It was somewhat surprising to find a silver-haired human woman sitting in the window seat – 13F – aboard the red-eye shuttle to Hekayt Prime.
Vechkov Prague, holder of the ticket for seat 13E, rubbed at the salt-and-pepper stubble bristling from his pudgy cheeks as he waited for the Lotorian in front of him in the aisle to finish stuffing a fabric-walled container into an under-seat compartment.
Finally, the Lotorian loped back to row 15 and settled into his own seat.
Prague tugged on the brim of his battered brown fedora before easing his girth into the assigned seat. He gave the elderly woman a polite nod of acknowledgement and then proceeded to fidget with the safety restraints.
“Are you going to Hekayt Prime on business?” the old woman asked, her fingers laced together as she leaned toward him with a friendly smile.
His eyes narrowed in the shadow under the brim and his mouth tightened in a faint frown. Vechkov Prague preferred to time travel on trips like this by way of napping. Often, he had the alien language barrier to fall back on as a reason not to attempt communication with his fellow passengers. He didn’t have that luxury now. The best he could hope for was a rapid resolution to the small talk.
“Business, yes,” he said.
“Oh, that’s very nice,” she said. “Where are you from?”
A shrug. “Lately? Comorro Station. Originally, Ungstir.” He suspected that she came from the same fragment of the multiverse that Prague and thousands of others fled during the Kamir rift crisis three years ago. He didn’t ask, though. Best to just let the conversation die, he thought.
“Oooh, Ungstir,” the old woman replied. “Good rugged folk come from there. Miss it?”
“More and more all the time,” he said.
The Lyiri flight attendant closed and locked the shuttle’s forward hatch. He heard the soft whine of the spacecraft’s engines as they warmed up for launch.
“What’s your line of work?” she asked.
Prague rolled his eyes. She wasn’t going to make this easy, was she? “Detective,” he replied.
“Oooh,” she said, brightening further. “That’s interesting! Are you going to solve a mystery on Hekayt Prime?”
“Something like that,” he agreed. In point of fact, he had been hired to assist in the investigation of the recent tampering that had taken place on the Hekayti colony world of Ashkodt, which resulted in an entire generation of Emergent colonists rebelling against their programming. The accused culprit, a Gankri, claimed that he was an Outverser and, despite this seeming impossibility, had passed a lie detector test.
The shuttle started lifting off the deck of Comorro’s docking hub. “Are you a Christian?” the old woman asked, matter-of-factly.
Prague’s eyes widened. His mouth twitched. He could stomach a bit of small talk, but he didn’t think he could tolerate sanctimonious religious blathering. That was a road best left untraveled. Only unhappiness awaited the woman if she pressed. He let his eyes gaze up and down the aisle, hoping to find an empty seat that could grant him safe harbor, but the flight was full despite the late hour.
“Come on,” she urged, resting a wrinkled hand on his arm, “it’s a simple question, isn’t it?”
He shrugged. Then he pulled his arm free to start patting at his trenchcoat pockets, hunting in vain for a pack of cigarettes that he knew he wouldn’t find. Not that the crew would let him smoke, if he could. The shuttle’s thrusters fired, carrying the ship away from the Yaralu on a trajectory and growing velocity to make the transition from sublight to OtherSpace.
“If this shuttle explodes, you know, the Christians go straight to heaven,” she said. “If you’ve been saved, you can join the rest of us in the sweet hereafter.”
The detective grunted. “I’m sure you’ll do okay without me, then.”
“Oh, you’re an agnostic, then? Or,” her voice dropped to a whisper, as if speaking the word might be a sin, “an atheist?”
His normally abundant patience was quickly evaporating. “Ma’am, really, this isn’t appropriate. All that matters is I’m a fellow passenger who just wants to get to his destination in peace.”
“Aren’t you worried about saving your eternal soul?”
“No, not really,” he said. “I’d rather just keep it out of trouble to begin with.”
She gave him a sad, pitying look. “I’ll say a prayer for you.”
“Hey, if it makes you feel better…”
“I just hope it does some good. If we die between here and Hekayt Prime, I don’t want you to go to hell.”
Vechkov Prague wanted to keep his mouth shut, but he knew that the woman wasn’t going to relent. She wouldn’t be satisfied until she dragged him kicking and screaming toward salvation. It wouldn’t surprise him to learn that she was en route to Hekayt Prime to introduce the hooved blue-skinned savages to the glories of Christianity.
“Lady,” he said, “I’ve been tossed in time and space from one millennium to another. My homeworld got blown up by the Nall and then the leftovers got a few blows from the Phyrrians. My home *universe* started falling apart thanks to the tampering of ‘god-like’ aliens using powers they couldn’t control. Now I have some kind of deluded holy roller on my ass about saving my soul. So, let’s get something straight: If there is a God, I don’t think he’s even got my forwarding address, let alone an insurance policy to get me into some mythical holy fish bowl. I don’t think he’s got a plan. I think the crazy old bastard’s just winging it like the rest of us. If we’re going to be saved, we have to save ourselves. That’s the way it’s always been. That’s the way it’ll always be.”
Her mouth pinched tight, but then she managed to whisper: “I feel sorry for you.”
“I sleep okay at night,” he said.
The shuttle’s faster-than-light drive kicked into gear, hurtling the vessel along the knife edge of time and space along a tunnel of coruscating blue and white light.