Authors: L K Rigel
The Imperial boarding gate was on the mezzanine. Char got on the escalator behind a woman with a small boy who repeatedly jumped up and down though the woman kept telling him to stop.
. Char was getting a headache, either from stress or lack of caffeine.
The little boy missed his step and fell into Char, and they both stumbled against a huge guy in flame-colored overalls. The label on his chest read Imperial Homeland Security.
"Hey now, young man. You don't want to be doing that." He scooped up the boy and steadied Char, his voice pleasant and concerned. Not a jerk. "You don't want to be stuck in California just now."
The woman went stone silent, sweat breaking out above her eyebrows.
The old state name sounded odd coming from IHS. They usually insisted on using
, never California or Oregon or Washington. At the mezzanine, he stepped off to the right, his free arm on Char's elbow, guiding her away from the human stream that flowed toward the screeners.
He asked for Char's ID and put the little boy down. The woman's eyes were wild as she grabbed the boy, "Shibadeh, do you want me to leave you for the raptors?"
A collective gasp erupted all around, not at the curse word but at the mention of raptors. The woman broke into sobs, hugging the child, glaring at the onlookers. Everybody was starting to crack.
"Raptors." Char tried to sound light-hearted. "They've replaced the bogeyman." She wasn't enthusiastic about children herself but acknowledged their necessity. She hoped the IHS guy wouldn't mark the woman's license. It was hard enough to get clearance to have one, and who could blame anybody for stressing when the entire zone was freaking out?
But he wasn't paying attention to the woman or the boy. He was looking at Char's ID, nodding. "You're pre-cleared." Her card was blue level, another favor from Mike. "I'll take you to your gate."
"How do you know where I'm going?"
"You got a blue card, you're getting off this rock." He could play for the Corporate League, he was so big; but for IHS he wasn't very scary. Maybe it was true that Homeland Security treated people with blue cards better.
It would have taken an hour to get through the screeners, but the IHS guy took Char past them.
You got a blue card, you're getting off this rock.
In the pre-cleared terminal, a man at the coffee kiosk could have been a cover model for Natural Man Today. There was nothing enhanced about him. Dark brown eyes and unprocessed medium brown hair, casually shaggy but not too long, broad shoulders -- beautiful. And calm. A touchstone of peace in the maelstrom.
Char was more interested in the coffee. She grabbed the IHS guy's arm. "Do I have time? I need to get some caffeine in my body."
Natural Man scanned her from boots to bare shoulders. "It would be a crime to deprive that body of anything it wanted."
Jerk. But to her surprise she responded to his suggestive gaze.
He recognized the IHS guy. "So, Tyler. I take it you found that package?"
"Being delivered as we speak," the IHS guy, Tyler, said. "Did
"Cleared and waiting for you."
"You got it, Jake. As soon as I make sure Ms. Meadowlark gets her place on the Imperial Shuttle."
"Blue carder, must be nice." Jake turned back to Char. He had great teeth and a dangerous smile. "There's an interesting bar on the ISS. The Blue Marble. Maybe I'll see you there sometime. My junk is slow, but it eventually gets me where I need to go."
"Such beauty spoiled by such bad jokes." She wished she hadn't said that.
"You think I'm beautiful?" He spread his arms as if he were on display. His flight pants were the real thing: olive green, sturdy canvas, the pockets actually full.
"She's phoenix," Tyler said, not like a warning exactly, but a reminder.
There was a firebird logo on her ID, but she didn't know it meant anything. Tyler might have said
she's a mutant
, the way Jake took a step back.
"Right," Jake said. "If you're coming with me, you'd best hurry. I'm leaving --" he looked at Char "-- as soon as I get some caffeine in my body."
Tyler swung her backpack over his shoulder. "We should get to the gate."
"Meadowlark,” Jake said. “Now that's…real pretty." Not safe, not like Brandon. "Sure you don't want to see my junk?"
"Oh, groan," she deadpanned. "Let's go, Tyler."
Jake put his hand on Tyler's shoulder and dropped his voice. "Be careful. Rani picked up some chatter on the com. The DOGs know the Imperial is here."
Char's stomach turned over. The DOGs weren't just responsible for Sky going into the vault. They'd also killed Brandon, her boyfriend since grad school. Sweet, apolitical Brandon. Happy in the world. Dreaming up ways to infuse micronutrients into mung sprouts. No match for the bomb on his commuter train.
"Shit, no way." Tyler tapped the patch on his jumpsuit. "DOGs can't get through IHS."
The barrista called out a four-shot iced latte, and Jake picked it up. Char really wanted some coffee, but there was no time.
Jake waved with the drink in his hand. "See you at the junk, Tyler." As he walked away he looked over his shoulder, caught her watching him, and winked.
She ran to catch up with Tyler. "What did Jake mean, see you at the junk?"
. He takes private pays up to Vacation Station on the
. His ship. He uses that line on everybody, man or woman."
"Ah. You want to see my
? Got it."
"He thinks it's funny. And it is. The first three hundred times."
"You know him well then."
"Nobody knows Jake Ardri well." Tyler seemed to ponder, then added, "Except Rani, maybe."
At the waiting area, Tyler motioned Char to a plush real leather chair. "It'll go faster if I get your boarding pass." He took her card. "I'll be right back."
The monitors were muted. Two bartenders mixed complimentary cocktails in front of a glass wall that looked out on the Imperial Shuttle. Like a monster's umbilical cord, a silver boarding bridge connected the shuttle from the tarmac to the gate.
Char kept forgetting Tyler was IHS, he was so decent. Typical IHS was an obnoxious goon or a pompous bureaucrat. Both in love with their power to make people miserable. No one in the line argued when Tyler cut in, flashing her card with its logo.
What had Mike done? Sky had said he was attached to the Imperial household -- the phoenix was the Imperial logo -- but at some mid level position. Things must be a lot worse than she thought for him to risk sending a false ID.
The monitor switched to local news and 801 K Street collapsing into rubble and ash. So the fire hadn't been a maintenance issue. The shot switched to a scene from last week. Paris, when the Eiffel Tower had been bombed. The bottom crawl read:
Another DOG pile?
A bone-chilling scream split the air like a war cry, eager and bloodthirsty. Outside on the tarmac, flames licked the pad beneath the shuttle. At the counter Tyler looked up at Char, and she mouthed the words,
What's going on?
A ripple of explosions obliterated the shuttle from its tail to the cockpit, and a delayed blast disintegrated the glass wall behind Tyler. He looked surprised. His head and torso flew off to the right and his legs collapsed to the floor with her backpack.
Char was out of the chair, but her boots were welded to the ground. People around her screamed and ran in slow motion. Far away, a child was crying. Acrid smoke poured in from the blown-out window and burned Char’s eyes.
She waited for Tyler to get up again, though another part of her brain knew that was not going to happen.
Someone lifted her off the ground. The gaping hole in the wall got smaller as she was carried away. "Tyler." Her voice sounded like it was coming from somewhere else.
"Tyler's dead." Jake's voice, dull and terrible. He put her down and held her face between his hands, making her focus on him. The calm eye in this storm. "We have to run."
Another explosion set Char's adrenaline flowing. She followed Jake down a service staircase and out of the terminal to another tarmac and a funky looking ship, minuscule compared to the Imperial Shuttle. The cargo bay door at the rear closed with the hiss of pneumatic seals.
Jake leapt onto a distended platform that was rising to the cockpit. "Let's go, Meadowlark!"
She accepted his hand, and he pulled her onto the lift.
she wanted to say. But it didn't matter. They were all going to die.
"Don't answer that." Her com was ringing. She reached for her ear, but Jake slapped her hand. "The signal will screw up my telemetry."
"You'll get it back." He ripped the com off and zipped it into his pants
The lift ended in an airlock. Jake slid the door open and ushered Char through a galley just outside the cockpit. On the wall over the airlock, a sign said
Mind the Gap
Jake motioned her to the co-pilot's seat and pulled the security harness over her chest. He leaned in to lock it, and without thinking she rested her hands on his shoulders.
"I'm sorry." She pulled her hands back. She wasn't thinking straight, like her brain and her body had been separated in a freak accident.
"Tyler was my co-pilot."
"But he was IHS."
"Not really." Jake strapped her arms down. "Mike Augustine wanted to make sure you made it to the shuttle without getting the real IHS involved. The orange jumpsuit was too big for me, so Tyler drew the duty." He secured her legs. "For safety. So you won't knock yourself out on the way up."
"Passengers are locked down, boss." A bald and extremely tall woman leaned in from the passenger cabin. She had tattooed eyebrows and eyeliner and no eyelashes. Her eyes were metallic red-brown. Not implants. SJ was tattooed on her left cheek. She was gorgeous. "Tyler?"
"Not coming, Rani." Jake flipped switches and turned dials and punched code into the control panel. He gestured toward Char. "Mike's package. We'll take her up. Shuttle's gone."
"So I heard." The disapproval in Rani's voice could rival the most self-righteous enviro.
"Now would be good." Jake pushed her out and sealed the door.
He was about to sit down when he stopped and turned to Char, strapped in and unable to move. With an odd expression on his face, he reached for her chest.
"Don't get excited." He lifted her necklace over her head. "I'm not going for your precious parts." He zipped the amulet into a pocket in her flight pants.
"Okay, Meadowlark." He secured his harness and punched the ignition. "Let's get the hell off this rock."
Sixty seconds in, Char could barely breathe. If only the G-force could purge the terminal attack from her memory. Tyler's eyes. The child's sobs. She relived that horrific scream. Had it been male or female? As if it mattered.
In less than ten minutes they broke free of gravity's hold and slipped into orbit. The harness kept her secure, but in the weightless state, some of her stress dissipated.
Her chair was twice the size of Jake's.
Tyler was my co-pilot.
"I'm sorry," she said. "About Tyler." Such insipid words for something so horrific.
"He was a good guy." Jake's voice cracked, all former cockiness gone.
rolled over, and they were looking at the earth. Rolling tufts of benign white obscured the planet. The clouds looked like angels diving to earth from heavenly cliffs. She'd pray if it weren't ridiculous.
"I didn't think it would feel so…safe isn't the right word." No wonder Sky had loved it up here.
"Dependable is how I think of it. Even human stupidity can't change the laws of orbit."
The orbital stations were playgrounds where the elite and well-connected escaped the misery of life on earth. No ghosts came up on the shuttles. No malaria, no fallout sickness, no enviros, no weapons.
The Great Sea Level Rise had ruined the world's coastal cities. Since then, the news gave a daily dose of the images of doom. Civilization coming undone. Abandoned buildings that fell into each other as their foundations disintegrated in fetid standing water.