TWENTY-FOUR: Quili’s Fire
“You should rest,” Foxe said.
“I’m fine.” Val kept her eyes fixed on the Forward Drive display. She’d planted herself at the DriveBoard station while Foxe had locked the Quili’s Fire crew in a storage compartment and hadn’t looked him in the eye once since he’d returned to the bridge.
raspy, a tired whisper.
“How’s the leg?” Both her legs were stretched out on the NavBoard chair next to her. He’d had to tear off her slacks above one knee to extract the flechette darts from her wounded limb, and she’d found a laserclip somewhere to trim the bottom edge straight and then cut the other leg of her slacks away. The ragged shorts distracted him and he was trying not to let her notice.
But she just gazed at the screen as if avoiding his voice. “I’ll be fine. But I think you enjoyed fondling my leg when you took the darts out.”
He remembered the serrated blade he’d taken in his foot during an attack on a Varrian outpost, and how long it had taken to heal. Val looked stronger now, less pale. And she was just as irritating, which meant she had to be feeling better. “You’re welcome.”
She ignored his sarcasm. “You figure out where we’re going?”
He nodded at the NavBoard screen. “Osiris. It’s a station in the Koldar System. Tiki picked it at random.” He’d glanced through the database of stored destinations. Osiris was at the top of the list. At least she hadn’t picked number two—a point in space just a thousand kilometers from the event horizon of a black hole.
She looked relieved. “I know it. It’s UnAligned, but civilized. I can trace my yacht. If it’s not in the Riskannon system—”
“I wouldn‘t bet on that.” Frique had been scared, but without anyone else around he’d do what he wanted.
“You’re the one who gave control of my ship to that scumsucker. It better be in one piece.”
“Didn’t have much time for options. I was busy coming back for you.”
She blinked, as if shoving that thought aside for now. “You can find us another ship there while I’m tracing mine—”
“And you could be gone by the time I get back.” It’s what he’d do. “We could keep this ship—”
“You going to space that crew? You can’t leave them locked up in storage forever. And I don’t trust this matrix. Containment readings are out of synch. We’ll be lucky if we can transition safely this one time.”
I should have knocked her out with a pain shot, he thought. But she’d been watching the injectors too closely. She was right—about the matrix, and about trying to keep the crew under control indefinitely. The Tadori captain had wanted to fight, but the rest of them had been relieved to get away and just as happy to do what he said. He’d left them some food bars and a few bottles of water, but the storage compartment didn’t have any sanitation facilities. In just a few hours they’d get too restless to control, and Foxe wouldn’t bet they couldn’t find some way out of the storage compartment if they had enough time and anger to think about it.
He looked at Val. “You ought to get some rest,” he said again. “We’ll have to work fast once we reach Osiris.”
“You don’t know how they’ve jury-rigged their systems. Or what kind of traps they’ve embedded.”
“Is this the first ship you've ever hijacked? I’ve done this before. I can keep us going just fine if I’m not worrying about you.”
She cocked an eyebrow, still keeping her face from his. “Worrying?”
“I don’t want to have to lug you around.”
She let her legs fall to the deck and spun the chair. The sudden green blaze in her eyes surprised him. “Then why the gash did you come back for me?”
“Because the station was getting blown up.” Alive, she could have talked her way out of Morine’s mechanized hands. Annoyed them until they let her go. But dead, she’d be one more face for his nightmares. “Maybe you should thank Shrinn when we find him.”
She glared at him, the first time she’d let him see her eyes. “That’s it? Don’t leave anyone behind? The AW MilForce rule?”
Foxe held her gaze. “Don’t talk to me about MilForce.”
“They left you behind on that planet where you almost died, burned up—”
“They thought I was dead.”
“So if you thought I was dead you’d be sitting on my yacht with Rumav right now?”
“If I thought you were dead . . ..” I’d be chasing Shrinn to the end of the universe. His reaction surprised him. The thought—and the emotion. He shook his head. “MilForce left a lot of good people behind any time we had to pull out. In the resistance we didn’t leave anyone behind—we killed our own so they wouldn’t be tortured, so they couldn’t talk. I never liked it, but I did it because . . ..” Why? Because it made sense? Because he didn’t care? “What do you want from me?”
“I want—” She stopped herself, rubbed her face, and stared up at him. “I just want to know if I can trust you.”
“I saved your life. That should give you a hint.”
“And you’d do the same for any one of your buddies. Whether you like them or not. Is that it?”
He tried not to smile. She was afraid of him—his feelings. His motivation. Was he was in love with her? Or was she afraid that he wasn’t? But Foxe kept his amusement to himself. He knew how torture could twist a being’s emotions into something they didn’t recognize. In a day or two she’d go back to despising him again. In the meantime . . . “I like you fine, if that’s what you’re asking.”
She took a deep breath, looking him over. “Okay.”
“Not as much as my pet lizard. His name’s Tingle, he’s a Vizrian shadow lizard, and he takes care of the bugs and—”
“Shut up.” Then, to his surprise, she laughed. “Don’t really care about your lizard. Sorry, but—” She shook her head, smiling, as something he’d said was a relief to her. “Just . . . leave me alone, all right? I need to rest, I’ll rest. We get to Osiris, I’ll be okay. Understand?”
Not at all. But he nodded. “Whatever you say.”
He went to the captain’s seat and sank into it, his muscles still aching from tension. For a few minutes after securing the crew he’d felt close to collapse. His heart had pounded and he couldn’t get his breath back, and his sweat had turned to ice beneath his clothes. Then the dark feeling came, the dread-filled loathing for the entire universe that always made him clench his fists and fight the impulse to grab a pulser and end it—his nightmares, his life, everything. But he’d pulled himself together, mostly because he had to patch up Val, and he didn’t want her to see the darkness inside him and question his nerve.
He needed rest, too. Maybe more than Val did. But he didn’t dare go to sleep. Not right now, while he had to watch Quili’s Fire’s systems and crew. And not until he could face the dreams.
“You’re okay,” Frique murmured, stroking Rumav’s forehead. “We’re okay.”
Rumav pushed the hand away weakly, and then his arm fell back down onto the bed like a bird with a wounded wing. “We’re . . . where . . ..” He opened his eyes, blinked against the light behind his head, and peered up at Frique in confusion. “Who—who are you?”
“Name’s Frique.” He sat back and smoothed the blue sheet over Rumav’s naked body. He’d cleaned him up as best he could in the ridiculously large shower stall before hauling him to a luxurious bed that could have held them both with room for more.
The ship—some kind of yacht—seemed able to run on its own. He’d only had to issue a few simple commands to detach and then transition into D-space, although he’d spent a few moments picking a different destination from the database. Where the heldash was Riskannon? He’d never heard of it, and he didn’t want Foxe to catch up with them before he got to know this being they’d rescued from Leda.
The transition had been smooth enough, except for a momentary warning from one of the boards, a flashing alert that vanished before he could even locate it on the display. Probably Foxe would have been able to recognize it, or at least look it up in the logs. But as long as they were safely out of the real universe, Frique didn’t care. He was alive. Free. And all alone with this helpless, youthful being.
“I’m . . . Hanbor.” The seven-fingered being struggled to keep his eyes open, and Frique saw the fear in them. “Where—where are we?”
“Gryphon system. For now. Hiding out near a gas giant. We rescued you.”
“Not . . . that place? What—” His body shook in a sudden spasm of pain, or the memory of it. “What happened to me?”
“We rescued you. Me and Foxe. Just in time, too.” He thought of the animalistic struggle in the access shaft with a shudder of his own—beings beating each other bloody at the hatches, trying to get to a ship, any ship. They’d clustered around him as he’d pulled himself toward the tether connection while lugging the boy’s senseless body in zero-gee, and he’d had to kick and gouge and hammer at them without losing his grip on the slippery skin as he squirmed toward the hatch to the ship Foxe had given him. Fortunately someone else managed to force entry into another ship just as Frique’s arm felt ready to fall off, and the rest of them swarmed toward it like hungry insects, giving him the time he needed to open the hatch and then lock it behind them. He rubbed a bruise on his shoulder.
“I don’t . . . who are you?”
“Frique.” He patted Rumav’s head. “I’m—I was a tech on Leda.” Relief poured through him here. Leda was gone. Maybe Morine had managed to make a deal at the last monent, or maybe not. He didn’t care if they were all dead, the frozen chunks of their bodies scattered across the nebula. Karsh-3, Littleton, all of them. He tried not to think about Nakagawai, one of the few he’d sometimes thought of as a friend. If Littleton was dead, though, or Morine, well—he wouldn’t miss any of them.
“W-water?” Rumav coughed.
Frique searched the room. Beverage dispenser—he filled a cup and held it for Rumav. Half of it ran down his chin.
“Oh, seven demons,” Rumav whispered. “I’m . . . who are you again?”
“Frique. We’re on a yacht called, uh, Gemstone. Foxe’s yacht. He let us take it.”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. He wanted to get you off Leda, but—I think he’s dead.”
“Why would he . . .?” Rumav looked at the ceiling. “Oh.”
“Nothing. More water?”
Frique held the cup again. This time Rumav swallowed it all. Then he rolled to one side and tried to sit up.
Frique grabbed his shoulder. “You’re still—”
“Don’t touch me.” He slouched on the bed, bare feet on the thick carpet, breathing hard.
“I saved your life.” Frique tried not to stare at Rumav’s thin legs.
“Thank you. My . . . I’ll make sure you get a reward. I can—” He closed his eyes. “I can make sure you’ll be taken care of. But right now . . . is there anything I can wear?”
He could shove him back onto the bed. He’d be too weak to resist. This being owed him. But—the thought of Leda’s dead, floating in cold space, made him feel suddenly quiet. Maybe later. Maybe never, the way his luck had run lately. But the kid had mentioned a reward.
You’ll probably screw me out of that, too, Frique thought. But at least I’m free. Hell-burn them anyway. “Most of it’s for females. I’ll have to look.”
“Anything. Don’t care.” He took a step toward the door, looking queasy. “Then we—after transition. We’ve got to go somewhere.”
“We’ll figure it out. Where do you—”
“Taormika.” His voice was suddenly firm. Steady. He sounded like a different person. Then his head slumped. “I thought I was never going to get there.”
“Me neither. But you did.”
“I can program the coordinates. We’ve got to go there.”
Frique turned away. No use trying anything now—“I’ll look for some clothes.”