The roads of Rajeev were packed due to the mass exodus to the docks, and presumably, off-world. My skimmer was resting quietly on the dusty pavement, the hours–no, days, it had been days, hadn’t it?–spent idling had left the poor conveyance without enough fuel to keep it hovering, much less actually moving. Not that it mattered. A road filled beyond capacity has a tendency to turn into parking lots, and this one was creeping in that direction even before I showed up and nudged my way in.
If I hadn’t been hauling someone else’s life, I would have gotten out and walked.
I heard the fuel peddler before I saw him. His progress down the line of non-moving vehicles was slow, but his amplified call carried far across the grassy expanse.
“Keep you moving! Keep you moving! Solid, liquid and atomic! Chemical means of forward motion! Keep you moving!”
It seemed like an eternity until he reached me, his progress determined solely by the whims of the mule that pulled his cart. From the way the man sat, it was evident that he had long resigned himself to the fact that while he sat in the driver’s seat, it was his four-legged partner that handled all the controls. I searched in my pocket for a sugar cube. The mule pulled back its thick lips and stopped.
“Howdy,” said the fuel peddler, doffing his Shanghai Lions baseball cap. “You look stuck.”
“I am,” I said. “And you look like just the man who can get me moving.” I inquired about the price of fuel for my skimmer. With a straight face, he told me.
“That hardly seems fair!”
“No, it’s not,” said the peddler with a grin. “But you ain’t moving without it.”
“Then I’m not moving at all. I don’t carry that sort of dosh on me.”
“No matter,” he said. “I am an adaptable man. I see that’s not air you’re hauling.” He motioned to the load on the back of my skimmer, the clocks and pillows, the flatware and picture frames.
“None of that is mine to give. It is someone else’s life. I am merely removing it from this planet before the cataclysm.” The mule was attempting to fish another sugar cube out of my coat pocket. I gave him a carrot instead, which he munched noisily.
“Because I was asked to. Because I did not arrive in time to remove the woman who owned it.”
“So you’re stuck here, ” the man said, sandpapering his thick fingers against his stubble. “Possibly going to get caught in the cataclysm because someone wanted the remains of a life?”
I scratched the mule behind the ears and under the chin. “That’s the long and the short of it.”
“That hardly seems fair.”
“No, it’s not. But I ain’t moving without it.” I gave the mule another carrot. “If you are as adaptable as you say, I think we can arrange something…”
It took the rest of the day to reach the docks by mule. And while I was out a skimmer, I did manage to get the old woman’s life off the world, before it ended. That skimmer couldn’t run over grass, anyway.
And I had plenty of sugar and carrots.