“Hey, Rezzie!” Pete shouted from behind her. “Slow up.”
Lord help her. Delorez, aka Rez, was already creeping along. If she shuffled her feet any slower, she would technically be standing still and people might mistake her for a statue.
Well. Okay. Not a statue. The good settlers of Two-Four-Kay had long given up on the fine arts. Apparently, they lacked the time and materials for leisurely pursuits. Instead, all human energy was dedicated to the higher pursuit of survival on Warren’s Planet.
“Hey, Rezzie,” Pete huffed, sounding winded, as he came along side of her.
Crap. Wasn’t she going slow enough? Did he have to sprint to catch up with her?
She slid her gaze to Pete. His ruddy cheeks were bright smears on his sallow face. Yep. The poor guy must have double-timed it, and he really shouldn’t be running. All the men who worked the gold mine weren’t doing so well.
He coughed into his elbow, hacking out his words. “Back from Briarwood already, Rezzie?”
“Yep. I’m back.” Rez gave Pete a thumbs up for his accurate observation.
Seriously, good on him. Rez was positive that lots of people probably benefited from Pete’s summaries of the self-explanatory. She wholeheartedly believed that encouraging each person to play to their strengths kept a settlement like Two-Four-Kay up and running.
Her only complaint—and truly, it was just one teeny tiny complaint—was that no one’s strength was quickness.
Everyone was so slow. Slow to move. Slow to speak. Slow to decide…
They were all snails trudging up a wall.
Fortunately, she’d learned from day one in the settlement to make the best of it. For instance, from the moment Pete had called her name, she’d begun planning her trip into Briarwood. Already she had ten different excursions all figured out. She would:
Refill her ration stash.
Clean the rain water filtration cistern.
Check on her neighbors.
Wash her clothes…
On and on, simple as that, she’d ten trip’s worth of productive things anxiously awaiting for her to cross them off her list.
And guess what? She had Pete to thank for that.
“So, if you’re back…” Pete trailed off.
The fine hairs along Rez’s flanks and the small of her back started to tingle.
Well, that wasn’t good.
It wasn’t because Pete’s words had trailed off like a turtle making a ninety-point turn off the beaten path, probably in pursuit of a decade-saving short cut; Rather, it was the arch of his brows—rising at the speed of a yawn—that triggered her hairs. His earnest gaze also riled her legs.
She wanted to run, run, run.
Like watching sap slide down a tree trunk, she stared at his thin lips as they stretched and contorted. Each word dripped from his mouth.
As those six words were spoken, Rez used that time to devise three dozen ways to dodge a date with Pete. Thirty-three of those tactics involved bolting, which nixed them from consideration.
Alrighty, then. That left:
Flop and Faint
Point and Pitter-patter
Thump and Dump
Okay. She’d try making a relevant point first, then pitter-patter away.
“I’m on my way to meet Rogers,” she said as she frowned at Pete in genuine regret. A man like him, who could simplify simple concepts into even simpler terms, really needed to be with someone who would both appreciate and benefit from that talent.
However, since Rez wasn’t Pete’s ‘someone’ she followed up her ‘point’ with her pitter-patter escape. “I’m sure he’ll be sending me right back to Briarwood.”
When the settlement had first been established, Rogers, Sr.—the original warden—had led an expedition into the alien forest. After barely scouting half a league into the undercanopy, Rogers, Sr. had turned back. He was minus a few men yet had gained numerous horrific tales. Alien predators that resembled stalking tigers, ambushing alligators, and fiercely cunning wolves reigned beyond the borders of Two-Four-Kay.
There was no way Pete would follow her into Briarwood. No one from Two-Four-Kay went strolling through a monster-infested forest hoping to impress a potential date.
Which was freaking awesome for Rez. It kept all the bachelor settlers off her tail. Not that she had anything against the men of the settlement. She really didn’t.
Besides, tossing out Briarwood wasn’t a desperate excuse. She was truthfully telling Pete what would most likely happen once she met with Rogers, Jr.—the current warden. Rogers, Jr. would send her out again because he must. The planetary satellites were shit and radio-comms had a limited range. All the wardens on Warren’s Planet needed people like Rez—gutsy, yet crazy souls who chose to run messages between settlements rather live with their fellow settlers.
Plus, ever since the Akupara—a reclusive race of aliens—had landed on Warren’s Planet a few months ago and set up basecamp, runners were in high demand.
Seriously, Rez’s job satisfaction was through the freaking roof.
But, she tried not to gloat too much about it. Poor settlers like Pete were assigned to jobs that all involved insurmountable tasks. They either labored in the mine, struggled to keep ancient equipment and systems functioning, or toiled with frail crops. The fact was not everyone could run, and even if they could, no one ran like her.
Well, except when she couldn’t run. Those times were the worst, because she had to move so dang slow. Plus, bumping into Pete meant she had reduce her speed even more. It just burned to admit it, but…
She was late.
She was never late. In fact, her biggest problem was being overly early.
“So, Pete,” she canted her head toward the end of the street, “I gotta get going.”
Pete’s brow furrowed in confusion. Heck, snow fell faster than his hairy eyebrows. “Um? What?”
Rez blinked. What did he mean ‘what?’
“I gotta go.” She measured her words as she lifted her arm. Ah, that was it. Nice and teeth-gratingly slow, she pointed toward her destination—the shabby modular building that served as Two-Four-Kay’s municipal center.
She knew Rogers, Jr. was waiting on her to deliver the latest message from the warden of Chalk Downs regarding the Akupara. Supposedly, the aliens were sending dignitaries to the human settlements.
Understand trudged across Pete’s face. “Oh! Well, when you get back? Again. When you get back again from Briarwood.”
She’d blinked eleven times while he’d drawled through that monologue.
See! Right there! Pete really, really, really deserved someone who adored long-winded speeches that would leave them breathless, not fuming. He truly did.
If only Rez was a match-maker rather than a runner. There had been one—a mad woman named Marcia—who had paired Rez’s parents. It all turned out good, from what Rez recalled. Her childhood had been buttercups and daffodils until…
Yeah. She was gonna stop herself right there. The present needed her attention.
Although, thoughts of the past had given her an idea.
And she also caught sight of Joia dragging her butt down the street.
Time for the ol’ Thump and Dump.
She rapidly tapped her right foot, the sole of her boot striking the packed dirt of the street. Thump. Thump. Thump.
Just like that, Joia stumbled and fell.
A whole sluggish second later, she cried out. “Ow! Oh, ow!”
“Oh, no!” Rez gasped as she carefully redirected her pointing finger. “Jo!”
Then Rez took off—loping for goodness sake!—over to her friend. As she knelt down, Joia flashed her a swift wink.
Yep. Rez just handed over another I.O.U. to her best friend. No need to worry, it wasn’t like Joia would make her race naked through Two-Four-Kay for a third time.
Pete’s shadow crept over them. “Jo, you fell.”
Joia slid her annoyed-filled gaze to Rez and managed to roll her eyes without Pete noticing. “Yep. I go boom.”
Ugh. Okay. Maybe asking Joia for help wasn’t the best way to go. If it were any other guy in the settlement, Rez wouldn’t bother shielding him from Jo’s barbs. Ever since the Akupara had arrived, Rez and Joia had been dodging more and more requests for dates. Or, worse, finding themselves in seemingly ordinary encounters that suddenly turned ‘date-like.’ The collective persistence of the settlement’s men was becoming an issue. But Pete? He was harmless and defenseless and really needed someone who could protect him.
Heck, Pete’s ‘It Girl’ list of desirable traits was getting kinda unruly… and possibly unattainable if all of Two-Four-Kay’s single men were on the hunt for a wife.
Rez flicked her gaze to Pete, relieved to see that he continued to convey an outpouring of concern. Good. Joia’s snark jumped right over his head.
Satisfied, Rez flicked her fingers out and pinched her friend.
Joia jerked and cried out.
Well, that time, Joia’s ‘ow’ sounded gratifyingly sincere.
“She’s very badly hurt,” Rez said, tilting her gaze up to Pete as she ignored Joia’s scowl. “You should help her to Doc Skylar.”
Rez heard Joia’s groan lowly. Well, that’s what her friend got for being mean: a pinch plus tortuous tending by the settlement’s lone doctor—who hated Joia’s guts.
“Yeah. Okay.” Pete nodded.
“I can stand!” Joia blurted out as Pete began to hunker down next to her. “Um. Pretty sure I can stand.”
“But, you can’t walk,” Rez said pointedly.
Joia’s left eye twitched, then she blew out a breath. “Fine. I can stand. Walking? Not so much.”
Well, kinda perfect. Pete would see to Joia, while Rez would speed off to her meeting and get redeployed to the forest. All the while, she would avoid a sweetly determined bachelor.
Yep. It paid to be quick on one’s feet. Everything was awesome all around.
Kinixys glared unseeingly at the shuttle’s navigation console. Bodily, he was crewing the co-pilot station. Mentally, he was replaying the brief meeting with the leader of the human settlement designated as Two Dash Four Dash Kay.
I’m so sorry…
I’m so sorry…
I’m so sorry…
Each loop of the male’s snide voice fueled his frustration. Were all humans so quick to speak empty words? He hoped not, for that male was clearly a moron.
No. An idiot.
“An idiot or a moron?” Kinixys glanced at his sibling, who calmly used the holo-controls to pilot the shuttle.
Emys appeared annoyingly unperturbed by their wasted morning. Even though they were both wearing their armor—as one does outside of the Bale—he didn’t need to see her expression. She was probably disappointed, not angry.
“He’s an ass, Sibling Mine.” Emys’s calm voice carried through their helmet comms.
Ah. An ass. That descriptor perfectly classified Warden Rogers Comma Junior. His sibling well knew his mind, as she should.
Earlier that morning, when Kinixys and Emys had met with that pathetic male, they had barely completed the human’s hasty greeting ritual of grasping and wrestling each other’s hands before Rogers had stated his unwillingness to help.
From behind his lopsided desk constructed of ship scraps, he’d fidgeted with a non-functioning comms tablet as he’d spoken lies. “We are unable to offer assistance to the Akupara.”
The male’s smirk had Kinixys grinding his teeth and clenching his fists. The male had too many kinds of smiles. During their first meeting with Rogers, his smile had been laced with greedy delight, which Kinixys knew Emys would handily finesse to work in their favor. This second smile, though, had been dripping with conceit.
Unbelievably, that idiotic male had thought himself superior to Kinixys and his sibling.
Well, Kinixys was glad to be on the shuttle and unequivocally done with that ass. It mattered not that his hands were aching because they refused to uncurl. That his fingers remained fisted on the co-pilot console—and clearly not co-piloting—as if that would force him to turn the shuttle around and satisfy his full-body urge to punch Rogers in his smug, fleshy face.
Rogers was pursuing a self-serving agenda rather than providing for the people under his care.
But, in looking back on that farcical meeting, Kinixys discovered another reason to despise that asinine male. When Rogers had dismissed them, he’d clasped Kinixys on the shoulder.
In that moment, Kinixys had sworn to petition the High Umara, demanding that Exemplary Bale Honors be award to his shoulder cop. After all, it had heroically shielded Kinixys from the unwanted touch.
With Rogers’s intrusive hand on Kinixys’s armor, that male once again had flashed his smug smile and said, “I am truly sorry, Commander Umara.”
By Aku Himself, that human male really was an ass.
Emys was Commander Umara and the strategic leader of the Akupara’s mission with the humans. Kinixys was serving as Emys’s enforcer, which provided him with immense personal and occupational pride.
He was really, really good at removing obstacles.
And Rogers was an obstacle that he longed to smash into rubble.
He also longed to disinfect his shoulder cop. Mayhap, his entire kit of armor. And he’d use the quality disinfectant, too. The one he always applied after a bloody melee that really removed the crusted-on guts and dusty flakes of cartilage.
He certainly wouldn’t dig out the shitty disinfectant that he used after pompous ceremonial time-sucks with those outside of his Bale.
Emys sighed, and he knew that frustrated, self-flogging sound. His sibling was engaging in self-criticism.
“I do not think I explained the offer well,” Emys said softly though the helmet comms.
Bullshit. Emys had explained the Akupara’s offer in the most simplest of terms. She even spoke InterLingual, an auxiliary language that humans had developed. Apparently, on their homeworld, a multitude of languages had been spoken for thousands of years. It was only recently in their history—just a few hundred years back—that humans had consolidated.
Learning that fact about the species had struck Kinixys as being unconscionably redundant. Why, demands for unconditional surrender—a one-word communique—must have taken days to translate. Just thinking about all that the humans would never get back as they spent years, perhaps decades, dictating terms of surrender, left him baffled. Which he hated. Inevitably, he would get mired in frustration as he tried to understand the logic of fools.
It was a dead-end pursuit, of which he was well aware, but still… What the hell were they all thinking?
Surely not everyone shared the same moronic notion? And not just at the same time, but at the same time for thousands of fruitless years?
So, it really, really, really baffled and angered him that Emys concluded that she’d been the one lacking. Whereas that degenerate male was a horrendous linguist of his own fucking language. It was not her fault. Not at all.
His hands curled into tighter fists as Rogers’s damn smirk flashed in his mind.
Truly, how many times could the med-chamber at the Bale heal a bashed human head? By Aku, he prayed it numbered in the upper thousands. He was Akupara. He would take his leisurely time with each and every blow. Hell, he would savor all thousand-plus cracks of that male’s thick yet endlessly echoing, hollow skull.
Kinixys turned to his sibling. Too bad, as custom dictated, they remained in their armor—covered from faceplate to the soles of their feet. He wanted her to see his disapproving scowl.
“You explained the offer utilizing clear and concise terminology.” He gave her a respectful head bow. Well, as respectful as his ire would allow. “I commend you on your vocabulary and grammar structure and shall petition the High Umara for official recognition.”
After he submitted the forms for his shoulder cop, of course.
He glared at Emys, waiting for her to rescind her self-criticism.
She said nothing as she continued to pilot the shuttle.
Kinixys heaved a sigh as he turned back to facing his console. “Truly, all fault lies with that pathetic male. As you said, he’s an ass.”
“But,” Emys said, and he could tell that she was carefully choosing her words—like all Akupara do. “I did not purposefully address that aspect of his character.”
Now he was developing a headache to match his aching hands. “You regret not speaking asinine drivel to an ass?”
Emys hummed, the tone carrying acknowledgement plus disagreement with his argument.
As he’d expected, he’d not convinced her.
“I do not think that male knows how to speak, asinine or otherwise,” Kinixys said hotly. “He misapplied the words ‘truly’ and ‘sorry.’ Many times.”
“As he should.” Emys tilted her head, gesturing toward Rogers who was far behind them. “He has not communicated our offer to a single female within his settlement. For that breach of oath, he was neither contrite nor penitent.”
Kinixys nodded encouragingly. Perhaps Emys could be swayed to see true reason. “Then perhaps he does us a favor.”
A grand favor, too. By Rogers proving to be an unwarrantedly arrogant, incompetently deceitful, and linguistically-deficient ass, the Akupara could cease their dealings with him and all humans.
Emys cut through his hopeful musings. “I believe that he unwittingly has done just that.”
‘That’? As in, a grand favor?
He scoffed. “He has done nothing for us.”
Another one of Emys’s soothing hums carried over the helmet comms. “He has confirmed value, Sibling Mine.”
Confirmed value? This male? A male who sat behind a shoddy desk and held a broken tablet—who had literally enthroned himself atop a junk heap—understood the precious resource under his care? A male who would have them believe that their message had been broadcasted to every female in the settlement?
Fuck that male and his ‘confirmation.’
How could Emys continue to insist that Rogers was a simple, negotiable setback to their plans? The male was boot scrapings, already slime and muck. What was there for Kinixys’s Bale to pursue on this entire planet? If Rogers was representative of the species, there was no reason to continue their pursuit.
But, then again, without access to females, their Bale would perish.
“We waste time,” Kinixys hissed his words through the helmet comms.
“Ah, we are Akupara.” His sibling scolded him kindly. “We waste nothing because we always measure and observe.”
Rogers lacked worth, yet Kinixys could still measure the male. Rogers was the tons of shit that turned water into sewage.
“And what have you observed of Rogers?” Emys asked.
What he’d observed was that Rogers was dishonorable. The male had told Emys that he’d presented the Umara Bale’s offer to the females of his settlement. The surveillance micro-drones that Kinixys had programmed to comb Two Dash Four Dash Kay revealed that the male only spoke of the offer to several human males; they all had huffed and grumbled like swine at a trough.
Well, let them gorge on their slop and negligence. Soon enough, they would be choking on their own blood.
“You never could conceal your bloodlust, Sibling Mine.” Emys chuckled as he snarled again. “Well, I’ve observed that Rogers referred us to another settlement—Chalk Downs—five times within our three minute conversation.”
Ah, Emys. Always the one to observe and measure details beyond sighting tactical strike points and calculating maximum damage.
Thank Aku that Kinixys wasn’t commander of this mission. As commander, he would not be seated at the navigation console and thus make note of their current course heading.
“Sibling Mine,” he said far too casually. “Then why are we six clicks off course for Chalk Downs and flying over Briarwood?”
“Because we are following a rabbit.”
He gave her a surprised look behind his faceplate. “Why bother? You know I hate picking fur from my teeth.”
Emys sighed. “A human. We are following a human.”
“Have we not had enough of those rascals?”
Another warm chuckle. “This one is female.”
Truly? Outside the confines of the settlement? And in Briarwood of all places?
He had begun doing his daily fitness within the forest because engaging with the creatures within doubled as suitable combat conditioning. That, and it was quiet and blessedly devoid of humans.
With the exception of one, lone human female.
Well, there went his hope that their females were the reasonable half of the species.
Please feel free to leave a comment (and I would really love to hear from you!). I’m going to add my thoughts as well.
From Slow & Steady: As She Goes
Copyright © 2020 by Bex McLynn
All rights reserved