WHATEVER YOU SAY
His neck was stiff. And it hurt like hell. Those were the first two things Preed noticed when he woke up. The next two things he noticed were a throbbing headache and a white light beyond his closed eyelids, which meant one of two things: a) he was dead, or b) he was in some sort of sick bay. Since the second possibility seemed infinitely more...well, possible, he opened his eyes. Indeed, the bright, sterile glow of a medi-lab lamp practically blinded him, and he narrowed his eyes into slits.
"There's a letdown," a female's voice said roughly. "You survived after all."
Preed had to clear his throat several times before he was able to respond hoarsely, "Well, I cling to life quite persistently."
"To the disappointment of the universe." The beaked face of a Mantrin loomed over him and he allowed his yellow eyes to widen slightly as the light was obstructed. "I didn't hear a thank-you, either," the Mantrin snapped.
"Stith, I see your sunny disposition is shining through that callous facade once again," Preed said. Something occurred to him, and he added, "Indulge my curiosity--would I happen to be dressed?"
Stith growled softly in annoyance and replied waspishly, "Y'know, Preed, you've been in sick bays before, and you just had your neck broken, okay? No, you're not dressed!"
"Ah. Well, fair enough. Whatever happened to our dear captain, anyway?"
"As if you don't know."
Preed grinned weakly. "Actually, I don't. I was out cold with a nearly-severed spinal cord, remember?"
Stith gave a grunt of acknowledgment, stomped over to a monitor, and glared at it as if it were the source of all her problems. "You're fine," she eventually admitted grudgingly. "So get dressed, because I'm getting really sick of looking at you."
"Love to, precious, but my clothes seemed to have mysteriously vanished."
With another growl, the Mantrin flung Preed's clothing at him, then settled back to watch him dress. "I'm not letting you out of my sight, you back-stabbing scum," she explained distastefully when he gave her a questioning look.
Preed chuckled softly and pulled his pants on. "It was all in the name of survival, dear girl. And you didn't have to save my life...but you did. One must wonder...why?"
"Makes things easier," she stated shortly.
"I assume you'll explain that in due course."
Stith actually smiled, though it had an 'oh-man-when-you-find-out-what-I-have-in-store-for-you-you'll-jump-out-of-your-skin' quality to it. "Why, of course, Preed," she replied sweetly. "Anyway, how long could I keep you in the dark?"
"Mm," Preed mumbled uneasily. That smile was all too familiar. It was one that he himself had used many a time. "I hope it doesn't involve unnecessary pain and suffering."
The Mantrin spared him any other comment, save for, "Let's go."
Rolling his eyes at her characteristic gruffness, Preed followed the weapons specialist into the corridor. "Where are we going in such a hurry? Surely it's not that urgent..."
"The bridge," Stith shot back caustically. "Where I can continue to keep an eye on you."
"My, my," the Akrennian remarked, "It seems that I'm quite the center of attention today." Hm, center of attention, indeed. Stith's hand was already resting on one of the guns hanging at her hip, and by the hunch of her shoulders, Preed could tell she was about one snide comment away from a screaming rage. Obviously, she wasn't too keen on having him here. In truth, it seemed odd that trigger-happy, my-gun's-bigger-than-yours, you-got-a-problem-with-that Stith would waste extremely advanced medical technology saving his...er...no pun intended...neck. Wait--odd? Ludicrous, more like. Therefore... "Stith, who else is on the Valkyrie with you?"
"Ah, yes, old Guney. Wait! Gune?! He's supposed to be...come to think of it, so are you..." He rubbed his neck. "Apparently I've missed quite a bit."
"Yeah, y'know, Preed, I'm about this close to killing you myself, and I'll make sure you're dead!" So do me a favor and shutup!"
Since Stith failed to specify just how close "this" close was, Preed did as he was told and bit back any further sarcasm. Which really didn't matter all that much, since he could usually deduce whatever needed to be explained in about half the time it took the Mantrin to spit it out. So. Gune was still alive. The little caveman had actually survived the blast...or discovered the communicator was a bomb. Considering Stith and every bit of her...colorful personality was still alive and kicking (violently, as usual), it seemed that the latter probably held true. And if Gune was the only other member of the crew still on the ship and Korso was dead (at least Preed assumed he was) then that left Akima and Cale. Could they actually have activated the Titan? Or had the Drej killed them? Well, only one way to find out the answer to this one. "Stith, where are our human crewmates?"
"Didn't I tell you to shutup?"
"Why, yes, I believe you did. But I must know what happened to them. I really must."
Stith shot an annoyed look over her shoulder and answered, "They're on New Earth."
"New Earth?" They'd gotten the Titan up and running, then. Well, that was just peachy for them. He hoped all the poor, despairing Humans were enjoying their new planet, where he was quite sure they were reproducing wildly, as Humans tended to do.
And so, as usual, they--and by "they" he specifically meant that little snot, Cale--got everything, while he, Preed, got nothing. No, he was stuck with a bad-tempered, trigger-happy Mantrin who hated his guts and a nutty little navigator who he never really could figure out. And who knew where they were taking him. The only certainty in that matter was that it would be extremely unpleasant. It just figured. But really, could he blame them for it?
Preed considered that thought. Yes. Yes, he could most definitely blame them.
At least in the bridge he'd have access to the comm system...and the weapons...and the ship controls... Though he very much doubted that he'd survive too long if he attempted to mutiny and take control of the Valkyrie. No, he'd have a gaping hole in his back and a bloody stump where his head had been in under three seconds.
Stith pushed open the door to the bridge when they arrived there. The Valkyrie, at the moment, wasn't being piloted at all, but was running smoothly at a cruising velocity. "Where are we headed, Gune?" Stith questioned, pulling Preed into the room behind her and sitting him down roughly at a console.
Gune's bug-eyed, green head poked itself up from the communications console and he answered with unusual briefness, "Solbrecht."
"I hope you don't mind me asking," Preed began, "but what's on Solbrecht?"
The Mantrin eyed him, then replied reluctantly, "Wanted posters with my picture on 'em."
"Is that so?"
"Yeah." A small, diabolical smile played at the corners of her beak, and she continued, "I've gotta wonder if maybe you aren't a known criminal in some system..."
Preed gave her his most condescending look. "Me? A known criminal? Ha. Really, my dear, to think that I would stoop so low as to engage in fraudulent activities...why, it breaks my heart to know that that thought has even crossed your mind."
She merely stared at him for awhile, then inquired, "Are you done?"
"Good." Plopping down in a seat adjacent to his, Stith said, "Here's the deal, Preed. At the moment, the last thing I need is a squadron of Golbus's lackey's on my ass, which is exactly what I'm going to have if I pass anywhere near Solbrecht. And since I need to stop there, I've got a problem."
"Stunning observation. But what do I have to do with a Solbrechtian mobster?"
Stith drummed her fingers on her leg. "Well, you, being the slimy, no-good back-stabber that you are, double-crossed Golbus awhile back...and he's still kinda angry about that."
"Who have you been talking to that's given you all of this privileged information?"
"I have contacts."
With a snort, Preed remarked, "You don't have contacts, you have friends and a really powerful computer. I must admit, though, I'm a bit confused. Why would Golbus waste time and money on an insignificant weapons specialist such as yourself? Could it be because..." He paused and pretended to think. "Oh, Stith. I had no idea that you had any capacity for duplicity. And to go up against a crime-lord whose base of operations is on your home planet...I'm impressed." The Akrennian wiped a fake tear from his eye. "I really am." He paused again and gave her a measuring glance, then added, "I haven't heard the name 'Golbus' in a number of years. What's the old gangster up to?"
"I wouldn't know. I haven't been back to Solbrecht since he paid for some...expenses."
"Oh, how cryptic. How delightfully under-handed. You really must tell me that story sometime."
Rolling her eyes, the Mantrin went on, "As I was saying, I need to make a stop on Solbrecht. Golbus likes making deals--"
"Don't all major crime lords?"
"Shutup and let me finish."
"No need. It isn't much of a stretch to comprehend your little scheme." Preed yawned and said, "You assume that if you hand me over to Golbus, he'll let go of any grudges he's been holding against you." Stith glared, and the Akrennian offered her a wolfish grin. "I wouldn't count on it. The two...er...men...that've taught me the most about deceit have been our dearly departed captain and the ever-traitorous Solbrechtian criminal of which we both are so fond. He'll turn right around and kill you."
"You don't need to lecture me, metal head. I know all about Golbus. He operates on my home planet, remember?" Stith folded her arms across her chest and gave Preed a cold stare. "Besides, I've dealt with him before."
Preed only smiled slightly in response. "Whatever you say."
"Preed, what are you doing?!"
The Akrennian lifted a thin finger from the communications console, smiled all-too-innocently over his shoulder, and replied, "Just some maintenance, my dear."
Stith stomped over to him and slapped his hand away from the panel. "Trying to pick up local scumbag channels?" she growled. Preed didn't respond, and the Mantrin narrowed her eyes as she flicked on the radio. When the characteristic coarse language of a slaver filled the cockpit, Stith thrashed her tail in anger and shoved Preed against the wall by his neck. "Listen, bolt head, we're half a million keks from Solbrecht and closing fast and if you don't stop acting like such a creep I'll rip your brains out through your nose!"
"Point taken," Preed choked out. He pulled feebly at her hands, which were still closed tightly around his neck, and coughed, "Stith..."
"Oh, this is not good; not good at all; very bad..." Gune suddenly piped up frantically.
Abruptly, Stith dropped her victim and turned her attention to the odd navigator. "What is it, Gune?"
The little alien pointed out into space and said, "Slaver ship, unknown class--"
"Where is it?!"
Stith rushed over to the weapon controls and yelled, "Preed!"
"Yes, Captain?" he smirked.
"Find out if this guy's hostile and--"
A blast rocked the Valkyrie, and Preed met Stith's eyes. "You were saying?" he queried.
"I'll show this bastard who he's messing with," the Mantrin said dangerously, locking onto the ship and firing.
After a moment, Preed observed, "You missed."
"I know that!" she shrieked. In a burst of fury, she shot several energy beams at the slaver. The pilot of the unknown ship, who was apparently quite adept, dodged most of these. Only one was a direct hit, but that hit blew out one of the ship's engines in a cloud of smoke and fire. "Ha!" Stith said triumphantly. "I never miss!"
"That's good," Preed remarked, "because he's coming around again."
The slaver rapidly fired several volleys at the Valkyrie, and one hit was followed by an unpleasant sound in the belly of the ship.
"For crying out loud, Preed, hail him and tell him to hold his fire!"
"Trying, dearest, trying."
"Gune, can you get us above this jerk?"
Gune made a sound of intense concentration, pulled a barrel roll, and zoomed "upwards".
"Good thing I fixed those aft blasters," Stith grunted to nobody in particular.
"Why don't you test them out?" Preed questioned wickedly. "Because whoever this is has all frequencies closed. He definitely doesn't want to talk."
"Test them out? Heh--with pleasure." The Mantrin leaned over the controls and bombarded the slaver ship with laser torpedoes. The salvo blew a hole in the side of the ship and blasted off the starboard wing. Evidently the pilot of the vessel decided that this was too much to take, because all at once, the ship pivoted and shot off into hyperspace.
The small crew of the Valkyrie stared after it for a moment before Stith relaxed and wiped her brow.
"Dear me," Preed began sardonically, "was our big bad weapons specialist frightened?"
She straightened and took a couple menacing steps towards him, then stopped and retorted, "I don't get frightened, Akrennian."
"Oh, come now, Stith. You've never been scared? Never in your entire life?" He moved closer to her. "Sometimes it's good to be scared, you know."
She didn't back away. "Is that a threat?"
"Merely a suggestion. Because the day will come when you don't feel so brave. And that's when you'll find that someone is holding your life in his hands."
Stith clenched her fists. "Well, I'm feeling plenty brave right now, so I suggest you get away from me before I blow your sorry ass to hell."
A tense moment passed before Preed relaxed and patted her on the shoulder. She swatted at his hand, but he grinned and said, "But then again, there's no reason why we can't deal with a lone slaver, eh?"
After studying him for a moment, Stith relented, "I hate to admit this, but we actually make an all right team."
"This comes as a surprise?"
"You're arrogant beyond belief, you know that?"
Preed's grin grew wider as he commented, "If I didn't know better, my dear, I'd think you were reevaluating your decision to hand me over to the Solbrechtian Mafia."
"Fat chance," the Mantrin snapped.
"We could use a pilot..." Gune said timidly.
"No we couldn't!" Stith shot back quickly.
"You know," Preed began, "Guney has a rather valid point--"
"--there are only two of you--"
"--and I can do whatever you two can't--"
"--thereby creating an efficient system which benefits all parties involved."
"No!" Stith swung her tail fiercely. "No, no, no! I can't stand you, Preed! And I don't want you on my ship! I'm bringing you to Solbrecht and I'm going to let Golbus and his thugs have you for lunch!"
"Stith, darling, human expressions don't roll off your tongue quite right." Preed crossed his slender arms over his chest and returned to the previous subject. "What have you got to lose?"
"Oh, I don't know, my life?! My sanity?"
"And what about what you want to do to me?"
"Here's the difference," Stith said through gritted teeth. "You betrayed your crew to the Drej--quite possibly the most sadistic jerks in the galaxy--and tried to kill all of us! Not to mention the fact that you're a total creep!"
"Hm." Preed regarded her through half-lidded eyes and said, "I hate to lower myself to this, but..." He paused for effect. "...please?"
" 'Lower yourself'?!"
"Stith, don't make me beg any more."
Preed sighed theatrically and took the Mantrin's hand. "Stith, my dear, what can I possibly do to--"
"Argh!" Stith shrieked as she jerked her hand out of his grasp. "Fine! FINE! I'll let you stay! But let's get one thing straight, Akrennian," she snarled. "You annoy me--or touch me ever again--I swear, I'll hang you by your intestines and throw you out the airlock so fast it'll make your pathetic, metal-plated head spin!"
"Stith, really, the threats you come up with," Preed chuckled.
The Mantrin drew her laser blaster and pointed it at Preed's face. "I'm not kidding, metal head. Once sign of treachery, and you get blown to kingdom come."
With a small, mysterious smile, Preed replied, "Whatever you say, my dear. Whatever you say."