If the electronic sensors hadn’t opened the doors as Katy rushed toward them, she would’ve crashed head-first into the double-plated plexiglass, probably fracturing her skull, possibly killing herself, and thereby saving the two gunmen behind her the trouble. As it was, the double doors slid open at her approach and she ran outside onto the sidewalk, looked skyward for a taxi, then bolted up the street as the doors closed again, momentarily trapping her pursuers inside. Thanks goodness for small favors.
It was difficult running in high heels. If she’d been somewhere else, she might’ve kicked them off, but the thought of being barefoot on August-heated polyconcrete wasn’t an inviting one, even in her present state of mind. Next time I run for my life, remind me to wear jogging shoes.
She saw the hover cab ramp and mounted the steps two at a time. Reaching the platform, she slapped a hand on the dome of the transmitter, causing it to signal that here was a passenger requiring immediate transportation.
Within a minute, an Independent appeared, its red and black checkerboard doors blatantly informing everyone its owner was non-Union. Docking beside the platform, its back door swung open as the driver spoke the phrase unchanged in four centuries. “Where to, Miss?”
Katy scrambled inside as the two men burst through the doors, one of them sighting her as she fell onto the seat and the hatch slammed shut. The driver repeated his question.
For a moment, she couldn’t think. Where do I want to go?
“Got to have a destination, ma’am,” the driver prompted.
She peered through the back window. The two men were running in the opposite direction but her thought that they’d given up disappeared as they reached a sleek and deadly-looking Federation Motors Cannon parked at the curb.
“Ma’am?” the driver said again. “Meter’s running.”
“T-the terminal.” She made her decision. “Hurry.”
“Going to catch a shuttle?” The cab pulled away from the platform and soared to Speeding Height, some forty feet above the pavement. The driver bent to punch the coordinates into the minute GPS set into the cab’s dashboard.
Katy didn’t answer, continuing looking over her shoulder. The men were inside the car. In a second they’d be after her again. She wondered if the cab was fitted with laser-proof glass as the Federation Board of Automotive Safety recommended. Probably not. Neither the cab nor its driver looked as if they would ever have enough fares to afford laser-proofing.
A bus floated into position behind the cab, hiding it from the black car’s sight.
“Y-yes!” Belatedly, she answered his question, fear causing her to stutter. “I-I have to catch a-a s-shuttle and I’m late. Please…please, hurry!”
“Going to Emergency Height, ma’am.” The driver pointed the cab’s nose upward. It climbed to a high-speed level of forty-five feet and banked left at the next stoplight, merging into traffic which was relatively heavy for this early in the afternoon.
Katy looked back again. Far behind them, the black car zoomed past the corner where the cab had turned, crossed the intersection and sailed straight ahead. Sighing, she leaned back. She’d lost them. For the moment.
She relaxed, letting the shock of the past twenty minutes sweep over her. Why had it happened? How could it have happened? This isn’t the Old West. This is the twenty-fourth century, for God’s sake! Two men armed with laser guns can’t just chase someone down a busy city street in broad daylight.
Apparently they could, because they had.
Okay, she told herself. Let’s think this through. You can figure this out. Think back.
Karel Andrews, her uncle’s partner, had asked her to stay late to make some copies. She liked Mr. Andrews. He was as nice as Uncle Cyril was cruel. He’d given her a disk, went into his office and shut the door. She slid it into the slot in her desk, reading the notations idly as they appeared on the screen embedded in the desktop.
Nothing interesting. Just an account ledger for The King’s Ransom, a well-known, and very expensive local restaurant, but the information was wrong. It gave the owner’s name as Antar Benedetto, and Katy knew that wasn’t correct. The King’s Ransom was owned by Dery Brunarosa, so why…
That was when she heard the pop. A harmless little sound, but out of place.
Ejecting the disk, Katy stood up and walked over to the office door standing slightly ajar. Mr. Andrews had been complaining about the lock not latching securely, and it was supposed to be repaired this weekend. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have heard anything.
She peered through the opening and clamped both hands over her mouth to stifle a scream.
Mr. Andrews lay on the floor, his chest a mass of charred cloth and tissue. A man was kneeling beside him, going through the pockets of his jacket. Behind him, another man was ripping the little discs stored in the cabinet from their protective sleeves and tossing them on the floor.
Backing away from the door, Katy whirled and ran for the office entrance. Just as she disappeared around the corner, one of the men came into the outer office. Shouting something to his companion, he started after her.
The lift doors were gliding shut as he ran into the hall.
That’s a pretty good summary of what happened. Nevertheless, she was no closer to figuring out why it had happened.
It was obvious they were looking for a disk. Could it have something to do with the one she was clutching so tightly in her hand? The one showing there were two owners, one public, one secret, of The King’s Ransom?
Mr. Andrews was the accountant for the restaurant. Maybe he’d discovered Dery Brunarosa wasn’t the real owner, and, for whatever reason, attempted to blackmail Antar Benedetto and got killed for his greed.
Katy immediately rejected that theory. Karel Andrews was the most moral person she knew. His honesty was a joke around the office. He’d never do such a thing. Very well, how about this, then: Mr. Andrews had discovered Antar Benedetto was the real owner of the restaurant and was going to tell the police, and he’d been killed to prevent that.
That makes more sense. That was why he asked her to copy the disk, so he could take it to the police. But why was it so important that Antar Benedetto’s ownership of the restaurant remain a secret, a secret he’d kill to keep?
She had no idea, but she knew what she was going to do. She’d take the tram to Precinct 17 and give the police the disk. For killing her boss, Antar Benedetto was going to be in a lot more trouble than he would for simply being the unlicensed owner of a restaurant. Antar Benedetto. Where have I heard that name before? She couldn’t remember, but for some reason, it conjured up images of violence, and not just of Mr. Andrews’ death.
“Here you are, Miss. Terminal Station.” The driver glanced at the meter. “That’ll be fifty Credits.”
Great! I left my purse in the bottom drawer of my desk. How in the world am I going to pay him? Katy gave him a nervous smile. “Of course. I have the money in my pocket. Just let me get out.” The door obligingly swung open. Reaching into the pocket of her skirt, she released the disk and pulled out her apartment key-card, handing it to him as she scrambled off the seat and slid through the door. The minute her feet touched the pavement, she slammed the door and began to run. Behind her, she heard the cabby shouting into his communicator, “Dispatch, I’ve got a fare-jumper. At Terminal Station.”
Can things get any better? There were always gardia, members of the Federation’s police force, stationed at the terminals, ready to quell the passenger violence erupting half a dozen times a week. The dispatch operator would notify the officers on duty and she wouldn’t have to take a tram to the precinct. They’d arrest her and haul her there, and… I’ll be safe and I’ll give them the disk.
She slowed to a walk, looking around for the tell-tale black and gold jumpsuits of local law enforcement personnel, saw none, and stopped. Okay, I’ll just stand here and wait to be arrested. Shouldn’t be too long.
Several minutes passed.
She was beginning to get a little anxious, dodging people as they brushed past her entering and leaving the trams. She began to walk again, thinking she’d better find one that would take her to the Precinct since the minions of the law appeared to be busy elsewhere.
Maybe I should smash a window or snatch someone’s purse and hurry them along? Katy wasn’t the violent sort. Any overt act she made had to be forced out of her. Ever since she came to live with her aunt and uncle as an orphan of six, she’d been a passive creature. Uncle Cyril’s aggressive personality, enabling him to become a force in the business world, easily cowed the frightened child into obeying his every command in an attempt to earn his love. You’ll go to finishing school, Katy, because I wish it…my office has an opening, you’ll begin next week…don’t worry about finding a young man, Katy, when the times comes, I’ll select the proper husband for you…
All her obedience had gotten her was a frantic flight from gun-wielding killers.
Where are they now? A better question would be, where are the police? She’d heard the cabby talking to the dispatcher. Fare-jumping was against the law and carried a stiff fine. The newspapers were always full of lists of people arrested for doing just that. There’s never a trog around when you need one!
There were murderers, however, and through the throng of people coming down the walkway, she saw the first of the two men.
He saw her, also, shouted something to his companion and pushed through the crowd toward her. For a moment, he was boxed in by passengers leaving a tram. Katy didn’t wait to see if he’d get through. She whirled and ran down the walkway.
The ticket carrel loomed before her. She ran to it. “One, please.”
“That’s twenty Credits, Miss.” The clerk wasn’t as easy to fool as the cabbie had been. He held out the ticket but didn’t release it.
“I-I don’t have any money.” Katy looked back. The gunman had gotten through the crowd.
“Then step out of the way, please, and give paying customers a chance.” The words were delivered with a curled lip and a smug air. This man definitely needed a course in Customer Relations.
“Please,” Katy said. “I need to get to Precinct 17.”
“Try to get a ticket without paying and you’ll get a free ride there.” He also thought himself a comedian.
Free ride…that’s it! “What about a tram not requiring a fare?”
He consulted his computer screen. “Got three. You’re in luck, one runs a block from Precinct 17.”
“Wh-which one?” She looked around.
“Number…” His voice was blotted out by the overhead noise of a klaxon so he pointed in a leftward direction. Nodding, Katy headed left, dodging people moving the opposite way.
Two trams and a line of passengers loomed in front of her. Neither car had a marked destination. Which one is it?
She hesitated, then was shoved from behind by someone pushing his way through the crowd. As she stumbled into the line of passengers entering the tram on her right, there was a harsh, “Hey, watch it!” from a big blonde as she accidentally trod on her toes. Katy regained her balance, and was pushed inside as the line moved forward.
They fell onto the seats together. Looking around, she asked the woman next to her, “Where’s this tram going?”
“To the shuttle port.” It was the same woman whose toes she’d stepped on.
“Shuttle port.” Naturally, she’d get on the wrong one. “I don’t want to go there.”
“Don’t think you’ve got a choice.” The woman nodded at the doors sliding shut.
Jumping to her feet, Katy ran toward them.
The guard, stationed there to protect passengers from would-be terrorists, raised his rifle and blocked her way. “Where d’ya think you’re going?”
“I’m on the wrong tram.” She backed away from the rifle. “I need to be on the one going cross-town.”
She broke off as the doors crashed together and her pursuers threw themselves against their transparent surface, fingers clawing at the seam where the two halves met as if they could pry them apart. The guard raised his rifle again, aiming it in their direction. They backed away from the doors and onto the platform as the tram pulled out of the station.
“Those two seemed to be pretty anxious to get on here,” he commented. He gave Katy a thoughtful stare.
“They did, didn’t they?” Katy agreed, voice quivering.
“Maybe it’d be safer for you to ride to the shuttle port,” the guard suggested. “Then take the tram from there to wherever you’re going.”
“I think that’d be an excellent idea. I’ll just go sit down.” She scurried back to the seat she’d vacated.
As she sat down again, the woman murmured, “Told you so, didn’t I?”
Katy didn’t answer. She was too busy trying to find a comfortable position on the seat. It was hard and lumpy. Sighing, she brushed away a stray lock of hair that had fallen into her face. Somewhere she’d lost her barrette and the mass of bright curls floated about her shoulders like a sunset-colored cloud. She looked up and down the aisle. The tram was crowded, but with the exception of the guard, all the passengers on the tram were women. How very odd.
Settling back, she turned her attention to her companions. She was seated between the big blonde and a young girl with long dark hair worn in a single pigtail down her back. Judging from the conversation she was having with the other woman, over and around Katy, the girl was excited about the trip she was about to take.
“I think this is just great, don’t you, Jessie?”
Katy turned to look at the blonde as she gave a noncommittal murmur. She was older than the girl, tall and blonde and generously-endowed, a real Juno.
“I can hardly wait. This is going to be a real adventure.”
Another barely-audible grunt from Jessie. “I think I’ll just wait and see.”
“Aren’t you excited?”
“Well, Cilla.” She smiled and shrugged. “Let’s just say it beats five years at hard labor.”
Katy laughed and put in her two Credits-worth. “You make it sound as if you’ve been in prison.”
“You’re joking.” The woman didn’t answer. “A-aren’t you?”
The woman raised an eyebrow and smiled. Ignoring Katy, she continued talking to Cilla, leaning so she could look at her friend around Katy’s body.
After this obvious snub, Katy stayed quiet. She didn’t intend to eavesdrop but how could she help it when she was sitting between them? It isn’t as if I’m deliberately trying to overhear. Is it?
Jessie and Cilla, her real name was Priscilla, it turned out, were going on a trip together. While the younger woman saw the journey as a romantic adventure, the older one more realistically reminded her there was probably going to be hardship and discomfort involved, but where they were going and why, neither mentioned. Katy wasn’t been able to glean a single clue about their destination from what either said.
Presently the tram slowed, stopped, and the doors opened. “All right, ladies.” The guard who’d been lounging in a seat by the door, stood up, gesturing with his rifle. “Everyone out!”
In one body they all rose, Katy also, as she was lifted to her feet when something under her tightened. Turning, she looked down. A cord. She’d been sitting on a plasticon cord. So that was what was so uncomfortable. Each end of it was connected to a clear bracelet on her companions’ wrists.
She looked from the cord to Jessie. “You’re manacled,” she whispered, not wanting anyone else in the car to hear. “Why?”
“I told you, honey.” The blonde woman appeared amused by her question. At Katy’s blank look, she went on, “Five year’s hard labor? We’re convicts. We’re being transported to the colony on Tritomis-2.”
At that moment they went out the door, and Katy was swept along with them and carried several yards up the platform. She stepped away from Jessie, struggled out of the crush of bodies and started back toward the tram.
“Hold it!” A hand caught her arm, spinning her around. Another guard. A female one. “Where are you going?”
“I’m getting back on the tram.”
“And deprive us of your company?” The woman smiled and it wasn’t altogether friendly.
“It’s nice of you to say that,” Katy smiled back. “But this was really a mistake.”
“It certainly was.” The amused look faded from the woman’s face. “Get back in line! If you make another mistake, I may have to be a little rough with you, orders or no! Where’s your wrist-cuff?”
“Wrist-cuff?” Katy’s smile vanished as she looked down at her arm. “I-I don’t have one.”
“Don’t have one? How’d you manage to keep from being cuffed? I’ve never heard of that happening. Say,” the guard eyed her suspiciously. “Are you one of those special Minimum Security prisoners or something?”
Katy shook her head. “I’m not a prisoner. I got on this tram by mistake.”
“Sure you did.” The guard pushed her back in line, digging into the pocket of her tunic.
“Listen, there were two men with guns—”
“You had an armed escort?”
“She got on the tram pretty fast, Smitty,” Jessie put in. “But the two guys didn’t make it. The doors shut before they could get on. Fulton saw them.”
“That’s right,” Katy confirmed. “The guard on the other tram said I was supposed to ride back to the Terminal. Ask him.”
“Too late.” Smitty looked back down the platform. “The tram’s gone.”
“Oh, no!” Katy’s gaze followed hers. “What am I going to do?”
“Look,” Smitty turned back to her. “If you really got on by mistake… What prison were those guys escorting you to?”
“They weren’t escorting me anywhere.”
“Okay, where were they taking you, then?” As Katy shook her head, the guard went on, not giving her time to answer, “You must be pretty dangerous if they were armed, but you’re not cuffed, so…” Pulling a manacle from her pocket, she slipped it onto Katy’s wrist, snapping it shut. Katy’s left arm swung toward the cord connecting Jessie and Cilla and clung there as the electromagnet inside the cuff adhered to its surface. “When we get to the shuttle, I’ll let my superiors worry about it.”
Smitty turned and walked away.
“Fine…” Katy called to her retreating back. “Maybe they’ll believe me.” She continued to mutter to herself until Jessie turned on her.
“Oh, shut up, will you? You’re getting on my nerves!”
This unsympathetic attitude rendered Katy silent for exactly five minutes, after which she started complaining again. When Jessie took a deep breath to deliver an even stronger admonition, Cilla intervened, “Oh, Jessie, leave her alone. Can’t you see she isn’t looking forward to this like we are? Maybe she doesn’t want to go.”
“You’re right,” Katy agreed. “I certainly don’t want to go to wherever you two are going.”
The tram slid into the shuttle station. Beside its entrance was a desk fitted with a computer terminal and audio unit. A male guard stood by the desk, a female one at the CT.
Dutifully, the women formed a line, each one presenting herself before the desk. Progress was slow. Each woman’s name was checked against the passenger list in the databank before she was uncuffed and allowed on board.
As Cilla disappeared inside, rubbing her wrist as her manacle was removed, it was Katy’s turn.
“Name?” the garda asked.
“Do you really need it? You’re not going to find me in there,” Katy declared, nodding at the computer.
“Oh? Why not?” He’d been laughing and joking with all the women and she smiled, hoping his lax attitude meant he’d listen to her.
“Because I’m not in there.”
“Where are you, then?”
“Certainly not in there, Officer—” Katy glanced at the little holotag on his coverall pocket. St. Clair. “—Officer St. Clair. You see, I don’t belong here—”
“How long are you going to keep this up?” Jessie interrupted. “God! Are you sure those two guys weren’t taking you to a Federation Mental Hospital or something? For a psych eval?”
“What two guys?” St. Clair asked.
“The two men who were with her,” Jessie answered before Katy could explain. “You see—” She launched into her version of Katy’s story.
“That’s not the way it was,” Katy interrupted.
“Just a minute.” The garda put his hand on her arm very gently, as if he were abruptly afraid she was going to turn violent. He called out, “Smitty?”
The woman guard came toward him at a run. He left Katy and met her halfway. They talked together for several minutes, one and then the other looking at her. At last, they both walked back to where she stood.
“Where’d you say you lost your companions?”
“At the Terminal. The doors closed before they could get on, thank goodness, but they weren’t my companions.”
“Of course not. I meant the officers who were escorting you—”
“They weren’t— Oh!” She stamped her foot, the gesture shockingly childish. She caught St. Clair’s arm, giving it a little shake. “Why can’t I make you understand?”
“Watch that!” Smitty raised her rifle. “We were told to be gentle with you people but if you keep up this playing stupid business, I’m going to give you a rap with my rifle butt.”
“Good!” Jessie laughed. “I’m about ready to give her a couple of wallops myself. Maybe it’ll knock some sense into her and save me the trouble.”
“Please, don’t hit me!” Katy released the guard’s arm and cowered away from Smitty, bumping against the desk. Anger dissolving into fear, she began to cry.
“No one’s going to hit you,” St. Clair assured her. He patted her arm. “She’s just barking, aren’t you, Smitty?” In an undertone, he growled. “You want to get us both on Report?”
He glared at the guard. She glared back. “I’m going back to my post!” She turned and stamped back down the line.
“Now then…” St. Clair turned back to Katy.
Sniffing back a final tear, she scrubbed at her eyes, looking up at him. For a moment, he seemed to visibly waver as he looked down into those tear-stained blue eyes. Shaking his head as if to clear it, he said briskly, “Let’s get this settled. You’re holding up the line and putting us behind schedule.”
“All right.” Katy nodded in agreement. She decided to get straight to the point. “You see, my boss was murdered—“
“Murder?” The garda looked startled. “Maybe you don’t belong here.” Katy relaxed, only to stiffen as he went on, “Murderers aren’t eligible for transport.”
“I didn’t murder anyone.” she exclaimed. “I was in the next room.”
“You were an accomplice? That’s different.”
“No! I—” With a shrug, she gave up. “Just check your computer. It’ll prove I don’t belong here.”
With an air of calling her bluff, he turned to the woman behind the desk. “Harris, if you’d be so kind?”
She nodded. “Let me have your identification card.”
“I don’t have it,” Katy said. “I don’t have anything.” Nothing except this. She put her hand into her pocket and touched the disc. She certainly wasn’t going to hand that over. These idiots would probably throw it away. She’d wait until she was with the proper authorities, someone with brains, before she let the disk out of her possession.
“No matter.” Harris shrugged. She gestured at the audio unit on the edge of the table. “Give me your name?”
“Katherine Rawls.” Katy spoke into it
“Burnett, Iowa.” Katy supplied, assuming she meant where she was born. Harris pushed a button.
“That’s where the Federation Reformatory for Female Offenders is located, isn’t it?” St. Clair asked as they waited for the screen to finish scrolling.
Katy nodded and laughed. “It’s a pretty place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there.”
It was the wrong thing to say. He looked serious. “You’re familiar with its interior, eh?”
Before she could answer, Harris spoke up, “Here it is…Kathleen Rawls…” She studied the screen a moment before turning it so St. Clair could read for himself.
“Hmm. Accomplice to murder. Sentenced to twelve years because of doubt as to actual involvement in the act. Previous convictions…” He looked back at her, eyes narrowing. “You’ve been a very naughty young lady, Miss Rawls.”
“Maybe she’s seen the error of her ways. Maybe that’s why she’s going to Tritomis.” Jessie spoke up.
“That’s all wrong!” Katy protested. “My name’s Katherine.”
“A typo.” Harris brushed away her protest. “Those government stenos can’t spell worth a damn.”
“Show mug-shot, Kathleen Rawls,” St. Clair ordered.
The screen scrolled again. An image appeared.
“Here you go.” Harris eyed Katy critically. “Picture doesn’t look much like you but mug shots never do. Physical description: red hair, blue eyes…”
St Clair studied Katy’s face, nodding agreement that Harris was right. The mug bore only a faint resemblance to the girl standing before him. Red hair, she certainly had that, the most glorious stuff he’d ever seen, little curls and wisps floating about her head, falling over her forehead. For just a moment, the garda felt himself wavering. Damn, she’s beautiful! And those big, blue, innocent-looking eyes…
“Five feet, four inches tall…” Harris droned on.
“I’m five-two,” Katy interrupted.
“So someone can’t measure properly. One hundred and ten pounds…”
“One hundred and eight,” Katy corrected through gritted teeth, a sinking feeling coiling inside her.
“Not everyone gains weight on prison food. Age twenty-four…”
“I’m twenty-two…” Her voice trailed away as she realized the two descriptions were too similar. The evidence was all circumstantial but enough to convict her as if she’d truly committed a crime.
“So you lied about your age.” St. Clair shook his head.
“Says here she’s nicknamed The Cry Baby,” Harris interrupted. “Managed to avoid arrest several times by playing on the officer’s sympathy.”
“That settles it. Sorry. Kathleen. It was a good act and I’ll admit for just a minute, I nearly believed you, especially when you started crying.” St Clair was all business, now. “Get her processed and inside.” He made his voice harsh to cover his embarrassment at allowing himself to be taken in by a female prisoner’s looks. He glared at Katy. “I don’t want to hear another peep out of you until we’re underway.”
Katy didn’t answer. She was too stunned.
Within minutes, the wrist cuff was removed and replaced with a flexible identification band. With St. Clair’s hand giving a gentle push to the small of her back, she stumbled into the shuttle, disbelievingly following the passageway to where Cilla was waiting in a cabin furnished with three chairs and three small beds.
“What kept you?” the girl demanded. “I was beginning to worry.” She looked past Katy to the companionway. “Where’s Jessie?”
“S-she’ll be along in a minute.” Katy’s answer trailed into silence. She sank into a chair. It’ll be okay. Look on the bright side. This may be the best thing that could’ve happened. So I’ll go to Tritomis, hide out there, find some way to make a living… I’m a secretary, surely they have offices…then when things calm down, I’ll find someone who’ll listen to me and I’ll come back…and make Antar Benedetto pay!
When another guard appeared, passing out sleeping shifts, she took the garment without argument, undressed, and pulled it on. By this time, Jessie had joined them and was busy putting on her shift also.
The guard came back, collected their clothing and placed the garments in ditty-bags marked with each woman’s name. “Okay, ladies into your bunks.”
Obediently, Cilla and Jessie crawled into two of the little beds and lay down.
“I’m not sleepy just yet.” Katy came out of her daze. “I’ll stay up for a while and—”
“Afraid you don’t have a choice,” he told her.
“Come on, Katy!” Jessie interrupted. “You knew we’re going to be put into stasis for the trip.”
“No, I didn’t. Really!” Katy’s insides quivered and jerked. How could I possibly know that? I’ve never been off-planet before. And she’d never thought about going off-planet, either…until now.
“What’s the hold-up?” St. Clair appeared in the doorway. The guard gestured at Katy. “Oh, for… Might’ve known it’d be you.”
“No, no,” Katy assured him, dropping onto the edge of the third bunk. “I’m not causing any trouble. Not me. No, sir.”
She raised her hand like a child asking permission. “I’d just like to ask one question, though—”
“What is it now?” St. Clair gave an exasperated sigh.
“This stasis business. Is it safe?”
“It’s safe,” he replied, with a patience he didn’t feel. “No one’s ever expired while in stasis. You get in, you go to sleep. At the proper time, the lid automatically opens and you wake up. Now, lie down!”
Obediently, she settled against the pillow. The bunk was fairly comfortable, the mattress firm and the pillow contoured to cradle her neck and head.
St. Clair lifted her arm, pressing a hypogun against it. There was a faint pop but surprisingly, no pain. He released Katy’s arm, placing it by her side, and closed the bunk’s transparent cover, pressing the buttons that would send oxygen into the case as well as remove the carbon dioxide she exhaled.
Shaking his head, he looked down at the girl. She gave him a sleepy smile, raised one hand and twiddled her fingers at him. Shaking his head, he waved back.
Katy took a deep breath. I feel sooo sleepy… She blinked, closed her eyes, then opened them again as the memory of where she’d seen Antar Benedetto’s name came to her. Looking up at St. Clair’s rapidly-blurring face, she whispered, “I remember. I know who—”
The lid slid upward and Katy opened her eyes, yawning and stretching. Sitting up, she swung her legs over the edge of the bunk, stifling another yawn and smiling as she saw Jessie and Cilla, fully dressed and seated on a little couch. “They changed their minds. I’m glad.”
“What are you talking about?” Cilla asked.
“About putting us in stasis.”
“We’ve been in stasis for four months,” the girl protested.
Katy stared at her. Jessie nodded confirmation.
“Jessie and I woke up about an hour ago. We thought we’d wait for you before we had breakfast.”
“Glad you’re up.” Jessie’s voice was decidedly warmer than it had been this morning…no, four months before.
“We were beginning to worry,” Cilla went on. “But Officer St. Clair said some people take a little longer to come out of it than others.”
“W-we’re really there?” Katy asked, hoping it wasn’t true. “We’re on Tritomis?”
“We sure are!” Cilla caught Katy’s arm, pulling her to her feet. “Come on, let’s eat. I’m starved, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am!” she agreed, and surprised herself by giggling. “After all, I haven’t eaten anything in four months!” That thought startled her. She was certain there was a scientific explanation for why she hadn’t starved to death but wasn’t going to ask for it. People around here got a little upset if asked questions.
“Too bad it didn’t make me lose some of this!” Jessie slapped one full hip as she came up behind them, putting a hand on each girl’s shoulder. “Let’s go lay on the feedbags!”
Katy’s legs were a little wobbly as she walked into the small living area. She stumbled slightly and Jessie caught her arm.
“Just take it easy. Officer St. Clair explained that after four months of inactivity our leg muscles might be a little weak. There’s an electrostimulator built into each bunk that’s supposed to prevent this but we’ll all have to watch how we walk for a few days.”
She waved a hand at the little table and Katy saw a tray with plates filled with what looked like bacon and eggs and stacks of toast. Glasses of orange juice completed the picture.
Releasing Katy, Jessie reached for a plate, handed a second to Cilla, then plopped herself down on the sofa and proceeded to eat. Katy picked up the third plate and sat down also, balancing it on her knees as she reached for a fork.
“This is delicious,” she exclaimed after her first bite. “Real bacon and eggs! Not soy-mix.” She paused to wipe her mouth with her napkin and took a long swig of orange juice. The real thing. “I can’t believe it.” Not even Uncle Cyril, with all his wealth, had real meat and fruit, except once a month.
“And why not?” Jessie grinned over a piece of toast. “Nothing’s too good for the Federation’s little transportees.”
Katy didn’t answer. She was too busy lifting another forkful of eggs. As she ate, she wondered what was waiting for them on Tritomis. She knew prisoners were transported offworld. It happened all the time because the prisons on Terra were so overcrowded, but she’d never actually thought about what became of those sent away. Now that she was one of that select number, knowing those facts became of utmost importance.
She picked up a strip of bacon and stuffed half of it into her mouth. Maybe I won’t be here long enough to find out. After all, there were people who would miss her. Like her aunt and uncle. And when Mr. Andrews’ body is discovered and I don’t show up for work… Several of the other secretaries knew she was going to work late, the cabdriver had her apartment key-card, and there was Officer St. Clair…he looked relatively intelligent. Maybe he’d request verification that Kathleen Rawls had actually been taken from the Reformatory in Iowa. Oh, wait…that happened months ago, so perhaps he already has. Maybe even now, the police are trying to track me down.
Sooner or later the whole mess would be straightened out. Preferably sooner. However it happened, she certainly couldn’t do anything about it right now. No one would listen or even let her explain, so she’d stick to her original plan. Just keep quiet, go along with this stupid case of mistaken identity, make no more trouble, and bide her time until someone found her.
“So, tell me, Jessie…” She paused to lick bacon grease off her fingers. “Since we’re all in this together. What were you in for?” She hoped that was the right phrase. She’d heard it in a mystery vid one night.
Jessie laughed. “I was a cat burglar.”
“What’s that?” Katy looked blank.
“I robbed hotels, and relieved people who didn’t trust putting their money and jewels in safes.” She picked up another piece of toast and smeared it liberally with jam from a small jar sitting on the table. “One night, I made the mistake of lifting a box full of jewelry from the girlfriend of some Federation bigwig. He pulled every string he could find and they caught me two hours later. I got ten years…five at hard labor.” Jessie shrugged and held up her hands, looking at her short, ragged nails. “Pounding those boulders into gravel for driveways really ruined my manicure. Then, this little opportunity presented itself, so…” She let the rest of the sentence trail away and took a bite of toast, chewing with relish.
I certainly wouldn’t be so nonchalant about it if I’d been sentenced to ten years in prison, was all Katy could think. “How about you, Cilla?”
The girl looked around at her. She’d been industriously scratching a small mark on her arm.
“Stop it,” Jessie ordered. “That only makes it worse.” She held up her own arm. “My arm itches, too, but you don’t see me clawing at it.”
“What is that?” Katy saw that her own arm also had a tiny puncture on it, just at the crease of her elbow. In the vein. Several. “Mosquito bite?”
“Hardly. That’s where they’ve been injecting us with vitamins and nutrients while we slept,” Jessie explained. “Practical and easy but give me real food any day!”
Guess that answers my question about not starving, Katy thought. She looked at Cilla again. “Go on, you were about to tell me…”
“I’m afraid I’m not as notorious as Jessie.” The dark-haired girl studied her plate. “In fact, I’ve got a pretty routine story, I guess. I fell in with a bad crowd.” She stopped eating, pushing the eggs about her plate with her fork. “My parents are Traditional Naturals.”
Katy looked surprised. Everyone knew about the Naturals, a cult which had settled in the Buffalo Commons, the vast abandoned grassland stretching from the border of Missouri and Iowa in an ellipse to North Dakota and Oklahoma and as far West as Montana. Practicing a way of living their ancestors in the mid-twentieth century had followed, they adhered to a harsher, more strict way of life.
“You certainly aren’t following their ways,” Katy commented. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a Natural being arrested.”
“That’s because most of them don’t do anything to get arrested,” the girl answered. “I won’t make excuses for myself. I met a young man. An Outsider. Thought he was wonderful, and later found out he wasn’t. When he robbed that roadside market, I was flying the car.” She sighed. “I got seven years as an accomplice because I had no previous record. Now I’ve got a chance to redeem myself.”
“Yeah,” Jessie agreed, through a mouthful of toast. “This’ll definitely make you a law-abiding citizen again.”
“It may be wrong to say it—but I don’t care what the Federation thinks of me,” Cilla answered. “I hurt my parents terribly and my coming to Tritomis will make it up to them. It means they’ll forgive me and I can be accepted into my family again.”
“Cilla’s been shunned for her sins,” Jessie explained.
For a moment, all three were silent. Then, Cilla laughed.
“You know, technically, we can’t really be called transportees, since we’re all doing this voluntarily.” She wrapped a strip of bacon around a morsel of toast and stuffed it into her mouth.
“All except Katy here,” she added.
Jessie picked up a piece of crust and began to sop the remnants of egg off her plate. “Maybe she won’t be so difficult after she sees what’s waiting for us.” There was a glitter of delight in her eyes.
Something about that mischievous twinkle made Katy ask, “And just what might that be?”
“Men,” came the startling answer, slightly muffled by a mouthful of egg and toast. “A planet full of lonely men.”