Ki Book One
Panic. It filled her. Ripping at her lungs and heart like a wild animal coming in for the kill.
She tried to gulp at the air as it rushed past her, but she couldn’t take in enough. Choking, gaping, clutching at her throat, she felt her skin begin to numb.
Her hair whipped up around her, buffeting in every direction as the wind took to it. Her wide, long sleeves struck around her wrists, sounding like wet sheets slapping together in a storm.
She was falling.
Through the sky.
She saw the clouds as she punched through them. Watched in wide-eyed horror as their water droplets brushed by her face.
Below was the ground. The lakes and mountains and plains. She saw flashes. Brown, hay-filled fields, high, snow-capped peaks, deep, thick forests.
Her hands were frozen now. She had precious few seconds to act.
The device – the lattice-like crystal – it was her last hope.
Raising it to her face in her trembling grip, she breathed onto it, translating the only warmth she could still give over the surface of the sparkling contraption.
As she did, blackness drew in at the corners of her vision. Colder than she had ever been, she felt herself shut down. Eyes rolling back into her head, she saw one last thing before she lost consciousness. The device lit up. The intricate structure glowed like fire.
With the fire came the magic.
He was working in the field when he saw the flash in the sky above. It was a clear day, with scant clouds chasing each other across the horizon. Visibility was near perfect. So he picked up that blue glint easily.
“What the hell?” brow crumpling, he shielded his eyes with his hand as he strained to get a better look.
It had been years since he’d come back to the farm, longer since he’d worked a full day in the fields. His face was caked with sweat and his fingers were thick with grit, but surely he wasn’t weary enough to be seeing things.
Flicking his gaze back to the farmhouse a good 200 meters behind him, he figured there was only one thing to do.
It wasn’t to go for help or the pair of binoculars he’d spent a half-month’s pay on. Instead he turned back to the blue glow.
Then he saw it. The explosion. A massive blast of light shot out in a wave.
Though his mind had no idea what he was looking at, his body knew what to do. All those years in the army had paid off. He fell to the ground, slamming his hands over his head, pushing his face as far into the dry hay as he could.
There was a single second of tight-chested fear before the shock wave hit. It pushed against the hay, flattening it and flattening him in a powerful pulse. The sound of it boomed in his ears, then left nothing but a constant buzz.
Moments later the light came. A wash of it. Moving slowly, less like light and more like water. He felt it as it trickled over his skin. Though his body still shook from the shock and force of the explosion, the sensation was unmistakable.
It made him look up. Mouth opening, breath nothing more than a quick and percussive pant, after a second of instability he made his legs work and he stood.
The field around him was flattened. Nothing burnt, nothing destroyed, but the hay that had been up around his knees moments before was now no higher than a book. A thin one at that.
Swallowing, forcing himself to slow his wild heart, he tried to look for the impact crater.
He couldn’t find it. All he could see was a blue glow, bright, but small. It was off on the edge of the field.
It was also hovering.
Cheeks slackening, muscles in his jaw twitching, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
He’d witnessed a lot in the army, but never anything like this.
Natural curiosity taking over, he headed towards it. He’d always gone tracking in the mountains with his father. And every time he’d learned a new lesson in controlling his fear.
“Come on, Jackson, you have to find out what that was,” he said. But he couldn’t hear a word of it.
Cupping a hand to his ear, he tried to hear himself speak again. All he picked up was a dull, monotone drone.
Temporary hearing loss. He’d experienced it once before when a Tarkan mine had gone off less than four meters to his side.
But that war was long over. Wasn’t it?
It all depended on what had just exploded at the bottom of the field....
Quickening his pace, he felt his chest punch forward as he strengthened his core and steadied his gait. He cast his gaze around for a weapon, but he knew there was little chance of finding one. All his tools were back where he had fallen, and he didn’t want to waste any more time.
It wasn’t until he reached the dip at the edge of the field that he finally saw it.
More importantly, it was when he saw her. The woman.
He almost fell over, knees buckling as the shock of recognition shot through him.
He’d expected to see some kind of device or at least a blast crater. What he saw instead was something he could have never imagined possible.
A woman floating on a bed of blue light. No, not floating, she was stuck. Her body was suspended a meter off the ground, her face turned to the sky. Arms spread, she was wearing a long robe-like dress that fluttered in the wind, chasing around her legs, hands, and cheeks in the breeze that always whipped through the field.
He swallowed, throat dryer than he’d ever felt, neck tight with a tension that threatened to snap his head off.
She’d fallen from the sky. Yet she wasn’t some mass of blood and bone; with every breath that pushed at her chest it was obvious she was alive.
Despite the shock, he forced himself to take a step forward.
He’d never seen anything like this. A woman stuck off the ground. A woman who had fallen from the clouds.
None of it was possible. Technology like this did not exist.
Yet he had enough reason to realize he wasn’t dreaming. His mind was clear; this was no hallucination.
After another bare moment of hesitation, he reached out his hand.
With a single touch to her shoulder, he woke her.
Her eyes snapped open, her body arching up in a spasm.
Screaming, she clutched at her face, her chest, her neck. She was alive. Dear god... she was alive.
As her own cry ended, she heard someone else’s. A stifled shout.
Snapping her head to the side, she saw him. A man. Dressed in the ordinary garb of a farmer, he was tall with clean cut hair and an open, handsome face. A face that was now plastered with fear.
He was standing less than two meters from her side, and down a steep dip. No... he wasn’t in a dip, she was still in the air.
Cheeks paling, heart speeding up even faster, she stared down below her.
She was about a meter off the ground, seated on nothing but a bed of blue light.
Her mind raced to catch up to the situation. She remembered falling, remembered grabbing at the device in a last ditch attempt to save herself.
It must have worked. The blue light, the rippling sensation of energy tracing up her skin from where she’d held the lattice. It had worked....
“Who are you? What’s going on?” the man held up a hand as he spoke, but it was not a comforting move. It was stiff, the fingers spread, the arm and shoulder locked. It was a clear warning not to come any closer.
Who was she? Who was he? More importantly, where was she? Where had the device taken her?
She crunched up into a seated position, never shifting her gaze from him. It was clear she’d fallen into a field, but that was where all clarity ended. Her mind still buzzed from the fall, her body still hummed with the energy it had taken to save her.
“Who are you?” he asked again, the pitch of his voice uneven.
“Where are we?” she pushed back on her hands, the blue light below as solid as rock. It would not let her fall, not until she disabled the device or was fool enough to use it again. And there was no way she was going to do that.
His cheeks stiffened at her words, the bridge of his nose creasing. He looked confused. Dipping his head to the side, he brought a hand up to his ear. “Who are you?”
“Please, just tell me where I am,” clutching onto the device as tight as she could, she pulled her sleeve over it, hiding it from view. “Which province is this? Am I still in the Empire?”
That crumpled look of confusion remained on his face until a single word ignited him. Empire.
He straightened up, any hint of fright replaced with clear aggression. “You’re from the Tarkan Empire?” again his voice pitched up and down erratically as he all but shouted at her. Was he deaf? Was that why he kept cupping a hand to his ear?
Or was he just very, very angry?
He took several steps forward, reaching the blue symbol underneath her. From the look on his face to the exact tension of his stance, it seemed he was ready to grab her out of the air.
She moved back instinctively, scuttling like a Tarkan crab, right to the edge of the light. If she moved any further, she would fall off it.
“You’re a Tarkan weapon,” he snapped. That once-open face of his closed off. The clean line of his jaw dipped down, shadows pooling under his brown eyes.
It was all the evidence she needed to conclude she was no longer in the Empire. If she had to guess, she would assume she’d landed in Ashka.
The realms of Tarkan and Ashka had been at war for centuries. Though a tentative cease-fire now existed, both sides simply saw it as a chance to re-arm and strategize.
“I’m not a weapon,” she held onto the device as tightly as her numb fingers would let her. Her body was still recovering from the effects of her fall. No doubt it would take days for her usual resilience to return. Unless this man got his hands on her. If he was Ashkan, he would either kill her on the spot or drag her off to prison to let the Guards do it.
“Why did they send you?” he moved around the light, trying to get closer to her.
She kept shifting back, but this was not a game she could play forever; the device would soon shut down and she would fall to the ground. In her weakened state, she would be an easy target for him. She had to do something quickly.
“Please,” she began. She did not get the time to finish her plea. He planted his hands onto the blue glow and vaulted onto it easily.
He darted towards her, his boots, which were thick with dirt and crumpled strands of hay trapped in the tread, found easy purchase over the light. They squeaked with the speed of his movements.
He latched his hands on her shoulders, bringing his face close enough to hers that she could see the whites of his eyes.
Screaming, she tried to push him away, as she did, she let go of the device.
With her hand no longer touching the smooth surface of the stone, its effects ceased. With no warning, the blue shimmer holding her aloft disappeared.
She was ready for it, he was not.
They fell to the ground roughly, but she was the first to jump to her feet. Pushing her shoulder into him, she scrabbled forward, latched onto the device, and darted away from him.
“Come back here,” he roared.
So he could drag her in front of the Ashkan Guards and she could wait for her execution? That was not going to happen.
The Others would probably find her first anyway. And that would be a fate far worse than death.
Shivering, she forced her body to run, commanding her legs to move as fast as they could. Though she was still heavy with fatigue and that numb feeling still ate at her bones, desperation pushed her forward.
She could hear him right behind her.
In unfamiliar territory she knew she had little chance of escape, but her chances out there would be better than staying with this man.
So she ran, up the incline she’d fallen into, and out into the hay field. It took her less than a second to assess her route, but she never stopped flinging herself forward.
She could hear him behind her, she could almost feel him. His anger terrified her; she could sense it with the kind of acuity few of her kind possessed. It felt like a tidal wave centimeters from her back, ready to drag her under.
Fright digging into her gut, she knew he was about to pounce.
With the scrabbling sound of boots on dirt, he slammed into her back, his arms wrapping around her middle and pulling her to the ground.
She struggled, but in her state there was no way she could fend him off.
He hauled her around by her shoulders, his face close enough that she could see each of his bared teeth. “You’re not getting away.”
“Get off me,” she tried to lunge her knee up and kick him, but he squeezed her shoulders so hard her body crumpled against the pressure.
“You Tarkans have finally broken the cease fire. Well, you’re not getting my family first.”
She stared up into his face; there was nowhere else to look. With his hands fast around her middle, she could hardly move. “We haven’t broken the cease fire. This isn’t an attack. Now let me go before they find me.”
She shouldn’t have added that last bit; his expression crumpled like a screwed up piece of paper. “They are going to find you; I’m going to tell them where you are. I’m going to drag you back to my house and then I’m going to call the Army. You Tarkans are all the same.”
He dug his fingers into her shoulders as he yanked her to her feet. “Tell your story to the Army.” He pushed her in the back, still with one arm locked over her elbow.
She stumbled, but with his grip on her arm she couldn’t fall. “Listen to me. You have no idea who’s after me. Just let me tell my story.”
“Shut up. You Tarkans all lie.”
“And you Ashkans are brutish.”
He pushed her harder, his elbow pressing viciously into the small of her back.
“Thank you for proving my point,” she controlled her voice, though the pain spreading down from his grip felt like the stab of a blade.
“Is this some kind of test drive? Are you the pilot of some kind of prototype weapon?” he asked, voice too loud considering he was right by her ear.
“I’m not a weapon,” she turned to face him, even though she had to put even more pressure against his grip. If his fingers latched on any harder, they’d press through her flesh like a knife through butter. “This wasn’t some kind of test drive.”
“Then how did you fall from the sky? I’ve been around a long time, Tarkan, I’ve never seen anything but rain and Tarkan bombs fall from the sky. You’re lying.” He had a thick, nasal, accent, yet it still reverberated with a deep baritone. As he pushed her forward, he had her arm locked against his chest, and she could feel the vibrations from his voice shake through it.
“You have no idea what you are dealing with. Let me go. You take me to your Army and it won’t do a thing. They’ll still come for me. Just don’t get involved.”
“I’m already involved. You fell in my family field, and unluckily for you, I fought in the last war. You’re not going anywhere.”
As he pushed her forward, she tripped with every step. He might have been wearing thick boots, but her feet were bare. She had nothing but the toe rings and anklets of the priestess class, and they offered no protection against the scratch of the dry hay and the dryer ground below.
“Listen to me, please, we don’t have much time,” she begged.
It was useless though; it elicited nothing but a contemptuous laugh.
She was going to get nowhere reasoning with this man. She was ready to tell him the truth, but he wasn’t ready to listen.
Which meant he would have to face the consequences.
Drawing quiet, submitting to the fact she could not reach him, she stared around the field. She could see a house in the distance, simple but large enough for a family. No doubt he would take her there, as promised, tie her up and call the authorities.
He would not be able to keep her for long.
The Others would come.
Holding onto the device, her hand still completely concealed by her long sleeve, she tried to transfer as much heat from her palm into the crystal as she could, but she was still far too cold. The fall had sapped what energy she had, and it would take days to replenish what she needed to activate the lattice-like machine.
She would not have days. She would have hours. The Others would have seen the explosion and would have sent their scouts after her by now.
“Suddenly you’re silent. Before you couldn’t stop talking. What are you hiding, Tarkan?”
She breathed hard through her nose, frustration building. It was one thing to have this man attack her, it was another to put up with his attitude. She’d had precious little to do with the Ashkans up until today. She’d tried not to buy into the propaganda. As a priestess, she’d kept an open mind. But this Ashkan was proving all the stereotypes right. Rude and arrogant, unwilling to negotiate, he embodied every story she’d ever heard of his kind.
“You Tarkans think you can take our resources, steal our land, murder our people. It stops today.” He pushed her in the back again. “I’m not going to let you kill my family.”
“I am a priestess. I think you know a lot more about killing than I do,” she broke her silence, even gazed up at him as she did. She wanted to see his reaction.
His lip twitched up. “Priestess. I know a lie when I hear one.”
“Do you think I am a soldier? Does that make more sense? Is it easier to believe? Does it make you feel better for attacking me and herding me like an animal?”
“Shut up,” he hardened his grip once more.
“Thank you for proving my point again.” She should not have been baiting the man. She should have stopped speaking the second she’d realized he would never help her. Aggravating him would achieve nothing but a badly bruised arm.
“You Tarkans are arrogant and brutal,” his breath buffeted against her neck, pushing her loose hair over her shoulder. It seemed he was incapable of speaking at a normal volume; every word was a shout and rang in her ears.
Pulling her head to the side as far as she could, she tried to concentrate on her footsteps through the uneven field. “Arrogant and brutal? This is coming from the man who has me by the arm so hard it’s clear he wants to break it. And as for arrogance, you won’t listen to a word I say, does that fit with your definition of the term?”
“The Army will find out what you’re doing here. They are going to stop your weapon.”
“The Others will take me before your Army arrives. And what do you think you will tell them anyway? That a woman fell out of the sky and landed in your field? They’ll fire on you for wasting their time.”
She could hear him grind his teeth. “They’ll believe me. You’re wrong; I’m not some simple farmer. I’m a science officer with the Royal Academy. They’ll trust me.”
“I never said you were a simple farmer,” her voice dipped low and petered out to a whisper.
“Surprised? Do you think every Ashkan is a dumb grunt?”
She tried to ignore his words. It was clear he was attempting to goad her. She could not allow him to distract her though.
Tipping her head up, she scanned the sky. The Others would come in their ships. Flying ships.
“What are you doing? Looking for a rescue? Nothing’s coming. You’re in Ashkan territory now, and we aren’t going to let you go without a fight.”
“Then be prepared to fight the Zeneethians. My people won’t come for me; they don’t care.” She rubbed at the device in her hand, her thumb moving faster and faster as she said their name.
The Zeneethians. The builders and true owners of the device she held. A legendary race, she’d once believed they were nothing more than a myth. Then she’d had the misfortune to meet them.
A raiding party had kidnapped her from her monastery. As long as she lived, she would never stop dreaming of that day. The scent of their particle weapons and the hum of their engines would haunt her forever.
“They’re a story. Stop trying to lie to me, Tarkan.”
“My name is Ki,” she snapped. “Us Tarkans do have names. Remember that when you condemn me back into slavery.” She tripped forward, but he pulled her up before she could fall to the ground. She saw his face as he did. That look of cold anger he had worn since he’d grabbed her wavered.
“You’re still a Tarkan,” his voice dipped lower, and the punch of rage that usually filled it faltered. “And you killed my fiancée.”
“Really, the priestess clan killed your fiancée? We often interrupt morning prayers for some light murder before lunch.” She should not have said it; his face stiffened and a hiss escaped his tightly pressed lips. Yet she could not help herself. His violence and arrogance were undermining what little control she’d managed to wield over her fatigued body and mind.
“You’re a priestess, ha? Where the hell is your empathy? You Tarkans all take glee in another’s misfortune. You obviously relish death. You are no priestess,” he moved closer to her as he said that, his voice becoming darker.
“And you are no scientist,” she spat back. “Where’s your curiosity? I’ve just told you the Zeneethians exist, and all you can do is twist my arm harder. Tell me, do you honestly think the Tarkans have the technology to accomplish what you’ve seen here today?”
His hand jolted, the fingers around her arm suddenly loosening.
She took the opportunity. Yanking her arm free, she tried to push into him and knock him off balance.
He reacted too quickly. Catching her around her back, he locked her against his hip. “Stop struggling.”
She brought up her hands to push him away.
She shouldn’t have.
She revealed the device still clutched in her left hand.
“I said stop—” he began.
His eyes darted towards the device.
She tried to pull away. The fear she had so successfully controlled until now burst its banks. Shuddering forward, her throat closed up. Skin slicking with sweat, her heartbeat shook through her.
“What’s this?” suspicion rumpled his brow, his dark brown eyes widening.
“No, no, no,” she closed her fingers over the device as tight as she could, but he managed to pry them back.
“You’ve been trying to keep this from me. What is this?”
“No! You can’t take it. It’s all I have. I won’t be able to get away without it. Please, don’t let them take me back,” her voice was little more than a croak.
The memories she had been holding back resurfaced. Her escape. The fall. She’d pushed them back for now, trying to control her emotions as the priestess clan taught. Now it was impossible. If she lost the device, she would never escape the Zeneethians again.
His expression vacillated. The fury he’d been directing at her loosened along with the tension in his jaw and shoulders. “What are you talking about?”
“The Zeneethians...” as soon as she mentioned their name again, her emotions soared. It was a mark of every Tarkan priestess that they could control their feelings even in situations of utmost stress. Yet all those years of meditation and prayer could not save her now. That word alone was enough to undermine her completely.
“Are a myth,” his mouth moved slowly around the word, hinting at derision, but his gaze was at odds with the move. Perhaps there was more to this Ashkan than anger and arrogance after all. “Now keep moving.”
She watched him pocket the device, her gaze not moving from it.
“You’re not going to stand here and stare at my pocket all day,” he turned her around.
“You don’t know what you’re dealing with,” she resisted, trying to twist back to plead with him.
“A Tarkan weapon. Don’t worry, I’ve dealt with many before,” though the boom and bluster were gone from his words, he kept pushing her forward.
They had travelled through most of the field now, and she could see the farmhouse clearly. Run down in sections, it still looked comfortable. One story with several chimneys, it reminded her of her own family home. Though she had joined the priestess clan at the age of nine, she could still remember her life before.
As they approached, the door opened, a woman walking out slowly and resting her hand on one of the large veranda posts. Chin dimpling as she frowned, she cocked her head to the side.
“Get inside, Laura, get the kids too. Find me a chair and some rope,” his voice kicked up now. The arrogance replaced with a tight vigilance.
The woman, Laura, straightened up, her hands dropping to her sides. “What are you talking about, Jackson, what’s going on? Who is that woman?”
“She’s a Tarkan spy.”
Jackson. So her persecutor had a name.
“I’m not a spy,” she shifted against his grip. With the farmhouse looming before them, her situation was becoming even more desperate. Jackson had the device and soon she would be tied up.
She had spent months planning her escape, and now it would come to naught. All because she had fallen into Ashka in front of this horrible man.
“Shut up,” his head dipped low by her ear, his voice a whisper. “If you do anything to my family....”
“You’ll kill me. Because you have no problem in murdering an unarmed, injured woman. I understand that perfectly.”
Laura took several steps back, her thick boots loud over the wooden floorboards of the veranda. “Jackson?”
“Go inside and find some rope. Do it now.”
Laura turned around, fleeing inside, her long skirts billowing out behind her at the speed of her move. With her lips drawing in and her cheeks slackening, it was clear she was afraid.
In fact, the emotion washed off her and lapped at Ki like the swell from a storm.
All priestesses could sense emotion. Though they were taught to control their own, they were schooled in reading those of others.
He walked her off the grass and onto the path that led up to the house. Made of roughly-hewn stone, it dug into the tender flesh of her feet.
“Don’t do this. Don’t get your wife and children involved.”
“Laura is my sister, and the kids are hers. But they are my family. And you are not going to do anything to hurt them,” he pushed her up the steps, pausing as they reached the front door.
She could see inside. It was a large house, and despite its outward appearance, it was clean and well-kept inside. A carved, wooden table rested near the door, a lamp and a lace runner arranged neatly on the top.
Photos hung on the wall above the table. There were pictures of the house, of a large family, and one or two she instantly recognized as Jackson in the garb of a soldier. It was yet more evidence he was proud of his military history and that he would likely never forgive her for being Tarkan, let alone help her.
She had to look for a way to escape. Soon. Before the Others came. The Zeneethian Scouts. The same group that had kidnapped her more than a year ago.
Thinking about them made her skin chill. A cold, damp sensation spread through her chest and down her arms. It made it hard to breathe.
She would go back to the facility. Surrounded by those sleek white walls, they would continue their experiments on her.
Despite her attempts to regain emotional control, tears began to streak down her cheeks, collecting against her chin and running down her neck.
“Move over here,” Jackson pulled her through the hall and towards an open room at the back of the house. It had boxes and tools and a simple wooden chair seated at a desk. The desk was covered in papers, pens, and various devices.
Jackson pulled at the chair with his foot, turning it around, and pushing her into it, two strong hands weighing down on her shoulders. “Laura, the rope, where is it?”
Ki began to shake. Her heartbeat became erratic, that pressure in her chest building.
There were two large windows in this room, one over the desk and one just before her. She could see out it easily. It showed a path leading out from the back of the house towards a road beyond. There were two vehicles parked within view, one large, old, rusted truck, the other a sleek new car.
In the monastery, she’d had no need for a car, and in Zeneethia they had no need either; they lived in the skies. They flew. From their cities to their ships, everything floated.
She heard Laura approach and watched as she handed Jackson the rope. Hand trembling, the young woman stared at Ki.
“Jackson... she’s crying, what have you done to her?” Laura clutched at the simple silver pendant around her neck, lips creasing into a confused frown.
Jackson finished tying the rope, placing his boot on the chair, anchoring it as he tied off the knot as tight as he could. Then he moved around.
Ki looked up at him as he looked down at her.
“She’s Tarkan,” he hardly moved his mouth as he spoke, and quickly looked away.
“But...” Laura rubbed her hands nervously, that confused frown still drawing down her cheeks.
“She’s a Tarkan spy, Laura. Now you have to do something for me. Go into town, find the nearest Guard post. There’s one opposite the bakery. Tell them to get here as quickly as they can.” Jackson moved towards his sister, fixing his hands on her shoulders gently as he clearly tried to center her attention.
“Okay,” Laura nodded, her soft brown locks falling over her shoulder.
As Ki watched, she couldn’t help but sympathize with Laura. She could feel the woman’s fear and confusion.
She was right to be afraid, but not of Ki.
“Take your children,” Ki interrupted.
“What?” Laura’s skin paled further.
Jackson snapped around, pushing against the chair with his foot. “Shut up.”
“Take your children. They aren’t safe here. Others will come to take me. They will kill anyone who gets in their way.” Ki stared at Laura, never letting her gaze waver. Despite her pain-addled body, her bruised arm, and her throbbing feet, she could appreciate how innocent this woman was. She and her children did not deserve to be caught up in this simply because her brother could not listen.
“I said shut up,” Jackson took a step, placing himself between his sister and Ki.
“Jackson, what is she talking about?” Laura’s voice shook, her pupils shifting wildly, her eyes watery and wide.
“Just go to the Guard post,” Jackson returned his hands to his sister’s shoulders.
“Take your children,” Ki tried to shift forward on the chair, but her arms were too weak to fight against the ropes.
Laura took several steps back, gaze darting from Jackson to Ki. With her hand still latched on her pendant, she nodded. Then she called out two names.
Her children. As they ran to her side from various rooms in the house, Ki gave a sigh. Though the kids glanced at Ki curiously, their mother quickly hurried them out of the room and out of the house. Seconds later Ki saw them pile into the old truck.
Tipping her head back, indulging in closing her eyes, Ki sighed again. The move travelled deep into her chest. It would likely be her last moment of relief in months.
“You shouldn’t have scared her like that.”
She blinked open one eye to see Jackson looming over her, arms crossed. His sleeves were pulled up, his muscles tight against the fabric.
She was no match for him physically. He’d made that point clear. The only hope she had was now firmly tucked in his pocket.
Unable to stop herself, she glanced down towards the device. As she did, he followed her gaze and plucked it out seconds later. Turning it around in his palm, he held it up to the light, a frown tugging at his mouth. “What is it?”
She looked up at him, tearing her eyes off the latticed crystal. “It’s a levitation device.”
He shook his head, giving a sharp, scornful laugh. “Of course it is.”
“It’s the truth. It’s a levitation device,” she could feel her expression deaden as that cold feeling of dread weighed her down further. With no hope of escape, her fight dried up.
“And it belongs to the Zeneethians, does it? The same Zeneethians that are coming to take you back? Why did they give it to you?” he continued to turn the device around in his grip. Though his words were dismissive, his voice wavered. His shoulders also rounded, dropping in. If he had been anyone else, she would have assumed he was having second thoughts. That guilt or reason, or some mix of the two, were finally catching up with him.
“They didn’t give it to me. I stole it so I could get away,” she looked down at her hands. They were locked in her lap, the rope tight around her middle. Though her feet were covered in toe rings and anklets, her fingers and wrists were bare save for the two prominent tattoos on the backs of her hands. They were sacred symbols from the ancient Tarkan language, and they were meant to afford one protection and peace.
They obviously weren’t working.
“Of course you did. And now they’re coming to take you back, and this too, presumably,” he threw the device up and caught it easily.
If her expression had been a deadened one before, it sharpened in an instant. “They will pull this house apart looking for that. If you take it to your village, they will turn it to rubble to get it back. You should just leave. Get away while you can.”
“I’m not going to fall for that old trap,” he stood taller, though his shoulders were still rounded and his heart didn’t seem to be in it.
“This old trap? How many other times have you come across a kidnapped Tarkan priestess who has stolen a levitation device to get away from the Zeneethians?”
“I’m not going to fall for your lies,” he clarified.
She stared at him for one more second, then turned away, determined not to look at him again. She could not reach him. His fate would now be his own.
“So what is this device really?”
She did not reply.
“Who are you really?”
She closed her eyes.
“The Guards will find a way to make you talk.”
She surrendered to her situation. She no longer fought the turgid emotions building within; she let them flow. Tears streaked down her cheeks faster, her chest shifting back and forth as soft sobs escaped her lips.
“Crying isn’t going to affect me,” Jackson snapped.
No doubt the particle rifles of the Zeneethians would though. Jackson could bluster all he liked now, but when the scouts burst through their door with their advanced weaponry and armor, he would stop.
They would kill him and pluck the device from his pocket. Then they would take her back. This time they would watch her all day and all night. She would never have another opportunity to escape.
It was time to turn her mind within to engage in whatever meditation she could. She had to gather forth the scraps of emotional control she had left before the inevitable onslaught coming for her arrived.
Jackson tried to ask her several more questions before he gave up.
She heard him leave the room, only to return with a chair that he sat in roughly.
Then they waited.
Though they did not wait long.
It was when he was sitting there in a kitchen chair staring at her that he heard something.
At first he thought it was his sister returning, but as he strained his neck to stare through the window above his desk, he realized her truck wasn’t turning down the driveway. Plus, whatever hum he now heard was distinctly different from the rumble of that old rust bucket.
It sounded like thousands of insects. He’d been unlucky enough to see a swarm of locusts once, and the buzz that now filled the house reminded him of it distinctly.
Standing up, he snapped his head towards the Tarkan spy, Ki, as she claimed to be called. She opened her eyes, her chest lurching forward as she gasped in clear shock. With eyes pressed open, her cheeks practically dropped from her face as her mouth slackened, lips limp.
He wanted to believe she was faking it. It would be easy to close off his objective mind and pretend the expression she now wore was all an act.
Yet it still tugged at his heart, as if she had reached right into his chest.
“Stay here,” he turned to head for the door.
It was a useless thing to say; she was tied to the chair. There was nowhere she could go. Instead of Ki acerbically pointing that out, she crumpled, her body weighing against the rope. Shivering, she started to shake her head repeatedly.
Staring at her, he backed off.
The hum suddenly stopped.
Silence filled the house. His heart raced against the sudden change, adrenaline filling his body, tensing his muscles, preparing his senses.
Before he could turn to head through the door, he saw something move beyond the window. Low to the ground, it darted forward like an Ashkan wolf. White, whatever it wore glinted in the sun.
Suddenly there was a sound from the front of the house. At first a soft, almost imperceptible scrabbling, seconds later an explosion ripped through the building.
Slamming himself down, he locked his arms over his head.
Before he could turn to push Ki over and pull her under cover, the window over his desk shattered. Glass scattered through the room in a powerful blast that saw chunks of it slash past his exposed arms, cutting the flesh easily.
Ki screamed, but the keening, desperate cry cut out quickly.
He looked up to see a man next to her. He’d jumped in through the open window with agility and strength any hardened soldier would be amazed at.
Dressed in an unusual, pure-white, metallic armor from head to foot, the man grabbed Ki by the neck and pushed her head up. Though his armored fingers were tight around her throat, she did not make a noise. She stared up in shaking-eyed desperation.
The man pulled a white device from the wrist of his armor and brought it in front of her face. It pulsed with a blue light, beeping intermittently.
Finally Jackson acted. He snapped up, getting ready to lunge at the soldier.
He didn’t get the chance.
The soldier reacted with impossible reflexes, reaching for his gun and pointing it at Jackson without ever turning around or removing that device from next to Ki’s face.
Frozen on the spot, Jackson heard soft footsteps from the front of the house.
“Target acquired,” the soldier in front of Ki said aloud, his voice distorted somehow. “Scanners confirm no other life signs in the building.”
Scanners? Life signs?
The soldier closed the device, returning it to his armor. It fitted in neatly.
Jackson had never seen technology like it. From the armor to the dexterity of the soldier, something wasn’t right. If the Tarkans were this developed, they would have taken Ashka easily in the last war. If they had only recently invented this kind of technology, they would have used it to their immediate advantage.
Still frozen on the spot, he heard several people approaching, and two more soldiers dressed in exactly the same flawless white armor entered the room. All wore opaque helmets. There was no glass fitted in the front, no gap to see out of, just continuous, smooth metal. Yet they all clearly could see.
They approached with their weapons locked on him.
“Don’t shoot him; remove the levi device first.” The soldier in front of Ki lowered his own weapon, bringing his hand down sharply. A blade shot out from the back of his wrist. Long and sharp, it too was perfect, clean, glinting white.
Ki flinched, turning to the side.
The blade was a bare centimeter from her cheek.
Tight fear seized Jackson’s chest as he watched the soldier move around her. Instead of plunging the long blade through her back, he cut the ropes that bound her to the chair.
She did not lunge forward and try to run away. She sat there limply.
Jackson had seen people surrender before. In the last war, he’d watched close friends give in to desperation. Their faces would turn white, their bodies limp, their expressions cold and dead.
She looked no different from those men he’d seen.
“Who are you?” finding his courage, he snapped at the men. “Ashkan Guards are on their way.”
The soldier before Ki tipped his head to the side, that faceless helmet directed at Jackson. With a seamless move, the blade disappeared back into the armor of his wrist. Then he brought up his gun instead.
It was unlike anything Jackson had ever seen. Sleek, long, the barrel held a chamber that pulsed with a blue glow. There was no magazine for bullets, just that radiant light.
“Take the levi device from him. Be careful. Then remove him from the house and disintegrate him.” The soldier turned back to Ki, looping an arm under her shoulder and pulling her to her feet. She winced in pain, but she made no noise.
Why not just shoot him now and take the device from his pocket? Why were they being so careful?
As one of the other soldiers moved towards him, Jackson formulated a plan.
The device was all he had. So he plunged a hand into his pocket and brought it out.
It was a strange-looking thing. Fitting into his palm neatly, it was incredibly light, feeling like nothing more than colored air. It was made of blue interlocking, filament-like sections.
With one press of his hand he confirmed it was soft enough to break though. Given enough force, he could snap it easily.
At his sudden move, the three soldiers before him all hunkered over their weapons, raising them higher with quick, sharp snaps.
None of them shot, neither did they stamp forward, punch him with their armored fists, and simply pluck the device from his hand.
They all acted warily.
“Drop it, try to break it,” Ki suddenly shifted forward, frantic, her eyes coming to life with something akin to hope.
The main soldier instantly grabbed her back, using force that saw her slam against his chest. He snapped up his free hand, pumping his fist closed. With a pneumatic hiss, a device extended from his wrist again. This time it was not a knife. It was a short, thin cylinder with a nib at the top.
He yanked Ki’s head to the side and held it against her neck.
Her eyes rolled into the back of her head as her body drew limp. The lead soldier fixed her against him with one arm around her middle as she fainted away.
All attention returned to Jackson.
He still held the device aloft, his fingers tight around it.
The soldiers inched closer to him, obviously trying to surround him. Yet none of them tried an outright attack.
They were evidently afraid of what he’d do to the device.
She’d told him to throw it on the ground. Though he doubted that would be enough to chip it, let alone break it, he raised his hand dramatically.
Instantly the soldiers flinched back.
“I will drop this,” he warned, opening his fingers a fraction to prove his point.
“You are outnumbered and outgunned. Return the device to us,” the main soldier began, then his voice cut out abruptly. He turned his head sharply towards the broken window he’d come through. “A vehicle is approaching. Approximately ten life signs are inside. They are armed.”
“Deal with them. I will retrieve the device,” the head soldier nodded towards the open window.
The other soldiers immediately followed the order and filed out of the window, vaulting over the desk with admirable ease.
Jackson used all his training to keep control of his body, to stop his hand from trembling as he thought about what would happen to the Guards. Worse than that, what if Laura was coming back with them?
“You and your people are no match for us. We are technologically and physically superior,” the head soldier lowered his gun. “If you return the device, we will leave before the others arrive. If you do not, we will kill them and then we will kill you.”
Jackson’s gaze, of its own accord, drifted down to Ki. She was unconscious, her head flopped against the soldier’s shoulder.
Perhaps she had told the truth after all.
“You have approximately 28 seconds to make your decision,” the soldier shifted Ki, her long black hair trailing over her limp arms.
“Go to hell,” the words were out of Jackson’s lips before he could stop himself.
He brought the device up higher, then threw it as hard as he could at the ground.
The soldier dumped Ki. Lurching forward, his arm snapped towards the strange object like a spring.
He was too late.
The blue lattice struck the chipped and worn floorboards.
As soon as it did, light bled from it. Cracks snaked up the sides and a glow surged within.
The soldier scuttled backwards, bringing a hand up before his face.
The device exploded. It sent a shockwave blasting out in a boom. It picked Jackson up and slammed him against the opposite wall, but the soldier took the brunt of the explosion. He’d been closest, his body barely 30 centimeters from it.
The blast picked him up and smashed him into the desk, the wood crumpling under his weight.
Then the light came.
Just as before, it tracked forward slowly, moving like water.
It washed over Jackson, filling the entire room. As it did, something extraordinary occurred.
A weightless feeling built within his body. It chased away the pain that filled him. Though he doubted he had broken bones, being slammed against the wall had hurt like hell.
The light pushed that crippling sensation from his mind. Then it pushed him up.
He began to float.
In fact, everything in the room did. From his broken desk to the soldier.
The blue light continued to caress Jackson’s skin, trailing delicately around him like a warm and lingering touch. It was the most incredible sensation.
He was floating on nothing but light.
It would not last.
He heard the soldiers from outside screaming. Amidst their shouts, he picked up one statement clearly.
Their particle weapons would not work near the light.
It was all Jackson needed.
The main soldier started to stir. He was floating on the other side of the room, his armor keeping his body stiff, his legs and arms splayed. Now they shifted, his head snapping up.
He had a gun, and while the weapons of these strange soldiers might be useless, he doubted his own would be. It worked on nothing more sophisticated than a bullet and gunpowder.
When he’d brought Ki into the room, he’d placed the gun on one of the boxes by the door. In all the confusion, he’d never had a chance to reach for it.
Now it floated just outside the doorway.
He dived towards it, crunching his legs against the wall beside him and using it to push forward. He sailed through the air, the light churning around him like steam. He managed to reach the door, locking his fingers onto the top of the frame and using it to flip forward.
As the soldier stirred behind him, Jackson dashed in and grabbed his gun. It floated just above the hallway carpet, and he snatched it up easily, pivoting to face the man.
“Your gun won’t work, mine will,” Jackson pointed his at the soldier and hesitated no longer. He pulled the trigger. The bullet slammed out of the barrel, impacting the soldier’s chest, front and center.
Though the force of it knocked the soldier back, and he tipped head over heels, he soon latched a hand onto the wall and straightened up. As he did, Jackson saw his white armor wasn’t even scratched.
“Your primitive weapon is no match for my armor,” the soldier’s voice dipped, that distortion warping his tone suddenly growing stronger with a crackle.
From outside the sound of tires crunching over gravel filtered through the broken window.
The head soldier half turned towards the view.
Light was spilling out of the window and into the yard outside. How far it spread, Jackson could not guess, but he hoped it was far enough to ensure none of the other soldiers would be able to use their weapons. At least that would give the Guards a chance.
As the main soldier turned, Jackson acted. He dove towards Ki. She was floating just before him, head flopped to the side as her long robe and hair fluttered around her.
He grabbed her, anchored her with his arm, and did not hesitate to bring his gun against her temple.
The main soldier snapped his head around, body stiffening visibly.
“I will shoot her,” Jackson lied. “Somehow I think she’s far more important to you than that stone was.”
The soldier didn’t react.
So Jackson began to push himself backwards. It was a difficult maneuver, especially with the unconscious Ki in his arms, but he managed to get into the hall.
The soldier began to follow.
“Get any closer and I’ll kill her,” Jackson pushed the gun visibly harder into her head.
The soldier stopped dead.
“Call your men off. Get them to surrender.”
The soldier hesitated.
“Do you want me to kill her?”
The man began to speak in a muffled voice. He did not pull out a large radio, he did not shout either. It was as if his men remained in easy contact with him, wherever he was.
Using the wall as traction, Jackson kept on pushing into it with his feet and thrusting backwards. Soon he was out of the corridor and the soldier was out of sight.
The further Jackson moved through the house, the more that floating feeling began to wane. The furniture around him did not hover as high, and the sensation in his limbs all but dwindled.
By the time he reached the front door, his feet were almost touching the ground.
The blue light around him was a trickle now. With one final push, it ended, and his body landed back on the ground with a thump.
The jolt shifted through Ki, and she stirred against him.
She started to wake. He brought his gun down before she could see it.
Eyes fluttering, a groan escaped her lips.
“What... what’s happening?” her voice was small, her words croaked.
“We’re out of the house,” Jackson loosened his grip around her. He no longer had to question her story. It was clear she could not be a Tarkan spy. The soldiers that had come for her were almost beyond imagination. Almost....
He’d heard the stories as a kid. His grandmother had been particularly fond of telling them. The Zeneethians were the third race, the hidden race. Beyond any technology either the Tarkans or the Ashkans possessed, their sophistication was incredible.
They were meant to be a myth. No one had ever found any evidence of their existence. According to the legend, they lived in the sky. Yet as telescopes had improved, no one had ever seen a single floating city.
If the men in his house weren’t Zeneethians though, who were they?
As he hesitated, Ki’s lethargy lifted. He watched the muscles of her face tense, her eyes open wider.
“Where are they, where are the Others, the Scouts?” she pushed away from him, though she still couldn’t stand. Despite her passion, her body hadn’t yet woken up properly.
“You mean the soldiers? I’ve warned them off, they’re still at the back of the house.”
She shook, lurching back. “We don’t have much time. We need to get out of here before they call for backup.”
She pushed away from him, breaking his grip around her. Though she stumbled, somehow she stood. Then she turned around wildly, searching her surroundings.
She gasped, staggering past him. Turning, he saw where she was headed.
There was... something out in the hay field.
Sleek and large, it looked like a truck without wheels, though the body was continuous save for one rectangle door.
It was pure white like the armor he’d just seen.
She kept stumbling towards it.
“What are you doing?” he ran towards her.
“Need to get away,” she tripped, falling to her knees, but pushed herself up before he could lean down to help her.
He grabbed onto her arm, intending to steady her, but she yanked free. She reached the ship, flattening her hands onto the hatch-like door and running her shaking palms down it. As she reached the bottom, she pushed in, and with a hiss it opened forward.
Swaying backwards, she threw herself inside.
“What is this vehicle?” he came up beside her, but the door was not big enough for them both to lean inside at once.
“Scout ship.” She disappeared inside, her bare feet left dangling out the door.
They were muddy and cut. No doubt from her trek through the field. Seeing the smeared blood and dirt sent a pang of guilt twisting through his gut.
He’d done that.
Yes, she was Tarkan, but it had become abundantly apparent she was no spy. Whether she was a priestess as she claimed was a moot point. Those soldiers were desperate to get her back. And they clearly had no scruples about how they did it.
She fidgeted around, feet finally disappearing inside the vehicle.
He latched onto the hatch and pulled his torso inside, amazed at what he saw. There were four seats and a dashboard filled with flat panels that were covered in softly pulsing, moving lights.
Ki, still on her stomach, was under the main dash. She was trying to pry open a panel, but her shaking fingers kept glancing off.
“What are you doing?” he climbed inside.
“Try... trying to get to the crystal inside. Powers the ship.”
He moved forward. Crouching beside her, he periodically raised his head to stare out of the windscreen before him. There was no sign of those white soldiers. Yet.
He knew what he should do. Take her around the front and threaten to shoot her, to ensure those futuristic soldiers truly surrendered.
Instead he shifted forward, latched his fingers around the panel she was trying to open, and yanked it off himself.
She looked at him. Her features were still slack with fatigue, but her frown softened. Then she turned immediately, flopping back on the ground and plunging her hand into the circuits beyond the panel.
His brow twitched up, lips dropping open.
The circuits were made of a slim, flexible, silver filament. That was not what caught his breath though. It was the glowing lattice structure lodged inside them. It sent periodic pulses through the wires, a soft hum filling the ship.
Without warning, she latched her hand on it and pulled it free. Sparks erupted from the wires. Instinctively he grabbed her shoulders and wrenched her back. She didn’t seem to care that the sparks landed against her skin and clothes, singeing them. Instead she spluttered as she stared at the device, quick tears tracing down her cheeks.
It was exactly the same as the one he’d destroyed in the house. A unique, complicated blue structure unlike anything he’d ever seen.
She pushed past him, flattening him against the seat nearest as she scrabbled towards the door.
He followed. “What is that?”
She fell out of the ship, landing on the ground with a groan, but instantly raising her head to check on the stone. Crawling forward on her stomach, she held it up to the light.
He saw a glint travel across the surface, lighting up the blue crystal structure as she clutched it with a white-knuckled hand.
He jumped out of the vessel, leaning down beside her. His gun was still in his hand. He should pull her up and take her around front. He needed to ensure the Guards could overcome those soldiers. Yet the prospect of grabbing her again and forcing the gun against her head....
He’d always followed orders. He’d been a model soldier. Now he was a science officer in the Royal Academy, he worked with the military developing new technologies, not just for defense, but weapons too.
He knew the costs of trusting the Tarkans. All Ashkans did.
She tried to stand, but her hands buckled out from underneath her. As her face slammed down, she brought the device up instantly, trying to hold it back up to the sun.
“What are you—” he began. Then he stopped.
He heard footsteps coming around the side of the house. Ducking down, he brought his gun forward.
Before he could entertain the hope it was the Guards, he saw that glinting white armor.
Stomach sinking, he went to push his back flush with the vessel, intending to use it for cover. Then he stopped. Snapping down, he tucked an arm around her middle and brought her with him.
“Activate ship’s defenses, flush them forward,” someone snapped. He recognized the voice. It was the distorted baritone of the head soldier.
Getting ready to push himself away from the vessel, Ki suddenly locked her legs in place, keeping them anchored. She brought up the stone.
He understood. It must run the ship. Without it, whatever the soldiers were planning would not work.
There was an electronic beep, followed by the whirring down of an engine.
“Ship has been disabled, engines down,” one of the other soldiers noted.
“We have to get out of here... I’m, I’m sorry.” Realizing there was only one thing to do, Jackson brought his gun up.
She batted it down, bringing the device up again, reaching her hand forward, trying to lift the stone out of the ship’s shadow.
He grabbed her hand back before she could offer the soldiers a target, moving her around as he did, pushing further behind the ship and out of sight.
She kept trying to bring the device to the light.
“Don’t,” he hissed in her ear.
“Need to get warm. Needs to be warm.”
“Why? What are you doing?”
“Only escape.” She turned to him, pushing the stone into his chest. “Breathe on it. Warm it. Won’t work when it’s cold.”
Though he needed all his wits, he still took the stone. She pushed it further into him. Closing her hand around his.
The stone was cold to touch. It felt like it was eating the heat right out of him, reaching down to his bones and taking every trace of warmth it could.
He went to drop it, to yank his hand back, but she fixed her fingers harder around his.
“Our weapons will work now,” the head soldier said. He was only meters away, rounding the side of the ship. Soon he would be in view.
They were out of time.
“Sorry,” Jackson brought the gun up, pushed his arm around her neck, and got ready to stand.
She resisted, bringing her hand up and grabbing at the device.
The soldiers came into view, one by one, their weapons levelled.
He pulled himself up, arm still around her neck. It was as loose as it could be while still making it appear as if he held her firmly.
“Release her.” The main soldier stepped forward, gun fast in his grip.
“I will shoot her,” Jackson pushed the gun into her temple and hated himself as he felt her flinch against him.
“Do not make enemies of us. We will destroy your village if you get in our way. Kill her, we will eradicate an entire province. Millions will have you to thank for their deaths.”
Swallowing, he didn’t release her.
Through the entire confrontation, she did not stop moving. With her sleeves pulled over her hands, she fidgeted with the stone out of sight.
“Release her. This is your final warning,” the lead soldier stepped forward. As he did, he shifted his head subtly.
It would be a sign. An order to one of the other soldiers.
“This better not kill me,” Ki shuddered back into him. As she did, light began to leak from between her sleeves.
“She has a levi device,” the lead soldier screamed, the distortion in his voice not hiding his desperation.
The light began to envelop her, streaming so fast from the crystal she held that he had to shield his eyes with his arm.
“Hold on,” she snapped at him.
Latching a hand over his arm and bringing it back to her middle, her body began to push up against his. She had not jumped. She was starting to float, and as he held on, she pulled him up along with her.
It was the oddest sensation, his feet lifting off the ground gently, body filling with that same light, airy feeling.
The soldiers toted their weapons and he flinched, getting ready to act.
“They can’t do anything. They won’t shoot this close to me, and their ship is disabled.” Ki breathed heavily, her chest tight against his arm.
They floated up, higher and higher, the stone moving them with no trouble against the pull of gravity.
He began to stiffen, body locking in place, arm tightening around Ki out of desperation. He could see his house below, he could see right into one of the chimneys.
“You’re choking me,” Ki pushed against his arm.
“Sorry but we’re... we’re flying.”
“Levitating,” she corrected.
They were above the tallest trees now, and he could easily see around the house. The Guard truck was open... but there were no bodies. No sign of people at all.
“What have they done? Where the hell are the Guards? What did those soldiers do?” he strained his neck to look down. “We have to go down and check on them.”
“We can’t go back down.”
“I have to find them,” he kept straining, but the higher they floated, the less he could make out.
“Leave it. You can’t find them. More... will be on the way,” her words were slurred, her body doubling forward as she spoke.
“Hey, Takar—” he began. “Ki. Ki, are you alright?”
Her breathing started to slow. Dropping forward, her arms brushed loosely against his own.
She was about to faint.
Quickly he grabbed at her hand and closed his fingers around it, locking the device in place before she could drop it.
“Ki, Ki,” he tried to wake her, but she lay loose against him.
The effects of whatever drug those soldiers had injected her with had obviously returned.
He attempted to wake her a few more times, but it would not work.
Which was a very bad thing. They were still rising through the air, and he had no idea how to stop it. He might not understand the technology that was causing this, but he knew one thing. Air got thinner the higher up you went. There was less and less oxygen at higher altitudes. Go high enough, and there won’t be sufficient to breathe.
“Ki,” he shouted in her ear.
She didn’t respond.
He could see the whole village below him now. Make out the central square, the Guard post, even the school.
They had to be almost 100 meters up.
If the levitation powers of that device cut out, they would fall to their deaths. No question.
He had no options. Drop the crystal and they’d fall with it. Ki was his only hope.
Trying to stir her by pushing his arm up into her torso, it achieved nothing.
He could see past the village now, make out the pastures and woods that surrounded it.
“Ki,” he shouted louder.
It appeared there was no way to wake her.
Allowing his desperation to overcome him, a cold sweat picked up along his brow.
Then he stopped. There was a way.
It was risky, but worth a try.
He pried the stone from her fingers. The second he removed it, they started to drop.
There was no warning.
He screamed, but didn’t let go of her or the device.
In free fall, with her sleeves and hair whipping against his face, he tried to twist around so he could keep an eye on the ground.
He had to time this perfectly.
The ground was rushing up so fast his eyes could hardly adjust.
They’d drifted on their trajectory, and thankfully were not heading back to the farmhouse. If he had to guess, they would land somewhere beyond the woods in the high terrain that led up to the mountains. Far enough away from the soldiers for a head start.
The sound of the air rushing against his ears was almost deafening. The sensation of falling enough to send him into shock. He held on though, right until the end.
As the ground loomed, less than ten meters away now, his heart stopping in his chest, he thrust the device back into Ki’s hand.
His gamble paid off. Their free fall ended instantly. There was no translation of force; their bodies didn’t slam into reverse, cracking their spines and breaking their limbs. Their fall simply cut out and that light sensation returned.
He grabbed the device out of her hand again, forced it back into her grip, then grabbed it from her one final time.
Then they fell to the ground. Not from a crippling height. From less than a meter. He rolled easily, trying to absorb the fall so Ki wouldn’t have to.
With the grass and dirt against his back, and Ki limp against his chest, he let out a delayed scream. It rang through his chest. When it was over, he slammed a hand over his eyes, closing them tight.
He’d just floated into the air and fallen down again. Soldiers with weapons that were not possible had attacked his home. And lying in his arms was the woman who had started it all.
Eventually pushing himself up, he stared down at her. It was the longest he’d looked at Ki without his face turning up in derision.
She was probably a couple of years younger than he was, her skin smooth save for the tattoos that covered it. He recognized them as an outdated written form of Tarkan. They were on the backs of her hands, around her throat and on each of her fingertips. If it had been any other language, it would have been an intriguing, almost beautiful sight.
Sitting up, he shifted her off his chest and onto the grass. He was far gentler than he had been before.
Ignoring his shaking knees, he stood up, the device still in his hand. He stared around him.
They’d landed on a grass hill just behind one of the woods that surrounded the town. As he stared behind him, he saw the mountains draw up into steep, snow-covered peaks.
Shielding his eyes, he saw the sun peeking out from behind them. They would have less than four hours of sunlight.
Looking back at her, he tried to figure out what to do.
Any Ashkan would be able to recognize the symbols over her body.
Shifting one hand onto his hip, he brought the device up and examined it under the sun.
It possessed abilities that should not have been possible. Levitation, a blue light that moved like water – he knew enough science to realize this could not be real.
The problem was, however, he’d just lived through it.
Pushing his hand down his face and sighing into his palm, he pocketed the device.
He had two options as far as he saw it. Go back to the village to try to find help, or head into the mountains.
If those soldiers had been telling the truth, they would think nothing of turning over the town to try to get their hands on Ki. If he took her back there, it would put everyone at risk.
Could he really take her into the mountains instead? And then what? Head around Paladin’s Pass to the capital city?
Staring along the closest peak, he spotted the pass. It was long, steep, and treacherous. It would also be deep with snow by tonight. It may only be mid-autumn, but those mountains were far colder than the plains. He could see thick clouds gathering towards them too.
Shaking his head, he clenched his teeth, pushing a breath through them.
She caught his gaze again. For someone who had given him so much trouble, she looked entirely peaceful now. Her long black hair lay in bunches around her chin and over her chest. Those dark, thick eyelashes were resting against her warm cheeks.
He shook his head again.
There was another option. Leave her.
This wasn’t his fight. He didn’t know this woman. She was Tarkan anyway.
Stepping back from her, just to prove it was possible, he grated his teeth together, feeling the tension in his jaw lock the muscles in his neck and chest.
Walking away was the sanest, most reasonable plan. Those soldiers would do anything to get her back, and he knew there was nothing the Ashkan Guards could do to fight them. Risking himself and his people for a Tarkan was ignoble suicide.
Wiping his suddenly sweat-covered fingers on his pants, he took another step back.
He would warn the Guards, explain what had happened, and try to help them figure out who those soldiers were and where they’d come from.
A soft breeze picked up, swaying through the long grass and brushing at Ki’s loose hair. Though it was still sunny, and the hill was basking in it, the wind had a cold edge that made him shiver.
It would only get worse as the sun dropped. Tonight it would be freezing.
If she did not wake by then, she could succumb to hypothermia, or worse.
“She’s Tarkan,” he reminded himself through bared teeth. Her people had done everything they could to exterminate the Ashkans.
Lilly, his fiancée, had died at their hands. Four years ago, at the end of the last war, she’d been sniped by an enemy soldier just after the ceasefire had been signed. The order to stop shooting had not filtered out to all Tarkan troops, apparently. He would never believe that though.
The memory steeled him. He turned from her, heading down the hill.
He did not get very far – barely three meters until his conscious caught up with him.
She claimed to be a priestess. She’d said the Zeneethians had kidnapped her. If she was right, she was an innocent caught up in this.
If a Tarkan could ever be classed as innocent.
He stood there as the wind picked up, blowing at his pants and shirt as his morals battled against his duty to his people.
The only thing that shifted him was a gasp.
He turned to see her move. Her head lolled to one side, her lips brushing open.
If he wanted to walk away, he’d have to do it now. If he let her wake, no doubt she’d start shouting at him.
She groaned, turning her head from side to side restlessly, her hair a mess over her face.
The wind picked up louder, that cold edge harder now. It made him shiver as he stood there, body directed towards the town, yet head still turned towards her.
She trembled against it. Bringing her legs up and pushing her hands over her arms, she groaned again.
She would be freezing. When she’d clutched that device into his hand, her palm and fingers had been like ice.
She began to sob. It was the final straw.
He turned and walked back to her, despite the fact he was Ashkan. He leaned down and rested a hand on her shoulder gently, despite the fact she was Tarkan.
Her restless fits continued, sobs escaping her lips as she turned her head and pushed it into the grass.
“You’re alive. We landed... safely.” Though he could swear he’d bruised his side, she didn’t need to know that. There was only one thing she would want to hear. “Those soldiers are back at the farmhouse. It’s almost 20 kilometers from here.”
She faced him, eyes opening. Pupils dilated, she blinked against the sunlight, but did not look away.
“Ki, you are safe.”
Breathing steadying, she tried to sit.
He helped her up.
Lips loose, cheeks slack, eyes filled with a dead, fatigued look, she stared at him.
Then, like a wave, recognition seemed to hit her. She jolted back.
“I’m not here to hurt you,” he put his hands up.
Was that a lie? He had no idea what had compelled him to stay, but it was too early to promise anything.
“Where’s the device?” she searched the grass around her. When she couldn’t find it, she planted her hands on the ground and pushed towards him, stopping less than 30 centimeters from his face. “Where is it?”
“I’ve got it.” He swallowed through his words, straightening up.
“Give it to me,” she reached her hand out. “Please, give it to me.”
Backing off, he got to his feet, staring down at her. He shook his head.
“You have to give it to me. It’s the only way to get away from them. Hand it over,” she tried to stand, but her arms shook and buckled as soon as she put pressure on them.
To her credit, she did not give up. She kept trying and kept falling.
His lips crumpled with an expression uncomfortably close to compassion. “You’re weak, stay down.”
“Give me the stone. I have to get away from here.”
“You use that stone again, and you’ll die. I’m the only reason we got to the ground safely. You blacked out.”
“I’ve got to get away,” frantic, more tears traced down her cheeks.
He hated seeing them. Every time she cried, the tension in his gut twisted tighter and tighter.
“You’ve done enough. Just give me the device. I saved you, please, it’s the least you can do,” she could not stand, no matter how hard she tried. That did not stop her from begging though.
“I saved you. We would have died up there. We’d have run out of oxygen.”
“I saved you from the scouts. They would have killed you. They’d have destroyed your house, maybe your whole village. You should have listened to me. You brought this on yourself. Now give me the device.” She held her hand out to him, her arm shaking wildly.
That cold sensation in his gut twisted harder. He practically lurched forward. “You brought them to my town.”
“I didn’t bring them anywhere. I escaped. You tried to capture me just because I’m Tarkan. I warned you who was after me. You would not listen,” she spoke her words slowly, and the effect was chilling.
Because it was true.
He hadn’t listened. He hadn’t let himself believe a word she’d said. It had been easy to dismiss her wild allegations, far easier because of who she was.
“You think I brought this on you, then fine, leave. They won’t go after you. They’re only going to concentrate on me. Just give me a chance – give me the device.” She did not drop her hand, even though her arm bucked wildly, her shoulders shaking as she apparently used her last strength to hold it aloft.
They wouldn’t go after him.
“Your village will be safe. Just, just give it to me,” she burst into tears, letting her hand finally drop.
They wouldn’t go after his village.
He’d been right. Those futuristic soldiers would only concentrate on Ki.
He could safely walk away and put this incident behind him.
He tried to sit with that possibility, but he could not.
It struggled against his attempts to control it.
If he left her, he would never find out her secret. He would never find out who those soldiers were and where they came from.
He was meant to be a scientist now. He’d left the army four years ago.
Could he really walk away from this?
Clearly tired and overcome, Ki withdrew, pulling her legs up and latching her arms around them, burrowing her head between her knees.
He relaxed. The tension that had seized him at her allegations finally drifting away with the wind.
“Can you walk?”
She looked up, cheeks hot and eyes red.
“Can you walk?” he nodded down at her.
“You’re not serious? You’re going to take me to prison? You’re not listening, the scouts will return. They will blast their way in and kill everyone in their path.”
He put up a hand. “I’m not taking you to prison.” He pointed towards Paladin’s Pass. “If we want to get out of here unnoticed, it’s our best option. We can head around past the mountain range and into the capital.”
She crumpled her eyes warily.
“I’m not going to take you to prison. I saw what those soldiers are capable of. We need to find out where they’re from.”
“I told you where they’re from. Zeneethia.”
He scratched at his nose, pinching the bridge. “Zeneethia is a myth.”
“You can’t try to help me,” she released her legs, trying to stand. Again she failed.
“Because you’re Ashkan,” her voice pitched in desperation.
Her words steeled him. “You’re damn right I’m Ashkan. And I can help whomever I want. We’re going to head to the Capital. I have access to labs at the Royal Academy. We can analyze the device and find out what it is.”
Her jaw was slack, her open lips sagging. “There’s no way—”
“We have to try. These soldiers have weapons beyond anything I’ve ever seen. They could be planning a full-scale invasion, and there’s nothing to stop them.”
“The Zeneethians aren’t interested in us.”
“They are clearly interested in you,” he crossed his arms in front of his chest, bracing his jaw as he forced his head forward, daring her to challenge him.
“There’s nothing anyone can do to fight them.”
“You got away from them. And you’re only a priestess. I’m a scientist.”
Her gaze flared. “How dare you.” She finally pushed herself to her feet.
“You’re standing, well done. Now can you walk, or am I going to have to carry you?”
“Men are not permitted to touch the women of the priestess clan,” as she concentrated her anger on him, she swayed less and less.
“I’ll remember that next time you fall into my arms. Now we need to make a head start before night falls. If we can make it to the old shack before the pass, we can stay there until morning. We can stock up before our trek.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you.”
“I have your device,” he patted his pocket. “And I’m not going anywhere without you. You’re the key to this, and you fell in my field.”
“I’m not your property,” she almost fell over, her response far too desperate considering her condition.
It stilled him. He saw the fervent look in her eyes, the way she shook back as she spoke.
“I didn’t say you were my property,” he softened his voice, “but you are my concern. I need to find out what’s going on. And I fancy your chances are going to be better with me than they will be on your own. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but you are covered in Tarkan symbols and you have a real thick accent. You won’t make it a day in Ashka.”
Her shoulders slackened, her fight falling from her swaying form.
“So come on,” he held out his hand.
She stared at it as if it was a trap.
He did not drop it. He kept it out. Not saying a thing.
As a gust of wind caught her long purple robe, her eyes shimmered with tears. She stared at him for one last moment until she took his hand.
Her fingers were cold. Icy. But the longer he held onto them, the quicker they warmed.
He led her up the hill towards the pass.
Her mind raced as they walked. She had so much to think about.
Could she trust this man? She hardly knew him, and of the few interactions they’d had, he’d spent most of them shouting at her or tying her to a chair.
The day was drawing on. The sun that had peeped through the mountains high above them had now withdrawn. Long, dark shadows covered the hills they now walked through. She shivered against their chill, drawing her arms up and hugging them close.
He shifted back, noting her move, but he did not speak.
Ever since their conversation on that grassy hilltop, he’d hardly said a word. Deep in thought, mouth furrowed with concentration, he’d simply walked silently by her side.
As the wind whipped up past her, Ki watched it sway through the pine trees that lay dotted along their path. They were headed up the side of a steep, scree-covered slope. Lined with fragments of rock and the occasional boulder, it was murder on her feet. She took every step as slowly as she could.
He let out a frustrated puff of air and turned to her. “Hurry up. We’ve got barely an hour before dark. We need to get to the cabin before then.”
“I’m sorry, but unlike you, I don’t have any shoes on.”
“I already offered you mine.”
“You’re at least four sizes bigger than me,” she landed her hands on her hips and half turned from him. If he were any other man, she was sure she would be better able to control her emotions around him. Right now her frustration over his attitude drove into her like the blow of a hammer.
“Fine, then stay here and wait for those soldiers to come back, or for the wolves to come out from their dens. I’ve travelled these woods at night before, and they’re a treacherous place.”
“I never asked you to help me,” she snapped. She’d already repeated this fact to him, but his response was always the same.
Turning from her, he let out an angry laugh. “You Tarkans are so ungrateful. Now come here.”
He moved before she could react, and grabbed at her sleeve.
“What are you doing?” she tried to push him off.
“Making you some shoes.” With a grunt, he secured her collar in one hand and the length of her sleeve in the other, then ripped the fabric down the seam. “Now sit down.”
“This is a sacred garment.”
“It’s not practical,” he mumbled as he grabbed her other sleeve and did the same.
She tried to push him off, but he shot her a warning look. Then he stepped back, both her long sleeves in his hands. Looking down at her feet, he nodded his head sharply at her.
She immediately brought her long robe forward, hiding her toes from view.
He shook his head, an irritated look narrowing his striking brown eyes. “If you’re going to be this much trouble, I’ll push you off the pass.”
Taking an indignant breath, she turned without another word and started to head back down the incline, her loose hair fanning around her at the speed of her move.
As she took another step, she lost her footing, a sharp rock spiking up into her heel. With a yelp, she stumbled forward, slipped, and began to roll.
She did not get very far. Jackson leapt to her side, leaning down and scooping her up before she could fall any further. “You are a disaster. I was a fool to think you’re a Tarkan spy; obviously your people were simply trying to get rid of you.”
As he brought her up, she came perilously close to his face. She could feel his breath push softly against her cheek and the fragments of fringe that had fallen over her eyes. Staring up at him, she snapped her head back, pulling her gaze to the ground.
He let out another burst of a laugh. “I forgot, you priestesses don’t like to be touched.” He set her down and stepped away.
Before she could snap at him to walk further back, he knelt down and pushed up her robe.
Her legs twitched, and she thrust one into his shoulder, trying to kick him away.
He caught it easily. “Don’t get too excited.” He fixed her with a dry, dour look as he brought up one of her sleeves. Searching around by his side, he found a long and flat rock. He proceeded to half wrap it in one of her sleeves and then use the remaining fabric to tie it tightly around her foot.
He did the same with her other foot, then stood, clamping his hands on his thighs as he pushed up with a heavy sigh. Crossing his arms, he stared down at her. “There. Shoes.” He nodded down at her feet.
Her lips still wide open and trembling, she purposely snapped her head to the side and stared at a tree across the way.
This drew yet another of his derisive laughs. “You’re very welcome, priestess, now get to your feet. We can’t afford to waste more time.” As he spoke, he drew his head up and stared at the mountains pulling up before them. The crags and dips were now darker than ever. The snow that had glinted a pure white during the day now had the color of dirty chalk. It made it look all the colder.
Before she could continue her protest, he leaned down, latched a hand over her shoulder and pulled her up.
Spluttering, she watched him begin to grin. The grin froze on his face as his gaze darted down to her now bare arms though.
“What are those?” he brought out a hand to touch her arm.
She slapped it back, panic rising in her chest. She clutched her arms around herself, trying to hide them from view.
“What are those?” his voice insistent, he tried to pull her arms back.
“They are none of your business—”
“They look like wounds. How did you get those?” his gaze finally drifted off the circular scars covering her flesh and up to her face. It was almost impossible to read his expression, but for a moment concern flickered within.
“They...” she couldn’t force the words out; they were trapped in her throat, threatening to choke her as the memory of those scars rose sharp in her mind.
No doubt he could see as she paled and her body drew in, her eyes hooding with powerful, unresolved emotion.
“Ki,” he used her name, and as he did, he let his hand drop, “if I’m going to help you, I need to know everything you do about the... soldiers that attacked you.”
Had he been about to say Zeneethians? Had the hardened ex-soldier finally come around to her version of events?
“They are left over from their experiments,” she did not face him as she spoke. Instead she chose to stare over his shoulder at the grey, rocky world around them. Sparse and unfriendly, as the day gave over to dusk, the sounds of the birds all but stopped. In their place she could hear the wind force its way through the pine trees, scurry over the scant bushes, and roar into the valleys below. Beyond, she swore it laced with the cry of an animal. Long and mournful, the prickle up her spine told her it was a wolf.
Whether Jackson had heard the cry or not, she could not tell; he did not move from staring at her, his brow fixed with determination. “What do you mean?”
“Shouldn’t we push on? You said we had to get to the cabin by nightfall. I think I just heard a wolf too.” Pointing in the direction of the call, she felt her hand tremble as her frantic heartbeat continued.
She did not want to think of what they had done to her. It had taken all of her years of training in the emotional and psychological techniques of the priestess clan just to stay sane.
“I need to know what we are up against. What did they do? What kind of experiments?”
She didn’t want to look at him, but her eyes drifted up as if they were being drawn by a force more powerful than her. Managing a trembling smile, she shook her head quickly. “It doesn’t matter. We need to push on.”
“Ki, tell me.”
“I don’t know,” with a heavy, chest-shaking sigh she gave in. The past day had taught her one thing about Jackson: he was beyond determined. He possessed guile few men could. For better or worse, she could not fight it now. “It has something to do with the devices. They use them in all their technology. In their ships, to power their weapons, even to keep their cities afloat,” she turned her head upward, a heavy swallow shifting her neck back. Her eyes widened against the growing dark as she tried to distinguish the clouds from the sky above.
He did not interrupt, and he didn’t he yank her face down and tell her the Zeneethians and their floating cities were nothing but a myth.
“I don’t... think they can use them on their own,” she latched her hand onto her arm, searching out one of those ringed scars. Her fingers pushed into the ridged flesh, her body shivering as a disgusted feeling muddied her mind.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t really know. It’s just a feeling. They would hook me up to some kind of machine,” her voice drew light and artificially even. Pretending everything was okay felt like the only way to get through this conversation. If she allowed herself to succumb to the reality of it, she would break down.
“What kind of machine? What was it hooked up to? Do you know what it measured?” he straightened, his attention narrowing in on her as his face filled with a keen energy. No doubt the scientist was finally making himself known.
She shuddered back from his questions. “I don’t know. I was never in any state to assess. I simply remember....” She gave a frustrated sigh, rubbing at her arms harder.
“Any detail will aid us. If we can figure out what they want, we can figure out a way to stop them from getting it. If we understand what they are capable of—”
She looked up at him sharply, gaze fiery. “They have ships and cities that fly. Devices that can read if anything living approaches them within a several kilometer radius. They have weapons that can destroy a person and leave no trace of their body. That is what they are capable of. So tell me, how do you fight that?”
She watched him swallow hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing tightly against his stubble-covered throat. Yet the look of infuriating bravery in his eyes did not cease. It seemed to burn like a fire that would never die.
“Nobody is undefeatable. No matter how large the target, it always has a weakness. All you need is data and intelligence to find out what that is.” He nodded at her. “They are clearly after you, and will stop at nothing to get you back. That is our advantage.”
She felt at once undone and bolstered by his words. His refusal to listen to reason was infuriating, yet his courage touched her deeper.
“But for now,” he turned his head over his shoulder, his neck muscles visibly tightening as another wolf cry pierced the dusk, “we will walk and talk.”
Shooing her forward with a brush of his arms, he took the lead.
It would be a long journey ahead of them, longer if he made her recount her days with the Zeneethians. As she clutched at her quivering hands, drawing them close to the folds of her robe, she tried to still her heart.
It was almost impossible; the sight of Jackson walking beside her, face now dark under the setting sun, played havoc with her mind and soul.
Despite her turgid feelings, together they continued to climb.
They reached the cabin with no time to spare. Night had fallen a good half-hour before, and for the past 15 minutes Jackson had been on high alert.
A wolf pack had been on their tails. From the subtle crack of a twig being trodden in half to the lingering smell on the wind, he’d had no doubt of what was out there.
Pushing a hand into the small of Ki’s back and practically throwing her through the open cabin door, he whirled to close it quickly.
Stumbling, she turned, nostrils flaring. “How dare you—”
Her grumble was cut short as a wolf call rang out from just behind the door. Startled, she gasped, flattening a hand on her chest as her eyes widened.
“Relax. They can’t get inside.” Shifting past her, he made his way through the dark to the table he knew was on the other side of the room. The cabin was small, and he found his arm brushing past Ki’s. She yanked it back instantly. It brought a slight smile to the corners of his mouth.
As he fumbled over the table, his hand clutched the matches and the oil lamp. Pushing his fingers down the sticky glass, he struck a match on the chipped wood and finally lit the oil.
The glow of the lamp lapped and flickered up his arm and face. Turning, he walked over and set it down above the fire place. Ki still stood by the door, a good meter back from it, her hand pushing into her chest. A wolf was scrabbling at the dirt outside, occasionally pawing at the door itself. With every snuffle of its muzzle or scratch of its claws, she gave a slight shudder.
“They will get bored and give up,” he assured her as he grabbed at some dry wood by the fireplace, heaping it into the coals.
“We have wolves in Tarkan, but they would never act like this. They are scared of people.”
He couldn’t stop the mocking chuckle from shaking his breath. “That is because you have hunted them near to extinction. They know to avoid you if they wish to live. Ashkan wolves are by and large left alone. They know to stick to the woods and not come into the towns, but up here is their own domain.”
Her hand dropped from her chest, and no doubt she fixed him with an incredulous look. In the dark all he could see was that rounded bottom lip of hers turn in. “Will you use everything you can as an insult against my people?”
“Only when it is true and it stops you from trembling at the door.” He stood, brushing his hands against his rough, woolen work pants.
Twisting her neck up in that haughty way he’d come to recognize was her main reaction to everything, she walked further into the room.
Small, it only possessed a single bed, a table, a chair, a fireplace, and an old cupboard of supplies. She walked over to the bed, pressing her hand into it as if to check the spring. It was made of old, moldering hay that had seen too much damp, but it was better than the cold stone floor below.
Shrugging over her shoulder, she looked at him, then back down at the bed. Straightening, she tugged higher on her collar and took a steady step backwards.
He knew what she was thinking, and he couldn’t help but laugh. Perhaps she really was a priestess; he’d met few women as reserved as her.
“There should be a canister of wine in the cupboard. And if we are lucky, the last trackers to use this place may have left some cheese and preserves.” He pointed past her, finally controlling the smile that had fattened his cheeks at her quaint behavior.
She stood with her bare arms hooked behind her back, a nonplussed look on her face. “I cannot drink wine. It is forbidden for a priestess to indulge in alcohol. I will need water instead.”
Snickering, he leaned a hand onto the fireplace. “There is no water. And unless you would like to go outside to brave the wolves to pull some up from the well, there will be nothing but wine.”
Patting her throat demurely, she shook her head.
“Your lips are dried and cracked. Presumably you haven’t had a drop of anything since you fell to earth this morning. After all the crying, screaming, and berating you’ve done, I imagine your throat is parched.” Shifting past her, he leaned down to the cupboard and began rummaging within. In seconds he’d brought out a wheel of cheese carefully wrapped in dark cloth and leather, and a bottle of corked wine. Blowing the dust off it, he turned it around, checking the label.
“I will be fine,” she shook her head.
“You will drink,” he pushed the bottle into her chest and he headed for the table. Slamming the wheel of cheese down, he unwrapped it and sliced off a chunk, handing it to her.
She accepted the cheese but did nothing but stare back at him blankly. “Do you really expect me to eat this?”
A harsh laugh pushed his chest forward. Leaning against the table he shrugged expressively. “That depends on whether you want to live. If you feel like dying of starvation and dehydration, then go ahead.”
“I thought you said I was your personal concern?” she challenged. “I thought you said you were going to do everything you could to keep me from the Zeneethians so you could figure out what was going on?”
“Good point,” he crossed his arms, one cheek fattening against his eye as he offered her a half smile. “Drink and eat before I force you to. There is no water and there are no delicacies for you to feast on. Tonight you will have to live a simple existence.”
Huffing, she finally turned and sat demurely on the edge of the bed, placing the wine carefully beside her with a nervous frown.
“Don’t get crumbs in the bed, I find them very irritating when I sleep,” he took a bite of the chunk of cheese he’d just sliced and watched with relish as she flushed at his words.
“I will not sleep with—” she got to her feet.
“You will be sleeping on the ground.” He nodded down to the small, soot-covered rug before the fireplace. “I will need my strength for the pass tomorrow. Should any more of those wolves be out there, I’ll need to be rested. Not to mention those soldiers.”
Shoulders deflating, she sat back on the bed with a deep but wary breath. She proceeded to carefully place the cheese on her lap, smoothing out the folds of her robe first. Then she broke off the smallest chunks she could, placing them into her mouth slowly.
He breathed through a laugh. “Don’t tell me, priestesses are forbidden to eat in front of men. I can turn around if you’d like?” he offered jokingly.
“No,” she didn’t look at him, “I’m a little dizzy.” She brushed her hand over her face, hooking her sleek, shiny hair behind an ear.
Her features were slight, her skin smooth, she reminded him of the oriental women of the north. Though distinct territories, both Tarkan and Ashka were home to many races. From the dark-skinned nomads to the fair-haired mountain dwellers. Ki’s ancestors no doubt originated from the temperate northern islands. Once they had belonged to the Ashkans, now the territory was split right down the middle. He’d fought battles there in the previous war; it helped him readily guess her heritage.
No matter where she came from, she was still Tarkan. The dispute between his people and those murderers had never been along racial lines, it had always been nationalistic. Though blood and ancestry were shared between them, recent history was not. Their morality diverged. Their way of life was so separate as to be unrecognizable. Everything a Tarkan stood for an Ashkan would dispute.
His thoughts hardened his jaw, and he tried to ignore her as her unfocussed gaze dropped to the ground.
He was doing this for his people, and needed to remind himself of that fact.
Finishing off another chunk of cheese, he stood roughly. “Drink the wine,” he ordered.
“I can’t,” she turned from him as he loomed above her.
“Fine,” he leaned down and snapped it up, yanking out the cork.
Before he could try to force her to drink it, his conscience caught up with him. Could he really hold her head back and tip it down her throat, just because she was Tarkan? The thought of manhandling someone, especially a woman, was abhorrent to him. Yet there existed this obvious clause in his mind, a loophole. If she was Tarkan, it didn’t matter if she was a woman, it didn’t matter if she was fatigued and injured, it didn’t matter if she was running from a force hell bent on kidnapping her. All that mattered is what they’d done to his people.
Her gaze flicked up. At first frightened, her expression mollified as she concentrated on him. “I have no defenses against you. I can hardly stand anymore. Yet I beg of you not to force me to drink that. It’s forbidden.”
Her glare did not waver. As the fire crackled behind him, it lit up her face, its reflected light dancing over her pale cheeks and forehead.
He stepped back. It was not a conscious decision; his body did it for him.
A sudden pang of guilt spread up from his gut with the speed of a bullet.
He prided himself on his diligence and manners. He was the kind of man who opened a door for a woman, who would stand up for her if anyone berated her down the street. His mother and sister would be horrified if they’d known what he was about to do.
Watching him warily as he stepped further back, she brushed her hand over her face. The move was sluggish, her fingers pushing into her dropping cheeks.
She needed water. She needed rest. No doubt she also needed to know she could trust him. She would not let her guard down and rest if he threatened her every other second.
Guilt now so powerful he almost felt sick, he placed the wine carefully on the table. “I am...” he couldn’t force the word sorry from his lips. Instead he grabbed at the oil lamp still on the fireplace. “I will go out and see what I can draw from the well. Stay here.”
For a moment her eyes lolled back into her head and it looked as if she would faint. At the mention of going outside, her head snapped forward. The move was lethargic, but still her gaze sparked. “You can’t – the wolves—”
He tried to assure her with a nod, heading for the door. “I still have my gun. It may not work against your soldiers, but it is more than enough to scare the pack away.”
Still on the edge of the bed, she watched him carefully as he brought out his gun and made for the door.
“Be careful,” she begged through a hard breath.
It made him pause, one hand on the door as the other hooked the lamp under his arm and held the gun.
He pushed himself forward, the door creaking ominously as he opened it with all the care and precision he could muster.
“It’s fine, you don’t have to go out,” she whispered nervously.
Ignoring her, he moved forward, gun at the ready, swinging the lamp in an obvious arc.
He knew the packs of these ranges, and they were scared by little. They were, at least, fastidiously nocturnal. For whatever reason, whether it be biology or habitat, they only ventured out of their dens to hunt at night.
And hunt they would.
Tomorrow they would be safe, tonight would be another matter.
He heard a growl from his left, up in the dense scrub by the side of the cabin. The small hut was built into a slope, the terrain rough and rocky, but pine trees and scraggly undergrowth still clung to the cabin on the upper side.
He tensed his legs, ensuring his body was balanced and centered.
If he could have afforded the ammo, he would have shot at the wolves. He could not though; who knew when those soldiers would return. Instead he swung the oil lamp forward again, thankful the glass protected the flame from the buffeting gale.
This high up wind rushed off the peaks above, bringing down the frosty bite of snow and ice.
Moving forward, he heard yet another growl from his other side. If he had to use the gun, he would, he assured himself.
Locking his jaw in anticipation, he headed around the slope. It was high and steep, and thankfully a river ran by it to the west, continually feeding the ground water. The well never ran dry. Though usually you didn’t have to pull from it with a pack of wolves watching your every move.
Feeling his forehead slick with sweat, he kept as close to the side of the hut as he could, using the wall to protect his flank. It was when he darted out from the shadow of the building that the growling got louder.
By the sounds of it, there was a whole pack around him. He could catch the silvery glints of their sleek backs in the dim light of his lamp. Here and there the flash of a tail, even the glimmer of moonlight against wide open eyes.
The well was barely three meters from the back of the hut, but it felt like it was kilometers away. Continually swinging the torch he made it though.
The pack circled in from behind. With a distinct, sharp scrabble of claw on rock, he heard one jump. Springing off a high boulder at the back of the cabin, it landed right in front of him. Body all but convulsing back in shock, Jackson managed to hold onto his gun somehow.
It was a huge wolf, probably the alpha of the pack, and as it bared its teeth and growled, the others moved in from the sides.
Jackson was pinned, but he had not lost. Baring his own teeth at the thought of wasting a bullet, he aimed at the creature before him.
He did not get a chance to shoot.
The wolf doubled back with a sudden lurch, its ears pricking up as it sniffed the air in panic. The move was picked up and repeated by the rest of the pack until they all began to whine with worry. Seconds later they scurried as a group down the slope and into the shadows of the large and ancient pines.
They hardly made a sound. Not even a whimper or a yelp, just the scrabbling of quick and frantic claws over rock.
The sight of them fleeing so suddenly and with such speed saw Jackson almost drop his gun.
Then he heard it. From up above a faint humming that was getting louder. At first it sounded like nothing more than an insect, but as it neared, he recognized it.
The same sound of swarming locusts that he’d heard before those soldiers had attacked the farmhouse.
Dread drawing over him, he bolted for the cabin. Before he could reach it, he saw a shape fall down from the sky above. It landed with the softest of thumps on the gently sloped roof of the hut. With the sound of its fall, it could have been no heavier than a house cat, but as he saw it pull up, he recognized the form of a man. He even saw the white glint of that distinctive armor.
Jackson had no time to react. Half a second later, something landed in front of the cabin door. There was the sound of wood splitting as something was kicked in and then a punctuated short scream.
He rushed forward but the soldier on the roof somersaulted off and landed less than a centimeter in front of him, lashing forward with the butt of his rifle.
Slamming backwards into the wooden beams of the hut, Jackson brought up his hands and managed to deflect the rifle off. That was all he could do. He couldn’t catch it or yank it from the soldier’s grasp; the force of the blow was unstoppable.
“Ki,” he used up precious breath to shout her name. It was a pointless move; no doubt she was already out cold. These soldiers were the most efficient and well-equipped he had ever seen.
Still, her name bubbled up from somewhere within and was impossible to stifle.
The soldier brought his gun around again, this time slamming it right into Jackson’s stomach.
It crippled him. Stumbling to his knees, he watched in still horror as the soldier lurched forward, grabbing Jackson by the neck and slamming him against the wall. The cabin shook so hard something dislodged from the roof.
Beginning to black out, Jackson saw one of the large wooden logs of the roof slide off and slam against the soldier. Too sudden to move back, it struck the guy right on the head. Crumpling, his fancy armor obviously unable to withstand such a direct and heavy hit, the soldier’s hand was ripped off Jackson’s throat.
Gasping for air, ready to black out, somehow he held on. Stumbling to one knee, he leaned forward. Mind a haze from his near asphyxiation, his hand acted of its own accord, snaking out and grabbing at the soldier’s gun.
It was light, impossibly light. It felt like holding air. For such a big-barreled weapon, it should have been heavy and solid. Yet as he toted it, pushing the butt into his shoulder and locking his body around it, it felt like it was floating.
Not wasting any time, he pushed to the side of the soldier by his feet, stumbling over the massive log that still pinned the man down. Shoving all his fatigue and pain to the side, he ignored his throbbing throat and pounding stomach.
He could hear someone coming from the side of the house.
The footsteps were light, barely audible, but he knew it couldn’t be Ki.
He shot first, but not towards the skulking soldier as he came into view. At the rock scree behind the cabin. Running to the side and finally coming out of the safety of the shadow of the house, he aimed at the stone-covered slope above. As he fired, there was no recoil from the gun. Yet each blast did far more damage than any other rifle he’d ever used. Searing blue blasts slammed into the rocks, their energy leaching out into the surrounding ground and causing whole boulders to crumble and pop.
The effect was immediate. The once-stable cliff face slipped. Like an avalanche, stone rained down from above.
He jumped forward, diving against the side of the house, bringing his arms up and over his head.
It was a risky move. If he’d done enough damage to the scree, it could crumple the hut beneath it as it slid down the hill. He just hoped the cabin was as sturdy as it looked. Made out of huge rounds of pine trunk, it had been built to last.
He felt the hut rock against him as the slope surged against it like a wave.
He also heard the shouts. Heavily distorted, he knew they came from the soldiers. He also recognized the fear and desperation.
Riding out the rockslide, he pressed his eyes closed in a quick prayer.
He hoped she would be fine. It had been a last-ditch move to shoot the scree, but against such sophisticated enemies, it was that or die.
With one final bone-shaking crash, the house stopped shuddering.
It was now or never. He needed the element of surprise. Leaping up he rushed to the front of the cabin, gun at the ready. The moon gave him sporadic illumination as it peaked out from behind the rushing clouds. It was all he needed.
As soon as he rounded the house he rolled. Though his back crunched into the sharp, dislodged stones that scattered the small path before the door, he snapped to his feet easily.
Expecting a volley of fire, no one fired a single shot. Twisting on the spot, he realized the door was closed.
He didn’t hesitate, he shot at the base, darting to the side to avoid the hail of wood and sparks. He didn’t dart in over the still smoking wood. He wasn’t crazy. Instead he climbed up the side of the house, over the piles of rock that had lodged there, aiming for one of the windows. When he reached it, he flattened himself as quickly and silently as he could.
The rocks had built up so high on this side of the cabin that he could see in through the window while lying on his stomach. As he peered in, the still crackling fire within lit up the room.
One of those soldiers had his arm around Ki, her body limp and bent over, arms and hair brushing against her legs. The man’s gun was at the ready, aimed at the door, stance stiff and poised.
That was two of them. If it was the same group from the farmhouse, there would be two more.
He couldn’t take for granted that they’d fallen down the hill along with the rockslide.
With the lightest crunch behind him, his body tensed, head pounding with alarm.
Rolling on his stomach, he moved just in time. Something jumped down from the scree behind him, landing where he’d been a second ago.
Jackson flung himself into a desperate roll, scrabbling as fast as he could until he got to his feet.
He heard the soldier hot on his heels. The crunch of rock under the man’s boots, the swish of air past that sleek armored form.
Letting out a desperate cry, Jackson rolled onto his back, bringing the gun up to fire as he did. He held his finger on the trigger, hand locking down in terror.
The blasts that came out of the gun ceased, instead a powerful and continuous beam replaced them. It cut through the landscape and, out of pure luck, slammed into the soldier as he leapt towards Jackson.
The blast sent the man reeling back several meters. Unlike a shot from Jackson’s regular gun, this one did leave a mark on that pristine armor. A massive blast mark that smoked at the edges.
The soldier twitched, but did not get up.
Jackson pressed himself to his knees, getting ready to stand and check the man was down.
He didn’t get the chance. Something slammed into his back, knocking him forward.
As stars swum through his vision and blood splattered over his lips, he saw a dark shadow loom from behind.
Rolling, Jackson kicked blindly at the ground behind him. His feet struck out wildly, but they glanced off the soldier’s legs. It was like kicking a wall.
He saw the man draw up his knee, getting ready to stomp. In the slices of moonlight penetrating the clouds, it was like flashes of a dream.
Jackson lashed out one final time, his foot connecting with a rock beneath the soldier’s feet.
It dislodged, and the soldier stumbled to the side. Overbalanced, he fell to his knees, sliding down the slope.
Jackson immediately clutched at his gun, shooting the soldier before he could right himself.
The blast from his gun sent the man flying back, smashing into the slope, causing yet another rockslide to drag him even further along the incline.
Three down, one to go. This one had Ki though.
Bringing a hand down, he checked his pocket as he stumbled to his feet. Gasping against the pain that seemed to fill his entire form, he felt the device.
It was the only reason they weren’t shooting at him. How they still knew it was on him, he didn’t know. It probably had something to do with those scanners Ki had talked of.
Scanners. Machines that could read and measure the natural world, picking up impossible details from great distances. Technology like that did not exist.
Letting his hand fall from the device, he pushed forward. Forcing his bucking and pain-riddled knees to walk, he stumbled over the loose scree, heading back for the house.
The soldier inside would have the advantage. If he had one of those scanners, no doubt he would be able to see Jackson’s approach.
With an enemy that could watch your every move, how were you meant to fight? The element of surprise was the only weapon he had against them.
No, not the only weapon. He still had the crystal. He’d seen what had happened before when he’d broken one. He could do it again, though he hoped he wouldn’t have to; it was the only evidence he had. Its properties needed to be analyzed, its abilities ascertained. The whole future of his people could depend on it.
With national survival weighing on his shoulders, he searched for an advantage.
The moon handed him one.
As the clouds parted above, he saw something glint by his foot. Leaning down, he plucked something out of the rocks.
It was one of those devices the soldiers kept in their armor. He’d seen the lead soldier pluck one out and use it to scan Ki back in the farmhouse.
Bringing it closer, he watched in amazement as the screen lit up. Images, like movies, were flickering over it. They were not real footage, but approximations of scenes made up of moving outlines.
He’d never seen anything like it.
He did not have time to stand in wonderment though. If this was one of their scanners, he had to find a way to use it.
Trying not to touch any buttons, lest he accidentally turn it off, he waved the device up. As he shifted it, the image on the small screen changed. At once he saw the outline of the incline below and every tree, despite the fact they were all hooded by shadow. As he moved it towards the cabin, it blipped, a white form appearing. The form was human shaped.
It had to be Ki.
Shocked that this device could show him the inside of a building, he didn’t have long to feel his surprise.
He saw something else within the cabin. Another figure, taller and broader than the first. Low to the ground, it headed for the door.
Jackson immediately crouched, knees creaking at the torture he’d put them through, but still managing to anchor him so he didn’t slip down the treacherous slope.
Getting quietly to his stomach, he waited. Adrenaline pumping through his form, he somehow managed to control his breath, bringing the gun up before him as he still watched the image on the scanner.
The soldier would be watching his own scanner, Jackson was sure of it. As the soldier rounded the side of the cabin slowly, like a lion pressing through the long grass, he would know exactly where Jackson was.
For the first time they were evenly matched. Though the soldier had the added advantage of that incredible armor, Jackson knew it could not withstand a blast from his gun.
What would happen next would be down to reflexes, skill, and cunning, not technology.
Shifting back as carefully as he could, trying to minimize the sound of his movements despite the fact the soldier would already know where he was, Jackson ignored the bead of sweat that dripped from his forehead down the bridge of his nose. He did not bring up a hand to wipe it off; he concentrated only on a patch of the cabin’s roof.
He would aim for one of the logs, hoping to repeat his earlier performance by getting one to roll off the roof and squish the soldier.
He did not get the chance.
Just as the man moved to where Jackson needed him to be – the flickering outlines on his scanner showing him directly under the shadow of the house – the man threw something.
Round and sleek, it sailed through the air.
Jackson had time to think the word, but he did not have time to act.
The grenade sailed into view then impossibly changed direction. It did not move in a straight arc – it hovered and shifted with the grace and speed of an insect, not a machine.
Heartbeat pounding against his clamped teeth, his fear surged as he waited for the explosion.
It didn’t come. Instead it zeroed in on him, zooming forward and latching onto his shoulder.
Desperate, he tried to pull it off, but he could not move it. It burrowed down, forming some connection with his flesh that was stronger than magnetism or the most powerful adhesive.
Eyes wider than they’d ever been, moves more frantic than his tired body should have been capable of producing, he thrashed at it.
With a pneumatic hiss, it released something, a pin shooting out and stabbing through his shoulder.
His legs fell out from underneath him. Darkness trickled in at the edges of his vision.
He was blacking out.
Seconds. That’s all he had.
A roaring in his ears, skin numb, he reached for the device in his pocket.
It was his last hope. If those soldiers could not use their guns near a broken crystal, then hopefully this grenade was the same.
Eyes rolling into the back of his head, he pulled the device out, throwing it down with his limp arm.
It came to a rest a meter from him. With his last breath he shot it.
The crystal exploded with an intense, blue blast. It picked him up, but it did not let him fall. That water-like light caught him and kept him aloft.
Instantly the grenade dislodged from his shoulder and fell, only to float up past his face. The lights that had flickered along its surface blinked off and there was a soft whir-down of some power source.
His gamble had paid off.
Despite the fact he was floating, his body had never been heavier. His limbs felt encased by a deep, bone-shaking lethargy. To keep his eyes half open felt like traversing the greatest mountain range.
Whatever that grenade had pumped into his system, it was obviously meant to knock him out. Luckily it appeared he’d dislodged it just in time; though he teetered on the edge of sleep, he had not succumb yet.
He could barely move though.
He’d let go of his rifle, and it floated by his side. Its butt no longer glowed with that distinctive blue light. He knew it would not work.
The temptation to fall into the open arms of unconsciousness was impossibly strong as he floated so easily. It was such a relaxing sensation to be weightless, freed from the burden of gravity, hovering effortlessly.
Something kept him awake though. That something was not the pressing imperative to bring these soldiers and their technology to the awareness of his government. It wasn’t even the need to pay them back for what they’d done to his house.
It was Ki. Meters away in the hut, he needed to get to her before the remaining soldier did.
She filled his mind in that half-awake state. There was no reason for it; she was Tarkan. But still, she did. Perhaps he guessed how important she was, perhaps it was more. It didn’t matter.
Forcing his eyes to open fully, he blinked past the bleak moonlight, trying to spy the soldier.
Rocks floated around him, rubble, even branches that must have been ripped loose by the explosion.
With all that debris it would have been hard to spot a floating body on a normal night, let alone when his mind was reeling from a failed anesthesia.
What he’d do when he found the guy, Jackson didn’t know.
As the clouds above separated to reveal a full slice of silvery moonlight, he finally saw something. The white glint of armor.
Over to his left, the soldier was floating directly above the hut. His limbs were moving up and down, hands clutching as he tried to move forward.
Unlike in the house, there was nothing to grab onto out here. There were no walls or door frames to use as purchase to maneuver through this floating world.
Though the soldier tried, it took him a long time to finally push himself low enough to latch a hand onto one of the wooden beams of the roof. Using it as purchase, he twisted himself around, no doubt aiming to push himself through the hole in the ceiling and down to Ki below.
He didn’t get the opportunity; the log he held onto suddenly dislodged and began to float up, taking the soldier with it.
As it did, it dislodged yet another plank, soon the whole roof broke free and floated up.
Seconds later the contents of the hut followed it. The bed, the wheel of cheese, even some of the flaming planks from the fireplace.
Breath pressing against his chest, he waited to see Ki. She drifted up, surrounded by a halo of hay as it spilled free from the mattress.
Instantly the soldier tried to get down to her, grabbing onto one plank and thrusting off it to catch another. It was as if he were climbing down a ladder.
Jackson moved. Body still fighting the numbing effects of the drug, he focused on Ki.
It was almost impossible to direct his movement, but he did manage to latch onto a passing branch. He did not use it to pull himself closer to her. He pushed himself away, towards one of the pine trees to his left. Though the effects of the levitation field were pulling up its needles like an upward draft, its branches were sturdy enough that they hadn’t been snapped free.
Desperate, he reached out his hand to latch onto the tree. He could feel the pine needles brush through his lethargic fingers, but he could hardly make them move enough to clutch hold of them. Letting out a frustrated shout, he stretched out as far as he could.
He caught hold of a branch.
As he moved, he grabbed at the gun that still floated near him. Hooking his arm around the branch, he used it to pull his body closer to the tree.
He had to get away from the effects of the field. Then his gun would work.
Groaning, ignoring every feeling of crippling pain, he moved himself from branch to branch.
He dared not look over his shoulder; he knew what he would see.
The soldier would have her by now.
The further he moved through the trees, branch by branch, the heavier he felt. It was not the delayed effects of the drug – it was gravity returning.
Moving faster now, he scrabbled as hard as he could, clutching at the branches, not caring the rough bark cut easily through his desperately groping hands.
After several more meters he felt the effects of the field all but disappear. Hanging off a branch, several meters from the ground, he turned around, bringing his legs up and around the trunk to steady himself.
Craning his neck, he stared through the trees towards the clearing. Though it was hard to see, it wouldn’t be in a moment; he lofted the gun, depressed his finger on the trigger and watched that continuous pulse of light sear through the trees, blasting off the branches and chunks of trunk in his view.
He could see the hut. Rocks and logs still floated around it.
Straining, frantic to find her, he scanned the area. All he could see was the debris.
Cursing, he leaned further out from the trunk. Not wanting to waste time or his vantage, he had to spy that soldier from up here.
Heart pulsing through his chest, body filled with a strange mix of heavy fatigue and pounding adrenaline, he finally found what he was looking for.
A glimmer of white armor.
Hooking his arm over the thick branch above him, Jackson groaned loudly as he climbed. Shifting up another level, he reached a height that afforded him direct line-of-sight.
The soldier was moving with Ki down the slope, no doubt towards his ship.
Jackson secured the rifle against his shoulder, steadying it against a branch directly in front of his face. Concentration drawing his lips thin and stilling his breath, he lined up the shot.
He had to get the soldier and only the soldier.
He would not take the shot unless it was a clear one. He couldn’t risk hitting Ki.
As the soldier moved with her, drifting down, moving only with considerable effort as his limbs pumped against the powerful levitation field, he kept hold of Ki.
Swearing, starting to panic, Jackson shifted the gun around as the soldier moved out of view.
Dammit, he needed a clear shot.
Realigning his gun, he waited. It was one of the tensest things he’d ever done.
Just before the soldier drifted out of sight again, something happened. He lost hold of her and she drifted up above him.
Jackson shot. He didn’t hesitate. The blast seared out and landed true against the soldier’s back, knocking him forward, sending him spinning further up into the sky, his body cart-wheeling and dashing against the rubble floating around him.
Letting out the biggest sigh he could manage, Jackson allowed himself to close his eyes.
He indulged in the briefest moment of victory.
Then he climbed down from the tree, stashed the gun, and went to go and get Ki. Fighting against the levitation field, he managed to latch onto her and pull her back from it. It took time, but with the other soldiers out of the equation, he had it. On the way back to his gun he managed to scoop up his scanner too.
When he had her safely out of the field, he did not rest. He fumbled her onto his back and fled as fast as he could.
Ki woke to someone pawing at her face.
She screamed, the noise barely making it out of her sore and scratchy throat. With the precious little strength she had, she tried to fight them off.
“Ki, Ki, it’s me. Jackson. It’s Jackson.” He caught her hands and held them there. His fingers were soft around her wrists, barely brushing up against her bruised skin.
Mind still spinning, she shook her head, trying to dislodge the fog that surrounded her.
“We’re fine. We’re fine. Those soldiers are gone. We’re safe for now.”
She had lost consciousness too many times that day, and the effect of it was like a virus in her mind. She could hardly pay attention, but what little scrap of concentration she could grab, she used to focus in on his voice.
“We’re fine,” he tried to assure her again. “Just lie back. The effects of whatever they drugged you with will wane with time... hopefully.”
Despite the fact she had no idea whether she could trust him yet, she lay back down. Her body was simply too weak not to.
For the next several minutes she drifted in and out of a half-awake state. She heard him breathing, felt his body not far from hers, and eventually even noted the sensation of the sun warm against her cheeks.
It had to be day. So where had the night gone?
As her mind finally sharpened, she blinked her eyes open, a deep groan pressing through her throat.
“Don’t try to push yourself,” he warned, one of his hands pressing down lightly into her shoulder.
It was warm and despite the fact she knew who he was and what he’d done to her, it reassured her.
She almost wanted to bring up one of her own hands and lace her fingers through his, just to bask in the sense of that welcome reassurance.
She of course did not. Instead she lolled her head to the side to see him sitting a half-meter away, legs pulled up before him as he sat with his back pressed into a tree.
There was a gun by his feet, and she recognized it instantly as belonging to the Zeneethian scouts. In his hand he played with a white-backed device that sent a flickering blue glow over his face and hand as he played with it.
It too was Zeneethian. She had seen such devices before. The scientists that had held her captive for the past year always used them.
It made her shudder.
He looked up sharply. “I said don’t move. You’ve been through a lot.”
She waited for him to call her a Tarkan in a dismissive voice and tell her she’d deserved what she’d received. He did not. Instead his gaze darted back to the scanner in his hands and he continued to poke at it with a concentrated and thoughtful expression. “It’s incredible,” he muttered under his breath.
“You can use it?” she hazarded, watching him with as much attention as she could muster.
He shook his head after a pause, then he met her gaze, his expression keen. “But I’m working on it. I think I am beginning to understand this interface. It uses vectors to display incoming information. I’ve been able to change the radius of these scans using the controls,” his lips spread into a smile as he laughed, “I’ve even been able to scan inside things. I can see inside that tree. I can even see inside the leaves.”
There was a glow about him, an energy she had never seen. Wildly at odds with the usual anger he’d displayed, it buoyed her. Despite her best attempts to stop herself, she smiled along with him.
“I can even see inside you,” he brought the scanner around and waved it between them.
Now she recoiled, fighting against her lethargic limbs to bring up a hand to block him.
“It’s okay, it can’t hurt you... I think. No, I’m sure; those soldiers wouldn’t have used it on you unless it was safe. They’ve been prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to get you back alive.”
“Put that thing down,” she croaked.
“It looks like you’ve got heavy bruising to your left leg, around your middle, and over your feet,” he gulped as he spoke, his face flushing under the stubble radiating up his jaw.
Was that guilt at the bruises he’d helped to cause?
He shifted up, getting to his knees, still staring at the scanner.
She tried to hide behind her hand, even though it was painful to raise her arm.
“You show up as white, while everything else shows up as blue...” he trailed off as concentration crumpled his brow. Shifting towards her, still on his knees, his lips parted slowly. “It’s not you though... it’s something inside you.”
“What are you talking about?” alarm spiked through her, almost giving her enough energy to clamber to her feet.
“There’s something inside you. Some kind of device, no bigger than a fingernail, just under the skin of your left forearm. I think it’s releasing a radio signal. Something they’ve been using to track you. That’s how they found you at the farmhouse.”
“They saw the explosion,” she shook her head.
“No, they tracked you there. Just as they tracked you to the cabin. It’s the only explanation that makes any sense.”
She shivered back, her gaze drawing towards her left arm. Now she had no sleeves, she could see the flesh easily.
She didn’t want to believe him. Her whole escape plan had been predicated on the hope that by using the crystal she could get away from them. If they’d always been able to track her, it had been an empty and foolish hope.
Jackson finally lowered the scanner. His gaze shifted quickly to her arm then back to her face. For a man who usually bridled with anger, he looked hesitant and unsure. “We should remove it,” he hazarded.
She gave a quiet gasp, her breath shaking through it. “But—”
“If we don’t, they’ll continue to track us. If you ever want to get away, we have to remove it.”
She went to shake her head, but stopped. Instead she took a painful swallow, squeezing her eyes closed.
She brought her trembling fingers up and pushed them along her left forearm, looking for any hint of what he spoke of.
A device implanted within her arm that could let the Zeneethians track her. Years ago she would have thought such a tale wild and impossible. The last year had taught her how true it could be.
Wincing as she opened one eye, she nodded briefly.
He shifted forward. “It’s just under the skin, I promise.”
“Do you have a knife?”
He shook his head, expression so clearly filled with remorse it was as if he was a different man from the one who’d tied her to a chair. “I’ve found a sharp stone.” He produced a long, thin, sharp-edged rock from his pocket.
With unsteady hands, he brought it down to her arm. His skin was so pale he looked as though he was about to throw up.
How curious that the thought of dragging her barefoot through a hay field and lacerating her feet was nothing to this man, yet he now shook at the prospect of delivering another cut to her body.
Was he changing?
She wanted to stare up into his eyes to check, but with his face so close to hers, she felt too confronted, too exposed.
He lay the scanner beside him, staring at the picture on the screen as he grabbed her arm with the slightest, most tender of touches. Sucking his quivering lips in, he brought the rock down.
She tried to control her reaction, tried to block out the pain. A normal priestess could do it. Skilled in emotional suppression, this would have been child’s play.
She was no longer normal, and the past year had left its scars. Screwing up her face, she jerked her head to the side and tried not to scream. She felt the stone dig down, and couldn’t help but flinch against it.
Jackson tightened his grip, bracing her arm against his knee. “Nearly there,” he promised in a quaking voice.
With one more scrape he yanked the stone back. “Got it.”
She pulled her arm out of his grip and instantly closed her fingers around the wound. Though blood trickled easily through them, she shifted to face him.
He was staring down at something in his hand. That look of deep concentration was back on his face, pulling down his lips and narrowing his eyes.
Gulping, he shook his head sharply. “Hold onto that wound. I’ll be back to tie it up. I just have to get rid of this first.”
“Jackson,” she tried to get to her feet to follow.
“I have to get rid of this. There’s a ravine a few meters to the west. I’ll throw it down there. It’s a pity to get rid of such incredible technology, but we need to get them off our tails.”
He turned and ran forward. Though his lope was uneven, he kept a healthy pace.
He would be injured, she realized as she leaned back, peeking down at the wound under her hand. Last night he must have fought the soldiers off all on his own.
Zeneethian scouts... how had he done it?
Before she could process that thought, he was back. Nodding at her, he leaned down beside her. “I’m going to rip off a section of your robe to tie the wound up. It shouldn’t bleed for long, but we need to keep it covered.”
Though her first reaction was to push him off, just as she’d done last night, she contained herself. At least he’d warned her this time.
Turning her head to the side, she did not watch as he used the same sharp stone to cut through the hem of her robe and pull off a long section of fabric.
She was aware that her move made him puff out a slight laugh. This time he did not follow it up with any insults though.
Maybe he really was changing.
Once he was done, he saw to her wound. He dabbed at it with some excess fabric, then produced some herbs from his pocket, crushed them, then packed them against the wound, wrapping them down with the long strip of her robe.
He was efficient, quick, and looked as if he’d done this multiple times before. She opened her mouth to say something, but stopped herself. Of course he’d done this before; he’d been in the war.
Resting back on his haunches, he took a deep breath, wiping his bloodied hands on his pants. “Those herbs are a natural analgesic, they also have antiseptic properties. You should be fine.”
Slowly she nodded.
A lot had just happened.
Jackson did not pause to catch back his breath though; he grabbed up the scanner and waved it in front of her again. Soon a satisfied smile spread his lips. He turned the scanner to his side, in the direction he’d gone to get rid of the device from her arm. “It’s worked,” he spoke through a laugh. “You’re no longer glowing white, which I assume is a real good thing. The scanner is locking onto the device all the way down that ravine instead. Let’s hope those boys in white make the same mistake.”
As he spoke, his accent became thicker. That twang that was so distinctive of the Ashkans deepened. It was almost as if he was letting himself go. As if he was finally dropping his guard around her.
“You strong enough to stand?” he nodded down at her, cheeks pushing up in a concerned smile.
Could she trust him? Would he turn on her again like he had last night when he’d been ready to force wine down her throat?
She watched him warily, and it was obvious he picked up on it. He stiffened, that smile drawing down slowly. “Look... I’m sorry about... everything.”
“I’m still a Tarkan,” she interrupted.
He nodded, not meeting her gaze. “I know,” he hesitantly looked up at her. “And I’m still an Ashkan. And those soldiers are still,” he ticked his head to the side, “whatever the hell they are.”
She still stared up at him cautiously.
“I fought in the last war,” he stood up, stepping back.
Feeling her cheeks pale, she readied for another volley. “I know that—”
“No. That’s not what I meant. Hear me out. I fought the Tarkans. I lost my fiancée to them.”
She felt cold as he spoke, and brought her hands before her, lacing her fingers tightly. “I’m not a soldier. I’m a priestess. I am not involved—”
“I said hear me out,” he interrupted again. “I have every reason to hate your people, and I do. But I’ve never had a reason not to... until now.”
She could have fallen over. If she hadn’t been seated, she would have stumbled. Feeling her face slacken with shock, she waited for him to take back what he’d just said.
“I know you’re not a soldier, Ki. I hope like hell you’re not a spy and this whole thing hasn’t been an act,” sighing heavily, he crossed his arms, “but I just don’t see how it could be an act. I’m a scientist now, not a soldier. I have to go on the facts as I see them, not what I’d like them to be.”
“Jackson, what do you mean?” she asked, her voice quiet and hopeful.
“That I’m going to trust you. For now. Don’t go selling me and my people out though, because—”
“You’ll drag me through a field and tie me to a chair?”
“I’m sorry about that. And no, I’m not going to tie you to any more chairs. I’m trying to hold out an olive branch here, but you’re not making it very easy.”
She raised an eyebrow, but stopped herself from snapping at his insult.
Something far too important was happening here. If it could be trusted, it appeared Jackson was softening to her.
She’d been almost entirely alone for the past year. The thought of having someone to rely on....
A tear pooled at her eye and trickled down her cheek. She hated herself for being this emotional, but she did not have the energy to fight it. Bringing her hand up, she clamped it over her eyes, hiding behind her crooked fingers.
“Ki,” he whispered, the surety gone from his voice, “why are you crying? Are you still in pain?”
“No. But you’ve given me an ultimatum, so it’s my turn to give you one.” She let her hand drop, not caring that her tears flowed freely and obviously. “If you make me trust you and you turn on me again....”
She couldn’t come up with a threat; she had no power to follow through with anything. All she could do was lock him in her watery gaze and try to make him understand how easily he could hurt her.
It was one of the most intense experiences of her life. Neither of them shared a word, but their expressions were enough.
Trust, or something like it, began to grow.
As the wind blew through the trees around her, bringing its biting chill along with it, she felt something shift. That tight energy of suspicion that had filled her gut since she’d fallen to earth yesterday morning began to loosen. It would take more, so much more, for her to fully trust this man. Yet for now she would try.
Ki had slept most of the morning. He’d made her do it. Considering what had happened to her over the past 24 hours, she’d barely been able to walk, let alone keep up the pace they needed to reach the pass.
It had been a strange experience to watch over her as she’d slept. His own weariness weighing down his limbs, he’d taken up post with his back resting against an old pine tree. Half closing his eyes, he’d been sure never to let himself nod off.
The scanner had been too much of a distraction anyway. He’d analyzed it carefully as she’d slept.
Learning to use it properly would no doubt take years, but for now he was confident he could at least use it to assist them through the ranges.
When she finally woke, she snuffled for at least half a minute, shifting restlessly before she pushed herself up. It was a strangely cute move.
When she opened her eyes to stare his way, he was already smiling.
“Where—” she began.
“We’re still in the mountains. You had to sleep, remember? It’s a little after midday. If you think you’re up to it, we should start moving. If we’re quick, we can make it to the pass by tonight.”
She propped herself against a large, jutting stone behind her. She rubbed at her arms, obviously feeling the chill wind against them. Unfortunately neither of them were properly equipped for this trek. The higher they went, the colder it would get. Their only other option was to head back to the town, but he knew that would be suicide.
“How’s your arm?” he pulled himself up, ignoring the stabbing pain in his legs. He’d really pushed himself last night. He was sore all over, with more than a few cuts and bruises. At least the effects of that drug had worn off though.
“Did you get any sleep?” her voice croaked harshly.
She still hadn’t had a drop of water.
He’d been productive whilst she’d slept though, and had found a river close by. She’d get her drink soon. “We should get you something to drink.”
“Did you sleep, Jackson?” she adamantly repeated her question.
“Shouldn’t you try to get some? If you need someone to stand guard, I can.”
He shouldn’t have, but he laughed. He hadn’t intended for it to be callous, just light hearted. She was a priestess, she was very injured, and she was offering to stand guard.
“I won’t kill you,” she pushed her lips into a frown.
“I don’t need to sleep, yet. We’ve got to keep on moving. If we can make the pass by nightfall...” he trailed off.
“We aren’t equipped for travel through the mountains,” she said, mirroring his own thoughts. “Isn’t there some other way? What if we come across more of those wolves? What if the soldiers come back? They may not be able to track me anymore, but I know they can distinguish between different biological readings with their scanners. They’ll be able to tell two humans are up here, and they’ll take a wild guess that it’s us.”
He’d thought of all these things already. Nodding, he grabbed at the scanner, bringing it up. “You said these things have a range of 3km? I think it’s more like 5.”
Her cheeks slackened, despair obvious. It was hardly reassuring news, after all. “Jackson... what do we do? Isn’t it just a matter of time before they come back for us?”
He nodded resolutely. Of course it was. Soldiers like that did not give up easily. “There might be another way. I’ve been playing with this thing while you were sleeping. It’s got an optimum range, but different things affect it.” He walked over to show her the device.
“What do you mean?”
Leaning down he plucked up several stones by his feet. Placing one directly in front of the scanner, he tipped the screen so she could see. “Some of the mineralogical deposits in these rocks appear to affect its range. I tried it against one of those large boulders, and the scanner could only just penetrate beyond. There are heavy ore deposits all the way through these mountains.”
“So we stick to where the ore is most concentrated?”
He ticked his head to the side. “I wish it were that easy. Though there are heavy deposits, they aren’t everywhere. Whole sections of Paladin’s Pass will leave us exposed.”
She deflated, her long eyelashes brushing against her cheeks as she half closed her eyes.
“Don’t give up though. There’s another way,” he winced as he mentioned it.
He really, really didn’t want to have to take it.
“What do you mean, Jackson?”
He shifted his jaw from side to side, a habit of his whenever he was uncomfortable. If Ki had known him for more than a single day, she would have recognized it as a powerful sign something was up with him.
“Jackson?” she got to her feet. Still pressing a hand into the rock behind her to steady herself, her lips puckered with concern.
“There’s a cave system. It’s long, goes all the way underneath the pass and pops out under Paladin Mountain. It opens on the Hydra plains. And from there it’s a simple walk onto the highways that feed the Capital.”
Despite how wary his tone was, she smiled instantly at his words. “That’s fantastic news. Let’s take the cave system. It will be warmer in there, presumably we’ll always have access to ground water, and the Zeneethian scanners won’t be able to penetrate down that far.”
“Ki... it’s dangerous.”
She clearly did not understand, because she dropped her head to the side and shrugged her shoulders easily. “And the pass isn’t?”
“That cave system is treacherous. It moves. There’s heavy limestone deposits. Whenever there’s rain in the ranges, it floods. There’s cave-ins all the time. Plus, neither of us are equipped properly.”
“I would prefer to take my chances with the cave knowing the Zeneethians can’t find me there, than Paladin’s pass,” she answered.
Her voice was so quiet he could hardly pick it up. He understood the sentiment though.
Perhaps she was right too. The caves could flood, the rocks could move, and they could run into a dead end. But at least the stones would not shoot at them, scan them, or throw futuristic concussion grenades their way.
“Those cave systems are geologically active,” he tried to underline his point by nodding stiffly, “we could get halfway through only to find our path blocked.”
She pointed down at the gun by his feet. “They don’t run out of bullets easily. They have several charge settings. If we’re careful, we could use it to blast through rock.”
“I...” he wanted to tell her that would be too dangerous, but he found himself stopping. In conjunction with the scanner, that gun could cut them a path if it had to. The scanner would have a limited range down there, but a few meters or so would be enough to tell them whether a path opened out beyond a section of rock wall.
Turning from her, clamping his hand on his stubble-covered chin, he tried to think this through.
“Jackson, it sounds like our only hope.” Her voice wavered on the word hope.
Looking up, he cast his gaze through the pine trees above and beyond to the sun. It was still shining bright, but through the dense canopy he swore he could see dark clouds gathering at the edges of the ranges.
Even in autumn those peaks could attract a fell snow storm.
Could they really risk going up there? If they got beyond the pass, that was. It had been hard dealing with the wolves last night, without a cabin wall to hide behind, it could be impossible in the open.
He nodded hesitantly. “Okay. We’ll give it a try.”
She dipped her head and brought her hands together. “Great. Then let’s get going.” Turning, she limped forward. Though he’d made her those ramshackle shoes, no doubt they aggravated her already swollen and cut feet.
Again a pang of guilt sailed through him for what he’d done to her. It would, no doubt, take a long time to make up for it.
He was up for the challenge.
As soon as he realized that, one single thought resurfaced.
Despite the promises he’d made to her, and to himself, he felt the old stab of rage at what they’d done to him and his people. That keen hatred resurfaced like a whale from the ocean.
He did not act on it this time.
He pushed his hands into fists, letting the nails dig freely and deeply into his palms. The pain cut through the rage.
He knew enough about psychology to realize that he could not change his beliefs overnight. Any attempt to alter something so fundamental about oneself took time. He had spent his whole life hating her people; he couldn’t click his fingers and reverse that. Neither did he want to. Yet he promised himself he would try not to take it out on her.
For now, that was all he could do.
He hooked the gun over his shoulder, firmed up his grip on the scanner, and nodded at her to start moving. As he walked past, he caught her looking at him curiously. Her neck was lengthened, her head cocked to the side, her eyes filled with interest.
“What are you looking at?” he cleared his throat cautiously.
“Come on, you were staring at me like I had a sign painted on my head.”
“Priestesses are meant to be skilled at empathy,” she began.
Her once light and curious expression soured and she turned away.
“Sorry. Sorry, ah... continue.”
She flashed him a warning glance. “We are skilled in emotional reading and techniques. I was simply noticing the confusion playing across your features.”
He rolled his teeth sharply over his bottom lip. He’d always hated feeling exposed.
“I apologize, I shouldn’t have said anything. I’ll leave you to your thoughts.” She tried to walk ahead, though her labored hobble could not take her far.
“And what else do you priestesses do?” he tried to quickly change the conversation.
“Meditation, prayer, looking after the monastery,” she smoothed her hand down her middle, a far-off smile spreading her lips.
She had a very distant quality about her in that moment.
“You mean you stay holed up in the hills away from the distractions of a modern life?” he asked, faltering as he realized his question sounded far worse than he’d meant.
“Not at all. The priestess clan of Tarkan is meant to serve the people. We offer any who seek us out our aid in quelling their emotions and healing trauma.”
Again he wanted to laugh, but he stifled it with a strange gulping cough. “What do you mean?”
“We’ve always safeguarded powerful techniques, handed down through the ages,” she took an enormous breath, not staring at him as she spoke, but glancing ahead at the mountains beyond. “Meditation, massage, pressure point techniques.”
“I... see.” He didn’t know how to respond. This conversation had taken him somewhere he’d never expected to go.
Just how much did he really know about Ki? Apparently he knew nothing about Tarkan priestesses. He’d assumed she’d have just spent her days locked up in some room reading old dusty texts.
“People would come from all over Tarkan to see us. From simple farmers to heads of state. I once helped General Arcadus with his insomnia,” she noted through a far-off laugh.
He didn’t join in.
She finally turned to him. “Oh... sorry.”
“I can’t say I ever helped Arcadus sleep, but I have fought against him on the battle field,” grinding his teeth, he tried not to sound too harsh.
Arcadus was a legend to the Tarkans; the general who had won more battles than any other. To the Ashkans he was a monster.
Ki dropped back, brushing at her arms distractedly as she tried to look anywhere but at him.
He had to change the subject. If he let himself be pulled into a discussion about Arcadus, he would end up losing his temper. Old wounds would resurface all too readily and he’d likely go back on his earlier promise not to turn on her again. If he wanted to give this a chance, he had to find a way to suppress or divert his natural rage towards the Tarkans.
“I’m sorry, I—” she began, voice soft.
“Hold on, I thought you said it was not permitted for Tarkan Priestesses to touch men, how exactly do you give a man a massage then? Do you do it with a broom?”
It was the perfect way to change the subject; instantly her demeanor changed and she lost the withdrawn edge to her body language.
Twisting her neck up in that haughty way he’d come to recognize, she shook her head. “No, we are permitted to touch. Others must ask for our permission though. Especially men.”
He enjoyed a laugh at that. “Oh of course. Does it have to be in writing?” He laughed harder at his own bad joke, or perhaps more at the way her gaze hardened with alarm and indignation.
“You may find our traditions humorous, but priestesses are a respected part of Tarkan society.”
“I’m sure they are. I’m... sorry.”
“I really don’t think you are,” she challenged him, “remember, I said I’m skilled at reading emotion. I know when someone is lying to me.”
That shut him up. Instead of pushing her further, he cleared his throat and tried to concentrate on their trek instead.
He led her to the river, waited for her to drink as much as she needed, and looked away as she washed her feet. They were very red and swollen.
Once she was finished, they headed for the nearest cave mouth.
They reached it just as the sun began to dip below Paladin Mountain above them.
As they entered the large and daunting cave mouth, a chill raced down his spine. It was not just at the prospect of the dark cavity before them; he swore he heard a hissing, humming sound from behind.
Far off, it appeared to be drifting along with the wind from the east, back in the direction of the town.
Turning with the scanner held tightly in his hand, he waved it in the direction of the sound.
Nothing appeared on the screen, but that did not quell his nerves. “We should hurry up.” Nodding to the entrance, he all but pushed Ki through.
Though this cave mouth was large, after several steps they were deep within its dark shadow.
He’d been caving occasionally, and every time he’d taken the right equipment. Ropes, harnesses, and powerful head-mounted torches.
This time all he had was a scanner, a futuristic gun, and a hobbling priestess.
Staying at the back as he pushed Ki in front of him, one hand on her shoulder to encourage her pace, he waved the scanner behind them.
With every step the device’s range reduced; those blue outlines darting over the screen became less complicated as they visualized a shorter range until all that was displayed was several meters in every direction.
It was only then that he let out the tight breath trapped in his chest.
“I think we’ll be safe from their scanners now,” he wiped at the sweat over his brow, drying it before it could chill. The cave system was always cold.
The low temperatures, however, would not be their primary concern.
The further they went, the less the light from the entrance would reach them. Though his gun and scanner let off a faint glow, navigating by them alone would mean painfully slow and treacherous progress.
As if to prove his point, Ki tripped sharply to the side with a gasp. Though she righted herself, she was lucky not to have cracked her knee on the jagged rocks below.
“This might not work,” he cursed. “We just don’t have enough light. If only I’d managed to keep that lamp from last night....”
“Just turn up the setting on the gun. I used to watch the soldiers in my compound. There should be some kind of pressure pad just above the barrel. It sets the power rating... I think. Anyway, the higher it is, the more the barrel will glow.”
Pulling the gun’s strap off his shoulder, he turned the weapon up, careful to point the muzzle away from Ki as he explored it.
“It’s just above the barrel,” she repeated, leaning close to him to point it out.
The slight blue glow from it played against her fingers, lighting up those delicate tattoos on each of her fingertips. It also shone up against her throat, emphasizing the line of her neck.
Momentarily distracted, he let her work. After seconds she found the pad she was talking about and pressed it down. The gun gave the slightest kick in his hand and he almost dropped it from his surprise.
“It’s okay. I’m pretty sure it’s fine,” she said.
Twisting the gun away from her, he sought out the pad and pressed it himself. It was uniquely sensitive. He’d never touched a mechanism like it. Just a light press up towards the top of the gun and it would kick slightly as the power setting hummed up, the glow from the barrel brightening measurably. At the top setting it sent out so much light that he could easily see the cavern around him for at least three or four meters. If he pressed towards the base of the gun, the setting dropped, the gun’s glow going so low he could hardly see his own hands as he clutched it.
“How long will this thing last at full illumination? Several hours? Minutes?” he returned the gun to the power level that offered the best visibility and shifted closer to Ki, nodding at her.
“I don’t think they run out... inside is a fragment of a levitation crystal. That’s why it’s so light.”
“Fragment? How large?” he couldn’t contain his sudden enthusiasm. At the thought he’d lost another of those strange devices last night, he’d been ready to condemn himself. They would hold the secret to what those soldiers were and where they came from.
“Nothing more than dust really. The crystals are very powerful. It takes one the size of my palm to lift a scout vessel. It takes one the size of a man to lift a city.”
His features screwed up in disbelief. “A city?”
“I know you think I’ve made this all up and the Zeneethians aren’t real. But I know where I’ve been...” trailing off, she took an audible swallow, “I remember where they took me.”
A city... in the sky.
“Why wouldn’t we have seen them? The Zeneethians with their floating cities, why wouldn’t we have spotted then with our telescopes?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “They move the cities. They hardly ever keep them over land. Though I can’t be certain, I think they are nearly all over the massive southern ocean.”
“Why wouldn’t a vessel have noticed them?”
“They can control the weather around them. They can also land them back into the ocean... though I never saw that actually happen, I only overheard the scientists talking about it. They can even take them higher,” she tipped her head up, reaching a little above her.
“How high? You don’t mean to space, do you? Because that’s preposterous. They wouldn’t have any atmosphere. The ionizing radiation would soon kill everyone if they didn’t run out of air first or float off to have the vacuum of space pop them like a blood-filled balloon.”
She receded at his colorful description, turning her nose down. “I don’t have all the answers. I can’t say for sure why no one has ever seen one of those floating cities from the ground. I just know what I saw. I also know that those legends must have come from somewhere. Maybe long ago they could not shield their cities from view, but as Tarkan and Ashkan technology has developed, so has the Zeneethians. Maybe they are always several steps ahead of us.”
What she was saying sounded plausible, if you could ignore every law of physics in the natural universe, that was. Gravity could not be locally turned off. Neither could a city move into space.
“I know this is hard to believe. But look at what you are holding,” she gestured at the scanner in his hand. “Can you explain that? It is decades beyond any technology we have.”
He snorted. “Decades? Try centuries. This device can calculate and measure like a human brain, but over impossible distances. It possesses visualization capacities that I can’t describe....”
“Is it so hard to believe that a race that possesses devices like these could float a city?”
Frustrated, he frowned deeper. “That’s not the same thing. The power involved would be astronomical.”
“Yesterday you floated into the air with nothing more than a crystal. Have you forgotten that?”
About to reply, he stopped. She had a point.
“I don’t understand how it all works...” she sighed carefully, “all I know is I don’t want to go back.” She turned and began to head further into the cave, anchoring her hands on the large rocks around her and moving over the rough terrain as best she could.
Her statement was poignant, and it still rang in him long after she’d walked away.
He couldn’t imagine what she’d been through. Probably because he argued with every fact she shared.
Drawing into a long and pensive silence, they headed deep into the cave. Their trek should take no more than two days. They would have to find water, and he was confident they would. As for food, they would have to do without. It was not ideal, but considering what they were up against it was the best he could hope for.
Moving side by side where they could, sharing the illumination of the glowing gun barrel, they clambered over the stones. Their shadows were cast long over the uneven walls and ceiling, distorted and elongated, they gave the cave a dark ominous feeling.
Though perhaps it was not the shadows that set his teeth on edge, igniting his nerves. It was the prospect of what would happen when they reached the other side.
How would he get Ki to the city? When he was there, then what? Would he swan into the Royal Academy, take apart this gun, and easily glean its secrets? No doubt it would take a large, dedicated team decades to understand it, let alone reverse engineer one.
Worse than that, what would he do with Ki? If he took her to the authorities, those futuristic soldiers would appear hours later. Though it was just a theory, he assumed they were capable of monitoring all forms of radio communication, possibly even telephony. If a message was sent anywhere, using any technology more sophisticated than a carrier pigeon, those soldiers would find out about it. So it was imperative that he kept Ki a secret.
A Tarkan woman... by showing her around the capital city and into the Academy, he’d be committing an act of treason. Had that really dawned on him yet? Could he live with that? Technically betray his own people for her?
As he thought deeply, battling with his conscience, he noticed Ki slow down to glance at him. She had that same look of concentration puckering her brow and smoothing out her pink lips.
Was she reading his emotions? At least she couldn’t read his actual thoughts. No doubt she would ditch him if she found out he was still undecided about what he’d do with her once they reached the city.
Trying to control his expression, he continued to press on. Try as he might, he could not control his thoughts though. His mind ran over every possibility, entertaining each strategy he could take. In truth, he liked none of them, but when he reached the capital, he would do something.
If he reached the capital.
It was hard going. Her feet throbbed. Every step sent shooting pain up her ankles and high into her legs. She desperately wanted to stop, rest, and find a cool pool to soak her swollen and hot heels and toes in. She did not say a word about it though. She doubted he would notice even if she did; he’d spent hours with his face twisted up in deep thought.
Battling his demons. She’d seen men with expressions like that before. She recognized how heavy and thoughtless his movements where. His body walked while his mind was elsewhere. All too often he stumbled, only to curse, right himself and continue on with more alertness. But his attention would slip and that tight frown would return.
She tried not to watch him, but often she couldn’t help it. She would find some excuse to glance his way, whether it was to check her feet, to tuck her hair behind her ear, or to pause to catch her breath.
Though she was terribly hungry and a pounding headache was marching through her forehead, his obvious emotional turmoil was enough to distract her from all that. She couldn’t help but feel he was thinking about her. More to the point, what he would do with her once they reached the other side of this cave system.
Though he’d promised he would help her through this, she understood it was likely an empty offer. She’d watched him carefully whenever he’d spoken of the war and his hatred of her people – memories and feelings like that do not ebb easily. They would be deeply rooted within his identity. He would see himself as a warrior who had fought against the Tarkan threat, who had kept their evil at bay.
A few days with her could not change that, no matter how hard she prayed for it.
Their trust would have to be a tentative one for now. If either of them lived long enough, maybe one day, given time, it would become more.
As she thought, she brushed her hands up and down her arms, warming the skin. It was frigid cold in this cave system. Though she was thankful that her feet weren’t bare anymore, she would have cherished having her long and thick sleeves back.
A few times he’d offered her his shirt, but of course she’d declined. Not only would it leave his torso exposed to this fell chill, it would be entirely inappropriate.
After several hours of solid walking, she began to trip more and more. The pain from her feet had warped into an insidious, numb feeling that crawled up her legs, sabotaging her balance. Trying to be more careful, she secured herself with one hand on the cave wall whenever she could. It was not enough though, and soon she slipped down hard, slamming her right thigh into a jagged rock below.
Jackson had wandered a step or two ahead, but he snapped around immediately, trying to catch her. It was too late though.
Gasping in pain, she pushed herself up, but could hardly stand.
“Damn it, we have to stop. You can’t go on tonight. We’ll have to try to make camp somewhere.”
“I can go on,” she lied.
He crossed his arms and shook his head, expression disbelieving yet somehow charming. There was an amused edge to it. “Sure, if I carry you?”
Flushing, she tugged at the collar of her robe, ensuring it was as high as she could pull it. “That won’t be necessary. I’ll be fine.”
“You aren’t fine. Now come on, we’ll try to find a wider cavern, somewhere with some flat ground. We might even be lucky and get some ground water or an underground stream,” as he spoke, his voice became distracted. Pulling up the scanner, he fixed his attention on the screen. “I think I understand this thing sufficiently to program it... if that’s the right term. I should be able to track out some water, if we’re close enough.”
“How long will that take?”
One cheek puckering as he flashed a half-smile, he shrugged his shoulders. “I thought you said you could go on?”
“I just... wanted to know how long it would take.”
“Of course you did.” That half-smile still fattened one of his cheeks. “Well... let me just...” he began to manipulate the scanner, prodding it experimentally as he flicked his gaze from the controls to the view screen.
“Do you know what you are doing with that?”
“I’m a scientist.” His voice had a hard edge to it.
“Perhaps I should have a look? I’m may be only a priestess, but I’ve seen enough people use those things over the past year. I’m sure I might be able to....” She trailed off. It was clear he wasn’t paying attention to her.
“There might be water... just ahead of us. To the left, down a side shaft... or it might be rock. I’m not sure what I’m looking at.”
“Give me a look.” Lifting her robe, she tried to clamber around the large boulder that separated them.
She did not get very far. As soon as she put weight against her left foot, the ankle buckled. She fell forward.
She did not fall this time though. Jackson stumbled forward, catching her, the scanner slipping from his grip and clattering to the ground.
There was a moment where he held her there. She could feel his arms around her. Despite the fact she knew exactly who this man was and where he came from, she could not deny it reassured her.
“Be careful,” he hissed through a breath. It pushed out against her cheeks, tantalizingly warm considering how cold this cave had made her.
Nodding, unable to speak, she waited for him to prop her up against a large boulder to her side. Immediately he turned and plucked up the scanner. Turning it around, he checked it thoroughly before letting out a rattling sigh. “This thing is a lot hardier than it looks.”
“It does lodge into a scout’s armor.”
He conceded her point with a nod. “I guess you’re right. Still, I better not throw it around too much. I’m going to need something to study when I get back to the Academy.” Though his voice had started out even and casual, towards the end it dipped lower.
Shifting back, he turned around.
Was he hiding his expression from her?
Perhaps. But it was a useless move; she could still sense the tension washing off him. All that indecision was eating him up from the inside.
She knew several techniques that would help him alleviate it, but she would never suggest them. He would no doubt take it as an opportunity to tease and degrade her further. They also involved certain neuro pressure points, and for some reason the prospect of touching Jackson’s back and neck sent chills up her spine. She was a skilled and experienced masseuse, but that was not enough to make her feel comfortable with the prospect of laying hands on him.
Feeling uneasy, she flattened down her robe. Patting at her cheeks, she was irritated to find them hot and flushed.
“I think I’ve spied some water this way,” he mumbled, still with his back to her. “I’ll just see if I can re-set this scanner.”
She watched his shoulders shift as he manipulated the scanner. She could see them easily even under his thick shirt. Though they were clearly strong, she could note the tension turning them in, the same tension that translated down his back and into his legs. He would need a week of rest and relaxation to heal all that stiffness. He would not get it.
“I think this is it—” he began,
He did not get the opportunity to finish. Immediately a high-pitched, keening sound erupted from the scanner.
Jackson dropped it, clutching his hands to his ears.
She screamed, falling off the boulder she was seated on.
The sound was so high it felt like it was shaking her in two.
Jackson was close though, and he doubled over, clutching at the scanner, fumbling with it, obviously trying to find a way to shut down the sound.
The gun clattered out from his grip as he thrashed. His hands scrabbled so wildly that he knocked the scanner away too.
As the noise built, the rocks above and below began to shake. Dust erupted from the ceiling, rubble showering down on them.
Above the noise of the shrill screech she heard a rumble.
She didn’t have time to act.
The ceiling above gave way, huge chunks of stone raining down.
The scanner was knocked towards her. She scooped it up, using every scrap of emotional control she’d ever developed to stop herself from dropping it just to get away from the sound.
Hands shaking wildly, she forced her mind to focus.
She recognized the buttons. Frantic, she pressed them in sequence.
There was a soft beep, not that she could hear it. Immediately afterwards the shrill noise ended.
Her ears ringing, her senses confused, she let the scanner topple from her grip as she turned.
“Jackson!” she screamed, ignoring the lungful of dust she sucked in to shout his name.
Several small stones tumbled down from the ceiling in a cloud of rubble, but that was it. The cave in, it appeared, was over.
But she couldn’t see him.
Fraught, she scrambled forward, her breathing frantic as she grabbed at the rocks, pulling them back with strength she shouldn’t still possess.
“Jackson,” tears washed down her cheeks, tracking through the caked dust.
Trembling, she grabbed at a large stone, not caring it sent a twinge deep into her back.
She saw his face.
Beyond desperation now, she moved as fast as she could, pulling, yanking, and grabbing at the stones.
Time lost all meaning, she had no idea how long it took her, but she uncovered him.
Pressing two fingers into his neck, she waited in abject horror to find out if he was dead.
She couldn’t feel anything.
Yanking her hand away, letting out a powerful, gut-wrenching whimper, she stumbled back. Falling onto her behind, she scuttled backwards. Robe falling between her exposed legs, she couldn’t stop staring at his still form.
He couldn’t be dead.
He couldn’t be dead.
Crying, body rocking back and forth as the sobs racked her, she shifted back further until her hand knocked the scanner.
Lips open, salty tears trickling around them and mixing with the harsh taste of powdered dust, she grabbed it up.
She turned it towards him.
Despite the fact the air was still choked with dust, she forced her eyes to open against it, thumbing the scanner’s screen until it was clear enough to see.
She’d seen the so-called doctors in her compound use these devices against her. They could register someone’s state of health. Jackson had been able to do it that morning. Just by setting it correctly, he’d been able to tell where she’d been injured.
It could do more though. She’d seen Zeneethians use them to emit some kind of healing field. She didn’t have the requisite knowledge to understand how it worked, but she could remember when they’d used it against her. Once or twice their experiments had gotten out of hand. Another time she’d slipped coming down the stairs into the laboratory.
Rarely had they used more than a scanner to fix her injuries.
Fear gripping at her stomach, she tried to manipulate it. With her heartbeat so wild it thrust her body back and forth, she panted through the dust filled-air.
“Come on, come on,” she clutched at the device, pressing every button she could, burning through her memories, trying to recall the sequence she’d seen those doctors use.
Tears misting her vision, she finally watched the screen change. Those blue outlines zeroed in on Jackson’s still body, somehow visualizing his insides. Areas of his body flashed white: his right shoulder, his left leg, a section of his stomach.
She had no idea what it meant.
“Please,” she prayed, tears clearing her muddied cheeks and catching over her lips as she spoke.
The scanner began to vibrate, now emitting a warm, glowing, shifting field.
She almost dropped it.
The field travelled around her in a perfect sphere.
It was familiar; she’d felt this same glowing energy lap at her skin before, searching out her injuries and healing them.
It was intoxicating feeling it travel deep into every center of pain and dulling the sensation into nothingness.
Intoxicating, yet she had to move away.
She pushed herself up and back from the scanner, placing it gently on Jackson’s chest and moving back until she was out of the field’s effect radius.
As soon as she left it, her heavy, biting agony returned.
She hardly paid attention to it. Instead she sat, gaze transfixed as she stared at him and waited.
The field would likely sap up all of the scanner’s power. Even if it did not manage to heal his injuries, it would soon be useless.
Those minutes were some of the most fraught she’d ever experienced. Time became meaningless. Her own symptoms were nothing but a distraction. All concentration and attention she could muster she focused on him. On his chest. She wanted it to move up and down. Take in a single breath, anything to let her know he was alive.
As she waited, alarm trickled in, breaking up what hope the scanner’s field was giving her. Rocking back and forth, she burst into heavier tears. Dropping her head, she cupped it in her hands.
She had not liked the man, but for it to end like this....
She gave up. She crumpled in on herself, truly succumbing to defeat.
Then she heard the gasp.
She snapped up, pushing to her feet and teetering at the edge of the field, staring past it.
He was breathing.
God, he was alive.
Kneeling, a hand reaching up and brushing against the edge of the field but never going through it, she watched.
There she waited until the field gave out completely. She had no idea how long it took, but eventually it flickered and died. Seconds later the distinct blue glow of the scanner disappeared. With barely a click, it shut down.
Moving forward, still on her knees, not caring that the sharp rocks cut into them, she placed a hand flat on his chest. It moved up and down. Fingers spreading, she could feel his warmth.
Brushing at the dust that had covered his face, she shifted him out of his bed of rock, finding a flat place to lay him on.
Then she did what she could.
The priestess clan were skilled in many healing techniques. She would now have to pick up where the scanner left off.
He woke with a start. Something wasn’t right.
His body lagged behind his mind. It was filled with a distinct and unusual warmth.
It was the strangest of feelings. It felt like every part of him, every limb, every cell even, was lifting up, floating on high. It was as if he were being dragged into heaven, piece by piece.
He basked in it.
It did not last though.
After a while, his body seemed to catch up with his mind. He began to distinguish between his senses. He felt something hard underneath him, his stomach and cheeks were cold, and the air around him smelt of a strange, stagnant musty dankness.
It scratched at the insides of his nostrils, making his throat itch.
Coughing, he rocked forward a little. Instantly a small, soft hand pushed into his shoulder, guiding him back down.
It made him realize something still wasn’t right. It made him remember.
He tried to snap forward.
She wouldn’t let him. Ki locked him in place.
“You’ve been injured,” she said gently. She was close, her breath soft against his cheek.
He opened his eyes.
She was sitting behind him, her head coming into view above, her hair trailing over one shoulder and brushing against his arm.
Concern ran deep through her brow, pushing her lips into the thinnest frown he’d seen her show.
Her eyes were rimmed with red. Right now they seemed to shine though. “You’re alive,” she croaked.
“You sound surprised,” he managed through a heavy breath. He tried to get up.
Again she wouldn’t let him.
He could feel one of her hands on his shoulder while the other was on his neck. Her fingers were pressing tenderly into the muscle.
“You died,” her head darted back out of view.
He laughed. She had to be joking. He felt a little light-headed and was having trouble moving, but other than that he felt great. The longer he was awake for, the more control he was getting back over his body. He’d be up on his feet in a minute or so.
He most certainly had not died.
“What happened? I remember the scanner...” he trailed off as he tried to put together the real sequence of events from his currently fragmented memories.
“You accidentally activated some kind of sound on the scanner. It caused a cave in.” She swallowed, the move loud and heavy. “You were caught in it. I was thrown clear, so was the scanner. I had to use it to induce some kind of healing field. It brought you back.”
She had to be joking.
He pushed himself up now, throwing off her hand.
As soon as her fingers fell from his neck, that feeling of light warmth cut out.
Immediately he felt how cold the cavern was; the chill washed back over him with no warning. Shuddering he brought his arms up and closed them around his chest.
“You shouldn’t make any sudden movements; the effect of the field will take some time to wane. It usually took a couple of hours with me,” she let her hands drop into her lap.
“What, what do you mean? What field?”
“Those scanners are capable of producing more than just noise and advanced sensor readings. They produce some kind of healing field,” she brought up her hand and considered it, brushing at her fingers and palm. “I once fell down the stairs in my compound and broke my wrist. Within an hour the pain was gone. So was the break.”
He stared at her in disbelief. “Come on, Ki, you can’t expect me to believe that.”
She grabbed at something by her side. At first he thought it was a rock.
As she brought it into the light, he recognized it instantly. It was the scanner, except it seemed completely dead.
“What did you do to it?” he snapped, grabbing it from her.
She did not resist, and neither did she react in any way. Her expression was still, her gaze deadened. She looked as though she’d just been through some taxing emotional turmoil.
He couldn’t believe her story though.
Yet as he stared at the scanner, virtually pawing at it in his desperate attempts to turn it on, he soon realized it wasn’t going to work.
A cold sweat trickled down his brow. The scanner was their only hope of getting out of here. Without it they would be walking blind. If they came up against a section of rock wall, they’d have no idea whether they could shoot through or not.
What had she done to it?
Trying to control his anger, he curled his free hand into a fist and knocked it hard against his leg. As soon as he did, a shooting pain erupted from his shoulder and travelled down into his back. Gasping, he grabbed at it.
“You should be careful with your arm. It isn’t properly healed. The scanner cut out before it could heal your soft tissue injuries, I think.” She didn’t look at him as she spoke. She stared down at her interlocked fingers, her voice slow, her words slurred.
“Do you really expect me to think I died?” he stood up, snatching at the scanner protectively.
She tipped her head up sluggishly. Though her gaze was still deadened, there was a slight flicker of anger. “What, you think I knocked you out and broke the scanner so we’d be stuck down here? Is that easier to believe?”
She’d just voiced a suspicion that had been growing within him. It made that cold sweat pick up quicker across his brow and collect between his shoulder blades.
His memory was still fragmented. He couldn’t really recall what had happened. He vaguely remembered the scanner suddenly producing a high-pitched shrill, but that was all.
Suspicion bloomed within him like blood from a bullet wound.
Her cheeks slackened further as she looked up at him, that numb expression shifting. Chest and arms visibly stiffening, she swallowed. “Jackson, what are you—”
“What did you do to the scanner?” he repeated his question. The light edge was gone from his voice, if it had ever been there. It was replaced with deep doubt and distrust.
She shifted back, her arms and legs pressing hard against the boulder she was seated near. In the reflected glow from the gun barrel that sat between them, he watched the shadows under her eyes and neck darken as she dipped her head down, drawing her arms and shoulders in protectively.
“Ki, what did you do?”
“There was a cave in,” she pointed a shivering hand at the rocks around her. They were covered in rubble and dust. “You got struck by it. I pulled you out and then I used the scanner on you. I’d seen the Zeneethian doctors and scientists use them as healing devices before. I just mimicked what I’d seen them do.” Her voice and body shook as she spoke, her trembling form casting a flickering shadow onto the wall behind her.
“Then I guess if your story is right, there should be blood on those rocks,” he said darkly. Walking over to them, he expected to see nothing but dust.
He was wrong.
He could see blood splattered all over the rocks. A lot of blood. Not enough to believe someone had been killed, but enough to indicate someone had been seriously injured.
He could see it, even though his body obstructed the light. Leaning down, he trailed two fingers through it. It was full of dust, but still slightly wet.
Taking several steps back, he shook his head sharply. Suspicion still burnt hot in his heart, but at the edges, reason began to break its way in.
Turning sharply, he stalked up to her.
“If you’re story’s true, shouldn’t your hands be covered in scratches from lifting all those stones?” he leaned down and yanked up one of her hands.
She did not resist. Her arm was limp, her head turned down to the ground. She didn’t even look at him.
He turned the palm around.
It was cut, the flesh torn and ripped, each wound covered in dried up blood and caked with dirt. Her fingernails were nothing but tatters, broken and fissured, caked with rock dust.
Those tiny tattoos were red and raised, her fingertips swollen and inflamed.
He let her hand drop.
It slammed hard against the rock behind her; she did nothing to stop it. Either she was too weak to try or she didn’t want to.
He shuddered back.
Guilt began to all but smash through his suspicion and frustration.
What had he done?
No, he couldn’t give in so easily. This could still be an act. She could have knocked him out, the blood could still be his. And as for her hands, she could have made them look like that herself.
His teeth ground together, so much tension translating through his jaw that he almost popped his neck muscles.
He didn’t know what to believe.
She did not move while he stood there, indecision bursting through him. She stared at the floor, her head on the side.
Had he done it again? Had he turned on her? Or did she deserve it?
He had every reason to be suspicious of her, because he had every reason to be suspicious of the Tarkans. He’d once seen an enemy patrol fill a kindergarten with explosives. He’d witnessed their soldiers gun-down the sick and elderly indiscriminately. Then they’d sniped his fiancée after the cease fire.
They were a duplicitous, untrustworthy, and violent people. Every experience he had ever had served to confirm that fact.
Was it enough to condemn Ki though?
She still didn’t move, and neither did he.
The only sound that disturbed their silence was the slight trickle of rock dust from the ceiling above.
“I...” he began. He stopped, because he had no idea what to say. He just didn’t have enough information to come to a conclusion. Ki could very well be a spy, or she could be the innocent she had claimed from the beginning.
“Pick up the gun,” she finally spoke. She still didn’t turn to him.
“What?” surprise paled his skin.
“Pick up the gun and shoot me. You obviously don’t believe me. You think I knocked you out and broke the scanner. Why? Because I’m Tarkan, because I’m a spy, because I want you to die down here. Well that doesn’t make any sense, but that doesn’t matter, does it? You still don’t trust me, because deep down you don’t want to. You’d rather I be some nefarious spy. Well fine, then do what a good soldier should do. Pick up the gun and shoot me. You’ve made it clear that no matter what happens, you won’t trust me. So go ahead.”
“I’m not going to—”
“Yes you are,” her eyes flashed and finally she turned to him. “Maybe not now, but eventually you will. No matter how much I do to prove otherwise, that seed of suspicion is always going to be there. You’re always going to fear I’m evil and out to get you just because I’m Tarkan. Maybe you’ll overcome your paranoia for now, but it will resurface. You aren’t going to change, Jackson. At the next excuse, you’re going to do the same thing. It doesn’t matter that you’ve met the Zeneethians, that you’ve seen their technology, that you’ve fought their advanced soldiers. You won’t change. So kill me now. You’ll find a way to rationalize it and feel good about it later. I’m sure your government will give you a medal too.”
He no longer simply felt cold; he felt frigid, frozen to the spot, every trace of warmth gone from his face, hands, and arms.
“Pick up the gun,” she said, breath puffing loud through each word, making them sound like the percussive beat of a drum.
“Then I’ll do it.” She lunged forward and grabbed it up.
He tried to get there first, but she was closer. Collapsing to his knees, he thrust forward, groping at it before she could get off a clear shot.
She did not aim the barrel at him. She twisted it up towards her head.
He got a hold of the butt, ripping it backwards.
It was too late. She squeezed a shot off.
It slammed from the gun, but did not collect her face; it shot up and ate into the ceiling with a boom.
Collapsing over her, he yanked the gun fully out of her grip just as the rocks began falling from the ceiling.
They slammed into his back, but none of them were big enough to shatter his spine. Fine stones no bigger than coins, and tumbling rubble, cascaded down from above, but that was it.
Still crouched over her, cradling her head in his arms, he waited until it was clear it was over.
With the last breath of powdered rock brushing against his face, he turned up to stare above him.
It took some time for the turgid, dust-filled air to settle enough to see clearly. When it did, his chest bucked forward with a gasp.
He could see bent and misshapen metal tracks hanging from the hole in the ceiling.
Though the metal was warped and burnt from the blast, he could tell what they were.
Still clutching tight onto the gun with one hand, he tucked it under his arm and stood back.
As a child he’d heard that they’d tried to mine the Paladin Ranges. They were a rich source of various important minerals, after all. They’d had to suspend their operations though; the peaks above were too geologically active. With all the caverns dotted through the mountains, cave-ins were a frequent occurrence. It had simply become too dangerous for the mining to continue.
“I don’t believe it,” he mumbled, not caring that dust collected against his lips as he kept his head directed up towards the hole.
“Just shoot me,” Ki snapped up to her knees, lunging for the gun.
He darted back out of her reach. “I’m not going to shoot you, Ki. Not when we’ve just found a way out.”
“What are you talking about?” tears collected around her red-rimmed eyes.
He pointed up, careful to keep one hand locked over the gun as he did.
She didn’t move her head. She simply stared at the gun.
“Look, I’m sorry,” he tried.
“You aren’t. You promised this would never happen again. And it has. You don’t trust me, and you are always going to look for the next excuse to condemn me. So just get it over with. I’d rather be dead than go back to the Zeneethians.”
“I’m not going to kill you,” he snapped loud, voice wavering but insistent. “We need to concentrate on a way to get out of here. And I think we’ve just got one. If we can get up to that shaft above, we might be able to follow it. They once tried to mine these mountains. Though I’ve never been in any of the shafts myself, I’ve heard stories there are miners’ stations, and if we’re lucky they haven’t been picked clean. We might be able to get some gear.”
“Jackson, I’m not going anywhere with you.”
He snapped his head down to look at her. “What are you talking about? Look, I’m sorry—”
“Sorry? I pulled you out of those rocks,” she choked through her words, “and saved your life. Then you turn around and accuse me of trying to kill you. You think sorry is good enough? You think I’m happy I had to run that scanner dry?”
“Look... let’s just try to find a way to get up there.”
“No. You can find a way. Take the gun and scanner, but leave me here. You can go and run your experiments on them. You can find out their secrets. You can use them to make your army stronger. You can do whatever you want to. But I’m not going anywhere with you.”
What little trust they’d had was now clearly broken.
“Ki, I’m not going to leave you here. You’ll die—”
“What the hell do you care?” She slammed her hands into the rocks behind her. It was the first time he’d heard her swear.
“I’m not going to let you die,” he repeated firmly.
“Unless you kill me yourself, right? Put yourself in my shoes, Jackson – if the thought of pretending you’re a Tarkan doesn’t turn your stomach, that is. Do I have any reason to trust you anymore? Despite all the things you’ve seen, you continue to find any excuse to attack me. If sophisticated soldiers right out of a myth can’t convince you that something out of the ordinary is happening here, nothing will. Your mind will continue to clutch onto old fears and hatred.”
“Ki, I’m not going to leave you here to die,” he repeated yet again, voice grating even harder. Out of all his swirling indecision, at least he was sure of that. No matter what else happened, he wasn’t going to abandon her down here.
“Why? So you can take me back to your Royal Academy like a trophy? Experiment on me then throw me in jail when you’re done? I would rather die. Plus, you’ll never get away from them. The Zeneethians will never stop tracking me down.”
“You’re not a trophy. Look, if we want to get out of here, we need to work together.”
“Take the gun and go,” she turned from him resolutely.
“Ki, Ki,” he tried to get her attention, but she just ignored him.
Drawing in a frustrated, hard-edged sigh, he swore bitterly.
He was so conflicted, so damn pulled between the extremes of loyalty to his people and Ki.
“Fine, put yourself in my shoes then. I’m working in a field one day only to see a Tarkan fall out of the sky. I’ve lost more people than I can count to your kind. I’ve seen what your weapons can do. I know how desperate you are to get your hands on Ashka—”
“I thought you were a scientist,” she interrupted.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
She looked up, features drawn and dark. “You keep looking for rare, outlandish explanations to apparently obvious phenomenon. That’s the mark of the religious and dogmatic, not the scientific. You’ve seen a race with technology you know is centuries beyond anything the Tarkans possess. If we did possess it, you know there’s no chance we wouldn’t have used it against you – you already admitted that. So if I’m really a spy and this whole thing has been an elaborate trap, where the hell does all their technology fit in? Do you think the Tarkans have kept their levitating crystals, particle weapons, and advanced scanners in reserve until now, just so they could use them to ensnare some random ex-soldier? How much sense does that really make?”
His cheeks reddened despite the cold. “That’s not what—”
“You believe? Then what do you believe? Have you actually bothered to think any of this through? Or do you keep on getting distracted by the fact I’m a Tarkan. Do you keep listening to that little voice in your head that tells you trusting me would be treason?”
“It’s not like that.”
“Then what’s it like?” she spat, passion twisting her tone and making her hands shake. “I’ve watched you, Jackson, and whether you believe me or not, I can read emotions. Every time you start to warm to me, you withdraw, you become dark. It’s like there’s two of you. The Jackson who acts around his own kind and the Jackson who acts around Tarkans. What’s it like having two distinct moral codes in your head? Manhandling an Ashkan woman is unthinkable, but a Tarkan woman is a different story.”
Her words began to bite deep. Straightening, his lips stiffened. “It’s not like that. My life has taught me to be suspicious of your kind. Time and time again I have had to protect my family from Tarkans. I am now in a position of responsibility, the stakes are higher for me. I can’t make a mistake on trusting you. I need strong evidence—”
“Which you have. Legendary beings from the sky with flying ships and ray guns. But it’s still not enough for you. Admit it, Jackson, this is not about being sure whether you can trust me. It’s about not wanting to trust me in the first place. Race has become more important to you than science.”
“You’re wrong. I’m no bigot, life has just taught me—”
He locked his teeth hard. His face was hot, arms tense, breath tight. She was wrong. She was dead wrong about him.
“Don’t tell me, you think you’re a moral man, right? You look at yourself and think you’re a proper gentleman? You tied me to a chair, Jackson, how does that mesh with your beliefs?”
“Shut up,” he spat.
“Angry? Pick up the gun—”
“I’m not going to shoot you.”
“And I’m never going to leave this cavern with you. I will never trust you again.” She snapped her head to the side, tipping her chin up at that familiar haughty angle.
More than anything that made him give a sharp, frustrated laugh. “You think I’m a bigot? Fine, I’ll admit the wars have twisted me. Try fighting to protect someone, priestess, and you’ll see it changes you. The world blurs, and you have to struggle to make it clear again. So maybe my views about the Tarkans have become black and white, and maybe that’s a defense mechanism. I’m not proud of what I had to do, but I did it, and because I did, I saved people. And right now, whether you want to believe it or not, I’m still trying to save them. I can’t get this wrong. If I do, people could die. Of course I have to be suspicious... but maybe I need to....”
Her eyes flicked up, hesitant and slow.
“Maybe I need to...” he couldn’t push the words out, but he had to say something. If he didn’t manage to convince her to get up and give him another chance, he was going to have to... what? Tie her up? Drag her behind him through the tunnels with her trying to shoot herself at every chance she got. This situation was already hard, if she fought him it would become impossible. “Try harder to trust you. I am sorry.”
Still wary, she did not leap up and hug him. She just sat there.
“But maybe you need to try harder too. At least I know I have something to fight for,” he looked down pointedly at the gun, “I’ve got people to protect. So there’s no way I’m going to shoot myself just to get out of here. I might keep on looking for excuses not to trust you, but you keep on looking for reasons to give up.”
“I can’t walk because my feet are swollen and cracked. I haven’t eaten in days, I’ve barely drunk, and what little energy I had, I used on those devices. The Zeneethians are after me, and there’s no way I can fight them. I have nothing left.”
“You got away from them. I dealt with those soldiers last night. They aren’t impossible to defeat. I’ll admit, your chances are slim, but if you give up just because you think there’s no way to fight, you’ll be proving yourself right.”
She didn’t respond.
“I don’t know how long it’s going to take me to trust you. I can’t promise anything. I think I believe you, but I’m not going to put anyone at risk over this. My duty is to my people first. All I can promise is that I’ll try to figure out what’s going on. But there’s no point if you give up.”
She wouldn’t look at him.
Locking the gun strap over his shoulder, he shifted it around until it was safely behind him. Then he got to his knees. He was still a meter or so away from her, and he doubted it was a good idea to get any closer. “Ki. I’m sorry. Please, can we put this behind us and try to find a way to get up into that shaft?”
“Do you believe I used the scanner to save your life?” she whispered.
Taken aback, he shook his head. After all, it was a preposterous idea. How could a mechanical device like that be used to heal a man after he’d been crushed by a cave in? There would have been significant blood loss – he’d seen it. How would the device have rectified that? How could a field reach inside him and fix his injuries? It just didn’t make any sense.
She appeared to watch him carefully. She would be waiting for his reaction.
“Do you believe me?” she challenged again.
He brought a hand up and pressed it into his shoulder. It was tender as hell. He looked down at her hands as she held them loose in her lap; they were definitely scratched up and tattered.
He wanted more evidence, but he wasn’t going to get it.
He nodded his head. “I guess I have to.”
Her lips scrunched up. “You guess you should?”
“Okay, I do. I can’t come up with a better explanation right now, and I really doubt you knocked me over the head, scratched up your hands, and found a way to shut down the scanner.” As he said it, he couldn’t help but laugh as he realized how stupid it all sounded. Had he honestly thought she could do that? Apparently. When that suspicion had taken him, anything had seemed possible. Now reason was returning and he felt a hot twist of guilt return with it.
Standing, he shrugged his shoulders awkwardly, gasping half way through as his shoulder locked up in pain.
“I told you, the scanner cut out before it fixed your soft-tissue injuries. Your shoulder, right leg, and side will be sore for days.”
Poking his side, he suddenly realized she was right. He almost doubled over in pain.
“Or you could jab your finger into your side and bruise yourself further,” she shook her head, exasperation obvious.
Before he could point out he was just checking, he stopped himself. Her mood seemed to be improving. Her gaze had stopped darting down to the gun, which was a very good thing.
“Right... should we go?” he tried.
She didn’t move.
“I said I’m sorry. I let my suspicions get the better of me. But I’m not going to leave you here. And neither should you give up on yourself. We’ve escaped from the Zeneethians before, we can do it again. They might be centuries ahead of us technologically, but that doesn’t make them any smarter. Give us a chance.” He held his hand out to her.
She still didn’t move.
“I can’t move,” she snapped. Stiffening, blinking hard, she pulled up her robe, revealing her legs.
They were swollen and bright red.
He’d seen infections before, he knew what to look for. Dropping down, not caring that she flinched, he pushed the back of his hand up against her calf.
It was burning hot.
“Damn... why didn’t the scanner heal that up? If it brought me back from death—”
“I stepped out of the field. If I’d have let it heal me, it would have sapped it dry quicker.”
In other words, she’d ignored her own injuries allowing only his to heal.
If guilt had stabbed at him before, it plunged deep into his heart now.
He’d been on the battlefield too many times before to ignore what was happening to her legs. Infection would be rising through them, and if it wasn’t stopped soon, it would kill her.
Now he wasn’t arguing with her or looking for a reason to clap her in irons, he could see how labored her breathing was, how dilated her pupils were, how slow and sluggish her moves had become.
He swore bitterly, searching desperately for something to do. He needed water to cool down her legs and drugs to fight the infection that was likely slowly poisoning her. She needed help and she probably had less than an hour or two to get it.
He’d lectured her on not giving up on herself, but he’d failed to see what was happening right in front of him.
“Damn it,” he spat bitterly, shifting back as he stared up at the ceiling again. Bringing the gun around, he held it up, trying to force the light as high as he could to see further into the hole above.
“There’s some kind of sight on it,” she croaked.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. I’ve just seen the scouts use it before. Some device that pops up and helps them aim.”
“You mean a scope? Where is it?” he was about to hand her the gun, but hesitated.
“I’m not going to shoot myself,” she reached her arms out.
Wary, he made a quick decision. Hovering over her, he handed the gun down. He did not drop his guard once. If she twisted that muzzle towards her head, he would act.
She did not. She fumbled with the butt, twisting it around, cheeks flushed with concentration. Finally her fingers depressed over a hidden button near the rear of the gun. Immediately and almost silently a scope popped out, locking into place.
It was unlike anything he’d ever seen. It was not a simple red cross-hairs over a magnifying lens. It was electronic. Blue and white lights zipped around on a seamless glass screen.
It reminded him of the scanner, albeit a small version.
Grabbing the gun as she handed it back to him, he shunted it into his shoulder and looked down the scope.
Somehow it showed the wall before him and beyond, penetrating several meters into the rock.
Buoyed, soul soaring, he turned it up to the roof. He could see the cavern above. It was huge. He could also detect more metal tracks.
That was not all the gun allowed him to see though. It showed how dense and interconnected the sections of rock were.
He came up with a quick and hopefully not suicidal plan. “I’m going to try to shoot us a way up there. If I get it right, I’ll be able to bring down just enough rocks for us to climb up on.”
“If you’re wrong?”
He answered with a cautious cough rather than words. Turning to her, he looped the gun back over his shoulder and held out his hands.
For a second she watched them warily, lips thin with concern.
He kept them there, despite the fact his shoulder ached.
Finally she grabbed them.
He pulled her up, and instantly she gasped, the sound loud in his ears. He wrapped an arm around her and supported her before she could fall back down. He helped her forward, propping her against a stone more than thirty meters away. He wanted to be cautious here.
When he was satisfied she was far enough away, he walked back to the hole in the ceiling, toting the gun, settling it hard against his shoulder as he stared through the scope.
Quickly growing accustomed to those blue outlines, he assessed the whole ceiling with the scope’s scanner. If he’d known it had one of those last night, it would have taken the guess work out of shooting that floating soldier at the cabin.
It was yet more evidence that Jackson really had no idea what he was up against. He was going about this whole thing wrong. He was jumping to conclusions instead of searching out more facts. He needed to spend less time looking for a reason to condemn Ki, and more time finding out what was going on here.
Steeling himself, stiffening his shoulder and ignoring the pain, he backed off. Saying a short, quick prayer, he fired.
Holding his finger on the trigger, a beam of hot blue light slammed into the ceiling. Jumping back before the ceiling could cave in, he ducked behind a stone to survey the damage.
Huge chunks of rock fell down from the ceiling, slamming into the ground and making the whole room shake.
After several anxious seconds, he realized the whole roof was not going to fall on his head. Letting out a trapped breath, he stumbled to his feet.
Somehow he’d done it. He’d shot the roof in just the right place. Now there was a path of boulders and rocks leading up to the cavern above.
He checked the mound experimentally, climbing up it and darting his head into the room above before he went to get Ki.
One problem had just been solved, but a far greater one was looming. If he didn’t get Ki some proper medical help soon, she would likely die.
He’d carried her up the mound. Locked in his arms, they’d slipped with every step, but somehow he’d done it.
He’d also been right about the cavern. It was a shaft, with mining tracks dotted through it. More than that though, there was a ramshackle hut of sorts at one end. When Jackson had seen it, he’d placed her down and sprinted towards it.
Resting on the thankfully flat rock underneath her, she’d waited. Jackson had taken the gun with him, and the further away he’d run, the more the shadows had loomed over her. In the dark, she’d dared to pull her robe up and run her hands over her legs. They were painfully hot.
Seconds ticked on into minutes, but she couldn’t go over to find him; she could not walk. Any pressure on her legs felt like standing on white-hot coals.
So she waited.
Eventually he returned, that swinging blue light heading towards her through the massive cavern they were in.
It was far colder up here. Unlike in the caverns below, air moved through this shaft. It forced the bitter cold to bite harder at her bones. At least it served to cool down her legs though.
It also served one other purpose. It gave her hope. If the air was moving, it had to be going somewhere. Which meant this cavern could not be blocked off. There had to be a way in and out.
“Ki, you okay?” Jackson called out to her before he reached her.
His voice was so obviously filled with compassion that it made her want to choke.
How could this be the same man that had turned on her in the cavern just below them?
He seemed so different.
Warming her frigid fingers against her throbbing, hot legs, she tried to make sense of it.
Was she meant to trust him? Was it foolish to hope he could change?
Before she closed in on herself, before she yielded to her suspicions, a single thought stopped her.
This was not meant to be easy, and she should stop pretending it should be.
They were two people from two warring races, thrust together by nothing but circumstances. Trust would take time to build, it would also take sacrifices. It would be all too easy to conclude from his brutish behavior that he couldn’t be trusted. She would have to ignore all the times he’d saved her though.
Forming a bond with Jackson would not be like forming a friendship with an ordinary Tarkan. She would have to start accepting the trauma her people had inflicted on him. She would have to realize she couldn’t wipe it all away with a smile and a tale of legendary soldiers.
He finally reached her, his breath heavy and punctuated, echoing through the enormous cavern around them.
“I’ve found a map. It shows the shafts. I’ve also found some strong alcohol.”
“Jackson, I’ve told you—”
“I’m not going to make you drink it. It’s for your feet. We need to treat them. There’s a table back in the miners’ hut. There’s other tools and supplies too. Come on.” He leaned down to help her up.
His cheeks were flushed from action, his breath sharp and percussive from sprinting back to her. As she accepted his hand, she felt how warm it was compared to hers. Instead of yanking his fingers back, he laced them further into hers, supporting her as he turned around, leaning down. “You’ll have to get on my back; I won’t be able to carry you in my arms. It’s too far away.”
Awkward, wanting to say no, he told her to hurry up.
Pressing her lips together, she shifted forward, falling against him.
He grabbed hold of her legs and heaved her up. She yelped with surprise, locking her arms around his throat.
“Hey, I can’t breathe,” he pulled her arms back.
He didn’t say anything more. Just held onto her legs and pitched forward, jogging as fast as he could towards the mining hut.
She could see the ramshackle building more clearly as the light from the gun reached out to it.
Why they needed a hut underground, she didn’t know, though she guessed it would be a handy place to lock up supplies and keep the dust off any documents or supplies the miners would have to bring down with them.
As Jackson ran towards it, footsteps heavy and jolting through his body and into her tender legs, she distracted herself from the pain by staring up at the ceiling above. It had to be almost fifty meters away. This room really was cavernous.
Soon Jackson reached the hut, kicking open the door with his foot. The rifle swinging at his side, it sent waves of light washing over the room, illuminating snatches of a table, dusty documents, chests, and several broken oil lamps.
Jackson did not hesitate. He brought her to the table and let her down, turning and ducking over to one of the chests.
Her feet dangled over the edge as she watched him.
He ripped open one of the chests, using the butt of the gun to knock off an old rusted lock that was chained around it.
Rooting around, he snatched up a pick.
She shivered as he brought it towards her.
“Ki, I’m not going to hurt you,” he looked at her seriously.
“I know that,” she whispered back.
Nodding, he got down on his knees, clutching one of her legs securely. He brought the pick down and used it to try to cut through the fabric binding her feet.
“Why don’t you just untie them?” she tried to keep her leg as steady as she could. She could see how sharp that pick was; its edges glinting in the light.
“You’re feet have swollen too much. They are pushing against the knot. It will be impossible to untie. Just try to hold as still as you can.”
Gripping her hands onto the edge of the table, she did as he instructed, looking away so she didn’t have to watch.
Biting her lips as hard as she could, she waited for him to finish. The pain was unbearable.
As he managed to unwrap one foot, she heard the stone that had been her shoe fall to the ground.
Her leg immediately throbbed harder.
Digging her fingers into the table, the nails bending against the hard wood, she waited for him to untie the other.
He did it. Then he dropped the pick, jumping to his feet as he grabbed a bottle of light-colored liquid from on top of one of the many chests that dotted the room. Opening the cap, he smelt it, coughing suddenly. Wiping a hand against the back of his nose he nodded. “That should do it. Those miners definitely knew how to drink.”
Pulling down one of his rumpled sleeves, he made a cut in it with the pick and ripped off a large section. Then he dosed it in alcohol. “This is going to hurt like hell.” He shifted towards her hesitantly.
She managed a nod.
“Okay...” taking a deep, fortifying breath, he brought the cloth up to one of her feet. Wincing, he started to dab at it.
She screamed. She couldn’t help it. Blasting hot pain ripped through her legs.
“Just hold still,” he begged, locking her leg under his arm as he continued to clean the foot. “God, I’m sorry for dragging you through that field,” he added under his breath.
She couldn’t reply. She could hardly breathe. Crumpling her body in, squeezing her eyes shut, she waited for it to be over.
When it was, she felt him rise beside her. “It’s okay. It’s done....”
She winced open her eyes.
His expression was muddled and anxious. “We need to find a way out of here quickly.”
She looked down at her legs. They were pink and round. She couldn’t shift them up to look at the feet, despite the fact she was usually flexible. They were too turgid and stiff to move.
She understood what he meant.
“How are we going to...?” She couldn’t finish. There was nothing worth saying. They couldn’t get out of here, not soon enough. She was no doctor, but she understood basic biology and first aid. Her feet were infected. Combined with her fatigue, other injuries, dehydration, and lack of food, her chances were preciously slim.
It was a miracle she was still awake. If it hadn’t been for her desperate fight with Jackson, she would probably have slipped into unconsciousness long ago. She could feel its promise dulling her senses. Her mind was foggy, her body tied down by pain, her senses blunted.
It looked as if Jackson had been wrong after all. Giving up down there had been the sane thing to do. She was going to die anyway.
Shifting back, she struggled to bring her legs up onto the table, then she moved to lie down.
Jackson snapped forward and caught her shoulders before she could. “No, no, don’t give up.”
“It’s over, Jackson. I can’t move anymore. Just go. Leave me here. Save yourself,” her words became long and slurred as the promise of sleep drew closer.
“No,” he shook her gently. “Stay awake, stay with me. We have to find a way out of here. You see that map on the wall?” he turned her, shifting out of her way as he did.
She blinked its way, but her bleary eyes could hardly register anything.
“Ki, it’s a map of the tunnels, it will show us a way out of here.”
“Then what? No Ashkan hospital is going to treat me.”
She felt his grip falter as he held her. Then it firmed. “I’ll find a way to treat you. Just don’t give up.”
It was no longer an option. She began to black out.
The last thing she heard was Jackson calling her name.
Then she slipped away, back into the arms of a dreamless sleep.
Whether it would be her last was no longer up to her.
Like it or not, Jackson was her only hope.
He’d tried to rouse her. She would not wake.
“Come on, Ki,” he begged one final time.
She lay there, body limp, head lolled to the side. She didn’t even stir.
Mouth and throat suddenly dry, he took a step back, stumbling into the pick by his side. Tripping, he barely righted himself.
Yanking his gaze off her, he turned to face the chests by his feet. He virtually fell towards them, grabbing the pick and using it to pry back the locks. Frantic, he sought through the contents.
What did he expect to find? Antibiotics? Pain medication? Even if he did find them, they would no doubt be out-of-date.
Drugs would not be the solution. They needed to get out of here.
Stumbling to his feet, a wave of desperation hit him.
It would likely be too late for her. Even if he could snap his fingers and get her to a hospital, it would still be a battle to save her life.
There would be little the doctors could do for her but fight the infection and hope for the best....
He grabbed at his pocket, pulling the dead scanner from his belt where he’d fastened it. Turning it over in his grip, he jabbed at the buttons.
It did not turn on. At least it gave him an idea though.
A wild and frantic one.
If Ki had been right and she’d used one of those scanners to bring him back from the edge of death, then couldn’t he do the same for her? If he found another one of those devices, couldn’t he use it to heal her?
She was not at death’s door yet, or at least he prayed she wasn’t. He likely had a margin of several hours before her body gave up completely.
That gave him some time.
He could use the shafts, his gun, and the miner’s map to get back out to the ranges. Then he could head back to the cabin. It was a long shot, but if no one had come searching for those soldiers, they would still be there. Hell, as far as Jackson knew, they may still be trapped in that floating field. As long as no one had found them – either from the village or from their own race – Jackson might be able to locate one of their scanners.
It was a huge risk, but what else could he do?
Making his decision, he continued to search through the chests until he found some old cloths and rags. Propping up her head and covering her arms, he tried to make her as warm and comfortable as he could. Ripping the map off the wall, he walked backwards out of the door, turning from her only when he had to.
Then he ran. He didn’t care his right leg throbbed with pain. He just ran.
Every time he tripped or slowed down, he cursed his own fragility. It didn’t make him go any faster, but he couldn’t help it.
He blamed himself. There was every reason to. He’d handled this situation beyond badly; he’d acted like an emotional fool. Whether she was trustworthy or not, he should never have subjected Ki to such cruelty. If only he’d been smarter and better prepared, he would have got her shoes, forced her to take his own, even insisted on carrying her.
He hadn’t done any of those things, now she’d likely die because of it.
Hating himself, he pushed forward, thankful the floors of the mineshafts were much flatter than the cave system below. Periodically he would pause to check his map, even swing his gun up and check through the sight.
It was when he stopped momentarily to catch his breath that he swore he heard something. Narrowing his eyes, he lifted his face, noting with dull panic as tufts of rock dust drifted down from above.
Toting his gun immediately, he stepped back as he stared up through the sight.
He tried to make sense of the readings, tried to figure out if the outlines on the screen meant that something was moving up there.
More and more dust filtered down from above.
If the ceiling was about to fall, there was only one thing he could do. He would have no chance of out-running the cave in. He would have a chance of out-gunning it though.
Ensuring the gun was set to its maximum energy setting, he brought it up and pointed it at the jagged rocks.
Shooting at an unstable rock ceiling was not usually recommended, but with this gun he could turn the stones and boulders to dust. Dust would not kill him.
Checking through the scope one last time, his body took over. Finger twitching over the trigger, he shot the ceiling.
An impossibly powerful, continuous blast erupted from the gun, pulsing into the rocks above and all but melting the stone.
Tracking backwards, Jackson jerked the gun down, waiting for the worst.
He did not get what he expected.
Instead of a hail of rock slamming into him, something large and white fell from above. He’d obviously blasted a hole through the ceiling into another shaft, and whatever had been up there had just fallen down.
He had less than a second to recognize the shape.
It was a soldier. One of the scouts that had been hounding his steps for the past day.
Though the man fell down from a considerable height, and though the floor had been shot right out from underneath his feet, he still jumped up, rushing towards Jackson with break-neck speed.
Jackson didn’t have time to react. The soldier slammed into him, knocking him hard against the rock wall of the shaft behind.
Breath punched from his lungs, Jackson spluttered, trying to clutch at the soldier’s face and push him back.
The man was stronger. He elbowed Jackson hard in the middle, then brought his arm up.
As he did, Jackson managed to squeeze his gun up, angling it between them. It was locked flat against his chest though, and he didn’t have the room to turn it around to face the soldier.
Jackson was out of time.
Ready for the inevitable, he stiffened.
The soldier clutched his hand into a fist, one of those glinting white blades slashing out of his armor. He stabbed it towards Jackson’s stomach.
All Jackson could do was move the gun up.
The soldier’s blade slashed right into it. Not into Jackson’s stomach, but the glowing blue barrel of the gun.
Surprise rippled through the soldier’s stance, his shoulder jerking back, the gun stuck against his blade.
Jackson instinctively dropped to his knees, rolling to the side, scrabbling forward as fast as he could.
He heard a high-pitched whir from behind him.
Dashing forward, he jumped behind a boulder, crumpling his arms over his head.
The gun exploded with an ear-shaking blast.
Crumpling further, Jackson curled up into a ball.
The shaft shook, dust hailed down from above, but that was it.
Peering up, he leaned past the boulder to see the soldier lying limp on the floor, at least five meters from where he’d forced Jackson against the wall.
Heart pounding in his ears, it took Jackson far too long to realize what had just happened.
He’d been handed a miracle.
He moved over to the soldier, poking him with his foot.
The man did not move.
Snapping down, Jackson grabbed at the soldier’s wrist, trying to pull the scanner from his armor.
With much effort, he eventually found a hidden button, and the thing sprung forward. Snatching it up, he instantly turned it towards the ceiling above. Though these things had a limited range around all this rock, it still penetrated the roof above far enough to confirm there was nothing else moving up there. Obviously this soldier had been scouting out that tunnel on his own.
Jackson doubted the other soldiers would be far off though.
Grabbing at the gun that had been knocked from the soldier’s grip, he secured the strap over his shoulder, standing up, head swiveling towards the ceiling and back down to the soldier.
Jackson had to get back to Ki, but he needed to ensure no one would follow. He had to get this soldier out of scanning and visual range. If his buddies came along, they would know something was up if they saw the smashed up gun and the comatose form of their comrade.
Latching a hand onto the soldier’s arm, Jackson heaved him back, out of sight of the hole above.
He wasn’t as heavy as he looked. With armor that thick and sophisticated, Jackson had thought the guy would weigh a ton.
Clenching his jaw, he dragged the soldier for several meters until he had to stop for breath. As he did, the soldier’s head lolled to the side. His neck banged lightly into Jackson’s boot. There was a sudden hiss, and that faceless helmet released.
Doubling back, releasing the soldier’s arm in shock, Jackson quickly leaned down, grabbed the helmet, and pulled it off.
He was shocked to see a normal man underneath. Or maybe he wasn’t. He’d had no idea what to expect.
Probably the same age as Jackson, he was clean shaven with a dark, short crop of hair.
Marveling at the helmet, Jackson turned it around and looked inside. There was a sophisticated screen that showed a perfect view of the tunnel around him with strange readings and symbols displayed alongside and over the top.
It was incredible.
It was so incredible that he did not notice the soldier stir by his feet until it was too late. The man snapped up again, launching himself at Jackson. But his moves were slower than before.
Jackson dodged to the side, swinging the gun around and shooting the soldier instantly.
Though a beam lanced out, it was lighter in color and did not sear the air. It struck the soldier’s chest and knocked him to his knees, but it did not fell him.
“It’s not set to kill, idiot,” the soldier leapt up.
Jackson doubled back, digging his fingers into the power button Ki had showed him. Instantly the gun whirred hotter and brighter, its light reaching out far into the shaft around them.
Staring down the barrel he blasted a shot just in front of the soldier, eating out a chunk of ground and making the man trip into it. “It is now,” Jackson shifted back, bringing the gun down and aiming it at the man’s head.
The soldier did not jump to his feet. He paused, only his eyes shifting as he stared up at Jackson warily.
“Get up,” Jackson kicked at the ground, sending a cloud of dust towards the soldier.
Turning his head and closing his mouth, the man didn’t shift his gaze.
“I said get to your feet,” Jackson shot the ground again.
Finally the soldier moved. He brought his hands up, that white armor stark against his now dirty skin.
He immediately glanced at the helmet.
Jackson had dropped it in surprise. Now the soldier couldn’t keep his eyes off it.
He looked like he was about to make a move for it.
Jackson got their first, he turned his gun and shot it.
The thing exploded.
The soldier swore loudly, but withdrew into silence when Jackson shot near his feet again.
“I may not understand your technology, but somehow I feel you need that to stay in contact with the rest of your team,” Jackson guessed.
His guess was confirmed when the soldier paled and swallowed stiffly.
“Move,” Jackson swept the rifle towards his side.
“Why? You think you can take me prisoner?” the soldier had a deep, croaky baritone.
“No. I think you can help me operate this scanner though.” Jackson walked over to the scanner and plucked it up protectively, jamming it into his belt.
“Our technology is beyond you.” The soldier’s lips stiffened into a cold smile.
“I don’t care. Now move.” Jackson indicated the tunnel with a swipe of his gun.
“We’ll find her.” The soldier, still with his hands up, rested them behind his head.
“Shut up. Just move.”
Standing a full two meters behind the man, Jackson forced the soldier forward at gunpoint.
His heart beat so fast and hard in his chest it felt as if he’d shatter his ribs. He held on though, shepherding the soldier all the way back into the main shaft and towards Ki.
The soldier didn’t say a word, and hopefully he wasn’t using some silent form of communication to radio the rest of his team. It was a gamble taking him back to Ki, but Jackson had no choice. He had no idea how to make the scanner heal her, and he doubted he could rouse her long enough to make her show him.
The soldier would do it. Somehow Jackson doubted the guy would mind either. Ki was what they were after, so they weren’t going to let her die.
When they entered the mine hut, his suspicions were confirmed. The soldier let out a harsh swearword, his head snapping towards the comatose, still form of Ki. Her legs were bright red while her exposed arms and face were white.
“What the hell have you done to her?” the soldier turned, hands dropping from behind his head, face plastered with sharp anger.
“Stay back,” Jackson pointed the gun at the man’s chest.
“You have no idea what you’re meddling in,” the soldier spat louder. “If she dies—”
“She’s not going to die. You’re going to save her. She said you can use these scanners to create some kind of healing field,” Jackson plucked the device from his belt, sure never to drop his gun.
The soldier looked down at it, gaze flickering.
“I’m no idiot. I know if I give this to you, you’ll find some way to use it against me,” Jackson propped the gun into his shoulder, damping down on the pain that surged through his back as he aggravated his injuries.
“Give me the scanner,” the soldier held out his hand.
“I’m not going to let you—”
“You haven’t thought this through, have you?”
“Shut up,” Jackson snapped, sweat starting to track down his brow and back.
“She’s going to die unless you give me that scanner. Now hand it over,” the soldier spat, gaze darting between Ki and Jackson. While there was a nervous edge to his look, his jaw was still locked with hardened rage.
Though he hated to admit it, Jackson clearly had not thought this through. He’d been too distracted by the soldier and his scanner falling from the sky to come up with a sound plan.
“She’ll die,” the soldier repeated, shifting forward. “If she’s not already dead. Do something.”
Jolting back, Jackson blanched.
He had to do something. He’d risked it all to get one of those scanners, and providence had seen one land in his lap.
It would cost him to use it though.
Probably his life.
The second he gave the scanner to the soldier was the second he’d be condemning himself. If that scanner could produce a field that could heal someone, no doubt it could do the opposite, too.
“Every second you waste, you’re killing her,” the soldier held out his hand further.
Yes. Jackson knew that.
“Hand me the scanner,” the soldier shouted viciously.
Jackson had no choice. If he wanted her to live, he had to hand it over.
He lowered his gun slightly.
The soldier smiled.
Just as Jackson got ready to hand him the scanner, Ki moved.
He almost dropped his gun. If its strap hadn’t been hooked over his shoulder he would have.
Restless, she shifted her head, bringing her hand up and pushing into her face.
“Ki,” he shouted at her, backing off, keeping enough range between his gun and the soldier so the man couldn’t jump him. “Ki, Ki, for the love of god, wake up.”
She stirred further, then drew quiet.
“Ki,” he shouted as loud as he could.
She opened her eyes. “What... what...?”
“You need to use this scanner to heal yourself. Ki, listen to my voice.” He shifted towards her, gesturing at the soldier to move right back. Never turning from the man, Jackson reached behind and grabbed at her arm, shaking it.
“What are you doing...? Jackson?” she mumbled, voice slurred and hardly audible.
“You need to use the scanner to heal yourself,” he repeated, handing her the scanner without ever turning from the soldier. “Ki, you can do this. You’ve done it before.”
He heard her drop the scanner against the table. Instantly he grabbed it and shoved it towards her again.
She took it from him.
Pressure building in his chest, he never shifted his gaze from the soldier. The look of immanent victory was gone from the man’s face. Eyes narrowed, he looked desperate.
“Ki, please.” Jackson clutched behind him, finding her hand, trying to guide it to the controls of the scanner.
“She gets that wrong, she could kill us all,” the soldier nodded down at Ki, his move sharp, his neck muscles tight and bulging. He shifted his arm up as he did.
Jackson flicked the power level on the gun to half-way and shot just at his feet.
The explosion startled Ki, and she dropped the scanner again. Jackson grabbed it and forced it against her immediately, keeping his gun and gaze locked on the soldier.
“Put your hands up. Not behind your head. Where I can see them,” Jackson snapped at the man.
A dark look drawing down his eyes, the soldier complied with a frustrated, bitter chuckle. “How long do you think you can keep her from us? We’ve got dozens of scout ships out after her. We won’t give her up without a fight. You’ve got one stolen gun and a scanner you don’t know how to use. How long do you think you’ll last?”
“Why are you helping her anyway, didn’t you tie her to a chair?
“I said shut up,” Jackson redoubled his grip on the gun. It was torture trying to divide his attention between Ki and the soldier. He kept one hand on the gun, the other on the table close to her, ready in case she dropped the scanner yet again.
“I’m telling you, she could kill us all with that thing. She’s half dead, she has no idea what she’s doing. Do you want her to die? Think.”
Jackson didn’t reply this time, he just locked a deep breath into his lungs and tried to keep control.
If Ki blacked out again, he would have to do something.
That something would be to hand the soldier the scanner. There would be no other way.
“Ki, how are you going? Are you still awake?” He leant back into the table.
She didn’t answer.
He heard the scanner drop against the table. His heart dropped with it.
Before he could snatch it up, he felt something warm push against his skin.
It wasn’t Ki. Some kind of energy field erupted out from the scanner, encasing the room.
As it washed over him, he instantly felt warm. Every sensation of pain or disquiet lifted and floated away.
It was intoxicating. He’d never felt so comfortable in his life.
As he relaxed into it, relishing it, he remembered something.
Ki had told him she’d removed herself from the effects of the field. The field sounded as though it would heal anyone within it. By remaining here he’d be sapping energy from it, energy that could be used to heal her.
He nodded at the soldier, gesturing towards the door. “Get outside. Move slowly.”
Half turning, ensuring both the scanner and Ki were still safely on the table, he followed the man outside.
Then he waited.
Safely away from the radius of the field, he told the soldier to sit. Never dropping his guard and never lowering his gun, he hunkered down.
“How long will it take?” he tried to ask the soldier.
The man would not answer.
“Fine. We’ll just wait.”
So they did.
Fortunately the field hummed, and he could monitor it just by listening. As time wound on, its distinctive buzz became quieter and quieter.
It took almost an hour, but finally the field cut out completely.
Pushing up, his knees crunching, he moved back. “Stay there,” he warned the soldier. Backing off, he reached the door of the hut. “Ki,” he called out, not turning to face her. “Ki.”
She didn’t answer.
Gritting his teeth, he took another step back. “Ki? Are you alright?”
He couldn’t help it, he turned to see if she was there.
The soldier moved, like damn lightning, quicker than Jackson could react to.
Before he could get off a shot, the soldier rammed into his side, knocking him against the door.
Jackson fell to the ground, the wind knocked out of him. He watched the soldier jump down, saw his arm yank back, his fist slam closed, and that blade plunge out.
Jackson had seconds.
As the soldier stabbed his hand forward, something moved in from the side.
Ki. She collapsed over Jackson.
The soldier’s blade stopped just before her back.
Jackson acted before he really understood what had just happened. He kicked out at the blade knocking it up. As he did, he brought his gun around and shot the soldier.
The blast slammed into his chest plating, sending him scooting back across the floor.
He doubted the shot was enough to kill the guy, but he was certainly down.
“Ki,” he grabbed her up.
Still scrunched up over him, her face was close enough for him to see every detail of her expression.
The light was back in her cheeks, that twinge of fire once again burning in her eyes.
“You’re alive. God, the scanner worked.” He brought a hand up to rest against her cheek and barely stopped himself in time. Swallowing at how instinctual the move had been, he shifted back, staring down at her legs.
As they popped out of the bottom of her robe, he saw they were no longer swollen and turgid.
They looked almost normal. A little pink maybe, the infection seemed all but gone.
She was very much alive.
He wanted to hug her, clutch her close, even though several hours ago he’d thought she’d tried to kill him and had sabotaged the scanner.
She had just saved him. By throwing herself in front of that soldier’s blade, she’d gambled her own life but saved his.
“I can’t believe it,” his hand still hovered close by her face. He had to continually fight the urge to touch her cheeks and cradle her close. “The scanner healed you. You were so sick....”
“Do you believe me now?” she leaned up, sitting on her haunches, still close enough that he could hear her every breath.
“Yeah, yeah I do,” he spoke through a heavy sigh, a genuine smile spreading his lips.
She held his gaze for a moment. Her expression was warm at first, but quickly grew awkward as her cheeks flushed. Turning sharply, she stared over at the soldier. “Is he—”
“I doubt it. They seem to be able to live through anything. Plus, the gun was at half power.” Jackson got to his feet, reluctantly moving away from her.
She followed him, standing easily.
She didn’t waver. She didn’t stumble to the side. She stood effortlessly.
It was as if she’d never been injured.
It had cost them another scanner, but it was more than worth it.
Walking over to the soldier, Jackson toted the gun and stared down the scope.
“What are you doing?” she latched a hand on the barrel, forcing it down. “You can’t kill him—”
“Relax. I’m just using the scope’s scanners to check on him. If these are right... and if I know what I’m doing,” Jackson shifted past her, “I think he’s fine. Out, but alive. We’re all alive, apparently,” he added through an emotional laugh.
“Thank you,” she said after a long pause.
He looked at her, but he couldn’t hold her gaze. Staring at her feet, he nodded. “I guess that makes us even.”
There was another long pause.
“How did you find this soldier?”
“I prayed for a miracle, and I got him. He fell out of the sky and into my lap.”
“What?” her face screwed up with confusion.
“Long story, basically he was in the shaft above me.”
She tensed, her once-loose shoulders locking up. “You mean there’s more?”
“Probably. I think I managed to stop him from getting off any kind of distress call. I shot his helmet. I’m pretty sure his communications were embedded in it. Plus, the composition of these tunnels has not changed. They’re still way too dense for their scanners to penetrate far. Perhaps it affects their coms too. I don’t know. I’m prepared for anything, but so far we’ve had no company.”
“We should get out of here,” she jerked her head along the tunnel, the move nervous and quick.
“Yes we should.” He didn’t move.
“Jackson,” she jerked her head harder in the direction of the tunnel.
“We can’t just leave him here. We’re going to take him with us.”
“What?” Ki dropped her hand from the muzzle of his gun and lurched back. “That’s suicide. They’ll track us down.”
“Not if we take his armor off. Listen, I’m not stupid. I’m sure they have some way of tracking him. As soon as we get him out of these tunnels and into the open air, the Zeneethians will catch us in their air ships. I’m sure his armor is probably riddled with tracking devices. We’ll have to take it off, leave it behind. But we need to take him with us. The information he’ll be able to tell us will be invaluable. Without it, we’ll have no idea who we’re up against...” he trailed off.
Ki’s expression had completely changed. With a flickering look of vulnerability misting her eyes, she brought a hand up to her lips and locked it over her shaking smile.
She shook her head, her hair twisting and playing over her shoulders.
“What? Ki, this is a serious matter.”
“I know it is, Jackson. But it’s the first time you’ve used their name. It’s nice that you finally believe me.”
“Used whose name? What are you—” he stopped. Playing back his words, he realized what he’d said.
“I still don’t believe,” he began. Then he stopped again, eyes instinctively drifting down to the comatose soldier by his side.
She waited for him, not saying a word, gaze keen and expectant.
Straightening his shoulders, locking a hand on his jaw and pushing the crooked fingers into his chin, he finally nodded. “Maybe I do believe it’s the Zeneethians. Maybe I don’t have any other explanation for a group of soldiers with guns that can shoot through mountains, ships that can hover in the sky, rocks that can make you levitate, and hand-held devices that can bring you back from the dead.”
She was smiling, but it was unlike any expression she’d shown before. It was a complex, uncertain move.
It cut away at his indecision like an axe at a tree. “Alright. I believe you,” his voice was firmer this time, because his belief was. I’m not sure I can stomach the fact the Zeneethians have whole flying cities they are keeping from us, but I’m willing to be proved wrong.”
She almost looked proud of him. With the color back to her cheeks, she glowed, her smooth skin pushing up against her dark eyes.
“Right,” he cleared his throat suddenly. “Let’s get going. I want you to lean down and try to take that guy’s armor off. He’s going to think twice about harming you. Me, he’ll just stab in the heart the first chance he gets.”
Her glowing cheeks slumped and she raised her eyebrow in disgust. “Stab me through the heart?”
“No, stab me through the heart. Now I imagine there’s some kind of latch behind his neck, turn him over and see.”
“Are you sure this is a good idea? Shouldn’t we just leave him here? Won’t they be more likely to come after us if we have one of their own captive?” She got down on her knees and hesitantly placed her hand on the soldier’s shoulder. When he didn’t move, she flicked Jackson a nervous look then finally shifted the soldier over, searching his back with a quick and delicate hand.
Watching her move, Jackson instinctively pressed his fingers into his shoulder. She’d been holding it when he’d woken from the cave in. Whatever she’d been doing had felt like heaven.
The thought making him uncomfortable, he cleared his throat again, trying to concentrate on her words instead. “They are going to come after us regardless of whether we bring him along or not. They’ll do anything to get their hands on you, that isn’t going to change. But if we have him, we can try to find out what’s going on here. If we hand him over to the Ashkan High Command—”
Ki stiffened, jerking her hands back. “You’re going to torture him?”
“I didn’t say that. But you need to understand that the information this man has could mean the difference between us winning a war or losing—”
“We aren’t at war, Jackson. The Zeneethians have no interest in us.”
“They had enough of an interest in you to track you down and kidnap you. How do you know there aren’t more like you? Were there others in the facility? Even if there weren’t, that doesn’t confirm anything. We don’t know anything about their intentions, and until we can find that information out, we need to be prepared for everything. And yes, that means we have to expect a war.”
She didn’t look happy; her eyes narrowed, and she sucked her lips into a thin and tight frown.
“I won’t let them torture him though. We’re not monsters, Ki.” Jackson swallowed, wiping a hand over his sweaty top lip.
He’d just lied. Whether this man would be tortured or not was not up to him.
Watching him warily for a moment, she finally continued to inspect the soldier. After several seconds, she placed her hand onto the middle of his back. With a sharp hiss, something released, the armor suddenly coming loose in large sections.
“Be careful,” he nodded down slowly, checking the scope’s scanners again just to ensure the man was still unconscious.
“I think he’ll be unconscious for some time yet,” she placed a hand on the man’s shoulder as she pulled away a section of the armor. He was wearing a thin grey shirt, and as Ki removed the white panels from his leg, she revealed black pants.
It was a relief. If the man had been wearing some futuristic silver skin-tight suit, it would have been hard to get him to the capital city unnoticed.
“Throw the armor over there,” he nodded to a patch of rock several meters away. It was sufficiently out of reach that if the soldier suddenly woke he wouldn’t be able to run to it before Jackson got off a shot.
When Ki finished, she knelt down, turned the comatose body of the man around, and straightened up his limbs, clearly trying to make him comfortable.
Jackson stopped himself from pointing out that soldier had been hunting her relentlessly and did not deserve her compassion.
She would fight him on that fact.
Standing, she took a slow breath and turned. “What do we do now? Wait until he wakes? Won’t that leave us exposed?”
“What we do,” Jackson’s jaw twitched to the side, “is you pick up the pick from the hut behind us.”
“... What am I going to do with it?”
“Relax, like I said, we’re going to keep him alive. But we need to check something first. While I’m pretty darn sure that armor of his is rigged with tracking devices, I wouldn’t put it past those Zeneethians to have imbedded one of those small chip devices in this man either. Just like they did to you.”
She bristled, cheeks turning so pale they looked like new snow. “I’m not going to mutilate this man looking for one of those.”
“Just check the arm. That’s it. I don’t want you to cut this guy up either, but we need to check. I don’t see why they would implant those things in different places. If it was just under the skin of your left forearm, maybe it’s the same for him. Just check.”
Frowning deeply, she got down to her knees and pulled up the soldier’s arm tenderly. Pushing her fingers into his forearm, she checked it thoroughly.
“I doubt that’s going to work. That thing was small—” Jackson began.
She put up a hand quickly in a commanding move. “I’ve found something. It’s in the same place, same size.”
Without another word she got up, retrieved the pick and nestled down next to the soldier.
Taking a calm breath, she found the chip again, then brought the pick up.
“Careful, the shock might wake him,” Jackson spoke through a locked jaw, voice muffled.
Working quickly she made a small cut, prying back the flesh and removing the device with her fingers. Her hands didn’t tremble, and her gaze was steady and calm.
She placed the pick next to her, carefully dropping the chip next to it. Wiping her bloodied hands on her robe, she proceeded to use the pick to help her rip off yet another section. If she kept on squaring off chunks of it like that, she’d soon have nothing left.
Leaning down, she propped up the soldier’s arm and began to wind the bandage around the fresh, oozing wound.
She didn’t get to finish.
The man woke with a start, jolting up into a seated position.
Ki gasped, but did not scream. Neither did she scuttle back and try to get away from the man. Instead she snapped her arms up, locking her fingers deep into the man’s shoulders.
“Ki, get back from him,” Jackson tracked to the side, trying to get a clear aim. When Ki had moved forward she’d gotten in the way.
The soldier, wide eyed, did not snap forward and grab Ki. Instead, a vein in his head began to throb, his neck and face stiffened.
It was as if he couldn’t move.
“Ki, get back,” Jackson snapped again, desperate.
“It’s okay.” She tensed her fingers further, her knuckles white.
The soldier was still frozen, that vein in his head raised and throbbing.
She moved off carefully, hands hovering around his shoulders as her gaze searched him.
“Just get back,” Jackson leaned down and pulled her away, even though he was risking it by coming in so close to the soldier. The man could have lashed out, kicked, or tackled Jackson to the ground.
Yet he didn’t. The soldier sat there, back ramrod straight, arms locked beside him.
“What... what did you do to him?” Jackson’s mouth dropped open as he realized the soldier was not acting. The man couldn’t move.
Ki wiped her hands on her robe and neatened her hair over one shoulder, holding onto it with a tight grip. She looked uncomfortable at what she’d just done, but after a deep breath, she loosened up. “I activated certain pressure points. They are usually used for relieving pain. But if you over stimulate, you can lock the muscles up.”
Jackson’s brow twitched down as he stared at her uncomfortably. “What—”
“I told you, the priestess clan safeguards powerful and ancient techniques.” Her head straightened, her neck elongating.
“I thought you just meant massage and a bit of meditation. Not... whatever you just did to him.” Jackson scratched at his neck and gave a harsh breath.
“You should try harder to believe me then. You’ll find yourself having fewer nasty surprises.” She wouldn’t look at him, her head still held up proudly.
“Is he... going to be like that forever?”
“Of course not. The effects should wear off very soon.” She took a neat step back.
Jackson followed, damping down on his surprise and raising his gun. “Alright, you try anything,” he pointed the muzzle at the soldier and nodded sharply, “and I’ll shoot you.”
The soldier’s eyes shifted to the left slowly, his gaze dark.
Perhaps this would not turn out to be a good idea. While Jackson could appreciate how important this man’s information might be, it would come at a risk. The man was still a highly-trained soldier, and given the opportunity would finish Jackson off and kidnap Ki.
As promised, after a short time, the man began to move. At first his muscles twitched, his body convulsing forward uncontrollably. It quickly stopped though, and with a measured, short breath, he stretched out his broad shoulders and cracked his neck.
“Get up,” Jackson gestured at him with the gun. “You’re coming with us?”
The soldier didn’t stand. Instead he turned and set his gaze on Ki.
The man’s expression was unreadable. It made her shudder back though, pushing her hands up her arms and locking them around her middle.
“I said get up.” Jackson kicked at the ground.
“I heard you.” The man stood. Though his muscles twitched, he controlled himself, his expression one of cold, over-trained malevolence.
“What’s your name?” Ki asked in a quiet voice.
The soldier would not answer, Jackson knew that. He was going to give nothing away, not unless he was compelled to with force. Her quiet voice and soft demeanor would not be sufficient impetus.
“Max,” the soldier answered.
Jackson’s eyes narrowed. “Why are you telling us this?”
“Because she asked,” Max did not look at Jackson as he spoke. He simply smiled at Ki.
“A good soldier doesn’t give up information unless he has to,” Jackson ground his teeth.
“What do you know about being a good soldier?” Max turned his head towards Jackson but only slowly shifted his gaze.
It was a patently threatening move.
Bristling, Jackson stiffened his grip, ready for anything.
“Jackson, we should leave,” Ki kept on rubbing her arms, her eyes no higher than the soldier’s knee.
“There’s no point. Don’t go anywhere with this man. He’ll get you killed,” Max shifted his attention back to Ki, his demeanor altering dramatically. There was a cowed, almost awed edge to his gaze, yet he never lost his professionalism.
She didn’t reply.
“Get up and shut up,” Jackson snapped his head forward. “Ki, go find something in the hut to tie this guy’s hands with. Rummage around for supplies too. We have a long trek ahead of us.”
“It won’t be that long. These mine shafts are riddled with other scouts. You’ll never make it out.”
“Riddled, ha? How come they haven’t found us yet?” Jackson growled. “Ki, hurry up,” he called out for good measure. While he really didn’t want to trust Max, Jackson could still appreciate how perilous their current situation was.
“What’s your interest in this, Jackson Walker? You’re nothing but a small-time scientist working at the Royal Academy. You fought in the last Ashkan and Tarkan war. You despise those people. You know she’s one of them, right?” Max casually picked at the bandage around his arm, fiddling with it before tightening it easily with one hand.
Jackson’s skin chilled, a numb sensation spilling through his chest. “How do you know all that?”
Max ticked his head to the side, that infuriating, arrogant smile still twisting up his cheeks. “Who do you think you’re dealing with? We know everything about you. Ki,” he called out, voice deep and rumbling, “do you know Jackson Walker here once stormed a Tarkan Monastery? His unit left nine dead. Now what else? Oh yeah, you marched in the rallies against handing the Torta Province back to the Tarkan Government. Those rallies disabled the peace talks that led to the last war. Ki, do you know who you’re dealing with here?”
Jackson barely stopped himself from snapping forward and smashing the butt of his gun into Max’s smug face.
“Are you just going to stand there and let me drive a rift between you two?” Max laughed callously. “I thought you knew what a good soldier was? Face it, you’re losing hold of this situation already. Let me go, I’ll take Ki, and you’ll never hear from us again. You won’t like your other options.”
“Really? I kind of like the idea of gagging you; I think that’s a great option. Ki, if you find anything in there that can be used as a gag, bring it on out,” Jackson smiled, twitching his top lip up until his teeth showed.
“You have no idea what you’re doing—” the soldier began.
“But I’m still the guy holding the gun. So unless you want me to knock you out again, I suggest you shut up. Keep all your talk for the Ashkan Government.”
“You want to make enemies of a superior race who outstrips you technologically, physically, and intellectually, go ahead. But shouldn’t you ask the rest of your people first? You realize any war with my kind would be over in less than a day? We’d black out your communications, shut down your power stations, take out your highways, and disable your ships within an hour. You would be worse than helpless; you’d be entirely at our mercy. Think about who you are making enemies with here, Jackson Walker.” Max straightened up, bracing his shoulders and shifting his neck from side to side. His expression was one of calm, smug superiority.
“Ki, you almost done in there?” Jackson deliberately did not react to Max’s taunts. Instead he shifted back, leaning on one foot as he peered over into the open doorway of the hut. He was sure to keep his attention split, half of it focused on Max, half of it on her.
“I’m almost done. I’ve found a pack,” mumbling, voice muffled, she appeared at the doorway hefting an old canvas bag. It was covered in dust, and as she dragged it along the ground, it kicked up a cloud of it. Batting at it, coughing heartily, she tugged it over to him.
It looked heavy. She’d obviously packed away everything she’d found. One of his eyebrows twitching up, he watched her uncomfortably as she tried to heft it up but failed.
“It’s kind of heavy,” she admitted.
“Yeah, he can carry it,” Jackson pointed at Max.
“You really are a good soldier. Letting your enemy carry all your supplies. Tell me, how did you even make it through the last war? Your fiancée didn’t, did she?” Max’s words were slow and clear. He obviously wanted Jackson to hear every one of them. “You couldn’t protect her from a Tarkan sniper, how are you going to protect yourself from me?”
Before he could react, Ki dropped the pack and ran in front of Max. Not close enough that the soldier could snap forward and grab her, but near enough to Jackson’s gun that he wouldn’t be able to get off a clean shot.
She put her hands up slowly. “Jackson, he’s going to try everything he can to destabilize you. He’ll know everything about you. They knew everything about me. Just don’t... do anything stupid.”
His cheeks were burning red, his hands slicked with sweat. All he wanted to do was dodge to her side and tackle Max to the ground.
She held his gaze though, her hands still reached out before her. “You want this guy alive, remember?”
“Gag him and tie his hands up now. If he tries anything, paralyze him like you did last time.” Jackson stood back, flicking his gun down to one of the lower settings. Then he watched and waited as Ki followed his orders. His shoulders were so tensed that the twinge in his back and side stabbed and throbbed.
He ignored it, a bead of sweat dripping down between his eyes as he stared along the scope of the gun at Max.
Ki worked quickly. She fixed the straps of the pack over Max’s shoulders, standing as far back from him as she could, a thankfully wary look on her face. When it came time to tie the guy’s hands, Jackson walked over and practically rested his gun against Max’s head. If he tried anything, he wouldn’t have long.
Max stared up at Ki as she worked, that strange, awed expression back. From the reflected light of the gun, Jackson could not see too much because it was set to one of its lowest settings. He recognized that tight, expectant look though.
Just why were these Zeneethians after Ki? What could she do for them that they would risk so much to get her back?
After she’d finished tying the man’s hands with a strip of long, dusty leather, she bit into her lip and scrunched her nose up.
She clearly did not want to gag him. As a priestess, it was unlikely that kind of thing had ever come up before.
“It’s fine. Find a strip of fabric or something. He’ll be okay,” Jackson assured her softly.
“Nothing’s clean enough. They’re all covered in grease or blood or decades of rock dust. Just don’t let him get to you.”
“Ki,” Jackson forced his teeth together, the enamel grating loudly through his jaw, “I can’t put up with him talking.”
“Thanks for letting me know. Getting rid of you is going to be easier than I thought,” Max chuckled.
Ki took a step back. She did not look happy, but she leaned down to the backpack. Rummaging through it, she produced a strip of fabric. Cleaning it against her robe fastidiously, she tied it around Max’s mouth. Her movements were slow and timid. Through it all, Max watched her closely.
That keen attention of his made Jackson want to throw up. He doubted the man could fake the reverence smoothing his brow and stiffening his jaw. It felt too organic to be an act.
On edge, Jackson waited until Ki had finished before he gave the order to move out. Despite the manifestly heavy pack on Max’s shoulders, he stood easily. He didn’t wobble to the side, neither did his knees crunch as he forced them to pivot forward. He simply straightened as if the weight were nothing more than a feather lightly touching his shoulder.
With one last look back up the shaft, Jackson turned. Without an operable scanner, he would have to chart his path using nothing but the map he’d ripped from the hut’s wall. He grabbed it out of his pocket periodically, propping up the tattered back with his other hand as he tracked a scratched fingertip over the path they’d have to take.
As they walked, he never let his guard drop. He didn’t let the gun drop to his side either; he kept it locked into his shoulder and only lowered it when he had to use both hands to navigate through a narrower section of tunnel.
They had to be very careful. Who knew how many other Zeneethians were dotted through these tunnels. While he hoped they had not penetrated this far, he had to be prepared for anything.
They travelled in near silence. Their footfall and the occasional drip of water were the only sounds to filter around them.
At their current pace, it would take them a little over 24 hours to make it to the other side. When and if they did, the next stage of their journey would begin. If packs of wolves, Zeneethian scout parties, and two near-death experiences were bad, Jackson knew what would await them next could only be worse.
Their trek through the mineshafts had been long, dark, and arduous. Despite the fact she had only recently been healed by the scanner, all too soon dehydration and hunger descended. There was something uniquely hellish about being stuck so far underground with no food, no water, and hardly any light. She had spent most of the journey praying, simply to keep her mind off the close, gloomy touch of the walls around her.
It had also helped her to ignore him. The Zeneethian scout, Max as he called himself, could not keep his eyes off her. Though Jackson made him walk between them, at every opportunity the soldier turned to face her. With an unreadable expression his gaze would dart all over her, as if he was continually checking she was alive.
Every time he did it a quick and sharp nausea would wash over her. She would have to clutch a hand firmly onto her stomach to calm her nerves.
Jackson hardly let them stop. They rested for only brief spurts, and though he let her sleep, he would never allow himself a second to close his eyes.
After untold hours, she saw and felt a change in the shafts. The dank, musty smell that had itched her nose and throat since entering this cave system lifted. The tunnel they were in started to rise too, subtly at first, soon it led to a dramatic incline.
With an almost fresh breeze playing at her cheeks and forehead, she smiled for the first time in days. After a little less than an hour, their tunnel suddenly widened, and after a sharp turn they walked into the light.
It spilled in from a large opening ahead. Though she wanted to run out and embrace the sunshine beyond like a long lost child returning home, Jackson hadn’t let her.
“Keep down, stay low, keep quiet. We need to ensure there’s no one around the entrance. The Zeneethians might have left scouts there.” Jackson crouched, lodging the gun against the side of a jagged rock as he peered around the wall.
Though she wanted to ignore him, she followed his command and pushed her back up against the rock behind her.
She doubted the exit was seething with scouts; they hadn’t seen a single sign of them since Jackson had found Max. She appreciated the need to be careful though.
Cautiously, Jackson had given the all-clear after thoroughly assessing the cave mouth with the scope of his rifle. In single file they’d moved forward, Jackson at the lead.
They were not leaving through one of the common exits. According to Jackson, who had studied the mine map obsessively, this cave mouth had hardly been used. Though it would not lead them straight onto an accessible Ashkan road they could easily follow to the capital, at least it offered them less chance of walking straight into the arms of a unit of Zeneethian Scouts.
As soon as Jackson had given the all-clear to exit the tunnel, Ki’s heart had soared. The oppressive, smothering feel of being locked up underground burnt up in the sunshine as it warmed her cheeks and face.
“Stay low,” Jackson reminded her several times as they walked out onto the side of a hill.
The sun was high in the sky, darkened by only a scant number of fleeting white clouds. There was a glorious light breeze pushing its way up the slope towards them, rushing into the cave mouth behind.
While the other side of the mountain had been nothing but scrubby foliage, pine trees, boulders, and scree, the land opening up before her was lush and green. Grassy hills rolled down to a town, a network of grey roads curling around it and out of sight.
Turning behind her, she stared into the cave mouth, almost wincing at the dark shadows within. Though she’d hated every second of it, she could appreciate how far they’d come.
“It looks like there’s no one around,” Jackson surveyed their surroundings with the scope of his rifle, only letting it drop to his side after several sweeps of the hill around them, “yet. We need to be very careful. Ki, I want you to grab some fabric from the backpack and tie it around your hands. There’s a town just at the foot of this hill, and we should reach it within the hour.”
Ki did not ask questions; she knew fully well why Jackson wanted her to hide her hands. They were artfully covered in Tarkan sacred symbols. While the images were beautiful and she loved them dearly, she appreciated they would reveal who she was in an instant.
She was about to enter an Ashkan town. The thought of it made her shiver, a quick and prickling chill drawing up her back.
While she had trusted her life to Jackson in the tunnels, everything was about to change. As soon as they set foot in an Ashkan city, she would be at his complete mercy. With a single word he could have her taken to jail, perhaps even shot. Not to mention Max.
“We have a couple of hours left of day light, but I want to make it down there as quick as we can. We need to arrange transport to the city, call the Guards, and, more importantly, find some food,” Jackson patted his stomach, a kinked smile fattening one of his cheeks.
“What do you mean call the Guards?” her boots crunched against the grit and stones that were littered outside the cave mouth. Jackson had given her his shoes back in the tunnels. No, he’d practically forced them onto her feet. Though she’d tried to protest, secretly she’d been thankful. The thought of going barefoot through those caves again had been torture.
“Don’t worry, I mean for Max. We need to get him in a secure facility as soon as we can—” Jackson began.
She frowned, the move dramatic and pronounced. “Jackson, won’t he just tell them about me?”
Max, despite being gagged, nodded. He even tried to speak around the gag, his muffled words almost recognizable.
“We can’t take a bound, gagged man around with us. Someone will call the police. Plus, we’ll be faster without him.”
“But the other scouts will come for him. As soon as they find out where he is, they’re going to swoop down in their ships. This town won’t stand a chance,” that frown tracked deeper into her cheeks and chin. “The Zeneethians will be monitoring all Ashkan communications, waiting for any mention of him.”
“What do you want me to do, Ki?” Jackson clamped his hands on his hips, manipulating his shoulder back and forth as he did. She could see how tensed it was. His whole body looked tight and sore. His head was still held high though.
“I don’t know... it’s just... shouldn’t we be very careful with what we do with him? As soon as someone removes that gag, he’s going to tell them who I am and where we’re going....”
“I doubt that. Remember, he’s not going to do anything to put you in danger,” Jackson didn’t look at her as he spoke – he locked his hardened, aggressive glare on Max and didn’t shift it once. “If he admits to the Guards that you’re Tarkan, he could risk them over-reacting. He’s not going to do anything to harm you.”
“Maybe, but that doesn’t mean we’ll be safe,” she scratched at her arms distractedly. She had more to say, but she couldn’t sort her thoughts out.
Fear was returning to her. Being out of the caves and mineshafts was all very well, but as she stared past Jackson at the cute town below them, she realized how much of a threat it could be.
There was no easy move from here. Whatever they did next would be risky, and if they didn’t think it through, it would cost them.
“We’ll make it to the town first. We need to get you some food. And hell, I need a shower. Then we’ll make our decision.” Jackson exhaled deeply, his chest punching forward, his red-rimmed, shadowed eyes staring at her warily.
He was entirely worn out. Nothing but adrenaline would be pushing him forward. Though he appeared to stand easily, on closer inspection she could see how stiff and locked his knees were as his body swayed slightly back and forth, tension arching his back and spreading his cheeks thin.
He looked about ready to collapse. If he did, she was sure Max would take advantage of it immediately. While they’d all been subjected to the same laborious trek through the tunnels, he was the only one whose face was not darkened with bone-weary fatigue. He also stood taller than Jackson, his muscles showing no visible strain despite the heavy pack still weighing down his shoulders.
He would simply be waiting for his opportunity. Ki could appreciate that. At the first chance, Max would make his move.
“Look, we need to get down there as quickly as we can. We can decide what to do on the way. But we can’t just stand here and keep on talking about this. We are exposed up here. We should head down to the dip in that grass hill,” he pointed below them, his arm shaking a little from the usually simple strain of such a move, “the grass is taller there and there are some oaks and birches dotted through the meadow. It’s not much, but it will give us a little cover. If we were smart, we wouldn’t move until night. But I don’t want to wait that long.”
She stepped forward and nearly reached a hand out to him. He was taxed and fraught. “Okay, let’s go.” She did not say another word. Turning, she headed down the incline, aiming for the grass hill below them.
Jackson was right; they could discuss this en route. She could also appreciate that the longer they argued outside that cave mouth, the riskier their situation became. They may not have seen any scouts in the tunnels, but with the sophisticated equipment the Zeneethians had, it would not be long before they scanned the surrounding area and spotted the group.
That realization brought a hot and biting flush to her cheeks. The scanner may have healed her injuries, but it had not touched on the fear still burning through her heart. With every step her emotions surged as her mind ran through the possibilities before them. It looked almost certain that she would be re-captured. She simply couldn’t see a way around it. While she could appreciate how important Max could be to finding intelligence on the Zeneethians, perhaps he wouldn’t be worth the risk.
The wind picked up the further they walked, and soon it pulled at her hair and the hem of her robe, blowing them around her with every step. She had to lock her hands over her thighs to pin the fabric to her body, lest her hem blow up with one of the gusts of wind. At least her feet were warm and secure in Jackson’s boots though. He’d stuffed them with strips of fabric to accommodate the size of her petite feet, and they’d been a thankful cushion against the jolt of her every step.
Now she had to be very careful not to trip on them though.
As they neared the town below, her anxiety peaked. Her heart started to reverberate in her ears, her hands cloying with sweat.
“Jackson, are you—” before she could finish her sentence, she watched Max snap his head to the side. His muscles were rigid, his expression alert.
“Sure? Yes, I’m sure,” Jackson finished off her sentence and answered it in a single, stuttering breath. “I’ll figure this out, trust me.” He was walking several steps ahead, and he clearly hadn’t seen Max.
Alarm swelling, Ki stopped. Max’s nostrils flared as he sniffed the air, his brow wrinkling like crumpled paper.
“J-Jackson, Max is—” she began.
She didn’t get to finish her sentence. Max barreled into her with no warning. He changed direction, pivoted on his foot, and ploughed her way with the speed of a car.
She screamed, her voice high-pitched and wavering, her throat constricted.
“Get off her—” Jackson roared, but his voice cut out as a loud whine echoed overhead.
It sounded like the rotors of a plane.
Before fear crippled her at the prospect of the Zeneethians returning, she heard something zip overhead.
Max pushed her into the ground, his shoulder and chest covering her head. Though he was heavy, she wasn’t being crushed.
There was another zipping sound. This time she recognized it.
Someone was shooting at them.
“Stop, stop,” Jackson screamed. “I’m a member of the Royal Academy, I have a prisoner. Stop shooting.”
Ki screwed her eyes closed, drawing her body in as Max still covered it with his own.
As every second passed she felt like it could be her last. But as they ticked by into a minute, she started to hear the sound of footfall.
“My name is Jackson Walker, I work at the Royal Academy,” Jackson called out. His words were desperate and slurred, ringing with passion. “Stop shooting.”
Max still didn’t move. If anything, he pressed his shoulder down further.
“Stand up, put your hands behind your head. Move slowly,” a man said, his voice a low, baritone growl.
It sent a shiver down her back and over her arms. It did not sound like a Zeneethian Scout; their voices were always distorted by their armor. Plus, the bullets that had zoomed past them had sounded like the ordinary variety.
That all meant one thing; Ashkan Guards had just assaulted them. Before Ki could truly come to terms with that fact, she felt Max being yanked back. She had to twist her head hard to the side as the sun suddenly shone into her eyes. Squinting, she was grabbed and pulled to her feet.
Overhead an Ashkan warplane made a low pass. She recognized the blue and red of their flag painted over the tail and nose.
She’d only seen one of those plains once before. Her monastery had always been so far from the battle fronts that she’d been thankfully far from the fighting. Yet on a pilgrimage to Pandaya Shrine, she’d come across the wreckage of such a plane covered by moss and creepers in the woods. The memory of its smooth, metallic body had stuck in her mind.
Flinching, she tried to duck down as the sound of the plane roared overhead. She could not move far. A man had her by the arm, his stiff and crooked fingers digging into her flesh. He was wearing a uniform she had seen before. While Ki had been all but protected from Ashkan warplanes, she knew the uniform of their Guards well. All Tarkans did.
Black with red collars, cuffs, and strips up the outside of the legs, it instilled instant and palpable fear in her. Sickened by the sight of it, she tried not to quake.
“My name is Jackson Walker,” Jackson stood a little down the hill, face awash with surprise and fear. “That man is my prisoner, you need to—” he began.
“You need to shut up,” a man said. He was standing close to Jackson, a handgun held easily and loosely in his grip. He was older, maybe in his late 40’s, with a brush moustache and pockmarked cheeks. One look at his steely gaze and you could see he suffered no fools. You could also see the deadened, almost pathological vacant edge to his smile. “I know who you are. You called the Guards in Varka City to your farmhouse approximately 58 hours ago. None of them ever returned.”
Jackson’s face paled in a snap, his cheeks practically slipping down his neck.
“You claimed to have captured a female Tarkan spy,” the man turned briefly and nodded at the man who held Ki. “Is she it?”
Without warning, Ki was pushed forward roughly. Stumbling, she didn’t have a chance to right herself before someone grabbed her and ripped the fabric from around her hands. She watched in horror as her tattoos were revealed.
“I see.” The man turned back to Jackson, though briefly he stared up at Ki. The quality behind his gaze went beyond frightening. It was horrific. It promised rage Ki had been kept from all her life.
Without warning she began to cry. Once such an emotional reaction would have irritated her, now she submitted to it, the tears trailing their brief warm kiss down her cheeks. At least she managed to stifle her sobs though as she half closed her eyes and stared at the ground.
“Look, you don’t understand what is going on, I have captured—” Jackson began.
“Hand over your gun,” the man snapped. “I am Major Victor Bradshaw, and I demand your full cooperation.”
Jackson didn’t immediately move. He looked frozen on the spot, every trace of warmth gone from his pallid cheeks and hands.
Things had happened quickly, and now they were moving at a pace Ki could not keep up with. She found the time to meet his gaze though. Sadness and just a hint of compassion seemed to swell within him.
“Hand it over,” the Major snapped again.
“You need to know what you’re dealing with, Major. That man,” Jackson pointed at Max, “is from a previously unknown—” he began.
“I know exactly what I’m dealing with. A traitor. Now hand over the gun before we’re forced to shoot.” The Major brought up his own weapon slowly.
Jackson somehow paled further. If there was any blood left in his cheeks, it now drained away completely as shock seized him. “I’m not a traitor.”
“You harbored a Tarkan spy. You led a group of Guards into a trap. And you kidnapped a senior intelligence official. How else do you define traitor?” the Major’s cold, harsh voice deepened further.
“Kidnapped a senior intelligence official? What the hell are you talking about?” Jackson backed off.
As soon as he took a step, every Guard snapped their guns up quickly, pointing them all his way.
You did not need to be skilled in emotion to recognize Jackson’s full-bodied shock.
“Put your gun down,” the Major growled once more.
With one last flickering look her way, Jackson complied. Instantly one of the Guards snapped forward and plucked it up.
“Handcuff him,” the Major flapped a hand Jackson’s way and turned neatly to face Ki and Max.
Ki tried to jolt back, but she was grabbed immediately.
“Leave her alone. She’s not your enemy. This man is—” Jackson began.
“Archer Reed, a valued member of the intelligence community, apparently,” the Major nodded quickly at one of the Guards. The man snapped over to Max, pulling a flip knife from his pocket and cutting him free with swift moves.
With the remains of the rags that had once bound him falling from his wrists, Max reached up and ungagged himself. Through it all he kept an even, unreadable look on his face and all of his attention centered on Ki.
“We apologize it has taken us this long to track you,” the Major cleared his throat, straightening up. “We only received the message you had been kidnapped by this traitor less than half an hour ago. We acted as quickly as we could.”
Max nodded silently, then he reached out a hand and shook the Major’s.
“God... you can’t trust him. Listen to me, this might sound crazy, but someone has accessed your communications and—” Jackson swallowed wildly, eyes plastered open as he choked through his words.
“Shut up,” the Major growled. “Silence him if he speaks again,” he flopped a hand at one of the Guards.
“Thank you for your prompt assistance,” Max pulled the pack from his shoulders and let it fall with a heavy thump onto the grass beside him.
“We will secure the prisoners and arrange transport into Valia City for you immediately,” the Major latched his hands behind his back and nodded harshly at Ki.
One of the Guards stepped in beside her, yanking up her hands as he pulled some cuffs over them.
“No,” Max snapped. “She’s mine. She is integral to an operation we are currently running. I am afraid I need to claim a full jurisdiction here.”
“She’s a Tarkan spy—” the Major began.
“True, but she is my Tarkan spy,” Max rubbed distractedly at his wrists and fixed the Major with an untroubled look. “This is a matter of national security. She is providing us with integral intelligence.”
Grinding his teeth, the Major eventually nodded, though he did not drop his gaze as he did. “Very well.”
“As for your traitor, you can do what you like with him. Though be advised that he will attempt to come up with outlandish and wild excuses to explain his actions. Don’t heed them.” Max patted at his shirt, removing some of the dust and rubble from his shoulders.
She didn’t dare interrupt. All she could do was stand there in abject horror as she realized what he was doing. Obviously the Zeneethians had found some way to interfere with Ashkan military communications, and had manufactured Max an alias. One that was working perfectly. He would get exactly what he wanted with no questions asked.
“Also, you will have to hand the gun over,” Max nodded at the Zeneethian particle weapon that was still in the arms of one of the Guards. “It’s experimental and we can’t run the risk of those designs getting into the hands of our enemies.”
“We seized the weapon—” the Major bristled.
“And we designed it and own it,” Max interrupted casually. He had an air of unchallenged authority about him. It was at odds with the snide, nasty way he’d been treating Jackson, and different yet again from the awed way he looked upon her.
He was clearly more than a simple soldier. Deft in manipulation and acting, it all made her fear him and the Zeneethians even more.
“This is not up for discussion, Major. If you would like to clarify that fact, please call your superiors. They will confirm that the experimental weapon and the Tarkan spy must be released into my custody,” Max finished cleaning off his shirt, and shifted around, appearing to get comfortable. “Go ahead, I’m in no hurry.”
“We will head back to the Guard station in the nearest town. I will make some calls, and then you and your property will be released into your care.” The Major nodded sharply down the hill, indicating a car that was parked down the steep incline. It was large and had the familiar red and blue crest of the Ashkan Royal Family painted on the side.
The plane overhead had stopped making passes, and with several more short interchanges between Max and the Major, the group moved down towards the vehicle.
Ki tried to catch Jackson’s attention, but he was wedged between two large men, both with their arms hooked over his. Occasionally she caught flashes of him though. His shoulders were dropped in defeat, his face directed at the ground, an unfathomable devastation crumpling his features.
He should never have tried to help her. She’d warned him about that all the way back at the farmhouse. Despite all the pain and hardship he’d put her through, she felt nothing but compassion for him in that moment.
He’d offered hope where no one else had. Even if it had only been a glimmer.
By the time they made it to the vehicle, the wind had picked up to a gale. It whipped at her exposed arms, chilling the flesh and sending shivers through her back and legs. Whilst the Zeneethian scanner had healed her of her injuries, the euphoric feeling it had left her with had long ago worn off. Now the cold and her persistent hunger and thirst were back to haunt her.
When they reached the car, she was piled in the back. One of the Guards pushed her roughly towards a seat, and she fell against it with a bang.
“Hey,” Max snapped, “you need to be careful with my prisoner.”
“Your prisoner or not, she’s going to need to be handcuffed and blindfolded until we deliver her to a holding cell. We can’t afford to have Tarkan spies observing everything we do.” The Major grabbed at a simple brown hessian bag and threw it at the Guard closest to Ki. Immediately the man snatched it up and pulled it over her head.
She wanted to scream as the rough fabric scratched against her cheeks. Cutting out the light almost completely, it reminded her of the cave system with its tight, dark walls that seemed to press in at you from every direction.
She held onto her emotions though, squeezing her eyes shut and pulling her hands into fists.
“If anything happens to her, you and your men will be held directly responsible,” Max lost the casual edge to his voice. Now it bridled with authoritative anger.
“She will be fine,” the Major dismissed him.
Someone grabbed her wrists and handcuffed her, and soon after she felt the vehicle’s engine rumble, her seat vibrating as it set off down the hill.
The ride was horrendously bumpy, and if two Guards hadn’t been seated firmly on either side of her, she would have probably fallen from her seat.
It would have been the least of her problems though. Soon she would be back in Zeneethia, on one of their floating cities, never to return to earth again.
Succumbing to defeat, she withdrew inward. There was nowhere else to go.
The unimaginable had occurred. He’d been labelled a traitor. Without a chance to explain himself, the Guards and Major Bradshaw had turned on him.
Jackson couldn’t believe it. After all those years of dedication and loyalty to his people, his good service and character had been completely forgotten.
All because of Max and the Zeneethians. Jackson had underestimated them wildly. Not only could they manufacture ships that could fly without wings, guns that could shoot without bullets, and devices that could scan without eyes, they could evidently interfere with governments from on high.
Somehow they’d manufactured Max an alias so believable that the usually wary and paranoid Guards had accepted it easily. Without the use of weapons or war, they’d meddled in internal politics at a frightening level with incalculable speed.
As the group finally arrived at the Guard station, those thoughts virtually crippled Jackson. While Ki had assured him that the Zeneethians did not interfere with the Tarkans and Ashkans, because there was nothing such an advanced race would need from such dullards, that did not blunt this blow. He was starting to realize there was something far more insidious and threatening than all-out war with a race like them – it was being manipulated silently from afar.
He very much doubted this was the only time the Zeneethians had meddled in the affairs of his Government; with the speed and efficiency they’d shown, it was reasonable to assume they’d done it before. Which left Jackson with one frightening question to ponder – how often did they do it? Did they monitor election results and change them to serve their purposes? Did they intercept military communications? Did they monitor scientific discoveries and stifle any they didn’t like?
Their abilities seemed countless and undetectable. They were like silent puppet masters, or worse than that – gods.
Moving like a zombie, Jackson did not fight as the Guards rushed him to his holding cell. Shoving him in and not bothering to remove his handcuffs, they slammed the door closed.
He was alone, cold, thirsty, hungry, tired, and again completely in the dark. His room was internal to the building, had no window in the door, and they had not bothered to turn the light on.
Questions burned in his mind like embers in the hand – searing and eating away at him with crippling pain. One burned brighter than the others though. It was not what he would have expected either. Despite what could be happening to his Government and people, Jackson desperately needed to know where Ki was and what Max would do with her next.
She was the key to this. She had to be. If only Jackson could find out why the Zeneethians were so desperate to get her back, and why they had taken her in the first place. She’d admitted they’d done experiments on her, and he’d seen the marks on her arms. What had they been though? Did it have something to do with her ability to activate the levitation devices?
Allowing his body to go limp, he flopped onto the cold and hard floor. Shifting his hands up until they rested on his chest, he pried at the cuffs with his fingers. They were sturdy and tight. There would be no breaking into them without a sledgehammer or a saw, neither of which were in this simple cell.
He was trapped. There would be no escape. Presumably Max would use his influence to lean on the Guards and order an execution. By the morning Jackson would likely face a firing squad.
Several days ago he’d been worried about cropping all the hay before the first autumn rains, now it was a distant speck in comparison to his current problems. Tonight he would spend his last few hours lying on a freezing, chipped concrete floor while his thoughts rioted in his mind.
Though he could easily succumb to the obvious and give up, a single thought stopped him.
They were arrogant. The Zeneethians. They were undisputed, unchallenged, and unhindered. They did what they wanted and answered to no one.
Which gave Jackson an advantage. War had taught him one simple fact more than any other: arrogance leads to oversight, oversight to mistakes. It is inevitably when you feel at your strongest that you let your guard down. As soon as you treat your enemy as less than yourself – less intelligent, less capable, less desperate – you become a prisoner to your own perspective. Jackson had once been a keen student of military history, and he could easily remember battles and whole wars that had been lost because one General was fool enough to think he could not lose.
The Zeneethians were the same. Now all Jackson had to do was use that to his advantage.
As the day gave way to night, and Jackson continued to lie there on that barren floor, he formulated a plan. It came to him slowly in flashes of insight.
He was acutely aware, however, that unless he received a miracle, there was no way he would be able to put that plan into action.
At five minutes to midnight, he got that miracle. There was a knock on the door, and before he could answer, it was pushed open roughly, the metal hinges groaning from the assault.
In walked the Major. Two guards were at his side, but with one flick of his head, the men walked outside and closed the door behind them.
Jackson slowly got to his feet, body crunching underneath him from his days of straining and misusing it. With a wary, careful edge to his stare, he straightened up and locked his attention on the Major.
The man was standing tall, one hand held at his side, the other locked on his hip. “You will be executed tomorrow morning, 8 o'clock. You will not get any last wishes. Traitors do not deserve them.”
Ignoring his suddenly dry and itchy mouth, Jackson swallowed. This was his miracle, his opportunity. He would not get another. “I admit it, I’m a spy.”
It was murder to say those words. They felt like barbs sticking into his skin or spikes sliding deep into his flesh. It was self-mutilation on an unfathomable level to pretend he was a traitor of the country he loved so much.
Right now he did not have any other choice. Strengthening his determination, he let a sharp breath out of his clenched teeth. “But Max is a double agent.”
The Major's eyes flashed. “I am not accustomed to listening to traitors. Every word you say will be a lie.”
“Shouldn't you try to interrogate me?” Jackson stood as easily as he could. He wanted to get rid of the ache in his back, the strain across his shoulders, the clicking, tensed feeling to his jaw. He wanted to appear as casual and in control as he could. Weakness would be interpreted as a sign of lying. Jackson needed the Major to buy his story without question.
“You are no longer my concern. An official decree has come in from the intelligence community, and your sentence has been handed down by them. A firing squad, tomorrow, 8 o'clock in the morning.”
Before the Major could turn to go, Jackson stepped forward. He watched as the Major's eyes darted to the side, following the move. If Jackson tried anything the Major would call for the Guards, or, more likely, barrel into him and deal his sentence out then and there.
“Doesn't that seem strange to you? That a traitor be put to death without any questioning? What about all of the secrets I know? All the secrets I've sold to the enemy. Don't you want to know what they are so you can clean up after my mess?”
The Major's nostrils flared, his cheeks stiffening as his lips pulled back to reveal his white, clamped teeth. “Archer has already assured me that you have been interrogated.”
“I assure you, I have not. The man is a double agent. He works for a group... who control our Government from the shadows. Hawkes, their only agenda is to continue instabilities. They trade information with the Tarkans for that end. Major, how many men have you lost? How many boys have laid down their lives for you and your country? Wouldn't you like to know if their efforts were in vain?”
The Major turned sharply, his boot jerking over the concrete floor and making a high-pitched squeak as it did. He took a violent step towards Jackson. Jackson did not move back.
Face stiff with rage, the Major shook his head. “I will not listen to your treacherous words, traitor.”
“Then listen to reason. I've seen the way you look at Archer – you know something's up. Are you really going to let him walk away with a Tarkan spy and a sophisticated, experimental weapon? Don't tell me, you've already made the calls, and you've been assured passionately that you are to do everything this man says. Tell me, Major, has that ever happened to you before? Has your authority ever been undermined by a random intelligence officer you've never heard of, purporting to be on a mission that makes no sense, yet holding authority the goes above and beyond that of a General? You are the head of this unit, and you have jurisdictional oversight over any operations that occur in your area. Who is this man to walk in and undermine that rule? Ask yourself, does any of this make any sense?”
The Major now stood close enough that Jackson could see the broken capillaries in his cheeks and each hair of his kempt moustache. He could also see the barely contained malevolence and tension straining at the man's features. “I will not take advice from a traitor.”
“I'm not giving you advice, I'm giving you reason. I'm simply voicing thoughts you have already had. This makes no sense. This man is going above your head. It doesn't matter who's telling you to give him that woman and that gun; it's your choice, this is your jurisdiction. And it will be your responsibility if you make a mistake. Think.”
Never in his life had Jackson lectured a superior. He had always shown keen and unwavering loyalty. He’d been the model soldier. Now he was trying to be the model traitor.
“I will not discuss this with you,” the Major began.
“Really? Because I am ready and willing to tell you everything. I will admit to you all of my plans, all of my contacts. I will even give you the information I have on the Tarkans. Are you actually going to walk away from that simply because Max has told you to? Is that how you win a war?” Jackson finished with a growl.
The Major lurched forward, grabbing Jackson by the collar and pulling him closer. “You are a scourge upon your country. To think you were ever put in a position of power. People trusted you. Now your name will be spread across the press, your treason publicized. Anyone who ever knew you will know you lived a lie.”
Jackson controlled himself. It was one of the hardest things he'd ever done. To watch the hatred spilling forth from the Major like blood from a wound made him realize how serious this was. There would be no going back. His actions here would be final.
Swallowing dramatically, commanding his hands not to shake, Jackson narrowed his eyes. “And you will be labelled as a fool if you let a spy and a powerful, experimental gun walk away without following the proper protocol. Treason is one thing, ineptitude is another. At least they’ll remember me as efficient. They'll remember you as the idiot who let a gun that could change the course of history walk out of his grasp.”
The Major shook him, the move strong and sharp. “I have followed the correct procedure. I've made the proper phone calls, it's been confirmed that Archer is who he says he is.”
“And you don't believe them, do you?” Jackson's expression was open to begin with, but crumpled with obvious suspicion. Perhaps he was over acting; he didn't have the smooth, suave ability to manipulate people like Max did. All Jackson had was passion and a desire to do whatever it would take.
That would be enough. He'd already gotten the Major's attention, stirred up his ire, and sapped his control. He'd planted the seed of doubt, now he had to feed it enough suspicion to see it grow. “They have been monitoring your communications,” Jackson almost whispered.
“We spoke on a secure line.”
“Nothing is secure if you’re dealing with people in positions of power. Do you remember the Falcon Plot from the last war? Do you remember the mutiny of Captain Balcon? Do you remember any of the history of our great military, Major?” Jackson’s eyes were locked open, the skin tight to the point of ripping. “Do you really think it’s impossible to monitor communications in this day and age?”
“I have no reason to doubt my superiors—”
“You have every reason to doubt them; their orders make no sense. You want proof that Archer is a double agent, I can give it to you,” Jackson forced himself not to blink. He held the Major’s gaze as if his life depended on it. Likely because it did.
The Major did not immediately respond. Stepping back, he let his hands drop from Jackson’s collar. That dark, malevolent, dangerous look was still spread over his face, but something new flickered deep in his eyes. Doubt.
Jackson pounced on it. “You want proof? Then you have to listen closely and do everything I say.”
Through fortune alone, the Major did not leave the room until Jackson had finished.
Jackson would need more than fortune for the Major to heed his plan though.
She was seated on a cot pushed up against a wall. She’d pulled her legs close to her body. Her head rested on her knees, she shook back and forth, the cot bumping into the bricks behind her with a soft and repetitive thump.
It was over. No, it was worse than over. Soon Max would contact the Zeneethians, if they weren’t already on their way. She would be taken back and Jackson would be left here to rot.
Rocking back harder, she tried to regain even a scrap of emotional control. As a priestess it should have been easy. Yet she could not stem even a single tear.
The Guards had brought her food and water, but they remained untouched by the door. Though her throat felt swollen and hot from dehydration, she wouldn’t take a single sip. Neither would she lie down to rest.
As the hours wore on, several Guards came in, and they attempted to make her eat. When it became clear she would not, they cursed her and walked out. The expressions on their young faces were always the same: distilled, bottomless hatred.
It made her feel far more alone than she could have fathomed. It stirred up the hopelessness until she felt she’d drown under it.
Though she’d resolved not to sleep, soon she could not help it. Crumpling down on the bed, a wave of deep exhaustion washed through her. Shivering, she tried to swallow, but ended up causing a coughing fit loud enough to wake the gods.
As she closed her eyes, the door opened.
She tried to pay no attention.
She heard someone walk in, lean down, pick up the glass of water, and stand by her bed.
“You need to drink,” Max said.
Despite her resolve, her eyes snapped open, her back buckling back and slamming into the wall.
“Hey, it’s okay. I’m not going to let you get hurt.” Max handed her the water. When she didn’t accept it, he reached down, picked up one of her hands lightly, and closed her fingers around it.
When she tried to throw the water away, he stopped her, fastening his hand around hers until she could not fight back.
“Go away,” she choked, her throat so damaged she could hardly speak.
Max’s cheeks paled and he quickly darted his calculating gaze all over her. “You are weak. You need sustenance immediately. Drink or I will have the doctors put you on a drip.”
Reluctantly she took a sip. It produced yet another coughing fit. As she doubled back and forth, spluttering and wheezing, Max looked down at her. His face was cast into shadow, his tall, broad back facing the dim light from behind. Though she could only see his eyes and the line of his bottom lip, it was enough to read his expression.
He was deeply worried. The concern so obvious as he slowly pumped one of his fists.
Despite outward appearances, perhaps he was not in complete control of this situation. Maybe the Zeneethians were not on their way, maybe he didn’t have any more tricks up his sleeves.
“Keep on drinking that. I’ll try to find something with electrolytes in it. The effects of the biomedical field that healed your wound in the mine won’t last forever. We should be out of here before then, but you have to rest.”
Placing a hand over her mouth as her fit ceased, she squinted up at him. He was talking to her as if they were comrades, as if they were companions stuck in here together.
“I know it is improperly manufactured, but you have to eat,” Max whirled on his foot, grabbed up the plate by the door, and returned. He did not hand it to her, but instead broke off small pieces and handed them down one-by-one.
She tried to throw the first few away, but he grabbed her hands when she tried again. “I don’t want to hurt you. Please, just eat.”
She shook her head, the move causing a sudden wave of nausea to spread through her.
Sitting down beside her, she watched as he took a pressured, sharp breath. That patina of control that usually masked his features cracked up with frustration as he clutched at the plate harder. “You have no idea what you mean to my people. You are so important.” He kept staring ahead, not facing her, simply focusing on some scratch on the opposite wall. “We need you. You can save so many lives. Please, just eat.”
She’d never seen him show emotion like that. It felt real. His cheeks crinkled into his eyes, his body drooped as he sat there, his gaze becoming deadened as he continued to stare at the wall.
“I’m sorry we took you from your people, but we had to,” he finally turned to her. That wash of emotion surged and his lips quivered as he spoke. “We’re fighting to save our people here.”
He couldn’t be faking it. Though she’d seen him smoothly step into the role of Archer Reed with little warning, this was different. Her years of training in empathy could not be wrong.
“Why do you need me?” she coughed into her hand as she spoke.
Excited at her reply, he stiffened, bringing up the plate and handing her a morsel of food immediately.
She took it, considered it briefly as she rolled it between her fingers, and silently took a bite.
She watched his expression ease, a small smile even kinked his lips. Tentatively he handed her the plate, watching her carefully as he did. When she did not throw it on the ground, he breathed a resounding sigh of relief.
Leaning back, he rested his shoulders and head against the brick wall, brought up a hand, and ran it several times through his cropped black hair.
Eating slowly, despite her rumbling belly, she watched his every move.
“I’ll get you more water. I’ll try to find appropriate pain medication. Without my matter scanner I won’t be able to tell how effective it will be, but we won’t need to rely on it for long. One night and we’re out of here.” Max sat up, turning to her.
That look was back in his gaze. The reverent one.
She brought up a scrap of stale bread to her mouth, but stopped. “Why do you need me?”
He forced his lips together and swallowed, his Adam’s apple pressing against the torn and dirty collar of his once-grey shirt. “We just need you safe. We’ll get out of here.”
“If you want me to finish this, tell me. Why do you want me?”
“Because you can save my people,” he dipped his head down to her level, and he never blinked once. “We need you.”
She rested the plate on her lap. “Why?”
“You don’t need to know—”
She snatched the plate and tried to toss it against the floor. He caught it, though half the remaining food slipped off onto the bed beside them. Clenching his jaw, his eyes blazed. Not with anger at her, but deep frustration.
“Tell me, or I’ll kill myself,” she leaned away from him. The words bubbled up from within, horrible but instinctive.
“We would never let you do that,” he kept a hold of the plate, his knuckles pearl white as he held it in a tight grip.
“If you take me back to Zeneethia, I’ll find a way. You won’t continue you’re experiments on me. I’ll find a way.”
He dropped the plate beside him and grabbed her shoulders. “You don’t know what you’re saying. I realize the experiments might be... uncomfortable. But they are necessary. We need you. You can save lives.”
“Uncomfortable?” she choked on her words, tears staining her cheeks as she jerked her head away from him.
“Hey, I’m sorry. But there’s no other way,” Max didn’t let go of her shoulders.
“Get away from me. Just leave me alone. I won’t go back with you. If you take me up there I’ll find a way—”
He stood up, the plate falling from the bed and shattering by his boots. His face was white, the muscles loose, his mouth cracked open. “You can make this hard for yourself,” his words were slow and staccato as he searched her gaze, “but we won’t let you do anything. You’re too valuable to us.”
“Why?” she screamed. It sent shooting pain through her neck and throat, and she heaved in a gasp, clutching at her mouth.
He stood back, gaze still darting over her. “Don’t hurt yourself, please,” he tried.
“Why?” she screamed again. But she could hardly force her voice out. Bringing her hands down to her neck, she groped at it as she panted through the pain.
Max sucked in his lips, locking his jaw tight until the line of it cut a shadow against his neck. “Just don’t hurt yourself. Don’t make me knock you out. I will do it. I’ll do anything to keep you safe.”
Shaking, she pushed herself backwards until she was propped against the cold, uneven wall. Holding his gaze, she finally closed her eyes.
Without another word he walked out. Minutes later more food and water were brought to her room. If she didn’t partake in it, she knew he would be back. Next time he would come good on his threat and force the food down her gullet or anesthetize her and feed her through a drip.
While everything seemed uncertain, there was one thing she could not doubt – his resolve. Max appeared ready to do anything.
She awoke the next morning to a knock on the door. During the night she’d been given a new set of clothes and the chance to get clean. Tugging on the loose-fitting cardigan she’d been given, she rose slowly.
Though her body had been overcome with lassitude last night, she’d only caught a fitful sleep. Planting her hand on her forehead, pushing up her fringe, she waited for the door to open.
Expecting to see Max, she was taken aback when the Major walked in, two tall Guards behind him. Standing there, one leg leaning up against her cot, she waited for him to say something... anything. He simply stood their though, appraising her with a calculating look.
“Yes?” she hazarded, bringing her hands up and pulling at the sleeves of her over-large cardigan, fixing it around her as tightly as she could make it.
“Come with us,” the Major flicked a hand at her, turned sharply on his boot, and marched out.
A pulse of doubt ignited as she watched him go. Where was Max? What were they going to do with her? And why had the Major taken the time to so thoroughly analyze her before making his move?
Trying to keep her hands and tattoos tucked out of view, she followed. The two tall Guards who had accompanied the Major immediately took up post either side of her. They were carrying large, sleek machine guns, and unlike the other men she’d seen at this facility, they did not curse her. They didn’t even look her way. Their expressions were neutral and attentive.
Frowning, her doubt began to grow. Something didn’t seem right here.
They walked her down the corridor and out into a yard. It was a cold, fog-kissed morning, and she could see the remains of a frost still hunkered under the shadow of the various sheds and buildings. She was thankful they had given her new clothes, even if they hardly fit her. A skirt, a blouse, a cardigan, stockings, and some buckle shoes. They were worn and very old in their style, but she wasn’t about to complain. The leggings were thick and kept her feet thankfully warm.
Breath chilling to white in the frozen morning, she stared around her, trying to find Max. He was nowhere to be found.
Her lingering doubt quickly turned to a full-bodied fear as they led her past a wall riddled with bullet holes.
Were they going to execute her? Had they dismissed Max’s story and dispatched him in the night?
Clutching a hand to her collar and flattening the fingers onto her cold skin, she tried to keep control of her emotions. If she was going to be executed, surely it was for the best. At least she would finally be free from the Zeneethians.
Before she could strengthen her resolve, they walked her right past the wall and to a waiting car.
“Where are you taking me?” she tried as she heard the engine start with a rumble.
Neither of the Guards answered. The Major had already walked ahead.
She was not handcuffed, but that all changed when they loaded her into the back of the vehicle. They also pulled another bag over her head. While she was not yanked and pulled around as much as she had been yesterday, these new Guards had a keen, cold efficiency that was somehow far more unsettling.
She knew better than to ask questions, but as the car revved up and its tires crunched over the gravel, panic filled her.
It stayed with her, niggling at her gut, until their journey was over. In less than half an hour, they came to a stop. Again she was loaded out, someone securing her arm and leading her down from the back of the transport and out over an uneven ground. The heels of her worn buckle shoes made a strange, hollow, thumping sound over the terrain, reminding her of wet rope moving over wood.
She had no idea where she was. The bag over her head completely obscured the view and any smell or other hint her environment could give her.
As she walked, she began to hear voices. She was brought to a stop just as she recognized one.
Though she hated herself for it, relief and hope rose through her at the sound of his voice.
“Why the hell does she have that bag over her head again? I’ve told you how important she is to our plans. Her safety is of utmost importance. Remove it immediately,” Max snapped.
She felt someone tug the bag free. She winced against the sudden sunshine, unable to clamp a hand over her eyes to shade it.
As she adjusted, she looked around her.
They were on a wharf. There was a keen salty breeze washing in from the ocean behind. A large ship was docked just behind them, throwing a huge shadow over the group. Seagulls took off and landed over the loading equipment piled up by the ship, sailors working far off down the way, their shouts mixing with the distinct call of the birds.
She was not used to the ocean. Her monastery had been up in the hills of the Hega Province. Landlocked, she’d only been down to the coast four or five times.
The chill of the wind against her face was refreshing, and the view of that crystal-like water stretching on towards the cloudless horizon was mesmerizing.
“Why is she handcuffed?” Max was standing almost ten meters from her, arguing with the Major. A little of Max’s calm authority had worn off. Even to someone less skilled in empathy than her, it would have been obvious that he was stressed.
“She is handcuffed because she is a dangerous prisoner. I should not need to remind you that she is a Tarkan spy,” the Major had his hands clasped firmly in front of him. He was dressed in a full military uniform, a handgun slotted into a holster at his belt. His demeanor also matched his outfit – warlike, he hardly shifted his mouth as he spoke.
“I am well aware of that fact,” Max spat, “as you should be aware that you’re superiors have given you a direct order. Why have you taken her here? You should have handed her over to me already.”
“We are here, Archer Reed, because we have deemed travel by road too risky. We have received recent reports of Tarkan activity close to our border. We have decided it is safest to move our prisoner by sea. The Tarkan Navy has never been a match for our own.”
“Sea? Need I remind you, she is not your prisoner. Her security is not your concern. Unless you are seeking a severe reprimand, hand her over at once.”
“I am doing my duties as they are outlined by law. I do not need to be reminded of them by a pup with a position above his competence. Your so-called prisoner is my concern as long as she is in my jurisdiction. And I have made the decision that it is too risky to transport her by road. She will be shipped—”
“This is not your call,” Max growled. His anger peaked in that moment, all control seemingly lost as every one of his neck muscles ridged with tension.
“This is not up for discussion,” the Major nodded at the two Guards holding Ki. Immediately they began to walk her towards the long, rusted gangplank of the ship. She caught a glance of the name emblazoned across the prow. The Maqueda.
“Major, think about what you are doing here. This could cost you your career,” Max straightened up, his once-ferocious anger quelling into something far darker.
“The transport of these prisoners is my own concern,” the Major nodded at another car that was parked off to the side of the group.
The door opened and two Guards got out, pulling a man between them.
Ki stopped, one foot on the gangplank as she strained her neck towards him. “Jackson?”
He was too far away for her to read his expression.
Before she could shout his name again, one of the Guards beside her told her in an impassive voice to be quiet.
They did not push her up the gangplank though. They all waited there by the side of the dock.
“What the hell is he still doing alive? We agreed he would be executed this morning,” Max twisted to stare at Jackson.
That news seemed to clutch and crawl its way up Ki’s spine, and she felt her cheeks pale from the shock of it.
Jackson was an Ashkan, why would they execute him?
It was such an innocent question, she realized with a pang. She was dealing with the Zeneethians here – they could do whatever they pleased. Jackson had gotten in their way, he knew about their technology and capabilities, of course they weren’t going to allow him to live.
Yet he was still alive, much to the clear surprise of Max.
Something was going on here.
Before she could wonder what that thing was. The Guards next to her stepped to the side. She hardly noticed as she fixed her concentration on Jackson.
“You have continually tried to undermine my authority. I will accept that no longer. This is my jurisdiction, and I will use the authority that has been vested in me by the Ashkan High Command to ensure the security of this State. If we disagree about how your prisoner can be transported, she will not be moved at all.” The Major turned from Max and walked towards the ship.
“What are you doing?” Max moved to follow him, but several Guards snapped up and moved in front, shouldering their rifles.
The Major walked casually towards her. She watched in total confusion as he reached for his gun.
As he passed a pile of crates and equipment ready to be loaded on the ship, several gulls took flight, their calls echoing above the dock as they flew towards the ocean.
She stepped down from the gangplank, her heart all but stopping.
She watched the Major raise his gun. With no further warning, he shot her.
She fell against the gangplank, slipped to the side, and down into the water far below.
Jackson hated every moment of it. Watching the Major shoot Ki at point blank, seeing her fall between the ship and the dock. Hearing that splash seconds later.
Skin slicked with a cold, drenching sweat, he waited.
He launched himself at the three Guards who had positioned themselves before him. He moved so fast they couldn’t react. Landing a blow to the nearest one with is fist, he twisted, slamming another in the jaw with his elbow as he simultaneously kicked the remaining one in the gut.
In a flash, he’d dispatched them and grabbed up one of their guns, rolling to the side and bringing it up.
If Jackson had never seen the Zeneethian Scouts in action before, Max’s display would have been unbelievable.
Max snapped up from his roll, aiming at the Guards closest to him. Though he clearly tried to shoot them, the gun would not work.
It had no bullets in it.
Realization dawning on him, Max’s face paled, slack jaw shifting open.
“Surround him,” the Major yelled as he ran back from the dock.
Max took a single step back, letting the gun fall from his grip as it clattered onto the ground by his feet.
“Don’t get too close,” the Major added with a roar.
“You are all going to die,” Max could hardly move his mouth. His teeth were clenched with violent emotion, desperation and hatred powerful and obvious. “You bastards are all going to die for this.”
Jackson had seen Max acting before. The way the man had so smoothly and seamlessly slipped into the role of Archer Reed, the way he’d tried to goad Jackson into overreacting in the mine shaft – Max was way more than a dumb grunt. Now all that control was gone. He seethed with uncontrollable rage.
“You have no idea who you are messing with. The Zeneethians will destroy you all for this. None of you will be safe,” Max stood with his arms limp at his sides, his shoulders rounded, but his face and neck rigid. “You will all be wiped from history. Your families will be wiped from history. Every record of you ever existing will be changed. We will even alter the memories of your friends. You have no way to fight us.”
“Shut up, prisoner,” the Major reached the group, though came no closer than five meters from Max. With a controlled but wary expression, he told his men to keep their distance yet again.
“They’re going to come for you,” Max took a step forward and nodded at the Major. “You should be worried about more than your career. You’ve just condemned your entire nation.”
“Don’t listen to him, men,” the Major snapped. “Prepare the transport. Get the tranquilizer dart. You are going to be questioned, prisoner. You will tell us everything you know. There will be no escape.”
Max did not respond. He ticked his head to the side and shook it slowly. Then he straightened up, some control returning to his features, but not enough to dampen his slackened, palpable shock.
Seconds later he was shot in the back of the neck with a dart, then another when it was clear he would not fall. Blinking, eyes bleary, he stumbled to one knee. How he was still conscious, Jackson did not know, but eventually he slumped forward.
Cautiously several guards moved in and handcuffed him, even wrapping along leather strap around his arms and torso to ensure there was no way he could break free. Then he was taken to a waiting car.
Jackson watched him the entire time, when the car rumbled to life and its clean tires crunched over the rough bitumen, he turned to the Major. “You are going to need to keep complete radio silence. The second you send a call saying you’ve taken him into custody, they’ll swoop down.”
The Major stood erect, his hands behind his back, his broad chest puffed out against his clean-cut uniform. “I will not take orders from you. Though it appears you were right about Archer Reed, you have not yet been absolved of your charges. You will be taken to Avictus Island where you will await trial.”
Jackson forced himself to calm down before his frustration could peak any higher. “He did exactly what I said he would. Now I’m telling you, if you tell anyone where you’re taking—”
“Enough. Take him onto The Pasquada.” The Major turned and walked away without another word.
Jackson was taken down to the other end of the port and loaded onto a different ship. When he was aboard, she set sail. At the same time the Maqueda also left berth. The two ships headed out into the bay then set sail in opposite directions.
Aboard the ship, Jackson was not allowed out of his room. His quarters were nothing but a storage compartment. He had to make his bed between wooden crates filled with cans and bottles. Though the bottles were made of a thick, dark glass, he knew better than to break one and try to use it as a weapon against the Guards; there was no way off the ship. Plus, he still needed the Major.
He had something Jackson wanted.
He spent most of the voyage staring out of the tiny porthole above his ramshackle bed. It offered a view of the choppy ocean beyond and the clouds fleeting through the sky above.
It took almost eight days until they sighted land. Though it was a dark night and a vicious storm had whipped up, Jackson saw the slices of white light shifting across the wild waves and over the side of the ship. He pushed himself up from his bed, the tarpaulin he’d been using as a blanket falling at his feet. Running to the window, he jumped up on a crate to get a better view. In the distance, he could see a lighthouse.
Grabbing onto the rim of the rounded porthole, he craned his neck down and saw flashes of dark, sharp-looking rocks close to the ship.
They’d finally arrived. Avictus Island... he’d only ever heard of it. An old prison, it had been converted into a military facility by the Government before the last war.
As forks of lightning flashed down from the raging storm above, he saw snippets of the island lit up. Dark rocks led up to a sharp rock wall. On top sat a daunting, huge building. Castle-like, it had numerous turrets, each mounted with powerful lights that scanned the sky in sweeps.
It looked like something out of a nightmare.
Prying himself from the view, Jackson straightened up. Running a hand over his short, stubbly beard, he tried not to be put off by his own smell. If he ever got out of this situation, he’d have a shower. A long one. He’d also throw away his clothes and take the time to shave with a cut-throat razor. He always liked to be clean and neat, but he’d known better than to request shaving equipment from the Guards.
The ship swayed as it came into port. The waves pounded the hull, the vibrations shifting up through each pillar, strut, and floor, and shaking Jackson as he stood there. Locking his hand onto a crate for stability, he heard footsteps outside of his door.
Without a word it was opened and he was ushered out. With two armed Guards at his tail, he was taken through the ship, onto the prow, down the shaking gangway, and onto solid land.
The wind and rain lashed him, sending rivulets off his nose and trickling into his mouth. Shaking his head now and then to shift it from his hair, he followed every order he was given.
With forks of lightning stabbing through the sky and the roar of the ocean behind, he was led up shear, steep steps to the facility beyond. Soldiers in wet-weather gear were spread at even intervals, expressions and stances dauntless despite the screaming wind and drenching rain.
As he neared a solid, but rusted metal door, it grated open and he was marched inside.
When it closed behind him, the sound of the storm turned into a muffled yowling, the thick walls of the building holding it back with ease.
In silence he was marched through narrow, musty corridors with unmarked doors, up old, worn steps, and finally to a simple room.
The door was closed and locked behind him, and again Jackson found himself standing in a small, narrow space. At least this time the floor did not sway beneath him though.
Settling down onto the single chipped wooden chair in the corner, he crossed his arms, hunkered his neck down, and waited.
The Major would no doubt come to see him soon.
Then Jackson would have to start making some decisions.
She awoke to a blinding headache. Shifting backwards, her arms heavy and hard to move, she forced her bleary eyes to open.
There was an unfamiliar ceiling above her.
Ki did not know where she was and could not remember how she’d gotten there.
Panic bursting through her lethargy, she tried to sit up. Staring at the room around her, she noted the pale blue medical curtains, the softly beeping equipment by her side, and the tubes in her arms.
A half-choked scream twisting through her throat, she clutched at the drip lodged into the back of her hand and tried to yank it free, her fingernails scratching at the medical tape that held it in place.
The curtains were yanked back and several men and women raced in. One man pinned her shoulders while someone else yanked her hands down.
“Calm down,” a woman said from by the curtain, one tensed hand clutched on the fabric. “You’ve been unconscious.”
Ki shifted back, shoulders digging into the thin mattress supporting her. With a sharp groan she tried to struggle free.
She was too weak and the hands that pinned her down were too numerous.
“Calm down or you will be drugged again,” the woman by the curtain snapped.
Where was she? How had she ended up here?
As crippling fright ripped through her fatigue, Ki desperately tried to remember what had happened to her.
The last thing she could recall was being on the dock with the Major and his men... then... then....
With a breathy scream, Ki tried to clutch at her chest.
She’d been shot.
She could not move her hand high enough to check her breast and stomach, but as she struggled, she realized there was no pain. A heavy drugged feeling, yes, but no throbbing agony.
“What happened to me? Where am I?” she began to lose her fight.
A dull feeling started to course through her veins. It brought with it a blanket that seemed to cover her body and pin her down. Blinking slowly, she looked up at the figures around her.
“How did I... get here...?” her words were groggy, her lips hard to move, her tongue heavy in her mouth.
“By ship,” the woman answered clearly.
Ki tried to ask another question, but she could no longer open her eyes, let alone make a noise.
The last thing she heard was a curt “go and get the Major.”
Jackson did not have to wait long before his door was thrust open with no knock and no warning. The walls of this building were made of thick concrete and brick, and insulated sound almost perfectly. The roar of the storm was nothing but a distant memory, though he knew academically it would still be raging outside.
Someone flicked a switch and a light hummed on from above. Shifting his head down so the sudden illumination didn’t irritate his eyes, Jackson squinted at the door.
In walked the Major. He was no longer in the neat uniform of the Guards – he was wearing standard camouflage fatigues. He still wore the same expression though, a controlled and refined anger.
“I want to see her,” Jackson stood up, the chair shifting into the wall behind him.
He hadn’t once asked about Ki since he’d been loaded onto the Pasquada, though thoughts of her had all but consumed him. He’d known none of the Guards would tell him a thing.
The Major, however, was in charge.
“I take it the Zeneethians think she’s dead. They haven’t come for her? You haven’t mentioned anything about her in any dispatches?” Jackson stepped forward, wiping his suddenly sweaty hands on his pants with a nervous twitch.
“For a man who claims to be loyal to his country, you are overly concerned with a Tarkan,” the Major answered coldly.
“Just tell me, did everything go according to plan? Is she okay?” Jackson shifted forward again, his moves jerky and anxious.
A single thought threatened to cripple him. What if the Major really had shot Ki back at that port?
When the Major had come to see Jackson the night before his supposed execution, he’d talked him into acting against Max. The Major had wanted proof that the so-called Archer Reed was a double agent, and Jackson had devised a way to furnish him with that evidence. By pretending to kill Ki, Jackson had wagered that Max would drop his act.
His wager had paid off. Yet there was always the chance that the Major had actually killed her.
It was torture waiting to find out.
“Is she... is she,” Jackson gulped. He knew he should not be showing so much emotion for her. The Major was right; for a man trying to prove his loyalty, Jackson should have no concern for the enemy.
It could not be helped though. His feelings were too strong to control.
“She was kept in an induced coma for the trip. My medical personnel are trying to rouse her. She will then face a thorough physical examination. I want to know why they want her.”
Jackson almost grabbed a hand to the back of his chair to steady himself, relief coursing through him.
At least she was alive.
“You followed the plan,” Jackson’s voice wavered as he gave a heavy sigh. “I was never really sure if you trusted me.”
“I don’t trust you,” the Major countered quickly. “But I trust Archer Reed less.”
“Trust? He’s still alive?”
“Archer Reed has disappeared. So has the unit that was guarding him. Approximately eight hours after he was taken to a holding cell, we assume he was broken out. Though there are no signs of battle, there are no signs of my men either. Everyone in that building disappeared. Despite how heavily guarded it was, and despite the counter measures we had in place, he’s gone.”
Jackson let his hand slip off the back of the chair, not caring as his fingers snagged at the wood, splinters breaking off into the skin. He did not pluck them out – he simply stood and stared. “How did they find him?”
“I did as you instructed me not to. I contacted the High Command, instructing them of our prisoner and informing them of the death of the Tarkan spy. Approximately 45 minutes later Archer Reed and everyone else in that Guard Station disappeared.”
Rocking back on his feet, a cold wave of dread shifted through Jackson. “They’ll come after you. The Zeneethians won’t rest until everyone involved in the situation is wiped out. We’re all loose ends now.”
The Major looked unmoved. “They already have wiped everyone out. I ensured I made a colleague contact the High Command. He was found dead of a heart attack six days ago. The autopsy revealed previously undetected myocardial disease. Before I left, I ensured that every document relating to this case was redacted to hide my identity.”
Jackson was chilled to the bone. The Major’s casual description of events was horrifying. It seemed he didn’t care that he’d condemned others. “Max – I mean Archer Reed – will be able to tell his people you were involved. They’ll know you aren’t dead.”
“On the contrary, I am. I have a body double. He was also found dead of a heart attack almost six days ago. Curious, as the man was fit as a fiddle.”
Jackson wanted to shift back, but there was nothing behind him but that cold brick wall.
He’d always trusted his superior officers. He’d always followed orders. Though he recognized that war was a hard, brutal, uncompromising mess, he tried to afford his commanders with the respect they deserved.
He hated people who equated the military with monsters. In battles you made hard decisions so others lived, but that did not mean you automatically lost your humanity.
As Jackson stood there, he realized the Major showed no concern or compassion. Recounting his story with a calm and straight face, it obviously did not affect him.
“All of this goes a ways to confirming your story,” the Major finally showed a scrap of emotion, but it was intense anger, and not well-overdue sorrow. “The Zeneethians....”
“Listen to me, they’ll try to track us down. If they think—” Jackson began.
“They believe we are all dead. As you advised, I had a section of that gun removed and destroyed. I have brought the rest of it with us. It is... most interesting,” a deep passion rang through the Major’s words. His gaze blazed with interest as a smile curled his moustache.
Now he was showing emotion. It did not evidence his humanity though; simply his lack thereof. The Major’s demeanor was one of undisputed dominance and a lust for power.
Jackson did not want to believe what he was seeing or hearing; though his loyalty had been questioned in the past several weeks, it was still buried deep in his bones. He’d always served his country. He’d always known how to protect those he cared for.
With Ki safely tucked up in the hands of his military, he should have been thrilled. With the Zeneethians assuming she was dead, there was no threat she would be kidnapped again. She was right where Jackson had been trying to get her. In this facility they could find out her secrets in peace.
So why did his gut feel like it had been tied to an anchor and pushed into the deepest ocean? As he stood there and composed himself in the face of the Major’s actions, he felt nothing but contempt for the man and the whole operation.
“We will find out her secrets. We will also find out how that gun works,” the Major gave a crooked smile, “we have brought it to this facility, and my best scientists are currently working on it. If you are cleared of your charges, you will be able to help them.”
Jackson nodded numbly.
“First, you will need to tell me everything once again. From the beginning, I want to know exactly what happened to you. You no longer need to fear that I won’t believe your story. The events of the past week have proven to me that we are dealing with an unusual enemy. So tell me everything.”
Jackson ran a hand down his face distractedly, his fingers snagging against his nascent beard. “Of course,” he agreed, voice dull.
He was out of the frying pan and into the fire. While his journey through the mineshafts of Paladin Mountain had been treacherous, as he talked with the Major he began to understand that whatever was happening here was worse. Far worse.
Ki woke rarely over the next several days. Wherever she was, they kept her under with drugs, waking her only when they deemed necessary.
Occasionally she would catch glimpses of her surroundings. The ground was cold, carved stone, worn down and scuffed by footfall. The walls were a mix of rock, concrete, and mottled red brick. Everything looked old and faded, constant sun exposure and general use having drained it of color and life.
Whenever her blue curtains were pulled back, she could see out into the large room around her. Once or twice she’d caught sight of a squared off, stone window ledge. It showed a view of some kind of compound, a fleeting glimpse of a lighthouse beyond, and a thin strip of ocean leading off to the horizon.
She had no idea where she was. She assumed it was an island though. She’d overheard the doctors and nurses talking about something called Avictus. She had no idea whether that was the name of the island, but it seemed to fit.
She’d given up asking how she’d gotten here. She’d also stopped demanding they tell her what they were doing to her. She had never, however, stopped asking to see Jackson.
He had to be here.
If not because reason dictated it, then because her every hope forced her to believe it had to be so. He was her only constant now, her only rock. Though they’d never really gotten along, she would trade this cold building, those clean blue curtains, and the unsympathetic medical staff for him any day.
When she was not asleep, she was either being questioned or poked and prodded with syringes and machines. The doctors had taken so much of her blood that she had a constant pounding headache and a numb, tingling sensation in her limbs and the tip of her nose.
She answered what she could. She told them about the Zeneethians, about the Scouts, about the weapons she’d seen. She tried to recount her stay and the experiments that had been performed on her, but the facts she could remember were scant. She could describe what had happened, but she couldn’t tell them why. She’d never understood what the Zeneethian scientists had wanted her for, let alone what their experiments had been designed to do.
As the days wound on, she started to withdraw, accepting her new fate. She was a prisoner of the Ashkan Military. She would escape only when she died.
Unless there was a miracle.
A full week passed before Jackson gained the Major’s trust enough to be let out of his room. He was not permitted to walk freely through the facility, but it was a start.
With every passing hour the Major became more excited about the Zeneethian gun. Jackson had overheard him raving about it, lauding it as the weapon that would finally quash the Tarkans and bring Ashka the victory it had always deserved.
The mood in the facility was one of subdued shock. The initial surprise of the particle gun and its incredible capabilities was wearing off, but people still walked the halls with pallid, distracted expressions. Even the soldiers were not immune to it.
They all knew something huge was happening. Technology centuries beyond their own had all but fallen from the sky.
Jackson pitied them, but his compassion only went so far. The Major was not a man who should enjoy the empathy of others. He did not deserve it.
In the past several days something had been confirmed for Jackson. A horrible, wounding fact. The people of this facility, and Major Victor Bradshaw especially, were hell bent on using this situation for one end: the destruction of Tarka. It was as if the threat of the Zeneethians was once again a myth. Every conversation he overheard was about how this would help them win the next war with ease.
Were they all blind? Were they stupid? Did they think that the Zeneethians would sit back and let them manufacture stolen weaponry en masse? Had the Major forgotten Max’s threats?
Though Jackson riled against it, he still understood what was happening here. The Zeneethians were an untested, previously unknown, and unquantified threat. The Tarkans were not. In the mind of every Ashkan, they were the greatest monsters to have ever existed. They were the real enemy, because they were the only enemies his people had ever known.
Presumably the Major believed that once they annihilated the Tarkans, they could then prepare for whatever threat Zeneethia would bring. In his mind it was smartest to complete the easiest task first.
This was all about revenge.
Jackson fought to keep his feelings and misgivings to himself. As he regained the Major’s trust, he did nothing to jeopardize his situation. Though he desperately wanted to see Ki, he did only what he was told until finally one morning the Major ordered him to help with reverse engineering the Zeneethian gun.
It felt alien to shrug into a standard white lab coat and join the other scientists. They were working in a huge stone hall that had been converted into a lab. It had wide steps leading down to it from a higher, mezzanine level and a bank of windows filled one wall. They offered a constant view of the tossing ocean beyond. Avictus Island, it seemed, was assaulted by the weather every day. Constant high winds battled the walls around the compound, and hardly an hour went by without a bank of clouds racing overhead.
Trying to keep to himself, Jackson set to work. He was handed a task to image the chamber of the gun, though he doubted he’d get far. They could copy every single section, down to the circuits and the screws, but they’d never be able to create another of those guns. They simply did not have the power source.
The levitation device. That latticed dust that made it run. The same substance Ki could use to float.
Without it, any gun they made would be useless.
He did not share this with any of his colleagues. He simply bided his time, observing the lab around him.
Jackson understood he had to make a decision. An impossibly hard one. Soon he would have to choose between blind loyalty and informed betrayal. He could either go along with the Major and his men, or he could do the right thing.
Leaving the gun and Ki here would only lead to war, either with the Tarkans or with the Zeneethians as they came to claim their property. Despite the Major’s best attempts to hide away on this island, eventually news of what he was doing here would spread. The second it did, the very moment the Zeneethians heard that Ki was still alive, they would descend.
There was only one thing to do. It made Jackson sick to his stomach to consider it, but the more he tried to push it away, the more it hounded him.
He had to break her out of here.
It was that or death.
Before his shift in the lab was over, he received orders to meet the Major. As Jackson walked up the dusty, worn steps to the mezzanine level, he was sure to glance behind him one last time. He logged in his memory the exact layout of the place. The number of guards, the position of the exits, the height of the windows, and of course the location of the gun.
Then he followed the Major like a good, loyal soldier should.
Ki tried to close her eyes against the pain. It was unbearable. It pulsed and seared through her whole body.
“Just stop, please, just stop,” she whimpered.
No one paid the slightest attention to her pleas.
“This is incredible,” Doctor Sherk said again.
She’d began to learn the names of the various doctors and nurses that attended her. They had never introduced themselves, but she’d picked them up as they’d chatted amongst themselves.
Ki even knew some of the soldiers that guarded her too.
It did not matter though; they never listened to her.
“Is the Major on his way?” Sherk yanked back the blue curtain excitedly, hooking it away, revealing the rest of the room in full.
“Yes, sir,” one of the soldiers by the door snapped a salute.
“Excellent. He’ll be thrilled that we’ve finally cracked it.” Sherk stared, wide-eyed at Ki. Though that wasn’t quite accurate – he looked at her arm.
For the past two days the doctors had poked and jabbed at the scars the Zeneethians had left. Like children digging in a sandpit, they’d scoured the flesh with various devices, taking samples, even hooking her up to machines.
She’d tried to block them out, just as she’d once tried to block out the Zeneethians. It was too hard though. At least the Zeneethians had never tried to hurt her – the Ashkans didn’t seem to care.
“Do we have more magnets?” Sherk danced back on his feet, nervous eyes flicking over the room. He looked like a host getting ready to entertain an important guest. In a way, he was. Ki had come to understand how reverent and loyal every person in this facility was to Major Bradshaw. Or perhaps it was not him that assured their keen diligence – maybe it was the prospect of finding out her secrets and using them against her people. She heard them speaking of how they would use the Zeneethian gun to finally wipe out every Tarkan. It was no act and it was no lie; every man and woman on this island wanted to finally defeat her people, if not kill them outright.
“Plenty, we’ve brought them up from the lab,” someone answered as they hefted a box and placed it on the clean white enamel table before her bed.
“Not too many, one or two will suffice. We do not want to injure her unnecessarily. We have a long road ahead of us finding out what this effect is, and we can’t afford to make any mistakes.” Sherk clasped his hands behind his back and nodded at the magnets.
“Sir, the Major is here,” the soldier by the door straightened up and snapped to the side.
In walked the one man Ki feared more than any other. Right now she would kill to be back in the hands of Max. At least he’d never considered her with such a look of cold, barely-suppressed hatred. Whatever burned behind the Major’s gaze and fueled his actions, it was horrible and unspeakably bitter. Perhaps he’d lost someone dear to him in the wars, maybe he’d lost his entire family. Whatever the reason, his attitude went far beyond loathing.
She turned from him, panting as the pain ripping through her arm began to ebb.
“What have you got for me?” the Major walked in and took up position several meters from her bed.
Behind him, someone else walked in, their footfall measured and slow.
She felt something and turned.
Jackson. He was standing just inside the door, one hand gripped into a fist, the other tapping erratically at his thigh. His lips were bunched together, his chin dimpled and stiff.
Emotion swept off him. She had no trouble in reading it.
Concern. Soul-shredding fear at what was going on and what would happen next.
He made eye contact with her briefly.
If she could have slowed down that moment, she would have lived the rest of her days in it. For weeks she’d been treated like nothing more than an animal, in that moment he gave her something more.
Any mistrust she’d ever had for him burned up. In the face of everything that had happened to her since they’d parted ways, she understood how lucky she’d been to come across him. Belligerent, yes, distrustful, of course, but at least he’d tried to treat her like a human.
“I don’t have long. This better be good,” the Major fixed Sherk with a tired, unforgiving look.
“Of course. It’ll take seconds to demonstrate,” Sherk grabbed one of the magnets and moved over to her. “As I have already told you, there is nothing unusual about this Tarkan. All the tests we’ve done have come back with expected results. We were ready to give up until we started to pry further into those strange scars over her arms.”
Pry they had – literally. With scalpels and calipers, they’d run every conceivable test, no matter how invasive.
“Doctor, please, I don’t need an introduction. I just need some results. Show me what you have.” The Major cleared his throat gruffly.
Sherk grabbed one of the magnets, took a sharp, readying breath, and let it go.
The magnet did not fall to the ground and clang against the hard stone. Though it was the size of a large coin, and though Sherk was standing a meter from her side, the magnet hovered for a split second. Then it shot towards her arm.
As it did, the pain returned. Burning and bursting through her veins, it felt like they’d injected her with lava. Her mind rang with it.
The magnet did not slam into her. It came to a sudden stop several centimeters from her, suspended in mid-air.
With an unusual, high-pitched hum, it began to vibrate. Slow at first, it became quicker and quicker.
Ki screamed, trying to pull back, but her arms were locked in place by tight leather straps. The more she fought against them, the more she banged and bruised herself. “S-s-stop it. Make it stop. Make it stop.”
No one moved. Everyone stared at the magnet as it shifted so violently it started to glow bright red with heat.
Then it disintegrated. Bright-white dust falling to the floor and singeing the brown stone.
No one said a word.
Ki fitted, twisting her head back and forth as she tried to overcome the pain.
“What... did we just witness?” the Major stepped forward, his usual composure gone, his eyes rimmed with white.
“That was nothing more than a standard magnet. We found this effect by chance. One of our devices was behaving unusually—” Sherk began.
“Doctor, what the hell just happened?” the Major snapped, voice booming through the room.
“We don’t know. We surmise it has something to do with those scars. To be honest, we simply lack the technical understanding to even begin to comprehend this process. We believe it has something to do with the atomic level—”
“You don’t know? Then find out. Triple the guards in this room. I’ll bring you whatever scientists you need, whatever resources. Just find out what’s going on.” The Major’s arms dropped from behind him, coming to rest by his sides, the fingers opening and closing loosely. He wore an expression of slack-jawed amazement.
The agonizing pain began to ebb, and Ki marshalled the energy to turn her head.
Jackson was not blinking. He had not moved. Yet a single tear was tracking down his slack, white cheeks. Clearing it away quickly and coughing, he took a shaky step towards the Major. “Sir, please remember we must be careful. If you let any word of what’s going on here out, the Zeneethians will find out.”
The Major ignored him. He simply stared at the singed marks on the stone floor. “Whatever this is,” he pointed to the ground with a shaking hand, “we can use it.”
Ki closed her eyes. She turned off. She couldn’t listen to this. The Zeneethians had been one thing, the Ashkans were worse. They wanted to use her as a weapon against her own people. She had never been involved in the wars that had divided her planet in two for centuries, yet now it seemed she would decide them.
If the Zeneethians did not intervene. Jackson was right. As soon as word of what had happened to her got out, they would come for her. This time they would send a whole squadron, perhaps an entire floating city would descend from the sky.
She was trapped between a rock and a hard place, and her only hope was a man she’d barely grown to trust.
Wincing one eye open, she sought out Jackson.
He no longer looked at her. He stared at the ground, eyes hooded from view.
His loyalty was strong – she knew that. He’d lost so much to the Tarkans, including his fiancée. He had every reason to ignore her. She simply hoped he would not.
Drawing on her years of meditation, she tried to quiet her mind and still the pain shifting up her arm and back. It could do nothing to dampen her despair though. Only a miracle could dispel that.
He’d come to his decision. Standing there and staring at her as she’d thrashed in obvious pain, Jackson had made up his mind.
This was wrong. Even if Ki could help them vanquish the Tarkan threat forever, this was not how it should be done.
It was as if everyone around him had been turned into sheep. No one was thinking, no one was questioning, they were just following their orders with no heed to where they would lead them and all of Ashka.
Well Jackson had thought it through. Over the past several weeks of his virtual incarceration on Avictus, he’d done nothing but think.
It was time for action.
He was in his room. He’d been moved from that tiny cell with that single rickety chair. Now he had a bed and view of the lighthouse outside.
He stared at it slicing through the dark night as he loosened his top shirt button. Grabbing at his sleeves, he rolled them up his arms securely.
He didn’t like what he was about to do, but he had little choice. If he remained here and did nothing, he’d be complicit in the destruction he knew was coming.
Max’s anger at Ki’s death had not been faked. The Zeneethians would be an inconceivable enemy.
Taking a step back, he finally turned from the view, his footfall hollow and light.
He inhaled slowly and deliberately, then opened the door. It grated open, the noise sending tingles of anticipation down his spine.
He was no longer guarded, but as he walked casually down the corridor a passing soldier paused to ask where he was headed. He lied and said to the kitchen for a snack.
When Jackson was past the man, he turned and waited, listening keenly to the soldier’s footsteps echoing through the corridor.
He had to time this perfectly.
He reached the stairs. With a sick stomach he looked down them, appreciating how high they were.
Waiting for the soldier to make his sweep down the hall and return, Jackson took a step down.
He deliberately misplaced it, his heel slipping against the worn and smooth stone. His leg jerked out from underneath him and he fell, body slamming into the stairs as he rolled down them.
He tried to keep his descent controlled, kept his arms tucked in, and his head stretched out so his skull wouldn’t bash against the steps. When he reached the bottom, he let out a deliberate and loud cry.
The soldier came running. “Sir, are you alright?”
“Damn it,” Jackson spat bitterly, “I think I’ve broken something.”
Twisting around in faked agony, he waited for the soldier to rush to his side. The kid was young, and with one look at Jackson wiped his brow and swore. “I’ll get you to sick bay. Hold on, I’ll find help.”
Jackson lay exactly where he was as he waited. Though he was certainly bruised and would have a hobble for a while, he’d been careful not to break anything.
They didn’t need to know that though. All they needed to do was take him to sickbay. He’d do the rest from there.
Soon the soldier returned with another man, and between the two of them they helped Jackson across the other side of the building and all the way up to sickbay.
When he arrived in the door, a nurse rushed to his aid, obvious empathy rumpling her brow. Though Jackson had once been treated as a traitor, his story was no longer questioned.
“Here, take him to a bed. How did this happen?” the nurse ushered the soldiers towards an empty cot.
“Fell down the stairs,” Jackson coughed heartily, wincing as he did.
“I saw it. It’s a miracle you didn’t crack your head open,” the young soldier laughed in relief.
“I guess I’m just tired. I’ve been working on that weapon non-stop. We need to find out its secrets as soon as we can,” Jackson kept an affable, believable tone as he lied.
The nurse’s smile warmed. “All of Ashka will remember your story, Jackson Walker. What you’ve done for your country will not be forgotten.”
No, it wouldn’t, and the thought of it sickened him. He had to move on though.
“Thank you,” he smiled, making it as charming as he could. “But... not to be rude, can you move me over to a different bed?”
The nurse looked confused. “Sorry?”
He nodded past her at the closed blue curtains. Ki was behind them. He was barely three meters away. Though two guards stood either side of them, that was all the security there was.
“I can’t say I like being this close to her. I had to put up with the spy for two days under Paladin Mountain – I think that was long enough,” Jackson gave a harsh chuckle.
Both the soldiers joined in.
“Of course, I’ll just prepare another bed and get the doctor,” the nurse moved off.
“How the hell did you put up with the smell, sir?” the young soldier asked behind him. “Tarkans stink, especially this one.”
Jackson shrugged his shoulders. “I didn’t.”
They laughed. It was not remotely funny, but they still chortled at it.
He’d once done the same. As a soldier he and his comrades had taken every opportunity to belittle and put down the Tarkans. Every joke insulting them was worth a round of laughs, no matter how lame.
Now it made him nauseas.
Running his lips over his teeth, he glanced at the two men guarding Ki. They’d joined in the joke, now they were standing with kinked smiles, glancing around casually as they loosened their grips on their rifles.
Jackson turned from them, nonchalantly surveying the rest of the room. Including the two soldiers who had brought him in, there were five guards in total. They were all armed. One even had a grenade tucked in his belt.
Jackson had been counting on that. The Major had deployed a soldier from the Falcon Regiment to sickbay, in fact he’d ordered that one member of the Regiment be present at all times. They were elite troops, some of the best in the whole Ashkan army.
The Falcon soldier was standing by the doorway. He hadn’t laughed at Jackson’s joke. He hadn’t shifted his gaze off Ki’s curtains.
Jackson stood, limping as he did. “Don’t mind me, boys, I can’t stand the smell,” he nodded at Ki’s curtains and proceeded to hobble forward.
“Hey, let us give you a hand,” the young soldier stepped toward him immediately.
“I’m counting on it,” Jackson waited until the guy grabbed his elbow. Then he acted. He shoved back into him, slammed his foot onto the cot, and kicked it forward. Yanking his elbow free, he rolled over the cot and dropped to the ground.
Flipping up, he kicked back into the bed, forcing it into the two surprised soldiers behind him. Rolling to the side, he got up just as the Falcon guard launched towards him.
Jackson saw the flash of a knife. Doubling back, he pulled the sheet from the cot beside him in a smooth, slick move.
Jumping to the side as the Falcon guard slashed at him, Jackson whipped the sheet around, fanned it forward, and threw it over the man.
It was an unconventional move, but it bought him a second. He fell to his knees and lashed out with is foot, collecting the stumbling man behind his knees. He buckled forward just as Jackson rolled back.
The two soldiers guarding Ki had snapped in behind him.
“Stop,” they shouted.
He whirled around, still on his knees, and kicked again at the cot. It slid forward, bumping into them. Launching up, he groped at the small table to his left, swinging it around wildly as the Falcon soldier finally pulled the sheet from his face. It collected the man’s hand, but he suddenly surged forward, slamming into it and forcing Jackson back.
The other soldiers were all getting to their feet. Jackson could hear them.
He didn’t have long.
The Falcon guard screamed in anger, his lips pulling back hard against his teeth. Jackson still held the table, and the guard still pushed it back into him. Stepping to the side, just as he could hear guns being raised behind him, he let go of the table.
The Falcon guard stumbled forward. Jackson moved in. Dropping down, he groped at the man’s side. Just as he fell past, desperation pulsating through him, he grabbed it.
The grenade. Jackson snatched it from the man’s belt.
Rolling, he got to his feet and pulled the pin free.
“Stop, drop the grenade, get to your knees,” one soldier screamed at him.
They all had their guns pointed right at his chest, their faces plastered with fear. Even the Falcon guard was back on his feet, gun in one hand, a knife in the other.
“Really? You want me to drop this?” Jackson half opened his hand, revealing the pin and the grenade. “By all means.” He loosened his grip, the grenade sliding down his hand.
The soldiers all jolted.
Jackson tightened his grip, bringing his arms wide as he stood back. Heart full and wild, he kept his gaze locked on the Falcon guard. The man did not move. None of them did.
Jackson had them hostage here. If he dropped the grenade, they would all die. Shooting him was out of the question.
He moved to the side, heading for Ki’s curtains. “You all might want to step back. I can be clumsy sometimes.”
The nurses and doctors in the room pushed themselves up against the walls, all eyes on Jackson.
He made it to the curtain. Without turning his back on the soldiers, he opened it with his free hand. “Ki,” he called over his shoulder, “Ki?”
Relief washed over him as he heard her call his name.
“Come on, we’ve got to get out of here,” he kept a firm grip on the grenade, holding it high for everyone to see.
“I’m tied down,” Ki answered.
He swore. Exhaling through clenched teeth, he tugged her curtains, yanking them off the rails and throwing them to the side. Backing up, he finally banged up against her bed. She moved her arm against him.
“Alright, anyone try anything, and we’re all going to hell,” he half opened his hand again. “Everyone, move over to the other wall,” Jackson pointed to the opposite side of the room. When the soldiers moved sluggishly, he let go of the grenade for a second.
He could see them now. Working quickly, glancing down at her straps only when he had to, Jackson somehow managed to get her free while still holding onto the grenade.
He could already hear the alarm sounding through the rest of the building. It set his teeth on edge and sent a quick, horrid spike of anticipation through his back and gut.
There was no going back now.
He could hear footsteps reverberating down the hall, headed towards them.
When she was finally free, she pushed herself up, her large eyes quivering. “God, Jackson—”
“No time,” his voice was tight. “Get up and head towards the window.”
“What?” she stared at him.
“Just do it.” He moved around, facing the door as several soldiers pushed their way in, guns at the ready. He held the grenade high. “I’ll blow her up if you come a step closer.”
He shifted back, staring at them warily. “Ki, you at the window? Open it.”
“Just do it. Climb outside.”
“Jackson, we’re eight stories up.”
“Ki,” he walked backwards, attention swinging between the soldiers at the door and the ones near the wall.
He heard the window grate open. Immediately he felt a harsh, frozen wind buffet against him.
There was always a storm buffeting Avictus Island, and tonight was no different. He could hear the roar of the waves outside, relentlessly smashing against the wall that kept the building safe.
“Take it slow,” Jackson warned her. “There should be a ledge—”
“Found it,” she said, voice muffled by the wild wind.
Jackson gulped, forcing down the lump that had formed in his throat. He shifted back.
He banged up against the open window, the pane of glass bumping into him as it was buffeted by the wind.
It was now or never. With one last look at the Falcon soldier, Jackson climbed backwards out of the window with a live grenade held in one hand.
He struggled to find his footing, boots slipping in the rain. Then a hand grabbed his leg, guiding it down.
He looked across at her. She was standing on the slim lip of rock that ran around the outside of the building, holding onto a dip into the bricks behind her for dear life. Her cheeks were pale, her already wet hair whipping around her in the gale.
She was the most welcome sight he’d ever seen.
But he could not relax yet.
The lights that usually shone from the various turrets of the building suddenly shifted, searching them out. They shone against the side of the building, darting this way and that as their operators tried to pin Ki and Jackson down.
“Move. Keep close to the wall. In several meters it opens out onto a ledge. You can climb up onto a flat section of roof,” he shifted his back into the wall, pushing into it to gain as much purchase as the wet stone would allow.
The wind bit into him, tugging at his clothes, roaring in his ears. It was not enough to dampen out the sound of frantic shouts from the sickbay behind them though.
“Move,” he encouraged again, voice a gasp.
Together they made it to the roof. Though Jackson almost slipped several times, he managed to hold onto the grenade.
Ki scrabbled ahead of him, pulling herself up onto the flat section of stone and leaning out to offer him a hand.
He grabbed it thankfully.
The rain pounded against them, coming down in drenching, penetrating sheets. Rivulets splashed over his face and neck, his eyes barely managing to see through the onslaught.
Wiping at his face, he stared around him. There was only one way onto this section of roof – the way they’d just come. That’s why he’d picked it.
Jackson had been planning this for weeks. He’d scouted out the whole compound. He’d planned this perfectly.
Ki stood, wrapping her arms around her thin hospital gown. Staring around her wildly, she began to shake. “We’re trapped, there’s no way down.”
He shook his head.
Jackson pushed his hand into his pocket and grabbed the small box he’d stashed there.
He brought it out slowly, almost reverently, and handed it to her.
This was a risk, a huge, but unavoidable one. He had no idea if it would work, but it was their only hope.
She took it from him carefully, her bare hands snow white. “What is it?”
“The dust from the Zeneethian gun. I removed it from the barrel. No one knew what I was doing. They all thought it was just wear and tear, just muck in the chamber,” he laughed bitterly. “I was in no mood to tell them anything different.”
Her pale fingers closed tightly around the box. “What am I meant to do with it?” she whispered.
He choked. “Use it. Make us fly.”
“Jackson, it’s not enough,” her voice was small and quiet, barely making it over the wind. “It takes a device as big as my palm to lift—”
“A whole scout cruiser,” he interrupted. “Just try. Try to make it lift us. Please. There’s no other way. Ki, just try.”
Carefully she opened the box, shielding it from the wind and rain with one shaking hand.
A blue glow erupted forth as soon as the lid was pulled back.
Staring up at him, tears welling in her eyes, she emptied the box into her palm. Then she closed her eyes and she squeezed her hand shut.
Jackson heard shouts from below. He doubled his grip on the live grenade, though his heart began to sink.
Seconds ticked by.
The lights from the turrets below still searched for them.
It was over. If they could not float away, they would not escape this island.
Just as Jackson’s heart gave up, something pushed out of Ki’s closed fingers.
Light. Moving like water, it glowed like blue fire.
Jackson pushed close to her. She brought her hand forward, grabbing his.
They locked fingers.
She began to float.
That familiar, intoxicating light feeling filled him.
It pulled him off his feet.
Together they began to lift into the air. The wind still roared around them, pushing into their bodies, but it could not pull them down.
Jackson waited until they were at least twenty meters from the roof, then he dropped the grenade. Bringing both arms up and around her, he flinched as it exploded far below.
The light of the blast rippled out, but the shockwave could not touch them as they continued to drift up into the clouds.
They were out of the hornet’s nest, but they were by no means safe. The storm still raged around them.
What would happen next would be the riskiest part of his plan. They were free, but unless they got lucky, they would either run out of oxygen as they floated into space, or splash into the unrelenting ocean below.
He was risking everything on his outdated knowledge of trade winds.
“Ki, we need to get above the clouds,” he shouted into her ear.
She nodded against him.
With the wind raging against them and rain lashing in every direction, he waited.
They continued to float up.
This would be the hardest thing he’d ever done.
Or maybe it wouldn’t be. Falling to earth would be easy. Fighting the Zeneethians would not.
Once they’d risen above the surging storm, they’d been pulled by the winds. Disoriented, freezing, nothing but sheer will keeping them locked together, they’d drifted an untold distance.
Ki had lost all track of time. Her mind had all but shut down. If it hadn’t been for Jackson’s stiff fingers sealed over her own, she wouldn’t have had the heat to keep the levitation dust working.
With the both of them practically unconscious, she forced the levitation effect to reverse through nothing more sophisticated than a desperate, hopeless plea.
They began to drop.
Plunging back through the clouds, she began to black out. She could hardly keep hold of the dust, let alone Jackson.
Clouds brushed against her as they picked up speed, fleeting past in her ever-narrowing vision.
She held on long enough to witness as they burst through the bottom of the cloudbank.
Below her she saw a flash of yellow, dim under a waking dawn, but there nonetheless.
It was all she needed.
She commanded them to slow. Used her last cogent thought to beg the dust to kindle back to life.
It did. With a gentle touch, it shepherded them down to the surface far below.
They were both unconscious long before their bodies landed with soft thuds against the golden sand. There they remained, Ki lying face-down on Jackson’s chest, until she woke hours later.
Pushing up, she stared at the desert, pinning her dry hair behind her ear as a light breeze blew sand over her legs and feet.
She couldn’t believe it.
They’d landed safely.
Shaking, she looked down at Jackson. He was prone, his head flopped to the side, his eyes closed.
She commanded her hand to settle as she checked his pulse. She choked through a gasp as she realized he was alive.
“Thank you,” she patted his chest as she shook back and forth, “thank you.”
“For what?” he croaked.
She shifted back, startled.
He pushed up, groaning heavily, wincing as he wheezed and coughed. “I feel like I’ve fallen through hell,” he crumpled forward.
“You fell through the sky, does that count?” she croaked.
He laughed, though it cost him another coughing fit. “Where are we?”
She pushed back from him.
Slowly he stared around them. “... The desert.”
She nodded mutely.
“But at least we’re alive,” he shifted up, but his arm crunched underneath him and he fell back down.
“Are you alright?”
She shrugged easily.
“That good, ha? Well damn, aren’t we a pretty pair,” he chuckled again.
Feeling warm, she shifted back again, trying to stand. “What do we do now?”
“Get through the desert. Kind of like a mineshaft, but hotter and drier.” Jackson got to his feet, his knees crunching audibly as he latched a hand on his legs for support.
Together they stood and walked up the sand dune. When they reached the top, Ki closed her eyes.
Sand stretched as far as the eye could see. There was nothing but windswept dunes. No water, no buildings, nothing but that golden glow.
“Right...” Jackson gulped.
“... There’s no way we can make it through this desert. We don’t even know what direction to go in.”
“We’ll travel at night. Try to navigate by the stars. If I’m right, we’ve landed in the Farsight Desert. There’s a colony at the northern edge, on the coast. The ancient town of Gora. Some of the buildings are over a thousand years old. It’s a great place to start our journey.”
“What do you mean?” she turned to him.
“We need to find out everything we can about the Zeneethians. There are scrolls, libraries in Gora, it’s a start.”
She raised an eyebrow. “So we’re going to do this together?”
He looked surprised. “I betrayed my people—” he began.
“I’m not questioning you, Jackson. I trust you now. But do you really want to do this? We could walk away....”
“We wouldn’t get far. I know there’s little chance of us succeeding, but we have to try. I don’t know who the Zeneethians are or what they want with you, but I won’t rest until I find out. They float above our homes with the power to destroy us all. They’re more of a threat than we are to each other. The Ashkans and Tarkans could be wiped out in an instant. We have to find out what’s going on.”
He was right.
Taking the initiative, she took the first step and headed down the dune.
He chuckled from behind her. “Keen? We’ve got a long trek ahead of us. Also, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but you’re still wearing a hospital gown, and there’s a mighty big gap in the back.”
She gasped with indignation, cheeks flushing in a snap.
Jackson headed past her, boots sinking into the sand with ease. He laughed.
“How dare you,” she began, “I’ll have you know it is not permitted to look at a priestess when she is... improperly attired. If you had any dignity you would look away.”
“Improperly attired? You’re dressed in nothing but a sheet and you’ve gone and lost your shoes again. This is going to be a long trip.” He stopped below her, a full smile pushing at his cheeks.
They had already come a long, long way.
A month ago they’d been enemies, now their once-tentative trust had been solidified. Time would tell if it would be enough.
As the sun beat down from above, Jackson pulled his boots off and gave them to her. Then they made their way forward, bickering as they went.
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