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!
(I’m still cheating on the 1k thing. I mean, seriously cheating. This one is huge. The muse is shaking me by the scruff of my neck, so I can’t cut it short now. Enjoy.)
Arad and friends survive after the jump
Missed the first installment and want to start at the beginning? Click here for Chapter 1
“If I still had a torque wrench, I’d have you bless it, you lucky bastard. Can’t believe you’re alive. I was gonna slap you to try and wake you up, but your face it still all fucked up.”
Of course Arad was alive. The dead couldn’t hurt this much. “Thanks, Pakko. I think.”
A mangy pit fighter once told Arad the more times you got knocked out, the more brain damage you’d end up with. Man, he hoped that guy was wrong.
A seam in the metal floor dug into his back. No worse than what he’d suffered earlier, but waking up on the deck confused him. The violent jump must have thrown him from his seat. Great. Hopefully his injuries weren’t made any worse. Pakko helped him roll over enough so he could get his feet underneath him. It wasn’t pretty. Exhaustion and unhealed wounds dragged a cry out of him as he stood. He was forced to lean on Pakko as he wobbled, sucking air in stuttering wheezes.
“I need to get to Roku.”
“We will, but you can barely stand. A minute or two isn’t going to make a difference.”
Pakko was probably right and he hated it. Minimal lighting cast the bridge in harsh shadow, but it couldn’t hide Pakko’s swollen eyes and sallow skin. His body was stable despite the claw marks. Perhaps the initial meltdown had blown through and given him a chance to vent. Arad hoped so. It might be selfish, but he wanted someone else to share the burden for a while. His own soul was stretched thin and translucent. It wouldn’t hold up to much more stress.
“How are we doing? Is my ship busted?” Arad asked as Pakko eased him back into his chair. It felt a million times better than standing.
“We’re running on emergency power, while all the systems reboot. I don’t think there’s any damage we can’t handle, but damn that was lucky. That fold was suicidal.”
“Did it work?”
“Yeah. I guess you could say that.” Pakko turned to face forward, and Arad followed his line of sight.
Arad stalled in mid-inhale. “Oh.”
Peering out of the main viewscreen, a new set of stars blinked in and out, competing with a dancing wave of debris. Lazy and weightless in the endless night, chunks of metal and parts of a flagship landing bay ripped away by the fold jump’s bubble pirouetted in front of the bow. Some pieces sparked, refusing to die off like the rest.
Soldiers’s floating bodies disturbed him the most. Frost glistened off skin, faces almost visible in the inconsistent light. Some were intact. Some still clutched their weapons as if they could ward off their untimely deaths. In his haste to escape, the idea of people being caught in the fold hadn’t occurred to him. Words like explosive decompression, suffocating, and freezing vacuum came to mind. Bile bubbled and rose in Arad’s stomach, offering him a taste of guilt.
Arad tipped his head downward. He’d seen enough bloodshed and cruelty, as well its aftermath for one lifetime. He didn’t need to see more. Pakko placed a hand on Arad’s shoulder, taking care to be gentle with his support.
“What do you think Bard would have done with us?”
Arad’s snort lacked even a smidgen of humor. “Either take us to prison and dump us in a deep, dark hole or put us in front of a firing squad and dump us in a deep, dark hole.”
“Then I can’t feel so bad about this.” Pakko reached over and touched a panel. Large shutters slid down the viewports hiding the destruction from sight.
Arad squashed the minor offense over Pakko knowing where the control in favor for a major sense of gratitude. “Thank you.”
People had died by Arad’s actions. He knew this. Arguments of self-defense ran rampant alongside his internal accusations of murder. He wasn’t a righteous man. He’d committed crimes out of necessity in the past, but nothing had ever led to someone’s death. That he knew of. Pakko could compartmentalize his survival better than he could, probably because of his dodgy history, but Arad would have to live with the guilt of killing people who meant him harm. Absolving yourself when saving your life and others sounded better in fiction than in reality.
However, there were more who’d hurt him that weren’t part of Bard’s crew.
“What about the Nightingale?”
“What Nightingale?” Pakko queued up a security feed—from the shockingly still functioning sensor array—aimed at the temporary tunnel between the ships. Or that was between the ships. Still attached to the Ansariland, the tunnel swayed in the nonexistent wind, while splinters of the Nightingale’s docking wall topped the shaft. A technological flower in the vacuum of space. Anything, or anyone, in the docking bay would have been lost when the atmosphere voided, or torn apart by the gravimetric forces the fold employed.
Either way, the Nightingale was ready for salvage.
“I think we’re finally in the clear,” Pakko said.
“I think you’re right.” The relief brought by that statement began edging out the regret. A beginning at least. Many days, weeks, and months would pass before he’d talk openly about the whole mess.
“When everything was hitting the fan… I know you were really freaked out, but I couldn’t believe how you handled Bard. I’ve never seen anyone talk out of their ass so easily.”
“Where I’m from, people like me who wind up in jail are never heard from again. Lying to corrupt cops pretty much lands in the zone of mandatory survival skills.”
“Just saying it was pretty smooth.” Pakko’s voice trembled, probably as much as Arad’s. His attempt at humor did a poor job of covering his grief, alive and thriving barely under the surface. Arad sympathized enough to set aside his distrust for Pakko’s hand in their current situation. He didn’t have the energy or interest in pulling that thread. Too much unravelling had already been done.
They sat in silence, drawing strength as the seconds and minutes passed without any new disaster striking. Relief lightened Arad’s shoulders, as the overhead lighting brightened and additional consoles came to life. Perhaps the ship wouldn’t crack open and suck them out after all.
“It’s so nice to see systems coming back online.” Yosei entered the bridge carrying the white medkit in hand, her pink hair even more disheveled than when they’d scrambled on board. “A little more warning before you bash us around like that. We made the jump?”
“Yeah. Me made it.” Pakko gave her a shaky smile, but he genuinely looked happy to see her.
Yosei’s eyes narrowed at the lack of view. “The shuttered are closed. How close to Bard’s ship were we?”
Arad didn’t have it in him to talk about the warzone outside. Not yet. “How’s Roku?”
“Sleeping. There’s no anti-venom in your medkit, but I was able to hit him with a broad spectrum antibiotic. All we can do it let him rest. I think he’s strong enough to get through it. His pulse is weak but steady, so I think he’s managing.”
Arad’s eyes burned at the news in a good way for once. “How do you know what to do?”
“Human-DemiShou first aid was part of my job requirements. Honestly, I’m way better with tech.”
“I’ll take what I can get. Thank you.”
Yosei closed in on Pakko, grimacing at the mangled remains of his clothing. “C’mon. Let’s go to the lav and get you cleaned and bandaged. Oh, so gross. We’re gonna have to soak that shirt off you. Hope I don’t barf.”
“We can dig up some spare clothes. There’s plenty left over. I’m going to check on Roku.” Arad climbed out of the chair, pausing to test his stability.
Pakko reached out a hand. “Do you want some help?”
“No thanks. Go take care of yourself. I’ll be fine.” Tired of feeling weak, he waved them off, well aware of their watchful gaze as he made careful steps down the hall.
He tried not to hurry. The chances of landing on his face was high, but his cautious stride let him take in the scenery. The Ansariland made not have been sleek and stylish like the Nightingale, but its bones were solid and had sheltered him for months, been his home. His home. When was the last time he could say that about anything? Anywhere? The ship was his. No else had a legitimate claim on it, and he drew comfort from the fact. A comfort which sprouted confidence in his future. A future including the wounded tiger lying in bed before him. In the bed they shared.
The sound of Arad’s feet scuffing the bedroom floor as he entered didn’t cause a reaction in Roku, and it touched a note of worry in his heart. Sneaking up on Roku hadn’t been possible. Ever alert, ever listening. However, the rise and fall of Roku’s chest pushed back his concerns, even if he couldn’t close the door on them. The sight of him kept it open.
Bandage pads were applied to so many places on his body and Yosei had used an insane amount of medical strapping to hold them in place. As in five times what was necessary. Holy crap, she practically mummified him. Well, she did say she was better with tech. A thought of warning Pakko drifted into his head, but Arad let it drift right out. Pakko was on his own.
It hurt to see him so broken. His protector. His mate.
Strangely, Roku’s condition hadn’t diminished his power, his breath stealing presence, even if it left him defenseless. And just like when he’d first found the DemiShous in the cryotube, weightless in amniotic fluid, Arad swore to be by his side no matter what.
Roku would survive. With all they’d endured, the universe owed them that much.
“We made it, Roku. You just have to get better and come back to me.”
He envied Roku’s deep, quiet peace. How his untroubled brow remained unmoving even as Arad leaned over and place a kiss upon it. Cuts and slashes couldn’t find him sleeping. What a lovely thought.
Taking care for his own sake and Roku’s, Arad crawled into bed, nestling himself against fur and muscle and heat. It may have only been a few days, but being in his own bed brought about enough safety, he could allow himself to drift off.
A hard yank in Arad’s hair dragged him out of sleep and bed, upright against a body he didn’t recognize.
His yell froze when he heard the snarling voice in his ear, horribly familiar and branded into his memories. The source of nightmares for the rest of his days.
“Not one sound. Not a move. Or I’ll kill the tiger,” Bryce whispered, with that damned hypodermic gun pressed into Roku’s arm. “You’ll both be dead long before anyone will find you.”
Newfound panic ripped Arad into full awareness in an instant. She’s on the ship. She’s on the ship. She’s on the ship. It did not, however, focus him past the fear swelling in his chest, robbing him of breath.
Bryce’s unsteady chuckle was tinged with madness. “Shichi’s bite may have been weakened since I milked him, but I guarantee there’s more than enough of his venom in this hypo to do the job. You think you’ve ruined everything, but I still have moves to play. ApexCorp may have cancelled my contract, but with enough money, anyone can be bought. It’s the one universal truth even they can agree on. Profit from the bull should improve my bargaining position. You can make sure everything else falls into place.”
“What makes you think I’d help you?”
“Because if you do, you’ll get your fondest dream. Deep down we both know what you’ve always wanted. Don’t you remember what you told me? All you’ve ever wanted was to save Roku.”
Arad wanted to scream. He couldn’t stop shaking out of shame and rage. On her operating table, he’d divulged so much. Every wish, every moment of life before and after the Ansariland with each cut of her scalpel. All in some vain attempt to appease her sadistic urges. She had violated him in so many ways, and now she wielded it as leverage.
He didn’t want it to work.
“Unlike you, I don’t enjoy wasting the lives of DemiShou. Having Roku on my side will make things easier. I’ll like having a bodyguard while I negotiate the bull’s price.”
“Roku won’t help you.”
“When you’re gone, he’ll imprint on me and I’ll take very good care of him.”
Snarling, Arad spun and took a swing at her, but she countered it and with one punch, drove him to the floor against the bed. More pain racked his already compromised body. Arad was no fighter. He’d spent years avoiding conflict to avoid the attention of the authorities, and she was trained military, even if only as a medic.
Arad wheezed, feeling every searing pull at his ribs. “You’re a monster.”
Bryce stood over him, well within reach of Roku. Bloodstains tainted her normally pristine lab coat—clearly Shichi’s or she would have probably left it behind—and she seemed to be ignoring the stab wound in her shoulder. Perspiration dotted her dark skin in sporadic highlights. She shifted her weight back and forth like a stalking predator, waiting for her moment as she blocked the only exit.
“Human beings are monsters. I intend to be much more. I can still transcend. To do that, I’ll need the ship, but I don’t need the crew. I promise I’ll make it quick. It will be humane when I put them down. I promise. They won’t even feel it.
“If you want me to keep my promise, you’re not going to scream or warn them. If you do, I will tie you down and make you watch as I dissect them. I will cut out their eyes, peel off their skin, and remove their organs. They will be awake through the whole procedure. Don’t think I won’t. You know how much we enjoyed our time together and that will be even more glorious.”
All teeth, Bryce had yet to stop smiling like a demented clown. Back on the Nightingale, she was disturbed, but now, she was unhinged.
“If you make me do this, I’ll be forced to do the same to Roku. It would be a waste of a fine specimen, but I will. Don’t worry, I’ll save you for last, so you won’t miss even one beautiful moment. You’ll know you’ve failed before you die, and it will be your fault.”
Angry tears streaked down Arad’s cheeks. Roku hadn’t so much as twitched, oblivious to the danger. He gritted his teeth, so he didn’t accidentally cry out. Pakko and Yosei wouldn’t be prepared. Not for this. There was no reason not to believe Bryce’s threats. She would kill them all.
“Who’s first? I’ll even let you choose. Yosei or Pakko? I don’t care which.”
Mind racing, Arad spun his trembling gaze around the room. Think fast. Ideas. There had to be something, anything he could use—the butt of her gun across Arad’s jaw snapped his head to the side. Copper filled his mouth, pain lancing through his teeth up through his cheek, but he kept his mouth shut to keep from screaming.
Bending at the waist, she leaned in close as if he hadn’t heard her the first time. “I’m waiting for an answer. Which one?”
Blinking the spots out of his vision, he glared at the medical device she used as a weapon, and it all became clear.
Pawn takes Queen.
Bryce was right about one thing. All Arad wanted was to save Roku. Even back before he’d awakened in the cargo bay, Arad wondered how far it went, how much his promise would sacrifice for the DemiShou’s safety. Roku risked his life, became the wall between them and Shichi went it mattered. He suffered the consequences of being noble. Could Arad say he’d do the same?
Yes. Yes he would.
All those lessons on staying safe—don’t fight, avoid the cops, don’t make yourself a target. He airlocked them in an instant. She knew his weaknesses? Well, he knew hers too.
Blood still pooled in his mouth.
Arad spat in her eyes.
Crimson splashed across her cheeks and nose, some in her mouth. Shrieking, Bryce reared back in revulsion, wiping at her face like she’d been doused with toxic waste. Rolling to his feet, he shouldered her aside with all his weight, leaped across Roku, and wrenched open a rusty drawer with all his feeble strength. His hand was inside when he felt the pinch in his back, the sudden hiss, and the sickly heat spreading from the mark.
Hypodermic gun in hand, Bryce’s clown grin melted away as Arad raised one of Torrins’s pistols—the kind he kept primed and loaded at all times in every bedroom drawer—and pulled the trigger over and over, punching gory holes in her face and chest over until the weapon ran dry, and a few more times for good measure.
The world began to dull and lose its sharpness. The venom worked it damage in short time on Vosh. In Arad’s weaker human frame, he imagined it happening much faster. Burning oil sped through his veins, shredding control of his weary flesh. First, the pistol slipped from his numbing fingers, then his legs bent without his permission and he slumped to the floor. Dammit, Torrins. You were worthwhile after all. The floor cooled his cheek as he watched Bryce’s body, half-sprawled into the hall. It refused to breathe. Not even so much as a twitch to be found.
I saved you Roku. I kept my promise.
The world’s edges fogged even at the heat grew into an inferno. Inhales and exhales took on an odd echo, louder than they should be. All sounds were trapped inside a metal can. If he strained, he could make out the rumble of footfalls and incoming voices, even if he couldn’t tell them apart.
“Holy fuck! What happened? Is that Bryce?”
“Not any more. Is that the hypo gun she used on Vosh?”
“Oh no no no no no…”
“C’mon, hurry! Help me get him to sick bay!”
“No no no no no…”
“Pakko! I can’t lift him myself!”
Arad rose into the air and flew, the overhead lights zooming over him. The burning had overwhelmed all his injuries. He couldn’t feel his broken fingers or the ache of his swollen eye. Fire was in him, around him, filled his being, and it continued to grow.
“Into the medbed!”
He stopped flying and the world closed in with mechanical hiss and click.
It’s like I’m in a coffin.
“Is it working?”
Laser lights scanned over him in all directions. Automatic arms and tendrils dancing in and out of his hazy vision, poked and prodded. Arad barely felt them as little more than mild pressure. They couldn’t compete with fire.
“It’s mapping out his injuries. Oh my—what did that germaphobic skank do to him? Come on… What? It can’t identify the toxin in his system. It’s says it’s DemiShou in origin.”
“Aren’t there DemiShou profiles in the database?”
“What do you mean, file not found? Who has a medbed that isn’t completely updated?”
That would be Torrins.
“Oh no no no no no…”
“Stay with me, Arad.”
They sound so sad. They actually care what happens.
So much movement, so many medical noises Arad didn’t understand. A jarring alarm caught his attention and drew it to a digital drum beat.
Is that my heartbeat? It sounds slow.
“I can’t! The bed can’t keep up with the toxin. We’re losing him.”
I wish Roku were here.
Loud banging made everything rock. “No no no no no! Dammit, Arad, fight! Stay awake! We need you!”
It’s so hot in here, I think I’ll take a nap.
The drum beat rhythm slowed and flattened into a sharp whine and faded into nothing. The room darkened.
Oh wait… one last thing. Tell Roku, I love…
Want to start from the beginning? Click here for Chapter 1
Be sure to check out the other Wednesday Briefers!