Blue Yonder (Diane Dooley)
SFR Galaxy Award for Best Scene Stealer (Judge Jo Jones)
Baby Jack is just full of surprises in this romance. He helps reconnect two people who have a past but have been apart for a long time. A very well-developed 45-page long story.
Face mask firmly affixed, Daniel Morneau strolled beneath the crumbling edifice of the Acropolis. The warm glow of sunset had turned Athens golden, and the gusty winds had blown the usual polluted haze out to sea. High above the Acropolis, a comet streaked its way across the sky. How many times had the ancients treated each appearance of this comet as a sign of the end of times? This time, though, it was. The end of the world was no longer nigh. It was on them.
Daniel walked on, in no particular hurry. His day, which had started with his very last backgammon battle with his old friend, Stratos, was drawing to a close. One last payment to pick up, then he would visit some favorite places for the last time. Say his final good-byes to the city and the planet. And to Isabel.
He turned down an alley, listening to the distant booms of spaceships being slingshot out of Piraeus Space Port. The ships were all headed for Lunar Base where their occupants would be loaded onto massive arc ships and dispersed throughout the far-flung colonies. He’d be heading out himself soon into that great blue yonder. Everything was arranged. “Next week,” Vangelis had said. Daniel didn’t have to worry about a thing, didn’t have to concern himself with the swirling rumors. People were saying there wasn’t going to be enough time and ships for everybody. What would the dictator do with those left behind? Kill them? Probably. Daniel shrugged. His place on an outward-bound ship was assured. He’d earned it, and he didn’t have it in him any longer to worry about anyone else. Except Isabel.
Athens seemed so empty, the bustle he’d come to associate it with almost entirely absent. Almost. He’d turned a corner and encountered a lengthy line of a few hundred silent, shuffling people outside Yannis’s market. Some glanced up at him, recognized him then avoided his eyes as he walked by. Daniel stopped to stare. So many old men and women, a few in wheelchairs. It couldn’t have slipped their notice that they were lowest on the evacuation priority lists. The guard stationed at the door nodded at him nervously as Daniel approached him with a question.
“What’s Yannis selling?” He tried to remember the guy’s name but gave up. He was one of the lower-level men, there to provide protection for whatever price gouging Yannis was doing today.
The man stepped forward. “Suicide pills.” He glanced around before leaning closer, directing whispered words through his face mask into Daniel’s ear. “I heard Yannis say they were fake, but that he was making a killing.”
An old woman dressed in black scurried out of the market, adjusting a face mask before tucking more of them into her cavernous bag.
“They’re no longer distributing masks for free,” the man continued. “Yannis is selling them, too, if you need some.”
Daniel took a last look at the gathering of sad and desperate people. Suicide pills. So it had come to that?
“Hey, did you hear about Roma?” the man said, his voice hushed.
Daniel nodded. He’d wet his feet years before in that ancient city when it had already started to go under. Now it was no more, following so many formerly great cities of the world since the icecaps and glaciers had melted. Athens, though, was still dry, its water still fresh. But it wouldn’t be for much longer. Maybe suicide pills were the right idea. Better than starving. Or drowning in your own diseased lungs. He closed his eyes to the elderly people. His parents had never gotten the chance to get old. It was almost a rarity these days.
He shook off his thoughts, strolling around the corner and then through the back door, pausing to enter the lock combo from memory. Yannis’s wife, Dora, sat at a table in the back room, packing small, dry oranges into bags, her face as miserable as always.
She looked up as he entered. “That bastard Vangelis is still charging us for protection?”
Daniel pulled down his mask. “You’ve got a guard on your door, don’t you? Pay up. And watch your fucking mouth.”
Dora stood then grumbled her way to a desk in the corner of the room. She pulled an envelope out of the top drawer before turning and tossing it onto the table in front of Daniel. He opened it, spilled out the multicolored creds, and started counting. Halfway through, he heard an impossible noise. Dora crying? He glanced up into the stony face. Nope. He doubted a tear had ever dropped from those grim eyes. He turned toward the sound. In another corner was a cage with a mattress inside. Holding on to the bars and sobbing piteously was a small child.
“A baby? I haven’t seen one of those in forever.” He rose and went over, crouching down and gazing into the limpid brown eyes of a half-naked little boy. “How old is he?”
Dora shrugged. “Eighteen months, maybe. Something like that.”
The boy reached a hand through the bars and clutched one of Daniel’s fingers. He stared down at it. Such a small hand. His fingers were thin, but he held on with an impressive grip. A fat tear slid down the child’s face, leaving a clear track through the dirt.
Daniel turned back to Dora. “Is he your grandson?”
An amused snort exploded from Dora, the closest he’d ever seen her to happy. “My grandkids are grown and working for a warlord on Greenpath. I’ll be joining them soon enough. And that useless daughter of mine will take care of me in my old age. Whether she likes it or not.” She stabbed a bony finger in the direction of the child. “That right there is our ticket off this fucking planet. I’m gonna be retiring in style.”
Daniel looked back at the boy. “He’s for sale? Who the hell is gonna buy an extra mouth to feed?”
“Some Blue bastard. But he won’t be feeding the kid for long. His own brat needs a new set of kidneys, and the family can’t leave until then. I negotiated an excellent price.” Dora smirked at her own cleverness. “The Blues are abandoning the city, the whole planet. You know what that means? It’s time to get the fuck out of here.”
The little finger clutched harder, and the boy let out a sob. Poor kid. It was almost as if he’d understood the old bat. Daniel reluctantly disengaged his finger from the child’s grasp and went back to the table. He started recounting the creds. “Where’s his mother?
Dora shrugged again. “Who cares? What kind of stupid bitch would bring a baby into this world? He was being experimented on up at the hospital, so I’m doing him a favor.”
Daniel paused. “A favor that’ll kill him.”
“Whatever. The Blue is paying me enough for a ticket off this shithole. Me and Yannis both. Tell Vangelis this is his last payment. We’ll be gone this time next week.”
Daniel proceeded with his count. “You don’t need to buy a ticket. Won’t you be evacuated for free?”
“Everyone says there won’t be enough arc ships, and we’re low on the priority list. Too fucking old. I ain’t ready to die yet, and I don’t want to be assigned a destination. I want Greenpath. My daughter owes me, and I’m gonna collect.”
Daniel had heard about the assigned destinations. No useful skill? Then it was forced labor in the asteroid mines, the desolate salt fields—or worse. Daniel’s skill was smarts and muscle, useful to Vangelis, if not anyone else. He finished his count.
“You’re short two hundred creds.”
“It’s all we’ve got!”
“Didn’t you just say the Blue paid you a shitload of money?”
“He hasn’t paid yet,” she whined. “Plus, the guard has been late for work every day.”
Daniel stood and approached her. Time to earn his keep. He bent his head and put his mouth to her ear. “Go get the rest of the money from Yannis. Or I will take one of your kidneys as payment.”
She cringed away from him. “Yannis went out. I don’t know where he is.”
He lowered his voice further still. “Find him. Get the money. Bring it to me. Or get the money from the store. I don’t care. Just get it for me. Now.” He reached into his inside pocket and pulled out a knife, turning it, making it flash in the dull light.
“You’re as big a bastard as Vangelis, Daniel Morneau. You know Yannis would kill me if I gave you uncounted creds.” Dora grabbed her shawl, pulled up her face mask, and fled the room.
Daniel sat back down at the table and settled in for a wait. Using his knife, he sliced up one of the oranges, finding they were much juicier inside than he would have guessed. The scent of oranges always reminded him of Isabel. Her favorite fruit, he’d bought a basket of them as a wedding present for her and Jacques. Food hadn’t been in quite such short supply back then. Daniel slurped on the orange wedges, remembering his best friend and the day he’d introduced Daniel to the woman Jacques intended to marry. Isabel, with her waist-length hair, bold spirit, dark eyes, and infectious laugh.
“She doesn’t laugh anymore,” he announced, looking over at the child. Not since Jacques had died. She was still beautiful, though her smile had disappeared. When last he’d seen Isabel, her black hair had been chopped, barely grazing her brown, bare shoulders.
“Da,” the boy whimpered, stretching an arm between the bars.
Daniel looked down at his orange. “This? You want a piece?”
He lifted a section and took it over to the kid. The boy grabbed it and immediately started to gnaw. Looked like Dora had been saving money by not feeding him. Daniel shook his head. Poor kid. What a shitty end to such a short life.
The child dropped the gnawed orange and stretched his sticky fingers through the bars again, grabbing onto Daniel’s hand. “Mama.”
Daniel laughed. “Nope. I ain’t your mama. Sounds like you didn’t have one, little guy.”
The boy leaned his head against the bars, his eyes filling with tears again, his hand tightening around Daniel’s finger.
“Can’t help you, kid,” he muttered. “I would if I could.”
The child slumped against the bars. He looked dejected, almost as if he’d understood what was being said to him.
“But I tell you what. You want out of that cage for a few minutes?” Daniel pulled his hand away and slid the top off the cage. He stood and, leaning forward, scooped the child up and off the dingy mattress. Daniel held the child under his armpits, and they stared, face-to-face, into each others’ eyes.
“Da,” the kid said. “Da-na. Da.”
“Trying to say my name? Dan-yell. Dan-yell.”
“Well, you’re a clever little fellow, aren’t you?” Daniel bobbed him up and down. “And you weigh more than I’d have thought. They weren’t starving you in that hospital.”
Dora had said they were performing experiments, but he didn’t have any marks except for grime. What the hell kind of person would experiment on a little kid like this? He pulled the child against him. The boy immediately reached an arm around Daniel’s neck and laid his head against his chest.
“Da-na,” he murmured, sounding almost contented. He peeked up at Daniel, his eyes large and trusting. “Da-da.”
Daniel’s heart twisted. This was crazy. He should put the kid back in his cage and go wait upfront for Dora’s return. He should do that. He really should. The boy snuggled his face into the crook of Daniel’s neck, wiggling slightly to settle himself more firmly in Daniel’s arms.
“Da-da,” he said, then closed his eyes.
Daniel attempted to unlock the little arm from his neck, but as soon as he managed it the arm wiggled free and coiled its way back again. He looked to the door, hoping Dora would march through it with her hatchet face and rescue him. But when Yannis “went out”, there was no telling which whorehouse he would be in. Athens still had a few of them, even with most of the population being evacced to the stars. He scowled. He himself hadn’t gone in one since he’d seen Isabel plying her wares a few months ago. He’d tried to talk to her, but she’d scurried off to an upstairs room with a customer, showing Daniel nothing but her back and an imperious toss of her hair.
Looking down, he saw the kid had grasped a fistful of his shirt and was holding on tightly, his knuckles white. Daniel sighed. Were kids this young supposed to be this clever? Or was he just desperate for some kind of human warmth and affection? He’d obviously decided he needed to be saved, and Daniel seemed to be his choice. Not that the kid had any other options. This was ridiculous. He was just here to collect the protection money for Vangelis, not involve himself in this doomed creature’s problems. Shaking his head, he put a hand on the thin back of the child, feeling the ribs beneath the skin, imagining the scalpel cutting in toward the kidneys. He cringed at the thought, holding the baby a little tighter. A wild thought entered his brain.
Looking around, he noticed an old rucksack. Inside were cloth triangles, like the one the baby wore, some plastic bottles, and packets of off-yellow powder. Daniel tossed in a few oranges and slid a fat envelope out of his pocket. The day’s take. Vangelis’s money. He tossed it in the rucksack and then zipped up his jacket, tucking the baby inside, snug enough that he wouldn’t need a mask. He threw the rucksack over one shoulder, pulled up his mask, then paused at the door. What the fuck am I doing? This is a bad idea. A stupid decision. He looked down at the kid, at the little hand clutching his shirt. He closed his eyes, remembering something he had tried so hard to forget. Another little hand that had once held onto him for dear life. He opened his eyes, grinned wildly, and marched out the door.
It was dark. Good. He slipped confidently through the mazelike alleys of the Plaka. Couldn’t go to his place. Vangelis would look there first. There really was only one choice of where to go. No matter the time that had passed and the promise he had failed to keep, there was only one person he could trust. He’d find a family for the kid, pay someone to evacuate him. At least he’d live.
Daniel took a right, then a left, then another left onto a dark dead-end street. The small house at the end was run-down and looked abandoned, but he knew Isabel still lived there. She’d never willingly leave the home where she’d been so happy, the house where her beloved husband, Daniel’s best friend, had died. The comet burned in the sky above, the only light, as Daniel slipped around the back of the house.
Isabel pulled on her face mask and trudged wearily toward the factory gate, another evening shift done. She was exhausted, already having worked so much overtime that week, what with the factory running constantly, churning out nutripacks to supply the arc ships. Now it was time to rush home, get changed, and spend a few hours seeking out a man who would pay a lot of creds for the use of her body. She’d try the house up on Syntagma. The owner only took ten percent, and there were still a few Blue customers with plenty of creds wanting one last fuck for the road before they evacced. And for another ten percent cut, the security guys would make sure she wasn’t treated violently. God, she hoped she didn’t run into Daniel again. That look on his face when he’d seen her….
She put her head down as she passed through the gates, ignoring the guards as they eyed the leaving factory workers.
“Hey, you. Visconti!”
Shit. She’d paid the fee, the bribe that was supposed to get her out the gate without being searched. Her pockets, like everyone else’s, were stuffed with high-protein nutripacks. Shit. She shuffled over to the guard.
He looked her up and down. “Relax, Visconti. I’m just delivering a message.”
She breathed a sigh of relief. She needed this damn job. The creds were okay; it kept her supplied with nutrition, and, most of all, it meant she only had to whore part-time. She mentally totaled up her savings. A couple more weeks and she’d be free. One very expensive ticket to the planet of her choice. No more factory, no more whoring, no more Earth.
“Vangelis wants to see you. He’s at his regular taverna. Go straight there.”
Fuck. She knew exactly what he wanted. She nodded. “Thanks.”
Straight there. Good. He’d see her in her threadbare work coveralls and hopefully wouldn’t be making her an offer she’d be all too happy to refuse. She’d best hurry, though. A Vangelis who was kept waiting was an angry Vangelis.
Isabel stuck out her arm and waved down a riksha. She showed the painfully thin runner a glimpse into her pocket. “One if you walk; two if you run.” He nodded eagerly. “Plato’s Taverna in the Plaka. You know it?” He nodded and gestured her in to the riksha.
“Me go fast,” he murmured and, indeed, he took off at a pace that seemed impossible, especially since he had no mask to protect his lungs.
He barely spoke Standard, she realized. Looking down, she saw he had no shoes. Still, the sticks of his legs pumped furiously, eager for the two measly nutripacks she had offered him. What part of the world did you wander in from? Just another wetfoot escaping the rising oceans. From the looks of him, this one was from the North.
She’d been the same ten years earlier, drifting in on the rising Mediterranean. They’d arrived in Athens, she and her older sister, Lisabet, clothed in rags and almost desperate. Lisabet had seen the writing on the wall and had shipped out for the star colonies as soon as she could. Isabel had met Jacques, and there was nothing, not even her beloved sister’s pleas, that could tear her away from her love. Or from Daniel.
The three of them had all found work. Jacques as security for an important Blue, she at the factory, and Daniel with Vangelis. Jacques, lithe and quick-witted with the laughing green eyes, and Daniel, darker, quieter, more intense. A large man, but surprisingly gentle, his eyes as blue as one particular summer’s day from her childhood. Oh, how things had changed. Jacques wasn’t laughing any more, and Daniel, no longer gentle, had disappeared further into Vangelis’s dangerous underground world, declaring he was sick of being on the bottom of the food chain. It had been over a year since she’d seen Daniel until, a few months ago, he’d shown up, frowning, disappointed, and looking ready to drag her out of that whorehouse by the hair. Fuck him. She’d barely seen him after Jacques died. Once so close…. She shook her head. Fuck him. Then acknowledged that that was exactly what she had done.
The riksha pulled up at Plato’s, and Isabel gave the runner his two nutripacks. Karma. She could use some. She slipped him another pack.
“Me thanks,” he said, smiling gratefully. “My have small son.”
She walked away shaking her head. A child? In this terrible place? Why the hell would anyone do that?
She pulled open the door of the taverna and slipped inside. Vangelis was at his usual table, surrounded by his flunkies. She looked for Daniel. He wasn’t there. Good. She hated seeing him all cold-eyed and heartless. And she didn’t want him to hear whatever Vangelis was going to offer for her. Not that she was ashamed. No, she just associated Daniel with Jacques, who’d have been horrified by what she’d become. Jacques had always been the decent one. Daniel? Not so much, not after he joined up with Vangelis.
“Isabel Visconti. What the hell are you wearing?” Vangelis laughed and waved her over. He seemed in a good mood, at least. She approached his table, and he shoved a man out of her way. “Give the lady a chair. Poor thing’s been on her feet all day. Get her a drink.”
The man shuffled off and returned with a glass of ouzo and a jug of water. Isabel put a tiny splash of water in the drink and watched it turn cloudy. No matter the food shortages, there was always, always booze. She swallowed it down, aware Vangelis was watching her closely, his dark eyes curious.
“I got your message, Vee. What do you want?”
He poured her another drink. “What do I want?” He leaned back in his chair. “Lots of things.” He casually slid his hand down and cupped his balls. “How about you?” He indicated her glass. “Drink.”
She tossed it down and dropped the glass on the table. “I just got off work, and I’m tired. What do you want?”
“Why you still at the factory? You can make more money with this.” He reached forward and pulled the zipper on her coveralls down, slowly. He stopped; disappointed with the T-shirt she wore underneath. “And you wouldn’t have to dress so ugly.” He leaned back in his chair. “Where is Daniel Morneau?”
She started. “What?”
“Your friend, correct? Your very close friend.” He leered. “The reason why your husband killed himself.”
“That’s not true!”
Vangelis laughed. “No one cares if you fucked your husband’s best friend. Well, except me. Where is he?”
Isabel glowered at him. What have you gone and done, Daniel? “I haven’t seen him. He works for you. How the hell should I know where he is?”
Vangelis’s smile disappeared. “Liar. You saw him recently. I was there, too, remember? And from the way he was looking at you, I’d say he was quite intent on fucking you again.”
Vangelis held up a hand to silence her then gave an expansive shrug. “You know, Isabel, I never liked your husband.” He poured her another ouzo. “I offered him and Daniel a job. Daniel said yes. Jacques told me to go fuck myself. Drink.”
Isabel reached for the glass and drank it without taking her eyes off him.
“Daniel has…absconded. With something that belongs to me. And with another item that belongs to one of my clients. I want them both back.” He tipped his head, took a long slug from the bottle, and then set it back on the table. “I shall be leaving this benighted planet soon. And before I go, I want to fuck the wife of the man who was too proud to work for me.”
Sucking in a breath, Isabel tensed. “I can’t do that, Vee.”
“No? And why not? I’ll pay your usual fee.”
What could she say that wouldn’t infuriate him? I hate you and always have? You took our friend from us and turned him into a soulless thug? Your sadistic tastes are only too well-known? She sighed. Those wouldn’t work. But she had to say something. “You…you’re married. It wouldn’t be fair to your wife.”
He grinned. “Alethia is far too sensible of a woman to care. You should be sensible, too. I will pay you well. And I will pay you even more if you find Daniel for me.”
Isabel suppressed a shudder. Barely.
“If you don’t find Daniel, I’ll still be generous. I like you, Isabel. Always have. But I’ve stayed away from you. I’ve respected you. Well, until you turned to whoring. Now….” He smiled. “You’re just another woman for sale. No reason to deny myself.”
Isabel’s heart was speeding and thumping, her fingernails grinding into the arm of her chair. How am I gonna get out of this? How the fuck am I gonna get out of this? What the hell did Daniel do? She spoke loudly, hoping her voice didn’t show any fear. “Will you hurt him? For what he’s done?” Fuck. Her voice had trembled.
Vangelis hadn’t missed it. He lit a cigarette. “I want him back. He’s never done anything like this before, has been loyal to me for ten years. I’ll hear him out, and he still has a berth on the ship I’ve chartered. Our slingshot is already scheduled at Piraeus. We won’t even have to go on one of those overloaded behemoths either. I’ve chartered a very nice, very expensive ship for the entire journey.” He inhaled deeply and thoughtfully on his cigarette then blew out the smoke in a steady stream toward her. Even the touch of tobacco smoke, from his lungs to her skin, felt ominous. Her skin crept, a judder forming in the base of her spine. His lips curled back in the reminiscence of a smile. “If Daniel isn’t there for launch, then I’ll take you in his place. And then I’ll fuck you all the way to the Epsilon Quadrant. I’m told the journey takes six months.” The smile dropped from his face. “You had best aim to please me. Because if you don’t…”
He snapped his fingers.
The man who had vacated the chair approached, smiling politely. He stood directly behind Isabel, nudging up close to her, his crotch touching her back. She tried to lean forward, but his fingers grasped her shoulders, holding her lightly, insistently. Beads of moisture gushed from her pores in a stone-cold sweat, and she found her hand reaching out, grasping her glass. Something hard dug into her back, and her arm stretched toward Vangelis, the glass shaking. He carefully tipped a long pour of ouzo into the glass. Soon, a long thin stream of water turned the liquid cloudy. Isabel pulled it to her lips and quenched her parched mouth with a deep swallow, closing her eyes as the fire went down her throat.
Vangelis set the jug of water down with a heavy thud. “If I’m not pleased with you, I’m afraid you’ll have to earn the rest of your passage flat on your back, twenty-four seven, entertaining the rest of my men.”
The man behind her lifted a hand and, with one knuckle, gently stroked the hairs that were standing up on the back of her neck. Isabel raised her eyes to meet Vangelis’s. His lids were heavy, giving him a deceptively sleepy look. But his eyes were cold dead things in their sockets. When his mouth formed into a smile, his eyes didn’t change.
“I’m sure you’ll do excellent business. Maybe even have paid off your debt before we get to the next fucking planet.” He snapped his fingers again, and the man behind her retreated, his touch leaving her slowly, reluctantly. “Do you know where Daniel might be?”
“Maybe.” The part-time taverna, open weekends only, where Daniel used to go play backgammon with the old men? “I don’t even know where he lives.” That place up in the mountains where the trees used to be? He used to like to take a blanket and go sleep near an old broken shrine. He’d taken her and Jacques there. It was his favorite place; his secret place, he’d called it. Could he be hiding out there?
Vangelis watched her, amused. “I know where he lives. We have that covered. And I have many men out looking for him.” He took a long drag on his cigarette, reached out with his foot and nudged hers. “Maybe you’ll get lucky and they’ll find him. Drink.”
She tipped it back, her stomach rebelling. She had to get out of there. Her stomach roiled, and she clenched her body, trying to hold everything back.
“You can go.”
She stood up, locking her knees to keep from staggering. Turning, she felt dizzy and put a hand on the table to steady herself. Vangelis reached out and grasped her wrist, circled his fingers around, touching on her pulse point, smiling at its rapid pace. His eyes dropped to her breasts.
“One of those Blue bitches in Kolonaki is selling her clothes.” He handed her a card with an address on it. “They’re fleeing the planet and trying to take as much money with them as they can.” He turned to the man on his right. “Give her all your creds.”
The man stood, pulling a thick envelope from an inside jacket pocket. He leaned over and shoved the packet inside the top of her coveralls, the back of his hand rasping roughly against her breast.
Vangelis stubbed out his cigarette and sat up straight. “Don’t ever come before me wearing such ugly clothes again. Next time? Dress to please me. I like my whores to dress like whores. Tits out, slits to the ass. Tacky, but expensive. You know the type of thing? ”
Isabel nodded. “I-I came straight here from the factory, Vee. I have to wear this stuff to work. But I won’t come straight from work again. I-I’ll change first.”
Vangelis stood then pulled Isabel to him. “Your foreman was a hard man to bribe. Very hard. He said you were a good woman and a good worker. But…everyone has their price. Even you. Right, Isabel?” He brought her hand to his mouth and lingered over it, inhaling, before kissing it lightly. Never had a kiss felt so much like a threat. Isabel pulled her hand away, but Vangelis only smiled and raised an eyebrow at her. “So, in the end? You don’t work there anymore.” He shoved her away, his hand to the small of her back, toward the door. She stumbled in its direction. From behind her. “I’ll see you soon, Isabel. One way or another.”
She pushed her way out into the cool night air, staggered to the corner, then vomited, again and again, into the street. What have you done, Daniel? What have you done? My dear friend. What have you fucking done?