With the cooler running at full bore, my office was almost livable. The patch of desk closest to the window was hot to the touch, and Uluru shimmered in the distance outside, but I could actually sit still as long as I kept the air vents aimed directly at my chair. Even with that, though, my white cotton shirt clung damply to my back, trapped between me and the cloth seatback. I shifted forward and tugged irritably at the cloth with one hand, scrolling listlessly through pages of document with the other.
The fabric peeled away from my skin, then clammily fell back into place. With a scowl, I slumped back against the chair to block the chill. I bounced a finger on the keyboard until I was back on the front page, gazing nonplussed at the scanned image that stared back at me from the monitor. Large black eyes gazed back up from the flat screen, surrounded by a field of short grey fur. The face was long, ending in a triangular black nosepad and streaked with white to each side. Rising from the back of the head were two long narrow ears, the insides lined in pale pink skin. The expression on the face suggested a smile, but it seemed like the features just wouldn't permit it.
I pressed my lips against my teeth, glancing from the screen to the other side of the desk, comparing the image in the doc with its owner. In person, the eyes shone, lids blinking rapidly against the dust in the air. The muzzle was longer than the picture hinted, hanging half-open and panting shallowly. Beads of sweat collected in the folds of the leathery black nosepad, and more glistened on the insides of the ears, making them twitch, flinging drops of salty water against the wall. At intervals, a narrow arm rose, bringing short claws to scratch at the weave of the dark green short-sleeved jumpsuit or wipe sweat from leathery pawpads onto heavily muscled thighs. Broad three-toed feet tapped occasionally against the floor, intersperced with irregular thumping from a thick tail.
In the cramped office space and the heat, the kangaroo's musk permeated the air. It wasn't nearly as unpleasant as I'd expected it to be, but it was unfamiliar, like everything else about him. Uplifts were uncommon enough even up in Alice; out here they were alien. I sniffed, twitching my nose, and he responded by ducking his head, ears flattening against his skull.
I leaned forward again, grimacing as the cool air raised gooseflesh on my back beneath the sodden shirt. I let a half-grin slip onto my face, showing a touch of tooth. "Scorcher, innit?"
The kangaroo hesitated a moment, then nodded, closing his muzzle and swallowing dryly. Everything about him screamed discomfort, from the way he picked at his clothes to the sweat he was obviously trying to ignore. At least his eyes met mine when I turned away from the monitor, following my gaze as I studied him. Despite my expression, he did his best to smile at me, but he didn't fare as well as his photograph.
"So...." I said slowly, letting my voice trail into nothingness. My eyes flicked to the monitor again, tapping on my keyboard. "Mr. Malone—"
The kangaroo winced and held up a paw. "It's not really, any more. Please, just call me Ashley."
I stared coolly across the desk at my interviewee, holding the roo's eyes with mine until he started to shrink back in his chair, returning his paw to his lap. After several uncomfortable seconds, he looked away, glancing out the window, squinting into the sunlight. "Sorry for interrupting," he murmured.
I nodded once, more to myself than to him, the smile spreading slightly on my face. "Ashley, is it, then?"
He nodded again, still avoiding my gaze.
I shifted again, leaning back into the stream of cool air. "Gotta say, your C.V. doesn't say much about you." I stretched out an arm and tapped the screen with a finger for emphasis. "Looks a bit bodgy, you ask me. A release order and a doxy cert's hardly a career path."
His head ducked further, his fingers tensing in his lap. His tailtip hit the floor heavily, followed by both feet. "I'm... fairly young."
I furrowed my brow. "The Mars loop's no place for tyroes," I said, letting a bit of a sneer into my voice. "Two years out, two back, and at least one in orbit. The pay's great but there's nowhere to spend it. This'll be my fifth run and the third for most of the rest of my crew. What makes you think we need a jillie along for the ride?"
With each sentence, the roo's muscles bunched up further under his coverall, until his claws dug into his pads. He blinked, then wiped at one eye with the back of a paw. "I thought—" He caught himself, then looked at me, trying again to smile. "Well, I've heard the stories of Chelsea Tauber and how she got started—"
At the use of my name, I jerked out of my chair, fists slamming against my desk to punctuate my anger. "You think this is some kind of bloody pleasure cruise?" I drew in a harsh breath and narrowed my eyes. "Get out of my office," I hissed with as little inflection as I could manage.
Ashley cowered in his chair, bringing up his paws to shield himself from the outburst. His ears visibly wilted, his eyes downcast. He pushed himself out of his chair, straightening his jumpsuit as he stood. His muzzle stayed aimed down towards the floor as he shuffled his way past overstuffed boxes to the door. He stood there on the brink, one paw on the handle, panting shallowly. He squeezed his eyes shut and wiped at them, his whole body trembling.
I stood straight and folded my arms across my chest. "Well?" The word was higher-pitched than I wanted, but my blood was still boiling.
He inhaled deeply, the air rattling in his lungs. He coughed and turned back towards me, but his muzzle stayed down, his eyes still closed. "Can... can I speak frankly?"
I wanted to blurt out a refusal, but I caught myself. He seemed so pathetic in that moment, like I'd just kicked his puppy. I shrugged and dropped back into my chair, pressing my back into the seatback to block the chill. "Floor's yours."
Ashley nodded, tensing as though he were preparing for a punch to the gut. "I'm a top-line Biogenix companion breed," he said hotly, voice quivering. "The family that had me decanted wanted a servant and... playmate... for their daughter. She'd seen Uplifts in a magazine and thought we were aces." He paused, swallowing hard again. "The certification was part of my speed-tapes."
He drew in a breath to steady himself, then lifted his head and opened his eyes, but his gaze remained steadfastly on the door in front of him, his fingers clutching the handle in a vicegrip. "She... got tired of me after two years. Her parents were furious, there was a fight, but... in the end I had to go. They granted me freedom, some clothes, a bit of spare change, but...." His words stopped there, cut off by a shrug.
The roo wiped at his eyes again with his free paw, then finally turned to face me. "I tried a shelter, but who had room for one of us when there were so many real people needing help?" He paused, blinking back tears. He cleared his throat noisily, then sniffed. "Sorry. Anyway, the labor board had nothing for me. I had enough money to share a flat with someone for a while, but it only lasted so long. In the end it was either begging or being a prostie, or...."
He stuck a paw into one of the pockets of his dark green coverall and pulled out a folded sheet of paper. The corners were ratty, the creases bright and edged with grime from repeated handling. He unfolded it reverently and passed it to me. Dominating the top half of the page was a picture of Mars overlaid with the words READY FOR A CHANGE? The company logo sat in the bottom right corner, my contact information in the bottom left.
I looked up at him, and this time he met my gaze with his own, his eyes wet but hard. "Everyone's heard about Chelsea Tauber. Alkie father, dead mother, crawled out of back of beyond and went on to captain her own freighter. I figured... I mean, I guessed how you had to have gotten your start, and I thought..." He stopped again, his gaze softening, his ears going flat against his head. "All I'm asking for is a chance. I don't mind... earning my keep, if that's what it takes. I just—" He spotted the grimace on my face and stopped himself. "I'm sorry."
My eyes dropped back down to the lovingly creased flyer in my lap. The colors were faded and the paper was worn thin where the folds met. One corner had a tear from a long-lost staple. My fingers brushed the printed surface carefully. "This is no easy trip, not for what you're asking." I tried to put ice in my voice, but the heat of the room made it tough. "My crew's a good bunch, but five-plus years is a long time, and I've got blokes who won't care you're funny-shaped after a few months."
He half-shrugged at that. "I said I'll do what it takes as long as I can learn a real trade while I'm out there. That's really what I want out of this."
I nodded at that, his words sounding uncannily familiar. Was it really that long ago that I'd made the same offer? I studied Ashley again, letting my eyes wander over him. His irises weren't black, but midnight blue. When he relaxed, his long ears stood up straight overhead, combining with his long neck to make him look even taller. The white streaks in his fur added years to his features, but his overall build was very boyish, lanky and lean.
When he spotted the scrutiny, he ducked, his ears flicking back against his head, and I chuckled dryly. "Where ya from?" I asked, trying to set him back at ease.
He shrugged. "I was decanted in Canberra, but my fam—my flat was in Hobart."
My eyes widened at the confession. "How'd you get all the way out here from Tazzie?"
The question made him tense, and he turned back towards the door. "Not by begging."
His answer shouldn't have startled me, but it did, jarring me with its dissonant familiarity. "I made the trip out of Laverton, myself," I replied before I'd really considered it. I moved to stand, and the flyer fell out of my lap to the floor. Hastily, I squatted to grab it, then gingerly offered it back to him.
Ashley took the fragile piece of paper, his fingers touching mine for a moment; his pawpads were soft and leathery, slightly slick with sweat. He delicately folded the flyer again and then stuffed it back into his pocket. "I'm willing to learn," he said, his voice as even as he could make it. "Legally, I'm nineteen, and I've passed my finishing exams." He looked at me, pleading with his eyes. "I'll do whatever it takes to get this. I'm... I'm out of options otherwise."
I nodded, then turned back to my screen. His photograph tried to smile at me, and the corners of my mouth turned upwards in response. "I've got a lot of forms for you to fill out, so you'd better get started." I brought up the normal hire documents on my screen, then stepped out from behind my desk and motioned to my chair. "Take a seat here while I grab us some tea. It's hot-as in here and I don't want you passing out in the middle."
He hesitated a moment, and then his ears perked as my words registered. He nodded, and we did a quick dance, squeezing past each other in the cramped quarters. My hand brushed his forearm as we manoeuvred; his fur was short and soft, and the sensation sparked thoughts of how it might feel elsewhere. As I stepped to the door, he dropped heavily into my chair, taking a moment to bask in the wash of cold air before throwing himself into the application.