CHAPTER NAVIGATION BAR
TALES OF BUFFALO COMMONS
" KEEN "
Bruce heard Joule's scream and rushed around the Starbus trying to find some place he could lay down on and see her. He called out but no words came back, instead it was just a steady sobbing.* * *
Finally he found a clearance, deep enough for him to fit under even if it were too narrow and shallow for him to go far, but he could clearly hear Joules' nervous bawling. “Joules, honey?”
“I'm stuck!” She replied with terror evident in her voice, “I'm going to die here!”
“No, Joules. No, you're not. You're going to get this out of your system and then you're going to refocus.”
“I can't!” She exclaimed with the defiance of the defeated. “I give up. Open a hatch and end this!”
Bruce was worried now but he tightened his jaw and forced himself to speak in calm and reassuring tones, the same tones he'd used last fall when that season's advertising campaign faltered badly and the Executives raked him over the coals for three hours solid. It was one of the reasons they hadn't fired him. Bruce had nothing to back up his gut-feeling the campaigned needed time to build up momentum except his confidence that it did.
“You're a strong woman, Joules. Just take a moment and give yourself time to refocus.”
“I've got ants crawling all over me!” She shrieked frantically.
“Are they biting you?” His voice remained calm even though he knew that if the ants were biting and they were poisonous there was little he could do.
“What?” Her voice was quieter now.
“Are they biting you?”
“I don't think so.” Her reply was almost sheepish. Like a little girl who had thought the world was ending but couldn't supply any proof.
“You'd know if they were.”
“Is that a good thing?”
“Yes, Love. It is. Listen, can you go back the way you came?”
“Why would I do that?”
“To free yourself. I'm not saying all the way back just until you are loose. Can you do that?”
There was quiet and then he heard grunting as Joules struggled. It was harder as there was nothing to grab and pull herself with but after squirming a moment she was successful. The pressure was off her hips and Joules could breath freely again. It almost seemed as though the air around had cooled down as well.
“Okay. I'm loose.” There was a tiny glimmer of hope in her voice now. It was a good sign.
“Good. Now feel around the area you got stuck in, you should be able to dig a wider opening now.”
She felt around. Her battered knuckles, bleeding for sure, stung with each swipe as dirt mixed with sweat and blood. Her hands ached and her nails were shredded but with each action she was able to remove a bit more of the compressed dirt. Why'd she land on a worn dry patch? Why did that patch have to be right here, beneath the hatch?
Actually Joules realized that her eyes had adjusted to the light under the Starbus. She could see the terrain better and with that vision came the realization that the depression beneath the Pod Hatch went almost all the way to the far side of the craft. Had she begun by digging there she'd had quickly cleared an access both her and Bruce could've easily navigated.
She was tempted to retreat entirely and do just that but the ground beneath her belly was starting to give way more easily now, she was already here and nearly in place. Backing out might get her trapped in a different way and she didn't ever need to experience that sense of confinement again.
Joules wriggled into the wedge again, stretching for the far end of the hatch, struggling to pull out the recessed grip there. Then, firmly gripping the titanium hand hold, she summoned every erg of strength remaining to pull herself.
The space was still too tight, she wiggled trying to squeeze through it, squeezed while she pulled with seemingly Herculean effort but she realized she had another problem. Every effort to pull herself between the ship and the ground was also resulting in her squeezing out of her pants like a snake shedding its skin.
She reached back to pull her pants up and realized that they had actually snagged on something on the bottom of the Starbus. Joules closed her eyes, the frustration peaking inside ready to erupt in a fit of temper that would most surely frighten Bruce and any small animal for kilometers. Why this? Why now? What more indignity must she suffer?
A slip of laughter escaped instead as a neuron in her brain made the connection. Just a few days ago she willingly stripped for El Bazaar just to get parts for this craft. And if she'd lost the final bet she wouldn't done much worse. Why was she worried about being bottomless while under her Starbus, in the dark no less, a few hours drive from any settlement?
She closed her eyes, took in a deep breath and shrugged. If that's what it took fine, the pants were an extra few centimeters, the loss of which could actually benefit this effort.
It did, in a roundabout way. As she shed the pants and her bare skin came into contact with the Starbus hull the sweat pouring off her began to act as a lubricant and soon the effort passed and she came through the tight space like a child in the last throws of birth.
Joules released her elation as she cleared through. She gasped in the ecstasy of success as she regained her breath. But this was only the first stage. Summoning residual energy, the type that seemed to come from an unknown reservoir and was only there because of momentum, Joules swung around, landing on her back and in position directly beneath the hatch controls.
She reached down to pull her panties up but as the material slid up her legs and she felt the grit she abandoned that idea. Nature was bad enough, but she wasn't going to rub it into her tender areas.
Then, trying not to think about the raw dirt on her bare ass, she reached for the bottom hatch controls and brought the interface to life.
If Alexei and his crew had thought to booby-trap this hatch then the forensic investigators would have quite the story to piece together trying to explain how a half naked woman ended up under the flaming wreck she might be about to create. She pushed that thought, as darkly humorous as it was, out of her mind and then set the hatch to open.
Care and concern for a friend can blind you to common sense things. Like getting a safe distance from a booby-trapped space craft when someone is about to open a hatch that could trigger it to explode, but such thoughts were 'another thousand miles' away from him, as the saying went, and Bruce's only concern now was that Joules successfully and safely made it inside.
Perhaps, Bruce thought, the reason he wasn't moving for cover was because he now realized his feelings for Joules were so intense that he couldn't survive witnessing her death. Unless she reciprocated Bruce consigned himself to seeking treatment for this. In the long run it wouldn't be healthy.
For now, he simply peered into the darkness hoping against hope that she'd be successful.
* * *
As they made their way across the uneven terrain Alexei made sure that the Starbus never left his sight. The first sign the craft began moving would trigger his immediate order to seek cover.
But could Joules disable the explosives? Could she disable the charges, by-pass the triggers? Yuri knew his stuff and Alexei had overseen most of the work. Some of the charges were in places that would take a blood-hound to find. Much as Alexei didn't want Joules engulfed in the flames of her exploding craft it did seem at this point that was the most ideal resolution.
“We should shoot out a window.” It was a rare utterance from the Siberian.
“Won't work.” Alexei replied phrase-for-phrase figuring the Siberian would be satisfied with the same sort of statements he gave.
That was a surprise. Ipovich rarely said two words, and never questioned orders. Before Alexei could answer though the stocky blonde Karsla spoke, “Even the windows are composites designed to withstand impacts at thousands of kilometers an hour.”
“Paint chips at twenty-thousand klicks an hour.” Added Podarkin, “At least that's what the brochures say.”
Ipovich grunted his acceptance of the answer, their bullets wouldn't break the seal and the shots would announce their approach, bad strategy. In silence the trio trudged on while Podarkin continued to peer ahead wondering when the beast would come to life and if they were going to be able to slay it when it did.
* * *
For no logical reason, as any explosion would incinerate her instantly, Joules closed her eyes tight as she triggered the bottom hatch to open. The door slid open without incident, the guide lights came on as the side tracks prepared for the instruction to tractor the pod inside.
Joules climbed in, standing as she did, climbing up and straddling one corner of the lower pod bay and wondering how she was going to make her way to the top hatch, a full metre beyond her reach.
That was next minute's problem, she climbed back down and grabbed both her pants and panties. In the light and coolness of the pod bay she brushed herself off, dusted off the clothes and then, despite lingering grit, she re-dressed creating at least the image of normalcy. As she climbed back up she removed the handset from her pants pocket and then closed the bottom hatch behind her, providing a stable floor at least.
“I'm inside, what's next?”
Gilmore tied into the Starbus through the Aerocar interface and began adjusting the Shuttle Pod Bay's atmosphere to exactly match the rest of the Starbus' interior. “Once I equalize the bay to the ship you can manually pop the hatch. Carefully, manually pop the hatch.”
“Just one problem with that.” Joules voice came over Gilmore's speaker with a flippant, almost challenging tone. “I can't reach the top.”
Gilmore stopped at that, his brow furrowed, but unlike Joules he never gave a second thought about his looks. “Use the corner steps.”
Joules looked at the corners. Sure enough there were little, single hand width bars every 30 centimetres. Wide enough for a single foot to stand on, wide enough for a single hand to grip. It wouldn't be easy, Joules thought as she took hold of the first step and began climbing, but why should things change now?
* * *