Authors: Steve Stanton
Tags: #Science Fiction / Space Opera, #Science Fiction / Hard Science Fiction
“Are you kidding me? Spend a night with the scorpions?”
“Keep your voice down,” Zen said as he turned back toward the dune buggy. “It’s you they’re looking for.”
A reverie of shock took hold of her for a moment, a vacancy of momentum. She stood staring into the badlands of Bali, wondering what the hell was going on. Her stepfather did not have the resources to hire a bounty hunter on an alien planet. Who else would care enough to track her down?
“Simara,” Zen said as he eased his electric buggy quietly close, “get in.”
She climbed aboard and scrabbled for her buckle, back on the road to nowhere. “I honestly don’t know anything, Zen,” she said as they sped away. “My stepfather was paid an allowance for me from a sponsor. It wasn’t much. I always assumed it was just some welfare subsidy from the government. I have my work online where I live in a virtual world. No one cares about me.”
“I care about you,” Zen said. “I’ll keep you safe.”
“We can’t cower in caves the rest of our lives.”
“I know the terrain, the secret places. We can keep moving.”
Simara shook her head. “I can’t stay on Bali. I don’t belong here.”
“Okay, then, we’ll head for the spaceport.” Zen looked up to check the raging sun on the horizon. “Due west. We can get a fresh battery at Katzi’s hideout and be there by morning.”
Simara turned to study her benefactor. “Do we have enough cash from the salvage for a boost?”
Zen nodded his breather. “Enough for a first-class ticket to Cromeus.”
“Oh, mothership, really?” A surge of delight swept up from her abdomen in a victory dance, but caught on a corner of her heart at the thought of leaving him behind. “Come with me,” she blurted.
The mythical sandman paused in slow deliberation as they bounded across the dunes. His hands went white on the wheel as he grappled with possibilities. “This is my heritage. I could never leave Bali.”
“Yes, you can and you will,” Simara said, taking his hesitation to heart. “You weren’t born on this planet. Your mother told me the truth. You were conceived in space in a genetic scrubber just like me. We’re not beings of gravity. We were born weightless, floating free. We’re both just visitors on this ghetto world, just passing through town in a cloud of stardust. We’ll buy two tickets to Babylon and work our passage to Cromeus on the trader route.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t priced it out.”
“You could sell the buggy to Katzi and cut him a deal for the unsold merchandise.”
“What would we do on an alien world? How would we eat?”
“Not a problem at all,” Simara said. “We’ll build a trading business together. I’ll claim my adult stipend to get some scratch money, and sponsor you as my landed husband. You’re valuable to the system, Zen, like salvage treasure. The government knows you’ll be an active consumer someday—that’s all that matters, moving goods and services from planet to planet. We’ll be set up as a team. It’s not hard to be successful when no one else is trying.”
Zen hung his head, but seemed to be warming to the idea. “You can make it happen?”
“Oh yeah,” she said with confidence, taking his assent for granted now. “I know the celestial mechanics like the back of my hand. Babylon is on a fast elliptic approaching opposition with Bali this month. That’s why I’m here. Sure, you can boost to Cromeus in a couple of weeks if you accelerate all the way to the midpoint, but you can’t make any money blowing antimatter out your ass like that. Smart traders tag a free ride orbiting Babylon and take their time, then boost across to Cromeus just before the long apogee into darkness. No trader worth his trash spends winter on Babylon. Trust me, this is my natural world.”
The mythical sandman turned to face her as the buggy coasted. “Are you sure you want me to come along? I won’t be much good up there.” The mesh on his breather gave his voice a mechanical edge, but the undertone of meaning was clear. He wanted to know the truth about their relationship. He wanted some confirmation, some reason to leave everything he had ever known for a girl he had just met. What did he expect from her? Love, sex, a bonding of souls? This was not a simple business decision for him. He wanted more, but Simara had nothing to offer, nothing that she could understand. She was an empty husk without mothership, barely functional at all without the V-net, but she could not bear to lose him now.
She reached to place her palm on his naked shoulder. “I’m sure, Zen. I don’t have much, perhaps nothing at all, but everything I have is yours, I promise.”
Zen studied the booster rocket from across the tarmac as he parked his buggy under a solar collector at the spaceport. Emblazoned with the Transolar logo, a red shield with horns of fire, the rocket looked like a giant arrowhead with shiny wings atop a slender silver shaft, a projectile to pierce the heavens of Kiva. He had seen a launch only once, as a child on an outing with his father, and the memory seemed distant now—a rumble of thunder that quaked the ground under his sandals, a white, spouting flame of condensed energy and angry clouds of smoke. Valda had travelled regularly in space to argue politics on Trade Station along with his elected peers, an annual pilgrimage to fight for native recompense and civil rights for miners. His father had died a bitter man in the end with dreams unfulfilled, his constituents still living in slavery to the Transolar monopoly and surviving on subsistence income. The huge corporation owned a slice of every business deal and controlled all facets of society from behind a nebulous curtain of intrigue. Transolar was the only link to the human populace on Cromeus and Babylon, the sole source of space technology and the only hope for any escape from Bali.
Zen plugged his cable into the solar collector and buried the keys under a wheel for Katzi to find later, his final payment and last goodbye to his old partner. A new life in the starry heavens awaited with the girl of his dreams—an exotic skyfall princess whom he had seen naked but had yet to touch in sexual glory. Simara needed time to heal. He knew enough about that, having fled into the desert for his own time of spiritual replenishment after the death of his father. All wounds congeal over time, and old scars become less sensitive to touch. Zen grabbed a bundle of clothing from the backseat as Simara stretched her legs beside the buggy. She was beautiful even in her breather, lithe and strong, a good worker. He pulled a purple sari from the pack and draped it around her shoulders.
“Remember to cover your hair when you get through the showers,” he said. “And fold a swath of material across your nose and mouth like I showed you. You’re Loki, a veiled mystic.”
“Don’t act so nervous,” she said. “We’re supposed to be on our honeymoon.”
He scanned the parking lot for webcam surveillance. They were probably on camera even now. “Okay, just keep your head down and follow my lead.”
Simara slanted a sneer in sarcasm. “I know the plan—three steps behind, a subservient bride. No problem, I got it.”
Zen sighed as he struggled with anxiety. Would the bounty hunters be watching the spaceport? Would they dare to interfere with an untouchable Loki girl? In their breathers they were still anonymous, but on the other side of decontamination they would be exposed and vulnerable. Anything could happen, and an emergency getaway would be difficult.
They walked single file to the airlock and cycled through to a locker area where they stowed their breathers. Stick-figure signs pointed women to the left and men to the right, and Zen watched Simara saunter away into a corridor buzzing with fluorescence before turning to run his own gauntlet of UV irradiation, foaming germicidal showers, and infrared dryers. Safe and sterile on the other side, his skin tingly with poison, he took a drab cellulose tunic and shorts from a fabricator and pulled them on over his money belt.
Swathed in her purple sari, Simara stepped up quietly behind him as he made his way to the ticket counter. Zen paid her little heed, confident now in his chauvinistic role.
“Two boosts to Babylon,” he told the attendant, an older man with grey hair at his temples wearing a pressed-linen uniform. A red Transolar insignia on his breast pocket shone like a beacon of authority.
The man looked up, deadpan with boredom. “Palm on the pad, please.”
“We’re not registered,” Zen said as he placed a stack of plastic bills on the counter. “I’ll have to pay cash.”
The attendant tipped his head and studied him with wary eyes. “Do you have ID?”
“No, I’m Zen of Valda, Star Clan.”
“Governor Valda?” The man smiled with recognition at the name. “I haven’t seen him in a dragon’s age. How is he?”
“My father’s dead. Almost two years now.”
“Oh . . .” The attendant winced. “Sorry to hear. I can see his features in your face, now that you mention it.” He peered past Zen’s shoulder at Simara. “And this is . . .”
“My wife, Kishandra. With a K. She’s Loki.”
“Ahh.” The man nodded. “And what’s your business on Babylon?” He fingered the cash on the counter. “Did you win the lottery or something?”
“We’re taking a honeymoon trip. The money was a wedding gift.”
“A honeymoon on Babylon?” The man chuckled. “That’s a new one—not exactly a romantic destination.”
“It was as far as we could get on limited funds,” Zen said with a hopeful smile. “We’ve never been offplanet. I can pay extra for your trouble.”
The attendant swiped away the cash and began tapping a keyboard down below the counter. “Governor Valda was a good man,” he said. “Zen of Valda and Kishandra of . . .”
Two boarding passes spat up out of a slot. “Are you stowing any luggage or gear?”
Zen took the passes with trembling fingers. “No, we’re travelling light. Keeping expense to a minimum.”
The attendant returned a few bills to the counter along with a receipt slip. “You’re all set to boost to Trade Station on Gate Five in about two hours. It’s the only launch today. You’ll connect there with
and register for bunk selection to Babylon. Everything’s on schedule, but keep an eye on the board for any updates. Happy Vishan.” He smiled and looked past Zen for a token nod of religious observance to Simara. “Blessings, my lady. Pray for me.”
Zen turned away with solemn dignity as Simara dutifully bowed in response. They shuffled slowly to a waiting area and picked up two bottles of carbonated water from a vending machine—past the first hurdle now and one step closer to freedom. The surrounding desert flatlands were visible through tall windows with no signs of trouble or plumes of dust from armoured vehicles. Simara slouched into a corner seat and feigned sleep behind her veil while Zen sat watching a public viewscreen—a recruitment vidi for the Transolar Security Guard, the vast corporate army that maintained authority throughout the solar system. The music was upbeat with blasts of trumpet horns and thumping drums as a deep male voice lured young men and women to sign up and see the universe: “Join the future with Transolar Security! Keeping the peace on three worlds without firing a weapon!” A promotional vidi followed about gold mining on Babylon where an apparent treasure trove of volcanic deposits lay hidden, and lucrative careers were available. Miners in orange coveralls worked without breathers, even above ground, but the craggy landscape looked forbidding and cold with white caps of snow on distant mountains.
Simara stirred after an hour to visit the restroom and find a food dispenser. She returned in a few minutes and tossed a slender tube into Zen’s lap.
“What’s this?” he asked as he eyed the fiery-horned Transolar shield on top.
Simara tore the end of her own tube with her teeth. “This is goop. They serve it on every Transolar station. And almost everywhere else, for that matter.”
“It’s factory protein laced with nutrients. All you really need.” She squeezed a glop of grey paste onto her tongue and masticated.
Zen followed her example and tasted unfamiliar spices, perhaps a hint of pepper.
“Pretty bland, I know,” Simara said, “but it’s free and ubiquitous, so get used to it.” She sucked her tube empty and tucked the roll of plastic into a pocket in her shorts. “Low in sodium, low in sugar, but filled with every trace vitamin necessary for a healthy body.”
Zen rubbed his tongue over his teeth and gums, trying to decide if he liked the stuff. “Do they have any other flavours?”
“No, goop is goop, but nobody starves. Specialty products in space are for people with money to burn, but that’s not us at the moment. And really, solid food is not all that healthy.”
Zen nodded with controlled doubt. Only water to drink and grey goop to eat? No wonder spacers were so thin. He glanced over at three passengers ambling nearby—executives with their noses buried in data tablets as they took their seats. They didn’t look dangerous. “You’d better cover back up. Just a few more minutes until boarding.”
Simara pulled her veil across her face with mock obedience. “Yes, husband.” The mischief in her eyes made him feel better, as though their charade was an elaborate game and she knew all the rules. She was close to home and gaining confidence.
Their boarding call came over the intercom, and the small group of travellers rose and began to gather belongings. Zen’s stomach roiled with unease, and he burped a taste of goop. He hoped the strange food would stay down during his first experience of rocket flight. The acceleration of thrust he understood from his early days racing buggies across the dunes, but flying was new to him and foreign. Humans were not made to fly—only dino-birds with leathery wings and pilots who crashed and died in the desert. Zen swiped two boarding passes at the launch portal and led his veiled wife down a narrow walkway into the rocket. They climbed ladders up a central tunnel to their double payload slot and crawled into cramped launch beds facing upward. The windowless compartment had no room to manoeuvre and barely room to breathe, the next row of passengers overhead reclining in similar slots like corpses in stacked coffins. Mass was a liability in this place and every centimetre expensive. The stale air reeked of polyvinyl chloride and chemical solvents, but Simara seemed not to notice the smell. Perhaps it was the natural scent of space and a reminder of home—hot circuitry and warming ceramic shielding. Viewscreens came to life inches from their faces and relayed a long and laborious series of safety procedures as Zen struggled to compose his nervousness, all sense of adventure having dissipated to dread.
A five-second countdown sounded during a rumble of pre-ignition, and Zen braced himself for violence. Thrusters exploded below him like an erupting volcano, and Simara reached to grasp his hand as gravity began to claw his bones back toward Bali amid a grinding torrent of noise. All he could think about was sex at her touch as a thunder of rockets pushed him skyward. She was a lovely girl, and he was blessed by Kiva to have and hold her so close—she was the most exhilarating person he had ever met! His cheeks flattened into his face as he clenched his jaw against brutal acceleration, travelling faster and harder than he had ever imagined. One full minute passed before a jolt shook the craft as the rocket booster disengaged, then another thrust of acceleration pressed him back into his couch as the shuttle engines ignited briefly for a trajectory correction.
Suddenly they were weightless and floating free from the clutches of gravity. With a bubble of buoyancy in his stomach, Zen looked over to see Simara convulsing in her bunk as though charged with electric shock, her eyeballs moving frenetically under closed lids and her lips quivering with half-formed speech. What in Kiva’s name?
“Are you okay?” he asked, but she continued to twitch and shake in silence, her face pasty white with panic. Was she having an epileptic seizure? A brain hemorrhage? Was she dying before his eyes?
“Kishandra?” He wondered if he should dare call out for help and draw attention to her plight. Perhaps this was just a side effect of her skullrider implant, some strange digital delirium. She might be getting a wi-fi signal now that they were above the geomagnetic storms of Bali. Maybe she would snap out of it in time, if only he was patient. But what if she needed immediate medical aid in this state of crisis? What if she suffered permanent damage because of his neglect? He felt helpless, paralyzed with indecision. “Simara, can you hear me?”
“It’s okay, Zen. I’m getting good bandwidth. Give me a minute to catch up on things.” She kept her eyes closed as her face contorted through dozens of expressions in rapid-fire sequence. Tears slid onto her cheeks as she rode a roller coaster of emotional drama inside her mind, her body bucking with tension as the muscles in her arms and legs contracted in response to secret imaginings.
Zen exhaled with relief, cursing Kiva under his breath. He should never have said her real name out loud where it might be monitored and recorded. Simara should have warned him. How was he supposed to know anything about crazy skullrider culture? He watched her quake and convulse for a while, and finally could take it no longer. “Kishandra, wake up and tell me what’s going on!”
She blinked her eyes open and smeared the weightless beads of tears pebbled on her cheeks. “Everything has changed, Zen. Our situation is much more complicated now.”
“You may be in danger from legal authorities.”
“What sort of danger?”
“I can’t say. The less you know, the better.”
“That’s never true. I need to know.”
Simara closed her eyes as though ready to return to her wi-fi catatonia, but Zen grabbed her hand and fondled her palm in the most intimate manner he knew, trying to draw her back. “We’re bonded in partnership. You have to tell me.”
She turned to face him. “Two of my friends have been killed in an accident. Everything has changed, but I can’t tell you the details without compromising your plausible deniability. Bali is the only place you’ll be safe.”
He continued to caress her hand in sensual union, intense in his care for her, though he had absolutely no idea what she was talking about. Plausible deniability? A serious accident? “I’m so sorry for your loss. But it’s okay to share with me. I love you.”
Simara frowned and pulled her hand away. “No, you can’t love me.”
“Why not? We’re supposed to be married.”
She shook her head. “I’m not a lovable person. I’m not like you, or any normal human. I have special brain enhancements known as ‘omnidroid.’ That’s my job on the net. I fix things and streamline rootkit systems for mothership. There’s just so much automated surveillance data coming in all the time, it tends to pile up in convoluted folds like dirty laundry. Information degrades into unmanageable garbage without the omnidroids keeping it straight.” She held up a finger. “Just a sec,” she said as her eyes rolled up under closing lids.