For synopsis and disclaimer, see part 1.
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Jenny entered the grounded transport in front of Dray. As they turned down the central hallway, they came face to face with Malory. The junior pilot's somber expression lifted as she smiled at Jenny. Her eyes flicked to Dray and her smile faded. Dray shrugged and walked past her in search of Jordan. If Malory didn't like her, the feeling was mutual.
Not finding Jordan in the break room, Dray continued to the back of the transport where Franklin was locked up. She found her friend sitting outside his make-shift cell, sipping a cup of ice water.
"How long have you been on duty?" Dray asked as she curled up at Jordan's feet.
Jordan pushed Dray's blonde hair away from her eyes. "I haven't been here too long." Jordan's welcoming smile faded and her hands fell back into her lap.
"What's wrong?" Dray sensed Jordan's somber mood. Did she do something to upset her friend?
Jordan stared at the black metal floor. "Nothing."
Dray shifted until she was centered under Jordan's face again. "Hello? That was a very unconvincing nothing."
Jordan's smile returned briefly. "I just don't much like being here."
"On the planet?"
"No. Here with Franklin."
Dray ire rose. "Has he been bothering you?"
"No." Jordan brushed a finger along Dray's clenched jaw. "Nothing like that. It just, what he says. It's confusing."
Dray stood up, her face masked in anger. "Let me in."
"Are you mad? You can't go in there with him." Jordan laced her fingers over Dray's hand. "Just sit here with me, okay?"
Dray felt her anger waning. She gave Jordan's hand a squeeze and then slipped her hand free. "If he's upset you, I want to know what he said." She stood facing the door, waiting for Jordan to open it.
With a sigh, Jordan keyed in the unlock code. The door slid silently open. Dray scanned the interior of the brightly lit room. A gray table and chair lined one wall, while the opposite wall had a makeshift bed on the floor. Frankly jerked up in his bed when the door slid open, his disheveled brown fatigues clung to his thin frame. Dray locked her gaze on him and stepped inside. Jordan hung by the door, warily holding her laser strafer at chest height.
"You've got something to say?" asked Dray, her voice hard with authority.
Franklin stood up against the far wall, his eyes drifting from Dray to the weapon in Jordan's hand. "Why should I talk to you?"
Dray folded her arms across her chest. "I don't see anyone else volunteering to listen to your dribble, traitor."
"I'm not a traitor." His scraggly beard stuck out from his chest.
"Deserter, then. You did leave your own group of rebels behind. If you've got something important to say, then let's hear it."
Franklin sank down onto his unkept bed. His posture relaxed but his eyes still flicked between the two women. "You're all bluster and bullets, warmongers. Do you even know who you fight against?"
"Vtaryns," said Dray.
"Yeah, Vtaryns. Did they teach you at that Academy of yours who the Vtaryns are? Or who started the war?"
"Vtaryn atrocities are on the daily vid-screen. There isn't a person in the Alliance who doesn't know who they are or why we are fighting them," said Dray.
Franklin laughed. "And of course the vid-screen never lies. Go away, you're nothing but a pack of lost children."
Dray bit back and angry retort. "Well why don't you educate us, then. What do you know that the vid-screen and the Alliance isn't telling the rest of us."
Franklin stared at her for a long moment. He shifted to the edge of his bed, scratching at his beard. "What you see on the vid-screen, those aren't Vtaryns."
"Go on," said Dray, keeping her voice neutral.
"What you see, what the Alliance lets you see, is just the warrior caste."
Dray shrugged. "Kind of like our military, then?"
Franklin shook his head. "No, nothing like that. Vtaryn society, what we know of it, is not just a strict caste system. It's made up of different, co-dependent species."
Dray raised an eyebrow as Franklin continued.
"The warrior class act like blind defenders. Like worker bees at a hive on Earth. If the hive is threatened, they attack on instinct."
"So, what's your point?" Dray considered his words. She might be able to verify some of it if she got time on the central database.
Franklin opened his mouth to continue, then froze. Dray felt a presence behind her and turned in time to see Carson and Petros pausing outside the door. Carson's disdainful expression irritated Dray more than anything Franklin had said yet.
"Were you authorized to talk to the prisoner, cadet?" asked Carson, pulling rank on Dray.
"There were no orders to the contrary, Carson." Dray nodded to Jordan and the two of them stepped out of the room. Jordan closed and secured the door behind them.
"I wouldn't waste my time with him, Draybeck," said Carson. "He should have been left at the station, if you ask me. I don't know what Malory was thinking, dragging him along."
Jordan stiffened next to Dray. "Our commanding officer made a logical choice during a hostile takeover," she said, her voice, smooth and cold.
Carson gave her a wide-eyed stare and then shrugged. "Come on, Petros. Let's leave the cadets to their busy-work."
Dray watched the two senior cadets saunter back down the quiet hallway. She didn't like Carson. Worse, she didn't trust him. Something about the way he referred to Malory bespoke of trouble to come.
Jordan's hand pulled at her sleeve. "Don't let him get under your skin. The two of them are just looking to stir up trouble." Jorden led Dray back to the chair.
"How much longer do you have on duty?" asked Dray.
Dray leaned against Jordan's leg. "I'll keep you company."
She itched to research the information Franklin had given them, but she didn't want to leave Jordan alone. In fact, she seriously considered requesting two guards be stationed with Franklin at all times. She didn't feel comfortable airing her concerns to Malory directly, but Red handled the duty roster. She'd suggest the change to him and emphasize that Carson and Petros not serve on the same shift.
After a night of searching through the ship's database, Dray uncovered enough information about Vtaryn battle strategies to suggest that at least the front lines of the Vtaryn forces acted much like the bee metaphor than Franklin revealed. She couldn't find out anything more about the Vtaryn caste society, but she did search up the reports on the first Vtaryn attack on record. A Terran vessel had landed on an uncharted world that ended up being deep within Vtaryn controlled space. It's possible that the warrior caste took that as an act of aggression. The end result was a complete slaughter of the ship's crew, all three hundred Terrans.
Dray wandered into the break room with these puzzling thoughts on her mind and nearly stumbled into Carson's back. She stopped short and scanned the scene around her. Carson, Petros, and a few of the juniors stood on one side of the break room. On the other side, Malory Grace sat at a table, holding a warm mug. Something about Carson's cold sneer put Dray on the defensive. Keeping him in view, she pushed past his group of followers and walked to the syn-coffee machine.
"You're wrong, Malory," said Carson. His belligerent tone grated on Dray.
Malory looked up from her mug. "You'll address me by my rank, senior cadet."
Carson's sneer harded. "As you wish, Junior Pilot. Your decision to remain planet-side is wrong and you are risking all our lives by staying here."
"I don't recall asking for opinions on my decisions, Carson." Malory wrapped long fingers around her mug and eyed him coolly across the small break room.
Carson's stance worried Dray. He wasn't here just to question Malory's decision. Dray wasn't sure what else he had in mind, but she thought the numbers certainly weren't in Malory's favor. She didn't know if Malory even recognized the danger she might be in, if Carson had more in mind than simple insubordination. She decided not to wait and find out.
"J.P. Grace, Senior Cadet Barron sent me to find you, Ma'am. He's wants your approval on the new duty rosters."
It was a flat out lie and Malory knew it. Luckily, Carson and company did not, and Malory accepted Dray's excuse and left the room. Dray lingered, eyeing Carson over her cup of synth-coffee. He sauntered over to her, followed by Petros and the juniors.
"So whose side are you on?" Carson asked, his arms crossed.
Dray sipped her cup before answering. "I'm not sure what education you received, Carson. But my Academy training clearly taught me to obey my C.O. and follow directions."
Carson snorted. "Figures. No spine."
He turned his back to Dray. Big mistake, she thought. Dray grabbed the loose material at his collar and spun him around to face her. He had a handful of centimeters on her in height but the way his eyes bulged told her all she needed to know about his inherent bravery.
She leaned in and whispered so only he could hear her. "Insubordination is one thing, Carson, but leading others to mutiny during a military action is cause for summary execution. And I'd be first in line with a strafer if our C.O ordered your head on a platter."
She released his collar and addressed the group. "We are in a military emergency and under the regulations you all signed onto when you joined the Academy, the highest ranking officer is in command. She expects your obedience and so do the rest of us."
Dray saw the fear reflected in the juniors' expressions as they backed off, leaving Carson and Petros alone. Dray stared at the two of them until they skulked off in silence.
Jordan passed the two glum senior cadets as she entered the break room. She looked between them and Dray as she approached.
"What's up with those two?" she asked.
"Nothing good. How'd you sleep?"
Jordan placed a light kiss on Dray's cheek. "Not as well as I used to on Zenon."
Dray felt a rush of heat fill her cheeks and much lower down. "We don't have any major duties this morning. Want to go exploring?"
"Sure. Red and Venkata found a nest of some sort yesterday. Maybe we can go poke around there."
Dray and Jordan scrambled up the steep rocky incline that Red directed them toward. The Tarquin failed to mention how difficult the terrain was. Dray bruised knees and elbows, but she kept her minor pains to herself. Jordan didn't seem to be bothered by the climb and she certainly wouldn't be the one to give up on their excursion first. It was their first time alone in a few cycles, and Dray wouldn't give that up for a few scrapes. Besides, the transport had become a metal hull of dullness with no real sign of rescue yet.
She shifted her backpack and pushed herself up over the edge of the rock shelf. She turned back and offered a hand to lift Jordan up. They sat, back to back, catching their breath while scanning their new surroundings. The flat surface around them was not more than three meters wide. The terrain then split into a series of scraggly canals spotted with rocky caves and scattered dry brush.
"Where to next?" asked Jordan, shifting to take a flask of water out of Dray's pack.
Dray opened her GPS locator. "Red's map puts the nests in a set of caves twenty meters south and then another fifteen down inside the canal."
Jordan handed Dray the water flask, then checked her watch. "We've got a little under an hour before we have to head back."
"Okay, let's move."
Dray led the way along the flat shelf for twenty meters, then checked the GPS locator again. "Down here somewhere."
She sat on the edge of the shelf and lowered herself down. The loose footing caused them to go slowly down the rocky surface as gravel slipped beneath their feet. Dray paused at the bottom to brush herself off. A light wind blew through the canal, creating an eerie whistling noise as they wandered around the massive boulders along the bottom of the canal. The dark entrances of caves lined their path, some at ground level, others a meter or more up the face of the canal walls.
"What do you think we'll find?" asked Jordan.
"Twigs and bird droppings, likely. But if we are stranded here for long, it would be good to know if any of the indigenous life is edible."
Dray pulled out her binoculars and scanned the visible portions of the canal walls. She saw nothing of interest. She turned to give the binoculars to Jordan when she saw movement along the boulders to their left. She put a finger to her lip and then pointed. Jordan turned in time to see a small, pale creature scramble behind a rock.
"Was that bipedal?" Dray asked in a whisper.
Jordan nodded as she crept forward, with Dray following. Silently, they moved to the boulder and peaked around the side. The small biped sat on the other side of the boulder, staring up at Jordan with large black eyes. Closer to the creature now, Dray realized its pale skin was covered in iridescent, thin fur.
Jordan kneeled down and signaled Dray to follow. "Did you bring any snacks?" she asked.
Dray pulled out some dry crackers and handed them to Jordan. With the patience of someone coaxing a stray animal home, Jordan sprinkled the ground between her and the biped with crackers. It stared at her with over sized eyes, then inched closer. Picking up the first cracker, it sniffed it, and then a tiny silver tongue flicked out and licked the cracker. The creature emitted a series of clicks and whistles, and then munched on the cracker.
Jordan smiled as she moved closer. The creature watched her for a moment, and then shuffled up and sat beside Jordan.
"Figures," said Dray. "You could charm anything."
Voices from further down along the canal startled them all. The creature trembled and chattered faster, looking to Jordan for what Dray assumed was protection. Dray signaled for Jordan to stay put, and then she made her way silently down the canal toward the voices. As she neared, she realized they were human voices, and she relaxed. She considered walking back to Jordan when she recognized Carson's distinct voice.
"We should finish them off," said Carson, his voice pitched high and shaky.
Dray crouched low and made her way closer. She lay flat on the ground and peered around the edge of a boulder. Carson and Petros stood over the corpse of an adult version of the creature that sat with Jordan. Hovering over the still form were two more of its offspring.
"They're just babies," said Petros.
Carson pointed his strafer at the nearest of the small creatures. His hands shook.
Dray stood up from her hiding spot. "What have you done, Carson?"
Carson jumped, and then pointed his strafer at Dray. She dove behind the boulder as the laser fire crackled overhead. She bolted back the way she came, ducking behind boulders and over rocks as Carson fired at her. As she came within sight of Jordan, she shouted, "Grab the baby and run!"
Jordan scooped up the frightened creature and ran along the canal. Dray caught up with her and pulled her through an opening in the canal wall that joined it with a different path. They scrambled through heavy, dry brush as the creature chirped and wined in Jordan's arms. Dray scanned the canal walls, searching for a possible defensive position. She unstrapped the strafer at her side and risked a look back along their path. She could hear the two senior cadets shouting behind them, but no one as yet had come through the crevice they'd taken. If Carson and Petros climbed up to higher ground, she and Jordan would be easy targets in the narrow canal.
"Head for that cave," said Dray, pointing at a dark opening ten meters ahead.
Jordan scrambled up the loose gravel that led to the cave opening. Dray holstered her weapon and took Jordan's free hand. She pulled Jordan up the slippery slope, sliding once and muffling a curse. They crawled into the dark cave, Jordan and the creature huddling in the back while Dray pulled her weapon and peered out the cave opening. A curve in the canal kept them out of open view as Dray watched for signs of Carson and Petros. After a few moments of tense silence, she left her post to join Jordan.
"I can't see or hear them," she said.
"Who was it?"
"Carson and Petros. From the looks of it, they killed this baby's mother and were about to slaughter its siblings."
Jordan instinctively held the creature closer. Its whimpering subsided, turning to a low rumble, like a purring kitten. Dray looked down to see the creatures eyes closed, its small clawed hands clinging to Jordan's dusty shirt.
"You do have a way with wild things," said Dray with a smile.
"I tamed you, didn't I?" said Jordan.
Dray stifled a laugh as she crawled back to the cave front. She pulled out her binoculars and scanned their surroundings. No sign of the other two cadets. She leaned back against the cave wall, holding her strafer across her lap and watching for any sign of movement. She wasn't sure how long she'd sat there before Jordan joined her.
"Where's the baby?" asked Dray.
"Sound asleep in the back, near as I can tell."
Jordan ran her fingers through Dray's short hair. "You're quite the hero, you know."
Dray chuckled. "Not really. Mostly, I just stood up and painted a bulls-eye on my chest."
Jordan laughed. "Very smooth."
"That's me, smooth." Dray put down her weapon and slipped a hand behind Jordan's head, pulling her closer. "I'm persistent, too."
Jordan leaned into her. Dray's pulse quickened when she felt Jordan's warm lips pressed on hers. She wrapped an arm around Jordan's back and then lowered them both down onto the cave's dirt floor. Something in the back of her thoughts screamed that this wasn't the place or the time, but mind felt oddly free, and her body wanted this. Dray sighed as Jordan's body pressed down on top of her. She felt Jordan's strong legs intertwine with hers.
Jordan lowered her head and traced her lips along Dray's jaw, ending with a nip at Dray's ear. A bolt of desire electrified Dray. She pushed her leg between Jordan's thighs and felt Jordan press against her. She pulled at Jordan's shirt until she could slide a hand under it, feeling Jordan's warm skin under her fingers.
Jordan moaned as Dray caressed her back. Dray rolled them over, positioning herself on top. She lowered her head to brush her lips along the edge of Jordan's collar. She lifted a trembling hand to cup Jordan's firm breast beneath the thin material. Jordan pulled her closer, thrusting her hips into Dray's thigh. Dray pressed her own throbbing need hard against Jordan.
"Touch me," Jordan whispered, stroking Dray's arm and lowering Dray's hand.
Dray shifted her leg from between Jordan's thighs and replaced it with her hand. Jordan arched up to meet her, pressing herself against Dray's palm. Dray wanted her, wanted to touch her, undress her, but not here, not in the dirty cave. She moved her hand, but Jordan held it.
"Harder," Jordan moaned.
Jordan wanted it, wanted her, and she wouldn't deny Jordan anything. Dray pushed against her, feeling Jordan's heat through the fabric of her trousers. Jordan's building excitement filled her, drawing her own desire along with it. She rocked against Jordan's thigh as her fingers circled harder against Jordan. Jordan kissed Dray's neck, and then moaned louder as her body trembled under Dray's urgent fingers. Dray's desire rose in time to Jordan's, their two bodies working together, rising together to peak in an explosive climax.
Dray collapsed beside Jordan, her heart pounding, and her breath coming in short rasps. She felt strange, lightheaded. Jordan curled up and draped her arm across Dray's stomach.
"Thank you," she said, her eyes closed and a soft smile curving her lips.
"My pleasure," said Dray, grinning. Her head felt fuzzy. She yawned.
"Hmm. Time for a nap?" asked Jordan.
"I'm not sure we should." Dray's eyes drifted shut. She felt groggy, like she'd drank too much alcohol. Maybe Jordan just had that affect on her, she thought as her tangled thoughts drifted off to sleep.
To be continued in part 8.
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