Chapter Ten

Gunny was sitting at a battered booth, raising a glass of piss-yellow liquid in a jar with a few locals who appeared just as in their cups. His shirt was untucked and his rather large girth was peeking out from beneath. He was singing along with a man holding a microphone, strangely in key:

“We sent our probes out into the dark,

Hoping ours was not an uncommon part,

But the probes came back, and we found out

We are alone in the black, alone in the black …”

One of the members of the group belched in time with the final verse and they nearly fell off their seats from laughing.

Noa’s heart fell as she walked toward them. When she’d been in Boss’s place and seen the man who’d she’d at first thought was Gunny, the first thought to enter her mind was that he’d been drugged. Gunny was too smart, too experienced, to get drunk on a mission. But now—

“Commnnanderrrrr!” Gunny slurred, getting to his feet. “I have interrogated these gentlemen—”

“Most strenuously!” one said.

The other sang softly to himself, “Alone in the night, have to make our own light.”

“Most stren-u-lousely,” Gunny slurred. “And they haven’t seen Kuin and Jun.” He gave a solute with the glass jar in his hand. The remainder of the liquid sloshed out onto his hair. Gunny swayed on his feet, looking confused.

“We have to go,” James said behind her.

Remembering the crowd outside, Noa looked around the bar. There was no sign of an emergency exit. Gesturing with her thumb toward the door, Noa said, “March, soldier.”

Gunny took a few steps and began to sway.

Growling, James swooped by her. “We have no time for this.” Gunny was slung over his shoulder a moment later.

“Whoa, big guy, usually I prefer a bit more romancing before I—” he belched, “—get thrown over anyone’s shoulder. Also, I might throw up.”

Noa thought she might throw up, too. Gunny reeked. She looked at James and in their secret cipher spoke across the ether. “Sorry.”

James just hunkered toward the door. He was carrying Gunny, two duffels, and a still unconscious Carl Sagan in his shirt. He was always taking on the burden of her less than brilliant plans.

He drew to a halt just before stepping outside. “Damn,” he said over the ether. And then he growled and readjusted a duffel. “Do I really need to carry all of these? It’s awkward, and we’re going to need to run.” Noa poked her head around his frame and saw that someone down the street was gesturing in their direction.

“Just go, I have a plan,” Noa said.

James’s eyes slid to her. His avatar rose in her mind and smiled wryly. “Of course you do,” the real James said, his face expressionless.

“Hopefully it won’t involve you carrying any more of my half-baked ideas,” Noa said.

“It is awkward,” James said, his gaze too heavy. “But not too heavy.”

She slipped her knife out of her pocket and nodded toward the door. “Are you speaking in allegories to confuse a poor, uneducated colonist, Professor?” It was a weak joke but all she had at the moment.

“You know the meaning of the word 'allegory'?” James said as they stepped through the main thoroughfare. “I’m shocked, Luddeccean.” He winked at her and she knew he wasn’t.

Behind them Noa heard the crowd rising.

“Stop flirting!” Gunny interjected. “There’s a lynch mob behind us!”

“There they are,” someone said.

“Also, I’m going to throw up,” Gunny added.

Behind her in the crowd, she heard “Throwbacks,” “Luddy,” “Reward,” and then, “Security forces, out of the way!”

“Should I run now?” said James.

“No!” said Noa. “Hold still.”

“Please, God, no!” Gunny moaned. “No running.”

Noa slit one of the duffels on James’s back from top to bottom, spilling the S-rations on the ground. At the top of her lungs, she shouted, “Free Grub! Come and get it!”

The effect was immediate. People started pouring out of doorways and alleys. There were people dressed in rags, prostitutes in cheap finery, business people in real finery, workmen, and more. The bouncer she’d talked to about Gunny leaped off his stool and came plowing through the others. The security personnel were completely cut off.

“Now we run!” she said.

“No!” shrieked Gunny.

James ignored him. They rushed down the main thoroughfare, Noa’s duffel and James’s remaining duffel still in tow. Noa reached out to James through the ether and silently communicated their path. They passed the narrow alleyway they’d nearly gone down before, sprinted a block or two more, and then turned down another alley and entered an unmarked door—in their minds it was demarcated as a stairway to a dock inspection station. Going through inspection was going to be a lizzar and a half, but there was no way around it …

She blinked. What should be an entrance to a stairwell was a tiny, empty chamber not much larger than a closet. The walls were a slightly worn pink velvet. The only exit seemed to be a door draped with beads.

She looked at James; he looked at her. She shrugged and stepped through the beads into a space with more crushed velvet walls, curtains galore and women and men in cheap satins and laces, and a lot of makeup. For a moment no one said anything. James’s eyes slid to Noa’s again, one of his eyebrows lifted, and then Gunny, still on James’s back, belched and bellowed, “Howdy, ladies!”

A lean, bare-chested human male in eyeliner stepped forward, eyes scanning James’s body. “Welcome to Lucky Chance, the only all-human bordello on Adam’s Station. How may I be of service?”

“Is this the stairwell to the dock?” James asked.

It hit Noa in an instant. “A bordello in the stairwell—a brilliant business move!” she said before she’d realized she’d said it aloud and not merely thought it. Her eyes slid around the room—but which curtain was the doorway behind?

The man smiled. “I like to think so. Technically against regulations, but the inspectors are easy to pay off.”

Someone snickered. The man winked.

Outside the bordello Noa heard shouts, and “check all exits!”

Smile vanishing, the man’s lips pursed and his eyes narrowed.

“We can pay you in S-rations,” Noa said, slipping her duffel off and showing the man the contents.

There were gasps around the room.

Eyes widening, he said, “Right this way, Sweet Hearts!” Flicking a hand to the women in the room, he said, “Keep Security occupied!”

They rounded a corner and passed behind a curtain into a dark room beyond. “Aww … are we leaving so soon?” Gunny hiccuped.

“Shh!” James hissed.

Gunny snored in response.

There were the sounds of crashing feet behind them. Someone said, “Hello, Soldiers! You know how much we love men in uniform!”

“Out of our way! We’re checking the stairs.”

Noa stiffened. But their guide put a finger to his lips. He stopped at another curtain and whispered, “Do you want to go to the inspection station? Or inside the dock?”

Noa blinked. James said, “You can get us inside the dock?”

“Sure, this way,” he said. He guided them behind another curtain to a room where a woman was stripping sheets from a bed.

The man turned to James and Noa and said, “All human and extremely clean … if you are passing this way again.”

James’s jaw shifted at the proprietor’s gaze.

Unable to read him, Noa couldn’t help but reach through the ether. “Are you laughing?”

James’s thoughts snapped across the channel. “No!”

“No need to get insulted by the attention—I think he’s kind of cute,” Noa said.

Gunny abruptly woke up. “I think I’m goin’ to throw up,” he said again.

James’s head darted too quickly in Noa’s direction, and his eyes narrowed. She decided not to press her luck. To the proprietor, she said, “We’ll keep your place in mind.”

And then, Ghost’s voice erupted in her brain. “Commander, we have problems here.”

“Coming, Ghost,” she said. “I don’t suppose Manuel has the time band and fuses ready?”

“I’m helping him to finish installing all the new fuses right now!” Ghost said. “Hurry!”

Noa was afraid to ask what was putting Ghost in such a tizzy and focused on their guide instead. He was leading them behind yet another curtain, to yet another velvet-walled room. There was a twisting, curling vine-like plant to one side. Their guide reached into it, pulled out what looked like a strand of vine, and plugged it into his data port. The wall sprang open with a sigh, revealing a cave-like passageway similar to the one at Boss’s joint. An internal app told her that this one had enough oxygen, though.

“Do all establishments have secret exits here?” James asked.

Tone businesslike, their guide said, “If they’re smart.”

A light fell in a circular beam at the end of the cave, like it was slipping through a manhole cover. Noa thought she heard a far-off roar but couldn’t discern its source. Their guide inclined his head toward the circle of light. “There’s a ladder and the cover opens up easy enough.” Noa handed him James’s last duffel. “Thanks,” she said. The man clutched it to himself tightly, and his eyes fell on it with a hunger she hadn’t seen even when he was looking at James.

“Anytime,” the man said, and he slipped out the door in the wall, letting it fall shut behind him.

James stood motionless in the dark.

“Ready?” Noa said over the ether.

“No. My eyes are still adjusting.”

Noa slipped by him and went up the ladder, the far-off roar becoming louder. Was that shouting? She pushed the heavy plastic covering above the ladder to the side and peered out. Her eyes were at ground level of the dock, off to a corner. She saw Wren’s ship, and in the distance, the Ark’s plastitube, drawn up, just at the edge of the asteroid’s too-close horizon. The roar was even louder—it sounded like shouting perhaps—but the source was beyond the horizon and she couldn’t hear the words. Not bothering to replace the cover, she hopped back down, slipped off her duffel, and took out the components for three phaser rifles. She hadn’t wanted to draw attention below, but no way were they going to make it across the dock unopposed. Putting the pieces together with practiced motions, she handed one to James, kept one for herself, and stowed the third. She’d planned to hand that one to Gunny—she looked at him drooling upside down—that wasn’t going to happen.

“Coast is clear?” James whispered.

“Yeah,” Noa said, standing and leaving the empty duffel on the ground. She patted her stunner and the knife hidden beneath her coat. “Let’s go.”

They worked together to wrangle the still unconscious Gunny onto the dock, and no one noticed them. It made Noa's skin prickle. As soon as the three of them were topside, they darted beneath the closest ship.

“Still no one,” Noa said, her stomach sinking. There were no dock workers, no ‘bots. It was eerily empty of movement. “I have a very bad feeling about this.”

Readjusting Gunny, James said, “As much as I’m enjoying not being shot at, I’m getting a bad feeling about this, too.”

Taking a deep breath, Noa inclined her head toward Wren’s ship. The vessel was still in a state of disrepair, with burnt siding lying on the dock, and what looked like a semi-disengaged time band. “We run behind that piece of siding there,” Noa said. “Just underneath the nose.”

“Right,” said James. His eyes went to the horizon. “I wish we could see what was going on.”

“We’ll see soon enough,” said Noa. “Ready?”

They darted across the empty dock to the cover of Wren’s vessel, keeping their heads down. Gunny, thankfully, was temporarily passed out and didn’t add commentary, or puke. Noa didn’t raise her eyes until they were behind the displaced siding. She peeked around it and gasped.

Just beyond the Ark were two lines of security personnel in rag-tag armor. Beyond them was a mass of people, barely held back by the first line of troops. “We want food! We want the Ark!”

“Ghost,” Noa said across the shared channel. “Do you know what’s going on?”

“I’m not sure if Adam sent the protestors or if it’s a genuine movement. We have to get out of here!” Ghost snapped over the ether. “Moreover … I don’t like that new ship. They’ve been inviting people aboard, and they’re not using the ether. None! I think they might be Luddeccean Intel.”

Noa looked in the direction of the ship they’d seen landing when they left the dock, but it was too far away to see over the horizon.

“You’re just telling me now?” said Noa.

“It’s just occurring to me now!” snapped Ghost.

“Manuel,” Noa called through the ether, “are we ready for lightspeed?”

“No—”

Ghost cut off the engineer. “Forget lightspeed! We have to leave the dock at least. Adam is sending in a regiment.”

Noa looked across the wide expanse—nearly 325 meters according to her internal apps.

She took a deep breath. “A plan, I need a plan—”

“May I suggest running like hell?” James said, readjusting Gunny on his shoulder.

Noa looked at him; her mouth gaped. And then she nodded. “Right. Right, we’ll do that.”

Across the ether, Noa said, “I don’t suppose you can lower the plastitubing, Ghost?”

Manuel answered for him. “We Luddy-rigged it to be ethernet independent. We’ll drop it for you.”

Noa dropped to a sprinter’s crouch. James did the same, but his position was awkward with Gunny on his back. Noa stifled a wince. It made more sense for him to carry the heavy man, but she did feel bad about it.

“Ready?” she asked.

“No,” James said.

She snorted. Typical. “Let's go!” Noa said, and they took off across the dock. Noa was a fast sprinter, thanks to Fleet nanos that helped with muscle and bone repairs, and genetics. James was faster normally, but with Gunny slung across his back, they were about the same speed. As they tore across the tarmac, she saw the crowd coming into view but forced herself to focus on one foot in front of the other, pumping her arms to the rhythm of her feet and breathing evenly. And then over the sound of her heartbeat and her breathing, she heard a low roar.

“Almost there!” she cried over the ether, even as the thunder was getting closer. There were only 150 meters more.

“Commander!” Chavez’s voice screamed over the ether.

“The reinforcements!” Ghost’s voice cracked.

Noa ducked her head and ran faster. James threw out an arm, catching her across the middle and knocking the wind out of her.

“Keep running!” she gasped, barely audible to herself over her panting, the frantic beat of her heart, and the crowd, the voices of which were an incomprehensible roar.

“Halt right there!” a megaphone-amplified voice rolled like thunder across the dock.

Noa lifted her eyes at last. Streaming through the crowd were thirty armored souls, in addition to the men already in place. They’d already cut off the route to the plastitubing, not quite to the dock. The newcomers had their rifles on their shoulders. Noa and James were in their sights.

* * *

James stared down the muzzles of the armed men running through the crowd. Static fizzled along his spine. He was facing death with Noa once again. This time he knew he belonged to himself, and it gave him a strange sense of calm. The gates didn’t control him. He was the master of his own destiny; he was here because of his own choice. Clutching Gunny with one arm, he pulled his rifle around.

And then through the ether, Ghost’s voice ripped. “The new ship, they are with Luddeccean Intel! Adam was just talking about it with his second-in-command; he’s sending out his own Guard as part of a deal for supplies. We have to leave; they can’t capture me!”

Beside him, Noa whispered in a rush, “We're not a threat to them anymore ... but they're coming all this way?”

James tilted his head. If they got to the Kanakah Cloud and opened the new gate, they'd be a threat. As if thinking the same thought, Noa said, “Well, we're not a threat as far as they know.” Her lip curled and her chin dipped. “They want to make an example of us.”

James remembered the Guard talking about ripping out Noa’s port and her stories of what they did to augments like him.

He had seized control of his destiny. He wouldn’t give it away. His eyes slid to Noa. “Noa,” he whispered. “I'd rather die than give them that opportunity.”

Noa looked up at him, a ghost of a smile touched her lips, and then she nodded. They weren’t communicating over the ether, but James felt like in that moment they had perfect understanding. He felt oddly complete.

Over the ether, she said, “Chavez, you get ready to pull the Ark out of dock. Head for Libertas.”

“Commander?” Chavez replied, her thoughts uncertain across the ether.

“It’s a straight shot to Libertas. You should be able to make it. Try to get help with the Libertas Local Guard,” Noa said.

“The Libertas Guard won’t have resources to get to—”

“Shhhhh ...” said Noa. “Don’t give it away … take care of yourself.”

“Professor Sinclair,” the megaphone-augmented voice boomed. “… and Commander Noa Sato. We will allow your ship to depart if you will surrender yourselves.”

“No!” Chavez's and Manuel’s thoughts ripped across the ether.

“Don’t surrender, Commander!” Manuel cried.

“Chavez,” Ghost said, “I think you underestimate yourself. You can fly this vessel.”

James felt his jaw shift. The offer confirmed it, the Luddecceans wanted to make an example of them, just as Noa had suspected.

The new men formed a semi-circle in front of them. James heard footsteps behind, peeked, and saw another line of armored men emerging behind Wren’s ship.

James felt static flair along his spine at Ghost’s easy abandonment, at the Luddecceans, at the impossibility of the situation. But Noa liked humor in the face of death. “They still care about us, Noa … How touching.”

Noa huffed. “We try and take as many of them as we can on our way out.”

“Oh, yes,” James said.

Noa nodded. “If Luddy Intel is talking to Adam, they know how unmanned the Ark is. If we go out guns blazing, that might give the Ark a chance to get away.”

“Agreed.” His motives weren't as pure, but he wanted the Luddecceans to pay for his life, and the newfound freedom he was about to lose. His eyes met Noa’s. Ghost’s holographic disguise was gone—he could look into her nearly-black eyes and see her scars.

“We’re warning you one more time! Put your hands up!” the megaphone-amplified voice said.

“Ready?” said Noa, not looking away from him.

“As I’ll ever be,” he replied, shifting Gunny on one shoulder, hand tensing on his rifle. The moment felt real and true. He felt in control for the first time since he’d woken in the snow.

The megaphone boomed. “This is your last warning—”

It was cut off by a screech behind Noa and James that sounded like a thousand nails being dragged against steel. Noa and James both spun. From the top of the Wren’s ship, a wicked-looking dual-barreled phaser cannon was emerging. It halted in position with a long grinding scrape, another motor engaged with a whirr, and the cannon’s barrels dropped so one was pointed right at Noa and James, and the other was pointed in the direction beyond Wren’s ship … toward the other line of armed men.

“What?” Noa whispered.

The megaphone speaker said, “Captain of the Juggernaut, stand down! These people are being brought into the custody of Adam’s Station Security.”

There was another grind of gears from the innards of the Juggernaut, and a loading platform dropped from the ship’s belly. Wren emerged at the top, hand on the shoulder of the young boy James had seen earlier. Next to them were Monica and her daughter. James blinked. They were all carrying packs on their shoulders. The crowd, despite the emergence of the new regiment, had been muttering angrily. At the cannon’s appearance they’d gone silent, but now they began to mutter again.

Smiling, Wren sauntered down the ramp and lifted his hands. Monica and the children followed, cowering slightly. The crowd hushed and Wren shouted across the tarmac, “How badly do you want them?”

“Juggernaut Captain, stand down!” commanded the man behind the megaphone.

Walking toward Noa and James, Wren shouted, “What is it worth to you?”

James blinked. “Why do they all have their packs on?”

Noa’s mouth fell open. “Oh, no, Wren, no …”

If Wren heard her, he gave no sign. Drawing closer, still smiling at Adam’s Security, he said, “You haven’t answered my question.”

Sounding peeved, the man armed with the megaphone said, “We’ll grant you your life and you can call yourself lucky.”

Laughing, stepping past Noa and James, Wren spread his arms. “But don’t you see, you can’t grant me my life. You can’t grant anyone life, and the crowd behind you knows it!”

The muttering of the crowd became a roar. James’s eyes went to the throng. They were dressed in rags and like Wren, Monica, and the children they were weighed down by packs. Many had children and babies in their arms. One of the guards yelled, “No, people, Adam has just made a deal!”

“Lies!” someone screamed. The word was picked up in a chant by the crowd.

“Wren, no!” Noa said. James glanced at Noa, her eyes wide and frantic. Before he could wonder what she meant, the crowd roared, and as though they had one mind, started to push and lunge against the security line. Some of the armored men facing off against Noa and James ran back to the line to contain the mob. It seemed to enrage them even more. They chanted and screamed. James thought he caught snatches of, “Let us aboard! Let us aboard!” It was so loud that James almost didn’t hear the whirr of the cannon motor. He looked behind him and saw the cannon’s aim had lifted toward the line of armored men still standing in front of them.

“Run, Noa!” James screamed over the ether. To Manuel, he shouted, “Drop the tube!”

“Wren!” Noa shouted. “Dual-barreled plasma cannons are not accurate; they’ll—”

At the same instant the crowd erupted through the security line.

Ducking his head beneath his arms, Wren ran back, grabbed the boy, and screamed, “Run!”

An instant later phaser fire shrieked overhead. It hit the men by the lowering plastitubing first and then swung out in an arc, leaving a line of red hot rock behind. In the periphery of his vision, James saw the armored line falling like puppets cut from their strings. Only one of the men by the tube somehow managed to survive the onslaught. He held up his rifle—

A shot whizzed past James and knocked the man with the rifle down. He glanced back and saw Noa paused with her own weapon upraised. All around the dock were screams and chaos. “Keep running!” Noa shouted through the ether, lowering her rifle and darting forward.

Awkwardly grabbing Gunny’s bulk with two arms to keep him from slipping, James ran, somehow clutching his phaser rifle.

In front of them the plastitubing plummeted, and James reached its relative safety moments later. He plowed through the archway, his heart lifting. They’d made it! He dumped Gunny on the platform just in time to see Wren jump through the opening, pushing the boy to the floor in front of him and shouting, “Stay down.”

Where was Noa? His vision went dark, and then he heard her angry shout in the ether. “This is why children don’t belong anywhere near a—” a litany of swears followed. He looked out to the tarmac. Noa was outside the plastitubing where she could get a better aim at their foes. Her rifle was raised and she was firing in a steady rhythm. Beyond her Monica was tugging at her daughter, who was cowering in the onslaught.

The blast of phasers from Wren’s cannon grew weaker and farther apart. And then a loud clicking came from the weapon. “Shit!” said Wren. Beyond Wren’s ship, more armed men rushed forward. James saw Noa glance at Monica. Bowing over a crying Zoe, she was moving at barely a walk. James knew that look in Noa’s eye.

“Damn,” he muttered, rushing out of the plastitubing.

“Cover me!” Noa said, climbing to her knees. James put a hand on her shoulder. “No, cover me!” He rushed into the oncoming fire before Noa could argue. In his mind, he heard, “Take the kid first,” and he swung Zoe up across his shoulder.

“Run!” he screamed at Monica before turning and bolting himself, crouching as low as he could. He felt phaser fire pass over his head.

Noa was still outside the plastitubing, on the ground, firing her phaser rifle. Wren was inside the tubing’s cover.

“Noa!” James shouted as he passed. “Get on!”

He hopped onto the lift, dropped the child, spun around, and saw Noa still hadn’t moved. Movement on the tarmac caught his eye and he realized that Monica had fallen … but was still moving. Growling, James leaped out again into the fire. He yanked Monica up by the back of her clothing and carried her like a kitten. She shrieked when he all but threw her into the lift. She didn’t smell like blood; she must have just tripped.

“Noa!” James bellowed. “We’re all on but you!”

Noa hopped to her feet, phaser fire buzzing dangerously close to her head. James moved to step out into the fray to cover her. Wren grabbed his arm. “Don’t—”

Yanking his arm away, James slipped out of the lift, raised his rifle, and fired at anything that moved among the fallen security personnel and civilians.

“I’m in,” Noa said across the ether, flooding him with gratitude. Ducking, James pulled back into the lift. “Up now!” Noa commanded, and they began to ascend. Noa and Wren dropped to their stomachs and aimed outside. James joined them and together they fired at the security personnel below rushing toward them until there was no room between the lift’s floor and the plastitubing archway.

James felt almost every nano and neuron in him go still, as though sighing in relief, but then, through the semi-transparent wall he saw parallel lines of men in gray with Luddeccean green piping on their uniforms. Each pair carried a phaser cannon between them.

“Shit,” said Wren. “What are they doing?”

“Lizzar dung,” said Noa.

“Can’t this thing go faster?” Wren cried.

The future unfolded in James’s mind. In a moment the Luddecceans would set their cannons directly beneath the lift, then they’d fire their plasma cannons up at the floor, heat it to super hot temperatures, and cook them all in their boots. They were trapped … and for some reason that made him panic in ways being shot at had not.

“Ghost? Manuel?” Noa called into the ether. “Can it go faster? They’re going to fire on us and—”

“I have an idea!” Ghost responded across the ether.

“What is it?” Noa said.

“Manuel, lower the pressure in the airlock,” Ghost cried. “Everyone be ready to jump!”

Monica, Wren, the boy, and the girl did not have access to the ship’s general ether and Noa relayed the message, “Jump, on our word.”

“Why?” said Monica.

Already bouncing, Noa said, “I don’t know, just do it.” She grabbed Zoe’s hand and the boy’s. James wished he could grab her but wrapped his arm around the warm weight of Carl Sagan, still miraculously tucked in his shirt, instead.

“Now,” shouted Ghost through the Ark’s ether.

“Now!” Noa relayed to Wren and the others.

The cannon fired below, and the floor below them went hot.