Three moons, on this planet. Sargent Petyr Roth paused in his pacing to watch the second, the largest, rise past the first in its heavenward path. The second was actually closest to the planet, which made for a faster rotation, yet because it made more trips through the sky it was rarely the first to actually rise.
Interesting. Petyr grunted when he realized he'd stopped walking, gazing stupidly into the sky, and turned to retrace his steps. A federal base did not pay its soldiers to stargaze.
Crouched in the shadows not very far away, a figure in black waited for the footsteps to retreat. He was waiting for a precise moment, and when the third moon rose over the compound fence, he sprinted. Soft, scuffed kid boots never made a sound on the concrete as he raced toward the unwary sentry. An unnoticed cool breeze whipped past him and blew the scruffy bangs away from his eyes. Closer… closer…
A whisper of sound, and Sargent Roth whirled around with his gun raised at the ready. But there was no one. Only the stillness of night. Petyr exhaled, chided himself mentally for being so jumpy, and lowered the gun again. The third moon was well above the fence now, with the second having almost overtaken the first. That tiny breeze tickled at his face again, and the soldier returned to his patrol.
Almost directly above him, Li crouched on the perch of a second-story windowsill and waited. It was an effort to breathe lightly, after that running jump, but the yard was so quiet that he had no choice. Only when the sentry had rounded the corner did he feel safe enough to turn around and inspect the window.
Welded shut, as he had feared, sealed in a tight metal frame. Ceruleum, no less. Pricey stuff. But that only meant that the prize inside must be worth it. Li turned away from the window. A thin ledge wrapped the building here, maybe half the width of one of his feet, and this he edged along carefully as the growing moonlight threw the yard below into sharp relief. The sentry was pacing underneath again, almost directly below. Any sound, or a smattering of dirt from above, would be plenty to alert him to Li's presence. And in this position, it would not be easy to get away. Li put the thought out of his mind when he reached the junction of two walls and was in shadow once more. The windows were almost facing each other in the tight ninety-degree corner, and the intruder leapt lightly and easily from one windowsill to another past three stories. He could actually see the shadows moving across the stone under his fingertips, the moons were moving so fast. Tyrinthia was famous throughout the system for the hyper rotation of its natural satellites; newcomers would goggle as the three moons chased one another across the sky. It made for an interesting view from below, but was the bane of pilots and navigators everywhere. Unable to compete effectively as a port or tourist attraction, the planet had ceased to grow in influence and remained a quiet backwater commercially. Low crowds made it a popular place for people who didn't wish to be seen, however, and deals that were not always on the right side of the law. And for federal bases like this one, so secretive that it had taken him a good six months to even discover where it was.
Li pushed himself off the top windowsill with arms outstretched, now six stories high and well above the pacing sentry. Gloved hands grasped the jutting flag pole just before he began the downward arc, and he grunted softly at the impact in his arms. Now he was hanging with no foothold, and the material of the Tyrinthia's flag was batting him annoyingly in the face. The breeze was stronger up here. Li debated a moment, then let go of the pole and dropped downward, clutching at the bottom fringe of the flag before he could fall. The pole bent slightly but did not creak, and the flag didn't rip from its hooks.
Good. Slowly, careful still to make no noise, Li began swinging his legs back and forth, using his body weight to create momentum as he dangled from the face of the building. Back and forth, back and forth. It was getting darker – the moons must already be over the crest of the roof. The shadows were growing again. A tiny ripping sound made him cringe, and pump faster, ignoring the aches in his hands and shoulders as he hung on for dear life. There was another rip, a louder one, and he felt the left side of the flag give. There was no more time left. One more arc, and he flipped his body skywards to soar over the railing of the balcony overhead.
He almost didn't make it, even with magically enhanced jumping ability, and stumbled as he landed on the executive suite balcony. Perfect, and he took a moment to catch his breath. Up here, the director of the installation had his own sliding glass doors in his office. So high up, security was naturally lower, with no care taken to weld things shut. The doors were locked of course, but Li was prepared for that. He slid his lockpicking pins off his black sweatband, and went to work. A few seconds later, and he was in the office.
What he was looking for would not be in here. He spared no more than a glance for the director's office before opening the door and creeping into the hallway. The floor was silent, save for the quiet hum of sleeping computers. That hum grew louder as he slipped past the other offices, rounded the corner, and stopped cold. Li was finally looking at what he'd come for: the mainframe computer for the base. Problem was, he was also looking directly at a guard that was posted right in front of it, and that guard was looking right back at him.
"Freeze!" the man shouted after a shocked moment of silence, and frantically fired in Li's direction. A smart man, a man without a death wish, would have jumped back around the corner and started running for everything he was worth. Instead Li threw himself forward to hit the floor, rolling once before pushing off with his feet and leaping high into the air. Confused by the rapid and varied assault, the guard couldn't track Li fast enough before he crashed into the other with his foot extended in a devastating kick. The guard slammed against the wall opposite as his gun skittered across the floor, stunned but not unconscious. Gasping for breath, he slapped at his comlink.
"Intruder on top floor! Request backup -" That was all, before Li slammed his head against the wall and knocked him out properly. But the covert operation was ruined, and now there was almost no time. Annoyed, the intruder ignored the security cameras on the wall and crossed to the console, fingertips skimming over the keys.
- - - - - - -
Sargent Roth heard the desperate plea through his comlink and reacted, racing around the corner of the building with his weapon cocked and raised to fire. There he and the other sentry keyed open the front doors and entered cautiously, sweeping from side to side as they moved up the hallway. For several minutes they heard nothing but absolute silence. Then there was a burst of gunfire to their right, where the stairwell was. Petyr could hear the shouts of his superiors, calling out orders to one another before each was abruptly silenced. He winced and gripped his gun more tightly, then nodded to his partner before making their way forward. The doors to the stairwell were solid and absolutely opaque, and the intruder didn't know about their approach. They would burst through and use surprise before he had a chance to shoot first. In silent agreement, Petyr allowed his partner to approach first, placing a hand against the door in preparation to push through. The next second the door exploded outward with a kick, throwing the sentry right back against the wall. Petyr hardly even glimpsed the figure in black before he'd been struck across the face, then in the chest, then yanked off his feet to slam hard into the floor. Dazed, he could feel someone taking his hand and raising it, pressing on his trigger finger to shoot his partner across the hall. And finally, he saw the knee of his attacker coming for his face, to finish him off. He didn't remember anything after that.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
It was going to be a hot morning. Touya watched the broken fan on the ceiling, spinning lazily in a pathetic attempt to refresh the stale air in the room. With every rotation the whole thing would swing dangerously to one side like it was ready to fly right off its leash and into someone's head. The image made him tense up with every creak, and he could feel his shirt beginning to stick to his back with morning sweat. No one else seemed to have noticed the fan, everyone's gaze riveted on the table in the center of the room.
"Remind me why we're doing this again," he hissed, careful to keep his voice low. Yukito didn't look up, watching the table with bated breath.
"Because we need fuel money."
"I know we need the money." Touya jerked his head towards the man on the right side of the table. "I want to know why we're working with him."
Monsiur Venga leaned slightly closer into the table, eyes fanatical with delight, the blade of his knife flashing in the morning sunlight as it moved rapidly between his unlucky victim's fingers. The sharp staccato noise of the point jabbing into the wood filled the room; nobody dared move.
"A deal is a deal. Times are hard, fuel prices are up. I know he's not very nice, but we we did our job. There's nothing to be afraid of."
"Who's afraid? I just don't like him."
"You don't like anyone, Toya," came the withering reply, which was perfectly true and brought an end to the conversation. That meant he had to listen to Venga's knife stabbing the table again, moving faster now. It was nothing but a power show, he knew, put on just when he and Yuki arrived to demonstrate what cruelty he was capable of. It was all the more terrifying in that Venga didn't seem to be especially good at it. Touya was staring at the broken fan again when a scream split the silence of the room. The trance was broken and one of Venga's men hustled into action, dragging the unfortunate man with a bloody hand into the back room. The other two quickly wiped down the table, and Venga turned his attention to Touya at last.
"Good morning, gentlemen, good morning." His face broke into a wide grin, displaying a gap between his two front teeth. "How nice to finally meet you in person, Captain Kin."
"Likewise," Touya replied untruthfully, casually dropping his hand to the gun on his hip and pretending to be no more affected by the whole incident than Venga himself was. "Monsiur. But we are on a schedule and I'm sure you don't need any more delays this morning." He indicated the lone crate on the floor in front of him. "As you can see, we've brought your goods in without a scratch, so if you'll just hand over the payment -"
"About that, captain," Venga interrupted, tapping his fingers lightly together with a regretful expression. "There seems to be a problem."
Touya and Yukito exchanged a quick glance.
"What kind of problem?"
"It seems, according to those that know these things, that there was some kind of break-in at the federal base in town last night. A rather nasty break-in, they say, with lots of guards dead or injured and perhaps even information compromised." He couldn't seem to stop smiling as he spoke, and Touya found himself staring at that gap in spite of himself. "It really is quite a mess. The town has been simply overrun with federal enforcers, and planet security has gone haywire. To be very truthful, gentlemen, I just can't accept the contraband that you've brought me. A crate packed with pixie dust is too much of a liability, oh yes."
None of this information was pleasant, but Touya filtered out the worrisome parts to concentrate on the matter at hand.
"I'm sorry for your inconvenience, monsiur. Really. But as I'm sure you know, we can't be seen with a lot of dust either. And we had an agreement."
The atmosphere in the close room was suddenly a charged one, and Venga's men still in the room fingered their guns. Touya tried to stay relaxed, and kept his gaze on their chief. In the corner of his eye he could still see the fan rocking dangerously.
"My dear Captain Kin. Surely you understand how unpredictable the market is for commodities such as mine. Incidents like this do occur. I'm sure that if we're all patient, this nasty affair will fade away, and we can conduct a proper trade. A highly profitable one."
There was a threatening glint in his eye as he spoke, and Touya could read the implications. He held the other's gaze for a long moment, then nodded.
"Okay." Everyone relaxed, and Touya turned away. In the next second he had his gun out and a bullet in that damn fan. The whole contraption exploded with sparks and went spinning violently through the air, and Venga and his men had to jump clear before it tore into the table. None of them had a chance to recover before they were staring into both men's guns.
"Don't move," Yukito requested courteously, "please."
"Now then," Touya resumed. "You had an order for a crate of pixie dust. We've brought said dust. We'll collect our payment, and be on our way."
"I'll see you dead for this," Venga snarled, all pretenses of the polite businessman abandoned. "How dare you? Do you know who I am?"
Touya knelt in front of the other, still half-sprawled across the floor, and pushed his gun up under the chin.
"I know how much I need that cash. And I know that I'm going to put a bullet right through those front teeth of yours if you don't get it for me. So I suggest you do. Now."
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Li watched another federal agent march past and reached to comb his fingers through his hair, covering his face with a natural seeming motion. Morning was here, and while that meant more of a crowd to hide in, it also meant the light was getting better. He'd shed the black sweater and leather gloves, knowing how conspicuous they would be in the early morning heat. Now he wore only a light khaki button down shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and he'd donned a pair of sunglasses. It was something any laborer might wear, and for now he had the broom he'd found to sweep in front of an empty stall. But it wasn't enough; he needed to get out of here. Everything had been ruined with his exposure last night, he couldn't believe his stupidity. His ride here had panicked and flown off hours before sunrise, and now the feds were swarming into the towns. It was only a matter of time before he was recognized.
Another agent crossed the northern side of the market, and he averted his face. He could hear the crackle of a transmission in the man's comlink, and out of the corner of his eye he saw him raise his wrist to check the viewscreen there. Likely they were transmitting his camera image; he didn't have much time.
Methodically the young man started scanning the marketplace, searching for an opportunity. It was too early, still, and people were wandering alone or in groups of two and three. One girl, her face obscured by the large box in her arms, made her way unsteadily past the stalls in his direction. She was having a hard time seeing, with her load, and Li let the broom handle fall across her path. She tripped and fell with a squeal, and he knelt to assist before any agents looked their way.
Fresh produce had tumbled out onto the ground, and their owner groaned as she righted the box. When she reached for a bag of plunums, Li handed them to her.
"Oh, thank you."
"No problem." Eyes steadily on the ground, Li crawled to retrieve all the fruits that had rolled away.
"I'm not normally so clumsy, I didn't realize how big the box would be. Everything had to be bought this morning." Li dropped the last bruised kraike in the box and hefted it easily to his shoulder, completely covering his face. The girl stood and brushed off her knees, shaking her head. "Oh no, that's not necessary, honestly. I'll be fine, I don't have far to go."
"I insist," he pressed, and started walking before she could argue further. She had to hurry to catch up.
"Oh. Well, thanks. I just need to go to the pharmacy, and then I can take it. I'm just going to the docks, and it's not far."
Docks, of course. That was why all her fresh food had to be bought this morning.
"Taking off soon?"
"In a little while, yes." Li kept his eyes on her face as she spoke, glancing up only occasionally. The agents were everywhere, but they weren't looking for a couple and nobody gave them a second glance when they exited the main market plaza. She stopped in front of a store and rapped on the glass window; he took the opportunity to set the box down and scan the alleyways.
"Did you lose them?" Li whipped his head around at the question, and she pressed her lips together to hide a smile.
"Whomever it was that you were hiding from." Her violet eyes were twinkling with amusement, and he relaxed a bit. She was more alert that he would have suspected.
"That's good. Those vegetables really were heavy. Yes," she turned her attention back to the window, "I placed an order here yesterday, the name is Tomoyo D. Tomoyo."
"Tomoyo," he repeated. "Thank you for your help, but I've got to get to the docks. I'm in a bit of a hurry myself."
Instantly she perked up.
"Are you looking for a ticket offplanet? No, I didn't say they were paid for. Just ordered. I'm paying for them now."
"Again, maybe," Li answered cautiously. "Know about one?"
"We have a cabin for travelers," she explained eagerly. "It's a little small, but it's cheap. Which way are you going?"
"Oh. I don't know if we'll be going that way." Her face fell a little, and he started to turn away. "But, if you really are in a hurry, I think you should get into space as soon as possible. You don't know what sorts of people you'll run into." When he turned his gaze back on her she bit her lip pleadingly. "It's a good ship, really. And the captain doesn't ask a lot of questions."
A pair of policemen walked through the intersection behind her, and Li moved to keep his face hidden from view. Time was running out.
The pharmacy aide pushed a surprisingly large paper bag through the window.
"That's 352 siyong, please."
She raised her eyebrows and nodded toward the woman, and Li took the hint. His cash was in his pocket, and before long they were hurrying along the road toward the docks. Here too things were just beginning to wake up, as the population moved from the barely-cool night to the sluggishly hot day. She led him past rows of cruisers, personal speeders, the larger shipping freights, and finally stopped in front of a scarred old cargo ship. A man was perched precariously on a stack of empty crates, trying to tune the interior of the side panel, and looked up at their arrival.
"Here we are," she announced fondly. "The -"
"This is your ship?" Li dropped the box on a nearby crate with a thump and stared at her, disbelieving. "That thing flies?"
The mechanic bristled and opened his mouth, but someone else spoke up first, sauntering down the gangplank with a cheerful grin.
"You'd better believe it. Oh, you got the food!" His eyes lit up behind his glasses and he forgot all about Li, hurrying forward to scoop up the produce. "I'll take it in for you, Tomoyo. You might want to hurry a bit, by the way. Our schedule got a little pushed up."
"Oh no. Did something happen?"
"Sort of. Did you get any rosesteens? I just love rosesteens." Balancing the heavy box easily in one arm, he started fishing with the other arm to inspect its contents.
"Tomoyo." The mechanic shut the panel door with a bang and dropped gracefully to the ground. "Who the hell is this?"
"I got us a fare!" she announced proudly. "He's going to the capital, but I told him that we'd at least take him off Tyrinthia. That's okay, right? I mean, he paid for the medicine already."
The man shot Li a hostile look. "I don't like him."
Li crossed his arms. "Feeling's mutual. And don't you think that's your captain's call, greaser?"
"You're looking at him," the other shot back. "And I don't like what you said about my ship."
"But Touya," Tomoyo pleaded, "he did pay. I told him he could come, you said we needed the money."
"We don't need it this badly."
Li snorted contemptuously. "Sure about that? I could chip in for the tape that holds your engine together."
Touya's eyes smoldered, but before he could say anything Yukito ducked his head out of the hatchway again.
"Toya, it sounds like they might initiate a blockade on outgoing flights. It's getting tight; if we're going to go, it needs to be now."
Touya growled, but he backed away from Li and waved his hand in a noncommittal way.
"Fine. He can come. But he better keep his mouth shut."
Li was about to retort when Tomoyo tugged on his sleeve and shook her head.
"It's been a pretty hectic morning for all of us, and we need to get going. He's honestly very nice once you get to know him."
"Sure." Li stuffed his hands in his pockets and stomped up the gangplank, following her. "And just what do you do on a ship like this, anyway?"
"Ship medic, at your service."
"A doctor? On a ship this size?" The craft was positively little, compared to all the other hulking cargo ships next door. It couldn't have been designed to hold more than six people at most.
"I'm actually not a doctor," she replied evasively. "Still studying to be one, I mean." The gangplank shut with a metallic bang behind them, and she seemed happy for the distraction. "I have to put up this medicine. The cockpit is that way and up the ladder. You'll probably want to watch takeoff, right?"
She pointed down the corridor behind him and scurried off before he could say anything. There was a massive rumbling under his feet, then a strained groan as the engines turned over. And Li felt a twinge of uneasiness about his new surroundings.
- - - - - - - -
"Come on, come on, sweetheart," Yukito wheedled, pressing the knobs and pushing the primer pump again. "You can do it." He took an enthusiastic bite out of the rosy fruit in his other hand. Next to him, Touya crossed his arms and scowled at the recalcitrant console.
"I don't like it. We just tied them up and left them there, you know they're bound to get free soon enough. They'll be coming after us."
"What else could we do? You know we couldn't just shoot them in cold blood. At least we got the cash."
"Yeah. Too bad we won't actually have time to buy the fuel that we needed it for. We barely have enough to get to the next planet."
"It's fine, Toya. She'll make it through." Again the engines below them shuddered and grumbled.
"Excuse me." The fare that Tomoyo had picked up stormed into the cockpit. "Are we going to take off, or what? What the hell is wrong with the engine?"
"She's always a little sluggish in the morning," Yukito replied without a trace of irritation, and extended his hand. "Hi, I'm Yukito. The pilot. What did you say your name was?"
Li wrinkled his nose at the feel of sticky juices on his hand, and pulled away as soon as he could.
"Nice to have you aboard, Li. You might want to hold onto something." The words were hardly out of his mouth when the ship gave a terrific jolt and jerked into the air. Li pitched face first into the floor of the cockpit with a yelp. Touya snorted. Yukito shot him a remonstrative look.
"What? You told him to hold on."
"I'm fine, thanks." Li rubbed his head and stood up again, this time gripping the edge of the console. The ship gave another lurch, and they rose higher into the sky. The surrounding shipyard fell away from the viewport. Yukito turned the stick gradually, until the nose was pointing directly upwards, then flipped a switch.
This time Li held on tight, and it was a good thing. Below his feet, there was a roar as the engine gathered itself and the ungainly ship shot away from the planet. It was so sudden and fast that the breath was knocked right out of him, and Li had to swallow once or twice. The atmosphere cleared away at a dizzying pace, and soon stars were appearing in the viewport.
"Holy slag," Li gasped. "How did you do that?"
Touya threw him a superior smirk over his shoulder.
"We've made a few modifications here and there. She isn't the prettiest ship in the 'verse, but she can move when she needs to."
"Not bad for a scrap heap," Li acknowledged, and Touya shot him a venomous glare.
"If you don't like it, the nearest exit is right over -"
"Toya," the pilot interrupted. "Don't look now, but I think we've got incoming."
"What?" Li repeated, uneasily. For a moment he wondered if the feds had managed to find him after all, but the image Yukito was punching up didn't match any law enforcement ship that he knew.
"Privateer class, fairly new. Cargo, but equipped with guns." Yukito looked up from the small radar to meet his partner's eyes. "And they're headed right for us."
"Damn it! I didn't think he'd manage to get free so soon. I can't believe he found us."
Both men ignored Li.
"Maybe it's not him," Yukito ventured hopefully. Laser fire spit out of the approaching ship and scorched the right shield, knocking them all to the left.
"Maybe you'd better step on it," Touya answered grimly.
"Right. Here we go." Yukito closed his hands around the padded handles of the steering stick and threw them into a violent drop that even the gravity compensator couldn't quite handle. Li felt his stomach lurch and held on more tightly.
"Hey! What are you doing, what's going on?"
"Shut up," Touya suggested, not gently. He was flicking some switches on his side of the console, bringing up a target screen. "Our shields won't take another shot on that side. Bring her around at ninety degrees on port, and keep her steady so I can get a clear shot."
"Why can't you just outrun 'em? I thought she was supposed to be fast."
"We can outrun a ship, but not its laser fire," Yukito explained, throwing the ship into another gut-wrenching twist. Touya gripped the weapons control stick and pressed the red button on top. Two blasts shot forward and exploded on the surface of the other ship. "Good shot," Yukito praised, but Touya shook his head.
"Their shields took it, they're not out yet."
As if to confirm the point, the attacking ship responded with two more blasts that Yukito barely cleared, pulling up to take them on the armored underside. Li was thrown back against the back wall of the cockpit, and he winced at the impact. There was a bruise from last night that was still a bit tender. Distantly, in some other part of the ship, he thought he heard a small shriek.
"Touya," the intercom crackled plaintively. "What in the 'verse is going on up there? You're scaring her!"
"Nothing to worry about, Tomoyo," Yukito soothed, even as he turned the ship to soar in a large loop over the attacker's head. "Just a little business left over from this morning, that's all."
"Hey, watch it!" Li yelped, and Yukito managed to turn aside just in time. The ship took the hit on the left, instead of directly in the cockpit, and everybody felt the shudder under their feet. This time Li was sure he heard someone scream.
"Touya, you have to get down here. She's starting to panic, I can't control her!"
The captain snarled impatiently and tried to squeeze another round, but the other ship evaded his blast.
"Little busy up here, Tomoyo, shooting bad guys and stuff. You have to take care of it."
"But I can't -" The rest of her plea was drowned out by a wail, and then Li heard Tomoyo begging someone to calm down.
"Damn it!" Touya snapped, and unlatched the harness on his seat. "Sorry, Yuki." To Li's utter astonishment, the captain bolted from the cockpit and started running down the corridor.
"Hey! What the- what do you think you're doing?" There was no reply and Li pushed himself off the wall to follow, leaving the pilot alone in the cockpit.
"Guess it's up to me now," Yukito sighed, and pushed forward to accelerate.
Touya disappeared down the ladder, paying no attention to the rolling and pitching ship. Even with his natural grace and balance, Li had trouble keeping on his feet.
"Hey, stop! Where do you think you're going, we're getting shot at!"
Again he was ignored, and he scrambled down the ladder just in time to see Touya sprinting down the lower corridor. Now the screams were clearly audible. Li followed at a slower pace, trying to keep a hand on the wall and hang on whenever the ship tilted under his feet. Ahead, Touya slapped a hand panel and the door to a small bunk slid open. He threw himself inside.
"Damn it, for the last time, what the hell do you think you're -" Li broke off when he reached the doorway and saw the chaos inside. It was a girl, a rather frail and thin girl with tangled brown hair that was making so much noise. The ship rocked and she shrieked again, dropping to her knees and pounding with her fists on the floor.
"Sakura! Please, stop it! You're hurting yourself!" Tomoyo tried to take her hands and pull them away, but the frantic girl yanked free and wriggled away, sheer panic all over her face. Touya had to wrap his arms around her torso to pinion her, but that only seemed to scare her more, and she struggled harder.
"Attention, unidentified ships." The cockpit's external communicator lit up with an image, a stern-looking federal enforcer. "You are ordered to cease fire at once and desist from combat. Retract all weapons and prepare to be boarded."
Yukito groaned and flicked the comm screen off. He had no intention of retracting any weapon while in the middle of a fight, and neither did his attackers, apparently. Yukito pushed up and prepared to circle the other ship one more time.
"Sakura!" Touya barked again. "Please stop it. I'm not going to hurt you, you know it. No one is going to hurt you. You're all right, you're safe."
Nothing he said seemed to reach her. Desperately she scrambled out of his hold, accidentally striking him in the face as she flailed. Tomoyo cringed when Touya took a step back and spat out some blood.
"Damn, she's strong when she wants to be. Sakura? Sakura, are you listening? It's just me. Just Touya, your big brother. You're not in any danger. Nothing is happening to you. Can you hear me?"
Li had forgotten all about the firefight going on outside. With a repulsed fascination he watched the tall and wiry captain wheedle and cajole, sidling closer as if he was afraid of this wisp of a girl. She whimpered in fear and gripped her head in her hands.
The federal ship had reached them at last. Yukito swerved to avoid their stun blast, swooped underneath their hull, and gunned it straight forward. Venga's ship followed, hot on his heels. That was unfortunate for them, because though they had lost track of time, he had not. Just in time he pulled the ship in a sharp upward turn, but his pursuers had been taken completely by surprise and couldn't pull up fast enough.
"Watch out for the moon!" he called out helpfully. They crashed into the crater-scarred surface of the second moon, the fastest, with a terrific explosion. All the flames were sucked dry a second later by the lack of oxygen, and the fair-haired pilot beamed. The feds were so surprised that their ship didn't even turn to pursue him before he was on the other side of all three moons and going full-speed into deep space. They weren't maneuverable enough to follow at his speed, and he was already out of range. For now, they were safe.
"Another brilliant escape," he announced happily to an empty cockpit. "You're very welcome."
The girl that they called Sakura retreated to the far corner of her bed against the wall, hugging her knees to her chest. She was no longer screaming or hitting, but her entire body was trembling violently. With extreme care Touya crawled on his hands and knees over her bed.
"That's right. Nice and easy, no need to panic. Nothing is hurting you. You're safe now."
This time she did seem to hear him, and relaxed a little. Under his feet, Li could feel the ship level out and assume a steady pace. Coupled with the lack of any more shots fired on them, he guessed the attack was over. Touya didn't appear to notice as he placed both hands on her hair and combed it back from her face.
"Shh…. You're all right. Nothing's going to happen, not while I'm here. Touya's here." He leaned his forehead against hers, and she hiccuped in reply. When he hugged her close and pulled her into his lap, she didn't fight him, but leaned her head against his shoulder and closed her eyes.
Tomoyo gave a big sigh of relief and climbed out of the bunk, brushing her long black hair back behind her ears.
"I think she'll be okay now," she whispered, looking pleased and paying no attention to Li's stupefied expression. "She gets panicky when we have a rough passage, but she tires quickly enough. She'll probably take a nap now."
"What? Who- who are you people?"
"I'm Tomoyo," she said again, patiently. "That was Yukito piloting the ship just now, and Touya's in there. That's his little sister. Sakura."
Li took a wary step back, eyeing the pair inside the bunk one more time. She looked as old as Tomoyo, probably eighteen standard years at least, but Touya was rocking her to sleep on his lap like a child, humming under his breath.
"What did you say this ship was called again?"
She gave a light laugh.
"I don't think I ever did. But welcome to the Wildflower."
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"…and the toll, wrought on innocent human life, is unforgivable. To have so many children cut down in their prime of life, by two out-of-control teenagers, is madness. I could not sleep another night, knowing that I had the power to make things better, but did not take it."
Senator Jacob Pindexter paused in his speech for dramatic effect, letting the words sink into his audience. The effect was ruined slightly by the loud popping noise that Eric made when his bubble gum burst. The sound echoed in the vast room and Pindexter looked up, annoyed. Eric pulled the gum back in his mouth with his teeth, shot him a merry grin, and continued to chew.
"We, as the lawmakers of the United Planets under Solaris, have a responsibility to protect our people from danger like this. It is our duty! I urge you, my fellow senators and Solarians, to listen to your conscience and do what is right. What is necessary. My bill, Proposition XP-314, will ensure the safety of every innocent child in the system."
He concluded with a heartfelt thump of his fist on his chest, an expression of martyred purpose all over his flabby features. The fifty or so senators who had bothered to show up for session that day all applauded politely, and he gave a gracious nod. Senatorial Chairman Bayne stood, shuffled his notes, waited for all the clapping to die off, and cleared his throat.
"Thank you, Senator Pindexter. Thank you." He cleared his throat again, and shuffled some more. "The Senator will now accept questions from the floor, according to procedural rules of the Chamber."
Pindexter beamed confidently, but the smile slipped away as Eric raised his hand and waved, snapping to get the chairman's attention.
"The chair recognizes Senator Masters," Bayne announced glumly. "Of the planet Hollyn." A few groans went up from the crowd, which Eric ignored.
"That was a pretty tragic list that you just read us, Senator," he began, and Pindexter gave a cautious nod. "I'd just like to make sure I understand the actual requirements of the bill. You intend to force every sorcerer in the system to wear ceruleum bracelets every day of their life?"
"I really don't look at it as force, Senator Masters. I look at it as a voluntary association that magic-practicers have with the rest of society. Magic is dangerous, magic can kill people. Ceruleum is the great safety that can prevent that magic from running amok."
Eric was shaking his head.
"No, no, I don't think so. See, it says right here in your bill proposal that all born with magical ability, trained or untrained, will be required to wear the magic-deflecting metal ceruleum around their wrists. Failure to comply is punishable by… oh my, a mandatory minimum prison sentence?"
He waved the sheaf of papers in his hand, a bright yellow streak clearly visible across the middle of the page.
"See, I highlighted it."
Pindexter's winning politician smile was becoming a little fixed.
"Naturally, there must be an incentive to comply. It is the law."
"No it's not," Eric corrected. "It might be the law. But first, I'd really like to know what constitutional authority allows you to punish a lot of people who haven't done anything wrong."
A murmur ran through the room at Eric's pointed words, and the chairman had to clear his throat again for silence.
"You do exaggerate, Senator. I hardly think donning the protective locks is a punishment."
"Well, I think it is. Seeing as how you're telling a lot of people to give up the one thing that can protect them in danger."
Pindexter's smile was completely gone now.
"The citizens of our society, magic or not, all have access to the law enforcement that our system provides. It is the job of the police to protect them, and I see no reason why the sorcerers cannot trust them like everyone else!"
Eric opened his mouth to reply, but the chairman banged his gavel down on the desk.
"Senator Masters' allotted time for discussion of bill XP-314 has passed. Is there another Senator who wishes to be recognized?"
No one moved, and Bayne nodded. "According to the procedural rules of the Chamber, a unanimous vote in its favor will pass it into law. Are the Senators ready to vote?"
"Aye," they all chanted. Eric scowled and slumped back in his chair. A bill could be voted into law during any session, on the day of its initial presentation, whether it was a full house or just five senators sitting in. A pretty sneaky way to get some bills passed, and Pindexter was the master of sneaky. Fortunately, the initial vote had to be unanimous.
"Are there any who do not favor the passage of bill XP-314?"
Eric waved his hand. This time the groan around the room was even louder, and he could see Pindexter grit his teeth from several rows away.
"The initial vote for the passage of bill XP-314 has failed. According to the procedural rules of the Chamber, the bill will be considered again in the next quorum. A three-quarters vote will be required for its passage. This session is ended."
To emphasize his words, Bayne slammed his gavel against the desk again. Another pointless session with just half the lawmakers in attendance, as usual. A smattering of people in the sightseer balcony got up to leave. The media box underneath the ornate stained glass skylights was completely empty, and had been for the past three weeks.
"Free at last," Eric muttered, and jostled his way through the grand Chamber. All the others were milling around in their high-class suits, chatting, forming alliances and networks. No one spoke to him, like always. That was fine with Eric, who spent these afternoons in absolute torment and couldn't wait to escape the building.
Outside the chamber room, his pair of bodyguards were waiting along with everyone else's.
"Jim," he greeted. "Bob. I've been to hell and back again. Let's scram while we can, okay?"
They didn't respond, they never did. Like shadows in sunglasses, both men fell in behind as Eric picked up the pace in the marble hallway. The light in the doorway beckoned to him. Freedom was almost there… He paused for just a second to spit his gum into the nearest trash can, then fished in his coat pocket for the pack and his lighter. The cigarette was between his lips and he had almost reached the doors when a familiar voice called out to him.
Eric uttered a mournful whimper and turned around. Pindexter was bearing down on him as fast as his chubby body could go, flanked by his own two bodyguards. They looked just like his, grim and completely devoid of humor. He wondered if it was some kind of standard in the hiring process.
"Mr. Masters, I do hope you realize that there is no smoking permitted in the Senatorial Halls."
"Ah, but I'm just holding a cigarette with my teeth, Pindexter. When I put this," he held up his lighter, "to my cigarette, and inhale, it'll be smoking. Try to keep up."
The older man's placid features twisted into a nasty scowl.
"I'd like to continue our little discussion we had in the session, this evening. It seems you have some… reservations about my bill."
"I'd like to burn it."
The scowl got deeper.
"While I don't appreciate having lost the passage to a single vote on your part, I'm sure that two mature lawmakers such as ourselves can come to an understanding. Before the next quorum, perhaps we could discuss what legislation you're trying to pass, and how I could help."
"Give it up, Pindexter. I'm not trying to pass any laws. I'm not even running for reelection. You don't have anything I want."
Eric took the cigarette out of his mouth and leaned in slightly, a wicked smile in his blue eyes.
"I think your bill's a piece of slag. I voted against it today, and I will filibuster when it comes up in quorum."
"Do you honestly think a silly threat like that is going to prevent me from bringing my bill to the floor?" Pindexter sniffed.
"I wish it would. Save me a lot of trouble. But I have the feeling you're just a little bit too much in love with this project to give up so easy. Fortunately, I'm pretty stubborn myself."
The older senator drew himself up to his full height, which still wasn't nearly as tall as Eric, and sneered in a disdainful way.
"You still think this is some kind of game, don't you? Let me remind you that I have had over twenty year's experience in these halls, and I know how to get what I want. You should be careful; you're playing with the big boys now."
It was an absurd comment coming from the moon-faced man of family values, but before Eric could think of a way to respond, someone bumped into him from the right.
"Oh! Excuse me, sir." The young girl, probably intern, hid her face in embarrassment and walked quickly away before he could say anything. This gave Eric ample opportunity to check out her long legs and the motion of her hips, which he did with appreciation.
"Honestly, Mr. Masters," Pindexter scoffed. "Your disgusting habits and lewd behavior are a disgrace to this government. You are a shameful senator."
"Yeah," Eric agreed amiably. "But I'm not the only one. At least I admit it. Later, Pindexter."
And with that he backed away quickly, striking up his lighter before he was even all the way out the door.
"Like I said, gentlemen," Eric sighed, blowing the smoke out to join the rest of the D.C. pollution. "Hell and back. Let's go before anyone else can get in my face, okay?"
Jim and Bob didn't reply. They never did.
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Disclaimer: I do not own these characters
Peacewish: Konichiwa, minna-san! It feels like it's been forever, I'm so glad to be back again.
Eric: I couldn't agree more.
Li: Hold on, time out! What's HE doing here?
Eric: Nice to see you too, Li.
Peacewish: Sigh. Having made the mistake of introducing Eric to the regular cast, he has proceeded to establish himself in my newest story, and refuses to budge. There's really nothing I can do. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, check out Lotus Reborn (and then review!) before coming back here. You could easily understand this story without doing that, but I'm actually angling for more reviews. So humor me.
Eric: It's great to be here. I'm really looking forward to this story – something tells me Peacewish is going for the politics again.
Peacewish: Maybe just a smidgen.
Li: (cough) Psycho (cough).
Peacewish: What was that?
Li: Just clearing my throat.
Peacewish: Speaking of politics, we're here to explain a few words in the text that everybody might not know.
Eric: If you were lucky enough to avoid taking any government classes. Those things are nothing but propaganda!
Li: Paranoid freak.
Eric: Ahem. The term 'filibuster' describes a congressman's refusal to let a bill come to vote. As long as he remains standing and talking in the chambers, and doesn't lean on his desk or anything, he can forestall any action on the bill. Usually just the threat of filibuster is enough to thwart the committee sponsoring the bill, but some are more stubborn than others. A filibuster can go on as long as the congressman can keep talking, even for several hours.
Peacewish: 'Quorum' means a full house gathered in order to vote on something. It doesn't have to mean government, it can mean a board of directors for a company, or even the members of a club. But the vote has to be taken with everyone present, or it's considered null and void.
Peacewish: Gracious as always, Li. Don't worry, we're going. But one more thing – I mentioned it before and I'll say it again: yes, this plot was inspired by Joss Whedon's 'Firefly'. It was an excellent show and I was so bummed when it got yanked for that dumb American Idol. I really can't stand reality TV. Anyway, it was only an inspiration and nothing more.
Eric: This is NOT a crossover, or a spin off, and no one needs to have seen the show in order to understand this story.
Peacewish: But the initial concept is so obviously similar that I feel the need to give props where they are due. Joss, you rule and I hope one day you'll be able to resume the Firefly project, or at least put the entire first season out on DVD. I'm dying to know what happens. But until then, this is the only way that I can feel some kind of closure. I hope you all enjoy.