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A Short Ride in a Fast Machine

By Firerose
Page 3 of 3

That miserable little Delta pickpocket had just stolen the wallet from one of my fellow passengers while he was unconscious!

Well, he wasn't staring smirking into my face now. Looked like he was about to vomit, actually: his skin as grey as his coveralls, his eyes glued to my feet.

'I didn't mean it,' the object in front of me whined.

I wondered what would become of him if I reported his action, like a dutiful Federation citizen. Theft of items over two hundred and fifty credits in value was a category-five offence. Given the circumstances, clemency seemed unlikely, he would probably face transportation.

'Look it just dropped out, mister, honest...' He glanced up at me, probably to see how I was taking his lies. His face, under its sheen of sweat, appeared soft, child-like. His eyes, despite his grey complexion, were a surprisingly dark shade of brown. His lank hair could have been any colour, it needed a wash so badly. And his fingernails... I involuntarily stepped a pace backwards. I couldn't remember when I'd last been this close to a Delta.

I'd spoken to the Gamma who cleaned my office. Once. I think.

Transportation. Rumour had it that it was essentially equivalent to execution: few of the prison planets were capable of supporting subsistence agriculture, or even had drinkable surface water.

So: was I a dutiful enough citizen to sentence this fellow citizen to death?

What did I care about the Administration, anyway? What had the Administration ever done for me? Nothing but a succession of dull and unlucrative posts that mocked my intellect.

And if I felt my talents were above the law, might not he feel the same?

I gestured abruptly sideways with my eyes, watched him scutter off, like a woodlouse seeking its damp hiding place, leaving behind that characteristic but indescribable unwashed Delta odour.

The medics finally arrived, began to fuss around my unconscious, wallet-free, fellow passenger. The blonde woman who'd been sitting opposite me also appeared to have been slightly injured. Her face, in so far as one could discern under the make-up, looked very pale. Drops of blood were splashing onto her gold bangle from a minor laceration near the elbow. I wondered if I should do something -- what? -- then a medic broke free of the horizontal male, who seemed to be showing signs of regaining consciousness, began to comfort the woman. Not that she seemed to need comforting, no feminine hysterics at the sight of her own blood from her.

Strangely, the person who was behaving in an unseemly fashion was a man, a tall bulky man -- an Offworlder by his clothes -- kneeling on the ground by a grimy tarpaulin and weeping openly, publicly, rocking his upper body back and forth. I disliked personal contact, but deemed it expedient, as the only conscious Alpha male, to try to terminate this spectacle.

Suddenly I was aware of a shadow, a black figure hovering over me a few metres away. Black meant Alpha, I'd learned that much, and those silver epaulettes denoted high rank in this super-stratified society. I dragged myself back to the present -- another official to deal with. The man looked uneasy for some reason, his arms clasped behind his back in a slightly unnatural pose.

'Is something wrong?' he enquired, his voice cold and shiny like a polished granite pebble.

And I wanted to cry out at the top of my voice, my Mirrie's dead, my beautiful betrayed Mirrie's dead, and they want to take her away! But I thought of home, of the self-respect that I'd had on Demeter that I seemed to have lost somehow travelling here to Earth, and said only, 'My wife is dead,' with all the quiet dignity I could muster.

Then when he continued to glare at me, I focused on the one thing in the churning heap occupying my head that might be changeable. 'And they won't let me take her body back to Demeter to bury. I don't have enough Terran credits for the ... freight.' I bowed my head.

'Officer. Officer!' The official who'd been avoiding me since I'd refused to give up Mirrie's body strolled over to us. 'There seems to have been a misunderstanding. This man's wife...'

'Mirrie ... umm ... Miriam Gan.'

'... was killed in the accident. He wishes her body to be relocated to Demeter. I'm sure that I can rely on you to see to the necessary paperwork, Lieutenant...'

'Holden, sir.' The man had straightened up, now he clicked his heels together and added, 'Lieutenant Holden, 20153, sir. Pleased to be of assistance to you, sir.'

The first man silently held out a small black plasteen card. For a moment I gaped, not sure what to do, then remembered that we'd been issued with plasteen cards -- though ours were green with an oval symbol in one corner -- and a tiny metal reader when we first arrived at the spaceport. Apparently there were so many people in the Earth domes now that the law required everyone to carry identification. I fished in my pockets, dug out the reader, stood fumbling with it. Which way up did the card go?

The man took it from me, ran his card over it with practised ease and returned the device, saying, as much to Lieutenant Holden as to me, 'If there is any difficulty, contact me.' Then added in an undertone, 'Someone in your hotel will be able to show you how to use the reader.'

He nodded his head once and stalked off, hands again clasped firmly behind his back.

I turned back to the officer, took a deep breath, pushed thoughts of both Mirrie and Lexa to the back of my mind, and started, 'Lieutenant...'

'Are you all right?' An unfamiliar voice penetrated the cottonwool that surrounded me.

All right. What did that mean? What had happened?

'The way you looked I thought you must be a goner. But then they didn't cover your body with a tarpaulin like the one over there.' Female. Young. Posh.

I opened my eyes. A blonde head slowly swung into focus. She was dabbling at her cheeks with something I couldn't see, scrutinising the results in a compact. I didn't know her.

'Don't you remember? Short-term memory loss, that's it. You were sitting next to me on the mono.'

Mono? Monotrain?

'The last thing I remember is sprinting up some rolling stairs,' I said.

'That's right, you nearly missed it!'

It was coming back to me now. I sat up. The light hurt my eyes. I was sitting on a stretcher, on a platform, in the open air, or at least the nearest dome equivalent. The slight breeze invaded my coveralls through a rip in the arm.

'We're waiting for a medic to sign us into the hospital transport,' she said, with a pout of her painted lips. 'Bureaucracy...'

Bureaucracy, that I understood. But something was wrong. Not just my head, my ribs, my arm. Something else. Fuck. My wallet. I could no longer feel its comforting presence against my waistband.

'Someone says it was a fault in the track. If my father knew I was injured, he'd probably sue them for millions of credits.' Then she paused, looked a little confused. 'But as soon as I get out of hospital,' she added confidingly, patting her bandaged arm, 'I'm going to Scandium Five.' I guessed the woman must be in shock, she didn't look the type to confide in strangers.

I lunged -- ouch! -- and managed to brush the front of my coveralls with my one free arm, before subsiding in a coughing fit. Fuck. It really had gone. Maybe one of the medics had taken it? Or, more likely, someone had stolen it while I'd been unconscious. Shit.

'It's a frontier world, you know.'

There were all those downloaded credits, ready to send home for Rheanna. What the fuck was I going to do about Rheanna now?

'I'm going to visit my aunt there.'

Rheanna. Christ. What on Earth, or Scandium Five even, was I going to do? So much for spending credits in the gym. Where could I ever get another three hundred credits from?

I turned away from the lieutenant, and a voice cut through my muddled thoughts.

'My uncle's going to teach me to fly!'

Suddenly I was back home on Demeter again, under the sloping eaves of the attic, the spring sunlight slanting in through the open casement the way you never saw sunlight here in the domes, and in my cupped hands I held a bird with Mirrie's head and Mirrie's bright green eyes. And it flew through the window and up and up and up towards the sun.

Then swooping down, faster and faster, plumage dark and glinting against the sun. Pecking Lexa's eyes out.

Lexa was still laughing.

The title derives from one of two Fanfares for Orchestra by John Adams

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