Welcome back to Earthrise! We are now on our regular schedule, free on Tuesdays, with Thursday and Saturday available if donations or subscriptions that week go over $15 per episode. You can catch up on existing episodes, donate, or set up a subscription here! And now, on to the story:
Her Instruments, Book 1
The trip to the first floor proved uneventful, which was an unexpected hardship. Only the sense of imminent danger kept Hirianthial on his feet and deprived of it he began to list to one side, giving in to increasingly ardent demands from his body that he close his eyes and sleep.
Picking through the tumbled furniture and shattered glass tables in the lobby, Irine said, “Wow. We missed the party.”
“Thank freedom,” Reese said, peeking out the front door. People in and out of uniforms, pirates and Fleet, darted into view, firing all the while. “I wonder if we could steal a ride to the Earthrise? I don’t like the idea of navigating through that at anything slower than an eagle’s pace.”
The thought of the long walk back almost stole Hirianthial’s remaining energy.
“Hey, it’s Bryer!” Irine exclaimed and waved.
The Phoenix wiggled into the foyer through one of the broken windows. Aside from a few missing red crest extensions and a lace of blood spatters, he looked hale.
“Did you get him?” Reese asked.
“Left on a ship,” Bryer said.
“Curse it all!”
Bryer’s maw gaped and this, Hirianthial divined from the sudden shot of sparkles that decorated the Phoenix’s usually inscrutable aura, was amusement. “A ship tuned too high. Told Fleet. They will find him.”
Reese deflated. “I hope so. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life on the run.”
“Look on the bright side,” Irine said. “being on the run is part of a merchant’s job, so it won’t be too much of an effort to disappear.”
“That’s what we thought last time,” Reese said and peered out one of the windows at the sky. “We have got to get out of this place before Fleet decides to bomb it out of existence.”
“That way,” Bryer said, pointing, and jogged out of the foyer.
With a sigh, Reese followed him. Irine dogged her steps. Sascha looked at Hirianthial. “Can you make it?”
“The alternative doesn’t appeal,” Hirianthial said and took one step forward. The world sheared around him and he leaned against the wall. He felt the wave of matter-of-fact concern and the touch of Sascha’s alien mind before he registered the pressure against his side.
“Steady there,” Sascha said. “We still need you.”
“Are you sure?” Hirianthial asked with a faint laugh.
Sascha broke into a toothy grin. “You and Bryer are our only fighters, sad to say. The rest of us don’t have formal training.”
“And Bryer and I do,” Hirianthial said, letting the Harat-Shar help him out of the building, step by laborious step.
“I’ll eat my tail if you don’t,” Sascha said. “So if I’m wrong, don’t tell me so.”
Hirianthial laughed. At the threshold of the building he sucked in a long breath and forced himself upright. The sight of people streaking past helped center him in the present. He let his mind yaw open, gathering the feel of the rest of the crew and their relation to the combatants still shooting nearby. He’d never thought to use his abilities so; he wasn’t even sure if he could have in the past. But if by doing this he could get them out of harm’s way—immediate harm’s way—he would do it. He could collapse later, once they were safe.
His body ached. Breathing hurt. But he started after the others with Sascha at his side and caught up to them with a short jog. Ignoring Reese and Irine, he called to the Phoenix. “Bryer, I’ll take point.”
The Phoenix glanced over his shoulder, then dropped back to hold the rear. Hirianthial took his place.
“You sure you can do this?” Irine asked from behind him.
“I’m the only one who can,” Hirianthial said, and led them forward.
Zigzagging across the campus, using some of the warehouses as cover, Hirianthial wondered how Fleet’s end of the fight was going. From what little he could see and the less he allowed himself to sense, the numbers on the ground were about equivalent. He hoped Fleet’s superior hardware would give them the edge they needed to prevail.
The first time he halted, Reese hissed, “Why are we stopping?”
“We’re hiding,” Hirianthial said.
“I don’t see anyone!”
The minds he felt nearby dispersed. Ignoring Reese’s agitation, he started moving again.
Each time they stopped, her disgruntlement grew. He knew he should assuage her fears but staying upright while searching for holes in the fight to guide them through occupied all his attention. They were almost off the campus when a mass of angry minds clotted right around the corner of the wall they’d been hugging.
“Against the wall!” Hirianthial said.
The twins and Bryer flattened. Reese opened her mouth to object as their enemy reached the corner. Hirianthial grabbed her, covered her mouth and pressed her flush to his body. He barely noted the explosion of her feelings in his mind as she struggled against him. He tried to hold her without hurting her, but she had fewer compunctions about returning the favor.
The first of the pirates jogged into the open, followed by nine others. Only then did Reese stop fighting him, all her rage inverting into terror.
You don’t see us, Hirianthial prayed.
Reese whimpered, a sound that moved her lips against his palm, wetting his skin with the heat of her breath.
You don’t hear us, either, Hirianthial prayed.
They marched on. Only when they had passed the succeeding building entirely did Hirianthial release Reese and prepare for her outburst.
Irine beat her to it. “Rhacking angels, Reese! Are you trying to get us all killed?!”
“I didn’t know!” Reese said.
“What did you think he was doing? Stopping to enjoy the scenery?” Irine shouted. “You want to pick a fight with him, do it on the ship, don’t do it out here where you’ll get us all killed!”
Reese deflated. “I thought—”
“Quiet,” Bryer said.
“We’re not safe yet,” Sascha said. “Let’s save all the fights for later.”
Irine grabbed her ears, then forced herself to calm down.
“Let’s go,” Sascha said.
Hirianthial nodded, checked for enemies, and headed for the road. He kept the group moving at a steady pace until the campus dropped out of sight behind a hill, then stopped and concentrated. Nothing before them. Nothing behind them, though they weren’t very far from town. Nothing around them.
“We’re clear for now,” he said, and tottered. Sascha caught him before he fell entirely.
“Battlehells,” Sascha said. “Don’t die on us yet.”
Bryer stopped beside them both and met Hirianthial’s eye with an alien one. “Point?”
“You take it,” Hirianthial said. “I’ll keep watch on the rear.”
The Phoenix nodded and loped ahead.
“And you’re in such condition to take any kind of guard position at all,” Sascha said. “And no, don’t you try to stop leaning on me. Let’s just get through this together.”
Hirianthial managed a faint smile. “Far be it from me to argue with a Harat-Shar.”
“You got that right,” Sascha said.
Together they limped after the others. The slower pace gave Hirianthial time to assess his condition and call himself lucky: other than the bruises and incidental slashes he’d gotten in the fight he was intact. His biggest problem remained the weakness he’d inherited from his battle with the mental-wound, and that would resolve itself with enough sleep.
“You’re so light,” Sascha said. “You’ve got to eat more.”
“It’s on the agenda,” Hirianthial said, glad enough of the warm density of the Harat-Shar and the softness of the fur that cushioned the edges of the man’s body as they bumped together down the road. That Sascha’s mind was relentlessly focused on their situation helped diffuse the impact of his thoughts; all things considered, it was the most comfortable way Hirianthial could imagine being half-dragged down a road.
“It’s so quiet. You’d think there’d be someone around,” Irine said.
“I’m just glad there aren’t,” Reese said. Her aura had a sullen gray flatness.
“You think Fleet destroyed all the barns?”
That piqued Sascha’s interest strongly enough that Hirianthial ended up looking off the road with the Harat-Shar. He followed the tigraine’s series of thoughts from the observation of the pattern of destruction to the memories of similar constructs.
“They were hangars,” Sascha called forward.
“For planes?” Irine said.
“That would explain the overhead fight,” Reese said. “I hope Fleet made out okay.”
“I’m sure they did,” Irine said.
The two continued to talk, the nervous chatter Hirianthial associated with the lingering effects of an extreme adrenal dump. He ignored it and concentrated on walking… until a whisper at the edge of his perceptions brought him fully alert.
“What is it?” Sascha said in a low voice.
“Get Bryer,” Hirianthial replied, standing on his own.
Sascha trotted ahead. “Hey Bryer… you go be Long-Tall-and-White’s leaning post for a while. I’ll take the front.”
The Phoenix padded back and stood beside Hirianthial as Sascha led the three on. Then he turned his head to the Eldritch. “Trouble.”
“Feels like five people,” Hirianthial said. “They’re definitely looking for us.”
Bryer stretched his fingers and the sun flashed off his claws. “Five. Easy kill.” His crest flared. “You will kill, yes?”
“They want most of us dead and the rest of us in chains,” Hirianthial said. “And they’re armed to do it. Yes, I’ll kill them.”
Bryer nodded, then scanned the road. “Little cover.”
“We can crouch behind the brush,” Hirianthial said. “They’re not expecting an ambush. If we let them pass us and keep going it shouldn’t take long.”
Bryer eyed him. “Sneaky.”
Hirianthial smiled. “We’ll be outnumbered at least two to one and I’m barely conscious. They’ll have a fair enough fight.”
This week has been rough! We got this episode paid for, so I am posting early. I’ll post again tomorrow if we hit cap again.