She broke out in to the park. The curly brown ground cover that Shanta used for lawn was thick underfoot, absorbing the sound of her running steps, although the shriek and throbbing of the ship so close overhead was muffling all sound.
Trees bent and a few of the taller, older and more rigid ones cracked close to the ground and fell over, their trunks shattered by the pressure of the ship lowering down to ground level. As Catherine ran toward it, the ship spun slowly, until the cargo ramp was facing her. The ramp was already down, the inside of the cargo bay with its battered walls and bent securing struts looking very homelike and comforting.
Something plucked at her sleeve and she felt heat. Fire and sparks lit up the side of the ship, close to the ramp door, then disappeared, whipped away by the wind and air pressure billowing up from the ground. Someone had fired a laser pistol and had just barely missed her.
Catherine ran harder and leapt for the end of the ramp, which was a meter from the ground. She was moving too fast and fell forward on her knees, the case skidding up the no-slip surface of the ramp. “Go!” she screamed.
The ship immediately lifted upward, the surge and power pushing her down onto the ramp and pinning her with motion-induced gravity. The ground dropped away beneath her and she looked out at the Shantans as they ran into their flattened park, staring up at the ship.
Then Bedivere rolled the ship. The end of the ramp lifted up, until the whole ramp was horizontal, letting Catherine get to her feet, pick up the case and walk wearily up to the end of the ramp. Once she was off the ramp, Bedivere closed it up completely, the upper door coming down to meet the edge of the ramp and seal the loading dock.
She clutched at the swinging strapping as the ship tilted and accelerated. He was heading for space. They had electronically disabled the orbital sentries on their way in. They were clear.
Two minutes later, Catherine dropped into the navigator chair that Bedivere usually used and let out a long heavy breath. She put the hard case on the console and patted it.
Bedivere, who was sitting in the pilot’s chair, looked up from the instrumentation and grinned. The laugh lines around his warm brown eyes crinkled. “So…it went about exactly the way we expected. We’ll be in clear space in three minutes, by the way.” His brown-gold hair glowed in the light emitted from the overhead console. The warm color was nothing like the muddy color of native Shantans.
Catherine leaned back so her head was resting on the headrest and blew out another breath. “Nothing ever comes easy,” she muttered.
“You wouldn’t like it if it did.”
She rolled her head to the side and looked at him. She was too tired to smile. “Despite the rhetoric that surrounds my much-maligned past, I happen to like the quiet life.”
Bedivere sat back as she was. “Liar. If you liked it that much, you would live quietly. I don’t remember the last time you stopped to smell the roses.”
“Too much to do,” she muttered, glancing at the case.
The silence stretched and she looked at him. Bedivere was studying the case, too. He caught her gaze and looked back at the case again. “Next stop is Federation space,” he pointed out. “If you really do want a quiet life, Cat, this is the time to shut down the engines and go mute. There won’t be any going back after this.”
“Of course we’re going,” she said sharply. “I haven’t spent seventeen years scraping together every last centavo the fringes could cough up just to go live on some ball somewhere and get even older.”
“We don’t have to do this. All we’ve lost right now is time and that’s an infinite resource. If we head into Federation space, then much more than time is at stake.”
Catherine sat up. “Getting cold feet, Bedivere?”
He shook his head. “I’m worried.” His voice was very quiet. “Everything you’re doing, everything you’ve done. It’s too much.”
“Just shut up right there,” she said sharply and spun the chair to face him properly. “Look,” she added, reaching for a reasonable voice and tone. Reason would always win out with Bedivere. Logic was the supreme argument. “I have to go back to the Federation, anyway.” She touched her hair, which was liberally streaked with grey. The red that had been a rich, deep color was now faded. “You understand the therapy even better than I do. You’ve read even more widely and you never forget anything. You know that rejuvenation revives more than the cellular structure. I’ll feel young again. I won’t be this cranky old woman who has seen too much, has wrinkles on her neck and aches in the morning when she gets out of bed. After, I’ll be sweet and reasonable and even more determined to see this through.”
He looked doubtful.
Catherine grimaced. “Besides, it’s already too late.”
“If we stay in the fringes, the Shantans will come after us with everything they’ve got. But they won’t pursue us into Federation space and risk their membership on the Board. So we have to go there. It’s the Federation or bust.”
Bedivere considered that, then nodded. “As long as you’re not doing this for me.”
“Don’t be stupid,” she said and turned the chair back to face the console, to prep for the gate jump. “Of course I’m doing this for you. What else are partners for?”
He didn’t argue anymore, because the ship was technically a four-man crew ship, so jump prep took all their combined attention and effort. But the little smile at the corner of his mouth didn’t go away.
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