Snared: Chapter Two

Chapter Two: Xander

Debris rained down us, littering the floor with obstacles.

“Where should we head?” shouted Quinn.

Another burst of explosions rattled the room, almost knocking us to the ground.

“Sounds like that’s as good of a place to start as any.” I tore towards the sound, knowing where it would lead.

The cells.

Swearing as we ran, we cornered into the narrow stairwell that led down to the prison level.

Somehow the still hidden members of the cadre had found a way to rescue their imprisoned comrades.

Another level down, and another explosion. Closer this time.

Somehow they’d gotten them weapons.

Someone had a lot of explaining to do.

By the time we hit the level above the prisons, Ronan had caught up with us.

“You’re both too old to be dashing off without weapons,” he growled. “Or a plan. Unless you’ve thought of something brilliant as you were leisurely strolling towards the intruders?”

Quinn and I met each other’s eyes and only barely managed not to shrug.  

I patted the long knife strapped to my side. “Kill them all?”

“Keep a couple of them alive, smartass.  I’m not worried about the rest,” Ronan bit out.

I nodded. If they just wanted to escape, just wanted to get away, rejoin Stanton or get on with their lives or do any one of 1000 other things, hey would have snuck away quietly, tried to steal one of the wrecked shuttles on the landing pad.

They made the choice to attack us. It was the wrong one.

Exiting the stairwell, I gave a cursory scan of the room. Nothing fancy, bare pillars breaking up a large room filled with machinery. One more thing we’d need to decipher in this madhouse. Figuring it out would have to wait for a bit, though. We had work to do.

“Take your positions.” Ronan tossed a small dark ball up the stairs. It stuck where it hit, embedded lights flashing.

“Mack and Geir will be pissed they missed the party,” Quinn said as we backed away.

“Not as pissed as they will be if we let those idiots near their mates,” Ronan shouted over the boom when the mini-mine blew. “Fan out.”

We spread out behind the machinery, far enough away from the door that it would be easy to cut the enemy off from their retreat.

Lure them in and ambush the bastards.

“Hey, don’t see you with a blaster, either,” I called over to where Ronan crouched.

He grinned, and I remembered how mad he’d been for a while, trapped on the Star, hunting the Hunters. “No fun that way, is it?”

They might have been idiots, but the enemy must have known we were waiting for them when they saw the blocked staircase.

In pairs they entered, blaster barrels sweeping the room before them with each step. Whoever had brought the weapons had also provided a fresh stack of the stupid black masks. Maybe that had been an effective way to terrorize the civilian population of the Compound, but none of the Pack gave a damn about their attempted creepshow. We’d seen real horrors, and they weren’t it.

We waited, counting the figures as they filed through the door and worked their way into the room.

Twenty-six, twenty-seven.

Twenty-eight.

No more followed.

Whoever had sprung them had decided not to stick around for the messy stuff.

Interesting.

They spread out through the room, attempting to keep us from flanking them. It wasn’t a bad plan, might’ve worked. Against other humans, sure. Hunters, maybe.

Us? Not so much.

“This is boring.” I stood up and tossed the chair that had been pushed back behind the machine I’d waited behind at a cluster of fighters in the middle of the room.

With a solid clang it struck two. From the angle of their necks as they sprawled to the floor, they weren’t going to be in Ronan’s group of survivors.

Whoopsie.

I ducked and rolled as the air filled with the stench of ozone and laser fire peppered the casing of the machine.

Maybe we should have figured out what all of this stuff did first. Ah well, too late now.

With the squad focused on me, Quinn had plenty of time to dance behind them, slitting their throats as he went.

Six down now.

The rest turned to take him down, giving me an opening.

Thirteen left. Almost halfway done.

They wised up, formed a ring with their backs together, slowly rotating as they tried to shuffle further into the room.

Black-masked faces jerked from side to side, jittery, uncertain they could trust their own reflexes.

Strange. They fought competently enough but with no real skill, no spark. And still, none of them made a sound, no whimpering, no pleading.

Ronan slipped behind the dwindling mass and headed down the stairs. It’d be nice to know there wasn’t a second wave waiting for us.

I vaulted over the console, tackling two of the enemy on the way down.

Packed so closely together the stink of sweat rolled off them. And something else, a scent I couldn’t place. Something wrong.

They had left themselves without any room to maneuver, would be as likely to hit one of their fellows as me.

Not my problem. A third down, a fourth.

“Ronan wants five,” Quinn reminded me as another crumpled.

Shit.

Only four were left standing.

“Check the ones on the floor,” I answered. “Maybe one of them’s salvageable.”

The four survivors tried to box me in, their movements so laughably slow I could wait until their fingers tightened on the triggers before sliding out of the blast’s way.

No edges now. Just sharp blows to the head until they crumpled where they stood.

“You’re out of luck,” Quinn called.

“You weren’t keeping any of them alive either,” I grumbled.

“Today’s your lucky day, kids.” Ronan emerged from the stairwell dragging a thin man in gray coveralls behind him. “Though I’d feel better about life if I knew either of you could at least count to five.”

“Fuck you,” I muttered. There wasn’t really any point in saying it under my breath. He’d hear me anyway. Ronan tossed the weasely looking man to Quinn while I bound the survivors. “Shut him up.”

A gentle thump to the side of the head had the new guy slumped over with the others.

Ronan tapped the comlink in his ear. “Gear. We’re clear down here. Got a new visitor though. Can Valrea come down and see if she recognizes him?”

Quinn looked around the blood-splattered room. “Think we should tidy things up before she gets here?”

While we waited for them to join us, I took a look at at the bodies. Twenty-eight had been in the cells. Twenty-eight in various conditions were here. I took off the masks, scrutinizing faces, comparing their features to my recollection of who had been in the rooms.

No one was missing.

No one was new.

Except for Ronan’s weasel. His face prodded a memory but wasn’t from the group we’d been guarding. Maybe Valrea would know.

We shouldn’t have worried about the state of the room. Valrea didn’t seem to notice, her attention fixed on the new guy.

“Matthis, you bastard!” she hissed. “I should have known.”

“Who is he?” Ronan asked.

“Where’s Tianna?” Valrea looked frantic. “She set a guard on him. We suspected he was the one that betrayed her to the General.”

She never said father. I didn’t blame her.

“She’s dead, just as dead as you’ll be, bitch,” the man hissed, suddenly lurching off the floor, a small needle gun in his grip. “All traitors must die!”

Valrea didn’t have time to do anything more than blink and take a step back before Geir towered in front of her, lobbing the needle gun away, then driving the man back to the ground with one sharp below.

He loomed, snarling over the attacker. I checked Matthis’ pulse and sighed.

“Think we’re down to four again, boss.”

“My own fault. Should’ve searched him better.” Ronan ran a hand through his dark curls. “You alright, Valrea?”

“I’m fine. Geir will be in a minute.” Valrea rubbed her hands across Geir’s back, waiting for him to withdraw from the killing edge.

Ronan turned to examine the four survivors. “You know what? I think you’re right, Xander.”

“That’s a first,” Quinn joked, but shut up at my snarl.

“I want Doc to take a look at the bodies, and the survivors.” Ronan ignored us both. “See what’s been done to them.”

“Who says they’re not just fanatics,” Quinn argued. “History’s full of people willing to die for a stupid idea.”

Ronan rocked back on his heels, thinking out loud. “I know. But there’s something not right about these guys. Not right about this whole setup. And nobody knows more about that sort of thing than Doc.”

***

Which was how I found myself on the bridge of the Seeker twelve hours later, catching up with Connor and Eris.

And Nixie. Void knows you could never forget about Nixie.

“Had they killed Valrea’s friend?” Eris asked as she and the perky AI finished laying the course in back to Orem Station.

“No, hell of a concussion, but nothing we can’t fix up.”

Connor pulled Eris into his lap, lacing his fingers over her slightly rounded belly. “How’s Ronan planning to sort out the rest of the fanatics?”

A kid. Still couldn’t wrap my head around that one. I tried not to stare, sure they’d notice, and “talk’ about it between themselves.

“No idea. One of the many problems that I’m glad to leave to Ronan. My job is just to deliver those idiots to Doc and let her figure out what’s making them tick.”

I pulled up the screen to monitor our heavily bound and medicated guests. “Ronan said she’s been helping Nadira with a patient. Hopefully, that’s wrapping up.”

Eris shot Connor a look, and I wondered what passed through their mental link. “I think she’s finished with that project, yes.”

I shrugged. “Wouldn’t matter. She may be interested in charity work, but this is the sort of project she lives for. Especially if she doesn’t feel like she needs to be careful with them.”

***

Even traveling through jumpspace, the trip back to Orem didn’t take more than a few hours.

Hakkon and Aeden met us at the shuttle berth as Conner was helping Eris down. “He has to feed me now,” Eris explained. “We’ll catch you later.” She and Connor disappeared into the bustle of the port, and I shook my head. Madness.

“We’ll take them to Doc,” Hakkon offered. “Xander, why don’t you get some sleep until Doc has a plan?”

“Nah, I’m good.” That was uncharacteristically thoughtful from one of my brothers.

Have my back in a fight? Of course.  General politeness? Not so much.

Besides, I’d been looking forward to seeing Doc again. Having her back with us was a minor miracle.

A slightly aggravating, deadly miracle, but I wasn’t arguing.

“You can show me where she’s set up her lab.” She’d only been on Orem a few days before the away team had left to investigate the Compound. None of us were interested in her going anywhere near that place again.

Aeden bundled Doc’s new subjects into a cart and glared at the zipped black bags left on the shuttle deck. “Really?”

“Ronan wants to be thorough.” I hoisted one of the corpses. “They’re pretty fresh, just put them in with the others.”

Not surprisingly, most people got out of our way quickly as we passed through the station’s levels up to where Doc had set up.

It wasn’t fear on most faces. We’d been around long enough now for people to recognize the Pack, know who we were, know we were trying to help Granny Z clean up the mess her grandson had made.

Anyone who was still afraid of us had a good reason to be.

But for now, we were just delivering a package.

At the last lift, Aeden paused. “Why don’t you and I get a bite to eat? After you left I found a great little noodle shop, nice and spicy.”

I stepped back, eyes narrowed. “What’s wrong with Doc?” I demanded. “What aren’t you telling me?”

“What? Doc’s fine!” Aeden argued. “I just thought – “

“No.” Aeden and I had never been close. No reason he’d be all chummy now unless something was going on. “I want to see Doc. Let’s make our delivery, then I’ll take some downtime.”

Hakkon rolled the cart into the lift, and I followed, Aeden muttering at the rear. “You’re a suspicious man, you know that?”

Not even worth answering.

We finished the rest of the trip in silence until we reached a long, grey building, that tickled a memory in the back of my head.  “Didn’t we do a job here for Granny?”

“Once the gang was disinvited from the station, seemed a pity to let all that space go to waste,” Hakkon answered as Aeden keyed in the door code. “Doc’s had a blast setting up a new lab with everything you guys have shipped back from the Compound.”

I helped push the cart filled with dead and living men into the open space and looked around. This wasn’t just the equipment we’d salvaged from the General’s experiment. Doc had obviously been very, very busy.

Soft laughter came from the back of the warren of half-walls and consoles, and I grinned. Doc might be the epitome of a mad scientist, but she was also the closest thing any of us had to a mother. I headed back, ready to be hugged, scolded or examined for upgrades.

I stopped cold at the sight of a curved hip, a long fall of auburn hair down the back of a woman leaning against one of the walls.  Someone from the station, someone helping Doc or Nadira. But for a moment I thought…

She turned and looked at me, hazel eyes laughing.

“Loree?” I whispered. I took a faltering step towards her, then grabbed a wall, desperate for something solid to hold onto,  knowing my dreams and nightmares had bled through to the waking world.

Nadira appeared in my peripheral vision, but I couldn’t see her, couldn’t pay attention to anyone other than Loree. Here. Standing in front of me. Alive.

But she backed away, brow furrowed. “I’m sorry. Have we met?”

 

***

Snared is a work in progress. I’d love to know what you think!

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