Welcome to another free read Wednesday!
We’re back for the most recent addition to my new story, presented through the flash fiction group Wednesday Briefers.
Each week, the contributing members write a chapter/story with a maximum of 1000 words, trying to get the most out of the word limit. For me, it helps keep me writing when my schedule gets tight. Win/win!
(Okay, I cheated on this chapter and totally wrote a lot more than 1000 words. Enjoy)
Hodge and the crew have come to talk. About what?
Missed the first installment and want to start at the beginning? Click here for Chapter 1
Every muscle in Arad’s body continued to ache, so he kept his seat, arms resting on his knees and head propped up against the wall. He refused to show Hodge and the crew any more weakness. The buffer Roku provided between them bolstered his confidence and a bit of snark all at once.
“It’s your house, don’t wait on my account. But you might want to keep your distance. Roku’s been looking mighty murderous these days.”
Hodge crossed the threshold, hands still open, as if making a point to appear non-threatening. “How’re you feeling? That was a nasty jolt you took. Those devices don’t take well to being messed with.”
Ignoring the strain, Arad shrugged. “Don’t worry about me, I’m fabulous. Thanks for rushing in with the medical attention.”
“Thought about it, but the last guy who came in here got the shit kicked out of him.”
“So I hear.” Leaning way over for a better view around the wall of Roku, Arad raised his voice for everyone’s benefit. “How you holding up there, Pakko?”
Vosh growled. Yosei covered her mouth, smothering a snort. Bryce stood back silent, ever watching. Pakko gave Arad the finger. Straightening back up, Arad laughed in that low, mean-spirited way the corrupt police back home used to before stealing a vendor’s money then kicking over their fruit carts.
Looking around the room, Hodge’s gaze landed on the twisted wad of metal at his feet.
“You can have your tray back,” Arad said.
“I misread you. You didn’t strike me as this aggressive.”
Usually, Arad’s sense of survival tactics didn’t include this much viciousness—normally, he’d vote against it at every opportunity—but he’d lost the will to be charitable. He wasn’t going quietly anymore. He deserved better.
“What can I say? The Nightingale’s hospitality brings out the best in me.”
Blowing out a lungful, Hodge dropped his head, deliberately avoiding looking Arad and Roku in the eye. His mouth opened and closed several time, whatever words he had stalling under an expression and body language Arad could only link to… shame?
Vosh’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Why are the rest of us here?
Arad wondered that too. If they hadn’t come as a group, what did Hodge have to say that required an audience? It took an effort to appear nonchalant when his curiosity was so well primed. Thankfully, Hodge found the strength to speak.
“The Ansariland’s engines are initializing. She’ll be ready within a few hours.”
Roku’s voice held an unending tone of menace. “Congratulations. That should make for quite a payday.”
Hodge raised his head. “I expect you two to be on that ship.”
“Come again?” Arad asked.
The weight balanced over Roku’s feet lost a hint of that ready-to-strike agitation. Keeping the shock off Arad’s face was easy. He didn’t trust Hodge enough to believe this wasn’t a ploy to get them to behave. Surprise however, found itself painted on the face and posture of every Nightingale crew member as well as a fair amount of confusion.
Not surprising, was Vosh breaking the silence as he stepped forward into the doorway. “You’re letting them go?” His ursine shoulders swelled, but Hodge appeared unaffected by the display.
“What about the money? We could use that.”
Hodge’s face darkened. “I know, and if I could see a way to cut them loose and get paid, I would.”
Pakko snorted. “Good luck with that.”
“Hey. None of us are angels and we’ve all done a lot of shady crap lately, but no one’s ever died because of it.”
“That you know of.”
A ragged sigh deflated Hodge. “Maybe. But I know it now, and I can’t live with that. You still wake up screaming from the shit you did on your last tour behind enemy lines, so I’m not sure you can either.”
Right there, Arad could see the crack in Hodge’s veneer, the first signs of truth seeping through. The chances he and Roku would walk out of this cell were growing, but not guaranteed. Too much had happened to simply take him at his word, and Arad frankly was still pissed off. Pressing a knife into Hodge’s guilt wounds came to Arad without a second thought.
“A lot harder to sell the product when you meet it face to face?”
Hodge winced. “A little something like that. I’d like to think that someday when I meet my wife and daughter on the other side, they’ll be able to look me in the eye.”
A sobering thought. It had been years since Arad had entertained the idea of facing his family again after casting him out. Hodge’s family were dead rather than he being dead to them, as in Arad’s case. Arad supposed he couldn’t understand the wish, but questioned whether Hodge would end up with his lost family in heaven.
Before he said something counterproductive, Arad changed the subject. “Forgive me if I’m feeling a bit skeptical, but what’s the plan here?”
“Once you’re on board and ready to leave, we’ll send you the command keycodes to unlock Roku’s restraints. Then you go on your way, and we never cross paths again.”
“So far I like the plan. Why don’t you just let him free now?”
Hodge’s gaze shifted squarely on Roku. “I don’t want you killing us all in our sleep.”
While his stance may have retreated from pouncing, Roku managed to keep his presence commanding and unforgettable despite the shackles. His throaty chuckle chilled. “The idea has merit.”
Everyone’s reactions were at various levels of visiblity, but all of them unsettled, even Vosh.
“What about the other DemiShou?” Arad asked. He wasn’t leaving without them, but they weren’t in a position to fight to force the crew’s hands given the current situation.
“Take them with you. I’m canceling the deal.”
Vosh’s jaw nearly hit the floor. “Are you kidding? ApexCorp won’t let us breach contract.”
“The contract is illegal, even by their own standards. Besides, I’ve gathered enough evidence to make them keep their distance.”
“They have lots of contacts. We’ll be looking over our shoulders in every port.”
Hodge turned his full attention on Vosh, standing inches away. “If you want to stay on this ship, it’s not up for debate.”
“You can’t do this.”
“Stop being an asshole,” Hodge barked. “The only reason you don’t like Roku is because you had a dick measuring contest in the ring and came up short. There is always someone out there bigger and badder than you. Have a little honor about losing in a fair fight. You should be better than that. It’s why I hired you in the first place, because I can trust you to watch my six.”
Vosh flinched at Hodge’s assessment. The core of his animosity towards Roku was prime toxic alpha male crap that couldn’t be easily bred out of thousands of generations no matter how hard some might have tried. Arad had seen it far too may times, the men whose entire egos were built on being stronger than the rest around them. A waste of time when a man with a bigger gun comes along.
“I did some digging and snatched a copy of ApexCorp’s customer list. The people on it…” Gritting his teeth, Hodge shook his head. “There’s no way we’ll walk away from this, once this deal is done. Contract terms or not, the law will override them all. We’ll be accessories to murder and they have the clout to pin that on us. Don’t think they won’t.”
Arad wasn’t impressed, but kept his mouth shut. Guilt might have spurred Hodge’s change of heart, but the rationale for bringing the rest in line was all about saving their collective butts. Pointing that out at this stage wouldn’t do him any favors. He needed to sit back and let this play out, praying it ended with he and Roku safely back on board the Ansariland. It was the only option he had.
“What’ll we do?”
“What we should have done from the start. Not do the job. We have our own contacts. We can barter our safety with the information I have. There’s more than just the list archived. A lot more. If they leave us be, we stay quiet and go about our business, in another sector if need be.”
“You’d better be right—ow!” Vosh turned to Pakko. “Did you pinch me?”
Frustration and impatience in his voice made Hodge’s volume rise. “Dammit, Pakko. Can you keep it in your pants for five minutes? This is important!”
Looking positively affronted. Pakko clamped his mouth tight, crossed his arms over his chest, and faced away.
Vosh and Hodge locked eyes. A long, tense minute dragged out as the consummate leader held his ground under the stare of the ego driven DemiShou. A hint of challenge tainted the air which no one interrupted. Eventually, Vosh exhaled, his shoulders relaxing.
“Do you really think we can do this?”
Clapping a hand on Vosh’s arm, Hodge nodded. “We’ll figure it out. I won’t let us all down.”
“I never liked working for ApexCorp anyways.” Vosh wavered on his feet.
Hodge’s eyes narrowed. “Are you feeling alright?”
“Not really. Something’s wrong…”
Vosh stumbled two steps forward and collapsed hard, taking Hodge with him to the floor. Panic flashed across Pakko’s face as Vosh began to groan only to have any noises turn to forced grunts as his eyes rolled back in his head and his entire body began to seize.
Pakko dove to his knees. “Vosh!” Over and over he reached out, hands coming up short, as if afraid to touch Vosh and make matters worse.
Swearing, Hodge tried to pry himself out from under the massive bear as the fits increased.
Something very wrong hovered in the room, thickening the air enough Arad couldn’t bring himself to take advantage and run out the door.
Roku took a careful step backwards, crowding Arad as he growled. “Something smells wrong.”
Vosh’s arm flailed out and caught Hodge in the face. “Shit! Bryce! Help us here!”
The doctor came into the room, pulling a hypodermic gun from her pocket. Calmly, she stepped over Vosh, keeping a careful eye on his convulsions. Frothing at the mouth, the bear sounded like he was drowning.
Giving up trying to free himself, Hodge’s cries became more harried. “Dammit, Bryce! Do something!”
“I am,” she said in her insufferably stoic tone, holding the device over Vosh as his movements slowed. “I’m waiting for him to die.”
Bryce reached down near Vosh and picked up an object: the dropped control to Roku’s collar. She raised it and pressed the button. Sparks brightened the room for a good thirty seconds. Roku’s deafening roar faded, and he fell, slamming into the bed’s edge and slumping over Arad. Breathing shallow and unmoving, his solid weight held Arad down.
“Bryce! What the fuck are doing?” Hodge shouted.
Pakko lunged at her and she snapped a knee into his face, sending him sprawling. The audible crunch had been sharp over the noise.
Bryce side-eyed Hodge while scanning the cell. “ApexCorp was afraid you’d bail on the project. So they made me a counteroffer.”
“I’m afraid your commission has been revoked.” Over her shoulder, she called out into the hallway. “Knight takes Bishop.”
Arad’s attempt to climb out from under Roku stalled as a man-shaped section of the corridor…moved. It shifted—walked—forward, and shoved Yosei with a yelp into the room next to Pakko. The figure’s surface rippled, like a million miniature sequins rolling and shivering, changing color until each individual dot returned to a range of solid tones leaving a muscular, scaled DemiShou standing before them all. Arad couldn’t do more than whisper his name into the chaos.
With uncaring eyes, the lizard strode across Vosh’s twitching body and grabbed Hodge by the hair and raked his claws across Hodge’s throat with the other. Blood splashed the walls, ending Hodge’s frantic struggles with a wet choke. Yosei clasped both hands over her mouth and shrieked at full volume, scuttling backwards, deeper into the corner. Pakko did the same, his voice lost in horror.
Shichi released Hodge’s and turned his steely attention on Pakko. Bryce laid a gentle hand on Shichi’s shoulder, stroking him tenderly. “No. We need the techs. For now.”
A faint rush of air escaped Vosh and he stopped moving. Bryce kneeled and pressed a finger to his neck and scanned the data displaying on her small wrist monitor. “A touch slower than I expected, but still effective.”
Arad hissed and shook Roku, whose dead weight pinned him down. “Roku, wake up. Wake up!”
Standing up, Bryce ignored Arad, letting her hand drift up Shichi’s chest and neck, across his hairless skull. The multicolored scales shimmered in shades of dangerous reds and orange, bleeding into less heated shades of yellow and green as he leaned into the touch, sniffing along her wrist and forearm, all without losing sight of everyone else. His body relaxed, but the remnants of Hodge’s throat dripping off his claws made it clear he would kill anyone in the room if Bryce asked.
“ApexCorp suspected Hodge would breach their trust and were kind enough to give me Shichi’s verbal command codes so I could secure the ship. He was designed to be a private mercenary to his client.”
“I can’t believe you’re touching him.” The amount of contact she’d had with Shichi flew in the face of everything he’d seen and understood about her. Not just him, but everyone else as well.
“DemiShou don’t spread random disease like standard humans. They’re superior in every way.”
“You woke him?”
She shrugged. “His processing was complete. Shichi just needed someone to give him direction, isn’t that right, darling? Binding him to me wasn’t a hardship.”
“How did you get in my cargo bay?”
Bryce nudged at Hodge’s pale corpse with the toe of her boot, satisfied with the lack of reaction. “I copied your command access off Yosei’s pad days ago.”
Arad gasped as he watched how Shichi gravitated towards Bryce, following her every motion. “He’s imprinted on you.”
Bryce’s sly smile chilled Arad as she leered over Shichi’s naked body, pausing at the thick organ swaying between his legs. “Like I said, it wasn’t a hardship.”
What was that noise, Arad thought, that pounding, growing louder by the second, reverberating through Arad’s chest and head, suffocating all reason? No one’s heartbeat should have such power. Arad hadn’t known this level of terror had never spiraled under Arad’s ability to decipher a way out in all the messed up circumstances of his life. He was so screwed. They were so screwed. Blinking back tears, Arad shook Roku again. He didn’t respond.
They might actually die here. Today. He thought they’d have more time.
“Ship, identify the Nightingale’s commanding officer,” Bryce said to the ceiling.
A synthetic male voice replied. “Protocols following the cessation of Captain Hodge’s life signs have auto-promoted Dr. Bryce Southerland to rank of captain.”
Pocketing the hypodermic gun in her lab coat, Bryce couldn’t look more pleased with herself. “Perfect. Now, Hodge was correct about one thing. We need to talk. You and I need to have a serious conversation about the future of the DemiShou.” See nodded in Arad’s direction to Shichi. “Bring him.”
Without hesitation, Shichi stalked his way. Arad shouted and shoved at Roku in a last ditch effort to wake him, but he didn’t react, barely making a sound when Shichi tossed the tiger’s unconscious body aside. One look into Shichi’s cold stare and panic flooded Arad.
Run, run run!
He scrambled to escape, too get out of reach in this tiny, tiny space. Diving onto one bed, he scramble-crawled to get around the killer Demi, only to scream out in pain as Shichi’s bloody hand caught a fistful of his hair. Arad grabbed at Shichi’s wrist, trying to prevent his scalp from being torn off in chunks as he was hauled outside.
“Let go of me! Roku! Wake up! Roku!”
He kicked at his captors as best he could, being kept out of Bryce’s reach as she locked the cell door with everyone else inside. He never stopped fighting for all the good it did as they pulled him down the hallway and away from Roku.
Want to start from the beginning? Click here for Chapter 1
Be sure to check out the other Wednesday Briefers!