Episode 7: What I had been waiting for

There have been times in my life when I knew that everything I prepared for had led up to a single moment. And there were other times when I have had to question what in the sam hill I was thinking. This was a sam hill moment.

My wrists chafed in the metal cuffs that bound to the back wall. I used my upper arm to wipe away a bead of sweat that ran down my face. This ship was not well ventilated. It was efficient and it traveled places but it was nothing compared to the Astral Princess. The Princess was my Norgon-class transport. She was a fast and agile beauty. But I wasn’t on the Princess this time. During this trip, I was on a dimly-lit, poorly-ventilated, Kuda ship.

It wouldn’t bother someone who wore a suit of blast armor all day long. But for everyone else, it was downright unpleasant. In front of me stood a Kuda, all dressed in his blast armor and helmet. The Kuda were formidable enemies. My first run-in hadn’t gone very well. They were ex-military soldiers turned mercenaries. They hadn’t been needed for two decades, since the last great war. They lived in a state of perpetual readiness, waiting for the call to arms for another war. Without steady pay, their culture had turned into soldiers for hire.

The Kuda pressed a few buttons on the control console in front of him. The large computer screen turned on, showing the handsome face of the man I detested. Dr. Vik Lenish was a scientist that worked for Westward Galactic Financial Corporation. Working for Westward Galactic was not his biggest crime. He was the head researcher experimenting on human beings. His tinkering is what gave Ryna her ability to fiddle with people’s emotions.

Miri, the woman I had known for a few years, found Ryna on Cosstere. A lone ten-year-old girl was left for dead on the barren rock some people call a planet. Miri had found her and wanted to return the girl to her parents. It seemed like such a simple task. Miri dragged me into this because she knew I once was a Wayfinder—or rather because I am a Wayfinder. My skills came in handy several times over. The Corporation wanted Ryna back and they were willing to kill to do it.

That’s what led me to be captured by Dr. Lenish. The sorry excuse for a member of humanity wanted to remove Ryna’s brain to study it. He was frustrated that he couldn’t create any more like Ryna. I gave him a good thrashing, hoping to change his mind. Some men will take the hint and change their ways. Dr. Lenish instead put a price on my head large enough to make a man rich. At least the man knew value when he saw it.

“So, do I have the pleasure of addressing Captain Anruk?” Dr. Lenish said in his annoying accent. I couldn’t put my foot on what it was about his accent that annoyed me so much. Maybe it was that air of foreign egotism.

Anruk, the Kuda that stood between me and the screen showing Dr. Lenish, nodded. “Dr. Vik Lenish, I presume.”

Dr. Lenish raised an eyebrow. “Naturally. And I thank you for returning my property.”

“I ain’t a good Samaritan, doctor. I’m a businessman.”

“You will, of course, be paid as per the contract of the bounty,” Dr. Lenish said with a wave of his hand. “But first, can I please see Mr. Perry?”

Anruk stepped aside, revealing me to Dr. Lenish. Anruk led a team of Kuda back on Cosstere. I had helped him regain the leadership of his team. In return, he promised to help me get Miri and Ryna back from the Corporation. I was forced to leave them the last time. That decision had haunted me ever since. Now Anruk was pretending to have caught me to cash in on my bounty.

Dr. Lenish smiled. “Ah, the high and mighty Mr. Perry at last. Such good fortune I have to reacquire you. Our last meeting was…less than gentlemanly.”

“Some men actually learn from the lessons they’re given,” I said, glaring at him.

“Oh, that is where you are wrong,” he said with a chuckle. “You see, Mr. Perry. You showed me a great deal of security weaknesses that I have since remedied.”

“Too bad you didn’t learn any decency.”

“You are hardly one to talk of decency, Mr. Perry. Were you demonstrating decency when you brutally attacked me?”

“The decency was that I gave you a chance to wise up instead of just shooting you on the spot,” I said, tensing up my bound fists.

“Squeamishness, Mr. Perry. What you adorn with the title of decency is only squeamishness to do what is necessary for humanity. I have no such delusions.” He looked at Anruk. “Captain Anruk, please kill Mr. Perry.”

My heart pounded and my breathing stopped. Anruk needed to get me on board their ship. How could I rescue Miri if I had to be dead to get aboard? Anruk was also a mercenary, not a conman. He was more of a man of action than of words. How would he cope with this surprising change of events? Would he actually shoot me?

Anruk folded his arms. “Do I look like your maid?”

Dr. Lenish frowned. “You get the same amount of money whether he is dead or alive. He caused me a lot of trouble last time. I want him dead.”

Anruk paused.

“Why the hesitation, Captain Anruk?”

I closed my eyes a moment, cringing inside. This whole operation was in jeopardy. If Anruk couldn’t come up with a convincing excuse to deliver me alive, we would fail. They would know we were trying to bluff our way aboard. Not only would Miri’s rescue be botched, but we would spend a lot of time running away from their attack fighters.

Anruk turned his head toward me.

What was he thinking? Could he be considering shooting me? His first loyalty was to his men. If he couldn’t find a way to salvage our rescue plan, shooting me would guarantee his men would not be attacked. They would also be paid handsomely for the reward. Would he really do it? Could he afford not to?

He looked back at Dr. Lenish. “What you do with your lab rats is your business. Collecting the money you owe me is mine.”

“Surely a man of your kind is no stranger to killing. Why should you hesitate?” Dr. Lenish smirked. “Mr. Perry is a very cunning man. Cunning enough, perhaps, to orchestrate a scheme to get on board.”

“You ain’t payin’ me enough to listen to insults,” Anruk said. “You will pay me what you owe and you will do your own dirty work.”

Dr. Lenish laughed. “Such intrigue. I’m afraid you will have to satisfy the skeptic in me, by shooting Mr. Perry.”

I hung my head. Dr. Lenish wasn’t buying it. He saw right through Anruk’s ruse. Was it all for nothing, then? The tracking device Mik built to find Ryna, and the recovery at the hospital, were they all for nothing? No, I still had Mik’s tracking device. I could still track Ryna. We could still try again somehow.

Anruk drew his blast pistol.

I looked at him in alarm. My heart raced and my blood pumped. I could not run; I was chained to the back wall. I was a sitting duck. I had hoped he would have felt a sense of obligation. After all, I did help him regain the leadership of his squad. It seemed loyalty only lasted so far with the Kuda.

He instead turned to Dr. Lenish. “No deal,” he said, shooting the control console. In a burst of sparks, the communication transmission instantly ended.

He walked over to me and unlocked the cuffs. “That cocky egghead is too smart for his own good.”

I looked at Anruk. “You had me worried there a moment.”

“Whatever you believe about Kuda, remember that above all, we live for the battle.”

“What battle?” I asked. He had just spurned Dr. Lenish and cut off all communication with the Corporation ship. That effectively ended this mission before it began. The only battle there had been was with words—and we lost.

“This battle,” he said, punching a red button on the console. An alarm sounded. Pym and the other two Kuda raced in and took their seats. He looked at Pym. “Thrusters ahead full.” Then he turned to another Kuda. “Target their closest landing bay space door.”

“You’re going to attack a capital ship?” I asked. “In this thing?”

Anruk glanced at me. “I’ll be sure to knock before barging in.”

We raced toward the Corporate Labship. The massive behemoth dwarfed our little assault shuttle. We were like a hornet moving in to sting an elephant. There were practical reasons why I deemed this course of action foolhardy. The foremost was the size difference. The Kuda didn’t seem to mind. They hurtled their little shuttle ever closer. Massive deck cannons on the Lab Ship blasted large green plasma bolts at us.

I clenched the closest handrailing.

Pym steered the shuttle with a calm smoothness as if he were on a casual Sunday drive. To say that Pym was cool under pressure was an understatement. We weaved in and around the incoming green bolts of cannon fire, approaching one of the landing bays.

Anruk pulled me away from the pole I was clinging to and sat me in a chair. “Buckle up, buckaroo,” he directed, strapping himself in.

“Cute phrase,” I said, letting my annoyance show. “Did you make that up yourself?”

He pointed out the blast shield window toward the quick-approaching landing bay. “Unless you want to scrape yourself off the window after landing.”

The memory of my crash landing on that ice comet flooded my mind. I remembered the headache and Miri feverishly working in my chest panel to revive me. All my muscles stiffened, and my breathing stopped. I grabbed my safety straps with white knuckles and jammed my buckles into place. Just as I secured my safety straps, three rockets launched from our assault shuttle. They zoomed ahead and slammed into the closed landing bay space door.

The door exploded, tearing itself apart under the sudden release of air pressure from the bay. Massive pieces of the space door flew past us, nearly hitting us. Pym jerked the stick back and slammed his foot against a floor pedal. The braking thrusters fired, slowing our momentum. We crashed into the landing bay. I was thrown forward in my seat, held back by my safety straps. I was suddenly real happy Anruk had insisted on strapping in.

Sparks blew from a nearby console, starting a fire. Anruk reached under his seat and pulled out a small fire extinguisher. “Time to move out,” he announced, putting out the fire.

I unbuckled and stood, with my nerves still shaky. Like it routinely had been, it was now showtime. The difference here was that I had no plan. We were going to be improvising at every step along the way. I clamped on my tactical mask. I was partly glad Anruk had also insisted I leave Lady behind on the Princess. A crash like this had been would not have been good for her.

Anruk dropped the fire extinguisher. “Tuke and Oss, find us a set of wings to get us out of here when we’re done.”

The two Kuda seated in front nodded, unbuckling their safety straps.

“Pym,” Anruk said. “Stay and watch over the tracking system as long as you can. When they overrun your position, fall back and rejoin Tuke and Oss.”

“Yes sir,” Pym replied. He then motioned toward me with his head. “What’s the rookie’s callsign?”

“Romeo,” Anruk said without hesitation.

“Now, wait a minute,” I said, my mask hiding the color in my cheeks. “Just what are you trying to imply?” I hadn’t given them any indication that I was sweet on Miri, and Mik would not have known. There was no cause for innuendos of romance. Nor did I want there to be any. The less they knew the better.

Anruk slowly faced me, his men chuckling behind him. “Your name begins with the letter R.”

He was referring to the military alphabet. Twenty-six words were assigned to each letter of the alphabet. They clearly defined letters being spoken over a comm transmission. The letter R happened to be Romeo. I wanted to shrink where I stood.

“Oh,” I finally said.

“But thanks for the tip, Romeo,” Anruk said. “Looks like the woman’s callsign is going to be Juliet.”

I closed my eyes, my fists clenched. It had been a while since I worked alongside soldiers. I had forgotten the unwritten rule never to let on that a nickname irritated you. It was the fastest way to permanently brand yourself with that name. It was a flavor of comradery that took some getting used to. What I hadn’t counted on was Anruk reading between the lines. I probably should have just kept my mouth shut.

“Let’s move out,” Anruk said.

As they passed by me, Oss patted me on the shoulder twice. “Say hi to the missus for me.”

I definitely should have kept my mouth shut.

I followed them over to the boarding hatch. The assault shuttle had a small airlock to allow troops to board other ships. Pym closed the inner door, sealing us inside the airlock.

Anruk turned to me. “You’ll need to suit up. There ain’t no air pressure in the bay.”

I grabbed an exosuit and put it on.

“Comm check, go,” he said.

I heard his voice through my tactical mask. Since I had already embarrassed myself once, I waited for the Kuda to respond first.

“Alpha, Tango, roger,” Tuke replied.

“Alpha, Oscar, roger,” Oss answered.

“Alpha, Papa, roger,” Pym said.

It looked like everyone’s callsign was the first letter of their name in the military alphabet. “Alpha, Romeo, roger,” I said, looking to Anruk for approval.

He nodded, pulling the cord that started the depressurization cycle. The air hissed on its way out of the airlock. The inside of my exosuit helmet smelled of somebody’s aftershave. At least it was clean. The Kuda each readied a blast rifle. I looked at the tracker receiver in my hand. It was a small receiver connected to the tracking device Mik had installed on the shuttle. It showed me which direction and how far away I was from Ryna. It was then that a troubling thought occurred to me. Miri was not guaranteed to be with Ryna. How would I find Miri on a ship this big? The light in the airlock turned red and the ramp lowered.

The Kuda swarmed out and I followed. We didn’t have air pressure, but we still had gravity from the ship. We swiftly made our way to the wall where the bay door controls were. Anruk pressed the button to raise the forcefield around the space door. That forcefield kept air pressure inside the bay. It also allowed shuttles to leave through the open space door. A loud hissing sounded as the landing bay pressurized.

Anruk gave a hand gesture to Oss and Tuke. They moved to stand on either side of the door. They assumed the ship’s security guards to be standing on the other side of the door, waiting for the door to open. Once the door opened, it would be a shootout. I joined Anruk to the left of the door. Anruk reached over and hit the door controls. The door slid open.

A hailstorm of green blast bolts sailed through the open door into the bay. Tuke pulled a detonator off his belt and tossed it through the open door. The detonator exploded, sending a gust of hot air and debris into the bay. I had to admit, a man felt pretty safe behind four Kuda. We stepped into the hall.

“Security cameras,” Oss said, pointing to a camera hanging high from the wall.

“Scramble ‘em,” Anruk said.

Tuke slapped a small device on the camera. A small light blinked on the device. “Battery on the scrambler will give us four hours tops.”

“The second landing bay is at the other end of the hall,” I said to Tuke and Oss. “You might find a set of wings there.”

Anruk nodded and sent them away with a hand motion. He turned to me. “Okay, Romeo. Where to?”

I rolled my eyes. When we weren’t on the comm channel, he didn’t have to call me by my callsign. He was just enjoying calling me that. I decided not to protest again. I glanced at the tracking receiver in my hand. “Two decks up, and a little to the north.”

We jogged to the other end of the hall and Anruk pressed the button to call the elevator. Nothing happened. They had already locked down the elevators and doors. Dr. Lenish wasn’t kidding when he said he had learned from his security holes. I forced the doors open and we entered. I looked up at the ceiling hatch in amazement. The hatch was welded shut.

I looked at Anruk. “I guess he decided to trade security over safety.”

“Cute,” he said, aiming his blast rifle at the hatch. He fired several shots, punching holes through the hatch door. The hinges snapped and the weld broke. I jumped with my enhanced knees, pushing open the hatch and catching the ledge. I pulled myself up and helped Anruk. The edges of the trap door hole tore open wider as Anruk’s armor squeezed through. The bulk was one downside to their armor.

Anruk pointed to the wall. “More home improvements?”

I looked where he pointed. All the rungs on the maintenance ladder had been cut off. Dr. Lenish must have studied my escape in detail. He had tried to eliminate every advantage I had had last time. “Dr. Lenish is thorough, I’ll give him that.”

“That’s the sign of a scared man,” Anruk said. He looked at me. “What did you do to him?”

“I taught him a few manors.”

He grunted in approval.

I looked around for anything that could be used as handholds. I didn’t see anything.

Anruk aimed his rifle at the door two decks above us. At such an odd angle, I was surprised he was able to hit it. His green blast bolts tore holes through the door. Then he walked over to the thick elevator cables. “Grab on,” he said.

My eyes lit up. “You can’t be serious? That’s a one-way trip.”

“You got a better idea?” he asked.

The truth was that I didn’t have a better idea. We would just have to find another way down once we freed Miri and Ryna. I grabbed hold of one of the cables. He held onto the cable with one hand and aimed his rifle with the other hand. He shot the stabilizer motor. The elevator slid down the shaft, grinding sparks as it scraped the wall on the way down. As it fell, the cable pulled us in the opposite direction. It yanked us up. I clung to the cable, watching for the doors Anruk had shot.

When we neared the door, I jumped off the cable and caught hold of the ledge. Anruk jumped but missed the ledge. He flailed his arms trying to grab ahold of anything. I caught hold of his arm. His heavy armor strained my grip on the ledge. I would only be able to hold onto him for a short time. I needed to get him up to the ledge somehow, and it needed to be quick. Grunting, I started swinging him.

During the swing, he kicked against the wall, increasing his swing. It wasn’t every day you saw a Kuda swinging like a pendulum. When his swing was wide enough, his foot touched the left wall. With a little kick against that wall, Anruk was able to reach the ledge. It was a good thing too; my arm felt like jelly.

I pulled myself up to the door and forced it open. I helped Anruk up before a green blast bolt hit me in my exosuit helmet, shattering the glass. The shattering glass made me flinch, but I spun, clearing leather. I sent two red blast bolts down the hallway before I saw who was shooting at us. One of the armed guards dropped his blast pistol, clutching his stomach. The other three guards backed off, shooting. Anruk reloaded his blast rifle power cell.

He stood and charged down the hallway, shooting. The security guards scattered, running down different hallways. I pulled out the tracking receiver. We were close.

“Other way down the hall,” I shouted.

Anruk stopped his charge and jogged back to me. “Lead the way, Romeo.”

“Can you stop calling me that?”

“Nope,” he replied, motioning for me to take the lead.

It was a shame he couldn’t even see me roll my eyes. But I made up my mind to search for the most embarrassing nickname I could to call him. I carefully pulled off what was left of my helmet and tossed it aside. I charged down to the other end of the hallway, blast pistol in hand. I glanced at the tracking receiver again. The signal was coming from the other side of the next room. I peeked into the small door window. The room looked empty. I checked the device again. Her signal was coming from that room.

I figured looks could be deceiving, so I grabbed the door knob. It didn’t budge. Dr. Lenish had been busy. It looked like he now locked the doors. “I just wish he would learn the right lesson,” I said under my breath.

I took a step back and kicked the door using my enhanced knee. The door caved in, breaking the locking bar from the door frame. Anruk helped me force the bent door open.

Anruk took a look around. “Nothing.”

I showed him the device. “This is where the trail ends.”

As he looked at it, we heard shouts from down the hall. Anruk crouched, aiming his blast rifle at the door. “What then?”

 My blood boiled. “Ryna!” I kicked over the shelves and tipped the desk over. I had come too far only to lose the trail. It wasn’t fair. I had so many things on my side this time. I needed to win this one. I needed to find Ryna and Miri.

“We can’t stay here,” Anruk said. “They’ll pin us down. They’d only need to toss in one detonator to redecorate the place with our blood.”

I kicked the nearby wall, denting it. “Where is Ryna?” I shouted, kicking it again and again. All I could see was red. I hated Dr. Lenish and I hated myself. Why couldn’t I find her? I had successfully tracked her across the sector. Finding her room should have been easy compared to that.

My breathing slowed and my mind cleared. I relaxed my fists. My heart was still racing but I felt at peace, somehow. Was I coming to grips with reality? Was I accepting my failure? No, that couldn’t be it; I didn’t feel sad. Come to think of it, I didn’t feel regret either. Just calm.

“Rence, they’ll be here any moment,” Anruk warned.

“Ryna is here,” I said. “She is calming my emotions.”

I took yanked off my exosuit glove and pressed a few buttons on my wristband. My vision shifted to infrared. I saw body heat through walls and floors. Glancing around the room, I saw a body heat signature directly behind the far wall. “Clever, but not clever enough.”

I switched my eyesight to electromagnetic and examined the wall. I saw a power line leading from the wall to a desk lamp. I smirked, crossing over to the lamp. A part of the wall moved aside, revealing a room beyond. I switched my eyesight back to normal and ran into the next room. Ryna stood on her cot, pounding against a transparent wall, unable to make an audible sound.

Dr. Lenish was smart enough not to operate on Ryna. The very existence of this secret room was proof that my threat was taken seriously. That meant I still had hope for Miri too. I ran over to the wall controls and pressed some buttons. Surely one of them would open her cell. The wall control blinked red and beeped at me. I looked closer at it. It had a thumbprint scanner. I didn’t have time for such games. I placed a detonator on the transparent wall and motioned for Ryna to back away. She didn’t back away far enough, so I moved the detonator further down the transparent wall. I activated the timer and jogged to the other end of the room.

Ryna covered her ears.

It exploded, blasting a huge hole. I ran through the hole and scooped up Ryna in my arms, hugging her. She clung to me, tears running down her face. “You came back.”

“I promised I would.”

She sniffled. “You came back.”

“This time I won’t leave you again.” I blinked back some moisture that threatened to blur my vision. “I don’t suppose you know where Miss Miri is, do you?”

She shook he head.

I heard the loud zapping sound of Anruk’s blast rifle firing. It was time to go. At least, it was time to go and find Miri. I led Ryna back into the room with Anruk.

Ryna froze, clutching my arm.

“It’s all right, little miss. Anruk here is a friend.”

Anruk glanced at Ryna and then at me. “Where’s Juliet?”

“Working on it.”

“Well, you’ll have to work on it somewhere else. I’ll cover you.” Anruk fired a few more green blast bolts down the hall as I led Ryna by the hand further down the hall. We stopped around the next corner, waiting for Anruk to join us.

“Mr. Rence, I’m scared,” Ryna said.

How was I to comfort her in the middle of a shoot-out? I looked into her delicate eyes. She was searching for something to believe in. Her life must have been filled with disappointments. Living with a scientist who looked at her as a large Petri dish could not have helped. Looking back on it, the time that she really emerged from her secluded shell was when she was with Miri. If Ryna was going to survive emotionally, she needed Miri.

I knelt and looked at her at eye level. “I wish I could calm you the way you can calm me.”

She stared at me.

I took off my tactical mask, letting her see my eyes. “Don’t you fret, little miss, I won’t let anything happen to you.”

She hugged me tightly around the neck.

Maybe I didn’t need the ability to fiddle with emotions to calm Ryna. Maybe she just needed me. I hugged her back.

Anruk rounded the corner. “Sorry to break up this little reunion, but you have work to do.” Anruk kicked at a neighboring door. It didn’t budge. I stood and kicked it with my enhanced knee. The door jamb cracked and the door locking lever snapped. I was getting better at kicking in these doors. This time it didn’t fold in on itself.

Anruk pushed the door open and motioned for us to enter. He closed it behind us, using his foot to keep it shut. I dashed over to the computer terminal. I punched away furiously at the keyboard. It was no use. Dr. Lenish had updated the computer security. And I had left behind my decryptor when I raided the Corporation’s data center. I slammed my fist against the keyboard.

“Trouble?” Anruk asked.

“He upgraded the computer security as well.”

“Do you have another idea or do we abort?”

My blood pumped and I clenched my fists. Fear washed over me. The fear of not finding Miri. I wanted to find her badly. Ryna needed her. I needed her too. I had to think of a way to locate Miri and I only had a little time to do so. The Kuda were impressive but they didn’t have enough power cells to fire their weapons all day long. And the massive ship had enough manpower to overwhelm us.

I thought a moment before I repeated my mentor’s favorite phrase. “Sometimes the best way in is from the side.”

“Come again?” Anruk asked.

“The computer may be secure,” I said. “But people’s emotions are not.”

“That egghead is smart, he saw through it last time.”

“But you said it yourself, he is afraid of me.”

Anruk nodded. “You have a plan then?”

“I have half a plan,” I admitted, clamping my tactical mask back on.

I wasn’t sure exactly how to do it, but I needed to try. I squatted next to Ryna. “Little miss, you had said once that you know how everyone feels.”

She nodded, eyeing me curiously.

“Can you tell me how Dr. Lenish feels?”

“Only when I look at him.”

“Okay. I’ll see what I can do about that.” I stood, turning to Anruk. “I’ve got some electrical to tamper with. I’ll be back soon. Please guard Ryna with your life.”

“What is she to me?” he asked.

That’s right, I was talking to a mercenary. But Anruk was more than just a mercenary. He was willing to come with me to rescue Miri and Ryna. There was more than just a mercenary inside Anruk. I suspected that deep down, he had the heart of a hero. Was there anything I could say to touch that side of him? I had touched it when I said I couldn’t leave Miri behind. Could I do it again about Ryna? Or did I have to? He had told me that above all, the Kuda live for the battle.

“This is Ryna,” I said. “That egghead, Dr. Lenish, considers her his most prized possession. The greatest blow you can land is to deprive him of her.”

He nodded. “Understood.”

I glanced down both ends of the hallway. I waited for a team of four security guards to run past before slipping into the hall. I jogged down the hall after them, keeping my footsteps light. They approached an elevator at the end of the hall, walking past a circuit panel. If they were going to enter the elevator, they would see me when they turned around. I had to work fast.

I pulled the panel open. Tapping a button on my wristband, I switched my vision to electromagnetic. The visual band signals were easy to distinguish since they showed up in another color. I glanced at the wall, seeing which electrical signals led back to the room Anruk and Ryna were in. I pulled my knife from my boot and cut the visual feed wire and spliced it into the data cable running to that room. The elevator at the end of the hall chimed and the doors opened. I quickly closed the panel and dashed back to the room.

I tapped three times on the door and Anruk let me in. “That was fast,” he said.

“Had to be,” I admitted. “Security is scouring the ship looking for us.”

I crossed over to the intercom controls and pried the casing off with my knife. In a matter of minutes, I had rigged up a tie-in to the observation cameras in the laboratory rooms.

“Alpha, Papa, falling back to Tango Oscar, over,” Pym’s voice said over the comm.

“Roger, Papa. Out,” Anruk replied. Then he turned to me. “They’ve overrun the shuttle. Pym is joining up with the others. That means more security will now be available to search for us.”

“So, no pressure,” I said in conclusion. I pressed a button on the intercom controls over and over again, switching the video feed from one room to the next. There could be hundreds of such rooms. And we didn’t have a whole lot of time. I wanted to flip through the camera feeds faster, but I couldn’t clearly see who was in the room any faster.

“Oscar, Alpha,” Anruk said over the comm. “How close are we to evac? Over.”

Oss’s voice replied. “Almost patched in. ETA in ten, over.”

“How long to prep the wings once in? Over.”

“Assume twenty, over.”

“Roger, break.” Anruk turned to me. “The boys found us a set of wings. How long is this going to take?”

“Depends on how lucky we are.”

“Oscar, Alpha,” he continued. “Hold position once in. Golf acquired but negative 10-20 on Juliet, over.”

“WILCO, over.” Oss’s voice replied.

“Roger, out.” Anruk turned back to me. “I’m giving you thirty minutes, Romeo. After that, we have to hightail it.”

“No pressure,” I said under my breath, still flipping between video feeds. Ryna clutched my arm. I stopped and glanced at her. “What is it, little miss?”

She stared at the monitor that displayed the video feed.

I flipped back a few and saw the back of someone’s head. Ryna squeezed my arm.

“Is that him?” I asked.

She nodded.

“What’s he feeling?” I asked.


I looked back at Ryna. “Okay, I want you to squeeze my arm if he starts feeling scared. But if he starts feeling safe or confident, squeeze my arm twice. Understand?”

She nodded.

I picked up the intercom receiver and pushed the button labeled broadcast. “Hello again, Dr. Lenish.” My voice echoed through the hallways.

Dr. Lenish spun around and motioned to someone off-camera. Two security guards moved into view. He shouted something at them and pointed out the door. They dashed out of the room. Dr. Lenish picked up his intercom receiver and pushed the broadcast button. “Well, well, Mr. Perry. Turns out I was right about your apparent capture by Captain Anruk.” His voice also echoed down all the hallways.

Ryna squeezed my arm twice.

He was playing the role of the superior detective, keeping the conversation light and in his favor. I needed to darken the conversation a bit. I needed him more than just worried. For this gamble to work, I needed him scared. It was time to dawn my bravado.

“You know why I’m here.”

Dr. Lenish paused a moment. “You are trying to steal my property.”

“Not just your property, doctor. I assume you got my message about project Osurious? I left you a little present.”

He pursed his lips. “If you think a minor setback to the database will prevent my research, you are dead wrong.”

“I don’t think you really understand, doctor. Erasing the Osurious project files was the bait. The present is hidden in the database backups.”

Ryna squeezed my arm.

“You see, doctor, it would be too easy to catch if I tried to inject the database directly. But if the Corporation restored the database from backup, it would be undetectable.”

Ryna squeezed my arm again.

Dr. Lenish smiled. “You’re a very cunning man, Mr. Perry. Isn’t it more likely that you are lying about this danger? You expect me to believe—”

“Shut your yap, doctor. What you believe is of no consequence and this is not a negotiation. You have someone I want, and I am holding a sledgehammer over your precious data. How eager are you to start from scratch?”

Ryna again squeezed my arm twice.

What I said had sounded good. Why was he feeling more confident? My mind raced, sifting through memories of the day. Dr. Lenish had exhibited signs of being afraid of me. He had welded the elevator escape hatch shut and cut off the elevator shaft ladder rungs. He updated the computer system and even installed security cameras. They all pointed to him being afraid of me. Afraid of me, I thought.

I had it all backward. Dr. Lenish was a practical man. One might even say a businessman. Threats, negotiations, and even playful banter were all in his realm of comfort. He even referred to losing the project Osurious files as a minor setback. He wasn’t afraid of starting over. Starting over for him was just a setback. It all made sense now. What he was scared of was me. That was why he wanted me dead before being transferred to his ship. What scared him was that I would come for him and finish the job I started.

Dr. Lenish smirked. “You are in no position to negotiate, Mr. Perry. I have everything I need to begin again. And this time, I will also have you to study.”

“It ain’t working,” Anruk said.

I held up a finger to him. I needed to gather my thoughts. I needed to make it realistic.

“Are you still there, Mr. Perry?” Dr. Lenish’s voice echoed down the halls.

“I am too late, then,” I said. “You already killed her.” I waited until the echo of my voice faded from the halls. “Then there is only one thing left to do… She warned you what would happen if you laid a hand on her!”

Ryna squeezed my arm.

Dr. Lenish moved away from the intercom. He shouted something, pointing an angry finger at someone off-camera. He paced in the room for a few minutes until a security guard escorted Miri into the room, holding her by the arm. Dr. Lenish pointed to the intercom controls and the guard moved Miri over to the intercom. Dr. Lenish noticeably gave her a wide berth.

She picked up the intercom receiver. “Rence?” Her voice echoed down the hallways. It was the sweetest sound. My eyes started to blur. I blinked back the tears. My heart pounded and my shoulders felt light. I took in a deep breath. “Is that you, Miri?”

She smiled, a tear running down her cheek. “When you left me at the front, I knew right then, you were right, when you left.”

Her response was confusing. What had they done to her? I balled my hands into fists. My blood boiled and my muscles tensed up. “Did he lay a hand on you?” I demanded.

“No,” she said instantly. “Listen to me, Rence. “Up front, he left me alone. He did right. He did right when he left me alone.”

Dr. Lenish waved her away from the intercom and the guard pulled her away, the receiver dropping to the desk. Dr. Lenish picked it up. “There, you have proof the woman is still alive and unharmed. So, I propose a trade.”

My ears perked up. This was certainly a change. How did he go from being super confident he would have me in his lab to wanting to trade? My gamble had paid off in that I now knew Miri was alive and that she was somewhere with Dr. Lenish. But could my gamble have worked so well that he was willing to negotiate?

Ryna squeezed my arm twice.

Dr. Lenish continued. “My security team reports that you have taken Subject 35. I will trade you the woman for the girl. What do you say, Mr. Perry? You return my property and I return yours?”

Ryna clenched my arm. I looked down at her and saw fear in her eyes. Even for her age, she knew what the bargain was that the doctor was making. And even with all my reassurances, she was still afraid I would leave her. She was scared I would trade her for Miri.

I could always lie and tell the doctor I would just so I could get close to Miri. I would understand the ruse, but would Ryna? What would she believe about me? For her whole life, adults treated her like a sack of beans; to be used and traded. Would she still consider me as an exception, or would I confirm her notion that adults are all the same? She didn’t trust Dr. Lenish. And if I did anything similar to him, she would not trust me either. I could try explaining that I needed to lie to the doctor. But if I lied about one thing, she might suspect I would lie about another.

“I can’t,” I finally said to Dr. Lenish. “I made the girl a promise. But I would be willing to trade myself for the woman.”

Dr. Lenish narrowed his eyes and tilted his head. “Interesting…” He stood with his hand to his chin for several minutes. “Something has just occurred to me, Mr. Perry. Your interest in the woman goes far deeper than I first had anticipated. You want her freedom in exchange for yours. This tells me I have been sitting on the perfect bargaining chip all along.”

Ryna squeezed my arm twice. Yet, I didn’t need her to squeeze my arm to know that he was gaining confidence. I saw it in his eyes. I heard it in his annoying voice. My heart sunk into the pit of my stomach. I could smell this conversation going rotten.

“So, I tell you what I’m going to do, Mr. Perry. I’m going to give you seventeen minutes to come out, unarmed, with Subject 35. And I do hope you ask me why such an odd number of minutes.”

I breathed out hard and slow. Ryna squeezed my arm twice more. Dr. Lenish was telegraphing his emotions so well that I didn’t need Ryna squeezing my arm. “Why the odd time limit, doctor?”

“Seventeen minutes is precisely how long it takes to depressurize an entire cargo bay. That is, before dumping its contents into space.”

His last words echoed down the hallways, sending ripples through my heart. The weight pulled on my chest. My eyes blurred and I didn’t even try to hold back the tears. I was grateful my mask hid them from view. How could things have gone so wrong so quickly? But what did it matter now? I had made a promise to Ryna that I would not leave her. I had also made a promise to Miri that I would come back for her. It seemed I had to break one of those promises. How could I choose? How could any man choose?

I dropped the intercom receiver on the desk and slid down the wall until I was seated on the floor. I looked at Anruk. “I’ve lost her again…”

“No, you haven’t,” he said confidently.

“Anruk, I can’t search this ship in seventeen minutes!”

“You don’t gotta search the whole ship.”

I cocked my head in confusion. “What do you mean?”

“If you’ll pull your head out of your hormones a few minutes, you’ll see what I’m talking about.”

Ryna placed a hand on my shoulder. She asked me with her eyes if she should calm me.

I nodded.

My heart rate slowed. My breathing calmed, and my head cleared. I relaxed my muscles. My heart was the only thing still aching. I did not want to lose Miri again. Her words ran through my head again. It was such an odd reply she gave.

I turned to Anruk. “She said I left her at the front and was right to leave her…I don’t understand what she meant.”

“That may have been what she spoke, but that ain’t what she said,” he replied.

“You’ve lost me…”

Anruk took a deep, annoyed breath. “She said when you left her up front, she knew you were right, you were right when you left her.”

My mouth fell open but words did not come. He was right. But that was not all she said. She asked me to listen to her. I tapped a few buttons on my wristband, rewinding the recording from my mask. I played the scene again. “Listen to me, Rence,” I repeated. “Up front, he left me alone. He did right. He did right when he left me alone.”

I turned off the video playback from the mask’s eyes and looked at Anruk. “She’s giving us directions.”

He nodded. “And both times she said, up front or at the front.”

The lightbulb in my head lit up. “At the front of the ship, turn left, then right, then right again, then left.”

“Is Romeo ready to rescue Juliet?” he asked.

I climbed to my feet, taking in a deep breath. My shoulders felt light and my blood was pumping with excitement. “Start the countdown for evac.”

Anruk nodded and spoke into the comm. “Oscar, Alpha. Are you in position? Over.”

“Affirmative, over,” Oss’s voice replied.

“Begin prepping for evac. I say again, prep the wings for evac, over.”

“WILCO, over.”

“Roger, out.” Anruk turned to me. “Our flight leaves in twenty minutes, let’s move.”

I stooped to be eye-level with Ryna. “We’re gonna go rescue Miss Miri. Now there’ll be lots of shooting. Just keep close to me, you hear?”

She nodded.

I took her by the hand and led her to the door. Anruk glanced out the small door window before exiting. Seven security guards rounded the corner and started shooting. The swarm of green blast bolts knocked him over, producing burn marks on his armor. Anruk fired a few shots in return, dropping three men. I drew Thunder and Lightning, my twin blast pistols, and peeked out the door. I fired four shots, sending red blast bolts into the guards. They each fell to the ground.

Holstering my blast pistols, I helped Anruk to his feet. “That armor has some impressive resistance.”

“Against small arms fire,” he said, reloading his blast rifle’s power cell.

I took Ryna’s hand and followed Anruk down the hall. We jogged at a moderate pace; Ryna couldn’t run as fast.

The hallway echoed with Dr. Lenish’s voice. “Mr. Perry, are you still there?”

Anruk glanced back at me. “I’m betting he’ll start that seventeen minutes real soon.”

We needed to hurry, but I couldn’t drag Ryna any faster. My heart pounded as we jogged down one hallway after another. The one good thing about having the whole ship on alert was that it kept most people out of the halls. I didn’t have to worry about someone getting hit in the crossfire.

Anruk pointed. “Here’s our first left.”

Ryna pulled her hand away and stopped, panting.

“Hold up,” I said to Anruk.

He turned around. “We don’t got time for this.”

A caravan of security guards walked past the end of the hallway, escorting Miri to an airlock.

“Miri!” I shouted.

The guards all looked at us. Six of them stopped to shoot while the other three ran on ahead, dragging Miri along.

“Rence!” her voice echoed from around the far corner.

I pulled Ryna to the ground while drawing a blast pistol. Anruk spun to meet the oncoming shower of green blast bolts. He dropped to one knee, shooting back. I fired a few red blast bolts, and two guards fell. Anruk dropped another three until he jerked back and fell on his backside. I shot the last guard who fell on his face.

Anruk cursed, inspecting his rifle. A stray blast bolt hit the discharger coil. That rifle would never fire again. He cursed again and tossed it aside. He drew a backup blast pistol from a holster on his belt. I scrambled to my feet, dashing down the hallway after Miri.

“Bring Ryna when you can!” I shouted back.

I drew my second blast pistol also as I ran down the hall. I rounded the corner and sprinted after them. One of the guards heard the stomping of my footsteps and turned around, shooting. I dove to the floor, firing both blast pistols. The guard dropped his blast pistol, clutching his chest. I stayed on the floor and aimed at the second guard. I fired. The red blast bolt whizzed through the air and struck the guard in the back. He tumbled forward to the floor. I aimed at the guard in the lead. He was too far for an accurate shot, and he was also pulling Miri along by her arm. I couldn’t risk hitting Miri.

I again scrambled to my feet and dashed off down the hall after them. Miri glanced behind, seeing me in pursuit. She dropped to the ground, yanking the guard back from his run. He cursed and kicked her, ordering her to her feet while pulling her along the floor. Miri had not only slowed their pace, but she also left me with a wide-open shot. Only one blast bolt was enough to do the job. But after seeing him kick her, I peppered him with six bolts.

I skidded to a stop in front of Miri as the last guard fell. “Good thinking,” I said.

She moaned, holding her side where the guard kicked her. Then she looked at me. “I knew you’d come back.”

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

“Where’s Ryna?” she asked.

I glanced back down the hall. Anruk and Ryna jogged down after us. Ryna sprinted once she saw Miri. Miri kneeled up as Ryna flew into her arms. Miri held her tight, tears running down her face.

I turned to Anruk. “How much time?”

“About fifteen minutes.”

I motioned behind me with my head. “There looks to be an elevator down there. It might take us that long to get these two down to the first deck. The boys will wait for us, right?”

“Of course, they’ll wait. But let’s not keep them waiting too long. Once that egghead realizes you have the woman, he’ll send everyone he has to storm the landing bays.”

I retrieved a fallen blast pistol from one of the guards and handed it to Miri. “Can you move?”

“Sure,” she said, holding her breath against the pain.

“What about that?” Anruk said, pointing to a maintenance hatch.

I shook my head. “Absolutely not! Bad experience.”

We hustled toward the elevator at the end of the hall with me in the lead. Anruk trailed behind Ryna, glancing over his shoulder now and again. Before we reached the elevator, its doors opened. Four security guards stepped out. I dashed forward, shooting my blast pistols. The surprised guards only got one shot off before I took them down. But that one shot struck me right below the collar bone.

I stumbled and fell to the floor.

“Rence!” Miri shouted.

She helped me to my feet. My right arm and shoulder ached. I holstered my blast pistols as Anruk and Ryna approached.

“Where’d you get hit?” Anruk asked.

I pulled my shirt open, showing him.

“It probably hurts like the dickens,” he said. “But you’ll be fine. Can you climb down with one hand?”

Before I could answer, Pym’s voice called out over the comm. “Alpha, Papa. We are taking enemy fire. What’s your ETA? Over.”

“We’re on our way. ETA ten minutes, over.”

“Roger, out.”

I pulled out a detonator and fastened it to the elevator wall.

“Wait,” Miri said, placing her hand on my arm. “I’ve watched them use the elevators.”

Miri pulled a keycard off one of the fallen guards. She tapped the card against the control panel and it beeped. Then she lifted the guard’s hand and placed it against a black glass screen on the control panel. The panel beeped again and lit up. She pressed the button for the first deck and the doors closed. The elevator gently descended.

Anruk turned to me. “Kinda feel strange, taking the elevator in the middle of a skirmish.”

“Yeah,” I said, looking at him. “It’s a little too peaceful.”

The elevator chimed and the doors parted.

“There they are!” a guard shouted.

Keeping to the side of the elevator, we watched the hailstorm of green blast bolts spray the back wall.

“Me and my big mouth,” I grumbled.

Off to my left, my detonator was still attached to the elevator wall. I pulled it off and activated it. I counted to five and then tossed it out the elevator door. Men shouted, diving for cover as the detonator exploded. Anruk dashed out of the elevator, shooting. I followed behind with Miri holding Ryna’s hand.

My shoulder and arm ached with every stomp of my foot. I grunted with each step. That’s probably why I didn’t pay attention to where I was running. I tripped on the body of a guard and tumbled to the floor for the second time. Miri and Ryna stopped to help me up. I let out a terrible groan as my wound complained.

I looked ahead and saw Anruk charging down the hall, guards running from him. More security guards stormed in from a side hall. They were between us and the path to get to Anruk. They instantly noticed us and opened fire. We retreated back toward the elevator, shooting back. I reached into my coat pocket for a detonator. I cursed. They were all gone. We got back inside the elevator, breaking the line of sight.

“Romeo, Alpha,” I said over the comm. “We’ve been cut off!”

“Roger,” his voice replied. “I have to assist the boys, they’re under heavy fire. I’ll swing back around to you in a few minutes. Over.”

This was not good news. They were being overwhelmed and Anruk was needed in several places. It would be a fight just for him to get back to us, let alone get back to the landing bay. There simply wasn’t enough time. And I was not in much of a condition to fight off a large security force, not with Miri and Ryna in tow. I needed another option.

I could have tried the maintenance accessway again. But that was what got Miri and me separated in the first place. Besides, I didn’t know what security improvements Dr. Lenish might have put in place down there. My best option was to find another way off the ship.

“Negative,” I said. “Hold them off as long as you can and then evac. I’ll go to their hanger and Juliet and…and…and whatever Ryna’s name is, out in one of their attack fighters.”

Anruk’s voice came back. “You need to learn to say over at the end of a line, over.”

I almost smiled. “Over.”

“Roger, out.”

I knelt and picked up the keycard Miri had used for the elevator and touched it to the sensor. It beeped. Then I put the hand of the dead guard on the sensor plate. The control panel beeped again and lit up. I pressed the button marked H. The elevator doors closed, blast bolts raining against the metal. The elevator descended, halting at the hangar deck. The elevator chimed and the doors parted. Pilots and flight personnel ran around fueling starfighters and prepping them to launch.

“Follow me,” I told Miri.

I casually strolled across the hanger toward a couple of landed attack fighters. A man in coveralls disconnected a fuel hose. I walked up right behind him before he noticed anyone was there. “Sorry about this,” I said, slamming his head against the metal frame of the fighter. It knocked him out cold. I didn’t want to leave him lying on the floor. For one thing, I didn’t want him to get run over. Secondly, I preferred he didn’t get seen. There was no need to raise the alarm down here.

I directed Miri and Ryna to climb into the back seat of the attack fighter. Meanwhile, I hoisted the unconscious man into the cockpit of the neighboring one. I then climbed into the seat in front of Miri and Ryna. I looked over the various buttons and switches. It was a bit more advanced than a transport ship. On the bright side, most of the fundamentals were the same. Once I figured out how to start the engine, I closed the canopy and pressurized the cockpit. As I taxied the fighter down the runway, a flight deck crewman waved his hands angrily at me. I had no clue what his hand gestures were and I was tempted to show him a hand gesture of my own. I decided against it since ladies were present.

I rumbled down the hanger lane. I was close behind another starfighter that was taxiing into position. I pushed the throttle up and zoomed up behind him. I bumped the back of the starfighter, causing him to miss the turn and run into a wall. I turned onto the runway and noticed the space door at the far end was closing. Running a plane off the road and ignoring the flight director was probably suspicious.

I wasn’t sure how to fire any weapons in this thing, so, I pushed the throttle up to full. We raced down the runway as the door continued to close. At the rate it was closing, we were not going to make it before the space door closed. There had to be a way to fire a missile or something at the door. I glanced around the controls and flipped a few rocker switches. An alarm sounded, so I flipped back the switches I could remember touching. It was much more straightforward on the Princess.

The space door was almost half-closed and I was not near enough to make it. I had to stop. Where were the brakes? I shifted around looking at some of the controls to my side. I accidentally knocked the throttle lever. I thought I broke it. I had knocked it past maximum thrust. The afterburner lit, throwing me back into my seat. The raw power of the afterburner lurched the fighter forward. We sped on toward the closing space door. I gripped the stick with white knuckles. It still didn’t look like we were going to make it. My heart skipped a beat and my breathing stopped. We zoomed past the space door, scraping one of the fins against the closing door. We flew into the starry sky, leaving behind the Corporation ship.

 I place a hand on my chest, feeling my heart pounding. I took some deep breaths, trying to slow my breathing. My chest was still pounding. Then I felt a wave of soothing calm wash over me. My pulse slowed and my breathing normalized.

“Thank you, Ryna,” I said.

“You’re welcome, Mr. Rence.”

“Alpha, Romeo, over,” I said into the comm.

Anruk’s voice answered. “This is Alpha. Are you starborne yet? Over.”

“Affirmative,” I said. “How about you?…I mean, how about you, over?”

“Roger. Rendezvous at Mik’s. And remember to conserve your fuel, over.”

I glanced at my fuel gauge. My fuel was rapidly dropping. “Oh, dear.” I fiddled with the throttle lever until I was able to pull it back into the normal thrust range. “Thanks for the tip, over,” I said.

Anruk’s voice replied. “Roger, out.”

It took me a few minutes to find the navigation computer and plot a course for Cosstere.

“So,” Miri said. “Romeo and Juliet?”

I was glad she couldn’t see the color of my cheeks. “Long story,” I said, hoping she would leave it at that.

“We seem to have plenty of time,” she said.

I told her everything. It only seemed fair. At least I didn’t have to look at her while I told the embarrassing parts. I don’t know why I told her everything. Sure, I blushed plenty while telling it all. But somehow, it was like talking to an old friend that one hadn’t seen in years. I enjoyed talking with her. In return, she told me all about being on the Corporation ship. She told me how she had threatened them with my wrath if they laid a hand on her. Dr. Lenish took her threat more seriously than anyone else had.

I’m glad she had. It kept her from being harmed and it kept Ryna from being dissected. During the flight back to Cosstere, I reached my hand back and held Miri’s. It was a simple gesture, but somehow, it meant a lot more.

Long trips aboard the Princess were a lot more comfortable. I wasn’t cooped up in a small cockpit for hours on end. I was so glad when we landed on Cosstere. I was finally able to stretch my legs, and in doing so, rediscovered the sharp pain near my collar bone. It was only after Miri’s insistence that I relented and went to the little hospital near Mik’s place.

Thankfully the hospital simply patched me up and did not insist I stay the night. Miri and Ryna stayed with me while they patched me up.

“Ready to go?” Miri asked as the nurse left the room.

“To be honest, I was ready before I even set foot inside.”

She gave a half-smile and handed me my hat.

Mik stepped into the room. Anruk was right behind him. “Well, well, well, Romeo. Congratulations on a successful mission.”

My cheeks flushed. “You can call me Rence.”

Mik looked at me. “I wanted to let you know that your ship has been refueled. You can leave whenever you’re ready.”

“Thanks, Mik. I owe you one.”

He smiled. “Oh, speaking of favors. I neglected to give this to you before you left.” He handed me the beautifully crafted blast pistol in a thin leather holster. It was connected to a small blast belt.

I took it reverently. “Thank you, Mik.”

“A new blast pistol?” Miri asked.

I looked at her as Pym dashed into the room. “Anruk, there’s a corporation ship in orbit. It looks like the same one.”

I stood, pale-faced. “They restored their database and are tracking Ryna.”

“You’d better hightail it,” Anruk said. “They’ll send search teams to the surface.”

I nodded.

Mik looked worried. “If they are tracking the girl the same way you did, how will you ever get away?”

“One thing at a time, Mik. Right now, we gotta get moving. The Princess is fast enough, we’ll be able to stay ahead of them. I’ll just need to stay ahead of them long enough to figure out a way to stop them from tracking her.”

“Take care of yourself, Rence. And come back to visit when this is all over.”

I nodded. “You can count on it.”

Read earlier episodes on Wattpad

What do you think about Miri and Ryna’s rescue? Let me know in the comments below.

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