[I How did I get here?] It was one thing to disobey a direct order. It was another thing completely to go against a lifetime of training. [i How did I] get [i here?] he asked himself again, bleeding arm bound tight, alarms blaring in his ears. The cockpit began to shake as he descended towards the planet. It was a crash landing, or he would be stuck drifting in space until they found him again and finished the job. [i I was a fool,] he thought, just as he broke through atmo, pulling on his helmet and adjusting his armor so he was ready for the impact. What was left of the shields on his ship were not going to be enough to keep him from hitting hard. Especially not after the minor explosion in the cockpit, sending shrapnel into his arm. It could light him up again at any moment.
"Thirty seconds to impact." "I know!" Nex shouted at the robotic voice. He watched the atmosphere pave a violent way for him. Through the streaks of red and orange he could see a small village on the horizon. It disappeared seconds later over the rocky bluffs.
"Twenty seconds to impact." "Shut up." Nex slammed a button beside him, turning off the AI. He didn't need any more help. Anticipating this crash was hard enough as it was already without her counting down the seconds.
He sat back and tried to relax. The stiffer he was, the more damage he would take. [i If you don't die,] he thought. He closed his eyes and breathed slow. The ship stopped it's shaking, so he knew he was getting close to the surface now. He was just about to give in to temptation and open his eyes to see how close he was to the planet's surface when he hit.
He let out a grunt, but the sound of his ship hitting the rocks was so loud he wasn't sure he even made a sound. The craft bent in on itself, sparks flew towards him and he felt metal bite into his side through his armor. The awful noise continued, as the craft slowed, but it wasn't through with him yet. He watched the panel beside him light up. He had only enough time to up his hands in a vain attempt to shield himself before the explosion. And then everything went dark.
"Don't be gone for too long, now. I'll be wanting my supper soon as it gets dark."
"I mean it, Thisbe. I know you've been staying out all hours trying to avoid that Amos boy, and that ain't gonna fly with me anymore, you hear me? It's long past time for you to take your place and start making a proper contribution to this community—if he wants you, he'll have you. I'll make sure of that."
Thisbe tightened the girth strap on the saddle and gave Thistle an absentminded pat on the withers, determinedly not looking at her father. The bay gelding turned his large head back to regard her and snorted; whether he was also expressing his disapproval with this outing, Thisbe had no idea.
Once the saddle was situated to her satisfaction, she stuck a foot in the stirrup and managed to hoist herself onto Thistle's back after only a couple of jumps. Pleased that she hadn't needed to ask her father for help, she finally allowed herself to glance down at him, summoning a small smile to her lips. Her father's scowl deepened in response.
"Mind what I said, now," he muttered, then turned his back on her.
"Yes, Father," she said, and nudged Thistle into a walk. After she deemed they were safely out of her father's earshot, she let out an exasperated sigh, stirring the long strands of blond hair that framed her face. It might be worth the thrashing she'd inevitably get to stay out all night and thus avoid both Randall Amos [i and] her father for a few hours.
Despite several enthusiastic clicks and repeated nudges with her heels, Thisbe's mount refused to go much faster than a very disinterested trot. She supposed she couldn't be too cross with him, though—Thistle was a draft horse better suited to pulling plows though the unforgiving earth than he was to nimbly prancing down a narrow, winding, rock-strewn path to the gully. Still, he was all that she had (likely because her father feared just how far she might venture if she were given access to a smaller, faster horse), and Thisbe preferred his company to that of anyone else in her entire village.
The sky was already beginning to redden by the time Thistle made it to the bottom of the bluff, his large hooves tramping down the only naturally growing vegetation for miles. Thisbe took a deep breath, inhaling the sweet scent of the tall grass and the damp earth. A wide, slow-moving creek cut a meandering path through this little valley, encouraging the growth of all sorts of vibrant green plants in the immediate vicinity. There were even a few scraggly trees here and there to provide a little shade from the unforgiving sun.
It was beneath one of these trees that Thisbe sat herself down, after first dismounting and looping Thistle's reins loosely around his neck so that he might amble about and graze as he pleased. The sound of the water flowing over the rocks relaxed her as nothing else seemed to be able to do these days, and she swiftly removed her boots and stockings so that she could dangle her bare feet in the refreshing cool of the creek. She closed her eyes and let her mind go blank for a moment.
Thisbe supposed later that she must have briefly dozed off, for when she next came to awareness, the dull droning of the insects in the leaves had gone abruptly silent. In their stead, even over the sound of the water, was a deep roar that grew steadily and noticeably louder. Instinctively, Thisbe looked up.
For a moment, there was nothing to see. And then: a bright light streaking through the clouds.
Thisbe's mouth fell open in surprise. [i A comet?] No, a comet wouldn't be trailing such thick, black smoke. The realization hit her just as the object in question descended further and she caught sunlight gleaming back at her from a metal hull.
[i A ship!]
Without even thinking, Thisbe leapt to her feet and waded across the shallow creek, soaking her dress to the knees. She heard Thistle whinnying frantically behind her but did not spare the frightened horse even a glance. Ships flew over the village all the time, likely going to the only two sizable ports still left on their planet's surface, but they always flew so high that there was no chance of someone on the ground being able to successfully signal them. This ship, however, was now flying so low that it would soon be able to brush the tops of the trees.
It wasn't until Thisbe had climbed out on the other side of the creek and begun running through the grass that it hit her. This ship wasn't [i flying], it was [i crashing].
"You idiot!" Thisbe screeched aloud to herself as she performed an immediate about-face and started back the way she had come. [i None of those other ships are ever] smoking [i because they're on] fire, [i you complete]—
Suddenly the ground heaved beneath her feet, pitching her forward to land in the creek face-first. Thisbe sat back up, sputtering, and was struggling to push her sopping wet hair out of her eyes when what felt like a hot, fierce gust of wind blew her right over again. When she surfaced a second time, it was to see Thistle galloping faster than she had ever seen him down the creek's opposite bank and out of sight. She sighed.
[i Sorry, Father. I don't think I'm going to make it back before dark, after all.]
Afraid of what she might see, Thisbe cautiously glanced back over her shoulder. There were the expected billowing clouds of dark smoke, but as far as she could tell, only a shrub or two had actually caught fire. Thankfully the ship's crash hadn't caused quite the explosion she had expected.
Of course, that explosion could still occur any moment now, so it would be for the best if she crossed the creek again, found Thistle, and went back home to alert the village elders. This situation was clearly beyond her, and now that any fleeting hope she might have had of boarding that ship and escaping was well and truly dashed, why bother sticking around?
Slowly, Thisbe got to her feet, still trying to peer through the thick smoke for a glimpse of any actual wreckage. It occurred to her that since the ship hadn't actually exploded upon impact with the ground, whoever was inside might still be alive. If she abandoned them now, they could easily die before the elders came to investigate, if they even investigated at all. They tended to shun most technology and outsiders of any sort as a general rule. She looked back at the "safe" side of the creek and quickly determined that Thistle was well and truly gone.
[i Well, it's going to take me an age just to find him again anyway,] she thought, and set off in search of the crashed ship before she could change her mind.
It didn't take Thisbe long to stumble across it, despite how the smoke severely limited her vision. She supposed that it must have once been a very sleek and impressive vessel, but was now little more than a twisted hunk of scrap metal. Having never been this close to [i any] ship before, wrecked or otherwise, Thisbe wondered for a moment how the blazes one was supposed to open this thing up.
"Hello?" she called out cautiously, then immediately dissolved into a coughing fit upon inhaling a lungful of acrid smoke. Once she'd recovered, she grabbed the edge of her apron and held the soggy fabric over her nose and mouth. "Is anyone alive in there?"
There was no answer, not that she had expected there would be. After a little more searching—all with the constant awareness that any of the little fires she saw burning could reach the ship's fuel tank at any moment—Thisbe found what appeared to be hatch set into ship's side. There was even a handle.
She grasped it, dimly aware that it was a great deal larger than her own hand, and gave a swift yank. To her complete surprise, the hatch immediately flipped open and a body tumbled out to land on her own, driving her to the ground.
Thisbe shrieked, scrambling to get out from under the dead weight as fast as she could. The person who had fallen on her didn't move at all, not even when she successfully managed to dislodge them with a particularly savage shove that sent their helmeted head slamming into a nearby rock. Despite her panic, Thisbe winced. [i If they weren't already dead, they might be now.]
After taking a quick moment to collect herself, Thisbe moved closer to the person, who she assumed had to be the ship's pilot. She needed to at the very least determine if they were still alive. Intending to roll them onto their back, she reached out, then froze completely, panic seizing her heart anew.
Even though the pilot's features were completely hidden by the helmet, a quick scan of the rest of their armor-clad body revealed what Thisbe hadn't noticed until this very moment. This person was [i not] human.
"A son will choose one of two paths. He will either become you, or he will become your worst enemy." There was a short pause. Vulkus had never met his own father to know this. "And what about daughters?" he asked with a chuckle in his voice. "Daughters can be far better. Or far worse." "Thank you, Consul."
The door slid closed with a hiss. Silence. And then, "Nex! I need to speak with you."
Nex, only a child, looked at his older sister with pleading eyes. They had been listening at the top of the stairs. He didn't want to go alone but she was just as afraid of their father. He had been playing instead of practicing his drills. Someone must have told the Consul, though Nex couldn't shake the feeling that he somehow just knew everything. He turned and hurried down the stairs before there was more yelling. He stopped in front of his father like a child soldier, back stiff, arms straight.
He had a bruise on his cheek the rest of that week and he never again missed drills.
Nex was aware of his body before he was aware of anything else. Red hot pain in his arm and the gash in his side were enough to make him want to stay in this dark space he had found forever. The more he studied his body, however, the more he realized he was not in his cockpit anymore. He was on his side in an uncomfortable position. His left arm- the damaged one- was awkwardly thrown to the side while his right was tucked up underneath him. He tried to move his legs and was relieved to find that they had no pain.
He finally opened his eyes and the bright sun beat down on him. The sky was blue and there were clouds rolling across his vision. His helmet was barely working. The display was flickering, but he could at least read that this planet's air was safe enough to breathe. He rolled off his arm with the grunt and reached up slowly to take the helmet off. It was then that his head throbbed and he stopped himself. He must have hit his head on his fall out of the cockpit and a helmet only did so much.
He tried to sit up so he could remove his helmet easier, so that it didn't apply so much pressure to the back of his head, but when he tried to move he was greeted with a shock of pain through his ribs and he gritted his teeth and let himself lay back down.
Nex turned his head to the left and saw the hulking mess that used to be his ship. His pride and joy. Now it was nothing than scrap metal. He remembered the town on the horizon, wondered what planet he could possible be on, and turned his head the other direction, hoping to find some kind of clue.
Well, he found a [i clue], alright.
He sat up swiftly, letting out a gasp of pain at motion. In seconds he had his sidearm out and aimed at the pale grub before him. He was not afraid, no. He just didn't want it to take any of his things. Damn scavengers.
Still aiming his pistol at the vermin, he stood up slowly, shakily, using the nearby rock to help him stand with his free hand. He ignored the innocent and frightened look on its face.
"What planet is this?" he asked authoritatively. When there was no reply, he asked again. "What planet!?"
He groaned in frustration, then looked down at his forearm. Sure, it was covered in blood, but at least [i this] still seemed to work. He pressed something then held his arm up to the front of his helmet.
"What planet is this?" he asked for the third, and he was hoping final, time. The words translated as he said them into some primitive sounding Human language.
When the alien began groaning and moving around, Thisbe thought her heart might give out right then and there. Then the alien actually [i noticed] her, and she realized that [i it] might kill her before her own shock had the chance to.
Before she knew it, the alien was standing and now towering over where she remained in a frozen, frightened huddle on the ground. It aimed what she took to be some sort of gun right at her, and even amid her terror, Thisbe felt a sudden rush of anger toward her father for never letting her take the rifle whenever she went out alone. It was an old weapon that had been in their family for two generations and likely wouldn't have done her a bit of good in the face of the alien's clearly more sophisticated firepower, but she would have at least had the [i illusion] of being able to defend herself if she had it with her now. As it was, the little knife in her dress pocket was her only current means of defense, and even Thisbe wasn't foolish enough to believe that dull blade was capable of even scratching the surface of the alien's armor.
Suddenly the alien [i spoke] to her, and all thoughts of trying to protect herself against it went right out of Thisbe's head. The voice was harsh and grating, like a snarling animal, and even though Thisbe couldn't understand any of the words the alien used, she figured the threat in its tone was obvious enough. Every horrible thing she had ever been taught about aliens—the [i hostis humani], as the elders called them—came back to her in an unpleasant barrage of potential outcomes for her current situation, none of which involved her actually surviving this encounter. [i It's probably telling me how much it's going to enjoy peeling off my skin and sucking the marrow from my bones,] she thought, and couldn't repress a shiver.
Thisbe ducked her head and slowly raised her empty hands, hoping that if she indicated she wasn't going to try to run or fight, the alien might have some pity on her. She [i had] just saved its life by pulling it out of its ship, after all. That should count for something, even if it had been a mostly accidental consequence of her ([i stupid]) decision to open the exit hatch.
Her lowered eyes fell first on the alien's legs—so bizarre in comparison to human legs that it was almost fascinating—before coming to rest on a strange puddle of blue liquid on the ground. Just as Thisbe was beginning to wonder if the substance was oil from the smoldering wreckage to her left, more of it dripped from the alien as it shifted its weight and it hit her that she was looking at blood. The [i alien's] blood. So it had been injured in the crash, after all, and quite severely, if the steadily growing size of the blue puddle was any indication.
"What planet is this?" a voice suddenly asked, and Thisbe jumped in surprise, her gaze immediately darting up to the alien's helmet. It was the alien itself who had just spoken, she was sure of it, although there had been a strange sort of buzzing underlying the words, as of electronic interference. An automatic translator? Thisbe had read of such things but had never actually encountered the technology in person.
She realized then that if the alien was bothering to ask her questions, perhaps her death might not be as imminent as she had feared. She would do well to answer and prove her usefulness.
"T-Terra Felix!" she yelped, then cleared her throat to try and dislodge the tremor from her voice. "This is Terra Felix. My village is just on top of that ridge, there," she mentally cursed herself for providing such information and hastened to add, "but we have very little that would be of value to you. We are only farmers and sheepherders, and there are few of us at that." She took a deep breath to steady herself, never looking away from the alien's helmet. Was she even now locking eyes with the monster? What sort of nightmare lay just behind that visor?
[i Prove your usefulness.] "Forgive me, but are you very badly injured? I...I might be able to help, if you would like."
[i Terra Felix!] He should have guessed. He suppressed a heavy sigh, not for any sake of the human’s, merely so the motion didn’t cause him any pain. The grovelling woman before him was still talking and he looked down at her with disgust. She was trying to convince him not to seek out her village as if it would be of any interest to him at all in the first place.
“You are [i only] a cesspit of vermin,” he said, using her phrasing against her. If his helmet had been off he would have spit where she knelt. “I want nothing of yours.”
He looked away from the pitiful thing on the ground and scanned the horizon again. “Terra Felix,” he muttered to himself, almost like a curse. “Of course I would crash land on Terra fukcing Felix.” He turned away from the human and tried his best to limp back towards the wreckage. There was a fire raging, but his suit would protect him as long as nothing exploded again. He noticed first that the hatch was opened. He had not simply fallen out of some hole created by the crash. The human must have opened it.
He kept his injured arm close to his side and ignored her words behind him as he rifled through the cockpit to see what might have survived the crash. It wasn’t a lot. Not even his medical supplies were in good enough shape to use. He was going to have to tough this one out.
He stepped back and faced the human once more. He raised the gun again, pointing it at her face. He had no qualms about killing humans. It was like killing any other kind of pest. And he would when he was through with her.
“Where is-” he started, but swallowed. His vision was starting to blur. He shook his head to try to rid himself of it, but that only made him feel dizzy. “The nearest port. Where is it?”
Before he was given an answer he heard a holler from up the hill towards the village. Four humans on primitive transportation were making their way down to investigate the wreckage and to no doubt see what they could salvage from it.
Nex reached out and grabbed the human girl in front of him, making her stand. She would be his guide. Working his way to the back of the wreckage and out of sight was hard enough as it was with his wounds, but forcing another around just added to the difficulty.
“You’re going to take me to the closest port,” he told her and looked out across the expanse of craggy nothingness. “But first,” he groaned through the pain. “We’re going to that cave in the rocks. Quickly. Before they’re close enough to see.” He shoved her forward with the tip of his gun and followed after. It was much farther away than it looked. He glanced behind him, glad to see the four-legged creatures the humans were riding were not swift in their descent down the hill.
The closer they got to the cave entrance, the more he felt like he was going to lose himself. It was only when they were close enough to see how truly deep the darkness went that he felt the rushing in his ears. His vision blurred again. He muttered a curse and stumbled, finding himself in the dirt. The last thing he remembered thinking was that this human could shoot him now if she could figure out how to use his blaster. Or call the other’s over to take him hostage. It was ironic. Everyone seemed so equal in the face of death.
Thisbe stood for a moment after the alien collapsed, just staring at his crumpled form on the ground. She had begun thinking of the alien as a "he" once he'd started ordering her around—in her limited experience, men were the only ones allowed to speak so forcefully. That, taken together with the sheer height and deep voice of the creature, had led her to assume he had to be male, but she supposed there was always a chance she could be wrong. This [i was] an alien, after all. Maybe men didn't even [i exist] in his race. (She allowed herself a brief instant to fantasize about how wonderfully different her life might be if such were also the case for humans.) There was no real way of knowing until the alien told her himself, and in the meantime it didn't sit right with Thisbe to continuing thinking of him as an "it."
Granted, the alien wouldn't be telling [i anyone] anything if something wasn't done about his wounds anytime soon. A quick glance back the way they had come revealed a trail of his strange blood, already baking into dark, unrecognizable splotches on the dirt under the unforgiving sun. Thisbe could see it beginning to pool beneath him where he continued to lay eerily motionless at her feet.
She bit her lip, gripped by indecision. She knew that the men from her village who had spooked the alien into heading toward the cave were still a decent ways off, but they would likely reach the crash site before the sun had gone down. They probably wouldn't venture far beyond the wreck, preferring not to linger too long outside the village once night had fallen, but anyone having even a cursory look around would easily spot the alien lying out in the open. Particularly if Thisbe herself was waiting to direct them to him.
That was the right thing to do, she knew. That was what would be expected of her. It might even put her in the elders' good graces, grant her at least [i some] autonomy and a reprieve from the advances of that wretched Randall Amos. Then again, she could just as easily be punished for having ventured so far from the village in the first place, never mind that she'd practically neutralized an alien threat for them.
Her attention returned to the alien in question. [i You're going to take me to the closest port,] he had said. So he intended to let her live at least long enough to do that, it seemed. Perhaps if she did as he ordered and made herself as amenable to him as possible the entire time, he would feel more inclined toward letting her go once they reached the end of their journey. From there, not even the sky would be a limit to what Thisbe could do, where she could go. She would at last be free of her village and able to live her life for [i herself], in whatever way she chose.
To that end, this alien would need to remain hidden from the other villagers, however, which meant Thisbe needed to move [i now]. It really was unfortunate that he had collapsed so close to the cave and yet just far enough away that she would still need to drag him a considerable distance before he was completely out of sight. There was nothing for it, though—Thisbe could think of no other way to hide him.
Gritting her teeth, she leaned down and cautiously grabbed the alien by the wrists, tightening her hold once she was fairly sure he wasn't going to suddenly regain consciousness and shoot her. She took a breath and then pulled with all of her strength, willing his limp body to cooperate and move in her direction. Nothing.
Thisbe paused for a moment, struggling not to panic, and then tugged on the alien's arms again. This time she succeeded in dislodging his strange-looking pistol from his slack grip. It fell to the ground with a dull [i thud]. Otherwise the alien remained perfectly motionless.
With a cry of frustration, Thisbe released her hold on the alien's wrists, then hurriedly scrubbed her hands on her apron when she realized they were covered in his blue blood. She was clearly getting nowhere like this, and her fellow villagers were creeping closer and closer with each passing minute. What else could she do?
Just as she was thinking that she might try turning the alien on his side and [i rolling] him toward the cave from there, the sound of a horse's whinny from somewhere very nearby made her freeze. The villagers couldn't have possibly come so close already, even with mounts that were swift and sure-footed on the steep hillside. That meant...
"Thistle!" she cried out, her heart leaping at the sight of the enormous horse awkwardly picking his way around the ship's debris in order to reach her. She had thought for sure he would have returned to the village after being so terribly frightened by the crash, but apparently he had cared enough about her well-being to try and find her instead. Tears of relief pricked at her eyes and she momentarily forgot about the alien and her entire predicament in favor of rushing over to greet her steadfast companion.
Thistle allowed her to throw her arms around his neck, but began to snort nervously and shy away once he smelled the unfamiliar blood on her hands. "I know, boy, I know," Thisbe soothed, gripping him by the bridle in an effort to stop him from tossing his head. "I know you don't like it, but I need you to be calm for me, okay? You're such a good, brave boy, I know you can do it..."
She continued to murmur reassuring nonsense to the horse as she led him back over to where she'd left the alien. Thisbe was not surprised to see that he had not moved an inch in the brief time that she had left him alone, which meant he was still much too far from the mouth of the cave for her liking. No matter. Now that Thistle had returned, she was much better equipped to handle the current conundrum.
Desperately hoping the alien wouldn't choose now to wake up and thus witness the indignity he was being subjected to, Thisbe took a length of rope from her saddle and looped one end securely around the alien's feet by the ankles. She tied the other end off on the saddle horn, then took Thistle by the reins and slowly led him toward the cave. Her knots were good and the rope held; she was elated to see the alien being dragged into the cave right behind them.
Once they had made it deep enough into the cave that they would remain out of sight to anyone poking around outside, Thisbe untied the alien and did her best to arrange him into a comfortable position on the cave floor. She grimaced at the sight of all the blood on the ground, and hurriedly set about ripping lengths of fabric from her dress to try and bind the alien's wounds. Obviously she knew nothing about alien physiology, but she assumed that—like with humans—their blood was better off within their bodies than without. From what little she could tell based on her limited inspection, the more serious wounds were on the alien's side and left arm. Judging by how quickly his blood darkened the makeshift bandages, these wounds would have to be sutured shut. Before she did anything else, however, they would need to be cleaned, and for that she needed water.
Thisbe got up and approached Thistle, who had moved deeper into the cave to watch the proceedings from a safe distance. She patted his neck reassuringly as she took an empty canteen from one of her saddlebags. It would be quieter and less conspicuous for her to venture out to the creek on her own, she knew, but she was also aware that she would have to wait until after dark to return to the cave, when she could be sure the men had returned to the village. Nightfall was only a couple of hours away at most, but it was still a long time to leave the wounded alien alone with only her horse for company.
"You'll be good for me, won't you, boy?" she asked Thistle as she looped his reins around a large rock. "Just stay here and rest and be quiet, and keep a close eye on our...um, guest while I'm gone. I'll be back before you know it." Thistle only snorted in response, but pressed his muzzle to her face affectionately.
"I know I can count on you." With one last assessing glance at the alien, Thisbe left the cave and wandered back out into the dying sunlight. Even more smoke was pouring from the wreckage of the ship than before, which was honestly a good thing—it would severely reduce visibility and make it nearly impossible for any dogs to pick up their scent, if the villagers had even brought dogs with them in the first place. However, it also meant that the ship was likely coming closer and closer to well and truly exploding, so Thisbe would either need to stay gone long enough to be well out of the blast radius or be back within the shelter of the cave before it blew.
The glint of metal on the ground caught Thisbe's eye, and she walked over to see the alien's weapon where she had left it earlier. She eyed the oddly shaped pistol thoughtfully for a moment, then reached down to pick it up. It was heavier than she'd thought it would be; she would probably need two hands if she wanted to be able to actually aim and fire it. Apart from the trigger, however, there was nothing remotely recognizable about the gun at all, so it was doubtful she'd be able to use it. Still, she felt better taking the weapon with her than leaving it in the cave, so she wedged it awkwardly into her belt, hoping the safety was on so she wouldn't accidentally blow a hole in her own side.
[i He can have it back once I return,] Thisbe thought as she made her way toward the brush on the far side of the cave, and the creek that lay somewhere beyond. [i If he's still alive by that point, anyway.]
Surprisingly enough, Thisbe couldn't say whether she actually hoped for such an outcome or not.
Nex woke with a start and when it occurred to him that he wasn't dead, he hastily grabbed for his pistol. His hand came up empty and he remembered the events that had brought him to this ruin. The human hadn't killed him after all, but she at least made sure he had no weapon to hunt her down with.
He wondered if he had crawled into this cave on his own, only half awake. He wouldn't put it past himself to perform self-preservation tactics and not even remember it. He stared up into the darkness of the cave wondering how he was going to get out of this one. Even if he didn't, he could practically see the look on his father's face when he got the news, which he no doubt had by now.
He chuckled softly to himself before grimacing in pain. There was a response across the cave and he thought it had to be an echo at first. When he tilted his head to see, it was still far too dark. He realized it was his damn helmet. It was meant for navigating the stars and landing on sunny planets. Not for looking around forsaken caves on backwater planets. [i That] specific helmet had been destroyed in the crash.
Whatever was in this hole with him made another noise. If he had to place it, he would say is sounded most like a Vrel sneezing out of their many noses, but he knew a Vrel hadn't left it's shady business in the stock market they loved so much in the Central Ring just to come down and share this cozy cave with him.
He reached up with his good arm and pulled the helmet off. His head was still pounding, but this time it wasn't so bad that he couldn't wiggle the thing off one-handed. When he could finally see again, he turned towards the noise and was faced with one of the four-four legged creatures he had seen the humans riding earlier. It sniffed and huffed at the ground and seemed disinterested in him.
Where was its rider? Had the scavengers found him after all?
He moved to sit up, looking for any other clues. When there were none, he began to inspect his wounds, hoping to fix himself up enough to get out of here and bleed out in privacy at least. Yet, when he looked at his arm he found it already bound tight with a fabric that was not from anything he owned. It was far too primitive in nature for that. Upon further inspection, he remembered the human girl and the strange dress she had been wearing. His eyes narrowed, knowing this was one and the same.
[i Why help me?]
Then he remembered she must have taken his weapon. She was smarter than she looked, that was for sure. Especially if she managed to actually pull him into the cave. Humans were known to be weak. He looked at the animal in front of him. "You have something to do with this?" he asked it. It snorted in his direction, which is more than he was expecting.
It was now that he had a decision to make. Leave and try to find the nearest space port on his own. Or wait for the girl. She would be back, he knew. She wouldn't just leave her pet here. He leaned his head back against the rock. He wasn't worried about her motives in healing him. He would overpower her easy enough, get his blaster back, and then force her to show him the way.
Thisbe moved forward another few steps and then paused, listening. Nothing but the ever-present sound of the creek behind her, increasingly drowned out by the whistle of the wind. She suppressed a sneeze as some loose dirt was whipped into her face. There was a good chance it would storm later that night—the air was certainly heavy enough for it. The villagers would be grateful, not just for the sake of the crops and the livestock, but also because it might keep the fire of the wreckage from spreading to catch on all the greenery around the creek. There were few enough growing things in these parts as it was; a fire wiping out some of them could very well lead to discontent and unrest, two things the village elders were very anxious to avoid these days.
Speaking of the fire, Thisbe was currently quite grateful for it, as the distant orange glow provided a welcome waypoint to help lead her back to the cave. Terra Felix had no moon, so traveling very far after nightfall was somewhat difficult even with a torch, damn near impossible without. She was counting on this fact to ensure that no villagers would be lingering near the crash site by the time she returned. After another moment had passed without even the whisper of men's voices or the distant thunder of horses' hooves, Thisbe began slowly moving forward again.
She had ventured farther up the creek than she'd originally intended, partly because she had needed to kill time until the sun went down, but mostly because she'd remembered the little hidey hole she'd dug about a quarter of a mile away from the path that led up into the village. It was just a little shallow depression beneath a strategically placed rock that she'd first established a year ago as a place to start squirreling away supplies. Her father always checked to be sure she wasn't carrying very much when she went out on her little excursions from the village, so she'd known for quite a while that she would need to build up a stash over a long period of time if she were to ever have any real hope of successfully running away.
Unfortunately, her father's vigilance had ensured that even after a year her supply store was still woefully small. There was only a second canteen, about a dozen carefully-wrapped strips of jerky, a pair of leather gloves so worn that a few of her fingers poked through the seams, a clean dress, a wide-brimmed hat, a small sewing kit, and a pair of flint strikers used for starting a fire. These last items had come at a fairly steep cost: she still bore scars from the beating her father had given her when she'd told him that she had "lost" them. Still, she had to admit now that the price was well worth it, as being able to quickly and easily start a fire would likely prove to be invaluable over the coming days.
Honestly, Thisbe was grateful for [i all] the supplies she'd managed to stow away, no matter how few. She had been unable to repress a sigh of relief upon seeing the dress, shameful and vain though it was; her current garment had been reduced to little more than filthy, smoke-blackened, bloodstained rags. Her only real regret now was that she hadn't thought to set aside another pair of shoes, as well. Since she'd taken her boots off too close to the path back to the village for her liking, she was too afraid to try going back in search of them now. They might not even be there anymore, as the villagers could have easily taken them on their way to and from the crash site. Regardless, she would just have to endure going barefoot for a while longer.
Thisbe could see the hulking shadow of the cave silhouetted against the glow of the burning wreckage now, and so took another moment to pause again and listen for any unexpected sounds. As she did so, she hoisted her rucksack of supplies into a more comfortable position on her back, then bent and felt along the ground for any decently sized sticks. She found a couple and added them to the few she already held in her left hand—she planned to use them to start a fire as soon as she made it back to the cave. Satisfied that she was still quite alone, she continued on her way.
The closer she came to the mouth of the cave, the more nervous Thisbe became. It wasn't because she feared the men from the village might be lying in wait for her there, although she supposed such a thing was a possibility, if a remote one. No, what frightened Thisbe the most was the thought of the alien she had left behind a few hours ago. Would he be waiting to spring out at her as soon as she entered the cave? She let the fingers of her free hand drift down to brush against the foreign gun in her belt. She had no doubt that even wounded as he was, the alien was more than capable of divesting her of the weapon and then using it on her. So much for her dreams of escape, then.
Conversely, what if she returned to the cave only to find him stiff and cold, having bled out alone and in darkness with only a horse for company? It was no more than one of his kind deserved after the travesties they had inflicted upon humans for centuries. And while his death would likely prove to add more than a few wrinkles to her escape plan, at least his gear would be hers to sell as she pleased to the bands of scavs and ruffians that no doubt littered the terrain between here and Marshal's Progress, the nearest port town. Thisbe was quite eager in particular to get at that translator on his gauntlet and see if she could learn how it worked. All her life, she had wanted to possess a piece of real, working tech and now here was her chance...
[i Get a grip,] she abruptly scolded herself. [i Now] you [i sound like a damn scav, thinking that way about someone who might not even be dead yet, who is completely dependent upon you for survival.] She resolved not to think any more on that particular subject until she ascertained the alien truly was dead, and not a moment before.
Curiosity and the desire to light herself a torch before entering the cave led her over to the crash site. The ship was now almost entirely consumed by flames, and Thisbe hastily used a stick and another strip of fabric torn from her dress to fashion a makeshift torch before moving quickly away again. She was honestly surprised the hunk of metal hadn't gone supernova yet. As she made her way back to the cave, she reflected on the fact that the men from the village apparently hadn't made any attempt to put the flames out, then reckoned that if they had thought the pilot or passengers—human or otherwise—were still inside the craft, they would want to ensure they were dead so that no threat to the village remained.
Thisbe's heart gave an ugly lurch. [i Passengers.] She hadn't even thought that the alien might not have been alone. True, he certainly hadn't given any indication that there might have been others aboard his vessel, but he could have easily been disoriented and frightened upon waking up on an unfamiliar planet, not to mention reeling from his wounds, and so had simply forgotten them. There was nothing to be done for it now, Thisbe knew, so she did her best to put it out of her mind. It would continue to weigh on her conscience until she knew the truth, however.
The torch didn't illuminate the ground very far in front of her, so once Thisbe was inside the cave she slowed her pace, not particularly eager to smash her toes against a rock. There were no sounds from deeper within, and she was unsure whether or not this was a good thing. When she reached the spot where she had left the alien, her eyes fell first on Thistle, standing perfectly still and asleep in the place she had tied him. Thisbe was relieved to see that he had apparently remained fairly calm for the duration of her absence, and was about to walk over to him when the glint of torchlight on unexpected eye shine caught her attention. She moved the torch to get a better look, then promptly dropped both it and her collection of sticks with a shriek when the light revealed the face looking back at her.
Instinctively, Thisbe fumbled at her belt for the alien's pistol, forgetting for the moment that she had no real idea how to use it. Once she'd drawn the weapon and held it up in shaking hands, she got a longer look at the nightmarish apparition in front of her. Although the light from the dropped torch was now flickering dangerously low, she could still make out the eyes, black and cruel and set in a narrow skull that seemed to have no skin covering it whatsoever. It was those eyes that continued to draw her attention even in spite of the creature's bizarre facial features—there was intelligence in them, and hostility like she had never seen from any other animal before.
And then it hit her.
Finally her gaze left the eyes in order to sweep down over the body encased in strange armor, her own bandages encircling his torso and left arm. The alien was lying in almost the same position she had left him; he was just missing his helmet and was now a great deal more conscious than he had been before.
"Oh," Thisbe said stupidly, lowering the gun at last. Her fright melted away to be replaced with a sense of dumbfounded surprise and more than a little embarrassment. She could hear Thistle pawing at the ground nearby, likely disturbed by the commotion she'd made, but for the moment she chose to pay him no mind. It seemed that all she could do right now was continue to stare unabashedly at the alien. [i So that's what he looks like under his helmet.]
Aware that she should probably say something else, maybe apologize for her reaction upon seeing him, Thisbe opened her mouth again. However, all that came out was, "You're...you're awake."
And then the dying torch finally flickered its last and went out, plunging everything into complete darkness.
Nex faded in and out of sleep for the next few hours. Now that he was as informed as he could possibly be about his current situation, he decided that there couldn’t be any harm in it. The bandages had done their job in slowing the blood loss, so he was no longer passing out against his own will, at least. Sleep was just the fastest way he could heal without first-aid and the best way to pass the time. Who knew being stuck in a cave would be so boring?
He had already fiddled with his communicator. He was still untraceable, so that much was good. Other than that, he had no one to contact. He had no help. He was completely alone. Well, except for a human and her pet.
The human had already made it clear to him that she wasn’t going to harm him, so he had no worries about her returning in his sleep. Ever since they had found themselves in the galaxy, the humans were predictable, or so the old, scarred veterans said back home. Nex had also found this to be true and this human girl was no different. He could see this playing out all the way to the port. In several different ways, if need be. Humans always caved in the end, though.
Eventually, the mouth of the cave became dark, but it bothered him none. His eyes could still see the smallest pebble being kicked by the animal he shared this space with. As the darknesses replaced the small amount of light, the beast seemed to get nervous. It looked at him with wide eyes and moved its head up and down. It was getting impatient. So was Nex.
They remained there a good hour more and the animal must have fallen asleep, though Nex couldn’t understand how it managed to do so standing up. The creatures humans kept were very strange.
It was just about the time Nex was debating trying to ride off on the thing like he saw the humans doing earlier in the day when he finally heard someone approaching. He looked to the opening. She was back, holding a torch. She looked at her pet with some kind of affection (how one could look at such a thing with care was beyond him), but then her eyes found his own.
He was expressionless, as he usually was, and he returned her stare with one just as intense. He saw the fear widen her eyes and she dropped her things. Soon, he was finding out what it was like to be on the other side of his pistol, but he was not afraid. Even if she decided to shoot him, she wouldn’t be able to operate the thing, he was sure of it.
Nex knew why she was spooked. He had taken his helmet off and she had never seen anyone that looked like him before. He was completely foreign to her. And no doubt frightening. He decided to stay silent, to see just how long it would take her to realize who he was. By the time she did, he was already bored of his little game. Until she lowered the gun, muttered nervously, and the torch when out.
A smirk came to his face. Her pupils went wide and it was obvious that she could see nothing. Nex, on the other hand, could see [i everything]. He stood swiftly for someone who was injured and grabbed his gun right out of her frozen hand. He powered it on and let out a low rumble of a chuckle. The gun glowed blue.
“It’s not going to shoot anything if it’s not on,” he said with his translator close, leaning over her as he circled her. He finally stopped in front of her and looked down on her frightened face. He pressed the gun against her gut. “Now tell me. What are you getting out of this? Why drag me into this cave? Why bind my wounds? You’ve had multiple chances to run home and tell your people where I am.” It occurred to him then.
“You’re running from something, too.” It wasn’t a question.
Thisbe stared down at the gun pressed to her abdomen with equal parts alarm and fascination. The soft blue glow that the weapon emitted was now the only light in the cave, but it didn't penetrate very far. She couldn't even make out if the alien had his finger on the trigger, but she supposed it was safe to assume that he did.
[i It's not going to shoot anything if it's not on.] Noted. She would have to keep an eye out for a switch or a button or something if the gun ever fell into her possession again. And that was a big "if." It was safe to say that Thisbe had just spectacularly lost the upper hand, although it had likely never even been hers to begin with.
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying her best to calm down. [i He needs you,] she reminded herself. He had just admitted to being on the run, after all. If any more of his kind were currently on their way here, it certainly wasn't so that they could help him. From where Thisbe stood, it looked like she was this alien's only hope, so she needed to be smart and use that fact to her advantage.
To that end, it would probably be in her best interests to avoid unnecessarily antagonizing him. She had remained silent for far too long—he was expecting some kind of response from her, and she needed to give it to him [i now]. With an effort, Thisbe tore her gaze away from the gun and looked up, fruitlessly searching for the alien's face above her. There was nothing but blackness.
"I...I need to leave my village, yes," she conceded, deciding he didn't need to know the particulars. "But Terra Felix isn't exactly kind to a woman traveling alone, and it's nearly two weeks' ride on horseback to the closest port town." She continued desperately scanning the darkness; although she wasn't particularly keen to see the alien's frightening face again, she did find herself wishing she could look him in the eye as she spoke.
"You said you wanted me to take you there—I'll do it without a fuss, and I'll even see to your wounds and tend your camp, if you like. You have my word on that. But you've got to promise to keep me safe on the road, and to let me go once we make it to Marshal's Progress." Heart now slamming against her ribs at her own audacity, Thisbe extended a trembling hand into the space between them, careful not to brush it against the gun he still held against her.
There was a long moment of silence that Nex, as impatient as he had been feeling these last few hours, let hang in the air. She obviously had something to say and she wanted to say it right and he had no reason to prevent her from doing so. Especially when her agenda might align with his own. He had always assumed that humans were like pack animals and stuck together, but the first words out of her mouth were the confession he was hoping for.
What was a human expression? She was a black sheep. He supposed he was as well.
A smirk came to his face as he watched her try to find his face with her eyes in the darkness. The more she spoke, the more his plan was coming together. It wasn’t exactly what he was expecting, but it was better. She needed him. He needed her. It was far better to do this without holding a gun to her head the entire time.
Nex had no idea where this Marshall’s progress was, and he had no idea just how long two weeks time was here on Terra Felix compared to what he was used to, but he much preferred having a guide than going it alone out here. He had no map, no gauge of direction in the rolling and rocky hills of this backwater planet.
She had the audacity to extend her hand. Brave, for a human who could only see the glowing light of the gun at her belly. He didn’t want her to get the wrong idea about who was really in charge, here, so he waited a long moment. He wanted to make her wonder if he was really going to pull that trigger.
Then he loosened his hand and the gun hung limply from his fingers before he moved it back to its holster on his side. Then he clasped her hand.
“Deal,” he said lowly. It was almost a growl. He wondered if he could convince her to find some scavengers and possibly find her a working translator. He couldn’t keep talking into this thing on his arm forever. It was hardly the equivalent of the real thing and was really only meant for emergencies. Though, he supposed this was perhaps one.
With effort, he leaned down to pick up the torch she had dropped. The tool he wore on his wrist was not only a translator. It had several other useful functions. There was a burst of blue flame from under his wrist and the torch caught fire again. He watched her find his eyes again and handed it over before going back to his spot along the rock wall and lowering himself down with a grunt.
It was very strange, this world. He had been to many forgotten planets before but they all at least had decent, interesting hubs of life. And a decent amount of technology. He had heard that there were several groups of humans on Terra Felix who had banned technology altogether. It seemed he had found one of them. How hard was it to find a light source other than a torch?
Thisbe had only a moment to marvel at the fact that she was actually clasping hands with an [i alien] before he was pulling away from her and shuffling around in the dark. And then another blue glow, brighter than that from the gun, bloomed in front of her, followed shortly afterward by flickering flames that illuminated her immediate surroundings.
She blinked rapidly, eyes trying to adjust to the light at the same time that they struggled to place the source and sudden appearance of the fire. Once she was able to see without having to squint, Thisbe realized that her torch was now suddenly alight once more and being held aloft by the alien. She glanced up and flinched when she found him already staring right at her. The alien held her gaze for a moment before finally offering her the torch.
Thisbe took it with a mumbled, "Thanks," and watched as the alien turned and nonchalantly resettled himself on the floor of the cave, as if producing fire in an instant and from absolutely nowhere was something that he did every day. Well, perhaps it [i was] something he did every day, she supposed. And here she had thought that finding the flint strikers in her supply cache had been a boon. [i Next to his magical method, mine seems just as primitive as rubbing two sticks together.]
It occurred to her then that perhaps the alien's wounds were well and truly bothering him now, considering he'd accepted the terms of her deal after only a moment's thought, and without adding any provisos of his own. He could also simply be choosing to play his hand closer to his chest, agreeing outright to her proposal so that she might trust him more quickly, thus making her easier to betray when the time was right. Thisbe sighed. It was quite likely that both scenarios were true to some extent, and while it would probably be prudent of her to maintain her guard around the alien, they also weren't going to get very far if she didn't at least [i try] to patch him up a bit.
For that she would need a little more light, so she bent and began gathering up the sticks she'd dropped, arranging them in a spot on the cave floor that wasn't too far away from the alien and that she deemed a decent place for starting a fire. She paused for a moment once she was done, wondering if perhaps she might ask the alien to use his fire starter again so that this time she might see precisely how it worked, then quickly decided against it. [i Probably best I don't push my luck by annoying him,] she thought, and held her torch to the kindling instead.
Once the fire was burning steadily, Thisbe settled herself on the ground nearby and began rooting through her rucksack. She pulled out one of the full canteens and after a brief hesitation offered it to the alien.
"Here," she said, then figured she'd better elaborate. "It's water, from the creek just outside. Um...you do drink water, don't you?" She had a sudden, horrible image of her own throat being torn out and the alien consuming her fresh blood as his beverage of choice, and could not stop her free hand from instinctively covering her throat.
Nex watched the human girl from his place on the floor as she started retrieving the sticks she had dropped in her fright. She seemed to be thinking hard about something because her mouth was pursed as she arranged the wood pile to be just right. Eventually she got the fire to burn. He was aware that he could have helped her again in lighting it, but he had to keep the upper hand somehow. If she wanted anything from him, she would need to have the decency to [i ask].
He continued to watch her, aware that she was avoiding his gaze. He wondered if he frightened her. Or if she just thought him ugly. [i You're not so easy on the eyes, either, human.] She was a pink little thing. Blonde hair. He noticed her lack of shoes and he wondered how the human race had come so far with such tender-looking feet.
Eventually she faced him, holding out a container. His eyes reflected the fire back at her as he glanced silently between the object and her face. When she finally elaborated, he laughed. He actually laughed. It was a low bark and there was no need for him to raise the translator for her to understand its meaning. He didn't know a single creature that [i didn't] need water, but he supposed his childhood education far surpassed her entire life's worth.
He took the canteen from her and popped the top off before putting it to his lips. The water tasted fowl. It had been a long time since he had to resort to water this dirty. But it felt good on his throat. He gulped it down so fast it dripped down his chin, but he didn't care. He handed it back to her seconds later, now empty, and used his uninjured arm to wipe the water from his chin.
He might have thanked her, because even he was not without his manners, but he knew she was only helping him to get what she wanted out of him: safe passage. He wondered briefly about why she felt the need to run away before reminding himself that he didn't care. She was just a tool to him. They were each playing their own part in this little game.
Thisbe contemplated the now empty canteen that the alien had handed back to her, chills still racing up and down her arms thanks to the sound of his laughter. Evidently he did drink water, but she still wasn't about to discount the possibility that he might turn to her blood in a pinch. She would have to keep her guard up, more than she'd already intended to, at any rate.
In the meantime, she supposed she would have to make another trip out to the creek for her own water later that night, seeing as what was in the other canteen was reserved for washing the alien's wounds. It had been a bit rude of him to just drink down all that she'd offered him without even checking to see if she had any more, but then again, he had probably had the more difficult day of the two of them. All things considered.
Having thus decided not to begrudge the alien for his casual disregard of her, Thisbe rummaged about in her rucksack once more, in search of her sewing kit. She cast a few surreptitious glances back at the alien as she did so, suddenly wondering if her flimsy needles would even manage to stitch his strange...skin? She wasn't even sure if that was the correct term for what covered his face. To her, it looked more like the hard carapace of an insect—complete with mandibles extending out from his lower jaw—or perhaps the tough shell of a tortoise. Any human that attempted to punch him in the mouth or even the eye would probably come away with a bloodied and broken hand, she thought ruefully. It struck her again that her only real chance of defending herself adequately against him lay in somehow getting hold of his firearm and actually figuring out how to use it. Should the situation ever arise that she [i needed] to defend herself against him, of course, and she prayed fervently that it never did.
[i Perhaps it's only his face that's...like that.] The rest of his body was completely covered by his armor, after all. It was possible that beneath it, his skin was as soft and fragile and easily sewn up again as hers. Possible, but not all that likely, knowing her luck. Either way, she wouldn't know for sure until it was removed, and seeing as he was so injured, the brunt of the task of removing it would likely fall to her.
Thisbe felt her face immediately heat up in embarrassment as she retrieved her sewing kit at last and opened it up. All her life, she and the other young girls of her village had been bombarded with ceaseless admonitions from the village elders that the only man a woman was ever supposed to undress—that she was ever supposed to see [i naked]—was her husband.
[i But it's not as though he'll be] completely [i naked underneath the armor,] she told herself. [i Right?] And even if he was, he was still an [i alien]. It wouldn't be the same as undressing a human man. Not at all. Anyway, she had decided long ago that pretty much everything she had been taught by the village elders was a load of bunk, so why should this be any different? The alien needed medical attention, and to adequately give it to him, she would need to remove his armor. It was as simple as that. Hell, wanting to [i help] him in the first place was already a one-way ticket to the town pillory for a public chastisement. Undressing him would be the least of her sins in the village's eyes.
"Would you, um," she began, studiously avoiding the alien's gaze in favor of carefully inspecting the few needles in her kit. "Would you like me to take a look at your injuries now? I won't if you don't want me to, but from what I could see, they looked pretty...uh. Well, you've lost a lot of blood."
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