Refuge

2151

Ray Nothnagel

Refuge

"Can't help you."

I feel sorry for the guy, I really do, but it's not like I'm made of money, ya know?

"I lost everything when this place shut down the first time," he kept going. "Just a little bit can go a long way."

"Not my problem." I ramped up the aggressiveness of the denial as I craned my neck, trying to find a route through the throng of people.

"You could afford the trip here," he kept talking. "Surely you have a few venns to spare?"

I had to give him credit for persistence, even if that persistence was doing nothing but irritating me by now. He was just one of a dozen homeless I'd seen since I entered Parella Station, but he was the only one I'd been forced to pay any mind to at all. He reminded me of someone I'd known once, way back on Gryphia.

"No venns," I said. "I haven't even made it to the bank yet. Everything I have is in dollars, and—"

"Dollars are fine, too."

"—and the answer is still no. Bother the next person."

He finally seemed to accept that I was a hopeless cause, and looked past me to his next target. He shoulder-checked me as he passed.

"Fucking racist asshole," I heard him mutter under his breath, causing me to double-take. What race was he, even? In a century of space travel, with various ethnicities no longer geographically divided, most Humans out here had blended into a mix of races except in the most national of colonies. He was already preparing to pester someone else; even looking at him again I had no idea what he had meant.

At that moment, though, I spotted a gap in the crowd and darted for it, finally breaking through the thickness of the debarkation passageway and into the much wider promenade. The foot traffic here moved more steadily in the spacious corrider, and the higher ceiling glowed a desaturated baby blue as if to hint at a sky—perhaps a deliberate psychological trick to reduce claustrophobia? Whatever it was, it was working. Flashing video billboards advertised any number of services and products, from drinks to restaurants to luxury housing.

Below the billboards and the fake sky, even more homeless slept here, Human and Bactaran alike, replacing the aggressive panhandlers in the passage with a more sedate kind of begging, plastic bowls and sheet metal scrawled with messages. I took care to avoid looking any of them in the eyes as I scanned for the name of my next destination on the various multilingual signs that hung on the bulkheads.

"You be lost?" a woman's voice asked in an accent I'd never heard before.

"No, I'm not lost, I just—" I turned to face her, and froze. What stood before me was a strange juxtaposition of body parts and clothing. A loose kimono hung over her inhumanly broad shoulders, not coming close to covering the woman's low-hanging arms, paired with a pair of khaki slacks. The mishmash of Human clothing styles converged on a hairless head and a face with four nostrils, firm protrusions that were somewhere in between tentacles and a bull's horns, and deeply reflective black eyes.

I'd made a point to research the four sentient alien races of the Orion Arm before leaving Earth, and she wasn't any of those. I'd heard rumors, however, about the newest arrivals in our neck of the woods, the Kreig, the ones who'd started selling us new warp bridge devices, in a roundabout way the reason I was here in the first place.

"Are you a Kreig?" I blurted without thinking.

She recoiled visibly, a surprisingly Human gesture for someone with a face like hers. "No, not Kreig," she clarified, "Run from Kreig."

"I don't know your species," I told her. "Are you from the Centaurus Arm?"

"I come from..." she searched for the right words; clearly English did not come naturally. "From far away. My people are Geminon."

"Sounds like you're pretty new here yourself," I said. "And you're offering to give me directions?"

"I arrive... two hundreds days past," she said. "I be learning language, but station, I have learned. This be practicing language."

"Your English is pretty alright for only being here six months." She smiled awkwardly—that is, not in the sense that she was an awkward person, but rather in the sense that moving her face in such a way as to make a smile was awkward. She must have picked up Human expressions and body language, too. "Anyway, I'm looking for the someplace called Beta Corridor."

She lit up. "Beeta Corridor!" she mispronounced it slightly. "Come, this way." She started walking sideways towards one of the side entrances of the promenade, then looked down and straightened her body before beckoning with her hand. I hadn't meant to make a new friend here, but if she was leading me in the right direction, I may as well follow.

"Thanks for your help, uh..." She looked at me blankly, apparently unsure of my implied question. "I don't know your name," I clarified.

"Oh! My name be Jhokei." She smiled awkwardly, then lost the smile as she sought something from her memory. She smiled once more, and then stuck her hand out for me to shake.

"Jhokei," I repeated, the alien word not quite forming right in my mouth. I shook her outstretched hand; the skin was bizarrely smooth, and a hint of webbing stretched between her fingers. "I'm Mack."

"Your name be I-mack?" she attempted.

"Just Mack," I repeated.

"Mack." She tried the word out a few more times as she led me through a series of corridors and gangways. "Why you come to Parella Station, Mack?"

"Same reason I went to Gryphia before here," I answered. "Too many feds in my sky."

"Feds?" she asked. "What is a feds?"

"Fed. Federal agents." Her face showed no sign of enlightenment. "You might have heard of the ESF?"

She nodded. "Oh, yes. I remember ESF from my studying your culture. They are army?"

"Yes, they are. The biggest fleet of Human ships, sent out to fight across the stars. And once the war ended, they all came back to Sol with nothing to do."

"Sol... a star system. You be from there?"

"Yep. Planet Earth, born and raised. Moved to Gryphia about ten years back—had friends out in the asteroid belt tell me they liked the freedom they had out there." Jhokei was rapt, though whether she was just struggling to understand the language or actually interested in my story was anyone's guess. "And it was great, but then the ESF started taking over for the local sheriffs."

"And they were not as good at police as the local... shairf?"

"Sheriff," I corrected. "And no, they were fine at that, but I had an arrangement with my sheriff."

"When this arrangement be done, you ran from feds," she said. I nodded. "This I understand."

"Yeah?" I looked in her black eyes, seeing if I could recognize the signs of understanding in the alien visage. "You got feds where you came from?"

"My feds be the Kreig. I am one of many Geminon who come to Parella Station, hoping for new world."

"A new world?" I looked around dramatically. "Don't think we got one of those here. Wouldn't it be easier to kick the Kreig off your planet?"

"Geminon planet is Seniv. Seniv is flooded—it does not sustain our many."

"So you're in the market for a new one anyway." I nodded. "Still, I'm not sure what you're hoping to find in the Orion Arm. I'm pretty sure all the habitable worlds around here are occupied."

"Still research. I search for parts of worlds others not use. But I not be here for very longer."

"You're almost done with your search?" We passed under one more archway, and I saw the sign I'd been seeking: Beta Corridor.

"Not done, but not safe. The Kreig coming here."

"They're gonna try and bring your lot back with 'em, huh?"

"I have never known Kreig to not expand when they have opportunity. This place might be Kreig Empire soon."

We arrived at the corridor's entrance, but she stood in the way. "You be looking for other location."

"No, I'm pretty sure this is it. Beta Corridor, says so right there."

"This Beeta Corridor, but Beeta Corridor not be your location. You looking for Jackson."

I blinked. "How did you know–"

"Jackson ask me to know, who is trust. Now I know, you are trust."

"I am... trust. I guess you liked what I was saying."

"Jackson not like the feds here. You came to Beeta Corridor, instead of Quartamaster's office. You are trust."

"Well... thank you, I think." She walked a few meters past Beta Corridor to a shop along the promenade. "Jackson be inside."

Before I entered, I turned to her one more time. "I left Earth to set up shop where there weren't so many feds. The feds came to Gryphia, so I came here to get away. You're telling me there's just more feds... your Kreig... coming here?"

She made a gesture with her broad shoulders that I didn't quite understand. "Future is not past," she offered cryptically, then gestured to the shop door again. "Jackson will see you. Good luck to you."

"Haven't seemed to have any of that so far." I hesitated, then stepped into the shop.

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