The door swung open quickly, and the bell attached rang. Most people had electronic bells nowadays, but we were not most people. I looked up from my magazine at the man who had entered and was now milling around the store. He must have been new to the whole thing. He seemed nervous. He looked at a couple of shovels, a few gardening toolsets, whatever he could do to keep his gaze off of me. He was a first-timer. I’d been at this long enough to know. He was sweating a lot. Part of that was because he was wearing a leather jacket with the collar up around his neck, probably so no security cameras could place him. I decided to have a little fun, since I was on desk duty anyway.
“Isn’t it a little hot out for a leather jacket like that?”
He jumped when I spoke to him. I don’t think he expected me to say anything to him. Then again, maybe he was just intimidated because a beautiful woman was talking to him. I didn’t ask questions. That wasn’t my job.
He took the jacket off, smiling nervously.
“Uh… Yeah, I guess it is a little warm out.”
I had been leaning my forearms on the counter reading a magazine, and now I was standing upright, with my hands in the pockets of my apron.
“Is there anything I can help you find?” I asked, with a small smile.
He looked around, probably for a camera. I suppose he didn’t want to be caught.
“Uh… I’m… I’m looking for a rake?”
“Sorry, we don’t sell rakes here.”
He kept staring at me, but he was confused now.
“But… I… I need a rake.”
Now he was getting it right. I’ve turned people away for getting the code wrong, and it’s saved my ass a time or two. Cops and reporters always got the code wrong, but they could never get past the fence anyway. We were thorough. But this guy was clearly inexperienced. He couldn’t have been older than 19 or 20. Scrawny guy. Shaggy black hair. Jeans and a t-shirt with some band I’ve never heard of. Maybe I’m getting old.
…Maybe I ought to save that kind of question for when I’m not working.
I gave him a coy smile. He blushed a little.
“I suppose I can check the stockroom,” I said, turning to the door behind me that read “Employees Only”.
“Do you… Mind.. Uh… If I look, too?”
His knees were knocking together. He was really nervous. I couldn’t tease someone in that kind of state; maybe I’m getting soft in my old age.
“If it’ll make you feel better,” I said, holding the door open and waving toward it so he’d go first.
He seemed to steel his nerves before he walked through the door. I shut it behind me and led him through our “stockroom”.
When we came to a wall, he seemed puzzled.
“So… Do we just, like…” he gulped, “do it right here?”
I gave a small chuckle, not laughing at him, but at the situation.
“No, I’m running the front desk today and can’t leave. Trust me, it’ll be a lot more fun for you than doing it with me right here.”
I started to feel around on the wall for the latch, but when I couldn’t find it, I started pounding on the wall.
Three feet to my left, the door opened, and Ricardo poked his head out.
“Did you forget where the door was?”
“Yes, I forgot where the door was. Sue me.”
We stepped through the new doorway and into a stairwell, decorated to look more like an upscale hotel than a dingy home supply store.
“Sorry about Jakkie here,” Ricardo said to the young man. “She’s awfully forgetful.”
“Ricardo will take care of you from here. I have to get back to the front desk. Check in with me before you leave.”
The young man gave me a little smile, then turned to discuss things with Ricardo as I turned and closed the door.
I went back to the desk and back to the magazine. About six minutes later, the young man and Ricardo came back to the front desk. It appears his time was up, whether he liked it or not. Ricardo gave a small shake of the head as he came from the back room. That meant that I had better not say anything out of line.
“So, what will you be taking home?” I asked.
The young man was bright red, and wouldn’t make eye contact anymore.
“A shovel and a pair of gardening gloves,” Ricardo said, as he set both items on the counter. I scanned both barcodes and got a bag for the gloves.
“Your total comes to…”
Ricardo looked over, then interrupted me.
“$15,” Ricardo announced. The screen actually said $30. It was already a steal, all odds considered.
He pulled out $15 in cash and left as soon as it hit the desk.
I put it in the till, then turned to Ricardo, who had been laughing to himself as long as the young man had been gone.
“Poor kid,” he said. “He barely got started with Megan and then… Well, I’m sure you’ve seen it a time or two with kids that age.”
“Oh, I know a bit more about it than I’d like to admit,” I replied. I was too busy reading an article about a celebrity marriage to care. I can’t recall which couple, exactly.
“When I asked him what he wanted to interact with, he just said ‘Plain old-fashioned sex.’ I’m guessing it was his first time.”
“That’s the impression I got,” I said, still only half-listening.
“Well, at least he’ll have a hell of a story.” Ricardo had been scanning the room, but he turned to me to ask a question.
“Did you really forget where the door was?”
I looked up from my magazine.
“Yes, I did. It’s not like it’s labeled or anything.”
“That’s the third time this month.”
“Third. Once on the first, next, last Monday, and then today. Unless I can’t count anymore, that’s three.”
I sighed. “Maybe my memory is getting fuzzy as I’m getting old.”
“You’re 32,” Ricardo answered. He was… Concerned for me. Worried about me. I wasn’t exactly a fan of that.
“I’m fine, Ricky,” I said. He didn’t seem to believe me. “I’m just exaggerating.”
“You’re working tomorrow, right?” He always changed the subject when he was uncomfortable.
“Indeed I am,” I said, returning to my magazine. “Any particular reason you’re asking?”
“No, I just want to make sure you’re not overwhelmed. We all need to be in top form to keep this place running properly.”
“I know, Ric. If anyone knows, it’s me.”
* * *
The next day was when things got interesting.
The “morning” chunk was the usual customers: businessmen trying to convince themselves it was all right to have sex with a woman who looked like a little girl, and politicians trying to convince themselves that it was all right to have sex with a woman who looked like a man. We only had white-collar guys from 10am to 1pm. Every blue-collar bachelor who needed their fix would come in at the end of the work day. I always worked the morning shift; I’m willing to admit that I’m uppity at times. Besides, I’ve been doing this a lot longer than the other girls. Seniority helps in every industry, even the less-than-legal ones.
1pm rolled around, and I got ready to leave. I was already out the back door when Ric texted me to come back. He had never done that before.
“Ricardo, 1:14pm: You need to come back. Some guy came in and asked for you by name, then paid $1000 for your time. Cash.”
He was standing by the old computer we used for everything when I got back inside.
“A thousand? In cash?”
Ric dropped an envelope overflowing with cash on the desk in front of me.
“A thousand in cash. They’re real bills, too. Whoever this is, he must really want your services.”
I flipped through the cash quickly. A thousand bucks for less than an hour of my time is insane.
“Alright, now I’m starting to worry. What did he request?”
Ric pointed to the screen, silently. The old CRT screen had a single reservation.
“Name: Doe, John.
Scenario: Hapless Professor.”
This was wrong. Very, very wrong. Any girl could do the hapless professor scenario, and it certainly wasn’t worth a grand, unless the dollar really was that worthless.
“Jakkie, this seems off to me,” Ric said. He had the same look on his face from the day before. Genuine worry.
“I can handle myself, Ric. Don’t worry about it. You patted him down, didn’t you?”
“Well, yeah, but–”
“But nothing. A thousand dollars is a thousand dollars. We’ve needed some renovations around here, and that brings us closer to fixing things. So I’ll do it.”
I couldn’t let Ric think I was concerned. He’d have tried to talk me out of it. And at this point, I was too curious to let this go.
I went up to the changing room on the second floor. I took my time getting changed. I wasn’t really hesitant; but for a thousand bucks, I needed to give him his money’s worth. Anticipation is half the job.
I headed up two floors to the shower room. Since it was changeover time, only one girl was occupied, in the toyroom. I won’t go into detail; trust me, it’s as sick and twisted as you can imagine, if not worse.
I got into character just as I went through the door.
When I opened the door to the shower room, steam poured out immediately. He hadn’t wasted any time, I suppose. It was a little tough to see through all the steam, but I’d been in worse situations before.
“Krystal?” A male’s voice, roughly 40 years old. I could see through the steam that he was in character: scarf, blazer, and button-down shirt folded next to him, as he was wearing just slacks.
“Oh! Professor! I… I didn’t know you’d be–”
“Please, call me John. We don’t need to be so formal here.”
The advantages of a man who knows what he wants: he plays his part to a T.
I looked down at myself, avoiding eye contact like a shy schoolgirl. Since when did my skin look this good?, I thought. Of course, it only took a second to remember: hologram overlay. It adjusted my voice, appearance, and maybe even my language to match his expectations or needs. For all I knew, we were speaking Korean.
“In fact,” he said, breaking the silence, “I probably ought to leave. I didn’t know this was the girls’ shower.” He stood up, grabbing his things.
“Oh, you don’t have to do that,” I said, forcing myself to blush a little, “I don’t mind you being here. Though I am a little curious why you’re here.”
“Oh, you know…” He said, sitting back down. “I was fired for having an affair with a student, and my marriage fell apart after that. So, I’ve been sneaking in here to bathe and living wherever I can. It’s tough, but… I’ll manage.”
“Oh, wow. Well… John,” I said, with a little smirk, “why did you go for a student in the first place?”
I took a few steps toward him and put my arms behind my back.
“They have such a lust for life, you know? They’re so carefree and joyful. I’m sure I don’t have to explain all that to you.”
“Just tell me one thing, John… Are you still into students?”
I grabbed the towel from behind and pulled it so it came loose.
And then he started clapping, slowly.
“Wow. Absolutely fantastic,” he said, smiling wide. I gave him a puzzled look.
“You really are the best one here, huh? I suppose I should have believed my associates when they told me, but damn, did you give it your all. Was the blushing you or the holograms?”
Now I was getting angry. Who the fuck was this guy? And what was he so entertained by?
“Alright, you’ve got three fucking seconds–”
He stood up and quickly put a knife to my throat.
“No, I’ve got all the time in the world.”
A knife? Where’d he get a fucking knife? How did he get that downtown, much less all the way in here?
“Now let me explain to you what’s going on here,” he began. “I came to retrieve you because of your history. Your skillset.”
I know better than to mouth off when there’s a knife to my throat, but I was getting scared.
“Look, I don’t know what you need, but I promise, I’m nobody.”
“Are you nobody? Because last I heard, you were one of the best space pilots in this sector.”
Now I was really scared.
“What makes you think that?”
He grabbed his blazer and threw it over my head to block out the projectors. He recognized me instantly.
“Because my employer has made it very much worth my while to find you, and I have left no details up to chance. Chelsea Jakkard, we need your help.”
I think he saw my eyes widen when he said my name. Whoever he was, he knew me. He knew my entire life. He knew things that I hadn’t told anyone in seven years. Things no one should have known.
“Who… Who are you people?”
“Well, if you’re willing to come quietly, I can take you to meet my employer.”
“What’s the other option?”
“We cut the cameras, cut the power, and drag you out.”
I didn’t have to think hard about this.
“Mind if I put on some clothes?”
He lowered the knife. “I don’t mind at all.”
I grabbed the towel, shut off the water which, might I add, had been running the entire time, and headed down to put my clothes on again. I wasn’t going to try to run. It should be impossible to get into any of our cameras, but if they knew my name, they’d be able to get into our local computer system.
The Man was waiting for me when I came out. I led him down to the back door, then asked if he’d wait for me for a little while. He nodded, then turned to give me a little distance.
He was a few meters away, but hadn’t paid me any mind. I took customers out through the back all the time; he didn’t ask any questions.
He turned to look at me, and I think he could tell I was upset. He knew I didn’t get emotional, so he was really concerned when he saw me tearing up.
“Jakkie, what’s wrong? What did he do?”
“Nothing. I’m fine.”
“I said I’m fine. Now, Ricardo, I need you to listen to me, and listen closely. I’m going to be gone, maybe forever. I don’t know where I’m going, why, or even who wants me. I need you to do something for me.”
“What is it?”
Now Ricardo was tearing up. Seeing a 6’4″ man as wide as a truck crying would have been funny if it weren’t so damn heartbreaking.
“These are the keys to the safe in my office. I have a large amount of money stored away. Fix the place up, and keep it running. Put Megan in charge, she’s been here long enough. And most importantly, take care of yourself and the girls. They’re going to need someone to look to once I’m gone, and you’re going to need to help them through this.”
He stretched out a hand and took the keys, hesitating the whole way.
“Alright,” he said, his voice wavering slightly, “I’ll take care of it. Don’t you worry. Just… Make sure you come back safe, alright? I don’t know what I’d do if I found out you died somewhere crazy.”
“I promise I’ll come back safe. And Ricardo?”
He looked up from the keys in his hands.
“Thank you for everything.”
I turned and walked away, and tried to ignore the man crying behind me.
“You ready to go?” The Man was waiting just outside the door. “Do you have any family you need to say goodbye to?”
“No,” I said. He didn’t ask anything more about it. I appreciated the silence.
We drove a few miles to a hangar based near a river. Since a lot of warehouses had been opened deeper in the city because of traffic concerns, and because most planes and ships could take off vertically, there was no real need for a long runway, and a lot of warehouses had been converted to hangars. This one was no different, but it seemed… Cleaner. Nicer. Better-kept.
“We’re here,” The Man said, stepping out of the car. I followed him inside to find a small spacecraft and a man and a woman sitting in lawn chairs near it.
The man, about thirty, leapt up when we walked in.
“Ah! George! You’re back early, I see. Did the legs work out well for you?”
“Yeah, nobody said a word at the security checkpoint leading downtown. Storing the knifes as pieces in the legs was pure genius.”
“Well, genius is a stretch, but I do have my moments. And you must be Chelsea! So wonderful to meet you. I see that you aren’t bleeding, so I take it the legs were not necessary, and that means that my doctor friend here–”
“Needs to get back to work,” the woman said, standing up. She dropped $40 on the table, and the guy who had been waiting grabbed it and stuffed it in his pocket.
“Sorry about the knives, Chelsea, but I had to make sure you’d show up,” he said, sitting back down. “George here owed me a favor, so I had him do my dirty work. You can go wait in the car, George.”
“Yessir,” George said. He seemed somewhat cheery now that his favor was paid.
As soon as George was out of earshot, the guy in charge said, “He needed prosthetic legs and couldn’t afford them, so I arranged to give him them for free if he would take care of this for me. I’m like Rockefeller, if Rockefeller was more charitable, more insane, and immortal. So really, that’s a terrible metaphor.”
“Who are you?”
“Theseus. That’s the only name you need to know or worry about.”
“What do you need me for?”
He smiled at this.
“You cut straight to the chase, don’t you? I appreciate that, but there’s a certain je ne sais quoi to taking your time with words. Then again, that’s my own opinion.”
I looked around nervously. It was just me and him.
“What I need from you, Chelsea,” he said, steepling his fingers and leaning forward, “is for you to go out into the depths of space and bring back my ship.”
“What’s that behind you, then?”
“This is a ship. It isn’t My ship. There’s a difference. This one I possess, the other one I brought into the world. I need you to find My Ship.”
“So where can I find it?”
“That’s your job. Find it and bring it back. I need it.”
“Might I ask for what?”
He leaned back, smiling at the question.
“Things need to change. That ship will help bring about change. If you are successful, I will make sure you can live out the rest of your days as comfortably as possible. That’s all you need to know.”
“Alright, Theseus,” I said, standing up. “When do I leave?”
“Now, if you like. There’s no real rush, unless you want to get underway as soon as possible.”
I couldn’t spend another second here. Not without turning my back on all this. I was in too deep now. And if they were to release my real name to the public, that would be worse than dying.
“What am I dealing with?”
“This is the best commercially available ship money can buy. Mine is custom-made, but this will do to get it back. Especially with you in the pilot’s seat.”
“All the information on engines, computers, weapons, and everything else can be answered by the virtual assistant on the craft. Clothing and food are onboard and stops between here and there are abundant. You have a while before you’ll be anywhere near my ship. You can figure everything out on the way there.”
He gave me an index card with coordinates and a paragraph on it.
“Put that somewhere you won’t lose it and read it daily. Those are your mission parameters. Disobey them, and we’ll have a serious, serious issue.”
“I won’t disobey.”
“Good. Then I’ll let you be on your way.”
He turned to leave, then stopped and came back.
“Also, I put just about every piece of media or writing created by humankind on the ship in 27 different languages, so feel free to educate yourself on the way there. You’ll have plenty of free time.”
I walked into the cockpit, set down the card, and initiated the takeoff sequence. It automatically went out the massive doors of the warehouse and took off into orbit. I plugged in the coordinates on the card and hit autopilot, then grabbed the manual and sat down in the pilot’s chair.
It was good being back here. No, it was fucking great. I had always wanted to go to space, ever since I was a young girl. And when I had the opportunity to do so, I made it happen. And when things went south, I never stopped regretting it.
I decided that I ought to read the card first. I set the manual down on my lap and grabbed the card.
After the last known coordinates was a description of the last encounter:
“Large mercenary vessel claimed to the Earth-born pilot that the United Nations Planetary Confederacy had fallen, and charged all weapons. Target is likely disoriented and hiding away somewhere off the grid. If necessary, kill the pilot, but do not damage the ship.
The ship’s name is the USS Taylor-Marie.”
I grabbed the manual and got ready for a long trip.
Drew Schackmann is a contributing writer for Gutai-Pravda Assembly. You can contact him on Twitter.
© 2015; David “Drew” Schackmann, Jr.