I clamped my hands around my mouth and coughed into them. It muffled the sound, prevented it from ricocheting around the hanger and advertising our position like a firecracker on a coal black night.
Commander Hatch wouldn't let up though – he motioned me on with a strong flick of his hand. But when I didn't react immediately, too busy coughing up my lungs, he just looped one orange and black body armoured arm around my middle and pulled me forward.
'We gotta keep moving Star,' he hissed into my ear.
I didn't have the breath to agree. I wasn't in a full bio suit like he was – I didn't have fancy futuristic filters protecting me from the acrid sting of burning metal and chemicals in the air. It felt like someone had poured pins down my throat. I just wanted to fall to the ground and clutch at my face until it would all go away.
'Star,' he let his hand fall from my middle, clamping it around my forearm instead, 'you gotta stay with me.'
For a second I thought he was going to reach one of those bulky glove covered hands up to my face. Brush off a speck of dirt or blood maybe. That's how it works in the movies right? Hero's strong hand cupping your face and brushing at the skin with little flicks of his thumb? I can see it now…
A round of pulse fire slammed into the bulkhead above us sending a cascade of screwed up chunks of metal and boiled paint from above. Hatch pushed me out of the way and leaned from our alcove to return fire.
I just watched him, pushing myself backwards till my back met nothing but cold hard wall. Everything zipped, zoomed and whoosed past me in this kaleidoscope of frantic colours and sounds. It felt like my head was going to pop just trying to follow it all.
I'm not made for real battle – I have no experience with this stuff. I used to get sick watching R rated films for god sake – I just can't take the violence, the noise, the gore. The bullets and pulse beams slicing past, that awful nose raking scent of burnt flesh and overheated blood.
I looked down at my hands again. They were shaking in quick little shivers – like they were cold or something. I tried to wrap them around my middle but it wouldn't work, I just couldn't move them.
Wasn't it ironic that Commander Hatch had honestly thought I'd be able to help him down here? Obviously had some misplaced belief that he'd been able to knock the latent blubbering damsel from me by virtue of the critical nature of the situation. But he was wrong wasn't he? I couldn't even move…
A pulse blast slammed into a metal crate a couple of meters from our hiding spot. I watched as the electronic pulse ate through the metal, blistering the red Ninex Company logo. The blast didn't go all the way through, but it was enough to get Hatch's attention.
He didn't even swear, just gave it the briefest of glances before lunging for me and crumpling me into his arms till his whole form covered mine.
I didn't have time to notice his breath or the feel of his helmet pressed into my neck – none of the details a girl should notice when a marine from the future had her in his arms.
The crate exploded. It was deafening – like being slapped in the ears with church bells. I felt the force of the blast shake through the floor and up into my back. But its heat and destructive power never reached me – Hatch's shield took the brunt.
In another second he was moving, furling up and pulling me along with him.
'You okay?' he said, unblinking. He hardly ever closed those topaz coloured eyes for long. It was as if he were afraid life would surprise him. Then again, he was a marine in the Galactic Federation Army – life probably surprised him all the time, and I could bet my life it was never pleasant.
I nodded, pleading silently with all my heart that he wouldn't let go of my arm. I couldn't think, couldn't function – I had no hope of saving myself. I just wanted it all to go away, for Hatch to win and carry me back to safety.
I just couldn't do this.
I wasn't looking at him. He swapped his gun to his other grip and took my chin in his hand and angled my face up. 'You have to stay with me kid. I can't do this without you. Stay – with – me.'
I just wanted to fall forward and come to rest on that armoured chest – just wait till he'd wrap his arms around me and tell me this was all some kind of joke. It was all an exercise maybe, just some more training.
But he turned away, dropped my chin and fired off two shots as a hulking Trip'tan sprinted round the corner.
I squeezed my eyes closed just in time. I heard the hiss as his shields gave way and his final gurgled cry before he hit the ground.
'There can't be too many more of them,' Hatch said without looking back at me. 'Plus, the arms locker should be around here somewhere.'
I didn't answer, didn't even nod – made no indication that I'd understood what he was talking about. But of course I did. This was the whole point of our mission – the whole reason that I had been bought along.
'You can do this Ariel.' He didn't look at me as he peered around the edge of the bulkhead to check for the rest of the enemy. 'That's why you're my lucky star.'
I was glad he couldn't see me blushing. Even more glad when he shot two more berserker Trip'tans as they dashed our way.
Then we were on the run again. He didn't pull my arm this time, he was too busy strafing to the side as he fired at the various fighters hiding behind whatever they could find in this large space hanger. It was up to me to keep me alive.
I stumbled after him, slamming myself behind whatever crate or warped up bit of metal walkway he motioned me behind. Can you believe I used to be a feminist too? I did Gender Studies at Uni for god's sake, used to go to rallies and all. And now I was running after a gun totting macho man who was trying his hardest not to get me killed while all I could do was shake like a cardboard placard in hurricane.
He ducked next to me as he threw a timed grenade with a massive arc of his powerful arm. In a couple of seconds it detonated causing another louder secondary explosion that pushed the box behind me right into my back.
It must have been one of those red Nilex crates. Nilex were a galactic weapons company who specialised in selling armaments to whomever the hell could pay regardless of what they wanted to use them for. Killing civilians? Harming children and the infirm? Sure, why not. Nilex apparently didn't care about politics, just money. Which I think is about as heartless as it comes while Hatch just thinks they're fun to shoot.
'Locker is that way,' Commander Hatch moved the nozzle of his smooth rounded assault rifle over to the left.
I could see it now – just a little door in the side of the hanger room wall. It would be easy to miss – it was so nondescript and innocuous looking. But I still swallowed hard. This would be my turn.
'Can you do it from here?'
I shook my head. I couldn't even see the panel from this distance. 'We're going to have to get closer.'
Hatch nodded – his helmet bobbing up and down, the thick translucent force-field over his eyes giving the faintest of crackles. He checked the radar on his wrist. 'Okay Star I need you to make a run for it.'
I pretended not to hear him, just tried to shy further back into the crate behind me.
'You gotta do it – I'll be fine, just go. I've got your back.'
He virtually had to push me up. I've already mentioned I used to be a feminist right? If you'd pictured this scenario to me a couple of years ago I would have laughed in your face and said the girl was a stupid pathetic mark on the female race. I've since softened my views.
Being in a real war has made me realise I have the courage of a tea cosy.
Because that's the thing. You can posture all you want, but until you get there and hear real bullets zipping overhead and see real dead bodies you just don't know how you are going to react. You either have it in you to ignore it and run on or you freeze up with this aching primal stiffness and all you can see is blood, blood and blood.
I stumbled to my feet and set off across the floor. It was more the momentum of his push rather than anything else. But then a pulse blast arched right past my back and I could feel it seer the oxygen right out of the air.
I screamed. It's not the first time and it won't be the last. I just bolted for the door. Commander Hatch may have shouted something at me – but I couldn't hear. By the time I reached the stupid small little door my eyes were so clogged with tears that I almost ran straight into it.
The panel was just to the right, half way up the frame. It was pretty high, almost at head height. After all this was made for Trip'tans, not petit little human women. I grabbed for the panel with both my hands. The metal was so smooth under my bare skin, so remarkably familiar.
I had to open it, bypass the lock, that's why I was here. Surprisingly Hatch hadn't brought me along just to be an annoying liability – he needed me to open this. So I concentrated. I sucked up all the courage I didn't have and screwed closed my eyes till the tension turned to pain.
I concentrated so hard, just as they'd taught me.
The panel beeped softly just as a Trip'tan came right behind me. I turned as Hatch fired on the thing; one blast close range then a pistol-whip to the chin. The alien went down so close to me one of his arms knocked me backwards through the door.
I landed with a thump, losing my concentration. The door began to close right on top of me – slice down from above like one of those terrible traps you find in side scroller games. Before I really knew what was going on Hatch had thrown himself at me, pushing us both into the arms locker and free of the door as it finally snapped closed.
Silence. Almost total silence. The door, and the more than fancy shielding that protected this whole room, completely cut the noise from outside. All I could hear were the sounds of my own breaths mingling with Commander Hatch's. His quickly steadied as he pushed himself up off the floor and off of me, but mine just kept panting along.
That was the second time in several minutes I'd been face to face, belly to belly, body to body with Commander Lance Hatch and not had the presence of mind to note the details. I was just too whacked out on the adrenaline and gut punching fear.
He leaned down and pulled me up with him. 'You okay Star?' he had both my shoulders in his hands and was looking very carefully over my face with quick glances all the way down my body. 'You aren't hurt?'
Lucky Star was his nick brand new nick name for me. It was easier than Ariel De Winter anyway.
'You got us here Star, couldn't have done it without you.'
I looked up at him, though I was embarrassed about how close he stood. Not embarrassed, but nervous – worried my face would blister and burn a hot red like the melting paint on a Nilex box. Hatch must know by now…
'Seriously. You did good.' He wasn't letting go of my shoulders, nor was he looking anywhere but directly at me. Maybe he thought I was being hard on myself and he wanted to prove he was being sincere. But every second he held on was just another I wanted to run away and hide my bright red cheeks in shame.
'You okay?' Now he really did reach up an arm and brush at my face with one of those stiff gloved hands.
It sent a shiver down my spine. Now I may have baulked at descriptions like that in romance books in the past, but it was the only way to describe it – simply electrifying.
'W-w-w-wh-wha-wha…' I gave up trying to speak. Listening to myself was like hearing a recording of your most embarrassing moment played over and over again on an endless loop. I just wanted to ask what next.
He took away one of his blessed hands and keyed the code into his armpad that opened his helmet. It hissed all the way back as the shield separated from the armour to reveal Commander Hatch in all his glory. His face was angular, his chin cut fine and sharp against his jaw bone. His hair was just a closely cropped brown hint all along his skull and his eyes were as turquoise as ever.
I used to go to the movies and laugh at what Hollywood thought women should find attractive. As if some woman with a half descent brain would throw herself at the feet of a brash macho idiot with more hair gel than nous. All that makeup, all those styled clothes, all that tough guy persona – directors were idiots if they thought that's what women find attractive.
Women want stable and reliable right? Smart and dependable, gentle and kind.
But I had been wrong, so, so, so wrong. I just hadn't been able to imagine what the movies were trying to get across. The sheer energy of adventure, of fear inducing activities – it does something to a girl. And Hatch. Christ I couldn't imagine a movie that could convey him at all. To know that he was there to protect me – that those arms, those eyes, those hands – whatever the hell I couldn't pull my eyes from – it was all there to protect me.
There was just so much energy, so much exhilaration. With every breath I sucked in everything stared back at me with such awesome reality I wanted to faint.
Hatch keyed more codes into his armpad till the armour protecting his hands receded back into the cuffs around his wrists with little pneumatic noises. Maybe he thought the feel of it against my skin had scared me.
'You're all right now,' he was looking at my face again. 'All we have to do here is wait – the reinforcements will get here soon.'
Well that had answered the question I couldn't get out, but that didn't mean I was any closer to actually being able to form words of my own.
I used to be a feminist for god's sake! And why was that the only thing I could think of now?
'Star? Ariel? You with me? You alright?'
'W-w-wait?' the word finally freed itself from my stiff lips and shaking throat.
He nodded gently. 'Yeah. We'll be fine in here – there's no way they can make it through Atlantian shields. Thanks to you.' There was a look of real admiration in his eyes – just the look he'd give the rest of his crew when they'd pull off some difficult manoeuvre or manage some wonderful feat by determined force. But… was there something else too?
A moment stretched on. It was brief but we were just looking at each other in the silence. My heart wanted to fly from my chest and ricochet around the room like a pin ball strapped to a rocket.
But then his suit gave a hiss and I screamed. It was just a little hiss, probably just the work of the battle getting to it as it went through its automatic repairs. But it had been enough to send such a jolt through my already overtaxed nervous system.
It was such a girly scream too.
'Woah! You're alright.' He put up his hands in front of me like I was a perp with a loaded gun or a loaner ready to jump. But then he did something altogether unexpected. His face just changed from surprise to electric determination. 'Oh fuck it.' He pulled me close and kissed me.
And let me tell you the movies have nothing on this. I said before they can't quite convey how hot a male lead should be as he's rushing around saving the day and saving the girl to boot. But that is nothing on their complete inability to capture the kiss.
It was the most intense, amazing, invigorating experience of my life. He just had a hand in the small of my back pushing me up to meet him. His face was warm against mine, so firm, so alive, so real as it nuzzled my neck.
Commander Lance Hatch, I couldn't help but think as the glee threatened to send me to my knees as giddy as a schoolgirl, about bloody time.
By now you are probably wandering who I am. I imagine the events described above don't make much sense. Ray guns and super hot marines from the future, aliens and hyper advanced technology: I wouldn't blame you if you didn't believe a word of it.
But it's all true, that's the thing, every last word. My name is Ariel De Winter and I can testify to that. You see on top of having a pretty bizarre name, my life turned pretty bizarre to match it. It didn't start out strange: I had a childhood like any other filled with swings, cartoons, ice cream and dog eared dolls you drag round the garden. But that all changed. In 2412 I woke up from stasis to find myself 400 years in the future, in a world unlike I could imagine.
That's why it's true – why the events that transpired above are even possible. They all occurred 400 years in the future in a time when humanity is just another race in a galaxy full of technologically advanced aliens.
Sure, you still might not believe what I'm telling you, but whatever, that's your prerogative.
This story is actually complete. It's about 90,000 words long. It is no longer available on Fiction Press, but it is available for sale through Smashwords and the Amazon Kindle Store. To find it do a search for Lucky Star on those sites, or for my pen name, Odette C. Bell.
Have a great day, and thanks for reading!