Authors: Michelle O'Leary
Light of Kaska
© Copyright 2012 Michelle O’Leary
All rights reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the author.
Author's Homepage, Fertile Ground:
Cover photo courtesy of NASA
Chase Stryker paused in the middle of the hard-packed dirt lane and studied the little town. Mind-boggling. No spaceport, no ships, no ground transports or modern mechanics of any kind. Not even lights—the flickering glow in the odd window was lantern flame.
He shook his head. He shouldn’t be here. The little agricultural planet was a great hiding place, but he shouldn’t have set his ship so close to the little town. Even though they were oblivious to his nightly prowls through their community, his luck couldn’t last and someone was bound to notice him soon. But he didn’t leave, kept coming back. After so much time alone in the black of space, running, always running from the Collectors, something about this cozy little colony pulled at him.
He settled for calling it curiosity.
Each night he found something new to marvel over. No power sources except a rickety windmill to grind grain. The low buildings were made of wood or hand-made brick. They used strange, six-legged animals for transportation and heavy hauling. They had no security. None. Not a sensor or deterrent, not even a flimsy seal on their hinged doors.
he could have stripped this town bare five times over, if there’d been anything valuable to steal. Kicking at the dust under his boots, he slowly shook his head again. Not even a decent road or landing pad.
A sound caught his attention and he lifted his head, instinct tightening the skin at the back of his neck. It was one of those strange six-legged beasts calling from a stockade, the sound echoing inside the big, wooden structure. Stryker cocked his head. He’d never heard them call in the night before. Thuds and snorts signaled an unusual level of restlessness.
The hunter in him woke and he prowled toward the structure, hand on the grip of his weapon. He hadn’t seen many predators on this planet, but it could be a night-hunter like himself, stalking the trapped prey inside the building. An animal…or maybe human, the worst kind of predator.
He should know.
As he approached, the beast called again, trumpeting in fear or warning. Stryker felt his muscles loosen with readiness, skin prickling. The huge doors stood ajar. He could smell it now, the earthiness of big, warm bodies, dung and hay—and blood. He bared his teeth at the metallic scent, eyes flicking over the darkness. Deep in the building, he saw a faint glow of flame.
The night was still, too still, the anxious banging of caged animals the only sound. A faint breeze cooled his skin and he backed away. He recognized the work of his own kind. He couldn’t get involved—he’d stayed too long as it was on this little farm ball. Fugitives shouldn’t take such chances.
Time to go.
Before he could blend in with the night, the door burst open. Three men appeared, jerking to a halt when they caught sight of him. The surprise didn’t last nearly long enough. He had time to pull his weapon, responding to their haggard faces and burning eyes, before they lunged for him.
They weren’t quiet about it. With hoarse shouts of, “Murderer!” they plunged through the darkness at his retreating form. They were clumsy and unarmed—Stryker lifted his weapon but didn’t fire, moved by instinct to run instead of fight.
They couldn’t know him, so they weren’t naming him for past crimes but blaming him for the blood inside the stockade.
He evaded them with practiced ease, dodging their grasping hands and tumbling one to the ground before sprinting away. He needed to get to his ship, to get off this rock fast before they figured out who he was and called in the Collectors.
But they surprised him again. Their reaction-time was uncanny, almost creepy. The residents
out of their houses, as if they’d just been waiting for the signal to mob. He was suddenly surrounded, every escape route clogged by hysterical, unarmed people.
Stryker skidded to a stop, raising his weapon and spinning in a warning circle. The survivor in him urged him to fire, to make a hole. But though they converged on him with hostility in their eyes, not a single one carried a weapon. The innocence in their dress, in their manner, and the wild grief burning in their eyes made him hesitate.
“The boys, the twins!” one of his original pursuers shouted. “Dead, ripped apart. Murdered…”
“My babies!” a woman shrieked with such piercing agony that Stryker winced.
“I’m no baby killer,” he growled, snapping the weapon around in clear threat from one horrified face to another.
They didn’t seem to hear him. They didn’t seem to notice his gun. Almost as a single body, a many-throated beast, they roared their rage and swamped him. His finger tightened on the trigger, but then he simply dropped it and fought with his hands. Fought to get free, not to kill. He’d told them the truth—though death and violence had been his lifelong companions, he was no baby killer and these people were still the innocents of his grim universe.
Innocent or not, there were too many of them, too many big, beefy farmers fueled by righteous fury. Stryker held them off, but only for a moment. The crush of bodies quickly made it impossible to land an effective blow. With sheer numbers and weight, they brought him to ground. The irony was unbearable. To have escaped and evaded the Collectors for so long, only to be brought down by a bunch of farmers bent on exacting revenge for a crime he
Any faint hope he had of due process was squashed by the ranting of the mob, the pure hatred and madness that flowed from person to person like a sick cloud. They were determined to pin the deaths on him, whether he was guilty or not. Lying crushed in the dirt under a mass of heaving bodies, wheezing and tasting blood, he sensed the rising madness around him with a knot of ice in his chest. He heaved and thrashed with desperate urgency when he heard their plans for him, but it was too late. He was caught.
They trussed him up like a hog for slaughter and dragged him through the dirt. He twisted and strained at the ropes, fighting madly to escape. Visions of bonfires and sizzling flesh lent savage strength to his muscles, but the ropes only shifted, tightened. Something heavy smashed against the side of his head, searing the night with sick flashes of white lightning, before all was black.
When Stryker woke, he found himself chained in a small barren room, sitting on a worn bench with newly forged shackles pinning his outstretched wrists to the wall. Trapped in a makeshift prison, condemned for murder and sentenced to die by flame. He would have laughed if it wasn’t so painfully real. The chains were a damned sight better than the mental prison of the Collector’s brain bands, but being burned alive didn’t sound like much of a future.
The night chilled around him, wrapping him in cold silence. He fought with the chains in stubborn persistence all through the night hours, ignoring the superficial pain in his wrists as welts formed. He wondered if this little adventure was supposed to be a divine joke or a punishment for all his crimes. His
you bastard,” he rasped into the darkness, but no god answered.
Morning found him wondering if the Collectors would arrive before or after he was ash. Another note of irony, that he would almost be glad to see them. Almost. He gritted his teeth against a shudder of loathing at his remembered helplessness in their hands. He would do anything to avoid going back under the band. Maybe even burn.
Stryker gave another vicious yank at the shackles pinning his spread arms to the wall, ignoring the sting of his welts. He’d just have to find a way out of the chains. As long as the farmers didn’t plan to toast him right away, he’d figure something out and escape. He had to.
After the long hours of isolation and silence, the slight creak of the door hinges made him twitch in feral readiness. He was startled to see a woman slip stealthily around the rough wood. She pushed the door closed again and paused, head tilted toward the exit in a listening posture. When no sound came from beyond the door, she turned to face him. She met his gaze then took a quick step back, bumping into the wall while her face paled and tightened, her eyes widening.
He smelled it coming from her in waves. His nostrils dilated and his chest expanded as he drew it in, the acrid fear and the underlying sunshine smell of her skin. It brought out the savage in him and he had the urge to growl at her. But the secretive way she’d entered made him curious. He settled for jerking at the shackles again with a loud clang and watching her jump.
She stared at him, hands flat against the wall, chest rising and falling with quick breaths, amber-colored eyes round and worried. He could see her throat fluttering with a rapid pulse. She was slender and small, clothes a size too big for her narrow frame. A simple, white, short-sleeved shirt hung loose over fawn colored pants that ended just below her knees. Unadorned sandals encased her small feet and her straight, dark hair was drawn into a careless knot at the back of her neck. The sun had kissed her skin to a honey-brown color and sprayed a smattering of freckles across her nose. Cute in a country mouse sort of way with those large, luminous eyes, but ordinary. Ordinary and ridiculously naïve.
The only unusual thing about her was the hint of bright color along her forearm, promising more on the underside of her wrist. He knew of several planets that did patrilineal or matrilineal markings, but this wasn’t one of those planets. Maybe she was an off-worlder like him, for all that she looked the part of the farmer’s daughter.
She did nothing but stare at him for several long minutes, before her shoulders eased a bit and her expression lost that terrified-rabbit look. Though the pulse in her throat continued to hurry along, she moved at last, glancing around the small bare room for a moment before sliding down the wall to sit. She hid her hands in her lap and studied him warily over her knees.
He shifted on the hard bench, irritated by her continued silence. What the hell did she want? His movement rattled his restraints, the shackles around his ankles and the chains around his waist. The little room was heating rapidly, the sun burning through the small widow high up on the wall to his left. The night had been cold, but the day was looking to make up for it. Didn’t these people believe in insulation? Heating and cooling units? Friggin’ beds in normal jails instead of this makeshift little oven? Hadn’t there ever been a crime in this place before last night?
“You’ve hurt yourself,” the woman said suddenly in a low, melodious voice, surprising him. He’d been expecting a higher register, maybe a girlish squeak. Her dark brows pulled together in a frown, and he had to revise his original opinion of her age. Her slender build, doe-like eyes, and fright had made him think she was barely out of childhood. Late in her third decade, possibly early fourth was his current guess.
When he didn’t answer, her eyes dropped from his, roaming his chains with a tightening of her features. “I’m Sukeza bet Marish. You’re Chase Stryker. You didn’t kill those boys.”
He went still, absorbing the impact of her words.
a distracted part of his mind noted at the
in her name. The rest of his mind was occupied by the fact that she knew who he was, knew he hadn’t killed the kids, and she made no move to set him free. The Collectors offered rewards for escaped convicts. Was that the plan, then? Keep him chained until those bastards came to collect him? His muscles tensed in desperate rage, but he contained it. She hadn’t snuck in here just to introduce herself. He wanted to question her, but instinct urged silence, stillness. He watched. Waited.
Sukeza hadn’t expected him to be so beautiful. Scary, yes—he was that in spades, more than she’d anticipated. His black eyes pinned her in place with a predatory menace that made her heart beat like a panicked bird in her chest. The long list of crimes, the ones that had gotten him sentenced to mental containment, rattled through her mind like finger bones, scattering ice chips of terror down her spine. She hadn’t believed one man capable of so much until she’d seen those eyes, that hard, expressionless face, and that big, formidably muscled body. He looked capable of anything.
But after her first fright, when he did nothing but stare at her, she’d studied him a little closer. A wild toss of dark brown hair swept over a face etched with hard experience and pared down to sharp angles. Not a hint of softness even in the thin line of his lips. A dark gray shirt covered a wide, thickly muscled chest and revealed powerful arms, his skin a honeyed cinnamon. Black pants and boots weren’t able to mask the strength in his lower form, the potential violence in his every line. He exuded a dangerous energy, a predatory power barely controlled.
And he was beautiful to her.
He reminded her of the panther. Her mother had taken her to a zoo when she was young. She’d thrilled at the sight and sound of all those exotic creatures, but none had affected her as much as the black panther. He’d prowled his enclosure with silent ferocity, savage eyes fixed on the humans just out of reach, the faux-natural environment not hiding the walls that closed him in. She’d paced with him, tears in her eyes, enthralled by his sleek, powerful beauty and bruised by his hopeless hunt for freedom. Wild things weren’t meant to be caged.
This man was wild.
She ran her eyes over his bunched and flexing arms to the welts on his wrists and felt a pang of distress. Sweat darkened the gray shirt, glistening on his skin and dampening the strands of hair at his temples and neck. The look in his eyes was both angry and desperate while he watched and listened to her speak. He was suffering as her panther had suffered and it hurt somewhere deep inside, beyond the reasoning part of her, beyond the fear.