When Karen started searching for Grant in bars she was optimistic, but her hopes slowly faded as she worked through all the more likely locations without success. After more weeks of fruitless searching, she was near despair as she took a short cut through Bridge Street to try and find more bars to investigate on the far side of the river.
Bridge Street looked as if it had once been a fashionable neighbourhood, but now there was peeling paintwork on some of the buildings, and a faint smell of decay. One side consisted of small offices sandwiched amongst terraced houses, while on the other side were a variety of shops with tired, cluttered window displays.
At the end of the shops she spotted a bar with a modest sign that could easily be missed.
It was a small building, with a large plot of rough ground that served as a parking area, tucked away at the rear. Parked between two elderly hatchbacks was a stylish red sports car with its top down. It looked out of place in this quiet backwater, and it fit the exact image of what she imagined Grant would drive. Not that she had any reason to associate him with flashy cars, it just matched the mental picture she had conjured up of an arrogant, ruthless bastard. Anyway, this was a bar she’d never visited, and she intended to leave no stone unturned.
As she contemplated the possibility of finding the man she was hunting, a nervous shiver ran down her spine. She squeezed the reassuring shape of the gun inside her clutch bag, but prayed she wouldn’t have cause to need it. She squared her shoulders and pushed open the heavy door.
Her eyes took a moment to adjust to the dim light inside the bar. The old-fashioned windows were small and the lighting barely adequate. The uncarpeted wooden floor was clean and well polished. The large, ornate counter might have been genuine mahogany, though many years of polish and wear made it difficult to be sure. The seating consisted of high-backed padded wooden benches that reinforced the old-fashioned atmosphere. She was grateful for the breeze from the overhead fans, making it cool despite the late summer heat outside.
The room was almost empty, not too surprising at this early hour. Two elderly men sat around one table playing dominoes, and discussing how to put the world to rights. The only other customer was a much younger man, seated alone in one corner with a pint of beer. He looked up at Karen as she walked over to the counter and ordered a glass of wine. As she took her drink she stole a look over her shoulder and caught him watching her intently.
Could this be Grant at last?
Larry looked up with interest when the girl walked in. Week after week he saw the same people in his favourite bar. A new face made a welcome distraction from his enforced idleness and from his guilt and bitter feelings.
The bar was quiet and cool despite the heat of the day outside. Only the faint swish of the fan overhead intruded on the silence. The other customers were absorbed in their dominoes game, oblivious to both him and the girl.
Something about her did not seem quite right.
She was fairly tall, about a metre seventy, with a generous figure. In her late twenties at a rough guess. Casually dressed in a sweater, jeans and trainers. A bit too much make up on her plump face, with stylish glasses and surrounded by blonde, shoulder-length hair. Yes, that was it. She wore a wig – and not a very good one, at that.
At another time he might have considered her attractive, but in his present mood he felt no interest as he studied her. As well as the wig, she seemed to be wearing padding and cheek pads to make her look larger than she actually was. To his embarrassment, she caught him staring. He looked away, but not before he had seen the hostility in her gaze.
She ordered a drink and sat down at the other end of the bar, on a seat facing him. Her light, graceful stride belied her apparently well-built body.
Was there an interesting story behind her behaviour and appearance? Her hand never strayed far from her small clutch bag, and it gave a heavy clunk when she put it down. She sipped her wine and shot him at least a couple more hostile stares. Then, with a hurried glance at her watch, she left without finishing her drink. That was odd.
Larry turned his mind back to his own problems. He hated life on the run.
Sure, he had all the latest audio-visual equipment to keep himself entertained in the up-market apartment he’d rented. But after eight weeks, he could only read for so long and he’d watched all the good movies. He’d also had about as much as he could stand of current affairs, the interminable soap operas and the reality shows that dominated the TV channels. He had even contemplated taking a job, but the hassle of getting the necessary documents had deterred him. He’d had enough trouble with a fake driving licence and paperwork for his car.
At least he didn’t have a problem with money. He had plenty of
gemstones left, enough to last years if necessary, and he had tracked down a fence who would give him a good exchange rate, in ready cash, with no questions asked.
But the weeks of inaction were getting him down. He couldn’t help contrasting the tall, buxom body of the girl who had just left with Annek’s slim and dainty figure. He still felt weighed down with the guilt of her death.
He finished his beer. The slightly bitter taste made a refreshing change from anything he’d had at home, but he didn’t feel like another at the moment. He toyed with the empty glass, contemplating what to do instead.
He might as well make another reconnaissance trip, the second that day. The chances were remote that he would learn anything new, but he needed action.
Larry strolled out to his car, a sleek red Audi convertible. The car was fancier than he needed, but he enjoyed the feel of the wind and the impression of speed from the low driving seat, and he had plenty of cash to spare. It was one of the few pleasures left to enjoy at present – so different from the cars back home where the computers took all the fun and skill out of driving.
As he approached the car, his mind drifted back to the girl in the bar and the way she had looked at him. Had her hostile gaze been personal, or the result of his own obtrusive stares? Underneath her disguise she was probably more attractive than she had appeared. What reason could she have to change her appearance with that clumsy disguise?
Oh well, unless she visited the bar again, he would never find out. He flicked his remote control to disable the car’s aversion field – no worries about leaving it with the top down when he had that on board. He slid into the driver’s seat and gunned the motor.
He followed his familiar route into the countryside and up into the hills, which were taking on a golden hue in the evening sunshine. It was past the peak of summer, but the grass was still lush and green and the trees bore a full canopy of leaves, creating flashes of shade from the lowering sun that disturbed his vision with its glare.
Larry’s target came into view as he crested a small rise – a large, old, stone-built barn in a hollow surrounded by trees. Several stones in the wall were crooked and the slate roof leaned slightly. Two large wooden doors filled most of the front end wall. They were riddled with woodworm, unpainted and grey from age, but they had been made to last and were still secure.
Larry stopped the car well clear of the barn and deactivated the barn’s aversion field with his remote. He got out of the car, strolled over to the doors and swung them open. Except when the doors were open, one small window, high up in the gable end, provided the only light, and most of that came from a missing pane of glass. The remaining panes were thick with grime and cobwebs.
He drove his car into the barn and parked it alongside his ship, which took up the rest of the space inside. The air inside the barn had a characteristic musty smell from years of accumulated dust and decay. He swung out of the car without a backward glance and crossed over to his craft.
A brief pressure on the door release pad brought it folding down to form two steps up into the interior. A waft of warm air greeted him, along with its faint smell of plastic and recycled gas.
The already dim light in the barn faded further and a crash made him jump. What the hell was that? Oh, just a gust of wind that had caught one of the barn doors and swung it shut. Better now than as he backed the ship out.
It took him a minute or two to find a pair of rocks to wedge the doors open.
The heavy doors didn’t normally need anything to hold them, but a brisk, chilly breeze had sprung up, along with heavy clouds promising a shower before long. He should be away before it arrived, though.
He activated the motor to counteract local gravity, lifted the ship and guided it carefully out of the barn, floating about twenty centimetres from the ground. Once clear of the building he settled it back onto its supporting legs, barely marking the dry, hard, rocky soil.
He closed the barn doors, reset the aversion field and walked briskly back. He climbed the steps and closed the door behind him, swinging down the lever that ensured it was secure. The breeze had blown away the musty air and it smelt fresher now.
Turning toward the cockpit, he slipped through the narrow aisle between the pairs of seats and settled into the front left-hand position.
Checklist complete, he eased up on the side-mounted thrust control stick to lift well clear of the surface and used his other joystick to pitch up to the vertical. The gravity compensator kicked in with a gentle hum, providing a steady artificial gravity and counteracting the effect of acceleration so that there was no sense of motion. He retracted the landing legs and accelerated smoothly upward until his atmospheric speed indicator showed Mach 0.9.
The initial whisper of air over the hull and control surfaces rose to a muted roar, like the sound of a distant waterfall, drowning the hum of the gravity compensator.
The ground fell away behind him. The view vanished briefly as he punched through the edge of the threatening shower cloud and again, much higher up, as he passed through another thin cloud layer. Once his radar feed indicated a trace, probably a jet airliner. That caused him to check back and manoeuvre well behind the aircraft, out of view.
Gradually the sky darkened from eggshell blue to indigo to black, while the airflow noise faded to the faintest whisper. It was peaceful out here beyond the atmosphere, with the hum from the gravity compensator barely perceptible and the gravity-wave drive silent as always. It didn’t matter how many times he flew, Larry still loved the contrast of the peacefulness with the raw power of the drive unit so casually overwhelming the gravitational pull of the planet. He could have let the automatics do all the flying, but the buzz of feeling the ship respond to his control inputs was much more rewarding.
He switched from the external vane steering to lateral and rotational thrust, and flipped his display to large scale view while he got his bearings.
He moved his right hand to the 3-axis rotation joystick again to rotate to the required heading. In spite of the automatic shields, the sun was dazzling in 37
the incongruous pitch black darkness of the sky, casting razor-sharp shadows in the cabin. He rolled away from the glare, which brought the panorama of the Earth’s surface into the overhead position of the canopy and bathed the cabin in muted Earthlight.
Larry eased the thrust stick most of the way forward and the speed began to build. The arc of the Earth moved backward across the canopy, slowly at first but progressively faster until it was out of view, the cabin lights brightening to compensate for the loss of Earthlight. He trimmed the stick to maintain the thrust and settled back for the ride out to the hyperspace boundary.
A few minutes passed peacefully, then a voice behind him shattered the silence. ‘Hello, Grant. I bet you didn’t expect to meet me again.’
He leapt up and spun round. It was the girl from the bar, now sitting in his rear seat and pointing a gun at his head.
Her face was expressionless as her eyes bored into his. ‘I’m going to make you pay for what you did to Rachel. I know you’re responsible for what happened.’
Larry’s jaw sagged as he stared back at her, dumbfounded. How in the name of the seven saints had this strange girl managed to get aboard his ship, why was she mightily pissed off, and why did she seem to think his name was Grant? Before he could frame a suitable reply, a siren on the control console blared.
His world turned upside down for the second time. One glance at the viewscreen told him the worst. He had an incoming missile! And no guard missiles deployed. Shit, he was in deep trouble.
Larry made a rapid decision. A girl waving a pistol at his head or the absolute certainty of death in a couple of seconds from the missile – it wasn’t a contest. He spun back to the controls and located the red trace warning of the incoming missile approaching from the right. He’d have seen it seconds earlier but for the distraction of the damned girl.
‘Hey, arsehole, I’m not finished with you. Listen –’
How could this be happening to him? It was like a nightmare. And the stupid Earth girl who was distracting him hadn’t the faintest concept of what was going on. ‘Lady, shut up and let me concentrate, or you’ll get us both killed.’
He slammed the stick hard left and back. The ship’s gravity compensator had masked the earlier manoeuvring and bone-crunching thrust of the fifty gee drive out toward the hyperspace boundary. But it whined as it struggled to cope with the rapid changes of direction, and the slight lag made him clutch the top of the instrument panel to avoid being thrown about. He was vaguely aware of clattering behind him as the girl was thrown off balance by the same uncompensated forces.
The missile overshot, but a second red trace appeared on the display and an instant later the siren went off again. He slammed the stick the other way, 38
bracing himself again. That missile passed by on the left, but even closer.
The girl shouted something else. Forget about her, she probably wouldn’t kill him, but those damned missiles would if he didn’t get his defence missiles deployed fast.
The first missile came around for a second attack. He scrabbled at his own missile control console to launch a pair of intercept missiles while he juggled the control column to avoid the attack.
He gained a moment’s respite as his interceptors engaged and he had time to drop four more guard missiles. Within seconds two of them peeled off to engage two more incomers.
He checked his interceptors. The attack missiles were fully occupied.
He realized that he was squeezing the stick much too tightly. He let out a long, slow breath and relaxed his grip. Even as he watched, the missile traces disappeared one by one. An involuntary shiver ran down his spine from the after effects of the adrenaline rush. He’d survived, at least for the moment.
But that had been far too close for comfort. Yet it could have been just a computer game. No matter how often he ran the simulations, he could never get used to the way it was fought in total silence, with nothing to see except traces on the viewscreen – until a missile got through, when it suddenly became very personal and deadly.
Larry rammed the control stick forward, this time to maximum thrust.
There was more scrabbling behind as the violent manoeuvre unbalanced the girl again. He dared not look at her yet. Once she had got his attention, she wouldn’t put up with him ignoring her a second time.
He zoomed out his viewscreen, looking for enemy spaceships. The attackers had to be Ziloni, though goodness knows how they had found him.
But even when he expanded the view way out beyond the hyperspace boundary, with Earth and its curiously large moon in the field of view, he saw nothing. Damn, if there had been ships he could have recorded their idents and had evidence of Ziloni foul play.
In that case, where the hell had the missiles come from? Surely not from Earth. Maybe they were hiding on the moon, where they could have their motors powered down so as not to reveal themselves or their idents.
And why so few missiles? They must know he’d be able to fend them off.
Perhaps they didn’t know for sure that it was him. He had an IEP ship with the capability to switch off its ident, which probably confused them because that ability was a closely kept secret.
So maybe the first wave of missiles was just a probe to see what reaction they got. Since he hadn’t screamed a protest over the radio, they now knew it was him for sure. There would soon be a fresh wave of missiles on its way.
However, if they were based on the moon it was over twice as far from Earth as the boundary, and he hadn’t got far to go. It would take the missiles a while to cover all that distance. He ought to be able to make it.
He checked the hyperspace unit. It had a suitable random jump
programmed in. Everything was set for the jump. He just needed the active light to change from red to blue.
The wait to reach the boundary was less than a minute, but it seemed far longer. The girl was frantic now, screaming at him and punching him on the head and shoulders. He resorted to jerking his thrust control from side to side to distract her. Heaven knows what it was doing to the gravity compensator, but he had to risk it. He dared not divert his attention from the viewscreen and hyperspace unit until he could make the jump.
The traces of a large wave of missiles appeared. They were indeed launching from the moon, cunning bastards. Except that his earlier assessment was right and they’d made a misjudgement – the missiles would never get to him in time.
Soon the hyperspace active light turned blue. He even had time to dock the remaining precious defence missiles before he punched for the hyperspace jump to safety.
Outside the canopy there was an abrupt rearrangement of the stars, and he felt the familiar momentary tearing sensation of the jump. It silenced the girl behind him for a few moments. Larry took the opportunity to turn to face her. He eased up out of his seat as he did so and raised his hands to shoulder height, palms outward, in a token show of surrender.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish