1976AD – Nevada, USA
Matt’s rusty blonde hair had flecks of platinum. She’d never noticed before and, as she touched the hairs, her fingers accidentally brushed his cheek. He turned his head towards her, frowning tiredly.
“What is it?” Celeste asked. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know if this car is the right choice. It stands out too much.”
“Oh.” She looked in the rearview mirror. There was nothing behind them, just miles and miles of open desert. A dust cloud seemed to be blowing across the road a few miles back. She dismissed it and kept driving. She touched his face again, exploring the wrinkles under his eyes and at the corner of his mouth. “We’re in the middle of nowhere. I think we’ll be fine.”
His breathing labored, he leaned back in the seat and struggled to keep his eyes open.
“Why don’t you just rest? Everything’s going to be all right. They don’t know which was we went and Megyn won’t tell them we took the car. Just try to relax and get some sleep.”
He shifted uncomfortably in the car’s bucket seat, groaning. Celeste’s stomach closed into a tight ball.
“Are you alright?”
“You’ve bounced back from the transporter malfunction way better than I have. I still feel wrecked.”
“You got it worse than I did,” Celeste said. “There was barely enough power to get you to Earth.”
“Most of me.”
“Yes,” Celeste said. “Most of you. Are you still hydrating?”
He lifted a plastic bottle and wiggled it over his lap. “Drinking endlessly,” he said. “But I just can’t quench my thirst.”
“You’ll feel better eventually. Megyn’s a nurse. She would know.”
“Sure,” he breathed. “I don’t know how we’re ever going to get back to the ship. This is nineteen seventy-six. People don’t just jump in a bus and take a ride there.”
“We don’t need to get to the moon,” Celeste said. “If we find a way to contact Oss, she’ll come back for us”—
There was an ear-splitting crash. She felt her hands leaving the steering wheel, her body slammed hard into the door panel. They had been struck from behind. Matt’s window had turned into tiny fragments of glass that flew around the inside of the TR7. Celeste glimpsed a heavy-looking black vehicle practically touching the TR7’s rear end. She felt the TR7 sliding to the right, losing traction. There was another shunt from behind as the black car struck a second time. She felt the TR7 sliding, its rear end fishtailing. The TR7 seemed to ignore her when she turned the steering wheel left, then right. She steered the car against the skid, bringing the TR7’s rear end back into alignment. It only lasted a moment. The black car impacted once more and the steering wheel jerked out of her hands again.
“I’m losing it,” she said, “sorry, sweetie! Hold on!”
The TR7 swerved off the road, kicking up dust as the tires dug deep into the dry desert sand. The wheels skipped away from the baking tarmac and into loose dirt. Celeste continued to push the brake pedal into the floor as the TR7 careered over the uneven ground. Celeste pushed the gear stick into third and then second. The car began to spin out of control.
The pursuing car rammed the TR7 again. The gears made a horrendous crunching sound, the stick jerking out of Celeste’s hand. In a cloud of dust and smoke, the TR7 came to a shuddering halt.
Matt turned to her, his eyes wide. “What the fuck?”
“Stay here.” Celeste opened her door. Two men, eyes concealed behind thick black sunglasses, were running from the black sedan towards the TR7. They pulled weapons from leather holsters fastened tight across their matching bleached denim shirts, each man’s features showing the same grim, determined, expression. They were government agents – the ones Megyn had warned them about, not the friendly ones led by the man called Styles.
“Guns!” Matt shouted.
“I know.” Celeste was out of the car, automatically flipping the door closed behind her. “Stay in the car!”
Celeste ignored Matt’s plea. The nearest agent had a scar on his right cheek, extending from just below his eye and around the curve of his jaw to the right dimple of his chin. He raised a pistol towards her.
“Okay, Miss. Just take it easy.” Scarface said. He was of breath, but calm. The weapon was steady in his hand. The second agent – an older man with slightly greying oily black hair – aimed a similar weapon at the car. Scarface licked his lips nervously “We just want to ask you some questions.”
She stopped moving, staring at the gun. “What do you want?”
“I’m Agent Rivers,” Scarface said. “My colleague is Agent O’Rourke. Miss. Foster, we don’t mean you any harm. We just want to ask you some questions.”
As Scarface spoke, the man called O’Rourke stepped to the right. O’Rourke was sighting his weapon carefully. Matt was getting out of the TR7, his movements betraying the obvious pain he was in. O’Rourke was drawing a bead on Matt with his weapon.
“Matt, look out!” Celeste watched the projectile leave O’Rourke’s weapon; a silver dart travelling slower than she expected – just over one hundred and forty-eight miles per hour – and something she could dodge easily. Matt didn’t even see it coming. “No!”
The silver metal dart hit Matt’s shoulder muscle just to the left of his neck as he was getting out the TR7. Matt looked down at his neck in surprise, then glared briefly at O’Rourke before collapsing heavily to the ground.
Celeste whirled round. “Matt!” She rushed back to the TR7. “What did you do to my husband?”
O’Rourke ignored her, breaking open his weapon and reloading it. Celeste felt something stinging her left arm. Scarface had shot her when she wasn’t looking and a dart was sticking to her forearm just below the wrist. She plucked it out immediately, bending to help Matt. But her knees were suddenly weak and she collapsed on all fours, the world around her beginning to spin.
The sedative was fast acting. Celeste was already beginning to lose consciousness. Her immune system began to aggressively eliminate the drug. Nauseous and passing out, she watched Scarface walk towards her.
“You’ll both sleep for a while,” Scarface said. “When you wake up we’ll have a chat.”
“Careful,” O’Rourke’s gravelly voice warned. “She should already be out.”
“She’s on her way,” Scarface said. “You worry too much. This is EZ-23, remember? I’ve seen this stuff put a moose to sleep in thirty”—
Celeste made her move. Scarface was the nearest and she went for him, springing up like a cat from her haunches. She grabbed him by the shirt – the material heavy and thick – and before his surprised mouth could make a sound she whirled him round, throwing him twenty feet back the way he’d come. O’Rourke fired his dart gun a second time and Celeste twisted her body in the air as she jumped at him, the dart missed her by a few inches. Her body slammed into O’Rourke, pushing him back as Scarface finally impacted the dry ground, slamming into the hood of the big black car. Celeste punched O’Rourke’s face in rapid, repeating, blows. She held back her strength to prevent killing the agent. As her final punch landed, O’Rourke’s tranquilizer dart shattered the TR7’s passenger window, showers of glass raining down onto Matt.
The tiny bits of glass danced in the early morning sunlight. Celeste found herself watching the translucent crystalline fragments, mesmerized by the shapes and colors. She was lost for a full quarter of a second before she shook her head to chase away the thoughts. O’Rourke tried to grab her neck – she hadn’t hit him hard enough – and she moved quickly to avoid his grasp. She curled her legs around O’Rourke’s waist and pulled her groin into his abdomen, her body sticking to his. She punched his face – harder this time – as they struggled on the ground together, using her speed and agility to avoid O’Rourke’s furious attempts to hit back. Her tiny fists moved in a blur, striking at each eye before landing a third punch directly on his nose. She knocked his senses out with a hammer blow to the side of his temple. She detached her legs from O’Rourke’s limp body and jumped to her feet.
Celeste ran for Matt, covering the distance faster than any Olympic gold medalist. She gathered Matt’s limp body in her arms – he wasn’t breathing – and rolled him onto his side. She touched her fingers to the side of his neck, searching for a pulse and not finding one. She slapped his face hard. “Matt! Matt, you’ve got to wake up!”
There was a small explosion behind her, back in the direction of the big black car. Celeste felt the ripples of the shockwave. She whirled to see Scarface with a different, snub-barreled, weapon aimed at her, the gun flaring an angry ball of flame and gas expanding rapidly. The deadly bullet was on its way, much faster than the sedative darts and impossible to avoid. It had already crossed half the distance to her delicate body.
There was nothing Celeste could do. The bullet would enter between her shoulder and the middle of her back, bursting through her skin and tearing through flesh before smashing through four of five of the lower vertebrae in her spine.
Celeste twisted away from the projectile, knowing her actions were futile. Scarface was going to kill her. She had promised Matt that everything was going to be all right, and she had been wrong. Her mind raced in terror, her consciousness rattling around like a frightened bird trapped in a cage. The bullet was closer, coming to tear into her body – tear into her very life. This was going to be the end of everything.
2125AD – Delton, Enrilea
Dawn had been encroaching on the scene for the past twenty minutes, the stars almost invisible now in the cold, morning sky. There were no clouds to cover them, just the faint haze of mist that seemed to always hang over the village in the early hours. The bright Apex star was still visible along with most of the stars that formed the constellation that had been named, as the Gods had intended, The Arrow. Apex was the brightest star in the cluster and could be seen, albeit faintly, for most of the day. Only in the summertime, was the brightest star in the Enrilean sky difficult to find.
It was cold in the Kirkyard, but Jaxx was used to it. He’d grown up here, in this small village forgotten by time.
There had been dancing at the Keeley and heavy drinking from Keer Vammin. Vammin had laughed and danced, never mentioning the morning to follow. He’d told the same old jokes and his comrades had laughed dutifully, enjoying their friend this one last time. Jaxx had hovered on the periphery of the noisy celebrations, watching his friend dancing at his own wake. The party had lasted for five hours, and at no time was there any sign that Vammin was going to make any attempt at escaping. Jaxx himself had drunk little, but it had been extremely difficult. Vammin had seemed to toast just about everything and everyone he’d ever known. Despite his reluctance to imbibe, Jaxx had gradually consumed six flagons of the cloudy cider Vammin’s mother had provided.
Now, the music was over, the dancing was done, and the next–final – chapter in Vammin’s story was beginning. Jaxx shivered in his ankle length, dark leather coat. He kicked thoughtfully at one of the ancient tombstones, staring at the weathered piece of rock. Time and the elements had eroded the memory inscribed there. The long, flat slab of rock at his feet could have been covering anyone or anything. It seemed… pointless – just like Vammin’s death.
“You’re really going to do this?” Jaxx asked. “When you could jump the wall there, head through the woods and be lost in minutes?”
“I’m sorry, Haz,” Vammin said, “but if it’s any consolation, this is way harder for me than it is for you. I don’t mind being judged. I’m ready now.”
“You’ve already been judged, but it’s not too late. You can still get out of here. I’ll help you. I have access to Firebird’s tactical station. You can hide out. I’ll look after you. I can let you know when it’s safe to leave the system. I can get you out of this. You could stow away on a freighter and hide out on Ellasam, or the Jallyme colonies.”
“Haz,” Keer Vammin touched his friend’s shoulder. “I know what you think about all this. I know that you don’t share my beliefs. But I’m old enough to make my own choices and I know what I want to do. Please, let me enjoy my deluded fantasy of an honorable afterlife. I’d miss my shot at transcendence if I ran away. Despite what I did, I know I’ll make it.”
“Make it where? To a place with the Gods?” Jaxx scoffed. “Good luck with that.”
“If your father was still alive, you wouldn’t use such a tone.”
“Crysst!” Jaxx snarled. “Don’t bring him into this, please. If you’re prepared to throw your life away for this foolish girl, so be it, but don’t pretend that you’re aspiring to a seat next to the Crystal Warriors!”
Hazer Jaxx nodded somberly. He wanted to say more, but with an effort, he managed to stay quiet. He knew from painful experience how inflexible Vammin Keer’s religious beliefs were. Jaxx reached his left arm around Vammin’s shoulder and pulled the shorter man towards him. Vammin shivered as Jaxx held him.
“I killed her, Jaxx,” Vammin said. “It’s as they said in the trial. She was so young, so beautiful and so innocent. I was drunk. I forced myself on her and she told me to stop. I was so full of myself, Jaxx, so enraged that she’d reject me.” He shook his head. “I only remember hitting her the one time, Jaxx. That’s the honest truth.”
Jaxx couldn’t bear to hear anything more of the story. Vammin’s temper had always gotten the better of him, and now it had ruined his life just as much as the temptress who’d rejected his advances.
“None of it matters now,” Jaxx said. “What’s done is done. It was a mistake.”
“It wasn’t a mistake. I deserve this.”
Jaxx offered his right hand. He wanted to speak but couldn’t think of anything to say. Vammin clasped the hand tightly. The two young men held each other again. Vammin closed his eyes, fighting back tears, one or two squeezed through, trickling down his cheek onto Jaxx’s. Behind them, the heavy gallows creaked in the soft morning wind. Jaxx glanced briefly at the thick, black, rope. He quickly looked back into his childhood hero’s watering eyes.
“Nobody deserves this,” Jaxx said. “This is cruel and… barbaric, something from another time.”
Jaxx didn’t want to stop. He had so much more to say about the stupid religion and the archaic beliefs clung to by the decomposing corpses at the core of the Empire. But the words that would spew from his lips would not wake his friend from the delusion that would soon see him hang. It was time to stop. Time to let go.
“I’ll see you at the end of The Arrow,” Jaxx said, the words catching in his throat.
“I’ll have a table prepared for you,” Vammin replied, “but take your time getting to it, please. You have a lot of good life ahead of you Hazer. Don’t squander it the way I did.”
An hour passed. A small crowd assembled in the Kirk yard. The Keeper said a few words about the Crystal warrior, Crystarr, and the great purge of the weak and the insufficient. They were words Jaxx had heard a thousand times before, words he could never remember believing, no matter how many times they’d made his mind ache with intellectual agony.
The dead girl’s mother did not react at all, even when the trapdoor opened and Vammin jerked hard on the end of the rope. Jaxx couldn’t look away. Vammin’s right hand – now bent at an impossible angle – reflexively floundered in the direction of the knot that had broken his neck. After about thirty seconds, the arm slid nonchalantly down to his side and that was the end of a young and valuable life. Vammin’s feet twitched a little in the weighted boots Jaxx had loaned him. The bereaved mother wandered away. If she was at all satisfied by the death of her daughter’s murderer, it didn’t show. The three village elders wandered off next, followed by the rest of the small group of onlookers. Eventually, Jaxx was standing alone, staring at his dead friend’s face. There was silence save for the early morning birds gleefully mocking the scene.
“Your friend must be very proud of you.”
The quiet voice startled him. He turned on his heel, but what he saw choked his response in his throat. The young woman’s stance was confident and nonchalant. Her eyes were an unusual color also, a mixture of blues and greens that looked like the sky and ocean combined into one. Her pale skin was youthful looking, making her in her early or mid-twenties. Her left hand rested on her hip and the right hung loosely by her side. Her hair shone in the morning sun, strands of gold and orange, unlike anything he’d ever seen before on Enrilea or Relathon. He was almost mesmerized by it for a second, the long tresses seeming to have a life of their own and drifting around the heart shaped face, almost hiding her sea green eyes. Her clothing was far too colorful and bright, a style he’d never witnessed besides on intelligence footage shown of the Relathon people. She was wearing pants, like a man, instead of a skirt. That was something only the Relathons did. The pants were a strange faded blue color, the material heavy and contrasting the light, orange and pink floral-patterned shirt. Over her shoulder, she carried an oversized brown leather bag which she held tightly to her hip. The bag was made of soft leather with a bright gold clasp. On her wrist, she wore a very unusual looking chronometer.
Right away, Jaxx knew this person did not belong here. No Enrilean woman had hair that color, or dared to wear it so long and to dress so… flamboyantly. Her pale skin, too, was out of place. Enrilean women did not hold themselves with the same confidence and flair. Everything about her was just wrong. His first instinct was that she belonged, somehow, to a group sent from Relathon, but visitors from the second planet were always escorted by an armed guard. This stranger was obviously alone.
“Are you a performer?” he asked, looking her up and down with open contempt. “A clown, perhaps?”
“I’m nobody of any real consequence, but my name is Celeste.”
“Celeste,” she repeated. “C-E-L-E-S-T-E.”
“A strange name.” Jaxx said, “where are you from?”
She gave only the thinnest of smiles as a response and circled around him with the light footfalls of a cat. Perhaps she didn’t like to see Vammin’s body dangling in the yard. Jaxx moved aside, allowing her to pass in front of him. She was wearing a fragrance he couldn’t identify, something as alien as the woman herself. She kept walking and for Jaxx considered drawing his pistol. He decided against the move and watched as she stepped from the grass to the gravel path.
“It’s cold,” she said, “can we go inside? I’d like to see the inside of the church.”
“It’s not a church,” he grunted, “there are no churches here.”
“Of course,” she said, “but can we go in?”
“The doors are always open,” Jaxx said, “you can go inside if you wish to.”
“Will you come with me?”
“I’d like to find out more about you, Hazer,” Celeste said. “You’re not what I expected.”
“I’m not what you expected?” Jaxx laughed. “You’re a Relathon spy, then? You’re not a very good one?”
Ignoring him, she pushed through the heavy door into the old building. There was no-one in the Kirk. The new Kirk Keeper had disappeared somewhere following Vammin’s execution. Jaxx knew the middle-aged man; he’d been a subordinate to his father for many years and had all but taken over the Kirk’s duties in the last years of his father’s life. Jaxx guessed that the new Keeper was avoiding him and he was agreeable to that. Nobody else had cared to come inside the building following the execution. Jaxx and the blonde-haired woman were alone in the ancient building. Surrounded by stones, assembled by hand hundreds of years ago and gazed upon by an unseeing, life-sized, effigy of a Crystal Warrior.
“It’s a beautiful building,” Celeste said. “I love the stone, the stained-glass windows.” She hesitated. “We have churches just like this. I don’t go to them, but—”
“It’s a Kirk.” He slammed his hand down heavily on the wooden bench, his palm stinging in a sharp protest of pain.
“Yes, it means the same. My husband taught me that. Kirk is a church of—”
“You have to be silent,” Jaxx interrupted, forcing control to his voice. “Or I will silence you.”
There was a framed photo at the near end of the church. It was Jaxx’s father holding his son’s hand with a firm grasp. His other hand touched Jaxx’s broad, uniformed, shoulder with pride. Father and son’s eyes were almost meeting, but not quite. They each were looking at a spot slightly above and to the right of the other’s shoulder. Jaxx remembered the closeness at the moment the photograph was taken, and how very rare those moments had been.
“This is my father’s Kirk,” Jaxx said, not turning away from the picture. “You need to show a little respect. If you don’t understand how to show respect, you need to close your dammt mouth.”
“Your father is very, very proud of you.” Celeste’s sea green eyes twinkled as she spoke. “You can see it in the way he looks at you, so plain for everyone to see. He doesn’t try to hide it, really. If he does, it’s only to spare your blushes. He’s pleased with what you decided to do with your life, even though you didn’t obey his wishes.” She smiled faintly. “He loves you–always has. You were always loved.” She seemed to finish her statement on a curious note of near wonderment. “Yes, you were always loved. Your father protected you from… everything.”
“My father was the Kirk Keeper, the nearest thing to a Government Enforcer for a village this small. For years my father was certain I’d take his side in the Kirk, but my path led me elsewhere. It’s a journey I’ve never had cause to regret, though I often regret the great haste with which I took flight from my home. But if I’d stayed longer, I would never have been able to leave.”
Jaxx didn’t really think the last part was true; he could not have imagined staying in the little village longer than he did–even now. But he didn’t correct himself and let the statement hang in the air.
“You joined the Imperial Academy,” Celeste said. “You thought that whatever you were looking for was out there somewhere. It certainly wasn’t here, was it?”
“No.” he breathed.
“You were hoping to find the truth, Hazer Jaxx.”
“That’s right,” Jaxx said, “but how can you know this?”
She ignored his question and stared intently through him. Jaxx felt uneasy at how deeply she was examining him. He touched his weapon once more, this time feeling a calming reassurance from the smooth wooden grip.
“The Arrow has always fascinated me,” Jaxx said, “but doesn’t everyone wonder when they see it in the night sky? Do you think people consider the truth behind their beliefs?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you know there are still people who think The Arrow is nothing more than a random arrangement of stars?”
Celeste said nothing.
His eyes seemed to lose their sparkle, but it returned briskly and he relaxed a little.
“You’re a joker,” Jaxx said.
“You want to reach the end of The Arrow. Since you were a child, you wondered what was there. Soon, you’re going to be captain of your own ship. You hope you’ll be the one who discovers a path to your gods.”
“That’s not right,” Jaxx said, “not all of it, at least.”
“A ship is waiting for me, yes; I’ll get to name it in the final year at the Academy and then it will be mine. But there won’t be any exploring or adventuring, not like you’d think. I’ll go where they ask, do what they say.”
“Do you think your spacecraft will take you to the home of your Gods? If it does, will they open their arms to welcome you?”
Jaxx turned from the strange woman and headed for the first bench. He took a seat there and gestured for Celeste to follow. She moved reluctantly, her eyes moving to his pistol which the palm of his right hand now rested on. She sat next to him, leaving a half meter of space. She stared ahead, looking at the framed picture or the Crystal Warrior’s effigy at the front of the Kirk. He considered her question again and formulated an answer. His own words surprised him when they came out.
“Do I believe that?” he mused. “Not anymore. When I was younger. more naïve? Definitely. Now? I only hope that my duties will overlap my aspirations.”
Jaxx felt cold. In that moment, his mask of politeness fell away. He was tired of playing this game. There was something wrong with this woman, and he was going to find out what it was.
“Who are you? What are you doing here? Where did you come from?”
“I’m a traveler.”
“Where have you traveled from?”
“I can’t tell you that.” she said, “that’s my special secret.”
“Your special secret?”
“One of my special secrets; one of many, I suppose.”
Jaxx wondered momentarily if the woman sitting beside him was insane. He looked more closely at her hair. He reached out to touch it, the thin, curly locks falling lightly through his fingers before she pulled her head away with a distinct tut-tut sound. She smiled coldly at him.
“That’s bad manners, even for an Enrilean.”
“Where are you from?” he said, “I would like you to tell me.”
“Somewhere far, far away. Somewhere I hope you’ll never find, but you always do.”
“I don’t like answers like that,” Jaxx said. “Riddles and nonsense are just lies that insult my intelligence, not to mention the religious significance of these grounds.”
Her eyes darkened slightly and she looked coldly back into Jaxx’s.
“I never understood your religion. At least, I could never understand why so many of you would believe such things, especially those who aren’t fond of riddles and nonsense.”
Her words hung in the Kirk yard. Jaxx felt like he would explode with rage. He’d never heard such blasphemy.
“Are you some kind of mad person?” he asked. “You say such things here? While my closest friend dangles fit for nothing but the birds to peck his dammt eyes out? I could break your neck right now and I’d be within my rights. How dare you—”
“Do you want to know the answers?” she said, interrupting his rant. “Because I came here to tell you the truth. I want you to know what it all means. I want you to know about the real Gods, and the others murdered by—”
“Enough!” Jaxx bellowed. “I really do believe that you are insane, but if you say another word I will put a very untidy hole in the middle of your head.”
She slipped her hand casually back into the bag by her right hip. There was something wrong with the set of her eyes. Instinctively, his left hand pinned her wrist to the bench. He held her there, with a painfully tight grip, as his free hand pulled the handbag away from her. She gasped in surprise, genuine fear in her eyes.
“This isn’t a chance encounter. I’m also beginning to think that you are from Relathon. And I’m beginning to think that I’ll find a weapon inside this unusual bag of yours. I was happy to allow the enforcers to—”
She moved in a swift blur of motion. He was caught off guard by the speed of her movement and she slipped free of his grip. She reached for the bag. He tossed it away in a reflex action. Jaxx produced his own weapon from beneath his tunic–a four shot revolver he’d owned for a decade. He held the small gun in his right hand, pointed out towards the strange and dangerous woman. His left hand was held up, the fingers spread outwards.
“If you move again, I promise it will be the last thing you do.”
Celeste didn’t move. She was staring blankly at Jaxx’s weapon. “I’ve had a few final acts in my time. I don’t remember this being one of them. Now, before we get down to business, do you want to know how wrong you’ve been about everything? Do you want to know the truth about your Gods?”
He saw red and, surprising himself, Jaxx brought the heavy grip of his pistol down towards her wild-eyed face. Celeste dodged to the left away from the pistol and Jaxx knew he’d made a mistake. He was off balance and had given away the advantage. No more games. He moved his weight away from his quarry and brought the gun up to shoot her. Celeste’s wrist smacked away his pistol and two firm hands pushed hard against his chest. Her strength was impossible and he found himself flying back over the empty benches. The gun was tight in his hand as he slammed into a bench, four rows towards the rear of the Kirk. The back of his head slammed hard against the varnished timber and he saw stars, but there was no way he’d let go of his weapon. He sprung away from the heavy wood, rolling into a combat stance. He brought the pistol up, thrusting it out towards the running woman.
Celeste was running for her handbag and the fallen 2008 Walther PPS 9-millimeter automatic pistol. As she reached it, Jaxx fired his first shot. She didn’t hear the shot or see the bullet, but she felt the pain as the slug of lead tore into her back, just below her left shoulder. The impact was like a hard punch, but the pain didn’t register yet. She knew it would, but kept running, grabbing the handbag with her right hand and scrambling for her own weapon. Jaxx’s second bullet hammered against the Kirk wall, losing itself in the soft stone.
Celeste had the PPS in her right hand and the handbag was falling to the ground again. Jaxx fired his third bullet and it struck just above her pelvis. The bullet tore through her left kidney and her stomach before exiting to bury itself in the blood spattered white double doors. She continued to run, heading out of the Kirk. Then, like a solid wall, the effect of Jaxx’s third bullet announced itself. The pain was phenomenal. She couldn’t ignore it or switch it off. She commanded her body to keep running, but she stumbled, almost falling. She felt Jaxx’s fourth bullet whizz by.
Four bullets, Enrilean Type 2 Quartermaster pistol, four shots fired… he’s out… he’s reloading.
She ran out the door, almost tripping over the low stone step outside. She ran headlong over the gravel, imagining Jaxx reloading his weapon. Looking over her shoulder, she saw the sickening red mess of her blood on the door. The pain from her wound was mind-numbing. She staggered through the Kirk yard towards the gate, Vammin’s body dangling behind her. Every step was nightmarishly slow, but she couldn’t concentrate on much besides the intense pain running through her body.
The pain radiating from her entire midsection made her want to scream out, but she held it inside. Holding a deep breath, she stopped running and turned quickly towards the Kirk. She leveled the PPS and crouched down. She could see Jaxx running towards her and aimed directly at him. A lightning strike of pain made her hand tremble, spoiling her aim at the first crucial squeeze. The bullet stopped Jaxx in his tracks as it whizzed past him. As she released a second, wildly inaccurate shot, Jaxx ducked for cover behind one of the crumbling headstones in the Kirk yard.
Celeste screamed at herself to move. She fired again, Jaxx ducking back further. Picking herself up, she sprinted through the gate. Moments later, Jaxx’s heavy caliber revolver shattered her nerves like thunder. She kept running, heading for the woods on the right. She was losing blood fast. Jaxx fired again, but the report of his weapon sounded further away. She stopped for a moment, panting. Focusing her will, she tried to stem the flow of blood from her wounds; but the pain was too extreme. Her blood continued to flow. She sprinted on, leaving the stone path for the wet muddy path that would take her through the woods and back towards the construction site where the TR7 was hidden. She ran through the mud, gasping for breath and crying with each wave of explicit, inescapable, agony. Her body was failing her, beginning to slip and stumble in the mud.
The wild garlic–Farlla, the Enrileans called it–was growing thick on either side of her as she sloshed through the mud. Someone shouted not far behind her, somewhere on the path. It didn’t sound like Jaxx. There were other voices, a woman screaming and the distant sound of men giving orders and arguing, Jaxx’s voice was chief amongst them.
“She’s mine,” Jaxx snarled. “Stay behind me!”
There was a whooshing in her ears and suddenly her strength was draining fast. She stumbled another five steps before her body began to fail her. Gasping in fear, she had the presence of mind to jump into the wild garlic before her legs no longer responded to her will.
She lay there, breathing shallowly, barely concealed by the white flowers and green leaves. She couldn’t move anymore. She lay on her back, helpless, staring up at the canopy of heavy green leaves. Jaxx’s footprints sloshed nearby. He was coming. She wondered if he’d see her from the path. She’d know when he fired a bullet into her brain.
You have to get up now. Can’t just lie here like this.
With a final and furious effort of will, Celeste managed to ignore the pain. Something in her brain had changed, she realized. A moment later, she felt her strength was returning. She managed to get to her knees and she could see Jaxx a short distance away. She crouched in the long green grass and weeds, hiding, but Jaxx saw her movement and whirled round with his weapon ready to fire.
He fired the first shot before he even had the weapon lined up. He was wading through the wild Farlla towards her, limping slightly. She scrambled on her hands and knees through mud and grass, the bullet whizzing past her ear. There were shouts from the Kirk. Three or four voices, some nearer than others. Jaxx, distracted, slipped on the mud and loosed a second bullet into the air. She heard him curse, fumbling with his weapon. For a moment she considered shooting again, but there were figures approaching, voices growing louder. She had to get away before it was too late.
Taking a deep breath, Celeste began to trudge through the grass back towards the slimy mud path.
The Quartermaster’s third bullet had refused to fire. Jaxx struggled with the weapon. He could hear the girl moving, running again.
“Jaxx?” A feeble voice called from behind; the new Keeper, struggling into the woods on his fragile legs. Jaxx waved a hand towards him and the other, more able-bodied men behind. “Stay back! I’ll take care of her!”
Jaxx turned from the old man and sloshed back onto the path. The woman had managed to get ahead of him and was almost out of sight along the winding downhill path. The way she was moving, he knew she was injured. He found his hand shaking as he ejected the four spent bullets from his pistol. He was almost out of bullets, but at the back of his belt, he had one more speed loader. He plucked the device out and slid the bullets into the revolver, dropping the empty device into the mud.
She disappeared around a corner, ducking behind one of the largest trees in the small area of woodland. She was heading for the construction site. He wondered if an ambush was waiting for him there. He pulled back the Quartermaster’s hammer, readying the weapon to fire. He reached the large tree and saw her there, crouched at the construction yard fence, the strange handgun in both her hands. Jaxx ducked as she aimed her weapon towards him and squeezed off six bullets in rapid succession. All of the bullets missed him. When he looked round the side of the tree, she was gone.
He bolted towards the gate, keeping his weapon in front of his body and ready to fire. The strange woman was pulling some kind of covering from a gleaming, flame-red, object located behind several massive bags of gravel situated on the nearest edge of the new construction yard. Jaxx realized that the shining object was a vehicle; it was sitting on wheels with black rubber tires, glass windows fitted to the front and sides. A motif with the letters T-R and the number 7 were boldly displayed in black on the dipping front.
Celeste tossed the heavy covering onto the ground in front of the odd conveyance. Jaxx stopped at the fence, breathing hard and exhausted now. The pain from his wound had finally announced itself and he groaned loudly, weakening. He pushed through the freshly cut hole in the fence and started towards the brightly colored object. He ran in a crouching, painful trot towards the strange craft, the pistol clutched to his chest. Celeste was disappearing into a door that had opened on one side. He raised the heavy handgun as the vehicle’s engine came to life with a high-pitched whine. The sound quickly became an inaudible ultrasonic shriek and Jaxx sensed what was about to happen. He stopped running and drew a breath, steadying the revolver in both shaking hands. He could see the woman behind the window as her hand pulled the door shut. He aimed his weapon right at Celeste’s face and squeezed the trigger, too close to miss. The powerful revolver bucked in his hand, but the bullet bounced harmlessly off the glass inches from her face. Then, before he could think further, the vehicle shot straight up into the sky. It moved almost faster than he could see. He looked up to follow it, but the vehicle was already out of sight.