Authors: Linda Mooney
Tags: #sci-fi, #aliens, #alternate worlds, #action, #adventure, #sensuous, #science fiction, #space opera, #romance
Gaveer answered. “I thought we were going to return to the first inner chamber where we found the pile of bones.”
“That’s what I understood,” Jules corroborated. “Clean out that nest of eye worms once and for all, and see if we can’t make some sort of permanent headquarters out of it, right?”
Everyone looked over to where Dox was twirling a length of tubing between his fingers.
“What nonagon, Dox?” Mellori questioned.
“The chamber with the dead. It’s a nonagon. Center area for meetings. Living quarters around it.” He peered up at them. “Many nonagons down there.”
“And you know that how?” Gaveer asked.
Dox pointed to the wall. “Written down.”
“Dox, do you know how many nonagons are over there?”
“No.” The little man suddenly grinned. “Not yet.”
Mellori burst out laughing. “I have no doubt you’ll soon uncover every secret this planet has, Dox. Just don’t forget to let the rest of us know what you find out.”
Someone’s stomach rumbled loudly.
“I agree,” Kelen commented. “I’m hungry, too. Do we have any more of that green jellyfish left?”
Sandow pulled several strips from his pouch and passed them around. Kelen stared at the grayish piece she was handed, then noticed how Kyber broke his into two parts, tucking one into the small bag hanging from his belt.
“This is all that’s left, people,” the doctor informed them. “I strongly advise you don’t drink anything for at least half an hour after eating. That’ll give your stomach time to absorb the nutrients, and leave you feeling full for a longer period of time. Or at least until we find another food source.”
Fullgrath held his canteen upside down to show it was empty. “We also need to find a water source.”
“I need to pee,” Dayall loudly interrupted. “Are you going to force me to go here? Or can you at least untie me long enough to find a suitable place?”
Kelen glanced around the cavern. Unlike the small apartment-like room where she’d discovered the Neverwylde version of a toilet beneath the flooring, the ground here was packed dirt.
“We could make use of a corner in here,” Fullgrath suggested. “Cover it up with dirt when we’re finished.”
“Are you leaving the fire to burn itself out? Would that be wise?” Jules asked.
Sandow turned around. “He’s got a point. It would be better if we aimed into the pit and used our urine to help put out the fire.”
Kelen raised a hand. “Great, but I’m not going to risk singeing my tush. I’ll use the corner, thank you. I’ll take my turn after the rest of you are done.”
Kelen exited into the corridor as the men and Seneecians relieved themselves. When Dayall joined her in the hallway, she noticed his hands were left untied, but Mellori remained on his heels. The engineer caught her raised eyebrows.
“He’s too much a burden if he’s bound,” the man told her.
Gaveer came up behind the men, a makeshift torch in his hand. The Seneecian gave a little growl and prodded the Terran commander. “If you try to run, you’d better be faster than us.”
Kelen got the impression Dayall wasn’t going to risk having his arms retied behind his back by doing something stupid like running away. Besides, there were too many dangerous entities out there, and the ex-commander had no weapons other than rocks to protect himself if he got accosted by one of those creatures.
Once all of the men had gathered, she went inside to do her business and rejoined them. A quick glance around told her the count was off.
“He went ahead to see if the entrance to the vast cavern was clear,” Kyber answered. Without further explanation, the Seneecian took the lead. Kelen helped Dox collect his gear and followed with Fullgrath and Tojun watching their backs. The other two Seneecians also carried crude torches—bowl-shaped stones that contained several burning rocks.
When they reached the doorway, the Seneecian with the black and brown fur wasn’t there. Kyber slipped through the opening, then returned a few moments later. In that brief amount of time, his own jet black pelt was covered in water droplets that glittered in the torchlight.
“He’s at the entrance to the apartment tunnels. He’ll watch from there to see if that creature appears from the underground lake, and warn us if it does.”
They exited the corridor, emerging into the vast cave that held the two lakes. The sound of water falling from the upper one to the smaller one was thunderous. Kelen spotted the immense sail-like sheet that spanned the falls, and marveled at how well the material was constructed to continue to take that kind of pounding and still produce power through where it was attached to the two poles standing on opposite sides. The thought that this hydroelectric plant remained online for perhaps eons after this planet’s inhabitants had disappeared was a monument to its creators and builders.
Jules pointed to a figure standing atop a ledge. At this distance, the Seneecian appeared tiny. “There he is. He’s waving his arms. Is that to warn us?”
They all paused to watch. Presently, Massapa made a come forward gesture.
“It’s clear,” Kyber announced. “But we must hurry.”
The ground was mushy, the rocks slippery from the constant mist. Dayall lost his footing and landed heavily on his knees, but pushed away their offers to help him back onto his feet. At one point, Kelen nearly skidded along the narrow trail, but a strong hand grabbed the back of her shirt, preventing her from falling. She gave Sandow a grateful smile and kept going.
When they reached the tower-like pole on this side of the lake, Kyber stopped and declared a brief rest, for which she was grateful. It was Jules who voiced what she’d been thinking as they climbed.
“We’re heading upward. I never realized this was on a grade.”
“It’s not so steep as to be noticeable,” Mellori, the ex-engineer, noted. “But your calves will not thank you afterwards.”
Gaveer pressed water from his pelt, then shook himself. “I’ll be glad when we reach drier quarters.”
The others agreed. “We don’t have much further to go,” Kyber promised. “Come. We need to push on.”
Getting to her feet, Kelen glanced around. Their numbers were short, and a coldness penetrated her chest.
“Guys, where’s Dox?”
The rest checked the area, but the little man was nowhere to be seen. They spread out, but not too far. Moving closer to the drop-off, Kelen cupped her hands around her mouth and called out. “Dox! Where are y—”
Unexpectedly, a fur-covered hand clapped over her mouth. At the same time, Kyber hissed in her ear.
“There. By the pole.”
Everyone froze in place. Several yards down the embankment, where the huge tower was located, they could see the tiny figure moving about the structure. Judging by Dox’s size against the pole, they could estimate how large the generator was.
Kelen squinted. “What’s he doing?”
She felt Kyber moving away, tugging on her shoulder and urging her to back up.
“No sound. No one call out,” the Seneecian ordered in a low voice.
Kelen sensed his dread the same time the gargantuan figure rose from the depths of the lake and turned in their direction.
“Nobody move!” Sandow whispered, barely loud enough to be heard.
Kelen rolled her eyes up over at where Kyber stood beside her. The others remained frozen like statues as the lake creature wove its massive head from side to side. Water poured off its greenish, glistening skin in small torrents.
“Kyber?” She kept her voice low as she watched the thing ponderously move through the deep lake, sending waves splashing up and over the rocky ledges as it paddled closer toward them. Having the Seneecian protecting her was comforting. She knew he would give his life to save hers, but her fear now was for the odd little man a hundred yards away who was single-mindedly working on whatever the hell it was that had his undivided attention. “Kyber, Dox doesn’t see—”
“I know,” he murmured.
The creature undulated closer to the towers and the huge sheet-like net that was stretched across the lip of the falls. From the depths of its long, serpentine throat came a sound that was part scream, part scraping noise that dragged through Kelen’s brain like a magnet in an electrical field. She winced from the pain, clenching her pants in her fists to keep from clutching her ears and falling to the ground. Behind her, she felt Kyber shudder at the sound, but he remained unmoving, as impossible as it almost was.
At the tower’s base, they saw Dox finally realize the danger he was in as the monster drew closer. The figure stilled.
“We can’t let it get to him,” she insisted in a soft voice. “We have to do something! Distract it! Something!”
She was on the verge of leaping forward to wave her arms and yell at the thing, when Dox’s figure disappeared. Literally disappeared. She gasped. The little man hadn’t moved, yet he was gone. Kelen blinked to clear her vision and stared at the tower, hoping to see him peering around the base, or maybe from a hidden door they hadn’t noticed.
“There’s another one,” Gaveer hissed.
Her heart leaped into her throat as a second creature, the same species as the first one, lifted its long neck into the air. But unlike the first monster, it was in the lower lake, on the other side of the grid net.
The two behemoths roared at each other, jabbing with their open maws, but never breaching the net. Never crossing over or beneath it.
“It’s like they’ve learned not to touch it,” Fullgrath murmured.
“Bet it packs one hell of a wallop,” Dayall dryly surmised.
Jules snorted. “I wonder if the beings who built that thing knew they were separating the two.”
“Lower your voices,” Sandow instructed tersely. “Let’s hope we remain as invisible as Dox to them.”
Minutes passed. The two monsters eventually stopped their posturing and slid back under the waters. Kelen felt her muscles melt as the things and the danger vanished.
Fullgrath motioned to the area where they knew the corridors leading to the apartments were located. “We have to keep moving. Those creatures could resurface at any time.”
“Not without Dox,” Kelen argued.
“Don’t worry about Dox,” Jules advised. “I’m sure he’ll catch up with us eventually.”
She glanced over at Mellori, who nodded in agreement. The engineer had worked closely with the genetically modified man. The crew members often teased Mellori, claiming the man had adopted Dox, and often referred to the pair as father and son. Fortunately, Mellori didn’t mind their comments, and Dox was known to be fond of the older man. If anyone knew Dox, it was Mellori.
Nodding her acquiescence, Kelen regathered Dox’s materials and fell in line behind Jules. Again, Kyber took the lead. Once they reached the upper ledges, the going became less strenuous.
Presently, they paused in front of a doorway she didn’t recognize. She gave Kyber a questioning look but he was following Massapa, who was waiting for them at the entrance. The Seneecian opened the mud-splattered wooden door and they filed inside. Once they were all within the narrow corridor, they slumped to the floor to rest. Mellori remained by the partly-opened doorway to keep an eye out for their errant crew member.
“Terran doctor, please explain how you knew movement would give away our presence to the lake monster,” Gaveer asked.
Sandow scratched his head. “It wasn’t so much as knowing as it was an educated guess.”
“A guess?” Jules inquired with a touch of awe.
“Based on rudimentary biology,” Sandow added. “Yes, I know those things out there are nothing like what we’ve ever encountered before, but you have to admit we all wouldn’t have been able to find shelter in time before one or more of us became that thing’s breakfast.”
“Go on, doctor,” Kelen urged.
“I’ve been studying the creatures we’ve met so far, and I think I’ve figured out a few things. Of course, I could be completely wrong on all counts, but did you notice the placement of the lake monster’s eyes?”
“It had eyes?” Fullgrath inquired.
Sandow grinned. “Exactly. Yes, it had eyes. Six of them, but they were very small and located in a semicircle around the top of the head. That made me think that eyesight is secondary to the creature. It can’t pinpoint its prey directly, but uses general movement to detect where its prey may be.”
“Like it’s nearsighted,” Kelen commented.
“Yes. Like it’s very nearsighted.”
“You also made it clear we needed to be as quiet as possible,” Kyber reminded him. “Are you thinking the monster has keener hearing?”
“That I cannot be certain of. But if its eyesight is secondary, it’s very possible its hearing is its strongest sense. I felt it would be in our favor if we went with all options to protect ourselves, until we can glean a better understanding about what’s on this planet and how they survive. Personally, I think hearing is major with them. I’m also leaning toward smell as their second best, and movement third. Maybe radar. Vibrations. Hell, even heat.” The man shrugged. “Sorry I can’t be more specific at the moment.”
“But it’s a start.” Kelen flashed him a grateful smile. “Thanks, Doc. You saved our butts this time around.”
A rattling outside the door threw them back into defensive mode, until a familiar redheaded figure filled the crack in the opening. Mellori softly growled and reached out to pull the little man inside, closing the entrance behind him.