It is sometime in the future or, perhaps, the past. The planet Organi is under attack by the mercenary forces of the Alliance, a conglomerate of mining interests that want to exploit the natural resources of Organi just as theyíve done on countless other planets throughout the universe.
Organiís defenders are the Mainlanders who inhabit the planetís west hemisphere, an area dominated by a solid mass of land stretching from one pole to the other. And the Islanders who inhabit the east hemisphere, a large oceanic area dotted with thousands of islands none bigger than a hundred clicks long. The Mainlanders are a people recently transplanted from their traditional home planet of Retha after eons of abuse and exploitation made it uninhabitable. Yet the Islanders are a people that have called Organi home for hundreds of generations. The two groups are separated not only by their choices to live on opposite sides of the planet but also by their cultures and histories.
Though their differences are strong, the Mainlanders and Islanders have joined forces to form the Confederacy and fight to prevent Organi from being stripped of everything of value and beauty only to be left a barren uninhabitable wasteland.
Thus, as is always true when greed becomes paramount in the hearts of some, a war is fought to protect a way of life.
Once covered by a thick forest of tall pine trees, the Xantrop valley had been home to a multitude of animals living on the valleyís rich foliage or within the pristine waters of the river flowing through it. But the Xantrop River no longer flowed in the channel it had followed since before Organi was populated by the Islanders. Its waters were being diverted into a holding canal where the precious liquid could be suctioned up by Alliance water transports then transported to other planets in the galaxy that had poisoned or otherwise destroyed their own water sources.
The once tranquil valley itself was now an unnatural abyss, stripped of itís beautiful forest by the mammoth and highly efficient tree processing machines the Alliance created to ravage forests leaving nothing of value behind. More than five men tall and twenty men long the mobile lumber mills were capable of chopping down more than ten trees at a time, then immediately stripping the trunks of any unwanted limbs and bark which was burned in the machineís furnace. The trunks and usable branches were run through a labyrinth of laser beams that efficiently cut the wood into boards which were then stacked into cargo transports that trailed behind the machines. Operated by robots and powered by the debris-fed furnaces, the processors work non-stop quickly decimating a forest to leave nothing behind but a thick pale of black smoke hanging in the air and deep ruts gouged into the ground by the heavy traction wheels.
Occupying the once lush but now barren valley was Beta II, an Alliance prisoner-of-war camp and home to both Mainlanders and Islanders that had been taken prisoner in battle. Roughly thirty paces long and half as many wide the camp sat in the middle of the deforested valley, surrounded by high mountainous ridges of snow-covered peaks and rocky crags.
Sitting on the steps of her hut, Sergeant Teragleli Arhina reached up to roughly run long fingers through unruly sandy blond hair and gave her scalp a good scratching. She stretched her arms over her head, twisting her back to limber up unused muscles. Life in a prisoner-of-war camp was full of too many long days with little to do and her usually supple body was showing signs of the forced inactivity.
Far in the distance the sergeant could hear a low, unmistakable rumbling. Turning her head to look in the direction of the clearly recognizable sound, she spotted bright flashes of explosions that could only mean one thing Ė another battle was raging. How much longer she wondered could the Confederacy hold out against the seemingly overwhelming Alliance forces. Each battle meant more prisoners for the camp and it was already over-crowded.
Unable to do any more than wonder, Sergeant Arhina stood, turning away from the sights and sounds of the battle to enter her hut, knowing she was in for another long day.
The afternoon calm was shattered by the scream of powerful engines thrusting dozens of Confederacy tasars through the sky. Flying in a tight formation, the airships burst from the low hanging clouds that had been hiding them and roared toward their target. In answer to the tasar attack, missile launchers were pointed skyward and fired as rapidly as the awkward guns allowed.
Captain G. Tarphan Midd, piloting one of the tasars, broke from the rest of the formation in an attempt to knock some of the missiles from the air before they could reach their targets. An expert pilot, she quickly positioned her tasar into a perfect spot to take out the first missiles but when she pressed the button to fire her weapons nothing happened.
"Damn it, Gunney," Captain Midd shouted over her right shoulder. "You have to lock and load the weapons BEFORE I can fire them."
"Iím trying, Captain," a young soldier nervously cried. "But itís my first time doing this."
"I know, Gunney," the captain softened her tone. Combat was not the best place to have to get on the job training but the shortage of qualified gunners made it necessary to place the recruit in the tasarís rear seat on this mission. "Just concentrate on locking in the weapons and let me take care of everything else. Okay?"
"Yes, Captain," the soldier tried to relax by blowing out a long breath.
"Good. Now lock in all the ground rockets we have and DUUCKKK." Captain Midd punched a button on the control panel in front of her causing the tasar to veer sharply to the left. "Damn," she muttered when the radar screen showed she had not avoided the missile locked on her tail. "Gunney, belay that last order. Lock in a blast star and make it quick."
Touching the weapons display in front of him, the gunner shakily performed the necessary actions to fulfill the Captainís command. "Locked," he triumphantly cried out.
"Good," Captain Midd looked out the windshield of the tasar, computer displays were okay but she liked a good old fashion visual of a target. "Hang on to your lunch, Gunney," she chuckled, pressing the button to release the blast star and at the same instant punching in the command for the tasar to start an immediate vertical climb.
"Ugh," was all the gunner could manage to force out of his throat as the tasar heads straight up into the sky leaving his stomach several thousand feet below the rest of him.
"Gotcha," Captain Midd yelled when the radar screen displayed a blank spot where the pursuing missile had just been. "All right, Gunney," she called to the young soldier, "lock in the ground rockets and letís get this mission over with so we can go home." She reversed the direction of her tasar, flying it directly downward towards the planetís surface.
The gunner, his skin tone slightly green, struggled to keep his stomach from emptying as he fingers the weapons display. "Locked," he said weakly, wishing he could be any place else at this particular moment.
A quick look at her map display showed Captain Midd that her present location was approximately fifty clicks from her intended target. Her eyes flicked over to the radar screen that, thankfully, remained empty of enemy rockets. Next she looked at the screen displaying the positions of the other tasars accompanying her on this mission. ĎDamn,í she thought silently, Ďonly half as many as we left base with but we still should have enough to destroy the target.í "Here we go," she set the tasar on a flight plan that took it parallel to the terrain below them.
Looking out the tasarís windshield, the captain saw the target coming up fast, a small cluster of buildings in a treeless clearing uncluttered by any living organism for hundreds of clicks in any direction. Confederacy command received intelligence naming this location as the main Alliance transfer center. If it could be destroyed the Alliance forces would be unable to prepare any more harvested resources for transport off the planet and, thus, preventing ability of the Alliance to fulfill its trade contracts. No trade meant no profits. No profits meant no capital. No capital meant no funds to continue hiring mercenaries to fight against the Confederacy. Which meant, no more war.
As her orders instructed, Captain Midd focused her attention on one building set off a little from the others. Locked in on the target, she was bothered by the seeming lack of any visible protection for such an important site. Not to mention that no cargo ships or transport carriers could be seen anywhere in the clearing. She saw the other tasars releasing their weapon loads and as she followed suit the knot growing in the pit of her stomach continued to tell her something was wrong. She flew directly for her target, the cannons situated on the bottom of the tasar firing rapidly. Her eyes followed the rockets until they struck the target, literally cutting the building in half as they exploded on impact.
Captain Midd sensed more than saw the danger, a ball of flame seeming to burst out of the ground and head directly for her tasar. The speed of the object was too great to outrun and Captain Midd knew she had no choice but to hope for the best. "Prepare for incoming, Gunney," she yelled, punching in every avoidance maneuver she could think of to escape.
"Eject, Gunney, EJECT."
An instant after Captain Midd pulled the ejection release her tasar disintegrated into a billion pieces.
"Cruiser coming," Sergeant Arhina heard the shout from where she sat inside her hut. Stepping out of the dark hut, the sergeant paused to allow her eyes time to adjust to the harsh sunlight before looking towards the front of the prison yard where an Alliance prisoner transport was pulling to an abrupt stop on the other side of the security barrier.
Several soldiers, interested in the transportís arrival only because nothing else of interest ever occurred in the camp, hurried past the hut on their way to claim a better viewing spot. Some passed without acknowledging the sergeant but those wearing identical uniforms as hers took the time to salute, their right arms sharply bent at the elbow with a fist thrust against their breastbone. Sergeant Arhina returned each salute just as precisely.
"Hope there isnít too many of them," a soldier said as he walked by, "donít have many empty bunks left."
Sergeant Arhina silently agreed with the man, her eyes scanning the prison campís crowded yard. At the sound of the transportís heavy door being slammed shut, she turned her attention back to the new arrivals and was surprised when only one prisoner could be seen being helped out of the transport.
"Damn, is that who I think it is?" Recognizing the new prisoner, a Mainlander soldier quickened his steps.
"Sure as hell looks like her," another soldier laughed.
"Oh, hell," the first soldier groaned, "wonder where they picked her up. And why the hell they had to bring her here."
Intrigued by the exchange, Sergeant Arhina bounced down the steps in front of her hut, ambling along behind the others. Normally, she didnít go to meet the transports, as she didnít feel the need to scrutinize the prisoners entering the camp. Though she was the highest ranking Islander in the camp, she held no official position within the campís command structure and left any indoctrination to the campís Mainlander officers. Besides she knew that any Islanders would seek her out and had found it more comfortable meeting them in a more personal setting without the commotion usually surrounding their arrival at the camp.
As the sergeant reached the soldiers crowding near the barrier where the transport was parked, some of them offered to let the sergeant pass through to the front. But she smiled in acknowledgment of the gesture while shaking her head to refuse, content to stay where she was at the rear of the assembly.
"Get back," a burly Alliance prison guard growled at the swarm of prisoners. "Clear a path or Iíll shoot her where she stands and leave her carcass for the tigers to finish off.
Knowing the guard meant what he said, the prisoners quickly shuffled back clearing a path for the soldier to enter the prison yard.
"Thatís more like it,í the guard sneered as the prisoners retreated.
The prison camp was surrounded by a fence consisting of a single strand of specially designed conductive wire strung on posts spread ten strides apart. When power was fed through the wire, a highly charged vaporizing field was created for several strides in all directions around the thin cable. Any thing or person to be careless enough to come into contact with the invisible barrier would be vaporized within the blink of an eye. It hadnít taken the prisoners long to figure out that any attempts to penetrate the invisible barrier meant an instantaneous death.
Where the prisoners gathered, a crude portal had been fashioned by two posts placed on either side of a gate which was just wide enough for a single person to pass through. Approximately, four strides in front of the gateway, a metal box was mounted on top of a short post pounded into the ground. Reaching up, for a small chain hanging around his neck, the guard pulled it free of his shirt. Firmly grasping the key at the end of the chain, he inserted it into the lock in the box cover and swung it open. Punching a code into the keypad secured inside, he waited for the bell tones signaling the power to the deadly security barrier had been shut off. The guard pushed his prisoner forward to the gate.
"I know youíre curious," the Alliance guard addressed the prisoners as he pulled the gate open. "So Iíll give you the good news. The captain here is the only survivor after thirty of your tasars tried to destroy a worthless group of empty buildings. Go on," the guard violently shoved the soldier through the breach as a murmur of frustration rippled through the prisoners at the information. "Your pals are waiting to welcome you to your new home."
"Why looky there," a soldier standing near Sergeant Arhina snickered as the new prisoner stumbled trying to regain her balance, "if it isnít Captain Midget."
When several other prisoners laughed at the manís comment, Sergeant Arhina felt the hackles on the back of her neck bristle.
"With the rate your side is losing tasars, it wonít be long before this war is over and you find yourselves working in the mineral mines. Just a little something for you to look forward to." Laughing contemptuously, the guard closed the gate and reset the security code before locking the box and climbing back into the cruiser. Moments later, he sped away leaving a choking cloud of dust as the only evidence he was ever there.
After regaining her footing, Captain Midd glanced at the encircling sea of faces looking for any familiar ones. She wasnít too surprised when she recognized several of the soldiers staring back at her. Nor was she surprised when none stepped forward to greet her. Disappointed, but not surprised.
Straightening up to her full five foot six inch height and seeming to sense an impended confrontation, she asked, "who is in command here?"
"Captain," a lanky soldier stepped out from the others, his right hand raising to his forehead in more of a wave than a military salute. "Iím Lieutenant Hovart, ranking Mainlander officer and Commander of Beta II."
"Lieutenant," the captainís return salute was razor sharp in contrast. "You can considered yourself relieved. I will be assuming command of this camp."
"Captain," the lieutenantís voice betrayed his annoyance with the order.
"Is there a problem, Lieutenant?"
"No, Captain," the lieutenant scratched his nose. He didnít hide his displeasure from his features as he carefully considered his response. "Just think you might want to know what youíre taking on before you make any brash decisions. Being in charge of a prisoner-of-war camp isnít exactly something you can just show up and do."
Captain Midd took a deep breath before answering. It wasnít the first time her abilities had been doubted by someone who knew nothing about her. "Lieutenant," she began calmly, "military code states that the most senior officer shall assume command of any military facility. Does it not?"
"This camp qualifies as a military facility, does it not Lieutenant?"
With the knowledge that the lieutenant wasnít the only soldier in the crowd questioning her capabilities, as well as her authority, the captain kept her voice steady and free of emotion.
"And I am now the most senior officer in this camp, am I not?"
"Then Iím assuming command. I ask again, Lieutenant, is there any problem with that?" Captain Middís eyes bored into the vexed soldier.
"Good. Now that we have that settled, Iíd like to get some shut eye. I havenít slept since before the start of my mission. So if you would be so kind as to show me to the officersí quarters before I collapse. Once I get some sleep, Iíll want to talk with you and the Islander camp commander about the operations of the camp."
"Iím the only commander in this camp." Finding himself once again at the receiving end of the captainís cold glare, the lieutenant quickly revised his comment. "I mean, I was the only commander."
"You were ranking officer of the Mainlanders," Captain Midd studied the faces of the soldiers surrounding her as she questioned the lieutenantís claim. "But I see several Islanders among you. Who is their officer?" Receiving no response, the captain sucked in a deep breath and slowly released it. But her attempt to calm her rising anger wasnít as successful as she had hoped. She was tired and frustrated and on her absolutely last nerve and when she finally spoke all of that and more boiled out of her. "Who is the commander of the Islanders, Lieutenant?"
"That would be me, Captain." Seeing the exasperation on the captainís face and the irritation on the lieutenantís, the Sergeant decided to answer the question. Making her way through the soldiers to where the captain was standing, she said, "Sergeant Teragleli Arhina." Stopping in front of the captain she smiled, executing a proper Islander salute with her fist to her chest.
"Sergeant," Captain Midd returned the salute with a rigid right hand to her forehead. "You are the highest ranking officer of the Islanders?"
"Sergeant is as high as we go," Arhina nodded as she answered.
"You donít have officers?"
"Didnít feel a need for them, Captain," the sergeant shrugged.
"Alright," Captain Midd accepted the response. "Shall we continue this conversation in the officersí quarters?"
"Um, Captain," Hovart uneasily shifted his weight from one booted foot to the other while doing his best to avoid looking directly at his new senior officer.
"Iím afraid what the Lieutenant is struggling to tell you," the Islander interrupted the embarrassed man, "is that I donít bunk in the officersí hut."
"Lieutenant," Captain Midd eyes narrowed as they again bore into the man, "make room for the Sergeant immediately."
"Actually," Sergeant Arhina spoke before the lieutenant had a chance. "Space being kind of short in most of the huts, it would be easier if you shared mine. Thereís an empty cot in it."
Captain Midd considered the offer as well as the woman that made it. The sergeant was several inches taller than herself, with a head of unruly blonde hair and a friendly smile that seemed to spread quickly and easily across her face under a pair of gleaming deep turquoise eyes. She stood tall showing off a trim body that was a little thin for her height and the captain assumed that probably had a lot to do with living in a prisoner-of-war camp. She instantly liked the sergeant and decided to accept her offer rather than continue standing in the heat to argue with the uncooperative lieutenant.
"Very well, Sergeant, lead the way. Lieutenant, Iíll expect a complete briefing about the operation of this camp as soon as I get some sleep. Understood?"
"Islander huts are over there, Captain," the Sergeant said, motioning toward the eastern end of the camp.
"The Mainlanders and Islanders donít share quarters?" the Captain asked, astonished that such division would be necessary in a camp full of soldiers that were fighting side-by-side to save their homes.
"No," Lieutenant Hovart grunted as if the answer should have been obvious.
Sergeant Arhina remained silent, she didnít approve of the policy but it was the way the camp had been organized when she arrived and she never felt it her place to try to change it.
"Well," Captain Midd muttered, turning away from her junior officer and the crush of soldiers behind him, "weíll have to see about that."
"That would be up to you, Captain," Hovart muttered.
The Sergeant glanced at the disgruntled lieutenant. ĎThis spitfire has sure riled up the troops,í she smiled to herself, turning to follow the captain.
"Same old Captain Midget," someone grumbled after the women. "Always trying to make everybody play nice."
Captain Midd tensed at the comment but didnít break stride as she marched across the prison camp.
Sergeant Arhina found herself having to hurry to catch up with the quick striding Captain. As she followed behind, she studied the new camp commander. She wasnít tall but not short either, despite the unusual nickname some of the Mainlanders had for her. Her frame was lean and well toned which was to be expected of a seasoned military officer. Shoulder length chestnut hair framed a oval face whose most striking feature were a pair of mahogany eyes that the Sergeant had already seen could sparkle when the woman smiled or bore a hole clear through you if she was irritated. The captain intrigued her and she was looking forward to learning more about the beautiful woman.
"Captain," the sergeant called out stopping the officerís misdirected progress. "My hut is over there," she said, pointing to an unassuming structure sitting slightly apart from rows of identically sized huts.
Wordlessly, Captain Midd adjusted her steps.
As the women walked, now side-by-side, the Captain noticed that every Islander they encountered made a point of properly saluting the two ranking officers. On the other hand, the Mainlander soldiers were a mixed bag. Some smartly saluted the pair, some gave them a lackadaisical impersonation of a salute, and a small group made it obvious that they did not feel the pair deserved any respect at all.
"Damn, I hate having to constantly prove myself to these military lifers," the Captain muttered.
"Excuse me," Sergeant Arhina glanced over at the Captain.
"Oh," the Captain Midd paused while another group of soldiers walked by. "Donít mind me," she said after considering it might not be the best way to start her command by grousing openly about the soldiers she may one day have to depend on to carry out her orders. "I just need some sleep. My brain has turned to mush."
The Sergeant nodded as if she understood which in some way she did. It would take a blind man not to see the open hostility some of the Mainlanders directed towards their new commander.
"Doorís open." The women had reached the hut and Sergeant Arhina motioned for the Captain to climb the steps first. "Bunk to the right is yours," she said as soon as they were both inside.
"Thank you," Captain Midd made a beeline for the cot. "But to be honest, Iím so tired I could fall asleep on the floor."
"I think youíll find the cot a bit more comfortable," the Sergeant laughed. "Iíd offer you a hot shower but we only get those once a week and you missed yesterdayís."
"Oh, boy," the Captain dropped onto the edge of the cot to remove her boots. "Sure hope you can stand me for another week, Iím pretty ripe already."
"Donít worry, weíre all pretty ripe by bath day."
With her feet free of the heavy boots, the Captain stood back up, removing her uniform jacket and looking around the hut for a place to hang it.
"Donít have a closet," the Sergeant seemed to read her thoughts. "But Iíve fashioned a couple of hangers to keep things off the floor," she handed the Captain a shaped piece of wire.
"Thanks, Sergeant. Teragleli wasnít it?"
"Yes, but you can call me Terri. Thatís what my family and friends call me."
"Thanks," the captain smiled greatly relieved she wouldnít have to get her tongue around the native womanís name every time they talk.
"It is a mouthful, isnít it?" the sergeant chuckled when she saw the relief on the captainís face.
Middís face reddened with embarrassment, realizing the Islander had understood the reason for her relief. "Sorry."
"Donít be," Arhina said, nonchalantly. What about you, Captain? I already figured out you donít think much of being called Midget."
"No," the word was spate out. "Iím sorry," Midd sat back down on her cot, then laid down. "Itís been used by the lifers ever since I put on that damn uniform. Their way of getting even with me for spoiling what they thought of as a private club, I guess," she explained as her tired body relaxed against the thin mattress.
"Youíre not regular military?" Terri asked, settling on her own bunk.
"No," the Captain sighed. "When the war started, I wanted to do my part so I joined. The lifers didnít take too kindly to pilots being made instant officers. Not to mention that I have a tendency to try and do things by the book," she yawned. "Anyway, to answer your question. When we donít have to use our titles, name is Tarphan but my friends call me Tarp. Feel free to do likewise."
"Will do, Tarp." Hearing no response, Terri looked over at the captain to find her fast asleep on top of her blankets. She stood, pulling the blanket off her cot and carrying it the few strides across the room to the other cot. Carefully, so as to not wake the officer, she spread the blanket over the sleeping woman. "Sleep well, Tarphan. Youíre going to need all the rest you can get."
Terri studied the sleeping woman for several minutes before turning away to go outside and give the captain some privacy. She also wanted to see if she could gain any insight as to how the Captain received her unwanted nickname by listening to conversations among the prisoners in the yard. But she didnít have to go far for the answer. As she turned away, her eyes fell on the jacket hanging on the wall next to the captainís cot. Above the left breast, standing out in bright white letters against the jacketís dark blue material was Captain Midd, G.T.
"Wonder what the G stands for," Terri murmured as she left the hut.
ĎYouíll never knowí, Tarp thought to herself. Rolling over onto her side, she opened one eye to watch the sergeant leave.
"Think that guard was telling the truth, Advisor?" an Islander soldier asked as soon as Terri exited her hut.
"About what?" Terri asked, stepping down to the ground.
"The Alliance destroying thirty tasars."
"Donít know." Terri considered the question as she continued walking in a direction that would put her directly in contact with the vaporizing fence. Just before she entered the deadly vaporizing field, she changed her direction so that she was paralleling the barrier.
A path, worn into the ground by a multitude of uncounted boot steps, encircled the prison camp and several times a day the sergeant walked this perimeter. She told herself it was to keep her muscles toned, but she knew it was mostly just to pass the time. She nodded a greeting to the Islanders joining her.
"The guards usually exaggerate anything they tell us," Terri finally answered the question. "There is no reason not to believe this guard was doing the same."
"Yeah," one soldier agreed, "they said they took out a hundred last month at Glentown but Pleicy said only fifteen tasars were actually on that mission." The soldier named a prisoner who had arrived shortly after the battle. "And most of them made it back to base."
"And donít forget the time they told us over fifty were shot down trying to reclaim Batterís Landing," another soldier added.
"Right," the first soldier answered. "The Alliance only shot down one tasar that time."
"Best not to put too much credence in what the guards say," Terri said as following the footpath. "Itís not in their best interest to be truthful."
"Youíre right, Advisor," a soldier acknowledged. "What about the new commander?" he changed the subject, curious to know what the sergeant thought of the recent arrival.
"What about her, Steevl?"
"Doesnít seem to be like the others."
"No," the sergeant agreed as she walked.
"Think sheíll try to put a end to the separation? I heard some of the Mainlanders talking and they say she doesnít believe in separating Mainlanders and Islanders. They say that she thinks if we are to share Organi, we must learn to live together."
"A wise woman," Terri murmured.
"Advisor," another soldier asked expectedly, "do you think sheíll force them to mingle."
"I think," Terri smiled at the soldiers walking with her, "we should continue our walk in silence. It does little purpose to anticipate the future. Iím sure Captain Midd will inform us of her intentions as soon as she has had a chance to observe the campís operation. Letís give her time to speak with Lt. Hovart."
"He shows her no respect," an older soldier spoke for the first time.
"Yes, he calls her Captain Midget," a young female soldier snickered.
Terri stopped and gazed at each of the soldiers accompanying her. When she spoke, her words were soft but those who heard understood her message.
"It is wrong to speak of another in such a contemptuous manner. I am sure Captain Midd does not appreciate to be treated so disrespectfully and it is my wish never to hear that phrase again spoken by an Islander in this camp."
"Of course," the female soldier bowed. "My sincerest apologies."
Terri reached out, placing a reassuring hand on the womanís shoulder. "I speak only what I know to be right." Wanting to be sure the young soldier understood her words were not meant to censure but rather to show that she should be aware of anotherís feelings, Terri waited for the young woman to meet her eyes. When she did, the sergeant smiled and gently offered, "shall we continue our walk?"
"Damn," Lt. Hovart glared as he watched the sergeant begin one of her many daily walks. "Bad enough we got that Advisor in camp," he sneered. "Just what we need now is Captain Midget."
"Come on, Lieutenant," another soldier standing nearby asked, "she canít be that bad can she?"
"No?" Hovart focused his glare at the soldier, "when Midget was learning to fly the tasars, she kept asking why the Islanders werenít being trained to fly. Can you imagine that? Islanders flying tasars."
"Might not have been too bad an idea," the other soldier shrugged. "Way the Confederacy keeps running out of pilots, we could use the help."
"Youíre an idiot."
"Look, Hovart, we all know you donít like Islanders," the soldier continued. "Why, I donít know considering theyíve never done anything to you. Heck, you never even seen one until the war started. But the Captain is in charge now and if she says we need to get along with them, I donít see what harm it can cause."
"You get along with them if you want," the lieutenant turned away from the soldier, "but Iím not trusting any Islander to watch my back."
"Youíre in a prison camp, Hovart," the soldier laughed, walking away to leave the lieutenant alone with his tirade. "Doesnít look like having a Mainlander watch your back did you much good."
"Fool," Hovart grunted.
"So what do you plan to do?" another soldier asked the disgruntled lieutenant.
Hovart muttered, "if I could figure out a way to get through that damn fence, I would leave this camp to Captain Midget. And good riddance."
"But you canít," the soldier grinned. "Youíve been trying for how long now?"
"Got to be a way."
"In the meantime?"
"In the meantime," the lieutenant brushed the soldier aside, "I plan to see whatís for chow tonight."
Captain Middís eyes slowly blinked open as she stretched her limbs to loosen the sleep-tightened muscles. She didnít know how long sheíd slept but whatever the length of time it didnít seem to be anywhere near what her exhausted mind and body required. She considered rolling over and letting sleep reclaim her but her sense of duty refused to allow the action and she reluctantly pushed herself upright.
Swinging her legs over the edge of the cot, Tarp looked around the hut she would be calling home for who knew how long. The first thing she noticed was that she could easily cross the room in any direction by taking six long strides. Her cot was pushed up against the wall on the north side of the square hut and a second seemingly uncomfortable looking cot occupied a similar position on the west wall. A poorly built table and matching pair of chairs were pushed against the south wall, closer to one corner of the room than the other. The remaining wall contained the only entrance to the hut, with the door set slightly off center in the wall. The corner of the room between the hutís door and the unsteady table was separated from the rest of the space by walls that rose only half way to the ceiling. A drape hung across the small cubicleís opening and it didnít take much imagination to guess that the partitioned corner contained the hutís toilet facilities.
Except for the cots and table, the room was unfurnished and unadorned. No windows broke the planes of the walls, the dark interior brightened only by a single quartz lamp hanging from a wire hooked over a beam supporting the ceiling. The lamp was turned down low and Tarp wondered if her missing roommate was responsible for that. Standing, she pulled the borrowed blanket off her cot and carefully folded it before returning it to its rightful place on the sergeantís cot.
Padding to the middle of the room to allow plenty of space, Tarp began a series of stretching exercises she performed every day to keep her body limber. She was in the middle of her routine when the door silently opened and the sergeant peeked inside.
"Youíre awake," Terri smiled, pushing the door fully open so she could enter the hut. "Hope you slept well. Those cots arenít exactly known for being too comfortable."
"Like a baby," Tarp lied, not seeing any reason to complain about the uncomfortable mattress. She tried to continue her exercises but with a second person now inside there wasnít enough room and she gave up.
"Iím sorry," Terri quickly stepped back towards the open door, "I can wait outside."
"No,í Tarp shook her head, smiling at the other woman. "Please stay. Besides, itís more your hut than mine."
"Nonsense," Terri left the door open and crossed the room to her cot. "We both call it home now. So if you ever need some privacy, just say so and Iíll leave for a while."
"If you agree to do the same," Tarp stepped to the open doorway, leaning against the rough frame, "itís a deal. How long was I asleep?"
"About sixteen hours. Go ahead and close it," Terri said, misunderstanding the other womanís reason for moving to the opening. "I got in the habit of leaving it open during the day. This place can seem pretty depressing as dark as it gets in here."
"Oh, no," Tarp looked over her shoulder at the sergeant. "I donít mind it being open. Itís just that I still havenít gotten used to the longer days here on Organi. Back home they were only about a half as long. If Iíd slept that long there, it would be tomorrow."
"Yes," Terri scooted back on her cot so she could lean against the hutís wall, "I understand that there are many differences between Organi and your home planet."
"Many," Tarp agreed, continuing to stare outside. Far to the east above the distant mountains, she could see the double moons of Organi rising in the darkening sky. "For starters, Organi has two moons, we only had one on Retha." Tarpís stomach growled loudly as she spoke. "Sorry," she smirked, turning to face the sergeant, "guess itís been a while since I ate. When is the next meal served here?"
Quickly pushing up from the cot, Terri was abashed that she hadnít considered the captain would be hungry when she awoke. "Iím so sorry," she said solemnly, "I should have had something prepared for you. We can go to the food hut, the cooks always have something available," she explained as she hurried to the door to leave the hut.
"Hey," Tarp reached out to stop the Sergeant as she tried to hustle past. "Itís okay, really. I donít expect you to anticipate my needs just because Iím the camp commander."
"No," Terri smiled sadly at the captain, "not because you are the camp commander. But because you arrived in camp after a long journey and it would be expected you would have needs to be seen to. My sincerest apologies," Terri dropped her head, bowing to the captain to acknowledge her thoughtlessness.
"No apology is necessary," Tarp was somewhat troubled by the Sergeantís behavior. "Just lead me to the food hut. Suddenly Iím extremely famished and Iím afraid Iíll start eating the blanket on my cot if I donít find food soon," the captain laughed as her stomach growled even louder.
"Follow me," Terri rushed out of the hut.
Still confused by the Islanders unusual demeanor, the captain did as she was instructed and followed the sergeant outside.
As the women walked across the open ground in the center of the camp, Tarp studied the layout of the compound. From what she could see in the growing darkness, the prisoners were contained in a rectangular area surrounded by the security barrier. The center of the camp was relatively open with two distinct groupings of huts occupying either end. Tarp noticed that the huts nearest to the one she shared with the sergeant were more evenly spaced and of uniform size while the huts at the far end of the camp were haphazardly spaced and varied greatly in size and shape.
Two much larger huts sat in the middle of the camp and Terri was leading her to one of those buildings, which Tarp assumed to be the food hut. She wondered the purpose of the other large hut and was about to ask when the sergeant provided the answer.
"Watch your step," Terri said as she carefully stepped over a small ditch with a trickle of water running along its bed. "Thatís the food hut," she indicated the large structure they were approaching. "And thatís the shower hut. An automatic timer turns on the pump once a week. We have six hours for everyone to get showered, so thereís no time for more than a quick scrub and rinse. The food and shower huts are open to both Mainlanders and Islanders."
"Why the separation, Sergeant?" Tarp asked again, being careful to use the womanís title since there were several other prisoners nearby.
Terri shrugged as she climbed the steps leading up to landing in front of the door of the food hut. "I believe your soldiers feel more comfortable that way, Captain."
Tarp followed the sergeant up the steps, "do you agree with the arrangement?"
"It was not my place to question the arrangement. I arrived after it had been put into place." Terri pushed open the hutís door and entered the surprisingly large room.
The interior of the hut was open with long rows of tables and benches occupying most of it. A counter stretching the length of the room separated the eating area from the kitchen and several prisoners were working their way along the counter selecting from a variety of food choices for their meals. Terri led Tarp to the end of the line and the women wasted no time filling their trays.
"We can eat here or take it back to the hut," Terri offered as they reached the end of the counter.
"Perhaps back at the hut, Sergeant" Tarp said, looking about the room and seeing that only a few of the tables were unoccupied. "Iíd like to talk."
"Alright," Terri nodded in understanding as she walked across the room to the door. Her path took the women past the table where Lt. Hovart was eating.
"I suppose youíll be wanting that briefing now," Hovart grumbled as Tarp approached.
The captain paused to respond, "soon, Lieutenant. But first Iíd like to eat. And since itís so late in the day, perhaps we can plan on you giving me a briefing first thing in the morning. That is if you donít have any other plans."
"Whatever," Hovart didnít bother to look up from his meal. "Not like I have much to do around this place now that you took command."
"Very well." Not having the energy or inclination to deal with the lieutenantís insubordination right then, Tarp continued for the door.
"It must be strange," Captain Midd said as she set her tray on the table in their hut. "Being here where there is so little water or vegetation." She hadnít failed to notice the lack of any plant life within the prison camp or on the valley floor surrounding the camp.
"I will admit it has taken some getting used to," Terri set her own tray on the table before carefully sitting on one of the chairs. "We are used to lots of trees and flowers on the Islands. But itís the sea that I miss the most."
"Iíve heard that the Islands are very beautiful," Tarp gingerly settled in the other chair. "Iím sorry to say that I had not had the opportunity to visit them before the war started. Itís sad that the Alliance has now chosen to harvest Organi."
"Why do you think they have come here now?" Terri asked quietly as she began to eat.
"What do you mean?"
"By Galaxy Law, the Alliance must be asked onto any populated planet. For generations, the Alliance has sought permission to harvest Organi. But their requests have always been denied."
"You think a Rethan asked them here?" Tarp was startled by the sergeantís question that sounded distinctly like an accusation against the Mainlanders.
"What do you feel?" Terri looked at the captain, gentle brown eyes revealing no accusations, only a genuine interest in the captainís answer.
Perplexed with how the question was phrased, Tarp took the time to consider her feelings before answering.
"Regretfully, I feel," Tarp acknowledged, "you may be right. When Retha became uninhabitable and we were forced to look for a new homeland, it was decided that those who chose to travel to Organi would make a fresh start without the traditions and practices that had resulted in our own planet being destroyed. On Organi we would no longer value wealth and power, we would no longer be controlled by a governor elected by only the most wealthy amongst us. Instead we would live simply, using only what we needed to survive. On Organi, we would all be equal with every member of the community having a vote in all decisions. When we came here, we would work for the good of all. Our days would be spent growing our own food, making our own clothes and shelters, and caring for our elders and younglings."
"And what were you to do?"
"I flew shuttles on Retha. Since that skill would not be required here, I volunteered to help maintain the planting and growing machinery. And I would help in the fields when needed."
"Did you enjoy this change?"
"Very much," Midd said with a hint of despair in her voice. "I finally felt like I was doing something good with my life."
"But not everyone felt as you." It was spoken as a fact not a question.
"No. At first, everyone seemed willing to go along with the plan. But as the days passed, some began to complain about the work. They were too used to having things done for them on Retha and they wanted to revert to the old ways. Luckily, they were a small minority and their demands to change our new customs were voted down."
"Yet they remained unhappy."
"Yes. Iím sorry, Terri," Tarp pushed her tray away, suddenly wasnít as hungry as she had been just moments before. "Itís very possible that one or more of them contacted the Alliance."
"What have you done to be sorry for?"
"If we hadnít come to Organi, your home would not be threatened like it is. The Islanders must hate us."
"We do not," Terri gently returned the tray to its proper position in front of the captain.
"How can you say that? Iíd hate us, if I were you."
Terri smiled, "to hate another is to hate yourself. To be at peace, you must trust in yourself and those around you."
"But we have ruined everything for you. You no longer have any control over the land your people have called home for generations."
"We cannot control what does not belong to us," Terri told the distressed woman.
"I donít understand. You donít own the islands?"
"The islands were a gift to us from Mo-tah. We live on them but we do not own them."
"Yet you fight for them."
"We fight for Mo-tah," Terri explained.
"Mo-tah provides the ground we live on, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. She gives us fire to warm us when we are cold and cool breezes to cool us when we are warm. She allows us to eat the fruit of her plants and the fish in her sea. She is our Mother."
Tarp gazed at the sergeant for several minutes before softly replying. "On Retha we had books that told of a time long ago when the people worshipped Gaia. They called her Mother Earth and honored her for giving them the very things you say Mo-tah gives to you."
A comfortable silence fell in the small hut as both women contemplated the similarities of the two traditions and what, if any, importance could be deduced from the coincidence.
Deciding a change of topic was in order, Terri returned to the beginning of their conversation. "I didnít know what to expect of the Mainland when I was told I would be coming here to defend Mo-tah. But I never expected it to be so different from the Islands."
"Youíve never been on the Mainland before?" Tarp was surprised by the revelation. She had just assumed that the Islanders would be familiar with the entire planet they inhabited.
"No," Terri shook her head. "The Mainland holds dangers we are not used to on the Islands. It is not safe for us."
"Like the tigers?" Many times, Tarp had listened to the hunters complain of the large cats that roamed the Mainland and made it dangerous to hunt the game animals for the Rethan settlements. She hoped never to have a face-to-face encounter with one of the ferocious animals.
"Yes, the tigers are best to be avoided. But it is also the vastness of the Mainland that we do not understand. Our Islands are small and most can be walked across in a single day. We are familiar with them. The Mainland stretches from the top of Organi to the bottom and is so wide that even a tasar cannot cross it in a day. Such a distance is unknown to us."
"But in all the time your people have lived on Organi, you never wanted to explore the Mainland?" Rising from the uncomfortable chair, Tarp picked up the plate from in front of her and moved to sit on her cot. "Do you mind?"
"Not at all," Terri followed the captainís lead. "I rarely use the chairs. I donít find them very sturdy."
"I can see why," Tarp glanced over at the unsteady pieces of furniture. "Please continue."
"Our history talkers tell stories of Islanders setting off to explore the Mainland. Sadly none of them returned home. Over the years, our Advisors recommended that the expeditions be stopped."
"Yes, they guide my people."
"Iím sorry," Tarp frowned, a confused look on her face. "Are they like your leaders?"
"We have no leaders," Terri explained. "Advisor is an honored position passed from mother to daughter. We attempt to live our lives in harmony with what Mo-tah provides us. When there is a dispute or if someone seeks guidance, an Advisor is consulted."
"She tells you what to do," Tarp suggested.
"No," Terri shook her head. "An advisor listens and then speaks what she knows to be true."
"How does she know what is true?"
"Advisors have the wisdom of all who have come before."
"What happens if someone doesnít agree with what the Advisor says?"
"I donít know," Terri smiled serenely. "It has never happened."
Thoughtfully, Tarp chewed the last bite of food, digesting both the food and what she had just learned of the Islander culture. "I wish we could be more like that," she sighed.
"You donít have those who guide you?" Terri asked.
"No, not in the way you mean. On Retha, the elected governor named judges to hear disputes and decide who was right."
"This governor was the one with the most wisdom?"
"Unfortunately, no," Tarp laughed. "Usually the one with the most money. Thatís why we decided to change how we did things here."
A soft tapping on the hutís door interrupted the women.
Terri pushed herself up from the cot. "It is time for my last walk of the day. I shall be careful not to wake you when I return," she said as she gathered their dirty dishes. "I will return these on the way."
"Thank you. Please donít worry about waking me, I probably wonít be asleep anyway."
"Weíll see," Terri smiled, her eyes twinkling as if she knew the opposite to be true.
Tarp watched Terri exit the hut. It is only then that she noticed several Islanders waiting outside in the moonlight. They all saluted the sergeant before greeting her warmly.
"May I take those?" one of the soldiers reached for the trays Terri carried.
"Thank you, Meeka," Terri smiled, "we will walk slow so you may join us."
"Thank you, Advisor," the soldier hurried off toward the food hut to return the dirty dishes.
"Advisor?" Tarp whispered. "Terri is one of their honored ones?" As she watched the sergeant lead the others away from the hut, she wondered what other surprises her unusual hut mate had yet to reveal.
"Thereís one thing I donít understand, Lieutenant," Tarp addressed her obviously unhappy subordinate. Since finishing their morning meal, she and Terri had been sitting in their hut with the lieutenant as the soldier gave his new commander a rundown on the operation of the prisoner-of-war camp.
"Why have you not attempted any escapes from here? Do you know how much it would mean to the Confederacy chances if these soldiers were to return to the battle?"
"Are you crazy?" Hovart leapt to his feet, staring at the captain. "You have eyes. Youíve seen that the camp is surrounding by a vaporizer fence. You canít dig under it. You canít jump over it. And you sure as hell canít go through it. Any escape attempt would end before it ever got started. Besides with the way the war is going, thereís no reason for us to even try. What with the way the Alliance is shooting down our tasars and destroying our bases, theyíd be nothing for us to fight with. So what difference could we make even if we got out?"
"Thatís just it," Tarp told the discouraged soldier. "The war is not going bad for the Confederacy, thatís just what the guards want you to think. In fact, we have more tasars than pilots and gunners. And there are more arriving every week. Itís the Alliance that the war is going bad for. Itís running short of supplies and mercenaries after stretching itself thin trying to protect all the planets being harvested. Organi is not alone any more in fighting the Alliance. Other planets, following our example, have begun to resist the Alliance. Believe me, Lieutenant, the soldiers in this camp would make a big difference."
"Come on," Hovart protested. "You heard the guard say they shot down thirty tasars when they brought you in."
"That was just talk," the captain countered. "I left with a squad of eight tasars. About half of them sustained some damage and had to return to base camp before the mission was completed but mine was the only tasar shot down."
The lieutenant groaned in acceptance of the truth of the captainís statement and dropped back down into the chair. "Donít make much difference anyway. We canít get through the fence. Iíve tried."
"But," Tarp started to argue.
"No, Captain," Hovart immediately interrupted, "there is no way to get through that fence alive. And Iím not about to order soldiers to their deaths just to prove it to you." He slammed his fist on the table to emphasize his position.
"Lieutenant," the captain growled, "youíre out of line."
"Excuse me." Terri had been sitting quietly on her cot while the captain and lieutenant talked but seeing that both were getting angry and their discussion was about to escalate into a heated argument, she decided to speak. Calmly she offered, "both of you have valid points. Perhaps we should take some time to reflect on what weíve learned today before we continue this discussion."
Lieutenant Hovart glared at the Islander. He had not wanted the woman to be a part of the briefing to begin with and now he bristled at her composed attempt at telling them what to do. "Look," he snarled, "you may be some kind of mystical, mumbo-jumbo priestess with the Islanders but donít try and use that tranquil tone on me."
Tarp turned to see how Terri would respond to the caustic outburst. She wasnít too surprised to see the sergeant sitting calmly on her cot, smiling at Hovart. She smirked, aware the sergeantís affable demeanor was driving her second-in-command nuts.
"I think the Sergeant is right, Lieutenant," Tarp said before the lieutenant could continue his attack. "I would like some time to think about what youíve told me. Perhaps we should call it a day."
"Fine with me," Hovart stood abruptly, knocking over the chair he had been occupying. "You know where to find me. Just do me a favor," he snapped striding to the hutís door without bothering to right the overturned chair. "Leave her outside next time. Way the Islanders think she knows everything drives me crazy. And how she just sits there smiling, like she doesnít have a care in the world. Donít know how you expect to win a war with that," he jabbed a finger in Terriís direction, "commanding half the troops."
"Thatís enough," Tarp ordered the soldier. "You will show the Sergeant the respect her position deserves. And you can keep your bigoted opinions to yourself in the future, Lieutenant."
"Yes, sir," Hovart seethed at the rebuke.
"Youíre dismissed, Lieutenant."
"Yes, sir." With a sloppy salute, the soldier turned on his heel, yanking the door open with enough force it slammed against the wall. "What a pair," Hovart muttered as he stomped down the hutís steps, the door swinging wildly behind him. "A midget and a soothsayer. No wonder weíre losing this war."
Tarp grabbed the door in mid-swing, latching it before turning to face Terri. "Sorry," she shrugged, mortified by the lieutenantís outburst.
Terri grinned, "it is not the first time I have heard the Lieutenantís name for me. Iím just grateful it isnít something worse."
"How do you remain so calm?" Tarp began to pace about the small hut, attempting to burn off the negative energy built up over the last few minutes. "I wanted to kick him right out the door. But you just sat there smiling."
"Would it have helped the situation to do as you wanted?"
"Of course not," Tarp continued her pacing.
"Then why do it."
"It would have made me feel better," the captain grumbled.
Tarp stopped her pacing to stare at the sergeant who was doing her best to suppress a laugh. "Whatís so funny?" she demanded.
"Now you know why I walk around the camp so often," Terri laughed at the womanís attempts to pace about the tiny room. With having to avoid the cots, table, and upturned chair, the captain was barely able to take more than one step in any given direction.
Tarp stood in the middle of the hut, her body twisting at the waist as she surveyed the roomís tight proportions, "guess I do." Seeing the humor in her predicament, she began to laugh with Terri. "Going on one of your walks any time soon?" she giggled, dropping onto her cot all the pent-up anger suddenly gone.
"Definitely," Terri chuckled.
"Think I could join you?"
"You are always welcome."
"Thanks," Tarp lay back on the cot, staring up at the ceiling. "So what now? If we canít escape, do we just wait here until the war is over?"
Ignoring the question for the moment, Terri asked, "you said that the Confederacy has more tasars than pilots. How is that possible?"
"Easy," Tarp sat up so she could face Terri as she responded. "The Confederacy has friends in the galaxy. And, like I said, there are other planets joining the fight against the Alliance. Tasars are being made in a secret location and a transport lands on Organi weekly with a new shipment."
"A full transport of tasars," Terri whistled softly. "That must be some manufacturing plant. But something that big would be hard to hide from the Alliance, where is it?"
For some reason, Tarp didnít hesitate in answering the sergeantís questions even though few people, for security reasons, knew the information she was about to divulge.
"On the planet Quaza, at the far side of the galaxy. It was harvested by the Alliance a few generations ago and is devoid of life. The tasars are being made in a deep underground chamber, which has been surrounded by a sponge shield. The shield is lifted only for the empty transports to arrive and loaded ones to leave. It is literally invisible to the Alliance probing vessels."
Probing vessels were specially designed robot controlled ships that roamed the galaxy probing planets and other stellar bodies for any resources that might be profitable for the Alliance to harvest. After the war on Organi started, their probing sensors had been reconfigured to also search for any military facility or weapons stockpile. Sponge shields absorbed the probing signals and returned false negative responses to the probing vesselsí sensors.
"Where are these tasars stored once they arrive on Organi?"
"Thatís the hard part," Tarp shook her head. "Since there arenít enough pilots or gunners, we canít move them once theyíre unloaded. The probes find many of them and they are destroyed before they have ever been flown. I just wish it was possible to get all these soldiers back to their bases and the tasars. It would really make a difference for the Confederacy. Not to mention the land and water tanks that are sitting idle waiting for trained crews. It could mean a quick end to this war," she said dejectedly, dropping back onto her cot. "If we could get out of this damn prison camp."
"Ah," Terri leaned back against the wall, a pleased look on her face. "Lieutenant Hovart may know many things about this camp but there is one thing he doesnít know."
"Whatís that?" Tarp raised her head just high enough off the mattress to look at the smug Islander.
"Cruiser coming," someone shouted outside the hut.
"Come on," Terri pushed herself up from her cot, reaching out a hand to the captain. "Iíll show you what Iím talking about."
Taking the offered hand, Tarp allowed herself to be pulled upright to face the sergeant. It was the closest the women had been to one another and the energy flowing between them was unmistakable.
Tarp felt a rush of heat between her legs and started to speak but stopped when she realized she didnít know what she wanted to say.
Terri lifted the hand she continued to hold so she could study it. Slowly her eyes lifted to gaze into Tarpís. "You are an interesting woman, Captain," she sighed. "There is much about you that I would like to learn."
"How many prisoners this time?" a soldierís shout interrupted the moment.
"Come," Terri continued to grasp the captainís hand as she led her outside. "We donít have much time." Instead of taking Tarp to where the other prisoners were gathering around the campís gate, she led her around the back of their hut and to the stretch of the vaporizer fence behind the food hut. Their movements were hidden from the approaching cruiser and other prisoners by the large building.
"Hovart is right, this fence canít be breached," Terri told Tarp as she knelt to pick up a small stone. "Except..." she peered around the corner of the food hut to observe the actions of the guards at the gate. Suddenly she turned back around tossing the pebble at the fence. "When they bring in new prisoners and the power is shut off."
Tarp watched the stone pass unharmed through the vaporizing field to bounce a few times on the bare ground outside the fence before coming to rest.
"But if you know this," Tarp looked at Terri. "Why havenít you tried to escape?"
"We shouldnít stay here too long," Terri sneaked another peek towards the front of the camp where a couple of new prisoners were being shoved through the gate. "Letís go back to the hut."
"Tell me why Hovart didnít know about this, Terri," the captain demanded as they start back to their hut.
"The guards tell us that the fence is always on, only the field around the gate is deactivated when they bring prisoners. Theyíve even thrown things at it to prove it. But never when the gate was open. I thought about that and one day I did as I did today. The stone passed through."
"Then why have you not escaped?"
"The guards are never the same. The number of prisoners they bring are never the same."
"I donít understand."
"The timing must be perfect. It is impossible to know how much time before the field is reactivated," Terri explained as she climbed the steps back into their hut. Once they were back inside and the door securely closed behind them, she continued, "for an escape to work, you must be ready to leave as soon as the alarm is sounded that a cruiser is coming. You would have to go through the fence the instant the guard deactivates it. If you miss-time your attempt."
"Is the barrier deactivated at any other time?"
"How are supplies brought into camp?" Tarp asked, knowing that food and other essentials must be delivered to the prisoners.
"A transport comes two or three time each moon cycle. But it hovers over the camp and supplies are dropped from it. The barrier is not deactivated."
"So the only time the fence is deactivated is when prisoners are brought into the camp."
"Knowing this, why have you never tried to escape?"
"One cannot escape alone. It would take another to watch the guard and say when the field is deactivated. If they were wrong," Terri paused. "I could never ask that of another."
Tarp easily understood the sergeantís reluctance to ask someone to carry the consequences of that responsibility if the timing turned out to be wrong. She hesitated for a moment to consider what other options there might be. "Would you be willing to do that for me?"
"You would trust me with your life?" Terri gazed into Tarpís eyes.
Without any hesitation, Tarp replied, "yes."
"Why would you risk what most would not?"
"Because I came to Organi to get away from the greed and destruction the Alliance has wreaked on most of the galaxy. I wanted a new life. A life lived within the natural surroundings without the need to control them. And if we can stop the Alliance here on Organi, I think thereís still a chance to have that. I have to try. Otherwise," Tarpís voice dropped to almost a whisper as she added, "I could never live with myself for letting this happen to Organi."
Terri saw the pain written on the other womanís features and, in her heart, she shared the captainís anguish over the possible future of her home planet. "Then I will help."
The women remained quiet for several minutes, well aware of what they had just agreed to risk. Neither wanted to rush past the moment without giving the other a chance to change their mind.
"What happens if a escape is successful? Will the guards know the camp is short a prisoner?" Tarp finally broke the silence.
"They never count us," Terri said. "They just assume that any missing prisoners must have been vaporized by the barrier."
"Works for me," Tarp grinned, trying to lighten the mood. "I say we take the chance and be ready the next time a cruiser comes. That means, we have some planning to do," she stood to pace around the room. "Iíll need to know the best place to go through the fence, so I the guards canít see me. Iíll need to make some kind of pack to carry food. And try to find something I can use as a weapon. And,"
"You cannot do this alone, Tarp," the sergeant interrupted her planning. "You must tell Lieutenant Hovart."
"I canít depend on Hovart to know about this," Tarp stopped pacing to look at Terri. "You know what he thinks about me. I canít chance him telling the whole camp about my crazy plan. Youíll just have to tell him afterward that I tried to make it through the fence and failed. Believe me, you wonít have any trouble convincing him of it."
"No. If you are to do this, Hovart must know. He may not be the most tactful man..."
Tarp snorted at the comment.
"But," Terri continued as if she hadnít heard the Tarpís retort, "he is a good soldier and will need to resume his position of commander with you gone. It would be better if he knew of your plans and could help."
"Heíll be glad to be rid of me," Tarp defiantly leaned against the wall beside her cot. "Taking back command wonít cause him any problems."
"Do not judge the lieutenant too harshly," Terri sighed as she sat on her cot. "Hovart is a man that needs to feel he is doing some good. When he commanded the camp he could feel that. When you arrived, he lost his purpose."
"Hmm," Tarp murmured, uneasily. "Guess I never looked at it that way. So what are you suggesting?"
"Hovart should know what is happening. If you make it through the fence, you will need someone to make sure the guardsí attention does not stray from the gate while you move away from the camp."
"You could do that."
"No. I do not go to the gate when prisoners arrive."
"You were there yesterday when I arrived."
"Yes," Terri smiled. "So I was."
"Are you sure about this, Captain?" Lieutenant Hovart was sitting on one of the chairs in his hut as he talked with his commanding officer.
"But if youíre wrong." Hovart left the sentence unfinished, it wasnít really necessary to complete it.
"I donít think I am," Captain Midd said quietly from where she sat on the hutís other chair. "The Sergeant has shown that there is a flaw in the campís security and we need to take advantage of that."
"But you could be killed," the lieutenant had seen what the vaporizer field could do and as much as he didnít care for the woman sitting across the table from him, he sure didnít wish that on anyone.
"I understand that," Midd sighed, she didnít want to think about that possibility. "But knowing what these soldiers returning to the battle could mean to the Confederacy makes taking the chance necessary."
"Alright," Hovart wasnít as convinced as the captain but she was still in command. "What do you want me to do?"
"Sergeant Arhina has agreed to be my lookout, so thatís covered. Iíll need you to make sure the guards are kept busy at the gate. And that no prisoners see what Iím doing and do anything to alert the guards."
"Letís say you make it through the fence," Hovart rubbed the back of his neck, "then what? The valley is a flat lot of nothing out there. How do you plan to get away from the camp without being seen?"
"The gully," Terri spoke for the first time from where she sat on the lieutenantís cot listening to the conversation.
"That gully isnít very deep," Hovart visualized the small ravine where a creek flowed into an underground holding tank used for storing the water used in the shower hut. It was the only cleft on the otherwise flat valley floor. "Youíd have to crawl along the creek bed to keep out of sight and Iím not sure that will even work."
"No," Terri stood and walked to the open doorway of the hut to look outside. "Sheíll have to hide in it until nightfall. She can crawl to the bend and then wait."
"That means crawling almost half a click," Hovart calculated. "Thatíll take half hour or more. If she was to be seen..."
"Thatís where you come in, Lieutenant," Tarp was tired of being talked about as if she wasnít in the room. "Your job will be to make sure Iím not seen, by anyone."
"Okay, so you hide in the ditch until nightfall. Then what?"
"Then Iíll make my way to the trees that still cover the foothills. From there, Iíll head up into the mountains. If I can get to that pass in the west and if I have my directions straight, there should be a small base on the other side."
"Thatís a lot of ifs, Captain. And the mountains are full of Alliance patrols, not to mention tigers. How do you plan to get past them? You wonít have any weapons?"
"Iíll just have to find a way," Midd started to lean back on the chairís rear legs then thought better of it since the lieutenantís hut was as haphazardly furnished as her own.
"Damn, Captain," Hovart muttered. "Youíre talking about going through a fence that can turn you into nothing in the blink of an eye. Hiding out in a shallow ditch for hours to avoid being seen by any passing cruisers; crossing the valley and avoiding the Alliance patrols and any tigers out looking for an easy meal. And then finding a pass you hope is where you think it is. Donít you think thatís a bit much, even for you?"
"I have to try." The captain knew the man had some valid concerns but it would be worth the danger if she were to be successful. "The Confederacy troops are out there facing the Alliance with less than the best we have to fight with. Stop thinking about how much you donít believe Iím capable of making it and start thinking about what it would mean if I do."
"Itís your skin, Captain," Hovart shrugged. "Tell me what you want me to do and Iíll do it. If you make it, youíll be a hero. If you donít, guess there isnít much anyone can say to me about it. Theyíll just figure you took on too much again, like you always do."
"Thanks for the confidence," Tarp scowled.
"Whatever," the lieutenant grunted. "When do you plan to go through with this?"
"The next time a cruiser comes with prisoners and they have to deactivate the barrier. Weíll need to be ready to move the instant the cruiser is spotted."
"Alright, Iíll keep an eye out. Try to give you as much warning as possible." Hovart stood and held out his hand, "donít think you have much chance, Captain. But good luck."
"Thank you, Lieutenant," Tarp stood and took the offered hand into her own. "I expect you will be available to resume command of the camp once Iíve gone," she smiled as the man grinned happily.
"Iíll do my best, Captain."
Tarp walked to the doorway and started out of the hut, Terri let her pass before following.
"Islander," Hovart snapped to stop Terri from leaving.
"You make damn sure your timing is right when you give the signal. If the Captain fries, so will you," he warned.
"I have no intention of letting Captain Midd fry, as you put it," Terri shuddered at the thought of the woman being caught in the vaporizing field. "I assure you, Lieutenant," she said as she turned to leave the hut, "my timing will be perfect."
"Damn straight, better be," Hovart muttered. As he watched the women walk away, his mind went back to the day he had seen the true power of the vaporizer fence. It was the same day he had discovered the importance of the sergeant to the Islanders.
The prisoner being removed from the cruiser was not making it easy on the guards as he fought against their efforts. Once outside the restrictive confides of the cruiser, he surveyed the prison-of-war camp and began laughing.
"You call that a security fence," the prisoner pointed at the single strand of wire circling the camp. "Iíll be out of this place before youíre halfway across the valley."
"You arenít the first to make that boast," the first guard shoved the prisoner forward. "And youíll end up just as dead as them."
Hovart and the other prisoners gathered inside the camp tried to shout warnings to the new prisoner but he would have none of them as he continued to taunt the guards.
"Want to put a wager behind your words, little man," the prisoner sneered.
"Sure," the second guard smirked.
"Okay, whatís your bet?"
"I bet," the first guard said as he and the other guard stepped up to the prisoner grabbing his arms in a vice-like grip. "That by the time Iím done saying this, youíll be nothing but a memory."
Caught off guard by the guardsí quick movements, the prisoner was unable to stop his body from being thrown at the single strand of wire he had so recently ridiculed.
"NO!" Hovart screamed as the guards hurled the prisoner towards the vaporizer fence. His eyes locked on the prisonerís for a mere heartbeat before the man no longer existed.
Arms rotating wildly in a fruitless attempt to regain his balance and stop his momentum, the prisonerís hand entered the field and was instantly vaporized. His eyes widened in horror as the realization of his imminent death penetrated his confused brain as more of his body vanished before him.
"Anybody else want to test the fence?" the first guard asked the stunned prisoners. "Didnít think so," he chuckled when he received no positive responses.
Hovart, like most of the Mainlanders, turned away from the scene of the prisonerís death. He was surprised to see the Islander walking towards him and his eyes followed the woman as she passed. The Islanders gathered beside the security fence waiting for the sergeant to join them before kneeling in the dirt and bowing their heads. After several minutes, the Sergeant lead the Islanders in standing then began to silently walk back to their side of the camp.
"What the hell was that about?" Hovart rudely grabbed the sergeantís arm as she walked by.
The other Islanders instantly surrounded the lieutenant.
"Remove your hand from the Advisor," an Islander commanded the lieutenant and several others repeated the demand.
"What Advisor?" Hovart had never seen the Islanders act in such a threatening way. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"They are speaking of me," the sergeant calmly unwrapped the lieutenantís fingers from around her arm. "As for your soldier," she told the Mainlander, "we prayed to Mo-tah to protect his spirit as he left this life."
"Mo-tah? What the hell is that?" the lieutenant asked angrily, he was getting extremely nervous having so many Islanders crowded around him. "Get away from me," he swatted at the surrounding soldiers.
"You are in no danger," the sergeant assured the frightened man. With a nod she signaled the Islanders to step back. "We meant no disrespect. Mo-tah is our mother and we honored her by asking that she protect his spirit."
Hovart looked nervously at the Islanders backing away from him. "You some kind of holy person?" he asked the sergeant.
"No. I am just a woman. I have no special power."
"Not what it looks like," Hovart continued to watch the retreating Islanders who continued to defer to the sergeant.
"I am honored to be called Advisor," the sergeant humbly explained. "They mean you no harm if you do the same. They only wish to protect the wisdom of Mo-tah."
"If you say so," Hovart wasnít too sure what the woman had said as it made little sense to him. "Look, just keep them on your side of the camp and everything will be fine."
"Very well," the sergeant nodded then walked away, leaving the bewildered lieutenant shaking his head.
"Sure hope you know what youíre doing, Captain," Hovart muttered as he closed the door to his hut.
Using a tray she had used to carry her most recent meal, Terri carried sand into the hut and spread it on the table.
"Whatís this?" Tarp asked, looking up from the blanket she was sewing into the resemblance of a pack.
Without answering, Terri smoothed the sand before beginning to draw.
"Okay," Tarp put down her work and stood to investigate Terriís activity. "Guess Iíll just have to come see what youíre doing since you wonít tell me," she gazed down at what was obviously a map of the camp and surrounding valley.
"Itís a map," Terri continued to draw in the sand.
"I see that."
"This is the gully," Terri pointed to a line that started at the back of the camp and ran straight for a short distance before sharply curving to the right. "And this is the bend you will hide behind."
"Where does it go from there?"
"This way to the foothills," Terri extended the line, tracing the creekís winding route across the valley floor.
"How do you know that, Terri? You can barely see as far as the bend from the camp."
"When I first arrived in camp, I climbed on top of the food hut. Itís the tallest building," Terri explained. "I wanted to see if there was a way out."
"So, you did think about escaping?"
"Yes. I thought if we could get high enough, we could jump over the vaporizing field. I borrowed a plate from the food hut and threw it as high and as far as I could."
Terri turned, facing Tarp she smirked, "letís just say, there was one less plate to wash that day."
"Gotcha," Tarp smiled back. "I take it, you took a look around while you were up there."
"Yes. Other than the creek gully, the valley floor is flat without any places to hide. Itís probably why the Alliance chose it for a prisoner-ofĖwar camp."
"Wouldnít think it would matter considering they have the vaporizing fences."
"They are surely aware of the fieldís one flaw. They must have wanted some place where they could easily find us if the fieldís activation were to fail for some reason."
"Hmm," Tarp studied the map.
"Do you know anything about the mountains around the valley."
"Not much," Terri began to draw in the formations. "Just what I can see from here. There is the pass here you think is the one that leads to the base camp. And I think there is another here," she disturbed the sand with her finger. "The cruisers always come from that direction and returned the same way. They must have a camp somewhere in the area or there is a way through the mountains that they use."
"Probably right on both counts," Tarp muttered. "Guess that should be an area to avoid once I get out of here."
"Tarp, we need to go over what youíll do if you do get through the barrier."
"When I get through the barrier," Tarp correctly.
"When," Terri agreed, smiling.
"Okay," Tarp smiled back, "what do we need to talk about."
"Well, first how do you plan to go through the fence."
"Oh," Tarp thought for a moment as she returned to the cot and her sewing. "I guess I figured Iíd just run for it and duck under the wire when I got to it."
"No," Terri walked over to join Tarp on the cot. "That will take too long. We donít know how much time the power will be off so you canít waste any time stopping to duck under the wire. Youíll need to run as fast as you can and dive over it."
"Wonít that take more time having to pick myself up on the other side?"
"Good point. What if you tuck yourself into a ball when you clear the fence? Your momentum will roll you back up onto your feet and you can continue running without losing much time."
"Tuck and roll," Terri tried to visualize the movement. "It might work. Think we could practice that without someone getting suspicious?"
"Iíll just say itís another of your crazy exercise regimes," Terri snickered. To the amusement of many in the camp, Tarp had been doing her daily exercises outside due to the cramped interior of their hut.
"Boy, no one will question that will they?" Tarp laughed with Terri. "Okay, I tuck and roll over the fence. What next?"
"Well, if Hovart can keep the guards attention focused on the gate," Terri began to think. "You should be able to run alongside the gully for a ways before jumping into it. That would save you some time and would be a lot easier than having to crawl against the flow of the water."
"Fifty strides. No more."
"And speaking of having to crawl in the water, how do you plan to keep that dry," Terri poked a finger at the pack Tarp was making.
"Good question." A knock at the hutís door prevented her from answering further.
"Just a moment," Terri rose to stop anyone from entering. She didnít want whoever was outside the door to see the map or what Tarp was doing.
"Itís me, Captain," Lieutenant Hovart pushed open the door, quickly closing it behind him.
"Is there a problem, Lieutenant," Tarp questioned the officer.
"No." Spying the sand-covered table, the lieutenant stepped over to investigate. "Good idea," he nodded, "to know what youíre getting into. Looks like your day on top of the food hut is starting to pay off," he told Terri.
"What do you have there?" Terri asked of the package under the manís arm.
"Oh," Hovart carried the package over and dropped it on the cot next to Tarp, several smaller items spilling out of it.
"Whatís all this?" Tarp asked as she picked up one of the smaller packages.
"I figured the new commanding officer would like to have an up-to-date inventory. So I spent the morning going through the meager supplies we have on hand," Hovart was clearly proud of himself. "Found a few things that I thought you might be able to use. Not really sure why the Alliance even left some of this stuff around here but since they did, you might as well take advantage of it."
"Moisture bags," Tarp opened the package to reveal a dozen of the watertight sacks. "This is great," she exclaimed. "What else?"
Hovart leaned down to identify the rest of the gear, "extra blankets, couple of shirts I found, and some socks no one claimed. I figured youíd be needing dry ones once you get clear of the creek. Some old towels that can be ripped into bandages and what medical supplies I could take from first aid without anyone noticing theyíd gone missing. And this," he held up a jagged piece of metal scrap about the length of his forearm and as thick as one of the chair legs. One end was blunted but the other end had been fractured leaving a sharp jagged point. "It isnít much but it can serve as a weapon until you find something better."
"Thank you, Lieutenant," Tarp took the piece of metal from Hovart. "I really do appreciate you going to all this trouble."
"Trouble will be worth it, Captain, if it means you get us out of here."
"Believe me, Lieutenant," Tarp smiled at the man who she knew felt she had no chance to succeed. "I wonít stop until I do just that."
"Yeah," Hovart shrugged. "At least, youíre willing to try. I better be getting back. Donít want the troops thinking Iím getting too friendly with you."
"No, we donít want that," Tarp chuckled as the man left the hut as quickly as he had entered it.
"Told you," Terri sat beside Tarp, examining the delivered items.
"Told me what?" Tarp looked quizzically at Terri.
"You could trust him."
"Ha," Tarp leaned over, bumping shoulders with the Islander. "Heís just glad to be getting rid of me. One way or the other."
"Donít Tarp," Terri said harshly. "Donít even joke about that."
Caught off guard by Terriís brusque protest, Tarp didnít know what to say.
"Iím sorry," Terri moved to stand but she found herself held in place by the captainís surprisingly strong grasp.
"Terri, listen," Tarp pushed aside the items on the cot so she could scoot closer to the sergeant. "I have no intention of dying in that vaporizing field."
"I know. Itís just," Terri paused.
"Itís just what?"
"Iím sorry. I shouldnít say anything. This is important to you and I should be supporting your effort not trying to talk you out of it."
"You havenít tried to talk me out of it."
Terri looked into Tarpís eyes, "that has been what my brain has told me to do. In my heart," Terri paused again.
"In your heart?" Tarp quietly asked.
"In my heart, I donít what to lose you."
Reaching up, Tarp gently placed her hand against Terriís cheek and smiled when the Islander leaned into her touch. "Weíve only known each other a few days, Terri."
"Yet," Terri reached up, cupping her hand against Tarpís. "I feel something for you. I donít know where these feelings may take me. But I do know that I donít what to miss what may come. You must promise me that you will survive. And that you will return," she leaned forward until her forehead rested against Tarpís.
"I promise," Tarp breathed. "Iíd like to know what may come, too."
Sergeant Arhina lay on her cot staring up at the ceiling. As had happened several times in the past few days, the events of a certain morning continued to replay in her mind.
From the top step in front of the hut she had stood and watched with little interest as the Alliance cruiser approached the camp. And had almost turned away to re-enter her hut when the prisoner was pulled from the transport. It was the shouts of the other prisoners that had kept her watching and she would never forget the look on the unnamed manís face as he was thrown into the vaporizing field.
It was not the only death in the vaporizing field the sergeant had witnessed. A couple of times, tigers had thought the camp offered easy meals and found out too late that the soldiers were not as vulnerable as they appeared. But it was the look of horror on the soldierís face that haunted the sergeantís dreams. She hoped that when the time came, Mo-tah would guide her in timing her warning correctly so Tarpís death would not prove her nightmares true.
The sound of the hutís door opening, startled Terri and she blinked back the tears that had formed in her eyes.
"Iím sorry, were you sleeping?" Tarp asked, entering the hut.
"No," Terri wiped at her eyes, "just thinking."
"About him?" Misunderstanding the cause of Terriís tears, Tarp remembered being awakened the night before by the sergeantís anguished crying. Leaving her own cot, she had sat beside the upset woman gently rocking a sobbing Terri while she told of the soldierís horrific death.
"It wonít happen to me," Tarp said, sitting on the edge of Terriís cot. "You wonít let it."
"You must run as soon as I tell you," Terri rolled up onto her elbow, her face betraying her concerns. "Once you are past the fence, you must keep running for at least fifty strides up the gully before you start crawling. Then you must keep crawling until you reach the bend. Only then, can you stop."
"I know," Tarp smiled, trying to relieve the sergeantís concern. "Weíve gone over this a hundred times."
"You must stay below the level of the gully sides. The cruisers have scanners and theyíll spot you if you have even a single strand of hair showing."
"I know. Iíll be careful."
Terri gazed up at the woman who seemed to be taking the risk lightly, "please, Tarp, you must do as I say."
"I will. Believe me, I wonít do anything to get recaptured. And Iím definitely not going to stay anywhere near that vaporizing field. When you give me the word, Iíll be running as if my life depended on it."
"I know," the captain smiled again. "You just be ready when I come back."
"I wonít breath until I see you again."
"Well, breath a little," Tarp laughed. "You donít know how long Iíll be gone."
"Are you sure about this?" Terri asked, not for the first time.
"Cruiser coming," a shout was heard outside in the camp before Tarp could answer.
"Too late now to worry about that," grabbing her pack, Tarp was already running for the door with Terri on her heels.
As the rest of the soldiers hurried for the campís gate, the two women ran for the opposite side of the camp where the gully was the closest to the vaporizer fence. Hidden behind the food hut, Tarp bounced nervously on the balls of her feet while Terri peered around the corner of the building to watch the guards.
"Cruiser stopped," the sergeant informed the waiting captain. "Guard is getting out. Get ready."
Tarp quickly adjusted the pack on her back before tensing into a sprinterís crouch, prepared to run for the fence as soon as the Terri gave the word.
Terri, wiping at the sweat breaking out on her forehead, watched the guard approach the box where he would enter the code to deactivate the vaporizer field. She waited as the man stepped back to listen for the tones announcing his code had been accepted. As soon as the first chime sounded, she screamed, "GO!"
Tarp bolted into motion, her legs pumping beneath her driving her boots against the ground to propel her forward. Reaching the barrier, she didnít hesitate in thrusting her body lengthwise to soar over the wire. Tucking into a ball as she dropped to the ground, Tarp rolled back up onto her feet running away from the fence and for the gully. Counting her strides as each boot pounded the hard dirt, when she reached fifty she leaped into the relative safety of the ditch.
Keeping her body as low as possible, Tarp immediately began to crawl along the stony creek bed. The gully was shallow and narrow with fast moving water covering its rocky bottom and she struggled to keep her pack above the rushing water. It was only when she heard the distinct sound of a second body plopping into the creek that she realized she wasnít alone. Stopping abruptly, she twisted her head back, looking over her shoulder to confront who ever was following her.
"Keep moving," Terri smirked at the puzzled but pleased captain. "We can talk later."
"That we will," Tarp said, turning back around. She could already feel bruises started to form on her palms and knees as she moved as rapidly as possible, crawling over the sharp rocks and other debris that lined the creek bottom. "That we definitely will."
As soon as Terri shouted at the captain to start running, she had turned to follow her. It wasnít a decision she had consciously made but rather one her body seem to make for her. Before she had time to question what she was doing, she was flying through the air over the wire fence. Landing hard on her shoulder, she struggled to her feet and raced after the captain. Diving into the gully, she dropped into the cool water and began crawling behind the other woman. When Tarp looked back to see who was chasing her, the sergeant couldnít help but smile at the look on the captainís face. It was then that she knew she had done the right thing by following her.
Being careful to keep their bodies as low beneath creekís shallow walls as possible, the women continued to crawl even after they reached the bend that marked their initial destination. They labored against the current until they came to a spot where the ravine widened just enough for them to get out of the cold water and still remain hidden from any cruisers traveling in the valley.
Tarp pulled herself up onto the dry spot of ground, inching as close to the ravineís side as possible so the sergeant would have room to also pull her body out of the water.
"You should have told me," Tarp muttered as the exhausted women lay side-by-side, the hot afternoon sun already at work drying their wet clothes.
"I didnít know," Terri rolled her head so she could face the captain.
"I didnít know," the sergeant shrugged. "When I told you to go, my legs just seemed to start running after you. By the time I figured out what I had done, I were diving into the gully."
"You could have been killed," Tarpís voice was soft and filled with genuine concern.
"I did nothing more than you," Terri gently reminded the other woman.
"Youíre important to your people." Tarp turned her face away from the sergeant before continuing. "No one would have missed me if I didnít make it."
Terri heard the pain in the words and reached out cupping a tender hand around Tarpís chin, she turned the captainís head back to face her. "I would have missed you," she whispered.
The women said nothing for several minutes, content to simply stare into each otherís eyes.
"Now what?" Terri asked, finally breaking the silence.
"Well," Tarp lifted her head just enough to take in their present situation. "We can either lay here in the sun and wait for dark or we can keep going and try to get as far as we can by nightfall."
"What do you think?"
"We keep moving. The more distance we can cover now means the shorter distance to the foothills when we get out of here."
"Okay," Terri rolled over on her side to re-enter the water. "Oof," she groaned as she placed her weight on her injured shoulder.
"Whatís wrong?" Tarp asked, worriedly.
"Hurt my shoulder when I hit the ground after the fence," Terri explained, rolling back onto her back.
"Let me take a look." Unable to sit up without giving away their location, Tarp rolled onto her side to put her in position to examine the injury. "You were supposed to tuck and roll," she groused as she gingerly poked around the bruised tissue.
"Looks easier than it is," Terri grumbled. She had watched Tarp practice the maneuver and complete it seemingly effortlessly. But her own attempt to tuck her long body into a ball before hitting the ground had been a disaster. She was glad the captain running in front of her hadnít witnessed her feeble attempt to duplicate the smaller womanís smooth movements.
"Sometimes, it helps to be small," Tarp smiled. "Doesnít appear that anything is broken but maybe we should stay put for a while."
"No," Terri shook her head. "I can continue. Besides the cold water seems to help, it doesnít hurt as much."
"Okay, letís go. But if it starts to cause you problems, say so and weíll stop." Tarp didnít want to stay unless they really had to. Waiting around always made her crazy, sheíd much rather be moving even if they werenít sure what they might encounter in the shallow ravine.
"Deal," Terri agreed as she slipped back into the creek.
Tarp let Terri get a few feet ahead before she slipped into the water and began to follow.
The women worked their way along the creek bottom, glad to have the rocks and stones give way to softer sand the further from camp they crawled. And the creek deepened a little making it possible for them to pull their buoyant bodies upstream without having to damage their hands, elbows and knees any more than they already were. A couple of hours before sunset, Terri suggested they find a place to leave the water so the warm sun could dry their clothes and Tarp readily agreed.
They pulled themselves out of the creek where a long, flat boulder projected out from the gullyís mud wall. It would provide a haven from the water and the heat absorbed by the rock during the long day would make quick work of drying their clothes and warming their chilled bodies. It was also with welcome relief they noticed the gully sides had deepened, provided enough height that they would be able to sit on the boulder without fear of being seen by any passing Alliance cruiser.
"Clothes will dry faster if we take them off and spread them on the rock," Terri said as the women climbed up onto the boulder.
"Good idea," Tarp shook off the pack and started unlacing her soggy boots. "Let me help," she said when she saw Terri fumbling one-handed with the buttons on her shirt.
"Thank you," Terri smiled, grateful for the help. She couldnít wait to get off her drenched clothing and let the sunís warmth at her wet skin.
"Howís the shoulder," Tarp asked as she unbuttoned the shirt.
"Sore," Terri groaned in pain when the captain tried to pull the shirt free.
"Sorry, but I canít pull it out of you pants. Youíll have to loosen the belt first."
Terri reached down to unbuckle her belt and found she couldnít release the swollen leather.
"Here, let me do it. Lay back and Iíll take your boots and pants off."
Cold, tired and starting to feel a lot of pain from her warming shoulder, Terri didnít argue. She let the captain help her lay back on the warm stone.
Tarp moved quickly to untie the sergeantís boots and pull them free along with the socks she wore. Then she released the belt buckle and pulled off the wet pants. With her trousers removed, the captain helped Terri sit back up and easily removed the shirt. She spread the wet clothes out in the sun before setting to work removing her own wet clothing and spreading them out to dry. As she settled back down beside Terri, her stomach growled.
"Good thing we packed lots of food," Tarp laughed reaching for the pack she had discarded moments before.
Since deciding Tarp would attempt her escape, the women had used their trips to the food hut to carefully select food that the captain could take with her. They had added several days worth of hard biscuits and crackers, cheese, and dried meat to their trays and carried it back to their hut along with their regular meals. All of it had been wrapped in the waterproof containers Lieutenant Hovart had somehow managed to obtain from the meager supplies the camp was given by the guards.
"Guess with two of us, weíll have to ration it though," Tarp said as she handed a couple of crackers and a piece of cheese to the sergeant.
"Iím not hungry," Terri fibbed but her own growling stomach gave her away.
"Yes, you are," Tarp picked up the sergeantís hand, placing the food in her palm. "Eat."
"But we did not prepare for two when we..."
"Look, Terri," Tarp knew what the woman was about to say and didnít want to hear it. "Youíre here. We canít change that now so letís stop worrying about it. If weíre going to make it, we have to eat while we can and keep our strength up. Besides Iím sure weíll be able to find food once we get into the mountains. Luckily, the Alliance hasnít stripped those forests yet."
"No buts. Eat. Then we rest. I want to leave this gully as soon as itís dark enough so that any soldiers out for an evening walk around the camp wonít spot us. Go on," she lifted Terriís hand to her mouth, "eat. Please. Iím not going to unless you do," she threatened, hoping it would convince the reluctant woman that there was enough food for both of them.
Tarp helped Terri redress as soon as their clothes dried. Unable to stop her eyes from gazing the naked body before her, she said nothing as she slid the material over the sergeantís skin.
"Do you like what you see?" Terri asked after seeing the look on the captainís face.
"Very much," Tarp smiled. "You are a very beautiful woman."
"You are not shy about looking at my body," Terri observed.
"Should I be?"
"I have noticed that some Mainlanders do not find pleasure in seeing another unclothed."
"Donít know what theyíre missing," Tarp teased. Finished with dressing Terri, she pulled her own boots on and tightened the laces.
"But it is true, is it not?"
"Yes. Most donít believe that the body should be exposed except to oneís mate."
"I love women," Tarp grinned. "And I love looking at them. Clothed or not."
"Especially not, I think," Terri laughed.
"Especially not," Tarp agreed. "Here, letís eat this before we go," she passed some dried meat and cheese to Terri.
"Do you have no family on Organi?" Terri asked remembering Tarpís earlier comment about no one missing her.
"No. My mother and father believed in the old ways. They refused to come to Organi and believed me a fool for doing so."
"Any other family?"
"No," Tarp scooted down to the edge of the boulder, cupping her hands under the surface of the cold water and lifting them to her mouth to drink. "I am an only child. What about you?"
"My father died when I was quite small. I have three younger sisters and four younger brothers."
"Wow," Tarp looked over her shoulder at the sergeant, "big family."
"What about your mother?"
"I hope she is well."
"Uh?" Tarp was puzzled by the answer.
"She was very ill the last time I saw her."
"Iím sorry," Tarp shuffled back to where Terri sat, resting a comforting hand on her arm.
"She is an Advisor?" Tarp asked, remembering that Terri said the honor was passed from mother to daughter.
"How many Advisors are they?"
"We are the only family honored by Mo-tah."
"Terri," Tarp exclaimed, shocked by the revelation. "Youíre too important to your people to be here. If something should happen to you,"
"Mo-tah will protect me."
"Especially with you mother ill," Tarp continued, having not heard Terriís response.
"Tarp," Terri placed a finger against the captainís lips. "Mo-tah will protect me. Just as she has my mother. It is by her wish that we remain or pass from Organi. We serve until she calls us."
"But what will happen if both of you die?"
"Mo-Tah never calls us at the same time," Terri said, as if the war raging on the planet could not affect that possibility.
"But if your mother dies, what will your people do until you return?" Thinking of the Islanders in the prison camp, Tarp asked, "arenít you afraid of leaving them?"
"They know that I do what is best for them. They will await my return."
"You sound pretty convincing."
"Because it is the truth."
"I can tell I have much to learn about you," Tarp looked up at the darkening sky. "Figure Iíll have plenty of time for that on our walk over those mountains."
"As I will have to learn about you."
"Well," Tarp stood, lifting the pack and strapping it to her back, "should we get started."
It didnít take long for the women to discover they were unable to safely run across the valley floor in the darkness. What appeared from the camp to be relatively smooth ground turned out to be a rough, uneven, and deeply rutted surface that, in order to avoid injuring themselves, the women were forced to walk across. Only breaking into a slow trot whenever the landscape allowed.
"At this rate, weíre not going to reach the foothills by morning," Tarp observed, walking through another rut left behind by the Alliance tree processing machines. "Itíll be hard to find someplace to hide during the day but we better start looking."
"I believe that there is something that will serve that purpose not too far from here," Terri squinted to try to see further in the darkness.
"Over there, I think," Terri pointed a little to the right of the course they had been traveling.
"What is it?" Tarp strained to see where the sergeant was pointing but nothing stood out to her eyes.
"Come on," Terri starting walking without answering.
"Okay, but the sun will be coming up over those mountains in another hour," Tarp said as she followed. "So we better find what youíre looking for soon."
As they walked, Tarp saw what appeared to be a shadow taking shape in the blackness. She stopped to get a better look at the illusion, "Whatís that?"
"Looks like our hiding spot," Terri quickened her steps towards the dark shape.
"Hold on," Tarp grabbed Terriís arm, holding her in place. "We donít know what that is. It could be an Alliance cruiser waiting for us to walk up to it."
"They donít like to travel at night," Terri lifted Tarpís hand from her arm but kept holding it. "Theyíre afraid of the tigers."
"Arenít you?" Tarp looked around as if she would be able to spot the elusive cats in the dark.
"Terri, we canít stand here until the sun comes up. Itís an Alliance tree processor thatís been abandoned out here ever since Iíve been in the camp. Come on, the sooner we get to it, the sooner weíll be able to find some place safe to hide for the day."
"Okay," Tarp reached back, pulling the makeshift dagger from the top of her pack where she carried it. "But you stay behind me. With your bad shoulder, you wonít be much good if we have to fight."
"Yes, Captain," Terri stepped behind the smaller woman, bowing at the waist. "Lead on."
"A funny soothsayer," Tarp groused good-naturedly as she moved toward the shadow. "Maybe Hovart was right about you."
Tarp cautiously approached the silent machine, the dagger held tightly in her right hand. Stopping periodically to listen for any sound of activity, the captain silently eased her way along the side of the massive machine. She reached the back end of the processor and slipped between it and its trailing lumber carrier. Again she paused to listen.
"Okay," Tarp whispered to Terri who was standing a stride behind her. "Doesnít seem to be any Alliance guards."
"Now what?" Terri whispered back.
"Letís see if we can find a way to get inside of it," Tarp looked up at the wall of metal beside them. "Weíll be safe from their probes inside."
"Any ideas?" Terri asked as she craned her neck upwards. "This thing is really big," she said in awe of the tree-eating monster.
"Yeah," Tarp agreed. "The Alliance has to have a way to get the robots in and out of this. Come on," she turned to walk along the machineís side, her eyes scanning for any opening. "There must be some sort of door to get inside."
"Sun is coming up," Terri observed as she followed the captain. "That should help us spot something."
Tarp was studying the various irregularities on the surface of the machineís side. Her frustration mounting as none of the possible openings looked big enough for the women to get through. Just as she was about to move to the front of the mammoth piece of equipment, she spotted what appeared to be a door located high above her head near the top of the processor. "There," she pointed for Terri to see. "Now all we have to do is figure out a way to get up there."
"Well, you could stand on my shoulders," Terri offered, her head tilted upwards as she studied the situation.
"Still wonít be enough."
"They must have a way to reach up there."
"You would think so," Tarp was running her hands over the machineís covering. "Must be a release or something," she muttered as she searched for a hidden panel.
"Or once they finish building them, they never need to go back inside." Terri joined the captain in her search. "Maybe thatís why they just left it here when it stopped working."
"Doubt that. Even the Alliance couldnít afford to just replace these with new ones if something goes wrong."
"Whatís this?" Terri asked as her hands felt a slight difference in the temperature of the metal surface.
"What?" Tarp asked, unable to see anything out of the ordinary where the sergeantís hands rested.
"Feel here," Terri said. "It feels warm. Like the quartz lamp back in the camp hut."
"Yes, it does," Tarp smiled at the sergeant. "Now we just need to find a way to get it to open. The Alliance uses quartz crystals for power, just like we use quartz crystals in our tasars. The crystals produce a small amount of heat as they work. My guess is that thereís some sort of control panel under here."
Tarp began to investigate at the area around the warm spot with her dagger, seeking any weakness. Carefully feeling around the suspected panel, she forced the sharp point of the dagger into the metallic skin of the processor and slowly began to cut into the machine.
Leaving the captain to concentrate on her work, the sergeant leaned her back against the processor. After a few moments, she began to feel something poking uncomfortably into her back. Shifting her weight back onto her boots, she turned to see what was causing her irritation. A small button no bigger than a thumbnail was raised slightly above the surface of the processorís side.
"Wonder what this is?" Terri mumbled, poking the button.
"Donít!" Tarp cried out, jumping back and raising her dagger, ready to protect them from any impending attack.
"Whatís wrong?" Terri asked, her head jerking around to see what had caused the captainís concern.
Tarp didnít answer as she waited to see if Terriís action had activated any hidden Alliance security alarms. "You canít just go around poking buttons you find," she groused, relaxing when no Alliance guards materialized from inside the processor. "At least, give me some warning before you do anything."
"Oh," Terri grinned. "Sorry."
"Itís okay," Tarp smiled back. "It just scared me when the door popped open. Letís see what weíve got."
Both women looked into the small opening that Terri had caused to be revealed. A single toggle switch rested inside.
"Well, do we try it?" Tarp asked.
"Donít think we have much choice," Terri said as the sun cleared the mountain ridges in the south and began to light the valley with its strong rays.
Tarp looked over her shoulder at the rising sun. "No, it doesnít appear we do." Turning back around, she reached inside the box and flipped the switch.
At first nothing happened. Then just as the women were beginning to think that the switch was not the door access they were seeking, a slight whirring sound started from deep inside the processor. Tarp stepped back, pulling Terri with her. They watched as a slot opened below the door and a ladder slowly emerged, dropping down to them. When the ladder stretched all the way to the ground, the whirring stopped and the women were left in silence.
"Shall we?" Tarp asked, stepping up to the ladder and testing its strength. "Seems sturdy enough."
"You go first," Terri nodded. "I may be a little slow with my shoulder."
"Why donít you stay here until I check things out. Iíll come back down and help you once I get the door open," Tarp knew Terriís injured shoulder must have tightened up during their escape and was sure it had to be causing the woman a lot of pain. But the sergeant had not spoken one word of complaint all night.
"No, Iíll be fine," Terri assured the captain. "Besides, weíre safer on the ladder than the ground. Alliance cruisers only scan from the ground up to the height of the tallest person. Up there weíll be above any scans made by passing cruisers."
Knowing the sergeant was right, Tarp reluctantly agreed. "Okay, but if you have any trouble."
"Iíll let you know, Midge," Terri grinned at the officer. "Letís go, Iím tired and the sooner we get inside this thing, the sooner we can get some sleep."
Tarp paused at the use of a shortened version of her hated nickname. Somehow the word coming out of the sergeantís mouth held none of the contempt or scorn the original term always conveyed. Deciding she liked the sergeantís modification, she started up the ladder. "Okay, letís get inside this monstrosity."
After the difficulty they had in locating the release button for the ladder, Tarp was surprised to find the door unlocked when she reached it. Pulling it open she, stepped into the cramped cab to gain solid footing before turning to help Terri who had been hauling herself up the ladder using only her good arm.
"Here," Tarp told the sergeant, "give me hand." She took a firm hold on Terriís hand and forearm, giving the injured woman welcome support as she climbed the few remaining rungs of the ladder.
"Not much room in here," Terri said as she stepped inside to join Tarp. "We could throw some of these robots outside."
"Better not," Tarp commented, looking around at the idle androids. "They might have some kind of sensor devices on them." She pushed the door shut then shrugged off the pack, setting it on the floor out of the way. We probably should just figure out a way to be in here without disturbing them."
"Okay," Terri agreed, placing her back to the door and sliding to the floor. Rubbing her sore shoulder, she stretched her legs out in front of her.
"How you doing?" Tarp asked when she saw the grimace on the sergeantís face.
"Sore," Terri smiled but she couldnít hide the pain reflected in her eyes.
"Why donít I take a look," Tarp knelt beside Terri.
"Itís okay," Terri smiled again, failing in her half-hearted attempt to assure the captain.
"Terri, please let me take a look," the captain asked quietly as she began to unbutton the womanís shirt.
Terri didnít argue when Tarp gently pulled her weight away from the door so she could slip her shirt off.
"Nasty bruise you got yourself," Tarp pursed her lips together in sympathy at the sight of the dark purplish-black skin tone. "It could use some salve which we unfortunately donít have," she pulled the shirt back into place. "Weíll just have to find a soft place for you to sleep while weíre here."
"Donít think they equip these things with cushy mattresses for the robots," Terri teased, gingerly leaning back against the door. "Itíll be fine in a couple of days."
"Well, in the meantime, weíll figure something out," Tarp declared reaching for the pack. "Letís eat then get some sleep. Itís going to be a long day and I have a hunch this place is going to heat up like an oven before long." She removed some bread, cheese and dried meat from the pack, handing half to Terri and placing their canteen on the floor between them.
"Thank you," Terri accepted the meager meal. "Looks like we may have to take turns sleeping," she said as she mentally measured the small amount of unoccupied room in the cab.
Tarp scooted around so she could see what Terri was talking about. The cab was approximately half the size of the hut they had shared in the camp. Control panels covered by a wide variety of oddly sized and shaped lights, buttons and switches lined each side. And robots, frozen in place when the processorís power failed, were positioned in front of the panels. A narrow strip of floor, no more than one stride wide, beginning at the door and ending at the opposite wall was the only available room for the women.
"You lay down first," Tarp decided, turning back around to face Terri. "Iíll keep watch in case any Alliance cruiser comes to take a look."
"And what will you do if one does?" Terri asked, skeptically.
"Well," Tarp slowly smiled. She knew as well as the sergeant that the women had no chance of escaping from a cruiser if one was to locate them on a scan. "I guess weíll just have to hope one doesnít."
"Yeah," Terri grinned.
"Still, thereís only room for one of us to sleep at a time," Tarp said, slipping her jacket off and folding it into a rough pillow. "So go ahead and stretch out," she handed the pillow to the sergeant.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. Go on."
Terri nodded before scooting along the floor until she was far enough away from the doorway to lay down. Placing the folding jacket under her head, she tried lying on her back but that only made her shoulder ache. She rolled over onto her stomach but immediately regretted the action. Rolling onto her side gave her some relief but after a few minutes her shoulder began to protest.
"Wish I had something to lay my arm over," Terri muttered, sitting back up to look around the room. Seeing nothing that would serve her purpose, she laid back down.
Tarp agonized as she watched Terri struggling to find a comfortable position. When the sergeant groaned in pain as she lay back down onto the floor, the captain could no longer remain idle. "Will this work?" she asked as she lay beside Terri and carefully lifted her injured arm to drape it over her waist.
"Perfect," Terri sighed at the instant release of pain she felt in her shoulder.
"Good," Tarp smiled when the sergeant snuggled closer to her in order to gain an even more comfortable position.
"Youíre welcome. Sleep well"
Receiving no response, Tarp glanced down at Terri to find the woman already fast asleep. Smiling, she bent her arm up placing it under her head and quickly followed the sergeantís lead.
Continued - Part 2
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Author of the Sweetwater to be published by Regal Crest in 2006
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