When MahnAz finished her two-hour debriefing–the high-point of which was a thoroughly disingenuous video send off from D’Arcy Sinclair herself–she withdrew to a Loop bar called Queen En Garde, a chess-theme dive where geeks convened in hopes of castling their bishops. She wasn’t looking to get picked up, but needed a drink and didn’t want it in an empty loft. She also fancied it might be cathartic to toy with a man the way D’Arcy Sinclair had toyed with her. After three Stoli Karpovs and a plate of Curry Nadal, MahnAz was still alone, but she was feeling a little better about her abrupt dismissal–though still not confident the severance check would clear. She tried not to think about the thorough probing she’d got at the hands of a burly "nurse," whose putative gender couldn’t possibly have survived the same level of scrutiny. MahnAz felt the familiar delayed tremor wriggle down her forearm, and retracted her hand from the stem of her glass. Yes, that was how her–not damaged, but resilient–psyche processed things. Cool in the moment, all weeping deferred until a convenient time. But now was not convenient; she needed to head back to her loft or find a distraction.
Unfortunately, happy hour had come and gone without so much as a pawn-to-king-four opening or a single cameo from a Federated colleague. Then MahnAz understood why: the TV above the bar flashed a bulletin. An accident at the International Space Station was forcing the evacuation of the entire crew. Federated Talon would be racing to win that contract and her colleagues at this office would be glued to their stations. MahnAz searched the headlines on her smartphone, but the web knew nothing more than had the crawler on ESPN. And nobody who might know something would take her call. She closed out her tab and headed for the L.
By the time she reached her building in Bucktown, MahnAz was tipsy, thoroughly exhausted and in no mood to deal with the Wicker Park hipsters who’d blown north with the March wind. She’d chosen her loft precisely because it was close enough to that new bohemia to sample its flavor, but far enough away that she could walk the streets without being accosted. After her special day, she had no patience left for panhandlers or choom merchants, and much less for this aggressive would-be rap artist hawking his self-burned CDs.
"You a sistah, right? So help a bruhtha out!"
She’d waved him off, with a polite, though strained, smile and the single word, "Iranian."
"We still bot’ fighting the white man!"
No, MahnAz thought, after all, she was technically White, if not an average Caucasian. And like anyone else in America, who wasn’t living in a 1950s time-warp, she was tired of this latest and lamest Black Power renaissance, still festering in the racialist churches of the Southside and piggy-backing on the much-more-disconcerting Sharia Separatist movement. It struck her as a perverse strain of persecution envy. As though the Muslim malcontents had stormed the throne room of the reigning race baiters, and now, in 2023, two groups of Cretins were locked in a victim-of-oppression cage match, where the loudest, shrillest and most outlandish propaganda would win. Only it wasn’t just propaganda. Black race-baiters marched, shouted and, in the worst of times, looted; Sha-Seps blew shit up.
MahnAz took her keys from her purse and trotted the last few steps to the front door. But her fumbling with the key ring betrayed her, and by the time she turned the cylinder, she could feel his breath on her back.
"Look, bro–"
He slammed her against and through the door into the atrium. He grabbed the back of her head and pulled her towards the elevator. She tried to scream, and he shoved a leather glove into her mouth.
"Yo, we ain’t doin’ this here," he whispered, the tip of his switchblade jabbing at her windpipe. "That would be expediency. What we got is more ceremonial."
The elevator arrived, empty, and he forced her inside. He pinned her in a corner, and MahnAz stared up at the red light of the security camera. But was anybody watching? Anybody? The ride up three flights seemed interminable, with his hot, stinking breath in her face, one hand on her throat and the knife tracing the contours of her face.
"Ceremonial’s got to be done right. An offering to Allah!"
No, she struggled. No! She did not flee a brutal marriage, cross the Zagros mountains on foot, spend 18 months in a camp for Syrian refugees and fly 6,000 miles to be killed in Chicago by a Muslim fanatic.
"It is the law," he sneered, "apostasy!"
She shook her head furiously. Apostate! She tried to scream, I was never a Muslim! But the glove jammed down her throat made it impossible. The elevator door opened and he grabbed her hair again. He pulled her to the door as he leaned out into the hall. Then came a loud crack and the hipster’s head snapped back. He loosened his grip and MahnAz pulled away. The hipster staggered, then lunged, jabbing his switchblade at a figure in the hallway.
MahnAz pulled the glove from her mouth and coughed. She took two breaths, then threaded her keys between her fingers to make her fist a mace, and darted from the elevator toward the grappling bodies. Before she could get in position to strike, the hipster convulsed, stiffened and spastically shook before collapsing in a heap on the floor.
"Your apartment?" her rescuer asked. MahnAz pointed down the hall with her fist of keys. The rescuer stowed a metal baton inside his grey, shark-skin suit coat, buttoned and smoothed the front and tugged down on his sleeves.
"I think you broke a pen." MahnAz pointed at his breast pocket, oozing blue ink.
"Quite right." He tipped his head toward her door. "Shall we?" he asked. The accent was British.
MahnAz went to her apartment and unlocked the door. "What about him?" she asked.
The rescuer, who frankly looked too thin and wan to budge the body, simply shrugged. "Deal with him later."
They stepped into her loft and he excused himself toward the bathroom to tend to the ink stain. MahnAz went to her freezer and pulled out a bottle of vodka. She wondered if her guest would want something. Perhaps shaken, not stirred? But she knocked one shot back, then another, and–preferring not to expose her coping mechanism to scrutiny–stowed the bottle back in the freezer and crept to the bathroom door.
"Can I ask your name? If you don’t mind."
He opened the door, again smoothing the front of his suit coat. "Sin-jin. Spelled St. John. Templar-Mawbry, Spelled MauBRAY."
MahnAz scrunched her brow, then released the tension to speak. "So, tell, me St. John Templar-Maubray, how did you come to be outside my elevator…?"
"Actually, I was waiting outside your door."
"With an electric cattle prod?"
He slapped the baton against this other palm and gripped it with both hands. "Rather handy device, wouldn’t you say?" He strolled past her into the open expanse of her loft. "Yes, Dr. Roshanzadeh, I have been aware of your work for some time, learned of the fatwa declared against you–"

"…and was in fact privy to your being sacked."
"Back up–fatwa?"
He waved his cattle prod dismissively. "Some minor cleric somewhere apparently thinks that space flight is un-Islamic, what with the not-being-able-to-orient-oneself-towards-Mecca-from-orbit conundrum, and all the infidels and apostates laboring like so many ants to accomplish it."
"I’m not an apostate."
He pointed the baton toward the door. "Oh, did you try telling him? Would say we both got lucky on that score. I’d quite underestimated your capacity to occupy a barstool. Was about ready to give the whole venture up, but would seem my perseverance paid us both a dividend."
"How do you know about me?"
"Oh, that’s not terribly important. What matters now is that you’re free of D’Arcy Sinclair."
"Ah, silver lining to unemployment. I’ll keep that in mind as my skill set atrophies."
"Ah, skill, yes. The applied sciences, or the–?" He made a tippling gesture and turned toward the picture window.
"You’re kind of a prig, aren’t you, St. John Templar-Maubray?"
"Quite right." He scanned the streets below then looked above the opposite roofline. Whether it was the yellow street lamp or his own pale complexion set against his slick, jet-black hair, he looked anemic. He asked, "Where are your sights set, Doctor?" then turned to face MahnAz, His heavy brow cast shadows over his eyes, blacking them out as thoroughly as aviator glasses. "If you’re still eager to touch the stars, the stars may still welcome your touch."
MahnAz rubbed her temples. Who was this infuriating, presumptuous–
"I have two things for you, Doctor." He pulled an envelope from his pocket. "The first is a plane ticket to Odessa, Texas, where you can rent a car and drive to…"
Preposterous! "Cornell Westermann," she snipped. "He wouldn’t hire me the first time. Why would he now?"
"Because now you have this." And with that, St. John Templar-Maubray held up her thumb drive. He extended his hand and MahnAz took it. "You don’t tell D’Arcy on me, I won’t tell D’Arcy on you."
"Who are you?" MahnAz gasped.
He handed her the plane ticket and bowed his head. "A friend. Who has overstayed." He marched toward the door, calling out, "The flight leaves at 1 am. Then you have to make a connection. You won’t get much sleep, but you can be in Westermann’s office by 8 am." At the door, he paused gripping the knob. "If you promise to get on that plane, I’ll promise to remove your assassin from your doorstep."
"Deal," she muttered. He closed the door behind him and MahnAz rushed to bolt it and slide the chain into place. She looked through her peep hole, but he was out of view. MahnAz stepped back from the door and dropped her head. Her eyes caught some dark spots on the floor boards. She knelt and dabbed at the blue ink. It congealed on her fingertips.
David had no idea what Gaines had been contemplating. The big man was not much for delegating or communicating; a co-pilot for Hector Gaines was pretty much a passenger, if not cargo. All David knew was he’d gone from being a marble in a Cuisinart to a soft tortilla on I-95. Crushed into his seat from the upward acceleration, he’d barely noticed that the nose-over-tail rolling had stopped. LS III continued to pin-wheel to starboard, but Hector proceeded to fire the port-side retros in short bursts, and stabilized the craft. It took a moment for the adrenaline to subside and several minutes more for the cobwebs to clear. No amount of flight simulation or NASCAR flip-overs could have prepared David for what had only been, at most, twelve seconds of chaotic movement. Twelve seconds of eternity, he thought, that Einstein certainly had known what he was talking about.
Earth looked incredibly peaceful from this position, which the console announced was L2. LS III floated lazily, back in the thermosphere, in pace with Earth’s rotation, and David’s return to weightlessness added to a feeling of almost somnambulistic calm. Still, this was not the moment for the crew to indulge themselves, and Gaines put them immediately to work. He and David prepped themselves for a spacewalk; they had to inspect the outside of the vessel, especially the underbelly and those all-important heat-resistant tiles. Any gap in coverage would cause the craft to overheat and explode on re-entry.
While outside the craft, David listened in on Hector’s conversation with Lone Star Command. Apparently, Talon had returned to Federated’s compound in the Salt Flats. No word on whether they’d attempt a re-launch in time for the ISS crew. That left the job to those governments–Russia and China–that still had active space programs and Lone Star. Government missions, especially in bloated, top-down bureaucracies usually took weeks, if not months, to plan, which was why they contracted with private companies for rescue ops in the first place. Though Mr. Westermann said all the right things about "putting the safety of our people first," there was no disguising his desire to turn Federated’s failure into a boon for Lone Star. David was with him all the way on that. A quick down and back and they could steal the remaining ISS crew members from right under Federated’s nose. And it would serve those bastard’s right. Firing on a rescue vessel? Who the hell does that?
"Lt. Toma, slow down," Gaines warned him. "This process takes the time it takes." Twice more during the spacewalk, Gaines reproached David about working too quickly.
"Sorry," he said finally. "But I’m a speed guy."
"Which cliche would you like to hear, Lt. Toma?" Gaines asked. "Haste makes waste? Act in haste repent at leisure? The first rule of rescuing is that the rescuer must survive? We’ve got eight lives on board. "
"I get it," David said.
Back on the vessel, the pilots removed their helmets and settled into their seats at the console. Gaines conferred again with Lone Star command.
"What are your thoughts, Captain Gaines?" the radio crackled. It was Westermann asking, "Are you coming home tonight?"
Gaines looked at the screen showing the results of the systems diagnostics he’d run. David could see they showed all clear. Fully operational. But Gaines commanded them to run again.
"That’s a negative, sir," he replied. "We’ve got six hours before we have to worry about orbit decay. Plenty of oxygen. We’re going to get some shut-eye to be fresh on re-entry. LS III out."
"Roger, LS III." It was the Chief, not the boss who’d responded.
"He’s not happy," David observed.
"He’ll get over it."
"He wants you to bring it down now," David urged. "I think that’s the right call."
"And when you’re in command, Lt. Toma, you can make that call." Gaines lowered his steely eyes on David. "But understand how command thinks. Bosses look at the big picture. They game plan what’s best, and push their people to achieve. But the view from the mezzanine is never the same as the view from the field. The game ultimately is in the hands of the players and the surest way to lose this Sunday is to think ahead to next Sunday. So when the bosses do that, it’s double important for players to stand their ground. We’ll get back up here in time for the rest."
"And if we don’t?"
"Then we’ve saved five."
Thus ended the longest conversation David had ever had with Hector Gaines. The Captain settled into his seat, reclined and closed his eyes to sleep.
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