Authors: L K Rigel
Two out of ten million.
"Will you do that to Jake and Rani when they come back from Vacation Station?" She followed Mike to the docking bay's control panel. "Wrap the
in an electric blanket?"
"The Emperor's son and daughter are not terrorists. The
data links are cleared for all Imperial docking bays. They'll find a place."
The sting of Mike's sarcasm was blunted by that other thing: Rani was the Emperor's daughter.
I love all my sisters.
Jake's sister. This shouldn't make Char so particularly happy. But it did.
They took a Ppod to the other side of the annex. Char used the hand anchors to keep her feet on the floor. Entering the main communications center, she experienced the same disorientation as at the Blue Marble. This time she looked up at the world through a broad-spanning window in the ceiling.
They were dayside, crossing Europe and coming up on Asia with the earth perpendicular to the ceiling. Or was the ceiling perpendicular to the earth? It made her dizzy. In the corner, the Imperial station drifted into view.
A bank of computer screens along one wall monitored crops in the annex's growing areas. The agronomist had left a supplemental compad on the desk. When she pushed the switch, the screen beside it came on tuned to an entertainment channel. He must have it on a timer, because
Terra! Terra! Terra!
was playing, muted with Chinese captions and set to record.
Char let the cheesy soap opera play on. Maybe she'd find out what happened to that baby.
At first blush, nothing seemed out of order. There were tomatoes, soybeans, all kinds of greens, corn -- yellow squash, her favorite. And purple onions.
It looked like every crop was enhanced with micronutrients. It was a fantastic rig.
She indulged in a little self-pride. The micronutrients had been her idea. She and Brandon had lobbied hard to have that included in the project. Once accepted, Brandon went into geek-maniac mode until he worked out the Best Efficient Practices for the system. He would have been ecstatic to see this.
"So Rani is Jake's sister?"
"Half sister. Different mothers." Mike cut off the alarms at the com station in the center of the room. "My mother was their private tutor. Didn't Sky tell you?" He sounded hurt. "The three of us were raised together."
Sky had said Mike's family was attached to the Imperial household, but nothing more.
On the soap, the mother of the baby was speaking earnestly to the unbeknownst-to-him father. She looked away forlornly. He, apparently, was suffering great anguish. A headline crawl ran along the bottom of the screen.
DOGs admit North American strike.
Char glanced up at the earth.
"Oh, god." Her knees went weak, and she leaned on the desk. In the middle of old China, a new mushroom cloud was in full bloom. A brilliant flash went off over Asia's east coast. New Korea. She felt like she was going to throw up.
The panel at Mike's left hand blinked. "Do we need to go back?"
Mike ignored her and the com board too. He was focused on the Imperial station, now framed in the center of the window. Two ships on the perimeter sparkled as if covered with firecrackers.
The soap crawl continued.
China accuses New Korea of nuclear attack. Threatens retaliation.
"I think they've already retaliated," Char said. A new mushroom cloud climbed into the air where the light had flashed.
Electric blankets shot out of the Imperial station portals catching some ships while others pulled away. There was no surprise on Mike's face.
"Did you know about this?"
He glanced at the flashing com, but he didn't respond to it.
Char pushed the lit-up button and the com burst to life, the operator frantic. "Repeat. All Imperial channels: DOGs have boarded the station. Repeat. Defenders of Gaia are attacking the Imperial Space Station. This is not a drill. All Imperial -- ah!"
A scream and a few grunts. Someone said
The signal was gone.
Maybe ten ships were dead in space outside the station with electrical arcs dancing on their outer hulls. Another twenty had slipped past the blankets and rammed the station, blowing out entire sections.
"You knew. You knew this was coming when you called me down to the … the
." She could barely get the word out of her mouth. Frivolous. Disgusting. "There's nothing wrong with hydroponics. You just wanted to save your own skin."
A cargo transport headed toward the Blue Marble's see-through floor. In relentless slow motion, the transport plowed through the barrier.
"All those people!
You were supposed to keep them safe, and you abandoned them." She covered her eyes. She'd reached her dead body quotient for the day.
"Shíb, Char." Mike finally said something. "It's going to crash."
What? The transport had already crashed.
But he was talking about the station itself. The DOG ships must have been carrying bombs. Simultaneous explosions had knocked the station out of its orbit.
It was getting smaller.
Not smaller. Farther away. They stared at the ceiling in stunned horror. It took less than ten minutes for the Imperial Space Station to enter the atmosphere, ignite into a fireball, and disappear into the Pacific Ocean.
The annex slipped into nightside like it was creeping under the covers. In the darkness, glowlights lit the floor, giving the room the feel of a techno-fairyland.
"I had to." Mike slumped into the chair at the console beside the monitor, blank now. No signal. "I had to save you, Char. For Sky. I couldn't fail her a second time." He searched her face. For what? Did he think she'd give absolution?
"Why didn't you tell Sky you were governor of the ISS?"
"I met her during a site inspection. I'd been separated from my entourage without a compad, and she found me wandering, lost in a corridor down in the bowels of
. I told her I was a tech assistant. I don't know why. I guess I liked how she was nice to me. To
Not the governor. She shared her sandwich with me and we talked. Or she talked. She could go on about tidal power and photovoltaic arrays."
Char fingered her pendant.
"She had to get back to work. Said she was avoiding the official visit and all the damn poobahs. I'd already fallen for her. I couldn't tell her I was the biggest poobah in the group."
"So you kept lying to her, even after you asked her to marry you."
"I was going to tell her. But things got so complicated."
Right. Char walked the room, rechecking the data on the crop monitors, her mind racing. There were worse places to be stranded than where they grew all the food. Water shouldn't be a problem either, for a while -- this was hydroponics, after all.
She sat down beside Mike, the burst of adrenalin fading.
Please let Jake and Rani be alive.
Who was she pleading with? People believed in gods once, people who weren't crazy either. But when an orbiting city hurtled to the ocean in flames and your fellow creatures set off the last remaining nuclear devices, you had to be pretty sure there was no god.
Seeing angel clouds was as close as Char would get to divinity, and that was fine.
She looked up at the perpendicular earth. It was full dark, a hint of the sun's corona on the horizon. There didn't seem to be enough lights on the surface.
How long had she been awake? Up here she had no sense of time, with the constant cycling through dayside and nightside. The computer clock read 2242. Was that based on Greenwich Mean Time? Not that knowing would change anything.
Mike was of no use. He stared into something that no longer existed, the extent of what he’d done sinking in. He would have to live with all that death. His bodyguards. The sad servers in the Blue Marble. The wine steward. She could muster no pity.
She tried to raise a connection with the
-- or any non-enviro aircraft. The annex computers all seemed to be working, but they were likely on a closed network. She did a file search of the word
to see if anything useful came up. A bust.
Mike had said Jake's data link was programmed into the Imperial docks. Maybe there were shared systems files on the annex computers. She searched for "space junque". Yes! She clicked on the name. Something had to happen. Some connection she could follow through on.
Tears filled her eyes. Suddenly her heart compressed in her chest and she couldn't breathe. What if the V had suffered the same fate as the Imperial station? What if there was no way out of orbit? Her heart pounded so loud against the constriction, she thought she was having an infarction.
She leaned against Mike's back, pressed her ear to his spine and listened to his heart. She willed hers to match its rhythm, forced her lungs to take in air until she was calm again. Exhaustion settled in. It would be good to close her eyes for just a few minutes.
A searchlight streamed down through the ceiling window and traveled over the objects on the console. She jumped out of the chair and dragged Mike with her. Plastered flat against the wall, they waited.
The light held steady for a minute, then moved on. It was a ship, maneuvering around the annex.
"Who do you think it is?" Char said.
Mike pulled himself from his stupor. "You don't have to whisper," he said. "They can't hear you. I'll ID them through their data link."
"They might be headed for the docking bay."
"I'm sure they are. It's no secret this is where the food is. But no one can dock without a link." He was himself again, working the keyboard as if nothing was wrong, the station wasn't gone, and he was still Governor Augustine. "No response. Either they have no link, or they don't want us to know who they are."
"Do we have any electric blankets?" Suddenly those things didn't seem so evil.
"I'm ahead of you," Mike said. "Without the data link, we won't know where they'll come in. We need to go to dock side and eyeball it."
They took the Ppod back to the docking bay. Mike booted up command controls and Char crawled into an "eyeball" -- a round observation alcove that sat like a bubble canopy on the annex hull.
From this vantage, and knowing what to look for, the small portals beside each bay door were obvious. Electric blankets, like giant raptors, must be another subject reporters didn't talk about.
"Here they come!" The ship rounded the annex, its running lights dim. Had Mike heard her? She climbed out of the eyeball. "It looks like they'll be parallel to our bay in about sixty seconds."
She had a new appreciation for the precise language required to fire weapons. But Mike gave her a thumbs-up, so
must have been good enough. She climbed back into the eyeball.
The ship had a sunflower logo. The dead woman from the other ship was floated toward the eyeball. Char jumped as the face knocked against the glass.
It was a flashback. These must be civilians looking for safe harbor. She started to climb out to warn Mike to hold back, but as the ship turned something didn't seem right.
"Do they have a data link?" she yelled.
Mike shook his head.
The ship maneuvered slightly, as if fine-tuning its orientation to the annex.
She understood now about hostile acts. She was vulnerable in the eyeball, not all that far from a freezing, suffocating death.
"Launch the blanket! They're getting ready to ram us!"
The ball shot out of the portal before she finished the sentence. From her position the unfolding mechanical net looked like bat wings extending in a macabre embrace. With its first charge, tears streamed down her face.