Adult: SC,V |
PART I - The Awakening
From Chapter 2
A persistent dream veiled Juilan's sleep with discontent. Darkness consumed details of a village where people ran and wooden buildings burned. Orange flames licked the corner of her thoughts while the whine of weapons caused her to shift and frown. She smelled smoke.
A voice: "How can you sleep! Get up. Hurry!"
That was real, not her dream, and Juilan snapped opened her eyes, alert.
Magritho dashed around the small cabin. "It's the damn Frens," the woman announced as she gathered her belongings. "We're being attacked!"
"Attacked!" Juilan lurched up, her pulse thumping. "Attacked," she muttered, reaching for her slacks. "Why would Frenkrits attack a spaceliner? I thought the danger was for grain ships." This isn't real. This isn't happening.
"Hostages, I'll bet, and I'm determined not to get caught."
Juilan gritted her teeth as she stuffed the coral fabric of her shirttail into her trousers and fastened on her security belt. Her hands shook, and after three attempts to tie the skirt around her waist she tossed it aside.
Magritho whipped by, her chunky arms clutching two satchels and her office pack. "Grab all you can carry and follow me. I've found us a way off this crate."
"A way off? Leave the ship?" Black void filled Juilan's mind-the view from the ship's observation lounge spinning endlessly. She pulled on her dark blue jacket, stuffed her feet into her boots and tossed her hairbrush into the wheeled valise. My first space voyage, and this happens. The ship jolted, lurching her sideways as she started to the door. The floor quivered and an ominous thumping seemed loud.
"At least this ship has armaments," Magritho said. "Hurry up!" They rushed into the hall.
"Oh! My harp." Juilan dashed back into the cabin, her movements causing her to bounce along. She ducked to avoid hitting her head on the overhead storage rail. Grasping the edge of the bed, she pushed herself down and pulled the instrument from under the bunk. She hugged it to her. Back in the hall, she used the low-g to catch Magritho.
"Here we are on the brink of certain misery, and you're worried about an instrument," Magritho muttered when Juilan caught up to her.
Juilan pinched her lips together and gripped the case-the instrument-her only connection to her father ("Keeping me part of you").
ceiling; speakers droned evacuation orders. Too many people screaming, pushing in on her from all sides. Fear-rancid smell. Headache. Magritho bypassed slides leading to evacuation pods and continued along crowded corridors and down tunnel-like stairwells. Juilan jerked the valise along, and several levels later they entered a cavernous rotunda where ships queued at the exit beds. People raced to vessels and argued over who would depart on which ship. Some of the vehicles were cruisers while others were cargo lorries where crew flung aside merchandise to make room for passengers. Hot metallic smell.
"There's an IC cruiser," Juilan said, starting toward the huge vehicle. Magritho's diplomatic privileges will surely give us passage.
"Rishtug! Over here!" came a call.
Juilan turned and squinted at a tall man who waved them on; his auburn hair gleamed in the bright lights of the bay. How ironic, she thought. She had seen him when they boarded the spaceliner-had especially noticed his good looks and he hadn't disguised his interest in her. She had briefly wondered if they might meet during the voyage. And here he was. She hurried to catch Magritho.
"Who is he?" Juilan asked as a cargo truck slowed their progress. Tan-skinned and square-jawed, he wore snug-fitting green trousers and a plain brown shirt.
"Joddrie Ferstan, a New Brounnen businessman. He's agreed to get us the hell out of here. I've already checked him out. It's all right."
Juilan drew her study from the man to the ship. The sleek silver-green craft had an oblate hull, smooth lines and molded power units. "Looks like a wind ship for interlunar runs. How far are we likely to get in that?" Juilan asked.
"At least to a research platform," Magritho declared.
Juilan easily accepted Magritho's appraisal. Her own thoughts were jumbled with fear built by the surrounding scrabble of activity.
"What took so long?" the man asked when they reached him.
"She was sleeping! Can you believe it?" Magritho glared at Juilan.
The pilot turned hazel eyes on her, then rushed past them to stop a man who dashed toward the loading ramp of the ship.
"Can't we take another?" Juilan asked as their benefactor kicked the interloper. The man reeled back. Blood dripped from his injured nose.
"No." The pilot's voice was calm, even though he grappled with another panicked traveler.
Juilan's senses tingled as if rubbed raw with an astringent. The spaceliner trembled, and a sudden explosion convinced her to clamber up the plank behind Magritho. They passed ballast and hydrogen conduits, hunched through the engineering chutes—the active ship's motors throbbing—climbed a sloped ladder. Industrial metal curved away and Juilan entered the passenger compartment where walls, floor and ceiling, were all in a crimson insulsteel and plush with black trim; the seats were expensive memfoam. The din from the launch bay was muted; calm replaced the discordant pressure she had previously felt.
One of the four seats was occupied by a fellow who nodded to her, appearing unruffled by the near hysteria outside. His wavy hair was fashioned in the shoulder-length rainbow shag most popular with children; iridescent dyes shimmered faint colors against his skin. Tan jacket, brown shirt; Juilan's fear threatened to topple her when she noticed the neuristor-impulse pistol holstered low along the right leg of his tight-fitting pants. One shot from an NI and nerve fibers were destroyed, muscle tissue obliterated. This fellow caressed the black curved handle as if it were a pet.
Magritho, what have you gotten us into.
Magritho stowed her bags in an overhead compartment. Juilan pushed her valise into another one as the pilot strode by.
"Settle in! Fasten up!" he ordered as he slid into the cockpit.
Juilan held onto her harp and sank into the seat across the aisle from Magritho, sucking in her breath against the feel of warm memfoam. It oozed to the shape of her thighs and back; a fullness of it developed behind her calves, and within seconds her body felt as if it were floating-all muscles unneeded to support her. She could see into the cramped cockpit with its banks of monitors and readouts. Slim fingers of a woman moved deftly over controls; she was dressed identically to the other two, her brown hair cut short; she wore an NI holstered on her hip.
They're mercenaries! Juilan's stomach knotted. If they're for hire, they could be kidnapping Magritho. She wondered what payment they received: credits, land titles, drugs?
"What can we do?" Magritho asked in a voice husky with fear.
"If you've a god, you might say some prayers," the pilot quipped.
Through the cockpit window, Juilan watched greenish smoke billow across the departure area. Another concussion shook the spaceliner. Magritho muttered a quick prayer as the small ship shimmied down the launch bed, through a diaphragm and toward its exit. Juilan sucked in her alarm; the gigantic sphincter outlet was closed. The pilot's hands touched some buttons. The door began to uncoil and the ship shot through a seemingly impossible opening. "Stars afire!" Magritho exclaimed.
Juilan gripped the memfoam as acceleration pressed her into the protective seat. Adrenaline kept her pulse rapid. The large bulwark of another ship loomed. Before Juilan could blink, they veered upward. Something whooshed from below her and shook their ship. Brightness flooded around the window. Then they were cruising in black space. Motors purred from the bowels of the ship.
"They aren't coming after us, are they?" Magritho asked.
The pilot, Joddrie Ferstan, checked scans and instrumentation. "No pursuit," he finally said.
Magritho sighed, fanning herself with her hand.
"How-how long before we can go back?" Juilan stuttered. No one responded. "Regulators must be on their way," Juilan persisted. "Can't we just float around out here and then go back to the ship?" She shifted; the seat adjusted. Ferstan laughed and looked at her. "The Regulators are all off patrolling the trade lanes. Besides, I doubt there'll be much of a ship to go back to."
"You're joking. It won't be that...bad..." She clutched the neck of her harp and stared at the pilot, wanting reassurance. Her stomach rolled and threatened revolt. She swallowed, swallowed, swallowed and regained control. Keep talking; don't dwell on this. This isn't happening. "You don't seem too distressed," she managed.
He shrugged. "I got off everything I needed."
"There's a research platform close by. Right?" Magritho declared.
"Or even a penal facility," Juilan put in. "Regulators would be there and could call for a rescue ship." Juilan's hope waned. If these people were mercenaries, they probably wouldn't want to deal with penal-colony Regulators.
"There's a research station," Magritho said emphatically.
"Right. A research station." The pilot smirked, then called to the other man. "Go below and set the transfer rods." He turned to the woman. "You have our headings confirmed?"
"Locked and ready to go."
"To where?" Magritho asked.
"You must be joking!" Juilan blurted out. In this second attempt to colonize Srotag, very little news was available from the remote planet. The first attempt to colonize, thirty years ago, had lasted only three years. Unlike New Brounnen, Srotag possessed sentient natives, and the Interstellar Consortium never developed effective diplomatic relations. Juilan hadn't heard anything about diplomacy in the seven months since the IC had returned there.
"We can't go there!" Magritho barked, eyes wide. "People are expecting—"
"Yes, a lot of people are expecting a lot of things." The pilot concentrated on a bank of dials.
"You can't do this!" Magritho pulled out of her seat and started toward the cockpit. "I never agreed to be hauled—"
"This is my ship!" Ferstan turned on Magritho. The intensity of his voice stilled the woman. "I set its course. Do you understand?"
Magritho sat down hard, her face pale.
The discord blistered Juilan's fear-streaked thoughts. She clutched her harp while her mind became a dancing, loose thing. Pain bloomed across her abdomen and around her back; she wanted to shrink away and become invisible. When Magritho pulled a flask from her bag, uncapped it, and took a long drink, Juilan wished she could drink or take a drug to remove her from this. She closed her eyes and tucked her chin to her chest, hoping she wouldn't get sick. She felt the pilot's gaze on her, sensed him watching her. She shivered and looked up at him. He smiled.