Let’s Get The Hell Off This Rock
Ghosts would stay off the roads. Why risk an encounter with Homeland Security? But when Char Meadowlark floored the Malibu, their heads popped up all over the fields along Baseline Road. Don’t hit anybody. Don’t hit anybody. Don’t hit anybody.
By the time any of them realized she wasn’t IHS, she’d be out of range even if one had a vehicle. She just hoped some ghost kid didn’t wander out in front of her.
This stretch of putrid fields was condemned by the EPA. While the corporate owners appealed court orders to clean the site, the tainted rice and flax had become home to ghosts and vermin and great white herons. It was said the fields were so polluted that raptors wouldn’t hunt here.
Not that Char believed that stuff about raptors.
At the train tracks a heron perched on the listing stop sign. No train would come, but out of habit she slowed. The bird seemed to disapprove of her classic 2031 Chevy. Yeah, its oil-based fuel system was embarrassing, but she had the carbon credits.
Besides, she had to make the launch, and she had no other way to get to the airport.
Smoke billowed up from downtown Sacramento, black on gray rising into the orange afternoon sky. She slid the zoom on her sunglasses’ camera and projected the image onto the windshield. 801 K Street was burning, flames shooting through smoke on the top floors.
Mike had better be right that the launch was still secure. It’s Sacramento, Char. The DOGs have higher priority targets. Maybe the fire at K Street was just another maintenance issue. The old capital city had gone to hell since the Imperial Congress abolished California and the other state governments.
On Interzone-5 she raced past a few CitiCars in the commuter lane, risking nothing but the psychic wrath of her eco-betters. No cops gave speeding tickets anymore. Waste of personnel.
Get to the terminal and don’t bother parking. Just leave your car on the street. Go to the shuttle boarding gate. You’re on the list.
She had thought Mike was being overdramatic, demanding she come up to the space station for a visit. He was just trying to scare her out of the cocoon she’d crawled into after what happened to Sky. And Brandon.
Well, it was working.
The airport was guarded by Imperial Homeland Security. No enviros got past them, not even the DOGs. At the gate, two cars waited ahead of her. While a guard chatted with the first driver, more vehicles pulled up in line.
Forty minutes to launch. Cutting it close, but Mike had said her ID would put her in the terminal’s express queue.
The chat at the head of the line disintegrated into an argument. IHS poured out of the guard shack and surrounded the vehicle with weapons drawn, officers screaming at the occupants to get out.
The car in front of Char pulled out of line and drove away. Two more behind her followed. Everybody hated IHS. She had the urge to leave too, despite being such an upstanding citizen. Hell, at university, she and her sister had both won Imperial internships. People called them the hydro twins. Sky was a hydropower engineer and Char a hydroponics agronomist.
IHS didn’t care about that. Everybody was a potential person of interest.
Cripes. Ghosts got out of the car. What possibly made them think they could pass? These must be new if they still had the will to mix in society, but even the kids were just skin and bones. Poor things.
On IHS recommendation ghosts had been declared anathema by Imperial decree. Rights advocates argued that ghosting was not a disease but a mutation. Their theory: after exposure to a critical level of toxicity, the ghosting gene switched on and a person became pathologically apathetic.
Ghosts didn’t eat, didn’t work or sing or play. Didn’t make love. No one knew why they didn’t die of starvation.
The officers took the ghosts away and moved their car, motioning Char forward. She showed the ID card Mike had emailed half an hour ago.
“Sorry you were delayed, ma’am.” The guard smiled pleasantly and waved her through. As the gate slid open, she let out her breath and cruised onto the airport loop.
Cars and buses were parked at haphazard angles all over the road, more of them the closer she got to the terminals. Two hundred yards from the buildings, she abandoned the Malibu.
She slung her backpack over one shoulder. The world might implode, but she’d have a toothbrush and fresh underwear. She zipped her ID into her flight pants.
The comfortable loose pants with multiple zippered pockets on the legs had come into fashion when Vacation Station opened to civilians. Char never thought she’d wear them on an actual flight. Too bad her top was a spandex tube with a single strap, not at all proper for the Imperial Shuttle, but Mike had said to waste no time changing clothes.
A sickly blend of excitement and nausea swept over her. Of course she wouldn’t see the car again. It would be stolen as soon as things calmed down a bit, well before she got back. But she wasn’t coming back, was she?
It was the ghosts. There were so many in the fields this time. Too many. The Pacific Zone must be headed for quarantine, and Mike knew it. He couldn’t breach security by telling her, but he could invite her up, then send her to a clean zone when she returned to the planet surface.
He was a good guy. The best. He’d really watched out for her since Sky was lost. If only Sky had married Mike when he asked. They might have lived together. Sky would be up there above the clouds today instead of buried half a mile below ground.
Char set the Malibu’s admin program to ANY DRIVER and left the carbon credit voucher in the glove box. There was still gas in the tank. Someone who couldn’t catch a flight might use it to get somewhere safe. Safe . As if the word meant something.
At the terminal sidewalk the crackle of ack-ack filled the sky. A private jet without greenlights escaped through the smoke of tiny explosions. Enviros must have set up an anti-aircraft battery outside the airport’s perimeter.
Not DOGs. Please, not DOGs.
Inside, the air buzzed with a low hum of impending hysteria. Monitors showed the burning K Street building on a loop spliced with random scenes of mayhem and War on Terra in the crawl. Nothing unusual in that, but the talking heads did seem more breathless than usual, excited. Something different was happening. Real news.
“The DOGs call themselves radical environmentalists,” the news anchor said to a familiar expert. “But they destroy another little piece of the planet every day, don’t they, Don?”
“DOG stands for Defenders of Gaia, Nancy, so you’re right. It is an ironic name. They believe the only way to save Gaia, as they call the earth, is to wipe out the technology which they posit is destroying the planet.”
The Imperial boarding gate was on the mezzanine. Char got on the escalator behind a woman with a small boy who repeatedly jumped up and down though the woman kept telling him to stop. Shib . Char was getting a headache, either from stress or lack of caffeine.
The little boy missed his step and fell into Char, and they both stumbled against a huge guy in flame-colored overalls. The label on his chest read Imperial Homeland Security.
“Hey now, young man. You don’t want to be doing that.” He scooped up the boy and steadied Char, his voice pleasant and concerned. Not a jerk. “You don’t want to be stuck in California just now.”
The woman went stone silent, sweat breaking out above her eyebrows.
California. The old state name sounded odd coming from IHS. They usually insisted on using Pacific Zone , never California or Oregon or Washington. At the mezzanine, he stepped off to the right, his free arm on Char’s elbow, guiding her away from the human stream that flowed toward the screeners.
He asked for Char’s ID and put the little boy down. The woman’s eyes were wild as she grabbed the boy, “Shibadeh, do you want me to leave you for the raptors?”
A collective gasp erupted all around, not at the curse word but at the mention of raptors. The woman broke into sobs, hugging the child, glaring at the onlookers. Everybody was starting to crack.
“Raptors.” Char tried to sound light-hearted. “They’ve replaced the bogeyman.” She wasn’t enthusiastic about children herself but acknowledged their necessity. She hoped the IHS guy wouldn’t mark the woman’s license. It was hard enough to get clearance to have one, and who could blame anybody for stressing when the entire zone was freaking out?
But he wasn’t paying attention to the woman or the boy. He was looking at Char’s ID, nodding. “You’re pre-cleared.” Her card was blue level, another favor from Mike. “I’ll take you to your gate.”
“How do you know where I’m going?”
“You got a blue card, you’re getting off this rock.” He could play for the Corporate League, he was so big; but for IHS he wasn’t very scary. Maybe it was true that Homeland Security treated people with blue cards better.
It would have taken an hour to get through the screeners, but the IHS guy took Char past them. You got a blue card, you’re getting off this rock.
In the pre-cleared terminal, a man at the coffee kiosk could have been a cover model for Natural Man Today. There was nothing enhanced about him. Dark brown eyes and unprocessed medium brown hair, casually shaggy but not too long, broad shoulders — beautiful. And calm. A touchstone of peace in the maelstrom.
Char was more interested in the coffee. She grabbed the IHS guy’s arm. “Do I have time? I need to get some caffeine in my body.”
Natural Man scanned her from boots to bare shoulders. “It would be a crime to deprive that body of anything it wanted.”
Jerk. But to her surprise she responded to his suggestive gaze.
He recognized the IHS guy. “So, Tyler. I take it you found that package?”
“Being delivered as we speak,” the IHS guy, Tyler, said. “Did you get clearance?”
“Cleared and waiting for you.”
“You got it, Jake. As soon as I make sure Ms. Meadowlark gets her place on the Imperial Shuttle.”
“Blue carder, must be nice.” Jake turned back to Char. He had great teeth and a dangerous smile. “There’s an interesting bar on the ISS. The Blue Marble. Maybe I’ll see you there sometime. My junk is slow, but it eventually gets me where I need to go.”
“Such beauty spoiled by such bad jokes.” She wished she hadn’t said that.
“You think I’m beautiful?” He spread his arms as if he were on display. His flight pants were the real thing: olive green, sturdy canvas, the pockets actually full.
“She’s phoenix,” Tyler said, not like a warning exactly, but a reminder.
There was a firebird logo on her ID, but she didn’t know it meant anything. Tyler might have said she’s a mutant , the way Jake took a step back.
“Right,” Jake said. “If you’re coming with me, you’d best hurry. I’m leaving –” he looked at Char “– as soon as I get some caffeine in my body.”
Tyler swung her backpack over his shoulder. “We should get to the gate.”
“Meadowlark,” Jake said. “Now that’s…real pretty.” Not safe, not like Brandon. “Sure you don’t want to see my junk?”
“Oh, groan,” she deadpanned. “Let’s go, Tyler.”
Jake put his hand on Tyler’s shoulder and dropped his voice. “Be careful. Rani picked up some chatter on the com. The DOGs know the Imperial is here.”
Char’s stomach turned over. The DOGs weren’t just responsible for Sky going into the vault. They’d also killed Brandon, her boyfriend since grad school. Sweet, apolitical Brandon. Happy in the world. Dreaming up ways to infuse micronutrients into mung sprouts. No match for the bomb on his commuter train.
“Shit, no way.” Tyler tapped the patch on his jumpsuit. “DOGs can’t get through IHS.”
The barrista called out a four-shot iced latte, and Jake picked it up. Char really wanted some coffee, but there was no time.
Jake waved with the drink in his hand. “See you at the junk, Tyler.” As he walked away he looked over his shoulder, caught her watching him, and winked.
She ran to catch up with Tyler. “What did Jake mean, see you at the junk?”
” J-u-n-q-u-e . He takes private pays up to Vacation Station on the Space Junque . His ship. He uses that line on everybody, man or woman.”
“Ah. You want to see my Junque ? Got it.”
“He thinks it’s funny. And it is. The first three hundred times.”
“You know him well then.”
“Nobody knows Jake Ardri well.” Tyler seemed to ponder, then added, “Except Rani, maybe.”
At the waiting area, Tyler motioned Char to a plush real leather chair. “It’ll go faster if I get your boarding pass.” He took her card. “I’ll be right back.”
The monitors were muted. Two bartenders mixed complimentary cocktails in front of a glass wall that looked out on the Imperial Shuttle. Like a monster’s umbilical cord, a silver boarding bridge connected the shuttle from the tarmac to the gate.
Char kept forgetting Tyler was IHS, he was so decent. Typical IHS was an obnoxious goon or a pompous bureaucrat. Both in love with their power to make people miserable. No one in the line argued when Tyler cut in, flashing her card with its logo.
What had Mike done? Sky had said he was attached to the Imperial household — the phoenix was the Imperial logo — but at some mid level position. Things must be a lot worse than she thought for him to risk sending a false ID.
The monitor switched to local news and 801 K Street collapsing into rubble and ash. So the fire hadn’t been a maintenance issue. The shot switched to a scene from last week. Paris, when the Eiffel Tower had been bombed. The bottom crawl read: Another DOG pile?
A bone-chilling scream split the air like a war cry, eager and bloodthirsty. Outside on the tarmac, flames licked the pad beneath the shuttle. At the counter Tyler looked up at Char, and she mouthed the words, What’s going on?
A ripple of explosions obliterated the shuttle from its tail to the cockpit, and a delayed blast disintegrated the glass wall behind Tyler. He looked surprised. His head and torso flew off to the right and his legs collapsed to the floor with her backpack.
Char was out of the chair, but her boots were welded to the ground. People around her screamed and ran in slow motion. Far away, a child was crying. Acrid smoke poured in from the blown-out window and burned Char’s eyes.
She waited for Tyler to get up again, though another part of her brain knew that was not going to happen.
Someone lifted her off the ground. The gaping hole in the wall got smaller as she was carried away. “Tyler.” Her voice sounded like it was coming from somewhere else.
“Tyler’s dead.” Jake’s voice, dull and terrible. He put her down and held her face between his hands, making her focus on him. The calm eye in this storm. “We have to run.”
Another explosion set Char’s adrenaline flowing. She followed Jake down a service staircase and out of the terminal to another tarmac and a funky looking ship, minuscule compared to the Imperial Shuttle. The cargo bay door at the rear closed with the hiss of pneumatic seals.
Jake leapt onto a distended platform that was rising to the cockpit. “Let’s go, Meadowlark!”
She accepted his hand, and he pulled her onto the lift. Char, she wanted to say. But it didn’t matter. They were all going to die.
“Don’t answer that.” Her com was ringing. She reached for her ear, but Jake slapped her hand. “The signal will screw up my telemetry.”
“You’ll get it back.” He ripped the com off and zipped it into his pants .
The lift ended in an airlock. Jake slid the door open and ushered Char through a galley just outside the cockpit. On the wall over the airlock, a sign said Mind the Gap .
Jake motioned her to the co-pilot’s seat and pulled the security harness over her chest. He leaned in to lock it, and without thinking she rested her hands on his shoulders.
“I’m sorry.” She pulled her hands back. She wasn’t thinking straight, like her brain and her body had been separated in a freak accident.
“Tyler was my co-pilot.”
“But he was IHS.”
“Not really.” Jake strapped her arms down. “Mike Augustine wanted to make sure you made it to the shuttle without getting the real IHS involved. The orange jumpsuit was too big for me, so Tyler drew the duty.” He secured her legs. “For safety. So you won’t knock yourself out on the way up.”
“Passengers are locked down, boss.” A bald and extremely tall woman leaned in from the passenger cabin. She had tattooed eyebrows and eyeliner and no eyelashes. Her eyes were metallic red-brown. Not implants. SJ was tattooed on her left cheek. She was gorgeous. “Tyler?”
“Not coming, Rani.” Jake flipped switches and turned dials and punched code into the control panel. He gestured toward Char. “Mike’s package. We’ll take her up. Shuttle’s gone.”
“So I heard.” The disapproval in Rani’s voice could rival the most self-righteous enviro.
“Now would be good.” Jake pushed her out and sealed the door.
He was about to sit down when he stopped and turned to Char, strapped in and unable to move. With an odd expression on his face, he reached for her chest.
“Don’t get excited.” He lifted her necklace over her head. “I’m not going for your precious parts.” He zipped the amulet into a pocket in her flight pants.
“Okay, Meadowlark.” He secured his harness and punched the ignition. “Let’s get the hell off this rock.”