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“Get everything in order,” Dhabi barked as he marched through the hold of his vessel. “Before we are allowed to dock with the ferry, an inspector has to make a visual check of our cargo. He’ll want documents ready. He’ll want to see your animals. He’ll review our food and fuel inventories.”
“Should I hide Buffalo?” Annie asked, unsure if Dhabi was suggesting they needed to be upfront or secretive.
“No. Just put him on the berth in the cabin. And make sure he’s on the list. The inspectors are looking for anything not on the list. If it’s not here in writing,” Dhabi said, tapping on his hand-held, “it’s fair game for them to take.”
Cody nodded to his sister. “Make sure everything is on the list.”
Dhabi sighed and rolled his eyes. “No, make sure everything you want to keep is on the list. If you have anything that you can part with – anything at all – leave it out in plain sight and leave it off the list.”
“This is confusing, y’know?” Annie whined.
Cody scratched his chin and raised his brow. “No, I get it.” He faced Annie and squared his shoulders. “It’s like a bribe.”
Dhabi shook his head and waved his hands at his passengers. “Not a bribe! Don’t use that word at all. It’s a peace-offering. Incentive to help us on our way.”
Annie shrugged. “Okay. It’s not a bribe. But it sounds like a bribe.”
She spent the next half hour working frantically with Cody and Dhabi to get the hold precisely staged for inspection. As she centered a small plate filled with fruit they had carried back from The Quail on a crate near the door of the sleeping cabin, a chime sounded the inspector’s arrival.
Dhabi set his hand-held into the locked mode and opened the bay door. A slim red-headed woman in a dark green jumpsuit stood outside. She uncrossed her arms and threw her shoulders back as she strode aboard. Dhabi stepped forward and offered her the digital inventory. She nodded and scanned the hand-held with a stylus from her breast pocket.
“Any declarations?” she asked without flourish.
“I believe it’s all there,” Dhabi replied.
Annie noticed that he stood taller and held his chin level with the floor. He suddenly looked like a military officer. She almost laughed.
Dhabi held out his hand to the others. “I have two passengers, as noted, and their animals, also noted. We intend to take the ferry jump to Seventh Station, and then out to one of the colonies near there.” He gestured around the hold. “Please feel free to review the ship at your leisure. If you have any questions, please ask.”
The woman nodded again and began her tour. Annie watched as she started at the plate of fruit. Checked the inventory and then shot a look of disgust at Dhabi. “I am not one to accept bribes, Mr. Ramal. McKenzie is not run by corrupt Authority. It is a private facility. We take care of our residents here.”
“Of course,” he said.
Annie and Cody kept their distance as the inspector followed Dhabi up to the bridge and then back through the cargo area. She opened the door to the cabin and peered in, but didn’t go inside. She ended her evaluation at the horses.
“These are your animals?” she asked, directing her attention to Cody.
“They belong to my sister and me, yes.”
“And you will affirm they are healthy?” She shifted her eyes from Cody back to the horses.
“Yes, ma’am. They’re in prime condition,” he said.
The woman smiled. “You have had them checked recently?
Cody dipped his chin. “I’m a vet. A veterinarian. That’s what I do, ma’am.”
She raised her perfectly carved brow and turned to face Cody squarely. “A doctor?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said again. “For animals.”
Annie knew that the inspector was impressed. She watched her brother relax his stance as he took half a step closer to the woman. She had seen him charm dozens of girls with his “aw-shucks” grin and a glimmer in his eye.
“Would you like to meet the horses?” he asked.
She stiffened slightly. “That’s not necessary.” She turned her eyes back to the inventory. “I can see them just fine.”
Cody smiled. Annie knew he was in his element. “They won’t hurt you. Let me show you.” He held out his hand, and the inspector took a deep breath and then a step toward the horses.
Annie exchanged a quick glance with Dhabi as Cody, and the Inspector spent the next few minutes with Nero and the others. Annie edged quietly to Dhabi’s side.
“We’re all good,” she whispered to him. “Won’t take nuthin’ and she’ll be eating outa his hand. I seen it plenty before.”
“I hope you’re right.”
Cody walked the woman to the bay door again. “I believe Nero has taken a shine to you, Gwen.”
The woman smiled. “He’s such a big animal. I had no idea he would be so gentle.”
“Horses are very respectful animals,” Cody assured her.
“Like a southern gentleman?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Cody cocked his head to one side, and was about to spread a little more charm, but Gwen held up an index finger to stop him.
She touched her left ear and paused for a second. Annie and the others realized she was listening to an official announcement in her earpiece.
She shot them a distressed look. “I don’t know what your little band has done, but McKenzie security has just been served a request by Planet Authority to detain your ship and the crew for interrogation.”
Annie’s heart began to pound against her ribs and her stomach twisted with worry. “Oh, no. They’re gonna take them.”
Dhabi immediately took action and began to offer the inspector anything and everything.
“I’m sorry,” Gwen said, with a natural softness in her voice. “I’m obligated to hold you here. There’s nothing I can do.”
Cody took Gwen’s hand in his and led her back to Nero’s side. “The reason they want us is the horses. They want to slaughter our animals. There’s not a thing wrong with them, but they want to kill them anyway.”
She looked into the big black horse’s eyes. “The notice didn’t say anything about the horses.”
“No. It wouldn’t. Authority knows the value that Independents place on animals. They wouldn’t risk tipping their hand. They know your security teams would let us go if they did.”
Gwen released a shaky breath and shook her head. “I don’t know. I’ve not heard of anyone slaughtering horses.”
Annie raced into the cabin and grabbed the stasis tube and ran back to join the others. She held her dog up for Gwen to see. “He shot my dog – right in front of me.” Tears glistened in her eyes. “I’m telling you truly; my horses are next.”
Gwen looked into the tube at Buffalo’s sweet face and singed fur. “They did this?”
“Yes,” Annie whispered. “He was just trying to protect me, and the lawman shot him.” Annie hugged the tube and sniffed.
Gwen looked around the hold and shook her head. She looked down into Annie’s eyes, then back up to Cody. He matched the uncertain expression on her face with his own.
“Please,” he whispered.
Gwen drew a deep breath and focused her attention on her digital. She tapped away for a second and then barked at Dhabi. “Mr. Ramal, you are to report immediately to…” She studied the flight schedules. “Go to docking bay 94, Ferry 327. You’ll have to hurry, though. It has to be clear of the McKenzie space pad to make room for the Authority transport arriving within the hour.”
Cody seemed to melt with appreciation. Annie jumped in place and blew a kiss at the kind-hearted Inspector. “Thank you much, Miss Gwen. You’re saving all our lives.”
“You need to go now.” Gwen’s expression seemed to plead for them to hurry. “I’ve cleared you for docking, but if anyone intercepts you, there won’t be anything I can do.”
Cody nodded and walked the woman to the bay door. He took her hand, and then it appeared to Annie that he changed his mind and then kissed Gwen’s cheek. “We’re truly indebted.”
Gwen smiled as she left the ship. “Then get out of here and get away safely, so that you can pay me back someday.”
As the door sealed shut, Dhabi began yelling. “Get strapped in! If we don’t get docked in time, we’ve had it.”
He raced to the bridge, and his strained voice thundered through the speakers, over the engine roar. “My read-out shows Ferry 327 departing McKenzie in eighteen minutes. It’s going to take a full-fledged miracle.”
Annie began to pray, holding tightly to Buffalo. “Lord and Father, creator of this whole universe, please hear and help us in our time of most desperate need. We thank you for the kindness of Miss Gwen, and for the generosity of all the folks we’ve met on this journ…”
Suddenly her prayer was interrupted by a series of Dhabi’s most imaginative swears pulsing over the com. Annie was grateful when the ship’s engine finally drowned out his poetic profanities, and she could continue. “And Lord, please forgive Dhabi’s language. I’m sure he doesn’t mean it.” She paused. “But even if he does, Lord, please forgive him, b’cause we desperately need him right now, and it’d be awfully inconvenient if he got smited before we got clear. Amen.”
The small ship lurched, and Annie shot a worried glance to Cody.
“It’s going to be all right,” he assured her.
“I know.” She swallowed hard and closed her eyes.
They sat in relative silence for a few seconds as the vessel’s maneuvers steadied.
Dhabi’s voice emerged again. “Dr. Birchfield, join me on the bridge. Leave your sister in the hold. We may need her to keep the horses calm while we dock with the ferry.”
Cody released his harness and nodded to his sister as he hurried to the bridge door. “Stay sharp.”
“Yessir,” she said.
“I could do it myself under normal conditions, but we’re strapped for time.” Dhabi’s gaze danced around the cockpit, and his arms reached from one switch to another. “I’ll need an extra body to get our fuel off-loaded.”
“What do you mean?” Cody studied the digital panels that lined the front of the console in front of Dhabi.
“Before we can dock with the ferry, we have to transfer contents of our main fuel cell over to the dock cells. Call it a surcharge, whatever. It takes about seven minutes to empty ours.” Dhabi gestured to a read-out on his left. “This shows our fuel levels here.” The monitor glowed pale orange. “When that turns dark red, we’re empty and can dock with the ferry. You keep your eye on that and let me know as soon as it starts blinking. Blinking means we can go. You’ll have to throw that toggle below to close the valve while I start us back up.”
Cody stared at the orange light. His heart pounded in his chest. “It’s getting darker.”
“Not dark enough.”
Dhabi focused on the read-outs on his right side and typed furiously. “I have to get our manifest and itinerary sent to the ferry captain.”
“We have to be empty?” Cody didn’t move his attention away from the light as he asked.
“We keep our auxiliary cell. That’s enough for emergencies. It’s the Ferry System’s way of making sure we buy fuel when we reach our destination.”
“No ‘if’s,’ my friend. Ferry caps are not flexible human beings. Lots of rules. If our manifest or itinerary doesn’t match perfectly with what your red-headed beauty sent them – we don’t get a ride. If we aren’t fully docked when their schedule says to leave, we don’t ride. If they discover we held anything back in our fuel cell, they eject us during the warp jump.” Dhabi shook his head, but never looked up from his work.
“What would that do to us?”
“Flash of light, instant vaporization, that sort of thing.”
Cody swallowed hard and stared at the darkening orange glow. “Right.”
Dhabi finished his typing and watched his monitor for a few quiet seconds. He sighed as a message appeared on the screen ahead. “Good. We’re approved for docking as soon as the fuel cells are empty. We have two minutes before warp departure.”
Cody’s breath clipped short as the seconds ticked, almost audibly in his ear. “We’re not going to make it.”
“Still dark orange.” Cody’s finger touched the toggle switch, and he could feel his pulse throb in his fingertip.
“The second it turns red and blinks,” Dhabi said with a slight tremor in his voice.
“Come on,” Cody whispered to himself.
A bold yellow message flashed on Dhabi’s monitor. “They’ve sent the docking code. As soon as we’re empty…”
Cody willed the light to turn red. He refused to let his eyes shift away or close for even a split second. The light darkened a little more. And then more. And then it began blinking.
“Red and blinking,” Cody yelled as he flipped the toggle.
“Fifty seconds to departure,” Dhabi barked. “Get back to your seat.”
“I’m staying up here.”
“Then grab a strap and hold on to your head.” Dhabi worked frantically to get the ship moving and positioned alongside the ferry. “Entering docking code.” His fingers moved over the keypad in a fevered rush. “Shutting down the main engine in three… two… one.”
The sound of the ship’s engine powering down pulled at Cody’s heart as the roar turned to a low hum. He knew they were completely vulnerable.
An alert flashed across Dhabi’s monitor, accompanied by a loud beeping tone. Cody’s blood pressure raced as he read the message.
PLANET AUTHORITY WARNING… ALL FERRIES GROUNDED FOR INSPECTION UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE…PLANET AUTHORITY WARNING.
“We’re sunk.” Dhabi leaned forward in his chair. “No way is this ferry cap going to defy Authority.”
Cody exhaled and slumped his shoulders. The bridge lights all flashed in unison, and everything shook and pulled at once. Before he knew what was happening, Cody found himself on the floor, his hands clutching instinctively at anything stable. “What’s happening?”
“He did it!” Dhabi yelled with a whoop. “We’re off. Get back to your feet and look at this!”
Cody reached up to grab Dhabi’s arm and then steadied himself on the back of the captain’s chair. He stared at the digital read-outs in wonder. He pointed to a white point of light moving smoothly across a grid. “What is that?”
Dhabi smiled and tapped at a blue light in the far corner of the grid. “The blue one is McKenzie Station, my friend. The white one is us. We’re away.”
A wave of cool relief swept through Cody’s bones, and he discovered that he could finally breathe again. “I guess my sister and I are in a pretty good heap of trouble.”
Dhabi stood at his side and laughed. He slapped Cody’s shoulder. “I guess we all are.”