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An Excerpt from Tangerine by Wodke Hawkinson

The next morning, Ava went to The Galaxy Eats for a real breakfast. A jump site offered a better menu than an outpost or long ship since it had access to a greater supply of fresh food. She decided on a variety since it might be awhile before she again enjoyed the luxury.

“Scrambled saurus ova, two links of sea sausage, and a fruit tart with fluff. Um, also, real dairy milk, I don’t care what kind. And papiform tuber, fried,” she ordered. The service bot whirred away to the kitchen.

“Oh, and black, Jaruvian blend coffee,” she called after the mechanical server, causing it to spin in a circle before resuming its way to the kitchen. She would take a plate back to Pisk, but wouldn’t order it until just before she was ready to leave. Relaxing, she stared around the interior of the café. Unable to compete with the natural display outside its doors, the café owners had left the furnishings rather plain. White tables with black chairs were scattered around the room. The walls were adorned with assorted vids showing unusual collections of galaxies, nebulae, solar systems and more. But the real attraction was above. The café ceiling was a huge telescope, focused on far space. The seats reclined so diners could view the amazing array of stellar bodies on display.

“What looks good?” Needle surprised her as he dropped into the seat across from her.

“Well, hey there!” she exclaimed, sitting forward in her seat.

Whirring gently, the service bot sprung to the table.

“I’ll have the same thing she’s having,” Needle said.

The bot moved away, then back, confused.

“I mean, I will order the same thing this lady did,” Needle clarified, forgetting how literal the instructions sometimes needed to be. Otherwise, the little auto-waiter might deduce that Needle would be sharing Ava’s meal.

“I was robbed last night,” Needle said as the bot moved away. Ava’s eyebrows shot up. “I’m not usually so easy to jump but I let my guard down. Someone bashed me good.”

“Are you hurt?” Ava asked.

“I’m better today, just a little sore.” Needle fingered the tender spot on his head. “But they got my coat. Lord, I hate losing that coat. I’ll kill the son-of-a-bitch if I catch him.”

Ava gave him a questioning look. “Over a coat?”

“It wasn’t just any coat; that coat was a one-of-a-kind. A few years back, I was visiting a buddy at his ranch on Austillopia. He took me out hunting bolcalf. He even filmed it, laughing and saying it was so I could view it in my later years, when I’m stuck in a rocking chair and no longer able to travel. Anyway, one shot out of the scrub and lunged for me. I brought him down, but it wasn’t easy. Lance, my buddy, ran me through the steps, and I skinned it and tanned the hide. The next time I was in the Zygorian system, I took the hide to a master tailor and had it custom made into a coat. It’s priceless to me.”

“It was a beautiful coat,” Ava agreed. “You must be heartsick.”

“And mad as hell,” Needle affirmed.

Their conversation was interrupted by the arrival of their food. Steaming plates were set before them by service bots that whirred away almost noiselessly. Once the bots retreated, Ava and Needle closed their eyes and assumed Reflection for three seconds before picking up their utensils.

“You know, I wouldn’t mind hanging out with you on Tangerine if you don’t mind,” he said, as if on impulse. “I enjoy visiting uninhabited planets and seeing new plants and animals. It would be a kick.”

“I wish you could,” Ava said. “The thing is I can’t guarantee your safety. I know, I know. You’ve survived exposure in the past, and it probably would be safe, the emphasis being on probably. My preliminary findings indicate no presence of the toxin, but they’re just that, preliminary. We have discovered that Dalph’s Bane migrates. Almost like a living thing, although as far as we can determine it is non-living. But without exception, a large portion soon congregates along the equator.”

Ava broke to take a few bites before continuing. “Actually, that’s how I’m able to manage so many test sites by myself. If I don’t find it along the equator, I can be relatively certain it is nowhere on the surface, although I still analyze all quadrants of each planet. Some of my work is duplicative because the protocol is thorough. Oddly, the toxin tends to concentrate in sedimentary rock formations. The reason this occurs is presently unknown, but it does make my job a lot easier by narrowing the field. Of course, testing for toxin is only one small part of my assignment.”

“It sounds like a full-time job to me,” Needle said. “What else is involved in your work?”

“Sampling,” Ava responded. “I take biological and geological samples, and catalogue all my findings. In fact, I like that part of my job the best. I love the discovery of new species. Tangerine is full of interesting plants and animals.”

They chewed their food in silence for a moment. The ova were especially delicious, delicately cooked, light and subtly seasoned. Needle took a sip of coffee before continuing their conversation.

“What about the dark side? Will you do any testing there?” he asked.

“On non-rotational planets like Tangerine the toxin has never been found on the dark side; still, I will need to take samplings to be sure. Even though Tangerine has an atmosphere, the dark side is frigid and requires suiting up, so I’ve been putting it off. That’s where I’ll conduct the final tests before I conclude this assignment and move on to the next. It’ll be interesting because not a lot is known about Tangerine’s dark side, other than it is almost certain that the night creatures retreat to that area when sunlight strikes the planet’s surface during the day. Of course, as I'm sure you know, it's not technically 'day' since Tangerine's light and dark cycle happens because it's primary moon moves between it and its sun, rather than from rotation."

She raised her eyebrows at Needle, and he nodded for her to continue. "Sfera, Tangerine's smaller, second moon, emits a pale illumination so it won’t be entirely dark. I plan to study those creatures, even though it’s been determined by my superiors to be too dangerous. Far as I'm concerned, there's nothing to prevent me from exploring in my off hours. I believe the night creatures may be inactive during the day because of the extreme temperatures in the shadow. At least, I hope so!” She smiled.

She’s an adventurer, Needle thought, concealed inside a scientist. “Do they know where the toxin originated?” he asked, genuinely curious.

“There are some theories,” said Ava. “I have one of my own, but I don’t want to bore you with it. I’d rather talk about you. Tell me about your work as a searcher.”

“Not a searcher,” Needle corrected. “A searcher looks. He attempts to locate. I, on the other hand, actually do locate. Therefore, I am a finder.” He smiled at her to soften his tone. He really didn’t want to discuss his work with her. In fact, the pleasure of her company had distracted him from his true purpose, if only temporarily.

Needle instead regaled her with an uproarious account of the first time he had encountered a Migmallion figtooth on the planet Borsea, and the confusion that ensued when he mistook it for a harmless log upon which he could relax while eating his lunch. When their laughter subsided, Ava pushed her empty plate away.

A service bot immediately approached their table and intoned, “Your meal was satisfactory.”

The lack of inflection made it sound like a statement rather than a question, but Ava answered in the affirmative. She ordered food for Pisk and the auto-waiter delivered the small package within minutes. Ava extended her arm and the bot bio-scanned her wrist to debit her general account for the cost of the breakfast. Needle did likewise to pay for his.

Together, they strolled to Ava's ship, their arms brushing lightly against each other as they moved. Neither pulled away. Making small talk, they exchanged glances as they continued their companionable conversation. The attraction between them was undeniable, yet neither acted upon it. Before long, they reached their destination.

“Farewell again, Ava,” Needle said at the dock.

She smiled at him as she entered the lift to The Beti.

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