Episode 9: The Final Showdown – Part 1

I had often found some downtime between missions, allowing me to unwind, but not this time. We were on the run from the Westward Galactic Financial Corporation and an assassin. One that was personally sent from Dr. Vik Lenish. I had attempted to teach Dr. Lenish a few manners a while back. But I guess super smart people don’t have much room left in their heads for some common wisdom. At any rate, my lesson gave him a chip on his shoulder large enough to land a starcruiser. It didn’t entirely fall on deaf ears, though; he was wise enough to keep his hand off Miri.

Hiring an assassin, on the other hand, wasn’t the doctor’s style. He seemed practical and apathetic, that is until you got him riled up. Hiring Bridgette to kill me was a sign that Dr. Lenish was taking things rather personally now. With Ryna’s help, I had sniffed her out and thwarted her last attempt. What would I ever do without that girl? Her special gift had saved my life twice. It helped me locate Miri on the Corporation lab ship, and even saved her own life when I couldn’t draw fast enough.

There was no question that she was special. But she was also special in another way. Her childlike outlook on life had often got me thinking about mine. It hadn’t taken me long to realize that I needed her as much as she needed me.

We had landed on Jashur VII. It was the best place to repair. We had repaired here once before when we first encountered the Kuda. I wasn’t too sure about poking my face into town after our last exodus but Miri did have a good point. The only Kuda who could identify me was dead. Miri rented a hovermobile and all five of us crammed in. Petre and Carol took the back seats while Miri drove with Ryna between us.

Our first order of business was to repair the ship. I had ordered the parts and they would be delivered in the afternoon. That gave us time to go to town and see about equipment. We needed some for Miri’s plan to work. The idea was to produce a large amount of the chemical marker that allows the Corporation to track Ryna. We would then inject that marker into every creature that walks. It would give the Corporation years of wild goose chases. With any luck, we would buy enough time for the marker to work its way out of Ryna’s blood. Or, at least, diminish enough so she couldn’t be tracked.

Petre and Carol needed some equipment to pull that off. I doubted a quaint colony planet like Jashur would carry such expensive hardware. Sure, Jashur carried the lion’s share of starship parts, but it didn’t have much else to brag of. Still, it was worth a try and something to do while we waited for the new parts to be delivered. Petre and Carol headed off to the local medical clinic. They would inquire where they sourced their devices.

I stood on the boardwalk outside the Raging Comet restaurant and the Blue Bonnet dress shop. Ryna stood at Miri’s side. I pulled out some coins from my pocket and counted them.

“Rence, I think I’ll head over to the Union Bank,” Miri said.

I looked up. “I ain’t so sure taking out a loan is a good idea at this point. We have enough worries. I’ll find a few jobs and we’ll rustle up the cash sure enough.”

“Rence, I have some money saved up that we can use.”

“That’s real kind of you, Miri. But this is going to cost us an awful lot.”

“I have nearly thirty-eight thousand saved up.”

My eyes widened as I stared at her.

“It’s not fair,” she continued, “that you should keep footing the bills. I can only imagine what you’ve already spent on fuel and repairs.”

With how frugal she had been in spending money, I assumed she didn’t have much. How had she managed to save up so much? And why hadn’t she told me until now? That kind of money could have come in really handy several times. Why had she held out on me?

I felt my heart rate slow down. My breathing relaxed. I glanced at Ryna. She was staring back at me. Why was she calming me? Was she afraid I would lose my temper? That hadn’t ever happened. What other reason could she have to calm me? Was there something I was overlooking? Something I was missing? I studied Miri’s face. She looked vulnerable, delicate. That’s when things started making sense.

Miri hadn’t wanted to part with her savings because she really wanted something. Something she had to scrimp and save for. Something so important to her that only now was she willing to give it up for Ryna’s sake. My mood melted away and I brushed some of her wind-swept hair out of her face.

“Miri, you have a way with animals.”

Tears welled up in her eyes. One broke loose and traced the contours of her face.

“If I had to guess, I’d say you were saving up to buy a ranch.”

She nodded, looking down as two more tears lost their way.

“Tell you what,” I said. “We’ll try my way first. And if that doesn’t work out, we’ll consider your generous offer.”

She wiped away her tear lines and sniffled. “Thank you, Rence.” She excused herself and wandered into the restaurant to use the ladies’ room.

I tipped my hat to Ryna. “Thanks, partner.”

She returned a broad smile.

I knelt on one knee and looked at her. “Listen, little miss. I got a secret mission for you.”

She nodded eagerly.

I pulled out some coins and dropped them into her hand. “You remember the last time we went shopping for clothes?”

“When the armored man attacked you?”

I rolled my eyes. “That was the time, all right. But you do remember she liked those dresses, right?”

“Yep. And I still know her size.” She turned around and headed into the dress shop.

“Wait—” I hadn’t finished giving her my instructions. Maybe it was best she didn’t take my advice on which to buy. After all, it was Ryna who had been out shopping with Miri when she purchased her red dress. She would know better than I which one to get.

Miri stepped out of the restaurant door. I panicked. Ryna hadn’t yet returned with the dress, and I wanted it to be a surprise. It didn’t need to be a surprise. I could have told her I wanted to get her a dress. But somehow it felt like it should be a surprise. For whatever reason, I needed it to be a surprise.

I took Miri’s arm and turned her to face the restaurant. “I had a great idea; why don’t you go reserve us a table.”

A confused expression spread across her face. “I thought we needed to find some work.”

“I—well, yes—I just figured…in all our running around, we hadn’t had time to sit down and get reacquainted.”

She smiled warmly. “That’s very thoughtful of you.” She looked around. “Where’s Ryna?”

“I, uh…she’s running a small errand. We’ll meet you inside.”

For some reason, she looked at me suspiciously. She glanced at the dress shop and then back at me. She gave me an I-know-what-you’re-up-to stare before walking back into the restaurant. My lands! I can outwit a Corporate scientist, bluff Tess Davendry, and fool Dentum’s security force. But when it came to Miri and Ryna, those two can read me like a book. What was the galaxy coming to?

Ryna emerged from the dress shop as if she had struck gold and wanted everyone to know about it. She held out the dress, all neatly folded up and wrapped in brown paper and strings. She started rambling off every detail about the dress in one long unbroken sentence. She lost me in much of the terminology, so I politely nodded my head.

Once she exhausted her entire vocabulary, I suggested we enter the restaurant. I tucked the package beneath my long coat. We found the table Miri had reserved and sat down beside her. A man dressed in black clothes and a white apron walked up to our table and set down three glasses.

“What’ll it be to drink?”

I glanced at Ryna. If Miri was right, and Ryna saw me as a father figure, then I needed to make some adjustments in my life. A man couldn’t act himself under those conditions; he had to mind his p’s and q’s.

“Lemonade,” I said.

“Lemonade?” he asked incredulously.

I felt my cheeks heat up and I wanted to crawl under the table and hide. I instead gave him an annoyed smile. “Yeah, it’s made with fruit and sugar. Ever heard of it?”

He slowly nodded, looking at me with curious eyes. “Yeah, I heard of it. Just never heard anyone ask for it in these parts.”

I didn’t bother looking to see Miri’s expression. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know if she’d be displeased with how I was handling myself. I kept my eyes on the waiter. “Well, now you got somethin’ to write home about.”

“All right,” he said, typing it onto a small datapad. “And for you, miss?”

“We’ll both have the same,” Miri replied.

The waiter smiled and left.

“So,” Miri asked. “What would you like to talk about?”

Ryna piped up. “Miss Miri, Mr. Rence got you a surprise, and I picked it out!”

I pulled the brim of my hat low, hiding the color in my cheeks.

“Why, how lovely,” Miri said in a practiced tone.

“It might be more of a surprise, little miss, if she didn’t know she was getting it.”

“Don’t worry, Mr. Rence. She doesn’t know what kind of dress it is.”

I hung my head. There wasn’t much use trying to control what came out of her mouth. The door to the restaurant opened, making the little bell chime. Petre and Carol walked in, scanning the room. I raised my hand and they spotted us.

“Mr. Perry,” Petre said, taking a seat across from me. “I believe we are in business.”

Carol sat next to him. “We have located some equipment we can use.”

I looked up. “Do we have to buy it or can we rent it?”

“Neither,” she replied. “I bumped into a former colleague of mine from Gale-tech University. She has set up a medical school in a neighboring town. She was quite shocked to find me on Jashur. She said I could come and use her laboratory equipment whenever I want.”

“Splendid. Now we just need the chemical stuff, right?” I asked.

Petre looked down. “That’s the not-so-good news.”


A stout middle-aged woman walked up to the table with a large pitcher. She poured lemonade into the three glasses on the table. Then she looked at me with judging eyes. “Want me to leave the bottle, hon?”

There was an edge of sarcasm in her tone. It wasn’t much but it managed to rile me up on the inside. She deliberately referred to the pitcher of lemonade as a bottle. And she said it knowing that any other man would have ordered a drink that came in one.

I gritted my teeth and forced a smile. “Please do.”

She set down the pitcher and then looked at Petre and Carol. “What’ll the two of you have to drink?”

Petre smiled courteously. “Oh, I’ll have whatever they are having—as long as it isn’t too strong.”

“Hon, you can’t get anything milder than that. The next step down is cow’s milk.”

“Excellent. I’ll have a double.”

Carol smiled in silent amusement.

The waitress rolled her eyes, setting down two glasses in front of them. She poured their glasses and left as swiftly as she had come.

“You were about to tell me the bad news,” I said, re-engaging the conversation.

Petre took a sip of his lemonade. “Ah, a pleasant lemony taste. You chose well, Mr. Perry.”

“Focus, doc. What did you find out?”

“Forgive me, Mr. Perry. The only local supplier of kaligeenium-62 ran out last year. We will have to go to Pentarch III to get some.”

“Pentarch isn’t just a little hop, skip, and a jump away. It’s near the core worlds. It could take us weeks to get there. There has to be something closer.”

Petre shrugged and glanced at Carol. “Well, there is a Corporation facility just outside of town. We were transported there before we were shuttled to Labship 7. Surely, they should have some kaligeenium-62 on-hand for cataloging. But it would not be easy to get.”

There was no possible way I could forget about that facility. That was where Miri had infiltrated, dressed up all fancy. It was the facility that hired Kuda. Memories of that day swarmed my head. I remembered racing inside to rescue Miri and finding her curled up in a ball, weeping. I had enough of that facility to last me a lifetime.

I sighed. “It looks like we’re goin’ to Pentarch.” I took a drink of my lemonade. The tangy-sweet sensation trickled down my throat. I licked my lips and stared at the glass. “This is good.”

Ryna scooted her empty glass into the center of the table. “Can I please have some more?”

Miri poured her another glass.

“Mr. Perry,” Carol said. “It would also help if we spent some time analyzing Ryna’s blood. Perhaps you could leave us here with a blood sample while you go and get some kaligeenium-62. With any luck, we should have mapped out the frequency by then.”

I nodded. “I’m all for using the time effectively, but do you have a place to stay?”

“We can stay at the local hotel for the next couple of weeks,” Petre explained. “They’re not—”

The front door chimed as an armored Kuda stepped in and walked to the front counter.

“That reminds me,” I said, “of how much I love this town. The two of you can stick around, but the rest of us should get back to the Princess.”

I exited the restaurant and waited for Miri and Ryna who followed behind. I was just starting to get comfortable on Jashur. Why did that Kuda have to walk in? It reminded me of everything I wanted to leave behind. Miri bought some supplies for our trip and even picked up another change of clothes for Ryna. I wasn’t sure how she grew out of the last set of clothes so quickly. Miri assured me that was normal for children.

I spent the rest of the afternoon and the first of the early evening repairing the Princess. She was finally as good as new. After packing up the Princess, I called Lady back and we climbed on board. I sat down in the cockpit and started flipping switches. The twin engines revved up as I started up the rest of the launch sequence. Ryna brought Lady into the cockpit and set her down on her perch.

Lady squawked.

“What are you nervous about?” I asked.

She flapped her wings and squawked again, turning in place.

“With how jittery you are, you’d think we were heading into a mission.”

A light blinked on my console, followed by a beep. The proximity sensors had picked up an approaching ship high in the sky. Probably a passing merchant ship, looking for a place to land. Why did I keep my sensor screens so sensitive? On such a busy planet, all these false alarms tended to make a man lax. I engaged the ascent thrusters and the Princess shuddered as she rose into the air.

Bright green bolts of energy streaked past the blast shield window. The Princess rumbled and lurched off to one side as a blast cannon bolt struck the hull. That passing ship was shooting at us. The damage alarm sounded, and I silenced it with the press of a button. I fired up the main engines and we barreled forward. Another cannon bolt struck the starboard engine. Fire danced around it despite the windy breeze of our forward momentum. Sparks blew from a panel over my head. I flinched but kept my hand clenched on the flight controls.

I bit my tongue, not wanting to curse in front of Ryna.

“Mr. Rence, I think you should put your buckle on!” Ryna declared over the sound of the waning starboard engine.

She had a point. The last time we crash landed, my body rearranged the front control panel. But her suggestion meant she was convinced we were going to crash. Well, I wasn’t convinced. I may have lost an engine, but I still had altitude. I only needed to get high enough to leave orbit.

Miri raced into the cockpit. “Rence, what’s going on?”

“Pretty sure somebody is shooting at us.”

Another blast cannon shot struck the hull. The Princess rumbled and Miri was thrown backward into a chair. I clung to the steering controls. “Now I’m confident somebody is shooting at us.”

“Rence, I think you should strap in!”

“We ain’t gonna crash!” I said, flipping switches on my control panel. I diverted auxiliary power to the port engine. The Princess was nimble in space but she had a rough time taking off and landing. Whoever was shooting, knew when to hit us. We gradually climbed above the clouds, watching the sky grow ever closer. Then, another blast cannon shot struck the port engine. It shattered into flaming pieces, spraying large debris across the horizon.

Our altitude tapered off and for a brief moment, we were suspended in the air. Then the Princess plummeted toward the ground. I reached over and pulled my safety strap across my chest and snapped it into the buckle. I flipped switches on my control panel to reroute power around the damaged systems.

We passed through the clouds and rapidly approached the ground. The tiny terrain features grew large and distinctive at an alarming rate. I forced myself to take a deep breath to calm my nerves. It didn’t help much. Every nerve in my body was bracing for massive pain. I closed my eyes momentarily and breathed out slowly. Then I continued rerouting power. The fastest way would have been to climb down to the engine room and stretch a cable. But we were falling too fast for me to climb down there, patch in, and then climb back up to the cockpit to steer. I had to do things the slow way.

A spark popped from my console. The lights on my control panel died. My entire panel had just shorted out. It looked like I couldn’t do it the slow way either. At the rate we were falling, we would not survive. I needed another option. I unbuckled and put Lady into a small cage. She didn’t like the crash cage, but it would save her life against the impact.

“Miri, stay strapped in but turn around to the backup control panel.”

She swiveled her chair around.

“When I tell you to, flip the yellow switch labeled Ascent Thrusters.”

“I don’t know how to fly!”

“She ain’t gonna fly anymore. Now it’s all a matter of how gracefully we can fall.”

She nodded, putting a headset on.

I dashed down the corridor and stumbled down the stairwell to the engine room. I ripped open the auxiliary guidance panel and pulled out one of the long cables. I yanked open the panel to the secondary thruster control and plugged in one end. I stretched the cable to the auxiliary power generator and plugged it in. As long as the cable held, the thrusters had power.

I put my tactical mask on. “Miri, hit the thrusters!”

The ascent thrusters fired, slowing the Princess’s fall. The slight jolt from the thrusters knocked the cable loose. The thrusters died out and we started falling faster. I snatched the cable and jammed it back into the thruster control port. The thrusters again fired, slowing our descent.  I kept my hands on the cable until we struck the ground. I was thrown against the back wall and I blacked out.

I awoke to Miri calling my name. I was ever so tired. I didn’t want to open my eyes. I felt comfortable…or did I? No, my head was hurting and my leg felt twisted. But the pain felt dull somehow. The urge to sleep was stronger than the pain. And I was so weary.

“Mr. Rence?” Ryna’s distant voice called to me. I wanted to answer, but I just needed some rest first.

I heard Miri’s muffled, distant voice again. “Ryna, I need you to wake him up!”

There was more conversation, but I couldn’t hear it. My muscles relaxed as I started to drift to sleep. The weariness ever pressing on me. Then all my muscles fiercely tensed up. My heart raced and my blood pumped. Where were Miri and Ryna? Were they okay? What if they were injured? They could be pinned under some fallen debris. They could be bleeding…dying.

My eyes shot open and I forced in a large breath. I scrambled to get to my feet but Miri held me down. Why was she holding me down? I needed to get up.

“Miri!” I shouted.

“Okay, Ryna. That’s enough,” she replied.

I again thrashed my arms around, trying to get up.

“Rence,” Miri said. “It’s okay. I’m here. I’m safe.”

My mind held onto her voice. Her melodic voice. Something was soothing in her words…or was it something else? My body was relaxing and my breathing slowed. Once my breathing was under control, my mind cleared up. I was able to think reasonably again. My mask was lying on the floor at my side. Miri was crouched over me with my chest panel open. I glanced at Ryna. She intensely stared at me.

“You were helping me by fiddling with my emotions?”

She nodded.

“Thank you, little miss.”

“You’re welcome, partner,” she replied.

I winked at her. “Partner.”

Miri dropped a tool into my tool chest and closed up my chest panel. She had once again patched me up and Ryna had kept me from slipping away. Miri helped me sit up and a tear lost its way and ran down my cheek. I don’t know what came over me. I lost a few more tears. For whatever reason, I was really lucky to have both of them with me. Somehow, it meant more to me than anything I owned.

Miri hugged me, mingling her tears with mine.

I reached over and pulled Ryna in, making it a group hug.

After a short while, Miri helped me to my feet. My head ached, and again, I was mighty glad my skull was coated in durotanium. A normal head might have split open from an impact like that. But as before, it still didn’t prevent the colossal headache.

I held my head. “How long was I out?”

“Just a few minutes, but it seemed like a long time.”

“Whoever shot us down will be looking for the crash site. They’ll most likely want to verify we’re dead.”

Miri mumbled a curse under her breath.

I bent down to retrieve my mask and my head suddenly started pounding as the blood ran to it. I quickly straightened up. “Ryna, would you fetch me my mask, please?”

She handed me the mask and I put it away.

Then she handed me my hat.

“Much obliged, little miss.”

Miri helped me up the stairwell. The Astral Princess was level when she crashed. That might have been counted as a miracle in its own right. I stopped at my cabin and retrieved the small blast pistol Mik engineered. It was a beautiful gun holstered in a rough leather blast belt. Then we continued to the cockpit. I looked out the blast shield window. We had crashed into a thicket of tall forest trees. Great red dallifer trees, if I wasn’t mistaken.

“We’re in the middle of a bunch of trees,” I explained. “That means there is no suitable place to land nearby. Whoever shot us down will have to land some ways away and hike in. That’ll give us some time to gather together some supplies and head out.”

“Where will we go?” Miri asked with concern in her voice.

I took Lady out of the crash cage and set her on her perch. She squawked but was unharmed.

I shrugged. “That all depends on where we are.”

I picked up my two spare blast pistol power cells from their chargers.

I turned around. “Ryna, go fetch my blast carbine from the loading room.”

She spun around and quickly left.

Miri saw the concern in my eyes. “Rence, what else is wrong?”

I sighed. “Without the Princess, we can’t stay ahead of Westward Galactic. They’ll be here soon enough. That means we’re gonna have a fight on our hands and no way of retreating.”

“How long will we last?”

I stared off into space, sorting out things in my head. “Probably ten hours, give or take.”

“And then they’ll capture us?”

I swallowed hard. “Well, they’ll capture Ryna. They’re definitely not going to give me another chance.”

Her breathing nearly stopped. “Rence,” she said in a panic. “We need to call for help.”

“The closest help is Mik back on Cosstere,” I said. “And with the Princess running on battery power, we can’t send a transmission.”

“We have to try something,” she urged.

“We can send a hyperwave broadcast. There won’t be any guarantee who will see it. But it’s something.”

“Something is better than nothing,” she decided.

I flipped on the old hyperwave broadcaster and picked up a datapad. I typed out a simple message. I included the planetary coordinates along with an approximation of where we crashed. It wasn’t much but it should allow a smart person to figure out where we were.

Miri picked up the small data storage device from the machining table. It was the one I used to download the Osurious project files. “Can you send this too?”

“You think it’ll help?”

She shook her head. “I don’t know, Rence. But it’s the only leverage we have on Westward Galactic.”

I took it and plugged it in. Then I hit the transmit button. It beeped as it encoded the message into the rudimentary hyperwave signals. It would take a few minutes to complete. And there was no guarantee of anyone answering either.

“Do you think Mik will get the message?” she asked.

“Well, if he doesn’t…” I won’t have to worry if I bought the correct dress size.

Silence loomed a moment. I held out Mik’s blast pistol to Miri. “Probably no better time than now to start using it.”

She glanced at my offering and then looked into my eyes. “I thought you were going to give me a choice.”

True, I had offered her a dress or the gun. It was the only way I could think of to ask her what kind of life she wanted. Why couldn’t I just ask the question like a normal person? Why did I get all gummed up in the mouth trying to talk to Miri about the two of us? What was it about my feelings that felt like an oil-starved engine coughing up rusty dust?

“I’m sorry about that,” I said. “I guess I wanted to know what kind of future you wanted. If it was a future that I could provide you.” I looked down. “But you were right, it is a conversation for after this is all over.”

“Well, in case we don’t get out of this,” she said. “I would rather not miss my chance at choosing.”

I pulled out the neatly packaged dress from my large inner coat pocket. I held it in my right hand with the blast pistol in my left. “Miri, at this point, I don’t rightly care what danger comes. All I want is to have you by my side. And if you’ll have me, I will be happy in whatever life you choose.”

Her eyes watered and she gave a sly smile. “What if I want a camcam ranch on Cosstere?”

That thought hadn’t occurred to me. But I had to admit that those smelly lumbering lizards did remind me an awful lot of Miri. When she was taken by the Corporation, just the sight of a camcam turned my thoughts to her. I had sworn off Cosstere and camcams, yet my desire to be with Miri threatened to make a steady diet of my own words.

“Miri, if you want to ranch camcams, I’ll be wrangling them right beside you.”

She smiled, letting tears caress her face. She leaned up to me and closed her eyes. I kissed her a long moment before reopening my eyes. She sniffled, spending a moment to catch her breath. Then she recomposed herself and glanced at both of my hands. She took the dress and the blast pistol.

She retreated down the corridor, passing Ryna who reentered the cockpit. She handed me the rifle and glanced back at the doorway Miri disappeared through. Then she looked at me with a confused expression. “She’s happy, but she looks sad.”

“Tears don’t always mean sadness, little miss. Sometimes they make up for the words we don’t have.”

“Oh…what did her tears say?”

I turned my head before my cheeks could betray me. Ryna would figure me out anyhow, so I didn’t feel bad changing the subject. I picked up Lady from her perch and handed her to Ryna. Lady hopped over to Ryna’s hand. “We need to get moving mighty fast. Will you tend to Lady while I rustle up some supplies to take with us?”

“Sure thing, Mr. Rence.”

I scrounged up two satchels, both in need of some mending but usable for our needs. I took them to the lower deck and stuffed them with food packets and water cans. I debated taking my toolbox. They were useful but would slow us down. I took a few choice tools from it and left the rest. I took the mess kit and the matches. It didn’t seem like this day would last long enough to warrant starting a fire. But my instincts told me to bring them.

Satisfied with my haul, I headed back up to the top deck to check on Miri. We only had a matter of minutes to leave the Princess if we wanted to stay ahead of danger. Our crash site would not be hard to find. As I walked down the corridor, Miri stepped out of her cabin. She wore her new dress. The snowy-white gown hung well and the many frilly layers swayed when she moved. My breathing stopped and my heart raced. That wasn’t what I had in mind when I asked Ryna to buy a dress. That was more than just a dress, that was a statement. But what did I expect? I sent a matchmaker to buy a dress. My cheeks burned and I didn’t even have the presence of mind to lower the brim of my hat to hide it. What was next on Ryna’s list? A Parson?

She glanced at me and blushed. “I’m flattered…I guess I just didn’t expect it would be so soon.” She walked up to me, the bright white dress swaying with each step. “Yes,” she said, caressing my cheek with her hand. “Yes,” she repeated as she leaned up and kissed me.

I dropped the satchels.

I gently touched the soft fabric of her dress. “Not the most efficient for hiking through the forest, but you sure are a lovely sight.”

She glanced at the floor. “Well…I didn’t know when else I would get a chance to wear it.”

I smiled. “You make me feel like I should get a shave and a haircut. Or at least be wearing a necktie or something.”

She giggled and spoke in a playful tone. “Well, well, does this mean the handsome Mr. Perry is asking me out on a date?”

I smiled and matched her tone, offering her my arm. “Would you care for a brisk walk in the woods?”

She laughed and took my arm. “While dodging blast shots?”

I chuckled.

The lights dimmed and were replaced by red emergency lights. The last of the battery power had been spent. Now we were on emergency power.

“Time to go,” I said, swinging both satchels over my shoulder. “We have ten minutes to open the outer door before we’re all out of power.”

“Did we ever get a response to our call for help?”

I shook my head. “No—”

I turned my head and angled my ear toward the cockpit. A series of beeps faintly echoed down the corridor. I raced into the cockpit. The hyperwave transmitter was receiving an incoming message. I picked up the datapad and started typing out the translation of the simple beeps.

Miri caught up to me. “What does it say?”

I shushed her with a raised finger. I needed to concentrate. The old hyperwave code was not something anybody regularly practiced. With live transmissions, most folks figured hyperwave was a thing of the past. Thankfully, somebody out there still knew the cipher.

I set the datapad down. “It reads: Transmission received. Hold out until arrival. ETA twelve hours.”

“Does it say who it’s from?”

“No, the message simply repeats.”

I stuffed the datapad in my inside coat pocket. “Time to head out.”

We descended the stairwell and entered the loading room where Ryna was waiting for us. I pushed the button on the wall and the loading ramp slowly lowered to the ground. It stopped short since the crash buried the base of the ship two feet in the dirt. We left the ship and Ryna tossed Lady into the air. She soared high and out of sight.

Miri strapped on her blast belt over her dress. The rough leather clashed with the fancy dress, but it would be practical enough for her to draw. I clamped on my tactical mask and picked a random direction. Until we got some aerial footage from Lady it wouldn’t matter which direction we headed. We just needed to get some distance between us and the crash.

After a few minutes of walking, the light on my wristband flashed. Lady had found something. I pressed a few buttons, switching my vision to Lady’s eyesight. Lady circled the crash site. A woman stepped into the clearing the Princess had carved into the landscape. She was dressed in a white blast vest and dark clothes. It was Bridgette. She carried a blast rifle in her hands and a blast pistol at her hip. Her tall burgundy boots carefully stepped over fallen branches. Her quiet approach meant she thought we were still on board.

I switched my eyesight back to normal. “It’s Bridgette. It won’t take her long to figure out we’ve moved on.”

“Then we had better get as much distance as we can right now,” Miri said, putting one of the satchels over her shoulder.

I picked up the second satchel and put my blast carbine over my shoulder. I pointed off into the distance. “Let’s head for that ridge. It’s the tallest point I can see and it looks defensible.”

We hiked toward the ridge for a good half hour before Ryna needed a rest. I insisted we all drink some water. It kept us hydrated and lightened Miri’s satchel a bit. We continued for another hour before the light on my wristband flashed. I pressed a few buttons, switching my eyesight to Lady’s vision. She was perched atop a tall red dallifer tree. Two assault shuttles streaked across the horizon. One hovered over our crash site, lowering ropes. Soldiers in blast vests slid down the ropes and swarmed the crash site. The second shuttle flew past Lady. I switched my eyesight back to normal when I heard the roaring of the distant engine. The shuttle flew overhead and over to the high ridge. Troops slid down ropes onto the top of the ridge.

“How did they know?” Miri asked in disbelief.

I sighed in exasperation. “They didn’t. They just picked the tallest point so they could scout around.”

“So now where do we go?”

“Well—” I spun around, hearing the snapping of a stick in the distance. Bridgette was gaining on us. She didn’t have a ten-year-old girl slowing her down. She would soon overtake us.

“East,” I finally said. It was the only direction that would take us directly away from the crash site and the ridge. Miri started walking but I held up my hand. “Wait.”

She stopped and looked at me.

“That’s the most logical place we would go. They’ll be counting on it. We need to go someplace unexpected.”

“The ridge?” Miri suggested.

“They have troops there,” I said. “We would have to fight them.”

“You said yourself, it’s the most defensible position. If we can get there, we can hold out longer.”

She was right. Heading for the ridge meant we would have to tangle with a few soldiers. But, that was better than being driven into a trap. And, as she pointed out, we could defend ourselves better there. But then again, the ridge’s defensible position would also be common knowledge. Common enough that they could anticipate us heading there. I shook my head, clearing my thoughts. No use overthinking it.

“All right,” I said. “To the ridge. Follow behind me and keep your head low.” I stopped. “But first…” I pulled out one of my detonators and set it to proximity detonation. I placed it in some tall grass along our trail. A little surprise for Bridgette if she didn’t pay enough attention.

We hiked up toward the ridge, keeping to the tree line and the shrubbery. I pressed a few buttons on my wristband and switched my vision to infrared. The body heat signatures up ahead gave me a good sense of their distance and where they were facing. We crept closer until they were all within rifle range. I switched one of my eyes to normal vision and zoomed in. I centered the scope of my carbine on one of the troops. He wore a blast vest and helmet, which made blast pistols less effective. But my blast carbine packed a wallop. I even proved it could crack Kuda armor.

I aimed for the center of mass and squeezed the trigger. My carbine barked like a mad dog, echoing through the trees. The soldier dropped his blast rifle and collapsed to the ground. The remaining five troops scattered behind tree trunks. I waited for them to peek around the trees. Curiosity would get the better of them eventually and they would want to scope me out.

My chance came quickly. One of the soldiers poked his head around the tree trunk and I fired. My red blast bolt struck him in the helmet. The helmet cracked and he fell backward. The blow knocked him unconscious.

I turned to Miri. “Time to move.”

“Aren’t you going to shoot some more?”

I shook my head. “Never take more than two shots from any location. Otherwise, they’ll get a fix on our position.”

We hiked around the left side, keeping to the denser part of the trees and foliage. Once we were a good distance from our last position, I aimed my carbine again. A green blast bolt flew through the trees behind me and stuck a tree inches from my head.

I ducked, cursing. That shot most likely came from Bridgette. The delay I took shooting some of the troops and her speed in tracking us allowed her to catch up. She was in rifle range. I scanned the scene with my infrared vision and picked out the red and white glow of her body head signature. She was securely behind several large trees. She was very cautious aiming. I needed to get her off her rhythm; shake things up a bit. I aimed my carbine and squeezed off several shots in quick succession.

It wasn’t enough to hit Bridgette, but it would tell her that her position was compromised. She would have to cautiously reposition herself. And, hopefully, that would buy us enough time to take out the rest of those soldiers on the ridge.

“I thought you said no more than two shots?” Miri said.

“Yeah, well—”

Several green rifle bolts sprayed through the trees and shrubs. The troops had zeroed in on our position. I had been too careless in trying to unnerve Bridgette. Miri and Ryna ducked behind a wide tree trunk. We were going to be pinned down really quick if I didn’t do something fast. I needed to keep Bridgette at bay and also eliminate those troops on the ridge. I couldn’t do both, which is why I was glad I had backup. I handed the blast carbine to Miri.

“Keep Bridgette at bay,” I instructed. “And if you can, try to drive her close to that little patch of grass.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Those troops on the ridge have invited me to dance,” I explained, switching my vision back to normal. “So, I’m gonna go tango.”

I ran a short distance toward the ridge and jumped with my enhanced knees. I soared through the treetops, skimming the canopy leaves. My enhanced knees also absorbed the impact of my landing. I landed in the center of the four soldiers. They swung their rifle barrels toward me. Thunder and Lightning each cleared leather and spit out red blast bolts. My shots nailed them square in the chest. Shooting them in the chest was not effective; their blast vests protected them. But my aim was muscle memory, so I didn’t have much choice.

Two of the soldiers dropped their guns and stumbled backward. The third fell flat on his back, hitting the back of his head. His helmet covered most of his head, but he looked to have hit it in just the wrong way, knocking himself out. The fourth soldier managed to drop to one knee and keep his balance. He stood and swung the butt of his rifle at me like a club. It struck me on the side of the head. I dropped to my hands and knees, my guns falling to the ground amidst fallen leaves and blades of grass. My ear throbbed and rang. He swung again and I grabbed the butt of the rifle. I reached up and pulled the trigger. The shot threw the soldier to his back.

The first two scrambled to their feet and rushed me. One grabbed the rifle while the other one punched me in the gut. I let go of the rifle in exchange for clutching my stomach. They may not shoot so well but they sure could throw a punch. The blow winded me and I had to gasp for breath. The soldier with the rifle pointed the barrel at me. I grabbed the foot of the fellow in front of me and pulled it out from under him. He flailed as he fell, knocking down the barrel of the blast rifle. It fired and blew a puff of dirt into the air.

I scrambled to my feet and threw a punch at the man with the rifle. I cracked the glass on his helmet visor. The sting of the blow throbbed up my arm. That probably wasn’t the smartest move. It practically made my hand useless for a few minutes. At least he dropped the rifle. The second soldier climbed back to his feet.

I had the choice to go for the dropped rifle or to slug the soldier. My aching hand preferred the milder of the two options. The only downside was that he might wrestle it away from me again. Could I use that to my advantage? I dropped to the ground and grabbed the rifle with one hand. My other hand pulled out a detonator from my pocket. The second soldier grabbed the rifle in my hand. We each tugged at it like two dogs fighting over a scrap of meat. The first soldier pulled off his helmet with the cracked visor so he could see straight.

The soldier wrestling with me for the rifle yanked hard and pulled me toward him. I pressed the detonator onto the gunstock and then let go. He stumbled backward with the rifle in hand. I had nine seconds to get a little distance. I ran past them, further up the ridge. One soldier ran after me while the one with the rifle took aim. The rifle exploded, ending the man who held it and knocking down the man behind me.

I skided to a stop and glanced back to see if the soldier closest to me was out cold or still moving. Instead, a distant explosion caught my attention. Miri must have lured Bridgette over to my hidden detonator. A part of me hoped that would be the end of Bridgette, but my skeptical side wasn’t ready to rule her out. She was a careful and deadly one. I wouldn’t rule her out of the fight without visually seeing it for myself.

I glanced back at the soldier in front of me. He was out cold. It was time to get back to Miri. I switched my vision back to infrared and quickly spotted Miri and Ryna. I crept back toward them, not wanting to startle Miri into shooting me. When I was close, I softly spoke to her. “Miri, the ridge is clear, let’s go.”

Miri and Ryna skirted around the wide tree trunk and jogged up behind me. I scanned the distant scene looking for Bridgette’s heat signature. I didn’t see her. Even if she were killed, there’d still be residual body heat. She was hiding behind something that was either cold or very dense, masking her body heat. She probably caught on that I was using infrared. I didn’t much like the idea of not knowing where she was. Especially when she was hunting us.

I lead Miri and Ryna up to the top of the ridge. I retrieved my twin blast pistols from where they had fallen, and quickly checked their alignment. They were slightly off but not enough to worry about. I had Miri keep watch while I tied up the two surviving soldiers. No telling when they would come to. The sun was starting to wane on the far end of the sky. The evening was approaching.

I scoped out a few places to hide that we could still shoot back. The troops that scouted out the Princess would have heard the commotion and be heading up the ridge too. I pressed a button on my wristband, summoning Lady. I would need her to keep an eye on what was going on.

With no sign of Bridgette and the ridge secured, my second order of business was to find someplace to light a fire without being seen. The glow of a fire would too easily give away our position. I needed some way to obscure it from sight. It didn’t need to be very big, just enough to keep Ryna and Miri warm through the night. In all my preparations, I had neglected to bring blankets. Somehow, I figured this whole thing would have been over hours ago. I sifted through my satchel and found the shovel—well, more like a folding trowel rather than a shovel. I set to work digging a hole. It needed to be deep enough that the fire’s glow would be contained.

“Rence!” Miri said in a loud whisper.

I jogged over to her.

She pointed in the distance.

Several figures were lurking about in the shadows of the trees. The early evening light already obscured their movement. I switched my eyesight back to infrared. Six troops were cautiously making their way up the hill. Their movements were coordinated. They had finished scouting the Princess and followed our trail, staying in formation. We only needed to hold them off until nightfall. Night fighting was impractical for the attacker. Night vision equipment made short work of the cover of darkness. But the bright flashes of the blast bolts were enough to blind anyone using night vision.

Night time would protect us from a shootout but it would not protect us from a stealthy assassin. Bridgette would still be a concern. I took the carbine and aimed at the closest soldier. I squeezed off a shot. The carbine’s bark echoed in the quiet woods. The red blast bolt illuminated brightly in the dimming daylight. It flew through the air and struck the soldier square in the chest. The force of the impact threw him backward and onto the ground. His blast vest smoked with a hole.

The remaining five soldiers scattered for cover. I wasn’t concerned about shooting them, I only needed to hold them off until dark. But if one of them gave me a good shot, I would take it. The fewer of them there were, the better our chances of survival. Lady swooped down and landed on a low tree branch.

“Welcome back, girl,” I said.

I handed Miri back the carbine. “That should keep them at bay for a while. If they try to advance, give them another shot.”

“Rence, it’s getting too dark.”

I pulled off my tactical mask. “Here, you’ll need this.” I fastened it on Miri. She looked odd and a little eerie with it on. “Is that how I look?”

Her giggle was muffled from within the mask.

She pointed the barrel of the carbine downrange and watched the soldiers. I returned to building a fire. Once I had dug out the hole large enough, I stuffed it with some dry sticks and bark. Ryna found her way to my side and helped pack the pit with sticks.

“Are we going to sleep outside?” she asked, excitement brewing beneath her words.

“I reckon so, little miss. I hadn’t planned on it, but we need to hold out for another eight and a half hours.”

“What happens then?”

“Then we get some help.”

“From who?”

I sighed and stopped what I was doing. “I hope from Mr. Ag’nar. He’s the nice man who helped me find you and Miss Miri.”

“What if he doesn’t come?”

Then you alone will survive only to be dissected later, I thought. Ryna picked up on my hesitation and ventured a guess.

“They’ll take me away again, won’t they?”

I set down the sticks in my hand and pulled Ryna into a hug. “That is what they want. But I won’t let that happen.”

She was silent a moment. “What if they kill you?”

I looked into her eyes. They were delicate and moist. She was trying to fathom what could happen. And her realization was more sobering to me than to her. I didn’t often think about my death. When it happened, I had always figured I wouldn’t be around to care. Only now there was someone else who would care if I lived or died. If I counted Miri, there were now two.

I took a deep breath. “If they can pull that off, I will return as a specter and haunt them every moment of every day.”

She didn’t look comforted at all.

I brushed the side of her hair with my hand. “Don’t fret, little miss. With you as my partner, we’ll get through this. You just wait and see.”

She hugged me and then wandered over to Miri’s side. I wasn’t sure if I gave her any measure of comfort. I certainly didn’t give her any inspiration. Nothing about our current situation could be inspiring. Still, though, it got me thinking about my eventual death. I didn’t rightly know if there was an afterlife. But if there was, I was as sure as shooting going to haunt Dr. Lenish.

I pulled out an electric lighter and started the fire. I had to lean down into the pit to light it. The smoke would not be visible at night and the glow of the fire should be contained. We had some heat. I sat back, admiring my work, and noticed the faint chirping of insects. The sun had dipped below the horizon and all the ambient light was departing. Night’s dark veil had descended.

The loud shout from my carbine rang through the night air. I dashed over to Miri as she fired another shot. The troops were making a night raid, despite the darkness. They knew our blast bolts would give away our position. It was a clever tactic. But even with knowing our location, they would be hard pressed to fight an uphill battle in the dark. That didn’t seem to stop them from trying. A retaliatory green blast bolt flew through the air and struck a nearby rock. Miri fired again, dropping a second man. Two more green bolts struck the rock nearby. Miri flinched and fired again. The four remaining soldiers once again scattered behind cover.

“Nice shootin’,” I said.

“It helps when I can see them. Thanks for the mask.”

“Mighty welcome. I’ll sleep first, they’ll most likely come in the early morning. Wake me up in five hours.”

She sighed. “If I can stay awake that long.”

I knelt on one knee in front of Ryna. “Little miss, I have a job for you.”

Her eyes lit up. “A job?”

I nodded. “Yes, I need you to do two things. First, I need you to swell up Miss Miri’s feelings of danger to help her stay awake and alert.”

Miri glanced back at me before returning her eyes forward.

“Second, I need you to do the same with me when it’s my turn to stand watch. If I wake you up, will you be able to do that?”

“I think so,” she replied.

Ryna hit Miri with a blast of anxiety and then I ushered her over to the fire to keep warm. I lay down beside Ryna and kept one hand on a blast pistol. I wanted to protect Ryna, but the truth was that I didn’t know just how I could do it. We had limited ammunition and nowhere to go. Westward Galactic was sending in more armored troops. And Dr. Lenish’s assassin was still unaccounted for. Besides, the cover of night was only temporary. When the morning light came, so would another batch of troops.

A small light in the night sky drifted across the horizon and then descended to the ground, far away. Most likely a resupply shuttle carrying supplies the troops needed for the night as well as a fresh group of men. Today’s conflict would be mild compared to what the morning would hold. Ryna’s question was also resting heavily on my mind. What if help didn’t arrive? Or what if we couldn’t hold out long enough?

I knew that I would do everything within my power to protect her. I could only hope that it would be enough. And I had to hope—I had to trust—that help was on the way.

To be continued…

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

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