“You never flew through the corona of no fucking star you ignorant fucking rock puller.” Joe said, shaking his head and leaning back in the stool welded to the floor of the bar.
“Swear on my warp drive, angel of fucking luck kept me alive.”
“Probably the angel of malfunctioning nav software, Coop.” Dale said, staring down at a half full ceramic mug of jet black coffee.
Cooper pulled a wiry arm back and slapped the large man next to him hard in the back of the head with his mesh flight helmet. Coffee sloshed up into Dale’s beard, which saved the red flannel flight suit with the denim accents from any stains.
“You best keep your trap shut, you were in fucking cryo.”
“And the only reason I’m not a dead popsicle,” Dale said, calmly mopping his beard with a handful of napkins, “is that you did some impossible frame shifting with the warp engine and bounced us a gnats cunt hair away from a star?”
“Like I said-”
“And you’re sure it wasn’t just some artifact on the ancient scanner array your cheap ass won’t bother to upgrade.”
“Highway-fucking-robbery. I could get a whole new array for the cost of that patch, and it works fine. Got us here safe and sound.”
“After routing us through a star that you miracled us around?”
“Sometimes nav work is more art than science. In the end it all rests on the driver’s skill.” The thick radiation scarred skin of Cooper’s face folded away to expose a gap tooth grin with a few shining metal ridges in the back.
“Cheap asshole, you’d probably buy discount nanites without a second thought.” Dale punctuated his statement with a sip of coffee.
“I don’t know if I’d risk a finicky nav.” Joe said, fishing in his pockets for something. “It’s the only way you can see where you’re going once you pass c, and I’d sooner fly without shielding than fly blind like that over light speed. I’m not a fan of passing light speed anyhow.”
The scanner at the entry hatch flashed green as a new driver entered the diner still in full face helmet, not yet meshed out with pressure still equalizing to the station’s atmospheric level. The robotic host led the figure to a table at the far edge after some conversation. Joe lit the pitiful stub of a cigarette with a small laser utility cutter, then turned in his seat and squinted across the room. His augmented left eye protruded slightly as the lens focused. The other men at the bar glanced over their shoulders briefly.
“Looks green to me.” Cooper said dismissively. “No damage on that pretty new top of the line gear. Probably just some kid starting out.”
“Hmm.” Joe agreed, relaxing his gaze and turning back. “Don’t get many fresh faces in the profession. At least, I wouldn’t expect one around here.”
“Yeah, well this place is kinda a dump.” Dale said, looking about pointedly.
“Best country fried steak and biscuits in the sector.” Cooper said.
“How in the verse is it possible that a rusted out robo-diner at the ass end of nowhere has the best country fried steak in the sector?”
“Don’t let him lie to you. He just likes the jobs that come through here in these backwoods stops, same as me.” Joe said, crushing the butt of his cigarette into the ash tray. “Likely the only reason we keep running into each other.”
“Y’know, it’d probably be nice to not have to fight you for work. You sure you don’t want a nice leisurely haul back to the fancy core worlds? Pull some minerals or whatnot, just a simple load.”
Joe snorted and fished out a fresh cigarette. As he dug for the laser cutter the rubber surface just past the edge of the counter rumbled to life. The high pitched squeal of a belt chirped intermittently as a row of sealed metallic capsules glided along the bar’s conveyor from the kitchen at the far side. Small robotic manipulators worked into the bar unhinged the capsules and assembled the plates, a minor clattering of dishes and metal as they settled into place. Their payload delivered, the belt started up again to bring the pods back to the kitchen for cleaning.
Despite the neglected aesthetic, the diner’s food had that home-cooked authenticity that was often emulated but rarely achieved by more commercial chains. In this diner it was the real beef that produced the authentic old Earth flavor missing from the mass marketed joints. The steak was from slaughtered livestock, none of that vat grown sheet meat popular in the core sectors, and the animals had been allowed sentience as they matured. Cooper had insisted that death was a seasoning, and neither Joe nor Dale had a strong enough opinion to challenge or endorse the statement. Their meal was consumed in professional, if not entirely companionable silence as they stared out the clearsteel window at the parked rigs in the distance.
The inlaid projectors flashed to life and the window was ablaze with text and glyphs. The latest local sector job shipment requests scrolled across the window, the gaze of everyone in the room fixed firmly on it as dock numbers and station details perched next to load sizes and credit values. Most of the listings were unchanged from the previous day, a few jobs nearby but not likely to be around by the time you reached them. The small station they were on had been showing the same core bound shipments of raw ore for weeks but nothing worth the hassle.
The job listings flashed for the local station, same as the previous day until the end. Tucked into the last few boring runs was the lucrative offer they had all been waiting for, a high paying job with a sealed load heading to another remote part of the sector. All perfectly legal and above board, so long as you didn’t ask any questions or get caught coming into a sector along unauthorized routes.
Cooper’s bony elbow jabbed into Dale who nodded and stood up, grabbing the last biscuit on the plate with his large paw of a hand.
“Ping me when we have the job and I’ll pull the rig around.” Cooper said to the back of Dale’a head.
Joe finished the last of his grits with feigned nonchalance, then made to stand as well but Cooper placed a restraining hand on his shoulder. He was neither bigger nor for stronger than Joe, but he was decidedly quicker and less scrupulous. The diamond tipped hypodermic he’d palmed pierced through the denim patching and flight mesh layers into the muscle of Joe’s shoulder to deliver a payload of psychedelic drugs illegal in most other sectors.
“Sorry friend, but you’re gonna be watching fractal patterns on the walls for a few hours.” Cooper said in mock apology.
He rubbed his nose with the back of a knuckle as he watched Joe stumble a step or two down the bar, using the stools to stay standing. He crumpled to one knee and made a complex gesture with his hand like he was trying to conduct a symphony before falling all the way to the ground. Satisfied that Joe was down for the count Cooper turned to the booth occupied by the only other living being in the diner.
The booth was empty.
“Shit, should’ve told Dale to handle that one.” He muttered, knowing that the younger driver would probably cut into the considerable profits this from this job by bidding it down worse than Joe.
“Probably.” Said a chipper female voice from the seat next to him. He turned to see a woman with a copper colored bob hair cut sitting next to him, her helmet still rigid on the counter in front of her.
He took a moment to grunt amusement, in the past thousand clock years of the profession women were still a bit of a rarity. The pause was his undoing. Her smug toothy grin and twinkling hazel eyes were the last image he saw before waking up drooling bloody bubbles into the cool remains of his gravy.
Dale put an iced tea down in front of Cooper’s bleary eyes and went back to his diablo chicken sandwich. Cooper sat up with some effort and ambled off to clean his face off in the diner bathroom. Taking up his seat again he checked the local clock, then snorted when he realized he’d been out for about three hours.
“Joe outbid us.” Dale said while chewing.
“Joe’s still discovering new dimensions of space time behind his eyelids for another hour at least.”
“Nope. Some girly dragged his happy ass over to the dock right as I was about to shake on the deal. Snapped it right out from under us. Joe seemed lucid when they started arranging the loading.”
“Hmm,” Cooper grunted, rubbing the sore spot where his manifest were mending the fracture in his skull. He’d have to have a word with the shady worm who sold him low grade drugs if he was still alive when he passed that way again.
A green light flashed at the entry hatch and a squat man with thick goggles affixed to his face walked in, the mesh flight helmet open and loose on his head.
“Oh shit, Coop and Dale? Haven’t seen you in an age.”
“Hank!” Cooper greeted warmly. “Take a seat man, you won’t believe the trip we had in here few weeks back. Nearly flew through a goddamn star!”
Dale shook his head and looked out the clearsteel window as Joe’s rig ambled out of the dock with the sleek black gnat of a bait ship alongside it.