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The trail came to an abrupt end, releasing into an area that, while not incredibly open, gave them more room to breathe. The air was still humid and laced with humus and decay, but out here, it moved. Tara relished it, some of the claustrophobia melting away.

Despite dusk being upon them, it was brighter here, too, as more light was able to break through the thinner canopy, illuminating the still-standing carcasses of long abandoned buildings. While most of the structures in human cities beyond the jungle were made of wood and stone over metallic frames, these were mostly metal and had the familiar forms of the colonial starter pack humans had been using for hundreds of years. Handy flat packs of the pieces to build homes, community centers, and government buildings, perfect for intergalactic travel. They were utilitarian, but went up easy and were sturdy enough to withstand a variety of natural disasters. One could find these buildings at the center of hundreds of cities across the Known Universe, the structures built from the world’s natural resources growing up around them.

There had never been any reason to change the design.

“I’m picking up life signs now. Humanoid, but I can’t tell how many or what species,” Brenn said, her eyes shifting the way they did when she used her Interface. For the time being, she was focused and much more herself. Thank goodness.

Tara pulled up an extrapolated map of her surroundings, watching the Interface place diagrams of buildings and roads where her eyes could only see the impression of them; only hints of corners and bits of metal shining out from gaps in flowers and leaves. At first the life signs remained vague, but as the Interface’s built-in sensors took the time to process, they solidified into four. Two moved around near each other, some distance from the other pair. The second set remained stationary and were far fainter than the others.

Their distance could be the reason for the faintness, or the fact they appeared to be indoors. It’d make life a whole lot easier if that were the case, but the truth was, life was never easy. These were faint enough to be unstable—faint enough for one or both to disappear in a moment. Speed was imperative. Unfortunately, the fates had seen fit to send them an obstacle.

“I think we’ve finally found that trouble we’ve been waiting for,” she said.

“Aye.”

How long would this focus last? Over the last thirty minutes things had deteriorated despite the stim. Stims were heavy hitters; sledgehammers of adrenaline and focus boosting drugs mixed with a cocktail of painkillers and even more drugs to counteract negative side effects. They were safe to use one or two days to overcome injuries and bodily fatigue when lives were at risk. Concussions were the first condition they’d been approved for. Brenn should have snapped back to her typical, energetic, self fueled by a massive dose of borrowed energy.

Instead, she’d vacillated every few minutes between moments of clarity like this one and times when she’d grown more distant. Sometimes she answered direct questions in a language Tara had never heard before, but it must have been her native tongue, because it had the same cadence and quality of her accent. She’d caught it and switched back to the Creole each time with a wrinkled brow and deep frown, just as confused as Tara. Twice more, she’d been sick, painfully dry heaving on her hands and knees. The red splotches on her cheeks and lack of color anywhere else spoke of fever, but her vitals continued to check out.

Logic couldn’t explain any of this. Prospero Hab didn’t have such incompetent doctors they’d mistake a major traumatic brain injury for a mild traumatic brain injury and it’d be a rare bug bite or environmental toxin that could cause neurological issues at this scale while only manifesting as stress in scans. She was ill, and not ill at the same time.

“Are you good right now? We need to figure out who’s here with us and neutralize them if necessary.” Sure would be easier if she didn’t have to do it alone.

“I think so.” Brenn frowned, worries swirling in the depths of her eyes. “I think she’s unconscious right now. It’s hard to explain. It’s like the wall she keeps between us is weak and some of Rora is bleeding into me. I know how to wall her off, but she’s flooding me and I can’t keep up without her doing the heavy lifting. I’m trying.”

“I can see that.” Impossible odds and doubts be damned. Tara didn’t have the life experience to understand what could be happening to Brenn, or to question whether she was right or wrong. Brenn needed someone to believe her. She could take her friend at her word.

It still didn’t stop the worry, but it was time to shake off the uneasiness that clung to her like the sweat from this hot, damp atmosphere.

Brenn wasn’t the only one who needed to get it together.

They’d done this before, just the two of them, and they could do it today. They could save these lives. Wasn’t that why they did what they did, to change lives and make a difference in this Universe?

So why wouldn’t her hands stop shaking?

“Stop worrying about me and let’s worry about her. Even if I’m going mad and it isn’t Rora at all, she’s still a human being from Earth and doesn’t deserve to die alone in a jungle, light years from her sun.”

“You’re right.”

Be brave, Dad had said in the days after the battle when Brenn was hospitalized and the Hestia was in the shop and she’d told him she was thinking of leaving the Org. Be brave.

Tara motioned toward a cracked and overgrown roadway with trampled grasses. “The two over here seem to be moving deliberately in a pattern and haven’t seen us yet. I think they’re too far away to see her, too. I’d like to think they don’t pose a threat because that’d make life so much easier, but weapons out.”

Too many people shot first and asked questions later. Especially the Aesir. If these were Aesir in Sig’s employ, she and Brenn would be dead before they had a chance to say hello and the end result would be their killers standing over her with twin looks of horror on their too pretty faces.

Hey, at least if she died today, she’d get the satisfaction of watching from the afterlife as they tried to explain to her mother why they’d shot her.

“We’ll tranquilize any Aesir poking around before they have the chance to shoot us or see my face, unless we want my Uncle to come after us after he escapes whatever slap on the wrist the government decides to give him.” Tara set the tranquilizer dose in her gun and gave Brenn a sharp nod when she’d done the same. “We’ll inform the authorities of their location when we’re safe on our ship since any Aesir this far in the jungle isn’t here on official business and they’ll want to know.”

One of the moving dots veered off course. Brenn glanced over the same time as she did and, aware that full-blooded Aesir hearing was better than either of theirs, Tara motioned for them to take cover behind a smaller building nearby. Her breath came in short bursts and her heart thundered. The dot moved closer on as direct a path towards them as possible. Damned Interfaces with their built in sensors. Handy, most of the time, but they made it near impossible to sneak.

It was supposed to level the playing field.

Ha.

Closer. Closer. Who was it? Come on. Just a little bit more and they’d be able to tell what species. If they were human, it didn’t mean they weren’t in danger, but if she knew her uncle, he wouldn’t trust humans to hunt down his child.

There. Aesir. Brenn gave a curt nod and pulled her weapon in position, ready to spring, her eyes wide and focused.

Closer still. Tara took a deep breath and forced her hands to calm. The rigidity hurt, but it was better than missing. They had one shot before real bullets flew.

The second dot ceased its patterned search and moved towards them from a different angle. Great. Nothing to see here, folks. Just a couple of run-of-the-mill smugglers looking to hide their goods. No one special. No reason to investigate. Tara glanced over to Brenn and noticed her hands, too, shook.

Okay. Almost in range.

Three. Two. One. “Now.”

Both of them rose in unison and rounded their respective corners. Two seconds to aim. There he was, reaching for his weapon. Too late. Two clicks and the tranquilizers hit before he’d drawn. He made an ‘O’ with his mouth, swayed like a young tree in a windstorm, and buckled at the knees. Face first, he landed in the muck.

Was he going to be able to breathe with his nose buried in the mud? The Interface beeped. Shit, the other one. She risked a quick glance and could make out his form through the vegetation nearby. His pace quickened and Tara ducked behind the building again. Brenn’s lips made a thin, pale line that, taken with everything else, told the whole story. He’d seen his companion shot.

“Hey,” he shouted, voice booming like a true Empire soldier and Tara jumped in spite of herself. Palm parallel to the ground, she motioned for Brenn to stay down. How was this man going to react? Would he go for his partner first and leave himself open?

Not likely. He not only knew they were there, but they knew where he was, too.

Argh. She couldn’t hear. That left no choice but to look.

Slowly now, not too high.

There was a click so quiet she almost couldn’t make it out over the jungle’s din. She slammed back down as the bullet hit the corner with a ping. Heat seeking bullets were more accurate than the plain kind, but they weren’t all that sophisticated. They couldn’t round corners. Thank goodness.

They were going to have to tag team it. She glanced over to Brenn whose eyes were turned more inward again and her brow knitted as if in pain. Then, a moment later, her expression smoothed, and she was back again, as sharp as ever.

“He’s at your eleven. Try to get a shot off but knock back down as soon as he aims,” she whispered into Brenn’s ear.

She gave a curt nod and shot up, rounding the corner the same time Tara did. Click went Brenn’s weapon and click went the Aesir’s.

“Fuck!” Brenn hissed, hit the wall, then hit the ground hard, taking deep breaths through clenched teeth. Tara didn’t turn to look, though her heart crashed against her ribcage and screamed for her to check. He was still looking toward Brenn’s corner and she had one shot.

Click. His arm jerked. He turned her direction in a snap, weapon raised, but before he could make eye contact he slipped and slumped down to the ground unconscious.

Oh God. She pressed her back against the wall, taking a few deep breaths of the soupy air. Delicious air. It meant she was still alive enough to breathe.

“Brenn! What’s going on?” She rounded the corner and knelt beside her friend who was struggling out of her lightweight, long-sleeved overshirt. It’d been meant to protect her from bug bites and scratches. It didn’t do much against bullets. Tara winced at the bloody and torn flesh beneath.

“It’s just a scratch. He was faster than me, but I was out of it’s way enough it didn’t have anything to embed into. Barely hurts now, let’s just seal it and let’s get going.”

Tara was already on it, digging through her pack. They had vastly different opinions on what defined a scratch. Disinfectant to wash the wound. Sealant to stop the bleeding. Glue to hold the skin together until they could get back to the ship and do a proper job of it. Tape and bandages. Straight, deep, flesh wounds like these were easy. She could handle this, but whatever deity Brenn had pissed off, she needed to make amends soon. It wasn’t looking good.

“Do you think there are more of them outside of our sensor range?” Brenn asked through gritted teeth as Tara pulled a strip of tape tight to hold the flesh together.

Good question. One she didn’t have an answer to. Had Sig’s goons tracked the woman down the same way they had? Had they gathered information like her mother? Was it just a couple of people finally stumbling on the right location?

Didn’t matter. The two weak life signs were still there in her Interface, and they needed to get to them.

She sprayed disinfectant over the wound one more time and stretched a clear, skin-like bandage over the top that would last for several days if needed. It wouldn’t have to. Brenn, the woman they’d come for, and her baby would all three be in Doctor Youseff’s hands tomorrow if she had her way.

She would have her way.

“I honestly don’t know, but we should definitely get out friends out of the open where anyone can just stumble over them.”

Please Mom, follow-through and make sure no one else can come after us.

They packed up and made their way to the unconscious men. Tara squatted down beside the downturned man. “Help me turn him over. Hopefully we didn’t suffocate him.”

Not that it’d be any great loss to the Universe, said Brenn’s scoff. Oh well, rules were rules and values were values. They stuck to them even when it was hard and they were angry.

Up close the men were dressed in civilian clothes, but their weapons were military grade. Guess they’d wanted to keep a low profile. Brenn crouched beside her and grabbed on to the guy’s canvas jacket.

“3, 2, 1,” Tara counted. Together they heaved. She was quite a bit stronger than a full-blooded human and it still wasn’t fun. Brenn groaned and she could hear her gritting her teeth. It wasn’t fair how delicate and light the Aesir looked while being so damned solid.

Now he was turned over, with mud splattered across his face and clothing in greasy streaks, there was a familiar quality to his face.

“Huh,” she said when it came to her.

Brenn looked up from where she’d been alleviating him of his weapons and possessions like a practiced pick-pocket.

“What?”

“I know his mother.” She moved to his shoulders. “Grab his feet and I’ll get him from here.”

She wrenched him up by his armpits. For God’s sake, did he bench press planetary hoppers for the hell of it?

“Jesus.” Clearly, Brenn felt the same.

“You know,” Tara said, her strained breath making a staccato of her words, “if I weren’t so worried about getting caught out here, I’d send a picture. She’d be proud to see the great and honorable work he’s been up to at this illustrative backwater posting.”

That got a snort out of Brenn, followed by a grunt because apparently this man’s bones were made of lead. Throw him overboard and he could be used to anchor the boat Brenn used to work on.

“You’d never meet a nicer woman. She deserves only the best.”

Brenn laughed aloud this time and it was so nice to hear.

Lead for bones grew heavier when Brenn dropped his feet to work on opening the door to the shed they’d hidden behind earlier. A shimmering scar of gouged metal and oozing greenery marked where the bullet had hit. Over and over Tara scanned the area, keeping part of her focus on the two unmoving life signs. It was difficult to fool the Interface for long and remain hidden. Especially their models—only the best technology for Helena’s daughter. Not impossible, though. Not for people used to evading the authorities.

“Dammit.” Tap, tap, Brenn’s fingers went on a more modern keypad affixed to the door. It wasn’t a sophisticated piece of technology, but locks by definition weren’t easy to break into. Thump went Brenn’s boot against the door with a frustrated growl, her temper a lot shorter today than usual.

All the while, Tara held her charge, arms growing tired. Brenn muttered indecipherable words. Out here in the open, seconds seemed to stretch into minutes. The control panel buzzed. Brenn rustled around in her pack. Silence stretched the second even further. Was Brenn still focused, or had her mind wandered again. Should she drop Lead-for-Bones and offer to help?

Click. The door slid open with an unhealthy crunch that spoke of dry, uncared-for gears. An overwhelming and fetid miasma of fermenting fruit and dust permeated the air and gagged her.

Brenn coughed. “Jesus. It smells like a shebeen.”

The word, which sounded like she-bean, didn’t need translation. The Aesir allowed humans in the human districts, with their false air of freedom, to produce as much light beer and wine as they wanted, but alcohol over a certain percentage was heavily regulated. But humans were humans, and their taste for the hard stuff never went away. Bootleg was popular and illicit locations to brew and consume it could be found in every human district, if you knew who to ask.

“At least they’ll have something to drink when they come to.” She heaved the body into the makeshift distillery. The tranquilizers were enough to knock an Aesir this size out for eight hours. Twelve for a human. Hopefully they’d be long gone before someone was dispatched to see why they hadn’t checked in if Mom’s raid fell through.

“I thought you didn’t want to kill them? We caught my cousin’s husband making a pot of poitín in his room. That shite could have taken the paint off the walls. One swallow, just to try, made me hoarse for a week. Rora kind of liked it, though. Said it tasted a bit like honey.”

Tara laughed. “What soldier worth his salt can’t handle a bit of human moonshine? They have their honor to defend.”

The shed was dark, save for the light spilling in from the open door. Wooden barrels took up most of the space from floor to ceiling. It’d be cramped with the two of them. Their problem, not hers. Perhaps it’d give them a chance to consider their life choices and make better ones in the future. Her charge landed on the thick layer of dried leaves, dust, and soil with a thump, throwing dust in the air. It tickled Tara’s nose. One down, one to go.

Brenn hadn’t said anything for a few moments. Tara found her just outside the door, staring off in the direction of the life signs, eyes unfocused and expression thoughtful. She put her hand on her friend’s shoulder and waited to be acknowledged.

“Come on, let’s get the other guy inside, get our girl, and go home.”

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A note from OwlishIntergalactic

I apologize for the late delivery on this one. Chronic illness tried to kick my ass this week, at the same time my in laws showed up (and for the first time we're all vaccinated and can see each other) and I had a solid deadline for an exciting new anthology I'm writing for. I didn't have time to do a final editing pass and my brain won't let me post anything without that final pass (even though something always sneaks through).

Thank you to everyone who has read this so far and to all of you who have taken the time to rate and comment. Once again, I can't express how happy it makes me to share something others are enjoying.


About the author

OwlishIntergalactic

  • United States
  • Owlish Intergalactic

Bio: 23 years ago an awkward 13-year-old with thick frames perched on her nose sat down at her brand new Tandy computer and wrote her first fanfiction; a Paris/Torres ship fic for Star Trek: Voyager. It was gloriously terrible and the start of an amazing journey.

Today I still tell human stories set against the backdrop of space--love, hurt, comfort, and all of the wonderful messiness between. The ways we stick together, and the things that tear us apart. How the stars, in their infinite vastness, give us the freedom to be who we are. And I tell some of the stories we don't see enough of, the stories where characters like me-a disabled, gay, mother over the age of thirty-get to be the heroes.

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