As he descended the shuttle stairs onto the tarmac, the thick foreign sun and humidity smacked Draughton in the face. The boozy sweat came off him in a thick oil and the smell of ozone sizzling off the hot compilers tickled his nausea. From across the hot black airfield legions of insects fucking in the of the noon sun hissed from the tree line. The jungle swayed in the blurring heat.
Albus, the researcher, had been following him since discovering another Common-speaking human on the flight out to the edge of the civilized galaxy. He hadn’t stopped talking since.
“The biodiversity humans have propagated among the galaxy is really quite astonishing. We like to think that we had the genome figured out in the ancient days, but the alleles brought out by our disparate planets has been nothing short of remarkable. There are some, like that damned Kreigerson at Oxbridge, that theorized there are some confluences that exist in different parts of the galaxy. That oaf probably still leaves cookies and milk for Santa! Ho ho, how that got a rise out my colleagues, I’ll tell you. I, sir, am a realist, dealing in actual tangible evidence. I am out here writing my newest dissertation, intending on interviewing and studying the populace to prove that there cannot possibly be some sort of ‘magical link’ despite what these heathens think.”
“Fascinating,” said Draughton, dropping the buttons on his shirt and adjusting his sunglasses. He had been half paying attention for hours, but the professor’s insistent ramblings began to wear on him. He spent most of his attention inspecting the faces of the passengers disembarking the shuttle, trying to read their stories. One man was on business. One woman was a native. Why had she come back? No military training on any of them, Draughton was sure, but they were stern folk. They didn’t come to the edge of civilization without a purpose.
Draughton felt a sharp bump on his left side. A kid with thick black hair and tanned skin ran past him. The kid looked back and flashed his bottle green eyes back at him with unwarranted spite before he disappeared into the mass getting off the shuttle. Draughton had a strong sense that the boy didn’t fit in with what he pictured local Kong Gongese to look like.
It suddenly occurred to him to check the time they landed, but when he lifted his wrist to check his watch he only saw a tan line where his watch had been. “Little bastard,” he said.
“Indeed,” continued Albus. “The inner workings of culture and biology are tricky, but we must brave the waters nonetheless. Be wary of these magic sayers, lad. They’re snake oil salesman and cold readers.”
Draughton couldn’t help agreeing with him, but the entirety of his focus had become finding the boy with his watch. He hadn’t recognized the kid from the shuttle, so he must have been an urchin that had a method of sneaking in and swiping off bewildered travelers. Without bidding adieu to the still chattering Ablus, he allowed the crowd to pull him, but he kept an eye on his flanks to see if the kid would slip out.
They were herded through devices scanning for foreign materials and into customs. They were awaited by guards in white uniforms bearing the White Fire sigil. They didn’t stand like deadly cold soldiers; instead they seemed like restless youth, filling out time on a day job. Draughton assumed they were hired from locals and given White Fire credits supplied by imperial tax dollars hidden behind arms deals. At their sides were leashed insectoids the size and presence of hounds. Vibrating fans protruded from the sides of their long heads scanning the air for bombs and drugs. Draughton shook his head. As if this was where the drugs came in.
The dark man behind the glass’s eyes were glazed with boredom and fatigue. His circular glasses were smudged and his white uniform was wrinkled and sweaty. “Bassport,” he said.
Draughton handed it over without a word. The man held it against a scanner and the machine let out a tired beep. “And what ye doon here, Mr. Ulysses?” said the agent.
The fake name almost made Draughton wince. “Textile trade,” he said with a genuine sense of displeasure for bureaucracy. “Staying at a hotel with a business contact.”
The agent eyed him silently. “Don’t look like a textile trader to me.”
A chill ran through Draughton but quickly a torrent of frustration mixed with the nausea of space travel washed over it. “The fuck does a textile trader look like?”
The agent took off his glasses. “Not like you. And I seen a lot.” A tense moment bounced between their eyes. In one quick movement, the agent stamped Draughton’s passport. “Honestly man, I don give a shit. Just don go gettin killed out here. Bad for tourism and police gotta waste time lookin for de body.”
Draughton snatched his passport back. “Thanks, chief.”
The agent nodded, but never broke eye contact. “Next,” he said loudly.