A mysterious girl with amnesia shows up on the island, claiming to have survived a ship wreck. Garrett takes her in. She’s a god send, until men come to claim her. But soon she is back in his arms, and he’s fallen hard. Is she a dream born of loss and loneliness or part of an insidious scheme to take him for all he worth?
I was running through the woods, chasing a squirrel. I was fascinated with all creatures back then. A kid. The world was new and everything was fresh. I had the hunting instinct of a hound and a desire to chase, search, find. But once found, I didn’t know what to do with my quarry.
The gray squirrel frantically ran through the tree tops. I ran behind, threw rocks. It lead me to an opening in the thickest part of the woods. The sun dappled the clearing. It was a bright, clear day, and it was startling to suddenly be out of shade. I was hot and was growing tired of the chase. In front of me stood a lopsided old shack. I was immediately intrigued. It barely stood, in a small clearing, uneven and faded as a gray day in December. The partially open door, shed chips of faded white paint. Choking brush wrapped around one side of the building and seemed to be squeezing what little life was left out of the wood.
I stood at the door and peered into the black interior. It was small, about twelve by ten feet. The dank smell of rotting wood, thick and moist. It was an unsettling odor that seemed more like a filthy whisper than a smell. Fresh dirt and decaying leaves. The ancient door scraped the slab as I pried it open. I took a step inside. A chill ran through me. Still, dank, cold. A window in the back let in a bit of sun. Gaps in the roughhewn floorboards widened in spots of light. Vines threaded through the floor, but were dead or dying in the perpetual rankness. A strange chandelier hung down, too low to be of any use. Dirty glass, covered in black mildew and green film. I took another step inside. A damp chill swept over me like a thin blanket. In the far left corner was a small cot. A pillow lay atop the mattress, uncovered and molding. Cigarette butts littered the floor. Below the window was a small brass container. I was intrigued, thinking perhaps some lost treasure lay inside. But as I approached I heard it ring out. Just a small ping, as if something dropped into it. I turned sharply, looking for the safety of the open door. There came a knock on the roof. I looked up and saw a black smoky haze hovering on the ceiling. A low whisper spoke, “Get out.” The voice chilled my spine. I bolted forward, toward the light of the door. I must have been running full force when I hit something hard and fell back. I remember feeling like the floor cradled me, my whole body, like I’d fallen into a rut. A perfect outline of my body. In my mind, I saw a field of black dots, like on a black and white TV screen. People were running. They were far away and small, like a mass of moving shadow, but they were all running in the same direction. A face came close to me. I could see she was a nice old lady. But her mouth opened and she yelled close to my face, “What?” The word was yelled, long, slow, filled with hate, torment, self-pity and regret. Her breath was freezing cold, and had the smell of dead leaves and rotten flesh. The venom in her voice startled me awake. I felt all of these things at once. They clawed into me. I ran like hell. I was myopic and could only see what was directly in front of me. I kept running. Above, in the trees, I heard a squirrel, jumping from tree to tree, as if chasing me, menacing me, wanting me to make me pay for my past transgressions. My stomach churned. My heart exploded in my chest.
I came to the small field adjacent to my back yard, and I stopped. I bent over, my hands on my knees and heaved. My head ached with pounding force. My eyes hurt. My vision slowly started coming back to full color.
My house stood on a small incline against the shadows of the setting sun. A dark outline against orange light. The two story house suddenly seemed foreboding. I shook off the feeling when I saw a light from the kitchen, and my mother’s shape in the window. Thoughts of supper, a warm shower and bed warmed me. But I couldn’t help feeling as if something had changed. There was a heaviness in my heart. A joylessness. Then a yearning to return to the shack came upon me. I saw it clear as day in my mind, the crooked slant of the shack against the night sky, the gray wood, the tree branches squeezing what little life remained there. I turned to the woods and saw a black mist, like a shadow slowly melting into the trees. A calling arose from there, like a cooing. Only more yearning than a coo, yearning like a child might for love. I ran to my house and slammed the door shut. Closing out that shack forever, and knowing I’d never go back. But I was mistaken. I went back every night in my dreams, the old lady’s voice hollow and rancid in my face. I never hunted another living thing after that.
Shar could barely speak, whispered to the control panel. “Keep the emergency docking hatch sealed.”
“Hull temperature is rising. 2600 degrees Fahrenheit. 2650 degrees Fahrenheit.”
She breathed heavy. “They’re using torches. Expel Co2 reserves…out the port side vent.”
A loud whooshing lasted less than a minute.
“Co2 reserve spent. Hull temperature is 2700 degrees.”
“Shake off that ship. Corkscrew maneuver. Now.”
The ship turned and bucked, and twisted. Shar’s head flopped like a rag doll. Her stomach tightened and she almost spewed her breakfast.
“Hull temperature 2750 degrees.”
Shar’s vision was growing dark. She laid her head back on the pilot’s chair and took a deep breath. She held the blaster loosely in her hand, resting it on the center console, still pointed toward the hatch, waiting for it to open.
“How many…?” Shar started to say, but couldn’t find the breath to finish.
“How many?” Repeated the AI.
“Pirates out there?”
“There is one life form at the hatch entrance. The superheated elements have expanded enough to weaken the security bolts. Breach is imminent.”
Darkness came upon her. Silence. Weightlessness. Her body floated to the top of the navigation console and drifted through the walls of the ship. She spread her arms, like a condor soaring high above the golden canyon lit in morning sun, then twisting sideways, descending into the blue shadows of the valley. The pristine river that formed the gorge sparkled in the sunlight. Glittering waters ran by warm rocks that lined the spot, into an eddy that leisurely spun the leaves that had fallen there. She landed on a golden, heart-shaped leaf. She was small, the size of the ring on her middle finger. And she rode the leaf, its veins pulsed slowly in steady heartbeats. It yellowed from autumn cool, twisted in the current, meandering down into the faster waters into the narrows, white with churning, foaming energy. Up ahead, beyond the rocks was her house, in the shadow of the tall pines, its roughhewn wooden walls snapping awake in the early sun, collecting pine needles on its roof, the dew lifting in silent transmutation. Peace had come at last.
The hatch door opened with a metallic bang, pulling her back from the peace and of the warmth and into the hard pilot’s chair. She opened her eyes. A menacing shadow hung above her. She instinctively reached for her blaster, but a hand stopped her. The weapon fired aimlessly in the cabin. Sparks flew. Heat lit the space around her. Bolts of energy ricocheted, pinging and gouging her ship. Then the hand grabbed her arm. She kicked and bit, sure she was a mighty force, but the call of the river was strong. She resisted the sensation, but it was overpowering. Pulled back onto the yellow leaf, her leaf bed slowly turned and twisted to the spot where she could see smoke rising above her chimney, and she let go.
The ship was cramped and stale smelling from the sacks of bounty that filled every hold and seat. What Oldman didn’t get, Shar hauled to another Junker. One that paid more for certain items, like blown electronics and insulation. Shar buckled into the pilot’s chair, flipped the auto-mode switch and sat back for the long ride. The destination was a planet in the Gallo quadrant. A dry world with underground cities and caverns carved out of desert rock. An ancient place of strange rules and customs she’d rather not partake, such as spitting in your hand and wiping it on your own face, things like that. And slavery was still acceptable, if done on the sly. She couldn’t pronounce the name of the planet. It started with a Z sound and ended with a few clucking noises. Desert squawk. A language only the Hulli people could speak.
Shar was starving. It had been hours since her last meal, a small cut of a plant called hebo, a green succulent that held every mineral and most vitamins a human needs. Although mostly carbs, it also had a few grams of protein. You could live on it for weeks. She reached for a stash from the sack on the co-pilot’s chair, and rummaged around for a large chunk of the meaty plant. The sting was quick, sharp and hit with a wallop. She pulled her hand away and immediately spotted the barb. It was deep in the meaty flesh of her right palm. A calling card from the stinging fistuka. A nasty insect that scavenged hebo. It embedded one of three barbs it had on its large tail. Luckily it was the middle sized barb. She heard the smallest one would kill you in minutes. She was angry at himself for making such a rookie mistake, having checked the bag before loading it into the ship, but apparently not thoroughly enough. They were known to hide under the husk of the hebo plant, but they’d always leave a tell-tall hole.
She held her hand up to inspect the wound. A bright red ring encircled the barb still stuck in her flesh. Pulling it out would release more toxins and could mean instant death. She needed to wrap it in ice and head to the nearest outpost. Her body was reacting quickly to the poison. Her face felt flushed and she was dizzy. They say some of the tribal people on the unpronounceable planet are immune. But the swelling had already started, and she’d be delirious before reaching her current destination. It would have to be a pit stop. At least a five hour delay.
Sahr wrapped a cold pack around her aching hand and punched in a coordinate that pointed her toward the nearest outpost. It’d be less than an hour before reaching fueling station seventeen-twenty. They’d have emergency medicine there. She hoped. Something on her right leg moved, she flinched and flicked it off with the back of her ailing hand. It was a fituka all right. A big one. Black, with red rings on its abdomen, large claws and two more stingers on its ass end. She didn’t want to kill it, just in case they needed it for further examination or to divine some serum from its rancid bowels. She searched the cabin and spotted a large hat she’d worn on a visit to the desert on Frakus. It was floppy and heavy. A loud hiss rang out as she gently placed it over the gnarly insect.
She sat back in the pilot’s seat and began to doze. The proximity alarm startled her awake. It took a few seconds for Shar to realize there was a marauder on her port side, and closing fast.
“Suzie, shields at max.”
The ship’s AI voice rang out. “Shields at maximum.”
“Quadruple flux evasion pattern.”
“Q.F.E.P. in effect.”
Her head pounded. Fatigue sapped her strength. Her hand was swollen to almost twice its normal size. A dark ring was forming around the wound. She stared at the visual heads-up display. Black space lay ahead, distant stars barley readable in the flux of hyper-speed. She fumbled for the controls, trying to get a visual on the intruder.
“Suzie, who’s out there?” Her voice was low and hoarse. “Get a fix on their hull.”
The display illuminated an oblong oval object with three small fins on the either side, like and old fashioned jet. It glowed orange as it ripped though space. And it was gaining fast.
“Hull is comprised of titanium alloy, composite V plastic and Gallium minerals.”
“Gallium, huh? Those damn pirate trog herders.”
After spending six months on Gallium, serving mining interests, chasing down company loan jumpers, she’d had enough of their ruthless ways. Unlike the unpronounceable planet that started with Z, Gallium was completely uncivilized and chaotic. Bands of pirates roamed the sky above the planet, waiting to cash in on anything that moved near their space. They were either professional miners or pirates, mostly. The poor mine workers lived in shabby huts along the base of the rugged mountains, and subsisted on company store wages. All things led back to the mine owners. They owned the planet. Sure they had a system of government, but that had devolved into a bribe-taking theocracy, based on the worship of minerals and wealth. The powerful gave nothing to the people. And the people did nothing to stop them. The rich held the poor workers by the throat and never let go. She’d been naïve when taking the job there, not realizing how bad things actually were. But it only took Shar a week to figure it all out and the whole remainder of her six month contract as a bounty hunter to get the hell out. She chased down criminals, not runaway mine workers. But it made her tougher, more wary, and a better fighter.
She was wanted by the authorities on Gallium for what they called, “Abomination,” a term Galliumites used for those who criticized their ways, or the elite, and for absconding with one of their semi-slaves. She was a dark haired beauty named, Kelsiana. A house worker for a rich slob by the name of Gran, a wealthy mine owner from the southern district mines. Brought to the house at only seven years old, Kelsiana was sold by her parents and had known nothing but servitude, until Shar taught her of other worlds, and opened her eyes to new possibilities on other planets where she might be given a fair shake. Maybe even take advantage of her natural intelligence and beauty.
So, now a scout ship from Gallium was on her tail.
The heads up display flashed red.
“Warning, proximity alert.”
The microfilm in Shar’s collar weighed heavy now. If found by a Gallium bounty hunter, she’d be killed and they’d get rich in the process, selling it to the highest bidder. For the film held a secret only a few people knew. A secret that could change worlds. And not many possessed the knowledge to read the ancient script in which it was written.
The AI voice rang out. “Warning, docking of unauthorized vehicle in process.”
A loud bang, and the ship momentarily turned off course before righting itself. Shar, woozy from the poison, turned and pointed her disrupter at the cockpit hatch, as the large metallic latch slowly turned.
The officewasdark, smelled of an animal cage needing cleaning. Oldman sat in his large EV-chair. His considerable bulk blotting out the large oval window in front of him. He watched as debris from the latest mesosphere battle streaked by the platform, cutting through what was left of Earth’s atmosphere, flaming out and into the oblivion below. Umber clouds obscured most of the surface, but Earth’s visible areas glowed orange and brown from the raging fires.
Chet Hunter stood in the doorway behind him and cleared his throat. The air inside was barely breathable, the oxygen set too low, the stink tangible. The android guard turned toward him, its eyes lit-up yellow as it scanned him for weapons. Yellow beams of beta particles lit him as he smiled and nodded, as if the contraption cared about such pleasantries.
“There goes what was left of Stellar Nine Space Station. The Chinese are cooked, too.”
“Stellar Nine. Shame. I saw her launched. She was a beauty.”
“Well, not anymore, eh? Earth is done, now. Platforms, like this one, is all that’s left for us…survivors.”
“There’s always Alpha Centauri. But you hate worm holes.”
“Yes. Too unpredictable. I don’t want to end up on a farm in Musca.”
“I’d pay to see that. You riding a six legged trog.”
“We’re through here. The Velations are too powerful, their technology too great. They’ve won the battle already. Earth is toast.” Oldman turned and sneered at Hunter. “The 21 day war, they’ll call it.” He eyed Hunter up and down, scanned him with his auto fan-laser. “What have you got for me?”
Hunter held out his hand, revealing a tiny heart shaped silver locket and chain. He let it dangle for a few seconds, then took a few slow steps forward and placed it on the desk.
Oldman the Junker hummed, took out his magnifier and gave it a scan. “Hah. Silver. Small. This is all you have after two weeks of spending my money, using my best EV Gig?”
“This and the pile of battle junk on the dock.”
Oldman pointed to an air screen scanning the weighed cargo. “Yes, more or less three tons, I see.” He poked at the locket with a metal pointer. “Anything inside? It scans hollow.”
“When you found it, I mean. Perhaps there was something…huh?”
“Arrrg. Worth maybe a few ounces of oatmeal.” He tossed it over his shoulder onto a pile junk electronics. “All this fighting, all this lovely debris for you to gather. Why are you wasting my time? I should have sent an android seeker for all the good you’ve done me.”
The android laughed, its yellow eyes flashing in rhythm to the metallic sounding guffaws.
Hunter gritted his teeth, felt his hand tighten on the grip of his obliterator, but held his place. “I searched her cell thoroughly. Besides, you said anything she had. I can’t be held accountable for taste.”
Oldman leaned toward Hunter, his face an intense grimace. “She had what I was looking for ten hours ago, you pirate.” He turned to his android. “Search him.”
“He already did that.”
The android lit him up again.
“Besides, if I had anything to hide you think I’d bring it in here?” He turned to the android. “You better have that setting on low or I’ll melt your joints.”
The beam shut down. The android turned to Oldman. “He’s-b c,clean, bloss.”
“Nice voice-box there, Sluggo. You do poetry readings?”
“Now manually search him.”
The android stepped closer to Hunter, a low grrrr emanating from its voice box.
“Woof woof, Sluggo.”
The android fingers were Teflon slick, but were clumsy as they fumbled around Hunter’s body. It made him smile, knowing this goofy android couldn’t detect a rocket in his pocket, let alone a small ribbon of ancient micro film in his collar.
Sluggo squared up and took a few steps back. “No-ting t-to reput, B-Boss.”
Hunter smirked. “I know a guy can fix that voice module”
Oldman waved his arm dismissively. “It’s a stock program. Listen, I want you to go back out into the thick of things. Bring me that girl. What she holds is very valuable. It could mean everything.”
Hunter turned to go. “The girl. Right.”
“And Hunter.” Hunter stopped and turned to Oldman. “If I find you’ve been cheating me, hiding something…the girl, perhaps…” Oldman glared at Hunter.
“Me? Cheat a master criminal like you? Come on….I’m an open book.”
(To be continued…)
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