Above the airlock, in at least twenty different human and non-human languages, a faded sign read, Management Not Responsible For Losses Due to Depressurization or Alien Interference. Fergus Ferguson considered, not for the first time, whether the life choices that had brought him to this place had been entirely sound. Here he was in yet another unreliable tin can, far from anyone and anything familiar, in a half-devoured solar system on the edge of the galactic spiral arm. He always could have stayed home and raised sheep with his cousins.
Closing his eyes, he tried to imagine living his entire life on a single hillside when he could barely stand to stay on one planet more than a few months at a time. Even his dream—apprenticing himself to a Tea Master on Coralla, spending the rest of his life in peaceful contemplation on those perfect white sand beaches—was almost impossible to imagine actually doing. I have, he thought, made a decent career out of chasing things and running away.
And Cernekan was somewhere he'd never been before, somewhere new. There was always that.
The car's ventilation system choked out wheezing gasps of stale air in between death rattles. Fergus's feet were sweaty inside his magboots, and the seat's safety harness, built for smaller bodies, pressed relentlessly down on his shoulders through his exosuit. What starlight graced the interior of the cable car was little more than thin, angry half circles in the distance where the glare managed to steal around and through the narrow gaps in the sunshields.
The cable car lazily spun its way along the cable as Fergus clutched his worn travel pack to his chest. The dark rock ahead of them wobbled erratically in space, a convincing illusion when the car felt mostly stationary. Only the faint downward pull toward his seat confirmed his opinion of who exactly was the body in motion.
Craning his head around as best he could in the iron grip of his seat's safety harness, he glanced out the pitted window, wondering how far the cable car still had to go. He sighed; the car was barely halfway down the line.
Turning back, his eyes met the sharp gaze of the old woman sitting on the bench opposite him, his lone fellow passenger. Her exosuit hood and face shield had been folded back, much like his own. She was tiny, with bone-white hair and sharp, almost violet eyes that were unusual in a typically wan spacer face. The bulky arms of the seat harness engulfed her, as if she were slowly being consumed by the car itself. A grandmother-eating bench, he thought, smiling at the ludicrous thought. The bane of little old ladies in space.
Space aged people quickly, especially out here where radiation shielding, vitamins, and decent medical care were phantoms at best, and the woman was not so much shrunken as gnarled, like her body had been distilled down to the bare but formidable essentials for survival. Fergus had to believe she'd already far exceeded the typical life expectancy of the junk merchants, rockcrappers, and fugitives that made up the human population near the Gap, where stars thinned out to nothing between the galaxy's arms.
Her side of the small car was filled with crates, tucked behind portable webbing to keep them from drifting. With the jostling of the car along the uneven cable, he could only imagine the damage they'd do to anyone trapped helplessly in their seats if they weren't secured. He wondered what was inside—a thousand knit children's hats, teddy bears, or awkwardly sized blankets crocheted from spun recycled plastics? He caught her eyes again, and by the slow deepening of her expression, he knew she had not missed his idle stare.
"I'm sorry," he said, trying to cover his rudeness. "You reminded me for a moment of my mam—my grandmother."
"Are you implying that I'm old?" she said.
He blinked, nonplussed. "Um . . . I . . ."
The old woman cracked a smile. "I'm guessing you're not from Cernee. Where you heading?"
Surnee? Fergus wondered for a half second until it clicked: Cernekan. "I'm heading to Central," he answered. "Is it always this bumpy?"
"Gets better from Mezzanine Rock," she said just as a huge jolt threw them both upward against their harnesses and was slow to return them. "Lines are smoother farther in."