"Okaaaay, Angela," Joseph shouted, running up the passageway from the closing bay doors. "Lets-get-out-of-here."
"You're kidding, right?"
"I've already got clearance and I turned the warmers on when I saw you running up the field. What did you do this time, steal somebody's wallet?"
"I've got no time to explain, Angela. Lets get going."
"Warmers will be on line if three, two, one, on line. Grave field hover-ready. We have lift and clearance but no atmosphere shields or Inertia canceller yet."
"Then get down field and over those trees, just move us. They've got P880 canons. They'll blast us to pieces."
"I haven't got tim..." he started to say, and Angela did it for him. The shoulder and lap strap harness thrust across his body with little formality and snug-ed up. The ship bolted down field and rose up over the trees and continued across the open air space above some homes. Joseph jostling around in the pilots seat like a Raggedy Ann doll, struggle to right himself. Never mind that it was completely illegal to be over homes like that and at speed. They both knew it and waited to catch hell for the maneuver. She halted the ship above the homes and hovered.
Flight control called almost immediately and asked what was going on. "Do you have a malfunction?"
"Yes," Joseph lied. "We've got a stick problem, here. It's been giving me a lot of headaches lately. Sorry. I think we've got in under control, now."
"Take it off line, then, and have your copilot take over before someone gets killed."
"Will do," Joseph said, and killed the communiqué, then mumbled, "That's what I'm trying to avoid."
"And get away from those houses."
"Roger that," Joseph came back on line. "Sorry for the mishap."
Hovering over the houses, waiting for different system-checks to finish their cycle, Joseph retracted the landing struts and waited impatiently, thinking about the cause of this latest little incident:
Joseph Wately threw away a five of diamonds and got back a seven of hearts. That gave him a straight. That was earlier in the game.
"I'll raise three hundred thousand," he said, throwing in a few green-coded chips. Two other players dropped their cards. They were out. The pot was bigger than they wanted to risk and bigger than anyone had anticipated that evening. There was over three million credits in this one hand alone, currently, and if this was to be the last hand, Joseph hoped it wouldn't be his last. He was gambling with high rollers in a private game on the seventieth floor of the hotel Parawan, on Santorna 5. A beautiful planet and a very exclusive place this far in, towards galaxy center. And even though the security was darn good, for the private, though illegal, establishment, for it was run like a casino itself, he did not like it that there were as many of these high and mighty rollers sitting around with their private brooding backup bodyguards so near who looked like they could eat nails for a snack.
Their poor playing bosses bored him, though, bragging about all their business conquests, or their fancy women and other possessions, or talking about what wonderful lovers they were, when most of them were nothing more than fat slobs with bad health habits and little else going for them in the looks department but lots and lots of money coming out of their ears.
Only four were left in this hand, now. Only three of them were winners and he was one of them. He had the biggest stakes on the table and piled up on the edge, now. The one who had the least was a sore looser that smoked cigars unceasingly and ate peanuts as though there was a shortage. He had lost most of his chips to Joseph like most people there, and there was no love lost between the two or any of the others.
"No. I take that back," he said, "if I may. I'm all-in, if there are no objections."
There were none and he got the nod from the overseer. Everyone salivated at the thought of winning so much, if they could get away with it. After all, there was the possibility of becoming very, very wealthy with this hand. The winner would take almost everything in the room. The privately run house would get its cut of seventeen percent, but it would definitely be the last glorious hand.
One of them tossed his cards. The sore looser. He was done. The two remaining players still thought they had a chance. They didn't. Joseph knew exactly what they held.
They joined the pot, all three of them, now, all-in. Over 27 million in the pot, now, winner take all. Everyone's eyes in the room were on the table. He tossed his cards out,
No contest. The one who lost the most, sitting beside Joseph, merely put his cards onto the table and offered his hand, after a deep, sigh.
"A brilliant game sir. I congratulate you on your skills and your luck. Perhaps we'll meet, again."
"Thank you," Joseph replied, trying to be as humble as he felt, yet, not liking the last comment, allowing suspicion to loom its ugly head. This was just a game, but a game he was obsessed with, and was good at. But these guys were vicious business men or gangsters, or, corrupt politicians, he didn't know for sure. They would just as soon kill you as look into your eyes. But Joseph had known their types most of his life and he was better at cards than most. Very good at it. Of course he cheated.
His medical reconstruction, following a bad, bad accident in space, years before, had left him almost an android, though it was completely undetectable. He knew what their cards were because he could see through the back of the cards. When dealing, he could tell by the feel of the ink on their faces, while throwing them out, through his artificial skin, what everyone had, without ever having seen the cards. Even smell came into the picture when he wanted to know something. Not about the cards, but the pheromones others released when they got a great hand, or a hand they thought they wanted to bluff with. They all smelled differently but Joseph had learned to discern which was what. Still, he didn't win all the time, but very often. Often enough to dispel any suspicion that might be raised against him. He was known to be a very sharp player, and that's how Joseph hoped the evening would end. Period. But these big hands seldom did.
And it hadn't. The polite one had come after him as he left the hotel. He saw the guy himself shooting at him through his open car window as Joseph turned out of the hotel's curved driveway from the entrance. He left fast in his rental car with the additional weight of extra lead bullets rattling and sticking to the side of it. Fortunately for him, it had the security shielding package, and the bullets merely embedded on the clear plastic surface. Which only made him glad he had rented a fast one, an Osterra four-fifty. It was well equipped to handle most evening disasters such as this ... In its safety, Joseph had left the rich thug and his people in the dust but not before he saw what his men were holding. But they hadn't given up following him all the way to the commercial space port. Somehow, they knew who he was and where he was going.
Minutes later, on board the ship, Angela's voice came across all too clearly over the cockpit speakers: "Grave drive functional; Atmosphere shields on line; Inertia canceller on line; Clear for lift," her voice all business.
"Initiate," Joseph yelled.
"We'll kill people below us. I'm already moving up around that hill and slowly ascending. We can lift without reprisals in seventeen seconds."
"Good," Joseph said, checking the screens. She was right of course, but the gambler's thugs had gotten into one man people movers and where coming their way. He could see there little clearance lights and they were all holding rifles. They bobbed up over the trees now as their ship moved around the hill. They just might catch them.
"I see them too, Joseph. They can't hurt us now. The shields are active. I've checked. A P880 cannon can't penetrate the atmosphere shields."
"I sure hope you're right."
They began to hear the thick pinging of rifle fire against the hull, or, more precisely, cannon fire. Even though it was still protected, the cannon made some racket when it impacted on the surface.
The ship finally lifted, disappearing into the black, star filled sky, Joseph briefly catching sight of those tumbling people movers, behind them, caught in the wake of their turbulence.
They'd be okay, he knew, 'if' they had strapped themselves in. Thugs could sometimes be awfully stupid about safety precautions.
"At least the cargo didn't shift," Joseph said, checking the bays. They had been loaded and weren't scheduled to leave until the following day.
Angela was silent.
"I'm sorry," he finally said. I know I put you in danger every time this happens." Those killers could have damaged the ship badly, or killed both Angela and himself, and they both knew it. The ship was like Angela's body, all its sensors as real and as feeling to her as her own flesh and blood.
"It's irresponsible, Joseph. You know that? If you don't care about yourself, then think about me. I could have been badly hurt."
"Yes. I know. I regret my actions. Do you want to hear about it?"
"Why? So you can justify your actions to me? If you care so little for my safety, then why don't you sell me. I'm sure some poor pilot somewhere would appreciate a good ship."
Joseph looked at the thick central pillar in the cafeteria, where Angela was housed. She was behind several thick sheets of titanium, bolted in place, and sealed. She had her own life support and other systems, where contaminants were far removed from her daily routine. She was the heart of the brain ship, laying there fully paralyzed. Brain ships were far superior than automated craft and superior to even a computer, although she utilized them. Though she was almost impregnable inside her shell, he couldn't get to her if he tried. It was for her safety so she could do her job with all that sensitive equipment inside and accessible to only her. Special bolts and seals, the very thickness of the materials, super sophisticated tech' made it hard to comprehend what these brain ship people had taken upon themselves. Only a specialist team was authorized to enter and service her and Angela's functions, again, for her safety. Yet he was often disappointed he could not hold her in his arms and ask her forgiveness, as he did now, for example, at that hour, for he wanted to very badly.
He hated himself for putting Angela in such jeopardy.
"That is the last time I'm going gamble, I swear it."
There was no response. Then...
"Let me see you?" he asked, speaking mildly.
"I want to tell you something."
But after several minutes of both of them being silent, the big screen in the cafeteria flickered on. Angela's body was naked, of course, wrapped in her mesh, but golden and glowing. She was so fair, so beautiful it made him swallow every time he'd seen it. The automation kept her perfectly toned and preserved and she would stay young forever. He went to the screen and touched her visual.
"I'll never do it again, Angela. I give you my solemn promise as a member of the High Court of Epsilon. I promise you as a Prince of the Royal House of Arn, I will never gamble with our lives or for money, ever again."
He could see her reaction as she struggled to look at him with her natural, ice blue eyes. With all the sensory information coming into her mind through micro fiber networks, and wiring, and that helmet encasing most of her skull, it wasn't easy to do, he knew.
She was finally able to focus on his image. He could see the love in those eyes. A small, barely discernable peach colored grin flowed over her beautiful lips like a small stream and held itself there.
"I know you mean that. Thank you, Joseph." Her features were beyond beautiful when she spoke.
"I'm in love with you, Angela."
It must have caught her by surprise. Her grin erupted into a huge smile.
Hesitantly Angela replied. He knew she was unused to this king of thing. Who was?
"I'm love you, too, Joseph, but we shouldn't speak of such things. We can never be together. You know that."
"Not necessarily. Remember the Autarians and their medical wonders. I've confirmed it. They are real. And now we have enough money for any procedures you and I may have. After the delivery, we'll go directly to their planet. How does that sound to you."
"I don't know. I don't want to believe in such things, I've been disappointed so many times. But I want to believe it's real and can happen. I want it so much."
"You'll loose your sensory attachments. That will be a hard adjustment, you know, but you'll readapt."
"Yes. Maybe, Joseph."
"You can. And it is real. Believe me, I researched it thoroughly."
"Joseph. Did you know the cafeteria's viewer is a touch screen?"
His hand was over her shoulder and one breast. He quickly removed it.
"You could feel that?"
"Like your hand was there."
"Don't be. But don't make it a habit."
Their next stop, brought them one step closer to Autaria.
Benza was a planet that had existed in its own distant system, and rather isolated there, in a region of space outside the galactic web, in a blank spot. Joseph was anxious to get moving again, but he needed a day and a night out on the town doing something. Ship life could get awfully dull at times, he'd experienced, even though there were no shortages of entertainment on board. He realized, like so many before him, you need other people around you, sometimes. It was an odd sort of social interaction and requirement of the human condition, but there it was. How the brain ship people dealt with it was a mystery. Perhaps it was all there extra sensors that did it for them? Anyway. We weren't meant to be alone, he knew. It was unnatural. But getting along with others very different from himself, was the challenge, wasn't it?