“I gotta say,” Sara huffed out to Jaal as the two of them ran headlong in the opposite direction of the kett base they’d escaped mere moments ago, “while this isn’t the best plan any of us has ever had, it’s still not the worst, either.”
“I’m not certain whether I agree with you or not,” Jaal answered, and Sara didn’t get a chance to ask him to elaborate. As soon as he was finished speaking, in one fluid movement that left Sara impressed that her brain was even able to keep up with what her eyes were taking in, Jaal swung around, leveled his rifle to his shoulder, and put a bullet each through two of the nine kett that were chasing after them.
A witty remark about Jaal’s ability to do that move and the effect it had on her was on the tip of Sara’s tongue. She’d have to share it with him later, though. Right now, she needed to put her energy into putting as much distance between herself and the kett base they’d set up charges around before said charges went off. Which should be any second now, if she and SAM had calculated it right. Fortunately, being that they were on Voeld and the terrain in front of them was relatively flat, they should be able to get away fairly quickly.
Unfortunately, they were on Voeld. Where the aforementioned terrain was also icy and the air itself bit at any exposed skin when you were standing still, let alone running to escape an impending explosion and being shot at at the same time. And where said flat terrain had nothing to offer in the way of cover from explosions or being shot at. And where a sudden gust of wind could and would kick up any loose snow and ice, blinding you to what was ahead for as long as it blew, as it had just started doing right that second. And which had Sara cursing herself for not bringing her helmet. She’d gotten complacent since they’d activated that vault a few weeks ago.
“SAM, what’s the ETA on those bombs?” Sara decided to say instead.
“Detonation will occur in approximately five seconds, Pathfinder,” SAM said. “Also, I must warn you that there is a steep incline directly in your path.”
“What?!” Sara barked. Between the seven kett—four, now that Jaal had had turned and picked off three more—chasing them and the imminent explosion that they were still way too close to for Sara’s liking, stopping was not an option. All she really had time to do was get her omni-blade ready.
“Detonation in 3…2…1,” SAM announced. Sara immediately reached out her other hand to Jaal, who wrapped his free hand around her wrist in time for the two of them to dive down that incline SAM mentioned as the charges finally went off and the building behind them blasted apart.
Flames and shrapnel flew overhead with the shockwave as Jaal and Sara slid downhill, their hands locked around one another’s wrists. Sara’s free arm came up, and she plunged the omni-blade into the ice—
--and let out a sharp cry that ended on a stream of swear words as the blade found purchase and halted their descent, her shoulders protesting both the sudden stop and the extra weight as she forced her hand to remain clamped around Jaal’s wrist.
“As I said,” Jaal said as if Sara wasn’t still busy cursing up a proverbial storm and they hadn’t just leaped out of the way of possible death, “I’m not certain whether I agree with you or not.”
“Well,” Sara grunted through her clenched teeth, “we’re not dead, so it’s not the worst.”
“And yet we’re hanging on to ice by a single blade,” Jaal pointed out, and Sara groaned in both pain and irritation. He just had to remind her, didn’t he?
“Lieutenant Ama Darav, there is a ledge wide enough to accommodate both yourself and Ryder less than half a meter below you,” SAM put in helpfully before Sara could snap something back at Jaal. “The ledge winds around this incline in both directions, so you may be able to find a more suitable place to wait for the shuttle.”
“Awesome, thanks, SAM,” Sara said as Jaal snapped his rifle to the holster on his back. After a quick look around at his surroundings, he looked back up at Sara and gave a nod. Sara released him to slide down to the ledge, right where SAM said it would be. As soon as Jaal found his balance, he turned back to her, and she worked the omni-blade free of the ice and slid down after him.
He easily caught her and set her on her feet. “Cora,” Sara said into her comm, “How far out are you on that shuttle?”
“Gonna be a little while,” Cora answered. “There were some stragglers from that base and we’re taking fire. The pilot can’t even lift off until we have an opening.”
“Ryder, there is also a storm closing in on your coordinates,” Suvi chimed in. “Even if the shuttle leaves now, the ground team may not be able to reach you right away.”
“I can confirm Dr. Anwar’s readings, Pathfinder,” SAM said. “The two of you must find shelter as soon as possible.”
“Ugh, great,” Sara muttered. Then she glanced up at Jaal, who was watching her with an I-told-you-so expression on his face. “Oh, come on,” she said in response to it. “Our mission was a success, wasn’t it?”
Jaal opened his mouth to respond, but immediately closed it again when he glanced down at her lips. His expression morphed into worry.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” Sara asked.
He brought a hand up to her face and ran his thumb over her lips. “Your lips are turning blue,” he said. “SAM is right, we must find shelter.” With that, he slid his hand down into hers and turned around to start making his way down the ledge.
Sara didn’t see a point in arguing with him. If the shuttle was going to be delayed, then they needed to get out of the cold as soon as they could. And she figured she must have still had adrenaline in her system, because she hadn’t felt the cold at all. As Jaal led her down the path, however, she started to become acutely aware of it. She was suddenly glad he had decided to take the lead, and she was pretty sure he had done it on purpose, anyway. She was starting to notice the subtle moves his arm was making to keep her directly behind him and out of as much of the wind as possible.
“SAM, how much more time do I have on the life support in my suit?” Sara asked as Jaal started feeling his way along the wall at their side with his free hand. The wind was beginning to blow snow and ice on them again, and it was getting harder to see.
“Approximately two and a half to three hours before you are in critical danger, Pathfinder,” the AI answered.
“Cora, I hope you heard that,” Sara said into her comm.
“Loud and clear, Ryder. But I can’t give you an ETA yet. These assholes aren’t—shit!” The last word was spat out angrily, and Sara could make out Drack and Vetra’s battle cries just before Cora’s end of the comm cut off.
“Cora, talk to me, what’s going on?” Sara demanded. Jaal glanced back over his shoulder at Sara, concern for what was going on causing his body to go rigid, though he kept moving.
“Everyone’s fine,” Cora answered. “But one of the kett took some shots at the shuttle and hit the engine. We can’t take off now.”
“Lieutenant Ama Darav, there is a shallow cave ten meters ahead of you,” SAM announced to Jaal.
“Thank you, SAM,” Jaal said, and tightened his grip on Sara’s hand as he picked up the pace.
“Ryder, the shuttle pilot’s called for another shuttle, but she says it’ll be nearly another hour before they make it to us,” Cora said as Jaal found the cave and pulled Sara into it.
“This storm is gaining in intensity by the minute,” Suvi chimed in again. “It could be even longer than that before the shuttle reaches the two of you.”
“It’s okay,” Sara said. “We just found shelter. Just get to us as soon as you can.”
“Copy that, Ryder. I have your coordinates, so just sit tight,” Suvi said.
“Like we’re going anywhere,” Sara muttered as the comm cut off and she turned on her chest light. Outside, the wind had not only not let up, but the snow and ice it was blowing around seemed thicker than before. And Sara was pretty sure she wasn’t imagining that the wind was blowing harder.
She let out a resigned sigh and moved as deep as she could into the shallow cave. Sara couldn’t tell if it was any warmer or not, but at least she couldn’t feel the air moving. Though taking off any part of her armor to get a little more comfortable probably wouldn’t be a good idea.
Sara slid down to the floor of the cave, taking off her guns and unclipping her jump jet as she settled in. Jaal, who had been watching her intently the entire time, sat down next to her.
“So, about two and a half to three hours left on my life support; you think the shuttle will be here before then?” she asked him conversationally as he laid his rifle down next to him and put an arm around her shoulder.
“Perhaps, if the storm abates,” Jaal answered as she laid her head on his shoulder. Sara didn’t miss how uncomfortable he looked thinking about the shuttle being delayed, so she didn’t object when he changed the subject. “I am curious to know how you believe this is neither the best nor the worst plan any of us has ever had.”
“Well, like I said, the mission itself was a success, wasn’t it?”
“And yet, we’re stranded on the side of a mountain in a storm.”
Sara lifted her head to meet his eyes. “You know, for once, I’m glad you decided to argue and come with me to draw the kett off. I could have been stranded here alone, and you’d be going out of your mind worrying about me.”
Jaal had opened his mouth, an obvious rebuttal at the ready, but closed it again when he realized she had a point. “True,” he conceded with a smile. “But now you get to watch me worry about you in person when your life support runs out.”
“Good point,” Sara said, laying her head back on his shoulder. “I suppose we could have actually waited until tomorrow to take out this base, and spent tonight curled up on the sofa in my quarters where it’s not cold, watching that movie you wanted to see.”
Jaal’s laugh rumbled through his chest. “Watching the movie, or—what did you call it—‘making out’?”
“Mmm, well, one of the two. Or probably both. The point is, not the best, but not the worst, either.”
Jaal laughed again. “I believe I will agree with you and leave it at that.”
By Jaal’s estimation, a little over two hours had passed when SAM announced an update on their shuttle.
“Lieutenant Harper wishes me to inform you that they have resolved the problem of the remaining kett forces, and are now awaiting the replacement shuttle. However, the storm is causing them visibility issues. But they will be here as soon as they are able.”
“Th-thanks, SAM,” Sara said through chattering teeth as she paced the short length of the cave yet again. Approximately twenty minutes ago, she had begun shivering as the cold found its way into her hard suit. Approximately ten minutes ago, she had gotten up and started moving around in an attempt to warm herself up, blowing into her hands every so often, despite the fact that her gloves were still in place.
Jaal had to work to keep his own teeth from grinding together in irritation. Despite what Sara had said earlier about waiting for the next day to go on this mission of destroying a kett base, and, to use Liam’s words, “finally convincing them to get the hell off of Voeld,” he had been glad they had taken care of it when they had. Less angaran lives were in danger now because of their actions today.
However, he didn’t like the fact that Sara was suffering for it. And there was little he could do to help her.
“Well, J-jaal, s-seems you were right this time,” Sara said.
“I g-get to watch you w-worry about me in p-person.”
While Jaal admired her attempts at levity, he couldn’t bring himself to be amused. He already had to work to not think about what might happen if the shuttle took much longer.
“S-SAM, I d-don’t suppose you could—“ Sara started, but was immediately interrupted by the AI.
“Pathfinder, as I have already stated, speeding up your heart rate would be inadvisable. It could even kill you faster.”
The breath Sara let out against her hands came out in an agitated huff. “It was j-just a th-thought, SAM,” she said.
“Pathfinder, may I remind you your life support system still has approximately ten minutes left,” SAM said.
“Y-yeah, I wonder h-how true that is. It f-feels like it’s f-failed already,” Sara bit back.
“Sara is right. Should she be feeling so cold so soon?” Jaal asked.
“I should clarify; the Pathfinder will not be in danger from hypothermia for another ten minutes,” SAM said. “Protective armor or not, the human body was not designed to withstand prolonged exposure to such extreme temperatures for long periods of time. Especially not a body that has recently been under stress mere hours ago.”
“In oth-ther words, yes, I sh-should be,” Sara translated, somehow managing to work an edge of sarcasm into her voice. “I s-swear, we’re g-going to Elaaden for a month after this.”
Jaal didn’t even bother to comment on her rhetorical statement. “SAM, if the Pathfinder begins showing signs of hypothermia, how long will she have before she needs medical attention?”
“F-fifteen minutes, at most,” Sara answered for SAM. Jaal could tell by her voice that she hadn’t wanted to think about it. “Or is it t-ten? Either w-way, that’s how l-long I’ll h-have bef-fore I die.”
“Shit,” Jaal muttered, and had to fight back the panic trying to claw its way out. It wouldn’t help anything.
Jaal began running through their options in his mind. A fire was not possible, since they had nothing to make one with. The both of them, or Jaal by himself, attempting to fight their way through the storm towards their crew was out of the question entirely. Sara was in no shape to leave, and Jaal was not leaving her alone.
And SAM had long ago advised against Sara taking off her armor to share Jaal’s body heat. The AI had said that any exposure of any length of time could prove fatal.
He had to bite back another curse. Their options were far too limited for his liking.
Unbidden, the memory of their latest “movie night” aboard the Tempest came to Jaal. The vid had been an old one from Earth (that no one would admit to adding to their library in the first place, though Jaal had a couple of suspects in mind) that took place in a time well before humans had achieved space flight, wherein a young couple from completely different social backgrounds met aboard a vessel that traversed the planet’s oceans and met with tragedy when the vessel sank before reaching its intended destination. The couple had survived the actual sinking of the vessel together, only for the man to die in the frigid water as they waited for rescue. The woman survived only because her lover had helped her onto a piece of the vessel’s remains and out of the water (a scene which had sparked a rather lively debate that continued for days as to whether or not both the man and the woman could have fit on the piece of the wreckage).
Jaal supposed that was part of the source of his fear for Sara. At the moment in the vid when the woman had realized the man was dead, Lexi had explained to all of the non-humans in the room that the man had likely died not long after the final time he had spoken to the woman, as there was no possible way he would have survived long enough to be rescued. In fact, the doctor had pointed out, it was something of a miracle the woman had managed to survive. But it had also driven home the point to Jaal of just how susceptible humans were to extreme cold, such as the temperatures that could be found on Voeld.
Jaal mentally shook himself. These kinds of thoughts were helping nothing. What he needed to do was think of something that would help Sara.
Unfortunately, he was broken out of his musings when Sara swayed dangerously on her feet. Jaal surged forward and caught her before she could fall to the ground.
“ ‘m getting tired,” she murmured, her words slurring together now.
“Sara, you must not allow yourself to fall asleep,” SAM said immediately.
“What happens if she falls asleep?” Jaal asked.
“Her chance of death will increase if she falls asleep,” SAM said. Jaal could feel a very different kind of cold running through his veins at that statement.
“Sara, dearest, you must listen to SAM,” Jaal urged as gently as he could, cupping her cheek in one hand and lifting her face to meet her eyes. He decided he didn’t need to ask SAM if her drooping eyelids or the fact that her teeth were no longer chattering were causes for alarm, because they still alarmed him.
“Jaal, I just…I just need five minutes,” Sara slurred, swaying on her feet again. Jaal wrapped his arms around her as her knees buckled and she slumped forward.
“No no no, Sara! Sara!” Jaal had to work to quell the rising panic again as Sara’s eyes slid shut. “SAM, is that shuttle on its way yet?”
“The shuttle is still having trouble lifting off in the storm, Lieutenant. I have, however, sent a distress signal to Lieutenant Harper. She is looking into sending the Tempest itself over.”
Jaal growled in frustration. They would still not arrive fast enough.
“Lieutenant Ama Darav, I must apologize. I had not anticipated the Pathfinder’s fatigue level, nor had I anticipated her succumbing so rapidly.”
“Never mind that, SAM. Is there anything that can be done for her?”
“Your only option at this point is to share body heat with her. Unfortunately, this means removing her armor and exposing her to the air.”
Jaal needed no time to consider it. Wordlessly, he swept Sara into his arms and returned her to the back of the cave, where he set her gently on the ground and began unclasping her armor. As he tossed pieces of her hard suit to the side, he began working out plans in his mind on something he could make for Sara that would help her survive Voeld’s temperatures in the future.
Because he was absolutely not going to allow her to die in this cave.
The first thing Sara was aware of when she made the slow slide back into consciousness was that it was warm. Very warm. Then she registered the familiar weight around her shoulders and the wall of iron muscle at her bare back. She was tempted to drift off back to sleep, as warm and comfortable as she was. Sara had no idea when they had returned to the Tempest, but she’d find out later.
Except something didn’t seem right. The blanket covering her didn’t feel like the sheets on her bed. It both felt and smelled more like Jaal’s rofjinn. And they weren’t lying down at all. Rather, they were sitting up. And she was only stripped to the waist. The bottom half of her under armor, as well as her greaves and boots, were still in place on her legs. Why would anyone have left her half-dressed and made her sleep sitting up…?
Everything came back in a rush then. The mission, the run from the kett, the near-fall down the hill, being stranded in the open thanks to a storm—all on Voeld, of all places.
And they were still there. How long had it been? And how was she still…?
Sara forced her eyes open. A sea of deep blue was the first thing she saw, shimmering gently in the light from her chest plate somewhere nearby and draped over her shoulders and knees, which were pulled in as close to her chest as possible. Across from her there was the rocky wall of the cave they had taken refuge in, the discarded pieces of her hard suit piled next to it. And of course, between her back and the wall of the cave behind her, sat Jaal. He’d pulled her into his lap and had opened the top half of his body suit in order to put as much contact between her skin and his as possible. His arms were clutching her close to him, and his head rested on her shoulder. Judging by the steadiness of his breathing, Sara guessed that he’d drifted off to sleep.
Well, that explained how she was still alive. Now why hadn’t they been rescued yet?
“SAM?” she murmured, hoping Jaal wouldn’t wake. He must have been so worried about her. He at least deserved a few more minutes of sleep. She definitely intended to make all of this up to him somehow.
“Sara,” SAM answered on their private channel, seemingly having picked up on the fact that Sara wanted to stay quiet, “I’m glad Lieutenant Ama Darav’s efforts to keep you adequately warm were successful.”
“So am I, but what’s going on? Why are we still here?”
“Not long after you lost consciousness, the storm gained in intensity. The second shuttle was forced to land within a few minutes of taking off. Lieutenant Harper attempted to have the Tempest herself come to you. However, Mr. Jath pointed out that he would only have the same amount of trouble regarding visibility as the shuttle would have, and Engineer Brodie and Dr. Anwar both agree that even if Mr. Jath were able to successfully navigate the storm, the storm itself would prevent the ship from being able to make a safe landing anywhere nearby, or long enough to mount a rescue mission.”
“And how long has it been since I passed out?”
“Approximately an hour and a half.”
Sara was struck speechless by that fact. It had been an hour and a half? Seriously?
“I should inform you, however, that the storm is beginning to show signs of subsiding. Dr. Anwar anticipates another hour to two hours before the Tempest is able to take off safely, and about the same amount of time to reach your location.”
“Great. Thanks, SAM.” So it would be about another two to four hours before their team came to pick them up. How much longer would that give the two of them before Jaal needed to find a better source of warmth as well? Sara turned her head slightly to glance over at him, but before she could ask SAM, Jaal stirred against her shoulder and his eyelids cracked open.
“Jaal, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—“
“Sara!” Jaal breathed, opening his eyes fully and loosening his grip on her just enough for her to turn more fully to face him. “Thank the stars, I was so afraid, I—“ Whatever he was going to say caught in his throat on a quiet sob as tears welled up in his eyes and spilled over. Sara pulled him into a hug as he buried his face in the crook of her neck and wept in relief. She could do nothing but murmur words of comfort to him as he clutched her in a nearly bone-crushing embrace.
After a few minutes, Jaal’s breathing evened out and he began nuzzling the side of her neck. Sara responded by pressing light kisses along his jaw and cheekbone. Kisses that eventually found their way to his lips. Kisses that began light and chaste. Kisses that deepened when their tongues simultaneously sought out one another’s.
Jaal’s bioelectricity began humming deliciously under her lips and hands, which had lowered to his chest to trace over the hard muscle there. His own hands had found their way around her body where those same bioelectric pulses were starting to sing up her spine and across the back of her shoulders…
…Which was when Jaal decided to pull away and put several inches of space between them.
“Jaal? What’s wrong?” Sara asked breathlessly. When their eyes met, however, she could swear the look in his would have been enough to keep her warm all on its own. His blown pupils combined with both the sheer hunger and love in his eyes always did that to her, though.
“I just—we should stop, I think. We’ll be rescued soon and I know how you feel about—“ Sara cut him off with a finger to his lips.
“I talked to SAM before you woke up. He said it’s still gonna be a couple of hours before the Tempest gets here,” she said. She couldn’t help the smile that pulled at her lips, at once grateful that Jaal was as always considerate of her modesty and with an edge of mischievousness to it, because there was absolutely no way she was going to pass up an opportunity to make love to him in a snowy cave.
Jaal returned her smile. “Thank the stars. I’m not sure I would have been able to wait until we were in a proper bed.” Her response to that was lost in the haze of lust as he pulled her back to him and covered her mouth with his own, swallowing her giggles.
Sara’s giggles rapidly morphed into pleased moans as his lips left hers to trace a fiery path across her jaw and down the pulse point in her throat, gently nipping and licking as he went. Her moans became a sharp intake of breath when his hands found her breasts, his bioelectricity vibrating against it in the way Jaal knew she liked as his fingers pinched and tugged at her nipples.
Her own hands had not been idle. The tips of her fingers found their way into every groove and crevice between the muscles on his shoulders and chest, slowly working their way lower. By the time Jaal’s mouth had reached her sternum, Sara’s hands had reached the buckles still holding the lower half of his suit shut. Her hand ghosted over the throbbing bulge between his legs before she set to work undoing the fastenings.
It was Jaal’s turn to gasp when Sara worked the rest of his suit open and slid her hand in to caress his hard length. His hand left her breasts to work at the clasps of her pants. Once he had them undone, she rolled up onto her knees so he could work them down her hips. Then his still-gloved hand found her center, already hot and soaking and more than ready for him. She threw her head back, eyes clenched shut, and let out a loud groan of approval as he slid a finger in, the heel of his hand pressing against her aching clitoris.
With his free hand, Jaal pushed his rofjinn off of her shoulders and onto the cave floor behind her. Sara opened her eyes and looked into his as the cold air hit her heated flesh, and the amount of want and desperation she found there nearly made her come right then.
Jaal didn’t need to be prompted to withdraw his hand from her so she could turn around and spread her knees as far apart as her pants would allow. He only rose up to his own knees behind her and pulled one arm around her shoulders to hold her close to him as he bent them both forward while his other hand worked the rest of his suit open so he could properly free his cock.
One of Sara’s hands joined his at her shoulder, clutching it tightly, as the other one fisted in the fabric of his rofjinn under her as Jaal slid home into her. He let out a satisfied moan that was mixed with a smattering of murmured Shelesh that Sara’s translator didn’t have a chance to decipher. Not that she really cared if it did. He’d braced his other hand on her hip and started thrusting hard and deep into her, hitting that spot inside her that made her vision white out, drawing cries of pleasure out of her that echoed off of the cave walls and intermingled with his moans and snarls.
Sara knew she wasn’t going to last much longer, and judging by the way Jaal’s cock had started twitching inside her as she squeezed around him with every thrust of his hips, he wasn’t going to last much longer either. His bioelectricity vibrated excitedly everywhere he was in contact with her skin, and he was so warm and this was too good and—
--and with a sharp cry, her orgasm crashed over her. Jaal followed right behind her with one last erratic thrust, emptying himself deep into her.
Sara collapsed forward, pulling Jaal down with her and letting out a satisfied hum when he made no move to get off of her. He only lifted his hips enough to withdraw from her.
“That was amazing,” Sara murmured as her breathing returned to normal.
Jaal chuckled and pressed a kiss to her shoulder. “If I had known sex was a more effective way to keep you warm, I would have convinced you to take off your armor much sooner.”
Sara laughed and nudged the hand still clutched in hers. “For the record, though, you make a much better blanket than any piece of fabric out there.”
Jaal smiled and his arms tightened fractionally. “I’ll remember that for next time, taoshay.”
Sara could only sigh contentedly. So long as the circumstances didn’t include becoming accidentally stranded again, she would welcome a “next time”.