August 30, 2010

Assignment to Earth Chapter Fourteen

Tuesday morning dawned bright and clear, and Skylar rose early. He'd spent the weekend checking and re-checking his equipment.

When he’d first searched Rantek's living quarters, he'd found a hidden wall panel which provided him with a spare laser, as well as other valuable devices from home. Over the weekend, he'd brought the extra laser to full charge, as well as making sure his own was ready.

He packed his gear, carefully placing the highly sensitive energy scanner in the center of it. He hoped he could pass it off as a metal detector if Glen saw it, since they were supposedly looking for the remains of Jenna's aircraft.

Skylar disliked having to deliberately mislead anyone, but he had little choice in the matter, Standing Orders being to avoid publishing their off-world origins. He left Rantek’s living quarters and took the local public transport to the nearby airport where he was to meet Glen and Jenna at nine.

A few minutes before nine, Glen entered the building. Skylar picked up his pack and walked over to meet him, the smile on his face answering Glen’s wave. They walked outside together and moved toward a small plane.

As they reached the craft, Glen swung open a small door in the side near the back. "We'll stow your gear in here, Skylar."

Handing his pack to Glen, he watched to make sure it was fastened into the space securely, then climbed into the plane, Glen on his heels.

Skylar gave a "Good Morning" to Jenna, who sat sideways in one of the pilot’s seats. She nodded in return, but remained silent, her face pale and drawn, her lips tightly pressed together. Glen and Skylar exchanged looks.

Keeping his voice just above a whisper, Glen said softly, "She's been real quiet like that all weekend."

"She's probably just nervous about looking for her past. I know I would be." Skylar's voice, too, was so low as to be nearly inaudible.

He knew ‘finding her past’ was exactly what had Jenna worried. The Klodfons were intimidating at any time, but if you had once been their prisoner and escaped, the consequences would be a hundred-fold more painful if they caught you again.

Skylar was somewhat nervous himself. After all, two—or maybe three, if they could find and free Rantek—against probably hundreds were not very encouraging odds, compounded by having no communications with the Charys if things got dicey.

He hated having to ask Jenna to face the Klodfons again, but if Rantek were their prisoner, Skylar had no choice. He had to use whatever means were available. The presence of the base on a primitive world called for reconnaissance and a report. His primary mission called for him to rescue the scout and somehow get everyone out alive and back home. 'And that,' Skylar mused to himself, ‘is going to be some trick.'

Glen appeared excited to think Skylar might be able to get Jenna back in touch with her relatives, which pleased Skylar very much. Apparently it hadn't yet occurred to him that those relatives might be so far away he may never see her again. Skylar shifted his shoulders a bit uncomfortably at the thought of Glen and Hanna’s reaction to that probability, as the craft moved smoothly into the line of airplanes awaiting their turn for take-off.

When they landed at another airport several hours later, this one in a much smaller town, Skylar was glad to get out and move around. Even though the plane was fairly roomy, he had felt cooped up inside it. This was partly due to the fact he hated being a passenger, and partly, he acknowledged to himself, that he generally got a little jittery just before a dangerous mission.

"Will we be flying much further?" he asked Glen.

"No, but we've quite a ways to go by jeep." He unlocked the compartment where the packs had been stowed and strode away.

Skylar mentally filed the word “Jeep”, and helped Jenna unload their gear while he waited to discover what a “Jeep” was.

It wasn’t long before Glen drove up in an open-topped vehicle. Skylar and Jenna stowed the packs in the jeep while Glen secured the plane for their absence. They left the airport, drove through the small adjacent town and out into the desert.

As they drove, the wind whipped their hair in every direction and howled in their ears, making a conversation without yelling nearly impossible. Skylar spent his time surveying the landscape. The land appeared to stretch out fairly flat in all directions. The paved highway sliced through the sparse vegetation skirting dusty-green bushes, twisted trees with green trunks, small flowering vines cowering in the shade of larger plants, and spiny plants which looked decidedly menacing.

There wasn't much cover available. Skylar hoped he wouldn't be running from the Klodfons in this environment. The dry earth looked well-packed; it wouldn't slow the Klodfons at all, and one glance was enough to know he couldn’t carry as much water as he’d need.

After a time, the landscape became monotonous and Skylar napped, having learned long ago to get sleep where and when he could, especially when expecting Klodfons—they had a wicked habit of showing up at the most inopportune moments.

Skylar woke briefly when Glen turned off the main paved road and proceeded to drive out across the apparently trackless desert. He noticed Jenna was asleep in her seat. At least she had been able to relax a little; he would need her at her best. He tried to doze once more, with little success.

Sometime in mid-afternoon, Glen stopped the jeep. The sudden absence of noise and movement woke both Skylar and Jenna.

"Wake up, sleepyheads," Glen called as he climbed out of the jeep, now covered with brown dust. "Time to set up camp!"

He unloaded the gear from the rear of the vehicle. Jenna scrambled out of the jeep and stood, brushing the dust from her clothes and swaying slightly as she tried to get her bearings.

Skylar crawled out of the tiny back seat, glad for a chance to stretch his legs and looked around, automatically taking stock of his surroundings.

Glen had chosen a small oasis area for their camp. There were several short and spiky trees, which twisted as if they'd been tortured in the desert heat, alongside a variety of spined plants in shades of green and grey. Across the ground lay a scattering of vines decorated with tiny purple flowers, and a small spring that bubbled away into nothing less than thirty feet from its source.

As Skylar pulled his pack from the rear of the jeep, Glen called over from where he was laying out a tent and pointed to the spiky trees. "Skylar, those Joshua trees should support your hammock set-up. Cut some wood stakes for your tarp; they'll hold better in the sand, and make sure you pick trees that aren't bug highways." Glen's wide grin was somehow comforting to him.

"Thanks," Skylar called back with an answering smile and made a close inspection of several of the Joshua trees Glen had indicated before he found two which suited his purpose. On closer inspection the trees didn't have true spikes, they just gave the impression of it.

Skylar strung his hammock and tarp, then ducked under the shelter to conceal his movements from Glen while he removed the scanner from his pack. He powered it up and ran a check to make sure it hadn't been damaged on the trip here. Satisfied all was working as it should, he powered down and tucked the unit away again. As he left his own shelter, he found the others just finishing with the settings for their own tents.

Glen left to get firewood after telling the two not to stray out of camp. He also asked Jenna to see about rustling up some dinner. Skylar watched him walk out of sight, then went straight back to his pack under the sleeping tarp emerging again within seconds, hands held behind his back. Jenna began laughing.

“What?” Skylar asked, one brow quirking.

“You look like a little kid with a secret,” Jenna said, her laughter washing over the air between them, her hands busy with the meal preparations.

“Yes, well, maybe I do have a secret—want to see what it is? “


“Say ‘please.’”

Jenna rolled her eyes. “Pretty-please-with-sugar-on-top-and-strawberries-and-cream. Will that do?”

With a laugh he presented a holstered laser to Jenna. "Could you use one of these?"

"Skylar!" Jenna squealed with delight. "Where did you get this?" She hugged him, then wasted no more time in pulling the belt around her, adjusting it to fit her tiny waist and strapping it on, obviously savoring every movement. She removed the laser from the holster and checked both its balance and the charge available before returning it and snapping the safety strap closed.

"Oh," he smiled even wider, but in an off-hand manner as he drawled, "it was hanging around Rantek's place. I figured he wouldn't mind if you borrowed it. Besides," his voice deepened and became more serious, "it'll be nice to have a second laser as a back-up when we find the base."

Jenna shivered despite the heat, her momentary light-heartedness forgotten. "I really don't want to go back in there."

Skylar spoke softly, his eyes still serious. "I don’t like asking you, but I need your help."

Jenna nodded. "Rantek needs it more."

"Are you going to be all right?"

Taking a deep breath, Jenna nodded. "I think so. Having the laser helps bunches; isn't that silly?"

"Not at all," Skylar returned. "You need a weapon at your side. Especially when you know it's effective on the enemy."

"You have a point, Captain," she said. With great reluctance, she removed the belt and laser and tucked them inside her tent for later, then resumed fixing their dinner.

Skylar watched as she busied herself around the camp. He wondered which of the dreams he'd had last week would come to life. Would she fight at his side or hand him to the Klodfons? Only time would tell, but for now he had to trust her. She was the only lead he had if he was going to find Rantek.

Glen returned with enough wood to start the fire and built, then lit it. He asked Skylar to accompany him on his immediate departure for more wood and Skylar went gladly. They returned, their arms were full of fallen, dried Joshua branches, desiccated pieces of sagebrush and several pieces of dead cactus, minus the spines. By this time, Jenna had a simple meal prepared and they ate.

Skylar tried to engage Jenna in light conversation but found her preoccupied. Glen’s answers to Skylar’s forays into dialogue were punctuated with yawns brought on, he assured Skylar by fatigue from the flight and long drive rather than present company.

Skylar’s answering grin was wide and friendly. “No offense taken, I assure you, Glen,” he said. “I’m all for an early night myself.”

Glen nodded agreement, and it was not long after dinner they extinguished the fire and went to their separate beds in the gathering dusk.

August 27, 2010

Assignment to Earth Chapter Thirteen

Skylar woke early in the morning and dressed in the clean clothing he found neatly folded and stacked on a chair by the door. Unwilling to make noise, he left his gear strewn around the room, knowing he could put it away after others were awake. The hunting party was to break up today and he must find time to speak with Jenna.

Heading downstairs, he hoped she would already be awake, but considered it unlikely because of their late arrival the night before. He was both pleased and surprised to see her waiting for him on the living room couch.

"Good morning." Her voice was cheerful. "It's about time you came downstairs."

"How long have you been waiting?" he asked.

Jenna's musical giggle filled the room. "Less than a minute."

Skylar's quick laugh answered hers as she continued, a more serious look on her face. "I suppose you want a planning session?"

Skylar nodded.

Jenna rose to her feet. "We should be undisturbed out on the porch, and there's a nice view, too."

Skylar watched as she walked across the room in front of him. Although her limp was less noticeable, it was still there.

He followed her out into the cool morning air, fresh from yesterday's rain. A gentle breeze was blowing, giving a slight chill to the day. Jenna shivered and pulled her light jacket closer around her.

"How's your leg this morning?" Skylar asked.

They sat down on the hanging swing before she answered him. Her hand involuntarily moved to the healing wound; she rubbed it absently. "Much better. I slept well, thanks to those tablets. What were they?"

Skylar shrugged. "Standard stock aboard the Aubria. I never asked what was in them. Does Glen know you're…not local?"

She shook her head. "Not as far as I know. At least, they’ve never said anything to that effect. The people here don't readily think of off-worlders when the pieces won't fit exactly right. Any lapses I've shown, they attribute to head injuries from the accident; they explain things to me and we go on."

“Glen rises early,” Jenna continued, “so tell me about your missing scout. I still can’t see how his trail could have led to one of our expeditions.”

“I was sent because an advance scout, who was supposed to be operating under radio silence, activated his distress beacon for a very short period of time, then totally vanished. I combed his living quarters for clues, but there were no signs of forced entry or preparations to leave. His logs were missing, but his calendar showed he was to have gone on this hunting trip.

“I was hoping if I took his place on the trip, I’d find some clue to where he’d gone…or at least why. I wondered if he’d been investigating anyone in the group. Do you have any ideas?”

"Hmmmm," Jenna mused. “I doubt it was the local government. The timing just isn’t right for that.

“This group hunts together every year and I’d swear they were as normal as anyone else I’ve met here. Mike had invited a friend of his, someone named Randy, but you called and cancelled him and put yourself in…so this Randy is probably your advance scout.”

“‘Randy’ would be a good alias for him,” Skylar said, “as it’s fairly close to his actual name—Rantek.”

"Rantek!" Jenna exclaimed, her brown eyes growing wide. "Rantek—from Varin?"

Skylar shook his head briefly. "I don't know where he's from. My briefing only covered his mission here."

Jenna's question came quickly, her words clipped. "Is there a likeness in the apartment of a small girl holding a large stuffed gureet? Bright red?"

Skylar searched his memory. "Yes, I think so. Do you know of him, or where he might be now?"

Jenna's eyes seemed to grow larger and she shook her head lightly in the negative. "I know him, but I had no idea he was here. We were friends at the academy. The likeness is of his daughter Sabrielle; he never goes anywhere for long without it. Since the destruction of the Jalonto base, it’s all he has of her."

The tone of her voice grew serious. “Skylar, it's got to be Klodfons. Nothing else would induce him to yell for help. He's not someone who panics easily.”

"Jenna, could you find that base again?" His blue eyes were intent upon hers.

Jenna shook her head. "I was really out of things at that point in time. I’d bet Glen could take us to where he found me, though, and it can't be too far from there as I wasn't in any shape for a cross-country hike. It'll be easy enough to find if you've got an energy scanner." She looked at him hopefully.

Skylar nodded and smiled at her obvious relief. "There's one in Rantek's living quarters. I'm staying there while I look for him."

They sat in silence for some time before any other words were spoken.

"Well," Skylar eventually said, "at least we know where to begin looking. Now if we can just get back to where Glen found you, we'll know if we're right."

"Right about what?" Glen's voice was stern; his face wore a disapproving look as he stepped around the corner of the house.

Neither Skylar nor Jenna answered him right away .

Glen continued, irritation on his face. "Skylar, you’ve been hounding Jenna since you arrived and now you want to probe into her past. Leave her alone."

His stance alone spoke silently of immovable force and Skylar knew something must be said to him to set him at ease, but was unsure of where and how to begin. His mind raced. He must protect their off-world identities if at all possible. He wished he knew how much of their conversation Glen had overheard. He stood, looking squarely at Glen.

"Jenna looks very much like a friend I grew up with, who disappeared about five years ago while flying. We thought if we could go back to where you found her, we might be able to find some wreckage and determine if she's the girl I knew. My friend Xavier misses his niece very much."

Skylar knew those few words would place his actions of the last few days into an entirely different perspective. Glen gave first Skylar, then Jenna a long measuring look.

Excitement rising in his voice, Glen turned to Jenna, "D'you think he may be right? Does the name Xavier mean anything to you? Ring any bells? Sound familiar at all?" He waited for her answers, his eyes never leaving hers.

Jenna shrugged, even as she looked hopeful. "It sounds vaguely familiar, somehow, but I'm not sure. If we find my...his friend’s wrecked plane," she corrected, “and meet this Xavier Skylar is talking about, it might trigger something in my memory which will help me find my family. The way I see it," she said carefully, "I've got nothing to lose and maybe everything to gain. Will you help us…take us to where you found me? Please?" She looked at Glen appealingly, her eyes anxious.

Glen nodded. "You can always come back here if he’s wrong. You know Hannah and I love you like our own, Jenna. You'll always have a place here, whether or not you ever find your real family."

His voice became gruff with emotion as he added, “I’ve always hoped you would be able to find your past, and that it would be a good one.” His big hand rested lightly on her shoulder and Jenna covered it momentarily with her much smaller hand before they ended the contact.

Turning to Skylar, he said, "I believe I owe you an apology. I shouldn't have jumped to conclusions.” His hand outstretched to shake Skylar’s, his smile looked slightly guilty. Skylar took his hand, their grips firm and friendly, and nodded his acceptance.

“I'd be happy to take you out to where I found Jenna, but it's quite a distance away and I won’t be free until Tuesday morning. Will that work for you?"

"Tuesday will be fine," He heard himself say. He wanted to be gone immediately, now that he had another lead, but couldn’t think of any plausible reasons to hurry Glen up.

Plans were quickly laid as to the place and time to meet and they quietly joined the others in the dining room.

After breakfast, the party left for their homes in the city. For the most part, they seemed glad to be getting back to their everyday routines, but Skylar knew for him it would feel like time was stretched out. Tuesday seemed a long way off.

August 25, 2010

Assignment to Earth Chapter Twelve

The morning sky lightened later than usual because of a heavy layer of very dark clouds. The wind rattled and popped the lightweight tarp above Skylar’s hammock, but, as he had predicted to Mike, the thin rope had held both him and the shelter firmly and securely. He lay snugly warm in the chill morning air mentally composing the log entry he should make for the previous day.

He had been amazed at how far the river had carried them during the short time he and Jenna had been in the water. Walking at a slower pace because of her leg, it had taken them several hours to return to the place where they'd fallen into the river.

Due to the several mishaps, it had been agreed to call off the remaining days of hunting and reschedule the trip for the regulars. Charles had bagged his deer while the rest of the party was downstream. When Skylar compared Charles’ and John’s animals, he understood why the others would term John’s deer as ‘scrawny’.

After re-crossing the river, they’d returned to the site where they’d slept the first night on the mountain. Skylar had finally been able to see the uses of the poles Blaize had been carrying for days. They had been lashed together with canvas webbing to form a triangular sled, to which Charles' deer was secured.

This sled was fastened to drag behind Blaize, and considering how skittish he had been, Skylar was amazed at how calm he became with the sled attached. He mentally filed away the sled’s design to use it at some future time.

Skylar rose, stretching his abused muscles. His arm was still quite sore. He knew Jenna must be in more pain than himself; her wound had been more serious.

He remembered her comment on being out of pain-relievers, so he dug into his own aidkit and retrieved two small tablets. Skylar returned the kit to his pack, then removed a small paper packet from his supplies and dropped it in his shirt pocket.

As he left his shelter, the strength of the cold wind blowing down from the higher mountain hit him with full force, nearly knocking him to his knees. Leaning into the wind, he looked around to see Jenna already working on breakfast; he made his way to her side.

"How's the leg?" he asked,.

She gave him a small, brave smile, which, combined with the dark circles under her eyes gave lie to her words.

"It's fine. Working great, now. Thanks." She made to turn back to her work, but he reached out and took hold of her arm. He turned her hand palm up and placed the two tablets there. "Take these; they'll help the pain and stiffness. Did you get any sleep last night?"

Jenna shook her head and quickly swallowed the tablets with the aid of water from a nearby cup. Skylar guided her to a bench near the table.

"You sit here and let that work. I can fix breakfast."

Jenna looked up at him, then allowed him the gallantry, sitting without protest, which let Skylar know even more clearly the extent of her discomfort. He turned back to the fire and his cooking.

The group met at the fire for a breakfast of bacon, eggs, and pancakes covered with small crushed berries.

“Wow, these pancakes sure are good this morning! Jenna, what did you put in them to give them that extra zing?” Mike asked.

“I didn’t make the breakfast this morning,” she said with a smile lighting her face. “Skylar did. You’ll have to ask him for his recipe.” She looked at Skylar, one eyebrow raised, the smile still evident.

“Okay, Skylar, what did you use? I don’t think I’ve ever tasted anything quite as good as these pancakes before.”

“Oh, I didn’t use anything special. A little of this and that. Mostly it tastes better than usual because all food tastes better in the mountains, just as a matter of course.”

“I hadn’t noticed that before. Are you sure you didn’t put something extra in them, Skylar?” He was serious in his question.

“I made them the way I always make them,” he said, slanting a glance at Jenna. “I’m sure it’s just the altitude making them taste different this morning.” He was glad Jenna hadn’t mentioned by name the kaermada spice, peculiar to Terradian cooking he’d added to the pancake batter. Their eyes met across the fire and they enjoyed the shared knowledge.

“Well, whatever, they sure taste good this morning. Thanks.” Mike helped himself to another two pancakes before sitting back down.

“You’re very welcome. I’m glad you like them.” he said.

The others agreed the breakfast was good this morning and they finished the meal in a companionable silence.

No sooner had they finished breakfast, than the sky seemed to open up and cover them with water. Everyone ran for Glen's tent, it being larger than the others. As quick as they were, they hadn’t been quick enough.

The experience was more akin to having a large bucket emptied over your head than being rained on, Skylar mused as he shook water out of his hair and sluiced rain from his face.

Watching from between the tent flap ties, Skylar observed the heavy rainfall. In less than two minutes the fire had been completely soaked and was out. He turned away from the storm, glad for the shelter.

The rain and wind lashed the tent so ferociously that, at times, they felt it might have blown away without their weight to anchor it. The group amused themselves throughout the morning by talking on various subjects or playing card games with a pack Glen had produced…‘for just such times as these’ he had quipped when they teased him about it.

The rain finally stopped around noon. By mutual consent, they decided to leave right away. Descending the mountain would take far less time than climbing it, and they may be able to get home in the hours left before darkness fell if they broke camp now.

As Skylar emerged from Glen’s tent, the changed appearance of their neat campsite shocked him, telling the tale of the storm’s fury more completely than they had known from inside their shelter.

Charles’ pup tent had completely collapsed, leaving a small mound of fabric piled over his pack and gear which were still inside.

Mike’s tent had ripped from its moorings and rolled across the clearing, landing upside-down, awash in the small lake that had been the fire-pit. Doubtless, the pack he’d left inside was the only reason it hadn’t blown completely away.

Mike eyed his gear and moaned softly, then turned toward Skylar’s pair of trees. His jaw dropped and his face wore an eloquent mixture of surprise and disgust as he eyed Skylar’s shelter and hammock, still hanging neatly in place where Skylar had left them. The only thing amiss was his pack, which had fallen from the broken-off branch and now sat on the ground by the tree’s roots. The beaded water on the pack’s surface was mute testimony that the contents remained dry. The look Mike shot Skylar should have scorched the air.

Skylar chuckled. “Special equipment…” he said with a shrug.

“Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard that one before,” Mike snapped as he strode off to rescue his pack from his upside-down tent.

Mud was thick everywhere and they sank as deep as their ankles in places that had been firm ground earlier in the morning.

Quickly packing their gear, they made another sled from the remaining poles and stowed all their packs on it, to make better time hiking out.

They descended the upper parts of the trail they had followed on their initial ascent, carefully maneuvering the sleds through the muck.

The heavy weight of the deer and the deep mud worked against them as far as time was concerned. Skylar noted their daylight hours were slipping quickly past as they traversed the tricky pathway. He hoped they could make it far enough to be out of the trees and into less rough terrain before their light was gone.

As they reached the dry wash portion of the trail, however, all hope of getting home before darkness vanished. The stream bed was now a muddy mass of water, plunging down the easiest and best route. It was small enough to be easily crossed, but would be impossible to use as a trail as they had on their outward journey.

Glen, in the lead, silently shrugged and forded the shallow but rapidly moving water, striking off between the trees where there was no path. Unhesitating in their trust, the party followed him. It grew dark before they reached a well-defined path in the lower parts of the forest. Stopping only long enough to pull flashlights from their packs, the group, now more than mildly anxious to get home, hurried on through the woods.

As they emerged suddenly from the trees into the meadow they’d crossed early the first morning, Skylar had a sudden appreciation for Glen’s woodcraft and navigation skills. Scudding clouds obscured the stars, as the nearly full moon played peek-a-boo between the puffy mounds of grey-black clouds. The horses, knowing they were close to their stable, quickened their pace, the tired walkers working hard to keep the group together.

When they finally arrived at the ranch, they gave the horses over to the care of Glen's stablemen and went to their respective rooms.

Skylar carried his pack upstairs and changed into his last set of clean clothes. Taking two more of the white tablets for Jenna, he headed downstairs for some of the hot stew Hannah had mentioned when they'd walked in. After a satisfying meal he returned to his room and spread his wet camp gear out to dry.

Hannah tapped on his door, requested his soiled clothing with an offer to clean them. He gave them to her, expressing his gratitude. As the door closed behind her, he dug out the datapad he was using to keep his log.

He recorded in it all the events of the past two days before he turned off the light and tumbled into bed, so tired he fell asleep fully clothed.

August 23, 2010

Assignment to Earth Chapter Eleven

Startled, Skylar and Jenna jerked and turned to look at the opposite bank of the river. They heard more shouts as some of their group came into view. Skylar stood and shouted back, waving his arms.

Wading through the thigh-deep water, Glen was the first to join them at their fire. His face lined with concern, he asked, "Are you both okay?"

Skylar and Jenna looked at each other then Skylar, turning back to Glen replied, "We're both fine."

Glen said, "We need to get back up-river. Charles stayed with the packs and horses." Glancing around, he saw the dead cougar and his tone of voice changed, reflecting his surprise. "Was that the cougar which was following us?"

Skylar nodded, "I think so. I'm afraid I had to kill it. Is it a large specimen?"

Glen returned his attention to the two at the fire. "Very large. Are you sure you're all right? No injuries?"

Jenna answered, "Not from the cougar." She gestured toward her leg. "My leg is really sore though, I must have hit something in the water."

Glen knelt, examining the wound which now looked like it had been only a very bad scrape. "It looks like you'll be okay. Does it hurt much to walk on it?"

"Some," Jenna said. "I don't think I could run too fast, but I suppose I'll live."

Glen remained silent, looking hard into her face for a few moments, then finally he stood. He walked over to Skylar and looked him over, pointed at the torn and bloody sleeve and asked, "What about your arm?"

Skylar said, "It’s scraped and bruised, but I'll be fine."

Glen nodded. "That's good." Turning to the others who had crossed the river to join them, he directed, "Let's get this fire out and get on our way. We want to get back to Charles before too long, and we have quite a walk."

Rory and Glen extinguished the fire. Mike spent his time examining the dead and stiffening cat. He looked up at Skylar with a thoughtful face before moving to join them at the river’s edge.

They waded back across and began moving up the embankment toward the temporary camp Charles had established.

Mike hurried to catch up to where Skylar was walking with Jenna. He opened his mouth, then glanced at Jenna and shut it. He looked at Skylar once more, opened his mouth again, then thought the better of it and closed it. He rolled one shoulder expressively, shooting another glance in Skylar’s direction.

Skylar watched him and could see the tussle going on between curiosity and caution written on his face.

Curiosity won. With another sideways look at Skylar, Mike softly commented, "I see you got yourself a kitty. What'd you hit him with, a club?"

Equally quietly, Skylar said, "I shot him." He looked at Mike's shocked and disbelieving face and grinned.

Mike snorted. "With a wet pistol," he said, "Right!"

Skylar's smile widened. "Special equipment... "

Mike cut in, a bit of frustration showing. "Let me's experimental and you're not allowed to talk about it. Are you in the air force or something?"

His tone demanded more information than Skylar was willing—or able—to give. Skylar appreciated the other's plight, yet couldn't help but see the humor in the circumstances.

Skylar choked back his laughter. "Or something," he agreed and began to walk a bit faster, leaving Jenna and Mike behind.

Mike hurried after Skylar and snatched at his arm, stopping him in place as he turned Skylar to face him. Skylar's pained grimace made Mike let go immediately, but his voice was serious, questioning and challenging.

"Skylar, that cougar's dead and there's not a mark on him! What on earth did you use to kill him?"

Jenna caught up with the two men blocking the narrow trail just then and stopped. Skylar was aware of her presence, but didn’t acknowledge her. So far, she had teased him every chance she had and he was sure she would heap more fuel on Mike’s fire of suspicion if he gave her half a chance.

Skylar briefly considered the offhand remark he could make in answer to the "on earth" part of Mike’s question, but knew it wouldn’t dissuade Mike from his questioning.

Skylar placed a hand on Mike's shoulder, facing him squarely, and with a serious tone which told Mike not to push too far, replied, "Let's just call it space-age technology and leave it at that, all right?"

A small sound escaped Jenna’s throat that sounded suspiciously derisive, but Skylar didn’t dare look at her. If her face held one of her saucy grins, he was afraid he would break out in laughter, which would only serve to aggravate Mike further. He wondered again if Mike’s curiosity had been the reason Rantek had planned this trip.

Mike held Skylar’s gaze for a long, silent moment, then accepted defeat; he stepped around Skylar and stalked off along the trail, muttering something about ‘never getting a straight answer’ from anyone.

Skylar turned and followed Mike up the path, doing his best to ignore Jenna’s muttered comment, “Space-age technology, huh?” that floated softly to his ears as she followed him down the path.

August 20, 2010

Assignment to Earth Chapter Ten

Skylar soon returned with an armload of wood. He set it down and formed a fire pit, using the small bits of brush cleared from the area to pile in the center for tinder. He added smaller twigs and thin bits of branches before standing up to look around. He searched the immediate vicinity muttering under his breath.

“What are you mumbling about, Skylar?” Jenna asked, watching him.

“I left my incinerators in my gear. Can any of these rocks be used to strike sparks for fire?” He gestured to the general area.

“I have some matches you could use.” She reached, for her aidkit.

“Are matches those little bits of wood that ignite when you scrape them against something rough?” he asked as he watched her rummage about in her aidkit.

“Yes, they are, handy little things, matches,” she said, handing him several.

He knelt at the fire pit. “Not as good as cinadium.”

“Oh, I agree,” she said, and the smile slid out and curved her lips, “but since you hadn’t thought to bring the cinadium along just now, and since I’m freezing to death, I’m just thankful one of us had some matches handy.”

Skylar looked up quickly, a retort on his lips, when she stayed his comment with a gesture, the smile gone and a serious look on her face.

“I’m very grateful you didn’t take the time to grab anything before you jumped in after me, Skylar…I’d have died, otherwise.” Her eyes looked huge in her face, her hair slicked wetly against her head and her ears poking out. She made a pathetically endearing picture and his heart was touched by her genuine earnestness.

He shrugged one shoulder dismissively. “Anyone would have done the same thing,” he said,” but I was closer and not holding a horse.”

“Well, thank you, just the same.” Her eyes still held his.

“Tell me, why do you keep these little wood bits in your aidkit? Can they be used for other things besides starting fires?”

“Not really,” she said, “at least not as far as I know.”

“Why do you keep them in your aidkit then?” he asked.

“Because, unlike cinadium, which doesn’t care if it gets wet or not, matches need to be dry to work, and it’s a good place to keep the waterproof container. That way, I always know where they are, too, and wherever I go,” she added with a little giggle that she tried to turn into a cough, “they go with me.”

Skylar didn’t answer but lit the match and carefully fed and fanned the flames. Jenna moved a little closer to the warmth as he tended the blaze. He added bigger sticks and branches until the flames began to give off a good heat before he spoke again.

“Now you won’t freeze to death, and no one can interrupt us, who are you, exactly?”

Jenna stretched her cold fingers toward the fire. “I'm Lieutenant Jenna, from the Dragonstar Octavia. I was born on Terradia."

Skylar smiled across the fire at her. "I've been there."

Jenna's eyes glittered with excitement. "You have? How long ago? Did you meet Commander Xavier? How was he?"

Skylar held up a hand to stem the excited flow of questions from Jenna. "Hey, slow down! One question at a time. Yes, I've been to Terradia. I taught a class at the academy while the Aubria was being re-fitted. I didn't get a chance to meet Commander Xavier, but if half the stories are true, he must be an incredible leader."

"He is. I'd rather serve under him than anywhere else in the fleet." The pride for her commander shone in her eyes, sounded in her voice. Unconsciously she squared her shoulders, sitting straighter on the log.

Skylar smiled, his thoughts turning momentarily to his own commander and father, whom he deeply loved. “Most of us on the Aubria feel the same about Commander Mykela."

He gestured at the general landscape surrounding them. "So how did you end up here?"

Taking a deep, Jenna continued her story. "We’re pretty near Klodfon space here, even though there’s no question this system is within our borders. To ensure their safety, we've been patrolling and protecting these people for over a hundred years, although they’re unaware of us."

Skylar nodded, "I understand the Bureau of Humanities believes this group will be quite an asset, when they finally grow up."

Jenna gave a squeal of protest. "They've actually progressed quite dramatically in the last fifty years.”

“I believe you,” he said, laughter leaking into his voice, “but please continue with how you came to be here. I really do want to know.”

Jenna swallowed, and, still watching his face, spoke. “Well, I was on long range patrol from the Octavia. We were doing a routine scan of the surface when just for an instant, Jaramee picked up a trio of extremely advanced ships."

"Jaramee?" Skylar questioned.

"My wingmate," she said. "He was a special friend." Pain crossed her face and her eyes unfocused, as though she were replaying the memory. Silence reigned for a few moments before she continued, her gaze still centered on something Skylar couldn’t see.

"There were just the two of us on the patrol when we caught the scan,” she said almost woodenly. “We moved in closer to get a better look. We called for back-up but became involved in quite a battle before help arrived. Jaramee and I were not far from the atmosphere, covering the low side, or trying to, when we were attacked by a trio of Klodfon ships that never showed up on the scanner. They totally destroyed Jaramee's Wyvern and damaged mine, forcing me to the surface.” She wiped a shaking hand across her features.

"When I touched down, I set my Wyvern for self-destruct. There were some experimental devices on board I didn't want the Klodfons to get. They landed a few minutes behind me; I was injured in the landing and couldn't outrun them.” Jenna shuddered with the memory.

“I spent a long while being 'interrogated'. Finally I had a chance to make my run, so I did. They never came after me. Their base is in the middle of a desert, so I guess they figured a mere human couldn't make it out of there without water, especially one in my physical state.” She stopped and swallowed, the pain of reliving the experience showing clearly on her face.

“They figured right. I wouldn’t have made it, except Glen and Hannah were camping in the area. They got me medical attention, and later took me into their home. I had no ID, nothing but the tattered remains of my uniform and my aidkit. The Klodfons had let me keep it; they thought it was amusing to let me do what repair work I could between interrogation sessions.

"Glen and Hannah sort of adopted me. They've taught me most of the customs here and the language is close enough to standard for general purposes. My official story is that I can't remember anything from before they found me, except my name. They figure it's trauma from whatever accident beat me up so badly and I never enlightened them.” She shrugged her slender shoulders expressively.

"What about yourself, Skylar? When a pilot doesn’t make it back to the ship after a shoot-out with the Klodfons, they are presumed dead. So you're not here to find me. How and why are you here, Captain?"

Skylar bit his lip as she used his rank. "Skylar, please. Don’t use my grade for as long as we're here. I don’t want the locals to hear it." At her nod, he smiled briefly and continued, but with questions, not answers.

"You mentioned traveling with your uncle. Surely you didn’t mean Glen, if he's a local."

A smile teased the corners of Jenna's mouth. "Nooo-o-o," she said. "But you were supposed to think I meant him.

“Actually, I did a lot of traveling with my Uncle Xavier while he raised me on his ship after my parents were killed in the raid on Decima.”

"'Uncle Xavier?' Commander Xavier is your Uncle? You’re kidding me."

Jenna nodded. "Some people say that's why I got assigned to the Octavia, but it isn't. I earned it. I had to keep my scores pretty high to get it, too. Everyone wants to be on the Octavia because her record is the best in the fleet." She paused, her eyes softening as she thought of her uncle and his ship. "The Octavia is more my home than Terradia is, having spent most of my life on board."

"That 'best record' as far as efficiency goes is very closely matched by the Aubria,” Skylar flatly stated, “I think we're going to beat you soon, then they'll have to make up a bunch of stories about Commander Mykela to scare the cadets into obedience."

"You'll never beat our record, but you might come close. And if you really came all the way from Timora, all the stories are already there and just waiting to be told. So, how did you end up on this poor planet? Please don’t tell me you're stuck…I need a ride home." Jenna clasped her fingers together and made the motion of pleading with her upraised hands nearing her chin, a look of mild desperation on her face.

Skylar shook his head slightly as he related, "I'm here on assignment to find an advance scout who's disappeared. When I've discovered what happened to him, I'm to rendezvous with the next passing Dragonstar and get a ride home. That part sounds easy, but it's where my troubles start.” His toe scrubbed a spot on the ground.

"As I was landing, I had the opportunity to test the abilities of several local military pilots. They were very good at their duties." Ruefully he smiled at her. She didn’t return his smile…and her frown told him she didn’t feel consoled at all.

"How bad is the damage?"

Skylar sighed. "The electricals are shot, including all communications equipment. It'll never fly again without a complete systems overhaul. When I can figure some way to communicate with a passing Dragonstar, I’ll ask whether they want to send someone to repair the Wyvern or if they want me to destroy it.

"Although it sustained severe damage, I was able to put down in a rather obscure area and managed to elude the ground patrols."

"Well," she said, "we'll figure something out when the time comes. First we need to find this scout of yours. Why are you looking for him on one of our hunting trips?"

Skylar looked at her, surprised. "We need to find him?" he echoed, then added. "It’s not a we problem…it's my job and my problem. There's no need to involve you in it."

Jenna didn’t seem at all put out. "Well, I am a Cavalier, duty-bound to help others, right? And you are my superior officer, since there isn’t anyone from my own ship nearby and you outrank me. And I owe you my life...twice. Besides," she said, "I figure if I help you, you can get home faster and I can hitch a ride to the Octavia. So when does the next ship come through? I’ve sort of lost track."

Skylar looked up at the sky as he considered his options.

Finally, reluctantly, he looked back at her and spoke. "Next week. Tuesday or Wednesday. It’s the Charys. A dragonstar goes across here about every five months local time; about once each Terradian year."

Jenna had just opened her mouth to speak when she was interrupted by a loud shout from across the river.

August 18, 2010

Assignment to Earth Chapter Nine

Skylar fought to keep Jenna’s head above the water as they were pulled very quickly downstream. He knew he needed to get them both out of the icy river soon or he would be too cold to swim and they would both drown. Precious minutes passed which felt like an eternity, but the current was too strong to fight his way to the bank.

Suddenly the river came into a wide meadow where it had over-run its banks and the speed of the water slowed considerably. Skylar got his feet under him, dragged Jenna to the nearest edge and pulled her out of the river.

He looked down at the still-unconscious girl in his arms. Her hair and clothes were plastered to her skin, her face streaked with mud and water. Her shallow breathing was the only indication she was still alive. He laid her gently on the grassy verge and began to look for injuries. The cold and wet were secondary just now and could be dealt with in a moment.

The left leg of her jeans was ripped open across her thigh, revealing a deep gash which should be cleansed and closed before she bled to death. A large bump on her head above one ear where she’d hit the tree was the only other injury he could find, and explained why she was still unconscious.

"I need my pack," Skylar muttered under his breath, "my aidkit's in it." As he tried to move Jenna gently to get better access to the leg wound, Skylar's fingers touched the worn leather pouch hanging from her belt. He felt an indentation on the front which struck a responsive chord in his fingertips.

Brushing away the mud, he saw the tooled insignia of the Fellowship. He quickly opened the leather flap. Just as he thought—it was a standard issue aidkit. He unsnapped it from her belt and peered more closely inside. It had been used quite a bit, judging from the scant amount of medication left in it, but where did she get it? From the Cavalier whose laser she'd seen five years ago?

The thoughts tumbled in his mind, even while his fingers were automatically pulling various medical devices from the kit. He didn’t know much beyond basic first aid, but at least he could use the familiar tools to save her life. He bent to the task, determined to obtain answers to each and every one of his many and questions…as soon as she woke up.

His cold fingers were clumsy, causing him to work slowly. Skylar cleaned and closed the wound, sealing the tissue together, then injected her with a combination antibiotic and stimulant, the last dose of the medication in the kit.

Jenna moaned and opened her eyes, her shaky fingertips gingerly exploring the painful-looking lump over her ear. Skylar, still kneeling beside her, shut the aidkit and handed it to her. "I'm no surgeon; you're going to have a scar, but at least you're not bleeding anymore."

Jenna sat up slowly and examined the fresh crooked red mark on her leg, running her fingers gingerly down its tender length.

"Not bad for field work," she said, “now, sit still and let me patch up your arm. You're dripping blood on me."

Skylar looked down at the arm she had motioned to and drew in his breath. Due to the coldness of the river, he hadn't felt any pain as something had sliced him open. It was a long cut, nearly the length of his forearm. While it wasn’t deep, there was a flap of skin and muscle hanging loosely. Fortunately, whatever had sliced him had missed major blood vessels and the wound wasn't bleeding as badly as Jenna's leg.

Teeth clenched together tightly, he sat motionless, offering Jenna his arm. She re-opened the aidkit, cleansed the wound and began to lay each layer of tissue down and seal it into place. She finished, leaving a long, straight line running from elbow to wrist. She looked up at him, her eyes serious.

"I know it must hurt abominably. I'd offer you a pain-killer, but I'm out. You'll scar as well," she closed her eyes momentarily. "I'm not very good at this sort of…thing.” She opened her eyes again, took a deep breath and gestured at his arm before continuing. “That's why I'm a Cavalier, not an infirmary attendant.”

"You're a Cavalier?" Skylar demanded. He shook his head slightly, if trying to re-align his thinking, then repeated, "You're a Cavalier?"

Jenna nodded, smiling a little guiltily as she shrugged her shoulders apologetically, her palms turned upward as though her actions would explain all she had left unsaid.

Skylar continued. "That explains a lot. Why don't I know you?"

Jenna smiled wider. "I've been trying to figure that one out myself. I know most of the officers in the fleet, but not you. Where are you from?"

Skylar smiled back as he answered. This was going to be fun. "Timora."

"Timora!" Her exclamation held disbelief and shock. "Timora's a legend. Why, it no more exists than Ciroth does!" Her face had paled a shade.

Skylar's smile faded as he looked at her gravely. "I was born on Timora, Jenna. I was raised there and graduated from the academy there. I've also been to Ciroth; to the planet's surface. I've seen the relics there." He hesitated a moment and his voice dropped nearly to a whisper. "Many Cavaliers died on Ciroth at Klodfon hands. The annihilation was unbelievable."

"I...I'm sorry. It's just that it's hard to believe in the fairy tales you're told as a child." She looked away from him, toward the woods, color flooding her cheeks.

Skylar nodded, remembering how he felt the first time he'd heard his father say they were going to find Terradia...a fairy tale he'd been told as a child.

Gently, Skylar said, "Sometimes you have to believe in what seems impossible. Allow me to properly introduce myself: Captain Skylar, from the Dragonstar Aubria; and you are..."

"Lieutenant..." a sudden movement from the woods caught her eye. "Skylar! The cat!" Jenna screamed, struggling to rise.

Skylar was on his feet and turning instantly, his hand reaching automatically for his laser as the cougar leaped toward them, snarling. He flicked open the restraining snap and drew, but was able to fire his pistol only once before the weight of the animal knocked him to the ground. The laser flew from his hand, bouncing on a rock before coming to rest in the grass.

Jenna dove for Skylar’s pistol and came up balanced precariously on her left hip and hand, but the laser was pointed unerringly at the pair, from which no movement came for a long, awful moment.

Slowly, Skylar shoved the dead cougar off to one side and carefully rose to his feet, dabbing at blood dripping from a new scratch on his face with the back of his hand.

Jenna stood now also and handed him the laser. He accepted it and returned it to its resting place in the holster on his thigh, re-snapping the strap.

Jenna unconsciously kneaded the muscles just below the surface of her leg along her wound to ease the discomfort her rapid movements had caused. Her voice was shaky, the color once again gone from her cheeks.

"You're a good shot," she said. "Thanks for saving my life...again." Her eyes seemed very large in her white face. Skylar helped her to limp over to a fallen log and sit down. She shivered in the quickening wind.

"Don't think about it,” he said quietly. “I was lucky. I'll get some wood so we can get a fire going and dry off. You rest here and when I get back, you can tell me what happened five years ago to bring you here. Okay?"

Skylar deliberately kept his voice light and almost unconcerned. He hoped to keep the gravity of their situation from Jenna's conscious thought for a few minutes, until she could dispel the shock of all she had been through in the last half hour or so and regain her equilibrium. Knowing she was a Cavalier raised his confidence in her abilities to rise to any occasion demanded of her. She just needed a moment or two.

Jenna nodded, then shivered once more as Skylar moved off into the undergrowth in search of combustibles.

August 16, 2010

Assignment to Earth Chapter Eight

The day was pleasant, although quite chill, and a stiff breeze was blowing. The sky was full of clouds in a broken layer, not far above them; like dirty cotton balls spilled on a glass table, tumbling over each other in the heavens.

They climbed fairly steeply, but their way was smooth enough it was not nearly as difficult as yesterday’s path. There were no visible trail markings here, but Glen led them on without hesitation through the woods.

After a short hike, they began to hear rushing water and presently came to the edge of a river. Skylar measured the width with his eye and estimated it to be approximately three times his height and moving very swiftly.

Skylar walked to Glen, who crouched at the water's edge, shaking his head. Mike knelt on one knee beside him, saying, "What do you think, Boss? It looks pretty rough to me.”

Glen eyed the water critically as it roiled and plunged downstream, frothing in places as it splashed against submerged rocks. "Get everyone over here for a council, would you?"

Mike nodded, stood, and moved off.

As the group gathered in a knot, there were several concerned looks at the river. Glen stood and began to speak.

"I’ve never seen this river flooded so badly before. The water is swift and will be deep. The best hunting is on the other side. If we don't cross, you probably won't get your deer, unless you're willing to settle for one like John's."

“No way.” Charles stated flatly. There were a few chuckles, and Skylar could feel the humor easing the tension in the group.

Glen continued. "If we take precautions, we can cross the river safely at a place upstream where it is a little more shallow. Also recall the cat is somewhere on this side of the river, which is a consideration. If the water rises much further, however, crossing back will be difficult. Should the rain continue, the river may become treacherous. This is a decision I feel needs to be made by the group as a whole. Let's hear your comments."

Mike was the first to speak. "I vote to cross. I think we can make it."

Skylar asked, "What kind of precautions do you mean?"

Charles answered before Glen could respond. "String a rope across and inflate Rory's raft to ferry the packs. Cross in twos, helping the horses. Build a fire on the other side to dry us all out and warm us up." There was an air of smugness about him which said he rather thought Skylar was a bit slow if he didn't even know how to cross a river.

Ignoring the sarcasm, Skylar said to Glen, "I'd like to cross and continue then."

Rory nodded his agreement and said, "Let's get started."

Charles walked upstream, saying, "Might as well get on with it."

Jenna went with Charles, still avoiding Skylar. Blaize snorted nervously and tossed his head as she led him along.

Fifteen minutes’ walking brought them to a small clearing. It was wider here, and a large tree had fallen part of the way into the far side of the river, causing angry currents in its wake.

Everyone removed their packs and went to work upstream of the fallen tree. Obviously they'd done this before, as they were a well-synchronized group. Skylar helped where he could, without disturbing the rhythm of their silent, seamless teamwork.

Glen pulled a barbed spear attached to a rope from Coco’s pack. Taking careful aim, he threw it to the other side of the river where the barb caught in the low fork of a tree. Applying his weight to the rope, Glen proved the connection sure. Turning, he passed his end around a sturdy tree near the water’s edge and carefully tied a knot that wouldn't slip. The rope now hung about an arm's reach above the water.

Mike and Rory inflated the small raft Rory carried. Jenna and Charles removed the food packs from Coco and set them in the raft along with the other packs. The poles and pack were removed from Blaize’s back and lashed to the outer side of the raft. Skylar still hadn't seen the use for those poles yet, but hoped he would before the trip was over.

Charles pulled a tarp from his pack and wrapped all the rifles in it, stowing the bundle in the raft. Another, smaller tarp was used for the pistols. Skylar's laser being waterproof, he decided he'd rather continue wearing it and no one asked him for it. In fact, no one had asked for any of the weapons. The smaller tarp had simply been spread on the ground and the sidearms had all found their way onto it in time to be wrapped up and placed protectively in the craft.

Once all the packs and weapons were loaded in the raft, it was secured to the safety line, then all looked to Glen and waited. The division of duties for each were assigned. Charles and Skylar would ferry the raft to the far bank and Charles would gather wood for the fire while Skylar prepared a fire pit. Mike and Rory would follow with Coco. The last trip would be Glen and Jenna with Blaize.

“Jenna’s too small to handle a skittish horse in this water, Glen,” Mike protested.

Glen looked slightly surprised at his comment, then spoke calmly.

“May I remind you, that Blaize trusts only Jenna? It will be safer for the horse if she leads him.” The look which accompanied these words said far more, in Skylar’s opinion, than the gentle rebuke.

Mike looked for a long moment at Glen, then glanced at Jenna. “Sorry, Jenna,” he mumbled, “I’d forgotten. He’s right.”

“It’s okay, Mike,” she said. “I’m not going to melt if I get wet, you know.” Her dimpled smile took the sting from the words and she turned to Blaize, tightening her grip on his reins.

Glen looked around, and, seeing all was ready, gave the nod to begin. Skylar and Charles started across the river.

Charles was leading the raft and Skylar pushing it, each man holding the raft with one hand, the safety rope with the other. The water was very cold. By the time they were up to their waists in it, Skylar’s feet had started to numb.

As they waded deeper, the current became swifter and stronger, nearly dragging them off their feet. Debris eddied around them. In the center of the stream, the muddy water was chest high. A large piece of drifting wood hit Skylar and he lost his grip on the raft as well as his footing and plunged beneath the surface.

After a few moment’s struggle, he finally found a semi-firm place to put his feet and stood up again, spluttering and shivering, grateful he'd managed to keep hold of the safety line. Being washed down the icy river wasn’t an appealing way to spend his day. Pushing his hair as well as the excess water out of his face, he could barely hear Charles shouting above the roar of the river. "Are you all right, Skylar?"

Still gasping for air, Skylar nodded and took hold of the raft again as they resumed their course to the far shore, reaching it without further incident.

Charles immediately set out to find firewood so they would be able to dry out and get warm. Skylar cleared a space for the fire, rolling stones over to line the fire pit’s edge. He gathered some fallen pine cones and other small twigs from under the protective branches of bushes to use for tinder, piling them in the center of the pit.

Mike and Rory were now mid-stream, Coco between them. Mike, being slightly shorter, had a more difficult time keeping his footing against the current, but they were able to cross without a hitch.

Charles returned with an armload of fairly dry wood, dug some matches out of his pack for Skylar, and left to find more fuel. Skylar stacked some of the smaller branches around the tinder, then spent a moment contemplating the matches. He copied the motions he’d seen Jenna using with these bits of wood, soon figured them out and lit the fire. Mike and Rory rubbed Coco down with a towel taken from the packs.

After some discussion and much calming of Blaize, Glen and Jenna finally entered the water. Glen walked on the up-stream side so Jenna, being shorter, could hold on to both Blaize and the safety rope.

As they began to cross, Rory paused from drying the horse. He pointed out to Mike and Skylar the huge cougar moving slowly toward the river behind Glen and Jenna. The noise of the rushing water swallowed his shouted warning.

Coco sensed the danger and danced with fear.

Mike quickly moved to help Rory hold and calm the animal. The three men stood tensely at the water's edge, watching both the approaching cougar and the people in the water.

Just as Glen and Jenna reached midstream, the cat leapt to the edge of the water, snarling. His yowls of frustration carried to the already frightened Blaize and he reared up, as if to meet his enemy.

In her efforts to calm him, Jenna let go of the safety line, reaching for his bridle with both hands. Blaize came down off-balance in the swiftly moving water. Trying to regain his footing, the horse knocked hard against Jenna. She grabbed for the safety rope, but missed, her fingertips just brushing it before the current carried her away.

Firmly holding the bridle while the horse bucked against it, Glen could not see Jenna as the river threw her against the large tree. She screamed once before vanishing.

Skylar, already soaked and the only person unencumbered by horses, lunged into the water after her. Reaching the tree, he sucked in a deep breath as the current dragged him in Jenna’s wake. Eyes closed against the muddy water, he flailed around, trying to find her by touch. His cold fingers brushed against the fabric of her jacket and he clutched her tightly, his feet pushing against the tree to free them both. Together they came out from under the far side of the deadfall and were swiftly pulled downstream, struggling against the strong current.

Assignment to Earth Chapter Seven

Jenna fumed as she fixed their breakfast. 'Why did Glen have to interrupt just when I'd gathered my courage?' It had taken all her nerve to decide to place her trust in this Cavalier.

The worst he could do was turn her over to the Klodfons. She'd been there and escaped before, she could do it again. The best results would soon see her home with her Uncle Xavier, something that would never happen unless she gave him her trust. He was the only Cavalier she’d seen in five long years, and, she believed, her last hope of getting home.

She ate mechanically, then packed her gear, all the while castigating herself. 'And did you see the look in Skylar's eyes? He's angry because you didn't exonerate his actions. He's not about to explain to Glen why it looked like he was going to assault you. Better stay out of his way until he calms down some. You know he's not going to let the subject drop now you've said 'cinadium'. For better or for worse, you're in it, girl.'

One thought did give her hope, however. Skylar hadn’t given her away even to defend himself. If he wouldn’t betray her to a man he perceived as her uncle, it was far less likely he would hand her over to the Klodfons. She found it a most reassuring thought.

August 13, 2010

Assignment to Earth Chapter Six

The storm began just after dark, the wind and rain chasing them to their tents. The squall had persisted until the early hours of the morning, now the only remains were silver-grey clouds, scudding hurriedly across the sky. The sun was just rising, tinting the clouds a pink along the eastern horizon, when Skylar opened his eyes.

Rising from his hammock and slipping on his boots, he tucked his laser away in its holster and stretched. Hearing a soft sound, he ducked from under his shelter to see Jenna trying to start a fire with wood soaked through from last night's rain. Skylar noticed the tarp which had covered the woodpile lay in a puddle next to the pile of soggy logs.

Seeing her, he felt again the frustration of trying to speak with her last night only to have Mike hanging around constantly, teasing and flirting. Skylar was sure Jenna had welcomed Mike’s advances just to thwart him. She almost seemed nervous to be too close to him, which puzzled him. If he could just get her to trust him then he could gather the information he needed.

He removed a small, flat cylinder from his pack, concealed it in his hand, and casually wandered over to the fire pit.

"Good morning, Jenna." Kneeling beside her, he continued, "Why don't you go grab the eggs and I'll see if I can get this thing started for you?"

Jenna stood up. "We'll just have to wait until the sun dries out the wood a little. It's no use trying to start damp wood. I should have checked to see the tarp was fully secured over the woodpile last night instead of taking Charles’ word for it." She sighed as she moved a step away from the sodden fire pit.

Skylar smiled up at her. "Well, I'll have a try at it anyway. I may have better luck."

Jenna stepped to where they had cached the food the night before and Skylar quickly shoved the cylinder under the wood and pressed the button on the side. The bottom of the cylinder began to smoke and he could hear Jenna's steps returning from behind him. He prayed the incinerator would start the wood before she reached him and saw it.

The cylinder began to burn, and just as Jenna walked up beside him the damp wood burst into flames. She sniffed the air. "What's that peculiar smell?"

Skylar started. He was so used to the smell burning cinadium gave off, he hadn’t thought the unique and somewhat stale odor might be offensive to someone not accustomed to it. He shrugged his shoulders.

Jenna continued, "Smells like some kind of burning fuel. Did you have to use lighter fluid to get it started?"

Skylar fed some small pieces of wood to the growing, hungry flames and shrugged. "Sort of. Not really." He kept his attention on the fire.

Jenna, exaggerating the effort grandly, sniffed loudly several times. "I think you used some sort of fuel to start it. If I didn't know better, I'd say..." she sniffed again, "cinadium."

Skylar jumped to his feet, turned, and grabbed her arms.

"Cinadium!" he echoed. "Where did you hear that word?"

Jenna’s face showed her alarm at his near-violent reaction. She swallowed hard and took a deep breath.

A surge of heat burned Skylar’s face. He hadn’t meant to scare her. He loosened his grip, but only marginally.

Jenna took another deep breath, becoming outwardly calm, though her eyes betrayed her inner turmoil.

Just as she opened her mouth to speak, Glen came striding up, his voice angry. "What’s going on here? Is there a problem?"

Skylar dropped his hands to his sides and took a step back but continued to stare intently at Jenna. The next move was hers to make. Jenna dropped her eyes to the ground again and stood silent.

Realizing how the scene must have appeared to anyone out of earshot, Skylar decided that now was not the time to press the issue, but press it he certainly would. Later. As soon as could get her on her own.

Replying to Glen's question, he said, "Nothing's wrong. Excuse me, I need to strike my gear and stow it for today's travel."

Turning sharply, he moved past Glen toward his tent, his mind whirling. He pulled out his log, recording everything he knew about Jenna; every scrap of conversation he could remember. It wasn't a very long entry. He shook his head to clear his confusion. Quickly stowing the datapad, Skylar soon had his gear safely folded and put away. By the time he was ready for the day, the others were up and about and Jenna was just finishing the preparations for their breakfast.

When camp had been struck, they set out again. Glen took the lead with Coco, followed by Jenna guiding Blaize. Skylar once again took up the rear, this time so he could have time to think calmly. There was so much he needed to sort out, yet to get anywhere, he needed answers from Jenna, and she was avoiding him.

She almost seemed to be afraid of him—but if she knew what cinadium was and recognized his laser pistol, it would follow that she knew about Cavaliers. Why the fear, then? Everyone in the Fellowship knew the Cavaliers were the good guys. Of course, Earth wasn’t part of the Fellowship yet. So many questions…Skylar sighed and gave himself up to his surroundings. Until he could talk with her, the answers wouldn’t come.

August 11, 2010

Assignment to Earth Chapter Five

A brisk hour's climb brought them to a high mountain plateau with a path intersecting the clearing. Wooden tables and benches were assembled near where a small stone fireplace had been built for cooking. The hikers removed their packs, piling them on one of the tables.

A few yards away, a thin stream bubbled merrily through the clearing. Rory and Charles knelt at the stream, drinking and splashing the cold water onto their hot faces. Mike had removed his boots and socks, dipping his bare toes in the cooling water.

“Hey, Jenna,” Charles called, “What’s for lunch?”

Jenna was at one of the tables quickly laying out some of their provisions.

“Ham sandwiches, lemonade, and Aunt Hannah’s chocolate chip cookies for dessert, if you’re a good boy.”

“I’m always a good boy.” Rory chimed in, as Mike snorted his disagreement.

The cookies were a treat Skylar knew he would miss once he returned home. Not that he was likely to be home at any time in the immediate future. With a slight sigh, Skylar catalogued the obstacles in his path back to the Aubria. First he had to find Rantek, then there was the small problem of a damaged ship and no way to fix it. It didn’t help that the radio was one of the broken parts.

His glance flickered across Jenna. He had to know whose weapon she'd seen: Cavalier or Klodfon? The one possibility was cheering, the other chilling.

After the meal the group relaxed to let their lunch settle a bit. Skylar stood silently at the edge of the woods, the problems of his mission uppermost in his mind. Preoccupied, he was almost unaware of his surroundings.

"Do you like it here?" He hadn't heard her approach and Jenna's quiet but musical voice startled Skylar. He jumped slightly and turned toward her. Looking into her eyes, he sensed the question held a deeper meaning than simply asking if he liked this particular mountain spot. The earnest tone underlying her words gave him pause for thought.

"It's very beautiful here," he said with a smile, a dimple creasing his cheek. "There are few places I've been that come anywhere close."

"Do you travel much?" she asked.

"A bit," he replied, watching her face. "Have you traveled much yourself?"

The sudden light in her eyes revealed her reactions before she spoke her answer. "I used to travel extensively with my uncle, but haven't done much of anything these past five years."

"What happened to make you settle? Tired of traveling?"

"Oh, no," she said quickly. "I..." a veil dropped over her eyes.

"You what?" he prompted

"I...I'd best put the food and gear away," she said, moving hurriedly away.

"Jenna!" he called after her.

She went quickly to the table, ignoring him.

"Skylar!" Rory called to him just then. "Come and look at this!" With a frustrated look at Jenna's back he headed toward where Rory and Mike were examining the ground on the far side of the clearing.

The ground was soft due to the proximity of the stream and recent rains. Pine needles were almost non-existent here and animal tracks could be clearly seen in the damp earth.

The one Rory pointed to was larger than the rest, the indentation deeper from a heavier weight. Skylar had seen nothing like it before.

"Wow, that looks like a big cat!" The awe in Mike's voice was evident.

Charles, joining them, gasped audibly. "It must be huge!" he said, his eyes widening a bit with fear.

Glen joined them. The others stepped back, allowing him to examine the print carefully. Kneeling beside it, Glen measured it against his hand and looked up into the faces around him. "This must be the great grand pappy," he said with a grimly. "The size of that thing...he must weigh 150-175 pounds, easily." Glen stood up, brushing the dirt from his knee. The only thing that bothers me," he continued, "is the track is fairly fresh, probably made this morning."

"How big a danger does this cat pose for us?" Skylar asked.

"Are you kidding? They'll eat a man for lunch!" Charles said.

Rory snorted.

Skylar looked at Charles, trying to judge the truth of his statement. Seeing the fear still in his eyes, Skylar looked back at Glen.

"Is it likely to attack a man?"

"Not generally," Glen replied slowly, "unless cornered or provoked."

"Or very hungry," Mike added.

"Cripes, do you think it'll come after us?" Rory asked.

Jenna, joining them spoke up. "Do you think what will come after us?" She looked at each man in turn, her eyes questioning.

"A mountain lion, my dear," Glen said mildly. "Rory, here, found a fairly large track. We get a move on, and get to where we’re camping tonight quickly while we have plenty of daylight to search that area for tracks. If we find none, we'll stay there. Otherwise, we'll move to a second place I know. In the meantime, stay close together. It won't be in a hurry for lunch if there are several of us." Turning, he headed for his pack and the horses.

The next two hours slipped by quickly, as the hunters hurried along the trail, nervously keeping the gaps between them small.

They arrived at the clearing designated for their overnight stay. All hands made a diligent search of the surrounding area but found no prints. The ground was a little soft, but not as damp as the lower site had been. Each person chose their spot and began to set up their tents. Mike pulled a pop-out dome tent from his bag and shook it open. He quickly staked it down snugly and dropped his gear inside.

Skylar went to the edge of the clearing and searched for two sturdy, likely-looking trees, close enough to each other for his purposes. Opening his pack, he removed a small packet containing a gauzy-looking material and some thin twine. He tied the twine around each of the trees, stretching his hammock between them. Mike came over to see what he was doing.

"That hammock looks mighty flimsy, Skylar. Sure it'll hold your weight?"

Skylar grinned. “The fabric is a lot stronger than it looks.” The hammock was standard-issue Fellowship survival gear and he was well-familiar with it.

“It better be strong, or you’ll wind up flat on the ground.”

"It held me in a tree-top during a windstorm on...a real stormy night." Skylar barely stopped himself from naming the planet he'd been on at the time. "I suppose it'll hold me up one more night."

Mike reached out and examined the thin material between his fingers. "I sure hope so. What's it made of, anyway? I've never seen anything like it."

"Ah…it's an experimental fabric I'm lucky enough to get to field test. I'm not really sure what it's made of. I don't think it even has a name yet." He turned back to his pack and pulled out some more twine and tied it between the trees above the hammock.

Mike persisted, "But where'd you get it? What company makes it? I'd like to test one."

Skylar said, "I'm not supposed to talk about it too much. It's some new secret material." He made his voice dismissive, in an attempt to quell Mike’s questions, if not his curiosity.

"Oh," said Mike, his voice showing his disappointment.

Skylar reached into his pack and pulled out a silver-colored tarp. He unfolded it and draped it over the line he had just tied.

Mike spoke up again, "That twine’s awfully thin. Betcha it sags and you have your tarp on your face in the morning."

"It won't sag. It's stronger than it looks."

"You got it at the same place...experimental stuff, right?"

"Right." He tied shorter lengths of twine through the grommets in the edges of the silver fabric, then removed several small stakes from his pack. He proceeded to fasten the tarp to the ground, spreading the edges out to make a triangular shelter. Skylar reached once again into his pack, and removed a smaller piece of silvery fabric which he laid on the hammock.

"No sleeping bag?" asked Mike, incredulous. "Nights get pretty cold up here.”

Skylar nodded at the blanket. "It will keep me warm. It re-cycles body heat."

"Let me guess," Mike drawled, folding his arms across his chest. "It's experimental and it's warmer than it looks."

"You got it!" Skylar chuckled.

"What else have you got in that pack?" Mike stepped closer, craning his neck to see.

Skylar looked inside, deliberately blocking Mike’s view while listing most of the contents. “Cleaning kit for my weapon, spare ammunition, a hatchet, compass, soap, cooking gear, a wire saw, medical kit, canteen, spare clothing."

"It sounds pretty complete, Mike said, “I guess you know a little about camping after all. I wasn't too sure when I saw your reaction to that cat's track today."

“I used to go a lot as a boy,” Skylar said. “I've taken a course in how to survive in...strange and hostile environments. I've just never seen a cat's print that large before."

"It sure was big!” Mike grinned. “It even scared Charles; did you see the look on his face? It's amazing that even the big guys aren't all that tough. Are you done setting up? Glen wants us to get a big pile of wood for dinner, and extra in case we decide to keep the fire going all night."

"Will that be necessary?" Skylar asked.

"It might be, if the cat decides to put in an appearance. Wild animals generally tend to avoid fires."

"That makes sense." Skylar picked up his pack and hung it on a convenient limb stub about four feet from the ground where a branch had broken off of the tree his hammock was tied to. "I'm ready. Let's go."

"I'll gather the wood and you can keep watch," Mike offered, hefting a hatchet. Skylar nodded his agreement and, as they moved off into the denser undergrowth together, his hand lightly dropped to the comforting weight of his laser pistol.

Mike was very nearly as curious about his camp gear as Jenna had been about his pistol. Which one of them had Rantek been investigating? Or was it neither of them? Skylar mentally cussed Rantek out for taking his mission logs with him, wherever he went. It had made tracking him that much more difficult.

August 09, 2010

Assignment to Earth Chapter Four

Skylar woke to the shrill beep of his alarm and quickly shut it off. He peered into the darkness, trying in vain to see anything. It was much too early to get up, especially on a night short of sleep. Once he’d finally fallen asleep, his dreams had been full of Klodfons. Sometimes Jenna had fought at his side; at others she’d turned him over to them.

"It's a good thing she's going with us," he muttered aloud. "I can keep an eye on her." He frowned. He would make a chance to talk to her. He needed answers, then maybe he could get some decent sleep.

Quickly showering, Skylar dressed for the day. He considered strapping his aid kit to his belt, but decided it would be better to carry it in his pack, at least until they were on the trail. The laser pistol was a different matter.

Most of the men in the group carried both pistol and rifle, and the grip on his pistol wasn’t that much different from theirs in appearance. Having worn it most of his adult life, he didn’t feel completely dressed without it.

He belted and strapped his holster to his left thigh and filled the hollow with the pistol, carefully snapping the security strap in place to ward off Jenna’s prying fingers. Finally, he picked up his pack and the projectile rifle he’d brought from Rantek’s and went downstairs.

Several members of the party were already waiting in the living room. Skylar stopped in the doorway to survey the group.

One of them had to be the reason Rantek had planned to come on this trip…but which one? And why? Did he suspect one of them of spying for the Klodfons? Or was the hunting trip just part of his cover and have nothing to do with his scouting mission?

Rory Thompson was propped against his pack, which in turn was propped against the wall. He was dozing, his thin frame threatening to slide off the pack.

Big Charles Buckson was draped across the end of the couch, his pack lying on the floor at his side.

John Patterson, mouse brown hair nearly getting clipped by the low-hanging ceiling fan, stood in the center of the room jingling something in his pocket.

Mike Jeffries, the youngest in the group, sat tensively in a chair, his pack on the floor at his feet, awaiting the word to go. Scarcely containing his excitement, he glanced up at Skylar's entrance. "Ready to go?"

Skylar smiled back. He'd only met Mike the evening before last but instinctively liked him. His blond, blue-eyed looks and exuberant personality reminded him of his close friend and usual wing mate, Halley. Briefly wondering how Halley was doing, Skylar said, "I'm ready. Are Glen and Jenna down yet?"

Charles spoke from the couch. "Jenna's in the kitchen helping Hannah with breakfast and our esteemed host is in the den selecting today's rifle."

Jenna came to the dining room door then, across the room from Skylar. She looked no less feminine today in the jeans and oversized turtleneck sweater than she had yesterday in her skirt and blouse.

"Breakfast is on," she said. "Let's eat so we can get started."

As the men moved toward the dining room, Rory's head finally slid off his pack and hit the wall, startling him awake. Mike lent him a hand up and they followed Charles into the dining room. Skylar placed his pack in the chair recently abandoned by Mike and smoothly moved to join the rest.

During breakfast, John explained his need to get back to his office right away. Since he'd already bagged his deer, he'd see them all next year. Skylar looked up at Jenna and smiled at her as John fulfilled her prediction. Jenna grinned back, her eyes twinkling with her unexpressed laughter. When everyone had finished, they went back to the living room to get their equipment.

Jenna disappeared up the stairs and returned with a pack that looked much too big for her small frame. A pistol was strapped snugly to her right leg, and a small leather case now hung from the back of her belt. She adjusted the position of the case, then shouldered her pack.

The group stepped from the living room into the chill of the early morning air. The sky had begun to lighten, a couple of clouds on the horizon glowing a pale yellowy pink. They paused outside the stable, where the subdued lighting showed several mounts peeking over the doors of their stalls. Only two of the horses were led out into the chill morning air. One was a beautiful dark brown, which stood placidly while Glen and Charles fastened on a large pack.

The second horse pranced nervously as he was led from the stable. He was deep black with a white patch on each foot and on his forehead. Jenna moved quickly to the horse's head and soothed him, calling him Blaize and crooning endearments to him. While Jenna held the horse, the stable man quickly and efficiently loaded him with four long and two short poles and a soft bag. Skylar was not sure what their purpose might be, but didn't want to attract attention to his ignorance by asking.

"The hunting is usually pretty good on top if we can cross the river to get there.” Mike commented softly as he came up next to Skylar, “It's been raining a lot lately. It may be too flooded to get very high."

“Wouldn’t it be easier to cross the river on horses?” Skylar asked.

“Yeah, probably, but it’s traditional for our group to hike in; for some of us it’s the only exercise we get all year,” Mike answered, “but we do take these two horses with us. Coco and Blaize are almost as much a part of the group as the rest of us. Charles is particularly fond of Coco,” he added, his eyes twinkling with mischief, as he gestured to the brown horse, “as that pack has our food supplies in it. We always tease him that Hannah won’t have packed enough for the five day trip. I can’t wait to see where we go this time.”

"You mean you don't know exactly where we're going?"

Mike grinned. "Nope, but I'm sure Glen's got a few ideas in mind; that's what we pay him for. All I’m sure of is we'll be back on Friday; Glen promised."

"You really trust him, don't you?"

Mike's smile disappeared as he faced Skylar squarely. "He's never broken a promise to me or, as far as I know, to anyone else. The guy's incredible. I trust him with my life."

Skylar looked intently at Mike’s face, assessing his words, and was satisfied with the truth he found there.

Glen's clear voice rang out. "Is everybody ready?" Assenting murmurs came from the assembled group.

"Then let's go." Glen gathered the brown’s reins, and they began to move across the fields toward the woods in the distance, falling neatly into a line.

Glen led Coco, followed closely by Charles. Mike and Rory came next, then Jenna, leading Blaize. The horse appeared calmer now due to Jenna's gentle coaxing. Skylar took a position at the rear of the line so he could help Jenna with her huge backpack and the somewhat skittish horse if she encountered any problems.

The sky continued to brighten, then the sun suddenly popped above the horizon. Skylar noted this phenomenon seemed universal…sunrise was a sudden event, while sunsets usually take their own sweet time.

The group moved across a wide meadow wet with dew. They began to stretch out until there were fairly large gaps between them. As Skylar lagged behind, he saw it would not be difficult to follow the route the others had taken even if he couldn't see them. The knee-high grass seemed to darken as their passage knocked the moisture to the ground.

The peaceful chattering of morning birds pleasantly broke the stillness. A little way off to the left, Skylar noticed a movement in the tops of the grasses. Glancing in that direction he was startled to see a thin green snake, gliding along the tops of the grass blades, barely bending the tips beneath its slight weight.

Skylar, his attention on the snake, stumbled momentarily on the uneven ground, caught himself and quickly glanced back to where the snake had been. He saw the flick of the tail as the snake dove down for better cover in the thicker grass beneath the surface. He moved on, appreciating the varied splendor around him, thinking of other worlds he had visited whose stark beauty was bleak by comparison.

A motion to the right of the trail drew Skylar's eyes in that direction. A furry brown rabbit was poised on his haunches, its large ears standing at attention. It was sniffing the air, its velvety nose twitching quickly and nervously as the rest of the body remained motionless.

Suddenly the rabbit turned and fled, bounding over rock and flower with short and long leaps in a zigzagging manner. The unpredictability of its flight would have prevented him from getting a good shot, and a greater respect for Glen as a hunter was born in his mind.

With mild amusement at the rabbit's antics, Skylar continued up the trail. They came to the first line of trees and entered the woods. There was a pleasant path to walk on, just wide enough for their single-file march. As Skylar studied the terrain, he realized they were climbing up an old dry wash.

They crossed a small creek over a narrow bridge made of old planks, rotting in places and covered with a slimy green moss which made footing uncertain and passage quite challenging. Skylar made a motion to assist Jenna in getting the horse over the "bridge". Only the look in her eyes stopped him…a warning not to push his gallantry upon her. He stepped back a pace, respecting her wishes.

A sense of urgency for the needed answers continued to grow within him. Drawing upon the discipline he had learned in his early training at the academy, he suppressed the desire to grab Jenna and demand those answers. He maintained an outward calm.

The path was very steep now, with rocks prevalently showing their jagged points, the party now closer together. As they climbed on top of the last outcropping, Charles, his curly red hair dripping from the effort of the climb, gasped out to Glen, "How much further before we stop for lunch?"

Glen, a slow smile spreading across his even features, glanced at his watch. "We're nearly there. Just under an hour now. You're doing fine," he said. "We'll make it in good time, so we can stop here for about five minutes." Sinking to the ground, Charles chose not to expend energy on speech to answer, but gave a brief nod to express a begrudged but courteous 'thanks'.

Skylar hid his smile at Glen's diplomacy and turned, climbing on top of a small mound of rock at the trail's side to see how far they'd come. From this vantage point, he could see around and below him quite well. The clouds he’d seen at daybreak had spread across the sky, piling menacingly on top of each other. Their dirty grey and heavy look promised rain for later…or maybe even snow.

The view down the mountain reminded him very much of the forest near his home on Timora. Then his mind replayed the forest as he'd last seen it, blackened and still smoking from the Klodfon raid. His heart bleak, he reminded himself it was futile to dwell on the past.

Glen called out, “Time to go.” and Skylar rejoined the group.

August 06, 2010

Assignment to Earth Chapter Three

Brilliant blue eyes closely watched the girl serving dessert. Abruptly, Skylar realized he didn’t remember her name.

He hadn’t had a pleasant day of hunting. Every time his hand brushed against his weapon, she had filled his thoughts. Where had she seen another laser pistol? The design was unique. They all belonged to Cavaliers, or to Klodfons who’d taken them from Cavaliers.

If there were Klodfons here, that might explain why Rantek had screamed for help and promptly vanished. Finding Rantek was his primary mission. Maybe she knew where Rantek was…no, that didn't make sense; she had mentioned a time span of five years since seeing a pistol, and Rantek hadn't been on Earth that long.

Scowling, Skylar once again brought his thoughts back to the present. The girl had finished serving dessert and resumed her place at the table, laughing with the other hunters while she ate the creamy pudding.

Skylar automatically appraised her, as he did most things around him. He noted she barely came to his shoulder in height, but was well-proportioned, pleasing to look at and seemed to be in reasonably good physical shape.

Her face reminded him of a friend he'd had on Timora; oval, with a small, straight nose centered above a pert red mouth. Her light brown hair fell straight to her shoulders before gently curving under and never seemed to fall into her face. Her dark brown eyes with their fringe of long black lashes seemed huge. Her skin was smooth and pale. Overall, she had a fragile air about her that made you want to protect her. An air entirely at odds with knowing all about weapons. Particularly laser weapons.

‘I'll have to get her aside before I leave Saturday,' he thought.

A soft voice interrupted his reverie. "If you're finished, I'll take your plate."

Startled, he looked up—straight into her eyes. "Yes, let me help you." He rose, grabbed the empty plate from the table in front of him and followed her into the kitchen.

She was waiting for him just inside the kitchen door and took the plate from his grasp.

"You know, we really shouldn't keep meeting in here…your wife won’t like it.”

“I’m not married."

Jenna shrugged. "Well then, your girlfriend won’t like it, Skylar."

”I don’t have a girlfriend either…and I have to confess I’ve forgotten your name.” He made to take a step nearer, but she turned her back and strode across the room.

She turned the handles and ran water into the sink.

"My name’s Jenna. It’s both short and unusual. Most people remember it just fine. So tell me how your hunting went today." She squirted a liquid into the water and watched the bubbles spread over the surface.


She wasn’t the only one who could play irritating guessing games.

Jenna giggled, then put the back of her hand to her forehead and struck a pose, as if straining to read Skylar’s mind.

"Let’s see…John shot a scrawny deer and will have pressing business back at his office and will leave in the morning. I think his wife makes him come, so they can have the venison. Uncle Glen brought home a couple of rabbits for stew, and nobody else saw anything worth shooting at. I'll have to go out with you tomorrow and show you big tough men how it's done.”

Skylar smiled. "You seem to know John pretty well, and Mike did tease him about the deer’s size. Much as I'd like to see you hunt, however, you shouldn’t come tomorrow. We're going to be gone several days, all the way to the top of the mountain, where Glen tells us the best game is."

"So why can't I come?" Her question was blunt, her voice flat, and her face devoid of emotion as she turned to look at him.

"No chaperon, unless your Aunt would care to come along?"

"You need to learn something right now," she said, "I do what I want and no one stops me." Her manner and statement brought him up short and he stiffened slightly. Her mercurial changes were disconcerting.

She smiled and her voice softened somewhat, her eyes warming. "I usually go on the overnighters as cook. If it makes your overprotectiveness feel better, I carry and use my own tent. By myself. Besides," she added, her eyelids fluttering in exaggerated but obviously false flirtation, "I have to go this time…I just can't resist the chance to see your gun in action."

Her grin sparkled in her eyes before she looked back down at the sink, turned off the water, then left to retrieve the rest of the dishes, ignoring him completely. He gazed after her and shook his head. He certainly had never met anyone quite like her.

Skylar walked slowly upstairs to his room trying to puzzle it out. Jenna appeared to be deliberately baiting him. She seemed to choose her words carefully, then watch him for his reaction. Her conversation with the others tonight had been more open and natural. She did know them better, but it seemed as if she were suspicious of him. Why? And why did she keep coming back to the subject of his pistol? He wondered if this was why Rantek had signed on for this expedition. Maybe Jenna was a clue to his whereabouts. What did she know? Something was going on here and he determined to find out exactly what

Reaching his room, he checked the camping equipment in his pack. Some of it was from his Wyvern's survival gear. Fellowship issue. With the interest she'd shown in his pistol, he wondered what she'd say about his camp gear; a small smile played at the corner of his mouth.

Ready for tomorrow's early start, he pulled out the log he'd been meticulously keeping since he'd left his home on the Aubria. He stared at the small electronic device. What entry could he make for today? He hadn't learned anything new about Rantek. He doubted this camping trip would lead to any answers, but he didn’t feel he could just leave in the middle.

Anyway, this was the only lead he had. Jenna had hinted at having seen a laser pistol, but she’d given him nothing but unanswered questions. The information might be important later, but for now…he sighed. Colonel Harlan would scrutinize the entire log, and he’d really rather not have to explain Jenna's strange conversation. He couldn’t even explain it to himself. Skylar made a short entry about the day's hunting and his lack of progress in finding Rantek. He shut down the machine then dropped it into his pack.

Turning off the light, he climbed into bed and closed his eyes. Sleep refused to come for a long time.