Saturday, January 11, 2020

Star Traveler Update .010


010.01

I don’t remember too much of that first day on Ukhta.
I remember Jake holding me in his arms as he did his best to break through the underbrush below the huge iron wood trees - their deep charcoal colored bark standing out against the dense green ferns at their feet.
I remember Jake’s heart beating a fast rhythm in my ear as he held me against his chest. It would have been so much easier for him if he had been able to toss me over his shoulder, but that would have punched one of my many cracked ribs through something vital internally.
I remember one very painful fall we took when Jake tripped on something in his rush to put distance between us and whoever was chasing us. It would have been a lot worse except that Jake managed to turn in mid-air as he fell and put his body under mine to cushion my fall.
I remember Jake and Arr arguing over me. Jake stood holding me in trembling arms.
“Give her to me,” Arr said. “You’re exhausted. I can carry her,” he assured Jake.
“No. I need you and Kayo fresh in case they catch up.”
“You need to rest,” Arr argued. “You’re not going to be able to shoot straight for hours after you put her down.”
“Jake?” I said. “Listen to Arr.” I could hear his heart pounding in his chest. I am not overweight, but I am well rounded and five foot eight. I am not a lightweight load by any means. It was only Jake’s well-toned six foot four fighting weight physique that had gotten us this far.
“Okay,” Jake conceded. “You scout ahead and see if you can find a place for us to hold up.”
Jake laid me gently down in the tall ferns. “Kayo come,” he ordered the big Dar-dolf. “Down!” Jake motioned Kayo to my right side, where he laid down. “Stay!” he instructed. “Protect.”
Jake leaned over me. He brushed a few strands of hair out of my eye. My left eye was totally swollen shut from the blow to my head. I couldn’t see him unless I turned my head and that hurt like hell. He saw my grimace of pain. He took a piece of pain stick out of his pocket. “This is the last of it. Wish I had more. I should have brought my pack.”
“Nothing about this job is really turning out the way we expected,” I mouthed around my chewing. I couldn’t remember him giving me the rest of the meds, but hey, at this point I could hardly remember my own name.
 “Arr’s gone ahead. I’m going back to see what I can do about covering our trail. Kayo will take care of you. I’ll be right back.” He brushed his fingers along my jaw line. “Try to rest, babe”
I must have passed out shortly after he left. I remember sinking my hand in Kayo’s thick fir at my side. He made me feel safe lying there.
When I woke up again it was dark. I lifted my chin to see the two moons of Ukhta shining down on us through the tree branches. I involuntarily moaned in pain. Jake’s arm snuck around my right shoulder from behind and brushed my cheek.
“You awake, babe?” He whispered in my ear.
I realized I was sitting between his spread-out legs with my back against his chest, my head up under his chin. His left hand was sitting on his crooked knee, his right hand drifted down from my cheek to my shoulder.
“Just barely,” I answered. I looked past my feet and saw nothing but iron wood bark. “Are we up a tree?” I asked.
“Yep, about fifty feet up,” Jake answered.
I couldn’t shift to look down, but my eye had adjusted a bit to the moon light now and I could see other trees around us that were huge.
“How did you get me up here?” I asked in disbelief.
“It wasn’t easy, babe. Good thing you took that last pain med.” I could hear the humor in his voice as he continued. “You might wonder where you got some bruises in unusual places once you get cleaned up.”
“Where’s Arr?” I asked.
Jake pointed up over my right shoulder. Arr was lying face down over a limb about fifteen feet higher up. He had his legs bent up at the knee and his ankles interlocked back up over the limb behind him. His head was resting on his hands looking, I assumed, back the way we had come. He looked relaxed and at home in the tree, like a well-fed cheetah
“He’s watching for our company,” Jake said.
“Where’s Kayo?” I asked. “You didn’t manage to get him up the tree too, did you?”
“Nope, we stashed him down below. We won’t hear from him again unless someone steps on his tail – in which case, they won’t be stepping on anyone ever again,” Jake said with a chuckle.
I tried to adjust my seat on the hard wood beneath it. I wished I hadn’t. Even that slight movement made me catch my breath between clinched teeth.
“You keep wiggling in my lap like that and you’re going to have Mr. Happy wanting to pay you a visit,” Jake whispered in my ear. 
I had to laugh. Jake had never made a pass at me. He was just trying to cover up my pain and make me feel better in the process.
“I’ll try to be more sensitive to your position,” I retorted. Not a great comeback, but hey, I was not at my best mental repartee form.
“Rest,” Jake said. “We’ll have to move on soon.”
“Do you have any idea where we are going?” I asked.
“There’s a settlement another day’s walk from here based on the maps I downloaded before we left the pod. We’ll see if we can get some help there. Get you to a doctor,” he explained.
“Have you thought of how you are going to get me down from here?”
“I thought I would just push and we could see how you fly without a pod,” Jake said and chuckled under his breath.
I smacked him on the leg with my right hand. If hurt me more than it did him.

*****

010.02

It took me a moment to remember where I was and realize it was Jake’s hand over my mouth. He felt me jerk awake and only held his hand there for a few more seconds before releasing it and pointing over my shoulder to the ground below Arr.
There were three men and a Dar-dolf twice the size of Kayo below us moving through the ferns. The Dar-dolf was out front with its nose to the ground leading the way. It was a fighting breed usually regulated to the pits fighting each other or other vicious creatures from the verse.
Arr looked over his shoulder to Jake for the lead on what to do. Jake held his finger up to my lips indicating silence. As carefully and silently as he could he eased himself out from under me. He pulled his blaster and slid quietly over to the other side of the tree.
My first thought was for Kayo. He was still down there on the ground. I was sure Jake had not anticipated the guys tracking us would have a Dar-dolf of their own. That animal was bound to pick up Kayo’s scent.
Jake silently signaled to Arr to stay put. Arr signed back in a language I didn’t know. Jake shook his head no. Jake looked over his shoulder and signaled me to cover. Considering my physical state I thought I made a good effort of slumping down out of view from the men below. I wished I had brought my blaster, but I had thought I was going shopping. Silly me.
The huge Dar-dolf bellowed. It had picked up Kayo’s trail. It would have only been a matter of time before he picked up ours as well. Jake did the only thing he could. He shot the Dar-dolf before it could flush out Kayo. The beast screamed and went down. The three men immediately dove for cover behind the nearest trees as they returned fire. Blaster fire burned through the leaves above our heads and stuck the trunk below us.
Jake continued to return fire. Arr signaled to Jake and Jake shook his head again. Whatever it was that Arr wanted to do, Jake was definitely against it. Arr climbed higher. With an agility that was mind boggling for me the kid passed from our tree to the next undetected by the men below. He started a slow descent to the ground behind the men.
“Damn,” Jake hissed. He crawled out further on his limb I believe to draw their fire and attention away from his young partner. It didn’t work. One of the men spotted a flash of Arr’s red suit and he turned on him. Now that Arr was down on the ground with them I could see how much bigger the men were than he was. They were all over seven feet tall; head and shoulders above the smaller henu.
Arr fought like a crazed being, but once they disarmed him, he was lost. His speed only carried him so far. They were just too big and too strong for his smaller frame. Jake did his best to defend Arr from above, but it was a hopeless cause there were just too many trees in the way.
The three dropped out of sight with Arr in tow.
“It’s over Harcourt,” one of the men shouted up from behind a tree. “Unless you want your partner craved up in pieces, I suggest you come down. NOW!” he ordered.
Jake grabbed my pack and pulled it over to me. He kept low in the crotch of the huge tree.
“I know these guys. They are not bluffing,” He put the pack within reach of my right hand. “Stay here until we are out of sight then make your way down. Get Kayo. The command is ‘haul.’ He’ll want to follow us, but keep him headed west. He’ll help you get there. Get hold of the Galactic Forces. Tell them it’s Klaid and his gang from the OmniCron Project.”
A scream ripped through the air. Jake’s jar clinched tight and he cursed under his breath.
“What’s keeping you Harcourt? I’m not going to wait much longer. You get your ass down here.”
“I’ve got to go. They won’t kill us for days. They want me. They want me to suffer. It will be Arr they will hurt most to get at me. Their psycho bastards.”
“I’m comin’ down,” Jake yelled.
“Don’t get out of this tree until you know for sure we are gone,” Jake ordered. He kissed my forehead. “Keep safe.”
“I’ll send someone back as soon as I can,” I said.
Jake threw his legs over the edge of the forked branch I was in and lowered himself out of sight.

*****

010.03

“Come down or I am going to start carving,” Klaid threatened. Or at least I figured it was Klaid since Jake had said he was in charge and he was doing all the talking.
To prove his sincerity to me Klaid ran his lethal blade against Arr’s cheek. Arr refused to cry out, but I saw the blood immediately start leaking from the cut. Jake jerked in the hands of the other two men restraining him. I had never seen such rage in him.
“Get ‘em down,” Klaid ordered Jake. “Or, your partner will pay.”
“No, Jake.” Arr said.
Klaid jerked Arr’s head back. He placed the knife at Arr throat. “NOW!” he bellowed.
I don’t know what led Klaid to realize there was still one more victim up the tree, but he was sure there was.
“I’m coming,” I yelled down.
I really didn’t know if I could make it down on my own. I felt weak as a kitten and hurt all over. Then again, I didn’t have any choice. As much as Jake had ordered me to stay, I couldn’t let Arr be tortured.
I grabbed the stump of a broken branch that I saw Jake use earlier on his descent and started to lower myself down through the branches. Luckily iron wood trees have branches to within about six to ten feet off the ground. As I stepped down the limbs one at a time, I heard rude remarks and cat calls from the three holding Jake and Arr.
They had not expected Jake to have a woman with him. I was in serious trouble.

*****

010.04

Klaid had no trouble subduing me. That last ten foot drop to the ground from the lowest branch of the tree didn’t do my broken ribs any good. And on top of everything else, I had smacked my head on a branch coming down. I could feel the blood dripping down the side of my face again. Klaid had both my hands clasped behind my back in one of his massive hands. He must have been at least seven and a half feet tall. I had to stand on my toes in order to keep my arms from being twisted in their sockets.
He jerked my head back to look down into my face. When I fought him, he grabbed me around the chest and squeezed. I moaned as he crushed my ribs further. He leaned down and inhaled. Before I knew what was happening he licked the side of my face where the blood oozed out from under the bandage on my head. I felt his rough tongue grate against the skin of my cheek.
“Nice,” he whispered in my ear. “AB Negative. My favorite type.”
When he looked up from my face I could see his canines and his forked tongue. I trembled in his arms. Fear and loathing coursed through me. Shit! He was a Xyron. A species I thought were extinct. Once they made it into space decades ago and the rest of the Verse found out what they were capable of, they were hunted down and killed. Xyrons were meat eaters and they didn’t make any distinctions between animals or sentient beings.
“This was what I was following,” he breathed. “I could smell your blood.” He leaned in close for another lick.
Arr growled deep in his throat.
“Arr,” Jake warned.
The young henu was being held by the bronkai, Klaid called Crackers, between two of his four arms. His lower set was tucked in his pant pockets. Arr’s right hand hung useless at his side. The screams Jake and I had heard earlier was one of this group crushing it.
Klaid pulled back and stared at the young henu. “Was that you, Red?” he asked. He dropped me. I crumpled to the ground.
“I wonder what you taste like.” He struck Arr hard in the face. The cut on his face split open further. Klaid ground his fingers in it bringing them back to his mouth covered in Arr’s blood. He sucked his fingers and then spit on the ground. “You’re a grazer,” he accused Arr and wiped his sleeve across his mouth in disgust. “You can have him Crackers. I don’t have any interest in something that tastes that bad.”
“Leave them alone,” Jake ordered from his place being held by what looked like an iiadtsu hybrid of some sort. Unlike a full iiadtsu with wings, this guy looked like he was molting. His face had small feathers around a hairline that should not have been there. He wore a long vest I am sure was fashioned so sleeves would not interfere with the random, stray feathers spouting from the backs of his arms.
“You know that just isn’t going to happen, Harcourt,” Klaid sneered. “They’re here to make your life miserable. We’re going to see just how much the ‘Mercenary with a Heart’ can take when we hurt the ones he loves.”
Klaid went to his pack and pulled out two pair of electronic cuffs. He grabbed me by my hair and pulled me stumbling over to Arr’s side. He slapped a cuff on Arr’s left wrist and the other on my right. He then dragged me roughly by my left arm to Jake’s side pulling Arr along with us. I cried out in agony. Klaid placed one of the cuffs from the second set on my arm and the other on Jake’s right wrist. We were now cuffed in a line together with me in the middle. Klaid had planned well. The guys wouldn’t be going anywhere fast with me in tow.
The Xyron returned to his pack. He turned around with a collar attached to a long chain. He came at me. Both Jake and Arr, now momentarily free of Crackers and the iiadtsu, stepped into his path. Arr growled more fiercely then I had ever heard Kayo.
“Back down,” Klaid warned. “I don’t intend to carry her. You force me to stun you and by the time you wake up, she’ll be dead.”
Jake and Arr both backed up. Klaid slipped the collar around my neck and clicked the lock on it shut.
“You all walk or she gets dragged,” Klaid sneered. “Now!” Klaid grabbed the end of my chain, wrapped it around his gloved palm and trotted off back the way we had come.
Crackers and the iiadtsu pushed Jake and Arr forward. They both reached for me and swept me off my feet.
“I can walk,” I objected as Jake swung me into his arms again.
“Not right now,” Jake said. “Rest while you can.”
Arr draped his arm over Jake’s head and let it fall over his shoulders so he could walk by his side while still cuffed to me.
“We’ll take turns,” Arr said.
“Put that hand in you suit. Try to keep it up. It will hurt less,” Jake advised his partner as he indicated the injured hand with his eyes.
I reached up and held Arr’s hand on Jake’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, guys,” I apologized looking up into their face.
“Next time I tell you two to stay put, I want you to listen,” Jake said. The muscle in his jaw clenched.
“I thought I could slip up on them,” Arr said defending his actions.
“That’s what you get for thinking,” Jake hissed. “I knew who they were. You couldn’t have slipped up on Gathus. He has hearing almost as good as yours. He’s half iiadtsu.”
“Where do you know them from,” I whispered.
“We worked a mission a few years back. They’re ruthless and blood thirsty. I turned them into the Galactic Forces as not fit for duty under the Mercenary Code. Guess that pissed them off.”
“You think?” I asked sarcastically.
“Shut up back there,” Klaid shouted over his shoulder and yanked on the chain attached to my collar. He almost succeeded in pulling me out of Jake’s arms.
 Jake picked up speed. “Kayo,” he whispered to Arr. “Quietly.”
Arr made a subtle jester with his right hand. I caught Kayo’s head peek up over the tops of the ferns, than bobbed back down again. The pup had been watching for a sign.

*****

010.05

Arr tried to break Jake’s fall with his one good hand as he collapsed under my weight. Klaid started to jerk on my collar. Jake grabbed the chain and pulled back.
“Enough!” Jake shouted.
“No, Harcourt, not near enough,” Klaid roared. “You have no idea how bad this is going to get. You turned us in. You got us branded. We’ve been working shit paying smug jobs and eating garbage for two years.” He turned to Cracker and Gathus. “Un-cuff her and cuff them to the trees,” he ordered.
The three already knew Jake’s weakness. Cracker took Arr off first and held a knife to his throat.
“You give us any trouble, Harcourt and I let Cracker cut him. You remember how much he loves to crave, don’t you?” Klaid asked.
Jake let them un-cuff him and re-cuff him with his back to a tree. They did the same to Arr.
Klaid pulled me to my feet. He looked up at the late afternoon sky. “Way past lunch time,” he commented in a droll tone. I began to uncontrollably tremble. “Let’s see, what do I feel like eating?”
He held me up close with my back against him and my face toward the guys. I know he was counting on my expression to torture Jake. I was bound not to give him that satisfaction. I bucked in his grip. He hadn’t thought I had it in me, but I knew I did. I hadn’t been walking. I had been cradled in Jake’s or Arr’s arms for the last six or seven hours. I had some fight left. I twisted free and kicked him in the crotch as hard as I could. As big as he was, my spacer boot brought him to his knees. However, he still had my chain in his hand. He yanked me down with him. He roared in pain and then jumped for me. He knocked me over and pulled me under him until he was sitting across my legs.
“Pull her boots off,” he ordered his men.
They didn’t even bother to unbuckle them, they just yanked. I screamed in pain as I realized the connection of the leg bone to the rib bones. I plummeted his chest with my fists. It was like banging my fists on a bulkhead and had just about as much effect.
He grabbed my hands and pulled them up over my head pinning them in one of his huge hands. The pain ripped up my broken side taking my breath away.
“I’m going to kill you, Klaid,” Jake yelled.
Klaid had me subdued. “You just don’t get it, Harcourt. You’re never going to get the chance. You’re all going to die. Your friends first, slowly, deliciously.” He leaned down and licked me again.
I was really getting tired of this game. “Damn it!” I hissed in his face. “Just do it and get it over with.”
“You are much too special to hurry over,” the Xyron said. “Let’s see, where should I start?” He cupped my breast in his other hand. “Do I want some breast meat?” His hand clasped my side. “Maybe some ribs?” It traveled further down to grip a hand full of my butt. “Maybe a rump roast,” and on down to my thigh “or flank steak. Such a difficult decision,” he sighed in a pined voice.
In a flash, he flipped me over. He was stilling on my thighs. “Build a fire guys,” he ordered his team. “We’re going to have fresh meat tonight.”
I heard the cloth of my suit rip between Klaid’s hands and them I felt the cold steel of his blade as it cut into my back. “I vote for rib meat tonight,” he said and laughed.
I passed out into thankful oblivion.
*****

010.06

I woke up in Jake’s arms to the smell of roasting flesh – my flesh. I was back cuffed between the guys.
“Is that me I smell?” I asked.
They didn’t answer. Jake was grinding his teeth so hard I was afraid he would break them.
“Lighten up Jake,” I said. “Hopefully, I’ll bleed to death,” I offered. At this point it hurt so bad I wished I could.
“He’s got a fuser,” Jake said drily.
“Damn, I hate a prepared monster,” I said sarcastically. At this rate, he could cut me and tissue fuse me back together for weeks. Not my idea of a way to die. A shiver went through me.
“Arr?” Jake asked.
Arr nodded and Jake slipped me over into the henu’s lap. Arr held me with his good arm and started to purr. Not only was the sound soothing, but his body immediately went up at least ten degrees. I cuddled up closer to his chest.
“I think I love you,” I said.
Arr smiled down at me and squeezed my hand.
“What about Kayo?” Arr whispered. “He’s still trailing us.”
“They seem to be taking us back toward the crash. When we get close enough we’ll leave him there,” Jake whispered back. “I don’t want Klaid and his buddies eating him and if we stay planet bound he can track us for whoever finds him if they have the sense to command him.”
My sense of the passage of time was poor, but I figured we had been at this for close to two days. “Ma-rye-a will get worried when she doesn’t hear from me. She will alert Sam and they’ll call the authorities. We just have to hold out until they find us.” Me, Miss Optimism.
Jake leaned over and kissed my brow. “I promise you,” he breathed into my hair, “I’ll kill the bastards.”
“I’ll hold you to that promise.”

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Star Trader Update .009


009.01

“3su,” Cassie whispered.
“What is it, Cassie.” I sat up in bed and beamed the light up to low. I glanced at the bedside clock. It was 2:00 a.m. It wasn’t like Cassie to wake me in the middle of the night.
“It’s Jake,” she whispered. “He’s on the bridge.”
“He’s very agitated,” Ma-rye-a piped in. “He just broke a mug.”
I guess I was just too sleepy. I didn’t understand what they were saying. “He dropped a mug?”
“No, it was a violent act,” Ma-rye-a corrected. “He is upset about something.”
“I think you should have a look,” Cassie continued. “He might do damage to us.”
Jake must really be upset if he had my A.I.’s running scared.
I got up and slid me feet into my slippers. I never wore a robe. I wear shorts and a tank top to bed. I am always cautious about being prepared.
“Do you think you should take your blaster?” Cassie asked.
“He’s an old friend, Cassie. I don’t need my blaster.” At least I hoped I didn’t.
I walked out in the dimly lit hallway. Ma-rye-a sets the lights low during the evening hours. If I get up unexpectedly to a full-on light I have one hell of a time getting back to sleep.
I could see Kayo halfway down the hall sitting against the wall. I hoped he wouldn’t challenge my approaching Jake. I didn’t notice Arr crouched on the other side of him until I got up close. Arr had his arm thrown around the Dar-dolf. His cat eyes were huge black onyx looking disks, dilated to their full size in order to catch everything in the darkened area. He looked small and fragile beside the Dar-dolf.
 I squatted down in front of them.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
“He’s really mad. He won’t talk to me. He told me to go back to bed,” Arr confided.
“Maybe that’s a good idea.” I reached over and put my hand on Arr’s shoulder. Kayo growled threateningly deep in his throat. Even the animal was confused.
“Nixs!” Arr said and Kayo stopped his growl mid-throat. Arr took a ragged breath like he was on the verge of sobbing.
“I’ll have Ma-rye-a call you when Jake is calmed down.” I gave his shoulder a squeeze. “Take Kayo with you, okay? I don’t want to have to deal with two nasty beasts at once.” I smiled and Arr returned it with a weak one of his own.
“Don’t hurt him,” he said.
“Me? Hurt Jake? Never.” I was flabbergasted. First Cassie wanting me to take my blaster, now Arr asking me not to hurt him – what kind of rage was he in?
Arr rose effortlessly, whereas my knees cracked as I stood back up. I watched until he and Kayo padded down the hall and went back in their room.
Now into the lion’s den.
Jake was pacing the bridge. His foot falls were so heavy that there should have been a dented trough in the metal where he was treading.
“Jake? What’s wrong?”
“Go back to bed,” he growled and turned his back on me to look out the front view port. His hand hit another mug sitting on the control panel and it went crashing to the floor. He must have thought better about his order; after all I am the Captain of my ship. “Sorry.”
“That will teach me to leave dirty dishes around after an evening of viewing with guests,” I replied dryly.
“I just need a little time alone,” Jake explained. He stood balling and un-balling his fists at his side.
Something had him really worked up. If it would have been anyone other than a mercenary this is where I would have gone up behind him and placed a consoling hand on his back, but I was afraid in the case of Jake, I might lose that hand with an instinctive reaction.
“Tell me what happened? Was it a dream?” I had been around mercenaries most of my adult life. The good ones all had their ghosts to deal with if they had any heart at all, and Jake had more heart than most.
“Yeah,” he conceded. He turned around and dropped into the nearest chair as though finally admitting it to someone took all the energy out of his rage.
“Want to talk about it?” I asked, sitting down in my chair across from him.
Jake ran his hand through his hair in agitation. It was a habit he had. His hair always looked sexually mussy.
“I guess it was talking about Daily this evening that brought it on.” His hand raked through his hair again, but he sat quiet so long that I thought he had changed his mind about telling me. He sat looking at his hands. “I tracked Sarah to one of the Hydra dump sites. You know, they don’t live in very big groups.”
I nodded. I had heard that about the Hydra. They are vicious lizard type aliens that walk upright and have such volatile tempers that they can’t even stand each other half the time.
“I thought we could handle it,” Jake went on. “We went into the caves together. When the tunnel split I took Kayo, and Arr went alone down the other tunnel. I should have sent Kayo with the kid.”
“I can see why you didn’t. Arr has great hearing and better night vision than you any day. It would have been the logical thing to keep Kayo’s nose with you. I understand the Hydra are smelly beasts,” I consoled Jake.
Jake took a deep breath and went on. “I found Sarah and others. I got them out. She saw Arr captured. I went back in with Kayo. The Hydra had beaten the shit out of him and strung him up by shackles from the ceiling. He hates to be bound.” His hand raked through his hair again. A strand fell over his eye. He pushed it back and kept talking. It was like he needed to get it out so it wouldn’t fester any longer in his gut, or his heart as the case might be.
“The head lizard wanted to make a deal, but since I don’t speak Hydra and Arr was unconscious at this point he showed me in action what he wanted. He had a stinger. He cranked up the voltage and hit the kid with it.” Jake paused. His hands worked into fists again. “It’s his scream that woke me up tonight in my dream,” he confessed.
“But, you got him out,” I reminded him. I hadn’t heard this level of detail about the incident when we brushed on it earlier this evening, but Arr looked healthy to me. As good as the last time I saw him.
“Yeah, I killed the lizard and got him out,” Jake agreed. “It’s just…” He paused and sat again looking at his hands. “I just wonder if I have the right to take him into situations like that. What if he gets killed? He’s the last of his race. It’s not like if I died. No one would miss me. The human race would go on without a blink. Arr dies and his race, all his knowledge, his inherited talents of language, they all die with him.”
I did lean over and place my hand on his arm this time. “First off, I can name at least three people that would miss you terribly if you died, Tim, Arr and me. Secondly, I don’t think you could stop him going with you now. I see how he reacts around you. He considers you somewhere between a father, brother, best friend and mentor. I don’t think you could beat him off with a stick.” I reached over and lifted Jake’s chin in my other hand so I could look into his eyes. “You’ve been through your own share of beatings. It comes with the job. You’ll keep him safe as only you and your experience can. And, if he dies in the end, which I pray he doesn’t for a very long time, he will die happily following you.”
Tears welled up in Jake’s eyes, but he blinked them back.
“He’s bound to you; as close or closer, than Kayo because he has understanding in his gene pool. You shouldn’t ever leave him behind. He needs you as much, or more, than you need him. You’re his family now – his world.”
Jake leaned over and kissed me on the forehead. “Thanks. I needed that.”
I would have liked to take that kiss a step further. Jake was one hunk of man, but now was not the time. I stood up and gave him my own peck on the cheek.
“You need to go back to bed and see if you can catch some peaceful Zs. I’ll see you in the morning.”
He nodded and followed me back down the hall. I caught a glimpse of Arr sitting on the edge of his bed waiting with Kayo lying at his feet. Jake reached over and squeezed his shoulder before he fell into bed. Arr looked up at me, smiled and nodded a thank you.
I headed back to my own bed.
I knew it wouldn’t be dull with them aboard.

*****

009.02

“I don’t speak Ukhta, but they sounded really happy to hear from you,” I said. Arr had just spoken to the mayor of a small town on Ukhta to announce our arrival and to obtain landing coordinates.
“Me neither,” Jake said. “Arr picked it up from Clint’s new partner, Luza, a couple of jobs back. She’s from Ukhta, though not from this area of the planet. She hails from the capital.”
Jake and Arr had told me about their mission here. It really was an emissary job rather than a mercenary gig. The Ukhta has some unwanted immigrants that had moved into this town from the planet Pajala. None of the Ukhta knew the Pajalain language, so there was no way to explain to them that this was not like their planet.
The Pajalain live communally. They share everything. Want a bucket? And you don’t have one? Go next door and pick up your neighbor’s. Don’t bother to ask to borrow it. Just take it. If he wants it back, he’ll come and get it, or if he can’t find it, he’ll take some other neighbor’s bucket. This system did not go over well with the materialistic Ukhta. They needed an interpreter to set boundaries for the Pajalain if they intended to stay on Ukhta.
“Did they give us landing coordinates?” Jake asked.
“Uploading now,” Arr answered.
“You comin’ down with us?” Jake asked, as he pulled his cap out of his back pocket and placed it on his head? “While Arr is working, we can do some shopping. I’ll buy you something for hanging out long enough to take us back to the refitting station,” Jake offered.
He had already given me enough money to wait for him on board until he and Arr returned. But hey, what girl would pass up a shopping spree?
“You sure you can afford me?” I asked. “I have very good taste.”
Jake threw his arm over my shoulders. “For you babe anything.”
“I’ll get my boots and meet you at the pod.” I slipped out from under his arm and headed for my cabin.
“Wear the red,” Cassie suggested as I stood in front of my closet picking through my selection of spacer suits. “It looks nice with your dark hair.”
I took it off the hanger and pulled it on. I stepped into my boots and started to snap the buckles shut as Cassie continued to chat.
“I think Jake likes you,” she said.
“Cassie, I am twenty years older than him. I could be his mother,” I pooh-poohed her.
“He doesn’t look at you like a mother,” Cassie said. “And you don’t look your age. You could be his sister.”
“Cassie, you are a sweetheart. You just keep thinking like that. It helps keep me young.” I grabbed my hat and headed for the bay.
When I met the guys, Jake looked me up and down. “You two look like Titan Twins.”
Sure enough, Arr was wearing a red suit too. Usually you don’t run into a guy wearing the red, just too flashy. However, Arr looked good in his, maybe even better than me. Oh well, so much for Cassie’s strategy.
I climbed on board and took the pilot’s seat. As soon as Ma-rye-a detected my powering up the pod she downloaded the coordinates for the landing. “Thanks Ma-rye-a,” I said. “You’re in charge while I’m gone. Sam, locker her down,” I ordered.
“Will do, Cap.”
Once the guys were seated, I started to maneuver out of the bay. Ukhta here we come.

*****

009.03

Since I am writing this it should be obvious to you that I made it back, but let me assure you Jake and Arr’s mission was the closest I ever came to coming home in a body bag.

*****

009.04

“By the Gods what was that?” I yelled. Someone from the ground was firing on us. It had just missed my wing tip as I took evasive action.
“Arr?” Jake shouted.
Arr flicked on his com link and hailed the ground contact. I listened for an answer, but didn’t hear one. Instead, we caught the second missile in the left thruster. That engine went dead and the ship listed heavily to the left. I fought the controls to compensate.
Arr was dialing the com link to another frequency when the third shell struck our tail.
“Forget that Arr,” I ordered. “Strap in – we’re going down!” I pressed the button on my lap belt and the safety harness came down over my shoulders. “I’ve lost it!” I yelled. “We’re going in hard.”
There wasn’t any clear ground to land on.
“Over there,” Jake pointed to our left. It was a small patch of land. No more than a meadow. Not long enough for a landing and too far away for a glide. I’d lose too much momentum in the turn.
“This is a pod, not a fighter,” I shouted in frustration. “If I could make a turn like that I’d be able to land it rather than crashing. This is like driving a disabled freight loader.”
When I heard the belly of the pod catch the tops of the trees I cut what was left of the engines. We slammed into the trees and were cutting a swath through them when we hit something really hard. I felt the control panel in front of me crush back into my chest and saw something coming through the glass toward my eyes before everything went black.

*****

009.05

“Protect,” I heard Jake order Kayo, as I was coming around. I could hear the Dar-dolfs nails on the extended ramp from the pod as he left.
“I don’t know what happened,” Arr was saying. “I couldn’t raise them,” he apologized.
“Are you sure about what you heard onboard ship?” Jake asked in an angry voice that was almost a shout. He sounded very close. I felt someone ease my head back. It felt like it was going to come off in their hands. “Whoever they were, they were expecting us? They knew who we were?”
“Absolutely,” Arr confirmed. “There wasn’t anything unusual about any of it,” Arr assured his partner. “It was supposed to be an easy gig. What happened?” Arr asked.
“I don’t know,” Jake confessed. “But, if they wanted us that bad, they won’t stop until they get to the ship and make sure we’re dead. Get out there and keep watch with Kayo. Signal if you see or hear anything.”
I thought I heard Arr leave, but my head was throbbing so hard it may have been the beat of the throb rather than the sound of footsteps.
“3su? Can you hear me?” Jake asked softly.
I slowly opened my eyes. It actually hurt to do it. Jake was standing over me with a bloody shop rag in his hand. “Are you hurt?” I asked, looking at the rag.
“No babe, you are,” Jake answered. His eyes drifted over to the huge branch sticking threw the window right in front of me. “Iron wood,” he said. “Good thing we didn’t slide any further or it would have taken your hear off.”
“It didn’t?” I asked sarcastically.
“Where’s your first aid kit?” Jake asked.
“Under the NAV chair,” I closed my eyes, leaned by head back against the headrest and tried to will the room to stop spinning.
I heard Jake unbuckle the straps on the kit and felt him apply a pad to my brow. He lifted my head up and wrapped a stretch bandage around it to hold the pad in place. It hurt worse than the time I was kicked by the malfit calf when I was a kid.
Jake was rummaging around in the kit. “Here,” he said. “Have a chew of this.”
I opened my eyes. He had found the pain stick and broken off one measured dosage. He held it between his fingers. I reached up to take it and wished I hadn’t. My chest felt like that same malfit calf had used it for a trampoline.
“Oh SHIT!” I said.
Jake pressed the piece of pain medication against my clinched teeth. “Chew this,” he repeated.
I took it and chewed, but it was going to take a lot more than a simple piece of pain sticks to ease this ache. I looked down at my lap. An action that did nothing for my aching head except make it feel like it might explode on my shoulders. The control panel that had been sitting a good foot away from my lap was sitting on my chest. The kill engine lever was crushed into my left side.
“We can’t wait for the pain meds to take effect,” Jake explained. “We need to get out of here. Whoever shot us down is going to come checking up on their accuracy.”
“Can you get me out of here?” I asked.
“I think so, but it’s going to hurt like hell,” Jake apologized in advance.
I nodded in agreement. “Well, let’s get it over with.”
Jake reached under the panel to unlock my shoulder harness. As it retracted it hit my left side. I’m afraid I let out a scream before I could clinch my teeth shut again.
“I’m going to puke,” I warned Jake.
He had just enough time to pull a bag from behind my chair and hold it under my chin before I lost my breakfast. It felt like I was ripping my left side apart when I was retching. I closed my eyes and laid my head back against the seat again. I wanted to take a deep breath, but that hurt too much.
“There’s some water pouches in the storage panel to the right of the door,” I told him. “I sure could use a drink.”
Jake retrieved a pouch. He stuck the straw in and offered it to me. I swished it around in my mouth and spat it out on the floor to the other side of my chair. Jake gave me another swig and then wet down a cloth for my face. I rubbed it around a bit with my right hand. I couldn’t raise my left.
“Let’s see how bad this is,” Jake said. He unzipped my suit down to my belly button and reached his hand in to feel my left side.
“You know, if you wanted to feel me up, you could have just asked,” I said with as much of a smile as I could muster. “You didn’t have to get us shot down.”
Jake smiled back and withdrew his hand. No blood, thank the Gods. “Feels like they’re cracked, but not through the skin anyway. I’m going to recline your chair back and slip you out of there,” Jake said.
“Let her down easy or you may have me puking on your shoes again,” I warned.
Jake released the seat back and eased it down slowly. I really did think that I was going to throw up again, but I held it in.
“Don’t pass out, 3su. I’ll need your legs pushing to get you out from under there,” Jake said. He grabbed hold of the fabric of my suit on either side of my hips. “On three you push and I’ll pull.”
“Wait,” I said and grabbed his arm with my right hand. “If I pass out, my emergency kit is in the panel with the water by the door. It has enough food and supplies for us for maybe three days. Always thought I would get marooned by myself. Didn’t plan on three and a Dar-dolf.” I smiled up at him.
He nodded. “On three. One – two – three.”
I pushed hard with my feet against the bulkhead and then promptly passed out.

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