Hello Internet! Please welcome back Ki Brightly for Flash Fiction Friday. In her short, Skipping Stars, we meet Zane and Jerome two men on a journey through space and trying to confront the space between them. Save one small issue of their newest passenger, Iggy, the loudmouth African Gray.
by Ki Brightly
“That is the biggest bird I have ever seen, Captain. What are you going to do with it?” Jerome side eyes me and I find myself glaring at him out of habit, but finally, I shrug and he snorts out a small stuttering snicker. The nav room in my passenger shuttle is small, and he takes up most of the space, his head brushing the ceiling. He ducks to run a hand through his buzzed short blond hair and we both stare down the gray bird perched on the back of the pilot’s chair. It’s an old terra African Gray. I’ve never been to old Earth to see the ruins, but I’m told it was one of the species saved during the mass evac. He’s pretty, in a wild way, with his shiny black eyes and smoky feathers that look like maybe some of the softest stuff I’ve ever seen. I run a finger down the recycled fabric of my black, long-sleeved shirt. I’ve never been able to afford natural fibers. The bird’s sleek feathers are downright luxurious. I don’t know anyone who streaks a passenger shuttle between the worlds who can afford naturals…well, maybe the smugglers are able, but I’ve never had the nerves for that sort of work.
“Fucking Finders. Bunch of vultures!” shrieks the bird as he bobs his head. Jerome and I both jump then Jerome’s brilliant laughter infuses the small space with the easy joy he takes in life.
“Charming,” I mutter. The hard planes of Jerome’s face crack with his wide smile. My breath stops for a moment.
“It won’t do well on our rig. Next time the grav-puller goes on the fritz you’re going to have bird shit bouncin’ all around.” I grunt out an affirmative and he shakes his head.
“I hadn’t considered that,” I say, wrinkling my nose. “They weren’t allowing old terra animals onto E-TF-3 yet because they weren’t sure the terraforming could support even the recently settled inhabitants, and Mr. Jensen was …well, have you ever seen a grown man cry? Coming up on the end of his own life, and all he could worry about was this…” I shrug and wave my hand at hand in the direction of the bird. He blinks at me then a sound that I can only describe as metal grating on metal comes from the irritating animal. Jerome cackles. When I narrow my eyes on my engineer he attempts to swallow his laughter. He stands there with his lips pressed in a tight line, shoulders shaking. “Anyway…they were going to slaughter Iggy here, and…well…” My face heats as the snickering from my engineer fills the small cabin again.
“So you took ‘im?”
“I’ll see what I can do by way of a cage. We probably have something in the hold.” There’s a softness around Jerome’s eyes as he studies me that makes me squirmy inside. Because I want to see it or because it embarrasses me I’m not sure. A man can’t afford to want those sorts of things when he’s constantly hustling to pay bills and keep his rust heap ship space ready.
“Fucking Finders!” Iggy growls. The whistle that follows is shrill and I shrink away from the parrot.
“Jensen must have hated smugglers. Wonder why? He was just an old man from the Sirius system,” I say more to myself than Jerome, then sip at my fizzy caf-water. The jolt of energy that powers through my body from my drink has my entire body tingling. I’m addicted, but I’ve never met a space worker who wasn’t.
“Probably had something worth stealing,” Jerome drags out his words, making them a slow, almost sensual drawl. I fidget and he grins at me. He isn’t trying to crowd me as he tilts his head and leans toward me, he just takes up a lot of space. I catch my reflection in the dark, fortified glass of the starflecked windscreen. I’ve always looked ridiculously dainty next to Jerome, and today is no different. I’m short and slim, and he’s a hulking wide man. My short hair is dark and his is light. We’re opposite in almost every way possible, and I’d do well to remember that while opposites attract, they usually don’t stay stuck together. I clear my throat and meet his twinkling blue eyes. “S-TF-2 abandoned?” he asks as he tilts his head.
“Yeah. The transplants called it Artema. Word is the terraforming wasn’t taking off on its own. The government wanted to reseed and boom it again,” I mumble. Iggy whistles and flaps his wings. I frown at the bird. If it’s always this loud maybe I should have let it become fricassee.
“I might have picked up some ground exploration suits when we docked at Explorer Station last month.” Jerome wiggles his eyebrows and my gut sinks like we’re taking a re-entry too fast.
He shuffles half a step closer and cranes his neck toward me. His breath brushes my ear in a warm gush. “Aren’t you sick of rattling around this falling apart ship, Zane? If we made one good haul somewhere you could trade this in for something I don’t have to hold together with spit and electrical tape.” His breath is warm on my cheek. I huff out a sigh and turn away to admire the star studded darkness of space while I chug the last of my caf-water from a chipped ceramic mug I can’t quite bring myself to throw away. I am tired of the life I’ve been living. We’re always hustling. There’s never much time for anything else. I’ve been so lonely. Maybe if I had a bigger ship, could make more money…haul some cargo for the government…maybe I could get a fucking life.
“It’s illegal.” That’s the only argument I can muster. Jerome groans.
“Well, Compliance agents, for one,” I mutter.
“I can’t stay on this rig forever at what you can afford to pay me.” My heart starts to race in a way that has nothing to do with my caf-water. I almost fall on my ass as I spin around toward a shame faced Jerome. There’s a quiet apology in his eyes, and his shoulders are slouched. “I don’t want to go, but I have debts, Z. Please? Can we…I mean, it could be nothing, but…”
I force myself to work around the panic that the thought of Jerome leaving inspires. It’s worse than air lock failure. My entire brain seems to crush in on itself and refuse to work. This is dumb. I can’t feel this way about a crewman, but…but I do. There have been too many long days he’s made bearable for me. “I have Jensen’s estate address in the passenger records. We could go take a look, but don’t you think he would have unloaded whatever it is before he went space side?” My hands are steady on my mug, but everything down to my guts seems to be shaking around inside me.
“No one worries about Finders who is dealing legally.”
Going to a Compliance brigg for the next twenty years for smuggling doesn’t sound like a fun time, but losing Jerome, whom I’ve started to count on seeing rattling around my ship every day, seems worse. “What if they’ve boomed and reseeded the planet already?” There’s a helplessness in my words that causes Jerome’s eyes to tighten. He frowns and drops one of his large, oil stained hands onto my shoulder.
“Can we at least check?” he asks as his thumb digs into a knot in my shoulder I didn’t even realize was there. I find myself almost ready to melt from his small, friendly touch and the heat of embarrassment blazes through me, but I don’t ask him to stop.
“I always—” the words come out as a croak. I clear my throat and try again. “I always run clean. I don’t even pick up undocumented passengers.”
“Turn,” he orders. I shuffle until my back is facing him. I watch both of our reflections in the glass. His large body brackets mine. He digs his work strong fingers into both of my shoulders and it hurts in that way that’s actually good as he forces my muscles to unclench. The heat of his fingers, touch, is something I’ve been missing while we’ve been planet hopping. I haven’t had a touch I haven’t paid for, though, in a good long while, so this is…this is special. I squeeze my eyes shut and try to unclench so to enjoy it. “Which,” he says casually, resuming our conversation as if he’s not doing the most amazing things with his hands, “is why we’ll be fine. You have the squeakiest reputation of any captain I’ve ever worked for.” His impromptu massage lasts for another few minutes while I calculate the risks and pros.
Pro: If we find any terraforming equipment, even a haul of seed pods, we could sell them and be set for a long while. We have five core crew, and even splitting the take would be a good amount of money.
Risk: If we get caught I might find myself in a brigg or worse. If we run into real Finders we could be killed or captured and funneled into the outer world slave trade markets. My stomach clenches and I must tense because Jerome grunts then grips my shoulders hard. He smooths his hands along my back before he steps away and drops down into the seat that Iggy isn’t standing guard over. The bird whistles at me and I sigh.
“All right. We’ll go after we drop this run of passengers.”
Jerome smiles at me and it’s brighter than skipping too close to a star. Anything I can do to keep him here, a bright pop of possibility, suddenly seems worth it. Even if I never work up the nerve to pursue anything with him, it make me happy to be able to think about it. Besides, it’s a single run to an abandoned planet. What could go wrong?
If you liked this story, please check out Ki’s book Threefold Love.