About an hour later, after I had come to and cleaned up a bit, Guhle and I sat outside a public shower about a block away from Dox’s bar, watching the hundreds of passersby, in about as many different shapes and sizes, making their way between destinations.
I still felt terrible. With even less food in my system now, and a bloodstream that had yet to cycle out the liquor, I was little more than a sweating mess huddled in layered coats. Even Guhle, with his bloody head and his drab workman’s overalls, looked resplendent sitting beside me. Though a large part of it may have been his posture.
“I hope this isn’t a habit of yours,” he said, at last breaking the silence that had existed between us ever since I had finished cleaning myself up.
I shrugged first, then shook my head before clutching my coats tighter around my shoulders.
He sniffed in disdain before crossing his arms over his chest and leaning his head back against the wall of the shower building.
“Hey,” I said, just as he had settled. “Thanks. I guess I owe you now.”
“Yes, you do,” he said, without opening his eyes.
“I’ll pay you back when I can.”
“Sounds like you’re having trouble paying anything at all. Else you wouldn’t have gotten punched out by four-arms back there.” Guhle opened his eyes then and turned his head toward me. “I’m guessing you could use a job.”
I scoffed. “Yeah. That’d help. Good luck finding me one in this orbital zone.”
Guhle settled his head back against the wall again before speaking. “I may have an opportunity for you.”
Everything froze in that moment. I didn’t turn to look at the avian, afraid that he might disappear as soon as I looked up, so I just felt his presence out of the corner of my eye.
What was this? A trick? A trap? A scam?
Problem with any of those suspicions was I couldn’t think of anything that made me worth tricking, trapping, or scamming. Unless this avian savior was really just a sadistic prick who pulled me up out of the muck I’d left on Dox’s floor in order to torture me on his own later.
That possibility seemed like a stretch to me, though, so I slowly brought my mental faculties — such as they were — around to the possibility that this stranger might be telling the truth.
“An opportunity?” I ventured, finally allowing myself to turn slightly enough to see Guhle more fully.
He shrugged, eyes still closed. How he found that relaxing was beyond me. “I’ll have to get in touch with the ship to see if Cap or Gator wants to meet with you.”
A ship. Was I hearing this right? This stranger, who was willing to shell out of his own pocket to help a dredge like me, was also attached to a ship? One that might need a crew mate like me? It wasn’t quite too good to be true, but it was close.
“We’re lifting off in a couple of days and still need a deckhand. So you might fit in.” Guhle opened one eye and looked me up and down with it. “If you clean up a bit, that is.”
I hesitated. By God, I hesitated.
Guhle stood up. “If I’ve misread you, of course, you can feel free to repay me in other ways. Like I said, you’ve got a couple days to come up with something.”
I didn’t know what he meant by that, but I knew I was in no position to repay anything. It was clear that I had two options: take the offer, or run. Neither was appealing. The offer, as it stood, was built on uncertainties — chief among them the compassion of this strange, avian savior. But running…running was a path I knew too well to look at with anything but a hollowness in my gut.
I buried my head in my hands, running my fingers through my coarse, greasy hair as the final barriers of my protests came down. Looking up at Guhle, I felt smaller under his gaze than I had in Dox’s hands.
“I’ll need to get my things, first,” I said. “Then I’ll come with you.”
The payment from my last spot of day labor had somehow been enough to cover the rent I owed on a meager apartment up the road from Dox’s bar. Deciding that shelter was more important than anything else, I forked over the whole deposit, which meant the landlady there hadn’t kicked me out yet.
I explained all this to Guhle on the way there. He was surprised that I even had a place to stay and decided to come with after checking in with his crew.
Turns out I got the job. No questions asked. Which made my stomach turn another knot.
When we arrived, Guhle discovered that “apartment” was too generous a word for what I was paying for. The tenement had been converted from an old long-term storage facility. After the Farseers brought the Migo system into their imperium about ten years ago they closed the profitable trade lanes between it and the nearby Seren system, which was still held by the Altrun Collective. That decision caused a sharp decline in the freighter population and an uptick in migrant workers. Like me. All that added up to too many storage facilities and not enough living space for the thousands of us who couldn’t afford to get out of system.
“Warning,” I said as we came to the door. “I’m on the fifth floor.”
Guhle scoffed and pushed past me to start climbing the stairs.
We didn’t speak on the way up. I pressed my thumb to the door when we reached the top and the big door to the fifth floor slid open.
“I’m the seventh on the right,” I told Guhle, pointing to the door as we came to it. “Here it is.”
Again, I pressed my thumb to the door and it opened.
Inside was the three meter by two meter box I called — well, not home, certainly, but the closest thing I got to it.
“Cozy,” said Guhle.
I stepped inside, grabbing the pack off the floor where I had dropped it weeks before, and started packing things into it. “Like I said, I don’t have much. This’ll only take a minute.”
As I turned around with an armload of clothes, I noticed Guhle leaning over to pick up the Bible off of my makeshift nightstand. It was the only physical book I owned. A relic of my mother’s.
I snatched it out of Guhle’s hands, leafing through the pages before depositing it in my coat pocket alongside my flask.
“D’you actually believe in that stuff?”
I shrugged as I zipped up the pack. “Sure. Don’t see any reason not to.”
Guhle laughed. A high-pitched whistling noise that came out between the points of his beak. “I don’t see much evidence that you do, either,” he said.
“Then let me tell you clear,” I said. “If there’s going to be a problem with my faith, I can just stay here.”
I dropped the pack beside the cot and folded my arms across my chest, staring up into Guhle’s eyes.
Guhle raised his hands defensively. “Hey. Chill. I got no problem with it.”
“Good,” I said as I picked up my pack and hoisted it onto my shoulder. “We’re done here. Let’s go.”
Guhle motioned for me to lead the way and I did, marking the door on my way out to indicate that I wouldn’t be coming back. The automated monitoring software in the building would report the vacancy to my landlady and immediately post a notice on all the housing networks.
“Seriously, though,” said Guhle as we reached the end of the hall and started down the stairs. “You believe there’s some sort of invisible personality that’s bigger and more powerful than the entire universe?”
“Like I said, I don’t see any reason not to.”
That stopped Guhle in his tracks. “You’re serious. Aren’t you?” He caught up a second or two later. “You haven’t seen much of the galaxy, have you?”
I shook my head as we continued descending the stairs. “I’ve mostly been in the Migo orbital zone here for the past ten years. Before that, was with my family over on Umayyadrid. So no. Not really.”
It wasn’t a complete lie. But it wasn’t the truth either.
“Let me tell you, there’s some weird Phitzpar out there.”
“I don’t need to see it,” I said grimly. “I know that nothing compares to my God.”
“Is that why he let you get beat up by Dox?”
“He didn’t,” I said, looking back up at Guhle. “He sent you to save me.”
Again, Guhle laughed. “You can’t be serious, man.”
I shrugged and kept walking. “I believe that Jesus continues coming to us in little ways each day. You’re one of those ways.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll stop questioning. It’s clear you’ve got all the answers.”
I didn’t bother correcting him. Or telling him that I only kept to the faith as part of a promise to my mother. Even after leaving her, I still kept the promise.
Maybe it was to make up for stealing her Bible.
“C’mon,” said Guhle when we reached the ground floor — if there was such a thing on a space station. “Docking bay isn’t far. And I’m sure Gator’ll want to process some paperwork or something when you get there.”
Nodding, I hoisted my pack further up on my shoulder and followed my avian savior to his improbable job offer.