Part 1 is here. Thanks for your likes and kind words! :)
“That’s some stray followed you home, eh Up?”
“Pretty little thing, I’d say, once she’s cleaned up. A real muñeca.”
Chortles followed him down the hallway, but Up didn’t look back. He’d deal with those idiots later. He knocked on the Commander’s door, still not sure exactly how or why he’d gotten himself into this situation.
The Commander was seated at her desk, looking solemnly at a glass of scotch.
“Lieutenant,” she said. “At ease.” Indicating for him to take a seat, she reached to pour a second glass of scotch. “Bad scene down there. Lost some good men today.”
“Yes, sir,” Up said. They’d been his men. Not the first he’d lost, and not the last he would.
“Another Lieutenant without a team. I guess that means I’ll be returning you to the Academy for reassignment,” the Commander sighed. “I’ll be sorry to see you go, Up. You’ve been a good leader to those Rangers.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“And as such an exemplary soldier, I am sure you are well aware that Starships armed for battle are not in the habit of taking refugees on board on a whim?”
Up had taken a sip of the scotch, and coughed. “Yes, sir, I am aware of that.”
“So please, enlighten me, Lieutenant. What in the galaxy caused you to bring that young lady on board my ship?”
Because she damned well wouldn’t let me do otherwise was what he wanted to say, but that wasn’t quite right. “There was nowhere else for her to go, sir. Her entire village was destroyed. There are still robots on the ground, and no bunkers for miles.” He saw the girl again, swinging defiantly from that tree branch amidst the smouldering ruins of her life. “She would have died.”
The Commander didn’t respond, but raised an eyebrow and Up knew exactly what she was thinking – why should that matter to him? He’d just lost seven good men and women and had laughed at death a thousand times over. Who cared about some Mexican girl who could scream like a banshee in the face of certain death? He set the glass down on the desk, a little harder than he’d meant to.
“Permission to speak freely, sir.”
The Commander waved her hand.
“What’s the harm in it? We’ll be back at the Academy within a couple of weeks and I can’t see her being much trouble. Clearly she don’t eat much.”
“And what shall we do with her when we get to the Academy?”
“The refugee centre will set her up with something, give her a roof over her head at least. There’s nothing for her here, and we’re halfway to the next station anyway. We can’t just kick her off the ship now.”
The Commander looked unimpressed. “As was surely your plan, Lieutenant.” She sighed. “I guess that’s settled, then. You’d better go collect her from the infirmary.”
Up stood, then paused. “What – why? Shouldn’t she stay there?”
“The medics tell me she’s not seriously hurt. The beds there are full of our own men, and we’ve just established that you’re down a few bunkmates, aren’t you? You brought the girl on board, Lieutenant. She’s your responsibility until we get to the Academy.” She stood up, too, and gestured at the door. “Congratulations, Up. You get to keep your pet after all.”
He saluted, and walked out of her office. Snide bitch, he thought. Reassignment was fine with him.
The girl was sitting, legs curled up around her, in one of the infirmary’s white plastic chairs while medics bustled back and forth between Rangers suffering varying degrees of injury. She’d been cleaned up and her wounds tended to, and someone had scrounged up an old ensign’s uniform for her to wear. She looked lost, out of place.
“Hey there, uh-”
She looked up, and relief flooded her face. “Taz,” she said.
“Taz, yes, Taz.” Up scratched his neck uncomfortably. “Well, I reckon they’re full up in here. Commander says you’re to come with me.”
“Come with you?” She sounded surprised.
“Ya see, Taz, I kinda – I kinda goofed up bringing you on board the ship. Not supposed to happen that way, strictly speaking, but the Commander’s agreed to let you stay until we get to the Academy in a few weeks’ time. Thing is, you’ve got to stay with me.”
She raised her eyebrows at him. “So I am your punishment?”
He didn’t know what to say. Finally he shrugged. “Looks that way.”
She nearly smiled, and stood, holding her side gingerly. He looked at her, quivering in her too-big clothes. Her cheek was still swollen but her skin was clean now, and he could see her better than he could before. She looked so young.
“Okay, then, compañero. Lead the way.”
Taz slept in a dead Ranger’s bed, wearing a dead Ranger’s clothes, and was fighting the robots all over again in her dreams. Flashes of fire and shiny white blasts. That terrible mechanical laughter. Being lifted like a child’s juguete into the air, powerless against the inhuman strength of her attackers. She screamed and screamed again, knowing her voice alone wasn’t enough but wishing it was…
“Taz, Taz! Wake up!”
She sat up, her last scream still on her lips, to find Lieutenant Up’s face inches from hers and the front of his shirt twisted in her hands. He looked surprised, and concerned. She released him.
“Sorry,” she said, pushing herself as far away from him as the tiny bunk allowed, and wincing as the wound in her side protested. Up was kneeling next to her, bleary-eyed and wearing the same grey G.L.E.E. issued pyjamas that she was.
“Are you – are you going to be all right?” the Ranger asked, somewhat awkwardly, in that Southern drawl of his. Taz supposed that he probably didn’t spend a lot of time around fifteen-year-old girls, or any girls for that matter. She found herself wondering how old the Lieutenant was. There was just a hint of silver in the blond hair around his temples.
Was she going to be all right? Good question. She heard her mama’s voice, “I’m proud of you, hijita mia.” Her eyes burned. Dios mio, was she going to cry? In front of him?
“I’ll be fine,” she said, turning her face away from him. Lieutenant Up didn’t move. She could feel his eyes watching her, worrying. A scared little girl, she scoffed at herself. That’s all he thinks of me. Before she could stop herself, she turned back to him.
“What’s going to happen to me when we get back to the Academy?”
“Well,” Up said, settling back on his haunches. “It’s in the Capital, so we can take you to the refugee centre there. You’ll have a place to sleep, food to eat. They might even set you up with a trade, if you like.” He was trying really hard to make it sound appealing, she could tell.
“A refugee camp?” she echoed, trying to imagine it. She pictured rows of sleeping bags in a school gym, crying babies and old people wetting their beds. What she wouldn’t give for Mexico again, for her mama and her pimply cousins and even that stupid quinceañera dress. Jesucristo, she was going to cry. She blinked rapidly.
Up looked like he wanted to say something reassuring, but changed his mind. “Yeah, I wouldn’t like the idea much, either,” he said quietly. “I’m sorry I got you into this mess.”
“No,” she said. He should never be sorry. “You saved my life.”
Up didn’t say anything, so she turned her back to him again. “Go back to bed. I’m sorry I woke you.”
He paused a moment, as if deciding whether or not he was okay with taking orders from a pint-sized girl like Taz. “All right,” he said, and returned to his bunk.
Over her shoulder, she watched him go. He didn’t look so fearsome now, pyjamas hiding most of his bulk as he stumbled his way through the dark, but she’d seen him take down half a dozen robots with nothing but a gun and his bare hands, and then shrug it off like he did it every day. Maybe he did.
Who was this Starship Ranger anyway?
Read Chapter 3 here.
Thanks for reading! Coming up in Part 3 - Up goes on the defensive, and Taz proves just how valuable she can be to have around for a Starship mission.
Your thoughts? :)