I swear, as the blade’s tip grazed my cornea, I saw Lilly.
Not in reality–she wasn’t on this cramped freighter–but in my mind.
My daughter was still five, swishing that long blonde ponytail in the air as she bolted out from behind her father’s leg and toward my open arms. He was spitting venom through the same brown eyes by which our daughter expressed nothing but love. I could smell the flowery shampoo in her hair as I told her to be a good girl and that because mommy and daddy were going their separate ways, it didn’t mean mommy didn’t love her. I wasn’t strong enough to tell her the truth, so I told her I’d see her soon. We rubbed our noses together. I called it our special little bunny kiss.
I knew it would be a long time before we’d meet again.
The warm vision was temporarily knocked away by sweat-filled hair slapping against my cheek, stinging as I ducked my opponent’s follow-up swing. On instinct, I thrust my own knife toward her rib cage.
Not deep, but contact.
She shrieked and I nearly tumbled forward. The nylon rope binding us together dug into my left wrist as my opponent danced backward. My left foot skidded lightly against the corrugated steel floor in the struggle to remain upright. If I fell, I would have milliseconds to recover my exposed neck.
I didn’t need to see the blood pooling onto her tank top to know I’d wounded her. I had felt the tiny chunk being taken out of her. Even in the dim lights of the freighter cabin, the crooked lines on her face spoke fury over the insult.
“Bitch, you got balls, but you should’ve picked another ride,” she said.
I let her keep on.
Waste your breath, I thought. Keep swinging.
She came at me like a berserker of old. I remembered to breathe on tempo. Every lunge, every parry tested my abilities of concentration and patience. It wasn’t long before I saw my opportunity, though. I could hear her panting and gasping over the crowd. She started looking away, growing more disengaged with every jab.
I yanked my left arm back just as she was mid-thrust, sending her on a collision course for the twenty or so grimy, cheering faces surrounding us. Like a swirling mass, they shifted as we shifted. I swept my right foot across her shins and watched her arms fly in the air in an attempt to cushion her descent. When her elbows cracked against the hard ground, the blade slipped from her hand. It clinked as it tumbled end-over-end and was quickly snatched up by the hand of an anonymous spectator. I climbed on top of her, took a handful of sticky black hair, and held my blade to her throat.
I dipped my head to her ear and whispered, “I win.”
She struggled to regain her wind, but when she finally did, she started to laugh–harder and harder until the laughter turned into a coughing fit.
There was no more resistance in her now.
I rose and hovered over her, letting her turn onto her back. She looked older than when she’d first challenged me for twenty credits and now I felt a twinge of embarrassment. The sweat had cleared away some of the dirt on her cheeks and beneath her eyes, unveiling a map of wrinkles and dark circles on her chiseled face. I extended an open hand. She accepted and I hid the reaction to the pain in my own body as I struggled to pull her back onto her feet.
“Bitch, you got balls,” she said, handing me a cryptocard with one hand, pressing her shirt against her wound with the other.
I pulled out a pocketbook of The Matron’s essays and began to reread my favorite–On Suffrage and Humanity’s Value. The e-paper had a large crack running through the middle, but someone once said beggars shouldn’t be choosers–especially one that doesn’t beg at all.
“You going to dig on Staxis or hop on another hauler?”
Iona was her name.
All I wanted to do was read and fall asleep doing so, but that wasn’t going to happen. A woman who was willing to mortally wound me minutes ago was set on being pals. That’s just the way it is on the loader ships.
“Not sure,” I said.
There was no real point in hiding my search for Lilly, but it was a family matter and I always kept such affairs close to the vest. Most of the hobos riding on these freighters were here for two reasons, and depending who you talked to, in different proportions:
One, they were running away from the rest of the universe–after all, that’s how I ended up hoboing across the galaxy in the first place. I had to leave a man who’d pulled a one-eighty on me. As soon as he was close to ‘being someone’ in the system, there was no room for my differing viewpoint. My story was only one flower from the same garden of motives the hoboes pulled from.
Two, the work was steady so long as your body was. Governments had encouraged exploration of the galaxy’s far reaches by promising mineral wealth to those willing to seek it out. Entrepreneurs jumped on the prospect and with most of their money spent on logistics, mining robots were an unnecessary expense–hungry humans were cheap and reliable enough.
All that said, no one needed to know my next job was more than a means to a meal.
Over the years, I’d tracked my little girl through the networks, keeping a motherly eye on her whenever I could. There were times when I’d tipped back too many bottles of Stardust, almost convinced that I should finally meet her in person. I never gave into the temptation. Why would she want to see me? The woman who’d given up on her twelve years ago? How to explain that her father had grown tired of my dangerous ideas, had it out for me, and that the only way to make a life for myself was to strike out on my own?
It wasn’t until I learned that she’d taken up hoboing that my heart broke enough to seek mending. Had she known that was the road her mother had chosen? Thought it was some romantic and poetic adventure?
I prayed that wasn’t the case, but I remember being seventeen once too.
Through years of developed personal connections and searching through the hobo bulletin systems, I learned she was last seen on Staxis six months ago.
That’s was the final kick in my ass.
That’s why I’m here.
Occasionally trying to sleep.
“I killed a girl at the last gig,” Iona said.
I don’t know what sort of reaction she expected out of me.
“I felt bad,” she continued on, apparently not expecting anything at all but a willing ear. “Didn’t meant to, but I caught her trying to brute-force the passkey on my credit account two planets ago. I took a rock to the side of her head and musta’ hit the sweet spot.”
I didn’t even look at her but I nodded, worried that Lilly would try something similarly stupid with another hobo. There were at least two or three Iona’s working every gig and sometimes you couldn’t tell who it was until it was too late.
Iona droned on about an ex-girlfriend who refused to share food. I closed my eyes and tried to fall asleep, hoping to dream of my little girl.
I was too late.
She’d moved on three-and-a-half weeks ago to Persephone.
When I’d last been to that dim planet, it was a place where the telorite rock was hard and the people were harder. I’d done a small stint there when I first started. It’s not that it was too trying on my bones, though it was, but I left because the library was shit. People were encouraged to jack into whatever period piece drama was being broadcast on the spectrum or else spend their leisure time smoking opiates and screwing. I tried to organize them, get them reading, listening, but that’s when I learned that one can’t play a long game too quickly, otherwise you’re sure to lose.
As soon as I got word about Lilly, I boarded the next freighter headed that way. It was only a day’s travel, but having skipped work and therefore, skipped meals, it felt like a week.
At the back of the car, I sat down against any empty spot, one that least smelled of piss, and once again pulled out my pocketbook. I looked forward to picking up where I had left off, but the rumble in my stomach made it difficult to concentrate. It took only thirty or so seconds for my mind to wander toward my little girl. Would she look similar? Have the same features–the button nose, the single dimple on her left cheek that only showed up with her mischievous smile? I found no recent images tied to her name, so I could only guess and ask around when it came time to identify her.
“This is a hell of a noisy bunch.”
The bearded interruption was bent over slightly at the waist. His knees popped as he slowly dropped to the floor beside me.
I tried to ignore him and continue reading. He twisted his head left and right before his bloodhound eyes finally landed on my book.
“Never saw much use in that.”
I sighed. There would be no peace.
“Much use in what?”
“That. Readin’,” he said. “Anything you learn from whatever’s in there won’t do you no good when some hunk of wires already knows it all just as soon as it’s switched on.”
I shoved the book back into my pocket, fully taking in the know-it-all. He was younger than his body and crusty beard let on. Behind the kinked brown hairs was a surprisingly smooth and unblemished face. He may actually have been close to Lilly’s age.
“What makes you think I’m looking to challenge a machine?”
He raised his eyebrows, unsure of how to answer. “Just seems a waste of time, that’s all. Wouldn’t you rather have a conversation? Seems like one of the few things that can’t be taken away from us.”
How to explain what kind of conversation I valued? That every time I read a good book, I was having a conversation. It was already obvious that I wasn’t going to find anything equal in him. Maybe the Matron had it all wrong. The more I got to know people, the less I got to like them.
Still, there was nowhere for me to go and even though I was a little sour on the inside, I made an effort to be a little sweeter on the outside. After all, each of us was on the same train, so to speak.
“How long have you been traveling?” I asked.
“This is my third gig. I hear Persephone pays the best.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that in his condition, he wasn’t going to last three days.
“They’re fair,” I said. “You travel alone?” I asked though the answer was obvious.
“Yeah,” he said and his head dropped down between those ramshackle knees of his. “I had some friends, at first, but most of ‘em seem to be satisfied taking the same routes.”
“What about you?”
He looked up and apprised the crowd surrounding him. “Nah, I have more of a sense of adventure than them.”
He hadn’t been able to keep up and I felt a pinch of sorrow for him.
“Just remember, life’s more than credits.”
The kid nodded slowly, but I recognized the look. He wasn’t listening anymore. Second-guesses and regrets clouded his mind.
I took my book and handed it to him. He looked at me. “I told you–”
“In case you change your mind,” I said.
Persephone station was teeming with bodies of every shape and size. Beneath the everdark skies, a mix of hoboes and vendors crowded the platform. Smells of synthetic lamb turning on spits sent my belly into a frenzy. I could spend the credits I’d won from Iona, but I’d been around the block enough to know that it was wiser to save them for when I really needed them. Though I’d hit what many would feel were desperate times, I knew better.
I knew desperate.
Just before I’d stepped out of the ship and onto the planet, I saw the young man still sitting by himself at the back of the emptied freighter, his eyes still maintaining that vacuous look, fingers gripping the pocketbook tightly.
Even if I wanted to, there was nothing I could do for him.
I checked the e-boards at the station to see if I’d received any updates to my queries.
Nothing. This was Lilly’s last known spot. From here on out, I’d have to take matters into my own calloused hands.
I walked into the assignment office and stood in line with the rest of the weary souls. It took nearly two hours for me to reach the front where a tiny, fat man stood on a wooden stool that looked like it may tip over at any moment. And when I say tiny, I mean tiny–he couldn’t have been more than four feet tall. Cobweb-thin strands of hair ran across his bald head and he wore a monocle over his right eye.
When I made no motion for the scanner sitting on the counter, he spoke robotically without peering up from his terminal.
“Manual,” I replied.
That made him look. I could practically see the silvery orb focus in and out from behind the monocle. He sighed deeply.
I rattled off my hobo code and a moment later, my photo came up. He scrutinized the screen. Then he scrutinized me.
“Ho ho!” A smile crossed his face, looking out of sorts. “A vet? A survivor?” He looked around the room as if any of the weary souls cared to listen to him. His eyes returned to mine and he leaned forward, balancing gracefully on the stool. “And you came back, why?”
“I’m looking for someone.”
“We don’t provide detective services,” he replied quickly, “only work.”
“Her name is Lilly.”
There were grumbles behind me from hungry, impatient people. “What’s the hold-up!?” someone shouted a few feet back.
“Can’t help you,” the fat man said, returning his eyes to the terminal. “You’re assigned sector 12-B. Since you’ve ridden this rocket before, I don’t need to tell you to dress warmly, make sure–”
I pulled out the cryptocard on which I carried my credits and slapped it down in front of him. Hoboes are typically in the system, but cryptocards are used for private transactions–they’re exchangeable, but when properly configured, untraceable. He looked up again, eyebrows raised, and swiftly fingered the card. He turned it in his hand as his monocle whirred and whizzed. Finally, he jammed it into his own coat pocket.
“What’s the name again?”
“Lilly,” I repeated.
He raised an eyebrow. “Not much better than John Smith…” His fingers slid across the screen.
After a moment, he asked “Do you know when she signed in?”
“Three-and-a-half weeks ago.”
“And you know her, how?”
“She’s my daughter,” I replied.
It was most definitely foolish to tell him, but I was so close to finding her.
Now, he raised his other eyebrow and looked up at me. I saw his fingers land on his coat pocket, tapping, hesitating. Finally, he reached in, pulled out the cryptocard and slid it back across the counter.
“She’s in Elysium Garden.”
The park was two miles away. I was shaking and panting as I ran the whole way. My legs felt detached. My head pounded. Why I was in such a hurry, I didn’t know.
I finally collapsed onto my knees, ignoring the jarring pain.
She was there, all right.
I saw her name spelled out in stones. The third ‘L’ had shifted due to someone’s careless boots, but the truth was undeniable. Someone had cared enough about her to leave the traditional trinkets–deathcharms–around the grave.
I wanted to scream, but my voice was stuck in my throat. Tears refused to leave their ducts. All I had was a scorching numbness flowing over every inch of skin. I fell forward onto the mound and rubbed my nose into the dirt.
Our special little bunny kiss.
And then the tears flowed and I cried so hard that I couldn’t breathe. I would have been quite the sight, had anyone actually visited this ‘garden’ of dust and short-lived memories.
I clawed at the dirt beneath me, feeling it run through my fingers. And then those fingers found something else. I rolled over and saw the tip of what appeared to be an old paper book sticking out from the soil. Another trinket, but one that had been buried just below the surface.
I pulled at it, ready to place it among the other deathcharms when I paused. First I wiped my eyes, and then I wiped the dust from the cover and realized why the book had been hidden.
On Suffrage and Humanity’s Value.
My knuckles turned white and I started to cry again. A mix of pride and anger burned inside me.
I knew that Lilly couldn’t die in vain.
I turned and looked through the gates of Elysium Garden, toward the long, straight road that led to sector 12-B.
I was in the system now.
I had work to do.