I turned back to the clearing, flicking my eyes over the blown-out ground and torn-up trees for any sign of movement. I saw nothing, of course, but that didn’t mean anything.
“Get in the skippers and get in the air,” I said, stumbling forward. “I have to find my guns.”
“Devi.” Rupert’s voice was so gentle, I had to look back. He caught my eye and pointed at his feet, where my weapons were lying in a pile.
I didn’t realize until I saw them how scared I’d been that I’d lost my girls for good. It took every ounce of dignity I had not to run forward and hug them to my chest. Instead, I marched over, picking up my guns and Phoebe’s broken blade. I tucked each one in place, breaking off the last of the spent thermite before I folded Phoebe in thirds and stowed her away.
As I was packing my guns, I realized with a start that I was clean. I stopped, running my hands over my armor. It felt like it always did. The cold, invisible slime was gone. My face was clean as well. My eye was puffy and painful, but the blood, both mine and the creature’s, had been wiped away. The Lady was still running on only the most basic systems, but none of my displays were flickering anymore, and my clock was ticking over like normal. I reached up hesitantly and flicked down my visor. My cameras came on smoothly, opening my vision so I could see the growing concern on Caldswell’s face behind me.
I ignored him, running through my systems instead. I flipped everything on, off, and on again. When I was satisfied my suit was working, I pulled up my camera footage from the last thirty minutes. Or, rather, I tried to. When I reached for the records, all I got was static.
“What happened?” I asked, turning around.
“We were coming back from the meeting when we heard a plasma shotgun,” Caldswell said. “You’re the only person crazy enough to use one, so we ran over and found you lying here. You just woke up.”
“And you didn’t see anything?” I said before realizing how stupid that question was. “I mean, there wasn’t anything here?”
Caldswell shrugged. “It was quiet as it is now.” He squinted at me. “Have you been drinking, Morris?”
“No!” I shouted. “No sir,” I amended at his hard look. “I am completely sober and I’ll take any test you like to prove it. When you were late showing up, I told Cotter to lock down the ship while I went to find you. I know I was disobeying orders, but this planet is unstable and we couldn’t get you on the com. Under the circumstances, I deemed that you, your ship, and your crew were in real and immediate danger, so I tracked your skipper here. When I arrived, I was attacked by an invisible creature approximately fifteen feet long with tentacles strong enough to throw me like a ball. I sliced it to pieces defending myself, but it wouldn’t die. It attacked me again right before I blacked out.”
While I was talking, Caldswell’s expression changed from angry and confused to blatantly skeptical. “Tentacles, eh?” he said when I’d finished. “And how did you see all this if it was invisible?”
“I blasted it with dirt using a grenade,” I said, working hard to keep my temper in check. “I can only guess it died while I was out. Its body should be around here somewhere, but it might be rotting quickly. The blood it got on me is already gone.”
Caldswell stared at me a moment longer. “And you really think you fought an invisible monster?”
“I fought something, sir,” I said hotly. “I don’t go around in the woods wasting grenades, ammo, and a thermite blade just for kicks. And I sure as hell didn’t punch myself in the face.”
Caldswell’s glare sharpened. “Easy, Morris.”
I forced myself to relax. “Sorry, sir,” I said with what I thought was some pretty impressive calm. “But I fought something.”
“I believe you,” Caldswell said. “Your guns were hot when we gathered them, I just don’t know what from, and I’m not going to waste time finding out. We’ll deal with your insubordination later. Right now, we’re getting back to the ship.” He glanced up. “Charkov?”
Rupert straightened. “Sir?”
Caldswell nodded at me. “I think Miss Morris is a little punch-drunk. Why don’t you drive her back and I’ll take Ren in my skipper.”
“Yes, Captain,” Rupert said. Caldswell turned away, touching Ren’s shoulder as he led her to the skippers. Meanwhile, Rupert walked over to me and gently took my arm. “You ready to go, Devi?”
I yanked my arm out of his grasp and walked past him without a word, jumping into the skipper and slamming the door behind me. He got into the pilot’s side a moment later, and the clearing was filled with the roar of thrusters as the two skippers hopped into the air.
Whatever was wrong with the coms must have been clearing up, because Rupert called Basil no problem. I couldn’t make out Basil’s side of the conversation, but I could hear the relief in his reply when Rupert told him we were coming back. Rupert turned off the com after that, and we flew in silence for several minutes.
I spent the time sorting through the Lady’s backup, trying in vain to find any footage at all from my fight. But just like my first try, I got nothing but static. Whatever the creature had done to my cameras must have fried my records, too. After the third try I tore off my helmet with a growl, slamming it onto the bench seat between Rupert and me. He glanced over, but I looked away, tearing my sweat-damp hair out of its ponytail and letting it hang around me as I leaned forward and gently banged my head down on the dash.
“Devi,” Rupert began.
“Don’t,” I snapped, tilting my head so I could glare at him. “I fought something in that clearing, Rupert. Something that threw me around like a rag doll. Something I couldn’t see even when it was bleeding all over me and couldn’t kill no matter how much I sliced it. Mycant was terraformed. Terraformed planets don’t even have large animals unless someone brings them in, and I’ve never even heard of anything like that giant invisible whatever-it-was.”
Rupert sighed. “I don’t think—”
“I fought it,” I said again, my voice shaking. “I’m not making this up!”
“I know you’re not.” He reached over, gently brushing my hair out of my face. “I believe you, Devi.”
Foolish as it was, I leaned into his touch. I hadn’t realized how scared I’d been that no one would take me seriously until Rupert said he did.
“And I’m sure the captain believes you, too,” he said, dropping his hand quickly. “He’s just angry because you disobeyed orders.”
“Part of being a soldier is knowing what orders to disobey,” I said. “I did what I thought I had to do to keep you all safe. And if Caldswell wants to punish me for that, he can go ahead.” I just hoped he didn’t kick me off the ship.
As though he’d read my mind, Rupert shook his head. “He’ll punish you, but he won’t fire you.” His eyes were on the sky in front of us, but his sudden smile was just for me. “You’re the best merc he’s had in a long time. You’d have to do something really terrible before he’d let you go now.”
“Don’t tell me that,” I warned, sitting up. “I might push just to see how much he’ll put up with.”
“I believe you would,” he said, smiling wide.
I grinned back, or I tried to. Smiling hurt like a bitch, actually, and moving my cheeks caused the cut under my eye to start bleeding again. I reached up to wipe the blood away with my glove, but Rupert’s hand stopped me.
“Wait,” he said, catching my wrist. When my hand stopped, he released me and reached under the dash to pull out a battered first aid kit. He flipped the latch expertly with one hand and grabbed a gauze square from the pile, handing it to me.
“Thank you,” I said, taking the gauze from him and pressing it against the cut. The contact stung like hell, and I hissed involuntarily.
Rupert gave me a worried look.
“Don’t look like that,” I said, wincing as I patted the cut dry. “It’s my own fault for raising my visor in a fight. Don’t know what else I could have done, though. That thing did something that messed my suit all to hell and scrambled my cameras. I don’t even have my recordings.”
“That’s too bad,” Rupert said. “I bet it was something to see.”
“It was,” I assured him. “Big slug didn’t have a chance. Maybe next time my camera will actually work and then I can play the whole thing for you in the lounge like Cotter with one of his gladiator matches. Of course, it might not look so impressive since all you’d see would be me flipping around shooting and slicing up thin air.”
Rupert chuckled. “I think that would still be pretty impressive,” he said, laying his arm across the back of the seat. His hand ended up just a few inches from my head, his fingers barely brushing the tips of my hair. “But then, impressive seems to be what you do, Devi.”
The compliment filled me with pride, but it was the way he said my name that made me squirm. He was smiling as he flew, and the expression lit up his face. It was always surprising to see Rupert smile for real. He was nice to the crew, but he didn’t really smile for them. Not like he did for me, anyway. The sudden rush of warmth I felt at that realization was way more than I could handle at the moment, so I turned to the window to stare down at the much less attractive but far safer scenery as we flew over Mycant’s wooded hills back to the ship.
Caldswell and Ren’s newer skipper beat us by a good ten minutes, and I was relieved to see Mabel was back as well. The ride hadn’t improved Caldswell’s temper, though. He handed Ren off to Rupert and then stood around glaring at me while I stowed both skippers back in their berths. When I was finished, he casually informed me that, as punishment for disobeying orders, I had the choice of a month’s docked pay or forty hours extra cleaning duty.
I had gun upgrades to finish, so I chose the cleaning. That suited Caldswell just fine, and we marched into the ship. He didn’t mention the clearing again. Neither did I, but I didn’t forget it for a second, either.
We were cleared for liftoff soon as Mabel okayed the repairs. She checked them first thing, which was the least she could do considering how she’d abandoned us. I was all prepared to be mad at her over that for a good while, com trouble or no, but to my surprise she sought me out before we were even off the ground, coming into the cargo bay while Cotter and I were lashing down for liftoff.
“Thanks a bundle for stepping up, Morris,” she said with a sincere smile. “I never would have left if I’d thought the contractor would have problems with something as simple as a hull patch and door replacement, or if I’d realized the coms weren’t working. I didn’t even notice my handset was out until I tried to call Brian to tell him I’d be late.”
“Must have been some visit,” I said, though less sarcastically than I’d intended.
Mabel just grinned. “You know how it is when two tinkerers get together. Max and I spent the whole time in his warehouse trying to get his old Republic Wasp Fighter working. We didn’t even notice the quakes until one knocked a wrench on my head.”
I had to laugh at that image, and Mabel laughed with me. “Really, though, thanks a ton,” she said. “I told Rupert to put your next bottle of whiskey on me.”
That brightened me up considerably. “Thanks!”
Mabel grinned at me and jogged off toward the engine room, scooping up Pickers as she went. I watched her go with the distinct feeling that I’d just been bribed, but I didn’t waste time worrying about that. If Mabel and I were straight, then that was good enough for me. I had bigger targets to shoot.