Scrap Creek: A short short science fiction story
DRIVE-BY STORIES #18
Scrap Creek owed its existence to the Company prospectors. It's saloons, stores, and brothels the only destination within more than five hundred kilometers under the two suns. An oasis from the cold and dank world outside. A place with working environment controls and humidity under fifty percent—a prospector could dry out, so to speak, while getting sloshed. All Company-owned, of course.
Caryn leaned forward, peering out the windows of her walker, letting it settle with a groan of metal joints, at Scrap Creek. It spilled over a slow rise of ground a couple kilometers ahead—piled up by the engineers establishing the location—like a breast shoved up out of the dirt, the buildings and passages between them forming a dark areola around the upthrust nipple of the Company headquarters right at the heart of Scrap Creek. Lights gleamed from windows, alleys, streets, and along the electrified barrier fence that kept out the worst of Hindsight's native wildlife. Lit up, the Company headquarters glowed in a nimbus of illuminated fog. Wipers swept the constant drizzle from the windows and made it look, from the outside, like the walker was rapidly blinking. She released the controls and flicked the switches to set the walker into standby. From beneath came clanking noises as the arms folded up into their niches in the body.
Damn it all. Going back to Scrap Creek like this, holds mostly empty? Not the best idea, but Company hadn't left her any choice. Her only option was the underground, the black market of Scrap Creek. Winsyn. She'd get triple or more than what the Company would give her for the choice artifacts she'd dug out of the muck. Unload those, use the funds to resupply and go back out without reporting in with the Company. As far as they knew, she was still on site in her assigned grid. It wasn't that hard to rig up the tracker with a battery cluster to keep it going while she was gone. Getting in and out of Scrap Creek without being notice was harder, but it wouldn't be the first time she'd managed.
It wasn't exactly her fault—the Company assigned the grids. She couldn't get another grid until she cleared her assigned grid. Without any assurance that the assigned grid would turn up anything worthwhile. If the trip didn't pay for itself then she was in deeper with the Company, owing for supplies, equipment costs, power, and the license. They'd keep her going out, debt piling up, content that they owned her and anything she discovered. That was life on Hindsight—called that because in hindsight, no one would have come to this fucking planet. Except the dreams of uncovering a piece of new tech or other discovery kept fools like her coming and signing up with the company, not even asking what happened to the prospectors before them.
To avoid that fate, she had to deal with Winsyn. They'd made deals before. Small items. Decorative items. The ephemera of an alien race that collectors loved to pick up, preferably away from the Company's prying eyes. A bit of statuary. The small resin paintings that the aliens had obviously liked. Memory-gems, though, that was the big ticket. The aliens had the ability to save a memory to beautiful faceted crystals, apparently wore them as jewelry. Held in the hand, the memories replayed in exquisite detail. Highly sought after by the Company and the black market for the hints they revealed about the aliens that had lived and gone extinct on this world. The Company still didn't have the technology to replicate the memory-gems, fortunately, since that would let them copy memory-gems and the price would plummet.
Caryn pulled up the walker's command interface and ordered the walker to settle down. It groaned as if a living thing as it lowered itself down on its folded legs. She couldn't take it into Scrap Creek and remain unnoticed. It'd be immediately obvious if a walker strolled into town without its tracker. That'd catch the Company's attention. The sort of attention that would likely end up with her contract terminated and charges filed against her. Especially over the memory-gems in her pack.
She patted the console. "Take it easy, girl. I'll be back soon."
She flicked the final switches to shut the tracker down. She wore her pilot's key around her neck. The walker would be fine out here waiting for her. The plating was so stained and marked from Hindsight's vegetation and mud that it was effectively camouflaged.
She grabbed her bag, slung the strap over her shoulder, and pushed the door open. The air smelled fetid and moist. Cold. The two suns kept Hindsight from freezing, just barely. The planet's primary was a red dwarf star, the larger of the two suns in the sky but in fact the smaller of the binary pair. The other appeared half the size, a blue-white blazing sun, a white dwarf. The Red Queen and the White Queen. Calls from all sorts of things filled the air with chirps, clicks, cries, screeches, and warbles. It was a never-ending cacophony and each time Caryn heard it the discordant racket made her wince.
"Get it over with," she said. She coughed on the air, then swung around and started down the rungs, stopping only to close the door and lock it. As soon as she was down and her boots squelched in the mud any doubts she had were abandoned. The Company hadn't left her any other choice.
Caryn had walked into Scrap Creek in the shadow of a cargo walker to avoid the security cameras at the gates in the wide electrified fence that enclosed Scrap Creek. With her hood up, goggles and filter mask in place, they'd assume that she was with the team operating the walker. There wouldn't be any immediate identification. No alarms raised.
The rest of the way to the rendezvous with Winsyn, she stuck to similar blind spots as she moved through the outpost. The club basement where she waited was secure from the Company's prying eyes and ears. A storage room with concrete walls lined with supply shelves only a few meters across. White light panels glowed in the ceiling. She took off hood, mask, and goggles, accepted a glass of clean water and waited, pacing the storage room. Winsyn was late. She didn't like that—didn't trust it. But she couldn't leave. Not without getting paid. She need power cells and rations along with the credits that would move her closer to buying out her contract and getting off Hindsight.
The green metal door slid open to admit Winsyn. They stood almost three meters tall, ducking beneath the door frame to enter the room. The black tailored suit shimmered with silver accents and emphasized Winsyn's slender limbs and body. They seemed all limbs, with a long neck and face. Straight black hair hung down, framing their pale, smooth skin. Cosmetics accented the large blue eyes and blackened their lips to a glossy sheen.
"Caryn," Winsyn's voice was deep and musical. "Always a pleasure seeing you. You'll stay, enjoy the club?"
"I won't," Caryn said. She pulled the case from her bag and tossed it to Winsyn. They caught it easily, long fingers folding deftly around the case. Caryn continued. "Pay me and I'll be out of here. I need to get back to my grid."
"So impatient." Winsyn opened the case and ran a long index finger with a black fingernail across the four bright green and yellow gems nestled in the foam cushion. Their eyes fluttered with each touch, catching fragments of the memories contained. They sighed with pleasure. "How intimate and thrilling. Very nice, Caryn. Find me more of these and you'll be paying off your contract sooner than you expect."
"Great. I don't have any control over it, but I'll keep in in mind. We have a deal?"
"We do," Winsyn said. The case disappeared into a pocket. They turned a wrist, tapping on the face of their watch. "Your funds are transferred."
Caryn checked her own watched, confirm the transfer. "The cells? Rations?"
Winsyn gestured at a case on the shelves. "That case there."
She moved to it, popped open the lid. Six power cells packed around with ration packs. Enough to keep her going for now. She'd finish her current grid and hope the next assignment was better.
She snapped the case closed and picked it up. Heavy, but she managed the weight. "Okay, we're done. Take it easy, Winsyn."
"And you. I look forward to our future, mutually profitable business together."
"Yeah, me too," she said.
Winsyn stood aside and gestured for her to go ahead. She did, not liking him behind her, but wanting out of the basement and the club.
Caryn didn't breath easier until she was back in her walker, reactivated systems, and sent it on its way back to her assigned grid. While it moved, she pulled out her imprinter and slotted in a blank crystal. She settled back in her seat and fitted the cap over her head, closed her eyes, and began imagining an alien's life on Hindsight, encoding a new memory. Easier than finding the genuine article, but it took time. And she had to be careful in crafting the memory to pass inspection by the Company or Winsyn. When she earned enough, she'd be able to escape Hindsight. She didn't plan to look back.
Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed it!
This is a new challenge. I’m writing short short stories, under 2,000 words, many under 1,000 words. I’m sharing them to my Instagram stories. They’ll drop off that, but premium READINARY subscribers can read the full archive of stories here. When I have 100 stories, I’ll publish a collection of them all.
Best wishes, always — Ryan
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