Episode 4: The worst possible choice

The Last Wayfinder – Episode 4: The worst possible choice

Picking up their trail was easy. I had tracked for twenty years as a Wayfinder. That is, before the blasted Corporation convinced the government to outlaw us. Despite their efforts to eradicate Wayfinders, I was still a thorn in their side. That was the beautiful irony. Their shuttle had a head start on us, but we had speed. The Astral Princess, or the Princess as I called her, was an old Norgon-class transport ship. They don’t make them like they used to, as the saying goes. And that certainly held true for the Princess.

I sat in the cockpit of the Princess with Lady, my enhanced falcon, on her perch to my right. Up until recently, she was the only other lady in my life. Behind me sat Miri, the woman I’d known for several years. She had always been a spunky and intelligent woman who dreamed of a life of silks and satins. If she had any flaws, she sure didn’t let on. Either that or I’ve been looking at her through filtered lenses. I was, after all, sweet on her. Sure, she could irritate me plenty. But there were times when I indulged in delusional thoughts about settling down with her.

Beside Miri sat Ryna, the ten-year-old girl that started this whole mess. Or rather, this whole mess was started because of what she is. Miri found her on Cosstere, the barren rock that posed as a colony world. Miri was simply trying to reunite Ryna with her parents. A simple task at first glance. Then things got complicated. We learned back on Cosstere about her ‘parents’. They were actually scientists that she barely knew and they referred to her as the tall one. The Westward Galactic Financial Corporation, however, called her Subject 35.

But if that wasn’t odd enough, Ryna had a gift. She could fiddle with people’s emotions. She could suppress or flair what a person was feeling. And that, I suspect, is why they were willing to kill to get her back.

My console beeped twice. “I’ve got something on sensors,” I announced, pressing more buttons. The shuttle was transporting Ryna’s parents to another Corporation facility. If we could rescue them first, then this entire mission could come to a successful end. The computer hummed and displayed a wireframe diagram of what the sensors picked up. It was a corporate shuttle.

“We found them. They’re dead ahead.”

Miri sighed with relief.

Ryna, on the other hand, looked indifferent.

The sensor screen beeped again, this time showing a second sensor contact; a big one. “Oh no…”

“What’s wrong?” Miri asked.

I must have said that last part aloud. “Looks like they’ve reached their destination.”

Miri walked over and glanced over my shoulder. “That’s a really big ship. How are we supposed to get on board?”

“Well, knowing nothing about them will make bluffing a little rocky,” I said, leaning back in my chair. “Getting them to want to take us aboard and not blast us to smithereens will be the trickiest part.”

“I thought the tricky part would be letting us stay on board until you rescue Ryna’s parents.”

“I stand corrected.”

She was right. How would we get her parents aboard the Princess? She’d be watched like a Quellian Hawk. Too many problems to solve in a short time. We would have to go about this one step at a time and hope we wouldn’t get ourselves cornered. “Let’s first get ourselves on board,” I suggested.

I left the cockpit and climbed down to the bottom deck. I had several shipping crates. They all had a little something inside them, but it would be easy to consolidate to make an empty one.

Miri descended the stairwell behind me. “I think you should take Ryna with you.”

I shook my head. “That’ll just slow me down.”

“Do you remember what happened on the Davendry starcruiser?”

How could I forget? It was a great ruse to get on board their starcruiser, right up until the Davendries captured Miri and Ryna. I had asked myself why I was such an idiot for underestimating them.

“This won’t be the same,” I said, not sounding convincing. And truthfully, I wasn’t so sure it wouldn’t end up the same anyhow.

“Rence, please. The safest place for Ryna is beside a Wayfinder.”

She had to keep bringing up my profession. I wasn’t immortal by any stretch of the imagination. Nor was I infallible. Shucks, I’ve had more than my fair share of failures. I sighed. She did have a point, though. Beside a Wayfinder was a pretty safe place to be.

“All right,” I said. “Help me carry this over to the loading ramp.”

“What’s in it?” she asked.

“Me. In a few minutes.”

“I’m going to deliver you as cargo?” she said, stunned.

“If you’ve got a better idea, I’m all ears.”

She helped me slide it over to the loading ramp. I bumped against a stack of boxes and a small detonator tumbled to the ground. I picked it up with annoyance bubbling up inside. I had told Miri a thousand times not to leave her detonator lying about. She had used the last detonator against that Kuda and it saved her life.

“Miri,” I said, holding the detonator out to her. “How are you going to have it when you need it if you keep leaving it lying around?”

She took it with a sharp motion. “Sorry, Rence. I wanted it with my dress but I haven’t yet sown up the tear.”

“It’s an explosive, Miri.”

“I know, Rence. I’ll put it away when we’re done with this crate,” she said setting it back on the pile of boxes. We finished moving the crate into place. When the Princess landed, a handling crew would be able to easily unload the crate. That was step one. Step two would be getting out of the crate and finding Ryna’s parents.

“What if they search the crate?” she asked. “Then what?”

I shrugged. “Well, I guess I can fiddle with the lock so it can only be opened from the inside.”

“Okay,” she said. “That takes care of you and Ryna. What do I do?”

“You’ll be the transport captain delivering a package for Project Osurious. Be bold and charismatic. Don’t be a pushover but do follow their instructions.”

“In other words, I pretend to be you,” she concluded.

I smiled. “That’s one way to put it.”

We returned to the cockpit in time for the Corporation mega-ship to send a transmission. “Transport vessel, this Corporate Labship 7. We have you on our screens, please identify yourself.”

Miri grabbed my hat and put it on, sitting down in my chair next to Lady. Ryna and I stepped outside the cockpit door.

Miri leaned back in the chair, resting one leg on the control console. “Labship 7, this is transport Miribel. I’ve got that package ready to deliver.”

“Transport Miribel, you are not on the schedule for today’s deliveries.”

“That ain’t my fault,” she said. “I just work here.”

“Transport Miribel, you are not authorized to land outside your scheduled arrival window.”

“Look, we’re all tryin’ to do our jobs here. All I was given was a destination, not an instruction manual.”

“Listen, lady, I don’t make the rules.”

“Oh, please don’t send me all the way back to WGFC for one measly crate. Can’t you help out a damsel in distress?”

“…just one crate?” the voice asked.

“Just one crate,” she promised.

After about a minute the voice finally responded. “You are cleared to land in bay two. A deboarding team will be standing by.”

“Thank you so much, hun. I really appreciate this.”

After she switched off the transmission, I sauntered back into the cockpit. “I don’t really sound like that, do I?”

She giggled.

I took two spare power cells for my blast pistols and tucked them into my boot. I might not need them, but an ounce of preparation was worth more than a pound of luck. I picked up Lady from her perch and then turned to Ryna. “Wanna take a ride with me in a metal cargo crate?”

She stared at me blankly.

I shrugged, walking past her. “I don’t blame you, little miss.”

I walked back down to the shipping crate. Miri and Ryna followed.

Miri knelt and looked into Ryna’s eyes. “Ryna, I want you to go with Mister Rence. He’ll keep you safe.”

“Who will keep you safe?” she asked.

Miri smiled. “Lady will watch over me.”

“Technically, I’m Mister Perry,” I said.

Miri rolled her eyes at me. “I know, but that’s what she calls you.”

I handed Lady over to Miri and stepped into the crate. After lifting Ryna inside, I turned to Miri. “How are you gonna get them to let you stay until we get back? Seems they might want you to leave immediately.”

“On a ship this old,” she said with a smile. “Something is bound to malfunction.”

I winked at her. She was much quicker on her feet than I gave her credit for. If history had been different, she could have been an excellent Wayfinder. I pulled out one of the wires to the external lock keypad. That would prevent anyone from opening the crate from the outside. I put on my tactical mask and hunched down inside the large crate. While Miri closed and locked the lid, I switched my eyesight to see through Lady’s eyes. It was showtime.

It didn’t take the crewmen long to unload the crate. An anti-grav lifter made short work of it. Miri stood at the bottom of the ramp with Lady perched on her arm. That gave me a clear view through Lady’s eyes of our surroundings. There were three men in the bay. Two unloaded while the third recorded inventory on a datapad. The landing bay had stacks of metal crates and metal barrels against a wall. It would be enough for Ryna and me to hide amongst if we could first get out of the crate.

Miri looked to be thinking the same thing. “Hey boys,” she said playfully. “Any of you ever seen an Earth falcon before?”

“No ma’am,” one of them said.

“Then this is your lucky day,” Miri said, waving to them. “Why don’t y’all come over and say hello to Lady here before we go.”

The three men walked over to her.

I love her style, I thought, switching my vision to normal. Quietly opening the container, I got out and hoisted Ryna out as well. It was too easy. We kept low and amongst the barrels until we got close to the door. I tapped a few buttons on my wristband and changed my vision to infrared. Through the walls, I saw the heat signatures of people moving all about. Since we were the only shuttle in the bay, it was a good bet the corporate shuttle was in bay number one.

As soon as the hall was clear, I went through the door with Ryna on my tail. It felt a little weird not having my hat, but Miri needed it. We hustled down the smooth white hallway. In many ways, it reminded me of the Davendry starcruiser. But this ship smelled sterile, like a hospital or a laboratory. We ducked into a small room off the main hallway. There was a computer terminal that I could use to get the layout of the ship.

Hacking into their computer system was no small feat. They were well-financed and the hardware proved it. It took me a half-hour before I could access their system. The good news was that the other landing bay was on the other end of the same hallway. Once the coast was clear I led Ryna down to the landing bay one. We quietly entered and hid behind a wall of storage crates.

I turned my vision back to normal. Seven men and one woman were all talking in the center of the bay. I turned to Ryna. “Are any of those your parents?”

She nodded and pointed to the group of people.

“The man and woman in the center?”

She again nodded.

I tapped a button on my wristband and zoomed in my eyesight on those two people. They wore name tags. Dr. Carol H’Lar and Dr. Petre Xaan. I had suspected ever since I met Ryna that her ‘parents’ were just scientists who were assigned to Ryna. It seemed my suspicion was correct. Why was I even trying to reunite Ryna with them? If they weren’t biological parents, what right did they have to the girl anyhow? Well, I wasn’t about to turn back now—not when I was this close.

I drew my blast pistols and casually walked up to the group. I was almost an arm’s length away before they took notice of me. “All right, everyone into the corporate shuttle except Petre and Carol.”

They stood motionless, staring at me in shock.

“Come on,” I said. “This ain’t no request.”

The six men shuffled over to the entry ramp to the corporate shuttle. And then I heard a pistol activate behind me with a high-pitched hum. I slowly turned to see Petre with a blast pistol aimed at me. “What?” I asked.

“Things are not what they might seem,” he said.

“You can say that again,” I replied.

One of the six men tapped his wristband and spoke into it. I was too far to hear what he said, but I was sure he was calling security. I turned back to Petre. “I came here to rescue you for the little girl’s sake.”

“She’s alive?” Carol asked with surprise and guilt in her voice.

“It doesn’t matter now,” Petre said. “She’s being tracked.”

The doors to the landing bay opened and a dozen or so armed guards swarmed in, surrounding me. I was half tempted to shoot Petre. All this work for nothing—less than nothing, now I was caught. One of the guards took away my blast pistols. Another removed my tactical mask. A third guard searched my coat pockets and found my detonators.

Another guard walked into the circle dragging Ryna by the arm. That’s when I really wanted to shoot Petre. They didn’t take me anywhere; we just stood there. They were waiting for something. Another small group of people entered the landing bay. One prominent man with a long white lab coat and an expensive suit underneath stepped right up to me.

“Ah, Mr. Rence Perry I presume. My name is Dr. Vik Lenish. I would like to thank you for bringing back Subject 35 to me.” His thick accent and perfect posture annoyed me.

“My pleasure,” I said. “I’ll be sure to send you the bill.”

“Ah, the quick wit I have heard so much about. You have not disappointed me a single bit.”

“Well, that makes one of us.”

He looked over to one of the guards. “Bring him to observation room seven. He and I will have much to discuss.”

As they hauled me out of the room, I glance at Ryna. She wore a sullen face, devoid of any hope in her eyes. The guard marched me halfway across the ship into a large glass room adjoining a laboratory. The windows were dark, most likely one-way glass. They sat me down and kept a few guns pointed at me. Dr. Lenish stepped into the room a few minutes later with an enthusiastic smile on his face.

He spoke into a microphone. “Bring in Subject 35.”

I saw through the glass into the laboratory. The door opened and two doctors ushered Ryna in. They sat her down and connected electrodes to her head and turned on a monitoring machine. The second doctor held a clipboard and began talking to her.

Dr. Lenish turned to me. “Fascinating, isn’t it? Twenty-three years of experimentation and we produce such a lovely accident.”

“Accident?” I asked.

“Of course, Mr. Perry. I would love to claim scientific success. But the truth of the matter is that we were trying to produce something else completely. So, it was a happy accident that Subject 35 exhibited such astounding results. She has demonstrated the remarkable ability to suppress or enflame a person’s emotions. The only drawback is that we have no idea how that happened.”

“A shame,” I said.

“A shame indeed. Instead of exploring her capabilities, we are trying to recreate this…happy accident.”

“How is that coming?”

“We are not as close as I would like. I hope the new hyper-EEG and the KEGs will produce the data I need.”

“And if it doesn’t?”

“Then we will have to dissect the subject’s brain. I would rather not have to spoil this specimen just to figure out how to recreate it. But either way, science will triumph in the end.”

“I was getting rather fond of that girl.”

He looked at me. “That is not a girl, Mr. Perry. That is the result of a genetically modified test tube insemination.”

“You’re kidding yourself,” I said, with disdain in my voice.

“Who are you to judge me, Mr. Perry? I know who you are. We kept detailed records of the Wayfinders—especially the one that got away. And based on your record, you aren’t even completely a man anymore.”

I glared at him. “I’m more of a man than you’ll ever be.”

“You see, that’s where you’re wrong. I am a hundred percent flesh and blood. Whereas those with cybernetics give up their humanity for an extended lease on life. The one redeeming factor for you, Mr. Perry, is the amount of cybernetics you carry. You see, most people cannot handle more than eight or twelve percent replacement. The human brain can only handle so much. But you carry upwards of thirty percent replacement parts. This makes you a very fascinating specimen indeed.”

“I’m sure a criminal psychologist would say the same about you.”

Dr. Lenish smiled. “Such a quick wit. If only I didn’t have to dismantle you for study. I would seriously enjoy our little prattle from day to day.”

“I could always dismantle you,” I said.

He laughed out loud. “Such adorable bravado.” He turned to the guards. “Please take him to a holding cell. And be sure to give him something to eat. We need to preserve the organic parts of him.”

One thing was for sure. I wanted to rearrange his face. And if I was going to die, I was as sure as shooting gonna take him down with me. They led me to a small room with a sink, toilet, and sleeping cot. It was downright accurate to refer to it as a cell. Titanium bars separated me from the rest of the room. Is this what Ryna had been subjected to all her life? How much longer would they let her live? Then again, would it really be living at all? Life with two random scientists as ‘parents’ might not be ideal, but it would sure beat this place hands down. I may have judged Petre and Carol too quickly.

The Corporation had taken Thunder and Lightning, my blast pistols. They had taken my tactical mask and my detonators. But they couldn’t take away my mind. And now I needed to use it to find a way out of here. I positioned myself on the cot facing the back wall. It would obscure what I was attempting and give the impression of despair. I unbuttoned my shirt and opened my chest panel. I didn’t often tinker around in here. It wasn’t smart to monkey with what kept my heart beating, but I needed to send a message to Miri.

A few minutes of tinkering allowed me to send a pulse signal to the Princess. It was meaningless as an actual message; I couldn’t make a pattern or alternate frequency. It would be up to Miri to discern that I was calling for help. We hadn’t established a code or signal of distress between us—which would be on my priority list if I ever got out of here. I hoped she’d get the message and use my signal to locate me.

I closed my chest panel and re-buttoned my shirt as Dr. Lenish and Petre stepped into the room. Dr. Lenish walked over to a storage locker on the far wall and unlocked it with a keycard. He pulled open a drawer.

“Dr. Xaan, you may stow the subject’s exhibits in here. Ready access will allow me to quickly reference his psychological motives.”

“Yes, Dr. Lenish,” he said, carrying a bundle of my things. He delicately situated them inside the drawer and returned to Dr. Lenish’s side.

Dr. Lenish turned his attention to me. “Well, well, well, Mr. Perry. My security staff was deeply curious about how you got aboard. It seems you had help from a lovely transport pilot. She will be joining us soon.”

I gripped the iron bars, whitening my knuckles.

“She has no scientific interest for me but she might still prove useful. I need to understand your back history.”

“Why do you do this?” I asked.

He raised an eyebrow. “Can you be more specific? I do a lot of things.”

His accent got on my nerves almost as much as his methods. “Why do you torture and kill people under the guise of science?”

He glared at me, flaring his nostrils. “Our species would have become extinct thousands of years ago if not for science. Hydroponics saved us from starvation. Guns saved us from being victimized. Space travel saved us from overpopulation. But what will save us from the next calamity? The next course in our survival requires an evolutionary jump. And I am here to find that jump.” He leaned in toward me—still too far for me to reach through the bars. “So you see, Mr. Perry. I am not a monster of humanity; I am their savior. Your sacrifice will save hundreds of thousands of lives to come.”

“If you don’t let the girl and the woman go free, I will bury you.”

Dr. Lenish laughed. “Such dramatics. I really will miss our conversations.” He turned to Petre. “Let me know when you have finished cataloging Mr. Perry. I want to get started with him as soon as possible.”

“Of course, Dr. Lenish.”

Dr. Lenish exited the room.

I stared at Petre. “You still haven’t answered my question.”

Petre lowered his clipboard and stepped closer. “You would not have gotten very far. They are tracking the girl somehow. Carol—Dr. H’Lar and I tried to free the tall girl but they tracked us all the way to Cosstere. We didn’t see any sign of pursuit, yet they found us anyway.”

“And yet you got back into Dr. Lenish’s good graces somehow.”

He looked down and swallowed. “It’s not too unrealistic to suppose a pair of doctors were influenced by the tall girl’s abilities. It’s convincing enough even for myself.”

I relaxed my grip on the bars. “You didn’t think of saying, no-thank-you? You figured it was better that she and I be captured and dissected like lab rats?”

Petre’s hands trembled. He kept his eyes lowered. “I…I thought to dispel any suspicion of our loyalties to Dr. Lenish. I…I’m sorry.”

“What of your loyalties to decency and your fellow men?” I asked. “An innocent girl is going to die.”

“Don’t you think I know that?” he said, jaw trembling. “Carol and I risked everything! And we nearly got ourselves as well as the girl killed.” He hung his head.

“Sounds like the two of you had a good plan. And all you were missing was a Wayfinder,” I said.

He looked up, reading my eyes. “Why would you offer to help? There is nothing in it for you?”

“Setting things right is what Wayfinders do,” I said, looking into his eyes.

The door opened and an armed guard stepped inside. Petre looked away and quietly excused himself, cheeks flushed. After Petre was gone, the guard stepped closer to the bars, staring at me. I didn’t care to give him any regard, but he stood there, intently looking at me. I wasn’t sure if it was curious or creepy. I stared back. Something was odd about him. His uniform hung a half-size too large. His helmet and visor were haphazardly positioned. And then there were his eyes behind the visor, the eyes of…

“Miri?” I asked.

She snickered, holding a silencing finger to her lips. She pulled out a keycard from a pocket and unlocked the cell door. I slid it open and promptly gathered my things from the drawer Petre had been good enough to abandon. Everything seemed to be here. But if my instincts about Dr. Lenish had merit, he would have been a careful man. I checked the power cells for my blast pistols. Sure enough, Dr. Lenish had them drained.

“An ounce of preparation is worth more than a pound of luck,” I said, pulling out the two power cells from my boot.

Miri walked back to the outer door and glanced through the tiny window, peering down the hall. “I got your message; thanks for the heads-up about the guards.”

“Actually,” I explained. “It was an S.O.S. to come and rescue me. I didn’t know you had been compromised yet.”

She smiled at me. “I’m flattered you would ask.”

“I’m lucky to have you, Miri,” I said. “Awful lucky.”

I snapped on my tactical mask and reloaded Thunder and Lightning. “Ryna is in one of these rooms down the hall. She’ll have scientists in with her. Petre and Carol should be close by.”

“Who are Petre and Carol?” she asked.

“The scientists we’ve been referring to as Ryna’s parents.”

She looked down in thought. “If they’re not her real parents…”

“I know, I’ve had the same conversation in my head. We’ll worry about what’s proper once we’re out of this mess.”

Miri peered out the small window again. “By the way, I have Lady watching the landing bay from atop the ship. I figured that should let you see what we’ll be up against on our way back.”

“Good thinking,” I said, joining her at the door.

“So where do we look first? Left or right?”

“Left,” I said. “Let’s get Ryna first.”

She opened the door and walked out casually. I waited for her to round the corner before I slunk down the hallway after her. She rounded the corner and I peeked around it. Two guards approached from the opposite end of the hallway. They passed Miri and she glanced back at them. I waited for them behind the corner. Then I heard Miri whistle from down the hall. I peeked around the corner again and the two guards had turned down another passage instead.

I quickly joined Miri, looking through small door windows, hunting for Ryna. The fourth door I checked had Petre and Carol inside. And by the look of things, they were arguing. I could only hope they were discussing the virtues of helping Ryna again.

I tapped Miri on the shoulder. “Her parents are in here,” I whispered. “We’ll come back for them once we have Ryna.”

She nodded, getting a look at them.

We continued checking the doors until Miri tugged on my sleeve and pointed at a door. I looked inside. Ryna was sitting on a chair with a scientist asking her questions, clipboard in hand. If this was the lab room, then the observation room I was recently in would be the very next door.

“Miri,” I whispered. “I’ll take care of whoever is in the observation room. Wait thirty seconds, and then dismiss the scientist and get Ryna.”

I opened the observation door and stepped inside. Dr. Lenish and an assistant sat at a desk observing Ryna through the dark glass. The younger man assisting Dr. Lenish glanced at me and froze. Dr. Lenish took notice of me and his hand flew over to the intercom controls. My blast pistol flashed out of its holster and shot the intercom receiver out of Dr. Lenish’s hand. It sparked and blew a puff of gray smoke. He gasped, dropping the dead receiver. The assistant jumped back and tumbled over the back of his chair, hitting his head on the floor. Dr. Lenish stood and took a step back.

He eyed me nervously. “You have as fast a draw as your file indicates.”

I holstered my blast pistol and picked up a clipboard. “Specimen: Subject V,” I said, pretending to use the clipboard. “Reflexes appear average. Sense of imminent danger: significantly below that.”

Dr. Lenish forced a smug smile. “I had your weapons disabled. Your ingenuity—”

“The specimen appears to be concerned with its life,” I said. “Its reliance on civility, however, is a rather disappointing self-preservation tactic.” I took slow steps toward him. “At present, the subject is lacking in judgment. Hypothesis: can the subject learn through osmosis?” I struck him across the face, sending him toppling backward.

I kicked his char out of my way and took a step closer. Dr. Lenish got to his feet and threw a punch. I batted it away and swatted him across the face with the clipboard. He groaned and fell to his hands and knees.

“Wait!” he protested. “I’m sure there is an agreement that can be reached.”

“Subject demonstrates a blatant disregard for human life.”

“Stop talking like that!” he demanded.

“Ah,” I said, feigning interest. “Subject responds favorably to audible stimuli.”

Dr. Lenish’s nostrils flared and he rushed at me, head butting me in the gut. We crashed against the desk, the clipboard clattering to the floor. I gave him an elbow to the back and then smacked him around until his will to fight ran out. I threw him back against the far wall and let him slide to the ground, blood running from his mouth.

I picked up the clipboard and stood over him. “Summary: this specimen has no redeeming qualities to contribute to the human race. Conclusion: the best way for Subject V to benefit the gene pool is by removing him from it.”

Dropping the clipboard, I grabbed him by the collar and lifted him against the wall. I drew back my fist to strike. Terror filled his eyes.

“Mr. Rence, don’t!” Ryna shouted in the small room. She and Miri had come in during the tail end business. I let Dr. Lenish slide back to the ground.

“Well, Dr. Lenish,” I said. “It would seem the girl you wanted to butcher sees a reason you should live. You’d better ask yourself what kind of a society you want to create. One that looks at you like I have, or one that looks at you like she did?”

I left him lying there. Time would tell if he would take that lesson to heart or not. Men of power were often difficult to get to see reason. Miri, Ryna, and I hustled down the hall and burst into the room with Petre and Carol.

They jumped with a start and backed up. I may have made that entrance more dramatic than I needed to. I guessed I was still riding on adrenaline. “We’re gettin’ out. You two coming or staying?”

Miri closed the door behind us, keeping an eye out the small window.

“They’ll just track her,” Petre complained.

“I invite them to try,” I said with defiance in my voice. “It ain’t about what’s easy. It’s about what’s right.”

Carol looked at him and laid a hand on his arm.

He glanced at her a moment before sighing and looking at me. “Let’s hurry.”

All five of us headed down the hallway, walking swiftly but trying to look casual. We walked with Petre and Carol in front with Miri behind. Ryna and I were in the middle. We walked without a word toward the landing bays. Then the alarm sounded. Either someone had found Dr. Lenish or the guard Miri had taken the uniform from. Either way, it was inevitable. We raced through the halls, knocking down people as we passed. When we arrived just outside the landing bay the door didn’t open.

I pounded the door. It was pretty solid. Miri reached over and ran her keycard across the sensor. It buzzed and displayed a red light. They must have locked out her keycard. I pulled out a detonator. Dr. Lenish had mentioned disabling my weapons. Could he have fiddled with my detonators, too? I pressed the center button. Nothing happened. I tried a few other detonators. All lifeless. I searched for a way to pry the door open but there wasn’t any.

“Ventilation,” Miri suggested.

“Maintenance hatch is one deck up,” Carol said, pointing.

We ran back the way we had come toward the elevator. The doors refused to open here as well. They had this ship locked down pretty well. Miri again tried her keycard to no avail. I forced my fingers between the elevator door cracks and forced the doors open. We got inside just as blast bolts started flying down the hall at us. I fired a few shots in return and shut the elevator doors. Pressing buttons on the keypad did not move the elevator. I wasn’t sure why I was surprised. With my enhanced knees, I jumped, pushing open the trap door on the ceiling, and hoisted myself up.

I reached down. “Lift Ryna up.”

Miri and Petre lifted Ryna to me and I pulled her onto the roof of the elevator. Next, I reached down and pulled Carol up, followed by Miri. Then I hopped down and hoisted Petre up through the trap door. I heard voices outside the elevator door. I jumped and hauled myself through the trap door. Miri had already started the others climbing the service ladder. I smiled. She had leadership inside her all right. Below me, I heard the elevator door open and chime. I climbed the ladder behind the others.

I kept peeking back at the elevator as I climbed. As soon as a guard poked his head out the trap door, I drew a blast pistol and dropped him. They shot back wildly through the trap door. I aimed my pistol and shot the stabilizer motor on the elevator car. It shook and slid down the elevator shaft, throwing sparks as it rubbed against the shaft wall.

“Bon voyage!” I called out after them.

“Rence!” Miri said, panic in her voice. “We need to open the elevator door up here.”

I glanced up. She was trying to pry open the door with one hand holding onto the ladder. I holstered my blast pistol. I would have to get above them on the ladder to be of any good in helping with the door. A jump would get me high enough, but it would be an awkward angle. There’d be no guarantee I’d catch the ladder rungs on the way down. No, this would need some patience and tight quarters.

“Everyone move to one side of the ladder as best you can,” I directed. I climbed up past them one by one, careful not to push them and equally careful not to slip on my footing. Once I level with Miri, I turned to her. “I’m gonna need both hands. You think you can hold onto me as well as the ladder?”

“I’ve got you,” she said putting her arm around my waist. Even through the helmet, I could have sworn I smelled the scent of her hair.

I reached up and forced my hands between the elevator doors and thrust them aside. I hoisted myself up and checked the hallway down both ends. It was clear, and I wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or a bad one. I helped Miri and the others up and into the hallway. Petre looked particularly tired from that little adventure.

“Where’s the maintenance hatch?” I asked.

“Down there on the left,” Carol said, pointing.

We hurried down the hall and rounded the corner. Six armed guards came toward us, shooting. The blast bolts streaked past my head, illuminating my face. I ducked, drawing Thunder and Lightning, then shot back. One blast bolt hit me in the leg. I dropped to one knee but kept on shooting. Miri also returned fire, dropping two of them. Their helmets and blast vests protected them from a lot of our shots, but Miri was a good aim.

I took out one of my detonators and tossed it down the hall at the guards. It was useless, of course, but I was counting on them having some good combat training. They recognized what it was and scattered. Some threw themselves against the hallway wall, others dove to the ground away from it. I aimed and shot three more through their visor, while Miri dropped the last one.

“Nice shooting,” I said to Miri.

“You’ve been hit,” she said, sounding worried.

I climbed to my feet, my leg throbbing. I removed my bandana from around my neck and tied it around my leg. It was an insufficient field dressing, but it would have to do. I hobbled down the hallway a few steps before Miri put my arm around her neck. She helped me get to the maintenance hatch.

“Wait,” Petre said, pulling out his keycard and moving to a door further down the hallway. He re-emerged quickly with an injection gun and a small glass bottle. He placed the bottle into a slot on the injection gun. “Here,” he said, holding the gun to my neck. “This should dampen your pain receptors for a few hours. It should allow you to walk.”

I nodded and he shot the drug into my neck. I flinched and then forgot all about my leg. Carol was already at the maintenance hatch and had opened it. I ushered them inside and closed the hatch behind me. The other side was dimly lit with unpainted metal walls. Gantry walkways with ladders and stairs lined every spare inch. It was a maze of sorts, but at least it increased our options instead of limiting them.

“Where to?” Miri asked.

“Well,” I said. “We know we need to go down one deck, so we can ignore all the stairs going up.”

I tapped a few buttons on my wristband, switching my eyesight to electromagnetic. I saw pulsing lines of electrical cables and plasma conduits. “I reckon if we follow the cabling, it will lead to the landing bays. I imagine it takes a lot of power to run those rooms.”

I switched one of my eyes back to normal so I could see where I was going. We descended one staircase and walked along a narrow gantry that overlooked a long drop to the next deck. I heard the maintenance hatch swing open above us. By the sound of the feet pounding overhead, I reckoned there were ten or so men who had entered. If we were quiet enough, they would have to split up to find us.

As usual, though, my luck never did hold out for long. Multiple blast bolts streaked through the musty air. They struck metal posts, gantry flooring, stairs, and even the bulkhead wall. Ryna slipped and screamed. I drew one blast pistol and fired several shots back. Miri reached out and caught Ryna’s hand, pulling her up. A stray blast bolt struck Miri in her blast helmet, dazing her for a moment. I took real offense at that and aimed between a pillar and the upper gantry floor and fired. My shot nailed the guards in the helmet, sending him tumbling over the ledge.

I aimed for the next guard and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. I checked the power cell in my blast pistol. It was dry. I checked the power cell in my other pistol. I had four shots left. I needed a faster way to take out these guards. I aimed at the support strut that held up the gantry floor above us and fired. The shot struck the weld joint and bounced off. I cursed. It figured a ship this fancy would have reinforced struts.

I looked at Miri. She pulled the power cell of her blast pistol and examined it with an exasperated expression. She tossed the gun away and drew Ivory, her holdout blast pistol. We continued ducking blast bolts until we reached the ventilation chambers. We stepped off the gantry walkway and into the guts of the ventilation ductwork. The massive ducts also looked to be made of titanium.

We made our way swiftly down the ducts. We needed to make up time here. There was very little room to maneuver and no cover should blast bolts start flying. And come they would. Up ahead, I stopped. The ventilation duct had a chute going straight down. It was like a hole in the floor leading to who knows where. It would be tricky getting across it.

“Miri, you have the most shots left,” I said. “Watch our rear while I get everyone else across.”

She nodded, walking to the back.

I turned to Petre. “You’re first.”

He shook his head. “I can’t jump that.”

“I’m gonna give you a boost,” I explained. I put my hands on his waist while he protested. I shoved him hard, pushing off a little with my enhanced knees. He flew across to the other side, tumbling to the floor. Next, I turned to Carol. She looked worried but didn’t protest. I tossed her across with a little more finesse than my first attempt.

I looked at Ryna. “You ready?”

She nodded. “I really like you Mr. Rence.”

I smiled. Over the years I had a lot of people tell me the opposite, so this was refreshing to hear. I lifted her and gently tossed her to the other side. She didn’t weigh as much and I didn’t have to use my enhanced knees.

“Miri,” I said. “Time to go.” She walked up to my side and I wrapped my arm around her. “Hold on.”

She clung to me. I pushed off with my enhanced knees, clearing the ventilation chasm and landing on the other side. She hugged me a moment before releasing her arms from around me.

I turned to Petre. “Are you okay?”

He nodded. “I’m regretting not spending more time at the gym.”

Small vibrations rumbled through the ventilation shaft. I tapped a button on my wristband and switched my eyesight to infrared. I scanned our surroundings. There was lots of body heat above us, outside the ventilation shaft. They were generating intense heat concentrating on a single point. Small flares of bright heat emanated from that single point. I had seen that kind of heat signature many times before. And in our situation, this was very bad.

“They’re cutting through one of the support beams,” I said. “Hurry!”

We ran down the shaft. I tripped. I didn’t feel any pain in my leg, but if I stepped on it wrong, it didn’t work right. Petre helped me to my feet right as the support beam snapped. The ventilation shaft sagged, turning the smooth shaft into a slide. I heard Ryna scream amidst yells and groans. I thrashed around trying to stop myself but there was no use; we were gonna ride this one out.

When I finally stopped moving, I found myself lying on my back, still seeing infrared. I switched my eyesight back to normal and sat up. I was sitting in a foot of water. We were in the water treatment system of the ship.

“Miri!” I called out.


I spun around, splashing. I dashed over to a wall of metal bars. Most likely to prevent large objects from reentering the filtration system. Miri and Ryna were on the other side. The ventilation shaft had crashed down, breaking through the ceiling. The fall had deposited us on either side. I grabbed the bars and shook them, hoping to find a weakness. They stood solid, mocking my attempt to free Miri.

Petre and Carol splashed up to my side, mumbling concerns about Miri and Ryna. I drew my blast pistol. “Stand back.”

Miri and Ryna stood off to the side. I fired my last three shots. The blast bolts bounced off the bars. One of my bolts ricocheted and struck an overhead pipe. Steam burst from the hole. The floor started to rumble, sending ripples through the water.

Petre pointed to the opposite end of the room, where the water was flowing to. “The contamination door!” A large thick wall of metal was slowly lowering, threatening to trap us inside the water chamber. “It’s losing the steam pressure that holds it up!”

I tugged furiously at the metal bars dividing us from Miri and Ryna. They would not budge.

“Mister, we have to find another way to save them,” Carol said.

I looked up at the hole in the ceiling. The fallen ventilation shaft completely blocked off any retreat. And the shaft itself was too slippery to climb.

“Mr. Perry!” Petre urged. “If we don’t go now, we’ll all be trapped!”

My heart thundered in my chest. “No, no, no!” I kicked at the bars with my enhanced knees. The force of the kicks only pushed me backward.

“Rence,” Miri said with tears in her eyes. “Promise me you’ll come back for me.”

My heart raced and my vision blurred. “I can’t leave you.”

“Mr. Perry, the door is closing!” Petre warned.

The guards clanked their boots against the gantry stairwells, climbing down after us. Miri took off her helmet and let it splash to the ground. Water dripped from her hair. She leaned forward letting her forehead rest between two of the bars. “You have to go now. Go and get some help. Then come back for me. Promise me please.”

I yanked my mask off and looked into her eyes. That was, perhaps, a mistake. She was able to see a tear of mine lose its way and wander down my face. I hated this situation. I hated it more than anything I had before. She was right, as usual. The guards were coming, the door was closing, and I had no way to rescue her. My only choice was to come back for her.

She reached up and wiped away my tear. “It’ll be okay, I’ve had a good teacher.”

“If they lay a hand on you—”

“I’ll let them know,” she said.

“Mr. Perry! Come quickly!” Petre said as he ushered Carol toward the half-closed door.

I leaned in and kissed Miri through the bars. “I promise I will come back for you. And I’ll bring Armageddon with me if I have to.”

She sniffled, smiling. “I know you will. Now hurry.”

I handed her a transmitter from my pocket. “Keep this; it’ll let me track you.”

She nodded.

I stroked her wet hair and then ran toward the closing containment door. Petre and Carol were already on the other side. I dove under the door, splashing. I pulled my legs out from under the door right before it rested on the ground, completely shutting us out. I felt a heavy weight in my chest. I knew I was doing the right thing, but I felt bad all the same.  I knew what kind of people I was leaving them with. Hopefully, Dr. Lenish had learned something and would restrain himself around them. Of course, that would only hold as long as I was alive. If I were to die, my threat would be meaningless. I had to survive if they were going to.

I turned away from the contamination door, taking in my surroundings. Overhead, I saw pipes and conduits running in a line down the small metal corridor. I reckoned they led right to the landing bay. No normal room would need so many large pipes and cables this far from the engine room. We raced down the corridor until Petre begged for a break to rest. We stopped and he collapsed to the ground, Carol at his side.

“Thank you, Mr. Perry,” he said, panting.

I looked at him. “What kind of research were you doing, if Ryna was an accident?”

“What is Ryna?” Carol asked.

He looked at Carol. “That’s the name they gave the tall one.” Turning to me, he said, “Exploratory research mostly.”

“I’ll need that answer translated for me,” I said.

Petre pushed his glasses farther up the bridge of his nose. “Systematically tampering with the human genome in the hopes of discovering something amazing.”

“If it was so systematic, how come you can’t replicate it?”

“That, Mr. Perry, is the thing that frustrates Dr. Lenish so much. It seems the more we learn, the more there is to discover.”

“It’s more than that,” Carol added. “He’s a man who distinguishes himself as one who figures things out. And Ryna represents a stubborn mystery to him; a discovery he cannot reproduce.”

“You ready to move?” I asked Petre.

He stood, nodding.

We continued down the corridor until we reached an access ladder and climbed. The ladder ended at an overspill drain grate. I pushed on the grate but it didn’t budge. I couldn’t see much through the grate except for the ceiling of the room above us. And since I didn’t pay much attention to ceilings recently, that didn’t help me figure out where we were.

“What is it?” Petre asked.

“Shhh!” I said.

I put my tactical mask back on and tapped a button on my wristband. I switched my eyesight to see through Lady’s eyes. She was perched atop the Princess, as Miri had said. Miri, I thought. The pit of my stomach knotted up at the thought of leaving without her, even if I would be coming back. Now was not the time to be thinking of Miri, but how could I avoid it? I still felt her touch on my cheek. I shook my head to clear my thoughts. From Lady’s vantage point, the room was clear of personnel. I stuck my fingers out through the drain grate. There, through Lady’s eyes, I could see my fingers sticking out of a floor grate in the distance. We were at the right landing bay. That was the good news. The bad news was that this grate was bolted down very well.

I fumbled through my coat pockets for my detonators. There was always a chance Dr. Lenish had missed one. I tried each, one after another, all to no avail. They were all non-functional. It was partly a frustration and yet it was partly comforting. If I had found a working detonator, I wouldn’t have been able to forgive myself for not using it to free Miri. I had to stop thinking about Miri and focus on getting out of here. Saving Miri now required that I leave this ship alive and return in force.

I stood there a moment, trying to think of something. Petre and Carol were good enough not to complain, but I could tell their arms were tiring. They were not used to a lot of physical stress. I thought about pushing up on the grate with my enhanced knees, but then I thought better of the idea. The ladder rungs looked weaker than the grate. Then my thoughts turned to Lady. She was the only one who could save us now. The tricky question, however, was how.

I pressed a button on my wristband and Lady squawked, fluttering down into the Princess. On the floor to the left, I saw my toolbox. It was latched shut. Good luck with that, I thought. Lady was trained well, but she didn’t have hands. I needed something she could simply fly out to me; something lying around. There, on a stack of boxes, I saw Miri’s detonator. She apparently never did get a chance to put it away.

I wished I hadn’t spoken to her as I had. She had saved me a second time now and I couldn’t even thank her. Thank you, Miri, I thought. Thank you for your little quirks. I wasn’t only going to miss her, I was also going to miss the little things she did.

I pressed a button on my wristband and Lady squawked. She flew over to the boxes, knocking one over, and snatched the detonator. She flew it over to me and dropped it. I switched my eyesight back to normal and grabbed the detonator.

“You two, get down and stand aside. We’re going to blow the grate.”

Petre and Carol climbed back down. I activated the detonator and set it atop the grate. I was careful to make sure it didn’t fall down the grate on top of us. That would be bad. I climbed down the ladder and stood off to the side with Petre and Carol. The detonator exploded, shattering the grate and sending a warm gust of air down toward us. I felt part of the concussion wave slap against my back. I groaned. I should have stood a little further away. Well, live and learn.

Overhead a ringing bell sounded. The explosion set off the fire alarm. Personnel would soon flood into the landing bay; armed guards no less. We needed speed now.

“Climb! Move like your life depends on it,” I told them. “I got nothin’ to shoot back with.”

I jumped up through the destroyed grate with my enhanced knees, landing close. Carol and Petre climbed the ladder while I dashed up the entry ramp of the Princess. Lady flew in after me. She landed on my arm and I took her into the cockpit, setting her on her perch. I started the launch sequence and then ran back down to the entrance ramp. Petre and Carol hurried up the ramp as the bay doors opened. Armed guards flooded in, shooting at us. I slammed my fist against the button on the sidewall. The ramp retracted and the door closed.

I bolted for the cockpit, leaving Petre and Carol behind. I would tend to their comforts later. Sitting in my chair, I ignited the vertical thrusters. Cargo canisters blew over and several guards fell on their backsides. The Princess lifted off the ground, hovering in place. I spun her around to face the landing bay space door.

Petre and Carol found their way to the cockpit and joined me.

“You two had better buckle up,” I said, pointing to the other two chairs.

They took their seats and fastened the safety straps.

“How do you open the door?” Carol asked.

“Normally, I would contact the ship’s flight control to request clearance to leave. Then they would open the space door.”

Petre looked at me. “That doesn’t sound like an available option at present.”

“Nope,” I said, pressing a few buttons on my control panel.

“What are you going to do then? Break into the door controls to open it yourself?”

“I guess you could say that,” I replied.

I pressed another button and a missile fired from the Princess. It slammed into the space door, blasting a hole in it. The sudden depressurization ripped the space door apart like a popping balloon. The Princess, and everything else not bolted down, shot out into space as if fired from a cannon.

I reached forward and grabbed the controls again, steadying our course.

“A little warning would have been nice,” Petre complained.

I swiveled my chair around, taking off my tactical mask. “I told you to strap in, didn’t I?”

He pursed his lips and looked away.

I leaned over and picked up my hat. It was like greeting an old friend I hadn’t seen for some time. When Miri had taken it to play the part of the ship captain, she’d worn it well. I put it on, feeling the familiar brim. At least the outside of me was whole again. My inside wasn’t. And it wouldn’t be until I got Miri and Ryna back. An alarm beeped on my console. Three patrol ships were chasing us.

“What’s that?” Carol asked, startled.

“The Corporation doesn’t give up easily,” I said, slowing our thrusters down.

“Why are we slowing down?” Petre asked, eyes wide.

“If they wanna pick a fight,” I said. “I’ll give ‘em one.”

“But those are patrol vessels,” he protested. “This is a transport ship.”

“No, Doctor,” I replied. “This is a Wayfinder’s ship.”

Carol shrugged. “That would explain the missile.”

I flipped a switch, engaging the autopilot. I politely excused myself from the cockpit, climbing up into the observation dome. It was nice to see the black starry sky again. I had almost thought I was going to be seeing the inside of a laboratory for the rest of my life with Dr. Lenish gloating over me. I wasn’t even sure I thanked Miri for getting me out. So many things today that I wished I could redo. I turned on the targeting scope. Three red circles lit up on the transparent dome. I needed them closer.

I pulled open the weapon’s panel and flipped up all the red switches. The concussion mines were now all armed. I put on a neighboring headset and turned on the communication transmission. It was showtime.

“All pursuing craft, this is the Astral Princess. You are advised to stand down or face severe structural damage. I say again, you are advised to stand down or face severe structural damage.”

I wasn’t expecting a response so I was surprised that I got one. “Transport vessel, you are ordered to surrender your ship and prepare to be boarded.”

This was an unexpected turn of events that could prove fruitful. I just needed to sell it properly. “Negative on that,” I said. “We have uh…lots of big guns. Don’t approach or you’ll be destroyed in the blink of an eye. It’s best if you turn back now.”

The patrol ships pulled into weapon range and continued to close the distance. One fired warning shots across my bow. The green bolts of light streaked past the observation dome, illuminating it. I smiled. They had taken the bait.

“Wait, wait, wait!” I hollered through the transmission. “Hold your fire, hold your fire.”

“Stand down and surrender your ship now,” the voice demanded.

I watched the three red circles on my targeting scope move closer together. Still not close enough. I needed to stall just a bit more. “Look, you can have my cargo. You can have whatever you want, just please let me go!”

The lead ship fired a green bolt that struck my starboard thruster. The ship rattled and I fell to the floor. That’s right, I thought. These guys are government-trained. With most outlaws and pirates I had a little more wiggle room to stall. And even though the Corporation was private, it employed government-trained personnel. Why had I forgotten that? I must be out of practice.

The Princess started to drift, red gas billowing from the starboard thruster. That was a problem. I needed both engines if I was going to outrun anything. I hopped down the ladder from the observation dome and scrambled to the engine room. I still needed to play my part so I kept the headset with me. “Mayday! Mayday! The starboard engine is hit, venting drive plasma!”

“Surrender now,” the voice demanded.

“I surrender! I surrender!” I hollered into my headset as I pulled off the starboard thruster housing. I kicked open my toolbox and pulled out Old Faithful, the best tool I ever spent money on. “What do I do?” I asked as I worked on the thruster.

“Cut power to your engines and standby for docking connection,” the voice directed.

“Please don’t shoot! I’ll do whatever you want!” I said, running a cable from the starboard thruster over to the port thruster.

“If you don’t cut power to your engines now, you will be destroyed.”

“Okay, okay. Cutting power to the engines.” I ran up the stairwell and climbed the ladder to the observation dome. “Overload! We have an overload!” I yelled into the headset. “All hands, abandon ship! All hands abandon ship!”

I reached over to the red switches I had previously armed. One-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, one-thousand-three, I thought. And…now. I pressed two switches. A loud clank rang through the hull as the concussion mines released. They floated toward the three patrol ships. I hopped down the ladder and dashed over to the cockpit. I jumped into my chair and pushed the throttle to maximum. The Princess lurched forward, rocketing away from the patrol ships. The mines exploded, sending out a massive pulse wave, slamming into the three patrol ships. They listed and drifted.

I didn’t always bluff my way out of situations. And the times I didn’t were quite satisfying. I set a course for Bendune. It was an out-of-the-way trading post that had some very good repair facilities. That is, if you didn’t mind the rough company and damp environment. I spun around in my chair. Petre and Carol finally looked relaxed.

“I’ll freshen up two cabins,” I said. “You both look like you could use some shut-eye.”

“How can we ever thank you, Mr. Perry,” Carol asked.

“Well, seeing as I need to go back for Miri and Ryna, I sure could use some help.”

“We are not commandos,” Petre explained. “We can give you information and even the occasional medical checkup, but that is about all we can offer.”

“Information is what I need most,” I explained. “Commandos I can get. Well, assuming I haven’t burned that bridge down entirely.”

“Sure,” Carol said. “Whatever we can do to help.”

“For starters, where is the Westward Galactic’s data center?”

“It’s on Dentum Prime. It has a lot of security. You would need an army to break in.”

“Or,” I said. “Or just a really good distraction.”

I showed them to their rooms. It was late and everyone was tired. I stayed up, reconfiguring my communications transcoder. It was a real headache to send untraceable messages, but the situation warranted it. I typed up a brief message and sent it. It would take a few hours for the message to get where it needed to, so I took a short nap in my chair. I awoke to a beeping sound on my console; the reply transmission I was expecting.

I pressed a button on my little transmission screen. It flashed to life and displayed the image of the woman I had told myself I never wanted to see again.

“Rence Perry,” she said, folding her arms. “I swore I would kill you the next time I saw you.”

“Tess Davendry,” I said. “I need your help.”

Read earlier episodes on Wattpad

What do you think about the relationship between Rence and Miri? Let me know in the comments below.

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