“Here we are,” Amelie announced, setting Julia down slightly more gently than one would a bag of yams. Clarence, wheezing, parked her bike.
“I don’t see it,” Clarence gasped, and indeed there was nothing to see. They hadn’t climbed up half the hill yet and before them stood a simple rockface that looked like all the other wind-wracked rockfaces. Maybe a little dirtier. Hard to tell.
Amelie picked up a boulder and tossed it, uncovering a hatch she twisted open. She descended a ladder and jumped off at the end. A crackling orange light flared below.
“You can climb down after me. Clarence, help your sister.”
Clarence shuffled over to her and Julia grimaced as he helped her wobble upright. “You’re still a twerp, you know.”
With some finagling, she angled her body to descend without badly jamming her ankle. Climbing down was still harrowing with only one foot, but, half-sliding, she managed the feat.
“Close that, will you?”
Clarence pulled the hatch over his head, blocking out the sunlight and shimmying down. Amelie was holding an old-fashioned flare.
“So this is the bunker?” Clarence said. “What about the bike?”
“If the main hatch opens I’ll pull it in. If not, it’s safe. No one steals a bike on Io. The dragons are all a little too big.”
“First time for everything,” Julia muttered and actually earned a few shared chuckles. She felt safer already with a roof overhead.
“I can’t tell if the air’s safe. Should be but the lights should be on too, so keep those rebreathers on until I say otherwise.”
Squinting to help her eyes adjust, Julia made out a cluttered foyer: crates and chairs knocked over, boot prints on the tiled floor, doors vectoring out of the room, one ajar.
Amelie frowned. “Someone’s let this go to crap.”
“Any way I can help?” Clarence asked.
“Not yet. Come.” Amelie chose the door no one had opened. Clarence followed and Julia hopped, hopfalls ringing painfully loud.
“Want a hand, Jewels?”
“Maybe.” She let him support her, fresh out of insults. This place had shifted remarkably quickly from promised haven to tomb.
Amelie froze and Clarence bumped into her. Julia steadied herself on the wall as their guide put a finger to her lips. Straining to hear, Julia thought she could pick out people speaking, voices too muffled by stony walls to pick out their words. But they sounded angry.
Amelie beckoned and they quickly changed course, descending a narrow flight of stairs to reach what looked like a padlocked closet. A key from Amelie’s endless pockets unlocked it.
“I’m going to check upstairs. Stay here.”
Amelie handed over her torch to Clarence. “What’s going on?” Julia whispered.
“I’m finding out.” About to leave them, Amelie hesitated. “There should be water in there and food. I heard an air vent running so you can take off your rebreathers. I think someone’s here who shouldn’t be.” She unlimbered her rifle. “When I come back, I’ll knock four times.”
Claustrophobically squeezed between racks of supplies, Clarence shut the door to seal them in, the only light from Amelie’s smoking torch. There was plenty of food it looked like, in cans, but no chairs, so they had to sit on the floor.
“Had enough dragon adventures yet?” Julia said.
“I could take more. How’s that ankle?”
“I think it hates me and wants to run off.”
“This place is powered,” Clarence observed. “Ventilation means fans so something’s working.”
“Why didn’t the lights come on, then?”
“Maybe they’re on switches.”
“No one does that.”
“But maybe they are.”
She commandeered the torch and swept its light around, searching. Long bulbs lined the ceiling, turned off. No switches marred the walls.
The gunshot scared her half to death. Julia screamed and covered her mouth, hoping the horrible noise had masked it. Clarence shot her a look of horror. “Hide!” he mouthed and she raced for the back of the closet, hiding under the bottom rack atop bulging sacks of rice.
“Wait,” Clarence hissed. “This is yours.”
He passed her the charger she’d found in the backpack, the rest of which they’d let rot in the sun.
Clarence stomped on the torch she’d dropped, plunging them into total darkness.
Voices. Loud ones. A foreign language. It was suddenly so much worse in this closet without any light that she wanted to scream again. Footsteps descended the stairs. Oh no. A light became visible from under the door. The voices argued, then their door swung wide.
The beam from the flashlight was almost blinding. When she could see, Julia saw the beam had found Clarence – who hadn’t hid anywhere. Idiot!
Foreign languages rattled off in succession before she recognized Common English: “You scream like a girl. Come out.” Julia picked out a proton gun and two faces cloaked in shadow.
“Come,” the men ordered, and Clarence stood, raising his hands slowly over his head. Julia bit her tongue and tasted blood. What was he doing? Fight them! Or run!
Hands seized Clarence and drew him out of the room. The flashlight swept inches over her hair while she remained as still as the dead, not breathing.
The door closed. “Check the others,” she heard someone shout.
She kept as still and silent as she could, praying, hoping, silently crying. Clarence, Clarinet, why, why?
She wiped away tears and remembered to breathe: as quietly as she could, through her mouth. “This place is powered,” Clarence had said.
She racked her brain and vaguely remembered old movies where things that needed power were linked to the wall. She turned the charger over in her fingers, pressed a button and little prongs flipped out.
Desperately she started searching the walls. On her knees she ran her hands behind the racks until her fingers snagged on a cord.
She followed the cord up to its source. A strip, maybe, but its holes were filled in.
She decided that whatever the cord was plugged in to was officially not important. With two big tugs she pulled it out, fumbled with the charger and pressed in its prongs.
It glowed with a light. A light! So beautiful! She fumbled her ring off her finger and dropped it, searched for a desperate moment and found it.
She pressed her iRing in. It fit.
She needed to wait now. The waiting was horrible. The blue light coming from the charger might be visible from under the door.
She shifted her body to try to stop that, curled around her only hope. She counted to a hundred. That had to be enough. She snapped her ring out and slid it back on.
Good evening, Julia. Welcome back. Would you like to check your feed?
“No,” she answered, about to choke. “Sylvia, please call Dad,” she managed.
Connecting. Connecting. This is taking longer than usual. Please wait.
Julia bit her nails. First one, then ten.
Sorry, something went wrong. I can’t reach your father’s ring at this time.
“Try the Constellation.”
Your father’s last known location was the Constellation. The Constellation is not responding.
She was hyperventilating. Stay focused. Focus. “Put out a signal, then,” she rasped. “S.O.S. Our shuttle went down. I need help. I need help.”
Broadcasting on all channels now.
She bit her lip and tasted blood. Footsteps. Hide…!
The door swung open and she screamed.
At the sight of the gun she might have fainted. She came to to discover a different tiled floor was now underneath her and no more comfortable. Her hands were tied behind her with a cord, her back against an unyielding pillar. Around her she was vaguely aware of screens and shadows and chairs and voices. Information flitted in columns and numbers. People in black darted back and forth.
“‘Bout time you woke up, Miss. What’s your name?”
She turned her head and gawked at the man beside her. The man wore a gun at his waist in a holster. Muscled and with a narrow face, her captor was squatting on black boots.
“J-Julia. Where’s my brother?”
“You two related? How’d you get down here?”
“We found it. We were just looking for somewhere to hide. Is Clarence alright? Where is he?”
“Your brother will be fine if you help me. If you don’t, it won’t go well.”
And I already lied to this fellow. Oh crap. “Who are you?” she whispered, and the strong man’s toothy smile decidedly lacked Christmas cheer.
“I am Caesar. I am a man of the revolution.”
“What are you revolting against?”
“Interstellar hubris.” His baritone voice boomed and echoed. “Transparently naked capitalist greed. Tell me, little girl, do you think it’s fair for someone to just buy a moon?”
She shook her head. It seemed the right answer.
“Yes. It is not right for anyone to claim such wealth. How long before whole planets are sold? How do you think anyone gets that rich?”
“I guess they make good investments or start companies…”
“Do you want a moon for yourself?” she suggested. “I think there’s a few around Saturn still left.”
“Everything should be everyone’s. Greedy conniving bastards should share.”
“You could, um, ask Harry nicely. He’s the guy in charge here so, uh…” She was interrupted this time by deep guffaws behind which she could almost hear her brother’s mocking. The airhead’s perfect plan is perfect.
“No trillionaire gives out a bloody bitcent if they don’t feel a little pressure. And you, Miss, as I said, are going to help us balance the books.”
“With what?” she asked, dreading the answer.
He handed her a sheet of paper. “With reading this. Speak your name here.”
Caesar gave her a couple of minutes to read and desperately try to ground her thoughts. She had just been taken hostage. Her brain hadn’t fully processed this fact nor dared to consider the implications. No one had told her where they were holding Clarence. She hadn’t seen Amelie. The woman might be dead. If her ring couldn’t reach the Constellation the ship might have backed out of orbit or crashed. Was Daddy dying? Was he dead?
Through tears she blinked and tried to read the words. Reparations…demands…it all swirled together. These people, she knew, must have taken down the shuttle. She guessed they’d set off an EMP to take out everyone’s electronics.
Speaking of which, her ring was dead again. She hadn’t charged it long enough. Stupid.
Caesar approached her with a knife. He cut the cord on her hands and made her stand up. As directed she approached a camera. Self-consciously she adjusted her hair. Old habits die hard.
“Read it,” said Caesar.
Her fingers trembled.
“To the pig of a capitalist, technocratic dictator who goes by the name of Harry Gregorman, you have stolen what is not yours off the backs of millions you cruelly exploit. My name is Julia Annabeth Ingles and I will gladly d-die for the Cause if you do not in the next 12 hours accede to the following list of demands.”
Caesar’s gun was aimed at her head.
“I speak for Caesar whose will will be done. Caesar demands that Io be evacuated. All oppressed workers must be freed and all of the foolish men and women who came here as patrons must give up their wealth. If they do, we will let them leave.”
Not toppling over took all of her effort with her ankle continually about to collapse. “The living creatures that you torture, molding and shaping into monsters, deserve to live free of your clutches. Therefore I also demand today that all further research on dragons be suspended and never resumed. All DNA blueprints must be destroyed and all scientists responsible shot.
“Last and by no means the least, reparations must be made to all that you have stepped on, Harry, in your heartless quest for wealth. Dragon Park and Io Inc. must be dissolved and sold at once. No less than one hundred billions dollars must be transferred–”
The energy blast that cored through the ceiling, scaldingly hot, spawned screaming panic. Men rappelled down through the breach and bolts of plasma lightning exploded. Julia threw herself on the floor. Someone toppled heavily beside her.
“ISA Police! ISA Police! Put your weapons down! Down!”
She held her breath but there was no more shooting. Weapons clattered to the tiles and she dared to uncover her head.
She blinked up at two haloed faces.
“Four knocks,” said Amelie. “I’m back.”
“Also me,” her brother announced.
“Clarinet,” she gasped. How was it possible? She wobbled upright and touched his face and pulled him into a sobbing hug.
“Were you worried for me or something?”
“I hate you, Clarinet. You little twerp.”
Amelie, grinning, helped them into harnesses.
Ratchets clicked and they shot up lines into the light of the Io day.
The Constellation landed on Io at sunrise, the first time for the heavy starliner since its maiden voyage to Mars. Clouds of roiling dust erupted as huge landing gear sunk into bedrock.
Daddy was the first one down the ramp.
Running over, he swept them up in his arms, and for the first time since mother died, Julia heard her father weep.
Julia cried with him as the three of them hugged. Even Clarence sounded misty.
“I love you,” Dad kept repeating. “I love you.”
“Merry Christmas, Dad,” said Julia, when the group hug had disbanded. “Sorry we didn’t get you a gift.”
“You already did,” he whispered. “You’re here.”
“Ah, we were fine,” Clarence said. “Jewels messed things up but I got us through.”
Julia kicked him with the foot not attached to an angry ankle. Augments online she could stand on both feet again; still, best to not press one’s luck.
“Mr. Ingles.” Amelie had stood off to the side but now strode forward, extending a hand. She’d changed out of her cargo pants into Dragon Park livery, mop of hair swept back in a neat, controlled bun. “I had the pleasure of meeting your children earlier. For their courage in the face of peril, my father owes them both a great debt.”
Her father’s eyes went very wide.
“Amelie Gregorman.” She shook his hand.
Wheeling in from Io’s north, almost like Santa on his sleigh, one white dragon soared and turned, folded pinions in and landed and drew back its head and roared.
White fire rose up hot to Jupiter as the dragon dipped its head; as a jolly man dismounted with a twinkle in his eye.
“Merry Christmas,” smiled Harry Gregorman. “If you’ll forgive the introduction, let me show you around my park.”