Pain came first, bursting into being and spreading across his body like fire. Taren gritted his teeth and opened his eyes. His surroundings were veiled and distorted. Even after blinking multiple times, it was hard to see. The pulse of his brain beating against the inner lining of his cranium might have had something to do with that. Messages from his rattled mind were sent to the rest of his body and his limbs sluggishly began to move. He unclipped his seatbelt and fell against the control panel of his ship with a grunt. The monitors were off, but the lights under several buttons were flickering. There was still some power. Large metal slabs were embedded into the dash. Taren turned away, looking for Kylee.
His copilot was still strapped to her seat, head sagged against her chest, long hair covering her face. She didn’t appear to be breathing. Fear gave him the strength to push off the control panel and get to her.
“Kylee?” He lifted her face and brushed the strands of dark hair away from her eyes. Those glassy, almond-shaped orbs stared back at him. He freed her from the restraints and she fell heavily against him. The back of her white dress was sticky with blood. A sharp piece of metal protruded from the back of her seat, the end of which was stained red. Taren’s breath hissed in through his teeth as he fought to control his panic. He slipped a hand under her bent knees and hoisted her up. Her cold body leaned into him as he began the angled climb out of the cockpit.
“If I’d known you’d be this much trouble, I never would’ve gotten involved,” he said as he braced himself against the control panel.
The monitors flashed the “Eminent Collision” message and that danger siren screeched across the cockpit as the planet’s gravitational pull yanked their burning ship out of the sky. And Taren was making jokes.
Kylee just laughed. “Yeah, you would’ve.”
Taren blinked rapidly to get rid of the stinging. It didn’t help. His grip around Kylee tightened. He ambled through the metallic hallway, hoping there would be something to help her in sick bay. There was a giant hole at the end of the hall, where the ship’s infirmary should have been. Taren looked over his shoulder. Through the archway, he could see clear into the cockpit. The placement of the metal pieces in the control panel and copilot’s seat suddenly made sense. There was one more piece stuck in the controls above the pilot’s chair. It must’ve missed Taren’s head by inches.
Rage built up around his throat and made his scalp tingle. Why couldn’t I have died with her?
The distant sound of a landing ship caught Taren’s ear. It had to be the men that had chased them to this unknown planet. Taren took a moment to think, drumming his fingers against Kylee’s leg. He made a snap decision and set her down over the inclined floor of the hallway before clamoring up the stairs. The lights flickered in the kitchen but it was enough for Taren to see by. He loped around the table, past the supplies littered across the floor, and to the cabinets aligning the west wall. After punching the code into the screen, the cabinet door slid open. There was an emergency backpack waiting for him. Once the pack was slung over his shoulder, Taren took one more moment to grab an extra canteen of water before he made his way back to Kylee.
His journey down the stairs became much harder with the added weight of his survival pack. He hobbled through the dark lower level of the ship with Kylee in his arms, to the ramp that would lead him outside. He jammed his thumb into the button several times before the airlock opened. The ramp lowered to reveal a flat landscape. Two moons hung in the sky, casting their ghostly glow over the earth. A dry wind swept over Taren as he walked out.
He collapsed against the side of his smoking ship, taking deep breaths, arms and shoulders burning. Exhausted as he was, he had to keep moving. He had to get away. He cast his eyes across the horizon, ignoring the pain in his head and looking for any sign of life. The red and yellow landing lights of an unfamiliar ship flashed over the hill to the west. If he strained his ears, he could hear the hiss of the cooling systems. There was a river-like coil of lights in the east. There was no way Taren could make it there on foot. There was nothing but darkness to the north, and yet he could pick out darker shadows against the sky that blotted out the stars. Trees perhaps? He pushed off the ship and started walking.
Thrusters coughing across the sky sent Taren running for the giant burrow in the ground. From the size of its entryway, it would be big enough to offer him some shelter. It didn’t matter if it was the home of some monstrous creature. He had to hide. Now.
Every muscle quivered in exhaustion. His feet seemed to be palpitating within his boots, screaming for release. Still, he pushed himself to run across the salt flat of a dead lake between decaying vegetation to get to the burrow. He tripped and fell inside with a surprised grunt. He curved his body over Kylee’s as the momentum of his fall rolled him down into the cave. His body fell against the rocks toward the bottom of the decline, cutting off his cry of pain and surprise. The sound echoed off the dew-covered walls. He rose with a groan and shuffled further into the cave, where darkness was beginning to gather. He carefully lowered Kylee onto the ground, shrugged out of his pack, and began to dig through it. His fingers found something that crinkled. He pulled out the thermal blanket and unrolled it quickly. Using it and some of the rocks that had broken his fall, Taren constructed a crude tent. He grabbed Kylee by the armpits and dragged her into the tent. Then he crouched beside her and waited, hoping beyond hope that the dark blanket would blend into the semi darkness around him.
At first, all he could hear was the howl of the dry wind ripping across the land. He strained his ears for further sounds of the enemy ship or a landing crew. There was nothing. Taren relaxed but only just. He retrieved a pack of dehydrated fruit and broke it open. He almost choked on his food when he heard footsteps approaching the entrance of the burrow.
“I’m telling you something popped up on the radar,” a voice said.
“And I’m telling you it was nothing,” a second voice growled. “The wind and the heat are screwing up the readings.”
The beeping of some hand-held machinery traveled down to meet Taren.
“There, see? It’s picking up some form of heat signature,” the first voice said.
“Is it ninety-eight degrees?”
“Then it’s not human. It’s probably some desert beast. We’re wasting time here.”
“There wasn’t anyone on the ship,” the first voice snapped. “They must be in the desert somewhere. If we don’t check every heat signature thoroughly, they’re going to slip past us and Churab is going to kill us.”
Taren’s brow furrowed. Churab?
“I can understand scouring through a monster-infested burrow for a heat signature that’s close to a human’s average body temperature but…Let me see that,” the second voice grumbled, no doubt swiping the hand-held heat seeker from his partner. “This is a single signature in the eighties. It’s not them.” He threw the machine back at his partner with a thump. “Come on. Let’s get out of here before we wake whatever creepy-crawly lives here.”
They argued for a few minutes more before the first was finally convinced. Then they left. Taren exhaled and leaned back against the rocks. So these mercenaries were being led by someone named Churab, someone who wouldn’t take kindly to failure.
Good for Maju; sucks for me.
Taren yanked his pack open wider and began to look through his supplies. He had enough dried food, canned goods, and food supplement bars to keep him alive for about a week, and that was if he had a source of water nearby to refill his canteens. While walking, he’d kept an eye out for a well or a lake, and had found neither. It seemed everything around these parts had dried up. If he rationed the water he had, he could survive in that burrow for approximately three days, but then he wouldn’t have any water left for the return journey to the crash site.
The mercs should have finished scouring through the marsh in a day or two. It’ll be safe to walk back to the ship then.
Taren’s eyes flickered to the dead bride lying beside him. The gown wasn’t something Kylee would have chosen. It was gaudy and extravagant, with glittery patches of silver, a ridiculously poofy skirt, and a plunging neckline. No doubt it had been selected for her by Queen Miyako.
God, I hate that woman. She never cared about what Kylee wanted.
The grief, fear, and despair washed over the walls of numbness that had constructed themselves around his mind. Suddenly, he was sobbing. He couldn’t control the sounds of agony forcing their way up his throat or the tears pouring from his eyes. So he hugged his knees to his chest and let it come. Then the numbness returned. With shaking hands, Taren pulled his lover into his arms and pressed his face into her soft hair.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered. “I failed you.”
Using the knife in his pack and his bare hands, he dug a shallow grave deeper in the cave and buried her. Then he curled up in his thermal tent and tried to sleep.
Taren woke with a start to find that he was lying on his side. The shoulder pressed up against the earth was numb and his neck prickled uncomfortably. He slowly sat up and rubbed his shoulder. He locked eyes with Kylee, who sat across the cave, munching on some dried fruit. He skittered back against the rocks with a curse.
Kylee’s eyes widened. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“How are you here? You were dead!”
Kylee cocked her head to the side. “Really.”
Taren looked down at himself. “I know I’m not dead. My heart’s still beating and I still feel like crap. I must’ve hit my head or knocked something loose when we crashed.” He glanced back at Kylee, disappointed. “You’re just a hallucination.”
Kylee shrugged and peered into the bag of dried fruit she was snacking from. “Well, imagine some better-tasting food. This stuff is gross.” She shoved the bag aside before standing. She wore black leather pants, combat boots that ended mid-calf, and a speeder jacket with gold stripes down the arms. Her hair was in a loose ponytail with a few free strands hanging by her ears. This was the girl he’d fallen in love with, the racer born a princess. He had been trained to protect her and had despised her right up until the day he caught her sneaking out of the palace to race speeders with low-life thugs. It was hard to believe she was nothing but a memory now.
Taren swallowed past the dry spot in his throat. “I’m sorry.”
Kylee blew a raspberry and rolled her eyes. “People die all the time, Terry.”
Kylee held up a hand to stop him. “This was their fault, not yours. Let the matter be.”
Taren nodded and cleared his throat. “Yeah. Okay.”
Kylee shoved her hands in her pockets before glancing about the cave. “Maju is going to be pissed when he finds out the mercs killed me. Maybe he’ll have them executed.”
“Nah,” Taren muttered, crawling out from his tent. “Your prince charming will wait until they find me and bring me to him. Then he’ll have the mercs executed.”
Kylee wrinkled her slightly upturned nose at me. “He was never my prince and you know it. What are you going to do now?”
Taren sighed. “I have to get back to the ship. If it’s fixable, it can get me off this miserable rock. If not, I’ll have to get out of here by other means.”
“You never did name the ship,” Kylee said.
Taren gave her an exasperated look. “It already has a name and a captain. I stole it, remember?”
“Yeah, but you’re not giving it back so that makes it yours.” Kylee adopted a thoughtful look as she rocked on the balls of her feet. “How about…The Andromeda?”
Taren wrinkled his nose at her. “The what?”
“Andromeda was one of Earth’s mythological princesses who was put in a life-threatening situation because of her mother’s pride. She ended up being rescued by Perseus, a young Pegasus-riding warrior who swooped in just in time.” She shrugged. “I thought it was fitting.”
Taren grew somber. “You’re right. It’s perfect.” He reached out to touch her face, amazed at his mind’s ability to create such a real apparition.
Kylee smiled, just a slight curling of the lips. “You should get yourself checked. You might have brain damage.”
“Maybe later,” Taren said, letting his hand drop.
A hiss came from the back of the cave, where the darkness was deepest. He dove into his tent and wrenched the knife away from his pack before turning to face whatever creature awaited him. He was about to tell Kylee to find some cover when he realized he was alone. He did a double take, staring at the spot she’d been standing just moments earlier. Then the creature emerged.
It had the same build of a dog but was the size of a bear. Instead of skin or fur, it was covered in silver reptilian scales. Its snout was long; its forked tongue flicked from its open mouth. Its milky white eyes had no pupils. Oh, and it could breathe fire. When it barked, a gust of flames burst from its lips. Taren swore and dove out of the way before he could be incinerated. He rolled onto his feet and brandished his pitiful weapon. The beast charged, whipping out a spiked tail to bash Taren in the face. He leapt back with a curse and swiped his knife across the beast’s tail. The alien monster snarled, but its scaly skin remained unharmed.
“Great,” Taren muttered.
He dodged another jet of fire, feeling the heat kiss his side. He continued to dance just out of the creature’s range until it became angry enough to charge a second time. Taren skidded to the side and jabbed at the monster’s eyes, but it cost him. The creature racked its claws across Taren’s abdomen. He let out a scream of rage and pain before he tackled the beast. They rolled over the damp earth, kicking up clumps of mud and wrestling for the upper hand. Spurts of fire flew past Taren’s face, singeing his ears and his hair. Somehow when they stopped, Taren was on top and his knife was embedded in the creature’s soft underbelly. The dog-bear-reptile thing let out a whine and a puff of smoke before going limp.
Taren released his hold on the knife and fell over onto his side. The front of his shirt and cargo pants was soaked in blood. The smell of burned flesh and hair made his nose twitch. His stomach…Taren groaned and began crawling to his tent. Somehow he made it to his pack and found the med kit. Somehow he found the sealing spray and coated his stomach with it. Somehow he managed to swallow the pain killers and apply the burn ointment to his face. Then he lay on his back in a pool of his own sweat and blood, and caught his breath. He stared up at the ceiling of his little tent, fighting back tears.
Kylee’s head appeared within his line of vision, dark hair swinging. She whistled. “You don’t look so good, Terry.”
“I can’t do this,” he said through his teeth. “I need more than what I’ve got to survive in this hell-hole.”
Her smile was soft. “You’re just saying that because you’re in pain. From where I’m standing, it looks like you’re doing pretty good.”
Taren slammed his fists into the ground beneath him. “How can you say that? Look at me! I’m a freakin’ mess.”
“But you’re alive.”
Guilt stole away his retort. He sat up and twisted around to face her. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”
Kylee nodded. “I know you didn’t.”
Taren sniffled and wiped his face with the back of his blood-stained hand. His eyes fell on the monster he’d just killed. “There might be more of them. I should look for another place to hide.”
“Or there might not be,” Kylee said. “You’re hurt. You need to rest.”
Taren leaned back against the rocks, too tired to argue with her. “Yes, ma’am.” As his eyelids drooped, he could almost feel her touch on his cheek.
“Don’t worry,” she whispered. “I’ll watch over you.”