As a pilot, Ann disliked flying cargo. But it was the regulation way to cope with reality skimming if you weren’t actually flying.
She came around in the sick bay of Second Contact Station still feeling grumpy over discovering Second Contact’s chief medic was the same one who’d treated her ex-partner. The same doctor she’d attacked, leading to her stint of Supervision. Dr. Lurol the brain mechanic, who had refused to listen to her when she begged her to revive N’Goni with her experimental visitor probe.
But it wasn’t Lurol who was with her when she woke up.
“I don’t know why you let them fly you cargo,” said a bizarre-looking man, seated on the pallet beside her. “Any ship I fly in, I pilot.”
Ann ignored the comment beyond registering he must be a pilot. “Be useful,” she grumbled, “and help me up.”
His grasp was both strong and frail at once, trembling despite a bite that hurt her arm. He was dressed in stained beige pants with a vest worn over a narrow, naked chest and had piercing eyes set in a face that looked prematurely lined. His hands reeked of stale smoke.
“Thanks,” she said, when she was sitting up, and scared up some professional camaraderie. “My name’s Ann.”
He nodded. “Thomas. Thought I’d tell you in case you haven’t looked me up. Gather you don’t do your prep work.” He grinned. His teeth were stained and the gums had shrunk back.
Ann, whose many faults included an inclination towards physical beauty, was repulsed.
“You’re in pretty good shape for a pilot,” he concluded, looking her up and down.
“Can’t say the same for you,” said Ann. “Who the hell are you, anyhow?”
Thomas whistled. “You really are info resistant.”
The smell of stale smoke he left in his wake was enough to make her think about quitting, which reminded her she had not packed her cigarettes and the station wasn’t going to supply them. Piloting was life-threatening enough. Maybe the greater risks inherent in their occupation was why most pilots smoked, in defiance of a lifetime’s health education.
As Thomas walked away, she got a good look at the back of his vest and realized the embroidery was Gelack — the term First Contact people used for the everyone beyond Killing Reach, Sevolite or otherwise. The needlework depicted a sword in the grasp of a well-muscled arm.
At the door, Thomas turned back. “See you at the briefing tomorrow,” he said, with a grin. “I’m the one who will be teaching you the jump.”
Ann felt as if she’d been slapped. Learning how to navigate a jump was a very nearly mystical experience, or in space psychiatry terms a function of dream-like self-consciousness. In either case, it called for sufficient trust to let your guide take over your rel-ship’s phase-splicing envelope and essentially pilot for you. Not something a girl wanted to do with just any guy.
Thomas didn’t inspire confidence.