Sunday, February 22, 2015

"Dead Or Alive"

Story and cover art by Miranda Fave.
_____


The Borderlands, November 2375


The Arkonian male jumped through the dark skies from a high rooftop to a lower, splashing down into the puddles from the heavy relentless rain.

The sky was a dirty murk of black grey; a torrent of rain lashing the cityscape as whipping winds battered the neon signs and comm. towers. Skittering shuttles in the sky worried through the air, battling through the storm with engine thrusters maxed out and whining.

The running figure raced onwards, frantic and panting, hands slapping obstacles out of the way or grasping firm holds to vault over them, kick them aside or tumble over them.

Thunder clapped and lightening lit up the angry skies with crackling angry energy. The high-rise towers were slaked with runnels of water, rooftops pooled with standing water. 

The figure kept running, sloshing through the deepening puddles of water, he grappled onto a pitched roof, his feet skittering from underneath him on the platinum-slated rooftop. It was a precarious route to take but a necessary path to escape. To either side now, long drops to the helter skelter streets below, thirty floors down, the sheer drop a certain death if he should misjudge a step. He came to the roof’s end. He looked back through the lashing rain and lightening. He could not see his huntress but he felt her eyes on him. He turned and looked forward to the next roof over.

A flat roof. Seven metres away. Jumping down to it from a height should give him enough advantage to make the jump. But the wind and rain were considerable factors to take into account. He looked back. He could not see the figure of the woman chasing him but he could feel her eyes on him, tracking him, hunting him down, and zeroing in on him. He had to take the leap of faith or be caught, hauled in and handed over to meet his fate. He leapt just as the lightning flashed and the thunder roared.

He skinned the edge of the roof. His hands grabbed for a frantic hold. He gripped, he slipped, he fell and then he snagged his coat on a protrusion from the roof. He dangled in the middle of the stormy night sky, he coat pulling on him at the shoulder sleeves as it was wrenched upwards by his weight pulling downwards. His legs kicked freely in the raining tumult and he cried out.

But with a herculean effort he hauled himself up onto the roof and lay there for a moment panting before getting onto his hands and knees with ragged breath. He looked back. He saw her. She stalked through the storm, the wind whipping at her long brown leather trench coat, the rain lashing her face. But she came on unaffected by the elements. She came calmly and even serenely through the storming rage.

The Arkonian, named Brous, whimpered and cried out. She seemed inhuman the way she kept coming but without racing after him or giving any frantic movements. She just kept coming. Walking across the roof tops her shortened rifle held aloft as she stepped over the gaps between buildings with insouciance and seemingly without care or haste. He got to his feet and pelted through the night sky. He could not be caught. He would die if her were returned to authority. He had to escape, become no-one and slink into obscurity. He’d hoped he’d managed to flee from his old identity but this woman, this bounty hunter, had tracked him down. And would not give him up...

It was no night to be out. Only the desperate and the criminal would venture out, and those paid to hunt them down...

... She spied her target through the milieu of the storm and the lashing debris. He ran at a pace, slinking into shadows and ducking round corners, throwing fretful looks over his shoulder looking about for his huntress.

She adjusted the cowl of her long leather cloak as the rain waters ran off it. Her demeanour was untroubled and unperturbed despite their height and precarious rooftop chase. She stepped confidently over the adjoining roofs a leather gloved hand ready for balance the other ready to draw her weapon. 

She was a bounty hunter. To some it was an archaic and anarchic vocation of a by-gone era. But Beatrix Eliza Knight, Beks to her few intimates, knew that the job served a higher purpose of ensuring law and order were never abandoned, that justice got it way and that no criminal could ever use the vast multi-jurisdictions of the Federation and the Alpha Quadrant at large to abscond from justice. Especially along the borderlands, the regions of frontier were law and order were not overtly exercised by Starfleet, the Klingon Defence Force or the myriad other powers of the quadrant.

More than this, it was a profitable business, profitable because it also equalled a dangerous and largely thankless vocation. Her prey thought to have eluded her took shelter between an array of satellite dishes. She smiled to herself. This might prove easier than she thought. After months of tracking down this elusive figure, she rather imagined a more concerted effort from the man wanted and chased by multiple powers across the alpha and beta quadrants.

She came to the wide gap where the Arkonian had almost fallen to his death. She cocked an eyebrow at the impasse and stared in the direction of the Arkonian’s hiding place. She cocked her Randall Special Winchester phaser rifle, took careful aim to the Arkonian’s far right and fired hitting a light fitting by a stairwell door.

The light exploded in a fiery burst and the Arkonian darted to his left out of his hiding place and raced across the rooftop to the adjoining roof and kept on going in that direction. Exactly as Beks had intended. She followed a parallel course unperturbed at his pace. She kept stalking along the roof, stepping across where it was safe to make her way, slowly but surely, towards him.

Beks saw him stop and question which direction to take. She took aim and again fired to his right sending him running to the left. She didn’t question her plan’s effectiveness. However, she had now had several good line of sights shots and she wondered had she brought the Remmington she could have used it to stun the Arkonian. But there was no option of doing so with the Randall Special. The weapon was a powerhouse brute force weapon. Extremely effective at short range but even across distances it packed a punch. However, Beks did not want to take the chance of throwing him off the rooftop so devised the gauntlet for the Arkonian to run.

She tapped her commbadge. She had procured a Starfleet standard communicator for herself and her crew. The communicators were propriety technology for Starfleet but Beks had attained them in receipt of payment for a job she completed years ago for Starfleet. Modified to look like a sheriff’s badge, a gold star encircled and stamped with her bounty hunter seal, Beks wore it to display exactly who and what she was. Sometimes it bespoke to shout out your authority and intent.

“He’s coming your way Jodhaa. Three buildings over and on track. Be ready to spring the trap.”

I hear you shooting. I’m going to intercept.”

“Belay that. He’s coming to you.”

Don’t worry Beks. I’ll surprise him either way.”

“Damn.” Beks jumped onto the next roof and now started to run, cursing inwardly at Jodhaa’s rash decision to change the plan.

Ahead she could see the Arkonian fleeing frantically climbing up onto the next roof and continuing to look back over his shoulder in her direction. He wasn’t looking forward save when he came to that roof’s edge where he paused to gauge the distance but as he did he noticed in alarm but too late the figure of a lithe red Orion female running towards him, gun pointed and shouted.

Jodhaa raced towards him hollering at him to hit the deck but he wheeled round to make his escape. Jodhaa did not stop she raced to the roof’s edge and leapt. She crashed down to grab his legs and brought him down. He kicked back frantically but on the wet roof Jodhaa wheeled with her legs out and knocked him for six with a heavy boot to his face.

I got him Beks. The bounty is caught.”

* * *

The storm had abated but the night air was filled with the anticipation of a further deluge. It was but a brief respite and the sky grew heavier with the threat of a tempest. Thunder rumbled in the distance, low and angry. A foreboding sky.

Beks and Jodhaa made their way through the largely empty back streets with their captured quarry carried between them, handcuffed and unconscious. Looking up at the sky, Jodhaa was thinking fondly of the warmth of the Étoile Cheval and the meal Marro would have sitting ready for their return and the gossip to share with Rini. “Nearly there.”

“We’d be there already Jodhaa if we didn’t have to drag him through the back alleys because you knocked him out.” It was a gentle enough ribbing of the red Orion but sufficed to make Beks’ point to Jodhaa.

Jodhaa expected Beks to chide at some point for she knew how particular she was about sticking to the plan. But in the heat of the moment, Jodhaa had seen a new course of action that would bring the hunt to an early end. Beks accused her of being impulsive but Jodhaa knew her instincts were good and had long learned to follow her gut. “Ah come on Beks! You’ve got to admit that was some move I pulled back there.”

“You could have gotten yourself killed Jodhaa.”

“But I didn’t.”

Beks looked at her sideways with a stern expression. “That’s hardly the point I’m trying to make.”

Suppressing the urge to roll her eyes, Jodhaa decided to invite the inevitable mini-lecture from Beks. She preferred to get the lecture over with before they reached the ship where it would all be forgotten about on both her and Bek’s part. “Go on then, what is your point?”

Beks reproved Jodhaa. “There was no need to pull such a move. He was cornered and would have had to give himself up.”

“In time maybe but this way it’s all done and dusted.”

“Patience Jodhaa. After all this time you still need to learn the value of patience.”

“I can be patient. I put up with Marro’s stories and engineering tutorials.”

“I didn’t say you can’t be patient, only that you need to learn to value patience. You can be too impulsive. Sometimes playing the waiting game is more useful. Sometimes you let the quarry come to you. You follow the plan and stick to it.”

“And that’s what we did Boss. It was a great plan. You pursue him and lead him in my direction. I just took him down before he got all the way to me.” Beks gave a frown that showed she was less than amused at Jodhaa’s levity. Jodhaa recognised it as Beks being overly protective and worrying about Jodhaa taking unnecessary chances. She sought to reassure her mentor figure. “I’m fine Beks. I get the whole caring maternal thing but you know I’m a big girl and I can look after myself.”

Quickly, Beks shot back, “No one can look after themselves Jodhaa.” Such a vehement declaration from Beks surprised Jodhaa but she knew better than to question it. Something in Beks’ childhood had caused the woman to be overly protective about those she loved. Thus Beks continued albeit in a softer tone, “We all need someone looking out for us.”

Jodhaa required no reminder. She knew perfectly well the truth of those words. It had been ten years since Beks had taken Jodhaa in under her wing, gave her a job, a purpose, friends and a place she now called home - their ship, the Étoile Cheval. She knew a comfort and safety aboard that ship that she had never had anywhere else in life. Beks was not the only one with a childhood that carried its pains. Orion females were famed for their beauty but no one said they lived a pretty life.

“I appreciate that Beks, but like I said I had it covered. I bagged our guy and it’s off home. Tell me, did the Sheriff always get on your back when you worked under him?”

Jodhaa attempted to shift the spotlight away by bringing up the old gun who had taken Beks in under his wing decades ago in a manner similar to what Beks had done for Jodhaa. “No. I was a model apprentice.”

In her usual irrepressible good humour, Jodhaa rejoined in a light and jovial manner. “Hey! I ain’t doing too badly. I caught this creep didn’t I? Isn’t that right knuckle head?” The red Orion rapped her knuckles on the restrained Arkonian's forehead who was starting to come to.

Beks frowned but was already won over by Jodhaa’s attempt to lighten the mood. “Don’t bait the bounty Jodhaa. It only makes him screw up his face in anger.”

He simply groaned, “Nnuh.” 

“Yeah and he’s ugly as is. But you sure are a knuckle head. Didn’t you realise better? There’s no running away from Beatrix Knight. Girl’s got a hundred per cent track record. Ain’t that so, Beks?”

Beks hardly answered. “So they say.” She kept her eyes watchful and alert as they led the handcuffed Arkonian through the streets towards the landing port. 

“Stop! Please stop. You got to let me go! They’ll only come after me. Please.” He sounded suitably pathetic in his pleading.

Jodhaa shunted the Arkonian forward. “Not our problem Brous.”

Brous implored of them both in a whining voice as he struggled against his restraints. “I’ll pay you money! Anything! Just let me go. You don’t understand the danger.”

“You brought this on yourself. You jumped bail pending your trial. We’re bringing you back so you can be tried.”

“No! You can’t. You won’t be able to. You have to understand. Let me go. I’ll die.”

Jodhaa shook her head at the man’s growing fear. “Don’t fret; they don’t have the death sentence. Sheesh! It’s not as if your bounty said ‘dead or alive’.”

“I’ll not live that long! Don’t you see? I’m a dead man! You’ve got to let me GO!”

Jodhaa tutted. “No can do. We’re approaching the landing port now. Just as well too because I think it’s going to rain again,” she said looking up at the threatening storm clouds.

He resisted and tired to pull them backwards but both women easily kept him from escaping.

There was fear in his eyes. “Please!!!”

Beks stopped suddenly and zoned the pleas out. She spun round searching the stormy skyline for something ... it was that prickling feeling on the back of her neck, that gut instinct that had saved her life more times.

“What is it Beks?”

“Eyes.” Beks looked off to the far side of the landing port towards the stockpile of cargo containers and cranes. Jodhaaa seemed puzzled for a fraction and then quickly grew alarmed. “I can feel eyes on us.”

Tapping her commbadge, Beks contacted her ship. “Marro, Letva, come in. Rini.”

There was a small flash and a lightning phft sound punctuated with a fleshy slap. Suddenly, Brous arched backwards and fell to the ground, a great big burning hole in his chest. It took but only a fraction of an instant before both shocked and horrified women reacted. They dove for cover in separate directions, tucking and rolling in behind the protective cover of stacked cargo bales.

“Marro! Get the engines fired up. Letva get the ramp lowered. We’re coming in under heat.”

Weapon trained and looking about frantically for the sign of threat, Jodhaa exclaimed, “Where?”

Beks pointed northwards towards the cargo cranes. “On the crane gantry.” Beks turned her attention back to the dead commlink. “Marro? Letva? Rini? Come in!”

Crouched behind her bale of cargo, Jodhaa’s voiced was concerned but her eyes and ears alert to the whereabouts of the assassin. “What is it? Are they jamming the signal?”

Beks paused. She didn’t like to think about it. “Yes. More than likely.” She looked to her slain captive and saw the struggling fight for breath from the Arkonian. Against her better instincts, Beks reached out into firing view and grasped a hold of Brous. She dragged his body into the cover of the cargo bale. Shots peppered the ground and cargo bale and tore into the body.

The Arkonian gasped for breath unable to groan even. Beks looked down on his pathetic face kindly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean this to happen.”

His mouth worked soundlessly. Beks pulled out a small device with extendible prongs. She probed the sharp apertures into the man’s body. It registered and confirmed the DNA identity of their target. It was a callous, calculated move perhaps, but justice burned in Beks. Her job had been to bring this man in for his crimes. And if it were possible, she would make certain that he would see justice for his murder too. The device registered his injuries and scanned for the type of weapon used on him. All of it was previous evidence of his murder, for he would surely die here. It served also as confirmation of their successful capture of the target.

Brous’ mouth continued to work and Beks checking that Jodhaa was training her weapon and keeping look out, leaned forwards to bring her ear to his bloody, foaming mouth. Beks brought the device that would record his last words up to the mouth as she strained to hear him. He whispered only one thing. One name. 

Beks bolted her head upwards. She scampered backwards from the body a few inches as if suddenly afraid. Jodhaa watched Beks’ reaction and immediately grew fearful seeing it.

She had known Beks for ten years. She had trained and learned under Beks and in all that time had seen the woman keep a cool and calm head, even when faced with a hostile and dangerous situation. She had seen Beks get angry on an occasion. Jodhaa had seen Beks gather together and become incredibly focused, quietly steeled and targeted on a job to a point where it would be scary to see just how cool and driven the human could become. She had seen Beks panic, yes—when engines failed or ion storms assaulted the Étoile Cheval. However, never ever, had Jodhaa seen fear in the eyes of her boss. And it gave Jodhaa considerable cause to be scared herself.

“What is it Beks?”

Beks came to and looked up into the face of Jodhaa. The presence of Jodhaa snapping her back to the situation and the peril they were in. Instead of answering though, Beks shouted as she darted the gap between their bales and pushed Jodhaa onwards to new cover. “Move!”

They ran the short distance to a large cargo container keeping their heads lowered when a projectile rocket streaked through the air towards their last location. It impacted and exploded in a great white heat. The flames broiled out and even in the cold wet of the night, the heat seared across their backs as they were both thrown across the ground.

Jodhaa slid clear on the wet ground as she pancaked herself onto her belly as she fell. The Orion spun round and darted back to the cargo container where Beks had flailed and careened into it from the concussive wave of the blast. She got her boss to her feet. “What the frell?”

“Jodhaa! Are you ok?”

“Yes boss! But what the hell is this? Brous was only a low-level piece of scum. He’s not worth this!”

“Listen to me. Listen.” She grabbed Jodhaa and brought her face level and close to her own. Beks stared into Jodhaa’s eyes and her look was the scary focused look, where Beks reduced everything down to one point, a single focal point of pure white contained rage and heat. “If we are to survive this, then listen to me.”

Always to her credit, Jodhaa steeled herself and did listen. She brought her breathing under control and hefted her weapon ready. “What is it?”

“It’s an assassin. A very dangerous, high-level assassin. He was must be here to stop Brous from being able to give evidence. And now that he has succeeded we are the next targets.”

“What about Rini and the others?”

“They’re ... I’m sorry Jodhaa but it is most probable that they are already dead.”

“What?!” Jodhaa’s mind and heart reeled at the news and at how matter-of-factly Beks could be in delivering such a pronouncement.

“He’ll have taken them out already. Listen to me! No matter what you see, no matter what happens, you run. You run to the Étoile. You key in the emergency code 922. That code releases the locks but it also runs a scan for devices and booby traps. If the computer gives an all clear, it will begin an emergency start up procedure. Do you understand?”

Jodhaa nodded her head still trying to comprehend the why of the situation but already calculating her path through the landing dock to the Étoile. “What’s this all about Beks?”

“Zaddo Natale.”

***

The name escaped Beks’ lips in a whisper but had the impact of flooring both Beks and Jodhaa with the ominous implications of the pronouncement. On hearing the name, Beks had understood immediately their dire fate for crossing this criminal’s business. The lengths the crime lord would go to protect his criminal empire were evident. A lethal assassination ... a lethal assassin...

“Zaddo Natale!” The name reeled through Jodhaa’s mind. She shook her head vehemently in disbelief and horror. “No, no, no.”

The infamous crime lord was a leading and notorious figure within the criminal world. Such was the power and threat that Zaddo Natale wielded that the criminal could stand outside of the Orion Syndicate. He was seen as a near equal with the leaders of the Orion Syndicate. Even the Orion Syndicate who tolerated no competition to their business allowed, no feared, Zaddo Natale to continue his reign of terror and crime. All who had cause to meet or cross the crime lord’s path usually later had cause to suffer and regret it. Despite this, Starfleet and no other authority had ever been able to make any evidence stick or capture the red Orion. His methods were reputed to be deadly and no witnesses ever lived to testify against him.

The sky suddenly flashed with a searing light and thunder crashed. The lightning struck the lightning arc towers that circled the landing port. It stabbed down with awesome and ferocious angry power. The sky rent apart by the shattering thunder. It felt as if the ground and sky lifted up and then smashed back down, followed by a sudden deluge of rain that lashed down.

The rain pummeled the ground. Water slaked the surface of the ground and smothered everything in a deadened silence obscured by the hammering noise of the rain itself. Their world became a small grimy gloom encircled by the torrent of the downfall.

Beks drew out her weapons and checked them all. Over the roar of the rain, she shouted to Jodhaa, “It’s the name Brous whispered. If he had information on Zaddo Natale, then Zaddo would see him dead. We’ve gotten caught up in the middle of it.”

“No. Beks no.”

“Yes. Listen to me. I want you to run for the Étoile. I’ll take out the assassin, you get to the ship and keep going. He may have a back up. There might even be someone on the ship still. You don’t allow yourself to be distracted by whatever you see. The others ... they’ll be dead and there’ll be nothing you can do for them. You get to the controls and get out of here.”

Lightning crackled and hit the lightning arcs again.

“Why are you saying this?”

“Because ... just do it Jodhaa. I’ll get on before you power off.”

Beks did not tell her the truth of it. What little was known of Zaddo’s methods was by reputation alone. He was reputedly a barbaric and cruel killer in his own right and employed heinous henchmen to do his horrendous bidding. But there was one name that had garnered its own reputation. That of Zaddo’s assassin, reputed to have been trained by Zaddo himself. That assassin was known only as Talon. Beks knew that Brous’ killing was exactly the M.O. Talon employed.

Jodhaa protested. “Let me take out the assassin. I’m a better shot.” She feared why Beks was sending her on by herself.

Beks voice was level and brokered no argument. “No you’re not.”

That was the truth of the matter but Beks also knew Talon’s reputation, and if she went up against him, she would surely die. But if she were to die she would do so only after ensuring Jodhaa lived and escaped. Beks knew that it would take more than that to convince Jodhaa who would make hell if she knew Beks was about to sacrifice herself for her.

Beks grasped Jodhaa’s shoulder and summoned the words to give them both courage for the moment before them. She could feel the eyes of the assassin on them still, waiting for their move. “But you are a better pilot Jodhaa. So you fly us out of here. I’ll shoot us out. Now go!”

The older woman pushed the younger towards the ship. Jodhaa looked back with wide eyes. Beks tried to betray nothing in the look she returned, for Jodhaa had good instincts and would only recognise any fatality in Beks’ eyes. Therefore, Beks gave Jodhaa a kindly smile and prompted her on.

Jodhaa went forwards, creeping low with her weapon out and mentally running through what she had to do. Beks hunkered low in a position behind the cargo crates where she would have a good view and unobstructed target. She would likely only have one shot at this. She had to make it work. Beks double checked her charge and had her secondary weapon ready to back up. Then she steeled herself for the inevitable. She turned and looked towards Jodhaa preparing to run the short distance between the cargo and ship. That instant would incredibly expose Jodhaa, meaning Beks would have to shoot fast and hard.

Her weapon primed, Beks nodded at Jodhaa, giving one last reassuring smile. To herself, Beks declared, I love you girl. And intoned a silent prayer, a last fervent hope for Jodhaa, Please don’t die.

Jodhaa bolted.

Beks jumped to her feet.

A black armour clad figure revealed itself.

The assassin, now a crane over, took aim at Jodhaa but suddenly switched target as Beks trained her Randall Special and Jinku Slingray. The weapons were not useful for precision but for raining down force and firepower on a target. Beks let loose a barrage of shots at the crane gantry.

Lightning and thunder crashed and searing light enveloped the sky.

***

Jodhaa was in! The personal door to the cargo ramp had been her entrance hidden away from the assassin. The door shut behind her. Beks could quickly reopen it with a voice activation security pass. Jodhaa didn’t look back for she knew Beks was depending on her to make good their escape.

She could hear the thunder and rain pelting the hull. The storm raged outside and Jodhaa fought the storm that raged within her heart.

Zaddo Natale! Again, Jodhaa could hardly believe she was hearing the name! As an Orion, she had grown up in the fearsome shadow of the Orion Syndicate and certain figures within it struck fear among her childhood friends. One name that struck similar fear but was no part of the Orion Syndicate was that of Zaddo Natale. She cleared her mind of those thoughts. She had to focus on the here and now. Here and now was where she could die.

She raced into the main cargo bay training her Beretta PPP on the upper gangways and the exits, keeping alert to any other attackers. She stopped in the middle of the cargo bay and paused, crouching with her weapon armed and whining with ready power. Save for the charge of the weapon, all was quiet. Too quiet. Far too quiet. Letva and Marro should have been raising holy bloody murder! Rini they would have tried to protect and hidden her away. But there was no sign of them.

She looked towards exit leading towards the cabin berths and itched to race to them. The Va’leh class cabins could become virtual brigs, and indeed the Étoile Cheval by the nature of its work had converted some of the passenger cabins to be exactly that. But the crew berths could become secure vaults, locking down the occupant and keeping any intruders out. That was surely where Rini had to be.

Jodhaa pulled her eyes away from the passageway. She had to go forwards to the cockpit. Beks was depending on her. And the others too - if they were alive. They had to be alive!

Stealthily she crossed the bay. The ship was buffeted by the raging storm and the chains securing the mule clinked and rattled above the cargo bay. She crossed under it, looking upwards carefully for any surprises crossing over the bomb bay doors under it.

Her Berretta led the way pointed before her. She trained its muzzle about the copious space occupied by numerous stacked cargo crates and barrels securely stowed by cargo netting and lines.

Her heart hammered in her chest combating with the storm outside pelting the hull creating a continuous drumming within the ship. She edged forwards carefully. ‘I’m being too slow. I need to run.’ But before she could make herself run she saw the hand.

She bolted towards it screaming as she did. “Rini!”

Within seconds, she was at the figure of the slim girl who was her closest friend on the ship. The slim Aenar was a peaceful and gentle being but a wizard at tracking down information and using the comm nets. She acted as the company’s secretary as well as helping Beks to track down criminal elements, source bounty jobs and sort out the many logistics and legalities involved. A bookworm and a serene soul, she was an incongruous element to the crew but all were protective of the blind Aenar. Now she lay in a pool of her own blood; her blind eyes staring into the void of death; a mystified expression frozen on her face.

Jodhaa knew that expression was the last she bore because the Aenar could never understand the penchant of others to do violence. She did not deserve this horrible death. An ugly scorched cut slashed her chest. A weapon of high energy had scythed through her. It registered somewhere in Jodhaa’s memory as some kind of myth or rumour from her childhood stories or memories. She blinked the stray irrelevant thought away. It didn’t matter, for Rini was dead. Jodhaa fought the gorge rising in her throat and wiped her tears and mouth.

In a small voice, as if fearful of disturbing the Aenar’s sleep she whispered and cried with dearest love, “Rini.”

She stared down at the now forever more peaceful body of Rini and keened with grief. She squeezed away the tears as the truth of what Beks had said. It had truly fully registered in the dim and deathly silence of the Étoile’s interior but now the reality confronted her with the horror. Grief stole over Jodhaa. The crew. Her friends. Her family. Murdered. Slain.

“Beks is waiting on you girl. Move it!” She scolded herself but remained rooted to the spot for a further moment. Outside she could make out the roar of the explosion and sighed with happy relief. Beks must have struck the target. “Move it Jodhaa! Move it! Stick to the plan. Move.” Once more, Jodhaa rebuked herself and then ran forwards, straight to the flight deck.

She charged up the steps, her feet clanging on the metal grill. She cared not for stealth. If someone was waiting to strike her, they already knew she was here. She careened through the mess, brushing past laid dishes and a platter of food and they crashed to the deck. Marro had prepared the table and food in readiness for their return from the hunt. As the crockery skittered and smashed, Jodhaa thought of how they would not eat it now and how Marro would not share the meal or any others with them again.

She unlatched the door to the cockpit and faltered, sinking to her knees as grief smashed into her like a tsunami at the sight before her. “Marro! Oh deities, Marro!” Jodhaa crawled across the floor to the Bolian’s bloodied body. His throat bore any ugly wide slash, a gaping hole through which his life force had escaped. His face bore his same kindly expression, a trace of a smile still on his lips. He had not even seen it coming. Small blessing.

Lightning blighted the sight through the cockpit windows. Rain hammered down on the screens.

With trembling hand, she lightly ran her fingers over the contours of his gentle face and closed his eyes. Such kind and gentle, warm-hearted eyes that would beam when he told his coarse stories and jokes over the hearty meals he prepared for them.

Jodhaa! The engines! GO!!!” Beks hoarse roar over the comm was urgent and panicked.

“Marro.” She started to sob but then stopped. They would grieve later. First, they had to survive. “Yes Boss.”

She got to her shaky feet and even though she wanted nothing more to puke with Marro’s lifeless body in the cockpit with her, she got into the pilot’s seat. She quickly thumbed through the switches bringing the systems up to full power. The engine roared and the super structure vibrated with the high thrust of the engines.

The control panel read ready for the emergency departure. It would be a rough and turbulent take off but the Va’leh-class were tough vessels and the Étoile Cheval—a seasoned and trusted workhorse—had borne them through many a storm. The control panel indicated the nose hatch sealed shut, Beks was aboard; Jodhaa pulled the throttle back, and the engines screamed as she lifted off.

The nose lifted high into the air like the head of a rearing horse as Jodhaa pulled back and pointed the ship towards the stormy sky. Amid the dark of the squall, a fiery glow surrounded the ship of the ship’s variable thrusters firing at full thrust, kicking dirt and smoke violently into the night air. Before her, Jodhaa glimpsed the devastation of the fallen crane and the carnage there before the sight disappeared as the ship reared back.

As the engines took life and Jodhaa took the controls, she felt her fears and grief slip away for an instant. Making contact with the controls, to feel the ship under her control brought control and balance to Jodhaa. She closed her eyes for a moment, sought her inner control and balance. She gripped the controls, flexing her fingers and breathing out. It would seem to an outsider as if she were for those few seconds meditating.

Flying was music to Jodhaa, a song to sing, a dance to dance. Flying was a balance of harmony and timbre, a balance between the notes and the orchestra, pitch and tone, pulse and dynamics. Flying was movement based not on any scientific principles but an art form, a ballet of precision and a rave of instinct, a waltz of control and elegance.

This take off was a thumping cacophony of a heavy metal rock, a clash and a roar of engines as she now burned the engine coils and tore into the sky.

The cockpit door opened Jodhaa turned with tears brimming in her eyes, “Oh Beks...” Her voice suddenly failed her. The figure before her was not Beks! It was a black trimmed and helmeted assassin ...

***

Jodhaa had run like a hare. Swift and fast and had not looked back.

Beks fired two rounds into the crane at the target.

The target had fired back. A single shot. But it had hit its target and Beks was propelled backwards.

She hit the ground hard and sloughed through the pools of water. Her weapons flung through the air and splashed along the wet ground.

Beks lay lifeless in the water as the rain pelted her body.

Then with a start, she groaned and rolled onto her side. Her eyes squeezed shut in pain before she opened them to get her bearings. She looked first for her Randall Special and then back towards the crane.

The crane broiled in a fiery storm and pitched downwards, crumpling in on itself, smashing into the heavy cargo containers that toppled and crashed to the ground too. The crane collapsed in a roar of metal girders twisting and crashing as thunder rumbled heavily to drum out the end of its crash.

Beks groped at her neck for air, pulling the button open and gasping. Her hand went to her chest. The scorch mark was deep and smouldering even in the rain. She was thankful for her armour. The high tech piece of equipment, used by the Marine elite, was yet another payment in kind from Starfleet. The armour could take the assault of most weapons.

Her chest still felt as if a mule had kicked her. Her ribs bruised, and quite possibly broken, ached and her skin felt as though it had been seared from the heat of the blast. Groaning, she got onto all fours and crawled through the rain to her rifle. She grasped it, then checked its charge.

“Agh!” She got to her feet and stumbled backwards. She struggled over to the cargo bales from where they had taken cover and regained her balance and breath. Looking towards the wreckage of the crane, she hooded her eyes against the lashing rain and building wind. Beks then started forwards with her weapon trained.

She knew her armour vest had saved her life and was top of the range. But the assassin she had seen by the light of the lightning had been garbed in black armour. Talon was supposed to be adorned from head to toe in the toughest, most high spec armour. He wore a blackened helmet that he apparently never removed. It was not known what race he was of, or if he even had a real name. He was a figment of rumour and imagination but the death toll attributed to him attested enough to some truth of the rumours. And so it was that Beks ventured forwards, for she believed not that she had killed him.

She approached the burning hulk of the once towering crane warily and scanned the wreckage for a body. The fall at least would have had to have knocked him out even if his armour protected him from death. Beks saw no body and started looking beyond the debris.

Beks whirled as lightning flashed and thunder crashed. But it was nothing. She continued stumbling through the flames and twisted metal seeking and searching. There was no sign.

Her mind screamed, ‘Get back to the ship!’ but she kept looking for a moment longer before sense kicked in. Beks turned towards the ship seeing the cockpit illuminated and the systems coming on line. The 922 code had worked and surely, by now Jodhaa would be starting the engines.

She jogged towards the ship and then stopped and whipped her head to the right. Too late. Her gun flashed and banged as the kick sent it out of her hand and Beks went sailing through the air too.

Talon landed with one knee to and a steadying hand the ground. His black helmet whipped up to look at Beks’ prostrate form. Even though his features were hidden and there was no tell-tale sign of his species, clad in black armour as he was, Talon stood and everything about him spoke of his malevolent abilities and demeanour. He stalked towards Beks and stood before her.

He looked down upon her and his helmet canted to one side, sizing her up quizzically. Beks looked back at him with confusion through narrowed eyes before realising that death stood at her foot.

A distorted computerised voice resonated from the helmet. “You must die.”

Wincing in pain, Beks tried to crawl backwards from him.

“Before you die, die knowing you managed to disarm me before your death.” Then from his hip, he pulled out a bladed discus that glowed and whined with a deadly energy. The rumours were true then! Talon carried his own specialised blade edged with the coursing energy fashioned into a glowing deadly chakram. “But you will still die.”

She stalled him for time. “Why?”

Talon stood before her unmoving and silent, studying her pathetic scramble of a retreat on her back.

“We know nothing of your master. We were bringing Brous in for petty crimes. Nothing more. Let us go. You have no need to eliminate my crew.”

“I already have.”

Anger coursed through Beks and she screamed at him defiantly before halting her scream. She had to control her anger - had to focus. She would not die on the ground like a wounded animal. She was a bounty hunter. She was the hunter, not the hunted.

Lying on the ground, her position was feeble. She had to get to her feet. Had to fight back but she would have to judge the right moment to do so. She had to wait.

She waited for the right moment. Patience. He raised his chakram blade, the edge rotated with a pulsing orange energy as he brought it up to scythe down at her. Beks waited. Waited for the moment to strike. “You can go to hell.”

Lightning flashed and thunder roared in the tumultuous night sky.

And Beks lashed out with her boot, jabbing the back of his knee with her boot. It would only serve to unbalance him, but she used that moment to grab his helmet and smack him to the ground. She used this movement to haul herself off the ground too. Then she reached and grabbed his arm to stop his keen blade.

The discus crackled and sizzled in the rain. The heat was palpable to Beks even as she restrained the chakram blade from coming near to her.

Talon twisted and tossed Beks over his back and then wheeled round with the cutting edge. But Beks had expected it and ducked under the sweep of his arm and past him in a forward roll. She rolled twice and picked up her rifle. She twisted round swiftly and fired.

The shot hit him square in the helmet visor and Talon staggered backwards from the hit. The armour absorbed most of the damage but the force still kicked a punch.

Beks fired again. And again. And Talon fell back with each hit. Then he started forward his chakram whipping through the air as he pirouetted and kicked out. Beks had to dive under the arm but his boot kicked her hard in the mouth and she went sprawling. So too went her rifle.

Talon turned and faced her. Beks crawled through the wet towards the rifle that lay before the hulks of precariously perched toppled cargo containers. The chakram hummed with livid energy as he brought it to bear.

Beks looked back and could see him loom large over her. 

She grasped the tail of the rifle and in that moment, knew she would not have the time to turn and aim it. In the time it would take, his blade would cut her down. She had one mad gambit to try but if she failed, she had to ensure Jodhaa lived and escaped. She tapped her commbadge. She had to get Jodhaa to leave now. “Jodhaa! The engines! GO!!!” So she gambled and pulled the trigger.

The shot blasted into a bale of cargo crates stacked by the fallen and haphazard stack of cargo containers. The cargo bale exploded and the containers groaned and started to tumble anew. Talon looked up enthralled as the containers pitched over and began falling. Lithely he leapt backwards and looked on aghast, surprised and impressed as Beks ran towards the falling masonry and containers.

They collapsed down in a roar and engulfed where she had been running.

As the steel and cargo settled with moaning creaks, Talon picked his way over the twisted containers but spied no sign of Beks. He tapped two fingers to the side of his helmet accessing the intricate interface of his visor to read for any life signs. Satisfied there were none, Talon turned as the rain continued to fall, thrumming on the burnt and warped metal of the containers, and he looked towards the ship powering up.

Then he started towards it...

***

The cockpit door opened, Jodhaa turned with tears brimming in her eyes, “Oh Beks...” Her voice suddenly failed her. The figure before her was not Beks! It was a black trimmed and helmeted assassin...

In the heat of the moment, whether through fear or years of experience and instinct, Jodhaa had closed Marro’s eyes and started up the ship’s systems with her berretta in hand; and in the instant of seeing the assassin, she let loose a quick fire of shots.

Talon stepped back out of the cabin as the shots flashed across his armour. Jodhaa used this advantage and careened towards him as she fired. It was registering in her mind that her shots were ineffective as she took in the black clad armour. She was a person of instinct and her fighting style was as much a reflection of that trait as it was formed of years surviving in the gutters of Orion. Boldly then she lashed out with fists and feet as she rounded on the figure.

Talon answered each strike with deft defensive moves, seemingly playing with Jodhaa. He sent her Beretta PPP flying with a chop and hacked at her neck but Jodhaa too deftly deflected his blows, even though they rained down on her hard.

She threw her elbow back hard and repeatedly hammered the visor with it. The effect was to injure herself more than the assassin she realised and she pushed herself bodily with her feet against the frame of hatchway to the cockpit and propelled them both backwards.

They tumbled through to the galley. Knowing her surrounds Jodhaa was the first to react and grabbed for the knife drawer. The assassin reacted as quickly and slammed down on her outstretched arm. He tossed her to the other side by the oven.

Lightning cracked, thunder rattled, and the Étoile Cheval shook and rebounded with the violence of the storm. “You must die.” Thunder punctuated his distorted voice as the ship was assaulted by the raging storm and rose steadily upwards in a lazy uncontrolled spiral. 

“Your voice sounds scratchy!” Jodhaa grappled to her feet and grabbed the bubbling pot on the hob. “Try some chicken soup bastard!” With hatred, she flung the heavy copper-based pot and its boiling contents at the assassin.

She whisked up a pan and a pot from the overhead rack and spun round to batter the flinching assassin. She hammered him with blows with the kitchenware and kicked savagely. He did not take the battering kindly. The assassin speedily grabbed her right arm and twisted it so it snapped, caught the other wrist in a vice like grip, and wrenched Jodhaa round.

She yelped in pain, frustration, and defiance. She braced her foot on the laid table and vaulted herself over his head, grabbing the chin of his helmet and hauling it backwards as they crashed into the cupboards. They struggled together, trading more kicks and hits before he won a purchase on Jodhaa and tossed her to the floor. 

Quickly Jodhaa got to a low crouch. Placing her good hand on the floor directly behind her back on the deck, she threw her other hand over her body while jumping off with both feet so as to launch her hips straight over the head. The assassin meantime came for her but as she landed Jodhaa brought her knee forward and across her chest, swung her hip and extended her kicking leg outward to strike the assassin with the outside edge of her steel tipped boot.

The assassin spun but he used the momentum to turn the move into a spinning back heel kick that smashed into the back of Jodhaa’s head. Jodhaa crumpled forwards but the assassin had turned a full revolve again and kicked a boot into her gut, propelling her back against the cabinets hard.

Jodhaa kicked out low with her feet. Attacking the assassin’s ankles and then barreled round with a left hook of her elbow. The assassin deflected the blow and rained down his own attack. Jodhaa dropped low onto her good hand and threw her leg out to reap the assassin of his leg as he went to stomp on her back. She stopped the attack but failed to unbalance the assassin who vaulted over her back and threw back his elbows to smash into Jodhaa’s face.

Battered she fell to her side and raised her arms to protect her head. She rolled away from him, grabbed a cupboard handle to haul herself to her feet and felt his approaching attack. She ducked just in time as his foot smashed into the cupboard door splintering it where her head had been. She struck out backwards with the heel of her foot and struck his kneecap.

The assassin went down on one knee but halted Jodhaa’s attack with a swift and brutal counter attack of his own. Jodhaa was quickly doubled over in pain from the attack to her abdomen and the assassin smashed his knee into her face before standing and grabbing a fistful of her hair. He pulled her dark hair roughly and dragged her about. His rough handling muted Jodhaa’s attack and defences. He laughed before he casually tossed her to the deck causing Jodhaa to skid under the table.

Looking back, she saw his booted feet and his hands lower to his hip and back to produce two peculiar discuses. She frowned in puzzlement before the discuses illuminated with crackling energy and realised they were chakram weapons. The two chakrams traced their eerie light through the gloom of the mess, crackling with destructive energy. Jodhaa cried out understanding the cruel fate that had scorched the slash across Rini’s chest. “You bastard!”

One chakram sliced down and splintered the table in half. Jodhaa scrambled backwards open mouthed. Quickly she got to her feet as he kicked the table and the spilled contents out of his way with the chakrams. He wielded the two chakrams through the air in an elaborate show of his skill. When he halted his display, he cocked his head at an odd angle as he surveyed Jodhaa.

Just as he was about to attack she wrenched the fire extinguisher off the wall mounts and tossed it at him. The extinguisher gases exploded as he sliced through it. It dazzled him for a moment and the mess was engulfed in a cloud from the extinguisher explosion. Jodhaa made good her escape from the mess, racing towards a weapons locker.

As she reached the locker above the cargo bay the assassin dove through the hatch and somersaulted across the gangway, chakrams buzzing and scorching the railing. The grating of the gangway clanged dully with his cat like gymnastics before he looked up at Jodhaa. Jodhaa however produced an ARC rifle from the weapons locker and took aim.

She blasted the ARC directly at him. The compressed air molecules walloped into him at high velocity and tossed him backwards. But he got back to his feet and shook its effects off. Jodhaa looked on appalled as she realised just how much of a bruising the armour suit could take. She thumbed the ARC up to setting nine from seven and in the moment it took her to do so, he whirled his chakrams and they sliced into the gangway. The gangway under Jodhaa gave way and she tumbled down to the floor below.

Jodhaa was now operating on instinct and as she landed on her back, she pulled the ARC up, pointed it at the gangway above and fired. The assassin jumped through the air as the gangway under him was pummelled and smashed from below. He landed atop of a bale of cargo and flung one of the chakrams at Jodhaa.

It zipped through the air and she rolled to one side with only a fraction of a second to spare. As it was, the chakram sliced through the ARC rifle and seared her arm with its murderous energy. “Agh.” She groaned as she rolled behind the cover of some barrels. The assassin’s chakram had rebounded back to his grasp and Jodhaa was disbelievingly and despaired of her match.

He teased her by shouting out, “I’m enjoying our little play time.”

Jodhaa peeked out from either side of the barrels. She could see the assassin standing atop of the cargo bale from one side and from the other she could make out Rini’s fallen body and suppressed her tears as she felt the loss and failure of protecting the genteel girl.

“However, our time together draws to an end. It’s been fun. I enjoy a challenge. You both surprised me with your fighting spirit. It was a most pleasing surprise to have sport to play with.”

In that moment, she realised that Beks was not there and the stark reality of Beks’ fate hit home. “What did you do to Beks?”

His distorted voice echoed in the cargo bay. “She died. As will you.”

He hopped down from the cargo and stalked across the cargo bay towards Jodhaa’s refuge. “And now, you die.” His chakram sliced through the barrels and Jodhaa tumbled forwards to escape.

“You are a bounty hunter. A hunter like me. You know you cannot run forever.” He burned his way through another crate forcing Jodhaa to flee to new cover. He hopped atop another crate, jumping ahead of Jodhaa’s path. He stopped her short and loomed down over her. He raised both chakrams and they crackled threateningly. “Play time’s over.”

“The fuck it is!” Both assassin and Jodhaa whipped their heads round to see a burned, wet, freezing and bloodied Beks emerge from the bomb bay doors with her Randall Special aimed. “Jodhaa!”

BOOM!

Beks hadn’t even given Jodhaa a chance before she fired but somehow Jodhaa had managed to toss herself to one side as the crate the assassin was stood on exploded in a fiery ball. It tossed the assassin into the air in a fiery inferno and he landed like a ragdoll onto the cargo bay deck. Beks fired into his body again and again and again, till her energy pack was spent.

Her eyes were incandescent fury and she was the vision of hell’s vengeance wrought to life, her armour vest scorched, her clothes burned, frayed and torn. Her flesh equally bloodied, bruised, torn, burnt and battered.

She had crawled out from under the burning wreckage having hidden under its fire to mask her vitals and burning herself horribly. She had then raced to the Étoile as it had lifted off into the sky after Talon had boarded.

As the engines fired and the ground was engulfed by the discharge of the turbos, Beks had braved the fire, jumped into the air and grasped at a landing pad strut as the ship began lifting into the sky.

She clung for dear life as the engines roared and the ship started to soar and all around the storm thundered and lightning sizzled the air. The rain lashed at her, numbing her hands and legs. The wind howled and shrieked and threatened to pull her from the strut.

Then the struts started to collapse and retract into place and Beks screamed in agony as she was squeezed by the pneumatics. But she gritted her teeth and pulled the hatch away to gain her access to the ship. It had taken a herculean effort to haul herself up and into the ship’s interior. Beks forgot about the pain, the cold, the wet, and the burning to bypass the security protocols. Then she started hauling herself through the mechanics and electronic trunking of the ship, inching ever forwards towards the bomb bay doors.

She had to reach them. Had to get to Jodhaa and the others; Rini, Letva, and Marro. They were hers to protect. They were her crew. They were her family. Their deaths were her fault. They were targets because of Beks. Because of her work. Because she had made a fatal mistake.

But Jodhaa still lived. Had to. Beks knew in her heart the others were dead but she knew Jodhaa was prepared and ready. More than that, Jodhaa was a fighter. A survivor. How else could she have grown up to be the woman she was from the girl she had been? She had survived a childhood on Orion. Had escaped the fate of so many Orion females entrapped to a life of slavery. As a teenager Jodhaa had survived from one job to another, one bite to the next, always fearful of the clutches of slavery and the cruelty of her would-be masters. She had been viewed as a possession, as a potential sex thing to be dirtied, sullied, and taken advantage of. But Jodhaa had not accepted that fate. She had rebelled and fought back. Had battled the odds and won. She would battle them again this night. Beks could only pray to survive the odds one more time.

And she had!

Talon had stood over Jodhaa after toying with her like a victor; but Beks soon paid heed to that victory. With her trusted Randall rifle, Beks had fired at the explosive cargo Talon stood atop and then emptied her charge into his suit.

Jodhaa shocked and amazed wept with relief and then ran up the steps away from Beks. But not in flight but to get to the weapons locker as she saw the assassin flail under the brutal assault of Beks’ fire. At the top, she leapt the span of the broken gangway. She reached in and pulled out two photon rifles. She tossed one down to Beks as she dropped her own depleted rifle.

The assassin laid still.

“Jodhaa?”

“I’m fine Beks. He ... he killed them. Killed them all.”

“I know.” From her periphery, Beks could make out Rini but would not allow herself to focus on her. The ship pitched and lurched, and increasingly shook as it rose higher into the storm. “Get to the controls.”

“Beks?”

“The ship is spinning apart in the storm. Get it under control. I’ll sort him out.”

Jodhaa looked at her disbelievingly and only hesitantly moved towards the cockpit keeping a wary eye on the assassin and Beks. Beks who now approached the fallen assassin. As she did, Beks picked up one of his broken chakrams. It flickered with ebbing energy as she activated it.

Suddenly the assassin bolted straight up and onto his feet. Both women fired at him and his distorted voice became a distorted scream under the assault. He lashed out with the other chakram in his hand. It was still in perfect working order and he scythed through the air at Beks who ducked and sliced at his leg with the broken chakram.

He hollered as he fell to one knee and hacked downwards at Beks. His chakram spewed angry sparks as it sliced into the deck grating and Beks tumbled forwards. He turned round but Jodhaa tore shot after shot into his chest with the photon rifle.

Beks turned and raced forward and severed his foot with the chakram.

He screamed and twisted down at Beks who kicked him square in the chest and propelled him back. She was a wild cat of fury as she brandished the chakram at him, scoring his armour plating and searing a line across his visor. She kicked him again and sliced his other hand off as his chakram branded her right arm.

She fell to the deck and Jodhaa fired relentlessly making him stagger backwards and fall into the pit of the bomb bay.

Beks rolled to her right. Towards Rini. Towards the controls for the bomb bay doors. The assassin reared and flung the chakram at Jodhaa who ducked and dived and then jumped from the gangway. 

“Jodhaa! The mule!”

Jodhaa fired. Her shot went high confusing the assassin who snatched his chakram back and prepared to fire it at Jodhaa or Beks again. But her shot went purposefully high to blast the mule. It exploded and in a fiery heap rained down on the assassin into the bomb bay pit.

Beks hit the release for the bomb bay doors and they opened.

The wreckage rained down into the storm and the cargo bay was assaulted by the release of pressure, sucking the air, debris violently from the cargo bay. The ship strained and groaned as Jodhaa and Beks were assaulted by the elements.

Then just as suddenly, it was over.

The doors slapped closed and the bomb bay was sealed once more.

It was over.

***

Epilogue
Two months later...

Beks stepped down on to the crossover gantry where Jodhaa stood facing down to the cargo bay below a faraway look. It didn’t take much to guess exactly what as Beks came up to her side. “That’s clearance from customs. We’re good to go. It’s going to be weird just trading cargo.”

Jodhaa responded half-heartedly. “Yeah.”

“I’m fair use to showing my badge and proclaiming myself a bounty hunter. Saying I’m a cargo trader just doesn’t have the same ring. But it’s the simple life for us from here on in.”

“Boss.” Jodhaa’s tone was pleading, wanting Beks’ words to come to a halt; a halt to the pretence that everything was fine. Yes, the ship was repaired and ready to fly. Beks had made sure to have as much of the work as possible was completed before the hospital released Jodhaa. Any signs of the violence and bloodshed quickly erased.

“It’s ok Jodhaa. I made the decision off my own back and not just because of your words.” Beks winced still thinking of Jodhaa’s bedside and hearing the vitriol words spill from her mouth as she struggled in pain from her injuries. Her words had hit home with Beks and so she had decided to toss her bounty hunter badge aside.

But Jodhaa was not referring to that decision. Instead, her thoughts were filled with the decision that was weighing heavily on her heart.

“Boss.” She stopped and lifted her eyes from the spot where Rini had fallen, where Jodhaa still could see her branded gentle figure lie in her heart and head. Jodhaa’s voiced changed as she spoke again, her voice almost quivering and her heart near to breaking. “Beks.”

Beks paused herself as Jodhaa found her words difficult to come by. It wasn’t a moment of realising but of dawning as Beks had felt the moment coming and had feared the moment coming. “I know.” Her words were soft and understanding as Beks fought back her desire to cry.

The rest went unsaid. Jodhaa was leaving. Leaving the ship, leaving Beks, leaving the awful memories behind.

Beks had foreseen this day coming. Maybe even before the tragedy had even occurred. The Étoile Cheval had been a refuge for Jodhaa ten years ago and had come to be a home, a place of family and friends. But Jodhaa had made good her life onboard yet had much more she could achieve on her own. She was a strong and independent woman and would always have taken some opportunity in the future to break out on her own, to be master of her own ship.

It was perhaps just fanciful thinking on Beks part, but she had sometimes hoped Jodhaa would remain with her, would come to take on the ship and business, just as she had taken it on from her mentor, the Sheriff. At least, she had hoped they would depart with a celebration; Beks imagining Jodhaa stealing Rini away with her to join her crew. She saw much of herself in Jodhaa, despite the girl’s – correction, woman’s - impulsive nature and the various lectures she received over time from Beks. Jodhaa had a caring heart and the desire to look out for those less fortunate than herself. Maybe it was Jodhaa’s background, maybe it was the fact a woman on a spaceship called out to her one day and gave her a chance to escape to the stars, maybe it was just who Jodhaa was. All Beks knew was that it would break her heart to see her go.

Sighing, Beks just hoped that events hadn’t pushed Jodhaa out too soon. But she knew that she could not ask Jodhaa to stay with the ghosts of the horrors witnessed on the ship. Gripping the railing, Beks wanted to quiz Jodhaa about her plans but found her own words faltering. Jodhaa had been a crewmember for ten years. An eager hand who soon showed skill as a pilot, who then became an apprentice to Beks, and a firm friend. Beks had been her boss, her mentor, her friend. Jodhaa had been an apprentice, a friend and almost like a daughter to Beks.

“When ... when do you want to go?”

“You know I don’t want, I just can’t.” She clammed up for a moment. Nothing was said for a long minute before Jodhaa spoke again. “I guess there’s really no reason for me to stay, to even depart. I know I’m probably leaving you in the lurch, Beks.”

Beks tried for a casual almost indifferent tone to hide her own anguish. But such an approach caught in her throat. She could not pretend that it did not matter, for it did. Instead, Beks tried to be reassuring and light. “We got it all patched up and ship shape again. We got the cargo stowed. It’s all good to go.” She round the interior of the ship with a proud though small smile as she took in her ship. “I can fly it by myself.”

Jodhaa looked up at the ceiling, her eyes brimming with tears and her voice warbled. “I’m sorry Beks.”

Beks turned and forcibly grasped Jodhaa’s shoulders so to look deep into her eyes. “Now you hear this! There is nothing, I mean nothing, for you to be sorry for. Do you hear me? Nothing.” Beks pulled Jodhaa into her and Jodhaa’s arms wrapped around her tightly. “I’m sorry. Sorry for everything.”

“I don’t want to leave you Beks but I have to.”

“I know. I understand. You’ll do good Jodhaa. I have faith of that.”

“I just wish...”

Beks hushed her as she smoothed Jodhaa’s dark hair. “So do I, so do I.”

They stood for a time, fiercely holding onto one another. It was as much about comfort in the moment to trying somehow to hold onto the past. But the moment came to break apart, to dispel the hope that what had happened had happened. It was time to part. Time to say goodbye.

In a few minutes, Jodhaa returned from her quarters with her duffle bags ready packed and set them down at the hatch where Beks now waited on her.

“You take care now. You hear me?”

“I will. You too Beks. You ... you get a new gang together. Don’t try going it alone.”

“Right back at you girl. You’ll find yourself a ship.” It was a statement rather than a question. Jodhaa nodded. “Make it a good one. One that will look after you.”

“Honestly, I can’t imagine flying in anything other than the Étoile. She was a good ship.”

“They’re hardy things. Strong. Lasting. They stay the course. They fight the oncoming storm. They take the knocks. They survive.” Somewhere, those words referred not to the Va’leh class of ships but to the two of them.

Jodhaa gave a faint smile to the bolstering words from Beks. “I guess I’ll have to try and keep an eye out for one to call my own then.”

“You do that. This, this might help ...” Beks pulled out a small black leather pouch from her pocket. She handed it over to Jodhaa who appeared puzzled as it clinked into her hand.

“What?” Jodhaa’s eyes bulged with the strips of latinium she found inside. “Beks, what’s this?”

“It isn’t charity and it isn’t much. It’s your share in the business. Before you protest, everyone gets their share. I’m squaring off and sending on to the families of Rini and Letva. Marro didn’t have any family so I did what I figures he’d want and split it among you all. So you accept without complaint, you hear? Now, I know you’ve saved some over the years. You better had, I told you often enough.”

“I never needed any telling.”

“Not about that, that’s true. But put this to your savings it should help you get started. Take care. Good luck Jodhaa. I’m ... I’m going to miss you. If you ever, ever, find yourself in trouble, you come and get me. You hear?”

“I do. And you. Thank you Beks.” Jodhaa shrugged with the futility of trying to express her gratitude to Beks for everything she had done to help change her life around. “Just thank you.”

“Do me a favour? When you take off, ease up on the thrusters, you always over tax the engines Beks. You usually had me and Marro to sort it all out for you, better yet, you had me to fly the ship properly.”

“Are you presuming to tell me what to do on my boat?”

“Sure why not? I’ve heard enough lectures from you to know the drill.” She gave an impish smile to Beks who rolled hers in return. “What are you going to do now?”

“I suppose do this run. Gather a crew together if I can. It’s going to be hard to replace the last.”

“You’ll never be able to replace me, Boss!”

Beks returned dryly, “Of that you can be sure. You’re one in a million Jodhaa. One in a million. Thankfully.”

“Oi! No fair.”

They both chuckled though it pained them to try. Beks turned to her and said genuinely, “But you are going to be pretty irreplaceable.” Then switching to her maternal tones Beks told Jodhaa, “You remember those lectures. You remember what I said. But trust your gut. You always had good instincts Jodhaa.”

“I will. You won’t ... you’re not going to try and go after him?”

“Zaddo Natale?” Beks shook her head.

“You sure? It’s just, I know how you are about putting right what’s wrong. I know you always want to see justice served. Heck, that’s why you got into this business. But Zaddo Natale is ... he’s too dangerous and too difficult to take down.”

“I’m not interested in getting justice Jodhaa. We killed the man who killed our friends. It was justice of a sorts. To do anything more would be to bring down trouble and danger on ourselves. I can live with that. You can too?”

“Of course. I was so angry for a time. But the truth is, Zaddo Natale didn’t order for us to be killed, just that low life. That assassin, he made that decision. And we made him pay. That ... that was enough to put a line under it. Besides, letting the anger eat me up, desiring revenge, I’ve saw what that did to people back on Orion. The blood feuds. The vendettas. It never ends good. And it wouldn’t be what Rini would have wanted.”

“Good. Remember that and live your life to the fullest potential you can Jodhaa. You deserve it and more. Go on. Your future awaits. I’ll,” she swallowed and licked her dry lips, “I’ll not look back. It’ll be too hard to leave if I see you left behind.”

“I won’t stop looking into the sky until you’re no longer a dot.”

They clasped one another tightly. Both let a tear be shed as they hugged one another fiercely but quickly wiped them before the other could see.

“Take care Jodhaa. I love you.”

“Bye Beks.” Her voice wavered and she bit her lip despite the monumental control she was keeping on her emotions. “Thank you. Thank you. I love you too. Goodbye.”

Jodhaa turned with bags over her shoulder and stepped down the lowered ramp. When she reached the bottom she looked back and they waved sadly at one another. Then the ramp raised and Jodhaa retreated to a safe distance away as Beks checked everything was secure and headed to the cockpit.

She climbed the stairs and looked down on the cargo bay. Looked at where Rini had lain. She took heart that not all goodbyes were final. She would see Jodhaa again. The girl had been like a daughter to her even if Beks had been more of an interfering big sister to Jodhaa.

Before she left the cargo bay, her eyes alighted on the bomb bay doors and the image of the burning mule and assassin falling away came to mind. Her heart fluttered. His body never found but all were assured he was dead. Even Starfleet Intelligence who had come to investigate the matter, given the high profile killings Talon had been involved in, had stated that he was dead.

The identity of the assassin and Beks’ doubts about his actually being dead all had been kept from Jodhaa as she recuperated in hospital. Beks did not want the young woman to be burned up by hatred and revenge. No, lying to her had been a necessary evil to allow Jodhaa to get on with her life. But for Beks ...

She turned away from those thoughts as she turned away from the cargo bay. She made her way forward passing through the mess, stopping as memories of the gang crowded around the table sharing food swamped her. She wiped away the tears as she thought back to the day when Jodhaa had come aboard, starving and eking out a living. She had looked dubiously at the proffered food and had taken a long time to trust Beks and the others. Soon she had made it a home and now she was gone, gone to make her own home somewhere.

Rini, Marro and Letva though died in their home. Rini unwittingly allowing the murderer aboard, Marro cut down unknowingly and Letva had fought back surprised in his berth but had his life ended as Talon’s chakrams cleaved off his head. Beks bunched her hands into angry fists as the tears fell.

She entered the cockpit and settled into the pilot seat. She busied herself with the pre-flight checks and instruments before initiating take off. The engines began to roar and the ship reverberated with power. Beks looked up into the clear blue sky above. A clear sky.

She paused. The engines continued to roar and the ship started to rumble with the power thrust. Before she would leave this place, the planet on which her friends and family had been slaughtered and broken, she made a promise to herself. She reached into a compartment under the seat where she had stowed it ...

Talon’s broken chakram. She had hidden from S.I. and other law enforcement personnel. Not because it was a trophy. But because she had one last bounty ... one last promise to make to the slain ... she would not seek revenge ... but she would seek justice. Just as she had joined the Sheriff to track down the killers of her parents and sister, she would again seek justice. She would track down, hunt out, and capture the assassin known as Talon. She would see justice served. And if Zaddon’atle stood in her way then he too would be brought to justice.

Beks knew this was no simple matter. It would take a long time and considerable resources and contacts to track down the assassin. It would be dangerous for if Talon or Zaddo Natale learned of her hunt they would come after her. But that was a willing risk as it would bring them to her ... and she would have justice one way or another.

She set the broken chakram down and pulled back on the throttles and controls and the Étoile Cheval reared into the sky. As it peeled off into the sky, Beks maxed the thrusters and banked sharply to look down below where she could see Jodhaa watching upwards intently.

“Take care Jodhaa. Be safe. I’ll see justice done. For you. For Rini. For Letva. For Marro. Take care my love.”

With that, the Étoile Cheval blasted into the clear blue sky. Beks had a new career to make, cargo to deliver and one last bounty to hunt down. She was a bounty hunter still and she would have her bounty, dead or alive ...

***

THE END

2 comments:

  1. I like it. It's missing a comma here or there but I like it. This was a very ... well, it sucked you in and made you feel like you were actually there. Like you were the actual character and that's what made me feel close to her. Great character development and great casting.

    Goldshirt11 gives this story an A++++!

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  2. I can't believe I just realized this comment of yours was here, but thanks for leaving one. You're wrong about the missing commas, of course - everything is as it should be typographically - but otherwise your comments are spot-on. Fave did an extremely awesome job with these two characters.

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