iam retracted his helmet. He brushed away the bits of plastic stuck to his person. She was untouched.
“What’s the first rule?” he asked.
“Never enter the plastic pit.” She eyed him up and down. “Are you hurt?”
The ground rumbled, rattling them on their feet.
“That can’t be good.” She looked back to the pit before striding to her hoverbike and straddling the seat. “Get on and hang on. This bike wasn’t made for two.”
Liam looked back to the pit. Had Kin gotten away in time? He clenched his fist, replaying the man’s voice in his ear.
I admire that type of dedication.
A series of cracks opened underfoot, spreading over the ground like lightning.
Time to go.
The bike bobbed with his weight as he sat behind the woman who’d saved his life. He went to wrap his arms around her and jerked back, her personal forcefield zapping him where he touched her. He felt a tingling sensation all along his front—a warning.
“Sorry. Force of habit with strangers.” She threw him a glance over her shoulder. “Can I trust you not to do anything stupid?”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” he said.
She narrowed her eyes at him.
“You’re my only ticket off this place,” he added.
The satellite shuddered; the landfill moaned and cracked as it shifted.
His answer must have satisfied her. The tingling dissipated as she deactivated her shield. Liam wrapped his arms around her waist and brought his chest against her back, his thighs framing hers.
She kicked off the ground and vaulted into the air. From above Liam could see the landscape coming apart at the seams, setting off a dense field of debris. A single graze might send them spiraling off course. A direct hit could take them out.
He tightened his hold on her, his arms encircling her whole, leaving not a breath between them. As she dodged and swerved he tamped down his instinct to lead and willed himself to let go. He allowed his body to follow her movements—leaning where she leaned, pulling with her when she pulled, diving when she dove. Her handling frayed at the edges but she compensated with sharp corrections.
She navigated out of the cluster of debris and veered to a stop in front of a trailer, the bike landing with a rushed bump. She spared not a moment to stir and he stepped off the bike to let her off.
“Zak?” he said to his con. “Can you hear me?”
His con remained silent.
His rescuer had rushed into the trailer, leaving the door open behind her. He followed, ducking his head and coming to a blinded halt beyond the door. The low ceiling had been illuminated with a vibrant holo of a blue sky with puffs of white clouds.
He’d never seen a sky simulation so intense in a space so small. The trailer couldn’t have been more than eight meters long, with a kitchen counter at one end and a bunk in the other. The walls were covered with old frames and mirrors, posters and newspapers, clocks and ornaments. The rest of the space was occupied with intricate holographs. He gave in to the impulse to reach up his hand and fluff the clouds.
She stood over the hoverdesk in the middle, her hands working the holos as if conducting a symphony.
Another rumble rocked the trailer, rattling the walls.
“Satellite structural integrity at 85 percent and declining. Countermeasures failing,” said the holo. “Recommend immediate ditch.”
The sky projection flickered and cut out, casting them into sharp relief from the glow of the holos.
“Steward Yona Kabul authorizing emergency prime and ditch for Alliance Class T satellite 179,” she said. “Initiate emergency ditch protocol and release all primed materials.” She darted across the room and addressed Liam. “Here.” She grabbed a number of items and stacked them into his arms: a short stack of paperback books, a porcelain figurine of a cat, a rolled up canvas, and a potted cactus, which he kept outstretched in one hand. She folded up the telescope by the door and hoisted it under her arm.
Yona left him behind again in a flurry to the back door. She seemed to be only half aware of his presence, either assuming he’d follow or too preoccupied to spare him a thought. She worked in such streamlined chaos, he gave her the space to unfold. Stepping in now would be like throwing a wrench into a motor in full gear.
The ditch pod sat cradled on a round launchpad like an oversized egg on a nest. The loading ramp extended as they approached. Liam carried the items inside and examined the dashboard. It was late twenty-first century at best, metal construction wired with physical switches instead of spatial controls, driven by propulsion instead of gravity.
So trash satellites got trash ditch pods. He wasn’t surprised.
“Do you know how to pilot this thing?” he asked as she set the telescope aside.
“I was getting ready to ditch so I’ve read up on it. I’ve done a couple of simulations,” she added in a reassuring tone, then considered this. “We should be okay.”
So she’d be winging it. He eyed the rest of the pod, the insides spare.
The con sounded through the garage. “Structural integrity at 75 percent and declining. Ditch protocol underway.”
Yona booted up the system, the pod humming to life before deflating with a groan.
She let out a huff, blowing a wayward strand of hair out of her face, and slipped on a glove. She opened a panel under the dash and crouched to take a look, plucking through the circuitboard with laser equipped fingertips.
“Fuck!” She rocked back on her heels and nearly fell, when he caught and propped her up.
“Oh, thanks.” She met his eye and something about the moment reminded Liam of their circumstances, as alone as one could be in space, operating on fledgling trust. Two people occupying the same spot despite the vast expanse around them. He thought he saw a bloom of color high on her cheeks and he became acutely aware of their proximity. His picked up her scent, sweet and floral and suddenly erotic.
“Cockroaches,” she said, breaking him out of his thoughts.
He blinked. “What?”
She turned back to the panel as a cockroach crawled out. She zapped the near-palm-sized bug with her gloves. It fell, twitching, to the floor. She fried it again, and again, until it began to char and smoke.
“I think you got it,” he said. “What did that poor creature do to you?”
“Oh please. Don’t take its side. We have a history.”
“You and the cockroach?”
“Me and its ilk. Believe me, you don’t want a single one to hitch a ride with us.” She slapped the panel closed and stood. The satellite shook and shuddered with a boom, tilting them off their feet.
“Structural integrity at 60 percent and declining,” said the con.
“Let’s get out of here,” she said, and pressed start.
The pod kicked up, the dashboard screens alighting. She synced with the workstation and scrolled to the status screen, her brow furrowing.
“Why hasn’t the primed shipment gone out?” she said.
“Unable to release primed materials,” the con responded from the dash. “Cannot establish connection to shipping station.”
She hesitated. Liam watched as her face hardened with resolve.
“I’ll be right back,” she said, and dashed out of the pod.
“Wait.” He reached out to her, but she was already down the ramp and away.
He ran after her, grabbing her by the arm as she got out the back door. She stiffened, warning in her eyes. Beyond the door and across a flat dirt clearing stood a stack of trailers, bundled neatly together for departure.
“I’ve got to get the shipment out,” she said, tugging at his grip. “It’s months of work.”
“There’s no time,” he said, as if it needed to be said.
They squared off. In that moment he decided he’d carry her bodily into the pod if necessary. His resolve met hers, a volatile current passing between them. Her eyes seemed to be daring him to stop her; calculating her chances of besting him if he tried. He couldn’t wait to see her next move, and a part of him hoped for the one where he got to throw her over his shoulder. The adrenaline coursing through him spoke to a deep, primitive place in his mind.
“Integrity at 45 percent. Satellite collapse imminent,” the con blared from above.
Reason won. Yona threw him a glare and marched back by him, shrugging him off. He let her go, falling into step behind her. He ducked his head on the way up the pod ramp and took one last sweeping look at this strange, motley place.
Yona swirled into the driver’s seat and the dashboard lit up with a ring of holographs. The door slid locked behind them with a hiss and a click.
“Navigate to nearest Alliance post,” she said. “Engage emergency ditch.”
The garage bay doors unfolded above them. The launch pad released the pod with a lurch and clunk. The thrusters activated, catching and steadying their ascent. They cleared the garage and drifted above the trailer.
Liam approached the window to watch their passage. The dwelling they’d left behind was a remarkably attractive whole considering its components. The trailer had been dumped into the landscape of leftovers, or maybe the swell of junk had grown around its walls, embracing the unit into its fold. Old solar panels lined the roof. Artifacts leaned along the foundation in neat piles—electronic screens, synthetic furniture, rubber tires and hubcaps. A braid of metal fencing stretched over the facade, pinned with assorted scraps and obsolete lightbulbs, drawing a bright, intricate canvas.
He took in the wonderland now floating away beneath his feet, his appreciation shifting with every new angle of their ascent. He imagined her meticulous work, bringing back trinkets as she found them, fixing them to the patchwork canvas as she saw fit. He glanced over to Yona, who had joined him next to the window. Her gaze was lost to the view, just as his had been, but too familiar for wonder. She touched one hand to the glass and held it there, a fond farewell almost too late.
As they left orbit, a black cloud grew out of the plastic pit and spread, its swirls rotating into formation like the wheels of a saw. The mass eclipsed the satellite, swallowed it whole—then tore it apart, shredding it from the inside out in the span of two blinks.
The mass dissipated, leaving in its wake a diffuse cloud of space debris, the only proof there had existed here anything at all.
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