Neighbors.

Something fragile exists in the minds of people. Some delicate thing that, after exposure to living, sometimes cracks, sometimes shatters into pieces. The result can be entertaining, frightening, or simply sad. This isn’t exactly an uncommon occurrence either. Hell, it’s possible that it happens naturally, to everyone, at some point very early in our lives. We emerge from a warm, dark place, into a chaotic opening filled with bright lights and all sorts of smells and sounds that are constantly changing, and we cry out. It’s at that point that that tiny, fragile component of our minds gets its first crack. That first, ‘Holy shit, reality!’ reaction that we all have in our infancy. Then another cracked individual tries to comfort us.

Later on we meet our neighbors, other cracked individuals. People walking around with their own cracked little bits rattling around in their dome, sometimes a little more or sometimes a little less than others. In the case of Ahamad Cleaver, those bits might have been bouncing around up there a little too long, and rattled more of his other bits loose.

“Meat! You get the blade!” Cleaver called out over comms as I jumped in on his location in Sukua.

He was ready. Someone passed the word that he was being hunted, so he didn’t wait a second before turning his nose around to put full guns to bear on me.

“I get to taste the blood! Hahaha!” He continued.

I can admire a multitasking pilot. Just so, as he had rounded to face me and I had already been warming up his shields with some heavy pulse blasts, I dropped chaff to throw off his turrets and the gimbals of his large forward cannons while boosting and pitching down to drop beneath him. Before the long snout of the Anaconda sped by above my canopy, I enjoyed the light show that my chaff put his weapons into. The thing looked like an inverted and deformed discotheque.

Near midpoint I switched off flight assist, and pitched up hard. The Vulture went belly to belly with the Anaconda as I sailed beneath and cycled through his subsystems to find the power supply. Once the Anaconda’s jet wash appeared, I switched FA on, spun around, redirected power from the engines into the Vulture’s systems and weapons, and pulled the trigger. The shimmering blue sphere around the Anaconda vanished around the same time my kill warrant scanner gave me a full readout. Then I shattered Cleaver along with his Anaconda, completing what had started with the tiny crack in his mind so many years ago.

The bounty was confirmed in a few minutes from the ship’s registry, and I received a message from my contact back in HR 7327 to come in for payment. That money would be waiting for me, so I decided to spool up the FSD for a flight over to Wang Base and have a look around.

After stopping off at the Federation liaison to get paid for the bounty the Feds had on Cleaver, I wandered the halls of the strange little mining station for a couple hours. I passed by a few little ‘closets’ that were marked NO ACCESS, and which seemed fit my earlier suspicions; comms relays slapped together by a minor faction to make some cash on the side. Those that weren’t guarded or manned had decent quality biometric security in place. I found much of Purple Legal’s corporate center accessible, though I managed to push my curiosity a little too far and got the attention of corporate security as I tried to get into a few areas I wasn’t allowed. Still, much of what I saw I assumed typical of your back-door dealing with the Federation that a lot of corporates do—all of which right under the nose of the Federation offices located aboard this otherwise ‘unsanctioned outpost.’

As it was getting late, I decided to stay over a night on the station so I stopped off at a dive near the hangar deck. Describing the little dive as narrow might not give an accurate enough description. A bar with half a dozen stools sat on the left side of the elongated room and two, two-person tables occupied the right wall. Through the middle of the room ran an aisle big enough for one person to walk down. At the far end, directly opposite the entrance, a tiny steel, vacuum operated toilet in a small closet. Both tables were empty, and only the first and the last stools at the bar were occupied.

I sat myself at a stool keeping an empty between myself and an old man who occupied the very end. He sat with his arms crossed on the bar and hunched over with his head dangling above his drink. Wild, white hair stuck out the back and sides of his head. He looked like a cross between one of those fuzzy troll dolls and a perpetual motion bobbing bird trinket. When I sat down, his head rolled up in a wobbly motion. He looked at me briefly and then the weight of his skull overwhelmed him again, forcing his head back down into its low bobbing. Behind the bar a handwritten sign read, ‘Dinner special, 9 creds.’

When the bartender made his way over to me, looking as though he’d just woken from a long nap, I pointed at the sign and said, “I’ll have one of those, and a beer.”

The slow moving man turned, opened a small refrigerator, slid out a meal tray, then shoved the tray into a tiny oven directly beneath the sign and pushed a button. He stood there for the duration of the heating process, then put on a mitt, pulled out the tray, and dropped the dinner special onto the bar in front of me. After blinking a few times he seemed satisfied that it met with his approval, so he removed the mitt and walked back down toward the other end of the bar.

The meal tray was your standard packaged dinner. Upon peeling the sheeting off the top, steam scented vaguely of carrots, meat, and rice rose up from the four cubes inside. Another dark thing, that was either chocolate or a refined, perfectly cubed turd, complete with bright yellow peanuts sticking out of it in places sat in the final square. After sticking my nose closer, I still wasn’t quite convinced. During the inspection of my meal I heard a sharp slap from the other end of the bar and when I looked up the bartender and the man sitting near the entrance were staring at each other, the latter looking somewhat crestfallen while rubbing his cheek. The bartender then slid open an ice chest from which he retrieved a large frosted mug and pulled a beer from the tap while staring at the other customer the entire time. When he returned to me he set the greenish yellow beer next to the tray and said, “Fifteen.”

I reached for my tablet and found that the old man had moved to the adjacent stool and was staring at my tray, waiting patiently until I swiped payment. The instant the payment cleared he leaned in close, “You gonna eat that brownie?”

“Be my guest,” I said, picking up the brown cube and handing it to him.

After finishing our meals he remained on the stool next to me, staring at me and occasionally and making mumbling noises with the intonation of questions. If I looked over at him he’d stare for a few seconds then let his head drift one way or another, looking away. I noticed his empty glass, so when I ordered another beer for myself I bought him a fresh drink. He didn’t smile. He simply stared at me and said, “You’re a good neighbor.”

A few minutes into the drink he seemed to loosen up and started holding forth. “Had a good neighbor, once,” he said, “when I was a kid growing up on Andrews in Pauahtun.”

I looked over at the old man, his torso hunched over the bar again, his head bobbing. He spoke as if he’d told the story to his drink a hundred times; a drink with now only a quarter remaining. From the other end of the bar came the sound another slap and we both turned to look at the bartender and the other patron staring at one another again. But the old man’s voice continued as if nothing had happened, “My folks had a small farm there that me and my brother worked with my folks. We didn’t make much money, but our neighbor had a much bigger farm. More successful. He was a good neighbor.”

I signaled for the bartender to refresh the old man’s drink. After he finished and returned to the far end of the bar, the old man unsnapped a belt pouch, pulled out an old multi-tool and set it on the bar between us. “One day, when we were kids, my brother and I were helping the neighbor for a little extra pay. But that day he gave each of us boys one of these tools. The neighbor takes us aside and says to us, ‘These are for the preparatory.’ Some years later, one of the auto-combines on our farm broke down, so my brother and I went out into the field to fix it. We each pulled out our tools. His was ruined, some of its components broken and missing. Mine was still nearly new. I’d worked on just as many things as my brother had, but he used his differently than I did mine. My brother died when we was teens. He used his differently than I did mine.”

He stared into his drink again for a few minutes, his head bobbing, then he slid the tool over to me, “I’m done with it now. You need it to build your house. It’s for the preparatory.”

The old man wobbled as he got to his feet and swallowed the remainder of his drink. He stumbled over to the stool he had originally been sitting on where he’d left a bag sitting on the floor. After digging around in the bag for a few seconds, swaying back and forth, he pulled out a pistol, put the muzzle up under his chin, and sprayed the wall with his brains. The impact left cracks in the paint.

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