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Somewhere in Jal's file was a note from an old crewmate that read, 'Jalsen Red will either be the reason you die, or the reason you live. Good fucking luck'.

With a love letter like that on his record, he should've figured pretty quick that his Guild career was on the fast track to nowhere. Would've saved a lot of folks a lot of grief, but Jal just wasn't made to be a thinker. Wasn't in his DNA.

They'd seen to that.

Just as well. If he thought too much about what he was doing, he'd just as likely turn back the way he came; hop that rickety old shuttle back to the ass- end of the O-Cyg spiral, away from the hustle and bustle of the outpost. That was what a thinking sort of man would've done.

Jal ducked his head and kept walking, glancing around the hangar through a dirt-brown mess of shaggy hair that had gone too many days without a washing. Must've been a dozen ships there—rows of shiny hulls and top-of- the-line gear, idling on docks suspended fifty- some-odd decs above an airlock. He paused by the rail to look down as one of the doors lurched apart with the groan of well-used metal, coughing up another shuttle with the Trust's big, embellished 'T' stamped on each side, up top, and just about everywhere else they could stick it. Shit, probably would've stamped it inside the plumbing, if they thought anybody'd ever see it. It was all about the 'brand'. The Trust was the centuries-old answer to what always seemed to Jal to be a pretty stupid question: What would happen if we let a bunch of big- money business types go out and settle space? No governments, no oversight, just carte-goddamn-blanche to claim and build and grow as they pleased. A handful of corporations spreading like fungus in the black, swallowing each other and anything smaller than them, until 'everything' was smaller than them. As long as Jal'd been alive, they'd been the only game in town.

'Newcomers,' he thought. Only ships coming out of the center of the spiral ever looked that nice. The ones headed outward, deeper into the frontier circles, had taken a few more knocks in their time, carting prospectors and workers out to make their fortune in the next cluster of newly terraformed planets. He tipped his head in a half-assed salute and pushed off the rail. 'Best of luck to you'. God willing, they'd find better luck out there than he had.

Back into the crowd. He'd have to get used to that again—all the 'people'. Merchants and mechanics hawking their wares, pushing their carts down gangways barely wider than Jal's arm span. Crews out stretching their legs before their next trip. It didn't matter how much he tucked his shoulders and hugged the rails; he still got bumped into and jostled and mean-mugged for his trouble. Halogen lights burned above like hundreds of white dwarfs, stinging his eyes through the shaded lenses of his specs. So bright, and so busy, and so blaring, and if he let himself focus on all of it, get drawn into the sights and sounds and scents of being surrounded by so many strangers in a strange new place, he'd forget how to breathe.


He'd come this far, gotten this close. Closer to the center of the spiral, closer to civilization, closer to home. He could keep going a little while longer, to hell with the rest. Head down, keep moving—he was good at that.

Down the gangway a few rows, he spotted a ship with its cargo bay door down, engines running. 'Contestant number one.' Running engines meant they'd just gotten in, or they were just leaving, and judging by the couple of guys slow-walking their way back up the ramp, he leaned toward the latter. "You got need of an extra hand?" he said under his breath. He'd practiced it so many times on the shuttle ride in that he'd lost count, but hadn't yet had occasion for an audience. Shuttle rides to the outpost were cheap—handful of caps would cover the fare, though a meal and legroom would cost you extra—but heading any farther inward was a pocket-emptying sort of enterprise, and Jal's pockets had nothing but lint. Leave rich or stay poor: those were the options, out in the frontier. The last one just never seemed to make it into the ads.

His gut was in a weaver's knot as he came up on the ship, mouth gone dry and sour. "You got need of an extra hand?" he croaked out again, voice breaking in the middle. Yeah, fine, he was rusty. Hadn't said much to another person in years that wasn't 'yessir' and 'no sir' and 'fuck you, sir'. Although ''scuse me' was making its way back into his vocabulary with gusto. "You got need—"

A flash of gray paint above the wing of the ship stopped him in his tracks. Too abruptly, it turned out, because a slip of a woman in coveralls bounced off his back with a curse so colorful he might've laughed under different circumstances. Instead, he barely managed to rasp out one of those "'scuse me"s as she strode on past, light glinting off the fine polymer filaments woven into her dark braids. An augmented? You didn't see a lot of Biomech out this far. He couldn't have stopped and asked her anyway. She was too far down the gangway, for one; and for two, that weaver's knot seemed to have lodged itself in his throat.

A flag. Just a stupid painted flag, gray against the hull's sleek silver and emblazoned with a spiral of white stars, but Jal's heart still stumbled over the next few beats. It was the banner for the Guild—two parts paramilitary, one part gig economy. Thousands of different crews in thousands of different ships taking thousands of different jobs from the Guild-sanctioned postings, all bound up together with a simple guiding principle: the neutral preservation of life. Felt like a lifetime since he'd worn that flag on his shoulder. He'd have happily gone another lifetime without seeing it again.


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