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Rise the Renegade: A Rork Sollix Space Opera Adventure

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Rise the Renegade

A Rork Sollix Space Opera Adventure

George Donnelly

Cheverer

Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Epilogue

Did you Like this Book?

About the Author

Also by the Author

Rise the Renegade

George Donnelly

***

Copyright 2016 George Donnelly

Shakespir Edition

***

Shakespir Edition, License Notes:

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com or your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. But, seriously, please share this book with your friends.

ISBN: 978-1-941939-06-2

Rise the Renegade

Book 1 in the Rork Sollix Series

The golden age of freedom withers across the Solar System as independent colonies fall under the dominion of Barbary and Sons, a ruthless cartel run by a 24th century cross between Genghis Khan and the CEO of Walmart.

One man rises in opposition. Rork Sollix raids Barbary’s cargo ships for fun and profit, along with his lovestruck teenage servant Lala Fevari and his ragtag crew.

Just days from death, betrayed by his own men and on the run, Rork tries to safeguard Lala on Earth. But Barbary kidnaps her, throws Rork in a bleak Delhi prison and aims to make the young girl pay for Rork’s crimes.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright 2016 George Donnelly

Cover design by Rebecca Frank

The author greatly appreciates you taking the time to read his work. Please consider leaving a review wherever you bought the book or telling your friends about it to help spread the word.

ISBN: 978-1-941939-06-2

Get 3 free books at GeorgeDonnelly.com.

To my son, Clark, who insists every morning

— despite my objections —

that I deserve the Dad of the Year award.

1

“They’re here!”

Pulse blasts landed at their backs. Rork grabbed Lala’s petite hand and they ran down the corridor. Icy sweat poured from his forehead and stung his eyes. They turned a corner and pressed their backs against the cold metal wall. There was the hatch. On the other side of its bulbous window was dark, empty space.

And they didn’t have their space suits on.

Another spasm hit him, like an overcharged wire that ran through his body from head to toe. He coughed and fell to his knees.

This was just the beginning of the disease. And the end.

Lala bent down and rubbed his back. Her hands were cool and utterly smooth. The pain eased. They had to recapture the bridge, his bridge.

A sharp click sounded down the corridor. Rork stood up fast, reached for Lala, stumbled and fell to his knees again.

“They’re here!” Klambert yelled again. All three traitors chased them now.

Rork and Lala ran, unsure which of them was supporting or pulling the other.

“Come on!” Klambert yelled. Pulse blasts echoed down the corridor.

Rork crashed into the wall at the end of the narrow hallway. It made a clipped thundering sound as the thin metal absorbed the impact of his torso and bounced back into form. He twisted his body and stretched out his arms to cushion Lala’s impact.

Her cyan mane curved over the top of her head and down the right side, ending at her neck in a neat row of subdued curls. The left side of her head was clean-shaven.

Her face was thin, nearly gaunt but patches of baby fat still clustered around her green eyes. It gave her the appearance of an uppity tweenager who didn’t understand the world but had strong ideas about how it should work.

Rork caught her lanky body in his arms as she bounced off the wall. He felt her breasts against his chest and the warmth of her core against his own.

It was take the bridge or die in space. And they had to do it now.

Smoking holes opened up on the wall behind them. The noxious stench of burnt metal and plastic tickled Rork’s nose. He slammed his hand over Lala’s mouth.

“Don’t breathe it, it’s toxic.” Too late. His head swam and his chest hurt.

Lala smacked his hand away and pushed past him.

Rork chased after her. “Take a right and then—”

“I know!”

Rork watched her hips rise and fall. The pink long underwear wrinkled and stretched as her legs flew high and fast towards the next turn. Jupiter, she is gorgeous.

Pitch black. Rork stopped and Lala skidded to a halt ahead of him. They were lost and out of time. Their pursuers were silent.

Rork put his hands out ahead of him and walked at a steady clip. He wrapped his left arm around Lala’s as he passed her. He hit hot metal and pulled back, his index finger screaming. They took a hard right turn, then hung a sharp left.

“Do you see it?” she whispered.

Rork stopped. “What?”

Lala pulled him forward. “There’s a light ahead. It’s the bridge.”

Rork squinted. “That’s not the bridge.” He coughed and the charge clawed at his insides again. He needed his meds, bad.

“Come on!” She ran.

He chased. “This isn’t right. This isn’t the bridge.” He turned. “It’s this way!” He grabbed her and she resisted.

A burst of air blew Rork’s hair back. Bright white light bored into his skull. He covered his eyes.

A scratching sound came over the ship’s intercom, too loud. Rork took his hands from his eyes and jammed them onto his ears. Lala cried out.

“Well, Captain, any final words?” the intercom voice asked.

Rork found the camera, angled his chin up at it and stared straight into the lens. “You’re fools! Especially you, Thryk!”

“Um, Rork…” Lala said.

A sharp fingernail scratched at the back of his neck. He swatted it away. “I’m your golden goose, boys! I found you. I keep you safe from Barbary! I keep us together. Have you lost your minds?”

She smacked him hard on the shoulder.

“Lala, please!” His eyes adjusted to the light. They were in the airlock — the last place he wanted to be. “Cowards, too? Flush us out into space and be done with it? That was Klambert’s idiotic idea, wasn’t it?”

The scratchy intercom sounded again and Glagnon cleared his throat.

After I take this ship back, I’m getting that fixed.

“We’re going to let you die a natural death, Captain. Then we’ll swing back around in a week for your girl. That’s how long Doc Vogg gave you, right?” Glagnon chuckled.

“I’ll rip your throat out and shove it where the stars don’t shine!” Lala stepped closer to the camera and made a rude gesture.

“Your Captain-my-Captain has lost his edge, dearie,” Glagnon said. “Too much revenge, not enough profit. We need money. And women!”

Rork shook his head and doubled over in another seizure. The lights brightened and everything went blurry. His world went silent.

I’m a dead man. But he can’t have Lala. She deserves better.

Glagnon’s chuckle broke through the seizure. “I’ve got a comfy mining station picked out for you. Take your time. Die. Consider it your retirement, a little vacation with your lady, before the end. If Barbary doesn’t get there first, of course.”

Rork pulled himself up onto one knee and looked up at the camera. The ship rocked under him. He flew back against the hatch and fell to the floor again. He opened his mouth to breathe. His lungs refused to respond. Next to him, Lala lay unconscious.

The airlock door screeched open. Fresh air flowed in. Thryk’s overworn boot thudded on the metal floor.

Rork looked up at him. You’re losing your ship! You coward! You weakling! Get the hell up already!

Thryk grinned at him through a transparent respirator. He dug his oily fingers in under the back of his former captain’s collar. “‘Thryk’s too dense to do anything other than clean the engine.’ ‘Thryk-headed.’ ‘Thryk, scrub the toilets.’ ‘Thryk, dump the trash.’ Now I really am dumping the trash.”

Rork kicked and Thryk jerked him higher. Rork reached for the wall, the floor and Thryk’s stained clothes but they were all too far away.

With his free hand, the mechanic twirled the rust-eaten wheel on the hatch. It opened with a pop and Rork sensed the stale odor of engines and metal.

“In you go!” Thryk said.

Rork floated backwards down the hatch tube. He grabbed at the wall but it was too smooth and he was moving too fast. He turned his head. There was the large, spoked wheel of the interior hatch. The back of his head impacted it. The pain spread like electricity.

Rork bounced off of the hatch and into the wall. He twisted and launched himself back at the hatch wheel, his arms ahead of him and his legs behind him as if he were swimming underwater.

His left index finger reached it first. Rork wrapped it around the top of the metal ring and the other fingers followed. He pulled himself into a standing position. He checked the gauge. The pressure on the other side of the door was a little light but it would do. He pulled on the wheel. It wouldn’t come. Something was wrong. And where was Lala?

A light ruffling sounded behind him. He turned. Lala’s unconscious body zoomed down the corridor, feet first. The impact forced Rork’s head back against the hatch door.

“Son of a bitch!”

The hatch at the other end clicked shut. That was his lucky MORF-9 spaceship. He’d bought it — honest — after recovering from what Barbary and Sons did, those bastards. The thin corridor tubing rumbled around him.

His ship was powering up, without him at the helm. It would break away from this godforsaken mining outpost. He and the love of his life would be left floating in a vacuum. Unless he got the mining station’s hatch wheel to budge. Now.

He pulled at the wheel again. It clicked but did not move. Something snapped and a wind pulled at the back of his neck.

2

“Hurry up, Rork, before you die!”

Glagnon’s laughter garbled in his ear as the atmosphere seeped out of the mining station’s thin, accordion-like connecting tube.

Rork grabbed at the locking wheel in his right hand and turned it again. Again the click. There’s a lock somewhere.

Lala’s unconscious body floated away from him as the vacuum of space increased its pull. Rork grabbed her and maneuvered her between his body and the hatch door, her face to his, his legs wrapped around hers.

His hands now freed, he searched the hatch door for a lever or some other way to unlock it. He pulled the locking wheel hard to the right, again and again. Each time it clicked. Each time it refused to grant them refuge.

“Time’s up, Rorky!” Glagnon said through the mining ship’s intercom. “Death will come a bit sooner than you thought. Tough luck about not getting your revenge on Old Man Barbary. We’ll hit him from time to time and think of you. Goodbye and good riddance! Right, guys?”

“What about Lala?” Rork screamed. “Don’t you want her? She’s still alive!”

The rumbling stopped. The wind from the escaping air slowed.

Rork smacked Lala gently on the cheek. “Wake up. I need you to wake up.”

Glagnon answered, “There are plenty of fish in the sea, Captain.”

The rumbling started again. Icy wind pulled at the back of his neck and Lala slipped away. Rork grabbed her. He tried the locking wheel. Again the click. “Damnit!” Rork knew he had yelled but there was no sound.

He pulled the wheel towards him in a fit of rage. It rotated away from the wall to reveal a compartment with a red button. Underneath, the words ‘Emergency Release’ stared up at him in curved red lettering with the Chinese characters below it.

The wind pulled harder at Rork now but the rumbling diminished. He hit the red button. A dull thud sounded far away. He pushed the wheel back into place. It clicked. He turned the wheel and the door exploded open with a rush of warm, wet air.

Rork hung horizontally from the open hatch, the wind pushing him away. Lala hung below him, her left hand slipping from his grasp, his fingers on hers. Rork arched his fingers up and his arm back to regain his grip on her. She loved him for who he was. He wouldn’t lose her now. They’d made it too far.

The pressure of the wind eased. His body sagged. He pulled Lala past him and guided her towards the open hatch. He opened his mouth to breathe but precious little air came. He exhaled and pulled himself inside the mining station. He closed the hatch behind him and turned the inside wheel.

A dark circle closed in around him and his chest ached. He held his mouth open and ran his hand across the control panel next to the hatch. The inner bulkhead behind them slid open and air rushed in again.

Rork took a deep breath and coughed. He walked on his knees over to Lala and smacked her face. She screamed in a breath and sat straight up, her emerald eyes wide. She coughed, tried to stand up and sat back down.

“What happened?”

“Glagnon almost killed us.” He felt the station pitch under them and looked out the window. Shreds of the white accordion floated against the black of space. The rear fusion motors of his MORF-9 burned bright in the distance. The other end of the corridor hung from the rear hatch between the dual engines. “Idiots. Joyriding popheads! They’re going to damage my baby!”

Lala knee-walked to the hatch window and pushed Rork out of the way. She stared without saying anything. She looked at him, her eyes wide and her face slack. “I thought I was your baby.”

Rork bit down hard on the knuckle of his index finger. “They’ll retreat to a reasonable distance and party. Or they might have a job. And get killed and someone will seize or blow up my baby.”

Lala turned and slumped down next to the hatch. “I’m your baby!”

Rork edged his eyes in her direction and grinned. “Come over here.” He held his arms out to her and the pain came again. His lungs clenched and his lips pulled back to expose tightly gritted teeth. Bones popped and cracked. Every muscle seized up.

Lala threw herself next to him and massaged his chest and shoulders. “Hold on, baby, just hold on.”

A low, guttural moan escaped his throat. The tension eased. He collapsed forward. “Never should have run those supplies to Isotania. Never should’ve done it. Always try Port Vantage first! Your master is an idiot.”

She rubbed her smooth palm against his cheek and silenced him.

The gentle warmth of her hand relaxed him. He closed his eyes. “And now you have to die.”

She retracted her hand.

“They planned this. They scouted this place out. I know where we are,” Rork said. “Ceres 476 Mining Colony, Franklin Realm. Abandoned. I smashed the radios myself three weeks ago. There’s not much around here anyway.”

Lala pushed air onto her face. “But it’s warm, fresh, wet.”

“Always off in your head, girl. I told you about this place. I fixed life support and just left it running.”

“What do you mean, I have to die?” She stood up and glared at him.

“I have days, maybe a week, then—”

“Shut up! You’re not going to die! Stop feeling sorry for yourself!” A look of disgust crossed her face. She walked toward the bulkhead door. Beyond it a circular hallway curved away from them. “What’s down there?”

“They’ll come back for you. After I’m dead.”

“Which way’s the mess?” She pointed right, then left and looked back at him. “Well?”

“Left.” He pulled himself up and ambled after her.

The hallway was finished in a creamy white matte. Thin light panels ran the length of the corridor three-quarters of the way up the wall. The space was otherwise without ornament. The lights flickered as if they might fail at any moment.

“This is old.” She reached a door and moved her hand to the black switch next to it.

“No!” he said.

She retracted her hand and moved along. “Are we just going in a circle?”

“Of course not. Well, sort of. Three more doors on the right is the mess.”

She stopped and waited for him to catch up. As he passed her, she reached for his hand and interlocked her fingers with his.

Rork studied her face. Her eyes probed his. Her cheeks tensed and twitched. She exuded a nervous fear. She was so precious. He pulled her closer and put his arm around her. “I don’t want them to take you.”

She pushed him away and he bumped into the wall. She continued walking, then stopped, turned around and fixed him with sharp, flat eyes. “You still treat me like a little girl. We’re going to make it through—”

“You take nothing seriously. You think nothing matters. But it all matters! And it’s all very serious, Lala! They will use you and sell you off to even worse people!” He lowered his voice to a rasping whisper. “I will kill you myself, right now, to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Lala strode toward him and smacked her master hard across the face. “You don’t get to decide that.” She exhaled, adjusted her blouse and looked around. “Which one of these has a bed? I want you now. We’ve waited long enough.” Her face glowed hot pink and she fanned herself.

He smirked. “You know it’s not proper.”

She frowned and hugged her arms to her chest. “I know everything that’s going to happen.”

“An algae farm seastead and ten kids next to a forest?”

She grinned. “With you. Don’t forget that part!”

“Can I get a few more details?”

She waved his question away. “You’ll get your revenge on Barbary, for your father. I can see it.”

“Details. I need details.”

“I’m still looking for that bed.” She turned and put a hand to her temple. “I predict that we will find food in the mess.” She guffawed loudly, not unlike his obese drunk of an uncle. She walked to the door of the mess and opened it.

He pushed himself away from the wall. He was overheated and his ankles ached.

She stepped back from the mess door and clapped her hands together. She looked at him, her eyes wide and bright, like a child receiving the present she actually wanted. She yelped and kneeled down.

He struggled to take another step forward. His head swam and his vision twisted. He needed to eat and take his meds. He took two more steps and stopped short. She stood in front of him, her slender pink-clad legs dancing forwards and backwards in place.

“Look what I found!” Her right hand cupped a tiny beast. The animal sported a yellow duck-like bill with two airholes on top and set back near the skull. The eyes were perceptive and hinted at intelligence. This platyfet wasn’t more than a year old judging by its coarse brown fur.

It emitted a shrill squeak. Lala shrieked, then open-mouth guffawed. “Isn’t it gorgeous? It plorked! Was it here before?”

He shook his head. “Food?”

The platyfet plorked again.

“That’s two sandwiches we need.”

“Alright, alright…” Lala stepped lightly into the undersized mess hall. Only one table remained. She sat the beast down on it and walked over to the dispensers.

“Make it a ham sandwich.” Rork struggled to fix himself on the bench seat next to the animal. “Must I eat with this thing here?” He looked down at it. It looked up at him, its eyes wide, its bottom eyelids taut. It plorked once more.

“Empty!” She hit something. It sounded hollow.

He lay his head down on the table. The furry thing trundled over to him, its shiny black claws clacking on the pristine table surface. It nuzzled its bill against his tricep.

Lala walked over and sat down across from him. She plopped two drink bags on the table. “That’s all there is.”

Rork’s stomach rumbled. “I’ll split him with you.” He grinned.

The platyfet geeped.

Lala rolled her eyes. “There’s to be no more talk of death, anyone’s death, especially not Faxmir’s. We’re going to make it out of here, as a family. Are we in agreement on this point?” She arched an eyebrow.

Rork laughed. “Faxmir? You can’t name him that! It’s cruel — and unusual!”

3

“If only we could reach it.” Lala stood at the far left of the galley window and looked up and into the gloom of space.

“What?” Rork picked his head up from the table, the bug-infested beast perched unsteadily on his shoulder. “Since when is there a window there?” The urge to run hit him, but to where? How?

Faxmir geeped and resettled itself in the crook of Rork’s neck. Its body vibrated. The moving fibers of its coat tickled his neck. He shuddered and gently relocated it to the table, where it geeped up at him.

“I just hit a button and it popped up. The trainship is up there. There must be a line that passes near us. We’re not as remote as you thought.” She turned and stuck the tip of her tongue out at him.

He laughed. “This is not like Earth. There’s no horizon, really. So just because you see it doesn’t mean it’s close by.”

“Yet somehow, the superior space pirate finds himself in need of a green Earth-girl to take care of him. Oh, the irony.” She giggled.

Rork frowned. The platyfet geeped at him and he pushed it away.

Lala strode over to them and bundled the animal into her arms. “There, there. Pay no attention to him. He’s just not cut out for fatherhood, that’s all.”

Rork felt hollow inside and drained but that couldn’t pass. “I would make a great father!”

She turned her face up at him and walked away. “You have good genes, Rork, so you’d be a good biological father. But a real father?” She laughed. “You can’t even bond with this cute little guy.”

“It’s a dirty beast and a carrier of disease. Not a human child!”

“And monogamy? Do you even know what the word commitment means?”

“Wait, let me look it up.” He pretended to look it up on the wrist computer he left behind on the MORF-9. He frowned.

“Because I’ll be gone otherwise, bound servant or not.”

He sighed and rolled his eyes.

“Let’s see, what shall we name you, cutie pie?” she said to herself.

He stood up and walked over to her. “There has to be more food around here. Did you find anything?”

“What was the name of my last boyfriend again?” She held a finger to her temple.

Rork stopped short. “You’ve never had—”

“Buff! Right!” She turned around to Rork. “His name is Buff. It’s final.”

“Who’s this Buff?” he asked of the universe.

The station rumbled underneath them.

“Earthquake?” She gripped the table and Buff tensed.

Rork ran out of the galley, turned right and felt himself thrown against the corridor wall to his left. A light panel above him popped out of the wall and crashed to the floor with a sound like distant thunder.

“Where are you going?”

“Bring your new boyfriend, let’s go!” He picked himself up, ran and found the door. He hit the gray button next to it and it opened.

The bridge was claustrophobic. There were only three seats: one high white chair at the back and two black chairs lower down in front of a wide black control console.

Rork threw himself into a seat at the front on the right. He hit the button to open the forward viewscreen. A wide picture window blinked into existence ahead of him. The scene was empty. A few distant stars glinted in the darkness of space.

The station rumbled again and a red bar flashed at the top of his panel.

Lala burst into the room behind him. “Buff is really scared!”

“Buff can go jump into a black hole.” He tapped the red bar.

“Hull breach in compartment nine,” a deep male voice said.

“Now that is a manly voice!” She took a seat in the captain’s chair behind him, Buff cowering in her lap.

Another rumble, then an explosion. He rocked back and forth in his chair and grabbed the console to steady himself. He tapped feverishly and a heavy click sounded at the door.

“What was that!”

“I think—” he started.

A shrill male voice screeched from the radio. “What was it you called me, Rork? An underfed boob who couldn’t find my brain with three scanners? Was that it?”

“Who is that?” Lala whispered.

He sighed. “Barbary — junior.”

“His son?”

He nodded. “Look around for some way off this thing.” He pressed the button to transmit.

“What do you mean?”

Rork turned around, his eyes wide. “Get up now and find some way off this thing because he’s going to blow it up!”

“What a brilliant idea!” said Barbary, Jr.

Rork took his finger off the transmit button and groaned. “Hurry up!”

Lala stood up, Buff in her arms. She walked to her left, then to her right. “But I don’t—”

Rork stood up and walked back at her. He wrapped his arms around her. He felt her tremble. Buff crawled up his shirt and perched on his shoulder. The furry varmint nuzzled his cold bill against Rork’s stubble and sneezed with a quiet whoosh.

“Look,” Rork whispered. “I just want you to look. I’m dead anyway, but—”

“Don’t say that!” She punched him lightly on the shoulder, then rubbed Buff’s head.

The beast purred.

She smiled, her eyes bright and wide. “I didn’t know they could do that! Hey, why can’t we just fly this thing out of here?”

Rork firmed his jaw. “No fuel, remember? Just see if you can find something, anything.” He walked over to the viewscreen and massaged his greasy stubble. He’d think of something. He always did, especially when it involved a Barbary.

“Look Barbary—” He groaned and smacked the transmit button on the control panel. “Barbary, I surrender. Take me aboard and—”

“No, no, I liked your first idea better.”

Rork fell into his seat. He cut the transmission and whipped around. “Don’t open the door!”

She stood next to the door, her hand poised over the open button, her eyes questioning but afraid to ask why.

“It’s vacuum on the other side. I think. I’m not sure.” He swiveled around to face the viewscreen again. He hit the transmit button. “He wouldn’t like you killing me. He wants reparations, doesn’t he? He’ll set an example with me. A very public one. I promise to cry a lot and beg for mercy. It will be really good for you guys. Honest!”

“You’re right,” Barbary, Jr. replied, “but Barbary and Sons is safer with you dead, right now, right here. And so is the Cartel.”

“There are two other people, including an unrelated child,” Rork said. “Does Barbary kill children? Wouldn’t be good for business.” Behind him, he heard the sounds of Lala panicking.

“No one would ever find out. Any last words?”

She came up behind him. “This is not how it happens!”

Rork cut the transmission. He twisted his head to look back at her. “Tell me what to do!” he whispered through gritted teeth.

“I… I can’t see it.”

He cleared his throat and hit the transmit button. Barbary’s vessel, a commerce class Ferrari zipship, came into view ahead. The bluish-tinted craft was thin up front and wider in back, with a hull that started at a sharp point in the center and curved back towards dual, square fusion engines. A burst of flame appeared from the underside and headed directly at the center of the viewscreen.

Rork swallowed. “I’ve always wanted a Ferrari. I know where your sister is, by the way.”

“No, you don’t. Goodbye.” The connection severed with a hiss.

Rork heard a gentle whoosh behind him. He turned.

Lala stood against the far wall, behind the captain’s chair, a nervous half-smile on her face and Buff clinging to her neck. “I found something.”

Rork jumped out of his chair and bounded up the steps. Three one-piece space suits sat in the cabinet, neatly folded under their respective helmets. He glanced back. He saw the bare outlines of it now. The missile was black — the perfect camouflage for space. It would pierce the hull and explode in their faces. He saw another flame arch away from the hostile ship.

“Get dressed!” he yelled.

“Baby.”

Rork scrunched his nose at her.

She flashed him an angry frown.

“Get dressed, baby!” He rolled his eyes.

“But then what?” She searched his face, her eyes dark.

He pulled a suit out and pushed it at her. He pulled another one out and stepped into its legs, one by one. He started to zip it up diagonally across his chest.

Lala pulled Buff off her neck. The little imp stretched its arms towards her and she tossed it down the neck of Rork’s suit just as he finished zipping.

“Hey!” He jerked his torso forward. “It’s climbing up my back!” He pulled a fishbowl-style helmet out of the closet, popped it on his head and clicked it onto the suit neck.

The first missile flew past the viewscreen to the left. The station rumbled again and Rork’s ears ached.

He walked back down to the control console. “It’s not too late to fix this, Barbary!”

Lala pulled the suit over her shoulders. Rork ran back, zipped it up and jammed the helmet onto her.

“Oh, it definitely is,” Barbary, Jr. replied. “Goodbye, Rork Sollix.”

The second missile burned past the viewscreen and hit the next room over. The sound of the explosion didn’t reach Rork’s ears. The wall in front of him vaporized. He grabbed for Lala and missed.

Rork floated in space, the Barbary ship growing larger in front of him. Lala was nowhere to be found.

4

“Can you hear me?” Lala’s voice came to Rork through his suit radio. Buff dug his claws into Rork’s shoulder and geeped.

Rork tumbled away from the mining station sideways. He craned his neck to see the remains of the station. A cloud of gas and debris followed him but past it he glimpsed a white platter on an oddly shaped rock. The universe rolled away and Barbary’s blue zipship was upside down above his head. His stomach lurched and he closed his eyes.

“Rork, where are you!”

The panic in her voice broke him. He was the one with terminal anorxoma. Not her. She had to survive. She was too beautiful not to. He recalled her face to memory. The delicate curve of blue hair, her soft face and those sharp eyes that demanded respect. She hid the vulnerability behind them. But he saw it. She had to make it.

“What do you see?” He craned his neck in every direction. “Do you see me?”

“It’s just, uh, no! Everything is spinning!”

“Check your left wrist. How much air do you have?”

“I can’t…” She trailed off and the radio crackled. “…not there… Which—”

“Lala! Lala!” he yelled into the darkness.

“Well, it seems one little rat isn’t dead yet,” Barbary, Jr. said.

Who designs a suit that broadcasts unencrypted by default? “I’ll find you. Just hold on.” Rork located the enemy ship in his field of vision. He brought his left wrist up and searched the rectangular control panel for booster controls. Air temperature, oxygen concentration, helmet dimmer, floodlight. Everything but boosters.

“Ooh, she sounds cute. Maybe I’ll find her. I could always use another consort, maybe even a seventh wife, since the last one got away. Just how hot is she?”

Rork wanted to lash out but he had to stop this damned spinning. He stretched out his arms and legs and twisted his torso. He slowed a little, but not enough. He spotted another flame exiting Barbary’s ship. It zipped past him at just a couple tens of meters. He was close.

“Damnit, don’t we have smaller arms on this thing? How fast is he going? Can we just ram him?” Barbary, Jr. growled over the radio.

The missile impacted the asteroid face below the station. A few chips floated off.

Rork knew what to do now. He patted his waist. There it was! All technical types carried toolboxes. He pulled the smallest screwdriver from the box on his hip and examined it. It was a tiny blade, shorter than his pinky finger with a tip narrower than Buff’s claws.

Rork jammed the tool into his leading shoulder. A burst of air puffed out and his lateral motion slowed. He felt a twinge and a few drops of crimson blood bounced around in front of him. He found a small clamp and jammed it over the hole.

Buff dug his claws deeper into the other shoulder.

“Sorry, guy. Hold on tight.”

Barbary’s ship loomed massive to his right now. Its pointed bow arced towards him. Rork was still moving, how fast he couldn’t tell, but now his head-over-feet roll was slower.

“It’s so cold,” Lala whispered.

“Hold on,” Rork tightened and struggled for breath. But he focused on the approaching ship. He readied the screwdriver. The ship filled his visual field now. It was a hundred meters away, its sharp prow aimed directly at Rork’s head.

He jammed the screwdriver into the side of his left thigh and air burst out into the vacuum. He partially obstructed the gas’ exit with his hand and his legs swung up. The surprisingly pointy prow passed to his left and he grabbed at the smooth hull as it sailed beneath him.

“Rork, where are you?” Her voice was weak and far away now.

Rork grabbed his thigh with his left hand to staunch the flow of oxygen. His right found a grip on Barbary’s hull but the velocity differential was too great and he lost his grip.

He was moving more quickly now relative to the ship. He found a long horizontal bar. He grabbed it with both hands. This time he stuck, despite the ache in his shoulders and ribs. His lower back stretched and cracked from the sudden acceleration. He frowned in approval.

“Don’t worry, Buff, we’re going to make it.” He leaned his neck to one side and rubbed against the little beast.

“Where’d you get to? We were just coming to pick you up.” Barbary, Jr.’s voice scraped at Rork’s eardrums.

Ahead of Rork, a long window ran the width of the ship. He couldn’t advance. They would see him. Without letting go of the ship, he looked back. There was a round hatch behind him. He let go and floated slowly back to the airlock. He caught the tips of his fingers on the shallow edge where the hatch door met the hull.

“Rooorrk? I have your girl. I love her already. Mmm, soft and silky. Love the blue! But I’m thinking a nice crimson would work better. I can’t wait to sample the goods. I owe you, man.” Barbary, Jr. let out a satisfied sigh. “Well, you’re either dead or you’ll be out of oxygen soon. Nowhere to go, really, is there? So Lala and I are zolting out of here. I know you wish us the best.” He cackled.

“Touch her and I’ll kill you.” Or is he bluffing? I really should keep my mouth shut.

Rork pulled on the manual airlock release. It wouldn’t budge. If he didn’t get inside now, his arms would rip out of their sockets when the ship accelerated.

He forced his lower body down, his abdominal muscles straining. He secured his left foot on a small ridge and pulled again, with both hands, on the lever. It scraped against the hatch. He tried to draw breath and it didn’t come.

“So you are still with us, after all. Well, not much longer.”

The ship rumbled. Rork sensed light and heat from behind him despite the growing blackness at the margin of his vision. It was now or never, whether it made noise or not. He jammed the lever down, the recessed door slid away and he pulled himself in head first.

The ship’s artificial gravity drew him down. He fell on his head in the narrow airlock. The hatch closed automatically and his face slammed into the back wall as the ship accelerated.

He picked himself up from the floor of the small compartment. He hit a green button and air poured into the space. The light above the button turned from red to green. He snapped off his helmet and took a deep breath.

Footsteps sounded outside. His lungs burned and his lower back screamed but he maneuvered himself into a crouch, one foot in front of the other. He pulled the screwdriver from his belt and held it above his head. A bead of sweat arced across his forehead and dropped down through his heavy, black eyebrows into his eye.

The door slid aside. A wiry man in a skintight, black suit looked up at Rork’s face, his eyes wide. In his hand, a pulse pistol pointed at Rork’s gut.

Rork brought the screwdriver down into the Barbary man’s jugular. With the other hand, he pushed the pistol high and twisted the man’s forearm away from his body. The thin man fell to his knees and Rork grabbed the pistol.

“Rork?” Lala’s voice sounded over the ship’s intercom. “He says he’s going to kill me unless you drop the pistol and surrender now.”

He peeked into the corridor. It was clear both ways. He searched the wall across from him for the camera and stepped out. He advanced towards the bridge, staying close to the corridor wall.

“Don’t you dare listen to this smug meerflarker,” she added. A dull concussion, followed by a groan, came over the speaker.

Rork smirked. That’s my girl. He popped an eye around the corner of the curving passageway. Empty.

He proceeded down the corridor and pressed his back against the wall next to the door. He heard a slap, then the sharp pop of a weapon discharge. His pulse jumped.

Rork hit the open button and rolled through the doorway, staying low. He found one target and burned a hole in his head. He pivoted.

“Kill him!” The surprisingly heavyset young Barbary grabbed at his side.

Lala ran and threw herself at her kidnapper, a savage scream escaping her lips.

The third man faced Rork, his pistol pointed at Rork’s head and fired. The beam glanced past Rork’s left cheek and he smelled the sick odor of burnt hair. Rork returned fire and burned a hole through the man’s eye socket.

Lala sat on Barbary’s chest, flailing her fists into the heir’s flabby face. She stopped and put her face an inch from his. “You don’t mess with us!”

It was a small bridge, a little wider than the mining station’s command center, but also with three seats and a smooth, black control console. Here everything was sharper and cleaner. And the deep vroom of the engine excited him.

Through the viewscreen, Rork noted the wrecked mining station. She could have died there. He rebuked himself.

He walked towards the closest chair. “Is there anybody else?”

She raised an eyebrow at him.

“Baby?” She was sucking him in and there was nothing he could do about it. It was predestined. She’d loved him even when he couldn’t love himself. She was the only good thing left in his life.

“Just the four.” She looked over at him, her face tired. She blew a lock of cyan hair out of her eyes and smiled up at him.

“Don’t let him up yet, baby.”

The viewscreen shimmered. A double-chinned man with a full head of gray hair and a neon orange handlebar mustache looked down at Rork.

“I have video proof this time. I’m swearing out a Cartel warrant for piracy and murder,” Old Man Barbary said. “Kidnapping, too. They’ll vaporize you for this, Rork. Or—”

Rork ended the transmission. “Let’s get him up. He’s going to float.”

5

“Where are we going?” Lala slumped down in the captain’s chair on the bridge of Barbary, Jr’s cruiser, the Blockchain and petted the sleeping Buff.

Rork finished typing some commands into the Blockchain’s computer and hit return to execute them.

The ship rumbled beneath them. The dark, jagged-walled mining station moved away to the left as the ship performed a graceful one-eighty.

“Does he have enough air?”

“If daddy rescues him in the next couple hours. I strapped on the reserve tank.” He scrolled through the list of known destinations in the Solar System and selected Earth, the Asian continent. The computer began its calculations.

“We’ll be there in just a few minutes,” Rork said.

She growled at him.

He suppressed a smile but said nothing. She was so cute but this was a moment for strength and discipline.

“Hey!”

He swiveled his chair around but looked away from her.

“How do I know you really love me if you won’t call me ‘baby?’”

He opened his mouth to say he didn’t know what but closed it again. The emotion was too much. His throat locked up. If he spoke now, his voice would crack. He loved her. He’d loved her since that first moment when he found her in the cage. But he couldn’t have her. Even if he overlooked the impropriety of marrying a former bound servant, he was dying. He had to get her to safety before that happened.

Before his enemies caught up with them, and made her pay for his actions.

She stood up, screamed and walked away from him.

The computer chimed, announcing the imminent firing of the zolt drive.

“You need to sit down. We’re going now.”

“No! Tell me where we’re going!”

“Earth.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Please?”

She hunched forward and sulked back to the captain’s chair, Buff held tightly in her arms.

Rork swiveled back around and triggered the zolt drive. He whooshed backwards into the cushioned chair, his lungs compressed against his vertebrae. Ahead of them, Jupiter took form as a bright star at the lower right of the viewscreen. The acceleration reduced and he took a breath.

“I’d like a little more notice next time. I’m not a pet along for the ride. I’m your partner. I’m your lover!”

“You’re my bound servant.” Rork swung his chair back around. He sat back, his eyes heavy, his legs spread wide, blood blotting his pants and shirt.

“Now just— Oh my God!” Her face shifted from outrage to concern and she moved to get up.

“Stay there! It’s fine.”

“Is it bad?”

He nodded. “We’re going to Earth.”

“You told me that,” she said. “Why?”

“It’s not safe for you. You could have died out there.” And it would have been my fault.

He tried to imagine a Solar System without Lala. There was nothing in it for him, not even revenge. And he owed his father better.

She stood up, Buff cupped between her forearm and bicep. “I’ll decide what’s safe for me. Not you. You’re my partner, not my master, no matter what the registry says.” She sat back down again and sighed. “We’re sticking together, aren’t we?”

He looked away.

“We have to stick together!” Buff scampered up her arm, leaving pink marks behind where he laid his claws. He settled in next to her neck, his rear end facing Rork. “Don’t do this to me. I’ve waited. You promised.” Her eyelids puffed up and her eyes turned red.

“I promised you nothing more than your freedom.” He swiveled around in the chair. The control panel beeped. In the viewscreen, the pockmarked back side of the moon lay in twilight. Beyond it, the blue and tan ball moved to the left. The control panel beeped again, more urgently.

“Buckle up.” He pulled the dual straps from the back of the chair, put his arms through them and fastened it with a thin click at his waist. He waited for the same click from Lala.

“What about Buff?”

He grinned despite the tingling that signaled an oncoming seizure. “Hold tight.” The straps cut into his chest and gut. Good thing we didn’t eat first.

The ship banked and bucked. The view turned from black to blue. The pressure eased and the ship leveled off.

She released her restraints. “I really missed it, you know.” She put her hands on Rork’s shoulders and massaged them. Ahead of them, the ocean rolled and pitched. “Do you see what I see?”

“It’s the Indian Ocean.” He shrugged and arched his neck to look back at her.

“You weren’t made for revenge. It’s too small for you.”

He looked away. “Take your seat. We’re going to land.”

They plunged into the soupy smog at the outskirts of Delhi on a lazy curve to the spaceport. Rork popped his restraints, stood up and grabbed her hand. They walked out of the bridge, the door swooshing out of their way and to the back of the ship.

His stomach fluttered as the zipship auto-landed. He hit a button on the wall and the large back door unfolded. He studied the tool-packed walls of the cargo bay, then grabbed a rope and a large metal hook that hung next to a cracked helmet. They stepped out into the muggy Indian morning.

“Follow the lux markers to Bureau of Immigration with your papers ready,” said a female voice. They stood in a large, round landing dock, its smooth gray walls at least fifteen meters high.

At Rork’s feet, bright green arrows, each the size of his foot, popped into reality, pointing him to his left. He turned right.

Lala scurried behind him, her hand in his. “My papers are on our ship.”

“Mine, too.” They reached the front of the sleek zipship. He stopped. You parked too close to the damned wall.

“There’s only one way out for each of these pods,” she said.

Rork secured the rope to the loop at the end of the hook with a bowline knot. He measured the distance again. It was too far. He played out some of the black nylon and dropped the rest in the sand. He held the rope loosely in his left hand and grabbed the cold base of the hook in his right hand.

“I don’t know how to climb a rope, baby.”

He grinned. “I do.” He fixed his aim on the top of the wall. He brought the hook down and lobbed it sideways in the narrow space between the rounded bottom of the ship and the only obstacle to their escape.

Lala crossed her arms and frowned.

The hook bounced off the top edge of the wall, whistled back down and lodged in the sand at Lala’s feet.

Her frown intensified.

He suppressed a laugh. “Relax.” He arched himself back, one foot pointing at the wall, the opposite hand next to his head. He threw it overhand and the flying claw passed over the top of the wall. He pulled tight on the rope and heard a soft clank. He grabbed the rope in both hands and pulled down on it. It went tight, then stretched a little. He raised a victorious eyebrow at her.

She sniffed.

Rork pointed to his back with an index finger.

She shook her head.

Hard footsteps sounded on metal. He kneeled down and looked under the ship. A pair of black-booted feet hunted them.

“We gotta go.” He turned and grabbed the black rope in his two hands. He put his feet against the too-smooth wall and tilted his head.

“I don’t like this!” She wrapped her arms around his neck and her thin legs around his waist.

He began to climb.

“Hey! Get down from there!” said a voice below them.

Rork put one hand over the other, one foot above the other. His blue-haired servant girl was light but her weight pulled on his neck and his throat rasped as the air struggled to enter his lungs. “Are they armed?” he whispered. Her weight shifted.

“No. Immigration people.”

The rope slipped and they fell a meter. She yelped. His heart leapt.

Buff jumped to Rork’s shoulder and dug his claws in just below his collarbone. Rork made a face.

“You’re only going to injure yourselves,” the immigration agent said from below.

“Are we going to make it?” she whispered.

Her breath tickled his neck. He shuddered and the pain came back. His legs fell and they hung there, bobbing up and down on the bouncy line. He groaned and felt her breathing fast, her chest pushing into his back, her palm sweaty on his cheek.

“Come on, baby,” she whispered.

He saw the top of the wall now. It was a peaked, soot-blackened cement. Irregular shards of glass poked out of it. The hook was lodged in something beyond the limits of his vision but the cable was snagged on a particularly ragged piece of glass. He put one hand above the other and saw that for each movement, the rope rubbed against the sharp edge and another strand of it severed.

A helicopter appeared above them. “This is Delhi Immigration Control. You will return to your ship now.” The one-person chopper angled forward and its spinning blades edged to within three meters of them. The operator, if it had one, sat inside a reflective glass bubble.

The wind blew Rork’s hair back. He pulled them up once more and grabbed two fingers onto the cement peak between shards of glass.

“We have to go back down!” Her grip around his neck loosened.

Rork looked down. It was a long fall. He grabbed her forearm and pulled it closer to his neck.

The helicopter floated forward and its blades nicked a glass shard, sending a chip into Rork’s forehead. He saw the flash of light and felt something burn through his scalp. He closed his eyes and the wave of hurt coursed through his body. Life returned to his legs despite his sluggish muscle control.

“You will comply with Earth immigration procedures or face corrective action,” said a voice from the chopper. It floated closer.

Rork relaxed his bicep and hung there. The men moved in below them. The line jerked and the rope frayed further. Not more than a half-dozen strands stood between them and a long fall to the ground below. Not to mention detention and being locked in a cage, somewhere underground. They’ll charge her as my accomplice. He felt her hot breath on his neck.

The chopper drew closer. The tip of its landing skids appeared just above Rork’s head. He jabbed his left hand into the air and wrapped it around the padded, narrow plastic. He pulled himself up. With the other hand, he pressed in the cockpit door handle. It popped open.

A whizzing sound tickled Rork’s ear and the helicopter bubble exploded above them. Pieces of plastic rained on them. She took her hand from Rork’s neck and held it in front of his eyes. There was blood on it.

“Stop or I will fire again!” said the voice from below.

Rork pulled himself up into the helicopter. He disengaged the mechanical arm from the stick of the remote-controlled aircraft and pulled it hard to the right.

Lala settled next to him in the tiny cabin, her feet pulled up into her chest, her face buried in her knees. Buff jumped to her and wrapped his body around her neck.

Bullets whizzed through the protective bubble. The plastic cracked and fault lines spread across its surface, obscuring Rork’s view. He leaned to the right as the world rotated around in the opposite direction.

“Is it almost over!” She dug her fingernails into his shoulder.

The back of the undersized aircraft shuddered and Rork felt himself pushed forward. The rotors above them slowed and made an awful grinding noise before dying completely.

“Rork!”

They glided towards a green area pockmarked by pools of water. Beyond it, a series of irregular, corrugated metal roofs meant they would land in a densely packed slum.

“We’re going to crash but it should be soft. Strap in!” he yelled.

The engines picked up again and they rose.

Rork frowned. He pushed the stick forward. Something snapped. Metal met metal and the chopper spun. Metal roofs. Soft green land. Metal roofs. Damn!

He let go of the controls and pulled her into him. A deafening pop sounded, then nothing. Everything went bright white. Rork bounced into a gentle cushion and lost connection with Lala.

6

Rork woke. He lay still and listened, without any urge to remember what had happened or what might take place next. The sound of excited laughter came from far off. He tried to decipher the words but it wouldn’t come.

He sat up and smacked his head on thick metal. He rolled to one side but was stopped again. He twisted his head the other way and opened his eyes.

Short, thick metal bars stood between him and the rest of the dusty room. He was in a low, flat cage with a thick floor. His legs were twisted to the left and pushed up in a horizontal crouch. His back was flat to the floor of the cage. His arms were bound together at his gut. He breathed deep and his chest touched the top of the cage. A heavy odor of rot and excrement hung in the air. His stomach heaved.

Who would think up a cage like this? He started to shake and the panic rose in him. He had to get out of here. Lala. The thought hit him like a laser blast. I’ll kill them. I will rip their—

A door creaked and a brown-sandaled foot stepped into the room. A fine dust rose from the insistent footfalls. Chickens scratched and squawked.

“How much?” a boy’s voice asked.

“Ten-thousand each,” said a girl.

“Who are they?” the boy asked.

“No.”

“It’s too much,” the boy said.

“We could buy that ship.”

Rork’s side erupted in a cramp. He bumped his legs against the top of the cage and arched his torso up to align it with his hips. But the muscles cramped. He screamed.

Feet scuffled over and a brown sandal kicked the bars of his cage next to his nose. Dust lodged in his mouth and he spit it back out but his mouth was dry. It tasted like it smelled — musty, moldy and faintly metallic. He tried to collect the soil matter in his mouth and eject it en masse but it clung to his tongue.

“Shut up,” the boy yelled.

Rork moved his body up and down the best he could. “Let me out! Please! It hurts!”

“No!” the boy kicked the cage bars again.

Spiked motes of dust lodged in Rork’s eyes. He opened them wide and rolled them around. He blinked uncontrollably. “I have a ship! I can get you whatever you want!”

“They will pay us ten-thousand dalrots for you,” the girl said. “Be patient. We will take you to the police soon.” Her feet turned and made towards the door.

“They’ll kill you! It’s a trick!” Rork yelled. The pain in his side peaked but the dust in his eye was more stubborn.

The boy’s sandal moved into view again and kicked a shower of dust into the cage. Rork turned his head just in time.

“We’re not that stupid!” The boy walked out, the girl stepping lightly ahead of him in neon yellow rubber boots and a trailing midnight blue skirt. The boy slammed the door behind him.

“Rork?”

His heart soared. “Are you alright?” She was here with him, but where? He still had a chance to safeguard her. If only he could escape the cage.

“I’m a little uncomfortable,” Lala said.

“Where are you?”

“I’m in a small cage, raised a little off the floor.”

“Metal top, real close to your face?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Alright, hold on. I’ll figure something out.” He arched his head up to look at the bars behind him. It must have a door and if it has a door, it can be opened. He only saw bars. He pulled his hands apart. It was no good. He twisted his wrists against each other but the plastic rope only dug deeper and burned his raw skin.

“Baby?”

“Just be patient. I’m working on it!” He raised his head and looked down past his feet. There was a string tied around two bars at the bottom of the cage. The bars were too close together. That was it. He pulled his legs up and the cramp returned. He groaned and push them back down again.

“Want me to try something?”

“No, I got this.” He gritted his teeth. He pulled his legs up into his side. The cramp returned. He grunted. He used one booted foot to push off the other boot. He flexed his big toe up and reached for the string.

A hand reached down and tickled his foot with its short, pink fingernails.

He started and hit his forehead on the thick metal. “What the…!”

Lala’s smiling face appeared just beyond his foot. She giggled and pulled on the string. The long, low door swung open with a high-pitched squeal. She tugged on his foot.

“How the hell did you do that?”

She grabbed just above his knee and pulled. He rocked his body from side to side and inched out. Out of the cage, he stood up, got his boot back on and massaged his aching calves.

“They put me in the bigger cage. I was able to wiggle more.” She shrugged and looked up at him, biting her lower lip.

His eyes locked with hers. “You’re really something.”

“I love you, Rork Sollix.” She said it with a pretensionless neutrality, as if she were telling him that two plus two couldn’t be anything other than four.

Rork looked away, a hot inadequacy burning his face. He remembered the papers. He eased them out of the hiding spot in his belt and handed the stiff, too-many-times-folded documents to her.

Her eyes followed his every move. She fixed her hair but didn’t offer to receive the papers.

“Your manumission papers. I had them notarized on Isotania. I’m sorry it took so long but I wasn’t sure if…”

She fixed her clothes, glanced up at him and received the papers. “So, I’m free? Completely free?”

He nodded. He wanted to say more but his throat had seized up again. The tears massed in his eyes and he blinked them back.

She threw her arms around his ribs and buried her cheek in his chest.

“It’s okay, you can go now.”

She pushed back. “So you were leading me on?”

“No. I’m just saying—”

“You don’t love me. Do you?” She studied one eye, then the other. “You just felt sorry for me. This was all pity.” She stepped back again, still searching his face.

“No! Please, not again.”

“Tell me you love me!” She shoved him. “Admit it! You love a servant girl!”

“You know that has nothing to do with it. And you’re free now, anyway.”

“Just because you’re sick? Just when you need me the most?”

“He said I had days. You heard him. Barbary will punish you for my actions after I’m gone. I can’t…”

“I don’t care! Just love me, even if—”

“I do. But it’s not enough.” He waved her silent and looked around for something sharp to free his hands. It was a small storage room, with chickens in coops from floor to ceiling to their right. A quick scan turned up nothing sharp. “How did you…?”

“Slipped right out.” She held up her hands and shrugged.

“Let’s—”

She grabbed his arm and scowled at him. “I’m not done talking.”

“What?”

“A plan maybe? I don’t know.” She rolled her eyes.

“Step one: get out of here!” He grabbed her arm and pulled her towards the door. The thin sheet of rotting particle board listed away from the jamb. He poked his nose through the gap and looked around. There was a narrow alley overgrown with weeds. Two deep ruts ran its length and curved around out of his view. He stepped out, pulling her behind him.

“Hey!” The boy stepped out of shadow on Rork’s right. He raised a long blade above his head.

Rork took off. He planted his foot in a rut and let go of Lala. It twisted and he fell on his back. The boy was on him and brought the blade down.

Rork rolled out of the way. The blade hit the loose dirt with a dull swish. Rork rolled his legs back and laid them on top of the knife. He punched the surprised boy in the teeth. The kid let go of the blade and fell backwards. Rork launched himself forward and landed a knee on the kid’s chest. He grabbed the blade from behind him and put it to his attacker’s neck.

The kid looked up at him, his eyes too wide, too white, his body too thin.

How did this stick figure ever get the drop on me? Rork remembered the helicopter crash. Immigration had to be after them. Maybe even the EDF. This kid and his girlfriend likely did them a favor. If not for their pathetic kidnap attempt, he and Lala would almost certainly be in prison.

“Rork!” Lala screamed.

He looked up. She hopped up and down where the rutted alley curved. She pointed beyond him. “Rork!”

A flat, circular EDF vessel hovered over the marshes between them and the spaceport. A leaner attack fighter launched from the massive ship’s underside and zoomed down to within a dozen meters of them. He tasted dust again and lost sight of her.

He rose to run to Lala but the boy grabbed at his shirt.

“I can hide you. They won’t find you.”

Rork punched his arm away and ran up the alley, his foot slipping in the deep, muddy ruts.

Lala squatted, her arms wrapped tight around her knees next to a low, white picket fence.

He dropped the blade, grabbed her hand and pulled. They ran around the corner. Ahead, he spied a wider, paved cross street. Aircars, cabs and enclosed cargo carriers crossed their narrow gap of hope. He increased his pace but her little legs couldn’t keep up. She slipped and fell face-forward.

Rork turned back and pulled her up. She shot him a look that said it all. This wasn’t what she signed up for. She signed up to love a daring space pirate who could handle himself in a fight, not a terminally ill, dirtbound renegade wannabe.

“I can’t…” she muttered.

He wanted to know where they went wrong, loathe himself for an hour or a week, but he pumped his legs as fast as she would let him. They were just a dozen meters from the street now. He would turn right and plunge into the crowd. He’d find a cargo carrier.

A man stepped from between two shacks just meters from the market avenue. He wore a wide, flat-brimmed black hat and a long, black overcoat. His face was obscured with large, reflective sunglasses.

Lala stopped short. Rork tried to continue.

The black-hatted man pulled a long pistol from underneath his coat and Rork smelled burning hair. He let go of her, stepped to the side and ran his hands over his head.

“In the name of Gamil Barbary, Sr. and in revenge for the life of his son, Gamil Barbary, Jr.” The black-hatted man stalked forward towards Rork.

Heat assaulted Rork’s right cheek. He grabbed her and ran back the opposite way. He smelled burning hair again and his left thigh ached and weakened.

The kid popped out from between two shacks ahead of them. “Come on! We will help you!”

Rork pulled Lala into the narrow opening. They ran a dozen meters, turned left, then right and right once more.

Lala slipped and fell into a puddle that reeked of urine. She screamed and looked up at him, her hands out.

I’ll spend the rest of my life fixing this, somehow, even if she isn’t with me. Just give me the time. Rork turned into a shack and pursued the lithe boy through a dark maze that spanned perhaps dozens of the hovels.

They stopped in an empty room with an uneven dirt floor and no windows. One lighted bulb hung from the ceiling on a thin cable.

“Who are you?” The yellow-booted girl emerged from a shadowy corner into the light. She was thin, too, and young. Perhaps no older than Lala.

And there was Buff, on her shoulder. The little guy jumped to Lala. She caught and snuggled him against her cheek.

Rork found himself drawn to this Indian girl. Tall and too thin, her grooming was impeccable. Her long, black hair hung straight down the back of her head. She seemed oddly trustworthy despite the fact that she’d put him in that cage and plotted to sell him.

“We’re just a young couple seeking a better future, perhaps like you two,” the girl said.

“We’re brother and sister.” The boy stepped forward. His brown eyes, in shocking contrast with the pure white that surrounded them, settled on Lala.

The roof rattled as a craft passed overhead. A sliver of sunlight invaded the room for a heartbeat before disappearing again. The room was empty except for a tall, narrow cabinet in the corner to Rork’s left. Heavy footsteps fell in near-unison outside.

Lala stared at the boy, her head inclined to one side. She began to smile.

Rork interlaced his fingers with hers and pulled her back towards the entrance. “Thank you. We have to go.” He walked backwards two steps and turned his back to them.

“You are the pirate Rork, are you not?” asked the girl.

Rork stopped short. He glanced at Lala. “No, sorry, wrong guy.”

The wall to Rork’s left disappeared and a rush of air pushed Lala into him. The black-hatted man stood thirty meters away to their right. In front of them, an Earth Defense Force fighter hovered silently. A dozen men kneeled and stood below it, their long, black laser rifles pointed at them.

One black-haired man, his belly pushing through the velcro closures of his white and green striped shirt, stepped from around the corner to face Rork. “Indian Immigration. All four of you are under arrest.”

7

“I kidnapped her. I swear to you that the blue-haired woman is my kidnap victim. I considered raping and murdering her, too. She needs counseling and relocation assistance. She hasn’t done anything wrong.” Rork pushed back from the flimsy, particle-board table and stood up. Dust flitted through the twilight air. “I confess to it all!”

The guard put a hand on Rork’s shoulder and pushed him back down into the shaky plastic chair. The interrogation cell was narrow. The floor was dirty and cracked but at least it wasn’t a dusty hovel. If he could get his captors to buy his story, Lala would get her second chance. What happened to him was unimportant.

He closed his eyes and felt Lala’s cool, smooth touch on his cheek. For a fleeting second, he felt the rich scented vanilla of her perfume. Then it was gone and he wanted it again. But it wouldn’t come. It might never come again.

A door opened in the mirror that faced him and a chocolate-skinned woman walked through. She wore a form-fitting bright yellow blouse and pencil skirt with a crimson sash. Her slick black hair curved forward towards her eyes in a steady wave then rolled rollickingly back over the top of her head and down to her neckline. She sat down across from Rork and smiled up at him, ruby red lips revealing perfect teeth.

“I am Attorney General for the Indian Realm, Sophia Patel. You admit that you are the pirate Rork Sollix?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“You are the subject of the Barbary warrant for piracy?”

“Sounds right. Yes.” He scratched his wrists under the restraints.

“Do you admit to the charges?” She openly studied his face.

“Ye— What will you do with the blue-haired woman?”

She flashed her teeth at him and breathed in deeply. “Lala Fevari, right? You want her to go free?”

“She’s my victim. I was going to rape her. She needs help.”

“Madam AG,” said a male voice over the intercom, “the prisoner is lying to you. The woman fought us more than this pirate did.”

The AG motioned him to silence, her face grim. She looked back at Rork and smiled.

“She has Stockholm syndrome. I held her too long. I regret it. You have to help her! Help her and I will do whatever you want.”

“Whatever I want?” The AG sat up straight and cleared her throat. She stood up, crossed to the other side of the table and reclined on it, her bare thigh touching Rork’s naked arm. She blinked both eyes at once at him.

Her long, thin legs, her ample breasts, the soft, brown face… Rork rose to her instinctively. But the thought of touching another woman horrified him. This wasn’t about finding someone different. He belonged to his blue-haired girl. He steeled his will and looked away.

The AG laughed. “The legendary pirate betrayed by a teeny’s puppy love?” She leaned in and caressed his cheek, her ruby red lips brushing over his. “Don’t you recognize me? I was in The Szyzantic Variable. It opened simultaneously across the whole system, even in the Jefferson Realm mining colonies.”

He shrugged. Movies bored him.

The AG emitted a guttural croak. She threw herself off the table and crossed to the other side, her shoes cracking on the hard floor. “I will release the child. You will stay. We will see if you can appreciate the attentions of a real woman.” She spoke to the guard outside. “Return him to the cell, then release prisoner Lala Fevari.”

A hand wrapped around Rork’s neck from behind. He fell to one side. The guard steadied him, then directed him towards the door opposite the mirrored wall. “Move, prisoner!”

Rork shuffle-walked, chains clinking, in a narrow corridor between two, long cages. Arms grabbed at him through the bars. Bald heads with scarred faces leered and yelled threats.

The guard opened the door to the last cage on the right and kicked him into it. Rork fell to his knees. Lala ran and caught him before his nose connected with the pockmarked cement.

“They’re going to free you. Get out and get far away from me. Find your seastead. Have ten kids, just with someone else. Promise me you’ll do it.”

Lala frowned at him, her eyes red and puffy. “No.”

“This is your chance. I did it. I got you here. Blend in. Find a new man, a better one. Build a life. Change your name. Do what you have to but live, Lala. Live!”

She shook her head and sobbed. “I won’t.”

“Let’s go!” the guard yelled from behind Rork.

“Just go. Forget about me.”

Lala threw herself at him and wrapped her arms tight around his neck. “I love you! Stop pushing me away!” She kissed his cheek. Her lips, wet with tears, sought his mouth.

Rork turned away from her. “You’re still young. You’ll start over, better.”

The guard entered and pried her hands from his back. Another guard ran in and grabbed her other shoulder. They dragged her toward the door. She kicked the floor.

“I can’t see our future anymore, baby,” she whispered from the other side of the bars.

The second guard let go of her and slammed the cell door closed.

Rork looked away.

“What about his meds? He needs meds!” she screamed.

The guards dragged her past the interrogation room. A heavy door creaked open, then slammed shut, the impact echoing through the block with a lonely finality.

Rork found the far, rear corner of the cell, below the narrow slit of window and collapsed into it. He closed his eyes. He’d be dead soon. The sickness would claim him.

It was fine by him. May it come quickly. Jupiter, I just want to die now. I can’t stand it anymore. His chest ached. The icy chill of the refrigerated cell leached into his toes and they cramped up. He ignored it. He didn’t care.

“We want to be pirates, like you.” It was the yellow-booted girl.

Rork kept his eyes closed. “Whatever you have now, it may seem like nothing to you, but it’s better than where I ended up.”

“The Cartel took our family, all forty-seven of them: uncles, cousins, our father and mother. The government knows. The EDF helps them. Those metal shacks? Five thousand people lived there. Now there is no one. We escaped but soon they will clear that area. And they took our papers.”

He looked up at the girl. She was simple and authentic, without pretension or accoutrement. “What’s your name?”

“Anju. My brother is Devi.” She kneeled down in front of him. “We will do whatever you command.”

Rork pointed to the left side of his chest. “Anorxoma. Right here. You know what that is?”

Anju nodded. She looked up at her brother.

“What if we can heal that?” Devi approached, his arms folded in front of him. He evinced an air of authority that contradicted his emaciated frame.

“It’s untreatable. You can have my body when I’m dead. I’m sure they’ll drop it on a scrap heap out there somewhere. Don’t worry. I’ll tell them I kidnapped you, too.”

Devi turned his back to Rork.

Anju stepped closer and touched his shoulder. “They’ll put us on the trainship to the mining outposts.” She smiled with pity in her eyes for him. “We’ll be dead, too.”

“Why did you kidnap us?” He opened his eyes and studied her face. He glanced at Devi. He sensed no danger from them. Probably haven’t enjoyed a decent meal since they suckled at their mother’s breast. “Cannibals?”

“How dare you!” Devi turned, his proud, square shoulders at attention. “We saved you.” He focused on his sister. “His reputation is too big for him.” He shook his head and scowled.

Anju squeezed Rork’s shoulder and held his eyes too long. “If you change your mind, we’re still ready to take your orders, Captain.” She stood up and walked over to her brother.

The heavy door clanged open. “Sollix! Visitor.”

Rork looked through the bars, among the feet of the other prisoners in the other cages. A pair of black boots stepped carefully behind the guard’s brown lace-ups. The prisoners’ feet turned in Rork’s direction and the room quieted. Rork stood and walked to the cell door.

It was the black-hatted man.

The guard muttered something and took a position a few steps away.

The black-hatted man removed his headgear and let it fall to the ground, revealing a hairless scalp. He withdrew his oversized sunglasses.

Anju gasped. “But…”

Rork studied the face. It was his own, only leaner and rosier. There was a deep scar that cut from the right corner of the mouth, up across the bulb of the nose and ended above the opposite eye. He shook his head. “No!”

“Yes.”

“They destroyed it,” Rork said. “I only barely escaped myself.”

“I fired the shot.” Jord’s face erupted in a proud laugh.

Rork narrowed his eyes at his older brother.

“Dad is alive, too.” He drew off his long, black gloves, one at a time and grasped them in his right hand. He put his fists on his hips.

Rork relived the moment of Jord’s and his father’s deaths. Barbary was firing on their home, a used space station they’d salvaged and repaired.

They were out beyond Titan then, on a trade swing to the settlements and mining outposts. Dad loved to see the miners’ kids get a decent meal for once and their parents have a few dalrots left over.

Barbary snuck up on them from the shadow side of Ganymede. Rork had nothing to return fire with. He yelled for Dad and Jord. When they breached the hull, he had to eject.

“Well, where is he, brother?” Rork smiled. “How is he?”

Jord sneered at his brother. “He wants to speak with you.” He withdrew a slim, rectangular screen from his coat and tapped it.

“Really?” Rork asked.

Gamil Barbary’s pockmarked mug appeared. It smiled wide. “I have your girl, Rork.”

Rork’s stomach clenched and tumbled. All strength drained from him and he grabbed tighter onto the bars to support his weight.

“Save this feed,” Barbary said to someone off-screen. “I want to remember the look on his face.”

“You’re a liar.”

“I picked her up myself,” Jord said through gritted teeth.

Rork’s eyes unfocused. Barbary. Jord. Dad. Lala. His mind spun. “You work for Barbary?”

Barbary closed his eyes, his head rolled back and he laughed.

Jord’s upper lip curled. He shook his head and looked away.

“Silence!” Barbary roared. “Your blue-haired babe is mine now, Rork. She will serve your punishment here with me, in service to the employees of Barbary and Sons Trading Company — mostly the men.”

“You’re dead, Barbary. You’re dead!” Rork felt his eyes moisten and he struggled to hold back the panicked tears. But they spilled over. He imagined his sweet Lala in Barbary’s hands. No! But the pictures played in his mind. “You bastard. You just couldn’t leave me alone to die?”

“Go ahead and die!” Barbary yelled. “Your girlfriend will pay your debts, with interest. We are done!” The screen turned black.

Rork clawed his hand through the bars at Jord but the turncoat stepped out of reach.

Jord fixed the black hat on his head, touched his finger to it and bowed slightly. “Brother.” He turned and left.

“Jord! Jord! Come back here!”

8

“Don’t do that again,” Devi said with a reproachful glare. “It is better they think you care not to escape.”

“It’s only natural. He is a man in love.” Anju sighed.

Devi rolled his eyes. “Foolish woman.” He looked down at Rork. “Are you ready to get out of here now? How soon can your crew be ready?”

“What happened?” Rork asked. He searched his memory but nothing came.

“The guard beat you because you were acting like a fool.” Devi stood up and walked away from them.

Anju pressed a moist cloth to his forehead and Rork winced. She pulled it away. It was stained with blood.

“You will heal. Rest now.”

It all flooded back and the atmosphere grew heavier. The images of Lala and Barbary’s boys pounded on his head. She was strong but they were gutless bastards and they lacked any sense of honor or dignity. He tried to remember her smell but now that was slipping away.

Barbary and Sons would crush her spirit. They would beat it out of her, cheapen her grace and fidelity.

And he was stuck in this hole.

“Is he ready to fight yet?” Devi asked his sister. “A man does not lay down and take it, he does not run from a challenge to his pride.”

Rork repeated the words in his mind. Silly boy. No clue how things really are. But he needed that kind of defiance right now. The boy was a power source and he longed for a charge.

“How will you cure the anorxoma?” Rork crawled to a standing position and looked from Anju to Devi.

“Will you accept us as part of your crew?” the boy asked. “Will you teach us how to be pirates and to help the people?”

Rork snorted. “What makes you think I know how to help people?”

Devi turned. His face was bright now, the eyebrows relaxed and his eyes pleading. “We’ve heard your stories. Of how you steal from the Cartel and trade fairly with the people. About your father, Band Sollix.”

Rork suppressed a smile. “What have you heard, exactly?”

Devi gulped. “Your father won one hundred thousand dalrots and a Cartel executive’s slave in a poker game on Luna. He invested the money in merchandise for the miners. Together, Band and Rolata Sollix ran Sollix Fair Trading. They traveled around the system in an old cattle carrier, defying the Cartel monopoly by trading with miners and other settlers at fair prices.”

Anju swooned. “And he freed the slave girl because she loved him. And he loved her. They married and had many children.” She looked at Rork and sighed.

“Only two,” Rork said, “that I know of, at least.”

The room quieted. The prisoners in the other cells poked their heads through the bars, one next to the other. Those who didn’t merit a front row seat lined up behind them. Their eyes fell on Rork.

Devi glared at his sister. “The man asked me, not you.” He cleared his throat. “Band and Rolata Sollix singlehandedly cured malnutrition in the Outer Realm settlements. Miners began to turn a profit. They put their money together into cooperatives and started their own, independent mining operations.”

“Cartel don’t like competition!” said a prisoner in the next cell. “Cartels want to keep the good man down!” His face radiated endurance, and suffering.

His cellmates patted him on the back and mumbled their agreement.

Rork nodded at him.

Devi cleared his throat again, this time more loudly. The crowd quieted.

“The Cartel chose Old Man Barbary,” the boy continued. “He won the bid to stop the Indie Shift. He and his sons tracked down Band and Rolata. And their two children.” Devi looked at Rork and raised an eyebrow.

Rork straightened up and swallowed hard. “They said they wanted to do business. Dad was willing to do business with anyone, Cartel, government or Indie. Rich, poor, sick, hungry.” A tightness rose in Rork’s throat and he blinked his eyes.

“Tell it, man,” said the prisoner.

Anju extended a hand to him.

“They lasered him. They threw my mother out the airlock. I watched her float past the cupola, her body icy and bloated, bits of her floating alongside.”

The crowd of prisoners erupted in hushed chatter. “He killed your parents, man,” said the prisoner.

“Then Barbary fired on our home. I couldn’t find my brother. I jumped in an escape pod.”

“You abandoned your brother? He’s your brother, man,” said the prisoner.

Anju turned to the prisoner. “He thought they were all dead! He saw them die! And he’s no coward. We all know what he’s done to the Cartel since then!”

The certainty of a debt of revenge coursed through Rork’s body, filling him with an electric fury. He had to be well. Now. He would find the strength. He was getting out of here. Barbary had to die. He had to save Lala.

9

“Wider! Spread them wider!”

Rork spread his arms and inched his legs farther apart. The chill air of the subterranean prison block swirled around him and a tremor ran from his gut to his taut neck muscles.

The gray-suited guard struck him across the back of his head. “I said to spread your legs wider, 93478921!”

Rork turned to glare at the guard but the goon struck the back of his knee. The pain was immediate. He spread his legs. “Happy now?”

The guard’s latex-covered fingers crammed in where he never expected anyone to touch him. He recoiled and clenched his guts.

“Finished. Move along, 93478921.” The guard waved him away.

“My name is Rork Sollix.” He turned to face him.

“You are holding up my line, prisoner 93478921.” The guard looked up at him. His puffy eyes just didn’t care. He had a job to do and a club to do it with. None of the rest mattered.

Another, shorter, guard grabbed Rork’s arm and pulled him along towards a heavy, metal door. Dark stains ran in odd patterns on the door. Bolt heads decorated its edges. A barred window let the gloom in. Not much more than half Rork’s height, the short guard stopped him. He pulled on Rork’s arms until the new prisoner faced opposite the wall where he was last abused.

A long wall of vertical metal bars greeted him. Behind it was the women. His eyes searched the smaller group and found Anju. She held onto the bars, her pert breasts exposed. She looked up at nothing in particular. Her eyes were red and her body trembled.

The small guard grabbed the top of Rork’s ear and jerked him forward.

“They already gave me the anal probe, little man,” Rork said, lunging forward.

“Just relax,” Devi said from behind him. “It will go easier for you.”

“Shut up!” the petite guard screamed at them both. He took a thin, white half-circle from a box next to Rork’s feet. He pried apart the prong-like ends and pushed them against Rork’s larynx. The device snapped around his neck and constricted.

Rork grabbed at his neck. It was too tight. He tried to shove a finger under it but the pain increased. He gripped the device with the tips of all ten fingers and pulled. Still it grew tighter.

“No!” Rork stepped backwards, tripped and fell into Devi. Devi’s head thudded into the cinder block wall.

Guards approached Rork from all sides, black sticks at the ready.

Rork struggled to draw breath. The edges of his vision darkened. He reached out for something to pull himself up with but there was nothing.

“Get up, prisoner!” the short guard yelled. The others beat him with their sticks.

Pain exploded in his gut, groin, knees and chest but only distantly.

The guards hauled him up and the short one wrapped his hands around Rork’s neck, around the device.

Why are they killing me?

The device loosened and Rork sucked in a deep breath, his eyes wide. He coughed and breathed again. The guards peeled away but two remained. They dragged him by his arms. His legs, useless, trailed behind him.

Metal groaned and Rork passed into a narrow, darkened hallway filled with vertical bars on both sides. Cracked and dirty, the concrete floors flowed under him like a stream.

They stopped. A cell door screeched open to his right and they tossed him in. He put his hand out to stop his fall. The door screeched again and the guard locked it.

Rork stood up, dusted himself off and examined his lone cellmate. The man sat cross-legged on the cold concrete, his eyes closed, facing toward the door. His ragged, cinnamon skin and bushy aluminum-colored beard gave the appearance of aged youth. Yellow flowers, arranged chaotically, encircled him and on the wall behind him a luminescent orange sunrise gave off dimmed hope.

The hallway lights came on, burning bright.

Rork turned away and covered his eyes. The neck ring pulsed hot. It tightened.

“Do not look into the light that is too bright for you,” the old man said. He giggled like a toddler with a new pet.

A dull headache took root in Rork’s temples and that electric charge stirred in him. He coughed. He needed those meds. “What?”

The old man smiled and bobbed his head from side to side like an Alzheimers patient. “You have looked too brightly into the lights, big lights, and now they burn you. Is that not right?”

Does he know me?

Behind him, thin metal rattled with a watery echo. Rork turned. A white, plastic cart floated by, rounded white lights on the bottom of it casting a pure light in sharp diagonals around him. A guard walked behind it.

“Eat purely and your being shall be pure,” the old man said. “But eat this crap and it really wears you down, man.” He giggled.

Rork looked down at the floor. Two dented and scarred metal bowls sat on the uneven floor. There was something in them. Foamy and gray, something twig-like stuck out of each one. He locked eyes with the old man. “Don’t tell me that’s supposed to be food?”

“What is and what is not — this is a question only the observer can decide for himself. Please bring one bowl to me, Captain Rork.”

Rork went to one knee to pick up the bowls and carried them over to the old man. They were ice cold, fresh out of refrigeration. He handed one bowl over and smelled the other. It gave off a thick farm odor, a vomit-worthy haze of cut grass, cow manure and pesticides. He returned his to the door.

“Are they going to issue me some clothes?” Rork asked.

The old man held the bowl up to his mouth with one hand and clipped his nose shut with the other. He poured the noxious stew down his throat in one swift move.

The lights clicked off and a metal door screeched, then slammed closed. The echo bounced around before silence returned.

“How do you know my name?”

The old man wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and shuddered, then burped. He gestured for Rork to return his bowl and Rork complied.

“The spirit requires not of material comforts but the body requires sustenance.”

“I don’t speak in riddles, old man.”

The old man giggled. “Nor do I! May I have your bowl, if you do not plan to eat it?”

Rork grabbed it and brought it over to the man.

The old man reached for it and Rork raised it higher.

“Answers.”

The old man sighed. “The right question is infinitely more valuable than all the answers in the universe.”

Rork snorted. “You are?”

“I am Zero. Some wish me to accept titles, but I cannot.” He reached for the bowl.

“Like the number?”

“Or non-number, depending on your perspective!” Zero giggled.

Rork held the bowl higher. His stomach rumbled but he wouldn’t eat this slop. “How do you know me?”

Zero spread his arms and looked from side to side. “We all know the story of Rork Sollix, the unstoppable pirate. You are very well received among my people.”

“Your people?”

“Just people: regulars, put-upons, those bound, slop-eaters, miners, slaves, prisoners.”

Rork handed him the bowl and he downed it just as before. Rork returned the empty container to the space under the door.

“Take my life, you may, Rork Sollix, but to possess my spirit, a harder labor is.”

Rork hugged his arms to himself and rubbed his hands against the opposing biceps. “How about some clothes here, guard!”

“No, no, no. Violence will not get you want you want.”

“What violence? And why would I take your life?” Rork brought a knee up and into his chest, then the other, jogging in place.

“Comfort is a state of mind. Adapt your feelings to your surroundings and you will—”

“Enough!” Rork buried his head in his hands. I’ll just escape. It’s that simple. He replayed the entry procedure in his mind. If he could escape and enter at will in space, he could do it on Earth.

One man can do anything. One man, among many. The idea popped into his mind. Among so many, there must be at least one with years spent planning an escape. Rork need only find that man. He would provide the escape plan. He would know the vulnerabilities. Rork would provide the final exit to space. He opened his eyes, a new confidence giving bounce to his muscles.

Zero appeared at Rork’s side, a pair of orange pants folded neatly in his outstretched hand.

Rork stepped away from him. “What? No. I have nothing to trade.”

“You will simply be in my debt. Everyone here is in debt, to Barbary or other Cartel members. That’s why we are here. What is one more?” He set the pants on Rork’s shoulder.

Rork grabbed them and shook them. Specks of dust fell out and moved on the floor. He tossed the pants back. “No, thanks! I came in clean. I’m going out clean.”

Zero caught his pants and put them back on. He returned to his perch, crossed his legs and closed his eyes.

“Why are you here?” Rork asked.

“Time to recharge the soul, young pirate.”

“How did you get all these flowers in here?”

Zero cracked an eye, a look of irritation on his face. “Young man, I do not wish to be disturbed during my spiritual retreat. If you require this much attention, I will be obligated to recommend your transfer to the children’s cell.”

“There are children in here?”

Zero pointed straight ahead.

Rork went to the cell door and stared into the cell across from his. There was nothing. It was too dark. His eyes became accustomed and he saw bodies. Small bodies. Many sat, against the walls, between, backs resting against each other and a few standing and walking.

The metal door screeched open.

“Get your hands off of my sister!”

A girl sobbed.

Rork’s heart leapt. If only it was Lala. No matter how horrible it is here, at least she would be here with me and away from Barbary. He gritted his teeth and his stomach turned. Stomach acid rose to the back of his throat. You will suffer, Barbary. He jammed an eye through the bars.

Devi appeared followed by Anju. The guard held them each by their necks. They wore the throat collars, too, but had orange shirts, pants and slippers.

“How about my clothes!” Rork yelled.

The pot-bellied keeper opened the cell across from Rork and pushed the siblings in. He locked the door behind them.

“My clothes, man! And I need meds!”

“Too dangerous for clothes,” the guard said without pausing.

Devi and Anju stood in the doorway, pressed up against the bars. There was simply no space in the cell.

“They will ship us out the day after tomorrow, all of us, all of these children. What is our plan?” Devi asked.

Zero appeared next to Rork and Rork stepped aside, surprised.

“No escape for you two,” Zero said, pointing a long finger at Devi. “You will pass your short lives as slaves among rocks in the void, without hope or reprieve.” He turned to Rork and nodded. “And you, not much longer to live do you have.”

10

“I do not like you. You are not like your legend,” Zero said.

Rork and Zero stood in a far corner on the roof of the prison. Below them was more concrete. Around and above them, interlaced steel gate and barbed wire shut out the sky. Hundreds more prisoners milled about the open space.

Rork turned to Zero and put his index finger in the emaciated man’s face. “I’m getting out of here, old man. Now. And not when I’m weak and thin like you.”

“At least I have pants on.” Zero giggled.

Rork tried to cross his arms but the restraints would only permit him to cross his wrists. He let them hang in front of him again. The warm morning sun pierced the steel fog for a moment and his back warmed. He turned himself around awkwardly, the ankle restraints clinking as he moved. Spacecraft rose from the port mere kilometers from his cage. He sighed and imagined himself rising in one of them. Space is freedom.

“Who here most wants to escape?” Rork looked at Zero.

“Only the one who endures is worthy of escape.”

“Enough with the riddles! Who has been here the longest?”

“I am the longest sufferer.”

Rork rolled his eyes. “The guards treat you like a god. You don’t suffer in here.”

“Indeed, I do not.”

“You just contradicted yourself.”

“Contradiction is in the eye of the beholder.” Zero looked at him out of the corner of his eye and giggled like a toddler again.

“Are you ever serious?”

“Where is the joy in that?”

“Where’s the joy in here?”

“Where is the joy out there?” Zero asked.

“Oh, there’s plenty. But you won’t find my kind of fun meditating in your monastery.”

“Nor will you find mine gallivanting out there like a mad man.”

Rork crossed his arms. “Do you have anything to add to this escape?”

The mystic scrunched his eyes shut and his head twitched from side to side as if he was having a seizure.

Rork rushed to catch him.

The mystic stopped, opened his eyes and grinned, his ivory choppers bright. “I just received a vision. You will be the first man to colonize a new solar system.”

“You just said I was about to die!” Rork waddled away in disgust. “Let me know when you’re ready to deal. You know something. You want out of here, just like everyone else. And I can get you off the planet.”

On the other side of the roof, the kids ran in circles, yelling and jumping. A few sat and stood around the edges of their group. Two guards circled the mass of kicking, screaming and even sometimes laughing stick figures.

Anju and Devi sat together, their backs against the fenced wall perpendicular to Rork’s and talked. The pot-bellied guard who refused to clothe Rork approached them. He grabbed Anju’s long locks of neatly combed hair in his ham fist and hauled her up to her feet.

Anju screamed.

Devi stood up fast, took a step towards the portly guard, then retreated. “Let her go!”

The guard pulled Anju toward the exit. He held her hair close to the scalp at waist height. She marched along behind him, hunched over, her eyes wide. She turned her head toward Rork and the guard jerked her back towards him.

“Rush not into a quarrel not your own, lest you be considered a busybody.” Zero studied Rork under lowered eyelids. “Especially with Jelara.”

“Hey! Fat man! Jelara!” Rork waddled towards the guard, his unkempt hair flapping in his face.

Jelara scowled in his direction. He pulled a card from his pocket and walked faster.

Rork changed direction toward the door, run-jumping now, his chains clinking lightly between his legs. “I’m talking to you, Gutbuster!”

Anju scratched at Jelara’s hand. She grabbed his wrist in her two hands and tried to pull him back but he jerked her hair. She screamed, her mouth wide open. “Help me!”

Devi ran after his sister but hesitated. He turned around and ran again. He grabbed the guard’s shoulder.

Jelara turned in a heartbeat and punched Devi in the nose. Devi’s knees buckled and he hit the concrete.

Jelara glanced at Rork. He reached the door and swiped his card. He pushed through the door.

Rork launched himself through the door and grabbed Jelara’s belt with the tips of his fingers. Rork’s elbows hit the cement. The impact vibrated his funny bone and his grip loosened. He looked back. “Zero!”

Jelara crumpled to the floor like a drunk gorilla. He let go of Anju. She jumped over Rork and ran back into the yard, her face contorted, her hair sticking up on all sides, like a black crown of stars.

Really? Alone in the fight again. Lala would help me. Rork pulled himself to his knees but the guard was faster.

Jelara rolled to his feet and pulled out his nightstick. He smacked Rork across the shoulder. Rork bounced with the blow. The next one came too fast. Rork fell to his side. Jelara hit him again.

Rork lay on his side on the rough cement. Shaped shades of light registered on his eyes. Sounds vibrated his eardrums. But he felt nothing and his mind processed none of it, not even the passing time.

Frigid liquid washed over Rork’s head and down his back. He drew in breath, his neck arched backwards. He found himself on all fours in the murk, a sliver of dull light escaping under a closing door.

Back in the cage. He sighed. “What the hell, Zero?” He shook his head and water droplets arced across the cell. “How long have I been out, anyway?” He rose to a knee.

The knee refused to rise. A chain clanked. He tried the other leg. He moved his arm. More clanking but rise he could not.

“What the hell!”

From far away, screams reached him, high-pitched wails and cries of outrage. More voices joined the cacophony.

A slot in the door slid open. Heavy breathing came from behind it.

“You only made it easier for me, 93478921,” Jelara said. “You gave me footing for separating all the children into the hole. Especially the girls. And I found some tasty ones.” He made a slurping noise and closed the slot.

“Jelara!” Rork tore at his chains. “Jelara!”

11

Rork jerked his left arm and the chain jingled. This time, however, a light scraping of metal against rock accompanied the playful sound. Rork did it again. The sound was there. He didn’t imagine it.

Black steel cuffs encircled his wrists. These connected to the jingling chain and the chain, in turn, gained its stopping power through a rusting baseplate anchored in the concrete floor.

But someone skimped on the baseplate. And now it was loose.

Sweat dripped from Rork’s forehead and onto the dusty floor. He was getting out of here now and that was that.

The slot in the door slid open and Jelara’s bulbous nose appeared.

“So, is the big bad space pirate enjoying his time out?”

Rork steadied his breathing. He didn’t want Jelara to come in. He might check the chains, find them wanting and move him to a better cage. Worse, he might return him to Zero’s cell. Then he might never free the children. He needed to be in here, in the hole, across from them.

Rork’s breath stuck in him and his lungs refused to exhale.

Jelara closed the slot.

Relieved, Rork sighed and breathed deep.

Something swished and the door’s locking bolt echoed open. Jelara stood there in the entryway, his dead eyes surveying Rork’s defeat.

Rork looked at the floor. Just leave me alone. Just leave me here. This is where I belong.

The memory returned to him of its own accord. Dad, Jord and he boarded a Barbary ship to buy a fresh supply of corn from Earth. They had no other choice. The Sollix Fair Trading Company donated its last kilos of corn to the indie miners. The Sollix family itself was eating stale crackers. Their customers were desperate for the staple and Barbary was the Cartel-designated supplier.

But Rork didn’t care about Barbary then. He was only nine. It was the children from that day that were burned into his memory.

While Dad and Jord took a sample of the corn, Rork explored the rear cargo hold. Out of the twilight murk, a girl came to the bars and held his hand. She didn’t have blue hair then. It was her gentle green eyes that made an impression on him. That, and the dozen other child slaves with her.

He couldn’t save her that day. That took a couple of years. But he didn’t abandon her. In the escape pod after he lost his family, Rork swore never to abandon anyone again. He wouldn’t start now.

Jelara kicked Rork’s arm. “Ready to behave?”

Rork arched his neck up and spit at him. No spittle left his dry mouth but the intention was clear.

Jelara stepped on Rork’s hand and ground his heel into Rork’s fingers. Skin dug into bone, ligaments stretched and Rork suppressed the physical need to cry out. He hardened his face and met Jelara’s smiling eyes.

Jelara’s smile fell. He took his booted foot off of Rork’s hand and kicked him hard in the ribs.

Rork rolled to his opposite side. He took in a sharp breath and recoiled as his lungs intruded into cracked bone.

“Your mother… is a dog,” Rork mumbled through the pain.

A shadow fell on Rork from the doorway. Jelara strode out of the cell and slammed the door behind him. Two pair of footsteps thudded away and the heavy metal corridor gate screeched shut.

Rork grinned. He jerked his left arm. That side ached but he jerked it a second then third time. The baseplate broke free of the cement. He stretched his hand out ahead of him and enjoyed the freedom.

He looked toward the door and listened carefully. A distant click echoed through the hallway. He curled the chain in his left palm and listened. The sound did not come again.

He shoved the freed spike under the baseplate that held his other hand and jimmied it about under each side, one after the other. It came free with a shower of cement dust.

Rork stood up and made short work of the leg chains now that he had the proper leverage. He pulled on the cuffs and shoved the concrete-encrusted baseplate spikes between skin and steel. He wrapped the rusty chains around his limbs and tucked the ends in the respective cuffs.

He tiptoed to the door, shivering, the sweat on his chest and back now evaporating. He squatted down and applied pressure to the slot. He glanced out through the small crack.

A guard, his shiny nylon pants and desert-brown shirt too baggy to be Jelara, stood with his back to Rork at the door to what must be the children’s cell. He shifted his feet and Rork backed away.

Rork stood up and leaned over, his stomach numb and empty. How long without a meal was it now? How long would it be? An open can of spam, the key turning back the metal lid, EDF-style — the image jumped into his mind. He pushed it away. A more attainable goal flashed in his mind. He shrugged. It was all he had.

“Ahh, no! The prisoner is free!” he yelled in his best Indian accent. “Help!” Rork moved into the corner and faced the spot where the guard would enter. He waited.

The slot opened. “Who—” A keycard swiped and the door popped free.

Rork put the ball of his foot forward, then the next one.

The guard appeared in front of Rork, facing him, his pistol drawn. He fired. The wall behind Rork exploded in fire and dust.

Rork pivoted his back to the guard. With his right elbow he hit the thin man on the ball of his jaw.

The guard’s head rocketed into the wall and he slid down into a pile of oversized clothes on the floor.

Rork stripped the goon. The pants reached the tops of Rork’s ankles and the velcro wouldn’t close at his waist. The shirt zipper refused to go above his sternum. He cinched the gun belt at the last hole. It kept his pants up but his waist ached and he was sure the pants would soon split. The shoes were hopeless. The hat fit like an astrohelmet on a ship’s prow.

Rork studied the puny thug. He would wake up and sound the alarm. He positioned his foot over the man’s sideways-facing head and jammed his bare foot down hard.

A sharp crack echoed in the inhuman cell.

Rork closed his eyes and sighed. His stomach grew heavy. He was oddly grateful for the lack of food so far during his stay. At least he wouldn’t leave with diarrhea.

He stepped out into the hallway, his head held low, his face away from the camera at the exit door. He closed his cell door and it clicked. He walked to the children’s cell, swiped the card and opened it.

“Stay back,” a child’s voice whispered.

A chill spread across Rork’s gut. He stepped back.

“We’ll kill you,” a girl whispered. “You’re already bleeding.”

The door clicked shut.

Rork put his hand to his stomach and held it up to his face. A thin trickle of blood ran the length of his palm. “Hey! Let me talk to Devi! I’m trying to save you. I’m Rork Sollix! The pirate!”

The big metal door at the end of the hallway opened and three guards entered. One stayed at the door. Two came toward Rork.

Rork moved his feet towards the children’s cell, then turned towards his own, where the guard lay. He put his feet back in place, saluted and looked at the floor.

The two guards stopped in front of him. One smacked the hat off his head. Rork looked at him and raised a fist to strike. Jelara.

The second one shocked Rork and he collapsed to his knees, his lungs begging for air that would not come.

The pair grabbed his upper arms, just below the shoulder, one on either side and dragged him out through the big metal door. The elevator waited. They pulled him in and Rork faced the wall.

His shoulders ached. He picked up his feet and put them under him but they never seemed to actually find the floor. His eyes rolled around. White. Everything was white.

The elevator doors opened and the light was too bright. He tried to cover his eyes. An oven-hot wind hit the side of his face and his lungs throbbed.

Feet and fabric shuffled and crunched to his right. The guards walked straight, then turned towards the noise. Rork found his feet and put them under him. They climbed steps.

At the top, Rork peeled his left eye a micron. A hundred or more prisoners stood in neat rows four deep and six wide a few meters below him on the ground. They wore white jumpsuits. Behind them, a small group of civilians sat in their varied dress. A transparent cage enclosed and protected them. They stared at their hands and each other.

Jelara pulled Rork to his feet. His knees wobbled but he stayed upright.

Rork scanned the area, both eyes open now. The diffuse light attacked his retinas from all sides, equally and at once. Above them was only sky. In the distance, he spotted the blue and yellow skyline of Delhi through the haze.

Jelara put something rough around Rork’s neck. A voice boomed through the assemblage. His earcom activated and the voice simultaneously spoke directly into Rork’s eardrum.

“We convene this morning to witness the execution by hanging of Rork Sollix, convicted pirate and long-time fugitive, finally captured by our very efficient and courageous Delhi Police just yesterday. Please take your seats.”

Rork’s breath caught in his throat. He instinctively picked up his right foot to run but the two guards grabbed his arms and held him.

12

“Hood the prisoner.”

One of the guards approached Rork, a hunk of dirty cloth in his hand. He pulled the opening apart. Dust cascaded out of it and hung in a stagnant sunbeam that managed to peak through the haze.

“What about my trial? What are the charges? This is crazy! A man deserves a trial! To deny a man his rights is barbaric!” Rork jumped up and down and the wood gave way behind his feet. He fell backwards, his eyes wide and shoulders flexing in an instinctive attempt to balance himself with his now bound arms.

The guard grabbed Rork’s shoulder and steadied him. An expression of bored irritation on his face, the mustached man held the eyeless hood open over the top of Rork’s head.

“Wait!” Jelara climbed the steps to Rork’s right, a small but well-fed boy running ahead of him.

Rork looked at the guard with the hood. “Really? A kid, too?”

The guard ignored him and looked at Jelara.

The boy reached Rork. He stood in front of the condemned man and touched his belly wound. He looked at his finger, then at Jelara. “Blood!”

Jelara knelt down next to the boy and smiled. “No matter, this one will be dead soon.”

“Will you kill him, Father?”

“You bring your kid to watch executions? What the hell is wrong with you people!” Rork yelled.

Jelara stood up and slammed the palm of his hand into Rork’s lower jaw. He grabbed the helpless hero’s neck and squeezed, his disgusted scowl boring into Rork’s soul.

Rork squirmed. “Hey!”

“This one is a pirate, son. He steals from traders, miners and settlers, taking food from the mouths of children like you. He will murder your father and rape your sister if it suits him. He is scum.” Jelara looked down at his son without releasing Rork. “Someday, God willing, you will have the chance to capture and punish bad men, too.” He looked up and nodded at the other guard.

“I haven’t raped or murdered anyone!” I only kill in self-defense.

Jelara released him, then punched him in the nose.

Rork groaned.

The boy looked up at Rork, then his father. He squinted at Rork. “I understand, Father. What about religion? Does he receive some mercy or prayer before…?”

“No.” Jelara grabbed his son’s finely chiseled hand in his fat fingers and pulled him off the platform. At the bottom of the steps, he turned and nodded up at somewhere Rork couldn’t see.

The steps on the other side of the platform creaked. Rork turned. Zero stood there, head bowed. “I seek to minister to the condemned man.”

Behind Rork, the guards mumbled.

Zero nodded and proceeded to Rork’s side.

“Faith.” Zero shook his head, his eyes a reproach, as if to a child. “That is what you lack, pirate. With faith comes patience. And now look at what you have wrought.” Zero rubbed his thumb into Rork’s forehead, then his heart. He muttered incomprehensible sounds.

Beads of sweat rolled down Rork’s face. He wanted to brush them away but all he could do was twitch and blink his eyes. “You can do something. They respect you.”

“Respect? What do you know of it?” Zero started to chant.

“It’s not true, what they say about me.”

“Why did you attempt to enter the children’s cell?” Zero asked between chants.

A guard tapped Zero on the shoulder. Zero raised his arms, palms facing out and chanted more loudly.

“I’m trying to escape! I can’t leave the children behind. There are two children in there who came in with me.”

“Devi and Anju, the siblings?” Zero waved his open palms over and in front of Rork’s body.

The guard appeared next to Zero and grabbed his shoulder. “That’s enough, old man.”

“Will you take the children?” Zero asked.

The guard with the hood appeared next to Rork and held it over his head.

“Of course!” Rork’s pulse accelerated. His heart beat in his throat.

The guard pulled on Zero and Zero fell a step away from Rook.

“Will you carry me to all the settlements, stations and mining operations so that I might preach?” Zero stopped everything he was doing and stared Rork in the eye. He examined Rork’s face as if looking for evidence of deception.

“Just not all at once, okay? I have to earn a living.”

“Will you do it or not?”

“Yes!” Rork yelled.

The hood fell over his head. It stank of concentrated urine and the collected body sweat of thousands of dead, fear-sweated men.

“Do it,” a strong male voice said.

Rork felt himself pulled backwards. The rough noose tightened on the front of his neck and he gasped for breath. One foot dangled into the abyss. The other he lodged awkwardly on the platform. He tried to push himself back up with it but his strength faded and panic electrified his spine. It hurt. It really hurt. His blood thumped in his eardrums. All outside sound disappeared.

Thick arms grabbed Rork and lifted him up. Rork’s leg lost connection with the platform and he scrambled to regain his last defense against death. Rork received a devastating blow to the gut and curled up to protect himself. He tried to draw breath but nothing came. He waited for the fall that would signal the end, his end.

An apparition of Lala came to him. He was a failure. He didn’t keep his promise. His raged at himself, his self-hate glowing red in him as he fell.

But he stopped falling and started to move sideways. The noose was still there. His hands were still bound. But he was bouncing on someone’s shoulder now, the skin on his belly ripping and burning where the children cut him. He steadied his breath and listened, the jingling of the chains providing a pleasant melody.

They flew down steps, Rork’s gut and aching ribs bouncing against the heavy shoulder, the sound of many footsteps behind them, muffled yells and the cracks of pulse pistols. He rubbed his hands together, hoping to free them. He shook his head from side to side. The hood loosened, he was briefly upside down and his feet found solid ground once more. His hands found freedom. He removed the hood and drunk deep of the less odorous air.

“Are you a man of your word?” Zero put his face close to Rork’s in the darkness.

The guard who put the hood on him organized the children into lines behind Zero.

Rork raised an eyebrow and inclined his head towards the guard. “Can he be trusted?”

“The question is whether we can trust you. Will you keep your word, pirate? We have already taken a great risk for you. Now your vow you shall repeat, so that the agreement is clear.”

Boots stomped nearby. Rectangles of light squeezed in through the door to Rork’s right. The children finished lining up.

Zero smacked him across the face.

“What!” Rork searched for a way out. The space was tiny. He spied no other exit.

“You promised to take the children out of here and to carry me from port to port so that I might preach the word of the Universe. In return, Faraj and I will get you safely to your ship.” Zero offered him his right hand.

Rork took the guru’s hand and shook it. My ship. We’ll just have to interpret that term rather loosely, won’t we? He suppressed a grin. “Now, how are we getting out of here?”

Zero relaxed his shoulders and looked at Faraj. He opened his mouth.

“Wait. Where are Devi and Anju?” Rork counted the children. Two rows, eight per column. Most were clad in upside down nylon bags. Others wore only underwear. He spotted one with a pair of sandals made from recycled rubber tires. But not one was over the age of ten.

“Those old enough to work in the colonies, they culled those children the morning after your foolish escape attempt.”

“Don’t lay that on me!” Rork pursed his lips. He owed those two kids and he didn’t like being in debt.

Footsteps sounded outside and the door whipped open, smacking Rork in the nose. He recoiled and closed his eyes.

Jelara faced him in the tiny closet, a pulse pistol aimed at his forehead. The fat man smiled. He glanced at Zero.

The children gathered around Zero. Faraj found a spot next to the guru and looked down at the floor.

Rork rolled his eyes. “What good is your beast if he won’t fight?”

Jelara focused on Rork. He pushed the barrel of the pulse pistol into the space between Rork’s eyebrows.

“We can pay you,” Zero said.

Jelara smiled wide, his browned teeth appearing above his blackened lower lip. He laughed and his hot breath spewed into Rork’s nostrils.

Rork exhaled in a burst through his nose. “We’ll take you with us.”

Jelara burst out laughing. “And be a liar to my son?”

Rork raised his hand to cover his mouth and nose from the jailer’s contaminating spittle but Jelara pushed the barrel in deeper. Rork clenched his fists at his sides.

“Leave the rats here. You two,” Jelara said with a jerk of his head towards Zero and Faraj, “out.” His eyes swiveled as he kept his head fixed on Rork.

Rork practiced the maneuver in his mind. He took himself out of the path of the pulse pistol but exposed the children. Zero met his eyes. Rork looked at the children then back to Zero.

Zero grabbed the oldest child’s shoulder and pulled the girl towards the door.

“Will it be Sergeant Jelara after this? Or will they blame you for our escape?” Rork asked.

“Stop.” Jelara’s eyes did not leave Rork’s face but they glazed over and lost focus.

It was his chance. Rork hopped to his right, out of the path of the pulse pistol. He grabbed the weapon and twisted it away from the fat jailer.

Jelara fired and light burst into the room through a small, circular hole in the wall opposite the door. Rork rocketed his elbow into Jelara’s nose and the jailer’s head crashed into the open, metal door with a hollow bang. He collapsed to the ground.

“We have to go now.” Faraj guided the children out the door, his gentle hand falling on each one’s shoulder in turn.

“The beast speaketh!” The thrill of his victory rose over Rork and broke. He balled his fists and threw his shoulders back. “We’re getting out of here!” He looked around the door at Zero.

Zero nodded. He narrowed his eyes and his mouth tensed. “I assume you know how to rappel?”

Rork’s face fell. “What’s that?”

13

Rork slipped down the rope again. The palms of his hands burned. He hung a dozen or more meters above the ground, next to the high outer wall of the prison. Stained white paint peeled in fist-sized chips at the slightest touch. His body ached, from the pulled muscle at his waist and his bruised ribs to his overworked biceps. He held himself steady, gasping at breath and unsure what was worse — the physical exertion or the sheer terror. Why couldn’t I have been captured in space, or anywhere low-grav, anywhere at all?

A small boy, his Mickey Mouse voice going on excitedly about something, crawled onto Rork’s back, then down his legs and back onto the rope again. Two friends quickly followed.

“Hey! One at a time!”

The first child hit the green grass below him, next to a half-buried boulder. Rork groaned. He looked straight up. Another half-dozen kids flowed down, one hand over the next, too quickly for him to perceive the individual movements. They were raised in high-grav. It’s not my fault.

“Hurry up!” Zero hissed from below.

“It’s not my fault!” Rork let the rope slide through his crossed feet. One arm let go, he slid gently down, then the next.

A half-dozen adults tiptoed around the corner of the wall. They wore long, bleached white gowns. The children ran to them.

A child put his bare little foot, toes wiggling, on Rork’s scalp just above the pirate’s forehead. Rork, in an instinctual panic, brushed the tiny toes away, lost his hold and plunged toward the ground.

Damned high-grav. The boulder came up fast and Rork focused on its thin middle ridge. He reached to his wrist for his flight controls but they weren’t there. He hit the grass face first, his right arm smashing into the edge of the boulder.

Small children rained to the soft earth in front of him. Each turned and rushed to the group of adults. “Mama,” one whispered.

Rork wanted to just lay there and sleep. But he forced himself to his feet and lurched forward. His arm was tingly but mostly numb. He found Zero and turned him around. “How did they know to come here?”

“Faraj told them.”

And who did they tell? “We have to get to the spaceport.”

“First, the little ones.” Zero inclined his head to Rork. “You are now known as a liberator of children. Salute you, they do.”

A bald man, his face a maze of collapsing flesh trotted over to Rork, kneeled in front of him and kissed his hands. “Thank you! Thank you!” he whispered.

Rork looked down at him and tried to imagine what the old man felt. His eyes clouded up but he pushed it away. “They have to get out of here, fast.”

Zero looked at him, his face empty.

“Tell them. Jelara will be out here any second.”

“You must receive their gratitude in order to close the circle.”

Close the circle? Rork opened his mouth but the parents swarmed him. They bowed to him and he bowed back.

Zero grabbed his arm and pulled him out of the throng. “The Universe smiles on us all. Do you see it now?” He turned and sauntered down a narrow alley toward the skyscrapers of the central city and away from the prison.

Rork jogged after him, his feet barely lifting off the ground. “What about Faraj? And can somebody get these chains off of me?”

They passed an empty cross street. Police huddled around a barricade of wood and wire to their right. Rork looked both ways and sprinted across.

“Our fates, intertwined they are now,” said Zero. They passed a small tree, its flexible branches curving down over them like an overprotective umbrella. Zero rubbed one of the orange and black flowers and the branch’s leaves fluttered down around them.

“Just do everything I say and we’ll be fine.” Rork ran to the next cross street and looked both ways. “Is your bodyguard coming or not? And maybe he has the keys—”

Zero came up behind him. “Faraj will protect the children on their journey. He will join me when he is able.”

A blue police car zoomed over them and toward the prison. Another vehicle came to a stop on the cross street. It turned and blocked the way.

“I don’t know these streets. Do you?” Rork asked.

Zero sat down, cross-legged, next to him, closed his eyes and began to mumble.

“What the hell are you doing?” Rork grabbed the mystic’s matchstick arms and pulled him up but he was unnaturally heavy.

He let go. He looked around the corner again, then stepped out and walked to the sideways police car. He opened the door and sat down in the driver’s seat.

The dashboard was simple. He spotted the speed indicator. The car’s charge was full. He pressed the red start button and a slight vibration rumbled through the steering wheel under his hands. He moved the accelerator under his right hand to the drive setting. The car drifted forward and knocked down a corrugated metal wall.

“Hey!” Two police officers ran toward him from his right, hands at their waists.

He stared at the car controls, his mind a jumble. He tried to recall how these things worked but he’d never driven one before.

A spark exploded in the ceiling upholstery in front of his head and a light breeze cooled the sweat on his brow. The cops were just a few meters away now.

Rork shifted the accelerator to the reverse setting and twisted the wheel. The car shuddered and inched backwards. Why can’t I get this to work? I’m a pilot for Jupiter’s sakes! Rork kicked the floor and he bounced back and forth. The spark of a clue lit in his mind.

The two police arrived at the co-pilot’s window and pointed their pulse pistols at Rork through the closed window. “Turn it off and get out with your hands in the air!”

“Just taking it for a spin, officer!” He put his hands up, his body rigid, ready to move. But he couldn’t move faster than the speed of light. That was out of the question. They’d replace his eyes with smoking tunnels before he reached the door.

“Get out of the vehicle!”

Rork’s eyes alighted on the cabinet in front of the co-pilot’s seat. It might hold a weapon.

From behind him, a familiar voice rang out. “Blessings to you, keepers of the law and defenders of the peace!”

The police officers’ eyes moved. Rork let his foot off the brake. He reached for the co-pilot’s cabinet, popped it open and pulled a shiny pulse pistol from it.

Rork shot through the front glass at one, then twisted his body to the side and fired again at the other. Their dead bodies hung in the air a millisecond, then collapsed backwards to the pavement with a wet thump.

The car crunched the metal shack on the other side of the street and Rork stepped on the middle pedal. He fell forward again, then back. He put the car in drive, turned the wheel and pulled the car back on the street, facing away from the dead cops.

Zero opened the co-pilot’s door and climbed in. He stared at Rork, his eyes wide, and shook his head.

“God sits in the temple of every human being!”

“I had no—”

“To slay another is to enslave yourself!” Zero crossed his arms and looked out the window.

“They meant to kill me. Or to take me back to Jelara and that cage.” Rork tapped the metal cuffs on his wrists. “I will die first and if I can kill a hundred of them along the way,” he said jerking a thumb behind him at the dead police, “then so much the better.”

Zero looked at him, the fragile man’s eyes red, a tear arcing down his cheek. “To be party to killing is to render invalid every word that proceeds from my tongue. I would rather spit upon the Universe itself and take my own life, as humble as it is, than to take another’s life, no matter their suspected crime.”

“What do you mean, ‘suspected crime?’ They missed the first time but they aimed to kill me. Think of how many people we would protect and help by taking out a hundred of these goons? There is nothing wrong with it.” He stepped on the accelerator pedal and the car jumped forward. Ahead, the narrow alley curved to the right. He moderated the pressure of his foot and his body jerked forward.

Zero sobbed then cleared his throat. “Of what use is a free body without a mind freed from the primitive dictates of violence? You must see this.”

Rork guided the car around the curve of the road. A police roadblock awaited them. Sparks exploded on the front viewport. “See if you can get God to stop their shooting!” He ducked down and pulled back on the wheel. The car pitched up and over the roadblock.

Rork’s stomach fell. He sat up and smiled. “We did it! Now where is the spaceport?” He looked over the dashboard and past the front of the vehicle, then to the left and right. “Do you know?” He turned the wheel right and the vehicle rolled gently to the right, left and it rolled again. He howled with laughter.

Zero held his hands over his face and refused to speak.

Rork studied the control panel. In the middle, between him and Zero, a thin black panel flashed the words, “Voice Ready.”

“Destination, Delhi Spaceport,” Rork said. His eyes closed of their own accord and he lurched forward, hitting his head on the steering wheel. “Ow!” Must stay awake.

“Destination accepted,” a female voice responded.

The car slowed, rolled gently right and headed in the opposite direction. The brilliant dome of the spaceport lay ahead. Landing platforms, some open, some sealed, branched off above the dome in a geometric if tree-like pattern. Ships came and went in straight lines.

“We did it!” Rork grabbed Zero by the shoulder and shook him. “We’re getting out of here!”

Zero refused to stir except for the mute movement of his lips.

“I’m keeping our agreement, okay? I’ll take you around, alright?” He adjusted his pants and tucked a loose chain back into its metal cuff. “You can do your talking while I do my trading. It’s a good match, you and I.” He laughed.

“A trader is a being of peace who gives value for value.”

“Hercules Haddad! Love that guy!” Rork said.

“Then why don’t you follow his philosophy?”

“First, we get Lala, though.” Rork sighed and his mouth tensed. He had to get her out of there fast. Barbary’s compound would be no rocket ride, that was for sure. And he had to find her first.

“But you took their most valuable possessions while giving nothing in return.”

“They offered me death, Zero, and I gave it back to them.” When is this snoof gonna get it?

Rork fell forward into the wheel. He looked around. They weren’t moving closer to the spaceport anymore. He pushed his foot onto the accelerator pedal but the car did not respond.

“Destination: Delhi Spaceport.” Rork enunciated the words.

“Destination denied,” the computer replied. The car rolled right and the doors clicked locked. “Vehicle rerouted to Delhi Police Headquarters Building, Parliament Street.”

14

“Whatever happens, just go with it.” Rork looked Zero in the eyes and nodded. “Follow my lead.”

The stolen police car descended the last few meters to the police parking lot. Inside the high gates of the lot, dozens of police vehicles, from simple aircars like their own to matte blank stealth tanks with weapons turrets, waited alert for their chance to go into action.

“I will not tolerate any more killing.” Zero crossed his arms and huffed.

Outside the gates, a throng of chanting people shook the high metal enclosure.

“Did they just say my name?” Rork flexed his abdominal muscles. The stolen police pulse pistol dug into his kidney under the loose belt. His eyes darted from side to side. He extended and retracted his fingers.

“You are not your ego, Rork. You need to remember that.” Zero raised his hands in surrender and looked out his side window.

“What the heck does that mean!”

The car hit the ground and bounced. The door locks popped open and darkly armored policemen ran to the car from both sides, their laser rifles pointed at Rork and Zero.

Rork drew his pulse pistol from his belt and pushed the barrel against Zero’s temple.

Zero turned slowly and glared at Rork, his eyes wide.

Rork shrugged. “Just bear with me, okay? Can you do that?”

“I will not!”

“Open door.” Rork passed the pistol to his left hand and wrapped his right arm around Zero’s neck. The computer released the door and he dragged Zero out. He held the mystic’s back against his chest.

“I kidnapped this man, and I will kill him!”

The crowd burst through the gate, almost all graying women in brightly-colored traditional dresses that covered them from chin to toe. They wailed, raised their hands and wagged their fingers at Rork.

Rork stared down a bulbous-nosed older man in a navy blue uniform with gold epaulets. The man stepped to the side, his eyes bloodshot. Rork pushed through the other police. He turned his back to the howling mass and did a little dance of defiance, his buttocks wiggling, at the police.

The police transformed into a semi-circle, their laser rifles pointing at Rork’s forehead. Rork pushed back against the old women but they pushed him forward again.

“Who are these people?” Rork yelled.

“Some consider me to be a holy man.” Zero closed his eyes and began to mumble.

“Well, that’s ridiculous.”

Zero swiveled his head to look Rork in the eye. The pulse pistol slipped from his temple and the police edged in closer.

“What do you mean, ‘ridiculous?’ I have studied and meditated for many years, under the most revered masters. I am an honors graduate of St. Stephen’s College and hold a PhD in Hindu Studies from Oxford. How dare you, sir?”

Rork smirked. “And you want me to watch my ego?”

Zero pushed Rork in the chest and Rork re-aimed the pistol at the red dot between the swami’s eyes. The police stepped in closer, all at once.

“I believe our deal is effectively canceled,” Zero said.

“You can’t unilaterally cancel a deal.”

“All deals have exit clauses!”

“So you’re a lawyer now, too? If you know so much about the law, what were you doing in that cell?”

Zero’s face flattened and his shoulders hunched forward. He stuck out his lower lip and frowned. “This is none of your concern, a private matter.”

“Are you ready to go back to that cell?”

Zero touched a finger to the side of his head. “A truly free man is liberated no matter his surroundings.”

“Just another one of your convenient platitudes. But when you’re braxing in a bucket and eating rotten rice for the three-hundredth day in a row without even a look at a woman or a view of the sky, the cliche is no comfort, is it?”

Zero looked at the policeman nearest him and folded his arms across his chest.

“Is it, holy man? I know why you were in that cell.”

“You know nothing. You are an empty head on a thieving stump of flesh.”

“It was a woman.” For better or worse, it’s always a woman. He hoped his guess was correct.

Zero balled his fists.

“How many?”

Zero stomped back over to Rork and turned his back to him. Rork put his arm around Zero’s neck and placed the gun once more at his temple.

“We’ve got to stick together, you and I,” Rork said. “We got into this together. We’ll get out of it together. The deal stands.”

Zero nodded. “And now?”

A media drone zoomed in from the open sky and took a position to Rork’s right, its small blades whining like a busy bee. The forest green lens zoomed in silently on his face.

Rork smiled. “Where’s your general?” He scanned the crowd for the big-nosed man with the epaulets. “We— I demand a civilian car take us to the spaceport now. I’ll release your fallen holy man there. But any false moves and that’s it.”

The women around them covered their mouths and restarted their wailing.

“Step aside, boys!”

Rork craned his neck around the media drone to find the speaker. A woman appeared from the ranks of the rifle-wielding police. Her raven black hair fell on a parabolic curve down the back of her head and reached to her waist. A shiny, white mini-skirt revealed perfectly contoured legs that arched down from her firmament in a pose that caused Rork’s chin to fail.

“Wow,” he mumbled.

She stepped high towards Rork and Zero, a shimmering, red cape ripping through the air behind air. She cracked her cherry boot heels on the ground and stared intently at the newly imprisoned pair.

“I know this woman from somewhere,” Zero mumbled.

The media drone zipped up and spun in mid-air. It re-focused on the lady.

“I am Sophia Patel, the Attorney General for the Indian Realm, and I am here to negotiate a deal with you.”

Rork took in her generously lashed green eyes. His heart fluttered and he felt short of breath. “Good, good, yes. Alright. You’re the… What?” He looked her up and down, from her uplifted boot heel to her parted red lips.

“I told you I’d be back.” She ran a hand across her chest.

Zero elbowed him. “She’s an actress!”

“You are the rogue pirate Rork Sollix and you are holding our revered Guru Dr. Zero Malik hostage.” She arched her head to one side and made a duck face.

“Yes, I am Rork Sollix.” Rork’s eyes fell on the gentle yet ample curve of her buttocks and he nodded.

She walked closer. “Tell me what you need, Mr. Sollix. May I call you Rork?”

Zero stomped on Rork’s toes and Rork frowned.

“Right!” Rork said. “We want to go to the spaceport.”

“Follow me,” Ms. Patel said.

She walked past Rork, the edge of her cape flying up and tickling his nose. The crowd of old women stepped to one side. The gate opened, apparently on its own initiative. Zero turned to follow and Rork let his pistol hand fall to his side. A pink sedan pulled up to the street, its windows black. A tall, wide man stepped out. He wore a brown suede trenchcoat, a red scarf tossed around his neck.

Rork startled and pointed the gun at him. “Boyfriend?”

“Bodyguard.” She raised an eyebrow at Rork. “Would you like to drive, Mr. Sollix?”

“Call me Rork.” He took the keys from the bodyguard and waved him away with his pistol hand. Rork pointed his pistol at Ms. Patel and slid into the backseat next to her.

“Hey!” Zero remained outside the vehicle, his palms pointing at the sky.

Rork turned away from Ms. Patel, careful to keep the pulse pistol on her, and tossed the keys to Zero. “You know where we’re going.”

Zero slammed the back door closed and looked up. “Give me the strength!” He got in, inserted the key and piloted the luxury vehicle into the sky.

Rork slid closer to Ms. Patel and put his arm on the back of the seat. He jammed the pulse pistol between his belt and his kidney and smiled up at the woman.

Ms. Patel slid closer to the door and smiled. “I would very much like to have your endorsement, Mr. Sollix.”

“Call me Rork!” He slid closer.

“And yours as well, Guru Zero.” She put her palms together in front of her face and bowed her head towards the front seat.

“For what?” Rork asked. “You are the Attorney General, aren’t you? That’s what you told us?” He looked at Zero.

“I am running for Governor of the Indian Realm now and as you two gentleman are so well-respected among the masses of people, well…” She smiled and the light from her teeth mesmerized Rork.

Zero looked back at Rork via the rear-view mirror. “It is unwise to mix the spiritual and the political.”

Rork shook his head to break her spell and jerked his thumb backwards. “You free those prisoners back there and stop sending poor people to the colonies. Then I’ll think about it.”

“I’m afraid it is an absolute requirement if you wish to get off the planet safely.” Ms. Patel put her hand between her breasts and then to Rork’s throat in one seamless movement.

An icy chill assaulted Rork’s neck. His jugular pounded something hard.

“It’s the ladies’ edition pistol but I can assure you, Mr. Sollix, that it is even more powerful than your stolen police issue.”

Outside, a dozen media drones circled the aircar as it hurtled towards the looming spaceport.

“Uh…” Rork’s eyes met Zero’s.

“You will both tell the cameras that I am the best candidate for Governor now or I will expose what’s left of your brains to Delhi’s trademarked pure morning air.”

15

“What the hell did you do?”

Rork stumbled and fell forward. His knee crashed into a rock and his lower back ached. He wanted to scream but only a low groan escaped his throat. He pushed himself back up and the world spun around him.

“Rork! We gotta… We must…”

Rork looked around. Who is that? He spun around and fell back into the aircar. His head landed in Ms. Patel’s lap and she mumbled something.

“Where are you?” Zero’s voice came from far away.

His life situation returned to him in a pop, like a change of pressure knuckling the inner hull of his old WORF-9. He sat up and pulled himself out of the broken car.

The fallen wreck rested in a small yard protected by withering palm trees. He looked up and the vertigo forced him back. A skyscraper rose next to them and the front of the car was buried in its wall. Steam, smoke or both escaped from what must be a maintenance area.

“Rork! Help me!”

“Where the hell are you?”

Ms. Patel slammed her arm against the car door and groaned. Her pistol lay on the seat next to her in a pile of safety glass squares and cubes of black plastic molding.

“I can’t breathe!” Zero yelled.

Rork jumped back into the car and climbed into the front seat. He stared into the gloom inside the skyscraper. There was no sign of the mystic.

“I’m slipping!” The voice came from below the car.

“Tell me where you are!”

“Don’t leave me here, Rork, please! I’m going to fall.”

Rork looked through the back window of the car. The curving bottom of the giant egg that was the spaceport lay just on the other side of the street. Traffic moved normally up and down the wide boulevard. Travelers walked in and out of the large front gate. Great targeting, Zero.

Rork walked into the spaceport alone, found a luxury yacht and blasted off while the cops were busy digging these two out of this wreck. It was perfect.

Ms. Patel’s hand crawled across the seat towards her tiny gun.

Rork propelled himself forward and landed his pinky finger on its chilly metal handle. He dragged it just out of her reach. I can still get away.

“My leg is broken. I’m no threat anyway.” She raised her head and with a flourish pushed her lush mane out of her face and over the top of her head. She smiled thinly.

Rork pocketed the undersized weapon. “Don’t go anywhere.” He started to climb into the back seat.

“I’ll let you out of the deal. Just don’t let me die here! It’s dark. I can’t see anything and I think it’s really deep. It’s like a giant hole. Oh God! Something is touching my feet!”

“That’s the floor! Just let go!” Rork met Ms. Patel’s eyes and shook his head. He scanned her body for signs of deception and found none, for now. The floor was right there. Zero could let go, drop a few feet and be fine. He was happy in that cage. He’d be fine. But this bird won’t be caged.

“I’m scared, Rork, please. I don’t want to be alone again and I don’t want to die down here.”

“Blast it all, Jupiter.” Rork shot one last glance at Ms. Patel, then turned and tossed himself between the ragged edges of the broken viewport and onto the smooth hull. He inched forward and the car angled downward.

Ms. Patel screamed.

Rork slid forward. He hooked his feet against the top edge of the dashboard and forced the balls of his palms against the hull.

Metal groaned. The car slipped forward then stopped with a screeching crash of metal and glass. Shiny bits slid off the front of the car’s hull and Rork waited for them to hit the cement or stone floor below.

But no sound came.

“You moron! I can’t die! Not like this!” Ms. Patel yelled.

“Shh.” Rork cocked an ear. The glass tinkled en masse but it was far away.

“Hold on, Zero.” Rork slid forward, searching for something to anchor his foot as he went. But there was nothing. He pushed on anyway and reached the edge.

A hand reached up from below.

Rork grabbed it and hazarded a look down. Pitch black, the abyss disoriented him and his eyes unfocused.

“Focus on me.” Zero got his elbows up on the car and slithered across the hood and into the front seat.

The car rocked backwards and Ms. Patel screamed again.

Rork ripped his eyes away from the darkness. He slid down the hull and fell into the co-pilot’s seat. He grinned at Zero. “That was fun!”

Zero flashed him a pained frown, then threw himself over the back seat and was outside. Rork followed and ran to the street, ahead of Zero.

Zero caught up. “What about her?”

Rork searched the sky. Flashing red lights hovered above the spaceport. A cloud of smaller craft surrounded them. He pointed up. “They’ll find here. Come on.” He grabbed Zero’s elbow and they darted across the street.

Zero stopped outside the gate. “Why did you come back for me?”

Rork stood in the gate, well-dressed people streaming in and out around him. He shot his companion a lopsided grin. “I wanted to teach you a lesson about faith, and fear.” He continued inside.

Rork looked up. He wanted to just jump off and use his rockets to zoom up to a ship but this was high-grav. He’d have to hoof it up, step by painful step. He wasn’t looking forward to it.

“Which one is your ship?” Zero stood at his side and looked up. “How big is it?”

“It’s the closest one,” Rork mumbled with a wry grin. In the middle of the wide space people gathered around benches and tea shops. On the sides were closed offices behind ticketing counters. Straight ahead, travelers queued for immigration control.

“Don’t we need papers? I’ve never been to space before,” Zero said.

“Are you kidding me? You’re green? You at least had your inoculations, right?”

Zero shrugged.

“If you get sick and die, it’s not my fault.”

“The Universe will provide. I have faith.”

“Like your faith back there?” Rork jerked his thumb backwards.

“To err is human but to throw people’s failings in their faces is just rude.”

Rork followed his thumb backwards. A familiar red flash caught his eye. “Oh no.”

“What?”

They turned and Ms. Patel was between them, her arms around their shoulders, her ivory smile bared. A jet of air hit Rork’s cheek and bright lights blinded him from the front.

“I’m Sophia Patel, your Realm Attorney General and I’m running for Governor so that I can help the people, just like my own personal heroes, Rork Sollix and our beloved Guru Zero.”

A voice sprang from a white media drone marked with the letters ‘FP.’ “Guru Zero, you’re currently escaped from prison on charges of failure to pay child support to three different women for seven different children. What makes you think the Indian public will give any weight to your endorsement of Ms. Patel?”

Seven kids? Three women? Rork’s eyes met Zero’s. “And here I thought you holy men took vows of celibacy.”

“I receive my guidance from the Universe, not from any Earthly church,” Zero whispered.

“So the Universe told you to knock up three different women at once?” Rork laughed.

“Mr. Sollix,” the voice droned on, “on what do you base your endorsement of Ms. Patel?”

Ms. Patel put her lips against Rork’s ear. “Make it sound good and I will get you a ship.” She pushed her hips into Rork’s and smiled.

“Mr. Sollix, we’ve just received word that the EDF has declared you public enemy number one and placed you at the top of its most wanted list. Dr. Malik is number two. What is your reaction?”

Ms. Patel’s fingernails dug into Rork’s lower back and he winced.

“Endorse me now or I walk. And back to prison for you two.”

A rotating ship, trimmed in continuous neon lights descended from above them, pushing air down and sending Ms. Patel’s hair into a Medusa-like tangle.

“This is the Earth Defense Force. Rork Sollix, stay where you are!”

Rork put his arm around Ms. Patel and pulled her cheek to his. He leaned into the camera lens. “Ms. Patel and I are close, very close, indeed.”

Ms. Patel inched away but Rork tugged her back, turned and kissed her cheek next to her mouth. He smiled for the camera. “Ms. Patel is committed to freeing the Indian people, and indeed all fifteen billion across the solar system, from the Cartel’s debt-enslaving machine. Ms. Patel stands for the people and against the Cartel. Vote Sophia Patel for Governor! Or why not Speaker!”

Across the terminal, a group of young girls screamed and sprinted towards the cameras.

Rork pulled Ms. Patel past the media drones and towards immigration control. He got her ladies’ edition from his pocket and jammed it into her side. He smiled at the people and they nodded and parted.

“I’m not against the Cartel,” she hissed.

Rork shot an eye backwards. Zero followed them, the EDF ship hovering a dozen meters over him.

Rork winked. “You are now.”

The EDF ship glided forward and three EDF soldiers dropped to the floor in front of them, their pulse pistols painting Rork’s forehead with red dots.

“Now you can be truly Indian,” Ms. Patel said with a snarl. She shoved him in the chest with both hands.

Rork revealed the pistol, aimed now at her head. “I will kill her,” he said to the EDF soldiers. He pushed her forward and the soldiers moved out of the way.

Zero ran up behind him. “They’re never going to stop chasing us.”

The crowd parted and Rork strode to the passport counter. A tall, muscular man in a light blue shirt and a silver badge stepped forward. “Passport, please.”

“Get out of my way or I kill her!” Rork yelled.

“I just need to pat you down for—”

An EDF soldier pushed the blue-shirted man out of the way. Rork passed and entered into a transparent glass box. The doors swished closed behind Zero and they flew up. The EDF soldiers gathered below the box and aimed their weapons at Rork’s feet. The EDF ship floated towards them.

“Ship ID, please,” said a female voice.

Rork grabbed Ms. Patel’s soft, brown shoulder and squeezed.

She sneered at him. “Forget it! You screwed up the endorsement.”

“You wanted an endorsement from Rork Sollix? You got it! You’re a politician.” He waved the tip of the miniature gun in a circle in the air. “Evolve your views. I’m sure you’ve done it before.”

“Ship ID,” the voice repeated. The box jerked to a halt. The EDF soldiers crouched on the hull of their ship, their laser dots dancing on Rork’s face.

Rork put his hand over his face. “Back off!”

The EDF ship backed away.

“Listen, Sophia, we’re not going to hurt you—” Rork started.

Sophia turned, pushed her body into Rork’s and cupped his buttocks in her hands. Rork’s groin warmed and a not entirely unexpected reaction blossomed in him.

She looked up at him, her eyes playing with his, her hips shifting from side to side. “Do you have a girlfriend, Rork?”

Zero giggled.

16

“You have to come with us.”

Rork stood inside the sleek, platinum pleasure craft and looked out at her.

Sophia held his hand. “I will do what I can for us here.” She looked down and turned her body away from him.

“They’ll capture you. They’ll put you in a cage.” Rork shook his head. “You have to come with us.”

“Don’t worry about me.” She smiled and squeezed his hand. “Good luck.” She ran towards a door in the near wall, hit the launch button and walked out.

The armed EDF soldiers rushed in from the other side of the door. Rork pushed himself up against the interior wall of the ship and readied his pistol.

The door closed behind her. The roof of the constricted, rectangular launch pad retracted sideways. The pad itself rotated to the left and rose up. Sun rays peeked in. Rork’s head spun and the harsh light blinded him momentarily.

Zero appeared behind him. “We have to take— Where is Ms. Patel?”

Rork turned to reply but two large EDF ships hovered above them. “Damnit!” Rork smacked the button to close the hatch and ran into the ship. He bumped into Zero and clipped his knee as he turned the corner into the simple, two-seater bridge. He scanned the control panel and hit the big, snowy auto-start button. The screens flashed their brilliant display. The ship rumbled and rose.

Zero followed him into the bridge. “Where is she!”

“I let her go.” Rork buckled himself in. They were full on fuel but there were no weapons systems. Their only option was to run. Rork didn’t like running. He liked to fight and to do it intelligently.

“What?” Zero asked.

“She gave us the ship. She’s going to help us from Earth. It was the right thing to do.”

Zero flopped into the co-pilot’s seat. His head hung forward and his arms fell straight down. “Just two escaped prisoners in a tin can.”

“Faith, my friend. Faith.” A red warning bar spilled across Rork’s display. The sunlight’s diagonal advance across the wall of the landing pad stopped. The dark shade of the roof was growing now.

He looked over at Rork. “I was on a mission, you know.”

“Blast it all, Jupiter!” Rork grabbed the controls. He pushed the upwards acceleration on the left side of the ship but kept the other side in hover. They might slide out of the closing box sideways and upwards, or they might get crushed by the closing roof. But the steel enclosure would definitely damage the ship’s hull. He gritted his teeth.

“Until a hot piece played you for a fool.” Zero looked at him. “Pirates shoot people, you know. They shoot a lot of people, they steal a lot and they blast their way out of—”

The rounded middle peak of the ship scraped the moving edge of the roof. The scream of stainless steel on platinum invaded their eardrums and vibrated their jaws until there was nothing left in the universe but the bitter screech of crashing, crunching metal.

They broke free. The ship rolled over and Zero fell on his neck to the ceiling below them. Rork balanced the acceleration, then flipped them over hard and punched the forward acceleration up high. The ship careened up towards the limits of the atmosphere.

Zero fought the acceleration on the floor behind his seat, one hand holding his head, the other clenching fast to the chair, his eyes closed.

The front viewscreen changed from light blue to black and Zero floated up off the floor.

Rork killed the acceleration. “We made it, alright? We made it. We’re not dead or captured. I did it. I made a deal. I’ll keep my deal. Just relax and, whatever you do, don’t nag me, for Jupiter’s sake.”

“I just don’t think you should have let her go.” Zero maneuvered himself towards the co-pilot’s seat but overshot and found his cheek pressed against the front viewscreen.

“Weren’t you complaining about violence earlier?” Rork tapped the display screen and selected a destination. He unbelted his restraints and pushed off.

Zero turned himself around and aimed for the co-pilot’s seat again. “Where are you going?” He pushed off and connected with the chair, face first.

Rork glided towards the exit shaking his head. [_Some Zen master. _]“I’m refueling and resting. You should do the same, once you learn how to walk again.” He smirked and propelled himself down the tight corridor. He needed a nap after all that high-grav.

It was Sophia. The way she moved her hips, her silky black hair and the charge that zipped down his spine when she grabbed his butt. All of it ran through Rork’s mind like a deep Freektek beat that wouldn’t quit.

He found the captain’s suite and floated in. There would be more luxurious quarters, but he didn’t need them. He spotted the hammock and grabbed the straps to tuck himself in.

“Rork! You have… a phone call.”

The wall moved over and slammed Rork in the side of his head. He crashed over the edge of the hammock and the stretchy fabric constricted his neck. His head slingshotted back around and crashed into the edge of the captain’s pine desk. The light wood dented and split.

“Who turned on the goddamned gravity!” he screamed.

He pushed his hands out, instinctively searching for stimulus to feed his mind. He struggled in place, not knowing if the ship had crashed, lost cabin pressure or worse.

“Rork?” The voice poked something tender inside of him. It was familiar yet doomful. “Rork, it’s time for a conversation.”

He pulled himself up and stumbled to the bridge. “What happened?”

Zero sat cross-legged on the floor behind the co-pilot’s seat. He opened his eyes. “I believe something is wrong with the ship.”

Rork sat down and brought up the status display. There were two large EDF ships and a third private craft surrounding them. They were moving slowly towards the largest, likely an EDF destroyer.

“ESS John McCain to private Indian cruiser United Love, this is a goodwill seizure enterprise per criminal warrant J489S2524. Do not attempt to flee. We are not permitted to attempt any rescue while you are under attraction,” said a deep but definitely female voice.

“Damnit!” Rork slammed his fist into the arm of his chair.

“Your new squeeze has sold us out.”

“Shut up.”

“A new squeeze? Already? That would be record time, even for me.” There was that doomful voice again.

“Did you hear…?” Rork asked Zero.

Zero nodded.

“Did you accept a call or something?”

Zero nodded.

Rork groaned. “Yes, who is—” And then it struck him. Barbary.

“I have someone here who wants to say hello,” Barbary said. “Someone who is only a few thousand meters away but might as well be a million kilometers from you.”

An industrial kitchen popped onto the viewscreen. There was a large, black stove with eight burners. Pots and pans hung from the ceiling next to metal shelves jam-packed with colorful boxes. In front of the stove, Lala hunched. Her blue hair was a ratty mess. She wore a frilly red apron but nothing else, not even shoes. She turned and looked at the camera.

Rork shot to his feet and ripped at his hair.

“Who’s this dark-haired girl? The one who had her hands all over you? That you kissed? In front of the whole system?” Lala sobbed. “Are you just going to abandon me here?”

The reality of her situation crushed him. He wanted to throw himself at something, pull his fingernails out, smack his head on steel. Anything but this.

He found his voice. “Of course not. That woman is nobody, just someone we, uh, had to kidnap in order to get out of that prison. We just got off the planet in her ship when the EDF stopped us.”

“Take a good look at your girl.” Barbary zoomed the camera in.

Lala cringed and turned her face away. Bruises stained her shoulder and back.

“You bastard.” A heaviness settled around Rork’s mouth and he balled his fists.

“She’s not pregnant, not yet. We’ve certainly been trying though, haven’t we boys? But she’s a fighter and you have to respect that. Your girl might even be third wife material for one of my grandkids, after a proper breaking in.”

“You piece of brax!” Rork screamed, a desperate cross between the shriek of a star destroyer’s alarm bell and the howl of a dying zolt drive. He grabbed the arms of his chair and shook them. He stood up, found the back wall of the bridge and punched it. The shockwave ran up his arm and into his shoulder but the pain didn’t compare to what he already felt.

Lala swallowed and looked at the camera. Something faintly brown or red was smeared across her forehead and down her cheeks. Her mouth made a tight, straight line. Her eyes showed a dull tension, exhausted and far away. “Have you seen a doctor yet? Did you get more meds?”

“I’m getting you out of there. I love you, Lala. I want to marry you and take care of you for the rest of our lives. We’ll get your seastead and build the house you want and have all the children you can stand. I love you. I’m sorry I didn’t say it before.”

Her viridian eyes fluttered and the skin around them twitched. She shook her head. “It’s alright. You’ll never get in here. It’s too tight, too many people and they’re all armed. They’re actually surprised it’s taking you so long to try.”

He’d free her or he’d die in the process, he told himself. Because Rork Sollix refused to live in a universe where people could do this with impunity to someone he loved, to a person under his care, to a child, for Jupiter’s sake. “I am going to get you out of there and that is that.”

“Go to a doctor. Don’t worry about me. Go back to your dark-haired girl and enjoy the rest of your life. Buff and I can take care of ourselves here.” She looked away.

The image of Lala’s captivity was replaced by the twilight abyss of near-Earth orbit. The sharp gray edge of the EDF destroyer hung in the middle of the screen.

“At least we’ll get a good meal,” Zero said.

“What?”

“Maybe some roast beef.”

The words were gibberish to him. All he could see was Lala, bruised, her dignity stripped and only the universe knew what else.

And he was still so far from reaching her.

“You won’t get us out of this, so don’t try it.”

The challenge zapped him back to reality. His body buzzed with the inevitability of it. But the EDF ship had them. There was no escape from the force field. It held even the minutest specks of space dust in its grasp. This ship was lost to them.

“I’ve heard the EDF serves prisoners real meat.” Zero smacked his lips.

“Did you miss— What about your calling to preach in space? What about your faith and all that other prappery?”

Zero opened his mouth.

“You know what, never mind. Move.” He exited the bridge and ran down the narrow corridor past the captain’s quarters and past the guest rooms. He punched open a door and they stood in a narrow but deep cargo hold filled with nothing much at all.

Zero looked at him. “Patience is virtudinous.”

“Shut up.” Rork bounded forward. At the far end of the hold was the aft airlock, sealed off by a crystalline white wall. A glass door protected a closet of spacesuits next to the circular door of the airlock.

Rork tore open the closet and pulled out a suit. It was a cross between footed pajamas and Europan mining garb, and it stood up on its own.

He pulled out his pistol, aimed it toward the bridge and neatly shot off the black metal cuffs that still hung from his wrists and ankles, each shot terminating at the wall or floor in a puff of smoke. The chains clanked to the floor. He let them lie where they fell.

“Aren’t you going to damage the hull?”

“There’s an internal field for that. Not all ships have it, though.” He took off the oversized prison guard pants. He ripped the throat constrictor off and tossed it aside.

He stepped into the full-body space suit. The inside of the boot grabbed his foot and adjusted itself to his contours. The bumpy fleece interior consoled his worn feet and scraped ankles.

“This is the EDF, Rork. They have no plans to hurt us. They’ll just return us to the prison. I’m not leaving the ship.”

Rork glared at him. Fool has no business in the real world. “Just meditate while you get the suit on, okay Swami?”

“I am not a swami! I am a Guru and a PhD in—”

“Hurry up and get dressed!” Rork pulled the legs up tight and the many-layered fabric tautened with a squeaking twist that made his testicles feel funny. He inserted his arms and pulled the chest up to his neck. He tapped the control panel on his left forearm and the back sealed. Rork exhaled, enjoying the sensation of the protective, if thin, material tight against his chest. He hit the large green button next to the airlock door. It turned red and the door popped open.

“How do you get this damned thing on?” Zero shuffle-ran to the airlock, the suit dragging behind him. He tripped on the raised edge and fell in.

Rork dragged the rest of him in and shut the door behind them. It sealed and Rork’s ears popped.

“What was that!” Zero slapped his ears and hyper-extended his jaw.

Rork craned his neck to look out of the round, concave window in the outside hatch. The EDF ship’s dull gray hull occupied his field of vision.

“I’m not ready!” Zero fumbled with the suit’s zipper. He had it on backwards.

Rork grabbed a fishbowl helmet from a high shelf in the cramped compartment. He jammed it onto his head and clicked it onto his suit. He grabbed another helmet and took Zero by the arm.

“I said I’m not ready!” His eyes went wide.

Rork reached for the button to open the hatch.

“You’d better not do what I think you’re about to do!”

Rork hit the button and pulled the panicking preacher with him into space.

17

Zero floated outside the ship, his cheeks filled with air, his eyes darting from side to side.

Rork laughed. He pulled Zero’s suit off and inserted his feet the right way. He jerked the pants up and covered Zero’s chest. He plopped the helmet on the mystic’s head and felt the vibration as it clicked into place.

Zero exhaled. “W-w-w-hy did you do that? I told you I wasn’t ready!” he said over the suit-to-suit radio.

“You’re fine. They always fill the magnetic bubble with atmosphere anyway. It’s just a little cold.”

Zero hugged his hands to his body. “You could have killed me. I probably have frostbite.”

“‘The body is but a shell for the soul,’ right?” Rork smirked.

Their abandoned ship approached the John McCain’s dock, a wide sliver of black protected by a magnetic field. Rork and Zero floated alongside of it.

Zero looked up at the gray hulk and flinched. “We’re going to crash into it!”

“Relax. We’re stuck here until they terminate the field. Once they do, we’ll use our maneuvering jets and fly out of here.”

“They’ll just bring us back in. This is a stupid plan.”

Rork sighed. “Do you see how big this thing is? Even if they see us, they’ll think we’re space junk.”

“They blow up space junk. I watched something about that.”

Rork rolled his eyes. “It’s your first time in space. I get it. You’re scared.”

Zero stared at Rork, his eyes wide. His now darkened helmet darted from place to place as he surveyed the area around them.

“The real view will open up once we escape,” Rork said.

“Of what?”

A dizzying wave of distortion appeared behind the back of the ship.

“What the…” Zero waved his arms in front of him.

“Jets now!” Rork punched up the jets on his control panel. Zero and the ship fell away behind him. He got beyond the leading edge of the John McCain and a bright glow assaulted him from his right.

“Rork!”

Oh, brax. Rork stopped his acceleration with a quick tap. “Control panel, left wrist, full acceleration, back jets. Now!”

“I-I-I can’t use computers! I don’t know what this is!”

“Just try, man, for Jupiter’s sake, just give it a try!”

Rork used his side jets to orient his front to the EDF ship. He continued gliding away from it at five meters per second, according to his control panel.

There was no sign of Zero. Rork brought his control panel up and configured ten times magnification on his left eye. The dock of the John McCain zoomed into detailed view. Sophia’s ship sat on the deck. Soldiers in EDF navy blue gathered around the open rear airlock. One soldier scanned outwardly, binocs held to his eyes. He turned to look in Rork’s direction.

Where the heck are you? A white object hurtled past Rork, to his side, about twenty meters away.

“Ahhhoohhhhh!”

“Left wrist, cut your acceleration. I will come to you.” Rork activated his side jets to orient himself to a spot just ahead of Zero’s current trajectory and activated his rear rockets. He burst forward.

“I’m feeling kind of hot now,” Zero said.

“Did you cut your acceleration?”

“Where do I throw up in this thing? Is there a bag?”

“Did you cut your acceleration!” Rork looked down at the blue and white globe below. An orange and yellow glow skipped across water. White pillars followed by cloud waves stretched across to the far horizon. Deadly. But very beautiful.

“How should I know!”

Zero’s feet rolled over his head. Rork laughed at the man’s basic incompetence. He wanted to come out here. I didn’t force him.

“What the hell happened now?” Zero screamed.

Rork intercepted the hapless mystic. He activated his foot rockets to match Zero’s yaw. He grabbed the guru’s control panel and reversed his foot rockets, then his own.

“I really have to—” A deep gurgle interrupted Zero and his helmet clouded with a rainbow of digestive debris.

Rork suppressed a laugh. He eased their acceleration in sync. They floated now at approximately the same rate of speed, facing each other, the Earth spread out below them, the EDF ships behind Zero. “Did you catch the view yet?”

“I can’t even—” Zero spat. He dry-gargled and spat again. “…even see my—”

Rork grabbed his wrist and activated the helmet’s self-cleaning process. The helmet magnetized, shook gently and the remains of Zero’s last meal fell away.

“Oh! About time—” Zero caught sight of the Earth laid out below him. His mouth hung open. He closed his eyes and began to mutter.

“Only a damned mystic medicine man would close his eyes to a view like that!” Rork activated his side jets and Zero rotated gently to face the blue and white scene below.

Zero opened his eyes and looked away. “And what is that, over there?”

In the distance, a gray crescent hung, its surface a dark grid of squares with shiny spots neatly placed among them.

“Luna. Of course.”

Zero returned to his muttering.

Rork looked back at Earth. “It’s a stupid planet anyway. You live in plenty with soft dirt under your feet, blue air above you and green trees to shade you. Real gravity holds you snug. Out here, all we have is dead black space but you people have to control that, too. It’s a sickness and like all bugs it dies in the frozen light-pure vacuum of space.”

Zero opened his eyes. “I see the wondrous creation of the Universe, a tiny ball of life, so small, so rare and precious. It is beautiful beyond words.” He sobbed.

“Sure, the planet itself is pretty, like a piece of hard candy, but what’s inside of it will make you sick if you eat too much. Anyway, I’m a selfish snoof so I’m no better than the other sons of bitches around here.”

“But you are better, Rork, because you risk everything you have to help others.”

“Utter prappery. This is about me and what I want.”

“You brought me up here, just as I asked and at great personal expense.”

“That’s how much of a fool you are, with your mumbling and your cryptic sayings. I came up here for me. You were just the price I paid.” And Lala is a price I’m paying, but for what? What am I getting in return? It’s a price I won’t pay.

“‘The fool who knows his folly becomes wise by that fact,’ says the Buddha. Thank you, Rork.” Zero beamed at him.

Rork rocketed himself away from Zero. He wanted to pick a fight and, thus, get to the truth of something, anything. Like why that inner voice told him he was a disloyal fake and a failure. He wanted to pluck that feeling out of his chest and toss it down at the double-dealing planet below. He wanted to watch that idea burn up in the atmosphere like a dead hunk of space rock. If there was anything Rork Sollix refused to be, it was disloyal. A fake came in a close second.

“What’s that?” Zero asked.

“What’s what?” Rork refused to look.

“It’s coming up fast. I think it’s a ship. Maybe they’ll pick us up.”

I guess we will need to make some effort to get out of here. Rork rocketed himself around and searched the abyss in front of him. “Holy brax!” He brought his wrist up but it was too late. The shiny yellow and orange wall of a Barbary ship slammed into him.

His suit’s chest panels expanded on contact and absorbed most of the impact but the unrelenting metal also smashed into his helmet. The silicon-based material cracked. Rork’s world became a labyrinth of opaque whiteness with random spots of visibility as the universe rotated around him from bright, blue Earth to pitch black and back again, over and over, the air squealing out of his suit.

18

“He’s coming around, again!”

The words intruded on Rork’s mind. His eyes, never closed, began transmitting signals to his brain again. He dragged his arms up to his face and struggled to hold them there. He burned precious fuel to stop his head over heels flipping.

Zero crashed into Rork, chest squarely to chest. The two men bounced away in different directions just before the brightly colored wall of the Barbary ship tore through. It turned and adjusted its course to make another pass.

“What a mess you have put us in.” Zero heaved and coughed.

“This is not the time to assign blame!” Rork judged the Barbary ship’s trajectory. It would come around at him again. He mustn’t move, or the ship would change its course and he would never reach the airlock. It was Zero that had to do it.

“When can we assign blame?”

“You need to come around to my side, about twenty meters ahead and ten—” Rork started. A sudden pinching ache erupted in his chest and spread like wildfire up to the crown of his head and down to his toes. His body tensed like a live wire.

“We must negotiate with them. They will see reason and give us a ride somewhere.” Zero hung in the blackness, not far away now.

A hulking mass of metal passed in between Rork and Zero. Something told him it was one of the EDF ships, but nothing other than the pain mattered now. He mustered the strength to speak.

“You need to come around the back of the Barbary ship and get into the airlock. I am the bait. I can’t do it. Jupiter, I can barely see at all!”

“ESS John McCain to fugitives Sollix and Malik, stay where you are. We will reacquire you.”

“Something’s beeping. Something about low fuel,” Zero said.

A pulsating blackness crept into the edges of Rork’s visions. His head had a gravity all its own. The squealing out of his helmet pushed him farther from Zero. “Just do it, Zero!”

“ESS John McCain to commercial cargo sled Fist of Dollars, break off your assault on the fugitive Sollix and return to your previous course to the planet.”

The Barbary ship came around again. Rork found his wrist and rocketed just above it. He grabbed for a hold on its flat top. The top lit up. Three EDF soldiers hovered above him in an open-topped toboggan. The rear thrusters powered down in a loss of brilliance and the front rockets flashed.

The Barbary ship slipped away from him. There was no sign of Zero anywhere. The pain relented briefly.

“I can’t—” Zero started. “I just don’t even have the first—”

The EDF soldiers split into a triangle and, holding hands, they fell upon Rork.

One reached out a hand to grab Rork’s suit. “We’re going to save you.” His eyes met Rork’s.

The pain returned, stronger than ever, an electric charge that burned at the slightest movement. Rork triggered his boot rockets and flew straight up through the middle of the triangle. One of them grabbed him and Rork flew off course, past the toboggan to its side. The soldiers spun off but quickly recovered and dove back in.

Rork kicked away the attached EDF interloper. Two alarms beeped, one after the other, over and over. They sounded far away now. He punched up his acceleration and slammed into the toboggan. The alarms disappeared. He couldn’t hear himself breathe. His vision reduced to a tiny field in front of him, most of it covered by his helmet’s maze of cracks.

An EDF soldier fell in front of him, his mouth moving.

Rork felt the toboggan controls and found the accelerator. He punched it up and looped back, searching for the Barbary ship. He needed oxygen now. Anything else would mean losing consciousness and a quick death. The idea almost seemed like a blessing but he curved right and twisted his helmet, desperate to find an unbroken patch of glass.

There the damned thing was. It was escaping now. Rork made a U-turn and headed straight towards Earth. He came up on the back of the ship and matched its velocity. He grabbed the airlock door, opened it and threw himself in.

He bumped into another body, hit the green compression button and passed out.

Rork’s cheek stung. Every muscle ached but the tension was releasing. He sat up in the airlock, his helmet off. Zero crouched in front of him. “Finally did something useful. Good job.”

“Your negativity selects for undesirable quantum outcomes.”

Rork rolled his eyes.

Zero held his tan palms up, his heavily-browed cinnamon eyes sincere. “It’s true. And can we assign blame now?”

Rork sighed. He searched the compartment. “We have no weapons and we have to take the bridge before this thing starts re-entry. Let’s go.”

“Perhaps we can negotiate?”

Rork burst through the door and propelled himself up the corridor with the last fumes of fuel in his suit. Every bulkhead door was open for as far as he could see. He passed through one, then another, with ease. He cut acceleration and listened. No sound. Every berth, every cargo space, it was all completely empty.

“Is something not quite right?” Zero asked from far behind him.

Rork rocketed ahead again, straight up through the middle of the ship, and motioned for Zero to follow him. He sailed through one bulkhead door, his foot grazing the bottom edge of the circular door, almost catching.

“We have to search for her,” Zero yelled.

“No.” This was a trick. He just sensed it. He had to take the bridge and quickly. He could not permit it to enter the atmosphere, much less to land on a planet full of cops and EDF soldiers. He would search the compartments later but she wasn’t here.

The ship rumbled under their feet. Rork pushed the suit rockets to the max and they sputtered out, unevenly. Against his will, he turned and slammed into a corridor wall. He curled up, bounced off of it and glided into the bridge. He skidded across the floor in the artificial gravity.

Rork crawled to his knees and Zero zoomed in. The sage kneecapped him and sent him nose-first into the floor before crashing into the bridge controls himself.

“Ever resourceful, Rork. I admire that about you. Too bad your journey ends here.” Barbary’s visage smirked down at Rork on the front viewscreen.

“Is she even on board?”

Barbary shrugged, that devilish smirk of his firmly in place.

Rork got up and limped to the control panel. He looked up at Barbary. The old man towered over him. “Make your funeral arrangements, you soul-sucking bastard.” He cut the connection.

“What are we going to do?” Zero asked from the floor at Rork’s feet.

“You’re going to get the hell out of my way. That’s step one.” He massaged his chin. He tapped some buttons on the bridge controls and considered the ethereal blue mass that loomed in his way.

Zero crawled to the back of the bridge. “Step two?”

“Step two is you shut your audio port and let me do my thing.”

Zero rolled his eyes and slouched back, his hand over his face.

I have no idea what to do. The thought dawned on Rork with the finality of a rung bell. He crashed into the co-pilot’s chair and let his eyes lazily dance across the stunning view of his new cage. Escaping a second time would be much harder. He frowned and crossed his arms.

A red bar flashed on the viewscreen. “Hull integrity compromised. Three minutes of oxygen remaining before complete decompression.”

Screw this. Rork tore into the display. Engine control. Password required. Steering. Password required. Rork brought his fist down and cracked the display.

A bright streak caught his attention. A large ship exited the atmosphere and coasted out of Earth orbit. He squinted. It looked like the trainship and the trainship had a docking bay. The might just be able to…

“Zero! Let’s go!” He stood up. “We’re going to do something Barbary didn’t think of.”

“Something cosmically stupid?”

Rork nodded. “Naturally.”

19

“Just pull wires!”

Rork and Zero ripped the bridge control panel tops off and grabbed at the wiring below.

A white flash blinded Rork and a sharp zap tickled his eardrums. Zero stumbled in retrograde and fell straight back like a triggered domino. Rork kept working.

Zero sat up, his face unnaturally pale.

“Cargo hold compromised. Sealing internal bulkhead,” the ship’s computer announced.

Flames licked the edges of the viewscreen. The door from the bridge to the cargo area slammed closed. The wheel turned until a hard metal on metal sound echoed.

“What was that?” Zero pulled himself up but wobbled and steadied himself against the wall.

Rork stopped ripping wires. It wasn’t helping. “We’re burning up in the atmosphere. Barbary is controlling the ship remotely and he’s killing us. Without suits, we’re locked in here now. This thing will burn up, explode or crash into the surface of the Earth.”

“Can we survive that?”

Rork laughed. He sat down in the captain’s chair, put his elbow on the edge of the control panel and parked his chin on his hand. He was wiped out. Just a quick nap, then I’ll come up with a plan. His eyes closed of their own accord.

“What if we asked someone for help?”

Rork grunted. We don’t deserve help. “A pair of fugitives. Who is going to help us?”

“Isn’t that a ship down there to the, uh, right? Do they have a docking bay?”

Rork opened his eyes and stood up. “We can’t turn. We can’t turn!” Rork pounded his fist against the metal frame of the control panel and it dented.

“If your neighbor will not come to you, you shall go to your neighbor.” Zero stood up and grinned.

“What’re you prapping on about now?” Rork slouched back into the chair.

“Is this the radio?” Zero touched his cracked control panel and scrolled through the menus. “Aha! Um, hello out there. We have a problem.” He looked up at the ceiling and waited.

Rork waved his hand in dismissal at the naive mystic.

“This is the FTS Faithful Diplomat. We receive you. State the nature of your problem.”

Rork stood up. Zero clapped.

“Tell him it’s a distr— Just let me— Faithful Diplomat,” Rork barked, “this is the Barbary sled Fist of Dollars, we have lost guidance control. Request plot intercept course. We will land in your docking bay. Repeat, guidance control lost.”

“Uh, negative, Fist of Dollars, could threaten structural integrity.”

“What if you just nudged us, because we’re losing hull integrity by the second.” Rork fidgeted. He didn’t like relying on others for his solutions, much less strangers, and never strangers who took orders from the Cartel or the government. They had no reason to help him. They had every reason to laugh at Rork as he went down in flames. If Rork was going to die, he would do it with his pride and dignity intact, not begging his enemies for help.

But there were others involved now.

“Negative, Fist of Dollars, could threaten the safety of passengers and crew. Recommend contact EDF for assistance. Over and out.”

Bastards. Rork glared at Zero. “Cartel order-takers with a shipment of sheep for the settlements and colonies. They were never going to help us.”

“It was worth a try. How many people are on that thing?”

“At least ten-thousand.” Rork plopped down once more in the captain’s chair. “Hey, could Anju and Devi be on there?”

Zero raised his eyebrows.

A wall of dull metal interrupted their view of the planet. “ESS John McCain here. We will catch you, Fist of Dollars. Do not resist.”

The gargantuan deep purple docking bay of the John McCain rolled steadily into the viewscreen until it was all Rork could see.

“Strap in.” Rork looked over at Zero and groaned. He lurched up, pushed the emaciated man into the co-pilot’s seat and brought the straps over his shoulders. He tightened them up and snapped them together in a three-way connection with the wide, soft groin protection pad.

Zero looked up at Rork, an awkward expression on his face. “It doesn’t matter what they say. You are a good man. I sense greatness for you, in this life or the next. I can’t tell for sure.”

Rork snorted. “The next, huh?” He returned to the captain’s chair and clicked the straps together. He looked over at Zero.

The ship rumbled. “Hull integrity at ten percent. Ejecting cargo hold to salvage passenger cabin.”

“You’re a fraud,” Rork said. “I think you should know that before you die. You speak in aphorisms and platitudes and it all means nothing until you actually do something with it.”

Zero’s head jerked to the side and his face darkened.

“I haven’t heard you express one honest and true feeling yet. It’s all the Buddha this, this other llamabrax artist that. What about you? What does Zero Malik feel? What does he have to say?”

The roof of the John McCain’s dock came at them and Rork dug his fingernails into the bottom of his seat. Brax. We’re too high.

The bridge roof peeled back like an expired sardine can and the EDF ship’s gravity kicked in. They bounced down, hit the deck and skidded across it, metal shrieking and sparks flying up and over them. The other side of the dock came up fast. The air got wavy and starless vacuum occupied their vision.

“Hahah!” Zero screamed. His eyes wide, his hands held high, he smiled at Rork. “We’re alive!”

Rork popped his restraints, stood up and dusted off the graying space suit. He inclined his head and raised an index finger in salute to Zero. “Good luck. You’ll do better back on Earth. Testify against me. Make a deal and maybe you’ll get a reduced sentence.”

Zero’s face fell.

Rork hauled himself up on the roof through the jagged opening. Blue-suited troops ran towards the remains of the Barbary sled. The cargo hold was AWOL and a long scrape ran the length of the dock from where they initially touched down.

Hand over hand, his legs hanging down into the broken bridge, Rork moved towards the dock wall. He got a leg up, slipped over the far edge of what would shortly become space junk, and fell over the other side. He crouched in the triangular space between the ship and the dock wall. He waited, his back against the ship’s warm hull, for a soldier to come around the corner. Somewhere, a red light cast its angry glow around him.

A soft scraping sounded behind Rork. He turned, his hands ready to clutch the man’s neck and squeeze.

But it was Zero.

He wagged a finger at Rork, his other hand on his hip. “You selfish, disloyal, lying, deal-breaking fake. You’re no rebel. You’ll abandon anyone to save your own skin, like how you abandoned that poor girl.”

Rork overheated. He pulled back his fist and his arm trembled. He let it fly and Zero fell to his knees, holding his nose.

“Ahh, and you’re a violent brute, too!”

“You don’t have the courage to stand up for yourself. You wouldn’t know how to make a fist—”

Zero punched him in between his legs and Rork doubled over, the thumping agony begging him to sit down.

“The bridge is empty,” a voice said from above.

“Probably a couple of icicles by now,” said another from farther away, “but keep looking!”

Rork tried to stand up straight. Zero fell back, his palms facing forward. Rork drew a horizontal line with his index finger, warning the maddened mahatma to stop.

“Enough.” Rork sat down next to Zero. “Since you, in your infinite wisdom, decided not to take my advice, well, we’re back in this together again. Or, you can take my advice and we can get on with our lives.”

“Your egotistical, self-serving advice, which goes against our deal.”

“Our deal says nothing about advice.” Rork shrugged.

“Against the spirit of the deal. And the spirit is everything.”

“Whatever. Look. What we can’t do is go off half-cocked—”

“Or just fully cocked up,” Zero said.

“—because then we’ll both get caught.” This guy is hopeless. I could end him right now. Rork’s eyes fell on Zero’s neck. The windpipe was very pronounced. The man was weak. He might have even done it by accident.

But something tugged in Rork’s chest. He studied Zero’s bony face. There was a light inside of him that gave animation to the undernourished skin. He was a good man. He was just an impractical man.

“You are lost in such trivial matters, Rork, when you might spend more of your precious time in purifying your soul and preparing for the coming transition.”

A nice electrical clamp with those jagged edges, just let it snap right on his mouth, please, Jupiter. “Okay, let’s leave that there.” Rork moved his palm in a circle, as if cleaning a window. “And focus for a brief moment on preparing our bodies for the transition out of this EDF spaceship. Is that alright?”

Zero’s mouth was a straight line. “I still want to keep our deal. I have a mission.”

“I remember.”

A scraping sound came from above. Rork motioned for Zero to lay down. They scooted under the wreck, Zero first, in a tight space between the curving hull and the dock floor.

Rork held his breath. He was vulnerable.

Black-booted feet hit the floor. They walked the length of the tiny space. “Nothing here,” the soldier said.

Rork exhaled.

The soldier bent down, did a doubletake and fumbled for his weapon. He got control of it and Rork found the sharp, black barrel centimeters from his eyes. “Get out of there! Now!” The soldier stood up and yelled, “I found them!”

20

“No more killing.”

Rork narrowed his eyes and firmed his grip on the weapon. He strummed the pad of his right index finger against the smooth, cool metal of the trigger. “He would kill us in a heartbeat, if he realized who we were.”

“No killing. Or I scream.” Zero embiggened his eyes for effect.

I’m going to shoot this pollyanna geek. Rork shook his head and pushed the unconscious EDF soldier into their old hiding spot under the broken prow of Fist of Dollars.

Another soldier turned the corner of the scrap heap that was the Barbary bridge and stopped short. He opened his mouth and Rork stood up, the rifle sight’s red dot rolling up and down on the man’s forehead with each of Rork’s breaths.

“Sh.” Zero motioned the soldier down.

Rork grabbed the soldier by the back of his collar and pushed him to his knees. “Name.”

“Cheverer.”

“What?” Rork asked.

“Cheverer.”

Whatever. “Age?”

“Eighteen.”

Rork got more of the man’s shirt into his fist and turned to Zero. “Can you believe a kid this young shooting at people?”

“The children fight the wars and the children die in the wars, so that the adults may enjoy their fine things.”

Rork glared at him. “Is that some kind of passive-aggressive comment?”

“Yeah, war kills kids.” Zero shrugged.

“Better.” Rork turned to Cheverer. “Which ship is fueled and ready to go?”

“Why should I tell you?”

“Don’t you know who we are?” Rork asked, suppressing a smile.

Cheverer studied Rork’s face, then Zero’s. He frowned and shook his head, his fat lower lip sticking out a tad too much.

Rork looked at Zero. The mystic smiled.

“Captain Rork Sollix, undercover for the GIA. I need your help, soldier.”

Cheverer’s face clouded. “I’m— I’ll just— My sergeant will know what to do.” He nodded, his head bobbing up and down like a doodad on the dashboard of a ship about to depart.

Rork looked down at the know-nothing sap, an expression of hopeless disdain on his face. “Negative. That will blow our cover and endanger our mission. Do you understand that, soldier?” He glared at the thin, young man. “And we have suspicions that your sergeant is on the take. Can’t be trusted.”

Cheverer swiveled his head up. “There’s definitely something fishy about him. Well, I just need to see your badge or something.”

Rork feigned weariness. He looked at Zero out of the corner of his eye. “My badge…” He jammed the heavy butt of the rifle into Cheverer’s nose and the kid crumpled to the floor.

Zero grabbed Rork’s forearm. “Before you hurt the other, you first hurt yourself.”

“I thought you were going to cut out the llamabrax. Come on.” Rork walked forward and peeked around the edge of the crooked containers. It was clear. He motioned for Zero to follow him.

A wide-winged fighter, two tubular laser guns hanging from each wing at the end and in the middle, sat one hundred meters from them. Next to it lay an arched doorway through which Rork spied a dozen armed men lounging and talking.

Rork pulled away from the edge and pushed his back against the rough metal container walls. He struggled to control his breathing. One well-placed shot from any of those men would burn a hole in him, and that would be it.

“Costume change.” He clapped Zero on the shoulder and pushed him towards Cheverer’s limp body. He bent down and pulled the navy blue EDF jumpsuit off of him and tossed it at Zero.

The jumpsuit hit Zero in the gut and bounced to the floor.

Rork furrowed his brows at the inscrutable mystic. “You put that on, put a gun on me and we walk to the ship. Don’t fight me on this. I’m tired, you’re tired. Just work with me… just this once.”

Zero growled, his face taut. He struggled to get the space suit off, then stepped into the blue jumpsuit and zipped it up. “Ow!” He pulled the zipper down and plucked his curly beard out of its teeth.

Rork chuckled and handed him Cheverer’s rifle.

Zero held his palms forward and shook his head.

“Jumping Jupiter. Just be ready to run.” Rork put his hands behind his back and paraded towards the fighter. He snuck a look out of the corner of his eye at the men in the hallway.

Only one remained and he squinted at Zero. “Hey! You!”

Rork sprinted towards the fighter. More men moved in the hallway. He threw himself up the mobile stairs into the cockpit.

Zero walked at a glacial pace, his eyes cast down at the ground.

“Run, you moron! Run!” Rork pushed his legs in but his knees jutted into his chest. He hit the greasy red starter button and the death-dealing machine vroomed to life.

Zero jumped in behind him, his feet boxing Rork’s ears.

Rork closed the canopy. “Get your feet in if you want to keep them,” he mumbled at the back seat. He pulled the stick back and the ship rose. He pushed the accelerator handle forward at his right and the machine jetted forward.

Laser blasts hit the tail section and Rork bounced in his seat. The inner blast door dropped and they zoomed right under it, their canopy scraping through.

Rork and Zero zipped into the blackness. Zero cheered but Rork studied the control panel in silence.

“Cooperate now, we must. What is our plan? Maybe we can hide on the dark side of the moon until they pass?” Zero asked.

A red blip popped up on Rork’s radar. “We’ll run for the asteroids. We’re faster than the destroyer and they have to keep their patrol route.”

“Good, no more violence. That’s the way I like it.” Zero slapped his knee and laughed. “This is so much fun!”

A flash of red light zipped past them on the right. Rork rolled left. His control panel beeped an alarm and flickered. Rork moved right, then back to the left again, up, then down. He thrusted the accelerator forward and the control panel speed indicator flashed in a jumbled mass of flickering red lines. His forehead, armpits and back broke out in a fevered sweat.

“Ommmm,” Zero whispered from the backseat.

We’re under attack. So he meditates. Rork opened his mouth to utter a sharp quip but he stilled his tongue. If a red laser pulse burned a hole through the cockpit and their bodies were sucked out into the vacuum in little chunks, well, at least one of them would be at peace.

The radar blip visualized above them. It was the trainship. Rork grinned and wiped his brow. He turned left and angled the fighter upwards towards the featureless underbelly of the plodding giant.

Ten thousand civilians. He paled at the idea of putting them in danger but the prospect of being sucked out through a straw hole appealed to him even less. He came straight up at the bottom of the ship, the giant thing perpendicular to him, its front to his right, its rear to his left. He angled forward until he was sure he was past the trainship, then rolled back over and headed straight for the source of the laser shots.

He looked up. The top of the trainship was above him still, as he was upside down in relation to it. He glanced left and caught a vivid image of the bridge, enclosed in transparent walls, a dozen uniformed men looking back at him, their eyes intent and their faces hard.

The pointed leading edge of what could only be the ESS John McCain bore down on him. He fired back.

“Ommm.”

Rork jumped in his seat and turned hard down and to the right. A laser pulse flashed past him and hit the engines. The ship shuddered. The control panel flickered and Rork’s world went dark.

“Maybe you can do something useful!” Rork yelled.

“The argument can be made that those of us who sit quietly and do nothing are effectively making the system a more peaceful place.”

Rork gritted his teeth.

The ship rumbled again and a low whine sounded in the cockpit. It was the sucking sound Rork dreaded.

“Deploy oxygen.” Rork grabbed a plastic face mask and lodged it over his mouth and nose. The sticky, suctiony material adhered to his skin. He took a deep breath and a fresh surge of energy and optimism coursed through him.

He punched the console and it blinked to life. The trainship’s dock lay ahead. He rolled the ship over, aimed it at the opening and burned fuel. They floated in, Rork cut the engines and they crashed to the ground.

“Are we there yet?”

Rork popped the canopy, ripped off his oxygen mask and stood up. Zero wasn’t wearing his oxygen mask. Rork slapped him and picked him up. He dragged him down the unfolding stairway to the floor of the dock and laid him down. He looked around.

A guard in a yellow and red uniform ran towards them, a long, black paralyzer baton in his hand. “Don’t move!”

A tremor rocked through the floor and Rork frowned. “They must have scraped hulls. The EDF would never fire on a trainship.”

Zero opened his eyes, let out a deep breath and smiled, his face rosy and calm. “Why not?”

“There are at least ten-thousand settlers on this ship. Anju and Devi might even be here. Earth depends on the resources the settlers produce and send back. They’re not going to jeopardize that.”

“You put us on a ship with ten-thousand souls?” Zero’s face fell and he shook his head. The mystic took on the visage of an older soul and a tired one at that.

“What? The fighter was full of holes.” Rork held out his palms. “It was the only neutral place to land. We’ll grab another ship and be gone before anything goes wrong. I promise!” He looked around at the empty landing bay. If I can find another ship, that is.

The cold, steel floor plates rumbled and clanked. The sound of a distant explosion echoed from the entry corridor.

The guard stopped a meter from them and pointed his weapon at Rork. His radio squawked, “The bridge is gone! They took out the bridge!”

21

“This is a revenge attack by Cartel terrorists against our heroic Earth Defense Forces for their unflagging defense of settlers’ rights. We discovered today — in an ABX exclusive — a Cartel slaving operation operating right under our noses. At this very moment, a Cartel trainship drifts between Earth and Luna. Its cargo? Ten-thousand children, involuntarily bound for Cartel-controlled mines and other economic colonies.”

“Mute that,” Rork said to a black-jumpsuited crewman.

The pixie-cut, baby-faced young woman nodded rapidly, then obliged with the click of a tiny remote control. She looked up at him, her eyes wide and searching.

Rork laid a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t worry. You’re going to make it. All of us will.”

Her eyes clouded and sparkled with tears. Rork turned to the dozen other assembling crewmen of the FTS Achilles. He stood on the sundeck, above and slightly behind the charred bridge. It was gone and all the officers with it, carbonized and open to the brutal vacuum of space. Even its blast windows were damaged and refused to operate.

Rork motioned to Zero. “Find out if Anju and Devi are on this ship.”

Zero nodded and took off towards the elevators.

Rork addressed the group. “Step one is to regain control of the trainship. Who is next in charge? So I can get out of here.”

The young men and women talked to each other but said nothing to him. They quieted.

“Look, your command crew was wiped out by the EDF, but you’ve gotta have somebody else and I need to get on with my itinerary.”

A bone-thin young man with a cigarette in his mouth stepped forward. “That was the Cartel. Since you’re not in uniform, maybe you’re Cartel, eh?”

“Why would the Cartel fire on their own slaver? Anyway, that shot passed right over me as I landed here while under attack from that EDF ship the…” Rork snapped his fingers “…the McTrain, or something like that.”

The crewmen broke out into raucous laugher.

“The John McCain is what you mean.” The cigarette dangled now from the smiling crewman’s mouth. “And it’s got some company maybe you didn’t know about, eh?” He pointed behind Rork.

Rork turned and looked out the sundeck’s huge floor to roof window. There was a second ship. Blocky and compact, what could only be a Cartel cruiser crouched next to the EDF monster just a few thousand meters from the trainship’s bow.

“Who put this man in charge?” A short, loud woman pushed her way through the crewmen and poked her finger into Rork’s chest. “This man is a pirate, wanted by both the EDF and the Cartel. You have no authority here.”

Rork studied her, amused. Bobbed frizzy black hair framed intense brown eyes and a sharp nose. Her bosom and backside were ample. He nodded approvingly.

“Given that we’re under attack now by both the EDF and the Cartel, I guess I’m the right man for the job!” His instincts screamed at him to flee but this sorry group was doomed without him.

She shook her head. “It’s just the Cartel. They want me. I’m a whistleblower. Are you prepared to protect me?” She crossed her arms and looked him up and down.

He shot her a skeptical look. “I heard about a girl they have a bounty on but she’s a runaway daughter or something.”

She frowned at him.

Rork shrugged. “Where’s the address system?” he asked the crewman.

The pixie-cut girl sauntered over to him and tapped the left side of her chest. “Talk.”

Rork leaned forward, his mouth at her adequate breast. “Listen, everyone. I’m Rork Sollix and I’m taking charge of this ship temporarily until we get out of this mess. Now, there are a few ships nearby: a couple from the EDF and at least one from the Cartel. There is nothing to worry about. Just remain calm. I’m going to negotiate our way—”

The window behind Rork flashed red and a sharp trill sounded.

“Someone is hailing us,” said the crewman, her eyes wider now.

Rork cleared his throat. “I’m going to negotiate my— our way out of this, everyone, so just remain calm. Nothing to worry about.” He turned to the girl. “Answer it.”

Old Man Barbary’s impact-crater strewn face startled Rork and the fearless pirate took a step back.

“Oh, good. I know where you’re going to be for awhile.” The wine-stained corners of his mouth upturned into a sneer.

“Are they acting under your orders?” Rork asked.

Barbary looked away. “So you think you’re going to negotiate your way out of this?”

He’s just inferring that. Rork opened his mouth.

“I know that because I have informers on board the Achilles.”

Barbary’s V-shaped, closed-lipped grin was too ugly to bear and Rork looked away.

“Well?” Rork asked.

“You have a snitch of your own over there. I want her. And then I will be gone. For now.”

“There’s ten-thousand people here, Gamil. How am I going to find her? And the other—”

Barbary pointed past him. “Black hair, snooty expression, just a few meters behind you.”

Rork turned around, looked at the whistleblower and shook his head. For a whistleblower on the run, you’re not very good at hiding. “The thing you don’t know,” he turned back to Barbary, “is that I have a weapon. This ship is armed. I can blow you out of the sky whenever I please.”

Barbary leaned his head back and guffawed. He leaned forward again, his nostrils flaring and his eyes tight. “Out of appreciation for your classic bluff, I will give you Lala in return for the whistleblower. I want an answer now.”

“Give me a few minutes. End connection,” he said to the nervous crewman.

Barbary opened his mouth and his image disappeared. Rork’s gaze clung to the scene outside a moment longer.

“I want all outbound communications blocked, except those I explicitly authorize. Can you do that? We may have an informer on board.”

She shook her head. “This is a civilian transport ship. We have no way to do that.”

Rork frowned. “Can we steer it yet? Propulsion?”

“We’re working on it but it could take a few hours.”

“What’s your name?” Rork asked her.

“Riley.”

“Riley, did you notice any change in the view while I was talking to the Cartel ship?”

“No.” She glanced out the window. Her eyes went wide and she turned back to him.

He nodded. “In other words, we need propulsion now.”

She nodded and ran off, her plump little buttocks rising and falling. Some pleasures are in abundance, even in the darkest moments.

“Riley!” he roared.

She stopped and turned.

“Stay close. You’re my second in command now. Find someone you trust to do the legwork.” He walked over to the whistleblower. “I need to call you something.”

“Mary Ellen.” She angled her face away from him, her eyes wary.

“You heard.”

“Who is this Lala?”

Only my reason for being. “Someone very important to me.”

She put her wrists together and held her hands out in front of her.

Rork shook his head. She had a vibrant strength about her, a defiant courage. It excited Rork. He studied her dark eyes. Her feminine endowments belied an obvious magnetic violence, like a caged animal that would die rather than submit. “I don’t hand people over to the Cartel. I fight the Cartel. And the EDF.”

“What if he kills your Lala?”

He drew in a sharp breath. “He knows I’ll destroy him and his family.”

“So you want to kill his family, too?”

He nodded. “If need be. He killed my father.”

Mary Ellen nodded. “What if I told you that he’s my father?”

Rork studied her. “Little girl ran away from her daddy? I think you’re going to get us all killed.”

“Do you know where he’s keeping her?”

He shook his head.

“I think I know. I know all his bases and hiding spots. I can help you find her and get her out.”

“In exchange for not handing you over? Why does a Barbary run away, anyway?”

She looked away and opened her mouth to speak. The metal floor rose up at Rork’s face and he got a hand up just in time to break the worst of it. He rolled over and out across the sundeck. Everyone was gone. He pushed himself up. Bodies piled upon bodies, some moving, some groaning, some not.

“What the hell— Riley!” Rork turned and looked out the window. The EDF ship filled his view now. A wavy beam reached out from it, covering the trainship.

The metal plates under him rumbled again and he lurched backwards.

Riley crawled up to him. “It’s a tractor beam. They’re saving us.”

He looked again. The EDF ship retreated to his right. Dead ahead were the block-gridded outlines of Luna City, the sprawling gray settlement at the South Pole of the Moon. It was too close. He turned to Riley. “If they’re saving us then why are we flying into Luna City?”

She looked from the window to Rork and back again. “To land?”

“Get those engines up now and in full reverse, you hear me? Now!”

She nodded and crawled off.

Rork stood up and walked over to the window, ignoring the screams and groans behind him. He tapped the display next to it and brought up NBX Now.

A woman’s perfect, tan face with close-cropped blonde hair appeared on screen with the image of a trainship next to it.

“Our top story at this hour is the shocking EDF attack on the FTS Achilles, a trainship carrying settler volunteers and badly needed food and medical supplies to the outer colonies.

“Chairman Barbary himself is responding and expects to contain the damage but warns that everyone on board the trainship is at risk of further EDF attacks. The cowardly surprise assault just moments ago may be revenge for colonists’ recent democratic decision to continue their alliance with the Cartel in the face of Earth Government abuses.

“For more information or news tips, ‘scope us at NBX.”

What? Rork’s head spun. Cartel or EDF? What would either group stand to gain? He switched off the broadcast. Outside, the Barbary ship swung over the side of the John McCain. Red bolts shot from its forward and side cannons at the destroyer’s bridge. The laser pulses spread out and dissolved upon contact with the EDF ship’s shields but the wavy tractor beam cut off.

Rork’s cranium impacted the bulkhead.

Zero’s panicked face hung over Rork. The mystic’s mouth moved but no signals reached Rork’s mind. Rork sat up and wobbled. His head was full of cotton. Distant, muddled echoes tickled the back of his mind. Zero pointed and Rork looked.

Mary Ellen held a rag-clad child in her arms, its limp body curving down between and over her wrists.

“You’re killing them! You have to stop it now. We have to surrender,” Zero screamed.

Rork looked at him, confused.

“There are two-hundred dead children down there. Hundreds more are injured. In fact, there are almost twenty-thousand souls on board and they’re all children! And this is all our fault!” Zero’s eyebrows tightened and his eyes softened.

“Not my fault. I didn’t do that.” Rork struggled through the noisy haze to process the events. He had to decide what to do. He needed to make a decision, before more people died.

“But you can stop it. We’ll surrender. It’s the right thing to do. Though we encounter many defeats, we are not defeated.”

Rork waved his hand in Zero’s face. “I’m not going back to that cage. Forget it. And these kids are better dead than in the mines.”

“What if—”

“Anju and Devi?” Rork asked.

Zero shook his head. “Maybe we have to encounter these defeats to know who we are, to rise from it and to achieve enlightenment.”

“Screw enlightenment. I want freedom.” Rork walked over to the window and looked out.

Barbary’s ship smoked and the John McCain’s prow refocused on the trainship. Rork saw the lights of Luna City and made out the double-helical X Tower on its surface, the central projector of the city’s magnetic dome. The dome kept the air in and the radiation out — an invention that permitted civilization beyond the comfy confines of Earth.

He tapped the display, selected the EDF ship and opened a channel.

“ESS John McCain,” said a female voice.

“This is Rork Sollix on the trainship, the fugitive you want. I surrender. Cease your attacks. I give up, unconditionally. Just stop attacking this ship! And help us!”

22

“Request denied.”

The connection with the EDF ship dropped. Rork turned to Zero, his mind a jumble.

“Didn’t I just surrender?”

“Did you? Are you sure that is indeed what you—”

“What do you mean, am I sure? Yes! I am sure!”

Zero nodded. He placed one arm across his chest, rested the elbow of his other arm over it and with that other hand cupped his chin. He massaged his beard, a dark scowl on his face. “There is something bigger than us going on here.”

“I told you it wasn’t our fault.”

“I did not imply that we are blameless.” Zero scolded him with his eyes. He took a small step back and pointed out the sundeck window.

Rork turned around. A red pulse landed next to the sundeck and the plates rattled under his feet. A dozen more red pulses flew from the EDF ship’s pointed prow. They raced directly for a point somewhere between Rork’s eyes and his scalp.

“Run!” Rork turned and pushed Zero ahead of him. They sprinted across the now-empty sundeck, feet smacking thin metal, turning and launching the next forward.

Zero crossed the bulkhead and extended his hand. Rork threw himself after him, his fingers aching, grasping for Zero’s.

The pulses hit and an icy scream reverberated through Rork. The breath pushed out of his lungs. Bulkheads further on boomed shut and Rork slammed to the floor as the pressure fell.

Zero hauled him into the corridor and the sundeck’s bulkhead door closed behind them. They collapsed to the floor, their mouths moving but precious little air entering their lungs in the sparse atmosphere.

Air flooded in from above and a curling cloud formed over Rork’s head. He pulled himself up.

“An—” The word caught in Rork’s brittle, parched throat. He held up his right hand, his fingers grasping the warm drink his body ached for.

“Wait for recompression, sir.” The squirrelly voice tickled Rork’s ear. He leveraged himself up using the guardrail and got to a kneeling position.

The corridor turned right where Rork sat. A closed bulkhead limited his movement just a few meters ahead of him. Behind him was the now burned-out sundeck. Far down the corridor in other direction lay another closed bulkhead.

A dark dent appeared in the sundeck’s bulkhead followed by a wheezing-sizzling.

Rork got himself up. He grabbed Zero’s arms and pulled him down the corridor. He banged on the closed bulkhead and tried to speak but his throat didn’t respond. He tapped the com button, again and again.

The door opened and Rork dragged Zero through, his shoulders fallen, his arms hanging low, his neck aching from sustaining the weight of his head.

Another wheezing-sizzling sound and a hole opened in the sundeck bulkhead. A high scream started but cut off when the bulkhead door collapsed and disappeared.

A breeze swept Rork and Zero backwards, inexorably backwards, all progress disappearing in milliseconds. Rork saw himself in space. It was over.

The bulkhead door they’d just come through slammed closed and Rork collapsed to the floor, Zero mumbling at his side.

“Would you like that hot drink now?”

Rork closed his eyes, face down against the cold metal floor panels. A sense of dread washed over him. He knew that voice and he struggled against the inertial brain fog to put a face to it. He rolled over and looked up.

Gamil Barbary’s fat, pockmarked face hung above him. It smiled and offered him a steaming cup.

Rork pushed himself back against the wall to face his longtime rival. He reached to his waistband but came up empty-handed. He struggled to stand up. He’d strangle the life from the toad if it was the last thing he did.

“Relax. I came out here myself to secure the cargo. You took out my best men, after all. But when the EDF pulled their crap, well we find ourselves in the same dire straits now, don’t we?”

“You— ship. Can escape,” Rork croaked.

Barbary passed him the warm mug. Rork eyed him, uncertain, but accepted the drink and took a sip. He sputtered and coughed then took another.

The intercom crackled with Riley’s high-pitched cries. “Captain Sollix! We need you down here. We’re spiraling towards Luna City and I don’t know how to stop it! Tell me what to do!”

“Where?”

“We’re on the backup bridge. Are you coming down?”

Rork blinked lazily and smacked his lips. Barbary leaned in, grabbed his arm and pulled him up. Rork’s head wobbled in space and his body reclined against the wall. He took a step forward and dragged his shoulder along the smooth white plastic of the wall.

Barbary grabbed for his arm again.

“No!” Rork pushed himself off the wall and lumbered down the corridor. “Get him. Bring him down. Gently.” He shot a fiery glance back at Barbary.

Barbary’s footsteps echoed heavier now. “The EDF took care of my ship. Knocked holes in the hull. I had to crash land in your dock.”

“The children. The children,” Zero mumbled from his perch across Barbary’s shoulders.

Rork plodded down the hallway, his head swimming and his body aching. He reached the elevator, tapped the open button and stepped in. He leaned against the mirrored back wall and watched Barbary step in, Zero hoisted across his wide back.

“The children,” Zero mumbled.

The elevator door closed. “Destination?” a voice said.

“Backup bridge,” Rork said.

A low whistle sounded as the carriage began to move. Rork eyed Barbary and Barbary looked back at the pirate.

“You’re a liar,” Rork said.

Barbary smiled thinly, his eyes grinning and collapsing into dark crevices. “Aren’t we all?”

“What are you really here for? I should kill you right now.”

“With what? If I don’t make it off this ship with my cargo intact and unharmed, you know what will happen to your precious servant.”

“She’s not my servant. Not anymore.” Rork took a large draught of the warm beverage. Heat was returning to his extremities. He was feeling himself again.

Barbary laughed. “No, she’s mine now. And she knows how to serve. You trained her well.”

Rork jerked a fist up. “I will flarking kill you.”

“Just not right now?” Barbary laughed in a staccato burst of explosions.

Zero opened his eyes and pushed himself off of Barbary. “Who—?” He exploded in a fit of coughing.

Rork stared at Barbary. He relaxed his fist and passed the half-empty mug to Zero who downed it in one gulp.

“This man looks familiar.” Zero burped and took a deep breath.

The elevator door opened on the backup bridge. Riley stood in front of a high captain’s chair, screaming orders. To her left was a bank of computer displays with small, swiveling seats in front of them. They all lay empty, unused, their screens’ cursors blinking their readiness or scrolling data output.

To Rork’s right, the viewscreen showed metallic blocks of uneven height spread out in a regular circle from the X Tower in the center. Luna City approached.

A little girl not more than seven years old ran out from a corner and hugged Zero’s legs. Zero kneeled down and hugged her back.

Whatever that’s about… Rork stepped out and put his hands on his hips. “Well, Riley?”

She turned, her new commanding tone surprisingly attractive. Her gray eyes were panicked and her face was tight. “My men are having trouble.”

“How long till impact?” Rork asked.

“Fifteen minutes, tops.”

“Is there really nothing you can do?”

“The John McCain is pushing us with their tractor beam! Even if we got the engines started now, we wouldn’t arrest the Achilles’ momentum in time.” Her eyes grew darker and she pouted.

Rork felt his fingers tingle. This could be the end. And Barbary was here with him. It was perfect. “Abandon ship.” He turned, his head down. Riley’s footsteps padded behind him.

The air sizzled next to his ear and a flash of light saturated his eyes. Rork startled. He blinked his eyes. A great black and yellow blind spot covered everything on his left. He moved his eyes and the spot followed. He looked forward, into the elevator.

Barbary replaced the pulse pistol in its holster under his pants’ ample waistline.

Riley lay on the floor, her face gone, her knees bent back, her feet abutting her upper thighs and her arms splayed out.

Rork ran for Barbary, his right fist clenched and ready to strike, his left hand a claw to grab the man’s throat and rip the life out of him.

Barbary brought up the pistol and placed its hot tip against Rork’s forehead. “Calm down, boy. We still have some work to do.”

Rork recoiled from the heat and rubbed the burnt skin.

“The children.” Zero stepped into the elevator.

Twenty-thousand children. Holy brax. Rork squeezed his eyes shut.

“How’s the cargo?” Barbary asked.

Rork opened an eye. “Are you talking to me?”

Barbary put his free finger to his ear and listened, his eyes searching Rork’s face. “Good. Deploy and activate it. I’ll be there in two minutes or less.”

Barbary pushed the tip harder against Rork’s forehead, forcing him to step backwards. “Get out,” he said to Zero, “but leave the kid behind.”

Zero stepped out, the precocious little darling stuck tight to his neck. “I will not.”

Barbary pointed the gun at Zero. “How about I remove your face and most of her to go with it. That’d be easier for me.”

“Will you be my dad? Can we play hide and seek?” The child hugged Zero’s head, her little arms covering his eyes.

“Do your worst. You’re just a bully! May the next life be kinder to us both.” He closed his eyes and hugged the little girl.

Rork glanced at the screen. He could see aircars flying around the X Tower. I hope that is zoomed in otherwise we have no hope. “Let her go, Zero. Give her a chance to live. She may rise and unseat even this bastard someday.”

Zero looked at him.

“He has all the rest. Why make just her die?” Rork asked.

Zero’s face softened. “In the one is the many. In just one there is a universe of potentials. Have you not learned it yet?” He stepped back.

“Have it your way, preacher.” Barbary shot Rork in the foot, glanced at Zero but did not fire and disappeared behind the elevator doors.

Rork screamed and fell to the floor, his two small toes and a chunk of foot blasted to dust. Boot melted into flesh and bone protruded from the opening. “Jupiter!” he yelled.

“Rork… What…?” Zero held his hands out at his sides. His head hung a little lower.

Rork pulled himself along the floor, toward the captain’s chair, his damaged foot held high.

“What are you doing? We have to get out of here!”

A raw grunt of rage, frustration and pain escaped Rork’s lips. He pulled himself up to the captain’s chair on one leg and hit the comm button. “Get to the escape pods now, everyone. Eject, eject, eject! Save yourselves and get far from the trainship and Luna City. Good luck.” He collapsed into the chair and stared at the charbroiled meat that very recently was a usable foot.

23

“Come on! Where is it?”

The girl’s eyes were wide and her face looked like it was about to burst into tears. She clung to his head and neck and Zero pushed her pink, round arms out of his eyes and up to his forehead. She pushed them back down and tightened her hold.

Rork pushed off from the captain’s chair and one-legged hopped towards the elevator. He took a left and pushed through a wall. It was a door. He hobbled down a narrow corridor, its walls glowing with bright light. At the end, he pulled a red lever and a low, round door popped open. The leading edge bumped his aching foot and he bit his hand. A small yelp escaped him.

Zero paused to step into the escape pod and the little girl was face to face with Rork.

Rork studied one of her eyes, then the next. She did the same. His face erupted into a grin and the girl’s face softened in turn. Rork caressed her cheek and she reached for him but Zero moved into the interior of the pod.

Rork followed. He pulled the door shut hard after him and a series of cold bolts locked it in place. A hiss of gas edged up the air pressure and his eardrums ached.

“Computer, eject now! Destination: Luna City Spaceport,” Rork said.

“Error, safety measures not fully enabled,” the computer replied.

“This beloved thing is a safety measure! Enable it!” Zero scratched at his scalp and the little girl stepped away from him into the center of the spherical pod.

Rork grabbed the little girl and sat her down on the circular bench across from Zero. He pulled the straps down over her head and secured them into the bench in between her legs. He took a seat next to her and repeated the procedure, with one strap over each shoulder.

The little girl reached for him and the straps automatically adjusted to keep her secure.

“You are responsible for her now,” Zero said, his face severe. “As are we both for the fate of all twenty-thousand of those children.”

“Ejecting,” the computer said.

The clang of pure strong metal against its twin echoed through Rork’s head and his arms flew upward, then to the side. A roar of burning fuel replaced the clang as the tiny pod attempted to reverse the momentum imposed upon it by the titanic trainship.

Zero’s head flopped from side the side like a ship without a pilot in a buffeting storm. The child kept vigil on Rork but the only thing keeping him from succumbing to the g-forces was the agony in his foot as it banged here and there.

The tin can spun, their arms flailing wildly until thrusters kicked in. Rork’s head was pushed down almost to his chest, his neck and spine stretched to their breaking point, gasping for air.

And then it ended.

“Destination reached: Luna City Spaceport. Please visit your health care professional within six hours as this trajectory exceeded several key human operating limits,” the computer said.

Rork looked at Zero, rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Only several? How about all of them!”

Zero opened his eyes. He loosed his straps, got up and collected the little girl. She reached for Rork, her dark eyes purposeful. Zero reached the door and pounded on it. “Well!”

“Computer: open hatch,” Rork said.

“Stand back,” the computer said.

A jet of gas erupted from the edges of the round door and into Zero’s face. The girl giggled. He turned away and swatted his hand in the air. The door popped out and rolled away, making a shimmying sound before it banged to the tarmac.

“Oh brax!” Zero put one foot out of the pod then tried to step back in. His foot caught and he fell backwards, the child on his shoulder, her face a mask of fear.

Rork leaned forward and caught them both, his hands holding up Zero’s shoulders and the girl’s face landing into Rork’s meaty bicep. He grinned and shrugged at her and a smile slowly crept across her face.

“See?” Rork whispered to her. “Everything is fine.”

She cocked her head to one side and her features tightened. A rumble sounded behind them and a cloud of metallic dust puffed into the pod, stinging Rork’s nose and polluting his mouth. Everything spun and went dark. His stomach rose and fell, his head spun and something crashed into his bad foot.

The spinning eased. The dust fell to the floor of the pod. A faint light streamed in from above. Rork lay on his back and looked up at the open hatch. They’d have to climb out.

Rork found a leg on his chest. It had to be Zero’s. He rolled over and traced it to the man’s neck. He put a finger on Zero’s jugular. Thank… the whatever, he’s still alive.

Rork slapped Zero on the cheek a few times, dust rising into tiny mushroom clouds each time. “Wake up, man!”

Rork pulled himself to his feet and the pod rolled. He took a step forward and the hatch was straight ahead. He stepped out onto a warm, smooth road. He reached back in and dragged Zero’s unconscious body out. He laid it gently next to the pod. He kneeled down and collected the girl’s body in his arms and extracted her as well. He laid her body next to Zero’s.

Rork pushed the pod and it rolled a few meters away. They were stranded at the far end of the Luna City Spaceport’s landing area. Behind him and to his right was the far edge of the colony, a complex, multi-layered combination of transparent triangular wall blocks and specialized force fields powered by the Moon’s abundant supplies of helium-3.

Ahead of him, ships flamed through the dome-like force field to escape Luna City, headed perhaps to Earth or to one of the smaller Lunar settlements. Beyond the ships, an orange-blue haze rolled over the city, as if it were one giant chemical rocket taking flight for more peaceful shores. He searched for the X Tower but couldn’t find it.

Twenty meters away, outside the walls and force fields a big-wheeled guard rover stopped and flashed its red lights. The landing strip was a long, narrow lane next to the half-sphere dome of Luna City. Their only way out was to walk up that long lane, get past the passenger terminal and hang a sharp left into the city.

If there still was a city.

Rork climbed into the dented pod again and found the red first aid kit. He found a bandage and wrapped his foot up right. It stung and the bones ached at the slightest touch but the white gauze comforted him. He took four pain pills and gave himself an injection of something that looked like a painkiller. His world quickly numbed and he stumbled backwards out of the pod.

The girl stood up and stretched her little arms to space. She looked up at Rork, her head cocked to one side.

“You’re well-fed. Someone, somewhere loves you. We’ll find them. Don’t worry.” Rork collected Zero’s limp and light body in his arms and the girl grabbed on to his belt. They hobbled along towards the passenger terminal.

A low, shiny black car zoomed towards them and stopped next to a silver-yellow cruiser. Its prow ended in a sharp point and a rod that stuck out beyond that. Above it, at the back, a round engine stood proudly on each side. A tuxedoed man exited the car. His black collar sported two points that reached up to his ears like the peaks of a perfectly curved mountain. The back of the jacket ended in a long, stiff tail that tapered down to his knees.

The man ran around to the other side, tapped it and the door slid back. A waifish, blue-haired woman in a backless, translucent pink dress stepped out and together they jogged to the yellow ship. The hatch closed, it floated up above the force field and blazed off towards the crescent Earth.

“I don’t think they’ll mind if we borrow their car.” Rork sprint-hopped over to the passenger side and let Zero fall into the wide, gray leather seat, his head swinging right and left over his chest.

The girl pushed her way into the back seat, stepping on Rork’s bad foot in the process. He yelped, despite the painkillers. Rork closed the door, hobbled to the other side, fell in and turned the car around.

They raced toward the passenger terminal, dodging parked cars next to empty ship bays as they went.

“Everyone’s leaving and we’re going in.” He looked in the rear-view mirror at the girl. He shook his head. “Bad, very bad.”

“Very bad,” she repeated and held her index finger aloft.

He smirked despite himself. They’d get past the terminal, get medical attention and then figure out their next step. The whole city couldn’t be destroyed. In a city of two-hundred million, there was somewhere to hide, if only to catch their breath. There had to be, even if it was on a crater-mining chain gang or under a urine-soaked bunk in a cyborg whorehouse.

“Automatic control engaged. Destination: home.” The steering wheel turned against Rork’s hand and he let go. The wheels bumped and he was pushed deeper into his seat. The car flew up and around the terminal building and the darkened, spire-like control tower. It passed through a strange double-guillotine gate, like a mouth waiting to chew him up. They were in the city.

“News,” he said.

The middle of the car’s control panel lit up and a rising electronic sound came from it. “—was destroyed. The fusion device is believed to have been planted by Rork Sollix, a known agent of the Cartel who is currently sought here in Luna City on a range of charges that now include mass murder.”

“Brax!” Rork jammed his palms into his eyes in a vain attempt to make it go away. He went limp but his mind raged. This bastard set me up hard. This bastard… He ran through the possibilities. Capture. Death. Or being always on the run, always looking over his shoulder. The EG would never let this go and Barbary would never confess that he set me up. Never.

“For those of you joining this broadcast now, Luna City is under attack by Cartel forces. First, this morning, the massive Cartel-chartered trainship Achilles rammed the X Tower, damaging the dome and triggering tens of thousands of bulkheads to close across the city as millions died in the vacuum of space.

“Seconds after the Achilles impacted the Moon’s surface, a fusion device triggered, covering the city in radiation and instantly vaporizing a hundred square kilometers of hyper-urban tracts. Sought in connection with this mass murder terrorist attack is Rork Sollix, a notorious Cartel agent.”

A notorious Cartel agent? I just became one for the first time today, according to these snoofs. How did I become a notorious one already?

Rork’s mug shot from the Indian prison flashed on the screen.

“That’s it.” Zero sat up and glared at Rork. “I’m taking the child to Earth and we’ll find her parents and that’s it. If I have to turn myself in to the authorities, so be it.”

Rork cocked an eyebrow.

“Set the car down! I want out!” He leaned over and grabbed Rork’s throat. “Now!”

24

“Three more, barkeep.”

Rork rooted around in what was left of the holey pockets of the rags he wore. He had no money but he wouldn’t tell the portly barkeep or his musclebound friend that. He smiled to himself through the brain haze of the spirit beer. A pirate again, and alone, finally. This was right. This was proper.

A blanket of guilt smothered him. He never should have called Zero a fraud. That was too much. Why did he do it? The swami was frustrating to be around but at least he was around.

Not anymore.

The heavyset barkeep waddled around the empty bar to the dark booth Rork enjoyed. He set down three spirit beers, each with a fizzling foamy head and symmetrically sweaty sides.

It was perfect.

Rork reached for one but the barkeep refused to let go of the transparent mugs’ long handles.

“Money?” the barkeep asked.

Rork grinned and fingered the rags at his chest. “But of course man, can’t you see I’m a sheriff’s deputy and an astronaut to boot!”

The barkeep’s mouth transformed from a dark frown to a straight line, the only sign he was mildly entertained by Rork’s flim-flam.

“You’d better or I’ll be keeping a piece of you.” He released the drinks and waddled back behind the bar.

Rork grabbed the first of the three new beers and downed it, his hands shaking. Beer spilled over onto himself and the fine imitation grooved dark grain wood table. He guzzled the second, beer spilling onto his cheeks and running, icy, down over his throat and onto his chest.

“Hey, astronaut!” yelled the barkeep. “Watch it! Final warning.”

Rork set the beer down and wiped his mouth and neck.

The barkeep turned on a screen behind the bar and the news came on.

“I’d really rather have my peace,” Rork said.

“Tough.”

Lunar Apocalypse. The words flashed on the screen in yellow on a red background with digital flames licking and slowly crisping the bottoms of the letters.

“The death toll: catastrophic,” the dark-skinned slender beauty of a news announcer said. In the background, panicked people screamed and trampled each other. The X Tower disappeared in a mushroom cloud and people fell upwards into space as the artificial gravity and magnetic shield failed.

Rork turned away from the TV and towards the wall. He picked up the third beer and took a small sip. His stomach turned and a long, deep burp issued from his gut.

Strong knuckles rapped on Rork’s table and he turned, startled. It was the barkeep.

“Is it really so hard to have some manners? Just because it’s a bar doesn’t mean it’s a dive, much less a dump.” He shook his head and walked back behind the bar.

“The perpetrator?” the Asian-eyed newswoman continued, “One Rork Sollix, a known Cartel agent that sources say was once banned from a Luna City bar and is now determined to wipe out all Lunans.”

What the hell? Where do they get this from? Rork pushed his palms deep into his eye sockets and wished he was in another solar system.

“Rork Sollix, you’re under arrest,” came a deep voice from behind him.

Rork went stiff. “Geez, let me finish my beer, alright?” He grabbed at his drink but something thin and hard jabbed into the bumpy crown of his head.

“Don’t move.”

“Alright. Alright.” He put his hands up. At least I’ll get my foot taken care of.

Slow, careful footsteps sounded behind him.

But Lala. That was an obligation he couldn’t shirk. He readied his fists, his upper body swaying like the drunkard he was.

A mop of dark hair appeared around the corner of the high-backed booth. He readied his fists. The black hair plopped into the seat across from him.

He raised an eyebrow and burped.

“Still want to get into the Barbary Cylinder?” It was Mary Ellen.

“Jumping Jupiter, woman, I almost beat that gorgeous face of yours to a pulp. I’m half-drunk! Anything could’ve happened.” He burped and his head flopped back.

She shook her head. “This is about the worst moment for you to drink.”

A rolling burp escaped his throat. Halfway through, he covered his mouth and glanced at the barkeep. “I lied. I’m fully drunk.” He grinned at her.

“Are you ready to get the bastard?”

“I’m ready to get another few pints! Barkeep!” Rork leaned in to Mary Ellen. “Can I borrow some money?”

Mary Ellen fanned the smell of Rork’s breath away. “Where would I get a dime? I’ve been on the run for months.”

“The barkeep’s going to kill us.” Rork slouched back in the tall, right-angled bench. “This is really uncomfortable, you know.” He pushed his butt and legs to one side and half-lay against the wall. “Yeah, that’s better.” He closed his eyes.

The table bumped and Mary Ellen whispered something far away. Rork didn’t care. He had to sleep. His thoughts turned to Lala and a tropical island.

A frigid wet hit Rork in the face and ran straight down to his underwear. Rork stood up fast, his mouth open. “Hey!”

Mary Ellen grabbed his arm and pulled him out of the booth. Rork limped along behind her, bent over and trying to pull his pants away from his now icy private parts.

“What about the bill?” Rork whispered.

“I took care of it.” Mary Ellen pulled him through the too-narrow, creaky plastic front door and onto the black street.

The spring-enabled door swung shut and clipped Rork’s bad foot. He groaned and held the partial appendage gingerly in his two hands.

“Quiet.” Mary Ellen turned and batted her eyes, her black hair swaying above her ample bosom. “Now. Do I have your attention?”

Rork nodded, his eyes roving from her chest to her face and back.

“Good. Barbary will take the kids to a transport hub and distribute them from there to the different mines. Do you understand what that means?”

Rork nodded.

“That means that we only have a short time to save them.”

Rork forced himself to stare at her curly-lashed brown eyes. “Of course.” Rork’s world wobbled from side to side.

“Careful. We’ll need a large ship, too, really big. And I need you to pilot it.”

“I’m kind of drunk.” Rork burped.

The road was narrow and long. Low shops and towering capsulement buildings lined it. Cross streets contradicted its stretch straight to the hazy horizon.

But there was no traffic today, only a smokey miasma that grayed out the artificial landscape even more than its steel and aluminum construction. The air smelled of burning metal and sour flesh. Rork felt the urge to heave.

The bar door opened and clipped Rork’s foot again. He stifled the scream and hopped along, willing the pain to oblivion.

A sky-blue-suited man stepped out, pulse pistol in hand, a yellow star pasted on his chest. “Lady, have you seen anyone leaving here?”

“Dark-haired guy, kind of dangerous-looking?”

The cop nodded.

She pointed toward the spaceport. “He ran down that way about ten minutes ago.”

The cop held her in a steady gaze. He turned to Rork. “And who might you be?”

“A cripple and a drunk.”

The cop grabbed Rork’s face and held his cheekbones tightly. “Hey, bring me that photo.”

Mary Ellen played with the zipper on her blouse, revealing breast, then hiding it, then revealing it again. She inched her other hand towards her lower back.

Another cop exited the bar and handed the first one a screen. The first one held it up to Rork’s face and compared.

“Could be him. Take this one—”

Mary Ellen pulled a pulse pistol from her lower back and pointed it at the cops. “‘Fraid I can’t allow that. Close the door gently.”

The cop obliged.

“Lay down in front of the door and set your pistols in front of you.”

The cops laid their bulk down, their hands ahead of them, palms down. They pushed the guns away.

“Get their guns,” she said to Rork.

“I don’t deserve to be armed,” Rork mumbled.

Mary Ellen stepped over to him and slapped him hard across the face. “I said pick up the guns, Rork Sollix!”

The door opened, pushing the cops on the floor forward. Three other cops fell through the doorway at once.

“Run!” Mary Ellen sprinted in the direction of the spaceport.

Rork hopped slowly after her.

“Rork Sollix,” one yelled, “you’re under arrest for crimes against—”

Another cop piled on and rolled over top of the others, out of the door. The first one picked up his pulse pistol and fired a shot.

Rork collapsed to the ground, head-first and didn’t move.

25

“I can’t— The pain is just too much.”

Rork lay flat on his nose on the cold tarmac. Everything hurt. Those charged electrical wires ran through his limbs, his gut, chest and head again. The headache was a low brain buzz that made his stomach churn and his vision blur.

“The ship is just five-hundred meters down the road.” Mary Ellen crouched down and rolled Rork over onto his back. She returned fire to the bar. “Rork, we’re close. First the children, then Barbary. Then you can die, if you want, but not before we do this.”

“What do you care?”

The haze grew thicker and the sky opened into a muddy rain. The cops fell over themselves back into the bar.

She grabbed Rork at the shoulders and pulled him towards a capsulement. The front door was open. The tiny, yellow-tiled lobby sported a single chair and an elevator. She dropped him next to the chair and sat down.

“I was due for a bath.” Rork edged over to the wall and sat up against it. He tucked a pulse pistol into his underwear.

“That rain could be radioactive.”

Rork grimaced. “Oh brax. Luna City could become uninhabitable.”

“You asked why I care.”

Rork met her eyes and nodded.

“He tried to force me to marry him. He kept me against my will. I was there, inside the Cylinder. It’s a beautiful community. We can’t destroy it, you understand?”

“What if it just gets destroyed? You don’t fyuke Luna City and get away with it. You’re not the only one who knows where it is, right?”

She held out her hand, palm down, to silence him. “But it’s built on evil: on slavery, rape, murder. I saw only a glimpse but it was… just horrible. I can’t find the words, you know?”

The elevator doors opened and a perfectly-coiffed gray-haired lady stepped out. She wore a red dress and she smoothed her hair back before she spoke.

“I saw you on the cameras. You are Rork Sollix, aren’t you?” she asked.

Rork grinned, his eyes half-closed. “Indeed I am, ma’am. How can I be of service?”

She shook her head and waved her hand in front of her face. “No, you’ve done enough for me, you and your father. Just… Oh, come on.” She stepped back into the elevator. “Hurry before someone else sees you!”

Mary Ellen wrapped her warm arm around Rork’s back and helped him up. They walked to the elevator and the old woman tapped the panel to close the door.

The front door opened and a man in a dark blue raincoat ran in. “Hold the elevator,” he yelled.

The lady jammed her well-manicured, mustard yellow fingernail into the panel again and again and the doors slammed closed in the man’s scruffy face.

“Should I be worried?” Rork asked.

The lady turned, her hands folded in front of her against her body. She took a solemn breath. “I’m Mrs. Dalrymple. And I could see from a mile away that that man had bad energy.”

Rork grinned. “Okay.”

The doors opened on the thirty-third floor with a soft flush of air. Mrs. Dalrymple waddle-shuffled right and opened the first door of at least thirty on that side alone. She took two steps in, turned and smiled.

“Welcome to capsule 3301! My humble abode.” She tapped the wall and a slab grew out of it at a right angle. “Lay him down here, honey.”

Mary Ellen dragged him over, his feet increasingly refusing to rise. She laid him down, his head near the window, his legs close to the door.

He sighed. “I’m just going to close my eyes.”

“Sorry, honey, now I know these cramped quarters are no big deal for space rats like you,” Mrs. Dalrymple said with a tweak of Rork’s cheek, “but I can barely stand it. So I’m afraid I can’t invite you to spend the night.”

“We need to get—” Mary Ellen started.

“Now, we’re going to give you a sponge bath and get those nasty rags off of you. Mary Ellen, I know you’ll give me a hand,” the lady said with a wink and a grin, “and then we’ll attend to your health. Have you back up there among the stars in no time. Oh yes.”

“Sounds good to me,” he mumbled.

Mary Ellen scowled. “I’m not sponge-bathing him. Let him do it himself.”

Rork giggled.

Mrs. Dalrymple walked over to her. “Now dear, Rork here is a strong man doing a dangerous job and he needs a strong woman with him, ready to take on any—”

“I’m not his woman. And I won’t be any man’s woman.”

“Oh dear, one of those, eh? Well, let’s make the best of it, shall we?” Mrs. Dalrymple walked to the space under Rork’s shelf and popped a drawer out. A plastic bucket clomped to the artificial hard wood floor and other items dropped into the receptacle with muffled plunks.

“Take this, honey doll,” Mrs. Dalrymple whispered in his ear.

Rork rolled over and held out his hand.

“Open,” she said, and he obliged. She dropped two tiny, white tablets into his mouth and he swallowed.

“This will slow the onset of your disease and will give you some relief from the symptoms.”

“How do you know about that? How did you even find us?” he asked.

“It’s just a little something I cooked up in the community garden out back. Added a few extra ingredients of my own selection, like my great grandma taught me. It’s an old medicine. Worked for your daddy.” She ducked under his shelf again and rummaged around. “I have a few more that I’ll leave with Mary Ellen. Take two per day for a month and you should be all set.”

A modicum of strength returned to his limbs and the electric fire of the disease eased. He sat up. “You know my dad? He had this, too?”

“Anorxoma?” She stood up and nodded. She kicked the now-empty bucket towards Mary Ellen. “Down the corridor a ways there is a little kitchen. Be a dear and fill it about three-quarters.”

Mary Ellen scooped up the bucket, her lips pursed. “We need to get going,” she said to Rork.

Mrs. Dalrymple threw the objects in her hands to the floor. “Well, how do you expect the man to be any use to you? He’s on his death bed. Haven’t you noticed? That and his clothes are ripped to shreds, he’s filthy and I smell liquor on his breath, too. This man, this good man, is worn out, burnt out, a fuelless rocket,” she said touching her neck and turning to Rork, “No offense to your manhood, of course, my dear.”

“When you’ve got—” Mary Ellen started.

“Are you going to get the water or not, young lady? If that’s what you consider yourself.”

“Fine,” Mary Ellen mumbled. She turned, opened the door and it closed gently behind her with a soft hydraulic hiss.

“I hope you weren’t thinking of putting a ring on that one,” Mrs. Dalrymple said.

Rork grinned, his eyes at half-mast again, his strength evaporating.

“Now get those clothes off, young man.”

Rork pulled what remained of the space suit off his chest and feet. He bumped his bad foot and cringed.

“You seem to be missing a chunk of foot. Your father swore off such adventure as you’re now known for.”

“How did you know him?” He looked up at her and studied her face. “I don’t remember you.”

“Oh well, he called on me for certain manly needs from time to time. You know. And I took good care of him, I promise you that. If I wasn’t so over the hill now, I’d proposition you for the same. I’m a strong, independent woman. But I know how to take care of a man, too.” She grabbed Rork’s foot and ripped the bandage off.

Rork gripped the space suit rags in his two hands and groaned.

“Sometimes it’s the quickest cut that is the most merciful.” She sighed. “This bone has to go, darling. It’s protruding from the wound and you’re going to re-open it with every step you take.” She shook her head.

“I… I’d like to wait on that.”

Something clicked nearby and the agony tensed Rork’s muscles. He tried to stand up but she forced him back down. He rocked up and down on the shelf, suppressing his screams.

“Now, now. It’s not that bad. I just had to take off that nub of a metatarsal. It’s no big deal really and this will free you up. Now hold on.” She applied a cool liquid to the burnt flesh of his foot and a new burning plagued him.

“Come on,” he mumbled through clenched teeth.

“Just a little more. Just adding a sealant, to protect it from further infection. Then I’ll—”

The door burst open and a hail of laser shots sparked across the capsule. Rork drew his pulse pistol from the waistband of his underwear and put three quick shots through the door. A body wrapped in a dark blue raincoat slumped to the floor and gurgled.

“Help me, Jupiter!” Rork said.

Mrs. Dalrymple lay flat on the floor, burning discs smoking from her heart, neck and right eye.

26

“I spread death wherever I go!”

Rork limped behind Mary Ellen in his underwear, his foot hastily wrapped in a gauze bandage. “And I didn’t even get the sponge bath.”

She stopped short and pointed to a cargo sled. “That’s it.”

The long, low, rectangular yellow box sat on the auxiliary landing platform like a heap of ejected space junk.

He shook his head. “They call them sleds for a reason. They’re impossible to maneuver. You set them on a trajectory and they just go, and fast. There’s no power steering, it’s just dead speed.”

She nodded. “That’s what we’ll need to get out of there. Larger forces are at work now. You can’t fyuke Luna City with impunity. There’s going to be a major reaction. Everyone will be gunning for Barbary now. We’ll have to hurry if you’re to get your revenge.”

“How do you know so much? Where did you find that old lady, by the way?”

“I know things.” She shrugged.

“Can I at least get some new clothes before we go? Something to eat?”

The light cut off and Rork looked up. A sharp-prowed ship flew overhead, above the dome. Then a hiss to his left. A small EDF shuttle landed near him. Black-armored troops piled out.

“Stop right there, terrorist!” one of them yelled.

“Oh, Jupiter.” Rork hobbled toward the sled and started up the ramp. Behind him, dozens of pairs of boots hit the ground, weapons clicked and voices screamed at him.

“Hurry up! Remember, you have to pilot this thing out of here.”

He reached the top, Mary Ellen right behind him. The ramp closed and the sounds of the EDF soldiers disappeared. He took a seat in the cockpit and hit the red ignition button at his lower right. A low rumble sent a wave of turbulence through the floor and his chair. His sight blurred momentarily as his eyeballs pulsated in tune with the ship. He strapped himself in with a comforting click. If they burned up in some atmosphere or in a collision, at least he’d be secure. He smirked.

Second and third EDF shuttles landed and dozens more troops poured out of them. Rork’s radio blinked with an incoming call. His radar showed the earnest red blip high above him and in his flight path. It was the main EDF ship, a destroyer likely, maybe even his old friend the John McCain.

“Should I strap in?” she asked from behind him.

“Only if you want to survive this insanity.”

He switched to takeoff mode and jammed the accelerator forward. Laser shots bounced off the viewscreen and sizzled on the hull. A cloud of aqueous air burst from under the ship and blasted the soldiers onto their backs. The ship zoomed straight up. He held the radar blip in the corner of his eye. He made straight for it.

“We’re boxed in!” Mary Ellen found the co-pilot’s seat and strapped herself in.

Rork slowed the vertical acceleration, punched it into maneuvering mode and turned right towards the spaceport. “I can’t tell…”

“Look ahead to your left,” Mary Ellen said. “There’s a narrow corridor that leads to the spaceport and from there the exit—”

“Help me, Jupiter!” he yelled.

Five-hundred meters ahead, a heavy door lowered across their narrow flight path. Rork arced the sled down hard but the result was only a gentle incline.

“This thing handles like a damned frozen TV dinner!” he pushed up the accelerator again.

She leaned forward. “That door rises from the floor, too! It’s titanium, five meters thick. Once it locks into place, we’ll be stuck.”

“What the hell have you gotten me into?” he asked.

“You were already in it when we met, you drunk gorilla! You can’t blame me for this! Go faster!”

“I’m at max acceleration for this piece of junk!”

There was precious little space between the two interlocking doors now. But he continued on, his teeth sawing each other, his shoulders tensed to the breaking point and his body shivering in a cold sweat.

“Turn off! We’re not going to make it. We’ll go out through the hole where the X Tower used to be,” she said.

As if this rock could turn that fast. He shook his head and sat back into the protective chair. He made a final, millimetric adjustment and cut the acceleration to zero.

“What the hell are you—”

The doors disappeared behind them and a thrill ran through Rork. Ahead lay the spaceport and above it the ephemeral force field between him and space. Mary Ellen’s face was a mix of fright and frustration. He giggled. They’d made it. He’d done it!

A screech deafened him. His seat pulled back and the straps tore into his shoulders. The screeching stopped, and with it their forward movement.

The ship rocked forward and backward, the great doors retracting and extending, attempting to meet, pushing, ripping and scraping.

“You’ve killed us, you drunk fool!”

He smiled at her. He switched to takeoff mode and edged the accelerator up. The ship hesitated and Rork pushed it higher. Metal screamed against metal above them.

“What’s that?” she yelled.

“Damned doors have brakes!” He gunned the upward acceleration. A boom sounded below them as the bottom door locked into place.

Flashing red lights took his control panel. “Engine failure imminent. Core pressure exceeds red line operating limits.”

Rork pushed the acceleration to the max. The force pushed him deeper into his seat and his back cracked. He switched to flight mode and the sled zipped out of the jaws’ stranglehold. He pulled the stick back and they rocketed into space just beyond the limits of the dome.

Mary Ellen glared at him and shook her head. “That was the most empty-headed thing I have ever seen.”

Rork laughed, his mouth wide open. “If there’s one thing this junk can do it’s take off with a million kilos of cargo on its back. Now, where—”

A yellow light flickered on the panel to his far left.

“It looks like we took hull damage. I need you to go back and look.”

“What if it sucks me out into space? Why don’t you look?”

“Someone has to look and I am currently… Oh brax.” There was the blip again.

The radio illuminated on his control panel. “ESS John McCain to commercial sled Ironside, we believe you are harboring fugitives. Keep your present course and dial down acceleration. Prepare to be boarded. Any sudden moves will be met with force.”

“Goddamned John McCain!” He slammed his fist into the arm of his chair.

“Take evasive action!” she yelled.

“I’m flying a rock! I told you that!”

“Well, we need this to hold all the children.”

“We’re not going to get that far. Now get back there and check on that hull damage. It could kill us before they can swing around and dock.”

Mary Ellen unsnapped her straps and swiveled out of the chair. “Do we even know if there is atmosphere back there?”

“Check the display next to the door.”

“It says everything— Wait. Pressure is decreasing, just a little.” The door slid open and her boot clanked on the hard metal floor of the cargo hold.

A cold draft assaulted his shoulders and he shivered. “Close the door behind you! It’s cold in there.”

The door hissed shut and Rork’s radar console beeped. A new contact appeared, this one much smaller than the EDF destroyer and colored blue — one unknown to the computer.

His stomach fluttered. Who is going to screw things up this time? He punched up his comms and searched for the rogue ship’s identifying marker. It had none. Its comms were off and it was flying silent. Just how I used to do it. Bad news.

The door hissed open behind him. Mary Ellen’s perfectly choreographed footfalls sounded, then a light creaking. Rork popped his straps and swiveled, his hand at his waistline.

A shivering Zero kneeled before Rork, the little girl asleep in his arms.

Rork met Mary Ellen’s eyes. She nodded, spun and turned left into the kitchen. Rork kneeled down.

“Mary Ellen’s getting you something warm to eat and drink. You’re going to be alright.”

Zero’s face trembled and twitched. “I just can’t get away from you.”

The girl reached for Rork and he held out his arms. Tremors ran through her little body and she started to cry. She was ice cold.

“Are we home yet?” she asked him.

Rork’s world turned sideways and he found himself laying on the floor. A sizzling sound ran across the outside wall. Cries of frustration came from the kitchen. He picked himself up and got back into the pilot’s seat. Additional laser pulses from the rogue ship arced inbound.

Rork grabbed the stick and yawed hard to port. The pulses glanced off the edge of the sled with their telltale sizzle.

“Commercial sled Ironside, return to previous course heading or we will fire.”

Join the club. Rork twisted back to starboard but the sled barely responded. We’re dead. Goddamned dead. Never let a woman pick the ship you’re escaping in. He rolled his eyes at himself.

Mary Ellen appeared next to him, her cheek against his, her cleavage under his nose.

Rork sighed. So close yet so futile.

“You veered off course, didn’t you?”

“Of course I did! We’re under attack!”

“You can’t do that! The destroyer will fire! Get back on course!” She grabbed for the stick.

Rork stood up, scooted forward and grabbed the stick in between his legs. “I’m the pilot! I’m the captain! I make the decisions!”

“You’re a pervert and you’ve killed us all.” She reached in between his legs and jerked the stick to the right, savaging his testicles.

Rork closed his eyes, the low, thudding pain spreading through him. “A lot of good it’ll do you. Your precious ship requires an AU just to turn!”

The ship rumbled and the bridge went dark. Mary Ellen let go of the stick and Rork leaned back in the chair, cradling his testicles. Something soft scratched at the door. It clicked and swung open.

Glagnon strutted in, his grown belly peeking out from between his soiled white shirt and his shiny black pants. Thryk galloped up behind him.

“Well, if it ain’t the best day of our recent lives!” Glagnon said through a broken-toothed grin.

27

“I can forget how you guys betrayed me and I’ll cut you in. But I’m the captain of this ship, undisputed.”

Glagnon laughed, his hairy belly button jiggling in harmony with his guttural ejections. He pushed the cage door closed and the lock clicked into place.

Across from Rork, Mary Ellen tried to get comfortable in her cage. Zero and the little girl played in theirs, giggling. Thryk kicked Zero’s cage and the little girl stuck her tongue out at him before continuing.

“Captain Glagnon, sir, they’re having fun in the cage but that’s not allowed,” Thryk said.

“Get back to work!” Glagnon yelled.

“How would you like to take down Barbary? Big money,” Rork said.

Glagnon stared down at Rork out of the bottoms of his eyes and farted. “Oh, good,” he muttered.

Rork looked around. “Where’s Klambert?” He leaned against the back wall of the short cage and spread his legs out ahead of him. His remaining toes poked, free, out of the bars. His spine rubbed against the cheap, right-angled rods and he shifted himself to find the least painful position. The crown of his head compressed against the top of the insufferable prison, his hairs scratching his scalp.

“Dead. Barbary got him. And now you’re working for him. Traitor.” Glagnon spit the last word.

“I don’t remember giving permission for my crew to be killed. And I’m not working for him.”

“Llamabrax! All the news is saying it. ‘Rork Sollix, Cartel agent.’ You hijacked the trainship, planted the bomb and rammed it into Luna City. Do you know how many people you killed? I hope he paid you for that.” Glagnon shook his head and sighed. “You know what we could have done with that cargo. Ten-thousand. That’s at least a hundred fifty million. And you handed ‘em over to the man. You’re working for him. No other way it can go. Nope.”

“He still has Lala. And I think he has my dad, too.”

“I give a brax!”

“You mean you don’t give a brax?” A sly grin crept across Rork’s face.

Glagnon turned his back and walked toward the exit.

“After this, we raid more, just the way you want. I’ll make you rich,” Rork said.

“Play nice and maybe I’ll trade you bunch for Lala and a reprieve. Get tricky and I let down the back door. Don’t get tricky with me, Rork.” Glagnon walked out and slammed the metal door behind him. The lock spun into place.

“Is he going to crush us or something?” Mary Ellen asked.

Rork jerked a thumb behind them. “That’s the backdoor. He hits a couple buttons in the cockpit, it opens and we’re icicles in permanent orbit.”

“Oh. What are we going to do?”

He laughed. “Nothing. He holds all the cards. But have you noticed? Someone is always chasing me. Someone will catch up and free us, if only to put us in a different cage. Hopefully a warmer and more comfortable one.”

“I think we have more important things to worry about than a more comfortable cage.”

“To each his own, I guess.” He closed his eyes and folded his hands on his chest.

“Really, what is our plan?” she asked.

“Man proposes, but only the Universe disposes,” Zero said.

“Shut up!” Mary Ellen and Rork said in unison. Their eyes met and they laughed.

“We finally see eye to eye on something,” Rork said.

“The smartest move is to hit the corporate HQ first. From there we can find where the Cylinder is and we can destroy his command and control,” Mary Ellen said.

“What about the transport hub? And you told me you already knew the location of the Cylinder!” Rork put his hands behind his head and it alleviated some of the pain of hard metal against scalp.

“It moves around.”

Another loose variable. “What I really want to know is why my brother is working for him.”

“He pays well. He’s smart and he’s thinking five steps ahead of you at all times. He traps people and he plays with them, as if they were puppets. Literally.”

Rork cleared his throat. “I also want to know why the EDF destroyer helped Barbary attack Luna City.”

Mary Ellen guarded her silence, her lips shut tight.

“Why did Barbary want to do that in the first place?”

“Come on, Rork, you’re a smart man. He’s playing for control of the system. He has everything except Mars, the Moon and Earth. Mars is pointless and whoever controls the Moon controls Earth. Plus, he stands to make a fortune from the rebuilding.”

He nodded. But why was the EDF helping him?

“It’s going to be a long haul to take down the HQ, though. Do you think these monkeys have supplies?” she asked.

“This is madness,” Zero yelled. “We need to get those children and return them to their parents on Earth.”

“Most of those kids have no parents,” Mary Ellen said.

Zero covered the little girl’s ears. “Bite your tongue, young lady!”

“I bet Barbary paid off the destroyer’s captain. The EDF doesn’t pay very well,” she said.

“But there is such a thing as honor! And duty!” Zero wiped his brow. “Why is it getting hot in here!”

“I didn’t notice,” Rork mumbled, looking down at his mostly naked body.

“I want to know what your plan is, Rork! This is getting really boring,” she yelled.

The wheel on the bulkhead spun and they went silent. Glagnon’s gut protruded into the cargo bay.

“Shut the hell up! I told—”

Glagnon toppled forward, his head smacked the metal floor with a hollow thud and his belly bounced on the frame.

Thryk appeared behind him, a wrench the length of his forearm raised above his head.

“I got ‘em, Captain Rork. I got ‘em for ya!”

“Good work, Number One!” Rork pulled himself forward and kneeled at the front of his cage.

“Ma always told me I was officer material and by Jupiter, she was right!”

“Thryk! Open the cages, so we can get to work,” Rork said.

“But I don’t have the key. Glagnon put it somewhere and—”

The comms snapped on. “This is Jord Sollix, agent for Gamil Barbary. I know you have Rork. Hand him over now or prepare to meet your end in the vacuum of space.”

A red pulse flashed across the bridge viewscreen casting a fiery shadow across their faces.

28

“Hide, Thryk! Hide!”

The bridge hatch door clanged open and heavy boots hit the bare metal floor.

“I’m shooting to kill,” said Jord Sollix. “So stay out of my way.”

Jord looked into the cargo hold and discharged his weapon into the prostrate Glagnon. A flame leaped from the man’s back and Jord stomped it out.

“Brother, he’s knocked out!” Rork said.

“Shut up. I thought he was lying in wait.” Jord walked over to Rork and motioned him back with a flip of his gun hand. He lasered the cage lock. He walked to Mary Ellen’s and did the same.

Rork crawled out of the cage, dusted himself off and stretched with a grunt.

“Who’s this prap?” Jord indicated Zero.

Rork shook his head. “Don’t.”

“Just tell me who he is, baby brother.”

“He’s a preacher. A good—”

“Got no use for him.” Jord fired three, quick laser blasts through the top of the cage.

Zero moaned and the little girl cried, slowly at first.

Rork stepped towards him. “There’s a baby in there, you ignorant snoof!”

Jord turned and put the gun on him. “I can take your leg off below the knee, both your forearms or even make you piss like a woman for the few remaining, miserable days you have ahead of you, and still complete my contract. So don’t tempt me.” He motioned with the gun toward the bridge.

“Ladies first.” Rork bowed to Mary Ellen and she thanked him with a scowl.

“Come on, Romeo.” Jord pushed Rork through the door.

Rork slowed his step and looked back at Zero. Was he dead? Or just playing possum? “Wherever you are, Lord, take care of these, your children. Heal them up and take them to HQ.”

“Let’s go!” Jord cracked the handle of the pulse pistol against the crown of Rork’s head and the pirate fell to a knee.

Rork picked himself up, rubbing his head. He crouched and propelled himself head-first into the razor-thin, accordion-like docking tube. He was weightless now, and he started to shiver. He tapped the sides to propel himself toward his brother’s ship.

I’ll arrive first. I can take control, knock him out as he comes across. He pushed himself harder. A cold sweat broke out on his forehead. An icy chill ran down his ribs as the chill of space met the sweat pouring from under his arms.

He threw himself the last bit into Jord’s ship and landed, face-first on the dusty metal-plated floor. He got himself up and found the terminal optics of a pulse pistol digging into his forehead.

“Stay down, eyes on the floor, son,” the gruff voice said.

Rork looked up. A balding, potbellied man in a dark turtleneck and a synther jacket looked down on him. His eyes were hollow and dark.

“Dad?”

“Just be quiet, son. Do as your told. Not that you ever have.”

Mary Ellen hopped expertly into a crouch and eyed him intently.

Rork looked down the tube. “There are people on there. You better close that door before your disengage, Jord!”

“Screw you!” Jord hopped in and leapt into a run to the pilot’s seat. He tapped the console and the inner door closed. Machinery sounded as the accordion tube retracted.

“You’d better have closed the door! Or I’ll kill you with my bare—” Rork started.

The old man swung the pistol grip down on Rork’s head and the pirate fell to his buttocks to the cold floor. He reached up and touched his forehead. A trickle of blood traipsed through the pronounced ridges of his index finger.

“Your own son, Dad. Your own son,” Rork said.

The legendary Band Sollix turned away. He walked across the bridge and took a seat behind Jord, his pistol across his nervous knee.

“They’re your family?” Mary Ellen whispered.

Rork nodded.

“They work for Barbary. I’ve seen them before.”

He rolled his eyes. “Gee, what a surprise. I’m shocked to my core.”

She slapped his shoulder and sat back against the wall.

Band turned to her, his pistol raised.

She held her hands up. “Am I not allowed to unwind between cages? Where are we going, anyway?”

The old man grunted, then relaxed.

Rork threw himself to his feet and ran to the front port. The Barbary ship turned away. Far to starboard he spotted his old MORF-9.

The doomed ship whizzed away from them, powered by the white gas escaping from its forward hatch.

Rork leaned forward, his core muscles collapsing. Zero, the girl, Thryk. Defenseless, dying a slow death. I am their captain. I am supposed to protect them. And I failed.

Heavy boots clanked next to him and the ship’s control panels rushed up to hit his nose. Rork crumpled to the floor, looking up at his brother. Another good man, deep down. But why was he doing this? How did he fall this far?

Jord jerked his body forward and a boot struck Rork at the waist. The sharp threads of electric pain shot up his back and down his legs. He rolled over from the force and crawled back towards Mary Ellen, one arm, then the next.

Mary Ellen reached for him, her eyes red, her face wired and dark.

He steeled himself and rolled away from Jord. Another kick came but Rork only felt the wind from it.

Jord put too much effort into his failed assault. His foot led him too far up into the air. He lost his balance and fell onto his back, the metal deck plates clanging as they rose up, fell back down and rearranged themselves.

“Cut the horseplay!” their old man screamed. He looked back at them. “Grow up already.”

Rork guided himself up against the bulkhead wall next to Mary Ellen. “Luna City, Dad? You okay with that? You remember a woman named Dalrymple? Your boss just had her killed.”

Jord picked himself up off the floor with a low groan and hobbled over to his father. He whispered to him.

Rork strained to hear but his ears caught nothing.

The old man waved him away. “You’re just like her. You two weren’t made for this system. This is a hard place. A man has to do hard things to survive. Unless he, or she, is a Barbary.” He edged a glance at Mary Ellen.

“Dad!” Rork yelled. “Why are you doing this? Barbary is our enemy. Barbary stole from us. He stole from our customers. He killed mom!”

The old man swiveled up fast from his seat. “Take over.” He strode at Rork and squatted down in front of him.

Rork studied him. He was in good health. Much better than what Rork remembered.

“You don’t know what happened,” the old man said, his index finger wriggling a millimeter from his son’s nose.

“Tell me.”

The old man looked down. “You weren’t there. You were out trying to sell stale crackers to a mining colony. You don’t deserve to know.”

“You told me I needed to be more independent. You told me to open new markets. I had to prove myself, you said.”

He sneered at his son.

“I did what you told me! And I came back as soon as—”

“That’s why you’re weak. You don’t deserve to live. You’re not strong enough for this life.”

“He killed your wife! The love of—”

“I killed her!” Band leaned in towards Rork and placed one hand on the wall next to him. The other he wrapped around his son’s throat. “I ended her infinite worrying! And I’ll put you down the same way!”

His father’s grip was steel. Rork grabbed at the constricting hand and pulled at the fingers. He opened his mouth wide and pulled hard for air but none came. The edges of his vision blacked out. He swiped a hand at his father but the old man evaded it.

“Let him go!” Mary Ellen stood next to the old man, her gentle fists making contact with his cheek and ear.

Rork startled back to consciousness. How much time had passed? Was he dead? He raised a fist and hit his father square in the nose.

The old man released his grip on Rork’s neck, stood up and grabbed Mary Ellen’s. “I’ll snap it!”

Rork took in breath in huge gulps, his lungs straining against his bruised rib cage and spine. He leaned forward to stand up and collapsed backwards again.

“Dad, he wants her alive,” Jord said from the console. “And we’re three minutes to touchdown.”

The old man released her and she fell to her knees, her bountiful breasts bouncing in and out.

“Bag ‘em,” the old man said.

Boots clomped across the deck. Darkness fell over Rork’s eyes. The rough cloth tightened around his neck and panic washed over him. He fought to stand up but rough hands grabbed his and bound them. His shoulders ached and his elbows screamed.

“I want you to see my eyes when you kill me!” Rork screamed, the hot air warming his cheeks.

The whoosh of weapons being drawn from well-worn holsters reached Rork’s ears. Mary Ellen’s cool, thin fingers reached his and grabbed on tight. He squeezed back.

We’re not going to die here. I won’t die like this.

Safeties clicked. The men mumbled. Something cold and hard jammed into Rork’s forehead and pushed his head into the cold bulkhead wall behind him. The rotten metallic smell of blaster plasma tickled Rork’s nose.

“Screw you!” Rork roared, a fire growing in his belly. He struggled with the restraints. I can do this. I can defeat anyone. I won’t go out like this!

The trigger scritched as the unknown man squeezed it and the blaster discharged.

29

“Get to work you lazy bastard!”

A distant ache nudged Rork’s mind awake. A pitch black gloom enveloped his world. He rolled over, the ground sharp and icy cold beneath him. A fetid odor of dust mixed with old sweat and fresh death charged into his nose. A dozen tiny pricks of light invaded his eyes through the gaps in the fabric covering his head. Then he remembered.

Mary Ellen. Lala. Barbary. Dad and Jord are alive. A thrill animated his gut as he realized he was alive, too. Cold, hungry, aching. But alive. He still had a chance. The raw power of his determination overcame him. He snapped the restraints on his wrists and tensed his abdominal muscles to rise.

That ache came again, this time closer. He struggled for breath and tore at the bag. He ripped it off.

A rag-clad beast stood over him, his mouth open, spittle flying past rotten teeth and empty gums. He waved a black stick over his head and slammed it down on Rork’s knees.

The jet blast of pain fired in his mind and he screamed. He pulled himself back away from the man and steeled himself for the next attack.

“You’re mine now, boy, and you’re going to work or die. Probably both.” He raised the black stick again, his eyes flashing above the ragged scarf that covered his mouth and nose.

Rork shivered and pulled himself up. “Where is this?”

Behind Rork and at his feet was solid rock, mostly smooth but with regular sharp edges. It was laser-cut. The grooves from the industrial light beams ran down a sharp incline to his left into a Stygian hole. Above him, dark clouds obscured a too-small sky.

A line of men passed behind the stick-wielding overseer, their faces gaunt, their heads hung low. Each dragged a small pickaxe behind him. Some had shoes, others wore rags on their feet and still others tread the frozen rock with bare, blackened and bloody feet.

Two flashed their bloodshot eyes at Rork and dove at his discarded black bag. They tussled, each with bony fingers grasping at the other’s eyes and necks. The skinnier of the two, clad in an oversized and well-holed black sleeveless shirt and ragged shorts, landed a fist on the other’s nose. The victor ran ahead to rejoin the rest of the doomed men, his prize intact.

The loser lay on the rock, panting. The stick-wielding man approached him, his club held over his head, then lowered it and extended a hand. The loser grabbed it, pulled himself up and limped after the group.

The stick-wielding man turned to Rork. “I’m Falkov, the superintendent here. I make sure we deliver quota but I’m a settler here, just as you are now.”

“This isn’t a settlement, it’s a prison!” Rork wrapped his arms around his chest and stepped in place. Ice crystals rained down on him, blasting his scalp and cheeks. He wiped them away but the cold crept into his bones and his legs began to shake.

“Barbary has worse places than this.” Falkov nodded towards the mine entrance. “They’ll give you a pickaxe in there.”

Rork shook his head. His eyes bored a hole in Falkov’s green irises, reminding him of Earth and the open fields Lala and he dreamed of making a life in. But that seemed too far away now, too impossible.

“Want to stay out here? Be my guest. This is the hottest hour of the day. Thirty minutes from now, you’re solid ice.”

“I have to get off of here. Barbary—”

“Barbary has screwed us all. Took our daughters, killed our wives, drafted our sons and stolen our futures. So get in line. Now, go.” Falkov got next to him and pushed him toward the cave entrance. “We eat later. We work now.”

“There was a woman with me.”

Falkov shrugged. “Either dead or in his breeding program, like all the rest.”

“Where is the spaceport? It can’t be far.”

Falkov shook his head, skeptical. “It’s a one-hour hike for the strongest man during the warmest thirty minutes of the day.”

“I can do it. We can do it together.”

“Impossible. Now move.”

Rork took a reluctant step towards the hole. It better be warmer in there. His stomach growled. His knees and torso ached with each step. He was in a race now. He had to get off this rock before he died. He had to do it now before he got any weaker, before he starting consuming his own muscles, before the cold, the dust and the drudgery ate everything he was.

He stopped at the threshold and looked up at the sky. The ice crystals were falling harder now and the wind blew them into complex spirals above him. The tiny shards jammed into his eyes and he closed them. Falkov pushed him in and his stride shortened as his eyes adjusted to the gloom.

A sharp double beep came from his left and a screen illuminated. Falkov strode over. “Accept.”

Barbary’s pockmarked face appeared on the screen. “Put him on.”

Falkov turned to Rork, his eyes sympathetic, his mouth tense.

Rork straightened his back and strode over to the screen, waves of cold rippling across his tight chest. He was frowning. He had to fix that. Barbary couldn’t think he was defeated. He wasn’t. He reached the screen and searched Barbary’s gloating eyes for weakness.

“I’m going to kill you,” Rork said.

“That’s what I like about you, Rork. That pride.” A grin crept across his enemy’s face.

Fear slithered into his heart. What if he never got out of here? There had to be a way, but what if there wasn’t? He never gave up, but he’d never faced something like this before. Where was this place? Mental strength depended on physical strength and they were taking his physical strength. His spirit was strong but Barbary was testing his body now. His resolve slipped away from him.

“This is your chance to beg,” Barbary said.

“This is your chance to grovel, Gamil. Release Lala and I will only kill you. The rest of your clan can live on.”

Barbary threw his head back and opened his mouth, revealing a perfect set of gold-encrusted teeth. His cackling scratched at Rork’s rigid eardrums.

The screen image changed. Moans and sharp screams rattled forth into the echoing cave mouth. A new energy coursed through Rork’s body from toes to fingers and to his ragged scalp.

Men roamed the large room. They were naked, their bulging, hairy chests and snaking arms reaching, gyrating, pushing, pulsing against females held face down in transparent boxes.

In the center of the room, impeccably combed bright blue hair hung over a pair of knees brought up against a girl’s face. She hugged her legs against her chest in a corner of the box.

“You trained her perfectly for our breeding program. Submissive, cooperative. Any day now she’ll stop fighting. The boys are going to love her then. Literally.” Another Barbary cackle came through the screen’s speakers.

The blue hair moved and the camera zoomed in. Lala wore dark bruises around her distant eyes. Her face was pale and her cheeks hung too loose.

Rork strode forward and punched the screen. “I’m going to kill you, Barbary. I’m going to make you suffer!”

Barbary’s cackle rose higher and the image of Lala faded from the screen.

Falkov pushed an icy pickaxe against Rork’s bare chest. “Get to work!”

30

“We’re getting out of here. Pass the word.”

Rork stepped carefully deeper into the mountain, the laser-cut grooves digging into his bare feet. He looked back at Falkov. “I’m serious.”

Falkov shook his head. “Barbary comes back every year and takes a man with him — the strongest, the meanest. They become soldiers.”

“Still slaves. Just more comfortable ones.”

“It’s a chance and every man here knows it. But trying to escape? Your destiny is death. And they know that, too.”

“I make my own destiny. Be ready. Or stay. But don’t get in my way.” Rork continued down the path. It curved and doubled-back, but the descent was unyielding.

He stopped to touch a wall. It was smooth, wet rock. The metallic smell of dust was stronger now. Ahead, a dust cloud hung between two failing wall lights.

Men appeared out of the gloom, harness straps wrapped around their shoulders, waists and even foreheads. They dragged metal boxes behind them filled with rough, silvery rocks.

“We’re getting out of here. Pass the word.”

They stared at the floor ahead of them, their eyes glazed over. Bones poked through papery skin and sweat poured off their bodies.

“New guy,” a strong voice said from below.

“My name is—”

“Here. You won’t live long enough for your name to matter.”

Rork strode down, his eyes narrowed. The gravity of the place, the hopelessness of it, began to weigh on him and he stopped. Every step drew him further from Lala. He didn’t want to go down there. He didn’t want to breathe that dust into his lungs. He didn’t want to meet this man or do whatever task he would assign him. He wanted to be out of here, in the MORF-9 again, with Lala.

His arms wrapped around Lala’s compact body, her breasts pushing into his chest, his shoulders creating a barrier to protect her. The deep tang of her body he drew into his nose. He ran his fingers through her silky hair and reached a hand down to her soft—

“Now, new guy!” A hand reached out of the gloom and grabbed his shoulder, shaking him. “You’re taking the boomer down to the end of the line.”

Rork stared at him, trying to recover his dream.

The man pulled him forward and dragged him down the low-roofed trail. The walls narrowed and Rork bumped his head against a ridge in the ceiling.

The strong-voiced man shook his head. “Duck, new guy.”

Rork rubbed his scalp. It was wet. He held his fingers up to a passing light and they shone red. He stopped and ran his hand along his scalp. He touched the gash. It stung and he pulled his hand back, bloodier now.

“Baby need a diaper change?” The strong-voiced guy stopped and looked back at Rork with a disapproving glare.

“It cut me! I need first aid.”

The man grabbed a handful of dust from the floor and slammed it onto Rork’s head.

The impact tore Rork’s swollen scalp further and then the burning kicked in. He leaned forward, swept the dust out of his air with both hands and stomped the ground. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

The strong-voiced man grabbed Rork’s tricep and ran. “We’ve got a short amount of time to get this done and you’re holding me up.”

They rounded a corner, then another. The trail spiraled down at a sharp angle. The light receded. The dust thickened and the artificial lighting grew weaker.

Rork’s eyes burned. He stopped and blinked them, again and again.

“Let’s go, new guy!”

“I can’t— My eyes!” Rork’s breath caught in his throat. His lungs rebelled and he tried to expel the toxic powder. But with each breath he only took in more.

A hand covered Rork’s mouth and nose and he coursed with fear.

“Easy!”

A soft yet greasy rag replaced the hand. Strong hands tied a tight knot at the base of his skull and relatively clean air flowed into his spasming lungs again.

“Come on!” The hand clamped tighter over his upper arm and they proceeded down again. They turned another corner and the trail opened into a wide, rounded cavern.

Floodlights punched through the dust and illuminated the walls. Men paced the floor and waited. A short one, his face caked in dust, approached them.

“Sharp,” the short one said, “three unaccounted for.”

“Dead anyway,” Sharp said.

The short man nodded. “We cleared a path and sunk the shaft. Just waiting on new guy.” He sized up Rork.

Rork opened his mouth to talk and his lungs seized up again. He tried to cough and the cough caught in his throat. He drew breath again and expelled some of it but his lungs were full. He stretched his shoulders out and took more. Finally, the cough came in staccato burps and his lungs refused to take in air again.

The short one nodded at Rork and raised an eyebrow. “Him too.”

“We’re getting out of here. Pass the word,” Rork croaked.

“What?” Sharp said.

“We’re getting out of here. Pass the word!” He coughed then lifted the borrowed rag and dug his finger into his nose. Dust cascaded out and he began to breather easier.

The men laughed and Rork looked up at them.

“You don’t know who I am.” He managed to get the words out between hacks.

Sharp grabbed his arm and pulled him towards a serrated opening in the wall. Next to it sat a cube as wide as Rork’s chest.

“You’re going to take that cube through the path the guys cleared in the rubble. Then you’ll find a shaft. Climb down it with the box and set it gently — I said gently! — on the ground at the bottom of the shaft.”

“What if—” Rork started.

Sharp held up a finger. “Then, if you can, you climb back up.”

“Don’t you have bots for this kind of thing?”

Sharp looked away.

“What if I drop it down the shaft?”

“It’ll detonate and the shaft will channel the force of the explosion into your face,” Sharp said, one eyebrow higher than the other. “Let’s go new guy. You say we’re getting out of here? Well, step one is getting out of that shaft.” He turned and faced the other men. “Let’s go guys, hoof it outta here. We’re on a schedule, two minutes to detonation.” He walked over to the box and smacked a button on the top of it.

A numbered display glowed to life. 120. 119. 118.

“Now, new guy!” Sharp yelled.

Rork grabbed his arm. “If I do this, you’ll come with me tomorrow.” He searched Sharp’s face.

Sharp shrugged him off. “Your clock is ticking.” He strode up the trail, leaving Rork alone in the cavern.

Rork glanced at the box. It read 112 seconds remaining. Was this an initiation? Was this how they always do it? Did he run now? Or try it? The thoughts crashed through his mind like rapid laser fire. But he needed allies and he needed respect.

Rork ran and picked up the box with one hand. His shoulder jerked backwards. Jupiter, it was heavy! He stepped back, grabbed it with both hands and hefted it up to his waist. The rock here was darker, probably richer in the element Barbary was mining, platinum or palladium — maybe both. The box hit something and he rammed his ankle into it.

“Ouch!” Rork mumbled.

“Who’s there?”

Rork stopped. He dropped the box, stepped back and rotated it, its bottom scraping against the rough floor until the illuminated numbers showed forward. “I’m Rork. Where are you?”

“I see your light. Just up ahead,” the voice rasped.

Rork bent over the box. 67 seconds. Damnit! He picked it up and shuffle-limped forward.

“Behind you!”

Rork stepped back twice. A hand reached out from the darkness and locked onto his injured ankle. He jerked his foot away but the hand tightened.

“You gotta get me outta here, Rork.”

Rork grabbed the hand and pulled. It gave a little, then nothing. “Help me help you.”

“Rock on my leg.”

Help me, Jupiter. Rork stepped into the blackness and kicked rock. “Ouch! Is it that one?”

“Yeah, just roll it off me.”

Rork crawled his fingers across the rock and found its edges. He squatted down and pulled. The rock lifted.

“Almost! Keep going!”

Rork brought his feet in closer and looked in the direction of the box. How many seconds till it goes off? His fingers weakened and the rock slid. “Now, has to be now!”

“I’m out!” The man limped in the darkness towards the cavern.

Rork fell forward onto the rock as his hold slipped. He sucked in air and looked over at the box. No time, no time, no time!

The box beeped and a red light flashed on its top. It beeped again.

“Hey!” Rork stepped to follow the man he’d saved and fell flat on his side. He jerked his leg. It was stuck but it didn’t hurt. He’d stopped shivering. He remembered what Dad told him once about space survival. When you stop shivering, that’s when you’re dead.

“Hey! Help!” Rork yelled. The beeping spiked in his eardrums now. His jaw buzzed. He reached down and felt his leg. It was all there. Knee, shin, foot, toes. Brax. His big toe was under the rock. He only had one whole foot left and he needed it intact!

Lala flashed through his mind. He smelled her musty tang. She was all he wanted. That and revenge on Gamil Barbary so they could live in peace. If he died now, Barbary won and it was a lifetime of misery for Lala.

“You bastard son of a bitch!” Rork dug his fingers in under the rock and lifted. He pulled his leg out, stood up and promptly fell. His feet were numb from the cold.

He got to his knees and crawled on all fours, then got to his feet again, ran, stumbled and made it out into the cavern.

The beeping was everywhere now. It felt like it was inside his skull.

“Come on!” The man he’d saved, covered in black dust, rushed Rork and threw him over his back. He ran up the rocky trail, around curves, up inclines, fighting the artificial gravity.

Everything went silent. The wall rose up and threw Rork. His eyes shook in their sockets. Dust and rock cascaded over them. The man turned another corner, Rork bouncing along over his shoulder. The second shockwave hit as the bomb pushed everything out of the tunnel. Gravity disappeared and they floated onto the icy planet surface. Rork closed his eyes.

Rork opened them. A dim light illuminated the crowd of men huddled over him. He looked from one face to another.

Fingers snapped near his nose. Sharp’s disapproving face appeared over him.

“Well, new guy, you screwed us good. You caved in the mine on at least a hundred good men. We got nowhere to sleep. You saved one for the moment but you’ve doomed all of us, permanently.”

31

“We’ve got ten minutes before the temps drop again, and we’re still at least an hour from the spaceport.”

Rork studied Sharp’s eyes. They were smart and determined. But he was tired. They all were.

“We’ve gotta go back,” someone said behind Rork.

Rork scanned the horizon. Something other than ice shimmered in the waning midday sun. The spaceport was there, within his reach. Mary Ellen might be there. Rork needed her to get into Barbary’s Cylinder. He took in a frigid breath and watched the exhaled vapor cloud ice up in front of him. The same sun he’d always depended on warmed this artificial planet. It was just too far away.

“He’s right,” said another man.

Rork stepped up on an icy outcropping and faced the men. “Go back to what?”

“No thanks to you.”

“There is only death for you back there,” Rork said.

“Barbary needs us, he’s got sensors in the mine. He’ll send someone.”

Rork rubbed his rag-wrapped hands on his chest. Men died last night because of me. Now I wear their clothes. I can’t do anything for them. That’s done. But I can save some of these men. And I will save Lala. Whether she takes me back or not is another question.

Two men turned and began to trudge back towards the mine.

“I need every man here to take that ship.” Rork stretched an arm out behind him towards the spaceport. “And every man here needs me to get off this snowball.” He scanned the group of a dozen men. “Unless you have any other pilots here?”

The two returning men turned and listened.

“Barbary took everything from us. Like me, you lost fathers and mothers, sisters and daughters. In a few generations, who will be left out here but Barbarys. What of the Mankins and the Sharps? The Fujimotos and the Iboges? Barbary is exterminating us.”

The burnt sun cast a pinkish glow on the ice behind the men as the little planet spun away from its closest daily approach. Rork took in breath, then exhaled, faster and faster. Strength was returning.

“What about your legacy, as men? What about your lives? The past you had is gone! The present you loathe is here but the future you want is within our grasp. I promise to you now that we will get our revenge on Barbary. We will rescue our loved ones. We will have our vengeance and together we will rebuild our lives!”

The wind howled through the assembled men, biting exposed skin on their faces, chests, backs and legs. Four more men turned and joined the departing two. The six of them trudged back towards the mine.

Rork balled his fists. It was the same everywhere. Small men. Small visions. Ruled by their fears. Comfortable with their fates — not the fates given to them by the Universe or God. No. The fates given to them by other men. Their betters. But betters only because these cowards refused to man up and fight them. He opened his mouth to scream, to curse their slithery spineless psyches.

“Let them go.” Mankin stood in front of Rork, his eyes searching. “Focus on the mission.”

Rork nodded. Mankin. He’d come back for Rork. They’d saved each other’s lives. This one he could count on.

Rork turned towards the spaceport and strode forward. “Come on, men!”

“It’s your turn on the harness,” Mankin said.

He turned and nodded at him, his stomach aflutter. The damned heavy thing could sap all his strength before he even reached the spaceport. How many men did they have to fight? They didn’t know.

Rork put the harness on like a jetpack, one strap over one shoulder, then the other. But this harness also had a belt. Rork pulled the heavy, stained thing tight around his waist and fastened it.

Sharp strode up from behind. He put the forehead strap on just below Rork’s hairline. “Now’s your chance to show us your commitment,” he said with a raised eyebrow.

No problem. Rork stepped forward, two other men with similar harnesses two meters on either side of him. He pulled and the bomb wouldn’t budge. He pulled again, then walked back. The damned thing was frozen to the ground. I knew we shouldn’t have stopped.

Rork grabbed it and rocked it from side to side. He stuck his fingers into the fresh ice at the bottom of the metal box and chipped away, his finger losing sensation. He pulled and it came free, almost hitting his senseless foot. He’d have to be careful. Pull it too hard down the incline and he was dead, or trapped. He wasn’t sure which was worse.

Watching the horizon was too painful for Rork. It was too far away. He looked down at the ice ahead of his feet. He saw Zero and that little girl. He never even learned her name. Thryk. No way, they didn’t survive. All that air ejected from the main hatch? It decompressed in under a second.

What a pain in the neck Zero was. But a good man. Loyal, caring. Rork would need him now. He remembered calling him a fraud and the memory stung. Thryk saved his life. He owed the man, no matter how dumb he was. Honor was honor. You paid it in kind. Once he had Lala, he’d search for the MORF-9 and give them a proper, respectful sendoff into the unknown.

A hand landed on Rork’s shoulder and he turned, startled.

“We’re here.” Mankin’s eyes shone. He unbuckled the harness from Rork. They took cover behind an ice ridge and watched.

There was the ship, less than two-hundred meters away. The gray rectangular mass sat on the spaceport causeway, its rear engine hatches lifted open, tools scattered across the ice-encrusted concrete. Jord supervised two men working on the engines.

“What now?” Mankin asked.

There was no cover between them and the ship. The spaceport was nothing more than a landing strip, a thin line of concrete in a sea of ice pack.

“We wait.”

Sharp approached and huddled next to Mankin. “We take it now.”

“You a mechanic?” Rork asked.

“Yeah, sure, I’ve fixed things. We take ‘em now. Then we fix it.”

“What make and model is that?” Rork asked.

The wind howled across them. The Barbary mechanics poured hot drinks for themselves from a container, the vapor spiraling pleasantly into the cold air. Rork pulled the rags tighter across his hands and rubbed them together.

“Screw you,” Sharp hissed.

Rork grinned. “That’s what I thought. Here it is. They finish. We wait for the wind to blow against us—”

“Against us?” Sharp leaned in to meet Mankin’s eyes. “He’s psycho. That’s why he ended up here.”

“It’s so they don’t hear us dragging this load.” Mankin startled, then pulled Sharp and Rork down with him. “They may have spotted us.”

“Then,” Rork continued, “we slide the bomb right up next to the main hatch, arm it and get in and surprise them. They’re probably resting in the cargo bay. There are fold-out beds in there.”

“This is llamabrax,” Sharp said.

“We have the element of surprise,” Rork said.

“I’m going in now, before I lose feeling in my legs.” Sharp pushed up, turned and his head vanished in a cloud of red.

Rork grabbed Mankin and forced them both down further. “Brax!”

The other two men stood up in front of him and Rork motioned them down. Their heads exploded in red clouds and their torsos crumpled to the ground.

Rork grabbed Mankin’s arm and pulled him over Sharp’s headless, gushing body. He crawled over the ice, through a trough between two outcroppings, elbow over elbow, his legs scissoring over the ice, his pants soggy as his fading body heat melted the frosty surface.

Footfalls crunched nearby. Rork stopped.

“What the hell is this?”

They’d found the bomb. Rork rolled over and shook his head at Mankin. Mankin pointed an index finger in the direction of the ship. Now was their moment.

Rork nodded, he pulled himself up and sprinted. The raw air burned in his throat and his lungs tightened up.

The engine hatches were closed. Rork stopped at the bottom of the lowered gangplank and looked back. Dad’s two men stood next to the bomb, their rifles raised. Rork felt them aiming on him and his heart jumped in his chest. He turned to enter the ship and a laser pulse sizzled on the gangplank.

Mankin slipped and fell on his face with a dull thump. Rork turned. The man he’d saved lay flat and unmoving. But Rork couldn’t do this on his own anymore. Mankin needed him and Rork needed Mankin. Rork stepped forward and a laser shot opened a hole in the ground next to him. Water boiled off and a cloud of hot vapor burned Rork’s nose and eyes.

He ran to Mankin, grabbed his hands in his own and pulled him backwards onto the gangplank and up into the ship. The bridge was empty. He reached for the button to raise the gangplank and another laser shot landed next to his hand.

Brax, that hurts! Rork resolved not to look at it. He slapped the closing button then closed the door to the cargo bay and locked it with a sharp snap.

More laser blasts entered the bridge and the men screamed but the gangplank closed and locked.

Rork threw himself into the pilot’s seat, sparked the starter and gunned the engines for vertical take-off. It purred almost as smoothly as his MORF-9. Barbary hired good mechanics. Too bad the bastards would freeze to death down there. He smirked at the thought of it.

A banging sounded on the cargo bay door. “Open this damned door! I didn’t give the order for takeoff!” Dad. The smirk disappeared. They likely had Mary Ellen back there.

He focused on the controls. The ship rocked and tumbled. Chunks of ice fell around them. Rork switched on radar and enabled auto-guidance to avoid more icy clouds.

“What the hell is going on out there!”

Rork’s smirk returned. The old man always was a control freak. Everything had to be done perfectly, according to his specifications, in the order he wanted, the way he said. Nothing Rork did was ever good enough for him.

He felt sorry for the old man.

Heat flowed through the vents now. Feeling returned to Rork’s toes and fingers. His legs ached and his stomach turned from hunger. They’d find the MORF-9, re-compress it. All his clothes were there. He’d shower, gear up, eat. And then sort out the conundrum in the cargo bay.

He brought up the course history and found where Dad and Jord attacked them. He approved the coordinates and engaged the engines.

Nothing happened.

“You fool! We haven’t fixed the zolt drive yet!”

Rork looked at the door to the cargo bay and massaged his temples. The bridge turned red and an alarm sounded. Rork looked back at the control panel.

“Thirty minutes of breathable atmosphere remain,” the computer said.

Rork cleared the alarm but the control panel continued to flash red.

“We were waiting on a new atmospheric assembly, too!” The old man’s laugh came through the door in a modulated metallic outburst. “Who the hell is this stupid? Say something before you get us all killed!”

On the surface they had air but there were two armed men waiting for them with laser rifles. Dad and Jord had more weapons in the cargo hold. Mankin was down for the count. Rork looked around the bridge. No weapons in sight, not even a fire axe.

A beeping sounded and the control panel disappeared. A series of concentric circles replaced it. Radar. A red dot approached them at high speed. The radio buzzed on.

“Unidentified craft, prepare to be boarded,” said a voice like a dartle saw cutting steel. “And looted.”

32

“Here he is!”

Rork felt the cold first. It made the skin tight on his finger bones and constricted his movement. He coughed. Dust everywhere, his head swam. It was dark but a lone light ticked on and off, on and off. It was somewhere nearby.

“Hello,” he croaked.

A face appeared above him. Rork recognized it. The face smiled, its white teeth reflecting the blinking light.

“It’s Rork! He’s here!”

Zero. Zero’s alive? “I saw you die.”

“You cannot kill an idea whose time has come!” Zero yelled.

“What about…” Rork started.

Thryk’s rosy-cheeked jowls came into focus.

“Captain, I… Oh my Universe.” Water splattered on Rork’s cheek.

“It’s okay,” Zero said. “We didn’t know. You didn’t know. You did the right thing.”

Rork pulled himself up. “Were those Barbary guys?”

Zero squatted next to him and frowned.

“They fired on me, right?” Rork asked.

“That was us.”

“Thryk shot me down?” When did he get that good?

“Come on.” Zero grabbed his wrist and heaved him to his feet. “Temperatures are falling fast. Careful where you put your feet.”

The ship was upside down and the bridge had split wide open at the hatch from top to deck. The control panel lay strewn in pieces. The cargo hold door remained sealed.

Rork grabbed Zero’s arm. “Mary Ellen, she’s— How did you guys survive that? I saw them blow the air out.”

Zero grinned, his star-white teeth sparkling. “You underestimate Thryk.”

Rork nodded. “I think Mary Ellen is in the cargo hold.”

Zero reached for the door release latch but Rork grabbed his arm.

“Barbary’s agents are in there, too. There are likely two others still on the surface, armed with laser rifles.” A lightness hit Rork and he tottered to one side.

Zero steadied him. “We must go.”

“I need her. She’s my in to get Lala, remember?”

Thryk stood outside the busted ship, his hands digging into his scalp, sobbing.

“You’ll fight them. They will go with us,” Zero said.

“What about you?” Rork asked.

Zero shook his head.

“I can’t do it alone. Can’t risk Thryk.”

“What is your plan?” Zero asked.

“Those shooters could be on us any moment. Get out of here. Get safe. Don’t let them have the ship. Stay close to the radio and check back in the morning.”

“For ice cubes?”

“We’ll never have the advantage if they get the MORF-9. They’ll take it and strand you here.” Rork grabbed the mystic’s arm and pushed him towards the broken hatch. “Get out of here. And stay tuned.”

Zero walked outside. His breath turned to vapor as he talked to Thryk. Thryk looked back at Rork and shook his head, his face a wobbly wreck. He took a step into the broken ship but Zero grabbed his arm and pulled him.

They piled into the waiting MORF-9. The hatch closed and it rocketed into the darkening night. It crashed through the force field with a shower of magnetic sparks and receded as only another pinprick of light among the multitude of distant stars.

Rork hit the latch and the cargo bay door jarred open a few centimeters. He jammed his eye up against the crack.

The blinking control panel light revealed a pile of misshapen junk. Were those arms that jutted out? Rifles?

A pulse pistol came through the opening and the cool metal sent a new chill into his head.

“Don’t move.”

The door screeched open enough for Jord to step through. He cracked the heavy weapon over Rork’s head and Rork fell to his knees.

“Jupiter! That was unnecessary!” Rork dug his fingers into his scalp, trying to displace the pain.

“Who were you talking to?”

“No one!”

“Why did you crash the ship?” Jord screamed.

“I didn’t! Another Barbary ship fired on me. He wants us all dead.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“Don’t you see? Barbary has turned us against ourselves. We’re a family. What does he have anyway? What’s so special that you’ll betray your own? And is Dad…?”

“Oh brax.” Jord climbed into the cargo hold, then turned and pointed the gun at Rork, the barrel angled down from a height at his baby brother’s forehead. “Get in here.”

“I was coming anyway.” Rork climbed in, the barrel scraping across his scalp.

Jord blocked his path, the light flickering across dead eyes, the gun pushing into his temple.

Rork whipped his arms up and pushed Jord hard. The older brother crashed into the darkness, his pistol rattling across the metal cargo bay roof. Rork took a step to the side.

“You son of a bitch!” Jord rocketed back to his feet and blew past Rork in the darkness. “Where are you!”

Rork stepped in behind his brother, wrapped his arm around his neck and jerked back. “If I wanted to kill you, I could do it now.” He let go.

Jord turned and clawed his fingers around Rork’s throat. “We waited for you.”

“I was a kid,” Rork croaked. “I thought you were dead.”

“You didn’t look for us. You don’t know what he did!”

“The station was junk. Nobody could have survived that! I barely had air and fuel to get down to the planet. I begged for weeks before I started trading again.”

“You abandoned us!” Jord screamed and tightened his grip.

Rork’s knees buckled and he hung in mid-air. “I almost died while you ate his food and did his dirty work.”

“Let him go!” The old man stepped in between them and Jord let go. Rork crashed down and gulped the icy dusk air.

“Well, you got back here fast. You do that all by yourself?” the old man asked.

“Where is Mary Ellen?” Rork climbed to his feet and met his father’s eyes. “What did you do with her?”

“She’s in here somewhere but that doesn’t mean squat if we can’t get off the surface in, oh, the next thirty minutes.”

“The hull is—” Jord started.

The old man silenced him with a movement of his hand. “I heard the other ship. If you want this girl to live, you’ll get it down here in the next ten minutes. Otherwise, we’re all popsicles.”

“You have to save her anyway.”

“She died when you shot us down,” the old man said.

“She’s not even here. What did—”

The old man turned and walked into the gloom. Metal scraped and crashed. Something heavy slid across the cargo hold roof-turned-deck. The old man let it fall with a wet splat.

Rork reached to catch her but missed.

Mary Ellen coughed and groaned. “You bastard.”

“Are you okay? Can you stand up?” Rork asked.

She grabbed his leg and pulled herself up.

“Had enough of you two lovebirds,” the old man said. He brought his pistol up and put it to her temple.

A sigh escaped her lips and she grabbed Rork tight. “Don’t…”

“Now.”

Rork put his wrist to his mouth. “Thryk. Come on down.”

“Is it safe, Captain?” Thryk’s heavy voice came too loud in Rork’s ear.

The old man drew the pistol back and whipped Mary Ellen. She fell at Rork’s feet and sobbed.

“Yes, Thryk. Please proceed with all appropriate haste. Rork out.” He leaned down to pick her up. Rork held her close against his body. She was frigid, shivering. He hugged her chest to his and she laid her head on his shoulder.

“We should be on the same side. We found each other again. We can work together! We’re a family! This is our chance to get revenge!” Rork yelled.

“That’s what I’m doing,” the old man said.

“Screw this.” Jord strode into the bridge.

Mary Ellen touched her lips to Rork’s ear. “We have to do something! I won’t go back.”

“Oh ain’t that cute, these two lovebirds.” The old man looked towards the bridge and raised his voice. “What’s your problem, boy?”

Jord poked his head through the doorway. “He’s right.” He tapped the floor with his boot.

“Forgot this quickly, huh? Everything…?”

The electric hiss of the MORF-9’s breaking engines sounded outside. The ship was inside the magnetic bubble now. Rork pulled Mary Ellen outside and looked up. The wind ripped through him and she screamed.

“Don’t let them take me back. Please, please. I’ll do anything you want. I can’t go back there,” she whispered in his ear.

Rork turned, his eyes caught by something bright. A laser blast sizzled against the hull next to him. He stepped back in and brought his wrist up to his mouth.

A hand clamped down over his wrist. “Radio silence,” his dad said and pushed him out again.

The long, carbon-stained barrel of the laser rifle settled against Rork’s temple. The shooter held a finger up to his mouth. Mary Ellen trembled at his side, her breasts against him, her chest rising, falling.

The MORF-9 fell the last meter to the ground with a thump and the hatch slid open.

Thryk doesn’t deserve this. But neither does Zero. Rork rolled the possibilities around in his mind. Which would it be? Would the shooters kill him? Would Dad finally come around? Would—

The shooter swiveled his rifle to the MORF-9’s hatch. Thryk stepped out, a wide smile on his face.

“No!” Rork reached for the muzzle of the laser rifle. It fired and the heat soaked through Rork’s hand. He ripped it off, skin left behind.

Thryk looked down at his chest, a thumb-sized hole blown straight though his heart. Black blood spilled out and he collapsed, his face shock and confusion.

33

“We can take them, brother.”

Rork looked up at Jord, his hands bound behind his back in the cargo hold of his own MORF-9.

Jord looked toward the bridge through the open cargo bay door. He ran his hands through his hair and sighed. He shook his head and walked back to the bridge. He stopped in the doorway and shot a glance back at Rork.

“I have a plan.” Mankin bumped his knee against Rork’s right leg, his eyes wide.

“I don’t want anybody else getting killed.”

“What do you think Barbary is going to do to us? What? You’re special? He’s a monster.”

“For once,” Zero said from Rork’s left, “we are in agreement.”

“Me too,” said Mary Ellen from across the room.

“I have a knife.” Mankin bumped him again. “You’re going to try something. You’re Rork Sollix, aren’t you? You’re going to try something, so we might as well plan it.”

Rork met the emaciated man’s eyes out of the corner of his own.

“I’ll cut us out. Your brother joins us. We kill the shooters. Your dad doesn’t want to kill you.”

“I’m not so sure.”

“You gonna man up or what?” Mankin nodded his head at Zero.

Zero looked away.

“He’s a pacifist,” Rork said. “Respect it.”

Mankin laughed. “There are no pacifists out here. There’s no peace with Barbary. You’re either in his organization or you’re floating out there for all eternity. We have to fight!”

“Jord will help us.”

“Those goons are worth three men each,” Mankin said. “What about your girl?”

Rork met Mankin’s eyes full on. “What do you know about that?”

Mankin looked away and shrugged. “You hear things. I know a lot of people who want Barbary dead. Most of them are gone but I knew them.”

“And?”

Mankin looked back at him. “Barbary is public enemy number one for you, right?”

“Rork!” Jord strode towards his brother, grabbed his elbow and pulled him up.

Rork found his brother’s ear. “You with me or what, brother? We can be a family again.”

Jord tightened his mouth into a straight line. He kneeled down and cut the cables around Rork’s ankles, then the ones binding his wrists.

“What are we doing, brother?”

Jord jammed his nose against Rork’s. His lips trembled and his eyelids hung low. “Stuff it. Old Man Barbary is waiting to talk to you.” He pushed Rork forward.

Rork looked down at Zero and the little girl sleeping balled up on the floor next to him. He’s a good man. Better than Rork’s own family.

Zero met his eyes and nodded to him, radiating a dark intensity. “We’re screwed,” he seemed to say, “but in the end none of it matters, except what we do right now.”

Rork stepped into the bridge, rubbing his hands together. “Got my ham sandwich yet, gentlemen?” The shooters stood guard, one on either side of the cargo bay door. He searched their eyes but found nothing human. Rork shivered.

“Step this way, son.” His father moved to the side and guided Rork towards the control panel viewscreen.

Barbary’s face blinked into view. A superior sneer crossed it and dread filled Rork’s bones.

“Impressive. I thought you’d be at least a week in the mine. I guess you had some help from these incompetent nubs.”

The men around Rork stiffened and cleared their throats.

Rork smiled to himself.

“Funny, eh? Let’s see if—” Barbary started.

“Let them go, Barbary. I’ll keep coming for you. You know that. I’m getting closer. I’m closer now than I’ve ever been. You can’t keep me down, old man.”

“Indeed, I am an old man, but fitter and stronger than you, boy. And the closer you get to me, the greater the forces arrayed against you. If I could turn your own family against you, what do you think I have guarding my inner sanctum?”

“Release Lala and Mary Ellen. Let the rest of us go. I’ll take my ship and give you six weeks to regroup before I come for you.”

Barbary’s gold-plated teeth danced as he laughed, his mouth wide open. “You’ll… give… me?” He closed his mouth. “You raised a real jack here, Band.”

Rork’s father stepped forward and nodded.

“What does he have on you,” Rork asked, turning to his father, “that you bow and please for him like that?”

“Go ahead and tell him.” Barbary’s eyes sparkled.

Rork’s father tightened his face and looked away.

“Stop toying, Barbary. What do you want!” Rork yelled.

“Ah, but you are all my toys, one way or another. I have toy soldiers, toy servants, fetchers, bringers, girls, baby dolls. Even my enemies are my toys.”

Such a windbag. When I have him, it will be one shot to the head. Done and done. No time in this life for hot air with snoofs. “Give me a gun and I’ll off myself right now.”

“Oh, no, Rork, that is not your fate.”

Rork punched the viewscreen. “Tell me what you want!”

Arms grabbed Rork’s and pinned them tight behind his back, his shoulders pushed up and aching.

“But this is exactly what I want, thank you very much. So good doing business with you. So predictable. You’re a straight line, Rork Sollix. I couldn’t ask for a better adversary. Honest, true, incorruptible — a straight line in all senses of the word. You’re everything that is dull, boring and repetitive about humanity. Except you have that spark. But we’ll soon take care of that.”

“Shove it up your nose!”

“Your precious blue-hair is inside my airlock.”

The viewscreen changed. Lala sat, legs crossed, on the floor of a small white room. Behind her was a round door, a round porthole in the middle of it. There was only blackness beyond it.

“I’ll rip your teeth out one by one, you fat piece of brax!” Rork screamed.

“Far more likely that you, Lala and your friends there end up drifting in space for all eternity. After we pass her around, of course. Can’t toss a fine one like that without a taste test. We’ve restrained ourselves till now.”

Something heavy clawed at Rork’s chest. He struggled for the words. When will this be over?

“Or, you can save her. Come in now without any further resistance, and I mean any. You become a level one trader, represent Barbary to all your old clients. You’ll have to meet the normal profit targets.”

“I’ll kill you.”

“Not if you want your precious girl to live. You can marry her, keep her to yourself, for now at least. We believe in marriage, Rork. You’ll find a home here.”

Rork’s father turned and looked at him, his eyes questioning.

“Have your father’s approval. Your brother’s camaraderie. It will be lovely.” Barbary smiled wide.

“Forget it,” Rork mumbled. His legs shook and he stared at Lala’s image.

“You will be expected, of course, to impregnate one female per month. You’re a hearty buck, strong-willed, a real alpha. This is going to be right up your alley. Lala’s children can stay with the two of you until I need them. The rest belong to Barbary and Sons.”

“You’re sick, Barbary. Sick!”

“I’m a healthy human male, Rork. That is the goal of any male, to procreate, to control other men, to build something that will last forever. You’ll take my name someday, son, and all this could be yours.”

“You’re an animal, Barbary. A gorilla. I’m not like you.”

His father grabbed his arm. “Take the deal, boy. You won’t get another one like it.”

The corner of Rork’s mouth inched up. His stomach rose and he shrank from the man’s touch. “How dare you.”

“Every man is like me,” Barbary continued. “Some paint over it with honey and milk. You pretend you’re not an alpha male. Or you only wish you could be. I am the pinnacle of masculinity. I mate when I like, with whomever I like. I eat what I like. I control men. I use them to control even more men. I grow my empire and satiate my personal needs with impunity. I am subject to no law, to no other man’s limits or demands. Look inside yourself, Rork. It’s what you want. It’s what every man wants.”

No. One woman, a good one. A good life, with friends, helping people. A wave of pity and fear overtook Rork. This man was a beast. There was no telling what torture he would subject Rork to. He had to fight him with every gram of will left to him. “You must be so lonely.”

Barbary narrowed his eyes. “I’m not the one who needs pity right now.”

“I refuse your deal.”

“One nod from me and your beautiful girl is gone forever, into the deep reaches of space, alone, forever. The same for your friends there. You speak of loneliness but you haven’t thought this through. You have five seconds.”

Jord grabbed Rork’s shoulder and shook him. Their father mumbled to Rork but the vibrations stopped in his ear. Inside him, his principles and his compassion fought a battle for his will.

“I accept your deal, Barbary, with the proviso that I will kill you and destroy your empire the first chance I get.”

“I would expect nothing less.”

“You have to let my friends go. They pose no threat to you.”

Barbary’s face hardened. “You’re in no position to negotiate. But as an act of good faith, I offer you a direct vox connection to your girl. My men will now take you to the induction facility. I’ll see you soon, Rork.”

Rork’s knees buckled and he found himself on the deck.

34

“What did he say?”

Mary Ellen kneeled in front of Rork, her frizzy black hair bouncing behind her ears, her deep brown eyes strained.

Rork looked away.

“Did they hurt you?” She ran her hands over his face, neck and torso. “No one laid a hand on you. I would have heard it.”

Zero gripped his shoulder. “Give him a minute.”

“I don’t have a minute! You don’t know what he’ll do to me,” she said.

“Who?” Zero asked.

“Barbary! I’m a runaway. He’s my father. And my grandfather. And my betrothed.”

“What?” Zero asked. “How—?”

Rork buried his head in his hands. “Listen, we have to—”

“What did you do?” she asked.

Mankin and Zero leaned in. It comforted Rork, those three heads so close to his. They were a team. Four strong wills working towards a common goal. He felt safe. A kernel of strength returned to him. This was the time to fight, not wallow. So help me, Jupiter!

“I agreed to join him.”

Mankin’s expression remained neutral. Mary Ellen shook her head.

“What do you mean by that?” Zero asked.

“I tried for you guys, but he was about to kill Lala.”

“Who’s Lala?” Mankin asked.

“The love of his life.” Mary Ellen rolled her eyes.

Zero flashed her a dark look.

“I need to know to know the layout.” Rork questioned Mary Ellen with his eyes.

“Of the Cylinder? So we can get your girl and get out? You got it.”

“Good. Now—” Rork turned to Mankin.

“But you’ll need the location, too.”

“They’re taking us there.”

“No. Induction happens at the medical station. Totally different,” she said.

“You know it, right?” Rork asked.

“No, it’s always moving.”

Rork deflated.

“But I might be able to get it if I can make a call.”

“Okay.”

“And I need something in return,” she said.

All eyes fixed on the Barbary woman.

“You get to live, and not be a prisoner.” Rork’s wrist vibrated and a low tone sounded in his ear. He rotated it. “Hello?” He held up an index finger to the group.

A low sobbing echoed across the line.

“It’s okay, baby. I’m getting you out of there,” Rork said.

“They said you’re joining him?” she shrieked. “What the hell are they talking about?”

Mary Ellen leaned in. “What I need is—”

Rork silenced her with a wave of his hand. “What am I supposed to do? Let them blow you out an airlock? We’re going to be together—”

“I thought Rork Sollix was strong. I expected Rork Sollix to resist. I don’t know you. I’m nothing. What happens to me doesn’t matter. How could you be so stupid?” Lala sobbed.

He sighed and rolled his eyes.

“What I need,” Mary Ellen tried again, “is for us to get married.”

Rork shot her a suspicious glance. “You’re not talking to me.”

Mary Ellen nodded. “We have to get married otherwise he’ll force me to marry him. As first husband, and I as your first wife, nobody else can take me from you.”

“Who is that woman?” Lala asked.

“No.” Rork shook his head slowly and frowned.

“What do you mean, no?” Lala asked. “Who are you talking to?”

“Barbary is polygamous,” Mary Ellen continued. “You can still marry Lala. She’ll just be your second wife.”

“Excuse me!” Lala’s scream scraped like a razor across Rork’s eardrum. “Nobody’s marrying Rork Sollix but me and I’m not polygamous! And I won’t be second wife to anyone, anyway!”

“I’m not quite sure I’m ready to marry anyone, period, right now.”

Zero grinned at him. “Your time has come, my friend. You can’t stay free forever.”

Rork glared at Zero. He hit the conference button on his wrist. “I can’t believe I’m doing this but, Lala, I’m here with Mary Ellen. She knows the layout of the Cylinder and says she can get the coordinates so we can rescue you. Maybe you ladies can work this out.” Rork looked at Zero and cringed.

Zero shook his head ominously. “Bad idea.”

“Can we use that thing to call for help?” Mankin asked.

“Who would you call?” Zero asked.

Mankin shrugged.

“Lala, is that your name? This is Mary Ellen, look, I know this is hard but—”

“No one is marrying him but me. And that is final.” Her voice revealed a defensive vulnerability and it made Rork’s heart ache. “I found him. He saved me, not you. I’ve lived with him for seven years now. I’ve waited seven whole years for this and I’m not taking a backseat now!”

“It will have to be for a minimum of ten years,” Mary Ellen said to Rork, “so that Barbary can’t get his hands on me, by his own rules.”

“Baby, second marriages aren’t recognized by the Earth Government or the Resettlementarians,” Lala said, her voice pleading. “They won’t give us the seastead.”

Rork covered his eyes and his voice shook. “How am I going to find you, baby? How will I know where you are if this woman doesn’t give me the information? I think her request is reasonable.”

“Reasonable?” Lala screamed.

“I just mean—” Rork started.

“Ten years?” Lala sobbed. “Why did this even happen? Why do we matter so much? Why can’t he just be happy with what he has? Why does he have to bother us? What does he want?”

“He wants me to be part of his operation. He wants to own us. He wants control and power.”

The sobbing stopped. “It’s okay. I’ll just kill her. You’ll be a widower. Yeah, that’ll fix it.”

“For Jupiter’s sake, Lala!” Rork pulled at his hair.

35

“Are you with us or what?”

Jord crossed his arms and frowned. He turned away, then turned back.

“Last chance to be a family again,” Rork added.

“We still have time.”

Rork shook his head. “I have terminal anorxoma.” And just about every part of my body hurts like hell.

Jord laughed. “Look fine to me.”

“Who are you talking to?” Lala asked.

“I’ve been taking some meds that this lady—” Rork took the phone off conference mode. “My brother Jord.”

“You told me your whole family was dead. Was that a lie?”

“No, no, of course not. Barbary had him. I didn’t know.”

“Never lie to me, Rork.”

“I won’t. I don’t! Now just give me a few minutes here.”

“I’m getting a vision!”

Rork waited.

“Oh, is that your brother? He’s even more handsome than you are!”

Rork rolled his eyes but said nothing. He just loved hearing the sound of her voice, even if the words themselves hurt.

“A lot of people are going to die, including me. But I want to live, Rork. I want us to be together, have lots of—”

“I know! That’s what I’m working on! And you’re not going to die! Now, just hold on.”

“Don’t hang up on me!”

“Relax. You can listen to the whole thing.”

Jord cleared his throat. “What’s your plan?”

Rork studied him. He was in. Yes! “First, we get Dad on our side, or at least get him to stay out of it. We take out the shooters. We get the coordinates for the Cylinder, find Lala, save her, destroy the Cylinder — blow that braxpit up! We escape, lay low, be a family again, all of us. That means you, too, Mankin. All of us. We start over with new names on Earth.” He shrugged. “Simple as that.”

Jord guffawed. “No. You always were a dreamer but this is — wow — another level.”

“Aim for the stars…” Rork said with a grin.

“So you can crash on the moon? No thanks. Skip the Cylinder nonsense and I’m in. Otherwise, forget it.”

“Comfort first, like always, huh, brother?”

Jord squatted down, grabbed Rork’s shirt and forced his fist up against his little brother’s Adam’s apple. “You listen here, brother. You want this little girl here to die?” he asked pointing at the dark mound of hair huddled under Zero’s arm. “What about your buddy Zero? Mankin? Mary Ellen? Me? Let’s be honest. You don’t give a llama’s ears about me. But what about them?”

Rork put his nose within millimeters of his brother’s. He tapped his wrist to mute the connection with Lala. “This is my path. The rest of you can do what you want. Right now, I want to know who is with me.”

Everyone looked at the floor.

“Speaking of which,” Rork continued, his gaze fixed on Zero’s scalp, “I need every hand prepared to battle. That includes you, Zero. Are you hearing me?”

Zero jerked his head up, his eyes searing. “Survival for you is about this meat.” He poked Rork in the chest. “Have you forgotten everything we talked about? Survival for me is about my immortal soul. I die here, I reincarnate over there. If I damage my soul killing for your meat, I reincarnate as a lesser being. I have spent eons perfecting my soul. I won’t jeopardize that now.”

“Where did you get this nutcase?” Jord asked.

“That nutcase got me out of more jams than you ever did!”

“Any advice?” Rork raised an eyebrow at Zero. “Give me something.”

“Maybe our paths really should have diverged back on Luna,” Zero said.

Rork deflated.

“Hello? You better not have muted me!” Lala said.

Rork unmuted her. “Just wait a second.” He muted her again.

“I want to hear everything!” she yelled.

Jord sighed. “Listen. If we can come up with a better plan then Dad will stay out of it. But it has to be a reasonable plan.” He got up and walked toward the bridge.

The wall behind Rork pushed against him. “We’re turning. Did you feel it?” he asked Zero. He stood up and walked to the bridge. “What’s going on?”

They refused to answer him. Rork leaned forward and looked out the front viewscreen.

“Is that Port Vantage?” Rork asked.

His dad turned around and pushed him back into the cargo hold. “Quiet down!”

Rork resisted. “Dad, I—”

The old man shook his head. “Dreams are dreams, son. They don’t come true. How you haven’t learned that yet, I don’t know. I tried with you but I can’t help you if you fight me. Give up already. This is not the world you want it to be. Grow up! Accept your fate.” He pushed Rork hard.

Rork stood his ground. His spine tingled with electric energy. “What are they going to do to me, Dad?” he whispered. “What did they do to you?”

The old man looked away. “We’re making a stop at Port Vantage. Sit tight. It’ll be over soon enough.” He pushed Rork again and closed the cargo bay door.

Rork stuck his fingers into the door disc to open it but there was no give. He punched the door and kicked it. “Open up!”

Lala sniffled. “If you can’t get to me in the next twenty-four hours, just forget the whole thing. Don’t worry about me. I want Rork Sollix, the real one, all to myself, not some tamed beast doing tricks for this monster. I won’t take anything less. I won’t live in a universe where anything less can exist.”

Rork unmuted her. “Lala, just—”

The line clicked and she was gone.

36

“I’ll have it open in a minute.”

Rork jammed Mankin’s multi-tool blade under the cover that protected the cargo bay door locking mechanism. It popped off and landed on his bad foot. He suppressed the scream he wanted to let out.

“Is he okay?” the little girl asked.

Rork found the right wire, cut it and reattached it to another spot on the board. The metallic bong of the separating teeth echoed through the bay.

Everyone froze.

“Uh oh,” the little girl said.

“They heard that,” Zero said.

“No, they already got off.” Mankin leaned against the door to the bridge, his ear pressed against it. “There’s been no sound for about a minute.”

Rork lay down on the floor facing the door. He pushed it up gently and risked a glance outside.

A dozen ships crowded the tiny third-class platform, a series of interlocking circles. This group was full and they’d soon move it into medium-term vacuum storage outside the magnetic atmospheric bubble. “We gotta go now!”

Rork threw open the door and ran. “Mary Ellen with me. Mankin, take Zero and Sarita. Get weapons. We meet back here in twenty minutes or less.”

Mary Ellen caught up to him and he reached for her hand. She smacked it away.

“Don’t get any ideas. This is a straight-up trade. Information for protection. Nothing more.”

They strolled casually among the docked ships. The marketplace started mere meters from where the dock ended.

They came from all over the system to Port Vantage. Nothing more than two flat platforms winched together on opposite sides of a gravitationally enhanced asteroid with a magnetically trapped atmosphere, this was where Rork’s kind of people — the small traders, mining collective administrators and farming co-op operators — came to escape Barbary’s prices.

They passed the sheriff’s station, a simple gray door with a faded yellow star painted on it. Below the star, a single name appeared: Elfego Zapata. Above it, a wide display welcomed visitors to Port Vantage and reminded them that deadbeats would be detained at their own expense until all debts were settled.

The screen flickered. “Wanted,” it said at the top now. Below it, Rork’s face morphed from profile to front view, then back again.

Mary Ellen gripped his wrist.

“It’s a bad picture,” Rork said. Elfego Zapata? Jupiter, help me!

“Is anyone here going to recognize you? Who’s this Zapata guy?”

These people knew Rork. Down the street was the feed corn warehouse where he picked up cheap food for the miners’ wives co-op. Around the corner, that grandmother sold durable textiles. He’d been here countless times. Someone would recognize him. It was only a matter of time.

And then the legendary Sheriff Zapata would be on his tail. “No. Don’t worry about it.”

“Don’t worry about it? Look at the reward!”

Heads turned toward them and Rork covered his eyes. “Can you please shut up?” He grabbed her upper arm and pulled her deeper into the market, his head bowed. He turned into the fourth shop down, a dark melody playing as the door closed.

“Why are we in here? And let go of me!” She ripped herself free.

The store was dim, just as he remembered it. A gentleman’s store. The acrid smell of earthy tobacco reached him. He headed towards the back.

“There are cameras in here,” she hissed.

Rork found them. The old standby. He caressed the supple leather with the inside of his finger. It smelled of genuine Neatsfoot oil and grit. The deep green of the lenses reminded him of Earth, and Lala. His chest twinged.

“An excellent choice, sir. The imitation hide keeps your head warm and the lenses are perfect for conserving your eyes from rogue rays. The ear flaps contain multi-phonic, self-tuning speakers and the lenses will automatically sync with your Abido-enabled spacecraft’s navigational and analytics outputs.” The clerk was tall, an elderly but undoubtedly spry gentleman with a full head of silver hair.

“I’ll take it.” Rork jammed the pilot’s helmet onto the crown of his head but that’s where it stopped.

“If I may, sir, let me see if we can find one in your size.” The clerk removed the helmet with a finessed touch and wrapped a thin string around Rork’s head.

“That’s a very handsome seven and a half. Very good, sir. Let me just check stock.” His footsteps creaked across the old wooden floor.

Mary Ellen rushed to Rork’s side, a chill breeze preceding her. “Don’t rush off from me like that!” She interlaced her fingers with his. “Look what I found.” She handed him a digital broadsheet.

Rork rubbed the black and white plastic sheet in his fingers. “Sollix Innocent, Protestors Say,” declared the headline. He read on, tapping the edge of the device to turn the page.

“What does it say?” she asked.

Rork looked up, his eyes wide. “They love me. Earth loves me! Not that it does me any good.”

“Does it say anything about me?”

He handed it back to her. He kept his eyes down and his head turned away from the clerk. “Why don’t you make your call? Get those coordinates. We’re short on time.”

She flexed her fingers and gripped him more tightly. “We’re sticking together, you and I. No discussion.”

Ten years of this needy pain in the neck? And I’ll never get any. Rork groaned. How did I get myself into this? He retraced his steps to discover the exact moment when it all went wrong.

Was it when he swore vengeance on Barbary? When he hired Glagnon? When he listened to that quack in Isotania? When he met Lala? No, that was the purest thing he’d ever seen. None of this was her fault. The blame lay squarely on him.

The clerk interrupted. “My sincerest apologies, sir, but we only have a seven and one-quarter. We do however have your excellent size in another model.”

“No, that’s fine. You accept Satoshis of course?” Rork grabbed the helmet from the clerk and jammed it over his head. His forehead skin hung down and his eyebrows pushed into his field of vision. He pushed and pulled at the leather and got it into place. His temples began to ache.

“Do I know you, sir? You seem quite familiar. Have we had the honor of serving you before?”

“No. How much will it be?” Rork looked the man in the eye.

The clerk stole a look at Rork, then turned away and scratched his eyebrows.

He’s scared. He knows me. “It’s not true, you know. It’s a Barbary frame-up job.”

The man looked towards the front door and coughed.

“How much is the helmet?”

“You may have it compliments of the management, Mr. Sollix.”

“I’m not a thief!” Rork took a step towards the man. “I’m a trader, like you, trying to make my way. Trying to survive.”

“Thirty-five Satoshis. The transaction awaits your approval at the counter.” The clerk indicated a tall, thin machine with a screen.

Rork strode to it, swiped his pinky finger past the receiver and entered his rate-limited key.

The screen flashed. Transaction completed. Rork headed for the door. He stopped midway. “Did you notify the sheriff?” He reached for the door.

“He’s gone!” Mary Ellen whispered.

“Jupiter help me.” Rork pushed through the door, Mary Ellen lagging behind him. They trotted up the street, turned right and headed deeper into the marketplace.

The crowds were thicker here. The smell of sweaty miners unshowered for months mixed with the earthy aroma of the cattle farmers’ manure-soaked boots. A row of feed stores followed a series of textile shops.

Rork kept his head low and pushed forward, his calves aching from the exertion in the full gee of gravity — unnecessary, sentimental frippery to remind the customers of Earth.

“Where is the church?” Mary Ellen asked.

Rork stopped short. “We’re not getting married in a church. Forget it.”

“We don’t have a lot of time. My mother always wanted that for me. And it has to be something LDS-approved or even remotely Mormon, so—”

“It’s going to be a civil contract. And that’s the end of it.”

“But—”

Rork summoned his harshest glare and swiped a finger millimeters from her nose. “There’s a Vericom across the street. Go in there and make your call. There’s a notary register one block down, then turn left and it’s on your right. I will meet you there in five minutes.”

“But—”

“But, first, stop at the drug store and get me their strongest pain pills. Everything hurts!” Rork limp-jogged away from her. The crowds cleared. Two sheriff’s deputies in their tan one-piece uniforms and black boots approached him. Each carried a paralyzer baton on his hip. They scanned the crowd. He took a right down an alley and hid behind a trash bin.

The deputies passed him, then stopped and looked back, hands on hips. Their mouths moved but their legs didn’t. One glanced down the alley and Rork pulled back, his legs pushed up into his chest. The smell of rotting vegetables brought bile to this throat. He squeezed his nostrils shut between two fingers.

Footsteps scraped near him and the bin opened with a metallic shriek. Rork got into a squat and prepared himself for a fight, his hands at the ready in front of him. He left Mankin’s multi-tool in his pocket. These were good people. He didn’t want to hurt anyone. Escape scenarios swirled in his mind and his heart pounded in his chest.

His earcom activated. “Your attention, please. We have word that the renegade Rork Sollix, sought for his alleged brutal attack on Luna City, is here at Port Vantage. We have no reason to believe that he has violent intentions. But we do have a responsibility through our membership in SysPol to take him into custody pending possible extradition and trial. If you see Rork Sollix, please notify one of our deputies. He may be wearing a pilot’s helmet or other disguise. Thank you for shopping at Port Vantage.”

The bin lid slammed shut and the footsteps moved away. The crowd erupted in chatter.

So much for my disguise. Rork ripped the helmet off, dropped it behind him and stretched his facial muscles. Oh, that feels good.

He checked his watch. He’d never make it to the notary. The moment he showed his face, the deputies would be on to him.

He peeked out from behind the bin. The deputies were gone. He crept to the corner and looked out. The crowds were thinning. People were scared. He sprinted back towards the Vericom.

Mary Ellen stepped out and he grabbed her arm.

“You got it?” he asked.

She nodded, confused. “Where is everyone?”

“You heard the announcement. I need those pain pills.”

“I was on the phone. What—?”

He pulled her back towards the ship. “That clerk reported us. We have to go. The pain pills.”

She stopped and ripped her arm away from him. “We’re not going anywhere until we get married. And they were out of painkillers.”

Rork shook his head and sighed. “Really, I mean—” He put his nose to hers. “You want to stay behind?”

She relented and they ran.

“You’re going too fast!” she yelled.

They reached the corner and turned. A dozen landing platforms hovered around the edges of the market complex. Fast-moving lines formed and deputies examined travelers’ faces as they passed.

Rork caught Mankin’s eyes. He held his hand up in the shape of a gun and pumped his arm. Mankin’s eyebrows rose.

“Get behind me,” Rork said to Mary Ellen.

Rork ran up between the lines and body-slammed a preoccupied female deputy. She hit the ground and he jumped over her. Mankin tossed a laser rifle. Rork caught it in mid-air, pivoted and aimed at the remaining crowd.

“Everybody down!” Rork fired a shot over their heads. It impacted the welcome sign and it crashed to the ground in a shower of sparks.

The crowd screamed and threw themselves to the ground. Rork focused on one deputy, then another, then another. The first disarmed, his hands in the air. The second followed suit but the third stared at him, his eyes hidden behind oversized reflective goggles.

“Kneel!” Rork stepped in and took the man’s weapon.

“I kneel for no man.” The deputy shook his head. He wore an old-style sheriff’s hat. It was dirt brown, with a wide circular brim upturned at the sides, a yellow star up front and dents on the sides and top of the crown.

Rork’s eyes darted from one moving person to another. “I can respect that. Just don’t try anything. I don’t want to kill you.”

“Put the gun down and let us take you in.” He took his goggles off and pushed his hat back.

The man’s forehead was a grid of scars, his icy blue eyes knew no fear. His mouth was a steel cable. This was the legendary Elfego Zapata, the most feared sheriff and most successful bounty hunter in the system.

“Quiet!” Rork yelled. “I don’t want to hurt anyone. I just need to get out of here.” His knees shook.

“You monster! You killed half a million on Luna!” a voice said from the crowd.

Something crushed inside Rork’s chest. It wasn’t my fault. He wanted to scream it at them. They didn’t have the facts and they probably didn’t want them anyway.

But he did bear some responsibility. Not that they would understand. They weren’t ready to hear it. Would Luna City follow him for the rest of his life? He didn’t have time to think about it.

“I need a ship—” Rork started.

The crowd groaned and some of them booed him.

“—to save a girl.”

“Liar! Murderer! Thief” the crowd screamed.

Rork hardened his jaw. He aimed the weapon at an older man dressed in purple. “Give me the keys to your ship.”

“No,” the man said.

“Please.”

“You don’t want to do that, son,” Sheriff Zapata said. “I know your reputation. This is not your style.”

The man crossed his arms. Rork put the gun to his forehead and reached a hand into his robes.

“I really don’t want to be doing this,” Rork said.

“Neither do I.”

“Rork, we gotta go!” Mankin yelled.

Where are the damned keys? Rork grabbed the man by the shoulder and pulled him forward. “You’ll have to come with us. Hands up. No tricks. I will kill you.”

“The ship won’t work if I’m dead,” the man said.

Rork pushed him ahead toward the ships, one hand on the back of the man’s neck, the other holding the rifle barrel against the back of his head. “Take me to your ship.”

37

Rork, Zero, Sarita and Mary Ellen rested on a padded, C-shaped bench that curved three-quarters of the way around a circular table just outside the bridge of the SS Prime Mover.

Mary Ellen fidgeted. Zero shot Rork a disapproving glance. Rork massaged his chin.

The owner of the sleek craft sat on the floor next to the closed, oval bridge door. Along both walls perpendicular to the door, wide oval windows revealed only blackness.

“I need those coordinates now.” Rork fixed Mary Ellen with a nonchalant glance.

“Forget it.” She crossed her arms and turned away.

“This ship has weapons, I presume, Mr. Haddad,” Rork yelled across the spacious setting.

Mr. Haddad met Rork’s glance with his eyes narrowed and his jaw firmed.

Rork stood up and sauntered over to the ship’s owner. He kneeled down in front of him. “I’m actually a great admirer of yours. I want to be a great trader like you someday. I was hoping you might actually mentor me after all this…”

Mr. Haddad sneered and looked away.

“I know that’s impossible now. I also know you’re a proud man. I’ve read your biography.”

“Which one?” Mr. Haddad asked.

“The Johansson book. Do you have any painkillers, by the way?”

“Pure, made-up nonsense. It was unauthorized. And no.”

Rork frowned. On top of all his injuries, a raging headache had just fired up its engines. He rubbed his temple. “My point is, I get it. But—”

“This is wrong — even by your own standards,” Zero said from behind him.

“Then what are you doing here?” Rork turned and asked with a smirk. “You could have stayed behind at Port Vantage.”

Zero’s face hardened. “I care. Not just about your fate in this life but also in the next. You are on the wrong path. But my place is with you. And you owe me, remember?”

“You people are a bunch of kooks. There is no next life, only this one. And none of you have long to live,” Mr. Haddad said.

They sunk deeper into the couch and looked away from each other. Rork opened his mouth to reply.

The door to the bridge slid open with a quiet whoosh. Mankin poked his head through. “We’re clear of Port Vantage. Do we, uh, have coordinates yet by chance?”

Rork cleared his throat and stood up. He sauntered towards Mankin, then turned and faced the group. “Now here is a man who’s thinking ahead. I found him in a Barbary mining colony. There were a lot of men there. Only a few found the courage to try and escape. And of those few, only Mankin and I made it out.

“We’re all on one ship now, sharing one air supply, one hull separating us from the EDF, Barbary and anyone else who might be chasing us.” He glanced at Mr. Haddad. “It’s time to set aside our differences and start pulling in the same direction because if we don’t then we’re dead. All of us.”

“I’ve got nowhere to aim for, people. We could be moving away from where we need to be,” Mankin said. A sharp beeping sounded in the bridge. Mankin returned inside and the door whispered silkily shut behind him.

“You? Talking about sharing?” Zero shook his head.

“We’re going to stay together after this. We’ll have to. I want us to!” Rork said.

Mary Ellen sighed. “And if Barbary gets us? I’ll have no protection. I’ve been on the run for three years. I’m not going back now.” She shook her head and looked away, her face ugly with fear.

“And what of little Sarita and I?” Zero asked. “Can she expect to maintain her dignity intact? As for me, it will be the end. I will not become a goon. So much for the preaching tour we agreed upon.”

“I haven’t forgotten that,” Rork said.

“You want things from us but what will you give us in return?” Mary Ellen asked.

“I will protect you. I promise you that.”

“He is indeed good at protecting people. He kept me alive, he saved Mankin and look at how he fights for this girl of his,” Zero said.

Mary Ellen shook her head. “I vote we set course for the Jovian moons because—”

Rork walked up to the table and kneeled next to it. “What can I say? What do you want?”

“I want to go to the Jovian moons!”

“Why!”

“Because that’s where the Cylinder is. That’s where your precious Lala awaits you!”

Rork let his head crash down to the table. His chest loosened and he smiled. “Thank you. I swear—”

“Yeah, yeah. You better!” She turned and bowed her head slightly to Zero.

Rork turned to the bridge. “Mankin, we—”

The bridge door slid open again, like pure velvet. Rork could listen to that sound for the rest of his life. He’d do it on his own cruiser though. Not Mr. Haddad’s.

“EDF cruiser inbound!” Mankin yelled.

“Hold that thought.” Rork scrambled for the bridge. “Increase acceleration.”

“At the max.”

“Look at this thing. It has to go faster,” Rork said.

Mankin indicated Mr. Haddad with a jerk of his head.

“Weapons?”

Mankin shrugged.

“Brax! I didn’t come this far just to fail now!” Rork yelled.

SS Prime Mover this is EDF attack group Odin. Cut engines and continue on present course and heading. We will fire on you if you deviate.”

“Help me, Jupiter!” Rork screamed, his face hot and his teeth grinding against each other. “Do what you can.”

“You gotta get me something!” Mankin yelled back.

Mary Ellen and Zero sat at the table looking blankly at nothing. Sarita napped in the mystic’s lap.

“Guys! EDF attack group is on us. Search the ship for something. Come on!” Rork yelled. He zoomed in on Mr. Haddad. Smug, self-righteous. An upright trader with a will stronger than titanium. All the qualities Rork admired in the man were now his greatest obstacles to saving Lala.

“I have nothing for you,” Mr. Haddad said.

“Mr. Haddad, I need to save—”

“Your needs mean nothing to me. Only my needs mean anything to me.”

“They’ll kill us all. You realize who I am.”

“You are the Liquidator of Luna. I am resigned to my fate. I will not make it worse by enabling you to hurt still more.”

“Are you sure— They’re calling me that?”

Mr. Haddad nodded.

“You don’t have to die. None of us do. We just need to unlock the zolt drive.”

His face was hard, his olive skin pockmarked and strained with age.

“Gamil Barbary took my girlfriend. He destroyed my family and our business. He wants to destroy me.”

“Barbary is a cunning empire-builder. You would be unwise to tangle with him, especially with just one little luxury craft.”

Rork smiled. “You’re one of those.”

He met Rork’s eyes.

“Yeah, one of those people who takes care of himself and everyone else can go to hell. That wasn’t in the Johansson biography.”

The ship rocked. Mr. Haddad knocked his head on the wall and Rork fell backwards. He righted himself.

“Just take care of yourself. That’s all I want. I’m no liquidator. I’m a trader, not as wise as you but I am making my way. Now I am a victim of Barbary’s aggression and deceit—”

“And so you commit aggression against me.” The trader looked away.

“I’m not perfect, but at least I’m trying. Are you ready to die? Have you done everything in your life that you wanted to do? Do you have family? Loved ones? Prized possessions? Are you ready to give all that up?”

He scoffed. “The EDF will not kill us. They will board the ship, free me then take you and your friends for trial and punishment. I need only sit here and wait for events to take their course.”

Rork stood up and wandered in a circle. He found a wall and banged his head against it, again and again.

“Need you on the bridge!” Mankin screamed through the intercom.

Zero, Mary Ellen and the girl huddled together at the table. Zero looked up at Rork and shook his head. Rork took a step towards the bridge and the bridge door flew at him.

Rork found himself on the floor, his headache at full throttle and looking up at an EDF soldier’s laser rifle.

38

“What is my path?”

Rork shook Zero awake. Zero sat up and yawned.

“Where’s Sarita?” Rork asked.

Zero nodded towards the next cell over. “In there with Mary Ellen.”

“I need to know my path. I ran out of time. I can’t call Lala— I need this.”

“Now you want my help? Now that we are in a cage and moving away from where you want to go?” Zero shook his head.

“Do you have any ideas, Mankin?” Rork turned his back on Zero to look at the man.

Mankin shook his head. “We gotta escape. But I got no ideas on how to do it.”

Rork turned back to Zero.

Zero waved his finger in the air. “Don’t you start on me again. I warned you.”

Rork sat down next to Zero on the chilly, plastic bench. “I know. I see it now. I’m ready for your wisdom.”

Zero narrowed his eyes. “Don’t llamabrax a llamabraxer.”

“You’re not a llamabraxer.”

Zero’s head hung low. “Indeed, I am. I tried to serve as a spiritual guide to those in trouble in space. That was my mission.”

“That still is your mission.”

Zero shook his head. “I am too weak.”

“You helped me throughout that ordeal with the trainship. You got me out of trouble on Earth—”

“Which is where this soul belongs.”

“—you saved Sarita. And you’re helping me right now. I can feel it. I’m already feeling like something is going to happen. I just don’t know what.”

Zero glanced up at him. “I will meditate.”

Rork nodded in approval. “That’s how awesome you are.”

“I am but stardust, the excrement of the stars, a worthless—”

“Okay, okay! Just do your thing!” Rork walked to the bars and craned his neck one way, then the next. He touched a vertical metal rod with a pinky finger and his hand went numb. Jupiter!

A door swung open to Rork’s left. Dad and Jord walked towards him, their hands bound in front of them. Two EDF men in their dark blue fatigues followed, batons in hand.

“Mankin,” Rork whispered.

Mankin stirred behind him.

The cell across from his opened and the EDF men pushed their prisoners toward it. One hung back and the younger, thinner one pushed Jord forward.

“Hold on!” Rork yelled. “They’re my family. You have to put them in here with me.”

Jord twisted his head back. “It’s true.”

The older EDF man nodded his head from down the hall. The other cell door closed and Rork’s slid open.

Rork slouched against the bars and looked back at Zero, still deep in meditation. Dad entered. Jord hung back. Rork shot a look at Jord, met his eyes and raised his eyebrows.

“By the way, can you guys bring me some painkillers?” Rork yelled.

Jord slammed his knee into the younger man’s nose. The EDF man reeled and fell back against the opposite cell door. A tremor ran through his body and he was still.

Rork bolted out of his cell. The older EDF man was already through the door and pulling it shut. Rork dove. He got his fingers on the circular door’s edge, then swiveled his feet around and anchored them against the door frame, his injured foot aching. He pushed with his feet and pulled with his arms.

“Give up now and we won’t hurt you,” Rork yelled through the closing door. He heaved and the door opened a crack more. How many men does he have back there? “Little help!”

Feet smacked the floor behind him. Jord grabbed the thick door and pulled. The EDF man landed on top of Rork and connected a fist with Rork’s nose. Rork pushed off of the wall and rolled back, the EDF man underneath him now. Rork slammed his fist into his opponent’s temple. The soldier went slack.

Rork grabbed the key card from his pocket and handed it to Jord. “Free the girls.” He pulled himself up and coughed, a dizzy weakness hitting him. “Zero! Time to go!”

The lights went red and an alarm sounded. Rork took the unconscious EDF man’s baton and stepped out into the hallway. It ran straight down, at least five hundred meters. In the distance, more men in blue fatigues marched this way and that. Rork turned back. He came face to face with Zero.

“This is not the path,” Zero said, his face strained.

Rork rolled his eyes. Hurry up and tell me the right path! “Mankin, get dressed. Everyone else, hands behind your backs. We’re going to move fast.” He stripped the elder EDF man and pulled the fatigues on over his own clothes. It was messy but they didn’t have time.

“This is a mistake!” Mary Ellen hissed from behind Rork. “We’re safe here. I’m not coming. I’ll give you the coordinates but I’m staying here. The girl should stay with me, too.”

Sarita ran out of her cage and hugged Zero’s legs. Zero smiled down at her.

Rork nodded to Mankin. The rail-thin man zipped up his baggy costume and grabbed Mary Ellen under one shoulder.

“But Rork!” she screamed.

“Shut up!”

Rork led the bunch forward, followed by Jord and their father. Zero followed with the girl and Mary Ellen. Mankin brought up their rear. They reached the first door of many. Rork motioned to Zero.

“The path,” Rork said.

“I don’t know.”

“I believe in you and we need this. Which way to the flight deck?”

“Third door on the left.” Zero swallowed.

Jord walked up behind Zero and grabbed his shoulder. “What’s this?”

“He knows things. Let’s go.”

“EDF flight decks are always aft,” Jord said.

“And?”

“Aft is to the right.”

Rork shot a probing stare at Zero.

“It may lead you to the flight deck but it is not the path to what you seek.”

“Did the magnetic waves of Allah tell you that?” Jord guffawed.

“We’re thinking too small. Let’s take this ship,” Rork said.

Their old man came up. “Listen to your brother. He’s practical.”

“This is not a debate. We’re going left,” Rork said. He trotted forward and found the third door on the left. He pushed against it, then stopped.

Zero nodded to him.

“What are you leading me into, Zero? What’s on the other side?”

Zero’s eyes glazed over. He shook his head. “I only feel that this is the way. This is your path. The one predestined for you.”

“Predestined? Listen to this quack!” Jord said.

The rest of the group caught up. Mankin eyed Rork.

Rork pushed open the door. Lights came on. The room was circular and a thin bar ran around its inner circumference. Rork’s eyes went wide and he stepped in. It was an elevator and there was a button that said bridge.

“Ladies and mystics in the back, men up front.” Rork smiled at them. “It’s a lift.”

He stationed himself next to the buttons and the rest piled into the cramped space. Mary Ellen elbowed Rork.

“Give me some space!” she whispered.

What a spoiled brat! Rork pushed himself up closer to the bank of buttons.

Mankin found a spot next to Rork. “What’s the plan?”

The doors closed and Rork punched the bridge button. “Dad, Jord, how many men are on a bridge like this?”

“At least a dozen,” the old man said.

“Your path does not require killing anyone,” Zero said.

“We need a weapon. A real one,” Rork mumbled.

“This is so stupid. They’re going to capture us as soon as we step off the elevator,” Mary Ellen said.

“Shut up!” the rest intoned.

Above the lift door, the numbers counted down the levels. Twelve, eleven, ten…

“Here’s the plan, folks,” Rork said. “Sprint off of this thing and grab any weapons you can find. Take hostages, especially women and our little girl.”

Seven, six, five…

“It’s risky but I like it,” Mankin said.

Rork met Jord’s eyes and the two nodded.

“I will not permit you to harm the child,” Zero said. “And you don’t have to—”

Three, two, bridge. The door swooshed open. Rork pushed out and immediately caught against Mankin’s shoulder in the narrow space. Rork pushed forwards, then turned sideways. Mankin burst free and turned left. Rork went right. Jord tripped out after them and fell down some steps, face first, in the middle.

Rork focused on a pulse pistol. It hung from the belt of another blue-suit. The blue-suit startled and an arm reached for the pistol but Rork’s hand closed around its grip first. Rork grabbed it and pointed it at the man’s head. He eased in behind him, his arm around the blue-suit’s neck.

Rork aimed the pistol at the high captain’s chair in the middle of the circular room.

39

“You can’t hijack an EDF battleship!”

The captain stood up in front of his chair, his mouth agape, his face outraged.

“We just did,” Rork said. “Everyone drop your weapons and sit down in that corner, hands under your butts, backs to me! Now or your captain dies.”

A dozen blue-suited men and women hastened away from Rork. Mankin took their weapons. He positioned himself at the back of the bridge and surveyed the room.

Rork shot off Jord’s and his dad’s handcuffs. Jord took up position behind the captain’s chair. Their father seated himself at a long panel that ran parallel to the front viewport. Mary Ellen, Zero and Sarita pressed themselves against the back wall next to the lift door.

“I need those coordinates,” the old man said. He snapped his fingers.

Mary Ellen tiptoed forward. She passed the captain and glanced at him. “Ship’s captains can perform marriages, isn’t that right?”

“Mary Ellen!” Rork released his hostage and approached the captain. “Your name?”

“Eldridge, Captain, ESS[_ Moskva_], E-G-Y dash 43904759. It is my duty to inform you that you will be prosecuted to the—”

“We need to get to Jupiter.”

“Our fleet is already out there and top officials are negotiating with him as we speak. Now let us do our jobs.”

Negotiating? Rork looked to his father, a frenetic heat assaulting his cheeks. “Can we get underway?”

“Almost there,” the old man said.

“I’ll have you know,” Eldridge said, “that the weapons systems are locked to my voiceprint.”

“Got it!” the old man yelled.

“Max acceleration,” Rork said. Finally. We’re close now, Lala.

The old man dragged his finger across the panel. “Plotting the course. ETA twenty-eight minutes.”

Rork steadied himself against the captain’s chair as the g-force kicked in.

“How much combat experience do you have with a Yi-class battleship?” Eldridge asked him.

Rork sensed the years of discipline and training behind the captain’s face. The unswerving integrity and honor. “Zero.”

“I’m responsible for seven-hundred and eighty-six men and women on board the Moskva. You need to give me back control of the ship. We can work this out. The rest of this battle group is already engaging Barbary, as we speak. What is it exactly you want? Because I can’t sanction revenge.”

Rork narrowed his eyes. “Indeed, it is revenge I want.”

“But…” Zero interjected from the back of the room.

“But I can maybe delay that very briefly if I can just get back the girl he kidnapped.”

“Is she still alive?” Eldridge asked.

Rork’s gut fell. I don’t know. “Yes.”

Eldridge nodded. “I have five-hundred girls on this ship, Mr. Sollix, and—”

“Captain,” Rork said.

Eldridge stared at him. “What?”

“I’m a captain, as well.”

“Captain Sollix,” he said with withering sarcasm. “Why would I risk my five-hundred for your one? When she could be dead? How long has Barbary had her? Because they don’t usually last that long.”

Rork stepped closer to Eldridge, a burning rage filling his heart. “She’s not dead! And if she is, screw you and your five-hundred! You’ll fight when Barbary fires on you. Save your five-hundred then.” Rork turned away and took a position behind the captain’s chair.

Zero touched Rork on the shoulder and Rork startled.

“This is no time to be afraid. You must steel yourself for what is to come.”

“Am I finally on the right path?” Rork asked with a tinge of sarcastic skepticism.

Zero nodded. “It is the right path for you. But not for me. This is a dangerous path for me. I feel I will not survive it.”

“I’m going to protect you.” Rork seized Zero’s shoulder and squeezed until he hit bone.

“If I do not survive, then you must carry on my mission.”

Rork shook his head. “I don’t even understand you most of the time.”

“It will come to you. Care for your soul. It matters.” Zero returned to the rear wall where he sat and closed his eyes.

“ETA.” Rork asked.

“Twelve minutes.”

“Can we zoom in on the Cylinder?”

Captain Eldridge turned to face Rork. “I need your men under my command. I need operational control. I can’t risk the negotiations being interrupted.”

Rork laughed. “‘My men’? As if.” He nodded at Mankin. “Can you work the viewport? And toss me a couple—”

Mankin tossed Rork a pulse pistol, then another. Rork put one in his pocket and the other he walked to the back of the room.

“I need you armed,” he whispered to Zero.

Zero shook his head.

“Can you explain this to him?” he asked Mary Ellen.

“Give it here.” She rolled her eyes.

Rork looked back to Zero. “At least to protect Sarita, if nothing else.”

“It is not her body that requires protection but her soul.” Zero hugged the little girl tighter to him.

Rork leaned in. “But the body is worth something, isn’t it?” Even if every inch of it is bleeding and hurts like hell.

Zero met Rork’s eyes.

“What’s the body worth to you? We’re about to find out and I want you ready.”

“Rork!” It was Mankin.

Jupiter’s tan bands and burnt orange swirls passed smoothly out of view. Callisto’s starfield-like surface came and went. Europa’s scratched ice backgrounded a field of shimmering shards.

Rork looked at Eldridge and Eldridge shot a tense glance back at him.

“So much for those negotiations,” Rork said.

“Reverse course!” Eldridge yelled.

“We’re going too fast,” the old man said, and shrugged.

“What is all that?” Mary Ellen asked.

“Change course, Dad!” Rork yelled.

“To what?”

Flashes pulsed and Rork picked out the Cylinder from the field of EDF wreckage. The Cylinder hung in front of Europa, cross-wise in the viewscreen like half of an X. The EDF ships were debris now.

“Anywhere!”

The flashes passed out of view to starboard.

“Give me control!” Eldridge yelled.

The captain’s face radiated commitment. Rork nodded and stepped away. Red lights flashed and an alarm sounded.

“Battlestations. Red alert. This is Captain Eldridge.”

The dozen men and women at the back of the room ran to their posts and the room came alive with chatter. Rork’s dad was pushed from his station.

“Mr. Farnsworth, I want us above the plane on a curve that takes us within ten thousand meters of the target and accelerates us into Jupiter orbit.” Eldridge looked at Rork. He tapped a button on the arm of his chair. “Ready a fighter for immediate launch. Priority one.”

Another burst of laser fire emerged from the Cylinder, a dozen shots if not more.

“Evasive maneuvers!” Eldridge yelled.

The Cylinder moved until it was vertical at the far starboard side of the viewscreen. Pulses passed them above, below and on both sides. Two came practically at once and the ship shuddered.

Bastard. “I’m taking back—” Rork started.

Eldridge stood up. “You need to get to the flight deck. There’s an E56 fighter ready for you there.”

“Coward.”

“I won’t turn my crew into space dust. Would you? Smarten up, man. A smaller ship has a better chance. Can you fly it?” Eldridge asked.

Rork nodded.

“We’ll be back with more forces. This won’t stand. But I can’t promise you any mercy, either.”

“Captain,” Farnsworth said, “your launch window is coming up in forty-five seconds.”

“Mankin, Jord, Zero, Mary Ellen, on me, now!” Rork yelled. He ran to the elevator, stepped in and looked for the flight deck button.

“Rork!” Jord yelled, still on the bridge. “You need to see this!”

“Come on!”

“Just look, brother, before we all risk our necks for nothing,” Jord said.

Rork stepped out of the elevator. Zero stood next to him, looking at the floor. Mary Ellen put her hand over her mouth.

The viewscreen zoomed in on the Cylinder. Its smooth hull was burnt black in sections. Ragged holes interrupted an otherwise perfect curvature. Debris swirled under the command of lost atmosphere.

Jord met his brother’s eyes. “I’m sorry but your girl — Lala? She’s dead.”

40

“What if she’s dead? What if we’re risking our lives for nothing?”

“Shut up, Mary Ellen!” Rork wanted to punch something. He wanted to put his fist through a wall or hurt someone. But he sat in the cramped pilot’s seat of the E56 fighter, monitoring its course toward the Barbary Cylinder. The black vacuum of space hung less than a meter from his face.

Sitting next to his brother, Jord scanned for an opening in the superstructure. Control panels with buttons, switches and viewscreens encircled the brothers on three sides.

Behind them, Mary Ellen stood hunched over against the back wall between Mankin and the old man. Zero sat cross-legged in front of them.

“I am worried about little Sarita,” Zero said.

“Sarita?” Rork asked.

“The little girl! The one that has accompanied—”

“Right. Isn’t worrying the root of all evil or something?” He turned to Jord. “Landing bay?”

“Still searching. Might be obscured with a door.” Jord turned away from the control panels and put his mouth to Rork’s ear. “I have a son.”

“That’s great, brother. I—”

“When I die—”

“We’re not going to die.”

“—you have to take care of him. He’s with the Arai family on Earth in Akihabara, in Tokyo. Dad has their number.”

“It’s just the EDF might not give her back—” Zero started.

Rork looked at his brother. “We will make it through this.”

“Promise me you will take him as your own son.” Jord grabbed his brother’s arm and squeezed.

“Are we sure this is the right place?” Rork angled his head back at Mary Ellen.

“For the thirty-ninth time, yes! Wow!” She ran her hands through her hair and picked at her fingernails.

“You seem overly nervous,” Rork said.

Zero sighed and closed his eyes.

“Obvious reasons! What exactly do we hope to achieve here anyway? The EDF blew it to pieces, and a good thing, too.”

“You don’t think he has contingency plans for that? That he’s not evacuating? Didn’t you say his family is everything to him?”

“I’ve scanned the whole thing,” Jord said. “No landing bay. Or, it’s locked, the gate down. Brother, please. His name is Band. Band Sollix.”

Rork arched an eyebrow at his brother. “I promise.” He pushed the stick and brought them in closer. The carbon-scored holes were too small. The ship wouldn’t fit. He angled the E56 to get a closer look inside one and noticed a shimmery gloss, as if he were looking through a watery lens.

Rork’s eyes went wide and his heart rushed. “Of course! The atmosphere is intact inside. He’s got a magnetic barrier. She could still be alive!” He looked back at Mary Ellen and smiled but his face fell. She wore a sick expression, her eyes averted.

Something hard pressed into the back of Rork’s skull, just above his neck. He started to turn.

“Be still.”

Rork turned. Mankin held a silver EDF-issue pulse pistol just out of Rork’s reach.

“I saved you.”

Mankin chuckled. “Barbary thinks of everything. That’s why he’s Barbary. That’s why he just defeated an elite EDF battle group. Why fight ‘em when you can join ‘em? Pay’s better. So is the life expectancy.”

“But I got you off that rock, where Barbary put you. I would never—”

“Save it. One of my first rewards when I deliver your hide is some time with Lala.”

“Dad, no! Tell me you’re not a part of this,” Jord yelled from the co-pilot’s seat.

Are there so few hot girls in this system that everybody has to be after mine? Jupiter! Rork stirred and Mankin pushed the gun harder against his head. Rork calculated his odds and the possible moves he could use to disarm Mankin but they all ended with a hole in his head, or maybe someone else’s.

“I didn’t know,” Jord whispered.

“Don’t let ‘em touch anything. I’ll pilot us in from the third chair.” The navigator’s chair squeaked as Band’s heft found a comfortable spot. The engines kicked in once more and the Cylinder passed under them.

“Dad, what the hell!” Jord screamed. “We agreed. We talked about this!”

“No one will say anything if you’re ready to smarten up,” the old man said to Jord.

“Forget it, Dad! I thought—”

“You thought wrong.”

“Try anything — anyone — and you’re dead,” Mankin said. “That includes you, Mary Ellen, and of course, your mystic.” He chuckled.

“We are on the right path now,” Zero said. “You are doing well, my friend.”

Rork turned to meet Zero’s eyes. “Flark you. Do something for once!”

“Shut up!” Mankin said.

Rork turned to Jord, his face questioning. “Still happy about your choice of names?”

Jord swallowed, his eyes red and puffy. He looked out the viewscreen. “When Barbary took us, he made us do things. To mom. And others. In order to survive.” He squinted, his forehead wrinkled.

“Like what?”

Jord shook his head. He swallowed hard, his throat jumping. “I think it broke Dad. He can’t live in the universe the way it was before that day, before Barbary took us. Everything is flipped for him now. It’s the only way—”

“Silence!” the old man boomed.

Jord lowered his voice. “It’s the only way he could make sense of it.”

Weak old man. Rork wanted to get up and beat him until he un-broke. But the truth dawned on him in a pulse. I have to kill my father. That or I forget Lala. He tried to steel himself for the possibility but wasn’t sure if he’d found the resolve to do it or not. They’d just started to reconcile. He wanted more time with the Dad he remembered, the one who raised him, played ball with him and taught him to trade.

“I thought he was back, or on his way back,” Jord whispered.

“But Mary Ellen knew, didn’t you?” Rork glanced back in her direction and felt the pistol pressed against his scalp again.

She sobbed. “He said he’d kill me.”

Rork rolled his eyes. “I thought you preferred that.”

“SS Matata calling EDF fighter. Is that you, my handsome Rork?” Rork struggled to place the voice and he angled his head back at Mankin for permission.

“Ignore it,” the old man said.

Rork’s communications screen flashed white. The glowing image of Sophia Patel appeared on screen. She was thinner, her hair tied back in a bun now. Rork struggled to catch a glimpse of anything beneath her higher neckline.

Mankin reached over Rork’s shoulder to shut it off. Rork blocked him. Mankin dug the pistol into Rork’s neck next to his jugular.

“What’s the goddamned harm in it? You have me.”

Mankin relented.

“Citizens of Earth, I am Sophia Patel, your newly elected Speaker. As chief executive of Earth Government and Commander-in-Chief of Earth Defense Forces, I am in Jupiter orbit today, leading the largest battle group ever seen.”

Rork and Jord exchanged surprised glances. They grinned at each other.

“We are here to end the bloody private war between The Cartel—”

The deep-throated yells of thousands interrupted the Speaker. The camera flashed to an assembled mass of protestors, blue skies behind them.

“—and your beloved renegade, Rork Sollix, protector of children, fair trader to all and good, handsome man.”

An equally powerful cheer drowned out the Speaker as the camera flitted across the globe: brown people, white people, Africans and more.

A chill zipped up Rork’s spine. He sat taller in the pilot’s chair. Energy rose through his gut and peaked behind his eyes. His aches and pains eased.

“How did you do that?” Jord asked, admiration in his voice.

Rork shrugged. “I actually took her hostage. Zero and I.”

“They like you down there.”

“I guess so.”

“Fools.” Jord chuckled.

The Cylinder fell away beneath them. The fighter turned and Barbary’s home came into focus again. A tall, wide panel popped out from the Cylinder wall and retracted upwards. Glowing light erupted from inside it. Ships sat in straight rows in the gargantuan interior.

Jord whistled. “How many ships does he have?”

The Matata — an oblong cruiser flattened in the front — zoomed between the fighter and the Cylinder’s landing bay. “Calling the EDF fighter approaching the Cylinder. This is Speaker Patel. Is that you, Rork? Are you alright? Earth supports you and we are here to help you.”

“Stupid lady’s going to get herself killed!” The old man laughed.

Rork’s thoughts echoed the sentiment but he held his tongue. “Is Barbary ready for a war? Best be careful.”

“Shut up. We’re already at war.”

The Matata maneuvered closer to the fighter. “We will continue to block your path, Earth fighter, until all of us on Earth are convinced that Rork Sollix is safe and free. As your Commander-in-Chief, I order you to stop.”

“Readying weapons,” the old man said. “Accelerating.”

“Better check with your boss first!” Rork yelled. The added g-force pushed him deeper into his seat and he sensed Mankin losing his balance.

“Shut him up, Mankin!”

Mankin struck Rork across the back of the head. The pain pushed any other thoughts out of his mind. Dials clicked, buttons snapped and the fighter pitched. A pulse of plasma shot out towards the Matata.

Rork reached back, grabbed Mankin’s pulse pistol in both hands and twisted his body out of the path of its brutal beam. Mankin fired and a hole opened in the fighter’s hull.

Air screamed past Rork. He grabbed tight onto the edge of the pilot’s chair and his legs flew up towards the expanding hole.

Jord grabbed at Rork’s ankles, then disappeared with a liquid slush as everything turned red.

Mankin went next.

Rork breathed but little came. He looked back. The Matata filled the viewport now. The fighter crashed into it and both ships fell into the landing bay of the Barbary Cylinder.

41

“We have to get out of here!” Zero yelled.

Laser shots sparked on the deck around them. The E56 fighter was salvage now. Only a thin sliver of millimeter-thick, carbon-scored hull protected them from the laser barrage.

“How many men does he have?” Rork asked.

“Zero,” Zero said. “They’re all machines — automated.”

Rork pushed himself out of cover and eyed the landing bay roof. A row of tiny, unmanned sentry guns ran down the center of the landing bay. They paused, adjusted and Rork pushed himself back under cover.

An explosion of concentrated fire hit the deck next to him. Reality slowed and muted but a dim urgency remained.

Zero crouched over him again and sound returned to Rork’s universe. “There’s a door about a hundred meters behind me, if you think we can make it.”

Rork eyed the door. Between it and his location, the Matata sat, smoking. He looked back at the sentries. They’d shoot over the fighter wreckage. He’d be dead before he got ten meters.

“Who’s left?” Rork asked.

“You, me, Mary Ellen.”

“My dad?”

Zero shrugged.

“Can you run?” Rork flexed his legs. His right knee screamed, and he cringed.

Zero nodded.

“Weapons?” Rork arched his head up and looked around. It was dark and dusty. Bits of metal, glass and plastic covered the deck and dug into the walls.

“Nothing.”

“I—” Rork started.

“Be proud. Even if we make it no further, you have already—”

“Flark that! Now, I’m going to run out ahead and distract the sentries. You two run out that door you behind me. Use the Matata for cover if you have to. Got it? Is she ready? Mary Ellen!”

“What!”

“Are you ready to run back to the door?” Rork pointed past her.

“I’m ready to be done with you!”

“Help me, Jupiter!”

“Yes, okay? Yes,” she said.

“On three.” Rork squatted at the edge of the cover, wondering if his knee would respond. “One, two, three!”

Rork darted out toward the sentries. His knee was slow, but it was enough, even though there was no cover. There were at least a dozen ships left, far away at the other end of the bay. He spied flashes outside. The other side of the bay was open now. He ran straight, then turned and pivoted on his bad knee. It gave way and he fell, his brother’s blood smearing off of his clothes and onto the floor.

Laser pulses exploded around him. His bad leg burned. Rork got up again and limp-ran back, slipping in the blood. More pulses crashed to the deck near him. Sparks flying, he swerved. He passed the remains of the fighter. It was a miracle they’d survived such a scrap heap.

A pulse nicked Rork’s forearm and the pain shot through him. The Matata sat, smoking, ten meters ahead, apparently intact. Rork threw himself under its flat, pointed prow.

Pulses rained down around the edge of the meager cover. Warm air swam over Rork and his skin goosebumped. He grabbed a piece of debris the size of his forearm and forced his breath to slow.

The door was not more than five meters ahead. Zero poked his head out.

“Come on!”

Rork took one last breath, tossed the debris left and limp-sprinted towards the door. He threw himself the last three meters, landing on his stomach against the cold deck. He looked up at Zero and smiled.

“Help me, Rork!” The voice came from the landing bay.

“What’s that?” Rork asked Zero. He picked himself up and walked towards the door. A laser pulse landed millimeters from his toes and he stepped back.

The Speaker faced him from behind the long side of her wrecked ship, mere meters from where he’d rested. She reached a hand towards him. A laser pulse landed just ahead of her fingers and she pulled them back like a bolt.

Rork shook his head at her. Stupid woman. Since when did the EG get so careless with its leaders? He didn’t like her. She was a fake.

But she was also a beautiful woman. And she might come in handy.

“Please!”

“Rork! We must go!” Zero said from behind him.

Rork motioned for the Speaker to follow them. She shifted her weight to get up then shifted back. She started to sob.

Rork sighed. He looked back at Zero. “Hold on.”

“No!” Mary Ellen yelled.

Rork sprinted out of the doorway, laser pulses sparking around him. He grabbed the Speaker’s hand, her face a study in gratitude, and pulled her back with him to safety.

“Oh my Rork, you saved me!” The Speaker ran her hands over his chest and laid her cheek against him. “Thank you.”

Rork pulled her off of him. She smelled of vanilla, cinnamon and something else that made certain parts of him move under their own steam. But he set that aside. He grabbed one of her thin shoulders in each of his meaty hands and shook her. “Keep up! I’m not doing that again.”

“Are we ready yet?” Mary Ellen asked. “Or is there another helpless princess out there you need to save?” She limped deeper into the Cylinder, Zero at her side.

The Speaker swooned and fell into line behind Rork.

Rork caught up to Mary Ellen. “Which way are we going?” He looked down the wide exit corridor. It stopped five meters up and made a sharp left turn. “How close is she to here?”

Mary Ellen stopped and looked back at him. “You really have no clue. Just follow me.”

Rork grabbed her arm. “No. Everything you know, I need to know. You know the layout. I know the tactics. We’re going to be communicating a lot. Give me a sense of the general layout.”

The Speaker came up next to Rork, her arm around his back, her side and breast pushed up against his arm. “This is Rork Sollix, the renegade! You need to—”

Rork pushed her away, shaking his head. “Don’t do that. Just be quiet and maybe you’ll make it out alive.”

The Speaker shifted her hips and looked Rork up and down, her eyes dancing between hurt pride and smoldering desire.

Rork turned back to Mary Ellen. “I apologize. Now, please?”

Mary Ellen limped over to within millimeters of Rork. She grabbed his eyes with hers. “I am helping you because you have something to offer me.”

“Protection.”

She nodded. “Are we clear on that?”

Rork nodded. “I’ve got your back. I won’t forget this.”

She poked a small finger into his chest. “You had better not! Now, come on.”

They reached the left turn. Rork leaned against the wall and poked his head out just enough to glance around the corner. There was a tall, oval bulkhead door at the end of the narrowing corridor. Nothing else.

The wall behind Rork’s shoulder flickered, then illuminated. Rork jumped back. Barbary’s face appeared.

“I’m impressed,” Barbary said, “but your induction was to take place elsewhere.”

Rork looked up and down the corridors. There was no sign of an attack force.

“Are you sure this is the right place?” Barbary threw his head back and his gold teeth jumped up and down. His eyes and mouth narrowed and he leaned in. “You had your chance. Lala is dead. And so are you and your companions.”

“What about me?” the Speaker asked.

“You and I will negotiate, my dear.” A leering smirk erupted on his face. “Oh and I’m looking forward to visiting with you, too, Mary Ellen.” The screen went dark.

Rork stared at the screen, his eyes glazing over. What if this really was the wrong cylinder? What if he had another one? What if she really is dead?

Mary Ellen stood in front of him pounding his chest. “Answer me! You have to protect me!”

Rork grabbed her thin wrists and steadied them. “The faster—”

“No! I won’t! Just— I have to get out!” She moved back towards the landing bay.

Rork jerked her towards him. He wrapped an arm around her waist and hugged her to him. She tensed, then collapsed against him and sobbed.

“I’m going to protect you.” Rork wanted to protect them all, and more to boot. His chest sparked with determination but in the back of his mind a voice reminded him that he would likely die here today. He imagined them turning and leaving, squealing like pigs running from slaughter.

That was someone else. It wasn’t Rork. Not this Rork, maybe an alternate-universe version of himself. Because the universe would not be the universe unless Rork did everything he could to save Lala and get his revenge on Barbary.

Zero opened the tall oval door. Warm, moist air floated down the hall towards them. A sweet, organic scent reached Rork’s nose.

“What is that?” he asked Mary Ellen.

She smiled through the tears. “Come on, I’ll show you.”

The three of them limped and ran to the door the best they could. Rork opened it slightly to look straight ahead. What he saw confused him. He stepped a foot through and looked to the right, his eyes wide. Wow!

Straight ahead, for kilometers, an inviting green forest ran ahead of them. Just above the forest and on both sides of the Cylinder, transparent panels extended for its considerable length. Europa’s cracked surface peeked through on one side and on the other Jupiter’s swirling eye came into view.

Rork looked up. Above a cloudy haze, simple two-story brick homes hung upside down. Flowing multi-colored gardens and burbling streams ran among the randomly placed homes. A narrow, black street curved a path through it all.

Farther on, a steel and glass office tower connected the homes with the forest. The top of the tower was circular, as if someone had placed the brim of an old sheriff’s hat on it.

An abandoned gloom washed over the whole thing, like a dance hall after the party had ended. Space itself had an open invitation into the Cylinder courtesy of carbon-scored holes blasted through it by the EDF.

It twisted Rork’s gut and he wanted out of there.

“Incredible,” Zero muttered.

The Speaker wrapped her hands around Rork’s bicep and purred. “It’s so quaint!”

Rork shook her off and looked at Mary Ellen. “What I want to know is how we’re going to find Lala in all of this!”

42

“I’m pretty sure it’s this one.”

“Based on what?” Rork asked.

“On the sound of her voice and what she said. And… my own experience,” Mary Ellen said.

He looked up. There was the forest above him now, the canopy an engaging light green from here. It was a new color for him and his eyes lingered on it. It made him feel lighter. His mind felt fresher. And there was the door to the landing bay next to it. He recalled the small fleet of ships and hoped at least one of them was operational.

She smacked him in the chest. “Hey, come on. I don’t want to be here any longer than I have to.”

He walked up the rocky path to the front door of the two-story, red-brick home. Neglected bushes grew along the path, their branches and leaves sprouting without human guidance. He pushed on the red door and it swung open.

She pushed past him. “They must have evacuated. Maybe he built another Cylinder. My mother lived here.”

“This is your house? I thought you were in a rush? We don’t have time for your trip down memory lane.”

“They trusted my mother to care for new girls.” She ran in and turned right, out of Rork’s view. “Come on, up here!”

Rork turned the corner, stopped and looked back. “You two keep watch here.”

Zero and the Speaker nodded.

He flew up a flight of stairs. Mary Ellen screamed. He turned right at the top. She blocked his path.

“Don’t come in here!”

Rork pushed past her. There on the rough, bare floor lay Lala’s body, clad in a see-through blue mesh dress, her legs spread open and her wrists cut cross-wise. Blood still trickled out of them.

“She’s not dead.” He turned to Mary Ellen, his eyes wild. “She’s not dead!”

He kneeled down next to her. He pulled his shirt off and ripped two long slices of cloth from the torso. He wrapped each tightly around a wrist and tied it in a knot.

“We’ve got to go,” Mary Ellen said. “Something is not right here.” She walked to the window and looked up and down the street.

He got his hand under Lala’s neck. Her head flopped back and he rushed to support it. He touched her neck. A light thumping disturbed his fingers. “She’s still alive!”

She was gaunt, her collarbone protruding under her too-pale skin. Her hair was grown out, a centimeter of black and then her quirky blue, though duller and dirtier now. Her face was grimy. A hurt rage ran through him soon assaulted by a tender sympathy.

He’d nurse her back to health. That was the most important thing. He kicked himself for ever taking her to Earth, for leaving her alone. He balled his right fist, brought it to his mouth and bit into his index finger. Idiot! His thoughts turned to Barbary and his blood boiled.

“Rork!” The panic in Mary Ellen’s voice was palpable.

Something dark burst from the corner of the room. It leapt up on his shoulder and nuzzled his neck.

“Buff!” Rork caressed the little beast. It was thin, its bones visible under its coat. Its bright yellow beak seemed duller now.

Buff dug his claws into Rork’s shoulder and Rork flinched.

“I know, buddy. I’m sorry.” He picked Lala up and carried her across his arms, as he might a baby. He took her out of the room and gently down the steps, one foot then the next so as to not jar her or cause his knees to fail.

Mary Ellen pushed past him, knocking into Lala’s legs and sending him falling sideways. He caught, and righted, himself. Mary Ellen blocked his path.

“Your father and a bunch of men are out there. They have weapons.”

He nodded. “Good.” He took a step forward.

Mary Ellen blocked him. “They’ll kill you.”

“Take this guy. His name is Buff.” He pulled the platyfet off his shoulder at quite a cost to his skin and pushed past her. At the bottom of the steps, he laid Lala on the soft and fluffy floor, out of the way.

Mary Ellen bounded down after him. “We don’t even have weapons.”

“This is beyond weapons.” He strode to the front door, opened it and stepped out.

In the middle of the narrow street, a dozen men stood, pulse pistols drawn and aimed at Rork. Rork’s father stood in front of them, his weapon holstered.

“It’s time, son. You’ve got nowhere to go, no weapons. You’re covered in your brother’s blood and brains, not that he had much of the latter. Let’s go see the big man.”

He stepped forward to within a meter of his father. “Are you happy, Dad? Is this what you wanted to do with your life? Don’t you feel anything for Jord?”

“Barbary pays well. He’s brought structure to my life. The system is a dark place. You don’t want to be out there on your own anymore. Look what’s happened. Look what a mess you’ve made of your life. Look what you did to your brother.”

“He broke you!” Rork screamed.

The armed men approached but the old man turned and waved them back. “He’s unarmed.”

Rork rushed him. He careened into his father’s chest, the same one he had once cried on, that had comforted him, that lifted him and hugged him. He brought a fist up and punched his dad square in the nose.

The old man’s head hit the ground with a slushy thud that turned Rork’s stomach. Rork pulled the pulse pistol from the old man’s belt, rolled right and into a squat. He fired.

One man went down. The next two shot wild, their pulses passing over Rork’s head and to his left.

Rork jumped back towards his father and rolled again. He took out two men in successive shots. They fell to the ground, one with a hole through his eye, the other through his heart.

The others returned fire. Shots flew through the front door and sparked around Rork. He stood up, aimed and took out two more in one shot.

The remaining seven broke into two groups. One pivoted to his left. They stormed the front door on Rork’s right.

Rork took a pulse to his chest mid-roll. He came up and dropped the three on his left with successive head shots.

A cacophony of blasts sounded out of Rork’s view. He ran to the front door. Four bodies clogged the home’s doorway.

He stuck his head inside and a pulse exploded next to his face. Rork collapsed onto the other bodies.

“Rork! Oh no!” Zero rushed outside, his mouth hanging open.

Rork laughed. “Thank Jupiter you’re a horrible shot!”

Zero pulled him up. “I thought—” He examined the bodies. “I can’t believe—” He threw the pulse pistol to the ground.

Rork held up a hand. “Are you guys okay?”

Mary Ellen nodded. “Don’t worry. Nobody’s hit… I think.”

Rork nodded. He walked over to his dad and looked down on him. The old man opened his eyes and grabbed onto Rork’s leg. He twisted and turned but Rork kept his balance.

“Stop it!” Rork screamed.

The old man pulled himself up. He looked behind him. “They were reliable soldiers. You shouldn’t have done that. You needed them.”

“On your knees!”

His father complied.

“Hands behind your head.”

“This is backwards, isn’t it? The son giving orders to the father.” He did as told.

Rork ran into the house and picked up Lala. He nodded to Mary Ellen, Zero and the Speaker to follow him.

He maneuvered Lala’s limp body carefully through the doorway. His father was still there.

The Speaker stepped out behind him and laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. “I’ve just received word that the fleet will commence its attack in five minutes. It’s time for us to go.”

Rork turned and handed Lala off to Zero. Zero teetered then recovered his balance.

“Get a ship back in the landing bay and get out of here.”

Zero nodded. “What about the sentry guns?”

“But what about you?” the Speaker asked, her voice smooth and crisp. “We need you.”

Rork turned back towards his father, then turned around again and laid a hand on Zero’s shoulder. “If I’m not there in fifteen minutes, or if it’s too dangerous, take off without me.”

Rork trotted over to his father, pulled him up and pushed him forward. “You’re taking me to Barbary.”

“Rork!” Zero yelled. “Let it go! That is not your path. You have your girl again. She needs you now!”

Rork walked away, pushing his father ahead of him.

43

“Quit while you’re ahead, Rork.”

Rork creeped forward. He held his gun against the base of his father’s back. This is not how he pictured his revenge on Barbary. But this is how it had to happen.

They were inside the sheriff’s hat now. The circular space was smaller than he expected. Display screens and computer controls covered the walls, many with yellow swivel seats planted in front of them. Above that, long, narrow windows revealed space. The EDF fleet sat massive, three rows high of a motley assortment of craft.

“They’re going to open fire any second now,” the old man said. “They think we’re all criminals in here, you included.”

He jabbed the pistol in the left side of the old man’s lower back. He turned right. They rounded the bulging central controls, a small circular column of panels that occupied the center of the Cylinder’s command bridge.

The crew were missing.

His father turned around. “You’re too late. He left. He evacuated this place long before you got here. Do you think he was going to wait around? He has a dozen of these things, most newer than this old heap, better defended, too. I’ve seen them.” His eyes darted from Rork’s to something behind him.

“Then you’ll take me to them, each one, until we—”

A pulse of lightning zipped past Rork’s ear and through his father’s head. His father’s body collapsed to the ground, the sickly smell of burning hair and flesh flooding out in a hot vapor cloud. Rork rolled sideways and came up with his gun pointed at the source of the pulse.

Gamil Barbary stepped away from Rork and fired. The pulse nipped Rork’s leg just below the knee. The pain was raw fire and he limped backwards, firing a wild burst of shots in Barbary’s direction. None hit.

Rork dove for cover behind the central controls. Barbary circled around towards him and Rork retreated further. Shots sparked on either side of Rork and he froze.

“You made a lot of trouble for me, Rork!” Barbary fired two more pulses. “I’m here to collect you. You had your chance to join me. Now I’m taking you out of here with your pretty face intact…”

This was his chance and he was failing. He spied Barbary’s hand coming into view and shifted away from it. The floor smoked where he just was. His leg ached, raw flesh scraping broken ligaments. His hate for Barbary didn’t burn so bright anymore. He wanted out of here. He wanted to live. With Lala. He steeled himself. He couldn’t walk away from this. He had to finish it, now. Barbary had to die.

“…so I can hang it on my wall!” Barbary rushed him.

Rork commanded his legs to stand but his injured knee gave out. He lay on his back, Barbary standing over him, sporting that fat, toothy grin.

“Just stay there.” Barbary stepped backward toward the central controls, his pistol aimed squarely at Rork’s chest.

Rork pushed himself backward, his pistol held low against the floor. He glanced back towards the door. Still there, still open. Get up! He willed his legs to comply.

“No! I said stay!” Barbary fired and Rork’s pistol exploded in a smoky haze of sparks.

The floor rocked beneath them and Barbary looked out the window. “No, not yet! Not yet!” He ran back to the central controls and smacked a button.

A low vibration started under Rork. He pushed himself up and ran for the door. Laser pulses landed around him. The floor threw him up and he slammed his head into the low roof.

“I’m not done with you!”

Red lights flashed. “Emergency separation in three seconds,” a computer voice said.

Rork landed in a crouch and threw himself through the door, landing on his back.

Barbary sent a final pulse through the doorway, catching the top of Rork’s left shoulder. Hot, meat-stinking vapor polluted his nose but he was beyond the pain now. The ship rocked again. Barbary ran towards Rork, his gun held high. It flashed.

The door slid shut and sealed with a blast of air. A deep metallic release sounded.

44

I love you.

Rork bounced through the forest, his body horizontal, his back aching, no breath coming to his shocked lungs, his ears stuffed with wool. His body wrapped around one rough tree trunk, sharp branches ripping his skin, then was blown to the next.

Explosions boomed in the distance. He watched, immobile, on the ground. The houses above him shrunk, collapsed and disappeared like a soap bubble in reverse. The hull dematerialized.

He stared into blackness, a powerful wind sucking him away from the trees and up. He grabbed a branch. It broke off, the snap and crunch transmitting to him not as sound but as vibration.

Barbary’s detached sheriff’s hat of a bridge made a circuit around Rork’s position and zipped off in a burst of speed away from the attacking EDF ships. He observed it with an unconscious indifference as his mind struggled to regain sense.

The Cylinder broke up around him. The wall separating the forest from the landing bay detached and crumbled. The magnetic field barely held near him. Rork looked down and the Cylinder floor fell away in another explosion.

Still intact, the landing bay moved closer. He brought his feet up in the disappearing gravity. He anchored them firmly against the tree trunk and pushed off, flying, arms ahead of him toward the landing bay.

The landing bay edge was only ten meters away now. A pulse of light flew in between Rork and the landing bay’s twisting deck. It exploded. The deck flew away from him. He ricocheted backwards.

He twisted around and sighted the edge of the faltering magnetic field. The remaining atmosphere was a vaporous haze and beyond that, nothing, like the edge of a cloud on a stormy, moonlit night.

He struggled for breath and his vision faltered. He turned back. The landing bay deck crashed into the still-intact other side of the Cylinder and bounced back, small spacecraft rebounding in all directions, most exploding on impact.

But one flew in Rork’s direction. It was too fast. It turned, its airlock facing him.

He stretched out his hands. A shockwave smacked him from behind. He got his hand into the ship’s airlock door, popped it and threw himself inside.

A whoosh of air marked the end of the magnetic field. A chill passed through him. Everything went black.

45

“He’s waking up!”

A disheveled blue-haired girl leaned over Rork, her teeth shining out from her oversized mouth. She jumped up and down and clapped, a two-sizes-too-big EDF uniform bouncing on and off of her thin shoulders.

The brown man with the intense, pearl-white eyes walked into his field of vision. He couldn’t read his expression.

Something deep within Rork stirred. These people held something for him. He struggled to remember what it was. He moved to sit up. Everything stung and he laid back down.

Another woman appeared. Her black, frizzy bobbed hair framed a permanent sneer. He looked away.

“Rork! Say something!” The blue-haired girl’s face was pure energy. Her green eyes said, “I love you.” There was a nervous energy to her, a purity. He liked it.

“Lala.” He said it without conscious thought. It simply popped out of him. And then it all came back. He turned to the other side. “Zero, my friend!”

Zero nodded to him. His mouth resisted the inevitable smile for a heartbeat before it burst through. He kneeled down and put his hand on Rork’s cheek. “You made it. You found your path, my friend.”

Lala laid her head on his chest and sighed. She kissed him, her lips dry but sweet. She wrapped her arms under and around his neck and squeezed. “I love you.”

The memory of her there in that house on the Cylinder, near death, flashed back to him and his face darkened. “Your wrists— Are you okay?”

Her lips pursed, her brow tense, she nodded. The sob exploded from her. Her whole body clung to his. She shook in silence, then cried out.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered.

He found strength in his arms and encircled her bony back. He pulled her tighter to him and felt her sobs transmitted through his body. A tightness formed between his eyes and he suppressed it.

“Well, I made it too. Where’s my hug?”

Mary Ellen. He laughed. Lala picked herself up and wiped her eyes, laughing.

Zero came up next to Mary Ellen and pulled on her. She resisted and shot him an ugly look.

“I believe it is the proper time to give our friends some space.” Zero cleared his throat.

“I don’t think—” Mary Ellen started before the mystic jerked her away.

A door slid open, then closed again.

46

“I just want to say I’m sorry. I called you a fraud and that was wrong.”

Zero, Rork, Mary Ellen and Lala sat in the brig of the ESS Moskva. Mary Ellen and Zero meditated, cross-legged on the floor. Lala napped on a bunk, her hand interlocked with Rork’s as he sat and thought.

Zero opened his eyes. “Only my ego took offense. I, as well, apologize for calling you a selfish, disloyal, lying, deal-breaking fake.”

Rork’s face took on a pained expression. “You really said that?”

“It is the least of our concerns now,” Zero continued, his speech accelerating. “I am more worried about Sarita. I have not seen her. Have you?”

“And, Mary Ellen, I just want to thank you—” Rork started.

“She did not give up the coordinates for your sake,” Zero replied. “She has taken the critical step of beginning her own spiritual journey. It was important for her to stop being afraid. That is why she did it.”

Mary Ellen remained silent, her eyes closed.

Rork nodded. “Thanks buddy. I owe you.”

“You still do not understand.” Zero shook his head.

“Don’t worry. We’ll get Sarita and the other ten or twenty-thousand kids back. I overheard Eldridge talking about them. Then we have to find Anju and Devi.”

Zero eyed him. “And return them to their parents?”

Rork nodded. “And then we get my ship back and we start on your—”

Boots clacked in the hallway. Captain Eldridge entered, a document reader in his hand.

“I’m afraid I have bad news for you people.”

“Is Barbary back?” Rork asked.

Eldridge shook his head. “I’ve received the list of charges against you.” He brought the reader up and squinted at it. “For dozens of piracy charges, the death of Gamil Barbary, Jr., a Delhi prison guard and two Delhi cops, the hijacking of various ships, your role in the Luna City attack—”

“Hey, that was a frame-up!” Rork stood up.

Lala sat up, her eyes puffy. “What’s wrong?”

“—the kidnapping of Hercules Haddad and the assault on Port Vantage, you face nine-hundred and forty-nine years. Your companions face similar sentences.”

Lala grabbed Rork’s hand and squeezed it tight.

“How are you feeling, by the way?”

“New meds are great,” Rork said.

Eldridge nodded in approval. “But they’re seeking the death penalty. In fact, I believe you’ve already been convicted and sentenced on some of these charges.”

Rork stared at him, his mouth open and laughed. His laughter rose to a crescendo and echoed down the hallways.

“That said,” Eldridge continued, “we happen to have your MORF-9 stored safely in the landing bay. It is operational.” He put the document reader in his back pocket and pulled a set of keys from somewhere else.

Lala stood up and ran to the door. “Wait. You’re the ship’s captain, right? Can you marry us?”

47

“I do!”

“And do you, Rork—”

“Captain.”

Captain Eldridge grimaced. “And do you, Captain Rork Sollix, take Lala to be your lawfully wedded wife, to esteem her, to honor, hold, and protect her, healthy and sick, and to forsake all other women, and to cling to her so long as your life and hers will endure?”

For as long as my life will endure? That could be awhile. A sudden heat flushed his face. Chilled sweat rolled down his back and he shivered. He looked left. Lala’s smile fell and she made big eyes at him.

He looked right. Zero arched an eyebrow. On the mystic’s shoulder, Buff geeped impatiently.

Rork cleared his throat. What if she starts to hate me? What if she gets fat? What if she thinks I’m—

Lala and Zero cleared their throats simultaneously.

He looked at his bride again. So thin, so delicate. Her taut eyes smiled up at him, her head dancing. A nervous vulnerability dwelled behind those eyes, one he refused to ever trigger again. She punched him in the shoulder.

Rork laughed. “I do!”

“Then,” Eldridge intoned, “by the power vested in me as Captain of the ESS Moskva, I pronounce you husband and wife.” Eldridge nodded at Rork, a reproving smile struggling to escape from behind his official demeanor.

Lala grabbed her husband, threw herself into his arms and plugged her lips into his.

Cheers rose all around them from the seven-hundred and eighty-six members of the crew. The men clapped. The women screamed and cried.

Lala released his mouth. “I want to have a baby.”

“Oh Jupiter, help me now!”

Epilogue

QUICK END TO WAR IMPOSSIBLE NOW: PATEL. SOLLIX ESCAPES AGAIN

***

By LeVar Johannson

***

BRUSSELS (FP) — The hot war between the Commercial Cartel and the Earth Government will continue indefinitely, Speaker Patel announced at a last-minute press conference late this evening.

“Calm vigilance from the citizenry and preparedness on the part of the military is what’s required right now,” Patel added at a ceremony honoring the survivors of the Europa Encounter.

“I will prosecute this war to the best of my abilities with all of the resources Speaker Patel and the Global Congress make available to me,” said Platinum Lemniscate recipient Admiral Maddox Eldridge. Eldridge was promoted to Supreme Commander of the now hobbled EDF after the ceremony.

Although Earth forces under Eldridge’s command ultimately prevailed against the Cartel in the brutal Europa Encounter, the EDF was decimated by the loss of 7,437 sailors and soldiers and the bulk of its fleet.

Highly-placed sources inside the Patel administration say the Cartel has superior weaponry but many fewer ships than the EDF. The ability of the Earth Government to prevail will ultimately depend on the cash-strapped Congress’ willingness to allocate funds to replace the ships lost in the Europa Encounter.

As war looms across the Solar System, authorities still can’t agree on why exactly it’s happening.

There is widespread consensus that the independently owned trainship Achilles crashed into Luna City last week, a fusion bomb onboard.

Twenty million Lunans are confirmed dead or missing. The city itself lays in ruins, its magnetic shield compromised. The evacuation of Luna City continues, with atmospheric production unable to keep pace with losses to space.

Cartel leader Gamil Barbary remains at-large, promising vengeance on the Earth.

“We will defend our interests through large encounters, targeted attacks on civilian populations and assassinations of Earth leaders. Whatever it takes!” a spokesman for Barbary told NBX News in a recent interview.

The settlements are split, with most mining colonies taking this chance to rebel against the Cartel, while others, primarily llama farming settlements, reportedly volunteering in great numbers for the Cartel Legion.

But with rumors of the Cartel building a robot army, those enlistees may be superfluous.

The great wildcard is the surprise alliance of independent trader Hercules Haddad and legendary lawman Elfego Zapata. The pair have combined their considerable resources and connections to restore “order and freedom” throughout the system, they say.

Observers are carefully cautious that this pairing of two unique and well-respected indie leaders could provide a boost for the EDF. But Haddad and Zapata insist they are unaligned and seek only to defend civilian settlements, both in space and on the oceans.

In other news, the controversial pirate Rork Sollix reportedly escaped from EDF custody. Authorities have no leads on his current whereabouts but Sollix remains number two on the EDF’s Most Wanted List, after Gamil Barbary but one spot ahead of Guru Dr. Zero Malik.

Sollix’s position on WomynFeed’s Most Eligible Bachelor’s list is also falling with reports of his marriage to former bound servant Lala Fevari, a development that has led to protests across the planet.

The protestors — mostly women and gay men — are asking for the annulment of the marriage on the grounds that Fevari is underage and acting under duress. But counter-protestors have alleged that the protestors are only jealous and that Sollix and Fevari should be left alone to enjoy their lives.

That prospect seems increasingly unlikely as the Cartel, EDF and Haddad-Zapata Indie Alliance are all offering record bounties for Sollix’s capture — dead or alive.

Pulse here for further breaking news on the Rork Sollix situation.

Book 2 Out Soon

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War of Rogues

Book 2 in the Rork Sollix Series

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About the Author

Former starship redshirt turned rag-clad resistance fighter, George Donnelly is the author of space opera, cyberpunk & post-apocalyptic science fiction series. A single unschooling expat dad, George prefers zombies to aliens but is primed for any meatspace apocalypse minus grey goo.

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Rise the Renegade: A Rork Sollix Space Opera Adventure

The golden age of freedom withers across the Solar System as independent colonies fall under the dominion of Barbary and Sons, a ruthless cartel run by a 24th century cross between Genghis Khan and the CEO of Walmart. One man rises in opposition. Rork Sollix raids Barbary's cargo ships for fun and profit, along with his lovestruck teenage servant Lala Fevari and his ragtag crew. Just days from death, betrayed by his own men and on the run, Rork tries to safeguard Lala on Earth. But Barbary kidnaps her, throws Rork in a bleak Delhi prison and aims to make the young girl pay for Rork's crimes.

  • ISBN: 9781941939062
  • Author: George Donnelly
  • Published: 2016-10-24 19:35:33
  • Words: 72614
Rise the Renegade: A Rork Sollix Space Opera Adventure Rise the Renegade: A Rork Sollix Space Opera Adventure