There's an old cliché; the more things change, the more they stay the same.

            It's true.

            You would think that after doing something big and profound like, say, saving the universe, one would get a new way of looking at the very thing you've saved. And I admit, in the years since, certain things had changed. Starwind and Hawking had become a 'mobile' company, because that more opportunities could be found in transit. Well, we had also been evicted from our previous residence, but that's beside the point.

             To tell the truth, I forgot the name of the planet we were on when this all happened: it was some little backwater rock without much culture and even less in the way of law enforcement. As per the usual, we were short on cash, so each did their own part to help out: Gene and Melfina went looking for potential jobs, Aisha and Suzuka both disappeared to somewhere or another to look for bounties on the rock, so naturally I was the one left to actually do some real work.

            In this case, 'real work' happened to be fence-riding. On a lot of little colony worlds, farming is often the main driving force behind the economy; this place was no exception. Farming means fences, both to keep domestic animals in and wild critters out; again, this planet was no exception. The main farming ranches had hundreds, if not thousands, of miles worth of the stuff. I had to admit, for some planet out in the middle of nowhere, they sure had a complex way of building fences. Instead of stringing up wire in-between fenceposts, each post was capable of creating a light shield that spanned the standard distance (100 yards) to the next post.

In order to make things easier for passing animals and travelers, each fencepost was rigged with a thermal sensor that could distinguish between what it let 'in' and what it let 'out'. Normally, the shields were set to 'off', saving quite a bit of energy in the process. However, if the thermal sensor detected the heat signature of a potential predator or of one of the domestic animals approaching, it would generate the shield for as long as necessary.

All in all, it was a very complex, yet efficient system.

Or at least that's the way it worked in theory. Making enough posts to enclose such a large area was, as one could expect, a very expensive endeavor. As a result, whoever designed this system opted to use the cheapest parts available. This meant that the sensors and shield generators were prone to break down at inopportune times.

That's where I came in.

Armed with my uncanny technical expertise, a toolbox, and an all-terrain motorcycle, it was up to me to ride the fences, testing each and every sensor-post out there, repairing things where needed. It was a boring, tedious, and lonely job, but the pay was good. Still, all that time out in the outdoors was a welcome change from being cooped up in the Outlaw Star. Being alone wasn't too bad either; it's another rarity on a spacegoing vessel.

As my luck would have it, I wasn't alone for long.

            It was my second day on the job, and I must've been at least a hundred miles away from the main settlement.  Post 8419-37C was located within the confines of a dense forest, (don't ask me how I remember its designation number, I just do) which dramatically slowed any attempt at vehicular transportation. The thermal sensor was on the fritz, refusing to recognize anything short of a small bonfire as something worthy of activating the fence. It was as I was tinkering with it that I heard the distinctive BANG! that's associated with the discharge of (from what my trained ears could tell me: I'd been in enough gunfights to identify all sorts of nasty ordinance) a large-caliber pistol.

            I instinctively dived for cover; a response nearly anyone picks up after associating with Gene Starwind for too long. A few moments passed, and silence pervaded throughout the forest. Once I determined that the bullets weren't flying my way, I stood again, glancing about, relieved. It was probably just some ranchers trying to scare off whatever predatory 'varmints' that lived on this planet.

            Or so I would've liked to think.

BANG! BANG!

Two more gunshots echoed throughout the forest, louder than the first. The ranchers were just getting closer, that was all. Still, I ducked down, so as not to get hit by stray fire: you never know how well these yokels could aim.

The situation only got worse from there. I should have caught the sound of running feet sooner, but I suppose that my ears' earlier exposure to the gunfire had temporarily thrown my sense of hearing out of whack. Next thing I knew, something big and blunt hit me in the ribs, knocking the wind out of me temporarily. I jerked my head up to see a blur of white falling over me. I briefly heard the distinctive sound of a high-pitched squeal to accompany this, but this was soon drowned out by a far more arresting sound.

BRAKABRAKABRAKABRAKABRAKABRAKABRAKABRAKABRAKA!

            With a dawning sense of dread, I quickly identified the sound as that of a large-bore machine gun. Ranchers and yokels don't own machine guns: they're expensive, inaccurate, and they burn through ammunition like nobody's business. The only people who would have automatic rifles out on a rock such as this one would have to be members of some sort of criminal organization. Mind racing, I started to wonder about who would go through all this trouble to shoot at me- It was depressing just how long that list turned out to be. Another advantage of playing sidekick to the dashing Gene Starwind, I suppose.

Lead slugs sliced through the trees, showering the forest floor with a flurry of finely-pulped wood splinters. Swearing, I quickly hauled my own gun – a small 9mm autoloader that Gene gave me awhile back – out of its concealed holster. Granted, it wouldn't do me much good against the kind of artillery that was being thrown about, but the feel of the pistol was reassuring, none the less.

"You have a gun?" quavered a rattled-sounding female voice. Blinking, I snapped my head towards the source. Crouched beside me in a disheveled heap was a blonde girl- probably somewhere in her mid teens -in a torn and dirty white jumpsuit, no doubt that she was the blur that had struck me just moments earlier. Under normal circumstances, I imagine that would have displayed a comical show of surprise at the girl's sudden materialization. However, when you're being shot at, things are put in a slightly different perspective.

"Get down!" I muttered forcefully, using my free hand to roughly force her head lower to the ground. This done, I risked a quick look at the situation. Two men, both clad in an eclectic combination of spacefaring equipment and more practical terrestrial gear, emerged from the treeline. The taller of the two cradled the machine gun while his shorter & stockier companion clutched an elegant-looking revolver in his fist. They both seemed as if they were looking for something. Or, to put it more accurately, someone.

I quickly brought my head back down before either of the pair could spot me, then spared another hasty glance at the girl huddled down next to me. I bit my lip, realizing that she was probably just as scared and confused as I was.

"Look," I attempted (unsuccessfully) to emulate that heroic and confident tone that Gene's always using. "Just, erm…stay quiet, keep your head down, and we can make it outta here alive."

She looked up at me and … smiled. It was a tentative one, but it showed that she somehow was willing to accept that I would indeed get her out of this dire situation. She nodded slowly, then went back to hiding behind the gnarled mass of roots that we were using as cover

I swallowed, though my mouth was dry, and pulled the bolt back on my pistol, cycling a round into the chamber. Couldn't hurt to be ready, I supposed. Even still, I hoped to get out of the situation with a minimum of gunfire, if at all possible. I winced at the soft 'click' this produced: it sounded far too loud in given situation. I don't know if the two gunmen heard my gun or not, but what I do know is that an uncomfortable silence pervaded throughout the forest for a few long moments.

That's when the girl sneezed. Loudly.

Mr. Machine Gun took this as a cue to start spewing more lead across the area. I swore, sorely wishing that Gene or Aisha or Suzuka or SOMEBODY would just step out from behind a handy tree and shoot him for me. Unfortunately, nothing of the sort happened. Fortunately, Mr. Machine Gun's namesake ran dry a few moments, as evidenced by a loud 'click' and some obscenities on his part.

Knowing fully well this could be my only 'opening' I sprang up and pulled back on the trigger, causing the gun to jump in my hand. The two gunmen turned towards me, bringing their weapons to bear. Fortunately for me, they weren't quite fast enough, for a bright flash of light with an accompanying crackle of raw energy quickly enveloped them for a moment, then sent them crashing down to the ground.

  I blinked, glancing down at my gun: I had fired only one shot, and I damn well knew that my handgun didn't pack nearly that kind of firepower. And yet, those two guys were laid out over the ground, sizzling.

"Oh. My. God." The girl's voice murmured from behind me, "How did you do that?"  I had to admit, it was a good question.

"Well, I, erm…" I stammered, glancing around. It was then that a small plume of smoke caught my eye. Following it downwards, I traced the plume to its source: fencepost 8419-37C. I blinked, then finally laughed, looking back to the blond. "I shot the fencepost's sensor, y'see, and the heat from the bullet set it off…and since those guys were inbetween the posts, they got caught in the light shield and…erm…got zapped."

"Are they…dead?" She murmured, wringing her hands.

Gun at the ready, I walked over, nudging Mr. Machine Gun lightly with my booted foot. He groaned. "Nope. But I think they'll be out for awhile…"

"I see." Blond girl sounded almost disappointed. I gave her a cautious look, finally realizing that I had just risked my life for a girl whose name I didn't even know yet. "Err, I'm Jim." I offered, lamely.

"My name's Helen." She replied in a hushed tone. I'm not sure why, but there was something about the look in her eye that made my face flush. Feeling my features go hot, I quickly turned my attention back to the two gunmen, taking the opportunity to bind them with duct tape and relieve them of their weapons. "So…who the hell are these guys?" I asked.

"Slavers." She replied with no lack of vehemence in her tone. I was struck speechless, not for the first time since all this trouble started. Slavery was a practiced that was universally reviled by most major powers throughout the universe; even pirates frowned on it. Still, on a lot of the outlying worlds, slavery, in some form or another, was practiced. Only the most depraved and desperate criminals took up the practice of slaving. They had to be, I suppose; I don't see how anyone with a developed conscience could truly justify kidnapping and selling little children. All things considered, they weren't the kind of folks one would normally want to run afoul of.

Judging from the two slavers I had just laid out across the forest floor, I just did.

I ran my free hand through my hair as a far-too-familiar sense of dread rose in my belly. Still, I fought it down; I had been in worse situations and survived, this would be no different. I would just have to call the Outlaw Star, and the cavalry would come, take care of the slavers, collect the bounty, and then we all would fly off into the starset.

            This in mind, I tucked my gun back into its holster and started fishing around in my pocket for my phonelink. What my hand returned with was a few shards of cracked plastic and circuitry. I blinked, quickly slapping the several other pockets tucked away in my attire to confirm that I hadn't stuck the phone somewhere else; I hadn't. Wincing, I looked back to the parts in my hand. Apparently, I had landed on the phone during one of my previous frantic dives for cover. It was strange that I hadn't noticed the feeling at the time, but adrenaline does strange things to one's senses, after all. Broken phone or no, it didn't matter; there was a radio on my motorcycle that I could use.

            I should have caught the smell of gasoline earlier, but I didn't. Again, most of my attention was directed at not getting killed just a few moments before. As a result, the sight of my rented motorcycle with more holes in it than the plot of a badly-written novel came as a complete shock. "Uh oh."

            "Uh oh?" Helen fairly squeaked "Uh oh's never a good thing to hear"

            "It means we're gonna be walking." I noted. As if to prove my point, the remains of the motorcycle burst into flame- ignited by a sparking transmission wire, no doubt. I swore. If the sounds of gunfire hadn't drawn the attention of the other slavers (as I was sure there were more) the column of acrid black smoke climbing from what was once my main source of transportation would.

            "Which way did you come from?" I asked Helen, still trying to be levelheaded, despite the rapidly-degrading situation. She blinked her big blue eyes at me, finally raising a hand to indicate her trail. "Good." I noted, grabbing her hand to start running in the opposite direction.

            I grew tired after a few minutes of crashing through the woods, yet I pressed on. Now, I'm not really out of shape. Somehow, being associated with Gene tends to be more than adequate exercise. I'm used to running; from debtors, from pirates, from bounty hunters, from assassins, from androids, and even from a couple of irked ex-girlfriends of Gene's. Most of the time during these escapes, I was covering relatively flat and paved terrain. The forest I was running through, however, was neither paved nor flat. Naturally, the assorted rocks, fallen branches, and protruding roots didn't do much to help my escape. Having to pull Helen (who didn't seem to be as experienced as running away as I was) along was another hindrance. To top it all off, a good seven pounds of submachine gun hung from a sling over my left shoulder, slapping me in the ribs with each stride.

            Gradually, my pace slowed. It got to the point where each step I took was much slower than its predecessor, as if gravity had taken a strange and cruel vacation from its normal tendencies only to make things harder for me.

Sad thing is, with the kind of people I hang out with, that quite well could be a possibility, under other circumstances. 

Finally, we stopped. As much as I'd like to say that it was a smart decision on my part, it wasn't. I had just tripped at an opportune moment and fell down, hard. Luckily for Helen, I was there to break her fall. Exhausted, the two of us remained in a sweaty and uncomfortable heap for quite some time. Under normal (well, normal for me, at the least) circumstances, the sensation of having a blonde around my own age lying on top of me would have at least elicited a blush- possibly even quite the flustered reaction. But at that current moment, I was too damn tired to care.

            Lamely, I attempted conversation. "So, ah … just what's a nice gal like you doing in a place like this?" The words escaped my lips before I even knew I said them- I'd been hanging around Gene for far too long. Either due to her gratefulness of my saving her earlier, or just to her own tired condition Helen didn't notice (or didn't care about) the cliché pick up line, so I didn't get a slap to the face, a drink down the pants, or a knee to the groin. All and all, I could honestly say that I was doing better than Gene, for once.

            "I…I'm not sure." Helen stammered "I mean, they-" mentally, I assumed that 'they' were the slavers "Accidentally left my cell unlocked one night- they were drunk. Not expecting us to run…after all, where do you go on a ship? But I…I could smell the fresh air. They didn't count on that, so…I ran."

            I nodded, even though she probably couldn't see the gesture, given the fact we were still piled atop each other like two extremely tired sacks of potatoes. "How many others were there?" I asked, tiredly.

            "I…I'm not sure. Twenty, maybe more. Maybe less." She stammered.

            "Okay…and crew?" I figured that the information might come in handy for later reference, once I decided to devise a plan more complex than 'run like hell'.  Yet another side effect of being Gene's sidekick had turned me into quite the amateur tactician. Of course, most of the time, these plans allowed more capable folks to be in the line of fire.

            "Seven, I think. I could be wrong."

            "Including the two mooks who were chasing you?"

            "Yes."

            "Alright." I chewed on the inside of my cheek as thought on these facts. Five to one- not the best of odds, but I had been in worse situations- Just not on my own. Despite the submachine gun I had liberated, I was fairly certain that the advantage of greater firepower was on their side. Still, I had the advantage of surprise and a better knowledge of the land- or at least I thought I did. Provided these guys had landed for impromptu repairs, I was set. Still, there was the off chance that this planet was actually a waypoint of theirs in some galactic slaving route. If it was, they most likely knew every ridge and copse for quite some distance. Of course, if they did, one might imagine that they'd have cut us off at the pass or something equally tactical by now.  

            I mentally chipped away at this problem, finally concluding that, even if the 'Bad Guys' knew the surrounding terrain or not, laying around on the forest floor was hardly the wisest of options. So, I pushed myself back up to my feet- with the sudden movement, Helen seemed to get the same idea and stood as well, albeit a tad shakily. Not like one could blame her- gunshot-ridden chases are hell on the nerves.

            Without warning, it began to rain. It wasn't just a drizzle, either- it was as if some divine entity had suddenly turned on some equally divine showerhead, instantaneously drenching everything that lay below in a torrent of cold water. For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, I allowed myself a grin. Such weather would wash away the trail that Helen and I left as we tear-assed through the foliage. On the other hand, such weather also drenched in a matter of seconds.

            With the added incentive of finding a place to get out of the rain in mind, we pushed further into the forest. The driving force of the precipitation created a foggy haze to blunder through, lending the trees an eerie appearance. It wasn't before long that the two of us came across the old barn. The building was a battered old affair, its paint stripped away by years of weathering. Numerous gaps could be seen in the plank walls, and even from a distance one could see that part of the roof had collapsed, with the rest threatening to follow suit at a moment's notice. Furthermore, the near-ancient structure was most likely home to any number of rats, mice, insects, and other parasitic animals with pointy teeth.

            In short, it was the lap of luxury, given the alternative.

            Helen and I clambered into the old structure and actually found a patch of hay that hadn't been saturated with moisture. To tell the truth, I should have stayed awake and acted as some sort of a guard, but once I plunked myself down in the relatively warm material, unconsciousness overtook in a matter of moments.

            First thing I was aware of at the next moment was the pleasant feeling of something warm  and soft clinging to my torso. I cracked my eyes open and sucked in a deep lungful of hay scented air. I took in my surroundings slowly, verifying that I was indeed still in the barn; both a good and a bad thing. On the positive side, we hadn't been captured during the night by the slavers. Then again, the whole escapade hadn't been a dream that left me back in my safe berth on the Outlaw Star, either. From the sound of it, the rain had let up considerably while I was out, having lessened to the occasional 'plink' against the ramshackle structure's metal roof. I don't know how long I was out, but through a chink in the boards, I saw a handful of stars shine. I grinned to myself, my mood increased exponentially by however many hours of sleep I had grabbed. Lazily, my eyes drifted across the interior of the darkened shed for lack of anything better to do. Most of the room was filled with piles of golden hay, undoubtedly for the livestock industry of the planet. There were a few rusty & unidentifiable farm implements hung upon the walls, while draped over one particular pile of stuff lay a strip of dirty white cloth. I simply wrote it off as some discarded rag or tarp as I continued to glance about.

            I was wrong.

            Finally, my eyes ventured down to my own straw-encased frame. The material was surprisingly warm for just a bunch of genetically engineered cow food. It was as I was considering the properties of this stuff as insulation that I finally noticed the true source of warmth: a vaguely Helen-shaped lump in the straw melded up against my prone form. My eyes flicked back to the white cloth some distance away, which, upon further investigation, turned out to be the very jumpsuit that Helen was wearing when she first tripped over me in the forest.

            A quick glance to the Helen-shaped lump against me verified that it was indeed Helen, and that she was indeed no longer wearing said jumpsuit- or much else, for that matter.

            Now, I'll admit, I'm young. I'm not too young, however, and I'm not naïve. I'm no stranger to female nudity: Mel does have to strip down when she goes 'tubing', and Aisha tears through her wardrobe every time she gets royally pissed off. Hell, even without such extreme circumstances, it's hard to live on a cramped ship like the Outlaw star without accidentally (or in Gene's case, not-so-accidentally) blundering across your crewmates in various states of undress.

            Even still, the sight and sensation of a nude and curvaceous girl of about my age using me as an impromptu cuddle-toy was something entirely new to me. So, in that particular situation, I did the first thing that came to mind: I panicked. A combination of shock and fear rooted me in place as my entire body tensed, as if readying itself for a physical blow. Helen didn't seem to notice, as she merely looked up at me with a pair of grey eyes and a grin. "About time you woke up."

            Those five words were enough to snap me out of my shocked paralysis, and I quickly took the opportunity to roll out of her arms and to my feet. It was a quick and sudden move, and I sincerely doubt that I could've moved faster even if I had been shot at. Eyes wide, I hysterically (and obviously) stammered "You- you…you're naked!" A thought struck me, and I quickly checked myself over to verify that I wasn't in the same state. Thankfully, my attire was just as it had been hours earlier, down to the submachine gun dangling from a shoulder strap.

            "I was cold." Helen stated, nonchalantly, as if it would explain the entire situation away. It didn't.

            "Isn't the regular practice to put clothes on in that case?"

            "My jumpsuit was soaked-" she sat up, not really bothering to cover herself. "Took it off to let it dry."

            "Still doesn't explain why you were all over me like a cheap suit."

            "You were warm!" she protested "Besides, you didn't seem to mind." She giggled girlishly.

            "I wasn't even AWAKE!"

            "Details." She giggled further. "Besides, I know at least part of you liked it, if you know what I mean." She waved a hand vaguely in my direction, gesturing to a certain part of my anatomy below my waist.

            I blinked, then glanced downward towards said area. "That was my gun!" I protested.

            "If that's what you want to call it."

To tell the truth, I had stuffed the revolver into a pants pocket earlier and forgotten about it since. In defense, I pulled the weapon out to defend my point. "Get your damn mind out of the gutter!" I snapped "We've got bigger things to worry about right now than either of our sex lives!

 This done, with A flushed expression on my face, I crossed the small confines of the shed and tossed Helen her ragged bit of clothing, heaving a heavy sigh. "Just…get dressed." I tried not to linger for too long on Helen's attire (or lack therof) as the elements of a plan, clear after a few hours rest "We've gotta go."

***

            It was easy enough to see where the ship had landed- its descent had left the landscaped burnt and scorched for at least two miles. We followed this obvious trail to find the slaver ship settled down in the middle of a large field, its garish yellow and Red checkered hull impudently clashing with the dull and natural colors of the flora surrounding it. From the look of the hull structure, I concluded that it might have once been a simple dropship, heavily modified for interstellar travel. There was only one guard outside of the ship- casually circling the spacecraft. Every few hours the sentry would be relieved by a companion from the inside of the vessel. After observing about four of these exchanges, I finally turned to Helen, who still managed to stay fairly attractive despite the multiple layers of dirt and sweat that covered her frame.

            "I've got a plan." I muttered, trying to keep my voice down.

            "Oh?" She noted "Didn't you say that earlier, when you decided we should backtrack?"

            "Well…yes. But that was different."

            "How?"

            "Well, it was just a smaller component of a far-reaching plan."

            "Then why have we been hiding and watching for the last few hours? Didn't you know what you were going to do?"

            "Reconnaissance. Duh."

            She rolled her eyes in an all too feminine manner, finally asking "Well, what's the plan, then?"

            "Well, they've got quite a few vents open- I don't blame them, either. It's standard practice to air out ships after a long voyage. This gives us an opening. We sneak in through that vent on the starboard side-" I pointed "-and from there, we sneak into the command module through the ventilation system, lock ourselves in, and call for help. My friends arrive, beat them up, we collect a bounty, and you and your friends can go free."
            "What about the guard? Won't he notice us crawling in?"

            "That's why we sneak in when they're changing shifts."

            Helen seemed to accept this, then finally allowed her eyes to look meaningfully towards the submachine gun still hanging from a strap slung over my shoulder. "What if they find us."

            "Well then, we, ah…shoot them."

            "We?"

            I gnawed at the inside of my cheek hesitantly, then finally pulled my automatic from its holster, offering it to Helen butt-first. "Saftey's on." I indicated the small switch next to the trigger guard. "If things get…nasty, flick that switch, point, and pull the trigger. There's twelve rounds left in it, that should be enough. I'm not planning on getting into any firefights anyways. Don't use it unless it's ABSOLUTELY necessary, either. We're trying to be sneaky here, got it?"

            She looked hesitantly down at the offered pistol, then finally took it. The angular weapon looked incredibly out of place in her delicate, dirt-smudged hand. Of course, I've never really thought of firearms as fashion accessories, and I never will. It didn't really matter. Even still, I sincerely hoped that Helen'd never have to use that gun.

            About an hour or so later, another figure could be seen stepping off of the loading ramp; the changing of the guard. We crept across the dark field and climbed up onto the dropship's fuselage as stealthily as two dirty, near-exhausted teenagers could manage (which is, interestingly enough, pretty damn sneaky). And crept quietly towards a vent I had pointed out a few moments earlier. As I had predicted, the vents were open- though not as widely as I would've liked. Helen slipped in first without much trouble, proving to be surprisingly flexible. Unfortunately, I didn't fare better.

            To tell the truth, I fairly well screwed up.

            Weighted down by the weapons, ammunition, and other equipment I carried, the act of clambering into the narrow duct proved to be easier said than done. With my desire for silence added in, the task became nearly impossible. Even so, I tried. Helen looked on from the darkness of the duct, seemingly refusing to go on without me. My efforts grew more frantic as footsteps- the guard, no doubt, approached.

            That's about when I fell.

            In a combat situation, time is distorted. Sometimes, it slows down- your brain is speeded so much by a surge of adrenaline that your body cannot keep up with your thought processes. Other times, the entire series of events fly by in a matter of moments, leaving you surprised that you even lived through it all.

            This was one of the latter situations, over before it started. I skidded haphazardly off of the fuselage of the dropship, plopping down on my butt directly in front of the two guards.

            The dark night was pushed back by a series of muzzle flares; the symphony of nocturnal noise drowned out buy the racket of the gunfire. A stream of hot brass spewed forth from the breech of my gun, singing the long grass as it landed. The two men before me spasmed in some sick imitation of interpretive dance, then fell to the ground. A final 'click' punctuated the escapade as the gun's clip ran dry.

            It was about then I realized that I had fallen from my earlier perch. Through luck or instinctive reflex, I had managed to get my finger on the trigger first, upping the amount of lead in the guards' bloodstream by a few thousand percents.

            Effective? Definitely. Subtle? Hardly.

            Under other circumstances, I suppose I could have stayed right there on my ass, mulling over the fact that I had just killed two men, but more practical parts of my brain spurred me into action. All that gunfire sure as hell wouldn't go unnoticed by the other slavers, and I doubt that they'd be too willing to negotiate after my previous actions.

            Luckily enough, the main loading ramp of the dropship was still open, giving me a handy avenue of entrance. I switched out the empty magazine with a loaded one, thumbed the weapon to its three round burst mode (to conserve ammo) and stormed up the ramp. It looked like I would be taking a more 'direct' approach to the ship's bridge. I hoped that Helen would have the common sense to stay hidden while the bullets were flying.

            The interior of the ship was even darker than the frontier night outside it- seemed that they were on minimal lighting to save power. Smart move. The dropship was a fairly old model- the walls were lined with a multitude of pipes and exposed power conduits- a stark contrast to the streamlined corridors of the Outlaw Star. Shoddy workmanship, it looked like.

Ripping my attention away from the construction values of the vessel, I raised the gun to my shoulder and stalked down as silently as possible. No sense in dwelling needlessly on stupid and useless details. It was only a matter of chance that I had survived earlier; I knew it would take more than fate to get me through this night in a minimum of pieces.

Naturally, for all my preparation, it was just a matter of blind luck that I crossed paths with the three remaining crewmen as I rounded a corner in the hallway. Still, I was in a better position to shoot at them than they were at me, so I squeezed off a few shots as necessary. Unfortunately, I didn't hit them.

They returned fire, forcing me to duck back around the corner. Bullets took off chunks of the hall wall, but didn't touch me. Though I couldn't shoot them, they couldn't shoot me, either. If they really wanted to get me, they'd either have to loop around and surround me somehow, or they'd have to flush me out of my current position.

CLUNK.

A brief glance downward confirmed that they had opted for the latter, as a black cylinder that couldn't be anything but a grenade rested at my feet. Instinctively, I did the first thing that came to mind.

I kicked it. Hard.

The grenade bounced back around the corner from whence it came, ricocheting off of the hallway's walls. I heard an echoed "Oh SHIT!" from one of those faceless slavers, then the far too familiar sound of a nearby explosion. Even with the randomness of the encounter, I knew an opportunity when I saw one.

Around the corner I sprang, spraying bullets at anything that looked humanoid and upright in the smoke caused by the explosion. In this case, 'anything' just so happened to be a single humanoid silhouette, looking miraculously intact despite the grenade that had just gone off.

Naturally, I shot it. Repeatedly.

The figure stood there beneath my withering hail of bullets, unmoving. I could hear the 'sping!' produced by ricocheting projectiles as they hit the walls, floor, and ceiling- but not my target.

Again, my gun ran dry while the figure still stood, unmoving.

Eyes widening, I began backpedaling down the hallway, fumbling for yet another magazine. At the same time, my mind started producing a list of things that could stop bullets so easily. Light Shield? Unlikely: the close proximity to the grenade would have weakened it. There wasn't the telltale shimmer, either. Tao magic? Possibly, but wizards and the like wouldn't usually run with such a low-brow crowd. Armored android? Could be, not many races could withstand that kind of abuse.

Except for the C'tarl C'tarl.

As if on cue, the smoke cleared just enough for me to make out the outline of pointed ears.

"Oh. Shit."

The C'tarl C'tarl laughed from down the hallway, and was on me in a moment. He hit me only once, but it certainly was a good shot. I was lifted up off of my feet and thrown down the hallway several feet, landing on my side. Searing pain shot up my left arm, momentarily rendering me helpless.

He towered above me, dressed in a traditional blue terran business suit.  Were it not for the few rents and bullet holes in the fabric, he wouldn't have looked far out of place hanging out with Fred Lou's crowd. No, not that crowd- I meant businessmen. "Aren't you a little young to be edging in on the business of prostitution?" His voice was clear, educated- a far cry from the slightly animalistic screeching of Aisha's that I had gotten used to.

            I didn't like it.

            Wincing, I peered up at him in shock- both from his words and his attacks. "What?" I finally managed, coughing up a small amount of suspiciously metallic tasting fluid.

            "The whore." He said after a brief pause "You know, the blonde that ran off? I'm assuming you're working with her- this ship's too isolated from, well, anything else to gather casual attention."

            I blinked, still rattled by my forceful impact with the floor- all this talk of whores and the like wasn't doing much help either. Again, I could only stammer out a single word (another that began with 'W', as well). "Whore?"

            "Oh, don't lie. You have her scent all over you. She's one of my best, actually. Or, at least that's what I hear. I can't stand to touch you humans- you're filthy creatures, after all. Besides, it's bad policy  . . ." he paused, glancing upwards as if he was searching for the proper metaphor ". . . to dip one's pen in the company ink." He chuckled- a cruel, mirthless sound. "Though I have to admit, you've proven to be remarkably resourceful. You've killed most of my crew- though that doesn't matter much, it's easy to acquire new lackeys in a place like this. But it seems, for all your gunplay, you're hopelessly outclassed. It's just a matter of species superiority, really. Your weapons can't hurt me- though I do admit, they're hell on these suits. I'm faster than you, stronger than you, better looking than you. My senses are on an entirely different level than yours. I mean, can you even call that little nub a nose?" He went on for quite some time; I eventually tuned him out. I had heard the rough equivalent of this speech from Aisha any number of times; she just had a playful tone whenever she did. Even with the blatantly different personalities between the two, both shared one particular personality quirk: they're self indulgent.

            As this suited C'tarl C'tarl droned on about god knows what, I stalled, nodding when appropriate. With my good arm, I slipped the revolver I had picked up earlier out of my pocket as discreetly as I could. Even the large caliber bullets wouldn't hurt this feline slaver any badly than heavy hail would, but judging from the shoddy workmanship I had seen earlier, the hallways themselves wouldn't be able to hold up nearly as well as he did.

            I lurched up and pulled the trigger, causing my opponent to tense for another attack- one that he didn't have opportunity to follow through on. The shot was, to tell the truth, beautiful. The bullet struck the coolant vent at just the right angle, causing a stream of pressurized gas to spray directly across his face. Enhanced senses are indeed useful, but they bring with them an enhanced sensitivity to more extreme stimuli. The searing cold of the starship coolant definitely fell under the 'extreme' category. My opponent screeched, recoiling backwards as he clutched at his face.

            I struggled to my feet and got to running, taking full advantage of the distraction I had just caused. Conveniently enough, there was an open door to my left, which I ducked into gratefully. With my good arm, I whacked the control panel, slamming the heavy door shut. I stuffed the pistol back into my waistband, freeing up my free hand to cross a few wires on the control console- a hasty, sloppy job, but it'd seal the hatch for the time being.

            This done, I turned my attention to the room I had just blundered into- it was a cargo hold, a fairly large one, to boot. To tell the truth, if you've seen one cargo bay (which I have) you've just about seen them all. It doesn't take much engineering expertise or aesthetic decoration to make a room whose sole function was to "hold stuff", and this was no exception. Crates of various types lined the walls- good cover, if nothing else. A forklift rested dormant near one corner, a metal crate still resting in its prongs. The lights were dim, but a quick glance a display screen beside the door informed me that they could be cranked up to produce enough light to rival the output of a small star.

            WHUMP!

            The heavy sound snapped me out of my assessment of the room. More sounds, identical to the first, came soon thereafter. Knowing both the physical and psychological nature of the average C'tarl C'tarl, I drew my conclusion in less than a second: my suited opponent was going to bash the door down. This added urgency to my haphazard planning. It was about then when an epiphany struck me, the puzzle pieces before me falling into place near-perfectly. So, naturally, I got to work.

            Even with a broken left arm and a severe time limit, it was a simple matter to wire the lighting controls to switch to maximum glare once the cargo bay doors were opened. The little ploy worked beautifully- the C'tarl C'tarl (who had shed his coat & tie as he broke in) barged in directly , only to catch a massive surge of bright white light directly in the eyes. Such a sudden change in light intensity could easily blind regular humans (it was a good thing that I snagged conveniently placed pair of welder's goggles from a nearby crate). As one could imagine, the blinding effect was even more devastating on the enhanced night-vision of a C'tarl C'tarl.

            Again, I was lucky- the forklift's previous operator had left the keys in the ignition, so I didn't have to hot wire the thing. Once my adversary was properly blinded and distracted, it was a simple matter of stamping down on the accelerator, driving the vehicle directly into him. He was carried along by the inertia of the forklift, only to get properly mashed in-between the speeding thing and the wall of the cargo bay at a speed of about thirty miles per hour. A resounding crash echoed through the empty chamber, and the impact of the blow jarred me harshly in my seat, reminding me that there was something painfully wrong with my left arm. Surprisingly enough, the seatbelt held, protecting me from further harm. After this crash, I blinked a few times, then did what I could to listen for any signs of anything else wanting to kill me. I gingerly stepped out of the now-totaled vehicle and stepped down to eye the spectacle of destruction that I had just created, no small degree of pride seeping into my mood.  As far as I knew, there wasn't much that could just walk away from a half ton of speeding forklift running into them..

            Looking back on it, I should have known better.

            The metal crate exploded in a shower of torn shrapnel as the C'tarl C'tarl slaver burst forth, howling. The impact hadn't killed, or even stunned him as I had hoped. Granted, I did finally get him to bleed, and his tailored shirt and slacks seemed to be beyond repair. Of course, he didn't seem physically hindered in the slightest- I think I just made him mad.

            Then he hit me.

            Where there was a blur previously, my mind didn't even register the fact that he moved- he just ceased to be 'there'. Of course, my own personal 'here' relocated itself as I thudded down against the hard metal floor on my left arm, breaking it even further. Lucky again, I suppose- I'm not sure what I would have been able to do with two incapacitated arms. Even still, the sensation caused by the compound fracture was hardly enjoyable. I coughed, gasped, rolled to my hands (well, hand- my left arm wasn't about to support my weight) and knees. The light reflected off of the scuffed metal floor, contrasting the murky smear of dirt, sweat, and blood that I had left as I landed.

            "Good one, Cub." The Slaver hissed, a feral lisp seeping into his educated tone. "But I assure you, you'll pay dearly for that." This said, he set about stalking towards me, harboring a limp in his left leg. Good- that meant I had hurt him.

            Problem was, I didn't have the means to do it again. There were no forklifts, no small artillery pieces, no distractions, no other kind of deux ex machina to get me out of this situation. Hell, I had even lost the revolver in the forklift crash. Not like it could do much good, anyway.

Oddly enough, a strange calm fell over me. There was no desperate run to escape, no frantic search for a secret weapon, no indignant pleading. Somewhere, at the back of my brain, something clicked- acceptance. Slowly, painfully, I struggled to my feet. The movement shot more pain through my broken arm, but I seemed not to care. At the moment, the only important thing right then and there was to back on my feet. I had done pretty well, after all- killed or incapacitated most of this guy's crew, I had torn up his ship pretty well, and I had smacked him around with a forklift. I had been resourceful, valiant, resilient, and all sorts of other admirable traits. But, unfortunately, it looked as if my lease on life was about to be forcibly cut short, with nothing I could do about it. Only option I really had was to stand up on my own to feet, stare this savage down, making my valiant last stand before my exit from the universe of the living.

It was time to die on my feet. To die like a man. To die like an Outlaw.

It was a shame that I fell on my ass right about then. Blood loss, no doubt. Even with such an undignified action, I stared into the eyes of my rapidly approaching executioner. I hoped that I'd give him indigestion. I had no real regrets about my fate- except that I had failed in my foolish rescue mission. I could only hope that Helen would have the sense to get away from here. Heck, maybe she'd even stumble across the crew of the Outlaw Star and let them know what happened to me. Maybe they might even stop-

"Jim!" Helen's voice cried out to my left, snapping me out of my nihilistic thoughts. Apparently, she hadn't decided to get away after all. With the bright halogen light beaming down from the ceiling, her golden hair, and white jumpsuit, one could have only added a pair of wings and she'd be mistaken for an angel. A dirty angel. A dirty angel that was sliding a gun my way.

            As I mentioned before, time is distorted in circumstances of life and death. This time, time slowed down. The handgun spun across the floor; I reached out instinctively, allowing it to land in my hand with a satisfying 'thud'. It didn't have too much in the way of stopping power, but it was better than nothing.

            Thus armed, I turned my attention back to the C'tarl C'tarl. He landed with his legs splayed to either side of my torso, diving down with claws and teeth bared in gruesome slow-motion. My gun arm swung up to meet him, arresting the fearsome creature's attack as the pistol's muzzle lodged itself against the roof of his mouth.

            Time snapped back into its regular frenetic pace at that moment, giving the Slaver just a moment to register what was going on. I met his brown eyes with mine, sadistically allowing myself the guilty luxury of enjoying his shocked expression. "Eat lead." The cliché came to mind and escaped my lips involuntarily. Then I shot him. Repeatedly.  

            It's true that the C'tarl C'tarl have a muscle density that makes them nearly immune to regular attack. However, they do not possess this same density on the inside of their throats. The slugs impacted into the back of his skull, giving him time to choke out a surprised gasp before he fell backwards, blood fountaining from his open mouth.

            I staggered back to my feet once more, leaning heavily against the wall of crates. I paused, regarding the bloody corpse of the recently dead C'tarl C'tarl. Helen was at my side in an instant, supporting my limp and battered frame. "Guess that's it, huh?" That said, untold hours of exertion, exhaustion, and injury caught up with me, overwhelming me with a warm darkness.

            That's about all there is to tell. Gene and company tracked the ship down eventually, where they found me- bloodied, broken-armed, battered, unconscious, and attended to by a crew of recently freed women. I woke up some days later once my body had decided that it could start running properly again. I collected the bounty from the whole lot of the slavers. Got salvage rights to the ship, too. Of course, I gave most of the cash to Helen and her fellow captives- figured it was only the right thing to do, after all. All and all, it wasn't the last time I ran into her (Helen, that is) but, well, the rest is a separate story altogether.