Late wasn’t quite the word for it. When I came down into the common room, lunch was in full swing and my plate was waiting for me. I wasn’t quite awake enough to begin worrying yet, so my appetite raged unhindered.
Pip just smiled, but my parents began to grow concerned as I put away my third plate of food. They made no comment though, and waited until I was finished before speaking.
“We have come to a decision,” said my father, after the waitress had removed our plates and brought us our drinks. Pip had ordered a brandy, my parents each had a glass of white wine, but Georgy and I had ice water. My experience with alcohol had not been too favorable yet. “We have decided to take our case directly to the emperor.”
I nearly choked on my water. “Won’t they be expecting us to do something like that? They’ll find us.”
“That’s a possibility, but I’m hoping they won’t be looking in that direction at all. If we can present our case to the emperor before we’re hauled in as criminals, it will look a lot better for us. It’ll make us appear more the victim in this. We’ll have to present the entire case, Liam, which means that you’ll have to show the emperor some of what you can do. The man isn’t stupid; he knows what kind of man the baron was. We’ll have the entire trip to plan what to say and do in more detail.”
I groaned. “Dad, you’re talking six to eight months of faster than light travel. What if . . . what if something goes wrong? I dealt with the PTS boost all right this time, but this is new. What if . . . .”
“If you can handle PTS boost, you can handle this,” dad said. “Don’t you remember when we made the trip last time? It’s unpleasant, but not nearly as drastic as cryo-sleep. I’ll coach you through it before we start and make sure you know exactly what to expect.”
I groaned again and looked from face to face. “Are you sure this is the best thing? Not that I want to spend the rest of my life on the run, but this seems like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.”
We went to book our flight using Pip’s name and the money dad had paid him, then we went shopping. Pip was fine with me making things to order as long as it wasn’t food, but mom wasn’t convinced that I could get it right. Mom likes to go shopping. I have come to the conclusion that shopping is my mom’s version of my rain dance.
Though it almost hurt my mom’s feelings, she bought us all common clothes to wear. Our cover was that dad and Pip were cousins, which made Georgy and me second cousins once removed or something like that; anyway, we were one big happy family going to Earth on a pilgrimage. It was not unheard of for people to travel to Earth at least once in their lives in order to tour all the historical sights of the origin of man. It would also allow for us to be a bit eccentric though we were only traveling common class. Mom didn’t have a clue how to act like a commoner and dad was just as bad.
The next morning, we packed our luggage (as I said, mom likes to go shopping) and headed for the docks. We would take a shuttle to one of the space stations in orbit, and then from there, we would get on one of the space liners and begin our journey to Earth.
The space station was a minimum gravity complex. It operated at about one-fifth normal gravity, but it was almost like going to the mall. There were hundreds of shops of all sorts, offering everything from reading material to alcohol to toys. The selection might be a little smaller and the prices somewhat higher, but for the most part, if you wanted it, you could find it along the strip somewhere.
Our ship would arrive in two days and take a day to turn over then we would be leaving. In a way, I could hardly wait to go, but also in a way, I dreaded the departure. I feared that my basilisk might rear its ugly head and do something under the stress of passing into light speed, and I feared I was strong enough to make that a very dangerous prospect.
Mom occupied her time with more shopping, though she didn’t really buy much here. I went with her some, but I found shopping boring. Finally, mom got tired of my impatient company and told me to go for a run. “You always used to burn off all that extra energy when you would go running around with your friends. Why don’t you try it here?” I didn’t understand what she meant by that at first, but she pointed out a young woman jogging past, and it occurred to me that I had seen her go past before. Run; I hadn’t run since I left Planet 663-457, home to me.
I went to our room and changed into a t-shirt and jeans with tennis shoes. When I stood out on the strip, I felt a little odd. I had never run just for the exercise; I had always run in order to get somewhere and because my friends had always ran wherever they went. What could I lose? It would burn off some nervous energy like mom said.
The pace I had learned to be comfortable with was a long legged pace that was almost a full sprint. It felt so good to get the blood pumping, and at one-fifth gravity, it was so easy. It took me almost an hour to make one complete circuit and I made three circuits before I stopped at a cafeteria and bought a bottle of water.
I drained half of it while I turned to leave the shop. When I lowered it, I found my way blocked by three men. At least two of them looked like men three or four years older than me; the third one might have been the same age, but he was unnaturally thin. That and his white hair made him look old.
It was the thin one who spoke. “Who gave you permission to use my strip for anything other than spending money?”
I was surprised at the question. He didn’t look like someone who might be in charge of the station. He wasn’t old enough for that by a long shot. “My mother did.”
“Your mother?” His tone was dripping with sarcasm. “You have to earn the right to do that and I don’t recall seeing your mother.”
“We just got here; we’ll be leaving day after tomorrow, so I won’t be a threat to your authority for too long.” I moved to step passed him, but he snagged my arm.
“You’ll have to pay the penalty for your actions if you don’t want a lot of trouble.”
“What - I don’t have any money.” I didn’t. I hadn’t asked dad for another credit chip yet. The water had been put on our room bill.
The two bigger guys moved around and took each one of my arms. The skinny dude just smirked and said, “You don’t understand, I’m going to have to punish you. Bring him.”
I could have broken free, but I was curious, so I went along. After a few yards, I pulled my arms free in order to finish my water and chuck my bottle in a trash bin.
A couple hundred yards further, we entered a service hatch marked ‘Station Personnel Only’, and then we began to climb a ladder. They must work for the station; I wondered if their boss knew what they did in their free time. I also wondered if they were going to plug me in to one of the glittering panels we were passing; if they shorted out a fair chunk of the station, it would take them another month to fix it - job security.
He didn’t seem at all interested in those panels though, and as we climbed, I realized that the gravity that was already light for me was growing lighter. That little revelation told me where we must be heading as well as why he was so thin. He had spent virtually his entire life in low or no gravity. We were going to his turf. I wondered what we were going to do there, but I had my suspicions.