Floyd’s Coffee House
Big Bear Lake, California
December 20, 2012
“To the future!” I shouted, along with Katie, Mike and Ashley. We toasted and our cups clashed against each other. It may have looked silly to outsiders, but it was my small celebration, and the baristas and two tourists applauded. I didn’t care if they knew what we were celebrating.
“And about damn time,” Mike chuckled.
“You said it,” I said and drank my triple-shot vanilla steamer a little too fast, making me cough and spit back into the cup.
“Slow down, Scott,” Katie said sitting beside me and slapping my back. “Don’t do that or you won’t work tomorrow, or leave the mountain for that matter.”
I cleared my throat. “I know, I know, Katie,” I paused. “It’s just that, god, I can’t believe I’m out of that college. Man, what a relief!” I set my cup on the table and leaned back on the couch.
“Yes, but you still have two more years left.” Katie smiled, her striking dimples made me return the smile. “That’s what you promised yourself.”
“And I couldn’t have done it without you, baby.” I kissed her, stroking her hips, and we laughed a little as I held back my urges to make it passionate. The thick turtleneck on her hid everything except her bust, but the tight jeans framed her curves well.
It is a no brainer that Katie is my girlfriend. I’ve spent the last two years, slaving over homework and boring lectures to gain transfer qualification. Whenever I felt down, she was there to help bring my spirits up. Working in a tourist mountain town was my choice to make more money, and Katie didn’t mind tagging along.
“I can’t believe it,” Mike grinned as he set his hand over Ashley, his wife’s, shoulder. “It was like only yesterday you came here with nothing, all happy and excited and such. The stars must’ve made you lucky or something.”
“Lucky?” Ashley repeated, looking up at Mike. “It’s their affection for each other—the healthiest relationship I’ve seen in a long time. I’d really like to know their secret.”
Ashley tucked back a strand of her long black hair behind her ear before taking a sip of her coffee. “So, Scott, what are your plans for next year? Are you gonna stay in California or go out-of-state?”
“I’m staying, can’t afford leaving Katie and the winery behind,” I answered. “I think I’ll either go for UC San Marcos or Irvine. It only boils down to which has the best journalism program. I did apply on time to both so all I have to do is stay with Katie and wait. If one accepts me for the spring term, I’ll take it.”
“Good plan.” Ashley straightened her jacket and reclined on the couch.
“Katie, were you going to apply with him for like an upgrade?” Mike asked.
“Nah, I’m happy where I am right now,” she responded. “Studying for another two years will send Dad’s checkbook through the wall.”
Mike laughed again. “Well, whatever works for you, I suppose.” He finished his coffee and stood up to get another one; that was his third cup yet showed no signs of caffeine jitters.
We kept talking—joking about the tourists, work, Katie’s magazine article progress, and anything and everything else. No matter what, I loved living in Big Bear. Being a bartender worked well for us. The peaceful atmosphere fueled Katie’s creativity in her articles. The best part was that we have been together for going on two years. She saw past my bulky body. Even though we looked like we didn’t belong to each other, we showed it to make a point.
That night we had no care in the world. Still, I was anxious about the next day, what with the annoying Mayan myth biting at my attention and all. I wanted it to be bogus.
We sat near the crackling fire, contained by a hearth, and it warmed us from the winter cold. I had a clear view of the front door when a customer entered. Oh no. I recognized him on the spot; his presence destroyed my happy moment. Others stopped and stared at him with scorn and fear. The low acoustic guitar music in the background kept on playing despite the suddenly tense atmosphere.
Tom Herb was his name, a homeless man and the religious nut of the town. The sight of his tattered wool clothing, black beanie, thin boots, and bright green raincoat didn’t cause the drop of moral in the shop—his reputation did. In his hands he held a picket sign leaned back onto his shoulder reading “The End Is Near—PREPARE FOR THE RAPTURE” in bright red paint. He shook off the cold and approached the counter for one coffee to go. The barista manning the coffee machines did it without fuss, but her hands shook as she poured the coffee. Tom set coins on the counter and took the cup.
Mike watched him with hard eyes, moved his cup to his mouth, and mumbled under his breath before drinking.
As a religious nut, Tom had unorthodox ways to spread the word and express his beliefs: placing crosses in front of the City Council building, verbal bashing at locals and tourists, and getting in trouble with the police when the complaints reached their limit.
For him, his sign was his constant advertisement. For us, it was another reminder to ignore.
Tom passed by and caused Ashley to shudder. Ashley was religious, but she never liked Tom’s rude abuse. Katie felt the same as I did. Tom stopped at the condiment table and stirred in enough sugar to clog his arteries. He still held the sign close to him.
I caught Mike’s foot jumping in agitation and saw his jaw grinding in aggravation.
All of a sudden, Mike turned in his seat to face Tom, setting his cup on the table with a clatter. “Hey, Tom, how’s your job spreading the word going?”
Oh, crap, here we go.
“Mike, don’t,” Ashley commanded in a quiet tone.
Tom hummed and turned around with his wrinkled face and peppered beard stone hard, his dark eyes wide with fixation. “The city never listens to me. Nobody ever listens to me. Not for a second,” he said with more emphasis on the last word.
“Have you heard the news? Helen is flying away from earth.” Mike made his hands flutter like a bird. “Looks like we’re not gonna get that ‘scheduled’ apocalypse after all. So why don’t you throw that sign away, take a bath for Pete’s sake, and get a job.”
One more thing about Tom— don’t piss him off. Ever.
“Do you doubt my words, sir?” The homeless man asked.
“Nothing you say will convince me or anybody else. Face it, the world isn’t going to end tomorrow.”
Tom’s voice turned sour, and it made me shift in my chair. “Believe what you must, sir, but when Judgment Day comes, you will be certain—I will be certain—that our Lord and Savior will come and save us from an eternity of doom and despair. He will make certain you are left behind.” Tom took a long sip of his coffee, still glaring at Mike.
To tell you the truth, I was scared of where this was going. My mind was racing with predictions and I couldn’t pin one down. Coffee, hospital, a jail cell maybe: somebody had to stop the situation before it escalated, and I was the stupid one to attempt it.
“Look guys,” I said sitting up. I noticed two out-of-town snowboarders were about to scurry out the door any moment. “You two better stop this. It only makes things worse for all of us. So please, Tom, leave us alone or I’ll have to call the cops.”
Mike gave a short nod.
Tom lifted his chin and his eyes shifted to me, adjusting the sign on his shoulder, his hand having gotten tired to make the blood run in his hand. He sipped his coffee again. “Do you believe in God, young man?”
Crap. I knew he would ask that question. He always does “the test” as he called it. I looked around the room, and then back at Tom’s eyes. “You’re getting personal, Tom. You really don’t want to push me, man. Don’t make me fight, just leave.”
He inhaled and exhaled slowly, his leathery face bunched up around his cheeks with wrinkled skin, hosting a grin. I noticed Ashley looking at me, showing me a face, her face expressing, “you brave jerk.” I knew karate, even with my belly as half as big as Mike’s, I could fight if it was a last resort.
Tom shifted his weight and said, “Okay, I’m going.” He turned to the door and before he exited, got in the last word, “Jesus will return. God will come. You’ll see, you will all see,” then he left.
In no time the mood of our group and the other customers relaxed. The baristas looked relieved and went back to cleaning, never bothering to clap for me. I sat back down and exhaled like I had held my breath.
“Scott, that was insane to pull off, but I’m so proud of you,” Katie said, leaning forward to hug me. I returned the gesture.
“Pompous jerk,” Mike exclaimed as he sat back down. “Does he realize what he’s doing?”
“Not sure,” Ashley said, “but it’s his nature. Asteroid Helen has everybody on edge these days, Mike, including the governments. Tomorrow is that day, so all we can do now is pray and anticipate what will happen. Remember when it was discovered a while back, and that priest from London begged NASA to fund for a defense program before committing suicide?”
We all remembered. The topic was usually avoided, but we had to talk about it. It was inevitable. In my first semester of college, Dr. Maggie Helen was on the news, followed by the earth plunging into chaos that the 2012 myth was indeed true. A few days later after scientists figured out it was gonna fly past us, the world was split—scientific fact against ancient superstition. Katie and I took the science side because the religious bantering got annoying at a point, eventually we convinced Katie’s family to believe us.
“Closing time,” said one of the baristas. Mike ordered his last coffee for the night and we said our goodbyes. They left in their Ford truck towards Fawnskin while Katie and I drove in my Honda Element to our apartment several blocks away. The snow piles against the roads towered like guardians against the clear, moon lit sky.
The apartment complex, simply named Sandalwood Apartments, was a fairly new addition to Big Bear, almost three years old I think. They were originally constructed to give the local and international workers a place to stay, offering rent at reasonable prices. Fully furnished and a personal garage, the only things Katie and I brought were clothes, entertainment goodies, and food. All the two story buildings had the same construction: black roof tiles covered in snow, tan panels with white trim around the windows, mailboxes at each garage door, all interior decorated to resemble a log cabin with cheap, hand-me-down furniture. Most of the balconies had their Christmas decorations up, lights and everything. Ours didn’t, sadly—it was our last night on the mountain. Behind the buildings the boundless glow from the ski slope’s lights lit up the southern mountain for night skiing.
I parked the car at the parking spot next to our building. As I locked it, I happened to glance up at the clear sky. The stars were bright, but they were of no interest to me. I stared at Helen. Smaller than Rhode Island, it looked scarier from high-res photos: smooth frontal face, jagged spires and deep canyons, pillows of green and purple gas erupting from the surface and into an eerie tail, and slowly rotating on its axis like a drill. In the months past I stared at it, getting closer and closer until the threat was past. Sometimes it hypnotized me. Up in the sky it was the size of a marble compared to the crescent moon, acting like our second natural satellite.
“Scott, you okay?” Katie said, decoding my distant look and snapping me out of it. Knowing me, she put her hand on my arm while closing her coat tighter from the cold. “Hey, you did great. Somebody had to do it, and if nobody did, Mike might’ve ended up on the floor hurt.”
“It’s not that, Katie,” I mumbled. “I’m having doubts of what he said.”
“Already? If the world ends, we will know, for a fact that he is right and we’re not. If not, we can laugh at his smelly ass. Just relax.”
I smiled, shaking my head. “Yeah you’re right, but what if he is? I mean… what if everything he said is true?”
Her voice went low. “If that happens, we both die happy tonight.” She winked and came closer to me for warmth.
“What do you mean?” I asked with a sly tone.
“You still haven’t received your Christmas present silly.” She placed her hand on my chest, dead center on my heart, and touched the Celtic pendent dangling from a leather string, playing with it like a coin on a table. It was a gift like hers, only mine had a different inscription behind it.
“Christmas isn’t for another four days.” I grinned and placed my hands on her hips, making her come closer to me, close enough to kiss. “Although, I don’t mind opening one present.”
She kissed me, longer and passionate topped with tongue play. Then she tiptoed to my ear whispering, “I’ll get ready.”
We embraced each other that night, letting our body heat warm up the bedroom.
S-Class Mercenary Ship Lunar Spear
1:57 AM Terra Firma Pacific Time
Terra Firma Date: December 21, 2012
The sweltering heat of the glory hole warmed my tired body. Through the welding goggles over my eyes, I watched a white-hot blob of molten glass turn on the end of the rod in my hands; slow and deliberate, careful not to cause defects. It was pliable enough to be pulled out and finish the design. I could blow the glass in my sleep for how simple the piece was. The craft relieves me of the stress from living in space, stuck on my own ship and to prevent me from snapping and use the cups as target practice. Putting a hole in the ship’s hull by your own gun is embarrassing, even on an investigation report.
In the lower deck of my ship, the workshop, I was making yet another signature liquor stein. I had the Republic News Network’s public news channel playing on a wall-mounted monitor over the grenade locker, listening to the sports reports and overemphasized politics from Creos.
“Thank you for the sports. In other news, the Galactic Council made progress on the dispute between two industrial colony moons, Kalvo and Dikumalve III orbiting the gas giant Koil, which almost started a civil war over seven months ago. For the past half-decade, the workers complaints grew on rising taxes and dilapidated living conditions. The two moons, dedicated to home and ship appliances and civilian transport and commute vessel fabrication, are the third largest producers among twenty different star systems.”
“No, you idiot,” I grumbled, pretending the female insectoid was in the workshop with me. “It was all about the export, not the living conditions. Their supplies were cut by rebels and are covering their tracks with that nonsense. Get better sources, why don’t you.” I pulled a wet wooden paddle from the water bucket to better straighten the cylinder’s wall. I’ve been to those moons before to repair and upgrade my ship. They have suitable beds to sleep on.
The newscaster went on. “The Council ruled in favor of the workers and they were granted funds to improve living conditions and use the leftover money to settle minor trade disputes.”
“Great, more cash flow for the war effort. Thank you, blind politicians.” Before I got angrier, I changed the channel to a personal music playlist. The speakers filled my head with heavy synth beats and simplistic string instrument chords. The knees of my digitigrade legs creaked and my feet protested to rest.
The news ticks me off sometimes because some of the stories are all out lies.
I got the cup’s shape finished and began working on the textural features, something that’s distinctive to my signature.
Once done, I held the hot cup up for inspection after taking off my goggles. “Beautiful,” I whispered. My eyes fell on the mirror in front of me. Working for hours near the furnace had produced a layer of soot on my green face; most of my skin dreads the same. The bags under my dark eyes and gold iris told me I needed sleep. I knocked the cup off the rod and placed it in the cooling oven—with fire retardant gloves on of course—farther down the workshop.
I glanced over the other pieces in the locker, all in a timeline fashion of my hobby‘s growth. Over two hundred pieces, the same damn cup, and it made me hit my head on the cabinet. “I’m… so… bored,” I whined.
The workshop was a mess by the way: discarded food containers, clothes, scattered tools, and a couple of plasma burns in the metal floor, which was several years old and had been patched a few times. More like neglected party evidence. My weapons locker, ammunition production machines, mechanic’s tools, cabinets holding ammunition ingredients, grenades, and sealed barrels of pre-plasma. You can blame it on cabin fever eating me alive. The hidden room under me still held my dust-collecting Howler Cycle.
This is what I get for doing nothing fun for three months. Shit starts piling up.
The thick bulkhead on the other end of the room stood between me and the vacuum of space; six inches of metal to end that pitiful torment. But I was on the clock, and clients frown on poor performance. Even due to death.
An alarm from the monitor alerted me of an incoming signal. I knew what it meant and I addressed it, “All right, I’m coming, hold your circuits.” I shut off the glory hole and scuffed my way up the center ladder to my living quarters, taking and throwing my gloves on the floor, and then closing the airlock behind me. My living quarters doubled the trash and whatnot. My bed had its single blanket bunched up; the desk in the wall was cluttered and the personal computer that sat on it was crooked, the closet barely open, and more food containers.
There were two portholes on either side of the room revealing the outside, but spiked rocks and a geyser spewing multicolored dust and cloud particles into space obscured the stars. It looked like a necromancer’s dream come to life.
The kitchen, passenger seats, and my personal plush chair were also covered in trash. I ignored it all as I made my way to the bridge, closing the airlock. The two passenger seats behind my pilot chair were filled with an assortment of space suit parts and reading material.
Believe me, if I had motivation to clean my mobile real estate, I’d do it, but the job was sucking the life out of me.
I slumped into the chair, bounced a little from the cushions, then propped a leg on the dashboard.
“Identify signal and open,” I said. The AI-vacant computer recognized my voice and all the controls came to life, surrounding half the bridge in a sea of neon, including the crystal-molded nanites embedded in the quarter dome viewport. The Goru Slipspace Drive was another light source as I had kept it running for three hours straight so far, supplying me with the news.
It was a survey signal. Like all the others before, a detailed report was shown to me and it included asteroid trajectory, velocity, surface wind speed (if there ever was), temperature changes, seismic activity, chemical analysis, yada, yada, yada. I had to send these reports every twelve hours to Creos for the last three months, to a guy named Benali.
For the record, I took the job because I was flat broke and no other jobs were available. The biggest reason was the large sum of money—a curious amount, more than a politician’s annual salary—and I had to stay to get full pay.
The report showed the same damn numbers, the same damn elements. Unchanged conditions for the past twelve hours. I leaned back and groaned in the empty ship. My oily, rough skin dreads fell behind me. A new geyser erupting would’ve made it interesting at least. Thinking about the job and moving past my misery, I prepped the report and sent it through Slipspace communications.
I looked at the Drive itself. The three-stacked rings circulated a single crystal that gave its power. The bright purple glow came from a small crack in space and time, if I wanted to, I could peer into the energy-based parallel dimension. The stupid crystals are hard and expensive to produce, so I couldn’t complain when my client gave me a year’s supply. It struck me as very suspicious.
I couldn’t take the quiet any more. I called up an old friend of mine before I shut down the Drive for the night.
A few minutes of silence and one of three monitors came on, revealing my friend’s face. “Captain Brill Secambre here,” he said, having the same medium pitched voice as always. Brill is the owner and battleship Endeavor captain of Nova Company, his very own special-ops military group of magical and non-magical soldiers specialized to handle “high danger” missions. He’s a Rezuma, a frail being with very little muscle development, grey skin, egg shaped head and big black oval eyes. He was dressed in his military uniform. The patches adorning his chest and small shoulders said a lot about him, an experienced captain who loves the action more than military politics. We go way back.
He’s also the guy that helped me get this survey job in the first place.
“Brill, it’s me, Jaruka,” I explained.
“Hey, good to see you again.” Sounding surprised and distressed, he looked over my appearance, laughing a little at me. “Oh Kai, you look like you were dumpster diving.”
Off duty he’s a genial man, but on duty, he’s a real brass.
I rolled my eyes. “Oh, ha ha, very funny, Brill, just rub it in why don’t you. How is everything?”
“Good and bad as always.”
“Tell me what’s going on. Anything will help break this boredom.”
“Well, we and the Assassin returned from the Vill Sector rescuing hostages from Master Eres, who was producing illegal artifacts. He managed to kill two of my best senior wizards before we took him down. We’re docked at Creos for repairs and rest, and I just finished contacting the loved ones of the deceased.” He leaned back and relaxed a little in his chair.
“Yeah, I heard it on the feed. Glad he’s finally down for good.”
Brill nodded. “The crew’s grieving, even me. Everything else is the usual. What about you? Have you started using those glass cups for target practice yet?”
“Not yet, but it’s tempting… I’d rather sell them. I’m not that close to snapping.”
“Wow, you are desperate for that money. At least you have me and friends of Nova to talk to.”
“Yeah, I know that.” I sighed. “Man, when this is over, I’ll find that guy and wring his neck.” I folded my hands together and shook them, strangling the air.
“Hey, come on. Don’t be that way.” His hairless brow went down, almost squinting at me. “You should be lucky you have a job. The money is good enough for retirement.”
“Yeah, but it’s all still suspicious to me.” I held up my right hand to count down my points. “Remember? He hired me and I’m floating in restricted space. I still can’t understand why this system is such a big deal to him. Oh, what did the lab say of the samples?”
Since the job was more suspicious than a drug smuggler, I decided a while ago to ask for a second opinion. I sent copies of the reports, rock, and gas samples through Slipspace summons to Nova’s science station at their main base.
“Just a second.” He moved away from view for a second and came back with his touchpad.
“Wait, is that it?” I asked. “I thought they were gonna beam it to me?”
“The new scientist writing it was lazy. Lieutenant Wringheart hand delivered it to me for safe keeping.” Damn you rookies. He flicked his finger on the screen. “I’ll send it to you afterwards. Let’s see, on magical analysis, no traces of known or foreign energies were detected. Chemical analysis found iron, iron ferrite, silica, and insignificant minerals. They traced the source to an asteroid belt of an uninhabited system several million light years from your position. Everything else is the same as the reports you sent.”
I closed my eyes for a while before opening them and asking. “That’s it? Nothing special or surprising?”
He nodded and set the device down.
I growled. “Great. See, I knew it. This asteroid is worthless real estate and they are paying me to just sit here, waste my time, and send useless information. I could be killing a terrorist group on a desert planet by now. Out of pleasure!”
“Yeah that did make me wonder, but the real question is why that solar system? I too think it’s…” A sound came from his end and he paused for a second. “And tell me again why you must stay there?”
“Brill, you know me. I need the money to keep floating.” He knew that fighting over my issues with myself is common.
“Suit yourself. Home base has fresh recruits coming in a couple of weeks and I could use another drill instructor, if you are sane enough for the task.”
“Thanks but right before I knock this boredom out for a while, if you know what I mean,” I said and we both laughed. My feet got tired and I let them rest on the floor. “One week, Brill. One more week and its over. Screw the last payment, I have enough.”
He looked up at me from the computer to his side. “Just keep watching the Howler Cycle races, the regional’s are approaching.”
I raised my arm to my chest and saluted. “Will do.”
He saluted back, professionally, with his hand at his forehead. “Now if you excuse me, that bill for the repairs came and I have negotiations to deal with. Take care, Jaruka.” His thin grey hand came closer to the monitor and transmission was cut. I shut down the Drive. Everything went quiet again.
I sat there for a while, contemplating my choices. I know I have a problem with greed, but that’s the thing about mercenaries. We hunt down jobs for the largest pot. I was offered the biggest pot of my life and that little nerve in me told me to take it. And Brill was right about the planet. Dangerous as it was, there were too many theories as to why.
I deactivated the blast shield of the bridge’s viewport, and like a bulky metal shell, the dark and rocky surface of the asteroid filled the window. The sun peeked out from behind the rock spires. Above my ship was the view of the planet itself, Terra Firma. My ship was equipped with cloaking technology and radar shielding to hide from the inhabitant’s satellites or else I would have been discovered a long time ago.
I saw the incredible view of the Pacific Ocean, the continent of Australia, and some of the Southeast Asia landmasses in their night cycle. It made me sick that a planet, full of scenic beauty and variety of unique landscapes, could house a species so blinded and murderous. They have had the nerve to weaponize nuclear technology. Such a waste of time.
“Next time, Jaruka,” I said to myself, gazing at the planet. “No more jobs from shady dwarves.”
I got up and headed back to my living quarters, stripping off my clothes. A hot shower was calling me.