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Prosperity was once Tombstone’s planetary capital, but a rebel firebombing had left it in shambles, and the capital was later relocated to New Hope. Much of the city still lay in ruins. A few towers soared among the empty shells of government buildings, hotels, and commercial centers. Hectares of parks and pavilions swarmed with detritus, among which dwelled the handful of survivors who had crawled out of the wreckage following the revolution.
The city had grown up around the spaceport, which itself had been the first major construction on the planet during the early settlement period. Its docking bays and maintenance pits lay mostly devoid of ships. This world had never seen many visitors, and the recent political upheaval made it even less inviting to star travelers, save for those few weary merchants who needed somewhere to refuel and resupply en route to more civilized sectors of the galaxy.
McGrath brought the jetcycle down a wide boulevard that cut through the city center toward the port. A control tower loomed above the sprawl of derelict container yards, abandoned hangars, and rusting fuel tanks. The spaceport was a miniature city unto itself.
He slowed as he approached the main gate, where a lone security robot stood like a mechanical sentinel, its glowing red sensor swiveling toward him. Had the Magistrate reported him missing? If so, the robot might not let him into the port. On the other hand, it was hard to judge how fast word traveled on a planet with no real communications network.
To his surprise, the robot stepped aside and opened the gate. He glided the ’cycle through and followed a ramp up to the main docking bays. Enormous rectangular depressions spaced evenly across the platform gaped in waiting for ships that would never come. He found the Desperado nestled in one of the smaller bays in the back corner, its knife blade-sleek hull cuffed in a docking collar that trailed an assortment of ribbed hoses and bundles of cable. A collapsible staircase rested against the starboard side, clamped to the hull just below the primary airlock.
He set the ’cycle in hover at the lip of the docking bay and dismounted. Donner climbed off shortly after. McGrath scanned the port. This was too easy. Where were the Magistrate’s security forces? Where were the Rigelian reinforcements? He searched for signs of their ship but found none, not even a shuttle. Perhaps they’d dropped off their envoy, then returned to orbit? If that was the case, they could be back any time now.
Abigail fell in behind McGrath and dismounted. “Nice ship,” she said, removing her helmet and joining them by the edge of the bay.
“Did you notice anyone following us?”
“Something’s not right. The Magistrate should have this place locked down. If he didn’t want us off the planet, why just let us into the spaceport?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe he’s preoccupied. Or he doesn’t know we made it off the train. Who knows?”
McGrath chewed the inside of his lower lip. He’d never trusted gift horses. “All right. Well, looks like this is where we part ways.” He stuck a hand into his duster and removed the bag of quartz. “Here, take this. I’ll get you the rest once I take Donner back to Pollux. I can convert your percentage into local currency and have it delivered by cargo drone.”
There was a twinge of something in her eyes he couldn’t quite make out. “Actually, I was kind of hoping you could take me with you.”
“I’ve never been off world before. It might be my only chance to see another planet. Besides, it’s going to get pretty ugly around here after what we just did, and I’m thinking it might be nice to lay low for awhile.”
McGrath drew in a sharp breath. No tagalongs. That had been his cardinal rule since he’d started bounty hunting. It made things…complicated. “I wish I could, but I don’t have enough food or supplies to take three. The Desperado’s not a transport ship. It’ll be tight. And don’t be fooled by the sims. Space travel’s not all it’s cracked up to be. At best speed, it’ll take the better part of two weeks to reach the Pollux System proper.”
She cut her eyes toward the ground. Was it that obvious he was making excuses? Embarrassment warmed his cheeks. He must be getting rusty.
“I understand,” Abigail said. “It’s just—”
A plasma bolt slammed into the ground a meter away from them, splashing against the concrete with a hiss and crackle.
McGrath’s instincts forced him into motion. He drew his sidearm and gestured for Abigail to get down. His eyes pinpointed the source of the attack: two humanoid figures across the landing field, crouched behind a stack of cargo containers. He returned fire, bullets punching through the air at supersonic velocities. His shots missed by a wide margin. Damn. Something glitched in his field of vision. Electronic jamming. The interference screwed with his implants, rendering his target-assist useless. He’d have to do this the old-fashioned way.
“Quick, take Donner to the ship!”
“But I thought—” Abigail protested.
“Just do it!”
Abigail jolted to attention. She dragged Donner away from the firefight and forced him down the ladder into the docking bay.
McGrath turned off his overlay and adjusted his aim. It’d been awhile since he’d relied on just human faculties. He focused on the man on the right, shifting his weapon slightly to compensate for gravity and windspeed. His finger tightened on the trigger.
The roar of engines shook the air around him, back-blast from thrusters nearly blowing him over. His duster fluttered and he lost his balance—and his aim. His shot went wide, glancing off one of the containers. He turned as an armored shuttle descended on pillars of flame less than a hundred meters from his position. From the hull configuration, it was obviously not a local vehicle, which left only one possibility. Rigelians.
McGrath scrambled to his feet and shot down the ladder into the docking bay. He joined Abigail and Donner by the Depserado’s airlock. As soon as it detected his presence, the door opened. “Inside, now!”
When the airlock had finished cycling, they raced to the ship’s cramped cockpit. McGrath took the pilot’s seat. Donner sat on a fold-out passenger seat in the rear section, and Abigail took the copilot’s station. Her eyes glittered with excitement. She’d probably never seen the inside of a starship before, and even a rust-bucket like this one must have been fascinating. Interstellar travel had lost its charm for him long ago, but coming from a backwater world like Tombstone, Abigail must feel like a whole new world had opened up for her.
“We need to get airborne,” McGrath said. “We’re sitting ducks on the ground.”
Abigail looked perplexed. “What’s a duck?”
McGrath huffed. “Never mind.”
He didn’t bother with the pre-flight check. There wasn’t time. Instead he powered up the reactor and primed the engines. While the main drives warmed up, he retracted the docking collar, its collection of refueling hoses, data cables, and coolant lines snapping free of their sockets, and activated the vertical lift thrusters. Jets sucked in air, heated it, and shoved it back out at high velocity. The Desperado bucked like an angry bull as it rose out of the bay.
Part 11 will be up on Saturday, June 15th.
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The second story, Line of Fire, will be up June 15th!