Krinka’s was one of the few quiet places in Credo Down, Regina’s primary planet-side starport. Frequented by Naval officers looking for some off-base dining and corporate sales reps wining and dining prospective big-ticket clients, it offered native cuisine in a more refined atmosphere than your typical startown dive. Ticia had dined here once before with a couple of other shiny new Ensigns fresh out of Officer Candidate School; it was a peaceful start to an otherwise bawdy romp in celebration of their graduation. Having spent most of her career as a non-com, she preferred louder venues.
But the message she’d received from a recent acquaintance had her once again stepping through the tasteful lacquered real wood door into the darkened interior, all crystal and candlelight and aromas of local foods. The host and proprietor, an unnervingly tall native Amindii in a four-armed dinner jacket and bow tie, approximated a smile as she approached its station. “I’m meeting Bertram Salazaar,” she announced, and the insect-like being rubbed two of its hands together in delight as it motioned with the other two.
“Right this way,” it (he?) chirped, and led her to a private nook in the back partitioned by a red velvet curtain. He drew it aside, and sitting at the table within was a man who was definitely not Bert Salazaar.
She turned to the host to announce that there had probably been an error, but he was already on his way back to his station at the front of the restaurant. Turning back, she saw that the man at the table had stood and was looking at her with an expression that she guessed was a confused as her own.
“Lazarus Armani,” he offered, along with his hand.
“Ticia Clarke.” Lazarus took her hand in the way she’d learned gentlemen shook a woman’s hand, complete with a barely discernible bow. He was younger than Salazaar—maybe by as much as ten standard years, although it had been a few since she’d even heard from him—and definitely taller, although both men were broad-shouldered and sturdily-built. Lazarus was handsome and athletic-looking where Salazaar was short and stocky.
Lazarus smiled at her and held a chair while she sat, then returned to his own seat just as a waiter appeared, asking for her drink preference. Noticing the sweating glass of whiskey at Lazarus’ hand, she ordered a scotch, then turned a smile back on the younger man.
He raised his eyebrows. “Expecting someone else, I gather.”
“I imagine you were, too,” she replied. The message she’d received from Salazaar had been short and to the point: I’m dirtside! Meet me at Krinka’s at 2000 Sixday night. Can’t wait to catch up! The waiter returned with her drink and left. She took a good pull, letting the potent spirit linger before swallowing, then asked, “So where do you know Bert Salazaar from?”
He shook his head, still smiling. “Honestly, I barely know him. We met about two standards ago, in a bar here on Regina. Bailed me out of a tight fix.” The grin he wore told Ticia that this was a story she’d want to hear sometime. “And you?”
She swirled the scotch around in her glass a little before answering, without the knowing grin, “I bailed him out of a fix.” She took a sip, then added, “And I’m not sure I know him any better than you.” At which point the curtain parted once again and there, beside the hulking Amindii host, stood Bertram Salazaar himself.
“My two favorite people in the whole galaxy!”
Just like I remember him, Laz thought. The man’s grin, threatening to overpower the brightness of the candles on the little table, was almost as wide as his entire face as he spread his thick arms out in what appeared to be an attempt to bear-hug both he and Ticia simultaneously. He wasn’t sure whether he should be annoyed or not, but he suspected that nobody ever stayed annoyed at Bert Salazaar for long; he’d never met a more personable and friendly soul in his life.
After the hugging, cheek-kissing, and back slapping, they each took their seats, and the waiter returned with three fresh scotches and dinner menus.
“I trust you two have gotten acquainted?” Bert asked, superficially scanning the menu.
“Just started, really,” Laz answered, puzzling over his own menu. “I’ve never eaten Amindii food; what’s good?”
“The grilled rib-eye looks good to me,” Ticia replied.
Bert looked shocked. “Oh, no Ticia. Try some of the native food. The steak’s on there for the offworlders who can’t bring themselves to try something new.”
“Well, I’m kind of a meat-and-starchy-root-vegetable gal, you know?”
“Trust me. I’ll order something you’ll love.”
Laz watched Bert’s face light up again with a smile he figured anyone would have a hard time saying no to. Yes, Bert was a piece of work. He’d known high-powered corporate sales reps with lesser skills of persuasion. And Bert pulled it all off without the slightest oily feeling. Laz almost suspected he was sincere.
“Okay then,” Ticia answered, lifting her glass and smiling back, “but if you fail, you’re going to have to buy me several more of these.”
“Well, then, order for us all,” Laz added, and lifted his own glass. “To new experiences,” he offered.
They touched their glasses together, then drank as the waiter returned. Bert ordered something only barely pronounceable and surrendered the menus, then they were left to themselves again.
“So, Laz, been in any good bar fights lately?” Bert grinned, and Laz could feel himself blush a little. Was it because of Ticia’s presence? He decided to alter the course of the conversation a bit.
“I’m curious, Bert. We’ve met once, about two years ago; how is it I rank as ‘one of your favorite people?’”
The smile again. “Well, you know, you get to know someone pretty well when you’re risking life and limb beside each other.”
“It was a bar fight.”
“Against six Imperial Marines.”
Laz looked to Ticia, who shrugged. “Marines are tough,” she offered, deadpan and not very helpful.
“Especially drunk ones,” Bert added, nodding.
Laz was afraid his exasperation was showing when Bert went on, “I get a feel for people. And we did spend some quality hours in that little jail cell.”
“I guess you can’t blame him for wanting to get together again, though,” Ticia grinned. “Sounds like a good time.”
“And what about you, then?” Laz asked.
“She saved my life once,” Bert interjected, and Ticia scoffed.
“It was just a scratch. Are all Scouts such big babies?”
Great, Laz thought. More hyperbole. But he noticed a blush tinging Ticia’s neck and thought that maybe there was less embellishment there than usual.
“You will get that full story some other time, Laz, because it’s a long one,” Bert offered. Laz thought he had seen Ticia’s blush, too, and had decided to back off a bit.
Then the waiter came and exchanged their half-empty whiskeys for wine glasses and a bottle of native red. After pouring and receiving a nod from Bert, he opened the curtain and revealed a large tray supported by a grav unit hovering just outside and laden with steaming dishes of exotic food.
One of the things Bert enjoyed most about traveling from star to star when he was in the employ of the Imperial Interstellar Scout Service was sampling the foods of the many strange cultures he encountered. And he took delight in sharing what he liked with friends, even if he’d only really known them for small spans of time. It did seem strange, but the connections he’d made with each of these two were as strong as they were instantaneous, and when he had mustered out of the IISS, he hadn’t hesitated in tracking the two of them down. Because the thing he enjoyed the least about serving in the IISS was experiencing so much on his own, cooped up in a little Class S Scout/Courier.
Sure, there had been a few times when he was crewed up with others, but those were the exception rather than the rule.
The table had been cleared, and Amkrinka*, the host and proprietor himself, had checked back in on them and supplied a bottle of sweet native liqueur. They sat back and sipped from tiny stemmed crystal glasses, satisfied.
“That was good,” Ticia announced. “I’m glad you preempted my steak.”
“Seconded,” Laz added.
Bert grinned. This, he thought, is what I want—what I need. To just enjoy the pleasures of a life among the stars with like-minded souls. “My pleasure.”
“I get the feeling, however” Laz continued, “that there’s more to this evening’s get-together than sharing your love of Amindii cuisine.”
Ticia, always direct, sat up. “Okay then. Shoot.”
“It’s simple, really. I’ve spent the past twenty standards doing what I love, for the most part: traveling the stars, exploring, meeting new people, races and cultures. When I left home all those years ago, it’s what I wanted more than anything, and I haven’t been disappointed.” He looked at his two friends—acquaintances, really, but he felt that they would soon be very close. “I believe, from the short time I’ve known each of you, that you left your own homes for essentially the same reasons.”
Ticia and Laz both looked at each other, then back to Bert. “Oh, okay, maybe not the idealistic ‘exploration for the good of the Imperium’ folderol, but just to get off your own little speck in space and see something else—something new.”
“Yeah, well, growing upon a water world like L’oeul d’Dieu, you get to the point where you want to know what dirt is like,” Laz replied. “I’ll bet we were all a little stir-crazy when we were younger.”
Bert looked him in the eyes, “And not at least a little bit still?”
Laz shrugged, “I thought it’d be a little bit different. Maybe I should’ve joined up with the IISS like you instead of becoming a merchant starman. Lugging passengers and high-priced junk for Sharurshid turned out to be a little underwhelming.”
“Well, I got plenty of satisfaction from my time in the Imperial Navy,” Ticia offered.
“And yet here you both are. I just arrived, but I checked up on you two. You’ve both been wandering aimlessly since gaining your freedom.” Bert turned to Ticia, “You could get a job as a surgeon anywhere you wanted, but you haven’t made a commitment.” And to Laz, he added, “And you were made Chief Starship Engineer before you let your contract expire—you could have a position on any tramp trader you desired.” Bert paused, then added, “You’re both waiting for something right. Right?”
There was silence, then Ticia spoke up, “Wait—you’ve been checking up on us?”
“Yeah, well, I knew your fleet had been sent here after the war, and I knew Sharurshid’s routes brought Laz through Regina occasionally. So when I transferred to detached duty, I looked to see if either of you were here. Turns out that not only were you both on Regina, but you had retired from the Navy a year ago, and Laz had recently resigned his position with the corporation.” Bert took a sip of liqueur, “It wasn’t hard to find out what you’d been up to since.”
“Okay then,” Laz drained his glass, then reached out with the bottle to refill all three before continuing, “we’re all unemployed now. You still haven’t gotten to your point.”
Bert smiled his infectious smile. “I have a ship,” he stated. “And I have some savings. I want to go back out there, but on my terms this time. And not alone, but with people who think and feel the way I do.”
“What makes you believe we’re all so alike,” Laz asked.
“Because I fought Imperial Marines by your side in a barroom, and then spent the better part of a standard day in a cell with you sobering up,” Bert answered. To Ticia, he added, “Because you saved my life—even took a bullet for me—and we spent time together in an infirmary on an Imperial cruiser.” He drained his glass again. “I get a feel for people quickly. You two are more like me than you yet realize.”
“There she is,” Bert shouted over the wind as he flew the open-topped air/raft toward the landing area. It was night, but Regina was rarely dark, with the lights of the starport, those of the huge city of Credo, and the massive disk of Assiniboia, the blue-green gas giant Regina orbited, hanging in the sky. Bert flipped a switch on the grav vehicle’s dash and a large hatch began opening up on the rear surface of the small wedge-shaped starship below them. “The ISS Curious Endeavor.”
Ticia and Laz looked down at the vessel, then at each other.
“What do you think?” They were descending toward what turned out to be a small hangar for the air/raft.
“Um,” Began Laz, looking a little unsure. “It’s small.”
“It’s exactly as big as it needs to be,” Bert answered enthusiastically.
“Hey, didn’t you say you were on detached duty?” Ticia asked as they touched down gently, the overhead hatch beginning to close.
“Doesn’t that mean that you can be recalled by the IISS whenever they need you?”
“Yep,” Bert nodded, climbing out of the vehicle and heading toward an airlock hatch door, “that’s why they gave me the Curious.”
“What happens to us if you get recalled?”
“Oh, they hardly ever use detached duty scouts; they have enough active duty personnel to do the work.” Bert tapped an eight digit code into a keypad mounted near the hatch, then pressed his palm onto an adjacent scanner. “But if they do, you guys can just come along for the ride.”
A light that had been flashing red above the hatch switched to green, and the door opened with a slight hiss as atmospheres equalized.
“Welcome back aboard, Captain,” came a woman’s voice through speakers in the bulkhead.
“Thank you, CATHI,” Bert answered the disembodied voice of the ship’s Computerized Analog Terminal, Human Interface.
“We have guests,” it observed. “How may I address them?”
“Doctor Clarke,” Ticia offered.
“Um… Laz is good.”
“Very well. Welcome aboard Laz, Doctor Clarke.”
Bert began showing them around the ship, which didn’t take long, even with their constant stopping to examine maintenance access panels and the like. The Curious was a standard design ship, probably the most common vessel class in the Imperium. Its relatively small 100-ton hull made for very compact quarters. She was built to be operated by a single crew member, although she had accommodations for three more crew or passengers. Life aboard the Curious would be a little snug for three, but not excessively so.
While they had stopped to allow Laz to poke around the engine room, Ticia asked, “Why call it the Curious? Why not Endeavor? I mean, endeavor’s a noun instead of an adjective; it seems more appropriate.”
“No offense,” Bert replied, smiling, “but Endeavor sounds too much like a naval vessel—kind of uptight. Curious sounds…” He paused a moment, noticing that Laz had stopped what he was doing and was paying attention, too. “Curious just seems to suit her better. It suits me better.”
“No offense taken. And you’re right—I like Curious better, too.”
Exiting the ship via the boarding ramp, Laz was concerned about the size of the cargo hold. “It’s barely bigger than one of the staterooms. How are we going to keep her flying without room to move cargo?”
Bert shook his head, “She’s not a merchant vessel, Laz. She’s built for courier duty. Don’t worry about income; I have some ideas.” He said this as he was watching an air/raft with IISS markings approach overhead, hover, and begin setting down in front of them. A short, balding man in Scout fatigues hopped out and approached them.
“Is this the Curious Endeavor? I’m looking for…” he consulted the chronocomp attached to his left forearm, “Bertram Salazaar.”
“You’ve got him,” answered Bert.
The man held out a small secure courier canister. “I have a sensitive message for you to deliver. You’re being reactivated.”
“‘Hardly ever,’” Ticia scoffed.