This is my submission for the Short Story contest. Many thanks go to Dotsent and Bob-Simpson for proof reading and valuable feedback, and to Shadow for pointing out some typos.
The airlock closed just as Mara strapped herself in. Next came the old, familiar shake of the docking clamps disengaging. This was harmless, but still, her stomach clenched; she knew what was coming next. The smell of old sweat and rancid machine oil didn't help in the slightest.
"You are aboard the shuttle to Nouveau Limoges." The melodic voice came from speakers just behind her ears, and everyone else's ears. Clearly prerecorded, nobody with such a voice would work in such a harsh environment. "Please put your head firmly against the headrest, and try to relax. Enjoy your flight!"
The acceleration built up slowly, pulling the tangled knot of worry in Mara's gut towards her back. When her CORETECHS showed 15 m/s² acceleration, she heard the hiss of micro needles injecting anti grav serum into everybody's bared forearm -- except her own. She hated those needles, but missing their characteristic tingle made her panic. "My injection's not working", she managed to croak, but of course, there was no flight attendant to hear her.
Damn those cheap flights with minimal maintenance! Damn her cursed little expedition!
She knew her accelerometer wouldn't go above 24 on this flight, so there wouldn't be any lasting damage, except to her pride. When the acceleration would stop half-way through the flight, keeping in her breakfast would be a challenge, and ...
"May I?" a voice interrupted her train of thought. The middle-aged man on her left had noticed her plight and offered her what looked like a pretty rare stim. "Yes" she managed, and a unit later a warm, fuzzy feeling spread through her. The knot in her stomach loosened. "Thank you". Speaking was easier now, but still, she concentrated hard on keeping it together.
The flight and visa check only took three segments, but Mara felt like it must have been at least half a day. She couldn't wait to leave the port behind and with it the awful stench of metal, sweat, and vomit.
Her plan had been to go explore the Museum or maybe the market, but after the draining experience of the flight, she went to Renoir Inn instead. Music drifted through the air, even the colors seemed friendlier, the scent more welcoming. No need to hurry, her hunt could wait.
"Perhaps something more abstract?" Julien Contraire asked, and ushered her into the next room. The arts dealer seemed genuinely excited to show her his finest pieces, even though Mara hadn't been able to articulate what she was searching for and her frustration was building up.
Still, she looked around and found a wide variety of abstract sculptures. Some scintillated or even glowed, others were made of a dull material which seemed to float in not-quite-regular paths inside an almost invisible enclosure.
Julien provided a steady stream of commentary on both the works and the artists behind them, which Mara mostly ignored while looking at each item in turn.
Then she started moving towards a sculpture in the far right corner. She had trouble describing it to herself, and yet it struck a nerve. It was about 40 centimeters in height. The bottom was made of stone and was a tree rooted in the ground. Towards the middle, it split into two flowers, which thickened at the top into round, lumpy shapes that made her think of two human upper bodies, hugging. The knobs that her pareidolia interpreted as the heads were bronze, and the transition between the stone and the metal was so smooth that it was impossible to see where one started and the other ended.
"You look like you found your answer before your question," Julien said in a serious voice, but the light shone in his eyes. This wasn't just a job for him, it was his vocation.
Mara wandered aimlessly through the station, depressed. She had known that art was expensive, but the full extent had shocked her. No way she could close that gap of seven thousand credits between the price and her budget, and certainly not in the two days remaining until her inevitable return.
Julien had seemed downright apologetic, and even explained some of the economics behind the art trade over tea. Long inventory life, unpredictable fluctuations in taste and high storage space requirements all demand a high margin per item sold.
Her options were limited. Her career wasn't too shabby, but it was a steady stream, no bursts to be expected. Selling valuable goods was preconditioned on having valuable goods. Taking a loan was out of the question, especially after the incident at the science fair. There are always illegal options to making money quickly, but if she was jailed instead of coming home with a present... Besides, you need to have trustworthy contacts to get something like this started. Sprit of Tianjin paid well, but her mind shied away, and there wasn't enough time to travel that far. This was not for her.
Her train of thought came to a halt as she was interrupted by shouts, a short cry of pain, and general ruckus. Her mindless rambling had brought her to the edge of Ruinville, and a quick climb onto a rubble pile gave her a good overview of what was happening.
A mere two hundred meters away, a slim and strong woman was running, hotly pursued by a squadron of armed security guard. Whenever the woman (whom Mara's CORETECHS identified as Jelena Starkiss, obviously a faked broadcast) approached a passer-by, she would take something from one of the two big bags she was carrying, and sometimes a security guard would quit the chase to interrogate the recipient of such an involuntarily received gift -- most likely to retrieve whatever loot Jelena had spread, not to record any evidence.
The strategy worked. More guards peeled off the chase, panting out of breath. Jelena's lead increased, and as she approached Mara, she jumped on the rubble pile, dropped a handful of stuff into Mara's hand, and calmly said "Happy Emberfest!"
"I'll give 400 credits for this one, and 450 for each of those", the unnamed trader told Mara as he pointed from one stim that lay on its own, and then to a small heap.
Mara had had no trouble disappearing in the general mayhem that was Jelena's flight, and judging from the news reports she had seen, the perpetrator had vanished without a trace. She darted two guards with a tranquilizer, used a technique described as "rapid, uncontrolled disassembly" to open a safe box, grabbed the contents and fled. Some mesh scrambling and strategic sabotage of equipment had kept the flight route clear, and the security cameras only managed to record a blur where observers had spotted Jelena.
The contents she had placed into Mara's hand turned out to be a variety of stims (the good ones, usually reserved for the military) and bond certificates. One of the stims would be in her pouch, just in case the return trip turned out as unlucky as the shuttle ride to Limoges, the rest she sold on the gray market -- it wasn't really a black market, the stims themselves weren't illegal, right? The source had been dubious, but Mara managed to conclude the transaction before her mind explored the morality in too fine a detail.
She had closed the gap! There were even a bit more than a thousand credits left, a welcome buffer for unforeseen events.
What a coincidence. The part of her that was always on the lookout for patterns made her consider if this was fate after all. Her rational part tried to quash the idea, and argued that noteworthy coincidences happened several times a day, and the sheer number of coincidences inevitably made some combination of events look connected. She had done the math, combinations of many possible variables led to large numbers very quickly.
Her more instinctive, older brain wasn't convinced and continued to drone on about fate. How inconvenient.
Tomorrow, she would visit Julien again, buy the sculpture, and take the next shuttle back to København.
Food and beverages on Nouveau Limoges were pretty good, and trying something new always made her meals more enjoyable. With a comfortably full belly and all the time in the world, Mara made her meandering way towards the Market and Julien Contraire's realm.
She was slightly worried about carrying so much cash around, but given its origin, she also didn't dare to take it to the bank. In just two segments, she would be carrying a beautiful sculpture, a symbol of her and Amy's relationship, which would be just as valuable, but far less attractive to mischievous strangers.
The first sign of trouble was a notification from her CORETECHS, "mesh signal lost." This never happened in the more habitable parts of the stations. Next, she noticed two burly figures in long coats who had another, familiar-looking person between them. That third person wasn't happy about their presence. Mara heard him whine "I told you I don't have the money", which the two thugs simply ignored.
Mara's first instinct was to call for security forces, but it seemed the thugs had jammed all mesh connections in the area. She hadn't been noticed, so yelling for help would neutralize her only advantage. She had no weapons, nor any skills for using one.
At the same time, she tried to remember why the victim seemed familiar. Her CORETECHS were not helping. Was it one of the art dealers? Somebody from the Museum? The inn? Port? Shuttle? Shuttle! That's it, that was the man from the seat next to her, who had helped her with the stim when the anti grav injection had failed.
Meanwhile, the three people were closer, she could hear them more clearly now.
"That wasn't very smart, running away from Xi. We'll kill you, and the cost to replace your clone is higher than the twelve thousand you owe him."
"And then we'll find you again, and kill your next clone, and we'll repeat that until you've had enough, and finally see that it's cheaper to buy your debt than buying more clones"
"I have no clones left." There was desperation in this last sentence.
"How careless of you." The other thug spoke, and there was no mercy in his voice.
Mara heard the ring of a blade being drawn and stepped out of the alley.
"I have the money, let him go." Mara was surprised how steady her voice sounded, and how little doubt she felt that she was doing the right thing.
The airlock closed just as Mara strapped herself in. This was the return shuttle to København.
Mara didn't dread the journey. She had the one remaining stim in her hand, just in case another injection failed.
There was no sculpture in her bag and no surprise gift for Amy.
In retrospect, the whole adventure had been a fool's errand. Did she seriously think that a beautiful work of art would have helped if their main tension was Amy's drive to explore new things, while Mara preferred to stay at home? Nothing could stop Amy from joining the Tanegashima Fleet, and the quarters there were too close to bring a sculpture.
Instead, this one time, Mara could be the one to tell the story of an adventure. Maybe a shared story wasn't such a bad gift for her adventurous lover.