'You have such a boring life, Mini. Honestly, don't you ever look out the window and wish you were out there in the thick of the galaxy, rather than stuck in here with space bums and GAMs?'
I spread my mouth wide, in the kind of nervous smile I was used to giving Claudia – all teeth, no lips. 'Oh, I don't know, it's okay here, I guess.' I gestured at the packed diner before us. Humans and aliens shovelling down their food with differing degrees of coordination; it wasn't paradise, but it would make for a manageable hell.
Claudia, with her perfect human features, just groaned. Her brown eyes flickered, her mouth pulled tight, and her thick brown ponytail fell limp over a shoulder. 'You are so boring for a halfy.'
Ah yes, a halfy.
I ignored Claudia and moved around her to a waiting customer. He was a big guy, a bull Crag if I wasn't mistaken. He towered over the two Galactic Army soldiers (GAMs for short) that sat to the side of him. And he sure looked hungry.
Crags were a big race, all tough lizard skin, muscle, and bone. They found their trade as mercenaries, security, or general brawn. There weren't too many creatures, after all, that would be happy to take on a charging Crag, gun or not. They had a reputation for being to the point, gruff, and ridiculously sloppy. Most of the other girls wouldn't serve them, but I didn't mind so much. I'd serve anyone who was hungry.
Like I said before, working in Marty's Space Diner wasn't heaven – but it paid the bills, and was quite a bit safer than working planet-side on the colonies.
'Meat,' the Crag's massive, brick-like hands pounded on the bar.
'Okay,' I nodded sweetly, 'A kilo?'
The Crag hit the bar twice, and the plastic rippled like he was flicking water in a puddle. The GAM by his side was just quick enough to grab his drink before it spilled.
I took that to be an order of 2 kilos, and quickly thumbed it into my order pad.
Yep, that was my job. I took orders, cleaned up after patrons, and smiled. Something a cheap robot could do, technically, but Marty always liked the 'human' touch. He said it added authenticity to have real people serving customers. And Marty was all about making things 'authentic'. He kept real bottles of liquor behind the bar (well, the bottles were real, the liquid substances in them could only be classed as industrial solvents), and always had a 'chef's special' (which was the same every single day, making it the chef's regular). He'd gotten "real" fixtures as well. He'd ripped up old flight chairs from decommissioned fighters and freight ships, and even had old control panels with plate plastic over them for tables. He only got the place cleaned once a year too. His philosophy was that frequent fumigating killed 'de bugs, but a bit of dirt and grit just added to the atmosphere'.
All this made for a dirty, smelly, old looking diner. But the customers seemed to like it.
'Excuse me, ma'am.'
I span quickly. Only one type of person usually bothered with manners in a space diner. Sure enough, I came face to face with a GAM, and by the looks of it a ranking officer too.
'How can I help you, sir?' I smiled as I took out my order pad, Marty always told us a smile sells a dinner in a diner.
This GAM was wearing standard black fatigues with the sleeves rolled up till just under his holo-insignia of the Galactic Army. He looked youngish, but tired. He had jet-black hair - made all the blacker by his dark uniform - that was cropped to a neat, regulation half centimetre. He blinked slowly with hazel eyes and closed his lips to make a half-smile that lifted just one cheek.
'Oh wow,' Claudia said quietly from behind me as she pinched hold of my apron ties, 'oh no, I have this one. Go on break, Mini, I've got this one totally covered.' Claudia pushed past me, head tilting to the side. 'Can I take your order, officer?'
The guy frowned with confusion, looked at me, then back at Claudia. Eventually he shrugged, looking all the more tired by the minute. In my opinion, he needed a nice spiced Tika tea and maybe a bowl of hot pot - that would raise the colour in his cheeks.
But no one was interested in my opinion, I was just a halfy working in a diner. I backed off, untied my apron, and headed for the little doors that separated the bar from the rest of the room.
I didn't really need a break right now, I wasn't hungry, and there were too many ships in port to see the stars through the windows. Still, I could always…
Something grabbed my ponytail and pulled me backwards. I let out a little shriek, not loud enough to carry through the packed diner, more like the sound a tiny mouse might make if you accidentally stood on its tail.
'Oh, ahh,' I protested lightly as whatever it was still had a hold of my hair. 'Could you please…'
'Wh-ite,' something hissed.
I tried to wriggle free, but to no avail. 'Could you umm, could you please not grab my hair. Um, excuse me-'
'Let her go.'
Sure enough, the pressure pulling me down released and I popped back up like a balloon in a lake. I immediately patted my hair straight, trying to massage the pain out of my scalp.
'Are you okay?'
I turned to see my ranking officer with a hand flat on some strange, short alien's shoulder. My officer no longer looked tired – his face was pressed into a stern, but alert look.
'Ah, yes. I-'
The alien, a species I had never seen before, looked at me with what could only be classed as human-like surprise. Then his blood red face twisted into-
The little thing lunged at me with one long hiss.
'What the-' my ranking officer pushed forward and grabbed the alien around the middle, pulling him back just before his outstretched hands grabbed the hem of my skirt. 'Remain still,' he snapped, getting down on one knee to maintain a better hold of the little red guy.
I put a hand up to my mouth and blinked, too stunned and far too polite to say anything. Claudia would have probably taken the opportunity to sock the tiny alien, but Marty always told us that manners get 'ya tips while attitude gets you bruised'. And even though all tips went to Marty, I always maintained a pleasant persona around patrons.
'Wh-ite,' the alien hissed again.
I instinctively patted my hair. It was the only white thing about me. And it wasn't just white - it was white. It was right up there alongside full sunshine hitting snow, the clean fur of an Arctic Fox, or the light of a white dwarf star. It was one of the first things people looked at, and the first clue that I wasn't entirely human. I mean, I looked almost like a human; I was normal height, normal build and I had honey brown skin. But the hair and my supernova-blue eyes would always give it away. So they'd call me 'halfy': half human and half something different.
But none of that mattered right now. The only thing I cared about was the little angry, red thing that was trying to steal my hair. That, and we were starting to make a scene. The alien was hissing like a broken valve, and my gallant officer was grunting trying to hold him in place. GAMs were starting to move over to us, space bums gathering around for a better view.
'Sir, what's going on?' a trio of huge, armour-clad GAMs walked up behind the ranking officer, one leaning down to wrap an arm around the alien's middle.
'I have no idea,' my officer straightened up, pulling down tight on his top, and staring straight at me. 'Do you mind telling us, ma'am-'
Then the little thing got loose again. The alien ducked down and under the GAM's arm, did the cutest of roles, then sprang at me with the agility of an Elurian monkey cat.
This time I shrieked. No more of the prissy, extra-nice girl; I just saw this flash of red shooting towards my face with no time to duck, and let loose with my lungs. And sure enough, it collected me right in the middle of the chest and sent us both slamming back onto a table. Then the world tipped again as the table pitched backwards, sending me sliding to the ground, wailing like a broken klaxon.
There was a second where I just lay there, my legs all splayed over the side of the table, my skirt dishevelled, and heaven knows what view I was offering my ranking officer. And in that tiny fraction of time I noticed the alien just sitting on my chest, staring at my face with his little bobble-head cocked to the side. The brain picks up all sorts of details in times of stress, and for the first time, I got a good look at the little guy. He was just about two foot tall, wore a brown robe tied at the middle like a Franciscan monk, and had mottled blood-red skin.
My ranking officer vaulted over the table, tackled the alien, and slammed him to the ground with a grunt like a charging Crag. The other GAMs made their quick way over and soon had, what one would hope, a better hold of the little escapee.
I watched them blankly for a moment, my brain completely overloaded. Then I realised my skirt was still up around my middle and my legs practically in stirrups as they rested over the table. I scrambled up just as my officer seemed to lean down to offer me a hand.
I flattened my skirt from every angle, and concentrated very hard on not meeting my officer's gaze.
'Are you alright?' he asked, voice less of a snapped command than it had been before. 'You should go to the Med Bay, you took quite a tumble.'
'Oh, I don't think-' I began, automatically stumbling to tell all and sundry that I was okay, that this was just nothing, and that nobody should be bothered by little old me. But I didn't get that far – Claudia swept up behind me and put an arm around my shoulders.
'Oh my god, officer, you're a hero!' she proclaimed, a little too loudly.
I waited for my officer to flick his eyes to Claudia, maybe smile, maybe even chuckle at such welcome praise. But there was nothing, he didn't even look her way, just kept his eyes on me like the rest of the world was blocked out by blinkers. 'Do you know this Kroplin?' he asked quickly.
'What's a Kroplin?' I had caught a hold of the end of my long ponytail and was stroking it compulsively. I just wanted this little scene to end.
He pointed at the red alien.
My cheeks flushed with embarrassment. Of course, he wasn't going to be checking my general knowledge here, was he? 'I, well, no. I've never seen anything like him before. I mean, that is, what I mean to say is, I've seen aliens before,' I chuckled erratically, 'of course I have, I work in a space diner... but I-'
'You haven't seen him before,' he cut in, saving me from drowning in my own babble. Then he turned to his men, 'call security.'
I watched him as he massaged his forehead with the palm of his hand, that hint of weariness was crinkling back up around his eyes. 'And this was meant to be shore leave,' he mumbled under his breath.
The crowd was starting to disperse around us, thankfully. Even Claudia moved off, apparently realising my officer was far too tired and busy to pay her any attention. Soon it was just us in the centre of the room: the Kroplin, my officer, the other GAMs, and me.
My officer was busy barking more orders at his men, compulsively checking they had a firm grip on the alien. I started to wonder if I could just leave, I mean, they didn't need me now, did they? I would just get in the way if I stood here like a chunk of space debris.
So I moved off slowly, hands patting at my skirt to ensure it sat straight and neat. I could go and feed Hipop, my pet, or perhaps have a quick lie down...
'What are you doing?'
I turned to face my officer, a nervous smile stretching my lips to a thin line.
'You are going to the Med Bay,' he supplied quickly, answering his own question.
'Oh, I don't really need too, I fe-'
'You're going to the Med Bay. Name?'
My eyebrows squeezed together in confusion.
'What's your name?' He repeated, voice slower, lips collecting around each word.
I was starting to realise this guy wasn't big on conversing in whole sentences. He was to the point like a sniper rifle at twenty paces. 'I don't have a last name. I mean, I might have... but I don't know it-' I began to babble again, but cut myself short by sucking in a little gulp of air.
He looked at me and it was clear he found me to be the oddest thing this side of the Milky Way. 'Sorry, what? Do you have a last name or not?'
'No, I don't have a last name... ah, sir.'
'Commander Jason Cole. You're going to the Med Bay now, someone from Station Security will meet you there.'
'Oh, I,' I began to protest once more, it was ever so half-hearted, but I really didn't need to go. The alien had been a surprise, sure, but I wasn't hurt. And, in fact, the more I looked at the little guy as he was sandwiched between a trio of GAMs, the more it felt like he had never intended to hurt me at all. He seemed... it was hard to put a finger on it. 'I really don't need to go-'
'N-o-w,' his voice wasn't angry, but it wasn't pleasant either.
'O, o-okay Mr Cole. I – I mean, Commander Cole.' I turned on my heel before this scene could continue to bleed more embarrassment.
I resisted the urge to pick up the overturned table and straighten it up before I went, as I was sure that Commander Cole wouldn't approve. Instead, I walked quickly for the door, not turning back once.
I would just head up to my quarters, I certainly didn't need a doctor.
I headed for the lifts that connected the shopping district, where Marty's was, to the living quarters, with a quick trot to my step. The sooner I was out of the public eye, the better. I reached down to key in the Accommodation Deck, but another hand got there first.
'The Med Bay isn't on the Accommodation Deck, Mini.'
I jumped, just a little, and I gave another pathetic yelp. I could never help it, when I was startled or scared I would always cry out like three-year-old in sea of clown masks.
'It didn't take a genius to realise you don't follow orders,' he said as he keyed in the button that would take us to the Services Deck.
Now hold on, I thought to myself as I sucked in a calming lungful of air. I wasn't some GAM under his command, I had nothing to do with this man. I was just an ordinary galactic citizen who had just happened to be assaulted, rather innocently, by a two-foot alien monk. Why should I be expected to follow his orders?
I didn't say any of this, of course, I just looked at my shoes and moved over in the lift to let him in.
I was aware he was looking at me from the side as the lift set off with its characteristic shudder. This station was old, but so large that risking one's life with the lifts was the only way to travel. But no matter how hard I tried to pay attention to the rattle and shake of the metal grating under my feet, I couldn't block out that stare.
He eventually sighed and rubbed his forehead again.
I slid my gaze to the side, just glancing his way. He was pinching the bridge of his nose, eyes squeezed shut. He looked fatigued, frustrated, and irritated all at once. He really needed a cup of steaming hot Tika tea and a good lie down, perhaps even a plate biscuits. But instead, he was taking me to the Med Bay.
A flicker of guilt burnt away my desire to run back to my burrow like a startled rabbit that had shown her knickers to a GAM Commander. The poor guy was obviously under a lot of stress, what protecting the galaxy and all, and here I was adding to his burdens. He had saved me, after all.
'Look,' I turned to him, not fully - just enough so it was polite, but not enough so that I faced him front on in this tiny lift. 'I will go to the Med Bay, I promise. Thank you very much for saving me back there, and I'm sure if you go back to the diner they will give you a nice Tika tea on the house.' That was a lie, Marty didn't believe in the concept of "it's on the house". To Marty, we were in space, and there were neither houses nor free meals in space. It would just come out of my pay.
He blinked his eyes open and crossed him arms. He shook his head.
I turned quickly, suddenly aware of how much of a clumsy fool I'd been.
The seconds ticked by as we waited for the lift to make its shuddering way to the Services Deck, and you could almost hear them clunk around us like a great grandfather clock timing the awkwardness and embarrassment. I found myself chewing industriously on my lips.
But I should have enjoyed the silence while it lasted because just as the doors opened to the massive Service Deck the questions began.
'Why don't you have a last name?' The Commander powered on ahead of me, pushing through the crowds like he was a searing hot iron through snow.
'I... it's a little complicated,' I mumbled as I managed to just keep up. The Med Bay was all the way on the other side of the Service Deck. I was hardly an emergency, and I'm sure the Commander could see that - he was just playing things by the book. But it would take us minutes to reach it in this thick crowd. Several ships must have come in at once – because there were people, GAMs, mercenaries, space bums, and all sorts just milling around before us.
There was that charming brevity again. He didn't sound curt or rude exactly, just excessively short of time. If he had somewhere more important to be, he should have taken me up on my offer to escort myself to the Med Bay. I decided it was better to play along though. The problem was, therewasn't a short answer. For a girl who worked at a space diner, I had an unnecessarily complex life. 'I'm a Floater.' I paused, waiting for him to add something, gasp, or acknowledge the statement at all. Most people would at least raise an eyebrow when they found out about my unconventional early life.
But not this guy, he just kept marching, obviously waiting for me to illuminate, while keeping it 'short' of course.
A Floater was a rather unattractive term used to describe orphans found in space with no traceable records. Perhaps a GAM ship would come across a wreck pirates had scavenged, only to find they'd missed a bouncing bub when they'd slaughtered or kidnapped the crew. Or maybe a colony ship would go nuclear, and the infant was the only person they'd managed to get to the life pod. So until these children were found, they would literally just be floating around in space - Floaters.
But once found they were usually adopted. After all, the children of conflict and general misfortune were one thing, but babies found floating, unattended in the vastness of space, were another. Something about it always pulled at the heart's strings. They were lucky to be alive, so fortune saw to it they were adopted quickly.
I was a different case. Far more odd.
I wasn't on an attacked cruiser, or found alive in some half-wrecked hull. I was almost literally dropped on the doorstep of the GAM Head Quarters: Station One. I was found in a single person cruiser, in stasis, with the navigation set to drift their way. It was the single laziest case of abandonment ever. My parents, or guardians, hadn't even bothered to nip into the closest planet and deposit me at a hospital or with some appropriate childcare facility. No, they had set a cruiser to drift and sent me on my way.
Perhaps my parents had hoped some kindly old admiral, who had an emotional connection to any soul unfortunate enough to be lost be space, would adopt me and set me up in a life of fortune. It didn't happen that way. I was sent straight to a planet-side orphanage on Earth. And unlike the other Floaters, was never adopted. Few parents, especially humans, were happy taking in an unidentified halfy. Humans, or pure breed aliens, people could manage - but halfy babies were always a gamble. Who knew how the DNA would combine, what results it would have? Human DNA could combine with surprisingly few alien races, and most of the results were never pretty. So halfies were treated with general disdain, they were too strange, too in-between.
So I'd grown up in an orphanage instead. And the old Matriarch there, Mother Mirabella, had become my surrogate mother.
And the short of it was, I didn't have a last name, only the nickname the GAMs who found had given me: Mini. Now how was I going to give the Commander the quick version of that?
I chewed my lip for a bit, hoping the Commander would just move on. It wasn't a fair line of questioning anyway. Why should I tell him about my irrelevant past when he wasn't going tell me about his? How would he react if I asked why he seemed so tired, or how he'd gotten that little scar along his jaw line, or even why, for a GAM commander, he appeared to have a tattoo on his upper right arm?
'You weren't adopted?' he obviously wasn't about to give up. 'Didn't the government assign you a last name?'
The government assigned people identity codes, they didn't usually scroll through the pages of the galactic phone book to pick out a surname for the little orphan. 'Ah, no.'
'Why are you on this space station?'
I pressed my lips against my teeth and smiled wanly. 'I... just am, I guess.' It was a poor answer, but it was the only one I could give. I didn't choose to come to this huge chunk of rusting debris out in the middle of nowhere colony-space. I had just drifted here. At least out in the further reaches of the galaxy people didn't tend to care too much if you were a halfie Floater - just as long as you served them their mind-destroying alcohol. That, and I'd always been drawn to the Rim - to the outer reaches of known space. I didn't have the guts to go adventuring - I was a self-confessed, easily scared, clumsy, and often-pathetic scaredy-pants. Working on one of the outer space stations as a waitress was all I could manage. Still, the pull was always there...
This time he slowed and turned his head towards me. 'You get attacked by one of the calmest, most spiritual races known; you don't have a last name or a traceable lineage; and you move out to the reaches of colony space for no reason. Is there something you aren't telling me?'
I began to laugh, feeling nervous and foolish about how silly that must sound. Then I realised he wasn't smiling. He didn't actually believe I was on the run or something: a spy, a hunted mercenary, an escaped convict? 'I - no, no,no. I know that sounds bad, I just, I came to this station because there didn't seem any other place to go. I mean, I'm a Floater and a halfy- a half breed, and well, it was hard to find work in the Galactic Centre, so I just came out here because I thought maybe people would be more accepting,' I took a sharp breath, but wasn't about to stop. 'Not to say I ever really faced that much prejudice over being a mixed breed, I mean, I'm not saying most humans are racist or anything, not at all, it was just easier, and I thought-'
'Okay, you can stop talking,' he put up a hand like he was stopping hover traffic, 'your record wasn't flagged anyway.'
I was flustered and very nearly out of breath. 'I... sorry, you what? You've already had a chance to look at my identity file?'
'I had it uploaded to my com-piece,' he tapped his ear. 'There was only one registered "Mini" on this space station.'
I swallowed carefully, the kind of move where your tongue suddenly feels like it's been puffed full of air and the only thing that can save you is a last ditch gulp.
Perhaps this was how all GAM commanders worked, I'd never had more to do with them than taking their orders, after all. Quick, efficient, and lethal. And I was starting to wonder if this guy ever smiled. Claudia was right, he was dashing, though she wouldn't phrase it that way. But he was so weary looking at the same time - he looked like the weight of the galaxy had rested on his shoulders and it was drawing him thin.
Still, right now I wanted to be everywhere that wasn't right here by his side marching towards the Med Bay.
'There's nothing on your file to suggest this attack was anything other than unprovoked.'
I nodded. Of course, it wasn't anything other than "unprovoked", why would he expect more? Maybe it was part of being a GAM commander. Maybe he was used to seeing the violent, the dangerous, and the unexpected. But this wasn't the Rim, and this was just little old me. I wasn't going to say anything, but my curiosity eventually got the better of me. 'Of course... why would it be anything else? This is just a little space station in colony-sp-'
We had reached the Med Bay doors, and he paused as the doors swished open before us. 'These are strange times.' His voice wasn't ominous, wasn't even the least bit deep and dramatic. But he looked around - eyes flicking from side to side as he spoke - and that was more telling than a foreboding clap of thunder. Then he looked right at me and offered that same half-smile that pushed up just one cheek. 'Here you are.'
I have a personal philosophy, one I've always lived by - it's what's between what people say that really matters. And I suddenly realised why the Commander was so tired - that wasn't a throw away comment, these really were strange times for him.
It took me another moment to realise he was leaving though. 'You aren't going to escort me in? Aren't you worried I'll just leave by the back exit, or collapse from my injuries right here at the door?' Had he honestly just marched me all the way across the Service Deck to ditch me at the door?
'You aren't injured, Mini. But security regulation states you still have to undergo a medical scan to record details for legal and insurance purposes, especially when it involves an off-duty GAM officer. The sooner after an incident occurs, the better. And I wasn't about to trust Station Security to remember. The sooner the details are fully recorded, the sooner I can notify my superiors and go back to work.'
Oh. Oh, of course. This never had anything to do with me. I hadn't even though of that - the GAM were notorious for their strict rules and bureaucracy. I often heard the soldiers complaining about it over their Knuckle Dragger cocktails. The Commander had broken up a fight while off duty - lord knows the amount of forms he'd have to fill before he could resume post again. It was a wonder the GAM could even function with the amount of paper work that preceded and followed their every move. And maybe that was the weight on the Commander's shoulders, a weight I had just added to.
I was starting to feel very foolish indeed.
I returned his smile in a half-hearted way, arms straight, and hands clasped before me like a misbehaving child.
And it was this, of all things, that finally made the other side of Commander Jason Cole's mouth smile. The lines disappeared from under his eyes as his cheeks lifted up. 'You can relax, I'm not going to arrest you.'
I instantly unclasped my hands and then, not sure of what else to do with them, clasped them behind my back instead. 'Thank you so much for helping me, sir'. Then I spun on my heel and straight into the door, which had apparently closed during our conversation. I spluttered slightly, even mumbled 'sorry' to the door, but finally made it through.
I caught a look at the Commander shaking his head as he turned to walk away. That was the usual impression I gave people.
I was clumsy, awkward, chronically unsure of myself, and easily frightened. But at least I always tried to be polite and kind. Marty said good manners were one of the rarest things in the universe. He'd tell me, 'No one got 'em kid, especially not me. But you, Mini, you got manners. Don't underestimate how much that scares the hell out of people, especially the rough ones.'
I really didn't think the Commander had been too frightened of my well placed 'sorry's' and 'thank you's', but at least he'd smiled. And for someone who was living in "strange times", a smile couldn't hurt.
This story is actually complete. It's about 150,000 words long. It is no longer available on Fiction Press, but it is available for sale through Smashwords and the Amazon Kindle Store. To find it do a search for The Betwixt on those sites, or for my pen name, Odette C. Bell.
Have a great day, and thanks for reading!