Chapter 3: Through Death and Fire
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, 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’ve had something to do with that. Messages from his rattled mind were sent to the rest of his body, and his limbs sluggishly responded. He unclipped his harness and fell against the control board with a grunt. The monitors were off, but the lights under several buttons were flickering. There was still some power, at least. Large metal slabs were embedded in the dash. Taren turned away, looking for Kylee.
His copilot was still strapped to her seat. Her head sagged against her chest, her long hair covering her face. Her chest heaved as if she were struggling to breathe. Fear gave him the strength to push off the control board.
“Kylee?” He lifted her face and brushed the strands of dark hair away from her eyes. Those almond-shaped orbs stared back at him, full of fear and pain; blood dribbled out of her mouth. He freed her from the restraints, and she fell heavily against him. The back of her shirt was sticky with blood. A sharp piece of metal protruded from the back of her seat, the end of which was stained red.
Taren couldn’t seem to get enough air in his lungs. “You’re going to be all right.” He leaned back against the control board and turned her body to the side so that he could look into her face. “It’s nothing. We’ll find a med kit.”
She reached up to touch his face with a trembling hand. “You are…the best…”
“Save your strength,” he croaked.
“Decision,” she went on hoarsely, “I ever…”
His eyes burned. “Stop it. You’re going to be fine.”
She took a deep, rattling breath, as if her lungs were full of marbles, and then her hand fell away.
“No, Princess. Hey!” He cupped her cheek and searched her eyes, desperate for a spark of life. “You can’t do this to me. We were so close. We were almost free!” He shouted the last word in her face, but she didn’t even flinch. She was already gone.
Taren’s gut seized up. He thought he was going to be sick. But, no, that was just a string of sobs making their way up this throat. His entire body convulsed. Pressing his face into her chest, he screamed.
A wordless cry of anguish.
An outlet for his rage.
A promise that there would be hell to pay if he ever found out who’d shot them out of the sky.
The distant sound of a landing ship caught Taren’s ear, cutting off his cry. He pulled away from his princess and held his breath. Forced his heartbeat to slow. Forced himself to think.
He slipped a hand under Kylee’s bent knees and hoisted her up. Her body leaned into him as he began the angled climb out of the cockpit. Taren blinked to get rid of the stinging behind his eyes. It didn’t help. 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.
Anger built up around his throat and made his scalp tingle. Why couldn’t he have died too?
“After a catastrophe, there’s no time for stupid questions,” his dad’s voice said, emerging from the back of his mind somewhere. “Assess the situation. What do you have to do next? What do you have at your disposal?”
Shaking, Taren set Kylee down on the inclined floor of the hallway and then clamored up the stairs. He found his boots in the bathroom and stepped into them. Tightened the laces with quick yanks. Made knots. Straightened. Moved onto the next task. The lights flickered in the galley, 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 lining 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 flask of water before he made his way back to Kylee.
His journey down the stairs was 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 take 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 sand. A dry wind swept over Taren as he walked out.
He collapsed against the side of his smoking ship, taking deep breaths, his arms and shoulders burning. 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 north. 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, but Taren couldn’t make it there on foot. There was nothing but darkness to the south, and yet he could pick out darker shadows against the sky that blotted out the stars.
Could they be trees?
He pushed off the ship and started walking.
Thrusters spitting 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 toward the burrow, running amid decaying vegetation across the salt flat of a dead lake. After lowering Kylee to the ground toward the back of the cave, he 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 with a flick of his wrists. Using it and some rocks, Taren constructed a crude tent. He grabbed Kylee by the armpits and dragged her behind the thermal wall. Then he crouched beside her and waited, hoping beyond hope that the gray blanket would blend into the darkness around him.
At first, all he heard was the howl of the wind ripping across the land. He strained his ears for sounds of the enemy ship or a landing crew. There was nothing.
Taren relaxed, only to tense up again when he heard footsteps approaching the entrance of the burrow. Two voices argued in the gurgling tongue of the Mirelings known as Nachian. Thankfully, Taren had been forced to take several language classes at the Guard Institute. He listened, mentally replacing sounds with words.
“I’m telling you, something popped up on the radar,” a masculine voice said.
“And I’m telling you it was nothing,” a second voice growled. “The wind and heat are screwing up the readings.”
The beeping of some handheld machinery traveled across empty space.
“There, see? It’s picking up some form of heat signature,” the first voice said. “Two, actually. It could be them.”
“Or it could be a desert beast of some kind,” the second voice grumbled, but their footsteps traveled down the steep entrance all the same.
Taren tried to think over his stuttering heart. He could take them, but more soldiers would be sent to the burrow if these two didn’t return to their ship. The crunch of their boots grew louder. Flashlight beams swept the rocky walls.
He untied the seven-inch-long tactical knife from the side of his pack and was about to roll out of his tent when a savage growl made him pause. Spurts of fire lit up the cave, accompanied by shouts of terror. Taren poked his head out of his thermal blanket tent to see a creature with the same build of a dog. 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 or irises. Oh, and it could breathe fire. When it barked, a gust of flame burst from its lips.
Its claws sliced through one Mireling’s armor as if it were made of paper and not metal. He dropped to the ground with a squirt of blood and was still. The second Mireling managed to get a few shots off from his blaster gun, but the laser beams only seemed to anger the animal further. It roared and pounced on him, sending him crashing down beside his comrade.
Taren tore the thermal blanket away from the rocks, rolled it up, and stuffed it into his pack, all the while keeping his eyes on the monster devouring the screaming Mireling. He threw Kylee’s body over his shoulder and crept around the beast as it finished the second Mireling off. Glancing repeatedly over his shoulder, Taren scurried up the incline and out of the burrow. He wove between the skeletons of trees, and then ducked behind some shrubs when more Mirelings came charging over to investigate the noises coming from the cave.
Several painful heartbeats later, Taren jogged out of the dead marsh and back into the desert.
He found another cave as the sky was beginning to lighten.
Exhausted, Taren collapsed against the farthermost wall. He lowered his princess onto the ground and sat beside her. Yanking his pack open, he saw that he had enough dried food, canned goods, and food supplement bars to last about a week. Dehydration was his main concern; he would need a source of water to refill his flasks. While walking, he’d kept an eye out for a well or a stream and had found neither. It seemed everything around these parts had dried up. If he rationed the water he had, he could survive in the cave for approximately three days, but then he wouldn’t have any water left for the return journey to the crash site.
He decided to lay low for a day or two and give the Mirelings plenty of time to search that dead marsh before he tried venturing out again.
Taren turned his gaze to the princess beside him. Her eyes were still open, staring blankly up at the rocky ceiling. The way her neck was bent was unnatural and would’ve unsettled anyone. He reached out to close her eyes and adjust her into a more comfortable position.
Not that it mattered.
The grief, fear, and despair washed over the walls of numbness that had constructed themselves around his mind. Suddenly, he was sobbing. The hacking, haunted sounds echoed across the hollow pocket of rock. Taren stuffed a fist in his mouth and tried to quiet down. After what felt like hours of self-pity and self-loathing, he ran out of tears. He took deep, measured breaths until the numbness returned. With steady hands, Taren pulled his lover into his arms and buried his face in her soft hair.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
The thought of leaving her there threatened to bring a new wave of tears. She deserved a royal funeral, to be placed in an ornate coffin and blasted into space while her country held lit torches aloft in respect. But he couldn’t keep carrying her body around with him.
Using his tactical knife and his bare hands, he dug a shallow grave and buried her. Then he curled up under his thermal blanket and tried to sleep.
He woke with a start to find that he was lying on his side. The shoulder pressed against the packed earth was throbbing. As he sat up and rubbed his shoulder, he locked eyes with Kylee, who sat across the cave, leaning against the wall.
He skittered back with a curse.
Kylee’s eyes widened. “What’s wrong?”
“How are you here?” His eyes flickered to the mound of dirt toward the back of the cave. Her grave. “You’re dead.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Really.”
“I know I’m not dead,” Taren said, looking down at himself. “Either I hit my head and knocked something loose when we crashed, or I’m suffering from PTSD.” He glanced back at Kylee, somewhat fearfully. “You’re a hallucination. You have to be.”
Kylee inspected her hands with a furrowed brow. “Strange.”
She stood to further examine herself. She wore a speeder jacket with gold stripes down the arms, black pants, and combat boots that ended mid-calf. 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. It was hard to believe she was nothing but a memory now.
“Well,” she said with forced levity, “at least I’m wearing my favorite clothes.”
Taren swallowed past the dry spot in his throat. “I’m sorry.”
“People die all the time, Terry,” Kylee said, rolling her eyes.
She 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.”
“Prince Maju is going to be pissed when he finds out his soldiers killed me,” she said, letting her hand drop. She glanced about the cave. “Maybe he’ll have them executed.”
“No,” Taren muttered, crawling out from his blanket cocoon. “The prince will wait until they find me and bring me to him. Then he’ll have the fuckers executed.”
Kylee wrinkled her slightly upturned nose at him. Then she shook her head. “What are you going to do now?”
“I have to get back to the ship. If it’s fixable, it can get me off this planet. If not, I’ll have to get out of here by other means.”
“You never did name the ship.”
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 pursed her lips as she rocked back and forth. “How about…The Andromeda?”
“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 Pegasus-riding warrior, who swooped in just in time.” Kylee shrugged, biting back a smile. “I thought it was fitting.”
“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 sighed. “You should get your head examined.”
“Maybe later,” Taren lied, lowering his hand. If it was a choice between head trauma or no Kylee at all, he’d take the trauma. No question.
A hiss came from the back of the cave, where the darkness was deepest. Taren dove to his pack and snatched his tactical knife before spinning around 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 was another one of those reptilian dog monsters.
Taren swore and leapt out of the way before he could be incinerated by its fiery breath. He rolled to his feet and brandished his weapon. The beast charged, whipping out a spiked tail to bash Taren in the face. He jumped back with a curse, waited for an opening, and then thrust his knife into the beast’s side. The alien monster snarled, but its scaly skin remained unharmed.
“Great,” Taren muttered.
He dodged another jet of fire, feeling the heat kiss his face. He continued to dance just out of the creature’s range until it became angry enough to charge a second time. Taren dodged out of the way and jabbed at the monster’s eyes, but it cost him. The creature raked its claws across Taren’s abdomen. He let out a scream before he tackled the beast. They rolled over the dry ground, kicking up clouds of dust while they wrestled for the upper hand. Spurts of fire flew past Taren’s face; it singed his ears and hair. Somehow, when they stopped, Taren was on top and his knife was embedded in the creature’s soft underbelly. The reptilian dog thing let out a whine and a puff of smoke before going limp.
Taren released his hold on the blade and fell over onto his back. The front of his shirt was soaked in blood. The smell of burned flesh and hair made his nose twitch. His stomach…Taren groaned and crawled to his pack. Somehow, he found and opened the med kit. Somehow, he picked out the sealing spray and coated his stomach with it. Somehow, he managed to swallow the painkillers 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 rocky ceiling, fighting back tears.
Kylee’s head appeared within his line of vision, her dark hair swinging. “You all right, Terry?”
“I can’t do this,” he said through his teeth. “I need more than what I’ve got to survive.”
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.
“Hey, at least you’re alive.”
Guilt made him sit up and twist around to face her. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”
“I know you didn’t.”
Taren 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 hidden deeper within the cave. He should look for another place to hide.
“Don’t,” Kylee said, as if reading his mind. “You’re hurt. You need to rest.”
Taren leaned back against the rocks, too tired to argue. As his eyelids drooped, he could almost feel her touch on his cheek.
“Don’t worry,” she whispered. “I’ll watch over you.”