My handheld began softly beeping. I tapped it twice to silence and cancel the alarm. I slid off my bed and began rooting around in the “not too dirty” pile of clothes on the floor. I picked up and sniffed a sports bra. Oh god, that stinks! I tossed it into the actually dirty pile of clothes. I gave up looking on the floor and just pulled out a clean sports bra and underwear from my dresser. The sports bra fit extra snug, flatting out my chest nicely. Not as flat as a binder but I didn’t have one of those. Yet. A loose t-shirt and a pair of track shorts covered enough skin to make me decent.
I unlocked my bedroom door, slid it open, and walked into the kitchen. Mom was already in there drinking coffee at the table. I grabbed the small sauce pan off the wall, half filled it with water, cranked the handle into the red, and set it on the stove top. From inside the refrigerator, I plucked two eggs from their carton. I dropped the eggs into the just boiling water and glanced at the wall clock.
“Your cousin Hannah is arriving today,” Mom said.
“I know. You’ve only been reminding me for the last week,” I said.
“Luke,” I said to remind her.
“Right, Luke. It would be nice if you came with us when we picked her up.”
“Ok, do I have time to eat?” I glanced at the clock again. Wait, was the minute hand right on the four or a little before it the last time I looked.
“She doesn’t arrive for a couple of hours.” For a few minutes, neither of say anything. “Maybe you could take her flying later,” she said.
“I can’t just take the tug out for joy rides.” I grabbed two slices of bread and set them in the toaster.
I counted off the reasons on my fingers, “One: it’s technically company property until I finish paying it off. Two: fuel costs money. Three: it has heavy weapons that I don’t want her accidentally firing.”
“I can give you money for fuel.”
“You have a few thousand laying around for a half hour joy ride?” The toast dinged and I set them on a plate to be sliced.
“No. It costs that much to fly?” she asked surprised.
“Yeah. Most contracts have fuel allowances so I only have to cover part of the fueling costs but it’s still expensive.”
“I didn’t know. Your eggs are done.”
I quickly turned back to my eggs and cranked the pot handle back to the blue. The rolling boil stopped. After a few seconds, I reached into the warm water to pull out my eggs and set them in egg cups. I carried the eggs and toast to the table, grabbed a spoon, and cracked the top off my first egg. It was fully hard boiled. I sighed.
The land here is dry, arid, dusty, sandy, barren, did I mention dry. Nothing but scrub brush can grow out here but that means land is cheap. One of the reasons my parents and I moved here. The other being the job opportunities in the City. The City is everything the surrounding land is not. Tall, clean, cool buildings, green parks, water fountains. It’s a man-made oasis in the desert. My parents have jobs in the city but we live outside it. I said land out here is cheap. In the city, everything costs more. Even with their fancy city jobs, we can’t afford to live there.
The bus station was just a small ticket booth next to a series of canopies. Several buses waited for passengers to get on or off. A crowd of people waited nearby for their bus to arrive. It’s hot but not any hotter than usual. Dad was wearing a casual tunic over light pants and sun hat. Mom had slipped on a cream colored maxi dress and wrapped a blue scarf around her head. I stood apart from them with my flight jacket over t-shirt and track shorts, aviator sunglasses, and work boots. I wiped the sweat from my forehead back into my short hair.
To most people, the jacket looked like a bad idea on a day like today but it kept me cooler than not. It’s designed for the variable temperatures a pilot might encounter. Flat gel packs with nanotube filaments regulate the temperature of the inner layer of smart foam. Basically, if I’m too hot it pulls heat away from me and if I’m too cold it warms up. That the chest and back parts end up looking like body armor is just a bonus. The arms even have transparent pockets on the inner arms for handhelds. I have pants with the same tech for when I accept contracts that take me to the upper atmosphere or higher but they don’t look as cool.
Hannah’s bus arrived a few minutes ago and we were waiting for her to make it out of the crowd to us. She pushed through carrying a bag and pulling a second smaller suitcase on wheels. Mom waved and she waved back
“Oh, look at you. You’re so tall,” Mom said while hugging her. It’s been a few years since we’ve seen the rest of the family outside of pictures or videos.
“Hey cuz,” I said and slapped her on the shoulder.
“Hey,” she said looking me over. I haven’t put a picture up online since before I shaved my head. It’s grown out a little but it’s a radical change from how I looked before.
We piled into Dad’s ten-year-old sedan and head home. Mom spent the trip home grilling my cousin. How is her mom doing? Did her sister get into college? Has her other aunt found a job yet? A hundred questions that could be answered by email but asking a person just feels more right. Even I asked a few questions about our other cousin.
After we got Hannah settled into my room, Mom suggested I show her the tug. The tug is my ship. It’s just a cargo hauler that I’m leasing-to-own from the shipping company. For a cargo hauler, it’s nothing special, just a two person cockpit attached to a cargo frame with thrusters stuck on the sides and rear. The underside of the cockpit is a patch of unpainted armor because I had to have a rotted out section replaced and I haven’t bothered to repaint it. I kind of like the junkyard look it gives my ship.
The cockpit seats two, pilot in front and gunner behind and above, but I can and usually do fly solo. The turret on top of the cockpit has full range of motion and is controlled from the gunner seat but I have a cheap auto-targeting computer wired into it. It’s pretty good at lining up shots on things in the sky but it can’t really tell friend from foe so it just shoots everything. In the front, under the cockpit are a couple of cannons I can control and fire from the pilot seat. They have limited range of motion but at least I can see what I’m shooting at.
The tug stays in an empty field a few hundred yards from the housing rows. Another guy keeps his ship out here too but we rarely talk. He’s twenty years older than me and a company lifer. The company has been great for getting my license and training but I hope to do more after I’ve paid off the ship.
On my handheld, I entered the access code for the cockpit and it popped open. I reached up and grabbed the lowest rung of the ladder built into the side of the cockpit. The landing gear is supposed to retract to a mid-level when the cargo frame is empty but the controller circuit with multiple settings cost more than the one with just two. I pulled myself jerkily up the rungs until I could stand on the lowest rung and take a short breather.
Hannah started a slow clap. “That was … That was almost not pathetic. I’ve seen three-year-olds climb faster than that.”
“Shut up,” I yelled down but I was laughing between deep breaths.
“Why don’t you have a ladder or stairs or something?”
“I had a pool ladder but someone stole it.”
“Yeah, but no one around here has a pool so I don’t know why they wanted it.” I climbed the rest of the way to cockpit edge. “Ok, your turn.”
“What?” she asked.
“You want to see my ship you have to climb up on your own.”
“Come on. You don’t have a rope you can throw me?”
She looked up at the ladder and stretched out her arms. The lowest rung was just out of her reach. “I can’t reach.”
“Jump. It’s right there.” She reached back up, jumped, and grabbed it. “There you go now just climb up.” I watched her struggle up rung by rung until she could stand on the lowest rung for a breather. “Not so easy is it?” I asked.
“Shut up,” she said between breaths. After a couple of minutes, she climbed the rest of the way up. I showed her where to step to reach the gunner seat without stepping on the console. I showed her the basic controls and let her swing the turret around but kept the guns offline.
My handheld buzzed. I flipped my arm over and tapped on the screen to discover what set off the notification. I have to take a certain number of contracts in a month in order to maintain my lease agreement but this week I had planned on staying mostly grounded while Hannah was staying with us. Only a high pay and short distance contract should have made it through the filter. Huh, moderate pay and short distance. I should send my cousin home but it’s a short ride and no threat level.
“Hey, you want to take a short trip?” I called back to her.
“There’s a contract I’m to take. You want to come with.”
“Can I?” she asked
“Sure, it’s an easy run. Might be boring though.”
She thought about it and said, “Sure.”
“Ok, strap in and don’t touch anything.” I tapped on my handheld to accept the contract and sent the location data to my ship’s computer. A flight plan appeared on the main monitor. I tweaked the path to keep us clear of the western border and transmitted it to Flight Control. I flicked a few switches to ready the engines. They rumbled to life behind me.
A minute later, a voice spoke through my headset, “Tug-1407 you are cleared for take off.”
“Tug-1407 cleared for take off. Thank you, Control,” I replied. I grabbed the controls and took the ship straight up to cruising altitude before turning and heading for the pick-up site.
I heard a muffled “Fuck!” from behind me. I didn’t need to slam us down in our chairs but the rest of the trip is going to be pretty bland. It only took a few minutes to reach the warehouse outside of the city where the cargo was waiting. I connected with the ground crew and got a landing pad assignment.
“Now what?” Hannah asked as I set down and shut off the engines.
“Now, we wait for the ground crew to load the cargo. Could be five minutes could be two hours.”
“So, this is what it’s like to be a pilot?”
“No, this is what it’s like to be a cargo pilot. Once I get my full certifications and pay off the company I can start applying for real pilot jobs.”
“Like with the space agency. They always need pilots on the moon.”
“Have you been to space yet?”
“A couple of times, the tug can make low earth orbit but it burns a lot of fuel. The view is … the pictures they show us aren’t enough. It’s so much bigger than the pictures make it look.”
My comms beeped. “Tug-1407 we are ready to load your cargo container.”
“I copy. Go right ahead.” In the rear cameras, I watched as the rectangular container is slid underneath the cargo frame. I felt a slight jolt as it reached the back of the cockpit. The cargo hooks lowered and grabbed the container and green lights came on letting me know they had a solid lock. “Cargo hooks engaged,” I told the ground crew. The truck unhooked from the container and drove away. I restarted the engines and took off, slower this time so the ground crew wouldn’t complain about me. Once I got to altitude, I headed for the first nav marker of my flight plan. I could have engaged the autopilot but I like flying the tug myself and I needed the hours of unassisted flight.
“So, how are you doing in school,” I asked once I was level and flying more or less in a straight line.
“Fine. B’s and C’s,” she said.
“Just B’s and C’s?”
“I’m passing, ok?” Hannah snapped at me.
“Sorry, I was just teasing.” For a couple of minutes, I flew in silence. “Parents giving you a hard time about your grades?” I asked gently.
She didn’t answer right away. “They don’t know how hard it is. School, work, everything.”
“You got a job?”
“Yeah. In the mall, at the ice cream shop.”
“No kidding,” I tried to sound encouraging, “That’s great and you’re passing all your classes. Sounds like you’re doing ok.”
“Not as good as you. How much money do you make doing this?”
“Enough to make my lease payments, pay for fuel and repairs, and a little left over to help around the house. Cargo pilots don’t make a lot of money unless they own their own ship which I don’t. Yet.”
“You dating anyone?” she asked.
“Are. You. Dating. Anyone?” she asked again enunciating each word slowly.
“No.” I paused thinking about how that question had become more complex over the last few months. “Not since high school. I’ve been busy learning how to fly. What about you?”
“No.” We lapsed into silence for several minutes. We reached the first nav marker and I adjusted course toward the second. She broke the silence, “How long is this trip?”
“About four hours round trip.”
“How about some music?” I flipped my arm over, patched my handheld into the ship’s headsets and queued up something with a good beat to help us pass the time.
Author note: So that’s it. The whole story. Nothing much happened but I really liked writing this story. It’s longer than most single part stories I write and I thought about cutting it in two but felt it was better as just one story.
This I think my first time explicitly writing a trans guy. I hope I did ok on that front.
This started as a dream that I slowly reshaped into what you just read. I can’t remember what my dream was anymore, this story ended up taking it’s place in my memory.