Authors: L K Rigel
One reporter was famous for her stories on fantastical explosions caused by ruptured gas lines. She'd shoot pictures with a zoom lens, hanging out of a helicopter. A cheap ploy for ratings, and it worked.
The religious types had been delirious with apocalyptic ecstasy going back to the Gulf Spill of 2010 and the creation of the New Dead Sea. Two years ago in the Pacific Zone, the Talibanos Unidos destroyed the entire Los Angeles/San Diego corridor with dirty bombs.
After that, even politicians made no show of belief. The names of god had become curses, stripped of their capital letters.
When the DOGs wiped out the last remnant of the TU, Char had bought a round of drinks to toast them. That was the last time they'd all been together, Char and Brandon and Sky and Mike. A week later the DOGs set off C4 explosives at Tesla's shoreline headquarters near Davis.
Sky wasn't there that day, but Brandon's train had been caught in the blast.
During his funeral, Sky had called.
Don't worry, sis,
she said as the vault was closing. Always the braver, smarter, better twin.
I know you worry -- and don't. I'll be safer than you are on the surface.
Char had quit the university and found work online, vetting the science parts of briefs for corporate lawyers. She bought produce at the farmers market. Grew sprouts in vials in her kitchen. Took the zephyr to Tahoe to see clean water and pretend things weren't so bad.
On television, breathless announcers narrated the worst of times so often it became background noise. Then this morning Mike had called.
Get to the airport now and get up here.
Trust me on this one, Char. Just do it.
Now she understood the attraction. At two hundred twenty miles above sea level, you could pretend things weren't so bad.
Jake threw off his harness and stood up to stretch, anchoring his boots in footholds on the floor. He looked a few years older than Char, twenty-eight, maybe thirty. He wasn't huge like Tyler, but he was in great shape. And definitely not engineered. Those were genuine, earned muscles under that tight-fitting hemp shirt.
He swung her chair around and knelt in front of her, removing the straps from her arms and legs. Again without thinking, she reached out and ran her fingers through his hair.
He looked up sharply. She expected anger, but she saw tears. It had all gotten to him too, then. She smoothed the furrow between his eyes. Did she want to comfort him? Or did she want him to comfort her?
He lifted the harness off her chest, and she floated up from the seat. His hands almost surrounded her waist as he pulled her down. She wrapped her legs around his hips, anchoring herself.
He searched her eyes, silently asking permission to keep going. She guided his hand to the single strap on her top. He pulled it down and kissed her neck, moving toward her breasts. In the weightlessness, she moved easily to give him access to anything he wanted.
"Jake, we are orbiting and stable." Rani's slight Hindi accent came over the speaker. "Do you want to go around once or twice before hook-up?"
"Once," Jake gasped. He pounded on the console until his fingers reached the speaker switch and turned it off. He unfastened Char's flight pants and then his own. She kept from floating away by holding his face between her hands. She kissed him.
She didn't need -- didn't want -- anything prolonged. Only connection, now, with another human being. She swung her weightless body down and writhed against him and with him. The words
I'm alive, I'm alive
pulsed in her brain until she shuddered in the bliss of spasms and heat and release.
With no warning they fell, Char's knee ramming the armrest of Jake's chair. "Shibadeh!"
"That's harsh." His eyes never left her as she climbed off him and pulled her clothes back on. "I guess Rani turned on the AG."
had artificial gravity. Not as funky as her first assessment.
A familiar chime interrupted Char's response. "You're ringing in my pants." Jake's smile was happy and a little sad at the same time. He pulled her com out of his pocket.
Mike. She slipped the com into her ear.
"Char, my god. I thought you were on the shuttle."
"I was at the boarding gate." She felt guilty, like she'd been caught in some mischief. But Mike wasn't her brother -- or even her brother-in-law.
"I asked a guy I know to make sure you boarded the shuttle. I've been out of my mind."
"Tyler. . . ." She couldn't go on. Somehow that made Tyler's death worse, her fault that he was at the boarding gate. He should have been safe on the
when the bombs went off.
"No, a guy named Jake Ardri, but Tyler works for him. Where are you?"
"Mike, Tyler's dead and it's my fault." That was it. The tears had started, and now she couldn't speak.
"Give me that." Jake took the com off her ear and plugged it into the console dock. "Mike. Jake here. The
up. As you heard, I have your package."
"I'm gratified to hear it. How soon can you get here?"
That was the third time Jake called her that.
Not pleasant, on more than one level.
"I've got private pays on board. I should drop them off before hooking up with your illustrious facility." All business. As if nothing had happened between them. That was fine; this was no time for complications.
"They can wait in the
and be glad they're off planet." Mike sounded different. Cold. But then, she'd only ever seen him with Sky. "I want to see Char. She sounds pretty shaken."
"It was nobody's fault but the damned DOGs. Tyler was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"I'm sitting right here, guys."
"You're clear for dock eight," Mike said. "Dump your passengers later."
"No problem. Catch you in forty minutes." Jake signed off and entered the flight data.
They'd reached nightside. Pictures of cities at night taken from space were nothing to reality, more intense by orders of magnitude. "Is that Garrick City?" Char asked. The lights were a dazzling white and gold blaze curled around a span of blackness.
Garrick Corporation had the sole Imperial charter to process the world's remaining oil. The company was building an entirely new and secure city adjoining their refineries, about fifty miles west of old Chicago, which had been lost to the Rise when the Great Lakes merged into one body now called the Garrick Sea.
"Real pretty." Jake laid the sarcasm on thick. "I hear there's ten times as much ghosting these days outside Chicagoland."
Char gasped. "They wouldn't dare quarantine the Mountain Zone."
Garrick did what it liked and no one, not even the Emperor, suggested anything should be different. No. IHS would not quarantine the Mountain Zone.
"Anyway," Jake said, "ghosting isn't contagious, and IHS knows that. Quarantines aren't about public health. They're about control. About having a scapegoat."
Char thought of Rani. Bald, no eyebrows or eyelashes. The metallic cast to her eye color. She hadn't gone ghost, but she was obviously a mutant. Was Jake a sympathizer?
"What's Char short for?" He changed the subject. "Charcoala? Chartreuse? Charming?"
The sex had meant nothing. It was to satisfy a primal need. Jake felt the same, Char didn't doubt it. Still, she felt a friendly kind of bond with him. Maybe because they'd escaped death together.
"Right. And you have a sister named Scylla."
She liked that he knew what her name meant.
"Matter of fact, yes. My twin. We called her Sky." It felt strange, and good, to say the name aloud without pain stabbing her heart. "We were natural born. Our mother never wanted children. She named us after monsters to get back at our father for impregnating her."
"Blasphemy!" Jake laughed as he said it. "But if she didn't want a pregnancy, why didn't she bag you?"
"Against her principles. It was early days on the technology. She said the risk was too high of picking up resistant bacteria."
"You said you
your sister Sky?"
"She was an engineer with Tesla. I haven't heard from her since they closed the vault."
"I'm sorry." The kindness was genuine. "You might see her again, when we get past all this."
"Sure, it could happen." It had been a year. The Tesla seals were inviolate. Nobody could get in -- and nobody could get out either. The vault was equipped to sustain the team for the five years they needed to complete their work. Seven months in, they quit sending messages.
"So, natural born then." He was trying to cheer her up. "No wonder you have friends in such high places."
"Mike? He's a mid level bureaucrat."
"I've heard Michael Augustine called a lot of things. Called him a few things myself. But never mid level."
Jake was wrong, but she didn't want to get Mike in trouble so she let it pass. "And what about you? You must have connections. You're young to own a ship. How did that happen?"
"The Emperor keeps only fertile concubines."
"The Emperor is your father."
"Technically. I've never met him. He gave the
to my mother. And this ship too."
Groan, groan, groan. "I didn't realize I was flying with royalty."
So confusing. Jake defended ghosts and ridiculed quarantines. But he was no rebel; he despised the DOGs. And his father was the Emperor.
"Merely royalty's bastard, ma'am." He spread his arms and bowed, like he had done down below. "Your boyfriend Mike is closer to the Emperor than I'll ever be. Don't be impressed."
"I'll force myself not to adore you." But she already liked him. "And Mike isn't my boyfriend. He's my sister's fiancé."
Jake leaned back in his chair, seemingly lost in thought. He flipped a few more switches on the console and handed Char's com back to her. "So you want to see my
She wrapped the com over her ear and smiled. "I thought I already had."
The soap was scented with lavender, the shampoo with ylang-ylang. But the marvelous thing was the water. Glorious clean hot liquid pulsed over Char's shoulders and down her back. Three cheers for artificial gravity!
Windows in the bath and the bedroom looked out on the space side of the station. Beautiful when she didn't think about it. Terrifying when she did. Sky had raved about this view of the stars.
No Mike yet. He'd left a message:
Take as long as you like in the shower, then meet me at the Blue Marble
How did they do it? Down below, at least in the Pacific Zone, personal water was limited to seven gallons a week, including what you drank. The station's hydroponics annex must have turned out amazing.
Her suite was like a cave in a fairy tale, not buried in the earth, but suspended at the cusp of space. Little bits of treasure were scattered about. The scented soaps. A ceramic cistern of cold water. A bowl of raspberries. A box of makeup with the seals unbroken.
She dipped a sable brush in brick-colored mineral powder. She hadn't painted her face in ages, and now she went all the way with eyeliner and shadow and lip gloss.
The closet was full of new clothes. Ugh. Everything was styled toward the slutty, but it all looked like it would fit. She selected blood red hemp flight pants and a black top with capped sleeves and a stand-up collar. The colors set off her black hair and blue eyes.
She was meeting Mike on the planet side of the station. She programmed
into her suite's compad, and as she walked through the corridors green lights flashed to indicate the turns. They led to an elevator with
written beside the door.
Inside the elevator a pleasant male voice said, "Hand anchors are provided for your safety and comfort." The artificial gravity kicked off. Char noticed the hand-holds in the walls, but she preferred the free-floating experience. The utter relaxation of weightlessness was lovely.