“I’d heard rumors you’d been released, but I didn’t believe it.”
Serendipity Tahoma gripped the curved aluminum railing running the length of the airship’s lounge. Guess her five minutes of alone time were up. Too bad Minos Charon was the one to intrude on her solitude. Of all the passengers, she’d been determined not to be seen by the horrid gossip. “I was at home, in Dark Hope, not in a holding cell.”
“There was a time you thought they were the same thing.” Minos leaned against the bank of windows embedded in the hull. Cool air combed through his wavy dark hair and crammed the woodsy scent of his cologne into the thirty-foot space.
Good Lord, the man wore enough for three people. Rubbing her nose, she inched closer to the exit. She had to get out of here. Now. Minos never traveled far without a fawning entourage.
Sensors flashed green, red, and white lights at timed intervals below the dirigible and bathed the interior.
But if she left in too much of a hurry, he might blab. Only a handful of people knew of her presence on board. She had to find a means to keep it that way. Which meant no retreating. At least not yet.
“How do you know what I thought? We’ve never been friends.” Although they’d been in the same classes in high school, she’d been five years younger——his to torment for the amusement of his friends. Her hands balled at her sides. A few well-placed hits should incapacitate him, give her time to bundle him into a hiding spot——like the broken latrine near the crew quarters.
All in the line of duty.
Not revenge. Her family was above such things. No matter how much she would enjoy it. Alas, that wouldn’t work. The jerk was bound to be missed.
Like partners in a dance, Minos followed her, brushed his arm against hers and smiled. Dimples cut into his tanned cheeks and laugh lines crinkled the skin around his brown eyes. “I recognize a fellow rebel when I see one. I just didn’t think it would take you twenty years to act.”
It hadn’t taken that long. Not that he needed to know that. Not that anyone needed to know of her adventures. Her heritage demanded appearances must be maintained. Darn it. And speaking of appearances.
“Well, it’s been fun catching up. But I should finish dressing for dinner.” She threaded her hand through her worn denim strap of the backpack on the nearest seat. The soft fabric contrasted to the stiff climbing harness it was grafted upon and lifted the bag. Her collection of carabiners clinked together. Packets of dried food rasped against each other. Water sloshed inside the bottle tucked in the ripped netting pocket on the side and wadded up clothes cushioned the backpack’s impact against her back.
“You’re not fooling me, Sera.”
She raised her chin. Her heart raced and sweat slicked her palms. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“No one knows you’re here. You’ve stowed away.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” The very idea. Natives of Dark Hope obeyed the governing by-laws. They had evolved.
Disorder, greed and privation were the hallmarks of Outlanders.
Never her people.
“Trust me, if if was public knowledge that you’d been allowed to leave the city, everyone on board the ship would be talking about it.” He jerked his head toward the bag in her hands. “If you want to keep up the pretense, I suggest you ditch that ratty pack. It’s hardly fitting for one of Dark Hope’s royalty.”
She hugged the bag against her chest. “It was a gift.”
And her most prized possession. Shifting slightly, she cradled the bag under her arm.
“Right. Who would give the great-great-great-granddaughter of Dark Hope’s founders something that should have been recycled a decade ago?”
“Someone with nothing else to give.” She fingered the large black stitches holding the red, green and blue patches over the areas where the denim was nearly worn to white threads. Someone who, having crossed the hostile Outlands and made it to the safety of the Burbs, never planned to leave again.
Minos snorted. “In Dark Hope? Not likely.”
Sera shrugged. No one wanted for anything once they arrived and registered in the outskirts of the city, but those born outside the world-wide consortium of mines and caves were a different story. A vastly different story.
“Your however-many-greats grandparents Mavis and David Dawson made sure everyone had a share of food and clothing.” He tapped the column in the center of the room, interrupting the vibrations caused by thrum of the blimps four engines. “Then there were your greats——the Tahomas, Buchanans and Robertsons——who made sure everyone got as much education as they could stomach.”
“Well, thanks for your advice. I’ll be sure to take it under consideration.” She adjusted the backpack before sliding her free arm through the second strap and buckling it under her breasts. They may be adults, but she didn’t doubt he’d still try to pull it off her and play keep away with it.
Of course, if he did, she’d have a legitimate reason for cleaning his clock. But battering his face would only lead to questions. And she couldn’t blow her first mission. She had to remain hidden.
“You’re never going to last in the Outlands if your back gets up over a little criticism.”
It was never a little criticism with him. Her teeth clicked together. Besides she knew all about the Outlanders and not just from her studies at the university. Of course, he didn’t know that. No one did. And it would stay that way. “Until later.”
Pivoting on her heel, she strode toward the exit.
Footfalls sounded behind her. “The crew quarters are that way, Sera.”
Sera paused with her hand on the door knob. The tips of her knuckles flashed white. He needed to leave her alone. For his sake. His basic self-defense wouldn’t be able to compete with her score of studying mixed martial arts. Damn the jackwagon for being so popular. If no one would miss him, she’d truss him up and stuff him in a closet.
“For your information, I am dining with my cousin Rolf and his crew. ” Something shifted beyond the bank of windows. Her eyes strained in the twilight. Could it have been a bird? She should check it out. Rediscovering an ancient species would be the perfect cover for her mission. What in the world? “While they don’t get served until after the guests, I still need time to dress.”
A bell chimed through the rectangular lounge. Footsteps thudded on the hallway above their heads. More guests were coming and they would have to walk through the lounge to get into the dining salon. She couldn’t afford to be seen. At least not yet. Her boss had been very clear on her mission and her cover.
“Goodbye, Minos.” She opened the door and stepped inside the airlock tucked under the curving metal stairway.
“I think I’ll find the captain.” He crowded into the stairwell to the crew level. “Don’t want to break any laws by not reporting a stowaway.”
He pulled the door closed and the lock clicked home.
“You do that.” Maybe her uncle could silence the lout. Diplomacy and tact were probably the best means to stymie Minos’s gossip. Unfortunately, she’d gotten less than perfect marks in those classes.
She paused at the bottom of the staircase. To the right lay the officers’ quarters, communication rooms and access door to the gondola. But to reach it, she’d have to walk through more passenger cabins. No way could she risk being seen again. As it was her boss would have a hairy cow and a calf. “The captain should be in his quarters.”
Minos crossed in front of her then stopped. “Aren’t you coming?”
“No.” Her uncle the captain would no doubt chew her out for being seen in the first place. But really, being stuck in crew quarters that reeked of bad cheese and unwashed socks was a just a hair above the call of duty. Even for someone with her background.
“I knew it. You have escaped Dark Hope without a pass.”
“Whatever.” Sera rubbed the back of her neck. “Go see the captain for your answers since you obviously don’t accept mine.”
She stared him in the eye. Ten seconds. Twenty. Didn’t the lunkhead get the message? Frustration clawed at her. She had no time for this. She had work to do before their early morning arrival in Abaddon. Turning, she headed toward the crew quarters on her left.
Minos hooked her arm and jerked her to a halt. “I think–”
Raising her free arm, she folded her fingers. One small strike in the chest. That should let him know she meant business. Plus, it wouldn’t show.
A loud thump echoed down the corridor in front of her. A soft scrape quickly followed.
Crap! She froze but her mind raced, turning out scenarios. Most of them life threatening. Screw Minos, his gossip and her mission. Her priorities had just shifted.
“The equipment must have broken loose.” Jerking out of his grip, she jogged toward the cargo hold. “Tell Captain Saldana!”
Another scrape and the ship shuddered. Her heart raced. She pumped her arms faster and the gangway bounced underfoot. Those crates could puncture the blimp’s skin and then they’d be in trouble. Death by splat trouble.
Minos pounded behind her. “Wait!”
Damn it! What was wrong with the man? Nothing in his education had prepared him for this emergency. She’d only had to the one class in aeronautics but at least it had covered balancing loads. “Tell the captain! He might be able to adjust the ballasts to compensate for the shifting weight.”
“And leave you alone to face what’s in there?” Minos was so close he practically stepped on her heels. “I don’t think so.”
Naturally, he wanted to be a hero. She sprinted by the crews’ quarters before shoving the air lock door open. The whine of the turbine engines increased when she stepped inside. Fiberoptics illuminated the Aluminum and carbon-fiber ribs and highlighted the catwalk running the length of the airship’s body.
Her unwanted companion cursed as he slapped the self-closing door and chased after her. “Slow down, Sera. For all you know it could be a real stow-away or a Provider.”
Passing the cubic ballast tanks, she shook her head. Did anyone really believe in Providers? “Really, you might as well have said the Tommyknockers or Boogeyman.”
Her voice rose an octave on the abundance of Helium, not fear. She’d stopped believing in those monsters once she’d realized her Outlander friends were trying to scare her. Every bad thing from acne to cancer was caused by ‘Viders.
Pausing by the last airlock, she inspected the door. With the hinges on the other side, she might have force to open it. Maybe Minos wouldn’t be so useless after all.
Bracing his hands on his knees, he gasped for air. A lock of dark hair bisected his forehead.
“I’m going to see if I can open the door. If I can’t, you’ll have to help me move whatever’s tumbled loose and is blocking it. Got it?” If that didn’t work, she could always cut through the multi-laminate skin next to it. But then the ship wouldn’t be able to airdrop the supplies and equipment to the Forestry crew on the other side of Abaddon.
“I think we should get the captain and let him handle this. It’s his job, after all.”
What a jerk. He’d had his chance to play messenger and didn’t take it. Didn’t he understand that everyone’s safety was at stake? Twisting the knob, she heard the latch retract then threw herself against the door. It sprang forward upon impact, ripping the handle out of her girp. While the door swung on an arc, momentum carried her forward. She slammed against the crate in front of the door, bounced off and collapsed to the floor.
Pain blitzed her system. Her fingers tingled; heat blazed up her arm. A wave of dizziness crashed over her. Well, crud, she’d forgotten how much full-contact sports hurt.
Clapping his hand over his mouth, Minos tried to cover his laughter with a cough.
He was unsuccessful, but then she doubted he tried very hard. Butthead.
“Need help up?” His voice boomed in the low space. The door slammed shut behind him. Darkness filled the small room.
“No.” Bracing her hands at her sides, she pushed off the deck. Pangs sprouted in a frenzy along her injured side. Holding her breath, she rose to her feet. Her little tussle with the crate was bound to leave a mark. “Get the lights, will you?”
“Maybe I should just take you back to your room and get you an aspirin.” Despite his words, she could hear his soles tap against the metal deck.
“I’ll be fine.” In a day or three plus a hefty dose of pain killers. She hissed through the pain as her fingers probed her side. Thankfully nothing appeared broken just bruised. “We need to secure everything.”
And where were the lights? He should have found them by now. The switch was right next to the door after all.
As if on cue, the overhead lamps flickered on. He scanned the hold before staring at her. “Fine, we’ll check the cargo. Then I’m escorting you back to your cabin and personally seeing to it that you don’t get into anymore scrapes with the research equipment.”
Him and what army. She bit her tongue to contain her reply. Cradling her sore arm against her body, she headed for the aisle behind her. “I’ll check this side; you check that one.”
She turned the corner before he could answer. Not that she wanted to hear anything he had to say Temptation might get the better of her, and she’d be forced to stuff him in a crate. Black straps wrapped around the oversized wooden crates and secured the seven-foot high stacks of boxes. Nothing clogged the aisle.
That’s odd. She’d definitely heard something fall. “Everything seems in place.” She continued walking. Maybe the cargo had come loose at the end or on Minos’s side.
Silence rang above the drone of the engines.
“Minos? Did you hear me?” Her stomach cramped. She paused and peered through the crack between stacks. Nothing moved in her narrow range of vision. “Minos?”
A loud thump sounded from the other side. She shook off a twinge of unease. There was nothing to be afraid of. A whisper of movement shifted in the black. The hair on the back of her neck stood up. Get a grip. ‘Viders didn’t exist. Neither did the Boogeyman. And Tommyknockers only live in mines and caves. It was just Minos, being an ass.
“Are you okay?” She locked her jaw. “Minos. This isn’t funny.”
A moan sounded ahead and to her right.
Her heart stuttered inside her chest. Crap! He was hurt. She rushed ahead. What an idiot? She shouldn’t have allowed a civilian to accompany her on such a dangerous errand.
Just as she neared the last crate, the lights clicked off. Red, green and white flashed through a square in the floor. Holy shit! The hatch was open. She tried to slow.
Something hit her across the shin and she pitched forward. She flapped her arms, trying to fly, desperate to grasp something. Anything. Fingers scraped wood, nails snapped in a pop of pain then she hooked fibers and stopped. Her torso and arm hung over the portal. A bloody sunset painted the ground below. Far below.
OhGodOhGodOhGod. She tried to swallow. Her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth making it impossible. She’d nearly been splattered over the ground. Not the impression she wanted to make on the Outlands. Sweat misted her upper lip.
What if… Don’t think it. Don’t even think it. Minos hadn’t walked out of the airship. She swung her free arm. Her fingers brushed the netting. Missed. Dang it. She gritted her teeth. And just where was he anyway? She swung again for the netting. Got it!
The crate tumbled forward, pushing her through the hatch before falling after her.
Air screamed in her ears as she plummeted toward the ground.