Starflare – Shore Leave (Rest of the Story)

This is the rest of the story. Click here for the beginning

“You got free though,” she said, voice soft.  “How did that happen?”

Doug grunted.

“Not easily,” he said.  “She’d sent me out on one of the nastier jobs.  She wanted someone punished.  He’d crossed her in some way, or crossed someone she was linked to, so I was sent out to grab him and deal out a beating.  A bad one.  She wanted bones broken, but didn’t want him killed.”

He lifted his eyes, staring intently at Charlie.

“You have to understand, it wasn’t me,” he said.  “I was no angel but the things she had me doing… I’d never have dreamt of doing them before I met her.”

He seemed to shrink in on himself.

“Some of them still haunt me.  The beating would have been bad, but I did worse while under her influence.  Things didn’t quite go the way she planned, though.  I caught up with the target on a dark side-street, but he wasn’t alone.  He had two heavies with him.

“I should have run a mile at that point, but I simply disregarded them.  I marched up to the target and started to lay into him.  I even got in seven or eight punches before his guards overcame their surprise and leapt on me.

“They didn’t mess around.  One held me, the other smashed me over the head with something heavy and that was me done.  Next thing I knew I was waking up and it was dawn.

“I was quite surprised to be alive, and unharmed other than their attempt to split my head open.  I was seeing slightly double and had a pounding headache but I’d got off surprisingly lightly.

“I managed to get to my feet on the third or fourth try, and to stay on them on the fifth.  Then I staggered back to Thera.  I didn’t once think of doing anything else, all I could think about was how disappointed she’d be in me.

“Once I reached her home I wasn’t disappointed.  She lay into me, calling me stupid, useless and a few dozen other things.  I could feel the scorn rolling off of her even without her words.

“And that’s the thing.  I could feel how she felt about me, and for the first time it felt wrong.  My head was still pounding, my eyes wouldn’t focus and she was making me feel worse by the moment.  I started to wonder what I was doing there.  When she started shouting at me I’d had enough.  I told her to shut the hell up.

“If I’d been feeling better her expression would have been hilarious.  She looked like a cute baby had just tried to bite her hand off.

“Then her eyes narrowed and she told me to apologise.  I felt it then.  Whatever she’d been doing to me, she turned it into overdrive.  I felt it pushing and pulling at my mind, but it couldn’t get a hold.  If anything it just increased the distance I felt from her.

“That was when I realised she was a witch, and I started to understand that I’d been under her spell.  She kept pushing with her power, kept telling me to apologise.  Eventually I just shook my head and told her no.”

Doug went to take a drink from his glass but found it was empty.  Joe pushed his own drink over.  Doug nodded his thanks and took a big swig.

“You should have seen her face.  Anger doesn’t come close.  She looked like she was going to have a fit.  For a moment I found it quite funny.

“Then she grabbed the knife.  It was just a normal kitchen knife, but four inches of metal with a sharp edge and a point is dangerous no matter what it’s normally used for.

“She leapt at me, screaming obscenities yet still trying to force her way into my mind.  I wasn’t exactly at my best.  I managed to throw my arm up and block the first blow, but she cut my left arm.  I’ve still got the scar.

“You said you got that in a knife fight!” said Charlie.

Doug smirked.  “I did, but only one of us had a knife.”  His face clouded over.  “To start with it was her.  I grabbed her wrist and we ended up wrestling around the room.  She was stronger than she looked, and I was sure as hell weaker than normal.  That was a bad combination.

“I guess I was holding back too.  I still had a lot of strong feelings for her, feelings that she’d forced on me but they were still there.  I didn’t really believe she was going to kill me.

“Not until she missed tearing my jugular out with the knife by a finger’s width.  That’s when the adrenaline kicked in.  I got a tighter hold on the knife and forced her hand down, trying to make her drop it.  She fought back.  We fell, her on top of me.

“I’d lost hold of the knife so I shoved her off, expecting to feel it strike me at any time.  She flopped onto the floor and lay there as I scrambled away.  That’s when I noticed the blood.  That’s when I noticed the knife stuck into her chest.  That’s when I realised she wasn’t breathing.  That’s when I realised she was out of my head, finally.”

“You must have been covered in blood,” said Charlie.  “What did you do?”

“I shoved myself back against a cupboard and just sat there, staring at Thera as her blood continued to flow across the floor.  I felt woozy and sick from where I’d been knocked out, and I was trying to piece together what I’d spent the past few months doing.

“I guess eventually I’d have realised how much trouble I was in.  I’d stabbed someone, killed them, and done it in a home I’d been living in for several months.  Even if I somehow slipped away I’d be a hunted man for the rest of my life.

“I didn’t get that far before there was an almighty explosion and the front door… well, it disintegrated.  Next thing I know the house is full of people in serious black combat armour carrying assault rifles and shotguns.

“I’ll be honest, by that point I was starting to think I’d completely lost my grip on reality.  I wondered if Thera and all these people were just symptoms of me having a breakdown.

“Then he walked in.  The man from the night before.  He had a fat lip and a black eye which I guess had come from me.  His eyes were cold as they took in the situation, and he radiated power despite the wounds.  This man was someone that shouldn’t be messed with, and I’d gone and done just that.

“He walked over to me and crouched down, staring into my eyes.  Then he did the last thing I’d expected.  He laughed.  I’m not talking some nasty laugh, or even a crazy one, this was honest laughter.

“‘I figured you’d lead us to the witch,’ he said.  ‘But I never thought you’d do our work for us too.  You were completely under her spell last night.  What changed?’

“I grunted, then nodded at the people he’d bought.

‘One of your friends tried to crack my head open.  Seems like it let some sense back in.  I should thank whoever it was, I guess.’

“‘Fascinating,’ he replied.  ‘Definitely something to explore.  That’s for later, though.  Right now we need to get this mess cleaned up and dispose of the body.  And we need to deal with you.’

“I should say his words chilled me, I suppose, but they didn’t.  My head still felt like someone was driving nails into it, and I was getting more and more flashbacks from the previous few months.  At that moment I didn’t really care what happened to me, as long as the pain stopped.

“Which it did.  One of the heavies stepped in and jammed a needle into my arm.  Next moment everything drifted away.  I have to say, I much preferred their second method of getting me unconscious to when they hit me on the head.

“I didn’t have time to worry, but a part of me didn’t expect to ever wake up again and the rest expected that I’d wake up in a pretty bad situation.  Whoever this guy was he was not someone to mess with, and I’d had a good go at smashing his face in.

“I did wake again, obviously, but not where I expected.  I woke in a private hospital room, hooked up to a dozen machines but feeling much better than I had before.  A nurse soon came and checked on me, and that’s when I got my next surprise.  I asked where I was and she told me.  Turned out I was half the planet away from where I’d been living before.

“I asked how I got there and she just shrugged, saying my care was all paid for but that they had no other information.  Except one thing.  A letter — sealed and addressed to me.  She gave it to me and left the room, shutting the door behind her.

“The letter was brief and unsigned.  It gave thanks for resolving their problem, and said that some very important people had been suffering from the same condition as me.

“It also pointed out that I’d made a lot of enemies while suffering, and that returning to the city would be a very bad idea as most wouldn’t be as understanding as the letter’s writer.

“It suggested getting off the planet, and even gave the name of a ship’s captain who had an opening for a trainee merc pilot who would be happy to take me on.  Like I said, the guy I landed the punches on was very well connected.”

“You took them up on their offer?” Charlie asked.

“Yeah.  Too damn right.  My brains might have been scrambled for months before but I was thinking pretty damn straight by then.  I knew I’d gotten damn lucky, and I remembered some of what I’d done under Thera’s influence.  Getting off planet seemed like a damn good idea — partly for my safety, but mostly to get as far from those memories as I could.”

Joe let out a whistle.  It was one hell of a story.  If he hadn’t seen how Doug reacted to Sasha, and how reluctant Doug had been to talk, then he would probably have written it off as a tall tale.  He knew Doug too well to doubt the story, though.  He knew what Doug looked like in full on drunken bravado mode, and it was nothing like this.

“Did you ever hear anything more about it?” he asked.

“Nah, Captain.  I got well away from there.  Spent three months learning the ropes then transferred to another ship that was heading further away.  Never looked back.  Oh.  Wait.  There was one thing.  Another letter, a couple of lines really, which the captain handed me just after we jumped away from the planet.  It just thanked me for helping to deal with the Pusher.  I guess they meant Thera.”

“She wasn’t a Pusher,” mumbled Sasha, her head still on her arms.

Doug jumped like he’d been stung, then opened his mouth.  Joe jumped in first.

“I thought you were unconscious,” he said.

“No.  It’s just that the room doesn’t spin so badly down here.  I was listening.  She wasn’t a Pusher.  She was a Ripper.”

“A Ripper?”

Sasha pushed herself more upright with a grunt, then sat swaying in her seat.  Her face had a definite green tinge.  She stared at Doug, rather than Joe, and started to speak.

“Pushers are pretty rare.  I’ve only ever met one, and he was working for the local security force.  Well, I say working but he was halfway to being their prisoner.  There were always at least three of them around him.”

“Couldn’t he just have influenced them, though?” asked Doc.

“No.  Pushers can only influence one person at a time, and only if that person is nearby.  As soon as they stop using their power the effect crumbles.  If he’d tried it on one of the guards then the other two would have jumped in immediately.”

“Why wasn’t he just locked up, though?” asked Joe.

“He was too useful.  They used him to get people to tell the truth.  If they thought someone was a terrorist, had committed a crime or in some other way was hiding something important then he’d be called in.  He’d do his stuff, get the truth out of them then they’d be on their way.”

“Nothing like Doug’s wit… uh… Doug’s Thera, then.”

“No.  And Yes.  As far as I know the two powers are similar, but Rippers are so much worse than Pushers.  You heard what Doug said, she had him completely under her control, and from the sound of the note he received he was far from the only one.”

“How many people could a Ripper control?” asked Doc.

“I don’t know.  Pushers are rare.  Rippers are exceptionally rare.  Most of what I know about them is hearsay and myth.  I’ve heard tales of one Ripper controlling twenty or thirty people.  A couple talk about over a hundred, but I think they’re probably exaggerations.”

“Still,” Doc said.  “Even if it’s only twenty people, think how much power you could have if you controlled the right twenty people in a city.  You’d be almost beyond touching.”

“And anyone can succumb?” asked Joe.

“Almost anyone.  I’ve heard that Pushers have a limited resistance.  They can hold out for a while, try to get away, but it depends on the strength of both people.  Given enough time they’ll crumble.”

“Can it be shielded against?” asked Doc.

“I don’t know.  I told you, most of what I’ve heard is rumour.  Rippers are rare and most of them don’t advertise.  The rumours say most of them are unbalanced, either withdrawing into themselves or getting drunk on their power.  Doug definitely met the second sort.”

“Fascinating.  And Doug’s head injury broke the effect somehow.”

“I’m glad you find it so interesting,” Doug growled, glaring at Doc.

“Well it is!  Tell me…”

Sasha suddenly lurched to her feet, her face a lot greener now.

“I’ve got to… I’ve…”

She turned and staggered towards the toilets.  The group chuckled at her abrupt departure, lessening the tension.  All except Doug.  Joe noticed his eyes followed Sasha all the way, and remained fixed on the door she’d disappeared through.

“Doug,” Joe said, voice soft.  “What you went through was awful, and I can see why you’d be uncomfortable around anyone with that power.  Are you worried that Sasha’s doing the same to you?”

Doug shook his head sharply.

“No,” he said.  “I’d know if she was.  I might be quite happy about it, unable to resist, but I’d know.  Would you know, though?”

“From what you’ve told me, yes — I’d definitely know.”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean you’d be able to tell anyone.  Trust me.  I know.”

“Doug,” Charlie said.  “The captain hasn’t been acting any stranger than usual since Sasha came aboard.  We know she has a talent for locating objects in space.  I’ve never heard of anyone having more than one power.  Have you?”

“No, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.  I’m telling you, we should let her go.  We can pay her off and be on our way.”

“You do remember that she saved every one of our lives, don’t you?” asked Doc.  “Without her we’d all be dead in deep space by now.”

Doug shifted awkwardly, but kept his eyes riveted on the door Sasha had disappeared through.

“Yeah,” he said.  “But we wouldn’t have found that damn ship and got into that position without her.”

Joe sighed.

“Doug… from what you’ve told us I can understand why you’d be worried about her, but I really don’t think she has those powers.  You’re a damn important part of this crew but I think she could be too.  She can do something none of us can, and she’s already proven how vital that could be.

“On top of that she’s got guts.  When she threw herself out the cargo hold there was a damn good chance she’d die, but she still did it, and saved us all in the process.  Dumping her off here would be kind of ungrateful, don’t you think?”

Doug sat silently, not answering.  Joe fought back another sigh.  He was far too drunk for this, and the warm fuzzy feeling from the alcohol was fast turning into the hammering of a hangover.

“Doug,” Joe said.  “Sasha is…”

“Trouble!” hissed Doug, forcing himself upright.

“No!  She’s…”

“She’s in trouble!  Three men just grabbed her as she came out from the toilets!”

Doug was already clear of the table before he’d finished speaking, leaving the others sitting in a stunned silence.  Alcohol slowed their reactions.  By the time they’d all jumped up Doug was already in a shoving match with seven or eight burly dockers, with more rushing over.

Joe and Blaze were the first to move, breaking into a run.  Joe heard the others stumbling to follow.  None of them had anything like a clear head.

“Captain,” Blaze shouted as they dodged around tables and other drinkers.  “You know they outnumber us at least three-to-one?”

“Yeah.  You scared?”

“Sod off!  I’m just saying if we treat this as a brawl we’re gonna get thumped.  I’m going in heavy.”

Joe considered for a moment, half dodging around another drinker and half shoving the man out the way.  Blaze was right, but going in heavy brought its own complications.  Blaze headed up Joe’s troopers.  If he went in heavy then there’d be broken bones and potentially worse.  If not…

“Dammit!” Joe shouted.  Then he turned his head so those behind could hear when he shouted.  “We’re going in heavy!”

“All right!” shouted Janine.

“Yes!” shouted Sparks.

“Guess I’ll be busy,” muttered Doc.

Joe smiled slightly.  Janine was the ship’s pilot, but like him she was ex-navy.  They both had more than enough close combat training to be dangerous.  Sparks was one of Blazes’ troopers and so more than ready for the fight.

Charlie was less inclined to get into fights, but she could look after herself.  Doc was happy to get involved in a brawl but tended to stay out of anything heavier when he could.  He’d explained why to Joe once, when very drunk.  He dedicated his life to putting people back together.  Breaking them, seriously hurting them, went against everything he believed in.

Looking ahead, Doug was in trouble.  He’d floored three of the dockers already, but now the rest had grabbed him.  One unleashed a massive punch into Doug’s stomach, then drew his arm back to deliver a pile-driver to Doug’s face.  Before he could complete the movement Blaze was there, flowing into position, snapping the docker’s elbow in a way it was never meant to move, then spinning onto the next victim.

Joe barrelled into two of the men holding Doug, breaking one’s nose and ramming his knee up between the legs of the other.  Then the rest of his crew mates arrived and everything devolved into chaos.

* * *

“Shit!” Joe cursed as he failed to take a corner cleanly and knocked his arm.  He was pretty certain the shoulder was going to have massive bruising but there wasn’t time to sort it.  For the moment adrenaline was keeping him going.

Doug ran beside him, Sasha thrown over his shoulder with her head down his back.  She’d been in no fit state to run, but being carried upside down had proven to be too much.  She’d been sick down the back of Doug’s trousers at least twice, but he hadn’t complained at all.

The rest of the group were running behind.  Doc had been dragged away from the scene of the fight by Blaze, all the time insisting that he had to stay and help those who were worst hurt.

Blaze had too much sense to allow it.  The authorities wouldn’t care about the fight, most probably, but other dockers would.  If a group of them caught up with Joe and his crew then the fight would be a lot more vicious.  The dockers would know what they faced and would come armed and in numbers.

Joe and his crew were nearly to safety, though.  They rounded a corner and entered the hangar bay.  To his relief the huge area was almost empty.  The Panther was a couple of minutes away but it was highly unlikely they’d be caught now.

If someone used a vehicle it might be possible, but some of Joe’s crew were still on board and at least three of the Troopers were now geared up in their combat armour.  They’d be more than enough to see off anything short of a tank, though Joe would catch hell from the authorities if that sort of fight broke out.

Still, he started to relax, and finally had his chance to question Doug.

“So,” he said.  “Considering how much you want rid of Sasha, what was that all about?”

Doug glanced over but wouldn’t meet Joe’s gaze.  He turned his face downwards again and shrugged as well as he could with Sasha over his shoulder.

“I want her gone, Captain.  You know that.  But damn it, I couldn’t let anything happen to her.  She’s… well…”

“She’s one of the crew?”

“Yeah.”  Now Doug looked over, meeting Joe’s gaze.  “I might not like her, I might not want her on board, but right now she’s one of the crew, and that means no one touches her.”

Joe nodded and Doug turned his gaze away again.  Joe fought to keep the smile off his face.  He’d been worrying about Doug and Sasha, worrying that maybe one or the other would have to leave the ship… and not knowing who he’d tell to go if forced to choose.  Now he could relax.  Doug might never like having her aboard, but he saw her as part of the crew and that made her part of a very special group.

Shouts from behind made him turn.  Dozens of dockers were flooding into the bay, many of them riding on the flat bed trucks used to move goods around.  They weren’t fast, but they moved faster than a human could.

All thoughts of Doug and Sasha vanished as he let out a whoop and put on a turn of speed, yelling at the others to do the same.  It was race now, a race to reach the Panther before the dockers caught up.

If they made it then the dockers would back off, none of them would risk losing their job by damaging a ship.  If not… well, then Doc would have all the work his heart desired once the three troopers in combat armour left the Panther and got involved.  Joe shook his head.  Why did shore leave always end this way?

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