That brief interaction was all it took to pique Mustafa’s interest, the muttering of words and the exchanging of goods, the disgruntled face of a client versus the fake, apologetic one of the artisan. It was like something from one of the propaganda films, a rebel technician, repairing everything large and small. Usually they ended up dead though.
’ Mond thought to himself, looking down for a moment at his documents, neatly arranged in their holo-tablet, in the order he thought made the most sense.
His attention was brought back to the unfolding scene, the man, taking his headphones and wandering off to some farther corner of the Cantine, disappearing behind the booth. He would likely never see them again, Mustafa mused, before being distracted from his thoughts by a noise above his head. The metallic ting
, was followed by a light in the ceiling changing, going from dead to on to indicate the food was immediately forthcoming.
And like magic, or more accurately: Pnuematorehydroscopy, the food descended from a sliding tile in the ceiling, the tray resting on the scratched veneer table before the skinny robotic arms shot back up into the ceiling. Disappearing. The aromatic tug wafted up to him, the warm shortbread, raspberry jam (From Concentrate!) and synthetic coffee mingling together pleasantly. The milk he looked on with an expression of pity. It was dried, powdered, and grown in vats of cow mammary gland, it was low in fat and anything else that mattered.
In his acting days when he rubbed shoulders with Party Elite, he had the great privilege of trying real, honest to Party, milk. He saw the cow it came from, a purebred Dutch, and since then the lab grown stuff was never the same. He was suddenly aware of the chalky texture, the watery consistency, and because he knew what the real stuff was like, the insincerity of the attempt.
The other loner didn’t seem to be enjoying his cup of whatever he had ordered either. Interesting how two people, probably from entirely different walks of life and maybe even corners of known space, could share something in common like that. Though there was something else in his distaste, a feeling strong enough for even her to make out. Maybe he was used to a higher standard, or just suffered from the ‘holier-than-you’ syndrome common to people in useless positions who were nonetheless told they were important by the Party’s lackies to make them more pliable.
She finished the last of her starch balls the menu referred to as ‘potatoes’ and turned back to the loner. Hasn’t she seen him somewhere before? Customer of her temporary illicit workshop? No, she’d remember that. Shipyard management? Could’ve been. It bugged her she couldn’t remember. She could recall layouts of a dozen different freighter classes, but couldn’t remember if and where she’s seen a fellow human, seriously?
Having finished her meal, she grabbed the tray and set out to the trash compactor. Funny how it was less taxing on the ship’s resources to use single-use utensils and recycle them after each use rather than waste water for cleaning them. She chose the one further away from her seat as the direct route would take her around the lone beard’s table. “Excuse me, I could swear you remind me of someone. Didn’t you use to work at the Wolf 1061 shipyards at some point?”
He poured the milk anyway, watching it fall like clouds into the coffee, swirling sound in distinct curls, before defusing completely. It may not have been as good as the real thing, but he was never one to be particular about this and that. As he brought the mug to his lips, he looked up, the presence of the woman from before, the rogue technician, suddenly upon him. He set the mug of coffee on his aluminium tray, and gave her a knowing smile.
“Ah. The stranger from the counter.” He began, looking up at her with warm eyes, his cheeks rising slightly. “Unfortunately our paths haven't crossed until now.” Looking about, making sure that nobody else, potential clients, we're trying to get her attention. Once confident, he gestured at the seat opposite him, “Please, take a seat. And maybe I can clarify where you might know me from.” The last time he had seen a broadcast holoview was back on Earth, six years ago, yet they were still airing the Coffee adverts that he starred in so many years ago. But here, where everything was pre-recorded and the stores ludicrously expensive, there was no place for adverts.
Placing the plate of Jam Shortbreads opposite him, he took the mug of coffee again, holding it in both wrinkled hands, his thumbs running across its surface. Closing his eyes Mond took a deep breath, and exhaled over the steam, causing it to roll away. He took a sip, opening his eyes and looking down at the dark liquid like an old friend.
“Wow.” He vocalized. In a tone a little more hoarse than it had been in the past, when the ad was filmed, but no less recognizable. When Feel-o-Vision became commercially successful, that add was perhaps one of the first to capitalize on it. He remembered them scanning his brain as he took a sip of coffee, digitally remaking it as a program that could be beamed straight into a mind.
”Lucky you.” she remarked flatly when the man confirmed he did not work at the yards and accepted the seat, stuffing her clanking bag under the table, now even more curious about his strange familiarity. It became clear after his little performance.
“How could it not be? That was you? And me without my mug to sign.” she shook her head. Of course it was recognizable. Anyone who hasn’t lived under a rock probably saw that ad more times than they had the coffee it was trying to sell. “And so the mystery is solved. I couldn’t recall meeting you in person, yet you seemed familiar.” she leaned forward, suddenly curious. Perhaps her newfound curiosity was another side effect of the long journey. Might as well indulge in it before life inevitably beat it out of her again and see where it would lead. Curiosity meant questions, and questions often led to bad places. Then again, she has just arrived to one anyway, hasn’t she? “If you don’t mind me asking, what’s someone like you doing in the armpit of the universe? Came to spread the gospel of imitation caffeine among the uncharted worlds?”
“Oh no.” He said with a coy smile, looking off to the corner of his vision before back at the woman in front of him. She was young, she probably would have grown up to his ads and movies. “I’m here, Miss
, because I’m a dangerous criminal who harbors seditious, anti-party sentiment, so I’ve been sent here to be rehabilitated by our generous overlords.” He gestured around the tacky, shabby cantine, though this was not entirely the truth. Neither was it a downright lie. He shrugged, rapping his knuckles against his faux-leather suitcase.
“You seem technically minded, would you like to see something?” Mond asked, looking over at her and recalling the headphone incident a few minutes ago. He opened the suitcase slightly and slipped his fingers through the narrow crack, withdrawing the ancient shaving device and placing it on the table between them.
“Don’t worry, I’ve cleaned it.” He said mirthfully, before gesturing to the plate of Jam Shortbreads, “And do please have some, I understand not everyone is privy to this menu option.”
When the actor stressed the word ‘miss’, it finally clicked in her head that she now knew who he was, but he still didn’t know who he was talking to. “Of course, pardon my manners. We gearheads aren’t known for our social skills.” she apologised and offered her hand, taking the offered item after the handshake, “Tangeman, Astrid. ‘Reassignment of excess personnel’.” she shared.
“Nice piece, looks well cared for.” she examined the gadget and lowered her voice a little. “I take favors or goods for payment.” she said as she returned it to its owner, thinking the shaver was broken. “But it looks like we’re about to disembark. I’m not sure how much time I’ll have after getting off, but these things are usually easy to put back together. It shouldn’t even cost you too much. Shall we get to the terminal before it gets completely flooded with people?”
She reached for her bag and was about to stand up when she noticed the mountain of a man standing at the table. Her left eye and corner of her mouth twitched nervously when she realized the big, security guard-looking guy probably overheard her offering her illicit services. “Oh, h- hi there! Where did you come from?” she looked up at Jackie’s face. “Doesn’t the air get thin up there?” she commented on his height.
Mond chuckled heartily looking up at the giant from where he sat, all the way down in the booth. He gave him a fine regard, giving the man a once over with his eyes. He could smell the gene alteration, there was no doubt in his mind about it, the advent of public splicing had increased average heights greatly. His parents though, were Deists, as such they only opted to cut the things like cancer and hereditary diseases out of him.
And even then, they did it through intravenous plasmid injections, not IVF. Though it was a different time back then, you were still allowed to have your own family, the old fashioned way as it were. He didn’t know about other planets, but Earth changed its laws to tackle overcrowding, and increase the use of gene splicing.
It didn’t deter him from trying though.
Mustafa regarded him warmly.
“I see you have a keen eye young man, must be why you’re security.” He complimented, picking up the plate of shortbread and gesturing it to the lumbering giant.