In Which: Elena has some firsts.
At least, thought Elena, I’ll die in a Corps uniform.
She faced down the gun, looking not into the barrel but into the eyes of the man holding it. Keita had brown eyes, but in the frigid, rainy afternoon of this dying planet they looked jet-black and devoid of light. He had always—for as long as she had known him—looked angry, but she thought she saw something else as he stared at her through the gun’s sight. Not fear, not that. Keita had never been afraid.
He looked lost.
The others were clustered behind him in the meager shelter of a crumbled cement wall. Savin was stoic as always, weight on one foot, but she saw his left hand resting on the grip of his pulse rifle. Jimmy had placed himself between Keita and Niree’s prone figure, the medic shielding his patient. Elena knew his expression without looking. The loud argument, in a shattered alley next to a public square, was risking their exposure. Jimmy would be annoyed with her.
“Get the fuck out of the way, Shaw!” Keita yelled.
She did not move. “Stand down, Ensign,” she said evenly.
“She killed the lieutenant! She set him up! You were there! You saw just like I did!”
Behind her, the girl she was protecting made a small sound, and Elena wanted to tell her to shut up. “She was a prisoner, Keita,” she said. The child had been in chains, used as bait. Keita had seen it, even if they had been too late to keep the lieutenant from being gunned down. “Lieutenant Treharne was trying to save her, and now you want to kill her?”
The gun’s barrel never wavered. “I will blow a hole through you, too, Shaw.”
At that, Jimmy couldn’t keep silent. “Keita—”
“Shut up, Jimmy.”
She and Keita said it in unison, and she almost laughed. But it was time to bring the confrontation to an end. “You’ll have to blow a hole through me, then, because I’m not fucking moving,” she said. “Make up your goddamned mind. We don’t have time for this shit.”
Seconds passed. Elena could hear the girl whimpering behind her, and fought off irritation. What good were tears? Tears wouldn’t make him put the gun down. Elena needed him to stop reacting and start thinking. She knew he could do it. She had seen him do it. She had served with him for seven months aboard the CCSS Exeter, and despite his pretension of brainless thuggery, he was far more thoughtful than his usual manner betrayed.
“What about you, Savin?” Keita addressed the other infantry officer. “You with me, or are you going to listen to some fucking songbird?”
The nickname sounded ridiculous in context. But Savin, in his typically taciturn fashion, responded immediately:
Keita’s gaze faltered, and for a moment she caught a glimpse of pain in his eyes. Then he lowered his rifle, swore loudly, and stalked off.
The girl behind Elena began to sob openly. Elena ignored her, catching Savin’s eye. “Give him thirty seconds,” she instructed, “then get him back here.” Savin nodded and trotted after his friend. She turned to Jimmy, who had witnessed the entire exchange with growing incredulity. “Can you move her?” she asked.
Jimmy looked down at the fifth surviving member of their landing party. Lieutenant Niree Osai, ranking officer since Treharne’s death, was not unconscious, but she was in shock, blinking absently into the rain, her breathing shallow. Jimmy had used his jacket to wrap the remains of her arm, protecting the torn and ruined flesh from the acidic rainfall, but her color was awful, and she seemed to have no sense of where she was. Part of Elena envied her.
“She’s not stable,” he said. “She’s in shock, her pressure’s in the toilet, and she’s not nearly unconscious enough.”
“You misunderstand me.” She locked eyes with him. “I didn’t say should you move her, I said can you. Do you need help carrying her?”
“Lanie, she’s had her arm torn off. Moving her like this could kill her.”
She did not outrank him. She did not outrank any of them. She had no leg to stand on if she tried to give him an order. She wondered if Keita’s tactic with the rifle would work better for her. “Jimmy, if we’re not off this rock in seventeen and a half minutes, we lose our weather window, and we’re stuck here for thirty-seven hours. You fancy our chances for another thirty-seven hours?”
He knew as well as she did that they couldn’t survive it. Trained infantry or not, they were foreigners on this colony, and the natives who were hunting them knew every side street and abandoned building in the city. Starvation may have driven Canberra’s settlers mad, but it had not rendered them stupid. Keita and Savin had been able to retrieve Niree from them, but over two nights and a day, none of Elena’s team stood a chance.
Jimmy gave her a pleading look, but she did not shift. At last he sighed. “Yeah,” he told her, resigned. “I can carry her.”
“Get her ready, then. We’ll move when Keita gets back.” Jimmy knelt down by Niree, and Elena turned, at last, to the girl whose life she had saved.
She was fourteen, perhaps older. It was difficult to tell, sometimes, on planets where the children were chronically malnourished. She was short and thin and alabaster-pale, jet-black hair plastered to her cheeks by the soaking rain, and she had the sort of apple-cheeked prettiness that rarely bloomed into beauty with adulthood. She had stopped sobbing, but was still hiccupping, and her lips were blue. She stared at Elena with wide, frightened eyes.
“What’s your name?” Elena asked her.
A spark of hope rose in those eyes, and Elena could follow her thinking: perhaps I’ll be rescued after all. “Ruby.”
“Ruby.” Elena nodded. “If you slow us down, or give even the slightest indication that you are conspiring against us, I will shoot you myself. Understood?”
Those innocent eyes widened, and Elena saw tears filling them again. But Ruby nodded, and Elena turned away from her. “Can you fire and carry her at the same time?” she asked Jimmy.
“How many arms do you think I have?”
Just then Savin returned, and marching next to him was Keita, rifle still in his hands, the nose pointed at the ground. He would not meet her eyes, but Savin looked at her and gave her a nod.
“Okay.” She faced the others. “Two groups. Savin, you stay with Jimmy and Niree.” Savin was a dead shot; she wanted him protecting their wounded. “Keita, you’re with me and Ruby. We’re heading back to the ship. We leapfrog each other, providing covering fire.” She looked at them, one after another. “We’re more than a kilometer off, and we’ve got less than sixteen minutes to get there, so nobody stops. For anything. Clear?”
Three nods, including the child. Elena stared at Keita.
“Clear?” she repeated.
His eyes came up, dark and deadly, boring angrily into hers. “Clear.”
Jimmy and Savin went first, Jimmy slinging Niree awkwardly over one shoulder. He was a tall man, but slight—medics did not have to maintain the same fitness levels as the infantry, and with this planet’s Earth-point-two gravity, it was slowing him down. Of course, mechanics didn’t have to maintain infantry fitness levels, either, but she did it anyway, in part to prove to herself that she could, and in part to ensure nobody could accuse her of taking the easy way out.
If she had taken the easy way out, she might not have been a pilot as well as a mechanic. She might have missed this mission altogether. She might have been safe in Exeter’s engine room while her friends were running for their lives.
Better, or worse?
Shaking off the thought, she silently forgave Jimmy his high-gravity stumbles and beckoned to Keita, drawing her own weapon.
They proceeded through the ruined city a few hundred meters at a time, and Elena’s universe contracted into a short routine: watch, aim, wait . . . then run like hell to the next bit of shelter. The gravity fatigued her with alarming quickness, and she could feel a faint sting developing on her skin from the long exposure to the polluted rain. She felt increasingly conscious of the time as the visibility contracted with the waning afternoon, but she kept moving—silent, methodical—Keita’s footsteps solid and constant next to hers. It crossed her mind that she should not feel so comforted by the presence of a man who had just threatened to kill her, but there was no one else she would have chosen to be at her side in a fight.
It was almost a relief when the colonists started shooting.
She heard the pulse impact and Ruby’s shriek at the same moment. They were still a meter away from the shattered storefront they had chosen as their latest shelter, and the shot blasted a fireball into the ground just before them. As one Elena and Keita dodged around it, their strides lengthening, and they dove into the dirt behind the wrecked building. There was another shot, and for a moment Elena thought they had lost the girl. But an instant later she scrambled in between them, arms over her head, abruptly willing to risk sharing the shelter of the soldier who had wanted her dead.
“Where?” Elena asked.
Keita nodded behind them. “That garage we passed, just after Savin’s spot.”
He checked his ammunition. “I’ve got three.”
“I’ve got five.”
“You’re a crappy shot with a rifle.”
He took aim and squeezed the trigger. An instant later the roof of the garage blew apart, leaving a corner of the structure on fire. A volley of shots came their way, peppering the ground before their ruined shelter. The colonists were not terrific shots themselves, she reflected, but it was enough—Jimmy would never get Niree through that.
She aimed her own rifle and fired back conventional pulse shots as Keita took aim again. She heard him inhale, then exhale. An instant later the rest of the structure burst into flames. Five seconds, ten: no more fire. Are they waiting? She caught sight of Jimmy and Savin through the smoke and flames, running across the remains of the city block. Savin had placed himself between Jimmy and the garage, and was firing one-handed as they ran past.
She thought they might make it.
Elena kept up her shooting as they ran, although she never saw anyone hidden in the dense rubble of what was left of the city, never knew what she was aiming at. Ruby had grown silent, and the one time Elena looked at her she saw the girl’s eyes had gone dull and cold.
Probably for the best.
At long last, with less than four minutes left, they caught sight of the ship, waiting in what had once been the town square. Four of the colonists swarmed around it, running their hands over it, and Elena swore.
Next to her Keita let out a chuckle. “Anything goes until they touch your baby, right, Songbird?”
Elena aimed at one of the colonists, then dropped the nose of her rifle and shot toward the ground. A chunk of cement erupted a meter in front of him. He started, and as he turned, she risked speaking.
“Get away from that ship or we will kill you!” It wasn’t much of a threat, but there was little else she could do.
The man—boy, woman; she could not tell from this distance what the emaciated figure had been—shot toward her voice. The round exploded the corner of the building they were crouched behind. She swore again, then did what she had heard Keita do: she inhaled, exhaled, and fired.
The figure’s chest burst with a brief flame, and he dropped.
Somewhat startled by having hit her target, Elena aimed at another, but the rest turned and ran, leaving their fallen comrade behind. She kept her rifle pointed at the motionless form, aware of Keita next to her doing the same. After a moment, Jimmy and Savin came around them, running for the ship, and it was clear Elena’s target wasn’t getting up.
She engaged her comm. “Open the door,” she told the shuttle.
The door slid open. She saw Jimmy haul himself inside and begin to lower Niree to the floor. Savin took an instant to stop by the man Elena had shot—the man she had killed—and scoop up his weapon. Then he, too, jumped onto the ship, crouching in the open doorway to provide cover.
She straightened, ready to run; and only then did she notice Keita looking off to one side. He was frowning, his whole body alert. Next to him, Ruby was staring at their ship, her expression dazed and faintly hopeful.
“Ssh,” he said brusquely. “Can’t you hear it?”
She listened. She heard rain, Ruby’s breathing, her own heartbeat. “Keita, we have to go now.”
He turned to her. His anger was gone, replaced by something urgent and determined. “I need two minutes.”
“We do not have two minutes!”
“Then give me what we do have.”
He stared at her steadily, unwavering. She wondered, if she tried to order him, if he would listen to her. She wondered what she would do if she had to leave without him.
It was not her choice.
“We take off in ninety-six seconds,” she told him.
In a flash he was gone, dashing off into the darkening city. Without looking she clapped her hand around Ruby’s scrawny arm and pulled her forward, running full-tilt for the ship.
She released the girl as soon as they leapt on, heading for the cockpit. “Time.”
“Eighty-four seconds,” the ship told her calmly.
“Lift off at eighty-three and a half.” She met Ruby’s eyes and pointed to the bench along the far wall, where Lieutenant Treharne had been sitting when they arrived . . . forty-six minutes ago.
“Sit down, buckle up, and be still,” she commanded. Ruby did as she was told, and Elena thought her quick obedience had probably helped her survive this far. She stepped over to Jimmy, who had strapped Niree down onto another bench and was applying the ship’s med scanner. “Will she make it?” she asked.
He looked at her, his expression unreadable. “We didn’t do her any favors, hauling her out like that.” At her look, he acquiesced. “Yes, I think so.”
“Strap in for takeoff, then.”
She heard the engines igniting and checked the time. Twenty-eight seconds—he wasn’t going to make it. They would come back for him, of course, for what it was worth, but not even Dmitri Keita was going to survive a day and a half in this place.
Climbing into the pilot’s seat, she did a perfunctory preflight check. She keyed in the course home, compensating for the rapidly contracting weather pattern.
“Flight in this weather is not recommended,” the ship told her. “Heavy turbulence is likely.”
I know, I know . . . “Hang on,” she called to the others. “This won’t be comfortable.”
At seven seconds, she heard feet outside the door and saw Savin tense. But then Keita was on board, drenched and covered in mud, something dark and wet clutched against his chest. “Go!” he shouted at her.
She was ready for him. She jerked the controls, and the ship jolted off the ground with three seconds to spare.
Normally Elena was a careful pilot. The infantry liked to fly with her. When there was turbulence, she would engage the artificial gravity just enough to temper the disruption of the atmosphere.
Today was definitely not normal.
She shot them straight up, as fast as they would go, allowing the planet’s gravity to press down on them. She stared into the atmosphere, peering at the darkening clouds, looking for the fastest path out of the weather.
Through her concentration she heard a sound behind her, and she wondered if Keita’s bundle was a cat.
Her viewscreen began to glow red, and her attention was dragged back to the task of flying. Great, she thought, the planet’s particulate atmosphere is ripping into our hull. Elena whispered a quiet apology to the ship, thinking herself ahead twenty minutes, picturing herself home on Exeter, standing in the shuttle bay while her chief berated her for the state of her vessel. She would be days repairing it.
“Inversion in five,” she told them, and counted down the seconds.
Moments later the artificial gravity engaged, abruptly reorienting them. She heard retching behind her; that was likely the girl. Elena usually took pride in gentle inversions, but today it had seemed slightly less important.
The night opened up before her, dark and pure and scattered with stars, and the glow of heat faded as the vacuum of space cooled their exterior. She sat back and closed her eyes. They were alive.
Most of them.
That sound again. She frowned. It wasn’t Ruby—she could hear the girl alternating between retching and sobbing, Jimmy offering her quiet words of comfort. She turned around. Savin, still relaxed, was watching over Niree as Jimmy rubbed Ruby’s back and held a bucket before her.
Keita sat in the corner, looking down at a bundle of muddy, sodden rags in his arms. She heard the sound again, and then a quiet response from him.
Is he singing?
She got to her feet and walked the length of the ship to stand over him. In his arms, wrapped in what looked like old shirts, was a baby. Elena knew little of such things, but she guessed it was no more than a few hours old. It was wide-awake, but it was not crying. Instead, it was studying Keita with enormous, somber purple eyes, that odd color some babies were born with. Every few moments it opened its mouth to make that small sound, a mew of greeting or protest; and Keita responded each time, rocking the infant gently.
“Jimmy should look at it,” she said.
“Her.” Keita’s eyes never left the infant’s. “And she’s fine.”
She stood for a moment, watching the incongruous scene, then retreated, making her way back to the pilot’s seat. She would have to comm Exeter, let them know Treharne was dead and that they had rescued only two of the colonists. In a day and a half a larger crew would go down, more heavily armed, properly prepared after the report she would give them.
She wondered how many colonists would be left.
She closed her eyes, remembered aiming her rifle, her futile warning. On that planet, killing would have been a mercy. He had been emaciated, close to death, or at least close to the point where his companions would pull him apart to keep themselves alive a little longer. He had been trying to kill them, too; but really, she had done him a favor.
She saw the flame bloom in his chest, saw him drop.
Elena opened her eyes, sat up straight, and opened a channel to make her report.
Copyright ©2016 by Elizabeth Bonesteel. All rights reserved.