"That'll be five-thirty, Hogs."
Hogberg fumbled through his various pockets, searching for change. "They went up another two shunts," grumbled the old man.
"Hey," replied Alan, putting his hands up in mock-surrender, "I don't set the prices."
"Yeah, I know," muttered Hogberg, who scattered his loose change onto the counter and began to count it out. "It's that damn boss of yours. Real miser, he is."
Alan slid half of the change towards himself, and began to count as well. "Gul's a shrewd businessman, I'll give him that.
You gotta know your shit to open up the first mini-mart in deep space."
"Only 24-hour place on DESA 2," nodded Hogberg. "Goddamn monopolist."
"You gotta admit, Hogs, investors don't exactly clamor to stake a claim at Patton Minor," added Alan. "Hey, I've got two-seventy here."
"Three-ten," said Hogberg, pointing to his own pile of coins.
"That'll do it," said Alan, rationing out Hogberg's change and entering the sale into the register.
Hogberg picked up his smokes and some matches, then headed for the doors. "Take it easy, kid," he called back to Alan.
"You too, Hogs." The door sensor chimed, and Hogberg disappeared into the eternal night sky of deep space.
Alan checked the clock; it was ten-thirty. He took the vac-grate out of its charger and walked outside to sweep the lot.
Alan began to walk around the perimeter of the store, looking for cigarette butts, used napkins, hot dog boats, or anything else that constituted trash. Each piece of refuse was sucked up into the vac-grate and disassembled into component molecules by its fission coils. The job was meticulous, but leisurely; Alan could walk around at his own pace, so long as he kept an eye out for approaching customers.
Alan paused to look around. The cross-streets were largely deserted, it being a Sunday. A few blocks down the road, the horizon connected to a metal wall, and high above that, the transparent dome of the habitat crater began, arcing upwards for half a mile over Alan's head. Outside the dome, the rocky, elliptical planetoid Patton Minor took up half of the dark, starry sky.
Patton Minor was a pretty boring place to make a living. Old spacers like Hogberg compared it to Antarctica on Earth, a barren, cold, inhospitable land. However, the second Deep Edge Sensor Array was nice enough: an astrometric research station in orbit of Patton Minor, DESA 2 had the dual responsibilities of probing the edge of the galaxy and refueling any craft venturing beyond Human borders. It was financed in part by PhoenixCorp, but a number of private investors also paid for its upkeep. This is where the budding local community came from: reassigned workers from a variety of disciplines came to DESA 2 to stake their companies' claims on the outpost, providing both the station personnel and visiting spacers with necessary services.
Alan was one such transfer. A drifter of the stars, he'd held labor jobs of all sorts from Arcas to Southbottle, usually leaving after a few years to break up the monotony. Before coming to DESA 2, Alan had been a dishwasher at a very classy restaurant on Perdition. He had liked that job, but the intolerable heat and humidity of the planet's atmosphere had almost totally destroyed his sinuses. When the DESA 2 position came up on the Spacenet, he jumped at the opening. Alan shook his head, clearing his mind of errant daydreams. He vaporized a few more bits of clutter before returning to the inside of the store.
Ten-forty-five: time to freshen up the coffee. Alan dumped out the old pots, cleaned them with salt and ice, and rinsed them thoroughly. Once returned to the coffee island, he began to start the new blends, one after another: regular, decaf, dark roast, Beggershead tarrazu, Perdition beetle nut, Nar special blend, Columbian.
He was just finishing up the Kenyan stinger when a pair of attractive MINAs walked in, dressed in bikinis and high heels. Modular Identity-Neutral Androids were fairly commonplace on most of the worlds Alan had visited, especially on space stations like DESA 2. Unlike a planet, an artificial locale has no self-governing ecosystem, no inherrent balance to its operation. Even the most harsh planetary conditions eventually brought colonies of settlers, but the vacuum of space only promises money. As such, finding companionship on a place like DESA 2 could be problematic at best, and impossible at worst.
Early androids were an ethical nightmare to the spacing corporations; many an old spacer could tell the tale of the uprising at Durcaster. Such incidents fueled an extended discussion on the rights of artificial beings. At the height of the debate, the MINA prototype was introduced. Designed without a self-recognition system and a number of interchangeable personality archetypes, their malleable natures made them highly adaptable to the emotional needs of deep spacers. More importantly, having no concept of "I", legally they could not be considered anything but furniture.
The two artificial girls sauntered up to the counter. Alan recognized them; they were rentals from the Gootchie club, he had dealt with them before. He wiped down the coffee island and returned to the register.
"What can I do for you ladies?" asked Alan, with mock politeness.
The sarcasm was lost on the robots. The wavy-haired blonde with the heavy mascara spoke: "I need two blunt wraps."
Alan opened the drawer next to him. "I got cherry, cognac, cotton candy, fried chicken, and moondaisy."
She blinked several times. "Do you have any strawberry?"
"Nope," said Alan, "just the ones I listed. Cherry would be the closest."
Again, the android blinked rapidly. "I'll take one cherry and one moondaisy," she decided.
Alan took the packages out and placed them on the counter, scanning them into the register. "That'll be a shuck-seventy-eight, please."
The blonde opened her purse and fished out a credit chit. She inserted the plastic square into the appropriate socket on the back of her left hand, and then inserted her middle finger into the scanner. On Alan's screen, a picture of the buyer came up: Bando Pax, an Iranian man whom the screen confirmed had rented the MINAs for the evening.
The redhead, who had been staring silently, spoke: "What time do you get off, honey?"
"Two in the morning," replied Alan, who then joked, "you gonna come back for me?"
"I might," said the redhead, winking with exaggerated seduction.
"Right," said Alan. He ripped the receipt off of the old thermal printer. "Alright, you're cleared. You need any matches?"
"No," said the blonde, taking the slip and the blunt wraps. "Thank you," she added, in a sing-sing voice, and the two MINAs headed for the entrance, heels clicking rhythmically against the linoleum floor.
"Have a nice night," Alan sighed.
A young Germanic man in cycling gear approached the entrance as the MINAs walked out. Before stepping through the door, the redhead looked back at Alan and made a phone sign with her left hand. "Call me," she teased.
Alan rolled his eyes. The cycler walked in. "Looks like you're gonna score tonight, buddy," he goaded.
"Shut up, Max," said Alan. "I can't believe I've been reduced to flirting with robots. My life can't possibly suck this bad."
Max laughed, taking off his helmet, and heading for the drink cooler wall. "Never been a problem for me," he said. "But then, as you've noted many a time, I'm a flaming faggot."
"Hey, I didn't say there was anything wrong with sucking dicks," said Alan. "I just said I'm not interested in sucking yours. How's the biking?"
"Same as always," said Max. "Up Grid Fourteen, down Grid Ninety-Seven. I really miss the hills of Hawkslaw. Now there was a fine planet."
"Never been," said Alan. "Heard it was nice, though."
"'Nice' doesn't do it justice," said Max. "That world is an arboreal paradise. I used to take one of the nature trails all the way out to the shoreline. Beautiful weather, good bit of exercise."
"And now you've settled for the dreary, paved interior of a deep edge station," said Alan. "How far we've fallen."
Max smirked. He selected an herbal tea, laced with a variety of anti-radicals, and came to the counter. "Well, could be worse," he said. "Could be on a mining ship."
"Ugh," said Alan. "Don't get me started. I spent some time running the docking clearances on Southbottle, back when I did computer work. Those people are the most miserable bastards." He scanned the drink. "You want to put this on your work tab?"
"Please," said Max, sliding the bottle into a fitted sheath on his shirt. "I'll see you on Wednesday, I think that's when we shift together next."
"I'll be here," said Alan. "Not much else to do."
Max nodded. "Have a better one," he called back as he walked through the entrance, hopped onto his bike and rode away down Grid Ninety-Seven.
Eleven-fifteen. Mop the floors.
Eleven-thirty. Wipe down the windows and input screens.
Eleven-forty. Sterilize the microwave oven, the ELF freezer and the stasis locker.
Eleven-forty-five. Stock cigarettes.
With nothing left to do, Alan pulled out his pocket computer. The store, like most of the residential crater, was tied into the DESA 2 wireless network, and by extension the Spacenet. This far out from Earth, the downloads would be two weeks behind, but it was better than nothing. Alan fired up his usual portals, browsing various galactic news sites and spacer blogs.
He was in the middle of an online board game with some Japanese engineers from the other end of DESA 2 when the door chimed again; it was about twenty minutes past midnight. Alan looked up to see another MINA coming in. He didn't recognize it, which was odd right off the bat; in six months he'd learned to identify virtually all of the MINAs on DESA 2 on sight. What else was odd was that it wasn't fabulously attractive like most MINAs, though it looked like it was trying to be. Its auburn hair had been styled, its makeup flourished out, its clothing made fashionable, but in truth it didn't look like a companion unit so much as a secretary, or maybe a hipster barista: black ballet flats, black tights, a longsleeve blue tunic dress, and glasses.
Furthermore, it didn't act like any MINA Alan had ever seen. In fact, it seemed visibly distraught. All the other MINAs had a very limited range of expressiveness which generally ran from 'distastefully uninterested' to 'unabashedly sultry', but rarely incorporating any distinctly negative appearances. The MINA before Alan was idling somewhere between 'slightly confused' and 'genuinely concerned.'
None of this really affect Alan's own modus operandi. He paused out of the board game he was playing and slid the computer back into his pocket, than asked the MINA, "How can I help you?"
It looked at Alan for a long moment, as if it didn't quite understand the question. Then, in a strange, broken monotone, it said, "I need a pack of Trueport hundreds."
"As you like it," said Alan, reaching for the cigarettes. "That'll be six shucks, five shunts."
The MINA paused, looked at the cigarettes, then looked back to Alan. "I need a pack of Trueport hundreds," it repeated.
"These are Trueport hundreds," replied Alan. He brought the pack closer to the MINA's face; perhaps its visual sensors were out of alignment due to the glasses.
It ran its eyes over the package, then said a third time, "I need a pack of Trueport hundreds."
Alan sighed. "Clearly, you're not working right on some level. Let me see your credit chit."
"I need a pack of Trueport hundreds," it protested.
"I'm sure you do," said Alan. He began to walk out from behind the counter. Since this MINA wasn't responding to audio directives, he decided to give it a rubdown for its credit chit. As he approached, it looked at him with the same unsure nervousness.
Alan didn't find any pockets anywhere on its outfit, nor any kind of purse. The handslot was empty, too; whoever sent this MINA out, sent her without money. As he searched, Alan did notice one thing: the MINA appeared to be leaking oil. A small puddle had begun to form under her shoes, dripping from approximately the area of her abdomen, and a trail of droplets lead back towards the door.
"Well," he said aloud to himself, "that's a little unsettling."
"I need a pack of Trueport hundreds," said the MINA.
"You need a mechanic," Alan replied. He hesitated a moment, then decided to lift up the MINA's dress, sliding the clingy sweater-material up to just below its breasts. It appeared that the forward abdominal panel was slightly dislodged, as if it had been pried open roughly and then put back on after it had become bent. Alan tried to pop the panel open; as he did, he could hear a stripped gear grinding itself impotently in defiance.
Inside the MINA was an absolute mess. Crossed wires hastily soldered onto circuit-bent chip contacts created a rat's nest of cabling, and there were at least three after-market add-ons very rudely shoved inside. Alan scowled as he recognized what he was looking at. "Someone really butchered you up, doll," he said.
"I need a pack of Trueport hundreds," it said.
Alan huffed, "That's going to get annoying REAL quick." He tried to find a marker plate somewhere on the inside, but there were no visible serial numbers anywhere, no registry codes, no return addresses. Either they had been pried off in the modifications, or they had simply never been there.
"Well," said Alan, "This is a predicament. Who should I call? DESA 2 Central Security? Gul? Gootchie's?"
"I need a pack of Trueport hundreds," said the MINA, its voice wrack with desperation, and seeming to gain more emotion with each pass of the sentence.
"Alright, that has got to stop right now," said Alan. He closed the panel as tightly as he could, sliding the MINA's dress back down over her, and taking her hand in his. "Come on," he said, "You're staying in the drink cooler until I figure out who to call about this."
It protested, "I need a pack of Trueport hundreds!"
"And I need a handjob from a girl who loves me," replied Alan, opening the door to the walk-in refrigerator and pulling the MINA inside with him. "Now, you just sit tight while I go look up--"
Before Alan could finish the sentence, the MINA reached out towards him. It slid its hand down the front of his pants, its fingers finding his manhood and grasping at the shaft.
Alan yelped, "Hey!" Reflexively he tried to jump back away from the MINA, but doing so closed the refrigerator door behind him. In an instant the MINA closed in, pinning him to the door with its other hand grasping his shoulder. Its visual sensors were frantic behind the glasses, fired with what seemed to have gone from fear to desperation, and gazing right into Alan's own eyes.
The MINA demanded, "I need... a pack... of Trueport hundreds!"
"Okay," cried Alan, "whatever you want! Just don't hurt me, you crazy robot bitch!"
The MINA's eyes went wide as quarters, ecstatic as if finally allowed a long-awaited reward. It pressed its lips to Alan's, grabbing his penis and stroking it with the wildest of abandon. Alan's arousal was almost instantaneous; it had been quite a long time since he'd been touched by anything resembling a woman. He returned the kisses with equal passion, wasting no time to allow his tongue to snake its way inside her widened gums, finding its opposite and curling about it in a dance of osculation.
A sharp buzz interrupted the makeout session: the door alarm had sounded, alerting Alan to the presence of customers. His hand found the intercom contact, and he called out, "I'll be with you shortly!" With that, he shoved the MINA away from his body, gasping for air.
The robot looked positively stricken with disappointment. It stuttered, "I... I need..."
"I know," said Alan. "I know what you need. Look, it's okay, just stay right here, okay? Please, just stay right here, and don't say a word, and I'll be right back."
The MINA paused. It took in his facial expressions, and seemed to visibly comprehend the complex sense of trust that Alan was attempting to convey. The MINA blinked twice, then nodded its head and straightened its stance, effectively in a standby position.
Alan sighed with relief. He brushed himself off, straightened his smock, and opened the door from the cooler, closing it rapidly behind him as he reentered the main floor. Inside the store were a pair of Korean boys, younger than Alan by maybe five years. They were dressed in urban affectations and reeked of valve oil, like they'd been working under the hood of a stardrive for hours.
"Sorry," said Alan as he approached the register, "I was just filling the teas. What can I do for you?"
The rear boy, taller, was silent. The shorter boy stammered, "Uh, well... we was... we was wondering if you'd seen a MINA around here lately."
Alan perked an eyebrow. "I see them all the time," he said, not wishing to volunteer any information just yet. "You're going to have to be more specific than that."
"Well, uh..." said the boy, "it's ours, you see, we got it at a... yard sale. It's cute. Brown hair, glasses..."
Alan grilled him, "You put glasses on a MINA? Why, are its visual sensors busted?"
"No, uh... we just... thought it would be cuter. You see, we were doing some mods on it..." The shorter boy scratched his head.
"What kind of mods?"
"We can't tell you," piped up the other boy, a hint of nervousness in his voice. "I mean, they're not illegal or anything. It's just... it's not your business, you know?"
"Well," said Alan, "I suppose you're right. My business is running this store. Do you need anything?"
"No," said the boys.
"Then I bid you good night, gentlemen."
"You didn't answer the question," protested the shorter boy.
"Look," said Alan, "I see about two dozen MINAs a night on an average shift. Maybe your doll came in, and maybe she didn't. If you want to file a lost property complaint with the DESA 2 Central Security, you're welcome to use the store's localphone."
"No," blurted out the taller boy. "Like we said, it was a... yard sale. There wasn't any registration card."
Alan stood up to his full height, glaring down at the boys. He took their worried, fidgety stance in for a moment before speaking again. "Okay, boys, where did you really get this MINA? Because I'm guessing it's stolen property that got away from you, and you're trying to retrieve it before anyone finds out."
The boys clammed up. After a few seconds, the taller one said, tersely, "That's not it at all."
"No registration card? Bought at a yard sale? Do I look like I just fell off the last cargo freighter? Maybe I should call up DESA 2 Security myself and have them come down and sort this out, huh?"
The boys panicked and booked for the door. Alan pretended to give chase, jogging around the register as if labored, and watching them tear-ass down the street as he reached the door. He shook his head, chuckling, returning back to the main floor.
Now Alan knew how the MINA got there and why her insides were so jumbled, but that didn't explain where she'd come from. He decided to check the DESA 2 SecNet. When something as expensive as a MINA went missing, there was always a lost item report. He scanned the public logs back for a month and a half on his pocket computer. Strangely, nothing came up.
"There has to be an explanation," Alan thought aloud. "Why wouldn't it be reported missing... unless it's already supposed to be gone?" He delved into the docking manifests for the DESA 2 cargo runs; fortunately his old clearance codes from Southbottle were still on file with Spacenet.
It took him only a few minutes to find what he was looking for. The local public library had just replaced one of their MINAs with a newer model, and had scheduled the old unit to be sent to a scrapdock on a salvage vessel. "Those Korean kids must have gone dumpster diving," Alan thought aloud, "and pulled the MINA out of the trash before the dumper left the station."
Alan genuflected on this information. The MINA was salvage. That meant it didn't belong to anyone. That meant it belonged to the first person to claim it.
That meant it belonged to him.
A fire filled Alan's upper arms and torso, a passion he hadn't felt in a long time. It was the same feeling that sent him out to the starts so long ago, made him a nomad of worlds: the search for where he belonged. In that instant, he saw the interplay of connected coincidences as a schematic diagram, a flowchart leading to an inevitable conclusions, and he knew that he belonged with the robot.
Alan looked up at the clock. It was a quarter to one. Gul would be in at two to file the nightly reports. Alan had to work quickly.
First, he locked up the store. Since there was no "closed" sign, he made one from scratch and taped it to the inside of the door. Then, he clocked out from work, following which he brought up his unpaid hours to date. Figuring the amount owed and deducting for taxes, he took the sum out of the register and recorded the difference as a drop.
Then he wrote up a note for his boss:
Gul, You knew I was a drifter when you hired me, so I'm guessing it won't be so surprising to find me gone. Rest assured, I have not stolen from you. I figured out how much I've worked up until today and taken only that sum from the bank. I also locked up the store so that no one would get in and steal. I wish I had a good explanation as to why you're finding this note and these conditions, but I don't. Not one you'd approve of, anyway. Suffice it to say that I found something I needed to do with my life, and I had to follow it. It may sound corny, but it's the truth. Best wishes, Alan
There was only one thing left to do: get away from DESA 2, tonight.
Alan picked up the localphone and dialed up cargo clearance.
"DESA 2 Docking Bay 4," said the operator.
Alan asked, "Has Captain Hogberg departed the station yet?"
"Not for another forty minutes," she confirmed.
"Please connect me to his ship," said Alan, realizing the operator could see the Gul-mart identifier on her screen. "He was just here and I need to iron out a minor payment discrepancy."
"Hold, please," said the operator. A few seconds of beeps and glitches followed.
The next voice was that of Hogberg. "Yo."
"Hogs, it's me," said Alan.
Hogberg paused. "Alan? What the Hell are you doing on the dock phone?"
"I need a ride," Alan said, a note of desperation in his voice. "Like, tonight."
"A ride," said Hogberg, flatly.
"Yes," said Alan, "a ride. Me and one other passenger. I have money, and we wouldn't be much trouble. And you can let me off wherever your run ends..."
Hogberg cut him off: "Are you in some kind of trouble, son?"
"No," said Alan, "not really. I'm... well, look, I don't have time to explain it, but if I can't get off this station in the next hour, I'm might lose the best opportunity that's come my way in a long time."
The phone was silent for a moment. Alan gulped; he wondered if Hogberg was contacting the SecNet.
"Well," said Hogberg finally, "how can I possibly refuse a confession like that? Can you get here in thirty minutes?"
"I'll be there in twenty," said Alan.
"Then you have got yourself a ride." Hogberg hung up the phone.
Alan grinned wildly. He grabbed his jacket, checked his pockets to make sure he had everything, and then ran for the cooler.
The MINA was waiting for him inside, looking very concerned until he entered, and then its face lit up like a Christmas tree.
"Come on," said Alan, "We're going."
"I need a pack of Trueport hundreds," begged the MINA.
"You've got it," said Alan, winking. "Now let's get out of here."
The MINA smiled widely, absolutely brimming with glee. Alan took her by the hand and lead her to the emergency exit, closing the auto-lock door behind them.
At one-twenty they reached the docks. Hogberg was cleaning his windshield.
"Hey," he exclaimed as Alan and the MINA approached, "I see what you meant now! Who's the little lassy, eh?"
Alan stammered, "Her name's, uh... Faye. This is Faye."
Faye smiled to Hogberg. "I need a pack of Trueport hundreds."
Hogberg perked an eyebrow. "Sorry, girl, I only smoke Luckshots, but you're welcome to one once we get in the air." The old spacer waved towards the sleeper cabin. Alan stepped onto the gangplank, helping Faye inside and closing the door behind them.
Faye recognized the bunk and pulled Alan down onto it, wrapping her arms around his head and gazing into his eyes with a joyful abandon. Alan smiled back, shushing her before she spoke again.
The intraship communicator buzzed to life. Hogberg's voice came over the speaker: "Everyone comfy back there?"
"Oh yes," said Alan, "yes, things are very, very comfortable right now."