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Dede uncurled from the chair of the tiny bridge to get a better look. The plastic end of the straw flattened and split as the first mate rolled it between her teeth. She took a sip, letting the liquid spill out of the tube in unexpected and delightful directions. The engineer peered over her display and heard plastic crack in her mouth again as she reviewed the data.

The packages were all there. Then they were gone. And now two of the three were back. The firing signal had been jammed. But how could they have been jammed if the bad guys didn’t about the bombs?

Dede set down her drink as the pieces clicked together in her mind. Her fingers followed the Gazelle’s pre-ignition sequence. Firing up the ship would leave her open to detection by any air breathing aircraft passing overhead. Captain Gili had gone dark a few hours ago. When she came back up, Dede had a feeling she would need to find her fast.

If things totally went to the Nine Hells, she still had two packages to deliver.

******

Professor Arleth stirred where he lay on the cot. His eye fluttered, then opened. Dry lips croaked a low groan. Giselle lifted his head slightly and offered him something to drink from an open cup.

“You’re safe, Professor,” she told him. “My name is Giselle Gili. You’re in a safe house in the Catar Rift region of Hasmyke.” The grey haired figured nodded as he slowly drained the glass. She helped him to a sitting position. “Take it slow. Let the quick heal do its work.” Gili left the bed to refill the glass.

She crossed a thick carpet laid out on a flagstone floor. Tapestries hung from the walls, their threads outlining the forms of hunters astride some unrecognizable quadruped. The stuffed head of a four-eyed ungulate watched them from its perch above an unlit, stone fireplace.

“You’re military?” the older man asked. Gili lifted a heavy, crystal pitcher and poured water into the glass.

“In a previous life,” she answered as she returned to his side and offered the cup. “The university hired my ship to rescue you.”

Arleth nodded before slowly lifting two freshly re-bandaged hands to hold the glass. “I should have figured you’d notice,” Giselle remarked, “I read your record from your time in the Alliance Army. You ground pounders sure know how to get into trouble.”

“That’s why we have you space squids to save us?” The two shared a smile as the professor struggled to take another drink. “What gave me away?” Giselle asked.

“The submachine gun,” Arleth answered, slowly nodding towards the weapon where it rested nearby. “Roberts Model VII. Standard naval issue.”

“I’m a woman of habit. Besides they use the Model…”

“Where’s Keven?” the professor asked abruptly, trying to sluff the bed coverings off his body.

“Slow down there, professor,” Giselle cautioned. “Keven’s in good hands. He’s uninjured, and unless I misread the look on their faces, helping themselves to a drink from this place’s liquor cabinet.”

“Them?”

“The university hired two rescue teams,” the captain explained. “We ran into each other at the base. Lothar,” Giselle couldn’t prevent an eyebrow from lifting, “is seeing to Keven while I take care of you. It seems that Lothar’s med kit and training is not up to snuff.” A smile punctuated her snark.

“Does that happen often?” Arleth asked her as he settled back onto the pillows.

“It’s unusual,” Captain Gili confessed. “Clients usually offer a job to multiple outfits when time is short and the risk it high. Rescues pay on delivery.”

She paused to purse her lips. “For this job, I demanded three quarters up front.”

The professor nodded. “Smart woman, but offering that much up front to two teams doesn’t sound much like President Garsdale.”

“You must be pretty important to retrieve in one piece,” Giselle remarked.

He lifted his arms and held the them in front of his face. Tightly wound bandages covered the bruises and cuts. “How bad was it?”

“Mostly damage to soft tissue,” the Captain explained. “They hadn’t started to break any bones, yet. With the meds I’ve given you, you should be able to get on your feet right now. But let’s not rush anything.”

“I don’t know why they tortured me,” the professor continued. “I told them the location of any dig I worked on in the last four years on this planet. I must have sent them halfway around the continent every time they hurt me.” A weak smile rose to his lips. “Torture doesn’t work on everybody. I told them what would get them to stop, but I never gave up the location of the Ruins of Kabreth.”

Giselle’s head tilted as she took the empty glass from the professor. “If torture doesn’t work, what does?”

The professor blinked twice. “Please help me to my feet. We need to find Keven.”

******

The brown liquor spilled over the edge of the crystal glass. “Opps,” Lothar chuckled as he brought the glass to his mouth. His tongue darted out to lick up the overflow. “We don’t want this to go to waste.”

“No. No we don’t.” Keven laughed as he took a long drink. His body shivered with its warm. “They definitely didn’t serve this at the dig sites.” The student’s tongue slowed around the s’ like a car trying to navigate a sharp curve.

“Here’s to rich hunters and their dens!” Lothar raised his glass then took a sip. Keven gulped down a larger swallow. “Here, here.”

Keven looked around the room, the well-appointed furnishing, hardwood cabinets and trim, the think plush of a dark carpet. “I’m surprised something like this still exists on Hasmyke. It’s nice to know the To’kath Karaa hasn’t destroyed everything on this planet.”

“Like your work?”

“Like my work.” Keven’s head nodded slowly. “Dig after dig destroyed. Not reburied. Just blown up. So much history, just… poof.”

“Not Kabreth,” Lothar said, his head tilting as he took a sip.

“No. No Kabreth.” Keven agreed.

“What makes Kabreth so special?”

The student finished his glass then held it out for a refill. “Everything. It’s condition. It’s location as….”

“Keven!”

Keven failed his first attempt to stand. Wrapping his fingers around the arms of his chair, he succeeded on his second try. “Professor? I didn’t expect…. How are you?”

Captain Gili guided the older man to the vacated chair, helping him slowly shift his weight from her shoulders to the seat. “I’m fine, lad. I’m fine.” The Professor lifted his head to address Lothar. “I understand we have you to thank for our rescue.”

The swarthy gentleman stood across the table from the older man. “Yes. I was contracted…”

“Hey, I helped, too!” Giselle interjected.

Professor Arleth nodded. “Lothar, Captain Gili,” he began. “To prevent deception in kidnapping situations, the university was to give out a pass phrase to potential rescuers to identify themselves.” His eyes traveled from potential savior to savior. “What is that secret code?”

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