Grace Donner sat in the cargo hold of the Waltz, anchored between two crates. She held the still form of Tim Trouncer in her lap. His once luxuriant black coat had dulled to mimic gray, his creative choice of breed replaced by neutral PodPooch. Eyes that had sparkled with intellect and humor rested unfocused beneath drooping lids. The undertone of the ion drive pulsed through the ship, shuddering like her heart.
Two hours had passed since waking from cold sleep. It was a sleep filled with dreams of Tim, the twilight awareness that he was dead. A cocoon of grief from which she could not awaken for six weeks of spaceflight. Now they were near Earth. Close to home, action imminent. Yet the cold lingered, the cold grew. It crept up her spine, descended her arms, and settled in her fingers, which rested on the still form of her dead friend.
When she’d left Ceres, she’d hoped that Tim could be revived. The twilight sleep had shaken her resolve. She tried to focus on old memories. Good ones. Together. Like when she and Tim exposed compstate and protector corruption in Port Casper. Fighting side by side as they thwarted genocide on Mars. Restoring order, some semblance of justice to a Ceres colony.
Grace wondered if she was the only one with those memories now. What was left in Tim’s blue gel matrix? It was still powered by his nuclear pack, yet she had seen it lose its consistency. Spill out of his body like blood. Wiped away by an aposti who didn’t care that he was destroying a sentient being, a PodPooch AI that she’d grown to–
Love. That was it, wasn’t it? She tested the word, found it didn’t surprise or disgust her. It was love. A kind of love that was distracting, cloying, dragging at her mind, yet somehow more intent, more comfortable than her love for her father or Raj. A necessary love. Life without Tim seemed wrong. Like missing pages.
Grace stroked Tim’s body. Its shape was familiar, yet without Tim controlling every aspect of color and texture and contour, his body didn’t comfort her. It was empty.
So was she.
What good was being a licensed protector if you couldn’t protect your friends, couldn’t protect those you loved? She was a graduate with alpha distinction at Red Fox Academy, the finest school of any cloister. She’d fought corruption head-on, helped Martian AIs and mechflesh miners gain a voice. And yet none of her training, her expertise, prevented her fellow protector, Martin, from dying. Or saved young Charlie from the fatal blow. It hadn’t prevented nanotech pawns from tearing Tim apart.
Would her training help her now? Would it be enough to get Tim through Port Casper’s surveillance? Could she smuggle him into Cloister 11, to Raj at her dad’s ranch, without getting caught?
Grace’s ptenda pinged.
“You have been sitting there frowning for two hours, Protector.” Taisia’s voice filled the quiet, softer than her usual pragmatic tone.
Grace tapped the ptenda strapped to her wrist. Its chrono display glowed blue. She sighed and flexed her fingers. They were numb at the tips.
“I am cold,” Grace said. The words came slowly, ragged edges from an underused voice. She rolled her tongue and swallowed, trying to generate some saliva. She added thirsty to her list of complaints.
“Da. You are in the cargo hold.”
Right, she thought, always traveling in comfort. Grace moved her stiff body, awkward and bouncing in the safety harness. Still no gravity.
“Where are we now, Taisia?”
There was a sharp click followed by a low rumble as the viewport ahead opened: first a bright vertical crack, then a wall of light.
“Holy shit!” Grace squinted and twisted away. But the light was familiar, and it didn’t hurt as much as it startled. She opened her eyes to see the full brilliance of the sun bathing the hold. It wasn’t the small, butterscotch sun of Mars and it wasn’t the sparkling dot of Ceres. It was the proper size.
“We’re home!” Grace said. She clutched Tim closer.
“Yes and no, Protector,” said Taisia. “We are passing L-point three, directly opposite the sun from Earth. I woke you here so that we might plan how to land at Port Casper.”
Grace nodded to herself. The news of sentient robots on Mars had compstate in an uproar. Port Casper was in lockdown, its councilors vetting all space traffic from Mars and beyond, turning their suspicions against their own mechflesh citizens. It had gotten worse since Grace had been gone. Yet Port Casper’s proximity to Cloister 11 made it the only feasible choice to get Tim to Raj quickly.
“What’s your plan?” Grace spoke into her ptenda. Taisia undoubtedly had several plans. She was an experienced belt roider and smuggler. Deep space was unforgiving to folks with no imagination.
“Easiest plan, we land in Los Angeles. You could take caravan up to Wyoming,” Taisia said.
“Too far,” Grace said. “I have a chance of smuggling Tim in using my protector credentials, but only within the Wyoming compstate, close to my last corporation of record. I wouldn’t want to risk entering another port. It’d alert more fact agents than a local gal returning home. And I’m worried about the stability of Tim’s blue gel. I should get him to Raj as quickly as possible.”
“You could do aerial drop above Cloister 11,” Taisia offered.
Grace imagined parachuting from the belt cruiser far above Donner Ranch. Appealing. “How high up?” she asked.
“Ten kilometers,” Taisia said. “You’d need oxygen.”
“I’d need training, too,” Grace added.
“Ohhhh,” Taisia said, the word drawn out in clear disappointment. “I thought protectors trained for every eventuality.”
“Not skydiving,” Grace huffed.
“Well. Perhaps we visit my brother Nikolai.”
The voice wasn’t from her ptenda. Grace turned her head. Taisia had entered the cargo hold through the aft airlock. She floated toward her from the bulkhead.
Trust didn’t come as easy for Grace as it used to, but she knew Taisia was committed. The pilot was grateful for Grace’s intervention on Ceres and that she’d found an ally in mechflesh rights. Taisia had volunteered her ship and her time. To shield Grace, she’d only taken cargo when they refueled at Mars, when passengers would have paid more. And she was an asteroid belt miner, a roider. No people in the solar system were more ruthless, or better at watching one another’s backs.
Grace floated Tim off her lap and tethered him, then unclipped her restraints. She located a toehold on the deck and extended her legs, bracing against a crate for the rebound.
The pilot smiled. “I remember how unbalanced you were when first you traveled to Ceres. Now you have quite the space legs.”
“Thanks.” Grace smoothed out her jumpsuit. “Though I hope I can adjust to Earth. It’s been over a year.”
“If you don’t fight it, your body will remember,” said Taisia.
Grace nodded, taking the advice at face value. “So, does Nikolai live close to Port Casper?”
Taisia shook her head. “No. He lives in Murmansk. My brother is inbound controller at Severomorsk Spaceport.”
“I already said that we can’t risk entering another port.” Grace countered.
“We fly speed course from L3, entering Earth on opposite side to Port Casper. Now we do touch and go at Severomorsk. Just enough time for Nikolai to transmit new beacon software to the Waltz.”
Taisia’s smirk grew into a grin. “New software will report the Waltz not as belt cruiser, but as short-haul crew transport. Not even licensed to leave Earth orbit!” The pilot chuckled. “Your compstate will not think twice about letting us land.”
Grace returned the smile, her shoulders unknotting. “I keep forgetting that I should never underestimate you.”
“Ha! That is good!” Taisia said.
Taisia’s ptenda pinged and she held up a hand.
“Ah! Strap in, Protector. We start max deceleration soon,” Taisia pointed to Tim. “Keep dog secure. Three-G moves things.” The pilot entered the forward airlock.
Grace pulled herself back to the seat. She secured Tim within her own harness, tightening the floating straps until Tim’s mimic skin pressed against her jumpsuit.
The ship’s comm crackled with Taisia’s voice. “Fifteen seconds. Turning now.”
Grace surveyed the cargo compartment. The bay was secure, save for restraint straps that floated above seats three rows away. The sun beamed through the viewport, and although it and the background stars were rotating away, the ride still felt oddly serene.
She mentally ticked off the time, unsure if she counted too fast or too slow.
Her countdown was interrupted by a deep, thundering wave that washed over the ship as the quiet of the ion drives gave way to powerful rockets. She was pressed back into the seat, her spine twisting unexpectedly, and she wriggled into a straighter posture. Her shoulders ached, and her elbows. Her torso felt like it was melting into the seat cushions. She let her heels slide against the underside of the seat, trying to locate a comfortable position for her knees, finding none. She bore down, knowing the extra pressure could prevent blackouts.
Her sleep squeeze pressed uncomfortably into her neck. It had kept her muscles firm and fit during the long weeks of cold sleep, the many months in the nearly non-existent gravity of Ceres. But had the squeeze prepared her body for this deceleration? Full gravity would take some getting used to.
Tim’s body pressed against her chest. It would have been more comfortable had she strapped him into the seat next to her. But she needed to hold what remained of Tim. She ignored the discomfort and buried her face into Tim’s still-velvety muzzle.
“We’re almost home, Tim,” she whispered.
The burn lasted about a minute, though it felt longer. Soon the starfield stabilized as the acceleration pressing against her melted away. The Moon dominated her view. Grace looked at her chronometer. At two minutes they swung around the Moon. At two minutes thirty-eight seconds they received the last of the lunar assist.
Earth swung into view, filling the viewport as the cruiser banked and soared above the blue arctic sea. Then the brown, green, and gray of continents, veiled with clouds. As they descended, the mountains grew wrinkly, luxuriant quilts of farmland stretched to the horizon, cities gleaming in the sunlight. Grace blinked away tears.
“Would you join me in cockpit, Protector?” the comm crackled. “I could use your help.”
Why would Taisia need help?
“On my way.”
She released the harness and wriggled out from under Tim, re-securing the PodPooch in her seat. She pulled herself toward the cockpit hatch via ceiling straps and seatbacks.
Taisia didn’t turn around as Grace entered the cockpit.
“Take any seat, Protector.”
The pilot faced forward, her attention focused on the yoke in her right hand and a flashing keypad just below the throttle on her left.
“You said you needed my help?” Grace asked. “What’s the trouble?” She strapped herself into one of the crew seats.
Taisia turned to face her. “I forget, when we plan, that I do not have my crew. I need you to point the forward microwave antenna toward Nikolai’s transmitter. You do this while I skim Severomorsk, make it look like I am on different flight path.”
“Why? Can’t the ship’s computer keep it locked on?”
“Computer does not participate in hoax.”
“Da. Failsafe will attempt to lock off the nose, so you must override.”
Taisia typed a command, and the screen to Grace’s right winked on. It was black except for a glowing green reticle with crosshairs. It looked like an academy simulation.
“When we get close, blue dot will appear. Keep dot centered.”
“Will it be hard?” Grace asked. She grabbed the side-stick.
“Perhaps. Best to do it first pass. Second pass increases chance of detection.”
The Waltz vibrated as Earth’s atmosphere buffeted against its hull. Taisia turned back to her control panel, hands still on the yoke. The pilot’s vid display went orange as the arctic vanished, replaced with a schematic of the continent below. Vectors winked into view, some labeled SEVEROMORSK APPROACH, others flickering too fast for Grace to understand. The horizon crept slowly toward the top of the display as their altitude dropped from twenty kilometers, to ten, to two.
From the viewport beside Grace’s panel, the ship flew above a dark blue sea.
“Get ready, Protector. Going subsonic.”
The Waltz rumbled as it flew, descending until it seemed to Grace that they were skimming the water. As they approached land, Taisia gently banked to port, aligning the cruiser with new approach vectors that suddenly winked up in red. Nikolai’s work, Grace presumed.
“Zoom out to five kilometers,” said Taisia, not turning around. “Blip will appear south-southwest.”
Grace tapped the screen with her left hand, producing icons along its perimeter. The NAV controls were similar to those she’d used flying on Mars. She zoomed out until a blue dot appeared near the lower left corner.
“Good.” Taisia tapped the mic on her headset. “Bear-zee-fifty-two to echo-one-five-five, you commence chatter.”
The cockpit filled with electronic hiss, punctuated with chirps and warbling tones. Grace nudged the control column, moving the blue dot toward the center of her display. Taisia banked to starboard and Grace pulled the control column to compensate as the word UPLOAD winked near the top of the display.
“Uploading,” Grace reported over the noise. A countdown timer appeared next to the word. “It says seventeen seconds.”
“Damn,” Taisia said. “We go too fast.”
She eased up on the throttle. The change in velocity caused the Waltz to descend further and Grace had to work to keep the blue dot in her crosshairs.
“Nine seconds,” Grace said.
Taisia grunted. “Come on, Nikolai, you can transmit faster than that.”
As they drew nearer to Severomorsk, Grace found it more difficult to keep the blue dot centered on the display. It would wink out, then reappear in a seemingly random spot, off-center.
“Taisia, I’m having trouble–”
“You do fine,” the pilot cut her off, her accent thicker than usual.
“Two seconds,” Grace reported as the blue dot winked and gamboled. The noise of the unintelligible chatter was distracting: it was like the trendy electronic music that always blared in Bod Town. She tried to focus on the screen as she chased it. Her eyes ached from not blinking.
Suddenly, the cruiser climbed and banked hard to starboard. The chatter ceased, and the blue dot disappeared from Grace’s display.
The cockpit fell silent.
“Did I…?” Grace’s voice sounded too loud to her.
“Da. Upload complete.” Taisia tapped the mic again. “Echo-one-five-five, echo-one-five-five, give mama hug from me.”
The cockpit displays blanked and flickered one by one as they restarted.
Taisia erupted with laughter. “Nikolai! He is funny.”
“What?” Grace asked.
She pointed to her display. “Welcome aboard the good ship Obman!”
“Obman?” Grace asked.
“Hoax.” Taisia turned around, still grinning. “Now, Protector, let’s take you home.”
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