The Key by Pauline Baird Jones

L & L Dreamspell
ISBN:  978-1603180108
Hardcover

Copyright © 2010 by Pauline Baird Jones

The Key

By Pauline Baird Jones

Chapter One

Kiernan Fyn heard the high pitched whine of a ship and could tell it was in trouble, even without the dark smoke trail spewing from the tail. It was coming in too fast and too steep.
The pilot must be dead—before the thought finished, the ship started a series of brutally sharp turns. Okay, not dead…yet.
Fyn strained with him through each turn, remembering how those turns felt, remembering trying not to crash.
And crashing anyway.
The pilot still hadn’t slowed enough, and if he didn’t turn soon, he’d go straight into the water. Kikk had a lot of water. Not a lot of ground. Only one place that was flat enough to attempt a landing.
The nose of the ship edged up a bit, but still not enough…it made sudden turn toward him. Okay, he’d seen the beach. Now he just had to make it…
It dropped below the tree line, and after a bit, Fyn felt the impact ripple through the ground under his feet. The ship popped briefly into view again, then dropped out of sight. Another impact tremor. Longer this time, then…nothing.
No explosion. That was good. There’d be something to salvage.
He broke clear of the thick jungle and saw a deep hole in the sand. A break, then a furrow stretching down the beach so far he couldn’t see the end.
He hesitated, searching the blue-green sky for any pursuit, but it was empty of everything but the drifting remains of the ship’s smoke trail. He jumped down on to the white sand and walked along the furrow. Soon he could see the downed ship, the front crunched up against a tree.
He approached cautiously, doing a complete circuit, looking for signs of a secondary explosion, but it just hissed a bit, then subsided into a resigned silence.
It wasn’t like any ship he’d seen, though he liked the look of it. It was long and sleek and dark.
He traced an odd drawing on the side, under some unfamiliar symbols. A small square of dark sky and stars, and a larger section of dark and light stripes.
The damage from contact with the tree wasn’t too bad, but—he walked to the rear—weapons fire was. He bent close and sniffed. Dusan energy blast. There was another scorch mark on the side. That it had landed almost intact told him it was a tough, little ship—and a decent pilot.
He looked at the cockpit and saw a figure slumped over the controls. Fyn climbed up on the wing, studying the mechanism that kept the cover in place. After a few tries, it retracted with a loud, almost angry hiss.
The pilot’s gear was as dark as his ship, his face hidden by a sturdy looking head covering. He also wore a heavy, dark flight suit, with the same symbols from the ship imbedded in the material.
Some flexible tubing stretched from his face mask to the ship. Probably his air supply. Fyn felt along the side of the mask and managed to unhook it.
Now he could see a gap between the suit and the head gear. He worked his fingers in until he felt skin and was surprised to feel blood pumping beneath the still warm surface. He found the strap, undid it and lifted the head gear off. The pilot’s head fell back against the seat.
A woman?
He’d never seen a woman fly a ship and he’d been all over the galaxy. Her hair was red, it was so many shades of red, it flashed in the sunlight, catching the rays in the strands and reflecting them back as fire. He touched it, almost afraid it would burn, but it was as soft as the skin it lay against. Matching lashes lay in neat half moons against pale cheeks.
She moaned and shifted, turning her head and he saw a nasty gash on the side of her face, near the hairline. Blood dripped sluggishly down the side of her face.
A harness held her strapped in the seat. He explored the clasp for a few minutes and finally it popped apart. He felt along her arms and legs, then checked her ribs for damage, before easing her free of the craft and laying her in the sand.
She was tall, but surprisingly light. Her suit made her look more bulky than she was.
Inside her ship, he found bandages in a box with a red cross on the outside. She stirred again, when he cleaned her wound, but she didn’t wake. Once he’d contained the bleeding and applied a covering, he went back and searched the cockpit again. He found a bag of what he assumed were emergency supplies and a couple of weapons.
He would have liked to study it all in more detail, but the light was fading. He needed to get them both under cover before dark.
He carried her and her stuff back to his cave, lowering her onto his bed, a pile of leaves and vines culled from the surrounding jungle. He pulled off heavy gloves. Her hands were narrow with long, well formed fingers. Her dark suit seemed constrictive, but was secured with an odd metal track that pulled down to below her waist. Under her flight suit, she wore clothing that was unlike anything he’d ever seen. It was mottled in the shades of the earth and clouds. This clothing had many pockets, filled with more stuff. No wonder she looked so bulky. He emptied the pockets, studying each item, before adding it to a pile. She also had a knife in a holder and what looked like a holder for the smaller of the weapons he took out of the cockpit.
Two of her weapons were curious. They seemed to operate on a projectile penetration basis, unlike his energy based ones. He tucked all three behind a boulder. No reason to arm her until he found how she felt about him.
He settled down by her, watching her and waiting for her eyes to open, wondering what color they’d be.
It was hard not to feel like the gods had sent him a gift for not giving up, but he realized she might not see her arrival in quite the same light. He ran a finger down the smooth curve of her cheek, then across her soft, full lower lip, relieved to see the slow rise and fall of her chest.
As light faded, worry replaced curiosity. Perhaps she had some injury beyond his ability to detect.
He’d expected to die here, and to die alone. None of the Ojemba would look for him. Their numbers were not large enough to risk men in fruitless searches for lost comrades. Every time he went out on a mission, he knew he went out alone.
Every day since he’d crashed on this miserable planet, he’d decide to get it over with. He’d stood by the ocean, telling himself to walk in and finish it. If he couldn’t fight anymore, what good was he? And each day he turned and walked back into the jungle.
Hope was a hardy plant, to keep growing in a place like Kikk.
It was a brutal, hostile place. In the season since he’d been stranded here, only the occasional Dusan patrol had stopped by and none of them had landed, just buzzed the surface. They came for the same reason Kalian had sent him here.
They were looking for the lost Garradian outpost.
He could have told them, if it was on Kikk, it wasn’t on this continent. He’d had plenty of time to search for it.
Fyn didn’t believe in the Garradians or the outpost.
He did believe in killing Dusan. Since they’d over run his planet, it was all he believed in.
But now, as he watched the woman, he remembered other things he had believed in, things he used to feel. He’d cursed the gods, and not just because they’d stranded him here. Why had they sent him this gift now? And what cost would they demand in return?
There was always a cost.
Just before the light faded outside, he pulled a weapon and fired it at the rocks, adding an orange glow to the deepening dark. It provided warmth, but also helped keep the biters out.
Finally, when he wondered if she’d ever wake, she began to stir. He retreated to the other side of the cave and waited…

* * * * *

A vague throbbing in her right temple towed Sara back to a consciousness she didn’t want to face, though she was a bit fuzzy on why…
She opened her eyes to zero dark thirty—a darkness somewhat lightened by an eerie orange glow.
Okay, starting to remember…
She not only wasn’t in Kansas anymore, she wasn’t in the cockpit of her bird. The rough hewn rock over head seemed to indicate she was in some kind of a cave, but how did she get from Dauntless to cave?
She remembered…
…the dog fight.
…the double hit to her six.
…heading for the closest planet like a fast falling star.
…doing bat turns to slow her descent.
…seeing the long stretch of flat, white beach between tangled mass of jungle and sparkling ocean.
…endless feet-wet finally giving way to feet dry.
The narrow beach had skimmed past way too fast as she struggled to manage her uncontrolled descent.
She remembered pulling her nose up long enough to clear a rugged tumble of rock spilling from high bluff into ocean, but on the other side ground was ground and no landing is a good one that ends against a tree.
Yeah, she remembered the tree.
But she didn’t remember a cave.
Her head didn’t seem to like all the remembering. She touched the complaining spot, finding something that felt like a bandage at the apex of the pain.
Okay…didn’t remember that either.
She tried moving various body parts. Everything was a bit banged up, but still worked, which was probably good. And she knew it would get better. It always did. Her zoombag had been loosened and her gloves were gone. Add that to the list of things she couldn’t remember, with an asterisk for slightly creepy.
As the rest of her senses began to come back on line she inhaled a warm, metallic scent that seemed to be emanating from a circle of rocks, the source of the orange glow. It was mixed with a warm, earthy smell and some scents she couldn’t begin to identify. There was a bit of a nip in the air, the edge taken off by the…fire? Was it a fire? It didn’t flicker like a fire.
It was deeply quiet in the cave, quiet enough to hear her own breathing…and someone else’s. An icy trickle made its way down her back. Who…or what…was sharing this cave with her?
Sara sat up, stifling a groan when various bruises and bangs registered formal protests to her brain housing group. She’d planned to stand up next, but something stirred across from her.
Who—or what—ever it was rose, throwing an ill-formed and very large shadow against the wall and roof of the cave. Maybe it was the bad light, but the outline was very Sasquatch-ish—shaggy and kind of ominous. The icy trickle turned to a rushing stream.
It moved toward her, passing into the half light cast by the sort of fire. Not Sasquatch, though he could have been a second cousin. He had a head full of dreads, he bristled with armament and he bulged with muscles wrapped in what appeared to be tight fitting leather. It was hard to find features—his face was darkened by dirt or camo, or both—but his eyes were deeply, sharply green.
And he was really, really tall. Sara had to tip her head way back to look up at him. He didn’t speak, which upped the eerie factor a few more degrees.
She somehow managed to get her legs under her and stand up.  She was a tall girl—Tall Girl was actually her call sign—but the top of her head didn’t reach his chin. He’d have to be around seven feet to top her by that much.
He looked like a ragged cave man, but there was a sharp intelligence in his eyes. And he’d managed to get her clear of her bird. Not exactly cro-mag man skills.
She wanted to say something, but all she could think of was, crap.
Not particularly useful.
After a moment, she realized he was holding something out to her. A wooden-ish…thing.
She took it, since he seemed to expect it.
“Thanks.” Her voice sounded a bit loud, and a bit too bright, breaking the deep silence.
He blinked, just the once, the green of his eyes disappearing, then slowly reappearing. It was very Cheshire Cat—one channeling Tim Burton.
Not a good combo.
Sara looked down at the bowl. The assortment of dingy pieces in the curved center could have been fruit—fruit having a really bad day. She picked out a piece. It felt slimy and a bit gritty, but she’d eaten worse than that in survival training.
She hoped.
She sniffed it. The pungent aroma made her eyes water. She slid it between reluctant lips and chewed. Okay, this was worse than anything she’d eaten anywhere. Her eyes watered some more. When she swallowed, nasty lingered like thick oil in her mouth.
She looked up, blinking and wincing, and said, her voice a thin croak, “It’s… good.”
Not her most convincing performance.
Was that a spark of humor in his eyes? It was gone so quickly, she couldn’t be sure.
She felt the pocket of her jacket for a packet of water, but it seemed he’d picked her pockets.
“I had some water?” She patted her pocket again, not sure she needed to play charades. He seemed to understand her just fine.
He shifted slightly and she saw her stuff in a pile a few feet away. She edged past him, found the water and drank it down. It helped. A little.
Her head throbbed a reminder that her mouth wasn’t the only miserable body part. She lightly touched the bandage.
“Did you do the patch job?”
Another slow blink.
Okay.
Seems his mother hadn’t taught him it wasn’t polite to stare. If he thought he could intimidate her, well, he could, but she didn’t have to show it. She lifted her chin and her lips thinned. Her eyes narrowed, too—a warning sign her temper was in danger of launching, her various principals could have told him, if they’d been there, which they weren’t. Lucky them.
“I’m Captain Sara Donovan, United States Air Force.” She thought about holding out her hand, but wasn’t sure he’d take it. Wasn’t sure she wanted him to take it. “And you are….?”
He blinked again. Punk. He understood her, all right. His face didn’t change, but his eyes gave him away.
“…shy, I guess.” She looked around. “I love what you’ve done with the place. It’s very…retro.”
So retro, it probably didn’t have a bathroom. Now that she’d thought about it, she needed one. Great. Nothing like baring your butt in the bushes on an alien planet. She tried to think of an alternative, but she hadn’t seen any gas stations when she was coming in.
“I need to step out…” She pointed in the direction she thought the entrance was, though it was hard to tell. There wasn’t an exit sign. He didn’t move or speak. Just blinked again. Maybe he didn’t have bodily functions.
She took a step toward the entrance and he shifted to block her.
She felt color flood her face.
“I really need to visit the head…make a pit stop? Powder my nose? Empty the radiator? Visit the little girls’ room?” She was running out of euphemisms. “Pee?”
She gave him a get-a-clue look and after a long pause, saw his eyes widen slightly. This time she was sure it was humor passing through the old eyeballs. He pointed in the other direction, a very pitch black direction.
“Right.”
She bent and snagged her flashlight and a bum wipe packet. She flipped the light around, so it pointed down, and turned it on, flinching from the light stabbing into wide open pupils. When she could see again, she looked back, avoiding looking directly at him.
“Excuse me.”
The surface of the floor was surprisingly smooth, but she kept the light trained on it, as she paced forward, wondering just where he expected her to—
A sort of crevasse opened to one side. Great, a pit toilet for her pit stop. She shone the light back the way she’d come, but he hadn’t followed her.
Smart man.
When she finished, she picked up her zoombag and headed back, noting he’d retreated to his spot on the other side of…Sara could see it now…a pile of glowing rocks. Yet another clue she wasn’t in Kansas, in case she had any doubts left. Sara stopped by her stuff, dropped her zoombag and picked out her bottle of waterless soap, so she could clean her hands.
She could feel him watching everything she did. Didn’t take long to figure out her side arm, knife and P-90 were not among the jumble of her stuff.
Very smart man.
Back on earth, she wouldn’t have had a P-90 or the ABU’s—the new camo uniform—under her zoombag, but she’d received a lot of specialized training and been given a lot more gear prior to the mission. Lucky for her, all he’d done was take it. Be a real bummer if he used it against her. And embarrassing.
Not that he needed her stuff to kick her ass.
Though she was careful not to turn the light on him, in the reflected glow she could see him a bit better.
He was younger than she’d first thought, probably close to her own age. He was also very nicely built, thanks to the generosity of all the leather, and her impression that he was well armed was confirmed. He had side arms of some sort on both hips, a sword looking thing strapped to his back and at least three knife sheaths that she could see. Probably more she couldn’t see. On his wrists she could see spikes sticking out in a deadly fan.
Dang. Must be a rough neighborhood.
What was he doing here?
And where was here?
She turned off the flashlight and dropped it back on the pile, then returned to her seat, a pile of dried…stuff. She looked around. It seemed to be the only pile of…stuff. His bed? That was kind of disturbing.
On the other hand, he was keeping his distance. She knew she was no beauty queen. There were no cushy love lies in foster care. She was too tall, too thin, her hair was too red and her eyes were too big for her face. That said, as far as she could tell, she was the last woman on this earth and there he sat.
On his side of the cave.
Not that she wanted to get hit on by a caveman. She was just…curious. How desperate did a guy have to get to hit on her?
She noticed the glowing dial of her watch. One thing he hadn’t taken. If she didn’t count her virginity. But she was moving on from that.
The time meant nothing, since she hadn’t been in position to look at her watch before the crash. The alarm had sounded at twelve-hundred. The dog fight, well it seemed long, but it probably wasn’t. According to her watch it was either 0500 or 1700.
She rubbed her aching head.
“I don’t suppose you’d tell me how long I was out?” She looked up suddenly and saw the green glow of his eyes. “I know you understand me. I can see it in your eyes.”
The eyes abruptly turned away. Sara smiled to herself. She picked up the bowl of food, took another piece and examined it, then absently popped it in her mouth. Okay, that was worse than the last one. She spit it out in her hand and looked at him. He still wasn’t looking, so she dumped it back in the wooden thing, and set it aside.
She leaned back against the wall, shifting until she found a semi-comfortable position, then pulled her legs in until her knees were against her chest and rested her arms on them, watching her host.
After a time, she saw his gaze turn toward her again.
Oddly enough, the silence wasn’t uncomfortable. Sara didn’t have a problem with not talking. She’d spent a lot of her life not talking.
The problem with this silence, it allowed worry to creep in. When her Dauntless got hit, the Doolittle had been engaged in a battle with an unknown, alien force. Had it survived? Did anyone see her get hit or where she went? How far from her ship had he taken her? Was any of it still intact? And all questions led back to, why had he taken her? What did he want? Who was he? Why was he here, apparently all alone?
When she was fourteen, she’d thought the worst thing that could happen to her was foster care. What a difference thirteen years…and another galaxy…made.
As always, when she was nervous, she began to tap out a song against the sides of her arms.
The song got slower…
Sara’s chin sank down to rest on her arms, then her lashes drifted down….

*****

Captain Sara Donovan. Sara.
Fyn tried the name out in his head. He didn’t know what a Captain was, but he liked Sara. It…suited her.
No surprise she’d been uneasy when she came to, but she hid it quickly and hid it deep. Her chin had lifted slowly until he was looking down into cool, wary gray pools. She’d stood up, her gaze never leaving his. He should have said something then, but he couldn’t think of anything to say. Asleep she was lovely to examine, but awake—
The gods had been unexpectedly kind.
There was strength and character in her cleanly fashioned face. Her eyes were wide and tipped up at the edges, like a smile. Her chin was slightly pointed, but determined. Even her hair seemed more alive when she was awake. He had to stop himself from touching it, from touching her.
Now he smiled slightly, thinking of the color running into her face when she’d tried to tell him she needed to relieve herself. And the look on her face when she’d eaten the food.
Without her outer gear, she was long and lean and graceful and he couldn’t believe she’d been at the controls of that ship. Her voice was as cool as her eyes and the soft curve of her mouth reminded him that men could do things besides fight, even though she’d made no attempt to use the fact that she was female to try and manipulate him. Quite the contrary.
He remembered how women acted when they knew they were beautiful. She didn’t act that way.
He stared toward her, wondering if she’d really fallen asleep and if she had, how could she, curled up like that? Had she pulled herself in like that because she was afraid of him? What had put the tiny frown between her brows? What had she heard when she swayed like that? There’d been a pattern to the way her fingers tapped against her arms.
He’d been alone a long time and away from women for longer than that and he couldn’t say he’d understood women then.
It wasn’t long before first light that she stirred again, stretching her cramped muscles before standing up. Her chin tilted defensively, she made another trip to the rear of the cave. He watched with interest as she washed her hands again, then took out another of the little packets and cleaned her face.
She dug around in the stuff, until she found small, white pellets, tossed them in her mouth and drank from a larger packet. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, then looked at him, biting her lower lip, an almost brooding expression in her gray eyes.
“Look,” she said, breaking the long silence, “I appreciate the hospitality, and as charming as this place is—” Her gaze swept the area as if she couldn’t quite believe what she was seeing— “I need to get back to my bird. My people will look for me there.”
Fyn stared at her, fascinated by the play of expression on her face and in her eyes. She stood up and put her hands on her hips.
“If you could point me in the right the direction, I can take myself there. Though you’re welcome to join me.”
Her booted foot began to tap the floor.
“Or not.”
She might have been gritting her teeth.
Fyn got up and closed the small gap that divided them, forcing her to tip her head back to look at him. He’d thought someone would look for him once. If anyone came, it probably wouldn’t be her people, but the Dusan making sure they’d killed her. He was trying to decide how to tell her that, when little sparks shot out her eyes.
“Fine.”
She started to step around him. He didn’t know which of them was more surprised when he grabbed her arm. He could feel her tense at the sudden contact. Her lips thinned into a stubborn line and her chin lifted. Her gaze narrowed in warning.
“It’s not safe.” He felt her jerk in surprise. The sound of his voice surprised him, too. “When it’s light, I’ll take you.”
They were standing so close, he could smell the scent that had puzzled him as he carried her. She looked at him for a long moment, then the challenge in her eyes eased a bit.
“Thank you.” There was still a chill in her voice.
She looked in the direction of the entrance and he braced for a flood of questions, but she…eased her arm from his hold, as if she thought he might not let go. Had he scared her? She tucked her hands into her under arms. Maybe she was just cold.
“It’s warmer here,” he said, indicating the rocks he’d lit up.
She knelt and held her hands over the glowing warmth. Lashes and chin lifted slowly. Wary and curious warred for dominance in her eyes.
“You’re…really tall.” An almost smile edged up the sides of her mouth. “I’m usually as tall or taller than most of the guys I know.”
He crouched down across from her, hoping she would speak again. He liked the sound of her voice. It was soft and clear, with a slightly husky undertone.
“You’ve been very…kind…but I have to tell you,” she sounded very serious, “You talk way too much.”
What? He stared at her and suddenly she grinned at him. The movement sent warmth flooding into her face, like the sun topping the horizon.
His mouth smiled back before he told it to.
“So, you do have a sense of humor. That’s a relief. That brooding silence was beginning to freak me out.”
“I’ve…been alone a long time.” The words came a bit easier this time.
“Really? I couldn’t tell.” Her brows arched and her mouth was prim, but her eyes were bright with humor.
He shouldn’t stare, but he couldn’t help it. She was different from any woman he’d met, anywhere. She was still wary, but she wasn’t…afraid. She looked right at him and there was an air of confidence and yes, competence about her.
She sat back, crossing her legs. She started tapping her fingers again.
“So, you must have pulled me out of my bird?” She hesitated. “Was it …trashed?”
Her bird must be her ship. Trashed? That would be crashed, maybe? He looked at her, not sure how to tell her.
“That bad? Tactically, the gomers sucked, but they were everywhere. It was a real furball and then I took a double hit to the six. Thought I was going to have to pull my loud handle—you know, punch out—but I didn’t want to lose my bird, or be hanging in space in a freaking pod with everyone bumping heads around me.” She sighed. “Man, Briggs is so going to bust my chops. He keeps telling me I fly like a girl. Now he’s got proof.”
Fyn blinked a little at this, but managed to figure out the essential point.
“You were attacked by the Dusan.” It wasn’t really a question.
“The gomers didn’t stop to introduce themselves, just dived in and started shooting.”
He noticed that she’d started to relax, now that they were talking. He should have remembered that about women. It hadn’t been that long.
“Did they see you come here?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. Probably. I think one of them started to follow me, but the colonel made him go away.”
“The kernel?”
“Lieutenant Colonel Carey, our squadron commander.”
Worry danced across her face.
“They’ll be worried about me.”
“You think they will come?”
Her chin lifted. “We don’t leave our people behind.”
If they survived the attack.
“The Dusan will probably come, too,” he said. “They don’t like to leave people alive.”
“Really.” Her gaze narrowed as she thought about this. “Then I’ll need my weapons back.”
Her chin lifted slightly, as if she expected him to argue about it. He reached behind him, extracted them one at a time, and handed them to her. She stuck the knife in the sheath he’d removed it from, but not the other two.
“I had some spare magazines—long things that hold my bullets?”
“Everything else is right there,” he said, nodding toward the pack, with her stuff scattered around it.
She ejected something that he figured was the magazine from the smaller gun, checked it, shoved it back in, then stowed it back in its holder at her hip.
Warmth stirred in his mid-section. He’d never seen a woman with any weapon. He liked the way she handled them and how she looked wearing them. They…suited her.
She noticed him looking.
“Nine mil, for close shooting.”
She held up the larger weapon.
“And this is a P-90 for the distance shots.”
She checked it the way she had the nine mil, then set it down beside her, as she knelt by her scattered belongings. She stowed most of it back in the pack, including her outer suit, but he noticed she put a few more of the magazines in her pockets.
She looked up at him. “We probably won’t be coming back here, so you should get your stuff together—if you want a lift off this rock? You do, don’t you?”
He looked at her warily.
“I know you’ll miss the food and these charming digs, but try to buck up.” She grinned again.
He had to grin back. “Not much to take with me.”
Most of his gear had been destroyed when his ship caught fire. He’d been lucky to get himself out.
She couldn’t be right about help coming, but she was hard to resist. There was something basically upbeat about her, a resilience that impressed him—even if he didn’t understand more than half of what she said.
“So, what’s the plan?”
Plan? There was a plan?
“I was thinking we should do some recon. Are they likely to be covert? Or do the gomers like to strut around being big and bad?”
He sorted through this. “Probably covert.”
“Well, since you know the terrain—and where we’re going—you should take point and I’ll get your six.”
“My six?”
“I’ll follow you? Watch your back? Clock? Twelve o’clock at the top, six at the bottom.” She tipped her head slightly to the side. “Odd that we seem to have a similar language, but different stuff, too. Is your language pretty common around here?”
“Some worlds have their own language, but they also speak the Common language.” She was right, though. It was strange.
“Interesting.” She looked at him for a moment longer. “We should figure out some hand signals.”
He blinked a couple of times. Hand signals? She didn’t seem to notice.
“Usually we do this when we need to stop and be quiet.” She held her fist up at a right angle to her body. “How many Dusan are we likely to be dealing with?”
Fyn shrugged. “For a small craft, they’ll send a scout ship, between five and six?” He hesitated. “Even when they use stun, their weapons can kill.”
“Okay. Don’t get shot. Anything else?”
“They’ll have two positions, overlooking your ship. We’ll need to hit them at the same time. If they get a chance to send a warning, more will come.”
Did she understand what he was telling her?
Her mouth thinned and her eyes narrowed. “So, we make them go away.”
He hoped that meant kill them.
She showed him some more signals and then she pulled out a hat of the same mottled material as her clothing and put it on her head. She tucked her hair up out of sight. Next she picked up a small round box. She opened it. The contents looked dark and sticky. She proceeded to rub it on her skin.
“Did I miss anywhere?” she asked, suddenly. She did a half turn, so he could see the back of her neck.
He pointed to his temple, fascinated by how efficiently she prepared herself for battle. She was obviously well trained. Was that part of what made her different?
“Oh, right.” She smeared the brown stuff on the dressing covering her head wound. “How long until its light?”
“Not long.”
When everything was stowed but a small rectangular box, she picked it up and turned a knob on the top. It emitted a crackle. Maybe she saw him looking at it, because she said, “Radio. For communication.”
He’d had something similar in his craft, though not so…portable. A useful innovation.
She listened for a moment, then pressed the side, stopping the crackle and spoke into it.
“Home plate, this outfield5. Do you copy?” Only crackling silence. “Come in, home plate.”
Again, no response.
With a slight sigh, she stowed this in a pocket, too, one near her face. “No joy. The cave might be blocking the transmission, though.”
There was a small silence. He should say something.
“So, do you have a name or should I just call you Chewie?” Her lips curved slightly, as if inviting him to share a joke.
“Chewie?”
“Sorry, Earth joke.”
Earth?
“I’m Fyn. Kiernan Fyn.”
“So, do you like to be called Kiernan, Kier, or Fyn? I could call you, sir, if you’d rather? Or Mr. Fyn—“
“Fyn. That’s what most…people call me.” Probably. Been awhile since anyone called him anything. Though no one had found so many different things to call him in such a short time.
“Everyone on the Doolittle calls me Donovan, but I answer to Sara, too. At least I think I do. It’s been a while.”
Her eyes were big and serious in her blackened face. She grinned suddenly, her teeth white against her darkened skin.
“A long while.” She held out her hand. “Nice to meet you, Fyn.”
He took her hand. She seemed to expect it. It felt narrow and soft inside his, but her grip was surprisingly strong. She lifted their hands up and down, then took her hand back.
“That’s called ‘shaking on it’ where I come from. It’s a friendly greeting.” Her tone was educational, but her eyes still smiled.
“Okay.” He realized he sounded rude. “Nice to meet you.”
Her brows arched. He smiled slightly.
“Donovan.” Using her last name seemed…safer, though he couldn’t have said how. In his head, he was already calling her Sara. “Earth?”
“That’s my home planet. Third rock from the sun.”
He frowned slightly. “Never heard of it.”
Her eyes got slightly wary. “So, you know this galaxy pretty well?”
He nodded. This galaxy?
“You’re from another galaxy.”
It wasn’t a question and she didn’t answer it. She didn’t have to. Her eyes gave her away, too. Maybe she realized that, because she looked away, toward the cave’s entrance.
“So what’s out there at night?”
“Nothing you want to see.”
She was from another galaxy. No one he knew had been able to travel between galaxies. That explained why she was so different.
“What keeps them from coming in here?”
“This.” He pulled his weapon, spun it, at the same time activating it. He fired it out the opening and one of the little biters squealed. There was a sort of patter of retreat. He noticed she took a step closer to him and wondered if she realized it. “And they don’t like light.”
“Oh.” She was quiet a moment. “Biters…because…they…”
“Bite.”
“Bummer.”
He turned his weapon off and started to shove it back in its holster. Her hand on his arm stopped him.
“Can I look?”
He held it out. She didn’t take it, just studied it carefully.
“How does it work?”
“Overloads the system with an energy surge.”
“Fatal?”
“If it’s not set to stun.”
“Sweet. My first ray gun.”
She released his arm and he stowed it again. He’d never seen a woman so excited over a weapon. He liked it. He…liked her.
She was quiet for a few moments until she started that tapping fingers thing again. Then she started to hum. The tune seemed odd, but he liked it, too, particularly liked the way she looked doing it.
She softly sang something about a bad moon, until she realized he was looking at her and stopped.
“Sorry, it’s a bad habit.”
“Not so bad.”
He got a smile for that.
If her people did come, if they did leave this place, what would they do with him? He looked at Sara and felt something stir inside him…like feeling returning to a cramped leg. He’d lived with death for the turning of many seasons, almost too many to count. It was the only companion he’d desired since Fiona…but now…
“What do you think?” Sara looked at him a bit anxiously. “I need to get there before my people do.”
He looked out. “It’s light enough now.”
“Right.” She grabbed her sack, sliding her arms through straps and then picked up her P-90.
He looked at her, wanting to say…something, but an odd smile curved her mouth, drying his throat. She put a hand on his chest and reached up, pressing a quick, soft kiss to cheek.
“For luck.”
“That’s not much…luck.” Before she could step back, he slid his arm around her waist, and pulled her close. He covered her mouth with his. He only meant to touch and go, but it had been a long time and she tasted good. He felt her shiver and almost respond, before she pushed against his chest.
Her lashes hid her expression, but a small smile flickered across her mouth.
He pulled his weapon, activated it and set it kill.
“Let’s go.”
“Right.” She readied her weapon with a snapping sound, pressed the hilt to her shoulder, and put her finger on the trigger. “I’m ready.”
It was…good to have someone at his back for a change.

* * * * *

Sara wasn’t sure why she’d kissed his cheek. Maybe to see if he’d flinch back. Dang, the caveman had so not flinched. And he could kiss. Not that she had a lot to compare it to, but it had made her foot pop up. Wasn’t that the universal sign of a toe-curling kiss? She knew hers were still trying to uncurl…
He looked grubby, but he smelled surprisingly good. Kind of fresh and earthy. Heady stuff for a homely girl.
Fyn slipped out of the cave first. She shook her head, to clear her thoughts and get focused, then followed him out into what passed for sunlight.
She wasn’t a botanist, so all she saw was lots of green crap. There were vine things hanging down and lots of exotic looking…crap—buckets of it. She did recognize trees. Big trees. Small trees. And flowers.
The ground was spongy under foot and cushioned their foot steps, which was a plus. Mostly they moved through foliage so dense, she couldn’t see the sky, but she did catch occasional glimpses. It was blue, but seemed a different shade than on earth, more on the green spectrum, maybe.
It felt cold in the cave, which one would expect, but she’d thought it would be cooler outside. Instead it grew steadily warmer. It was humid, not surprising so close to water, but it made her glad she wasn’t wearing her zoombag.
Once Fyn stopped and looked back at her, as if he wasn’t sure she was still there. Maybe he thought she’d be noisy. She grinned slightly. You didn’t grow up in foster care without learning how to be quiet.
Other than the occasional crackle of twig, all Sara heard was the soft buzz of insects until she realized that she could hear the ocean waves hitting the shoreline. Fyn moved more slowly now, stopping often.
Having his six wasn’t a bad place to be, though Sara made an effort not to study his very fine, leather covered, tush, and to stay alert. He moved like a lethal ghost through green shadows and his long legs covered the ground efficiently.
He stopped suddenly, going into a crouch, his fist raised in the stop and quiet signal. Sara crouched behind him, trying to hear what he’d heard. He raised two fingers and pointed to the left, then pointed to her.
She did a thumbs up, then remembered she hadn’t told him about that and nodded.
He signaled three, and pointed in the other direction, then to himself. She nodded again. She eased up next to him and started to slide past him, when he leaned close, his mouth to her ear.
“I’ll wait until you’re in position.”
She nodded once more, peered through the foliage, and spotted her two targets. Beyond them she caught a glimpse of water. She was too high to see the beach or her bird. The Dusan had chosen this bluff carefully, clearly hoping to catch her in the cross-fire when she returned to her bird—or her people came to find her.
She inched along the ground, careful to not let even a stray sound give her away. Just above the Dusan position, she found a big bush with a depression under it, probably from erosion. She worked her way into it. She should be completely hidden. She couldn’t see Fyn, but she didn’t have to. She just had to see the Dusan well enough to make them go away.
She made sure her P-90 was set to single shot and sighted on one of the two guys, the cross hairs on the back of his head.
One shot, one kill.

* * * * *

Fyn waited to see Sara get under cover, amazed at how her clothing helped her blend with the ground cover. She was so quiet, he’d wondered if she’d slipped away, but she’d stayed on his…six. He grinned as he watched her disappear under that bush. They’d never even know what…made them go away. He worked his way toward the other group of Dusan.
He sighted on the first back, did a slow count and fired without hesitating. Killing Dusan was always a good thing.
Once, twice, three times. On the heels of his shots, he heard two short, sharp cracking sounds.
A half count later, he heard the sound of a Dusan weapon discharging, with Sara’s weapon barking another half count after it.
They’d missed someone. He cursed silently as he headed in her direction, his gaze scanning for any other surprises. He reached the bush, skidding to a halt at the sight of a dead Dusan, just a few feet away. He lay sprawled on his back, a neat hole in his chest.
“Sara?”
“I’m all right.” The bushes parted and she peered out, then crawled out and stood up. “He almost got lucky, though.”
She looked pale and her mouth was tense.
He looked from her to the dead Dusan. “Good shot.”
“Someone once told me I’d be a good sniper. I thought it was a compliment.”
Fyn had a feeling this was her first, face-to-face kill.
He walked over until he could see the other position. She’d got them both in the head. Not bad. He looked back in time to see her bite her lower lip, then approach the closest body.
The Dusan was a typical scout ship soldier, large and stocky and wearing a dark brown uniform, devoid of any kind of insignia. His head gear hid his upper face. The only way to tell who was in charge with the Dusan was to watch who stayed to the rear when they moved in on a position.
She removed the gear hiding his face and stared at him for a moment. “They don’t look that different from us. I kind of thought ET would be more…alien.”
“ET?”
“Extra-terrestrial? Not of our world?”
He wasn’t of her world. Did that mean he was ET, too? “What did you think…ET would look like?”
Sara looked at him, started to say something, then just kind of shrugged. “Let’s just say I’ve seen way too many sci-fi movies for my own good.”
What?
She started going through the Dusan’s pockets.
“What are you doing?”
She looked up. “I’m looking for intell…information. It’s SOP…sorry, standard operating procedure.”
That actually seemed like a good idea, though she didn’t look like she liked doing it.
“I’ll check these two for you.”
“Thanks.”
When they’d collected all they could from all six bodies, she looked at the small pile, frowning slightly.
“Problem?”
She picked up a small disc hanging from a chain, turning it over. “This could be ID, I suppose. Kind of looks like our key cards. It’s odd, though.”
“Why?”
“No…personal items. Not even a snack to munch on. And no radios.”
It was interesting to watch her work. And think. He’d never thought to search a dead Dusan, except to take his weapon. What had she learned? What did she hope to learn?
“I wonder how they keep in contact with each other.”
“I’ve heard they have communication devices implanted in them when they are born.”
Her brows arched. “How…Big Brother.” She picked up a weapon. “Do these things recharge or what?”
Fyn took it and showed her the power cell. “It lasts a long time.” He studied the power setting. “These were set to low stun. They wanted to take you alive.”
He pointed it at a tree and fired it. Even at low stun, it left a black mark.
Her eyes widened. “Dang.”
They gathered up the “intell” and headed down. When she dropped onto the sandy beach, she stopped and pressed the side of her jacket, where she’d stowed her radio.
“Home plate, this is outfield5. Do you copy? Come in, home plate.” She sighed. “Still no joy.”
She ran a hand along the side of her ship.
“My bird got pranged.”
She carefully examined both areas of damage, muttering to herself. It sounded like an inventory of what was wrong. Seemed she didn’t just fly her “bird,” she knew how to fix, too.
Finally she stopped, bit her lip for a minute, stepped back with a sigh, then turned and jumped up on the wing and peered into the cockpit.
“The onboard computer looks like it’s intact.”
She climbed in and sat down.
“It still won’t fly,” Fyn felt bound to point out.
Sara looked over the edge of the ship at him.
“I know. But I need to get the self-destruct online. I can’t let the gomers get my bird. That’s SOP, too.”
Fyn wanted to protest. If her people didn’t come, then they’d still be stuck. And maybe the ship could be repaired…only it couldn’t, not without replacement parts.
“Anything I can do to help?”
Her smile was quick, but warming. “Can you get that rear panel off? Where I took the hit? I may need to reroute power to the computer.”
He removed the panel and studied the mess of wires and components, not easy to sort out with a big, black hole in the middle of it all. Some of the parts weren’t that different from the ones in his ill-fated ship. Some of it he’d like to study some more. He couldn’t see where the propulsion power came from, but he began to see a pattern in the tangle of wires.
“Hang on, I think see the power conduit…” He pulled his knife, cut off some wire from one place and used it to make a bridge between two severed wires. “Try that.”
She peered over the side with a wide smile. “Thanks. You know your way around an engine. Briggs is going to love you.” She disappeared from sight again, then reappeared. “He’s the guy who keeps us flying.” She vanished again. “I’ve got some tracking capability…crap, we got a bogey incoming.”
He climbed up on the wing, and saw a screen with a dot flashing on it as it moved closer to the center of the screen.
“What’s that?”
“Could be SAR…search and rescue. Or a bandit—that’s a bad guy. Normally I’d be able to tell if it had an IFF, but my sniffer was in the pointy end of my bird. No surprise it’s down.”
Fyn blinked, not even sure what to ask.
“IFF is a signal our ships send out that identify us to each other. Helps cut down on friendly fire accidents. A sniffer is the device that picks up the signal. All our crap has fancy names we can’t remember, so they get nicknames real fast. Or reduced to initials.”
She pushed something and a small tray popped out. She started pressing on the rows of buttons. “Okay, inputting the self destruct, but I’m going with a remote detonation. If it is Dusan, we can take a few of them out, too.”
She pulled a small device off the edge of the keyboard and then got up.
“We should get out of sight.”
She nodded, but before they could move, he heard a crackle, then a voice.
“Outfield5, this is outfield1, do you copy?”
She grinned and depressed the side of her radio. “Outfield1, this is outfield5. Authentication code Tango Foxtrot Bravo. It’s good to hear your voice, sir.”
“Ditto, Captain. You all right?”
Sara looked at Fyn. “Sierra hotel, sir, thanks to a new friend.”
Fyn arched his brows. “Sierra hotel?”
“Means shit hot…which means good?”
He blinked. Why didn’t they just say what they meant?
She grinned. “We’re not allowed to say shit over the radio.”
Her radio crackled again. “Bravo Zulu, Captain. We’ll be stable one in ten.”
“Roger that, sir, we’ll be the ones with our thumbs out.”
Fyn almost rubbed his head. “Thumbs?”
“Oh, sorry. It’s an—“
“—earth thing.”
“If you’re hoofing it, walking, and you want a ride, you stop by the side of the road and put your thumb up, like this—“ She bent her arm, her fingers curled in, only her thumb up. “If you’re a girl, you might try a little hip action.” She wiggled her hips and grinned. “And if the driver likes the look of you, he stops and gives you a ride.”
It sounded dangerous, even though he didn’t quite understand it. Ride what?
“Have you ever…hitched a ride?” he asked.
“Not until I met you and I didn’t exactly put my thumb out.”
Relief boosted her smile to new heights. He had to return it, though it wasn’t as whole hearted as hers. The gift he’d been sent was double-edged, but most gifts from the gods were.
He looked at Sara. She was sort of frowning, her teeth gnawing on her lower lip.
“Problem?” he asked.
“I’m wondering where their ship is?” She picked up one of the disc’s again, studying it for a moment. “Not a car key…”
What did that mean?
She looked down, examining the ground around her ship. “Those are our tracks…”
She crouched down.
“Those aren’t mine. Or yours.”
She stood up.
“They lead this way.”
They followed the tracks until they turned into the under growth some distance down the beach.
“I guess you don’t know if they have a self destruct on their craft?”
He didn’t. He felt a flicker of excitement. A Dusan ship was a major find. As far as he knew, not even Kalian had managed to capture one of their ships intact.
As Sara stared into the jungle, a craft, similar in markings and construction to Sara’s ship, but much bulkier, came into view and landed between them and Sara’s ship, sending sand blowing in all directions. A large ramp lowered from one side and five men emerged. One man wore a dark suit like Sara had been wearing. The men with him wore loose-fitting, mottled clothing, very much like what Sara had on. They were heavily armed, their weapons larger than the one Sara carried.
The man, clearly the leader of the group, looked toward Sara’s bird. Sara tapped her radio.
“We’re down here, sir, to your left.” When he looked her way, she waved.
Sara started toward him, but when he got close, she stopped and straightened, bringing her hand to her head, then snapping it down.
“Welcome to—” She hesitated. “Does this planet have a name?”
“Kikk,” he said.
“Kikk, sir. I’d like you to meet Kiernan Fyn. Fyn, Lieutenant Colonel Carey.”
Carey was about the same height as Sara, with an easy going grin, dark hair and friendly blue eyes. He held his hand out without hesitation.
“Pleasure, Fyn. Thanks for taking care of my bubba.”
Fyn blinked. Bubba? He looked at Sara. She shrugged, her expression rueful for a moment, before a veil of reserve dropped in place in her eyes.
“We’ll get you off this rock a-sap, but we’d like to salvage your bird.” He arched a brow in Sara’s direction.
“She’s no hanger queen, sir. With replacement parts, she’ll fly again.”
Carey looked low key, but Fyn sensed the toughness of a seasoned soldier beneath the surface. Fyn instinctively liked him. If all Sara’s people were like him, he’d fallen into good company.
“Good to hear.” He glanced around, then studied Sara. “Why do you look like a jarhead, Donovan?”
Fyn noticed the guys with Carey kind of rolled their eyes. Maybe they were jarheads.
“We had some unfriendlys hoping to heat up the LZ, sir, two positions, there and there.”
“The landing zone?” Carey’s brows arched again.
Sara flushed a bit. “Not a pretty landing, but no smoking hole.”
Carey’s eyes were amused, but he said, soberly, “Very true, Captain. Go on.”
“They were waiting, there and there.” She pointed out the spots.
With a jerk of his chin, Carey sent two of the jarheads to check that out.
“After we made them go away, we collected intell from the bodies.” She pointed into the jungle. “We think they may have parked their ship here. We were just discussing whether it might be booby trapped when you showed up.”
Carey blinked. “You have had a busy time since you bent your bird. How many bandits?”
“Six, sir.”
“Six.” Carey nodded to the other two men. “See if there is a ship in there, but might be better not to touch it until an EOD detail checks it out.”
The two men nodded and faded into the jungle, their weapons ready.
For a moment it seemed that Sara might mention the disc, but she didn’t. She turned with Carey and headed back toward her ship.
Fyn cast one, regretful back, then followed them. He’d have liked to be with the jarheads checking out that ship.
“EOD?”
“Explosive Ordinance Disposal.” Sara gave him a quick smile.
“Might have been helpful to interrogate one or two, just to find out what we did to piss them off,” Carey said, mildly.
“You don’t interrogate Dusan,” Fyn said. “They don’t talk and more come.”
“Apparently they have internal transmitters, sir.”
Carey stopped and looked at them both for a long moment, before nodding slowly.
“Okay.”
Sara stopped by the stuff they’d taken from the bodies and dropped the disc back into the pile. Fyn eyed it, but Carey was looking at him.
“Maybe you could tell us more about these…Dusan…when we get back to home plate?”
Fyn nodded, thinking, they won’t like what they hear. But…they’d survived their first encounter with them, their ship apparently intact.
“How is mom, sir?” Sara asked.
“A few blown fuses and broken dishes. They just hit and ran when the first salvo didn’t take us out.”
“They’re confused, but they’ll be back,” Fyn said. “They always come back.” Actually he was confused, too. Home plate? Mom?
“Well, then lets get the tow set up and get out of here.”
He looked up as the two soldiers rejoined them.
“There’s definitely a ship there, sir. I think we could tow it, too. It’s an ugly mother, but not that big.”
“We better ask the Old Man about that. Maybe we can come back and get it.” He looked at Sara.
Now the two jarheads checking the dead guys came back.
One of them said, sounding a bit surprised, “Two head shots and one through the heart over there. The other three are just…dead.”
He looked at Sara with a bit of respect.
“Energy weapon,” Sara said. “Disrupts their heart beat. Like the Dusan weapon, right? Only your stun isn’t quite so lethal.”
“Sweet.” Carey looked at Sara. “Nice shooting, Donovan. You, too, Fyn.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Fyn just nodded.
Carey was quiet a moment. “We should bring the bodies back with us. I’m sure the doc would love to do an alien autopsy. Get some body bags, Perkins.” He looked at Sara and Fyn. “These guys can handle the rest, you and Fyn go get settled on board. Oh, and I brought some MREs and go juice. Figured you’d be hungry.”
Sara exchanged a quick look with Fyn, her lips twitching slightly. “Yes, sir. Thank you.”
As they walked toward the ship, Fyn asked, “Autopsy?”
Sara made a bit of a face. “That means cut ‘em open. A bit gruesome, but if there is a transmitter in there, be nice to know how it works.”
He nodded thoughtfully. These people’s methods were worth…further study. He could gather valuable information if they let him stay. Kalian thought he was dead. There could be no harm in delaying his return. But even as he thought it, he knew that wasn’t the real reason he wanted to stay.
The reason looked at him.
“So, did you live on that stuff or just pull it out to tweak me?”
“That’s pretty much it, for eating.”
She shuddered. “Dang. Well, there are some who do not consider an MRE fine cuisine, but I’m guessing you aren’t going to be one of them.”
“MRE?”
“Meals Ready to Eat.”
What was it she’d said? “Sweet.”❖
________________________________

Buy Pauline’s THE KEY at:
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Fictionwise
——————————————————

Pauline Baird Jones is the award-winning author of nine novels of science-fiction romance, action-adventure, suspense, romantic suspense and comedy-mystery. Originally from Wyoming, she and her family moved from New Orleans to Texas before Katrina.

Website: http://www.perilouspauline.com/
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About Vicki Hinze
USA Today Bestselling and Award-Winning Author of 40+ books, short stories/novellas and hundreds of articles. Published in as many as 63 countries. Featured Columnist for Social-IN Worldwide Network and Book Fun Magazine. Sponsor/Founder of ChristiansRead.com & CleanReadBooks.com. FMI visit www.vickihinze.com.

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