Morning came, at least what everyone recognized as morning. Annie was still getting used to simulated day and night, as they were really nothing more than a display on a clock face in space. She hadn’t realized how much she would miss the earth’s sky with its constant sun and moon. Her body felt weary, but her mind could barely function.
She walked in on an argument over breakfast.
“Well, I have to report to the dock master. I’m the pilot on record, and our captain is still not ready to leave the ship.” Jake nodded to her when she entered the mess, but didn’t stop his debate. “I can take Ingrid with me, but I think it would be best if you came, too, Cody.”
Annie’s brother shook his head. “I don’t know what difference I could make.”
Jake shrugged. “I dunno, maybe since you don’t trust me at all, just being there might ease your mind about all this?”
“I trust Ingrid to see that you don’t hand us over to Authority.”
“And why is that?” Jake’s tenor sounded strained. “What do you think you know about her that you don’t know about me?” He regarded her with a wave of his hand. “No offense, dear, but you came on board as an employable. You didn’t have any credentials or references.”
Ingrid smiled. “None taken. But Cody does understand me in a way that most others cannot.”
Her words seemed to pique everyone else’s interest, especially Dhabi’s.
“What exactly does that mean?’ the captain asked.
Annie could see the jealousy in his eyes. Ingrid reached out and took Dhabi’s hand. “It’s nothing unseemly. He just knows a little about my background.”
Dhabi took a deep breath and winced through obvious pain. “Maybe soon we will have more time to talk.”
Ingrid smiled again, but the tender moment was interrupted by Jake’s return to the heated conversation.
“Look, I can report to the dock master. I can even make a few inquiries about another show.” Jake pulled out a chair for Annie to sit at the table. “I’d just like to have a Birchfield at my side to witness my trustworthiness.”
Cody growled. “I just feel like there’s too much to do on board. Dhabi’s injured. The horses need someone to look after them.”
Annie sighed. “For cryin’ out loud, I’ll go.”
“No!” Cody shouted. The sound rang all the way down the hallway beside him.
All eyes faced Cody, demanding an explanation. Annie was first to respond. “And why, in heavens, not? I’m perfectly capable of making sure Mr. Stewart behaves himself.”
She had no idea why she called him Mr. Stewart. All she knew was that she wasn’t sure she could say the name Jake without a flutter, and that’s the last thing she wanted right now.
Cody crossed the room and stood behind Annie’s chair. He rested his hands on her shoulders. “I don’t think you should leave the ship right now.”
Annie shifted away from his hold. “Are you afraid?” She met his gaze and realized she was right. “You’re afraid. Just what do you think Jake would do to me?” The question was out before she realized that Cody wasn’t afraid of her being alone with Jake.
Cody wrinkled his brow. “I’m not afraid of you with Jake. You’ve already proven you know how to handle him.”
Jake held up his hand to Cody, as if in oath. “I personally guarantee her safety.”
“You can’t do that. You may have the best intentions, but you can’t control what others do.” Cody looked to Annie and shook his head. “You aren’t leaving this ship.”
Annie stood up and frowned at her brother. “You can’t force me to stay here the whole time we’re docked. You’re my brother, not my parent. You can’t ground me.”
“I’m not grounding you.”
Annie took a step toward Jake. “Cody, you said yourself that what happened to the other ferry wasn’t our fault. Were you just trying to make me feel better?”
“No, but.” His words trailed off.
Jake reached for Annie’s elbow. “Maybe Cody is right, Love.” He paused, pressing his lips together. “Maybe it would be best if you stayed on the Nightengale until we check out the disposition of the other travelers on this ferry.” He nodded in Cody’s direction. “I’ll take Ingrid, and we can speak with the dock master before anyone else gets out.
Cody offered his hand to Jake. “I just don’t want anyone else to get hurt.”
Annie watched as Jake and Cody made their peace, but she couldn’t stay silent. “You’re both cowards. Authority is out there making all kinds of laws to hold their thumb over people—shoot, over every living creature, and that’s not right. I’m just fighting to take care of what God gave us, and at the first sign of trouble, you both wanna tuck tail and run.”
Cody shook his head, and Annie thought he looked an awful lot like their dad when he’d had enough. “Annie, we are trying to take care of you. The blast that destroyed that ferry and killed all those people was meant for us. And right or wrong, the innocent folks on this ferry might not want to have anything to do with us. That’s just the cold hard facts.”
Ingrid spoke up. “That’s true. They might not.” She took Annie’s hand. “But don’t you think Annie’s woman enough to face that fact with her own two eyes?” She cast a sweet smile toward Dhabi. “I know our captain shouldn’t venture out to the ferry plaza, but I think it might be a nice gesture if we all went out to meet the dock master together. We can gauge his reaction before any of us go beyond that point.”
Annie’s heart swelled with appreciation. Just having Ingrid believe in her bolstered her courage. She wanted to throw her arms around Ingrid’s neck and hug her but thought perhaps she should wait for the men’s reaction.
Dhabi nodded. Jake and Cody exchanged an unsteady glance. Both men grimaced, but didn’t respond. If they said the wrong thing, she needed only to rebel to force their concessions, and Annie knew that neither man wanted that. Better they surrender right away.
Jake dipped his chin. “Then as a united crew?” The others agreed.
Annie felt satisfied as she finished her breakfast. Half an hour later they all left the ship and headed toward the dock master’s station to check in. Annie walked at Jake’s side, ahead of the others. “Why not an inspection like we had before?” she whispered.
Jake glanced over his shoulder and then back to her. “The dock master requested we appear before him personally. An inspection may follow later.” He lowered his voice and forced a weak smile. “Or perhaps he’ll ask us to go altogether.”
Annie nodded. “Thank you for not leaving me behind.”
Jake gestured toward the official-looking doors ahead. “Ingrid is right. You are tough enough to face all of this. You’re not a child, Love.”
“Ugh! Why do you insist on calling me that?”
Jake laughed as he held open the door for everyone to pass. “I don’t understand why it bothers you. I’m not calling you a beast or imbecile or anything mean like that.”
Annie sighed. “But what’s wrong with my name?”
Jake’s lips widened into a broad smile. “Nothing at all wrong with your name. But, Love, everyone calls you Annie. I want something that’s just between you and me.”
She felt that warm flutter in her tummy again, but she tried to downplay it with a quick eye-roll.
They came around the corner to the dock master’s station and found a dozen official-looking people waiting to greet them. A stout man with a data-com held up his left hand to stop them. “You are the crew from the CT04 Nightengale?”
Dhabi stepped forward. “Yes, sir. She’s my ship.”
The man studied Dhabi’s injured shoulder. “And who is the Pilot of Record for docking with us?”
Jake took a deep breath and moved to Dhabi’s side. “I am. Jacob Sterling Stewart, at your service.”
Annie noticed everyone staring at both Ingrid and her. A woman wearing all black, with her dark hair pulled into a tight knot at her neck, moved away from the others and toward Ingrid. “Are you the young woman with the horses?”
Ingrid gestured to Annie. “This is the woman.”
Annie swallowed hard. “Yes, ma’am?” She wasn’t sure how she was supposed to respond. She assumed the woman was in mourning. She wondered if she blamed Annie.
The woman moved her lips without making a sound, as if she wasn’t sure what to say, either. She suddenly reached out to Annie and pulled her into a tight hug. “You poor girl,” was all that Annie heard.
The rest of the group moved quickly to envelop the others. The dock master shook hands with all three men and kissed Ingrid and Annie’s hands and cheeks. “We’re honored to have you traveling with us. We hope you will feel welcomed by everyone.”
The small crowd seemed to all be of the same sentiment. A tall man in a medic’s vest attended to Dhabi. “I want you to come to my station later. I can check your wound and get you fresh dressing. No charge.”
The woman in black took Annie aside. “Dear girl, do your horses have the care they need?”
Annie nodded. “My brother is a vet. He takes good care of the animals. He might like to have access to a proper facility, though. My dog is in a stasis tube.”
“I had no idea you had a dog, too.”
“Authority shot him before we jumped planet. He’s in bad shape.” Annie looked up and saw tears in the woman’s eyes. She took the woman’s hands in hers. “Why are you all being so kind to us? We were afraid you’d be mad and wouldn’t let us stay aboard.”
The woman shook her head. “Everyone, every soul docked to a ferry out here and every member of every colony off-earth, knows what you’ve done. You stood up to Authority. You fought back. Annie Birchfield, you’re a hero.”
Annie didn’t understand. She hadn’t fought back. She’d run. She was nobody’s hero—at least she shouldn’t be. She had to confess. “You’re wrong.”
The woman hugged her again. “I’m not wrong about you. You shot at Authority with a long gun, didn’t you? That’s what the reports say.”
“Well, yes. I did shoot him. With rock salt, though.”
“And you all rescued your animals by taking them out of the reach of the law, yes?”
“Yes, ma’am. But the lawmen attacked the other ship. All those people are lost because…”
“Because Authority is out of control. They want to dictate who and what survives their latest test epidemic. They have the whole earth. They can’t take space, too. People need you, Annie. They need a hero. Please be her.” The woman clutched at Annie’s hands and didn’t let go until she nodded in agreement.
Jake joined their conversation. “Ma’am,” he made a respectful bowing gesture to the woman. “Annie, Love, they would like to have a performance. Maybe several. If you agree.”
Annie smiled, though her brain felt like it was spinning in her skull. “I think that would be okay, so long as the horses are up to it. What did Cody say?”
The woman’s worried expression softened into relief. “Thank you all. And will you bring out the long gun you used against Authority? Please? If you still have it.”
Annie raised her brow. They weren’t allowed to bear arms. Not on earth, and certainly not in space. Annie shrugged, but before she could speak, Jake answered for her.
“Of course, she will. And what a show she will give, too. Not tonight, of course. But perhaps tomorrow. This afternoon we’ll need to see your arena and acclimate the horses.” He took Annie’s hand from the woman. “We’ll let Cody know right now.”
Jake and the others thanked the greeting party and moved away for a moment for privacy and to organize before Dhabi and Ingrid went back to the ship.
“What was that?” Annie asked, once out of earshot. “We can’t just do another show like nothing happened. People died after the last one.”
Jake raised his brows. “Don’t you see? This is why they were all here. This is what they want. This is what they need.”
Cody shook his head. “No. Absolutely not. Just because a handful of folks come out and ask for a show, doesn’t mean that everyone else on this vessel feels the same. All it takes is one person who wants revenge.”
Dhabi looked as though he wanted to shrug, but knew it would hurt. Ingrid patted his hand. “These people represent the crew and the leaders on board. I don’t think they would ask you all to perform if they thought there would be any danger.” She glanced from Cody to Jake and then finally to Annie. “I think you could give these people a real boost. You’re new to space, but I’ve been out here a long time. Morale gets low, even in the best of times.”
Annie sighed and wrinkled her nose at Cody. “I think maybe we should. There’s something about that woman who asked me specifically. She seemed to really need this.”
Jake nodded. “Annie and I will go on to the arena.” He flashed Annie a broad smile. “Ingrid can take Dhabi to the med center when he’s ready, and Cody, you should see after the animals. That last ride was rough. Maybe see what you can find at the med center, too.”
Cody appeared unconvinced. Annie took his arm and pulled him aside for privacy. “I can take care of myself. The horses need you. Buffalo needs you. Dhabi and Ingrid need you.”
“But you don’t. That’s what you’re telling me?”
“O’course I need you.” She leaned in for a hug that would have made their mother proud. “I need you to trust that I can do this without you holdin’ my hand, okay?”
“Do you trust Jake?” Cody stared over her shoulder at the others.
“I can take care of Jake.”
He laughed and jabbed at her arm. “I know. But what does your gut tell you about him?”
Annie swallowed the idea and looked at her boots. She didn’t want her brother to have any idea about what her gut said regarding Jake Stewart. She waited for a second before meeting his gaze again. “I’m not rightly sure yet, but I don’t think he’s all bad. And if he did try to signal Authority about us before, I doubt he’d try again. He knows for sure they aren’t on his side, either.” She flashed her pretty-please expression, and Cody relented.
“Y’all go on and see what we need to do before a show. I’ll see what the animals need. And don’t sign anything committing the horses. They don’t perform if they’re not up to it, understand?”
“Yessir.” Annie kissed her brother on the cheek.
Cody, Ingrid, and Dhabi returned to the Nightengale while Jake and Annie rejoined the welcome crew. The woman in black gestured to the only man not wearing a uniform. She nodded to him. “Eldon, please take them to the Great Hall. Let the attendants there know that Ms. Birchfield and Mr. Stewart should be given whatever they request. And will you please take notes and run errands for them? If they need things moved or brought in, see that it’s all done.”
Eldon bowed to the woman and then bowed to Annie and Jake. “Follow me.”
They exchanged a quick glance and kept pace just a few steps behind Eldon. This ferry was similar to the other in that there was a huge plaza punctuated with occasional lifts that moved people between levels. Near each lift were congregations of employables, trying to make eye-contact with each passer-by. The shops and service centers were arranged differently, though. Annie noticed that this ferry seemed more organized. Medical facilities of all kinds were grouped together. Education areas, then security services. Clothing, housewares, ship maintenance. Every type of store for every need.
And then they came to the food. Sweet smells mingled with savory. The aroma of bacon hung in the air from a nearby vendor, though Annie dared not guess what animal provided the meat.
Beyond the food market, they found the Great Hall. Six sets of double doors lined up across the wall, waiting to be opened for the next event. Centered above the doors was a sign that read THE THING. Annie guessed that the sign would glow with bright colors when the time to gather the masses arrived. Eldon opened the door on the far right. “Come on in, you two. I’ll get all the lights up for you. And meet with my people. If I’m not back before you need me, just call out. The acoustics in this place will carry anything above a normal speaking voice.” Eldon bowed again and disappeared.
Annie and Jake explored the space for a few minutes. They looked through the backstage area and the dressing rooms. They inspected the room where the animals would be prepped before the show. Everything looked good. They went through a large arch with curtains pulled open at each side and found the main hall. It was oblong, with the sunken rectangular stage running longwise in the center. Stadium seating rose from three sides causing a bowl effect. There would be plenty of room for the horses to run, prance and do whatever tricks Annie wanted. Jake’s attention seemed to be focused on the seating.
“This one room will hold thousands,” he said. “You’ll have the biggest show yet.”
Annie nodded. “I just hope the horses are all well enough. I won’t sacrifice their health for entertainment.”
“Of course not, Love.”
Annie looked around the arena. “I wish the seating was a different color.”
“Simple gray not your color?” Jake laughed. “I know the woman said they would take care of all our needs, but I don’t think they’re going to repaint the chairs for us.”
She rolled her eyes. “I don’t need them to paint the chairs. I just wish there was a way to see the edges of the stage more easily. I’ll be running the horses very fast, and they will have lights shining in their eyes. Even a bright stripe to show the boundaries would keep them from bumping into the wall and hurting a leg or something.”
“Anything else? Chocolate in your dressing room, maybe?” Jake teased her with a bow and flourish of his hand.
“We can do that as well,” Eldon’s voice said from somewhere behind them. “And would you prefer a particular color for the stripe on the wall?”
Annie’s eyes widened when she realized that the man had been listening to everything they said. “Umm, the color doesn’t matter, so long as it’s bright and different than the rest of the room.” Annie spun on her heels until she saw where Eldon was sitting. She smiled in his direction. “Thank you.”
Eldon stood and approached them. He wore an amused expression. “I did tell you the acoustics were great in here.” He chuckled. “Good thing you didn’t love-talk. Although I’ve heard it all, I suppose.”
Annie felt the warm blush creep into her cheeks as she tried to meet Eldon’s eyes. “I don’t need any chocolate, either. He was just kidding.”
“My dear lady, how long has it been since you tasted real chocolate?” Eldon had his tablet poised for notes.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever had real chocolate.”
Eldon glared at Jake. “Sir, you must learn to take better care of your lady.”
Now it was Jake’s turn to blush. “Noted. But we’re not…”
“I understand perfectly. You two don’t know yet. It’s fine. I won’t breathe a word. Forget I said anything.” Eldon flashed a knowing smile to both of them. “You shall have chocolate. Real chocolate.” He made a circle and pointed to the half wall that separated the floor from the seats. “Now I haven’t seen your show, but I have read a few reviews.”
“Reviews?” Annie asked. Were people actually writing about me? She wondered.
“Of course.” Eldon exchanged a look with Jake as if to ask if anyone could be so innocent. “Now I know you said to paint a stripe, and we shall do whatever you prefer, but I just thought we could use bunting. What do you think?”
Annie wanted to ask what bunting was but decided to wait for Jake’s reaction. She was getting tired of sounding like the ignorant child. Jake only shrugged and faced Annie with a goofy grin. “Would you prefer bunting, Love?”
She narrowed her eyes for a second and then had a flash of inspiration. She inhaled and put her hands on her hips as she surveyed the wall. “Eldon, what color would the bunting be? And would it be on the whole wall or just at the top?”
Eldon didn’t skip a beat. “We have blue and white or red and white. I suppose we could drape one for a while, and then the other. And if we do use both, we would have plenty to make the swags cover the whole wall.”
Annie nodded. She realized that bunting was a material that draped on the walls. “Would it be secure? I wouldn’t want it falling or confusing the horses.”
She looked to Jake, who seemed genuinely impressed with her improvisation. “Right. It wouldn’t do if the horses or my lovely rider-friend couldn’t see a clear boundary.”
Eldon smiled and nodded. “Absolutely secure. And the swags look magnificent in the lights.” He tapped on his tablet for a moment and pulled up a photo of the room draped in bunting. Annie looked at the picture and smiled. She had seen this type of fabric swagged on porch railings during summer holidays when she was a child. Before the reunion of states.
She nodded. “I think I would like the bunting. Thank you, Eldon.”
“Very good, Ms. Birchfield.”
She placed her hand on his shoulder. “Please call me Annie.”
Eldon nodded and made a note about the bunting. “Annie.” He pointed around the arena. “Now all of these seats will be full, right down to the wall. What type of ammunition will you be using?”
“Ammunition?” Annie and Jake said together.
Eldon raised his brow. “Yes. For the shooting exhibition. You told Madame Dale you would show your long gun.”
“Oh, yes. That.” Annie hadn’t quite decided how to bring her gun into the show. “I have all the ammunition I will need right now.”
Eldon nodded again. “Then I will leave you two to discuss whatever else you like. If you need me again, just call. Otherwise, you can just pull the door around behind you when you leave.” He gestured to the main door behind them. “One more thing. What time would you like the show to begin tomorrow?”
Jake shrugged and gestured to Annie. She shrugged back to Eldon. “Whenever you think will bring the biggest crowd.”
“Excellent. I’ll make it for eight in the evening. You may come anytime before seven to set up. And just let me know if you think of anything else you’d like.” Eldon bowed once more and disappeared beyond the spotlights.
Jake walked over to the edge of the arena and leaned against the wall. “Annie, Love, I believe our troubles may be over.” He crossed his arms over his chest and grinned.
“Are you an idiot?” Annie shook her head and sighed. “We have trouble following us. We’ve already brought disaster on one ferry full of people. It’s not out of the realm of possibility it could happen again. No, our troubles are not over.”
Before Jake could respond, the door slammed behind them, and they both jumped and turned to find the source of the noise.
“Your troubles aren’t over yet. Not by a long shot.” The voice came from the woman in black, who was now running toward them, holding a long gun in her hands, aiming directly at Annie.