“Where to?” I asked, holding open the door, and hoping my passenger didn’t notice the unsightly sparks coming out of the rear driver side thruster. To be fair, that only happened when the cab was hovering.
I hadn’t expected a fare so early. My boss had sent a bunch of us over to the Main Sequence Hotel on the new luxury station that opened a while back. I was fairly familiar with the station and the sector surrounding it. It used to be an almost scary expanse of empty space. But it was crowded this morning, with black private shuttles, yellow-and-green taxis from the major companies, official vans in blue and purple, and the various shades of silver from private fliers.
Apparently some conference was starting, so there would be plenty of attendees eager to get out and enjoy the station’s amenities. And maybe even venture out into the sector a little.
I’d activated the yellow in my jacket and the orange on my cab to make myself stand out. Perks of being with a smaller company. No standard uniform.
My passenger, who was at least half human by appearances, slipped into the seat, without a word or a look. I was about to gently close the door, making sure I gave her time to sweep her long velvet coat inside the cab, so it wouldn’t get caught. But then she swung one of her legs back out onto the curb. She took off the shaded glasses that covered half her face. She looked up at me with large brown eyes.
“Your terms and conditions say I can bring aboard living non-sentients under a certain mass, correct?”
“Pets?” I nodded. “Sure.”
I caught movement under her right ear. Her swirly silver earring shifted, and behind it, poking out through glossy black hair that was straight as a sheet, was a tiny reptilian head.
“Bodyguards,” my passenger said.
And before I could inquire about the plural, another little head emerged from her coat pocket. This time I also saw tiny but muscular limbs ending in long grippy fingers. They were lizards.
I grinned at them and then at her. “Bodyguards,” I said. “Got it.”
The lizard from the pocket scrambled out onto my passenger’s lap. The tiny scales started glowing neon blue. I’d never seen anything like it.
“Wow,” I said, while realizing that the glowing was probably a warning for me to back off. I was happy to oblige. I took a step back, and looked at my passenger, waiting for her to get fully back into the cab.
I was surprised to find her smiling at me. I was fairly sure I wouldn’t get much of a tip when she first swept into the cab, wearing the understated but incredibly expensive suit, earrings that probably cost three times as much as my cab, a watch that was made of Plutonian platinum, and a tiny pin on her coat lapel that was looked like the emblem of some prestigious secret society. I didn’t care much about clothes—not the kind she was wearing anyway—but it literally paid to recognize that kind of thing about a passenger. And from what I recognized, I didn’t expect to get much over the cost of the fare.
But now, my passenger was smiling at me. Maybe I had a chance.
“It’s a greeting,” my passenger said.
“Oh, well I’m glad to hear that.”
“Her name is True Blue. Not very creative, but I asked her if she liked it, and she said she did.”
I pointed to her shoulder. “And this other little guy?”
“Lucky Star. He’s a little shy.”
The shy one had black scales, and he blended right into the black hair.
“I’m Raquel,” I said. “But most people call me ‘Raqi.’”
“JJ,” my passenger said, as she swept her leg back into the cab. “I’d like to retain you for the day, Raquel.”
“Where to?” I asked again, once I was back in the driver’s seat. “If you haven’t had breakfast, I hear they have an excellent breakfast and brunch at this small cafeteria a few skips from here. It’s called ‘The Dragon Flies.’ Not sure why.”
“That sounds like a promising start.”
I took us up, hoping my passenger didn’t notice the slight wobble. The shock stabilizers were just a bit overdue for service. But I had to take care of the fuel leak first, didn’t I?
“So, you’re ditching today’s sessions,” I said.
My passenger’s eyes went wide. She glanced out of the window as the cab was still rising. “How did you know?”
“It’s okay. I won’t tell. The first day of a conference is mostly orientation and icebreaker stuff, right?”
Through the rearview mirror, I saw my passenger’s brows crinkle. Her wide eyes narrowed and she nodded. “That’s what I expect. I figured it’s the best day to get away.” She sighed, sat back, and closed her eyes for the rest of the trip to the cafeteria.
Sometimes, crossing your fingers works. I’d crossed mine all the way to the cafeteria, hoping there wouldn’t be a line. It wasn’t too bad that morning. My passenger even brought me back a pastry, filled with strawberry jam and sweet cheese. She insisted I enjoy it before we headed back out, so we leaned against my cab, while she finished her tea, and I enjoyed one of the most incredible pastries I’ve ever had.
“What about your bodyguards?” I asked, noting that the lizards had gone back into hiding.
“Oh, they take care of themselves. But I did give them a few crumbs.”
I tried to finish the rest of the pastry, so I could turn the meter back on and get my passenger to wherever she wanted to go next. I glanced up and spotted a couple of men looking in our direction. One was leaning against a wall. He glanced down at the paper magazine in his hands. The other ducked behind the first.
I frowned and noted to my left that there was a trio of people staring and pointing at my passenger. One of them took an image capture.
That’s when I received my first clue that my passenger might be a public figure. Either that or the people on the station were big fans of supply barge engine manufacturing. That’s what I’d been told the conference was about. My passenger must have been some kind of executive. In that case, she’d have a regular driver. But she had chosen me to drive her, so she wouldn’t be easily traced and tracked everyone moment.
As long as she didn’t put me in a position to lose my job, I was game. I used to want to fame when I was a kid, like most people, galactic fame. I knew better now.
“Most people agree that the best views of the station and the sector are from Magnanimous Tower,” I suggested.
My passenger opened the cab door. “I had something else in mind.”
I had to talk her out of it.
“Yes, it is called a ‘park’ technically,” I said. “But only rangers who are trained in handling exotic matter streams are allowed to go in. It’s not open to the public.”
My passenger had asked me to take her to Wild Protomatter Park.
Wild Protomatter Park?
That place was originally marked a danger zone. Instant death for the lucky ones. Contamination and a slow painful death for the unlucky. No one knew why, but that area of space would burst with geysers of exotic particles. They seemed to be spontaneous. No one had worked out a pattern. A lot of those who tried ended up dying. So now, the region was marked and patrolled to make sure that no one wandered in—either on accident or on purpose.
My passenger had thought that the local cabbies might have connections that would let them at least skim around the outer borders. Sometimes patrol ships reported seeing a particularly large geyser from a distance.
She made me sweat it a little, but my passenger finally backed down. I had to go so far as to start driving out there, while I frantically brought up guides and articles about the place, and spouted the most horrendous details I could find.
She backed down when I offered to show her pictures of particle damage on mortal flesh.
“You’re not talking me out of this one,” my passenger said.
I wished I could have, but I knew she was right. Compared to exotic particle geysers, a gambling den wouldn’t be quite as life-threatening. Then again, it didn’t sound as if we were headed to a regular casino.
“I really have heard some amazing things about Magnanimous Tower,” I said, flicking through image captures that tourists had taken. The captures weren’t anywhere as captivating as people described. But that could just be because it was an experience a person had to have in person.
“I’m sure it’s great,” my passenger replied. “Maybe we’ll visit at the end of the day.” She was leaning forward, looking over my shoulder. We had just arrived in the sector’s main gambling district. It had taken a while to get there. It was a few star systems away.
I pointed out some of the casinos and parlors that were visible from the cruising lane. My passenger wasn’t having it.
She knew where she wanted to go. A friend had given her directions and passcodes.
The lurching in my belly started when we veered off the major lanes into a block that barely had any beacon markers. I got lost a few times before I found the right marker.
At first, there was nothing but empty space. I hovered in place while my passenger punched in some instructions in the cab’s broadcast beacon. Then she told me to resume moving forward, slowly.
As I did, space seemed to shimmer and brighten, and suddenly, it appeared right in front of us. A huge golden palace. Actually, what was right in front of us was a marble fountain, spouting plasma. Vehicles were arriving, arcing around the fountain. Shuttles that looked like they were carved from a huge pearl. Carriages with diamond-studded handles.
There were no other cabs making their way to the valet station. I looked. And I looked.
And I was getting looks.
I realized I had a tight grip on the steering throttle.
I was distracted, but I still caught a glimpse of my passenger pulling something out of her coat pocket. Whatever it was, she showed it to the valet when we pulled up. They put some kind of badge on the hood of my cab and waved us through.
“You can park wherever you want,” my passenger said. “And you can go wherever you want on the first floor. They have rooms, restaurants, entertainments. Enjoy yourself. I’ll alert you when I’m ready to leave. But I expect we’ll be here for a few hours at least.”
I offered to drop her off at the front of the hotel. I always liked parking some distance away. But she said she’d love to walk a little.
Everyone walking into the golden palace hotel was dressed in formal attire. I planned to turn around and head back to my cab as soon as I saw my passenger make it past the front door.
She handed me a card, which I absently slipped in my pocket. And then she offered me the blue lizard in her cupped hands.
“She wants to stay with you,” my passenger said. She glanced at the top of my head. “She likes your hair decoration.”
Lucky me. I didn’t usually wear scrunchies. I didn’t really like them. But this one matched my jacket, at least for the day.
I received the little lizard in my hand. She shifted position, tickling my palms, until she was turned around and watching her charge walk away.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “Lucky Star is still with her. I guess you two are taking shifts.”
True Blue scrambled around until she was facing me. She pushed up on her forelimbs and cocked her head up at me. The gesture was so cute it made me laugh. And she must have liked something about that, because she glowed.
Then, my stomach growled. That’s when I realized it wasn’t doing back flips anymore. And that’s when I noticed that there were people going in and out of a secondary entrance. And half of those people were dressed in ordinary clothes, some even in uniforms. I wondered if they were all hotel employees.
“My fabricator is almost out of matter,” I explained to True Blue. “It couldn’t hurt to grab a quick bite to go and then return to the cab.”
Blue’s glow dimmed.
I reached into my pocket for the card that my passenger had given me.
It was the color of a bar of chocolate.
What was she thinking? Giving me a chocolate card?
I wasn’t about to take advantage. I said I’d get a quick bite. That’s what I would do.
A sandwich and sweet potato fries. That’s all…
And half a dozen chocolate chip cookies (they had a special).
It was easier just to find a table in the lobby and eat my lunch there. But then I realized that Blue was hiding away. I didn’t know if she had to. I reviewed the hotel’s rules quickly and didn’t find anything specific about lizards.
I started heading back to the front door. But that’s when I spotted the marquee. I followed a few signs and arrows and found a ticket booth. The hotel had its own vintage movie theater. A huge curved screen. Two dimensional moving images only. And they were playing a movie that was on my list. I was supposed to watch it with a few friends, but they’d understand.
I saw in the back row, and could still see everything. Better yet, Blue could be out. She scampered up my arm when the lights dimmed. I felt her shifting around on my shoulder until she found a comfortable position.
After the movie, I went back to the cab at last. I saw no messages from my passenger. I leaned against the hood, so I could eat a cookie or two before I went in. I noticed the faintly glowing mark that the valet had made on the hood. It looked like the top of a trident, but with teeth on the tines, and a looping shape, almost an infinity, around it.
I got back in the cab and set the environmental controls to mild, so both True Blue and I would be comfortable. I was curious about that valet mark. Maybe it would tell me something about my passenger. I scanned through the hotel’s policies and guidelines again, especially those for hotel employees. I found the symbol after scanning through half of the hotel’s thousand-page employee manual. I would have found it right away if I’d started from the beginning. The symbol was on the first few pages. High priority instructions for all employees. It didn’t say what the symbol was or what it meant. It only gave this one instruction: “Do not interfere in any way with any person, object, or vehicle bearing this mark.” And it gave examples of what “interfere” meant. It meant you couldn’t even report seeing the mark, or casually mention it to friends and family. The mark fell under the blanket “I shall not speak of this” policy that the hotel had to protect its patrons.
But it sounded ominous to me. What would happen to anyone who accidentally mentioned the mark?
Half an hour later, I received a message from my passenger. She asked me to bring the cab around and be ready to leave immediately.
So I did.
And I watched the main entrance.
Which is why I didn’t see my passenger coming when she was suddenly running toward me, pursued by three or four large persons wearing the signature dark blue suits of hotel security.
“Go!” she cried.
And before she had even fully closed the door, I was throttling up. With a tremble, we zoomed forward, and started rising. I glanced at the rearview mirror. The guards had stopped running. They were waving their arms.
But not in anger.
They were signaling. I recognized those signals.
My eyes went wide and I looked ahead. I spotted the two pylons that would soon be flanking us. They were sparking to life.
I started throttling down.
“What are you doing?” my passenger asked.
I pointed to the pylons. “They’re turning on the net.” By her expression, it seemed my passenger didn’t understand, so I explained as simply as I could. “It disables engines.”
And for an old engine like the one my cab had, it would be a permanent sleep.
My passenger slid forward in her seat. “Give me your broadcast controls again.”
I thought she was going to try and talk to security. She told me to keep going and be ready to throttle up. I saw a guard vehicle approaching us from behind. It wasn’t going too fast at the moment.
“Okay,” my passenger said. “Start throttling up now. We’ll be shielded in about…”
With a gentle high-pitched beep, a translucent bar of light extended up from the valet mark on the hood. The bar extended sideways, turned a corner, and extended again, in sections, until the whole cab was surrounded.
I gaped. I’d never seen a net shield in action in real life. It was the kind of thing…the kind of thing I’d see in a movie I’d just seen a few hours before.
My heart was thumping as I started to throttle up. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to take the chance that the shield would fail or was just a sham. And my engine, my cab, would be dead in the next few seconds.
But that guard vehicle was coming faster now. Its driver saw that we were speeding up.
“Whatever happened to ‘do not interfere,’” I muttered.
“Put your harness on, please.”
I throttled all the way forward.
And I held my breath.
My passenger hooted and laughed. “Stellar driving, Raquel!”
“Where’s Lucky Star?” I asked.
My heartbeat was starting to slow. But something was simmering underneath.
I took some deep breaths and brought up the detailed engine stats on my console. I didn’t feel anything, no drag, or trembling, nothing.
We’d passed through the net as if it wasn’t even there.
I would have thought that they didn’t get it up on time, but I saw it flash when the guard vehicle came through after us. They hadn’t slowed down in time.
And they didn’t have a shield. The vehicle didn’t just slow, it started moving backwards, dragged by the net.
And we just flew out of there, smooth and simple, like frosting on a vanilla cake.
The black lizard’s little head appeared, peeking over the edge of the seat, as if he were answering my summons.
He leapt down and sat on the front passenger seat beside me. And the next breath I took filled me with calm. That was good. It meant I didn’t have to wait before I brought it up.
“You know,” I said, “once you’re not my passenger anymore, I won’t have that shield. But my cab’s identification tag will still be logged in their system.”
My passenger’s brows rose. She leaned forward, as far as she could with the harness on. “I know. I know. I’m sorry.” She was trying to appease me, even though my tone of voice was calm.
“The best I can hope for is that I can never bring another passenger to the hotel. But at worst, they’ll look me up and send a writ for damages.”
“Do you…have insurance?”
“I do, but either way, it’s a mark on my job record. Too many marks, and no more job.” My tone was still calm, but I could see her shoulders moving up and down. She didn’t know how to respond. So I kept talking instead.
“All of that to say, I hope our next destination won’t put any more marks on my record.”
My passenger pursed her lips. “It won’t—it shouldn’t. Just food and shopping. That’s all that I’ve got left on my list.”
It sounded harmless enough. But if the food she wanted was in the middle of a black hole or something, I’d drop her back off at the hotel. Even if it meant she didn’t pay me.
“Do you like hand pies?” she asked me.
I shrugged. “Who doesn’t?”
“I’ve heard of this food truck that makes the best hand pies in the galaxy—and people seem to think they actually might have cause to make that claim.”
“I think I know the one you’re talking about it.”
She sent the information to my console. I nodded. “Yeah, I have no idea where they are. No one does, ahead of time. Otherwise, they’d have a line as long as…the galaxy, I imagine. So the best you can do is be lucky enough to be wherever they show up.”
People had even tried following them. But they must have had enough money to buy the same kind of cloaking technology that that unnamed golden hotel had.
“I happen to know someone who may just have the truck’s location. At least for today.”
Of course she did.
“Are they close?” I asked.
“Close enough for us to get there and make it back to the hotel. I can skip shopping if I have to.”
“I’m sure they’ll appreciate your sacrifice,” I said.
I was smiling, but my passenger wasn’t oblivious. She leaned forward.
“About the hotel. I really am sorry. I’ll make sure you don’t get any marks on your record. And I want to make it clear. I wasn’t doing anything criminal. I just insulted the wrong person. And they have influence in the hotel.”
“I guess they didn’t know who you are, or they wouldn’t have tried it.”
My passenger pursed her lips again, but didn’t reply.
I noticed the little flier following us when we were about halfway to the supposed location of the best hand pies in the galaxy.
I wasn’t sure if I should tell my passenger or not. She was sorting through a catalog of items for purchase in the shopping district—the one on the station thankfully.
I caught movement beside me and glanced over. True Blue was perched on my center console. Lucky Star came to join her. They were both flicking their tails. And they were both looking back through the rear window.
I glanced are the rearview mirror, and swiped to the rear camera view on the console. We were on a moderately busy thoroughfare.
“I think you’ve been found out,” I said.
My passenger glanced up. She noticed me looking in the rearview and turned to look back. “It would seem that way.”
“You’re not a company executive, are you?” I asked.
She didn’t answer.
“Do you have any connection at all to supply barge engines?”
My passenger turned back around. When I saw her face, my gut went cold.
All day it had been a challenge for me to read her expression. But I read it clearly now.
“I’ve changed my mind,” she said. “Take me back to the hotel, please.”
She was afraid.
I straightened. “I can turn off now, but if I wait a while, I can turn onto another main thoroughfare.”
My passenger nodded.
She leaned forward. “Give me access to your broadcast again.”
I had a feeling I knew what she meant to do. I started reaching for the control when something hit us.
There’d been no collision warning.
But I understood why when I heard the fading hum of the engine. It was shutting down. We started being dragged back and off the thoroughfare.
But then I saw that bar of light come up again from the front hood. The valet’s mark. The shield.
“We were supposed to return it,” my passenger said. “I’ll take responsibility for that. For now, I’ll thank the cosmos for it.” She gave me control of the stolen shield.
In seconds, the shield was up, and we felt a jerk.
We weren’t being dragged anymore. The shield had severed the net. But inertia was still moving us backwards.
The cab was running on emergency power. That power could keep us alive and well for days. But it couldn’t do anything to move the cab. And even if I knew how to reroute power to the thrusters—which I didn’t know how to do—that power would be drained in minutes.
I turned to look behind me. A vehicle was approaching. A little white flier. I had no idea who was inside. I hoped it was the hotel guards, pursuing in an unmarked vehicle for some reason.
But my passenger hadn’t been at all afraid of the hotel guards.
“Don’t let them take me,” she said, her voice breathless.
My heart was pounding. I wasn’t sure what I could do. I took a breath anyway, so I could at least remain calm. And I pressed the emergency button.
But I didn’t realize that she wasn’t talking to me.
True Blue began to glow. Under her blue scales, she glowed a neon red, and her scales began to flicker.
Lucky Star pumped his forelimbs, as if he were doing push-ups. It was cute, and I would have appreciated that, if I wasn’t scared for my life. But with each pump, each up and down, he seemed to be growing.
True Blue open her mouth. I heard a faint grinding sound. And she started growing too.
“Drop the rear window,” my passenger said. “The shield will protect us.”
I dropped the rear window. I had to. The lizards were already half my size. And they were still growing. I had to let them out. They both leapt through the window, floating outside the cab but inside the shield. I raised the window again, let some more oxygen into the cab, and then dropped the shield.
Against the black of space, I could no longer see Lucky Star. I only saw a dark coil wrap itself around the white flier. The roof slid open and two human-looking figures floated out of the flier. They were wearing oxygen suits.
One of them floated towards us. The other turned back to the car and raised one arm. A white burst sent a beam of plasma toward the car. It sliced through one of the black coils. The coil came loose.
My passenger cried out. “Lucky!”
The glowing red-purple lizard was easy to see against the blackness of space. She was next to the white flier now. She grasped something in her mouth and whipped her head.
Something flew past the figure that was floating toward us and struck the rear window. I raised the shields again, and then dropped the rear window. My passenger reached through and picked up the body of Lucky Star. He was missing half his tail, and he was as small as a cat now, and growing smaller. But he shook off his ordeal and rested in my passenger’s hands.
True Blue opened her mouth again, and spit a plume of blue plasma at the white flier. In seconds the flier was a shriveled, melted mess. Her tail whipped toward the closest figure, the one who’d shot Lucky. I thought she would knock him into the traffic on the thoroughfare, but her tail wrapped around him and flung him away from the thoroughfare. She turned and her now-massive fingers gripped something I couldn’t see. She scampered toward us, bumping the second figure away. He didn’t seem to have a weapon.
True Blue opened her mouth when she was behind us. She clamped it onto the back of the cab. And she started pushing us through space.
She didn’t take us far. Just out of range of my passenger’s pursuers. And when we saw emergency vehicles approach, Blue shrank and climbed back into the cab.
My cab had to be towed to the closest station. I didn’t get a chance to speak to my passenger again. She went off with the authorities. They questioned me a little. But then they gave me the information for the place where my cab had been sent, and then let me go.
I checked on my cab, got estimates for repairs, pulled out some belongings. I found the bag with four cookies still inside. I’d meant to share them with my passenger, JJ, whoever she was. But I’d forgotten.
The authorities had apprehended the two people who’d been pursuing us. They wouldn’t tell me any details, only that the two were in a world of trouble.
No one said anything about lizards, small, giant, or otherwise. Lucky Star and True Blue must have gone back to hiding in my passenger’s coat.
I found a place to stay for the night, and left a message with my boss about my next shift.
I wasn’t able to sleep at first. I wasn’t even able to take my shoes off. My mind was still racing. I couldn’t calm it down. The room didn’t have a flat screen, only three-dimensional. So I turned on a movie and just disabled the visuals. I listened until I fell asleep.
The next morning, when I checked out, there was a message for me at the front desk from the repair shop. They said the cab was fixed and ready for pick-up. I went down there to clear up the confusion in person.
I hadn’t somehow slept for a week. It had only been one night. So there was no way they could have fixed the engine and repaired the body damage that Blue had done in the naming of saving lives.
Turns out, they could. They’d received a rush order on my cab. They replaced the engine altogether. It was easier, they said. And they cleaned out all the fluid and plasma lines, patched up a few rough spots in the paint, and installed a spare emergency thruster that had its own energy source.
Technically, I had time to go home, wash up more thoroughly than I had, change, and still work that day’s shift. I was assigned to the hotel again.
I wanted to call in sick. But if I’d lost a whole day, then I’d have to make it up.
With dread, I checked my accounts. My last passenger had paid me after all, generously. She’d also forgotten to cut off the chocolate card. I’d have to go return that to the nearest bank.
I climbed into the driver’s seat, and I saw an urgent message blinking on the console. It was from my passenger.
They’re not mine to command. And neither are you. They want to go with you. They’re no trouble. They feed on dark matter. And they only make waste once a day—you’d never perceive it. They’ll only come with you if you let them. If not, please take them as far as you can to the protomatter park. You can release them, and they’ll know what to do from there. I’m sorry we didn’t have any last words. I was hoping to retain you for a few days. The card is yours. Use it for as long as you want. It’s my apology. Best, JJ.
I caught movement at the corner of my eye. I was not surprised to see the black lizard and the blue lizard peeking over the edge of the seat back. They crawled out and leapt onto the front passenger seat.
I started up the engine, noting the smooth, musical hum.
I raised a brow. “No trouble, huh?”
Lucky Star blinked at me sweetly. True Blue glowed a neon blue glow.
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel