Fractured Orbits Chapter 9
Fractured Orbits is book one in the Encoded Orbits Trilogy, It’s being released as a serial with chapters coming out on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This is the second to last free chapter.
Although no fighting occurred in this part of the city, a thick layer of dust and grime coated everything. Beneath, the cheap materials and decades of decay were a far cry from the luxury a few streets over. Even in its heyday, this area of Candy Cane Lane had been rough.
A vehicle passed and kicked up billows of dust in its wake. Hwicce wrapped his scarf over his face to keep from breathing in the fine particles. It didn’t work, and he coughed.
Baker glanced over her shoulder at him, her expression unreadable. “The sooner we’re off this fucking world, the better.”
“Yeah.” He coughed again.
Even out of uniform, the two of them made an intimidating pair. Both stood taller than most of the crowd; that combined with abundant army food and regular exercise meant they moved with physicality the locals couldn’t match. Baker’s glare cleared them a path through the surging crowds. For the first time, Hwicce followed his former subordinate as she marched towards the base of the space elevator.
As they got closer, more people lurked crammed into every doorway and alley. Blank stares met him wherever he looked. A shiver ran up his back. He didn’t feel threatened, just uncomfortable and even guilty. He had the means to get off-world, while the surrounding crowds did not.
Small clusters of private security people lingered in the street starting about fifty metres out from the elevator. On the other side of them, the street was clear of anyone who didn’t look like they had the means to buy a ticket. Keeping his chin up, he followed Baker right past security.
Baker stopped a pace away from the ticket kiosk. Turning to him, she raised an eyebrow. There wasn’t a line—probably because the cost of a one-way ride had inflated to three times the price it had been two days ago.
“Right. Wait here, and I’ll get us tickets.” He stepped forward to the window.
Only after buying tickets did he think about his credits. His brow wrinkled as he did a quick calculation in his head. The two tickets had cost way more than he’d expected—he’d just spent most of what he had. And there was no guarantee of finding a ride off the spaceport above.
Ignoring his dry mouth, he tilted his head back and stared up. A speck of glittering metal marked the elevator car making its descent. He licked his lips and vowed to continue on. He would get back to Veena and Molly even if he had to stow away on a manure ship.
At his side, Baker cleared her throat. “We’ve got a half-hour, and I’m bloody famished.” She jerked her head towards a food cart a few metres away. Bold lime green letters on a black background advertised fresh, spicy cricket tacos.
“Go grab something to eat. I wouldn’t want you to faint like some sort of delicate civi princess.” Hwicce leaned against the wall next to the ticket kiosk.
“Princess my ass.” Baker snorted and walked off. She shouted back from the line, “Hey, sir, you hungry?”
“No, thanks.” He was hungry, but he’d have to ration what he spent his credits on. Pulling out his personal datapad, he logged into his bank account. Just as he brought it up, a red bar appeared and cut him off. They had shut his link access down. “What the...” He turned the machine off, then back on again.
“What’s up, sir?” Baker leaned against the wall beside him, holding a carton with three tacos in it. Pungent scents of hot pepper, cumin, and something burnt wafted his way.
“I’m cut off.” He rebooted the machine. It still wouldn’t connect to the link. The army had moved faster than he’d expected—his account on the army system had been shut down, meaning he’d have to sign up with a civi link company—none of which were currently operating in the area. “Boot up your datapad and see if you can access the link.”
Baker chuckled. “Grunts like me don’t own tech shit like that.” She began stuffing the first cricket taco into her mouth. Pieces of antenna and legs fell like crumbs with each bite.
“How many credits do you have access to?”
She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, smudging the red sauce across her dark skin. “I dunno, maybe enough for a fun night out.”
A knot formed in his gut. He ran a hand over his face, ignoring all the grit. “Well...crap.”
“We doomed?” Baker started in on her next taco. “Sir.”
“We’ll figure it out.”
“Just so you’re clear, you’re the brains of this operation.”
“I’ll figure it out then.” Hwicce sighed and mentally chastised himself for being so hasty in leaving the army. He ran a hand down his beard. If only he’d waited a day and gotten a message out to Veena.
“Good. I’ve got your back.” Baker shoved her final taco into her mouth.
He stared up at the descending space elevator again. In the bright light, the carriage shone all fresh and pretty as if it had been exempt from the carnage that occurred on the ground. The orange logo of the private consortium who operated the spaceport was now visible—the same logo as on the shoulders of the security on the ground.
Hwicce did some mental calculations. With what he had on hand, he could feed the two of them for a day, maybe two—but he couldn’t justify spending credits on link access, assuming it was even available on the spaceport. He wouldn’t be able to message Veena. What would she think when she found out he’d vanished without a word? The knot in his gut tightened.
“What’s up, boss?” Baker said, tilting her chin up to follow his gaze.
“The spaceport is as far as our credits will take us.” He swallowed. “We don’t have enough to book passage out of here.”
She nodded, then fell silent for a moment. “Sir, where in the Alpha System are we headed?” Her dark eyes bored into him. “My family back on New Haven are all gone. I have a brother, but...” Her words trailed off.
She had followed him out of a secure job away from the world she knew, but there was no clear destination for her. She didn’t have a family to get to. All that was left was the bombed-out remnants of the world she grew up on. Why did she rush to follow him? She loved army life, even loved combat—yet she’d left that all behind on a moment’s notice.
The responsibility of having Baker with him weighed heavily; she was like another little sister. But it wasn’t too late to send her back.
“I’m sure they haven’t finished filing your paperwork. You could go back and continue being a soldier.”
“I’m fucking with you, sir—to the end.”
He swallowed, reminding himself she’d made her own choice. “Veena and Molly are on Rock 13-A5—a hollowed-out rock in the asteroid belt. But we won’t get access there, so Jupiter Station seems our best bet.”
“So, how are we gonna get there?”
“Right…” Hwicce let his voice trail off. Veena was good at planning; he wished he could talk to her. She’d come up with a solution that would get them back together sooner rather than later.
“Hey, Space Case.” Baker jabbed him in the ribs. “What’s the plan?”
“We’re going to have to get jobs.”
The elevator’s brakes squealed, slowing it to a gentle stop at the ground station.
“Soldiering is the only skill I have.” She shoved the last of her third taco into her mouth.
“Yeah, me too.” He looked up. The spaceport was just visible—just a tiny speck in the yellow sky. “I’m sure there’s a ship up there in need of a couple deckhands,” he said, not wanting to tell Baker about his backup plan to stow away.
“Deckhand...” She wiped her mouth with the back of her hands. “Sure, I could do that. But you’re gonna have to brief me on what deckhands do.”
Hwicce titled his head slightly and focused on Baker as she licked the last of the taco sauce off her fingers.
“Why d’you follow me?”
Baker shrugged. “I’m just curious what you might do.”
“Because...” Her words trailed off, and wrinkles formed across her forehead. “I like soldering a lot...too much. Without you making sure I don’t get carried away, I could do something truly terrible. Something that would make me into a monster. It was time for me to get out.”
Hwicce opened his mouth to respond, then closed it. His assumption that she was happy being a career grunt now seemed off the mark. Baker was turning out to be way more complicated than he expected, and she’d given him no hint this was how she felt. But now wasn’t the time to interrogate her further on her motives.
“Well... I’m glad you’re with me.”
“You are fucking lucky to have me,” she said with a grin.
The gate to the elevator opened. It was time to board.
To be continued…
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