Staked: Chapter Sixteen

The escape pod was equipped to travel for up to three days. We had plenty of air, and there was even food for emergencies.

We weren’t three days from home––the ship we’d just fled from had plotted a slingshot course that would take between three and four hours to complete, starting and ending at two different docks on the Cilurnum 8 station.

Even though we had to travel a fraction of the distance it had, the pod wasn’t built to go fast. The estimate I’d seen when I was entering the trajectory data was about ninety minutes.

I hoped Kieran could make it that long. Digging around a tiny escape pod while trying to maintain pressure on a bullet wound was difficult at best.

It was worse when you’re wearing an elaborate party dress.

I moved slowly and tried to keep the pressure on the wound steady, glancing at Kieran’s face periodically to make sure I wasn’t causing him undue pain.

The first-aid kit was minimal and not really equipped to handle plasma pistol wounds, but it was better than nothing.

I found a pack of single-use sealants and read through the instructions. It mentioned that it shouldn’t be used for long periods on wounds where there was a chance for internal bleeding.

How the hell was I supposed to know that?

I had to believe that as soon as we were on board, Kieran’s people would know where to find a medical specialist.

I took out one of the packs and primed it before setting it aside and gingerly pulling away my makeshift compress. There was a pair of scissors in the first-aid kit, and I hurried to cut away the fabric around the wound. Then I sprayed the sealant in, filling the wound and adding some extra around the edges as a precaution.

He swore, and I jumped, realizing he’d woken up again. “That’s cold,” he said.

“Sorry,” I said automatically. “Evaporation for the foam. It’ll switch to insulating it soon.”

“Yeah, I know,” he said. “Not my first time using one of those things.” He winced. “I’m usually awake for it, though.”

“Are you hurt anywhere else?” I asked.

He shook his head. “How about you?”

“No, I’m fine,” I said.

“Good,” he said. “I’ve got someone back home who can patch me up, and the ship’s medic can get me that far.”

I backed up as he carefully pushed himself up into a sitting position, against the bottom of the seats. “Did you see the other pods? Did they get away all right?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m pretty sure they did.”

“Good.” He sighed. “Maybe that could’ve gone better, but I’m glad we got to help them.”

“Yeah,” I said. “So, how did things go on your end? Did you find out more about the shipment?”

“Some. They weren’t really telling anyone how it was getting onto the station, and I get the feeling Drayton was a bit suspicious of me anyway. Maybe Jahal said something to him…”

“And he recognized you?” I asked.

“I think he might have,” he said. He started to shrug and then froze, wincing. “It probably would’ve been better if he hadn’t, but it can’t be helped. I bet he was the one who tipped off Jahal that I was aboard. And I was trying so hard to avoid her, too.”

I could tell he was trying to keep things lighthearted, but it was hard. I fought to stop myself from shaking.

“You said his name was Drayton?” I said.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure it was,” Kieran said. “I don’t think he told me, come to think of it, but I’ve seen records of him around once or twice. Some sort of freelance lackey, seems like. Usually works on the customer-service end of things.”

“I think I recognized him, too.”

He paused. “What, really?”

“I could be wrong. But there was something about his voice…and the smell.”

“What about them?”

“When I was kidnapped, they kept my eyes covered.” I didn’t go into many more details. “But there was this smell a couple of times, whenever one of them got close. And his voice along with that…it’s too much of a coincidence.”

“He was one of your kidnappers,” Kieran said, voice carefully level.

“That’s why I started acting up,” I said quickly.

I’d been scared sure, but there was no point in dwelling on that now. “I thought that he might recognize my voice if I stayed around for too long. I don’t know if he saw my face, before.”

“Dark, Ani, I’m sorry,” he said, looking pained. “I didn’t know.”

I tried to shrug it off. “It’s probably for the best if it helped get those women out.”

“True enough.” He sighed. “But if he did recognize you…someone else is bound to report to him that I was there, at least. Jahal already thought you had ties to the Lady of Swords, and you were influencing me. They’re probably convinced we’re working against them now. I wonder if any of Sam’s agents have any contacts that can tell us if they change their plans…”

“Sorry,” I said.

“No, don’t be,” he said. “You helped me get Jahal out of the way…not to mention getting those other women out.”

I hadn’t done much, and I wasn’t sure contributing to someone’s death was much of a cause for celebration, but I didn’t say anything.

Maybe my doubt showed on my face, because a moment later, Kieran spoke again. “You did the right thing,” he said softly. “Not sure it’s what I would have done, if I’d been on my own.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. “I’m sure you would’ve––”

“No, Ani. I would have focused on the big picture, let the little things go in the meantime. Looked around for bad guys to mess with instead.” He sighed. “I’m not really a good person, so you know––just in case you were having any trouble figuring that out. Dad…did things to my head. Not to mention that I was his kid to start with.”

My throat felt tight. “Is now really the best time for this sort of talk?” I said cautiously.

He chuckled dryly. “Might be my last chance. If you have any sense of self-preservation at all, you’ll be running as soon as the pod touches down. I’m pretty sure Pietra wouldn’t have let you anywhere near the ship either, if she’d known things would end up like this.”

“I almost did run,” I admitted. “Especially near the beginning, when I thought you were on Jahal’s side. But I wanted to know what had happened. It didn’t make sense. And now…” I shrugged. “I honor my debts.”

He went silent for a long moment. “There’s something you should know,” he said. “Just in case you decide to do the sane thing and run off when we touch down or something else comes up. I’d hate to mess everything up because I forgot to tell you.”

I stared at him, confused. “What?”

Kieran looked away. “I paid it, Ani.”

I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about. “What?”

“The Star. I already paid off your debt.” He looked over, apologetic. “I waited until the last minute, put in a couple of bids––hopefully it’ll take a little while for the notifications to reach whoever takes over Jahal’s affairs. But as far as any outside arbitration is concerned, you paid within a perfectly reasonable time frame, especially considering the damage the Star took in the meantime.”

“I…” I didn’t know what to say.

I had thought the deal was off after what had happened to the Star. After everything that had happened between us, after his own betrayal, I never would have guessed…

“I know this has been a disaster for you, from start to finish,” he said. “I’m not completely sure there’ll be anything else I’ll be able to do at this point, either. So at the very least, I want you to be able to rebuild, after everything. I wanted to do everything I could to help get you there.”

“Thank you,” I said softly. “Kieran, I didn’t think you would do that for me.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Kieran said. “I just didn’t want to end up with regrets after we go our separate ways.” He shut his eyes. “But honestly, as nice as you are to have around, I wish this ride would just be over already. Not the most glorious exit, and I’d like to move on to the medical attention.”

I silently watched him.

Behind the bravado, he looked…sad, determined, and surprisingly honest. I’d trusted him once, before he left for years and years without so much as saying goodbye.

Everything had changed since then, but still, I could remember how it had felt. I couldn’t help wishing that I could feel that again, instead of dread of whatever would be coming next for him. 

“We’ll get there soon,” I promised. “And we’ll see where things go from there.”

He smiled faintly. “That sounds just like you,” he said. “You stuck it out with a kid who was trouble, and whose family was worse, and you’ve been helping the Lady of Swords for years without even knowing anything. You’re not going to give up easy, are you? Even if you have to play nice with someone you…well.” He snuck a glance at me. “You’re determined, is what I’m trying to say here.”

“I’m sure.” Old feelings or not, stuck drifting slowly to harbor on an escape pod after narrowly avoiding death was not the best time or place for him to start fishing for where we stood.

He knew that I was grateful for his help with the Star, and that I wanted to keep helping him out if I could––the rest could wait for when I had time to take a few deep breaths and clear my head, without chaos getting in my way.

Maybe, once that happened, my heart could be tricked into giving me a straight answer.

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