The old man took a draw from the ornate hookah on the dimly lit table and fixed me with a stare before exhaling, wrapping me in a cloud of strongly-scented smoke. It didn't smell like tabac or spice, but then I hadn't expected this to be the sort of place that bothered with the milder intoxicants. My guess was balo. I turned on the air filters in my helmet. I didn't do that stuff even before I went legitimate.
This definitely counted as legitimate business, I told myself. Just because I was using my contacts from my smuggling days didn't mean I had to get involved in anything seedy.
And yet, here I was, if not in the seediest bar on the planet, then at least the seediest planet this side of the Ghost Nebula.
"Yeah, I got the tickets," The old man said, eventually. No names here, though he probably knew mine. He was pale skinned, white haired, and had dyed his veins red so many years ago they had mostly faded to pink. It made his face look like rose marble. He traded in many things, but information was his primary currency. "You got what I want?"
I fished around in my left arm's inside pocket and pulled out a data card. The contents of it were morally questionable, but legal—if they had survived being irradiated back on Coltaire. If they hadn't, things could get messy quickly. The old man traded his reputation on trust. The electronic transfer of the tickets flashed up on my HUD; if my data card was corrupt I wouldn't be leaving here in one piece.
The old man pulled out a beaten up old reader, and slotted in the card. Nobody could see my face through my visor, but anyone with the right implants would have seen my heart pounding as I waited for his approval. No doubt that several of the bouncers with weapons locked onto me, none of which I'd been able to spot yet, would have the right implants.
Finally he nodded. "This is good."
I let out a silent sigh.
He looked back up at me. "No doubt a lot of people are gonna want to know how my associates got this. Hope you've got answers for them."
I shrugged. "I got it legally and I traded it legally. I got nothing to worry about. You're the one gonna be using it." In truth, a lot of people with a lot of connections were going to be pissed off with me, but I could handle that. People were often pissed off with me.
"Now we have done with business," said the old man, "please be my guest; enjoy my lounge. Everything in this room is legitimate. I hear that's your thing now." The hint of a sneer.
"No thanks," I replied. "Try getting hold of Mixer; I hear he's still keeping busy."
"Mixer ain't as good as you were," he called after me, as I walked away. "What a waste."
I missed the smuggling business sometimes, but my new life was worth the occasional bittersweet memory.
I was under-dressed.
"Deflections of Light by a Wandering Singularity," said the hologram projected into the middle of the ornately decorated temporary hangar, because "gravitational lensing by a rogue black hole" didn't sound romantic enough, I guess. Sofi and I had finally managed to check in, through various luggage checks and some more personal ones that threatened to reveal more of my past than I would have liked.
"That dress really suits you," Sofi teased.
"You would say that. You picked it," I grumbled. I haven't owned a dress since I was seven and I wasn't about to start now. This one was very ... clingy. And bright. I prefer clothes that cover me better and help me stay unnoticed.
"Well, it's made my evening," Sofi nudged me in the side gently.
"There was me thinking this extremely rare event, for which I traded some extremely boring-looking documents for, was going to do that."
"One day you'll take me on one of your adventures," Sofi said, not having the slightest idea what she'd be letting herself in for. "But for the moment, a prime viewing spot for what should be a spectacularly beautiful and scientifically important event in a private viewing pod will have to do."
A tone sounded over the PA system and the room quietened to listen to the organisers say some pleasantries and thank us for our ticket "donations", most of which would be spent on... tea and biscuits for the scientists? I'd already tuned out, and remained so until we got to the announcements about boarding: "Group A will be boarding in five minutes from Gate 5."
Sofi let out a squeak of excitement, downed the glass of complementary Daruvvian champagne she'd been holding (I cringed; that glass was probably half the ticket price), and led me by the hand to the docking gate. It was a wide transparent airlock, inside which we could see the luxury dune buggies prepared for us, and behind them, the pink sandy surface of Kantor VIII.
We boarded our personal buggy and the buggy's astromech was activated shortly after the anti-reflective transparisteel dome closed around us. The lights inside dimmed as the exterior airlock opened and we got our first view of the night sky unhindered by the lights in the hangar. I gotta admit, it took my breath away. Kantor was much closer to the galactic centre than most inhabited planets, and the density of bright, colourful objects in space was quite something.
After about fifteen minutes of a surprisingly fast ride, the hangar we'd departed from was well out of sight. We'd seen the lights from a few other vehicles to begin with, but everyone had spread out so far that it felt like we were alone out here.
I didn't really know what I was looking for, but Sofi suddenly grabbed my arm, and pointed to our left. I didn't see it to begin with—it's a black hole, after all—but as it began more clearly moving across the sky, the way it was warping everything around it became much clearer. It really was like looking at the sky through a bizarre fish bowl. Really interesting.
"Isn't it beautiful!" Sofi gasped. Noted: beautiful, not interesting.
Eventually the singularity reached the main event: passing in front of the galactic core, directly overhead. The deflected light did all kinds of things that I can barely describe, other than to say that it was extremely pretty. [Sofi here editing this: blast it, Faey, I love you but that is a terrible description. It was breathtaking! I couldn't believe it. I'd seen simulations beforehand, and none of them captured the way it split the core into rainbow colours, or warped Kantor IV and V into intricate patterns. And you didn't even mention the kriffing aurora that started just before the apex! The researchers would've hated that but I don't have to remove the noise from the data so I was just beside myself with glee when it started! Aaaaa I'm getting excited just thinking about it all again!
It took another half hour or so for the singularity to move to the other side of the sky. After the effects had totally faded from view, our astromech put a message on the HUD asking if we wanted to go back now, or alternatively we could stay here and enjoy the view for up to two more hours.
Sofi stroked my arm and held my gaze when I looked over to her.
We stayed for the full two hours.