Episode 8: Something worth fighting for

There are plenty of things in life that can get a man killed. Because of that, a man learns early on that there are things to run away from. Times when a man should back down, turn tail, and run. The concept of being a coward was invented just to stop a man from using his head and backing down when he should. And then there were also times when I found that the only right thing to do was to put my life on the line for another. That was where I found myself with Miri and Ryna.

They were the two newest additions to my life. I used to say that I had two ladies in my life: my ship that I call the Astral Princess, and my trained falcon that I call Lady. These days, however, I had to admit I now had four ladies in my life. Miri I had known for a few years. She was a frequent customer, booking passage for her clients. I still didn’t know what business she was in; our conversations seemed to hover around Wayfinders. She had been fascinated with them since she was a little girl and somehow she found out I was a Wayfinder.

I might have met her briefly before the Wayfinders had been outlawed. The Westward Galactic Financial Corporation had plenty of political pull. Enough political pull to turn the Galactic Senate against us. Now I am the last. I had even fancied myself retired. I settled into a transport pilot gig, turning the Princess into a transport ship. I was making an honest, albeit humble living. That was when I formally knew Miri and when she had turned my new life upside down.

She had found a stranded ten-year-old girl on the desert planet of Cosstere. At least it somehow was classified as a planet. It wasn’t much more than an orbiting rock in a binary star system. But that wasn’t all Cosstere had to offer. It also was home to the Davendries; pirates making a living off the hardship of new settlers. I had had my history with them and preferred to leave them alone.

The girl Miri had found was not that lucky. Miri wanted only to return her to her parents. And it seemed such a simple task. But as usual, my luck never did hold out very long. It turned out the girl, who we called Ryna, was a genetic experiment of Westward Galactic. Unable to duplicate Ryna, the Corporation considered her extremely valuable and had put a premium on her head as a bounty. They want her back real bad, and I called in nearly all my favors to rescue her from them.

The problem I now faced was that they could track her. Some radioactive marker in her blood allowed her to be tracked across the entire sector of space. They were coming for her. And I could not fight them forever. Every gunfighter knows that sooner or later a blast bolt will have their name on it. And I couldn’t go down like that. I was too well trained to think I could outrun them in the long term. What I needed was a way to stop them from tracking Ryna.

I sat in my chair in the cockpit of the Princess. Lady squawked, perched off to my side.  I turned on the autopilot and spun around in my chair. Miri sat beside me with Ryna contentedly in her lap. On the other side of the cockpit sat Petre and Carol, the scientists who we had thought to be the girl’s parents. It turned out she didn’t have any parents; she was a laboratory creation. And what made her so valuable to the Corporation was that she had the ability to calm or inflame a person’s emotions. She could also sense what emotions a person was feeling.

I stared at Petre. “Sounds to me like you’re trying to renege on the original agreement.”

“I understand the position you are in,” Petre said. “But how can we realistically protect the girl from the Corporation?”

“Rence,” Miri said, laying her hand on my arm. “They never had a chance.”

“She’s right,” Carol said. “We did what we thought was right when we stole the girl from the lab. We didn’t want to see her dissected. But we quickly found that we were in way over our heads.”

“As I said before,” Petre amended. “They tracked the girl and caught us, nearly killing us in the process.”

“She’s safer with us,” Miri concluded.

Us. The only problem with that word was that it implied a permanent arrangement. I didn’t have any qualms about being with Miri long-term. But I also didn’t like being pushed into anything. Getting pushed into any situation, no matter how appealing, always got under my skin. But I also couldn’t deny Miri’s logic. Ryna certainly was safer at my side. And with Miri learning how to shoot fast, we were starting to become something to reckon with.

I sighed, glancing over to Petre. “I stand corrected.”

Petre took a breath as the invisible wall of tension broke in the room. It was like an invisible person had just told everybody it was now okay to breathe and move. Ryna curled up in Miri’s arms, closing her eyes with a relaxed smile on her face.

Carol leaned forward in her chair. “Mr. Perry, we would still like to offer any help we can from a medical and scientific standpoint.”

Petre looked at her with a smile. “With the hope that it won’t involve a lot of life-threatening excitement.”

Even I had to smile at that remark. The poor scientists had been through a lot. Escaping from the Corporation’s lab ship was the most excitement they ever wanted to see. On the other hand, I had become used to it during the golden years of the Wayfinders.

“What I really need help on,” I said, looking at Petre, “is a way to stop them from tracking Ryna. And before you get started on your sciency mumbo-jumbo,” I added, “I remember you saying it would take decades for the marker in her blood to run its course.”

Petre nodded. “A 12.26-year half-life for the Kaligeenium-62 isotope. We could run some tests to see if there are any materials that could dampen the signal,” Petre offered.

Carol put her hand on his arm. “There is a certain signal degradation with polytitanium.”

I didn’t like where that line of thought was heading. I didn’t know what polytitanium was, but it sounded a lot like titanium. And titanium was a metal. That meant encasing Ryna in metal to keep her from being tracked.

“Hold on,” I said. “I appreciate the thought. But if we have to put Ryna in a cage to keep her from being tracked, aren’t we back to square one? I didn’t bust her out of a corporate cell just to put her into one of our own.”

Carol nodded, looking down.

Petre glanced at me. “You erased their database once, couldn’t you do it again?”

“They restored the database from backup, doc.”

“Yes, but could you not do it again, and this time erase the backups too?”

I leaned back in my chair. “I suppose that’s a possibility. A difficult possibility. You see, I had help on that one. And I had a devil of a time getting myself out in one piece. And if Dr. Lenish has anything to do with it, he’ll have upgraded the database’s security the way he did on the lab ship. Let’s call that plan Z.”

Miri lifted her head from Ryna’s. “Can you recreate the marker signal that is in Ryna?”

“We would need some equipment, but that should be doable,” Peter replied.

I turned to Miri. “You have an idea?”

“Well, if they are so keen on tracking that signal,” she began. “Why not inject that marker into every bird, reptile, and snake among the colony worlds? Why not give them a haystack to hunt their needle in?”

I smiled at that notion. I felt a guilty pleasure in giving the corporation a wild goose chase. “I like the direction you’re heading. However, there would still be one correct signal leading to Ryna. A stroke of luck on their part could still endanger her.”

Petre shrugged. “Mathematically speaking, those chances would exponentially decrease with the more animals you inject. Though you would need to produce quite a lot of Kaligeenium-62. And it is somewhat expensive.”

“Maybe we don’t have to,” Carol said thoughtfully. “We may only have to inject Ryna.”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“If the marker is a specific frequency, maybe we can alter that frequency? Change the signal.”

“Wouldn’t they just follow the new signal?” Miri asked.

“Not if they don’t know what that signal is,” he explained. “They have thousands of assets tagged. Without the frequency, they cannot distinguish an asset on the loose from one they control. That is why Mr. Perry erased the project files from their database initially.”

“And they wouldn’t know her signal had been changed,” Carol added. “To them, it would look like the signal simply stopped.”

“Not quite as satisfying as the needle in the haystack idea,” I said, glancing over to Miri. “But certainly less expensive.” I turned back to Petre. “Is that something you could pull off, doc?”

He shook his head. “That would require a bio-radiologic chemist, which, neither of us is.”

“What about colleagues?”

“All our colleagues work for the Corporation.”

Annoyance built up inside me. “Give me something to work with, doc.”

Carol turned to Petre. “What about Heinlin?”

He bobbed his head in consideration. “I suppose he might still be practicing. He retired a few years ago.”

“Great, I’ll take it,” I said. “Where do we find him?”

“Ragshir’s moon. He built a house there.”

I spun my chair around and punched the new course into the autopilot.

“Is he loyal to Westward Galactic?” Miri asked.

“Well,” Carol said. “His pension is paid by the Corporation.”

“There’s always something,” I complained, getting out of my chair and heading for the door. “I hate to end this little powwow, but we have a 52-hour flight to Ragshir. You all best get something to eat from downstairs.”

“Rence,” Miri asked. “Help me with Ryna please?”

Ryna had fallen asleep snuggled up in Miri’s lap. I gently picked her up, trying not to wake her. Miri followed me out into the corridor. I carried her over to Miri’s cabin. Miri opened the door and I laid Ryna on the cot.

“You know, the two of you don’t have to share a cabin,” I explained to Miri. “There’s plenty of rooms on the Princess.”

“Well, if you hadn’t noticed,” she said, covering Ryna with a blanket. “She’s a little attached to me at the moment. We’ll be all right for now.”

I nodded and turned to leave.

Miri caught me by the arm. “Rence, thank you again for coming after us. It sounds like you went through an awful lot to do so.”

I widened my eyes in recollection. Storming the data center, always wondering if Tess Davendry would double-cross me, was rough. Not to mention battling four Kuda just so I could help Mik build a device to track Ryna. Then, of course, raiding the Lab Ship to rescue them both. I had probably escaped death six times in all that.

I looked into her eyes. “If it meant getting you back, I would do it all over again.”

She took in a sudden breath and her eyes watered. “Thank you,” she whispered.

I tipped my hat and stepped out into the corridor. Miri hesitated to close the door. The air felt thick. If I had a stick in my hand, I could have stirred the air around. Part of me wanted to escape from the awkward feelings I felt. The other part of me wanted to stay with Miri. It was a strange contradiction inside of me. The second part of me won out.



“Fancy a walk with me?”

She stepped out into the corridor and quietly closed the door behind her. She smiled as she slipped her arm around mine. We strolled down the metal corridor in silence. I wanted to say something, but I wasn’t sure what it was that I wanted to say. And I could only guess what she was feeling. The corridor ended in front of the stairwell down to the bottom deck. To our left was the maintenance hatch that we were in when Ryna first asked if we were going to kiss. My cheeks flushed at the memory.

Miri smiled at me. “What is it?”

Miri had wanted to talk about what happened and I ran from that conversation faster than I could draw. She had been upset that I didn’t want to have an ‘adult conversation’. I was lucky that an impending crisis had put that talk on hold.

I nodded toward the hatch. “I reckon I still owe you a conversation.”

She abruptly looked away. Either she didn’t care to talk about it now or she was hiding the color in her cheeks. I didn’t care to gamble on which one it was, so I held my peace. It was safer to wait for her to start talking first. If she changed the subject, I would know she didn’t want to talk.

She giggled, looking back at me. “You have changed. A few weeks ago, you would have rather lived with a camcam than to talk about it.”

Technically, that could be considered changing the subject. But it wasn’t really a different subject, it was more or less a commentary around the subject. So, did this mean she wanted to talk about it? Or was this an invitation to talk about me instead? No, I knew Miri long enough to know better. When she wanted to talk, only imminent danger was a valid excuse not to talk.

I took a deep breath and opened my mouth. No words came. My mind wasn’t exactly a blank, I did know I needed to talk with her, but how did one begin? “Well blast my boots, Miri,” I finally said. “I can fight raiders, pirates, commandos, and the whole Corporation, but I have to pull teeth to talk about you and me.”

She sweetly laughed. “Take your time.”

“Miri, the whole time I was without you, you were always on my mind. I’ve had such conflicting thoughts ever since that first Kuda we bumped into on Jashur VII. I still remember that coy smile you gave me when you invited me to join you and Ryna to go shopping.”

She blushed.

I continued. “I was real happy then. I even entertained the notion that I could settle down with you somewhere, give you a life of silks and satins.” I glanced down. “That all changed when that Kuda heard my name. All my instincts tell me that I’m not good for you; that my very name attracts danger.”

“Rence,” she said with a shaky voice. “What does your heart tell you?”

I looked into her watery eyes. They looked delicate. As if they were on the razor’s edge between either joy or sadness. My next words would dictate which direction they would fall. Since when did her heart lie in my hands? Who was I to be entrusted with such a treasure? Would it matter in the end? She asked me a question. And I aimed to shoot straight with her. She deserved as much.

“My heart tells me that I’m a mighty big fool for not doing it sooner.”

A tear broke loose and rolled down her cheek. “Doing what?”

I stroked her cheek with the back of my fingers, leaned in, and kissed her. It only lasted a moment, but my heart pounded and I had to catch my breath. “That,” I replied.

It looked like she needed a moment to catch her breath too. I waited until she looked at me again. “Miri, I may not be any good for you, and the sound of my name will likely stir up trouble. But if you have no objections, I will fight them all to be with you.”

She stopped in the middle of taking a breath. I was about to ask if she was okay but then she finally breathed, placing her hand on her chest. She let go of my arm and walked back down the corridor a few steps before turning around. “You’ve given a girl a lot to think about,” she declared, smiling. “I’ll have to get back to you on that.” She smiled again and floated back down the corridor.

I stood there dumbfounded. I could have conjured up a thousand ways that conversation could have gone. And never once would I have imagined this. What made matters worse was that I wasn’t sure what to think. It wasn’t a rejection nor was it an endorsement. Yet something about her smile seemed to convey a meaning. It wasn’t a casual smile. It had hints of that coy smile she had given me back on Jashur VII, and there was something more. Part of her smile seemed to reflect her expression when she first eyed those fancy dresses. I had no idea what it all meant, yet somehow, I had the feeling that I was missing something obvious.

I retired to my cabin for some shut-eye. The trip to Ragshir was uneventful. I finally got some decent sleep and the ladies were able to unwind a bit. The only one that grew restless was Lady, squawking on her perch. She needed some flight time once we set down. Returning to the cockpit, I settled into my chair. Lady squawked and flapped her wings.

“Real soon, Lady. I promise.” I stroked her feathered head.

The planet Ragshir was fast approaching. The pale blue gas giant had only one moon. The small moon had a cozy atmosphere with liquid water and plenty of vegetation. The Princess shuddered as she descended through the clouds. She softly touched down on the soft red ground. The small white sun in the sky was hot but the moon retreated behind the shadow of the planet every twelve hours. It provided a forested climate. Now, this was what I called a planet. Too bad it was officially called a moon. I picked up Lady from her perch and walked with her down the entry ramp and onto the soft dirt.

“Have fun,” I said, tossing her into the sky.

She soared into the air, squawking an excited cry.

I watched her soar out of sight and then turned back to head up the ramp. I stopped short of bumping into Ryna. “Good morning, little miss.”

She smiled at me. “Good morning Mr. Rence.”

“Well you look happy today,” I observed.

She nodded. “I’m glad you kissed Miss Miri.”

There’s no way she could have known that. The little matchmaker was on the warpath with cupid’s arrow. That much was certain. What wasn’t certain about was how she knew I kissed Miri. She was asleep in Miri’s cabin. Though, she did see me kiss her back on the Corporation lab ship the first time when I was forced to leave them. Perhaps that was what she was referring to?

“Oh,” I said, feigning wonder. “A few weeks back, when we were trying to leave the Corporation ship—”

“No, I mean last night,” she corrected.

My heart started thumping in my chest. I felt like a child caught with my hand in the cookie jar. Could she see through walls now? I needed to entice her to tell me how she knew. “What makes you think I did anything last night?”

“Why else would Miss Miri be so happy today?” she said matter-of-factly.

Of course, I thought, glancing heavenward in exasperation. The secret to her uncanny powers was that she was growing into a woman. It was a wonder I even bothered trying to hide it from her. Something caught my eye when I looked up. It was a small piece of welding plate. Welding plates were used to patch up holes on the hull from weapons fire. The strange thing was that I didn’t remember patching up that spot.

I did my own repairs on the Princess. And having done so for over a decade, I was on a first-name basis with every bolt and weld on that ship. I reached up and tugged on that welding plate. It pulled off into my hand. A welding plate would never be attached by a magnet. This was not a welding plate.

“What’s that?” Ryna asked.


I brought it inside and set it down on my machining table in the cockpit. It looked and felt like a welding plate. So where was its secret? I took out my tactical mast and clamped it on. I pressed a few buttons on my wristband. It changed my eyesight to see in the electromagnetic spectrum. Blue and purple lines ran all over the inside of that thing. It had complex circuitry inside.

“Morning, Rence. What are you working on?” Miri asked, having entered the cockpit.

“Mr. Rence says it’s trouble,” Ryna replied.

I switched my vision back to normal and held up the metal device. “I’d bet a week’s earnings this is a homing beacon.”

“Where’d you get it?” Miri asked.

“Found it attached to the Princess’s hull.”

“Somebody put it there?”

I nodded.

Miri wrinkled her brow. “But the Corporation can already track us through Ryna. Why would they need to tag the Princess?”

“You’re right, they don’t.”

“Then…why do it?”

“My guess is that this was not put here by the Corporation. If they had gotten this close, they would have attacked, not tagged the ship. This is more likely the work of a bounty hunter—doubtless, Dr. Lenish doubled the price on my head. The only opportunity to tag the Princess was back on Cosstere, and Anruk and his Kuda were guarding us then.”

Miri cursed under her breath. “So this bounty hunter needed to wait for us to be more vulnerable and tagged our ship.”

Had I only imagined it, or had Miri said our ship? In the past, she had always referred to the Princess as your ship. I wasn’t quite sure what that meant but I kind of liked the idea of sharing the Princess with her.

“Rence, I need another gun. Dr. Lenish took Ivory from me.”

“Of course,” I said. “Right this way.” I led her out of the cockpit and down the corridor. I stopped short at the door to my cabin.

Miri looked confused. “Isn’t your weapon’s locker at the end of the hall?”

“Yes, but…I have something for you.” I opened the door and went in. Miri waited for me outside. I returned and held out both hands. My right hand held the blast belt with the holstered blast pistol Mik designed and built. My left hand held her red dress all folded up neatly.

She eyes both hands inquisitively.

“I guess this was gonna be another conversation for us,” I said. “I reckon now is as good a time as any. I had been assuming you wanted a life of silks and satins, seeing how you fancy these dresses so much. I stitched the tear for you.”

She looked into my eyes with wonder. “You can sew?”

I shrugged. “Sew might be too strong a word for it. I’m handy enough with a needle to mend a tear but that’s about it.”

She smiled.

I continued. “Then, before I left to rescue you and Ryna, I saw Mik had designed a blast pistol and he let me shoot it. It sure is a beauty, and she shoots straight. He told me I could keep it and if I didn’t want it, I should give it to another Wayfinder.”

I felt adrenaline surging through my veins. My heart began thumping. Why was I nervous? I was only talking. Then again, I wasn’t talking about the weather. “I didn’t have the heart to tell him there weren’t any other Wayfinders…then I had this crazy notion…”

She eyed both my hands once more before gazing into my eyes. “Am I supposed to choose?”

“Well…up until now I had been making my own assumptions. So, it would be real handy, you see…if I could know for sure.”

“Look, Rence. I appreciate that you want to have this conversation, but don’t you think this is a decision for after this is all over?”

I saw plenty of wisdom in her words. The problem was that I wanted to shrink and disappear. Even wearing my mask hadn’t saved me from the awkwardness that crept into the air. At least I had bragging rights that I had the guts to say what I did.

“Uh…you’re right,” I said, tossing both items onto my cot. “Oh, wait.” I went back inside and retrieved her dress. “This belongs to you.”

“Thanks for mending it.”

I tipped my hat and escorted her down to the weapons locker. I unlocked it and set before her my collection of blast pistols. “None of these are as small as Ivory was. You won’t be able to conceal them. I would recommend—”

“What about this one?” Miri asked, fingering a blast pistol with a dark wooden handle.

I shook my head. “That’s Prince Rupert. He sure is handsome to look at, but he bucks like a wild stallion. An hour of practice with him usually makes my arm numb.”

I pulled out a long-barreled blast pistol with a silver handle and set it down in front of Miri. “Here, you should be able to handle Ol’ Silver.”

She picked it up and felt the weight.

Petre walked up the stairwell. “Mr. Perry, I hope we will be leaving soon.”

I nodded, packing the rest of the guns into the weapons locker. “As soon as we take care of this,” I said, showing him the metal homing beacon.

They followed me outside. I tapped a few buttons on my wristband. Lady squawked and swooped down. I held up the metal homing beacon. Lady snatched it from my hand.

“Take it someplace interesting,” I called out to her as she flew off.

Petre and Carol led the way up the hill and down the valley to Heinlin’s house. It was a single-story wide house with white brick and blue trims. Tall trees shaded the house and Steppingstones lined a path up to the front door. We all gathered on the front porch and Petre knocked. A woman in her late twenties answered the door.

“Can I help you?” she cautiously asked.

“We’re looking to call upon Dr. Heinlin Veso. Carol and I are old associates of his.”

Her countenance brightened up. “Please come in! Dad doesn’t get many visitors. My name is Bridgette.”

She showed us to the sitting room and bade us sit down.

Petre turned to Carol. “I knew Heinlin had a son, but I didn’t know he had a daughter.”

“There’s probably a lot we don’t know,” Carol said.

Bridgette soon returned with an old man in tow. Heinlin wore a brown sweater vest with large spectacles and suspenders. He displayed a confused look on his face until his eyes fell on Petre and Carol.

“What are you doing here?” he inquired.

“Oh, please, daddy. These people have come to visit you,” Bridgette said.

My muscles tensed up. My heart pounded and my breathing shallowed into quick breaths. My blood pumped fast. All my senses were on edge. What was going on? My nerves felt like I was running headlong into a gunfight. I peeked a glance at Ryna. She stared back at me. She was inflaming my sense of danger. But why? True, we didn’t yet know if Heinlin would help us or be loyal to the Corporation, but that was hardly a cause for alarm. Or was it? Had Ryna sensed something and had been trying to warn me?

“Heinlin,” Petre said. “It’s Petre and Carol. We worked on several projects together on Labship 7.”

Heinlin nodded. “I know who you are. And I’m not in the mood for guests.”

“You’ll have to excuse daddy,” Bridgette said. “He hasn’t had his tea yet.” She sat him down and took a seat next to him.

Petre continued. “Heinlin, remember the radioisotope bio-tags the Corporation uses to track inventory?”

He nodded. “I was the one who designed the frequency schema.”

“Oh yes, that’s right. Well, we have a particular asset that needs to be re-tagged with a different signal.”

“Why would you need to change the frequency?”

Petre thought for a moment. “I guess you could say we’re re-cataloging certain inventory.”

Heinlin stared at him a moment. “Don’t feed me that malarky! You finally saw enough of Dr. Lenish and wised up. Probably stole one of the girls and found out later they were all tagged.” He turned to Ryna. “Which one are you? Number 28?”

Carol placed a reassuring hand on Petre’s arm while addressing Heinlin. “We couldn’t stand by any longer. What they do to those children…”

“Why do you think I retired?”

“Will you help us?” Petre pleaded.

“No can do. My, uh, daughter is visiting from off-world. Come back later.”

“Oh, don’t be silly, daddy,” Bridgette said, smiling. “You can be a friend indeed to a friend in need.”

A light blinked on my wristband. It was Lady, signaling me. What have you spotted, old girl? I wondered. I stood and walked over to the door.

“Leaving already?” Bridgette asked.

“Need to check something. I’ll be right back,” I replied.

I stepped out onto the porch and put on my tactical mask. I pressed a few buttons on my wristband to change my vision to see through Lady’s eyes. Lady had perched atop a tall tree overlooking the rest of the valley. Three small shuttles crested the hill and flew into the valley. They are an unmistakable design: troop transports. How did the Corporation find us so quickly? And how did they know so precisely where we were? They were tracking Ryna, of course, but not even I was able to track down her exact location so fast. Unfortunately, those questions would have to wait. It was time to hightail it back to the Princess.

I switched my eyesight back to normal and went back inside the house.

“Rence, what’s wrong?” Miri asked, noticing that I was wearing my mask.

“We got company. Armed troops heading this way.”

Petre jumped to his feet in alarm. “Already? How?”

“No idea, doc. We’ll have to figure that out later. Right now, it’s time to skedaddle.”

Petre turned to Heinlin. “Will you help us?”

“No time, doc. We gotta go now,” I said.

Miri, Ryna, and Carol stood.

“Daddy, I think we should go with them,” Bridgette said, pulling Heinlin to his feet. “We’ll be safe and you can help them.”

I glanced out the front window. Armed troops spilled out of the three landed shuttles. They charged up the gentle slope to the house. They wore visored helmets and blast vests, carrying blast rifles. We had a few minutes before they would break down the door.

“Out the back,” I said, ushering them through the house. At least I was hoping the house had a back door. Most houses did. I wasn’t worried though, I restocked my detonators. If worst came to worst, I could always create a back door.

Bridgette led us to the back door and helped Heinlin down the steps. A sound of breaking glass and splintering wood signaled that they had broken down the front door. I pulled out a detonator and placed it on the interior side of the back door before closing it. I jumped over the railing, skipping the back stairs. I landed with my enhanced knees.

“I hope your friend is insured,” I said to Petre as I jogged past him.

“What do you mean?”

The back door exploded, sending men flying through the nearby windows. Troops flooded back out from the front door and soon spotted us. The hailstorm of gunfire began. Bright green blast bolts flew all around us. Our group couldn’t move very fast with Ryna and Heinlin. I needed to buy us more time.

I caught up to Miri and Ryna. “Get them back to the Princess. I’ll slow them down.”

She nodded.

I turned around, dashing back toward the troops. I drew Thunder and Lightning, my twin blast pistols. I fired several wild shots in their direction. I wasn’t trying to hit anything; I needed them to go on the defensive. They scattered, diving for cover. I took that opportunity to change course and head toward their shuttles.

I holstered one blast pistol and pulled out three detonators. I skid to a stop at the first shuttle. I activated a detonator and tossed it inside. I ducked some green blast bolts from the troops who were hustling back to their shuttles. I ran to the second shuttle and again tossed in a detonator.

When I reached the third shuttle, a large muscular soldier stepped out. I skidded to a stop in front of him, firing my blast pistol. My red blast bolt ricocheted off his helmet visor. He swatted the gun out of my hand and threw a punch at my chest. I fell onto my back as the first shuttle exploded.

The muscular soldier looked at the explosion in alarm. I used that distraction to scramble to my feet. Before I could retrieve my blast pistol, he threw a punch. I hopped backward, narrowly evading the blow. I kicked him using my enhanced knees but he caught my leg. This guy was not only big, but he was also strong.

He brought up his arm, preparing to bring down his elbow into my leg. One of Anruk’s Kuda had elbowed me in the thigh once. I hadn’t been able to use my leg for a few days. I couldn’t afford to lose my mobility now. Not while we were on the run. I was going to have to be a little more clever with this brute. I drew my other blast pistol and fired three times square in his chest. The blast vest absorbed the shots and knocked him back. He let go of my leg, dropping me to the ground, as the second shuttle exploded. The blast startled him, giving me time to get back to my feet.

He lunged and I leaped to the side, letting him stumble past me. I threw a punch at his lower back and struck his kidney. He grunted and spun around angrily. He put up his dukes and we circled each other. He was playing cautiously now and that suited his situation. But it was detrimental to mine. I had only a matter of minutes before his comrades joined him. I reached over to my wristband and pressed a button.

We circled once more before he broke the stalemate with a punch. I leaned out of the way and threw one of my own. He batted my arm aside and punched me in the gut. I doubled over; the wind knocked out of me. He kicked me before I could get a breath, but I caught his foot. I twisted it sideways, forcing him to fall to the ground. He yanked his foot out of my hands and I rolled away, gasping for breath.

I struggled to my feet in time to see him pick up my fallen blast pistol and point it at me. I froze. We stared at each other, panting. Why hadn’t he shot yet?

“You disappoint me,” he said jovially.

“How so?”

“You put up a good fight, I’ll give you that. But I would have expected more from a Wayfinder. I guess those stories are just that: stories.”

“What did we do in those stories? Breathe fire?” I asked.

He shook his head. “No, they talk about Wayfinders always having a trick up their sleeve. But when it comes down to it, you’re just as vulnerable as the next man.”

The light on my wristband flashed.

“It’s a mighty shame you can’t see the smile on my face,” I said.

“Why is that?”

“Because your expectations have not been in vain.”

Lady swooped down behind the muscular soldier and her talons struck him in the back of the helmet. The impact forced his head downward and pushed him forward. He stumbled toward me and I kicked him in the head utilizing my enhanced knees. The force of the blow whipped his head back and cracked his helmet. He fell on his back, out cold.

A swarm of green blast bolts sprayed in my direction from the incoming troops. I hastily picked up my fallen blast pistol and detonator. I tossed the detonator into the last shuttle as I dashed past. Nine seconds later, the shuttle exploded. Debris and flames scattered all around. The troops swarmed the site of the explosions. They seemed more interested in the destruction of their shuttles than in catching me. But I still spent a good deal of time dodging their retaliation fire.

I ran faster. I needed to catch up with Miri and the group. The pursuing troops would soon realize their only way off this moon was to commandeer our ship. That meant that while I slowed them down, they were still coming for us. Hopefully, I bought all the time I needed.

I came up to the group and stopped. They had all stopped to catch their breaths. Miri wisely had her gun out. “What kept you?”

“I guess you could say I ran into a huge fan,” I said.

“Did you stop them?”

“I slowed them down. They’re still on their way but they’ll be on foot carrying all their gear.”

“You disabled their shuttles, right? Once we take off in the Princess, they won’t be able to follow, right?”

I nodded. “That’s about sums it up.”

“Okay, then we need to get moving right away.” She turned to the rest of the group. “All right, let’s go, everyone. The ship is just at the top of this ridge.” She ushered them onward.

Lady squawked from above.

I held my arm out and she landed. I stroked her feathered head. “Good girl. I owe you a Telurian mouse when we get back home.”

A green blast bolt whizzed through the air and struck a nearby tree. I flinched, glancing back the way I had come. Some of the troops had come within firing range.

I tossed Lady back into the air. “Get back to the Princess.”

At the rate they were gaining, they would reach the Princess really soon after we did. That didn’t give much time to prep the ship for takeoff. I needed a way to slow them down even more. I dropped to one knee and drew a blast pistol. With their helmets and blast vests, I would have to aim for their arms and legs. I aimed and squeezed off a couple of shots. One soldier dropped to the ground clutching his leg. A second dropped his rifle and grabbed his arm.

A green blast bolt struck the ground close to me, sending dirt into the air. I sent a few more of my red blast bolts downrange, dropping several more troops. The line of troops stopped their advance and crouched down to shoot. Another green blast bolt struck inches from my boot, kicking up dirt into my mask. Good thing the mask filtered the air I breathed. I backed off a few feet and fired off a few more shots.

Two more enemy shots hit the dirt in front of me and a third whizzed past my head. It was time to fall back. The enemy shots were getting too close for comfort. That was as long as I dared try to hold them off directly. I backed off wracking my brain for an alternative way to slow them down. Maybe blocking the path by shooting down a tree? No, it would take me longer to shoot down a tree than it would to shoot down the troops.

I pulled out a detonator and tossed it as far as I could toward the soldiers. I ran toward the Princess, hearing the explosion behind me. I stopped short, nearly bumping into Miri. “Why’d you stop?”

She pointed toward the Princess off in the distance. Seven soldiers stood around the Princess, inspecting it. A scout patrol had found the Princess but evidently didn’t know it was my ship. I was certainly going to get my exercise for the week. “I’ll draw them off,” I told her. “Keep close to the Princess but stay out of sight.”

She nodded and ushered the rest of the group into the thicket of trees.

I drew Thunder and Lightning, charging at the troops around the Princess. I fired several shots, nailing several in the chest. As soon as they started firing back, I bolted for the tree line opposite where Miri and the others were hiding. I holstered my blast pistols and ran faster. Green blast bolts flew past me, kicking up dirt and splintering tree bark.

It would do me no good to lead these men away if I still had all the rest of the troops advancing on the Princess. I needed to lead those men away also. I tapped a few buttons on my wristband, changing the vision in one of my eyes to infrared. I only changed one eye, because I still needed the other to watch where I was going. The last thing I needed was to run smack into a tree. Glancing around, I saw the heat signatures of the main body of troops. They looked to be really close to Miri’s position.

I needed to get their attention. I couldn’t shoot at them, there were too many trees between us. Maybe they would respond to a detonator blast? I dropped a detonator at my feet and kept on running. Nine seconds later, it exploded. The wave of heat licked my back.

I glanced over to the main body of troops. It worked; they were heading my way. Now to give them the slip somehow. And I needed to do it soon; I was getting tired. I ran around a large tree and skidded to a halt behind it. I jumped with my enhanced knees and caught a branch near the top. My legs were sore and my lungs felt like they were on fire. I wheezed, trying to catch my breath. It would be no use trying to hide here with all the noise I was making. I needed to jump one more time to another tree.

I sighed, climbing up on the tall branch. My body wanted desperately to rest. Then I thought of Miri and Ryna. They needed me and I was not going to let them down. I stood on the branch and jumped with my enhanced knees. I flew through the canopy of forest leaves and caught a large branch of another three. My grip slipped and fell to the branch below it. My heart raced as panic washed over me. I clung to the branch, safe for now. I waited until I got my breathing under control. Then I eased myself into a sitting position on the tall branch.

A short distance away, both groups of soldiers swarmed the scene, looking for where they had last seen me. I cursed under my breath. There was one flaw in my plan. The men that had come from the Princess would inevitably tell the others about my ship. When they gave up looking for me, they would return to the Princess. I had only bought a little time. Despite my aching muscles, I needed to get moving.

I dropped to the ground, using my enhanced knees to absorb the shock. I made my way as quickly and quietly as I could back around toward the Princess. I needed all the time I could get for starting the engines and prepping for launch. Time which I may have just barely bought. When I arrived back at the Princess, Miri had already been guiding the others to the ship. Her face was flushed from the heat and the run.

“How is everyone?” I asked.

“Hanging in there,” she replied. “Ryna has been a real trooper through it all; hasn’t complained.”

I knelt on one knee and looked straight into Ryna’s face. “You’ve done good today, little miss.”

She smiled.

Petre walked up, wheezing, with Carol supporting him. Heinlin wearily walked behind them, all red in the face from panting. Bridgette helped him along. She had the same rosy cheeks and bright disposition she had when we first met her.

Miri ushered them toward the boarding ramp. “Everyone inside.”

“Everyone except for her,” I said, pointing at Bridgette.

“Why?” Miri asked.

“Because she ain’t the good doctor’s daughter.” I kept my eyes on Bridgette and called over my shoulder. “Isn’t that right, Heinlin?”

“I don’t know who she is,” he explained. “She threatened to kill me if I didn’t play along.”

The innocent expression ran off Bridgette’s face like a fast-moving stream. She gave a sinister smile along with a cold stare. “I didn’t think I made any mistakes.”

“To your credit,” I said. “You gave a great performance.”

“What gave me away?”

“Little things,” I explained. “Things I wouldn’t normally have noticed if Ryna hadn’t tipped me off that something was wrong. First, the doc didn’t remember Heinlin having a daughter. But that could have easily been just a lack of information on his part. Next, the Corporation troops came way too fast; they knew exactly where we were and came charging in. Someone had to have tipped them off precisely where we were. You also didn’t seem very alarmed to hear that armed troops were raiding the house. Most folks first express disbelief. And last but not least, you are way too calm under fire for a rich doctor’s daughter.”

“I’ll have to work on that.”

“Wait a minute,” Miri said. “She’s the bounty hunter that’s been tracking us?”

“She’s the one that’s been tracking us all right, but she ain’t no bounty hunter,” I explained. “Subterfuge is not in a bounty hunter’s M.O. I’d bet coins to curses that she is a paid assassin.”

“Very good, Mr. Perry,” Bridgette said in a sly tone. “Only Dr. Lenish is not paying me. Killing you is just a personal favor to Vik.”

“A mighty shame you won’t be able to make good on that favor.”

“Oh, we’ll have to see about that,” she said, reaching behind her back.

My blast pistol cleared leather in less than a heartbeat. She had barely pulled out her small blast pistol when my red blast bolt struck her in the chest. The force of the hit pushed her back against a tree trunk. She glanced down at the smoldering hole in her blouse. She had been wearing a blast vest under her shirt.

“You’re the fastest I’ve ever seen,” she said with amazement in her voice. “But I always keep my promises.” She fired her blast pistol at Heinlin.

He collapsed to the ground as I fired several more shots at Bridgette. She dodged, shooting back at me. I jumped to the side, drawing my second blast pistol. I unloaded both pistols at her, sending a hailstorm of red blast bolts in her direction. One shot grazed her arm as she ran off into the thicket of trees.

Behind me, the muffled sounds of the approaching troops grew louder. I didn’t have time to deal with Bridgette; we needed to leave. I pressed a button on my wristband to call Lady. I bolted up the ramp into the Princess, calling out behind me. “Ryna, get Lady!”

I plopped into my chair, flipping switches on my control panel. The engines whined and sputtered to life. Ryna walked in with Lady perched on her arm. She crossed over to me and transferred Lady to her perch at my right.

“Thanks, Ryna,” I quickly said. “Is everyone on board?”


I pressed the button to close the entry ramp to the ship. Out the blast screen window, I saw the troops emerging from the thicket, firing at us. The gentle thumping of blast bolts against the hull sounded like muffled raindrops. I engaged the vertical ascent thrusters and the Princess shuddered as she rose into the air. The treetops faded below us, and the bright blue sky faded into black.

We crossed through the atmosphere into orbit. No sooner had we entered orbit than my sensor screen beeped, blinking a red light. We had a capital ship coming right for us. Most likely the ship that carried the troop transport shuttles to the planet. Its configuration was different than the lab ship. But it was broadcasting Westward Galactic’s identification signal. Even though we left the forest behind, we were not out of the woods yet.

Large blue cannon bolts flew past, illuminating the cockpit. I bit my tongue, trying not to curse in front of Ryna. I accelerated the engines to full power. They revved up and then whined and revved down. That was not a good sound. I tried again. Still no luck. Either we picked up a lucky shot from the troops on the planet or Bridgette had another surprise for us. Either way, it was the worst outcome at the worst possible time.

I couldn’t put the Princess on autopilot to check on the engines while we were being shot at. Just one hit from those blast cannons would become a really bad day. “Ryna, take Lady,” I said, keeping my eyes ahead. “I need Miss Miri to help fix the engines.”

She nodded and picked up Lady from her perch.

“And give her this,” I said holding up a headset.

Ryna took it and left the cockpit.

I veered the Princess hard to one side, engaging the turning thrusters. Three large blue blast cannon bolts streaked past.

“Rence, we’re in the engine room. What do you need?” came Miri’s voice through my mask.

I pressed a few buttons on my wristband, switching the view of one of my eyes to see Lady’s vision. It would be a struggle to pay attention to dodging the cannon shots while instructing Miri on engine repairs.

“Sorry for the inconvenience,” I said. “I know how you love fixing starships.”

“Very funny, Rence. Now, what am I looking for?”

“The turbo compressors aren’t getting the influx of fuel as they should. Something’s wrong. Check the large yellow drum-shaped compartment on the left.”

She pulled open the curved panel door. Black liquid seeped out, dripping onto the metal floor. “Rence, it’s leaking drive fuel!”

“Not good,” I said, dodging another few blast cannon shots. “This is going to get a little messy.”

I pulled the ship hard to the left, narrowly evading another blast cannon shot. Miri grabbed ahold of the panel door to keep her balance. Ryna clung to the stairwell railing.

“There’s a crate of maintenance rags in a crate on the floor,” I continued. “See if can use one to plug up the leak. Oh, and be careful what you touch once you get your hands dirty. That stuff doesn’t wash out very well.”

“Thanks for the warning.” She pulled out a dingy red rag from a crate by her feet.

Another light blinked on my console. The sensors had picked up a second incoming ship. It was a small Correlline class ship. The Correllines were known for their sleek design and speedy engines. It was a good bet that was Bridgette’s ship, joining the party. The Correllines didn’t come from the factory with weapons since they were a civilian model. But if it was Bridgette’s ship, she would have remedied that oversight. It would only take a few minutes for her to catch up to us and start dishing out some payback.

“Uh, Miri?”

“What is it?” she asked, her hands covered in thick black drive fuel.

“I hate to rush you—”

“Rence, I’m going as fast as I can!”

I had a few missiles on the Princess, but they were forward-facing. I would have to turn the ship around to use them. And with that Corporation cruiser on my tail, that wasn’t an option. I had some concussion mines that I could release out the back, but I would have to leave the cockpit to get to them. That also wasn’t an option with those blast cannons keeping me on my toes.

“Rence, I think I have the leak plugged. But I don’t think it will hold for long.”

“That’s okay. It only needs to last until we find a place to land.”

She shrugged. “Here’s hoping.”

“Good, now get another rag and clean up as much drive fuel as you can from the inside of that panel.”

“Can’t we clean up once we get away?”

“Uh, no,” I said with wide eyes. “If that drive fuel ignites inside the maintenance panel…”

“…got it.”

I veered out of the path of another few large blue blast cannon shots and glanced at my sensor screen. Bridgette was almost in range to shoot. And as sure as shooting, Bridgette would be a good shot. Once she started shooting, we were not going to last long. Maybe I could delay her with some adversarial banter? She seemed to enjoy it back on Ragshir’s moon. Though, that was before I grazed her arm. It was worth a try.

I flipped a switch, turning on the communication transmission. I didn’t know what channel she would be on, but if she was as good as I thought, she’d be monitoring most of them. “Nice of you to join the party, Bridgette, if that’s even your real name.”

Her ship entered weapons range.

“I’m betting it isn’t. You look more like a Selma or a Naydine.”

Her voice finally replied. “None of the above.”

“Well, I see you just got close enough to shoot. So, before you end all this, aren’t you at least going to tell me your name?”

“No,” she said. “You just go on calling me Bridgette. I like the way it sounds when you say it.”

“Then, I guess my last words will be to say goodbye.”

“Goodbye, Mr. Perry.”

“Rence,” Miri called out. “That’s the best I can do.”

I punched some buttons on my console. The engines revved up faster and roared. The acceleration pushed me into my chair. “Goodbye Bridgette,” I said with a smile as we pulled away.

She fired off a few shots and I dodged them as we quickly sped out of weapons range. The Princess was a Norgon class transport, and I loved Norgons. They were fast and easy to modify. I would have no trouble outrunning Westward Galactic’s reach as long as I got her patched up. I turned off the communication transmission and set the Princess’s course for Jashur VII. I wasn’t too excited to return to Jashur, but it was the best place to repair. Once the autopilot was set, I took off my mask and sighed a breath of relief. We were safe now, but I had a strange feeling that I had not seen the last of Bridgette.

I leaned back into my chair to relax but my mind quickly turned to Heinlin. I dashed out the cockpit door and down the corridor to the loading ramp room. Heinlin lay on the floor, unresponsive. Carol and Petre had knelt beside him. Tears ran down Carol’s face. Petre’s bloody hands attested to his attempts to save Heinlin’s life.

“Doc?” I asked.

Petre looked at me and shook his head.

My heart sunk into the pit of my stomach. I removed my hat. “Sorry for your loss, doc. I know he was a friend.”

“I only ask, that you do not bury him in space.”

“No worries there, doc. I believe every man has the right to rest under solid ground.”

Miri walked in behind me and gasped. “Is he…?”

“Unfortunately,” I said, answering her unfinished question.

“Rence,” she asked. “Can I speak with you?”

I nodded, excusing myself from the room and following Miri into the corridor. She walked a little way down and turned to me. “Rence, I’m worried about Ryna. This has left her a bit shaken up. I’ve tried to talk to her, but I don’t think I have gotten through. If you could talk to her, it might help.”

What did I know about children? I was a rough man with an even rougher past. Dealing with feelings and such had always been the domain of mothers. At least that was the way I had always looked at it. But I trusted Miri’s instincts. If she felt there was some good to be had by my talking with her, I was surely going to try.

“I’ll do what I can, Miri. But I always thought she got on better with you.”

“Believe it or not, Rence. But she has latched onto you. You are the closest thing to a father she has ever had.”

I looked down. “I suppose she could have done worse in choosing a role model.”

Miri kissed my cheek. “Thank you, Rence. She’s in my cabin.”

I put my hat back on and strolled down the corridor to Miri’s cabin. I knocked on the door. “Mind if I come in?”

“Come in,” Ryna said timidly.

I walked in and sat beside her on the cot. She held Lady perched on her hand, stroking her feathered head.

“It’s been a crazy day, hasn’t it?”

She nodded.

“You remember when I said I wanted you to ask me before fiddling with my emotions?”

She stopped stroking Lady’s head and stared ahead. “I’m sorry Mr. Rence.”

“Oh, no, I’m not angry. I wanted to thank you.”

She looked at me with a puzzled expression.

“If you had to wait to ask me before flaring my uneasiness, I never would have picked up on that imposter lady. You saved my life.”

Her eyes widened. “I did?”

I nodded. “And that’s the second time your gift has saved me. So, thank you again.”

She smiled and leaned into my chest. “You’re welcome, Mr. Rence.”

“I’ve also had a change of mind. From now on, if you see a need to fiddle with my emotions, you go right ahead.”

She straightened up and looked into my eyes. “You mean it?”

“Absolutely. We’re in this together, you and me. As far as I’m concerned, we’re partners in this.”

She beamed and hugged me tightly with her free arm.

Lady squawked.

“I ain’t forgettin’ you, Lady,” I said with a wry smile. “I still owe you a Telurian mouse.”

Ryna pulled away to look at me. “Is Mister Heinlin going to be okay?”

A deep breath invaded my lungs and I looked down. “I’m sorry Ryna. He died.”

She shed a few tears and buried her face in my shirt. “He was a nice man. And he was going to change me so the doctors couldn’t find me anymore.”

I pulled her tight against me and rubbed her arm soothingly. “I’m sorry Ryna. I wish things had happened differently. But don’t you worry about Westward Galactic finding you. We still have plan B, that Miss Miri thought up. We just need to rustle up some equipment and some money. It’ll all be over soon enough.”

Ryna again looked into my eyes. “Mr. Rence, when everything is all over, will you still want me?”

I knew what she was asking. She wanted to know just how long our relationship would last. Was it just temporary until all the smoke had cleared or would it last longer? The truth was that I hadn’t given it much thought. I started out on this mission figuring we would deliver Ryna to her parents. And it turned out she didn’t have any real parents. Now it was no longer a question of what would happen to her afterward, but what should happen?

“Litlte miss, I don’t leave my partners lest they want me to. So, if you don’t mind me asking, what would you prefer?”

She smiled again. “I would like us to be a real family. I can be the daughter, you can be the Pa, and Miss Miri can be the Ma.”

My cheeks flushed and my heart started thumping. I didn’t just walk into that trap, I practically asked for it. I stood and took Lady, walking to the door. “It’s probably about time you hung up your matchmaker hat for tonight and got yourself some shut-eye.”

“Please, Mr. Rence?”

I took a deep breath. “It ain’t entirely up to me, little miss. But you can bet your britches I’m working on it.”

She returned an excited smile.

Read earlier episodes on Wattpad

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

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