Authors: Linda Mooney
Tags: #sci-fi, #aliens, #alternate worlds, #action, #adventure, #sensuous, #science fiction, #space opera, #romance
Everyone froze in place, watching the young navigator, who pointed to one of the nearby towering walls. He didn’t have to explain his cautious tone of voice. The damage done at waist-level to the carved glyphs spoke for him.
Massapa, being the closest to the mutilation, went over and touched the marks. “It feels fresh.”
“It looks like the same kind of hole in the apartments,” Jules observed.
“We can’t be sure,” Kyber told him.
“Well, one thing’s for certain,” Fullgrath interjected. “
don’t remember seeing those holes when we came through here the other day.”
Gaveer stared at him. “You cannot be certain. Our circumstances were different then. Our attention was on finding a route out of the temple.”
Fullgrath faced him. “I think I would have remembered seeing those holes.”
Kyber saw the two men were on the verge of becoming riled. An altercation was not something they needed. He stepped between them.
“If you wish to make this a physical debate, wait until we return to the apartments,” he told them in a dark voice. Grabbing Gaveer by one of his shoulders straps, he gave the Seneecian a shake. “Lead us on.”
Gaveer gave him a caustic glare. After another glance at Fullgrath, he set off through the narrow corridors toward the entrance to the temple.
“Whoa. Wait up.” Fullgrath trotted up to the brown-furred alien. Pulling the extra tube weapon from his pocket, he handed it over. At Gaveer’s surprised look, he shrugged. “In case we meet a wall of those nasty eye worms, you’re going to need more than two fistfuls of claws to fight them off.” Without waiting for Gaveer to respond, Fullgrath pushed ahead, reestablishing point.
As they had in the narrow corridor leading from the nonagon to the forest, they moved in single file. Their footsteps were almost inaudible on the stone floor as they advanced. When they reached the outer temple, they stopped in surprise.
“What happened here?” Jules half-whispered.
Kyber bent down to examine the smears. The dead eye worms were gone. And so were—
“Where the hell are our weapons?” Fullgrath bellowed.
A bright green beam erupted behind him, catching him in the back. Fullgrath grunted and fell forward. Mellori leaped toward him when a second beam belched from a different location. It barely missed the engineer, hitting the floor and making the rock explode.
Kyber recognized the undeniable sound of a Seneecian blaster. The green light verified it. Beside him, he saw Mellori pull out his tube weapon. Kyber hastily motioned for him to put it away. “It only works at close range,” he reminded the man in a low voice. “Tell the others to keep them concealed until we know for sure what we’re up against.”
The click of a blaster echoed in the room. Kyber stepped forward. “Hold!” he yelled in his language. “Hold and announce yourself!”
The barrage ceased. The air settled and grew quiet.
Several meters away, a deep voice spoke up.
“I am D’har Plat audo Reen. Who are you who speaks the gods’ tongue?”
Kyber’s mind reeled. Massapa moved up behind, his face mirroring the shock Kyber felt. After motioning for the Seneecian to tend to the wounded Terran lying on the ground, Kyber turned toward the voice.
“I am Por D’har Kyber Nau, of the Seneecian warship
A familiar chuckle answered him, and a familiar figure limped into view from out of the shadows.
“It’s good to know you survived, Por D’har,” the white-furred alien grinned. Immediately, he dropped the smile and pointed his blaster again at Fullgrath.
Kyber reacted without thinking. Launching himself at Fullgrath, he slammed into the big man, shoving him out of harm’s way. But at the same time it placed him between the blaster’s beam and the Terran. The green proton ray hit him in the back of the shoulder, burning through fur, skin, and muscle. Roaring from the pain, he collapsed on his side.
I said cease fire!
Massapa and Mellori went immediately to his aid. As the stench of burnt hair and flesh filled his nose, Kyber glared at the D’har with undisguised irritation.
D’har Plat stared wide-eyed at the human helping Kyber to his feet, then shot a look of disbelief at his second. “What is the meaning of this? Why are you protecting these skints?” He raised his blaster again, aiming it at Mellori, who had pointed their one remaining weapon at the aliens, but this time Kyber was close enough to slap the Seneecian’s hand away. The D’har narrowed his eyes, lifting his lips to reveal his long teeth in an angry growl.
“Things have changed, D’har,” Kyber told him, using the Terran language so everyone understood. “We’ve called a truce on this world. A truce I hope you’ll honor.” He’d started to say, “a truce I
you to honor”, but at the last second changed his wording. The past two years working under the D’har had proven one doesn’t demand anything of the Seneecian. It was best to remain somewhat obeisant.
He glanced over the Seneecian’s shoulder. “Who else is with you?”
The D’har lifted a hand in a familiar signal. Two figures slowly advanced from the shadows where they’d all been hiding. The two crew members paused beside their D’har and made homage to Kyber.
Kyber nodded, acknowledging them. “Kith Verin, Kith Kleesod. Praise the gods you survived.”
Survived, yes, but not without some injury. Blood splattered their uniforms. Reddish blood, not the dark ichor from the eye worms or other creatures. In addition to the D’har’s limp, Kleesod bore a long gash across his shoulder.
The D’har took a menacing step toward him. “Explain yourself. Why did you place yourself in front of my weapon to protect this filth?” The Seneecian refused to use Terranese. However, Kyber could be just as obstinate. This wasn’t the first time he and his D’har had butted heads, but this time he knew he couldn’t back down. He couldn’t allow the D’har to use rank to overturn him. Not now, and not ever again.
“The rules have changed,” Kyber responded, still using Terranese. “This planet is a Class H hostile environment. Initially, yes, we fought each other, but we soon realized we had no choice but to close ranks. By joining together, we’ve been able to remain alive.”
As he expected the D’har would do, the Seneecian snarled in disgust. “The crash must have addled your brains, Por D’har. However, your decisions are no longer valid. I hereby remove all command from you and assume the chair.” The D’har cast steely looks at Gaveer and Massapa, who automatically bowed their heads in deference. “Is that all of you?”
The temple grew quiet when no one answered. Not a good sign, especially when the D’har had asked a question. The only problem was, he hadn’t asked anyone directly. Kyber could sense his men waiting for him to reply, since he was technically their superior, even though they had voluntarily stripped themselves of rank and entitlement due to their present circumstances.
Not getting an answer, the D’har pointedly directed his attention to his second in command. “I repeat, is that all of you?”
“No, D’har. There are five others, Kith Tojun and four Terrans.”
“Where?” The Seneecian looked around. “Where are they? We arrived here two days ago, and we have scoured this structure without finding any further signs of life. Where is your base camp?”
“It’s subterranean,” Kyber informed him, and waved his hand in the direction of the maze. “There are several sub-structures below here, including a garden-like atmosphere with edible food and drinking water.”
The look of relief on the other two Seneecians’ faces made it evident they were low on supplies. Or, more likely, had been without for some time. Jules must have noticed their expressions as well, and walked over to them as he dug into his pockets.
Automatically, all three Seneecians aimed their blasters at them. Jules blanched and threw up his hands.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold up, guys. I just wanted to share.”
Reaching back into his pocket, he pulled out a handful of the blue fruit and held it out to them. The two crew members looked to the D’har for permission, who finally grunted his approval. Eagerly, the men snatched the fruit from Jules’ hand. Kyber noticed no one thanked the Terran for his gesture.
Pulling a few from his own pouch, he advanced toward the D’har and offered them, knowing the man would not accept anything from the Terran. The D’har gave a brief bob of his head and took the food.
After a few moments of eating, the Seneecian glanced around. “If your base camp is below ground level, why did you ascend and leave four members behind?”
Kyber bowed his head, partly to show obedience, but mostly to hide the fiery pain shooting through his neck and shoulder, all the way down his left arm to his hand and fingers. If there was anything to be thankful for, it was that the shot had hit him in the muscle, missing major arteries and bone. Plus, the blaster’s ray had cauterized the wound upon impact, keeping the blood loss to a minimum. Still, protocol demanded he not make a sound or in any way show he was hurting to the point where the D’har would demand he step down and allow another to take his place. Kyber knew that, at some point, perhaps soon, the others would have to choose sides. Which meant the other five Seneecian crew members would have to decide who to follow. Who to obey. Whose decisions to accept. If the D’har removed him from his ranking, it would be a temporary demotion. But if someone else was promoted to replace him, Kyber would lose any chance to overrule the D’har.
He flexed his fingers. They were responsive but numb.
“We were attacked by eye worms. During the battle, our weapons ran out of power, so we discarded them. But one of the Terrans has discovered a way to recharge the blasters. We came back up here to retrieve them.”
“We found several discarded weapons,” the D’har admitted.
Mellori stepped forward and held out a hand. “Let us have them.”
Kyber knew instantly what the Seneecian’s answer would be.
“No. They’re our property. Besides, do you think we’re fools to allow you to rearm yourselves?” For the first time, the D’har responded in Terranese to directly address the crewman.
Mellori’s face flushed, but his voice remained cool, his tone civil. “They’re empty. What difference would it make
Kyber could sense the commander weighing his options as the D’har remained silent, thinking. He was aware of the Seneecian studying his second, and possibly looking for any sign of weakness, which would give him a legitimate excuse to promote someone else in his place. Pulling himself together as much as he could, Kyber looked up to meet the Seneecian’s glower with his own.
The commander readdressed Kyber, but in Terranese. “If, as you claim, there is a truce between you, then you won’t object to me taking your functioning weapon. I detest having it waved in my face.”
Behind him, Kyber could sense the others silently objecting. However, the D’har’s comment was not meant to be a suggestion. It was a thinly veiled order.
“Mellori, please hand over the blaster,” Kyber instructed.
The man hesitated for a few seconds, then reluctantly gave it to Verin.
“Where is the route that will take us to these subterranean structures where your base camp is located?” his superior finally inquired, still avoiding answering Mellori’s remark. “Take me to them.”
Kyber turned around and began walking toward the maze. He saw the worried looks that flashed across the Terrans’ faces but said nothing. A new battle was gathering, like a storm cloud sitting on the horizon. Soon, he knew the D’har would challenge him, or he would have no choice but to challenge his superior. It was inevitable. The man would want to reassert his dominance once they reached the apartments, and Kyber could not allow Plat to remain in charge.
He swallowed hard. He couldn’t allow himself to think of what could happen if the D’har took control of their present situation. Or what the Seneecian would decide to do when he discovered there was one lone female in the group.
I will make our Confirmation when we return, Kelen. You have my word…because I must.
Kelen fingered the shred of clothing. Peering closely, she observed the texture. “Mmm. Fibers. This material was woven.”
“Kelen?” Someone thumped on the outer door.
Getting to her feet, she walked over and swiped the glyph next to the opening. The portal dropped into the floor, and Sandow stepped inside. He glanced around the room.
“When you didn’t answer at your apartment, I knew you couldn’t have gone far. I really didn’t expect to find you here but I thought I’d try.”
She checked the area behind him. “Where’s Dayall?”
“Asleep. I’m getting weary of hearing him rant and rave, and decided to take a break.”
“If he’s asleep, how are you going to get back into the room?”
“Ah!” Sandow grinned. “Doors can’t close if there’s something keeping them from shutting all the way.” He waved a hand at the pile of carcasses. “Rather gruesome place to retreat. Is there a reason why you’re here?”
“Yeah. I’m examining the clothing these people wore.” Grinning, she lifted the ragged sleeve of her shirt. “These uniforms are getting to the point where they’re going to disintegrate. They weren’t formed to last for days on end.”
The physician looked down at his own pants and shirt and sighed. “You’re right. So, have you found out anything?”
“I think I have, and I’m also working on a theory here.”
“Oooh, science in action. Do share.”
She returned to where she’d been examining the skeletons, which had been piled in neat rows. The ones which had been disturbed had been returned to their places. The only ones she tried to avoid were the bodies with the small children. They simply were too heartbreaking for her to be around.