The Story

Chapter 1: The Box

Johnny ran his thumb along the worn edge of the countertop as he gazed out the window of the courier hub. The demand for their services had all but slowed to a halt since the last announcement and he watched as people went about closing up the other shops on the strip.

Those wealthy enough to leave had done so weeks ago; when news first broke of the black hole rapidly expanding on the edge of the Taurus Galaxy. The black hole was now a mere 500 light minutes from their own planet: Tehren Delta, well within reach for an full extinction event.

Johnny Omo
The Courier Hub

For those like Johnny, the hope of making it out on one of the jump gates relied solely on a government mandated lottery, a 1 in 100 000 chance of survival, a cruel joke for the roughly half a million citizens still stuck on Tehren Delta, 5 people would make it per month, for the rest of the citizens they largely went about their lives like normal, the lottery being little comfort to the unknown doom presented by the black hole. After all this time science had done little to fully understand the mysteries and mechanics of the space oddity. They stood at the edge of darkness, the void now clearly visible through their planet’s atmosphere, a gargantuan terror eating at the horizon.

A poster for the Jump Gate Lottery.

The bell above the door to the shop broke Johnny’s daze with a clatter as three men walked in, the center figure holding a medium-sized courier box. The box was a G-11 Tech Case, a fairly inconspicuous courier box with mid-level security and an external power supply. The man placed the box on the countertop and slid forward his credit pass with an already completed waybill slip.

The G-11 Tech Case

Johnny tapped the credit pass card against the cash register and watched as 50 000 (enough to pay his rent) credits went off: priority shipping, and a blacklist redactor against the sender. Unusual at the best of times, damn right suspicious in these end of days. Johnny’s introverted nature kept his gaze hung low as he slid the credit pass back across the countertop, watching as the sender scooped it up, his hand displaying a large scar stretching its width.

One of the figures grumbled something indistinct and the brief encounter was over, the three men turning sharply and once again breaking the silence as the small brass bell rapped against the frame of the door.

Johnny studied the waybill and was relieved to see the parcel needed to be delivered to the industrial complex, an area he knew well. He set the tech case aside and began to enter the waybill details into the old beige computer sitting on the edge of the countertop. He lent back in his chair for a moment, the computer buzzing away as it processed it data, noticing how some of the letters had rubbed off the keyboard and scratched at the “L” which was already half missing.

Johnny had been manning the courier shop alone this morning, his colleague Jen, was running later than usual and when she came up behind him; having entered the shop through the back staff entrance; he almost fell out of his chair. Jen laughed as she apologized, her smile making Johnny look down again, his cheeks warm as he blushed.

The G-11 Tech Case was strapped to Johnny’s backpack with its integrated carabiner hooks, the weight of the box pulling his posture upright as he unlocked the chain holding his bike to the lamp post outside the shop. He checked that the address was displaying correctly on his GPS and slid his foot into the pedal, pushing it forward to break the momentum and gain his balance on the bike. Johnny had been working at the courier hub for a little over a year and in that time had learnt the streets of New Pax, the Capital City of Tehren Delta well. He hopped off the curb and into an almost empty road, his job had been made easier over the last few weeks as the amount of traffic on the streets had dwindled as more and more of its citizens had fled the planet.

Johnny’s Bike. A “Shifter” from Axis.

The GPS bolted to his handlebars gave its next command and Johnny obeyed, his bike functioning like an extension of his body as the streets tumbled behind him, the whirring from the wheels against the tar a rhythmic hum. The massive tower of the space elevator leading to the jump gates acted as an easy navigation point for the citizens of New Pax, always present, always looming as it disappeared up into the atmosphere, a man-made arrow pointing towards New Pax’s guest, the black hole slowly expanding and inking out more and more of the sky.

“In 500m you will reach your destination on the left” the command of the GPS kept Johnny’s mind on the task at hand. He pulled his bike up outside what appeared to be an abandoned building, the old sign with its russian style lettering spelling out “Volkov Shoes”. His bike still between his legs, he shimmied it forward towards the gate which was pulled back off the sidewalk, noticing for the first time the large lock and chain wrapped around the gate. He yanked at it hard but to no avail, it was shut and had been for some time by the looks of it. He peered up towards the building, looking for any sign of life before hollering “HEY YO, DELIVERY!” and banging the padlock against the gate.

He thought back to the charge for the case, the priority delivery and the three men who had brought it into the shop. He didn’t welcome the idea of returning back with the parcel and having to explain to anyone why the delivery hadn’t been completed. He hollered once again, but the cold concrete of the building remained unreceptive and stood as still and quiet as before.

Johnny gripped the gate with both hands, pulling himself up onto the cross bar, his shoes uneven across the chain. He took a quick look around and once confirming no one was watching, hoisted himself quickly over the top of the gate and down to the other side, the courier case on his back jolting hard against his spine as he landed.

Knocking on the door of the building caused it to open slowly, revealing a clearly abandoned lobby in front of him, the front desk adorned with the remnants of a large pot plant and lots of loose papers. No one had been here in months and he wondered if perhaps the address had been marked incorrectly on the waybill. He kicked at an old carboard box angrily and watched as it shot across the floor kicking up a small puff of dust behind it. He turned to leave the lobby and pulled the door closed behind him, his frustration causing it to slam harder than he had intended.

He looked at the gate and prepared himself to once again go up and over, only to be interrupted by a single beep from the case on his back. Swinging his pack around, the G-11 Tech Case now hung in front of him, a message displayed on its small LCD display “ERROR ~ LOCK DISABLED “.

In the silence of self-reflection, Johnny somehow knew that this would be a defining moment, the decision to click the lid back shut, or to look inside swirled in his mind. His better judgement at war with his desires. His fingers moved almost without permission, their own quest for information as inquisitive as his brains’, the idea met movement and he swung the lid up and open.

For a moment, confusion met wonder, his mind trying to process exactly what he was seeing, mainly because he had never actually seen them before and yet he simultaneously knew exactly what the box contained. Next to an A4 sized manila envelope, lay two key cards. Not just any key cards, tickets for the jump gate. A guaranteed way off Tehren Delta, a way to escape this planet and its imminent doom.

Suddenly the world around him felt very small, his senses felt heightened as the hair on the back of his neck stood up, a flush of goosebumps sweeping down his arms. Johnny knew that he was immediately both incredibly lucky and in extreme danger. Jump gate passes were no longer just a way off Tehren Delta, restricted to the elite. They were now near impossible to arrange for even the mega-wealthy and the stories associated with their black-market trading were well known, with many high profile socialites having met their demise trying to procure them.

He knew he had to act fast and as he went back up the stairs into the shoe factory, he was already undoing the carabiners to remove the case from his backpack. He placed the case on the countertop, being careful not to let the lid accidentally close, his forefinger wedged beneath it. Reaching inside he grabbed the two cards and the envelope, now for the first time noticing the name written on its front: “MR P SIMO ”. Opening the main pouch of his backpack he placed his newfound treasures inside, zipped it back up and turned to close the lid of the G-11. The lid shut with a mechanical click and once again the LCD display lit up, this time displaying “ACTIVATE LOCK ~ PUSH ENTER”, Johnny tentatively pushed the button beneath the display as it beeped and changed “LOCK ENABLED”.

Johnny sat on his bike, the vaulting of the gate an unimportant step in his fast-paced thoughts. The way he saw it, he had two options; go back to the courier shop, enter an uneventful delivery into the computer and see what would happen next or try and disappear, take his chance, and get off this rock while the opportunity presented itself. The decision felt impossible, both opportunities riddled with anxiety and fear, maybe he should just go back inside and leave the pass cards with the tech case, avoid the very real danger that came part and parcel and just try and forget the whole situation.

He had been so caught up in thought that he failed to notice an old sedan pulling up behind him, the sound of its closing car door eliminating the idea of taking the pass cards back inside. No matter the choice to come, there was no turning back now. Johnny slid his foot forward on the pedal and accelerated away before doing a loop back to return the way he had come, the man from the vehicle unlocking the chain on the gate to the shoe factory.

Chapter 2: The Gambler

Peyter looked down at the small holo-screen on the table, his run of good luck continued as the three cards in his hand combined with those on the screen to make a flush. Tossing another handful of chips onto the pile he was confident and called. He smirked gently, just enough to make the other players uneasy, the short greasy man to his left folded, as did the man wearing the glasses opposite him. Peyter had been on a roll for a few weeks now, his gambling habit helping to supplement his dead-end job at a local diner in downtown New Pax. He had discovered he had a natural affinity for the game and had become a regular at an underground spot beneath one of the neighboring shops.

He was taken aback when the rather non-descript man to his right said “raise” and pushed a small stack of chips towards the middle of the table. Confident in his hand and not to be out done, Peyter repeated the phrase and pushed his own stack of chips towards the now substantial pile in the center of the table. The man scratched his fingernail into the table as if in worried contemplation as he stared at Peyter; “raise”. The word struck Peyter with surprise and he swallowed hard, the subconscious action giving away more than he liked, this was not how he liked to play, he preferred to keep things small and tidy, less risk.

Most of his weekly wages already sat on the table, backing out now would be disastrous, but going forward would mean an even greater risk. “Call”, his voice was unsure and Peyter pushed the last of his chips onto the stack. The man sneered, revealing his moniker, three golden teeth; “raise”. Peyter was in disbelief, he was dry, he was already all-in. Peyter looked at the man, starting his sentence calmly at first, but quickly losing his composition as reason turned to panic, the man had little interest “house rules, you play, or you lose”, his words tore through his sneering mouth. “Perhaps a proposition?” the man began; “You win, you take it all, I win, you do me a simple favor”. Peyter knew better but also knew he had little choice, he agreed, his confidence now long gone, his strong hand all but forgotten. The man stood abruptly, the sound of his chair grating back along the floor, his cards thrown to the table revealing the perfect hand, a royal flush.

Peyter sat on the edge of his bed, he looked to the clock on his cluttered bed-side table, forgetting that it had been flashing 12:00 for the last few days. His bed had been occupied for several hours, but it had served little purpose as he had been unable to find rest and what little sleep he did get, was haunted by the events of the preceding night. He picked up the small silver key and the business card, a 5-digit code, an address and a time scrawled on it.

“Ava, time?”. A woman’s voice sounded back to him “It is now 8:12am”, “would you like anything else Peyter?”. Shit! The word changing from thought to word as it left his lips, he was very, very late. The jeans and shirt lying on the floor would have to do, as he picked up his other boot he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror, he looked like shit and felt worse still. As he tied his boots, he thought about the man with the golden sneer. Had he always intended to end the game with the proposition? He grabbed his cellphone and jacket, his credit pass still in its’ pocket; “Ava, engage system lock, I’m going out”.

Peyter almost tripped as he took more steps than his legs were used to in his rush, he looked at his car parked out front, it had seen better days and he just hoped it would serve him without problem for once, its long list of faults growing every day.

The sound coming from the engine was getting worse and it shuddered as he shifted gears. He had no choice but to push the motor even harder as he tried to make up time. Racing through downtown and into the industrial complex, its wider streets more starkly empty than those of downtown New Pax, despite it being mid week. Peyter pushed in the clutch and let the car free wheel, the relief from noise, a moment to gather his thoughts, before once again letting the engine cough into action, its rumble seemingly linked to a rise in his own anxiety.

As he pulled up outside his destination, he wondered what this; “simple favor” would entail.
Peering out the side window, he noticed a large chain and lock around the gate of the building, his fingers naturally searching for the small key-shaped bump in his pocket.

Chapter 3: Decisions

Johnny pushed the button of the elevator again, despite desperate intention, repeated jabbing failed to make it come faster. His finger tapped subconsciously against the rubber grip on the handle bars of his bike, the pinging of arrival releasing his breath. Johnny went about the old exercise of getting both his body and his bike into the cramped lift, its scuffed panels showing that he was not alone in his struggles. Johnny had decided to stop at his apartment instead of immediately returning to the courier hub, a necessary detour to find a place to stash his dangerous cargo.

Moving with a combination of routine and new found reason, he lifted his bike up onto the racks of the graffiti adorned brick wall opposite the entrance to his apartment. The closing of its locks in exchange for the opening of the security gate barring the electronic door to his apartment. He touched his credit pass against the small panel to his left, almost everything in New Pax was linked to your credit pass and this was no different, a check being run to ensure his rent and duties were up to date. The door opened with a click and Johnny went inside, his apartment was small and mostly furnished with found and discarded items, but he loved it, each piece representing a story, a part of his life. He allowed himself to feel nostalgic for a moment, before crashing back to reality. “What am I doing”, “This isn’t me”, his mind racing once more, as he made his way to the small bathroom at the back of his apartment.

He almost slipped as he stood up onto the edge of the tub, steadying himself with one hand against the wall behind him, his other carefully lifting one of the panels in the ceiling. It was not the first time Johnny had used this spot and he placed the 2 key cards up into the dusty darkness above him. The manila envelope had bent while in his backpack, the one corner crunched up, reading back its title “Mr P Simo” he flipped it over, turning his attention to the flap firmly glued in place.

Picking at its edge carefully not wanting to damage the envelope, his mind still refusing to acknowledge full responsibility for the actions he had already taken. He thought about an old tactic his grandmother had used to remove stamps for her collection, he needed steam! Johnny flipped the switch for the kettle, the time it took to boil seemingly a life time. Holding the envelope over a bowl of steaming water he once again picked at the flap, this time its edge slipping open more easily, its glue softed from the heat and moisture of the steam. He removed a single page from inside the envelope, it seemed to be instructions of some sort.

Mr Peyter,

By now you have entered the code and are already aware of the contents of the box left at the instructed address.

You are to take the two pass cards and return to your apartment. At 12:30 pm you will hear a knock on your door and find a young lady with a small favor of her own.
This young lady; carries with her a parcel.
The two of you are to take the parcel and board the 11am jump ship leaving in two days’ time this Friday.
Do not otherwise leave your apartment, do not take any other action, and do not advise any other citizen on this matter.
Failure to follow any part of this letter will result in your termination.

Johnny lent back against the kitchen counter, the bowl of hot water still steaming in front of him. He read and re-read the letter several times mulling the words over in his mind. The tone of the letter was hostile, but then why was “Peyter” being given two pass cards, a seemingly great circumstance to be in. It was entirely possible that by now, Peyter had discovered the empty tech case, but without this page he would be clueless as to what to do next.
This meant Johnny had a little time, but the fact the pass cards were for a jump ship that only departed in two days worried him. Where could he be safe for two days? His apartment was surely compromised, the men would come looking for him at the courier shop and the next logical place would be here at his apartment. Johnny placed the page back into the envelope and resealed it as he walked through to the bathroom and the loose panel in the ceiling.

One again Johnny was tasked with a decision, he needed to make some sort of plan regarding the courier shop, by now Jen would be worrying about him and the last thing he wanted was to draw her into this mess. He sat for a moment, his long exhale of breath audible in the otherwise quite apartment, he suddenly felt exhausted, the events of the morning feeling like a heavy weight pushing against his chest. Another long exhale and a realization that each moment sat here in self pitying contemplation was a moment wasted. A moment closer to danger. He needed to take action.

He pulled up at the back door of the courier shop and was about to tap his credit pass to get inside when he had a thought about the trail he was leaving behind him and how they could possibly be able to trace him. He locked his bike up out of site and walked around to the front of the shop, his hoodie pulled up in an attempt to cover as much of his face as possible.

This time it was his turn to disturb the little brass bell, Jen surprised to see him coming in through the front, “Everything okay?” she asked, seemingly aware of his situation. Had the three men already been here? Were they already looking for him? “All good in the hood” his response no different to any other day, “anything happening this side?”. “Nothing much really” she replied, “although I swear I have seen the same black Audrio drive past several times, but it’s probably nothing”. Jen turned her attention back to the old computer on the edge of the counter, she was entering the details of another waybill, “this one’s going uptown to city center, you up for it?” “You really do look pale”. Another delivery was probably the perfect thing right now, business as usual and all that and maybe it could help take his mind off things for a bit.

Chapter 4: Consequences

Peyter Inserted the key into the lock on his second attempt, his first fumbled by his nerves. He unwrapped the heavy chains and set them aside as he pushed the gate open, the hinges squealed letting Peyter know that it hadn’t opened in some time. He leapt up the steps, two at a time and as he reached the door to the building momentarily questioned the fact that he only had the one key and it had already been used. He tried the handle and thankfully it opened, the lobby of the factory was cold and dusty, but the G-11 Tech case stood out like a sore thumb, the glow of its LCD display a beacon in an otherwise grey room.

4-8-9-2-1, he entered the code “LOCK DISBALED”. He opened the lid and peered inside, huh, the empty tech case seemed to echo the emptiness of the lobby. Confused he looked around him, was this all just a joke? Was the man with the golden teeth just messing with him? He noticed the scrape marks which had been left behind a box which seemed to have recently travelled across the floor of the lobby, had someone else been here? He turned back towards the case and looked at the loose papers on the desk, receipts, order sheets, the usual business fair. Then the worry sunk in, had he been too late, had someone else gotten to the tech case before him? Had the sneering man come here himself? Not knowing what to do next he sat down on the floor of the lobby, closer now to the ground he noticed scuff marks, foot prints? Somebody had been here!

Standing back up, he smacked at the back of this pants to remove the excess dust, he had no idea what to do next, he had no way of contacting the man and would only be able to go to the poker game again tonight to see if he could find him.

He returned to his car, praying it would not only start but get him back to his apartment. He turned the ignition, vrrrrt, vrrrt, the starter motor didn’t take and for a moment Peyter felt defeated. It had been a rough couple of hours and nothing seemed to be going his way. Turning the key a second time, the car came to life with a shudder “YES, you beautiful old girl!” He slipped the car into gear and with a stutter he was off down the street.
He was sitting stationary at a traffic light, when two Seeker drones came flying past, they were in hunt mode and the wash from their propellers blew the papers in the streets into a whirlwind of sorts, a flyer for a local church Peyter had heard about, momentarily coming across his windscreen. At least he wasn’t at the hunting end of the drones he thought, a silver lining for sure.

A New Pax Police Department Drone.

Peyter tapped the credit pass against the small pad next to his door and swung it open, “Welcome home Peyter” the familiar voice of Ava; his apartments AI was comforting. He took off his jacket, draping it across the back of one of the chairs in the kitchen and reached for the door of the refrigerator. In an almost entrenched ritual he peered inside, the light flickered, its glow shining against an old jar, a plate with some foil over it and a single can of Splash Cola, thank goodness for small graces he thought as he grabbed the can, the sound of it opening piercing the quiet of his apartment. “Ava, was there anyone here looking for me?” “Negative Peyter, is there anything else I can assist you with? “Not right now, thanks Ava.

Peyter flopped back onto his couch, his phone in one hand and the can of cola in the other, almost spilling as he landed harder than he had intended. It had just gone 11:30am and Peyter thought he may as well kill some time and check out what people had posted on the Pulse Network.
Flipping through the usual drawl of egirls, ads and Earth Prime remembrance clips, he yawned, the lack of sleep from the previous night clearly catching up with him. May as well take a nap, got a good few hours before I can get to the poker game tonight anyway.

Chapter 5: The Girl

The world was ending, panic stations, heart pounding. The banging against his door had absolutely shook Peyter as his dreams blended rapidly with the waking world. BANG, BANG, BANG it sounded again. Peyter sprung to his feet knocking the can of Splash Cola over, he paused for a moment, his mind split between the cola lapping from the can and the banging on the door. He quickly picked up the can and dragged a previously worn shirt over the mess as he advanced towards the door to see who was banging so furiously.

His mind shot to the man with the golden teeth, “They found me” he thought. “Ava, give me a scan of who is at the door” he whispered, Ava responded to his command and a holographic representation of a young woman was projected in front of Peyter. Certainly not what he was expecting. He stepped forward and pressed his face up against the door, its coldness felt stark against his flustered cheeks. “Can I help you?” his voice giving away far too much. “It’s Jessie, I was told to come here”, “Told by who?” Peyter responded, “I was told you have a favor of your own”, “it’s in my letter”.

“A favor of my own?” Maybe the man with the golden teeth had sent this girl with an update on what to do next. “Ava, unarm the door”, he opened the door and a young girl no older than 20 walked hurriedly into the apartment. For a moment Peyter was taken aback by her beauty, he turned to see her pulling a folded piece of paper from her backpack, she began to read:

Ms Jessie,

By now you have entered the code and are already aware of the contents of the box left at the instructed address. You are to take the parcel and return to your apartment. At 12:30 pm you are required to go to the following address:

122B, The West Tower,
242 Corinthians Road,

Knock on the door at precisely 12:30pm, not a minute earlier and not a minute later.

You will meet a young man, with a small favor of his own. This young man carries two jump ship pass cards.
The two of you are to take the parcel and board the 11am jump ship leaving in two days’ time this Friday.
Do not open the parcel. Do not take any other action, and do not advise any other citizen on this matter.
Failure to follow any part of this letter will result in your termination.

She looked up from the piece of paper, her eyes trying to get a read on Peyter. Peyter standing gobsmacked he blurted out “Jump ship pass cards?!?” What are you talking about? I don’t have any pass cards. I went to my instructed address and opened a courier case, but it was empty.

“What do you mean empty” “That makes no sense, the letter says…” Peyter cut Jessie short; “the letter says bullshit”, “I am telling you, I don’t have any pass cards, the courier box was empty!”.

Jessie slumped to the floor and began to cry, yesterday she was just having some fun and today she was in way over her head, threatening letters, extremely valuable pass cards and her mystery parcel. Peyter sad down on the floor beside her, not quite sure on how to console her.

Let’s start at the beginning he said.

To be continued…