Her breath came in short, ragged gasps, the noises of fear she was making drowned out by the sounds of explosions and gunfire.
She didn’t know what was happening, or why, all she knew was if she hid, if she stayed safe, maybe he would come find her, come save her.
He had to.
The explosions fell nearer, and she huddled, hiding under the flimsy debris of a broken home.
She’d been afraid, she’d run, why had she run? Now she couldn’t find him.
He would find her, right?
The explosions crept nearer.
Log stood in the wreckage of his Freelancer, hating himself. The shot-out right engine flared and sputtered, the crackling of the fire drowned out by distant explosions. The acrid fumes that poured out of the engine wafted into the ‘lancer’s hold, assaulting his senses, making it hard to breathe, even harder to think. It didn’t help the pounding in his head either.
‘Fuck!’ he swore, wanting to punch the wall, but not wanting the bruised and broken knuckles he knew from experience would come with the act. He’d screwed up, again, and he needed to find someone to punch.
He still didn’t know what was happening. He and Carol had been hauling cargo, they’d just dropped it off on a random backwater planet, and then just as they were taking off again…
There’d been almost no time between the pings from his computer telling him there was a missile lock, and the missile hitting, tearing apart the right side of his ship as he struggled to keep her from cratering the planet below. The missile had come from close, had to have, to lock and hit so quickly.
One engine gone, he’d landed safely, somehow, but in the crash he must have hit his head.
When he came to, Carol was gone.
He didn’t know where she’d gone, or how to find her, but…
‘Carol is my life,’ he said to himself, picking a Devastator off the weapon rack and slinging it over his shoulder, a clip of slugs and a clip of explosive rounds going into the belt around his waist. The weight felt right, it always did. There was something special, visceral, about the shotgun. The heft of it.
‘I love her,’ he continued, grabbing and holstering his Arclight II pistol, putting two more clips into the belt. Light, easy to wield, with just enough stopping power, the Arclight was a good backup; as good as any.
‘And I will find her.’ he finished, slinging an ammo belt for his ATT around his shoulders, picking up the gun, and looking out the Freelancer’s rear. The ATT felt strange in his hands, it always did, but he couldn’t argue with its abilities. The thing spat death like teeth knocked from a boxers mouth; blood, bone, and pain were its main results, and Log couldn’t argue with them, regardless of how the gun felt in his hands.
The rear door of the ‘Lancer was gone, torn apart in the crash-landing, and a long furrow of broken and charred earth showed the path of the crash. They’d come down hard, the furrow was long and deep. But they were alive. He was alive.
Carol had better be alive.
He stepped out of the cargo hold, feet sinking slightly in the churned earth, the smell of burnt grass and loam invading, mixing with the black smoke issuing from the now flaming engine.
He looked back at his Freelancer, once. She’d been good to him. The Otter, he’d called her, but now…
He’d have to find another way off-world.
Tracks, clearly evident in the freshly turned earth, caught his eye when he turned away from the ship. In seconds, he had a direction for Carol, at least for now. The impressions were there, visible in the dirt. But once they hit grass…
Log would have to guess at where she’d gone.
The rumbling of explosions continued in the distance, and as Log set out at a jog, he pushed down any curiosity about what the hell was happening on the planet. Carol was all that mattered.
He’d find her.
Five minutes of jogging, and Log hadn’t seen a single trace of Carol, not since he left the radius of dirt that had been dug up in the crash. He had to move forward, hope that she’d run straight from the crash, straight along her original course.
He’d entered a small copse of forest shortly after leaving the Freelancer, trees obscuring the sky, muffling the distant sounds of explosions. But he could still feel them, underfoot. They were close, whatever they were.
The copse thinned, and he stepped out onto a small hill, climbing quickly. A higher vantage point, maybe he’d be able to spot her.
Reaching the top of the hill, he looked out over a small town. Maybe a hundred, a hundred and fifty, homes. Maybe.
It was hard to judge. Lots of the homes seemed destroyed, some still smoking, fires slowly going out. There was smoke in the sky, a column matching the one he’d left behind, and while the trees had hidden it before, he could see it now. He could smell it.
He looked out over the village, looked out over the rubble, and he knew.
With his luck, she’d be down there somewhere. In trouble, hiding, hopefully not hurt.
‘Carol!’ he yelled, hoping. If she could hear him, she’d let him know.
Log dropped to the ground as laser-fire tore into the hill under him, sending hot showers of burnt earth flying, filling the air with the scent of ozone. Rolling back to the safe side of the hill, Log stared at the sky, heart pounding, finger on the trigger of his ATT.
Someone down in the village had opened fire on him.
‘Carol… you better be down there,’ he said, cursing his idiocy. He took a breath, closed his eyes.
Hold for seven seconds.
It didn’t help slow his heart much, but… The time it took to breathe gave him time to think.
Rolling to his knees, he started to move. Get a bit lower, under the hill, where he couldn’t be seen from village. Then up to a crouch, and a quick sprint to his left, still crouched. He had to move, had to get away from where whoever was shooting had seen him.
Thirty seconds later he took a hard left, ran over the hill, and sprinted, head darting in every direction looking for threats, towards the village. Someone opened fire, again, but the angle was off. They’d been focused on where he had been. Laser fire rippled past, tearing furrows in the grass off to his right, and then the angle was off, he was covered by the houses of the town.
The poured concrete wall of the first house he crouched up against felt like safety. Cold, hard safety.
He’d still heard no voices, but the constant distant explosions could be covering them.
A few seconds of rest, and a few more seconds of concentrated breathing, and Log shouldered the ATT rifle, swinging its worn strap over his shoulder, and pulled the Devastator off his other side, switching over to the shotgun. The close quarters of the village; hard right angles, hiding spots every few feet, he couldn’t afford to miss.
He crept to the edge of the wall of the house he was leaning against, standing and aiming with the shotgun through each window he passed, making sure each house was empty. Reaching the corner, he checked each direction of the street. Each one clear. no movement, no sign of anything.
‘Carol!’ he shouted, listening for a few seconds before sprinting across the road, heading further into the village.
Yelling her name would bring attention to him, but… he had to find her. And this was the only way he would.
‘Carol!’ he shouted again, dashing further into the town, trying to listen for her, for anything, over the distant sounds of explosions.
The kid in front of him was young, maybe eighteen? Nineteen?
The shotgun recoiled hard against Log’s shoulder as he fired two, three, four quick rounds, straight into the chest of the shocked youth standing in front of him. The kid had raised his rifle, finger on trigger. Log had no choice.
The slugs, dense, high-velocity rounds, tore through the trooper’s chest plate, and the soldier slid painfully to his knees, already starting to choke on the blood bubbling up through his throat, out through his nose and mouth.
The shots were too loud.
‘Carol!’ he yelled, useless against the ringing in his ears from the gunfire. He had to move again.
He didn’t know if the kid was the one that had shot at him, or if there were more people around, or even other soldiers, UEE ones maybe. But someone had shot at him. That meant, until he knew better, everyone in the area was an enemy. Except Carol.
‘Carol!’ he yelled again, leaning against another house, trying to listen for her between the explosions that still shook in the ever-approaching distance.
He’d searched a third of the village, the more intact third. From the glances he’d taken, beyond the next homes, rubble was prevalent. smoldering homes, collapsed ones, they were everywhere. It was a rabbit warren. His search would be slower, the danger higher…
He shrugged, turning the corner. He’d find her, anyway. Didn’t matter where she was, he’d find her.
Log dashed quickly to the first fallen building, started picking his way over it, keeping an eye out for movement. Mountain of rubble to mountain of rubble, he inched his way through the village, taking a wandering, weaving path, listening for any sign of Carol.
And then, off to his left, a sound. Crackling, intermittent, but audible. Not Carol, but…
Log dashed over anyway, moving his feet quickly to avoid tripping, gun up and at the ready.
Near the edge of the town, in one of the slightly more intact homes, he found the radio. Old tech, but harder to jam.
‘Ed, Ed, come in Ed!’ the Radio was saying as Log crouched through the door, ducking a large wooden beam that had fallen across it.
‘Ed, you have to get out of Vess, Ed, Get out, get to the forest, and hide!’
Vess must be the town he was in. Log reached the radio; it was a two-way. He picked up the receiver, ready to ask for some answers.
‘Ed, the UEE’s coming… The Tali’s are coming. Please son, you have to hear them, get out, get out and run.’ the voice on the other end said.
Facts clicked in Logs head.
He’d run a shipment here, no idea what they were, but they must have been weapons. The UEE would have figured he was smuggling them in on purpose, tried to take him out. Hence the missile, and his lost Freelancer.
There was a rebellion, starting or ending, he didn’t know. But he’d blundered into the middle of it, and he’d brought Carol with him.
There’d only been on person in the village; the voice on the radio had only said Ed… the area was clear.
But Tali’s were coming. They’d bomb the hell out of the village.
And he hadn’t found Carol yet.
‘Carol!’ he yelled, dropping the receiver and jumping over the beam in the door, sprinting out into the village, running from house to house, yelling over and over.
The gunshot took him by surprise.
One shot. Log looked down at his chest, watched as the blood started to pool out, just right of center.
Log slumped against a piece of broken concrete from a nearby house, left hand going to the wound as he looked around. There.
A boy. Ten, twelve maybe. Log raised his gun, and the boy dropped his, and ran.
Good, Log thought as the heavy Devastator slipped out of his hands. He was losing energy already.
‘Carol!’ he tried to yell, barely managing between clenched teeth. The blood was welling up beneath his fingers too fast. If he could get a compress… if he’d brought one.
He thought back to the Freelancer, the medic kit he’d left in it.
He unslung the ATT from his shoulder, and the ammo belts. He was dying, but he could still find her.
‘Carol!’ he yelled, adrenaline helping him stand up straight.
And then he heard it. Off to his right, a whimper. He stumbled over, fell to his knees beside a small building. The roof had collapsed, but one edge was just being held up.
And hiding under it…
‘Carol’ Log sighed as she crawled her way out to him, whimpering, her eyes both afraid and ashamed.
‘You great dumb dog you,’ Log tried to laugh, but couldn’t. He coughed, and he could taste the metallic tang of blood coming up through his throat.
Carol moved her way to him, and he put a hand on her head, petting her as she sniffed at the wound on his chest.
‘I’m sorry Carol,’ he said, laying back, legs spread out in front of him.
He couldn’t hear explosions anymore. Whatever the Retaliators had been bombing, they were done.
If they voice on the radio had been right…
They’d be headed here next. Towards Vess, towards him.
‘I’m so sorry Carol,’ Log said as he pulled out his Arclight, the light pistol a brick in his hands.
He pointed the gun at her, and she whined, shaking and backing away.
‘I’m sorry Carol’ Log said, one last time.
And then he fired.
Log watched as Carol ran off into the distance. She was afraid, she’d run, hide.
She’d be safe from the bombs, the bombs that were going to fall.
Log cried, thinking of how he’d screwed up, how he’d lost his best friend.
Log cried, thinking about how he was about to die.
But at least she’d be safe.
At least Carol would be safe.
Without Carol, Log closed his eyes. In the distance, the bombs stopped.
Whatever the Retaliators had been hitting, whatever they’d been unleashing hell upon, they were done. They’d be off to rearm, and then…
He wasn’t sure which would get him first, the blood loss or the bombs, but either one would take an agonizingly long time.
Time to think. Time to think of his life, of the mistakes he’d made, the people he’d hurt, and been hurt by.
Time to think of Carol.
Images of Carol as a puppy flashed through his mind. The usual puppy love thoughts; Carol, curled up between his feet as he piloted his ‘lancer towards a jump point. Carol, barking and jumping into his lap, almost throwing him off his path, when he entered said jump point.
Carol, squeezing her way into his pistol holster, getting her tiny head stuck, scrambling to get out.
Carol, bounding over burnt wreckage, medical kit clenched tight between her jaws.
Carol, snoring, legs splayed, belly to the ai-
That last one.
Log blinked, lifted his head, tried to shake off the dizziness, as Carol skidded to a stop next to him, dropping medkit and barking.
Log looked at the kit. Inside, there were steroids, stimulants, stabilizers, everything he’d need to get himself patched up and out of the way.
Log started to cry as he looked at Carol, sitting on her haunches, waiting.
‘I love you,’ she seemed to say as she barked, licking the tears from his face.
Log had to laugh as he opened the medkit and injected himself with stabilizers, the steroid concoction starting to flow through his veins immediately.
Maybe he wasn’t so unlucky afterall.