Quinn of Cygnus: Lift Off–Chapter Eleven

This is a somewhat revised draft, so there are some inconsistencies with previous chapters. For example, I’ve renamed the “extreme fitness challenge” to the “Atlas Challenge” and other such stuff. The main story hasn’t changed, and there are still some awkward phrases, typos, and some fine details missing. I’ll also be adding additional background for people who haven’t read the Folding Space Series.  I’ll publish a new chapter every week. Enjoy!

Warning: To avoid having issues with book retailers when I publish, I will be deleting Chapters One through Eighteen the week before I post the last chapter, which is Chapter Twenty. You have been warned! Read fast!

See Chapter One here.

Chapter Eleven

 

Paola marched into the trainee work compartment. Quinn forced herself to keep working, using meditation techniques keep her breathing even and her heart rate low. She couldn’t let anyone see her sweat. But she felt a drop run down her spine, regardless. As Kathe’s illness progressed, the days, weeks, and months flew by—she was running out of time. But maybe her latest spying attempt was a bit too risky.

Paola snapped, “Everyone out. Return to your compartments!”

Quinn jumped to her feet, ignoring Aurora’s fawning whine about lost work. She walked slowly to her compartment, carefully not thinking more about her foray into the security net. She’d concentrate on her latest secret mission—Pilot Epstein. Epstein was disgusting, lazy, and stupid—the perfect target. While doing her assigned work, checking for illegal net ware, she’d taken the opportunity to dig just a little deeper into the personal files of Indomito’s shuttle pilots. His personnel record had reprimands for misuse of Familia property, tardiness, and an addiction to pornography.

Familia didn’t care about the porn, except as a way to control him. However, they suspected Epstein’s true preference was child pornography. Familia did care about that because it made him susceptible to blackmail. They hadn’t caught him yet. Like Cygnus Gliese sand fleas, he was good at hiding, and when Epstein was almost caught, he jumped in unexpected ways to hide again. He also nibbled at his host but hadn’t taken a big bite yet.

Q was enticing him to take that big bite—for her. She’d studied some of the kid’s shows the horrible man watched and copied the mannerisms of some of the girls. Around Epstein, Quinn twirled her hair, looked up at him shyly, batted her eyelashes, and tried to look interested, without being so obvious anyone else would notice and report her. Epstein lurked in the kid’s net games too, so she played those while he was online.

Q knew Epstein was stuck on the garbage runs—taking non-recyclables to stations and planets for disposal—and he took advantage by faking or making component failures so he could stay on stations longer, indulging his addiction. Over the last few months, she’d gotten good enough to break into the surveillance on some of the stations they’d folded to, and Q followed him via vid. She’d also sent some anonymous tips to station authorities after he left. Q felt awful that she couldn’t stop him first, but she needed the sand flea to get off this folder.

But, to take full advantage of Epstein, Q needed a big distraction. She’d hoped what she’d programmed was enough, but if Paola was confronting trainees already, she’d failed. Hopefully, her failure wasn’t fully attributable, or Q might be in real trouble. Or she’d get one of her fellow trainees in trouble. If she did, she planned to stick Fabriano with the blame. He’d made her life miserable. Quinn couldn’t defend herself against his verbal or physical attacks—all carefully disguised as concern and accidents—and still look like a quiet little girl. She’d ended up with a lot of bruises from Fabriano’s subtle shoving and tripping and a reputation as a klutzy, oblivious little girl.

Q entered her compartment and plopped down on her bed, looking as much like the sulky Quinn as she could manage. But before she strained her acting skills, a message came from Enforcer Kathe, wanting her company. Q sighed. She was happy to do what she could for Kathe, but it was so little. The medicos explained there was nothing they could do except provide comfort: Kathe was at the end of her life. While her body failed, her mind was still sharp. Q didn’t know if that was better or not. At least Kathe had a very long, active, and rather privileged life; Q had seen too many leave this universe without any of those advantages.

She made her way to Kathe’s compartment. In the middle of the enforcer’s level, it was a multiroom suite done in a comfortable style, rather than the “I’m rich” style everywhere else on this folder. As soon as she left her compartment, Paola was messaging.

“Trainee Quinn, you were told to report to your compartment,” Paola snapped. “Where are you going?”

“Enforcer Kathe asked for me, Net Technician Paola.”

“Fine.” The connection dropped with nothing further.

So, they hadn’t found anything incriminating yet, or she wouldn’t be allowed to continue. Keeping her eyes lowered, Q walked through the Enforcer’s level to Kathe’s suite. Before she could hit the annunciator, the hatch slid open.

Medico Tech Natali stood there. “Thanks for coming.” Her lips compressed for a moment. “This may be your last chance to speak with Enforcer Kathe, Trainee Quinn, but please don’t wake her if she’s sleeping.” She turned and allowed Q to pass. Q made her way through the luxurious living area and into Kathe’s sleeping compartment, which no longer matched the rest of the suite. A medico float cradled Kathe on a special mattress with slightly lighter gravity than the rest of Indomito. Tubes ran everywhere, and her current physical status was displayed above her head. Rolling chairs were pulled up to both sides of the float for visitors, and the air carried the sharp bite of disinfectant.

Q sat down in the chair that let her see the hatch and gazed at Kathe. Her eyes were black holes and her skin sallow. Her breath rasped slowly. Q waited patiently for Kathe to wake. While Q didn’t want Kathe to suffer, she also didn’t want to try and survive on Indomito without her. Kathe had protected her for so long, for no reason Q could find. She wiped away a tear, knowing Kathe didn’t want to see her cry.

How strange that a Familia Enforcer, someone who had probably committed terrible, evil acts during the majority of her life, was the closest thing Q had to a mother. Some of the Sisters tried, but there were so many girls, they couldn’t nurture all of them. Quinn just hadn’t connected with any of them the way Nat or Brin had. If Katryn had stayed…but she hadn’t. She’d left for some of the same reasons Q did, so maybe they wouldn’t have connected anyway. They would have both been unhappy.

A deeper inhale drew Q’s attention back to Kathe. “Come closer,” she whispered. Q bent until she was within a centimeter of Kathe’s face. “My e-torc. Take it. Coded to you.” Gasps interspersed her words.

When no more words came, Q pulled back, bringing Kathe’s e-torc with her and sliding it into one of the pockets on her leg. Hopefully, everyone would assume the medicos removed it. When she looked again, Kathe’s face was slack. Q glanced at the medico status—she was still alive, but unconscious. She took Kathe’s hand and squeezed gently. “Thank you. Thank you for everything.” She blinked and swallowed hard, and then waited, holding Kathe’s hand.

Before too long, Justice Fatima entered. Q stood but the Justice motioned her back down. She took the chair across from Q’s and Kathe’s other hand. Gazing at Q, Fatima said, “Thank you for being here for her. I think she was lonely.”

“It was my pleasure, Justice Fatima. Enforcer Kathe is my favorite person, ever.” She had to be little-girl Quinn no matter how difficult that might be right now.

Fatima didn’t say anything else. They both sat there, just waiting until the end came. When Kathe was gone, Q stumbled away, out of Kathe’s suite, and back to her compartment, where she could safely let the tears flow. She felt more like Quinn—a lost little girl. Her only real friend on Indomito was gone.

But Kathe left Q a wonderful gift and she wouldn’t waste it. She burrowed under the covers, slid Kathe’s e-torc around her neck, and pulled up her banking information. There were a huge number of credits in Familia’s preferred bank on Valenti. Q transferred the credits into several different numbered accounts with the same bank, carefully memorizing the account information, because she’d have to leave both e-torcs behind at some point. It was risky to use a Familia bank, but there were fewer security hurdles to go through than a non-Familia bank. When she had more time, she’d transfer credits to other financial institutions. But for now, this is what she could do.

#

When Q returned to the trainee work compartment the next morning, her fellow trainees were all there, even Fabriano. They worked quietly all morning and went to lunch as usual. But near the end of the day, Fabriano and the other gathered around the little galley. Little girl Quinn skipped over, filling her water bottle. “What’s going on?”

Fabriano said, “We’re not sure, but the remote guard team brought a couple of people into the cells earlier, then transferred them to suites just below the Enforcer levels.” He sneered at Q. “On the other end of your corridor.” Fabriano hated being stuck in the trainee dorms, while Q would have loved it. She’d rather not be special. “They’re supposed to be having dinner with the Enforcers tonight. Are you?”

Q shrugged. “No idea. They never tell me anything until right before.” She dredged up tears. “But I hope not, because Enforcer Kathe died yesterday.” Suddenly, her tears weren’t fake.

Aurora pulled her into a hug. “I’m so sorry, Quinn. I know you were close.”

Q just sniffled like the little girl she felt like, grateful for Aurora’s comfort, even if it was phony.

Fabriano just snorted. Gio and Mario murmured condolences. A bell dinged and they all jumped and ran for their workstations. Their work hours used to be flexible, but all the rules were tightening, like an arachnid’s web.

Q wiped her tears and concentrated on her mind-numbing work. But it wasn’t long before she wondered if the prisoners could be the distraction she was looking for. Q couldn’t check here, though. Doing anything but her assigned work was a quick road to an airlock. Not to be spaced, but put to work at something far worse than net security. Paola didn’t specify what that work was, but they all knew Familia was involved in all kinds of illegal activities, including slavery.

So she summoned Quinn again and thought of Kathe, and her last moments. It wasn’t long before she was bawling for real.

“Trainee Quinn, get yourself under control,” Paola snapped over her e-torc.

“I’m sorry, Technician Paola, but I miss her so much!” she wailed.

“You’re disturbing everyone. Go back to your compartment. If you want to eat, come back to work tomorrow without the crying.”

What a sand flea! Why did Familia always use food as a punishment? Q took her bev-tainers and slid snacks in her pockets, and stumbled out of the work compartment, back to her living quarters. She kept crying, eventually burrowing under her covers, crying for real and falling asleep.

Q woke and checked the time; just twenty minutes. Perfect. Making her movements minimal, she ran her net program, spoofing the vids on her compartment. She couldn’t move around, but if she was lying in bed, it was enough to fool the motion detectors.

Working through the backdoors she’d left on previous late-night forays into Indomito’s net using the security information she’d discovered spying on Tech Paola, she found her way to the interior vid system. Ironically, it was less protected than most of the net on Indomito. Perhaps because you could only access it on board; there was no easy outside access.

She found the compartments the “guests” were in. The connecting hatch between the compartments was open, a man and a woman stood there, talking.

By the Mother!

Tensing every muscle in her body, Q kept herself from jumping and running around screaming. That was Captain Ruhger of Lightwave—she’d recognize those oddly broad shoulders and his glowering, black brows above the slightly hooked nose and compressed lips anywhere. The beautiful blond woman she didn’t know, but if she was with Captain Ruhger, she might be part of Lightwave’s crew. Or maybe a passenger?

This changed everything. Captain Ruhger was an experienced former mercenary and pilot, both folding space and shuttles. He got Lightwave Fold Transport out of a lot of bad places, including the dramatic rescue of the Sisters of Cygnus from Galactica Corporation’s evil takeover of Cygnus Gliese. As a child, traveling on Lightwave seemed like such fun, a real adventure, jammed in with all the other girls, sleeping in a hammock perched near the ceiling, working in the kitchen with Chef Loreli. Once she got old enough to hear the full story from Nat and Brin, it gave her nightmares—at first. Then Q started thinking about what she’d do if something like that happened on Secundus, which was probably the only reason Lashtar had put up with her as long as she did. By the Mother, she missed them.

Before she could get too maudlin, Ruhger and the woman kissed. So, if she asked for Ruhger’s help, this other woman was coming too. Unless they were faking it, but that kiss didn’t look fake. No, the kiss was tender and Q got the distinct impression they were holding back. The two finally broke apart and went into their respective sani-mods, coming out in plain, dark blue shipsuits. The guards took them up to Justice Fatima’s level. Q didn’t dare snoop on that level of the ship; she’d be caught for sure.

Ideally, she would break the two of them out and Ruhger could fly Epstein’s ship. Epstein had a garbage run scheduled for tomorrow, early in the morning. He’d complained bitterly about the scheduled time.

Her timing had to be perfect, but if Q could take Ruhger and the woman out of their room and through Indomito in the early hours of the ship’s sleep cycle, she’d have very few people to avoid and not too many vids to spoof. She readied more vid loops of empty passageways.

The next problem was getting a stunner. She needed one to get into the shuttle level of Indomito. There was just too much security to get through. If she couldn’t get a stunner, she’d have to use her rusty offensive y’ga skills and that was risky because she hadn’t practiced since she left Secundus. Hopefully, muscle memory would prevail.

A movement alert chimed. Ruhger and the woman were escorted back to their compartments by the guards. But they did very strange things. It looked like Ruhger was taking apart the bed and the woman was using lipstick to block the vids. She did a great job too. Every vid was a smear of red, and the sound from the compartment was muffled. It was an effective trick, that was for sure. Q switched to the view of the passageway to those compartments and set another alert.

It wasn’t long before that alert went off. Guards escorted Ruhger and the woman back to Justice Fatima’s level.

Q bit her lip. There was no way to spy there. Q scanned through the various shuttle schedules. If she couldn’t get Epstein to cooperate, maybe they could steal a shuttle?

A klaxon sounded. “Battle stations. All hands, battle stations.”

What? Battle stations? Who would attack Justice Fatima’s folder? That is insane! Q tried to find a way into the folder’s surveillance, but she’d never tried for command and control before. It was locked down tight on a separate net.

“Attention all personnel. Secure for immediate fold. I say again, secure for immediate fold to Vela.”

Q secured the straps across her bed and waited. Sometimes, fold did odd things to her body; she felt like she’d been squeezed. She’d noticed the longer the fold, the worse it was. She’d even passed out once; fortunately, she was in her compartment. She knew that wasn’t normal, but she certainly wasn’t going to ask one of the Medicos about it.

“Folding for Vela in five, four, three, two, fold. We’ve arrived in Vela. Remain secured. We will fold for Valenti shortly.”

Q shifted uncomfortably. That was a long fold but not overly painful. It wouldn’t keep her from doing what she needed to do. A few minutes later, another of her alerts came in. Q brought up the vid outside the Justice’s main airlock. Ruhger and the woman were surrounded by guards; a couple of those creepy human-seeming remotes were part of the security detail. But Ruhger and the woman weren’t going back to their compartments. No, they were going…to the prison.

Q grinned. Good luck for her. All those backdoors into the prison level would pay off now. Q swept up the vids and watched as Ruhger and the woman were placed in cells next to each other. Perfect. She didn’t dare mess with the vids here—if there was someone in the cells, there was a Familia guard watching, but she could redirect the sound to her e-torc. It was a little risky because if the guard looked, they might notice there was no sound at all coming from the cell, but most of them weren’t that careful. They assumed if they could see the prisoner, everything was okay. Q held back a chuckle.

“Folding for Valenti in five, four, three, two, fold. We’ve arrived in Valenti. Resume all normal activities.”

Q knew the Vela to Valenti fold was short, and it was confirmed when she didn’t feel any additional pain. But, what would these folds do to Epstein’s scheduled garbage run? The drop-off still had to happen, because they had a shuttle full of garbage. But where would the garbage go? Q piled through the records. Non-recyclables went to Valenti Station. Q smirked. Perfect. Valenti station was huge and she’d made all those secret backdoors in the net nodes on her first work trip. They still worked last time she was there, just a few weeks ago. Familia was lazy in their home system, thinking no one would possibly attack them there.

But what about the shuttle schedules? Would they change? Probably. Well, just in case, she should set her little game with Epstein in place now. Q checked—yes, he was lurking in the Pretty Unicorn game again, watching the little kids play before bedtime. Q’s lip curled. Sand flea. She triggered the first of her messages, asking him to play, which he accepted. Q set her script running. Epstein was predictable. He never responded to little kid’s invitations, but teenagers? Those he accepted right away, responding in a way designed to groom them for more interactions. Epstein had always stopped just before making any real contact, but he came closer and closer each time someone contacted him.

Q knew just how to push him over the edge. Lower than a tunnel worm. She was probably going to have to touch him, maybe even kiss him. She sneered but couldn’t hold back a shudder. But if it meant getting away from Indomito and Familia, she’d do it in a heartbeat and make it look and feel perfect. Besides, he’d get what he deserved in the end.

She enticed him through the game, sending him innocent-sounding but flirty messages. Q steered them to the traveling part of the game, going on quests for rainbows, and she constantly mentioned how much she wanted to fly, to see the planets from a shuttle. Eventually, Epstein did exactly what she wanted: he invited her along for his garbage run and a visit to the station, even giving her codes to access the shuttle level. Perfect. What an idiot.

Q logged off the game and breathed a sigh of relief. Messaging Epstein and hiding those messages from the game’s logs was challenging. After running through a short meditation sequence to reenergize herself, Q brought up the prison level comms system. There they were, Ruhger and the blonde, in cells next to each other. The guards were sort of watching from outside the row of cells—one was sleeping, the other playing a game on her e-torc. Sloppy.

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. This was the first big risk. She opened the comms between her and Ruhger. Q opened her mouth and an alert from the guard post cells pinged. She snapped her mouth shut and cut off her comm access. Her heart pounded like she’d just finished the Atlas Challenge course and she swallowed hard. So close.

Justice Fatima stopped in front of the blond woman’s cell. “I give you one last chance, Saree of Jericho, to cooperate.” She smiled, a nasty, mean smile. “Or off to Galactica you go.”

Q knew that name too well. Galactica Corporation destroyed Cygnus Gliese, sending those evil Inquisitors first, then strip mining the entire planet, making the Sisters of Cygnus refugees on Cygnus Secundus. Whatever this woman had, Q didn’t want Galactica Corp to get it.

Saree of Jericho said nothing. She just stared at Fatima.

Brave or stupid? It was hard to tell.

“No?” Fatima shook her head slowly. “Such a shame.” She turned on her heel and walked away without a glance back.

Q released her breath and collapsed on her bed, waiting for her heart rate to slow. What would Fatima do now? Would she send them somewhere immediately? Q waited, minutes turning to an hour, then two. She recorded some vid of the two of them sleeping, so she could use it after she broke them out. Well, it was now or never.

She opened comms between herself and Ruhger’s cell. “Captain Ruhger, wake up.”

Ruhger blinked, and sat up, scrubbing his hands across his head, making is dark brown hair stand up. He looked around the tiny cell, and then walked to the front of the cell, trying to look through the force screen.

Biting her lip, Q waited until he turned away from the screen. “Captain, don’t talk and try to not look like you’re listening to someone. I’ve temporarily borrowed this commlink, but I can’t block the vid. I know you do y’ga a lot, so stretch high if you understand or agree, and touch your toes if you don’t understand. Stretch to one side if you disagree. Do you understand?”

Ruhger stretched up high.

“I think I can get you out of the cell and to a shuttle. If I do, will you take me with you?”

He stretched high, then to one side, pointing his fingers at Saree’s cell. He wanted to get the blond, Saree, out too.

Q nodded. She expected that and agreed. “I’ve got everything covered. I’ve got a ride on a shuttle to the station—the pilot thinks he’s getting a date.” She didn’t try to hide her hatred of Epstein. “We’ll have to take out the pilot, use his flight plan to the station, then buy passage out. I’ve got the credits and other…assets and contacts to cut the deal.”

Ruhger stretched high, then over to Saree’s cell again.

“Yeah, we’ll get your lover out too. Have to, or she might give us away.”

He stretched high and held it, then released back to standing straight.

“Good. It will be a few hours. I’ll try to give you some warning, but no guarantee.”

Ruhger stretched up again.

Q’s heart was pounding and her mouth dry. “Be ready. Out.” Weird how she’d snapped back into the Sister’s quasi-military comms; she hadn’t used the term “out” for ages.

Ruhger swung into a y’ga routine, a really impressive one, especially in the tiny cell. Q swept everything off and cleared her tracks from the net. She set an alarm on Kathe’s e-torc and one for five minutes later on hers. She needed sleep, but she couldn’t afford to oversleep. She concentrated on her breathing, falling into a meditation sequence.

Three hours later, Q woke to the alarm on Kathe’s e-torc. She turned off the alarm on hers and set the looped vid of her, sleeping peacefully, into place, and got up. Then grabbed the heating and massage pad the medicos gave her for sore muscles, set it to body heat and heartbeat-slow pulsing massage, took off her e-torc and wrapped it around the heating pad and put the whole thing under her pillow.

Now came the painful part—removing the tracker they’d injected into her when she was initially brought on board Indomito. Q showered quickly, then contorted her arm to reach into the hiding place she’d made at the back of one of the compartments. She recovered the knife she’d stolen from the cafeteria while she was checking the kitchen’s built-in net terminals. It was sitting in a recycle bin, slightly bent and dull—an easy fix. Grabbing the sterilizing/numbing wipe and skin seal she’d taken from the medico kit weeks ago, she positioned herself so the rear vid on Kathe’s e-torc showed her back in the long mirror in the sani-mod, and taped a menstrual pad below the area to catch the blood. She used the wipe and waited for the area to numb.

Q felt for the lump, and pressed a fingernail in hard on both ends, marking her skin. Then, before she could think better of it, she clenched her mouth shut, took the blade between her fingers, and plunged it in. Eyes watering, every major muscle in her body seizing, she forced her hand to move and slice deep, holding back her scream by concentrating on the action. Blood welled as she probed with the knife, finally hooking the chip and pulling it out. Pressing the cut together, she sprayed skin seal across it in thin layers, breathing a sigh of relief when the blood stopped flowing. Q wiped the blood off, put a flesh-colored patch across the whole thing, then stood with clenched fists until the intense urge to scream went away.

Tears ran down her face. It hurt so bad. Thank the Mother it hadn’t been deeper. Or a bone tag—that, she couldn’t have done anything about. Too bad she couldn’t steal a medical stunner. Or any stunner. She breathed through the pain and waited for it to fade to a throbbing ache. Staying upright, she slowly turned and washed her hands, face, and the materials she’d used to catch the blood, watching the swirls of red fade to pink. She put the rinsed materials into the recycling. Hopefully, she’d gotten enough of the blood out to prevent any weird alarms from too much human biological material. It should be okay; since she was a young female, her recycling was set a little higher to allow for menstrual cycles.

Q snort-chuckled. It still seemed strange that Familia wanted to prevent crimes and murders on their folders and shuttles when they had no trouble inflicting the same on others. Guess one was business, the other bad for business.

She downed a pain pill and made herself walk to the clothing compartment, breathing through pursed lips, one step at a time. The pain would fade and she had to keep moving. She slid her clothes off, leaving them piled on the floor, and slid the costume she’d picked on. The bright pink said “little girl” and the barely-more than a bra and too-short skirt combo said “sex,” the perfect combination to distract Epstein. She added tall boots and slid a shipsuit over the outfit. She carefully didn’t bring anything with her—any kind of bag might be noticed.

She took a few deep breaths. It was time to go. Setting her timed script in place to fool the security on her compartment, Q walked to the bed, sliding the tracking chip under the heating pad. Then she activated the hatch and the script at the same time and prayed she got the timing right. If she did, the hatch activation alert would be shunted away and hidden, and the vids on the way to the cells would switch to blank passageways as she traversed them.

Q brought up the vids to the cells. Ruhger and Saree of Jericho lay on their bunks. Q floated down the tube and swung out on the shuttle level. She slid the fastening down on the front of her shipsuit. With any luck, whoever was guarding the shuttle level tonight would also be distracted.

Suddenly, she was in the middle of a crowd. Q recognized most of these people; they were service workers, all happy, talking loudly and gesturing wildly. As they neared the shuttle security hatch, they started singing, something about partying. They must have gotten a day off on the station. A hand took hers, pulling her into the middle of the group—it was the cook, Maria. When she squeezed and let go, Q started waving her arms around and singing along with them. Without Quinn’s e-torc and the tracker, the guards and system would have to catch her by facial recognition and she was so short in the middle of all these people, neither one would notice her. They danced through the hatch.

Q blew out a breath of relief, maneuvered to the side of the group, fastened up her top, and blew past them, scowling at the group like she was a worker on her way to a nasty job, jealous of the party. After the party stopped at their airlock, Q kept walking purposefully. When she turned the corner, she spoofed the vid, making the passageway appear empty. She leaned against the airlock to Epstein’s shuttle and shimmied out of the shipsuit. Leaving it here wasn’t a great plan but bringing it with her wasn’t an option either.

She set the script running to break Ruhger and Saree out of the prison cells, opening all the cells and spoofing the vids, making it look like they were sleeping. Hopefully, Ruhger would notice the force screen going down. He was lying there like he was sleeping. Would she have to wake him?

He jumped to his feet and ran out of the cell, and to the next one, scooping up the limp form of Saree of Jericho.

Sand and sun! If she was unconscious, escape would be harder. Ruhger got to the hatch leaving the cells.  Before Q opened it, she opened comms to the prison again and hissed, “Left, to the hatch marked delta one.” If Ruhger took the correct hatch, he would come out directly across from this shuttle airlock. Hopefully, it was obvious. Once he was running, Saree swung over his shoulder, Q took a deep breath and summoned little-girl Quinn.

Quinn cycled the airlocks and skipped into the shuttle. “I’m hereeee! I’m so excited! Let’s go for a ride!” Epstein was already strapped into the pilot’s seat, but he was fumbling for the release, a panicked look on his ugly face. Sand fleas! She couldn’t wait and she couldn’t look for a stunner. Ruhger would be here any second. She had to distract Epstein! Q jumped on his lap, straddling his legs, and kissed him full out. He responded enthusiastically. And wetly. Q forced herself to keep kissing him.

Eww. Hurry, Ruhger!

The airlock cycled, and Q circled her hips to distract Epstein. It worked—he grabbed her harder. Then her mouth was shoved off Epstein’s by an arm and she jumped away. Ruhger had an arm around Epstein’s throat, choking off his air. Q watched as Epstein flailed, then went still. “Did you kill him?”

“No, just knocked him out.”

“Too bad.” Q dug around in Epstein’s shipsuit pockets. As she thought—flex cuffs. Sneering down at the tunnel slime, she pushed him off the seat, letting him thud on the decking. Serves you right, flea.  Q secured his hands tight behind his back, then his ankles, and pulled his ankles up to meet his wrist, linking them together. “Let’s see how much you like this.” Epstein was garbage. Q grabbed hold of the flex cuffs and tried to haul him across the floor to the cargo bay, full of garbage just like him. Ow. That cut on her back hurt!

Ruhger ran back to the airlock, picked up Saree, and carefully belted her into a seat behind the co-pilot’s chair. Once Saree was secure, he turned to her. Ruhger said, “Let me,” and grabbed the man by the flex cuffs.

Q happily let go, and Ruhger dragged him to the cargo bay much faster than she could. She jogged ahead to open the hatches, wrinkling her nose at the smell.

“Anything in there?”

“Just garbage, like him,” Q told him. She yanked Epstein’s e-torc off. Q knew it was unsecured, so she could just hand it to Ruhger and run Ruhger’s voice through a simulator to make it sound like Epstein’s.

Ruhger dragged Epstein into the bay and dropped him next to bales of veg plas, stacked high. They walked out and Q secured the hatch behind them.

Ruhger sat in the pilot’s seat and put a hand up, then hesitated.

Q held out Epstein’s e-torc to him. “Here, it’s his—” she tossed her head to the cargo bay “—and he’s too stupid to secure it.” She plopped into the co-pilot’s seat. Hopefully, she’d be useful there, not just dead weight.

Ruhger wiped it off on his shipsuit then placed it around his neck. He reared back in the seat and swiped something violently away.

Q’s lip curled. “Porn, right? Sand flea.”

“I’m Ruhger, that’s Saree,” he said, thrusting a thumb over his shoulder. “You are?”

“Quinn.” She nodded at him. “Call me Q.”

“Q.” He nodded in return. “Got more questions, but let’s get going.” Ruhger poked and pushed at the e-torc, scowling. “There’s an orbit plotted here, but just to drop garbage at the station, then a few orbits, and a return.”

Q said, “By the Mother! Lower than a sand flea….” Epstein couldn’t even spring for a room on the station, he’d make all his nasty moves here on the shuttle? What a tunnel worm! Q jumped up to go kick the snot out of him. He was ruining all her plans!

“Not now, Q,” Ruhger snapped. “We need to get to the station, find a folder, and get out of here. What other reason do they have to fly to the station?”

Q turned and glared at him. “I don’t know!” She couldn’t do everything! Epstein was supposed to latch on to the station and have a room waiting!

“Okay, we’ll break something after we dump the garbage,” Ruhger said calmly with a shrug. “Strap in.”

Q returned to her seat and belted in. Now, what would they do? Think, Q, stop reacting like a little girl.

Ruhger swept up something else, then paused. “Q, what does this guy’s voice sound like?”

Nasty, just like him. She pulled up her interface to Epstein’s e-torc and set the voice sim running. “I got it. Just talk.”

Ruhger nodded. “Excellent. Does anyone else know what he’s doing?”

“Sure, they all know he’s on the garbage run.” Q shrugged. Epstein was always on the garbage run and constantly complained about it.

Ruhger glowered at her. “No, with you.” He poked some more at the holo. Q watched; he was requesting pushback. Clever to do it by text, that way there was no chance the voice simulator screwed up.

“Oh.” Q shuddered. If Enzo or any of the Familia Enforcers had any idea Epstein had even talked to her inside a vid game, they wouldn’t be here now. But she needed to tell him something…well, why not the truth? “No. He’d be dead.”

Ruhger just looked at her for a few seconds, then said, “Thrust in five, four, three, two, thrust.” He poked away at the e-torc.

She did the same, making sure all her scripts on Indomito finished and disappeared. She’d considered leaving some havoc behind her, but she’d rather get away quietly.

“Q?”

“Yeah?” She looked over at Ruhger.

“Is there a locator on your e-torc?”

Q chuckled. “Already taken care of.” Q swallowed hard. “I’m safely locked in my room like always.” If she didn’t get away, when they brought her back she’d really be locked up—in a cell, not a comfy compartment.

“Good job. Watch the navigation for me.”

What? She wasn’t a pilot.

Ruhger brought a view up on the big display in the shuttle. “It’s pretty obvious if the shuttle icon leaves the programmed path.” Ruhger pointed at it. “I’ve got to bring Saree back.”

Bring her back? She was unconscious. Didn’t Saree need to just sleep it off? “Back from where? I thought they stunned her.”

Ruhger snorted. “No. She’s somewhere in her own mind.” He unbuckled and walked the few steps to the blond.

In her own mind? Like meditation or something? Couldn’t he just shake her away? Never mind. Not Q’s problem; she’d just do what he asked. “Oookay then. I’ll just watch the cute little shuttle on the string.” Gah, maybe she’d been channeling Quinn too much.

Ruhger spoke in a commanding tone. “Saree, return. Return now. We are safe.” He said the same thing over and over, louder and louder. When Q glanced back, she was shocked to see Ruhger shaking Saree by the shoulders as he roared the words. “Blast and rad.” He released Saree and rubbed her shoulders gently, glancing at Q. “Sorry, kid, but this is what she told me to do.”

Kid? She hadn’t been a child for years. “I’m not a kid.”

“I suppose you aren’t, but you probably should be.” He sighed. “Got a stunner on this tug?”

Q nodded a little warily. He’d better not double-cross her. “Sure. Why?”

“Because it will take an electric shock to bring her back now.”

Q got up to find the weapons locker, keeping an eye on Ruhger. She’d get one for herself, too. “Stun me and you’ll get nowhere fast.”

Ruhger shook his head. “Trust me, I don’t want to stun you or prod Saree. It will be painful and I know she’ll get a migraine. But she can’t stay under either, and she’ll need the rest of our flying time to recover enough to walk.” He stared down at Saree’s body. He was trying to appear impassive, but Q could see the worry. Saree was definitely more than just a crewmember.

Q pulled a stunner out of the weapons compartment. There was only one. She sighed and handed it to Ruhger.

Ruhger took it, thumbed through the settings, and put the contacts against the outside of Saree’s thigh. “Saree, wake!” he roared again, making Q jump. She didn’t react and Ruhger’s wide shoulders slumped. He really didn’t want to use the stunner, but he did, Saree’s body jolting. “Suns.” He adjusted it and shocked her again.

What if this didn’t work? Would he kill her? Q bit her lip to keep from protesting.

Ruhger shook his head. “Here goes nothing,” he muttered and hit the stunner. Saree’s body jumped and she stopped breathing. Ruhger unlatched her harness but as he was sliding his arms underneath her, Saree gasped and blinked. “Saree, can you hear me?”

Saree panted, her eyelids fluttering.

That had to be a terrible shock, no pun intended. What could she do? Q thought back to her first aid classes back on Secundus. Prevent shock by raising the feet and warming the patient. Q ran for the closest cabin, grabbed a wrapped blanket, and dropped the plas packing material on the deck as she ran back. She held the blanket out to Ruhger.

Ruhger said, “Thanks. Orbit?” He wrapped Saree up and held her hand.

Oops. “Right. I’m watching.” Fortunately, the shuttle was right on-orbit and nothing else was near.

“Good. Thanks.” Ruhger turned back to Saree and Q watched out of the corner of her eye. “Can you hear me?” he asked Saree.

“Yes.” Saree put a hand to her head. “Hurts.”

“Sorry, Saree, but I had to bring you back. We’re escaping.”

“Oh.” She sagged into the seat, wincing.

Ruhger asked, “Q, are there any drugs on this tug?”

Q was sure there was a medico dispenser in the sani-mod. All the Justice’s shuttles were fully stocked, even the ones on the garbage run, just in case something happened and Fatima had to fly in it, rather than her normal shuttle. Q jumped up and jogged to the sani-mod, turning back at the hatch. “Sure. I’ll print some out. Migraine, but we don’t want her sleeping, right?”

“Yes. Thanks.” Ruhger fussed with the blanket.

Q hoped someone looked at her that way someday. But for now, escape was the important thing, relationships could wait. “I’ll print a bunch. We’ll take them with us.” She couldn’t wait to get off this thing, one step closer to freedom. She should take something herself; the wound where she cut out the tracker was not comfortable.

“Good idea.” Q heard Ruhger talking to Saree while she found the right meds in the medico-dispenser and ordered fifty. Q glanced around the sani-mod. It looked a lot like hers, with makeup and hairstylers. She searched the cabinet but didn’t find a medical stunner. Once the first pills came out, she took one with a big glass of water. No sense in getting dehydrated either.

Ruhger said, “Q’s bringing something for the pain, Saree. You can sleep until the station, then we’ll need to walk out. Understand?”

“Yes,” Saree said. Q strained to hear. “Ruhger, I think I found them.”

Found who?

“Really? Wow. That’s great. Did you call them?”

“No. Too confusing. Too chaotic. Too much.” Saree’s voice trailed off.

What did that mean? Q pulled the meds out of the slot, got another glass of water, and brought it all to Ruhger. She helped Saree hold the glass.

Ruhger belted Saree back in, with her arms outside the straps, and covered her with the blanket. “Sleep.” Saree closed her eyes and seemed to collapse into the seat. Ruhger kissed her cheek and returned to the pilot’s chair.

Q returned to the co-pilot’s seat, glancing back at the sleeping Saree. “Is she going to be okay?” If Saree couldn’t walk, escape would be next to impossible. Q could spoof the vids on Valenti Station, but people would notice someone being carried.

“I sure hope so. Can you figure out where we’d go if we break something? It should be a repair depot on the station someplace.”

“Sure.” Q pulled up the maintenance records on the shuttle and selected those for Valenti Station.

“Then, once you do that, see if you can find something else to wear that won’t be so conspicuous, something that covers your body? A hat would be a great idea too.” Ruhger glanced at her, grimacing.

Q smirked at him. “Okay.” Like she wanted to stay in this costume? Yuck. She kept looking through the records, knowing there was a clothes printer in the bunk room.

Ruhger asked, “Q, you’re a Sister of Cygnus, right? Or raised by them?”

Did he recognize her? She didn’t look the same after all these years, especially with her current, ugly Familia-brown hair. But she should explain. “Yes. That’s why I took the chance to escape with you. I know who you are and what you’ve done.”

“How did you get here?

Q laughed. “Oh, that’s a long story filled with stupidity. Mostly mine.” So, so stupid. So many things gone wrong, so many wasted chances.

Ruhger shrugged. “Okay. Later then. Will Familia be looking for you? Wait, let me rephrase that. Will they be looking for you any harder than anyone else escaping their greedy fingers?”

“Yeah.” Enzo would search everywhere. His pride and Familia’s reputation wouldn’t allow her to escape. It probably wasn’t fair to Ruhger and Saree but she had to take this chance. Still, she owed Ruhger an answer, even if she couldn’t face him. “Enzo had me marked.”

“Marked? How? Is there a tracker?”

Q snorted and frowned at Ruhger. She wasn’t stupid. She wouldn’t make it easy for the slimeballs to find her. “I cut the tracker out. Hurts, but I’ll live. The tattoo will take a body mod.” She’d pay anything to get rid of the ugly thing.

“Why did he mark you?”

Ruhger had to ask, didn’t he? Well, fine. “Because he wanted a virgin, the sicko, and he wanted to make sure anyone else seeing me knew I was his property. Sand scooter scat.” Q spit out, hating every word. “Lucky me that he likes women, not ‘little girl bodies’ as he put it. Idiot. I’m never going to be some sexy siren; that’s just not the way I’m built.” They were all idiots. She held back a shiver. But idiots with a ton of power.

Ruhger scanned her up and down in a very clinical manner. “How old are you?”

Sand and sun! Q needed Ruhger to treat her like an adult but he wouldn’t believe an obvious lie. She’d add a year. Q sniffed. “Seventeen standards. I’ve been with Familia for a year, but I lied, told them I was fourteen.” Two years, if you counted Adzari Academy, but he didn’t need to know that.

“Smart. All right then, we need to find you coveralls or a shipsuit. A hat or….” He grimaced, looking at her. “Would you cut your hair?”

Q grinned. She couldn’t wait! “In a heartbeat. I’ll go do that right now!” Q jumped and ran for the sani-mod. Something totally different and short. Yes! She’d do some crazy makeup too—black and heavy. No one would recognize her face when she was done.

She closed the sani-mod hatch and opened the Style Three Thousand. The shuttles got a better styler than she did? Why? Q thumbed through the options. Well, it would look terrible with her skin tone, but bright colors were all the rage right now on Valenti. Q dialed in a cut with a very short, almost shaved back, left long on the top and in front, in a bright but warm yellow. She sat in the pop-out chair, thrilled to watch long strands of brown hit the floor. Sucked away by the vacuum, they looked like weird snakes. She smiled—her head felt lighter without all that hair. The chair leaned back and the color was applied, then back up she went for the final styling. Q hopped up and shook her head, loving the way the silky strands lifted and swung, the bangs shading her eyes, but nothing brushed her neck.

Makeup next. She opened the Beauty-in-a-Box, also an upgrade from hers, and scrolled through the choices. Ooh, look at that style from Old Earth. Crazy! Heavy black on the eyes and blood-red lips; the rest of the face, dead white. All that black would change the way her eyes looked to humans, even if it wouldn’t fool a good facial recognition program. Along with the lighter skin, she entered some contouring, making her cheeks and nose look a little different. She closed her eyes and let the Box work. When it dinged, saying she was done, she looked in the mirror.

Wow. Totally different. Sister Lashtar wouldn’t recognize her like this! What would Ruhger say? Q snickered. Time to find out. She left the sani-mod and walked over to Ruhger, who obligingly did a double-take.

“Suns!” Ruhger huffed. “I thought someone snuck on board for a second.”

“Good.” Just this little change made her ridiculously happy. The relief was intense.

“Can you find something else to wear? That—” Ruhger grimaced, and waved his hand up and down, “—is terrible.”

“It did the job. But yes, I can print shipsuits.”

“Good. One for each of us, please.”

Q considered Ruhger. “You should change your hair too.”

He scrubbed a hand across his head. “I don’t have much.”

“Make it blond, it will look like even less.”

Ruhger nodded thoughtfully. “Good idea. Watch the nav.” He disappeared into the sani-mod.

Q plopped into the co-pilot’s seat, drew her legs up, hugging them tight, and watched the shuttle fly along the orbit perfectly. She kept glancing back at Saree, but she didn’t wake.

A few minutes later, Ruhger came out, blond. He didn’t look much different. “You should smile a lot to make you look, well, not like you.”

He bared his teeth in a grimace, sending Q rocking back in the seat. “Yikes. Yeah, don’t do that. I’ll go print the shipsuits.” Q took the few steps to Cabin One and searched through the storage compartments. Toiletry kits, toothbrushes—she grabbed three each of those—bedding…ah, here we are. Clothes printer. She selected a shipsuit in dark gray. Q found the smallest adult pattern and started it running. She’d have to guess on Ruhger and Saree. When it finished, she pulled off the hated skirt and put the shipsuit on. It was way too big, but that fit the makeup.

She printed one for Saree in dark brown, and one for Ruhger in a lighter brown then programmed in extra shipsuits, hats for all of them, a few underthings, and three carrybags. Once she got all that started, Q checked their transmission time to Valenti station—close enough to prevent time delay problems. Time to infiltrate the security net.

She connected to the backdoors she’d left on the previous trip and slid into the outer layers of station security. No warnings to look out for the three of them yet. Q fingered the e-torc around her neck. As much as she wanted to take Kathe’s e-torc with her, she didn’t dare. It was a big risk bringing it on the shuttle. Q returned to the main cabin.

“Ruhger?”

“Yes?” He continued watching his screens. Guess he didn’t trust the autopilot or the Station controllers.

“I need Epstein’s e-torc. I’ve got to transfer some stuff to it.” She held his new shipsuit out in trade.

He pulled the e-torc off and handed it to her. “Sure. You know more about this stuff than I do by far.”

“Thanks.” She set up a handshake and started the file transfers, breathing a sigh of relief when it was done. Then she started removing the junk Epstein left on the e-torc and all the trackers. She also removed every non-essential program and ran a full reset on everything else. “Here you go.”

“That one is bugged?” Ruhger nodded at Kathe’s e-torc.

“I don’t think so, but I don’t want to take the chance. It isn’t really mine, and there’s some super-smart net techs back on the ship.”

“Good. Leave it here.” Ruhger’s lips lifted at the very corners. “Maybe old Ep will take an even bigger hit that way. Can we take his?”

“Yes. I’ve scrubbed it thoroughly.” And she had. There was nothing left on it to give them away.

Ruhger returned to navigation. “Yes, Valenti Station, you have that correct. Recycling and garbage drop.” He listened. “Copy that, Valenti.” Ruhger huffed. “Guess they’re used to this guy. They told me where we’ll be docking and said it would take five hours to unload.” He snorted. “Five hours. Right. Definitely some credits changing hands here. The problem is, they’ll see I’m not Epstein when we get off.”

Q grinned. “Nope. Just give me your e-torc right after we dock and I’ll make sure they see Epstein. No one will come to the shuttle in person, not until we don’t come back. I’ve been planning this for a long time.”

Ruhger nodded slowly. “Good job. I’ll leave you to handle the details, then.”

“Well, I can handle getting us on the station, and hiding us from the vids, but I could use help with finding us a place to hide until we can contact a folder,” Q told him. “I have credits and some ideas on folders, but my best options aren’t on station now.”

“Okay, Q, I’ll do my best and you do yours, and we’ll get out of here, right?” Ruhger asked.

“Right,” Q replied.

“We’ll both need to help Saree, she’ll be shaky for a while.”

“Okay. I can do that.”

A low moaning sigh came from behind them.

“Glad you’re willing to help, because we start now,” Ruhger said.

#

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