Freedom At Any Cost?

Byron paced through the huge, crowded spaceport, eyes down as he fished out his tab. He shook it awake and whispered his command.

“Next shuttle out of Proxima.”

1417 from gate 24a. Boarding now.

Perfect! “Purchase ticket. One way. No baggage. No extras.”

640 credits. Sorry, you have insufficient funds.

Byron cursed, glanced around. The agents could be anywhere. “Any outgoing shuttles within funds limit?”

Checking. Please wait.

Byron’s back itched, his shirt clinging to his skin.

Next available shuttle within credit limit 0413 to Alexia. Do you wish to purchase a ticket?

“Negative.” No way he’d be able to stay ahead of the agents for that long.

Byron rounded a corner, past baggage reclamation. Ahead were the manual booking desks, with their usual array of degenerates and scum. Who used cash anymore?

“Spare anything?”

The woman was small, her skin blotchy, probably infected.

“Sorry.” He shrugged and carried on.

And that was when he saw the agents, one male and one female, over by the vendors. Classic tourist garb, no baggage, and no chemistry between them. They scanned the crowds unsubtly.

Byron whispered to his tab. “Any cancellations?”

Destination?

“Outgoing. Anywhere.”

Checking. Please wait.

Infuriating machine!

“Need anything?”

It was that damned woman again! He could smell her even before he turned.

“No. I’m fine.”

“Right.” She smiled, gaps between yellow teeth. “That’s what Steve-o always said. Worked maintenance on the shuttles, access to restricted zones. Before he had to lay low, of course.”

“I’m kind of busy.”

“Yep. Can see that. Fancy-pants and his floozy checking you out. And the hip business dude over there.”

She jerked her head, greasy hair flying in clumps, and Byron saw the man‌—‌suit, sleeves rolled up, hair back-combed, earpiece just visible, light playing over his glasses.

Byron looked away as the agent turned.

“…‌yerself a spot of bother. Happens to the best of us. Even Steve-o. Too many dodgy deals, too dangerous to work. Kept his job open, though. Told me to keep hold of his forma, just in case.” And Byron noticed the laminate in her hand, saw the hologram of an ugly guy with long hair.

“You worked the shuttles?” She waved the forma. He shook his head. “It’s a shambles. See, security’s all out here. Back there, it’s a free-for-all. Heard of some wrench, went awol, six months shuttle-hopping below decks. Use a forma, nobody asks questions, right?”

The tourist couple had moved to the stairs by the departure lounge. Probably thought he was buying a scalp-ticket.

“Must be a burden, that forma,” he said carefully. “How about I help you out? I could look after it, just until‌…‌you know, until Steve-o’s okay.”

She pulled a face, shrugged. “Can’t go giving stuff away, yeah?” She produced a tab, tapped to bring up a transfer screen.

“How much?”

She shrugged. “Depends. How much d’ya want this?”

Byron knew she was going to fleece him. His tab was secure, but she’d probably hack it, pull all his funds anyway.

“I’ll let you judge that,” he said. Because, honestly, he couldn’t put a price on his freedom. Credits wouldn’t help if the agents caught him. Anything was preferable to being in their hands.

“Very wise. And don’t worry. I know a man needs something. Think of it as mutual favours, yeah?”

Both screens flashed, and the forma was in his hand, sweaty against his skin.

“Good luck, Byron.”

Then she was gone, lost in the crowd. Byron headed for the nearest service door, by the tenth manual check-in.

Business-dude moved closer. The tourists whispered. Another figure in a white all-in-one shuffled from the toilets opposite.

Byron palmed the forma, waved his hand at the scanner. The door beeped, slid open, and he was through.

It was a different world.

Gone were the pristine walls, the polished floors, the ambient music he hadn’t even noticed. Instead were scuff marks and oily smells, black streaks on grey walls. Workers in overalls shuffled about, cursing and laughing. Luggage stood on a belt, labelled for transfer.

Byron grabbed a couple of bags, tapped some guy’s shoulder. Said he was late for the shuttle. The guy grunted, pointed down a dingy corridor.

Further on, a short guy with a clipboard-tab stood by the service door. “You in here?”

“Yeah.”

The man frowned. “Not wearing your forma?”

Byron noticed Clipboard’s forma, clipped to his belt. “Forgot,” he muttered, clipping his own in place.

Clipboard tutted, pressed his lapel comms. “Okay, seal us.” He looked at Byron. “Dump the bags here. Working off-haul?”

Byron wasn’t sure. “Of course.”

“Then get in. And don’t forget to grab the straps. Last newbie blood-smear’s only just come off.”

Byron walked in the direction Clipboard had indicated, through a grey tube. He found a few others in a padded area, all holding straps that hung from the roof. Byron copied them.

The shuttle shook. He grabbed the straps even tighter.

“Hey, you Steve-o?” the guy next to him said, glancing at Byron’s forma. He didn’t wait for an answer, but turned to the others. “What d’you reckon? Recon surgery’s pretty good, yeah?” He turned back to Byron. “But not good enough, lad.” He smiled. “It’s a long flight to Proxima. Plenty of time to talk about old times.”

Byron looked around, at the scowling faces, at the fingers curling into fists.

“Got a lot to discuss, you and us. Things to sort out.” The walls shook, and a low rumble filled the air. “Payment, like. And punishment.”

Beneath the rumble Byron heard muttering. He felt warm heat as bodies shuffled closer.

“She ain’t here to help you no more, Steve-o. We can do what we like.”

Byron swallowed. His tab vibrated. He pulled it out, woke it.

There was a message, connected through his transfer app.

How much you willing to pay for freedom, sucker?


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