"Listen to me, my friend."
After a few whiskey shots, Mr. Cecil Shanks reached the ultimate level of intimacy between two men. Gromov watched him, analyzing carefully the waves of pity which he felt for the salesman.
"I am listening."
"In the orbit harbor, there is a freight ship, filled to the brim with cargo. It belonged to my buddy, the finest space merchant you've ever met. He passed away a half year ago. Before he died, he told me to sell his ship under one condition. He wanted me to find someone who won't mind taking care of his last unfinished business."
"Have you ever heard of Rusty Asteroids?"
"That den of pirates and outlaws?"
Cecil Shanks nodded gravely, looking concerned.
"I know what you want to say," he continued. "But trust me, not all people from Rusty Asteroids are hoodlums. My buddy, Luciano, had been flying there and back for ten years and never encountered troubles."
The Rusty Asteroids earned its reputation thanks to an exaggerated, yet popular TV show, called Danger in Space, which depicted the whole area as a nest of coldblooded throat cutters.
About twelve years ago, Gromov and his colleagues had attended the punishment mission to destroy an infamous drug dealer and smuggler's base.
That man believed he could find the safety in the asteroid ring, but his gangster-like behavior upset the locals to such an extent that they gladly revealed his coordinates to the AN agents. Gromov and Andrey Jerzinski went through their first space battles, chasing the criminals out of the sky. However, the antagonists fought desperately, adopting the effective guerilla tactics.
Andrey and his pilot got hit, drifted away, and were claimed dead even though their fighter had never been found. Steiner insisted on reviving them afterward, being zealous about new life backups.
To dismiss unpleasant memories, Gromov focused on inspection of the documentation Mr. Cecil Shanks gave to him. Despite its old age, the freight ship seemed in excellent condition, with detailed records of performed maintenance. The cargo consisted of spare parts and materials, which inhabitants of Rusty Asteroids needed to exist in the hostile environment. The price was more than favorable.
"I have no problem with Rusty Asteroids," said Gromov finally. "What is the next catch?"
"Why do you think there is a catch?"
"Why, indeed! Do you see these last software checks? Why would you do them if not for a reason?"
"Oh, this is our customer service. Glad you noticed."
"You ordered the deep software audit for three times in a row. Why? If the ship is docked, what did you expect to find?"
Cecil Shanks hesitated and then continued: "Sava, I am not going to lie. The thing is you are not the first customer to whom I've offered this beauty. Unfortunately, each time we made a tour inside the ship, we stumbled upon some minor troubles or malfunctions. No serious issues, though."
Gromov read carefully one of the auditors' report. "They confirmed the life-supporting system works normally, and excessive testing did not reveal any bugs. Do you call unreliable life support a minor issue, Shanks?"
"Sounds bad, huh? Rest assured, the system performs well. The audits proved as much. They were false alarms. Trust me, Sava. My friend treated the old bark like a girl. He would never have allowed any shortcomings in maintenance. Check the bill of materials; they are all of the highest quality."
Gromov, who pretended more insight than he possessed, inclined to believe in Shanks' words.
"So how do you explain the state of affairs?"
Cecil Shanks shrugged. "I'll tell you, and you'll take me for a lunatic."
Another gulp of whiskey. Then, Cecil Shanks grabbed a photo frame from his desk and turned it to his visitor. In the picture, two men were smiling frantically. The first was the younger version of Cecil Shanks; the second one was a tall slim guy with sharp eyes and an unhealthy grey complexion.
"This is Luciano, my best buddy," said Cecil Shanks with a slight sorrow. "He married my first ex-wife despite my fair warning here. The most upright fellow under the Sun who never deserved that bitch. I suspect he bought the freight ship to escape her nagging. He fell for her looks, the same mistake I had made, too. Do you want to see Jessica? She was staggering in her prime, take my word on it."
"Right. Back to Luciano. Laugh at me as you want, but I think he disapproved of the previous buyers."
"Disapproved? I thought he was dead."
"Perhaps his personality remained imprinted in the ship, and he sort of haunt it. Like a ghost, you see? It is the only reasonable explanation I can offer for those unexpected occurrences."
Gromov had to suppress a smile hearing what Cecil Shanks call "reasonable," but he did not object to the paranormal beliefs since the situation had turned to its favor.
"If Luciano haunts the ship, why should he approve of me?"
"Why? Why? Because it's you? You are a noble hero, the famous General Sava Grisha. Miriam B sings about you."
Being promoted to general rank and renamed again, Gromov could not argue anymore. With decisiveness caused by vodka, he leaned forward and grabbed the folder with documentation.
"You know what, Shankie? I, the General Sava Grisha-Grimmauld-Whatever, am going to sign the contract. Beam me up before I change my mind."
Such sudden victory left Mr. Cecil Shanks a bit perplex. "Beam you up, Sava? Sorry to say it but I have no such possibility. We are not a military facility. Is the Space Lift OK?"
Gromov signed the paper and in a low menacing tone, reflecting all frustration he felt, he growled, "I will do whatever it takes to leave this bloody miserable planet, do you get it, Cecil? If you want my money, just speed things up. I'll give you four hours."
Mr. Cecil Shanks stood up and made a gesture remotely resembling a salute, "Roger that, General!"
Losing his balance in the process, he almost fell over the near standing bar stool. "Three hours should be more than enough, Sava. Where is my keyboard? Do I imagine things, or is there an earthquake going underneath? Just a second! Just a second! Don't leave my office, please."
Born in the Czech Republic, Pavel Morava is not a native English speaker. Having been twenty-two years old, he published his first book, which did not become an international bestseller. After a few other attempts, Pavel Morava abandoned the literary career for over twenty years, during which period he has been focusing on processing of plastics, programming, and raising of children.
Recently, with more time at his disposal, he returned to the forgotten ambition, fighting a futile battle with English language, procrastination, and the tendency to give up too early.
Being vivid reader of not Anglo-Saxon origin, Pavel Morava was fortunate enough to experience books from different countries, including Czech, Russian, Polish, Chinese, Swedish, Dutch, Japanese, French, German, and English. Such a vast literary variety heavily influenced his own work, which typically relies on an one-point-of-view narrative, consecutive storytelling, and elimination of unnecessary details.
Web novels and online publishing made him reevaluate his approach to style and building blocks of the text; the result should be, hopefully, lighter, shorter, and more intelligible for reading on electronic devices.