Continuation by AmyJ
Continuation by AmyJ
The pain in her leg seemed to be the first thing to awaken. Lonesome for an audience it roused the muscles of her spine until finally Mirna was forced to open her eyes.
This is what it’s like to be dead…
Instead of the pitted skin of the chamber ceiling she was now looking at the deep purple of the nighttime sky, the edges burned orange in the false twilight cast by the fires.
Her skin was coated with the noisome dust. She drew in breath from her crushed lungs and the substance infiltrated her nostrils. Its dry chalky taste filled her mouth.
Dully, she realized that the weight on top of her was moving… no chuckling to itself was more correct. John. She rolled her eyes at the indifferent stars.
“Get up! Get off me!” She growled, shoving and wriggling away. The jagged edge of rock dug into her wound, ending her words in a groan of pain.
John rolled off her, and climbed to his hands and knees, still laughing.
“Who-ho!” He released a joyous hoot that made her cringe. “That was fun. Let’s do that again.”
Her left hand curled into a fist, nails digging into the palms.
His expression sobered as he scanned the remains of their prison. He nodded and stepped closer. “You ok?”
She punched him.
It was purely reflex. And in the brief introspective moments immediately following, she decided it was the most logical course of action. But there was something briefly satisfying about it nonetheless.
John stumbled back a few paces, rubbing dolefully at his jaw. “What the hell?”
Her expression brightened. “I’m OK now.”
“Why are you doing this, old man?” Mirna felt the grayness drift in once more to threaten the edges of her vision. She squeezed her eyes shut and opened them. The night had never seemed so dark. Every shadow contained a threat. The silence was deafening in its complete absence of life. It was impossible to tell that this was the same outpost.
“You can barely walk.” He paused, helping her lean against the shadowed alcove of an abandoned trader’s unit. Slightly out of breath, he came to rest beside her. Once more the damnable grin surfaced. “And I’m a very forgiving old man.”
“I’ve never seen anything like it. Over forty thousand souls lived here. One of the largest Sebacean fortifications this far into the Uncharteds... and now… it’s all dead.” She regarded the street beyond. Her voice became low and damning as she glared out at the ruins. “I hope that you are worth this, Krytun. Who ever you are… whatever you are.”
She regarded his shadow-cloaked form. A Sebacean this far out beyond the colonies that was not a Peacekeeper fell into one of two categories: a deserter, or trouble. Which one are you, stranger? “Do you know who the Scarrans were after? This one they called… Krytun?”
John pushed away from the wall, drawing her arm across his shoulders. “We should keep moving. We’re due to run into more of them.”
She scanned the darkness for signs of movement as they made their lumbering progress through the ransacked marketplace. With a sick feeling in her stomach, she realized they were only about a hundred metras away from the port. They had well passed the squadron’s headquarters and she had not even noticed for the absolute destruction. Whatever tenuous hopes she had of seeing another survivor from her detachment were fading as quickly as her strength.
Mirna’s instincts, molded to a steely glint by her training, saw the harsh light of her reality. She had lost far too much blood to survive without treatment. Even now, her leg had settled into a remorseful tingling. Tremendous fatigue rattled the muscles of her limbs, making them harder to control. The grayness returned more frequently. The Scarran was right. He could detect with his alien senses what she still denied. You are dying, Corporal.
“You didn’t answer my question.” Mirna whispered, forcing the thought away.
“What? Oh. That Crichton guy?”
He canted his head and shrugged slightly. “You can’t believe everything you hear.”
“I don’t—“ She stopped abruptly, forcing John to a halt.
“You don’t hear that?” She held up a silencing hand. A low hum stirred the air. The sound drew closer, sharpening into a metallic purr. The tiny hairs on the back of her neck stood up en masse. She knew it almost instinctively.
“I don’t hear anything.”
“Surveillance drone.” She hissed, squinting into the night. “Frell.”
“A what-what?” His forehead wrinkled with consternation.
Mirna studied the shadowed passages for a sign of the noise’s owner. Distractedly she pulled at his collar with her free hand. She jerked her chin to indicate the shelled remains of a building. Its walls were crumbled. The interior was a nest of fires.
“In there. See? Where the fires are? We have to get as close as possible to them.”
“Why?” Regardless of the question, he began turning them in that direction. In an awkward series of lurches they were soon inside.
“The drone tracks by thermal change… motion. Sees like a Scarran. The fire should confuse it.” She swapped arms that were strung around his neck for support and craned her neck to see the street beyond.
As if drawn by mention of its masters, the robotic sentry appeared, slithering along the nil-field that suspended it high above the rough terrain. The body of the machine was deceptively sleek: an oblong spheroid shape with flawless silver sides that reflected the amber light of the fires. Mirna froze. Her hands grasped John’s duster. She moved closer still to him.
“Can it hear us?” He breathed. Reflexively, his arm encircled her waist.
“No. Not normal speech. It can detect transmissions… motion… heat. Just. Don’t. Move.” Mirna spoke, her lips barely moving. Her face was pressed against his neck. She could smell him. It made her think of the seasoned commandos and officers that visited from the carriers: a mix of sweat, Chakan oil and leather. The fire’s heat was an oppressive blanket, already nearly unbearable. Her limbs began to tremble. A wave of vertigo washed over her. He showed no sign of reacting to the heat. How could he stand it?
The drone paused, seeming to test the air. Hidden mechanics put it into motion again, gliding it directly towards them. Its purr intensified.
Closer still it moved. It was within a dozen denches of them. Once more it hesitated, clicking to itself. She dared not move. Dared not breathe. She could see their own frozen image was reflected on its side, parabolic and distorted by the curved sides.
With another bout of malcontent ticking the drone began to drift away, disappointed that there was no prey to be found here. Mirna felt the rigid line of her spine loosen. His arm relaxed in its death grip around her waist.
“Crichton! Are you there?”
The comms transmission shattered the silence.
“Shit!” John hissed. Frantically he rummaged the interior of his duster and slapped a hand down on the comms pinned there, seeking to mute the sound.
Too late. The drone had heard the sound and sensed the movement. It stopped, erupting in a series of excited whines as it acquired its target: John.
Mirna slid away from him to back against the lower portion of a shattered wall. Her sweat-slick hand sought the handle of the combat knife sheathed against her thigh. Eyes wide she watched. A cheated, sullen anger warred with the alarm that claimed her core. This was Krytun!
He licked his lips pensively. His eyes darted between her and the drone. “Uh… a little help here?!”
Her first impulse was to move, to run. Mirna laughed. It was a derisive snort. Call yourself a Peacekeeper, corporal? Can’t run. Can’t move. Pass out every thirty microts.
“Frell,” she spat. “Don’t move.”
Quickly she clawed the jacket from her shoulders, grasping it at the collar. She rose to her full height slowly, testing her weight on her injured leg. The pain was instant, sending great orbs of white into her field of vision. She gritted her teeth.
The chatter of the drone grew louder and more consistent in its staccato rhythm. The alert had been sent. No telling what manner of weapons it possessed. Scarrans were renowned for choosing cruelty and suffering over effectiveness.
This is dumb. This is stupid, Mirna.
She gathered her strength and leapt, throwing her jacket over the drone. Before it could slip away she brought her arms around it, feeling the device sag beneath her weight. It bucked once then plummeted to the ground with her. She grasped the hilt of the knife and deftly plunged it through the fabric and into the delicate shell of the drone. It shuttered once and then fell silent.
Panting and heart thudding she lay still, hand still clasped around the hilt of the blade. She rolled her eyes up at John. He was facing away, stooped against the wind and straining to hear. “Aeryn! Jesus! I thought comms were—“
“There’s no time, Crichton. What is your location? D’Argo will reclaim you in his ship.”
“His ship?” He threw his head back and rolled his eyes at the sky. “Aeryn… he just figured out how to open the hatch!”
“It has stealth capability that the Scarran’s haven’t been able to detect.”
“OK… OK” He cast a glance over his shoulder at Mirna. “Near the port. Spinward. About a hundred metras. And I have company.”
“Company? John—“ He shut the comms.
With a grunt Mirna rolled onto her side. Her stare was fixed on John. She pulled the blade from the body of the drone. It came away with a brief metal shriek.
“You’re getting worse.” John stooped over her and extended a hand. “Come on.”
“Krytun.” It was an accusation. She ignored the offered hand and glared at him over the glint of the blade.
“Ya. I’m Crichton.” He straightened. John looked down at his boots. He put a hand on his hip. The other went to the back of his neck. “I’m the one the Scarran’s are looking for… and the Peacekeepers.”
“Looking for!? They destroyed this settlement to find you!” She sat up, wincing at the pain. Awkwardly, she climbed to her feet. The tremble to her hand transferred to the blade. “There were forty thousand here. There were sixteen in my squadron. Sixteen!”
He grimaced, eyes red-rimmed. His voice was a rusted hinge. “I didn’t know… ”
“Are you worth this, Krytun?” Mirna growled. “Are you?”
“You have no idea how many more would die if the Scarrans or the goddamned Peacekeepers found me. No idea!”
With a nearly lupine growl, she lunged at him. Almost disappointingly, he crumpled beneath her. He did not struggle as he lay on his back, Mirna’s weight pinning him to the ground. She pushed the knife against his throat. Still he did not flinch or react. His steady blue-eyed gaze met hers.
“You should have left me to die.” She seethed.
“That’s great! That’s just perfect!” He returned with full-blown sarcasm. “What’s one more on my conscience? Why not!”
“Why did you help me?” Her heart pounded in her ears. Milky dots swam before her eyes. She shook her head, trying to drive the sensation away.
“Because it was the right thing to do.” His eyes darkened. “Being a Peacekeeper, I know you have a hard time understanding what that means.”
“Why this? Why do they want you?” She jerked the knife away to gesture at the hell around them. Her throat tightened, choking her voice. “Tell me you are worth all this!”
“Every day I’m not a Scarran prisoner, or Peacekeeper prisoner… that many more … millions more… stay alive.” John glanced down at her hand that held the blade back to his throat. “So do it. Go on. Do the universe a favor!”
The blur of tears frosted the edges of her vision. Cheated fury sank its icy spurs into her, but the blade would not move. Her elbow digging into his sternum, she leaned into his face. Mirna snarled through gritted teeth. Her voice dissolved into sobbing. “You are not even Sebacean are you? You look like one, but you are… different.”
“No. I’m not Sebacean. I’m Human.”
Her mouth curled with disgust. An overwhelming repulsion threaded through at the thought of her proximity to him. She had actually touched this inferior, deficient species. And I have been exposed. I am Contaminated.
She drew back, bringing the knife overhead. And plunged it downward.
Yet he tried to help me…
At the last movement, she diverted her aim. The blade plunged into the earth near Krytun’s head. He did not flinch. He did not speak.
Mirna collapsed against him, sobbing. Suddenly the anger did not seem that important. It grew distant, cooling. Its energy left her. The night, the outlines etched by the flickering fires, gained a calming clarity. Slowly, she relaxed her grip on the blade. She felt his hand hesitantly grace against the top of her head, some ugly attempt at comforting her. Abruptly she drew away, hissing as if his touch hurt. She sat up. Mirna raked the back of her hand across her wet eyes. Gracelessly, she rolled off of him, gathering the knife.
“Get out of my sight.”
Unmistakable, in the distance was the sound of a ship. Its engines were powering down. Landing approach. Cutting neat circles into the black, its lights sought them.
His comms spoke again. It was the same feminine voice: “Crichton! We can see you. Are you injured?”
“We can’t leave you.” John ignored the ship and his comms. “You’ve got to come with us. We’ll help you. The Scarrans—“
“Are my concern.” Mirna shook her head. “This is my post. I shall not abandon it. This is my duty.”
“Dying is not your duty. That’s horseshit! You’re just a kid.” The ship was closer. Its engines nearly drowning out his voice. He rose, grabbing her forearm. She wrenched away from his grasp.
“This is my duty! This is all I am.” She yelled, lofting the blade. “If you are as important as you say, I cannot risk the Scarrans finding you. You must leave. Now!”
“John! There is no time!” His comms prodded.
“Leave me!” The force of her yell made the grayness threaten.
He looked to the direction of the ship. Then back to Mirna. The deliberation was plain on his face.
“I will never forget.”
Then, slowly, he took a plodding step away. Then another. He moved, head bowed. John paused only once, turning to look at her before disappearing in the ruins.
Soon the rumble of engines faded, returning her to the silence.
Moving like an ancient thing, Mirna crawled against the wall. She folded her arms against her chest. She was shivering despite the warmth of fires nearby. So cold. Never been so cold. Her fingers were numb. She thought about moving further into the shadows to hide. Dawn would come soon. The Scarrans were destined to return to look for the missing drone. For some reason it was only a distant worry.
It was so much easier to just sit and rest. To wait for dawn. To wait for what came next.