Free Fiction on the 14th: Heart’s Refuge

The Ides of Matt:
A free short story,
every month from the 14th-20th.

HEART’S REFUGE
by M.L. Buchman
-a Future Night Stalkers romance story-

Brody Jones flies Lifter Rescue—diving down into the hazards of Low Earth Orbit. There he saves who he can of Earth’s last refugees.

Captain Karina Rostov of the Future Night Stalkers can’t understand Brody’s career choice—neither his commitment to Lifter Rescue nor his refusal to fly with her.

When a rescue flight forces them both to confront their pasts, each must finally face their own Heart’s Refuge.

1

Brody Jones worked his way around the Mod18 ship, checking her over in case there was a rescue mission today. Fifty meters of spacecraft that had seen too many flights but, like a beater truck in the old vids, was always game for another round. He liked its tenacity even if he felt sorry for it sitting in this particular hangar.

His ship was parked in a narrow space at the end of the Number Four hangar—thankfully inside Brit Habitat One rather than out on an umbilical space-dock on the outer hull. It let him do inspection and service without a spacesuit which was a major plus. However, it also meant that his old Mod18 was parked alongside five sleek, military Stinger-60s that belonged to the Night Stalkers. They were beautiful, lethal craft.

The white finish on his Mod18 was tinged from a partial reentry burn which she’d never been designed for. The massive NAS logo—Non-Aligned Ship—was nearly obliterated with solar bleaching. In space, paint cheap enough to afford didn’t last long. He and a few likemindeds had scraped together enough to run the one ship and keep her maintained. “Pretty” was outside their budget.

Non-Aligned Ship, as if his old Mod18 was somehow crooked. Lifter Rescue wasn’t associated with any government. In fact, if they hadn’t been given hangar space at Brit Habitat One—parked out at the Lagrange 2 point beyond Luna—there wouldn’t be any Lifter Rescue operation at all. However, with the Brits’ stamp of approval, the other remaining governments of deep space were forced to cooperate as well.

The thruster nozzles showed no signs of cracking. The primary and secondary cooling fins weren’t so fortunate, but they were still serviceable—for a few more flights at least. He came around the nose cone and spotted a woman leaning against the closed airlock.

It wasn’t Felice, his Number Two. She never hauled herself out of her rack this early unless there was a rescue alarm.

When he saw who waited for him, with her arms crossed and her glorious dark hair flowing to her shoulders, he was torn between irritation and being seriously pleased.

“Hey there, Karina.” Night Stalker Captain of Stinger-60 Number One-Four-Alpha—the toughest bitch in space, by her own proclamation. That was the irritating part about her.

“Hi, asshole,” but over the years her standard greeting had almost become affectionate…or at least kind of friendly.

“Well, at least some things never change.” She was also one of the best pilots in the entire system; only the very top ones made the Night Stalkers. A challenge that he’d never even wanted to try. Still, he had liked piloting beside Karina in flight school and still missed that, five years later.

“Some things never do,” she sounded particularly grumpy. “Like you going out again in this flying hazard.” The seriously pleased part was that she actually spoke to him, listened to him, occasionally drank with him—though they’d hardly gone past that. There’d only ever been one night between them. Not a night actually, really just a moment, but he’d never forgotten it. No matter who he’d bedded over the years, and there’d been some incredible women, it wasn’t enough to erase that memory.

He also appreciated the contact because almost everyone else socially plas-walled the people who flew for Lifter Rescue, as if what he did was worthy of contempt. She was perhaps his sole champion among the most powerful military in space—even if there wasn’t much she could do for him there. At least she didn’t revile his chosen career in public, only to his face.

Brody shrugged. It was an old argument. They’d agreed to disagree long ago and even that hadn’t stopped it entirely. He leaned back against her Stinger-60, garaged by some weird fate next to his Mod18. There were twenty of these ships stationed at Brit Habitat One all the time, in addition to an equal number on upsystem patrols. The likelihood of his ending up beside her craft seemed beyond chance. For whatever reason it had happened and he liked the opportunity to see her more often—even when they exchanged little more than friendly snarls.

Lift Rescue had been a point of contention between them, ever since graduation day from flight school. She hadn’t spoken to him for at least a year after that. There were fewer missions every year, but he didn’t care.

Earth still had the occasional Lifters, people so desperate to leave that they built their own ships to climb the gravity well. And almost every one needed some help to make it out. That’s where he and his Mod18 came in—a role that hadn’t even existed in the first three phases of humankind’s climb to space.

First had come The Exploration—brave lunatics atop chemical-filled bombs.

The Expansion had been far safer—mag-lev rail launches that had delivered settlements from the Senegalese on Mercury to the Swiss out on Pluto. There were rumors of some settlements all of the way out in the deep Kuiper Belt, but if they survived, they weren’t talking. No surprise really as it would take a serious dose of paranoia to climb so far.

Even during The Exodus, most of the craft had been purpose-built or were salvaged from Expansion-era craft.

But toward the end of the Exodus, they began running out of ships and Lifters had gotten creative. They’d even salvaged the ancient chemical rockets from The Exploration. Nobody had the power or the skills to climb out to Luna anymore—most didn’t make it into orbit. Lifter Rescue tried to help those who didn’t disintegrate at launch or punch a brief hole into the ocean after a failed lift.

“One of these days, I’m not going to come down and save your ass,” Karina didn’t move from where she leaned against his closed airlock in her space-black jumpsuit. She’d looked incredible in flight school. She looked even better now. His brain went there, even though experience had taught him not to bother hoping.

“Never asked you to.” Besides, there’d only been the two times. One, when he got in beyond his ship’s abilities—the reason he’d replaced his first copilot with Felice. And the other when he’d faked an emergency because, in a rare, massive lift, there were more people to rescue than his one ship could handle.

No one could agree on what to call this latest phase. The official term was The Aftermath. Felice’s vote had been The Exhaustion—as the last of free Earth tried to climb the gravity well. His personal favorite was The Expectoration, the last of humankind being spit out of the planet with nowhere to go except up.

Brody sighed.

Everything seemed to be a battle with Karina. A challenge to be faced down or a tally to be accounted for. Other than their ships being berthed side by side, he wasn’t even sure why she kept talking to him.

“So, your new plan is to block my airlock for the rest of your life?” Yet he wasn’t sure he’d mind. His life would be far less if she wasn’t a part of it—no matter how small a part that was. Over the years he’d tried for a bigger part, but the answer had consistently been an evasive no—as if she hadn’t even heard him.

“Maybe it is, at least until I figure out what to do about you.” Karina Rostov was a tough-as-plas pilot and had a dark-eyed beauty that he could never ignore.

She was also a fifth-generation Expansionist. Her people had spaced long before the Russo-German-Turk War had erased all three countries in one bloody week, along with most of Europe. Back when humanity’s entire future hung beyond the sky.

His family hadn’t been so fortunate. When he was a kid, they’d spaced aboard an old Minuteman VI missile they’d found in a Montana silo and converted for The Lift. Three families, four years of work, and he’d never forget the raw terror—or the man who had plucked the few survivors out of the sky before the missile ballistically reentered Earth’s atmo. He was retired now from his cargo hauling business, but still one of Lift Rescue’s main benefactors.

With Karina’s pre-Exodus heritage and his family being just…Aftermathers (Expectorants sounded a little vile even for him), there were even higher barriers between them.

“What are you doing here, Karina?” He couldn’t enter his ship until she moved away from his airlock and she didn’t appear to be in any mood to do so. While he’d be glad to look at her all day, she always had an agenda. It wasn’t like her not to state it and move on.

“I don’t even know why I’d care if you died rescuing the useless,” like he was an idiot for doing so.

“You mean the hopeful?”

She shrugged uncomfortably.

Maybe he finally needed to let go of his Karina Rostov fantasies. How could she think about people that way? It was hope that drove them aloft despite the horrific odds.

 

2

Useless. There were times Karina would like to cut out her tongue.

Her parents were old-school Ukrainians—a distinction that had been meaningless even before her great-great-grandparents had lifted during The Expansion. It was an isolationist distinction that Mom and Pop had brought back to life in reaction to The Aftermath. It made her first responses dour and the ones after that worse.

And for some reason, Brody Jones brought out the truly horrid in her. But she couldn’t seem to stay away from him either. He was everything she wasn’t: blond, blue-eyed, and popular despite his chosen profession, a choice she’d never understood.

Her own Night Stalkers commanders and crew only tolerated her because she could outfly any of them. She’d been born to fly a Stinger-60; it was in her blood. Yet her one great weakness, she couldn’t resist poking at this particular Mod18 pilot.

“What is it about you?”

“Me? What about me?”

Karina tried to formulate some kind of a rational answer. Her mind was excellent at analysis—of everything except Brody Jones. She could master the most complex operation: deliver troops to Saturn’s Titan and extract another team off Jupiter’s Europa all with a minimum fuel burn rate and exact timing.

But understanding Brody was completely beyond her.

Launch detection! The alert blared out of both of the sleevepads in their flightsuits. It echoed around the hangar as well as over the PA system.

They tapped in unison and a quick holo of Earth formed above each of their raised arms with a first-approximation orbital track rising from the surface.

“Kourou, French Guiana,” Brody identified it faster than she could. Northeastern South America. “The old European Space Agency site.”

“Threat or Lifters?”

“Lifters,” Brody declared without hesitation. “Minimal military there before The Exodus. Most of it is underwater since The Melt and the sea-level rise, but someone found a way to lift.”

No threat. Stand down alert, her sleevepad announced. For a decision to be made that fast, the launch must not have been big enough to escape Earth’s orbit. If it couldn’t reach them, it was no longer her concern.

“Out of my way, Karina. I’ve got to fly.” But it most certainly was Brody’s.

For reasons that eluded her, she didn’t move, forcing him to push her aside. The globe projecting above his sleevepad came straight at her head and she flinched away.

“Oh, sorry,” Brody pulled back, tapped his sleeve, and the globe went away. He tapped again, “Felice where are you? We have a run.”

This time a big red cross projected above his arm for a moment before it switched to her face. “Hey, Brody! How are you, buddy?”

She sounded toasted. Actually, the hospital logo flash said drugged not drunk.

Felice raised a bound arm into the image area. “The Skyball game last night rocked. Too bad I’m sidelined until the bone reknits. You shoulda been there. Where were you? Probably off doing your usual: getting drunk and mooning over Queen Bitch Rosto—” Jones slapped the disconnect.

“Crap!” He looked about the hanger helplessly.

Karina could only blink in surprise. Not about the “Queen Bitch”—that one she’d heard a thousand variations on. But Brody Jones was attracted to her? Really? How had she missed that?

Before she could collect her thoughts into a question, the other two members of his crew came racing down the hangar past the long line of Stinger spacecraft.

“I need a copilot,” he declared to no one in particular. His arriving crew shrugged—Vetch and Warwick were a med and a gearhead, not flyers.

Was Brody too hyped to react to the end of Felice’s comment? No, he was blushing. First time for everything.

His eyes swung to her. His blush slowly turned into a smile.

“No way, Brody.”

“Are you on the first-call list?”

She wasn’t. Though a Night Stalker was always ready, she wasn’t on the alpha-alert team today. “There’s no way I’m going to copilot your crap Mod18 to go help a bunch of suicidal Aftermathers.”

Even as she complained, Brody wrapped a big hand around her arm and was easing her aside.

“But…” he ignored her protests, punched in the airlock code, and hustled her past the outer and inner hatches.

Once they were both resealed, he let go of her to tap his sleevepad. Moments later, a copilot’s pre-flight checklist popped up on her own.

“I’m not flying with you.”

“Sure you are,” his easy grin was infectious. “Do you have something better to do on a Thursday morning than go flying?”

“On a Mod18? Sure!” She hadn’t flown a Mod18 since basic training, and hadn’t flown copilot since very early in her career.

“Go,” he gave her a shove toward the engine inspection port.

For reasons she couldn’t unravel, rather than flattening him and departing back through the airlock, she went. It was only as she was signing off on the last items on the list that she spotted the date—it was Sunday, not Thursday—technically her day off, as much as a Night Stalker ever had one.

Karina watched Brody as he slid into the command chair and began systems startup. Thursday? Why had he said that? He had to know the day. Then she almost laughed. Brody had always been the one with the sense of humor—a skill she totally lacked. He’d said Thursday because it was the most boring-sounding day of the week—not mid-week and still too far from the weekend. Anything was more interesting than a Thursday and he was using everything he could to coax her into going along.

Well, Jones was right about one thing: there wasn’t anything better than flying.

 

3

“NAS-LR1 entering LEO. This is NAS-LR1 entering LEO.” Brody made sure that the transmission was on automatic repeat. “Non-Aligned Ship, Lifter Rescue One entering Low Earth Orbit.” They were only halfway down from Luna, but it was always best to give a clear warning to prevent a preemptive strike from the surface.

“That and a Stinger-60 gunship will keep us in business,” Karina muttered. “Except we don’t have a Stinger do we, Brody?”

“No, we’ve got a group of civilians in trouble. Find them, Karina.” Felice was good, but the whole ship felt different with Karina beside him. There was a sudden rightness to his world that he wished he had more time to enjoy.

“This part of space give me the creeps,” but she started working the problem while he focused on finding a safe orbit.

“Creeps me out, too. No matter how often I fly into it.” Most of Low Earth Orbit was a blind spot courtesy of the IndiaBeam. Coming anywhere near the I-Beam Zone was bad news, really bad news.

There were only a few groups remaining in any semblance of power down on the dirt. The biggest was India. They hadn’t joined The Exodus. Instead, they lofted a satellite that had opened into a big mirror. Using a ground-based destructive beam, they’d laid down scorched earth for a thousand kilometers around their borders—which just happened to include Pakistan, a swath of China, and several other irritant nations. After that was done, they’d proved their willingness to burn anything out of the sky that they could spot, which had included all the eyes-in-the-sky above the Eastern Hemisphere.

Even doing an overflight at two hundred kilometers in an NAS-declared ship on a rescue mission was a dicey proposition. Bottom line: if an Earther lifted anywhere within the I-Beam’s range, they were on their own. Very few who did ever crossed out of it. In Low Earth Orbit, India’s range was two-thousand kilometers in every direction. Basically overflights anywhere between Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, and Mongolia were screwed.

“Got them!” Karina put up a projection.

Brody saw that it would take three orbits to match speed. And it was going to happen directly over the I-Beam.

 

4

“No! I didn’t come out here to die, Brody Jones. Not for you. Definitely not for—” Karina could feel her parents’ bitter epithet striving to surface, Aftermathers. By sheer will, she managed to suppress it. “—people I’ve never met.”

She wasn’t her parents—who were parochial even by modern isolationist standards. She refused to hold their system-view. But she wasn’t going to die for unknown Lifters either.

“I’ve followed your missions. Since when did you, a Night Stalker, shy away from risk?”

“There’s a difference between calculated risk and suicide.”

He’d followed her missions?

“Do you follow all the Night Stalkers?” They weren’t exactly public record—hell, most of her missions were extremely classified. But there was a fraternity among pilots that Brody did a better job of fitting into that than she did. He’d be able to get the stories if he tried.

“Just yours,” it was barely a gruff mumble.

“Why do you do this?” She waved toward Earth because she wasn’t comfortable pursuing why he followed her missions.

He tapped for a full orbital display which filled the space between them. It made his face hard to read and any continuing conversation awkward. He didn’t speak, though she could see his jaw working hard.

“They’re on a decaying ballistic arc.” Instead of reaching true orbit, their trajectory was off. They were going to make three orbits, then… The reality caught in her throat.

“Early in the fourth orbit they’ll reenter and burn up,” Brody concluded softly.

“We can’t cross through the I-Beam Zone!”

“Even if they don’t fire off the I-Beam, these Lifters will already be in reentry by then. We have to find a way to catch them sooner.”

Karina checked the fuel load and ran some rough calcs in her head. They were going to have to catch them in their second orbit to have time to get the Lifters offloaded before the I-Beam came over the horizon.

“How about this?” She tapped out a course.

“That places us inside the Aussie protection dome.”

She spun the projection and saw that it did. The only other big Eastern Hemi player—the Australia-New Zealand dome—wasn’t playing at all. They’d put up an energy field and disappeared behind it three decades ago. No one had heard from them since. The dome was huge, reaching well beyond the atmosphere. Anything that hit its silvered surface disappeared in a flash of static discharge and was never seen again—no debris, nothing. Broken down to component molecules and no one knew how they did it. They weren’t telling either.

Karina studied the problem again. Angle of insertion, delta-vee, the I-Beam Zone, the dome…the factors swirled about her. She looked out at the Earth, like a perfect blue-and-white Skyball, glittering among the stars. They were directly above the sunlit, daytime sky and the old planet glittered. There was no way to see the problems from up here: the disease, the political and religious rifts, the pollution, the radiation.

And then she superimposed all the factors and obstacles in her mind on the actual Earth. It was one of those tricks that she’d concluded made her such an exceptional pilot. Others relied completely on the virtual projections, but she could see the multiple orbits in her head, superimposed on the real world.

She finally saw one, and only one possibility. She keyed it in without looking.

 

5

“Oh my god, you’ve totally lost it!” Brody looked at the shift in the projection. It broke a hundred safety rules. Maybe two hundred. He’d never have thought of that in a million years. The stress factors on the Mod18’s structure began rolling up the screen: a lot of yellow but, surprisingly, no red. Even factoring in her present condition, it should be okay.

“But that’s…” he ran out of words. It was elegant. Risky, wild, and wholly unorthodox, but there was a beauty to it that told him it would work. There was no time to decide, but he didn’t need any. If Karina said it was good—

He rammed his thumb down and print-authorized the course change into the flight computer.

“Hang on! We’re—” his warnings to Vetch and Warwick in the rear were chopped off by the hard burn.

A muttered curse was all that came over the intercom.

Maybe he should have given them a little more warning. It didn’t really matter; the intercept wasn’t the hard part. It was the escape that was going to get interesting.

They caught up with the Lifters over the remains of Canmerica East. The Melt had drowned most of the coastal cities, except New York which had built a skyscraper-high dike wall. Then in a final fit of isolationist paranoia, they’d dropped an asteroid on the Isthmus of Panama to cut apart the two continents—as if nations in South America didn’t have a navy or a space force.

Brazil had collapsed early on, which hadn’t surprised anyone. But Argentina and Chile had joined together and retaliated with a line of meteor strikes from Quebec to Atlanta. Canmerica East had no longer existed by the time of The Exodus.

He and Karina caught up to the Lifter halfway through their second orbit.

“That was beautiful, Karina.”

“Thanks,” she kept her head down, studying the controls.

Brody temporarily cleared the nav projection and looked right at her over the much simpler docking control layout they’d need in a few minutes. “Seriously, Karina. I wouldn’t have come up with that in a decade.”

“Actually, Brody, you already did. Last semester of flight school, Advanced Orbital Mechanics. There was a problem in the seventh chapter I couldn’t get.”

He vaguely remembered her tracking him down one night with a flight problem. It was the one time she’d come to his room—which was what he really remembered.

“I was so afraid I was going to flunk out if I missed it.”

“It was only one problem, Karina. You always worried too much. You were the top of the entire class. And the way you flew, there wasn’t a chance of them failing you.”

“I’d spent two days on it. You said you hadn’t looked at it yet, but you cracked it in under an hour.”

Impressing Karina Rostov had been plenty of motivation. He didn’t even remember the problem now. But he could picture her electric smile the moment she’d understood his approach on it. Her kiss had been no mere peck of thanks. It hadn’t been romantic either, but it had sizzled in his mind for all of the years since. His “one big moment” with her—how utterly pitiful.

A squawk from the computer forced him to focus on the docking procedure. Mating up with the old Ariane rockets was always a challenge. They’d never been engineered for human transport, so the fabricated ship-mating collars were often a challenge. More than one Lifter hadn’t thought it through beforehand. Open-space transfer without spacesuits had a very low survival rate. One Lifter ship hadn’t had a hatch at all and there’d been no way to cut one in time before they fell and burned up during reentry. That one had been hardest—their radio had worked most of the way down.

Thankfully, these people had installed a universal docking collar on the side of the instrument delivery shell. He let Karina bring the ships together. Letting his hands ride on their linked controls, he could feel the incredible subtlety of skill she achieved as if it was second nature.

There was a hard clang as the hulls came together, but the connection showed all green and was holding pressure. He left the problem of station-keeping to hold the ships together with the flight computer.

“Come on,” he signaled Karina to unbuckle as he did the same. “This can be the hard part, but it can also be so good. And just in case…” he tapped his sidearm.

Karina checked her own then nodded her understanding.

They floated back to the belly hatch where Warwick waited. Vetch had the medical station warmed up.

“Do it,” he gave the command to proceed.

 

6

Karina forgot to breathe while the hatches were opened.

How could Brody not remember that night? It had shaped so much of her flying ever since. He’d shown her a new way of conceptualizing orbits that had rocked her mental world. With a simple screen of calcs, he had revealed a level of mastery behind his easy-going exterior that had humbled her. He had made her a different pilot, a better one.

She stole a glance over at him, but he wasn’t watching the hatch, he was watching her. He looked aside quickly.

Felice had said that Brody was mooning over Queen Bitch Rostov. What possible reason…

Then she remembered something else about that long-ago night. She’d kissed him in thanks. It had been an unthinking gesture that she’d felt mostly embarrassed about. A senior pilot had been waiting for her that night and yet she’d kissed another man. Now, she couldn’t even remember the pilot’s name.

She’d also forgotten that kiss. Apparently Brody Jones hadn’t.

What sort of a woman was she that she’d blocked all that out? Easy answer: Queen Bitch Rostov. Yet somehow Brody always saw past that. She now knew that was part of why she kept being drawn back to him. Because only Brody Jones saw her differently than everyone else did—even herself.

“I—” she turned to him, but his attention was now riveted on the first of the Lifters emerging awkwardly from the hatch that joined the two ships—unused to the zero-gee of space. A man, a woman, two teenage girls, a small boy. They were emaciated and weeping. They kept touching Brody’s crewmates as if to make sure they were real. They arrived in a cloud of smells she couldn’t separate. Salt tears, body odors, and something she didn’t recognize that reminded her of the hydroponic farms but was a hundred times more powerful. It made her wonder what humanity had lost in leaving Earth.

More people followed and the ritual was the same. A broken arm was routed over to Vetch’s med station. There were any number of black-and-blue marks that they’d feel later. Soon there were forty people crowded in the Mod18’s bay. No more followed.

“Stay here,” Brody told her before leveraging himself down into the Lifter’s hatch.

She ignored him and pulled herself through the hatch too.

The odors were different in here. The sharp tang of fear and human waste—released in fear or…

A woman stared at her from a mattress on a steel deck floor. Her eyes were wide and her jaw slack. She looked as if she’d died while screaming.

Brody was checking each body. Occasionally, he’d nudge one free and float it toward her. In the zero gravity, it didn’t take much for her to push them up toward Warwick waiting on the Mod18. Some were merely unconscious, others conscious but immobile with shock.

She looked around. The Ariane’s equipment bay was barely three meters across and five tall. In that space they’d built mattressed tiers that had impossibly held fifty people. She counted seven of them who would never leave.

Brody was grim as he double-checked each one left behind.

“I had no idea,” her whisper sounded overloud in the cramped space.

He nodded. “Out of choices, they take the only chance they can get.”

She waited for him in the ill-lit stinking confines of the pod while he arranged a young boy’s body so that he almost looked natural.

“He could have been my brother. Was almost me,” Brody’s voice was a whisper as he brushed the boy’s hair gently into place. “An ICBM was never meant to carry people. We didn’t know how hard the Minuteman missiles boosted. Three families totaling twenty people. I begged to ride at the top of the cone—I so wanted to be the first one into space—it was the only thing that saved my life. Dad built a small platform at the nose, just big enough for me. Everyone else packed in below, with only room to stand during the launch. They crushed one another under that awful acceleration. The only other survivors were an aunt, who ended up raising me, and the technician’s wife who killed herself just a month after losing her whole family—that was all out of twenty people. This is how I pay back.”

His voice was even, calm, steady, though she could feel the pain surging from him into the close air.

Karina wondered if she’d ever really known Brody Jones.

She had always thought of him as a slacker. He’d been a top flyer at school. Not as good as she was on the actual piloting, but truly exceptional in the mechanics, and an outstanding leader. Then, when she’d suggested that they go military together—with some lame image of the two of them blazing paths of glory throughout the system—he’d just shaken his head.

“Lift Rescue,” was all he’d said. That was a flyer level below Patrol, Cargo, or even Salvage.

It hadn’t made any sense. But she’d been so hyped on the chance of a highly prestigious future that she’d been afraid to ask. His blue eyes had been so sad that she’d backed away rather than stepping forward. Was that what had kept drawing her back to him all these years?

Hope that she would change his mind?

Or the unanswered question of why he never would?

Now she knew the answer. And as she slowly eased from the small pod, which was now just a coffin, she knew why she’d been afraid to ask. Her own life suddenly looked trivial and privileged compared to this.

 

7

After kicking loose the Ariane, they rode in silence down the gravitational slope: thermosphere, mesosphere, stratosphere. He had double-checked that the Lifters were quiet and safely strapped into acceleration hammocks before he’d aimed the Mod18 down the path of Karina’s flight plan. They slid within fifty klicks of the Aussie dome: the shining silver that shrouded any view of the nations within and meant instant death to any who approached.

Brody had never told that story of his own Lift to anyone. Only his aunt and the man who’d rescued them with his cargo vessel, flying well into range of the I-Beam to pull them out, knew the whole awful truth.

The Mod18 skipped off the upper atmosphere at barely fifty kilometers above ground. At this low of an altitude—due to the curve of the horizon—they were flying below the I-Beam Zone. Barely.

The mass of the northern Himalayas lay spread beneath them. He’d never thought he would see them in his lifetime, especially not so close. The jagged peaks, holding some of the world’s last few glaciers, glittered like corridor signs guiding their way.

The Mod18 was never designed for an Earth reentry and definitely not a landing. He kept the spacecraft in a slow roll so that no one area took the brunt of the massive overheating. Alarms were triggering every few seconds. It took both of them working as fast as they could to deal with them.

Overheated nose plate, he rolled slower across the back to give it a few more seconds of cooling.

Primary computer core shut down, Karina force-fed the flight plan into the backup.

At the bottom of their passage, they were little more than a meteor across the Tibetan night, a herald in a land where no one and nothing survived to interpret their passage.

Forever and nineteen minutes later they clawed back up into Low Earth Orbit over the Hawaiian volcano that had finally made sure there was no more Hawaii.

He checked in with the crew and passengers. They hadn’t lost anyone in the blazing passage.

Karina didn’t speak once on the long flight back up to Luna’s L2 and the British habitat can. Medical and immigration took the passengers from them: shock, limping, tearful thanks.

Soon it was just the two of them and Mod18 at the end of the long, quiet row of Stinger-60s.

“She’s a good old girl. She’s fits in better now,” Karina patted the nose of the Mod18. She had a soft smile that he barely recognized. He turned away because it hurt to see it, knowing it would never be for him.

Brody looked down the row. Five immaculate, well-maintained, stealth-black Stinger-60s. And his reentry-scorched Mod18. The NAS logo was long gone and the last of the white paint showed through the char only in a few well-protected spots.

He nodded in agreement, not sure of what to say next. What to do. Karina the Queen Bitch who had started on the flight with him wasn’t the woman who now stood close beside him. A lot of crews had quit before he’d learned that he had to be the only one to go down through a Lifter’s hatch—there were some things that were too hard to ask others to face.

Yet Karina hadn’t hesitated. But neither had she spoken afterward. She hadn’t been his to lose, but still he wondered if he’d lost her anyway.

“I’ve been thinking,” Karina’s voice was soft and he couldn’t read anything in her dark eyes when he risked looking at her once more.

“I suppose that’s better than running away from me as fast as you can,” which is what he’d been waiting for. He leaned back against his ship because it grounded him in what was important. If she ran, he might just run after her, all the way to the Night Stalkers, and Lifters be damned. He crossed his arms over his chest, the only thing that kept him from reaching out for the impossible.

 

8

Is that what she’d always done? Run away? Maybe it was. Unable to face his choices, his hidden sorrow, his eyes that hid so few of his thoughts now that she knew how to look.

Yet she had kept coming back. Now she truly knew why.

Whatever Brody had done, he’d done with a single reason and a single passion more pure than she’d imagined possible. Certainly better than any of her own motivations had ever been.

“I was thinking about the Night Stalkers.”

“I like my job just fine. Same answer I gave you after flight school, Karina. Lift Rescue,” and again she saw the sadness in his eyes. But it was different from the sadness she’d seen in the Ariane’s capsule. That had been about the Lifters who hadn’t survived their dream; this was personal.

“I know that, Brody. You’d be less than who you are if you did anything other than LR. I get that now.”

“So, why are you thinking about the Night Stalkers? If you’re suddenly talking about leaving them, I’ll never speak to you again.”

“You’re not getting off that easy.” But actually, she had thought about that for a big piece of the flight back. What it would be like to fly with Brody? There was an immediacy to what he did. He saw the deaths, but she could still see the damp places where the men and women who he had saved had wept their thanks onto his shoulders. Lives he had changed, including his own.

“Then…what?”

“I thought about the similarities of what we do. There are a lot of soldiers who are alive because of what I do.”

“Damn glad you see that.”

“I’m not stupid, Brody.”

“Nope,” he still leaned back against the Mod18. No qualifications, just simple agreement. As if he simply knew things about her that she sometimes doubted so deeply.

“So, here’s the deal.”

“There’s a deal? Like I said, if you’re thinking of leaving the—”

“Shut up, Brody.”

He harrumphed and shut up.

“The deal is: you ever need a backup pilot, I’m your first call. I’m going to talk to my commanders and make sure they know. I’m also going to take a couple weeks leave until Felice’s arm heals. After that, unless I’m on an active mission, I’m your Number One call. Clear?”

He studied her for a long moment, then hit her with one of those big smiles of his.

She didn’t know how a man who’d seen so much could smile like that, but she’d like to find out. Very much.

“That’s huge, Karina. Do you have any idea how huge?” In his excitement, he grabbed her hands, squeezed, let them go, grabbed them again. “You were always the best pilot I ever flew with. And I can’t afford a permanent backup. Every time any of my team gets so much as a stubbed toe I break out in a cold sweat. It’s such important work. I can’t let anything—”

“I know,” she freed a hand and rested it on his arm to stop him. “I know.” She liked the way it felt to touch him. And oddly, that simple contact was enough for her to now remember the kiss that he’d never forgotten. After that kiss, she’d made myriad post-graduation plans—all based on the assumption that, of course, he’d fly with her. But when he’d chosen Lift Rescue, she had backed away, unable to understand why a man with his skills would ever make such a “low” choice. Worse, she had locked her heart away—safe from everyone…including herself.

Now she knew.

It was because she’d never met a better man than Brody Jones. She also understood that she never would. Maybe it was finally safe to let her heart back out.

“There is something else we need to talk about,” she freed both hands and stepped back. She needed some distance from him if she wanted to get this right.

He eyed her cautiously.

“A little comm told me that you spend a lot of time mooning over some Queen Bitch named Rostov.”

Brody groaned, “I’m going to kill Felice as soon as her arm is better.”

“Your option. But what if I gave you an excuse to stop mooning?”

“Like what?”

“What’s your operational base, Brody Jones?”

He shrugged those nice big shoulders of his, “Same as yours, Brit Habitat One.”

“Same as mine,” she nodded. “Let’s go.” She slipped an arm through his to tug him off where he was still leaning on the Mod18.

“Where’re we going?” The back of his flightsuit was black with the char from the Mod18. There was a marginally cleaner imprint of his body on the hull. It made it very easy to imagine what imprint he’d leave upon her body.

“We have to check something, very carefully.”

“You’ve lost me, Karina.”

No. No, she hadn’t. She had found him. She’d found him long ago, but her eyes hadn’t been open to see that. They were now.

Karina had always simply flown, being best was all that mattered. But now she knew why she flew. The best man she’d ever known had taught her. Brody helped Lifters arrive—she made sure the place they’d given everything to reach was safe once they made it.

“What are we checking out?”

“We need to know whose quarters, especially whose bed, is more comfortable. We need to test them both very thoroughly because I’m planning on us using whichever one we choose for a long time.”

Brody looked down at her with those smiling blue eyes as they walked from the Mod18 and down the line of Stinger-60s. It was a walk she was looking forward to taking together—for all the years to come.

Copyright © 2017 by M.L. Buchman
Published by Buchman Bookworks, Inc.
Cover and Layout copyright © 2017 by Buchman Bookworks, Inc.

This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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