Chapter 2

Chapter 2: That was a Prickly 

Great, Tye thought, now we’ll never get the Countervail

Tye stared at the man who lost his balance and fell to the ground. Tye’s face contracted with disgust. He sighed and sat down beside the fallen Ranshire. A tight feeling rose from the pit of his stomach when he thought of what had brought him so far from home. 

The man next to him couldn’t help himself let alone a whole planet nation, Tye thought. Now he might be late for the Sentinel’s assignment. Tye frowned. A First never proved false to his word.

“Ranshire! Wake up!” Tye shook the man to no avail. “You asked for it.” He placed the staff against the man’s neck and sent out a light shock.

Ranshire sat up, slightly sobered. He squinted “You’re -- you’re a…”

“I’m the First, King Extavier of the Sovereign Mer.”

“Ugh, that was always such a mouthful. Your father’s dead then?”

“How dare you.”

“How dare I?” He snorted, then started to laugh.

“Silence! You know I could have you executed.”

Ranshire stopped laughing. “But you won’t. You want something.”

“Yes. The Countervail. Can you complete it?”

 Ranshire looked even more defeated and nodded. Tye stood and placed his staff at Ranshire’s neck again. There was a quick shot that released a “bug” into his bloodstream.

“Do you know what I’ve done?”

“Sure, it’s not the first time I’ve been bugged. You’ll use the bug to track me. I’d guess if I complete the Countervail, you’ll pardon me. If I don’t, you’ll use the sucker to poison my blood.”

  “That’s right. You can go back to your lodging and sober up. I’ll send someone to collect you.”

Ranshire struggled to his feet and stumbled in the direction of the Oasis. He paused and said, “You know I came up with the bugs. Life’s funny ain’t it?” He stumbled away without waiting for an answer. 

Tye checked his staff to make sure it was tracking the man. At least one thing was working right. He sighed and looked up at the sky. It was more pleasant than anything at eye level. It was the fresh blue of clean ocean water and reminded him of home.  

Tye couldn’t look up for very long. He wasn’t used to so much light. The light on Buria was a sharp glare. On Mer most of the population lived underwater.  Even in buildings above the surface light was kept at a soft calming glow. He pulled his hood up to shade his eyes and skin from the grueling rays of Buria’s light. Then he fidgeted again with the staff secured across his chest. His fingers flowed easily over the metal surface scrolling through settings. Normally he would have used it to send a message to his friends on Mer. Now that he was a fugitive, he had to get back to a transcator to contact the secure line to Paten so they could secure Ranshire. And he still needed transport. As he headed back to use a transcator at the Rust n Grub, Tye hoped half-heartedly that the once great scientist and inventor would be helpful sober. He wished he had known the old days when the Panparthians protected Mer from the threats they faced. That all had ended after the scandal that caused a schism between them shortly before he was born. Tye wasn’t sure Mer would ever be truly safe again…And he feared it would be his fault.

The sound of another second story window breaking interrupted Tye’s thoughts. A scraggly looking Murodean with a face covered in scars was thrown through the glass. He pulled himself up to his full five and a half feet and looked up at the window with squinted red eyes. A girl appeared and waved at him then shrugged and turned away from the window. He bent back on all fours and scrambled off into the distance hissing. Tye glanced at his staff.  It responded to his thoughts thanks to the temporal implant. The time appeared on the silver embossed surface: 19:13. He doubted Ranshire would or could run before he got one of his people to him. So he just needed a transportation vehicle. He needed it soon and it needed to be fast. Fortunately, he had an idea of who could lead him to one. 

“What help?” Juke demanded. “Running all of my customers out before the pm rush?”

“Hey, do you want the SPC over here to take away your liquor license?” Kam asked. “That’s the third time this week I’ve cleaned up your mess. There would have been a much more serious brawl than that one if I hadn’t shown up. So, you better pay up.” 

  “Yeah, yeah.” Juke walked over to the cash register and pulled out a few purple slips. 

“More than that Hun. This was fun but it wasn’t free,” Kam said.

“Look missy you’ll take what you get, or you won’t get anything,” he said. “You think you could survive out there?” He pointed to the door. “You don’t know how good you have it here. Sure you can handle these goons but they’re small potatoes compared to the roughnecks out there.”

Kam smirked. She had heard it all before. “Come on Juke, I could get paid more by reporting you to the SPC. I know you reuse the leftover drinks and food, a clear violation of the New Views health laws.” 

Juke gave her a dirty look and pulled out seven more slips of greater value.

“Thank you,” Kam said. She grabbed the slips and left before Juke changed his mind. They disappeared in her gloved hand, safely stored away in her Ktech system.

That was her. Tye had just finished using a transcator when he saw the girl leave. She wore tan cargo pants and rope boots with a black utility belt, a matching tan top and a weathered dark brown jacket. Without a doubt, that was the girl from the diner. She looked slightly familiar to Tye, but he couldn’t say why. What mattered was that she worked in the garage and diner and would probably lead him to some transportation. She headed for the garage and Tye followed. Surprisingly there was no security. Tye thought even the most distant and backward lands would at least have level one security for their buildings. As he turned into the garage, he heard something move and a second later it dropped onto him.  

“Who are you and what are you doing here?” a young female voice whispered in his ear. An arm was wrapped tightly around his neck and the edge of something sharp dug into his back. “Where’s your gear?” she asked when he was slow to answer the first question.

“I don’t have any,” he responded thinking of the best defensive move. 

“Really?” she asked.

 He felt a hand slide under his jacket. Then Kam released him and pushed him away. He turned around and looked at her. She stood examining his staff, her expression critical. He recognized her as the girl from earlier. She was petite with predominantly feline features, he would have found cute if it wasn’t for her aggressive and boyishly cocky manner.

“What’s this then?” Kam asked, holding a short wooden staff about half the length of her arm.

“How did you do that?” He asked. His staff had an extensive security program that should have made it impossible for anyone else to hold on to it.

“I’m very good with technology,” Kam said proudly.

“It’s just a matterless storage device,” he said. “It’s my MSD,” he added, holding out his hand. 

 Kam ignored the gesture. Most people carried a matterless storage device or MSD of some sort, but they could be equipped with defensive or offensive applications. MSDs could tell you a lot about its owner. Some downloaded one defensive application, something simple for personal protection. Then there were those who bought the greatest and latest in offensive applications whether they were legal or not. Those were the ones that went looking for an opportunity to try out their buys. Kam had met plenty at the Rust n’ Grub and she knew nearly every offensive device on the market.  

She held the pole in front of her horizontally and lightly tapped its center. It changed instantly, splintering into a crossbow with the staff as its tiller. He couldn’t believe she was able to access the applications, but he tried not to show his concern.

“Whoa, definitely not gear,” she commented, holding the crossbow in one hand.

 “That is a defensive application. All the darts are set to low impact,” he explained patiently as she deactivated the crossbow. “And what’s more,” he said in a firmer tone, “it’s not yours.” 

Kam took a step out of his reach and twirled the wooden pole. “I don’t know it COULD be mine. Considering you lied about having gear, maybe you’re lying about it being mine.”

Tye was getting irritated. 

“Return it, now,” he said, holding his hand out.

“Don’t be so rude,” Kam laughed. “So how badly, exactly, do you want this thing?”

Tye sized her up with narrowed eyes. He was more irritated than angry. He could easily take it from her, but it wasn’t in his nature to be rough with anyone. Pacifism was a matter of national policy on Mer. Members of his rank were the only ones who could fight in emergencies for defense of self and others. There were scores of regulations about in what manner and circumstance. Although he couldn’t tell anyone where he came from or his rank on that planet, he still felt he represented them. 

“Just give it back,” he said. “Please.”

His tone was so fatigued it made Kam look at him more sympathetically. She deactivated the crossbow and maneuvered the staff again. This time it elongated to more than double its original length. Kam leaned against the long pole, her hands folded on top of the staff and her chin resting on her hands. Her tail curled around her right leg as she scrutinized Tye. Although he seemed dirty and tired, he stood perfectly straight. Now that he was in the light she could see his tired but determined, dark eyes were actually a midnight blue. And if she wasn’t mistaken his skin had a distinctly iridescent shine. This made her pause. His skin had a natural glimmer she had seen only once before… on herself.

“You’re not from Buria are you?” she asked.

Tye shifted uncomfortably. “What does that matter? Just hand over my MSD so I can be going.”

“I’ll tell ya what. I’ll play you for it,” she said, stalling.

He thought for a moment before irritably crossing his arms and agreeing. “Fine,” he said.

“Jumbo!” she called behind her. “Come here boy.”  

A moment later, a knee high robot with four legs on each side of its soft purple sphere-shaped body came toddling in. It had two huge eyes under a fuzzy black unibrow, and an old-fashioned bendable disk insert for a mouth. 

“How do you feel about a game of charioteers?” she asked Tye. 

“Yo Kam!” a man’s voice called from further inside.

“What!” she screamed back. “Jumbo, set up game grid.”

“You got work to do Kam. You don’t get paid to do nuthin’,” the voice said from inside the garage.

“I don’t get paid nuthin’,” Kam mumbled. “You stay here,” she said to Tye making him sit down on the floor. “Have a seat and I’ll be right back. You watch him Jumbo.” 

When Kam jogged into the adjoining room, Tye stood up and Jumbo’s purple head/body tilted up. 

“You’re awfully funny looking, you know that?” Tye questioned Jumbo. “And awfully small to be called Jumbo, don’t you think?”

Jumbo raised one half of his fuzzy eyebrow at Tye. Tye shook his head and walked toward the area where Kam had gone.  It was a room full of transportation vehicles, from sand runners to flybees.  Tye hid behind a dusty sand runner and watched Kam. She was arguing with a large grey skinned Laxodonian man. There was no separation between the bottom of his nose and his upper lip. His bulky body stood upright on large straight legs with large pad-like feet. 

Jumbo came and bumped Tye from behind. Tye almost let out a surprised shout. He frowned at Jumbo then looked around. There was a decent looking flyer in the middle of the room, pretty close to the argument. Tye knew she would lead him to something useful. He wanted his staff back but since he could access it through the temporal implant he decided it was more important to get on his way. It would automatically shutdown and he could retrieve it later. Tye turned toward Jumbo.

“I’m going over there,” Tye whispered to Jumbo while pointing to the flyer. “You can watch me from here can’t you?” He patted Jumbo awkwardly on the head/body. “Good boy,” he said.

As Tye left, Jumbo looked from him to Kam and decided what to do. Tye was pulling down the flyer’s door when he saw Jumbo scurry by.

 “Hey, hey,” he whispered harshly at Jumbo.

It was too late. Jumbo was bumping Kam’s leg with his head.  Kam turned around frowning just as Tye got in the flyer. Before he could close the door, his staff came smashing through the door’s windshield.

“Talk about needing anger management classes,” he said under his breath.

Tye moved to the flyer’s controls. Kam was almost there when the flyer lifted off the ground. 

“Stop!” Kam yelled.

 Tye could hardly hear Kam over the flyer’s engine. Kam grabbed onto the open door as the flyer turned to exit. Tye saw Kam pull herself into the flyer with Jumbo strapped to her back somehow. The flyer bumped through the door of the garage and took on speed and height. Tye put on autopilot and pulled his staff out of the window. The door shut and a force field automatically patched the hole.

“Idiot that won’t last long,” Kam was saying. “You better land right now.” 

Jumbo hopped of her back and nodded. 

“Sorry, I’m in a hurry,” Tye said. 

“You’re a thief and not a good one. I’m going to land this,” she said. 

“Don’t,” Tye said.

He blocked Kam’s way with his staff. The stick had changed to a dark metallic gray.

“A DES stick,” Kam said quietly.

 Dynamic Energy Systems or DES had been the main competitor of Kinetic Solutions. DES became very specialized gear for the elite, then seemed to disappear from existence. DES gear could exchange energy with the user and draw power from the opponent. When used offensively it made a hit ten times worse than that of normal gear depending on the strength of the fighter, and the device’s personal energy. Tye would never use that application against her but Kam didn’t know that.

Kam had heard of DES sticks, but never actually seen one. She frowned. “I’m more afraid of this thing crashing than a fight with you,” she said. Kam tried to push him away, but he stepped in front of her. 

“Look, I'll pay for it even if it crashes. I just need forty minutes,” Tye said.

“And I just need this piece of junk back,” she said. She ducked behind him and went to the controls. The flyer slowly began to turn around.

“Just listen for a sec,” Tye said, trying to get between her and the controls.  “I need to take it to Laredo City so I can sign up for Space Stage. Once it’s over I can pay you back.” 

Kam let go of the controls for a moment and Tye turned the flyer back on course. 

“You are going to be in Space Stage?” she asked. This was unbelievable, she thought slightly jealous. As if a wimp like him could win Space Stage. So what if he could beat up bar drunks. 

“Even if you won,” Kam said aloud. “I don’t know you’ll pay. Not that you could win.” Kam was just stalling now. Jumbo would have the flyer on autopilot home in a minute. 

“I could win. And I will pay you back,” Tye promised “ with something much better than this.” 

“I don’t know…”Kam said.

“Come on, I…” Tye paused mid-sentence and looked around. Then he began to nod. “Oh, I get it. Where’s Jumbo?”

Kam crossed her arms and said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” 

He may be a thief, but he doesn’t miss much, she thought. Tye turned around but didn’t see Jumbo at the controls. He moved to another section of the flyer’s cabin looking while keeping the DES staff pointed toward Kam. 

“Jumbo,” he called. “Where are you?”  

Jumbo was on the ceiling above Tye’s head and making his way down to the flyer’s controls. Tye squatted to check under a chair and Jumbo made a lunge for the controls. 

“Good boy,” Kam whispered as the flyer turned with a jolt. 

“Hey,” Tye said at the sudden movement. 

Unfortunately, the sharp turn made him lose his balance. He fell forward and dropped the DES when he tried to catch himself.

The staff rolled until it was stopped by Kam’s foot. “It’s over,” she said.

Tye frowned but sat because his DES was at Kam’s foot. Kam relaxed a little and went to the controls taking the staff with her. She frowned at the desert terrain below.

“Oh great,” she said.

“What,” Tye asked standing.

“You are a real idiot,” she said, trying to reconfigure the flyer.

“Uh-huh” Tye reached for her arm that was holding the DES stick and twisted it around.

“Ah!” she cried as the staff fell.

“Sorry about this,” Tye said.

“Me too,” Kam said. She leaned forward then pushed hard backward, slamming him onto the floor. Then she rolled over to Tye’s DES stick. They grabbed it at the same time.

He is fast, Kam thought, pulling to the side and tripping him over Jumbo. He landed on his knees and pushed up. He only meant to push Kam back hoping she’d lose her grip, but he hit her on the jaw.

“Sorry,” he said with a grimace. Kam fell back but refused to let go of the staff and pulled him with her.  “This would be a lot easier if you just let go,” he groaned, trying to pull the staff from her. She was stronger than he expected.

“No,” she said.

They stood fighting for the staff, holding it horizontally between them. Kam pushed forward hard landing Tye on the controls. He pushed back and the end of the stick hit a lever. A red light blinked, then an alarm sounded.

“Now look what you did!” Kam screamed over the alarm. The flyer jolted and Kam ran to the window still gripping the staff. Tye was pulled along with her. “You see that?”  She asked, tilting her head at a stream of copper liquid coming from the flyer. “That’s gas,” she said.

“I know. Isn’t there a back up tank?” he asked.

“No, you-- Mr. Smart guy, picked an old model with no back up,” she said.

She had hardly gotten the words out of her mouth before the flyer dropped. They were bumped up and then slapped against the floor. It dropped again and continued to fall with increasing velocity. Kam and Tye were plastered against a wall. Screaming, they were thrown up and stuck to the ceiling. They watched breathing hard as the ground approached.

 “So any minute now,” Tye struggled to say. 

“We’re going to fall,” Kam finished. 

They finally crash landed and were dropped to the flyer’s floor. As the dust settled Jumbo floated down with a parachute and a puff of smoke. Kam stood up and dusted off her pants.

“Owe,” she said rubbing both sides of her jaw.

Tye groaned and sat up on the floor. He rubbed his arm. 

“That really hurt,” he said.

“Yeah,” Kam agreed. They both turned and saw the DES stick at the same time. “How about a truce?” Kam asked. “We get to town, you get me some money for the flyer, and I can go back to the miserable dust bowl I call home.”

“Great,” Tye said. He reached out and his staff spun back into his hand. In his opinion it was the first time anyone on this miserable planet had said anything reasonable. 

Outside the sun was at its highest. Kam picked up Jumbo and glanced at the flyer. “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” Kam said. 

  Tye ignored her and started walking. “Let’s go this way,” he said.

  Kam looked back at the flyer and shook her head. “Stupid, stupid,” she repeated.

“Yes, I know,” Tye said turning around. “I made a mistake. Just be quiet and come on.” They walked in silence until the sun began to set. “We should have been there by now,” Tye said. 

“Can I talk now?” Kam asked. 

“You already are, so go ahead,” he said.

“I just thought you might like to know, the nearest town was 6 miles back that way and west 7 miles,” she said.

Tye stared at her in disbelief. He almost said, ‘why didn’t you say something?’ But he was afraid he already knew the answer. Petty child, he thought. She was just one more thing he didn’t need complicating his situation. He wondered how much time he may have wasted on the detour to find Ranshire. He turned angrily to her. She stared back at him, her face responding petulantly to his glare. 

Tye inhaled deeply to calm himself. “You know… you had to walk out of the way too.”

“Yeah, but I love nature walks,” she said. She smirked and set Jumbo down.  “I think we should camp for the night and move on tomorrow,” Kam continued. When she looked back at Tye, he was staring miserably at the sunset that illuminated him in a mesmerizing array of soft orange and red light. He took out a canteen but there was hardly any water left. She thought he looked a bit sick. As the rays faded but his discontent remained Kam’s face softened. 

 “What’s your name anyway?” she asked.

“Why?” he asked kicking the dirt in irritation.

“Never mind,” Kam said softly. “Jumbo, fire.”

The little machine tilted back and made a sucking sound. Then it leaned forward and spit out a purple liquid. 

“What is that?” Tye asked turning toward them.

“Watch, and learn,” Kam said. A second later the liquid burst into flame. 

“Nights here are cold,” she said. She took a canteen out of her storage. “Want some?”

He really didn’t want any favors from her, but he hadn’t had nearly enough water since he’d landed on the horrible planet. He couldn’t fail his people. “Thank you,” he said reluctantly. 

She watched in amazement as he downed the whole container. 

“Yeah that was all for you. I’m fine,“ she mumbled when he returned the empty canteen. “How are you going to pay for the flyer?” she asked. 

“I’m..” He paused knowing he couldn’t tell her the truth.  “I’m going to win Space Stage,” Tye said.

“Yeah right, but seriously,” Kam insisted.

“I am. I’m going to enter at the nearest town,” Tye said. His best plan was to somehow ditch her and pay her back once he returned home and could access his funds. “If you haven’t made me miss my partner,” he added. He instinctively touched his temporal implant really wondering if it was too late. He hadn’t had any new contact from the Sentinels.  

  “Sure,” Kam said resisting the indignation that rose in response to his last remark. As if she should feel bad foiling his attempt to steal from her! “You know thousands of people register,” she said calmly as she took a light wicker mat from her storage. “Even if you sign up that’s no guarantee you’ll win the random draw and actually get to compete.”

Tye couldn’t help but smirk. He had an unfair advantage. The Sentinels had explained any contestants that were the only of their kind automatically gained entry. He was certain no other Merilians were entering. “Let’s just say the odds are in my favor.”

She frowned and lied back on the mat with her hands behind her head. It was just wide enough for her body. Her tail swept the sand beside it nervously. What he said was curious. She was even more curious about where he was from and if he had ever seen anyone like her before. She knew she had messed up any chance of normal conversation. If only she could find something inoffensive to say…

    “The sun’s setting,” she said and winced at how stupid it sounded.

“I can see that,” Tye said.

She closed her eyes, curled her tail around her leg and gave up. “Better get some sleep and stay near the fire,” she said. “I’d hate for a prickly to get you.”

“Prickly? What’s that?” he asked. Kam let out a soft snore in answer. 

Tye turned to Jumbo. “Do you know what a prickly is?” he asked. Jumbo just blinked and smiled. “Never mind,” Tye said.

“Jumbo shut down,” Kam mumbled.

“Hey, I thought you were asleep,” he said. Kam didn’t answer. 

He looked at Jumbo. Its large eyes had gone black. Great. The sun had set, and it was completely dark except for the fire. Tye lied back thinking. He hated that he had been reduced to fighting and stealing. Now he was sleeping in dirt with awful company. He tried to get comfortable on the sand. He didn’t have any camping supplies in his storage. He pulled his hood and jacket tighter around him and twisted onto his side. He ended up facing Kam. He pursed his dry cracked lips, plagued by the feeling that he might be partially to blame for the quality of the company he was receiving. He turned the other way, and then he tried to lie on his belly.  His thoughts left him restless. His family would be embarrassed by his behavior. He told himself it was really borrowing. He planned to pay them back. Tomorrow he would be polite and kind and represent Mer honorably.

 Decided, he stared out into the darkness until his eyelids became heavy. He was almost asleep when he saw something move. What was that? He sat up and squinted into the darkness. There it was again. He crawled away from the fire with his DES stick in his hand. There it was. It wasn’t moving now. He poked it with his staff. Nothing. It looked like a rock. A moving rock. He reached out with his hand. 

“Bad move,” Kam said. 

“What?” he asked. As he was distracted by her voice the rock jumped on his hand. Suddenly it was like a thousand needles sticking him all at once.

“OWWWE!” He shook his hand wildly and the rock dropped to the ground and burrowed under the sand. 

  Kam laughed as he crawled back toward the fire. “Bad move,” she said again. “That was a prickly.