Open SeasonBy Alicia Ann Fox
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|Serried snowflakes and the oncoming dark strained Cally's eyes. She crouched in the doorway of a long-abandoned monitor station, alone, her body braced with a heavy projectile rifle, waiting.|
A spattering of gunfire seemed to come from all directions and distances due to sharp echoes from the massed bare and brittle trees. She tensed. She could no longer see the fog of her breath.
**Avon--can you hear me--over here!**
She saw him then, a moving shadow. He trudged unsteadily backwards through the knee-deep snow, rifle at the end of its strap, the stock against his hip. He stopped, moved again, and blocked the doorway.
He fell backwards, causing Cally to lose her footing as she grabbed at him, at the same time trying to prevent her rifle from swinging free. She scrambled up and closed the heavy security door, unfortunately bare of security devices, before she realized that Avon was unconscious.
Cally fumbled in her coat pocket for a light, switched it on, and saw blood first, a clean wound through his upper thigh second. Blood still flowed sluggishly from it, and had soaked down into the top of his boot; blood besmeared his ungloved right hand.
His knuckles whitened on his rifle as he came abruptly awake. "Got away clean," he said, effortfully. "Didn't see me."
"Good. It looks as if this is where we'll be holing up until Jenna returns." She knelt, unhooked her gun strap, removed her gloves, and repositioned the light.
Avon lifted his head, craning to see what she was doing. "Bullet went through. I felt the exit hole."
Cally nodded, engrossed, trying not hear Avon's teeth grinding as she probed the wound. Quickly she stripped off her scarf, balled up one end, and applied it with heavy pressure.
Avon grunted once as if he'd been punched in the kidney, then deliberately turned his eyes aside and tried to regularize his breathing. Cally's torch lit even to the corners of the small native stone building, but there was nothing to see except the empty housings for sky-monitor equipment. It seemed to him hours before Cally said, "Give me your scarf."
Gingerly he released his grip, shoved his gun away, fumbled at the lightweight scarf tucked into the top of his coat. Damn this whole planet, he thought viciously, and yanked the scarf free.
Cally took it with one bloody hand, the other planted on the pressure bandage. "I've got to let go a moment--you hold it down--tight--while I tie this on."
Not trusting his voice, Avon nodded and exchanged his hand for hers until she had tied the makeshift bandage to her satisfaction. He pulled his hand away amid a wave of weakness, as if all of his strength had flowed from the two holes now concealed.
"Damn Blake and his memory chips--no."
"I didn't think so. But you won't bleed to death, now. I learned a great deal of first aid on Saurian Major. Very useful."
"I never can seem to have any luck with--planets whose names--begin with e. Earth--Exbar--now Eriax."
Cally put her hand out of the door to fill an empty ammunition box with snow. One low-power burst from her handgun melted the snow, with which she cleaned blood from their hands. "Where is your glove?"
"Right pocket." He pulled it out; his probe, a screwdriver, and some miniature clippers clattered to the floor.
"Do you have any grenades?" Cally asked with interest, picking up the tools and returning them to their place.
"A torch, a lockpick...three clips of ammunition."
Cally sighed, picked up her rifle again, and sat beside him, aiming at the door. "I wish we'd realized we'd be evading the local Federation sympathizers for three days. If our contact hadn't given us these rifles we might be dead."
"Two days to go." Avon wanted to scream, hit someone, something, instead drew a long breath of chill air. Too bad he wasn't Vila, he could have complained until Cally knocked him on the head.
"Day and a half, really," Cally remarked. It didn't sound like long, but she knew Avon at least would feel every minute. She could hear him fighting to stay silent. "Why don't you sleep? It's safe enough, with the thermal suits, and I can watch out the night."
"You'll fall asleep," he said, to be contrary.
"You certainly would," Cally retorted, as she filled the ammunition box with snow again. "You need rest, and fluids for the blood loss."
"Vila's probably swigging my brandy right now," he growled, drinking down the water in an ill humor. "This was supposed to be easy."
"So that's why you volunteered."
"I didn't," Avon denied, grimacing as he shifted position.
Cally changed the subject. "I suppose those locals don't have sensory equipment, even though we saw two flyers. There's no telling how many we didn't see...our bounties would buy a great many flyers on an impoverished world."
"Such as Eriax." He paused. "If they find us...."
"Neither of us is incompetent, Avon. We would have companions for our deaths, if nothing else." She switched off the torch, returned it to her pocket. A silence seemed to come with the sudden darkness.
Avon interrupted it. "Such a cheery outlook you have." He crossed his arms across his chest, feeling cold despite the heat of his thermal suit.
"I've never noticed you to be a particularly cheerful person," Cally retorted. "I'm being realistic. We survive, or we do not."
Avon didn't reply, having lost track of the conversation. Experimentally he shifted his leg. "Agh."
In the darkness Cally's hand found his, gripped firmly. "I wish we had soma."
"A stiff drink would do."
"If you could have anything you wanted, right now, what would it be?"
Avon pondered, trying to ignore the throb of his wound, regular as a heartbeat. At last he said, "A cup of tea. With honey."
"What's so funny? You asked."
"Not soma, not Liberator, not blankets, or bombs...."
"If I had those I wouldn't want the tea."
"I'll bring you some, when we're back on board."
Suddenly curious, Avon asked, "What about you?"
"A blast cannon," she replied promptly.
"What good would that do?"
"We would be more defensible, here. It would make me feel better. And--you're not listening."
"What?" he said vaguely.
"Are you all right?"
"Good. Could you let the circulation return to my hand?"
"What? Oh." Deliberately he loosened his death grip and made his muscles go slack. "Sorry. Tired."
There was a noise, the tripod of Cally's rifle being folded out and settled on the floor. She unfastened one end of the gun's support strap with a sigh and stretched, cramped from carrying the heavy weapon. Carefully she checked its infra-scanner.
"I wish we had Orac," Avon said after a time.
"It could keep track of everything for us. Flyers...communications."
"Well, we don't have Orac," Cally said, frustrated. Silence fell.
"I've changed my mind."
"What I want--I want to punch Blake."
Cally stifled a snicker at the image. "It isn't his fault."
"The first thing he'll say, if we ever see him again, will be, Did you get the chip?"
"Really, Avon. You wouldn't."
He sighed. "Probably not."
There was no response to make. Cally listened to the night's silence and to her companion's breathing, and twitched with every cracking branch and breaking icicle. Gradually Avon's breathing became regular as he slept and she relegated the sound to the back of her mind. Once she checked the time on his chronometer; he didn't wake.
Near dawn Cally began to find it difficult to keep her eyes open. She stood, stretched, did slow quiet exercises, then scrubbed her face with snow after shoving open the snow-impeded door. Holding her handgun and keeping low, she scanned the forest. Nothing. She returned to the building and changed the infra-scanner back to its original setting. The snowfall had stopped, but a brisk wind was blowing.
"Avon." **Avon, wake up.**
The morning light made him look blanched. "Did they find us?" he whispered groggily.
"Not yet. Could you eat?"
"Not just now. No tea?" He didn't sound hopeful.
"No tea," Cally said, munching. "How about snow, no honey?"
"If it's melted."
"Here, sit up--"
Cally's words were engulfed by the raucous burr of hyped flyer engines. She shoved Avon's rifle into his hands; wordlessly he fastened the carry strap as Cally picked up her own weapon.
A droning joined the flyer noise, apparently a ground vehicle of some type. Cally pulled Avon to his feet with one heave and he staggered to the door.
"My foot's asleep," he complained, clinging to the wall.
"You can move? You're sure?"
"If it means my life, yes," he said, grinning. The grin faded quickly. Cally braced him up with one hand on his back.
"I think I hear two flyers, probably the same two."
Avon nodded, gritting his teeth as he wiggled the toes of his injured leg inside his boot.
Cally shoved her teleport bracelet farther up on her forearm and firmly tightened the cuff of her coat over it.
The ground vehicle droned to a halt, so close that the two heard the schiff of thrown snow. "Yee-oo!" a male voice screeched. Another joined in, and punctuated the noise with a gunshot or two.
Motioning Avon behind her, Cally crouched low, wishing she could see outside.
"Yah-hah! Come on out! Gonna get the re-ward!"
"Dead meat! Come on, I want a spiffy new Nim-bus flyer!"
"We'll go easy on ya, rebels!"
"Yeah--we won't let you live too long!"
**Two of them. The flyers are still airborne.** In unison Cally and Avon flicked the safety switches on their guns. The first rounds of ammunition slotted into place. The taunting voices grew louder.
Suddenly Avon hissed, "Door!"
He sighed deeply and leaned back against the wall for a moment, trying to will freedom into his cold-stiffened fingers. Sleeping on the floor had done him less good than being shot.
"Yoo-hoo! Come out!"
"We'll blast ya!"
Cally nodded once, then flung herself against the heavy door, opening it halfway and using it as a shield. Her first round of shots nearly tore in two the closest attacker. Avon's line of fire on the other was blocked by the door until the man ran to his dead companion. Avon squeezed off a single careful shot then sagged against the wall, trembling with weakness.
"You got him. Good shot." She was cramming in more ammunition as she spoke.
Avon closed his eyes for a moment. "What now?"
Bullets whinged off the roof. The flyer revved its engine unnecessarily as it hovered over their heads.
Cally peered around the door, spotting the other flyer hovering amidst the denuded trees. "We could wait until they run out of ammo," she said, jerking her thumb at the roof.
Avon could barely hear her over the engine noise. "They won't be able to hover long. That engine...sounds abused."
He was proved right. Minutes later the vehicle landed behind the building. These attackers were quieter than their predecessors.
**Five? Six? Could you see?**
Slowly Avon shook his head. "Close the door."
Cally gasped at her own stupidity and tugged at the handle. The metal door slipped into its metal housing with a reassuring clang. "Eighteen hours left," she said flatly, her back against the door. She leaped forward as the men outside began pounding on it with heavy objects, then flattened herself against the wall beside Avon. "Not good," she said into his ear.
Concentrating to stay upright, Avon didn't answer. Bullets began ringing against the door.
"Damn," Cally whispered, moments later. The besiegers had begun to fire at the more vulnerable doorframe. "Avon, get down!"
"I won't be able to move," he replied desperately.
Cally bit back another curse and crouched low, focusing on the door. Her eyes were blurring with fatigue.
The door fell in.
She fired indiscriminately, felt Avon's bullets going above her, flung herself to the left and rolled. Something jerked at the hood of her coat, and the beam of a hand blaster burned across her shoulder blade, but flat on the floor she presented a small target area. Men dodged outside, behind the wall.
Her rifle clicked empty. She fumbled for her Liberator gun, scrambled forward until she bumped into a corpse, shot at an arm trying to shoot around the doorway. **Avon?**
She saw him, laboriously crawling along the line of the wall. Quickly she tried to assess the situation. There were two dead bodies on the floor, another halfway in the wrecked door. One-handed she loaded her rifle, unable to spare Avon another glance.
Men poured through the door, three big men. The one in the lead fell, but the remaining two were shielded by his body long enough to reach Cally. She rolled onto her back and fired straight up until, her body pinned to the floor by a falling body, her rifle was yanked from her hands. A fist smashed into her cheekbone and she was yanked upright.
Cally nearly choked on the metallic smell of blood and an overpowering scent of alcohol. "It's a girl! A girl snuffed Rud and Jon and--"
Blood exploded from her assailant's throat, spattered her face hotly for an eternity. Cally screamed, managed somehow to scramble away as the body fell, and lay gasping.
"Cally! Cally! Get a hold of yourself." Avon's voice came from across the room.
"All right. I'm all right." She made her way over dead bodies to him. Her hands trembled violently as she attempted to tighten the gory scarf around his thigh. She gave up, wiped blood from her face with her sleeve instead.
"The other flyer is gone."
"It will be back." Cally sat beside him, her teeth chattering from shock. Gratefully she accepted Avon's sheltering arm. "Sorry...just shaky...were you hit?"
"No. But it's bleeding again. It bloody hurts." His fingers sank painfully into her upper arm for a moment, then closed into a fist.
"First time you've said so."
"Complaining wouldn't do any good, would it."
Cally sat up slowly. Her hands were steadier now as she applied pressure and retied Avon's makeshift bandage. "We were very, very lucky."
"Can't you do that carefully?" Avon snapped, wincing.
"You're lucky I didn't have the stomach to cauterize it." Avon looked ill, contemplating the idea. Cally gathered up all of the available weapons and dropped them in a pile.
"Give me that Federation rifle."
She did so. Avon handled it familiarly, checking it over more with his hands than his eyes. Cally asked, "When did you have one of those?"
Surprised, Avon said, "Academy. Where else?"
"Space Academy? On Earth?"
"It was required, for two years. You didn't know that?" He noted that the power cells were intact and laid the weapon next to his wounded leg. "I went, Blake went. Sometimes I suspect Vila did, though he won't admit it."
Cally took a deep breath. "Oh." She chose a weapon from the pile, wiped it clean on the nearest corpse, and walked outside. Avon waited. Cally returned. "We have a flyer now."
Avon laughed weakly. "Oh, we'll get the bastards now."
Together they made their way to the vehicle, struggling awkwardly through drifts up to Cally's thighs. The flyer, a red one adorned with numerous high-tech gadgets of dubious function, still had a fair amount of fuel and was conveniently unlocked. The landing gear, unusually, kept the body of the flyer at least a meter above ground level. Avon rested as Cally examined the craft thoroughly and occasionally cast nervous glances at the sky. "It has a powerful communications set-up," she said with some surprise. "Very expensive." She dropped the short distance from the pilot's seat to the ground and created new holes in the snow.
"Great." Avon dug in his pocket, took off one glove, tried again. He held up his probe, screwdriver, and clippers. "Call the Liberator, tell them to get the hell here."
"What about getting the bastards?" Cally quoted, taking the tools.
Avon pointed upward with his thumb. "I'm not climbing up there. Not if I can help it."
Cally nodded in realization. "I don't think I could lift you up, either. Of course, if it became necessary--"
"I could probably jump up if I was being shot at," he said wryly, letting his head fall back against the landing gear which supported him. One hand held the Federation rifle; the other rubbed his eyes and his unshaven chin. "Are you still awake up there, Cally?"
"I am functioning." She removed a panel in the control board and stared at it. "The unit is more equipped for receiving than sending," she commented.
"I'll manage something. Perhaps I can link in my bracelet communicator." Some time passed. Cally poked her head out, looked down. "Are you keeping watch?"
Avon came awake with a jolt, then sagged back. "Now I am."
"How many hours until our rendezvous time?"
"It would be safer if we could move away from here." Cally paused. "And you can't sit there in the snow all day."
Avon thought it over. The plan was reasonable, but he lacked the energy to move. "Can you pilot that thing?"
Affronted, she replied, "I should hope so. Surely you can climb one meter. There are steps in the landing gear."
Avon sighed. His expression was pained as he struggled to his feet and dubious as he beheld the obstacle before him. Slinging the Federation gun across his back, he grabbed the landing gear firmly and put his left foot on the first step. Gritting his teeth, he lifted the right leg. Strangled unpleasant sounds reached Cally in the flyer's cockpit; she stuck her head out again, looked.
"One more step and I can give you a hand."
"Shut up." He attacked the next step, feeling as if he were going to faint; then a hand seized his arm. "Wait a minute."
Cally lifted, or rather heaved at, his arms. "Avon, are you conscious?"
"I think so," he mumbled. "Is--is this--the passenger side?"
"Yes, you're already there."
"Sorry about that," Cally said. "You're bleeding again. Quite a lot."
Palely Avon said, "I can see that." He stared at his wound. This time Cally sacrificed the bottom half of her shirt.
"There. We can leave here now."
"And go where?" Avon asked quietly.
Cally shrugged. "Away from the city. A few kilometers into the mountains."
"Then we'll work on the communications."
"It's already done. You were asleep, weren't you?" Cally yawned as she started the engine and lifted off. She called up a map on the flight computer, laid in her course, and leaned back with a deep sigh, hands gripping the controls lightly. "I'm going to be asleep soon," she confessed.
"Wait until we land," Avon said to her. "Did you know you look terrible? There are at least six holes in your coat."
"You're worse. You look like a crimo."
"I am a crimo."
"No, you aren't. I thought you were an embezzler."
Avon showed his teeth. "I couldn't quite manage that distinction."
Yawning, Cally replied, "Never mind."
She landed the flyer in a ravine, carefully avoiding several nearby clumps of evergreens. She dropped to the ground: rock, with less snow, but the wind still bit, keeping her awake long enough to shoot down a few branches to conceal the bright red flyer. Her limbs felt like lead as she climbed back up.
"Liberator. Come in, Liberator," Avon was saying into his bracelet. Static replied. "They should be in range soon."
"Why aren't you asleep?" Cally demanded.
"Adrenaline. And I had sleep, remember?"
"You keep watch, then." She fell against his shoulder, closed her eyes, and plunged into a black hole."
Avon waved his hand before her face. No response. "Come in, Liberator." No response. "Where the hell are you, Blake?" Static. Avon yawned. He closed his eyes for a moment.
"Avon. Cally. This is Blake. Respond please. Avon--respond. Are you there, Cally? Please respond."
Fuzzily Avon blinked, wishing he had some tea. He felt excruciatingly awful.
"Avon, Cally, please call in if you are able."
Half-asleep, Avon switched the communications switch on his bracelet with his chin. "What."
"Avon! Are you all right?"
"Blake?" Abruptly he was awake, and his surprised jolt woke Cally. Outside it was black.
"Is Cally with you? Are you all right?"
"Blake, this is Cally. Avon was shot, but I have no major injuries. Avon's wound is not dangerous," she added hastily. Avon scowled at her.
"That's a relief."
"Just get us the hell out of here!" Avon hissed.
Blake chuckled. "Right. Teleport, Vila."
The returning crewmembers landed in an untidy heap in the teleport bay.
"They could certainly use a bath or two," Vila said, ducking under Cally's playful swipe. "Whatever happened? You weren't at the pickup point."
"We were hunted over the entire continent, almost," Cally replied, gingerly probing her swollen cheek as she walked. Avon grunted once in agreement.
Casually, Blake asked, "Did you get the memory chip?"
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