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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.”