Fight or Flight

Vanessa North

 

Chapter 1

The cell door opening woke her.

The pain in her face was sharp and tight, and the aches in her muscles made them burn and shake as she pushed to a sitting position as best she could with her hands in cuffs behind her back. She flopped on the cot like a fish out of water, but she managed to get her feet on the floor and her upper body somewhat vertical.

“Who’s there?” She blinked as the lights flickered on, momentarily blinding her.

“Walter.”

Her stomach lurched.

“Our transfer has been approved. I’ll pack your belongings while you serve out the rest of your two weeks in the brig.”

“I didn’t request a transfer,” she whispered. He sat on the bed next to her, and she steeled herself not to pull away—if she provoked him, God only knew what he would do. He stroked her hair, smoothing it away from her face. To an outsider, it might have appeared to be a gesture of comfort, a caress, but Tirzah knew better. It was a reminder he held all the power.

“I’m sorry, Tirzah, but it will be better if we go somewhere else. A fresh start.”

She could feel him studying his handiwork: the bruise on her face. Her eyes adjusting to the light, she looked at him and took a bit of satisfaction in the signs of a half-healed split lip. At least she’d landed a hit before he’d locked her up.

“We’ll go by Earth first so you can retest for your command, if you’d like.”

So there was the carrot. Where was the stick?

“And if I say no?”

“I’ll press charges. It seems time in the brig is simply incapable of curing your violent nature. Perhaps you’re better suited to the work camps after all.” His gaze flickered down over her body. For a moment she wondered if he could tell what she was hiding with her hunched posture. But he didn’t say anything. He just moved toward the cell door. Just before he closed it, he turned back.

“It’s a shame. You were a talented pilot.”

* * * *

“Are you sure you won’t come with me?” Tirzah looked into the warden officer’s unsmiling eyes. “He could make your life hell if he finds out you were the one who helped me.”

He shook his head. “I can’t. I have a family here. I need to protect them.” He glanced at her rounding belly. “You know how that is, I suppose. I’ll cover for you as long as I can.” He ran a hand across her tumble of red hair—he held to the old superstitions that to touch red hair was lucky. “Good luck, Captain. Take care of yourself; I won’t be there to do it for you.”

She climbed into the cockpit and started the engines. The transport was slower than the fighters she had been sent to this outpost to fly, but she’d have to make do. She only had a few minutes left before she had to clear the launch area. If Walter discovered she was missing before she was far enough off the ground to get an off-planet signal to the Becketts… No. She couldn’t think like that.

“Thank you, Warden,” she whispered to the man who’d helped her. He nodded and slapped the side of the door as it closed.

Just as she revved the first thruster, she heard the shouts. Fuck. She stood, half turning in the seat, pushing the door back open. The warden lay in his own blood, gasping and bellowing curses. Another shot from the doorway rang out and the man fell silent.

She didn’t have time to think; it was now or never. She leveled the sidearm the warden had given her at the large man in the doorway and fired before sliding back into the cockpit and tugging the door shut behind her.

The thrusters roared and the launch pad faded to nothing as she hurtled toward open space, struggling into the harness along the way. She didn’t know if she had hit Walter with that one shot, but he hadn’t fired back. She looked at the altitude gauges, her heart pounding. She should be clear of the security restrictions that blocked off-planet signals from the launch pad any moment now.

She was going to make it.

She reached for the ’com, shouting Josiah’s call number, and then Claudia’s. It had been so long since she’d talked to them she had no idea if they were still stationed together, or if Josiah was still handling defense cases for the Fleet, but if anyone could save her ass now, it would be him. The ship lurched and the lights on the artificial horizon sensor flared red. Fuck, no, please no.

“Tirzah, baby, is that you?” Josiah’s voice had never been more welcome. “What’s going on?”

“Becky! I’m in trouble. I need you,” she shouted into the ’com, but nausea rolled through her. She had never fainted in the cockpit before, but the terror of the afternoon’s events covered her as she struggled to correct the angle of the transport. The ship was slow and unresponsive compared to a fighter, and it felt like she had all her weight in the controls. Sweat broke out on her brow as another wave of nausea hit.

Her last coherent thought as the world went black was she was going to die on this rock.

* * * *

One year later…

“Tirzah, you have to eat something.” Claudia handed her an orange. She looked at her friend’s earnest face and open smile, and flinched.

“I can’t,” she mumbled, shoving the sweet-smelling citrus away. “I’m just going to puke it up.” She pushed her tray back across the table toward the other woman. Two days ago, the court officer had admitted evidence she was physically recovered and mentally competent to stand trial. After almost a year of what amounted to house arrest in Solomon City, where she’d been taken after the crash, she would be tried for shooting her husband and stealing a transport. “I can’t do this. I should plead guilty.”

“No, you shouldn’t. Fuck that, Tirz. The man was a monster. He deserved to be put down—I just wish you’d hit him in the balls before you shot him in the head. Besides, this is just a hearing, not a trial. And you have PT first.”

“Goddamn it,” Tirzah swore, tearing the fruit from Claudia’s hand. She ripped at the peel as she thought about the hell her physical therapist, Brad, was about to put her through. She knew better than to go into his gym—aka torture chamber—without eating first. Not that it was Brad’s fault she needed physical therapy.

After she had devoured the orange, she picked up a protein bar. She hated the way they tasted, like eating wood. The food gens never managed to make them taste as advertised, and the synthetic calories sat like weights in her stomach.

“Tirzah, Clau.” Josiah approached the table with his breakfast tray. Without asking to join them, he sat next to Tirzah and squeezed her hand. “How ya doing, honey?”

Josiah was smart as hell, kind to everyone, ferociously loyal, and heart-wrenchingly beautiful. His dark curls and big brown eyes caught lots of attention, from women and men. When he and Claudia both turned on the full wattage of their electrifying dimpled smiles, they were a potent antidote to even the foulest mood. He’d been Tirzah’s best friend since the Fleet Academy, and now he was her lawyer too. He was a hotshot in the Fleet, the darling of the Advocate Corps. He could request any assignment he wanted and almost be guaranteed to get it, especially now the war was over.

She’d never thought she’d need this kind of help from him. He’d dropped everything and flown himself and his sister out here to nurse her back to health and then defend her.

“I’m okay,” she said, nodding. “Terrified, but I’m not dead.”

“Lucassen is a tough prosecutor, but he’s fair. You acted in self-defense. He might settle.”

“If we settle, can I fly a fight command?” She’d asked the question dozens, if not hundreds, of times since they’d charged her with Walter’s murder and stealing the transport. She knew the answer. If she settled, her career was over, and she’d be flying colony ships for half her old pay—provided she wasn’t dishonorably discharged.

“You know you couldn’t. But if the court-martial goes to the Solomon Tribunal, it’s anyone’s guess what would happen.”

“I’ll take my chances, Becky. But now I really want to puke.”

“Don’t call me Becky in front of the crew,” he muttered, brown eyes glinting with humor. He’d lost exactly one bet to Tirzah, ever—during their first year at the Fleet Academy—and that nickname had been the price. “Go, do your therapy. Brad will work you hard, and then you’ll feel better.”

“Buy a dictionary, Jo-si-ah.” She drew out his name, enunciating every syllable. “‘Aching all over’ is not a synonym for ‘better.’”

“I’ll see you in two hours. Don’t be late.” He winked at her before turning to his sister. “Go with her. Keep an eye on her. Make her laugh or something, okay?”

“Aye, sir.” Claudia grinned and saluted, taking Tirzah’s hand and tugging her toward the gym.