D. S. White
The author tells me his inspiration comes from newspaper articles. I suggest he subscribes to a less sensational periodical.
The rivets on a side panel popped out and the panel disappeared. The vastness of space sucked it up and took it away. Someday it would fall into a black hole. More rivets popped. Another panel, gone. The ship was falling apart fast. I applied power to the pair of thrusters on both sides of the ship to see if they could physically push the walls together. To keep the ship from falling into a million pieces. Little did it help. I watched in horror as more panels disappeared.
We had entered an asteroid field on our way across the Algol System, also known as home of the Demon Star. Dimity watched me maneuver the ship, looking over my shoulder, commenting on possible moves, giving me faulty advice, leading me into possibilities that would have landed us hard against any one of half a dozen planets, if I'd listened to him. The team of scientists who had employed us, buckled down in the back, didn't dare ask what was going on. I dodged another asteroid and watched another panel disappear off the ship.
The triple suns created havoc with our gravitational prediction models. I could think of only one way to keep a ship like this from falling apart under these conditions. I forced the bow upward, past the equatorial line the planets followed, bringing us closer to what some would call north, above the polar regions of the revolving members of the Algol System. The asteroids thinned out. I saw a pattern in the field and punched a way through. Because I was that kind of pilot. I was something else. Dimity could thank me later. The scientists could thank me later. They could all thank me later, but I had a feeling they wouldn't. This trip was about money.
I'd just met Dimity for the first time, before embarking. A team of scientists funded by a grey market corporation had needed a ride. Grey companies like this one operated in that region between legal and illegal, more often referred to as extra-legal by the courts. Little did guys like Dimity care about the courts. They could all go screw themselves, as far as he was concerned. That's why the researcher team had hired us. He had the ship and I had the skills to navigate through difficult places like the Algol System, with an uncharted asteroid field.
When we arrived unscratched, aside from the damage to the ship, and physically looking a decade older than when we'd left, Dimity wanted me to pay for the fuel. I couldn't get it through his thick Cobwebian head that I had been hired to pilot the ship. Without me, he wouldn't have made a single peso. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. The idea of an equal partnership between us was too big a concept for him to grasp. That we were working together never took hold. Expenses should have been paid for by the corporation funding the research. I said no to Dimity and he'd never stopped demanding the money from me. You'd think the past faded, but with Dimity, it didn't. He couldn't stop thinking about it. That was over ten years ago.
Dimity, Kathra and I sat on a bench at the bus stop. Behind us, graffiti and alien signatures. The city, covered in smog. My eyes burned. Hover buses came and went and still we sat. Dimity pointed his finger in my face, the same old song and dance, but I tuned out his banter. I had more to worry about than him. I'd suffered from reoccurring bouts of blood poisoning since my youth. It had something to do with missing organs in my body and synthetic replacements made from cheap parts. But Dimity kept going on about the accumulating debt I owed him. He pointed out the compounding problem of late payments. When I shook my head no, he said he wanted my false teeth. It had finally come down to that. I didn't have much else to offer, and he knew it.
I couldn't stop worrying about having blood poisoning. I could sense it coming on, every time. The false teeth between my jaws couldn't absorb the poison, but it would have been a good laugh if Dimity had managed to get them out of me and had sold them to some clueless soul. He wouldn't stop going on and on about yanking them from my jaws, right on the spot, in exchange for all that he claimed I owed.
Kathra sat on the other end of the bench, on the other side of me. She wanted to leave in a hurry. And while she moaned on and on about it, another hover bus came and went, and still we sat there, our interpersonal issues unresolved. She tugged on my elbow, mentioning the Kelgon salts we could harvest out on the moons of Arapaho, and how the price had gone up over a fortnight. She had been yammering about going into business together for several weeks now, telling me to keep my eye open for prospects. While I pretended not to listen, she extrapolated market dynamics with her fingers in the air, and gibbered whatnot, making claims I couldn't even understand. Now that the depression had turned worse than projected, we'd better act fast, she said.
When you don't have many friends, you can't afford to be picky. That's how I'd ended up here, on a bench with two self-obsessed borderline participants in the human race. I had her on one side spouting her strange ideas on how we could make a fortune in market returns and Dimity on the other side yammering about the debt I owed him and the trending value of my false teeth. The smog shifted and put a clamp on my mood. I couldn't tell if it might have been from the blood poisoning or just the annoyance of trying to make sense out of things when talking to a couple of people with heads full of shredded particle matter. Neither of them cared about my health, I could see. Not at all. I could have dropped dead on the spot and they'd probably have picked up and moved on without much concern. Who needed friends like that? Still, here I was.
Someone had to make a decision about what to do next and that someone couldn't be either one of them. I stood up. Then I sat down. What a rush! I stilled my mind and slowed my heart. Then I stood up again, this time with reservations, but also with motivation enough to get to the clinic before I passed out. The poison had found its way to the pathways running to my brain. I saw spots in the air and they weren't just from debris floating in the smog.
The clinic couldn't have been more than five intersections away. I counted the road crossings on my fingers as we walked through each one: thumb, index finger, middle finger, stop light. Two more to go. A shaman had once taught me to how meditate, to slow my heart, but I couldn't focus my mind well, what with Dimity and Kathra distracting me on either side. I held my hands up and tried to shush them, with little results.
Dimity barked, "Does this road take us to the bank? I'm expecting full payment."
I ignored him. Instead, I counted things as I waited for the light to change. I had this habit of counting things all the time. It helped to pass the time. Seven white stripes in the crosswalk. Four windows in each hover car. Two people standing next to me, neither one with an IQ worth mentioning. Fourteen windows in the building across the street, all with bars, five of them with broken glass.
"The Kelgon salts, the markets-" Kathra said, but I shook her by the shoulders and she paused.
"We'll come back to that. Prices fluctuate. Money comes and goes. We'll consider our options after I see a man."
"What kind-?" She hesitated, nervous twitches exhibited by the muscle spasms in her neck, realigning the tilt of her head.
"A clean doctor."
She backed up a step. She turned and did a visual once-over of Dimity. As if the two had been on opposites sides of me all morning and neither had been listening to the other talk. Dimity wanted money and she had a way to get it. The only thing they needed just happened to be me, a pilot, the kind who could navigate through a gravitational meat grinder and back without much more than a scratch on his tail fin.
The traffic light changed. I shook them off and took a step forward, leaving them behind to argue about the possibility of the price of Kelgon dropping before they arrived there. And where would they get the mining equipment? Salts mostly lay on the surface, left over by tides from eons ago when the moons had oceans. They could be scooped up without much trouble and shipped off to packing plants. All in all, that required planning, time and money. And a pilot with a big enough ship.
Sometimes blood poisoning runs thick, stopping the heart. And sometimes blood poisoning is just a way of describing how people think, the craziest notions taking them to the fringe. In my case, I had the real thing. As far as Kathra and Dimity went, they both were coming down with a bad case of salt fever. Kelgon salts could be packed along the walls of the inner chambers of Pentox engines, keeping the thrusters from getting too hot. And, as everyone knew, without a Pentox, you might as well try and hitchhike across the galaxy.
I'd almost made it half way through the intersection when they caught up and grabbed me by the arms. We stood in the middle of the lane, hovering vehicles preparing to accelerate once the light changed. Neither would let go until I promised to navigate a way for them to the moons of Arapaho. Dimity emphasized how he was going to rip my false teeth right out of my head right here and right now if I didn't comply. Kathra, meanwhile, couldn't stop reciting details about the inverse relationship between the depression and the market value for Kelgon. I attempted to wave at the people in the hover cars, hoping they would be so nice as to wait until I got out of the way. A little boy with a stuffed toy in one hand waved back. The numbers next to the traffic light counted down. We had less than a minute to go.
I'd met Kathra when she'd looked beautiful. Somehow, time hadn't treated her like a lady. She hadn't been more than a young flower when her parents had begged me to take her with me. Her mother and father had been struggling to keep a farm on a distant outpost from disappearing into the sand. It had came down to the wars. And the depression. And the trouble with the stellar storms. Entire star systems had swept their way through gasses in space and been relieved of any sign of life. Her folks had made me promise I'd keep her safe. I guess in a way I owed her something, by now. Maybe I owed Dimity something, too. Maybe I had a soft side. I suspected her parents might have been disappointed in the way I'd turned out. Maybe I owed them something, too. If the poison hadn't been pulsing through my veins at this moment, I'd have made a sincere effort to find out what had become of them.
Over the years, Kathra disappeared from time to time. I never asked her where she went. She had turned legal by now and could make decisions for herself. My pledge to be her guardian had grown thin. Just like Dimity's demands for money.
"Listen, Dimity," I said.
"I'm not giving you my false teeth and I'm not paying you for that ship."
"What? You have to."
"No. I don't. Get over it."
"I'm gonna break every bone in your head, if you don't."
"And what then? Then you'll never get nothing."
"Satisfaction. I'll get my satisfaction."
I put my hands together like I was praying. "Let's get out of this intersection. After I see this doctor, I'll listen to your plans. But I'm not paying for something that happened over a decade ago."
"Because I'm not."
I shook free and made it to the next platform just as the light changed. They landed next to me, not more than half a breath short of a visit to the afterlife. A hover craft beeped a dissonant beep, passed us and sped on. Dimity gestured at it, both fists punching the air.
After waiting in a long line, and finally getting seated in a white room, I met a doctor who pressed some medication into my hand. I downed the cup and he returned to scribbling on a chart with diagrams of my brain. From this angle the page looked relatively vacant of information. He pushed his pen deep into the paper as he filled in missing details. I fought to keep the clock from slowing down. The medication should have done something right away, but nothing happened. I waited. He scribbled. I yawned. He glanced up at me and returned to his word puzzle. I felt a wave of nausea pass below my ribs and rammed my head into his garbage can.
The inside of the garbage can reminded me of simulations I'd seen of passing through theoretical hyperspace. It was curved and reflective and what you saw in the depths resembled a mirrored version of yourself throwing up. When I pulled my head out and sat back down, I noticed my forehead swelling. The pressure on my skull pinched my nose and expanded outward. I tried not to act like anything had changed, but as my forehead grew in size, I had trouble seeing the doctor. A gigantic slab of flesh dropped down over my nose and I squinted, leaning back in my chair to see. The doctor hardly noticed. Then he noticed.
"Stop it. Sit up," he said. "We've got complaints from seven doctors, all saying you requested a visit with the same symptoms, a case of blood poisoning. You've got nothing wrong with you at all. I'd say you just need some rest."
I sat up and the pain in my forehead disappeared. "What?"
"The pills I gave you were a placebo."
"Wait a minute. What am I paying you for, then?"
"Professional advice. Get over whatever it is that makes you think you're being poisoned. See a doctor, if you have to. I mean the other kind of doctor, not like me. One for the inside of your head."
He had his pen in the air like he wanted to stab me. I got up and walked out without paying. Kathra and Dimity were waiting in the hall, talking. I mean, they were standing close together, and talking. I saw something then, something of a spark between them, and a future with no bounds. I'd never thought anything like that could be possible between a pair like those two. She had the goods and he wanted to get his hands full. Why had I never noticed before how attractive she still looked?
"Let's go eat," I said.
"You're paying," Dimity said and spit at the floor.
Kathra wrapped her arm around his and together we left in search of meat.
Throughout dinner, they kept at it, eyes locked on to each other, and talking about this plan of theirs. They'd share the wealth. A full partnership. As if Dimity had never thought of the concept of a partnership before. I was sure it had all been Kathra's idea. And where did I fit in, in all this? Making payments for my debt, apparently. Dimity still wanted my false teeth.
The lights dimmed, the atmosphere turned heavy, the room reeked of animals on fire, and I took another bite. The pressured eased off my temples. Beef eateries of this low class were rare, full of bad reputations at every table, just the way I liked it. This one was a favorite of mine, serving the best slab of meat this side of the interstellar farm. I tuned out the conversation between Dimity and Kathra and drank more wine, letting my head fall back and my brain spin. I made the mistake of clicking my false teeth. Dimity noticed.
A phone in my shirt pocket beeped and I flipped it open. Port security had something to say about a ship bursting into flames. A ship I had been responsible for. I'd been hired to keep the ship in prime condition, ready to go as soon as anyone wanted a ride out of here. If the report of a fire held any truth, my skin would burn for it.
I climbed out of the door first, Dimity and Kathra no more than two steps behind me. When we got there, all that remained in the parking spot was the hull of a vessel covered in tar and flame-retarding foam. I asked who had moved my ship and security explained that the disfigured mess of burned wires in front of us was my ship. The ship I was responsible for. I wept. I broke apart inside. My heart ripped open as I sat down on the floor. Then they told me I had to clean it up. Get the hull out of the way. Refinish the floors. Put a new seal on the hangar. It would cost a fortune. My employer would send me the bill.
Dimity tugged on Kathra's elbow. He knew of a ship they could rent in the next space hub, three clicks away. They could find another pilot. He said he would come back later and extract my teeth, when they returned. I sat with my head on my knees and let them go.
I didn't see Dimity again for many years. Kathra went on to make a fortune in the Kelgon business. I should have listened to her. All the debt I had accumulated in just this one pocket of space finally caught up to me. I had to pay for the meal at the restaurant, not my bill, really not. And the doctor. I didn't see why I owed him that much for a placebo, not that much at all. That bill should have added up to less than the fin off a silver dollar. The ship I was responsible for had to be craned out of the port, and I had to pay for rubbish disposal and replacing the interior of the hangar. Without a credit to my name, I was sentenced to ten years in the soul mines. The place they sent me wasn't called the soul mines because you dug for souls down there. It's where you went and lost your soul. Ten years felt like a wasted lifetime. Most people never came back to the surface of the planet again. It was pretty close to a bad carbon copy of hell.
I had a lot of time to think while down in the soul mines. I revisited my childhood. My family had occupied a square of desert on an uncharted planet. By now, my home world is on the maps, but it took a while to get there. I'd never known my dad. My mother had been terrible with hygiene and by my teenage years I'd lost most of my teeth, my gums rotted out, dental care nowhere to be found. It hurt. It hurt a lot.
It hurt my pride more than anything as I'd never landed a girlfriend. By graduation, I'd found a job, low to moderate income, and with my first paycheck, I started making payments on a set of false teeth. Mother was dead set against it. She said they'd give me an allergic reaction. My rage boiled in response to her suggestion that none of this had been her fault. The suffering in my jaw from the rotting of the roots of my teeth had become unbearable. In agony, I traveled to the southern end of the planet to meet a shaman who taught me how to meditate, how to tune out the pain that oscillated in my mind. The shaman lived in a valley covered in snow. In the afternoons, the sun would melt the ice, the water running off down into the land of farmers below. At night, the snow would fall again, covering the temple and the mountain peaks. I'd learned servitude from the shaman and devotion to a deity that no one had ever depicted before.
Sometimes, in the soul mines, the blood poisoning would come back to me. Forget what the doctors had said. They didn't know what they were talking about. It would hit the worst when my mind showed cracks in it. Some say blood poisoning happens when toxins entered the body. Some say it is brought on by a bitterness in the soul. In my case, it worked like a disparity in my thoughts, anguish and desire fighting with each other on the way to the pinnacle of my brain. I survived the heat and the pressure and the intense pain of the soul mines by mediation. I slowed my heart, cleared my head, lost all attachments to time and space, and paid my dues. When my ten years came to a close, I breached the surface, dangling long white hair and a twisted beard from my skull, my face filled with wrinkles, my thoughts nearly gone. The cracks had grown wide down there.
I acquired a room in the blind district. It didn't matter that I could see, as nobody there could see that I could. I came and went up and down the streets like the faint reverberation of water dropping deep into a well. The blind took me in as one of their own and shared scraps of food with me when they floated down the gutter. The four walls of the room I resided in had hand prints on them, soot-black, evenly spaced, at about the same height as the door knob. I slept on a cot of magazines about a decade thick. To pay for the room, I picked up a job adjusting the tension on the wires strung between electrical towers. I learned to do it with my eyes closed.
Coming home every Saturday night, we'd gather around the community table and play cards. The blind play cards by touch. The queen of hearts feels like velvety soft skin. The jack of hearts is limp, bent and wrinkled. The king has edges sharp as a crown of thorns. I learned them all. I played fast. I looked at the cards from time to time when I forgot which was which. Nobody discovered my technique. Still, I hardly won. The blind can be ruthless when it comes to a game of chance.
When Dimity sat down at the table to play, one day, deep into the winter of my life, I pretended I couldn't see him there. I dealt the cards, skipping his chair.
"Partner, I want in," he said and coughed.
"Stakes are high," I whispered, feeling the edge of the table and finding the stack of cards and cutting them.
"No price is too high for me, partner."
"You sound eager to win."
"Eager for that set of false teeth in your head." He snorted mucus from his nostrils, coughed, and spit on the floor. "Are you sure you don't know me?"
The blood poisoning ran high. I cleared my mind, meditating on a valley covered in snow with roses blooming in the cold. The anguish. The desire. Neither would ever let go of my soul. I told them to let go. My mind was pulsing. My heart pushing. The blood roaming. I took the teeth out of my head and slid them across the table. Dimity picked them up and put them in his mouth, biting into the rubbery gums with his own set of mismatched teeth.
"Sat. Is. Fac. Tion." He snapped each syllable out, his jaw stuck open. "At. Last."
That's when the blood poisoning hit him. It hit him hard. His throat swelled up. He couldn't breathe. The room stilled. The blind waited. The world spun. He kept hitting the table. Then he fell over. I searched the edge of the table, found the deck of cards, split it, and dealt another round. When you've survived the soul mines, the little things no longer matter. Satisfaction is merely a mortal wound.
I won that next round of cards. I won and owed no one. I took my teeth back from Dimity and put them back in my mouth. With my winnings, I bought a ship and filled it with my blind neighbors, giving them each a berth to sleep in. The cracks in my mind grew wider now. I drove the ship hard, bringing everyone back to my home world. After passing through the cold atmosphere, I landed the ship next to the valley of the shaman.
For the blind, there's a land with no thorns, a place where there's nothing to puncture the skin and let the poison out. There, the sun rises in the sky and the roses come alive, the snow melting, fresh water cascading down into the valley below. When I asked the blind what they thought about the place, they said it was a little cold there, but beautiful.
We taught the shaman how to play cards. He'd never seen a game of chance before. I searched the edge of the table, found the deck of cards, split it, and dealt another round. He never won a single round. He died the next day, leaving me heir to the temple. My acolytes help me maintain order, although they can't see. We receive donations from an anonymous source, someone who always signs as "K". I'm pretty sure they come from Kathra, who is rich beyond imagination today, the queen of Kelgon salts.
Those who are in pain come to us from across the universe. We teach them to slow their hearts and ease their minds. We pick rose petals from the roses growing in the valley and make cups of tea. We give the tea out to those who visit us, who pray to a deity that has no likeness.
And every time we make more tea, it grows sweeter still.
© D.S.White 2018 All Rights Reserved
Date and time of last update 10:48 Thu 15 Feb 2018
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