Thought Wheel

From the mind of Ann Chiappetta

Soft Sci-Fi Short Story

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Lafayette 10
By Ann Chiappetta

Avril touched down on Lafayette 10 just as the sun was setting. The dry, harsh atmosphere was a welcome change from her home planet, Hepson and she already noticed a difference in her breathing. Hepson was like living on a damp sponge, she thought, taking out a pair of U.V. Shields and inserting them into her eyes. The filmy contact lenses hid her wide ovular eyes with a mirrored effect. She winked at her reflection in the compact and smiled. She gathered up her belongings and followed the other passengers to the debarking pods.

The jerk of the pod docking on the groundwoke her and she popped the restraint as it opened. It was her first time on an interplanetary trip and she was still feeling drowsy from the effects of cold sleep. She got on the belt and put down the carry on bag, reaching out for the grab bar while the other passengers settled. Once she and the others were on the shaded belt, it rolled toward the arrival building, an enormous, one story facility topped with solar panels and rimmed on three sides with moisture catchments.

Avril touched her mouth and smiled. She hadn’t needed the mask since entering Hepson’s spaceport pod prep unit. The medic pointed to it and said,
“take it off. You won’t need it again unless you come back.”
She slowly peeled it off, the tiny air scrubbers sighing as she pulled it away from her mouth and lips. She felt naked but the medic smiled reassuringly,
“Don’t worry, you won’t miss it when you get to Lafayette 10, that place is hot and dry. Just what you need.”

Avril touched her lips, remembering what he said and looked back over her shoulder at the huge, needle like craft that had carried her and 3,000 others light years from what was familiar and dropped them onto a planet composed of red dust and cacti. A planet that would give her life back but that also would view her as an outsider.

Well, she thought, it wasn’t any worse than her home world.
* *
Avril’s multi dwelling unit was located in a local mining community called Strata, one of the first areas to be settled in the northern hemisphere about 150 years ago, . It was an affluent city with the usual cultural diversity. She rented a modest semi-submerged two room apartment on the shaded side of the complex. It suited her well and was close to public transportation and her new job at one of the life support facilities located in the mining company’s main office. She was, after all, an expert on breathing apperatus and deep core mining provided her with a way to make a living. Possessing an advanced degree in environmental safety helped, too.

Since she worked the midday split shift, Avril usually slept through most of the morning, avoiding the scorching heat of the 115 degree afternoons.
She met Ralen in the gym about a month after arriving, enttering the gym for her daily cardio workout before reporting to work.
“Hello, haven’t seen you before,”
Avril stopped,
“Just started last week,”
He extended a hand,
“I’m Ralen Jarvis, from Border Tours,”
Avril slid her hand into his and smiled back. It was the first time she had been approached by a man, and he was even good looking, too. No one on Hepson had ever taken notice of her except to gawk. She almost put her hand to her mouth but stopped. She wasn’t a freak anymore, just an off-worlder.
“Since you’re new in town, maybe I can offer you a sight seeing tour? That’s what I do, you know, give newcomers a chance to view our world.”
He handed her a holo-card. She imprinted it and sent it to her ebox.
“I’ll look it over when I get home later,” she said, “it was nice meeting you, Ralen.”

She walked away into the changing area, hoping he didn’t see the flush on her cheeks. He was very handsome, she thought, almost giggling, and then chided herself for being so immature. His hand was as warm and dry as the landscape and she liked the sensation; Hepsonites were always cold and damp, like fish.
. Avril retrieved the digital calling card once she finished her shift. It was the only item in her ebox besides one from her mother a month ago, asking if she arrived safely. She didn’t delete it, as if doing so would sever her connection to her family for good. She instead tapped the digital card notice from Ralen.

The promo was thrilling and the price for a 12 hour ground Ariel combination tour was within her budget. She wiped her hand before tapping the respond icon and felt silly; it wasn’t a date, just a reservation, but to Avril, it felt like it.
“Silly girl,” she murmured, then hit the icon to reserve her place for the next tour.
• * *

Avril checked her satchel for the umpteenth time, her ears scanning the open air for the hum of Ralen’s rover; her eyes watching the security monitor for confirmation of his approaching vehicle. When she’d reserved her trip, she never thought to ask how she would get back to the spaceport to board the aircraft. When she asked him about it, he offered to pick her up on the way, explaining he was staying at a friend’s place just outside Strata and he would be glad to pick her up on his way to prep the flight.
“I won’t be in your way?” she asked.
“Not in the least, besides, if you want, you can lend a hand, if you’d like.”

Avril finally heard the hum of the rover and popped in her eye shields, tightened the band on her ponytail and put on the sunhat. Her dark hair would attract the sun and the hat kept her much cooler than she would have thought. She grabbed her bag once the security camera identified it was Ralen, and she left to meet it.

Avril stood outside the touring craft, feeling disappointed. She’d been all thumbs with the pre-flight check and could tell Ralen was only a few millimeters from losing patience. She’d bungled so many tasks that she just wanted to go home but Ralen insisted she stay. What choice did she have, anyway, she thought, he was her ride home.
The small light craft was outfitted for eight plus the two person flight crew. Ralen invited Avril to sit up front with him since the other passengers were couples.
“You’ll be bored back there by yourself. Besides, I could use the help.”
Avril frowned,
“I don’t know anything about aircraft and I wasn’t much help while you were prepping, either,” she said
Ralen shrugged and turned to welcome the other passengers,
“You can always climb over if you change your mind,” he said as he greeted the first couple and told them where to sit.

The Ariel tour took them on and east-west parallel and highlighted the colonies. Many of the settlers chose the now defunct volcanic craters to house them, as the rim rock was a natural barrier from the heat and sandstorms. Lafayette 10 was recovering from mineral pirating over millennia ago. Advanced techniques in modern terraforming and restoration proved that planets like this one could eventually be nursed from the brink.

Avril looked up from her holo display to find Ralen facing her in his seat.
“Don’t worry, we’re in a holding pattern until I get clearance to land,” he said.
Avril looked out the portal,
“Is that where we’re going on the lava boat?”
“Yes, we’ll be cleared to land in a few minutes, the port will bring us in by tractor beam.”
Avril watched the air commerce
“This is ten times busier than Strata,” she commented, as another small craft crossed the airspace beneath them.
“Lava City is a tourist’s dream, if you like that sort of thing,” he said.
“Oh? What do you mean?”
“Anything you desire is down there,” he said, “legal and illegal things, if you know what I mean.”
Avril blushed when she realized what he implied. Ralen chuckled

The craft began its descent and the remote tower announced the docking procedure. Ralen touched her knee
“Here we go, welcome to Lava City.”

The lava City spaceport provided Avril with the proof she needed to take what Ralen had said seriously. There were thousands of species milling around in the spaceport and she even thought she saw a few of her own people but couldn’t be sure because they wore environmental suits to keep the low oxygen, moist atmosphere circulating. She could be sure, though, that one was male and the other female, apparent by the size and shape of the suits. As far as she knew, she was the only one of her kind here and she didn’t like knowing there were others around. The only one who didn’t hate her for being so different was her mother.
“Do you know them?”
She started, turning to find Ralen looking at her, an unreadable expression on his face.
“What? Oh, no, just, well, a little homesick, I guess.”
Ralen nodded, watching the couple move past. Avril couldn’t help noticing that he was more than a little interested in them and it made her uncomfortable.
“Time for the tour,: he said, braking off his observation and gesturing to the kiosk leading to the boarding area.

The craft was narrow and cramped and the group had to climb a ladder to access the cockpit area. Ralen, as usual, loaded them back to front. When it was her turn, Ralen proffered a hand, and then pulled her up so strongly that she lost her footing and landed against him. He caught her and kept them both from falling into the cramped cockpit. She tried to get her arms working and push away from him but only managed to grab his buttocks.
“Oh, sorry,” she muttered, her face flaming with embarrassment.
“Are you okay?” he asked, steadying her, his hands on her shoulders.
She nodded, to embarrassed to look up at him. He took her chin in his hand and tilted her face.
“Look at me,” he said, his voice low.
She looked up at him, I’m a nice guy, honest, I don’t bite.” he said, then let her go and climbed into his seat.

The lava ride was the most thrilling experience Avril had with the exception of playing in the river Falls back home. The craft was an insulated hovercraft, riding the thermals above the floe 1000 feet below. Ralen expertly maneuvered the river with confidence and his narrative kept everyone entertained. The spontaneous tendrils of exploding molten orange kicked up by the fast moving lava reminded Avril of her homeland, and she soon lost herself in memories and felt a bit homesick.
Then she noticed Ralen’s level of concentration as he piloted the craft in the thermals.
Avril watched him, his excitement infectious. By the end of the ride, she was breathing as heavily as he was and when he turned to look at her, she smiled,
“That was wonderful,” she said, reaching out to squeeze his forearm. The other passengers were all clapping and nodding in agreement.
• *

“Avril, wake up, you’re home,” came Ralen’s voice as he shook her awake.
She sat up In the Rover and looked around. They were parked in front of her complex, the solar panels reflecting the twilight like soft silver. She must have fallen asleep on the ride back home. She turned her head and met his eyes. She could see them now, free of the UV shields that hid their true color. They were as blue as Hepson’s ocean, vibrant blue rimmed in black.
He kissed her, and then sat back.
She sat there in the Rover, her lips burning from the contact. After a moment, she remembered her manners.
“Thank you for such a great time, and for the rides,” she said, popping her seatbelt and opening the door. The hydraulics complied with a hiss.
“No problem, Avril. Call me if you want to see me again,” he said.
She stopped, turning back to face him,
“Do you want to see me again?”
“You have my number,”
“Okay then, I’ll call you,” she said, then walked to her unit.

When she got in and undressed, she felt the quiet desert night replace the day’s excitement and she was able to relax. She heated a meal and adjusted the thermostat up a few degrees before checking her box. Ralen’s name appeared. She tapped the icon and read the message.
‘You look great without your eye shields.’
She smiled, exited the message and set her alarm. The split shift at the mining facility was only hours away.
• * *
Avril considered calling Ralen many times during the next few weeks but could not bring herself to even approach the com unit without panicking. She just didn’t know what to say or how to act. She only knew that hshe wanted to be near him. She stopped going to the gym and worked out at home instead to avoid the anxiety being near him provoked because it was just too intense.

Hepson was a semi-aquatic world and she was it’s freak. She was prevented from learning all but the essentials or what could be sent via a com unit approved by her parents. She just didn’t know how to relate to anyone who was not either a co-worker or a superior. That was the one element of her life that she depended upon, her work ethic and intellect. It’s what got her off Hepson and would, she hoped, provide her with some direction on Lafayette 10. But she was at a complete loss as to what to do about Ralen.

Then one day it resolved itself. Avril was just about to leave for her shift when the security monitor bleeped. It was Ralen’s rover,
“Hey Avril, want a lift to work?”
His voice sounded like he wasn’t the least bit upset she hadn’t called since the day of the tour.
She took a deep breath,
“Yes, thanks. I’ll be right out,” she replied and popped in her eye shields and grabbed her satchel.
No time for anxiety, she thought, cramming on her sun hat after thumming the lock on her door.

Ralen was smiling when she stepped into the Rover but waited until she was secured before speaking.
“I thought maybe you forgot to call me,” he said, piloting the rover back the way he’d come.
Avril played with the strap on her satchel and said nothing. She wanted to say a million things but couldn’t find the right words. Ralen directed the rover to the mining depot where Avril worked before continuing.
“Listen, if you don’t like me, just say so.”
“I like you,” she said, still fiddling with the strap on the satchel, “I, um, I’m not very good at these things.”
She crept a look over at him from the corner of her eye. He was watching her watching him.
“so, just a little shy, is that it?”
“Yes,” she agreed, turning to meet his gaze more fully.
“But you like me?”
Nod.
“Dating okay?”
Nod.
“Good, I’ll pick you up after your shift, then, and maybe by then you’ll be able to tell me more about yourself.”
Avril smiled,
“I’d like that.”

She left the rover and entered the lobby of her office building, catching a glimpse of herself in the reflection off the mirrored security wall. For the first time, Avril touched her face because she was smiling.

• * *
“She was meant to die,” hissed Simsu, reading the mail from his wife’s ebox, “You let her go and now your actions have disgraced us.”
Luuma said nothing, her secondary gills quivering, the only clue to her discomfort. Simsu made her sit before him , berating her with words and a kick or two to emphasize his anger.
“You are lucky you gave me sons first or I’d have left you for dead when you gave birth to our freak.”
Luuma knew that the only reason he let them both live was to exploit them. She sent her daughter away to save her from being sold to a gypsy. Luuma had outsmarted him by putting Avril on a deep space transport destined for a planet she hoped would save her daughter’s life. Her own life meant nothing now and she was ready for whatever her husband was going to do. Simsu seemed to read her thoughts, his rubbery lips grinned, revealing the baleen like teeth,
“You think you’ve saved her, well, wife, we’ll see about that. “
She glanced at him, risking another kick for such boldness.
He laughed,
“That’s right, wife, I’ve called in a favor. A lunar cycle from now, your beloved little freak will be dead.”
Luumla said nothing, turned away from Siimsu and asked,
“It is as you say, husband.”
He grunted and struck out at her again but it was half hearted.
“Bring me food. Ttomorrow you will thank me for sparing your life.”
Ten minutes later Luumla served her husband, kneeling by his side at the low table as he ate, and then as he died, the poison working quickly to paralyze his heart. When she was sure he was gone, she ate her share. Her last thought was that the poison didn’t hurt, which was disappointing because she wanted the horrid beast who was supposed to be her husband to suffer before dying.

***

Ralen waited for Avril in the mining company’s main lobby, his eyes on the public holo , his ears, however, listened to the gurgling swoosh of an elderly evo suit behind him. Ralen recognized the suit from the day he took Avril and the other tourists on the Lava City tour. Two people in junkyard suits appeared at the spaceport that day and one of them was here again today . He positioned himself so he could unobtrusively inspect the off-worlder’s reflection in the mirror finished wall beside the public holo. Ralen noticed the suit’s apparent age, as if the wearer had thrown it together from bits and pieces of other suits. The form fitting helmet and face plate made it hard to tell the sex of the suit’s wearer, though he was sure it was male. It was definitely the same suit, apparent by the unique patchwork of bonding tape and sealant.

Normally he would have passed the off-worlder without a second glance, however, it was Avril’s reaction when seeing them in the spaceport that day that made him take note of them. She looked surprised and even a little afraid. That got him thinking back to the conversations he and Avril had as they returned from the tour in his Rover. By then, he’d guessed that she was here because she was tired of living with an air scrubber glued to her face, but he asked anyway.
“So, why are you here? Don’t Hepsonites need moist air to live?””
“I’m not like the others. I don’t have gills.”
She gathered her hair and looked at Ralen, hesitating a microsecond before lifting it up to reveal indentations where her gills should have bben. She turned in her seat to give him the full effect. The indentations were on either side of her throat, just under the jawline below her button-shaped ears.
Ralen reached out and traced the indentation with a finger. Avril turned away, letting her hair fall back over her shoulders.
“My mother made me leave. She said I’d die if I stayed any longer. She said my home world would kill me.
“Kill you?”
Avril shrugged.
“It was hard to breathe.” She added, then changed the subject.
Soon after that, she’d fallen asleep. And he’d never gotten the chance to ask her why she didn’t introduce herself to the other Hepsonites.
He thought it odd that the two Hepsonites in the spaceport just happened to show up when she was there. Ralen hadn’t met any of her kind since living on Lafeyette 10, which was his entire life so far. He knew Avril was from Hepson because he made it his priority to find out about newcomers for his business. When he saw her, however, he was attracted to her exotic looks.She was slim, narrow hipped and her face was taken up by a large eyes and mouth and a petite flattened nose. Her skin was the color of cream. To Ralen her features were a welcome change from the broad tanned obvious faces of his kind.
He watched the off-worlder through his reflective vantage point and waited. A few minutes before Avril’s shift ended the junkyard suited man left. Ralen tailed him as far as the outer archway, feeling uneasy.
He scanned the area in front of the mining company once more, then shrugged to himself and returned to wait for Avril.

She saw him as soon as she stepped off the lift, his tangle of platinum hair seemed to glow in the refracted light from the mirrored lobby. She resisted the impulse to throw herself into his arms and instead gave him a quick hug and kiss. He popped in his eye shields and gestured toward the exit,
“I hope you’re hungry, we’ve got reservations at The Rim,” he said steering her out and into the lift to the parking garage.
“What’s The Rim?” she asked, twisting her hair and shoving it under her hat.
“He smiled like a little boy with a secret,
“It’s a surprise,” he said.
They walked to the rover and got in and were soon out of the city and skimming the open red-tinged landscape of the outer limits of Strata.

Avril soon discovered that The Rim was a restaurant perched atop the highest natural rock tower just outside the west rim of the crater. The entire structure reminded Avril of a mushroom with an abnormally long stem. It took only a few minutes to reach the top via seated lifts which corkscrewd the tower’s outer surface. The ride provided a splendid view of the crator’s landscape.
“It’s beautiful,” Said Avril, taking it all in as if she was a little girl in a land of candied confection.
Dinner was a work in progress for both Avril and Ralen; he explained the foreign sounding entrees, drinks, and desserts to her with patience.
“My home world wasn’t exactly a cosmopolitan place to live,” she said, taking another sip of the house wine, “thanks for expanding my horizons.”
Ralen pointed to another piece of land crab she’d pushed aside,
“Are you going to eat that?” he asked.
“I’m full, go for it.” She smiled and pushed the plate to him.
The ice cream was her favorite and Ralen mentioned that there was a great ice cream kiosk near the mining company and offered to make that their next date.
“I’d like that, we could go on my break, if you’re not doing tours that day.”

• * *

The Rover sped through the desert night. Avril noticed the land traffic here was much heavier than on the outskirts of Strata.
“I’m stuffed, thank you so much for dinner.”
“Want to stop for a drink?”
“I take it this is a normal part of the dating thing, right?”
Ralen laughed, “Yes, it sure is. How about a cactus Daqri?” he suggested, heading the Rover to a brightly lit bar fronted with a dancing neon holo of a frothy concoction overflowing a stemmed glass.
“It’s not ice cream but it’s cool and tasty, trust me,” he added, nudging the rover into a spot and popping the doors.
The bar was crowded but Ralen found two seats. Hhe ordered two cactus Daqeris.
The android bartender placed the drinks in front of them and debited Ralen’s account, then left.
“Ever drink alcohol?” he asked, watching Avril’s reaction after taking a sip
“Yummy,” she said, licking her lips.
“Ever see a bunch of drunk fish? That’s about fifty percent of my homeworld. Fermentation and distilling are mainstays there.”
Ralen laughed,

He wasn’t a drinker and preferred a few beers but only while not working. He didn’t want to come off as a wimp, but he had to be up early for a two-day tour out beyond Lava City. After the second drink, he sat back and stifled a yawn.
“Let’s call it a night, okay? I have to pilot another Lava City tuor and I need some rest”
She looked disappointed but got up and let him put an arm around her. A few steps later, her arm was draped around his waist and they walked out, arm in arm.
Avril was just settling into the Rover when her voice comm unit Beeped. She glanced at the display and frowned.
“What is it?” Ralen asked.
“It’s my security droid. It’s reporting that someone’s trying to get in to my place.”
?Did it notify the police?”
“yes,” she nodded, tapping in a reply “I just told them I’ll be right there.”
“Ralen backed out of the spot and set the navigation for Averil’s complex and hit the accellirator.

“Before we get there, I’ve got something to tell you,” Ralen began,”I was hoping to tell you this another time but I guess now’s the best time considering what’s just happened.”
Avril looked out the Rover’s window, her mind racing with anxiety. Was he going to tell her he didn’t want to see her anymore? She didn’t know what to say and waited him out.
“I’m a clone. The Sheriff is the guy who cloned me.”
Avril looked through the windshield,
:We’re here already, that was fast.”
“Did you hear what I just said?”
“yes, and it doesn’t matter, Ralen. Do you know why?”
He shook his head, “No, so tell me.”
“It doesn’t matter because I was once a tadpole that swam around in goop.”
Then they looked at each other and laughed until Avril felt tears running down her cheeks.
The rover’s brakes got them back into the moment. Itslid in next to the Sheriff’s vehicle and they got out. Sheriff Marion Fisk was there to greet them, a look of surprise came and went across his face in a flash when he saw Ralen. The two men gave the same nod of acknowledgment.
“Miss Ozmalut?” Sheriff Fisk said, holding out the I.D. pad.
Yes,” she said, thumbing the pad to confirm her identity.
He scanned the data and then looked up,
“Whoever did this was not a professional or they would have actually opened the door. As it is, only the lock has been broken.”
“What can I do? I can’t stay here without security.”
“I’ll stay and we’ll get it repaired tomorrow.” Said Ralen, “unless you can suggest something else, of course, Sheriff.”
Avril looked from one to the other, they were twins, the only difference was in age. The Sheriff was heavier and looked much older.
“I can’t keep watch with my men, if that’s what you mean, Ralen. I’ve got the city to worry about.”
“Right, I forgot the city gets all the attention.”
“Thank you, Sheriff, we’ll be fine, I’m sure of it.” She said, putting a hand on Ralen’s forarm. It seemed to calm him down,
“Right, let us know when we can go in, then. We’ll be in the rover.”

The Sheriff and his assistant left a short time later and As Avril made a late night tea, Ralen set up a simple security beam over the door with a kit he’d left in the Rover.
“It’ll be loud if it goes off but that’s it.”
Avril was sitting next to him on the futon,
“Thanks,” she said, taking the empty cup , “now try to get some sleep.” She kissed his cheek and went to the bedroom and closed the door.

Ralen left as soon as the sun rose, passing the repair droid on the way to the Rover. As the droid worked, Avril drowsed on the futon. Wondering why someone would break in, as she had nothing of value. She’d left most of her things behind in the rush to get off Hepson. She reset the alarm after the droid reported it was repaired and tested, then she went back to bed. She snapped awake, realizing she didn’t hear her usual wake-up music. She sat up, looked at the clock and cursed, she was going to be late for her shift if she didn’t get moving. She threw on some clothes, gulped down her vitamins, and grabbed her satchel and hat. She thumbed open the door and was tackled by a white blur.
****

Avril heard the evo suit’s breathing equipment as she woke and her hand went to her face, expecting to find the air scrubber attached. She was confused for a moment when she couldn’t find it, her mind snapping to attention once she realized it wasn’t her air scrubber making those sounds. Then she remembered everything else and opened her eyes.
She saw the patched evo suit and heard the suits labored crinkle which meant the filters needed cleaning.
“Ah, so you are finally awake,” said a voice heavy with the Hepsonite gurgle all the planet’s inhabitants had developed due to air escaping the secondary gills while speaking.
“I thought I’d given you too much of the sedative,” he said, “I want to say a few things before I have to kill you.”
His words brought the last few hours back to her all at once and she almost cried out as the events played out in her mind.
She was on her way to work, opening the door, and felt a sharp pain in her thigh. She looked down. As her hand began to pull out the needle, she felt the unmistakable sensation of the sedative and she tried to get back in the apartment and shut the door but it was too late. She grabbed the door frame and stumbled into the smaller of the two intruders blocking her from leaving the apartment. The Hepsonite tried to steady her but Avril had no control of her limbs and fell against the other, slamming the smaller woman into the wall. Avril heard something inside the suit’s pack give way under them and the woman let her go, hands flying to her suit controls. Avril’s legs weren’t working. She got to her hands and knees to crawl away but a booted foot caught her in the ribs and sent her sprawling into the kitchen alcove. Her head hit the corner of the wall and she saw stars before losing consciousness.

Avril looked around, not seeing the female Hepsonite, and realized she didn’t even know where they were. The first thing that came to her was why was someone trying to kill her? The man in the evo suit was watching her webbed hands uncovered, one hand held a wicked looking injection pistol that had been used to shoot her with the sedative.
He caught her interest in it and laughed,
“I’ve got your lethal dose right here, don’t you worry,” he said, waggling it like a toy.
“Why?” she asked, sitting up when she discovered only her feet were bound
“Why?” he laughed again, the gurgle adding a phlegm overtone, More than one reason, bitch. First for Siimsu, you are a disgrace to him and killing you will amend that. Second, for killing my mate, you know, the one you crushed in your dwelling.”
. She thought she would never hear that phlegm soaked gurgle ever again. She hated it so much it made her physically sick. She swallowed down the nausea “I was told to give you a message before you die, he looked at her but the suit’s face plate blocked Avril from seeing his eyes. “Your father wants you to know that he thinks you would have made a wonderful whore. It will be an honor for me to kill you.”
Avril looked down, noticing the dried blood on her hands and shirt. She remembered hitting her head and found the tender spot at her hairline just above her forehead. She shifted and pain shot through her left side where the man had kicked her into submission. It was always her mother who was battered by her father; protecting Avril by saying she was too delicate for beatings. Siimsu would add a few kicks to compensate, adding that she was right; Avril’s selling price would go down if she was damaged. This Hepsonite man was no different than her father. All of them were oppressive and prone to violence. She supposed being brought to death by chemical injection was better than being beaten but she wasn’t ready to give in, not yet. Her mother risked her own life to save hers and Avril wasn’t going to let this slimy off warder kill her without a fight. She liked her life, her job, and even being pursued by Ralen was becoming quite pleasant. She had a lot to live for, in fact.

She looked at the injection pistol, the man’s webbed fingers, all six of them, awkwardly covered it, his single jointed thumb barely able to rest on the safety toggle.
He laughed, waggling the pistol at her, mistaking her interest as fear.
She looked up at him,
“Your suit sounds like it needs new scrubbers,”
“My suit’s fine, bitch,”
He got up
“If you let me live, I’ll repair it for you, I’ve got the supplies at home.”
“I’m not an idiot; I know you design the breathing packs for the mining company.” He said, his breathing seeming even more labored than before. The crinkle became a squeak and his hands went to adjust the moisture pump. He looked down and tried to shift his grip on the pistol when Avril rushed him, knocking the pistol from his hand. They toppled backwards over the chair he had been sitting on, the pistol skidding across the floor.
She rolled off of him and kicked out with her bound feet, the blow breaking something inside his suit. The gasping sound got louder and he got up, searching for the pistol. They both saw it at the same moment but Avril grabbed the chair and swung, sending him slamming into one of the stone walls. She scrambled for the pistol and pointed it at him but he was not standing and she could barely hear the suit working. She took stock of the room for the first time, her hands shaking, her mind still feeling the rush of adrenaline. The door leading from the room was simple and she opened it, surprised it was the basement storage of her apartment complex. She hobbled out and shut the door, then took off her shoes and wiggled out of the bindings. She rubbed her ankles until they stopped burning and put her shoes back on. She shaded her eyes from the sun and followed the path to the front of the complex, the gun still in her hand

Ralen saw her come out from behind the main building, her hand shading her eyes. He had his comm. Out and was jjust about to call the Sheriff’s office but stopped when he saw her limping toward him.
“Avril?’ he said, his voice cracking. .
She stopped and looked at him, then she broke into a lurching trot. He rushed to her and she clung to him; for the first time in her life, she felt safe.

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