This is the third of four character spotlights for Absolute Zeroes: A Space Story. You can spot the first two here:
Grey Tolliver is the third of the three childhood friends. He isn’t as book-smart as Caesar is, but he’s a borderline genius when it comes to engineering and weaponry. Obsessed with guns and vehicles from a young age, Grey has taken apart, improved and put back together just about everything for as long as he can remember. He doesn’t have the patience or social finesse that Archimedes does, and his short fuse often leads to a scrap, often one he starts himself, but he’s more than capable of holding his own. He argues with Ark constantly, but he’s got his friends’ backs when things actually get serious.
Grey tapped the rim of his glass impatiently with one finger. It was half full of a local blood-orange cider, his fourth of the evening. Each had gone down more smoothly than the last and yet the creeping warmth in his belly did little to improve his mood.
The bar stool next to him was empty. It shouldn’t have been. It hadn’t been, even, for the entirety of the evening. At varying points it had been filled by a vacant-eyed redhead who kept mispronouncing the fruity shots she was ordering from the Peran bartender, a one-eyed felon fresh off a prison stint for burning down an ice cream shop, and a Murasai drifter. Grey liked Murasai as a general rule; they tended to be sarcastic, heavy drinkers, not unlike himself. This one in particular was sullen and unhygienic.
He also hadn’t been Ark Carnahan, who should have been on the damn stool the whole night, like he said he would, drinking Durelli spirits with him, like he said he would. Grey swore and waved the bartender over.
“Cash me out, huh?” he ordered more than asked. He slid his chit card across the bar with his left hand and slammed the rest of his cider back with his right.
“Sure you don’t want another?” the Peran asked. His Trade was thickly accented. “Might take some of the sting out of getting stood up.”
“Just get me my tab, wise guy. I’ve wasted enough time in this dump.”
The avenues outside were mostly empty, save for the few taking a smoke broke and the crowds moving into and out of the numerous clubs lining the way. Lights stretched out from the buildings on thin bands of metal, casting a pale blue haze on the street. Grey had read somewhere that the shade was supposed to be a natural soother, that those exposed to it would find themselves more relaxed. He wasn’t feeling it.
He fished a pack of Telia Filtereds from his pocket and tapped a single cigarette into his palm. They were the only brand he liked and he could only find them on Salix, so he tried to piece them out for as long as he could. His other hand searched his pockets in vain for a lighter.
“What the hell did I do with it?” he muttered around the butt of his smoke.
He stopped mid-walk to think back on the last time he had used it: right after the Sol Searcher had landed to refuel. He had stretched his legs and had half a cigarette. Only half… the other half, then, must have been back at the bar. That’s right. He had stepped out between his second and third drinks to finish that one, and he had lent his lighter to…
The arsonist. Well. That was an honest mistake. At least he knew where his lighter was.
Grey sighed and slid his cigarette back into the pack, the pack back into his pocket. He’d just have to wait until he got back to-
“Hey, mister! You know anything about skippers?”
The voice came from across the street, out of one of a pair of guys standing on either side of a beat-up silver landhopper. It looked like a piece of junk.
He hesitated, taking another couple steps along his way, but curiosity got the better of him. “What’s wrong with it?” he called back.
“Best I can tell is the propulsion is all messed up. I’m about another hour away from buying up a few wheels and turning this thing into a car, but I’m no mechanic. Figured we could get another pair of eyes on it before giving up completely.”
“Ah….zast,” Grey swore under his breath. He looked both ways and jogged across the street.
The two men looked normal enough. Tired, but in a better state of affairs than the craft they were struggling with. The one who had called out to him gave a lopsided grin. Grey returned it, barely.
“Pop the engine hatch,” he said. “I’ll take a look at it.”
“Sure thing.” The first man nodded to his friend, who reached inside the two-seat cockpit and flipped a switch. The top half of the narrow front end unlocked and opened a couple inches.
Grey pushed it the rest of the way open and leaned inside. “If it’s the propulsion that’s giving you issues, it could be that the fuel intake is loose or sprung a leak. If you’re lucky, it’s just the regulators that came loose. These older models will sometimes shut the whole thing down when that happens, but it’s an easy fix. If you’re not lucky-” He trailed off as something sharp pricked into the small of his back.
“I’m afraid you’re the unlucky one tonight, friend.”
It was the man who had called him over. Grey could see the waist of the other man through the opening in the hood; he was still standing next to the vehicle. Keeping watch, no doubt.
“That a knife?”
“Carbiron. Sharp as hell. Last truly expensive thing I purchased for myself, but you’ve got to spend money to make money, right?”
“I’ve heard the saying. I take it you want my chits?”
“Whatever loose ones you’ve got on you. Then you, my friend and I are going to take a walk down to the withdrawal station and pull out whatever’s left.”
“Alright,” Grey said. “Easy. You’ve got the knife, right, let me get my money.”
He reached slowly into his right pocket and felt around. Pack of cigarettes. Small sack of chits. Distinct lack of lighter. He found what he was looking for and clenched his fist around it.
He moved fast for a stocky man, faster than his mugger expected. Grey pivoted towards the man’s left side. The knife dug a shallow groove across his lower back – it was sharp – but failed to inflict any serious damage. Grey’s left elbow smacked into the other man’s right arm, knocking the blade away. Grey’s right fist, tucked inside a set of dark blue metal knuckles, crashed into the man’s cheek, collapsing the bone and sending him into a crumpled heap.
The second mugger came around the landhopper with a massive wrench in hand. Grey side-stepped a massive swipe of the tool and ducked another. The banded knuckles found their mark in his attacker’s side once, twice, and he could hear the ribs breaking. The wrench dropped to the ground and the man who had held it followed suit, landing on his knees.
“Pal, this is going to suck for you.” Grey bounced the mugger’s head off the side of the vehicle with his knee.
He stepped quickly away and surveyed the scene. Two prone would-be attackers, no witnesses that he could see, no cameras in plain view. He reached back and touched his wound. It stung, and his fingers came away red and sticky, but it didn’t feel serious. He had certainly been hurt worse.
The wrench went back into the cockpit. The knife went into his pocket. His hands went into theirs and came out with a bag full of chits and the keys to the landhopper.
Grey dragged both unconscious men behind the vehicle. Once he was sure they were both out of sight of the street, he keyed his com bracelet and waited impatiently for the call to connect. When Ark’s voice finally came through into his ear, it took his remaining patience not to raise his voice.
“Grey,” his friend said. He sounded breathless. “What’s up?”
“Where the hell are you?”
“Ah, zast. I was supposed to meet you for drinks. You remember that blonde from Bordega’s?”
“I do remember the blonde. Do you remember how to make a damn call to let me know you’re not showing up so I don’t waste my time in a dive bar by myself?”
“You say that like dive bars aren’t fun.” A pause. “Everything okay?”
“Uh…” Grey looked at the two men. The one he hit in the face was snoring, almost certainly with a concussion. The other one was groaning softly from the fetal position. “Yeah. More or less. Hey, you know anybody that can strip a skipper down for parts with a quickness?”
“Hold on,” Ark said. Grey could hear him moving around wherever he was.
“Do you remember this one’s name?”
His friend responded in a hushed tone. “J something. It starts with a J.”
“You’re terrible, Carnahan.”
“Jessica. Jerrika. It’s Jerrika. What’s this about stripping a skipper?”
“Do you know anyone who can do it quickly and get a good price for the parts. Actually, never mind the price. I’ll know if the price is good. Do you know anyone with a chop shop?”
“A legal one?”
“Did you just leave a girl’s bedroom so you could whisper-ask me if I wanted a legal solution? I’m going to pretend you knew what I meant and you go ahead and answer accordingly.”
“A chop shop on Beldus. I don’t know if I know… oh, yeah. You want me to send over the contact information?”
“I want you to get you to introduce him to me personally.”
“And bring some bandages.”
“…what did you get yourself into?”
“You’d know if you had bothered to show up tonight. Are you coming or not?”
“…yeah, I’ll be out of here in five.”
“Take fifteen. I’ll move the thing and send you an address. Give Jessica my regards.”
“Just testing you, buddy.”
Grey ended the call and stepped around the two muggers. The one with the busted ribs was just getting to his feet; Grey gave him a light tap in the side just to send him back down.
He moved around the landhopper and closed the engine hatch. The driver’s seat was more comfortable than it should have been, given the shape of the rest of the craft. Maybe he could fetch a few chits for those on their own, which was more than he’d planned for them. He made pains not to bleed on the cushions.
The ignition key slid in without protest. The propulsors worked fine. In fact, they hummed like they had come off a skipper ten years younger. Even better. The night wasn’t turning out too bad after all.