Episode 6: Calling in some favors

I sat in the cockpit of the Astral Princess. The Princess was a fast ship. She was a Norgon-class transport with a few personal upgrades. I’ve flown her for years but she wasn’t the only lady in my life. To my right sat Lady, my enhanced falcon, on her perch. And not long ago two more ladies entered my life. Miri Alder had come to me with a lonely ten-year-old girl.

I had known Miri for a few years and had been aware of her generosity. She asked for my help in returning the girl to her parents. It had seemed like such a simple task. But then again, the girl wasn’t so simple either. She was a genetic creation of the Westward Galactic Financial Corporation. And she could fiddle with people’s emotions. We called her Ryna. The only real name she had been given was Subject 35. She also didn’t have real parents. What we had thought were her parents had turned out to be a pair of scientists who had broken her out of the laboratory. Their names were Petre and Carol.

Pirates had attacked Petre and Carol on the planet Cosstere. They had been looking to collect on the bounty placed on Ryna’s head. We tracked them down to Westward Galactic’s laboratory ship and rescued them. The downside was that Miri and Ryna had been separated from me when we tried to escape. I had been forced to leave them behind to get help. Leaving Miri had been the hardest thing I had ever done. And there was nothing else on my mind other than getting them back.

 I spun around in my chair, picking up the datapad off the control console. Petre and Carol sat in the seats behind me. I handed the datapad to Petre. “I had a look but most of this is scientific gibberish.”

Petre scrolled through a few pages. “You have the unabridged project files for Osurious,” he said, surprised. “How did you get it?”

“I raided the Corporation’s data center on Dentum Prime,” I answered as if discussing the weather. “Just be careful with it, it’s now the sole surviving copy.”

His eyes grew wide.

“Listen,” I said. “I can bore you with the details later, doc. But right now, I need your help.”

“Sure, sure,” he said. “Anything.”

“Remember how you told me the Corporation was tracking Ryna?”

He nodded.

“Well, poke your nose into those files and see if you can find out how. If they can track her, so can I.”

Petre spent a good half hour perusing the files until settling on a particular document. “Here it is,” he declared. “All assets classified as essential to the success of the program,” he read. “Must be tagged with radioisotope kaligeenium-62.”

“Thanks for the narration, doc,” I said. “But I was hoping you could translate that mumbo jumbo into something I could understand.”

Carol answered for him. “They placed a chemical marker in her blood that can be tracked across long distances.”

“How far?”

“Theoretically, across galactic quadrants. Though, its true range has never been successfully tested.”

I sat back in my chair. “That would be a problem.” I turned to Petre. “Any chance of that stuff wearing off someday?”

“Kaligeenium-62 has a half-life of 12.26 years.”

I turned to Carol. “What did he say?”

“The signal will get weaker every decade. And we don’t know how many decades until the signal is too weak to track.”

I rubbed my hand across my face. That was not the answer I was hoping for. It made sense the Corporation wanted to keep tabs on what they spent money on. I was just hoping it would be easier to release Ryna from their grip. What I needed was a new angle to approach the problem. But what could it be? Then my mind settled on something Petre had read: all assets classified as essential.

“Doc, they must have hundreds of assets they tag with this…marker, right?”

Petre nodded. “Probably thousands.”

How do they know which signal belongs to which asset?” I asked, rubbing my chin.

“The decay rate alpha—”

“In English, doc,” I said, pleading.

Carol turned to me. “They adjust the marker to read like a serial number.”

“Would it then stand to reason that if they no longer know what serial number to look for, they won’t know how to track Ryna?”

“Yes,” Petre answered. “But you would have to erase the entire catalog.”

I nodded. “Done.”

“Okay, then if you have purged the database and deleted the backups, then they won’t be able to track the girl anymore.”

My eyes lit up. “Backups?”

“Yes,” he explained. “In case of a catastrophic failure, the database can be restored from backup.”

I hung my head. I should have known to check where the database was being backed up to. I was really off my game. “Drat,” I said. “I forgot about looking for backups when I deleted the files from the database.”

Carol sunk into her chair. “Then they can simply restore the database.”

“But it will take them some time,” Petre said. “They would have a lot of transactional data to account for before they restore the database. Or they risk losing financial data. So, you would still have some time before that happens.”

That was good news. And I needed good news right now. It meant I had a small window of time where I had an advantage over Westward Galactic. Which meant my next goal was to figure out how to start tracking Ryna’s marker signal. If I could do that, I would find her.

“Petre, do those records tell us what Ryna’s serial number is?”

He looked at me. “The isotope decay frequency? Yes, it does.”

“Good. Then we just need to build us a signal tracker.”

Petre shook his head. “We’re scientists, not engineers. We can give you the specifications but we don’t know how to build equipment.”

“That’s good enough. I know a guy who owes me a favor.”

The man’s name was Mik Ag’nar. He was an engineer who I had helped out some years back. He said he owed me one. I never thought I’d be one to call in a favor but times were getting desperate. So desperate in fact, that I was heading back to one of my least favorite planets. Mik lived on Cosstere, the baren rock that somehow passed for a planet. I set my course for it and engaged the autopilot.

“I’m gonna get some shut-eye,” I told them.

“There is one other matter, Mr. Perry,” Petre said. “When we tried to rescue Ryna, we were trying to do the right thing. But we were unprepared for what we were getting ourselves into.”

“That’s understandable,” I said, walking to the doorway.

“What he’s trying to say,” Carol said. “Is that we are not suitable to care for the girl.”

I spun around. They were trying to back out of the deal. The deal was that I returned Ryna to her ‘parents’. But if they didn’t want that role, then what was I gonna do? I clenched my fists.

Carol held up a hand. “Mr. Perry, please don’t mistake us. We understand what kind of burden we would be leaving you with. But with the Corporation hunting for her, the safest place for her is with you.”

My blood boiled. If they were not going to care for Ryna, then what was this whole mission for? What did I lose Miri for? The whole situation smelled of camcam dung. I didn’t like it. Not one bit. It was like being told that I didn’t have to lose Miri. And that I lost her for no reason at all. That meant I was no better off than before I stepped foot on that no-good Corporation ship.

I stared into her eyes. “I did not lose Miri for no reason. Until I say otherwise, we’re stickin’ to the original arrangement.” I didn’t wait for a response. I stormed out of the cockpit and slammed my cabin door shut. How was I supposed to get any shut-eye now? Petre and Carol’s words ran through my head like water over a log. Over and over, I heard their words. Over and over, I wanted to kick myself for leaving Miri.

I did eventually fall asleep. After my mind had worn itself out of grief and worry was I able to nod off. The autopilot alarm woke me up. We had arrived at Cosstere. I made my way up to the cockpit, still bitter over my conversation with Pitre and Carol. They had retired to their cabins and I found myself alone with Lady.

Lady squawked.

I stroked her feathered head. “I’m upset too. But we gotta make the best of it.”

I took the Princess off autopilot and took the controls. The Davendry starcruisers didn’t bother me this time. I must have been added to their green list. Working with Tess Davendry to break into Westward Galactic had its perks. The Princess shuddered as I engaged the vertical descent thrusters. She was always a little shaky on takeoff and landing. Some might call it a sign of her age. I called it class.

We landed just outside Bithro’Shendale. A small mining camp with the makings of a town. It had grown since I saw it last. It now had a full hotel and saloon along with a machinist shop and several merchant stores. There was now even a small hospital. This mining town was the last place I saw Mik. And I hoped he was still here.

I strolled through the streets, looking for the machinist shop. Every time I passed by a camcam, those big smelly riding lizards, I thought about Miri. She had a way with animals. Any beast you could throw a saddle on, she could get it to obey her. Even though I never cared for camcams, somehow, I found them comforting.

The machinist shop was close to the center of town. I walked inside. It was run down, rusted metal floors and walls. Debris was scattered all about. And there was no one in sight. It looked abandoned. The machining equipment was gone. Patches of brighter colored floor were all that remained where they once stood.

“Mik?” I called out.

I didn’t like this one bit. I had to find out what happened to Mik’s shop. And unfortunately, my first clue was not what I wanted to find. On a rusty shelf, an armored helmet sat, collecting dust. I picked it up and brushed it off. Just looking at it brought back memories of Jashur VII. That was where Miri and I encountered Kuda mercenaries working for the Corporation. I stared into the dark face glass of the helmet, seeing my reflection. The sight of it reminded me when that Kuda walked up to me, looking for a fight.

This helmet did not belong to the same Kuda; Miri had blasted a hole in the back of the last one. This helmet belonged to a different Kuda. And, by the look of the dust collection, the owner was either dead or retired.

A man stepped out from the back room. His armored boots thumped on the hard floor and his body armor scraped against the door frame as he entered. His head was hidden within an armored helmet, his face obscured by the dark glass. I didn’t much like Kuda. The ones I’d known were cocky, self-important, and selfish.

“You had better put that back where you found it, stranger,” he said, the helmet slightly muffling his voice.

“The helmet can’t be yours,” I said. “You’re already wearing one.”

“It ain’t a helmet anymore,” the Kuda said. “It’s a trophy. And I expect you to put it back before I make you a part of that collection.”

I wasn’t surprised to find this Kuda to be no exception to the stereotype. I would have liked to teach him a few manners, but my last fight with a Kuda hadn’t ended well.

I set the helmet back down. “This is Mik Ag’nar’s shop. Where is he?”

“This ain’t his shop anymore. He uh…retired, you could say.”

“Where is he?” I asked, feeling my blood start to boil.

“The old coot was run out of town last year. Couldn’t pay his bills.”

I had to consciously relax my hands. I didn’t want to show this mercenary any clenched fists. I knew Mik. He was a talented engineer. He had been the lead engineer for Starfield & Tanner. They were the most reputable gun manufacturer in the colony worlds. He had left to go into business for himself. His shop had always been busy and turning a profit. If he was having financial trouble, it wasn’t for the lack of customers or skill. If I had to guess, I’d say the Kuda had something to do with it.

“That’s funny,” I said, forcing a grin. “He was never in want for a customer. Just what kind of bills couldn’t he pay?”

“This little town has had troubles with raiders. That is, until I came around. I ran them off and have kept this town safe ever since.”

I glared at him. “A Kuda doesn’t do anything out of the kindness of his heart.”

“A man’s got to make a living,” he said, crossing his arms.

“So I reckon everyone pitches in to pay your fee.”

He nodded. “Quite a bargain considering the cost.”

“Some might call it a bargain,” I said. “Others might call it extortion.”

The Kuda took an angry step forward, his hands to his side in fists. “You making an accusation, stranger?”

“Who am I to accuse the savior of the town?” I said, turning to leave. “Oh, I didn’t catch the name?”

“Surius. Sheriff Surius to you.”

I tipped my hat and again turned to leave.

“What’s your name, stranger?”

The last time a Kuda asked my name, he was looking to cash in on my bounty. I had lied and given him Miri’s last name. It was the quickest name I could come up with at the time. This time, however, I deliberately use it. Partly because it was obscure enough to keep the anonymity and partly because I missed Miri.

“Rence,” I replied. “Rence Alder.”

I turned and left. I had dealt with such men in the past. Preying on the weak, demanding money from them, all under the guise of protection. Men like that usually fabricated the danger so they could set themselves up as a deliverer of sorts. Then they terrorize the citizens, squeezing them dry of money. All the while, spinning tales of worse dangers out there. It was a wicked kind of crime. Not a singular event like a robbery. It was imprisoning people within their own town while sucking them dry of any living.

I needed information, so I headed to the saloon. It was the usual place for gossip and local news. I walked in and froze in my tracks. Three other Kuda sat at a table with their helmets off, drinking. It was a good thing I hadn’t picked a fight with Surius; the other three could have joined in. I appreciated my mentor’s advice about not rushing into a fight. It had just saved me from a big mistake. I walked over to the bar and set down a coin.

The portly man who tended the bar set down a shot glass in front of me and poured.

“Whatever happened to Mik Ag’nar?” I whispered to him.

He glanced nervously toward the Kuda. “When Mik refused to pay up, they run him out of town and sold off his equipment to Fin G’Dal.”

“Which way did he go?”

“North,” he said, motioning with his head. “Toward Saggetville.”

I tipped my hat. “Much obliged.”

After leaving the saloon, I returned to the Princess to fetch Lady. I needed to scour the landscape and she was the most effective way. I stroked her feathered head. “We need to find old Mik,” I said, sending her into the sky northward. I returned to the Princess and sat down in my chair. I switched one of my console monitors to see through Lady’s eyes. Watching through her eyes was like soaring through the sky myself. I could almost hear the wind in my ears and smell the clean air.

I leaned forward in my chair as Lady passed over a small settlement on the outskirts of Saggetville. What caught my interest was the large solar panels on the roof of the building. Whatever was used in that building needed a lot of power. If Mik was alive, he would be working. And if he was working he would need quite a bit of power. And Saggetville was supposedly where he was run off to. I pressed a button on my wristband and Lady circled the property.

I engaged the Princess’s vertical thrusters and lifted off. The rumbly takeoff was typical even when I was not exiting the atmosphere. I flew the Princess over to the settlement and set down a little way off. Not far enough to make a long walk, but not too close either. I still could be wrong about who the settlement belonged to.

I exited the ramp and Lady flew to my arm. I walked with her toward the main building. It was a rugged and slopy building, thrown together with scrap metal and wood. Large black exposed wires from the solar panels ran down the side of the building. It was as if decoration was an afterthought. A small shack stood close to the main building along with what appeared to be a large shed or workshop.

As I approached, a man dressed in Kuda armor stepped out from the main building. He was not wearing a helmet. He had a blast rifle in his hands and he stepped cautiously in my direction.

I kept my pace as casual as I could. When we were close enough to exchange words, he offered none. So, I called out to him, “I’m lookin’ for an old friend.”

“You ain’t no friend of mine,” he replied.

We stopped about fifty paces apart. “His name is Mik Ag’nar. He’s the finest engineer this side of the frontier.”

“Who’s asking?”

“Rence Perry,” I said, hoping it was safe to use my name. I tried to avoid it as much as I could but Mik would not know me by any other name.

“Rence Perry, the last Wayfinder?”

“I ain’t lookin’ for trouble,” I said. “I need a favor from an old friend.”

He motioned with the barrel of his blast rifle toward the main building. “You walk in front. And keep your hands where I can see them.”

I held my hands up and walked in front of the Kuda to the main building. I pulled open the rickety old door and stepped inside. The interior was nothing like the outside. The place was swept and organized. Bright light fixtures kept the room without shadows. Shelves of parts lay along the walls. Several machining tables were strewn about the center of the room.

An old man with a dark suntan across his face looked up from the workbench. His brow wrinkled with welding goggles on his head. His mouth pulled up into a smile. “Rence Perry. Boy, you a sight for old eyes.”

I smiled, lowering my hands. “Long time, no see, Mik.”

The Kuda stepped into the room and closed the door. “You know this man?”

“It’s okay, Anruk. Rence and I are old friends.” He motioned for Anruk to join us. “I added weapons to his transport ship. It was in exchange for him helping me settle a dispute that threatened my business.”

“I would have expected a Wayfinder to look a little more high-tech.” Anruk said.

I raised an eyebrow at him.

Mik chuckled. “Technology isn’t what makes a Wayfinder.” He walked around the workbench and eagerly shook my hand. “The years have been good to you, I see.”

I smiled again. “Still the firm handshake.”

He stroked Lady’s feathered head. “And Lady is looking as good as ever.”

“I could say the same about you,” I replied. “I’d say your misfortunes here have not diminished you a bit.”

He frowned. “How much do you know about that?”

“Your shop is left to waste, occupied by a Kuda answering to the name of Sheriff Surius.”

“Sheriff?”  Anruk said, incredulous. “He ain’t no sheriff.”

“That much I figured,” I said, turning to Anruk. “He’s holding the town hostage, pretending to protect it.” I turned back to Mik. “The bartender said you were run out when you refused to pay.”

“That’s putting it mildly,” he said, taking a seat on a stool by the workbench.

I glanced at Anruk. “I’m guessing that’s your helmet Surius has on display?”

He nodded gravely.

Mik motioned toward him. “Anruk is the Alpha leader of those Kuda—”

“Was,” Anruk said with disdain in his voice.

“Let me guess,” I said. “One of your men saw an opportunity for profit that you didn’t approve of and didn’t take no for an answer.”

He nodded again.

“But what brings you to Cosstere?” Mik asked, changing the subject.

“I need a way to track a signal from a rare isotope.”

Mik shook his head. “I don’t have any of my biotech engineering equipment. I can only guess Surius would have sold it.”

I sighed. “Well, it seems the only way you can help me is if I first help you.”

“I appreciate the gesture, Rence. But that equipment is very expensive—”

“I didn’t say anything about buying. What was stolen from you will need to be returned.”

“If you think Surius is a man who will relent, you’ve got another thing coming,” Anruk stated.

“How loyal are your men to Surius?” I asked.

“They follow whoever leads,” he replied.

“And how, exactly, is leadership transferred?”

Mik shot a glance at Anruk. “Would that work?”

Anruk shook his head. “I would have to fight him myself. There can’t be any help in a call-out.”

“What if Surius was run out of town?” I asked.

“Good luck with that,” he said. “He’s the strongest of my men. He wouldn’t have been able to beat me a call-out otherwise.”

“What if he was made a fool?” I asked. “Surely your men would think twice before following a fool?”

“How do you intend to do that?” he asked skeptically.

“Never ask how until you have first answered what.”

Anruk paused a moment before responding. “Yeah, that’d do it. No self-respecting Kuda would follow a fool. But if you go picking a fight, you’ll be dealing with all four of ‘em.”

“I’ll find a way,” I said.

Anruk opened his mouth to speak but Mik answered his unspoken question. “Rence isn’t called a Wayfinder for nothing, Anruk.”

He looked over at Mik. “Is that why you’re so fascinated with Wayfinders?”

“Well,” he admitted. “It’s why I’m fascinated with this one.”

Mik was kind enough to offer me some supper. He didn’t have much in the way of square meals. Just some dried meat and boiled beans. A man could live off it for a while, but it wasn’t ideal. The whisky was better. I had let Lady fly loose outside, stretching her wings. It would also allow her to catch a meal more to her liking.

I leaned back in my chair, relaxing. “Mik, you ever done much with explosives?”

He nodded. “Plenty. Why?”

“I think I’m gonna need some.”

Anruk set down his cup. “Don’t you go thinking you can win an outright battle with four Kuda. They’re trained soldiers.”

“That’s true,” I said. “I have had my fair share of encounters with Kuda. I can’t win an out-and-out fight with them. Not unless they don’t know it’s a fight.”

“How would they not know it’s a fight? Whether you reach for your guns or a detonator, they’ll know a fight is on.”

I held my hands up. “Now I don’t mean any disrespect, Anruk. I know these are your men we’re talking about. They know warfare. But Surius does not have them doing soldier work. He’s got them playing posse in a mind game against the town. And mind games what I know.”

He took another sip of his drink.

Mik got up, wandering over to a shelf. He sat back down having retrieved a small device in his hands. “They ain’t pretty. But they’ll go boom when you need them to.” He set it down on the table.

“I’m gonna need to look like I make and sell them,” I said, picking up the detonator.

The crude device was perfect. It looked like it was slapped together with no regard to appearance. If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought it was held together with tape and glue. It was absolutely perfect for what I had in mind.

Mik looked at me curiously. “I’ll need a couple of days but that shouldn’t be a problem.”

Anruk eyed me suspiciously. “What are you planning?”

I admitted that I didn’t have all the details ironed out yet, but I told them my plan. I didn’t leave anything out. If there was some detail I didn’t know about, I frankly told them. Mik sat back laughing while Anruk stroked his chin in thought. I admitted it wasn’t an elegant plan but it did have merit; merit enough for Anruk to consider it.

“It’s risky,” Anruk said. “If Surius catches on, you’re a dead man.”

“It’s a gamble,” I admitted. “But I’ve always been a gambling man when it comes to people.”

Mik leaned forward. “It’s a deal then. Once I have my equipment back, I will build your tracking device. I’ll start looking for where my machines went.”

“You might want to try a man by the name of Fin G’Dal,” I said.

“The craftsman?”

I nodded. “Bartender said he was who Surius had sold your stuff to.”

“I reckon that makes things a bit easier. We can start tomorrow.”

“No,” Anruk said, holding one hand up. “I can’t accept your help; I don’t have anything to pay you with.”

I shrugged. “Don’t let it fret you. You can always owe me a favor. I try not to cash them in unless necessary.” I didn’t expect payment; I was helping out the friend of a friend. But the way of the Kuda was the way of a mercenary. Payment for services was a part of their culture. I had no problem accepting payment, though I would have preferred cash. As it was, my bank account was running low. But I learned something as a Wayfinder. Sometimes, helping somebody out of a tight situation was more of a reward than the coins they could give. Mik was proof of that.

Anruk relaxed. “Then I guess I have no more excuses.”

“I guess not,” I said.

We got to work the next day. Mik worked hard getting lots of explosives made while Anruk and I set out to find clothes and a big hoverwagon. The clothes were easy. I needed to look like a settler with plenty of time on his hands. What was more, I needed to look older and a little eccentric. Anruk joked that I didn’t need any help on that last part. I had put some thinned-out snowweed sap in my hair. It smelled like the inside of my boot after a hot day, but it did put a lot of gray into my hair.

I changed into long brown britches and a yellow linen shirt. It was far removed from my long coat and hat. I felt downright naked without my blast belt around my hips. Going against Kuda without my guns was an invitation to disaster. Then again, my blast pistols didn’t do much against the blast armor of the last Kuda I squared off with. But even so, I still felt vulnerable without them at my side.

Twin holsters would definitely look out of place, so I had to leave them on the Princess. I didn’t go completely unarmed, though. I took my blast carbine with me. A rifle would not look questionable on the frontier. After all, a man had to eat and fend off the wildlife.

Finding ourselves a hoverwagon that was big enough was tricky. In the end, we had to build one. And it turned out better for my costume since I was trying to pass for a tinkering engineer trying to make a living. Mik took some time out to help with constructing the hoverwagon. We were in luck that Mik had a spare motor lying around. It had been part of a moisture condenser that he hadn’t gotten around to fixing. We fitted it with a canopy tarp and loaded it up with lots of debris. I was amazed at how much junk he had collected in the year he had been here. Then we loaded up explosives carefully into the wagon.

I found more snowweed and painted a sign on the canopy tarp saying, Jetom’s Mining Wares. I wasn’t sure I like the name Jetom. I knew a Jetom once, and as best I could recollect, he still owed me money. But Mik assured me the name was common enough to not be recognizable.

Lady didn’t much like the smell of my hair so she kept her distance. I didn’t blame her. I just hoped the smell would wash out. I drove the hoverwagon into town early the next morning. I parked the hoverwagon right across from Mik’s old shop; right where Surius was sure to see. I set up the debris like it was on display. By the time the yellow sun started peeking over the far ridge, I looked like a street vendor.

About half an hour later the streets animated with people walking about. Most of the people were whispering to each other and pointing at me. A few even came to inspect my wares. The folks were cordial, but they also didn’t dare say much. These were intimidated people trying to be neighborly.

I didn’t get any time to strike up a conversation. All four Kuda descended upon me, scattering the citizens. Surius was in the lead.

“Get outta here, you ain’t wanted.”

“You’re mistaken,” I said with a warm smile, trying to sound old. “Everyone has been so warm and welcoming. I have had my first few customers already. Are you a miner? Does the shifting rock gum up your drills—”

“I said, get!” he demanded, picking up something from my display. “Or you’ll end up with a lot of broken products.”

I forced a nervous look, pointing to the scrap metal in his hand. “Uh, careful, explosives don’t break, they go boom.”

Surius glanced at what was in his hand and then back to me. “This ain’t an explosive.”

I gently took the scrap from his hand and reverently laid it back down. “If you be wanting a free sample, sonny,” I said handing him one of Mik’s explosives. “Try something a little less dramatic.”

He stared at the offering a moment. “You’re one crazy old man. This is scrap, not an explosive.” He threw it to the ground by his feet. I dove for cover. The explosion knocked over all my displays, pushed my cart aside. It also launched Surius a foot into the air. The other three Kuda drew their blast pistols instinctively. Then they laughed, pointing to Surius. He groaned, picking himself up, blood trickling down his armored leg. Blast armor or no blast armor, that explosive did a real number on his leg. My compliments on Mik’s handiwork.

I got up and started picking up my display shelves. Surius cursed, hobbling away. The other three Kuda followed him. It wasn’t over yet, but I had successfully landed the first blow. I set my displays back up and cleaned up a bit. Surius would tend to his leg and then he would be back. And he would come back harder and more forcefully. This too, I was prepared for.

It took Surius three hours before he returned, hobbling. This time he stood several paces away and had one of the other Kuda walk up to me. “You need to leave,” he said.

I looked at him with wide eyes. “I just got here!”

“The Sheriff says you gotta go.”

“Oh, you have a sheriff in this town?” I asked.

The Kuda turned and pointed to Surius. “He’s the sheriff.”

“Oh,” I said, lowering my voice. “He really should be more careful around explosives.”

I couldn’t see that Kuda’s facial expression behind the dark glass of his helmet. But something in his gestures told me he was smiling with amusement. After he recomposed himself, he pointed at me. “Time to leave, now.”

“A sheriff can’t make me leave without a reason,” I said.

“Disturbing the peace!” Surius called out.

“I wasn’t the one who made that go boom,” I said, shrugging. “Most of my customers know how to handle explosives. I naturally assumed you knew how to be careful. If you had told me that you didn’t know—”

“Enough!” he shouted, taking a few painful steps toward me. “I want you out of here!”

By now a wary crowd had started to gather. I paused deliberately as if in thought. “Well, I like to think of myself as a law-abiding man. If the sheriff says I did something wrong, I’ll be happy to accept his written warrant. And I’ll abide by the precise language.”

“No!” he shouted. “No written warrant, no delays. Now get!”

“But only criminals disobey the law,” I said, sounding concerned. “A sheriff follows the law.”

Surius looked around at the gathering crowd, clenching his fists. He pointed to the Kuda standing before me. “Pym, get him out of town.”

Pym, the Kuda in front of me, took a step closer. He froze in his tracks, eying the explosives in my hands.

I had to force myself not to smile. “I’m just a law-abiding man, selling homemade ‘splosives,” I said holding them out toward Pym. Pym and Surius each took a quick step back. They stood there, staring at me. To maintain authority, they had to be able to push me around. The chance of getting blown up stopped them from throwing their weight around. And with the townsfolk watching, they feared I might give them some ideas. I now represented a threat to Surius’s operation. He had two choices; attack me openly and risk the entire town fleeing for their lives, or kill me quietly.

He wasn’t angry enough to risk the town fleeing and destroying his revenue. So, he would wait until dark to make his move. Pym glanced over to Surius who angrily spun around, grunting at the pain in his leg. He hobbled off and the rest of the Kuda followed. Then I smiled.

Several of the townsfolk swarmed me asking about all the fuss. Some complimented me and others warned me. One old lady even went as far as to tell me I was crazy for standing up to the sheriff. I smiled and told her that I had been crazy for quite some time now.

The yellow sun’s light began to wane, making way for Cosstere’s cool blue sun to rise. I ate a quick supper of dried meat that Mik had sent with me. The night I had rescued Miri from those Cosstere raiders, I had thought myself unfortunate. Without darkness at night, I couldn’t sneak up on their compound. Now I was feeling fortunate because it also meant the Kuda could not be concealed by darkness either. It was one of the many quirks of a planet in a binary star system.

When the dim blue sun was in the sky, I put a bundle of cloth under a blanket. It wouldn’t fool anyone up close, but from a distance, it looked like someone was asleep. I activated a few detonators and spread them around the perimeter of the hoverwagon. I just hoped none of the citizenry would go snooping late at night.

Then I stole quietly out from my hoverwagon, rifle in hand. I crossed to the other side of the street and tucked myself between two buildings. Using my enhanced knees, I jumped to the stone roof. I had an excellent view from here. And it didn’t take the Kuda long before they snuck out of Mik’s old shop, creeping along the street toward my hoverwagon. Surius looked downright silly trying to creep on his injured leg.

They crept close to the detonators I had set up around the perimeter, but they were not close enough to set one off. Surius drew his pistol and aimed at the bundle under the blanket. I hadn’t figured him for a cold-blooded killer. Men of war usually followed codes of honor. Of course, it had been nearly two decades since the Kuda saw any war. Maybe some of them had turned nasty without the rigors of army structure to keep them in line.

It wouldn’t take him long to figure out I was not beneath that blanket. If Surius wasn’t going to set off a detonator, I was gonna help him out. I aimed my blast carbine at the closest detonator to him. As soon as I saw the flash from his blast pistol, I fired my carbine. The detonator exploded, throwing Surius back. The other three Kuda opened fire on the hoverwagon. This time I didn’t need to help them set off the detonators. One by one, they exploded, sending debris flying.

Surius had just gotten back to his feet before another explosion sent him back to the ground. One Kuda got a piece of shrapnel embedded in his helmet. He angrily pulled off his helmet and tossed it away. A second Kuda lay on the ground knocked cold. Pym, the last Kuda picked himself off the ground, cursing.

Footsteps came rumbling down the wooden walk. Shop owners and hotel patrons came out to see what the ruckus was about. It was now time for my follow-up. I hopped down from the roof, my enhanced knees easily absorbing the shock. I emerged from between the buildings.

I rounded the corner and asked the first person I saw. “What’s going on?”

A skinny man wearing a bed cap shook his head. “Beats me. Looks like the sheriff is fightin’ someone.”

I snickered. “Who, the old man with the cart?”

He looked back at the scene with a confused expression.

I made my way farther into the crowd and hollered. “Can’t a man get some sleep!” The people around me looked at me strangely but a few men in the crowd echoed my sentiment. Several others shouted demands for peace and quiet. I smiled. The plan was working; the town’s people were expressing dissatisfaction with the Kuda. If my luck held out, the pressure to appear civil would force them to restrain themselves. And a little restraint would be all I needed to push them into looking like fools.

Surius rose to his feet yet again. He staggered to keep his balance. He looked at the upset crowd a moment before picking up his blast pistol from the ground. He shot the closes man in the crowd, his limp body falling to the ground. The crowd screamed and yelled, scattering for cover.

My luck never did hold out very long. Surius no longer cared to keep up appearances. He was either too mad or too crazy to care. Now that he was openly gunning down the townspeople, I needed to act. The problem was that I could no longer play the part of the fool. And worse, the townsfolk were being killed. I needed to counterattack in earnest, now. This meant engaging the Kuda in the one thing they were exceptional at; warfare. So much for my advantage.

I raised my carbine and pointed it in the direction of Surius. Once the people dispersed enough for a clean shot, I took it. The carbine was a ruggedly-built blast rifle that shot high-powered blast bolts. I didn’t usually have a need for it other than for long-distance big game hunting. But a crazed armored commando was proving to be a very real need. My shot nailed Surius in the helmet. It knocked it off his feet. His armored body hit the ground with a large thud. The shot cracked his helmet but didn’t penetrate.

Pym and the other two Kuda took shots at me. I ducked and ran to the corner of a building, using it for cover. I took a shot at Pym. The blast cracked his breastplate and knocked him off his feet. I ducked around the corner, avoiding the incoming blast bolts. The Kuda were dazed enough from the explosions that their aim was off. That helped, but I hoped it would be enough.

I poked my head around the corner, aiming for one of the other Kuda. They had scattered, finding cover. I needed a new angle. I retreated down the alley and around to the back of the saloon. I crossed over to the back of Mik’s old shop. I crossed over to the next alley and peeked around the corner. One of the Kuda rushed to the corner of the building where they had seen me last. I fired a shot into his back. The force of the blast bolt knocked him onto his face. His already damaged helmet cracked across the face glass. The Kuda who had previously discarded his damaged helmet saw my shot and fired a few blast bolts at me.

I pulled back around the corner to safety. I hadn’t expected to have needed another firing angle so quickly. I jumped with my enhanced knees to the roof of the stone building. Moving to the ledge I peered down. The Kuda without his helmet moved cautiously toward where he had seen me. I aimed at his exposed head but then hesitated. These were Anruk’s men. Sure, they were trying to kill me, but I couldn’t restore Anruk to a dead squad. I sighed. I needed to take these guys out without killing them. And heavily armored commandos were going to make that a tall order. So, I stepped off the ledge. The butt of my carbine slammed onto the Kuda’s head as I dropped to the ground. He collapsed on the spot.

Pym rose to his feet and rushed me. I swung the barrel around and fired another shot into his chest. His breastplate fractured and split open. He staggered back, dropping to one knee. His chest was exposed through the gap in his armor. I couldn’t risk another shot to his torso. I aimed at his helmet instead. A quick movement caught my attention from the corner of my eye. I spun the barrel of my carbine around just in time to receive a blast bolt to my chest. I stumbled back, dropping my carbine. The Kuda I had shot in the back had discarded his cracked helmet and had turned around in time to shoot me. He shot me in the chest again and I fell flat on my back.

I had never taken two hits to my chest panel before. It was made of some solid material but it wasn’t designed as armor. It was built to keep my heart ticking. What was worse was that my head had hit the ground hard. My vision was hazy and I felt tired. I shook my head to clear my mind. It didn’t work very well. My head pounded. I blinked, trying to clear my vision.

Pym stood over me. “He’s still breathing.”

Surius picked me up and thrust me into the wall, holding me there. “Well, well, Mr. Jetom. You’re just full of surprises aren’t you.”

I saw my reflection in his cracked helmet. “Too bad I can’t say the same about you.”

He angrily let go of me and swung his fist. I ducked, letting his fist strike the stone building. His armored glove snapped and broke open. Surius groaned, clutching his aching hand. Pym took a step forward, throwing a fist at my gut. I kicked his incoming fist, powered by my enhanced knee. The force of the kick spun him halfway around. The Kuda who had shot me aimed at me again but hesitated, fearing he might hit his teammates. He lowered his blast pistol, running forward.

Surius tore off his smashed armored glove, alleviating his throbbing hand. I kicked off the wall with my enhanced knees, sending me flying forward toward the third Kuda. He halted and raised his blast pistol. I plowed into him, sending him crashing against the ground. I slugged him hard in the face. The force of my punch knocked him out cold but made my hand sting. Two were down, all that was left was Surius and Pym.

Pym ran up behind me. I spun around and kicked. He grabbed my leg and jabbed his elbow into my thigh. I groaned, dropping to the ground. My leg throbbed with massive pain. My muscles in that leg didn’t respond. They were either numb from the blow or I was going into shock. He dropped my leg and kicked me in the ribs. Pym picked up the blast pistol the other Kuda had dropped and pointed it at my head.

“No!” Surius shouted. “He’s mine!”

Pym lowered his gun.

I turned over and tried to crawl away as best I could. Pym laughed at my feeble progress. Slowly, I crawled toward my broken hoverwagon. Maybe were still a few more explosives. Hand over hand, I pulled my throbbing body closer.

Pym laughed again. “He thinks he can get a bomb.”

Surius laughed with him. “Let him try. Let’s see if it’ll do him any good before I shoot him.”

I pulled myself closer, stopping only a second to rest. I pulled myself closer still. Yet the hoverwagon still seemed so far away. It was only a couple dozen paces or so across the square, so quick and easy on foot. But inching across the dry dirt with a bum leg and so many muscles throbbing, it felt impossibly far. After a while, my arms tired. I was still several paces away but my arms felt so heavy that they wanted to stop. I reached my hand out toward the hoverwagon and laid there, staring at it. My eyes drifted closed and I blacked out.

I came to, feeling myself being dragged. Pym was dragging me toward Mik’s old shop. He dragged me by my boots, letting my face scrape across the rough ground. The dirt smelled of old whisky and I felt the sandy grit of dirt in my mouth, mixed with my blood. My body still ached and my leg continued to throb. At least my head had cleared up.

Pym hoisted me onto the counter near the back. “You’re in luck, Surius. He’s still alive.”

“Impossible!” the second Kuda said, removing his hand from his black eye. “I shot him twice, square in the chest.”

The third Kuda, the one I dropped on, held a bag of ice to his head. He must not have liked wasting precious ice on a massive headache. Refrigeration was costly on Cosstere. He didn’t take an interest in me. By the look in his eyes, he was still delirious.

Surius hobbled over to me. “Still more surprises from you, Mr. Jetom.” He put his hands around my neck. “Just couldn’t leave town, could you? Just had to stay and challenge me, didn’t you? What made you think you could stand up to me?”

There were lots of things I could have said. Many answers I could have given. The honest truth was that I didn’t like him. I didn’t like his kind. Ruthless men who lived off the backs of those weaker than themselves. In my book, they didn’t deserve to live. They were a cancer on humanity. I had the code of the Wayfinders drilled into my head firmly. So firmly that if I hadn’t needed help from Mik, I still would have fought Surius. I still would have done my best to take him down. Men without law who kill the innocent deserved some of their own medicine. The words I chose, however, I hadn’t planned on. They just came out of my mouth.

I coughed, then swallowed. “Any man who preys on the weak and defenseless is not worthy to wear a uniform.”

“Is that right,” he said, squeezing my neck.

Pym put his hand on Surius’s arm. “Hey, Surius.”

He shrugged off Pym’s hand and continued to strangle me.

“That’ll be enough!” a voice shouted from behind.

Everyone turned and looked toward the entry door. Anruk stood there with fire in his eyes. Surius released my neck and turned to face him.

“I told you never to come back here,” Surius said.

“What in the blazes do you think you’re doing, Surius!” Anruk demanded, pointing toward the street. “Those are civilians lying dead!”

“Don’t you dare raise your voice to me, you dog! You couldn’t even find us sustained work. I am the one who found a way to get steady pay!”

“And how has your life of crime turn out for you?” Anruk looked all around the room at them. “Look at yourselves, beaten half to death in the process.”

“Listen to you! Preaching to us about taking a beating. This is combat, Anruk. We live for combat!”

“Combat?” Anruk said, taking a step closer and crossing his arms. “And just who is the enemy?”

Surius opened his mouth to speak but Anruk cut him off.

“The mothers of children?” He pointed out to the street again. “The shopkeeper lying on the ground, bleeding out? Are these your enemies?”

Surius glared at him.

Anruk walked up to Surius. “We fought in a real war once. Our brothers bled and died to stop tyrants from killing civilians. We fought so that fathers and mothers could raise their children in peace. But if you’re killing civilians just as those worthless tyrants had, then you’re no Kuda.”

“I warned you that going soft would kill you one day,” Surius said. “Losing the Alphaship in this squad didn’t wise you up any.” Without taking his eyes off Anruk, he called over to Pym. “Anruk here, has worn out his welcome. Escort him outside.”

Pym stared a moment in thought.

Surius shot him an impatient glance. “Pym! Now!”

Pym strolled over to the shelf along the wall.

“What are you doing?” Surius asked.

Pym brought Anruk’s helmet over.

“I didn’t say to—”

Pym handed it to Anruk.

Surius backhanded Pym, sending him to the ground. “Coward!”

Anruk kicked Surius’s leg. It happened to be the same leg that had been injured. Surius dropped to his knee. Anruk pummeled him several times until he fell on his back. Surius staggered to get up but Anruk swung his helmet like a bat, striking Surius back to the ground. He laid on the floor, breathing heavily, but did not try to rise again. Anruk put his helmet on.

Pym rose to his feet and saluted Anruk.

The other two Kuda stood and saluted as well.

Anruk returned the salute.

“Not so fast, Anruk,” Surius said, panting. He sat up. “The challenge is not valid. Pym betrayed the squad by disobeying the Alpha Leader. Kuda cannot take sides in a challenge.”

“There was no challenge,” Pym stated, walking up to Surius. “But only a Kuda can lead the squad. And as Anruk has pointed out, you’re no Kuda.” He ripped off Surius’s helmet. Surius angrily grabbed for his helmet but Pym kicked him back down.

“Hold it a moment, Pym,” Anruk said pointing to me on the counter. “Before we proceed with Kuda business, take that civilian outside.”

Pym pointed to the other two Kuda. They each took one of my arms and helped me outside. I leaned on them each time I took a step, trying not to put any pressure on my leg. Once outside they set me down beside the door and then returned inside. I squeezed my eyes shut, enduring the throbbing in my leg, then I passed out again.

I didn’t know how long I was out when I finally opened my eyes again. The bright yellow sun shined on my face. The smell of sterile air assaulted my nose. I didn’t have to open my eyes to identify that smell. I was in a hospital. I opened my eyes, squinting at the sunlight pouring into the hospital room. I didn’t like frontier hospitals. The small staff tryied to be your best friend, waiting on your every whim. It was like they had nothing better to do than pay close attention to you. A man couldn’t blend into obscurity in that kind of madness.

“Well, well Mr. Alder, I’m glad to see you are waking up,” a nurse said as she disconnected an electronic cable from my arm.

I lifted my head and looked around. “Oh no, not this again,” I grumbled.

“Oh, there’s no need to be such a grump,” she said with a friendly smile.

“Shoot me now,” I said, laying my head back on my pillow.

The nurse giggled. “Mr. Alder, you’re such a hoot. Your uncle must be so lucky to have you.”

My ears perked up. “Uncle?”

“That’s right, sonny,” Mik said, stepping into the room. “Uncle Mik checked you into the hospital.”

I looked at the nurse. “Mind if I speak with…Uncle Mik alone?”

“Why sure thing, sweet pea. I’ll just finish your checkup when you’re done.” She opened the window, letting the cool morning breeze float in before leaving.

Mik walked up to my bedside. “One of the Kuda said your name was Rence Alder.”

My cheeks flushed and I smiled, looking away. “I uh…found it a handy alias.”

He smiled at me. “Right…and I was born yesterday. You ain’t the blushing kind, Rence. But you did for that name.

I took a long breath. “Remember that biotech signal I need your help tracking?”

He nodded.

“Well, I need it to rescue a woman.”

“And not just any woman, I trust.”

“Your instincts are sharp,” I said. “But your nose is getting pretty long.”

He chuckled. “All right, if you don’t wanna talk, I won’t make you.”

“Let’s just say, I hadn’t ever thought about settling down before.”

“…until this woman?”

I nodded. “Miri Alder.”

He grinned wide. “I never would have thought I’d see the day.”

“Yeah, well you almost didn’t. What took you and Anruk so long?”

“Hovermobile died. We had to walk the rest of the way.”

I rubbed my head. “That would be my luck.” I fingered my chest.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I made sure they didn’t snoop. I’m just glad you’re finally awake.”

I looked at him with renewed interest. “Finally? Mik, how long have I been out?”

“Three days.”

My eyes widened.

“Good news is that the doctor repaired your fractured femur. You might need a little physical therapy, but you’ll be walking again in a day or so.”

“I think I’ll start walking today,” I declared.

Mik held out a hand. “Whoa there, take it easy for a while. You took quite a beating.”

“Mik, I will go insane with this much attention on me.”

He chuckled again. “All right, I’ll see about checking you out.” The playfulness drained out of his expression. “It’s not just that, is it? You’re worried about your woman, aren’t you?”

I looked away, out the window. “Mik, I left her to go and get help. And every day that passes is one more day that I could be too late.”

He sighed. “Well, Anruk rounded up all my old equipment. As soon as we get you out of here, we can start building your tracking device.”

Mik couldn’t get me out that day. I was forced to endure another night of attentive, overly-cheerful people. On the bright side, it wasn’t as bad as my leg was. So I couldn’t complain…much.

On the following day, Mik signed me out of there and we returned to his old shop. It still had rust everywhere, but with all the equipment back, the place seemed to come alive. It was almost like a living organism. It had a rhythm, a pulse to it. Many of the machines did not have any flashing lights on them, but they seemed to hum with electrical power. It reminded me of space travel on the Astral Princess.

I felt much better finally dressed in my normal clothes. My long coat draped around my dark trousers and a white button-down shirt. My red bandana hung around my neck with my hat securely on my head.

As Mik worked, designing and constructing a tracking device, I perused his shelves. He had gizmos of all kinds. On the third day, my attention was caught by a small blast pistol with a sleek black wooden handle. I picked it up and felt the weight. It was a little small for my hand but it was well balanced, making the barrel seem to float. The light shined off its silvery-metal barrel. It was a work of art.

I turned it over and over looking for the manufacturer’s stamp. I didn’t see any. I turned to Mik, showing him the blast pistol. “Mik? I don’t seem to see the manufacturer’s stamp anywhere.”

He looked up from his workbench, eyeing the gun. “Oh, that’s because I haven’t made a stamp for it yet.”

Made a stamp?”

He nodded. “That’s right. That’s the first one I’ve designed and built.”

I looked at him, marveling. “Can I see how it shoots?”

He smiled. “That’s right, you are an enthusiast. Go ahead and take it into the back room. It’s rather echoey back there so I recommend you take some ears with you.”

I nodded appreciatively, picking up earmuffs from the counter. I walked into the back room. He had been using this room to dial in the accuracy of the blast pistol. He had a target set up. It had range indicators along with geometry formulas scribbled to the side. I put the earmuffs on and switched places in my holster with one of my blast pistols. I didn’t only want to see how the gun would shoot, I also wanted to see how it drew.

My hand flashed to my side. The blast pistol was instantly in my hand, sending a blast bolt downrange. It hit just above the center of the target. The gun was lighter than my Starfield & Tanner blast pistols. I would have to adjust my draw for that. I re-holstered it and relaxed my arm.

Again, my hand flashed to my side and the little gun send another bolt to the target. This time it hit dead center. The short barrel profile made it much easier to clear leather, though it would be less powerful of a shot. It was perfect for a beginning gunfighter. Just for fun, I holstered it again and turned around. With my back to the target, I spun. The little gun was in my hand sending three shots into the target in an instant. The shots were not very straight. They were slightly off-center and a little high. Again, it just needed a little adjusting in the draw.

Mik wandered into the back room. “Sounds like you’ve been having fun in here.”

I again examined the gun with admiration. “She clears leather with ease and shoots straight. A lightweight piece with beautiful craftsmanship.”

Mik chuckled. “Then it’s yours.”

“Oh, no,” I said holding it out to him. “I can’t afford something this nice. Besides, I already got a pair of Starfield & Tanners that I am used to.”

He pushed my hand back. “Now listen, Rence. Building your tracking device was a favor I owed you. Getting my shop and equipment back has meant a lot to me. Please accept this as payment.”

I grinned wide. “Much appreciated, Mik.”

“And if you won’t be using it,” he said. “You can always give it to the next Wayfinder.”

I nodded appreciatively as he walked out the door into the main room. I didn’t have the heart to tell him there weren’t any other Wayfinders. I was the last. And if my luck held out, I wouldn’t be a Wayfinder for long. If Miri would have me, I would be settling down with her. I’d be trading in my badge and guns to give her a life of silks and satins…

Then I had a thought. My breathing stopped and my heart began to beat loud. A deep breath forced its way into my lungs. There was one aspect of my future plans that I had not considered. It had always been in the back of my brain, but I had always shooed it away like a pesky fly. Silks and satins, I thought as I caressed the elegant blast pistol I held.

I walked back out to the main room and joined Mik. “Do you also make blast belts with holsters?”

“Shouldn’t be too difficult.”

“Could you make one for this gun with a thin profile?”

He grinned. “I think I know what you have in mind. I’ll have it ready before you leave.”

The front door opened and Anruk stepped inside, followed by Pym and two other Kuda. For a brief moment, my heart raced. Images of my first encounter with a Kuda flashed across my mind. I relaxed when I recognized Anruk in his armor. Mik had patched up their armor really well. All four Kuda looked as good as new.

He crossed the room over to me. “You still want to go through with this?”

“I have to,” I said. “I can’t leave her behind.”

He nodded. “When do we leave.”

I paused mid-breath, taken aback. “We?”

Pym walked up beside Anruk. “Every soldier understands the concept, never leave a man behind.”

Mik looked up from the workbench. “By the look of things, I’d say you boys might be able to head out tomorrow.” I walked over to a large assembly of cables, circuits, and odd-shaped parts. He flipped a switch and it hummed to life. Picking up a handheld device connected to it, he walked over to me. “It’s picking up one signal in the sector.”

I took the device and looked at the little screen. It was detecting Ryna’s radioisotope signal across the stars. I blinked away a little moisture that collected in my eyes. The air in the room grew thick enough to stir with a stick.

I smiled, glancing upward. “Hold tight, Miri. We’re coming.”

Read earlier episodes on Wattpad

What do you think about the Kuda? Let me know in the comments below.

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