“Junk Man for Squirrel, Junk Man for Squirrel. Ally, you up?” Franklin’s words ran together; fast clipped nouns, slow drawled verbs—especially on the com waves.
“Yeah, day cycle for me. Where you headed? What’re you hauling?”
“On my way to Sigma Station, delta quad, cube 1431-1002-B39, dragging raw nanos, and chemical stock. You?”
“Heading to a new colony named Drobble, bringing them their future lunch. I’ll be passing within a few light-klicks of Sigma. Wanna touch?”
“Sure, if you got the time. I’ll be there in three. Can you make it?”
“That works. I can make it in four.”
Squirrel. Allison had resigned herself to acknowledge and grudgingly accept that call sign. She knew it wasn’t a dig, nothing dirty either. When relaxed, her upper lip had a natural curve, exposing her front teeth more than might be considered normal. Some guys thought it was sexy—some guys got punched in the face, but not all. Franklin was in the much smaller, former group. She’d known him since she began working the long-haul lanes with her uncle Clarence, fifteen years ago, learning the ropes, learning the game. Junkman was her first driver, the first one she ever tucked in with.
Life as an independent contract trucker suited her. Hauling viable zygotes, embryos, and ovum from world to world was her specialty. Long-distance coms with others plying the nav-lines, occasional meet-ups, and even less occasional contract-required, partner-drivers were all she needed, all she wanted, all she tolerated. Alone in the dark-void, no one can see her dance, hear her swear, or beat up her pillows.
The container sections she dragged from place to place were owned by corporation X, Y, or Z, but the hauler body was hers, mortgage-free. In his will, uncle Clarence left her enough to put down fifty percent for a new rig; the rest she’d paid off in eight years by constant work and spartan living aboard her ship. No attachments to any planet; she owned nothing that wasn’t aboard her boat. Though some of the showroom luster had worn off in a decade of facing cosmic dust head-winds created by the necessary ship’s velocity build-up before plunging into the slipstreams, it still looked ready to run for another hundred years. Two weeks of being flung along those currents equaled three hundred lightyears distance. For her, long-hauls were the best, where the quiet, the rhythm of her ship, the straight, orderly lines in space seemed a more natural environment than planet-side or life on board sanitized orbitals.
Junkman stood, waiting in the people zone, striking a pose when Ally stepped off the public transport. Spreading his arms in welcome, he practically shouted, “Baby, you sure are a sight for sore eyes.” Heads turned, as Junkman intended.
“Franklin, you know I hate it when you call me that. I’m closing in on forty now.”
“Yeah, that’s why I do it. Love that face you make.”
“Well, just be careful, or I’ll make your face.”
“Na, you wouldn’t do that. What’s with the bald look, Ally? Almost didn’t recognize you.”
“Sheared it off when I had problems with the grav-plates recently—weightless float for six days in my can. It became a nuisance. Just kept it like this.”
“Well, it looks good on you, sort of. Want to grab a bite before…”
“Yeah, I could eat.”
“Carno or vega… or a mix?”
“Carno, definitely carno,” Ally requested. “The genuine stuff, not vat grow. And somewhere off the beaten path. I need some non-metallic ambiance.”
“Wow, big word cuteness. You been studying again, or just reading romance novels?”
“There’s no romance left anymore, anywhere, or haven’t you heard? Everyone’s just planting flags, then moving on. If you hold still long enough, I’ll tattoo my stamp on your ass tonight, put it right next to Clair’s.”
“Now Aly, you’ve hurt me, cut me to the quick. She was long ago, far away. Only a toss, for both of us.”
“Not what she told me a few months ago.”
“Okay, so not that long ago.”
Sigma Station is one of the nicer lane-junctions, especially for truckers—tourists and civilians aren’t allowed in the driver areas—you need a union card to get in. Even so, the fare, while decent enough, was of the common sort—meat-and-three plates in the dining areas, too salty appetizers in the bars. In the rest of the station, in the out-and-about, truckers are easily recognized by their logo jackets and fingerless, hard knuckle gloves—stylized fashion statements competing with the sleek, pastel looks civvies currently preferred. The trucker garb also kept the hustlers and schemers away—civs are easier targets.
Moving down the wide, brightly lit boardwalk, Ally hesitated. “Let’s check the boards first. See who’s in the can.” Driver, being a tight-knit group, chipped in to bail out their brethren when they became registered guests of station security for slight indiscretions or bar fights.
“Hey, Ally! Plotter’s in. Wanna spring him?”
“I bet he deserved it. Let’s see, six hundred-fifty still outstanding. I’ll throw in fifty.”
“You going cheap on me, Ally?”
“Saving up for a mansion, Junkman. For my old age. You could stand to paste some credits on that heap you drive, might get more action if you did.”
“Got all the contracts I need. You may want a house ground side, but me, I’m shooting for refurbed, hollow asteroid in the Walden system—make a safe home for rich, wayward young ladies.”
“Yeah, right. I think your eyes are bigger than your…”
Cutting her off, Junkman pointed. “Here we are, The Ranch House. Never been in there, but I hear the beef is real, served on sizzling planks of cast iron with grease grooves. How’s that sound.”
“Sure, my stomach could eat your asteroid right now.”
“My place or yours?”
“Mine. I’ve seen yours, Junkman.”
“Hey, I’m just a collector of curiosities. Can’t fault a guy for that.”
“I’m not talking about those tottering piles of debris. Your hauler stinks. I don’t know how you lure in those brainless…”
“My charisma, Ally, it’s my charisma.”
“Yeah, you do have that. Anyway, my place, so I can kick you out when we’re done, then watch some steamy history flicks in privacy. Besides, I’ve got some hot, new shoot-ups I want to try together. But let’s walk off our dinner first.”
“You’re such a romantic.”
“I told you, Junkman, romance is dead.”
Three days later, Ally was on her way, relaxed and polished, thinking about the possibility of a long-term contract with Junkman… perhaps in ten years or so.
“Drobble Control, Drobble Control. I’ve got a contract shipment for you. Hull WQA598 on approach vector, one-hundred hours out. Request off-load instructions.”
Ally waited patiently…for fifteen minutes. “Hey, Drobble, wake up, you guys. Hull WQA598 on approach.”
“Drobble Control here, uh… what have you got?”
“Contract D2584-3882-J. A load of living shit for your colony—eggs and such.”
“There’s a problem with that.”
“What do you mean by problem?”
“Drobble is in a de-colonization…situation. We can’t accept any shipments. Not anyone left here who can take it, anyway… and there aren’t any docking facilities left.”
“This isn't COD. You people paid for it, now you’re telling me you don’t want it?”
“That about says it. Only five hundred people left, and those are shipping up in six days.”
“Why the hell wasn’t I informed? What am I supposed to do with this cargo?”
“We published a notification in the com-feed classifieds as required by law. As for your cargo, you can return it to sender.”
“Can’t. The shipping contract says no returns on purchased merch, and I can’t turn over the containers since they’re full of your goods. Maybe I should just jettison the cargo in your orbit, empty the holds.”
“You said you had biologicals aboard? Viables?”
“Yes, YOUR biologicals, several millions of them.”
“Um, well, that would violate Compact Commerce Law if you willy-nilly dumped those, even in deep space. Let’s see, yeah, here it is…viables in transit must remain in managed and monitored cryo or stasis by the current holder until deposited with a certified recipient. Guess they don’t want anyone dumping them. A contamination issue, I suppose. Sorry, it looks like you’re their momma now.”
It was a long shot when she pressed the com button. “Junkman, come in.”
“Ally? Do you miss me already?”
Ally rolled her eyes. “Yeah, yeah, you get better with age. Hey, about your asteroid idea. Want to go in halfsies?”