Augusto is making an effort not to walk too eagerly towards the supervisor’s shed. He has long ago learned that general disinterest and ennui are the uniform of dock servicemen and failing to display them is immediately suspicious. In passing, something catches his eyes and makes them dart back. Isn’t this by the corner Franz’s curly hair? He would sometimes take a break to smoke one of his crude-oil-cigarettes that smelled like mystery and resignation. But the air is dirty with everything but that.
Almost aimless in his step, he approaches the shed and is surprised to find it empty of its designated sole inhabitant. The supervisor doesn’t usually leave until much later, to visit the largest of the cave pubs and bet on some boring rodent fight. It is one of the little treats one can indulge in on a moon mine. As a sign of emphatic generosity on behalf of the federation, officially, cave pubs are caves and a second thought is never to be given about that. Were there even a first thought at all, it would probably be a meditation on the sharp edges of broken things.
Augusto takes a look at his clock, the time of the meeting soon approaching. His throat feels like a thorn bush. He tries to swallow but it requires effort, as if swallowing a giant pill. Come and meet your maker. That’s what the message read, the ridiculous words now etched into his very being. They would swim up as he thinks about finally repairing his shoes, he even hears them on his scratchy pillow right before he falls asleep. Last week he had the dream again of strolling through the tunnels of the salt mine, but this time he could hear the walls whisper to him: Come and meet your maker. It was a bullseye, merciless call to action, like a tear rolling down the face a beautiful woman. In his dream, he walked on and on, deep into the mine, and every corner was the last but one.
Does the usual chaos around him seem to be intensifying or is this just his head spinning? He takes his first deep breath in a long time and recognizes he has to make a decision, and quick. Sector C is minutes away, the shuttle ride can take him up just in time to make it, if he leaves now. So he does.
It’s an old pile of steel parts that don’t want to talk to each other. The fact that they lift off again and again is the closest confrontation Augusto has ever had with the supernatural. The ship is already waiting at a third of an orbit, he can sense the fumes of impatience hissing out of her stabilizers.
He points the shuttle into place and disengages the thrusters, their noise almost gentle as it dies out. Contact is established and immediately the doors open with a metal gasp.
At first, Augusto questions whether he is seeing right. Standing tall before him are two identical figures, paler than pale, their short hair the colour Augusto imagined snow must somewhere be. The one to the left speaks to him in a calm, low voice:
– Are you ready?
– I am, he hears himself answer.
The figures turn and walk in a measured pace back along the connecting shaft, and Augusto unquestioningly follows. The doors close back behind him with the same gasping sound, perhaps a little bit colder to his ear this time.
Entering the Myriadis is like stepping into a foreign kingdom. The ceilings are high and the corridors long. The tiny old gold metal tile that covers its every surface gives the ship the feel of a honeycomb of cosmic proportions. At the other end of the corridor a figure emerges – wearing a welder’s mask, soaked in dirt and fatigue. Approaching them, the figure gives a silent nod to the two escorting women and they all head left, to a large and comfortably furnished hall.
The two women stop at the entrance and let Augusto enter, followed by the masked figure. No more than two steps in, he turns to see the welder’s mask already in the hands of its owner, honey-coloured hair spilling from beneath it onto the broad shoulders of a woman with a blank expression on her face, save for her tiredness. She is young, no older than Augusto, but her gaze falls heavily onto her surroundings, not finding rest anywhere for long. She takes her time before she looks at him.
He quickly discards the silence between them.
– Where is the doctor?
– You will see him, shortly. – She exhales. – I realize you may very well have a lot of questions, but first, let me pour you a drink.
As Augusto sits down on the nearest of a pair of armchairs, she turns and walks to a smallish wooden cabinet – a rarity in itself – and takes out a carefully wrapped glass bottle. Augusto cannot make out the elaborate label on it and wonders if that is, in fact, her own handwriting. It is full of verve, as if written in a stolen moment during a battle with an uncertain outcome.
– What is it? – he inquires, hoping to betray as little uneasiness as possible with his voice.
– Veritas, if you will. There are pressing matters to be discussed in the little time I can afford to stay here undetected. – She pours his glass full. – I need to have an open conversation and I need your words to be honest and true. So will you have it, please? – She gives him an expectant look and adds – It may not sound like a choice but it is.
– I see you’re having a glass as well?
– I want us to have a conversation, not an interrogation. – she says and takes a sip.
Well then, so be it. He carefully gives the thick liquid a taste, mistrustful of its dark and muddy colour, takes a bet on a gulp and chokes.
– It tastes…alive…what is this?
– Only some of my finest wine.
– They still make that? – Augusto is taken aback. – I didn’t know they still make that. Or that you can come by it at all…
Beatha senses the unspoken question in his voice.
– I am very well connected and I paid for it, full price. It is worth its weight in solar dust which is why I implore you to drink as much as you’d like.
Her voice carries a sense of camaraderie that he hopes he isn’t imagining. He takes a big gulp and feels a sudden, blissful lightness in his stomach that is completely unfamiliar to him.
Beatha is looking at him, strenuously. She opens her mouth, remains silent for a heartbeat, then asks:
– Do you know who I am?
– I would recognize you anywhere. – says Augusto in a dry, quiet voice, without removing his eyes from his glass. Not knowing what to do next, he drinks twice more from the wine. It doesn’t ease the clenching sensation that has returned to his stomach. When he finally looks up, he finds her face turned worried, and, maybe, just slightly elated at what she has just heard. His eyes wander back to the glass.
– You’re thinking – how can I be sure. After all this time, how do I know it is you. I do. I knew it the second you came down that corridor, even before you took off your welder’s mask. I recognize the way you breathe, I can hear it from across the room just as good now as I could back then.
Beatha remains silent, her fingers holding on to the arm of the chair just a little too tight, her gaze steady and fixed. The silence strangles the life out of the room for several tiring seconds.
– You should know that my guards are alert on the other side of the door and will intervene at the slightest sign of a struggle. – She says in one breath.
Augusto’s mouth gapes open, then closed again. He weighs some words in his mind, and speaks them carefully.
– I wish you no harm. Whether you believe me or not, it is how it is.
Beatha’s grip on the chair loosens a bit. Her voice is measured but her eyes can’t hide the effort it calls for:
– For your own sake, I hope so too.
Photo by Mincho KavaldzhievHire An Editor