Light from the two moons cast conflicting shadows across the roadway. Iris crept along as silently as she could, so far eluding notice from the patrol drones that circled lazily overhead.
Twenty minutes until the last boat left the colony for good, taking with it the last of the mining equipment. She quickened her steps. Timing was everything tonight. She couldn’t afford to be a moment too early or too late.
A glow from the landing pad at the station grew brighter with her every step. Soon, the faint outline of the transport ship became visible.
The Union had stripped the small planet of all it considered valuable and was moving on, leaving behind the colonists, to survive as they would.
The comm in her ear buzzed. “Are you here?” Rathe asked.
His voice, deep and masculine, epitomized strength and intelligence for her. Her heartbeat quickened and she took a deep breath before answering.
“Almost. I thought you were going to take care of the drones?”
“I disabled as many as I could, but the Union is still monitoring. Control until the last minute, I guess.”
“I’ll see you in a second.” Iris ducked behind a scraggly bush as another drone flew overhead, then hurried the last few steps to the station.
The gate that protected the landing pad stood ajar. Apparently, despite their monitoring, the Union didn’t fear a last-minute attack.
Iris slipped through the crack and toward the pad.
There wasn’t even a guard in sight. All Union members must be safely aboard the boat, ready to move on.
She trotted the length of the ship to the cargo bay at the far end.
Rathe stepped from behind the landing gear. “It’s about time. I was getting worried about you.”
Iris smiled, willing her stuttering heart to slow.
Rathe put a hand on her shoulder. “Come on.”
He showed her the panel that opened the third of five storage bays. “This is where the equipment is.”
Rathe nodded and patted her shoulder. “My information is good.”
The warmth of his hand radiated through her. She smiled at him, then turned to the control panel. Only the right combination of buttons, gears, and keys would open the hatch. Any wrong move would set off an alarm.
“Okay. Be quiet, I need to concentrate.”
The Union programmers were predictable, despite their layers of protection. They had to make combinations that could be remembered by the average cargo handler. Figuring out the combination of buttons was mostly a matter of examining keystroke patterns using her infrared glasses and dusting powder.
The gears were similar to old safe locks, clicking into place when they reached the right position, so listening with her high-powered stethoscope made that part go quickly.
The hard part was the key. It took a specialized key that made picking the lock a long, slow process. She pulled her tools out and began the process of unlocking the mechanical lock.
“Hurry,” Rathe whispered.
“Sh. I’m almost there.”
When she had all the gears in place, she motioned to Rathe. “When I say, I need you to turn the middle peg.”
Finally, she began on the electric lock system, downloading the specs into her handheld data processor, a device she’d put together herself just for this purpose.
The information transmitted to her processor and she reconfigured the information into the magnetic chip on the keycard Rathe had manufactured.
“Ready?” she asked.
“On three. One…two…three.”
Rathe turned the pick key and Iris swiped the card.
The locks clicked open.
Rathe grinned and gently squeezed her arm. “That’s my girl.”
Heat rose to Iris’s cheeks, but she forced her smile to remain stoic.
Rathe helped lower the heavy door and Iris climbed inside just as the ship’s engines engaged and started to warm up.
“We only have a few minutes,” Rathe hissed.
Iris grabbed the first box and handed it out the open bay door. He set each box down and reached for the next.
Piece by piece, she handed Rathe the equipment until the cargo bay was empty. “That’s it.”
The engines rumbled, making the whole ship shake.
Rathe glanced at his timepiece. “Hurry and help me move this stuff out of the way so it doesn’t get damaged in the burn.”
He held out his hand and helped Iris climb from the bay.
Together, they ran the boxes of equipment to the edge of the pad.
“That’s the last one,” Iris said. “You take it, and I’ll get the door. If we’re lucky, they won’t even notice it’s missing until they reach the next planet. By the time they come back, we’ll have our infrastructure secure from Union invasion.”
Iris pushed the bay door closed and engaged the locks.
An alarm sounded.
For a moment, Iris just stared at the lock mechanism. She hadn’t done anything to trigger the alarm, she was sure of it.
The door to the passenger bay opened and a half a dozen Union guards tramped out, led by Union Captain Andon himself.
He leered at Iris. “Well, well. What have we here?”
Iris sank to her knees. “My pardon, Lord Captain. I was trying to stow on board.”
She hoped Rathe would take the hint and stay hidden. Even if they took her prisoner, at least he’d still have the equipment.
The Captain chuckled. “I heard rumors of someone who could pick our locks, but I didn’t believe it.” He stroked her cheek with gloved fingers. “Brilliant and beautiful. The Union will make sure your talents are put to good use. I trust you have what you need?”
Iris looked up, confused, until she realized the captain wasn’t talking to her.
He was talking past her.
She glanced over her shoulder.
“Yes, Lord Captain,” Rathe said.
Iris looked from the captain to Rathe and back again. “Wha—”
“Good,” the captain said. “In exchange for your help in uncovering this terrorist sabotage, the Union grants you governorship of this planet. Welcome to the Union.”
Iris stared at Rathe. His eyes held the tiniest hint of remorse when he glanced at her, but he remained in proper Union Submissive Stance, eyes lowered and arms stiff at his sides.
“Very good. Thank you, Governor.”
Iris eyed the open gate at the edge of the landing pad. If she made a break for it…
“Men, take her into custody,” the captain said.
Iris darted toward the open gate.
Rathe lunged toward her, knocking her to the ground. Tears stung her eyes. “How could you?”
“Don’t you see? I did it for the colony. Now we can live in peace. I’m sorry that the price of freedom was at your expense, but it was for the greater good. You would’ve done the same thing. For the colony.”
The guards hauled her to her feet and pulled her toward the ship.
“You didn’t save the colony. You sold it into slavery. You betrayed your people. You betrayed me.”
Rathe shook his head and turned away, toward his bounty, stacked in the dirt to the side of the landing pad.
Iris struggled against the guards, impotent in their grasp, as they dragged her aboard the ship.
“Enjoy it while you can, traitor,” she screamed at Rathe. “I’ll be back, and I’ll free my people from the Union, and from you!”