Authors: Linda Mooney
Tags: #sci-fi, #aliens, #alternate worlds, #action, #adventure, #sensuous, #science fiction, #space opera, #romance
Jules shook his head. “No. Nothing.”
“Were any other doors affected?” Kyber asked.
A quick check found no scratches on any of the other portals.
“Well, whatever it was, they’re not here now.” Mellori pointedly studied all three entrances to the nonagon. “Which begs the question, where did they go?”
“I’d like to know what they were looking for, and why did they leave?” Gaveer muttered.
“I have another question,” Kelen interjected. “Will they be back?”
“Mellori, how many of those tube weapons did Dox make?” Kyber confirmed.
“Four, fully-charged and all in perfect working order.”
“They have been tested?”
“No, but knowing how thorough Dox is, it’s a safe assumption.”
“What are you thinking?” Massapa asked.
Kelen saw Kyber give her a guarded look before he countered. “If we retrieved our discarded weapons from the temple and gardens, is Dox confident he can rearm them?”
“He believes he can.”
“Kyber, you’re not thinking what I think you’re thinking…are you?”
He gave her another one of those unreadable looks, but it spoke volumes to her.
“You want to go topside to get those weapons?”
“We need the armory,” Gaveer acknowledged. “If we leave now—”
“No!” Kelen interrupted. She grabbed Mellori’s arm. “Maybe Dox can come up with more weapons, so we don’t have to return to the surface.”
“He’s working on a new scanner for Doc,” Mellori told her. “And you know Dox. He won’t put it aside to work on something else. He’s not primed that way. He’ll stick with the scanner until he either finishes it, or he runs out of materials or options that’ll force him to abandon the project.” The engineer nodded at Kyber. “I think you’re right. We need those other weapons. Those tube thingies aren’t going to be enough if we get attacked by another one of this planet’s creatures. Especially if it’s one of those giant ones.”
“Kyber, if we’re going to do this, we need to leave now,” Massapa suggested.
Kyber nodded, then turned to Kelen. “But not all of us.”
She immediately knew what he was going to say next, and felt her face grow red with indignation. “Oh,
no if you think you’re leaving any of us behind!”
Surprisingly, Fullgrath came to the Seneecian’s defense. “Taking all of us topside is a ridiculous notion. Some of us need to stay here.”
“Well, for one thing, we don’t need to be hauling the commander around like a piece of luggage.” Sandow had emerged from the apartment he was sharing with the man and joined them. “I agree with Kyber. Dayall has no business going with you. He’s mentally unbalanced and therefore, a liability. And Dox should also stay here. He needs to work on that scanner. If we’re to survive on this world, I need to test everything, to know if it’s either safe or dangerous.” He waved at the tube weapons Mellori held out. “Those will at least provide you with some protection.”
Tojun stepped forward. “I, too, am a liability until I can regain full function of this arm. I will stay behind to help guard the others.”
“We know where we’re going. We can move fast,” Jules added.
“Where does this leave me?” Kelen patted her chest. “Give me a tube shooter. Hell, give me a rock! I can pull my own weight.”
“No.” Kyber placed himself in front of her. He was a wall of furred muscle that seemed impenetrable. Staring into his face, she could see defiance all but written on his features. But in the green depths of his eyes, she saw fear. The need to protect her, even if it meant abandoning her, albeit temporarily, cast shadows across his countenance. She could almost hear his silent request that she relent and allow him to proceed without her.
Mentally, Kelen backed off, finally understanding his reasoning. Without her traveling with them, he wouldn’t have to worry about watching her back. Plus, she wasn’t the only one being left behind. Along with Dox, Sandow, and Tojun, they should be relatively safe. At the very least, they could retreat into the apartments if anything threatened them.
Kelen gave him an angry scowl but before she could say anything, he made a comment that totally threw her for a loop.
“Our most vulnerable crew member is Dox,” Kyber stated. “Your physician has his hands full watching your commander, and Tojun is not in full health. You’re quick, you’re smart, and you’re resourceful. You are the most capable person to remain in charge while we’re gone.”
She sensed he was reticent about leaving her behind, while at the same time determined it was the best decision to keep her out of harm’s way. Still frowning, Kelen took a step back.
“All right, but I’m filing a formal protest.”
His relief was evident. Addressing the others, Kyber announced, “Take whatever food and water you can carry. Time is of the essence, so we’ll eat along the way. Our main goal is to retrieve our weapons and be back before whatever came here last night returns.”
“Would you rather we leave the remaining blaster with them?” Massapa asked Kyber.
“No, take it with you,” Kelen suggested. “If push comes to shove down here, we’ll retreat to our rooms until the cost is clear…or Dox comes up with something else to fend off the nasties.”
The Seneecian hurried into the apartment he had shared with Kelen, as the rest retreated to their own rooms to stock up. Kelen followed him and stood inside the doorway as he filled the small pouches hanging from his belt. When he was ready, Kyber strode back to the portal where she was waiting.
Long seconds passed as they stared into each other’s eyes. Quietly, Kyber held out his arms, and Kelen melted into his embrace.
“What if you don’t come back?” She fought her tears. The other men couldn’t see how upset she was over this separation. She already suspected they were aware of how she and Kyber felt about each other, but for now they needed to keep it a secret a bit longer.
He pressed his lips to the top of her head. “Be here for me when we return.”
“You’re damn right I will.”
“And I promise you, when we do, I will announce us.”
He lifted her chin to softly kiss her. He then released her and exited through the doorway.
Kelen joined Sandow in the atrium, where they watched the men disappear through the tunnel that led up to the gardens. Once all sight and sound of them was gone, Kelen sniffed and wiped her eyes with the back of her arm. The action juxtaposed to the knowledge that her uniform was rapidly disintegrating. Their clothing wasn’t as sturdy as the Seneecians’ uniform, and wasn’t meant to be worn continuously for several days straight. She fingered the paper thin material, recalling Kyber’s remark about fabric. Like Dox, she should make good use of this time to figure out a few things.
“Excuse me, Doc, but I think I’ll go lie down for a bit,” she muttered, and went back inside her apartment before the man could reply.
They pushed themselves up the steep incline which led to the gardens. Despite the urgency, they were forced to stop frequently to ease the burning in their calves and thighs. Their labored breathing echoed down the dark corridor.
“You know, I forget who said it, but I also believe there has to be an alternate route going up,” Jules huffed during one stop.
“The indigenous peoples were smaller. Lighter in weight. Maybe to them this was their main route,” Gaveer countered.
Fullgrath grunted. “Forget the alternate route. I’ve been thinking about that third tunnel.”
“You’re wondering where it leads, aren’t you? I think that thought’s crossed all of our minds at some point or another.” Mellori took a sip of his water and rubbed the back of his neck.
Gaveer pointed in the direction they were heading. “We don’t know how close we are, or how far we’ve traveled. For all we know, it could be nighttime, which is why we don’t see any light up ahead.”
“We haven’t had the chance to track this planet’s orbit,” Kyber remarked. “We don’t know how many hours are in a day.”
“Or if it has seasons. Or weather,” Jules added.
“If it’s all land, or has any bodies of water above ground.” Mellori straightened up. “It would be interesting to know if it has seas and oceans. Rivers. Hell, I’d be happy to see any kind of vegetation other than what’s in that overgrown arboretum.”
Kyber listened with half an ear. The sharp pain was becoming less tolerable. He resisted the impulse to put his hand over the wound in his hip as it would draw attention to it. The strain of walking uphill at the pace they’d set had caused the four-inch deep cut to reopen. Fortunately, it wasn’t bleeding heavily. He wished he had something to plug the hole, but he had nothing.
He paused. Unbuckling his belt, he slid it lower until it covered the cut, then cinched it tight. Hopefully the pressure would be enough to hold back the blood loss until he could find something.
“We need to go,” he told them. Groaning softly, they pushed on.
Hours later, Massapa voiced what they were noticing. “There is daylight ahead.”
When they reached the entrance to the gardens, Fullgrath moved ahead, keeping an eye open for the smoke monster they’d encountered the last time they were here. As the Terrans had the tube weapons, Kyber and the other Seneecians extended their claws and spread out behind them. They advanced slowly, their senses on high alert, but the immense gardens appeared to be empty, the large, open courtyard barren.
Gaveer dropped to his knees next to the crack in the floor to drink from the clear springs. The others joined him.
“Wonder why this stuff doesn’t stink like the other water we’ve encountered,” Jules asked.
Mellori splashed some onto his face. “I’m guessing there’s some sort of filtration system.”
Kyber agreed. “I found a bath in the apartment. The water in it has the same mineral quality as the pools below the lake, unlike the water that’s served along with the food.”
“What I wouldn’t give to have an internal probe scanner. I can only imagine the type of engineering behind those walls.” Mellori sighed wistfully.
Fullgrath stretched his legs in front of him where he sat. “I’d give my right ball to have a set of schematics. This place is fucking astonishing.” He addressed Kyber. “Do you think those little people made all this?”
“Over eons, it’s possible,” Kyber admitted. He looked up at the solar windows where sunlight poured into the gigantic arboretum. “Have any of us witnessed this planet’s full daily cycle?”
Massapa sipped another handful of water. “Are you thinking the planet’s rotation might be to where the night is unusually short?”
“There are areas on our world where the daylight hours extend for months,” Jules spoke up. “When it finally becomes night, it lasts for months at a time, too. Maybe this place is in that sort of geographical location on this world.”
Gaveer grunted. “If the nights are briefer than the days, it would explain why the outer surface is all desert. In order to survive, at some point the inhabitants either brought in their remaining plant life here, or they built this temple around what they could to preserve it.”
“If this side of the planet has more hours of constant daylight and heat, it would also explain why the inhabitants took to living underground where it’s cooler, and they could simulate day and night cycles,” Mellori concluded.
Fullgrath grunted. “We can’t rule out the possibility that whatever sliced away a goodly portion of this world could have had something to do with it. That kind of disaster would throw the planet into an irregular orbit, change the weather patterns. Hell, this planet may have sustained its own apocalypse.”
He glanced over at Mellori. Behind the Terran, he spotted Jules plucking bunches of the blue, edible food growing from the heavily-laden foliage.
“What do you think entered those apartments?”
Kyber shook his head. “I have no idea.”
“Could it be eye worms? To me, those are the only creatures we’ve encountered small enough to fit. I mean, everything else we’ve fought have been big suckers.”
Jules walked up and began parceling out what he’d gathered. Kyber bit into the tasteless fruit.
“Can’t be eye worms,” Massapa intervened.
Fullgrath looked at him. “Why not?”
The black-furred Seneecian with the brown streaks continued filling up his water bag. “I doubt eye worms would have tried to poke holes in the walls.” He looked up. “When those worms exploded from underneath the bone pile when we first discovered it, I thought they might be what disturbed the bodies, but not anymore.”
“He has a point,” Kyber said. “The scratches could have been made by them, but not the holes. If they were capable of punching holes, they would have done so the first time we retreated into the apartments. Remember how they tried to breach the outer doors and walls to reach us inside?” He slowly got to his feet. “We need to keep moving. After we retrieve our weapons, the way down will be faster.”
The others agreed, and stuffed the remainder of the fruit into pockets and pouches.
They found the stairs leading to the small opening and, beyond it, the temple at the planet’s surface. Fullgrath elected to go first and ducked through the doorway. After a moment, he stuck his head back in and motioned for them to come on. Kyber remained behind, watching the gardens in case something should try to attack their rear, before crawling through the portal.
At first glance, the maze-like passageway appeared no different from when they had been there. Not until Jules paused. “Hey, guys? Don’t move.”