Falling Angel settled to the landing pad with a clunk. Out of the viewport, she could see the broad bulk of the Type-9 Megatherium touching down. She switched to the services screen and began unloading her cargo, knowing that the Type-9 would be doing the same. The comm came to life.
"A nice little bonus heading your way soon, my dear. Thank you for the escort!"
"Thank you for the opportunity!"
"It'll take a while for this beast to unload...care to get a coffee? Or something stronger?"
"I'm down for that!"
Kodeyne let out a sigh of pleasure as she took a mouthful of black americano. Across the table, Commander GoateeH carefully sprinkled brown sugar atop his latte. Beside each cup stood a small glass of Indi Bourbon.
She studied his face. Regular, handsome features, strong cheekbones above a mouth that always seemed to be smiling. Thick brown dreadlocks tied back, eyes hidden behind classic aviator-style sunglasses. He raised his glass.
They had met, quite randomly, when she had seen a bulletin board message, advertising for a wingman, to escort a freighter carrying valuable cargo through a risky but lucrative system. It had all gone to plan.
They clinked their drinks. GoateeH took a sip of his, raised his eyebrows as Kodeyne necked hers in one go.
"Woo! Hard-drinkin' lady, huh?" He grinned at her.
"Damn right!" He bought another round. They chatted away for maybe half an hour, discussing future plans and their spacecraft.
GoateeH finished his now-tepid coffee and looked at his wristerm. "Unloading should be all done. Going to disappoint a few pirates by flying an empty T-9 back to Dvorsi, then off to do some mining with TR, my main man..."
She stopped, mid-mouthful, swallowed and stared straight at him.
"Who did you say?"
He gave her a puzzled look. "TR. Commander TripleRazor. We've been wingmates for years. You know him?"
The glass clunked down on the table. "It couldn't be....could it...?" She spoke half to herself. GoateeH sat back and involuntarily covered his mouth with one hand. It was his turn to mutter out loud.
"You're shitting me....what are bloody chances in this galaxy? Kodeyne...'K'....it fits, all right!"
She shot out a hand and grabbed his wrist. "He's the one who's been advising me, from the start. Is that him?"
GoateeH sat back and slowly removed his aviators. Behind them, bright, pale blue prosthetic eyes locked unnervingly with hers.
"He said....he'd signed up to a charity, where they allow you to mentor a new pilot from a distance. Specifically, those who are orphans..." Her grip on his arm tightened.
"Hey...." he said softly, "I quite like this arm, any chance you can let the blood flow again?"
She gasped an apology and released him. He nodded.
"Thank you." He sighed and replaced his glasses. "Time we were going?"
Rising rapidly and moving to block his exit. "Please don't go," her eyes pleading, "tell me about him! I have to know!"
"And why is that? Does it really matter that much?"
"Yes! I wouldn't have lasted long if it hasn't been for his advice!"
GoateeH sat back. He grinned. "Your round, my dear!"
"Not much to tell, really," he said, taking a mouthful of dark beer.
"He was an orphan himself, parents died when he very young...don't know his real name, and it's not the done thing to ask. We've known and flown together for years. He's double-Elite, exploration and trade, not massively bothered about the combat side...most of the time. Imperial King..."
Kodeyne listened avidly as he talked.
"Had some right adventures, we have...exploring Guardian sites, fighting together. There was that time he had fetched some Thargoid Sensors back from Pleiades so I didn't have to faff getting them...the fragments are useful for certain things."
She nodded. "Professor Palin. Found mine at a crash site."
"Anyway, I'd just finished picking up the last fragments in my SRV when we got scanned by an FSS Anaconda! That was a close one! Then there were rumours that he'd seduced Arissa Lavigny-Duval after his investiture as King..." He laughed. "To this day, he won't say if it's true or not - but he left the Achenar system very sharpish the day after, and stayed out of Empire space for quite a few weeks!"
"He did what?!"
GoateeH looked at her, shrugged. "Like I said, it's a rumour. Probably just bedded some high-ranking noblewoman. Chinese whispers and all that."
"And does he...have anyone else?"
A warning bell rang in his mind; he saw the subtle change in her expression, in the eyes, in the muscles of the jaw. Ah hell, he thought, why can't I keep my mouth shut? But he was in too deep now.
"There's a pilot he meets up with, now and then. Never met her. Don't know anything about her."
Kodeyne abruptly drained her glass.
"Like you said," she mumbled, "time we were leaving."
He walked with her to her ship, and patted her shoulder. She had been silent all the way there.
"You all right?"
"I'm fine," she lied.
"Okay. Well, any time you want to wing up, get in touch. Take care out there, huh?"
She nodded and almost ran into the hanger.
GoateeH watched her go and sighed. "All right is what you are not, my dear. Oh bollocks. Have to 'fess up to TR when I see him."
He looked around. Megatherium was almost around the other side of the docking ring - a few kilometres. He could take the monopod....but he needed to clear his head. He sighed, turned on his heel and broke into a gentle run.
Back on board Falling Angel, Kodeyne removed her RemLok and went straight for the half-empty bottle of bourbon in the closet. She took a long pull at it, feeling the tightness in her chest, the lump in her throat. She wandered around the ship, half-naked, gulping whiskey. Ended up back in her quarters, staring at herself in the mirror. Skinprints started on her face, made their way down her torso, and curled down her legs. Right arm still had the two deep scars from....a year ago? That long already? The left carried the puckered tissue left by the poisoned weapon from that fight in a bar. But each arm now had a row of short, neat cuts, one for every person she'd fucked....
The lump in her throat grew, her emotions in turmoil. "Idiot!" she snarled, "you've never met him, you never will. Why do you think he'd even be interested?"
Clenched her teeth and then let out a scream.
"Stupid, silly, soppy, sentimental bitch!"
The empty bottle shattered against the wall, leaving her holding the neck. She stared at the jagged end. Yes, she thought, do it. Carve your worthless flesh up. Maim your face. Then no-one will ever want you again.
The memory of Ali's expression when they'd parted suddenly came back. "Please get help...."
She swallowed hard and forced herself to let the bottle-neck fall to the floor. She staggered back, collapsed into her bunk. Wrapped the duvet around her and burst into tears, sobbing helplessly as all her years of loneliness came crashing down. Coiled herself into a foetal ball and wept until unconsciousness mercifully came.
Hours later. She woke up and laid in silence as her memory relived the day before...
Unfurled from the bedclothes, activating the light on the utility panel next to the bed. Tapped at the screen some more; a panel at floor-level slid back, and the squat rectangle of the little robot cleaner hummed its way out. She sat and watched it make its methodical way around the carpet, slowing to break down the fragments of glass to manageable size, pick them up with a crackling sound. It finished the floor and quietly retreated to its cubbyhole. She padded over and ran a finger over the mark on the wall where the bottle had struck. She wasn't really thinking anything much, just let her fingertip feel the change in texture. Stepped back, looked at herself again in the mirror. Weirdly calm now, she shook herself and headed for the shower.
Half an hour later, she was sat in the pilot’s chair, a mug of hot, sweet tea in her hands. That was some anger that had come out last night. Perhaps she could find some solace in channelling that rage.
"Time for some retail therapy," she said out loud. Finished the tea, cleaned and stowed the mug. Five minutes later, Falling Angel left the station, setting a course for Alioth.