Honor Among Thieves
“Hawk?” She caressed his sweating face.
He jerked away from her touch. “Leave me, Human. Our bargain is done. I harmed no one. I will harm no one for two days.”
“You’ll be dead before then, my friend. You won’t last another two hours like this. I am a healer. Let me help you.”
“I will survive to kill them.” Unable to bear her kindness or her presence, he straightened and stumbled several hundred yards further into the forest. Pain seared through him, and he fell to his knees choking back a scream.
She knelt beside him and caught him before he fell on his face.
He pushed her hands away. “Leave me, Human.”
“I can’t. I swore an oath as a healer to help others including stubborn birds with death wishes. Even if you won’t accept my aid, I’ll still stay to give you a decent burial.” Her face was hard with determination and anger, but tears for him streaked her cheeks.
Too weary to fight her as well as the pain, he stood up. “I accept your help, Healer.”
“If you will come, I have a camouflaged cave about a mile away filled with supplies.” She pointed to the west.
“I will come.”
“Good.” She offered her arm, but he shook his head and began to trudge westward. After almost a quarter of a mile, he tripped over a tree root and fell flat. Biting his lips and balling his fists, he fought back a shriek of pain and began to struggle to his knees.
“You’re killing yourself. Finishing off what that monster started. For God’s sake, let me help you. I beg you.” She knelt beside him and held our her arm to aid his rising.
Ignoring her help, Hawk crawled to his knees. “I can manage, Human.”
She swore in human Basic then told him off in the language of his people detailing the many varieties of prideful idiot he was.
Stunned by her knowledge of his language and by that much invective coming from a female, Hawk stared dumbly at her and let her help him to his feet. She draped his arm over her shoulder and wrapped her arm around his waist, and they began to move forward again.
By the time they stopped in front of a large rock facing, she all but carried him. She said, “There’s our sanctuary.”
Hawk shook his head weakly. “I see nothing.”
“You’re not supposed to. It’s a holographic projection of stone that hides the cave entrance.” She led him through the stone into a cave.
A solar lamp flickered on at their entry. The cave was a large roomy oval of rock. Supplies and camping gear lined the walls in neat array.
“You’re in luck. I brought enough supplies for two." She eased him down on her bedroll. "My husband and I usually travel together, and I didn’t take the time to remove his equipment.”
“Husband?” Hawk sat up holding his ribs.
“A husband and two children. We’ve been married three years.” She rummaged through her supplies and pulled out a medical kit. “I am both an empathic healer and a medical doctor. I want to clean and to tend to your wounds and bind your ribs before I heal you.”
He nodded in weary agreement.
She knelt beside him and cleaned his battered face and chest with medical sponges of antiseptic then bound his ribs with clinical gentleness. As if aware of his embarrassment at an alien female’s touch, she babbled good-naturedly about her children in the manner of any proud mother as she worked.
Hawk listened groggily and flinched occasionally at her cold hands or in pain or humiliation as she cut off the tattered bloody remnants of his clothing to tend his other wounds.
She covered him with a blanket then brought out a brown silken tunic and pants. “This should fit you. You and my husband are the same size.” She sniffed as if fighting tears, “This outfit brings back happy memories,” then turned away to give him privacy.
After he dressed himself, Hawk lay back down. His pain and weakness had returned tenfold in the last minutes.
Her cold hand on his cheek made him jump.
“I must touch you once more. The healing link requires that I place my hands on your neck and above your heart.”
He sighed in weary assent and closed his eyes to hide the sight of her human face so close to his.
Sunlight warmth flowed from her hands into his aching body. Floating on the physical peace from her healing contact, he slept.
Hours later, Hawk regained consciousness to find his agony gone. Totally aware, he assessed his body’s serious injuries. Gone! Minor injuries remained, but he had survived.
Opening his eyes, he looked about him. Reality filtered in.
Stiffening with surprise, he glanced downward. The human female slept nestled intimately against him! He held her as if she were Koori! He jerked his arms away and pulled away. What kind of debased creature was she?
After the first shock, he relaxed. To heal him so completely must have required enormous energy. She probably hadn’t had the strength to move from him. Collapsing from exhaustion, she must have slept. Drawn by his warmer body temperature, she had gravitated into his embrace.
The woman curled against him once more and murmured loving words to her mate in her sleep.
He blushed. She dreamed of her mate, and, his back against the cave wall, he was unable to escape. Trapped, he studied the alien female. She was beautiful in an exotic way.
With a shy hand, he touched her cheek and hair. Her skin texture was finer than his people’s, her chestnut hair was like spun silk.
As tall and physically strong as he was, she was unlike the tiny females of his race. She was stubborn, courageous, and resilient. Nothing like what he had imagined a human female.
He hated the human race as a whole, but his personal animosity had not extended to females and children. He was a warrior who fought other warriors. Unlike the humans, he did not kill the innocent and the weak. Such sickness was for humans and other barbarians.
No, he would not harm this female who had risked so much for him by using her healing link. She could have died with him instead of saving him.
He was well aware he had been dying. The healers on Throm were not so powerful. They could not have saved him. He could leave this cave now because of her generosity. His internal injuries were gone. Only bruises, cuts, his fractured ribs, the gash on his leg, general weakness and exhaustion remained.
Forgetting his bargain with her, he could leave and attack the pirates once more, but he would not. She was only a human, but he had given his word, and he would be eternally ashamed if he left now. This healer had saved his life.
A stab of grief struck him through the wall of numbness he had erected around his heart. This healer could have saved Koori’s life. Why had it been him whom she had saved? It should have been Koori. Why had he been spared again? Koori could be alive now, not dead at the hands of that filthy genocide.
Hawk’s throat and chest ached with suppressed sobs. Turning away from the healer, he buried his face in his arms and wept himself to sleep.
When he awoke, the human female was gone.
The solar lamp gave the cave the cheerful glow of a campfire as Tiber bent over Hawk who lay in his bedding on the floor.
She wearily removed her hands from the healing link position. “There, Hawk, I can do no more for you. When you are rested, you will be as you were before the ship crash and the beatings.”
“Thank you.” He rolled over on his side, his back to her, and stared at the cave wall.
Tiber watched him with frustration and a trace of anger. It had been over a day since they had escaped, and he had said nothing to her in all that time but “thank you” at the end of each healing session and answered only her healer’s questions. Eating, sleeping, and staring introspectively at the wall, he had ignored her quite effectively.
When Hawk turned away again, Tiber’s patience left her. “Hawk, we must talk. My help was freely given without expected recompense. I have asked nothing of you for shelter, food, or medical aid. For the escape our bargain was made and kept. I can only ask for your attention as one being to another. It is important to us both that we talk.
“I admit having hateful human blood in my veins, but only a fourth of me is human. Pretend that I’m human from the kneecaps to the toes. Hate that part of me. Please talk to the rest of me.”
A faint ripple passed through his body that she identified as a suppressed laugh. He sat up and leaned against the cave wall. “Very well. What do you wish to say?”
“My name is Tiber Roland.” She sat down cross-legged in front of him. ”I want to tell you of myself, and then I want to ask you questions. When you hear my story, you will understand why I must question you.”
“I will listen to you,” Hawk said, withholding half of his assent.
“A day ago my subjective time, I was traveling routinely in my ship to my parents’s home world to pick up my two children. My ship hit a tiny black hole, and I was thrown through it. I came out five years before that moment and at a great distance from my original location. I, unfortunately, was also in another universe. Your universe is not my own. They are incredibly alike astronomically, but there are differences.”
“In the ancient annals of my people, there were stories of other universes and gateways. I accept your story.”
“Thank you. Other things are similar in our universes. The people, for example. Those mercenaries are humans as humans exist in my universe. And you, Hawk. I know you in my universe. We have been friends for five years.”
Hawk watched her with growing distrust. “How could we be friends, Human?”
“You and your ship were too near a sun that went nova unexpectedly. You were helping with scientific research, helping humans with scientific research, I might add. I used my ship’s tractor beam to pull you away. You nearly died from injuries. I saved your life.”
“I know, impossible to believe. But it’s true. You were able to give up your distrust and hatred for humans in my universe. Next week, this universe’s present time, is when I met your other self in my universe. That will not happen in this universe, I think, even if there is a me here. Your other self was not here, on this planet, at this time. Your life paths have been different. You are subtly different from your twin.”
“I must be. What do you want of me?”
“I want to know how things differ between you and your twin. By learning about this universe, I may find a way back to my own. I have a husband, two children, parents, family, and friends waiting for me there. I love them all. I have lost them all. Nothing will stop me from returning to them.”
“Hu..., Tiber. I will help as I can.”
“Thank you. Tell me of yourself, your life.”
“There is little to tell. I lived quietly and in peace with my mate and my people until a year ago. My mate and I returned from a journey to find our people slaughtered. These humans were responsible although they made drunken humans from Throm appear guilty. I vowed revenge and have searched for them since then. I heard recently that they were here. My mate and I came three days ago. Too late we realized we were lured here. The Lorelei pulled my ship out of the sky.
“We crashed. I awoke in the place you found me. The pirate leader told me that, told me that my mate had been maimed in the crash.” His voice trembled with pain and bitterness. “That human said that he had ‘put the animal out of her misery.’ ‘An act of mercy,’ he called it.” Hawk’s voice broke, and he became silent.
Tiber reached out to comfort Hawk but pulled her hand back. The stiffness of his body and the way he held his head even in grief stopped her. Pride and hatred were his last refuge from total collapse. He would not accept her pity. She waited until he regained control. “I saw my first husband murdered,” she said with understanding of his grief in her voice.
“I asked him why he killed my people. He said he had heard stories of a great treasure my people possessed. He killed everyone, searched, and found nothing. There was nothing to find. My people have no wealth.”
“Your people were the treasure. He was too blind to see their true value as a race.”
“He heard later that I survived the genocide. He lured me here to force the treasure’s location out of me. I had nothing to tell him and would not have if I had known. He had me two days until you came.”
Tiber shuddered at the reality behind that simple statement. Brutalized and tortured, Hawk had lived through physical and emotional hell in those two days. “If it is any comfort to you, Hawk, you have been luckier than your twin in one thing. Koori was accidentally killed over a year ago in my universe. You had her a year longer.”
“If it were my choice, I would have had her forever. They will pay for her death and for the death of my people. I will kill each of them.”
“Don’t go after them. Don’t get yourself killed. They are dead men already. Leave them to God. When I was in their headquarters, I saw a prepared flight plan. Apparently, someone has hired them for a job, and they must be there at a certain time.
“They will leave this world in approximately two days. Their journey will put them near that exploding sun. In a week they will all be dead, vaporized by the same nova I saved you from in my universe. One of God’s ironic little jokes, I guess.”
“How can I be certain of their deaths?”
“I’ll take you in my ship, and you can watch if it gives you pleasure. If I am wrong and they escape, I will help you kill them. They must pay for what they did to your people, and they must have no chance to hurt anyone else.”
“What would I be if I do not kill them?”
“You would be alive. Koori wouldn’t want you to throw yourself away. I don’t either.” Tiber paused. “In my own universe, I helped Hawk search for lost colonies of his people. Your race originally came from Earth, and then spread out and away from Earth in human prehistory.
“When I was pregnant with my twins, I examined the records of my family. My people were a space power long before intelligent life rose on Earth. My research took over six months, but it kept me out of mischief.
“I found some of your people, Hawk. They will be in this universe too. It’s an obscure little planet that has been untouched by change for thousands of years. You aren’t alone. You can spend your life with them.”
“No,” Hawk said forcefully. “You tempt me too much. I will have those murderers dead. I will kill the leader with my bare hands. I want to watch the life leave him.”
“Do you want justice for your people’s deaths, or do you want personal revenge? These men will die in a quick but horrible death in the nova. Let that be your justice. Let God wipe them out of existence.”
Tiber sighed. “Revenge destroys the avenger. I learned that at personal cost. I killed the men responsible for my first husband Keogh’s death, and I paid for it. I killed them for personal satisfaction, not in the name of justice.
“In that act, I scarred my soul so badly that I lost my empathic gift for years. I was a healer who could not heal. I was empathetically cut off from those I love as surely as I am now trapped in this universe. I was separated from myself and what I was by my act of revenge. It wasn’t worth it. Keogh won’t have wanted me to pay that price to avenge his death.”
“I am not an empath.”
“But you will pay. You will destroy yourself even if you physically survive your revenge. Could Koori love what you will become?”
“I will kill them.”
“If you attack them before they leave, you may delay their departure until they kill you, and they will miss their deaths by the nova. You may give up all their deaths for a slight chance at killing a few of them.”
“I will kill them. I am decided.”
“Very well, I’ll help you as I can. I don’t want you dead. In about eighteen hours our agreement will be ended, and you can leave. The mercenaries will be out looking for us, and you cannot get close to their camp because they’re expecting you to come after them.
"My ship will return about then. When it does, I’ll make it look like you and I have escaped off-planet in my alleged crashed ship. I will also make it appear that the ship explodes as it leaves the planet so they need fear us no more.
“When you see the ship explode, it will be safe to attack them because they will not expect a dead man. That should give you some chance.”
“You can do this without danger to yourself?”
“Leos, my ship android, is very clever. He can fool the pirates easily and safely.”
“I will wait for the ship explosion.”
“If you need aid or supplies, return to this cave. I’ll leave the protective screen around it so the mercenaries will never find it. It will open to you, though, and will tell me you are here. Rest now, and consider what I have said.”
“I will kill them.” He paused, his face filled with sympathy. “Has our talk helped you? Will you find your way home?”
“I don’t know. I’m as stubborn as you, though. I intend to make it home, but I won’t leave here until I know your fate. If you are still alive, I’ll be back for you.”
She stood up, stumbled wearily to the other side of the cave and her own bedding, and lay down heavily.
Deep in thought, Hawk watched her sleep.
This woman fascinated him with her courage, resilience, and odd humor. Since the escape from the pirates, she had continually surprised him.
He smiled in memory of her varied avian oaths and her cold-blooded analysis of his stubbornness. She had a vitriolic mastery of his language that amused him. Shamed by his physical weakness before an enemy, he had refused her aid. She had shamed that shame, and he had leaned on her finding her strength enormous.
Free of the pirates, he had only desired a lone death. While ridiculed and beaten before the smirking, staring humans, he had prayed for privacy to die in dignity. He did not fear death and the reunion with Koori and his people. But the indignity of triumphant humans hungrily watching him die in agony sickened him.
His solitary death had been denied him. The human female had divined his intentions despite his lies and had refused to leave him. Even an inexplicably kind human would have been intolerable. Dying in her arms with her human tears on his face had seemed as unpleasant as the pirates’ smirks. Her compassion would have robbed him of his final anger.
Anger and hatred for the humans was all he had left then. Too numb for grief, he had held them against him like a baby to nurse and nourish them. They were the only proof and shield of his continuing existence. Without Koori, there was nothing but anger and hatred to live for and to die for.
Tiber Roland had forced him to ally himself with an enemy and to live. Leaching away his all-encompassing fury with her acts of kindness, she had destroyed his blessed numbness.
The grief that he had walled away from the pirates’ eyes had overwhelmed him in these last hours. He could weep no more. He had discovered the emptiness and exhaustion of grief, the silence left when the tired body can shed no more tears. It was not true peace, but the only peace he was capable of. Yet even for this sham of peace he was grateful.
He was indebted too for her sensitivity. Unaccountably aware, she had left the cave before he had lost control at each surge of grief and allowed him the privacy of mourning she had refused him for death.
His tears shed, he was ready now to avenge Koori and then join her. Tiber had taken away his unreasoning hatred for all humans, but not his determination to kill these genocides. Why else had he survived death twice?
Hawk fingered the brown silken fabric of his tunic. Her mate was much his size. Her grief at his loss was great, and Hawk had not helped. To see a hostile stranger wearing her husband’s clothes and her friend Hawk’s face and body must be a continual stabbing pain of remembrance.
Waking once, he had found her gone from the cave. When he stumbled to the entrance, he had discovered her weeping heartbroken. Shaken, he had returned to bed. Now he understood those tears.
Her great love filled her voice when she spoke of her husband and children. Like Hawk, she had lost all she had in these last days. Perhaps that was why she had been so helpful despite his cruel hostility.
He certainly had done nothing to deserve even her smallest kindness, let alone the risking of her life. Beyond her healer’s obligations, she must have thought, too, of his twin. He lived now because of a friendship from another universe. It was a dizzying idea.
“Thank you, Human,” he whispered softly and slept himself.
“I’m surprised you couldn’t get Hawk to see reason,” Leos said and held up a tree branch for Tiber. “You’ve always swayed him away from foolish acts.”
“This Hawk is totally embittered. For him Koori died four days ago.” Tiber bent under the branch then staggered upright and caught the tree to steady herself.
“The deterioration of your body is increasing, isn’t it?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so.”
“You are protected within the Helios’s interdimensional structure. Go back. Let me take care of the burial detail for Koori, and then I’ll tractor beam his ship into the hold and start repairs. You’ll die if you stay out of the Helios too much.”
“I’m going to die anyway if I don’t get away from this toxic universe soon.” She straightened. “I can see the War Hawk through the trees, and I feel better. Let’s go.”
Tiber studied the grove of young trees the crashing ship had smashed through then the large boulder that had finally stopped its forward movement. The bending young trees had slowed the ship down enough that the boulder hadn't taken the ship apart.
Knowing Hawk, he'd chosen the trees deliberately. Whatever universe it was, he was one hell of a pilot.
She walked to the ship and gazed inside. “It’s empty. I wonder where her body is?”
“The pirates did the decent thing for a change and buried her.” Leos circled the ship to examine it. “Very little structural damage. The ship will not be difficult to repair. Hawk will be flying it in no time.”
Tiber knelt to look at the landing gear of the ship, and her heart twisted with pain. A small, pathetic figure slumped against a wheel. “I’ve found Koori.”
“I’ll get her.” Leos crawled under the War Hawk and gently lifted the body.
Koori opened her eyes and began to scream.
Regaining consciousness, Koori looked around with caution. She lay in a bed. For the first time in eternity, she felt no pain or discomfort, only the throbbing absence of her mate within her heart.
The room she was in had wooden walls and friendly woodland colors. It was a place of great beauty and peace, yet was homey and warm. The furniture and decorations were human, she decided, growing frightened.
The door opened, and a human female entered. She came to the edge of the bed and smiled gently. Speaking in the language of the avian people, she said, “Hello, Koori. I am a friend. Do not be frightened. I will not hurt you. I am a healer/doctor.”
“Why do you help me, Human?”
“I am not a friend to the humans who killed your people and crashed your ship. I am their enemy. My name is Tiber Roland. I am a friend to Hawk.”
Fighting tears, Koori turned her face away. “My mate is dead. He died in the ship crash.”
The human sat down on the bed and touched her cheek with a cool hand. “That is untrue. Hawk is alive. I left him alive and well fifteen hours ago.”
“You are cruel to lie to me so.”
“He is alive. I swear it on the lives of my husband and children.”
The other woman’s oath brought belief to Koori, and her heart filled with joy. “Alive!”
“And well. And as stubborn as ever. He believes you are dead. That is why he has not returned for you. He is determined to kill the pirates."
The other woman told her about Hawk and his plans.
Koori sat up in bed. “He will die. I must stop him.”
“I have failed, but your luck may be better.”
“Take me to him. I will talk to him.”
“It is too great a medical risk. You have a broken arm and other injuries. I have healed what I can, but it is best you not travel. We cannot risk the baby.”
“Baby?” Koori smiled joyfully.
“A two month fetus. It is healthy.”
“You have restored my life to me, thank you.”
“For you and Hawk, I am glad. What happened to you after the crash?”
“I awoke in the woods near the ship. One of the humans was by me. He told me Hawk died in the crash. He said that he would save me from the other pirates if I were good to him. I did not understand him. When he touched me, I understood.
“I broke away from him and ran. He followed catching up easily. I think he played with me. I preferred death. I found a cliff and threw myself off. I did not die. It took me several days to make it back to the ship. I wanted to die beside Hawk. His body was not there. I could go no further.”
“The pirate leader was certain of your death. His man must have lied to him.” Tiber stood up. “Rest now. I am using ship’s sensors to find Hawk, and then I am going after him. I will bring him back to you. Fathers should not act so foolishly.”
Tiber moved stealthily through the woods toward the mercenaries’ headquarters. Hawk was on the eastern side whose approach was rocky, bare, and filled with gullies. He had made little progress in the eighteen hours since she had left him.
True to her word, she and Leos had created an illusionary spacecraft explosion to lull the pirates into believing them dead. That had been fourteen hours ago, but the guards had remained heavy even then. Hawk could not go forward.
If he did not act soon, the pirates would leave planet in three or four hours on their fateful journey to the nova. She prayed that Hawk would not act rashly in desperation before she got to him.
Koori had refused to stay in the ship. Finally as a compromise, she agreed to wait in the cave that Tiber and Hawk had shared. Tiber took her there in a small hovercraft and went on foot after Hawk.
Tiber swore softly to herself. Her overprotective android had told Koori of Tiber’s physical reaction to this universe. He had warned both of them to return to the ship immediately at the first problem. The old worrywart had implied that this jaunt could kill her if it took too long.
The last think Koori needed was to have Tiber’s health to worry about.
Reaching the eastern border of the camp, Tiber looked at the barren gray rock and gullies between herself and the buildings beyond. She could not see Hawk. In this terrain it would be easy to hide and hard to be found.
She closed her eyes, created a mental image of her friend a golden eagle called Wind, then opened her eyes. An energy copy of the bird was on the ground in front of her. “Wind, find Hawk.” The eagle took flight.
Seeing as the eagle saw, she watched the ground soar past. Something about the landscape was wrong. There were slight pockmarks scattered over the terrain.
Hawk stood in the shadow of an outcropping of rocks that shielded him from the view of the mercenaries’s camp. He crept forward.
The answer to her unease came in sick knowledge. The area Hawk was in was mined with explosives. If Hawk hit a mine, he would die very messily. Tiber spoke to the bird with her mind, “Stop him,” and began to run toward them.