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.