1. NO REST
The first thing he noticed was her smell, the delicate aroma washing over his senses and drawing him from sleep, raising him up from the depths of some dark place and into awareness. Shadows receded, and ghosts faded away as her hands moved gently across his chest, over countless scars of battles won and lost, and then guided him into her gentle warmth. Her hair cascaded across his face as she leaned over to draw him in closer. As her lips met his, he found the strength to surge upwards despite the pain of his wounds. Their bodies wound together upon the soft sheets, like mating snakes rolling through fallen leaves, and together, they knew a boundless joy.
The nature of such moments is that they fade, and as Samuel lay on his back, with Sura’s head resting upon his chest, he felt the dull pain in his body begin to flare into something more robust. He did not want the moment to end, and fought against it, gritting his teeth against the sharp edges of agony.
Doc Rayburn had saved the marine’s life, but the field surgery had been a crude one, and the healing somewhat haphazard. He had a weak tea that Doc made from some of the leaves that grew locally, but there was little in the way of pharmaceutical painkillers beyond the handful that Doc had given him shortly after Samuel had awakened on the bloody grass of the clearing.
Samuel focused on the lock of dark hair that lay across Sura’s face, watching it flutter back and forth as her sleeping breath moved through it. They hadn’t been able to keep their hands off each other in the week since Samuel and the other Longstriders had fought the Tasca slavers, and though they were as careful as lovers could be, the continued activity came with a cost. The two bullet wounds in Samuel’s side were positively screaming now, the electric sting of nerve endings howling for the marine to adjust his position. He could lay on his side, but that would mean letting the moment go, and Samuel wanted every second of it he could seize.
The two of them had fought through lonely years and countless enemies to make their life together and then had been forced to continue fighting. The pain in his side was a brutal reminder of the endless struggle that was his life, Sura’s life, and their son’s life.
As his thoughts drifted to Orion, his gaze drifted around the small bedroom of the cabin he and Sura had built together. He realized that the dawn light was only now peeking through the window.
The boy would still be asleep, thought Samuel, before considering that soon he would no longer be able to think in those terms. Orion was on the cusp of young adulthood, and soon he would begin his own struggle to find life and identity in this vast scrapyard of a universe.
The sound of movement outside the door caught Samuel’s attention, and he could hear his son making his best attempts at being quiet as he prepared for the outdoors. Cragg, the saurian companion that had been with Orion since hatching, made a soft clicking sound with its claws as it moved across the short hallway from Orion’s bedroom and into the main cabin.
The sound of a rifle’s slide racking, the chambering of a round, told Samuel that Orion was leaving for a grok hunt. The quadrupeds were most active in the dawn hours, and the flesh of one of them would feed the family, and Cragg, for several weeks if Orion was able to take one. They were cunning creatures, silent and adept at camouflage. They were the prey of the large feline creatures that sometimes prowled the lonely forests of Longstride. Cragg’s flesh was poisonous to the big cats, and so as long as the saurian was nearby, Orion would have little to fear from the planet’s apex predator.
The thought of predators brought to mind the Tasca slavers once more and left Samuel faced with a decision he still had to make. In the last week the dreams had only gotten worse, and no matter how much love he made to his wife or how much of Doc’s homemade tea he quaffed, the Gedra nightmare persisted. There had been something in one of the cryo-crates they’d offloaded from the Tasca ship, and though he lay wounded and dying, Samuel could hear it roaring in his mind. The other Longstriders felt it too, a sort of evil radiating from the crate. After opening all the others crates to set the people inside free, the large, menacing one had been left alone.
Doc had told Samuel they’d hauled it into the forest, just past Kovac’s Ridge, and buried it. The Longstriders had destroyed the transponders on all the cryo-crates, except for the one with blackout plates welded onto the crate’s viewports. They were going to affix several thermal charges and slag the cryo-crate, but before passing out, Samuel had apparently turned his head and looked at it. Both the pilot, Tanya, and Doc Rayburn had heard Samuel say “I know you” to the crate. Given the palpable energy coming off the thing, they had decided to leave it for Samuel to determine how to deal with it once he’d healed.
The truth was, Samuel had been avoiding making this decision for the last several days. If he was well enough to be with his wife, even if it cost him tremendous pain afterward, then he could take the skiff out past the ridge. Though Samuel was loath to bring him, Orion was becoming a solid driver, and the marine would need the boy’s help to dig up the crate. Samuel wasn’t sure what he would do once he had unearthed it, but he knew it was time to make the journey.
The moment had passed, Samuel realized as he looked down to meet Sura’s open eyes. He had no idea how long she’d been watching him, but from the expression on her face, it was clear she knew what he was thinking.
“Whatever is in that crate isn’t just buried, Samuel,” Sura said in a small voice, gentle, but firm, “It is waiting for you.”
“I keep having the Gedra dream, and I know there’s more to it than trade war PTSD,” responded Samuel as he winced from the pain of both he and Sura shifting their positions ever so slightly. “I think I’ve been avoiding it.”
“We do what needs to be done, husband. We are Longstriders now.” Sura moved a hand up to cup Samuel’s face. “And before that, we were Grotto born and raised. Facing things, getting on with it, is in our blood.”
“Fair point, wife,” said Samuel, with a grim smile. “Even in our most tender moments, there is steel in our spine. Well, mine, at least.”
“Who are you and what have you done with my marine?” laughed Sura with a theatrical flair as she framed the question. “I do believe you just made a joke, and that is a far cry from the brooding boy I met outside the Enforcer’s Spire.”
“Getting shot and getting laid all in the same week does things to a man,” smirked Samuel as he gripped Sura’s thigh, inviting her to slide the rest of the way up his body to straddle him. “When Orion gets back from the hunt I’ll dose on Rayburn’s tea and take the skiff.”
“The world might change again,” breathed Sura before she kissed Samuel deeply and began to move her hips against his, the pleasure of her upon him balancing out the toll it cost him in pain, “Depending on what you find there.”
“Then let’s make the most of the dawn while we have it,” whispered Samuel as he gripped Sura’s waist, the rush of hormones already pushing the pain out of his consciousness and filtering out everything but the woman on top of him.
Hours later Samuel breathed deeply of the moist forest air and was happy that he got his lungs full without a lance of pain stopping him short. Doc’s tea was perhaps stronger than he’d given it credit for, thought Samuel, as he took some small pleasure in how fresh and clean the air was on this tiny planet. With no industry to speak of, beyond the homesteading of the locals, there was nothing to befoul the pristine natural landscape. That was why Sura had picked this place, and Samuel felt that there could be no more perfect home in the universe.
He turned his head and looked at Orion as the boy skillfully piloted the small skiff over the land.
Orion was still in his hunting kit, which was a patchwork body glove made out of leather and ceramic plates, carefully crafted to give maximum mobility with modest protection from thorn, tooth, and claw. It was still a little big for him, but he’d soon fill it out well.
Though the boy had been born in the grinding industrial society of Grotto and had spent his early years in the cramped living quarters of corporate housing, space stations, and starships, he had blossomed in the rugged environment of Longstride. It was amazing what open air and clean food could do for a child. Samuel felt a surge of pride as he watched the youngster deftly maneuver around the large trees and massive moss-covered boulders that covered the forest floor.
Sura had insisted that Orion accompany Samuel on this journey, and though she declared that it was so the marine wouldn’t have to overexert himself, Samuel knew it was more for Orion’s benefit. Riding with the marine to unearth something that was sure to be trouble, carried a risk that none of them could ignore. Samuel himself was fully suited in his Reaper armor and cradled his combat rifle with deadly purpose. In fact, it was when she had seen the marine preparing himself for possible violence that Sura had encouraged Orion’s participation.
Samuel knew what she was doing, and though it darkened his thoughts to consider, he found himself in reluctant agreement. ...