by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Daily Science Fiction, August 2017
Chorif held out her upper wing, spreading her feathers to admire the rings and bracelets and pins she’d fastened among her pinions. Her wing glittered with gems from the ice asteroids around Tau Ceti and glowed with Erdidaniian opals. She looked like a queen, and she clacked her hooked beak happily.
All of the salvage crews based out of Crossroads Station had been searching for the lost High Royal Quejon’s vessel for months, but only Chorif had thought to seek out the uplifted lapine servant who’d run away from the Quejon and enlist his services.
For a split of the take, Roscoe had agree to come along with Chorif as first mate and provide useful pearls of knowledge. For instance, Roscoe had known that his previous master could barely drive her own spacecraft and had a superstitious fear of ringed planets and gas giants.
Following the nervous, long-eared alien’s advice, Chorif had piloted her salvage vessel along an extremely inefficient path out of the Crossroads Station system, missing out on all the potential gravity boosts, and finally ended up here: at a rogue, wandering planet in the darkness between star systems.
The High Royal Quejon must have crashed her ship on the dark planet and then abandoned it in an automatic homing escape pod. That meant, when the High Royal Quejon eventually made it back to her homeworld, they’d know where to look for the crashed vessel; its location would be stored in the escape pod’s data banks.
Of course, a sub-lightspeed escape pod with its passenger in stasis could take years to get home. Until then, only Chorif and Roscoe knew where the High Royal Quejon’s vessel had crashed… along with its cargo load of lovely, shimmering jewels.
Roscoe slipped several bangley gold bracelets over his long ears, and they settled on his head like funny, lopsided crowns. His nose twitched, and his fuzzy muzzle curled into a grin. “I always wanted to try these on.”
“The Quejon didn’t let you?” Chorif placed an actual tiara among the fluffy feathers of her head. This was the most fun she’d had with a salvage operation since she’d had the fortune of watching a baker’s catering vessel crash right into an asteroid. Aldebaran sugar tarts and Cygni flower bud eclairs, seven tier cakes, all of it delicious and all of it ruined — lightly smashed, but perfectly fresh. Of course, it hadn’t been at all profitable. But very tasty.
“I never asked,” Roscoe said, ears drooping over their gold adornments. “Never dared defy her at all until I saw the crowds on Crossroads Station — so many different alien species, all mixed up together, living as equals.”
“Some more equal than others,” Chorif chirped, admiring the gems dripping off of her upper wings again.
“More equal than on my homeworld.” The lapine draped a silver beaded necklace over his chest; it shimmered like a waterfall. “My species was uplifted from feral animals by the Quejon’s primatoid species; they evolved sentience naturally. And they’ll never let us forget it.”
“If they’re serious about joining the Expansionist Consortium,” Chorif cawed, starting to take off her jewels, “then they might. Why do you think the Quejon was bringing these jewels home?”
Roscoe shrugged his narrow, furry shoulders.
“She couldn’t buy her way in with them.”
Roscoe looked down at the gems and jewelry around him with a new expression. Quizzical. Uncertain. “You think the Quejon brought these to the humans on Crossroads Station to buy a diplomatic relationship and was turned down?”
Chorif pulled the last ring off her longest pinion and smoothed down her ruffled feathers. “That would be my guess.”
“The Quejon has never been turned down for anything…” Roscoe’s words were slow and reverent as he savored the idea of his former master being denied something she wanted, something she assumed she deserved.
“All right,” Chorif said, clacking her beak. “We’ve had our fun; time to put the jewelry away.”
“Do you have a buyer for it or something?” Roscoe asked, slipping the bracelets back off of his ears.
Chorif tilted her head, staring Roscoe down with her wide, round avian eyes. “We’re turning it in.”
“Wait, what?” Roscoe’s long ears stood bolt upright in surprise. “We’re giving it back?! The reward for returning it can’t be a fraction of what its actually worth!” He held a pawful of the bracelets possessively against his chest.
“It’s not,” Chorif agreed. “But my reputation is, and if I sell this stuff on the black market, I’ll lose my salvage license with Crossroads Station.” She held out her lower wings toward Roscoe, expecting the lapine to hand over his hoard of gold bangles.
Reluctantly, Roscoe handed the bracelets over, and Chorif packed them back into the cargo crate where they’d found them. She hoisted the repacked crate up with her strong lower wings and asked, “So is there anything else on this vessel of value? Any good equipment?”
Roscoe showed her around the small vessel, pointing out anything that might be valuable. None of it was. And soon the two temporary partners were back on Chorif’s salvage vessel, flying back towards Crossroads Station.
Chorif usually salvaged alone, so she was used to flying in silence. But Roscoe’s subdued demeanor seemed out of character after his earlier chattiness. Regardless, Chorif continued with the routine part of her work — piloting home, accepting a docking assignment from the colorful, broad-shouldered robot who appeared on the viewscreen, and then informing him of their successful find.
As the airlock cycled, Roscoe finally spoke: “You really trust the Crossroads Station government.” He was staring at her appraisingly, nose twitching intermittently.
“No,” Chorif chirped. “But this is my home, and working with them is better than the alternative. I know you just ran away from your entire life, but I have a life here. I don’t want to run away from it just because I found a box of sparkly gemstones.”
“You could be rich somewhere else,” Roscoe said.
The airlock finished cycling, and the outer door opened to the crowded docking quarter of Crossroads Station. Chorif hoisted up the cargo crate again with her lower wings. As the avian and lapine walked out into the crowds of all different sorts of aliens, Chorif gestured with her upper wings at the bustle and happy noise all around them. “Where else?” she cawed. “This is where I live. No amount of being rich is better than that.”
Roscoe hopped along beside Chorif. He wasn’t sure he agreed with her. He hadn’t been living on Crossroads Station that long yet. But it gave him hope about his new home that a cynical avian like Chorif loved it enough to choose principles over profit to stay here.