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The whole ship lurched, knocking everyone to the floor. Ingrid crawled to Dhabi’s side. Authority and his officers scrambled to recover their fumbled weapons. Warning lights flashed, and alarms sounded overhead.
Another impact. Annie stifled a scream as the horses shuffled to steady their footing. She squeezed her eyes shut and whispered a quick prayer for survival. “Lord, be with us. Protect us and keep us in Your will. An’ thanks for seein’ us this far.”
Authority appeared worried. “What is that?” he seemed to ask to no one and everyone at the same time.
A voice boomed from the coms above. “Authority Vessel 0765, you are to stand down immediately. This is Ferry Commander Rebecca Dale, acting under the MW Treaty Three. Your actions regarding Ferry 327, intentional or not, were outside your jurisdiction, reckless, and resulted in extensive loss of life and property. You are ordered back to your vessel to receive reprimand.”
“I am not taking orders from any Ferry Commander,” Authority growled.
FC Dale was apparently listening. “If you do not comply with my instructions, my agents will systematically dismantle your ship. You are beyond your legal boundaries.”
A warning siren blared from the Authority ship. “They’re boarding our vessel.” He gestured to his men to get back up the lift.
They started but were met with weapons in their faces at the hatch opening.
Rebecca Dale’s voice grew sterner. “Authority, this is your last warning. Return to your vessel and stand down. Do not test me.”
Authority sneered. He pushed his chin out and leaned close to Annie’s face. “I will be back for you and your beasts.” Spit and blood pushed out from the corner of his lip. Annie could feel her bones shaking, but a fierce anger burned in her gut.
“I’ll be ready for you.” The words were out before her brain had given them release. Another challenge. Maybe she was ready for a fight, but what about the others? What about her horses? She wasn’t even sure they had survived this one.
Authority turned to the lift slowly. Annie searched his expression for defeat but saw only defiance. There would be another fight, but not today.
Cody helped his sister check on the horses as the lawmen returned to their ship. The animals looked okay. Rattled, though uninjured.
Ingrid led Dhabi to a quiet place to sit and lean back. She examined the wound on his shoulder. Singed flesh, cauterized by the pulser, still held fragments of shattered bone. She searched for bandages before she attempted to clean the site. This was going to be a messy process, and Dhabi would never heal completely from this injury.
Another man began his descent down the cable lift into their hold.
“I’m Corporal Philips. Commander Dale asks if you are in need.” His tall, straight stance gave him the look of a man in control, Annie thought. He wasn’t harsh like Authority. Instead he seemed calm and capable. “We’re here to pick up survivors and assist stranded ships.” His starched uniform barely creased as he held out his hand in peace. “We scanned your systems, and this vessel appears fully operational, with only minor damage to your outer heat shields. Your headings are set for Georgetown Colony. Is that still your destination?”
Cody looked toward Dhabi. “No, we won’t be going to Georgetown. Not sure where right now. Our captain has been badly hurt by that rogue officer. We’ll need a little time to regroup.”
Philips leaned into the com on his shoulder. “Medical assistance required for pulser wound.” He glanced toward the others. “Anyone else hurt?” He looked over Cody’s shoulder to the horses and raised his eyebrows, apparently confused about what he should offer.
Cody shook his head. “I think everyone else is fine.”
Jake approached the men. “There is no reason not to go to Georgetown.”
Cody’s eyes seemed to glow with anger. “Except that it was your suggestion.” He started to charge, but Annie stepped between Cody and Jake.
“Don’t, Cody! Stop!”
Cody paused and took a deep breath. Philips had his hands up, as if ready for anything.
Jake released a heavy sigh, obviously relieved that Cody’s fury was under control. He smiled, even. “I’m glad you have a steady head on your shoulders, Love.”
That did it. Love. Without a second thought, Annie made a fist and let it fly. Before anyone could blink, she had punched Jake squarely in the nose.
Jake stumbled backward, tumbled over a crate, and landed in Nero’s stall area, in a mixture of hay and manure. Annie smiled and turned her back on him. She could hear him struggle to stand up.
Philips raised his brow and offered him a hand. “I don’t know what you did to upset her, mate, but I’d advise you not to do it again.”
“I didn’t do anything.” Jake examined his filthy hands before reaching up to his swelling nose. “If anything, I saved the ship from being obliterated with all the others.”
Annie whipped around and stomped toward him. Philips stepped aside for his own protection. “Saved us? Is that how you see it?”
“My connections got us permission to refuel and detach ahead of the explosion, so yeah. I’d say I saved us.” Jake scrubbed his hands over his pants, wiping as much of the filth away as possible.
Annie scowled and thought about spitting in his face. Not very lady-like, but maybe more consistent with the behavior of punching him. “Authority told us you sent them a message. You betrayed us.” She curled her hand into a fist again, and Jake prepared to evade another blow.
“Now you believe everything Authority tells you?” Jake took a step behind Philips.
By this time the medic had arrived and Cody and Ingrid stood by to help assist him with Dhabi. Only the horses paid any attention to Annie, Philips, and Jake.
“I don’t believe Authority any more today than before. But why would he be offerin’ you a reward for capturin’ us?” Annie glared at Jake. “You come out from behind him and look me in the eye.”
“I don’t want you to hit me again.” Jake shrugged.
Annie almost smiled. Her daddy had taught her how to throw a mean punch, and she was pretty proud that it was good enough to scare a grown man. Daddy would sure be proud right now.
Philips tapped away on his data-com. “Ms. Birchfield,” he said, hesitating to interrupt. “I’m searching the transmission log from this ship, as well as all devices aboard, and I find no message sent to Authority. Nothing direct. Nothing that could have been intercepted.”
Annie shook her head. “He could have sent a call from his own personal device.”
Jake pulled his data-com from his pocket and offered it to her. “Check it yourself. Have Philips here check it.”
Philips shrugged. “I did already. I’ve scanned every device on this vessel. No transmissions at all.”
“That doesn’t mean he didn’t send something from the ferry. Yesterday, maybe? Before our show?” Annie chewed on her lip as her mind churned.
Philips scrolled through lists on his com. “I can do a deeper scan, of course, but right now I don’t see anything to Authority. Hold on a second; I have an idea.” The uniformed man tapped in a few numbers. “We’ll do this in reverse.”
Jake and Annie stood close on either side of Philips, watching as he pulled up the transmission log of the Authority ship.
He shook his head. “The only messages I see between that vessel,” he motioned to the hatch above, “and the ferry are warnings to halt travel and not to let any ship refuel and disembark. Not even any piggy-backs or encrypted messages.”
Jake tugged on his shirt-tails and broadened his shoulders. His grin spread across his dirty face. Philips seemed satisfied that he’d salvaged the situation and turned to see where the medic was with Dhabi.
Jake took a step toward Annie. “You’re just afraid to trust me, Love.”
Annie boiled over. Her fist popped up automatically, hitting his nose and landing him back on his butt again. “I ain’t afraid to trust you. I jus’ ain’t afraid to knock you down, either.”
Cody approached his sister. “Stop hitting the man.” His tone was matter-of-fact.
“Why?” she asked. “He deserved it.”
“It was my turn.” Cody sneered at Jake. “Listen, I asked Philips if he could take you into custody, and he says he has no cause. FC Dale says she can’t spare the room if you’re not hurt. She suggests we dock with the next ferry, which will be here shortly. If I had my way, you’d land with the other employables.” Cody gestured to Dhabi and Ingrid. “They want you to stay on board the Nightengale.”
Annie growled. “No. Absolutely not.”
Cody held up his hand to silence her protests. He squared his shoulders and leaned in toward Jake. “Philips looked you up. He says you know how to pilot, licensed even, and Dhabi is out of commission for at least two weeks.”
Jake nodded, this time keeping his grin subdued. “And without a licensed, and able, pilot at the helm, you can’t legally dock on a ferry.” He raked his fingers through his hair. “And so you’re left with the options of heading to Georgetown Colony or keeping me with you.”
“Or ejecting you right out the airlock.” Annie perched her hands on her hips and shifted her weight to one side. “We can find another place besides Georgetown.”
Jake brushed himself off again. He kept out of Annie’s swing range. “I s’spect that’s already been discussed. I would also guess that this ship doesn’t have the fuel to get anywhere but Georgetown. It appears you need me.”
Annie felt helpless. This is not what she wanted. Philips said that Jake wasn’t their betrayer, but that didn’t mean he was innocent. She hated his stupid, charming smile. She despised his confidence and those ridiculous blue eyes. And the way her skin warmed and tingled when he touched her. This was not okay. She marched right up to his face and took a deep breath. Her nose twinged with the odor of manure, but she knew Jake’s nose was throbbing. “You smell like horse crap.”
Jake laughed. “I’ll get a shower just for you.”
Ignoring his last statement, she frowned at her brother. “Is Dhabi going to be alright?”
Cody nodded. “Yeah. The medic is almost done patching him up now.”
Philips joined them. “FC Dale has the Authority ship ready to go. I will be going through their vessel on my way back to my own. The other ferry will arrive in fifteen minutes. Will you be docking?” He flashed a reassuring smile in Annie’s direction.
Cody shifted his gaze from his sister to the Corporal. “Yessir, we’ll dock.”
Annie stormed away from the three men. Let them sort it all out. She didn’t have any say in the matter, anyway. Jake was staying. The horses were going to be stuck on a ferry instead of running free in a meadow.
She retreated to her cabin and picked up Buffalo’s stasis tube. It felt lighter than the last time she held it. He was losing his battle. He needed real attention. He needed a new home.
She cradled him in her arms and hummed an old hymn. “On that great gettin’ up mornin’ fare you well.” She hugged her dog and though she wanted to, she couldn’t cry. “Buffalo, what am I supposed to do? There’s a man on this ship and I hate him.”
She stared at the dog’s face, wishing his blue-white eyes would open. “I know I’m not s’posed to hate people. Mom and Daddy would be ashamed to hear me say it. And the real problem is… that I don’t… I don’t hate him at all.”
Annie felt the Nightengale shudder as the Authority ship unlocked and removed itself from the upper hatch. Her room fell still and silent for a few minutes. She looked around and held her breath. She wished. Wished herself back home. Wished herself running free with her horses. Flying down a dirt road on her bike. She wished Buffalo was well, licking her face and chewing on her hair. She wished and wished.
The ship clanged loudly when it docked with the new ferry. The sound of the ship, while it startled her from her dreams, was becoming familiar to Annie. That thought weighed heavy on her heart.
“Is this our home, now, Buffalo?” The question seemed to hang in the empty space just inches from her lips. She could almost hear the darkness answer back.