Nikos Pelham, Junior Guard, was contemplating the day that had gone so terribly, terribly wrong when he heard the sound of pebbles falling in the back of the cave and looked up, startled. A figure had just jumped down from the upper level in the back of the cave — right next to his skylight, he called it — and was rising from a crouch. It turned towards him and all he could register was a grey figure with a single green eye covering most of its face before he yanked at his sidearm, terrified, and it went off with a loud bang.
An intense wave of pain and nausea rolled over him. I just shot myself! He couldn’t help but glance down and see burned fabric at his side and a widening circle of bright red blood. He knew he hadn’t touched the trigger, and yet the pistol had fired. He felt faint. He remembered his other mortal peril just in time to see the intruder raising its empty hands.
“Please don’t shoot again,” it said, a tinny voice issuing from its helmet’s speakers Oh, that’s not an eye, it’s a faceplate. And: wait, marauders don’t talk. With words, anyhow.
The figure pulled off its helmet. It was a woman, youngish, looking to have about 30 seasons or thereabout: a little older than he was, he reckoned. She briefly shook out her hair, which fell to just above her shoulders and was pure white. Her face, on the other hand, was too dark to make out her features. But then she took a tentative step forward and a beam of light from the skylight washed over her, illuminating a strong face with dark red-brown skin, the color of farthest edges of the planet’s rings in the full of the night. Her eyes were golden, like the filigree in Edgewater’s church, only somehow richer. Better still, Nikos could see that she looked absolutely not rabid.
“Oh,” he said. “You’re not a marauder. Thank the Law.”
She paused and gestured gently with her free hand. “You’re hurt,” she said. Her voice was low and the words had a strange accent he could not place. But the coppery scent of his blood was strong enough for him to smell over his sweat and his dizziness was getting worse. “May I help you?”
If I don’t get help, I’ll die here, Nikos realized. He swallowed and nodded. She came to him and swiftly looked over his wound. “Press here,” she said, guiding his hand to his side. “Press hard.” She pulled an adreno injector out of a thigh pocket and jabbed him with it. The pain eased.
“Oh, Laws, that’s better,” Nikos sighed with relief. He looked her over while she rummaged through his cache of supplies. Not Spacer’s Choice. “I hope you don’t mind me omitting this from my report,” he said. “Spacer’s Choice doesn’t like us accepting outside help.”
“Spacer’s what?” She returned and unpacked the kit, handing him a chunk of gauze. “Hold this to your side.” It hurt, but he did as she asked.
It did not occur to him to think that she might not know what Spacer’s Choice was. Everyone knows about Spacer’s Choice. So she must be asking if we’re exclusive. “Oh, we’re all part of the Spacer’s Choice family here,” he explained as she added more gauze to pack the hole in his side. He felt more sting than merely from the wound, and he bowed his head in shame. “Not that I deserve to be. Can’t even deliver a company slogan.”
She gave him an odd look as she wrapped him, very tightly, with bandages to hold down the gauze. “You need medical attention,” she said. “What is this place?”
“You hit your head or something?” He said, confused. How could she not know where we are? “You’re in Emerald Vale. We’re a Spacer’s Choice community. Edgewater’s a little ways down. Prettiest place in the vale. Be sure to stop by our provisioner’s for a can of our famous saltuna.”
“Is that a slogan?”
“Well, according to my contract, I’m also supposed to promote the product when I can.”
“Ah,” she said. “Well done, then.”
He felt pleased. Maybe I’m not so bad at this after all.
“You need medical attention,” she repeated. “Edgewater, you said?”
“Yes. Ah,” he felt himself blush. “If you could just let them know that I got shot fighting marauders, that would help. If they think it was an accident, the company probably won’t cover fixing me up.”
She tilted her head, brows furrowing. Then: “Marauders?”
Her ignorance surprised him again. “Gibbering, flesh-eating, law-breaking, unemployed lunatics. Unemployed. With guns. Some hullhead grounded their spacecraft out in the open! That’s a real good way to attract marauders. That’s how I got here: saw ‘em coming down from the hills and thought I could take ‘em. I thought there were only two, but there were more, and they just kept coming! So I ran in here and blocked off the entrance. See those gas canisters? Marauders come sniffing around in here, I can take ‘em all out with a single shot. Not bad, huh?”
She regarded the canisters. “How were you planning on getting out?”
He blushed again. “I, ah, I hadn’t really thought that far. I guess I was hoping to sneak out when it’s dark. They don’t have long attention spans, see. They only spent a few minutes coming after me, though I think they might have taken one of the canisters.” He frowned. “Nothing since then, though. It was quiet — until you came.”
“What’s your name?”
“Nikky. I mean Nikos. I mean Pelham. Junior Guard. Ow. Guard Pelham, I mean. I’m Guard Pelham, Spacer’s Choice Security Forces, Emerald Vale Detachment.”
“Well, Guard Pelham of the Emerald Vale Detachment of Spacer’s Choice Security Forces, I think we should get you back to Edgewater right now. That bullet needs to come out.”
“I, ah…who are you?”
She hesitated, then said, “Call me Alex Hawthorne. My ship had a navigation accident — that’s why I don’t know where I am. Speaking of knowing where someone is, does anyone else know you’re in here?”
Nikos started to nod, then shook his head. “I don’t know for sure that they know where I am, but I was out here with a squad. Connie — I mean, Lt. Mercer — is probably down in the valley. I’m sure she’ll come for me. Eventually.”
“Hm,” the woman said. She hesitated again. “Have you heard of the Hope?”
“The Hope? Is that some sort of fancy new drug? Are you with Auntie Cleo or something?” He leaned back, face falling. “Don’t take this the wrong way or nothing, but I’m not allowed to fraternize with Cleo workers. Company policy.”
She shook her head. “No. Never mind. Look, I don’t think we can wait for Lt. Mercer to find you — we need to get you to help. You’re going to have trouble moving — I think you should give me your gun so I can cover you. While we get out of here.”
There are only about a thousand company rules against me handing my weapon over to…to a…a freelancer? Then he sucked in his breath and the sudden, renewed pain reminded him, very sharply, of his situation. Ow. Something was awful wrong in there. I’m in no position to be picky.
“All…all right,” he said, reluctantly handing over the sidearm and ammo. “All Spacer’s Choice weapons are now thirty percent less likely to malfunction,” he told her, and the irony of it hit him like a shovel to the back of his head. He felt himself wince but rallied hard. “I can back you up if they get past you,” he patted the sheath strapped to his leg. “Got this Spacer’s Choice saber, see. You’ve tried the best. Now try the rest. Spacer’s Choice. Yes!” He muttered to himself, delighted. “Nailed it that time.”
She smiled at him as she cleared the pistol and opened its action. “Ah,” she said as she examined it, then poked around the inside with the needle of the spent adreno injector. “There, that’s better. Debris in the firing mechanism - that’s probably why it misfired on you.” And then she reloaded it with practiced efficiency.
It made him feel a little better, watching her handle the pistol like that. “You look like you know your way around a gun,” he said. But: “Just…please remember what I said. About me getting shot by marauders. Please?”
She nodded. “Don’t worry. And let’s worry about living first, okay? Cover your ears and stay behind me.” Nikos managed to get his hands over his ears as she fired the pistol and the canisters exploded. It works for her, he thought enviously, and then scrambled after her as she ducked out of the cave, barely able to breathe. Laws, this really hurts!
As he straightened up, blinking in the sunlight, she shook her head a little and let out a breath. “Are—“ you all right? He wanted to ask, seeing as she had the gun and was essentially his only chance of survival, but she shook her head abruptly and put a finger to her lips and he fell silent.
She pointed at him, then at a spot behind a rock, and he took her meaning and hunkered down there. She crept forward, looking over the edge where the slope down to the vale began, and settled into stillness.
Nikos could hear something. Muttering. It was incoherent. He couldn’t help himself; he crept forward a little to peek, and saw two marauders in a makeshift camp. They seemed to be talking at? to? one another, but not in any words he could discern. They were wearing standard marauder armor: bits and pieces of soldier armor and atmospheric suits, tied on with stripes of colorful cloth over regular clothing. They’d always struck him as odd, the way they seemed to uniformly go for bright colors, as opposed to the more neutral, conservative shades favored by the townsfolk. Maybe that’s what happens when you go crazy?
He wasn’t sure how they’d get past them. Maybe the stranger could creep by, but the hole in his side was certainly going to impede his ability to move. He tried to shift back towards the spot where she wanted him and a stone turned under his heel. He thumped to the ground with a grunt of pain.
The marauders muttering spiked in volume — he thought he could hear a chopped word or two in there — “What?” and “Kill!”. The stranger rose from her crouch, holding the pistol in a ready stance with her right hand, raising her left in greeting. “Hello —“ she started to say.
Shots rang out from down below. Nikos could hear the snap of the rounds passing between him and the stranger. Quicker than he could register, she raised the pistol and fired.
There was a loud explosion from further down the slope and Nikos saw flames rise into the air. So they did steal one of my canisters! Then his heart leapt into his mouth as he saw a marauder dash past him, dirty knife waving in the air, heading straight for the stranger.
She backed up with a series of short steps, as neat as you please, giving her enough room to raise Nikos’ pistol and put three bullets into her attacker: two in the chest and the third into the head as the figure slumped forward and its head fell through her sight picture. And then it was over.
Hawthorne paused and waited, listening. But there was no sound except the faint roar of engines as a short-haul freighter passed by far overhead.
Nikos looked down the hillside and he could see movement in the grass and around the rocks below, movement that was coming up the hill. More marauders! He pointed. They might be crazy, but they’re not deaf.
Hawthorne looked. Then she squared her shoulders and motioned to him, an emphatic gesture to the space behind her, then a short chop of a knife hand in the direction of the slope.
Stay behind me. Let’s go.