Authors: Rayne Forrest
“It cannot be, Tyree. It cannot
He held her on her feet, his grim face
stained red as blood by the sunset and the flames. Men were arming themselves
and running through the gate. The fire had to be contained and extinguished as
quickly as possible.
“I must go, Saba. Round up what
women and young ones whooo can help and bring them.”
She nodded even as her heart
threatened to stop beating and shrivel in her chest.
It was just such a fireball that
had brought the
. Now there would be two.
Jackpot. He’d hit the jackpot. The
cards were falling in his direction. Ryder Vaughan pushed the entire pile of
credits in front of him to the center of the table.
“That’s a fool’s move, made by a
Ryder smiled at the ugly, unshaven
mug sneering at him from across the poker table.
How can one man be so fucking ugly, anyway?
“Then I’m a fool. You’re a thief.
That might make us even.”
Cankered lips pulled back in what
would have been a smile had the man had any real teeth left in his head. Those
blackened snags didn’t count as teeth any longer in Ryder’s book.
Ugly flipped a gold coin onto the
pile of credits. A real gold coin. The premonition that skittered up Ryder’s
back was far uglier than his card mates. Something was amiss.
Ryder leaned back in his chair,
casually dropping his right hand into his lap. His fingers closed around his
stunner. Thank the ancient gods for grace. The stunner was as illegal a weapon
as one could find these days.
Left-handed, Ryder flipped up his
cards. “Four aces, pal.”
Instead of looking disappointed, Ugly
smirked and flipped up an ace of diamonds. “You’re cheating, Vaughan, or
whatever your name really is. Around here, that’s punishable by death.”
Ryder didn’t move, didn’t even
swallow. He’d been set up. How could he have been so blind as to not see it coming?
Arrogance. That’s what it was.
He’d been so sure he was smarter
than everyone else at this table that he’d not paid enough attention. There was
no point arguing. It was bolt or die.
It was probably die while trying to
bolt, that was the truth of it, but wasn’t ready to die. He activated the stunner.
The low whine of the weapon charging to a lethal level sent Ugly and his
playmates into action. They dived for cover.
Ryder Vaughan, traveler, trader,
and erstwhile gambler, dived for the door. But not before he snatched up a
handful of the credits, including that gold coin, and shoved the loot into his
pants pocket. That split second might be costly but there was no way that coin
was getting away from him.
Not until they pry it from my
He rolled through the door as
weapons fire zinged past him, head level, and close enough to turn his bowels a
little rebellious. He scrabbled on hands and knees into the darkest shadows,
then he lurched to his feet and ran full bore toward the crafter bays.
He’d seen a Galaxy Runner docked
when he’d landed yesterday. His own little Star Springer was in the tender loving
care of the maintenance bots, its situation grim for any sort of lasting repair.
was just too old and tired to come back this time and he knew it.
It was a shame because Ryder loved
that little ship. She’d been a trusted servant for a decade. Orange slime hit
the building in front of him. He darted to the left, between two residential complexes.
Those motherfuckers were shooting
pepper gel at him! If it hit him, it would burn scar him for the rest of his
If he didn’t pay attention, that
would be the rest of his short life.
Ryder pulled off his jacket and
slipped out of his vest, tossing it up onto a second floor balcony. It fell
back at his feet. He threw it again. This time it caught and hung there.
Hopefully, Ugly and his three henchmen would think he’d climbed up the escape
ladder, hopped onto the balcony, and gotten inside the building, but he
couldn’t wait to find out if that ploy would work.
He sprinted through the shadows,
down a set of steps and around the corner into the crafter bay.
Damn, damn, damn!
The Galaxy Runner was
gone. He really wasn’t into stealing, but he was into living, and a ship that
fast would have helped him live longer.
sat in her bay. There
were no bots working on her. The maintenance tag flashed a green light. The
question was then, was she fixed or was she just as fixed as they could get
her, considering her age and condition? He didn’t have time to ponder on it for
long because he had to steal his own ship and get the fuck out of here before
he lost his rapidly vanishing head start.
Ugly probably had the local
constables in his pocket. That gold coin spoke volumes and none of it was
reassuring. He punched in the override code on
and slipped through the barely opened hatch, rapidly securing it behind himself.
There was no time to run the proper
safety checks. Ryder threw himself into the comfortably worn pilot’s seat and
started pushing console buttons. The ship responded, board after board lighting
to life. The com beacon started flashing. The crafter bay security squad had
noticed. He had to lift off
, before they could throw grappling lines
over him. He took a deep breath and eased the throttle open.
and lifted. He stomped on the foot controls and she shot forward, clearing the
Sound echoed around him. Now the
bastards were shooting old-fashioned metal pellets at him.
Not good. So not good.
Those metal pellets might not
penetrate the hull, by they could weaken it enough for a breach when he passed
through the edge of the atmosphere. He had to risk activating the shields. It
was harder than he’d imagined it would be.
Ryder paused, mesmerized by the
sight of his own shaking hands.
He was almost away with his life and now, now his nerves were going
to remind him to be afraid.
He’d remember to be afraid after he
was clear, after
held together long enough to get into space and
hit a fast cruising speed. He’d take time to be afraid after he knew he was
going to live more than a few more seconds.
It was an effort but he forced his
shaking hands to program the autopilot. The bridge glowed yellow, then orange,
then blue as the ship cleared the atmosphere. He set the navigation console and
pushed the auto control. The lights dimmed down, conserving fuel and batteries.
Ryder laid his palm over an
apparently blank panel in the console. It blinked in a series of blue lights as
a module rose out of the console. He flipped the switch and willingly committed
an act of treason as
disappeared off every type of radar and
tracking device known. A wave of dizziness swept over him.
He didn’t care. It was okay now. He
Thirty minutes later he’d literally
puked his guts out and he wasn’t sure if being alive was all it was cracked up
His legs too shaky and weak to hold
him, Ryder made it to his small infirmary by alternately staggering and
crawling. Opening the diagnostic lab was an exercise of will, one he failed, as
his knees buckled and sent him to the deck. He didn’t need the lab results to
know—Ugly had managed to slip something into his drink and poison him. Now he
needed to figure out what family of poison was in his system to take the right
antidote. Ryder hauled himself back up onto a chair.
Black spots danced in front of his
eyes as he opened the test kit. Jabbing his left index finger, he obtained
enough of a blood sample to coat a test strip. It turned purple. Snake venom.
They’d slipped him snake venom?
He slithered to the floor, lying
there, resting, and just remembering to breathe. Something was definitely in
his system. He lifted his hands, turning and examining them.
There was a small nick on the
outside of his right palm. Anything could have gotten in through that cut.
Maybe Ugly and his cronies were too stupid for poison, after all.
He’d been crawling along on the
ground. Maybe some reptile had nicked him. Maybe it was some bacterium that
just mimicked snake venom and he was about to go down for the last time.
He had to think and it was just simply beyond him. He was sinking
fast. His fingers fumbled the med kit.
No way to know and no time. He couldn’t seem to suck any air
into his lungs.
He filled the cylinder half full
and jabbed the needle into his thigh and pressed the plunger. Blessed blackness
wrapped her arms around him, cradling him on the cold deck.
* * * *
Cold. He was so cold his bones
ached. The deck was wet beneath his cheek. A spasm seized him, drawing his fingers
into claws of agony. His muscles contracted and pulled tight, eaten by piercing
fire. His heart fluttered in his chest, then pounded, each beat more painful
than the last. His stomach cramped. Wet heat flooded his crotch, only to turn
miserably cold on his balls.
Yep. He was dead.
* * * *
Collision alarms were going off.
His first thought was that Ugly had caught up to him to finish the job. The
ship bucked wildly. His legs wouldn’t move. Hell, he couldn’t even feel them.
With agonizing slowness, he crawled to the bridge, dragging his unfeeling
limbs. Darkness rolled over him again. He fought it back. He was alive.
A strange red-violet glow infused
the corridor. The temperature rose sharply.
He was entering atmosphere. What atmosphere? Where the hell could he be?
Ryder pulled himself up into a
sitting position. His stomach heaved dryly. Thank all the gods there was
nothing left in there to come up. His throat was raw with acid burn. He
couldn’t reach the console to silence the alarms, nor could he see out the view
The red-violet glow abruptly
flew into a twilight sky. Stars shone on a darkening
canopy. It was an impending collision all right. With the ground. Maybe, just
maybe the apparent shallow trajectory would save him.
Save him from what? He couldn’t
feel his legs. He’d lie on the ground on this unknown, probably hostile planet,
and just die.
He really hated the idea of death
and it was way too close for comfort. He must have really pissed off some god.
Well, he wasn’t ready to admit to defeat quite yet.
Besides, there was no way he was
going to die without having a bath first. He was a stinking mess. No man should
die in such a state unless he’d been stupid enough to drink himself to it,
which he most certainly had not.
Precious seconds were ticking by,
but clarity was rapidly returning. He remembered it all now. Some sort of substance
had found its way into his bloodstream. Maybe, just maybe the feeling and
mobility would return to his legs. First he had to get into a life pod.
The proximity alarm sounded. He
crawled back across the deck, still dragging his legs. He couldn’t reach the release
on the life pod. Screaming in frustration, Ryder took a deep breath, reached
down inside himself for every ounce of strength he could muster, and lunged for
the release. The door opened and he crawled inside as
She bounced, lifted and skidded
along the surface. Smoke filled the bridge. Ryder tried to pull his legs inside
the pod. It was vital he get the bloody door closed. It was the only protection
he’d have if the ship exploded.
landed hard, throwing
Ryder against the far wall. The impact slammed the door of the life pod closed.
A roar filled his ears. The life pod had ejected. He was tumbling, over and
over. His stomach rebelled again. Then he landed—hard. His head hit the deck
with a sickening thud. Blood filled his mouth.
He’d bitten all the way through his tongue. It would be sore for days
if he lived that long.
Very slowly he realized the pod had
come to a stop. He felt around in the dark for the door release. His right foot
tingled, sending a shower of red-hot pinpricks up his leg. Gods, this was worse
than the numbness.
Sorry, god, whoever you are.
Don’t mean to sound ungrateful.
The door opened and he pulled
himself out into the night. Flames lit the night sky.
burning. He watched the flames, sighing sorrowfully.
“Sorry, old girl. You deserved better.”
Ryder hazed out on a wave of pain as the muscles in his back spasmed painfully.
The cramping finally passed and he forced himself to open his eyes and take
stock of his location. It could be worse.
The life pod rested against a large
outcropping of rock. The night sky was clear, and he should be sheltered enough
for the night. A campfire would be nice, but he didn’t want to risk drawing
undue attention to his location. Not yet.
If there were sentient life on this
planet, they’d be drawn to the wreckage of his ship tonight, and might not look
for survivors until daybreak. Maybe by then he’d be able to walk. He leaned
back and closed his eyes. The sound of trickling water drifted to him.
Gods, he was thirsty, but common sense won out. He couldn’t go crawling about
in the dark. A few more hours and, if his legs were better, he’d risk trying to
find the stream.
What a fine mess he was in now. No
ship. No idea where he was. No food. No legs.
He fell over and curled into a ball
as best he could.
This had certainly not been one of
his better days.