“Riley!” I heard someone call for me, the sound echoing from the metal walls.
“Could you come back here? I could use a hand.”
I clambered my way through the wrecked ship. I hadn’t been there since the crash. I felt the stirring of old ghosts who’d just as soon not be disturbed. It reminded me somehow of the occasional car accidents I had to deal with when I was a police officer.
It gave me pause to think. Twisted metal, broken mechanisms. Things used to run and now were so much junk. Things that used to carry us safely from one point to another. An illusion. That’s the one thing you learn as a cop –safety isn’t something that lasts for as long as you hope it will.
“Riley!” the voice called again. It was Isabella. Our resident tech guru. She loved being here in the wreckage.
She didn’t see ghosts. She saw possibilities. I gave her credit for that.
Me? I could barely tell a hammer from a wrench. But I was glad to help her.
It had been a strange journey so far, being here on another world, caught in the midst of an ongoing war between the D’Tali, our hosts and the Aetam, their sworn enemies.
Who were two species on this planet that were so similar they might as well have been kissing cousins.
I couldn’t figure out exactly what the beef was between the two tribes. It didn’t make much sense to me. But another thing you learn as a cop is that it doesn’t take much for folks to not get along. And it doesn’t take much for folks to end up hating each other.
So, you put yourself in the middle and try to keep the peace as best you can. There’s not much more you can do beyond that when it came down to it.
I finally stumbled my way to the back of the ship. Isabella was trying to pry something off a control panel.
“Hey there,” she said with a smile. She loved being back here in the ship, taking it apart and putting it back together.
“I need those big muscles you have to help me get this off. It’s a little rusted tight. I’m not able to get it off on my own.”
I gave her a little salute.
“Your wish is my command,” I said and I assumed a position next to her. We put our collective four hands on the panel on each corner.
“On the count of three?” I asked.
“One. Two. THREE!”
The pair of us tugged hard and yanked the damn thing right off and sent ourselves flying backwards onto the deck of the ship.
We both landed hard, cracking our heads.
“Ow,” I said, rubbing the back of my skull. “That hurt.”
“Sure, but hey, we got the panel off!” Isabella said brightly, holding the panel up like a fisherman with his prize catch.
Vokar came bolting around the corner with alarm in his eyes.
“You ladies all right? What happened?”
“We’re fine, honey,” Isabella said, climbing to her feet.
“Yeah, Vokar, we’re good. Just didn’t know our own strength for a moment. We’re super powerful you know,” I said with a wink.
He looked over to Isabella with a truly love-sick look.
“Don’t I know it,” he said and leaned in to kiss her.
Ever since Isabella had been taken by the Aetam, Vokar was incredibly protective of her. Which I get. We all were. In many ways, Isabella was the most important among us. While Camille was the nurse and Sofia was our Queen, Isabella was the one who knew the tech. That’s what gave us a slight advantage (very slight) over the Aetamians. They’d love to get their hands on her, to improve their weaponry and tracking systems.
Isabella was working on teaching us all a little bit more about the tech we had and had been making some progress in that regard. We had all figured that it would make more sense if that knowledge was spread out a touch.
But even with that, Isabella was still the boss when it came to mechanics. Which was fine by me.
My attitude towards tech was slightly above “cavewoman.” I understood its value and how much it benefited us. But beyond that, I was more likely to rely on my eyes and ears to get me through situations.
Being the only sister with three brothers will do that to you. You gotta stay sharp or you’d be likely to find a frog slipped down your dress.
I had found a natural role among the D’Tali in the security detail, helping with defensive planning and strategies. I liked helping in that regard. It was what I was good at. And I liked being the lone human female in amongst the “proud” D’Tali warriors. It felt like I was back among my brothers again.
Don’t get me wrong, my brothers could be a pain in the ass, but I missed them, nonetheless. I supposed that would be true for anyone.
Vokar and Isabella broke off their kiss and I laughed.
“Decided to come up for air?” I said with a smirk.
“Honestly, Riley, sometimes I think she’s just going to swallow me whole,” Vokar said playfully.
“Oh, stop it,” she said, whacking his arm.
“Let’s get some air,” I said. “I think we could all use some.”
The couple agreed and we climbed our way out of the downed ship. There was a cool breeze and it felt good on my face.
Sometimes the best part about my old job was you were outside so much. And whenever things got rough (and believe me, they did), some fresh air in your lungs always worked wonders. Still did, it turned out.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath in and held it for a moment, before letting it out slowly.
“You ok?” Isabella asked with some small concern.
“Oh yeah,” I nodded. “Just enjoying the moment.”
But as soon as I said that the moment ended.
Over Isabella’s shoulder, out in the tree line, I spotted movement. It was subtle, but it was there for sure.
“Vokar,” I said cautiously, “what do you make of—”
Before I could finish my thought, there was a terrific bang and shouting from all around us.
It was the Aetam. They were attacking, hurling heavy stones with some kind of crude catapult. They’d crept up on us around the perimeter of the ship’s crash zone.
Seriously, it was like these guys were never going to give up.
“Fuck,” I said. “They caught us napping!”
“Damnit, I was hoping for more time before they showed up again,” Vokar said, annoyance clear in his tone. He turned to me. “Riley, take Isabella and try to get out of here.”
“Vokar, wait a second,” Isabella began but he cut her off.
“No, Isabella. This isn’t time for a debate.”
The small attachment of D’Tali which had come with us to the ship were already responding to the assault, firing crossbow bolts and setting up smoke screens to give a little cover.
Vokar gripped me by the arm.
“I’m counting on you, Riley. I have to go help fight them off.”
“I got this, Vokar. Go. Don’t wait on us,” I said.
He pulled Isabella into him by the waist, kissing her deeply.
“I’ll find you. Stay with Riley,” he said and then he was gone, drawing his weapons and running headlong into the battle.
“C’mon, Izzy,” I said. “We gotta boogie outta here.”
“But—” she said, looking after Vokar.
I shook my head.
“He can take care of himself. Right now, we gotta take care of you, ok? Don’t be stubborn and make me knock you out and carry you.”
She nodded and I took her hand. We took off running, sticking close to the ship, while I scanned the tree line for Aetam soldiers.
The assault seemed to be mostly concentrated at the bow of the ship, the Aetam moving in a half-circle as they advanced. Vokar and the D’Tali were fighting them off, however. In my experience, D’Tali were superior fighters to the Aetam, but with smaller numbers. When you threw in an endangered loved one… yeah, I wouldn’t want to get in Vokar’s way right now. Let’s put it that way.
Straight ahead from the back of the ship, things looked pretty clear. I looked to Izzy and gripped her hand.
“Stay low and move fast. Don’t let go of my hand, ok? No matter what.”
She nodded, her face grave. I gave her hand a squeeze and off we went, darting into the trees.
We made it safely without trouble and dove into the underbrush.
“Stay down,” I whispered to her and she gave me a thumbs-up. I peeked my head out and I could see that the D’Tali were giving the Aetam all they could handle.
Looking down to Izzy, I smiled saying, “I think we’re gonna win this.”
That’s when a crossbow bolt shot right across my field of vision, nearly taking my nose off.
“Goddamn!” I exclaimed and turned to my right. A small contingent of Aetam warriors were running towards us.
Without looking down, I said out loud to Izzy, “Flatten out! Keep still. I’m going to lead them away!”
I felt her hand tug on my ankle.
“Riley!” She whispered with force. “Don’t!”
I shook my head.
“Gave Vokar my word. I’ll be fine. When you hear them come for me, run low and fast back to the ship and the D’Tali. Don’t argue with me. Just do it. I got this,” I said.
She squeezed my ankle again and let go. I know she was making herself as small as possible.
The Aetam were only about 50 yards away, all shouting at me.
“JESUS, YOU GUYS ARE UGLY!” I shouted and took off running to my right. Not that they’d be able understand a single word.
But I’d lay money they would get my tone of voice just fine.
Another crossbow blew past me. I darted into the trees. I wouldn’t be able to outrun them for long. They were bigger and stronger than me. But I’d make them fucking work for it.
The Aetam were in hot pursuit of me and I kept shouting and yelling nonsense to antagonize them.
“Man, you fucking losers are slooooow!” I said laughing and turning my head to glance at them. “And your baseball team is never going to win, even if you invent baseball!”
And that was the moment I ran full speed into a tree. I smacked into it hard and bounced back onto the forest floor.
I groggily sat up, only to feel a knife point against my throat. I looked up and a very angry Aetam soldier was crouching there, ready to thrust his blade into me at a moment’s notice.
“Silly creature, thinking you could get away,” he said with a hiss. “You might make your strange noises now, but soon we will have your knowledge.”
Few things drag as much as staff meetings. Fewer still are the meetings which involve the king and his high command. Even fewer are those involving discussion of taxes, of all things.
And here was I. Caught right in the damn middle of it.
“My lord,” said Aefir, the tax collector of the Aetam kingdom, “we must press even harder on this issue. Without new taxes, we will no longer able to give the Aetam forces the support they need in our struggle with the D’Tali.”
“Struggle?” snorted Jalon, commander of the palace guard. “I’d say calling it a ‘struggle’ is underselling it slightly.”
“What mean you by this, Jalon?” King Mofat said.
“My king, to put it bluntly, we had our asses handed to us by the D’Tali in the last conflict. The word amongst the guard is that the citizenry is getting tired of this endless war.”
“Nonsense,” Aefir countered. “The normal complaints of the guard. Complaining is the soldier’s lot in life. Not to be taken seriously.”
Jalon glowered, holding his chin high in annoyance. He stepped right up to Aefir, towering over him. Aefir looked concerned, but, to his credit, he didn’t back down.
“Do not…ever…speak of the Aetam under my command that way again. These soldiers have all volunteered their lives in service of the king. Their loyalty is without question. And if they say the people are tired, they would know. When they finish a shift, they go home. To their families. Their friends. Their neighbors. They hear what the people are saying,” he said.
Aefir buckled but did not break.
“My lord Mofat,” he said, looking around Jalon’s shoulders, “trust me on this. A decisive victory is exactly what’s called for to lift the populace’s spirits. And more taxes are the cost of that victory. It’s mathematics. Nothing more. Complaints will fade in the face of winning.”
Mofat looked as bored as I felt. I chuckled quietly then began to yawn, my late night in the library getting to me.
“Bored are you, Kator?” Aefir said to me with some snark in his voice.
“With you? Absolutely, Aefir. I find your prattling tiresome.”
“Hear, hear!” Jalon added.
Aefir feigned outrage and turned to the king.
“My lord! How can you—”
“Enough!” Mofat shouted, with slamming his fist on the arm of his chair. “I grow tired of you all. Jalon, while I hear you and what your sources inform you of, I must concur with Aefir.”
I wanted to slap the smug look from Aefir’s face at that moment. But the king handled it for me.
“We need a victory over the D’Tali. And we need it soon. However, Aefir, I will not permit you to dismiss the voices of my soldiers again. While you serve a valuable role for the king, you are not putting your life on the line. Is that clear to you?”
Finally, Aefir looked humbled.
“Yes, my lord,” he mumbled quietly.
“I don’t give a whit for the peasantry. They will do what they’re told. But, if I have learned anything in my years of rule, I have learned that if you disguise the poison in honey, they’re more likely to swallow it.”
“My king—” Jalon began but Mofat cut him off by raising his hand.
“No, Jalon. I will hear no more of this. I have registered your concerns and honor them to a point, but not beyond. We must defeat the D’Tali. Once and for all. Only then will we have peace. And greater power than before.”
There was a wicked gleam in Mofat’s eyes as he said that. I didn’t like the look of it. Not one bit.
He turned to his son, Hulat, who, after the death of General Mohad, he had named commander of all Aetam forces. If there was someone I liked less the Aefir (or Moffat, for that matter) it was Hulat.
He hadn’t earned his position. It was given to him. He had no respect for rank or service and the only thing he brought to the table that appealed to Mofat was brutality. Hulat was infamous for butchering children if they got in his way. Killing his own troops in the midst of combat if it somehow could give an advantage.
When Mofat made Hulat the high commander, I heard the rumor was he went home and beat his mate because he was so excited.
The fact Aetam females are as rare as D’Tali only makes such a horrendous act worse.
The gods above help us if he ever became king. However bad Moffat was, Hulat would be a nightmare. From which the Aetam may never awaken.
“Hulat, I want plans organizing a new assault on the D’Tali as quickly as possible. And just blundering it like a battering ram will not get it done. So, think a little this time,” Moffat said.
“Yes, father,” Hulat replied, nostrils flaring. I chuckled. Hulat spotted it and give me a sneer.
“What troubles you, Kator? Does the head of the Assassin’s Guild find all of this tiresome?”
I stared Hulat down.
“Not at all, Hulat,” I said. “But to think of the Aetam army being anything other than a battering ram give me pause. Seems a bit out of your purview, that.”
“And what you would advise us to do, Kator?” Moffat asked me before Hulat, whose face had turned bright red, could try tear me apart.
“My lord, I’m not a military expert by any means, but if you want to win a decisive victory, it should be small. Quiet. Strike when they least expect and strike silently.”
Hulat laughed, eyes wide with pleasure. Mofat joined him.
I stared at them both and turned to Jalon, who was more often than not an ally for me in this council meetings. He shook his head. He didn’t know either.
At that moment, a messenger came running into the chamber, bowed quickly and got to one knee.
“What news?” Mofat asked. The messenger nodded his head and stood up.
“My king, the word is the operation was a success.”
“What operation?” I asked.
Now it was Hulat’s turn to chuckle at me.
“You’re not as clever as you think, Kator. Nor do you give enough credit where it is due,” he said.
“What are you talking about, Hulat? I have no time for your riddles,” I countered.
“What he means, Master Assassin,” Mofat said, “is that we had taken your advice before you had even given it.”
I looked to Jalon again, who was as confused as I was.
“What does that mean, my lord?” I asked.
“It means that we sent a small party of Aetam soldiers out to the wrecked ship crash site, to sit and wait. Knowing full well the D’Tali and their humans would be coming back there soon enough.”
I felt alarm prickle up my spine.
“What would you say, Jalon, is the biggest discrepancy right now, between the forces of the D’Tali and our own?” Mofat asked, this tips of his fingers dancing on the edge of the table.
“Ah…” Jalon said, looking to me and then back to the King, “I would say it was a technological advantage, my King.”
Mofat nodded. “And that technology arrived with the humans.” A menacing grin spread across his face, and there was nothing pleasant about it. “So we set out to capture one.”
What was going on here? And why didn’t I know about it?
Mofat turned to the messenger.
“The human is in custody?”
“Yes, my lord. A yellow-headed female. She had tried to flee from the crash site, but we were able to capture her as she ran through the forest. The assault team is bringing her back here now.”
Yellow-headed! They had her. They had Isabella! The Aetam had her. Of all the damn luck.
Aefir spotted something on my face and cocked his head at me.
“What troubles you, assassin? Surely you’re not sorry that we were able to capture this human. This is precisely the advantage we have been looking for. We can now force her to share her knowledge of this technology with us. With their weapons the tides of this war will change.”
“I’d advise you not to presume to know my mind or where my sympathies lie, tax collector,” I said. “I have little time for your nonsense.”
“He raises a good point nonetheless, Kator,” Hulat said. “You look…crestfallen. As much as you can with that golden orange coloring of your scales that is.” His eyes narrowed in grim amusement.
I swallowed my anger at his crack and responded calmly.
“My concert, General, is that there were Aetam lives put at risk. If the Assassins’ Guild had been included in the planning, we could have taken this human without the loss of one Aetam warrior. When each one is worth ten of theirs. So, I think this operation foolish, regardless of the outcome. With all respect, my king,” I said, bowing low.
Mofat nodded and gestured for me to stand up.
“You show honor in that, Kator. And it is understandable, your position. But this information came to us quickly and we had to move just as fast. No time for debate,” Mofat said.
“Or overly extensive planning,” Hulat chimed in. I wanted to punch his face and knock the smirk right off it.
“Of course, my lord. I completely understand,” I said.
Mofat stood then and walked over to me, putting his hand on my shoulder. Even at his age, I could feel the strength in his grip. He wasn’t King for nothing.
“In future plans, we will include you. Your counsel is always welcome and now, more than ever. We will be moving swiftly with the next stage of our plans. But now, let us celebrate this victory!”
He headed off towards the dining chamber, where food and drink had been prepared. Everyone followed him out. Jalon hesitated a moment, looking at me, head tilted slightly.
“I’ll be with you all in a moment.”
He left and I was alone with my thoughts.
I walked to the window and looked out, frustrated.
How was I going to fix this problem now?
I sighed and shook my head.
Being a double-agent for the D’Tali was trickier than it looked.
There are a lot of things they teach when you enroll in the academy.
How to fire a gun, for instance. That’s a big one. How to give comfort to victims (we could’ve been a little better at that, truth be told). How to drive a car in a high-speed chase. (No kidding, we really did that.)
But there was maybe no skill that was more useful than the one I was using now: how to assess a situation.
After the Aetam soldiers nabbed me in the forest and started dragging me through, I made sure to make a big ruckus, screaming and yelling that they would pay for kidnapping me, not that they would understand a thing I said.
All that really mattered was keeping Isabella safe.
And the real Isabella was safe.
The downside of making a big ruckus, however, was that it deeply annoyed my captors. After several attempts to get me to shut up, and my staunch refusal every time, the leader of the Aetam patrol had had enough and, with a heavy sigh as I shouted in his face that “Isabella was the pride of the D’Tali and I would be rescued and avenged for this indignity!” (I admit, I was laying it on a bit thick, but hey, you gotta throw yourself into the role) cracked me hard across the face.
I dropped like a rock, unconscious. I had a vague sense of someone picking me up and carrying me but then I was gone. Out like the proverbial light.
So it was that my situational assessment training was coming into play now. I was coming to. Slowly. I knew enough to know that I didn’t need to rush the process.
I scanned my body with my mind and, other than my head, I didn’t detect any pain or injuries. That said to me that I was relatively safe, or at the least, not in immediate danger.
Keeping my eyes closed, I could also feel there wasn’t much light (if any) in the room with me. And I was inside somewhere for sure. There was no breeze and the floor I was laying on felt like slabs of hewed stone. It was cool and damp.
I was in a cell somewhere. The Aetam had taken me from the forest all the way to their city. I’m not sure how long that journey was, but it wasn’t close. That much I knew.
I strained my ears to listen for voices or the shuffle of guards’ feet. But I heard nothing. Just the soft echo that hangs in the air of prisons. It’s there whether there is audible sound or not.
Deciding it was safe and I had learned all that I could playing dead, I moved to sit up. And immediately regretted it.
A throbbing pain shot through my head as I sat up, nearly putting me down to the floor again. I took a few deep and slow breaths, trying to calm it down. It was working, thank God. The pain was easing, if not entirely going away.
Well, I thought, let’s take what we can get.
I straightened myself up and pushed up to my feet. I was a little unsteady and the room spun but just for a moment.
I pressed my hands against the wall on my left and rested my forehead against the stone. Its cool temperature was soothing and I sucked in some more slow breaths.
The throbbing subsided slightly, and I finally opened my eyes gently.
I may as well have kept them closed.
There was practically no light. I could just make out the outline of a cell door and a faint, very faint glow through what I presumed to be a grate in the cell door.
Continuing to assess the situation, I felt my way along the walls, determining the size of the space. It wasn’t big, that’s for sure. But that made sense. You don’t make prison cells to be comfortable.
My foot kicked something, and I heard a small little splash.
Reaching down carefully, I felt a cup that had been left for me. Bringing it up to my face, I swirled it around, trying to feel the weight of the water. There wasn’t much in there, but I was grateful for whatever there was.
I brought it to my lips and carefully drank. I didn’t want to risk swallowing it all down in case it had something in it that could prove toxic. Taking a small sip, the water was cool and fresh, and I couldn’t detect anything in it dangerous.
That told me they were invested in keeping me alive.
So, I drank it all down, slowly but every drop. Getting that water in my system helped my head immeasurably.
It occurred to me that I was taking a chance drinking all that water now. They may not bring me anymore. But I suspected that wouldn’t be the case. If they still think I’m Isabella, they are going to do everything they can to keep me alive. If they had figured out that I’m not here already, they would have killed me already.
So. What to do now?
Another thing that they teach out in the police academy is maybe the single most valuable lesson of them all: to be patient.
There’s an enormous amount of time spent as a cop doing absolutely nothing at all. Sitting on stake outs. Driving around for hours on patrol. Filling out paperwork.
Crime is never as rampant as you’re led to believe. So, action is in short supply. More often than not, you’re twiddling your thumbs waiting for something to go down. So, patience is key.
And it was going to serve me now.
I felt for the back wall of the cell and turned to put my back to it. I slid down carefully against the wall, until I was sitting down, knees up, head back, facing the door.
I took another deep breath and began the watch.
What was it that Tom Petty said?
“The Waiting…is the hardest part.”
Amen, Tom. Amen.
Turns out, however, that I didn’t have to wait too long after all.
Beyond the door grate, I saw a flash of light that grew, brightening the hallway outside. Then I heard the heavy steps of Aetam soldiers.
The door suddenly swung open and three Aetam stalked inside. One marched right up to me, towering over my seated position.
“Hey fellas. How’s tricks? I have to say, the service isn’t the best in this hotel but there’s still a chance for you to salvage a five-star rating from me. Maybe if you get some food, more water and, oh yeah, LET ME THE FUCK OUT OF HERE!”
The Aetam before me snarled “Why’d we have to get saddled with this animal?”
These assholes didn’t know I understood them, and I had no plan to clue them in any time soon, either. Maybe I can use that to my advantage at some point but for now, at least I can annoy them.
“Don’t follow, ugly,” I said and the Aetam reached down and grabbed me by the throat, pulling me up and off my feet.
“This…isn’t…gonna improve …your rating….” I managed to gasp out.
The solider pulled me close to his face, his mouth curling into a sneer. His breath was truly reprehensible. That, combined with the fact that his hand was wrapped around my throat, made air a precious commodity.
I kicked out with my feet but I may as well had been kicking a tree for all the good that it did me. The Aetam soldier started laughing at me and the other two joined in.
Maybe they weren’t so invested in keeping me alive after all.
Then another voice boomed out.
“Let her go! Now!”
I was dropped instantly, grasping at my throat and trying to suck in as much air as I could. And then it occurred to me:
As I lay trying to catch my breath, another Aetam walked in. He was tall, golden and clearly in command. The others deferred to him without question, even bowing slightly.
The golden orange one looked at me for a moment, then nodded.
“Leave us,” he said, and the soldier hesitated. The newcomer looked at them and a fire blazed in his eyes.
“Do not make me repeat myself,” he said, “or the Assassin’s Guild will have new training targets.”
That’s all it took. The soldiers left in a hurry.
The golden one walked over to me and I was able to really look at him. There was something almost… familiar about him. Something in his bearing reminded me of… the D’Tali. I didn’t know how that was possible.
He reached down and pulled me up by my wrist.
“All right, you bastard, if you’re going to kill me, then let’s get it the fuck over with,” I said.
“Silence!” he whispered fiercely.
He understood me.
This fire-scaled guy understood what I just said… How was that possible?
“I don’t know why you understand me, but if you think I’m going to tell you a goddamned thing about the D’Tali, you’re out of your mind. So, do us both a favor and don’t waste my time. Kill me and have it be done!”
To my surprise, he moved in a flash and put his hand over my mouth.
“Be quiet for a fucking second, you fool! If you’re not careful, they are going to kill you. And worse! If you want to get out of here, you’re going to have to trust me, Isabella!”
My eyes grew wide. Was this Aetam trying to…help me?
“Do you hear me?” He said. “Stay quiet and I will get you out of here, but we have to move fast!”
He removed his hand from my mouth, slowly.
“You understand?” he asked.
Still stunned, I shook my head.
“I’m not Isabella,” I said softly.
He looked at me, shocked, then looked towards the door. There were sounds from out in the hallway.
“Well,” he said turning back to me, “you are for now.”