Palkas’ autograph line had finally dwindled to nothing. They’d capped the line two hours ago and now, at last, the final gawkers and fans were being escorted out of the building. With a sigh and a stretch, Palkas stood and worked the kinks out of his neck. Signing autographs, while less taxing than his day job, didn’t seem to make him stiffen up the same way.
The bouncers were outside, as were his escorts, and Palkas took a moment to look around the room, taking in the posters and 8×10 glossies, all depicting his grinning face. There was the Morkark asteroid field, the one they’d claimed was too dangerous for any one-man ship to successfully navigate. There was the Ressi sun flare, said to be unskimmable. There was his latest triumph, the planet Argus VII, whose heavy gravity and atmosphere had prevented even well-suited humanoids from reconnoitering its surface for seventy years. To other men this would have seemed like a list of impossibilities, but to Palkas it read like a resume. They were all behind him now. He had conquered the unconquerable.
“Mr. Palkas? Sir?”
A face peeked from behind one of the entry doors and Palkas looked up, surprised. The security personnel were supposed to be keeping people out, not letting them in–but this was a young man, couldn’t be more than twenty, and Palkas certainly didn’t feel concerned for his personal safety. “Yes? What is it, son?”
The kid moved into the room, smiling nervously. He seemed a little star-struck. “Ah, I know I’m late–sorry about that–but I was wondering, um, if I could have your autograph? It’s for my sister,” he added quickly. “She’s your biggest fan.”
Palkas sighed. The bouncers definitely should have picked this one up before he got this far, but what the hell. The room was quiet, and he couldn’t head back to the hotel until the security men got back, anyway. “Sure,” he said, taking out a pen and pulling over the poster that the kid proffered. When given the name in a trembling voice, he signed in flowing script. “Here you are. Hope she enjoys it.”
“Thank you, sir. I know she will, sir.” The kid was beside himself. He gazed at all the posters with starry-eyed awe. “It’s amazing that one man could do what you’ve done, Mr. Palkas. All of the amazing feats that you’ve accomplished… there’s nothing left in this galaxy that man hasn’t been able to do. It’s a real treat to meet you. A real treat.”
Palkas smiled indulgently. He liked this kid. “No problem, son. The pleasure’s mine.”
The kid nodded and bobbed his head, moving towards the door. When he got there, he stopped and turned. “Just one more question, please? Mr. Palkas?”
Well, he had time, Palkas reasoned. One question was no big deal. “Sure, kid. What’s on your mind?”
“What are you going to do now?”
Jergan loved ships. Ever since he was a little mite he’d loved them, watched them, lusted over them–it was only natural that he become a pilot. He’d been a dock worker for years as a teenager, hauling and stacking crates, recalibrating spanners, and bugging any captains he could get a word with to take him into their crew. It never happened, of course. Everyone knew Jergan around the loading docks, knew that he cared more about the ships than about their cargo or crew. That was bad for business. Jergan was patient, though, and when he turned twenty-two he had finally made enough money to purchase his own ship.
Now it seemed like he might have to go back to hauling crates. Only a light-year from Borsen, Jergan’s baby had developed a shimmy, and halfway into the outer atmosphere sans attitude control, he was beginning to accept that it might be a lost cause. “I knew it would happen sometime,” Jergen said to his placidly plummeting ship, “But Borsa? Sweetheart, I thought I taught you class.” The ship wasn’t answering. Jergan went through the repair procedures a final time, but there was nothing to be done. The ship seemed determined to go to her death.
Jergan stood in the central cabin, one hand on the bulkhead. He’d raised this ship from a junkyard brat into a respectable salvage vehicle, but here she was, resigned to a fiery end. The atmosphere was beginning to redden outside the windows, and Jergan knew she wouldn’t last much longer. This was the moment all the captains had dreaded. This was the time when he’d have to choose.
“Well, babe, it’s been fun,” he said, moving to the hatch and fitting himself with an oxygen helmet. “You’re a beauty. I woulda loved you to the end. But I’m not gonna go down with you.” With a final pat, he moved through the hatch into the escape pod and jettisoned. Watching the ship explode as it careened into the atmosphere brought a pang to Jergan’s heart.
When he finally dragged himself into a port in Borsa, Jergan’s very first stop was the bar. He’d only gotten halfway through his third beer, however, when a tap on the shoulder brought him around. A man with hard eyes was peering down at him.
“Yeah?” Jergan slurred. “Whaddaya want?”
“You’re Jergan,” the man said. “Ship-lover who couldn’t get a job in Delwas, right? Went down over the Crater today?”
Jergan grunted and slumped over his beer. “Kinda busy right now, man,” he muttered. “Wanna take a hike?”
“Wanna take a hike, captain.”
Jergan turned his head and eyed the man in confusion.
“Captain Hennesey,” the man clarified. “It seems you’re out of work, and we’re a man short.”
Jergan blinked. “But… Delwas. I thought you said…”
Hennesey waved a dismissive hand. “If you want work, you’re hired,” he said simply. He glanced at Jergan’s beer and smirked, just a little. “We could use a pragmatist like you.”
Rage. It was burning, fiery, coursing, singing like a hurricane through wind-bent trees and thundering like a tsunami. He felt his teeth clench and grind, his eyes widen, his nails cutting two crescents of half-moon wounds into his palms. His thoughts cascaded together, mind like an avalanche. He couldn’t see straight. Everything seemed covered in a veil of red. Until now he’d thought that was just a clichÃ©. Anger consumed him, roaring through him, and Harry rode it until it finally died away. When the tide ebbed he was left gasping, fists clenching and unclenching within the protective restraints, grasping for more.
“How was that one?” Leroy asked, his voice hushed and mouth grinning as he leaned in over Harry. “Good shit? You were tripping balls, man.”
Harry only had the strength to nod. “That’s the stuff,” he said when he had enough breath. “Grade-A. We can get a half-mil a pop, easy. God damn.” He craned his neck forward to wipe his forehead on the top of his sleeve, wriggling in the safety chair. “What’s next?”
“You’ll like this one,” Leroy said, already loading up the needle. “You can’t get this shit anymore. It’s been bred out, treated before we even know we have it by all that shit the government pumps into the water. This’ll sell for sure.”
“Well what is it?” Harry asked, squirming in the chair, trying to read the label on the bottle.
Leroy smirked. “Sadness.”
Harry’s mouth dropped open and he leaned back, arm twitching with anticipation as Leroy shot him up. He let his eyes roll back into his head as he waited for the drug take effect. It happened all at once; the chemicals reached the nerve endings in the brain, and suddenly the world dropped away, replaced by a gaping void of hopelessness and despair. Harry experienced a true and complete sensation of worthlessness.
He had never known such bliss.
“It’s just a brain game,” Aaron assured the dubious Thomas. He grinned, a sly smirk that made his half-lidded eyes seem like they knew something Thomas didn’t. Thomas had always hated that.
“It messes with people’s heads,” Thomas insisted, stubborn. “You’re not even allowed to have them here.”
“They sell them on Mars,” Aaron retorted with a derisive sniff. “Right on the street.”
“News flash. We aren’t on Mars.” Thomas’ frown was getting more sulky, bordering on a pout. “You should just get rid of that thing. If somebody catches you with it, you’re gonna be in trouble.”
“Ah, it’s no big deal.” Aaron played with the small device in his hand, turning it over and over, his smile widening just a little. One finger flicked over the sensitive control strip. “Let’s take it down to the docks and give it a try.”
Thomas opened his mouth to speak, but paused in the middle, a look of vague confusion washing over his face. He was aware of a faint humming sound, more felt than heard, and lost the thread of conversation for a moment while he tried to pinpoint it. Aaron watched for a few moments, then tapped Thomas lightly on the head with a pen, using the hand that wasn’t holding the brain game.
“Hey. Thomas. Let’s go down to the docks and give it a try,” he repeated, watching closely.
“Sure,” Thomas said easily, turning back to Aaron and giving a lopsided grin. “Sounds like fun.”
“Silver hair is in this season,” the technician suggested helpfully. Mary made a face.
“Won’t that just make me look old?”
“No, no,” the technician assured Mary with a laugh. “It’s silver, dear, not white. Definitely unnatural,” she added. Mary signed and fingered the swatches. Silver wasn’t exactly what she was going for.
“How about blue?” Mary asked, flipping to a new ring of swatches. “I’ve always liked blue hair. Why don’t more people have that?”
The technician pursed her lips and shook her head, eyes skimming the computer screen in front of her. “Blue is very hard to get,” she explained. “Your genetic makeup wouldn’t allow for it.”
Mary pouted and the technician moved the swatch ring aside, bringing out a thick book instead. “What about eyes?” the woman asked. “Eyes are very popular too, and there’s so much you can do with them. And unlike the hair, the change will take place within an hour. You don’t have to wait for it to grow in.”
Mary perked up at that, flipping through the book with growing interest. There were so many choices, and the procedure price was about the same as the hair. Still, she had some doubts.
“Is it safe?” Mary asked, eyeing the technician dubiously. “I mean, a bad hair job is one thing, but if there’s an accident during the eye procedure, couldn’t I lose my sight?”
The technician laughed indulgently, shaking her head. “Oh, dear, no. The radiation isn’t applied directly to your eyes.” She smiled. “All of our procedures are perfectly safe. The doctors have isolated the genes that produce eye and hair color, and they only need a control cell to instruct your body to change the pigmentation. The radiation will be applied at the base of your spine, just like the hair changes.”
Mary’s smile was bright and sunny as she looked at the book again, this time with a purpose in mind. “And I can have any of these?” she asked, mesmerized by the reds and golds, greens and purples and shades of orange.
“Sweetheart,” the technician said with a grin, knowing she’d just made a sale, “You can have any one you want.”
“Any one?” Mary asked, casting the technician a sly, sideways look. The woman faltered. “Iâ€¦ well, I can go checkâ€¦”
When Mary left the clinic late that night, her eyes were seven different colors.