Miramita and I stop just as the stone hallway transitions to the wet, jungle floor.
I take a deep breath and he does the same, there’s slight grumbling from the three aliens. 18 minutes at most until the frigate arrives, but this is important. As we talk, the firryans we rescued silently mouth along.
“Wallafacc, master of escape, Cannagi, king of the forests, Firipi of the hunt, please watch over your descendants as we flee those who will stop at nothing to steal us from our friends and family. We ask for your guidance so we may follow in your footsteps, and perhaps one day our own names and deeds will be remembered like yours.”
We open our eyes and I feel power surge throughout the black tattoos that line my skin. I feel like I can move faster, more accurately, like I won’t even make a footprint in the mud, like none of these savages will be able to find me in such a thick jungle.
Whether our prayers actually reach our ancestors, or if praying just calms me down and helps me focus, like a placebo, I’m not sure. What’s undeniable is that I feel like it works, so I keep doing it.
With that necessary preparation completed, we lead the former slaves across the small clearing and into the jungle proper. As I know where the shuttle is, I lead everyone in its general direction. As Miramita knows all the ins and outs of traversing Quintara, he leads us on the finer path. Navigating around mud pits, kicking over small trees and bushes to aid the rest of us, keeping us from having to climb up and down hills that are too steep and slippery, Miramita is a master at this.
We make good progress in the time allotted, but it isn’t long before the frigate’s massive engines blare throughout the jungle, overpowering the sounds of nature.
“That sounds closer than it should be,” I say.
“Here.” Miramita walks closer to one of the aliens and passes the firryan boy to her. “Go on ahead, I’ll take a look real quick.” Miramita uses his expert climbing skills and impeccable grip to disappear above the low branches.
I look at the girl carrying our comrade, and she’s just as disgusting. Such a gross look on her face, so excited to be carrying a firryan. I shake my head to calm myself and avoid glaring.
We continue walking, slower without Miramita but we’re still making progress. I hear the roar of fighters swooping by, I think two or three are strafing, looking for us. They’ll have a hard time in a jungle this thick but that doesn’t mean we’re safe by a long shot. Firryans secrete a certain pheromone that’s easy to track with the right equipment.
Suddenly, Miramita is upside down and he swings right in front of me, almost head butting me in the face. I recoil and near strike him in surprise.
“Oops! Sorry.” His long hair hangs down, as does his undone sleeve. I glance up and see that his legs are wrapped around a branch overhead. “That frigate is a lot closer than it should be, it’s not hovering over the ruins at all! It’s even angled closer towards us.”
I turn to the aliens, “when you were captured, did they do anything to you? Give you a shot, attach something on or in your skin?”
“Not that I remember.”
The loudmouth shakes his head, “why do you ask?”
“Because we’re being chased by a frigate.” I gesture for them to stay put while I walk behind a large tree. “Check your clothes,” I call out, “and check your skin for any bumps, see if they put a tracking device on you.” I’ve never know a slaver to willingly hunt down an FLF agent, usually they just take the loss and move on. It didn’t occur to me that, because this is a trap, they could be tracking us.
I can’t see them, but I hear the aliens rummaging around. The screech of engines swooping overhead gets closer and closer, my hands shake from the tension. I hear Miramita grab the other firryan girl and take her behind a tree, following my lead.
I set the firryan I’m carrying down against a damp rock. She hisses as her feet and hands drag against the soft ground.
“I’m sorry for this, but I need to hurry.”
She clenches her teeth and nods weakly.
As carefully as I can, I strip off articles of clothing and check for sores, cuts and incision points, anything that could tell me if a tracking device was put inside her. I check her spine, I part her hair to see if it was lost there, her limbs, everywhere. She whimpers and curses under her breath, but she’s a trooper and handles it well.
Thanks to my extensive search, I see that she has no such device on her.
The fighters are getting closer with their passes. This has been such a time sink but I need to check the third firryan.
I hurry back to the group, who have since taken cover under a large, thick branch covered with vines and leaves, and grab the firryan boy to bring him around the tree. I set him against the other side of the rock and he, regrettably, has a harder time suppressing his pain. He is significantly younger than the girl, so it is understandable.
I wonder if he’s ever prepared for something like this, or is he still young enough to think that nothing bad could ever happen? I remember when I thought like that.
“I’m sorry, I promise this won’t take long.” He nods as best he can, but he isn’t looking forward to it.
Just as before, I take off pieces of clothing, check his now greenish-brown skin for bumps, then slip his clothes back on. The poor boy tries his best to hush his cries, but I can still hear them clearly and it only angers my heart. They’ll pay. They’ll all pay for what they’ve done to us.
Again, no bumps. No bruises besides his ankles, no cuts or scrapes. I checked his body thoroughly so I know I didn’t just miss anything. I have a feeling that Miramita found the same by checking the other girl, which means one of a few choices.
I grab the boy and bring him back to the aliens so one of them can carry him. Following that, I go back for the girl and carry her myself. Miramita comes out of a bush with the last girl soon after.
“Anything?” I ask as I turn to leave.
That one man pipes up. “S-so that was just a waste of time?”
The man looks confused and concerned but follows behind us nevertheless.
I shoot Miramita a look and he returns with a knowing glance.
If there’s no bug or sensor, then the slaver ship being so close means one of three things:
1. It’s just happenstance. Maybe there was some kind of sensor in the base and they knew we approached from the east and left that way too, or maybe they just so happened to choose the correct direction to search for us.
2. One of the aliens lied when they said the slavers didn’t bug them. This will be impossible to prove without stripping them… but neither Miramita and I are willing to touch them.
3. One of them is a spy, or maybe a plant, who’s somehow reporting our position to their friends.
The wording might be a bit different, but I can tell by his eyes that he’s thinking the same. There’s a very good possibility that one of them is a traitor.
My earpiece begins to ring and flash a dull red.
Without disturbing the poor girl on my back, I tap it.
“Go ahead.” I nod my head to everyone else, gesturing them to follow. No point standing around when I’m on a call.
“Boss! I’ve made contact with the Red Harvest, patching you in now.”
There’s a heavy layer of static, but the voice comes through loud enough to hear it. Captain Pictuan of the PNV Red Harvest. A firryan woman and a proud member of the FLF. She’s worked hard to become an officer in the Peldak Protectorate, and quietly takes advantage of her authority to assist the FLF when she can.
There are many roles in the Firryan Liberation Front. Miramita and I are agents for direct combat missions, Pictuan has worked her way high in the military, and other members go for positions of wealth, status, or influence. Not all problems that assail firryan-kind involve slavers. A business taking advantage of a firryan worker requires a lawyer, not an agent. A natural disaster on Foregone requires money, or a sympathetic ear in the Protectorate senate, or influencers who can set up a charity.
“Wanopplo? Is that you? What are you doing, why are you calling me?” I’m technically a stowaway on her ship, and I technically steal her shuttle and pilot every so often.
I speak in the traditional firryan language, to keep the aliens and any spies from understanding me. I talk loud enough for Miramita to hear. “[Captain Pictuan, hey… We’ve run into trouble down here and we need help.]”
“…[What kind of trouble could there be for two agents?]”
“[A frigate. We’re moving to the shuttle but it’s just overhead and we might not be able to take off.]”
“[How did you end up messing with a frigate? You told me this would just be a routine thing! Land on the world, grab the hostages, get out, we’ll ferry you back to allied space. What happened?]”
“[A trap, basically.]”
“[Uh-huh. So why are you telling me this?]”
“[I was hoping that you’d bring your ship in to distract the frigate while we escape in the shuttle…]”
“[What?!]” There’s a slamming sound and her voice goes to static for a moment. “[-t’s a frigate, Wano! It doesn’t matter what kind of dirty pirates or slavers are inside, a corvette can’t stand up to a frigate!]”
“[You don’t need to ‘stand up’ to it, just distract it. Maybe come in atmosphere and fire off a round or two before getting out? We just need a moment for our shuttle to escape.]”
“[Putting my ship at risk is a big ask. How many are with you?]”
“[Three aliens, myself, another agent, and we’ve rescued three firryans from slavery. The latter three are hurt bad and most likely won’t survive long.]” A slight embellishment on my part, but I know how Pic thinks.
Somewhere off to the north, one of the fighters preforms a strafing run. The machine guns rip through the jungle, tearing apart trees and branches and rocks, and the engines scream as it pulls up at the last second. A frightening noise. They’ve almost determined our position.
I’m sure the noise was captured through my earpiece as Pic’s voice becomes slightly softer. “[Fine. We’ll clean your mess. We’re on the far side of the star now but we have a good helmsman. Expect us within twenty minutes, and please don’t die.]”
“[Thank you, Captain Pictuan.]”
She sighs, “[shut up, Wano.]” She presses a button and I’m left with only static.
“Hm.” I turn to Miramita, “that went well.”
“Uh, g-great!” He scoots closer to me, leaning in, “what was that all about?”
I take a wide step to clear a root poking out of the mud. “Do you not know our own language?”
“Everyone I’ve ever spoke too, including you, speaks Cirathan Standard. Why would I know it?””
“A sense of pride in-“
The alien man chimes in, “h-hey! None of this matters, what’s the plan?”
I sneer in disgust, but no. He’s right. That’s a conversation for later. “My shuttle isn’t far from here. We continue on, then leave this jungle behind. Now keep quiet and follow us.”
We continue our slow, silent march through the jungle. The strafing runs have become more common, VVVVVRRRRRRR-BBBBBBRRRRRRRRR, at least once a minute. The splintering sound of mighty trees crashing, engines zooming by overhead, that constant noise of the frigate hovering in the distance. Every so often the branches overhead or the bushes at our sides rustle as scared animals flee.
Despite the heat and the pressure, I remain calm and collected. Just keep moving, there’s nothing we can do about the planes. Get to the shuttle and we’ll get home safe.
Miramita still leads us, stomping down bushes and holding aside low branches for us to pass. His brow is narrowed as he focuses on leading us, and his jaw is clenched as a few branches require effort to get out of our way. Is he even worried? I can’t tell what’s going on in his mind.
“How much longer?” That man asks in his whiney, shrill voice.
Obviously, I’m not going to tell a potential traitor any information that could be used to determine the position of my shuttle. “Not too much longer.”
He hops to readjust the boy on his back, and he hisses from the sudden jolt, “can we get an estimate?”
Miramita hears the hiss and whips his head around, fire in his eyes. “We’re closer to the shuttle than we are to the ruins, now walk steady or somebody will need to carry you the rest of the way.”
The man shuts his mouth tight and I can’t help but smile.
Our shoes slosh in the mud, but I feel something! Danger. Sudden, immediate danger. What’s the cause? A plane? A beast? Falling tree?
“Take cover!” Miramita screams as he dives down into the mud.
My body throws itself against a tree and I cry an apology to the firryan girl in my head.
The aliens have slower reaction times, but thanks to Miramita’s quick trust of his instincts, they get down just in time.
Gunshots ring through the jungle like a tidal wave, the noise quickly followed by bullets which rip through bushes and take small chunks out of tree bark. Small arms fire, rifles or maybe pistols, coming from 8 o’clock.
“Sorry!” I drop the firryan off my back and she lands on a root with a painful thud.
Taking the sub rifle I used to help carry her, I bring it forward and jump around the wide tree trunk. I see three slavers, but there are probably far more given how thick the jungle is. Tight black jumpsuits with slapped together bits of armor from a variety of sources. Much of it is damaged or burnt, a common sight with slavers and pirates who’ve had a long ‘career’. They kill, they raid, they steal, and they take equipment to use against the good people of the galaxy. Based on how heavily armored they are, they seem to have some amount of skill and survival instinct.
I aim and fire, one bullet per pull of the trigger. Three shots ring out and the butt of the rifle digs into my shoulder.
They take cover, but the shoddy slaver gun isn’t effective over these distances and the shots go wide. Miramita appears over my shoulder.
His rifle is the same as mine. Three more shots, same result. No death or screaming.
The slavers turn their backs and run, carefully not to expose themselves. I fire again, but nothing comes of it.
“Ha!” Miramita yells, “run, you cowards!” He blindly shoots into the thick jungle before us.
“There’s more out there.”
He takes a deep breath in, then exhales silently. “Of course, but it’s important to act like everything is fine to keep up morale.”
As I turn to go back to the others, I wipe my hand across his face, smearing the sweat and mud left from where he dove earlier. “Clear your eyes so you can shoot better.”
“Pfft!” Some mud got on his lips and he spits to the side. “I didn’t see you do any better…”
I crawl around the tree trunk and jump down from the roots with a squelch. The aliens are cowering, and I see the three firryans try to steady their breathing in order to not scream. It pains my heart that they must go through this.
I’m not sure how to proceed from here.
I grab Miramita’s firm bicep and pull him closer, just close enough for a whisper. “What do we do? Pick them up for a few feet and throw them back down whenever the shooting starts?”
His eyes glance around, then down at my feet, then up to the treetops. “It… Well, if you think about it, there are three aliens… And, well, three firryans.”
I furrow my brow, “you don’t mean…”
“Listen. The three aliens carry our three comrades. I’ll jump to the branches and have a clear view of everything, you stay down here and direct them to the shuttle. So long as we keep an eye over them as we hold off the slavers, I doubt there’s much they can do to disappoint us.
“They’ll find a way.”
He presses his forehead against mine, “it’s the only way to get off this planet.” More gunshots off to the south. It seems another squad of slavers thought they saw us and opened fire. “There’s nothing for it, just don’t let them out of your sight!”
I take a deep breath. “Oh Clozzant, the watch tower, please don’t let them stray from my sight!”
Miramita holds the rifle under his arm and begins to climb up the tree. “Here’s the plan! You two, pick up our comrades, it’s your job to bring them to the shuttle. Wanopplo and I will keep them off us and keep you on course. Now go! They know where we are and I’m sure there are more on our tail.”
That run’s so close the ground shakes.
The aliens are scared, they’re nervous and shaking, but thanks to how close that strafing run was, they do as he says.
Miramita disappears above the branches.
“You heard him!” I yell as I sling the rifle over my shoulder, “the shuttle is that way, hurry up. I’ll keep them at bay!”
“O-o-okay, boss!” That man is the first to hurry along. He’s no doubt looking for his opportunity to escape.
But that’s a problem for later. Focus on now.