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‘At The Border,’ Fiction by Joshua Sky

At The Border featured Image

Words by Joshua Sky
Art by Ian Tolmay

I thought we’d hit The Mother Lode: the prize that would change our lives forever. Instead, we just found heaps of extraterrestrial caca. Now I’m stuck on the Infinite Path, waiting to haul it home, with no goods, a pissed off fiancée, and nothing to show for my troubles.

We’ve been waiting in queue for over eighteen hours!
Sheesh. But at least we’re almost home. Almost.

It all started like most outlandish things in my life, when I received a call from my father. He knew that I’d gotten into the reselling game. Ever since eBay went intergalactic, the market for alien artifacts exploded. I was already a collector for several years before people began to pay crazy money for them. I bought from time-to-time, always on the cheap. But then I landed a decent job as an assistant to an executive at Intellect Inc., and found myself with discretionary income, which is when I started to buy more refined, tasteful goods. The fossilized eye of a Moon Arachnid here, a small fragment of an enemy fighter shot down in the first All War, there. It didn’t occur to me that my collection might be worth serious money.

“I think we’re sitting on a fortune.” I told Tara, my fiancée, after reading some of the trade listings on the galaxy feed. I remember her looking up at me, her elbows propped up on the floating blue-jade coffee table, while she read one of my priceless vintage paperbacks. “What’s the difference, Dan? You’re never going to sell any of it.”

But that’s where she was wrong. We had a wedding to save for. What better way to save, then to add a new stream of income? So I started selling, FAST.

In my first month, I made a hefty sum, by month three I made more than I had the previous year working, and six months in, I quit my day job.

That’s when I got a call from my dad. “I got a lead!” He yelled from the holo-com, waking my ass up.

“Jesus, can’t you ring first?”

“Do you want the lead or not?”

I gave him a suspicious glance. My father, though well intentioned, has what I call the Laxative Touch. But he seemed eager, so I gave him a chance. “Go ahead,” I stated, resigned.

“My buddy on Oros has a gold mine of local relics.”

“What era?”

“Dawn of the First Communion. Ancient space-folding
technology!”

“Is it still functional? What’s the condition?”

“I have no idea! But even if it’s kaput, you land just one piece, you’ll be set for life!”

“Why is he selling?”

“He needs money for a triple-conscious duplicate. The dumbass lost his original personality, it’s probably packed away on some jump-drive somewhere. Why do you care? Just go and see what he has.”

The problem was that his friend was on the planet Oros, one of the most dangerous and inhospitable regions in the known universe. Sure, you could have a fun vacation there, but you also might not return. Visiting was relatively easy but leaving could be a nightmare. The world was fraught with crime, treachery and deceit. Not the whole world, but enough to make one think twice before visiting. So, I thought about it, and asked Tara, who had already packed her bags. “Let’s go!” She said, with a red lipstick smirk as she donned a pair of aqua shades.

She tends to be more adventurous than I.

But, as mentioned, we didn’t find squat. We’d gone to meet my father’s friend, Eddie, a Terran ex-pat who ended up wanting way more than market value for his antique space-fold trash, which was light-years beyond my budget – and in awful condition!

“I’m disappointed by your offer,” he kept repeating. Well, I was disappointed with our having to fracking travel to a backwater world for no reason! Don’t get me wrong. Oros isn’t all bad. The food is excellent. Truly. And the locals, by and large are nice, but they can turn on you.

***

The Infinite Path is a long stretch that spans several hundred miles. An expansive track-way comprised of tiny multi- colored rocks, polished smooth by eons of tidal drifts from an ocean long dead. All is slightly bleached beneath two uncompromising suns. Its perimeter is protected by heavily armed drone copters and a WatchGuard, which patrols a massive border built on both sides of the causeway. A thousand foot, silver barrier covered in barbed wire and automated weaponry. Oh, and a shit-ton of rocket launchers too. At its far end lay the Jump-Gate – the only way in or out, which runs on ancient Orosian technology. Un-replicatable, its secrets long forgotten by its own creators and well maintained for fear of being lost forever. It acts as a multi-portal between here and the rest of the universe.

The current dictatorship, err, world government isn’t fond of its people having access across the stars. And though remote, Oros still feels extremely threatened by interstellar ships. Space flight is illegal for their people as well as visitors. Locals are forbidden to leave the world, though it doesn’t stop some from trying.

Despite its stance for its own citizenry, the government wants goods from abroad, not to mention coinage from tourists – so, getting in is easy, if you are a Star Citizen, but getting out is a bitch. Traffic for departure jumps are a drag. Which is why Tara, my lovely fiancée and I, are stuck in our cramped fly- car, inching along towards infinity.

There are a few perks about the border. The locals are extremely entrepreneurial. One could buy anything from Jesus to fresh Queezoo. I heard somewhere that someone once found a copy of ASM #1. “Damn it!” I yelled, “you don’t have to wash her! She’s been washed three times!”

“You’re welcome, you’re welcome!” The Orosian repeated with an automated accent from the translator hanging from his neck, as he quickly wiped my domed windshield.

“Leave him alone,” Tara yawned, before taking a bite into a freshly grilled Blue Leipos Lizard.

“Give me that,” I spat, swiping the grub from her. The food here is on point.

So far, we made the most purchases in the midst of the intergalactic traffic jam. The average wait-time prior to a jump was nearly a day, which makes it the perfect place for enterprising natives to sell their wares. So far we bought emerald Agos eggs for desert, and a pet Micoo, which looks like a mouse and is the same size, except it walks upright. Ours kept walking along my dashboard, before taking a nap in Tara’s bosom.


Smart creatures.

Knock! Knock!

“I said we don’t need — “

“Please friend, I think I have what you’re looking for. Something you never knew you’ve always needed.” The speaker had no translator, and spoke common tongue perfectly. At the side of my vehicle stood a plump Orosian with long black hair and a big wide grin. On each of his cheeks was a circular tattoo made of smart ink, shifting in intricate patterns. Along his three double-chins was light silver stubble. His four black bulbous eyes held the special, universal glow of a salesman.

“And what would that be?” I retorted through the plasti-glass.

“You’re an antiques collector, no?” He said, lightly pointing 60 fingers at my backseat, which was filled with a horde of crap I still had to catalog from past adventures across the starways.

“Yeah. So … whatchya got?”

“If you roll down the window I can show you.”

“That’s okay, I can see perfectly fine from this vantage.” His smile grew wider, more playful, as a sheen of sweat began to percolate across his emerald brow. “My name is Eizo, it’s a pleasure to meet you” he extended one of his twelve hands from a short arm.

“Just open it,” Tara said. “Let’s see what he has.”

The curved barrier lowered, and I took a plump hand into mine, while my other hand found its way to a hidden button under my dashboard. When pressed, it would activate a weapons system which would eviscerate anything standing within fifteen feet of the vehicle. We shook firmly. Eizo turned to a hover-cart that I just then noticed, loaded with so many goods, it was twice as tall as him. The mountain seemed like it was on the verge of tipping over and crushing us, yet he navigated it with ease hopping atop it, plucking something from its inner depths. The odd thing was, each time I glanced at the mound, it appeared subtly different, it couldn’t be visually pinned down. Almost, but not quite …

“Listen, pal. I’m only interested in ancient tech. Stuff that’s in excellent condition which I can resell back home.”

“What about this?”

He turned and held out a small object in the palms of three hands. It was a peculiar artifact, truly alien in nature. A small onyx colored sphere that shimmered like chrome, but reflected nothing. Protruding from it, were four tiny pyramids, each with barely perceptible patterns that were forever changing, much like Eizo’s tattooed cheeks, and like his mountain of objects, the artifact never appeared the same on the next glance. It seemed to subtly shift, the patterns along its surface evolved, telling some kind of complex alien mythology which was difficult to follow, yet remained totally engrossing.

“What does it do?”

Eizo’s smirked with a raised brow, he could feel my intense interest which I was trying to mask. “That I cannot say. It’s something you will both have to see alone, without me or anyone else around. But I promise, what it does, what it will bring you, is truly something special. Priceless, I dare say.”

I tried not to roll my eyes and vomit. Tara’s hand tightened around my arm. “What do you think, babe?” I asked.

“It’s special. I can feel it.”

Tara usually had a good sense about these things. She also had a tendency to claim some of my scores, because she thought they were too beautiful to ever be sold.

The line of vehicles began to press forth, the queue was making fast progress. We were quickly approaching the final checkpoint. Eizo cautiously followed along, fearful of the aerial patrols. “Tell me,” he said, trying to keep up. “You came here and bought nothing.” The seller had a shrewd eye, there wasn’t one local item besides our new pet. “This will bring you more fortune than you can know, and at the very least, be your
one Orosian pearl for your collection.”

“Sounds too good to be true. Can I test it out, how does it work?”

“Not here,” he said with a nervous chuckle. A drone zipped by and he practically ducked. “I’m not supposed to be selling you these sorts of wares, they aren’t meant for foreigners.”

Red flags were beginning to unfurl, but I remained intrigued. The notion of returning home empty handed did gnaw at me. So I asked the eternal question — “How much?”

“300 credits.”

The moment he said the price, I ran my calculations. 300 credits, for an artifact such as this, if it isn’t a fake, which I don’t think it was, would yield about 615 on the market, considering that Orosian items are hard to come by. Even the low-tier stuff. And if it was something that special, if it were indeed ancient, then we’d have a meal ticket. Doubtful that was the case, but every star-flipper needs to dream, right?

But what if I was wrong? That’s not a huge loss, but not a nominal one either. Then again, I do like the object in of itself, there’s something about it. A special, distinct beauty… and Tara liked it, too. At worst, it could be a
memento from the trip. A lovely paperweight.

“I’ll give you eighty.”

Eizo coolly held my gaze, betraying a tremor of disappointment. “One thirty-five.”

I exhaled, feeling out the negotiation. “I need to make a profit.”

“As do I.”

I nodded, not meeting his stare, pretending to pay attention to the movement of traffic, as I accelerated. We were going to hit the final checkpoint at any moment, Eizo’s steps were getting slower as he began to trail behind.

“One-hundred.”

“One-fifteen”

“One-ten”

We were one vehicle behind the border and Eizo had stopped.
“One-hundred-and-five.”

It was now or never. Make or break. If this deal was going to happen, we had about ten seconds to close it.

He smiled, “Friend, it’s important we both walk-away happy from this transaction. Let’s say one-hundred and eight and we can go our merry ways. You’re getting a good deal, trust me. There’s nothing in the universe quite like this.”

Quickly I fanned out the credits, and shook each of his numerous hands. “Here,” he said, handing over a small package that fit in my palm. “Something for the road.” It was a pack of Oros-Chik, hyper-mint gum, all natural. I gave him a wink, placing a stick in my mouth, and blew a blue bubble which flew out of my mouth and popped, giving birth to several smaller bubbles that floated away.

Tara held the artifact before her, staring into it with child-like wonderment, her eyes boring into its impenetrable darkness. We pressed forth into the heart of the Infinite Path. Thick black globule portals that pulsed with energy boiled atop of each other, like giant bubbles made of shadow. One quickly slipped before us as I hit the accelerator and broke the barrier between eternities.

Five thousand light-years went by in a flash, and we emerged from the Jump-Gate into sunny Burbank. My favorite spaceport, especially when compared to HELL-A-X. Not to get too existential, but a strange feeling I always have after making a jump is whether or not I’m really still alive.

Forget it.

We hovered on back to our apartment, took a shower and checked out the relic in the living room. “I bet it’s just a bootlegged piece of crap,” I said, trying to protect myself from disappointment.

“Well, even so, it’s a beautiful piece of crap. So long as we like it, that’s all that matters, right?”

“Sure…”

“Let’s see what it does.”

We both stood silently, waiting for the other to pick it up. “You play with it, I’m scared.”

I took the object into my hands. It was small, but heavy -and felt funny, like it had its own subtle, gravitational pull, which not only drew, but repelled, like when two opposite magnets are put together. “What if it’s a weapon?”

“Don’t be silly. Just … see what it does.”

I placed my thumbs onto the small pyramids and put pressure against them. They slid opposite ways, and my hand followed the curves until we heard a click, which echoed.

Nothing happened.

We waited a while, glancing around the room nervously. My stomach let out a slight rumble, and then a moan as a sense of nausea began to overcome me. “Are you okay?” Tara asked. “You’re looking paler by the second.”

“I’m fine. It’s just my stomach.” I held my belly as it released a series of pangs. Did we eat something bad? Oros had delicious food, but it wasn’t exactly USDA approved.

The cramps began to pulse, and on each beat a metallic pain intensified. I collapsed to my knees, spitting out my gum as a cold sweat began to exit every pour of my body. I let out a moan as dark-energy bubbled out of my being, and lurched forth, vomiting a fierce river that struck the wall. The strange black matter piled atop of itself, layer after layer, an endless flow that came from an abyss that lay somewhere between my gut and the ninth circle of hell.

Our pet Micoo and Tara screamed in unison, and I collapsed onto the ground, holding my stomach. The pain had subsided, now I just felt shock. Bile welled up into my mouth and I tasted bitter acid.

Tara came to my side, taking me into her arms. We watched the black bubbles in horror, which crackled with cosmic energy as something ugly began to stir from deep within – an evil force, which I feared more than death. The Micoo held Tara, and she held tightly onto me, as I unstrapped a phase pistol from my boot and lifted it with all the energy I could muster. I gritted my teeth against the demon we had now unleashed, from my big fat
mouth. A strange alien we recognized …

Eizo.

Slowly he slithered into the room, carting his mountain of goods, wearing a wide, shit-eating grin. “Hello, friends! So good to see you! May I have something to drink? It’s been a long journey; I take it you’re happy with your purchase?”

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