They hit the ramp running full tilt, boots slipping on the wet surface, lunging through the open hatch. She doesn't stop until she hits the far wall. Both hands flattening against cold metal, she leans heavily against the bulkhead as she struggles to breathe. Sounds come to her in fragmented bursts, a frustrated roar from their pursuers, the mechanical whir of the ramp retracting, the hatch closing, the pounding of rain against the hull.
"Sir? Officer Teeg?" Ronan's voice is loud, startling, somewhere near her left shoulder.
It was supposed to be a simple mission, but then weren't they all?
Hylaxia XV had been wracked by civil war for decades, and by this point there was very little there worth saving. But for reasons not yet revealed, High Command had decided to respond when one faction asked for Peacekeeper support. Their team had been sent to aid one of the faction's leaders, besieged in his compound by a battalion of Vorcarian mercenaries hired by the opposing side.
The little ship shudders. She recognizes the dull thumping sound of the main cannons firing, echoed by the crack of distant thunder.
"Officer Levael." Crais' voice is hoarse but steady. "Damage report."
"The treblin stabilizer is back online, sir. We lost nearly half our fuel before I could stop the leak, but we still have enough to reach the carrier. Should be about two solar days at hetch five."
"Very good." Crais nods once, but she knows he won't be satisfied until he's inspected the damaged stabilizer and fuel tanks himself. "You have the bridge. Prepare for immediate lift-off."
He turns back to her, touches her arm. She nods once, doesn't have enough breath left to say, I'm fine, sir.
They were a team of five, including their pilot, when they came to this planet.
The Vorcarians' anti-aircraft cannons were more advanced than they expected, and the Marauder's treblin engine had been struck in their first strafing run. Smoke rising from the enemy's northwest perimeter told her they'd scored at least a few hits, as the hatch slowly opened and the ground rushed upward at dizzying speed.
The defenders' guns fell silent. They slowed their descent, coming to hover over the bunker's pitted concrete roof as the treblin stabilizer failed completely. The ship lurched violently, nearly shaking them loose while they descended on ropes.
Teeg landed on her feet, unhooking the rope from her vest with one hand before running across the roof after Crais. Heat blasted in their faces when the Marauder's engines howled. Exhaust trailed after the ship as it rose into the air, banking drunkenly over the enemy's guns.
The entrance hatch was rusted and heavy. They wrestled it open, crouching low as laser bursts flew by over their heads. Storm clouds were already lowering in the sky, tinged dark grayish-yellow like a bruise in the east, while they scrambled down the creaking ladder into musty darkness.
"Main fuel line is ruptured, sir. We've lost half of the primary tank." Levael's voice crackled on the comms before they took two steps down the hallway. "If we lose much more we won't have enough in the reserves to break out of the atmosphere."
"Land in allied territory if you can," Crais ordered, as they jogged toward the war room. There was no dismay in his voice, but she knew the evacuation would be far more difficult with the Marauder even temporarily grounded. The primitive ground transports they'd been told this base held were hardly reliable vehicles, assuming any of them functioned at all. "Maintain comm silence until you have finished making repairs, or until we contact you."
Rifles ready, they shoved aside the minor aides who approached them. Speed, more than anything else, was needed now. The mercenaries might have thought they could starve the Hylaxians out, but now that they'd seen the Peacekeeper vessel they knew they were out of time. Any microt now, they would have no choice but to storm the bunker, or their prey would escape.
They found the local leader in the war room, a short, greenish-blue alien with a bald head and round, bulging eyes. The aides trailing them bowed as he looked at them, keeping their eyes fixed on the ground; Crais strode forward, lowering his rifle. "We must leave now."
The little creature tried to argue. His voice was reedy, high-pitched. "Must delete from our computer systems all files, so the enemy cannot find them. Requires half an arn, before we can leave." He waved at banks of data terminals around the room, robed aliens hunched over them, eight-fingered hands dancing over the keys. Eyes narrowed, Crais shrugged his pack from his shoulders. He pulled out a pulse grenade and attached it to the underside of the nearest terminal.
She remembers high trills of alarm, the aliens backing away as if their terminals were about to spontaneously explode in front of them. "We can destroy your data in less than five hundred microts, once these are set. Officer Teeg!"
"Set grenades throughout the bunker. Use them all if you have to." He ignored the leader's squeal of protest as she nodded. "We will detonate the east side first, as a diversion. Ronan, Maris, take him," he jerked his head at the agitated alien. "Ground transports are in the garage at the west end. Wait for my signal, then drive to the rendezvous point."
There's a low rumbling, a grating sound from the treblin side, before the sudden lurch of the deckplates under her feet tells her they're airborne. Her legs are shaking still, muscles cramped and sore as she follows Crais aft to the straining engines. The smell of spilled cesium is almost overpowering, and she closes her eyes briefly against the steady pounding in her skull.
The fuel lines have been spliced together. The connection looks fragile, but after a careful inspection he says, "It should hold." Black scorch marks cover the dull silver of the primary fuel tank, and she can see where a ragged patch of metal has been welded over the leak. The reserve tank is still reading half full. "Long enough."
He almost stumbles as he turns, recovering before she can react, pushing past her into the Marauder's tiny crew quarters. The comm unit buzzes as they enter. She sits heavily on her bunk, leaning over to unlace her boots, shivering in the chill of the ship's air conditioning as Levael's voice says, "Sir, we are approaching escape velocity."
Blue-white light flashes outside the small viewport, and she knows it's lightning. They are too high already for laser fire to reach them. Ash-gray clouds stream by in shifting patterns as they ascend. The rising whine of the engines drowns out any sounds of thunder.
Crais shrugs out of his sodden jacket, throwing it on his bunk. "Set a course for the carrier, and inform me when we are in communication range." He rests one hand against the curve of the bulkhead, leaning against it for a microt before he looks over his shoulder. One eye seems to squint at her, the flesh around it bruised and purple, beginning to swell. "You're cold. Get some dry clothes on."
It's an effort to move, but she ignores the bone-deep aches, the fatigue dragging at her as she kneels to retrieve a clean uniform from the narrow space under the bunk. Her jacket is stiff with drying mud and some dark green, unidentifiable alien body fluids. She lets it fall to the deck, faces the wall when she pulls off her tunic.
"My assistants, they must go with us." The Hylaxian commander's high voice grated on her ears. He seized Crais' arm with long, bony fingers, his other hand motioning around the room. "Thirty technicians, fifteen officers are here."
Crais jerked his arm away at the touch. "We are here under orders to deliver you to allied forces at a prearranged rendezvous point. The rest are not our concern. They must escape as best as they can."
The alien's eyes widened. "Cannot leave them! These are my comrades, some are my family." When Crais' expression did not change, he added, voice rising to a squeak, "Cannot leave these to be captured. They know too much. Valuable information, fatal in the wrong hands."
"What sort of information?" Crais demanded. No answer, only a vague fluttering of bony hands and an earnest look. Teeg wondered if he was telling the truth, or if he thought he could convince Crais to rescue them all this way.
"Information vital to war effort! Enemies learn, we are lost, all die." The alien motioned north and west, in the direction of his faction's territory. She saw Crais' jaw clench, his hands curling into fists at his sides.
"And they all know too much to be captured? You did not think to mention this, when you requested Peacekeeper assistance?" For a microt she thought he was about to grab the little creature and shake him, but he restrained himself. "We are five soldiers, against an entire mercenary battalion! Our ship is disabled, and we are not equipped or armed for an evacuation such as--" He stopped abruptly, his eyes hard. "How many can fit in one of your ground transports?"
"Six. We have enough vehicles, there are twenty in the garage--"
"Choose three of these to go with you," Crais snapped, overriding him. When the alien hesitated, he reached for the nearest technicians, grabbing two by their collars and shoving them in the direction of the door. "One, two . . ." pushing another after them, "Three." Then, to Ronan, "Take them and go. Comm me when you are about to depart."
She followed Ronan and Maris as they herded the aliens out of the war room. Crais waited until the door closed behind them before falling into step beside her. "Start setting the charges in the north corridor." His voice was low, tense and angry. "Seal all exits except for the west garage. No one leaves here alive unless they are with us."
The commander's hearing was far more sensitive than they'd anticipated. His keening cry of dismay reached a pitch painful to Sebacean ears, seeming to reverberate through her skull, until Maris hit him over the head with his pulse pistol.
She hears Crais grunt in pain behind her, turns in time to see him peel off his wet tunic, rotating his shoulders stiffly as he throws it aside. For the first time she sees the dark red stripe along his left collarbone, fresh blood trickling down his bare chest.
She kneels again, opening the medical kit under her bunk. Her right hand is splotched with deep bruises. The nails are already turning black. Swollen fingers move stiffly as she opens the bottle of antiseptic solution. The clear fluid burns when she pours it over a clean cloth, seeping through the fabric and stinging in the abrasions on her palm.
"This is not necessary--" He stops as she steps closer to him, hisses softly while she swabs at black dirt and crusted dried blood. It's a knife wound, ugly but shallow, and not dangerous as long it doesn't get infected. Setting the cloth aside, she's turning to look for a bandage when his hands clasp her shoulders.
She swallows, noticing for the first time the way her soaked sleeveless undershirt clings to her chest, so that her nipples are clearly visible through the thin material. His face is guarded as always when she looks up at him, but he's watching her closely, dark eyes intent, and there can be no doubt what he's thinking.
This is hardly the time or the place. Her own reaction surprises her; she can feel her heart beating faster already under his gaze. They may be off shift and exhausted, but a Marauder's crew is considered on duty unless the ship is docked aboard the carrier. On a crew as small as this one, there could be accusations of favoritism. She should leave, let him bandage his own wounds, change in Ronan and Levael's quarters, then go to the bridge.
Instead she exhales slowly and runs her thumb gently along his shoulder just above the cut. In a low, strangely breathless voice, she says, "Let me finish, sir."
She's cold, and his hands are warm, and it's been two monens since she's had time for recreation. He releases her, but only for a microt. As she presses a gauze strip over the still-oozing slash, he lifts her shirt, hands sliding up her back. Her fingers are trembling as she tapes the bandage in place, checking to make sure it's secure before his impatient growl stops her. She tosses the tape aside.
It's only biology, she tells herself as she raises her arms to let him pull her shirt off. Release of tension, nothing more, natural reaction to a mission as utterly frelled as this one. What had Intelligence been thinking?
She remembers wondering that as she jogged down the dark hallway toward the north end of the bunker. There were only two exits in this direction, and a small charge was enough to bring down the ceiling in front of them, piles of rubble blocking any escape. She consulted the map Intelligence had given them, calculating where to place the rest of the grenades, wiring them carefully, efficiently. Once she finished, a signal from a remote detonator would be enough to set them off. A touch of one button to collapse the east side of the bunker, a second button to demolish the rest of it.
Panicked Hylaxians shouted shrilly at her as she worked, speaking too fast for the translator microbes to pick up. A few of them carried weapons, long, clumsy-looking rifles of a design she'd never seen, but most were unarmed. She simply pointed toward the war room, told them evacuation procedures would be explained there. There would be no evacuation, of course, but by the time they found that out it would be too late.
There was no time to be angry, no time to wonder what they knew, or why this information had to be protected. Crais had his orders, and now she had hers. They'd heard nothing from Levael, so they could only assume the Marauder was still unable to fly. It would be hard enough for one ground vehicle to slip through the enemy perimeter, even with the Vorcarians distracted by the explosions.
She finished setting the last charge just as Ronan's voice crackled on her comm. "Transport secured, sir, all passengers on board."
"Acknowledged." Crais' reply was curt. "Teeg, what is your position?"
"North hallway, moving toward the war room." Powdered plaster fell in a soft cascade from the ceiling, whispering against the cold floor and stinging in her eyes as the ground jumped. "I'll be at the garage in two hundred microts, sir."
The muffled rumble of the cannons was louder now, the reports closer together. The Vorcarians were moving their artillery closer. Softening them up for the final assault. She wiped tears from her eyes with the back of one grimy hand.
It wouldn't be long now.
She looks down, feeling strangely awkward as she runs her hands across his chest, letting his warmth soak into her cold fingers. His skin is damp with sweat and rain, marked by old scars and newer dark bruises.
She's lived twenty-four cycles, and this is hardly new to her. But more often she's done this with anonymous strangers, rarely with anyone she knows. Though she can hardly say she knows Crais, for all she's served under him for more than a cycle.
Every instructor she ever had told her conscripts are more emotionally open, prone to forming strong and inappropriate bonds of affection, less able to control their feelings and focus on their duties. But Crais has always struck her as the opposite extreme, holding himself apart even from the casual camaraderie of the team. She's never seen him show any emotions save anger and frustration.
He pulls her toward him now, one arm fitting around her back, his other hand moving to cover her breast, stroking one callused thumb across her nipple. She shivers again, pressing her lips to the hollow of his throat where she can feel his pulse racing. He tastes like sweat and smoke and cement dust.
Their legs tangle together as he pushes her back toward the wall; she stumbles, and he catches her, supporting her with one arm. She's surprised he has the strength left. He's trembling now as he pushes her into the bulkhead, one knee forcing her thighs apart, and she bites down hard on her lower lip to suppress a moan.
She hears his breath catch when she arches into him, heat spreading between her legs as she grinds her hips against his, feeling his erection through wet leather. One hand grips his shoulder as he rubs himself against her; the other slips between their bodies, searching for the fly on his trousers. A ragged sigh warms her ear, half exhaustion, half desire, before his mouth roughly claims her neck.
"Charges are set, sir." The guns were silent, and even through the thick walls she could hear the bloodtrackers howling. Teeg and Crais had remained behind to cover the team's retreat after he'd signaled Maris and Ronan to move out. Then they'd waited. Two hundred microts, enough time for the transport to reach the surface. He looked at her and they both dropped to the floor.
She didn't see him hit the button. Microts of silence seemed to stretch, broken by a deep, concussive boom and the roar of crumbling concrete. Her face struck the floor hard as the ground rocked under them, her teeth cutting the inside of her lower lip.
The eerie howls were closer now as she pushed herself to her knees, spitting out blood. Crais was already sprinting for another transport. Shrill, wailing cries sounded down the hallway as she lurched to her feet, wrenching open the opposite door and falling into the copilot's seat while he started the engine. He handed her the detonator, and she held it like some precious, fragile thing.
Wheels spun as he jerked on the steering controls, muttering something in a colonial slang the translator microbes refused to render, sending the vehicle spinning in a circle before he could get it aimed at the exit ramp. The engine growled unevenly when he accelerated, and for a brief microt it seemed to die altogether, a motra from the exit, before roaring back to life with a reluctant rumble.
Outside, the air was humid and sticky, oppressive, filled with the acrid smell of powdered cement. One rutted dirt road led away from the bunker, moving in languid, sinuous curves toward the west. The Vorcarian batteries were still trained on the east end of the compound, where a column of black smoke wavered toward the darkening sky.
The bloodtrackers were swarming over the bunker, two or three struggling to open the roof hatch while the rest milled around the wrecked half in apparent confusion. The wind blew northwest, smoke and dust drifting toward them.
She could see Maris' transport for a microt as it veered off the road, cutting across rolling grasslands, disappearing behind a hill. No one else seemed to notice. The cannons to the north of the bunker had fallen silent, and the trench on that side appeared empty.
They followed the road, hoping to draw attention away from the rest of the team and the aliens. Her thumb hovered over the second detonator button until Crais nodded. They were far enough away that the shock wave didn't reach them, and if the ground shook she didn't notice above the jolting of the vehicle.
Fat raindrops splashed on the roof as she turned in her seat, watching the structure collapse in on itself, bright orange flames flickering through roiling smoke. The Vorcarians began to retreat back to the south trench, those who hadn't been caught in the blasts. Bringing her pulse rifle to her shoulder, she sighted in the general direction of the nearest cannons. One shot blew out the back window, and her mouth stretched in a predatory grin as she fired again, the familiar rush taking her when the first target fell.
A low hill had blocked her view directly east of the ruins, but now she could see a column of mercenaries emerging from behind the rise, loping steadily toward the north. Toward their allies, and the grounded Marauder. "Sir!"
"I see it." Crais pulled on the steering control, swinging the vehicle in a hard turn. "How many pulse grenades do we have left?" Drawing his pistol, he pushed a lever on the controls, increasing power to the engines. Mud spattered across the front window as the transport accelerated, heading back the way they'd come.
"Five, sir." Clasping the rifle between her knees, she reached behind the seat, opening her pack. No need to ask what he was planning; his set, focused expression told her all she needed to know, as he steered them toward the front of the enemy's column.
"Set the timers for two hundred microts." He twisted the steering controls left and right, swerving to avoid a sudden burst of laser fire. The bloodtrackers had seen them and turned to face this new threat, now half a metra away and closing. He thumbed his comm. "Officer Ronan. Status?"
"We are approaching the rendezvous point, sir. We expect to arrive within five hundred microts."
She might have been watching someone else's hands, slender, grease-stained fingers working quickly, priming the remaining grenades, unaffected by the wash of mingled exhilaration and dread flooding through her. One under her seat, one on top of the control panel, three next to the fuel tank.
"The enemy battalion is leaving this area," Crais said, "moving north and west. They may be approaching your position." He glanced at her, a sharp question. She nodded once. "We are attempting to delay them. If you do not hear from us, maintain comm silence until you reach the ship."
Shots plowed into the mud before them as the vehicle lunged off the road, skirting the north side of the bunker. She drew a deep breath. Crais steered directly into the cloud of black smoke blowing from the ruins, and she could see nothing, hear nothing save the sputtering growl of the engine. No sounds came from the remains of the bunker as they passed, only the hungry crackling of flames. If anything was still alive in there, it wouldn't be for much longer.
Smoke hung thick in the air, spilling in through the shattered back window. For a few microts she couldn't breathe, her throat clogged with the sour stench of charring flesh. She heard Crais cough, felt the engine strain as the ground slanted uphill beneath them, then she could see again through the tears streaming from her eyes. They reached the top of the hill microts later.
Bright flashes below them, and a loud rising howl. She looked down the slope at the massed troops. Maybe fifty of them, and more still coming up behind. Crais said, "Now," and she grabbed her rifle, slung her pack over her shoulders and crawled toward the open back window. He slammed down the power lever and the transport's nose tilted downward; she clutched at the edge of the window, sharp glass cutting into her palm. Abandoning the controls, he climbed over the seat to crouch beside her. A brief look, and she braced her legs against the shuddering floor, jumped out and away, feeling his hands shoving her from behind.
She didn't see him jump, but she heard the explosion, felt searing heat against her back before she fell, hugging her rifle against her chest as she rolled downhill. Low, guttural screams, then her head struck something hard and she heard nothing more.
The ship reels, banking upward as they break the atmosphere, and there's a brief, heady microt of weightlessness before the artificial gravity comes on. Unbalanced, they fall in a sweaty, graceless tangle of arms and legs, his body pinning her to the deck.
Her head strikes the floor. White lights explode behind her eyes, and sudden pain flares through her chest, bruises she hadn't yet noticed making themselves felt. Through the ringing in her ears, Teeg hears him murmur something fervent and untranslatable. She's fighting a sudden hysterical urge to laugh as he levers himself up on one elbow, and she can breathe again.
His eyes are dark with obvious frustration, but his hand on her face is surprisingly gentle. Sure fingers trace the line of her cheekbone, threading through wet hair, probing until he finds the raised lump against the back of her skull. She flinches involuntarily, squeezing her eyes shut. The room spins and this time it's not the gravity.
"I'm all right, sir." It's a thick whisper, and she reaches for him blindly, pulling his face down to hers before he can protest. Her lips part under his and the taste of blood fills their mouths, stinging pain as a half-healed cut reopens under his tongue. She remembers the taste of fear, the sharp, bitter taste of futility, and she presses upward into his kiss.
She woke lying face down in the mud, cold water pooling around her, drumming against her back and sliding down her neck. She tried to roll over, striking out with one arm when a hand landed on her shoulder.
"Do not move."
At the familiar voice, she went still.
Lifting her head, she found herself staring into clouded red eyes, an enemy corpse sprawled next to her, dark blood staining his rough wool shirt. Memories returned in rapid flashes, a whirling montage of howls and explosions, smoke and shattered glass. Her voice was rough, hoarse. "Are you injured, sir?"
"I do not believe so. Are you?"
She shook her head, pain stabbing through her head at the motion. What few cuts and bruises she had sustained were not dangerous or disabling, nor painful enough to distract her. Not far away, she could see two more dead mercenaries. Silence lay all around them.
The enemy believed them dead--or too insignificant to risk more troops. They were not the target.
"Officer Ronan, report." Crais spoke quietly into his comm as she ran her hands over her pulse rifle, checking that it was undamaged. They were lying in muddy water, in a low ditch at the base of the hill. The transport was burning. She could smell the smoke, hear the hiss of rain striking puddles of spilled fuel.
"We've reached the rendezvous point, sir. The allied convoy is headed back toward friendly territory now."
She let out a slow sigh of relief. Once the Hylaxians were inside their own territory, Intelligence had assured them, the mercenaries had been instructed not to pursue.
"Acknowledged." He raised his head cautiously, peering out over the edge of the ditch for only a microt before ducking back down. "Return to the ship, and contact us when you arrive."
Lightning flashed, and a war cry rose somewhere farther north, a long howl ending in a chorus of high-pitched yips. Crais looked at her. "The Marauder's last known course would put it due north of here."
Her vision grayed out when she pushed herself to her feet, and for a microt they leaned against each other, her forehead resting on his shoulder, his hands on her arms steadying her. But she nodded at his stern, questioning glance. They set out at a steady jog northwards, making no attempt to seek cover. The rain was growing fiercer, lashing the ground into thick mud. The bloodtrackers would smell them long before seeing them.
As they stumbled across the open, rolling plain, the only sounds came from the driving rain. There was an almost suspicious lack of enemy presence. It seemed too easy.
Half an arn later, she could hear the hum of engines ahead. Crais motioned her down. They both dropped to the ground, lying flat and crawling uphill. Her arms ached and her head was still throbbing, and the black mud seemed to leach away all the heat from her body. At the top of the hill he signaled her to halt, tapping his comm again. "Officer Levael."
"Here, sir." The string of coordinates that followed wasn't far, just north of the border. She could see the convoy now, dull copper transports against the black strip of the road at the base of the hill. From here they looked no larger than insects, trundling toward the northwest. And beyond that she could see the border of their allies' territory, a line of troops defending it, mere black dots.
"Fuel reserves are low, but the leak is stopped. Give me half an arn--"
"You have a quarter arn," Crais snapped, with a wary look over his shoulder. "Are Ronan and Maris with you?"
"Officer Ronan is here." He hesitated a microt. "They were engaged south of the road, before they got to the ship. Officer Maris is dead, sir."
A brief pause. "Contact me when the repairs are finished. And charge the main cannons--"
He broke off abruptly when Teeg gripped his arm. Yellow bursts of light flared all along the defenders' lines, and she ducked back instinctively before she realized those shots weren't aimed at them. "Sir--"
How the frell did they get up there so fast? But these were not the mercenaries who'd been guarding the bunker, that much was clear. There were far too many of them, at least two battalions. More flashes, and on the road orange fireballs exploded, bright light and smoke, blossoming all along the twisting curve. She swore, raising her rifle, but Crais seized the back of her jacket, pushing her down.
"Sir, the convoy--" Levael began. "Three--four--sensors report all transports appear to be disabled, sir." The enemy line was dissolving into tiny figures running across the plain toward the convoy. "Main engines are at half power. Should we attempt--?"
"Negative." Crais shook his head, and she could see the muscles in his jaw working. "Stay out of range until repairs are completed. We will head east, and you will rendezvous with us as swiftly as possible." None of the transports were moving; no one was visible through black smoke, but by now that patch of road was surrounded by at least a hundred troops. By the time they got there, all the Hylaxians would be dead or captured, if they had not been already. "We are finished here."
His mouth is rough, demanding, his tongue thrusting insistently against hers. Soft, wet sounds don't quite mask the beating of her own heart. His hand leaves her breast to move lower, tracing the shrapnel scars along her left side. She wraps her arms around his back, shifting under him, her thigh rubbing along his hip. Leather and rainwater increase the friction. His impatience echoes her own as he breaks the kiss, and she can feel his anger, his teeth grazing her skin, but it isn't directed at her.
Someone in Intelligence had told Crais his team would face no resistance except the one battalion around the bunker. Someone had assured him the mercenaries' cannons could not possibly inflict serious damage on a Peacekeeper Marauder.
Tense, bruised muscles shudder beneath her hands as she strokes his back. Such thoughts benefit no one, and she shoves them aside as his lips move along her jaw and down her neck. It is not her place to wonder what, precisely, this mission accomplished, or whose failures resulted in the annihilation of their ally the microt he was outside their protection. Their orders had been to deliver him to a specific rendezvous with his allies. Once the Hylaxian commander had met up with the convoy he was no longer their responsibility.
This anger, surging through her with the taste of smoke and blood--this serves no one. She has no right to ask why her teammate is dead, any more than why it was necessary to trap forty-five beings in an exploding building to protect information that would captured along with their commander less than an arn later. If someone above them was wrong, it is not her place to assign blame.
His open mouth is hot on her bare shoulder, licking slow and wet along her collarbone. Strong fingers slide inside the waistband of her pants, and she exhales sharply as he tugs at the clasps. She seizes his hair and drags his lips back to hers. It's hungry and clumsy and desperate, fury and relief together, and she wants to forget the questions swirling in her mind. More than anything she wants to silence the traitorous part of her that warns she would not like the answers.
The last clasp parts with a snap, and she moans against Crais' mouth as his hand finds her sex, coherent thought melting under his stroking fingers. She grunts, sucking hard on his tongue, thrusting her hips against his hand. It's too much, too fast, blind desire and sudden release as she thrashes against him.
The wind had shifted by the time they neared the border, blowing directly toward them. The ground was relatively flat, but the vegetation was taller and thicker, providing some small cover as they crouched behind a tuft of high wiry grass.
The stiff breeze blew their scent away from the enemy, but it also drove the rain into their faces with increasing force, and it grew more and more difficult to see more than a few motras in front of them. Somewhere ahead, not far, was the enemy perimeter, mercenary guards stationed all along what had once been the border of allied territory.
As long as the wind held, the enemy would be as blind as they were. Crais ducked his head back down, squinting as he motioned forward. The landscape ahead was a wash of grays and greens, fading from the dull yellow-ochre of the terrain south of them, and they could hear nothing but the constant heavy splash of water, the squeaking of wet leather and the unsteady huff of their breathing.
They had made it across the northwest road without incident, far enough to the east of the wrecked convoy to avoid notice. She had glanced once up the road to see the smoldering hulks, and felt nothing beyond relief that the twisted plumes of smoke rising were blowing in their direction. Now they dragged themselves forward, lying flat along the wet, spongy ground, elbows and shoulders brushing together, shivering.
They stumbled upon the enemy almost without noticing. A dim shape rising out of the rain, a flash of orange tassels as he turned. She thumped Crais' arm with a fist and they both stopped short. They'd found the perimeter, blundered right into a guard station, six aliens standing in a rough clump, looking directly at them.
Her hands were slippery and shaking too badly to aim properly, but at this range she couldn't miss. They fired together and two mercenaries went down with a wet thud, as surprised as they were. She barely had time to roll out of the way before the rest charged toward them. Rising smoothly, she swung the rifle around, heavy muzzle connecting with a crack. Three down. She spared a quick glance at Crais, grappling hand to hand with a fourth, before another struck her from behind.
She doesn't remember how her rifle slipped from her hands. Blind for a microt, her face pushed into the mud, she drove her elbow backwards, rolling onto her back. The sky flashed silver-white. Teeg thought she heard thunder before the mercenary leaped to his feet, a dark, fringed shadow above her. Red-gold and purple sparkles whirled before her as she flung her right arm out, seeking her weapon. A metal-studded boot stomped hard on her outstretched palm.
Her furious yell was lost in the wind, but she rolled toward him and her fist connected with the back of his knee, a desperate left-handed punch that folded his legs and sent him sprawling on top of her. Fear shot through her, raw and electrifying, at the touch of a serrated knife against her throat.
Her left hand was pinned beneath her, and she nearly wrenched her right shoulder from its socket straining for her boot knife, but the creature was far heavier and she couldn't move. Red eyes set in brown, wrinkled skin, filed teeth and the overwhelming stench of rotted meat. Dark lips peeled back in a growl as she struggled.
She didn't feel the knife breaking her skin, didn't see the flash of rifle fire as blood splattered over her face, warm and sticky along her neck, stinging in her eyes. Crais' boot was the next thing she saw, nudging the corpse, a swift kick rolling it off of her. His rifle pointed downward; a mass of blood and matted hair was all that was left of the bloodtracker's head. He didn't bother asking if she was all right, but leaned down and grasped her arms, hauling her roughly to her feet. Her ears were ringing, and it was a few microts before she could recognize the comm's buzzing.
"Sir!" Levael's voice was triumphant. "Main engines at full power. Lifting off now. What is your position?"
The rain slanted down harder now, and she could hear a long, thin howl echoing up the line. The wind was changing.
Crais shouted coordinates into the comm, one hand around her arm dragging her with him as they broke into a stumbling run, toward the rising scream of the Marauder's engines.
His forehead touches hers. Their noses bump together, and stray wisps of wet black hair brush her cheeks. This, this is real, sweat-slick skin against hers, his every breath hot against her face, heavy and rasping. The muscles of his shoulders shifting under her palms, the flush of heat between her thighs as he enters her, metal deckplates cold and rigid against the bruised flesh of her back, pain throbbing through her skull in dizzy waves when she throws her head back. These things tell her she is alive, and the knowledge fills her with an angry joy, a rush pounding through her blood like the jolt just before a firefight--and somehow more.
He's not gentle, and she doesn't want him to be, wants him faster, harder, deeper. Pleasure and pain, aching as he drives into her, and there's no rhythm, no finesse in his movements, only need, sharp and immediate. He's close. She can feel it, and she digs her nails into his back, holds onto him with what strength she has left, feels his breathless grunt as she tightens her legs around him. A low, strangled groan escapes as he spills himself in her, panting hard against her shoulder. His entire body shudders before he collapses on top of her.
Bruised ribs protest the sudden weight, but she only caresses him slowly, her injured hand tracing trails of blood on his back. His face is hidden against her neck, and for a few dozen microts he's completely still, but she can feel his heart, a frantic beat gradually slowing. She can't read his expression when he pushes himself up, shaking arms holding him only denches above her. His right eye is nearly swollen shut, sweat tracking through the grime smeared across his face, brows drawn together as he regards her steadily.
Searching her face, looking for something, but she can't imagine what. She runs her tongue along the inside of her lip, swallows, before asking softly, "Sir?"
He blinks, winces, then rolls awkwardly off of her, swaying a little as he stands. Two steps bring him to his own bunk, where he reaches for a dry tunic, pulling it over his head. This, in all her past experience, is when he says, that was very nice, before walking out of the room, never to see her again. Except there's nowhere to go, and he's not some random commando who caught her eye in the hangar bay. He's her commanding officer, in many ways still a mystery to her, more so now than he was an arn ago.
She expects him to say something, as she drags herself up to sit on the edge of her bunk. But when he does, it's only, "You should sleep now, Officer Teeg."
A wave of his hand dims the lights, but she can still see his silhouette against the viewport, his back turned to her. Nothing outside now but stars, as the fading curve of the planet slips away
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Title: Theirs Not To Reason Why
Author: Flora [email] [website]
Details: Standalone | NC-17 | het | 38k | 09/18/04
Characters: Crais, Teeg
Summary: Set many years before "Premiere". Rain and sex and lots of explosives, and a mission gone bad.
Disclaimer/Other: Inspired partly by an RP conversation with Andraste.I never expected it to be this long! Huge thanks and lots of hugs to Kernezelda for the beta! Any comments or suggestions or criticism very much appreciated!
I don't own any of these characters, I'm not making any money off of this, please don't sue.
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