The Challenge | Chapter 34 of 37

Author: Susan Kearney | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 1480 Views | Add a Review

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Chapter Twenty-Five

 

KAHN SWORE. His temper trickled into a puddle of worry for Tessa. “Does anyone know why the Endekians are so interested in ensuring that my wife fails?”

“What do you mean?” Etru asked, shoving back a lock of red hair that had fallen into his eyes. He looked exhausted and haggard as if he had given birth instead of the glowing Miri who lounged in a corner, nursing their son, Kirek. Etru kept glancing at them with a mixture of pride and concern as if he feared she’d topple over, but mother and son were doing better than dad.

Kahn tried to work past his anxiety for Tessa to understand what was happening. “Jypeg and the Endekians want Rystan for the glow stones and our proximity to Zenon Prime. He hates me because every time he sees that scar it reminds him he fled from battle. I didn’t just scar his face but his pride. But why would he want Tessa badly enough to risk banishment from the Federation for violating Challenge rules?” Kahn thrummed his fingers on the console. Dora had the visuals back up so he could watch Tessa enter the Endekian ship.

At her actions, his heart swooped up his throat. “What in stars am I missing?”

“Friend, Kahn.” Osari slithered across the deck, leaving a film of ooze. “Perhaps in some small way, I may be of service.”

“She’s done something, hasn’t she?” Kahn asked, his anger tempered with worry.

Zical glanced from the Osarian to Kahn and scratched his head. “Tessa’s done something to the Endeckians?”

“My wife has a way of finding trouble,” Kahn all but growled.

Osari’s flat voice filled the cabin. “I do not wish to violate a confidence.”

“Her life is in danger. Please tell us what you know,” Kahn prodded, distracted by the screen. Tessa sneaked up behind an Endekian and broke his neck. Kahn tensed as two more Endekians attacked. Tessa rolled, swept one man’s feet out from under him, and followed through with a lethal blow to the head.

“She asked me to make a wager for her,” Osari informed Kahn.

“She’s gambling?” Etru frowned.

“I’m going to kill her,” Kahn muttered.

“You may have to wait your turn.” Zical glanced at the screen. Three Endekians had returned to the shuttle and the odds against Tessa were now four to one.

“I told her to hide, but no. She had to go and beat the krek out of . . . Yes. That’s the way.” Kahn’s emotions heightened with her every attack and block. Watching her fight for her life while he stood in safety, violated his every protective instinct and was making him insane with frustration. The odds were back to three-to-one. If he were a betting man, he’d wager on his wife. The woman had moves, great moves, and the Endekians didn’t want to use their stunners in close quarters for fear of hitting one another or damaging their ship.

Osari waited patiently for Kahn to continue their conversation, but Kahn fumed. No matter what his wife had done, she didn’t deserve to die, and he couldn’t pull his gaze from the screen until she’d dispatched the last three men and was once again relatively safe.

When he could again breathe, Kahn turned to Tessa’s partner. “What did she wager?”

“She bet that she would win the Challenge,” Osari explained in a tone as flat and dry as the Laptiva desert.

“And?” Kahn prodded.

“The Endekians took the bet. At four hundred to one odds in their favor, they can’t afford to lose. Paying off the debt would bankrupt them.”

“So why would they take a bet like that?” Miri asked.

“Because they intended to make sure that they would win.” Kahn’s temper came back full force.

“Where did she get credits to wager?” Etru asked.

Kahn sighed. “You don’t want to know.”

“I want to know,” Shaloma insisted. “I want to study economics and be like—”

“Not now, child,” Azrel took Shaloma aside.

Osari’s tentacles waved as if agitated. “I fear the Endekians will not stop until Tessa is dead. I have asked my people to send ships, but they will not arrive in time.”

“So that’s why Jypeg has yet to finish off a prime target like us.” Azrel’s green skin darkened to deep emerald in anger. “Tessa’s death is far more important to them.”

“Exactly so,” Osari agreed.

Dora interrupted the conversation. “Another shuttle from the Endekian ship is heading to Laptiva. I’m picking up transmissions between the shuttle under attack on the planet, the one on the way, and the mothership. Jypeg‘s going down there himself to kill her. He’s furious that his underlings haven’t yet completed their assignments.”

Shaloma eyed Kahn, her voice high with distress. “Tessa is a good fighter, but Jypeg is one of the Federation’s best. Tessa needs you down there. You have to do something to help her.”

“Dora,” Kahn asked, “how long until we can use the shuttle?”

“Another three hours.”

Jypeg would be on Laptiva within minutes. Kahn’s adrenaline surged, his head pounded and he sought to contain a primal scream. He had no way to reach the planet’s surface. No way to help Tessa. And one of the Federation’s most skilled fighters was on his way down there to kill her.

TESSA SHUT the Endekian shuttle’s hatch against more intruders and took a well-earned rest, thinking that spending the night here might not be so bad. She helped herself to a high-protein meal from the Endekian’s emergency stores and replaced the fluids she’d lost while she’d perspired during the fight. She’d improved her situation considerably. She now had three fully charged stunners, a shuttle to fly to the obelisk, but neither of the keys needed to open the obelisk door and complete the Challenge.

“You’ve got another problem,” Dora informed her.

“I’m listening.”

“Jypeg is on the way down there to kill you.”

“Okay.”

Kahn took over the communications. “Tessa, he’s not like the other Endekians. He’s skilled. I barely defeated him during our last match. And as good as you are, you haven’t master null-grav. You cannot beat him.”

“Okay.” Tessa swallowed the last of her food. “Time to fly this baby out of here.”

“No,” he told her. “It’s likely that the shuttle is booby-trapped. If anyone but an Endekian flies her, she may auto destruct.”

“You don’t want me to stay and fight. You don’t want me to run. What the hell do you want me to do?”

“Hide. For once do as I ask. Please. I want you to hide for four hours.”

Four hours? She refrained from saying what she thought of that idea, especially since he’d said please. Even if it was now dark, how did one hide on a flat beach that had no ground cover and no buildings for more than ten seconds, never mind four hours? Sure she could climb another tree, but eventually they’d think to look up and then she’d be easy pickings.

“How long do I have before my company arrives?” she asked, popping open the hatch.

“Less than fifteen minutes.”

“KAHN, KIREK has put an idea into my head.” Miri approached him, holding the baby.

“What idea?” Kahn wasn’t about to turn away a suggestion from any corner, no matter how bizarre sounding. During the healing circle, he’d felt the baby’s psi, had been stunned by the clarity, the focus, and the power of his supposedly undeveloped mind.

Miri closed her eyes and spoke as if describing a vidstream. “I see you launching yourself to the planet with just your suit. The suit is slightly bigger than you to hold extra air. And we will help hold your shield against the heat of reentry with a healing circle.”

Zical gasped. “Even if Kahn could breathe, even if we could keep him from burning up when he hits the atmosphere, he will fall too hard for his null-grav to counter the planet’s gravitational pull.”

“What if we add our psi to his?” Miri asked. “What if he lands in the water?”

Etru shook his head. “I have never heard of such a maneuver.”

“I have,” Dora contradicted. “There is a legend as old as the Perceptive Ones about a being who did what Kirek suggests.”

“Did he succeed?” Zical asked.

“The records of that time are so ancient that I cannot be certain,” Dora informed them. “But it appears that the being made it through the atmosphere only to plunge to his death. Null-grav is not made to stop that kind of velocity.”

“Dora, what about the parachutes you use for cargo?” Kahn asked.

“That might work,” Dora concluded. “I will modify the harness.”

“How long will it take?”

“I’ll be done before you exit the airlock,” she promised.

Kahn faced his family and friends on the bridge who had already begun to form the circle. “If it appears that I will not make it, you must cut me loose.”

Helera who had remained in the background and silent until now shook her head. “The healing circle does not work that way. It’s all for one. You know that. If you die while linked, we all die.”

“May I have the honor of joining the circle, too?” Osari asked.

“We would welcome you,” Shaloma told him.

“You understand you will have to touch my physical self?” Osari added.

“No problem.” Shaloma’s adoration of Tessa included picking up Earth slang. When she took Osari’s tentacle into her hand, the most blissfully contented look came over her face. Kahn raised a brow at Zical, daring him to match Shaloma’s bravery. His friend could do no less on the other side of the Osarian and also held a tentacle.

Dora urged Kahn toward the airlock. “Hurry. If you are to do this thing, you must go now.”

TESSA LEFT THE shuttle and killed the remaining Endekians on the tiny island, an easy feat with the stunner set to a lethal setting. However, finding a place to hide was more difficult. She didn’t consider disobeying Kahn’s order. Knowing that the Endekian was Kahn’s equal in fighting ability told her that she wouldn’t stand a chance against him. It would be like an ordinary soldier fighting a master sensei. Sure she could defeat the average male, but she hadn’t had the years of practice to combat Kahn’s kind of expertise.

Since the island gave her no place to hide, she looked out at the sea. She could swim into the dark water without being spotted easily from shore. Use her suit to prevent heat sensors from finding her. Too bad she didn’t have scuba apparatus or a snorkel. Sheesh, she’d settle for a reed to breathe through.

She’d have to make do with what she had. Tessa drank the last of the water from her makeshift canteen. Turning it over, she pried the tip of her knife near the bottom and carved out a good-sized hole in its side. The resounding boom of the shuttle entering Laptiva’s atmosphere hurried her efforts, and Tessa plunged into the sea, hoping that the world didn’t have any shark-like equivalents who fed at night.

Swimming out about an eighth mile, she settled into a combination of bobbing and treading water. She dearly wanted to talk to Dora, but that was impossible with her head underwater. With her flesh puckering from the water and the salty brine drying her skin, it was going to be a long four hours.

KAHN USED DORA’S estimates to expand his suit’s shield to the necessary size to hold enough breathing air. They calculated down to absolute minimum. After he struck the atmosphere, the larger he made the shield, the more difficult protecting him from vaporization would be.

He opened the airlock. “I’m set to go.”

The black void of space marred by the two damaged Endekian ships greeted him. But he focused on the emerald planet below that appeared to be mostly oceans. No way could he just launch himself at the correct speed and angle to hit orbit at just the right velocity and angle then count on landing on the planet itself, never mind anywhere near Tessa. However, Dora’s cargo launchers performed those kinds of calculations all the time.

“You mustn’t black out from the g-force acceleration,” Dora warned him.

“I’m aware of that.” Kahn gritted his teeth, his psi picking up the newly formed healing circle that comprised his family and friends. If he lost consciousness, his shield would fail. Then he’d either depressurize and die in space or burn up in the atmosphere. “Launch me.”

“Compliance.”

The uncomplicated system was like a cannon. Dora’s thrusters shot him into space with a force that caused his vision to blacken around the edges until he could see only through a long dark tunnel. Kahn couldn’t move a muscle, but physical exertion had no place here. It was mental effort that counted. Using all of his considerable concentration to focus on maintaining his shield, he flew through space at an angle almost parallel to the planet. Had Dora miscalculated?

Kahn used his own psi to hold the shield, tried to keep his breathing regular. Never once did he feel alone. His family and friends joined his psi, helping him hold the shield. For several minutes, he plunged, his heading seemingly off course. But slowly, his body arched into proper alignment with an orbit.

As he sliced through the upper atmosphere, sparks flashed off his shield. He drew his shield tighter, narrowed the entry point, tried to reinforce the bottom where his feet appeared to be the center of a fire.

His shield heated to thousands of degrees. One minuscule aperture and he would incinerate. The circle of psi feeding him weakened. The shield thinned.

Another few seconds and the heat would reach his flesh.

Then the force of thousands of beings joined in. Osari had linked with every Osarian on their world. Their entire race was risking their lives to lend power to the shield to save Kahn so he could aid Tessa. The massive power influx reinforced the circle’s efforts. Just enough.

Kahn shot through the upper atmosphere, his air supply now down to nil.

Sucking in the last of his oxygen, he wrapped his shield tighter so he’d fall faster. He now had to get down to where the air was thick enough to breath then pull the parachute before he passed out.

Lungs burning, his forehead slick with sweat, Kahn waited until the last possible second before blacking out, then popped the chute. Dizzy, confused from lack of air, he may have lost consciousness, but the jerking of the chute’s opening awakened him with a rough shake.

Now he had to steer the canopy. For a moment he was unsure if he headed toward the correct island, but then he saw both shuttles. Jypeg was waiting for him and Kahn couldn’t wait to confront the man who’d killed Lael and was now trying to kill Tessa.

And he prayed that Tessa had listened to him, just this once, and that she was hiding somewhere safe. He ached to ask Dora, but maintaining radio silence was critical to his surprise appearance.

TESSA HEARD THE boom of a third craft’s reentry, but when she looked up, blinked the sea water away, she saw a missile flaring from the night sky. A missile? Were the Endekians dropping bombs on the planet until they killed her?

But then a parachute popped open. She cranked her head back to watch.

And the oddest thing occurred.

She was suddenly back on land. One moment she’d been in the water in darkness, now she stood on an island she’d never seen before, and it was daylight. Hundreds of Endekians surrounded her, shouting, taunting insults, spitting at her. It was as if the Perceptive Ones who had built the Challenge equipment had plucked her from the sea and deposited her into the middle of an enemy camp.

Hostile and militant men had her cornered. She had nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide. Even if these men had no fighting ability at all, even if most of them hadn’t held weapons pointed at her, she couldn’t defeat so many.

With a sinking heart, Tessa tossed down her weapon, raised her hands over her head in surrender. Once again, she had failed, and the bitterness of defeat tasted no better this time than when she’d jumped in front of the bullet to save a president.

If there was a way out of this no-win situation, she hadn’t seen it. All of her skills, all of Kahn’s training hadn’t prepared her for this defeat. She’d failed Earth and Rystan. More importantly, she’d failed Kahn. Despair and disappointment tugged at her.

But—in the space of a heartbeat, the Endekians disappeared.

Tessa blinked in astonishment, her mouth open. One moment they’d been about to make mincemeat of her, the next they were gone. They were gone as quickly as she’d been brought here.

Impossible.

Had she been in the ocean so long she’d become dehydrated and had hallucinated the entire incident?

At the sound of a loud gong, she spun around, arms up, wrists cocked, ready to defend herself. But she remained alone on the beach. Except for a bright shiny key lying in the sand.

A key to the obelisk? She picked it up, tucked it into her suit, her despair peeling away to reveal new hope. Was this the key she’d found by using her head? Were these Endekians, unlike the ones she’d killed, simply another part of the Challenge?

Tessa believed so. But she didn’t have time to consider it before landing right back in the dark sea.

Perhaps, she’d fallen asleep, dreamed or imagined the entire incident, except when she placed her hand to her side, she closed her fingers around the key.

She’d passed another test. Apparently she’d been supposed to recognize a hopeless situation and surrender. What had appeared as certain defeat had been a victory.

Tessa wished she could have met the Perceptive Ones, the designers of the Challenge. Those ancient beings had creative minds, and she wondered what had happened to them.

However, much the mysteries of the past intrigued her, she had her own enigmas to solve in the present. Somehow, time had been distorted. She’d gone through long periods of daylight and a short one of darkness. Now it was day once again.

Recalling the parachute falling from the night sky, she searched for it again in daylight but saw no sign of it. Apparently while she’d been occupied and time had seemed to go awry, something had landed on the island where Jypeg had been hunting her.

Tessa surfaced and spoke to Dora, “Did one of the good guys just parachute in for a visit?”

DORA EXPLAINED to Tessa the steps her family and the Osarians had taken to save her from Jypeg. Horrified that so many had risked their lives to help her, humbled over the chance they’d taken, she thought out her next step carefully. After so many had acted on her behalf, her hiding seemed the most cowardly of acts. Yet, coming out of the water in some foolish attempt to prove herself brave and worthy might nullify the danger they’d already faced for her.

Tessa swam closer to shore. “Dora, how many Endekians are on that shuttle with Jypeg?”

“Between four and eight. Why?”

“Seems to me that Kahn may need someone to watch his back while he deals with Jypeg. Can you put me in touch with Kahn?”

“Not without breaking radio silence. He wants his presence to come as a complete surprise.” Tessa supposed that made sense. The Endekians knew Tessa was already here, but hopefully the water would mask her heat signature. And even if they monitored Dora’s encrypted messages, it wouldn’t give away her location. But if Dora sent word to Kahn on land, the Endekians could trace the beamed message and would know someone else was on this world.

“Kahn will likely try and take out a few underlings first,” Tessa surmised, wishing she had a pair of binoculars. From her position in the water, she could see the island and the noses of the shuttles. Nothing more.

“He’s already brought two Endekians down,” Dora advised her.

“You’re monitoring?” Tessa could have kicked herself for not asking the right question sooner. Although she had every confidence in Kahn’s ability to take Jypeg, she didn’t like that Kahn would be outnumbered, his attention divided between several foes. “What’s going on? Does Kahn require my help?”

“He embedded a device similar to your earrings in his stunner. I can only see what he sees. He just took care of a search patrol. When they fail to report in—”

“Jypeg will suspect I did it.” Tessa understood the tactics. She also knew that if she showed up to guard Kahn’s back, she would distract him.

“That’s Kahn’s plan.”

“What’s happening now?”

“Jypeg is making Kahn come to him inside the shuttle.”

“I don’t like it. He’s setting up an ambush.”

“Damn,” Dora swore.

“What?”

“Kahn took out three men. He did it silently, but a scanner picked him up. Jypeg now knows Kahn, not you, is hunting him.”

“Then there’s no need to maintain radio silence. Patch me through.”

“Compliance.”

“Kahn, do you need me?”

“You’re armed?” His voice was curt, tense.

“I have two stunners with full charges.”

“How long until you can reach the shuttle?”

“Four minutes.”

“See you then.”

Kahn believed she could help! No praise from Master Chen had ever meant more to her. Tessa let out the breath she’d been holding, her heart full. She swam underwater to the island, coming up periodically for huge gulps of air.

Once she reached the beach, she detached a stunner. With her knife in one hand, her stunner in the other, she raced across the beach and toward the shuttles. “Dora, which one?”

“To the right.”

“How many Endekians are aboard?”

“At least three. Kahn is fighting Jypeg and two others.”

“How’s he doing?” Tessa ducked through the hatch. Kahn fought with his back to a wall. Two men closed on him from opposite sides, one from above.

For the moment, Tessa had the edge of surprise. She fired, killing one Endekian with the weapon. Kahn kicked his null-grav into super-fast mode, and he and Jypeg slashed, bounced, zoomed, attacked, and counterattacked at a pace so ferocious it stole her breath. However, that didn’t stop her from engaging the other Endekian.

With Kahn zipping around the shuttle after Jypeg like a ricocheting bullet, she focused on the second Endekian, who’d rolled behind the console to take cover. Tessa kept him pinned, firing to prevent him from helping Jypeg.

“Behind you,” Dora warned.

Tessa spun, took down an Endekian who’d entered through the hatch. But that gave the man who’d hidden just enough time to launch himself into her back. Slamming into the bulkhead, she dropped her weapon. Although her shields had been up, her arm went numb. Her head snapped back and for a moment she couldn’t see.

“Duck,” Dora warned.

Slow to shift, Tessa took a second blow to the shoulder. But her vision began to return. The Endekian must have sensed her injury and closed in for the kill. She remained deliberately clumsy, letting him come to her. And when the Endekian lunged at her, he slid right onto her blade.

OUT OF HIS peripheral vision, Kahn saw Tessa and the Endekian go down, but he couldn’t help her with Jypeg keeping him engaged. Concerned for her safety, yet confident she could protect herself, he’d allowed her to join him in battle, a decision that had been necessary to their survival. As Jypeg drop kicked at Kahn’s throat, Kahn shifted and blocked out concern for his wife. Her strong psi told him that she still lived.

And he wanted Jypeg’s attention on him. Finally, Kahn faced his enemy, the man who’d killed Lael. The man who’d tried to murder Tessa. The man who’d invaded Rystan and was responsible for much of his people’s suffering.

Tessa shoved the dead body of Jypeg’s man away and straightened.

“Take cover,” he ordered, and she dived behind a hatch and out of sight, leaving him alone to focus all his attention on Jypeg.

“Your woman can’t run so far that I won’t find her.” Jypeg somersaulted off the wall and shot a fist at Kahn’s kidney.

Kahn shifted and with a spinning back kick caught Jypeg’s shoulder with a glancing blow that sent him reeling. “She won’t have to hide after the Federation locks you away.”

“Locks me away?” Jypeg shouted, “Not in your luckiest fantasy. Your ship will be crushed. Your wife raped, then slaughtered. I look forward to hearing her screams in my ears, her begging for her life.” Jypeg taunted, feinted, then struck with an elbow that just missed Kahn’s sternum.

Refusing to let the Endekian’s taunts faze him, Kahn noted that the man appeared to be sweating too much, breathing too hard. But was it a trick?

Kahn tested him with a right punch followed by a fake downward with his left fist, then from above, he planted a two-footed kick into his foe’s stomach that knocked Jypeg into an out-of-control roll. Kahn didn’t wait for the man to strike the ground before following through with a killing blow to the heart.

Tessa peeked around the corner, her eyes narrowed, a stunner steady in her hand. “I was afraid to shoot for fear of striking you.” Her gaze centered on Jypeg. “Is he dead?”

Kahn checked the body and nodded. “I would have preferred for him to stand trial to publicize to the rest of the Federation that the Endekians want Rystan.”

“I’m glad the son of a bitch is dead.” Tessa finally lowered the gun she’d kept steady on Jypeg. Kahn had never seen her look more beautiful. With her eyes serious, her mouth compressed, and her pulse beating at her slender throat, her femininity had never seemed more in contrast with her cool green eyes.

Kahn opened his arms to embrace her. “You okay?”

She grinned and embraced him. “I am now.”

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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