Shore Leave

Author: David Barber

Cally had hacked her teacher. She gave herself grades good enough to keep her mothers happy, but not so good they attracted attention. Also, she rigged the on-line attendance so she was free to have adventures in the Station’s ill-lit underdecks.

She started her day checking out the Docks. They said the Ice-Rush was over, but spacers still came back after months out in the dark chasing comets.

Looking for real vat-grown steak, and spin that kept the liquor in your glass.

That was from Dark Space, her favourite virtual. Chad Stone was a spacer with a tragic back story, betrayed by some woman. Cally would never have betrayed Chad Stone.

The Docks, built to handle fleets of spacer craft, just boomed emptily now. In later years Cally realised how run-down the Station had been. But that wasn’t how it seemed in her youth.

Text from Mom Lal. Something about the meal in the freezer, which was for tomorrow. Mom Lal worked long shifts in Recycling, while Mom Hannah was a Phage Manager…

Cally stopped in her tracks. A spacer craft had docked! And there was the spacer, being signed in by the bad-tempered man from Dockside who regularly chased Cally off.

The spacer didn’t have Chad Stone’s rangy good looks. In fact, he looked grubby and thin, with tangled greasy hair. The man from Dockside didn’t think much of the spacer either, and just stared after him, hands on hips, shaking his head.

The spacer headed for the showers and came out looking better. Then he wandered into The Hard Place, which must be where spacers on Station went for real meat and liquor in a glass. Cally watched him sitting and staring at nothing.

She guessed a spacer just in from the dark, maybe one with a tragic back-story, might not know anybody. She was deciding what to say, suggesting a tour round the Station perhaps, when the barman told her to buzz off.

Don’t go pestering him, he added. On their own out there, all that empty, they come back strange sometimes.

Cally was intrigued.

None of your beeswax, the barman said and steered her back outside.

Still, they couldn’t stop her looking, and the spacer didn’t seem much interested in his food, or his liquor, and finally got up to go.

Yeh, still down on Deck 8, Cally heard the barman answer.

Mom Lal had warned Cally about Deck 8, though Cally guessed the warning wasn’t like the skull on a hatch with vacuum behind it.

Yeh, she still got a jewel in her head.

Deck 8 was on permanent night-cycle, with rude graffiti on the walls and rubbish underfoot. A row of cargo containers looked lived in, some with their open ends curtained off and lit, others in darkness. Cally loitered anxiously in the shadows. Mom Lal was right about Deck 8.

The spacer lifted a curtain and ducked inside. Heart pounding, Cally edged closer. The thought of a jewel inside her head.

To be safe, the creature looked up human – what did you expect so far from home – Yess, can do what you want.

She peered into his eyes, into his empty soul, and the fierce Christ of his forbears filled him with grace and righteous zeal.

Next time, try Vishnu, or the Buddha, said the creature as he paid.

Watching the spacer hurry away, Cally trembled with indecision, before parting the curtain slightly.

The alien stared back at her. Chad Stone, it said.

Cally gave a muffled cry and fled.

These humanss have such interesting godss, mused the creature.

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