DISCLAIMER: An original story. Characters and story copyright DJ Belt, July, 2004.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I thought I'd take a break from writing Mel/Janice and Xena/Gabrielle, (and novel #2, which I should be working on instead of this... Oh, oh... here comes my Muse, and she looks upset..... ooh, you bad little bard, spank, spank..... I'm sorry, I won't do it again.... yeah, I probably will!), to write an original story for you, perhaps the first original one I've posted. This, I guess, can be classified as science-fiction, my first effort in this genre, and was a blast to write. I hope that you enjoy reading it. If you did, then I've done my job for you. I got the idea for this one simply by watching an hour of very depressing evening news on the TV, then wondered what it would be like if I multiplied our world's problems a hundredfold, invented a distant planet, endowed them with those problems, and..... well, you'll see. So, settle down, join the characters in a cup of hot tea, and enjoy!
AUTHOR'S NOTE: The rendition of the song Lili Marlene which inspired the story can be found on Carly Simon's wonderful CD entitled Film Noir. Angel is found on Sarah McLachlan's CD Mirrorball, and as for Beethoven's timeless piano pieces Fur Elise and Moonlight Sonata, well, they can be found just about anywhere.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
A Triumph of Love
By D.J. Belt
"Of the myriad forces in the universe, the
most resplendent, the most triumphant, is the
indomitable power of the heart to love."
Liaa dor vin Ke, Prophet of the Hawee
Sara opened her eyes and blinked down at her folded legs, disappointed that her mood of meditation had been lost, then turned her attention to the expansive port window which faced her home planet. Outside the window, the planet hung in the starlit cosmos, bright and beckoning, a multicolored ball splashed with white clouds. The dark line of nightfall could just be seen starting at one edge of the globe, and she could discern that it was dusk on her home continent. Her mother would be setting dinner on the common table now, and her father would be shuffling from the porch into the little home where she grew up, knocking the smouldering herb from the bowl of his long-stemmed pipe, waving the daily news-tablet in his hand and muttering about some current event in his whimsical, pleasant and very witty manner.
She rose from the soft, padded decking of the space station's central room, stretched, and padded silently on bare feet over to the port window, studying the planet and feeling a sudden tug of nostalgia for its rich dirt and green grasses. Most particularly, she felt a pang of loss stab her as she thought of her parents. "I really must call them," she said aloud, then sighed at the thought of the conversation. Although she loved her parents, she sometimes had difficulty speaking with them. They were remnants of another age, another way of life. They would probably never understand her. Really, she had long ago surrendered in her attempts to explain her way of life to them.
She glanced at the chronograph and noted the time. "Another half-hour until my evening checks are due. Might as well." With a smile, she settled herself into the seat at the communications table and spoke. "Com table?"
A synthetic, smooth voice answered her. "On line."
"I wish to speak with my parents."
As she waited for the link to open, she glanced at the small monitor and noted her own image. Her torso was covered only with a thin, sleeveless top, and her nipples were evident against the fabric of the shirt. "My, that will never do," she muttered, and reached out to adjust the camera slightly so that it wouldn't show that much of her torso. She sat back, nodded in satisfaction at the more modest image, and waited. Finally, the com table spoke to her.
"You are connected. Proceed."
"Mom? Daddy? Are you there?"
A picture spread out across the monitor, and Sara saw her father. "Who's there? Sara, is that you?"
"Yes, Daddy. How are you?"
She saw her father's image in the monitor, his expression brightening as he looked away and waved a hand. "Petra, come here. It's Sara." He turned back to the monitor and shrugged. "She's coming. Dinner, you know."
"I'm sorry. Should I call later?"
"Later, schmater. I can eat anytime. I can't talk to my only daughter anytime. Look, Petra. It's Sara." Her mother appeared next to him, smiling into the monitor.
"Sara, honey? What's the matter? Is anything wrong?"
Sara smiled. "No, Mom. I just thought I'd call. I'm missing you two."
Her father beamed. "Such a daughter. She's in outer space and she still thinks of her parents."
Her mother asked, "Where are you? Are you coming home?"
"No, Mother, I'm still in space. I still have a lunar month to do here on the station before I return to the planet."
Her mother shook her head. "How you sit up there alone all the time, I'll never understand. So, what's with you? Are you eating enough? You look thin."
"I'm fine, Mom. I'm just working out a lot. I have my own gym here, and the hydroponic food is very nutritious."
"Aah, working out. I don't understand you modern girls. Muscles, you don't need. Curves, you do. You want to marry someday, don't you?" She shook her finger at Sara. "You scare the fellows off with those muscles, you know."
Her father gently admonished, "Now, Petra, don't you go nagging the poor girl about that again. If she wants to be an old maid, then let her be an old maid. At least she'll be an old maid with muscles."
Sara shook her head, a smile creasing her face, and replied, "Thanks, Dad. I think. Honestly, Mom, I don't care about marriage." Deftly changing the subject, she asked, "So how are things with you two?"
Her father shrugged. "Oh, same, same. The store is doing okay. We're poor, but we're happy."
"Any more trouble since your shop window got broken, Dad?"
"No. The Fundamentals, you know, they tolerate us Hawee. They don't like us, but they tolerate us." He shrugged, then added, "What can I say? It's been that way since our ancestors settled the deserts, ages ago, before we got scattered over the world." His eyes twinkled, and he leaned in toward the monitor slightly, adding, "I know that we are His 'Chosen', but if this is what He's chosen us for, I can do without it."
Sara leaned back in her seat and laughed as she saw her mother chide him for his comment. "Shame on you. God hears, you know."
He waved a hand in answer. "Yeah, yeah. I like to think that He's got a sense of humor." He looked at Petra affectionately and added, "After all, He married us, didn't He?"
Still grinning, Sara replied, "If you say so, Daddy."
"Ah, my daughter, the skeptic? I see you haven't changed."
Her mother smiled. "But she still wears her symbol. I see that you do, sweetheart."
Sara's hand went to the thin cord about her neck, her fingers touching the multi-faceted sun symbol hanging just below her throat. "Always, Mom. Always. I never take it off."
She smiled satisfactorily. "That's my good daughter."
Sara glanced at the time. "I have to go back to work. I just wanted to call and say, 'hello'."
"So glad you did, Sara. You take care, sweetheart. We are always thinking of you."
"I love you, too. Take care, Mom, Daddy."
Her mother spoke now, shaking a remonstrative finger her way. "You, too. And go put some clothes on. You'll catch a cold, running around up there half-naked. It's shameful." Sara glanced down at her chest, then rolled her eyes and made a mental note to don a thicker shirt before calling her parents again.
Her father offered a shrug, then looked over at Sara's mother. "What does it matter? She's up there alone. Who's going to see?"
Her mother gestured toward the monitor and replied, "We can see."
He shrugged again. "So what? We used to change her diaper." He reached out and hugged Petra to his side, then smiled into the monitor. "Don't be a stranger, Sara. We love you, sweetheart."
Sara smiled and muttered, "Love you, too. Good-bye."
At that, the screen went blank and the com table spoke to her. "Communication is ended."
"Yeah." She sat quietly for a moment, glancing out the port window at the large globe of her home planet, and then rose from the seat, a wistful smile still on her face. Her father could always make her laugh. Their good-natured, witty arguments always filled her with nostalgia for her childhood, at least that part of it which she remembered fondly. In her memory, life seemed better days then, days in which her home planet was not so fractured, so filled with intolerance and crushing submission to clashing political and religious attitudes as it currently was. She was glad that she was up in space, for here, those conflicts seldom reached her. Here, she was her own person, without the constant strain of watching what she said and did in the company of other people. Here, no one cared if she was Hawee. Here, no one cared if she had no taste for the ritual of marriage and reproduction. Here, she could write her poetry, she could play her flute, she could meditate and exercise, she could read and study whatever she wished without fear of repercussion. Her superiors, no doubt aware to some extent of her peculiarities, tolerated her because she was a good station-keeper, one of the best. That she was a religious and racial minority, that she wasn't a Fundamental, that she disdained what she viewed as their insufferably superior attitude and antiquated world-view, those things they seemed to overlook. At least, for now. She seemed happy, alone in space for extended periods of time, and she was reliable. That, they appreciated.
Sara rose, picked up the electronic clipboard and began her checks, mechanically noting the functioning of the various systems aboard the station. The systems displayed on the large, central control board in the main room, she could note off at a glance. The fun part of her duties was her requirement to check the systems in the distant wings of the station, for those areas were a weightless environment.
Most of the station was not under the influence of artificial gravity, as that system consumed much power. She loved to enter the weightless corridors, floating gently along the pathways as she noted the working of the distant portions of the station's systems. Sometimes, she would spin, sometimes, curl herself up in a ball and tumble head-over-tail as she negotiated the weightless environment of the corridors with a child-like glee. On these checks, the time went rapidly, and it did so tonight.
Her final checks took her to the power plant and the hydroponic garden. The former was in a weightless area of the ship. The banks of glowing chemical bars, constantly supplying a steady stream of electricity, hummed with a soft buzz which she found very relaxing. Reluctantly, she left and returned to the central area, her feet thumping on the cushioned floor as she felt the effect of the artificially-induced gravity grip her body.
The latter area, the hydroponic garden, was a small room laced with bright sun-lamps and a gurgle of circulating, nutrient-laced water feeding the myriad plants grown there. The fresh vegetables and fruits added much to her diet, and she often sun-bathed there, lying nude on a blanket, to restore some color to her skin. Both, it had been discovered, were essential to the health of a station-keeper if they were to spend extended periods of time away from the firm ground of their home planet, and they were the touches of luxury which she most relished in her otherwise austere life.
She returned to the com table, dropped her clipboard, and addressed the machine. "Com table?"
"Send a message to ground control. All checks completed. All systems are in order. I am retiring for the night."
As she turned to leave the table, she sniffed. "I smell. When's the last time I bathed?"
The computer answered, "Last significant discharge of water in the shower was twenty-seven hours, twenty-three minutes ago."
"No wonder I stink." She walked over to the central control panel and adjusted the lights down in the central area until they were almost dark, the only glows coming from the myriad blinking lights and monitor screens. In the darkness, the bright reflection of sunlight from her planet seemed even more refulgent than usual, and she admired it for a moment before retreating from the station's central area to her sleeping cabin.
She entered her small cabin, turned up the lights, and stripped the thin shirt from her body, tossing it into the soiled-clothing locker. Tugging at her waistband, she unfastened it and allowed the loose, multi-pocketed uniform pants to drop to the floor, deftly kicking them into the locker and nudging the door shut with her foot. Passing into the bathroom, she snatched a towel from a locker and stepped into the shower stall.
The multiple jets of warm water were soothing and refreshing as she soaped herself, scrubbing her scent and the dried perspiration from her skin and hair. When she ended her allotted five-minute shower, she tapped the water off and pressed the air button. As blasts of warm air dried her, she rubbed her skin vigorously with the towel and ran her fingers through her short hair, shaking the droplets of water from her head.
As Sara stepped out of the shower stall, her eye caught her own reflection in the mirrored wall panel. She stopped to admire her body, proud of the resultant display of hard exercise and judicious living to which she had disciplined herself. She was not considered a beautiful creature by conventional society. All her life, she had been labeled as plain, even homely, but then, she had no care for convention. She was pleased with herself. That was enough.
Her build was lean and taut with sinewy muscle, which she noted as she flexed and tensed her body. Her skin, responding to the day's application of artificial sun, was a golden yellow, myriad light-brown freckles decorating her torso, legs and arms. Her breasts, although very small by conventional standards and not artificially enhanced as was so common in her home country, reflected the same patterns of freckles which adorned the rest of her body. A small fluff of sand-colored pubic hair stood out in contrast to the deep, sun-lit golden skin of her groin. Her legs were muscular and strong, her feet symmetrical and pleasing to her eye.
She stepped closer to the mirror, examining her face. It was thin, many said too thin, but she did not care. What did it matter that she had always been considered homely by other races, and even by her own race? She was content with her features. Her eyes were very light-colored, the irises reflecting a silvery pale sparkle. As she leaned in toward the mirror, she watched the vertically-slitted pupils widen and then contract slightly. She ran her fingers through her short, sand-colored hair, arranging it to show her ears off to best advantage. She loved her ears, in her opinion one of her best features. They lay against the sides of her head, delicate and curved, the tips rising to graceful points. Pointed ears belonged only to descendants of her ancestral Hawee tribes and were unusual physical features on her planet. She smiled, her lips drawing back to show white teeth, her canines prominent, a vestige of the carnivorous nature of her ancestors. The splash of freckles across her nose seemed more prominent than usual, probably from her sunbathing, she mused.
Her eyes trailed down to her throat, noting the small sun symbol hanging just below her neck. It gleamed back at her, the myriad fingers of the sun's rays radiating out from the center of the orb. It had been given to her by her parents, long ago at her coming-of-age ceremony, when she was still a gangly teenager. Ever since that day, she had worn it constantly. It, along with her ears, was a defiant symbol of her ancient heritage to a judgmental world.
She turned to leave the bathroom, then stopped and looked back over her shoulder. The other vestige of her ancestors, a smooth tail about as long as her hand, seemed to move in accord with her mood and her state of mind at the moment. It was dotted with the same splash of freckles which enhanced her skin and decorated her lower back. Now, it bristled up from its place at the lower tip of her spine, reflecting her pride in her accomplishments of physical and mental self-discipline. That tail, too, was unusual among her planet's inhabitants. Infants of all races were born with them, but every race but hers considered them archaic and had them surgically removed at birth. Only her people, the Hawee, refused to excise them. It was contrary to their religious beliefs and ancient traditions. Many Hawee disliked keeping them, tradition notwithstanding, but she relished hers. She chuckled to remember how much attention it got when she was in school, how the Fundamental girls who were her classmates were sometimes fascinated and most often repulsed by the sight of it when she joined them in the large showers after physical training and classes. Somehow, she actually enjoyed their aghast expressions as they studied it, either brazenly or surreptitiously, from beneath the streams of water. She shrugged away their innocent, often naïve questions about it with good humor. The harsh, judgmental comments from the more opinionated of her classmates who considered it ugly, unholy or unclean hurt her deeply, however. In answer, she often just presented her buttocks toward the offending classmate and jutted her tail into the air, wiggling the appendage vigorously and delighting in the resultant, dismayed shrieks of horror. With a grin, she wiggled it now and muttered, "Sara, you're a bad girl."
As she turned off the lights and settled into her bunk, she stretched and groaned, then turned toward the wall. In the darkness, she felt for the small, overhead lamp and clicked it on, then studied the picture fastened to the wall near her pillow. She smiled as she perused the face which peered back at her from the image. An impish, very round face looked back at her, large, expressive eyes with the blackest irises and pupils she had ever seen, the head surmounted by a spiky, silken covering of collar-length black hair. The pert, small nose seemed to wrinkle as the face smiled at her, the smile brilliant against the owner's dark skin, white canines prominent. A gold earring adorned the top of one compact, rounded ear, completing the slightly disheveled appearance. She found the appearance delightful, a welcome counterpoint to her own orderly existence. She smiled as she studied the picture, then clicked off the light and turned to settle on her side. "Resupply day tomorrow," she mumbled to herself. "Jeni, my love, I'll see you then. Travel safely."
The hanger which housed Northern Empire space shuttle number twenty-one was abuzz with the activity of last-minute checks by ground crew. The compact, streamlined silver craft was being prodded and tended by a half-dozen technicians preparatory to the day's scheduled flight. A man of medium years, dressed in a military uniform, stood in the open doors of the cargo bay, his inventory tablet in his hand. He glanced around the hanger's deck for the shuttle's pilot, sighing in frustration when he did not see her. Under his breath, he mumbled, "Late again, is she? That girl needs a strong hand to guide her." He smiled to himself as he added, "And I'm just the guy for the job."
A higher-pitched, teasing voice answered him from the crew's door of the shuttle. "What are you mumbling to yourself about now, Tash? I thought that self-pleasure was against your religion."
He turned to face the owner of the voice. "Jeni, you should watch your mouth. You've been reprimanded before for blasphemy against the State religion, you know."
The shuttle pilot dropped her bag on the deck and rolled her large, dark eyes. "Yeah, yeah. Three times. Glory, hallelujah. It's not my religion."
"It's the State's official religion. It should be yours, as well."
She lifted the inventory tablet from his hand. "No, thanks. Let's do the inventory."
"I already did it."
"Then I'll do it again, if you don't mind." As she turned to begin counting the cargo containers, he stepped nearer to her and leaned upon a stack of containers.
"You know, you might like being Fundamental, if you gave it a chance. There's a revival tomorrow night. Why don't you go with me?"
She lowered the tablet and turned to face him, her dark, spiky hair bristling and her round face intent. "You don't give up, do you? How many ways can I say 'no' to you?"
He held his hands up in front of his chest in a defensive posture. "Hey, okay. If you don't want to learn the Truth, then how about just having dinner with me?"
"No to both."
He punched the button closing the shuttle's cargo doors, then leaned against the interior hull and crossed his arms across his chest, fixing her with an intent look. "Jeni, why do you deny us? Why do you deny accepting the Truth? I can save you, you know."
Her voice, tinged with a weary resignation, echoed in the cramped cargo bay. "Look, Tash. There is no 'us'. There never has been. There never will be. Get used to it. And, as far as your 'Truth' goes, I have my own, thank you very much. I don't need your sanctimonious bullshit."
He bristled at the comment. "I'll forget you said that. I'm your superior officer, you know. I could have you reprimanded for that blasphemy."
"I'll deny that I ever said it."
He gestured at her with a pointed finger as he spoke. "And what about your 'Truth'? You belong to a dying religion, Jeni. We Fundamentals tolerate its existence because it's written that we should love our neighbors, whatever their sins may be."
She slammed the tablet down on a crate. "So now my being Ancient Orthodox is a sin? Screw you, Tash. My religion was on this planet long before yours was. We follow the same prophet that you do. Read your own Book."
He took a deep breath, then spoke calmly. "Look, Jeni, let's not fight about this. My apologies if I've offended you. I'm just concerned for your soul, that's all." He shrugged, then added, "And I care about you. You know that."
She studied his earnest features for a moment, then sighed. "I know. Look, Tash. I just don't think of you in that way. It's not going to happen between us. Never, ever. That's how it is. Please accept it."
"But why not? You're an Equatorial, like me. A dark skin in a land of golden ones. There's not that many of us here. We need to stick together, you and I. Don't you want to fulfill your divine destiny to marry, to bear a child? You could do a lot worse for a husband than me, you know."
She shook her head, then hissed emphatically, "I don't want to marry, and I damned sure don't want a husband. Why don't you hit on one of these Fundamental girls around here? They'd probably jump at the chance to be with you. You're an officer. One of them would probably love to be your dutiful little wife and pop out a kid for you every year."
"They're not Equatorial. You know that it's against the law to mix the races in this country."
"It's against the law to marry across religions in this country, too. That doesn't seem to stop you from hitting on me twenty or thirty times a month."
"I keep hoping that if you'll find it in your heart to be with me, you'll find it in your heart to accept the Truth as well and become Fundamental." She said nothing, just returned to her inventory, and he added, "You're a damned good pilot, Jeni. You've had combat experience and been decorated for valor. Do you know why it is that you're still a lieutenant when most of your classmates have been promoted beyond you?"
Not looking up from her work, she answered, "No, but I'm sure you're going to tell me."
"It's not because you're Equatorial. It's because you insist on clinging to that ancient religion. Now, if you were to..."
She turned and faced him, her black eyes wide and fierce. "I am Ancient Orthodox because my parents were, and so I don't have to belong to your State religion. I reject it. I don't want any part of it. I am who I am, and not who you and some pompous clergyman want me to be." She pointed to her dark-skinned face. "Look, this is me. I'm Equatorial." She pointed to the small twin-moon design hanging about her neck. "This is me. Ancient Orthodox." She pointed with a finger toward the gold ring in the top of her ear. "This is me. My tribal band." She poked him in the chest with a finger. "I'm happy with who and what I am, so don't try to change me. Now, open the doors and get out of here. I've got my job to do, and I'm behind schedule. I have to launch. Here's your friggin' inventory tablet, Tash."
He accepted the tablet, considered her coldly for a moment, then hit the button on the wall. The cargo doors buzzed open. Before he left, he said, "Aye, aye, Lieutenant. Get used to hearing that title. You're going to be wearing it for the rest of your pathetic career, I imagine." With that parting shot delivered, he stepped from the shuttle and walked across the hanger deck, not looking back.
"Friggin' asshole." Jeni ran a hand through her silken, spiky black hair and then slammed her hand against the button with a muttered curse. As the cargo doors closed, she wormed through the narrow hatch to the pilot's compartment to begin her ground checks prior to her launch. Her mind, however, was not completely on her work. Her blood still pounded in her veins from the confrontation with her superior officer. Only the thought of her destination made her smile again. Space station nineteen. Sara, she thought, I'll be seeing you today. I'll be there, love.
Sara sat before the com table, sipped her hot tea, and wriggled nervously in her seat as she studied the monitor before her. It was silent, blinking at her with a frustrating calm which she found irritating. To dispel her nervous energy, she rose from her table and walked in circles around the central area a couple of times, then retreated to the dining compartment to check her preparations. On the small table attached to the wall, two place settings were laid out. Flowers from the garden adorned the center of the table. All surfaces were cleaned, the floor was sparkling, and everything was in place.
She stepped across the narrow corridor to her cabin and glanced around. Clean bedding was in place on the bunk and her cabin was in unusually good order. There was nothing left to do but wait. She considered a workout on the gym to dispel some of her nervous energy, but shook her head at the thought. It would raise a hard sweat, and she didn't want that. She wanted to be presentable for her dearly-anticipated guest.
A buzz from the com table broke her thoughts, and her heart leapt at the sound. She dashed over to the table and settled into her seat, addressing the computer. "Yes?"
The synthetic voice answered, "Incoming transmission."
"Um, where is it from?"
Sara smiled and felt her heart pound slightly harder in her chest. "Open."
The monitor blinked, then showed a cherubic, dark face, spiky hair, crinkled nose and blazing grin all evident. "Shuttle twenty-one to space station nineteen."
"Final approach, Sara. Put the teakettle on."
"It's hot, Jeni." And so are you, she thought as she looked at the face in the monitor. She longed to say the words, but restrained herself because she knew that all transmissions were monitored and recorded. Light joking among stations and shuttles was expected, but any words of endearment or suggestive comments would bring the authorities down upon them. She blinked back a delightful tear and added, "Use the port dock."
"Understood. See you in ten minutes. Out."
The screen went blank. Sara smiled at it as she echoed, "Out." She rose and walked to the large port window, scanning the heavens for a sign of the shuttle. It was not long in coming.
The silver craft drifted lazily around into her view, the small maneuvering rockets flashing and leaving black marks on the shuttle's skin as the craft slowly turned to approach the dock. Sara hurried to the dock's entrance, waiting until she heard the metallic thump of the magnetic arms catching and drawing the craft into tight union with the door. She peered out of the tiny port, then flipped the switches on the panel, pressurizing the entrance chamber and extending an artificial gravity field to the shuttle. The indicators climbed toward the green with agonizing slowness. The ready lights finally blinked on, she hit the button, and the interior doors hummed open. When she stepped around the doors to look into the entrance chamber, she saw the closed shuttle doors, the large numbers "21" painted on them, peering back at her. For a long moment, they remained so, then whirred and slid open. Standing in the shuttle's cargo bay was a woman about her height, but with a softer build and the dark, round Equatorial face which she had come to see in her dreams. She was dressed in a faded flight officer's uniform, sleeves rolled partially up her dark arms, her cap thrust haphazardly under one epaulette, her bag in her hand. A blazing grin smiled at her, a pert nose crinkled, and a smooth, high-pitched voice greeted her with a "Honey, I'm home."
"Damned right you are." Wordlessly, they met in the entrance chamber, clinging together in a frantic, tight embrace, Jeni's bag dropped haphazardly on the floor by their feet. They squeezed each other tightly, then kissed with passion, their lips sealed one upon another's and their hands gripping each other's backs. After a long moment, they parted slightly, and Sara reached up to run her fingers through the silken strands of Jeni's spiky black hair. "How I've missed you."
"God, but I've looked forward to this," Jeni replied, somewhat breathlessly. "I've been having hot dreams about you for four days now."
"Only four? I've had to wash my bedding every day for a week."
The black eyes widened at that and the nose crinkled upwards in humor. "You always were a slut. Come on, now, aren't you going to invite me in?"
"You don't need an invitation." Sara reached down, picked up Jeni's bag, and took the dark hand in her own, squeezing gently. Their fingers interlaced, and she tugged slightly on the hand and led Jeni in through the airlock. "You hungry?"
"Sure. Let's get this stuff unloaded first, though. Then, we can have the rest of the day to visit."
"So, when must you leave?"
Jeni's eyes twinkled. "I have permission to dock here overnight again."
"Oh, my God, Jeni. How'd you swing that?"
"Distance. Your station is the farthest one from the planet. I'd get back after dark, so I just suggested that I stay. They bought it." She giggled, then added, "Besides, I bribed the scheduling officer with a flask of his favorite brandy."
"That's great. You know, you missed your calling. You should be selling refrigerators."
"What, to the Ice People? I'd starve."
Sara laughed. "Oh, I don't know about that. I'm sure sold on you."
With that, Jeni squeezed Sara's hand and then released it, pointing toward the cargo hold. "Got some stuff here for you. Why don't you throw my bag in your cabin and I'll start unloading this?" She looked down, then pointed at Sara's feet. "And put some boots on before you enter my cargo bay, you barefoot momma."
"What? Oh, yeah. Be right back." Sara disappeared around the corner with Jeni's bag. The pilot shook her head pleasantly and turned to unlash several cargo containers. By the time Sara returned, boots on her feet, Jeni had the small cargo cart loaded with containers, had wrestled it into the corridor, and had closed the shuttle's cargo doors and the airlock doors.
She looked up from her perch atop the containers and asked, "So, what took you so long, Goldilocks?"
Sara gazed at the round, cherubic face. "Um, I had to put my boots on. Hell, I had to find 'em first." She scanned the containers and asked, "So, what did you bring little ol' me?"
Jeni shifted slightly, pulled the inventory tablet out from under her bottom, and held it out to Sara. "The usual. Plant nutrients, spare parts, protein supplements, flash-frozen meat, and so on." She thumped a small container with her knuckles. "This is personal. For you, from me."
"What is it?"
"Fresh cheese, fresh fish, your favorite soap and stuff, and..." Sara raised an anticipatory eyebrow. "A bottle of your favorite orchid wine."
"That's bending the rules, you know."
Jeni shrugged. "So what?"
"You're too good to me. I really don't deserve you."
"I keep telling you that. Sign on the line, hot stuff."
"Huh? Oh, right." She lifted the stylus from its place on the tablet and scribbled her name and title on the signature line, then placed the tablet aside. "Help me stow this stuff?"
Some time later, Sara was in the dining compartment, fussing over dinner, as Jeni poked her head through the door. "Dinner almost ready?"
"Yeah. Talk with me while I finish." Sara almost dropped the cooking utensil from her hand as she watched Jeni enter, her eyes hungrily following the spunky pilot as she strolled across the dining compartment toward the table. She had showered and changed out of her military uniform into a pair of loose-fitting pants, tied at the waist. Her shirt was an issue undershirt, which fit her in a most alluring manner. Her feet, wide for their length, were bare and her toes comfortably splayed out as she padded across the floor. Her hair was damp, haphazardly brushed back, and still attempted to spike itself in spite of her attempts to restrain it.
Jeni noted the lustful look in Sara's eyes as she settled herself at the table and leaned on her elbows. "Shall I open the wine?" she asked. When Sara said nothing, Jeni pointed to the stove. "I think dinner's burning."
"Huh? Oh, shit." Sara turned back to the oven, opened the door, and examined the meal inside. "It is not, you dork."
"You wouldn't have noticed anyway," Jeni teased as she popped the wine open, pouring a bit into each cup. "Beautiful flowers. You grow them up here?"
"Yes. Just for you." Sara extracted the bowl from the oven and rested it on the table, spooning a portion of its contents onto each plate, and then seated herself across from Jeni. Together, they raised their cups and clicked them together. "To us."
As the meal began, conversation flowed along with the wine, in between bites of what Jeni termed the most marvelous meal she'd eaten in a month. Sara blushed slightly at the compliment, Jeni giggling to note the tips of Sara's pointed ears actually redden with the blush. She studied the light eyes across from her, the vertical slits of pupils seeming to widen and contract constantly, and then asked, "So, what's new these days?"
"You tell me. I live in space. You're the one who lives down there."
"Much to my chagrin." She swallowed a bite of dinner, then shrugged. "Same old stuff, only worse. Bad civil riots in the capitol city. Another purge of non-Fundamentals from the government. Oh yeah, looks like another war is about to start."
"Again? Who is it this time?"
"Us and the Old Countries' Union, over some hunk of dirt laden with rare minerals and starving people."
Sara eyed Jeni, a sad countenance crossing her face. "You won't be involved in the fighting, will you?"
"Nah. I've lost my fighter rating. I'm only good for flying those crates any more." She gestured toward her shuttle with a thumb.
"How did you lose that? You loved fighters, I thought."
She ticked off the reasons on her fingers. "I'm Ancient Orthodox, I've been reprimanded three times for 'blasphemy against the State religion', and I won't screw the supply officer. He's my superior. I think he nixed my re-qualification."
"Oh," Sara replied, her concerned expression easing just slightly. "I'm sorry," she lied.
Jeni laughed. "No, you're not. Frankly, neither am I. It would have taken me away from all this. What, you think I want to get my little Equatorial ass torched in a fighter when I can be visiting you once a week and sneaking off with you on our ground leaves?"
A smile eased across Sara's face. "Glad to hear it. So, what other bad news do you bring?"
At the jest, Jeni's face fell. She looked down, then rested her eating utensil on the edge of the plate. "I know that you don't watch the news broadcasts much, do you? You probably don't know."
"Know what?" Sara studied Jeni's face intently, her heart beginning to pound. "What is it?"
"That law. They passed it."
"Same-sex love. It's now illegal in our country." Sara said nothing for a moment, just sat in shocked silence as Jeni continued, "We're illegal, Sara. What we're doing right now. The way that we feel about each other. It's illegal. It's not just the sex that's illegal, it's the love. We could be arrested and sent to a re-education hostel for it. Be forcibly separated. Never see each other again. Be subjected to drugs and mindless reams of Fundamental bullshit until we stagger out, full of their religion and happy pills. What are we going to do, Sara?" Jeni wiped at a large, dark eye with her hand, then repeated the question. "What will we do?"
Sara sat still at the table, her face frozen. She gazed off into the distance, seemingly lost for a long moment, then looked back at Jeni. "Do? We'll do what we've done before. We'll pretend to be just friends when we're in public. We'll be lovers in private. We'll dodge the questions, we'll hide away from the world, we'll make it happen between us, in spite of everything that they throw our way."
"But they'll find us out eventually. You know that they will. We can't hide our love forever. It won't work. We'll be discovered, arrested." She shivered. "A re-education hostel, Sara. Have you ever seen anyone who comes out of those places?"
Sara listened to Jenny, her heart freezing. Slowly, she asked, "What are you saying?"
"I'm saying that this frightens the hell out of me, and I don't know what to do about it."
"Are you saying that you want to..." Sara swallowed hard, then finished the question. "End this? End us?"
"No!" Jeni reached out and grasped Sara's hand tightly. "No, no. I want you more than anything I ever knew. I love you, Sara, you know that. I love you so much it hurts. I want the law to just go away. I want people to just leave us alone. I want us, but I don't know how to keep us safe anymore." She looked intently into Sara's face, wet black eyes studying light eyes, and then asked, "What do you want to do, Sara? Do you still want me? Does this... change anything between us?"
Sara squeezed the dark hand in her own and replied slowly. "Not in my book. I love you more than anything else in this miserable world of ours. I need you. Having known you, I know now that without you, I'd die. I'm willing to sacrifice everything, and I mean everything, to be with you."
"I feel the same way, but what can we do?"
Sara leaned across the table, squeezing Jeni's hand tightly. "Do you really feel that way about me? About us?"
"You know I do."
"Are you willing to sacrifice everything to keep what we have?"
"In a heartbeat. You know that, love." She paused, then added, "Don't you?"
"Your career? I know how you love to fly."
"My career sucks. I'll clean pig stalls to be with you."
"Your family ties?"
"You're my family now."
"Are you willing to risk your life for us?"
The intent black eyes focused on Sara. "Yes." Sara studied the eyes, looked deeply into them, and noted the truth contained in them. The sparkle of love was burning brightly in those dark orbs. The intensity of her passion was written on her face. "I would risk my life for you, Sara."
The final question came now, spoken earnestly. "Do you trust me with all your heart and soul?"
Jeni was stunned. "What kind of question is that?"
"Please, just answer from your heart."
She slowly nodded. "Yes. I trust you."
Sara smiled at her, a blazing grin. "Then eat your dinner and don't worry about a thing, love. We'll be together forever."
"What? How?" Jeni's eyes searched Sara's face, and a glow of understanding slowly crossed her features. "You've got a plan, don't you?"
Sara released the hand and leaned back in her chair, lifting her glass and sipping her wine. When she put the glass down, she explained, "Up here, I have a lot of time to plot and scheme. I watch things. I consider alternatives, and I choose good ones. When no good alternative presents itself, then I make one. I've been called calculating. I prefer to think of it as practical. Yes, I watch the news occasionally. I figured that this might happen one day, that they would pass that law. It almost seemed inevitable, the way things were going. I didn't want us to be caught unprepared and vulnerable. It just happened sooner than I expected, that's all."
"What's your plan?" Jeni watched her face, her expression intent, a gleam of hope flashing in her face.
"First, don't let them spoil our moment. We've both been looking forward to this night for far too long. Tonight, we'll be together. That law is only down there; it doesn't extend up here. Here, this is my domain. Tonight, we're safe from the insanity in our homeland. Tonight, we are in love and without a care in the world." She raised an eyebrow and asked, "Agreed so far?"
"So far, but what about tomorrow?"
"Well, when do you have to leave?"
"Not until afternoon. I have to be back by nightfall."
"Then we set our plan in motion tomorrow. I'll explain it all to you later. Right now, let's just enjoy the moment." Sara's assured, collected demeanor seemed infectious to Jeni, who relaxed, smiled a warm smile and raised her cup.
"Love, I'm all for that."
"Then eat your dinner, sweetheart, before it gets cold."
Supply officer Tash leaned back in his chair, sipped his hot tea, and pondered that morning's argument with the shuttle pilot. He was disappointed that his repeated attempts to break down Jeni's barriers toward him had failed. He was disappointed, too, that the conversation had become so out-of-control, so hostile. Some hurtful things were said, things that he still smarted for. Most disappointing to him, however, was that she seemed actually antagonistic toward him. He couldn't understand it. He'd never had this much trouble with a woman before, and it puzzled him.
A fellow officer clumped into the small office, threw his cap on his desk and sat wearily in his chair. He propped his booted feet up on his desk and looked over at Tash. When Tash did not acknowledge the newcomer's presence, the man spoke. "Tash, what's up? You look like you just found out your dog died."
Tash shook himself out of his thoughts, then looked over at his buddy. "What? Oh, nothing. Just stuff."
"Oh." The man rose to pour himself a cup of hot tea. "Haven't got reassigned to the upcoming war yet, have you?"
"No, no." He watched the man return to his desk and seat himself, then asked, "Um, can I ask you something?"
The man looked up. "Sure. What's up?"
"Do you know anything about women?"
He roared in laughter. "Me, women? Hell, no. No man does. They're much more clever than us, you know. That's why we're always stumped by them." He calmed down, sipped at his tea, and asked, "Why do you ask? Got woman troubles? Can't figure one out?"
"You might say that."
"Let me guess, ol' buddy. It's that cute little firebrand of a shuttle pilot, isn't it?" Tash nodded. "She's a honey, I'll give you that. I've noticed you hitting on her every time she leaves for a flight. What's the matter? No luck?"
"Well, it's not that she just won't be with me. It's that she actually seems to hate my guts. We had one hell of an argument in her shuttle this morning."
His buddy sipped again at his tea and joked, "Sounds like true love to me."
"No, I mean it. She refuses to have anything to do with me."
"Have you ever, um, ...?"
"No. I've never touched her. That wouldn't be right."
"Well, good for you. She won't even have dinner with you?"
"How persistent are you?"
Tash snorted. "Very, I assure you. It just seems to make her madder and madder."
"Well, ol' buddy, if I were you, I'd cut my losses and run. Sounds like she's already taken."
"Taken? You mean...?"
"Yup. She's in love already."
He shrugged. "How should I know? Shouldn't be that hard to figure out, though. How many other officers of Equatorial heritage work around here? It's got to be one of them. It'd be illegal for her to have anything going with a guy of the Northern latitude races. Like me, for instance, darn it."
"I haven't seen her out with anyone."
"And you're not likely to, either. She seems very private."
Tash agreed, "She sure is." He glanced at the timepiece on the wall, then looked out over the hanger floor. "And where is her shuttle? She's not back yet."
"Aah, quit worrying. You're acting like an old hen. I scheduled her to stay overnight at one of the stations."
"It's that very far station, number nineteen. Farthest one out. Takes a while to get there and back, you know. She'd have returned long after dark."
"So what? She's night instrument qualified."
He raised an eyebrow. His voice had a teasing quality about it. "Maybe she didn't want to come back tonight."
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, I just mean that maybe there's your answer." Still chuckling, the man rose from his seat, walked past Tash, and playfully slapped him on the back as he passed him by. "Tough luck, old boy." Tash watched the man leave the room, then pondered his statement. After a while, he rose and walked to the computer console in the corner of the room, carrying his tea with him. He settled in front of the computer, looked around to insure the office was empty, and then spoke softly to the machine
The synthetic voice answered him. "On line."
"Show me the latest flight plan for shuttle number twenty-one."
The flight plan flashed up on the screen, and he studied it. Yes, she was scheduled to stay there until tomorrow afternoon. That's a long layover for a routine supply mission, he thought. He spoke again. "Show me a schedule of all resupply missions to space station nineteen for the last year."
Again, the screen flashed and revealed a document crammed with columns of information. What's this? She's done almost every resupply mission to that station for the last four months. Before that, it was sporadic. And now she's staying there overnight? I don't get it. He leaned back in his chair, thinking, and then froze. I do get it. She's got something going on up there. I wonder exactly what it is? Let me look further. "Show me the mission and personnel outline on space station nineteen."
The computer flickered and flashed, and a document appeared on the screen. Hm. Nothing unusual here. Routine scientific and communication functions aboard. One lone station-keeper. Must be a small station. It sure is far out there, much farther than the others. He addressed the computer. "Show me the personnel file for the current station-keeper in space station nineteen." He perused the document as it came on line, and was surprised at what he saw. Most station-keepers who take solitary assignments were men or women in their latter years, but this one was a young-looking woman. At first glance at her picture, she appeared of the Northern latitude races, but he noted something unusual and manipulated the photo. When the head shot turned sideways, the ears came into view. She's Hawee. How unusual. She's not married, either. Very unusual, for a Hawee woman of her age. Never has been married, I see. She's been keeping that station for, let's see, the last year now, not counting her rest and recreation leaves back down here. They weren't frequent, for the first six or eight months. They started becoming more frequent when, let's see... He blinked at the date. About the time that Jeni started almost exclusively re-supplying her station. Come to think of it, Jeni's been taking a lot of leave lately, too. He leaned back in his chair and considered what he had learned, then sat forward and spoke to the computer. "Keep that personnel file on screen, and also show me the personnel file for the current pilot of shuttle number twenty-one." The screen divided, then flashed, and two personnel files were side-by-side on the monitor. From one side, a small picture of the Hawee station-keeper in profile beckoned; from the other side, a full-on image of Jeni peered out at him. He looked over the front page of each file, then spoke to the computer. "Compare the leave records of these two personnel. Go back twelve months, then show them to me."
"Done." The screen flashed and two leave records were displayed, side by side. He perused the lists, then sat back, stunned by the implication of what he saw. The dates, the designated itineraries for the last four months were identical. This can't be, he thought. His mind wandered back to the altercation he had with the shuttle pilot that morning, and he recalled the conversation. He could picture her face in his mind's eye, her vehement declaration to him: "I don't want to marry, and I damned sure don't want a husband." To his mind, the pieces fell into place. Jeni and that station-keeper were illicit lovers. It made sense. Neither of them were Fundamentals. They were both of minority religions, in his opinion decadent, false beliefs. Hell, that station-keeper was a Hawee, and his own religion considered them cursed by God, an unclean people. What better reason for Jeni to reject both him and the State religion in the same breath than being lovers with that station-keeper? What they're doing is now illegal, he thought. There's a triple crime of forbidden sexual activity against them: different religions, different races, same gender. If this is found out, they'll be arrested and interned in a re-education hostel. They won't be released until... He raised an eyebrow at the thought. Until they've both embraced the State religion. Then, Jeni will see the error of her ways. Then, she just may decide that I look pretty good, after all. Then, I might just have a chance to win her love for myself, once she's away from that Hawee bitch and safely locked into re-education.
He sat back in his chair, pondering the implications, the ethics of the course that he was considering. They're lovers, I just know it. Previously, it was just a sin. Now it's a crime. I have a duty to the Empire. If I know of lawbreaking, I'm obliged to report it. He reached around to the counter behind him, selected a tablet, and inserted it into the computer. Then he spoke. "Erase this tablet, then write all the information I've requested of you this session onto it. Encode it, to be opened only by Supply Officer Tash."
The machine whirred, and the synthetic voice spoke. "Done." He ejected the tablet, then sat and gazed down at it. As he held it in his hands, he thought, Let me talk with my clergyman about this tonight. In the morning, I'll know the proper thing to do.
In the main area of space station nineteen, the lights were very low, almost out. The gleaming, multi-colored orb of the home planet was shining through the large port window, and a dreamy, soothing music filled the cabin. Across from the port window and its instrument panels, against the starboard bulkhead, cushions were piled in a large heap, on a soft rug of very old design. Snuggled deep into the cushions, wrapped around each other, cups of wine at hand, two lovers lay basking in each other's close presence. It was a soothing balm to both of them after the separation which they had just weathered.
They lay in mutual embrace, whispering together, their eyes very close and fixed, dark eyes upon light ones, their fingers relishing the warmth and softness of a lover's touch. For moments of time, they would fall silent, their lips seeking each other's in the darkness, their breaths becoming one, their hearts beating in time. Then, they would part and whisper once again, sipping their contraband wine, making the most of every moment of their now-forbidden love.
Jeni lifted her head and looked toward the distant planet shining outside the port window. "Sara, honey?"
"Do you think that there's life on other planets?"
"Sure, but we'll never find it."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because we won't seek it out. The government's run by Fundamentals, and they believe that there isn't any life elsewhere. Therefore, they won't look for it."
"But you think that there is?"
"Sure. Look at those stars. Millions of 'em. Each one has planets. Now, out of that, there's got to be others with life, don't you think?"
"Yes, I think so, too."
"Life with intelligence, life with spirit, life with heart, life with love. I have to believe that."
"Whoever they are, I wonder if they suffer the same problems that we do?"
"What do you mean, Jeni?"
She gestured toward the planet in the window. "I mean that it's crazy down there. It's dangerous crazy. War crazy. Religion crazy. Race crazy. And now, even crazy about love. What we have together is the most perfect thing that I've ever experienced, and it's a crime now. We can be arrested for being in love. I don't understand how we can come so far with our technology and still be so...barbaric. No wonder you love it up here. It's so..."
"Yes. That's it, exactly. I feel so much at peace up here, in your arms and away from the madness. I wish that we could stay here forever, just like this."
"But we can't, can we? I'll have to go back down there tomorrow. You'll eventually be sent back for rest and recreation. Then, we'll meet somewhere secretly and steal a few forbidden moments together, frightened all the time that we'll be discovered and arrested." Jeni stirred slightly, then lay her head back down on Sara's shoulder. "They're already arresting couples just like us, you know."
"I imagine so."
"So, what do we do? I'm beginning to hate the sight of that planet." She turned her head slightly to look at the profile of the face she so loved. "You're so smart. Me, I'm all emotion, all for the moment. You, you scheme and plan. What hope do you see for such as you and I, love?"
Sara sipped her wine, saying nothing for a long time. Finally, she put her cup down and turned to face Jeni, her slender, golden hand stroking the cherubic, dark face. "Do you remember the last time you were here? I told you, begged you to always keep two things on you. Have you?"
"Yeah, my passport and my bank account tablet. They're in my uniform pocket. Why?"
"You're about to have need of them."
Jeni smiled in the dark. "You have a plan."
"Yes. Been working on it for a month now. Look, how much money do you have in savings?"
"Oh, not much. I'm only a lieutenant. I don't make much, and it costs most of what I earn to pay for food, a dwelling and a personal transport. Taxes take the rest. They're always increasing, you know."
"Yeah, tell me about it. So, how much? More than ten thousand credits?"
"Oh, God no. I'm not that wealthy. Maybe a thousand."
"Good. Now, I have a lot of savings, because I live up here. All is provided; I don't have to pay for anything. I've been quietly transferring my money out of the country."
"To where I hope that we're eventually going to make a home together."
"What? How?" Jeni sat up on her knees, her face very close to Sara's. Sara grinned at the sight of the question in the wide eyes in front of her and sat up, facing Jeni and taking both her hands in her own.
"Here's how. We emigrate to another country, one in which our love is not forbidden, one in which our religions and races are not so denigrated. It's as easy as that."
"Emigrate? To where? The Empire covers one-fourth of the earth. And we can't go to an Old Country. We're about to go to war with them."
"Well, we need a country which is permissive in its social contracts. One which doesn't have an extradition treaty with the Northern Empire. One which has a thriving economy, so we can find a living. One in which the dominant language is our own. One which has been recently very generous in granting political and social asylum to refugees from the Empire."
"Where is that?" Jenny raised an expectant eyebrow, awaiting Sara's answer.
"In the southern Ocean of Peace, there is a large island nation which has been doing just that. That area was originally settled by people from the Old Countries' Union and the northern latitude races, but they have many different cultures there today. They're an independent country and deal with all of the superpowers equally. They're very proud of their neutrality. We'll be safe there. We're going to go there and apply for asylum."
"You mean The Land of Southern Breeze?"
Sara nodded. "Exactly."
"When? I mean, what do we do? I mean, how? God, Sara, how do we do this?" Jeni's excitement was infectious, and Sara found herself smiling so widely that she had slight trouble talking.
"We get leave. We get two tickets. We fly there, then we go to their authorities and declare our intent to seek asylum. Our government can't attempt to reclaim us once we do that."
"But will they take us in? What if they refuse us?"
"They won't have a reason to. Look, we're not dangerous. We'll have our own money, because that's where I've set up my account. We can provide for ourselves. We're young, and won't be a burden to their old age pension system. We're both well educated. We can find work, become part of their country. Eventually, we'll become citizens. Then, we'll be safe forever."
Jeni threw her arms around Sara's neck and squeezed the breath out of her. "Sara, you're a genius." She sat back, then became flustered. "Oh, my money. How do I get it out of the country?"
"I've already set up an account for you. You just transfer it to that account. You can do that in the morning. Since the amount is well under ten thousand, our government won't notice the transfer."
"You've thought of everything, haven't you? So when do we do this?"
"In light of the law just passed, I'd say as soon as possible. Do you have any leave left?"
"Yeah, maybe a week."
"That's enough. Take it. I'm off this station at the end of the lunar month, and due for leave. We go then. Agreed?"
Jeni's face fell. "There's just one thing."
Sara raised an eyebrow. "Yes?"
"You, you're a scientific employee. Me, I'm a military officer. For me, it'll be desertion."
Sara nodded. "I see your problem. I just lose my job. You can lose your life over this."
"I took an oath, Sara. I can't just back out of that."
"Can't you? The Empire hasn't done any favors for you. It's a sick system. They denigrate our religions, our races, and now they've outlawed our love. You don't owe it anything." At Jeni's silence, she added, "Of course, it's your decision." She sat for a moment, then added in a husky whisper, "Whatever you decide, I'll honor and live with. If you want to finish your term of duty first, then we'll find a way."
Jeni rested her forehead against Sara's and wrapped her arms around her neck. "Two more years. We won't make it two more years, will we? They'll find us out and arrest us before that."
"That," Sara responded, "is very likely."
Jeni sighed deeply, turned her head and stared out the port window at the planet in the distance. For several moments, she was silent. When her eyes returned to peruse Sara's face, she spoke defiantly. "Then we go at the end of the month."
Sara's heart nearly jumped out of her chest. Breathlessly, she asked, "Are you sure? Is this really what you want to do?"
"I told you that I'd risk my life for you. That's what I'm doing. God, Sara, I feel so renewed, so full of hope. I see a chance for us, and you gave us that, you damned genius. I love you. I'm with you all the way on this, girl. You're stuck with me. You got a problem with that?"
Jeni crawled into Sara's lap and straddled her legs, kissing her as she wound her fingers into handfuls of the short, sandy hair. When they broke the kiss, she whispered breathlessly, "Enough talk. I want to make love."
As they fell back into the pile of cushions, Sara giggled, then murmured, "You animal."
Sara lay face-down on the cushions, Jeni leaning up on one elbow next to her, their clothing cast aside, a contented, relaxed aura about them, as the station-keeper felt Jeni's fingers stroke her back and heard her voice, tinged with admiration. "Wow, you've been working out. I can feel the muscle."
Sara purred, "Jeni, just for you."
"I love it. I love the way you look, you know."
"I'm glad, and you're blind. I've always been considered homely."
"Uh-uh. You're hot." The hand trailed up her back, then fluffed her hair. She felt a finger touch the tip of her ear and follow its curvature. "And your ears are so sexy."
In the dim light, Jeni could see Sara turn her face to her. "Don't tell me you have a thing for ears."
"Thanks. I consider them my best attribute."
Jeni giggled. "Perhaps one of them."
She heard Sara snicker, then respond, "You dog. So, what are my others?"
The hand trailed down her back, stopping at the top of her buttocks. "Your tail."
"My tail, or my butt?"
"Both. I've never seen a tail before, you know. I love it."
"Never? No other Hawee lovers?"
"None. Why do the Hawee keep them?"
"Oh, the prophet said that they were a mark of divinity. It was forbidden to take them off since ancient times."
Sara noted the impish grin display itself across Jeni's features and awaited the joke which she knew was coming. She didn't have to wait long.
"So, can you do tricks with it?"
Sara nodded. "Yeah. Wanna see?"
"Um, sure." Jeni watched in fascination as the tail waggled back and forth, then up and down. She giggled, then asked huskily, "What else can you do with it?"
"Watch this." At that, the muscles in Sara's back rippled, and the tail stood straight up in the air. "Go for it. Hop on."
Jeni squealed, then popped Sara on her head playfully. "You kinky little Hawee," she giggled, then touched the tail as it relaxed. "My parents took mine off at birth, but that's common. You've noticed the little scar, I know. It's lighter than the rest of me." Jeni giggled again, then shifted slightly, pointing first to her behind, then to her breasts. "Take some off here, and add some here. Yup, that's what we Ancient Orthodox gals do." She looked down at her feet, then wiggled her toes. "Wish they'd made my feet slimmer instead. I have a terrible time finding shoes. A lot of Equatorials do."
Sara grinned, the white teeth showing in the dim light. "No one's happy with how they are."
"Nope. I got my boobs at my Passing ritual, when I was sixteen, same time that they pierced my tribal band into my ear. That's when a child becomes an adult in my religion." She snickered. "Mother said that they would help me get a mate."
Sara turned on her side, facing Jeni, and studied them. "Thank her for me, will you? They're perfect. Not too big, not too small, just right."
"Yeah, she thought so. How'd you like your mother to be bragging to her cronies all over the village about your new boobs? She even made me lift my shirt and show her friends once. It was embarrassing." Jeni paused, then asked, "You didn't augment yours. Is that a Hawee thing?"
"No, a poverty thing. My parents were too poor."
Jeni hummed thoughtfully, then replied, "Well, I'm glad that you didn't. You're perfect just as you are."
"You too, love. I wouldn't trade your cute Equatorial butt for anything." Sara stretched her arms out toward her lover. "Now come here. Be with me. I can't get enough of your touch."
Jeni said nothing to that, just lay down on the cushions and snuggled against Sara's form, her dusky shape entwining with the Sara's golden hues. They wriggled around until they were comfortable, then lay still for some time, an occasional whisper breaking the silence. After some time, Jeni reflected, "Do you think that they'll accept us being together? In the Land of Southern Breeze, I mean?"
"Sure. Why not?"
"Well, look at us. Different races, different religions, same sex..."
"Oh, I imagine we'll meet some prejudice, but what else is new? We've both dealt with that before. At least our love won't be illegal."
"At least. It's going to be an adventure, isn't it?"
Jeni felt Sara's head nod and her voice whisper into her ear, "Perhaps the greatest of our lives."
"I can't wait. I love you, Sara."
"I love you too, Jeni. So much." Sara yawned, then whispered, "Sleep with me, now. Sleep in my arms."
Jeni rolled over, stretched, and yawned. She opened her eyes and noted that the lights were slightly brighter in the central area than when she had fallen asleep. It resembled a gray dawn on the planet's surface. The space next to her was empty; Sara was not there with her.
She looked to her right and noted Sara's form, silhouetted against the large port window. The woman seemed to be gazing out into the cosmos, lost in reflection, her tail slowly moving to and fro as she thought deeply about something. Jeni smiled at the sight, then rose and crept quietly up behind Sara, wrapping her arms about the slender, golden waist. "What's on your mind, love?"
Sara's hands covered the dark ones wrapped about her, and she smiled. "Just thinking. I'm sorry I disturbed you."
"You didn't. It's time for me to awaken." Jeni squeezed affectionately, then giggled as she felt Sara's tail tap at her hip. "You're poking me."
The tail stopped, and Jeni chuckled. "Don't be. I love it." She loosened her grip about the waist and slid around to face Sara. "Is the teakettle on?"
Sara smiled. "Yes, it's hot. I know you're useless in the morning without your tea."
Jeni rested her head on Sara's shoulder. "That's the truth. Say, how's your head? You drank a bit of wine last night. I know that you're not used to drinking."
"Strangely clear. And you?"
"I'm a pilot. We all drink, and none of us will ever admit to a hangover."
Sara laughed. "Well then, shall I make you a cup of tea to chase away the hangover that you don't have?"
"Love, you read my bleary mind."
Sara felt the arms tighten about her and she teased, "You've got to let go of me first."
"Oh, do I? Darn." Jeni lifted her head from Sara's shoulder and they touched noses, then kissed. As they rested their foreheads one upon the other's, Sara heard a slight bleep and a whirr come from the communications table. Her heart jumped a beat and she jerked her head that way. The light on the com table's camera blinked and then lit, a steady wisp of red light.
"Oh, shit. Quick, run!" She grasped Jeni's arms and pulled her almost off her feet, dragging her in a frantic scurry away from the port window and toward the hall leading to the cabin. They entered the hall and leaned against each other, Sara's heart pounding and Jeni's eyes wide in question.
Sara put her finger across Jeni's lips and pressed, shushing her. "Quiet," she whispered.
From the hall, they could hear the com table whirr into life. The artificial voice pleasantly intoned, "Incoming transmission from ground control."
Sara glanced over at Jeni, held up a finger, and whispered, "Don't make a sound. I've got to answer this." She looked down at their nudity, then leaned down and snatched up the blanket from the pile of cushions, wrapping it about her and holding it tightly at her throat. That done, she trotted across the central area and seated herself at the computer, speaking in a calm voice. "On line." The computer whirred, and then Sara spoke. "Nineteen here."
A pleasant voice addressed her. "Good morning, Sara. Everything all right up there?"
Sara attempted to keep her voice calm. "Yes. All's well. You surprised me, calling this early. I was, um, just rising."
"Sorry. Just checking. We'll talk again at the usual time."
"Very well. Anything else?"
"No. Ground control out."
"Station nineteen out." The screen went blank and Sara sat back in the chair, slowly releasing her breath. She reached up with a hand and brushed the sandy hair out of her eyes, then noted that her hand was shaking. Looking toward the hall, she rose and tread softly to the corner. Jeni stood in the hall, leaning against the wall, her eyes wide. Their eyes met and locked.
"What's wrong, Sara?"
"That transmission. It was... most untimely."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that they never call at unusual times unless there's something important."
Jeni's dark eyes searched her face. "Why do you think they called now?"
"Don't know." Sara took in a deep, ragged breath and continued, "But we were standing right in front of the com table camera when it turned on."
Jeni covered her mouth with her hand. "Oh, God above. Do you think that they saw us?"
"Maybe. Maybe not. Sometimes it takes a couple of seconds for the transmission to settle in." She blinked in desperation as she thought, then added, "We can't chance ignoring it, though."
Jeni was almost in tears. "What are we going to do?"
"We have to assume that they saw us. Look, get dressed. Pack your bag. We've got to be ready to leave in a moment. We may have to leave today."
"Oh, Sara, if they saw us..."
"I know, Jeni. I know. Look, just get dressed."
The military police officer studied the documents displayed on his monitor, then turned back to the supply officer sitting nervously in front of his desk. "I don't see any evidence of a crime here. It's all circumstantial, nothing really that unusual."
Tash shrugged. "You're probably right. I just became concerned when I noted the extreme similarities in their leave records and her insistence on re-supplying space station nineteen. I thought..."
The officer nodded. "Hm. They're both single women. Probably just close friends."
"Yeah, that's it, probably. If it is an illegal affair, though, it's illegal three ways: race, religion, and gender. Doesn't that now constitute a felony? It's being committed on government property, too. You do have a duty to investigate criminal activity. I just thought that I'd better bring that to your attention, as well."
"It is your duty, after all." He turned back to the monitor, studied it for a moment longer, and then silently thought, An illicit love affair? I've got more important things to worry about. Still, if something illegal is going on and I don't investigate, it could go badly for me. This supply officer looks just the type to make trouble over this, and I don't need trouble this close to retirement. He sighed and spoke to Tash. "Nevertheless, it wouldn't hurt to just look a little further, I suppose." He ejected the tablet from his monitor, hefted it in his hand, and picked up his cap from his desk. "Come with me. We'll visit the ground control for the space stations and talk to her superior, just to make sure." And I'll prove to him once and for all that nothing's going on with his pilot, so he'll shut up and go away.
The two officers left the military police headquarters, climbed into a police transport and drove the short distance down the road to the building housing the ground control for the space stations. Inside, they walked past rows of monitors, the technical staff behind them sleepily consuming their morning tea, and banged on the door of the chief of stations. A voice behind them asked, "May I help you?"
The military police officer turned and noticed an older man facing him, an intelligent, inquisitive expression on his face. "Are you the chief of stations?"
"May we talk privately?"
The man glanced from one face to the other, then motioned toward his office door. "Surely. Enter."
The military police officer turned to the supply officer, said, "Wait here," and entered the office behind the older man. The door shut behind them, and Tash leaned against the wall, his hands nervously shoved into the pockets of his uniform pants.
Inside, the chief of stations placed his cup of tea down on his desk, motioned to a chair, and sat down. "Now, what can I do for the military police this morning?"
"It's probably nothing, but I'm just checking out a rumor of possible illegal activity."
"Oh? And how can I help?"
The officer kept his formal demeanor, in spite of his easygoing voice. "What can you tell me about the keeper aboard space station nineteen?"
"Nineteen?" He turned, consulted the board on the wall, and raised an eyebrow when he saw the name on the board. "Oh, her. She's one of my best station-keepers."
"Ever had any trouble out of her?"
"No. Never. She's always been very top-notch."
"Ever notice anything, um, unusual about her?"
The man laughed. "All of the station-keepers are unusual in some way. It takes an unusual personality to remain in space for extended periods of time, you know. The average person can't do it." He tapped the side of his head. "Makes 'em crazy, after a while."
"How about this one?"
He shrugged. "She's fiercely independent, at ease with solitude, technically efficient. Many people consider her a bit of an odd duck, though."
"Well, she's Hawee, you know. Odd race, they seem to be. I've known a few. She exercises constantly. Writes poetry, plays a flute, meditates, seems rather esoteric. Nice person, though." He paused, then asked, "Do you think that she's doing something illegal?"
"Don't know. Perhaps. Tell me, does she have any friends?"
"Can't say. She is very private about her personal life. Most station-keepers are rather hermits at heart, though."
"Indeed." The officer's eyes wandered around the office, then settled on the banks of monitors in the chief's office. "Can you contact any of the stations from here?"
"Oh, yes. From my office, I can inquire into their various systems and communicate with any of them without going out into the main room." He pointed at his office door.
"Anything unusual up there this morning on station nineteen?"
The chief rose from his desk and walked to the row of monitors, speaking. "Computer, show me the systems for station nineteen."
"On line." The man perused the blinking monitors, then turned, shaking his head. "Nothing unusual."
The officer rose and stood next to the man. "Can you see the interior of the station from here?"
"Only some of the central area, when we initiate communication with them."
"Then do so, and show me the central area."
"As you wish." He turned and spoke again. "Computer, I wish to speak with station nineteen."
The computer hummed and the synthetic voice replied, "On line."
As the monitor blinked, an image of that portion of the central area of space station nineteen came into view, the light inside reflecting a gray dawn. The chief watched the monitor, then scratched his head nervously. The monitor showed an initial blur of motion, then an empty console, the port window behind it. After several moments, an image of Sara's head and shoulders appeared in the monitor, her body wrapped in a blanket. Her voice echoed, "Nineteen here."
"Good morning, Sara. Everything all right up there?"
He could see the question in Sara's eyes as she replied, "Yes. All's well. You surprised me, calling this early. I was, um, just rising."
"Sorry. Just checking. We'll talk again at the usual time."
"Very well. Anything else?"
"No. Ground control out."
"Station nineteen out."
His monitor blinked and went blank, and he turned to the officer. "Nothing out of the ordinary."
The officer, a puzzled look on his face, offered an observation. "You know these systems much better than I do. Tell me, there was a momentary blur there, just before the image settled in. What was that?"
"Don't know. Perhaps just the link settling in to transmission."
"Is this transmission recorded?"
"Just out of curiosity, play that back for me, will you? Slowly, if you can."
The chief nodded, then spoke. "Computer, play that last transmission back at one-half speed."
"On line." The monitor blinked, and the first seconds of the transmission began playing back in a choppy, slow manner. The officer pointed. "Stop it there."
"Stop," the chief echoed. The images froze. In the image, there was an outline resembling the forms of two people, blurred and without detail.
The officer said, "Play that back, image by image, very slowly."
The chief echoed, "Computer, play the images backward to the start of the transmission, at one-sixteenth time." One by one, images flashed across the screen, the center of them an unrecognizable blur. The officer and the chief watched, and then the officer pointed and ordered, "Stop that there."
"Stop," the chief commanded. The image froze. The officer leaned in close to the monitor, then turned and spoke to the chief. "Tell your computer to enhance that picture to its maximum detail."
The chief took a deep breath, then calmed himself and spoke. "Computer, enhance that image to maximum efficiency."
"Done." The image wiggled, then became more clear. It was grainy, but demonstrated two forms, one dark, one golden, in a lover's embrace, faces close, noses almost touching. They were apparently unclothed.
The officer sighed and thought, I just had to be curious, didn't I? He then turned to the chief of stations and held out the tablet which he had been carrying in his hand. "Transfer that image to this tablet, if you please."
The chief nodded, then took the tablet and inserted it into the computer, speaking the appropriate commands. The machine whirred, then ejected the tablet. The officer plucked it from the chief's hand, then said, "Keep that image up on the monitor." He walked to the office door, opened it, and motioned the supply officer in with a wave of his hand. When the man entered, the military police officer pointed at the monitor and said, "Do you recognize those faces? Is one of them your shuttle pilot?"
The supply officer squinted at the monitor, then stood back, a shocked expression on his face. The officer asked again, "Do you recognize her?"
He stammered, then nodded. "It's grainy, but I think so. That one looks very like the pilot for shuttle twenty-one. I don't know who the other one is."
The officer turned to the chief. "Is that your Hawee station-keeper?"
The old chief nodded slowly, his face a mask of sorrow. "I fear that it is."
The military police officer looked at both men, then spoke solemnly. "Both of you are instructed to keep this confidential. This doesn't leave this room. Understand?" Both men nodded. The military police officer waved at the supply officer, then headed for the office door.
After they left, the chief of stations looked at the monitor once more, then said, "Computer, session is ended." The screen went blank, and the chief wiped his forehead with his shirt-sleeve, muttering, "Oh, dear. Oh, dear. This is terrible. What shall I do?" He paced the floor for several moments, then made his decision. He sat at his desk, opened a drawer, and pulled forth his personal phone, holding it in the palm of his hand. With his other hand, he flipped open a small book, studied a number, and then made a phone call.
Outside, the military police officer raised the door of his transport, then stopped the supply officer with a hand on his arm. "You just had to bring this to me, didn't you?"
Tash stammered, "It was my duty."
"Yeah. Sure. Now, it's my duty to arrest them." He shook his head slowly, his eyes cold. "Thanks a lot. You know, there will probably be a commendation in this for you."
"I didn't do it for that."
"Then why, man? Couldn't you just leave well enough alone?"
"They're breaking the law."
"They're breaking the law by having an innocent affair. A crime of simple human affection. A crime without victims, without malice or violence. A crime of love. Do you know what's going to happen to them when they get convicted for this? Do you?"
"I can't help that. It's our duty."
He scoffed, "Yeah. Our duty. You jackass. I don't know how you can sleep at night. I've got half a mind to kick your ass here and now."
Tash bristled. "You can't talk to me like that."
The officer pointed to the insignia of rank on his epaulette, then leaned in toward Tash's face. "I'm your superior officer. I can talk to you any way I want."
Tash, his mouth agape, studied the grim face of the military police officer. "You're not Fundamental, are you?"
"No. I'm Ancient Orthodox, if it's any of your damned business. Now get in the transport, and I'll drop you at your hanger. I've got a space station to visit and two lives to ruin today, thanks to you. You shit-head."
Sara muttered a curse under her breath, then walked over to the com table and sat in the seat. "Computer."
"Play back that last transmission."
"On line." The screen flickered, and she saw the image of the kindly face of the chief of stations in the monitor. It was not his face that she searched as the transmission played back, however. It was the rest of the image. She noticed another form in the picture's background and said, "Stop there."
The image froze. She peered at the monitor, then studied the figure standing to one side of her supervisor, partially hidden in the background. It wore a military uniform, but she did not recognize the insignia. Her heart pounded in her ears as she studied it, eliminating the possibilities one by one. She actually jumped when she felt a hand rest on her shoulder, then looked up to see Jeni's face peering down at her. She spoke slowly. "Look at him, Jeni. What insignia is that on his uniform?"
Jeni squinted at the monitor, then said, "I can't tell."
Sara looked back at the monitor. "Magnify the right-hand image." The screen blinked, and a grainy picture of the man in the uniform became more focused, larger.
Jeni straightened up, her hand over her mouth. "It's a military police officer."
Sara slammed her hand down on the table. "Shit. I knew it. We're screwed. They've found out about us somehow." She stood, then looked down at Jeni. She was wearing her uniform, but had not yet donned her boots. "Finish dressing. I've got to get my stuff together." She rose and ran across the central area, disappearing down the hall. Jeni glanced once again at the image, then followed Sara into the sleeping cabin.
In a short time, they both re-appeared in the central area, dressed in their respective uniforms and with their bags in their hands. They froze when the com table clicked and whirred, and the synthetic voice intoned, "Incoming transmission." They looked at each other, then Sara stepped forward and slowly sat in the seat.
The screen blinked, and a dark-skinned military officer in a uniform stared out of the monitor. "Shuttle control to space station nineteen."
"This is station nineteen."
"Is shuttle twenty-one still docked at your station?"
"Yes. It's not scheduled to leave until..."
"I know. Let me speak with the pilot."
"Um, yes. She's right here." Sara rose from the seat and waved Jeni over. As she took Sara's place, she addressed the com table, her voice slightly shaky. "Here."
The dark face was expressionless. "Lieutenant, your orders have changed. You are to remain at station nineteen until further notice. Do not leave. Do you understand?"
"Acknowledged. What's up, Tash?"
She watched him shuffle nervously, his eyes glancing away, then flickering back at her. "Don't know. Can't talk about it. Just comply."
"Um, sure. Let me know something as soon as you can, will you?"
"I think you'll find out soon enough. I tried to save you, you know. Shuttle control out."
"Nineteen out." The screen flickered and went blank.
Jeni sat, stunned by the last statement, and then slowly turned to look at Sara. "I'm not quite sure what he meant by that."
Sara stood near the hall, her face a mask of near-panic. "I do. They're on to us." She held out her hand, palm up, to display her small pocket phone. "I just got a call from my boss on my personal phone. It's tied into the satellite systems. He called to warn me." She blinked, and a tear ran down her cheek. "We've been friends for a long time. He could get into deep trouble for what he just did."
"Well, we are in deep trouble. I've just been ordered to remain here. You know what that means? They aren't waiting to arrest us until we get back to the surface. They're coming up here to arrest us. We can't leave, Sara."
"Sure we can. We've got a shuttle. We fly to The Land of Southern Breeze this morning, right now."
"They'll see us. The shuttle transponder will tell them just where we are. They'll intercept us, maybe try to force us down. We can't risk it."
"We have to risk it. Look, can you disable the transponder?"
"Sure. I can just unplug it."
Sara nodded grimly. "Then do it. But first, transfer your money. Use my phone. Call your bank." She placed the phone on the table in front of Jeni, then fished her passport out of her pocket. From it, she withdrew a slip of plastic. "Here's your new account number and bank number. Do it now. Come on, we haven't a moment to lose." With that, Sara turned and strode from the central area. She entered her cabin, took one last look around, and then noticed her flute, lying on the dresser. She grasped it, turned to leave, and then spied Jeni's picture on the wall over her bunk. She reached out, pulled it from the wall and slipped it into her shirt pocket, then left the room.
By the time she returned, Jeni was no longer at the com table. Sara thrust her flute into her bag, quickly cast a glance over the central area, spied the empty wine bottle and the cups, and picked them up. She entered the dining compartment, threw them into the trash compactor, and then hit the 'discharge' button. A muffled thump sounded, and she knew that the trash had been safely blown into space, on a trajectory which would send it into the sun to burn up.
"There. All regulation." She snorted sarcastically at her own need for order at such a time, then picked up both bags and walked over to the com table. Her phone lay on the table, where Jeni had left it for her. She picked it up, dropped it into a pants pocket, and walked down the hall to the port dock. The doors were opened; Jeni was already there, at work.
She entered the shuttle's now-empty cargo bay and slipped through the tight companionway, entering the crew area. It was cramped, lined with instruments and maintenance panels, and contained three chairs arranged in a triangle. The foremost, the pilot's chair, sat by itself at the front. The other two sat slightly behind it, one to either side. Standing near the chairs, Jeni had a maintenance hatch open and was reaching inside. She grunted, pulled, and drew out one end of a wiring harness, it's plug unfastened, allowing it to dangle loosely. "There. Done."
"Are they blind to us now?"
Jeni shook her head. "No. They'll see us from the ground on re-entry. We'll be unidentified, and they'll dispatch fighters to intercept us. Look, they won't shoot until they attempt to identify us visually. We'll just claim a transponder malfunction. It's happened before. It happened a couple of times, when I was in fighters."
"They'll only do that if we're in our country's airspace when we re-enter, right? I mean, if we're over the Ocean of Peace, it's international territory."
Jeni blinked at Sara, then nodded. "Yeah. Damn, you're smart. Good thinking. We re-enter over the ocean, then fly at near zero altitude toward Southern Breeze." Her smile fell when she considered the next point. "But we've no doubt got a battle fleet somewhere in the southern Ocean of Peace. They'll be contacted. They'll dispatch fighters to catch us, maybe even try to shoot us down."
Sara frowned. "For what we're guilty of?"
"No, for felony theft of government property. As soon as we leave, it's direct disobedience to orders and theft of a shuttle. Attempted desertion, for me. They've executed people for stuff like that."
Sara looked around the cramped cabin. "So, how can a fighter fly in comparison to this thing?"
Jeni grinned. "We're built for space, baby. We can kick ass. Them, they're only built for atmospheric flight. I mean, they can outmaneuver us, but we can blow their doors off in speed."
"Think you can get us to Southern Breeze before they shoot us down?"
"Don't know. We've got no weapons systems, but we got protective countermeasures. With some luck and fancy flying, I'll bet we can."
Jeni wormed down into the pilot's seat, scanned the indicators, and punched a few buttons. Systems began coming into operation, rows of lights twinkling back at her. As buzzer sounded, and she hit a flashing button. "Transponder malfunction," she explained. The buzzer silenced itself, and Jeni turned around and attempted a joke. "Damned transponders, always going on the fritz. Let's set our course." She tapped at the yellow navigation panel and spoke. "Nav, plot me a course to re-enter the atmosphere over the northern ice cap."
"Final destination?" the tinny voice asked.
"Intersect with the planet's surface in the middle longitudes of the Ocean of Peace, just south of the equator."
The panel blinked, then responded, "Plotted."
She turned and looked up at Sara. "Okay, we're in standby, systems and power on. We can get out of here in thirty seconds. When do you want to go?"
Sara considered the question, her eyes straying out of the window over the starlit heavens. For several moments, she said nothing. She thought deeply, the slitted pupils in her light eyes contracting and expanding as she stared into the cosmos. Jeni watched her silently, perusing her face and noting the muscles at her temples contract and relax, the vein on her forehead standing out. Finally, Sara spoke, her hand resting on Jeni's shoulder.
"They're probably on their way up here as we speak. If we leave now, they'll see us and intercept us, right?"
"Then here's what we do. We act like nothing's wrong. We wait until their shuttle approaches us. It'll have to dock at the starboard dock, the one nearest the sun. When they fly around that side of the station, we disconnect and take off. They won't see us. We er-enter at your best speed and head for Southern Breeze. With our head start, they won't catch us."
"That won't give us more than a couple minutes' head start."
"Hm. Then we'll have to delay them. I've got an idea. Come on."
They left the shuttle, entered the main area, and sought out the starboard dock. Sara flipped the power on, then adjusted the indicators. When she finished, she explained, "I've set the thing to pressurize at a very slow rate. It'll take 'em ten or fifteen minutes before they can enter."
"That'll work. What other tricks do you have up that sleeve of yours?"
Sara grinned. "One more." She waved a hand, and they both walked to the com table. Sara seated herself and spoke. "Computer?"
"Record this transmission, but do not send it until you receive a docking request. Then, send it in reply. Do not notify ground control of this transmission."
"That is not protocol."
"Override protocol, on my orders."
Sara took a breath, then spoke. "Station-keeper First Class Sara dor vin Conda-Breedan, number two-seven-six-zero."
"Station nineteen here." She paused a few beats, then spoke again. "Welcome. Use the starboard docking area." She waited for some time, then added, "Seems to be a pressurizing problem in the starboard dock. Please wait. It is pressurizing very slowly. I will open the doors when the atmosphere in the entry chamber is acceptable. Station nineteen, out." She paused, then added, "End recording."
Sara rose from her seat. "That ought to frustrate them for a while."
Jeni shook her head. "Damned genius, I keep tellin' you. So, what now?"
"Now, we wait. How about that cup of tea?"
Sara crouched at the starboard dock's control panel, listening carefully. The com table computer crackled, then spoke. "Incoming transmission."
She spoke, looking up at the link on the wall. "Accept."
A voice floated through the air in the station. "Station nineteen, this is shuttle twelve, requesting docking instructions."
Sara said nothing. She heard the com table computer click and her own voice echo through the central area, welcoming the shuttle and directing them to dock on the starboard side of the station. When she felt the thump of the magnetic arms reach out and hold the shuttle, she leaned up slightly, perused the indicators, and tweaked them down a notch more. Then, she hit the pressurizing switch and sprinted down the hall, around the corner, through the central area, and into the port dock. Once inside shuttle twenty-one's cargo bay, she pulled a small, palm-sized keypad from her leg pocket and entered a code. The airlock doors hummed shut.
Jeni's hand slapped the button closing the cargo bay doors, and they wormed their way through the companionway, settling into their seats and fastening their harnesses. Sara entered another code, and the magnetic arms released the shuttle. Jeni looked over at Sara. "Strap in tight and hang on for the ride of your life."
Sara attempted to dispel some of her nervousness with a joke. "I had the ride of my life last night, love."
Jeni snickered, then quipped, "You slut." She grasped the throttle, tapped the systems into active, and the shuttle jerked forward. It executed a smooth turn, then pointed its nose down toward the planet's horizon. Sara looked down at the planet's surface, noting that they did not seem to be moving, and wondered aloud at that.
Jeni looked at the speed indicator. "We're already busting ass. You just can't feel it because we're still weightless."
"How long will it take us to get to the surface?"
"Couple of hours. We have to watch our speed on re-entry. Friction with the atmosphere, you know. I'm already exceeding recommended speed." She glanced over, then added, "Relax. The alloy on this tub's skin can withstand a lot of heat. We'll still be okay."
"Sweetheart, I am in your hands."
"My dream come true." She tapped at the electronic navigator and noted, "Almost in position to attempt re-entry. We'll hit the atmosphere in a few seconds. That's when the fun starts."
"What do you mean?"
"Got to angle it just right, or it could get hairy at this speed. I've set the navigator to have us pierce the atmosphere in a place so that we stay over international waters and reach the surface at the equator, heading toward Southern Breeze." The shuttle shuddered, and Jeni smiled. "Atmosphere, love. Watch the skin heat up. It's neat."
The military police officer stood in the cargo bay of shuttle twelve, his hands locked behind his back, awaiting the okay to enter the station. He scanned the other occupants of the cargo bay. Near him stood a replacement station-keeper and two military policemen. The pilot stuck his head through the companionway and groused, "Some kind of malfunction. Damned dock is taking forever to pressurize. At this rate, we'll be another ten or twelve minutes."
The officer nodded, then turned to face the closed cargo doors. He smiled just slightly, then quickly erased the emotion from his face and shifted his feet on the hard decking, unused to the grip of the artificial gravity.
Jeni squinted in concentration as she gripped the controls tightly, a trickle of sweat winding its way down the side of her face. Sara noted the tension written on her features, but said nothing, not wishing to distract her. She leaned forward slightly and peered out of the canopy. The shuttle's silver skin was glowing bright red, ripples of heat flashing back toward them. She mopped her forehead with her sleeve, noting the rise in cabin temperature. It was becoming stifling.
She peered once again out of the canopy window and saw the horizon of her planet below. It loomed much larger now than she was used to seeing it. Below, she could discern a storm over The Old Countries' Union. The polar ice cap was below them and the bright blue, beckoning waters of the Ocean of Peace were directly ahead, although very far below. She closed her eyes and breathed in the hot cabin air, her hand absent-mindedly reaching to her neck and grasping the multi-faceted sun symbol at her throat. The silence in the cabin was deafening. Neither occupant spoke; only the hum of power and the blink and crackle of instruments was audible.
The cabin's quiet was shattered by a voice on the communications monitor, heavy with foreign accent. "This is Old Countries' Union control. Aircraft entering the atmosphere over the polar cap, identify yourself."
Sara's eyes flashed open. She cast a glance at Jeni, who raised an eyebrow and whispered, "Here's where it gets fun." Aloud, she addressed the monitor, "This is Northern Empire space shuttle twenty-one, re-entering the planet's atmosphere."
The voice responded, "Your transponder beacon is not showing."
"We're having a transponder malfunction."
"Understood. Your speed also appears excessive. You must slow down."
"We're having intermittent multi-system malfunctions. Controls are shaky. We may not be able to comply."
"Understood, twenty-one. Do you require assistance?"
"Thanks, but there's not much you can do for us now. We're maintaining control for the moment."
"Understood, twenty-one. Call if we can help. We'll watch your progress."
"Thank you. Understood. Twenty-one out."
Sara spoke slowly. "Think they bought it?"
Jeni nodded as she squinted ahead. "Sure. For now. Wait until they find out that we're on an unauthorized flight, though. Then, the shit's gonna hit the window."
The pilot of shuttle number twelve stuck his head through the companionway and called to the military police officer, "Sir, you'd better step in here and listen to this com traffic."
Wordlessly, the officer squirmed through the hatch and stepped into the crew area. The communications monitor was crackling with voices. "What's up?" he asked.
The pilot waved at the monitor. "One of our shuttles is making a re-entry without transponder signal, and at incredible speed. The pilot claims systems malfunctions."
"Really? Who is it?"
"Shuttle twenty-one. I thought she had orders to remain here."
The officer turned his back to the pilot, hiding a smile. He asked, "Do you, by any chance, know who the pilot of shuttle twenty-one is?"
"Yes, sir. Cute little firebrand of an Equatorial gal. She's in my squadron. Damn, hope she makes it okay."
"Me, too. Are th- is she in danger?"
"Yes, sir, she sure is. She's bustin' ass through the atmosphere, but she still sounds okay."
"How good a pilot is she?"
One of the best, sir. She's kick-ass." At that, the officer turned and looked at the pilot. "Um, sorry, sir."
"Not a problem. How's the airlock situation?"
"Almost pressurized. Few more minutes."
"Indeed." He seemed to actually chuckle, then added, "Well, let me know when we can enter the space station."
In the cabin of shuttle twenty-one, the temperature had become stifling. Sara felt her chest tighten as she breathed in gulps of hot air. Perspiration dripped down her face and soaked the shirt of her uniform. She looked over at Jeni and asked, "Honey?"
Jeni, squinting, shook the sweat from her face with a shake of her head and answered, "Yeah?"
"What's our skin temperature?"
Jeni glanced down and muttered, "Shit. It's over red-line." She glanced at the yellow monitor in front of her and said, "No one near us. The other shuttle's not following. I'm going to ease off a little, bring the skin temperature down."
The shuttle shuddered and hummed loudly, and Sara felt herself pushed forward against the straps holding her body into the seat. The cherry-red glow of the shuttle's nose lightened slightly, and the shuttle shuddered several more times as Jeni cautiously braked its forward speed. The communications monitor blinked and spoke, the heavily-accented voice addressing her again.
"Northern Empire shuttle twenty-one, we note your forward speed slowing. Are you still in control of your vessel?"
"Affirmative. Systems are working for the moment."
"You have emergency clearance to land at the nearest Old Countries' Union base, if you wish."
"Thank you. Say, are we at war with you guys yet?"
She thought that she could actually hear a chuckle emanate from the com panel, and the voice answered, "Not today. Tomorrow, perhaps. Today, we won't shoot you out of the sky."
"That's comforting. Thank you, Union. We'll let you know."
"Understood, twenty-one. Out."
Jeni cracked a grin at Sara, then glanced down at the control panel. "Whew. Skin temperature is dropping fast. Partly our slower speed, and partly the cold air up here. It's probably fifty below freezing outside."
Sara sat forward, looking out of the cockpit window, and noted the frost beginning to accumulate on the skin of the shuttle. The alloy had returned to its normal shade of silver. Fine fingers of ice were forming and extending themselves from the shuttle's nose back toward their canopy.
"Is the ice dangerous?"
"Nah. Not that little bit. When we get closer to the planet's surface, it'll bake off."
The com monitor spoke again, a Northern Empire accent this time. "Ground Control here. Shuttle twenty-one, respond."
Jeni grimaced. "This is shuttle twenty-one."
"Return to your home base immediately. That is a direct order. Do you copy?"
"Tash, is that you?"
"This is Supply Officer Captain Tash."
Sara looked over at Jeni and saw that her face wore a disgusted expression. "Cannot comply. Controls are shaky. I don't think that we can make it. We'll be lucky to complete re-entry in one piece."
"I repeat, return to your home base immediately, or I will request of the navy to shoot you down. You are on an unauthorized flight."
"Repeat, can't comply. Systems malfunctions."
"What? That's a lie. You're not having any malfunctions. That craft checked out okay yesterday. Now return to this base. Acknowledge."
"I said that I'm having systems malfunctions, and I'm having systems malfunctions. Now get off the air, Tash. You're breaking my concentration. I'm trying to stay alive up here."
"That's insubordination, twenty-one."
Sara thought that she could actually see Jeni's dark features redden. The veins popped out on the sides of her neck. "You want insubordination? I'll give you insubordination. You're a damned supply officer. You don't give a pilot flight instructions. You're not flight qualified. Now shut up and get your skinny ass back in your warehouse where it belongs."
Screams of laughter echoed out of the com panel. Multiple hoots and jeers answered, accompanied by several voices, both male and female, shouting, "Yeah. Get outta here, Tash." Then, it went silent.
Jeni looked over at Sara, who was studying her with an expression somewhere between startled shock and pure love, and shrugged her shoulders. "Gee. Can't go back now, can I?"
The docking bay doors of space station nineteen were finally opened and the military police officer stepped into the corridor, still grinning from eavesdropping on the last conversation. He motioned to the two policemen by his side and said, "Search the station. Arrest the station-keeper and bring her to me." The men nodded and separated, each going to a different part of the station, while the officer stood at the port window and gazed down upon his home planet.
After several minutes, they returned. "Sir, no one is here."
"Right. Have you checked the gravity-free portions of the station?"
The shuttle pilot walked around the corner, stopping near the officer. "Port dock is clear. Shuttle twenty-one is gone, all right."
"Shall we pursue it?"
The officer, not taking his eyes off the planet, asked, "Do you really think that you can catch up to it?"
"Probably not, sir. She's got quite a head start on us. I suppose that we should try, though."
He sighed. "I suppose. All right, let's at least make a show of it, shall we?"
"I'll ready the shuttle."
The space shuttle squadron's commander stepped into the operations room, attracted by the ungodly racket. He stood in the door, hands on hips, and looked around at several of his pilots laughing and joking among themselves. A pilot noticed his presence and shouted, "Attention!"
At that, the roar of voices ceased and all in the room snapped to order.
The squadron commander asked, "What's going on here?"
One of the pilots answered, "Sir, just skylarking."
"You've got a lounge for that. Where's Tash?"
"Right behind you, sir."
The commander stood aside and motioned Tash into the room. He entered, seeming extremely agitated, and stood at attention. "What's going on here, Tash?"
"Sir, one of our shuttles is making an unauthorized re-entry without transponder signals. The pilot claims systems malfunctions, but I think she's lying."
"Why would one of my pilots do that?"
"She's a lawbreaker, sir. Fugitive from justice. She's evading arrest."
The commander seemed surprised at that. "What? Who is it?"
"Shuttle twenty-one, sir."
The commander walked over to the board and gazed at it, then turned to look at Tash. "Shuttle twenty-one is supposed to return this afternoon. She's on schedule. It's not an unauthorized flight. What are you talking about?"
Just then, the com table crackled into life, the heavily-accented voice clear in the operations room's tense atmosphere. "Union here. Northern Empire shuttle twenty-one, we track you as descending toward the Ocean of Peace. Your speed is still excessive. Are you still experiencing systems malfunctions?"
Jeni's voice was recognizable on the speaker. "Affirmative. She's beginning to answer controls now, though."
"Understood. If you need emergency landing in Old Countries' Union territory, just let us know."
"Thanks much. Twenty-one out."
The commander listened to the exchange, then turned to the ranking pilot in the room. "Has she been having systems malfunctions?"
"Yes, sir. Her transponder's out. Controls are shaky. She hit the atmosphere going like a bat out of hell. At that speed, that shuttle must have gotten red-hot. I'll bet it was cookin' in there. She survived, though. She should be nearing the surface now."
"Somewhere near the equator, in the Ocean of Peace."
"Plot where she should strike the water. I'll alert the navy. They may have something within steaming distance. They can search for survivors if..."
Tash spoke now. "I've already alerted the navy, sir. I've requested fighters to meet her."
"What? Why? She needs assistance, not fighters. She's got a crippled shuttle."
"I have reason to believe that she's lying, sir. She's a fugitive from justice. She's attempting escape. I've dispatched another shuttle to station nineteen with the military police aboard to arrest her."
The commander colored slightly. "I think, Tash, that you'd better step into my office and explain this to me." He motioned toward the door and added, "Now, Tash."
They entered the office and closed the door. The pilots in the operations room remained silent and cast glances from one to another, awaiting the explosion. It came very soon. The commander's voice was quite audible from behind the closed door and echoed through the operations room.
"What? You asked the navy to shoot down one of my aircraft in distress? A space shuttle that cost four million credits to build? With one of my best pilots aboard? Why in hell did you do that, Captain? And I warn you, this had better be good." The room silenced for a moment as the commander awaited Tash's response. The pilots gathered in the operations room cast glances at each other and at the closed door. At Tash's muttered reply, the commander's voice pierced the air, louder than before. "Because you think she's screwing somebody? I can't believe this, Captain. I leave you in command for one morning and I walk into chaos? You're relieved of duty. Get out of my sight! By God, you're going to be handing out cartons of dog-shit in the worst duty station I can find for you. Now, get out of here. Dismissed!"
All present in the operations room watched silently as Tash, grim-faced, left the commander's office and quickly exited the room, his eyes not meeting anyone else's. In a few seconds, the commander's door opened. He stood, his eyes still ablaze, and searched the faces of the people in the room until he found his clerk. "Get me the office of the chief of naval operations on the com, will you? Send it into my office when you get him."
"And bring me something for my headache."
"Yes, sir. Right away."
"I can see the ocean quite clearly now. We're gaining awfully fast."
Jeni nodded. "We have to make this look good. I'm braking some more, and then we'll level out just above the water and head south. I want to stay below detection altitude. They'll think that we crashed into the water."
"What is detection altitude?"
"Oh, my God."
Jeni grinned. "Relax. Piece of cake. Hang on, love." She hit the braking systems and pulled back the throttle, and Sara was slapped forward in her seat, her body straining at the harness. Her head snapped down almost to her chest, and then she felt herself squashed down into her seat until she could hardly breathe. The crushing sensation lasted several seconds, and then slowly eased away. She felt her stomach quiver and rise slightly in her throat, and took several deep breaths to still it.
Jeni's voice rang in her ear. "You can open your eyes now."
Sara blinked her eyes open, then looked out of the cockpit window. The whitecaps of the Ocean of Peace appeared just below them, so close that she felt that she could reach out and touch them. "Did we do it?"
Jeni nodded. "You bet."
"I didn't think that we would."
"To tell you the truth, for a minute, I didn't, either."
"Where are we?"
Jeni looked over at her navigation panel and answered, "Just south of the equator in the middle of the Ocean of Peace. Cruising at twenty-five above sea level, heading due south at speed three fifty. Now, where's this Land of Southern Breeze?"
"Should be straight ahead."
"So, what city?"
"Um, the capitol. It's on the northern coast."
"Right." Jenny leaned forward, tapped at the navigation monitor and the yellow light blinked back at her. "Navigation, give me a heading for the Land of Southern Breeze. Capitol city."
Jeni nodded. "Okay, I've got the course. Should be there in, oh, couple of hours at this speed."
"Can't you go faster?"
Jenny seemed surprised at that. "Well, yeah, but it gets really dangerous at wave-top like this. One slight error, and..."
"Forget I said anything."
The communications monitor spoke, the heavily-accented voice addressing them. "Shuttle twenty-one? Union here. Shuttle twenty-one, respond, please."
Jeni held up a finger, indicating the need for silence. Sara nodded, an immediate understanding showing upon her face. They couldn't answer now; if they did, the world would still know that they were alive. They had to play dead, make the world think that they had disintegrated upon impact with the ocean's surface. They weren't safe from arrest until they were safely in airspace belonging to the Land of Southern Breeze.
"Shuttle twenty-one? Are you there? Please respond, shuttle twenty-one." A long silence followed, and then she heard the transmission close.
Sara sighed. "Too bad. I rather liked him."
"Me, too. Hey, keep an eye on this monitor, will ya? If you see any blips, holler. I've got to concentrate on flying. I'm getting tired."
Aboard shuttle number twelve, the military police officer gazed out the window, watching his re-entry into the planet's atmosphere. The planet loomed large before him. He spoke to the pilot. "Do you see them?"
"No, sir. We're following the last course I plotted on them, the one they were on just before re-entering the atmosphere."
"If we continue in this direction, where will it take us?"
"We're over the northern polar cap now. If we continue south, we'll find the ocean's surface around the equator."
"The equator, you say? And if we continue south after that?"
"The Land of Southern Breeze."
The officer smiled to himself. Aloud, he said, "I hear it's a nice place to visit."
Sara admired the ocean, the whitecaps reaching up toward them as they sped by, the fluffy white clouds scudding across the intense blue sky. "It's a beautiful day, isn't it?"
Jeni nodded. "Getting more that way with every moment." A bleep sounded, and her black eyes flickered down at the navigation monitor. "Shit. A formation of something ahead."
"What is it?"
"Not aircraft. Too slow. It's got to be a fleet of ships. Man, look at the size of the one in the middle. That's got to be an aircraft carrier."
Sara leaned forward, studying the yellow panel. "Whose fleet is it? Can you tell?"
Jeni squinted, then nodded. "Northern Empire."
"What should we do?"
Jenny banked the shuttle to the left. "Avoid 'em."
Aboard the Northern Empire aircraft carrier Resplendent, a sailor motioned to the officer of the watch. "Sir, something intermittent on the monitor. Just came up, then disappeared, then came up again."
He leaned over the sailor's shoulder. "What do you make it to be?"
"It's going fast. No ship. Almost sea level. No transponder markings. It's either a missile, or an aircraft trying to avoid detection."
"Well, that's the thing. It was headed straight for us, but now it's veering east."
"North-east of us? Fix its course and speed. I'll alert the bridge." He stood and addressed an overhead com panel. "Bridge? There's an unidentified blip on the monitor. We believe that it's a rogue aircraft or a missile."
"Send it up here."
The sailor nodded. "Already done, sir." They waited, watching the blip repeatedly disappear and then re-appear, and after several moments, heard an alarm sound and a voice echo throughout the ship.
"Scramble. Pilots on alert, man your fighters."
The sailor looked up at the officer. "Guess they're going after it, huh?"
He nodded. "Looks that way."
Jeni's eyes jerked away from the horizon as the navigation panel bleeped. At the same time, Sara's eyes traveled over to the yellow lights. She pointed at the cluster of five blips approaching them from one side. "What's that?"
Jeni spat out the word, "Fighters."
"Does it matter?" She studied the monitor for a few seconds, then swore an oath under her breath. "They came out of nowhere. Damn, this is going to be close. Hang on."
Sara felt the shuttle rise from the waves and watched as Jeni gripped the throttle, slapping it forward. She was squashed back into her seat with the force of the acceleration. The forward speed numbers rattled by quickly on the indicator, then the shuttle shuddered as they broke the sound barrier. "We'll try to outrun 'em."
"Do you think that we can?"
"Them, yeah. Their missiles, I don't know."
"We're higher now. Can they detect us?"
"Yeah. Everybody can see us now. Had to, love. If we hit a wave going supersonic, we'll..."
The communications panel spoke to them. The heavily-accented voice asked, "Union here. Shuttle twenty-one? Is that you?"
Jeni shrugged, whispered, "What the hell," and replied, "Affirmative."
"Thank God. I feared that you were lost. Are you still experiencing malfunctions?"
"You might say that."
"There are aircraft closing on you from your starboard, distance, two hundred. Be advised."
"I see 'em. Thanks."
Another voice broke in. "This is the Northern Empire battle group Resplendent. Unidentified aircraft over the southern Ocean of Peace, identify yourself and your intent."
Jeni shook her head, then responded, "This is the Northern Empire space shuttle twenty-one. We are experiencing multiple systems malfunctions. Our transponder is down. Our flight controls are intermittent. We're doing our best to keep her in the air."
"Twenty-one, can you attempt to slow down? You're traveling at an incredible rate of speed."
"Negative. It's going crazy. I'm just trying to stay alive here."
The radio was silent for a minute, and then the voice returned. "Shuttle twenty-one, your flight has been reported as unauthorized. We have orders to shoot you down unless you return to Northern Empire airspace immediately. Do you copy?"
"Yeah, I copy. You guys are going to have to catch me first." She glanced down at the monitor and noted the group of fighters now behind her, losing distance. She smiled wickedly, a smile which fell from her face when the heavily-accented voice came over the panel. "Twenty-one, be advised that there is a missile launch against you."
Sara's heart fell at the voice. She glanced over at Jeni, who was now beginning to perspire heavily. "Can we outrun them?"
"Don't know, love." She watched the yellow panel, then reached out and flipped several switches. "Look, these are the missile countermeasures. When the missiles get to a distance of fifty from us, hit that." She pointed to a red, rectangular button.
"Right." She leaned forward and squinted at the yellow panel. "How do I know their distance?"
"I'll tell you when."
For several agonizing moments, silence reigned in the shuttle. No words were spoken; only the hum, vibration and rattle of the shuttle at maximum speed kept them company. Finally, Sara whispered, "Jeni, they're awfully close."
"Not yet. Another fifty." Her dark eyes flickered back and forth between the horizon and the yellow panel, and then she spoke. "Now."
Sara hit the button. The shuttle shook, and a muffled explosion sounded throughout the craft as the countermeasures deployed themselves. Jeni banked the shuttle hard left until the port wing was pointing directly down at the ocean , then executed a gut-wrenching turn, one which jammed Sara down into her seat until she could hardly breathe. The shuttle twisted and banked steeply right, the other wing facing down toward the ocean now, and Jeni tugged back on her controls. Once again, Sara felt herself jammed down into her seat. She slowly turned her head and glanced at the yellow monitor. One by one, the cluster of missiles disappeared from the yellow screen. She spoke, her voice a weak waver. "It's working, I think."
"Good. Now, the hairy part. Let's make them think we're dead." Jeni dipped the nose of the craft and brought it down until it almost touched the ocean's whitecaps. They were whizzing past the shuttle's window at a frightening speed. The shuttle was vibrating and rattling from the intense forward speed now, the numbers on the speed indicator still slowly marching forward. Jeni squirmed in her seat, loosened her grip slightly on the controls and was just deciding to attempt to breathe again when Sara's horrified voice reached her ears.
"There's one that got through."
"What?" Jeni's eyes flickered toward the screen. A lone missile was still there, gaining on them. "Shit, I can't fly any faster."
"Can we avoid it?"
"No. It's locked on to us, and at this speed, tight evasive maneuvers will tear this tub apart."
"We only had one load."
Sara felt her blood run cold. "What can we do?"
"Hope that it runs out of juice before it hits us. Hang on tight. When its fuel empties, it'll explode. Could shake us up bad, even if it doesn't hit."
Sara's eyes traveled to the yellow monitor and stayed fixed upon the blip which was closing with them. It was so very close now, gaining, persistently and slowly gaining, and it seemed that in a few more seconds, it would touch them. She reached up and grasped the sun symbol hanging under her neck, closing her hand tightly about it. Her blood pounded in her ears and her fear rose in her throat and chest, an unwelcome, hideous portent of death.
The shuttle rocked and jerked, and the multiple blare of alarm buzzers sounded. Jeni struggled with the controls, her eyes wide and her face dripping sweat. She began jabbing at the myriad flashing lights on the panel, the buzzers and alarms silencing one by one. She pulled up slightly on the controls, and the nose of the shuttle rose into the air slightly, the waves receding beneath them. Sara watched her in horrified silence, then whispered, "What happened?"
"Got to shut down the starboard power. It's going haywire. We could flame in a minute." Jeni slapped at the console, throwing switches, and then eased back on the throttle. Once again, Sara felt the shuttle decelerate, pressing her forward against her harness.
"Why are we slowing down?"
"We lost half our power."
"It hit us?"
Jeni shook her head as she concentrated on maintaining her reduced speed and very low altitude, and on keeping control of the shuttle. "No. If it had hit us, we wouldn't still be in the air. It must have detonated near us. Killed our starboard power. God knows what else." She wiggled the controls, and the shuttle responded by rocking back and forth. "Controls are still okay, I think."
The heavily-accented voice drifted out of the communications panel. "Union here. Shuttle twenty-one? Are you all right?"
Jeni snickered, in spite of her tension. "Affirmative. We're damaged, but we're still in the air."
"Thank God. Be advised that the fighter group is breaking off from their pursuit. No more missile launches are detected."
Jeni smiled, then said, "Understood. Thanks, whoever you are."
"Of course. Old Countries' Union here. Nice flying, twenty-one."
"It's what I do best."
"Oh, and be advised of a land mass ahead of you. You might want to gain some altitude if you can."
"What?" Both Sara and Jeni glanced out of the canopy and noted the tan and green outlines of a large expanse of land on the horizon in front of them. Jeni spoke. "Can you identify the land mass for me, Union?"
The voice laughed. "The Land of Southern Breeze. We are alerting them that you are approaching, as your transponder is not working. I recommend that you contact them yourself, as you will be in their airspace very soon. Good luck to you. Union out."
Jeni eased back on the throttle some more, and the forward speed indicator numbers rolled backward. Soon, they were maintaining a very slow and leisurely path toward the land. "Sara, can you reconnect the transponder?"
"Won't the Empire fighters see us then?"
A wide grin crossed Jeni's sweat-stained face. "Doesn't matter. We'll be in Southern Breeze airspace in a couple of minutes."
Sara released the harness constricting her body and rose on weak legs, reaching into the open panel and inserting the wiring harness into the black box marked 'transponder'. A bleep sounded on the control panel in front of Jeni, and she nodded satisfactorily. "Time to call our new neighbors." She tapped at the communications console and then said, "Southern Breeze, this is Northern Empire space shuttle number twenty-one, requesting emergency landing instructions. Please respond."
The console blinked, and another voice, this time with a different accent, replied, "Southern Breeze air control here, twenty-one. We see your transponder signal on our monitors. What is your emergency?"
"Missile strike. Damaged aircraft. I'm flying on half power. Request landing instructions."
"Understood, twenty-one. Elevate to one thousand and steer one-four-five."
"One-four-five and one-thousand," Jeni repeated. She lifted the shuttle's nose and then eased the shuttle into a gentle bank. As the deck sloped, Sara staggered, then fell into her seat again, fastening the harness about her and pulling the straps tight.
Outside the window, the land was very near. They could see a city in the distance, and even discern wide beaches washed by deep blue waves capped with white foam. The whitecaps passed them by very slowly now, almost leisurely.
Sara peered over at the control panel. "What's our speed?"
"A hundred and ten. Thought we'd sight-see a little. Anything behind us?"
Sara glanced at the yellow panel. "Nope."
Jeni replied, "We're in their airspace now." She glanced at Sara. "It's all over but the shouting, love."
In the space shuttle hanger, an uproarious cheer arose from the pilots gathered around the com monitor. The squadron commander threw the door of his office open and roared, "What the hell are you people cheering about? I just lost a space shuttle and my best pilot. They'll both be interned in a neutral country. We'll play hell getting them back. Now let's have silence out here." He slammed the door, returned to his desk, and sat down heavily. After a moment, he propped his feet up on the desk, swallowed two more pills for his pounding headache, and muttered, "That was some damned fine flying, Lieutenant."
In space shuttle twelve, the pilot looked back at the military police officer. "Sir, the transponder for twenty-one came on line. I have their exact position now."
He looked up. "Where are they?"
"Approaching the coast of Southern Breeze, near the capitol city."
"Can we catch them before they get into their airspace?"
"No, sir. They're there now."
"All right. Let's land at their airport, then. I'll have to speak with their authorities, I suppose."
Jeni began lifting the nose of shuttle number twenty-one just slightly, attempting to gain altitude, when a cacophony of alarms began piercing the air in the compartment. Her face paled, and she wiggled the throttle and slapped desperately at the control panel. Sara watched her in shock, then asked, "What is it?"
Jeni's face betrayed horror. "Port power just crapped out. Hang on, Sara, it's going to get rough."
She struggled to keep the nose of the shuttle elevated, but was losing control of the craft as its forward speed declined. The sea rushed up at them, the gleaming beach in the distance, the white buildings on the horizon beyond that beckoning to them, looming larger. As Jeni struggled with the controls, she shouted, "We're gonna hit water. Hang on." She took one hand off the controls, reached out, and slapped a large button on the side of Sara's chair. Sara felt the straps tighten around her almost to the point of suffocation and a padded device clapped itself around her head, holding it immobile. From the corner of her eye, she could see Jeni strike a similar button on her own chair. From that moment on, all she could see was Jeni's hands on the controls, desperately attempting to keep the shuttle on an even keel. As if in a dream, she thought that she could hear her lover's voice, a frantic, hoarse, high-pitched shout. "Southern Breeze, this is twenty-one. Total power loss. We're going down hard and fast. Mayday, Mayday."
Sara's later recollections of the next events were fuzzy. For several moments, she felt herself shaken and whirled, straps pressing against her chest, head painfully gripped by the head restraint. She opened her eyes and watched a sheet of water splash across the canopy. Then, an expanse of white sand appeared in front of them. The shuttle rocked and twisted again, and only blue sky was to be seen, then the nose dipped and the shuttle hit something with a bone-jarring thud, a fine spray of white and tan sand mixed with foamy water coursing across the canopy. She lost consciousness for a moment, and when she came to, she felt dizzy and nauseated. Her ears buzzed and she was disoriented. Her head felt as if it were being crushed from the press of the head restraint. She attempted to concentrate and remember where she was, but all she could do for several seconds was think, Where am I? What happened? She attempted to take a deep breath to clear her head, but coughed as she inhaled the acrid smoke of burning electronics.
Jeni slapped at the release button on her seat and sighed as the harness fell away and the head restraint opened, allowing her to look around. Sara was still encased in her crash equipment. With a shaky hand, Jeni reached over and hit the release button on Sara's seat, then pulled herself to her feet. She glanced around at the crew's compartment. Smoke was pouring out from under several of the maintenance panels. She staggered over to one bulkhead, jerked the fire extinguisher from it's mount and flipped open a panel. Tongues of flame flickered out toward her, along with showers of sparks and clouds of dense smoke. She coughed, then leveled the extinguisher and sprayed a cloud of chemicals into the nearest compartment. The fire went out.
Sara collapsed forward in her seat, then slowly turned her head and looked over at Jeni. Her mouth moved, and for a moment, no words were forthcoming. Finally, she asked weakly, "Did we make it?"
Jeni looked over her shoulder. "I think we did, love."
"Oh." Sara blinked, then mumbled, "That's nice. I was getting worried for a minute."
Jeni began laughing outrageously, shrill peals of laughter filling the cabin as she kicked open the second panel and jumped back. She cursed very colorfully, then sprayed the second panel. The flames died, but clouds of foul smoke flooded the cabin, sending her into a fit of coughing.
Sara wiped at her face with a shaking hand and looked over at Jeni. She saw her coughing, a fire extinguisher in her hand, and kicking at an access panel. It fell open, and a flash of flames jumped out at her, causing her to back up. Sara's heart leapt into her throat at the sight, and she summoned a strength that she did not realize she possessed. In a single motion, she leapt from her seat and gathered Jeni into her arms, pulling her away from the flaming panel.
Jeni coughed, then motioned to the nearby bulkhead. "Another... extinguisher. Get it."
Sara saw the extinguisher. She pulled it from its wall mount and pointed it toward the flaming panel, then pulled the trigger. A white cloud of chemicals spewed out of the bottle, filling the panel, and the flames flickered out. She slowly approached the panel, then looked inside. The flames were out, but it was still smoking. The stinging clouds of smoke made her hack and her chest ache. She looked around, seeking Jeni. The pilot was not beside her, and it was becoming difficult to see in the smoke-filled shuttle. "Jeni? Jeni, where are you?"
Jeni's voice answered, "Over here. Shutting down power."
Sara squinted through the smoke. Jeni was at the controls, slapping at switches and shutting down all remnants of power throughout the craft. When she finished, she straightened up, turned, and stumbled into Sara's arms. The smoke was becoming oppressive; their eyes burned, their lungs ached and they were both racked with fits of coughing.
Jeni tapped her hand on Sara's chest and wheezed, "Come on. Let's get out of here."
Sara looked around the compartment, but did not see a hatch. "How, Jeni?"
"Over... here." Jeni took her by the hand and led her to the center of the compartment, then reached up and opened a panel. She tugged at a lever, and the emergency hatch in the top of the compartment blew off with a resounding bang, revealing blue sky overhead. The smoke in the cabin began pouring out of the hatch. A flexible ladder tumbled down from the ceiling to touch the floor at their feet. Jeni pointed up. "Go on. I have to call Southern Breeze."
Sara grasped Jeni's face with both hands and replied, "I'm not leaving without you."
Jeni looked into Sara's face and saw the earnest, worried expression. "Stubborn, stubborn. Okay. Just take a minute." She turned from Sara's grasp and staggered over to the communications panel, tapping a switch. It lit up. She wheezed, "Shuttle twenty-one to Southern Breeze," and then waited. A voice came back to her.
"This is Southern Breeze. You disappeared from our monitors. Are you all right?"
"We have made an emergency landing. I don't exactly know where we are."
"Your transponder signal is not working."
"Hang on a minute. I'll activate the emergency beacon." She returned to the center of the cabin, reached up and pulled a panel open. She pressed a button and a hum sounded, then a bleep. She turned toward the controls and shouted, "Do you have that, Southern Breeze?"
The voice responded, "Yes, we have it. We are dispatching rescue now. Are you injured?"
"No, we're all right."
"How many aboard your aircraft?"
Jeni looked over at Sara, then replied, "Two souls on board."
Sara, leaning against the escape ladder, shook her head. "Nope. Two people on board, but only one soul."
Jeni looked over at Sara. For a long moment, she said nothing, just blinking her eyes in response to the clouds of acrid smoke which still swirled about the cabin. Then, she spoke from her heart, her voice hoarse. "Sara, of all the beautiful things you've said to me in the last four months, that is by far the most beautiful."
Sara smiled at Jeni, a sweet, almost shy smile. "Really?"
"Really." She crinkled her nose in humor and added, "Now, can we get the hell out of here?"
"Oh. Quite right." She looked up at the blue sky through the hatch, then reached out a hand to Jeni.
"You first. I'll hand you our stuff." Jeni opened a locker, pulled out their two bags, and placed them by the ladder. She motioned for Sara to exit.
"You coming?" Sara asked.
"Right behind you. I'm not losing you now."
The Hawee pulled herself hand over hand up the ladder and climbed out onto the skin of the shuttle, reaching down into the hatch and hauling up two bags. As she sat, shielding her eyes from the bright, warm sunlight, Jeni poked her head out of the hatch, then slowly, painfully pulled herself up to sit next to Sara. She looked around her, a slow expression of shock coming over her at what she saw.
The shuttle had buried its nose, almost to the canopy, into the sparkling sand of a wide beach. Remnants of waves sloshed around the stern of the vessel and the roar of the ocean was audible just behind them. As she slowly scanned her craft from canopy to tail, she tapped Sara on the arm. "Holy crap. Look at that, Sara."
"Huh?" Sara slowly turned to look in the direction which Jeni had indicated. The stern of the shuttle and much of the tail assembly was riddled with holes. The starboard power supply, just below the tail, had a large, blackened hole in it. She squinted and shielded her eyes from the sun, studying the damage. "What did that?"
Jeni wiped the sweat from her face with her sleeve. "Missile. It must have detonated not more than several lengths from us."
Sara was aghast. She stared at the damage, then at Jeni's face. "We almost died, didn't we?"
Jeni's smoke-reddened eyes twinkled and her nose wrinkled slightly as she replied, "Nah. The navy never could shoot straight."
Sara cast an astonished look at Jeni, then felt a grin slowly spreading out over her face. In response, Jeni started chuckling. It became infectious, for soon both women were cackling in laughter, leaning against each other, their arms around each other's shoulders. When their laughter subsided, they remained sitting close together, perched atop the wrecked craft, their arms about each other, their faces very close. Their eyes locked, black eyes upon the smoke-streaked, golden face and light eyes, and Sara whispered, "God, how I love you, Jeni."
"I love you too, you worrywart. Now, shut up and kiss me."
And kiss they did, lost to all but each other's touch, feeling soft lips and each other's fingers trailing over their sweat-stained, smoky faces. As they kissed, they thought that they heard a roar of shouting and applause in the distance. Reluctantly, their faces parted and they looked around them, gasping in surprise.
Gathered around the shuttle, standing at some distance, were crowds of beach-goers, milling about and watching them, clapping and cheering with gusto and smiles. Jeni chuckled to see Sara's ears blush bright red under the stains of sweat and smoke on her face and hair and joked, "Gee. We have an audience, I think."
Jeni pointed. "Not only that, but look. I think that's a news camera crew. See their transport?"
Sara squinted. "Where?"
"There. Don't you see it?" Jeni noted the Hawee shielding her light eyes from the bright sunlight and wearily enquired, "Sun getting to you?"
Sara nodded. "The light. Not used to it yet."
Jeni fished in a pants pocket and produced a pair of sunglasses. Snapping them open, she handed them to Sara. "Here, try these."
"You don't need them?"
"Nah. Equatorial eyes, you know."
"Thanks." She accepted the glasses and slipped them onto her face, then looked over at Jeni. "What's so funny?"
"You look so sexy in my sunglasses."
Sara smiled at that. "I thought for a minute that you were going to make a joke about them not fitting my ears."
"That was next."
Sara weakly punched Jeni's arm, then muttered, "Dork."
Jeni smiled, then wearily gestured toward the rolling waves in the distance, waves dotted with surfers. "I really am looking forward to learning how to surf."
Sara looked down at the shuttle beneath them, partially buried in the sand. Her head turned to consider the waves crashing just behind them, and she replied, "Jeni, love, I think you just have."
The immigration official sat behind his desk, speaking pleasantly to the Northern Empire military police officer seated in front of him. "Here in Southern Breeze, we are fiercely proud of our neutral status, you know. We currently have no extradition treaty with your country."
The officer nodded. "I'm aware of that. It is my duty, however, to request extradition."
The immigration official nodded. "And mine to refuse it. They've applied for asylum, you know. Until their case is ruled upon, they are under our protection."
"Of course. I had anticipated that they would. Oh, I'll need a copy of their letter requesting that for my report."
"We'll give you one."
The immigration official's secretary stuck his head in through the office door. "Sir, may I interrupt you?"
He looked up from his desk. "What is it?"
"Er, could you come out here for a moment?"
The immigration official shrugged apologetically, then rose. "You'll excuse me?" The officer nodded, and the man stepped from his office. "What's the matter?"
The clerk closed the door, then whispered, "Sir, we have a problem."
"The law regarding the granting of asylum. The devil is in the detail, sir. Look here." He held up a tablet. "We can grant permanent asylum to the Hawee immediately, based upon her status as a member of a historically-persecuted religious minority. The pilot, however, is another matter."
The official grasped the tablet and scanned the writing. "Hm. I see what you mean. The Equatorial race and members of the Ancient Orthodox sect are not included in the current list of those eligible for immediate asylum." He looked up at the secretary's face. "They're lovers, aren't they? Does that help us in any way?"
"That hasn't yet been included in the list for asylum. And, sir, she's a Northern Empire military officer. She's now a deserter. That's not sufficient grounds for asylum. Desertion is also a capital offence in the Northern Empire. The Asylum Board is leery of granting asylum to people fleeing arrest for capital crimes, whatever their circumstances."
The official sighed. "Looks like the best we can do for her is provisional asylum. The board may deny her request for permanent asylum. We just may have to give her back eventually. As a deserter, the Empire will execute her." He thought, then looked down at the tablet again. "Wait a minute. It says here, '...and their immediate families'." He looked up at the clerk. "If they're married, the pilot would be granted permanent asylum based upon being the Hawee's legal spouse, am I right?"
"Well, man, are they married?"
"I doubt it, sir. That's illegal in the Northern Empire."
The official opened his office door and stuck his head into the room, addressing the military police officer. "You will excuse me for a moment more? Something urgent has come up. I'm so sorry to keep you waiting."
The voice inside the office responded, "No problem. I'll be glad to wait."
"Thank you. I won't be long, I assure you." He shut the door, then pulled his secretary by the sleeve. "Come on. Let's go talk to them. Are they still in the quarantine area?"
The secretary nodded. Both men tramped down the hall, entering a large room. In a corner, Jeni and Sara sat, reclining wearily on a couch, cups of tea in their hands. They looked up when the two men entered.
The official spoke. "A slight hitch has come up."
They stood. Jeni and Sara looked at each other, and Sara asked, "What kind?"
The official briefly explained the dilemma, both women's faces paling slightly as he did so. He paused, then asked, "Tell me, are you two legally married?"
Jeni stammered, "No. We can't be joined. We're of different religions, different races, and of the same sex. All of that is forbidden in the Empire."
The official grimaced. "Shame. If you were, we could grant you..." He pointed to Jeni. "Immediate asylum based on your being the spouse of a Hawee. As it is, your request for permanent asylum will probably be denied. We may be forced to repatriate you after that." He then turned to Sara. "You, however, being of the Hawee race and religion, can be granted immediate and permanent asylum."
Jeni clapped a hand over her mouth. "This can't be happening."
Sara gasped, "Do you know what will happen to her if she's taken back to the Empire?"
He nodded slowly, sadly. "I can well imagine."
Sara reached out and grasped the official's arm. "Look, your marriage laws make no distinction in race, religion or gender, do they?"
He looked at her. "That's quite true."
"And there's no waiting period required to be married in Southern Breeze, is there?"
He smiled broadly. "A brilliant idea." He turned to his secretary. "Are you, by chance, a notary?"
"No, sir, but Drena is. She's just down the hall."
"Get her now. Tell her to bring the proper documents with her, and then stall that officer."
The secretary nodded, turned, and briskly walked from the room. The official cleared his throat nervously, then raised an eyebrow at the two women before him. "Um, you were planning on getting married here, weren't you?"
Jeni beamed, but Sara scratched her head and replied, "Well, we haven't really ever discussed it."
"Oh. Well, then, I imagine that you two have something to discuss. I'll be outside in the hallway." With that, he turned and left, quietly closing the door behind him.
Sara turned and looked at Jeni, who studied her with wide, questioning, and very expectant eyes. For a moment, they faced each other silently. Then, Jeni's face grew solemn, her voice a whisper. "Sara? Is there something that you want to ask me?"
"Jeni, I know this is sudden, but..."
"Well, I mean, um..."
Sara became suddenly very shy. She glanced down at their feet. "Well, ah..."
A tear glistened in Jeni's eye. "Look, if you don't want to marry me, Sara, I'll understand. I don't want you to feel forced into this. You know me. I'm a survivor. I'll take my chances with provisional asylum. If I'm denied, I'll go on the run. It'll be okay, I promise."
"The hell you will." Sara reached out and lifted Jeni's hand with both hers, looking down at the dark hand in her own. Her light eyes traveled up to rest on Jeni's face, the slitted pupils expanding and contracting slightly in nervousness. "Jeni, will you...?"
"Will I what, Sara?" She stepped closer and studied Sara's face intently.
Jeni edged even closer. Their chests were almost touching now. Her black eyes got quite large. "What, Sara?"
"Why am I so nervous? I mean, I've been dreaming about this for months. Why am I so tongue-tied now?"
Sara shrugged, a tinge of embarrassment touching her ears. "Yeah."
"Then don't be afraid of me, Sara. Just say what's in your heart."
She took a deep breath, then asked, "Will you marry me?"
Jeni's eyes glistened, and she smiled. Her free hand trailed up to touch Sara's cheek, and she replied, "I thought you'd never ask."
Sara thumped Jeni's arm playfully and teased, "You dork." She grinned, then slowly resumed a serious expression as she noted, "You haven't said 'yes' yet."
Jeni studied Sara's face intently as her mind nagged at her with one screaming thought. Is she doing this because she wants to, or just because it'll save my ass? "I'll give you my answer on one condition."
"That you tell me right here, right now, why you're asking me."
Sara blinked in disbelief. "What?"
"Tell me why, Sara. Don't think; just tell me." At Sara's speechless state, she urged, "Tell me why you want to marry me."
Sara stuttered, then blurted, "Because I love you, you idiot. I want you with me for the rest of my life. I miss you desperately when we're apart for even one day. I think about you all the time, and I just can't get enough of you. There's no one in this world that I've ever wanted to give myself to in the way that I want to give myself to you. I simply adore you, and I can't even imagine living without you." This time, it was Jeni's turn to stand speechlessly. As Sara noted her silence, her light eyes clouded with moisture and she asked, "Are you going to make me beg you? Then I'll beg you. Please, Jeni. Please, please, please marry me."
Sara watched Jeni's chin tremble slightly and a tear track its way down the dark cheek, then felt herself squeezed tightly as the woman threw her arms around her neck and kissed her soundly. For a long moment they remained so, crushed tightly together in a kiss, when a voice interrupted them.
"So sorry to interrupt, but you must be the happy couple, I take it?"
Startled, they jumped apart slightly, facing the door as a pleasant young woman walked in, a tablet and a book in her hand. She walked to the table in the center of the room, placed her things down, and said, "Now, we must hurry, or this may all come to naught." She studied them momentarily, then asked, "You are the two I'm supposed to marry, right?"
Sara looked over at Jeni and said, "I don't know. You haven't said 'yes' yet."
Jeni grinned, cast an embarrassed glance over to the immigration clerk, and quipped, "I thought I was saying 'yes' when you walked in."
The clerk fanned herself, rolling her eyes. "It sure looked like a 'yes' to me," she joked. "You'd better say 'yes' to her again, dear, but quickly. Maybe she didn't understand you the first time."
Jeni grasped Sara's hand, placed the palm to her mouth, kissed it, and looked up into the light, inquisitive eyes. "Yes. Yes, I'll marry you in a heartbeat, Sara dor vin Conda-Breedan." She glanced over to the clerk and asked, "We can do this in a heartbeat, right?"
The clerk laughed. "It'll be in record time, I promise."
At that moment, a head thrust itself into the door. "Done yet?"
"Why, no. We're just starting."
"Get it done. That Empire officer is coming down the hallway. He wants to talk to these two, and I can't stall any more." The head disappeared and the door slammed.
The clerk nodded, slightly flustered. "Oh, my." She picked up the book, thumbed through the pages, and sighed in frustration. "Now, where's the section for marriage?"
Sara noted, "Um, don't we need witnesses?"
Jeni stiffened, then whispered, "Shit. He's out there in the hallway. Come on, let's kick this thing in the ass."
The clerk turned and heard the approaching footsteps. Voices were muttering outside the door. "Oh, my. Quite right." She looked down at the book in her hand, then tossed it aside. It hit the table with a thump. "Computer, record this proceeding."
She lifted the tablet, read the names, and pointed at the Hawee. "You're Sara?"
She pointed at the Equatorial woman. "You're Jeni?"
She turned, cast a nervous glance toward the door, then looked back at them, pointing first at Sara. "Do you?"
"You bet I do."
She pointed at Jeni. "Do you?"
The clerk took a deep breath and intoned in a rapid, staccato wheeze, "Then-by-the-authority-vested-in-me-by-the-sovereign-government-of-The-Land-of-Southern-Breeze-I-now-pronounce-you..." She shrugged, then finished, "...Married." She thrust out the tablet and a stylus. "Quick, sign the damned thing before the cop comes in."
Jeni took the stylus, scribbled her name in the block, and Sara quickly followed. She handed the stylus back to the beaming clerk, who looked down at the signatures and affixed her own name to the document. As she finished, she said, "You may now kiss the....ooh, yeah." She looked up to see Jeni and Sara standing in an embrace, kissing passionately, Jeni's hands grasping handfuls of the material on the back of Sara's sweat-stained shirt. She smiled, then pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and dabbed at her eyes. "How sweet. Oh, silly me, I always seem to cry at weddings."
The door clicked loudly, and then swung open. The immigration official stuck his head into the room and asked, "Are they ready to speak with a representative of their former government?"
The clerk turned, nodded brightly, and held up the tablet for the official to see. He smiled conspiratorially, then stepped into the room and cleared his throat to announce himself.
Sara and Jeni broke their kiss, stepped back away from each other a pace, and then clasped hands, waiting to see who would step through the door.
The immigration official entered, followed by a Northern Empire military police officer. The officer strolled toward them, stopped, and considered them with an enigmatic expression for a moment. Then, he spoke, addressing them both.
"I am Commander Noorm, Northern Empire military police." He noted the uniforms on the two women facing him and asked Sara, "You must be the station-keeper." She nodded. He looked at Jeni. "And you must be the shuttle pilot." She confirmed his statement with a nod. "I see. I am given to understand that you've both applied for, and have been granted, immediate asylum in Southern Breeze." He looked over at the immigration official. "On what grounds?"
The official replied, "The station-keeper is Hawee."
"Of course, but our pilot? She is not Hawee. On what grounds was she granted immediate and permanent asylum?"
"They're immediate family."
The officer raised an eyebrow. "What? Impossible. They're obviously in no way related. One's Hawee, and the other is an Equatorial and an Ancient Orthodox. They can't be immediate family. You're quite mistaken, I think."
The immigration official smiled as he lifted the tablet from the still-sniffing secretary's hand and showed it to the officer. "They're married."
The officer perused the tablet for a moment, then chuckled. "Well, I'll be damned." He considered the situation for a moment, then smiled, clasped his hands behind his back and gave them a slight bow. "Congratulations to both of you. May your life in your newfound home be long and happy."
He eyed Jeni. "That was some fancy flying, young woman. You gave us all quite a chase."
She shrugged in a self-depreciating manner. "Ahh, it was easy money, at least up until the landing."
The officer smiled. "Yes, it seems that there's now a very expensive shuttle buried up to its wings in one of Southern Breeze's finest resort areas." He cast a humorous glance toward the immigration official, then looked back at Jeni and teased, "There is a fine for littering the beaches here, but I understand that they won't arrest you for a first offence."
Jeni chuckled and looked at the immigration official. "It won't happen again, boss, I promise."
He shifted his attention to Sara. "And you, that was a clever diversion you engineered on station nineteen."
"I beg your pardon?"
"The delay you caused us at docking. We never had a chance of catching you after that, you know."
"That was the idea."
"And for that, I am most grateful." At Sara's questioning look, he continued, "Arresting two people for simply being in love was one duty which I was not looking forward to performing." He paused, then said, "A bit of advice? You're now considered fugitives in your homeland. You must never attempt to return, you know. If either of you ever set foot in Empire territory again, you'll be arrested on the spot. They're very efficient about that sort of thing. Please, play it safe and stay here."
"Thanks for the advice. We'll surely take it," Sara responded.
"Glad to hear it. Well, must go. I still have my report to write, you know." He nodded at them, then turned and walked to the door. Just before he stepped out into the hallway, he turned and looked at them one more time. "Godspeed." With that, he left.
The immigration official rubbed his hands together and spoke. "Yes, now to the next order of business. Are you ready to speak to the press?"
Sara looked at him. "The press?"
"Yes. There's a crowd of them waiting out on the front steps for you. You're quite the celebrities of the day, you know. Your entrance into our country was rather, um, spectacular, to say the least. It's all over the news, even now. You're famous, I'd say."
Sara was speechless at the revelation. She just glanced at Jeni, who puffed up a bit, then cracked, "Well, how about that? Momma's little girl finally made good."
Sara smiled over at her, then squeezed her hand. "Come on, love. It would seem that we've got the press to meet."
One month later.
Sara sat on her blanket in front of the small beach-side dwelling which she and Jeni shared, her eyes closed, her legs crossed under her, allowing the warmth of the sun and the distant rumble and crash of waves to sooth her. She breathed deeply, then relaxed, feeling herself drift down into her meditative state, when a pair of hands placed themselves on her shoulders and a pair of lips planted a long, lingering kiss on her neck, the lips trailing slowly up to her ear. She moaned delightfully, then tilted her head slightly to allow the lips better access to her earlobe. The lips nipped at the lobe, then a voice whispered, "Hey, hot stuff. How's my girl? Um, you taste like salt. Been in for a swim already, haven't you?" Sara opened her eyes and smiled, looking back over her shoulder. As she watched, Jeni threw down her towel, then stripped off her short robe and added it to the pile, trotting out in front of Sara and posing seductively. "Like my new swim suit?"
Sara's eyes traveled the length of her figure, then she nodded. "Oh, yeah. I like what's in it better, though."
Jeni laughed. "You slut. You're thinking about sex again, aren't you?"
"I am not. What makes you say that?" Sara replied, faking a show of indignity.
"You're tail's wagging." Sara blushed, then looked behind her as Jeni cackled with laughter and took off, running toward the ocean's edge. "I'll be back in a minute," she yelled over her shoulder, her feet kicking up little sprays of sand as she ran.
Sara shook her head, smiled indulgently, and watched her lover splash into the waves. After a moment, she laughed, then shouted, "It is not wagging!" and picked up her flute. She watched Jeni splash and then disappear beneath the waves, her head and shoulders popping up a moment later, her dark hair and skin a bright contrast to the blue and white of the waves. She muttered, "Not at the moment, anyway." As she watched Jeni play in the water, she placed the flute to her lips and brought forth a mellow, throaty tune. The sound of the music was soothing to her, a sweetening accompaniment to the rhythmic crash of the waves, and she felt herself slowly become lost in the vibration of the instrument in her hands. She closed her eyes, relishing the feel of the moment and the warmth of the southern latitude's sun baking her skin, and did not open them again until she heard Jeni's voice near her.
"Don't stop on my account."
Sara rested the flute in her lap. "That's okay. I'd rather talk to you. I haven't seen you all day, you know, with you off doing your check-ride." She smiled mysteriously, then added, "I've got some news for you."
Jeni flopped down on the blanket next to her and grinned. "And I've got news for you, too."
"Look what I got today." Jeni reached for her shirt, fished in a pocket and brought forth a slip of plastic, handing it to Sara. She took it and looked down at it, then squealed in delight.
"Oh, it's your pilot's license. Congratulations, love. I knew that you wouldn't have a problem. When do you start to work?"
"Next week. Inter-island Airlines. Not as much money as the big outfits, but it's fun flying. Island hops and puddle-jumping. I'll still be making enough to support us both. How's that for news?"
"That's pretty hard to beat." She handed the license back to Jeni, then smiled. "I'll try, though. Ready for my news?"
Jeni rolled on her side, facing Sara. "Okay, hit me with your news. Try to top mine."
"Well, I've been in discussion with a publisher today. They want me to write a book."
"No kidding? That's great. Poetry?"
"Well, what, then?"
"A book about us."
Jeni sat up on the blanket. "What? Us?"
"Yeah. Our falling in love, our escape from station nineteen, the whole thing."
"You're not teasing me? This is for real?"
"You bet. They think that it'll be a sure seller."
Jeni shook her head. "Well, you win." She grinned, then looked over at Sara. "So, how long will this thing take to write, do you think?"
"Oh, maybe several months until it hits the shops. I'll work on it full-time. They want to rush it."
She exclaimed, "That's fantastic, Sara. Go for it. Forget about finding a job. Do the book instead. I can support us both in the meantime."
"You don't have to. They've offered me a two thousand credit advance for it."
Jeni fell over backwards. "Holy shit." She lay on the blanket, staring up at the clouds overhead, then asked,"You're kidding, right? I mean, people actually want to read about us? I can't believe that."
"I can." She looked over at Jeni. "You must admit that it was quite an adventure."
"That, it was. One killer of a love story, too. Tradition, society, race, religion, the law, everything was against us. In spite of everything, we found each other. In spite of everything, we fell in love. In spite of everything, we fought the odds and triumphed."
"See? A winning combination."
Jeni turned on her side and rested her head on a hand, fixing Sara with her dark, mischievous eyes. "We sure are, aren't we?"
Sara looked down at her, and then felt her emotion rise into her throat. Her eyes watered, and she placed her flute aside, leaning down and kissing Jeni. Slowly, their kiss never ending, they melted into each other's arms, the salty taste of the ocean mixing with the soft wetness of lips and the feel of warm, sandy skin. For a long while, they remained so, two people locked in a lovers' embrace, two hearts beating as one, two bodies breathing as one. Finally, when their faces parted slightly, Sara ran her fingers through Jeni's dark, wet hair and replied, "Yeah. We sure are, love. A winning combination."
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