Fall hold 3, p.11
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       Fall (Hold #3), p.11

           Claire Kent
 
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  He would have no idea what had happened to her.

  He would just know she was gone.

  Nine

  Lenna’s stomach roiled sickeningly as they broke through the planet’s atmosphere and jumped into hyper-speed.

  She wasn’t exactly sure how long she’d been on the planet, but it must have been at least four months. That was how long it had been since she’d been in a spaceship, on a mechanized vehicle of any kind. The motion was jarring, disorienting.

  Her only comfort was the fact that Desh was leaning back in his seat, eyes closed and wincing visibly so he must be just as affected by the motion and change in atmosphere as she was.

  Eventually, she had to lower her head between her legs in an attempt to get her bearings.

  “Are you okay?” Hall asked, having turned around to see her position.

  “Yeah,” she replied breathlessly.

  “You’re not going to throw up are you?”

  “No,” she replied with more hope than credibility.

  “I never thought I’d see the day when you got sick on a ship.” Hall’s voice was teasing but gentle.

  She lifted her head to glare at him. “I just spent months on a primitive planet, living in a cave and using nothing but stone-age tools to survive. Just how do you think you’d feel if you’d done that?”

  “I wouldn’t be feeling a thing because I would have rolled over and died a long time ago,” Hall said, an appealing smile twitching on the corner of his mouth. “We’re headed to the planet where Cain and I live. We’ve got a day and a half before we reach it, so try to hang on until then.”

  “I’m hanging on.” The spinning in her head had slowed down so she straightened up in her seat again. “So how did you happen to hear the distress call? I thought you were fully retired.”

  “I am.”

  “But you’re still listening to the smugglers’ frequency?”

  “Not all the time.” Something in his expression looked almost diffident, and it prompted her curiosity.

  “So how did you hear it?”

  Hall made a face, as if embarrassed by the admission. “I’d heard you were planet dumped a few months ago, so I made a point of checking it out at least once a day, in case you needed my help.”

  She stared at him, her eyes widening. “Really?”

  He frowned. “Of course really. I would have been dead several times over if it weren’t for you. Kyla would be dead at least once. Even if I didn’t like having you alive in the universe—which I do—I believe in paying off debts.” He slanted her a quick look, as if he were checking for her reaction to his words.

  It was a sign of how rattled and disoriented she was that her eyes actually teared up at his words.

  He evidently saw this. “You haven’t turned emotional on me, have you?”

  “Of course not.” She was relieved when the surge of feeling passed.

  “Good. I could always count on you to be efficient and no-nonsense, telling me how stupid I am for falling in love. I never thought I’d see the day when you turned stupid too.”

  “I’m not stupid,” she insisted, forcing down a swell of grief at the thought of Rone still down on the planet, probably searching for her desperately at this very moment.

  Her claim prompted a response from Desh, who opened his eyes and arched his brows.

  “I’m not stupid,” she repeated, trying to convince herself as much as the men.

  Hall glanced between her face and Desh’s, but all he said was, “Glad to hear it.”

  When the ship neared a large star, the edges of the gravitational forces caused it to rattle and shake. It was a normal, everyday occurrence in space travel, but it caused Lenna to gasp and put her hand on her stomach.

  Hall’s teasing expression turned sympathetic. “Damn. You both look like you feel terrible. You’ll feel better when we get back on the ground.”

  “Where are we going anyway?” Desh asked, evidently rousing himself enough to enter the conversation.

  “It’s an undeveloped planet—no Coalition base, so we’re basically left alone.”

  “Hall and his wife, Kyla, have a vineyard there,” Lenna told Desh. “They make wine. The real thing.”

  “We’re just starting out,” Hall added. “There’s no wine yet. Cain has a ranch there. Real old-fashioned cattle.” He nodded toward his big, rough-looking friend, who hadn’t said a word more than a grunt the whole time. He was clearly listening to the conversation as he piloted the ship, but he didn’t seem inclined to talk if he didn’t have to.

  Rone would probably like him.

  “That sounds like a good place to me,” Desh said. “As long as there are working showers and food I don’t have to kill or dig up first.”

  “I think we can offer you that much,” Hall replied. “You look pretty young to have been planet dumped. What did you do?”

  Desh gave a half-shrug.

  “He told me he’d talked back to the wrong person. He was only sixteen at the time.”

  Hall’s eyes widened. “Sixteen? You must have said something pretty bad to someone really important.”

  Desh turned away with an uncharacteristically evasive expression.

  Lenna realized that, after all this time, she still knew very little about this young man. “Who did you insult, Desh?” she asked softly

  After a moment, he met her eyes. “The High Director.”

  Everyone on the ship gasped at this news, even stoic Cain. “The High Director?” Lenna repeated. “Of the Coalition Council? That High Director?”

  The Coalition was governed by a large council, which was supposed to be made up of representatives from all areas of Coalition space, but had gradually turned into a power-grab from the most ruthless, ambitious people.

  The High Director of the council was the most powerful individual in the known universe.

  “Yes,” Desh admitted, rubbing his hair uncomfortably. “That one.”

  “What did you say?”

  “I… publically humiliated him. And he took it personally because… because he’s my father.”

  At this piece of information, even Cain turned in his seat to stare at the young man.

  They were all silent for a full-minute.

  Finally, Desh said, “I know. But it’s not exactly a family I want to brag about. The Kroo was more of a family to me than he ever was. Needless to say, I’m not planning to head back home for a family reunion.”

  Hall nodded slowly. “Well, you can stay with us until you get back on your feet. Both of you.”

  Lenna appreciated the offer, but she couldn’t imagine at the moment ever being who she used to be.

  For a moment, she wished with an intensity that overwhelmed her that she was still back in the cave.

  “The crew?” Hall asked, out of the blue, evidently thinking of what Desh had just said.

  “Kroo,” Lenna repeated. “It’s what the tribe of people we stayed with called themselves. They spoke a different language, so it’s not crew like in our…” She trailed off as an idea hit her without warning.

  She thought about that ancient ship that had evidently crashed on that planet several centuries ago.

  That ship had a crew.

  The Kroo.

  She gasped, and her eyes flew to meet Desh’s. Maybe the word had lasted in their language—transformed by time and context—for that long.

  “That would be crazy,” Desh murmured, evidently thinking of the same thing. “For them to hold onto that word for so long, even as every other remnant of civilization got burned away.”

  Cain turned again in his seat to face them and said unexpectedly, “Civilization is only a myth.”

  Hall, Lenna, and Desh all stared at him in surprise.

  Cain shook his head and turned back to the control panel, evidently having said all he wanted to say.

  Hall nodded slowly, evidently understanding what his friend was saying. “He’s right. He and I saw it first hand in that prison planet
. Throw human beings into a situation where they have to fight to survive, and every superficial piece of civilization will eventually get stripped away. That’s what you saw on that planet with that tribe, isn’t it?”

  Lenna thought about the question, confused and guilty and strangely lonely.

  Hall and Cain were right. Human beings might always be left with their most fundamental selves if their survival was at stake.

  But the Kroo had proved to her that their most fundamental selves weren’t all bad, weren’t any different from anyone else she’d ever known.

  “Maybe,” she said slowly, after a long pause. “I guess what’s left underneath is what matters, what makes us all human. Some of it’s good. Some of it’s bad.”

  Cain looked back from the controls to meet her eyes briefly, and she saw something there like recognition. “Yes,” he muttered. “That’s right.”

  ***

  It was late the following evening when Lenna finally walked into the comfortable, airy home of Hall and his wife, Kyla. She was so exhausted and out of it that she could barely focus enough to make conversation, so they showed her to her room right away, where she showered and went right to bed.

  She slept well because her body urgently needed to rest—not because she was settled or content.

  She still felt sick and restless when she woke up the next morning.

  She wouldn’t have expected to feel that way. She would have thought her time on the planet with the Kroo would have started to feel like a harsh dream. It didn’t, though.

  This world felt like the dream—the edges all blurred and the colors too muted, nothing bright or solid or real.

  She wondered what Rone was doing, if he was okay, and then she cried for a minute, hiding her face in the pillow before she made herself gain her composure and get up.

  The synthetic fabric of the clothing Kyla had given her to wear felt strange against her skin—too light, not nearly substantial enough. And she couldn’t take more than a sip of the coffee Hall handed her when she made her way to the kitchen.

  It was too hot, too bitter. It burned down her throat.

  When she put the mug down and asked for water instead, Kyla handed her a glass with a sympathetic smile. Kyla was pretty in an understated way. Quiet. Giving off the sense that her inner life was far richer and deeper than anything she showed on the surface.

  She wasn’t at all the kind of woman Lenna had imagined Hall might end up with, but the two matched in a very satisfying way. Lenna had always thought so, although she never would have dreamed of telling Hall.

  “I can’t imagine how hard it must be to get used to modern comforts again,” Kyla said, sitting down at the table and gesturing Lenna into the seat beside her. “Hall told me what you’ve been through. I think it’s amazing you did as well as you did.”

  Lenna smiled—slightly poignant—and met Hall’s eyes as he sat across from her. “I’ve always been a survivor.”

  “I’m sure it will take some time to get acclimated again,” Kyla replied. “But when you do, you’ll feel more like your old self.”

  The words were kind, but Lenna didn’t believe them. She wasn’t sure she’d ever feel like her old self again.

  She wasn’t sure she even wanted to.

  The idea of getting back in her old ship, taking smuggling jobs, going through life on her own, completely independent, seemed brutally lonely right now.

  She missed Rone. She wished he was here right now.

  But she never could have taken him with her. It never would have worked.

  “Or you could do something else,” Kyla added, evidently noticing that Lenna wasn’t too excited about her suggestion. “People change. Look at Hall.” She gave her husband a teasing, slanting look that made him smile. “You can do anything you want now.”

  “Yeah,” Lenna managed to say, emotion trapped tightly in her throat. “I just can’t seem to think clearly right now about anything. My whole mind is a whirl.”

  “Give it some time,” Kyla said. Then she gave Hall another look, this one more like a question.

  Hall nodded, as if he’d understood the unspoken words. He leaned forward slightly, reaching his hand out toward Lenna. “I might be able to help calm your mind, if you’d like me to.”

  Lenna had known Hall for a long time, but ridiculously she’d almost forgotten about his special gift. He’d been born with an extra-sensory ability to feel other people’s emotions by physically touching them, but he was more than just a Reader. He could take their feelings, transform them, and send them back.

  Hall had never tried to use his gift on Lenna—except for a few times when she’d been injured and had needed immediate relief from the pain so they could escape a dangerous situation.

  But Lenna felt so terrible at the moment that she was willing to try anything. She stretched a hand out and offered it to Hall.

  Without speaking, he touched the bare skin of her inner wrist very gently with his fingertips.

  Lenna gasped as she felt some sort of internal channel open up between them. For a moment, it felt like he was inside her, collecting her incomprehensible tangle of emotions into a ball and then releasing them back to her in an intense wave of relief.

  She closed her eyes, feeling better when he withdrew his hand. The relief wouldn’t last for long—she knew—but at least it gave her a short respite during which she could think.

  Hall’s brow was lowered in uncharacteristic seriousness as he met her eyes. “We should have brought him with us,” he murmured, slightly hoarse. “We could have tried.”

  Lenna shook her head, realizing that Hall must have sensed the depth of her feelings for Rone in that brief touch. “No. It wouldn’t have been fair to him. He doesn’t know of any world except his own. I couldn’t just snatch him away, bring him into all this… not just because I… I want him. He would be so… so unhappy. I won’t do that to him.”

  Kyla was frowning now too. “I’m so sorry. I thought they were all kind of brutal and primitive on that planet. I didn’t realize you’d found someone special.”

  “I miss him,” Lenna admitted, a tiny part of her mind realizing that she never would have made such a vulnerable admission before she’d been planet dumped. “Actually, I miss all of them. My whole tribe. Even the ones who weren’t very nice.” She sighed and closed her eyes for a moment, trying to imagine herself back in the cave. “They were primitive—at least in terms of technology—but they were still human. And to tell you the truth, the Coalition might be the most civilized world in human history, but that doesn’t stop it from being far more heartless and brutal.”

  Hall nodded. “I can testify to that.”

  “Well,” Kyla said hesitantly, after a moment of silence, “I know it sounds strange, but you could always go back. If you wanted to, I mean.”

  Lenna stared at her, trying to process the sudden jump in her chest.

  “If you liked it there, if you want to be with your man, with those people, why shouldn’t you go back?” Kyla looked over at Hall, as if for affirmation.

  “That’s always an option,” he said slowly.

  Lenna gave a huff of bitter amusement. “Right. After you risked your neck coming to rescue me, I’m just going to head right back.”

  “You could,” Hall said. “It would be different, going back there by choice. You’d know for sure it’s what you want. It would make the rescue worth it. Plus, we got Desh out of there, and he obviously didn’t want to stay.”

  Desh was still in bed. He’d been on the planet for years longer than Lenna. He had a lot more recovery than her to go through.

  Her mind was whirling again, even after being eased by Hall’s touch. “I can’t,” she managed to say. “It would be… people don’t do that. They don’t go back to world like that—one that’s less comfortable, less safe, less…” She trailed off, realizing the safest and happiest she’d ever been in her life was in Rone’s bed, in his arms. She took a shaky breath. “People don’t do
that.”

  “I was born on one of the most sophisticated, decadent planets in Coalition space,” Kyla said softly. “I was a member of a royal family, and I’d never had to work a day in my life. But I left that place, came here to a rustic, undeveloped world where I have to work every day. And it was the best decision I ever made.”

  Lenna believed her. But this planet was different. It was old-fashioned and undeveloped, but the people who lived here knew about the rest of the world and had access to technology and medicine.

  And metal.

  And wine.

  And showers.

  And a claim to real independence.

  “I’d have to give everything up,” she whispered, mostly to herself, since the others hadn’t heard her internal musings.

  “It’s not about giving up,” Hall said, almost as softly as she’d spoken. “It’s about choosing what you want. Whenever we make choices, it means there are other things we don’t choose. When I chose life here with Kyla, I had to give up my old life. But those things weren’t nearly as important to me as what I chose.”

  Lenna swallowed hard, the words hitting her with a significance that was impossible to ignore.

  Maybe it wouldn’t be about giving up.

  Maybe it would be about choosing.

  Maybe that was the life she wanted. Maybe Rone was who she wanted.

  More than anything else.

  “I don’t know,” she said at last.

  Hall cleared his throat and got up to refill his coffee cup, clearly breaking the intensity of the mood in the kitchen. “Well, think about it. You don’t have to decide right away. Just decide what’s going to let you go to sleep at night in peace and wake up in the mornings happy to start the new day.”

  It was a relief, the knowledge that she could think about it. That she didn’t have to make life-changing decisions less than an hour after waking up.

  Feeling better despite her lingering confusion, she smiled at him. “When did you get so smart anyway?”

  Hall laughed and sat down again, his eyes resting briefly on Kyla with affection so strong it was palpable. “It was a long time coming. But maybe I’m getting there at last.” His expression changing, he added, “You must have enough savings to buy a small ship, one that could be hidden in those mountains, complete with extra fuel cells. If you decide to go back and something happens to change your situation there, you could always leave again. You wouldn’t have to be trapped forever.”

 
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