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Chapter 17 - Can’t Trace Time by A.J. Hall

“Are you quite sure you can fly that thing?” Owen looked along the sleek, sinister, hellishly complicated length of the light-flyer, and resisted the temptation to say, “Good dog” to it. “After all, we’re invited. No need to - ah, crash the party.”

Bel’s eyes had a wicked sparkle. It patted his arm. “Trust me. I’m a -“

Owen frowned, mock-serious. “Don’t finish that sentence. Just - don’t.”

“No? Well don’t fuss so. I’ve got galactically recognised qualifications for piloting at least 52 different types of non-jump vessels. Up to and including combat drop shuttles.”

It cast a look down, and twisted its mouth in a half-amused grimace. “Not usually in cerulean satin evening gowns, admittedly. Did you blow all your credit on it?”

Owen half-closed one eye, the better to admire his recent purchase, and, more to the point, the elegantly athletic body beneath it. The plunging neckline, picked out with rows of tiny sapphires (synthetically produced, but in crystalline structure identical to the real thing), led the eye - where it would undoubtedly have been going anyway. Owen had no patience with girls who went off and got boob-jobs; he, personally, had no complaints about Bel’s cleavage. No bra, either; another plus point, though possibly round here they just stitched anti-grav into the bodices. It worked, whatever. Below Bel’s waist the gown, bias-cut, fell full to the floor, swirling out with every stride of the long rangy legs, every provocative twist of those ambiguous hips.

“Mostly it was Hasek’s credit I blew. Seemed a shame to waste the credit chits, as you’d gone to the trouble of nicking them. Anyway, it was the only one in the shop which matched your eyes.”

Eyes which, abruptly, caught his, with an expression which no-one could mistake. The fire which burned in them went straight to his cock. Blood pounded in his ears. And elsewhere.

This is too much, too soon. And then again: I have been here before.

He felt like a spare part as Bel turned its head away. Sure hands were on the canopy, raising it; confident feet mounted the cockpit steps; practised routines of take-off were being muttered, sotto voce.

Cloud blankets the Bristol Channel. Behind it, the low sun of early morning starts to strengthen. It changes from pearl to diamond and then to the embodiment of blazing destruction as the mist burns off. A Cessna engine purrs into life; a light plane starts to taxi down the runway, speeding up as it goes, travelling out of his life, out of this world, out of time. In his ear-piece he can hear the control tower awaken, start to realise the wrongness of what is happening below it. But neither he nor the control tower can prevent the inevitability of take-off.

“Jump in, Owen, for God’s sake, and stop messing about!”

History does not repeat itself.

Owen jumped. The light-flyer banked over the snow-enhanced heights of Vorbarra Sultana. The setting sun struck sparks off the gilding on the roof of a cluster of buildings far below. The light-flyer turned and arrowed away from the city, across the darkening plains.

They had, Owen guessed, been travelling for about ninety minutes; in silence, for the most part, companionable and a little weary. Too much had happened in the last two days. There were too many unknowns at the end of the journey. Here in this lighted capsule above the silent planet it was possible to pretend the world was sane, and made sense.

Bel let out a low whistle. It gestured towards the schematic on the dashboard.

“Twelve years of your life, and still you think it isn’t actually real.”

Owen had no idea what it was going on about. He bent to the dash. The Dendarii Gorge was splayed across the online map. Buggered if he knew what or where it was, but if it mattered to Bel -

“We can always be fashionably late,” he breathed. “You want to go there, you do it.” He paused. “You’re in the driver’s seat, after all.”