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Authors: L K Rigel

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BOOK: Space Junque
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Unlike Rani, Jake never resented their childhood friend's ascent to power. Truth be told, Governor Augustine was a paragon of honesty and fair-dealing compared to your average public official.

But the wind was now the whirlwind. Tyler dead, Rani off the ship, mushroom clouds in bloom throughout North America -- and orbit was about to become a nightmare.

Jake reached for the com as the
drew within range of contact with the V. As he sent out a signal, a private shuttle passed by in the opposite direction. It was close enough to make out its sunflower logo and the pilot's long curly hair.

The DOGs had off-planet vehicles.
. The shuttle seemed to ignore the
, but Jake switched off communications in case it had a data spider. He'd contact Rani on his personal com when he got closer and have her meet him at the docking bay for a quick pickup.

He wanted to get back to the I. He wanted to get back to Char.

An old conversation with his mother popped into his head.

Find a nice girl, Jacob, and let her make you happy. Until then, take the shuttle and stay out of your father's crosshairs.

But Magda, you're not nice.

I'm not talking about me, son.

Right. Magda was a brilliant woman, but not much for judging a man's character. Jake lived at the edge of the law and often stepped to the other side. He hated the Imperial government but didn't do anything about it. He sympathized with the DOGs but couldn't abide their methods.

Aside from Magda and Rani, he didn't much like anybody. He wasn't a bad guy, but he certainly wasn't nice. He was worse than good or evil. He was neutral. Nothing.

He should have stayed neutral in the matter of Char Meadowlark. He should have dropped her off and returned straightaway to Vacation Station. That was the plan, even after she jumped on him when they broke atmosphere.

To be fair, he might have jumped on her too. A little bit. Still, he should have docked and dashed.

It was the hair that tripped him up. That crayon-black color had to come out of a bottle, but then Char's kisses lacked the tell-tale aftertaste of cosmetic pharmaceuticals. Women who used that stuff tasted funny, no matter what Rani said.

Once he discovered that Char Meadowlark was chemical-free, he noticed she was kind of…well, nice. What was she doing with Mike? She said her sister was his fiancée, but Mike wasn't engaged to anybody.

Jake was already in the Blue Marble unnoticed in the corner when Char walked through the door. Something animalistic and territorial had swept over him when Mike put his hands on her like she already belonged to him.

The clashing vibes had been obvious. Mike wanted Char, but she wasn't picking up the signals. An intensely satisfying fact.

Movement, not too far off, caught Jake's attention. Bare eyes alone, he could see two ships heading up from the planet. He suddenly understood why the fake ID.

He'd wondered what was so urgent Mike couldn't wait for legitimate papers to get Char Meadowlark off planet. He was the shibbing governor. All he had to do was say jump.

But questions would have been asked.

Mike must have known those strikes were coming. If the
had been returning to the surface, would he have warned Jake and Rani not to go?

"Destination ETA: one minute, thirty seconds." The audionav brought Jake back to the present, and he sent a link request to the V for docking data. At the same time, his personal com buzzed in his ear.

"Rani. I was just about to call." The
turned to line up for docking. "I'm here."

"Jake, stay away from the docking bay."

"I see what you mean."

The V was under attack. Not by DOGs. Too many incoming civilians were trying to land at once. Two personal shuttles had crashed into each other and were heading in a mash-up toward the VIP airlock. Another ship was out of control, spinning on its own axis and on course for an observation deck that jutted out from the main hull.

No sunflowers. No one intent on destruction. Just panicked pilots. Idiots. This was going to be tricky.

"Where are you?" he asked.

"In our favorite storage room behind the arcade," Rani said, typically calm. Not much flustered that woman. Except Geraldo. "I'm with some people who need a ride."

"Yeah? How many?" You take people on your ship, you're responsible for them. Not a complication he wanted even in uninteresting times.

"They saved my life, Jake."

"Shiba-dang-dib!" A transport flew over the
close enough to cause damage if it had any appendages. Jake killed the data link to the V and moved further out on the station's perimeter.

"That wasn't aimed at you," he said into the com. "Things are happening here too. So. People who save our lives get rides, no problem. Can you get down to the auxiliary bay?"

"Precisely what I had in mind, boss. See you there."

Jake smiled. He hadn't flown, really flown, the
since they installed the data links. Programmed flight was less likely to kill you, but it was also far less fun. He considered it an impressive sign of self-discipline that he refrained from pulling a loop.

He swung the
down to the obscure hull door that Tyler had christened the auxiliary bay. It was really a garbage outlet. They'd used it a few years ago to transfer fifty cases of Lagavulin whisky onto the V and sidestep half a year's worth of red tape. One of Mike's favors.

"I've overridden the lock," Rani said in his ear. "Let me know when you've sealed the tunnel. It's noisy in here."

He eased the ship sideways and shot the boarding tunnel out onto the V's hull. The maneuver only worked because the outlet door was small enough to fit within the tunnel's diameter. Once the vacuum seal took hold, he compressed the tunnel so only a few feet separated the
and the station. He opened the
door to fill the space with air.

"Okay, Rani. You can pop it."

He unbuckled and launched himself from his seat then ran through the passenger cabin. In the cargo bay he dug a stunner out of the storage locker. If Rani's life needed saving, things must be pretty serious.

At the tunnel the hull door opened with the grinding screech of metal on metal. Shouts came from the other side. "Wait! You stand back!" A young girl, by the sound of it. "The matriarch goes first."

Jake yanked the door wider and a frail-looking older lady peeked around at him. She stopped when she saw his stunner.

"There's no time to think about it, ma'am, but I'm the good guy." He held out his free hand to help her through the tunnel.

Immediately behind the old lady, a not-so-spry child tumbled out of the door with two more on her heels. "One at a time!" the yeller inside cried, and an orderly line of little girls flowed past Jake into the
cargo bay.

"Rani?" Jake said into his com, just as her comparatively gigantic self stepped through the hull door.

Bringing up the rear was a child half Rani's size with striking blood-red hair and silver blazes at the temples. She nudged Rani's hip like one of Magda's sheepdogs, then ran to join the matriarch.

Jake looked at Rani. "You want to explain to me how your life was saved by a pack of children?"

Before she could answer, a grotesquely fat man leaned against the door and peered into the tunnel. When he saw Rani, his eyes lit up and he started to come through. "You ain't going nowhere, you shibbin' mutant!" He raised a weapon.

Jake fired the stunner. The guy screamed and fell back as prickles of electricity swarmed up his arm and over his shoulder.

"Sure thing, boss." Rani kicked the mutant hater's foot through the opening and slammed the door shut with one hand. "After we get out of here."

They ducked into the cargo bay. As Jake closed the
side door and retracted the tunnel, Rani headed toward the passenger cabin.

"The matriarch goes first!" said the yeller.

Rani turned and flared her eyes. The irises flashed a fire-like orange yellow color, and the girls screamed. The little red-haired tyrant jumped slightly and her eyes widened, but she held her ground and stared at Rani with defiance.

Jake chuckled. The first time Rani did that to him, he peed his pants. He was twelve years old and scared shitless. It took him ages to believe there was no harm in it.

"The matriarch can't go first if she doesn't know where to go." Rani's irises returned to their normal metallic red-brown.

"She meant no disrespect, Durga." The old woman rested her hand on the girl's shoulder. "I am happy to follow."

While the new passengers connected their safety harnesses, Jake learned that Rani's heroes were nine girls between eight and ten years old from a boarding school outside Mexico City. They settled into the passenger cabin as if they were on a field trip. Two immediately fell asleep. A few complained about being hungry.

"We were warned." The matriarch grabbed Jake's arm as he passed her on his way to the cockpit. "No one else would come with us. No one else believed."

"She stole the shuttle and flew it herself," Rani said. "The Chilean ambassador had stopped to collect her daughter, and the ship was pre-set for Vacation Station. They arrived before things went insane."

"And the saving-your-life thing?"

"Our friend in the auxiliary bay saw me in the arcade and started screaming about mutants. As you saw, he had a weapon."

"What about IHS?" The V's security force was legendary. Troublemakers simply disappeared and were banned from the sky for life, no appeal.

"As usual, too busy to defend a mutant. Durga stepped in front me and commanded him in the name of the goddess to lower his weapon. The other girls surrounded me like a shield. By then a crowd had gathered and he was shamed into standing down."

The girl smiled at him as if she knew she deserved praise. "Can I ride in the cockpit with you?"

"You just saved my sister's life," he said. "Yes, you can ride in the cockpit."

The little tyrant sat on her knees in Tyler's chair, as enraptured by her first clear view of space as Jake had been by his. He had never planned to work in orbit. If he hadn't been the Emperor's bastard, he would have become an archeologist. Mythology and religion were his favorite subjects growing up.

But Magda was the Emperor's favorite plaything; and when the ruler of the world gave his plaything a space ship, she gave it to her son. Studying old gods and heroes was nothing when you could punch through the haze and actually see the constellations that bore their names.

"In the old stories, Durga was a goddess with ten arms who rode tigers into battle."

The satisfaction on her face was priceless.

Jake set the
for the Imperial station. "That's interesting hair for such a young girl. Does your matriarch approve of ingesting enhancements?"

"I used to have brown hair," she said. "But it changed when I talked to Asherah."

"Asherah?" The name sounded vaguely familiar.

"The goddess of life and fertility."

"Oh, that's nice."
, who were these people?

Durga knitted her eyebrows, apparently not pleased with his lack of piety. "She told me to save Rani."

"That was brave of you."

"No, it wasn't. I knew I wouldn't die. Asherah says I will live a hundred and fifty years."

A bright flash went off below, momentarily obscuring the view. Another nuke. In China this time.

Durga stood on the chair and leaned over to the corner of the window, oblivious to the mushroom cloud. "There goes Vacation Station."

Jake canceled the flight program and turned the
for a better view. The station was breached in several places where ships had collided against the hull. He scanned the bays for a place to pick up survivors.

BOOK: Space Junque
4.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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