“Shall we start?” Rishi asked, extending his hand with the medal.
“That is one of the sad ones.”, Akira replied with an empathetic smile.
“See the MM? That medal belonged to Minato Maldoran, which was, among other things, part bartender, part mechanic on one of the few outposts near the border of the high-risk frontier. Some people resented him but I still think he was a kind soul.”
“Well, well, long time no see.” said a deep voice near the door.
Turning around, still holding a couple of stools, Minato’s eyes opened.
“Don’t tell me you don’t recognize an old friend.” the man insisted.
“I’ve told you I’m not your friend.”, Minato replied.
“Nonsense, we went to hell and back, more than once. If that doesn’t make us at least friends, I don’t know what does.”
“We wouldn’t have been in hell if it weren’t for your schemes.”, Minato replied while putting down the stools and cleaning his hands.
“That’s all in the past. You know I changed my ways. I got my own ship now.”
“I heard, Candle something, is it?”
“Torch, Torch of Ulysses, he was an epic hero, you know? Man, you spend so much time thinking about a name that strikes fear and commands respect, and then you get this type of reaction.”
“Fine. What brings the captain of the famous Torch of Ulysses to these parts?” Minato asked, picking up a big box of bottles.
“Where else could I come in search of the best mechanic in this region of space?”
“If you are flattering me like that, you want a discount, right? He will not go for it, you know? He may be Ustur and try his best to empathize with whatever sob story you may have prepared but he is no fool.”
“No discount, no sob story, I just need a few upgrades.” said the man, handing over a list.
“Well, you will have a problem with this last one, the scanner. It is very very hard to get a hold of, around these parts. We only ever installed one since I started here, it was not too long ago but the whole process of ordering parts and crafting the rest took months.”
“I won’t hide the disappointment but in that case, I won’t be needing the other upgrades, they were a package deal. Without the scanner, I might as well refuse the job I had in mind, you don’t hire a miner that doesn’t have a shovel, right?. Thanks for nothing, I’ll try my luck somewhere else.”
It was almost closing time and one last customer was taking too long to finish her last drink.
“You can look at it all you want, it’s not gonna drink itself.”, Minato said.
“I’m sorry, time just flew by.”
“It’s ok, I’m just messing with you. Don’t get me wrong, I do want to go home but there’s not really anything waiting for me there so, I’m in no hurry. Zulro, isn’t it? I’ve seen you around a couple of times. And I definitely remember working on that Jetjet outside, a machine of beauty, and the sound, oh that engine. Must do a mean G count leaving a planet, yes?”, Minato said, sitting on the stool next to her, both staring out the window, side by side.
“Yes, it’s a hell of a takeoff. And it is Zulro indeed, the best explorer you may ever meet, at your service.”
“Nice to meet you. Now, do you want to tell me why the drink is taking so long?”
“Let me guess, someone ripped you off and you are afraid it may damage your reputation as the next explorer I may ever meet? You do know that is probably the most common story around these parts?”
“Something like that.”
“It’s ok, a couple of minutes ago I didn’t even know you. But I can assure you, I’ve heard worst around here.” Minato replied with a gentle smile.
“Even getting paid in empty boxes?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean they knew I wouldn’t check them all. I figured I could trust them since they were the ones that suggested I open them before accepting payment. Big mistake, I was going to use that payment to purchase a nice plot of land in the ONI inner regions. That dream now postponed indefinitely, my foreseeable future is to work to repay the expenses of the mission.”
“I may be able to help you. There is a contract pending that just come in for a deep-space survey for mining deposits. It’s a long mission but the payout is rumored to be pretty big. I could send you their way and you may still get that plot of land after all, what do you say?” Minato asked, still looking out the window.
“I suppose you want a generous finder’s fee without having to risk your neck.”, Zulro replied.
“No, not really. I do need the money, but I’ll work for my dream and I’ve been recently reminded that I have a lot of mistakes to make up for. You know, my family is currently contractually bound to work for one of those vertical farmers until I repay my debt. But one day I’ll be able to buy their work contract and we can go far away from all this.” Minato replied still looking out the window, searching the sky for his loved ones, a tear building upon a hidden corner of his eye. “Let’s make it this way, just pay it forward. You were tricked and your faith in your fellow freelancers is not the strongest right now but truth be told, we all need a little help to survive out here. I can help so, why shouldn’t I? Just promise me you will return and tell me how it went. And that if you are ever able to help someone else, go for it, they might be in a situation even worse than yours and you could change their lives forever.”
“Hi, I’m looking for Minato? Minato Maldoran.”, Zulro asked.
“He’s not in, he went on escort duty with one of our suppliers, should be back in a few days.”
“I see. In that case, I’d like to open a tab and a glass of something strong.”, Zulro said, paying an advance the minimum to open a tab. She took the glass and slowly took the very same stool where she once stood helpless. Looking at her balance where a huge amount of Atlas had been recently deposited.
“Got to admit, you really came through, the contract was legit.”, Zulro thought, holding a shiny medal with the initials MM: “It’s just a token, you might not even take it but it represents my freedom, the freedom you gave me. And I promise that once I have my plot of land, I’ll help you get your family back.”
She thought about leaving the medal with the bartender but decided to return in a few days to give it in person. Her reflection was interrupted by an incoming transmission.
“…Captain of the Torch of Ulysses, please reply.”
“Well, well, long time no see.”
“Not long enough. I thought you weren’t coming back after that incident with the ship upgrades.” Minato replied.
“I had to, how would I be able to repay you for what you did?”
“What did I do? You said you didn’t want anything.”
“You got me thinking and that alone is no small feat. You had installed the piece that I needed not long ago, probably for a regular customer since it took months of work. It was a long shot but I stayed around, hoping. And it paid off when I saw that beautiful Jetjet land. It had to be her.”
“What did you do?”, Minato angrily asked, “You are always scheming.”
“Well, not gonna say I used an illegal move as I want to keep my captain license but I used a dark grey tactic, yes, I sent a distress signal and all worked out perfectly.” the man bragged.
“You are not going to get away with this, that is illegal and her ship parts are traceable you know? They will find you.”
“That is why I’m here. To make sure no one tells them to start looking too much into it.”
“I will make sure you pay for what you did!”, Minato replied furious, feeling guilty for convincing Zulro to try to help whenever she could. She was now dead because of him.
“Well, it would be a shame if that happened, I would never be able to give you the exact amount that you need to buy your family’s contract and a small plot of land very far away from my sight.”
The realization finally dawned on Minato. He was needed to cover up the entire operation from the very start, even the request for the parts, a scouting method to see which mechanic knew someone with the appropriate parts, and a reminder of old wounds in need of healing.
“Think of your family Minato. Reporting on me will not bring her back so why not make the most out of it?”
A single tear rolled onto his cheek from his wide-open eyes, a mixture of sadness and guilt for what he did and, most of all, for what he was about to do. Extending his hand in silence he received the promised amount of Atlas and a letter.
“This was on her body when we disposed of her, it had your name on it, why not give it to you… Goodbye old friend, hope to never see you again.”
Minato took the small medal that was inside and read the letter, “Thank you Minato, you changed my life. Take this medal as a symbol of the good that people can do when they trust each other, I’m proud to call you my friend.”.
“Minato kept the medal throughout his life and lived the rest of his days trying to make up for Zulro’s fate. We will speak of him again but that is the story behind that medal.” Akira said.
“I’m lost for words. How sad.” Rishi replied.
“Yes, yes it is. We can try to find comfort in the life his family had after that incident but Zulro was someone’s daughter. I even tried to track her descendants but I couldn’t, as far as I know, her family might have ended with her death.”
“Please, tell me more of what happened to them.”, Rishi asked.
“Some other day. I need a moment to regain my own faith in humanity.” Akira replied while looking into the fireplace.