"Sure is lonely in space," says Ramon. 

"I don't know," I say, as the Barracuda swerves right to avoid a beam of blue light. "Seems kind of crowded to me."

"It's quite crowded being in a fleeing space vehicle with a couple of debt fugitives," says Aristede. The car swerves left to avoid another beam. "You could have been a little more honest when you met me, you know. I might have been able to help."

So I say to him, "What, just tell the second son of the foreign affairs minister that we're looking to get his money so we can pay off our student loans? You could have blackmailed us or something. We haven't survived this long by trusting people." I look in the rearview mirror, and see the telltale gleam of a Student Loan Company space fighter coming up behind at a distance of three kilometers. "Then again, maybe we won't anyway. Ramon, how far is it to the nearest burger joint?"

"Judging by the Galactic Positioning System I'd say the closest one is another 2 hours. Why, do you think a burger joint will help us?"

"I just want to drop this guy off and get some food. I think we've spent enough of his time." I turned to the backseat. "Unless you have some kind of fancy gadget that will help us out?"

"I don't," said Aristede. "I left all of them back in the garage in Madagascar. The best one of them, I could have used that against these guys, but you made me leave it. What a pity. It's a nice car, and rare enough to suit my style. It's impossible to find a 1970 Plymouth Barracuda with 426 Hemi and manual transmission in the open market. Do you know why?"

I glance at the stickshift of the car. "Manual, eh? Ramon, what kind of combustion chambers does this thing have?"

"Hemispherical," says Ramon. "But I don't understand, how is a Plymouth Barracuda supposed to be a secret weapon? This thing doesn't even go as fast as the Honda Civic."

The SLC space fighter is a kilometer behind us now. I push a button on the rearview mirror to zoom in. Yep, it's one of their prototype models. Maximum feasible number of thrusters at all possible angles and two big lasers on the front. They call it the Mace Head for a good reason. Its lasers give a telltale glint and I yank the steering wheel to the left just before blue light lances through the space we were occupying.

I turn to the back seat. Aristede is busy prying up the seat cushions. "What the heck are you doing?" I say, then yank the steering wheel to the right to dodge another beam of blue light.

"What the heck are YOU doing?" says Ramon. "I've got this."

"You're acting like you're daydreaming about gold again," I say. "Aristede, what are all those buttons you have there, and how did you not push all of them when you were sitting in the back seat?"

"The people who stole the Plymouths and remodeled them were very careful to keep the buttons from being accidentally pushed by a big fatso like you," said Aristede. 

"This is 80 percent muscle," I say, "so watch your language, twink."

"My father can fabricate evidence to put you in jail for a hundred years," says Aristede. "Then again, that's not as bad as what the Student Loan Company is going to do to you. And me." A beam of blue light shoots over the car, then begins to angle down. Ramon swerves the car left and then up, then pitches upward. We move away from our previous trajectory at a ninety degree angle. Not that it will be difficult for the Mace Head to cover the hypotenuse.

"So what do those buttons do?" I say. "And why is that red one under a special plastic cover?"

"Hopefully you'll never have to find out," says Aristede. "Roll up your windows, please." He types some letters into a keyboard, then presses a large green button. 

Space is dark and full of stars. Whatever's outside the windows is...the opposite of space, maybe, because it's extremely bright and full of pinpricks of darkness. 

When it fades, the star field is entirely different.

Ramon sticks his head out the window and barfs.

"I specifically told you to roll up your windows," says Aristede. 

"You didn't give us much time!" says Ramon.

"Why are both you guys glowing blue?" I say.

Ramon looks at his hand. "We're not. Are you feeling alright?"

The stars outside the windows all look blue. They shift into normal white light after a few seconds. "I guess so. Maybe my head is just a little rattled by the poorly-forewarned instant trip through space." I glare at Aristede in the backseat.

"It's a drastic measure," says Aristede, "And I won't do it again unless we're being chased by the Student Loan Company which goddamit roll up the windows again." He types some letters into the keyboard again. I turn around and there's the flagshsip of the SLC's Earth Defender Fleet sitting a kilometer from us. The universe becomes very bright, and once again we're sitting in a completely different star field, Ramon is barfing out the window, and both of them are glowing blue.

"I thought you would have rolled up your windows this time!" says Aristede.

I finally roll up the window. "Hey," I say, "be grateful we're not driving with the top down. Did you get us to a burger joint?"

"If you like grasshopper burgers seasoned with Gilesian Pepper," says Aristede. 

"No way," says Ramon. "That should have taken us three days to reach."

I peer out the windshield. There's a planet in the distance, close enough that i can see the ring orbiting above a surface of blue and brown. As we get closer the individual ships in orbit become visible -- patched-together things that look like they would fall apart doing a hard burn in atmosphere.

That's what they want you to believe, in case you want to try it. Your engine will fry before any of theirs do. 

"You took us to Gilese 581d," I say. "Are you nuts? They're going to take the Plymouth apart and sell the pieces."

"Are you kidding?" says Aristede. "They rebuilt the Plymouth Barracudas. Don't underestimate their pride, Robin. Oh, and they call the planet Barracuda, so be sure to follow their lead."

Ramon switched on the heat shield and we prepared to hit the surface of a planet I never thought I'd see.