Episode 1: I should have said no

The Last Wayfinder – Episode 1: I should have said no

OF ALL THE PLACES for a pick-up, why did it have to be Cosstere? Was she trying to get us killed? Let us forget that Cosstere was a dry and rugged rock tumbling through space. Just because it rotated around a star and had a breathable atmosphere did not mean it should be called a planet. To me, it was just another rock on the edge of civilization. But that wasn’t what made Cosstere dangerous. It was home to the Davendries.

The Davendries were not much more than a band of thugs. They were too big to fizzle out over time and too small for the thinly-stretched marshals to bother with. In these parts, the only law that people respected was the one that came out of the barrel of a gun. But still, I go where the money takes me. In the end, a job was still a job. And as long as there was work, I could afford to fuel my starship and feed my falcon.

A light blinked on my console followed by an alarm. I leaned forward in my seat. The blasted Davendries were on an intercept course. I’d have to take the Princess off autopilot soon. She was a Norgon-class passenger transport. She was still very agile for her age. And in this territory, speed was what mattered most. Her name was Astral Princess, but I called her Princess.

I was able to talk my way out of the last encounter, but my luck never did hold out long. The falcon squawked on her perch to my left. She was the other lady in my life. In fact, I named her Lady. She no longer looked like the dying rescue project she was when I found her. Her feathers had grown back and her little body had accepted the cybernetic implants. If you’re going to fix something, why not fix it and then some, I always say. I guess you could call them enhancements, but they saved her life.

I turned to Lady. “No need to get excited. I see them.”

She squawked again.

“There’s only two of them this time and I’m not going to make that mistake again.” Even if she couldn’t understand me, she was still a better conversationalist than the Astral Princess. All I got from the Princess was error messages now and again.

I flipped the switch, taking the Princess off autopilot, and grabbed the stick. I flipped on the communication channel—better to be proactive than reactive. “Unidentified crafts, this is Alder one-one-seven. You are trespassing in Cosstere orbital space. You are ordered to cease and desist.”

“That’s my line, stranger,” a gruff voice responded.

It didn’t surprise me they didn’t fall for my little bravado. Only the inexperienced raiders were intimidated by the authority-sounding chatter. It was time for plan B. “Well, somebody had to say it. You boys sure aren’t on your game today.”

“Don’t get smart with me,” he said. “Prepare to be boarded.”

“There ain’t enough time; they’ll be here soon,” I said, hoping that would spark their imaginations.

“Who’ll be here?”

I smiled. They took the bait. Now to make it sound convincing. “Look, I’ll split it with you, but I get a finder’s fee.”

“How ‘bout you tell us who’s comin’ before we blast you right here.”

“Hey hey hey, chill the engines. There are enough high-profile passengers to line everybody’s pockets. I just think it’s only fair I get a finder’s fee.”

“Well, in the spirit of fairness,” the gruff voice replied. “We’ll give you to the count of ten to get outta here before we blast your backside into rubble.”

It was almost too easy. But I still needed to sell my performance a little more. “Now wait a minute!”

“Two, four, six…”

“All right! I’m goin’! I’m goin’!” I said. I winked at Lady and accelerated to maximum thrust toward the planet. As entertaining as that was, it also meant they’ll be disappointed when they find out it was all a lie. I’d have to remember to make a run for it on the way out. The typical experience for Cosstere. Hence, why I ain’t so fond of this place.

The Princess passed through the atmosphere and streaked across the light orange sky. The red sun was up, which meant the yellow sun had set. The red sun gave the barren landscape an orange hue. Not dark or cold enough to be called night, but it was the closest Cosstere had to offer. I glanced down at my screen. We were coming right up on the rendezvous coordinates. Lady squawked.

“You see somethin’? I asked, looking down at the fast-approaching ground. A large camcam was walking along with two people on its back. I never did like camcams. Those smelly overgrown lizards were too difficult to control. Well, except for Miri. I’d swear she was an animal charmer. It seemed anything you threw reigns on, she could ride. Her difficulty was machines. Needless to say, she and the Princess didn’t get along very well.

“That’s a good eye, Lady; you spotted them. Looks like we’re right on time.”

I pulled back on the throttle and engaged the landing thrusters. Princess was fast all right, but she was rather rough on the take-off and landing. I gripped the steering controls as the Princess shuddered during her descent. She set down with a light thump. I climbed out of my chair and walked to the door at the back of the cockpit. I turned back to Lady. “Well, are you comin’ or what?”

She flew to my arm.

I stroked her feathered head before exiting the ship. Miri was outside waiting for me. She had already dismounted the smelly beast and walked up to the Princess’s ramp. She wore her curly black hair down—which I hadn’t seen in years—and she wore that long shirt that came down to her knees. It was the kind of outfit that was as close to wearing a dress as one dared in these parts. She looked mighty pretty, which was dangerous on Cosstere.

“On time as usual,” she said.

“I aim to make good time in these parts,” I replied, putting my hat on. “Okay, what’s goin’ on?”

“After two years, that’s the only hello I’m going to get?”

“Miri, you don’t gussy up for casual business. You’re wantin’ me to be sweet on you because I reckon you got some unfortunate news.”

She scowled. “I need to get this girl back to her parents.” She motioned to the scrawny beanpole beside her. Her long disheveled blond hair and dirty face made it clear she hadn’t been bathed for some time. She couldn’t have been more than ten years old.

“Well then, climb aboard and we’ll get underway,” I said, motioning toward the ramp.

“There’s just one thing,” she said, biting her lower lip.

I sighed. “What is it?”

“Her parents are on this planet.”

“Then what did you call me for?” I asked, grumbling. “I’m a transport pilot, not a tour guide.”

“You’re a Wayfinder,” she said, letting her desperation seep into her voice.

I marched a few steps closer and put a finger to my lips. “Lower your voice about that. Those days are long since dead.”

Desperation befell her face. “My memory of those days is very much alive, as are your skills.”

“If they find out I’m still alive—”

“Nobody has to know. I just need you, Rence. Please.”

I always had a tough time sayin’ no when she dressed up and pleaded. Lady squawked, perched on my arm. I looked at her. “You too huh?”

I turned back to Miri, her pleading eyes and pretty hair were more than a match for me. The problem was that I knew it was trouble. She wouldn’t need a Wayfinder if it was as simple a task as she made it sound. She was right about one thing; my skills were very much alive. Being a Wayfinder for twenty years is not something that a person forgets.

I sighed. “Take me to where you found her.”

Miri smiled and motioned toward her reeking lizard. “There’s room enough on my camcam.”

We mounted the camcam and for the next half hour, it lumbered through the rocky barren terrain. The cool red sun glowed in the cloudless orange sky. The cool dusk breeze blew across my face. The cool temperature of the wind was refreshing but I had to keep my mouth closed. It kept blowing little bits of gritty sand in my mouth.

“We’re almost there,” she said over her shoulder.

“Does this kid have a name?” I asked.

“…well, I call her Ryna.”

“You call her? What did her parents name her?” I asked.

“I don’t think she knows,” she said.

That wasn’t a very good answer and I wasn’t about to let her get away with it. “How about I ask it a different way? What did she tell you when you asked her what her name is?”

She brushed a lock of hair over one ear. “The tall one.”

“The tall one?” I said, eyes widening.

She nodded. “Yep.”

I shrugged. “Ryna it is.”

Miri pulled back on the reigns and the slow-moving camcam halted. Four men in front of them were turning over the wreckage of a hoverwagon, pilfering what they could find. They stopped when they noticed the camcam’s approach. Straightening up, they walked toward us side by side.

“I know these men,” Miri said. “They’re scavengers. I’ll go talk to them.”

I didn’t like that idea one bit. “Why bother? We can go around them.”

“This is the wreckage where I found Ryna.” She slid over the side of the camcam and landed on her feet. She strolled over to them with an air of indifference about her. She was playing her cards right; indifference meant you were not afraid.

I turned to Lady and stroked her feathery head. “Stay low until you’re a ways off, you hear?” I tossed my arm toward the back of the camcam and Lady leaped from my arm and soared low back the way we had come.

I turned back to watch Miri’s handiwork. She continued to talk with them, waving her hands as she spoke. Then one of the men stepped forward and touched her hair. She backed up and talked faster. It clearly unnerved her, to say nothing about angering me. I inched my hand toward my blast pistol and unfastened the safety strap. There was no reason for this to turn into a shootout, but I wasn’t taking any chances. Something wasn’t right about those men; I could smell it.

One of the men laughed out loud and grabbed Miri, dragging her back toward their hoverwagon. The other three drew their blast pistols and shot at me. My gun had barely cleared leather before a hot bolt of green plasma hit me square in the chest. I tumbled backward over the rump of the smelly camcam and slid down the tail. It had been a long time since anyone shot before I did. Was I out of practice?

Hearing Miri’s scream got my blood pumping hot and fierce. I scrambled to my feet and drew my second pistol in less than a heartbeat. I squeezed off a few shots, watching my red bolts streak through the air and tear into one of the men. He dropped his gun, clutching his belly, and fell to the ground. The other three hightailed it to their hoverwagon. They sped off into the distance, shooting as they went.

I kept ducking the green bolts while sending back a few red ones. But it was no use. They were used to quick escapes, by the look of it. The lumbering camcam wasn’t about to catch up to a hoverwagon. I turned back to the awful-smelling lizard and found the pistol I dropped.

“Why did they take her?” Ryna asked.

I spun around to find her behind me. She already knew her way on and off a camcam.

Her wide child eyes seemed to plead for an understanding of what had happened. “Did they want her because she is special too?”

“She is special to me,” I replied. “But that ain’t why they took her.”

“Then, why take her?”

“They took her because she is pretty.”

She looked down. “I hope I am never pretty.”

If my blood wasn’t runnin’ hot before it was boiling then. What kind of man creates a world where a young girl wishes never to be pretty? A place that made beauty something to victimize wasn’t worth spittle beneath a man’s boot. These men’s crimes didn’t end with kidnapping or with what they planned to do with Miri. “Now you listen to me, little miss. There ain’t nothin’ wrong with bein’ pretty. You got as much right to bein’ pretty as the suns do of shining.”

A tear rolled down her cheek. “But then why did they take her?”

How was I to explain? If I was in the right state of mind, I probably would have told her that beauty was rare in these parts. And that some people try to take it without asking. But that wasn’t what escaped my lips. I dropped to one knee and looked into her blue eyes. “Because they got a death wish.”

She gazed into my eyes, searching for something. Then she glanced down at my shirt and pointed. “You got shot.”

I fingered the burn mark on my chest. “Not to worry, little miss. That can be repaired.”

“Does it hurt?”

A red flashing light on my wristband distracted me. I smiled. “Good work Lady.”

I lifted Ryna onto the back of the camcam and climbed up the rope ladder. I sat in front of her and she wrapped her arms around me to hold on. I snapped the reigns and kicked my heels. The dumb brute snorted and sniffed the ground for something to munch. I never did like camcams. But desperate times called for desperate measures. So, I drew my pistol and shot the end of its tail. The brute reared back. I clung to the reigns and onto Ryna. When its front feet returned to the ground it rushed forward with impressive speed. The wind passed my face and threatened to pull off my hat.

Well, I’ll be, I thought. Who’d have thought all I needed was a blast pistol to ride one of these? The camcam veered off the road and into the rough mountain rubble. I yanked the reins to the left but the brute ignored me. I tried again but to no avail. My breathing increased and my blood pumped faster. We were on a runaway camcam and it might have been slightly my fault.

I pulled back on the reins as hard as I could. The beast shook his head, loosening my grip. It plowed onward through the lifeless wilderness.

“What’s happening?” Ryna asked. There was panic in her voice.

“I spooked the camcam and it won’t listen to me!” I explained, speaking over the noise of the stampeding lizard.

Ryna removed one hand from around me and touched the camcam. “It’s okay,” she said. “Everything is fine.”

It was a cute gesture, but I didn’t think it had a prayer’s chance of stopping the brute. The breeze caught the brim of my hat and lifted it into the air. I snatched it with my free hand and planted it atop my head. Then the camcam slowed to a canter and then to a lazy walk.

“That’s a good boy,” she said, removing her hand.

I looked at her oddly. She couldn’t be seriously taking credit for stopping the camcam, could she? Then again, she had been traveling with Miri. I figured I’d let it slide. No sense in telling a young girl she wasn’t the cause of stopping the camcam. If thinking like that made her feel like she was contributing, I was fine with that. I tugged the reigns to the left and the dumb brute actually turned left that time. I was grateful, but I still would have preferred a hoverwagon any day of the week.

Ryna tugged on my shirt sleeve. “Hey mister, I don’t think he likes it when you shoot his tail.”

I glanced back at her. “I reckon we both figured that one out real quick.”

I looked at my wristband. The tracking beacon on Lady was still active. We followed her signal for the better part of an hour before we started getting close. And the only way we could have been getting close was if they had stopped. I pulled back on the reigns and the lumbering reptile halted.

“Why did we stop?” she asked.

“We’re close,” I said. “And I want to sneak in all quiet-like.” I reached into the inside pocket of my long coat and pulled out my mask.

“What is that?”

“You sure ask a lot of questions.”

She looked up at me. “That was only two questions.”

“Well, you got me there. It’s my tactical mask. It filters the air I breathe and lets me see things I normally can’t see.”

“Like what?”

“You remember that falcon of mine? Lady?”

She nodded.

“It can let me see what she sees, among other things.” I fastened it on, tightened the straps, and put my hat back on. I turned back to her. “My voice will sound a little strange now, but don’t be alarmed.”

She again nodded.

I pressed another button on my wristband. My eyesight turned completely black for a split second. Then I saw through Lady’s eyes. Her vantage point was high in the air. I saw a rusted metal compound below along with four parked hoverwagons. The parameter seemed vacant. It was an amateur gang that didn’t expect anyone to come after them. That would change after tonight. I pressed the button again, switching back to my natural eyesight. I slid off the camcam. “Stay here, little miss. I am going to fetch Miri and bring her back.”

“I want to come,” she protested.

“Stay with the camcam. I don’t want to have to watch out for you too.”

I drew my blast pistols and started up the embankment toward the compound. The terrain was rocky and the breeze was kicking up little patches of dust into the air. With the twin suns, there would be no cover of darkness. Seeing me coming was a guarantee. Speed was all that counted now. Once I poked my head over the rise and saw the compound, I sprinted toward it.

Large green bolts of light streaked through the air at me. They weren’t really made of light. They were discharged energy plasma—though that might have been over-simplifying it. It was simpler to call them bolts of light, or blast bolts. One hit the ground in front of me. It kicked up a burst of sand and small pebbles. My mask protected me from the small flying debris. I fired a few shots back, not aiming at anything. It was to keep the other fellers from taking time to aim.

As I got closer to the compound, they stopped shooting. Were they retreating? Not likely. It was too soon for that. A huge green bolt of energy shot out from the compound window and struck the ground a few feet in front of me. The explosion launched me high into the air. It was about then I figured they stopped shooting to watch the blast cannon fire at me. On the way back down, I knew it was going to hurt. I braced for the impact and landed with a dusty thud. It took me a few seconds to breathe again. The wind had been completely knocked out of me. My neck ached, and my ears rang. That was too close. A foot or two closer and the concussion wave would have ruptured my internal organs.

For a brief second, I contemplated playing dead. But then again, if I were the cannon operator, I’d want more playtime behind the trigger and shoot again. I scrambled to my feet and dashed off toward the compound wall. I tapped a few buttons on my wristband, running the instant replay of the cannon shot before my left eye. It wasn’t smart to run while both eyes were distracted. So, I got into the habit of only playing video replays to one of my eyes. The video playback showed the cannon bolt coming from the second-story window. And judging by the angle, I figured the shooter was about four feet back and off to the right.

As I dashed toward the wall I pointed my blast pistol at the window, aiming, and fired. I didn’t have time to look to see if my shot struck the enemy shooter; the other men continued shooting at me. The ringing in my ears started to wear off, giving me some rudimentary sound back. It was rather disconcerting not to be able to hear the battle. I reached the compound wall and jumped. The robotic implants in my knees gave me a large boost of height. They also softened my landing on the roof.

I heard shouting coming from within the compound. They were scared now. That was good. That meant they wouldn’t kill Miri and instead hold her hostage as a bargaining chip. That meant her life was safe for now. But it would not stay that way if they managed to kill me. I still had to be cautious. I scanned the surface of the roof, looking for an easy entrance down. There weren’t any. Not even a skylight. Well, I thought, I’ll just have to make one.

I pulled out a small detonator from my coat pocket. It was a number three detonator, only half as strong as a number two, but a whole lot cheaper. I pressed the center button and the red light started blinking. It was a ten-second countdown—at least that was the factory standard timer. I always broke open all mine and readjusted the timer to five seconds. If anyone stole my detonators, I’d rather it be the last thing they stole.

I dropped the detonator where I stood and bolted to the other end of the roof. The explosion shook the compound and blasted a nice-sized hole in the roof. It was large enough for two men to comfortably fit through. I ran back to the hole and hopped down inside. My mask allowed me to see through the smoke that billowed up through the hole. I looked around and saw debris littering the floor. A few chairs toppled over. Even the body of the unfortunate soul that stood beneath the explosion. A colorful scrap of fabric caught my attention. The blue color was charred and spoiled. It was Miri’s shirt. The fancy blue one with floral designs which came down almost like a dress. I hadn’t even considered that she would be on the upper floor. How careless I had been. I shoved aside fallen debris and broken furniture, searching for her body.


I pushed aside a fallen roof support beam and saw a charred body. Neither the body nor the clothing was recognizable; it had been too close to the explosion. I froze at the sight. After all the robotic replacements, I was still human; fallible, and imperfect. Why didn’t I think before I acted? There would be no time to mourn for her now. Those thugs had climbed the stairs and began shooting at me.

A cold heaviness tugged at the pit of my stomach. My eyes threatened tears. I ducked behind a pillar, but I had no desire to shoot back. My thought kept returning to Miri. Those were thoughts that would get me killed. But then again, did I deserve to live now? Was my life still worth saving? I didn’t get the chance to answer those questions. My combat training took over and I shot back at my opponents. They were maneuvering around hoping to pin me down.

I needed to move and I needed to move now. I looked up at the hole in the ceiling. The thought to retreat was the most logical one, but my heavy emotions got the better of me. Even though it was my fault, I wanted those thugs to pay for Miri’s death. After all, I had the right to place some of the blame on them for putting her in the situation in the first place. My heart raced and my breathing accelerated. It was showtime.

I bolted from behind the pillar to the closest side of the room, shouting the only word I had on my mind. “Miri!”

“Rence!” a faint voice shouted from below the stairwell. It was Miri’s voice. A feeling of gratitude swelled inside me and a rush of relief coursed through my veins. A deep breath forced its way into my lungs and a lone tear broke free from my eye. My mask hid any traces of the tear, for which I was grateful. A renewed sense of hope poured into me like a warm cup of tea down my throat.

I unloaded my blast pistols at them, shot after shot. First the left one, then the right one, and so on, taking one step forward after every couple of shots. The men cursed and backed up, ducking behind cover. I laid down enough fire to keep them ducked behind furniture and cabinets. When I got close enough, I leaped over a counter. The man that hid there had a plastered expression of surprise on his face. I promptly swatted him across the face with the barrel of my pistol. His head smacked up against the neighboring wall and he fell to the ground.

A few green blast bolts flew past my face. I ducked and backed up a few feet. Then I hopped back over the counter and scurried over to the other wall. I wasn’t sure if the other feller saw me or not, so I wasted no time. I dashed forward at full speed down the length of the room. The man popped his head up from behind a fallen support beam and shot at me. I fired back, striking him in the head.

I crashed into the far wall to stop my momentum from the sprint. Both men were down, so I pulled the power cell from each of my blast pistols in turn, inspecting how many shots I had left. I still had a good twenty or so shots left. Hopefully, that would be enough. I ran into the stairwell and bounded over the railing, dropping to the ground floor. My enhanced knees absorbed the impact of the fall. I had expected to be met with more enemy fire, but the three men in the other room were not shooting.

I tapped a few settings on my wristband and adjusted my eyesight to infrared. There were only four people in the room. They huddled around Miri, trying to use her as a shield. A part of her pretty shirt was torn away. That was where the burnt scrap of cloth came from. Most likely torn while trying to handle her.

The man in the center, directly behind Miri had brown hair and a scar across his face. The other two had tattoos on their faces. Not the best way to experiment with fashion in my opinion. The scar-faced man spoke. “If you come any closer, she gets it!”

“What makes you think I’m here for the woman?” I said. I was there for her but I wanted to throw a little confusion into the mix. Confusion was scary. And fear in the enemy was always a benefit to me.

“What do you want?”

“You boys shot me off the camcam and stole what belongs to me,” I explained. Miri didn’t really belong to me. I couldn’t claim her in any setting. She and I were more or less professional acquaintances, not a married couple. But possession was the language of criminals. Telling them she was a close personal friend wouldn’t mean nearly as much as saying she belonged to me.

“That was Bix who shot you,” the scar-faced man explained. “And we didn’t know she was yours.”

“Well, you know it now,” I said, with a snarl.

“Bix was upstairs, so you probably already got revenge on him. And we can return your woman,” he offered.

It was always important to play the part of negotiation well. I couldn’t let on what I really thought, and I had to know what thoughts swirled around in their heads. They couldn’t see my facial expression behind my mask. So, I tilted my head to give the impression of consideration.

“I’ll accept your offer on one condition,” I said. “The woman’s clothes have been spoiled. She will need compensation.”

The man hastily pulled out a glowing blue bar of metal from his pocket and handed it to Miri. I holstered both of my blast pistols. One could argue it was foolish to be the first to put away a weapon. But I had more than my fair share of practice and experience drawing my pistols with speed. I was confident I could clear leather and take them all down before they could get more than one shot at me.

I beckoned to Miri and she slowly crossed the room toward me. There was terror behind her eyes but an expression of gratitude across her lips. She was in far deeper trouble than she ever expected to get on Cosstere. I could only hope she would avoid this wretched planet in the future. When she came within arm’s length I motioned toward the front door. She nodded, walking more confidently and exited.

I glanced back at the three men and tipped my hat. “Good day, boys. I trust I won’t see you again.”

“Never again,” the scar-faced man promised.

As I crossed the front door’s threshold into the red evening light, I kept one hand close to my blast pistol. The confrontation was not over yet. With my back exposed, they would be tempted to try to end our little bargain with a quick and dirty shot. At the same time, I didn’t want to give them the sense that I feared them by not turning my back. Bravado and safety were always opposites. But I had a backup plan. I reached over and tapped a button on my wristband. Miri and I walked away from the compound that now looked like a partially bombed-out building.

Lady screeched from behind. I spun around with my blast pistol drawn. Lady snatched a blast pistol from the outstretched hand of one of the tattooed men. His dumbfounded expression gave way to the fear of failing to ambush a superior marksman. I fired a shot and dropped him where he stood. The scar-faced man threw his hands into the air as a silent plea. I holstered my pistol and kept walking with Miri down the embankment to the camcam. Lady circled and landed on my arm.

I stroked her feathered head. “You did real good Lady.”

Ryna scrambled down the rope ladder off the camcam and rushed into an embrace with Miri. I took off my mask and returned it to my inside coat pocket. It ran on battery power and being this far from a charging station, I didn’t want to spend all its energy.

Miri turned to me with tears running down her face. She leaned in and kissed me, which took me by surprise. “Thank you,” she said in a weak voice.

“Mighty welcome,” I replied. I would have come up with something more clever to say if her kiss hadn’t caught me off guard. She hadn’t ever kissed me before, though we hadn’t ever been in a hostile situation before. She only knew my work from the stories I told her. It wasn’t until that day that she had seen what I used to do.

Ryna walked over to me and tugged on my overcoat to get my attention. “Did they get their wish?”

I nodded. “All but two of them.”

“I got my wish too,” she said. “I wished for you to bring Miss Miri back.”

I smiled. “Now if we can get you to your parents and me off this rock, we’ll all have our wishes.”

We mounted the lumbering camcam again and set off back to the crash site. I still needed clues to follow. A Wayfinder could track anything as long as there was a clue to start from. And my trainer had been the very best tracker. Once we arrived at the site of the wreckage, I slid off the back of the camcam and readjusted my hat. The morning sun peeked over the horizon as the evening sun was setting. The temperature was not far from heating up fast.

“I was right,” Miri said.

I turned to her. “About what?”

“About needing a Wayfinder.”

I reluctantly grinned. She was right. Any fool with an ounce of book learning could figure out how to track. But assaulting a fortified compound and fighting armed thugs to rescue her was a tall order for anything less than a Wayfinder.

“What’s a Wayfinder?” Ryna asked, wrinkling her brow.

Miri pointed to me. “That’s a Wayfinder.”

I snickered. “Yeah, that description is as clear as mud.”

“Well, you know better than I do,” she protested. “Why don’t you tell her.”

I stooped down to get a better look at the charred pieces of metal debris and chaotic footprints. “I’m busy.”

Miri sent a glaring look in my direction before addressing Ryna’s question. “I don’t know a whole lot about them, but they used to be the best trackers and fighters of the outer rim colonies. They were still around when I was a little girl.”

“Do they live here?” Ryna asked.

Miri shook her head. “No, they’re all gone.”

“Where did they go?”

Miri sighed. “Some people convinced the senate to outlaw bein’ a Wayfinder.”

“It was the Westward Galactic Financial Corporation,” I said over my shoulder.

Miri turned to me. “Westward Galactic is a bank that lends to people wanting to settle in the frontier colonies. What makes you think they would want to disband the Wayfinders?”

“The Corporation was led by Chip Hossk. Hossk financed the mercenaries that hunted down the Wayfinders. Any that didn’t surrender their badge and seal were killed. The Corporation spent millions of dubblins during the stand-down. That was no financial venture; it was payback for being a thorn in his side for far too long. Trust me, it was Westward Galactic.”

Miri turned back to Ryna. “Anyway, they’re all gone now except for Rence. He’s the last one.”

It was true; I was the last one. It was still hard to imagine that twenty years had passed since I was a young seventeen-year-old Wayfinder recruit. Twenty years since I was learning the ways of Aundoon the Great. I shook the memory from my mind. I dearly treasured those moments, but I needed to focus. The tracks were messy but still fresh. I turned over a large half-burned sheet of metal. It was the side paneling of the wrecked hoverwagon. Beneath it, a plastic hospital bracelet lay on the ground. I held it up to the light. “Subject thirty-five,” I read aloud.

“Yes?” Ryna answered.

Miri and I looked at her.

I glanced at the plastic bracelet and then back at Ryna. “Is that your name?”

“That’s what the doctors call me.”

“Doctors?” I asked, my curiosity peaked.

Ryna nodded.

“That’s not much of a name,” I said. That was more than suspicious, it was downright incriminating. Parents that call their girl by how tall she is and doctors that call her a number were not so mysterious anymore. It was starting to add up. I still hoped I was wrong. I didn’t want a morality issue to complicate this mission any more than it had already been. “How long have you known your parents?”

“Rence!” Miri said in protest. “What kind of a question is that?”

“A few days,” Ryna said matter-of-factly.

Miri stared at her in disbelief.

“You should know by now,” I said to Miri, “That I don’t ask random questions.”

Miri ignored me, still caught by Ryna’s admission. “What do you mean you’ve only known them a few days? They’re your parents. Aren’t they?”

Ryna returned a confused expression.

“I’ll give you a hint, Miri,” I offered. “They weren’t medical doctors. They were scientist doctors.”

Miri looked at me blankly. She needed more time to let that sink in, so I dropped the subject and returned to the tracks in the dirt. There were several sets of tracks. After I weeded out the tracks left by those punk raiders, I determined there were three other sets of tracks. One belonged to Miri, the others didn’t.

I stood and walked over to Miri. “Good news and bad. The good news is the parents survived the crash and wandered north through the canyon.”

“And the bad news?” Miri asked.

“Five people followed them shortly after.”

She shrugged. “More passengers?”

I shook my head. “Only four seats in that hoverwagon. They were followed by someone interested in their misfortune I’d wager.”

Miri closed her eyes in exasperation and cursed under her breath.

“Find yourselves some shade,” I instructed. I pulled my carbine blast rifle from the camcam saddle. I used the carbine when I needed a distance shot. It packed enough energy to send a blast bolt upwards of 700 meters.  I was glad I had sense enough to pack it even though this day had promised to be a quick mission. Old preparation habits were a good thing to keep around.

“Lady, I need a bird’s-eye,” I said as I tossed her into the air. She fluttered high and soared over toward the horizon.

“Shade?” Miri said in confusion. “But shouldn’t we follow the tracks?”

“It’s approaching midday’s heat, and nobody has had anything to eat for five hours.”

“You can’t be seriously thinking about food right now?”

“If you think it’s hot now, just wait ‘til the yellow sun gets directly above us. Not even the beasts of nature do much of anything in that heat,” I explained. “Besides, those tracks are looking to be more than eight hours old. Whatever happened to them is long over. I’ll be back with something worth eating soon. After midday passes, we’ll get a start on those tracks.”

With Lady’s help, I was able to track down a few game birds. They were too small to snipe with my carbine and too skittish to get in close. So, I had Lady swoop down and grab one for us. I gave some to Lady before cleaning up the rest and cooking it. Miri turned up her nose at my cooking but politely ate it anyhow. The girl was a different story. She wolfed down the meat faster than a snake can bite. I gave her my meal too. I figured she needed it more and I had survived for longer on much less. I could hold out. When the sun finally started its trek down to the other end of the horizon, we saddled up the camcam. We headed for a waterhole Lady had spotted during the hunt. The camcam needed water.

Five men meandered around the spring at the waterhole. Their hoverwagon had been parked nearby. They all looked to be somewhere in their twenties. Each wore a red sash tied to their belt. The red sash was the mark of a Davendry. I sent Lady into the air. It was time to put on my show-face. I waved and hollered to let them know we were coming. They all gathered around, watching us approach riding the slow-moving lizard.

“How’s the water?” I asked, smiling.

“It’s wet,” one of the Davendries replied in a cross tone.

“Good,” I said cheerfully. “This big lizard here needs a good waterin’.”

“You best keep on goin’, mister. This here spring is uh…” He smiled at a companion to his left before returning his gaze to me. “…down for maintenance. You’ll just have to ride on to the next one.”

I at least had the victory of getting them to dismiss us. The downside was that the tracks led to the waterhole. This meant that unless I could get a closer look, I’d not be able to tell where the tracks continued. There were only two options. We could continue on and circle back later hoping the Davendries had moved on. Or we could try to get them to talk and find out if they had seen anyone pass. I felt lucky.

I forced a confused expression. “But Lily and Pete were supposed to meet us here hours ago.”

They perked up; the playful superiority faded from their eyes. They scowled. “A man and a woman you say?”

I didn’t like the way they stared one bit. It told me more than I expected it to. They had seen the girl’s parents all right. They looked like children who had been caught with their hands in the cookie jar. Well, as much like that as a bunch of marauding bandits could look. There was something else in their eyes. Some piece of the story they didn’t want to share. Did they kill Ryna’s parents? Did they know what happened to them? I needed to know. But I also wanted to avoid a shoot-out as much as possible with Miri and Ryna so close. I figured I’d drop a little gunfighter lingo into my talk. Just enough to dissuade them from openly attacking. I smiled and nodded. “Yup, as sure as shootin’. Have you seen them around?”

The Davendry smirked. “Yeah, I guess you could say they’re guests of the Davendries.”

That much told me Ryna’s parents were alive. But I still needed to know where they were being held. I smiled wide. “All righty! Bring ‘em on out. I’ll rustle us up some game to roast and we can all eat.”

Another Davendry rolled his eyes. “They’re in orbit, you ninny.”

I suppressed my smile and forced another confused look. “Well, then how am I supposed to meet up with them?”

“You don’t, old man!” the first Davendry said. “Now git out of here before we roast you!”

I put up my hands. “Okay, okay. We’re goin’.”

“Hey Pim,” the second Davendry said, pointing to Ryna. “Ain’t that the girl the Corp was askin’ about?”

Pim, the Davendry I was just talking with, smiled and drew his blast pistol. “Come on down from the camcam, stranger. We’re gonna want a closer look at that young’un you got there.”

Blast! And here I was thinking I could avoid another shoot-out. If they were on the lookout for Ryna, then they had to have a photo or a description they could match her up with. I quickly scanned the scene. All five wore a blast pistol at their hip. And all five of them wore their blast belt low enough to allow for a quick draw. These men were trained gunfighters. If I had the drop on them, I’d have a good chance, but they already had a barrel trained on me. How could I protect Miri and Ryna? If I had to be judicious with my movements, I couldn’t keep them from the line of fire. Maybe I needed to play the fool for a little longer.

“Hey, hey, hey! Put that thing away. If you want an introduction, I’ll oblige you.” I climbed down from the smelly lizard. Incidentally, the hot sun didn’t help its smell any. I turned to Pim with my hands up. “C’mon, put that thing away; we’re all friends here.”

Pim looked at me suspiciously but he did holstered his gun.

I relaxed my arms.

“What’s that flashin’ light on your wrist?” the short feller asked.

I looked at my wristband. Lady was signaling that she was in position. “Oh, that? That means it’s time for me to take my medication. But I can get to that when we’ve all got acquainted.” I walked to the other end of the camcam and looked up at Miri. “All right, Sue. These boys want to have a look at little Loretta.”

Miri eyed me with a worried expression but started climbing down with Ryna. She was scared but she trusted me. I would do everything in my power to make sure her trust in me was well-founded. As Miri and Ryna descended the rope ladder, I glanced to either side as inconspicuously as I could. All eyes were on them. They would only be distracted until Miri and Ryna were on the ground. This was my only opportunity. I bent my legs and jumped backward with my enhanced knees. I flew across the spring of water and landed on the other side. Both my pistols cleared leather as the Davendries turned around. My first two shots each dropped a Davendry before the return fire came. I dove behind a large rock, squeezing off a few more shots. The remaining three Davendries scattered for cover.

Pim ran behind the only standing tree. The short feller dove between the camcam’s legs—only a desperate man runs between the legs of a giant lizard. The pale-faced feller ducked behind large rock and started shooting back at me. I put on my mask. I would need the enhanced vision to pull off these tricky shots. Pim motioned to the pale-faced one. He started moving from rock to rock, keeping low. He was going to try to circle around me. Any smart man would prioritize taking him out. But I was trained differently. Pim was the leader, giving instruction. I wanted to take him out first. That would mean the pale-faced one would get awful close for sure. But, they would be easy to manipulate without their leader coordinating.

I tapped a few buttons on my wristband and my eyesight darkened. I saw green geometry lines and angles overlaying the scene. I was in luck. A small flat stone lay on the ground behind Pim. It was the correct angle to bounce my shot. But I had to hit the rock in the dead center if I wanted the shot to ricochet correctly. I fired a few haphazard shots in Pim’s direction, discouraging him from taking a shot at me. Then I aimed and squeezed the trigger. My blast bolt nailed the rock and bounced, cutting into Pim’s back. He jerked back and fell.

Immediately, I turned my attention back to the pale-faced one. I didn’t see him anymore. My heart rate sped up. My breathing grew shallow. My old companion, adrenaline, coursed through my body. An enemy you couldn’t see was a death sentence waiting to pounce. My instincts shouted at me to get away from my current position. I dove around another large rock just as a blast bolt crashed into the rock, leaving a small burn mark. Sparks flew out from where the bolt struck. I still could not see where he was shooting from. Wherever he was, he was in a good angle. It was time to flush him out. I holstered my guns and leaped into the air with my enhanced knees toward where I figured he might be. I landed with a thud.

A scurry of motion from my peripheral vision caught my attention. A solid fist slammed into my face, sending me toppling backward to the ground. My mask cracked under the punch and my vision faded to black. I swatted my mask off in time to see the pale-faced Davendry lunge at me. I rolled to the side, letting him hit the dirt. I got onto my hands and knees, like a frog ready to leap. I jumped forward with my enhanced knees giving me added velocity. I crashed into the brute with my head butting him in the stomach.

We both toppled to the ground and rolled over a few times. I had knocked the wind out of him, but he quickly recovered. This suggested he was a scrapper by nature, well versed in fistfights. When our rolling stopped, he was on top, strangling me. I slapped my hands against both of his ears, causing his ears to ring. He flinched but still clung to my neck. I considered striking his ears again, but I only had seconds before I suffocated. I couldn’t be sure a second hit to his eardrums would work. I needed to get the man off me quick. I reached back and felt the ground. My fingers found a sizable rock. I struck the pale-faced feller and he let go. I rolled over, toppling him over to my side. I drew my blast pistol and ended him. I rubbed my neck quickly and got to my feet.

“Hold it!” the short one shouted.

He held Ryna in an arm lock with his blast pistol to her head. Miri lay on the ground at his feet. The sight of Miri boiled my blood. I did have one of my blast pistols in hand, but it was pointed down while his was pointed at her head. I was fast enough on the draw to beat a man in clearing leather, but was I faster than a man’s trigger pull? It wasn’t worth the gamble. Especially if it meant losing someone else’s life to find out. No, I couldn’t do that to the young girl. If she died, I would be just as guilty as if I pulled the trigger myself.

I stared at the man, not moving.

“Drop the gun!” he ordered.

Yeah, right, like I was going to let my Starfield & Tanner blast pistol drop to the rocky ground and risk damaging it. Starfield & Tanner pistols were more than the upper end of quality and expense. They were custom-built and took years of patience on the waiting list. I hadn’t handled anything before that had shot straighter or more reliably and felt so natural in my hand. “All right,” I said, raising one hand in surrender while setting my pistol on the ground.

“Back away!”

I obeyed and took a few steps back, keeping my hands where they could be seen. “So what happens now?”

He swallowed, allowing a bead of sweat to run down his face.

This one was clearly not a senior member of the gang. That gave me an advantage. The only problem was I didn’t have any clear way to exploit that advantage; not while he held his gun on her. “You know what I want,” I said. “And I know what you want too.”

He nervously shifted his feet.

“You want to live,” I continued. “And I want to go in peace with the woman and the girl.”

“Don’t try anything!” he shouted.

This man must have been greener than I had thought. He seemed too scared for his own good. His eyes showed only fear. No, more than fear. This man was terrified. Emotion and logic mix about as well as oil and water. The situation called for a compromise but he was in no shape to think logically. This was going to be tricky. I still had Lady in the air. But with both of my hands held up it would look too obvious if I reached over to my wristband to call her. I could only hope she would take the initiative to strike on her own or that I could somehow calm this feller down.

I was running out of options and the man’s hand started to tremble. If I didn’t do something quick, his nervousness alone would cause that blast pistol to fire. Now I had time working against me as well as this man. “Calm down, son. I ain’t gonna try nothing. All I want is to leave here as I said.”

It wasn’t working. He was too scared to think straight. Did I dare look up into the sky to look for Lady? No. Even if I did see her, all it would do is make the man more nervous—if that was possible at this point. And I couldn’t afford to spook him into pulling the trigger. “I ain’t gonna hurt you, boy,” I said, trying to calm him down.

He simply stared at me with crazed eyes.

I relaxed my posture and looked away from him. Maybe the lack of intense attention would ease things up a bit. I still watched him from my peripheral. Never take your eyes off an enemy. We would have to wait until his adrenaline ran out and his body’s chemistry forced him to calm down. Except that we couldn’t wait; his shaking hand might inadvertently fire his gun. I had to act. But what could I do?

Ryna strained to look at him with her eyeballs. “It’s okay,” she said. “It will be okay.”

The man’s trembling hand steadied. The crazed look drained from his eyes. Was the man calming down? His intense stare softened, and his breathing slowed. Why was this man calming down? Could his adrenaline have run dry so quickly? No, not a man in the prime of his youth and in good health. It had to be something Ryna said to him. It couldn’t have been her words; they were too simple. She didn’t say anything much different than I did. Was it her child-like tone of voice? That couldn’t be it either, the man had been calming down too quickly.

Something about her words was familiar. Ah, yes, the camcam. I hadn’t given it much thought, but she did calm down the stampeding lizard after I shot its tail. I had just assumed some piece of Miri’s charming has rubbed off on Ryna. But this was more than just being good with animals. This was something that directly pulled on the man’s emotions. And suddenly it all started to make sense. Not just the man’s calming, but this entire mission started to piece together. A girl with no name whom doctors called Subject 35, whose “parents” she met days ago, and who is interesting enough to hire gangs to find. Something was special about this girl. Special enough for powerful people to want her.

The man eased up his grip around her and stood up straight, lowering his gun. My first instinct was to draw and shoot the man down while his gun was lowered. But my boundless curiosity got the better of me. Just how far had she affected this man’s emotions? How far from a man’s right mind was he after Ryna’s words?

“How you feelin’?” I asked.

“A little tired,” he said. “Real sorry about all this, mister. Pim got the job from a company man. I don’t want any more trouble.”

I eyed him suspiciously. It wasn’t normal for a man to spill his guts in confession during a gunfight. Then again, I had just seen a man go from crazy scared to comfortable and talkative in a matter of moments. Why should I expect anything right now to be normal?

“Mind if I collect my gun now?” I asked.

“There gonna be no more trouble between us?” he asked cautiously.

At least his brain still worked correctly; he was right to be wary of the man who dropped all his comrades. “No, I don’t reckon there’ll be any more trouble.”

The man holstered his blast pistol, and I retrieved my Starfield & Tanner. I walked back around the spring over to them. He had dropped his arm from around Ryna. Miri was stirring on the ground. Her curly black hair moved about in the slight breeze. I turned my attention immediately to Miri, helping her up. She was understandably apprehensive about a Davendry standing behind Ryna. She took my lead all the same and kept her objections quiet. She rubbed the back of her head.

“I’m mighty sorry ma’am,” he said. “Is your head okay?”

She glared at him, nodding.

He slowly reached into his vest pocket and pulled out a small photo. “This is what we got from the company man. The one who hired Pim and us to find her.”

It was a black and white photo of Ryna. She looked a little younger and all cleaned up. She wore loose clothing that one might expect to see in a hospital. The caption read: Project Osurious, subject-35. Then I noticed the logo watermark on the lower righthand corner. I felt like cursing but refrained, seeing I was with Miri and Ryna.

Miri noticed the look on my face. “What is it?”

I handed her the photo. “Check the logo.”

She looked back up in surprise. “Westward Galactic? But…”

“But they’re just a bank,” I said, finishing her sentence. “What they really are is a powerful financial organization.” I motioned toward the photo in her hand. “And they are apparently interested in more than just migration loans.”

I turned back to the Davendry. “This company man, did he also give you a price for the man and woman who walked up this way?”

“Yessir. Not as much as the girl, but enough to set us to followin’ them. We thought we lost the girl when we got that hoverwagon to crash.”

I had to suppress a little anger at learning they caused the crash. He was talking and I wanted to get all the information I could. Besides, they already paid for it. Paid with their lives. I wished it didn’t end that way. A man deserves a chance to change. “Where are they now?”

“Pim sent Mauv and Manny to take them to the Death Hound.”

“One of the two starcruisers in orbit?”

He nodded.

The hot sun was waning on the horizon. The cool sun would soon start its climb into the sky. I looked over at the bodies lying around the spring. It wasn’t good to leave death near a pool of water. It wasn’t like a stream or a river where the water was constantly moving. Water was scarce on this planet, and it needed to be kept clean.

I motioned toward the bodies. “I’ll help with the buryin’.”

He nodded appreciatively.

“What about the girl’s parents?” Miri asked with worry in her voice.

“We’ll get to that,” I said turning to her. “You see, it was my gun that ended these men. That makes it my responsibility if the consequences infect this waterhole.”

Miri rolled her eyes. “Wayfinders…”

I smiled. She knew what she was getting when she recruited me. Or rather, when she recruited this part of me. Being a Wayfinder was never only about the skills. It was also about the code. We had once had a great responsibility, and to guide it, we followed the rules of the code. Not everyone agrees with those rules, I had long ago come to accept that. And even with the Wayfinders gone, I still live according to the code I swore to all those years ago.

Ryna glanced up at Miri. Then Miri’s shoulders relaxed. I paused a moment, wondering. Was Ryna using her calming effect on Miri? She didn’t speak to her. Did she have to? Had she ever used it on me? It was a disquieting feeling to think I could have been manipulated. No, I didn’t like the thought one bit. I would not be content until I got a few more answers from her. We still had a long trip on camcam back to the Astral Princess. Once aboard the Princess, we could get into orbit and see about rescuing Ryna’s “parents”. But for now, I had some men to bury.

What was your favorite part in the first episode? Let me know in the comments below.

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