Also, all musings are tentatively titled
Aria came pelting down the uneven road, like the hounds of hell were at her heels. The light from the twin moons illuminated her path, reflecting off the scattered debris that lined it. In the distance lay the broken shell of a once bustling township. The first of the abandoned structures loomed in the night like a ghostly sentinel guarding long-forgotten memories. That crumbling building was her destination. The sound of footsteps behind her had Aria speeding up, adrenaline pumping through her. If she couldn’t outrun the inebriated kironik chasing her, she’d have to confront him. A confrontation would blow her cover and Melik would not be happy with her, to put it mildly. A burst of speed had her reaching the abandoned structure. Aria cast a quick glance over her shoulder to slip into its embracing darkness.
Thank Efiel for drunk Sihadr’en.
Like most older residential structures on the UrSegati planets, this one was square shaped and enclosed an open courtyard in the center. Aria eyed the shadowed structures, seeking one that looked sturdy. A crumbling staircase led the way to the second floor. She wasted no time. Using the tiny flashlight built into her Chariot bracelet, she picked her way through carefully. Once on the second floor, she stationed herself behind the first window that overlooked the courtyard. From her hiding place, she watched the burly male skid to a stop in the courtyard to peer around him drunkenly. As moonlight splayed onto his face, Aria resisted the urge to walk down the stairs and teach the mezulkin a lesson that would make him think twice about drunkenly accosting females. But the stakes were much higher. She was not here to beat up the foot soldiers of the Sihadr’en. For every kironik she put out of commission, three more would line up to take his place. There was only one way to destroy the Sihadr’en.
Down in the moonlight, the kironik barged into the shadows, intent on his prey. For all his inebriation, the male was persistent — she’d give him that. Aria cursed under her breath — she had slipped up tonight. It wasn’t like her to make a rookie mistake like this. What good was her training or her well-honed instincts, if she refused to heed them, she admonished herself. Both had been telling her all evening to get the hell out of the tavern. She had allowed her emotions to get the better of her. Like every raw recruit had drummed into his head, emotional investment tended to play havoc, even with the best trained operatives. She must take a step back and not allow her heart to overrule her head, Aria reminded herself. Or she would never accomplish her goal.
Down below, the male seemed to finally give up and chart his way drunkenly back. Aria watched him leave, abandoning her vantage point to another that provided a view of the path back to the tavern. Her keen eyes wandered the barren landscape for other threats, her survival instincts kicking in. A childhood spent dodging threats made for a well-honed street sense.
As the kironik staggered back into the tavern, Aria remained by the outlook, savoring the silent night for a few stolen moments. Despite the hum of noise from the distant tavern and the shattered landscape that spoke of hardship and struggle, there was a sense of serenity in the moonlight. There was little she missed from Vikron and much she wanted to forget, but clear, starry skies and a desolate moonlit night without a soul reminded her of the home lost a long time ago. Aria supposed that despite the past, the wild and lawless beauty of the planets in the UrSegati System were in her blood and she would never shake the sense of home they seemed to give her.
Lost in thoughts of the past, she made her way down the rickety stairs to step out into the shadowed courtyard.
“Having given her pursuer the slip, the maiden poses in the moonlight.”
The voice came out of the darkness, startling Aria.
She jumped, almost stumbling amidst the rubble strewn around the ground, to whirl around. A tall silhouette detached itself from the shadows across the courtyard. Aria cursed silently, instinctively feeling for the scabbard strapped to her ankle. The feel of the sheathed knife helped steady her.
The silhouette picked its way unhurriedly through the rubble towards her. Aria watched him, making sure to keep her face angled away from the moonlight. Her trained eyes searched for signs of others in the courtyard, as she readied to deal with him.
He was big — the kind of muscle the Sihadr’en tended to go for. A foot soldier whose physicality would negate having to make any explicit threats. Dressed like a Hinterlander in an open-necked shirt, well-worn denims and scuffed boots, he moved with a grace and stealth that took her aback, gliding through the moonlight effortlessly, despite the obstacle course of debris in his path. To her surprise, he also made sure to keep his face well out of the moonlight beating down on them. In the shadow of abandoned ruins, they contemplated each other.
Aria had the impression of a shock of darkish hair and piercing eyes that seemed to bore into her.
“Where you come from, don’t they teach you to steer clear of frontier taverns?” he inquired.
His voice was low and deep, with the intonations of a Segatin. And, he spoke in UrSegan, with an undertone of amusement he did not trouble to hide.
Just my luck. I avoid one drunk kironik only to run into another.
Yet the almost poetic words he had used to announce his presence and his demeanor gave Aria pause. Not all Segatin were Sihadr’en, she reminded herself. She should know.
“They also teach us how to deal with unwanted male attention” she responded in UrSegan, making sure to be blunt.
He chuckled, a soft sound that echoed through the empty courtyard. “You’re free to run” he said. “I won’t stop you.”
As Aria said nothing, he added. “Or you could use that knife strapped to your ankle.”
He brought up his hands in an exaggerated gesture to indicate that he was unarmed. “I promise to not hurt you.”
Aria’s lips tightened, even as her instincts screamed a warning. “If I ever use a knife on you” she said evenly, a bite to her tone. “You will feel it.”
He smiled, a flash of white in the darkness. “Is that a threat or an invitation?”
“Neither. It’s a promise.”
“Hmm.” He cocked his head to study her. “You’re making me wonder why you didn’t use it on the drunken mezulkin chasing you?”
Who the hell was he, Aria wondered. Clearly, he had been in the courtyard before she hid in here. Whoever he was, he was dangerous. She must make sure to not turn her back to him.
“None of your business” she said brusquely.
“Probably not” he agreed readily. “But I don’t usually let that stop me.”
A tense Aria waited, watching him like a hawk, her right palm clenching with the effort to not reach for the knife. Overtly, he had not said or done anything to threaten her, yet she felt like prey – the object of a dangerous predator playing with his food before he pounced on it.
“We seem to be at an impasse” he remarked, with the same thread of amusement still running through his deep voice. “You refuse to walk away or use your knife.”
“I’m not foolish enough to turn my back on you” Aria retorted.
“That’s the first smart thing you’ve said tonight” he noted with approval.
“Glad it meets with your approval” she said tartly, drawing another slow chuckle from him.
Aria studied him, waiting for him to make the next move. But he said nothing, the piercing eyes on her.
“What do you want?” she asked bluntly.
He arched an eyebrow. “I want for nothing.”
Aria decided that she’d had enough. Whatever game he was playing with her, it was time to nip it in the bud. “What will make you go away?”
“Hmm.” He pretended to think it over while Aria waited, refusing to take even an ounce of her attention off this dangerous beast. “A name will do.”
Aria frowned. “What name?”
She said nothing and the glittering eyes wandered over her shadowed face, as if attempting to read her.
“It’s up to you” he said softly. “I have all night.”
I don’t — I’ve rehearsals in the morning.
“Aria” she said.
Much good it will do you.
“Aria” he drawled slowly, before it hit him. “Music” he muttered under his breath.
“Music in the moonlight, not merely a maiden bathed in it.” This time, there was a whimsical note to his voice.
“I’m waiting” she reminded him sharply. “For you to keep your word. Or is that a concept foreign to you?”
“No” he said, less flippantly than before. “I have many vices but I always keep my word.”
With a last glance at her, he turned away. She watched him glide through the rubble, blending in with the shadows, noting that no sound from loose pebbles echoed through the courtyard, despite his long strides. This male was more comfortable in the shadows than even her, Aria concluded. Just as he turned to take the path she had rushed headlong through, to hide from the inebriated taverner, he flashed her a look.
“Until we meet again, Aria in the moonlight.” The words seemed to float to her in the silence, its echoes dying away even before he had turned out of sight.
Not if I can help it.
Aria hurried towards the exit to watch him on the path carved from the rubble. He was already a speck in the distance, his long strides eating away the ground at incredible speed. She watched him pass the tavern to continue on, until the darkness swallowed him. Only then did Aria make her own way back, turning away near the tavern to make for the empty field amidst the rubble where her Chariot sat parked.
A figure unfurled itself from the shadows as Aria let herself in. Taken unawares, her heart lurched uncomfortably, until better sense prevailed.
“You’re slipping” he remarked in UrSegan, without any hint of an accent.
“This is my safe space” she retorted.
“You’re on Zirko Segata now. There is no safe space.”
Aria chose to ignore the comment. With the shades drawn, only a sliver of moonlight penetrated the room. In the shadowy room, for a mad moment, he had reminded her of the dangerous hulk from the ruined courtyard tonight.
He arched an eyebrow. “Anything?”
Aria allowed herself a smile. “Jackpot.”
Melik looked pleased. The information had paid off. They were finally in play.
“Raise any eyebrows?” he inquired. He was an old hand at this but she was not. And it was his job to keep her focused on the task at hand.
She shrugged. “I had a drunk chase me around.”
“He made you?”
“No, he mistook me for a Dweller.” She gestured at her attire. “Next time, he won’t.”
Melik, well-schooled in Segatin colloquialisms, studied her in the dim light. “Get some rest. Rehearsals start early.”
Aria watched him slip away, a ghost in the night. Melik Aztari was one of Jedozan’s best operatives. In the halls of power on Tesaky Bura, it was whispered that General Colotoni himself had asked for Aztari by name to lead this mission. But best operative or not, he would not pass muster on an UrSegati world. That’s where she came in. Some doors would only open to a Segatin.
Aria moved to the window to open the drapes. That glimpse of open skies and untamed landscape had put her in a strange mood tonight. But her quarters were near the center of town. Here, unlike the outskirts, well-maintained buildings instead of abandoned ruins surrounded her. Even the moons were but a distant spec in the sky. It was the Hippodrome that blazed like a beacon in the darkness, the bright shiny jewel in the city’s crown. Zirko City had a new mayor — an ambitious trader who intended to make it an attractive destination for businesses and settlers. One of his first ideas had been to commission a new theatre and playhouse. After all, one could not attract the right kind of settlers to the frontier without an infusion of culture. Aria considered the venture foolish. The UrSegati System would never attract any but the most desperate until the Sihadr’en had been tamed and vanquished from its worlds. Sooner or later, the mayor would learn that his writ extended only as far as the end of a Sihadr’en weapon. But despite this, she couldn’t regret the Hippodrome. It had given her the unlikely opportunity to finally put the past to rest.
In a different part of town, a male contemplated his ale with a thoughtful air. Around him, conversation flowed freely, but for once, he was oblivious, lost in thought.
“More ale, Damos?”
The query had him glancing up. “I met a girl tonight, Tark. Something about her …” his voice trailed off.
His friend pulled up a chair to seat himself. This sounded serious. Tark knew how hard it was to get Damos’ attention.
“Anything specific catch your eye?” he inquired.
“Contradictions” his friend murmured, a little cryptically. “Any strangers in town, Tark?”
Such a question would be laughable if posed to anyone else. Zirko City was now a thriving town of a few thousand, the most populous and developed settlement on Zirko Segata, one of the larger planets in the UrSegati Star System. But Tark had been here for six months, getting the lay of the land and keeping his ear to the ground. He knew everything there was to know, even minor whispers of little apparent importance. It was his job to deal in rumors and information.
“The buzz is all about Jeroko and his crew” Tark remarked. “Currently, they are all Zirko can talk about.”
“To be expected. But I’m taking about Dwellers, not Landers.”
Tark lapsed into thought. “There’s a new troupe in town for the Hippodrome. The mayor’s attempt at bringing culture to the frontier.”
“The mayor is nothing if not ambitious” murmured Damos.
Tark grinned, his face lit up by mischief. “Until Jeroko sets him straight.”
Damos chuckled. “This troupe. Where’s it from?”
“All the way from Tesaky Bura.”
A mobile eyebrow arched gracefully. “Now, that is ambitious, Tark.”
“The girl, is she Tesakian?” inquired Tark.
Damos shook his head. “Segatin. Dressed like a Dweller but knew how to handle herself.”
“I’ll keep an eye out for her” Tark offered. “Unless you want me to make inquiries?”
“No” Damos said decisively. “She’s not that important.”
“Zoruth to Vegatha. What is your status?”
StarPilot Rafino Terasago drummed his fingers on the console, the only hint of impatience, as he awaited a response to his hail. The communicator remained stubbornly silent, no matter how much he willed it to come alive. On the console, space around them looked clear, an inky emptiness extending in all directions. There was nary a sign of a StarCraft in their vicinity. Only a large planetoid, whose atmosphere they hovered over. Vegatha had flown into the atmosphere two hours ago. Since then, there had been nothing but silence.
“Zoruth to Vegatha. Where are you, StarCraft?”
An edge of impatience crept into the young pilot’s voice. It had his partner glancing at him from the back of the craft where she heated food-paks for them.
“The planetoid’s atmosphere might be interfering with their COM, Raf” StarPilot Firakta Colotoni pointed out in her mellifluous voice.
“They’ve been off COM for over two hours, Fira. I’m going in after them.”
He shot her a glance. “If I find out that Tek went exploring, I’m going to throttle him.”
Fira grinned at Raf’s good-natured grumbling. Tek had always been an inquisitive soul.
StarCraft Vegatha was piloted by two of their friends, Tekvindo Pansatigo and Socranto Belantari. Graduates of the prestigious Tesakian Star Academy, all four pilots knew each other’s foibles inside out. Two years of rigorous training, with little time for a life outside the military, followed by brutal stints at the frontlines of the war, had made them exquisitely familiar with their fellow pilots’ strong points and idiosyncracies.
When the four of them had been chosen to run a reconnaissance mission to the outer planets, they had been overjoyed. It wasn’t the respite from the war they looked forward to, it was the chance to explore the abandoned region on the outer edges of Tesakian space. For the past year, reports from Cargo Transports plying the space had made their way, with increasing frequency, to the Star Guardians. Eventually, the rash of dispatches had convinced the powers-that-be to pull four of their best pilots out of the front lines for a quick reconnoiter to investigate the reported anomalies. Since the communiques had reported unexpected COM and other system failures when navigating the region, the two StarCrafts had made sure to stick together. Until Vegatha had flown into the atmosphere of the planetoid, to investigate the strange readings from their sensors.
“Dezukhe Hell” the StarPilot muttered under his breath.
The curse had Fira glancing at him again.
“The NAV system just died” Raf remarked.
Fira’s eyes met her partner’s. This sounded eerily similar to the reports they were here to investigate — mysterious incidences of interference with spacecraft systems.
“How close are we to the atmosphere, Raf?” she asked, wondering whether it was proximity to the planetoid that caused the glitch.
“Close. I guess we know why Vegatha is not answering our hails.”
Fira frowned, uneasy at the malfunction. The ramifications of this did not bode well. They could fly without the navigation system, but such unexplained glitches posed a risk to other critical systems. Yet, they had no choice but to go in. Vegatha was down there and could be in trouble.
The sober expression on Raf’s face told her that he shared her concerns.
“I’ll turn off all auto systems and fly us down the old-fashioned way, Fira” he assured her.
Fira nodded — it was their best option. The less systems they relied on, the lower the risk of a malfunction jeopardizing the StarCraft.
Raf turned his attention back to the console. “Heading into the planetoid now” he said briskly.
Fira abandoned the food-paks, making for the pilot’s seat beside him. Raf would need another pilot to watch the sensors. The craft shook abruptly, a jolt that made it shake. Fira reached hastily to steady herself. StarCrafts were light-weight fighter planes, their design optimized for speed and maneuverability in open space, despite the arsenal of weaponry they carried. Streaking through a planet’s atmosphere made for a bumpy ride, like now.
“We’re through, Fira” Raf announced, just as the craft steadied.
The transparent panels at the front of the craft provided a view of the clear skies they flew through. It was day on the planetoid.
“Anything from Vegatha?” she inquired hopefully. If it was the atmosphere that had interfered with COMs, they might be able to hear the other StarCraft now.
“Not yet. I’m sending out hails in a loop.”
“Strange” he muttered, almost under his breath.
About to turn back to the abandoned food-paks, Fira paused. “What is?”
“I don’t sense anything below, Fira.” Raf sounded confused.
“What do you mean?” his puzzled partner inquired.
“It’s like there’s nothing on this planetoid — no life, no gravity, no core. The sensors show nothing.”
Fira’s sense of unease kicked into higher gear. “More system malfunctions, Raf?”
“Nope, the system is functioning” he said slowly. “But the readings are strange.”
Fira switched off the food-pak warmer. “I’ll join you, Raf” she said. “The meal can wait.”
This time, Raf’s curse coincided with a thud as the StarCraft seemed to hit something, like a large pocket of resistance in the air.
“Strap in” Raf said urgently, his voice rising. “Fira, strap into the jumpseat.”
Warned by the rocking jolts and his exigency, she made for the jumpseat at the back of the craft. The StarCraft shuddered in place, a series of sharp moves that had Fira slipping and sliding.
“Raf?’ Fira tried to stay on her feet, hanging on for dear life, as the craft seemed to tilt to an impossible angle. If she didn’t know better, she’d say Zoruth had stalled. But StarCrafts didn’t stall. They were some of the Tesakian military’s most sophisticated and deadly flying machines.
“We’ve lost power” Raf informed her, with an eery calmness.
“All systems” he stated with the same expressionless inflexion, just as the craft swung into a free fall. “We’re falling out of the sky, Fira.”
That was all Fira had time to exclaim as the craft gathered momentum, accelerating down towards the planetoid surface. Objects started to careen inside the craft as it gathered speed, with the half-warmed food-paks missing her by an inch.
Raf, fighting with the controls, called to her again. This time, his voice was tainted by fear. “Are you strapped in, Fira?”
When Fira said nothing, he abandoned his futile efforts to stabilize the craft, to glance behind him, only to see her struggling to reach the jumpseat.
“Fira” he exclaimed, panic-stricken by her predicament. “We’re going to crash.”
With a final burst of desperation, Fira reached the jumpseat as the craft tilted dangerously forward. Now, they moved dizzyingly fast. She fought with the jumpseat controls, noting Raf’s efforts to unstrap and come to her aid from the corner of her eyes.
“No, Raf” she screamed the warning. “I’m fine. Don’t unstrap.”
Behind him, she could see trees and vegetation flash by on the clear panels. They must be very close to the ground.
They hit the planetoid at speed, with an ear-splitting screech. There was a thud as the craft shuddered and bounced, followed by the sound of metal tearing off. Then, everything went dark.
Fira came to slowly, disorientated and confused. It took her a few moments to get her bearings. She was strapped into the jumpseat at the back of Zoruth. Once activated, the seat had enveloped her snugly, cocooning her with its pileximoter cover to protect her from flying debris. Fira reached for the controls. Much to her relief, the protective encasing slid open with a soft whirr. Thank the Lady, Fira muttered to herself. She hadn’t been looking forward to cutting open a pileximoter cover with a laser torch from the inside.
Outside, a grim pall hung over everything. The craft’s lights were out, and only a ghostly glow permeated the semi-darkness. Fira glanced around the cramped quarters. It was in shambles. The jumpseat was still firmly attached to the floor of the StarCraft but not much else was. The force of the crash had torn parts off the craft to fling them willy-nilly all over. This is why the jumpseat was encased, to protect the pilot in it. These were hardy spacecraft, intended for war — able to take plenty of beating and withstand a great deal of damage.
In the eery silence, Fira glanced towards the front of the craft. Diffused light speared through the front panel to silhouette the interior of the StarCraft. The transparent front panel should have allowed in more light. Instead, something dark seemed to weigh on it, obscuring much of its surface. A silhouette slumped over one of the pilot seats. Raf sat unmoving, his body angled away from the instrument panel.
Fira sprang up from her seat. Though without a protective pileximoter encasing, the pilot seats were designed to protect in other ways from a crash landing or a heavy hit to the craft. But Raf had been attempting to come to her aid, she remembered. The thought had Fira crying out.
There was no response and Fira enabled the emergency light on the jumpseat. In conjunction with the light weaving in through the front panel, it helped to pave her way. Debris lay strewn all over the craft, making for an obstacle course. Fira picked her way carefully towards him. Halfway through, she heard the first groan.
He groaned again, stirring in his seat. “Fira?” he mumbled.
“We crashed, Raf” she said urgently. “Are you alright?”
There was a pause and Fira watched the silhouette in the pilot seat move cautiously.
“My leg’s broken” he said calmly.
Fira took a deep breath. “Which leg?”
He winced, reaching down to feel the leg. “The right one.”
Fira closed her eyes, relieved that they had both survived the crash, without serious injury. The Lady had been watching over them this day. She prayed that Tek and Soc had been equally lucky.
It took an hour to patch Raf up and make their way outside, through the mangled wreckage. From the planetoid’s surface, Fira surveyed the damage to the StarCraft. Fortified by a shot of painkillers from the medic kit, Raf hobbled around on his fractured leg. Zoruth had crashed into a densely wooded area. Branches, leaves and bits of trees lay strewn around it, partially covering the craft that had plunged into their midst. Foliage had lodged against the the front panel, obscuring them. Though the area around the downed craft was thick with vegetation, Zoruth had cut a hole through the tree cover, bringing a substantial chunk of it down in the fall. Through this, the sun shone brightly down on the wreck.
Fira took in the damage to the craft silently, dumbfounded by the strange circumstances and the near miss. Raf hobbled to a stop beside her, to rest his splintered leg with a sigh. “We’re not flying out of here on our own steam, Fira.”
Wedged into the clearing, it was clear that the StarCraft was badly damaged. As designed, the craft had saved the pilots but taken substantial damage. The hull was punctured in places, mangled out of shape and unrecognizable in others. They were trained to repair most of the essential engineering systems on the StarCraft. Or at least, fix them enough to get the craft flying. But with this wreckage, it was doubtful Zoruth could take off, let alone fly across a swath of space to Tesaky Bura.
“No, we aren’t” Fira confirmed soberly.
With both StarPilots in agreement on the prognosis, protocol kicked in. It called for them to transmit a message to Guardian Command and focus on survival until rescued. To do the first, they’d have to enable an emergency beacon. It would send out an SOS as well as broadcast a signal that would help triangulate their location for the rescuers.
Fira glanced at her partner. “The beacon, Raf.”
The hesitation in her voice had him turning to her, a grim expression on his face. “That power drain, Fira? I’ve never seen anything like it.”
She shared his disquiet. “You think it was deliberate?”
“It doesn’t make any sense. One moment, everything’s fine. Some issues with NAV but …” his voice trailed off.
“If someone caused us to fall out of the sky, we don’t want to paint a giant sign on our forehead” Fira said softly. The beacon’s broadcast signal would essentially pinpoint their location for anyone with a sensor powerful enough to catch it.
He agreed with her. “Someone or something on this planet took out our systems, Fira” Raf said slowly. “Might be prudent to not make it make it easy for them to find us.”
“In any case, it’ll take Guardian Command a few days to note we’re missing and mount a rescue” Fira remarked thoughtfully. “We have time to enable the beacon yet.”
They contemplated each other somberly, a silent acknowledgement of their circumstances. Fira was the first to break the silence.
“Vegatha” she said.
“Whatever brought us down, it’s a good bet that it affected them too” her partner agreed. “But how do we locate them?”
Fira pursed her lips, her eyes wandering the wreckage of their beloved Zoruth. They’d need power to use any functioning technology. And there was only one way to generate it.
“The portable solar cells, Raf. There’s plenty of sunlight on this planet. We could use the cells to power the StarCraft’s sensors, provided they’re still functional. The sensors are powerful enough to scan the entire planetoid.”
“Yes, if Vegatha hasn’t been drained of power or they’ve enabled their emergency beacon, the sensors would lock on” Raf murmured. “But we have to decouple the sensors from Zoruth’s power system first.”
While Raf assembled the portable solar panels, Fira scrambled onto Zoruth to lay them out where they could maximize the sun’s rays. With Zoruth’s power mysteriously drained, the solar cells would have to serve all their power requirements on this planet. Though the craft carried fuel crystals for long missions, the fuel converter ran off the StarCraft’s main power. Fortunately, this planetoid and the location of the wreck would provide plenty of sun exposure during the day. With a strategy and a goal to aim for, they worked harmoniously in tandem. They were copilots and friends, a partnership honed over years of training and flying sorties on the front lines against the Imperial Forces, where even a single misstep spelled disaster. Alarmed by the inexplicable power loss to their StarCraft in mid-flight, they worked quickly, driven by a sense of urgency to make the most of the setting sun.
Once the solar cells were recharging, Raf worked on decoupling the craft’s sensors from the power system while Fira walked the perimeter around Zoruth with a hand-held sensor. Though without the range of the StarCraft’s sensors, it provided valuable data about the terrain and life around the downed Zoruth. The StarCraft’s survival kit contained provisions for a few months. The kit was designed to enable them to survive inhospitable terrain and conditions. Included was a portable perimeter security system — an electronic fence that could be plugged into the StarCraft’s power or powered by solar cells. This was intended to help defend them from hostile life on the planet, if the StarCraft was too damaged to provide safe haven. The eFence consisted of eight collapsible lightweight rods that could be inter-connected to fence off and protect the area inside the perimeter. Fira set up the rods carefully, to enclose the wrecked StarCraft and a small clearing around it. The eFence was then hooked up to the recharging solar cells. Like all craft systems, Zoruth’s air recycler had lost power — it made air quality inside the craft poor. They’d have to sleep in the open, under the stars. With the perimeter secured by the eFence, it would give them advance warning of animals or other approaching predators.
As the sun set and darkness descended on the planetoid, the temperature plummeted. Fira gathered foliage from the vegetation the StarCraft had torn through, while Raf built a fire in the small clearing by Zoruth, inside the secured perimeter. Their lightweight sleeping bags had been carted outside to the clearing by the fire. With built-in sensors and special materials that adjusted to provide optimum sleeping temperature, the bags would keep them warm at night. Fira made one more trip into the StarCraft, before they settled in for the night.
When she came out, Fira held out a plasma weapon to her partner. Raf glanced up from rehydrating desiccated emergency rations, to calmly strap the weapon to his hip. He noted approvingly that Fira not only carried a weapon but also a knife strapped to her ankle.
“How’re the sensors coming along?” she asked, plopping down beside him to warm herself at the fire.
“They’re decoupled from main power. I’ll work on hooking them to the solar cells first thing at sun up.”
“How’s the leg?” she inquired.
“Damn inconvenient” he muttered, holding out a pack of emergency rations to her. “But otherwise fine. Those painkillers do their job.”
Fira took a bite of the food to make a face. It was bland but she knew it would do the trick. The nutritional value of the rations had been calculated down to the last bite.
“My eDevice indicates a large body of water in the vicinity” she remarked, forking up a spoonful to chew doggedly on the bland mixture. “Looks like a river.”
“How close?” Raf, engaged similarly, inquired.
“Maybe half an hour, as the crow flies. I’ll take a look in the morning.”
Raf’s eyes flickered. “Be careful, Fira.” Don’t go too far from camp, he wanted to add. But he knew that with him impaired, she would have to be proactive.
“I will.” Fira’s voice was grim. “You work on the sensors and I’ll case the area and stock up on supplies. If we’re forced to barricade ourselves while we wait for rescue, let’s make sure we’re ready.”
Raf glanced at his leg again. The medical scanner had indicated a fracture on his shin.
Fira put her head on his shoulder, a casual gesture from her that spoke volumes. “Let’s give the leg a chance to heal, Raf. There’s plenty that needs doing around here. Let me do the heavy lifting until then.”
Raf put his arm around her to give her an affectionate hug. If he was stranded here, there was no one he would rather have by his side than Firakta Colotoni.
It took Fira two strenuous hours to cut a path through the woods to the river in the morning. Guided by her eDevice sensor, and with the sun beating down on her, she swung the heavy machete expertly through the shrubs and dense grass until she stood before a bubbling river. Sweltering and almost tropical, this planet nonetheless reminded her of home, especially the countryside on Tesaky Bura. Graying rocks with yellow-hued foliage, while the woods teamed with splashes of flame-colored flowers.
The river was wide with a rocky bottom. Despite the logs and other flotsam in it, the water was crystal clear and cool to the touch. By the banks were tall trees with bunches of a familiar ball-shaped yellow and gray striped fruit. Heronuts, Fira mused happily. Heronut trees grew on coastal belts in Tesaky Bura and its fruits were considered a delicacy for their flavorful taste and the nutritious, sweet, water-consistency nectar inside the shells.
Fira laid down the heavy machete and striped off the outer layers of her uniform, to dexterously climb the tree. Her childhood had been spent in the countryside, clambering up trees just like these. A few swipes from the knife sheathed to her ankle cut cleanly through the heavy bundles of the fruit. They dropped like stones to the ground below. The tough outer shell of the fruit would protect them from damage, she knew.
Fira clambered down the tree to the river, to smear a drop of water onto the eDevice. It would test the water content and quality. Everything around her looked pristine but Star Academy training had drummed into her that in an unfamiliar environment, danger often lurked in unusual places. Fira heaved a sigh of relief when the instrument declared the water potable. She had been worried that they’d have to work on isolating and enabling the StarCraft’s water purification system to get potable water. But the built-in filters on the water canteens would suffice to remove the surface impurities from this river water. She breathed easily — they had caught a lucky break. With the river so close to camp, they’d have easy access to water. Filling the two canteens she had carried with her to the brim, Fira sat down by the river. Clearing a path through the woods had been back-breaking work. With the path cleared, the route between camp and river would be easier now. Tomorrow, she’d bring the larger storage containers to haul back more water.
The sun beat down, lighting up the yellow and reddish specks in the gray landscape. Everything looked pristine, untouched and tranquil around her. Fira sighed, flopping down on a flattish rock to cool down. The woods teemed with insects and she daren’t take off her protective uniform with the sleeves covering her arms while trekking through them. Plus, some of the unfamiliar bushes and shrubs could well be poisonous to the touch. But overheated by the trek and the mid-afternoon sun, the water beckoned to her. She was a stronger swimmer, from before her days at the Academy where it was mandatory for all recruits. Fira glanced carefully around her, her eyes scanning for any activity or threat. Everything looked serene, with nary a sign of anything out of the ordinary. After the morning’s labor, she yearned to cool off with a dip before she returned to assist Raf with the StarCraft systems. Just to be on the safe side, Fira unstrapped her eDevice from her belt, to scan the vicinity with its sensor. She had programmed the eDevice to scan for life-forms large enough to pose a threat to her, discounting most signs of microbial life, birds and fish. With the instrument reading no life, except hers, within range, Fira felt confident enough to take a dip in the river.
Fira stripped off her clothes, to place them in a neat pile on a raised flat rock by the water’s edge. Her plasma weapon, ankle knife and machete joined her clothes, for easy reach. Unbraiding her shoulder length hair, she stepped gingerly into the water. The water was clean, cool and refreshing. She washed her hair and scrubbed, using a handful of the grainy sand from the river bed to exfoliate. Making sure to stay close to the bank, clear of the rapids and whirling flotsam in the middle of the river, Fira floated languidly. Her eyes on the reddish sun above her, she wondered what Maron was up to right about now. She hoped that news of their disappearance did not alarm him. Known for his legendary cool-headedness under pressure, he was nevertheless different when it came to her.
A tiny sound, like that of a log splashing into the gurgling river, had Fira turning her head at the disturbance. Two red, malevolent eyes met her sight. Closing in fast was a large water beast, skimming through the river at incredible speed.
“Shit.” Fira scrambled, to make for the bank.
Though she had taken care to hug the bank, the beast was moving phenomenally fast. She could feel the surge of the previously tranquil waters as the beast cut through it. Fira cursed under her breath, scrabbling for a perch to pull herself up over the rock where her weapons lay under the sun. At the very least, she should have kept her ankle sheath with her in the water, for just such an emergency, she admonished herself. Dimly, as if from a distance, she could hear her eDevice beeping, to signal a threat. The water surged in waves to shove her against the rocky outcropping, bruising her. Heart pounding, Fira struggled to pull herself up, afraid to glance behind. She could hear the creature breathing, it was so close. With the last ounce of strength, she pulled herself clear off the water, just as something sharp snapped at her heels. Unsure whether the creature could climb onto the rock in pursuit, Fira scrambled for the machete that lay closest to her.
Before she could reach it though, a baying cry from the beast had her glancing at it in alarm. The beast, mostly submerged while swimming, was now half on the rock with her. A crude spear stuck out from its corrugated back. It was massive, even bigger than she had assumed, it’s thick gray hide topped by sharp looking spikes. The large misshapen head shook from side to side as it brayed deafeningly, the sharp pointed teeth slobbering while a long tongue flopped at her. Fira scrambled away hastily on her hands and feet as the beast fell back into the water with another cry. Water splashed into the air, showering her with a deluge as she half lay and half sat on her rocky perch, winded and gasping for breath. The shrieks echoed through the woods, while the beast lashed at the spear with its spiked tail, again and again. Fira stared, unable to look away. Then, before her terrified eyes, it submerged into the water to vanish again. Fira stared at the rippling water where the beast had been nipping at her heels only moments before. Part of the spear, chewed off at one end, popped back into the water from the depths. Fira slumped back in relief, her heart pounding from the near escape. But the sight of the spear, now floating lazily in the river, had her glancing at the opposite bank.
Only to gasp, her eyes widening at the sight that met her eyes. A male, larger than anyone she had ever seen, watched her from the bank. Legs braced apart, he stood unmoving. A simple toga-like garment around his hips was all that saved his modesty. Miles of gleaming skin covered a muscular strapping form. Tesakian, Fira realized dazedly, albeit one at least a half foot taller than any on Tesaky Bura. His copper skin was tanned golden from the sun, the reddish-brown hair hung to his nape, and glittering eyes watched her unblinkingly. Powerful shoulders, muscular arms, a barrel chest, defined abs and long legs, haloed by the sun, met her gaze as Fira gawked at him speechlessly. For a long moment, they stared at each other, neither saying a word. Then, his eyes flickered lower. Reminded thus, Fira sprang into action, scrambling for her clothes with a muttered curse. When she turned around moments later, with her uniform held before her like a shield, he was gone. The river, the woods and everything else around her was tranquil again. It was as if the entire mad interlude with the water beast had been a dream. Including the male. Fira shook herself, to check her eDevice again. No life present, except her. Whoever he was, he was now out of her device’s sensor range. The male must move as incredibly fast as the water beast, she concluded. And, was probably just as dangerous. Except, Fira reminded herself, he had saved her from the slobbering beast.
It was mid-afternoon when Fira returned to the StarCraft. The sun was blinding in the sky, the heat searing. She found Raf inside, working on the sensors, his bare chest glistening with sweat.
“I have a treat for you, Raf.” Fira held up the heronuts.
Her partner’s eyes lit up. “Thank you” he said with a heartfelt sigh. “I’m not crazy about emergency rations.”
Fira grinned. “Who is?”
Using her machete, Fira loped off the heads of a couple of heronuts, while Raf slowly worked his way outside on his crutch.
Pouring out the nectar from the fruits into containers, she held one out to Raf. “I saw someone by the river” she remarked.
In the act of drinking, Raf froze, an arrested expression on his face. “Someone?”
“Looked Tesakian to me. But bigger than anyone I’ve ever seen.”
“Tesakian?” His brows drew together. “There’s no record of Tesakians colonizing this planetoid.”
“It lies in Tesakian space, Raf” Fira pointed out. Though on the outer edges, the planetoid was still within Tesakian territory. But Raf was correct. If they had colonized this planet, there would be a record of it on the home world. That there wasn’t was another mystery to unravel, when it came to this particular planet.
“Yes, it is” Raf agreed.
They sipped companiably for a few minutes, the sweet nectar refreshing and nutritious.
“You think his people jammed our systems, Fira?” Raf asked her quietly. “But why?”
“I don’t know” Fira said slowly, her mind’s eye flashing though the wild and terrifying moments by the river. “But I don’t believe they possess the technical expertise to bring down a StarCraft.”
Raf arched an eyebrow at her.
“He wore a loincloth and carried a crude spear for a weapon” Fira said bluntly.
“Loincloth!” Raf almost spewed out his heronut water. He stared at Fira incredulously. “He wore a loincloth?”
“Yes, and he was built.”
Raf smiled his slow attractive smile, his eyes lighting up with laughter. “Are you sure you didn’t dream him up, Fira? A large, hot, Tesakian male in a loincloth on an abandoned planetoid along the outer edges of our space.”
“I didn’t say he was hot” she countered calmly, unflustered by the teasing. “Just that he was built.”
“Hmm” Raf pursed his lips, his eyes still awash with laughter. “Perhaps, the heat made you delirious” he suggested.
“Nope.” Fira reached for the fruit to scrape the inside with a spoon. “He saved me from a water beast. I’m not likely to hallucinate that.”
“Water beast” Raf repeated, his amusement disappearing.
Fira savored the taste of the heronut. “It came out of nowhere, Raf. I was cooling down in the water and had to scramble for my weapons.”
He looked perturbed. “Fira.”
She sighed. “I should have kept my eDevice close. Both water beast and male move phenomenally fast.”
As he continued to study her, she added penitently. “I’ll be more careful next time.”
Fira was a phenomenal StarPilot and had graduated top of their class at the Academy. Raf wondered uneasily whether his fractured leg was forcing his partner to take more risks to make up for it.
“If his people didn’t bring us down, it means there are others on this planet, Fira. And, they will not be armed with crude spears” he reminded her, in his subtle way.
Fira looked grave. “They might even be looking for us, as we speak. I think we should enable the eFence all the time, not just at night. This way, no one sneaks up on us unawares.”
Raf agreed with alacrity. “SolarGen is reporting issues, Fira. We must get it to optimal output before we can run it twenty-two hours a day.”
Fira stood up, dusting off the crumbs from the heronut. “I’ll take a look at it. The panels probably require adjustment.”
Raf said nothing, his expression grim.
“Keep your weapons close” Fira reminded him, her eyes darting to his holster. “We don’t want to be caught with our pants down.”
“Tomorrow, I’ll go back to the river to case the area better” she said.
Raf frowned, uneasy at the thought of Fira exploring this strange and dangerous planetoid, without her partner to watch her back.
“Let me get a lay of the land, Raf” she said persuasively. “I don’t want us to be sitting ducks if the ones that brought down Zoruth come after us.”
Raf couldn’t disagree with her. He knew it was only a matter of time before someone found them. Now that they knew the planet was inhabited, they had to assume that the natives knew their world a lot better than two pilots who had crash landed on it.
COMING SOON …