Author's note,

Another chapter where more questions are answered. Thanks for sticking with me this long. Only one small chapter after this to answer the last few questions and wrap everything up and then it is the end of the story.


Chapter 5

As soon as Neeka faces the hatchway, she freezes in place and her arms drop to her sides, the pole falling from loose fingers to clatter to the metal floor. After a moment one hand goes to her mouth and she sucks in a surprised gasp. She stumbles backwards two steps and then stops once more, her face a mixture of shock and something that I am not sure I recognize.

I still cannot see what it is she is staring at since the open hatch blocks my view, but before I can do anything to find out, there is an unidentifiable sound from behind the hatch and then Atti begins to chirp and squeak and go utterly mad on my shoulder. His wings are flapping and his tiny claws are sporadically digging down into my shoulder. I debate trying to calm him down but he is airborne before I can reach up with my good hand.

He careens across the cargo pod and lands with unerring precision on Neeka's shoulder without ever pausing in his wild screeching.

I am completely confused and extremely determined to find out what is going on. Using the wall as a support, I manage to slowly slide my way up into a standing position. Okay maybe standing isn't exactly the right term since I am leaning heavily against the wall, but I am vertical and my feet are planted on the floor. I at least have the illusion of feeling less vulnerable.

I am clinging to a support beam with everything that I have left when the hatch falls to rest against the inside wall and I get my first look at what has shocked Neeka so badly. My vision is still somewhat blurry, but I recognize the figure instantly.

"Tazzi," I say with a profound sense of relief.

There is a long moment where nothing happens. Neeka remains with her hand over her mouth and her eyes wide. Tazzi stands staring at Neeka. And I continue to cling to the wall with a firm grip. Even Atti is silent and still.

Then the moment is broken. Tazzi turns to look at me and he gains a faint smile.

"I saw the path of destruction on the mountainside and I thought you were dead," he says. "I was just barely able to make it here before the weather changed over. I am told that the rescue crews will be delayed a couple of hours."

I give a relieved laugh and allow myself to slide down to the floor, the effort of remaining upright just too much.

"That's great news," I say.

Tazzi turns back to Neeka and his expression is unreadable. "Are you both alright?"

Neeka steps forward and nods slowly. "Yes," she says softly. "We are sore but we will both survive." She pauses and puts a hand out to place it on his arm. Tazzi flinches and pulls away, striding over to where I am hunched against the wall. Neeka follows in his wake, looking somewhat lost.

Tazzi kneels down beside me and takes in my appearance. He does not miss the fact that I am holding my right arm tight against my side, or the fact that I am having trouble focusing on his face properly.

"You have looked better," he says.

"Yeah," I say with a soft chuckle. "But I'll be okay."

Tazzi looks skeptical but he doesn't try to argue with me.

I then realize something. "How did you get here so fast?" I say. "There's no way the captain got through all of the Sanctuary checkpoints already. The Sanctuary crews should have been the first ones to get to us."

Tazzi looks genuinely confused. "What do you mean?" he says with a frown. "You aren't in Sanctuary, Chito. You somehow managed to land outside of the eastern boundary."

My memory sparks at his statement. A vision of a warning message flashing through my mind. My eyes flick over to Neeka, who is busy staring at the side of Tazzi's head.

"It seems I lost that bit of information," I say. "Why didn't you say anything?"

Neeka snaps her gaze to me and suddenly looks sheepish. "What could you have done even if I had told you?" she says. "You were under so much stress already and I didn't want to make it worse."

She goes quiet and I am forced to admit that she is right. I can barely stand even now and knowing about the fact that we were sitting outside of the safety boundary would have done nothing to change the situation other than to push me into a higher state of stress and anxiety.

Tazzi does what he can to assess my condition, coming up with the same conclusion that Neeka had earlier. I am mostly just bruised and not teetering on the brink of a medical emergency. Upon finishing his medical assessment of Neeka, again just bruised and tired, he pulls a kit out of the bag that he had brought along and begins to set up the small communication screen contained within. He explains that it is connected to the locator beacon he was able to install on the outside of the pod before he came inside. Which explained the bangs that we had heard prior to his opening the hatch. Apparently the original beacon had been damaged in the rough landing. He keys in several commands, strengthening the signal on the beacon to help the rescue crews pinpoint our location even through the heavy clouds that have settled over the entire mountainside.

I watch him work in silence, his hands quick and sure as they flick switches and enter coordinates. It is a flurry of skilled movements and I wonder how he has become so adept at setting up such a beacon. Has he been in situations like this before? Has he just trained or practiced it so often that it has become second nature?

Eventually, Tazzi growls in frustration and gets to his feet. He says something about how his screen isn't connecting to the beacon properly and then rushes out of the hatch.

Neeka watches him go and as soon as he is out of sight she begins pacing, her arms wrapped around her midsection and her head bowed down. She seems agitated, nervous.

When Tazzi steps back inside moments later, I am half startled by Neeka moving to grab his arm, a look of pure distress spreading across her face.

"Please," she says. "Please, I cannot wait any longer. I must know why?"

Tazzi acts as if he is startled by her actions but he does not pull away from her touch like before. I am completely lost.

Tazzi turns his head away, closing his eyes and looking like he is trying to shut himself down. He is tense, withdrawn, acting as though he wants to escape but is too scared to move.

"Why?" Neeka pleads, tears welling up and her face contorting in despair. "If nothing else, just tell me why you left me with only a note filled with lies. I was willing to follow you anywhere."

And there it is. The explanation to it all. Tazzi is the one she has been searching for this whole time. He is the reason why she had taken to wearing a fake wedding ring and why she had taken every cargo transport willing to carry her. He is the reason why she is now overflowing with so much emotion that she is wild-eyed and shaking.

Tazzi doesn't look at her, but he does speak.

"I did not want you to follow," he says. "You told me that you were ready to leave Pantoo and I realized there was no other way. I left to keep you safe."

He finally turns to look at her and he touches the side of her face with the fingertips of one hand, a gentle and fleeting caress. He then pulls his hand away with a grimace. It is clear he still cares for her, but it looks as though he is reluctant to let himself feel it, like he wants to push the feeling down deep and forget about it.

"I left so that you would forget about me." He stops and then looks down at the hand that still grips his arm, his eyes finding the black ring. There is the softest flicker of hurt in his gaze before it goes hard once again. "And it seems as though you did."

Neeka looks horrified and opens her mouth, so shocked by everything and so overwhelmed with emotion that she cannot find any words.

Tazzi takes her silence as an opportunity to keep talking. "Your parents seemed upset by the whole idea of their daughter falling in love with the captain of a cargo ship anyway, and so when you said you were ready to leave Pantoo to follow me, I made up my mind to leave." He pulls his shirt collar down to reveal more of the white scarring that runs down his neck. "I wear these scars because I was scared that you would end up in a dangerous life that was so far from how you were raised. I wear them because they are better than seeing your innocence die."

That throws me for a loop. What happened? Neeka's response only deepens my confusion.

"My innocence died when you left without a word," she says with a sob. "Your actions did not just leave you with scars. They have left me with my own."

She reaches over to her left arm and pulls up the fabric that covers it, revealing a vast network of pale scars running up her arm and disappearing under the fabric bunched up by her shoulder.

"I wear these because you left and because I didn't want to give up on you. Your actions have consequences, even ones that you might refuse to accept."

Shock and realization ripple across Tazzi's face. He grabs her left hand and runs a fingertip along one of the white lines.

"Who did this to you?" he whispers. "Was it the one who put that ring on your finger?"

Neeka lets the fabric slide down her arm again and she shakes her head. "You don't understand," she says. "The ring is not what you think."

"It's not real," I say without thinking.

Shut up brain, warn me before randomly letting your opinions out into the world. Stupid concussion.

Tazzi turns to me with a question in his eyes and Neeka gives me a sympathetic yet thankful glance.

"You will have to excuse his bluntness," she says. "He has a concussion. But he is right. The ring isn't real, and it is the reason why I wear the scars."

Tazzi seems bewildered at the news.

"But you were born on Pantoo," he says. "I do not understand."

"Neither do I," I say.

Seriously brain, be quiet!

Neeka almost snorts with laughter and Tazzi gives me a glare that quickly dissolves into something resembling a silent apology.

"It is okay," Neeka says to Tazzi. "I trust him. He knows at least most of the story of our history. May I explain the rest of it to him?"

Tazzi hums in indecision. He looks very unsure of the situation, but I know that, in the relatively short time I have known him, I have gained at least some of his trust. He has opened up to me more than anyone else in the crew in the past, and so I am not too surprised when he hesitantly gives a nod of permission.

"Tazzi is a Jenessian," Neeka says as she turns to face me. "When Jenessians lie and do not reveal it, it festers and comes out as physical scars. The bigger the lie, the bigger the scar. And the bigger the scar, the more dangerous it is. Some scars can be deep enough to eventually cause permanent damage and some can even lead to death. The damage can be stopped and sometimes even reversed by seeking forgiveness."

I look at Tazzi with a question in my eyes. "So your scars aren't from some horrible accident?"

"No," Tazzi says, his eyes are dark and solemn. "They are because I lied. Neeka was right when she said that the letter was full of lies. I loved her but I knew that a life with her could never be a possibility. Living on Pantoo was not an option and I did not want her to live the life that I was forced into. And so I told myself and Neeka that I didn't love her anymore and I left. I stepped down from my position as captain and took on a low profile jobs to keep out of the system so that she would be unable to find me. After that, the scars appeared and slowly grew bigger."

It dawns on me now, another reason why Neeka was willing to scour the galaxy looking for Tazzi. If she did not find him and did not tell him that she forgave him, then there was a real possibility that the scars would get bad enough to kill him. She risked her life, not just to find true love again, but to save Tazzi's life.

But there is still something else that is missing in this puzzle.

I look to Neeka. "And now we are back to the original question. How did you get your scars if you are not Jenessian?"

Neeka looks down at the floor and her voice is quiet when she speaks. "Actually, that is not entirely true."

"Care to explain?" I ask.

"That is a somewhat long and convoluted story," she says. "But I can give you the short version. Several centuries ago, a group of Jenessians was allowed to come and live on Pantoo. Over time they dispersed throughout the population and became integrated into the gene pool. Most of the trait was lost in the diluting of the Jenessian genes, but every now and again the trait resurfaces. My great grandfather had it as well. It is not as strong as it is in a pure Jenessian, but it is enough."

Tazzi is silent through her explanation, but as soon as she is finished he speaks up.

"Than you must stop the lies," he says. He grabs her left hand and shows her the ring. "If you keep this charade up it will eventually kill you. It may take longer than for a true Jenessian, but in the end the result is the same. Please, stop chasing me and go back to your home."

Neeka pulls her hand away and shakes her head. "I will only stop wearing this ring when you give me a proper wedding ring to replace it. I will not stop following you."

"I cannot live on Pantoo," he says. "The government will not let me. I wish it was different, but I cannot change it. You must face the fact that my life is no longer a part of yours." He stops to take a breath and when he continues his voice is different, harsh and cutting. "Go home. It is too dangerous for you out here."

Neeka is on the verge of crying but the hopeful glint in her eyes remains. "I know you still feel something for me," she says. "Why do you keep pushing it away. I am here now."

Because we are done," he shoots back. "We never had a chance and we never will."

He abruptly turns away and moves to sit as far away as he can without going outside. He sits down on the floor, back against the wall, and his head turns to face away from us. I can tell he is overwhelmed. I want to help him, to show him the same support he had always shown me, but I know he will just push me away. I eventually just look away from him and stare at the floor instead.

Neeka is also curiously quiet. She has pulled off her ring and is fiddling with it. I cannot see enough of her face to read her expression, but she seems like her ever-present hope is beginning to shatter. A tear rolls down her cheek and she turns away from me, hiding her face from my scrutiny.

I do not know what to do. The situation is unusual. I am only a footnote in the story of their lives. I should not have even been present during their conversation. If I had been able to, I would have gotten up and left the pod when I found out how they were connected.

With no clear way to tread in the matter, I follow the lead of the others by going silent as well. Thankfully my brain has no other impending questions to blurt out.

The atmosphere in the pod goes cold, none of us wanting to look at any of the others. Tension is high and only grows thicker as time passes. Finally, there is one in our group who is brave enough to break the silence.

Atti.

Lightly jumping up from his perch on Neeka's shoulder, he flits across the pod to land softly on Tazzi's left forearm. He finds a comfortable place to perch, ruffles his dark feathers, and then begins chirping out a gentle and almost rhythmic melody.

It takes a long moment, but I manage to recognize the melody. It is not a strong memory, just barely hovering on the edges of my mind, but I find it easy to grab hold of. I dig deeper into the shimmering images that fill my minds eye and I cannot help but smile as the moment comes back to me in a rush.

Atti is singing the same melody that Tazzi had been whistling on the bridge just before everything had gone sideways.

Tazzi does not move, but after several minutes I hear the softest sound of humming as he begins to sing along with the tiny bird that is chirping and whistling on his arm. Atti continues to sing, dark eyes fixed on Tazzi's face and tiny claws clutching his sleeve.

Neeka responds to the humming with a gasp. She puts her hand over her mouth and tries to contain the emotion that threatens to break free. She pulls in a long breath through her nose and then lets out a sound that is a combination between a laugh and a sob.

She is suddenly on her feet, rushing across the pod and falling to her knees at Tazzi's side. Atti never stops singing.

"There is still a chance for us," she says. "Atti knows you still love me. And he also knows I still love you." She tries to put a hand on his shoulder but he tenses up and she pulls her hand back. "I must tell you something," she says, her voice wavering. "I do not live on Pantoo anymore."

Tazzi turns to face her with a look of horror on his face. He opens his mouth to say something but she shakes her head and he closes it without a word.

"I gave up my life there," she continues. "When you left I could no longer find happiness anymore. Nothing was the same. And so I went looking for the last thing that made me happy. You. When I heard you were possibly working on one of the outer worlds, I renounced my residency on Pantoo, took all the money I had, and began searching for you. I bought passage on any cargo transport that would accept me and began searching every outer world I could reach."

Tazzi shakes his head and I can see he is confused. "Why?" he asks. "Why would you give up your place on Pantoo?"

"Because I knew you were in danger and I could fix it," she says. "And because I found that I loved something more than a life of luxury. I found someone who put my happiness and safety before their own needs. And so I did the same. I gave up my place on Pantoo and I chased after the only thing left. You."

Both of them go quiet and the only thing to be heard is the sound of Atti singing softly. Tazzi hesitantly places his hands on Neeka's arms and he catches her gaze with his own.

"Please," he says. "You must go back to Pantoo, before it is too late for you to take back your place."

She only smiles, soft and sad, and frames his face with her hands. "It already is too late," she says. "I lost the ability to go back over a year ago." She lets out a laugh that sounds free and joyous. "I am now just like you. I have no planet to my name. I am a wanderer in search of a home."

Atti starts his song over for the umpteenth time and Neeka begins to sing now, her voice soft but clear. I can just barely make out the words.

"All the world is dear,

when my love is lying near.

Oh, to linger here.

Far from all I fear.

Hold me unto you.

No one but you, no one but you.

Hold me unto you.

No one but you, no one but you."

At the end of the last line she reaches out and places one fingertip on the top of Atti's head. He stops singing and settles down closer to Tazzi's arm, looking more like a ball of fluff than a bird.

"Those lyrics are still true," she says. "I want you to understand something. I love you. And nothing you can say will make me stop following you wherever you go."

From what little I can see of Tazzi's face, I can tell that there is a war of emotion happening. I can only imagine his dilemma. He still loves Neeka. There is no doubt in my mind. But it is making him protective of her and he lives an inherently dangerous life. He does not want to bring her into it with him. But leaving her behind is now just as dangerous, if not more so. He is torn, conflicted, fighting a war against his feelings, and he is losing.

Neeka senses his battle and grabs up both of his hands, pulling them into her chest and hugging them close.

"Do not leave me again," she says. "Please, I cannot be alone anymore."

Atti chirps softly, seemingly in agreement with her statement. He sidles his way up Tazzi's arm until he is close to his ear and then he starts up the previous melody once more, tucking himself against Tazzi's neck.

Tazzi smiles softly at the contact and then frees one of his hands so that he can cup the side of Neeka's face. Ever so slowly he leans forward to kiss her on her forehead and she closes her eyes at the contact, a smile blooming across her face

"I was a fool to think you would not be affected when I left," he says. "And I would be a fool to turn you away a second time. I am humbled by your loyalty. Please forgive me for all the hurt that I have caused you."

Neeka's eyes widen in shock and then she flings herself at him, wrapping her arms around his neck and nearly smashing Atti who is just barely able to move out of the way in time. He flutters up onto Neeka's arm with a cheep of protest and then twitters happily as Neeka sobs with joy into the side of Tazzi's neck.


It is several hours before we hear the sound of engines rumbling outside the pod. I am overjoyed at the sound and Tazzi shifts a soundly sleeping Neeka away from his side so that he can get up to greet the rescue crews.

It is another two hours before we are aboard the rescue ship.

The ship's medic looks me over, declaring me bruised and exhausted and suffering from a moderate concussion and wrenched right shoulder. I will be just fine after a good long rest. He gives me something for the pain and then deposits me in a deeply padded seat, buckling me in snugly.

Neeka is to my left, leaning over as far as her seat will allow in an attempt to be close to Tazzi who finally looks content. It is the first time I have ever seen such peace in his eyes.

Captain Varta meets us at the station when we land and he is elated to know that we are safe. He notices Neeka hanging off Tazzi's arm as we exit the ship, but he says nothing, only smiles and nods at Tazzi.

I make a mental not to ask him about the moment later.


I eventually find myself in the station's infirmary and the world is looking a lot less blurry. I am enjoying the feeling of a soft mattress and the blissful buzzing numbness that comes along with pain meds when there is a knock at my door.

I carefully turn my head to see that Captain Varta is standing in the doorway.

"Come on in," I say happily.

Captain Varta smiles and moves to drop into the chair in the corner of the room. "Good to see that you're feeling better," he says. "You looked a little dazed when they first brought you back."

"Thanks," I say. "I am feeling quite a bit better."

We talk about a couple random things, both of us somewhat confused what to do with the whole situation. Neither of us really want to talk about how close everything came to ending much worse than it did.

Captain Varta tells me how the Jackers discontinued their pursuit as soon as the cargo pods ejected. Upon leaving the atmosphere they were apprehended by several heavily armed law enforcement ships that had come running upon hearing our distress call. I am also happy to learn that no one had been seriously hurt or killed in the whole incident.

Big questions answered, I take the opportunity to ask the question that I had made a mental note to ask about when I had first stepped off of the rescue ship.

"You didn't seem too surprised to see Neeka and Tazzi together," I say. "Am I right in thinking that there is a story behind that?"

Captain Varta gives me a lopsided grin. "Tazzi came to me quite a few years ago," he says. "He was depressed and quiet, obviously hurting about something, and I took him into my crew without a second thought. I had a feeling that the source of his misery was of the female variety and so I gave him a job to distract him and to give him a way to recover from his previous life mistakes. I had no doubt that he would eventually figure it all out and return to the girl. The fact that he was only getting more and more scars told me he was still in love with the woman."

"Then you were aware he is a Jenessian," I say. "Why didn't you say anything about it?"

Captain Varta levels me with a serious look. "Because it is not my place to talk about it," he says. "Tazzi came to me several months after I took him on and told me of his heritage. He was honest about it, open, but I knew that it was because he respected me, he wanted to be clear with me. And so I made up my mind to allow him to be the one to reveal that fact to others. That is part of what respect is, Chito, allowing others to dictate the flow of information about themselves."

I carefully nod in understanding. My head is definitely feeling better, there is less dizziness when I move it.

"Have you heard what Tazzi plans to do now?" I ask. "I have not seen him since the rescue ship."

Captain Varta frowns and crosses his arms. "I think that is something that you have to ask him," he says. "He is still on base somewhere. I can send him around if you want."

I shrug my good shoulder and briefly squint one eye. "I don't think so," I say. "Let him decide to come on his own."

Captain Varta gives me a subtle grin and pats me on the shoulder. "Good choice," he says. "We will be heading out in about two days or so. Get some rest while you can."

To be concluded...


Second Author's note,

The song lyrics that Neeka sings to Tazzi are not mine. They are actually from a wonderful song by Erutan called 'No One But You' from the album 'Raindancer'. It is a great song and was part of the inspiration for this story.