The Andromeda's Ghost

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Chapter 4: Across Sand and Despair

Taren crawled out of his cave during the late afternoon and took a quick look around. The land was silent except for the incessant wild. There wasn’t a live creature in sight. Taren buckled his blade to his side, just to be safe, and then threw the survival pack across his shoulders. It was hot enough to make him sweat, but the wind dried his perspiration almost as quickly as it appeared. He sighed, unsure whether to be thankful for this or not, and then cast an uneasy glance behind him.

Kylee’s body lay under a thin layer of dirt in the cave. He took a second to carve a crown into a rock by the entrance. Maybe then he’d be able to find her again once all of this was over.

With a heavy heart, he ventured into the desert.

The wind chapped his lips within minutes. It was hard not to lick them when they were so incredibly dry, but he knew it wouldn’t do any good to moisten them, so he resisted the urge. The top of his head felt as if someone had poured hot oil over it. He could’ve used the thermal blanket for shade, but the wind would’ve torn it out of his hands. After about an hour of walking against the wind, Taren removed what was left of his shirt and tied it around his head. The sealing spray he’d used on his wound had saturated the material; the strong, metallic scent made his throat burn, but at least his face was protected.

He shoved his arms through the straps of his pack again, tucked his chin against his chest, and trudged on. He didn’t know how long he walked, occasionally pausing for water or to check his compass. The wind never let up, and the flat, dry desert stretched out endlessly all around him. The sun traveled across the sky, steadily nearing the horizon. He was starting to doubt his memory when the sand dunes appeared.

The Andromeda would be close by.

Kylee had stayed away for some unknown reason. He couldn’t help but wonder how it worked, this strange glitch in his mind that produced her. Was there a trigger that made her appear? A thought, a memory, a word, a certain feeling? What prompted her to leave? Was this something that would go away in time, or would she stick around until he had himself checked by a doctor? Did he want her to stick around?

He shook his head. Nothing she said or did was real. He was coming up with everything himself. Still, he secretly hoped he wasn’t fixable.

“There it is!”

Taren turned with a start to see her walking beside him, using one hand to shield her squinting eyes and the other to point at something in the distance. The wind tugged at her hair and made her clothes flap. She’d even raised her voice to be heard. She certainly looked real.

He gave himself a shake and turned to see what she was pointing at. The cargo cruiser sat at the foot of a sand hill, missing the back half and a good chunk of its left wing. Pieces of metal were strewn across the sand, giving a vague indication of the angle at which they’d crashed. Taren felt a wave of despair. There was no way he could fix it. He was trained for combat, stealth, and marksmanship, not space mechanics.

Taren turned to the east, where he remembered seeing the lights of a city on the night of the crash. A thick wall of dirt distorted the horizon, but he thought he could make out the vague outlines of buildings reflecting the sun. He would just have to get there and hope to sneak onto the next off-planet transport.

“You should wait until the wind dies down before attempting the reach the city,” Kylee said. “You need to rest and take care of that aching in your ears.”

He’d been successfully ignoring the throbbing of his ears until she mentioned it. The constant roaring of the wind seemed to have rubbed his eardrums raw. He was about to continue his trek to The Andromeda when a soldier came around the back thrusters. Taren dropped to the ground with a curse.

Of course, they’d station someone to guard the ship in case Taren came back. It was basic common sense. He cursed his naivety for a moment longer, his teeth gritted.

“They’re from Doeline,” Kylee said, dropping on all fours beside him.

“I noticed.” Taren narrowed his eyes at the human female marching toward the loading ramp, gun held loosely in her hands. It was a three-round pulse rifle. He would have a two-second window in between bursts. That could help.

Her armor was not so dissimilar from the type Taren had worn under his uniform while working at the palace—a hardened version of Ersatz called imitation ceramic, with flexible black polymer at the joints for free range movement. It was lightweight, built for speed and stealth. And branded with Queen Miyako’s insignia: the dove in flight, clasping a rose in its beak.

Taren retrieved the blade from its holster at his waist, gripping the handle until his knuckles hurt. “Promise you won’t watch.”

Kylee raised her eyebrows at him. “I’m not really here, Terry.”

“I know. Just promise.” He frowned at her. “Please.”

The teasing glint in her eye receded. She gave a sad little smile. “I promise.”

He nodded and looked back at the soldier. The woman cast her eyes about the sand dunes before continuing her circle around the cargo cruiser. Taren crawled forward, on forearms and knees, thankful for the obnoxious wind that would mask any sound of his approach. Glancing at the glass dome around the cockpit and the two other windows he could see from the ground, he didn’t spot any faces. Maybe the female soldier was the only sentry. He didn’t let himself go any further down that trail of thought.

Hope was dangerous.

This woman was from his home planet, worked for his former boss, had probably studied at the Guard Institute…He abandoned that trail of thought too. Her job was to take him to Queen Miyako or Prince Maju for punishment, which would include a trial and execution. Letting her live would surely get him killed.

Lithe as a cat, Taren sprung to his feet and continued at a crouch. The soldier walked ahead of him, oblivious of her stalker. After a quick breath, he reached out, cupped her chin, yanked her back against him, and drew the tactical knife across her exposed throat. She didn’t even have time to struggle. Taren lowered her convulsing body to the ground. He took her weapon and looted the items from her belt pouches, refusing to look at her face. She wasn’t a person with a life and a soul. She was just another enemy, an obstacle in the way of his survival.

Blaster butt pressed into his shoulder, cheek resting lightly on the stock, Taren approached the loading ramp. He used the toe of his boot to tap on the door. Then he leaned back against the side of the ship. Eventually, the ramp was lowered to reveal two men in the same armor, bearing the same insignia. Taren stepped out and squeezed the trigger, pivoting at just the right second to get them both in the same three-round burst. The bodies collapsed. Taren relieved one of them of their plasma bolt submachine gun and proceeded inside.

The cargo bay was a mess of open crates and scattered packing fluff. Sanitation products, clothes, and medicinal supplies littered the floor, having been tossed aside in the soldiers’ desperation to find their fugitive. Taren crouched and wove around the boxes, his eyes sweeping the cavernous room.

Footsteps on the stairs had him aiming higher. His blaster shots cracked across the empty space between him and the enemy. The soldier fell down the stairs with a grunt. Taren hunkered down behind a large generator and propped his weapon over the top. A grenade clanked on its way down the steps. Taren flinched when it went off but kept his eyes fixed on the opening in the ceiling. He waited. The barrel of a gun appeared, and scattered fire lit up the cargo bay. Taren ducked lower, taking his gun with him, and waited some more. When the shots ceased, he peeked over the top. A pair of boots had materialized at the head of the staircase. Taren squeezed the trigger again.

A feminine scream tore from the soldier’s mouth as her leg buckled beneath her. She tumbled head over heels down the stairs, landing on the floor with a painful crunch.

Taren breathed, tried to listen around the ringing in his ears, breathed some more. Waited. Then he abandoned his hiding place and crept up the stairs. A clamminess rose from beneath his skin. Sweat rolled down the sides of his face, but he didn’t dare wipe it away. His throat was scratchy. He pressed his lips together, fighting the overwhelming urge to cough.

He reached the second level. A gentle hiss blew by the infirmary-shaped hole at the back half of the ship. It was starting to get dark out there. He’d have to find a bed sheet or something to cover up that hole.

The hallway was missing a few panels; the inner wiring and piping of the ship were exposed along the walls. Even a few of the grates in the floor had been torn open. It made it easier for Taren to search for additional enemies. Minutes later, he had finished looking through the other levels and found himself alone on his ship. Again.

Taren collapsed against the counter in the galley and yanked open the refrigerator door. A rush of coolness swept over him as he searched the interior for a bottled water. Once he found what he was looking for, he shoved the door closed and ambled to the table at the center of the room. He sat and chugged.

Kylee plopped into the seat next to him. “Are you done playing assassin?”

Taren swallowed the last bit of water and let out a gasp. After taking a moment to catch his breath, he tossed the empty, biodegradable bottle aside. “For now.”

“You don’t have to hide that side of you,” Kylee said. “Not from me.”

There was blood on his hands. Probably from when he’d slit that woman’s throat. Taren wiped his palms against his pants, gaze averted.

“So, what now?” she asked.

“First thing I have to do is bury the bodies and set traps. Someone’s bound to check in on this team sooner or later. Then they’ll come investigating when no one answers. I have to be ready. After that, I’m going to look through the cargo to see if I can’t find anything to patch that hole on the middle deck. A transport would be nice, but the odds of finding a speeder down there are slim to none.”

“What about the loader?” Kylee asked, prompting Taren to sit up. “All cargo cruisers have a loader to help them carry their goods into the hold. It must be downstairs with the crates.” She grimaced. “But it was probably damaged in the crash.”

Taren rose and shrugged out of his pack. “Let’s see.” He dug around until he found a flashlight. Then he threw the sack over his shoulder and turned the light on as he made his way out of the room.

It took him a few minutes, but he found the loader—a small boat-shaped hovercraft, with a cab toward the back, an open storage space in the middle, and two metallic claws on either side for lifting heavy objects. One of its hover pads was crushed; the vehicle sagged forward like a person on bended knee. The windshield of the cab had shattered during the crash. Glass littered the storage area and the driver’s seat. Taren brushed the glass aside and sat, flashlight beam sweeping the interior.

“The card’s hanging from the rearview mirror,” Kylee said after he’d searched the console and the sun visors.

Taren swiped the keycard off the chain. He stuck the silver end into the ignition and turned. The loader roared to life in a second, but the monitors indicated it was running low on energy.

“It’s solar powered,” Taren said, a little surprised.

Kylee leaned forward to see the monitor better. “There should be solar panels attached to the ship somewhere that can connect to this loader.”

“Well, we won’t be going too far in this thing then.” Taren switched off the engine and leaned back in his seat. “Not if we have to keep coming back to the ship to charge it.”

Kylee nodded. “How far do you think the city is?”

“It can’t be more than twenty-five miles away if I can see it on the horizon.” Taren ran a hand over his face, suddenly drained. “I’ll charge it up tomorrow and test it during the night. See how quickly it depletes energy and how far it can take me before it gets about halfway down. Who knows? Maybe it can take me most of the way before it runs out of energy, and I can just walk the rest of the way to the city.”

“You’ll come back for the ship, though, right?”

He didn’t answer.

“You can’t just leave her here,” Kylee said. “After all you’ve been through—”

“I don’t want to stay here any longer than I have to, Princess. I need to go home. Get on with my life.”

Kylee leaned back and turned away from him with a scoff. “What life?”

She was right. Princess Kylee Wen Dao had been everything to him—his job, his best friend, his almost-wife…and now she was gone. When their secret relationship came to light, Taren had been fired from the royal palace and banished from Doeline. Jurthaan IV’s remaining leaders would cooperate with Queen Miyako and make him a wanted man in their countries too. With Prince Maju searching for him, there would be a warrant out for his arrest on Palnach and its three moons, maybe on its neighboring planets as well.

Taren smashed an open palm against the steering wheel and glared out the open windshield. There was nowhere for him to go.

Kylee touched his elbow. “I’m sorry, Terry. I shouldn’t have—”

He shifted away from her, stiff with frustration. She looked hurt for a second before she let her hand drop.

“I need a shower,” he muttered, shoving the door open.

Once he was convinced he’d washed all the dirt out of his curly hair, Taren shut off the water and climbed out of the shower cubicle. It was a little eerie, drying himself off among empty cubicles and toilets. He tied the towel around his waist and scurried across the hall to the captain’s cabin before he could be seen. Although, he didn’t need to be so careful. Kylee had seen him naked already.

“She’s not really there anyway,” he muttered, yanking the door open to his room. “You’re completely alone.” He rummaged through the clothes stored in the dresser and found a clean shirt. He tossed the towel aside and shoved each leg through a pair of sleeping pants. He tied the drawstrings tighter around his waist—the former captain of the ship had been a little thicker around the middle than Taren was—and then he collapsed on his bunk. Staring up at the ceiling, he found his grief and frustration overwhelming him.

Tears leaked out of the corners of his eyes and rolled into his ears. He swiped at his face. “What am I supposed to do?”

“You’re supposed to fix the ship,” Kylee said, appearing in the corner of the room.

Taren sat up. “It could take me months to get all the parts I need and put them in the right places! In the meantime, Prince Maju’s or your mom’s henchmen could find me and take me back to their planet for execution. Or I could get ambushed by raiders. Or I could run out of water and die of dehydration.”

“But it’s your ship!”

Taren ground his teeth together and looked away from her pleading eyes. Balling his hands into fists in his lap, he forced himself to speak calmly. “Princess, I stole this ship. I have no more claim over it than I do over you.”

She abandoned her corner and came to crouch at his bedside, suddenly stern. “We eloped on this ship. We gave up everything we knew and dove into the unknown while driving this ship. We fought the Mirelings and evaded my mom’s soldiers with this ship. I died on this ship. You can’t just walk away from it.”

Taren shook his head, cursing his tears. Kylee gripped his wrist. He could feel the warmth of her there, the pressure of her fingers tightening around his skin, the bite of her nails. He stared down at her hand. How could she be dead when he could still feel her like this?

She used her free hand to turn his face toward her. “You leave this ship behind, and you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. Trust me, I know. I live inside your head now.”

He let out a strangled laugh.

Kylee cracked a smile and released his face. “This is your home now, Terry. Make the best of it.”

I hope you enjoyed this excerpt. The Andromeda’s Ghost is scheduled to be published by BHC Press in summer of 2020. Stay tuned for more information.
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