"I hate space!" I thought that to myself at least once a day during my days as an Astro-Cab driver. Sure, the idea of driving through the galaxy, meeting new people, and seeing all kinds of celestial wonders sounded like fun on paper, but that's only for those who get to drive in the better parts of the Milky Way. Me, I was stuck in the Tenderloin—the armpit of the universe. After a few years, I learned one thing: this galaxy is full of crazies!
You never know what you'll run into out here. On one occasion, I had a recently married couple in the back at each other's throats. They were Lagoonians: a kind of humanoid frog-like people with bright neon skin. Apparently, she could tell her new husband was cheating on her from the smell of someone else's perfume on his tympanic membrane. This resulted in an awkward and one-sided fight in my back seat. Typically, I would have pulled over and demanded that the two of them get out of my ride. But that's kind of hard to do when you're traveling at light speed through the far reaches of space. This job tends to be better when you're Earthbound.
A few hours later, I'm hauling some wannabe surfer dude (who looked like a cross between Lt. Worf and an iguana) stoned off his ass. His incoherent ramblings made me suspect he was on something dangerous like Stardust. Except that stuff doesn't usually make you vomit all over the back seat. That came out of my pay, by the way.
This was my life! Every day I would get into that little shuttle and just count the light hours until the end of my shift. Every second was longer than the last. Hauling ungrateful strangers all around the stars with no end in sight, so that I could pay less attention to the ridiculous rent of my studio apartment back on Mars. "Explore new worlds, become a new person!" the slogan said. Ditch Earth and start a new life in the stars? Sure! Seemed like a good idea at the time.
Although, it wasn't always like that. Before taking on the job, I had a burning desire just to drive away from it all and see the great Oceans of Europa. When I was a kid, my mother would tell me stories. She was a maintenance manager for an early colonial startup. Her job required her to travel to colonies all across the galaxy. She told me about how Europa's oceans are some of the most breathtaking sights to behold. They were a shade of blue not yet discovered in the visible spectrum, with waves that reached as tall as Earthly skyscrapers, and marine life that seemed pulled right out of a child's fairytale—and just as friendly.
She always told me she would take me with her on a job one day and give me a grand tour of all the fantastic wonders out there. Of course, that was before I learned the joys of personal responsibilities such as rent. Life can hit you hard when you're not looking.
As I got older, I entertained the idea of traveling the universe less and less. My dad fell into a deep depression and lost his job. He sent me away to live with my uncle on Mars when he couldn't take care of me anymore. And that's where I was for most of my life.
It was like any other crazy day. I was driving around this noisy teenager, yapping on her communicator. She was going on about whatever it is nowadays that gets the kid's blood boiling. Then, out of the blue, she turned her attention to me.
"My driver is such a downer," she said. "Here, let me send you a pic.”
She shoved her toy right into my rearview mirror and flashed a picture. I didn't bother saying anything. What could I say? If I did, she'd probably run to the nearest authority figure and whine about "emotional trauma" or something to that effect, and I'd get yelled at for trying to knock some sense into a clueless ditz. I didn't need any of that, so I just said nothing. Sometimes, that's all any of us can do.
At least her destination wasn't too far away. We arrived about ten seconds after she took that unflattering pic of my frustrated face.
"We're here." I said. The girl raised one finger at me as she stared obliviously into her tiny screen. "I have another passenger waiting!" I said, trying to hide my frustration. With a grumble, she finally got out of my shuttle.
I sat there waiting for the other guy. It took a bit longer than it should have, because the aforementioned ditz confronted him.
"Oh wow!" she cried. "Are you Tommy Bolton? The inspiration guy?”
Tommy Bolton: I had heard that name a lot. Apparently, he was a rising star in the world of motivational speaking: a modern Tony Robbins, and probably just as ridiculous. I never had any use for those guys. Big bags of hot air who love to hear themselves speak, going on about self-worth and harmony—the kind of crap you see in kids' television shows.
Sure, all that "believing-in-yourself" stuff sounds great. Anyone rich enough to afford a mansion and a nice boat can spew that nonsense all they want. They don't know what it's like up here in the real world. How could they? They probably never even worked a damn day in their lives. They're too busy yapping out of their ass while thinking about what color they want for their brand-new sports car—bunch of jokers, the lot of ‘em.
Of course, I never said any of this out loud while Mr. Bolton was in my ride. I might have hated my job, but it was the only one I had.
Mr. Bolton stepped into the back seat gracefully. This surprised me, given the guy's size. He wasn't fat, just nicely built with broad shoulders. He was a Hydrusion, though most of us referred to them as water dragon folk. They're a species of humanoid lizard-like people, though they tend to look more like the dragons from classic fairy tales, only a bit friendlier. They claim to have visited Earth on many occasions in disguise, which has caused historians to theorize them as the true origin of most, if not all, of humanity's dragon mythology.
At first glance, he seemed to be a decent guy. He wasn't aggressive looking like most would assume when they think of dragons. He reminded me more of those Chinese dragons, the ones that always look peaceful and regal. His scaly skin was a deep royal blue with orange accent lines along the contours of his face. His green eyes shined like emeralds and stood out like traffic lights. When he spoke, his voice reminded me of Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars.
"Apollo Arena, please." he said.
This was already a problem.
"Apollo Arena?" I said. "That's over five light-hours away. My shift ends in three.”
"Don't worry about it." he said. "I can cover it.”
This guy wasn't catching my drift.
"That's not the point!" I said as politely as possible.
I could see that he was a little annoyed, but he wasn't about to give up.
"Look, I don't mean to be rude, but I have a big event that I cannot miss, and I'm already a bit behind schedule. So, if you would please be so kind. I'm sorry for the inconvenience, but I'm happy to pay triple your usual rate, and I assure you there's a big tip in it for you, as well.”
I can't remember the last time a passenger was so, well, polite.
I entered the coordinates on my Nav-Sync, put the shuttle in gear, and we found ourselves floating through a light blue mist of passing stars and white-hot fusion. Even though I looked at it a thousand times a day, the portal for light-speed travel was still pretty.
An awkward silence fell upon the inside of the shuttle. It felt uncomfortable at first. I was used to passengers yelling and screaming about something or other to whoever they were with or their devices. Even If they weren't talking, I could always count on hearing their endless clicking and button-pushing as they fiddled with their communicators for the entire ride. Any conversation that went my way was typically from some drunk who had no idea where they were. I was used to ignoring the noise; I had no idea how to handle the quiet.
"Rough day, today?" he asked.
Without thinking, I replied, "Is it that obvious?”
I hadn't even realized I said anything until a few seconds later.
"Hey, you're talking to me." As if it was a fantastic achievement on his part.
"Yes." he replied, with a confused tone in his voice.
"You're the first person to ever talk to me!”
"Can't imagine how.”
"Well, most people just ignore me. Like they don't care.”
"That sounds frustrating.”
For a moment, I let my guard down, and I didn't like it. My philosophy at that time was not the most progressive. Years of driving around too many rude and unsympathetic sheeple made me wary of opening myself up to anyone. No matter how genuine they seemed. It's likely why I was still single at the time.
"Alright, I see what you're doing!”
He cracked a smile and gave a friendly chuckle.
"Making conversation?" he asked.
"Don't try any of that motivational stuff with me! Alright? I don't need it!”
"Oh, I like to think of myself more as a...motivational inquisitor.”
There was another round of silence in my shuttle. The kind of silence that permeates a room when everyone goes home after a party.
"What's your name, son?" he asked.
"Floyd, Floyd Decker."
I was in no position to tell a paying customer (triple rate!) to shut their trap.
"Do you like this job?”
"Pays the bills.”
"That's not what I asked." he said, still smiling.
I remember feeling a little frustrated. I could tell he was trying to get me to open up, but why? I was a complete stranger to him. This guy couldn't care less about my situation.
And yet, he did ask me an honest question. It seemed only fair that I give him an honest answer, since he would not accept my attempts to deflect his "conversation" for the duration of the ride.
"It's all I got," I said. "Can't afford to do anything else.”
"Really? There must be something you would like to do.”
"Nope. This is all I got and I'm sticking to it.”
Of course, that wasn't really true, but I hoped it would be enough to keep this guy from prying any further. As it turns out, it wasn’t.
"You know," he said, "this reminds me of my grandmother's shuttle. She used to be a space-freight driver during the days of first-contact. When I was a kid, she would sometimes take me with her on her travels and show me all the wonders space had to offer.”
I remember wondering to myself if this guy was psychic and was peeking into my memories. Then I reminded myself of how stupid an idea that was. Then again, we are still learning about the mysteries of cosmic-effect: unknown side-effects of prolonged exposure to quantum-cosmic energy. So, I guess it's not too far removed from the realm of possibility. In any case, this guy seemed genuine. So, for reasons I didn't quite understand at the time, I replied…
"My mother was in colonial development. She traveled a lot too.”
I couldn't explain it, but something about this guy made me feel comfortable. It was almost like my uncle was back there. I wasn't about to share every single detail of my life with this guy. After all, I had just met him. But I suddenly realized that this conversation was going in a direction I could not have anticipated. The only question was, how much more did I seriously want to share? Also, why?
"Is she retired?" he asked.
"No. She passed away when I was young.”
"Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that.”
He seemed sincere in his apology. I could at least tell that much.
"May I ask how she passed?”
"She, uh, died in a freak accident. Someone didn't calibrate a few oxygen tanks properly and it caused an explosion. I was six at the time.”
I couldn't remember the last time I ever talked about that to anyone.
"My grandmother passed away not too long ago; it seems we have something in common." he said.
He was right. Whether I wanted it to happen or not, this guy got through to me. I was officially hooked on this conversation.
"I bet your mother saw a lot of fascinating things on the job," he continued.
"Yeah, she did. Too many to count. She was going to take me with her on the job someday and show me some of them.”
"So, is that why you do this job?”
"No. Like I said, I need to pay the bills. Don't have time to do anything else. No matter how much I want to.”
"Well, that can't be good for you. Don't you ever take some time for yourself?”
At that point, it started to feel less like a casual conversation, and more like a session at a shrink's office—something I did not need nor want.
"Look!" I said. "You're a nice guy, and I'm sure you mean well, but back off!”
"Hey," he replied. "We're just passing time, here.”
"Yeah!" I said. "That's all life is, isn't it? Just passing time!? I drive by all these stars and take all these people from one area to the next, and for what? The cost of living! Which I can barely make! I don't have it as easily as everyone else does! Unlike you, I can't afford time to myself! There's no point!”
The shuttle went silent for what felt like hours. I spent most of that time hating myself for blowing up like a petulant child, at a paying customer (there goes that fat tip), no less. I could forget about a high star rating. One bad review from this guy, and I'll get fired for sure.
I just sat there and stared off into the white-hot void outside my windshield. I couldn't admire its beauty this time. I was too distracted by my own outburst. I just sat there anticipating whatever well-founded angry response this guy had for me. Instead, I heard something else I wasn't expecting.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you angry.”
How was this guy apologizing to me? Had I just jumped into another dimension or something?
"But…" he continued, "may I tell you something else?" he asked.
It seemed like the least I could do.
"My grandmother," he said, "she was the kind of person who knew when she needed to do something…strange.”
"What do you mean?”
"Well, there was this one time, when I was about twelve, my grandmother picked me up from school. This was when my parents and I still lived on Earth. My grandmother had just bought a brand-new Mercury Flyer. I remember thinking how much it looked like my dad's Ford Mustang but sleeker. Light blue with silver trim and a cream-white top, with translucent controls. My grandmother strapped me into the passenger seat, and we drove off. She asked me if I felt like going to the Moon today. I was surprised, but interested to see what she meant. So, I said yes, and we drove up into space.
"When we exited Earth's atmosphere," he continued, "I asked my grandmother why she wanted to take me to the Moon. She said, 'No reason. It just seemed like a fun idea.' I asked her if she had to go to work, and she said, 'Yeah, but spending some time with my grandson felt more important.' After about thirty minutes in the Flyer, we landed on the Moon, right next to the original Apollo landing site. We drove around making doughnuts in the grey sand. She even let me drive the Flyer around a little bit. Eventually, we found ourselves on top of a small hill, with a perfect view of Earth. It was the first time I had ever seen our home from that distance. It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen.”
I was hooked on this guy's story, but I had no idea where he was going with It.
"I learned something special that day," he said.
"The Universe isn't going to suddenly implode if someone decides to do something unexpected. If anything, it can make you appreciate everything a little bit more. My grandmother took a small risk not showing up to work that day, but she took it, because she felt that it was the right time to do something important with me. So, my question to you, Floyd, is: what's really keeping you from doing what's really important?”
I didn't have an answer for him. I was stuck in thought. His story managed to strike a little nerve. One that I guess needed to be struck.
We arrived at his destination shortly after he finished his story. As promised, he covered the extra fare I needed plus tip. Then, before he got out of my shuttle, he said something to me that I'll never forget.
"You know, my grandmother had a saying. 'Don't work too hard, just hard enough.’"
He smiled at me as he stepped out of my shuttle.
My shift was officially over. I dropped the shuttle off at the office and called it a day. I went to my favorite diner, The Flying Saucer, for a late dinner. Best burgers in the galaxy.
I kept thinking about that guy's story. Even when I made my way home, I couldn't stop thinking about it.
I wasn't ready for silence just yet, so I called up my uncle on the screen phone. He answered just after a few rings.
"Hey there, kiddo! How are you?" he said.
"Hi Uncle Joe. Hope I'm not interrupting anything.”
"Nah, I was just finishing up a round of Saturn Soldiers Online. You played that game yet? It's addicting!”
Uncle Joe always had a fondness for video games, especially when they finally went completely virtual.
"How was your day?" I asked.
"Oh, you know, enjoying my retirement as well as I can.”
"You hate it, don't you?”
"I never said that. I mean, I do miss parts of my working days, but I've got a whole new challenge to take on here. Like beating your aunt's high score in Venus Golf.”
I laughed a little.
"She always was the better golfer!”
"So, anyway, how are you, kiddo? Everything alright?”
"Yeah, I guess?”
I took a deep breath and let out a sigh. I could tell he wasn't fooled.
"I had a rather interesting conversation with a passenger today, and it got my thinking about Mom.”
"Oh, I see.”
Another round of silence hit the room.
"Listen, I just wanted you to know that, if you call me sometime over the next few days, and I don't answer, don't worry about me. Alright?”
"Kiddo, it's my job to worry about you. Even now. So I'll tell you what. Whatever you do over the next few days, which I hope won't be stupid or dangerous, I would appreciate it if you just sent me a quick message letting me know you're still alive. Deal?”
I smiled. Uncle Joe always knew exactly what to say on days like this.
"Alright. You get some good sleep tonight, kiddo.”
I ended the call. It was nice to see him again. Afterward, I took a shower and crawled into bed. It didn't take long for me to fall asleep, even with so many thoughts racing through my head.
The next day, I clocked into work and got inside my shuttle. I just sat there and stared off into the void of stars out my window. I was still thinking about that guy's story and how it resonated with me. I thought about my mother and how much I missed her. I thought about how many light hours I'd already clocked into this job, regularly, for the past few years.
Then, suddenly, I found myself shutting down my fare availability. I checked my fuel and found that I had just enough for what I needed. I punched some brand-new coordinates into my Nav-Sync and waited for the shuttle to calibrate. It only took a few seconds.
"New destination," it said. “Europa."
I sent a quick message to my uncle saying I was alright and would be out of town for a while. He replied with a few smiley faces and a message that read, "Be safe, kiddo.”
And for the first time in a long time, I loved space.