The waiting lounge was cold. There was little ornamentation here, and the only concessions to comfort were plastic seats on metal bars that were bolted to the floor. A massive window made of transparent alloy showed the traffic out in space, convoys approaching and leaving.
Tim sat on one of the plastic seats and fidgeted with the hem of his robe. He felt tired and worn, a long way from home, and unsure of where home was at all. Every now and then he would get up and pace around the place, staring out the window at the nothingness beyond, or look down the corridors to the people passing by in distant lives and alternate timelines. Everything passed slowly here, in the waiting lounge.
There were no holoreels or any other entertainment playing. This was a place of empty waiting, not of recreation. Other lounges had more ornate decoration, but they cost more and, to Tim, were pointless. As barren as this place was, for the kind of trip he was on - heading back broke from unsuccessful seminars, and nursing a broken heart - it was the only valid option for him.
A sound, a small growl, startled him. He looked to the source and saw that an old man had taken a seat at the edge of the row. The man held a hand in front of his mouth and cleared his throat again, a deep, phlegmic rattle. He didn't appear to have noticed Tim, and sat quite still in his seat, staring out through the window.
Tim, a little unnerved at not even having heard the man sit down, wondered whether to approach him, then decided against it. He turned away and began pacing about again, when he heard the man say, "You going to mope around like that all day?"
"What?" Tim said.
The man, without turning his head, said, "I don't even have to look at you to know you're wearing a hole in the floor. Sit down before you lose your legs."
Tim walked over to him, not sure whether to answer with indignity or politeness, when he noticed that the left side of the man's face was overtaken by an implant.
The man followed his gaze and said, "Ah, hell. Don't you look at this as a handicap. My vision is fine."
"What happened?" Tim asked.
"Life happened, son. It gets you that way. Sit down."
"Thanks. Not that I'm your boss, but I don't much care for looking at the stars while someone paces about behind me like a wild animal on the prowl."
"Sure," Tim said, still trying not to stare.
"Braten," the man said.
"Braten. Braten Fahr. It's a traditional thing, where I give my name, and you give yours in return."
"Oh. Yes, of course. Tim. Shema."
"Pleased to meet ya, Tim," Brater said and extended a hand, which Tim shook.
"Likewise," Tim said. Now that he'd had a moment to get accustomed to the situation, he felt a lot more comfortable. This was just some old man, waiting for his ride on one of the cheap flights. Nobody here but him and Tim, and somehow that made the solitude even more apparent. He probably wouldn't have spoken to this man under normal circumstances, but in this time and place, his gruffness seemed quite appropriate and not at all confrontational.
They sat in silence, looking out at the stars.
Eventually Brater said, "I'm an old man. Don't have long to live now. So I can wait around spaceport lounges if I damn well please. What's your excuse?"
Tim thought about this, then said, "There was this girl..." He let the sentence hang in the air like a war-torn flag.
Brater's expression softened somewhat. "Everything starts that way, doesn't it?"
"Yeah. I suppose it does," Tim said. There was another a pause while they watched a spacecraft fly by, headed for the docking ports.
Tim added, "I've been on the run for a while now, though I really don't know what from. Just general running, I suppose. And recently, I met this very nice woman called Liandra." He sat back in his chair, sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. "First time we spoke I got a few words in before a friend of hers came over, another woman, and threatened to have me murdered. Turns out they were both kill agents."
Brater laughed, a deep, quiet rumble. "That's sticking your head in the fire."
"Yeah," Tim said. "I went my own way, didn't think much about it-"
"Liar," Brater said, not unkindly.
Tim stopped, hesitated. "Well, all right. I thought about it for quite a while. How'd you tell?
"You seem a decent fellow. Too nice for your own good. You mull over things, I'll bet."
Tim sighed. "I suppose I do. You're the same?"
"Nope," Brater said and grinned. "But I can recognize a moper from a mile away."
"So what happened?"
"I met her again a few days after," Tim said. "Or, rather, she met me. Without her friend, and looking a fair bit more relaxed than when I first met her. She asked if she could join me for coffee, and I said yes."
"Where were you headed, at the time?"
"Into low sec areas. I work for a non-profit organization. A bit of missionary work, a bit of social improvements."
Brater looked him up and down. "You're certainly dressed the part. Those heathens you were converting, not much for showers or washing machines?"
Tim laughed. "No, I suppose not. I have this tendency to let my appearance slide, too. Sometimes it's just too much effort."
"Washing yourself is no effort at all."
"That's what I'm saying," Tim said.
Brater stared hard into his eyes. "Hard to get up in the mornings sometimes, is it?"
"You said it."
"And you daren't stop once you've gotten moving."
"Precisely. Hence my career," Tim said. It felt good to talk about the depression, he found, especially to someone he'd probably never meet again. "I have to keep moving. Doesn't matter to where, just so long as it's away."
"Including your girl."
"... eventually, yes. It didn't work out," Tim said.
"So I gathered."
"She's a wonderful woman," Tim added. "But she's driven and smart and has this hard, hard core that no one could penetrate. Or, not me, at least. And even though I'm no slacker, she couldn't stand how I never seemed to put any work into myself. She's not unsympathetic. But I think that when she saw other people buckling under the weight of their problems, it was a constant reminder that the same could happen to her."
"So was it worth it?" Brater asked.
"I don't know, man. I don't know," Tim said.
"That means it was," Brater said.
"I don't-... well, you think?"
"Sure. Few things are good through and through. It's all experience in the end."
"I don't know," Tim said again. "I think love can leave a sting that lasts a long time. It can leave you worse off than when you started."
Brater shook his head. "It doesn't. That sting you feel isn't because you fell in love; it's because you were reminded how bad off you were before love took you in its arms for a while."
"Even so," Tim said. "All it grants you is a momentary feeling that's surrounded by numbness both before and after. Isn't the numbness preferable? Just like when you're drowning, you just get real peaceful and calm."
Brater gave him a strange look, then turned his head away. He inhaled, as if to say something, then slowly exhaled and simply said, "No."
A buzzing sound emanating from the distance became a little louder. A second later there floated overhead three small drones, each the size of a fist. They were on security patrol, although they didn't actually have any offensive capabilities. Smaller drones had existed for years, as toys and such, but the larger type was a novelty, a side product of the recent advances in invention. They were being tried out as remote-controlled security monitors, the idea being that their human operators could get closer to hot zones in this manner than regular security cameras allowed, and that you'd be more likely to behave properly with the possibility of these things swooping in to taser you. While they were being tested out, though, the drones would do nothing but fly around, floating on their own currents and look more menacing than they were.
"My wife drowned," Brater said.
Tim stared at him. "Shit," he said at last.
Brater replied, "Oh, I don't think she did that. It'd have embarrassed her half to death." Then he added, "Don't look at me that way. I'm the one who lost her. I'm allowed to make bad jokes."
"What happened?" Tim asked.
"Accident. Sailing trip, which I normally detested, but we'd won it as some huge prize and the wife was all agog to try it. Biggest company on the planet was a sponsor, big hullabaloo, cameras all around. When the time comes, we're all packed and taking the steps aboard, there's a misfire in one of the ship's engines and it jerks away from shore, tearing up the boarding walks and dropping us into the sea. The luggage falls on top of us, along with the boarding walks, keeping us from reaching one another. I clamber up and start yelling for people to get my wife out. Then the stupid idiot moron captain compensates for the drift by firing up other engines and moving the ship closer to harbour, not having realized that there was still someone overboard. Eight thousand tons of deadweight pin my wife against the harbour wall, crushing the life out of her. And all the while, dozens of cameras are shooting her last seconds alive, with millions of people watching. Someone reaches the captain and screams to him to stop the ship, so he fires up the engines again and tries to turn it away, but the engines need time to turn and all they end up doing is providing one final push that makes my wife vomit her guts out into the ocean, before the ship drifts away, leaving her to sink in a fading red pool."
Tim, flailing for logic, grasped the one detail in this story that his mind would let him comprehend. "Why'd you detest sailing trips?"
Brater snorted. "Because I've been a ship captain all my life. The sea's not a place of vacation to me."
"What is it, then?"
"The beginning and end of everything," he said without pause.
Tim said, "Well ... I don't know. I'm sorry to hear about what happened, really sorry. But that sounds stupid to say, and I'm sure you've already dealt with it in your own way."
"True enough," Brater said. "Company gave me a huge settlement. With the media angle it was the only thing they could do."
"Money wasn't all that much compared to what they could've coughed up, but still a fair size. One of the largest corporate payouts ever given."
"But the grief-"
"And not only that," Brater continued, "But they offered me any kind of perks I could want, including rides back and forth, new and experimental equipment, anything I asked."
Tim raised his hands, palms out. "All right. All right. I'll choose my words carefully."
Brater grunted a reply, then looked down at the floor.
At first Tim thought the man was subtly hinting at the end of conversation, but then he saw his eyes follow some movement, and followed his gaze.
On the floor, floating around and over their feet, were cleaner bugs, tiny robotic beetles that swarmed over all public surfaces. Each beetle had feelers that allowed it to home in on dirt and various pieces of gunk. It would hover over the detritus and use a combination of fire and tiny pressure pumps to crack it into pieces, which it would ingest and use to fuel its process. The bugs were cheap, easily mass-produced, and accepted even by insectophobiacs as an inescapable part of station life.
Tim saw two dozen such bugs move around in Brownian motion, trawling over the dirt left by his shoes, and erasing it as one might erase pencil lines on paper. He moved his foot a little to let them at more of the dirt, but in doing so inadvertently stepped down on one of the beetles and crushed it.
"Damnit," Tim said.
Brater smiled, the first time Tim had seen him do so. The old man's entire face went all wrinkly with the expression, as if it had long grown used to emoting strong feelings.
"Figures," Tim said. Brater nodded.
Tim said, "Look ... I feel stupid now, having told you what I did. I know it's not the same, breaking up with a girlfriend as losing one's wife of many years."
And Brater said, "No, it's not. But it hurts you all the same. Don't ever compare your pain to that of others. It isn't made any less or any greater by comparison to theirs, and in its proper context it's just as bad for you irrespective of what others may be going through." He looked out the window. "And the sea washes all things away, in the end."
Tim said, "You were a captain. You still are?"
"Nah. The money from the settlement was enough to retire. I still love the sea. I just can't stand to sail on it, at least not on the same ocean that-... well, yeah."
"So what're you doing here, away from the sea?" Tim asked.
"Oh, it's here," Brater said. "Trust me. You just don't see it."
Tim looked at the old man, and the old man looked right back at him. The ocular implant on Brater's face came into terrible focus.
"New and experimental equipment," Tim said in a dead voice. "Including modified implants."
"There are waves everywhere," Brater said, quite calmly.
"But you might have gone blind, or mad! Unlicensed modifications are incredibly dangerous! How could you?"
"How could I not? Aren't we both sailing into oblivion?" Brater waved his arm expansively, his sweep arcing from the beetles on the ground, to the drones in the air, and the ships floating around outside. "And we float on the waves. Everything we see, everything we know, it floats on invisible waves. We create these things to sail them, these things that allow us to navigate the dark seas of emotion, but they're only temporary; they sink, they cast us off. But the sea, and all that it is, the sea remains."
Tim, open-mouthed, could only shake his head.
Brater smiled again, and clapped him on the shoulder. "I don't expect you to understand. Not yet, at least."
"So here you sit, watching the invisible waves."
"That I do," Brater said.
"Do you pilot your own ships?"
"No, no, not anymore. And not in this place. I have enough money to buy me passage on convoys, and that is enough. I may imagine I'm piloting them, but no more than that."
"Convoys? But most of the ones here are going into insecure areas."
Brater nodded ."As am I."
"But that's incredibly dangerous! They get shot down all the time!"
The old sailor gave him a look that he would never forget. "Yes," he said. "They do."
They stared out at the stars, watching the invisible waves, until the roll call sounded, and each departed for his cruise.