“The Last Aurora”

Note: Lane Tyner and Orin Neen are two supporting characters from The Rush’s Edge who met some years before the events of that book. This story details how they met in the ACAS before they were released from service.

“The Last Aurora”

By Ginger M. Smith

“Tyner.” Cap was motioning for her, so Lane came over, keeping her head down. The squad was crouched between the hulk of a steelshield armored hover transport and the wall of a building as Lane slid the backpack containing the comm unit off her back. “Get me the ship. I need to talk to Telar,” the captain ordered.

Lane set it up and handed the comm mic over to Captain Walsh. The captain wiped sweat from her eyes and spoke: “Colonel Telar, this situation is worse than we thought. The insurgents have fortified hab units and buildings all over the city. We will have to clear it house by house. We’re going to need a lot more troops down here than we first thought.”

Lane wiped her own brow and pushed strands of her sweat-damp black hair away from her face as Cap was talking to the brass. The planet Stendal was a fucking furnace; as a vat would say, it was hot as balls. Lane and her fellow vat troopers sat with their backs against the wall, while several others stood sentinel. All had their weapons in hand and were constantly scanning for threats. The higher-ups had definitely underestimated the insurgent population on Stendal. They were in full-fledged revolt against the Coalition. At first, the ACAS had only sent in the Aurora Company of the 1st Strike Regiment. They’d felt certain Aurora would mop up the problem quickly. However, when the ACAS stopped receiving a feed from the soldiers and couldn’t raise anyone on the comm, they’d assumed the worst and sent more soldiers from the 1st.

“I really wanna get my hands on these fuckers,” a trooper named Myles said. “Payback for Aurora.”

“Hells yeah,” several others muttered.

Aurora Company had been decimated by the insurgents. Their nat leader, a bastard named Bracken, had gathered the natural-born officers and the few vats remaining alive and reported they were attempting a retreat to their transport. It had been the last transmission they had sent. Lane’s company had found the transport’s engine and comm wrecked and the crew dead—left hanging from a nearby tree. So much for local hospitality. She could still see the blood-red eyes and strangled faces of the crew, their feet swaying in the breeze.

Once the ACAS had lost contact with Aurora, they’d sent Dagger and Ion Companies from the 1st Strike Regiment to squash this so-called rebellion. In Lane’s opinion, the rebels were morons for even considering going up against the Coalition and its vats. Vat troops were grown for the ACAS and there was an endless supply. Lane knew they would funnel troops into this hotbed, until the fire was put out and insurgents were dead.

She could hear the sound of blaster fire as the other squads moved their way through the city. Lane knew her squad would see action soon. The physiological reaction to danger which they called the rush allowed vats to think faster, see farther and work harder than their natural-born officers, and Lane’s blood was running hot with it. It was a common saying in the Armed services of the Coalition of Allied Systems that the officers were the brain and the vats were the fist. Together they both fulfilled the wishes of the ACAS, and she couldn’t wait to get started.

A nearby explosion shook the ground.

“Someone wants us to know they have a big slingshot,” one of the vats muttered. The rest of them chuckled softly, but they all realized the danger.

Lane waited, her ears intent on every sound around them.

Cap handed the comm back to Lane and called them all together. “We’re pulling back to the command post and waiting for reinforcements,” Captain Walsh said. “A shitstorm’s about to happen in there.”

The vats were disappointed. “Cap, we can get in there,” Myles said.

Lane saw Walsh shake her head. “We’re pulling back, but I promise you, when we have enough support, I’ll make sure the first crew in will be Dagger Company. Let’s get back to the CP.”

Myles nodded. “Ma’am, yes ma’am.”

Lane respected Walsh. She was a good commander who was intelligent and did her best for the soldiers under her command. It made them extremely loyal. No matter how much they wanted to see action, if Walsh said no, then it was no. Even though the lack of action was frustrating, disobeying a direct order was unthinkable due to their programming. As good a commander as Walsh was, she would have allowed no disobedience anyway.

  The vats moved as one. Lane could feel the hum of excitement running through them as they flowed into an alley that would lead back toward the command post. The dust of destroyed walls and buildings and the scent of sweat from the soldiers around them mixed in the heavy air. The humidity on Stendal sucked; trickles of sweat ran down between Lane’s shoulder blades. She had just reached up to wipe the sweat from her eyes when the zap of a blaster bolt sounded.

Myles, who had taken point, staggered from a shot to the chest and the whole patrol dropped to a crouch at the end of the alley. Lincoln, who had been programmed with medical training, low-crawled up and immediately pulled his medpouch and began treating Myles. He gave Myles several medications, which Lane knew would include an extra dose of amp, a combat drug that helped vats focus and would dull the pain. Most of them had gotten the first dose on the transport down, but a second dose would obliterate the pain so Myles would be able to keep up with them on the way back to the CP, where he could get better treatment.

For the rest of the group, a flurry of hand signs went back and forth between the vats. Apparently, the shot had come from a sniper in one of the windows across the street. Millian, their demolitions specialist, peered above the skip bin they were taking cover behind. A blaster bolt sizzled when it hit the metal, and she dropped back down. Sniper across avenue – 2nd floor, she signed.

Jacen stepped up with his modified blasrifle. Angling himself in the small space between the skip bin and the wall, he lined up to take a shot. His first one missed, but when his target exposed himself to get a better look, Jacen felled him with a shot between the eyes. “Fucker,” Lane heard him curse. Then they’d moved out – Myles sticking close to Lincoln. They made their way back toward the CP, weaving their way in the direction of the outskirts of the city.

They found the source of the explosions they’d heard earlier: burning transports on the avenue. As soon as they got close, small projectiles began pinging off the vehicles. Lane hid behind one, first determining the source of the rounds, then maneuvering to take a shot at the insurgents who were firing at her from inside a nearby hab unit. She could see the remains of vats from Aurora lying behind where she’d taken cover. A vat on the avenue near her was staring up at Stendal’s suns with a caul of dust on her unblinking blue eyes. The thought of ending up the same way throbbed in Lane’s head like an abscessed tooth. That wasn’t going to happen, she thought as she clenched her jaw and looked back over the rear of the transport.

It was then that one of the insurgents decided to make his stand. He stepped out of a shadowed doorway and began peppering the vehicle with projectiles. As she hid, Lane realized the Captain had come up beside her. She signed 3…2…1 and they moved as one to liquidate the threat. Their shots brought the rebel to his knees. He fell forward, his blood spattering the hot alumicrete avenue. He was wearing the mark of the insurgents—an infinity symbol plastered in red paint on the back his black shirt. It made Lane’s blood boil with programmed hatred. She was gripping her gun tightly when Cap put her hand on Lane’s arm.

“Tyner. Focus.” Cap’s green eyes swept over her, and at the command, Lane felt the rush steady.

The fighting had sounded as if it were only a few blocks over, and that appeared to be the case. They pulled back from that direction, taking several side streets. A few insurgent snipers tried their hand at a shot, but no one else was hit as they reached the outskirts of town. They were about two klicks from the CP, and they began to move along the road, spreading out in a skirmish formation. They passed Aurora’s landing zone and several of the vats paused in front of the transport shuttle out of respect while the Cap went on with Miles and Lincoln. Dagger had cut down the dead soldiers earlier that morning on the way in.

Lane went to a new vat named Kalani who was standing alone, fists clenched. “Hey, you good?”

Kalani was grinding his teeth. “Yeah, I just want to get these guys. Make ‘em pay. Let ‘em know they can’t fuck with the ACAS like this.”

“Oorah.” She nodded, casting her eyes around at the dead. A large bronze-skinned vat was lying in the middle of the alumicrete near them. Blood flies were crawling over him as well as  hovering over the pool of sticky red that had spread out underneath him. She could tell he’d been there a while. There was even a blood trail along the road where he’d dragged himself. Poor bastard, she thought. Dying on the hot street in the middle of this city…it was a bad end that made her stomach churn.

Then the dead man moved. She saw his fingertips twitch as if searching the ground in front of him. “Fuck—that guy’s alive,” she called, running to him.

Millian used their short-range comm to call everyone. Lincoln reported that Walsh was taking Myles on to CP with a few others but said he himself would circle back.

Slowly, the rest of the vats drew near. Lane turned the injured soldier over. They all grimaced when they saw the damage. He had taken three shots – brutal wounds, but none of them were fatal. The body shots weren’t what drew their eye, however. It was the damage to his face. Someone had taken a knife to his interface. They could see the skin hanging open, and the small silver gleam of his implant shining against his white skull, where it wasn’t covered with dried blood. Lane glanced at the others. She had the same first aid skills as they did, but she hadn’t been prepped for this.

“Holy fuck. They tried to dig out his implant,” Jacen said in a low voice from behind her. Hatred of the rebel nats caused them all to grimace. They could see where the implant leads had been pried at, and the gleam of the coppery metal strands that connected to the poor vat’s brain were visible as well. One lead looked as if it had been tugged on, but it wasn’t completely removed. When the rebels had gotten bored with him, it appeared they’d carved down the side of his face and left him to die.

The man’s dark brown eyes opened and found Lane’s. He must have been out here at least two days, she thought. His skin was blistered from the heat of the road, and his lips were dry and cracked–he had to be thirsty. She tugged her canteen off her belt and tried to help him drink, but he couldn’t manage it and most of it just trickled down his chin. “We’re gonna get you some help, okay big guy? Just stay with us.”

He looked at her blankly, then cast his eyes to the left when Lincoln, who had just arrived,  dosed him with Meliox. His eyes closed in relief and his breathing slowed as the pain medication took effect.

“Might be better off to just mega-dose him and be done with it,” Jacen said as he scanned the buildings around them. He had less of a heart than the rest of them. Lane suspected he’d been double-dosed with Blue Rendal during his initial training. Docs liked to give you “the Blue” if you were too soft. She’d seen it before. Vats that had a heart before the medication would come back colder than the ice planet Batleek.

“Fuck off. If it was you, we’d drag your sorry ass back,” Lane spat. “Lincoln, come on.”

Together, they carried the large man between them back toward the camp. Seeing that Lane needed assistance, Millian came to help her, taking his other leg. “He might not make it, Sergeant,” she said.

“Yeah, but he’s not gonna cook to death on this pavement on my watch,” Lane swore. “Fuck, I wouldn’t let Jacen stay out there, and I hate his sorry ass.”

Jacen blew a kiss at Lane as he scanned the buildings on the right side of them. Even though he was a smart ass, Lane knew he would do his job and do it well.

Lane thought that it was very likely medics would scrub the soldier once they got him to the medbay. The ACAS didn’t keep dead weight around. After twenty minutes they arrived at the command post, where support personnel were already setting up a mobile aid station. Lane found a cot and they arranged the big man on it. There were several more casualties  – mostly blaster wounds and head injuries. Myles sat on a cot, too tough to lay down.

“I’ll get the medic,” Lincoln said.

“Cap already left to do that,” Myles growled. It was obvious the pain was getting to him.

Lane knelt beside Aurora’s sole survivor as he began to stir and groan wordlessly. “Okay. Stay calm, big guy,” she said, trying to meet his eyes. He fixed on her for a moment before he let out a wordless cry and his eyes rolled back into his head. He began seizing.

“Godsdamn it, shit!” She reached out with an arm across his chest, trying to keep him from tumbling off the cot. “Millian—get someone.”

Captain Walsh ran in behind the medic.  The damaged soldier’s seizures faded into tremors and then stopped. “I heard you found one of Aurora still alive,” Walsh said. “This is him, huh?”

Lane nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

The medic was examining the head wound. “Captain. His implant’s been damaged. I think this one is completely screwed.”

Lane’s forehead creased in anxiety. “Ma’am. This soldier was awake and conscious earlier. He’s…the only one of Aurora left.” Lane faced Captain Walsh, her eyes on Cap’s left shoulder in that gesture of respect programmed into all vat soldiers. “He…he had dragged himself a long way to get back to Aurora’s LZ.” Lane didn’t want to appear to be begging, but she’d seen so many dead vats that day it had begun to weigh heavily on her. Not another one on her watch, she swore. Vats didn’t believe in deities—yet here she was praying. But to whom? The universe? The scales of what was right and fair, always counterbalanced with what was usual and customary?

Lane watched Walsh consider it a moment. The Captain eyed the dirt, blood and worn patches on the stricken man’s uniform without giving a clue to her decision. Lane knew it was a long shot – it was normal to give the word to the medic in such cases and the solider would be euthanized. It was standard operating procedure if the solider was so damaged they couldn’t be of use in one of the reserve or support regiments. Yet, she hoped Walsh would show this guy some mercy. He deserved every chance at survival.

“Fine. Treat him. If he doesn’t show improvement in 48 hours, shut him down,” Walsh put a hand on Lane’s shoulder. “Good job today, Sergeant. Hit the rack…tomorrow’s gonna be a long one.”

“Ma’am, yes ma’am,” she nodded. “Thank you.”

“I’ll be right back,” the medic said. “He’ll need fluids while we get him transported up top.”

Up top meant they were taking him up to the ship that had transported them, the Vetra. There would be better facilities where they could possibly repair the damage to his interface. Lane took the big man’s hand in her own. “Good luck,” she whispered.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

The next day was just as hot as the previous one. Towering black thunderheads glared over the East side of the city. Stress built in the vats like a portent of disaster.

Lane felt the oppressive atmosphere screwing with her vision as she and the rest of Dagger Company began clearing the hab units located in the mid-city. They were broken into groups of four while they made their sweep through each building. She and Jacen, along with Millian and another rook named Reg were making entry into a hab building. She was secluded, offering cover fire as Millian made her way across an avenue with only one source of cover in the middle: a wheeled civilian transport that had obviously broken down on the enemy.

A couple of snipers on their team were providing overwatch from a nearby, already cleared high-rise. The rest of the teams were beginning to set up a CP there.  She knew it was a hotel, but being a vat, she had never been in one before.

Jacen signed for Lane to begin her crossing as he and Millian laid down cover fire. She ran just as Reg threw a smoke grenade. As she advanced, she heard the zip of suppressive fire into the obscuring cloud of smoke. “Shit,” she cursed to herself, crouching behind the transport. As she made her way across the next bare patch of ground, an explosion in her right hip sent her sprawling. When she hit, her right wrist cracked, and then the whole world was pain, smoke and noise.

Jacen pulled her inside the building, so she didn’t get shot by the sniper. Just as they reached cover, there was the distinctive the thump and whine of a grenade launcher. The back of the transport exploded into shrapnel, but they were already safe inside. Jacen eased her down in the front hallway.

Lane slid the pack off her shoulders and then used her good hand to rummage around until she found a vial of amp. She dosed herself; her hip pain settled down to about a five and her wrist was a two. She laid her rifle across her lap, clenching her teeth so her jaw wouldn’t tremble.

Go, she signed. She narrowed her eyes at Jacen, and he read her orders in her gaze. Go and make sure to bring my team back ok. Go kill these motherfuckers and do your job well.

Jacen nodded, and he and the other three headed to the stairwell. Lane settled the blasrifle into her left side and waited, cursing herself for being too fucking slow. If they didn’t make it…well she would know who to blame.

As her soldiers cleared the building above, Stendal’s noncombatant citizens came down the lift and the stairwells. A mother and two dark-haired girls arrived in the lobby and saw Lane with her rifle up and pointed at them. They froze.

“Please,” the woman whispered, pulling her daughters to her. “Don’t hurt us.”

Lane watched her emotionlessly. Then she abruptly jerked her head to the door that led to the basement level. “Go. Stay down there until it’s safe.”

The woman ran, taking her children with her.

The number of people increased as her team sent the innocent down. Some of them ran for the door to take their chances outside, others chose the basement like the mother and her girls.

Blaster fire began to zip through the building; there were screams, and people were beginning to panic.

“Basement,” Lane ordered them, noticing that it was becoming impossible to keep the pain out of her voice. She closed her eyes, feeling nauseated.

When she opened them, she didn’t know how much time had passed. There was a rusty taste in her mouth and her vision was blurry.

She felt dizzy and helpless, her thoughts sluggish. She’d just have to hope that Jacen and the others would be on their way back down soon. Barring a miracle, she would probably die here—even with the double dose of Amp running through her veins, she wasn’t going to be able to walk back to CP. She fell back and closed her eyes.

The rumble of thunder outside jolted her back awake. Jacen was kneeling beside her while the rest of her team watched for threats. His face was covered in bloody splatter. “Sergeant? You still with us?”

“Yeah…” she tried to open her eyes wider and sit up. “Yeah.”

He handed her a canteen, and she drank greedily.

“Okay. We called it in Lane. They told us to get you back to CP.”

She shook her head. “It’s too far.”

“Fuck too far,” Jacen said. “Reg. We’re gonna carry her between us. Millian, you’re taking point. It’s not ideal, there’s no one to cover our six, but it is what it is.”

“Wait—”

“I’m running the squad now, so with all due respect, you can shut the fuck up, ma’am,” Jacen said. He looked at Reg, who nodded. Millian held out her hand for his rifle, to take advantage of its advanced optics.

Lane had time to think that maybe she was wrong about Jacen when he and Reg got her up between them. Both of them carried blaspistols in their free hands.

Most of what Lane remembered from the trip was pain. The uneven ground under them sent spikes of agony through her bad hip, and it began to rain. The rain chilled her, despite the earlier oppressive temperatures. Once, they came under fire, and she’d groaned and cursed as they’d pulled her into the protective shadow of an alleyway between two tall buildings. Millian and Ren took out the snipers while Jacen gave her a medjet of Meliox.

They continued on. The rest of the trip was a mix of rain and misery. By the time they entered the hotel where the CP was located, she was shivering so badly she couldn’t speak. Her team brought her into the spacious lobby, which had been set up as a field hospital to stabilize patients before they flew them up top. They settled her near the fireplace. Most of the power had been cut and they were using the hearth for warmth and light in the dark drafty building.

Lane felt the fire’s temperature begin to warm her. It got even better when Jacen returned with a blanket for her. “You’re gonna be okay. Reg’s getting the medic.”

She tried to talk but her teeth were chattering too badly.

Her team stayed with her until the captain arrived. The medic had just finished his examination, splinted her hand and wrapped her wounds, when Captain Walsh appeared. Walsh looked clean and rested, she’d obviously had time to pull herself together. Cap spoke to the medic before she came over to clap a hand on Jacen’s shoulder. “You did a good job achieving the objective and getting your sergeant back here. I got this. Go get some chow in the ballroom, all of you,” she ordered Lane’s squad.

Jacen reached to offer Lane his hand. His palm was warm and rough against hers. “You heal up and get your ass back down here, ma’am. We need you.”

Lane nodded, fighting the sudden watery sheen of her vision. She had a feeling she wasn’t going to see Jacen again.

Captain Walsh gave Lane a minute to pull herself together, then went on. “We’re going to take care of you, Lane. The next transport to the Vetra leaves at 2100, and you’ll be on it.”

“Yes, ma’am. This wasn’t supposed to go like this,” she said through gritted teeth. Her shattered hip was still screaming with pain, and she wondered if she was going to be able to walk again. Would they shut her down? “Captain, how…how bad is it? Did the medic say…” Lane couldn’t help her sudden irrational fear. They were taking her up to the Vetra, where it would be easier to get rid of her if she was of no more worth to the ACAS. The Vetra was Fleet Admiral Quillon’s flagship and the Admiral didn’t suffer weakness in anyone.

She wondered if the member of Aurora they’d found had made it? Probably not, she thought with a cold chill. Would she end up the same way, or would she be fit enough for duty again in one of the civil engineering reserve units? The ACAS cut dead weight loose, but it wasn’t wasteful. If an injured vat could still be of use, they would be transferred to a non-combat unit. She would have to hope for that.

Walsh knelt down to her cot. “Lane. You’re going to be fine. The medic said so.”

“Yes ma’am,” she said, not knowing what she could believe.

“Give them a couple of hours. I’ll come see you in the medbay when this is all over.”

She left Lane lying on the cot, watching the flames of the fire throw shadows on the walls.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

She awoke in one of the cargo areas of the Vetra. Fleet Admiral Quillon’s ship was enormous, and Lane knew there were many other cargo areas like this that must have been converted into field hospitals. She could feel the padding of bandages at her hip and realized they’d patched her up after all. She might be damaged goods, but apparently the ACAS had seen something worth saving.

She glanced up at the nutrient solution dripping into her vein. She didn’t feel any pain, just the fuzzy calm of pain meds. As she woke again, she looked at the patients on the medbeds around her and saw the large bronze-skinned man lying on a bed one row over and a few beds in front of her.

It made her grin as she laid back against the pillow. He was still alive. It seemed like a good sign. If he could make it, she would too.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

The next time she woke, she lifted her head to see the medic who had treated her on the surface. Her hip was howling with pain again.

“How are you feeling, Tyner?” he asked.

“Like I got run down by a transport,” she groaned. “Fuck.”

“Lemme see,” he tapped up her chart on a datapad. “They forgot your last round of pain meds.” He patted her shoulder gently. “They’ve been a bit overcome with all the wounded. I’ll get your medication and be right back.”

She nodded and sighed heavily as she fell back against her pillow. Her eyes traveled to the bedmate across the aisle and she saw the big man had been moved beside her. His head was on the pillow and his brown eyes were watching her.

“Hi,” she said softly. “How are you making it?” His face was no longer laid open down to the bone; a line of blue stitches, bright against the dark shade of his skin, traced a line up the side of his face. It had been a deep wound that wound glue wouldn’t work on.

His lips moved experimentally, but no words came out. He shook his head uselessly and made a dismissive gesture with his hand.

After a moment, she realized he couldn’t talk. “It’s okay,” she nodded, wincing with pain as she tried to adjust herself in bed to face him.

When he saw that, he reached out for her hand across the narrow aisle. She gave it. “Nice to meet you,” she said, with a gentle smile. He nodded at her, squeezing her hand, but letting it go when the medic returned.

“I see you’ve made a friend,” the medic said, readying a syringe to add to her IV.

“My unit found him on the planet. He’s…he’s the last surviving member of the First’s Aurora Company,” Lane said. “I think the insurgents tried to…pry out his interface,” she continued in a lower voice.

“Yeah. You don’t have to whisper. The damage ruined his hearing as well as his ability to speak. We’ve mostly been using signal code with him.”

“What?”

“He can’t speak or hear. We’re unsure as to how much of his mental capacity is left, but he seems to understand us. He certainly is a fighter,” the medic looked over his shoulder at the large man who was watching them quietly.

“It’s time for another nap, now,” he said as he injected the pain medicine into her IV. “It was a pretty involved surgery to rebuild your hip. Your enhanced healing will have you up soon, though.”

“What about him?” she asked, her gaze drifting to the sleepy eyes of the soldier beside her.

“Not as sure. He didn’t come in under my watch, but word is one of the Captains wanted him taken care of, like you. That’s why we have the two of you together. Just relax,” he said. Lane felt her eyelids growing heavy. “Heal up, Tyner. The ACAS can wait until you get better.”

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

When she opened her eyes again, she had no idea how long she’d been sleeping. It could have been a day or a week. Glancing over, she realized the member of Aurora was sitting up on his bed, watching her.

“Hi, handsome,” she said softly.

He didn’t answer but began to type on a data pad. Someone had obviously gotten it for him so that he could communicate better. It still took a long time. When he held it up it said, Can’t speak sorry.

She nodded slowly then made the sign for “Okay.”

He held up the pad. Name?

She said, “Lane Tyner.” She watched as his lips tried to make the words. She motioned for his data pad; she typed her name and gave it back to him. When he nodded, she pointed to him, raising an eyebrow.

He meticulously typed Orin Neen.

She nodded, then he went to typing again. It took him a long time to get the right words. He seemed to be making mistakes and fixing them. Finally, he held up the data pad again. You saved me?

She nodded again.

He placed a hand over his heart, which spoke more than any words could. She found her eyes suddenly full of tears, and she had to blink them away rapidly because vats didn’t cry. Without making any comment, he reached out for her hand again. They stayed that way, holding hands across the narrow aisle, for a long time.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

The next day Lane was up and walking. It was painful, but Orin was there every step of the way, supporting her on one side as she trailed her hand down the corridor on the other. When they returned, he eased her down on her bed, and sat across from her.

Lane wiped the sweat off her brow, as she watched him type on his datapad. Did good today, he typed.

“Thank you,” she mouthed. She’d found that he could tell what she was saying if it was a short phrase and she did it slowly. She held out her hand for the datapad, and he gave it to her. She searched the feeds, then found the information she was looking for. Motioning Orin over to her, she showed him what she had found. On the screen a woman was making a gesture in Haleian Sign Language.

His brown eyes met hers. He pointed at himself in an obvious question, Me?

She nodded, then moved her hand between the both of them. “Us,” she said softly. “We’ll learn together.”

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

A few months later, Lane and Orin found themselves on a transport headed to the planet Palan. Apparently, some monster hurricane had come along and flattened not only two of the most populous cities but also destroyed the bridges that linked major islands to the mainland. They were going to distribute aid and rebuild infrastructure that had been damaged during the planet’s volatile typhoon season.

Orin turned as soon as Lane entered the mostly empty barracks. She had tried to sneak up on him, but he turned as she crossed to his bunk and grinned. I knew it was you, he signed.

How? she signed back.

Right foot drags, he replied. Only a little, though.

She nodded. Her hip had completely healed, but she’d picked up a limp. Orin had been assigned to engineering as her assistant. She was the go-between, making communication possible for Orin and passing on orders to him. As far as she knew, Captain Walsh must have pulled some strings to get them stationed together. Lane knew they were lucky. How many hundreds of wounded vats from Stendal and other battlefronts had been simply discarded by the ACAS like so much damaged equipment?

She couldn’t think about that now. As she looked at Orin, she remembered the way he’d watched over her in the medbay while she healed up and began to walk again. Every time she’d thanked him for it, he brushed it off, signing you saved me. As if that explained it all. It seemed like her rescue had made a lasting impression on him.

Need us in engineering, she signed. This old tin can’s got coolant leaks they need to lock down. The reserves got all the older ships, some of which were not in great shape. She and Orin had spent more time repairing the ship than anything else.

You’re the boss, he signed, standing up to his full six-foot six height. She looked him over for a moment, from the twisted line of scar tracing up to the gentle brown eyes she was growing all too fond of. He smiled at her and signed, What?

She shrugged, unable to explain. It’s nothing. Come on, let’s go show these guys how it’s done.

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