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Staked: Chapter Fifteen

The waiting stretched my shredded nerves to the breaking point.

On the one hand, I had plenty of time to talk with the women who wanted to talk and to convince all of them to come with me. They weren’t as empty-headed as I’d worried they were at first.

They knew what was happening, and I managed to convince most of them to come with me.

The ones who were reluctant would be dragged out by the ones who were more willing. I felt a little bad about forcing them, but didn’t really have time to worry about it. 

Over the commlink, Pietra and Sadra were only able to help me so much. They helped me work out a simple plan, wished me luck, and signed off, saying that I couldn’t afford to be distracted.

So I listened to the murmuring behind me as I listened, just out of range of where the door would swing, waiting for a sign of someone coming.

Eventually, I heard loud, measured footsteps and the click of a lock disengaging. I took a deep breath and raised the loop of thick string held between my hands…

And saw Kieran’s face peer carefully into the room. I moved into his line of sight, and he grimaced.

“Darkness, Ani, did Pietra give you that?” he hissed. “Put it away. I’m alone.”

“We need to get them out of here,” I said quickly. “Do you know if there are any more women?”

“No, I think they kept it to a small group. This is just to show anyone who’s interested a good time.” He looked disgusted.

“Pietra said that a ship of this size should have escape pods that can reach the station,” I said.

“You’re right,” he said. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

“Absolutely.”

“Okay. Then we don’t have any time to waste.” He raised an arm, beckoning, and led us out of the room and down into the lowest bowels of the ship, where the escape pods waited.

“How’d you get away from the creep?” I asked as we walked, keeping an ear out for anyone else in the room.

“By promising him more than I could afford,” he said, frustrated. “I think I managed to convince him that I wanted to come back for…let’s say, selfish reasons. I promised him a deal on part of his shipment that’s a steal on his end––or would be, if the credits actually existed. Hopefully the credit transfer take a little while to go through.”

“Sounds like a pretty good plan,” I said.

“It’s a time bomb,” he said. “But it’s got a longer fuse than our current project one does. As soon as anyone goes to check on those women, they’ll be coming after us. There’s only so many places we could hide.”

When we arrived at the row of escape pods at the bottom center of the ship, Kieran took a look at them and groaned. “They aren’t even all here,” he said. “Either they’re negligent on their safety measures or they had other plans for these.”

He got them open quickly enough, though, switching on his commlink as he did. “Pietra––oh, sorry, Sardra. You know the plan, right? Good, I want you to give me landing coordinates for these docks.”

While he spoke with Sardra, I helped women into the escape pods. They weren’t meant for more than three people normally, but judging by Kieran’s gestures, four would be fine for the short ride back to the station.

He leaned in and set the coordinates for the first one, giving basic instructions to the women inside and left me to lock it as he moved on to the second and the third. Inside, I saw one of the women push something on the touchscreen, and then the pod was being pulled away, door to the airlock shutting behind it.

He snapped his commlink shut and looked over at me. “Hurry,” he said. “Now that we’ve ejected the first pod, it’s going to be obvious what we’re doing.”

I shut the second and third pod doors in a blur, and was running over to join Kieran in the fourth when I heard heavy footfalls coming towards us.

Kieran swore and gestured to the door of the escape pod. “Get in there. Whatever happens, stay behind me.”

I climbed in up to my waist, then stood on the ladder of the pod, head poking out just far enough to see Jahal rush into the room, gun drawn.

Kieran’s gun was out already, both arms holding it straight out in front of him.

“Never figured you for a bleeding heart, Matthias,” she said, stepping slowly into the room.

“Your mistake,” Kieran said. His back was turned to me, but I could hear the grin in his voice, through the strain. “I’ve always been a sucker for the ladies.”

“So I see.” She looked over his shoulder at me, and suddenly she looked livid. “Is that Chang with you?”

So much for my disguise, I thought.

Or maybe Jahal really did just hate me that much.

“She was curious,” Kieran said simply. “Wanted to know more about the business you blew up her bar to get. And I owed her, so I brought her along. You of all people should know she’s harmless.”

“Except for the other whores she convinced you to steal along with her,” Jahal growled.

“She made a compelling argument.”

“What is she to you?” Jahal snapped. “All this back-and-forth…you’ve done decent for yourself so far, kid, but ever since little miss Chang came into the picture you’ve become a liability.”

“Just trying to play to my strengths,” Kieran said. His smile had a sharp edge. “Playing both sides is how I get by. I’ve always been a charmer.”

“And you’re twice the fool if you think that charm will work on me.” She pulled the safety off the gun in a deliberately slow motion. “I don’t keep weasels as my associates.”

“All right, so I’ve always had a soft spot for her,” Kieran said, tilting his head in a shrug. “And I wanted to keep her close. So what? I’ve kept her out of your hair, haven’t I? Even went and collected her before she could become evidence of what you’ve been up to. I think I’ve been a pretty conscientious partner here. What’s a few kidnapped girls between friends? I’ll pay you back later.”

Jahal snarled, hand clenched into fists. “If I’d wanted her looked after, you think I’d be playing this like I am? She should be dead in a gutter by now, maybe hidden so that her little friends can stay busy looking for what’s left of her. These kinds of profits, this kind of ploy…subtlety isn’t exactly something we can afford.”

“Oh, that explains it,” Kieran said. “And here I thought you were just stupid.”

“Yeah, okay, we’re done here,” Jahal growled. Her gun arm rose…but it wasn’t pointed at Kieran anymore.

Before I realized what was happening, Kieran darted for the escape pod, pushing my head down. A blast rang out, the sound loud and echoing in the enclosed metal space.

I dove for the inside of the pod, pulling Kieran in after me, Pietra’s advice echoed in my ears along with the blasts––If guns get drawn, get out of the way!––but if Jahal got close enough for shoot into the escape pod, there would be nowhere to run.

“Pad,” Kieran said. “Launch us!” That was all he had time for. Shots rang out over my head as I worked the controls for an emergency launch, right now.

Above my head, I heard the sounds of a scuffle starting. Shots rang out uncomfortably close, and I cowered away into the furthest corner on instinct.

Then Kieran was pulling the pod door shut, swearing as Jahal’s fingers appeared in the closing gap.

“I’ve got this,” Kieran yelled as I stared. “Launch!”

Debris detected, the screen told me when I punched it. Door seal compromised. Continue launch?

I realized what Kieran was trying to do, and hit Yes.

Kieran was still wrestling Jahal over the door. I hurried over to help as the pod was pulled into the airlock.

Jahal looked beyond reason. “You get back out here,” she shrieked as the warning chime sounded for the airlock door. “Get back out here and let me kill you, and I might even let the little bitch go, you bastard––”

“Just die already,” Kieran gritted out, and then none of us could breathe.

I reached over, half-blind from the shock of depressurization, and reached out with the tiny spry can––but the air pressure must have done something, because it practically exploded in Jahal’s face.

All of us flinched away from the explosion, but while our flinching pulled us into the pod, Jahal’s pulled her away…

And Kieran was able to wrench the pod door shut before falling to the escape pod floor.

It was all I could do to avoid landing on top of him. I ended up sprawled across the seats instead. “Tell me there’s more air,” I rasped.

“Coming in now,” he answered. Then he swore. “I need you to enter some coordinates.”

I pulled over the screen and entered the coordinates he gave me.

The destination was unfamiliar – not the dock we’d sent the other pods to, not even on the station. “Where is this?” I asked, shaking a bit. This was not the time for more surprises.

“Dock for my ship, low orbit on the station,” Kieran gasped. “There’ll be people there that can help.” He coughed––a long, painful sound––and then groaned. “Okay, get over here and help me apply pressure.”

“W––” I heard him wrong. I had to have heard wrong. “Kieran, what…?”

“She got me, is what,” he said. “Side. Shut up and help, I can’t push down on this on my own.”

Wordlessly, I knelt beside him, pulled off one of my skirt’s under-layers, bundled it up, and pushed it against the spot where he pointed.

He let out a sharp grunt, but didn’t move, gritting his teeth against the pain.

“Are we going to get there?” I asked.

“Should be enough air in the pod’s supply to get us to my ship,” he said. “There’s a skeleton crew on hand, they’ll take care of things, get us home.”

“Okay,” I whispered. I didn’t dare take a hand away to take out my own commlink, so I decided to take his word for it.

My ears were ringing in the silence after the launch––the faint hiss of the pod pressurizing and the hum of the tiny engine were nothing compared to the sound of plasma blasts.

“It’ll be okay, Ani,” he whispered. “I promise.”

Then his eyes slid shut, and I was alone in the escape pod hurtling through the dark.


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