A chair banged against the tiles, followed by a low huff. Sasha peered over the counter and exclaimed, “Oh, are you all right?” She rushed to the man sprawled next to the overturned chair. “Here, let me help you.” The man took her outstretched hand and pulled himself up to his full height, just level with her shoulder. The wrinkles lining his yellowed face made him look almost human, despite the antennae trailing down his back.
“Are you all right, sir? Do you need a translator?” Sasha held her hand to her mouth and mimed speaking into it.
The man’s antennae rubbed together, and words came in a high, tremulous voice: “Nitro feed?”
“I’m sorry, we only sell complex foods here. Would you like me to see if we’ve got something for your chemistry?”
The man’s voice quavered. “No nitro feed? But – they tell at station I find a nitro bar at the end of the street.”
“I think they must have meant a different street, sir. This is the oxy quarter of the city – the people here don’t use nitro bars.”
“Oh, no. And such a long way back.” The man’s brown eyes clouded and his antennae seemed to wilt behind his head. He wore a tan poncho of a heavy, rough material, tied at his chest and waist with scarlet belts. Gnarled hands clung to a well-worn knapsack.
Suddenly his antennae perked back up. Sasha realized he was using them, not his mouth, to speak. “Have you carbonated phosphoric acid? This is once a refreshment for humans, yes?”
Sasha bit her lip. “I’m not sure. Let me check.” She turned into the back room and stood on tiptoe, scanning the top shelves. “Ah-ha.” From between a stale can of manna sprinkles and a stack of foam boxes she pulled a six-pack of Fizzy Cola. She brought it to the counter and glanced at a fading price list. “That’ll be ten microcredits a bottle, sir.”
The man reached over his back and pulled an envelope from his knapsack. Grasping the envelope between his hands, he dumped several bills onto the counter.
Sasha took a bill from the pile and stashed it in the register tray. Then she set a bottle from the six-pack on the counter as the man stuffed the rest of the bills back into the envelope.
“Please to open bottle and insert a drinking mechanism?” The man asked.
Sasha frowned. “Huh? Oh, yes sir.” She gripped the bottle and twisted off the cap, then took a straw from the dispensary and stuck it in the top.
“Huh? Oh, you’re welcome. You have a good day, okay?”
The man made no reply, but clutched his bottle with both hands and hobbled to the nearest booth, where he set the bottle down with a clunk.
Sasha picked up the overturned chair and returned it to its table. Then, taking a rag, she stood on her toes to clean the blinking displays offering fried protein sandwiches, cream of kala soup, and yellow salads grown locally on nearby Kenoulli. The quarter’s wealthier sections boasted Centaurian and Solarian cuisine, but such places weren’t frequented by the average moe.
When the display gleamed, Sasha glanced over the empty tables to the man in the booth. He took a sip from the straw and leaned back to gaze out the window. His antennae drooped to his shoulders.
Sasha sighed and walked out the side gate to the man’s table. “Sir, is there anything else I can get for you?”
“No, thank you,” he said.
Shrugging, Sasha began wiping off the next table. She continued to the end of the row, straightening chairs as she went, and then began on the next one. Wiping a table already sparkling-clean, she asked, “Been here long?”
The man looked up at her, his eyes clearing. “Just arrived. Never visited this system before.”
“A real traveler, huh?” Sasha glanced around the empty eating area, and then slid into the opposite booth. “I’d love to get off this rock and see a few things.”
“Young ones always do.” The man peered at Sasha. “You are young, yes?”
“Yeah, I’ll be eighteen cycles the day after tomorrow. That’s an adult, to humans,” she added. “I’m going straight to the shipping offices and applying for a job.”
“Interplanetary?” the man asked.
She shrugged. “Yeah, I guess so. I’d love to jump to interstar right away, but that’ll never happen. They have all those psych tests and stuff, and too many people apply, especially here on Jocono.”
“And what you do when you get to different star?”
“See things! All my life I’ve watched ships leave that spaceport going places, seeing things I’ve never seen – the photosynthetic castles on Keezna and the ice mines in the Torey belt and that fluke planet in the Vegan system that didn’t need terraforming.”
“When you see, then what?”
“Then, well, there’ll always be more to see.” She gestured with the damp rag. “There are people out there who haven’t spent their entire lives under one dome on a rock at the edge of the universe, and I want to meet them. I want to d -- [End of Preview.]