Rayatoo Boh tapped on the navigation console, swiping through system clusters and stars looking for the familiar diamond logo of a StarStop. He needed rest, and refueling. Smuggling was a tough business with even tougher customers, but Rayatoo or “Ray” to his friends, wouldn’t have it any other way.
Ray had been to the outback of Dezhra and the shining cities of Epsilon Indi, running rare antiquities and assorted contraband. What one being wanted, another banned or paid substantial sums to have it delivered under cover of the local sunset. Ray had lost count of the number of hasty dust-offs, back-room deals and shadowy figures unloading dinged containers from his cargo hold.
Ray’s ship, “Veloxitus”, looked worse for the wear. It was intentional, at her core a swirling torus of fusing atoms kept everything ready to go at a moments notice. Thick cables wound from the core to the particle thrusters, dumping Terajoules of power through chilled superconductors. It was one of the fastest ships in the local group, but Ray preferred to keep it a trade secret. The worn and pitted exterior made the ship look like a sub-light hauler, which was exactly what Ray wanted.
He couldn’t count the number of times he had been hailed and stopped in local space by the bored constabulary. When a bribe couldn’t get him traction, his drives did the talking. Zero to light-speed in mere seconds, dumping heat from the intertial compensators through glowing fins on the backside. Bat out of hell, winking out into a receding dot before the cops had time to engage their weapons.
Drifting in local space, Ray shifted in his seat as he browsed the local system map. As he slowly moved his index finger, stars and local points of interest faded into view. There, just a few thousand light-seconds away was a StarStop. Ray’s mouth began to water, as he pictured a full plate of Borqon meat with Tariq sauce, a local delicacy. Good enough. Ray punched in a route solution, and leaned back, feet up on the console.
This baby could fly itself, but Ray liked to keep things manual in local systems. The ship’s guidance control was decent, but it was more suited to longer-haul routes, not puttering around at sub-light. Ray knew to keep his hands on the wheel if sightseeing, or if he was about to get dinner.
Ray twitched the throttle lightly, just enough for minor course corrections. Not much out here, just wandering asteroids and the occasional stray cargo container, tumbling in zero gravity. The sensor array sent out regular pings, displaying reflected objects and data on the console screen.
ping, ping, PING, ping.
Ray sat up, twisting the stick to orient on the faint signal. It was too small to be ship, and not large enough to be one of the asteroids mapped on previous runs. What the hell was it?
Checking the guages, Ray increased speed. He had just enough fuel to make his stop, with a bit left over. Wouldn’t hurt to check the ping out, it might be something interesting. Besides, it was on the way. Ray adjusted the goggles hanging around his neck, fingers resting on a keepsake he wore under his shirt, suspended from a silver chain.
Getting close. The scope read out distance in smaller numbers, clicking in defined increments. One kilometer, then half, then a hundred meters. Ray zeroed the throttle, locking it on the all-stop register. Before him, there was a round island floating in space.
It looked like it had been scooped up, lower surfaces were rounded to geometric perfection. An old road with a single stop light, flashing red. Sidewalk, mailbox, even the frontage of an old store. Ray had seen this before, memory tugging at his mind.
Shaking his head, Ray nudged the ship down to the dotted yellow line, landing gear extended. Powering down to idle, Ray slotted his helmet and walked through the side hatch, feet crunching on the gravel. It made no sense he could hear this, wasn’t he in pure vacuum?
“Welcome, need some gas?”, an old man walked out of the store, wiping his hands on a oily rag. His straw hat was worn and frayed at the edges.
Ray blinked. Not wanting to be rude, he played along.
“Yeah, sure. But I don’t think you have what I need.”
“Sure I do. Got a Apexi unit in there, right?”, he rapped on the outer hull like he was checking for leaks.
“Right. Need some more reaction masss for the injectors.”, Ray couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
The old man went back into the store, emerging with a fueling nozzle attached to a long hose. He expertly opened the fuel port, and fitted the nozzle in. Setting the trigger to auto-stop, he stepped back on the sidewalk.
“How is this real? Where am I? My name is Rayatoo – er, Ray.”
“I know. It isn’t every day I get to see my son.”, the old man removed his hat, running fingers through his graying hair.
Ray looked carefully at the old man’s face. The eyes, the thin nose. Oh merciful starlight, it was true. Ray clutched at the keepsake under his suit, whispering oaths of protection.
“I see you still have it. Let me see.”, Ray’s father extended a hand.
Ray cracked his helmet, sniffing the air. Atmosphere. Well, why not, nothing else here made sense. Ray fished out the metal shard, unhooking the chain. He hadn’t taken it off in years. Ray felt naked and exposed.
Ray’s father turned the shard over in his fingers, catching the red glow of the stop light.
“You know why I gave this to you?”
“Yes, you told me as you were dying that I should never forget.”, Ray’s cheeks slicked with tears, voice wavering. He remembered the explosion, the fire. How he desperately tried to stop the bleeding.
“Yes son. Now, we need to go.”, He offered his hand out to Ray.
Ray grasped it, blinking back tears.
“Where are we going?”
A white fissure opened before them, swirling with energy. Stepping through, they both faded into the light.
(This is dedicated to my dad, who passed away this year. )