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Authors: Vonda N. McIntyre

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Barbary

BOOK: Barbary
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Chapter One

High in the corners of the spaceport waiting room, four
small TV screens displayed a space shuttle, piggybacked on external fuel tanks,
shedding clouds of vapor down its flanks.

Barbary watched the shuttle intently. Other times she might
have wished to see it real, instead of filtered through lenses and electronics.
Other times, but not now.

She brushed her fingertips across the front of her baggy
jacket, checking for her ticket in one of its many outside pockets. She had
buttoned the ticket safely in; she knew she had not lost it. During her first
hours in the waiting room, two weeks ago, she had made touching the ticket a
habit. The habit no longer reassured her, though, for she had been bumped off
two flights and the ticket had been revalidated twice. Now, as launch
approached, she felt the awful certainty that once more she would not get on
board.

She fumbled in another pocket of the jacket, pulled out her
old silver dollar, and passed it across the knuckles of her right hand. She
flipped it over and over with her fingers, caught it with her thumb, brought it
under her palm and back up onto her knuckles, then started over again. The
trick was a good one to do when she felt nervous, because it took a lot of
concentration.

The antique coin slipped from her fingers and bounced on the
carpet. She scooped it up, clutched it, and shoved it deep into her pocket. The
worn edges dug into her palm. She was not very good at sleight of hand. She had
only begun to learn it, or any other sort of stage magic, three months before.
Doing it well took years of practice.

She knew it took years; she knew she was not very good. She
just hoped she was good enough.

She touched her ticket once more, feeling the hard edge of
plastic beneath the rough material of the army surplus jacket. She forced
herself to keep her hand away from the single pocket inside her jacket, the
secret pocket, to think about anything except the weight pressing against her
side. It was important to pretend the secret pocket carried nothing, important
to believe the secret pocket did not even exist. If she believed nothing was
there, no one else would suspect. But if anyone found out, she would never ride
the shuttle even if a place opened up for her.

So far, fifty-four passengers had boarded. Barbary had been
here since before they began loading and she had counted every one of them. She
knew they were all important, and she recognized many of them from the news. No
one would say whether they were going to the low-earth-orbit space station, or
farther out to the O’Neill colonies, where human beings lived permanently, or
even all the way to the research station,
Einstein,
where Barbary was
supposed to be going. No one would even say why they were leaving Earth. No one
had to say that whatever they were doing and wherever they were going, they
were much more important than one twelve-year-old emigrant.

Still, only fifty-four had boarded, and the ship, in this
configuration, could carry sixty. She might finally have a chance for a place.
She wished she knew. Her social worker, Mr. Smith, had gone to check the
reservations again.

Barbary slumped back in the uncomfortable waiting room seat.
Her feet did not reach the floor, and the arms of the chair rose too high for
her to sit cross-legged.

The door opened. Barbary glanced around, expecting Mr.
Smith. Instead, a frail and elderly Native American entered, accompanied by one
of the port attendants. By now Barbary knew most of the attendants by name.
This one was Jack. He treated the new passenger with great deference. Though
she spoke too softly for Barbary to make out her words, Barbary could feel her
presence, her aura of calm and quiet power.

Barbary suddenly realized why she looked familiar. Like so
many of the passengers who had already boarded, she, too, frequently appeared
on the news. Ambassador Begay represented the United Tribes of North America at
the United Nations. A year before, she had been elected United Nations
secretary-general.

She preceded Jack into the loading tunnel and disappeared.

Though all the space colonies sent ambassadors to the United
Nations, Barbary had never heard of a secretary general visiting a colony
before, or even going into space. Barbary read news about the colonies and the
research station whenever she could find it. She was sure she would have
remembered if they had received a United Nations mission. Even if they had,
this trip should have gotten some attention. Particularly during the last
month, Barbary had had very little to do but watch TV, and read, and wait,
either at the juvenile home or here at the spaceport. The secretary-general’s
trip had gone unreported. With Ambassador Begay and all the other famous people
on board the shuttle, reporters and cameras ought to be swarming all over the
place. Instead, the port was practically deserted.

Something secret, something unusual, was going on, something
to do with the space colonies.

Barbary wondered angrily what the big mystery was. Any other
time she would have been fascinated and curious, but right now what mattered
was that she would probably be bumped off this flight, too. If she- did not
take today’s shuttle, the space transport would boost from low earth orbit to
the research station,
Einstein,
without her.
Einstein
traveled in
a highly elliptical polar orbit that took it far from earth, even farther than
the moon. For three-quarters of its orbit, it lay out of range of any
spacecraft. If she did not catch this evening’s transport, she would have to
wait over a month for the next trip. And a month from now would be too late.

Her fear made her angry and defensive. This was a matter of
life and death.

She forced herself not to reach into the secret pocket to be
sure everything was all right.

It isn’t there, she thought. Don’t touch it. Nothing’s in
it. It isn’t even there.

And so what if I don’t get on board this time, or ever? she
thought, trying to persuade herself not to care. It probably won’t make any
difference at all. Even if I get to go to space, everything will probably be
just the same.

Jack came out of the loading tunnel and strode across the
waiting room, ignoring Barbary.

“When do I get to go on board?” she asked. In the silence of
the small room, her voice sounded loud and sullen.

I don’t care if I get to go or not, she thought. I really
don’t care.

She tried to make herself believe it.

Jack stopped and turned unwillingly toward her, tired of
answering her questions.

“Look, I just don’t know, all right?” He made himself grin.
“Why don’t you go get yourself a nice glass of juice?”

Though her stomach had been growling for the past hour,
Barbary shook her head. That was a clincher. The instructions for riding the
shuttle recommended eating a light breakfast, and nothing afterward. If Jack
thought Barbary had a chance to get on board today, he would not tell her to
drink anything. She wished he would just say so and be done with it, instead of
patronizing her with fake smiles.

Turning away from him, trying to hold back tears, she glared
at the closed-circuit TV. Watching it was like being in a dream where she could
see herself from a distance, for the waiting room in which she sat was quite
visible as a low concrete building near the launch tower. Nothing moved in the
picture except the long wisps of vapor.

When Jack returned, he accompanied three people in business
suits. One carried a briefcase. He was middle-aged, and though Barbary could
not immediately place him, he looked as familiar as the secretary-general. The
other two were much younger, and they were obviously his bodyguards. Both wore
half-tinted glasses, the kind that would darken in sunlight. One wore an
earring — an earphone, like a TV reporter’s — and the other wore a wide, thin
bracelet, a nanocomputer, the smallest Barbary had ever seen.

None of them spoke. The first bodyguard went ahead into the
tunnel. Jack stood aside for the others to precede him, but the second
bodyguard motioned him on with a quick jerk of his head, waited for Jack and
the older, man to pass, then brought up the rear. Barbary watched the silent
ballet. Under other circumstances she might have laughed. But nothing felt very
funny right now. Jack returned, looking grim.

“Who were they?” Barbary said.

“Never mind.”

“You might as well tell me, I’m going to remember for myself
in a minute. The old guy, anyway.”

Jack shrugged. “You’ll have to, then, because I can’t tell
you. You probably shouldn’t even be here to see him.”

“I have a right to be here! I have a ticket. I have a
reservation. Just like I did twice before!”

“Look, there isn’t anything I can do.”

Barbary remembered. “The guy who wasn’t wired up was the
vice president,” she said. “That’s right, isn’t it? Those bodyguards are coming
back out, aren’t they?”

“No.”

“You mean he’s taking them to the research station? Why?
What for?”

“Rules. Federal law, for all I know.”

“He’s taking up two extra seats,” Barbary said, then stopped
her pointless protest. Jack knew as well as she did — as well as anybody who
knew anything did — how useless bodyguards would be in space. No one owned
weapons; everyone in the small population knew everyone else. The crime rate
was so low that there practically was no crime rate. Barbary supposed that
people sometimes got mad enough to want to punch each other out, and maybe even
did it once in a while, but the deliberate, vicious sort of violence that made
bodyguards necessary on earth simply never happened.

“Bodyguards,” Barbary said with disgust.

Jack shrugged. No doubt he had to face stupid rules even
more often than Barbary did. They were not his fault. That was the trouble.
They were never anybody’s fault. Therefore no one could ever be found who had
the authority to bend or break or stretch them.

“Nothing I can do,” Jack said, and left the waiting room.

Barbary rose and walked to the tunnel, lugging her duffel
bag. She hesitated at the entrance, then plunged inside. The weight of the
secret pocket bumped gently against her side. She kept herself from looking
down to see if the lump showed. She knew it did not. Even if it did, it was too
late now.

She got as far as the elevator. She had hoped that the one
attendant took passengers all the way to their seats, and that she could get on
board in between Jack’s trips. Trying to stow away on a spaceship would be
dumb, apart from being dangerous and probably impossible, but Barbary had a
ticket for her seat and she hoped that maybe, just maybe, if she got inside,
they would let her stay rather than making all the fuss of putting her off.

But another spaceport employee waited at the elevator.
Barbary pulled out her ticket and offered it up. The agent took it, slid it
through the sensor, and nodded at the readout.

“Your ticket’s all right,” she said, “but where’s Jack?”

“He said to go on,” Barbary said.

“He’s supposed to bring you himself.”

Barbary shrugged as pleasantly as she could. Since she had
no idea what emergency might call Jack away, it made a lot more sense for her
not to try to make one up. “He said just come on.”

The agent touched a key on the sensor and glanced at the
read-out again. “There are still three people ahead of you on the reservation
list, and only two seats. There isn’t any change there.”

Barbary held herself back from snapping “I’ve been bumped
twice already,” and said instead, “He said to get on board.”

She heard footsteps behind her. She had lost her gamble.

The footsteps stopped. Jack cleared his throat. With her
shoulders slumped, Barbary turned around.

The passenger accompanying Jack would take up the next to
last seat. Barbary glared at her, but her anger changed to astonishment when
she recognized the astronaut Jeanne Velory. The tall woman carried a scuffed
briefcase and a small backpack. Her short curly hair was so dark it sparkled,
and her eyes were deep green, the color of a pine forest. She was even more
striking than photographs and news tapes hinted. She gazed down quizzically.

BOOK: Barbary
9.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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