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Kinixys stormed into the crash site and barreled straight toward his sibling.
“Commander Emys Avain Kythe Umara, Scute of the Bale,” Kinixys growled lowly, dropping the register of his voice so that his challenge wasn’t bellowed throughout the forest. “Present yourself.”
Emys stood amidst the scattered, useless debris. At a glance, she seemed battle-ready, with her shoulders square and her feet braced apart; only, her helm wasn’t facing forward. His sibling gazed off into the bramble, appearing to be impatient, of all things.
Emys sighed. “You have no challenge, Sibling Mine. There was no crack in the shell.”
Like hell she hadn’t risked their Bale’s secrets! He’d just spent a damnable hour following Emys away from that muddy ditch. Whereas he’d moved as an Akupara should move—slow and steady when not shielded inside the Bale—his sibling had crested the slope within a handful of strides and disappeared from view.
Kinixys blew a hot breath from his nose, fogging his own faceplate. He flipped the damn thing open so that he could yell at his sibling. “There was an Outbaler back there.”
The human female’s sudden presence had forced him to employ that strategic, yet ridiculous, tumble down the slope to mask his forward momentum. To have the female believe that his own bumbling, and not his pace, explained his barreling speed.
She waved him off. “I approached with care. No one was there.”
“She was there.”
Well, she had been there. He was certain of it. He could easily recall the color of her eyes—a rich, fertile brown—and the spattering of tiny, pin-prick-sized markings across her nose and smooth cheeks. She had been wearing shabby clothing which, like all the settlers, was sourced from spun animal hair fibers plus worn leather boots. Her garments were unnecessarily rustic, especially since fabricators could print custom fit, odor-absorbing and dirt-repelling attire within a day.
“She?” Emys stretched the word out, sounding entirely too intrigued. “Indeed. That explains your preening.”
There was no fucking ‘preening’.
“I was confronting the female while preventing a security breach.” He jabbed a pointed finger toward the direction of the slope. “While you were running.”
During his return trek up the slope, the full implications of Emys’s sudden arrival at the ditch had registered with him. In order to have witnessed the aftermath of his confrontation with the human female, Emys must have traveled very quickly from the crash site to the edge of perimeter.
By Aku Himself, she’d even lifted her visor and had called out to him.
Why would his esteemed sibling conduct herself with such egregious negligence when out in the open?
Truly, what the fuck had just happened?
He stared at his sibling, teetering between outrage and dread, as he absorbed her reaction to his accusation. She simply gazed off into the forest. No wailful excuses for her actions. No apologies.
Rather, she looked contemplative.
All his muscles tensed as wariness swept over him.
“She is outside the settlement,” Emys said as she shifted her gaze to him.
He shook his head, not gathering her meaning.
“At your true pace, Sibling Mine, you could reach Two Dash Four Dash Kay before nightfall. Yes?”
Why bother answering her. Emys had all the official data regarding his timed-pace.
“But a human?” Emys strode over to him. “How long to reach the settlement from here?”
Kinixys shrugged his shoulders. “Days.”
Indeed, it would take a human like Rogers many days to reach Two Dash Four Dash Kay from this interior spot within Briarwood. As to why Emys mentioned this? Well, he was slowly piecing it together.
“The female has been in the forest for days,” he said as he turned and scoured the bramble about them.
What did he expect to see? A flash of the female sprinting human-paced through the dense bushes and around the massive tree trunks?
“More importantly,” Emys corrected him gently. “Here in the forest, she’s outside of Rogers’s influence.”
What difference did that make? “Rogers hasn’t told a single female about our proposal.”
Damn Emys. Sometimes her mind worked so unlike an Akupara’s that it frightened him. Whatever advantage she’d identified, he’d yet to see it.
So he did what he did best and waited.
His ability to lie in wait was unparalleled. The Bale often asked him to tutor others in the technique.
Emys placed her hand on his shoulder. “Sibling Mine, no human is here to dissuade her.”
Emys was correct, as always. They could approach the female directly. Present their proposal themselves. Remove Rogers from the board entirely.
Oh. He liked this plan.
He nodded along. “I’ll hunt her for you. Truss her up so that she’ll listen attentively to your offer.”
Yes. Hunting the human female was a far better assignment than the disastrous outcome that could have befallen her. If that female had happened to witness his sibling’s carelessness at the ditch, then he would have been forced to eliminate her for the good of the Bale.
This realization—the possibility that he could be ordered to eliminate the female—had also occurred to him while he’d followed his fleet-footed sibling back to the crash site. For the first time, his willingness to fulfill his duty without hesitation had wavered.
The female had looked so startled and alone and triggered the temptation within him to tackle her…
Hunting her so that Emys could woo her was much better.
Yes. He really liked this plan.
Emys patted his shoulder before moving off to collect a pile of components that she must have deemed too risky to be salvaged by Outbalers. “Hunt? Yes. Truss? I’d recommend against that.”
“Why the hell not?” He had many awards for trussing.
Emys was hunkered down, her attention affixed to the shuttle scraps in her hands. He knew it did not escape his sibling that she held evidence that could harm their people.
“I’d not ensnare her, Sibling Mine.” With agitated movements, she shoved the components into a make-shift pouch of mesh insulation. “And you shouldn’t either. Think of mother.”
Lately, Emys had been using their mother to justify her command decisions, thus ending all discussion. It was an effective tactic because it was true. Their entire mission on Warren’s Planet was necessitated by three words: Think of Mother.
“Fine,” he grumbled. “No trussing.”
But for all they knew, humans might be swayed by a well-executed snare.
Perhaps he could rig up just a small net?
“No nets either, Sibling Mine,” Emys tossed over her shoulder as she strode away from the crash site. “If all goes well, you are to be an uncle. Act like one.”
True. An uncle would be protective. And if this human agreed to have a child with Emys, then he’d gain another sibling.
Someone he would claim as Mine.
With a disgruntled shake of his head, he silently corrected himself. Sibling Mine.
Rez woke to the eerie howling of War-wolves—the wolf-like predators on Warren’s Planet. As she teetered between wakefulness and dreaming, a wispy image of Luna’s compassionate face hovered over her. For a heartbeat or two, Dream Luna mouthed silent words before she faded in the morning light.
Of course Rez would wake to the memory of tiny, timid Luna trying to help her after their spaceship had crashed on Warren’s. Just added-on guilt, right? It had taken her forever to fall asleep last night. Disastrous ‘what if’ images of the Akupara bumping into trees and falling into War-gator ponds had kept flashing through her mind.
With a protesting groan, she rubbed the sleep—and maybe some gritty guilt—from her eyes. Her own grumbling echoed back at her within her cozy bolthole. She sounded like a whiny asswipe, didn’t she?
Fine. She would go find that Akupara and help him. Which meant that it was time for a new New Plan.
Hell, how many ‘new’ plans was she up to already?
She shook her head, dismissing the distraction.
First, she needed to check-in with the other girls. Intending to travel light, she put on her shirt and jacket. Both had venting along the sides for her flash hairs. Next, were her baggy pants followed by her well-worn boots. Finally, she strapped on her sparring mitts. Joia had made the nifty, fingerless gloves using scraps of premium duralloy—a patented alloy which had a far greater tensile strength than steel. Since Rez possessed average strength, the velocity behind her duralloy-enhanced punches guaranteed that her attacker went down and stayed down.
Ready to flee or fight, she was good to go.
Cautiously, she crept out of her bolthole. This particular one was an abandoned War-bear den. Last night, she’d spent her evening checking equipment and restocking rations. Although she could easily forage in Briarwood, having backups was a habit formed out of experience. Thus, she had five more boltholes with camouflaged entrances scattered about the forest, all within ‘bolting’ distance.
Seeing and sensing no animals—and no Akupara, either—she dashed out into the forest. She ran straight to Two-Four-Kay, only decreasing her speed once she saw glimpses the settlement through the trees. Close enough.
Wishing that she had Joia’s sharp hearing, she paused and strained her ears. Just animals scurried about. Good.
Rez thumped her foot against the forest floor and waited.
All-in-all, she’d enjoyed the leisurely stretching of her legs as she ran to the settlement. Too bad she couldn’t have gotten months of this luxury. Hell, with several months of solitude, she could really push herself. Find out how much of Warren’s Planet she could cover on-foot before having to report back to Rogers with ‘salvaged’ ship parts.
Movement from the edge of the settlement caught her attention. Joia walked along, being clearly distinguishable. Once she entered the dense bushes of Briarwood, she became a streaking blur. As Rez watched her approach, she prepared herself for Jo’s onslaught of gimme, gimme, gimme.
“Whaddya bring me?” Jo stopped a few steps away, smiling brightly with her hands eagerly grasping at air. “A comms tablet? No! A data-encrypted storage drive? Oh! You have an entire comms relay!”
With each item Jo fired off, her pitch rose with her excitement. For someone like Jo, being stranded on a tech-deficient world was torture.
Poor dear. She was about to be so disappointed.
“There was a crash survivor, Jo,” Rez said as she grimaced.
Jo narrowed her eyes at Rez. “Like ‘survived’ survivor? Or, like, soon to succumb to injuries that may or may not’ve ‘been sustained’ during the crash, kinda survivor?”
Jo had delivered her pro-murder insinuation with both finger quotes and a wink.
Lord help her.
Rez was not, by nature, a bleeding-heart kinda person. She would never take up vigil at the bedside of a sick stranger. Also, she never would’ve let the Akupara or anyone else simply ‘succumb to injuries.’ Rather, she would’ve dragged and dropped that hulking alien on the doorstep of the nearest medic before sprinting away. Just like she had been doing with all the sick miners collapsing around the settlement—dropping them off at Doc Skylar’s then bolting.
Seriously, she couldn’t do anything for the sick miners, or any injured person, other than to speed off and find help.
See? She wasn’t coldhearted, just pragmatic.
“No,” she told Jo firmly. “He ‘survived’ survived.”
Hell, she actually used fingers quotes, too.
Jo’s brow shot up. “He survived a cascading prop engine failure? Really?”
“He’s an Akupara.” Rez gestured to herself. “He was wearing their brownish, greenish armor.”
“Huh. No shit. That stuff’s impervious to arcing antimatter?”
“Sure?” She shrugged. What the hell did she know about it?
Jo nodded her head, as if weighing that information. “Good for him. Sucks for us.” Then she pointed at Rez. “Really sucks for you.”
Yep. That did really suck for her. He was alive and well, tromping about Briarwood and probably messing with all her stuff. Even worse, if he should happen to see her moving at her true speed, she would have to kill him. Which would be a bummer because how the hell was she supposed to do that? He’d survived being incinerated by antimatter arcs that crashed his shuttle, for crying out loud.
“Payback,” she hissed under her breath.
“Payback?” Jo cocked her head. “You mean, like ‘what goes around, comes around?’ ‘Cause that shit is real, Rez. And it’s a bitch.”
Rez waved her off. “Nothing. Don’t worry about it.”
“Payback!” Jo perked up and snapped her fingers. “That’s what you should do! You know, herd the Akupara toward Chalk Downs.”
What? Rez had just returned from Chalk Downs, bringing back—Shit.
She’d never given Rogers that message from Warden Harris. She and Rogers had been standing on the roof when shuttle had crashed right before their eyes, and after… Well, after she was on her way to Briarwood.
Still, Jo’s payback suggestion made no sense. “Why there?”
Jo arched a single brow as she planted her hand on her hip. “Still not reading the messages, are you?”
Okay, it really was a snort.
But, back to the point. Why would she waste time reading the messages between Rogers and the other wardens? Almost all the wardens, in some way or another, had asked her how she could tolerate ‘that jackass.’
Easy. By ignoring him.
“The Akupara went to Chalk Downs first, Rez.” Jo stared at her expectantly, like she was supposed to make the connection.
Well, Rez wasn’t like Joia, whose personal strength was magnificently multifaceted. As a scientifically enhanced cypher, Jo could discern meaning from patterned noises, both rhythmic and vocal, as well as visual glyphs, either linguistic or symbolic. Nothing was simply racket or babble to Joia. She could interpret anything—written or spoken or thumped out on the ground.
On a daily basis, Jo’s personal strength awed and humbled Rez. All Rez could do was run, and if necessary, disorient hostiles with her flash hairs and then give them one hell of a beating with her fists. Joia, though, could unravel the universe one component of sound or scribble at a time.
Unfortunately, Jo’s ability to understand all communications didn’t make her a people person. She was horrible with personal interactions. Rez always suspected that Jo could read people just fine, but that she didn’t give a fuck about what anyone was thinking or feeling.
Case in point, Jo had spoken to her slowly, letting each word hang before moving on. It both insulted and irritated the hell outta Rez because Jo did it on purpose.
And you know what? Jo’s shitty attitude was not helping at the moment.
Rather than saying something equally shitty, Rez gestured for Jo to spit out the payback correlation between the Akupara and Chalk Downs. There was no reason to waste time thinking about stuff that Jo was just dying to tell her anyway.
Jo rolled her eyes. “Gees, Rez. You really need to start reading the messages.”
“Why? You’d still sneak into Rogers’s office, read them, and then tell me all about them.”
“Yeah.” Jo nodded unabashedly. “I totally would.”
Rez knew Jo hated waiting as much as she did. Plus, she suspected that Jo was desperate to share some genuine part of herself with someone else. So, yeah. Rez completely understood where Jo was coming from and always forgave her best friend. None of them were perfect.
“Listen, Rez,” Joia’s tone turned serious. “The messages from Chalk Downs—”
An explosion shook the ground.
Rez kept her focus on Joia, ready to react to whatever her friend picked up with her sharp hearing. With monumentous restraint, Rez bit back her riotous questions. Gas pocket? Tunnel collapse? Machinery malfunction?
Joia slid her wide, astonished gaze onto Rez. “Pulse cannon.”
No fucking way.
The settlements on Warren’s didn’t even have catapults.
She and Joia exchanged a look. It was the grim expression that they reserved for moments where neither of them was messing around.
Rez fired off first. “That wasn’t a cascading prop engine failure.”
“Disruptor,” Joia said firmly, understanding that Rez was referring to the Akupara’s crash.
Suspecting a disruptor made sense. The weapons were silent. Otherwise, Joia would have heard ballistic artillery hitting the Akupara’s ship.
Rez scanned overhead, but saw nothing through the uppercanapy of Briarwood. “The Akupara brought enemies?”
Joia began to frantically shake her head as she grasped Rez’s hand. “You’ve got to get to the Akupara’s Bale before the Chalk Downs runner.”
Rez shook her head. Again with Chalk Downs. It still made no sense. “Jo, I—”
“Get to the Bale,” Jo said in a rush. “Tell them we accept. Get there before Chalk Downs’s runner does.”
Jo glanced over her shoulder. A curling column of smoke rose from the mine on the far outskirts of the settlement. When Jo turned back to Rez, her face was pale.
“Luna.” Joia’s voice shook.
Right. Luna. She would go to the mine, and that tiny, timid, soft-hearted fool would try to help.
“Okay.” Rez released Jo’s hands and stepped back. “I will.”
“I will!” She sharply canted her head toward the mine. “Go!”
Joia ran her gaze over Rez once more. With her brows pinched together, she nodded and then dashed away. The speed of Joia’s departure whipped strands of Rez’s hair about her face.
With her blood pounding in her ears and tunneling her hearing, Rez spun and raced back toward the crash site.
She had no fucking clue where the Akupara had established their Bale. Her only chance was that a certain Akupara, who was lost in Briarwood, could somehow point her in the right direction.
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From Slow & Steady: As She Goes
Copyright © 2020 by Bex McLynn
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