This is a special feature in which I share a portion of a work in progress. These are opening pages to a short novella, about as long as a Lemony Snicket book.
A Truck Stop Story
Deralka slowed as they approached the turn to the final disembarkation passage. A dynamo of distraction, Boy, skipped at her side, overflowing with delight at the wonders of new places.
Overhead, the lights flickered. She breathed again. Her hard-won intel had been correct—Docking Bay 43 of the infamous Truck Stop had technical issues.
She paused for a second and checked the seals along her skinsuit’s abdomen. She found only one irregularity, easily smoothed away. For the benefit of any hidden monitors, she also rubbed her back and made noises matching a human in some moderate discomfort. Beneath the additional layer of overskin, the merchandise stirred sleepily, its sheathed toe-claws skittering across the hidden surface of her primary skinsuit. She hoped the insurance policy would cover any damage.
“Have patience, Boy. Nearly there.”
She kept a steady pace down the hatchway ramp, but her mind leapt backwards and forwards in time. This should have been a family trip, an excursion together, all in the service of work, but still an adventure for her and for Boy-today and for he-that-had-been. Now, he-that-had-been wandered the lanes as she-that-departed, having lost all interest in their shared work and, ultimately, severed the familial attachments to herself and to Boy. Tomorrow, the mission would be complete, and she would take all the proceeds for her own.
Soon enough, she and Boy would make their way home to Darrogha. Her debtors would be waiting, talons extended, but she would fill them with recompense, satisfy their every demand.
They would make themselves free, she and Boy, to be alone, together.
Then, they would seek a home.
Tomorrow, they would gain the means.
Today, they needed only shelter.
At the foot of the ramp, she stopped as directed, in the area demarcated, but still within the arc of shadow cast by the faulty lighting system. She allowed Boy to bounce a little, to fill the space in his lively way. The waiting inspector, a blandly male-seeming human, hesitated, keeping his focus on Boy, as Deralka intended, while taking that one necessary step towards her. He lifted the scanner remote by just that much, to avoid any risk that Boy might disturb his precious device.
“Purpose of your visit.” The delivery came flat, with no intonation.
“Refueling. Respite stay.” She studied his face as he spoke. It failed to match human parameters. She held her tongue on the patter she'd rehearsed.
“Length of stay. ”
“Two days, estimated.” She selected a simple line from her patter. "Can you recommend a good place to stay?” She patted the mound of simulated flesh that curved under her smock like a stolen fuel canister. “A family-friendly place?”
“Obtain recommendations at the kiosk.” So, not only an android but a limited one, enabled to respond only to selected keywords. How disappointing. She had prepared so well.
He continued with the scan seamlessly, the instrument's path disrupted just enough to distort its view of the merchandise. She waited, measuring the progress of the scan by the indicators so conveniently displayed on its surface. Just as the android lifted it and began to speak, she interrupted.
“Where is the kiosk?” This distraction could only be momentary, but the information would be helpful, and she hoped not to delay after the next exchange.
“The kiosk is at the gateway. Look at the map.”
The android paused, staring at her unblinking, waiting for her response. She bent her arm and tapped her wrist, bringing up local options in her heads-up display. Her device had, indeed, automatically absorbed the local map into its database. "Thank you,” she told the android.
“What is this irregularity?" He pointed to her abdomen and tapped the scanner with officious menace.
“It's my baby.” She patted the mound, pushing just a little harder where she knew the underlying shape had a protrusion. The merchandise stirred, and a rounded lump appeared at one side of the false overskin, gliding under the fabric-covered surface and disappearing at the opposite side. "Oh, look," she said. "He's kicking. Do you want to feel it? ” She put on a basic smile, painted lips curving over a closed mouth, knowing the android wouldn't discern it from a more complex expression.
“That will not be necessary.” An interesting flow of patterns passed over the android's face, as he sorted through appropriate responses. The resulting thin smile showed a row of perfectly-aligned, never-used teeth.
Deralka toyed with showing him her own teeth, but refrained. "May we proceed? ”
The promised kiosk offered a variety of access points, revealing for the first time the diversity of travelers expected at the truck stop. Other new arrivals, patiently queueing, one by one offered to yield their places to her, each for their own reasons. One appeared concerned that she might deliver the merchandise directly to the deck, disgusting everyone with the profound explicitness of biological birth. Another fixed her gaze on Boy and gave him a dozen rapid little smiles and wanted to give him presents and said she would eat him up but wouldn't he like to go ahead of her and go buy some sweets because he was such a very very good boy. The last—that is, the first in line—stepped aside wordlessly, his sharp eyes passing over her with precise interest.
If she had not already chosen her preferred hostel, the time standing next to that human would have been intolerable. He wore the most banal of dockside attire, could have passed for any worker on liberty, but he was human, with that mobile expressive face that said far more than, "Please, madam, I am in no hurry.” The stiffness in his shoulders, the warm lump of plastic in the pocket hidden under his jacket, the excessive shine of his shoes all spoke loudly of a certain professional interest.
The moment her device pinged its acceptance of a confirmed reservation and associated directives, she twirled from the console and murmured her thanks to each of those who had let her pass. The man who belonged in a uniform said, "Have a nice visit to our station.”
… to be continued …