Nocturne’s Reaping® : Prelude

Chapter 26

The instructions had directed them to wait for a call before heading to their destination. The actual attack order would be given sometime after they were in the air. Lark had already plotted to be as close to her real target as she could be when the attack order was given — while still being in the prescribed airspace. Still, it might be obvious she was a bit off-center of her course. Lark figured this was the most dangerous time. If Leader Monrage noticed this peculiarity, he might grow suspicious. He might try to communicate with her, or he might just assume the worst and sick another ship on her. That could make things difficult.

Lark decided to get to the location where Monrage’s prearranged course was the closest to her own course as slowly as possible. Then, she would hope that the attack order would come soon after, for that was the moment she and her crew would break away and head for the real target. Once the attack order was given, Lark hoped the other ships would be too caught up in their own missions to worry about her right away. It was a hard balance to maintain. Lark didn’t want the other cruisers to attack her immediately, but she also didn’t want them to ignore her completely either. Lark desired to stop the coup, and yet she was hoping to be enough of a distraction to minimize the damage the other ships could do to the colony. Still, if all the other ships came after her right away she and her crew would surely be destroyed before they could destroy the weapons. In the end, no matter how it went down, it would be up to Owen to get them where they needed to go and away afterward. Then, at 1730 it came: the call. Lark sat up in her chair.

“Okay, Captain Smithson, take us up. And remember — try not to make it too obvious.”

“Will do.”

Owen took his chair and began to pilot. As much as Lark had learned, she couldn’t touch the skill that Owen possessed. Lark was grateful; she wasn’t sure she could pull off his part.

After several minutes, Owen announced, “We’re getting close to the time we need to veer off.”

“Is there any way to delay?”

“If I go any slower, Leader Monrage will probably hail us.”

Lark bit her lip slightly. She started counting in her mind as though she were sure the attack order would be given by the time she counted to ten – only it wasn’t.

“I …” Lark began.

“Green light!” Jensen shouted.

“Captain Smithson, correct our course.” Lark advised immediately. “Head us toward the installation at the second set of coordinates.”

“All right. We’re out of the designated zone, and we’re headed toward the installation.” Owen informed her.

“ETA?” Lark asked.

“Ten minutes.”

A beeping noise came from the console.

“Incoming call from … Leader Monrage.” Jensen stated with dread in his voice.

“Play the static recording.” Lark announced.

“Will do.” Jensen agreed.

“We’ll use it for two more communication attempts. Then, I’ll have to answer.” Lark declared. “Can you listen in on his other transmissions? I want to know who is coming after us and where they’re coming from.”

“Yes, I’ll get on it … there’s no activity … wait. He’s hailing us again.” Jensen acknowledged.

“Two down — one to go. Where are we?” Lark asked.

“Six minutes away.” Owen informed her.

“He’s probably not going to let us get there without a challenge. Where is he?” Lark queried.

“Out of range.” Jensen remarked.

“Who’s in range?”

“Thomas and Smythe …” Jensen replied. “Wait. Monrage is hailing Smythe.”

“And he’s where?”

“Three minutes off, south by southwest.”

“Prepare for evasive maneuvers.”

“Yes.” Owen stated.

“This is it.” Lark announced.

***


Celeste waited for what seemed like forever. The dampness of the night seemed to settle in her lungs and ache there. She wrung her hands but then thought better of it. After all, she had recently had them manicured.

Suddenly, a strange man began to approach her. He was big with large tattoos all over his face. Celeste shrank back against the wall. She had forgotten to ask Frederick what she was supposed to do if someone did show up. Should she call out to Frederick? She looked briefly toward the entrance of the installation. The man seemed to be coming right toward Celeste. She hadn’t signed up for this — to be assaulted by some thug. She had the urge to run but didn’t seem capable of moving her legs. She gritted her teeth instead. The man stopped a few feet away and looked at her in disbelief.

“Do you have Monrage’s payment?” the man demanded.

“Wha — what?” Celeste stammered.

The man looked at Celeste as though she was dense.

“The payment. I’ve come for the payment.” he repeated slowly.

“Oh, yes. The payment. I …” Celeste looked toward the entrance again. Thankfully, this time she saw Frederick coming out of the door with a large, seemingly heavy package weighing down his arms.

“Oh, it’s here! It’s here!!” She pointed at Frederick. The man looked at Celeste skeptically.

“Yeah, I see that. Thanks.”

The man walked around her and stepped towards Frederick.

“This is it?”

“Yes.” Frederick returned.

“Great. Then we’ll have our engineer look over the item.”

“Wait. You take the weapon, and what do we get in assurance?” Celeste demanded.

The man seemed to be angered by that. Even Frederick looked disapprovingly upon her.

“Leader Monrage always repays his debts.” the man mentioned.

“Of course he does.” Frederick consoled. “And I understand this is just a down payment.”

The man still looked annoyed. He reached for the weapon and took it from Frederick.

“We’ll get back to you soon.” the man announced. He turned and left.

Frederick looked back at Celeste.

“What?” Celeste snapped. “He could only need the one. Then where would we be?”

“I just hope that man doesn’t tell Monrage.” Frederick returned.

“Can we leave now?” Celeste pushed.

“Let’s get in the car.” Frederick said while rolling his eyes.

Celeste and Frederick climbed into his car. Moments later, a light rain began to fall upon the windshield.

“Well, aren’t we going back to the house?” Celeste wondered.

“No.”

“And why not?”

“One can’t be in the middle of a coup and hang out at the first place they’d look for you. We have to lie low until this thing is over.”

“If it’s over …” Celeste offered.

“And what is that supposed to mean?” Frederick countered.

“It means I’m not sure Leader Monrage is going to come through.”

“That again. You’d rather everything fall apart than be wrong, is that it?”

“Who’s to say I’m wrong?” Celeste glared at him.

“Listen, you talk to me if you have concerns. You don’t question a man like Leader Monrage — let alone behind his back to one of his men.”

“You’re afraid of him, aren’t you?” Celeste accused. “I’m not.”

“Then you’re a fool.” Frederick blasted.

Minutes passed in silence.

“So, why am I even here?” Celeste queried. “What was the point of me standing in front of that installation anyway? There was nothing I could have …”

“Because you’ve been sitting around doing nothing, letting me take all the risks.” Frederick spat.

Celeste looked over at him.

“I can’t believe you. You …” Celeste stammered.

“Be careful what you say. I’m the one with the power here, not you.”

Celeste turned forward and stared at the window as it fogged under her breath. She wondered how she’d be capable of staying in a one-sided relationship like this. She couldn’t imagine letting Frederick call all the shots. What was more, if he wasn’t enamored with her anymore it couldn’t possibly last.

Just then, the phone rang. Apparently, the man who took the weapon from them was confirming that everything checked out, and that the mission was already underway. Frederick thanked him.

After a few more minutes of silence, Celeste asked, “Could we at least drive somewhere else? I don’t want to be here anymore.”

“This is the safest place to be.” Frederick stated.

“Certainly, you know somewhere else we could go?”

Frederick was silent for a moment. Then, he said, “Why yes I do, and it’s not far from here.”

Frederick started up the car then drove a little ways away. Celeste started to stiffen as she recognized the neighborhood. Finally, he stopped in front of the small hovel that she had once lived in with Lark. For a second, she was stunned silent, but then her rage grew.

“What is this supposed to mean?!” Celeste snapped. She turned on Frederick. “Is this what you really think of me?!”

“I just wish you’d show some appreciation for what I’ve given you. You act as though you’re entitled to everything.”

Celeste could feel herself redden as she became flustered.

“And you don’t? Now that you’re getting what you want, you’ve forgotten that?!” Celeste returned.

“You know what … I almost think you’re sabotaging everything, so I’ll have nothing left but you.” Frederick rasped.

Celeste was so angry at that point she couldn’t bring herself to speak anymore; words were not forming into coherent sentences in her mind. As it turned out, it didn’t matter. For at that moment, a large explosion ripped through the space behind them where the installation had been. Celeste gasped as Frederick leapt from the car. Then, he frantically began dialing a number on his phone.

“Let me speak to Leader Monrage. What do you mean he’s busy?” There was silence on the other end of the line for a moment. “Leader Monrage? Are you aware you just blew up the installation! Well?!” There was silence once more. Still, Frederick was sure he had heard breathing again after the man who had answered his call left. “Just tell me you’re going to finish our deal. Leader Monrage?”

“Yes?” a hollow voice answered.

Frederick was a bit unnerved.

“Are you going to do your part?”

“No, I think this concludes our dealings.”

“What about your word? It’s your fault the installation was probably destroyed.”

“There’s no probably about it. As for my word … I normally would work something out with you. However, by the sound of it, it seems you don’t trust my word anyway, so why should I honor it? Good-bye.”

There was a dial tone that rang through the air. It was around that time that people began to come out of their homes and into the street to see what had happened. A family even came out of the hovel that Lark and Celeste had inhabited years earlier. Frederick dropped his phone and let it smash upon the ground. He then turned and walked in the opposite direction, away from the installation.

“Frederick! Where are you going?!” Celeste called after him. She slammed her car door. “Is he not going to honor his commitment after all?”

Frederick spun around and glared at Celeste for a moment. Then, he uttered, “I can’t believe I ever thought you were worth it. You’re on your own.”

Frederick turned and walked away again. This time he didn’t look back.

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2015

Chapters 17-28 below. For chapters 1-16 press button.

Nocturne’s Reaping® : Prelude

Chapter 17

It required a few weeks for all of Leader Monrage’s departure preparations to be made. Though Leader Monrage didn’t seem to be in much of a hurry to go, one day he did sigh and say tomorrow would be the day. He said this while standing in front of his promised star cruiser.

“I actually can’t wait to take it up.” Leader Monrage said. “Even though it’s been nice to be back on my home planet again, I think I’m ready to leave. Oh, and by the way, Twelve, I’ve hired a pilot. Not that I don’t appreciate your contribution. Heck, I want you to be the co-pilot and learn how to pilot the ship. Even though you’re just a girl, there is still room for advancement in my organization.”

Lark looked over at him. It was as if he really believed that his organization was a great opportunity for her, and that it had more advantages than other options. Lark tried to look on the positive side; at least he saw a job for her to do. Lark had proven herself on some level. There had to be a slight security in that.

Oliver Bertrand held a dinner for Leader Monrage. It was just my father and Leader Monrage who attended. The next day, my father was there at the takeoff. Leader Monrage offered his hand to his brother. They shook hands. Then suddenly, Leader Monrage spun around in dramatic fashion. He went up the incline and into the ship. I wouldn’t see him again until over three years had passed.

The new pilot was an older gentleman. He looked like the kind of man you would see as a ship’s captain sailing the seas. Lark had to wonder why he signed up to pilot a craft full of fugitives. Leader Monrage introduced Lark to the man as Officer Twelve.

“What? Is that her age?” the pilot asked.

“No, fourteen is her age.” Leader Monrage was annoyed.

Lark had only a rough idea of how many years had passed while she’d been on the prison colony. Yet, once she got to Colony 38 and found a calendar it wasn’t hard to figure out how old she had become. Lark could vaguely remember Leader Monrage asking her when she was born. It was just one of a multitude of questions he seemed to ask of everyone. Still, it surprised Lark on some level that he bothered to remember.

“So, this is the one you want me to train, so she can replace me?”

“Yes.” Leader Monrage began. “But remember our agreement. I’ll get you where you want to go, but she has to be prepared for anything.”

“Does she have any skills?”

“She piloted and landed a transport carrier.” Leader Monrage stated with a sort of pride. “We managed to train her well enough …”

“Well, those are a lot easier to pilot than a cruiser such as this one.”

“Really …” Leader Monrage returned bitterly. “Well, I guess you’ll have your work cut out for you then. Feel free to take the ship up whenever you feel it will be convenient.”

Leader Monrage spat out the last line and stormed off. The older pilot seemed to be unmoved by Leader Monrage’s anger.

“Well, girl, have a seat.”

Lark did that which he requested.

“I expect you to hunker down and work.” he continued. “The longer it takes you, the more of my time you’ve wasted. And that leader of yours better not try to mess with me.” He laughed. “You will learn that about being a pilot. Let people know that if they try to mess with you they’ll pay for it. I don’t mean that I’d kill him. No. But he’ll be left without a way to get anywhere. It’s the only job security a pilot has nowadays. You can’t afford to be intimidated. Anyway, we’ll start with you just observing. It seems as though we’re in a hurry today.”

“What should I call you?” Lark asked earnestly.

“Hmmm … how about Professor? Yeah, that sounds pretty good to me.”

The takeoff was very smooth. Lark was impressed by Professor’s skill. When Lark was a small child, she could remember attending a career day. Parents and other relatives came to discuss their jobs. It was meant to give kids a chance to think about what kind of job they’d want to do in the future. All the presentations were well done, but nothing really spoke to Lark. She figured she’d have plenty of time to find her niche. It never occurred to her that she’d have a career foisted upon her. Lark wasn’t even sure that she could be a good pilot. After all, Professor said piloting a transport carrier was comparatively easy. So, what if she didn’t have that edge that separated an exceptional pilot from just a decent one? In a conflict, that could end up being the difference between life and death. And with Leader Monrage leading a group of fugitives around space, conflict seemed to be inevitable.

“You seem worried.” Professor noted.

Lark looked over at him.

“Worried is good. Too many people rush in and think they’re going to be great just because they want to be. You know, I might actually enjoy teaching you. You don’t talk much, and you seem serious enough. I’m not a babysitter — don’t want to be. But I am interested in showing someone my tricks of the trade — things that could really help a person out if they get into a jam.”

Lark’s mood improved. Was it possible that she could learn the skills necessary to stay alive in this environment?

“I see you’re interested.” he said.

“Yes.” she replied softly.

“Good. There’s only so much one can learn from a manual. After awhile you’ve got to have some real experience. Once we get away from the asteroids and debris — and once our brave leader relaxes a bit — I’ll start training you.”

“Great. I’m glad.” Lark stated. She was surprised she felt a twinge of excitement about it. Perhaps it reminded Lark of her youth. When she learned something interesting at school, she’d get excited like that. It then occurred to Lark that she’d fallen away from learning — that she had slid more toward ignorance. Lark thought it may be time to track down a book when she had a chance. Lark had even been assigned a small room of her own. Maybe, as strange as this situation was, she could eke out a life of her own in some small way.

“You know, it’s actually a good thing I’m training you.” Professor announced suddenly. “I just got to thinking there’s no one else to relieve me. I guess I’ll have to train you on the basics just to be able to sleep. Speaking of which, you’d better go get some sleep now. By my calculations, it’ll be awhile before we reach a good training spot. Then, after your training, I’ll try to get some sleep. Just as long as you remember to wake me up if you get into any trouble. Not that you should. You’ll be going so slowly that you’d actually have to be trying to hit something. Still, there is occasionally a piece of debris moving on its own. Then, you’ll have to call me.”

Lark nodded.

“You’ll find a lot of what you’ll be doing is sitting in this chair watching the monitor.”

Lark nodded again.

“Well, good-bye then. Don’t waste time, girl.”

“All right.” Lark stood up. She made her way from the control room to the hall. There on a bulletin board were room assignments. The room number she was given was the same as the name Leader Monrage had assigned her. At least it would be easy to remember. The diagram said her room was at the end of one of the halls. Lark carried what few belongings she possessed in a small bag. It would feel good to unpack her things in a room of her own.

The key card to her room was hanging next to her door. The number “12” was emblazoned on the key. Lark took the key off the hook. She swiped it against the lock. The door opened with ease.

The room was pitch-black. Lark felt the wall to her left for a light. Eventually, she felt a switch on the wall. When she pressed the switch, a dim light turned on in the corner. If this was the only light, she would have to get another one. She would never be capable of reading by such a dim light.

Lark shut the door and locked it. She then looked about the room. It had very little in it. On the wall to her right, Lark spotted a small closet. A full-size bed was on her left. There was a chest of drawers straight ahead of her attached to the wall. In the middle of the room, someone left a small chair. Lark thought maybe she could move the chair next to the dresser and create a makeshift desk out of the dresser. Then, Lark noticed some blinds to the right of the dresser near the corner of the room. Lark was intrigued; she went to the blinds. She noticed a small ledge underneath it. Lark pulled the string. On the other side of the blinds was a window. Outside the concave window was space — with its small, sparkly stars glittering in the distance. This view made the small room seem so much bigger and more livable. In fact, Lark decided to leave the blinds up while she took her nap. Lark went to the bed and pulled back the brand new covers. She had slept on a nice bed while at Leader Monrage’s brother’s house, but this bed was hers. As Lark fell into bed, she was glad to discover how comfortable it was. The mat she used to sleep on at the prison colony had been stiff and scratchy.

Lark moved her pillow over, so she could look out the window. Then, she curled up and closed her eyes. It surprised Lark how quickly she succumbed to sleep. By the time Lark woke up again, she found she wasn’t sure how long she’d been asleep. There was no clock in the room, and there was no way to gauge time in space. She jolted up. What if it had been a long time? Lark quickly grabbed her key card. She ran out the door then locked her room. Swiftly, she headed toward the control room. Professor was sitting in the same spot she last saw him with his eyes glued to the screen. Lark breathed. Maybe it was because of the name he chose to go by, but this situation reminded Lark of being late to grade school. She sighed then walked up to him tentatively.

“Professor?”

The pilot turned. He almost looked amused that Lark actually called him that.

“Well, it’s good that you came back promptly. We have a lot of work to do. And the sooner we get to it, the sooner I’ll be free.”

Lark just looked at him. That would make one of them, she thought.

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2015

Nocturne’s Reaping® : Prelude

Chapter 28

Lark and her crew lay low on Colony 12 for about a week. It took that long for word to get back to Lark about the fallout from the installation’s destruction. That news would come from Waterburg’s brother, Kenneth Waterburg, who managed to escape from one of Monrage’s crews before Leader Monrage found out he was Waterburg’s sibling. Kenneth had communicated with his brother shortly after Lark and her crew left Colony 9.

Waterburg then planned for a rendezvous with his brother. It was Waterburg’s idea to meet Kenneth elsewhere lest the meeting end up being a trap of some kind. It turned out all right, and Kenneth and his cooking talents joined Lark’s crew. Kenneth, as it turned out, was a bit peeved that his brother hadn’t given him a heads-up about the destruction of the installation. Waterburg then protested that he barely knew anything about the situation before it happened, and that his brother pretty much cut off their conversation that day anyway. Plus, did Kenneth really want Monrage to find out that he had gotten the information beforehand? That was that, and Kenneth didn’t bring it up again. Still, Lark could tell that Waterburg, despite his comically antagonistic relationship with his brother, was relieved he was safe.

Of course, having two Waterburgs on board caused a bit of confusion at first since the crew members were used to calling each other by their last names. Also, Waterburg had refused to give Lark his first name. Lark never did figure out why. Still, given her lack of desire to ask questions and to have them asked of her she decided to remain silent. So, it was determined that Waterburg’s brother would just be called Kenneth — with no last name — from then on. Lark, for her part, decided not to confound the crew too much and permitted them to call her either Officer Twelve or Lark — her last name really didn’t feel like an option for her somehow. Strangely enough, the crew took to just calling her Lark rather quickly. Maybe without Monrage’s costume, the name Lark fit her better. Or, maybe they were just afraid that they could all be linked to Leader Monrage if they used the other moniker. It turned out for the best, especially given that Owen had already taken to calling her Lark. It would have been awkward if Owen were the only one who did that.

As for the story of the incident, most of what Kenneth knew was also known by Lark. However, one piece of information was new, and it concerned Lark’s cousin, Celeste.

Lark found out that Celeste had been in the area of the explosion when it occurred. Lark, for some reason, couldn’t handle not knowing what had happened to Celeste. She, therefore, decided to return to Colony 9 to find out what became of her cousin. In order not to risk her crew, she contracted for a small ship to take her there. Days later, she arrived back on Colony 9 dressed as Lark to see what she could find out. Part of her was relieved when she saw a very much alive Celeste standing amid the ashes and rubble of the installation site.

“Come to see what you left of me?” a shrill voice called out to Lark, after all the other bystanders had departed the vicinity.

Lark considered briefly.

“You may not believe me, but I’m glad you’re not dead.” Lark answered.

“Oh, I believe you, all right. That I believe. How can I suffer unless I’m alive, right?” Celeste returned.

“You might not want to stay around here.” Lark advised. “The police are bound to be looking for you and Frederick.”

“Oh, so that’s your game. You want me on that prison colony. And what about you? You can be returned there, too. In fact, under the circumstances it may be worth it to me.”

Celeste started looking around for someone. Perhaps in her frantic state she was actually looking for a police officer.

“I don’t exist. You saw to that.” Lark reminded her.

Celeste stared back at Lark with confusion.

“How do you mean?” she asked with an eerie softness.

“I’ve done my time … or should I say your time. Then, there’s Officer Twelve. Leader Monrage took her with him. He’s probably killed her by now.” Lark finished.

“Too bad I couldn’t watch that.” Celeste stated.

“I’m done.” Lark concluded in disgust. “I’ve done enough for you. If you want to blame me for everything, go ahead.”

“I do blame you. You destroyed everything, and what was it to you?!” Celeste screeched. “That was my future you were ruining back then — you and your neediness! You wouldn’t have been much better off if I had been taken to the prison colony instead. Only one of us could have lived, so what that it was I who survived?!”

Lark was dumbfounded; Celeste was serious.

“I had to do it. Leader Monrage couldn’t be allowed to keep those weapons. There was no way to know what he would do with them. Not to mention what he would have done with me.” Lark informed her.

“Then, why not just turn him in?” Celeste countered.

“To whom? And with what proof?”

“So, this is your solution?” Celeste gestured with her arms. “This rubble? You could have killed someone — murderer!”

Lark just stared at her. It was pointless to mention how many lives would have been lost because of Celeste, Frederick, and Monrage’s actions.

“You know, I’ve lost Frederick. I have no money and no house. I have nothing. What am I supposed to do now?” Celeste stammered. “Of course, you don’t know. You don’t think anything through. Nothing is your responsibility.”

“Good-bye, Celeste.”

Lark was about to leave when Celeste shouted her name. Lark turned partially back toward her.

“Good-bye?! I’m the one who says that. This time I’m the one who’s going to leave you!” Celeste spat. “From this day forward I no longer have a cousin, and you have another enemy.”

Celeste turned abruptly and stormed off. Lark found she was glad to see her go. Yet, she still felt that most of the conversation had been disturbing. Could Celeste really do worse to her than she had already done?

“Lark.” a familiar voice called from behind her.

Lark turned to see Owen standing there.

“Are you ready to go back to the ship, Commander?” Owen asked.

Lark smiled.

“Owen.”

“You didn’t think I’d let you come here alone, did you?” he offered. “Are you all right?”

Lark looked at him a moment.

“It’s possible to go so far deep into yourself that you become lost there.” she whispered.

A moment passed, and then Owen asked, “Is that what happened to you?”

“Almost …” she admitted. “Almost.”

Suddenly, Lark smiled.

“Let’s go. I have one more stop to make, and then I’m through here.”

Lark went to visit her parents’ graves and to say good-bye to the people from the church. She and Owen then headed toward the cargo ship for their departure. She noticed that Owen breathed a sigh of relief when they successfully took off.

“It will be nice to get home.” Lark mentioned to him.

“Home?”

“Our ship.” Lark said smiling. “The crew is there. And Cinnamon is there, of course. Oh, and you.” Lark beamed.

“I’m glad I made the list.” he joked.

“We will all have a lot of planning to do, and I want every member of the crew to be involved. I think we’ll be quite the success. Still, it’s too bad I couldn’t have paid Leader Monrage for the ship. I have this thing about stealing — particularly now.”

“I think the years of forced, barely paid servitude should be compensated for somehow.”

“But does it even out?”

“Well, maybe someday you’ll be able to ‘pay him back’.”

Lark laughed at the way he said that.

“Maybe.” she replied. “Maybe.”

“Plus, you talked him out of destroying that ship … and wasting his weapon. Oh, that’s right, the weapons were destroyed.”

“Weapon …” Lark repeated.

“What is it?”

“Just thinking that Leader Monrage never did anything until he was paid.” Lark started. “Maybe he was just grandstanding, but I remember he also mentioned something about a weapon. I wonder whether it really is one of the ones from the installation.”

***


Celeste scrounged the streets for days hiding in the alleys and trash receptacles. Life for her was misery. And what was more, she lived in fear. It had occurred to Celeste that Frederick could easily lie and blame her for the whole incident. After all, it would be easy to link her to Leader Monrage through Lark. Maybe that’s why Lark had been involved all along, so that Celeste could take the blame if the scheme fell through. Then, one day she saw a familiar figure and followed him. She couldn’t seem to help herself. She even overheard a conversation he was having. He was looking for someone they both knew.

Out of desperation, she made herself known. What could be worse than how she was living?

“Leader Monrage.”

He turned, and a repulsed look crossed her face.

“Well, well … you’re still alive. Sort of. I’m surprised you would lower yourself to live like this.”

Celeste flinched. She didn’t like the feeling of being pitied — when it wasn’t part of her plan at least.

“Tell me.” she started, her voice barely recognizable. “Did Frederick set me up? Were you in on it with him? Was that why Lark was here?”

An odd look crossed Leader Monrage’s face when she mentioned Lark — it contorted in a grotesque way as though Officer Twelve’s former name had stabbed him.

“What of her?” he stammered. Then, he remembered Celeste’s question. “No, why would I care?”

“Did he know about Lark before?” she pursued softly.

Leader Monrage began to get antsy. He didn’t care about this woman.

“No, not from me. Is that all?”

Celeste considered. She had been so sure. Still, did it really change anything? Frederick had felt no qualms about sending Lark to prison to save them both. Surely he would send Celeste there or have her executed to save himself. Leader Monrage turned to leave before she could respond.

“Wait!” she pleaded.

“What now?!” He spun around. “Don’t you dare follow me!”

“I won’t … unless you want me to.”

“Want you to?” he questioned her in disbelief.

“You know. I was reminded the other day of where I come from.” Celeste paused. “I’m thinking now that you and I have more in common than I ever had with Frederick.”

“Is that so?” Leader Monrage’s eyes flashed. “So, what exactly is it you want from me?”

“I’ll do anything. Just get me out of here.” Celeste begged.

Leader Monrage took a moment to think that through.

“Fortunately, I remember when you were beautiful.” he finally said while touching her face with his hand. “Maybe you can be of use to me. Well, come on. You’ll have to keep up if you want to be with me.”

“Of course. You say jump …” Celeste started. “I say how high.”

Months passed … and Leader Monrage journeyed with Celeste to a place he hadn’t been for years but couldn’t get out of his head.

“There you are.” Leader Monrage stated as he stared at the monitor.

“I don’t know why you need me here.” Celeste answered.

Leader Monrage turned. It almost seemed as though he was startled by her. But how could that be, given that he had just spoken to her? There was no way to tell his mood. Since most of the lights in the room were turned down, his eyes remained in shadow. And he had summoned Celeste to this dark room without letting her know his purpose.

“I don’t need you here, but I do want you here. I thought you’d be interested.”

“Interested in what? A barely visible planet?”

“I made a mistake. I see that now.” Leader Monrage stated. “She was under my control until I brought her to that planet of yours — to you.”

“You’re still moping over Lark.”

“Yeah, well. She was mine.” Leader Monrage turned back toward the monitor. “I trained her well. See how well she did that last day. I didn’t have the heart to destroy her — not when she did it so well — just as I would have done.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

Celeste was about to turn to leave.

“You did well, too. Incredibly well, in fact. I wanted to show you just how well. You see, Twelve tried to stop me. But I’m going to show her it was pointless. True, the scale is going to be smaller, but she doesn’t need to know that. She also doesn’t need to know that this was the plan — or at least part of it — from before I even knew of her existence. Then again, knowing her she’ll probably blame herself for talking me out of destroying her with the one weapon I managed to obtain. Regardless, what she does know of is this place. I don’t think she will ever forget it. And now, you won’t forget it either.”

“Why don’t we go back to our room? I’m tired, but I can stay up for a while.”

“That won’t be necessary. I have all I need right here.”

“Well, I’m going back to the room.” She turned away from him.

“Stop!” Leader Monrage yelled.

Celeste stopped.

“I want you to see what you’ve contributed to.”

“Me? I haven’t done anything. It was Frederick.”

Celeste’s eyes had adjusted enough to the light that when she turned back she saw an intense Monrage staring back at her.

“We’ll see whether you still believe that after …” He paused. “We’re almost in range. You set all this in motion for me. True, I lost Twelve and a ship, but I did get this weapon because of you …”

“So, you’re going to destroy that dinky planet?”

“No … not directly anyway. Though, they’ll probably wish I had.”

Celeste looked at him skeptically as he started a countdown. He then grabbed Celeste by the arms, so she couldn’t turn away.

“Remember this is all because of you.” Leader Monrage insisted. “And just in case you try to blame Twelve for this, you can’t. It’s all you and me. That’s what this little demonstration is meant to show you, and I won’t let you change that.”

“You should be blaming that guy she was kissing instead of me.”

“What guy?” Monrage demanded in a dark tone.

Celeste was taken aback for a moment.

“I don’t know. How should I know? The point is she betrayed you!” Celeste screamed.

Leader Monrage sighed.

“But only because you betrayed her first.” He glared at her with ferocity. “But don’t worry. I won’t destroy you for it, but you may destroy yourself before this is all over.”

“What is that?” Celeste demanded in a disturbed tone of voice.

Leader Monrage released Celeste then turned from her. Now that he had gotten her interest, there was no need to detain her further.

“They took most of my weapons and think they’ve won. I’m about to unleash the ultimate weapon.” Leader Monrage explained. “There are more of these scattered throughout the galaxy, but I can’t free them all now. My down payment is only enough to destroy one of the force fields. I chose this one because it’s weak and because it means something to me.”

Celeste blinked. The reality of what she was viewing had just started to sink in. Leader Monrage turned back briefly to grin at her as he reached his hand out to press a button on the console.

“Wait, no!” Celeste cried out in horror.

Leader Monrage pushed the button without hesitation. He then zoomed in the camera toward where the weapon had gone. There was an explosion. Celeste squinted at the image. Then, as it became clear in her sight, she screamed again.

“Relax. It’s much too far from us. We’ll be able to escape long before they even realize we’re here. Too bad the same can’t be said of that planet.”

He then walked behind where Celeste was standing and began massaging her shoulders.

“I just wanted to see the nebula reapers freed.” He hissed in her ear. “I can relate more to them than people, you know. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Beautiful.”

… And hence it began.

End of Book One.

Nocturne’s Reaping® : Prelude

Chapter 18

Lark figured there was no point in arguing with Leader Monrage about the uniform. He had the power to make her life miserable. If her wearing that uniform was all he wanted from her, then she would consider herself lucky. Besides, it wasn’t as though she hadn’t worn this outfit for years. It wasn’t a big deal, Lark told herself. Yet, somehow, Lark couldn’t shake the feeling that it was a big deal.

Before when Lark had worn the uniform, she felt numb. Now, the numbness was not coming completely. Instead, there was an aching pain in the center of her being as though she was dying inside of herself. Lark was troubled. How could she keep this up for the rest of her life? Despite everything that had happened at the prison colony and since, Lark had never felt this trapped before. Panic began to set in. Then, there was a knock at the door.

“Twelve, open up.”

When she first heard the knocking, Lark had figured it was Leader Monrage, but she had still been hoping it wasn’t. Now it was clear it was. Lark rolled her eyes then spun around toward the door.

She opened the door. Then, she looked up at him from beneath her eyelashes. Despite the anger in her eyes, Leader Monrage smiled. He had won.

“Good. Nice to see you again, Twelve. Should we head out?”

Lark didn’t speak. She just stepped out into the hall. She then locked the door behind her. Maybe there was no point in even locking it; it was hard to imagine Leader Monrage couldn’t get in if he wanted to. Lark kept her eyes cast downward as she turned in Leader Monrage’s direction. She could feel him looking at her for a prolonged moment. When she didn’t respond, he finally turned and headed for the hatch. Lark filed in behind him.

Leader Monrage and Lark climbed into a vehicle. Leader Monrage then started the car. Moments later, Lark recognized the streets they were taking. Not surprisingly, they were heading back toward the mansion they’d visited before. Lark stared blankly out the darkened side window.

“So, that’s the way it is. Silence, huh? That’s fine. Keep that up.” Leader Monrage goaded her.

Lark eventually saw the mansion she had expected appear before her. This time there were many vehicles parked around the property. Great, Lark thought, a crowd. Leader Monrage pulled up next to a valet. The valet stepped forward from the curb and walked to Monrage’s side of the car. Leader Monrage rolled down the window as the valet reached for the keys. Leader Monrage handed them off.

Leader Monrage then opened his door and hopped out. Lark continued to take in the scene from her side window. Suddenly, Leader Monrage appeared inside the frame of Lark’s vision. He knocked on the glass and motioned to her with his hand to follow him.

Lark reached for the handle then pulled herself from her seat. She followed behind him slowly. She felt acutely aware of the stares this time. Without the numbness, it hurt her. The same man as before permitted them entrance into the mansion. Lark started to step toward the small corridor that she and Leader Monrage had headed down the last time.

“Umm …” Leader Monrage started. “We’re not going that way, Twelve.”

Lark turned around and looked at him.

“We’re going through the main door … up those stairs.”

Lark looked at the large, cascading staircase and the huge door at the top. Lark could hear music and many voices coming from within. Lark swallowed hard.

“Shall we go?” Leader Monrage asked with a smirk on his face. He was enjoying humiliating her.

Suddenly, Leader Monrage came toward her, grabbed her left arm, and linked his arm with hers. He pulled Lark up the stairs and toward the door. The massive door was then flung open. Lark stumbled a bit as Leader Monrage dragged her in. Lark felt her heart begin to race as everyone in the room started to turn and stare. Then, many people began to chatter within their small groups so loudly that she could hear them above the orchestra. Lark tried to catch her breath.

“Announce us.” Leader Monrage stated to the man standing on the stairs next to them.

The man fumbled for the cue card in his pocket.

“Leader Monrage and Officer Twelve!” he called out.

Lark could feel herself begin to redden. She wanted to wring her hands or run from the room. But that was the moment she saw her. Celeste was standing at eye level on the other side of the room. As bad as Lark had imagined presenting herself in front of her cousin in her uniform would be, it was in actuality much worse. A look of smug satisfaction crossed Celeste’s face as she smirked at Lark with delight. You could almost feel her relief; Lark was dead and this thing before Celeste would never be believed more than she would be. Lark saw Celeste turn toward Frederick and nod. Now the humiliation was complete. Lark could feel Leader Monrage looking over at her, watching her. Oh, the pleasure they were taking in it.

“Okay?” Leader Monrage demanded.

Lark didn’t experience the numbness she usually did, but she did feel a sort of defiance welling up inside of her. So, since she didn’t want to give her cousin the satisfaction of seeing her crumble, Lark glared back at her instead. Then somehow, after a few moments, Lark was able to steady herself, so that her anxiety all but went away. And as Leader Monrage stepped forward, Lark did, too. They headed down the stairs.

“Let’s get this over with,” Lark thought.

Still, she groaned inside as Frederick Applegate approached them.

“Okay.” Frederick said to Leader Monrage. “It’s done. Just make sure that it never changes back to the way it was. We’re both moving forward with our lives. We don’t want to be mired in the past.”

Leader Monrage and Frederick Applegate shook hands. Lark thought of storming off but couldn’t stand the idea of Leader Monrage dragging her back. So, the less painful solution seemed to be to get his permission.

“Leader Monrage, may I leave now?” Lark asked. “Have you gotten out of this experience what you wanted?”

“What? You don’t want to mingle?” Celeste came upon them then. She laughed merrily.

Lark stared at Celeste in disbelief.

“I wonder whether you’re really as confident as you seem …” Lark mentioned to her.

“You may leave with my blessing …” Leader Monrage stated with an edge of bitterness in his voice. “And my insistence.”

Lark looked down. At first, she was going to retreat out the main door, but there was a huge crowd milling about there. The door was also shut and possibly locked. Instead, Lark could see out of her peripheral vision a couple heading into the main room through a glass door located along a wall to her left. She headed that way — head mostly held down — so people wouldn’t be able to stare her in the eye. Lark wasn’t foolish enough to believe that they weren’t watching her. Leader Monrage forcing her to dress up like a freak then taking her to a formal party had a tendency to do that.

When Lark exited the room, she was confronted by a large balcony with a fence surrounding it. Lark would have to climb over it or turn back. Lark was sure of one thing — she had no intention of going back into that room again. Lark looked about her to make sure there was no one watching; there was no point in confirming their suspicions that she was weird.

After she was sure she was alone, Lark made quick work of mounting the fence. She remarked to herself that all of those hours of Leader Monrage’s training had been good for something after all. On the other side of the fence, there was a large, formal garden. In the center of the garden was a big fountain. It had spotlights around it that caused the falling droplets of water to shimmer. Somehow the sound of the water had a calming effect on Lark. She chose to walk beside the fountain, so she could feel the spray from the fountain strike her skin. That way she could tell that it — that she — was real despite the uniform. Actually, part of Lark wished she could pull the uniform off and dump it into the fountain. Then, Lark laughed at herself. As bad as the uniform was, it would be worse wandering the grounds naked.

Lark then noticed there were some tall hedges that almost formed a maze ahead of her — that or at least a winding path. When the wind picked up, one of her senses picked up on something. Lark could hear a noise to her right. At first, Lark thought that it was indeed just the wind. But then when she stopped and turned toward the noise, Lark thought she heard the sound of footsteps.

“Who’s there?” Lark demanded.

Suddenly, a man stepped forward from behind the hedge. Surprisingly, it was Owen. He looked at her quizzically for a moment. Lark looked down. He was staring at her because of the uniform. Eventually, Owen became aware he was staring and looked just above Lark’s head.

“What are you doing here?” Lark wondered.

“I thought you may need a friendly face.”

“You’re not just after information?” Lark asked.

Owen laughed.

“You never get anything useful out of a party. Even I know that. Besides, I’d just ask you later if I wanted to know something.”

Lark looked at him intently.

“And how do you know I’d tell you?” Lark put forth.

Owen stopped smiling and grew serious.

“What’s wrong?” Owen questioned her.

“You mean, other than this uniform?” Lark returned.

“Yeah, I can see why that would bother you.”

“It was an order.” Lark answered sarcastically.

“I imagine it was.” Owen responded.

“He wants me to wear it from now on.” Lark told Owen. She could feel tears begin to break from her eyes. “I’m not sure I can anymore.”

“Seems you’re at a crossroads.”

“Really? Because I don’t see another path.” Lark admitted. “And it bothers me that you keep insinuating that I should do something to change things. It makes me think you have an agenda.”

“I’m not your enemy.” Owen returned without a hint of defensiveness. “But I guess with my background, I’m not a fan of people who like to control others. I felt trapped for a long time. I don’t really enjoy seeing you go through it. I can see that you’re struggling. I could see it even that first day. I don’t think you realize how obvious it is, but it’s painful to witness.”

“You feel sorry for me.”

“Not you. But the situation you’re in … yes. If you were out of it, you’d be fine or at least on your way to being fine.”

Lark looked off to her side. Now that Leader Monrage had angered her, it was hard for her mood to lighten again. Plus, for some reason, it was hard for Lark to trust Owen completely. Then again, why wouldn’t she have trust issues? It would be odd if she didn’t.

“I can’t figure out what the connection is among Leader Monrage, my cousin, and her boyfriend.” Lark whispered. “If we knew that then we’d know why we’re here on Colony 9. Maybe you could figure out what Frederick Applegate has that Leader Monrage could want and vice versa. I’ll give it some thought as well. Still, under the circumstances and given the microscope I’m under, you’d probably be more successful finding out information than I would.”

Lark turned slightly toward the main house. She waited a moment and listened … for something.

“This isn’t the time or the place to talk about this.” Lark added. “We are on leave for the next two days, so we should have that much time to figure out what we can.” Lark concluded softly. “The night before leave ends, meet me in the place you found me during the last leave. We’ll discuss what to do then. Until then, keep your distance.”

Lark moved past Owen. As she did, he reached out his hand and grasped hers. She turned back around towards him.

“Be careful.” he advised her.

Suddenly, Lark’s wall fell down just enough. Her eyes glistened at him. Owen then leaned down swiftly. He placed his hand on her face. Then, he kissed her with intensity. She’d never been kissed before. Certainly, she never thought it would happen in this uniform. Lark looked up at Owen after he let her go. She noted that he was looking at her as he had when she wasn’t wearing the contact lenses and the makeup. It was as though he could see through the mask; he seemed to see her.

 

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2015

Nocturne’s Reaping® : Prelude

Chapter 20

Lark had told Owen she didn’t want to see him for two days. Owen hadn’t thought to ask why she felt that way. Now, he wished he had. How important was it for him to stay away? Was it just that leave happened at that time, or was there some other reason? Certainly, he needed to talk with Lark as soon as possible. He wanted her thoughts on what Leader Monrage’s motivation could be for helping out with the probable coup. And what if it took awhile for Lark to figure out the reason? They might need those two days to iron everything out. Maybe he should go back to the ship and see whether he could run into Lark. Maybe then, he could suggest they meet up tomorrow night instead. Owen headed for the ship.

Owen made good time and managed to slip on to the ship before curfew. He used the hall where Lark’s room was located in order to get to the control room. That way he could pass by her door without arousing suspicion. As he headed down the hall, Owen could see that the door to Lark’s room was slightly ajar and was sliding in slowly. As he neared the door, he could see that it was dark inside. There was also no one in the doorway. Owen felt that was alarming. Owen swiftly went to the door and forcibly pushed it open the rest of the way with the palm of his hand.

Inside, Lark was standing opposite Leader Monrage. They were staring each other down. Suddenly, Monrage reached forward and grasped her arm; he wrenched it. But Lark didn’t react to it. She just kept staring at Monrage. Then, Lark’s eyes shifted toward Owen. For a moment, Owen hadn’t been sure that they had heard him enter and knew he was there. Now, though her eyes didn’t betray any emotion, it was clear to him that she wanted his help.

“You’re needed in the control room … Officer Twelve.” Owen stated.

“And who would need her in the control room during leave?” Leader Monrage demanded without looking at him.

“Jensen. He’s always here at night. He needs to shut down the system in order to run a diagnostic scan.” Owen replied. The scan had been done days ago. Owen hoped that Leader Monrage didn’t know that. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to do another. “You want us to be prepared for … whatever, don’t you?”

Leader Monrage released Lark. He laughed out loud.

“All right. Go handle your little problem, and we’ll take this up later.” Monrage said to Lark.

Lark kept her eyes turned away from Leader Monrage. She stared past Owen and toward the door. She then walked in the direction her eyes were pointing. Suddenly, Lark bent down and quickly scooped up Cinnamon; she pulled her to her chest. Finally, she walked out into the hall.

Owen could tell by the look in Lark’s eyes that she was very upset. Owen then looked over at Leader Monrage, who was smiling with a perverse look on his face. Owen just glared at him from underneath his eyebrows. Then, he turned and followed Lark out the door. He could feel Leader Monrage staring after him.

Owen spotted Lark not far ahead of him walking slowly toward the control room. It didn’t take long for Owen to catch up to her. Lark was almost staring straight ahead, but her eyes were slightly downcast. She was petting the cat rhythmically.

“Jensen didn’t ask for you.” Owen told her.

“I know. That was last week.” Lark stated in a monotone.

“Lark.”

Lark slid her eyes toward him.

“I can’t do this anymore.” Lark whispered. “I have to find a way out. Will you help me?”

“Yes.” Owen tried to give Lark a reassuring smile.

“After we start the diagnostic, we’ll go talk. I have to stay somewhere else tonight. I know it might make it harder to deal with things.”

“Doesn’t matter. I have something to tell you.” Owen returned.

“Good.” Lark said. “That’s good.”

Jensen was not only a navigator, but he also handled the computer maintenance. It was easier that way. After all, if the computer’s navigational system didn’t work it would be he that would face the brunt of Leader Monrage’s wrath. Oh well. It was a small price to pay. He would lose a few hours of sleep, but the quality of the sleep he did get was much improved. Of course, some days seemed less tedious than others. Jensen found it really depended on how the rest of the day went. Some days were more exciting. Working around the unique intricacies of space and going out on shore leave were his two favorite things to do. Days where he sat around waiting to be needed — those were the days that grated on Jensen.

So, when Officer Twelve walked into the room, face downcast and seemingly in a daze, his first thought was at least this was different. His second thought was one of concern.

“Don’t worry. She’ll be fine.” Owen said, shutting the door behind him.

“Of course.” Jensen replied.

Jensen wasn’t sure he liked the familiarity Owen seemed to show Officer Twelve. After all, she was the commanding officer on this ship. She was the leader when Leader Monrage wasn’t around. Still, to look at Officer Twelve now, even with the uniform, she looked like a lost, little girl. Officer Twelve sat in her commander’s chair and began to pet the cat on her lap. Suddenly, Officer Twelve looked up and made eye contact with him. Jensen was embarrassed to realize that he had been staring.

“Could you please run the diagnostics again? I have a feeling we’ll be taking off soon. The ship has to be at optimal performance.”

“Of course.” Jensen set to work.

Suddenly, there was a noise coming from the door. It seemed that someone was trying to open the door, but Owen had locked it. Lark turned around in her chair and watched the door until the knob stopped rattling. When it stopped, Lark allowed herself to breathe. She turned back around.

“I really appreciate you doing this, Jensen.” Lark told him.

“Of course, Officer. I’m glad you appreciate what I do. You know, I have to input all of the changing conditions within the range of a day’s travel: weather, climate, space debris. I wish other commanders would understand the importance of computer optimization.”

When Jensen looked up at Officer Twelve, she was staring off to the side. But then, she looked at him again.

“I’m counting on it to give us an edge.” Officer Twelve revealed.

“Of course.” Jensen smiled. “We’ll be the best in the fleet for sure. Heck, we may already be that.”

“I hope so.” Officer Twelve said.

“Well, the diagnostic scan has been started, but it may take awhile.”

“That’s fine.” Officer Twelve’s eyes wandered downward. Yet, the feeling that Jensen was still looking at her drew her attention back to him. Did he think she didn’t trust him? She grasped the arms of her chair with her hands.

“I’m going to stick around if that’s okay with you.” she told him.

“Sure. No problem.”

“Obviously you could do it without me.” she added.

Lark didn’t want to leave just then. She was afraid Leader Monrage would come in and stop the scan if she left. Maybe it was silly for Lark to think she could stand guard over the computer system. After all, she feared she had little ability to protect herself, which if Lark were honest with herself was the real reason she didn’t want to leave the room. She suspected Leader Monrage had been the one to try the knob earlier. Maybe if she waited long enough, Leader Monrage would lose interest in waiting around. That or he was looking for a key. Maybe she was just fooling herself to think she had any control.

“Do you really think we should stick around here?” Owen whispered to Lark. “We don’t really need the scan.”

Lark turned and looked at the door with trepidation.

“I guess you’re right.” Lark turned to Jensen. “Let me know whether … something interrupts the scan. We’ll make time for it tomorrow morning.”

Owen was surprised by how much of a daze Lark seemed to be in.

“Oh, okay.” Jensen returned. “But I think it’ll go through tonight. Still, it’s nice to have the support.”

Lark wished she could tell Jensen not to trust Leader Monrage. But why cause a problem for him if she didn’t have to? Having to be wary of Leader Monrage certainly didn’t make Lark’s life any easier. If Jensen was fortunate enough to be able to fly under Leader Monrage’s radar, why should Lark ruin that for him? Still, to have someone like Leader Monrage actively trying to undermine her but not have the ability to warn those she needed to depend on was problematic for Lark. Yet, she couldn’t hang out in the control room all night.

“All right.” Lark said. “We’ll leave Jensen to it.”

Owen nodded in disbelief. Lark scooped Cinnamon off her lap. She could tell by looking at Jensen one last time before she left that he was confused. He seemed to be perplexed about Lark’s behavior, but mostly he seemed confused about the dynamic between Lark and Owen. Lark had to admit she wasn’t exactly sure what her relationship with Owen was. Now, she’d have to consider how it would affect her crew. But there was time for that later. She had to deal with Leader Monrage first.

When Lark stepped foot into the hall, she stopped short and looked around her. All the dark spaces down the hall seemed ominous. She could almost feel Leader Monrage’s presence. Still, there was no sign of anyone being around. Owen came up behind her then.

“You ready?” he asked her.

“Yes.” she determined.

Leader Monrage didn’t appear again that night, but Lark kept an eye out for him anyway. She cast a look at her room door, which was now shut. In a way, it was more frightening like that. Was Leader Monrage in there, hiding in the closet waiting for her? She then looked straight ahead. It didn’t matter. She wouldn’t be going back there that night. She’d sleep on the street if she had to rather than go back there. Lark felt a sense of relief when she passed by the security guards. She was free — at least for a little while. She felt the wind on her face and was grateful for it. She remembered when the wind was hot, dry, and dusty on her face. It was hard to breathe then; it was easier now. But it wasn’t completely easy yet. It wouldn’t be, not until she was free of Leader Monrage. But how?

Lark and Owen came upon the church door. It was shut. At first, Lark was again concerned that it was locked. Fortunately, the fear was unwarranted. It opened slowly but smoothly.

Lark breathed out. She stepped inside, and Owen filed in behind her. Lark touched the edge of a pew with her hand. She could lie down on this bench and sleep there. After all, the pews were covered with cushions. If only she could stay there and shut out the bad things.

“So, are you going to tell me what happened?” Owen asked.

“You can imagine.” Lark said while looking off to the side.

“Yes, I probably can.”

“I have to break free. That’s why I’m here — to figure out a way. It felt safe besides.”

“Are you up for having a talk?” Owen put forth.

Lark gave him eye contact.

“Yes, I feel better now.” she told him.

Owen sighed. He was relieved.

“I did get some information out of that Mr. Marlock. You know, the one who works for Frederick. He let something slip. Seems there are other ships, possibly even a fleet. And they probably know what the plan is. I figure we aren’t privy to the information because it may leak out. That is why they’re not around; they don’t want there to be a chance anyone here will find out. From what I’ve been able to discover about Frederick Applegate’s family, I suspect a coup of some kind is about to be attempted. What I don’t know is what is in it for Leader Monrage. I thought maybe you could figure out that part. It would most likely be easier to destroy Leader Monrage’s payment in order to stop the transaction than to try to stop a whole coup once it’s in progress. I mean, whom could we tell? Would they even believe us? And could we trust them?”

“I agree.”

“Well, we have a lot of things to do.” Owen was animated. “I suggest I go pick us up something to eat. It’s going to be a long night.”

“Yes. That would be good. Though, we’ll probably need to eat on the front steps instead of in here.” Lark offered.

“Sure. As for the weather, it’s shaping up to be a nice night.”

Lark nodded.

“Take care of yourself. I’ll be right back.”

Lark could have gone with Owen, she supposed. But she was tired and really didn’t want to leave the church.

“I hope they won’t mind that you’re here, Cinnamon.” Lark said to her cat. “You’re going to have to behave yourself. I couldn’t leave you in the room; something would have happened to you.”

Lark decided she may as well sit down as she waited for Owen to return. She sat down in a back pew with the cat in her lap. She prayed. Then, she turned her thoughts to what Leader Monrage could possibly want from this situation. Maybe if Lark thought about it long enough, the answer would become clear.

 

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2015

Jennifer Alice Chandler

Nocturne’s Reaping® : Prelude

Chapter 27

“The target is within view.” Jensen stated. “ETA … two minutes.”

“And our pursuer?” Lark asked. “When will he be within firing range of us?”

“At our current speed … one minute.”

“Can we increase speed?” Lark questioned.

“Yes, but not without compromising our ability to hit the target. It could stray into another district.” Jensen brought up.

Lark stared at the screen for a moment.

“Officer Twelve?”

“Power us down.”

“Down?” Owen confirmed.

“Yes, Smythe’s ship doesn’t have our maneuverability. Right, Captain?” Lark mentioned.

“Right.”

“You can handle it then.”

“Yes. I can handle it.” Owen assured her.

“Then, use evasive maneuvers between the buildings. It may take us a little longer to get to the installation, but at least we’ll get there. Ready the counter weapons for any confrontation that occurs after the installation is destroyed.”

Lark braced herself as the ship flew through the comparatively narrow spaces. Each turn seemed to be too tight to make. Somehow, Owen managed to stay clear of the obstacles; though, the cruiser did skirt along the structures’ edges more than once. For most of the crew, it was too stressful to watch. But Lark couldn’t seem to remove her eyes from the screen. Strangely, it was almost as though she were watching her own life moving along. So many times it seemed she had been heading for total disaster. Yet, at that moment, she felt a sort of assurance that somehow they were going to make it through all this and come out of it okay.

“The installation is coming within range.” Owen mentioned after several minutes had passed.

“Scan the building for signs of life.”

“None detected.” Jensen responded.

“Set the coordinates for the radiation containment shield and deploy it.”

“Right … it’s done.” Jensen returned. “Officer, we’re now upon the target. I’m locking on.”

“All right then. Take out the installation.” Lark ordered.



“… It’s done.”

The pretty, speckled lights of the streetlamps were soon replaced by a hot, piercing light. Finally, the light was gone, and the crew of Lark’s ship was left with the darkness.

“I hope no one was down there.” Lark mentioned softly.

It didn’t take long for the scanner to pick up on the presence of another ship. Though it was still out of range in terms of its weapons, it was coming fast upon them. Jensen zoomed in on the image, which he projected onto the monitor. It was Leader Monrage’s ship.

“We’re being hailed.” Jensen stated.

“I’m not surprised.” Lark said. “He couldn’t destroy us without letting us know about it first.”

“Will he destroy us?” somebody questioned.

“If he can … unless it isn’t worth it to him …” She paused briefly. “Put Leader Monrage up on the monitor.” Lark commanded.

Jensen did, and a rage-filled Monrage appeared on the screen. He started spitting venom towards Lark.

“Leader Monrage, you may want to reconsider wasting your time pursuing me.” Lark stated coolly. “I know you have sent Smythe after me, but under the circumstances you may want to make plans for your escape instead. The explosion has no doubt alerted the Security Force. And now that you have no incentive to complete the mission …” Lark trailed off. “Unless, of course, you think I’m worth going back to the prison colony for. Bear in mind, this time you might never leave that place.”

“Leader, should we use the weapon on Officer Twelve’s ship? We can’t let them get away with this, can we?” someone off-screen asked.

Leader Monrage’s lip quivered. Then suddenly, he got a hold of himself. He considered for a moment.

“No, they’re not worth it. I have other plans for this weapon. Believe me, if I had the entire cache of weapons I would.”

The monitor went dead. Lark sat back in her chair and breathed. Then suddenly, Lark removed her contact lenses and crushed them under her feet.

“Incoming, Officer Twelve. Smythe has managed to lock onto us.” Jensen spoke up.

“Disperse the counter weapons.”

“All right …”

Lark, once again, held her breath for a moment.

“The oppositional weapons have been neutralized.” Jensen sighed in relief.

“Good. We’re going to ascend now. We need to get into space and away from here.” Lark informed the crew.

“What about Leader Monrage? He’s still out there.” Jensen wondered.

“We don’t have a choice. We can’t stay around here; we’ll be sent to prison.”

“We’re criminals?” Jensen asked.

“Not really.” Lark said. “But people don’t always know the truth.” Lark paused. “Get us out of here, Captain Smithson, as fast as you can.”

“What about fuel?” Jensen worried.

“We’ll get it at the nearest refueling station. I’m fairly certain it isn’t that far away.”

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2015

Nocturne’s Reaping® : Prelude

Chapter 24

 

They all headed to the conference room as a group. Then, they sat down and waited. Leader Monrage had yet to show up. Eventually, he did appear with a small group of unknown men. He seemed a bit surprised and maybe a tad annoyed when he saw them all there together waiting for him.

Unfortunately, Leader Monrage then began to prepare the papers at his table … slowly. It seemed to Lark that he was purposefully wasting time. After everything was put where he wanted it on his table, he engaged in prolonged small talk with his group. This caused Jensen to grow antsy. Lark turned her eyes toward Jensen in disbelief. Eventually, Jensen’s distracted eyes fell upon hers. Afterward, he immediately straightened up and stopped fidgeting. Luckily, he relaxed his appearance just in time for Leader Monrage to begin his presentation. Monrage would not have tolerated any distraction from the audience. What was more, he would have demanded to know the reason for it.

Everyone watched as Leader Monrage turned to a nearby man and nodded. The man in question had a list; he started approaching Lark’s crew with it. The man seemed to ask each crew member a question. As the unknown man neared, Lark could hear him asking for each person’s name. Lark managed to get eye contact with Jensen after the man asked for his name. It was clear by the look they exchanged they both knew Lark had made the right decision insisting that Jensen attend the meeting. In fact, Jensen looked downright ashen as he considered what could have happened had he not come. He started staring into space.

“Well then, seems we’re all here. Now, we can get down to business. We have a new assignment for which we will need the entire syndicate.” Leader Monrage began leering at Lark. “We’re going to be attacking certain key positions for our customer. The reward we receive will be very advantageous to our syndicate. We have copied each crew’s assignment onto a disk. You’ll be given the disk to insert into your computer at 1700 today.”

Lark was taken aback. Today? Lark had been hoping that Owen was wrong about the mission being moved up. And to make matters worse, the time Monrage had set for them to go forward with his plan was a mere six hours away. Could they even be ready in that amount of time? What if Leader Monrage decided to babysit them until the appointed time?

“The disk will create navigational coordinates for your part of the mission. It will also give you instructions on what exactly you’ll have to do for me. There shouldn’t be any questions, so don’t ask any now.”

Jensen looked relieved by how quickly Monrage had finished. He had apparently accepted Lark’s theory about Monrage’s plan as fact and, therefore, wasn’t surprised by the content of his speech. He seemed more concerned about the computer program he left running. Unfortunately, Jensen’s relief was short-lived.

“So, since I have you all here, and you’re all so interested in protocols — I have created a handbook, which details the goals for our syndicate after we successfully complete this mission. Yes, this should be very fun. Oh, and be sure to pay attention; there might be a quiz at the end.”

The entire crew just stared blankly ahead not offering an obvious reaction. Lark knew that Leader Monrage was basically blaming them and their manual reading for having to go through with this lecture. Though Lark knew he couldn’t possibly have gotten this whole handout done in an hour, blaming people for their own suffering was just Leader Monrage’s way. However, Lark was a bit concerned about Jensen. Once again, he was becoming agitated. His eyes were huge, and there was a look of disbelief plastered on his face. He then leaned his face against his left hand and stared at Leader Monrage. Lark had a feeling that this was going to be a particularly grueling meeting.

After a long time had passed, it became clear that Leader Monrage was struggling to find something else to say. His sentences became more and more scattered and nonsensical. It actually started to get a little disturbing. Eventually, he sighed. His eyes looked down briefly then darted around the room.

“Okay, well, that seems like it for now. I guess you all can go. If I think of something later, I can always call you back here. There’s still plenty of time before 1700. In the meantime, I’ll be on my own ship.” Suddenly, his eyes seemed to lose focus, and for at least fifteen minutes he stared unseeingly into space. No one wanted to say anything to him. All were silent. Eventually, he began to thaw from his stupor. “Anyway, you’re all dismissed. So, leave already.”

Monrage made a movement with his hand as though he were shooing them all away. Still, no one wanted to be the first one to stand.

“What’s wrong with you? I said go!” he screamed.

Lark stood with a cold, indifferent look on her face; she glided smoothly toward the door. The crew filed in behind her. It made Lark feel comforted; it felt as though the crew was on her side. After a short time, one of the crew members gained on Lark. It was Jensen. He walked quickly toward the control room. Lark watched as he unlocked the door with his own key. Then, he disappeared inside.

Lark found him at the console upon entering the room. Then swiftly, she turned her attention away from him and toward the corner. She checked to make sure that her scrambling device was still working. Lark found the pale red glow from the button to be reassuring.

“Thank goodness it hasn’t been breached yet!” Jensen declared. “I would hate to have left open a connection that could easily be traced back. I had no idea that meeting would take so long; I never would have left it running had I known. Oh, man! I thought for sure I would be too late.”

Lark wondered to herself how anyone could think an official meeting by Leader Monrage wouldn’t take a long time. Then, she realized that not many people had the same type of experience with Leader Monrage that she had — very rarely were crew members asked to attend meetings such as these. Lark sat down in the commander’s chair. Her brain was in a bit of a fog. Having to listen to Leader Monrage’s rant had taken its toll. It was one thing to be in a room with someone who wouldn’t stop talking; it was another thing entirely to have to listen to that person. After all, if Leader Monrage picked up on the fact that she was tuning him out, it would most assuredly set him off.

“There!” Jensen declared aloud. He laughed robustly.

Then, he looked around the room at the worried faces of the others and started talking in a more normal tone. Lark was grateful he wasn’t whispering, though. That would have been too suspicious should someone have entered the room suddenly.

Lark went to the screen and had a look at the schematics. There it was as plain as day — the exact location of the weapons Leader Monrage coveted.

“I wonder whether the location we’ve been ordered to go to by Leader Monrage is anywhere close to there. Why do I think it won’t be.” Lark mentioned.

Owen came up behind her.

“If you’re right, that means we’ll have to break off from formation.” he added softly.

“We won’t have much time then.” Lark said. “I think it’s safe to assume we’re basically trapped on the star cruiser now. And even if we weren’t, it’s too late to come up with a way to break into the installation and deactivate the weapons ourselves. So, we’ll have to destroy the installation from the air. Of course, that means we’ll have to be prepared to fend off some ships in case they come after us.”

“So, you think my brother’s ship will attack us?” Waterburg asked.

Lark and Owen turned towards him.

“I don’t know.” Lark admitted. “But it’s not as though we’re looking to destroy anyone — just prevent them from destroying us. Speaking of which …” Lark paused briefly. “Will there be any projected casualties at the facility?”

“Doesn’t look like it.” Jensen replied. “Most of the security is automated. The system is monitored by a computer team off-site. The few workers on-site go home by 1700. I guess that’s not a coincidence.”

“Good then. We have a plan.” Lark concluded.

Time seemed to inch by. Then, just before the designated time, a messenger arrived with a disk. He asked to speak to Officer Twelve. Lark went to the door, and the man handed her the disk.

“Be sure to wait until exactly 1700 before you insert the disk.” the man directed her.

Lark looked at him in disbelief. Would Leader Monrage really go to the trouble of trying to tell when the disk was inserted? And why should he care at this point? It was not that long until 1700. Lark thought this could be just another example of how Leader Monrage loved contrived rules. Then again, maybe he just wanted them to believe he could tell what they were up to. That would fit his pattern of behavior as well.

“All right. Thanks.” Lark said. “Is there anything else?”

“No, that’s it.” the messenger replied.

“Okay, 1700. I got it.”

After the man continued to linger, Lark just turned her back on him and returned to her chair. After a few moments, she could hear him leaving. She turned and looked back just to be sure.

“All right.” Lark said. “We have the disk.”

She handed it to Jensen.

“Now, it’s really going to come down to you and Owen. You’re the ones who will be doing most of the work to pull off our mission.”

“Yes.” Owen agreed.

“Yes.” Jensen replied with slight trepidation. “I guess it does come down to that now, doesn’t it?”

There were ten minutes left until 1700. It was the slowest ten minutes Lark could remember. She could tell that Jensen in particular was feeling the strain of anticipation. Whether Owen, who was standing by Lark’s side, felt any stress — one couldn’t tell it by looking at him. It actually helped Lark feel better. While the crew was looking to her for reassurance, she could feel silently reassured by Owen’s presence.

Lark watched the clock. At the exact moment that the minute hand hit the twelve, Lark spoke, “All right. Insert the disk.”

Jensen inserted the disk. The program displayed a menu with two links. One link would give them the coordinates for their part in Monrage’s mission. The other link led to instructions.

“Let’s look at the coordinates first and see how they compare with our set.”

Jensen posted the information onto the screen.

“Just like you thought, they aren’t all that close.” Owen remarked. “It seems I’m going to have my work cut out for me after all.”

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2015

Nocturne’s Reaping® : Prelude

Chapter 25

Celeste was anxious as she entered her bedroom. That was an unusual experience for her. Since everything in the room was exactly how Celeste had specified and in its place, normally just being in this room would make Celeste feel calm. It was everything Celeste had ever wanted and never had — even when her parents were alive. Everything in there was beautiful — the best. Celeste walked over and sat in front of her ornate vanity. She grabbed her silver hairbrush, which was dotted with actual pearls.

She started brushing her hair, and she counted as she did. After awhile, even this exercise didn’t calm her. She slammed the brush down onto the table.

“Where is he?!” she demanded as she looked at the clock. It was already 4:30 pm. Frederick had made such a big deal about her accompanying him to get Leader Monrage’s down payment, and now he seemed to be running late. The truth was Celeste wasn’t fond of the idea at all; it seemed like an unnecessary risk to her welfare. Why would Leader Monrage put the whole plan in jeopardy just because he couldn’t bring himself to trust them? Celeste couldn’t help but think he should get over it just as she had to get over his association with Lark.

Speaking of Lark, Celeste had intended to warn Leader Monrage about Lark’s activities with that unknown man, but after hearing about his paranoid nonsense she decided against it. Heck, if he relied so much on his paranoia, he could figure it out himself. Besides, she didn’t really want to deal with Lark again anyway.

Celeste sighed. Why did she have to do this thing tonight? Could she really be the only one Frederick could trust as the lookout at the weapons installation? What if they were caught? Celeste knew she couldn’t handle prison, and it didn’t escape Celeste’s notice that Frederick’s last plan almost landed her there.

Suddenly, her bedroom door was opened.

“Frederick, where have you been?” Celeste forced herself to ask in a soft tone of voice. She could see him in her mirror’s reflection.

Frederick crossed the room toward her. It always amazed him how truly beautiful Celeste was, and she knew it, too. He placed his hands on her shoulders.

“You’re as beautiful as the day I met you.” he said.

Celeste managed a smile.

“In that school uniform, you mean? Surely I look better now. Still, I’m glad I was wearing it. Remember when I asked you how you found me at my school? You said it was my school uniform that tipped you off.” Celeste told him.

“Yes.”

“And yet, here we are with me waiting anxiously for you.” she added with an edge to her voice.

“You know I had to get the codes for the installation.”

“Couldn’t you have done that before tonight?” she demanded of him.

Celeste knew she only had to prove to Frederick that he was expecting too much from her, and he’d relent. He’d done it a thousand times before.

“But it’s getting so late.” Celeste added. “Frederick.”

She turned and looked up at him with the most vulnerable expression she could muster.

“Are you sure I have to go?” she persisted.

He kissed the top of her head.

“You know I wouldn’t risk you if it weren’t absolutely necessary.” he told her. “But you’re right. We really should be heading out.”

Celeste was sulking on the way over to the installation. Usually when she did this she could wrap Frederick around her finger — apparently not that night. Frederick in his state of distraction didn’t even seem to notice.

“It’s almost five you know.” she brought up.

“Good. Then the employees will be leaving.”

“But what about … you know.” She paused. “Isn’t it dangerous to be around the installation now?”

“No, they aren’t going to be anywhere near there.”

“But what if Lark found out I was going there …?”

“I’ve been assured she’s been kept out of the loop.”

“But …”

“Besides …” Frederick interrupted. “Monrage won’t even take off until he gets his down payment. He’s just going to be ready. So, it’s fine. Don’t worry about it. This will be a simple procedure.”

“You mean, like the broach?” Celeste mentioned.

Frederick looked over at her briefly.

“You’re just trying to pick a fight with me, aren’t you? I mean, really? Who got you out of that one?”

“But now Lark hates me, and I’m scared.”

“You are, of course, referring to the girl who took the blame for you. You could probably convince that twit you did her a favor.”

Frederick stopped the car.

“We’re here. It’s time to earn your part in my future. I’m not in this alone …”

“All right!” Celeste yelled out.

She climbed out of the car. Frederick climbed out soon after.

“All you have to do is wait near the entrance.”

“Yeah, whatever.” Celeste returned.

Celeste headed toward the installation — the one named after Frederick’s father. The couple had visited before. In fact, they visited frequently over the course of a year — right from the moment they came up with the plan. That way the employees would become used to seeing them around the installation. Oh, a year before … things had seemed so optimistic for them back then. Celeste and Frederick had finally come up with a way for Frederick to break completely free from his father’s control and take the power for himself. It was exciting; they really bonded that day. But then, all of a sudden, just as their plan was coming to fruition, there was a letdown — a rift. He just demanded too much from her. Celeste had given him enough. She stopped walking when she got near the entrance to the installation. Frederick came forward and kissed her on the forehead.

“I’m sorry.” he said. “But I need you. You’re the only one I can trust.”

Celeste managed a smile. Why should she give up on her dream?

“I love you.” he said.

“Yes, so do I.” she returned.

With that, an employee came out of the installation and locked the door behind her. She smiled when she saw Celeste and Frederick standing there. There was no hint of suspicion.

“You know what’s ironic?” Frederick started after the employee left. “After tonight it won’t even matter whether that employee says she saw us here. Whom is she going to tell?”

“Yes.” Celeste smiled. “Well, you’d better get going, my love. I’ll wait here for you.”

Frederick smiled as well then headed into the building.

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2015

Nocturne’s Reaping® : Prelude

Chapter 21

 

Lark would spend hours a day learning from Professor. As he grew to trust in her abilities more and more, he left her alone to pilot the star cruiser in his absence — that or maybe he just needed the sleep.

Speaking of sleep, it was still a little disorienting how dark it was in space all the time. When they eventually did land on a planet, would it be day or night when Lark would usually sleep? Would the planet even have a normal day or night? Some of the colonies not only had atmospheric regulators but also systems that simulated sunlight. This could be used to extend the day longer as well. To her knowledge Lark had never been to one of those places, but she heard it wasn’t the same as having a regular daytime. Lark heard people were not so happy as they were in places with a real sun. Lark couldn’t be sure whether that was the case. There were tough times on Lark’s planet, and they only needed an atmospheric regulator there. Still, if living on this ship was any indication simulated light wasn’t enough for her.

“See that dark spot in the distance.” Leader Monrage had come up behind Lark while she was sitting alone in front of the monitor. Lark flinched slightly. Then, she thought about Leader Monrage’s words. Dark spots were pretty common in space. What would make this spot so special?

Leader Monrage pointed at the screen.

“If you look closely enough, you can see a faint energy field around it. And then, there’s a small planet right here, not all that far really.” He gestured at the screen. “Why anyone would want to live there I have no clue. Then again, I’m pretty sure they found out about it later, and now it’s too late to move. Star cruisers tend to avoid this area altogether. I wonder how much some of them would pay for us to transport them out of there. I mean, they’re contained, but still — one small electrical disruption and disaster occurs. Imagine the amount of energy that force field must use. I’ve heard stories about it, but I don’t know for sure. I don’t think I can know until I experience it firsthand. I don’t suppose the crew would appreciate us getting any closer.”

Leader Monrage leaned over the console.

“Let’s do it. They won’t know.”

Lark looked up and over at Leader Monrage. He looked at her in return. Then, he reached over and placed his hands on Lark’s shoulders.

“Go ahead.” Leader Monrage whispered.

He squeezed her shoulders with his hands.

“Should we get Professor?”

“Who?” Leader Monrage asked with some irritation.

“Never mind. I can handle it.” Lark conceded.

“Good girl.” Leader Monrage finally released Lark.

Lark turned the ship gradually towards the spot Leader Monrage had pointed out. Slowly, very slowly the spot got bigger.

“Zoom the camera in on the force field.” Leader Monrage insisted.

It took a moment for Lark to remember which button made the screen appear bigger. When she found it, the image expanded. Lark squinted at the image. It almost looked as though something was moving in there. It seemed the darkness was moving, but that couldn’t be. Then, Lark noticed there were lighter ones moving inside the force field as well. It seemed to almost be an intricate patchwork of serpentine pieces, gliding and sliding over one another in some sort of patterned way. Lark’s stomach dropped, and she felt repulsion. Leader Monrage, on the other hand, seemed transfixed.

“Where I’m from, they call them the nebula reapers, and that’s them in their prison. In case you’re wondering, they are named that because their forms remind people of emission nebulae. Not that you can see that from here.”

Lark slowed their approach in as non-obvious a way as possible. She also began to move the ship somewhat off course. By the time Leader Monrage realized the entities were sliding off-screen, some of the other crew members had awoken and come into the room looking for him. He glared at Lark but then turned to meet up with the men. He proceeded to usher them out of the room. It seemed he really didn’t want them to know he’d gotten this close to the nebula reapers. Lark was grateful the other men had shown up when they had — she’d hate to have to get any closer.

Suddenly, Leader Monrage popped back into the control room.

“Tell ‘Professor’ to relieve you. We’re going to have a strategy meeting in the mess hall.”

Lark watched as the large pulsating force field disappeared from the screen. It was so disturbing; Lark figured it would be difficult to shut it out of her mind. Chances were that the image would revisit her in her dreams just like every other unpleasant thing she’d faced. Lark shivered.

Then suddenly, a thought occurred to Lark. She decided there just wasn’t enough time to mull over the nebula-reaper incident any longer. She didn’t want Leader Monrage to come looking for her. Lark slowed the ship as much as possible then put it on autopilot. She then went and knocked on Professor’s door. Not surprisingly, he wasn’t pleased to be woken up. Lark could hear him grumbling on the other side of the door. Still, she wasn’t afraid of him. After dealing so long with Leader Monrage, very few other people actually scared her. Professor pulled the door open with some force, displaying his obvious irritation.

“What is it, girl? I’m supposed to be sleeping. It hasn’t been that long. I’ll come out when I’m done. That’s what I usually do.”

“Leader Monrage told me to get you. He wants me at a meeting. He’s expecting me.”

Professor looked dumbfounded for a moment. He considered.

“Fine. Just give me a second.”

Professor then shut the door. Lark considered waiting for Professor but decided against it. After all, the longer Lark took to show up, the worse her reception would be. They didn’t seem to be heading anywhere dangerous — at least not at the moment. Plus, she’d slowed them down to a crawl. The more Lark thought about it the more she felt the need to get to that meeting as soon as possible. In fact, Lark figured if she was out of breath by the time she arrived it would please Leader Monrage; she was right. Then again, maybe he just enjoyed seeing her stressed.

Lark noticed there were no other seats at the table with the rest of the men. So, Lark dragged a chair as carefully as possible from a nearby table to right behind a couple of the men. She sat down. Leader Monrage continued with small talk for a while — possibly to save face that he had waited for Lark’s insignificant presence.

“All right. Let’s get this meeting started. As you all know, as wonderful as it is, this ship is just the beginning. We’ll need fuel and food someday. And we don’t just want to be running from the law. We need to be able to go where we want when we want. We’ll need power for that. If we get that, they’ll turn a blind eye to our past transgressions. I’ve laid out the first part of my strategy in the booklet I’ve made available to all of you. We are going to establish ourselves as the most reliable and indispensible smugglers in operation. We will first begin our venture in regions that aren’t friendly to the Security Force.”

“Then what?” one of the men asked.

Leader Monrage smiled in a way that was a cross between amusement and annoyance.

“By then, we’ll have the means to destroy anyone who tries to mess with us. And yes before you ask. I have some idea of where I can get what I need.” Leader Monrage informed them. “But first things first, I expect everyone to read my booklet thoroughly — we’ll say within a week. There will be a test.”

There were groans.

“You’re dismissed.”

The men stood then and began to file out. Lark stood as well.

“Officer Twelve.” Leader Monrage called out. She froze and looked up at him midway through standing.

“Have you noticed that the other men don’t glare at you as much as they used to?” he began.

“No, but I guess now that you mention it …” Lark stood the rest of the way. She was now standing at a higher position than the sitting Monrage.

“It’s because you’re a pilot now, I suppose. It makes you seem as though you’re in another class. I do admit I am grateful that they no longer question my judgment in having you around.”

“They …”

“Not directly. They know better than that. But you had to have heard the whispers, seen the looks.”

“Yes.” Lark acknowledged.

“I guess it’s good I didn’t listen to them, right?”

“Yes.” Lark replied. She began to fear where this was headed.

“I’d be interested in hearing what you think of my plan.” Leader Monrage offered.

“The first part or the whole thing?”

Leader Monrage leaned back and grinned.

“I have to keep some things to myself. I don’t want anyone taking my idea and using it for himself.”

Lark couldn’t believe it, but he was serious.

“No, I was referring to the first part of my plan.” Leader Monrage continued. “It may take years to implement, but that shouldn’t be an issue for you now that I think of it. You have nowhere else to go, nothing else to do.”

Lark just looked at him.

“Oh, yes. You weren’t here when I passed these out. Come, take a booklet.”

Leader Monrage held the booklet just out of reach. She was sure he planned to rip it away before she could take it. Still, what choice did she have? So, Lark began reaching for the brochure slowly. Then, just as her fingers grazed the pages, Leader Monrage spoke once more.

“Next time.” he said. “Get here sooner. You’re not worth waiting for.”

 

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2015

Nocturne’s Reaping® : Prelude

Chapter 22

 

Lark was staring into space reflecting on her past when Owen returned with the food.

“Lark, I’m back.” he announced.

Lark turned around toward him and nodded. She then stood and headed for the door. When the two stepped outside, Lark decided to prop the door open with a nearby brick in order to prevent the door from shutting. Maybe it was pointless. After all, they found the door unlocked when they arrived earlier. Still, it made Lark feel better. After she was sure the door was securely ajar, Lark sat on the steps next to the spot she had placed Cinnamon.

“I got your cat some milk and some fish sticks.” Owen mentioned.

Lark smiled with amusement.

“Thank you.” she offered.

Then, Lark looked down and considered something.

“What is it?” he asked her.

She turned her eyes toward him again. She saw that Owen had a container of food in his hands. He seemed to be giving it to her.

“I don’t want to go back to the star cruiser tonight.” Lark mentioned, as she took the food Owen offered her. “I don’t know whether or not I should just stay up all night. Then again, what if I need to be alert tomorrow for some reason? Maybe I shouldn’t risk it. Still, I’m not sure that they’d appreciate me sleeping on a pew. They can’t just allow people to do that.”

“Let’s get a couple of rooms at this inn I saw nearby.”

“I don’t have any money.” Lark admitted. “He doesn’t pay me much of anything. I have to save up just to buy groceries and such.”

“Well, he did just pay me the other day.” Owen replied. “I’ll be glad to take care of it.”

Lark nodded.

“Thank you.” she said.

“So, have you had time to think about what Leader Monrage may want from all this?”

“Yes, actually I have.” Lark replied after swallowing a bite of her sandwich. “I think I may have an idea.”

Owen seemed very interested in what Lark was about to say.

“There was a meeting once years ago. During it he laid out his plans for our little cooperative. He even wrote a booklet.”

“That booklet — do you still have it?”

“Maybe … probably … unless of course he took it back when I wasn’t looking. Who knows, maybe he did. Still, it doesn’t matter. It wasn’t in there; that was just the first part of the plan. It’s the part we’ve already implemented — the smuggling network. That’s where Leader Monrage got all the money he needed to buy the fleet and pay the crew. What I’m referring to is the one he planned to start once that first part was implemented.” Lark paused briefly. “You see, one thing that bothered Leader Monrage was the threat of being recaptured — of having to spend his life hiding or fleeing. The fact that we’re even on Colony 9 says that he’s moved on to phase two of his plan. This is a very pro-corrections planet. For him to even step foot here — Frederick must be keeping the investigators at bay. But it’s more than that. Leader Monrage has decided it’s time to go where he wants when he wants. And I can only think of one way he can accomplish that. He’s been promised an arsenal.”

“But doesn’t the fleet have weapons? Heck, don’t we have weapons?”

“Yes, enough for a coup if it’s a surprise but not for a full on space battle. Not enough to intimidate governments and the Security Force. There’s certainly not enough to allow Leader Monrage to act anyway he wants and avoid having to kowtow to those in power. He hates that more than anything.”

Owen leaned back and considered.

“Makes sense.” he agreed. “But does what you’re suggesting even exist here?”

“We’ll have to find out where they’re kept, but the weapons have to exist. It’s the only thing that makes sense to me.” Lark paused. “The question in my mind is whether he is going to use at least some of the weapons for the coup or if he’s going to retrieve them afterward.”

“Okay, assuming that’s the case, what’s to prevent him from using them on us?”

“Let’s just say it would be better for us if he got paid afterward. Like you suggested, I’d rather take on Leader Monrage as he is now — before he has all the weaponry. Actually, there probably won’t be much of a chance to stop him once he has the arsenal he wants. Plus, destroying the weapons is the easiest way to stop the coup. Still, the weapons must be impressive for him to risk this much.”

“I don’t know. Seems he lives for risk to me.”

“He lives for control and power.” Lark corrected. “Either way, we’ll move forward on the assumption that Frederick doesn’t trust Monrage enough to pay him off before the coup. The fact is that messing around with the weapons beforehand might draw suspicion on the three of them and ruin the coup altogether. So for us, it all goes back to having to destroy the weapons.”

“Wherever they are.”

“Yes. Wherever they are …” Lark returned. “… there must be a plan in place to bypass any security. Frederick probably has that covered.”

“Best to get those rooms and take it up at first light.” Owen suggested. “I think wandering around here blindly asking questions about stashes of weapons will only get us locked up.”

“Yes, and now that I think about it, I believe a thorough thermal scan of the area will show us what we need to know.” Lark added.

“Good then. It’s a plan.”

“Owen?”

“Yes?”

“I don’t want anyone killed. Suppose I’m risking the crew or civilians …”

“I don’t want that either, but we have to do something. Monrage with weapons that dangerous isn’t an option.” Owen returned.

Lark nodded. He was right. Still … facing Monrage down wouldn’t be easy. Leader Monrage had years to plan for this; Lark only had days. There was no way to know what contingencies he had in place. And it hadn’t escaped Lark’s notice that it was she alone of all the commanders that he instinctively didn’t trust with the truth.

 

***

 

“That’s good, kiddo.” Professor said. “You’ve come a long way quickly. Of course, some things are just about experience; I can’t simulate everything.”

Lark nodded. Suddenly, Professor looked over at her. He seemed to be considering something.

“You’re pretty young, girl, to be traveling around here with all of these men.”

Lark looked over at him. What was he implying?

“Where are your parents?” he asked.

Lark looked down.

“They’re dead.” she replied.

“So, you don’t have any family?”

Lark looked a bit evasive.

“No.” she started. “I do have a cousin.”

“A cousin? Is she around here?”

“No. I was sent to the prison colony by myself.”

“May I ask why?”

Lark breathed.

“Theft.”

“You don’t seem like the type.”

Lark looked at him. Then, she looked away.

“I don’t mean it like that …” he insisted. “It doesn’t have to define you. If you made a mistake — I realize your life may have been …”

“It’s complicated.”

“Is it? Is it really? Okay, well, if you don’t want to talk about it … but I feel I’ve gotten to know you. I do worry what will happen to you once I’m gone.”

Lark’s eyes shifted again.

“You know, eventually I’m going to be moving on. It seems wrong to leave a young girl like you here in this environment …” he added.

“I had a bad dream the other night.” Lark interrupted him. “I have bad dreams a lot, but you were in this one. Leader Monrage shot you dead. You knew too much or some such thing. I don’t know.” Lark wrung her hands. “But I’ll be glad when you’re safely where you want to be. There’s no point in you getting involved in anything that will wind up getting you on Leader Monrage’s bad side. Sticking up for me won’t help. There’s no way he’ll let me leave with you. In fact, it’ll probably just make things worse for you and for me.”

Professor seemed moved by Lark’s words. He blinked a couple of times.

“Perhaps you’re right, though I’m loath to admit it. You remind me of my little sister when she was your age. Still … promise me something. Promise me that you’ll keep your eyes open for any possibility of escape. Don’t give up on it. You need to be free of him.”

Lark looked away.

“I’m not sure that’s ever going to happen.” Lark admitted.

“But if it does …”

Lark felt a lump grow in her throat. She nodded.

“I’ll try.” she whispered, feeling that the walls had ears.

“Someday, maybe … someday.”

But that day never seemed to come. As the years passed, Lark all but forgot about the conversation she had had that day. Professor did get dropped off safely on the planet of his choosing. Lark took over as the pilot until Leader Monrage expanded his enterprise. Eventually, Lark became a commander of her own ship. Though she was in near constant contact with Leader Monrage via the communications link, having her own ship allotted her the first space she’d known in years. Early on, she was even allowed a say in her crew. They were hired from the various planets; none of them came from the prison colony. Finally, it was as though she could breathe again. Still, the distance made the shock of seeing Monrage when she did have to see him even more severe. Part of it was that the more time she spent away from Leader Monrage, the more her feelings seemed to float to the surface. That certainly complicated things for Lark. It seemed to make relating to Leader Monrage even more problematic; it seemed to agitate him. But Lark didn’t allow herself to think about that. After all, what choice did she have?


Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2015

Nocturne’s Reaping® : Prelude

Chapter 19

Celeste had a lot of explaining to do to her future in-laws about the odd appearance of Leader Monrage and Officer Twelve. They made it clear that, though they were proud of Frederick’s business success, there was no need to invite people such as those to their parties. People such as those. That statement alone made it worth it. Suddenly, Celeste felt a jolt of relief and maybe even excitement. She hadn’t realized how much Lark’s re-emergence had bothered her.

Just when all of her and Frederick’s plans were about to pay off, Lark comes back almost like a harbinger of death. Frederick tried to console Celeste, but Lark’s return just seemed to be an indication that bad things were about to unfold for her. She had been so confident before, but after seeing Lark again that dissolved. Still, Frederick insisted Leader Monrage was the man to make their plan succeed. Thank goodness for that party, Celeste thought. Seeing Lark there — no one would believe Lark about the theft — that it was actually Frederick and she who had stolen the broach. So, how should Celeste play it if her future in-laws did find out about her connection to Lark? Maybe she’d say Lark took it upon herself to try to get them some money. Or, maybe Lark was just born bad.

Celeste laughed. No matter. As annoying as the past was to her now, it had been necessary to steal that broach. Celeste needed the money to lift her into a better standard of living. Frederick, meanwhile, needed to be out from underneath his father’s thumb. The idea of having Lark take the fall for it wasn’t planned, but Celeste had been spotted from a distance running back toward the house. True, she and Lark weren’t the same height or age. They didn’t even have the same hair color. Yet, Frederick saw to it that those types of questions wouldn’t be asked. Frederick had a friend who could help him, but that friend made it clear that someone would have to take the blame. Someone would have to pay — that was the only way Celeste could be free. Ironically, they used some of the proceeds from the broach to accomplish the right outcome at the hearing. Celeste would lie low, and the judge would just accept Lark’s plea. Of course, Celeste had been a little worried that if she didn’t go to the hearing Lark wouldn’t plead guilty, but she did.

And as it turned out, it was for the best. Celeste had nearly destroyed her own future to keep Lark around; Lark owed her something in return. Besides, if Celeste had been sent to the prison planet Lark would have ended up in the foster care system anyway. Celeste sighed. She doubted Lark would see it that way — because Lark was younger she was entitled.

But it didn’t matter now. Leader Monrage would manage Lark. He could probably even convince Lark there was little to be gained in exposing that she and Celeste were related. Celeste breathed.

“Hello, my lovely.” Frederick came up to her at the party. “You seem to be doing much better.”

“I am.” Celeste smiled.

“So, where did she go?”

“I saw her leave through the garden door a little while ago.” Celeste admitted.

“Well, I’ve got to talk with the mayor. Is that all right?”

“Sure. Of course.”

Celeste kissed his cheek. Then, Celeste got to thinking — why should she be afraid of Lark? Lark should be afraid of her. Celeste was the one with the power. Maybe Celeste should make sure Lark knew that. If Lark had left the grounds, it might mean that Lark finally got it. Celeste crossed over to the garden exit Lark left by. Celeste had watched Lark file out of the room from the corner of her eye. She hadn’t wanted to give Lark the satisfaction of knowing she was interested in what Lark was doing. Still, though Lark had walked out quickly it was not fast enough for Celeste.

When Celeste stepped onto the balcony, there was no one there. Lark must have found the gate, Celeste concluded, even though it was hard to see. Celeste headed there just to make sure. Funny, the latch was still secured from the inside. Could Lark have sneaked back into the house? Celeste put her hand on the latch and considered. She was about to leave and return to the party when she heard voices in the garden speaking words she couldn’t quite make out.

Curiosity overcame Celeste, and she lifted the latch. She walked carefully yet quickly toward the voices. By the time she got to the two people, they had stopped talking. In the clearing was her cousin Lark kissing an unknown man. Celeste stood frozen there wondering what to make of it. Who was this guy, and what did he have to do with Lark? Did Leader Monrage know about this? Celeste waited until they left before heading back to the house. Celeste didn’t want a confrontation after all. Celeste returned to the gate. She felt relief when she was able to relock the door. Immediately, Celeste ventured back into the party. She was intent on finding Leader Monrage. Unfortunately, Celeste didn’t see the striking man among the crowd. However, Celeste was able to find Frederick.

“Frederick, where is Leader Monrage?”

“He just left.”

“Oh.” Celeste uttered.

“What’s wrong?” Frederick asked her.

“I have to tell him something. It seems someone isn’t being completely honest with him. Where can I find him, do you think?”

“He’ll be here in three days. Can it wait until then?”

“So, that’s when it is. Yes, I suppose so. After all, even I don’t know what to make of it. Besides, I know you don’t want us seen with him again until …” Celeste stopped herself in time. “By the way, I know you did this thing tonight for me.”

“Yes, I’d do anything for you.”

“Yes, of course.” Celeste mentioned.

“I could send him a note if you want.”

“No, I don’t want to risk our plan. That’s what’s important. I’ll deal with the other soon enough.”

 

***

 

Lark headed for her room. As soon as she could, she tore off the uniform and threw it to the ground. Leader Monrage could control what she wore outside of these walls, but inside this room she could do what she pleased. But was it enough? And what would happen if he did try to control everything she did? Would she even be capable of stopping him?

When Lark sat on the bed, Cinnamon came up wanting to be petted. Lark petted her. Yet, Lark stared blankly out the window as though in a trance. Her mind alternated between the horrible experience of being with Leader Monrage and Celeste that night and the unexpected occurrence that happened with Owen afterward. It was almost too much to process.

And then, there was the fact that she’d given herself two days to figure out what was going on with Leader Monrage, Celeste, and Frederick. She’d chosen that date because she figured the soonest anything could happen was after leave was over. Also, it hadn’t escaped her notice that the following day everyone would be subjected to yet another roll call and another mandatory lockdown. It would seem that Leader Monrage was once again planning to meet with Frederick and Celeste. There was no way to know how much time was left before their plan was implemented. True, she could let Owen find out what he could, but what if he couldn’t find out anything by then? And what if he was discovered asking around and something happened to him? Lark realized that she cared whether something happened to him. She wrung her hands.

Lark then tried to piece together what little information she already had. Obviously, the need to have a new pilot and the fastest ship had something to do with the plan. There was a lot of secrecy involved in it as well. So, Owen was right; there was a large chance of illegality and danger. What was more, Leader Monrage was probably going to spring the plan on the crew at the last minute, so there wouldn’t be a chance the information would be leaked. That meant that once Lark came back from leave, she wouldn’t have another opportunity to change things.

In the end, even though Lark wanted to help retrieve information, she wondered how she could even manage it. Say there was information at her cousin’s mansion — would it be worth the risk to look for it? If someone saw her, Leader Monrage would go nuts, and Lark would probably be put into solitary confinement — if she even survived. That was assuming there was even anything written down. As paranoid as Leader Monrage was, that was doubtful.

It also seemed Owen would be the one most likely to find something out if there were any rumors circulating. Lark didn’t know why, but she had a feeling Owen may be good at finding out information. Then again, maybe she did know why; he did get a lot of information from her. Either way, it seemed as though she’d have to count on him. People were unlikely to disclose information to her, especially in this uniform. Who would talk with Lark about her boss?

 

***

 

Owen was an observer. That’s how he managed to survive so long in the barren hole that he grew up in. Sometimes the sporadic workings of the climate adapter on his home planet made it difficult to breathe. Those were the worst days, but the other days weren’t much better. There was always intrigue there and people pitted against one another. It didn’t take long for Owen to withdraw — to figure out what was really going on — to stay out of it when he could but take action when he had to. It was safer that way.

Still, as it turned out, being capable of blending into the background could be a useful skill to have at times. Owen touched his glass with his fingers. Lark obviously thought so. He’d been a little worried that she would freak out when he kissed her, but she hadn’t. Owen hadn’t anticipated having feelings for Lark, but there was a connection there. Originally, Owen had thought this position with Leader Monrage would last as long as it was going to, and then he’d move on. But now, he felt a certain investment in taking Lark out of this situation and off with him. Leaving her with that so-called man wasn’t an acceptable option for him. To be honest, and he wouldn’t admit this to Lark, but he was concerned that eventually Leader Monrage would try to force Lark into a personal relationship with him. Leader Monrage clearly enjoyed torturing her when he could. Owen thought Lark could feel that she was in danger with Leader Monrage, but she was trapped. Owen could sense the time was nearing; he didn’t know what Leader Monrage had been waiting for. Perhaps he was waiting until he didn’t need her anymore. Owen suspected it wasn’t that logical. He suspected Leader Monrage enjoyed the anticipation. Still, Owen sensed something bad was building, and it would probably happen after this plan of Leader Monrage’s occurred. Owen couldn’t let that happen. But right now he couldn’t think about that. He needed to get information about Leader Monrage’s plan, so that he could derail it.

Besides being able to talk with then kiss Lark, Owen had gotten something else out of that party. He was able to see that a person other than the three main players had access to the information that he sought. There was a man who seemed to be Leader Monrage’s contact at the house. Owen figured that the conspirators would have to have told him something about what they were doing in order to get his cooperation. And if he was around a lot, there was also a chance that he heard more than they even wanted him to. Still, if he was so trusted by those involved it could be hard to get the needed information out of him — hard but not impossible. The trick was to get him to say something he may not realize was important. Either way, he wasn’t going to get any information on the opposite side of the room. Owen took a sip of his drink. It was time to feel out where Mr. Marlock was coming from. Owen stood and headed toward the bar. He took a seat a few stools down; he allowed there to be a man between them. It would be better to listen to Marlock tell his story to someone else. However, if Owen had to engage Marlock in conversation it was important that he not make Marlock wary of him. Owen couldn’t let Marlock suspect that he came to the bar because Marlock was there.

Owen decided to play it as though he was distracted and stressed. He decided to ask for a club soda. He thought it would get Marlock’s attention. Sure enough, as the person between them stepped off, Owen could feel Marlock shooting him a curious glance. Owen then shot an annoyed look at Marlock, who looked away briefly. Still, moments later Marlock snickered, “What? Not old enough for even this place?”

The bartender picked up on the exchange. He apparently was curious, too. And as it turned out, it fit into Owen’s plan nicely.

“Hard day?” the bartender queried.

“I wish it were only that. Though, sometimes it does feel like one long day.” Owen replied.

The bartender was apparently not going to press, so Owen decided he had to risk being obvious and offer up some more information.

“I’m on call. Who knows how long it will last.”

“On call, huh? A doctor? You seem a bit young for that.”

“A pilot.”

“A pilot? Don’t you have a flight plan?” the bartender wondered.

Owen faked being uncomfortable.

“Usually. But no one tells me anything.”

It was obvious Mr. Marlock was listening in. That was a good sign; it meant he probably had an eavesdropping tendency. Now, how to get him to talk …

“So, I just sit around waiting. Someday I’m going to get my own ship. I’m sick of being someone’s lackey.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Owen could see Mr. Marlock shift.

“They’ll let you take the risks for them, and they’ll let you do all of their grunt work. Still, when it comes to the information you really need — the really important information that you need to have in order to do your job effectively — that they don’t trust you enough to give you.”

Owen could sense the tension coming from his right. He took the opportunity to look at the man.

“Of course, that guy doesn’t know what we’re talking about.” Owen said to the bartender in regard to Mr. Marlock. “He probably owns a fleet of ships.”

“Why would you say that?” Mr. Marlock demanded.

Owen had to continue to seem uninterested. Fortunately, he had a lot of experience with that.

“What I said seemed to bother you. I figured you don’t like to hear working-class men like me complain about their bosses.”

Mr. Marlock glared at Owen; he tapped his drink with his fingers.

“That one thing you said is true. I do think complaining is tedious. Plus, maybe there’s something wrong with you that you don’t know more.”

“So, you’re told everything by your employer?” Owen queried with a hint of disbelief.

Mr. Marlock said nothing but seemed to redden.

“I guess not.” Owen suggested smugly.

“Listen, I can say one thing at least; I’m told more than anyone else in my position. Can you say the same?”

Owen raised an eyebrow. It occurred to Owen that Mr. Marlock recognized him. That was interesting.

“And what is that supposed to mean?” Owen demanded coolly.

“It means you’re the only one of the pilots who hasn’t been told what you’re doing.”

Owen took a sip of his soda. He considered.

“Maybe you’re right.” he said. He took out some money and left it on the counter. “I can’t say it’s been nice talking with you.”

Owen strode out of the bar. He didn’t want to wait around for Mr. Marlock to realize what he’d said. So, there were other pilots. Not around here, though. But possibly nearby that hadn’t arrived yet? Maybe Monrage had ordered a fleet. The rest of the fleet — if there was one waiting in the wings — may have been told the score because they were too far away to leak the information. Perhaps they were even in Colony 9’s orbit right now. It made sense on some level. One ship couldn’t do much, but a fleet that had grown over the years could. Frederick was probably attempting a coup. Owen had seen enough coups where he was from to see the signs.

Also, Owen had learned earlier — before his conversation with Marlock — that Frederick’s family had power on this planet. The family pretty much ran the colony like a monarchy. Actually, it was during that conversation that Owen discovered where Marlock hung out after work. And from Lark’s past, Owen knew that Frederick had a history of taking what he wanted when he wanted it. Asking permission wasn’t one of Frederick Applegate’s favorite things to do to say the least.

Still, there was one major piece Owen didn’t know. Leader Monrage certainly would have demanded a payoff of some kind. Maybe Lark would have some idea what Monrage would consider worth his time and worth the risk.

 

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2015

Nocturne’s Reaping® : Prelude

Chapter 23

 

Lark was lying on top of a comforter. She was tired, yet she hadn’t planned on actually sleeping. Her goal was merely to rest for a little while. She didn’t honestly think she could sleep, not with all the thoughts that were wafting through her mind. So, instead, she thought she’d stay up and think about her next move for a while. There was only a short amount of time before events were set to unfold. If Lark wasn’t prepared, she would most likely not have another chance to escape. Lark was filled with anxiety. She couldn’t help but wonder what the cost of her freedom would be to everyone else. She reminded herself that preventing Leader Monrage from gathering an arsenal as well as stopping Frederick from taking over the colony’s government should be best for more than just she. Lark breathed. It wasn’t long after that thought that she succumbed to sleep despite her best efforts not to.

Lark awoke with the morning light. She shot up startled. What time was it? Thankfully, the clock said it was still early. Suddenly, she heard a knock at the door. She knew it was most likely Owen, but she was still gripped with uneasiness. The fact was it could be Leader Monrage, and that was enough to fill her with fear.

“Lark.” Owen called in. Lark rolled out of the bed. She felt relief. Not only did she recognize his voice, but he had called her Lark. Leader Monrage probably wouldn’t have done that. Lark grabbed Cinnamon and crossed over to the door and opened it. Since there was nothing else that Lark had brought with her, she just left the room.

“Did you sleep well?” Owen offered.

For a second, Lark felt as though his words were a criticism of her. It occurred to her that this reaction was probably a result of her time with Leader Monrage. Even if she managed to get away from him, Lark realized it would take some time before she could rid her mind of his influence.

Lark looked up at Owen.

“Yes. I actually slept very well.” she replied.

Owen smiled at her. Lark managed to smile as well.

“We’ll do the scan and take it from there. I’m actually pretty optimistic about it. Really, I’m looking forward to being on a ship with you in charge instead of Leader Monrage.” Owen informed her.

Lark laughed.

“Yeah … me, too.” Lark admitted. “Then again, it would be difficult for it to be worse.”

“Yeah.” Owen responded, his voice solemn.

“Do you want some breakfast first?” he suddenly asked her.

“No, I’ll eat when we get back to the ship. I have the feeling that we don’t have any time to waste.”

They walked rather briskly to their destination. Once they caught sight of the ship, Owen stopped. He looked over at Lark.

“Maybe I should go ahead first, so the crew doesn’t get the wrong idea.”

“Plus, you can make sure it’s safe.” Lark mentioned.

“Yeah, well. I’ll be back for you and Cinnamon.”

Lark smiled at the mention of her cat’s name. She watched Owen head into the gathering crowd of pedestrians walking the usually busy street. As she waited, Lark could feel people glancing over at her with curiosity. She had forgotten she was still in her uniform. How oddly she must look in Leader Monrage’s contraption. Was it possible that someday, possibly soon, Lark would be able to tear off this costume for good? It seemed too much to hope for. Yet, maybe …

Suddenly, Lark caught sight of Owen returning to her. There was a look of concern on his face.

“What’s wrong?” Lark wondered.

Owen hesitated.

“It seems we’ve been banned from the ship. Everyone else has been recalled.” he started. “They’ve moved up the time table — that or he always planned it that way. Either way, they’ve locked us out. I was lucky to avoid being detained by the guards.”

Lark looked over at the star cruiser. Every once and awhile there was a lull in the crowds, and she could see two guards standing in front of the hatch. She didn’t recognize them.

“Is it us specifically or …?” Lark began.

Owen considered.

“The gist was that no one is allowed to go in at this point. Yet, the way they looked at me made me think it may be personal. Still, there’s really no way to know for sure at this point. After all, I didn’t have my radio on last night.”

“Me neither.”

Owen considered.

“You don’t seem that upset.” he remarked.

“I’m not.” Lark said, still looking at the hatch. She then turned her eyes toward Owen.

“You know about the service entrance, don’t you?”

“Yeah, but it’s opened from the inside.” Owen pointed out.

“That’s because no one knows the code … but me, of course. I set the code myself in order to regain access. Then, I waited a long time without using it.” Lark answered. “You see, I’ve conceived of this possibility before. And since no one has seen that door opened from the outside, people such as Leader Monrage don’t think that it can be, but it can.”

Owen laughed. He placed his hand on Lark’s shoulder.

“Good for you.” he told her.

“We should probably head in.” Lark offered. “Of course, we’ll have to be careful. He could be in there.”

“If he isn’t now, he probably will be later.” Owen suggested.

“Yes.”

“He’ll probably seek you out. Are you up for that?”

“I guess I’ll have to be.” Lark concluded.

“I’ll intercede on your behalf, but if he’s got backup …”

“I know.” Lark stated. “But if I hide … I mean can I even hide here on Colony 9? What’s to stop my cousin from throwing me in prison again on some trumped-up charge if her lover takes over? It’s clear she doesn’t want me here. All that I can hope for now is that Leader Monrage isn’t quite ready to dispose of me yet.”

“I doubt the crew would allow that.” Owen stated.

“They’re fond of me — that’s true — but they don’t know what to make of him. That kind of uncertainty could lead to inaction. By the time they determine to intercede, it would probably be too late. I’ve been living with this fear for a while now. I’m surprised I’ve managed so long really. I could have been killed by him any number of times. I’ll just have to believe today’s not going to be the day. Anyway, we’d better get going; we have a lot of prep work to do. And I’m pretty sure that getting the crew on board with our plan is not going to be easy.”

Lark and Owen blended in with the crowd that was moving in the direction of the service entrance. Then, they filed off unseen toward the small door on the side of the ship. Lark proceeded to punch in her code. For a brief second, she wondered if Leader Monrage somehow anticipated her maneuver and altered the code himself. However, as it turned out, the concern was unwarranted; for the green light came on, and the door slid easefully open as she had planned.

“Let’s go.” Lark said, as they quickly slipped inside.

Lark headed directly to the control room. There Lark and Owen found every member of the crew sitting around discussing something in whispers. They all turned when they heard the door open. They then looked at Lark with blank stares. Lark couldn’t tell whether they were surprised to see her or concerned about something that had happened. Either way, Lark could tell they were now looking to her to tell them what to do. But first thing was first.

Lark stepped to the side of the door. Hidden in the corner was a small red button. When she pressed it, it began to glow. She had installed it a long time ago. It was designed to scramble any listening devices that had been planted in the room. It did this by replicating environmental interference. Lark had decided to use it for emergencies only, and she stuck with that. It had been tempting to potentially freeze Leader Monrage out more than once, but she held off. After all, if it happened too often it would be obvious something was up. Actually, there was another one of the devices in her bedroom. Only, she kept that one on all the time. “Let him think what he wanted with that one,” she concluded.

“Jensen. Is the diagnostic scan done?”

“Yes, um, yes, ma’am … Officer Twelve.”

“Then, there’s something else I need you to do. Conduct a thermal scan of the area.”

“A thermal scan?” Jensen repeated. “Yes, right away.”

Jensen went to his console and began to work. Stopping by and talking to Jensen the night before had really paid off. He didn’t even hesitate to follow Lark’s direction. Lark turned toward Owen briefly. She motioned with her eyes toward the door. Then, Lark went to sit down in her commander’s chair. Since the crew members were either watching Jensen or Lark, Owen took the opportunity to lock the door.

“We may as well have a meeting.” Lark stated.

“Without Leader Monrage?” one of the men questioned.

Lark clutched the arms of her chair with her hands. She knew this was a risk. Though there was no hard and fast rule, it was generally understood that you did not have meetings without Leader Monrage. He was just too paranoid for that. If he found out, he would assume the worst. And it wouldn’t just be Lark who would pay the price. Anyone who stayed, anyone who didn’t run out of the room and go straight to Leader Monrage, would be viciously punished.

To trust those whom Lark had never spoken to about Leader Monrage was a big deal. She would have to hope that somehow they would all come to the same conclusion — that Leader Monrage’s current plan was putting them all in danger. Still, just one person wanting to turn her in … but Lark couldn’t think about that right now. She had to trust that her judgment was solid when she chose these men, and that they would stand with her. In the end, Leader Monrage had put Lark in the position that she had to act. The consequences of doing nothing were no longer acceptable.

“Leader Monrage has a plan that we haven’t been informed of yet.” Lark found her voice. “It is a plan that will put us in danger of prosecution. It involves the whole fleet. The other crews all know about it and are probably in orbit around Colony 9 right now. We, on the other hand, obviously haven’t been kept in the loop.”

“What’s his plan?” one man asked.

“I believe it’s to aid a local man in a coup in exchange for weapons.”

“Wait a minute. You believe? You mean you don’t have any proof?!” one demanded.

“Do you even know whether this colony has better weapons than we have?” another put forth.

Just then, Jensen cleared his throat.

“The scan found something, Officer Twelve. There’s a large source of radioactive energy. Apparently, it is in a warehouse facility not far from here. Is this what you were looking for?”

“Yes.” Lark replied.

Lark had worn the contact lenses the night before. Now, her eyes were becoming blurry, and they stung a little. Lark decided to remove the lenses. It wasn’t until after they were out that Lark realized that if Leader Monrage showed up he’d know right away that she defied him on some level. If she brought up the fact she had left them in all night, he’d ask to know why. Where had she been the night before?

“You mentioned the rest of the fleet probably being around …” a man known as Waterburg started. “My brother works as a cook on one of the ships. I can ask him whether he’s in the area. He has no cause to be; this isn’t his route. Even if he doesn’t disclose anything to me, we can still track him via the communicator signal and tell whether he’s in the area.”

“Do it.” Lark returned.

“By the way, do you think we should get some food in here?” Jensen suggested. “It sounds as though it may take awhile.”

Lark looked toward the door. If Leader Monrage were out there, she would have heard sounds of his displeasure by now. But then, there was the crew. They looked at her as she looked at them. Did she trust them enough to let them out of her sight? They could easily make contact with Leader Monrage if she did. It was a dilemma. On the one side, how could she expect them to trust her if she didn’t trust them? But was it naïve to trust all of them? Leader Monrage would say yes. And how much of a fool would she be if she did trust them and shouldn’t have, especially after realizing the possibility of betrayal? And what if it proved fatal for her?

“Go for it.” Lark finally concluded.

Lark then made eye contact with Owen again. She could tell he wasn’t sure about her decision either. Still, he reached over to unlock the door anyway. A few of the men volunteered themselves to go down to the cafeteria. Lark watched them pass by her with her peripheral vision. Her life was in their hands now. But if she could trust them, or at least enough of them to keep their eyes on the others, then they’d be counting on her to pull this off. She had to focus on that.

“Okay. Let me know when you’ve made contact.” Lark remarked.

She assumed that Waterburg hadn’t gotten a hold of his brother yet. After all, Waterburg hadn’t spoken again.

“All right. No one’s picked up yet …” Some time passed. “Oh, hello. Is Kenneth Waterburg available? His brother. Yes. I’ll wait.”

Lark looked around her as Waterburg began to engage in small talk with his brother.

“Yeah, it’s kind of boring here. I kind of wish I were on your route.” Waterburg laughed. “Kenneth? Oh, you’ve got to go. All right. I’ll catch you later then.”

“Have you gotten the location?” Lark asked.

“Yes.” Jensen responded.

“And?”

“They’re in our orbit.”

Lark glanced over when the men returned with the food. They must have heard that last part since their eyes looked wide with surprise. Lark, in turn, was pleasantly surprised when she saw Owen was among them. She guessed he was keeping an eye on them for her. She smiled to herself.

“So, what do we do now?” one of the men who just entered the room asked.

Everyone looked to Lark.

“First, we need to know what security the warehouse facility has. Then, we need to know the best way to destroy the facility. If we have to, we’ll fly the ship over it and destroy it from the air. We’ll have to use the radiation shield first in order to contain the explosion. Actually, it would probably be a good idea for us to refresh ourselves on the workings of the radiation containment shield.”

The crew members took turns nodding in agreement.

“So, who should do the research on the facility’s security?” someone wondered.

“Jensen — assuming he’s up for hacking into Colony 9’s server without being detected.” Lark offered.

“Yes, of course.” Jensen returned. “I’ll get on it.”

Lark remarked to herself that she’d never felt closer to her crew than she did now. Perhaps Leader Monrage’s presence was always in the way before, making them distrust one another. Of course, it wouldn’t be easy for Lark to trust completely. Still, assuming things turned out well this was a good beginning.

All of a sudden, Lark caught sight of Owen heading purposefully back toward the door. Out of curiosity, she turned toward the door as well. Owen cracked the door slightly and looked out into the hall. Soon after, he slid the door closed softly.

“Heads up.” Owen started. “Monrage is on his way.”

The crew members looked between one another. Lark noted that none looked particularly happy about the news.

Quickly, Lark replaced her contacts.

“Jensen, continue your work. The rest of you take out the policy manuals and start reading.”

Jensen was almost always on the computer, so it would have seemed odd to Leader Monrage if he was reading instead. Plus, Monrage wasn’t skilled with computers and wouldn’t know what Jensen was up to anyway.

A few moments later, Leader Monrage entered the room.

“Well, what have we here?” Leader Monrage demanded.

The impact of Leader Monrage’s entrance wasn’t as unnerving to Lark as it usually was. Lark credited Owen’s warning her in advance for this. Monrage seemed to enjoy trying to startle her.

“Manuals, huh? And your cat — is there a reason it’s here?” Leader Monrage asked pointedly.

Lark had forgotten about Cinnamon still being with her.

“You saw me leave with her the other night.” Lark returned.

“So, why don’t you take it back now?” he demanded.

“We’re working on refreshing ourselves on your manuals.” Lark changed the subject. “We haven’t had a chance to do that recently. And it’s not as though we have anything better to do, right? Still, if you’d like us to stop …”

Leader Monrage considered. He looked around the room.

“No, that’s fine.” he said. “Still, I wonder about the timing and where you’ve been since last night. I couldn’t find you — but you must have been here somewhere I guess since the guards didn’t see you come in. At least that’s what they said.”

Lark just looked at him blankly. She noted Leader Monrage had asked about her specifically. It was a good thing she hadn’t approached the guards with Owen.

“Well, at least everyone is here. We’ll be having a meeting in the conference room in an hour. I imagine you can finish up the manuals by then.” Leader Monrage added.

“Of course.” Lark replied.

Leader Monrage walked out just as Lark’s irritated eyes began to water uncontrollably. Fortunately, he hadn’t asked her to read from one of the manuals out loud. Lark removed her contact lenses. She would have to clean them before the hour was up.

“So, how are we looking in terms of your work, Jensen? Will it take more than an hour?”

“There’s no way of knowing.” Jensen responded.

“Just do your best. Unfortunately, you’ll have to go to that meeting. I have a feeling that Leader Monrage will notice if someone doesn’t show.”

“Yeah, okay.” Jensen didn’t seem convinced. Yet, instead of arguing the point he quickly set to work again. Lark leaned back in her chair. She breathed. Now, it was a waiting game. It was not safe for them to discuss anything more about the coup now that they knew Leader Monrage was on board the vessel. It was dangerous enough before he suspected them of being up to something.

“Should we really continue to read these manuals?” one man asked.

“Yeah, it’ll probably be a good idea if you do that actually.”

There was an audible groan.

“I’d better refresh my memory of these, too.” Lark announced, wanting to be a good example. “Who knows, he might quiz us on them.”

“What about me? I mean, I read them not that long ago …” Jensen started.

A couple of the other crew members rolled their eyes.

“I’ll cover for you.” Lark assured him.

Jensen nodded and returned to work. Lark began reading from one of the numerous policy manuals Leader Monrage had written over the years. Unlike the first one, which detailed the plans he intended to use to get a fleet, these manuals detailed how he wanted the crew to behave once they became members of the fleet. Lark soon found she was having difficulty concentrating. Her eyes often wandered from the page to a nearby clock. After awhile, when it became close to the time, Lark just stared at the clock in a daze.

“All right. We’d better head down there now.” Lark told the men.

“But I’m not in a place where I can stop easily.” Jensen protested. “I really shouldn’t leave.”

Lark was afraid this might happen. She looked over at Jensen.

“It doesn’t matter.” Lark told him with an air of decisiveness. “If you don’t go, he’ll come looking for you, and we can’t have that.”

Lark stood.

“You’ll have to handle it when we get back.”

She then thought of something.

“Can you hide what the computer is doing?” she asked him.

“From a novice or a professional?”

“The best you can.” Lark replied.

“All right. I can do that. I’ll hide it in the background and run another program on top of it to further confuse things. Oh, and I’ll also have to slow down my program. I’m hoping it won’t break through while I’m gone. There is more than one way to slow it down, after all. That way I can keep with the port scan while I’m gone, and I won’t have to start over. All right … there.” Jensen grudgingly pulled himself away. He had a tendency to want to finish what he started, but it had become clear to him while he was talking that Officer Twelve wasn’t going to back down.

Lark left Cinnamon in the control room curled up in a ball on her chair. She then walked to the door in front of the others. Finally, Lark hung back as the others passed by her just long enough to lock the door behind them.

 

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2015