Listen to this story, narrated by Victor Ramos:
Space pirates get all the attention. They get the chromeware clink of toasts in the station’s coolest underdeck bars. They get the echo-whispers of gossip in the civilian quarter, though there’s nothing civil about their ways. They even get clickbeat songs written about them.
You know who doesn’t get into the clickbeats? Shoemakers.
We’re upstanding civilians who do the station a vital service through our sheer mundanity. Everyone’s toes would turn to hard-packed sausages without us. But we’re not sexy. We’re not roguish or amoral or nearly as charismatic as your average space pirate, with their beat-up star corvettes and their crossbones tattoos.
Some dress the part, too. You can’t help but hate them.
When one traipses into my shop wearing an honest-to-Venus eyepatch and places a special order for custom retro space boots, I snap.
At least in my head I do. I imagine hurling synthetic gripsoles at her until she admits the error of her occupation. But I’m an upstanding shoemaker with a bone-deep fear of confrontation and a pod in the ninth level that doesn’t pay for itself. So I keep the gripsoles in my hands and plaster a smile on my face.
“These space boots,” I say. “They’ll take time. When are you shipping out?”
She looks me over with her one eye, which is brown with artificial gold stripes for extra mean.
“None of your damn business.”
“Sorry. I should say, when would you like to pick them up? They’ll take at least a weekcycle to finish, and with the embellishments—”
“Too long,” she says. “I need them in five days.”
“No can do, uh, ma’am.” I wave a gripsole at her, and it flops, limp and rubbery in my hand. “I need to make these in a special mold, and then I’ll have to recalibrate my CobblerTech rig to accommodate—”
She knocks the gripsole from my hand and gets in my face, all pirate-like.
“Five days.” Her breath smells like Tang, and it takes all the confrontation fear in my bones to keep from laughing. Or maybe bursting into tears.
She releases me and stomps from my shop. The autodoor hisses farewell.
I slump against my bench and glance at the outdated CobblerTech machine taking up half the pod-shop. It won’t handle many more recalibrations. If it finally bites the stardust for a space pirate, I swear I’ll snap for real.
By the time the eyepatch-wearing space brigand returns for her boots, I’ve suffered eight failures and three breakdowns. That isn’t unusual for me, all things equalized. The latest and greatest meltdown occurs when the CobblerTech tries to eat the finished space boots just as I’m removing them from his mechanical maw. He growls and whines like some fourth-gen A.I. until I pull the boots loose.
I inspect the final product, checking seals and tugging decorative buckles to make sure they won’t float away in zero grav. The boots look badass. I may be a touch on the nervy side, but I know my craft: these have extra-lift gripsoles, hammered chrome buckles, and reinforced synthetic uppers that look like the slouchy leather of an old-planet swashbuckler’s cavaliers.
I’m about to declare the boots done and dusted when one of the chrome buckles catches on my sleeve. I tug it loose and spot a tiny rip in the synthetics. This stuff is heavy-duty, made to withstand extreme spacewalk temperatures. The rip must have happened when I pulled it from the CobblerTech’s gullet.
It’s not an easy fix. But one spacewalk in these babies, and my pirate friend will find herself shrink-wrapped and frozen inside her suit.
A clickbeat tune comes up in my shuffle, something about a chromefit space pirate who spends his time raiding freighters and pillaging craters. Sweat runs down my neck and creeps under my collar. She’ll be here in three hours. Do I have time to rig a patch to make the boots spaceworthy? I can’t sell them as is, but I can’t afford to lose the commission.
I’m reaching for my tools, hoping a patch will enhance the boots’ old-planet styling, when the autodoor hisses open, and the space pirate herself clomps inside. A seal swings loose from the boots she’s wearing. I understand why she needs these now. She’s shipping out today, and one can’t run a space raid without the proper footwear.
I’m opening my mouth to tell her the truth of it when she snatches the boots from my hands. The buckle cuts my palm, slicking a bright red line through my flesh.
The blood scent makes me queasy, and I can barely focus as she slaps a neutrocoin on my workbench.
“I can’t accept that,” I say.
“Those untraceable doohickeys. If I try to spend it, the civil authorities will think I’m involved in underhanded dealings with… with….”
She arches the eyebrow above her patch. “Pirates?”
“Aye,” I whisper.
She snorts. “Your problem, not mine.”
“Wait!” I plug the neutrocoin into my register to check the balance, and it comes up a third short of the agreed-upon price. “This isn’t even the right amount.”
“Thought my money wasn’t good enough for you.”
“It’s fine, really, as long as I get all of it.”
She’s all the way to the autodoor now. It starts to hiss open, and she jams a fist against it, stopping it with a sickly yelp.
“Do we have a problem, shoemaker?” Her voice scares me more than the snarl of a dying oxygen machine.
The space boots under her arm seem to glow, neon flashing around that rip. All I have to do is tell her the boots aren’t spaceworthy. She won’t asphyxiate wearing them out of an airlock, and I’ll get my commission for some mighty fine in-station shoes. That’s what the neutrocoin is worth anyway.
Still, I hesitate. Space pirates are a menace. They get their reputations for their swagger and their old-planet fashion, and everyone loves a villain. But they do what pirates have always done.
The clickbeat chorus about raiding and pillaging repeats, echoing around the pod-shop. Simple shoemakers like me never have a chance to chase down space pirates or save innocent family cruisers from their attacks. But if I stay silent, there’ll be one less marauder in deep space.
She releases the whimpering autodoor and takes a step toward me.
“I asked if we have a problem.”
It’s no use. The only thing I fear more than confrontation is guilt. I may not be getting my full fee, but I can’t let a paying customer walk away with faulty tech.
“Sorry, ma’am. There’s a problem with the—”
She vaults over my table and has me up against the CobblerTech before I can finish the sentence. Her gold-flecked eye skewers me and her fingernails dig into the soft flesh at my collar.
“Don’t think I won’t hurt you,” she says. “We’re out of this fleabag station in two hours, and I don’t give three shits about your civil authorities.”
“You think you know the price of shoes better than me?”
“Then I’ll ask again. Do we have a problem?”
I shake my head, really more of a quiver. “Say, d-do you need a recommendation for a good eye maker? A friend on level eight can do some nifty X-ray tricks, and—”
She drops me and stomps back across the shop, snatching the neutrocoin from the register as she passes. Then she and her money and her faulty space boots saunter out of my shop.
I touch my throat, feeling fingernail droplets of blood, and nearly faint into a tub of gripsoles.
A weekcycle later, I take delivery of my brand-new CobblerTech machine. He’s a beauty, with chrome details and enough customization settings to keep me chipper for years.
He wasn’t cheap. But it seems the civil authorities pay a hefty bounty for space pirates, if you can name the exact hour a whole ship of them will be departing. And if you know their leader won’t be able to escape on account of defective space gear, they give you a bonus.
I may be a simple shoemaker, but it turns out there’s more than one way to protect the innocent. And revenge sounds a lot like the hum of new CobblerTech.