Terri woke first. She had been dreaming of her island home and it took her a few moments to realize where she was and why. A soft sigh coming from the captain reminded her that she was draped comfortably over the other woman and she smiled. She knew she should move and let Tarp sleep in peace but for some reason she just couldn’t make herself break the connection. As she debated with herself, she felt the captain stirring beneath her.
“Ugh,” Tarp grunted, feeling how stiff her body was from lying on the hard floor of the processor’s cab. When Terri began to roll off of her, she instinctively reached out to hold her place.
“I should move,” Terri protested, barely struggling against the Tarp’s hold.
“I like you where you are,” Tarp said, tightening her grasp on the sergeant. “How did you sleep?”
“Very well, considering,” Terri shifted so she could look at Tarp. “What about you?”
“Like a baby,” the captain smirked. “You seem to have an interesting effect on me.”
“Mm, mm. For some reason, having you in my arms seems to relax me,” Tarp grinned. “I think we should make a habit of sleeping like this.”
“Oh, you do.”
“Yes. What do you think?”
“I think,” Terri smiled, “I would like that very much.”
The women, not in any hurry to change position, spent the next several minutes enjoying the feel of their bodies pressed together. Each considering the direction their relationship seemed to be going and deciding there was not much reason to do anything to stop it.
“We should get up,” Tarp finally murmured as she gazed into Terri’s eyes.
“We should,” Terri agreed but stayed where she was.
“Terri, we really should get up.”
“Alright.” Reluctantly, Terri rolled onto her back.
“Watch out for the robots,” Tarp reminded. “We don’t want to set off any alarms.” She pushed herself into a sitting position and got her bearings before standing. “Give me your good arm,” she reached down to help the struggling sergeant.
“Never realized how much I use both arms,” Terri muttered as she allowed Tarp to pull her upright.
“How is the shoulder?”
“Seems to be a little better,” Terri gingerly rotated the injured joint. “Doesn’t ache as much.”
“Good. Wish we had some salve to put on it.”
“What now?” Terri asked, wanting to change the subject away from her injury.
Tarp smiled at the sergeant understanding the reason for her question. “Let’s try to figure out how long we slept. Then I guess we don’t have much choice but to wait for sunset.”
Terri had walked to the far end of the cab where a small window was located. Looking through the dirty glass, she commented, “doesn’t look that far to the foothills from here. We might be able to make it without being seen if we keep the processor between us and the camp.”
Tarp stepped to where their pack was resting, bending down to lift it. “Maybe,” she carried the pack to the center of the small cab where they had the most open space, “but a passing cruiser would pick us up on their scanners.”
Terri twisted her head to be able to look at the sky through the tiny opening, “looks to be about mid-day. It’s going to get hot in here this afternoon,” she said as she turned away from the window.
“I’m trying not to think about that,” Tarp settled on the floor with the pack in her lap. “Let’s get some food inside us before it gets too hot to eat.”
“Do you think we could use any of this to contact a Confederacy camp?” Terri was carefully easing her body between two robots to study the panels of buttons, switches and unlit lights.
“Maybe but I’m afraid to try.”
“I don’t know enough about their communication systems. I think we probably have a better chance of alerting the Alliance to our location than contacting one of our bases.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Terri carefully stepped away from the robots to join Tarp. “It’s better we don’t chance it.”
“Can I help?” Tarp asked as the sergeant began to sit.
“No, I can do this,” Terri easily settled beside the captain. “It’s getting up I have problems with.”
“Well then, I’ll just have to make sure I’m around to help you,” Tarp handed some cheese and dried meat to Terri.
“Thank you.” Terri took a bite of cheese and slowly chewed as she thought.
“You look awfully serious,” Tarp said when she saw the look of concentration on the sergeant’s features.
“I was just thinking about what you said back in camp.”
“How much of a difference it would make if we could free all the prisoners.”
“It would be huge.”
Taking another bite of cheese, Terri remained silent.
“What are you thinking?”
“What if they were other prison camps?”
Tarp looked at Terri questioningly, “are there?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Terri, please tell me what you’re thinking,” Tarp pleaded, frustrated with the other woman’s hesitation.
“The guards wanted us to believe that we were in the only one. But I’ve always wondered why they would have named it Beta II if there were no others.”
“Do you really think there might be other prison camps?” Tarp was excited by the possibility of even more soldiers to be returned to the fighting.
“I once heard talk about others. The pump on the shower hut stopped working. When they came to fix it the workers spoke of having the same problem at the other camps.”
“What did they say? Did they say where the other camps were?”
“The guards made them quit talking before they could say much. But I think there may be a camp to the north, over the mountains, and one somewhere near the sea.”
“Doesn’t narrow it down much.”
“It’s okay,” Tarp reached over, placing a reassuring hand on the sergeant’s leg. “Terri, if those camps exist and they hold as many prisoners as Beta II, the Alliance would never be able to counter an attack of all the tasars we would be able to put into the air. No wonder the Alliance keeps their locations so secret, they must realize how disastrous it would be to have them liberated.”
“Can we do that?” Terri asked, hopefully.
“We’re sure going to try,” Tarp smiled. “Let’s finish eating then look and see if we can find anything in here we want to take with us. Once this tin can starts to heat up, we aren’t going to want to do anything.”
“Okay,” Terri nodded as she popped her last bite of cheese into her mouth.
Even before the sun had disappeared behind the mountains, the women were climbing down the ladder to escape the stifling heat inside the processor. Once on the ground, Tarp readjusted the pack she carried while Terri pushed the button to re-track the ladder and hide any evidence that the processor had been entered.
“Come on,” Tarp started walking away before the ladder was halfway up the processor’s side.
Terri hurried after the captain.
Although the air was still quite warm, it was so much cooler than what the women had endured inside the processor that they were unaffected by evening’s heat. They quickly fell into a pace faster than a walk but slower than a run as they hurried across what remained of the valley floor between the processor and the foothills, and the welcoming forest covering them.
Terri felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise in warning. She quickly looked for hiding place and spotted a deep rut not two paces in front of them. Grabbing Tarp, she pushed the captain to the ground in the bottom of the depression then flattened her body beside her. “Lay still and as flat as you can,” Terri hissed as Tarp looked at her for an explanation. “Cruiser.”
An Alliance cruiser speeding across the valley several clicks from the women’s location suddenly stopped.
“I don’t see anything,” an Alliance soldier stared at the sensor display.
“There was something there,” another soldier pointed at the display. “I’m sure of it.”
“I don’t think so. There were two blips and tigers always travel alone.”
“So where’d they go?”
“Don’t know. Let me intensify the probe and re-scan,” the second soldier entered a series of commands and both men studied the display.
“I know what I saw.”
“Okay, you saw two blips. They aren’t there anymore and it’s almost full dark. You want to stay here arguing about this or can we get back to camp? If it was a couple of tigers, I don’t want to be out here alone trying to fight them off.”
“Tigers travel alone,” the other solder repeated, unwilling to give up so easily. “I think we should go check Beta II. See if any prisoners are missing.”
“Are you crazy?” the first soldier laughed. “You think a couple of prisoners managed to get through the vaporizing field?”
“Field could have malfunctioned,” the second solder groused, his eyes still trained on the display before him. “It’s happened before.”
“That’s why they’ve got alarms on them now. You saw a couple of shadow blips,” the first soldier turned away from the display and returned to his own panel of controls. With a flick of a few switches, the cruiser was again moving rapidly across the valley floor.
“Something is out there,” the second soldier grumbled.
“And I have no intention of sticking around and finding out what it is. You can make out a report when we get back to camp and they’ll send out a search party tomorrow. If you’re lucky, you might even get to go along.”
The second soldier shivered at the possibility. Being on a search party meant being sent out on foot patrol for days at a time. The prospect of meeting a tiger in the dark wasn’t something he relished. “If I’m lucky,” he muttered, “they’ll send you.”
“Are they gone?” Tarp whispered when Terri began to push up from the ground.
“Yes, they left several minutes ago. I wanted them to get out of range before we move.”
“How do you know that?” Tarp sat upright, brushing dirt off her face and uniform.
“I heard the cruiser engine,” Terri said as she started to stand.
“I didn’t hear anything,” Tarp jumped to her feet then reached down to help the sergeant. “You must have some pair of ears on you.”
“It is one of Mo-Tah’s blessings,” Terri explained.
“Remind me to thank her when we get a chance. Right now, let’s get to those trees before any more cruisers come by. At least in there, they’re probes won’t be of much use.”
“Right behind you.”
Even with the rough terrain, the women broke into a trot anxious to be off the valley floor.
The forest covering the foothills offered a welcome change of landscape for the women. Instead of the barren valley floor, they found themselves surrounded by lush vegetation. Tall evergreen trees stretched up high above them, their canopies unseen in the night’s growing darkness. Thick grasses and fields of wildflowers carpeted the ground, softening their steps. And the air changed from dry to moist making it easier to breathe and was filled with the sounds of life. Night birds warbled and small animals could be heard scurrying about in the thick underbrush.
“It’s dark in here,” Terri murmured nervously as she brushed against an unseen obstacle.
“Too dark for us to keep walking,” Tarp stopped, laughing when the sergeant walked into her back.
“You could have said you were stopping,” Terri grumbled.
“Thought you’d hear me with your radar ears.”
“I think we better just sit for a while until our eyes get used to the dark,” Tarp shrugged off the pack and set it on the ground. “I’d hope we’d get more light from the moons.”
“Wrong time of the cycle to depend on that,” Terri tilted her head upward in a fruitless attempt to see the solar bodies. “They’re pretty low in the sky right now to cast much light.”
“Here, sit,” Tarp yanked on the sergeant’s pant leg from where she was already sitting. “Let’s hope there aren’t any tigers on the prowl tonight.”
“Why do you fear them?” Terri asked as she settled beside the captain.
“Why?” Tarp asked, puzzled.
“Well, three reasons,” Tarp decided to humor the Islander by responding with what to her was an obvious answer. “For one, they’re big. For two, they’re deadly. And for three, they can eat me. And you, for that matter.”
“Have you ever seen one?”
“Yet you still fear them. Why?” Terri leaned back against a tree.
“When we first came to Organi,” Tarp began to explain, scooting back so she could also rest against the tree, her shoulder touching the sergeant’s. “We needed to replenish our food supplies before our crops began to grow. The hunters we sent out to find what they could, returned with stories of tigers attacking them and taking the meat they had been carrying back to our village. Each hunting group we sent out was a little larger than the last.”
“Have you ever seen a tiger?”
“Once,” Terri remembered thinking how majestic the animal had seemed. “One came near the prison camp one day, a female I think. She was large, almost as long as I am tall without measuring her tail. And beautiful,” the sergeant visualized the sight as she continued. “Her body was shiny as if she had spent hours brushing the hairs of her coat. And her powerful muscles rippled underneath it, her movements smooth as glass.”
“She approached the vaporizing field. We tried to warn her against coming closer, some even threw rocks at her but they were destroyed before they could reach her. Sadly, I think the noise only served to attract her.”
“She died,” Tarp softly asked when Terri stopped speaking.
“Yes,” Terri reached up to wipe away a tear falling down her cheek. “She was so beautiful. I prayed to Mo-Tah to protect her.”
“I’m sure she did,” Tarp wrapped her arm around Terri, pulling her close. “Let’s just hope we don’t meet one up close and personal.”
“Do you think that is why our adventurers never returned to the Islands?” Terri asked, laying her hand on Tarp’s leg. “We did not know of the tigers?”
“Perhaps,” Tarp placed her hand on top of Terri’s, entwining their fingers. She knew the sergeant was speaking of the Islanders that generations before had set out to explore the Mainland but had never returned. “But there are always dangers when you explore someplace new.”
“Yes,” the sergeant nodded, “to face what is unknown is a challenge we all face.” Her words seemed to convey a different meaning than the subject at hand.
“It’s easier if you have someone to face those challenges with,” Tarp answered as if she too was thinking of another possibility.
“When this is over, I will return home. To the Islands and my people.”
Tarp felt her heart drop at the prospect she might eventually lose what was beginning to grow between herself and the Islander.
“I’d like you to come with me,” Terri whispered, almost afraid to voice the words.
“I’d like that,” Tarp smiled in the darkness, her heart beating rapidly in her chest.
“Watch your step here,” Tarp warned Terri.
The women had continued their journey as soon as their eyes adjusted to the darkness of the forest. Cautiously, they picked a path through the trees until eventually crossing a faint, dirt track. The faint trail appeared to travel in the direction they needed to go, towards the top of the mountain range surrounding the valley, and they decided to follow it.
The narrow path forced them to place one booted foot directly in front of the other as they climbed steadily upward. It was slow going as they picked their way over the fist size rocks that littered the ground, catching their boot toes on their sharp edges. As the path took them further from the valley floor, the rocks turned into stones and then small boulders they had to step over and around. Both women were panting heavily from the exertion.
“Midge,” Terri gasped, bending at the waist. “I need to rest.”
Tarp stopped, glad for the excuse to catch her own breath. “Okay,” she gasped, pulling the canteen free and handing it to the sergeant. “We’ll stop at the first good spot,” she studied the trail in front of them, disappointed to see no favorable camping spots. The trail they stood on was bordered by thick underbrush affording no possibility of stepping off the narrow route.
After taking a drink, Terri passed the canteen back to the captain, “let’s hope we find something soon. My legs feel like I’m dragging a few of those boulders behind me.” She stretched out her exhausted legs and felt the muscles protest the effort. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt so tired,” she groaned as she tried to work a cramp out of the back of her thigh.
“Guess neither of us is used to climbing mountains,” Tarp grunted, returning the canteen to its place on the pack.
“We have few of them on the Islands,” Terri blew out a long breath, happy to feel the cramp start to ease.
“We had lots of mountains on Retha but I never thought of climbing one. Now I’m glad I never did. Shall we keep going?” she asked, not wanting to move forward until the sergeant was ready.
“Yes,” Terri hoped that walking would prevent any more cramps from forming.
The women continued struggling uphill for almost a full click, then the trail widened and leveled and they were grateful for the easier travel it allowed. As they walked, they started to hear water tumbling over rocks and listened as the sound grew louder.
“Think we’ll find some place close to that,” Terri asked.
“Hope so,” Tarp cocked her head, frowning. She was trying to pinpoint the location of the water but the sound was bouncing off the numerous trees making it impossible to discover the direction it was coming from. “Canteen is almost empty,” she muttered.
The trail dipped unexpectedly and they found themselves at the edge of a small creek.
“Whoa,” Terri cried out in surprise as she came to an abrupt stop to keep from striding into the water. “Wasn’t expecting that.”
Tarp wrapped an arm around the tittering woman and held her tight. “I think we found our stopping place. Look,” she pointed across the creek to a small clearing under the branches of several evergreens. The ground beneath the trees was somewhat level and covered in a thick layer of pine needles.
“What are we waiting for?” Terri smiled at Tarp who was already looking for a dry way across the creek.
“Follow me,” Tarp took a couple of step along the creek bank before stepping out onto a stone in the middle of the rushing water. A moment later, she stood on the opposite side of the creek, her arm outstretched to aid Terri’s crossing.
Terri stepped onto the rock then took Tarp’s hand, “thanks.”
Tarp kept hold of the sergeant’s hand as the women turned to explore their campsite. Choosing the flattest piece of ground, Tarp shrugged off the pack and knelt beside it. Pulling out their only blanket, she spread it out on the ground.
“We’ll have to take turns sleeping tonight,’ Tarp said as she helped Terri remove a few pebbles and broken tree limbs from underneath the blanket. “I’ll take the first watch,” she immediately offered. Even in the darkness, she could see the weariness on the sergeant’s face and the tired slump of her shoulders. “I’ll wake you in three hours.”
“Two,” Terri said as she smoothed the blanket back down after clearing the ground beneath it. She appreciated the captain’s offer but knew that three hours was more than half the time to daybreak.
“Two,” Tarp readily agreed. It would be useless to argue with the sergeant and she didn’t have the energy to even try. She settled on a large boulder near the creek where she planned to sit while the other woman slept. She placed the jagged piece of metal that served as their only weapon beside her on the stone.
Terri lay on the blanket and rolled onto her side, keeping her injured shoulder off the ground. “What are you doing?” she asked when she saw Tarp sitting so far away.
“Do you have to do it over there?”
“Seemed like the best spot,” Tarp said looking around. She could keep watch on the sleeping sergeant and had a clear view of anyone who might come down the trail on the opposite side of the creek.
“Come over here.”
Without question, Tarp pushed off the boulder. Grabbing the makeshift dagger she walked to the blanket.
“Can you keep watch from here?”
Tarp twisted her neck, looking over her shoulder at the boulder she had just left. From the campsite, she had an equally good view of the creek and trail beyond. “I suppose,” she shrugged as she turned back to the sergeant.
“Good,” Terri grinned. “You sit here,” she patted the blanket beside her. “That tree will provide you a nice backrest and I will get to sleep on my pillow.”
Tarp chuckled as she followed the sergeant’s orders. “Don’t think my legs will offer you the same comfort.”
Terri snuggled up against the captain and draped her arm over her legs. “You’re right,” she mumbled, “we better figure out a better way...”
As the sergeant’s voice trailed off before she could finish her thought, Tarp knew she was asleep. “Sleep well, Terri,” she said, reaching down to flip the unused portion of blanket over the sleeping woman.
Tarp woke to the wonderful feeling of fingers slipping through her hair. “You’re supposed to be on watch, soldier,” she grumbled playfully, rolling over onto her back and stretching out her tired muscles.
“I’m keeping watch,” Terri smiled down at the captain. “I’m very capable of keeping watch and playing with you hair all at the same time.”
“So I see,” Tarp sat up, smiling at the sergeant. “Hear anything?”
“Not sure. Everything is so new to me, I can’t tell if it’s a sound I should be concerned about or just the normal activity of the forest animals.”
“Yeah,” Tarp grinned, sheepishly. “Kinda had that problem myself.” Looking around their campsite in the early morning light, she smiled, “it’s pretty here, isn’t it.”
After walking most of the night on the narrow overgrown trail bordered by the thick forest, the openness of their campsite was a pleasant sight. They had slept beneath the protective branches of half a dozen huge evergreens, the trunks that looked so dark at night were beginning to turn bright red in the morning sunlight. The nearby creek gurgled as its clear water flowed over the rocky creek bed and Tarp was surprised to see the sides of the creek were covered in wildflowers. Birds were beginning to wake and the early morning stillness was soon filled with their songs.
“Yes,” Terri’s eyes followed the captain’s. “Very.”
“Terri,” Tarp turned to look at the sergeant, her face serious with concern. “We have to stop the Alliance. We can’t let them destroy this.”
“We won’t, Midge,” the Islander answered just as seriously.
Nodding, Tarp stood up. “Do you want to eat here or on the move?”
“Much as I think we should get moving as soon as possible,” Terri managed to stand without the captain’s help. “I think we should eat here. I can barely talk on the trail, I don’t think I can eat and pant at the same time.”
“Thought you were capable of doing two things at once,” Tarp teased, reaching down for the canteen.
“Depends on the two things,” Terri smirked as she took the canteen from the captain’s hands and turned to walk to the creek. “And my motivation.”
“Hmmm,” Tarp considered the sergeant’s words as she watched her kneel next to the creek and refill their canteen. “I see you shoulder is better,” she said when Terri stood upright with little trouble.
“Much,” Terri swung the injured arm in a circle to show how improved it was. “Barely aches this morning.”
“Good,” Tarp smiled, glad to hear the news. “Dried meat, cheese, and bread,” she pulled the items from the pack, placing them on the blanket. “I think we should start collecting anything edible we see. Berries, nuts, those sorts of things. There’s probably a lot out here that we can eat but we’ll need to be careful when we try something for the first time, don’t want to sick.”
“Okay. I can help with that,” Terri sat on the blanket. “We grow lots of plants on the Islands. And if we watch what the animals eat, that’ll help. If they don’t eat something, we probably should leave it alone.”
“Good idea,” Tarp agreed. “We should use them for alerting us to danger too. If the forest animals aren’t alarmed then we probably don’t need to be either.”
Continued in Part 3...
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Author of the Sweetwater Sagas
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