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.