The Girl Who Stole Herself
by R. Garcia y Robertson
Rule number three of the Family:
(3) Don’t do no felonies for free.
(“Here comes Strider,” said the Slaver to the Pimp.)
Almost home, Amanda stepped off the slowpoke slidewalk into full view of the park playground cameras. She wore a white top, and a short red pleated skirt, not to show off her legs, but because she liked to move freely, and red and white were her colors. Her only ornament was a single earring, a mini YIELD sign. Head down, long blond hair half-hiding her face, she cut across her neighbors’ neat green lawns, beneath a clear blue sky. Another perfect New Bellingdam afternoon. School was out for the day, and noisy children played in the park, watched over by tiny cold glass eyes, but Amanda knew any dedicated perv could hack into a Parks and Recreation 3V feed. She hated coming home on display.
(“Who’s that?” asked the Pimp, sounding interested.)
(“Just a pretty nobody,” replied the Slaver. “Noticed her in the park camera downloads, striding by on weekdays about this time.”)
Amanda could not shake the feeling she was watched. Pure paranoia, but even paranoids got kidnapped and raped. Ever since the Vote, she had seen her hometown attracting unwanted attention. News bloggers, naysayers, commentators, virtual tourists, psychologists, and other psychos, all wanted a look at the hippie space cases of “New Bedlam”—the home of the Damned.
(“She’s a looker,” the Pimp concluded. “Where’s she headed?”)
(“Home to Mom.” Wise to the ways of pretty young females, the Slaver summed up her life, “Amanda James, seventeen, born Bellingdam, Washington. Lives at 1099 Fairhaven Drive, high school dropout, no job, no boyfriend, no arrest record. No life at all. We’d be doing her a favor.”)
(“Total NULL,” the Pimp agreed, “not likely to be missed much.”)
(“Except by her mom,” the Slaver noted. Both men laughed. Moms were always the last to give up on lost girls.)
Crossing the last lawn, Amanda ducked into a blue door that opened for her. Happy to be home, she called out, “Hello House.”
“HELLO MANDY,” House replied, closing and locking the door behind her, resetting the security alarms. Only House called her “Mandy,” a glitch in the housekeeping program that Amanda never bothered to debug. Mom was hopeless at reprogramming, despite living a digital existence. Amanda was an October child, the only kid of an aging untrained single mom, and at seventeen already ran the home. She asked, “House, where’s Mom?”
“IN THE LIVING ROOM,” House answered, “HAVING A VIRTUAL VISIT WITH THE HOWARDS.”
Boring. Aunt Jessie and Uncle Frank were serving time on some god-awful prison moon. Speed-of-light delay turned Visiting Day into disjointed, dual monologues. Mostly Mom cataloging the lives of relatives not currently in custody. If you want a real home life, stay out of jail.
(“Keep me informed,” requested the Pimp. “Can’t say for sure, until I see her naked.”)
(“Soon,” the Slaver promised. “We’re working on that right now.”)
Amanda went straight to her room, sealing the cybertight door behind her. Safe at last, she relaxed. No one could access her bedroom, not even House. Running on internal fuel cells, behind shielded walls, her bedroom had no connections to the greater cosmos. Not everyone respected her privacy. Half dissected on her desk, a plasti-metal dragonfly sat under a microscope, solar cell wings spread wide. Amanda had caught it outside the kitchen window, spying on her and Mom. Dragonflies were the Washington State Bug, but she did not think the Nanny State was watching her, not after the Vote. Deep space Slavers used the dragon symbol, but that seemed a tad extreme for sleepy, boring Bellingdam. More likely it was some boy, better at building bugs than meeting girls, trying to snoop or scare her. He could just message her through House’s 3V. That would be scary enough.
Crossing her bedroom, she unsealed the closet, which contained Amanda’s sole connection to the cosmos, a fully equipped work station, including sense surround couch, recycler, NET navigator, and comhelmet. Slipping into the form fitting couch, Amanda put on the comhelmet and jacked in, plugging the NET navigator into the socket at the back of her skull. Instantly, she was in another, and better, world. She was in Conway Castle by the banks of the river Con. Her castle, her cyberfortress, where she was an older, taller 3V princess—raven-haired Princess-Regent Katherine of Conway, Sultana of Slutsk, Mistress of the Mongols, and Crown Princess Rylla’s ambassador to Down Under and the Damned. She sat in her throne room, wearing a black silk gown, trimmed with tiny silver bells that tinkled softly, making music whenever she moved. Since it was all 3V, she had literally ignored the expense, decorating her high-towered castle with fine fabrics trimmed in silver lace. Above hung her two shields—the black and silver shield of the Princess-Regent, black Bellingdam bells, quartered with the silver dagger of a Queen’s Champion, and alongside it her personal shield, white trimmed in crimson, with her bold challenge to the world writ in big scarlet letters, YIELD.
Slidewalks had no traffic signs, so you had to ride the backroads to get the joke—totally appropriate for Katherine-Amanda, Sultana of Slutsk, the tinkling princess.
Instantly her magic mirror brought her the latest 3V from millions of klicks away. Red-haired, green-eyed Crown Princess Rylla of Callisto sat astride her ancestors’ Griffin Throne. Above her hung her crimson shield, bearing two gold letters: RL. These letters stood for “Rylla Lives,” the motto Rylla adopted when her father was assassinated by his Space Viking bodyguards, putting Rylla on the Griffin Throne. RL was Rylla’s reminder to her friends, and warning to her enemies, that she, the last of her line, had not been beaten.
Born in prison to a mom serving life without parole, then recognized by her royal dad and made heir to Callisto, the twenty-two-year-old ruler of Callisto Colony had humbled the mighty and championed the outcast, becoming a symbol and inspiration to those who wished things were better than they were. The two letters RL had spread throughout the Solar System, spray painted by her teenage fans on the walls of Bellingdam High and on robo-freighters bound for Neptune. Choctaws used them as a gang sign. Martians had dug RL into the red sands of Sirtyis Major, so big that you could eyeball them from Phobos, Mars’ outer moon.
“Hi honey.” Rylla smiled straight at her, as though they were in the same room. “I miss you dearly.” Speed-of-light lag made real conversation impossible, and the Crown Princess of Callisto was talking to empty air, but Rylla had an uncanny ability to look right at you, even in 3V. “Hope things are going well Down Under.” Down Under was what Jovans called the inner Solar System, everything below the asteroid belt. “Up here, things are hopeless. Callisto Colony is bankrupt, but luckily we have no currency and everyone works for free—otherwise we would be in real trouble. But our bad news is your good news,” Rylla added. “I am giving you all our inner system assets that I have been unable to sell, including extensive properties on Mars, which have not sold because they are on Mars.”
Like Callisto, Mars was an independent world with a worthless currency and its own peculiar problems. Unlike Callisto, Mars had been terraformed by humans, who could walk the surface and breathe the air and swim in the canals and shallow seas. Callisto was the outermost Galilean moon of Jupiter, a pitted airless ice ball. But breathable air is not everything. Amanda had actually been to Mars as a kid, and was in no hurry to go back. Offworld property owners got nothing for their Martian investments but useless pesos, or obscene diatribes in Spanish.
Rylla leaned forward, locking eyes with Amanda, denying time and space. “Sorry to dump all this on you, but it’s your own fault, your punishment for doing so well. If it makes you feel any better, I love you and miss you very much. Someday soon, there won’t be so much distance between us. Nothing good or bad lasts forever; my father’s murder taught me that. I will love you always and see you soon.” Princess Amanda’s magic mirror went blank.
“Love you and miss you too,” Amanda replied.
When Amanda was thirteen, Rylla had come to Earth on a goodwill tour and spoken at Amanda’s middle school, Explorations Academy. That year the school’s summer field trip was to Mars, and everybody was space happy and learning Spanish. Rylla was trolling for starstruck teens willing to serve the Callisto royal family for free. With nothing else going on in her life, Amanda eagerly volunteered. Age of consent on Callisto was thirteen, and promotion was based on how much work you were willing to do for nothing. Amanda shot up from serving girl to First Lady in Waiting, forging Mom’s permission to become a NET-head and dropping out of Bellingdam High to be Rylla’s constant companion during the princess’ stay in Bellingdam. Amanda’s guidance counselor had a fit, but no one in the family cared. Just getting into Bellingdam High made her the family nerd—actually graduating would make her officially an overachiever. Serving Rylla had given her a chance to leave school and enter the real world, at least in 3V. Then at sixteen, disaster struck—Rylla’s dad was murdered by the men hired to protect him, and Rylla had to return to Callisto. Amanda came to say goodbye, expecting to be fired. Rylla told her, “Since you cannot be my Lady in Waiting while living on another world, will you be my replacement, Princess-Regent of Conway, and Ambassador to the Damned?”
Amanda was overjoyed, saying, “I would love to be your princess regent and ambassador, but no one could replace you.”
“Sad but true,” Rylla admitted. “As Crown Princess of Callisto, I am under the same sentence as my mom, life without parole.” They hugged and kissed, then Rylla was gone.
Sitting alone in her castle throne room, Amanda raised her arm, making virtual bells chime, saying, “Send in the masses.”
Until well after dinnertime, the Princess-Regent entertained all comers, mostly royal creditors aghast to hear that their payment was in transit from Saturn with the tanker fleet, or worse yet, on Mars. She also saw a smattering of paying customers, colonist wanna-bees, and cyber-tourists, who had never talked to a real princess, even in 3V. Just like Rylla would, Amanda welcomed them all with a virtual smile. “Come in, check out the castle, look at me; I used to be nobody, now I am a princess. Callisto can make your dreams come true, if you have a dream.” It was easy to be generous when it was all 3V. Only Slavers, looters, and Space Vikings were barred at the virtual gate, by an electronic portcullis of anti-virus programs. Bellingdam thought she was crazy, but that was “New Bedlam,” and who listened to the damned?
When she had seen everyone worth seeing, she declared the royal audience at an end, unplugged, and left the closet. House had dinner waiting outside her bedroom door. Mom was “visiting” with cousin Cole, who lived close enough to actually talk back. Amanda ate dinner alone, then passed out.
Like any self-respecting teen dropout, princess-sultana Amanda slept in, awaking barely in time to make Flying School’s afternoon session. She showered, bolted down brunch, then hit the slidewalks, already running behind.
(“Good, she’s leaving late,” observed the Slaver. “Hurrying makes her less alert.” He signaled his shadow disk to report on the slidewalks ahead.)
(SLIDEWALK TO FLYING SCHOOL EMPTY, replied the disk.)
(“Get ready for pick-up,” the Slaver ordered. His radar invisible disk had gas grenades and HORNET rounds designed to incapacitate the unwary.)
By now the noon rush was over, and when the slidewalk branched off toward Flying School, there was no one ahead of her, a sign that she was really late. As she exited the main slideway, a lone Jute exited behind her, so they were the only ones on the slidewalk as it wound up a grassy hill toward Flying School. He wore gangsta shades and a 3V jacket that bulged at the left armpit, while whistling an old time tune that Amanda knew the words to, “Slidewalks of New York.”
* * *
“Eastslide! Westslide! All around the town,
Being a drunken dork, on the slidewalks of New York.”
* * *
Amanda sighed and turned around, realizing she knew this hoodlum all too well. “What are you doing here?”
Cousin Cole grinned at her. He was everything she was not—a tall, dark and handsome adult hell raiser and accomplished felon. Cole stopped whistling, saying, “Folks thought I should check up on you.”
“What folks?” Cole used to babysit her when they were younger, but she had not seen him in years. Not since middle school at least.
“Family mostly.” Cole never named names. Amanda’s family famously had five rules, one for each finger so the males could remember them. First rule of the family was, women and children first. “People worry. You and your mom, living alone. No boyfriend to look out for you.”
That was Cole fishing for personal info. “So if I get a boyfriend, you’ll stop following me?”
Cole replied easily, “Depends on the boyfriend.”
(“Who is this busybody?” asked the Slaver.)
(Programmed to recognize the entire population of Bellingdam, the disk replied: cole, the younger, twenty-one, jute knight-deacon, born bellingdam, no fixed address, twelve arrests, no convictions, no outstanding warrants, marked for death by choctaws)
(“Model citizen,” muttered the Slaver.)
Cole could kickstart her social life. Amanda was not technically a virgin, but darn close. “I should date a Choctaw. That would keep you away.”
Cole laughed. “Don’t torture yourself. I heard you were a closet queen, which would explain a lot.”
“Closet princess,” Amanda corrected him.
“How’s that working for you?”
“Well enough.” Better than having a Choctaw price on her head. Lucky for Cole it was in Martian pesos.
“See much of you-know-who?” Rylla was not a word Cole would use lightly.
“Gives me my marching orders almost every day,” Amanda answered proudly. “Still got that crush on her?”
“Me and every other right thinking outlaw,” Cole declared. “Even the gay guys envy her flaming hair and flamboyant ways, and she’s every butch’s dream date. Choctaws think she’s a saint. Hip Yees and Gung Ho Tongs burn incense before her picture.”
“I have an apartment in Chinatown,” Amanda boasted, another perk she only saw on 3V. China in the Sky was C-deck on Callisto Colony.
“Don’t move in anytime soon,” Cole advised. “Word is the Space Vikings are gonna foreclose on Callisto, get back their assets the old-fashioned way.”
“Word is Choctaws are after your assets,” Amanda reminded him.
Cole found that funny. “Girl, I was carrying a gun when you were still trying to decide which tit to suck. They have not got me yet.”
“You know I was a bottle baby.” Cole used to give her the bottle and sing her to sleep. Mom was domestically challenged. “That would mean you were packing a gun at six.”
“Hell, yes,” Cole assured her. “Daddy did not plan to raise no pacifist.”
Seeing Flying School ahead, she told her babysitter turned stalker, “Inform the family that I am okay and unfucked, then fade.”
“Will do,” Cole told her. “If you really are okay, I’ll go back to being bad.” Turning his pants and jacket to match the slidewalk, Cole faded before her eyes, whistling another old time tune, just for her, “If I Only had a Brain.” Amazingly, Cole meant well. Aside from Mom, he was the only one around who actually cared about her and tried to watch over her.
(“Keep her in sight,” the Slaver ordered. “We’ll try again when we get a clear shot.” He still wanted her, despite this meddling Jute.)
(“Wilco.” Pulling back, the disk tuned its hull color to match clouds overhead.)
Being late to Flying School hurt only herself, cutting into her time aloft. Living under earth standard gravity already limited her flying options. Wings that worked fine on Luna could not get off the ground in Bellingdam. Still, she preferred unpowered flight, excelling in ultralight gliders and sailplanes. Aloft, no one cared that she was a jobless, friendless, dropout NET-head. In fact she was a star pupil, able to do things her teachers would never attempt. Being a NET-head was a positive advantage. By staying tuned to the weather channel, Amanda could see thermals, pressure gradients, and wind currents ahead, reacting instantly to wind shifts and pressure changes that others didn’t even notice.
After Flying School, she went straight back to her closet and Conway Castle, where she found Rylla waiting for her in 3V, saying they must make a public appearance together in Slutsk. Appearing together in 3V from two different worlds was never easy. Speed-of-light lag required long delays, and careful choreography to make their separate appearances seem simultaneous, but there was no saying “no” to Rylla. In the end, it worked wonderfully, and they were a hologram hit with the locals. Slutsk was a real place, a town on B-deck in Callisto Colony, where Amanda was the Sultana and already popular. Crown Princess Rylla announced to the crowd that their Sultana Katherine-Amanda was now the heiress to Callisto, next in line to the Griffin Throne—as big a surprise to Amanda as it was to the happy throng. Everyone hooted and cheered. Amanda’s loyal subjects in Slutsk enjoyed being ruled by a pretty young woman on a distant world, who never gave orders or asked for taxes. Boys and men, her age and older, begged for virtual dates. Choctaws shouted, “Mucha Ropa!” One unexpected perk of being a cyber Princess-Sultana was that half the Solar System wanted to see her naked.
Afterward, Rylla gave the Princess-Sultana a parting gift. “Since you are now my heiress, and a member of the royal family, I am giving you our tanker fleet, the Tereshkova, Tsarina, and Tinkerbell, currently headed downsun from the Saturn system, carrying millions of tons of Titan hydrocarbons. Don’t sell the family fleet until we see what the hydrocarbons will bring. Then we will know if the tankers are worth keeping.”
Again, Amanda was stunned. Suddenly her free ride with Rylla had become immensely rewarding. Since the collapse of the Ice Trade, Titan hydrocarbons were the Outer System’s most valuable commodity. Titan had an unbreathable nitrogen-methane atmosphere, thicker than Earth’s, that rained hydrocarbons and rocket fuel. Now Amanda owned a piece of that. Her new wealth and royal station did not change Amanda’s life much, which alternated between Mom’s house and Flying School, with Cole keeping casual watch on her comings and goings. She only saw him at a distance, when the slidewalks emptied out. Summer vacation loomed, and Amanda was working on a graduation aerobatic routine never before seen in Bellingdam, and sure to astound the Damned. She could do things just overhead that no one else dared, like flying inverted and picking up marker flags with her wing tips. Two days before graduation, she was flying upside down at treetop level when a single word flashed into her head, blanking out the weather channel:
‘‘Thunder weather” had nothing to do with the typically tame Bellingdam afternoon. It was a warning call from Rylla. Trouble was coming, and Amanda had to get to her closet ASAP. With no time to gain altitude and return to Flying School, she spotted a farmer’s hay field ahead, bordered by a slidewalk. Calling the farmer, Amanda got her permission to land, then begged the Flying School to come pick up the glider, pleading a family emergency, which this certainly was. Being Bellingdam hippies they all agreed. Sometimes the Damned could be so awfully nice. Setting the glider down in the long soft grass, she popped the canopy, leaped out, dashed for the slidewalk. Halfway there, a gas grenade burst in front of her, and she ran straight into the anesthetic cloud.
(“Got her,” declared the Slaver. “Send the smart van to pick her up.”)
As Amanda fell forward into the long grass, losing consciousness, a second call came in from Rylla:
* * *
Second rule of the Family:
(2) . . . all children are your children.
OVER THE HILLS AND FAR AWAY
Amanda awoke in a blank gray box, big as a small room, with a dark-haired girl of ten or so, bending over her, holding a medical dispenser in one hand and a white card in the other. Two words were written on the card:
Amanda nodded, and her new friend flipped the card over.
Nodding again, Amanda realized she could not hear the NET in her head, so the box walls must have been signal proof. She could not contact Cole or call for help. She looked around for a door, but there wasn’t one. As well as the girl bending over her, there were two more young girls sitting hunched against the box walls—one brown-haired, also ten or so, and the other much younger, with black curly hair and big eyes. They both had tanglefoot webs around their feet. Looking down, Amanda saw that she did too. So much for running away. Beside her on the floor lay a pen and a stack of white cards. Holding up the dose dispenser, the girl beside her displayed another card:
Cure for Slaver sleep gas. At near half her age, her fellow prisoner was way better prepared. Picking up the pen, Amanda took the ANTIDOTE card, and turned it over, writing:
Her remarkable fellow prisoner had a card all ready:
Goddess of war and wisdom, very good company in an otherwise terrible situation. Athena flipped the card over and placed it in front of the other two girls:
Amanda nodded and smiled to her fellow prisoners, trying to hide her mounting panic. Cut off from the NET, in a doorless box, she had no 911, no GPS. She did not know where they were or where they were going. Struggling to calm herself, Amanda picked up a card and wrote:
WHERE R WE?
Athena had another card ready:
ATV version of the shadow disks and UFOs that the Bellingdam cops claimed did not exist. Her fear mounted. They were being whisked away in a sealed container, on a nonexistent vehicle, by unknown fiends, to some secret place that Amanda did not want to visit. Thank God for Cole. He was her only hope. As soon as her signal vanished, he would rocket to her last known location, then start searching. Or so she hoped. Deciding to share that hope, Amanda picked up a card and wrote:
HELP IS COMING
Athena turned the card over and wrote:
Good question. The further the van went, the harder it would be to find them. Drawing another card, Amanda wrote:
Then she flipped it over and wrote:
CAN U SLOW US DOWN?
Athena tossed that card to Kalina, then wrote on a new one:
Kalina read the card thrown to her, then sat back, closed her eyes, folded her arms together, and concentrated. Nothing happened. Amanda sat in helpless silence, praying that Cole would really come for them, regretting her snide attempts to get rid of him. Her only comfort came from knowing that he would be eager as hell to prove her wrong. Precious seconds ticked away, and nothing happened, while each passing minute made them harder to find. Amanda’s panic grew. She had been chilled, but now she started to sweat, a lot.
At first she thought she was sweating out of fear, then she realized the box was getting hotter. Everyone was sweating rivers, except Kalina, who sat with eyes closed, and arms folded, as cool as could be. Hot turned to sizzling. Amanda could no longer stand to have her back against the burning box wall. Leaning forward, she inhaled scorching air through parched lips. Being kidnapped was horrible enough, but now she was being broiled alive.
Then the box gave a bang and a lurch, throwing her, Athena, and Monkey into a heap. Air conditioning roared into life, and torrents of icy air flowed over them, cooling the stifling box. Looking at Kalina, Amanda saw a circle of frost forming around the girl’s tangle-webbed feet. Unable to ask how Kalina did it, Amanda lay in a sweaty shivering pile with Athena and Monkey, as more minutes ticked away in silence. After what seemed like forever, an access hatch popped open above them. Cole called down, “Everybody out, ride’s over.”
Girls cheered. Amanda righted herself and stood on tottering bound feet beneath the open hatch, hoisting up Athena and Kalina to Cole. Monkey scrambled up Amanda’s back and out of the box, using her bound feet to push. Then Cole leaned in and lifted Amanda up into the light, asking, “You okay?”
“Think so.” Police alarms wailed in Amanda’s head as the NET came back on.
“Good.” Cole set her down on the black roof of the van, her legs still dangling into the box. “’Cause you owe me one, cuz.”
She knew it. Not even the law could have come this fast—if it came at all. Police alarms on the NET were not for their abduction, but for Cole, who had broken several laws to beat the cops to the scene of the crime. Amanda doubted that the Bellingdam police even knew four girls were missing.
She warned Cole, “Cops are coming.”
“Oh, really?” Playing tag with the law was a gangsta’s life. Smoke poured from the van’s open engine compartment. Lying on the ground were two comatose thugs in hooded ninja suits, one of them clutching a big foam extinguisher. Cole’s smartpistol fired silent sub-lethal WASP rounds—Weaponized, Anesthetic Smart Projectiles—that knocked you out before you knew you’d been hit.
(“Damn that meddling Jute,” cursed the Slaver. “I knew he’d be trouble.)
(2 MORE BIKES INCOMING warned the disk.)
(“And the law will be right behind them,” added the Slaver.)
Cole cut the tangle webs off the girls’ feet, as two more rocket bikes landed alongside his. As he freed each girl, he handed her off to a Jute, saying, “Make it quick. Gestapo’s coming up fast.” Riding rocket bikes in Bellingdam airspace was a no-bail violation, which the Jutes were going to compound by fleeing the scene of a crime, with material witnesses, adding obstruction of justice to further traffic violations. Jutes could not do good without being bad. Cole tossed Amanda the knife so she could cut herself free, then swung her into his sidecar, saying, “We go three ways, then meet up where it’s safe. Go fast and low, or you’ll be telling lies to the law.”
(“Pull back and await instructions,” the Slaver ordered. He sent a signal to his men’s ninja suits, and their color changed to match the ground, fading from police sight.)
Cole took his own advice, and by the time Amanda had cut herself free and strapped in, they were weaving between trees and rocketing down gullies, hiding from radar and infrared. Rocket BIKES—Binary Intelligent Kinetic Engines—mixed two explosive fuels in their combustion chambers and could literally ride rings around police jet copters. Cole detoured around Alger, to get out of Bellingdam PD jurisdiction, while jet copters roared overhead in hot pursuit of windblown heat trails that crisscrossed and circled back, fading under the summer sun. Cole stashed his bike, sprayed with industrial coolant. Then they hopped the nearest slidewalk, posing as honest Bellingdam citizens, hiding among the Damned. The nearest available cyber-safe place in Fairhaven was Amanda’s bedroom. As fugitives drifted in, two or three at a time, gangstas and little girls, Mom was delighted. “You’re finally having friends over! House, fix them lunch.”
While they ate, Amanda shut herself in her closet to answer Rylla’s RAGNAROK call. Soon as she plugged into Conway Castle, Rylla appeared in the magic mirror, no longer astride her Griffin Throne, but still greeting her with a smile. “Hi, honey, sorry this has to be short, but Space Vikings have attacked Callisto with three constellation-class cruisers, backed by the battlecruiser Valkyrie, plus a fleet of robo-cargos carrying cyborgs, smart tanks, and what not. I have left you my RAGNAROK files, in a place you know. I plan to repel this absurd assault, but if anything happens to me, you are my heiress, so rule well. I’ll call you again when I get to a safe location, but right now I have to run, literally. No matter what happens, I’ll love you forever. Good-bye and good luck.”
“Love you too,” Amanda promised, “until the day I die.” But now she had nowhere to send her reply.
When she came out of the closet, Cole asked, “How are things in Callisto Colony?”
Amanda winced. “Going to hell in a hurry.”
Cole arched an eyebrow. “And your girlfriend?”
“Already on the run.” Amanda sat down next to Kalina and stared at boiled green algae, soy fungus cakes, and cold seaweed soup, but did not feel like eating. Instead she turned to Kalina, who was not eating either, saying, “You were amazing. How did you do that?”
Kalina smiled, holding out her hands, showing two plasti-metal bracelets fitting snugly around her wrists. “My dad’s a NET-head, and he made these for me—to protect me since he could not always be there. I’m still learning how to use them, but when you put them together, they draw on dark energy. At the lowest settings they can run sensors up and down. At higher settings they can burn out circuits, start fires, and freeze things solid.”
Cole was impressed. “Good thing you’re on our side.”
Amanda told Athena, “You did great too with your card tricks.”
“Got that from my mom. She won’t let me leave the trailer without two pens, cards, and gas antidote.”
“Time your moms knew you’re okay,” Cole decided. Kalina lived in Fairhaven and messaged her mom to come get her. Cole had the Jutes take Athena and Monkey to their homes in Hidden Valley. “Be careful out there,” Cole warned. “You’ll be watched. Remember, it’s RAGNAROK until we hear different, so don’t be expecting rainbows. We got God’s promise, it’s the fire this time.”
Anneke, Kalina’s mom, arrived and after hearing her daughter’s story, she wanted to go straight to the cops. “Okay by me,” Cole told her, “just keep my name out of it. I want to be one of the three unknown Jutes. Police will be looking for me anyway, but at least they won’t connect you to my problems.”
Anneke agreed that sounded best, thanked them again, and then took Kalina home, leaving Cole and Amanda alone. Sighing heavily, Cole sat down on Amanda’s bed, saying, “This is awful, girl. Worst part is, I cannot watch over you now. I have to pull a vanishing act, to stay ahead of cops, Slavers, and Choctaws. What did your girlfriend say?”
“Pretty much the same.” All of Amanda’s outlaw friends and relations were deserting her. Who was going to lead her into temptation, and more importantly, get her out again? “Rylla’s headed for an unknown safe location and has named me as her successor.”
“Wow,” Cole was amazed. “We’re both moving up in the world, cousin. I’m on everyone’s most wanted list, and you’re heiress to Callisto.”
“Hard to say which is worse.” Amanda asked, “What should I do?”
Cole looked around the bedroom. “This is your safe spot. I got those girls’ addresses in Hidden Valley, but don’t go visiting, except in 3V. Right now, I have to go and lead the law in a different direction.” He got up, handing her one of Athena’s cards with two addresses on it. Then, for the first time ever, Cole kissed her on the lips. By the time she got over the shock, he was out the door and gone. How like a guy to kiss and run.
Mom was totally thrilled that her daughter finally had friends over, not knowing that Amanda had to be drugged, kidnapped, and chased by the cops first. “Who were those cute little girls?”
“Kalina, Athena, and Monkey.” A fire starter, a goddess, and a fellow primate. “I just met them today.”
“Cole’s friends were so nice and helpful,” Mom added. “I’m glad you are seeing such good boys.”
Currently fleeing arrest. Amanda did not mention that she and Cole had suddenly become kissing cousins. Mom would tell everyone, and the whole Family would be laughing at them, the gangsta and the closet princess. Amanda politely excused herself, retreating to her room, not planning to ever come out, except in 3V.
She could not escape the carnage in Callisto, which was all over the NET, with everyone taking sides. Space Vikings had seized Callisto Colony’s hangar deck, cutting the colonists off from outside aid. Cyborgs and smart tanks were sent to subdue A and B decks, but Rylla’s people fought back. The invaders learned not to trust parking orbits, drop shafts, slidewalks, and footpaths, all of which turned lethal. Ships were riddled, cyborgs crushed, and troopers were whisked into ambushes, or just blown up. B-deck became a shooting gallery with smart weapons, and A-deck was worse. Space Vikings did not even try to enter C-deck, where Gung Ho Tongs were arming the people, and Mao Say Tongs were denouncing the invaders as imperialist running dogs. With the orbital Colony only half-subdued, secret bases on Callisto itself came as an unwelcome surprise. Dug deep into the moon’s icy surface, the bases were invisible to radar and infrared, only revealing themselves by wreaking havoc on the invaders. Mass deportations, mounting civilian casualties, and several futile ceasefires failed to end the shooting, or to find Crown Princess Rylla.
Many of those who could not find Rylla found Princess-Regent Katherine-Amanda instead. Conway Castle was besieged by news mongers, peace advocates, refugees, Valkyries, and professional busybodies, all demanding that Amanda “do something.” Her heart went out to refugees, who were homeless and hurting, but there was not a lot the tinkling princess could do. She was a hologram in a 3V castle. Her grand sounding titles were worth nothing until the tanker fleet arrived from Titan. Amanda would be a zillionaire at eighteen, if she should live so long.
She only came out of hiding for Flying School graduation, wearing a shocking pink outfit instead of her usual red and white. She thrilled students and parents with her low altitude aerobatics, finishing off with a series of half-loops, both forward and backward, ending in a stall landing, right in front of the judges’ box, to thunderous applause. She graduated Summa Cum Laude.
When she got back to Conway Castle, she found Rylla waiting for her in the magic mirror. Amanda recognized the background as A-deck on ALFHEIM, an A-class colony for the euro-rich, in orbit around Europa. Hologram fairies flitted about as Rylla rode up on a unicorn. She smiled, saying, “Sorry for this silly show, but it’s better than meeting in a war zone. I dearly hope you are doing well. I am here mainly to let you know that I miss you and care about you. Also I want what is right for you, and you are the best judge of that. Just because I made you my heiress does not mean you must follow in my foolish footsteps. If the Space Vikings get lucky, and something happens to me, you will have a choice—either go on with your life as you will, or take up where I left off.”
Rylla paused, to let that choice sink in. “Think about it. Hopefully you will never have to decide, but if you do, know that I have absolute faith in you. When Joan of Arc was your age, she ended the hundred years war, because God told her to, and because Joan felt it was having a bad effect on the kids.”
Right, Amanda thought, then they burned her alive.
“I know what you are thinking,” Rylla added. “Yes, they burned her, but that is because men are such poor losers. Joan crushed the English at Orleans and Patay, and they never won again. Besides, they don’t burn people anymore. Worst you can get is life without parole, which has done wonders for my mom. So if you must choose, do not choose out of fear or love for me. Pick the path that is best for you. I will love you no matter what.”
Rylla straightened in the saddle, and her grin widened. “I saw your graduation exercise. You can already do miracles. Joan of Arc had to burn to get her wings.” With that she rode away.
Amanda sat on her 3V throne, wondering if Rylla was really hiding in Alfheim, or just wanted people to think so. Years ago, when she was a mere lady in waiting, Amanda had once asked Rylla how her parents ever met, one being a prisoner and the other a prince. Rylla laughed, saying, “Dad always dated lifers, unless he just wanted sex, and he had a harem for that. When he thought about marriage and kids, he went on virtual dates with convicts. Bifrost brig was the best for that, since the women were all fairly convicted and had no chance of getting out on appeal; plus the navy has great ‘kid con’ facilities for inmate dependents and juvenile offenders. I know because that’s where I grew up. Mom and Dad hit it off right away, had a virtual wedding, and I was conceived on a conjugal visit.”
Amanda finally had the nerve to ask, “What’s your mom in for?”
“Murder one,” Rylla replied cheerfully. “Mom does not even want to get out. She found God in prison, says she took a life, so she deserves life. Prison has been good for her; besides finding God and a good husband—a prince of a guy—she also discovered that she’s bisexual, which takes some of the boredom out of incarceration. Dad gets on fine with her girlfriends, not being the jealous type, having that harem and all.”
“But, why even date prisoners?” Amanda asked. “He’s a prince, with a harem!”
Rylla’s smile faded, and old hurt welled up from deep within. “Dad wanted me and mom to be safe. His parents were blown up by anti-monarchists. Navy claims it cannot police the Galaxy, so where I come from you only get navy protection if you commit some heinous crime, and you better do it on navy property, or you’re out of luck.” All the crimes Rylla was accused of were totally bogus, so no one was protecting her.
Princess Katherine-Amanda of Conway had to totally unplug at times, becoming just plain Amanda James. She was having a late night gabfest with Mom when Rylla’s final call came in. Again it was a single word:
“Got to go,” she told Mom, heading for the bedroom, “just got an important call.”
“I didn’t hear it ring,” Mom protested.
Diving into her closet, she got to her throne room in record time to find that Space Vikings had finally caught up with Rylla, not on Alfheim, but in a not so secret bunker in the ice caves on Callisto, where she stood facing her armed enemies, ridiculing their charges against her, saying, “You have no authority, no proof, no legal warrants. These so-called charges are just an excuse to loot Callisto Colony, driving innocents from their homes, and stealing what my family has built.”
Rylla’s accusers protested that they had stolen nothing, claiming, “This can all be settled in courts of law.”
Wearing a gold gown and her ruby tiara, Rylla smirked at that notion. “What courts? Callisto is a sovereign colony. Here, I am the law.”
“Not anymore.” Her accusers moved closer.
Rylla arched an eyebrow. “Really? We will see. In the meantime, this audience is at an end. You have my leave to go.”
Men in battle armor moved to hem her in. “Alas, we are taking you with us.”
That got an outright laugh from Rylla. “My person is sacred. You may not even touch me.”
They reached out to prove her wrong. Rylla sighed, as if she were dealing with unruly children, going from anger to sorrow. There was a telltale flash of energy, and transmission ended as the bunker and everyone in it was blown to bits.
Princess Katherine-Amanda of Conway, now Crown Princess of Callisto, dropped her head and cried, huge racking sobs, as loud and hopeless as those of childhood. Now she was truly alone in the cosmos. For almost a quarter of her life, Rylla had been her hope and inspiration, her constant friend and guiding star. Now Rylla was gone for good. Amanda would never see her again, never feel her boundless affection, or get her quirky advice. Amanda was alone, now and forever.
Almost alone. When she lifted her head and wiped her eyes, she found herself facing an armed delegation of Space Vikings in battle armor, just like the ones that confronted Rylla, only these were holograms. Somehow they had broken through the encryption that protected her 3V castle. They had gotten Rylla, and now they meant to get her. Their leader spoke, “Katherine of Conway, so-called Princess Regent and Sultana of Slutsk, we have a warrant for your arrest, on charges of treason, murder, conspiracy . . .”
Amanda did not wait for them to finish. This was a scam, an attempt to hold her attention, while they traced the dedicated connection to Mom’s house in Fairhaven. They were not here to arrest a hologram. They were after the living, breathing Amanda James. She broke the connection. Back in her bedroom closet, she punched the red reset button on her NET navigator, ending the dedicated connection, destroying every evidence of its existence. Hopefully she did it in time. She and Rylla had been careful to make this the only link between them. Her cyberlife was now erased, and she was just plain Amanda James, jobless, friendless, dropout recluse in Fairhaven, Bellingdam. With nothing better to do, she cried herself to sleep.
Hours later, she awoke, and lay looking at the cyber-proof ceiling, wishing she were dead, instead of Rylla. She desperately needed to talk to Cole. If the Space Vikings did ID her, could they arrest her here? Could they make any of those absurd charges stick? Her gangsta kissing cousin would know. Cole’s twelve arrests and no convictions counted for more than a law degree. Street legal was what she wanted, not an LLD. Right on cue, she heard the house fabricator chime, and Mom called through the door, “It’s for you, Amanda, from Cole.”
She went to the living room, where Mom was visiting with some cousins that lived north of Alger. At the far end of the room, the 3V wall opened onto the screened veranda that the cousins used as a family room. Behind them Amanda could see the hills that ringed Fairhaven and a blue slice of Bellingdam Bay. Having been on that veranda many times, both for real and in 3V, she knew that if she looked close enough, she could see the house she was hiding in.
On the fabricator’s read out was a message from Cole as short and sweet as a song:
RUN FOR YOUR LIFE LITTLE GIRL
Beneath the words were working fax copies of Cole’s 360 gangsta shades and a smartpistol in its power holster. Clear and plain legal advice, from the man with no convictions and a million pesos on his head. Not knowing where to message Cole, she punched out a quick reply on the fabricator:
THANKS RUN WHERE?
Then she retreated to her room and started packing, leaving the door open so she could get a reply from Cole. She was almost done packing when the reply came, not in words but in Cole’s unmistakable whistle, another old time tune that she knew the words to:
When I was young and had no sense,
I bought my fortune for ten cents,
But the only thing the cookie could say,
Was over the hills and far away . . .
* * *
Giving up her trademark red and white, she dressed in dark French jeans and a forest green jacket in case she had to hide in the woods. Then she went to talk to Mom, who was still “visiting.” Through the living room’s 3V wall, Amanda could see the hills Cole meant, stretching into the virtual distance. She told Mom, “I’m thinking of taking off for a week or two, maybe going to Hidden Valley, to see those girls I met. If I’m going to stay longer, I’ll call you.”
“That’s great,” Mom declared, happy for her, and glad the cousins could hear that her brainy problem child was finally getting a life. “You spend too much time in your room.” Mom never left the house but did not notice because she lived in 3V. “Take a month, two months, or all summer. Have an adventure.”
“I’ll try,” Amanda promised. She kissed Mom good-bye, stuffed the smartpistol and holster into her pack, and put on the gangsta shades. Then she was out the door and on the run. House closed and locked the door behind her.
(SUBJECT HAS LEFT THE HOUSE, reported the shadow disk.)
* * *
Fourth rule of the Family:
(4) If you cannot be good, be quick.
GIRL ON THE RUN WITH GLASSES AND A GUN
Carrying a backpack instead of a purse, Amanda hit the slidewalks, seeing the world through gangsta glasses, feeling like she was stepping into 3V. Cole’s glasses gave her a full wrap-around view of the world, letting her look behind herself without turning her head. Programmed for Bellingdam, the glasses identified every resident, marking outsiders as NULLs. Law enforcement officers and known Choctaws were highlighted, and so were possible tails—anyone who kept reappearing, or who made the same turns she did. So far the glasses had not spotted a stalker, but Amanda could not shake the feeling she was always being watched.
(“Too many people around to risk another pick-up,” the Slaver decided, “but keep her in sight.”)
Amanda kept to the crowded slidewalks, seeking safety in numbers. She could run, but she could not hide. If she tried to stay in one place, even renting a room for the night, she became a sitting target for Slavers or arrest warrants. But how do you run away in a crowd?
She passed a highlighted lawman that the glasses ID-ed as MI-5, British counter-intelligence. He did not even look at her. Amanda knew it was useless to ask any of these highlighted officers for help. Kalina’s mom had tried that and gotten nowhere. Bellingdam Police had taken down Kalina’s story but showed no interest in finding unknown Slavers that only a child had seen. Instead they were determined to catch the three Jutes that had come to Kalina’s rescue, and the cop copters chased to Alger and back. Bellingdam PD’s greatest claim to fame was hiring a serial killer on the run from California as a Bellingdam High security officer. It cost the school a couple of students, but damn, the guy was an eager beaver, working overtime for free. For all she knew, the cops would arrest her as a known terrorist and fugitive Sultana. She had a better chance appealing to Choctaws or the man from MI-5.
So she was on her own and on the run—but to where? Over the hills and far away. Beyond the hills south of Fairhaven lay Alger and then Hidden Valley, where Athena and Monkey lived. Amanda got out the girls’ addresses and looked at them through her gangsta shades. Slidewalk routes to each address instantly appeared. Both were way up Hidden River, near Bird’s View She said two words, “Rocket Port.” Both slidewalk routes extended past Bird’s View to Rocket Port. That was where she should go to get really “far and away.” She stayed on the main I-5 slideway, headed up the pass to Hidden Valley.
At the top of the pass, the slideway turned down toward Hidden Valley, and Amanda crossed the first big boundary in her world. Ever since the Vote, there were new limits to Amanda’s world, and this was the first—the line between Bellingdam and Hidden Valley separating rural and urban, darkness and light, past and future. Ahead of her was Hidden Valley, more wild and heavily wooded, more rural and lawless, with Sheriffs, town cops, and tribal police, defending their bits of turf. Nulls and Choctaws increased alarmingly. She started seeing Martians, first in twos and threes, then whole families of them, acting like they lived here. She was entering the fringes that led to Rocket Port and beyond. Already she could hear Callisto calling.
As she passed the Bellingdam rock, she saw that some Choctaw had tagged it with a big, red, flaming RL. Rylla lives. Damn, she wished it were true. Tears welled up. Rylla’s death was the worst blow, worse than Slavers, worse than exile. Rylla was the one person working to make the world better—and not just Rylla’s world everyone’s world, from Terra-Luna to the stars. Sweet, wonderful, beloved Rylla was gone forever. Now it was up to the tinkling princess, Katherine-Amanda, Sultana of Slutsk, and Crown Princess of Callisto. What a farce.
Seeing the Bellingdam rock dwindle in rear view, Amanda realized that she had taken that first step in the journey of a million miles, or at least the slideway had taken it for her. Rylla had told her that to free yourself, you had to go to where you did not want to be, to that heart of darkness, that honest sensible folks avoided. That is where the truth lay. Everything else was safe, comforting denial. Princess Rylla used to always say, “I got a lift up, a head start on everyone, not by being born a princess, but by being born in prison.” Amanda saw that she had to go to Callisto, crazy as that sounded, and be the true princess, born to set everything right. Anything else was denial—denial of Rylla, of the Vote, and of herself, denial of the life she had chosen at thirteen, to break the surly bonds of Earth and live free among the stars.
Reaching into her backpack, she got out the smartpistol and its power holster, personalizing it so it would fire only for her. Then she clipped it to her hip.
(“She’s armed,” said the Slaver.)
When the slideway broke out of the hills and flattened out, she got a sweeping view of Hidden Valley with the poppy fields in bloom. Huge swatches of red, gold, and purple half-covered the valley floor and were reflected in the sky by a great arching rainbow, standing astride Hidden River. Tulips in the spring and poppies in the summer turned Hidden Valley into a rainbow bridge, connecting Bellingdam to Rocket Port and the lights that twinkled in the night sky. This way to Callisto, everyone. She stepped into the slow lane to make the turn up river.
(“She’s slowing down,” the Slaver noted, “either to get off, or turn up river. If she heads up river, get ready to do a pick-up.”)
Amanda stepped from the slow lane to the Upriver Slideway, headed for Bird’s View, Rocket Port, and beyond. Suddenly, she saw far fewer people around her, an unwelcome change, since she still felt like she was being watched.
(“Good, she’s headed our way. Put someone a ways in front of her,” the Slaver ordered. “We’ll grab her as soon as she’s alone.”)
She sped through Skidrow, headed for Hymen, and more folks got off. Then the slideway began climbing the flank of the volcano, entering tribal lands, the Hidden Tribe, that gave the river, the valley, and the county its name. Like Amanda, they had fled upriver hundreds of years ago to hide from Slavers coming down from Canada. Trees crowded right down to the edge of the slideway, a pine canopy that could hide her from stealth drones, shadow disks, and full-sized UFOs. She had found a place to hide—too bad it was in the woods with the wolves and bears and mountain lions. More people got off at Hymen. Ahead of her was a single NULL, a man with his back to her, showing absolutely no interest. She would have preferred a Valley girl. No one was following her, but rather than being left alone with some stranger, Amanda stepped off at the last Hymen slidewalk, which curved around, carrying her into the woods.
(“Damn,” the Slaver cursed his luck, “almost had her.” He told his tail, “Backtrack, see where she comes out of the woods.”)
Not wanting to go too far out of her way, Amanda passed a couple of bends, then stepped off the slidewalk into a grove of trees. She spent a paranoid ten minutes out of sight of the slidewalk, sitting on a log. Seeing a single NULL had scared her off the slideway. Was she really ready for life outside her bedroom? If she ran and hid at every hint of trouble, she was never going to get to Callisto. Her power holster hummed briefly on her hip. Someone with a smart weapon had passed close by, probably on the slidewalk. Upriver was Second Amendment country, and a lot of folks went armed. If the weapon were coming toward her, the hum would have gotten louder. Instead it faded away. Feeling foolish, she returned to the Upriver Slideway, which now held a couple of local families.
(“She’s back. What was that about?” the Slaver wondered. “Hope she didn’t spot her tail.”)
Climbing toward Bird’s View, the slideway emptied out again. Both families got off, leaving a few stragglers. As the crowd thinned out, the NULL reappeared behind her, highlighted this time. No shit. She did not need gangsta glasses to know the guy had doubled back, looking for her. At the first Bird’s View slidewalk she stepped off the slideway, letting the slidewalk carry her back into the woods.
(“There she goes again. See what she’s up to,” the Slaver ordered.)
Again, Amanda went around a couple of bends then stepped off, but this time she hid behind a tree where she could see the slidewalk. Her holster started to hum. She held her breath as the hum got louder. Then, coming around the bend was the NULL, armed and after her. Shit. She froze until the hum faded away. Amanda had played enough 3V to know this was the time to shift position. Getting back on the slidewalk headed the other way, she waited for a long straight stretch with a clear field of fire, then she got off and took cover, reminding herself to breathe.
She felt a surge of fear as her holster started humming again. Fear turned to panic as the NULL rounded the far bend with his gun out, looking for her. Amanda reached down, and the holster slammed the gun into her hand, safety off. Since she and the gun agreed, she squeezed the WASP trigger. His pistol had no target, so it did not fire, and the NULL tumbled off the slidewalk, felled by a WASP. Landing in a heap at the edge of the trees, he looked like a big lump of road kill.
Amanda walked over to look at him, seeing a blond like her with a UV glow-tube tan—like you get from living aboard ship. His smartpistol lay next to his hand. She picked it up and flung it as far as she could into the trees. Then she unclipped his holster, throwing it the other way, since it had a tracking program to help find the lost pistol. Her own holster stopped humming. Seeing the green dragon Slaver tattoo on his gun hand made her feel less like a bushwhacker. Cole used to tell her, “Girl, gettin’ the first shot is what counts, what they give medals of bravery for. Takes guts to pull a trigger.” No lie. Still feeling shaky. She never could have fired if the holster hadn’t handed her the gun cocked and ready.
(“What happened?” Getting no reply, the Slaver cursed again, “Damn that little NULL bitch.”)
So much for riding the Upriver Slideway. Amanda set off through the trees on foot, guided by her glasses. Monkey’s house was closest, so she headed there first, keeping to the thickest part of the woods where even shadow disks could not find her. Now the dark green canopy overhead felt cool and comforting. There were worse things to fear than lions, and wolves, and bears. As she got closer, the trees thinned out, and she had to get down and crawl through the underbrush to keep out of sight. She was almost to the house when her holster started to hum again.
(“Is it her?” asked the Slaver.)
(“Has to be her. Get ready.”)
Amanda stopped and lay still, hoping the humming was a passing hunter and would go away. No such luck. Humming stayed constant, only increasing if she crept closer. She could see the house now through a screen of leaves and branches. Jacking up the gain on her glasses, she could make out the backyard, back porch, and a big living room window. Bedroom windows were curtained off. There was no sign of movement inside, no one coming or going. Kids’ toys were strewn about the yard, and school was out, but even at maximum amplification, the glasses did not pick up kids’ voices. No talking at all. No music playing. No doors slamming, just the humming in her holster. Someone was inside, silently waiting, with a smart pistol. That pretty much screamed, “Trap.”
(“Whoever it is has stopped coming.”)
Slowly Amanda edged backward. Keeping the house in sight as long as she could, looking for some reaction as the hum faded. No curtains parted. No door opened. Not a flicker of interest in her armed coming and going.
(“She’s fading away.”)
(“Stay in position,” the Slaver ordered. “She may still be watching.”)
Smart guns only operated in the presence of their owner. Whoever was waiting silently in the darkened house, armed and ready, was certainly not Monkey. When the hum was gone, Amanda got up and headed for Athena’s house.
(“She’s gone. If it was her.”)
(“Hold your position,” said the Slaver. “We’ll get her at the next place.”)
Athena’s last known residence had no slidewalk address. It was not even a house, just a broken down, two-bedroom ATV, permanently parked in the deepest part of the woods. You had to use GPS just to find it, but there were few honest jobs upriver, so a lot of folks hereabouts liked privacy. Her holster hummed before Amanda could even see the place.
Amanda backed off at once, until the hum was gone. Then she stopped and listened for a reaction. Nothing, just birds calling in the trees, the drone of insects, and the far off hammer of a woodpecker.
(“Signal’s gone. Probably some passing hunter.”)
(“Maybe,” the Slaver was unconvinced.)
Drawing her smartpistol, Amanda stashed it in the brush, then headed back toward the ATV with just the empty holster, which soon started to hum. Amanda felt defenseless without the pistol, but she forced herself to keep going even as the hum increased. She wanted to get a peek at the place without alerting every gun owner in the area. Finally, she spotted the tall, shiny Travel Home, minus the cab and big balloon tires, resting on its chassis in a clearing, hooked to a small one-bedroom trailer, which had its wheels. Same as before, no sign of life, just the hum of a gun.
Suddenly, her glasses showed a flash of movement behind her, and something light landed right beside her. Rolling over, Amanda reached for her hip, mentally calling for the gun. All she found was an empty holster, which continued to hum. Feeling silly, she looked down to see what had frightened her. Lying next to her on the pine needles was a white card that read:
Smiling with relief, Amanda crawled backward, keeping a watch on the stranded Travel Home, until she backed into Athena and Kalina, who had come up behind her. Athena had another card ready that said:
Athena flipped the card over:
THEY R ALL AROUND US
Good to know. Gesturing that she wanted to write, Amanda was given a card and pen. She wrote:
THANX FOLLOW ME
She backtracked until her holster stopped humming, then found her gun and asked the girls, “What happened?”
“They came in the night,” Athena told her. “They got my mom and my little brothers.”
“We were camping in the woods,” Kalina added, “so they missed us. We’ve been waiting all day, hoping someone we knew would show up.”
And she did. “Good job,” Amanda told them. “I’m on my way to Rocket Port. There’s a navy station there where you two will be safe and can call Kalina’s mom.”
“Monkey’s house is closer,” Athena suggested, not eager to rely on the navy.
Amanda shared Athena’s distrust of legal authority, seeing how freely Green Dragons operated, despite the presence of town, county, and tribal cops, as well as the navy and MI-5. “I was just at Monkey’s house. Everyone’s gone, except someone with a gun.”
Neither girl liked the sound of that. Calling for help was hopeless since Slavers would trace the call and find them long before the cops. “Then it’s Rocket Port,” Kalina concluded. “We can go anywhere from there.”
Very true. Amanda had left the decision up to the girls, who had shown the best sense so far. While adults played high-tech hide-and-seek in the woods, scurrying about, setting off sensors, these two children armed with only pen and paper had stayed safe, kept watch on the enemy, and found her. They might easily be safer without her, but Amanda had to try to help them. All children are your children.
(“Try a sweep to the north,” the Slaver decided, “keeping between her and Rocket Port. Look for heat trails.”)
They set off for Rocket Port, picking their way north through the trees, guided by the gangsta glasses. Athena asked, “What will you do when you get to Rocket Port?”
“Kalina’s going to call her mom. I’m sure they would take you in.” So far Anneke had shown more sense than all the other adults combined. “I’m going to Callisto.”
“Can I go with you?” Athena asked.
“Sure, if you want.” Amanda always tried to say yes to kids, unless what they wanted was immoral or impossible. Starting off conversations with “No” just taught them to conceal, lie, and doubt themselves. Rylla had suggested outlandish things from the get-go but always left the decisions up to Amanda, since Rylla only wanted volunteers. “Why do you want to go to Callisto?”
“Wherever they have taken my mom and brothers must be somewhere far away,” Athena explained, “so Callisto is a good place to start looking.”
Callisto was pretty far and away, but Amanda felt compelled to warn her, “Callisto is a war zone.”
“That’s good,” Athena declared. “My mom has friends in war zones. I can find them, then they can help me find her.”
(“We found three heat trails, an adult and two kids. They converge and then head north together. Shall we keep looking?”)
(“No, follow that trail,” the Slaver decided. “It’s probably her and those two kids we missed.”)
“What’s your mom do?” Amanda asked. What kind of work got you friends in combat zones? War correspondent? Truce negotiator? Emergency trauma nurse? Conflict junkie?
“Mom’s a space pirate,” Athena replied proudly. “She’s Pirate Jenny, famous throughout the Saturn system. You’d know her if you’d been to Titan. Pirates love war zones, because they have the best loot.” Amanda saw where Athena got her escape and evasion skills. Any girl with a pirate mom had to be ready for trouble.
Kalina chimed in, saying, “Her mom has her own UFO, Umbria, the black freighter.” Which must have made Anneke’s jobs sound pretty humdrum. Though motherhood was easily the most dangerous female occupation, more dangerous than crime, joining the navy, or exploring Neptune. Pirate Jenny had just been kidnapped, not for buccaneering, but for being a mom.
“Mom’s not a Slaver or a wrecker,” Athena hastened to add. “She steals from them. Or from rich folks who have so much that they leave stuff lying around that could be really useful.”
“Stealing from the rich makes sense,” Amanda agreed. Stealing from the poor was an obvious dead end job.
“There’s no law beyond Luna,” Athena added, “so it’s not even stealing. Mom comes home to relax and stay out of trouble.”
But trouble found her. Amanda’s holster started to hum, and she told the girls, “Run, straight ahead, as fast as you can.” They ran, and kept running, even after the humming ceased.
(“Caught a signal, but it’s gone.”)
(“Keep on that trail,” ordered the Slaver. “We’ll cut them off from Rocket Port.”)
Amanda called a halt to let the girls catch their breath, while she studied the route to Rocket Port. By now it was late in the afternoon, and this close to Rocket Port, commuters would soon fill the Upriver Slideway, making it safe to use. She told the girls, “If we can get to the slideway now, we will be whisked into Rocket Port.” They set off rapidly to keep ahead of pursuit, but halfway to the slideway, her holster started to hum. Without being told, the girls started running, but the hum just got louder.
(“Great! They are headed right for us.”)
Amanda reined in the girls, saying, “Hold up, we’ve been cut off.” While the girls got another breather, Amanda consulted her glasses. Luckily, Rocket Port was ringed by emergency EXITs, just in case, and this counted as a dire emergency. “There’s an EXIT right to the west of us, away from the slideway. Let’s go, double time.” They took off running again, and this time the hum faded.
(“Damn, lost them again.” The Slaver was not about to give up. “They have to be headed for the nearest EXIT—there is nothing else out here but trees. Keep following that heat trail. Use HORNETs when you get closer. Just get them.”)
If the girls could keep going, Amanda was sure they’d make the EXIT. It was easy to send men up the slideway, blocking them off from Rocket Port, but the EXIT was close at hand, and they had a head start. One last dash, and they were home free. Or so she hoped.
(“Almost to the EXIT We’re firing HORNETS.”)
(“Do it,” shouted the Slaver.)
With the EXIT in sight, Amanda’s holster began to hum loudly, and she shouted to the girls, “Run faster.” They ran faster, but the hum became a roar of incoming rockets. Amanda sprinted ahead to open the EXIT. She got to the EXIT door, a simple pressure hatch lying on the ground. Amanda undogged the hatch and held it open for them, yelling, “Get in!”
Below her was a round metal EXIT chamber sunk into the ground, with a second hatch at the bottom of the chamber. Looking back at the girls, she saw them coming up fast. Suddenly, three rocket trails burst out of the woods, coming even faster. Amanda watched in horror as the first rocket caught Athena, exploding into a net of sticky fibers that engulfed the girl. HORNET—Homing Ordinance Net—was like a tanglefoot round, only bigger, covering the whole body with a sticky web that allowed for breath, but not movement. Amanda saw the second round burst around Kalina. The third rushed at her.
Waiting for it to hit would do the girls no good. Dropping into the chamber, Amanda pulled the EXIT hatch closed behind her, hearing a loud bang as the HORNET hit the hatch half a second too late. Amanda punched the EXIT chamber’s alarm button, locking the hatch, setting off a loud alarm, and alerting the law. If cops came quickly enough, the girls would be safe, but Amanda could not count on that. She told the EXIT chamber to give her a pressure suit.
(“She got in ahead of the HORNET.”)
(“I can hear the alarm from here. Override the hatch lock,” shouted the Slaver. “Now, before she gets away!”)
Struggling into the pressure suit and sticky boots, Amanda heard the alarm fade. Someone had disabled the hatch lock. Above her the lock clicked open. Bracing her feet on both sides of the door in the floor, Amanda undogged the lower hatch, which opened outward. The hatch flew open as all the air rushed out of the EXIT chamber, trying to drag Amanda with it. Her stickyboots held, and she found herself looking down a hole in the world, light years deep, seeing stars slowly rotating at the far end.
Staring down into the well of stars, Amanda knew she was safe. With the EXIT chamber empty, a couple of tons of air pressure at Earth-normal fourteen pounds per square inch held the upper hatch closed. Slavers had unlocked the hatch, but they could not lift it.
(“No go. She opened the lower hatch.”)
(“Damn that little blond NULL bitch,” cursed the Slaver. “Damn her to hell and back.”)
Copyright © 2017. The Girl Who Stole Herself by R. Garcia y Robertson