Episode 1: I’ll Fly Away (In case you haven’t read this one yet.)
“That’s why I was checking the engines,” Dhabi yelled.
Cody shook his fingers in the captain’s face. “You were on your way into space. If we hadn’t arrived when we did, you’d have been long gone with all our money.”
Annie stepped between the two men, closed her eyes, and shook her head. “Just stop arguing now. What’s done is done, Cody. We did arrive in time. We’re safe on board. If you two keep up the squabbling, the horses will get upset.”
The men took a step back from her. They both drew a breath of calm. Annie gave them a sharp glare. “Cody, I shouldn’t have to remind you of what a mess a distraught horse can make.”
Dhabi’s face showed a worried frown. “This may be too much for my little ship to take. I’m not sure I shouldn’t hand you back over to the law.”
“This is what I’m worried about, Annie,” Cody said. “He can’t be trusted. I gave him every bit of our savings. Every dime. I told him what we were doing. I told him we had to get off planet to save our animals. He’s just looking for an excuse to dump us and pick up a reward.”
“Reward?” Dhabi asked.
Annie watched as Cody’s face flushed red. “See!?”her brother yelled.
She held up her index finger to her brother, something she’d seen her daddy do on many occasions. “Ten seconds of silence.” She whirled around to face Dhabi and swallowed hard, hoping to sound reasonable.
“We’re not really criminals,” she began. “I’m sure there ain’t any reward for us at all. We are simply moving our animals off-planet to save their lives. Authorities want to seize ’em and have ‘em slaughtered.”
Dhabi tried to stare her down, but couldn’t help but blink in the chill of her icy blue gaze. “I’m a law-abiding citizen. I just want to do what’s right.”
Annie allowed her full pink lips to curl until Dhabi looked away. “Our animals are our responsibility. We just want to take care of them the best we can. It’s the same thing the government did with the cattle years ago.”
“They were protecting us from the Mad Cow outbreak,” the captain complained.
“My dad’s cows weren’t sick at all,” Annie continued in low tones. “But Authority took ‘em and slaughtered them anyway. Said they would genetically engineer the cattle to be disease-resistant. Look what happened after that. No cows. They all went the way of the lions, giraffes, and bears. Like the dinosaurs. All extinct now.”
“You don’t know anything about that.” Dhabi scoffed at her. “What? You might be sixteen years old?”
“I’m seventeen,” she said, as if the extra twelve months made any difference. “But I listened to my parents and my grandparents. They told me what happened. Earth wasn’t always as it is now. People used to live useful lives into their seventies and eighties. My grandma said that her grandmother lived to be a hundred and six.”
“That’s not true.” Dhabi shook his head.
“It is. I know that’s not what you hear on the digital, but the digital only says what the government wants you to know.” Annie reached out and gently took the man’s arm, vaguely aware that by touching Dhabi, she was stoking her brother’s ire. “I’m trying to save my horses.”
Dhabi pulled his arm out of her reach. “You’re being selfish. Do you know how many people four horses could feed? Maybe the government is trying to take care of the people. Have you ever thought of that?”
Cody shook his head and rejoined the conversation, this time with a controlled temper. “I’m an animal doctor. I happen to know that the government has cloned enough sheep to feed everyone in the world for decades.” He suddenly stopped. Annie realized he was waiting for his emotions to subside. “The reason so many people are starving is because that’s how the Authorities can keep the population in check. I have personally seen the documents. Too many poor? Let them starve; problem solved.”
Annie led Dhabi to the horses. She gestured to her quarter horse. “This is Jefferson. He’s the one that was registered. He’s the author of this little adventure.”
Dhabi looked into the huge dark eyes of the slim brown horse. “You named him?”
“Of course we named him,” she chirped. “We name all our animals.”
Dhabi blinked and chewed on his lip. “You’re not supposed to, you know?”
“And in a few years the government will pass a law that you aren’t supposed to name your children, because you’ll get too attached to them.” Annie raised her brow. “It’s crazy. Just one more way for them to control us.”
Cody rubbed the nose of the painted pony next to Jefferson. “This is Stubbs. He’s named after George Stubbs, a famous horse painter from the nineteenth century.”
Annie watched the disbelief settle into Dhabi’s expression. She couldn’t tell if he felt admiration for their bold rebellion against the “rules” or a sense of complete betrayal and confusion about what he should do with them. She just smiled and stepped in between the other two horses. She stroked the mane of the largest horse – a black one with a white star on his forehead. “This one is Cody’s. His name is Nero, and what an emperor he is. This is the kind of horse that would have won prizes in the old days.”
“Well,” Dhabi began as he looked the creature over, “These days a beast like this could feed a large family for a month.”
Annie shot a harsh glare at the man. “You’re the beast.” She patted Nero’s neck and turned to face the smallest horse. “This little buckskin is Liza Jane. I shouldn’t even introduce you to her. She’s very sensitive, and you’ll just hurt her feelings.”
But as she spoke, Annie noticed something change in Dhabi’s appearance. A softness filled his eyes, and his shoulders dropped and rounded. He took a step toward the horse and raised his hand to her nose.
“Liza Jane?” he whispered. “That’s something.” Dhabi blinked rapidly, as if he had dust in his eye that he was trying to remove discreetly.
“What is it?” Cody asked. He had seen the difference, too.
“Nothing, really… just odd.”
“What’s odd?” Annie asked. She could see that Liza Jane liked Dhabi.
“When I was young, my family lived in an apartment. The little girl across the hall from me was named Liza Jane.” He stared into the horse’s big black eyes. “We were friends. I remember how she used to draw pictures of horses – hundreds of them – for hours and hours. She used to say that one day she would have a whole stable of horses.”
Annie took a step into his bubble of memories. “What happened to your Liza Jane?”
“Gone.” Dhabi sighed with a sorrowful breath. “She caught the cough, like so many kids do. She went to hospital and never came home. Her mother gave me one of her drawings to help me remember her.”
Annie smiled with shimmering eyes. “Do you still have the picture?”
Suddenly Dhabi snapped back to the present and dropped his hand back to his side. He whirled away from the horses and hurried back to the bridge door. “Of course not,” he barked. “I have responsibilities instead.” He disappeared down the hall.
Annie and Cody shrugged and tended to their horses in silence. After another minute, Dhabi’s voice filtered through the com. “Dr. Birchfield, join me, please.”
“Why don’t you come with me?” Cody asked.
“Do you think Dhabi will mind?”
“What’s he going to do? He’s already planning to turn us over to the law.”
Annie kissed Liza Jane on the forehead. “Do you think so?”
Cody nodded, opening the door for his little sister. “He’s probably scanning all the digitals for information about us. Seeing who might offer him the best deal for our heads.”
They marched down the hall to the small cockpit, and Dhabi waved them in. “Good, you’re both here.”
“What’s wrong?” Cody asked. Annie noticed her brother skimming over the instrument panel for indications of trouble.
“Everything.” Dhabi gestured for Cody to sit in the co-pilot’s seat. “If we try to dock at First Station, we’ll all be arrested immediately and all of our cargo will be confiscated. It seems Authority believes I was the initiator of this flight.”
“What are our options?” Cody asked. “I don’t want you to suffer for our problems.”
Annie’s anger surged. Why was Cody trying to be nice to this guy? Just an hour ago he was ready to strangle him for taking their money and running. They couldn’t trust him, could they?
Dhabi brought up a map display with stations labeled with numbered codes. “The only neutral station I can get to without refueling is the Mackenzie.”
“Mackenzie is neutral now?” Cody asked, rubbing the back of his neck.
“As of last month,” Dhabi responded. He nodded and clicked his tongue. “When the sin taxes doubled, Mackenzie declared itself independent. We can refuel and grab a ferry from there. I can take you one jump, and from the next port you can find other means of transportation, or whatever.”
“I don’t want to go to a sin station,” Annie griped. She’d heard from friends with siblings in the military about what went on at sin stations. “Our parents would have a fit.”
Cody shook his head. “Annie, we don’t have a choice. If we go to First, our trip ends right now. If we go on a little further, we have a chance to save our animals.”
“How do we know he won’t just turn us in?” she asked.
Before Cody had a chance to reply, Dhabi nodded and began. “You don’t know that. I could just call Authority and have them waiting for us wherever we dock. I can do that anyway. But even if I tried to cut a deal ahead of time, I have no way of knowing if they will honor it. I’m not ignorant.”
Cody raised his brows, as if he was pleading with Annie for trust.
She relented. “Okay, but how are folks on the stations? Are they any better than the law?”
Dhabi rolled his eyes. “For what you’re wanting, yes. Most of the people on the stations are looking for fast money and a way to subvert the law. They will take either-or, but if they can do both, all the better.”
Cody reached for Annie’s elbow. “We’ll make the best of the situation. Once we can ferry to an outer colony, I can get a job, and we won’t have to worry about Authority.”
Dhabi chuckled and rolled his eyes.
“What’s funny?” Annie asked. She propped her hands on her hips and glared into the captain’s eyes.
“My mother used to say to me, ‘A man who has nothing should never complain of the scraps he is thrown.’” He sighed when they didn’t respond. “You are frightened to go to a place filled with people just like you. What did you think leaving earth would be like? Everyone out here is running from something, too.”
Annie wanted to spit out some clever reply, but as her brain searched for words, she realized that Dhabi was right. She knew she should apologize, but her pride wouldn’t allow it. “Why don’t y’all work it all out and I’ll go back to the animals. I need to sit and rest a bit.”
Cody nodded. “Go on, and I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
Annie left the cockpit and wandered back down the hall to the hold. The horses all rested quietly. She picked up the stasis tube and rocked it in her arms. She looked down through the window in the side at her puppy. “Buffalo ,” she whispered. “I need you to get well and wake up.”
She sat on the floor of the hold and stared at the dog. Minutes passed in silence as she daydreamed about the long afternoons she had spent teaching her beloved pup a dozen tricks. Buffalo could not only ride on her bike, but he loved to ride on the horses’ backs, too. She’d taught him to do flips and even sit up in the saddle as Stubbs did a few tricks of his own.
She didn’t need tricks now, she just needed a wet nose burrowing into her neck. She just wanted to see his whip of a tail wagging back and forth. She prayed for him to breathe on his own again.
“Get along, little doggie, get along, get along,” she sang softly to Buffalo. “The whipper-wells a-singing her even-tide song. It’s time for the doggies to find their corral, for the weary ol’ rider t’find the arms of his gal.”
Cody cleared his throat behind her, and Annie straightened her back and wiped the tears from her cheeks. She placed the tube with her things and stood to face the men. “Plans all made, then?” she asked.
Dhabi smiled and reached out toward Annie. “That was really quite beautiful. Your voice, I mean.”
Cody grinned at his captain. “Our mother taught her a whole lot of songs. But that sort of thing is frowned upon.”
Dhabi shook his head. “Maybe on Earth, but not out here. Out here people are hungry for music… the real kind with words and voices. Not the digitally generated, mathematically correct sequences approved by Authority for mental stimulation. You were singing.”
Cody shook his head. His eyes displayed obvious concern. “Look, she’s just a kid. She was singing to her dog. Don’t make a big deal out of it. It wasn’t some subversive act or anything.”
“Yes it was,” Dhabi replied. “It was completely subversive – and perfect.”
Annie lowered her chin and let her arms fall limp at her side. On Earth she could be charged for an unapproved performance. She looked up and shrugged.
Dhabi stared at Cody. “Haven’t you been off-planet before?”
“I’ve been to First Station several times.”
Dhabi scoffed. “That hardly counts.” He laughed and gestured to Annie. “You were made for this, little girl. You two could be set for life.”
“What’re you talking about?” Annie asked.
“Your brother and I have just spent the last half hour trying to figure out how to make enough money for a ferry jump. My dear, you have just rendered that whole conversation moot.” Dhabi walked a tight circle around Annie, studying every inch of her. “What kind of clothes do you have? Is a dress too much to ask?”
Annie looked wounded. “I got a dress. I go to church.”
Dhabi laughed. “Of course you go to church. Every Sunday, I’ll wager. And during the week you raise horses, sing, and shoot lawmen. What a perfect little Christian you are.”
Annie’s face flushed red with indignation. “It says in the Good Book we are to lift our voices and make a joyful noise unto the Lord. Also says we’re to be faithful stewards of the abundant blessings He has bestowed.”
Dhabi let out a huge belly-laugh. “I love it. I absolutely love it.”
Cody caught Dhabi’s arm and growled. “Now you can stop right now. If you say another word… if you mock my sister again…”
“Mock? I’m not mocking her, Dr. Birchfield. I adore her. When we reach McKenzie, I can make a few calls and if she’s willing to sing, you will have all the money you’ll need for a ferry. You have no idea what people will pay for this. For her.”
Annie shook her head and pushed her thumbs into her front pockets. “I don’t sing in front of people.” Just the idea of allowing people to watch her sing made her stomach turn.
Dhabi turned to Cody and ignored Annie’s refusal. “I’ve been going off-planet for twenty years, since I was ten. I’m telling you plainly, this is what outpost residents want. They love people who snub the law. They are all about making cash in the most devious ways. But what they long for – what they can’t get enough of – is real entertainment. A dozen years ago I made a small fortune playing my sitar. That’s how I bought my ship. I still play on occasion, when I need some extra money.”
Annie focused on her brother. She saw that Cody listened carefully, glancing at her every time Dhabi took a breath.
The captain continued. “I can play a little. I know a few songs. But man, she can sing. That’s priceless out here, do you understand?”
Annie crossed her arms and stood solid. “I don’t…”
Cody stopped her. “Annie, let’s hear him out. We’re in a tight spot.”
“There must be another way,” she insisted.
Dhabi raised his eyebrows and gestured to Cody.
Cody sighed and placed his hands on Annie’s shoulders. “We were talking, trying to figure out a way to pay for the next leg. Dhabi knows a few people that are willing to pay top dollar for a horse.”
“Not to eat, Annie. They can resell it to colony folk and still make good money. I told him we could sell Nero.”
“No, Cody. We are not going to sell a horse. There has to be another…”
“What then?” her brother asked. “One of the guns? Momma’s jewelry?”
Annie started to nod, but then couldn’t bear the thought of parting with any of their parent’s things. “What about my bike?”
Dhabi shook his head from the doorway. “Motorcycles are plentiful. Nice ones – not old junkers like yours.”
Annie ignored his comment and stared into Cody’s eyes. “I can’t sing for people. I never have.”
“You never shot anyone before. You’ve never been on the lam before. You’ve never traveled into space, either. Maybe this is just your day for firsts.” Cody wrapped his strong arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. “I know this is too much for you,” he whispered.
She pushed him away. “It’s not too much. I can handle…” She realized that she’d just given both men exactly what they wanted. “Shoot!” She frowned and kicked at an imaginary rock on the floor. “Fine. I’ll sing. Y’all make me sick, ya know.”
Dhabi clapped his hands. “I have a few people to contact. Get your dress ready, and decide on a dozen songs or so. You can change in the room through that door over there.” He pointed to a door just beyond where the horses slept. “Fix your hair, too.”
The captain almost skipped as he retreated to his bridge.
Cody smiled, and Annie had the urge to knock him over for it. “How many years did you and Momma and Daddy tell me never to sing in front of others. Now you’re practically begging me to do it.”
“I am begging,” Cody answered. “You’re a wonderful singer. And this could help us out of our little predicament.”
“The predicament that I caused in the first place,” she muttered. “You know I can’t let you sell Nero. I’d do anything for our animals.”
“You’ve already done so much. Given up your home and your friends.”
Annie laughed. “You are the one with friends, remember. These are my friends,” she said, gesturing to the horses. “Only ones in the world who love me. ‘Cept you.”
“I do love you, sis. I won’t let anyone hurt you.” He kissed her forehead. “Now get out your party dress and shine your boots up nice.”
“I’ll wear my red boots. They’re already shined.”
Cody looked at the stack of their possessions against the wall. “How many pair of boots did you bring?”
“Counting the ones I’m wearing?” She knew that any number above two would receive a look of disappointment, but at this moment, she didn’t care. She was about to be the hero, and heroes could have as many boots as they wanted. “Five.”
“Annie, you’re ridiculous,” he said, shaking his head. “While you’re dressing, be thinking about what songs you want to sing.”
She poked her brother in the arm as she passed him. She’d pulled out her black polka-dot party dress and her red boots, along with the bundle of toiletries and Momma’s old songbook. “I’ll be ready shortly,” she sang. “For the skinny and the portly.”
A light flickered on in the little cabin as Annie walked in. She looked around the room and closed the door. About half the size of her bedroom back home, this compartment included stacked berths on the short wall, a desk and chair opposite that, and an arched opening straight ahead leading to a miniature bathroom. As she stepped through the portal, a narrow light snapped on overhead. To her right was a toilet within a shower stall and to her left was a hanging rod for clothes. A tilt-out sink with a mirror above it separated the wet and dry areas.
Annie arranged her dress on the single hanger on the rod, and placed her other things on the lower berth in the main room. She undressed quickly and took a fast shower, not lingering long enough for the water to warm. Before she realized that she had no towel, a surge of hot air shot out from all around her. “That’s neat,” she said, trying to calm herself.
She dressed quickly and brushed out her curls. She pulled a red ribbon from her dress pocket and wrapped it around her head, tying a tidy bow just above her ear. She pinched her cheeks until they turned a rosy pink, and dabbed at her lips with Momma’s pink rouge. Lastly, she found her gold locket in her toiletry bag and hooked the chain behind her neck. She smoothed her thumb over the front of the pendant. The worn gold sparkled with the tiny diamond chip set in a starburst design. She popped the latch on the side and smiled at the photo of the red horse within. “Ranger,” she whispered.
She turned at the knock on her door. “Almost ready to dock,” Cody’s voice said.
“Be right out,” she called back.
She gathered her belongings and checked the mirror again. “I’d rather have a tooth pulled than sing for folks,” she said. “Momma, I’ll just sing like you’re singing with me, okay?” As soon as she said the words, she realized how much she resembled her mother. She turned away from the mirror and headed back to the cabin door. “Wish you were here, Momma. You, too, Daddy.”
She stepped out into the hold, and the cabin lights went out behind her. “All ready,” she said with a tremor in her voice. She handed the songbook to her brother. “Why don’t you pick out the songs for me?”
Cody nodded. “Dhabi says that his friends are all ready for you.”
Dhabi joined them. “We’ll be docking in twenty minutes. We will have time to eat and then you’ll perform. They have a very nice venue. Upscale. You will make a fortune.”
“Exactly how will we get paid?” Cody asked. “What price?”
Annie tried to listen, but her nerves took over as the men discussed how difficult it was to book a show with such short notice, and how the attendees would decide what Annie’s singing was worth. She heard Dhabi mention percentages, and then her ears stopped working altogether.
She put away her dirty clothes and went to sit in the jump seat on the wall. She picked up Buffalo again and began to hum. She noticed that Dhabi had gone back to his bridge and that Cody was pulling on the straps of her seat belt.
“We’re about to dock,” he said.
She nodded and fastened herself in the seat. She held tightly to Buffalo as the ship picked up a shudder. A sudden pull at Annie’s stomach told her they were nearly there. She forced herself to swallow several times to keep the bile from creeping up her throat. She wasn’t sure if she was nauseous from the landing or from the thought of singing. Either way, she was pretty sure she was going to throw up.
Cody patted her hands. “It’s okay, Annie. You’ll do great.”
After another ten minutes, Dhabi joined them in the hold. “Why don’t you put your things into the cabin, so we can lock them away?” he suggested. “If I could hide your horses, I would, but we’ll just have to take our chances with them.”
“What do you mean?” Annie whined. “I’m not singing for fun. I’m singing so that we don’t lose any of our horses. I’m not leaving them if there is a chance they’ll be taken.”
Cody held up his hand to check her threats. “Hang on, Annie.” He faced the captain. “Are you saying that someone could break in and steal our animals?”
Dhabi shook his head. “No, the chances of that would be minimal. But there are inspectors at every outpost.”
“You assured us that McKenzie would be safe for us,” Cody said.
“It will. My friend is sending over one of his security men to watch my ship.”
Annie took a deep breath and pushed her jaw out, hoping to look tough, forgetting that she wore a satin ribbon in her hair. “If your friend is so trustworthy, what’s the problem?”
“My friend is probably the most trustworthy person on McKenzie. But that doesn’t mean I trust him completely.” Dhabi shrugged.
Cody nodded. “You mean that when he says things like, ‘we’ll leave at dawn,’ he might be intending to leave right after midnight?”
Dhabi looked down and mumbled. “Something like that. What choice do we have but to trust him?”
Annie watched her brother weigh the options. With that serious expression on his face, he looked just like Daddy. She wished.
“Why don’t I stay with the ship?” he asked.
“No,” Annie said flatly. “I’m not getting off without you.”
Cody pulled her a step away from Dhabi, as if they could somehow speak privately. “Listen, you have to go, Annie. If you don’t sing tonight, this is all for nothing. Dhabi has to go; he’s the one who set it all up. I’m the third wheel. You go, and do us all proud. I need to stay with our family. I need to check their vitals and give them a little exercise. And if you promise to go, I’ll clean up after the horses for as long as we’re on this ship. Promise.”
Annie frowned. “How can I sing without you there?” she asked.
“Honestly, you’ll probably sing best if you pretend nobody is there.”
Dhabi grimaced. “I’m not sure I trust you on my ship alone. No offense.”
Annie took a deep breath. If Dhabi didn’t want Cody to stay on board, then she suddenly did. She turned back to face the captain. “I’ll only sing if you let my brother stay.”
He gritted his teeth and shot a cold stare at Cody and then Annie. “I have to make the arrangements for our dinner. Be ready to go in five minutes, Miss Birchfield.”
Cody and Annie exchanged satisfied looks as Dhabi left them. “I don’t know if I trust him at all,” Cody whispered.
“I don’t, either,” Annie replied. “D’ya think I should carry a little somethin’ for my protection?”
“Probably a good idea,” he said. “Still in Daddy’s box?”
She shook her head and pulled her pearl-handled .22 from the custom pocket on the inside of her left boot. “I wouldn’t feel right leaving Tillie behind.”
Cody and Annie moved their belongings into the cabin, stowing most of it under the lower berth and the table. Annie placed the tube holding Buffalo onto the bed. “Don’t let anything happen to him, okay?”
Cody nodded. Annie noticed that he avoided making eye contact. She knew that he held very little hope of reviving the pup. She took a deep breath and ignored the whole idea. She needed Buffalo, so there was nothing more to think about. Annie changed the subject, and asked what songs Cody suggested. She listened to his list, but wasn’t sure if she really heard them.
They returned to the hold at the same time as Dhabi. He was dressed in black from chin to toe, with the exception of a red silk square peeking out from his breast pocket. His shiny black hair was now combed neatly, and Annie detected a hint of patchouli on his clothes.
“Don’t look so surprised,” he said. “I know how to dress for the occasion.”
Annie realized that her mouth was agape, and closed it so quickly that her teeth clapped. “You look very handsome,” she said.
“I am your manager from here out. If anyone asks you any questions, direct them to me. I will take care of everything. Do you understand?”
Cody shook his head. “That’s not…”
Dhabi held out his hands, palms up. “I’m telling you this for her protection. She’s young and beautiful. If the wrong person decides that she’s unattached, they may try to take her for themselves.”
“But, I’m not attached to you,” Annie said.
“I understand this. It’s all for appearances. Understand that I’m sacrificing a lot with this arrangement, too. I mean, no woman will be approaching me as long as I have you at my side.”
Annie almost coughed. She smiled. “Got it.” She stood on her tip-toes to kiss her brother’s cheek. “We’ll bring you back some dinner.”
“Do you know what songs you’re gonna sing?” Cody asked.
“Then we should go. Barabbas is expecting us.” Dhabi pulled a long black case from a small storage compartment near the bay door.
“What is that?” Annie asked.
“It’s my sitar. Just in case you need some back-up,” he explained.
“And how will you know any of the songs I’m gonna sing?” she asked, taking hold of the elbow Dhabi offered. They walked off the ship, Annie’s boots noisily clicking down the gangway. She looked over her shoulder at her smiling brother as the bay door closed.
“I’m very good at improvising, my dear Miss Birchfield.”
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