It was nearing sunset and they’d spent the entire day wandering through the woods just as they’d spent the last four days. When they weren’t foraging for food, they were doing their best to be civil, but after four days of seemingly aimless wandering, tempers were becoming even shorter than they had been when they both boarded the Eureka Maru. The forced politeness had become nasty. They hadn’t said a single cruel word to each other, but the biting politeness was just as bad. Neither Aerfen nor Rhade had said a single word for the last few hours and the silence was a blessing, but now that they were stopping for the day, they would have to speak with each other again.
Rhade set his pack down beneath a tree and looked around. Their instructions had led them to this spot, but he was starting to wonder if perhaps there was something wrong with the instructions themselves or with how they were interpreting them. For the last few nights, they’d wound up in caves or in clearings, but tonight they were still in the woods. From the looks of things, they were near the edge of the forest, but they still hadn’t seen any sign that the planet was inhabited, despite the information they’d been given about the planet’s Nietzschean inhabitants.
“This is insane,” he heard Aerfen mutter as she tried to find a suitable place to set up their single tent. “I feel like we’re walking in circles.”
“The locator I have for the Maru indicates that we’ve been putting some distance between us and it,” Rhade informed her. “I feel disoriented in these woods and everything is starting to look the same.”
Aerfen stood and turned around to look at him, eyes blazing angrily. “I am aware of that, Rhade. It’s a feeling, that’s all. Are you just going to stand there or are you going to help me get this thing up. It’s designed for two people to set up; I can’t do it alone, much as it pains me to admit.”
Rhade walked over and started helping her with the tent. “So you’re not perfect after all,” he said.
“No one’s perfect, Rhade, not even Nietzscheans, despite what we’re all raised to believe.”
He gave Aerfen a strange look. “What makes you say that?”
She shook her head. “Nothing. Forget I said anything about it. Let’s just get this thing up. I’m tired and tomorrow looks to be just as long as this one was.”
Rhade pressed her again, but after her refusal to speak any more on the matter, he let it drop and finished with the tent. Once it was up, Aerfen went inside to change out of her sticky clothes. “We’re going to have to find a stream soon and wash some of our gear. I’m starting to run low on clothing,” she said from inside.
Not that I’d mind if you wandered around naked, Rhade said to himself. I now define torture as hating a woman with a body like that for no reason that you can figure out. When she emerged from the tent in the clothes she wore to sleep, Rhade went in to change as well. When he came out a few minutes later, Aerfen was sitting on a fallen log, plaiting her long blond hair. Unlike most Commonwealth officers, she chose to keep her hair long. That was allowed provided that she kept it pinned back. Rhade was accustomed to seeing it pinned to the back of her head in a bun, but she hadn’t brought any pins with her on the mission. Even if she had, the time couldn’t be spared for her to style her hair every morning. He was slowly getting used to the long blond braided tail she’d been sporting lately.
“Are you done primping yet? It’s just a bedroll. It doesn’t care what you look like.”
“Be that as it may, I don’t like waking up in the morning with knots in my hair. With no water source, I have to do this to keep my hair neat. You don’t understand, as you’ve clearly never had long hair in your life. I don’t criticize your grooming habits so stay away from mine.”
“Mine don’t take the time that yours do.”
“Grow your hair out then,” she suggested acidly. “Learn what it’s like on the other side of the fence.”
“Or you could cut yours,” he retorted.
“Nice try, but I’ve been there. I had short hair while I was going through the academy.”
“Cutting it would save time and energy on your part,” Rhade explained through gritted teeth.
“We won’t be on this mission forever and I refuse to go through the process of growing my hair out when we get back to the Andromeda.”
“Using nanobots it wouldn’t take that long.”
“It’s still irritating. Not as irritating as you are, but nothing is that bad.”
“Oh, so I irritate you, do I?”
“No, I was just being polite. You make me angrier than anyone I’ve met in my life!”
“The feeling is mutual,” Rhade snarled. “You might be a prime specimen of your Pride’s genes physically, but you have the mental acuity of a back water yokel.”
That did it. That was the last straw. Aerfen got up and hit him across the jaw with her fist. Woman she might be, but she was a Nietzschean woman and strong. The shot was completely unexpected on Rhade’s end and it sent him reeling. Aerfen stood over him, hands on her hips. “Don’t you dare call me that again,” she snarled angrily.
Rhade grabbed her ankle and pulled her down into the dirt. “Why? Does the truth hurt, Aerfen?”
“You wouldn’t know the truth if it up and spat in your smug little face.” She tried to get back up, but didn’t get very far before Rhade’s other hand got a grip on her shirt and pulled her back down. She landed across his chest with a yelp of surprise and a little bit of pain. Rhade flipped her onto her back and straddled her chest, pinning her arms above her head. She struggled, but couldn’t get out as his weight was a bit too much for her to push aside in such a compromised position.
“Now what?” she demanded. “What do you intend to do now?”
The sound of guns being drawn startled them both. “Well, well,” a deep, masculine voice said approaching them. “What do we have here?” Spotting their bone blades, he laughed. “A couple of Nietzscheans. Isn’t that odd? We don’t like Nietzscheans, do we men?” The men around him growled acknowledgement. “You freaks shouldn’t exist at all. How lucky for us that we get the opportunity to rid the galaxy of you abominations.”
“Restorians,” Aerfen muttered. “Just great.”
“You two must have a death wish, coming here,” the man continued. “What’s the matter? Couldn’t make a reservation at your favorite resort so you decide to play chicken with death and come here?”
“Something like that,” Rhade replied.
“Cuff them,” he instructed some of his men. “And no funny business or we’ll kill you on the spot.”
“That’s the furthest thing from my mind,” Rhade said calmly.
The Restorians marched them away from their camp, through the woods, and onto a path that the two Nietzscheans had missed during the day. The sun was now almost beneath the horizon and the darkness made it difficult for them to make notes on the path they were on. In no time, they were herded into a well-lit building. Men looked up as they came in. Some cat called at Aerfen, making several lewd suggestions. Rhade snarled back at them, which only made the suggestions more and more vulgar, including several anatomically questionable acts and suggestions that they might let Rhade watch if he was a good little freak.
The men who captured them led them down into a set of holding pens, putting them in separate cells. The cells were just square enclosures barely large enough for someone Rhade’s size made entirely of evenly spaced metal bars. The enclosures lowered from the ceiling and were locked onto the floor by some kind of magnetic field. The one time it would be useful to have Harper along on a mission and he was safely on board the Andromeda with the others.
The room was cold, cold enough that the two Nietzscheans could feel it. It wouldn’t have been so bad if they hadn’t been dressed for bed, which they were. Rhade sat down in his enclosure, studying the layout, knees tucked up under his chin and arms wrapped around his legs. At least Aerfen has a shirt on, he thought darkly. Thought of his fellow Nietzschean turned his gaze towards her. Her enclosure was beside his. She sat against the bars, rubbing her ankle gingerly. “Aerfen?” he asked tentatively. “Are you alright?”
She snorted. “This is a fine time for you to start showing concern for my well-being.”
“If you’re injured, it will make getting out of here difficult.”
“Well, then perhaps you should know that you nearly broke my ankle earlier and the forced march didn’t help,” she snarled.
“Well, it’s not like I knew that we were going to be attacked by Restorians,” he snarled back, testing the bars to see if there was a current running through them. Nothing.
“Oh, so if you’d known, you wouldn’t have broken my ankle? That’s rich.”
“If I’d known, we wouldn’t be here. We would have been getting as far away from here as possible and no. I wouldn’t have done anything to impede our escape and that includes injuring you, much as you ask for it some days.”
“I ask for it? You’re the one who started all of this. If you’d just learn to keep your mouth shut, this wouldn’t be happening. We would have heard them coming and been able to hide or at least put up a fight, but not. You had to open your big mouth.”
“It takes two to carry on an argument, Aerfen,” Rhade reminded her. “You could have just ignored me.”
“Now isn’t this cute?” a man said, walking into the holding area. “When we found you two, you both looked quite cozy, perhaps a pair of Nietzschean abominations out on a romantic getaway. It would appear that our initial assumption was incorrect.”
“No, you had it right the first time,” Aerfen said sweetly. “It’s just a lover’s quarrel.” She gave Rhade a look.
“Yes, of course it is. What would make you think otherwise? Honestly, why else would we be here alone?”
The man laughed. “Good thing we separated you two, then. Can’t have you freaks being happy, now can we? Anyways, I just came down to inform you that our leader has decided to terminate your worthless lives in the morning. Enjoy your last few hours of existence. Oh don’t worry. The rest of your miserable race will be joining you soon.” He left the holding area laughing.
Rhade looked at Aerfen quizzically. “Why did you tell him that we were lovers?”
She rubbed her ankle. “It never hurts to give your enemy the wrong idea, Rhade.”
He growled, “As if I’d ever touch you.”
“Not if you were the last male alive,” Aerfen agreed. “Besides, you were the one who started it earlier. We have to get out of here.”
He snorted. “I really don’t think you needed to state such an obvious point.”
“Shut up, will you? I think I have an idea.”
A couple hours later, another guard came down to check up on them. Aerfen grinned inside. It was one of the ones who had been making a lot of the lewd suggestions when they’d been marched into the Restorian’s complex earlier. “Hey there,” she said, doing her best to sound sultry. She was lounging on her side with her back up in the air and one of her legs, the one with the good ankle, propped up. She leaned forward a little, letting the neckline of her shirt dip a little. “Come to check on us?”
“We can’t have you freaks escaping before we kill you, now can we?”
She pouted. “Do you really have to kill us?”
He lowered his weapon. “Yes. Your people should never have existed in the first place. It’s our duty to rid the galaxy of the stain left by your race’s very existence.”
Aerfen smiled seductively. “Well, if you insist on killing us, why not have a little fun first?”
“Aerfen, no!” Rhade shouted, enraged.
The guard grinned. “Well, I guess that would be alright even though I’m not sure about letting you leave this world happy, but seeing your lover over there squirm is worth this,” he said approaching the cell she was in. He set his weapon down to unlock the magnetic field holding the bars to the ground.
“If you touch her I’ll bury my bone blades in your neck,” Rhade threatened.
“You’re hardly in a position to make threats,” he laughed, going into Aerfen’s cell. She simply let him come to her, refusing to let him know that she was injured. He put the weapon down and sat down beside her, cupping her chin in his hand. “Now, why don’t we enjoy ourselves?”
Aerfen sat up and wrapped her arms around his neck, smiling sweetly. “Why don’t we? You know what they say about Nietzschean women, don’t you?”
He nodded and kissed her, grunting as Aerfen buried her bone blades into his neck. He fell over and she wiped her mouth. “Clearly, you don’t. Idiot.” She stood, taking his weapon, and left the cell, locking the magnetic field. Not that it was necessary, but she felt like doing it all the same. She hobbled over to Rhade’s cell. “Personally, I wouldn’t have any problem leaving you here to rot, but since Captain Hunt will likely want you back once we’ve complete our objective, it seems that I have little choice but to get you out of there.”
Rhade watched as she turned of the magnetic field. He lifted the bars and got out. “Let’s go,” he said shortly.
It took them nearly an hour to make heir way out of the Restorian complex. Aerfen had kept the weapon as Rhade was in a better position to fight hand to hand. Halfway back to their camp, Aerfen collapsed onto a log, holing her ankle. “It’s no good. I can’t walk on it anymore.”
Rhade looked down at her, thoughtfully. “I suppose that I’ll just have to carry you the rest of the way.”
“Are you mad?” she asked incredulously. “Do you honestly think that I’d let you?”
“Do you think I’m doing this because I want to? I’m not really giving you much choice in the matter, Aerfen. We both have to make it out of here alive. I’m not going to let those Restorians kill another Nietzschean, even one like you, one I can’t stand to be around.”
“How nice of you.”
Rhade knelt down on the ground to make it easier for her to get onto his back. “Come on. We need to get back to our camp, get our supplies, and carry on with our mission, putting as much distance between us and the Restorians as possible.”
Reluctantly, she agreed, wrapping her arms around his neck. He stood up and looped his arms around her legs, heading off. She wasn’t very heavy so he was able to move fairly quickly. As he walked, he could smell the blood on her bone blades, see the redness staining them and the bracers around them, and feel the beat of her heart against his back. Her skin was cold to the touch, but soft and smooth. Her breath tickled his neck, but he didn’t say anything.
Hell redefined again, he grumbled to himself. I can’t stand her, but not only do I have to work with her one on one like this, I’m stuck carrying her. Yes, I offered, but I didn’t think it would be this hard on my emotional state. She smells so good, feels good against me like this. It feels so right and yet to very, very wrong.
It was a relief when they finally made it back to their camp as it meant he could put her down and find something to wrap her ankle up with to help it heal. He set her down on a bed roll in the tent and fished the med kit out of their packs. She was already barefoot, so he put her foot in his lap without asking or saying anything to her and probed the ankle with his fingers. It was indeed broken and was starting to swell badly. He took out some bandages and painkillers. The kit didn’t contain any medical nanobots, but the ones already present in Aerfen’s body should start healing the break as soon as the bones were set properly.
“This might hurt a little,” he warned her before setting the bones back in place. To her credit, she didn’t make a sound, but when he looked up at her, there were tears in her eyes. “Aerfen? Are you alright?”
“No, you idiot. I’m in pain. As much as it makes me sick to show any kind of weakness in front of you, I can’t hide how much it hurts anymore.”
He nodded, wrapping her ankle in bandages. “There. It should start to heal now. I have a painkiller here if you want it,” he said, holding it up to her. “You’ll probably want to administer it yourself. I don’t know how much pain you’re in or how much of this you can take.”
She took the injector and adjusted the settings to her liking and pressed it against her shoulder, releasing the medication into her system. The relief was almost instantaneous. She sighed and slumped forward a little. “That already feels better.”
Rhade moved to sit beside her. “Look, Aerfen, I know you’re not too fond of me and I’m not too fond of you either. Even so, I feel bad about what I did to you. If I hadn’t criticized you, your ankle wouldn’t have been broken and we would have heard those prejudiced freaks coming towards us.” He sighed. “I guess I’m trying to say that I’m sorry.”
Aerfen looked at him. “You should be,” she said, but without the hard edge her voice usually had when addressing him. “This nearly cost us our lives.”
“It wasn’t entirely my fault. I’m really just apologizing for breaking your ankle.”
“Yes, I know. I accept your apology, Rhade.”
He nodded. “So what now? Do we stay here for the night or do we keep moving? I’m leaving it up to you since you’re hurt.”
“Personally, I think we should move away from here. The Restorians know where our camp is, so we should get away from here. Gather up the things we’ll need for the night and move. We can come back for the rest in the morning.”
“You mean I can come back for them,” Rhade said. “I highly doubt that you’ll be in any shape to do much of anything tomorrow. I don’t mean that to be derogatory in any way, it’s just a fact.”
“I hate being injured,” she groaned. “There’s very little that I hate more than not being able to take care of myself.”
“Then maybe you need to learn how to recognize when you need to ask for help. This is one such situation. You can’t do this alone.”
“Did you have to remind me?”
“Well, it’s in our orders,” he pointed out bluntly. “So it’s literally not possible as well as physically.”
“We should probably get moving before we’re found,” she said, changing the subject. “Since you’re still able to move properly, I’ll let you take care of gathering the necessary supplies. I’ll roll up the bedding.”
“We should leave the tent here. It’s too much to carry right now.”
“Agreed.” They both went about gathering the supplies that they’d need for the night. Rhade filled a pack with some food, medical supplies, a pot to cook in and some spare clothing. He left the fire starting kit behind, figuring that they could just use their force lances to ignite any firewood they found where they were going. He strapped a pair of full canteens around his waist and, throwing the pack over one shoulder, went to get Aerfen. She’d bundled up both bedrolls and was just waiting to go. She looked at the bag on his shoulder.
“You didn’t pack much,” she observed.
“Seeing as how I have to carry the bag, you, and the bedrolls, I figured that I shouldn’t pack much more than this. You’re not very heavy, but I don’t want to overburden myself.”
“I’m quite sure that’s the most intelligent thing I’ve ever heard you say,” she said, nodding. “Let’s get going.” She’d put the bedrolls into a makeshift rope harness which she slung over her shoulders.
Choosing to ignore her remark, Rhade crouched slightly to let her climb up. When she was in place, he headed off in a different direction from their original heading, going north instead of west. If the Restorians could find their camp, then it stood to reason that they’d be able to find the trail they’d taken from the Maru to reach that spot and figure out which direction they were most likely headed. He walked until he couldn’t go any further. By then, they were a good two hours away from the camp.
“Well, Aerfen, it looks like you get your stream after all,” he said, setting her down on the bank of a small river fed by a thundering waterfall. The spray barely reached them, but they could both still feel the cool water. “I’ll find us a place to hide if you want to take this chance to wash off some of the dirt. The cool water should be good for the swelling in your ankle as well.”
“Sounds good to me,” she said, unwrapping her ankle as he wandered off. She scooted over to the water’s edge and put her swollen ankle in the water. It was icy cold, but it felt good. She put her other foot in for good measure, taking care not to make too much noise in case it should draw their pursuers towards them. She scooped up some water and rubbed it on her skin in an attempt to wash off the dirt. She pulled her feet out and bent over to splash her face. The sun was starting to come up. She almost started to wash her hair, but Rhade came back then.
“There’s a cave behind the waterfall,” he said. “It’s a little hard to get into, but we can manage. Once you’re inside, I’ll block the path so that the Restorians can’t get to us.”
“I’m done here. Why don’t we refill those canteens and get going? They might be prejudiced, but they’re not idiots. It shouldn’t take them too long to track that trail you left through the woods.”
“I’d like to see you do better carrying another person on your back,” he growled picking her up in his arms.
The cave was a little on the damp side, but with the bedrolls to huddle in, it was tolerable. It took Rhade a couple minutes to clock the path. He came back and sat down on his bedroll. “I can hear them out there,” he told her in a hushed voice. “The path isn’t as blocked as I’d like, but we didn’t leave any tracks out there in the clearing for them to follow. With any luck, they’ll think we crossed the stream and headed off that way to loose them. We should be alright if we just stay quiet.”
Aerfen nodded, too tense to say anything or do anything besides huddle under the blanket. They’d set Rhade’s bed roll up to sit on and were using hers as a blanket. Neither one felt comfortable with the situation, but it was better to huddle for added warmth and stay alive than freeze. Through the water falling in front of the cave entrance, they could barely make out the voices of their pursuers and occasionally saw a shadow pass in front of the falls. One looked as if it was going to discover them. Aerfen clung to Rhade out of fear, hardly daring to breathe. She didn’t relax when the shadow moved on. Rhade could feel her shaking, but whether it was from the cold or fear he couldn’t tell. Figuring that it couldn’t hurt at this point, he wrapped his arms around her slight form. If she was really cold, it could be taken as an attempt to help warm her up, whereas if she was afraid it could be construed as an offering of comfort. Not long after the sounds of the Restorians moved on, Aerfen relaxed. It took him a moment to realize that it was because she’d passed out. Gently, he shifted them both into a more comfortable position and closed his eyes, trying to get some sleep.