The sudden rumbling of the ground under his boots caused Stoderd to lose his footing on the rocky path. Off balance he thrust his arms out, grasping for anything solid enough to stop him from tumbling head first to the ground.
"Hang on," Kampo grabbed his stumbling companion, steadying him.
"What the heck is going on?" regaining his footing, Stoderd jerked around to look back up the trail where large explosions could be heard.
"Not sure," Kampo cried out as he dove for cover beneath the thick shrubbery alongside the trail. "But I don't think I'd stay out there much longer," he inched deeper under the flimsy cover as more rocks were rumbled loose and started to tumble down the trail.
"Damn," Stoderd growled, feeling his feet slipping underneath him. He stubbornly fought to maintain his footing on the trail as he watched bright flashes of explosions change the night back to day far above them. "What was up there that the Confederacy would want to blow up?"
"Whatever it was," Kampo started to crawl out of his hiding place as soon as the explosions stopped, "it sure isn't there any more."
"Think it has anything to do with that tasar we spotted?"
"Probably, you don't see them flying around alone too often."
"Now what?" Stoderd asked, unsure if they should go back up the trail and see what had been the target of an obvious attack or continue downward towards their unprotected cruiser. Either way, he was sure that they'd probably find trouble.
Kampo considered the question as he picked thorns out of his uniform and brushed off the dirt and ground litter. Satisfied he had cleaned as much unwanted debris off his pants and jacket, he turned to face Stoderd and found his attention drawn to the black cloud of smoke blocking out the moons' light above the trees where the trail crested a ridge. Shaking his head at the knowledge his exuberance to chase a couple of ghost blips in order to impress his superior had landed him in a situation that could possible get him killed, he turned away and started down the trail. "Come on," he muttered, "let's get to the cruiser and go back to base. Whatever is going on up here is too much for the two of us to handle."
"Now you're talking," Stoderd smiled. He hurried to catch up with Kampo, slapping the disgruntled soldier on the shoulder when reached him. "Let the Colonel figure all this out while we enjoy a nice long, hot bath."
"Yeah," Kampo grunted, shaking off the other soldier's hand and quickening his steps.
"Midge," Terri whispered, gently shaking the sleeping woman. "Wake up."
"What's wrong?" the captain's eyes snapped open and she immediately pushed herself into a sitting position.
"I think I hear something," the sergeant whispered, handing the laser rifle to the captain. "It sounds like someone is moving around not far from here."
"Can it be a tiger?" Midd asked, raising the rifle into a ready position against her shoulder as she stood.
"I think I hear talking," Terri pointed into the darkness to alert the captain to the direction of the voices.
"Okay," Midd nodded. "Let's move back into those shadows and wait to see what happens," she said quietly before leading the sergeant to her chosen hiding spot.
The women slipped between two large boulders at the side of the clearing where the tasar sat. Terri knelt at the captain's side providing Midd unobstructed movement if she had to swing the rifle to aim at a threat.
"Should have taken the other rifle out of the tasar," Midd grumbled quietly, chastising herself for the unarmed sergeant beside her.
Terri wrapped her hand around Midd's leg, squeezing gently to let the captain know she was okay. She froze when she heard a man speak.
Rounding a sharp bend in the trail, Kampo's boot caught the top of an exposed tree root hidden in the darkness. He stumbled a few steps before finding solid footing. "Maybe we should find a place to wait until morning," he said as he felt a slight twist in his ankle. "Won't do us much good to break a leg before we can get back to the cruiser."
"Yeah," Stoderd agreed, rubbing a bruise on his arm where he had walked into an unseen tree not long before. "How about over there?" he pointed at a small clearing barely visible in the weak moonlight that penetrated the forest trees.
"Any place I can sit down and not walk into something," Kampo began to move towards the opening.
The men had walked several steps into the clearing before they spotted the dark outline of the tasar.
"Is that what I think it is?" Kampo stared at the attack craft.
"Must be the one we saw before," Stoderd spoke quietly as he eased backwards away from the tasar and back into the forest.
"Where you going?" Kampo asked, reaching out and grabbing Stoderd before he could escape completely.
"Where do you think? Let me go before whoever was flying that thing sees us."
"Don't be a fool," Kampo tightened his grip on his companion. "If we can capture that the Colonel will forgot about us not finding what we were sent out here to find."
"Are you nuts?" Stoderd cried, struggling to free himself. "Whoever was flying that thing must be around here just waiting to blast us."
"We've got rifles, too," Kampo reminded Stoderd. "And I'm not leaving that tasar just sitting there. If nothing else we should make sure it can't be flown away from here."
"Damn," Stoderd quit struggling. He knew Kampo was right. "Alright, let's blast the damn thing and get out of here," he shrugged his rifle off his shoulder. "Set yours at full force and we'll hit it together."
"I don't think so," Midd growled at the men. She and Terri had watched as the two men walked into the clearing directly in front of them where she had a clear shot at the enemy soldiers. "Put down your weapons," she ordered.
"To your right," Stoderd screamed, whirling in the direction of his unseen adversary and firing.
Feeling the heat of Stoderd's rifle blasts rush past his head, Kampo dropped to the ground before he was caught by the indiscriminate firing. "You idiot," he yelled as he pointed his rifle and fired. "You could have killed me."
"Shut up," Stoderd yelled back as he too dropped to the ground. "You got us into this."
Terri moved as soon as she heard Stoderd's shout of alarm. Using her legs to propel her backwards behind the safety of the boulders, she grabbed Midd around the waist pulling her along.
Midd landed on her back with the sergeant stretched protectively around her. "Terri, I can't fire back from this position," she protested directly into the sergeant's ear. "Roll off me and let me get up."
"No," Terri held firm as a rifle blast struck the boulder above them and rock chips showered down on the pair.
"Hold your fire," Kampo shouted at Stoderd who was blasting away at anything and everything around them. "No use using up the batteries until we know what we shooting at," he said as he glared into the blackness surrounding them and the clearing.
Hearing Kampo's command Terri scooted off Tarp. "Come on," she whispered as she crawled to the back of the large boulders.
Midd flipped over onto all fours, quickly crawling after the sergeant. Once they were safely behind the boulders, she looked around for a protected place she could position herself to attack the Alliance soldiers.
"Up there," Terri pointed to the top of the boulders sheltering them.
"Can't," Midd whispered, "too high for me to climb."
"I'll give you a boost." Clasping her hands together, the sergeant leaned over offering a foothold for the captain.
Before placing her boot in the sergeant's hands, Midd leaned forward placing a tender kiss on Terri's lips.
Caught off guard by Tarp's action, Terri jerked back in surprise.
"Sorry," Midd mumbled, misunderstanding the sergeant's response.
"Don't be," Terri slipped a hand behind Tar's neck and pulled her close, the ensuing kiss was short but full of emotion. "Be careful," she sighed, bending over and reoffering her clasped hands.
"I will," Midd smiled, placing a boot into the foothold. "Stay hidden," she whispered as the sergeant lifted her up so she could reach the top of the boulder.
Using the momentum of Terri's boost, Midd scrambled onto the boulder. Carefully inching forward, her eyes scanned the clearing around the tasar. She had a pretty good idea where the soldiers should be but knew they would have had time to move while she and Terri had taken the time to kiss. She smiled at the memory, knowing that as soon as she could she would expand on the experience. Angry voices focused her back onto the matter at hand.
"I say we just blast the tasar and get the heck out of here," Stoderd grunted at his companion.
"No," Kampo argued, "we need it in one piece."
"It isn't worth us getting killed."
"They must not have any weapons," Kampo countered. "They haven't even fired at us."
"Believe me," Stoderd raised his rifle to his shoulder, taking aim on the tasar. "You don't fly one of those without having some weapons."
"Don't shoot," Kampo cried as Stoderd locked his rifle scope on the tasar.
Midd took a second to calm her breathing before squeezing the trigger on her rifle. The recoil on the laser weapon was almost unfelt as she took aim on the second objective and squeezed the trigger again. Studying her targets through the rifle's scope, she was satisfied when neither one showed any signs of movement.
"I'm coming down," Tarp called down to alert the waiting sergeant.
"Are they?" Terri asked when Tarp dropped to the ground beside her, having no need to finish the question.
"Yes," Tarp answered as she eased back around the boulder, her rifle at ready just in case she had misjudged the efficiency of her aim. "Let's hope they were the only ones," she said as she stepped out from between the boulders into the clearing.
The women carefully approached the soldiers. As soon as they were close enough to see the men in the faint moonlight, it was apparent that both men were dead from the rifle blast each had received.
Midd gazed at her victims, swallowing hard to keep down the bile rising in her throat. Her body began to shake and the tears flowing from her eyes were making it difficult to see. Slowly the captain sank to her knees, dropping the rifle to wrap her arms around her stomach as it emptied its contents.
Terri knelt beside Tarp, picking up the discarded rifle should it be needed in the next few moments. With her free hand, she gently rubbed the captain's trembling back.
Tarp wiped at her mouth with the back of her hand. "I, uh," she started.
"It's okay," Terri murmured as she continued to rub.
"I've never done that before," Tarp's voice caught as she said the words.
Sensing that they were no other immediate threats to their safety, Terri sat down pulling Tarp into her arms. "You fly a tasar, Midge. You must have killed before," she said, softly.
"But," the captain's voice was rough and shaky, "I've never seen them. I just push the button and then fly away before I see what happens. I've never really thought about what happens when the bombs strike," she cried. "I've never seen the people I've killed."
Terri could do nothing but hold the woman as she cried, her body racked by deep sobs.
The sun was beginning to lighten the sky by the time Tarp started to regain her composure.
"Midge," Terri spoke softly to the woman wrapped in her arms, "are you alright."
"Yes," Midd sighed. "Guess I made a pretty big fool of myself, huh?" Tarp twisted her neck so she could look into the sergeant's eyes.
"No," Terri smiled. "Taking a life should never be easy, even when it is necessary to protect yourself."
"I know," Midd whispered, turning away from the sergeant. "I'm ashamed to say that I stopped thinking of the Alliance soldiers as people. It was easier to think of them as just parts of a huge, monster machine that had to be stopped. But seeing them lying there… Seeing the fear in their eyes and knowing that their death must have been the last thought they had," she paused, her throat so thick with emotion she couldn't continue.
"You will have to kill again," Terri murmured, "to protect Mo-Tah."
"It doesn't bother you," Tarp asked, surprised by the Advisor's declaration.
"My heart cries with each death," Terri explained. "But Mo-Tah is my mother and I must protect her. If I could choose, I would choose not to kill but I did not choose for the Alliance to come to Organi. They have come to destroy the home that I love and the people that I love," she said, cupping a hand against Midd's tear-streaked cheek and gently pulling the captain's head around. "My heart cries for those who die but it is the hurt of those that fill my heart that brings the most pain."
Tarp sighed as she listened to the sergeant's words. "Terri, I think I'm falling in love with you."
"I certainly hope so," Terri smiled, placing her lips against Tarp's.
This time the women took their time exploring each other's lips, the kiss quickly deepening until tongues explored waiting mouths. The need to breath being the only reason the women broke apart, both panting heavily.
Tarp slumped against Terri, "guess this isn't the time or place to take this any further."
"No," Terri blew out a long breath as she tried to control her racing heart. "I'm afraid it isn't."
"Guess we should get back to what needs to be done."
Terri blew out a second breath, her heart refusing to settle. "I don't think I can do much of anything as long as you are in my arms," she smirked.
"Guess I could move," Tarp offered half-heartedly.
"I prefer you don't," Terri tightened her hold.
"I prefer I don't too," Tarp chuckled. "But we do need to take care of those soldiers and get back to trying to free Hovart and the others."
"About those soldiers," Terri glanced over at the bodies. "Do you think they were alone?"
"My guess is if they had any friends," Tarp said as she removed herself from the sergeant's arms and stood up. "We'd know it by now," she reached down a hand to pull Terri up beside her. "My question is how did they get here? Alliance soldiers don't usually travel on foot unless there are a lot of them."
"You think they have a camp nearby?" Terri asked as she was pulled upright.
"No. Again, if they did we'd know by now," she said, placing a kiss on Terri's lips. "They should be a shovel in the tasar's supplies. Why don't you look for it while I see if they are carrying anything worthwhile."
"Want me to do that?" Terri offered.
"Thanks," Tarp smiled, understanding the unspoken reasons for Terri's offer. "But I think I should do it. Go on, the shovel is probably in one of the lockers near the tail," she said as she walked the few steps to the men that so recently had hopes and dreams and a future she had now taken from them.
"Okay," Terri said as she watched Tarp approach the soldiers. She could tell by the slump of her shoulders and the hesitation in her step that the next few hours would not be easy on the captain. She turned for the tasar, determined to find the shovel and get the men buried as quickly as possible.
"Except for their weapons and a few personal items, the only thing they were carrying was this," Tarp pulled a small object from her jacket pocket, holding it out to Terri who was placing the shovel back into its storage compartment.
"Access key?" Terri asked, glancing down at the thin, rectangular item resting in the palm of the captain's hand.
"That's my guess," Tarp placed the key back into her pocket. "Did you secure their rifles?"
"In the forward compartment," Terri answered, closing the door of the compartment she had been working in. "More room up there for them."
"Good," Tarp turned to look around the clearing, wanting to make sure they weren't leaving anything behind. Thinking of what might lie ahead for them when they attempted to free the prisoners in Beta II, she muttered, "sure good use a gunner about now."
"I can do it," Terri told her.
Tarp turned back around to see the sergeant start to climb up onto the tasar's wing. "You?"
"How would you know about being a gunner?" Tarp asked as she grabbed Terri to prevent her from going any further. "Wait a minute," she scrutinized the sergeant. "You never told me how you ended up in that prison camp. Or what you're trained to do as a Confederacy soldier."
"You never asked," Terri grinned, leaning back against the wing.
Tarp placed her hands on the edge of the wing on either side of Terri then leaned forward until she was nose-to-nose with the smirking Islander. "Well," she growled.
Terri raised herself up just high enough to place a quick kiss on Tarp's lips, "I was training to be a gunner."
"Really?" Tarp leaned back. "I didn't know they were training Islanders for the tasars.
"I was in the first class," Terri said.
"About time they started that," Tarp shook her head. How many arguments had she had with Confederacy command urging them to make better use of the Islanders? She thought of all the time that had been wasted trying to convince her commanding officers to put aside their prejudices.
"Yes," Terri broke into the captain's thoughts. "It seems that Mainlanders don't believe we have much ability," she said of the attitude openly displayed towards the Islanders.
"Not all Mainlanders think that," Tarp pressed her lips together in an apologetic smile.
"I know, sweetheart," Terri wrapped her arms around Terri, holding her tight. "Give me a few minutes to speak with Mo-Tah for those soldiers. Then we can go."
"I'll come with you," Tarp smiled. "I think it's time I meet your Mo-Tah."
"She'd like that," Terri grinned. "She'd like that very much."
"Ready?" Tarp asked as she checked her control panels one last time before lifting the tasar into the air.
"Yes, but remember you promised no flips and rolls," Terri said anxiously from behind the captain.
"Nice and level," Tarp promised as she punched in the commands to raise the craft as she just described. "Once we get above the trees, we can scan for any other Alliance activity in the area. You might want to get the ground missiles ready just in case."
"Um, okay," Terri said as she studied the maze of buttons and switches in front of her.
"You okay back there?" Tarp asked, hearing the confusion in the sergeant's voice.
"Ah, here you are," Terri said when she spotted the specific buttons she was looking for. "Yes, I'm fine."
"How many tasar flights have you actually been on?"
"Counting the one yesterday?"
"Yeeesss," Tarp drew out the word, almost afraid to hear the answer.
"This will be my second."
Tarp entered a series of commands that stopped the tasar's motion and held the machine in place hovering several feet off the ground. She twisted as much as she could in the tight confines of the captain's seat in order to look at her new gunner. "I thought you said you were training as a gunner?"
"I said I was in the first class," Terri explained. "The instructors weren't convinced we could handle operating in real tasars so they started us in mock trainers on the ground."
"Idiots," Tarp muttered as she listened.
"I had just completed the class and was scheduled to start training in a real tasar when I was captured."
"My mother's illness worsened and my sisters asked me to return. The shuttle I was on stopped at a small island not too far from my own. Alliance troops were waiting for it."
"You never got to see your mother?" Tarp asked, quietly.
"I'm sorry, Terri."
"It was Mo-Tah's way."
"I don't understand."
"Mo-Tah knew it was more important that I go to Beta II."
"Why would she think that was more important than being with your mother?"
"Perhaps," Terri smiled at the agitated captain, "she knew who I would meet there."
"Who? That chauvinist Hovart and his close-minded followers?"
"I doubt it."
"Then who? Who could you have possibly met in that prison camp that would be more important than your mother?"
"Not more important, sweetheart," Terri grinned. "But just as important."
"Who? Uh? What?" Tarp stuttered as she slowly began to understand. "Oh," she grinned, sheepishly.
"You are so cute when you go off like that," Terri laughed.
"Am not," Tarp groused, twisting back around and releasing the tasar from its holding pattern.
"Careful, gunney," Tarp growled, playfully. "Or you'll be saying goodbye to your breakfast in the near future."
"Midge, you promised," Terri cried, fearful the captain would put the tasar through a series of loops and spins just to prove she could.
"Be good then."
"Okay," Terri relaxed back into the gunner's seat. "But you are cute."
"What do you think?" Tarp asked.
The tasar was hovering over an Alliance cruiser the women had spotted at the edge of the forest.
"There doesn't seem to be anyone around it. Do you think it could have belonged to those soldiers?"
"Good bet," Tarp agreed. She guided the tasar to the ground not far from the cruiser, being careful to keep the nose of the craft and its weapons pointed directly at the Alliance vehicle. "Only one way to be sure. You stay here. If you see any movement that signals this is a trap, fire the missiles."
"Tarp, I can't do that with you out there."
"Sergeant," Midd hardened her voice, "that's an order."
"Yes, Captain," Terri almost cried when she said the words. No matter what Tarp commanded her to do, she would not cause the death of the woman she was falling deeply in love with.
"Don't worry," Tarp softened her voice as she stepped out on the wing, a rifle held at ready in her hands. Before jumping down from the wing, she took a moment to smile at the sergeant. Winking, she said, "I'll be back before you know it."
"You better be," Terri whispered as she watched the captain cautiously approach the cruiser.
When she wasn't greeted by a barrage of laser blasters, Midd relaxed a little as she moved closer to the cruiser. If they were lucky the cruiser would be empty, it's soldiers buried in a forest clearing several clicks away.
Tarp reached into her jacket pocket for the key taken off the dead soldiers. "Here goes nothing," she whispered as she slipped it into the code box alongside the cruiser's access door and heard a muted click as the door's locking mechanism opened. Reaching for the handle she said a silent prayer that she wasn't activating a destruction code. Holding her breath, she pulled the door open a few inches than paused. Taking a breath, she pulled it another few inches and paused. Finally, the door was opened wide enough for Tarp to peer inside the cruiser. "Empty," she sighed.
Tarp stepped inside the cruiser, thinking its interior was quite roomy for having a crew of only two. She moved to the front of the cruiser and saw that the control panels had not been locked down. "A little lacking when it comes to following procedure," she commented to the missing soldiers. "You must not have expected to be gone too long."
"Or they didn't think anyone would come along to find it," Terri said as she stepped into the cruiser.
"Thought I told you to stay with the tasar," Tarp said as she lowered her rifle. Upon hearing the door creak as the sergeant pulled it open, she had whipped around, rifle at ready and fully intending to shoot whoever entered the cruiser. "Seems you also have trouble following procedure."
"I got worried," Terri shrugged as she moved to where Tarp was standing. "Now what?"
"Think you can drive this thing?"
Terri moved closer to take a good look at the control panel, a frown forming on her lips.
"Look," Tarp pointed at a button. "This button makes it go and that one," she pointed at another, "makes it stop. You can adjust your speed with this dial, the farther you turn to the right the faster you go."
"Okay," Terri said, not at all convinced she could control the cruiser once it got started. "What are you thinking?"
"We take this to Beta II. I'm sure Hovart could find a use for it and it would help having it around on their walk back to a Confederacy base."
"What about the tasar?"
"I'll fly it to the camp and let them know what's going on so they don't think you're Alliance soldiers coming for a visit."
"What if another cruiser comes along?"
"I'll be keeping an eye on you," Tarp assured the sergeant. "If any come around, I'll take care of them. All you have to do is get this to Beta II."
"Okay," Terri set in one of the two seats in front of the control panels. "How do you start it up?"
"Push that button there while you hold this one down," Tarp instructed.
"How do you know this?" Terri asked as she prepared to follow the captain's instructions.
"These aren't much different from the shuttles I flew on Retha. These just don't get too high off the ground is all. All set?" she asked as she felt the cruiser's engines come on line.
"Let's see," Terri rubbed her hands together. "This one to go."
"This one to stop."
"And this one for speed."
"Right. Just be sure to slow down long before you get to the camp. Don't want you accidentally going through the vaporizer fence. Pull the lever just under your right arm that will open the cover on the windshield."
"Being able to see would be good," Terri said as she pulled the level and watched the view in front of her go from nothing to bright sunlight.
"Okay, I'll meet you at Beta II. If you run into any trouble, just stop where you are and I'll come to you."
Terri nodded, "be careful, I love you."
"Love you too. See you soon."
By the time Tarp had returned to the tasar and lifted it into the air, the Alliance cruiser was well on its way towards Beta II. Tarp followed behind, watching the jerky motion of the cruiser while the sergeant got comfortable with its controls. As soon as the cruiser began to travel smoothly over the rough ground, Tarp sped ahead to the prison camp setting a command in her radar scanner to keep track of the cruiser's movement and sound an alarm should the vehicle stop.
It didn't take Tarp long to reach the prison camp and she smiled when she saw the excited movements of the prisoners once they recognized the tasar for what it was. Midd set the tasar down near the prison gate but at a safe distance from the vaporizing field. She pressed the release handle and waited for the cockpit cover to slide out of the way before stepping out on the tasar's wing.
"Captain, is that you?" Lieutenant Hovart shouted over the other prisoners.
"It is, Lieutenant," Midd jumped down from the wing, her boots kicking up dust as she approached the single string of wire that marked the invisible barrier. "Have you kept my camp in good shape?"
"Sure have, Captain," Hovart smiled. "Glad to see you made it."
"Thank you, Lieutenant."
"Shame the Islander wasn't as lucky."
"Don't be so sure," Midd grinned.
"The Advisor," one of the Islander prisoners rushed forward, "is she alive?"
"Careful there," Midd warned the prisoner. "Don't get too close to the fence."
"The Advisor?" the Islander asked again.
"That's her," Midd pointed to a cloud of dust approaching the camp.
"That's an Alliance cruiser," a Mainlander soldier shouted.
"You sell out to the Alliance, Midget?" another soldier sneered.
"Shut up," Hovart ordered before the Captain could respond.
"But that's an Alliance cruiser. How'd she get her hands on one of those if she isn't one of them?"
"Yeah," another soldier added, "she sure didn't have it when she was here before."
"That's a Confederacy tasar," Hovart shouted back. "She didn't have that either. So shut up until the captain can tell us what's going on."
The soldiers quieted but several could still be heard voicing opinions on the sudden appearance of the captain and the looming arrival of the sergeant.
"What is going on, Captain?" Hovart asked as he turned back to face the officer.
"It's a long story and we don't have time for it right now. As soon as Sergeant Arhina gets here, we're going to find a way to deactivate the barrier and get you out of there."
"You really think that's possible?" Hovart asked. Months before he would have laughed at the woman's pronouncement, writing it off as just another of the Midget's outlandish ideas. But not now. Not after he'd seen the woman escape through the vaporizing field and return with not one but two heavily armed machines that could very possibly make her claim come true. No he had to admit, if only to himself that, there was much more to this woman standing in front of him then just someone to make fun of and ridicule. And if she was able to do as she said, he would be very glad indeed to have her back.
Continued in Part 5
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