When Nailah wakes me up, it is light. Distressingly light. "How long has the sun been up?" I ask.
She shrugs. "Not too long. I only woke up a little while ago myself." She presents me with some more berries.
I shove a handful into my mouth and say, while chewing, "Let's go. We have to move while it's light out. We have to get to the Psychopomp."
"I know. I’m sorry. I think we were both just really tired."
I bite back what I was going to say. I slept longer than her, after all. So frustrating. "Let's...it's fine. Do you still think you can get us back?"
Nailah scratches her neck. "I can get us close at least. The City isn't that different from a forest and I have a good sense of direction."
"Then lead on." We stop by the creek for a quick drink and then set off. The going is still hard for me. Despite my extra sleep, I feel perpetually exhausted. The terrain isn't easy either, being uneven and full of roots. Every time I trip over something, I tell myself to remember to pick up my feet while I walk. Inevitably, I begin to shuffle again and trip anew. And after what must be less than two hours, I feel the need to relieve myself, even though I went before we left the campsite. Ridiculous. It seems the more my body breaks down, the more human I become. I don't like it.
After telling Nailah to hold on a moment, I step behind a tree. The bodysuit was not designed for quick egress. I actually have to peel the damn thing down to my waist in order to free myself enough to urinate.
"Who are you?" The man is terrified. He is hiding a little girl behind one leg. I can understand why he would be nervous about a stranger. He is the first person I've seen since the Doctor smuggled me to the coast of Australia, a little south of Perth. I haven't entered the city itself yet but I have been on the outskirts and passed plenty of empty houses. The big plumes of smoke coming from Perth suggest that my luck won't be that much better in the city proper. What are the Je'Techt doing? Australia isn't under niao occupation. They should have been able to take it with little fuss.
A whimper from the girl brings my attention back to man. It is a little surprising they are this scared of me. I am clearly human and an adolescent of fourteen who looks even younger. I suppose I do have a sword on my back and a gun on my hip, but still..."What's been going on here?" I ask.
The man looks at me wildly and barks an unstable laugh. "What's been going on? Where the hell did you come from, mate? The aliens are taking everyone, is what's going on." He stares into the sky. "This is no place to talk. We need to get out of sight."
As if to punctuate his words, there is a roar overhead. I look up and see a dark, blocky ship descending rapidly toward us. The man pushes the girl toward the closest house, screaming, "Run, Margo!" She takes one hesitant step and a blood-red beam lances out of the sky, vaporizing her from the waist up. The man's horrible, chilling wail snaps me out of my stunned stillness. I leap backwards and start sprinting away as fast as I can. A beam hits next to me, burning a black furrow into the ground. I need to find cover but what could shield me from that?
Something hits me on the back of my shoulder. I'm not dead so it wasn't a beam. What then? Something hits me again. I blink a couple of times, staring out into the forest. "Huh?"
"Are you back?" Nailah calls out from behind me.
"Yeah, thanks." I pull the top of my bodysuit back on. Pushing my dead arm back into the sleeve elicits a grunt of pain. She nailed me good with that one to my shoulder.
Nailah must hear me because she says, "I'm sorry, Cato. You didn't react at all to the first few things I threw so I hit you with that rock kind of hard."
"It's fine," I say turning around. "But I hope I don't slip too many more times before we get to the Psychopomp or you might end up killing me." I laugh but Nailah doesn't seem to think it is very funny. "Let's go," I say.
It is a good thing I don't have to be the navigator here. After just a little while, I am back to having to concentrate on just putting one foot in front of another. My mind starts to wander and I try to imagine what will be waiting for us at the Psychopomp. I can't believe that they managed to break through the ship’s defenses. The armor won't be cracked my anything smaller than a destroyer-class disruptor cannon and it is as unhackable as I could possibly make it. Which is to say superlatively unhackable. Best would be if Black Flynn himself were there so I could hold him hostage to force the Glorious Purpose to let me off planet. If he wasn't there, well, I've fought my way past tougher ships than that destroyer.
We stop for a rest when we come across a small stream. I drink a lot, trying to fill my belly. It's strange. I never really got hungry before, I just ate whenever I felt like it, whether for pleasure, energy or in social reasons. Now I'm starting to forget what is was like not to be hungry. I assume that Nailah is keeping her eyes open for more of her fruit but so far she hasn't come to me with any. I notice things moving in the stream. Smaller and sleeker than the creatures we caught before. I'm tempted to try and catch a few but I don't want to get sidetracked. Maybe if we find another stream before we bed down for the night.
I force myself to my feet and say, "Let's keep going."
Nailah gets up with a sigh. "Yeah, yeah." She sets off and I follow behind.
"What are you thinking, Saladin?" Shentza asks. I turn from the small viewport that she has set next to her bed. She is sitting up, unconcerned that the sheets have fallen away from her unclothed body. I drink in the sight of her. Her features are those of the old aristocracy; high cheekbones, a sharp, straight nose and thin lips more apt to sneer or smirk than truly smile. Her hair is a thick red mane that spills down to her waist. An eyepatch covers her left eye but the other is heavy-lidded, bright blue and intense. Her body is lithe with hard muscles and a number of scars earned in her life as an outlaw. She is also tall enough to meet me eye to eye if she stands on tiptoe.
I look away. "Nothing. Just admiring the planet." I'm not quite sure what planet Shentza's ship, Chantillery, is orbiting but it is rather pretty. Red and yellow.
Shentza laughs and stands up. "I know you're a better liar than that." She crosses the room, naked and supremely confident. I can't help but watch her. She pours two glasses of wine and comes back, passing one to me. "If you are wanting me to cajole you into talking, you should know better. Talk to me or don't. I don't like sulky boys though."
I sip my wine silently. It is a red, thick and flavorful but ultimately kind of terrible. I don't blame Shentza. It is hard to find anything worthwhile in space. True to her word, Shentza doesn't press me for my thoughts. Which is good because I have no idea what to say. I can't say anything. She knows me as Saladin, allegedly the true identity of the mercenary Hachimantaro. That's the way it is. I've never denied myself relations with women though sometimes I wish I could. They knew me as Hachimantaro or one of my lesser used aliases and the thing eventually runs its course. So why am I wondering if I should tell Shentza everything? I know she would understand and approve. Hell, she would probably like the Lindwyrm even more than Hachimantaro.
Can I do it, though? I promised myself I never would. Damn the Doctor! Didn't he always say that half-measures were destined for failure? What am I then? I lay back and drape my forearm over my eyes. The same arguments, over and over again. I should leave, otherwise I am going to tell her. It would only take one moment of weakness against a lifetime of strength. The thought of leaving is crippling, though. Paralyzing. What a fool. Shentza leans over me and I feel her lips on mine. I open my eyes and see Nailah.
She hurriedly steps away from me, face flushing. "I'm sorry!" she says. "I thought...I didn't what to hit you again, so I thought...I didn't think...I'm sorry." She spins and marches away from me. I touch my lips lightly and follow. What was that? Did she kiss me? She must have or she wouldn't be so flustered. Hmm. I wonder what she was thinking. Part of me wants to grab her and kiss her back. Go even farther. But perhaps having a memory of Shentza was a bit of providence. To remind me what happens when I give in to that part of myself.
The next few days settle into a routine. We walk from sunup to sundown, with only a few short stops for water. Or, of course, when my mind drifts away. For better or worse, Nailah doesn't try to kiss me again—at least so far as I know of. Instead she settles on a method of poking me with a rather sharp stick. I suppose it's not the worst idea she could have come up with. Thankfully, thanks to the copious dead wood in the forest and Lightsaber, we have a fire each night. Unfortunately, we find very little food. Some berries but I am reluctant to try any of other flora. Nailah manages to catch something in the river one night but the slimy worm-like creatures are almost impossible to choke down. I see hardly any forest fauna. A glimpse of something moving in the trees or underbrush from time to time but nothing large. Either they are avoiding us or the animals that inhabit this forest are universally small.
By the time we reach the edge of the forest, I am in even worse shape than when we started. It feels like a monumental effort just to walk, leaving nothing left for speaking or planning or anything else. At the edge of the forest, Nailah has to touch my arm and point it out to me. It takes a moment for what she is saying to sink in. We're here. The Psychopomp. The knowledge alone gives me the will to focus again. For whatever reason, my advanced eyesight seems to be working as well as ever. Studying the Pomp and those who Black Flynn left behind to try and hijack it is the first heartening thing I've seen in a long time.
First is the status of the Pomp itself. It is still locked up tighter than Fort Knox. Black Flynn himself is nowhere to be seen but there are about a dozen humans. They are clearly living on planet at the moment because there is a self-constructing cabin nearby. Based on their arms and general look, I would say that ten of the humans are fighting pirates while the others are probably technical experts. Ten is more than I wanted to see. Right now I hardly feel like I could fight one. Really, though, it is better news than I could have hoped for. I don't recognize any of the pirates so it's doubtful they're the cream of Flynn's forces. If I was in even halfway decent shape, I could cut through them with one hand tied behind my back.
That thought depresses me anew. I am going to have to fight them one-handed. I motion for Nailah to follow me back into the forest and a few paces in, I sit down heavily against a tree. Time to think of a plan. My natural instinct is to wait and try and recover some strength. The way things seem to be going, though, I'll likely be weaker tomorrow than I am today, whether or not I spend time resting. The darkness will probably be an aid, though. And that self-constructing cabin gives me an idea.
"What are you thinking?" Nailah asks.
"I'm thinking that I am going to wait until dark, kill all of those men and then take back my ship," I say.
She frowns in concern. "How are you going to do that when you only have one arm?" she asks. "What if you slip into a memory during the fight?"
"I only need one arm," I say with slightly affected confidence. "And there is nothing to be done about my difficulties. If it happens, it happens. I can think of worse ways to die." I say that but in truth I believe wholeheartedly that it won't happen. I'm can't die here. I simply can't. I have too much left to do.
Nailah bites her bottom lip. "What if we surrender? What do you think they would do?"
I wave my hand. "Out of the question. They'd mostly likely just kill me and make a sex slave out of you. They’re pirates. Ruthlessness is a universal.”
She shudders. "Well, then...what can I do to help?"
"Find me some food if you can."
"Well, okay. But, I meant with the attack. I feel like I shouldn't let you go alone."
I tip my head to one side, fixing her with a stare. "Have you ever killed a man, Nailah?"
She takes a half-step back. "What? Of course not!"
"Then you can't help."
"Do you have to kill them? Can't we just sneak aboard and take off?"
Truthfully, I thought of that. It strikes me as risky though. Since I cannot interface with the Psychopomp's network, it will take some time to get in and start the ship up. I'm not sure I can handle that crew without the element of surprise, should the worst happen. More than that, however, I really want to exact some retribution. I want to kill Flynn Oquendo so badly it hurts. His underlings will be a nice start. Nailah is still waiting for an answer. I'm too tired to explain it all to her so I simply say, "Yes." That just deepens her frown. She looks like she is about to say something but then just shakes her head and walks away. I lean back against the tree and close my eyes.
When I open them up again, darkness has fallen. I curse and look around for Nailah. She is sitting against another tree, just to the left of me. "How long has it been dark?" I hiss.
Nailah starts and turns in my direction. "Just a little while," she says, to my vast relief. I stand up. Nailah stands with me and says, "I did find some more berries."
I accept them from her and stuff most of them into my mouth at once. "Stay here," I say as soon as I can speak. "Come out when you see the lights of the Psychopomp." After a moment I add, "And if that never happens, have a good life. My suggestion is to live here in the wilderness but you can take your chances with the pirates if you wish." She looks terrified but I don't feel like comforting her. My wrath is upon me. I steal out of the forest. The little cabin they have is still lit up but I don't see any of them outside.
There isn't any cover between the end of the forest and the Psychopomp so I just have to stay low to the ground and hope none of them see me. This world is moonless so all of the light is coming from the cabin. That means they almost assuredly cannot see me but it screws up my plan. How did I not think of that before? Once the lights in the cabin are off, even I might not be able to see at all. Hopefully they have some kind of night-light or something. If my first plan doesn't work.
I steal around the cabin and spot the most important component of it. A portable, stand-alone generator that both powers the initial self-construction and then the cabin itself. A quick search tells me there is no opening to access the guts of the generator. I will just have to make one. I wedge the point of my sword and work it back and forth until a panel comes loose. Continuously glancing around, I dig my fingers underneath the panel and then pull with all my might. A distressing screech comes from the breaking frame but I have no choice but to keep going. Eventually the whole thing tears loose and I nearly lose my balance.
Dropping the broken panel, I squat down and peer into the guts of the generator. I can see blue-white sparks in the darkness. With a deep breath, I work my dead arm free of its sleeve and then line it up with the generator. I hesitate for a moment more and then curse. What's going to happen is going to happen. I probably won't die. I jam my false arm into the generator.
The jolt of electricity that hits my body blows me off my feet and I hit the ground yards away from the generator. My mind goes white and it takes me a moment to recall where I am and how I got to be there. There is a persistent buzz in my head. Like static. I groan and with great effort, flip over so I am on my back. What was I doing? Oh, yeah. My arm. I lift it up and to my surprise, it obeys. Little arcs of electricity are shooting from finger to finger but I can make a fist and open it. A little stiff but it moves. I'm also getting very little sensation but that's something to worry about later. I have my left arm back.
I roll over and push myself up. The ground tilts wildly when I am on my feet and I barely stay on them. There are figures coming out of the cabin. They are pointing and shouting at each other. The buzzing in my brain is drowning them out. I draw my sword and dump the endorphins and adrenaline and all those other wonderful chemicals into my brain. It feels good. For the first time in what feels like forever, my pain and exhaustion are gone. I feel like myself again. Which is very bad news for the poor bastards Flynn left here to try and take my ship.
One of them takes a shot at me but I am already moving. Whatever he shot, disruption or bullet, goes far wide and before he has a chance to shoot again, I am on him. My sword shears through his face, decapitating him from the nose up. Then I am in the midst of the rest of the pirates, like a wolf among sheep. My blade flashes out, killing with each stroke. The pirates don't know what to do. They can't see. One fires his weapon regardless, murdering his fellow pirate. The last two eventually break and flee. I run them down.
When I return to the cabin, there is one last remaining human. Likely one of the techs. He is babbling something but the static in my head is getting louder. The room is rocking and shifting colors. I rub one of my eyes but it doesn't help. The man is on his knees. With a roar, I skewer him. Then I stumble to the left and smash shoulder first into the wall. I turn slightly so can rest my forehead on the wall and close my eyes. When I open them, things are, if anything, worse. Random spots of light dot my vision and the wall is a shifting color spectrum.
The Pomp. I have to get to the Pomp. Using the wall as a brace, I stagger forward and out the door. The Psychopomp is in front of me. I revel in the sight of it. My true love. When I try to reach out and connect with the network, nothing happens. I howl with rage and helplessness. How can I still not connect? I have power again. Furious, I stalk forward and slap my hand on a particular spot on the outside of the ship, just a little to the left of the door. There is absolutely nothing that would suggest that this spot is different from any other but there is a palm reader embedded. If the handprint isn't correct, nothing at all happens but for me, the door to the Psychopomp lowers. I turn to head in.
Apparently too fast. When I next open my eyes, I am on my stomach, staring at the ground. I shake my head. Mistake. The world tilts even more wildly and the colors come faster. The static in my head is like thunder. I crawl forward and up the ramp into my ship. I have to escape this cursed planet. Getting into my seat is a trial but I make it eventually. Then I bring up the virtual interface I was letting Nailah use to fly the ship. Nailah. That's right. I hit the lights. Come fast, girl.
I grip my head with both hands. The noise, the colors. I feel like I am going mad. I reach out and set the destination for Port Royal. The ship’s sensors start bringing in readings. They don't see Glorious Purpose but they haven't reached very far yet. Please, please let it be gone. I can deal with Flynn but not now. The sensors bring in more and more readings but soon I stop being able to make sense of them. Letters and numbers and colors.
Nailah enters my vision so abruptly that I jump. I can see her mouth moving but I hear nothing. I stare at her in silence because I can think of nothing to say. She grasps my shoulder and shakes me. I let her. The static is growing louder. There is nothing but the static.