Episode 10: The Final Showdown – Part 2

I awoke with a start, hearing Miri’s approaching footsteps. The night sky was still dark but it hinted at the approaching morning. The black sky was not black anymore. It was instead a dark blue. I stood and offered my spot to Miri with a gesture of my hand. She handed me my mask and blast carbine before settling down for some sleep.

I fastened on my mask and checked the energy level in the blast carbine’s power cell. It wasn’t good. It was more than 75% spent. I counted the notches along the power cell’s energy meter. I had 13 shots remaining. After that, we would be down to blast pistols. And blast pistols were not very effective against the blast vests that the troops wore. The impending morning would make short work of us. What if I had been wrong? What if we should have spent the night running?

I shook my head. Second-guessing the past was pointless. For better or worse, I had committed us to holding the ridge. I quickly made my way over to the rock Miri had used to watch the enemy troops. My mask’s vision was still set to infrared, and I could see the horizontal bodies of the sleeping troops. All except for the soldier on watch. The entire battle was on hold, like a recording that had been paused. The impracticality of nighttime combat provided the only respite we would have. And with the coming of dawn, came the full fury of the Westward Galactic Financial Corporation.

There was no way to hold them off for the long term. Their vast resources allotted them many legal and illegal means to get what they wanted. And in the outskirts of civilization that amounted to guns. The colonial were marshals spread thin across the colony worlds. So, the only law that was respected came out of the barrel of a gun.

Our only hope of survival was in getting help. Miri had requested that I send a hyperwave broadcast. Hyperwave was an outdated form of communication. It broadcasted a sequence of beeps that could be deciphered into a message. There were just two problems with it. Few people remembered the cipher these days and you could not guarantee who would hear the message.

But despite those deficiencies, someone had responded. Someone was coming and we needed to hold out long enough. I hoped it was Mik Ag’nar. Mik had proved an invaluable ally. At first, he was only paying back a favor I had come to collect. But now he had exceeded that initial favor. As I saw it, I now owed him. And if Mik was coming to help, I owed him big time. His Kuda friend, Anruk, would bring his squad with him. The Kuda, I had learned, lived for the battle.

But that was only if Mik was the one who had received my message. What if it was intercepted by a Westward Galactic ship? Well, aside from not getting any help, we wouldn’t be any worse off than we already were. Things couldn’t get much worse. I glanced at the battery meter for my tactical mask and then decided that things actually could.

The night sky kept getting brighter, turning the dark sky bluer and bluer. The distant landscape became more visible as the blanket of night lifted. Lady Squawked and fluttered her wings in a tree behind me. I turned to her.

“You’re up a little early. You must have the jitters too.” I held out my arm and she hopped on. “How about a little early morning recon?”

Lady squawked, flapping her wings a few times.

I tossed her into the air and she soared out of sight.

I turned my attention back to the soldiers at the base of the ridge. They were stirring now. The early morning air beckoned me with its crisp cool touch. The smell of tree sap and limestone swirled in the morning air. I switched my vision back to normal as the first beam of sunlight peaked over the horizon.

At the bottom of the hill, twelve more soldiers emerged from the thicket of trees. They joined the four who had camped overnight. They organized into two ranks of eight men armed with blast rifles. They were preparing to charge up the hill. I searched my pocket for detonators and counted seven. I pulled one out and set it on the boulder in front of me for easy access.

I aimed my blast carbine at the troops. A part of me wanted to shoot one of them now to discourage their charge up the hill. But something didn’t quite feel right about that. Sure, they were trying to kill us, but somehow, I needed to give them the chance to chicken out. I would wait until they started their charge before shooting any of them. I instead pulled out one of my blast pistols and fired a wild shot into the trees over their heads. If I was going to give them a chance to chicken out, I might as well remind them that they ought to. The men flinched and scattered for cover, firing a few green blast bolts in my direction. I holstered my blast pistol. It would have been easier to shoot the carbine as a warning shot. But with only thirteen shots remaining, I didn’t want to waste any.

Miri awoke with a start at the sound of my shot. She woke Ryna and they joined me at the boulder overlooking the hill.

“Sorry to wake you,” I said.

Miri shrugged. “Better to wake up at your shot than theirs.” She brushed off some dried leaves and twigs from her white gown. She stopped abruptly and looked at me. “You probably shouldn’t be watching me.”

I returned my focus to the troops at the bottom of the hill. “Sorry,” I explained. “I figured it would be a real shame not to admire the scenery.”

“Oh, now I’m scenery, am I?” she asked playfully.

I nodded. “The most exotic in these parts.”

Ryna giggled from behind.

I winked at Ryna and then looked back at the troops. Here they came. The troops charged up the hill, sending a hailstorm of green blast bolts at me. I ducked behind the boulder, snatching the detonator I had set on top, and tossed it. The explosion sent two men heavenward several feet before dropping them. The transparent visor on the helmets of the rest of the troops kept the explosion’s debris out of their eyes. They pressed on, shooting their way up the hill.

“Rence!” Miri shouted, pointing to the boulder I was using for cover. “Use that!”

I dropped to the ground, lying on my back, and pressed my feet against the boulder. Even with my enhanced knees, the boulder was heavy. It was like trying to coax a post out of concrete. The boulder shifted in the soil it had rested in for so long. With an extra push of exertion, I nudged the boulder a little closer to its tipping point. Miri ran over and threw her shoulder against the mighty rock, and it finally relented. Gravity pulled the boulder over the ledge and it crashed down upon the rocky surface of the hill. It splintered into three pieces and at least a dozen smaller rocks. The rocks tumbled down the hill, plowing through the men.

I drew Thunder and Lightning, squeezing off a few shots to add to the chaos. Miri drew her new blast pistol and fired off a few well-placed shots of her own. She took her time aiming and placed her shots well. Her light-blue blast bolts knocked down every man who evaded the tumbling rocks. Her draw still needed some practice, but her aim was good.

“Nice shooting,” I said, smiling at her.

“Why thank you,” she said, playfully.

The troops scampered back down the hill and took cover behind the trees once again. Their numbers had thinned to seven. Seven that could still walk, that is. I pulled Miri down into a crouch. With the absence of the boulder to hide behind, we needed to keep low. She holstered her blast pistol and picked up my carbine.

“Make each shot count,” I cautioned. “She’s only got a baker’s dozen left.”

She nodded. “What are you going to do?”

“I’m gonna check around back. Make sure they’re not tryin’ to flank us.”

“Flank us?” she asked.

“I’m gonna make sure they don’t try to get around to our rear.”

I circled around the top of the ridge, inspecting the shear drop-off as well as the traversable sides. I wouldn’t put it past Westward Galactic to try a sneak attack up the steep rockface. I didn’t see any signs of troop movement. That meant they were concentrating all their forces on advancing up the hill. Militarily, that didn’t make much sense. We had made it clear by now that we could hold the ridge. Finding an alternative method of attack was the most logical course of action. Why then would they be continuing a futile attempt?

Well, even though they did have access to weapons and men, these troops didn’t have military training. That training was restricted to the military. These were hired guns. Mercenary-trained personal soldiers. That could explain their poor tactics, but I wasn’t going to put money on that idea. Westward Galactic employed a lot of intelligent men. Even Dr. Lenish, inhumane as he was, was quite smart. The more reasonable explanation was that they wanted to keep our attention on the hill. So, I searched around a second time, looking for any signs of troop movement. Again, I found none.

Then I noticed the blinking light on my wristband. Lady was signaling. I tapped a few buttons on my wristband and changed my vision to see through Lady’s eyes. She was perched atop a Jullian pine tree overlooking a small grassy field outside the tree line. Westward Galactic was using that small field as a forward operating post. A landed shuttle acted as a base of operations. Several men in security uniforms give orders to troops and supply men.

One man stood in the tall wild grass of the field. He consulted a holographic map of the surrounding territory from a data pad. The man spoke to three others, intently watching the map. Then all four men abruptly looked skyward and watched a second shuttle land nearby. The cargo door opened, and a ramp extended. A large vehicle rolled out backward from the landed shuttle down the loading ramp. The large, tracked wheels made the vehicle look like a miniature tank. It turned around, revealing twin artillery cannon barrels.

Where were they getting these weapons? Those kinds of machines were not civilian issue, nor were they allowed for civilian use. Westward Galactic had deep coffers, but they were still a private organization. Only military organizations were allowed the use of such machines. Westward Galactic was pulling out all the stops. And that thought amused me. But why all the heavy-handed tactics? They could easily wait a few days and starve us out. Or why not continue the little skirmishes until we deplete all the power cells in our guns? They acted almost like they were on a tight schedule. As if they needed to overrun our position in a timely fashion. But why would they be in a hurry? They knew something I didn’t. Maybe they knew we had help on the way?

Several blast shots rang out from Miri’s position on the other end of the ridge. The troops were making another push up the hill. I pressed a button on my wristband, switching my eyesight back to normal. The battery in my tactical mask was nearly spent. I had to hope our help would arrive soon. I hurried along the rocky ridge back toward Miri. I walked around the wide trunk of a great red dallifer tree and stopped cold in my tracks. I wasted all that time looking for signs of troop movement. I should have been looking for something more important.

I swallowed dryly as I stared into the barrel of Bridgette’s blast pistol. Her once neatly-set blond hair had been disheveled. A shallow cut on her forehead looked to have stopped bleeding a few hours ago. The dried mud on the side of her face spoke of crawling along the bottom of a riverbed. That would explain why she disappeared from infrared. She did not carry her blast rifle and her blast vest was all torn up and charred. Those were likely a side-effect of the detonator I left for her along our trail. Her blast vest was too torn up to be of any use to her. She hadn’t had time to discard it. By the look of her, she had been up all through the night.

“How’s the shoulder?” I asked, referring to my shot on our first encounter.

She pulled the trigger.

Her green blast bolt struck me, causing me to stumble backward. A burning pain stung my side just below my ribs. I covered my side with one hand while grabbing onto some brush with the other, keeping me from falling over the ledge. I glanced down at the nasty drop. A few tree branches reached across the precipice, shading the dirt and rocks at the bottom. It looked like several small plants had tried to grow on the incline leading up the cliffside. But the continual sliding dirt and rocks prevented it.

I looked back at Bridgette.

She took a few casual steps closer. “When it comes to you, Rence, I’ve learned to shoot first and chat second.”

Smart woman, I thought.

“Any last words?” she asked.

I guess I wasn’t one for clever lines. The first thing that entered my mind involved bad language. The temptation to entertain those words vanished when I thought of Ryna. How would she react if she heard me say them? What if I didn’t need to say anything clever? What if all I needed was a little bravado? If I could get her to roll her eyes, or anything to distract her, I would have a chance.

I smiled. “So…a first name basis. Does that mean we’re courting now?”

Her eye twitched in exasperated annoyance. Not quite the eye-roll I wanted but it would have to do. I took that moment to let go of the shrub and draw my blast pistol. My hand grabbed a branch of the shrub along with my blast pistol. The tug of the shrub branch stopped my arm from raising my barrel to the proper height. My red blast bolt struck the dirt at Bridgette’s feet a fraction of a second before she pulled her trigger again. Her green blast bolt struck me square in the chest, like a punch, pushing me backward over the ledge.

I fell for only a few seconds but it felt like minutes. I saw my entire life flash before my eyes. I saw memories I had forgotten along with ones I remembered quite well. I saw my Wayfinder mentor. The wrinkled and wise eyes would stare at me as if to ask how many times he needed to reiterate his point. Then my mind rested on Miri. I was awful sorry I had let her down. She wouldn’t get her camcam ranch now; Bridgette would see to that. Miri had such a great heart. She was willing to get tangled up in all this just to help a ten-year-old girl find her parents. There was no way she could have known what kind of infested waters she would be swimming in. But she knew enough to ask for the help of a Wayfinder. I felt sick inside, knowing I had let her down.

I felt the leaves and branches of the trees scrape and whip me as I passed through them on my way to the ground. The lovely smell of tree sap was spoiled by the smell of burning cloth where Bridgette had shot me. Branches cracked and broke beneath me, sending leaves flying all about. My arm twisted and was yanked hard. The wound in my side screamed at me with throbs. My vision blurred into blackness.

I awoke to a strong throbbing from my right arm. I couldn’t move my right hand. I opened my eyes and saw the sun peeking through the leaves. My arm was caught between two limbs of the tree, suspending me in the air. My feet dangled in the morning breeze. I could only have been unconscious for a few minutes. The sun was still low in the morning sky.

I grabbed onto the tree trunk and wrapped my legs around it. I needed to get my arm free from the tree branches. With my free hand, I reached for my blast pistol and felt an empty holster. My blast pistol must have fallen out. It would be somewhere on the rocks below. If I ever found it, it would most likely be in several pieces. The Starfield & Tanners were great guns but a fall like that would irreparably damage them. My Starfield & Tanner set was no longer a set.

I glanced back up at my tangled arm. My second blast pistol was still in my hand. I didn’t have any feeling in that hand, but the trigger guard still hugged my finger. Friction kept it in my loose hand. It wasn’t a very secure hold. If my hand twitched, it would fall. I reached for it with my good hand, but it was too far away.

The throbbing of my arm intensified. I found a branch above my head and used it to pull myself up a little higher. I reached my good hand through the obstructing limbs and took the blast pistol from my bad hand and holstered it. Then I secured the safety strap. Losing one blast pistol was bad enough. Losing both would be appalling.

I pulled myself up a little higher in the tree, using my legs to support my weight. I still had some feeling in my upper arm and an insane throbbing in my elbow. I gingerly lifted my arm free from the limbs that had caught them and pulled my arm free. It stung as I moved it. The pain was so bad that I considered leaving my arm where it was. Thankfully, I rejected that idea in favor of getting down from this tree. I gradually relaxed my legs and my one good arm which were wrapped around the tree trunk. I slid down the trunk, scraping myself on the tree bark the whole way down. The bark scratched and ruffed up my hand and tore the front of my shirt. I didn’t want to know what it did to my britches. That would be a worry for another day. At least my coat sleeves bore the burden gladly; they only showed light wear.

Bridgette’s shot to my chest had hit my chest panel. There was no telling if anything was damaged without an inspection. But as long as my heart was still beating, I counted my blessings. My bleeding side, however, was a different matter. I pulled off my bandana and stuffed it into the hole in my shirt, pressing it into my wound. It would stifle the bleeding but not stop it entirely. I tore a piece of my shirt and put it around my waist. It came off easy after the shredding the tree bark gave it. Tying it with only one good hand was a challenge. In the end, I knelt and bent over, using my teeth to help my good hand tie the knot.

I looked back up at the intimidating steep ridge. Climbing up was not going to be easy in my condition. Then a thought crossed my mind. My heart raced and I felt the blood pumping through my neck. Bridgette was up there, and Miri had no idea. I had to warn her somehow. I knelt and rested my bad arm on my leg and pushed a few buttons on my wristband. If my wristband was free from damage, then Lady should get the instruction. Even if she did, how could she warn Miri? I had no choice but to hope Lady and Miri could understand one another. Or maybe I didn’t. Ryna had been awful close to Lady recently. Maybe Ryna would be able to understand. Lady was a highly trained falcon, but she wasn’t exactly a conversationalist.

Blast shots echoed from the ridge. My heart pounded. Bridgette was just one of Miri’s concerns. There were still a bunch of troops and that artillery to worry about. There was no way she could hold out alone. She needed me now more than ever. And I was at the bottom of a cliff. I carefully stuffed my arm into what was left of my shirt. It was a poor excuse for a sling but it would have to do.

I needed to get up the cliff. The fastest way up would be to jump with my enhanced knees. The danger would be in only having one hand to land with. And if I accidentally hit my wounded side, I would lose my grip and tumble back down. I thought of Miri and decided it was worth the risk.

I bent my knees and jumped. The ground fell away from beneath me as I rose into the air. The cliff ledge came up fast and I reached for it. My hand grazed the rocky surface and caught hold of a rock jutting out from the dry soil. My body thumped hard against the side of the cliff. My side throbbed in protest. I lay there a moment, waiting for the throbbing to subside. Instead, the rock I held onto pulled free from the dirt and I tumbled back down the side of the cliff. My injured arm banged against the rocky terrain and I flailed around with my good arm. I desperately grabbed at anything to stop my fall.

After a moment of tumbling and sliding, I found myself once again at the bottom of the ridge. My side pounded in pain and my arm shot waves of torture up my shoulder and into my neck. The pounding and throbbing were all I could think of. My vision blacked out again.

I opened my eyes to find myself lying on a bed. It was the bed I used to sleep on when I was in Wayfinder training, back on Onida Prime. This couldn’t be right. How could I be here? I sat up and kicked the covers off. This must be a dream. I was alone in a dimly lit room. I recognized it. It served as my study and bedroom so many years ago. The sloppy décor and messy machine table were familiar. My Windancer Special blast pistol lay on the desk. It was my first blast pistol. I had lost it my second year as a Wayfinder.

The door opened and a tall thin man stepped into the room. His wide-brimmed hat and long grey coat looked just how I remembered. His seldom-shaved rugged face and aged eyes stared at me through the dim light. It was Korr, my mentor. He would often visit me within the late hours when he saw I had been struggling. His kind voice and wise words always comforted me and gave me new direction.

This night was different than the rest. This was the night after my fifth setback. I had been the most discouraged at that point in my life. I had been close to giving up on learning the ways of the Wayfinders. Even though I never mentioned it, Korr sensed it. He knew that at that time what I needed most of all was inspiration.

“Rence,” he said in his old, scratchy voice.

“I am here,” I answered.

“I brought someone I felt you should meet.” He stepped inside my room and another man stepped inside behind him. My breathing halted and my heart raced, just as it had all those years ago. I knew the second man who entered my room. I knew him then and I knew him still. His black hat and long coat were not what identified him. His two pearl-handled blast pistols and the red sash around his waist were clues. But the real tip-off was his tactical mask. Every mask was hand-made by a master, and so each one looked unique.

I knew this man as Aundoon the Great. He had been a legend in his own time before he became a legend in my time. He was the first. All that I learned about the code and the principles to live by as a Wayfinder were founded by him.

Aundoon walked past Korr and strolled up beside my bed. I stood out of respect but he only motioned for me to sit back down. He sat beside me.

“What troubles you, young man?” he asked, his voice slightly muffled behind his mask.

I swallowed, unsure how to answer. “I failed,” I finally said. “Miri needed me and I let my guard down. My broken body is now at the base of a cliff. I am unable to reach her.” I felt moisture in my eyes. I sniffled. “And poor Ryna, she’s only ten years old…”

Aundoon took off his mask.

There was understanding in his old eyes. He took my hand and held it close to my mouth. The faint breeze from my breath tickled the hairs on the back of my hand.

“What do you feel?” he asked.

“My breath?” I answered, unsure if I was giving the correct answer.

Then he moved my hand against my chest. “And now what do you feel?”

“…my heart?”

He nodded. “Wayfinders are not immortal. You cannot be everywhere and you cannot save everyone. But as long as you have breath, and as long as your heart beats, you have not yet failed.”

My breathing intensified as I felt a warmth come over me. It was like his words infused meaning into my heart. I was a Wayfinder. I had not sworn to succeed; I had sworn to do my best.

Aundoon placed his tactical mask on my face. “You must see from a different angle,” he said, clamping it in place.

A surge of confidence rushed through me, and I began to recite the Wayfinder Code from memory.

“With every breath I take, this vow I do make. My heart is clean and selfless, my gun defends the defenseless. My cunning defeats the strong, my deeds right what is wrong. My soul has the will and thus I pray, grant me the vision to find the way.”

“You must hurry,” Aundoon said. “Miri needs you.”

The roar of a shuttle passing overhead startled me back to consciousness. I sat up, feeling the tactical mask on my face. I have breath, I said to myself. And my heart does beat. I do not give in to defeat!

I looked up. The sun was only a little higher in the sky. With any luck, I still had time to help Miri. The shuttle overhead flew past my field of vision from the base of the cliff. I couldn’t see how many new troops were joining the fray. But I desperately needed to get back up there. I glanced at the ground where I sat. My hat lay there like an old friend encouraging me. I smiled, putting it on.

I used my bruised but still-good arm to gently place my bad arm back into my shirt. I rolled onto my knees and my arm fell out of my shirt. I groaned in pain as the flopping of my arm produced more throbs of torture.

I bit my fist, struggling to keep myself conscious. As soon as the throbbing subsided again. I put my arm back into my shirt. I shoved it in further this time. I looked up at the cliff high overhead and heard the sound of blast fire. I gritted my teeth and started the slow ascent up the shear rocky surface. I felt around the rocks above me with my good hand, searching for rocks solid enough to hold my weight. Little by little, I scooted up the side of the steep incline.

The muscles in my one good arm protested every step of the way. I pressed on, scaling the cliff face like a slow-moving insect. One carefully-placed hand at a time, I made my way up the steep rock. When I reached the top, I grabbed the shrub that had earlier both steadied me and betrayed me. I had returned to the very spot before I fell. I did not stop to tempt fate or gravity; I pulled myself the rest of the way to the top of the ridge.

I sat at the base of the great red dallifer tree, catching my breath. Some motion to my right caught my attention. Four soldiers crept over the ridge toward Miri’s position, their blast rifles poised to shoot. From their angle, they would be able to shoot Miri from behind. That was the one thing I attempted to stop when I wandered away from her. I drew my blast pistol and aimed at the first soldier. It would do no good to aim for the center of mass or the head. Their blast vests and helmets were too strong for my blast pistol. So, I aimed for the shoulders. A solid hit to a shoulder would hurt enough. And it would render them unable to shoot their blast rifle with any degree of accuracy.

My red blast bolt shot through the shrubs and exploded into the shoulder of the closest soldier. He cried out in pain, dropping his rifle and clutching his shoulder. The other three shot wildly toward Miri’s position, unaware of where the shot had come from.

I fired again, nailing the second soldier, taking him also out of the fight. The others were more observant the second time and fired in my general direction. I slouched a little more down the side of the tree trunk, obscuring my outline in the shade. I fired again. The third man fell to the side, dropping his blast rifle.

Once again, I had broken the cardinal rule of sniping. I had fired more than two shots from a single position. The last soldier knew where I was and fired a steady stream of green blast bolts at me, peppering the tree trunk. I poked my head around the trunk to fire a shot but was forced to retreat to safety. The soldier had me pinned down against the tree and he was circling for a better shot. Maybe I could toss a detonator at him? No, that soldier was too quick on the trigger for me to show my face. And the wound in my side warned me against risky moves. I couldn’t afford to get shot again. What I needed was to follow the advice of Aundoon the Great and find a new angle.

My eyes lit up. My thoughts buzzed with excitement. A new angle!

I reached my hand into my shirt and gently pressed a few buttons on my wristband. My eyesight darkened. Green geometry lines and angles overlayed the scene. I didn’t have the same luck I did on Cosstere. The first day I met Ryna I had to bounce a shot to strike a Davendry at a watering hole. I was lucky then that a nice flat rock was behind the man I shot at. This time I wasn’t so lucky. The shot would be much harder.

The geometry lines calculated a moment. Then they showed me a complicated ricochet. It utilized the soldier’s shiny helmet and the barrel of one of the fallen blast rifles. A shot like that would be a one-in-ten chance of success. I didn’t accept those odds, so I decided to substitute my own.

I aimed at the approximate location the soldier would appear as he circled around to get an angle on me. I held my aim steady as the white helmet and visor stepped into view. I fired ten times. As soon as my first two blast bolts flew in his direction, he ducked to the side. I adjusted my aim, following the geometry lines as I squeezed off the last eight shots. One of my red blast bolts nailed him in the shoulder and he dropped to the ground groaning.

The battery light on my tactical mask flashed as my vision suddenly went black. My mask was all out of power. I took it off and tucked it away in my inner coat pocket. I forced myself to my feet in a single surge of exertion. I stood a moment, allowing for a dizzy spell to pass. Then I walked forward toward Miri’s location. A light-blue blast bolt flew at me. I ducked, waving my hat in the air. Miri was probably expecting more troops and shot at me reflexively.

“Rence!” she called, rushing up to me with Ryna close behind her. Her white gown fluttered as she ran. She looked like an angel with a gun.

She ran into my open arm. I grunted at the pain when she collided with my arm slung in my shirt. She reeled back in fright, noticing my wound.

“What happened?” she frantically demanded. “I was afraid you weren’t coming back.”

“I’ll always come back for you, Miri.”

“Where did you go? Couldn’t you hear me calling your name?”

“I hope you’ll understand if I save this conversation for later,” I said, putting my hat back on. “Let’s get back into position.”

A loud boom sounded in the distance. Seconds later, the spot Miri was guarding exploded. Rocks, dirt, and foliage flew into the air. We instinctively ducked as dirt and pebbles rained down upon us.

“On second thought,” I said, suddenly remembering the artillery below.

I turned around. Another assault shuttle flew over the ridge. It dropped rope lines for troops to slide down.

I turned to Miri. “Where’s the carbine?”

She shook her head. “I used it all up.”

I bit my tongue, not wanting to curse around Ryna. “How’s your blast pistol’s power cell?”

“I’m almost out.”

I looked back at the exploded ledge where the artillery shot had landed. “A different angle,” I muttered. I motioned for Miri to crouch down. “Stay here, I’ll be back.” I held my bad arm against my body as I ran toward the half-destroyed ledge. I didn’t trust my arm to stay slung in my shirt when I ran. And right now, I needed to run. The troops would start exiting the shuttle in moments.

I skidded to a stop overlooking trees at the bottom of the hill. The large artillery vehicle noticed me and turned, angling itself in my direction. I glanced back at the assault shuttle and quickly side-stepped a few paces. The artillery rotated, following me. I stepped up onto a large rock, completely exposing myself. The artillery hesitated. Why? Were they wising up to what I was planning? Or were they just suspicious? Well, I knew a remedy for both. I drew my blast pistol and aimed for the artillery’s forward window.

I fired. My red blast bolt bounced off the shiny blast window but it left a nice black mark. I couldn’t see too well at that distance but if my aim was right, it should have struck right in front of the gunner’s face. The gunner knew he was safe behind the blast window. My blast pistol shots were not strong enough to punch through. It wasn’t a threat; it was a blatant insult.

Less than a heartbeat later, the artillery cannon fired. Its large green blast cannon bolt flew straight at me. I jumped up with my knees, letting the cannon shot fly past and strike the assault shuttle. The troops had barely begun mounting the ropes when the cannon shot slammed into the side. The explosion threw the shuttle to the side. It smoked as it drifted over the side of the ridge and crashed into the trees below, erupting in a ball of flames.

I landed back onto the rocky ground with a thud. My enhanced knees absorbed the shock but the sharp jerk on my bad arm stung. I gasped in pain, clutching my bad arm. Then I heard the artillery fire again. Instinctively I jumped to the side and landed against a tree trunk. The wound in my side screamed at me in throbs. The ground I was previously standing on exploded from the artillery shot. Once again, dirt and pebbles rained down.

Miri ran to me. She tore off a long strip of the hem of her white gown and tied it around my bad arm. At my insistence, she tied it down tight so it would not move. Next, she opened my coat, searching for any more injuries.

She gasped in fright. “You’re bleeding!”

“Most of me is still flesh and blood,” I playfully chided.

She tore off another strip of her gown’s hem and tied it around me just below my ribs. “Do me a favor and stop getting shot.”

“You’re preaching to the choir, Miri.”

“Where’s your mask?”

“Batteries,” I complained, struggling to my feet.

My muscles felt comfortable while I sat. Now that I wanted to use them again, they complained with soreness. If I rested too long, I might not be able to get back to my feet. I holstered my blast pistol and reached into my coat pocket. I pulled out two detonators. They were cracked. A few pieces of the casing fell away in my hands. My fall must have been more brutal on my detonators. I dropped them and pulled out another two. One was smashed, and the other had a large crack but still looked intact. I needed two. I sifted for another in my coat. I had a few more broken detonators with only one more that looked promising.

“I really should have bought the better-quality casing.”

“Are those big enough to blow up that large cannon down there?”

“No,” I admitted. “But it’ll discourage anyone from using it.”

Another blast from the artillery echoed through the air. Another section of the ridge exploded. I ducked, lowering the brim of my hat against the raining dirt and pebbles.

“Please be safe,” Miri said, holding onto my arm.

I chuckled despite myself. “Nothing about today has been even remotely safe.”

She kissed me. “Promise me you’ll be careful then?”

I nodded. “You can count on it.”

I jumped over the destroyed ledge, and down the hill toward the artillery. I landed on the roof of the vehicle. My bad arm complained a bit from the landing but behaved itself. Miri’s makeshift sling worked well. I dropped to one knee and reached down, placing one of the detonators on the artillery’s blast window. The stunned driver and gunner glanced at my detonator through the window. Little lights blinked as the nine-second timer counted down.

They stared at the detonator, dumbfounded. I didn’t put much stock in the theory of evolution, but I could have sworn those two were somehow related to possums. I leaned over and looked through the blast window at them. They regarded my upside-down head with startled confusion.

“Hey morons!” I shouted. “It’s an explosive!”

In a wild panic, they opened the side doors and bailed out of the artillery vehicle. I tossed my second detonator through the open door and jumped away. I sailed high through the air and landed back on top of the ridge. The cab of the artillery exploded twice at the base of the hill, a fire burning inside.

I groaned as my arm once again complained about my rough landing. I dropped to my knees in exhaustion. Miri ran over and hugged me. “Is it over?”

I sighed and sank into her embrace, my tired muscles wanting desperately to rest. And I was thirsty. Ever so thirsty. I panted, trying to catch my breath. With my good hand, I brushed aside her curly locks and gazed into her eyes.

Lady screeched from high above.

I tensed up, my heart racing. I shoved Miri back as Bridgette’s blast bolt struck me square in the chest for the second time. I fell on my back and Miri drew her blast pistol, shooting. Bridgette dove for cover, firing back.

I took shallow breaths. My heart thumped erratically. Something was wrong. The second shot to my chest panel damaged something inside. I put my good hand to my chest, trying to slow my heart rate. It beat in an unnatural rhythm. In front of me, I heard the exchange of blast shots. Miri was pretty good for one so new to gunfights. Her advantage was that she already knew how to shoot straight. That alone put Bridgette on the defensive.

I reached out and found a pine sapling near me. I grabbed it and pulled myself into a sitting position. I was fast losing the feeling in my legs. My blood wasn’t circulating as it needed to. My breaths grew longer and slower. I did bring a couple of tools with me. I reached for my coat pocket to retrieve them. I couldn’t reach far enough. My arm was slowly losing range of motion.

I suddenly heard a clicking sound up ahead. I glanced up. Miri’s blast pistol was empty. Bridgette slowly rose from her prone position in the tall weeds with a wicked smile across her face. She dropped her blast pistol’s power cell and slapped in a new one.

Miri didn’t have that luxury. In our haste, we hadn’t had time to fashion a replacement power cell for her new gun. That was the unfortunate downside to custom weapons. Their accessories were not standardized. Bridgette took a few confident steps forward. Her smile reflected inward gloating over the look of horror in Miri’s eyes.

She raised her gun, aiming at Miri’s head.

“Freeze!” I yelled.

Bridgette glanced over at me.

“You might not like talking much, but I sure do. And quite frankly, I am appalled at your manners.”

“How are you still alive?” she asked in wonder.

“That’s the wrong question, Bridgette. The question you should be asking is how much do you want to live?”

She looked at me with a critical eye and then burst into laughter. “You’re in no shape for a gunfight. Look at you. You’re pale from blood loss and you can hardly move. You’re practically dead already.”

“I’m only going to give you this one chance to walk away breathing. Don’t waste it.”

She smiled, “I fell for your bluff once, Rence. I won’t fall for it again. False bravado can’t save you this time. But don’t you fret, I’ll finish you in a moment.”

She turned her attention back to Miri and aimed for her head.

My hand jerked in a reflex action, my blast pistol clearing leather and firing. My red blast bolt punched into Bridgette’s chest, ignoring the shredded remains of her blast vest. She stumbled backward with a surprised look on her face. I fired again. She dropped to her knees and fell backward.

My mind started to cloud over, my thoughts getting muggy. I gasped for a breath and fell again on my back. Miri rushed to my side and cradled my head.

“Pocket…” I hissed the words out with what little air was left in my lungs.

Tears rolled down her face as she searched my coat pockets. She pulled out the tools I had brought and knew what to do. She dropped my head to the ground and then quickly apologized.

I tried to roll my eyes but was unsure of my results. Miri opened my chest panel and went to work trying to patch me back together for the third time. A spark popped from my chest panel, startling her. She glanced at Ryna. “Please calm me,” she pleaded.

I laid my head back against the ground, the little weeds tickling my ears and neck. I didn’t know how bad it was. I had usually been unconscious when she worked on me. I could only hope there was something she could do. She had patched me up twice before. Maybe this would be no exception. Then again, I had dodged fate twice before. What were the odds I’d cheat death a third time? I rolled my head to the side and looked at Ryna. She stared at me with tears in her eyes. Her question came back to my mind. The question of my death. I still didn’t have any idea if there was a life afterward and I didn’t care. All I cared about was who I would be leaving behind. Miri and Ryna were closer than friends to me. They were the closest thing to family that I had.

I reached out my good hand toward Ryna. She cautiously approached and took my hand. I stared into her eyes. “Don’t fret, little miss,” I said, my voice barely above a whisper.

“I don’t want you to go,” she said sullenly. “You are going to be the pa.”

Tears fell from Miri’s eyes as she frantically worked. There were more than tears in her eyes, there was frustration also. Bridgette must have made a real mess inside. Miri put a tool between her teeth as she reached inside with both hands. My eyes drifted heavenward. Another two shuttles approached. They swing wide around both ends of the ridge, dropping ropes.

I felt a sharp electric jolt in my chest. It felt like someone stabbing me with a sharp needle. I tensed up, arching my back.

“Sorry, Rence.”

I struggled to keep my eyes open. “No worries, with all I’m putting you through, I probably had it coming.”

A quick smile burst through her worried expression. It was almost a laugh, but not quite. She glanced into my eyes only briefly before refocusing on her work.

The troops were cautiously closing in, blast rifles poised. Ryna glanced to the side, noticing the advancing troops. Three more shuttles roared overhead. They lowered to the ground and opened the side doors. Men poured out with blast pistols and rifles.

Another spark popped in my chest panel, startling Miri. I flinched, taking in a deep breath. My heart started again to beat in rhythm. Miri looked at me with wide eyes. Her eyes searched my expression, wanting an answer.

“You did it, Miri.”

She breathed out in relief, letting new tears run down her face.

“Reach for the sky,” a gruff soldier’s voice ordered.

Miri raised her arms and turned around. A dozen soldiers stood with their blast rifles ready to shoot. Behind them, a larger mass of men with weapons swarmed in. There were too many to continue fighting.

“Reach for the sky, you rats,” another voice sneered.

“I can’t,” I protested, pushing myself into a seated position.

“He ain’t talkin’ to you,” said a slightly muffled but familiar voice.

I hadn’t noticed it before, but the men standing behind the front row of troops didn’t wear blast vests and helmets. They looked more like a motley band than an organized militia. Blue sashes around their waists waved in the afternoon breeze. They each wore blast belts low for a quick draw. Several faces looked familiar.

My eyes scanned the group looking for the familiar muffled voice. I didn’t have to search hard. The bulk from his full set of blast armor stood out, a faint ray of sunlight reflecting off the dark glass of his helmet. After spending an entire evening shooting up the inside of a Corporation starcruiser, I would recognize Anruk anywhere.

“You can lower your hands, Miri. That last order was directed at the Westward Galactic troops.”

The soldiers looked behind, noticing they were the ones being addressed. The leader of the squad of Corporate troops shot an annoyed glare at them. “Aren’t you Davendries a little far from Cosstere?”

One Davendry glanced at his band of men. “Well, well, the company man knows his geography.”

The rest of the Davendries laughed.

The squad leader scowled. “That’s stellar cartography, hog-brain. Now you and your boys had better get. This is an internal affair.”

The Davendry chuckled to himself. “I guess you didn’t see the badge, company man.” He gestured to a shiny metal six-pointed star pinned to his red silk shirt.

The squad leader snorted. “You expect me to believe that a bunch of hooligans have been deputized by a colonial marshal?”

The Davendry chuckled again, addressing his band. “Oh, that’s real cute. The company man knows his celestial stars but can’t tell his legal stars apart.” His men all laughed again.

“That ain’t a colonial star,” I said, stealing everyone’s attention. “Colonial marshals have a five-point star. The six-point star is a federal marshal.”

“That’s right, company man. My boys here are officially a federal posse.”

The squad leader motioned with his head and his troops turned around to face the crowd of Davendries. “Posse or no posse. Everyone knows the marshals are spread thin. We have another fifty troops on their way here in a few minutes. Now, if you don’t stand down, we’ll waste you and have it all cleaned up before supper.”

“Not anymore, you don’t,” Anruk calmly replied.

“Don’t what?”

He took a few nonchalant steps forward. “The reinforcements you speak of. They ain’t coming.”

The squad leader tapped his wristband. “Hawk 7, Hawk 6. What is your status? Over.” He paused waiting for a reply.

I shewed away a fly that buzzed about my face.

A worried look escaped his controlled expression. “Hawk 6, come in!”

A slightly garbled voice finally responded. “Negative. Your six is uh…occupied at the moment. But please give my regards to Anruk when you see him. Out.”

The other soldiers looked at the squad leader nervously.

“Well?” Anruk asked. “Are you gonna comply…or resist?”

The squad leader gritted his teeth and stared at Anruk, considering.

Three men crested the ridge from the hill just behind Miri and me. It was Mik walking behind two other men. The first was familiar: a tall man that was past his prime with a bushy mustache. He wore a metal five-point star badge. He was Marshal Corval, the colonial marshal assigned to the westward colony worlds of this region. Due to the vast territory he covered, it was rare to see him. The other man, I didn’t know. He was young, wearing a blue uniform with a six-point star badge.

“Anruk?” Marshal Corval asked.

Anruk walked over to him. “Sir?”

He pointed to the blue-uniformed man beside him. “This is Federal Marshal Dane. I believe you spoke over transmission.”

Anruk nodded. “Marshal.”

“Why haven’t you arrested these men yet?” Marshal Dane casually asked.

“I was giving them a chance to resist.”

“Verry funny,” he said, motioning to the Davendries. “Take them into custody.”

The troops set their rifles down and the Davendries surrounded them. Mik rushed over to me. “Rence, I had a feeling you were involved in this.”

I smiled. “Thanks for responding so quickly to my message.”


“Yeah, the message I sent by hyperwave broadcast. You had to have seen it, how else did you bring the cavalry?”

Mik scratched his chin. “My hyperwave receiver has been broken the last few days. I haven’t gotten around to fixing it yet.”

I motioned toward the Davendries. “Then what’s all this?”

“Anruk heard that Marshal Corval was organizing a posse to arrest a private militia. When I heard it was Westward Galactic, I was afraid for you.”

“Thanks, Mik.”

“Rence Perry,” an authoritative voice called from behind Mik.

Marshal Dane walked up.

I glanced at Mik and Miri. “Help me up?”

“Not the shoulder,” Miri cautioned Mik.

They hoisted me to my feet. The wound in my side throbbed and my shoulder was equally vying for my attention. Miri held onto my good arm, steadying me. “Marshal Dane,” I replied.

“You’re a very wanted man.”


“And I’m not just talking about being the last Wayfinder still at large,” He explained. “In one month, the price on your head has increased six times. Three Westward Galactic starcruisers canvased the outer region colonies looking for you. And the illegal militia activity surged.”

“I guess I should be flattered.”

“When this came across my desk, I knew whatever you had stolen was something big. Westward Galactic doesn’t commit that many resources to anything trivial.”

“What is it you think I stole?”

“It could have been anything. Your record is clean aside from not turning in your badge and seal. And normally one man is not worth the time or the federal resources. It’s more efficient to let the bounty hunters take care of it.”

“Then what got you interested enough to stop by?”

He smiled. “I was out in this region investigating another matter when we picked up on an anonymous signal. A data leak sent over hyperwave. It contained a large collection of files on a covert project involving children. It detailed violations of four federal laws and two sanctions.”

I glanced over to Miri. It was her idea to transmit the Osurious project files along with our call for help. Listening to her had just saved our lives. I turned back to Marshal Dane. “Pretty lucky break for you then.”

“You don’t happen to own a hyperwave transmitter, do you?”

I smiled. “Something tells me you don’t ask questions you don’t already know the answers to.”

He smiled.

I glanced down the hill at the burning artillery. “If Westward Galactic got wind of your arrival, that would explain why they were in such a hurry to flush us out.”

“As I said, you’re a very wanted man.”

I decided to change the subject. “So, how did you get the Davendries to join your posse?”

“I didn’t. They volunteered.”

I wrinkled my brow in confusion. I didn’t remember the Davendries doing anything for free. I had to bribe Tess to get her help. Either they were getting something out of it, or something had changed in Tess.

He read the confusion on my face and continued. “I’ll need your testimony in court.”

I blinked. Was he crazy? I’ve been on the run from Westward Galactic because I stole Ryna. It was no walk in the part by any stretch. But if Westward Galactic found out I was going to testify against them in a federal trial that could shut down the entire corporation…

I took a deep breath. “You want me to testify against the largest financial corporation this side of the core worlds?”

“Yes,” he said, sounding as if he expected my reply. “And I’m authorized to offer you a full pardon for not turning in your badge and seal. We can also send out a public statement that Westward Galactic can no longer pay the bounty on your head. That should keep the bounty hunters off your back.”

I shook my head. “Not good enough. I can’t continue to keep us alive without being a Wayfinder.”

He took a breath and stared into my eyes, contemplating.

Behind him, another shuttle approached the top of the ridge. It turned to the side and opened the large side door. Two men and one woman hopped out onto the rocky weeds. Tess Davendry started walking toward us with two of her men. I turned my eyes back to Marshal Dane.

He shrugged and pulled off his six-point star badge. “Then I guess I’ll just have to deputize you.” He pinned the badge on my coat.

“Deputizing an outlaw?” I asked in confusion.

“Deputizing a Wayfinder,” he replied. “The courts can dispute the ramifications at their leisure.”

I smiled. “And I thought you said I was the clever one.”

“Well, I didn’t say you were the only clever one.” He tipped his hat. “Good day, Mr. Perry—and don’t disappear.”

I nodded. “You have my word.”

Marshal Dane walked off to talk with Marshal Corval. Tess and her two men walked up. She looked me up and down. “I knew you could take care of yourself, Rence, but if I knew you were trying to prove me wrong, I would have come quicker.”

I smiled. “What kept you?”

“Corporate starcruiser didn’t think we were serious.”

I smiled. “I’m sure you cured them of that ailment.”

She smiled.

“I hear you volunteered,” I said. “Was it a change of heart or do you simply have a soft spot for me?”

“I guess you could say it was the hope of a change of heart.”

I glanced down.

She gave an uncomfortable smile, eyeing Miri and her dress. “This must be the lucky one. And by the look of it, I’d say congratulations are in order?”

Miri smiled warmly. “Thank you. You will come, won’t you?”

“You’re already dressed for it,” she observed. “Looks like all you need is the parson.”

“They probably will want to wait a few weeks for Rence to heal first,” Mik said.

“No,” I said, suddenly aware that Miri had objected at the exact same moment.

We exchanged a glance before she replied. “With how many times we almost lost the opportunity these last few weeks; we’d rather not tempt fate by waiting.”

Tess turned to the man at her right. “Manny, take the shuttle into town and bring the local pastor. Pay him whatever it takes.”

He nodded and left.

I turned to Miri. “It’s probably a bit last-minute, but is there someone I should ask permission from?”

She pursed her lips and shook her head.

I had always considered myself the old-fashioned type. Somehow it didn’t seem right to marry her without asking permission first. I looked around and spotted Ryna. I gently dropped to one knee and beckoned to her. She ran to my side.

I took my hat off. “Little miss, seein’ as you know how I fancy Miss Miri and all, what would you say to me marrying her?”

She hesitated a moment. “Will I get to be the daughter?”

I smiled and brushed her cheek with my hand. “You can bet your britches on that.”

She beamed. “Then yes, you can marry Miss Miri.”

I winked at her. “Thanks, partner.”

I stood and turned to Mik. “Now we just need someone to fetch Petre and Carol.”

I had heard of fast weddings before. And I had heard about short engagements too. If anyone was keeping track, I reckon Miri and I broke all the records. Somehow the setup was perfect. Anruk removed his helmet while serving as my best man. Tess, Carol, and Ryna were Miri’s bride’s maids. And Mik gave Miri away. Marshal Corval and Marshal Dane even offered to certify the event. And despite the damage caused by the artillery, Ryna was still able to find enough wildflowers to make Miri a bouquet.

After the preacher concluded the pronouncement, the Davendries and Anruk’s Kuda all fired their blast pistols in the air. Then I gave Miri the kind of kiss I had longed to give her. The kind that promised her my heart and mind. I still didn’t think I deserved Miri. But that didn’t matter anymore. She was mine and I was hers. And both of us had Ryna.

The only downside was spending the wedding night in a hospital room. The pain medication kept me only half aware of my surroundings. It wasn’t ideal but with the amount of blood I had lost, it sure was a good idea. The good news was that I hadn’t broken any bones. My arm had been badly twisted, but it turned out all right in a few weeks.

Our first destination after leaving the hospital was Cosstere. Miri truly did want to ranch camcams though she was hesitant to ask me about settling down on Cosstere. She didn’t need to worry, I meant what I said when I told her I would wrangle camcams alongside her. When I told her that, she looked into my eyes and announced how she was the luckiest person alive. I didn’t argue with her aloud, but I knew for certain every time I laid eyes on Miri that I was the lucky one.

The End

Read earlier episodes on Wattpad

What do you think about the ending? Were there any loose ends that still needed to be tied? Tell me in the comments below.

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