Annie spent her mornings fitting salt slugs into the casings for her pistol and rifle ammunition and packing the shotgun shells with extra loose salt. Early afternoons she taught Jake and Rebecca to shoot, spending most of the morning’s production of ammo on practice. She reserved only what she needed for her shows, which were scheduled for every other night on the ferry.
Dhabi’s shoulder healed slowly, but he insisted on practicing with his sitar whenever he could. Annie noticed that he had barely spoken to Ingrid since their argument. Dhabi explained that it was a good thing for them to have a break from each other. He said that he needed more time to focus on his music and getting back to helping with their circus.
While attendance at each show grew and Annie’s tricks and musical numbers became more elaborate, she observed that the horses were slowing. Her concern increased with each performance. Cody didn’t talk much about anything these days. He listened to the news articles whenever he could, and Annie caught him speaking in low, serious tones to Rebecca when either could spare a minute.
After the final curtain call, Annie finished up her evenings brushing down the horses with Jake.
“Do they seem slower to you?” Annie worked a tangle out of Liza’s mane. “Especially my girl, here. She isn’t even holding up her head as high as she used to. I’m a little worried.”
Jake scratched at Stubbs’s ears. “Maybe they’re a little slower, but they’ve worked hard for us, haven’t they? Three and four shows a week is tough on any performer. And remember, they have twice as many steps to take as you.”
“I suppose. I’ll talk to Rebecca and Eldon. Maybe we could cut back to two shows a week for a while.” She dragged a blanket over Liza’s back and turned her attention to Jefferson.
Cody joined them and picked up Nero’s brush. “They don’t need an easier schedule. They need grass.”
Annie and Jake both stopped their work and waited for Cody to continue.
“We’re going to Georgetown. We have to get these animals on solid ground and fed something green. Hay and pellets are only good for so long, and we’ve been asking a lot from these beauties. Space travel still affects them, even with the simulated gravity. Too much weakens their bones.” Cody ran his rough hands over Nero’s flanks and down to his ankles. “I have to say; I’m surprised we haven’t had a broken bone already.”
“Don’t say that!” Annie’s voice sounded hoarse and gravelly.
Jake wagged his finger in her direction. “The horses aren’t the only ones needing a rest.”
Annie rolled her eyes. “I’m just fine. And I want the horses to get whatever they need, but is Georgetown the best answer? You were against going there before.”
Jake didn’t utter a sound, and Annie realized that she might have just unwittingly started another argument.
Cody shook his head. “I was wrong before.”
Jake raised his head and faced Cody with wide eyes, but before he could respond, Cody stopped him.
“I have reconsidered my objections. Georgetown is our best option.” Cody nodded toward Jake. Jake nodded back. Annie figured that was probably the last time she would hear Cody admit he was wrong.
Jake raised his hands, with a brush strapped over each palm. “Please don’t think I’m arguing with you, but if there is another, safer place…”
Cody’s mouth formed a crooked smile. “I’ve weighed our choices. The thing is, Rebecca has family there. Ingrid knows people, too. They both feel the climate in that colony, politically speaking, is suited to our present situation. We could go other places, but the unknowns are risky. Better to take the path where we know what we’re facing, and have allies for protection.”
“Georgetown, then.” Jake slipped his right-hand free of its brush and extended it for Cody to shake.
Annie watched them agree, finally. “Georgetown.” She could barely remember what it felt like to stand on solid ground. The aroma of dirt and grass swirled in her mind. She noticed her legs feeling unstable as if her knees would buckle beneath her ragdoll body. Voices boomed in her ears and then seemed to fade. Everything seemed to fade.
“Annie, can you hear me?” Ingrid’s voice. Annie couldn’t open her eyes. The blackness all around began to pale. Still, her eyelids didn’t budge. They felt as though they had been sealed with wax or even glue. She could feel the softness of her bed. She could smell the rosy scent of her soap on her pillow. Ingrid’s hand was on her forehead. “I think she’s waking up.”
Annie tried to speak, but as with her eyes, her tongue wouldn’t work. There was another hand—this one against her cheek.
“You need to wake up, Love.” Jake.
Annie tried to move, but her muscles felt strapped in place as if mummified. She struggled. Nothing. The voices were close. Her friends were right there with her. She strained to open her eyes. A tiny slice of light pushed between her lashes, and her right eye opened. Jake’s face was there, smiling through worried tears.
“Cody, she’s back.” Ingrid stood and backed away as Cody came into Annie’s view.
Annie had her brother on one side, listening to her heart beat through his stethoscope, and Jake on her other side, clinging to her hand as if she held his future.
With both eyes open, the room seemed more brightly lit than normal. Annie pushed her lips out, willing them to part. “I didn’t mean to faint.” There. She had spoken, though by the expressions on the men’s faces; she doubted the words came out right.
Cody shook his head and grinned. “She’ll be okay. Just needs a little more rest. What’s our ETA?”
Annie could see Ingrid moving toward the door. “Dhabi says we should be able to touch down within the hour. Rebecca’s uncle will meet us at the dock center before sunset.”
Cody nodded and squeezed Annie’s left hand. “No more scares like this one. Get some rest.” He didn’t wait for his sister to respond. He got up and followed Ingrid out of the room.
Annie tried to sit upright to face Jake, but he shook his head. “Stay still and rest. We’ll be in Georgetown soon, and you’ll have plenty of play time then.”
“What happened?” Annie struggled to piece together what had happened. “Did I faint after last night’s show?”
Jake laughed. “Something like that. One minute you were with us, grooming the horses, the next you were in a heap on the floor. Apparently, the sight of your brother and I agreeing on something was just too shocking for you.”
Annie couldn’t help but smile.
“That’s what I like to see.” Jake squeezed her hand. “You really scared us, though. From here on out, I’m in charge of making sure you don’t get over exhausted.”
“I’ll be careful. You don’t have to worry. I didn’t realize I was so tired. But I guess a good night’s sleep was all I needed. I think I’m feeling better now.” She tried to inch up in her bed again.
Jake put his hands on her shoulders, gently holding her in place. “Please, don’t sit up yet. You should stay still for a while, yet. You needed a bit more than a night’s sleep. You’ve been out for three days.”
“Three days?” Annie bolted up, but the sudden move caused her to fell as though she slammed into a brick wall. Every cell in her body seemed to scream out in pain.
Jake grimaced. “Please, Love. Cody calls it Space Fatigue. He says you’ll need a few more days to recover. When we get to Georgetown, we’ll offload everything to the Dale compound. Rebecca has arranged for us a place to stay in the guesthouse. You will have your own room, as well as your own personal servant to see to your every wish and whim.”
As the all-over-ache subsided, Annie relaxed into the pillows. “I don’t need a servant. I need some strength to get my horses well.”
“Cody and Rebecca will care for all the animals and get them ready for another show. That’s right; the show will go on. And Dhabi and Ingrid will make sure we’re safe. They’re scanning the waves and checking in with their contacts for news that could affect us.”
“Are Dhabi and Ingrid…?”
Jake shook his head and shrugged. “Not really. I don’t know if they ever will be again, but listen to me, Annie Birchfield, everyone on this ship, everyone who knows you, everyone, is working together to get you well and safe. The least you can do is behave and get better.”
Annie scowled. “You know I don’t like to behave.”
“I know. That’s why I’m asking as a personal favor.”
“I still don’t need a servant to take care of me.”
“What if that servant is a devilishly handsome Irishman?”
She smiled. “Only on one condition.”
“Call me Love, not Annie.”
Jake laughed and nodded. He leaned over her for a kiss, but before their lips met, the ship’s alarm began to wail. Jake jumped to the door and leaned on the button for the com link. “What’s happening?”
Cody’s voice buzzed through the speaker. “Proximity alerts. We have escorts to the dock. Get strapped in.”
Jake pulled the safety cover over Annie’s berth and secured the snaps down the side. One big bump knocked Jake on his butt. He grabbed Buffalo’s stasis tube in one arm and looped the other through the strap on the jump seat in the corner.
Annie locked her gaze on Jake, trying to ignore the rumbling of the ship as it pushed through the atmosphere toward Georgetown Colony. His expression was stoic. He stared straight ahead at nothing for several seconds. He clutched the tube with both arms, not relaxing his muscles an inch. With another big bump, he shifted his attention to her.
“It’s going to be okay.” His expression told Annie that he was trying to convince himself as much as her.
She nodded. “For someone who has spent a lot of time traveling the stars, you aren’t real comfortable with it, are you?”
“Not really, no. I don’t mind once I’m out there, but the take-offs and landings get me nervous.” He winced through another jolt. “A little.”
Suddenly the turbulence stopped, and Annie felt as if she was floating just above the mattress, pressed against the safety cover. Another second more, and she felt heavy and pushed down into the springs. The ship had landed.
Jake stayed in place until the alarms fell silent. Cody’s voice crackled from above. “We’re gonna have inspectors on board shortly. Everybody get yourself pretty.”
Jake stood, placed Buffalo onto the jumpseat and scanned the cabin. “Let’s get you ready for sunshine—assuming it’s daytime in Georgetown.” He unsnapped her covering and kissed her forehead.
“Can’t you please help me sit up?” Annie tried to prop herself up on her elbows.
Jake sighed and tugged at her pillow. “I’ll do what I can, but you have to be patient. We can’t do a thing until the dock inspectors approve us all.”
“How long before they board us?” she asked.
Before Jake could answer, Annie felt a strong pop in her ears, and her stomach flipped.
“I would guess that’s happening right about now.” Jake pulled at his ear lobe. “I hate this part,” he muttered.
An hour later, the passengers of the Nightengale received permission to disembark, along with their animals and cargo.
Rebecca’s uncle, Bull, met them at the end of the dock with a truck from his compound. Ingrid rode with Bull after helping load up with all the perishables from the kitchen. Cody and Annie drove their truck, horse trailer in tow, and Jake took Annie’s bike. Dhabi remained behind to shut down the ship and finish reports for the technical log. Bull would come back for him later.
Annie stared out the truck window, noticing a breeze rustling tree branches. She smiled. The trees looked wider than back home, with lower branches and fatter leaves. The grass covering the meadows appeared a darker green than she had ever seen before. It looked thick and lush. She longed to stretch out in it like a child, playing in her mother’s yard back home.
Her fingers began to tingle, and then her toes, her ears. She didn’t know if it was her body adjusting to real gravity again, or if it was the excitement of being somewhere that wasn’t shooting through space.
She glanced down at Buffalo’s tube. The status indicator light was no longer yellow, or even orange. It was now blinking red. Buffalo was dying. Annie hugged it as tightly as her weak arms would allow.
Cody didn’t look down or seem to notice at all. Annie watched as he stared straight ahead, following Bull’s vehicle turn for turn, through a gate marked Dale. She jumped when he finally spoke.
“I don’t know if I can do anything for him, but at least Buffalo won’t die out in space. Maybe I can get him one last breath of real air.”
Annie wanted to cry. She wanted to scream and hit and stomp her feet. Mostly she just wanted to hug her puppy again and feel his slobbery kisses on her face. But sitting in the old pickup, bouncing toward a gray farmhouse at the end of a dirt road, Annie could barely feel anything at all.
As the truck slowed in front of the house, a stream of family members poured from the front door. A few young men and women around her age ran out first to help unload the horses. An older woman, probably in her forties, led out a man who appeared ancient to Annie. His hair was white and seemed to spring from everywhere but the top of his head.
Behind him was a half dozen children and two young women carrying babies on their hips. Annie watched them form a line on the edge of the porch, smiling at their visitors.
Jake opened her door for her and took the stasis tube from her lap. “I’ve got you. Just lean on me, and we’ll get you to your own room.”
Annie nodded and stretched her right arm over Jake’s shoulders. She slid out of the truck’s cab, and Jake slipped his left arm around her waist. The small crowd on the porch began to cheer.
“What is this?” she asked.
Bull laughed and gestured toward a smaller house just beyond the end of the main home. “Young lady, you’re famous here in Georgetown. A hero to these kids.” He turned to face Cody. “Doctor Birchfield, let us get you unpacked. We’ll have introductions around the supper table later. Daisy will settle you in the north quarters, and my hands will take your animals out to the meadow.”
Cody nodded and took the tube from Jake. “Thank you, sir. Is there somewhere I might attend to my sister’s dog. He’s not well.”
Bull pointed to a barn on the opposite side of the big house. “We have a little room at the end of the stable for the animals. It’s not a full-fledged clinic, but we have all the basics. Anything you need that’s not there, you let me know, and I’ll have someone run into town for it in the morning.”
Annie waved at the children and leaned against Jake, willing her legs to walk normally. The older woman opened the door for them and stood back as they passed. He twisted her lips to one side and looked from the parlor to the staircase. “Well, Miss Birchfield, we might have a little problem. All the bedrooms are upstairs.”
“No problem at all.” Jake swept Annie into his arms and headed for the staircase. “Just direct me to which room is hers, and I’ll deposit her there.”
Daisy shook her head and planted her hands on her hips. “Absolutely not! No men in the women’s’ rooms and no women in the men’s. You’re not on Earth anymore, you know.”
Jake almost laughed, and then realized that Daisy was definitely not kidding. He exchanged a glance with Annie.
“Mr. Stewart, why don’t you just deposit me on the couch here in the parlor? I’m sure I’ll be able to get the rest I need down here.” Annie motioned to the sofa against the back wall. Jake set her down carefully and fluffed a cushion for her back.
“Anything else, Miss Birchfield?” Jake took a step back and dipped forward in a quick bow.
“I’d sure appreciate a drink of water, but I don’t want you to be trouble for Miss Daisy.” Annie took a deep breath and then settled back into the couch.
“Yes, ma’am.” Jake bowed again and turned to Daisy. “If you’ll point me toward a sink, please, I would be obliged.”
Daisy raised her eyebrows high and held out her hand to the doorway at the other end of the parlor. “I’ll be happy to, Mr. Stewart.”
Annie could hear them chatting in the next room.
“Are you two not courting? You looked to me like lovebirds.”
Jake’s voice lowered, but Annie could still make out his words. “Miss Birchfield and me? Hah! My dear, I’m her servant since she’s taken ill. Just trying to keep her happy. And she can be a bit demanding.”
Annie stretched out her arms and legs and smiled. She was starting to feel normal again. She could hear the faucet running and then their quiet voices again.
“I just thought, you know, the way you looked at each other?” Daisy’s tone was suggestive.
“I can’t speak to her feelings for me, of course, but I can assure you that I have made my opinion of her very clear.”
They returned to the parlor, and Jake handed the glass to Annie. “Will there be anything more you require, Miss Birchfield?”
Annie kept her face as expressionless as she could manage. She cast a blank stare toward the front door. “That will be all for now, Mr. Stewart.” Annie smiled at Daisy. “Thank you for your gracious hospitality, Mrs. Dale. Rebecca told me how lovely you are.”
Daisy tipped her chin and smiled. “I must get to my own kitchen now. Rebecca will be along soon. We’ll have dinner in an hour or so.” She went to the door and then turned back for one more thing. “Mr. Stewart, I wouldn’t object to you taking Miss Birchfield’s belongings up to her room and unpacking them for her. So long as she’s down here.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Jake stood and offered bows to both women as Daisy left the guest house. He stood for another minute, waiting for her to go inside to the other house.
Annie didn’t waste the opportunity. “I’m demanding?”
“Well, Miss Birchfield, you have very high standards.” He bowed again. “And I…” He bowed again. “I do hope that I’ve made clear my feelings for you… Love.”
“Hmmm.” Annie sighed again, trying to sound bored. “I’m aware of your fondness for me. I’d prefer to see it in action, though.”
Jake flexed one eyebrow and knelt beside her. “Whatever you want. You need only ask.”
Annie stroked his jaw. She leaned close to his face. “Fetch my things and put them up in my room, please.”
Jake laughed and hopped to his feet. “At your wish and whim.” And he left her alone in the parlor.
Annie rocked her head back to stretch her neck. They were back on solid ground. The horses needed it. She needed it. For the first time in, what was it now? A month? Two? Annie felt safe. Her body ached, but she could work that out soon. Buffalo was in rough shape, but Cody had the means here to offer help. Dhabi and Ingrid were still not patched up, but maybe they just needed a little rest, too.
And Jake. He walked through the front door with a bundle of her things under each arm. He stopped for a second and winked at her, then bounded up the stairs. Jake loved her.