“The problem with relationships,” Joules thought as she sulked her way behind the Starbus controls on final approach to Buffalo Commons, “Was that you end up spending time thinking about them.” That wasn't what a relationship was for. A relationship was supposed to ease the burden, halve the load, and divert the mind.
That's why some people were “in love with being in love.” For although the other person remained on your mind like a fever, it was a pleasant diversion from the general misery of life.
Joules knew she had violated her own rule. She had done what she'd accused so many others of. She'd gone too fast in her mind. And now the gap between reality and her desire was widening. She chided herself for this. He was just a moment's diversion. Anything more would've required both of them to change things and Joules liked her life the way it was.
No, correct that, she really liked her life the way it was. She remembered before, too painfully remembered it. Compromises and small concessions that built up over time until she was subjugated to the will of another, well, never again that. Not in this lifetime anyway.
She brought the Starbus around gracefully, with the pride of a pilot who knew that unless her passengers were looking outside they wouldn't even know the craft had turned. They cut through the upper atmosphere gently; speed was already down to a few hundred kilometers an hour. It kept outer hull temperatures to a reasonable range, well within the safeties, even though fighting the gravitational pull of the earth did gobble up power at a higher rate.
The weather was sour in this area. Joules could see flashes of lightning in the distance, a horizon they were rapidly approaching. She fought the buffets of high-pressure winds as they entered a driving rain. Space was prone to water showers and the flaps used to direct pressurized wind across the viewports so she could see weren't adequate. Joules found herself navigating by controls.
She didn't like the idea of dropping anyone off in this mess. It was starting to seem like Monsoon season out there. Joules rechecked the landing zone Alex had contracted for. It was a rather remote section of the Commons by the looks of it, and luckily only a hundred and fifty kilometers from the coordinates El Bazaar gave her for his cargo. Joules was tempted to hang around that site, incognito of course, and see who and what showed up for two crates of rocks.
As the Starbus cleared a grove of trees and came over the landing spot Joules saw through the driving rain that she was heading for a clearing, a man-made clearing by the looks of it, and a recently managed one at that. Maybe it was a common landing point for them, although she doubted that.
She brought her craft down with the skill of an expert pilot, even though she really only knew how to fly this one. The soft landing was deliberate, Joules had no reason to take her disappointment with Alex out on the rest of her passengers, and then she rose keying the systems to stand-by as she moved aft for the stairwell down.
Joules had considered staying topside until everyone left so she wouldn't have to see him again, and worse still, say “good-bye”, but her motto “Living well is the best revenge” wouldn't mean anything if she couldn't convince him that she was already over him. Maybe she'd flirt with one of the others, just to drive the point home?
The hatch was already open when she got to the bottom of the stairwell but no one was getting off. In fact, as Joules cleared the last step she realized people outside were approaching her Starbus from the cover of the bush.
Not knowing if this was expect Joules turned aft, toward the line of standing people occupying her bay.
“There's your ride!” She said cheerfully, trying to see Alex without letting on she was looking, “Everybody out.”
The swarthy one, Yuri, stepped forward pressing through the group to stand before her, “Change of plans. Only one is getting off here.”
“Oh?” Joules surprise was unrestrained, now she was looking to Alex so she could renegotiate the price, “I see,” She didn't, “Well, everything's already on board so the additional charges won't be much more…”
She stopped as Yuri stepped forward menacingly. It wasn't so much him that stopped her; in a street fight she could handle him, but the mass of them doing the same thing suddenly amped her personal alarm-o-meter well into the red zone.
A moment later she was being manhandled out the front hatch. She hadn't even gotten a good kick in. “Wait a minute! Alex!”
Yuri followed as the two muscular thugs dragged her further from the Starbus. He stood at the top of the fore ramp blocking her way back in. Up from behind, working through the throng, Alex came forward.
Joules was livid, “What the hell are you doing?”
Yuri ignored her, barking orders in Russian at the wet ones approaching with their wagon, “There are two crates in the hold, clear them out and put that stuff aboard.”
Then she got it, Joules strained forward and rasped, “You're not taking my ship!”
Alex was already there. He looked at her with pity, his arms flat on either side of his body, “I'm sorry Joules, we are.”
Joules lunged now, leapt actually, slipping out of the grip of the two thugs pulling her out and closing the distance between her and Yuri in a half second. She'd already smashed his nose in before anyone pulled her off. As they dragged her back out to the clearing she screamed at them. “No! This is my ship!”
Though impressed and a little wary because of what she'd done to Yuri, Alex followed them out. The two, barely avoiding the kicks, spits and scratches from the wildcat they were trying to contain, grew rougher in their handling the more she struggled.
The final straw for one of them was when she somehow twisted her wrist and gouged his forearm with her fingernails. He yelped, let go of her and then in a fit of anger reached for this pistol, withdrew it and brought it to bear on her. Only Alex's quick intervention kept him from shooting her right there. “No! That is not to happen.”
Joules shook her head; she just realized that Alex was speaking with a Russian accent now. No, not a Russian accent, he was speaking Russian. They all were. It was enough to take the fight out of her as she looked around and realized that she'd just ferried a squad of New Soviet soldiers into the heart of Network territory.
They tossed her to the ground, but she rose quickly. Defiantly. A tight wire of a person, ready to do battle with Lions, but smart enough not to lunge toward the twin gun muzzles facing her.
“What's mine is mine.” Joules said defiantly, and in clear Russian. She took only a single step forward, emphasizing her point as she continued, “If you take what is mine I will track you down and hurt each one of you in ways you can't even imagine.”
Yuri was screaming at him to put her out of their misery. “Shoot the bitch!” he bellowed in the gutter slang of west end Moscow.
Without flinching more than his right thumb, Alexei Podarkin, as his traveling companions knew him, flicked the switch on his sidearm to it's lowest setting.
“I'm sorry, Joules,” he said in a cultured British accent before bringing the gun up and firing it at Joules' chest knocking her to the ground forcefully.
Alexei turned and followed his Comrades back up the ramp and inside the Starbus. The big challenge now was flying the monster.