I clamped my hands over my mouth and coughed into them. It muffled the sound, prevented it from echoing around the hangar and advertising our position like a firecracker on a coal-black night.
Commander Hatch wouldn’t let up – he motioned me on with a sharp flick of his hand. When I didn’t react immediately, too busy coughing up my lungs, he looped one orange-and-black body-armored arm around my middle and pulled me forward.
“We’ve gotta keep moving, Star,” he hissed into my ear.
I didn’t have the breath to agree. I wasn’t in a full biosuit like he was – I didn’t have fancy, futuristic filters protecting me from the bitter sting of burning metal and chemicals lacing the air. It felt like someone had poured pins down my throat. I wanted to fall to the ground and clutch my face until it all went away.
“Star,” he let his hand fall from my middle, clamping it around my forearm instead, “you gotta stay with me.”
I thought he would reach one of those heavy glove-covered hands up to my face. Brush off a speck of dirt or blood. That’s how it works in the movies, right? The hero’s steady hand cupping your face and brushing at your skin with flicks of his thumb?
A round of pulse fire slammed into the bulkhead above us, sending down a cascade of screwed-up chunks of metal and boiled paint. Hatch pushed me out of the way and leaned out from our alcove to return fire.
I watched him, pushing myself backward until my back met nothing but cold hard wall. Everything zipped, zoomed, and whooshed past me in this kaleidoscope of wild colors and sounds. It felt like my head would pop trying to follow it all.
I’m not made for real battle – I have no experience with this stuff. I used to get sick watching R-rated films, for god sake – I can’t take the violence, the noise, the gore. The bullets and pulse beams slicing past, that awful nose-raking scent of burnt flesh and overheated blood.
I looked down at my hands again. They were shaking with quick shivers like they were cold or something. I tried to wrap them around my middle, but it wouldn’t work; I couldn’t move them.
Wasn’t it ironic that Commander Hatch had thought I’d be able to help him down here? He’d been wrong: I couldn’t move.
A pulse blast slammed into a metal crate a couple of meters from our hiding spot. I watched as the electronic round ate through the metal, blistering the red Nilex Company logo. The blast didn’t go all the way, but it was enough to get Hatch’s attention.
He didn’t swear, just gave it the briefest of glances before lunging for me and crumpling me into his arms until his whole form covered mine.
I didn’t have time to notice his posture or the feel of his helmet pressed into my neck – none of the details a girl should notice when a marine from the future has her in his arms.
The crate exploded, a deafening clap renting the air. It felt like being slapped in the ears with church bells. The force of the blast shook through the floor and up into my back. Its heat and destructive power never reached me – Hatch’s shield took the brunt.
He moved, springing up and pulling me along with him.
“You okay?” He sliced his unblinking gaze toward me. He never closed those topaz eyes for long.
I nodded, praying with all my heart that he wouldn’t let go of my arm. I couldn’t think, couldn’t function. I wanted it all to go away, for Hatch to win and carry me back to safety.
I couldn’t do this.
I wasn’t looking at him. He swapped his gun to his other hand and grabbed my chin and angled my face up. “You have to stay with me, kid. I can’t do this without you. Stay – with – me.”
I wanted to fall forward and come to rest on that armored chest – wait until he’d wrap his arms around me and tell me this was all some joke. An exercise, just more training.
He turned away, dropped my chin, and fired off two shots as a hulking Trip’tan sprinted around the corner.
I squeezed my eyes closed in time. I heard a hiss as the Trip’tan’s shields gave way and his final gurgled cry before he hit the ground.
“There can’t be many more of them.” Hatch didn’t look back at me. “Plus, the arms locker should be around here somewhere.”
I didn’t answer, didn’t nod – made no indication I’d understood what he’d said.
“You can do this, Ariel.” He didn’t look at me as he peered around the edge of the bulkhead to check for more enemies. “That’s why you’re my lucky star.”
I was glad he couldn’t see me blushing. Gladder still when he shot two more berserker Trip’tans as they dashed our way.
We were on the run again. He didn’t pull my arm this time; he strafed to the side as he fired at the mercenaries hiding behind the crates and boxes in this vast space-hangar.
It was up to me to keep myself alive.
I stumbled after him, crouching behind whatever crate or warped bit of metal-walkway he motioned me toward.
He ducked next to me as he threw a timed grenade with a mighty arc of his powerful arm. In a couple of seconds, it detonated, causing another louder secondary explosion that pushed a box right into my back.
It must have been one of those red Nilex crates. Nilex was a galactic weapons company that specialized in selling armaments to whoever the hell could pay regardless of what they wanted to use them for. Killing civilians? Harming children and the infirm? Sure, why not? Nilex didn’t care about politics, only money.
“Locker’s that way.” Commander Hatch moved the muzzle of his smooth, rounded assault rifle over to the left.
I could see it – the door in the side of the hangar room wall.
I swallowed hard.
This was it.
“Can you do it from here?”
I shook my head. I couldn’t see the panel from this distance. “We need to get closer.”
Hatch nodded, his helmet bobbing up and down, the impenetrable translucent force-field over his eyes giving the faintest of crackles. He checked the radar on his wrist. “Okay, Star, I need you to make a run for it.”
I pretended not to hear him as I tried to shy further back against the crate behind me.
“You gotta do it. You’ll be okay. Go. I’ve got your back.”
He pushed me forward.
I stumbled and set off across the floor.
A pulse blast raced right past my back. I could feel it suck the oxygen from the air.
I bolted for the door. Hatch may have shouted something at me – but I couldn’t hear. By the time I reached that stupid small door, my eyes were so clogged with tears I ran straight into it.
The access panel sat high to the right, halfway up the frame at head height. This was made for Trip’tans, not petite human women.
I grabbed for the panel with both my hands, the metal smooth under my sweaty, bare skin.
I had to open it by bypassing the lock; that’s why I was here. Hatch hadn’t brought me along to be an annoying liability – he needed me to open this.
So I concentrated. I sucked up all my courage and screwed my eyes so tightly closed the tension turned to pain.
The panel beeped just as a Trip’tan came right behind me.
I spun as Hatch fired on the thing – one blast close-range then a pistol-whip to the chin.
The alien went down so close to me, one of his arms knocked me backward through the doorway.
I landed with a thump, losing my concentration. The door began to close right on top of me – slicing down from above like one of those traps you find in side-scroller games.
Hatch threw himself at me, pushing us both into the arms locker and free of the door as it snapped closed.
Silence. Total silence. The door and shielding blocked the noise from outside. Only the rasping of our breath filled the air. Hatch’s steadied as he pushed himself off the floor and off of me, but mine putted like a broken engine.
That was the second time in several minutes I’d been face-to-face, belly-to-belly, body-to-body with Commander Lance Hatch and not had the presence of mind to note the details. I was too whacked out on adrenaline and gut-punching fear.
He leaned down and pulled me up with him. “You okay, Star?” He clutched both my shoulders in his hands as he checked my face and all the way down my body. “You aren’t hurt?”
Lucky Star was his brand new nickname for me. It was easier than Ariel De Winter.
“You got us here, Star – couldn’t have done it without you.”
I looked up at him – flushed, embarrassed by his proximity. Not embarrassed, but nervous – worried my face would blister and burn hot red like the melting paint on a Nilex box.
“You did good.” He wasn’t letting go of my shoulders, nor was he looking anywhere but at me. “You okay?” He reached up a hand and brushed at my face with one of those stiff-gloves.
It sent an electrifying shiver down my spine.
“W-w-w-wh-wha-wha.” I gave up on trying to speak. Listening to myself was like hearing a recording of your most embarrassing moment played over and over again on an endless loop.
He took away one of his blessed hands and keyed the code into his arm pad that opened his helmet. It hissed all the way back as the shield separated from the armor to reveal Commander Hatch in all his glory. His face was angular, and his chin cut fine and sharp against his jawbone. His hair was a closely cropped brown hint all along his skull, and his eyes were as turquoise as ever.
Hatch keyed more codes into his arm pad until the armor protecting his hands receded into the cuffs around his wrists. “You’re alright.” He looked at my face again. “All we have to do here is wait – the reinforcements will get here soon.”
“Star? Ariel? You with me? You alright?”
“W-w-wait here?” the words freed themselves from my stiff lips and shaking throat.
He nodded gently. “Yeah. We’ll be okay in here – there’s no way they can make it through Atlantian shields. Thanks to you.” A look of real admiration burnt in his eyes, growing hotter and hotter by the second.
The moment stretched on. My heart wanted to fly from my chest and ricochet around the room like a pinball strapped to a rocket.
His suit gave a hiss, and I screamed. It was just a hiss, nothing more than automatic repairs.
But it was such a girly scream.
“Whoa! You’re alright.”
Then did something altogether unexpected. His face twitched from surprise to electric determination. “Oh, fuck it.” He pulled me close and kissed me.
It was the most intense, amazing, invigorating experience of my life. He pressed a hand the small of my back, pushing me up to meet him. His face pressed warmly against mine, firm, alive, real as his lips traced the line of my neck.
About bloody time.
The rest of Lucky Star Episode One is currently available from most ebook retailers.