Day 3. 25 pages, 12,667 words.
Lotus sniffed as she walked up the ramp and through The Happy Bumfuck’s high arched doorway. “How does it still smell like horse – excuse me, Centaur – in here?” she asked.
“You should have smelled it when I first got it,” Çrom joked, then grew serious. “But no, what it actually smells like right now is cows. I transported a breeding pair for a commission a few months ago, and the smell got everywhere. They weren’t literally actively breeding while I transported them,” he felt the need to clarify, “that’s just-”
“And what did Clem use this hopper for, before you agreed to take such good care of it while the Centaur faked their extinction and ascended into space?”
“Smuggling, and impressing girls, mostly,” Çrom settled into the comfortable pilot’s sling and leaned back against the cushion he’d affixed there for back support a Centaur didn’t need. “Sometimes smuggling and impressing girls, if you know what I mean.”
“I don’t know what you mean, and I don’t believe pretty much anything you’ve told me about this hopper,” Lotus declared.
“I’d started to get that impression from the sarcastic way you asked every question so far.”
“I also don’t think this hopper would be a particularly effective girl-impressing vehicle,” she added. “I, for example, am underwhelmed.”
“The accessories required to impress girls are significantly reduced when you’re a Centaur to start with,” Çrom admitted.
Lotus shook her head and settled into a couch near the pilot’s sling. The couch made a blumpf kind of noise and a musty but blessedly non-cow smell wafted across the helm chamber. “I think you stole it,” she said, “and the missing plating and muck-caked panels are intended to mask its appearance from the authorities.”
“If I was going to steal a step-hopper I think I would be able to find a nicer one than this,” Çrom said primly. “And besides, stealing from a Centaur is not advisable.”
“My theory doesn’t actually require a Centaur to be involved,” Lotus said levelly.
“Huh,” Çrom considered this for a moment while the engine cycled up and the computer wove a flight plan through the convoluted public network and checked all the administrative approval boxes. “Bit of a boring theory, then, isn’t it?”
He glanced sidelong at the professional life-ender – who he was now apparently employing on a per diem basis for the price of whatever she happened to scavenge off him after his death – in time to see her visibly give up on ever finding out where The Happy Bumfuck had come from. It was a distinct facial shift if you knew what to look for. Clem had referred to it as Skellignation.
He also glanced at her in time to see her seeing him glance.
Lotus flashed her yellow snaggleteeth in a grin. “How long will this take?”
Çrom consulted the computer. “Three hours to the jungle, then probably two more at the Questioners,” he said. “After that…” he curved his hand forward and swooped it down with a descending whistle. “Into the fire.”
“I don’t imaging descending will be a problem,” Lotus said dismissively. “Will this thing even start?”
“It’s started already,” Çrom protested. “Now you’re just being mean,” he tapped at the controls, studied the runic navigation markings and touched them in sequence. The hopper’s engine kicked into jump-pitch – vub-vub-vub-vub-vub – and the sling juddered under him. “It got me here, didn’t it?”
Lotus made a polite gesture with a gnarled hand, inviting him to proceed, and Çrom bounced them into the air with a groan from the grav compensators. They ascended into the sky and manoeuvred into the flight lanes.
For a while, then, they flew in silence. Çrom turned on the entertainment system and let two seconds of Spundic transnuke noisecraft blast through the hopper, then switched it off with a grimace.
“So you really do avoid your fellow eternal unfortunates,” Lotus said. She didn’t place a bitter or otherwise sardonic emphasis on unfortunates, but Çrom conceded that she didn’t need to at this point.
“It’s not like they’re hard to avoid,” he said. “There’s less than a hundred of us in the entire Corporation, if you don’t count the Gods and the Demigods and the undead and the other near-mortals.”
“And you don’t count any of those,” Lotus said.
“Bah, why would I?” Çrom waved a hand. “Rabble, the lot of them. Drop dead as easily as taking off a hat,” he chuckled. “Hell, you killed three Gods yourself.”
“I’ll try not to take that personally,” Lotus remarked.
“Good. I’ll try not to get upset at your implication that I stole this hopper.”
“I didn’t imply it.”
Çrom laughed. “I guess you didn’t. But no, I don’t mix with them. They’re crazy. That’s kind of a job requirement, really,” he returned his attention to the helm. “In fact, you probably know more of them than I do.”
“What about Sabata Ramae?” Lotus asked. “You know her, don’t you?”
Çrom turned and frowned at her, a chilly weight settling on his intestines. “Who?” he asked, more out of instinct than anything else.
“Strangle,” Lotus said, as he’d known she would but had hoped against hope she wouldn’t. “Polettemy Strangle.”
– Posted from my Huawei mobile phone while sitting in the carpark.