2947-03-19 - Tales from the Inbox: Junia's Goodbye

This episode of Tales from the Inbox completes the tale which started in Tales from the Inbox: Junia's Frontier and Tales from the Inbox: Junia's Gamble.

With the appearance of the dog, the three men confronting Gus at the compound entrance all reacted differently. The man in front, not having enough time to process Anas’s small size and seeing the animal rushing directly toward him, took an alarmed step backwards, stumbled, and fell onto his back. The  man behind him leapt for the meager cover offered by a small tree while drawing his gun, and the third, farthest from the door, stood his ground, drew his gun, and fired it into the open doorway, where Gus’s shadow was already diving for cover.

The rattle and crackle of a stream of ferroceramic slugs shattering against the durable structure’s outer wall didn’t quite hide Junia’s gasp of alarm, and the fourth man, previously distracted by the confrontation, whirled and spotted her crouching in the open cabin of one of the band’s lighters. A gun appeared in his hand as he stalked closer, and Junia ducked out of sight, searching frantically for something that might get her out of her predicament. The spartan little aircraft had almost no internal cargo stowage, and other than the maintenance toolkit stowed under one seat, there was nothing she could pick up, much less fight off an armed man with. Outside, railshot growled and spat across the meadows around the compound, punctuated occasionally with sharp cracks from Blake’s hunting rifle. The noise didn’t quite hide the crunch of the fourth man’s boots as he crept toward the lighter.

Junia, seeing no alternative, waited until she heard the brigand’s boot on the metal step built into the side of the craft, then leapt out, hoping to pass over his head and land on the gravel behind him. The gamble went badly from the start – her foot caught on one of the acceleration-padded seats. With a shriek of surprise more than anger, Junia tumbled over the side, collided with her pursuer, and bowled him over.

Junia, landing on the man and knocking the wind out of him, recovered first. Seeing that the gun was no longer in his hand, she rolled away and hunted blindly in the shadows, guessing where it might have fallen.

A man’s scream of pain – she hoped fervently that it wasn’t Gus or Blake – indicated that the cacophony of gunfire in front of the compound had drawn its first blood, but Anas, still barking and yipping in confusion, seemed not to notice the streams of deadly pellets tearing through the air around him.

Gasping, the lighter guard got his knees under him just as Junia’s hand closed on the gun. Gus had, citing the possibility of just such a raid, taught the teenager the basic use of a rail handgun, so by the time its owner had risen to his feet, he found his own gun, safety disengaged, pointing in his direction.

At that moment, someone in the compound turned on every one of the exterior floodlights which surrounded the structure, bathing everything for a hundred meters in cold white light. Junia shaded her eyes and backed away, blinking furiously, but the man didn’t make a move – he was just as blinded as she was, and still gasping for breath.

When her eyes cleared, Junia finally got a good look at the man the little raiding band had left to guard their lighters, and found that he wasn’t a man at all – he was a tall, lanky teenager, obviously no older than she was, his hollow cheeks comically decorated with wisps of what could only charitably be described as sideburns.

“Y-you going to shoot me?” The other teen stammered.

Junia hesitated. The battle in front of the compound was already petering out, and the repetitive crack of Blake’s rifle told Junia who was winning. The compound would hold – she could only hope its two rough but brave defenders had not been wounded. There was no telling what the men would do with a prisoner – even a teenaged one – and they would never allow a stranger into the compound, where the secret of Sapphire’s unauthorized presence on Berkant would be impossible to keep from him. No, she wouldn’t kill him – but if he stayed, he would be just as trapped as she was.

“Can you fly one of these?” Junia asked the lanky youth, gesturing with the gun at one of the lighters. Even as she said it, Sapphire’s oddly final goodbye was fresh in her memory. This, she saw, was her chance. A clean break from her mother, a clean break from the motley little homestead on the Frontier.

“Uh… Sure? Why-”

“Anas!” Junia shouted. Calling the dog would probably reveal what she was doing to Blake, but that couldn’t be helped. “Here, boy!”

Faithful as always, the little dog, miraculously unscathed by the fierce gunfight, rushed through the tall grass to Junia’s side. With a wave, she ordered the young man up into the lighter she’d been hiding in. “Get in.”

He obeyed the order without question, vaulting up into the small aircraft. Junia, watching warily, scooped up Anas and climbed up herself, letting the dog out of her arms only after the cabin had closed. Since the seats were arranged in a row, it was easy to keep a gun on the young man in the pilot’s chair without taking her eyes off where the craft was pointed. “Get us airborne and give me comms to the homestead. Don’t make me shoot you and try to land this myself.” The threat sounded silly even to her own ears; Junia winced, glad her captive was facing away from her and unable to see it.

Twenty seconds later, the lighter was airborne, and the young brigand opened a comms channel back down to the ground. “What do you want and what have you done with my- with the girl?” Faye’s voice was nearly hysterical.

Junia winced at the alarm she had caused her mother. “Mom, it’s me. I’m fine.”

“What do they want, Junia?”

Junia, shaking her head though the audio link didn’t allow her mother to see it, thought of how to best explain the situation. “No, Mom. I’m not… I’ve got the gun up here. Is everyone okay down there?”

“Gus was grazed a few times, but I’ve bandaged…” There was a long, uncomfortable pause. “I don’t understand.” By her tone, Faye clearly did, but she didn’t want to admit it.

“Listen, Mom. I need to go. We both know it.” Junia didn’t have a plan, but there would be hours of flying to sit through before the little aircraft reached any destination of note. There was still more than enough time to plan. “I’m going to make him take me to the city. Maybe I can sign up with a crew.”

“Junia.” Gus’s voice, hoarse from shouting at the would-be bandits, broke in. “You’ll never get a berth that way.”

“He’s right, dear, just come-”

“There’s a ship in the ‘port right now called the Kiriake Tarok. Call up and tell them I sent you. The captain’s an old friend.”

“Gus! Don’t-”

“Faye, she’s made up her mind. Might as well get her hired on with a decent sort of spacer.”

“Thanks, Gus.” Junia tapped the barrel of the gun on the young pilot’s shoulder, then pointed in the direction of the spaceport city. Breathing a sigh of relief that he was not being ordered down into captivity, the young man pulled the aircraft out of its holding circle and pointed it in the indicated direction. “Mom…” Swallowing against a lump in her throat, Junia paused. “I’ll be in touch.”

Whatever response Faye might have sent, the lighter crossed the hill and lost its connection to the compound’s comms antenna. The connection died away into a hiss of static, and the teenaged pilot turned it off with one trembling hand.

Junia didn’t dare look back – she kept her eyes forward, focusing on the horizon where the spaceport would soon appear.

Junia's departure from the Berkant compound represents the beginning of her life as a member of our interstellar community, or so the submissions in her name claim. As with her name and her mother's name, the name of the ship on whose crew she serves has been altered.

An epilogue of sorts to her story indicates that the odd family unit she left behind on Berkant moved on not long after she left, though for obvious reasons no new location for this group of individuals was provided to me.