Flight to Freedom
by Velvet

Flight to Freedom

I come awake to find my body quivering with need. Sly is at it again. Feathery touches of a raspy tongue along my inner thighs and hot breath on my lower parts bring an inner tension that is exquisite. "Good morning Sly."

His mental chuckle is echoed by my own as he moves to stand over me and we kiss each other. I feel a brief sadness as I remember we can never truly consumate our love for each other. Still, there have been men in my life since Sly and I met. The latest one, Robert, is off on an expedition of his own until we return. I smile gently to myself. I think I'll keep him. When this expedition is over, I will return to him and give him my answer. "You better. Shadow is tired of him not having company." I smile at Sly's observation. "True, dear one. And you couldn't intimidate him could you?' I giggle quietly as I remind him of the usual game he plays to test my human lovers. As I break down our camp, Sly goes to check the others. Oh, forgive me. Let me introduce myself and Sly. I'm Sarah. Human woman and telepath. Sly is a male Black Panther. He's telepathic as well. In addition, he's been my mate and lover for nearly 15 years. Together, 12 years ago, we becane Guides. Three years before that, we met and became mates and then lovers. The mindless routine of getting ready to leave gives me ample time for my memories.

Fifteen. Changes over, I was begining to fill out and become the young woman I was meant to be. Awkward, I knew I was somehow different from my friends. I shared their giggles as we discussed boys and men and wondered which ones we might decide to have sex with. I wasn't a virgin by then but the couple of times we had fumblingly lain with each other had left me frustrated and incomplete. Looking back in later years, I decided I had felt used. It had been sweaty and fun but not really done much for me. More years and I realized it had been our combined inexperience that had been the real problem. So, I was in a pensive and wistful mood when our school took a trip to a major zoo and I decided to go. Maybe I could settle myself by watching the animals there. As we entered, something was different. Always before, I had enjoyed wandering and admiring the animals around me. Today... I looked and saw the artificialness of the place and realized that no matter how we tried, what we gave them was never their true homes. On the surface, they looked content. For the first time, I realized that in placing our needs ahead of theirs - we had destroyed their lives. Knowing that almost all of them had been raised this way didn't help. Then too... I felt... drawn somewhere. Even more puzzling - I felt extremely lonely. The loneliness confused me. It felt 'wrong". I'd felt lonely. This was not a kind I had felt before. Wandering, I found my way to the feline compound. A young male panther was wandering aimlessly. Every movement told me he was lonely. I leaned on the rail and watched him for what seemed like hours. At last, he wandered in my direction and seemed to stare at me. Souls merged and I knew. He was lonely and had been waiting for me to come to him. Entranced and wanting to ease his pain - I somehow managed to get past the barricades and join him. That was how they found us. A young girl with her arms wrapped around one of the most 'fearsome' jungle predators and crying into his fur. Him with his head turned and licking her gently. We returned to find panic around us. Attendants worried for my safety because I was too close for them to risk tranking him. Plus, the other panthers had settled around us. No way for them to extricate me 'safely'

A soundless explosion and suddenly I could understand him. Haltingly, I tried to explain to people that I was in no danger from any of these 'animals'. Finally a man in the crowd stepped forward and spoke quietly to the officials. At his side was another panther. When people realized he was accompanied, they seemed to melt out of his path. "Sarah." His voice was gentle. "Come. It's time for you to leave here."

I shook my head at him. "Not without Sly. He doesn't belong here. He's lonely." I still had my arms wrapped around Sly as if I wouldn't let us be parted. That got a gasp from a few of my classmates and a genuine smile and soft laughter from my 'rescuer'. "Of course not." He absently reached to stroke his partner. "I felt the same way after linking with Whitetip."

His voice firmed. "Open the gate for them. I guarantee their and everyone elses safety."

I wondered at the unmistakable tone of command his voice carried. Then, as I studied him - I noticed the small logo on his shirt. Looking through narrowed eyes, I finally figured out what it was. A stick figure standing on a stylized hand. Stunned realization. He was a Guide. Memories of brief lessons in school. The expeditionary forces that opened new planets. Travel to the stars - not in the way I had dreamed of - as a crew member. As part of a team responsible for the safety of those around her. As a woman guaranteed the chance to walk on new worlds. "Sly? You're free. I'm free..."

I hugged him to me. "We're free..."

Tears streaming down my face and with a sleek panther at my side, I stepped through the unlocked and open gate before me. ---

A sudden yowl followed by a thud as a huge paw knocks a body against a 'tree' brings me back to the present. "Lazy cub." His mental comment is wry. I can't help but chuckle. One of his daughters and her partner are with us so they can train in the field. He's right though. She should have sensed the camp activities and been awake before Sly caught her napping. His discipline should be an effective reminder that it might not have been him to catch her. This is no time to be careless or lazy. As I settle my pack on my back, I use our combined senses to scan the area. Dangers but all are known and allowed for. A couple of larger animals nearby but if they start this way, we will have ample warning. The now thouroughly embarressed Singe and her partner are quietly helping people settle their packs. Sly, in his usual manner, is waking the late sleepers by pulling the stakes and letting the tents collapse and trap them. Sudden cries of alarm tell me of the confusion within. I share his mental grin. Last day planetside doesn't mean people can relax. Most of our supplies have been removed. Today, we will hike to our pickup point and just enjoy ourselves doing it. The experienced members grin at me and I smile back. One or two gently touch my arm in passing and smile sadly. Those, I pause to hug. They have been in service long enough to know I can't relax until shipboard. Today, the four of us will have to be especially alert. As I reach the head of the trail, the team commander, Stan, comes over and hugs and kisses me lightly. Then he uses a roughened finger to trace the barely visible scar on my arm. "Better a bruised side than that. Right Sarah?"

I nod while watching Sly leave on his morning sweep. Sighing, I slowly make my own search of the camp. "Eight years ago Stan. I still don't feel I've thanked you enough for that day. "If not for you and Sly..." I let my voice trail off and I shrug slightly. He nods in return. "You're still alive. That's thanks enough. "Plus, you haven't lost a team member since. "I hope Singe and Tom never have to learn the way you and Sly did."

We touch palms and then smile sadly at each other. On mine a name is tattoed - 'Vickie'. On his are several names. One of them is 'Vickie'. There is a tradition among Guides. At first, I was against it. Now, I understand it and accept it. If we lose team members while we are on escort, we have the names of those people tattoed on the palms of our hands. It serves to remind us that we failed in our duty. That we held their lives in our hands and by our actions, *they* paid for our mistakes. That Stan and I have so few is more to luck than anything else. If not for his skill with a handgun and Sly's deadly full charge... My name would be on his palm as well. "Stan? About an hour before we leave here you think?"

He looks at the organized confusion and gazes off in thought. Without looking at me, he sighs... "That bad Sarah? I'll give you whatever time you need. The others will let the new people know the reason for the delay. It's time some of them realized the pressures you work under. "At least Whitetip died of old age on Earth. "I'll tell Tom and Singe they are to provide escort for the group when we start. The usual routine of not letting people wander."

Now he and I share sad smiles again. I nod. "I shouldn't need more than 30 minutes or so but thanks. It's my turn to gaze off unseeingly. "Roving patrol. Everywhere at once. Do you expect?... Oh. I see. Singe and Tom will still be distracted from this morning. "You don't want much from us do you?

"We haven't seen anything that those won't stop." I point at his hip and the pistols he wears. "Or these."

I touch mine. "Yet."

With that, I wander past startled people and settle quietly in the midst of the confusion. Several look at me and start to move to me but the older crew members stop them and begin to explain. I let the murmur of their quiet voices lull me as I rest my hands in my lap and turn them up so I can stare at them. Several people come over and lightly trace the name and then quietly join me. One man gently places his hand palm to palm with mine and then turns it over to show me. Startled, I look up into green eyes that mirror my pain. Then I nod and reach to hug him. He's not a Guide but he and Vickie had been planning to share lives for a while after we returned to Earth. "When?"

"When I knew you and Sly would be escorting us. I felt it was fitting."

Furry warmth settles behind me and gratefully I lean into Sly and we remember... ---

"One more week Sly. Then we get to relax on Earth for a few months."

This was the last planet in a three planet sweep. He and I were on our final training mission. We were in charge of the safety this time and had an experienced team along as backup in case we didn't know what to do. So far, there had been only the minor injuries associated with exploring a new world. We knew the dangerous lifeforms and had been able to avoid them or kill the beligerent ones before they got to anybody. A 'milk run' we had been told. Not without danger but nothing unknown and a good chance for us to be senior escorts and get field experience. The next trip would be for real with us as the senior Guides. Several who had started training with us were gone. In a couple of cases, they had been killed in the field. One in an accident on Earth. The rest of us had survived. Some bore scars from close brushes with death. So far, I was unmarked. No names on *my* palms yet. Not many could lay claim to that after four years. I was quietly confident we would make it back with a full team this time. Stan and Whitetip were with us. Ten years since he first became a guide and only 4 names on his palms. I shivered as I remembered one of my instructors. Over 30 names had made ladders of remembered death from his palms partway up his arms. He'd retired from active service to teaching after his last team had been almost completely wiped out in a stampede he and his partner had caused. Worse, it had been while they were making final shakedown preparations on Earth. Range cattle of all things... "They paid the ultimate price for my single mistake." Was all he said when asked the reasons for changing to teaching. "I wanted to quit being a Guide but I was persuaded that I could better repay them by being an example for you people."

We had watched him gather himself as his tears flowed and his voice shook. His hands were trembling when he finally spoke again. "After that, I couldn't trust myself in the field. I'm not ready to go back and let people trust me with their lives again. So, I now try to make sure any mistakes *you* make won't be as costly as mine was."

A sudden scream of pain and confused shouting mixed with the sizzle of displaced air as lasers are fired brings me back to full awareness of my surroundings. A woman has been downed by one of the native predators. Lasers are puttting holes in it but it seems to shrug that off as it tears at her. Not even thinking about using my own laser, I run and grab at it and try to pull it off of her. As my grip firms, I feel us tumble as Sly hits us both from the side. Luckily, his head only grazes me. He has hit at full run and driven into us and is now ripping at the animal he had stunned. The next thing I hear is a terrible 'crack!' and something sears through and along my arm as we tumble. I feel the predator spasm and then fall limp. Sly, once assured that it is dead, turns and drags the body off of me. Covered in its blood and dripping my own, I faint as the agony overwhelms me at last. I wake to darkness and silence. Furry warmth along my side tells me I am not alone. Dopey from the painkillers, I use my undamaged arm to reach and touch Sly. "The woman?"

Sly's mental touch is filled with sorrow. "It was Vickie. She was dead before either of us got there."

I wince and then sob quietly. We had talked one night. She had glowed as she talked of finally retiring and settling on Earth. Her companion was along with her this time. They had grown up together in the expeditionary service. "Anyone else?"

"No. Several minor injuries but nothing serious. Sly's next comment brings me alert. "We owe our lives to Stan you know. The lasers weren't affecting it. Just irritaing it further. "It was the burst blood vessels and burst 'heart' from the shock caused by the impact of Stan's bullet that killed it."

I look at the bandages swathing my arm. "Then how come I'm still alive?"

I shiver as I finally realize how close death had been. I can still feel her icy fingers on my soul. "Depends on who you ask."

I jerk around and look at the speaker. There, in the shadows, is Stan. "Myself, I think the bullet hit it first and was slowed enough before it hit you. "Some say it's because it didn't hit a major blood vessel or bone. "A few just shrug and say it wasn't time for you to die yet. "One good thing about it is that the med team has been carving it up to figure out how come the lasers didn't affect it. Not only that, the bio types finally had a dream come true and they could test for compatibility. "I know this sounds cold-blooded but - It had a good portion of Vickie already consumed before you and Sly tore it off of her. "The analysis showed that not only can it eat us safely, we can eat it. We inadvertantly discovered an excellent source of protein for the colonists. "There's already talk of trying to farm them somehow. It would be a good export item."

I look at him in shock. "You are right. That is the most cold-blooded... "Oh."

Suddenly I am reminded of something mentioned in passing in classroom training. I look at Stan and start crying. "She would be proud to know her death has added significantly to the chances of this colony and possibly others surviving." His voice is gentle. "Nathan is the one who did the analysis. He was... 'direct' in his methods. We sedated him just a few minutes ago."

I nod and then gaze upwards as if I can see the stars. "An accident and my fault but... 'When someone dies, make it mean something. Don't let it stop you from going on.' "

I look at my bandaged arm. "Are you taking over?"

"Nope."

I stare at him suspiciously and get rewarded with genuine laughter. "All of us voted. We wait until you are ready to lead us out of here. The final vote was unanimous. " *We* trust you. Even if you don't trust yourself yet. "Nathan even took time out to present the case in favor of letting you finish the job. We had trouble understanding the words at times because of his tears - but - the meaning was quite clear. "We all got careless. Thanks to you and Sly, we only lost one person. We could have lost more if the two of you hadn't slowed it down. "Part of his studies showed that it was dying from Sly's actions but it could have broken free and injured or killed more of us before it collapsed. "It was very tough and very efficient."

He holds up one of his pistols. "That's the reason I carry these. They have a knock-down capability lasers will never have."

Even in the dim light I can see him wince slightly as he reholsters the handgun. "Your hand. Let me see it." It isn't quite a command and it has a slight questioning tone to it. He holds it up with his palm facing me. I nod. "Who?" I can see it is still pink but the name Vickie is on it now. "Myself."

Seeing her name in the dim light brings it all home again. I lay there and gaze at his hand while he waits patiently. Finally, I nod and he lowers it to his lap. Finally I whisper - "Now. "Do it while my hand and mind are still numbed."

I can see the question in his eyes. Being who he is, he doesn't ask it. Stan knows my aversion to the tradition. At long last he gets up and goes to get what he needs. There, in the dim light he gives me the reminder I will carry for the rest of my life. When he finishes, he hugs me. "Get some sleep Sarah. We have people on alert and Whitetip and I will be making sweeps throughout the night. "Remember... She and I walked past that spot before you did."

Wonderingly, I finally realize his face is as tear-streaked as mine is. "Stan, since I am the escort commander - you know I'm the one who will be held responsible."

I sigh. "I should have spotted it. Been backup to cover your mistakes as you are here to cover mine. Instead, I let my mind wander. Acted as if we were already at the pickup point. "It's not a mistake I want to make again."

I look at his slumped shoulders. "You've been active since it happened haven't you?"

He nods wearily. "Couldn't sleep."

I gaze at him. After knowing him for seven years - I understand his simple words. "You go get some sleep before I order *you* sedated for the rest of the night." That gets a me slight smile. "Put Tip and Sly on close in patrol and let the sentries know. "I have my com and I'll be awake for a while yet in spite of the painkillers. "Not a word. You decided to leave me in charge."

I finally smile weakly. "We leave as soon as you and I are both rested. Let the others know. "We aren't going to let this slow us down any more than it already has. "Vickie wouldn't have us do anything else."

I gaze unseeingly at him. Then I sigh. "You know the routine better than I do. Until now, I knew it as theory. "Tell them to grieve now if they need to. Because in about 12 hours, we all go back to work. When we hit ship - then I'll let myself grieve. "Go. Take Sly with you. I need to start building the walls."

I never notice the three of then leave.

I return to my present to find people in various poses of waiting. As Sly and I stand and stretch the kinks out, we both check the area. I smile slightly and point to a nearby tree. "Someone forgot some tent stakes. And a rope in the branch of that other tree over there." I point at it. Once the embarressed ones recover their property, I look at Tom and Singe. "Ready?" They look at each other and then Tom turns and nods. I look at Stan and he smiles and nods back. I have a real grin on my face as I turn back to the rest of the team. "Enjoy yourselves people." I bring my cupped hands together in front of me. "We'll be watching."

With that, Sly and I melt into the surrounding forest.