason. Is there something you aren’t telling me?”
I laughed, feeling nervous and foolish about how silly that must sound. I realized he wasn’t smiling. He didn’t actually believe I was on the run or something: a spy, a hunted mercenary, an escaped convict? “I – no, no, no. That sounds bad. I came to this station because there didn’t seem to be any other place to go. I mean, I’m a Floater and a half-breed, and well, it was hard to find work in the Galactic Center, so I came out here because I thought maybe people would be more accepting.” I took a sharp breath. “Not to say I ever faced that much prejudice over being a mixed breed. I mean, I’m not saying most humans are racist or anything, not at all. It was just easier, and I thought—”
“Okay, you can stop talking.” He put up a hand like he was stopping hover traffic. “Your record wasn’t flagged, anyway.”
I was flustered and nearly out of breath. “I – sorry? You what? You’ve already had a chance to look at my identity file?”
“I had it uploaded to my com-piece.” He tapped his ear. “There was only one registered Mini on this space station.”
I swallowed carefully, the kind of move where your tongue feels like it’s been puffed full of air and the only thing that can save you is a last-ditch gulp.
Perhaps this was how all GAM commanders worked. I’d never had more to do with them than taking their orders. Quick, efficient, and lethal. Did this guy ever smile?
Claudia was right – he was dashing. Though she wouldn’t phrase it that way. Yet he was so tired at the same time – he looked like the weight of the galaxy was on his shoulders and it was squashing him flat.
“There’s nothing on your file to suggest this attack was anything other than unprovoked.”
“Of course, why would it be anything else? This is space station in colony-sp—”
We had reached the Med Bay doors, and he paused as the doors swished open before us. “These are strange times.” His tone wasn’t ominous, wasn’t even the least bit deep and dramatic. He looked around – eyes flicking from side-to-side as he spoke – and that was more telling than a foreboding clap of thunder. He looked right at me and offered that same half-smile that pushed up one cheek. “Here you are.”
I have a personal philosophy – one I’ve always lived by: it’s what’s between what people say that matters. I realized why the Commander was so tired – that wasn’t a throwaway comment. These were strange times for him.
I took another moment to realize he was leaving. “You aren’t going to escort me in? Aren’t you worried I’ll leave by the back exit, or collapse from my injuries right here at the door?” Had he honestly marched me all the way across the Service Deck to ditch me at the door?
“You aren’t injured, Mini. Security regulation states you still must undergo a medical scan to record details for legal and insurance purposes, especially when it involves an off-duty GAM officer. The sooner after an incident occurs, the better. I wasn’t about to trust Station Security to remember. The sooner the details are fully recorded, the sooner I can notify my superiors and go back to work.”
Oh. Oh, of course. This had nothing to do with me. I hadn’t thought of that – the GAM were notorious for their strict rules and bureaucracy. I often heard the soldiers complaining about it over their Knuckle Dragger cocktails. The Commander had broken up a fight while off duty – lord knows the number of forms he’d have to fill before he could resume post again. It was a wonder the GAM could function with the amount of paperwork that preceded and followed their every move. Maybe that was the weight on the Commander’s shoulders, a weight I had added to.
I was feeling foolish indeed.
I returned his smile in a half-hearted way, arms straight and hands clasped before me like a misbehaving child.
It was this, of all things, that made the other side of Commander Jason Cole’s mouth smile. The lines disappeared from under his eyes as his cheeks lifted up. “You can relax. I’m not going to arrest you.”
I unclasped my hands and, not sure of what else to do with them, clasped them behind my back. “Thank you so much for helping me, sir.” I spun on my heel and straight into the door which had apparently closed during our conversation. I spluttered, even mumbled, “Sorry,” to the door, but made it through.
I caught a glimpse of the Commander shaking his head as he turned to walk away. That was the usual impression I gave people.
I was clumsy, awkward, chronically unsure of myself, and easily frightened. At least I always tried to be polite and kind. Marty said good manners were one of the rarest things in the universe. He’d tell me, “No one’s got ‘em, kid, especially not me. You, Mini, you got manners. Don’t underestimate how much that scares the hell out of people, especially the rough ones.”
I didn’t think the Commander had been too frightened of my well placed “Sorry’s” and “Thank you’s,” but at least he’d smiled. For someone living in strange times, a smile couldn’t hurt.
The rest of The Betwixt Episode One is available from most ebook retailers.