Catch a Ride
After shutting off the lights and locking the front doors, Devon and I left the mansion. As we reached the far side of my bridge, I couldn’t help but turn back to the Saybaro. My gaze slowly swept across everything; the bridge, the river, the mansion, the oak tree. I let every detail etch itself into my mind.
“Jimmy?” I felt Devon’s hand on my shoulder. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. Let’s go. Where’s your floater?”
Devon shook his head, saying, “The king’s been a bit stingy with issuing vehicles lately. I had to hitch a ride to Salutier before walking the rest of the way here.”
I glanced down at his dusty boots and pant legs. “I believe it. I guess the next stop’s Salutier.”
As we walked the five-hour hike to the nearest town, Devon shared some of the recent gossip from the palace. He mentioned names I wasn’t familiar with, situations that I didn’t understand, but it was interesting nonetheless. Occasionally, the conversation turned to a more political nature, but never for long. Vinta had known peace since before my birth, and Wenapaj was small enough to avoid the usual harmless squabbling amongst the nations.
During the conversation, he often spoke of a red-rank guard named Sera. From the way he spoke of her, I gathered she was training under him. Apparently she had beaten him at a recent tournament held specifically for the Royal Guard, ultimately winning second-place overall. I was somewhat annoyed and disappointed that I hadn’t been invited to participate, though I was careful not to let it show.
He was taking me through a blow-by-blow account of the fight for the third time when we finally reached the edge of Saluteir.
To this day, Saluteir is a small farming community surrounded with fields of waving trabia grain and patches of thorny nellberries. While technically a town, it’s really not much more than a small collection of farmers. The residents live in basic wood and plaster homes, most of which looked identical save for a few small elements and the occasional coat of paint.
A floater rental station was just inside the town, a large spinning sign proclaiming the name of the establishment, ‘The Rigger’s Folly Floateryard’.
It was a good thing the sign was there, as it didn’t look like a floater rental station as Devon and I approached. There was only one floater in the entire yard, and it was being repaired by a Galden woman with red hair kept in a long braid. She had a datajack in her neck with a wire running through the window of the floater, presumably attached to the computer interface inside. Her overalls and the smudges of grease on her cheeks reminded me strongly of Uncle Ann.
As we approached, she peered over her shoulder at us. With a lopsided grin, she called back, “Sorry, gents. Most of my stock is out for mandatory company upgrade, and this old rust bucket ain’t going nowhere.”
I walked over and crouched down beside her. “What’s wrong?”
She sat back with a sigh. Wiping the sweat from her brow with a dirty rag, she said, “It’s the damn retro-thruster. It keeps flashin’ on an’ off, an’ makes the whole damn floater spin around.”
I walked around to the back of the car. The hood had already been raised, revealing a small stream engine that was currently non-functional. I quickly identified the retro-thruster and yanked it off with both hands.
“Hey!” She protested, “Whaddya think yer doin’?”
Turning the thruster unit over, I saw the problem immediately. “Ah, there’s the problem. The connection pins have corroded.”
“Huh.” She said, looking at the corroded pins. “But why would that stop the engine from starting?”
“Safety feature.” I said, glancing over the floater. “Common in the Cresste-models, especially those manufactured in Rimstak. If the onboard computer detects a backup system is non-functional, it won’t allow the engine to start.”
“But it’s just the retro-rockets. The main drive and the backup generator would have to fail for it to be needed. How often does that happen?”
I looked at her, uncertain if she was joking. When it was clear she wasn’t, I coughed and said, “Let’s just say you’d understand if you grew up in Rimstak and leave it at that. Do you have a scrubber?”
“Uh, I think so. Hang on a sec.” She disconnected from the car and ran into a nearby shed.
I blew the dirt out of the old unit, and checked for other problems while I waited for her to come back.
“I didn’t know you were a Tekker.” Devon said, leaning against the side of the floater.
I grinned at him. “Like I said, raised in Rimstak. You can’t live there for any number of years and not pick up a few things.”
The mechanic exited the shed and hurried over with the scrubber. “You sure this will work?”
I nodded, taking it from her. “It’ll be fine. See where the metal’s turned bronze? Cyclide alloys do that when they lose their conductivity, but only on the outside. Scrape it clean, and it’ll be as good as new.”
“Whaddya think caused it?” She asked curiously.
“Probably just use and exposure to air through small cracks in the casing.” I finished grinding away the last fleck of bronze from the three connector pins and handed the scrubber back. “Could you bring me some grease, preferably something with an anti-rusting agent?”
She pulled the caulk gun from the holster on her hip and tossed it to me. I put a small amount on each pin and smeared it over the exposed metal. “There! That should keep it from degrading for a while. Okay, let’s see if that did it.”
After I replaced the retro-thruster module, she jacked into the floater and closed her eyes in concentration. A few moments later, the small engine flared to life.
“Nice!” She said, grinning at me as she disconnected from the floater, “Here I was looking for a software problem. What’s your name, sweetie?”
“Jimmy Olsen Sakamota. I’m glad I could help.”
She grabbed my hand and gave it a shake as she said, “Nice to meet you, Jimbo. I’m Meryli Grange.”
She tossed me a somewhat clean towel. As I wiped my hands, she asked, “I don’t reckon I’ve seen you before, Jimbo. You from around here?”
I folded the towel so the grease was on the inside and handed it back to her. “I’m from the Saybaro.”
Meryli seemed thunderstruck by this. “Creator’s underpants! You actually live in that place?”
With a questioning glance at Devon, I said, “Yes ma’am. I’ve lived there for over a decade.”
After a quick glance around the yard to make sure no one else was nearby (though only the Creator knows who she expected to see), Meryli said in a hushed tone, “Granma Fauna went there as a little girl, playing hide-and-seek with her friends. She said she heard voices speaking in the basement. When they went to look, they were chased away by a ghost of a young woman who died there ages ago.”
Devon’s sudden laugh made us both jump. “Ghosts! Jimmy, you’ve been there for thirteen years. Ever see anything like what she’s describing?”
“I’m afraid not.” I said, hoping Meryli wouldn’t be offended. “Perhaps the spirit passed on in the intervening years.”
From the offended look she gave me, my attempt to placate her failed. “Fine. Believe what you will then. It’s no skin off my nose.”
“So, can we rent the floater?” Devon asked, smirking.
She nodded curtly to the unit I had just helped repair. “Go ahead and take that one. I won’t charge ya this time since the gent helped fix ‘er.”
I couldn’t help but watch her as she stomped back to her office. I thought she might be angry at me until she turned back and gave me a wink. I glanced briefly at Devon, feeling that he had intentionally provoked her but I was too polite to say anything.
It wasn’t a fancy floater, but the seats were well cushioned and the radio worked. As we prepared to leave, Devon cleared his throat and said, “You haven’t seen or heard anything, have you?”
“Nothing comes to mind. Why? Is there something I should know?”
He shook his head. “Nah, it’s nothing.”
Neither of us spoke for the next hour. The dirt path surrounded by crops slowly became an asphalt highway with billboards and eventually other floaters. I even saw a few automobiles on the road, doubtlessly imported from Earth and refitted with Vintan technology. Instead of spewing smoke, they let out the wispy greenish-blue energy of recycled lifestream. Devon steered the car above the traffic to avoid the worst of it and swiftly returned to the ground.
“Bunch of nonsense.” Devon muttered derisively.
“I beg your pardon?”
“It’s nothing, really.” Noticing my continued gaze, he sighed. “Look, there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you for a while now. There’s no easy way to say this, but the Saybaro was built by the Glyche.”
I could tell from both his tone and the way he kept glancing at me that he was worried how I’d take the news. He needn’t have bothered.
“According to rumors, the mansion was a cover for a Glyche facility.” He quickly added, “Of course, it’s been searched and scanned hundreds of times, and no evidence was ever found of their being anything beneath the mansion other than the basement.”
Looking at Devon, I asked, “Was that why Iniagus posted me there?”
“I doubt it. He may have been aware of the rumors, but even so …” He suddenly let out a laugh. “If he really suspected there was a Glyche facility beneath there, he’d have sent more than one fledgling samurai to guard it. No offense, of course. No, the mansion is technically under his domain, he just wanted someone there so everyone else would know it.”
That wasn’t particularly comforting, but I didn’t say so out of politeness. He was my commanding officer, and it wasn’t his fault after all.