Her touch burned my skin. It was like all the feelings I didn’t want seeping into me. I pulled away from her, putting distance between me and her tattooed body. She looked hurt and angry as I took in a deep breath.
“No,” I said.
She turned her pout into a smile. “My love, do this thing for me, and you don’t have to see me again.”
Her words made it even worse. I wanted to touch her. That was the problem and not the other way around. It was just that those full peach-colored lips were and had almost been the death of me. I could not be around her without going back to that magical night, which had made me swear off men forever.
“Just a package drop and nothing more?” I asked.
“Would I lie to you?”
“You would.” I crossed my arms as she reached to touch me again. She pulled away as I narrowed my eyes. Both of us knew she had lied to me more than once. The first and biggest lie had been who she was. She wasn’t a barkeep as she had been when we met. She was the one who owned the place and others around the town, along with running drug trafficking between planets.
She had made me her courier, and I had let her, thinking she actually loved me and I was helping to free her from her debt. It had been a miracle I had gotten away from her lies alive, severing my contract with her and her cartel. A proof she had loved me, I thought back then. Now, she held it over me.
“So, what do you want me to deliver?” I bit my lip not to say more and show the storm inside me.
“Me.” She smiled.
“No,” I let out. I had heard that things had gotten hard for her. The government was putting on pressure, especially now that new players had entered the game. It would be a suicide to get involved. I should have known. She would never show up alone without her security if things weren’t bad.
“Please, Mira. You owe me.” When I didn’t reply, she added, “Technically, I own this ship, and I made who you are. If it wasn’t for me, you would be still working for him. Who knows what he would have done once he got bored with you.”
I had to look away. There was nothing I could say.
“Where do you want to go?” I asked.
“Mars Colony, there I can manage on my own.” She dragged the worn-out bench I had salvaged from a scrapyard underneath her and sat down. “So you take me?”
“As you said, I have no other choice.” There was no mistaking the bitterness in my voice or the fact that I could argue back, yet I succumbed once again to her will. She had always had that effect on me. It was like she took over my body and made me feel all wrong. “When?”
“Tomorrow, and you know—”
“I keep my mouth shut.”
“Good. I’ll pay you. But you better find a reason to leave for Mars.”
“I know the drill.”
I watched her walk away. Good god, she looked so divine in her low-cut shorts and biker jacket. All done for me.
I slumped against the metallic island where I kept all my kitchenware, taking short breaths to get some control back. It had taken me everything to get free of the life she so quickly brought back. By even being here, she painted a target on my back. They would come looking, and it wasn’t a great secret that we had shared a bed and more.
It took me too long to get up and start searching from the port database gigs to get me off the planet and on my way to Mars. There was an extensive list, but none of them fitted my little cargo ship. They were building a new jump gate, hauling big equipment from Earth to there. The index had a few requests for human cargo, but that was out of the question. Next, I went into the list containing corporate chip transport services for legal documents and all the rest, which made the planets spin around the sun. Finally, I found a perfect assignment. I dialed the courier package numbers, inserting my codes and ratings, waiting to see if one or more would catch the offer.
I drummed my fingers against the panel while waiting, driving myself crazy by thinking about her and her skin against my naked back, laying on the bed without the need to go anywhere. There had been a lot of those slow days back then. Not so many lately. It was only a miracle I wasn’t flying off the planet already. Maybe it wasn’t a miracle. Maybe it was her.
The console beeped, and there was a perfect gig waiting to be snatched today. An opportunity to leave now and never look back. I could get the clearance to leave in ten minutes. I know I should take it, but there was another message, a perfect excuse. I inserted my agreement number and secured the gig. There came four other urgent requests afterward, all I could collect.
I thrust up and headed to get my carrier unit with encrypted chip containers, preventing any scanning or destruction of the data. It was another salvage from a scrapyard, but I had pimped it up to pass from a modern thing. The clients wouldn’t know if they didn’t check the serial number. They never did.
I attached the carrier unit to my hand and cursed for not dressing my coat first, but it should be hot enough. That wasn’t the issue. It was the UV radiation that got you. So I added an extra layer of spray and grabbed my sunglasses before I stepped out of the ship’s airlock.
The heat was unbearable. Terraforming had made Mars a more pleasant planet to live on if you ignored you were always under a dome. I called a shuttle to take me to the corporate district. I couldn’t help but watch over my shoulder, waiting for her goons or enemies to be everywhere. I had forgotten what it was to live under paranoia.
The shuttle didn’t take long to come, and I punched in the coordinates, booking it for the whole run. The first four clients were relatively simple construction companies wanting their internal communication to go through snail mail rather than unsecured lines. I didn’t ask questions or care what could be so important as long as they paid. But the last place was a relatively big law firm. I had fucked up by not checking the details. Lawyers always made a fuss about everything. Now they were making me wait in their lobby for some security personnel to go over my carrier data. I hated staying in public places. It always felt like everyone staring at me. And most likely, they were. I had a big scar going across my forehead.
I smoothed my fringes over the scar and turned my back to the lobby, pretending to watch out at the streets from the lucid walls. But it made me only edgier, having my back turned to strangers while trying to people watch the pedestrians going on with their miserable lives. I had never cared for people watching.
“Mira Navarra?” a male voice asked behind me.
I turned around, clutching the carrier unit.
“That’s me,” I said, trying to smile my insecurity away.
“Come with me,” the man said. He was one of those big fellows who had compensated the unjust world with mass.
“What’s this about?”
“Your security clearance came through,” he said, sounding annoyed.
“Oh, yeah, sure.” I followed the man across the lobby, unintentionally touching my forehead. There was no reason I didn’t fix it with simple plastic surgery, but I kept it as a reminder. I would be no one’s property again. This transaction with Shreya was just that, a transaction.
He took me to a small room, opened a panel, and handed me over a small chip in a liquid biomechanic tube. It was one of those new high-security measures with impenetrable protection for data snatching. I held my tongue not to let out my astonishment. This was some serious shit, and there was no packing down without drawing attention to myself. It wouldn’t be a good idea to have it and Shreya in the same space. I gave a smile as I opened a container for it and let the man program a private key to secure the locker. Of course, I had a master code to open all the boxes, but I wasn’t going to tell that to a client. A trade secret. I knew some couriers stole their client’s data. Not all, just tiny details here and there to sell on at the black markets. I never did that. Too reckless for my taste. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself.
The man guided me back to the lobby.
I sighed as I got outside. Not a disaster, I thought it could have been. While my courier numbers and agreements were up to date and legitimate, I wasn’t.
I called my shuttle to arrive in front of the building, and as I was stepping into it, I felt a needle-like jab at my lower back. I swung around only to see a woman in a red and black suit smirk at me as I lost consciousness. The last words I heard were, “You shouldn’t really drink while working. Let’s get you into that shuttle of yours. Mind your head.”
I woke up inside a hangar, surrounded by open space, a spaceship, and storage shelves. But those weren’t what drew in my focus. It was him sitting in front of me on a metal bench. Similar to what I was tied to. They had graciously left the carrier unit tied to my wrist. The strain it was putting on me made my whole arm ache. It was that electric pain of my nerves stretching too thin.
Fuckers, I thought.
“Hello, Mira. Feeling refreshed after your beauty sleep?” he asked.
I shook my head, unable to speak. My mouth felt dry, and there was nothing I wanted to say to him. Maybe that he should get over with whatever he was planning to do. I hated games. And he liked to toy with people. It gave him sadistic pleasure, as did actual physical pain. The woman who had drugged me smiled next to him, looking highly pleased.
“Sod off,” I croaked before he got another remark in.
“Now, now, Mira, that’s not a way to treat an old friend.”
“Sod off,” I repeated. You didn’t give any room for a sociopath to get under your skin. If you thought playing nice would work, it didn’t. Playing nice got just your words twisted, and you ended up agreeing with them. There was no trick you could do to get a sociopath on your side. I had tried and failed horribly. I was only alive because Shreya had intercepted and made it lucrative enough for him to let me leave. I had no idea what it had cost, but it was more than money. Holden didn’t care for money. It was power he was after.
“Mira, what’s with all the hostility. This is just two friends catching up. So give me that smile I know you can do.” Holden leaned forward.
My scar itched. Pavlov’s discovery should have stayed buried and hidden from the world. I saw he noticed he had gotten under my skin. I never pretended I was above any of this. If I had been a stronger person, I would have never been in this situation. Holden knew the weak and molded them into his tools. Me included.
I glanced at the woman by his side and then at the other men dressed in similar red and black suits. I refused to smile. Whatever act I would take would be pointless. He won either way.
“You don’t seem to be in a chatting mood, Mira. I would reconsider. There are always ways to make a person talk.”
I snorted. “Then you better ask questions rather than pretend this is some normal reunion to chat about our successes and heartaches.”
“Oh, Mira, when have you become such a cynic.” Holden leaned closer. So much that could I smell his breath.
“That’s not a question.” I squeezed my stomach tight, and I was right. His first punch came in just under my lower ribs. I heaved double, but the cable ties held me in place, making the plastic lacerate the skin on my wrist. I tried not to let out a sound, but I could help but moan.
Holden took me by my hair and hoisted my face to meet his. “Wana try again?”
I closed my eyes and shook my head. “Whatever you think I have done, it wasn’t me. I have kept out of things.”
Holden laughed. “You call meeting with Shreya keeping out of things?”
I should have guessed. I glanced at Holden’s minions, and they kept their faces blank. But I was pretty sure they thought that they weren’t going to be me, ever. They wouldn’t be so foolish as to cross Holden. If you were on his nice side, you got everything. So all they had to do was to do as asked. I could tell them it didn’t work like that. At some point, when you were past shiny and new, even small things would set Holden off. Chewing wrong, smiling at the wrong person, breathing. They couldn’t help it.
“She came to me, not the other way around.” I waited for Holden to slap me. Instead, he pulled off and let me collapse on the chair.
“What did she want?” He was angry. Not the usual way. He was concerned that Shreya would mess something for him.
I liked my lower lip, stalling the inevitable. I could pretend I could lie, but there was no point. “A ride to Mars.”
“For whom?” Holden again leaned forward to his knees.
“For herself. She said things aren’t looking good. I don’t know what that means, but I’m sure you do.”
“And you are going to take her?”
“Good. I knew I could count on you.” Holden looked at the woman who had taken me, and without words, she stepped forward and took pliers out of her pocket. I refused to scream, but I peed a little and for nothing. She cut the cable ties, letting my ankles and wrists free.
“Now, we are going to take a little ride. You and I,” Holden said.
Before I could say anything, I found a bag over my head. Someone hoisted me up and led me out into the hot air. I was seated in a car. I kept listening to the changes in my surroundings, the guards’ jovial chat about what they had eaten for lunch and who had been there, and what had been said, and the rest of the shit so familiar, yet, now so alien. I never had been a forcer for Holden. I couldn’t do that. But I had flown and driven and maintained his vehicles. I had always waited outside, heard the screams, and taken some bloody people to questionable places. So I didn’t consider myself clean. But, I had had a choice, and before Shreya, I had chosen to work for Holden.
The car stopped. It could mean anything. Industrial oven and being burned alive. It had been a fate of many. Holden got satisfaction watching the whole thing. I rather make them shoot me than give him the pleasure. I was dragged out. My feet got tangled as I tried to keep up with the pace or struggle against them. It was like my body found it hard to decide what to do.
“What’s the code?” the woman barked.
I said nothing. I wasn’t sure if it was meant for me or someone else.
“Answer.” The woman shook me.
“What code?” I still had the secure unit locked on me.
“To your fucking ship,” she barked again. Not very clever, but Holden had never been particularly fond of anyone who could match his intelligence. He was one of those men.
“I need to push it. It reads my biometrics,” I said. Being taken to my ship made me all hopeful. Maybe there was a chance I would come out of this alive.
The bag was yanked off my head, and I saw the familiar door. I smiled.
“What’s so funny?” the woman tugged me.
“The door. It never looked a cheery sort of thing, and now I want to laugh,” I let out. What I got in response was my head smashed against the ship’s haul.
When I got my vision back and didn’t feel like puking up, I made the scanner read my fingers and eyes to open the door. I let them inside. Holden had disappeared, but his goons made sure I behaved. They let me put the carrier unit in its secure place.
“Sorry, I have nothing to offer.” I forced a smile as I said that, holding to a cold pack. I didn’t know what was worse, the cold against my skin or the throbbing headache without it.
I got no response. Holden’s goons sulked at their preferred seats, following my every moment.
“So?” I asked.
“We wait,” the woman said.
I had to look away. I could try to get a message to warn Shreya. Yet, I slumped on the bench next to the kitchen island and leaned on the cold pack, propping against my elbow. I listened to Holden’s goons breathe between their teeth as they realized this might take a while and they would have to babysit me through the night. The last thought freaked me out as well, but this wasn’t the first time Holden had my every move observed. The life between then and now had been just a break, a lucid dream. Normalcy had only returned.
I got up.
The goons got up.
I sat down.
They continued standing, especially the woman. She looked like she was ready to give another bashing. She was a keeper.
“If you are going to stay, then I better order something to eat,” I offered.
“No,” I got as a reply. “He will do it.” The woman nodded toward her friend.
“No fake-meat stuff for me. Pure vegan,” I said.
I got a glance. I guess I would eat whatever would arrive. In the meantime, as we waited for the food to arrive, I flicked the screen on and surfed for entertainment. They made sure I didn’t connect to anything where I could chat, but otherwise, they were lax about it. I guess they graved for distraction as much as I did. Shreya was not to arrive until tomorrow. I kept switching the channel in a pattern. First, I used the one which usually drove Holden’s babysitters crazy, having to leave the room. It worked on the male goon, but the woman endured even when I saw her eye twitch. I slowed down the changes with her, making them less erratic, and lingered more on the channels that made me want to yawn. She kept chancing her pose to stay awake. I was pretty sure I would have won if the food hadn’t arrived. After that, I got my channel surfing permission provoked. We went back to staring at each other in silence. At least the food was vegan.
Then Holden called, or I think it was him. His woman minion got all spaced out and began having a one-sided conversation with someone. It had to be Holden because she got all rigid and annoyed. Maybe there was some hope for her to have her mind back. Just maybe.
The next hour went by waiting and me spacing around the airship, being followed even to the toilet. Then Holden came. The woman let him, and he had more of his buddies with him. The ones who took out people. A few familiar faces. My mind instantly jumped to the factory-sized ovens they incinerated dissidents. Clearly, something was up I didn’t know. Shreya most likely was on the move, and they thought she was coming here.
I sat down in my pilot seat and wondered how long I would live if I made the ship take off. Would I do that for her? I could punch in coordinates to make this thing take a dive and take all the passengers with it. I would do a service to old Earth by killing Holden. It would be so simple. But I couldn’t. I prolonged my ultimate demise and was willing to let her die in front of my eyes just because I couldn’t kill myself. No wonder Holden had handpicked me from all the kids he could have taken.
“So you exchanged your life with me for this piece of shit,” Holden remarked as he looked around. “You could fly top cruisers. If you play your cards right here, maybe you still can.”
I had no time to reply that I never would. The buzzer to the ship went off, and the screen flickered on, showing Shreya outside. She was alone, and she had a small aluminum container with her.
“Right on time,” Holden said. “Go and show her in. And not a word we are waiting. Do you hear me?”
I nodded and did as was told. They let me go to the airlock alone. I opened the hatch, and there she was, smiling. I shook my head, despite knowing Holden was looking. Shreya kept smiling.
She said, “Don’t worry, hon. I know,” and stepped in.
She followed me to the ship, keeping her container close to her. My heart kept racing, and I wanted to tell her to turn around and flee. That she didn’t know why I had shaken my head. I did nothing of it.
When we got to the living quarters, Holden’s killers seized her. She didn’t even look surprised. She let them take her.
“Now, now,” Holden said to start his show.
I looked at Shreya apologetically, but she shrugged it off with a smile despite her right hand twisted hard against her back. That was one thing that hadn’t changed that much. Bodies still broke. Then there were doctors to mend them almost brand new, so the hurt could start again. I had seen Holden do just that. Break, fix, break over and again.
“You could have just called, Mr. Holden,” Shreya said sweetly. “My number is in the directory.”
He grimaced. “Do you think this is a joke?”
“Of course not. You have clearly made a move to my territory, taking over half of my drug business. Nothing funny about that. Nor this.” She gestured at the man holding her. “But civility is key to any business, and I was taught to smile.”
My stomach turned. I knew Holden. Her mockery would get her being tortured and fixed until she broke from sheer exhaustion.
I saw Holden draw his fist tight, but he didn’t lose his temper. “And now I take the rest,” he said instead.
“You can. There is no doubt about that. If you kill me, it will cause confusion surely amongst my associates. But I have to say, you overestimate the power I hold. As you can see.” Shreya gestured towards her luggage. “I’m leaving, and do you think I would be doing that if all was well in the paradise? You have your work cut out for you, just saying.”
Holden let out a low unintended growl.
“Yes, so you as might as well spare your hands from more blood and let Mira ship me off the planet. I will give you the locations of all my safe houses in exchange. How does that sound?” Shreya continued on, ignoring the sounds Holden had made and reminding me why I had fallen in love with her in the first place. But I knew even how much her offer was tempting, how logical it was, Holden wouldn’t go for it. Not here and not now. She kept humiliating him in front of his men, and that was unacceptable.
Holden nodded to the man holding Shreya, and the man forced her down on her knees violently. So hard that there was a loud thud on the floor as she hit it.
I grimaced, having to look away.
“What makes you think I won’t get that information, anyway?” Holden snarled.
“Of course, you can. There is no doubt about that, Mr. Holden,” Shreya said. “Yet, if you are going to take over and run with the politicians and rest of the lot, who think highly of themselves, you better learn to use diplomacy to get what you want. You can’t go and kill everyone who crosses you. You will run out of friends, and here on this planet, you need friends to get ahead.” This time around, Shreya got the better of Holden. He kicked her in her stomach. She doubled over, gasping for breath.
I automatically dashed towards her but I was kicked away by Holden’s men.
When Shreya got her breath back, she lifted her eyes to meet Holden’s and smiled. “Just what I thought of you back then and now. You won’t work well in this world, and you are not the man to take over the empire I have built.” She laughed.
Holden was about to kick her again, but he and I and all the men around Shreya were blown away with force. It felt like an invisible pulse had hit me. I collided with the kitchen island and banged my head, unable to get up. Shreya stood up from her knees and lowered to her luggage, lifting some sort of machine from it. A device that had a moment ago looked like a handle, but it turned to remind a gun as she twisted it around. She aimed it at Holden, and I heard him gurgle, and then there was silence. One by one, Shreya killed off Holden’s men. I could not look away even when I wanted to. I was sure if I moved my head, something would crack.
When she was done, she walked toward me and smiled. “Thank you, hon. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without you. No hard feelings.”
All I could do was groan.
She turned her weapon back into a handle and put it on the luggage. “Now, I must go.” She faced me once again. “The police will be here soon enough. I’ll make sure of that.” That said, she walked away, hauling the luggage behind her.
I stayed there slumped against the kitchen island, listening to the sirens wail and then the thumping as my ship’s door was taken from its hinges. Soon the police came.
“There’s someone alive here,” an officer said as she lowered over me.
I blinked, but that was all the communication I could do.
The officer was ordered not to move or touch me. I was left for the paramedics, and they took me in an armed convoy to the hospital. The following weeks went in a haze. I had a spinal fracture on my back. I waited for a surgery, where they would install organic plates to strengthen what was broken. Otherwise, I would lose my ability to walk. During that time, I was questioned by the police, but they made it clear that I was good as gone if I spoke. So I kept my mouth shut and let them charge me with obstructing the justice and all the bogus indictments they could think of. As soon as I got out of the surgery, I was sent to jail. I could never fly again. Not without becoming someone else. No one who had a criminal record was allowed to leave the planet. But I knew a guy who could make me a new identity. I counted the days I got out, and then I would leave this miserable place and never look back. On Mars, I could make a new life, and who knows, even take a jump to the reaches of the known universe. Here on Earth, nothing was keeping me. So I thought, then I got a smuggled note from Shreya, and she once again turned my life upside down.
Thank you for reading, and have an adventurous day ❤
P.S. Sorry about taking three months to post my short story. I have been struggling to continue writing this one. Maybe I should go back to writing short stories in one sitting rather than trying to construct longer pieces. I always felt giddy about testing some element or pondering questions in those shorter stories. They let me be in the moment and let the situation flow. Let’s see.
© K.A. Ashcomb