A cold wind blew dust across a featureless plain. In the distance was a ruined alien city. I pulled up the hood of my parka. It wasn't cold enough for me to turn on my thermal regulator but come sunset that would change. Not that I wanted to be here after dark in any situation. It wasn't for the first time in the three-month journey to reach this planet that I hadn't wondered what the hell I was doing. Turning away from my survey of the distant horizon I regarded the others with me. Daniels and Wilson two ex-mercs were the professionals of our party. You could see it in the way they handled the coil guns they held. My own hand went to the pistol at my side. The 7mm caseless ammunition was no protection against anyone in armour. But it had a high enough rate of fire to keep anything non-armoured at arm's length. Next were the two younger women Alicia Henderson and Monica McCarthy no more than girls to me and I was twenty-six. Monica was the oldest of the two and eighteen with a long mop of dark hair. Alicia was younger but I wasn't sure by how much both girls stuck together and never involved me in anything they did. I'm not sure what Alicia did but Monica was Vanessa's PA. Then there was Vanessa our boss although I'm unsure what she actually did. At first I thought she was an archaeologist hence the travel to distant world lately I'm not so sure. I'm certain it was something illegal and had I known before I boarded the ship I would have never agreed. Ex-security like me hadn't a lot of choice when it came to job prospects especially when you resigned. I had my reason at the time and I'd not change that. Lastly there was our pilot Solstrid the only non-human on our ship. Unlike many Confederacy ships I had heard about it had no Ezaran engineers. The tall blonde haired, blue eyed woman was one of the Enari or Valkyrie, as they liked to be called. Then there was me an overweight former metro officer traffic division. Dark haired, brown eyed and slightly taller than average human.
I glanced back to see Big Sis (my name for Solstrid after she had called me Little Sister) leaning against the shuttle her eyes scanning the horizon looking more professional than I could ever hope to achieve. She was a sort of friend after she put right on the misconceptions about her race. She smiled a tense smile at me and turned back to her endless scan of the horizon. My attention wandered back to speculation about my boss. I was only in this for the money she had hired me as a bodyguard yet she had Daniels and Wilson for that. I did wonder exactly why I was here the same for Monica and Alicia. What troubled me was I was only here after I answered a pop up ad on my datapad.
"Gwen?" Solstrid's voice interrupted my thoughts.
"Big Sis?" I replied turning towards her. I saw her gesture to me and I walked across to the shuttle. "What is it?" She didn't normally use my name like that and it made me nervous.
"Take this," she said handing me her boot knife.
I slid into my calf length boots. "What's this about?" I asked her hesitantly.
"For friendship," she told me.
I knew she was lying. "We're in danger?"
"From the moment you stepped aboard," she said cryptically. Then that was her usual manner of speech.
"You could have warned me?" My doubts about the whole journey sprang to the fore.
"I wasn't sure about you. The war you know, we're were weary about all humans from that side of the border."
I considered what she said only Vanessa and I were from the Terran Empire the rest she had hired from somewhere within the Confederacy. Big Sis was right about the war although ended it was still fresh in the minds of a lot of people both sides of the conflict.
"And now Little Sister I know you have the heart of a true warrior."
I seriously doubted that. The nearest I ever got to that sort of action was performing a traffic stop. "What is really up?"
"I've lost contact with the ship."
An icy tingle ran down my back. "Certain?"
"I wouldn't be saying it if I was uncertain."
"Sorry," I apologised.
"Accepted," she replied. "I'll try again," she said and disappeared back into the shuttle.
"I'll warn the other's," I said through the door.
"It could be something or could be nothing," she called out.
"Gwendolyn Hunter!" Vanessa called out to me before I could question Big Sis further.
"Ma'am?" I turned and walked back only my mother called me Gwendolyn and that was if I had done something she hadn't approved of. Dad just gave me that look and said nothing.
"You're not being paid to chat with the hired help." Vanessa was a few decades older than me, her hair streaked with grey. Cracks lined the corners of her eyes and her mouth was a tight line. The hood of her parka was down her long hair spilling over it.
"Ma'am," I said politely. "Pilot Solstrid was informing me that she's lost contact with the ship."
Daniels and Wilson immediately checked their weapons. Boys and their toys I thought.
"It's probably nothing." Vanessa was dismissive and that made me even more nervous.
"Yes ma'am." I turned to Big Sis who had emerged from the shuttle. "Watch your back," I cautioned her.
"I will Little Sister."
Monica and Alicia stirred uneasily at my words.
"Head back to the shuttle," I told them.
"You will stay here!" Vanessa growled at them. "And you will do as you are told." She pointed at me.
"Yes ma'am." I felt I had to argue my point further. "You are paying me to protect me and that's what I'm doing!" I saw both men nod in my direction.
"Get yourself over here and I want less lip from you!"
In the few days since we had landed Vanessa had become more and more paranoid. I was being to wonder if I had made a big mistake. It was too late for regrets but I had to have my say I had remained silent too long.
"So tell me exactly why we are here?" I had to push my point.
Vanessa gave her glare there was a dangerous tint in her eyes. "Do as you are told!"
I bristled at that. "Just answer the damn question!"
Big Sis interrupted before things could deteriorate more. "There's a shuttle incoming?" She pointed to a speck on the horizon I was hard pressed to see. It grew larger as it moved closer.
"At last!" Vanessa sounded triumphant.
It put a further chill down my back I'd had enough of those today.
"Alicia turn on the beacon," Vanessa ordered.
The beacon was a set of four orange lights that flashed on and off. It was set in a square and the shuttle was supposed to land at the centre. I had my attention on the incoming shuttle the design of which, wasn't one I could recognise. It was larger and heavier than imperial or even Confederacy shuttles. It definitely didn't look the same as Confederacy built shuttle at my back. It hovered over the beacon for a moment then suddenly dropped the door opening before the dust had cleared. I blinked back as hot dust seared my eyes. When I could see again several figures had emerged from the shuttle. I had seen enough on the news report to recognise who they were Orsini the bane of the Empire. Without hesitation I drew my pistol and fired Daniels and Wilson followed suite.
"Get behind me and run for the shuttle!" I yelled at Vanessa and the two girls. I knew that the Orsini didn't take prisoners. Images of burnt cities and dismembered corpses filled my mind. Both girls stirred by my words ran. I glimpsed Vanessa pass me then a sharp pain on the back of my head and blackness.
I woke to the sound of screams. I was lying facing a fire several metres away and it was dark. Behind the flickering fire I could see a couple of poles had been set up. Monica had been stripped naked and strapped to one. Blood tickled down from numerous cuts. Her head hung down her long hair covering her face I wasn't sure if she was alive or dead. It was cold and I doubted she would last much longer if she was alive. One of the Orsini got up from beside the fire and sauntered over to Monica. He produced a knife and cut a slice of fresh from her arm. I wanted to puke as much as I did I didn't want them to realise I was awake. I guess that she had passed out I was glad of that. He said something to his companions, which caused them to laugh. I froze in fear as one of them pulled at something that lay at his feet. I saw a terrified face in the light of the fire. Alicia was alive but for how long. I moved slightly relieved that I wasn't bound. Either they thought I was dead or that I was too incapacitated to be a threat. My gun was missing it was too much to hope that they left it with me. I couldn't remember anything after I started firing. I reached to my boot my fingers finding the hilt of the knife I had there making my movements as slight as I could. Carefully not to reveal my movement I drew from its sheath and held it close to my chest ready to use it in an instant. If I was going to die I was damn sure taking as many of them with me as possible. The Orsini holding Alicia pulled her upright then forced her down so she was lying close to the fire on her belly. He gestured to his companion who put his weight across her back. For a moment I thought they were going to rape her what they did was far worse. The first Orsini grabbed her arm and thrust her hand into the flames. Alicia's screams echoed across the night bringing with it the stench of burning flesh. I had to do something. Another Orsini rose from the fire and walked towards me.
I froze in fear like a rabbit in the headlights. I was no hero no matter how hard imagined it. It was stupid to think otherwise doubts spilled through my mind. The Orsini kneeled down and loomed over me his fingers reaching out to touch me. Something broke the hold fear had of me and I reacted. I jabbed up with the knife Big Sis had given me. The long thin blade went through his throat and into his brain. It was so quick he never had the time to shout out. I rolled out from under him as he slowly toppled forward his blood staining my parka. I had do something the others was starting to get suspicious. One half rose from his seat looking in my direction. In the flicking firelight I saw the gun the Orsini I killed had tucked into his waistband. With a chill calmness I grabbed the gun and fired it was if I was someone else, someone from a heroic tale. I shot the two by Alicia the one by Monica roared in anger and rushed me his bloody knife raised high above his head. I shot him as a bullet whistled past my ear. I turned to see another Orsini emerge from the shuttle. Like I was on the range I aimed and shot him. He dropped hard but I wasn't finished yet. Part of me wanted to heave my guts out but the rational part of my mind told me to make sure they where dead. I edged towards the fire mindful of Orsini tricks. I shot them again just to be sure emptying the clip. Alicia and Monica had not moved since my firefight. A dreadful thought washed through my thoughts just as my mind and body decided to rejoin. I couldn't keep the bile from rising and heaved the contents of my stomach all over the floor. I shuddered through dry rasps tasting bile in my mouth.
"Pull yourself together!" I growled at myself.
Hesitantly I made my way over to Monica halting long enough to examine Alicia she was out cold. I was glad she was alive but she would need serious medical attention. Attention that was far beyond my meagre knowledge. Monica groaned when I touched her. Hope filled my heart she was alive, bloodied but alive but in this cold that might not be for long. Hastily I grabbed the bloody knife off the dead Orsini that had been torturing her and cut her bonds. She slumped into my hands I could feel the coldness of her flesh. I stripped off my parka and covered her with it turning on the thermal regulator. I felt the chill in the air through the thin top I was wearing. I ignored it Monica had more need of my parka than I did. Half-dragging, half-carrying I managed to manoeuvre her over to the fire and warmth. Sitting her down in front of the fir I turned my attention to Alicia. She was still out cold I guess she fainted because of the pain. Her hand was a mass of burnt and blistered flesh. Hopefully the medical pack aboard the shuttle was still there. I wouldn't have put it past the Orsini to have looted it. Monica was more coherent I could see her looking at me as I tried to make her more comfortable.
I had to ask the question. "Where are the others?" I said as I wrapped her legs in a blanket one of Orsini had been using to sit on.
Anger overcame pain as she answered. "That bitch betrayed us!"
I couldn't mistake the hate in her voice. "Who?"
"Vanessa?" I had thought she had been a bit moody lately but I never would have thought she'd stoop that low.
"Are you deaf," she said bitterly.
I understood her anger her lover had betrayed her. "The others?" My mind was on Big Sis, her sense of honour would have been too strong for her to be party to this.
"Dead?" I seemed to be getting into a habit of repeating everything she said.
"The bitch hit you on the back of head with a rock!"
That explained the sharp pain on the back of my head before I blacked out.
Monica continued her face grimacing from pain but she held it together. "Then the bitch grabbed your gun and shot Solstrid first." She looked at me sorrow in her eyes. "I know you guys were close."
I could only nod in reply. "And?"
"She shot Denis and Phil in the back they never saw it coming."
Bile welled up in my throat and couldn't hold it back. I puked until there was nothing left. I guess the shock of the situation got to me. Once I got hold of my senses I began to think more rationally.
"Over by the shuttle. The bitch shot her down without a thought."
I know I should have thought about the living but the thought that my friend was lying dead on the ground made me less than rational.
I didn't have to go far to find her. Solstrid was lying face down in the dirt. Blood or what I could see of it in the dim light pooled around her. Lying close to her was a body of the Orsini I had killed. Somehow through luck or blind justice I had killed him with a shot to his head. He wasn't going to get up from that. Tears trickled from my eyes as I knelt down and rolled over Solstrid's body. Suddenly her eyes flicked open and I almost jumped back.
"Little sister," she grasped. "Are we both in the embrace of the Mother of All?"
"You're alive!" I breathed.
"I waited for you?" her voice was hardly above a whisper.
I had to lean close to hear her. "Waited for me?" I had to stop repeating someone else's words but I was too elated to worry about that now. Yet in the dim recesses of mind was the awful truth that she was dying.
She coughed blood trickled from her lips. "You showed your warrior soul." And coughed again more blood trickled from her mouth.
"I'll get the medkit!" I didn't care about her ramblings I just wanted her to live.
I felt her hand on my wrist. "Its too late for me!"
Tears dripped from my eyes. In my heart I knew it was the truth but a stubborn part of me didn't believe it. "I'll get the kit!" Now I was repeating myself.
The pressure on my wrist increased then weakened. "I don't have long we both know the truth."
"Truth or not I must save you." Ugly truth raised its head but I refused to give up on her. "I'll save you!" Sounding more confident than I actually felt.
"Save yourself!" She coughed more blood. She released her grip of my wrist and fumbled for something at her side.
The next I felt something click on my wrist. It was the purple and silver bangle she always wore.
"Take this to my clan."
I knew enough to know the Valkyrie lived in clans. The same clan that threw her out for falling in love. I wasn't sure that would be a wise move since she had been exiled. I hadn't the heart to say no. "I promise!" And I meant it.
She shuddered coughing up blood. My heart sank I never felt so helpless.
"Find her! She must pay for her treachery, " she said her words coming out in grasps.
"I will that's a certainty." I resolved to back up my words.
"Mother embrace me!" she cried out and gave a final shudder. Then she was still.
I felt for a pulse but there was none. Solstrid was dead. Her death reminded me that some still lived. Mourning Solstrid I entered the shuttle luckily the medkit was untouched I grabbed it and hurried back to the fireside wiping away my tears with a trembling hand.
"Got the kit." I said to Monica.
Alicia was awake and holding her ruined hand and weeping.
"Hand it over!" Monica said to me sounding more authoritive. "I know how to use it. I was a med intern before that bitch got her hands on me!"
The medkit was a large box as long as my arm and about the length from my elbow to hand and that again deep. Instead of handing it over I placed it at her feet.
"Be careful its heavy," I said to her. Seeing her bare bloody feet reminded me that she needed clothes otherwise she would freeze. I was wary about a washing her wounds in the cold. There was nothing I could see to heat up water. There might have been in the shuttle but I was more concerned about the two of them to go searching it now.
Monica ignored me as she flipped the lip open and began routing inside.
"Good it's all here," she muttered as she picked up a vial and hypo. Slamming the vial into the hypo she jammed it against her neck and pressed a button on the hypo. She sighed as the contents entered her body. "That's better." She pulled out the empty vial and slipped another in its place. Slowly and shakily she stood the blanket around her hips fell to the floor revealing that she was naked from the waist down.
I reached out to help her and she waved my hand away.
"I'll be fine."
"You sure?" I asked her concerned and pointing to the bloody exposed parts of her body.
"These cuts are only superficial. It looks worse than it is but I hurts like hell." She grimaced. "They wanted to prolong the agony before the main event." She gestured angrily to the fire. "They intended to burn me alive."
"Burn?" I was too shocked to give a proper response.
"Where do you think they got all this wood from. Certainly not here!" She pointed to a pile of wood I hadn't noticed.
There wasn't a single tree on this bleak plain they must have brought the wood with them. Why they had brought wood with them was something I didn't want to fathom out. Monica had said they had brought it with them? Why would they do that transport wood from wherever they hailed from just to set fire to it on a desolate planet? I had to get myself together I felt responsible for these young women.
She stumbled across to where Alicia was weeping and holding her ruined hand waving me away angrily when I tried to help her. I never felt so helpless and so out of my depth.
"Alicia please let me look at you hand?" she said gently taking Alicia's arm. She jabbed her hypo into Alicia's neck. "That will numb the pain."
Despite her wounds she was acting professionally unlike my stumbling actions. She stepped back to the kit and pulled out a large container with a stray nozzle.
"Dermal foam, flexible, antiseptic and water soluble."
I think she was telling me or it could have been a reminder to herself I was uncertain she wasn't looking in my direction when she said it. As gentle as she was Alicia still winced as the foam covered her hand.
"That will keep it from it infection until we get you to a cell stitcher."
"Cell stitcher?" I had to ask the question."
"Oh I forgot that you are a Terran. A cell stitcher is a cellular regenerator. It repairs your body cell by cell."
I winced, at the moment I didn't want to be reminded of that since Vanessa was from the Empire as was I.
Now that Monica was busy I began to think of my own situation. The cold was biting through my T-shirt then there was Monica. All she had was my parka and a blanket for her waist. A quick search of the campsite brought up nothing useful besides a few weapons mostly serrated edged knives and a couple of pistols. The clothing the Orsini wore was over large and not very clean. Monica's own clothing had been cut to shreds even her boots had been rendered useless. As much I hadn't wanted to walk past Solstrid body I had to search the shuttle for a light source. Unfortunately there was nothing available. The Orsini had ransacked the supply chest taking all the tools but fortunately leaving the food and water. I was thankful for that. Picking up a piece of wood I wrapped torn strips from one of the Orsini blankets I made a crude torch. In the sizzling light of my makeshift torch I found Daniels and Wilson lying where I had last seen them before I was knocked out. As if the sight of them brought back that memory the back of my head began to pulse. Shivering with a pulse in the back of my head I made a search of their bodies. Unlike Solstrid they were both long dead. They had both been shot in the back there was no way they would have seen it coming. The expression on Daniels' face in the sputtering light of my torch made it clear he at least had an inkling of what happened. As much I was wanted to forget the image of his face it joined that of Solstrid's in my mind. If I let it fester I'd be having mental trauma forever more. Girding up my courage I stripped the clothes off Wilson's body. He was closer in size to Monica than Daniels was. With a parka, pants and boots I returned to the fireside my head full of remorse over desecrating a body.
"Wear these," I said to Monica as I approached her.
She looked at the proffered clothing with trepidation.
"They were Wilson's," I told her.
She winced at the directness of my speech.
"He won't be needing them any more." I spoke again trying to take back the harshness of my words. "I'll give them a decent burial later but our needs come first."
Monica dressed in Wilson's clothes and boots after she had cleaned her wounds with wipes from the medkit. The material hung loose on her. Once she was dressed I spoke to her. "I suggest we head aboard the shuttle now?"
"Yes," she said with some hesitation. "It will be safer." She nodded to Alicia. "You help Alicia."
Alicia looked calmer than she had been. I guess Monica had given something to dull the pain. It matched the dead look in her eyes. She moved woodenly when I helped her to the shuttle. I shuddered a bit as I passed Solstrid's body.
"I be back for you Big Sis," I whispered.
I sat her down on one of the seats in the shuttle. There was a set of four seats by the door into the pilot's cockpit and opposite them was another row of six flanked by two small cubicles. One a kitchenette too tiny to be of any practical use. Opposite the door out on the far wall were several storage compartments. I had got the medkit from one of them. After seating the two women I headed back outside returning moments later with the medkit.
I glanced to Alicia leaning against the wall her face blank.
"Is she going to be alright?"
"I'm monitoring her condition the best I can," Monica stated simply. Her expression turned grave. "Oh good you brought the kit."
"Sit with Alicia a moment." I said to Monica placing the medkit on the floor of the shuttle. "These seats aren't all that comfortable."
Monica moved across a confused expression on her face. I was glad that Solstrid had shown me the shuttle and how it functioned. Undoing a set of clips the backrest folded into the seats to make a serviceable bed. I shooed the two women onto the bed and did the same the other side. I looked at my handy work thoughtfully.
"These aren't much better but they will be more comfortable."
"Oh yes I remember now," Monica said thoughtfully. "Evac beds for patients."
"Which you two qualify as."
Monica nodded. "That reminds me I have to look at your head."
"My head?" As if to empathise the point the back of my head pulsed.
She spent some time examining the back of my head. I felt her fingers gently probe the wound.
"You got lucky, she hit hard." She scowled. "I reckon she thought she'd killed you. What was one more death to that bitch!" She released her hold of my head. "I've washed the dirt out of the wound and the foam will numb the pain. It's as much as I can do at the moment."
I put my parka back on aware of my bloodstains on the inside of the hood and Monica's blood on the lining. I picked up a folding shovel the Orsini hadn't looted and headed to the door. I halted and turned regarding both women.
""You'll be safe in here."
"And you?" Monica asked.
"Giving Solstrid, Wilson and Daniels a decent burial."
"Commend their souls to God," she said to me.
I wasn't religious and was surprised that she was. Then I had no experience of the Confederacy beyond the small glimpses I had from the brief stops we had on the way this planet and from what I had seen in vids. I merely nodded and headed out. Solstrid's was the first grave I dug. The earth was surprisingly easy to dig. I placed her in the ground and stood for several minutes. I had no knowledge of Valkyrie death rites. She hadn't told me and now I wished she had. I covered her with the blanket I had given to Monica and scattered dirt over her body.
"Good bye sister," I whispered hoarsely as a tear trickled down my cheek.
Turning away I did the same to Wilson and Daniel but without the tears. It felt as if my heart would burst with grief as I headed back to the shuttle exhausted. Red tinted the darkness it would be dawn soon and I was too tried to think straight all I wanted was sleep. Monica and Alicia were asleep in the Evac beds. I entered the cockpit and rested my head against the console and slept.