Detachment 2551 : A Star Frontiers Adventure
The Final Chapters Freya stands at the center of a large, oval-shaped chamber. The walls curve upward into the ceiling, lending the room a very organic, spherical shape. Colorful panels are embedded in the walls on all sides. Between the panels he can see that the bulkhead is very spongy. Tiny orifices dot the surface of this tissue-like material. The Yazirian's fingers work quickly over his scanners as his eyes take in all the indecipherable alien characters flashing on the panels.
Dr. Leinso, standing nearby, eyes the entire complex with maddened fascination. "Will you just look at this? Incredible! Another civilization, another technology! And there's more!" He motions to a passageway that leads deeper into the ship.
(Freya special logic check)
Freya begins pressing the keys on the panels in quick succession. For every button he presses a strange alien glyph appears shimmering on one of the walls. Freya notes the response of the alien characters with careful deliberation. A trial-and-error experimentation ensues, moving more and more quickly until the Yazirian scientist watching him becomes disturbed at the speed at which Freya can manage this task. Soon Freya's hands are literally a blur. He begins moving from panel to panel, typing and observing, an hour slipping by. Bizarre sounds and beeps emanate from hidden places all over the room as he works. Thousands of iconographic images appear and reappear, all in some logical procession that perhaps only Freya understands.
(Freya INT check - fails)
Only barely does Freya notice that the walls lining the ship's interior begin to change color every so gradually over the course of his work. What begins as a sickly tumescent white begins to pinken, then blush, then color into a dark crimson.
Outside the craft, Ruby, Mrylinax, and Marcus sleep on bedrolls. They are laid out in one of the clear spots not marred by the rubble of the craft's violent wake through this massive cave, which must have occurred long, long ago. Ruby sits up suddenly, shaking feverishly. "No! No! We cannot let that happen!" Mrylinax growls softly, annoyed by the intrusion into his sleep. He opens one eye to see what the dral is up to, then is startled awake to see the tracker bracelet on his wrist light up with all five lights! Apparently the proximity alert keyed to the bounty hunter Berdax was going off like a five-alarm warning!
"Amazing" Freya mumbles, unaware he is even speaking out loud.
Leinso eyes him curiously. "What? What is it? I've been down here for weeks and haven't made sense of any of those strange symbols, even using the deciphering tools I have as an archaeologist." It is then that Leinso notices his deciphering unit clipped to Freya's belt, a patch-cord leading from it to somewhere under the Yazirian's shabby black cloak.
"Hey! What are you doing with that thing!? You don't even have a proper computer to link it to. And how did you access the symbols I programmed in! What's going on?!"
Leinso's bewilderment is short lived. Just as he moves to forcibly question Freya, a bright blue light erupts at the center of the room. Freya turns slowly, his eyes moving in cold and analytical movement towards the sight of the new manifestation.
"Observe." is all he says.
The blue light twitches and flashes. Eventually it coalesces into a more or less recognizable form. Four stalks radiate out from a central trunk, which rests atop an undulating and spongy mass. Atop the trunk a single stalk rises vertically, then bends to face the viewers with a single orifice that appears to be an eye. A high-pitched voice echoes throughout the chamber, firing off a rapid sequence of short phonemes. The sound is eerily similar to the vocalizations of the spider-shaped robot sentry found earlier at the temple site.
The speech continues for quite a while. Leinso stares dumbfounded. Freya stands motionless, the wheels in his head working overtime. His fingers press a sequence of buttons on a nearby panel and suddenly the room echoes with the strained sounds of mangled Pan-Gal.
"Ship's log, final entry. Commander Khun speaking. Greetings. If you are hearing this and can understand my voice, then what I have always feared is come to pass. As you are evolved enough to decipher this message, I must assume you will understand what is to follow.
"You are aboard our ship, the Chandrra. We are the Drennidians, an advanced race capable of interstellar travel. We come from a star system located far, far from here."
At this, the image of the creature dissolves to show a greenish planet. The planet can be seen to rotate about a nominal-sized sun. None of the surrounding stars appear to be familiar to Freya. The voice continues. Images appear throughout the room, holographic images of buildings, of creatures like that of the one called Khun working and playing, of things that may be art or meaningful icons.
"Long ago...how long I cannot say because I do not know when this will be found, but long ago we were a thriving people. Our civilization thrived and our technology grew. Before we knew it, we were travelling the stars. But, as you may be well aware, social science does not always match the developmental pace of hard science. Our evolutionary instincts for conquest and survival were still well-preserved in spite of our enlightened state."
Images appear of large machines moving over the planet's surface. Explosions and bright energy beams erupt, buildings seem to melt or disintegrate. Rows of the aliens are seen being marched at the point of other aliens' weapons.
"We were a people at war with ourselves, fighting for the right to conquer a universe we barely understood. We survived the wars, and persevered to pick up the pieces and grow as a civilization. Then it happened. Our scientists discovered the primary sub-quark material that could unleash untold power, far greater than that of our atomic age, which I assume you must have already experienced. It was termed the Arrkwythe particle and it proved to hold the powers of hell within it."
Images appear showing entire cities being erased, of immense towers of light firing off into space to destroy ships and pierce the surfaces of other planets.
"What terror we had unleashed we didn’t know at first. With impunity our nations waged war with these terrible weapons. And though they did great damage, we had proliferated beyond the ability to exterminate ourselves. Or so we thought."
Images appear of plants and animals dying. Vehicles pass by, carrying large loads of dead bodies resembling that of Khun’s.
"Somehow we had angered the very firmament of our existence. What began as a weapon of observable destructive capability soon began to affect the fiber of our ecosystem. All life on our planet began to die. We worked hard to find out the cause, but to no avail. The momentum of death soon became so great that only a handful of us were left alive."
An image appears of an enormous space craft in orbit about the green planet. Drennidians can be seen entering the craft, pushing large carts loaded with bright red containers of Arrkwythe material.
"Our ruling council decided that the only hope for our people was to rid the planet of the very element that we suspected was causing this cancer. A brave contingent volunteered to board the largest ship ever built and carry the material far away. I am Khun, commander of the Chandrra, the ship slated to that very task."
The Chandrra can be seen blasting off into space. A shimmer of light suggests it uses a drive similar to a Void Jump Drive.
“Our mission was a grim one. None of us expected to survive the trip, and the hope we had of saving our people was a slim one at best. Above all, we were ashamed as a species – we had conquered the stars but as custodians of technology we had unleashed a terrible force. We had to dispose of the material so that no other race would discover it and be tempted to use it. Early plans to launch it into a star were scrapped, as every system we entered showed signs of primitive life forms evolving and we knew the material would alter the state of whatever star we sent it to.”
The Chandrra can be seen entering one solar system after another. At last it appears outside one system that registers a reaction from Freya.
“Scree Fron. They came here. But why did they choose to stay?”
An asteroid can be seen drifting dangerously close to the ship. Then another, and another. An explosion erupts from one of the ship’s engines.
Khun’s voice continues, “It was here that our ship experienced crippling damage. Our crew by this time was so weakened by the presence of the Arrkwythe that the accident was inevitable. Before we knew what was happening we were caught up in the gravitational pull of this small moon. We did our best to set the ship down carefully, but we ended up burying our ship deep within the moon’s surface.”
The Chandrra plummets from the sky of moon ‘G’ in a streak of orange and yellow light. It’s impact on the surface sends up huge clouds of dirt and debris. The smoking crater that is left behind resembles the huge black spot Freya remembers seeing on the map that is several kilometers southwest of their current location. The image appears larger and larger until the view of the hologram travels down the tunnel created by the ship’s wake. Finally the ship is seen in its present location, lodged within the massive cave outside. Drennidians can be seen stumbling from the wreckage.
“With great despair we resolved to make the best as castaways in this new home. But we knew our top priority would be to somehow hide the material so that it would never be found.”
Drennidians busy themselves with burying the material. Before long, primitive bipedal figures appear that have four arms and a single eye. They approach the marooned Drennidians curiously, brandishing clubs and rocks.
“It wasn’t long before we met the indigenous population, a race we fondly named the Quatros for their four arms. They were a primitive race and completely void of any intelligence beyond animal level. Our scientists established a friendly relationship with them and soon they became our loyal allies.”
“Work was well under way to seal the Arrkwythe pods forever when we realized to our horror that we ourselves were now dying. Our time was almost up, our mission failed. We looked with pity at our new friends and struggled with the idea we may well have doomed their evolution by saddling them with this cursed material. Assessment of the planet’s ecosystem also showed a negative development arc. This planet, too, seemed to be dying.”
“After long deliberation our scientists decided to leave a final legacy. To atone for our sins we decided to give this planet a helpful ‘push’ in the right direction for the sake of its native life forms. Before our asteroid collision, our scanners had picked up an enormous ice asteroid located in this system’s oort belt. Our calculations showed that this planet could be shaped into a lush and healthy ecosystem if enough moisture could be introduced. The only problem was that the existing life was not capable of surviving such a drastic shift in their ecosystem. Our solution…”
Freya and Leinso are torn from the hologram’s story as the entire ship rocks and a loud explosion is heard outside.
“What the hell?” the professor mutters, moving towards the ship’s main entrance.
Freya taps another button, then detaches his patch cord and produces his weapon. “Professor, does this cavern have a history of instability?”
“Well, it’s been compromised by the Drennidian ship’s crash, but that was so long ago…”
Mrylinax leaps up, grabbing his rifle and satchel. He peers over the rock wall encircling the area he and his friends have chosen as a bivouac area. His Humma eyes scan the darkness of the immense cave looking for signs of movement among the scattered rocks and stalagmites that litter the cave floor. “Up and ready, you dogs!” he shouts over one shoulder. “The bill’s come due and we’re a few bucks short!!!”
Marcus sits up, drawing his own rifle. “What’s the problem?” he barks, still groggy from sleep.
“Berdax! He’s right on top of us, according to the tracking device I’m wearing!”
Ruby appears, hopping up and down clumsily pulling on a boot with two arms while rubbing one of his eyespots with a third. “Berdax? Down here?”
As if in reply a laser blast erupts out of nowhere, passing just above Ruby’s head. Marcus and Mrylinax fall to the ground instantly, digging in behind the rock escarpment. Mrylinax reaches up and grabs the Dral’s neck and yanks him down just as another blast bakes the air where he just stood.
“Cripes!” Mrylinax grumbles. “I can’t believe our luck. Our forces split in half, us stuck down here while that crazy ship has Freya occupied. We don’t even know a way OUT of this place!”
A gravelly voice beckons from somewhere beyond the wall. It is that of a Yazirian and it is all too familiar to Mrylinax.
“Attention Detachment 2551. I am Berdax. You’ve got a contract on your heads. I am here to collect you and I don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. You are surrounded by professionals. We can take you alive or dead – the contract doesn’t specify. Lay your guns down and come out or I swear I’ll make sure each of you dies a slow and agonizing death.”
Marcus motions for a silent retreat to the ship. Mrylinax hesitates, but begins gathering his things. Berdax continues his taunting.
“I know who you all are – I’ve got detailed files on each of you. I know that Mrylinax is among you. Can you hear me, Mrylinax? I hear you’ve been consecrated by your people to avenge the atrocities I committed on your homeworld with the help of the Sathar. Ha ha ha. I find that laughable.”
A low growl begins to build in Mrylinax’ throat. Marcus glares at him, shaking his head and pointing at the ship.
“I hear tell that I was the one who slaughtered your mate. Is that true, Mrylinax? Wouldn’t that mean that at the time you were a… female?” Berdax’ voice takes a condescending tone at this last word. “Isn’t that how your filthy race works? You had your bastard pup then developed into a male for the rest of your life? Ha ha ha ha ha – well they have a saying on Charon Tavis: Once a bitch always a bitch. Hahahaha”
At this chuckling can be heard from several spots throughout the cave. Ruby begins shaking.
"How many of them ARE there, anyway?”
At this last comment Mrylinax completely loses it, wrenching Marcus’ hand from his shoulder and shouting over the wall.
“Laugh while you can, you dirty sonuvabospor! You betrayed the whole Frontier by working with those slimy worms! I’ll see you gutted and hung on the great wall of Ch’Thri!”
Mrylinax immediately launches three grenades from his grenade rifle. The explosions boom and echo with a deep rumble off the cavern walls. Berdax’ men can be heard shuffling around and cocking their weapons. A deep voice off to the right barks a hoarse curse.
“What the hell are you doing?!” Marcus yells at Mrylinax.
“Get inside, Marcus”, Mrylinax replies, baring his fangs at the human. “This is MY fight!”
“There it is again.” V’Sndyk looks up from his scanner and peers through the dense scrub grass that lines the embankment in front of him. His eyes search the gently rolling slope descending before him into the valley below. In the distance ahead and behind the northern mountains of Amradar form a ringed wall, encircling this small open area. Behind him lies a tranquil lake taking up half the valley, before him the open area of sand and rock that is the home of the infamous Calas compound, reputed PGC storage facility. In the twilight of morning the fenced-in compound looks serene, not a single person to be seen.
The only other distinguishable features to be seen are the strange-looking large rocks standing upright throughout the floor of the valley. V’Sndyk remembers seeing rocks like these near the mouth of the mountain pass they found earlier. Strange and beautiful, they look like rounded potatoes sitting upright, their bulbous tops oriented towards the compound itself. V’Sndyk smiles at this oddity of the landscape and wistfully imagines the vacant compound as being their home.
On each side of the Vrusk there are rustles in the grass. The sounds tell him his Quatro escort is getting antsy. Presently a Yazirian approaches with a stern look. It is an Azran warrior, sent to accompany him.
“What news?” the Yazirian whispers.
V’Sndyk eyes his scanner again and fidgets nervously. He’s unaccustomed to being the one in charge of a mission. “Um… my readings definitely show a cyclical low-band emission of a redundant nodal nature.”
The Yazirian stares at him for a number of seconds, expressionless. V’Sndyk senses the awkward moment and attempts a confident smile.
“In plain Pan-Gal, please.” the Yazirian says at last.
“Oh. I think I’ve found a remote electronics station buried somewhere in the field between ourselves and the compound. It could be a part of the compound’s electrical or security system. But chances are the signal is strong enough to indicate a direct line into the station’s system.”
“And how long have you tracking this signal?” he asks, suspicously.
“Oh, for the last half hour I guess.”
The Yazirian’s eyes widen in an expression V’Sndyk has learned is a sign of irritation. “Well, I had to sample the signal long enough to filter out anomalous trends and discern a solid cycle characteristic…”
The Azran sighs. “How long before we can get to the station and patch in?”
“I’ve only got two more Nyquist equations to run through, plus a special diagnostic program I wrote to track power flow from a distance…” The Yazirian’s eyes widen even more. V’Sndyk can see his lip curl in a small snarl. “…uh, we’re ready to go now. Sir.”
“Excellent. Groogash and his army should be charging the front gate very soon. I want to be in position to cut through the fence and sabotage the enemy from within the compound.”
“It will be a glorious battle!” declares one of the Quatros, hearing mention of the army of Quatros Groo is leading.
“Glory to Azran!” says another, almost shouting. A hearty murmur sounds through the score of Quatro hunched down in the grass.
“Yes, yes… quiet, now. Let’s go.”
The Azran motions with his hand and the Quatros nod. A pair of shadowy figures races forward, hiding behind every available rock and ditch. Silently the group crouches and begins crawling through the dense grass. V’Sndyk joins them, reluctantly ending his analysis program and shutting off his c.a.s. unit. A streaming printout he was collecting dangles from the case. With a curse he tears it off and discards it, tucking his c.a.s. away for better movement. The printout lands on the ground, never read by V’Sndyk’s eyes:
“I – A – P – P – R – O – A – C – H – C“
“L – O – S – E – R – A – N – A – L – Y “
“S – I – S – R – E – Q – U – I – R – E “
“D – P – R – E – P – A – R – E – F – O “
“R – M – Y – A – R – R – I – V – A – L “
Cymon’s tired feet flex gratefully at the feel of level ground as he crests another landing in the rocky climb through the Amradar mountains. He drops his satchel and unclasps his canteen. His eyes survey the clearing. What he’s looking for he doesn’t know, but his instincts tell him that everything could be dangerous given what’s going on planetside right now. A smooth rock floor extends in front of him for thirty meters in a roughly circular area. This ends in a sheer rock wall climbing for a hundred meters above. The wall is overgrown with the dry and prickly vines common to this region. Behind Cymon a long line of weary Yazirians emerges from below. They spread out and collapse on the ground, resting from the arduous climb. Each one wears the gold sash of an Azran and carries a Kohinoor, a golden zamra, the bladed throwing weapon of the Yazirians.
“A dead end, it seems” he whispers.
Keela, the female Azran whom Cymon has come to know throughout this journey, approaches.
“Cymon, oh.. I mean Azran,…”
Cymon grimaces at the title. “Please. Just call me Cymon. I am no one of importance.”
Keela frowns and seems to make an effort to swallow this. “Cymon, do you know where we are?”
It is Cymon’s turn to frown. In the last day and a half since he’s been saddled with the responsibility of leading these religious zealots he has come to learn just how far faith can take one without a reasonable sense of where they are going. He is troubled that so many have put their trust in him when it is obvious that he is even more lost than they. A sad prognosis for religion, he thinks to himself.
“We are in the mountains far to the east of our true objective. That is all I know.” Keela seems dismayed by this confession. Cymon looks about for clues. “Any yet, here is another marker left to show the trail we are allegedly called to follow.” His hand indicates a small stone totem marked with a glyph in the ancient language of the Den Qritsa, tome of the Quatros and the defunct Yazirian Denai religion.
“Can you read it?” Keela asks, a hint of hope in her voice.
Cymon leans closer, his eyes catching something he didn’t see on casual inspection of the totem. “Providence. That’s the word this glyph represents. And here, below it in smaller text, it reads ‘Wind of Buturaq’”
“Buturaq? Doesn’t the book say something about the final battle being fought by the warriors of Azran, soaring on the winds of Buturaq, father of Seera?”
“Indeed it does” murmurs Cymon, standing again and now looking about the clearing. His hand digs into his satchel and retrieves his scanning equipment. He reads the screen and looks up and down the rock wall before them. “I’m reading a temperature variation here” he says, stopping at one spot in front of the wall. He switches the display mode to infrared and holds it up to scan the rock visually. Through the viewfinder he barely sees a wisp of higher temperature air moving out of a small crack. “Something’s on the other side of this wall.” he says. He leans closer to inspect the hole and notes its shape. “I wonder…”
Cymon’s hand plunges again into his satchel, this time retrieving a small rock figurine, an obelisk much like the one marking the clearing but smaller. It is the totem he found on Osiris station before it was destroyed. There are four glyphs on the totem, one on each side. Cymon studies the hole, then the totem. He brushes away some of the dirt around the hole and pours water over it. Instantly four glyphs emerge from the dirty rock, one at each compass point around the hole. Cymon looks about to see the Yazirians eyeing him expectantly.
“Aw, what the hell”, he mutters, and then shoves the totem into the hole.
A deep rumbling builds, first in the ground beneath their feet, then as an audible sound emerging from inside the cliff face. Gasps can be heard from the crowd as the Yazirians scramble to their feet and begin backing away from the wall. Cymon stands fast as a loud crack sounds and a straight vertical fissure appears, sending dust and rocks tumbling to the ground. The rumble grows as vibrations shake the entire clearing and a blue shaft of light shoots out of the fissure, which is slowing growing. Soon a huge section of the rock wall is split in half as a large doorway appears.
The rumbling stops. A twinkling blue light bathes Cymon in its soft glow.
A Yazirian steps forward and peers inside. Cymon’s scanner suddenly comes alive, beeping and flashing wildly. Cymon motions a warning. “Wait – something’s alive in there!” But he’s too late.
A loud crack sounds, like the sound of a whip. Out of nowhere a large green and yellow tentacle lunges out and seizes the unsuspecting Yazirian. Instantly he is hoisted up into the air, slung from side to side and smashed against the walls of the cave. Another dozen tentacles tumble outward from the cave’s ceiling.
The Azran leap into action. Two Yazirian jump forward and grab hold of the tentacle’s victim, trying to stabilize him long enough to set him free. Ten more advance, Zamra drawn, and begin hacking at the tentacles as they emerge from the doorway. Cymon, dazed by the initial attack, scrambles to get his own Zamra. Within seconds the three dangling Yazirians are pulled up into the darkness of the cave and a loud crunching can be heard, followed by screams.
Whatever hesitation the company of Azran had before is gone now. Thirty wild-eyed Yazirians let out a blood-curdling war yell and charge. Golden blades glint in the half light as the infuriated warriors tear into the bundle of curling stalks. Cymon is taken aback by the sight – a host of his fellow Yazirians, most of them now in the full throes of battle rage, slash with abandon at the terrible creature, letting fly shreds of viscera and streams of ooze. A desperate battle is waged while half the group tries to free the warriors caught above. The tentacles prove deadly – three warriors are cut deeply from a razor sharp edge lining the tentacles, two more are crushed to the point of near-suffocation.
Cymon finally finds himself and leaps to the aid of his stricken brethren. After several whacks with his Zamra one of the stalks is rent apart, leaving a Yazirian lying on the ground coughing violently. Cymon turns and begins hacking at another, larger stalk that threatens to dismember a Yazirian next to him.
All of a sudden a shriek goes up and the stalks go still. It is some time before the warriors cease their fight, however, and presently the bodies of the three comrades are extricated from the cave ceiling.
“LOOK!” one Yazirian cries, pointing at Cymon.
Cymon looks and sees that his Zamra is held aloft, nothing more. Other Yazirians stop and stare. It seems the creature has gone still at the mere sight of Cymon’s Kohinoor, reputed to be the one and only Zamra held by the legendary Azran himself. Cymon is skeptical of this, but sure enough he walks forward and the tentacles recede. Emboldened, Cymon holds the Zamra ahead of him. The tentacles quiver and retreat back into the ceiling of the cave.
“The beast retreats before the legendary Kohinoor!” someone shouts.
Cymon is perplexed. “See to the wounded. I’m going to look inside.” It is against his nature to deny his healing hand to the wounded, but for the moment he knows the cave and its secrets are his top priority.
He steps forward cautiously. A large vault-like room lies before him. Durasteel plates line the floor, ancient flood lamps flicker to life, and throughout the chamber lie box after box covered in dust. Cymon recognizes lettering he saw aboard the pirate station Charon Tavis. He pries open one box, then another.
“Explosives. Weapons. Equipment. It’s a hidden Crimson Pirate cache, like the one Freya hinted at.”
Keela appears at his shoulder. “But…how did it get here? At the end of a trail marked by the ancient Denai?”
“Somehow Gardus, former leader of the Crimson Pirates and fanatic of the Denai religion, knew about this place and left all of this stuff here. He gave me this Kohinoor, he knew I’d need it to gain entrance here. The Hooris Doghan must have known about it, too – they left this totem behind on Osiris station.”
“But these weapons – how can we possibly make use of them in the battle to come?” Keela asks. “We are no doubt hundreds of kilometers away from Calas and the hour is almost upon us!”
The other Yazirians are silent. Cymon ponders the situation. He breathes deeply and tries to relax, knowing that anxiety is a barrier to sound judgement. As he breathes he smells something acrid and feels a gust of air moving over him from the back of the cave.
“Do any of you feel warm?”
Groogash adjusts the power setting on his laser rifle for the hundredth time. The waiting is killing him. He stands atop a high rock set into one of the two walls lining the northern mountain pass to Calas. Below him, camped in the pass, several hundred Quatros mill about restlessly waiting for the signal to march. Most are on foot, a hundred or so are mounted on their Vrada, desert mounts that look like enormous hairless ostriches.
Groo peers through his magnigoggles, surveying the area ahead for anything he’s missed. The Calas compound looms in the distance, an innocuous-looking facility of only a dozen low buildings surrounded by a perimeter fence. A set of landing pads sits within the fence, appearing deserted like the rest of the compound. Groo looks to see if his scouts can be seen in the 120 or so meters between him and the front gate. He is pleased that he cannot spot them or the grasshopper mines he instructed them to deploy. Then his goggles scan to the roof of one of the buildings and he frowns. Large plumes of black smoke issue from a set of pipes in the largest of all the buildings. The smoke fills the air above the compound and spreads like an inky blanket over the entire sky above. The terrain for as far as the eye can see is darkened as light from Scree Fron's sun, directly overhead, is completely blocked out.
“What is that stuff? What are they doing, burning evidence?”
A mounted Quatro approaches Groo swiftly, bringing his steed to a stop beneath Groo’s rocky perch.
“Commander, the scouts report that the mines are in place and they are ready.” the Quatro croaks, his alien tongue still odd to Groo’s ears. “You have but to give the signal.”
"And the Azran scout - his scan of the smoke?"
"The Azran reports that the smoke is from ordinary burned matter, nothing dangerous."
Groo checks his laser rifle again, then curses. No word from Cymon or Marcus or even Ty. His rag tag group is scattered to the four winds, with no contact between them. Nothing for Groo to go on except a cryptic message hinting at something happening here at Calas at 1000 hours high noon. He remembers the group’s theories about a large, high-powered weapon being used here against distant stars. His studies of the star system and showed Scree Fron to be experiencing Solar Maximum, when solar storms are at their highest activity level. What could it mean?
“Commander?” the Quatro croaks, imploringly.
Groo checks his chronocom. One hour until zero hour. He has waited long enough. This is cutting it too close already. Calas has to be taken and quickly, or something terrible could happen.
“Give the signal. Commence phase five and position for assault.”
Groo feels his heart pumping hard in his chest. His Yazirian heritage hearkens to him, stirring his senses as he steels himself for battle. It is a proud moment. He takes out the ceremonial sash of his clan and straps it across his chest. Although there are no other Yazirians close by to go into battle with him, he can’t help but feel a kinship. He is in the company of fellow warriors. And if the tales were true, he is fighting to preserve the worlds of his Yazirian people from some unknown menace. Groo leaps from his perch to march with the Quatro horde. The Quatros cheer as they see him join their ranks. He snarls in a ferocious smile, sensing the coming battle, then lifts an arm in a gesture of advance.
Five hundred voices join together in a battle cry that rings off the stone walls of the mountain pass: “ATTACK!!!!”
Ty mashes a button on the bridge control panel of his ship, the FCS Talon. The fire alarm, blaring loudly from the explosions of the recent battle, is now quiet. Ty peers through his gas mask eyelets at his Yazirian colleague, an Azran warrior named Kelto.
“Onboard security robots are deactivated. Let’s go below and check on Damral and the Quatros.”
Ty mashes the bridge entrance switch and races through, laser pistol drawn and ready. Kelto follows. He takes the emergency ladderwell. A certain incident on Charon Tavis prompts him to avoid any potential traps in the elevator. A few moments later he peers through the portal on the ladderwell hatch and views the EVA room which leads directly to the main airlock.
“I don’t see anything. Oops, there’s Damral. I forgot the doze gas would knock him out, too. Looks like he’s out, but the door to the airlock is still closed.”
Ty opens the ladderwell door and cautiously exits. Kelto sees to his friend, injecting him with some stimdose. Within a minute the other Yazirian is awake and readying his weapons. Ty advances and peers out the airlock to the area at the foot of the ship.
“I see the hover transport they brought Dr. T’Prinna in, and I see a couple of Yaz bodies on the ground. Look like Doghan creeps – dressed in orange and wired for destruction. No sign of the Quatros or T’Prinna or that Weasel jerk.”
Ty hits the release on the airlock and drops the landing ramp. “Damral, stay here and watch our backs. Kelto, you’re with me.”
Ty and Kelto descend the ramp, scanning the area for trouble.
“The Doghan are dead”, Kelto says solemnly, eyeing the cyborgs with open disgust. “Quatro tracks go off in that direction, along with a set of Yazirian tracks.”
“Rest of the Doghan goons. The Quatros shouldn’t have trouble tracking them down.”
Ty approaches the hover transport and crouches, his gun trained on the back door which is ajar. Ty nods to Kelto, who nods back. On three, they sling the doors open. A Yazirian in blue and gold PGC coveralls lies slumped over, twin burn marks in his back.
“Well, well, well… name tag reads Yardua Kal-Kree. Looks like our inside man at Calas. My guess is Weasel saw the deal going sour, shot him in the back and took T’Prinna with him.”
Kelto frowns. “Weasel?”
“Long story. They’re probably long gone, too. Let’s get in the ship and do an aerial search.”
“For T’Prinna?” Kelto asks, unfamiliar with the people in question.
“Naw, I’m gunning for Weasel. But I’m sure the boys of Detachment 2551 wouldn’t mind seeing T’Prinna and accomplishing at least ONE of their mission objectives.”
“And what of the Quatro?”
“Hate to leave them, but we’re running short on time. We need to get to Calas and help out. ‘Sides, they know this land – they’ll be okay until I can come back and pick them up.”
Ty and Kelto rejoin Damral in the ship. Luckily, the two Yazirians have spacer skills that allow them to help in flying the ship. Ty is literally beaming to be back aboard his ship. However, it doesn’t keep him from grousing over every little detail.
“Damn that Weasel! Look at this crummy re-routing job on the tertiary confluence junction! I’m surprised this old girl is still even flying! You two get up top and get us airborne. As much as I’d like to get back in the pilot’s seat I’m worried about the engines.”
Kelto and Damral nod and climb the ladderwell to the bridge. Ty turns and enters the ship’s engineering space. Soon he can hear the thrusters kick in and feel the ship lurch as it lifts off. A small portal in one bulkhead allows him a view of the ground below. He mashes an intercom switch. “Hey, guys, keep an eye out for T’Prinna. I’ll be up in just a sec.”
Ty leans over to pick up his tools when he hears a sound that makes his stomach do a backflip. It’s the sound of a laser pistol being charged up.
“Hello, Ty.” a wormy voice says behind him. “Drop your pistol.”
“Weasel!” Ty turns to see a short balding human grinning over the barrel of a blaster. Behind him an elderly Vrusk lies bound on the engineering room floor. Ty reluctantly drops his pistol.
“Thought you had me, there, Ty. But as you can see, there’s nothing you can think up that I can’t…”
“Weasel out of?” Ty says dryly, trying to calm himself.
“STOP CALLING ME THAT!!!” the human screams. “I always got the raw end of the deal from you when I was onboard this ship!”
“Maybe that’s because you deserved it”, Ty replies, eyeing the cabin for something to use.
“Well, now YOU get the raw end of the deal for a change, smart-ass!” Weasel cackles, leveling the gun at Ty’s head.
“Mrylinax! Get in the ship!” Marcus yells, trying to keep his head down. “That’s an order!”
Mrylinax snarls and reloads his grenade rifle. “You forget, Marcus – we’re off the job now. PGC dropped us like a bad habit after Saribalis double-crossed us.” He pauses to clamp a cinn-stick in his teeth and rip off another round, then eyes Marcus intently. “I’m a renegade, now – I take my own orders!”
Before Marcus can answer a loud volley of laser and projectile fire blasts into the low rock wall concealing them. The immense cavern is briefly illuminated by a cascade of orange laser light and the yellow flare of automatic weapons. Rocks along the wall are pulverized, send a shower of debris and dust over their heads. Ruby flattens idself to a large puddle fifteen centimeters thick.
“Dammit, Mrylinax, this is no time to butt heads! We have to get in the ship, gather our strength! We’re outnumbered out here!” Marcus ducks again as the low ‘thump’ of a grenade mortar goes off. A sickening few seconds tick by waiting for the explosion. Ten meters to the right the shell goes off, sending up another geyser of debris. Marcus curses and begins returning fire with his laser rifle.
Mrylinax throws on his IR goggles and reloads his rifle. “I’m not going in that ship! It’s a billion years old – it could be a deathtrap! Freya’s not out of there, is he?” A distant shadow moves laterally from one rock to another. Mrylinax turns and fires. A bright plume of flame erupts from behind the rock as a figure staggers out, screaming and on fire. Mrylinax laughs. “Marcus, you and me don’t normally see eye-to-eye, but we’re cut from the same cloth. You know this is my fight. You know we’re running out of time. Get out of here and let me do my job.”
Marcus looks at the Humma for a second and seems to see him as if for the first time. “I don’t have time to argue. If this is your fight, I have to respect that.” He unclasps a handful of fragmentation grenades and tosses them to the ground. “Good luck, my friend.” He nods and pats Ruby. “Come on, Ruby. In the ship!”
The puddle suddenly grows a head. “What?! Are we going? Thank the maker!”
Marcus and Ruby jump up and scramble for the entrance to the ancient alien craft. Mrylinax responds by laying down cover fire. For a whole minute the cavern is filled with the staccato of the Humma’s auto rifle spraying the southern half of the cave. Then, silence. Mrylinax drops.
“Mrylinax!” the voice of Berdax calls out. “Give it up, bitch! I’ve got the only entrance cut off and we’re closing in!”
Mrylinax says nothing, taking one last look around in his IR goggles then ducking out of sight. An instant later he springs through the air, vaulting with his powerful hind legs over several boulders and into another sheltered spot far to his right. Berdax’ men resume their fire.
Mrylinax tumbles and rights himself. His brief glimpse of the enemy during his jump tells him there are five of them, mostly to the left, with one man off to the right side of the cave and just in front of his current position. Quickly, before they can move, Mrylinax fires in the direction of the closest heat pattern.
BOOM! A fragmentation grenade explodes.
“Aaaaarrrgghhh!!!” Another Yazirian yells and falls silent. The gunfire picks up now, Berdax’ men getting desperate in the face of Mrylinax’ lethal hit-and-run. He reloads. It is several seconds before he feels safe enough to jump again, this time forward in an effort to flank them. Ready this time, the bounty hunters follow his leap with a swathe of gunfire.
“AAGH!” Mrylinax yells, landing from his jump and collapsing behind a ridge. He grabs his left side, which is now bleeding from a deep bullet wound. He can hear the scuffle of feet as the hunters change position. He knows he has only a few seconds before his last snapshot of their locations will be useless. He winces and fires another round. Nothing.
“Hmmph!” he snorts in disgust. “I’m pushing my luck. Time to change tactics.” Footsteps begin to sound closer. Mrylinax finds a long, flat rock and lies on his stomach. He removes an odd-shaped sharp metal instrument from his bag and affixes it to the tip of his tail. He then lies down and cranes his laser pistol around one end of the rock, careful to make his shots slow and regular. The length of his body stretches out until he can feel both ends of the rock. Soon the footsteps can be heard on the other side of the rock. He holds his breath, praying for a stupid foe.
Sure enough he can hear the hunter move off to his left, obviously trying to sneak up around him. He peers over his shoulder. A dark shape slides over the edge of the rock, looming behind Mrylinax’ position.
“Bad move” Mrylinax whispers, then flexes his powerful tail. The tail blade sails high and slices into the figure’s upper torso.
Without hesitating, Mrylinax moves in for the kill. The hunter, preoccupied with his sudden wound, grasps at his chest and stumbles. Mrylinax is on him in one jump, knocking him over and driving the blade down onto his head.
Footsteps again, ahead and to the right. Three of them left, fanning out. Mrylinax gives the blade one final twist and wastes a single second to hear the hunter’s death rattle. That second comes at a price. Suddenly another salvo of weapons fire cuts in his direction. Too late, Mrylinax feels himself hit two, three times by laser fire. He is sent reeling backwards. He stumbles on a low rock behind him, tumbling over until he is lying on the ground once again. Voices can be heard in low whispers.
Mrylinax feels himself bleeding copiously. His hands shake. He can barely fit another clip into his pistol. Biting back the pain, he concentrates on the sounds nearby, but a ringing grows in his ears.
“Can’t… go just yet”, Mrylinax croaks.
“Over there, you idiot”, a whisper says in the dark.
A shadow appears and hesitates, looking this way and that.
“There! There! That heat trail… it’s blood. See?” the voice persists.
Another shadow emerges from a rock nearby. It nods and begins moving laterally.
“Roger”, the first shadow replies, adjusting his IR goggles. “I can see him now. Ten meters. Hidden behind the low rock.
The shadow rushes forward. He ducks behind a stalactite and, seeing the second shadow almost behind the target, fires high twice to get the target to stay put. He pauses, then he hears the other shadow reach the mark.
The shots echo through the cavern for several seconds. The first shadow leaves the stalactite and approaches. He can see the other shadow standing over a large furry figure lying in the shadow of the rock. The two look closely, noticing something wrong with the way the body is positioned.
“Make sure he’s dead!” the original voice says, beckoning from a distance.
The second shadow gives it a kick. “He’s dead alright.”
The body sways, then lolls to one side. Before they can speak they hear a thud. Three spherical objects roll out at their feet.
Marcus and Ruby race through the corridors of the alien craft. The walls on all sides are a deep shade of red. Ruby seems agitated to be in here. After several twists and turns, the pair finally enter a large oval room where they see Freya and Dr. Leinso madly working at controls located on wall panels throughout the room. Explosions rock the ship.
“Freya!”, Marcus shouts, “Berdax is outside – he’s found us. Mrylinax insisted on holding them off. We need to set up a defensive position, get him some support.”
Freya turns and stares at Marcus, seemingly unaware of the crisis. “I know the secret to Calas compound” he intones dispassionately. “We must get there right away!” He affords a look at Ruby and seems to shake his head. “Goodbye, Ruby” is all he says.
Out of breath, Marcus seems in no mood for a conversation. “What are you talking about? What secret? Calas is hundreds of kilometers away – how could we get there in time?”
Before Freya can answer a loud wailing sound erupts throughout the ship. The walls darken to almost black. Between the plates lining the walls, the spongy material that seems to make up the ship’s interior can be seen writhing and pulsing, the tiny orifices opening and closing like a thousand hungry mouths.
“What the hell is that?” Marcus shouts over the wail.
“The ship – it is the legacy of an alien race that crashed here, the Drennidians. They were using a dangerously powerful form of radiation on their home world that ravaged their ecosystem on a microscopic level.”
Marcus looks at Freya as if to anticipate what he’s about to say. Freya sees this and nods. “Yes, the microscopic life form we encountered in Ruby’s bloodstream – the Ix! They were somehow mutated and turned against the alien home world. The Drennidians tried to remove the material but somehow the life form came with them – the mutated Ix are destroying THIS world as well!”
Ignoring the scream for the moment, Marcus presses for more answers. “And the Doghan? And Ruby?”
“The Doghan somehow found a way to trap and utilize the mutant Ix cells. One form powers their cybernetic bodies. Another form is lethal.” At this he points to Ruby, who now is doubled over in pain. “They tried to poison Ruby…”
Marcus completes the thought: “…but his blood chemistry is altered – something about his surviving that virus at a young age – unique antibodies?”
“Affirmative. Ruby somehow reverted the Ix cells to their original state. They are an intelligent collective. They are now aware of their race’s condition, of their mutant brethren that have been imprisoned on this world.”
Before Freya can continue a voice emanates from Ruby. It is not ids own voice – it is something high-pitched and bears no resemblance to any race in the Frontier.
“The WE have come. The US suffers. The WE have come to fight the US, to fix its broken-ness. The WE and the US must become whole again.”
“Ruby! What are you talking about?” Marcus shouts over the noise. He reaches out to restrain Ruby.
Freya stops him. “Ruby is the host of the only Ix capable of reversing the process. This ship is the locus point for the entire population of Ix on this planet.” Freya points to a panel where a map of the surface shows a bright red spider-web like shape superimposed over the area. Tendrils extend from their current location for a hundred kilometers in each direction. “The mutant Ix are spreading outward from this region. Ruby”, he says, pointing at their struggling friend, “is their only hope.”.
Ruby stands and approaches one of the walls. The spongy material seems to ooze inward, retreating as the Dralasite draws near. The tiny orifices clamp shut. Ruby brings ids hands up.
“The WE have come”, id mutters in the otherworldly voice. Then, without warning, Ruby’s arms lash out in a single quick stretching action and smash into the wall. The room shakes, the walls convulse. Ruby lets out a howl of what must be pain. Marcus stares in disbelief as he sees Ruby’s arms begin to separate into a dozen smaller finger-like stalks, each of which wriggles its way into a separate orifice. The stalks plunge deeply until Ruby’s own body is drawn up close to the wall. Then, to Marcus’ horror, Ruby’s entire body begins to break down and separate in a hundred different directions, his celluloid body matter literally pouring into the holes in the wall. Ruby’s howl becomes a gurgle. In the blink of an eye the oozing Dralasite flesh is sucked away and Ruby is gone.
Marcus and Leinso stand with their mouths hanging open. “Ruby…”, Marcus whispers. More explosions rock the ship. The walls turn an inky black.
“I say, that was fascinating!” Leinso mutters.
Freya takes hold of Marcus and motions towards a doorway. “This way. The ship schematics showed me something.”
Marcus turns to go, pausing for one last look at the wall where Ruby had just been standing. From there, they run for half a kilometer through twisting rounded tube-shaped corridors. The floor buckles as they pass. Marcus notices the walls becoming damp and the heat rising. At last they come to a stop where the organic quality of the corridor ends in a large round door ringed by what looks like a docking clamp.
“I suspect this is where Pan-Galactic Corp discovered the ship.” Freya passes his c.a.s. unit in front of a black panel and the door opens. A larger tube-shaped tunnel is on the other side. Lights along the ceiling and floor flicker to life. An EM rail runs along the floor of the tunnel. A small, four-person monorail car hovers above the track. “Quickly, we must make haste.”
The three jump in the car and seal the canopy. Freya sets to work on the controls.
Marcus points at a display screen showing the alien ship’s schematic. “Omigod – this gauge shows the entire ship generating heat off the scale! And it’s growing! Any minute now…”
Freya makes a final adjustment, defeating the onboard safeties, and slams the accelerator bar down. All three passengers are thrown back in their seats as the monorail pod rockets off at alarming speed. Details of the tunnel begin to blur as the pod screams over the EM field. Seconds later, the car is jerked to and fro as an incredible explosion sends tremors through the rail line. Marcus looks back to see a distant corona of orange, a wall of flame engulfing the tunnel. For a moment it seems to be gaining on them. After a few seconds it recedes as the car leaves it far behind.
“Ten meters….five meters. Okay, I’m on top of it.” V’Sndyk comes to a stop in his belly-crawl across the muddy sand. He puts his c.a.s. unit down and moves out of the way as two large Quatro begin digging at the soft lakeside silt embankment. A mere fifty meters ahead and over the embankment looms the tall security fence to the Calas compound. V’Sndyk is still shaking the water off his antennae after traversing the lake south of the compound. He understood the Azran when he told V’Sndyk that would be the most secretive approach, but little do Yazirians know Vrusk hate water even more than they do.
“Bug-man. We find something hard.”
“Okay, okay, coming through.” V’Sndyk admired the Quatro for their four-armed physique and how it resembled a Vrusk’s lower torso, but their slow wit was wearing on him. Opening his robcomkit on the ground, he thrusts his head into the hole and begins prying the metal plate loose.
Kekroo, the Azran escort, leans his head into the hole. “V’Sndyk! The signal – we just received it over the preset frequency!”
V’Sndyk jumps at the news, hitting his head on the top of the hole. “Ouch! Omigosh, so that means…”
“Groogash is attacking the front gate, even as we speak.”
The Quatro, hearing this, become excited. “Groogash lead our brothers into glory!” one says. “Our people attack mighty Sytra, our people destroy!” “It is great day for Azran!”
V’Sndyk’s exoskeleton loses some of its color. “I-I-I’d better hurry! They’re wanting us inside that fence now!” He disappears inside the hole, his mandibles clicking loudly as he works feverishly to hack into the perimeter security network. Several minutes pass. The Quatro begin sharpening their already-deadly bladed staves.
At long last, V’Sndyk pokes his head out. “Got it! The scanning routine for this section of fence is working on a cyclical positive-edge-triggered timing scheme synchronized off of the main system clock…”
The Quatro stare at him with their big cyclops faces, dumbstruck. V’Sndyk sees he is in for a challenge.
“Okay, okay…” he holds up some wires and a electronic lockpick set. “We go to big wall – I open shiny box – I tie these pretty wires on – you cut fence when I say so – someone needs to be the lookout.”
The Quatro nod and pick up their gear. Kekroo smiles. “Couldn’t have said it better myself.”
Soon six Quatro and Kekroo, camouflaged in wet mud and desert scrub brush, are bellying up to the perimeter fence. V’Sndyk works feverishly on the unearthed junction box, relaying orders to the others over the chronocom. Two of the Quatro break off and take up sentry positions. The rest near the fence and pull out crudely-fashioned wire cutting tools.
“We are here, V’Sndyk” Kekroo whispers into his comm.
“Okay… cutter number one: cut the third wire from the bottom on my mark… now!” Kekroo relays the command and the Quatro cuts. “Got it? Now, cutter number two attach the red clip to the vertical wire, then cut above the clip… now!” This proceeds for several minutes, each cutter nervously snapping loose another wire in the electronic mesh that circles the compound. Suddenly a red light begins blinking on one of the nearby posts.
“V’Sndyk! We have trouble!”
“No, it’s okay” the Vrusk answers quickly. “It’s just a low-level fault reporting a maintenance problem. If we’re lucky I’ll shut it off before they notice. Start cutting a hole.”
Kekroo slashes at the fence with his cutter. Soon a large hole is torn out of the fence. He waves at the fourteen Quatro waiting behind the embankment to advance and begins pushing the cutters through. V’Sndyk finishes a kill command on his console and starts packing up. He grabs his satchel and exits the hole. Peering over the embankment, he see three Quatro waiting to pass through. All of a sudden, one of them is struck to the ground by a bright flash of light. Kekroo and the rest whirl around to see two security robots hovering nearby and advancing quickly.
“We are spotted!” Kekroo yells. “Everyone through – quickly!”
Kekroo brandishes his laser pistol. A second blast comes from the other robot, scorching the ground near the Yazirian’s feet. V’Sndyk scrambles to get his own laser pistol out. The Quatro on this side of the fence leap into action. One of them pulls out strange-looking balls attached to cord. The other pulls out small spherical objects that look like large seed shells. More Quatro appear from inside the fence, pulling in their wounded comrade and crawling out to join the fight.
Kekroo crouches and fires twice. One of the shots hits a secbot, glinting off its chrome casing and doing little damage. The robots respond by firing again, this time catching Kekroo in one leg and a Quatro in the shoulder. The other Quatro stands his ground, bringing up his hand to spin the corded balls like a bola. With an incredible throw, the bola flies high and smashes into one of the secbots. The cord winds itself quickly around the robot’s slender chassis until the balls make contact, then BOOM! a loud explosion. The robot quivers in mid-air, smoke pouring from inside its casing. It lets off a few random blasts then careens into the fence.
V’Sndyk finally manages to get his gun out. He turns and fires at the remaining robot. Too nervous, he misses completely. It turns in his direction, as if acknowledging a new target. V’Sndyk yelps and ducks down. The distraction is enough to allow the other Quatro to get up. All four arms catapault forward, sending four large pods flying. Two collide broadside, exploding on contact. The robot shivers and fires again. Another Quatro is cut down mercilessly. By this time two more Quatro emerge from the fence. They rise and toss more pods. Three more hit and explode against the steel body of the secbot. A loud ringing sound is heard just before the robot lurches, falls to the ground, then explodes himself.
A cheer goes up from the company of Quatro. They shake their staves in the air. Kekroo, grimacing and holding his leg, tries to quiet them. At last V’Sndyk scampers out from his cover and joins the group, finally entering the fence.
Inside the compound they can see the main subspace radio transmitter only 20 meters directly ahead. Beyond that, large reflective panels stand in two rows along a shiny metallic grid on the ground, the solar power array. Everything else in the compound lies hundreds of meters beyond and to the right. Kekroo races towards the radio tower.
“C’mon!” he yells, “Groo is counting on us disabling this transmitter before the Doghan can call reinforcements!”
The platoon of Quatro follows and surrounds the tower base. Kekroo busies himself pulling out his demolition charges. V’Sndyk surveys the massive transmitter towers various electronic access points. Before any of them can set to work another shout goes up. V’Sndyk looks. Ahead and to the right, streaming out of hidden trap doors in the ground, thirty more secbots hover into view and begin surrounding the comm tower.
“Uh… this doesn’t look good”, he says hoarsely.
The Quatro army advances determinedly out of the mountain pass and along the road to the compound main gate. The clouds overhead grow more and more dense, darkening the landscape and deepening the eerie shadows of the mountains towering behind them. There is no sound except for the howl of the slight wind that has picked up and the tromp and clank of five hundred armed and marching Quatro.
Suddenly the calm is broken by sight of activity behind the compound fence. Figures can be seen pouring out of the barracks complex to the south. Scores of figures, no hundreds, trailing dull orange sashes and carrying weapons. Their movements are familiar to Groo: all Yazirian. They rush quickly to the main gate and muster. Above them can be seen movement along the rooftops: mechanical doors swing open to reveal large guns emerging and swinging around to bear down on the advancing company.
A murmur goes up from the crowd as they close to within a hundred meters of the gate. Groo yells for silence in their Quatro tongue and reassures them to press on. His lieutenants pass this on and the host grows quiet once more. Groo can see he is in good company. Rather than being rattled, the Quatro appear to grow in resolve in the face of danger. Their massive hands seem to grip their staves even more tightly, their cyclops faces set in an austere look of battle readiness. He finds courage in their single focused eyes.
A low rumble can be heard as the main gate swings open. The Doghan horde emerges slowly, advancing towards them at a walk. Groo holds his hand aloft, bringing his army to a halt.
“We wait here”, he barks to a Quatro chief mounted nearby. “Signal the cavalry to charge and flank when they are fifty meters out from the gate.”
But to Groo’s surprise the Doghan stop as well. Instead of closing the distance they look to stand their ground only ten or twenty meters from the gate. Groo frowns. With the enemy not advancing they cannot take advantage of the mine field trap he has set nor the cavalry nor even the hidden platoons that are waiting ahead. Could they know his plans, he thinks to himself.
The Quatro chief looks at Groo with a puzzled expression. “Hold position”, Groo replies calmly. “If we deploy the cavalry that will only tip them off and cause them to dig in. We need them to advance.” Groo swallows hard. ‘What now?’ he thinks. He remembers the covert platoon he sent with V’Sndyk to the south and wonders how they are doing. Little comfort that there would be no reinforcements – how long could they hold position here before those guns open up? And what about Ty and the Talon – they could be giving excellent air support. But, again, there are no guarantees on if and when that will happen. Groo’s eyes narrow. He surveys the Doghan crowd through this magnigoggles, trying to size up their intentions. He is troubled when his gaze is met by hundreds of eyes staring back at him with the cold cybernetic glow that is characteristic of the Doghan. A chill runs up his spine. Had the gloom deepened? It seemed the smoke pouring out of the compound was heavier than ever.
Just then a scream from the rear breaks the silence. Groo whips around to see Quatro in the very back breaking rank and turning. The entire last three platoons are in utter chaos.
“REPORT!” Groo yells, trying to see what’s happening. A Vrada gallops up, the Quatro upon it visibly shaken.
“Sir! The prophecies were true! Azran save us – the dead DO walk again!” He frantically points to the east. Groo climbs onto the back of the Vrada for a better view and trains his goggles aft. What he sees causes his heart to freeze.
Emerging from the almost complete darkness engulfing the mountain pass can be seen countless upright skeletons climbing out of the mountains and lurching forward in an unsteady gait. Against all reason they come, macabre remains of Humans, Yazirians, Vrusk, and Quatro, walking up the road purposefully. They amble forward awkwardly with a clatter of bone on bone, bereft of flesh or sinew, dessicated corpses advancing on their own power. Their empty eye sockets stare hauntingly at the Quatro army, their jaws hanging open in a noiseless howl. Their bones gleam in the utter darkness.
“The darkness! It is upon us!” a Quatro shouts. Others join in. “We are doomed!” “We face the end of time!”
Groo’s mind races to comprehend the sight. Closing in at less than fifty meters, the ghoulish army is almost upon them. The Quatro army, frozen at first by the sight, now scrambles about ready to flee. Groo looks back to see the Doghan company slowly advancing. He turns and holds up a hand and shouts.
“Quatros! Hear me! You knew this hour would come – Azran will give you strength.” At this Groo wishes he had a golden blade to show off. “Gather your courage! Rear platoons reverse and hold your ground!” He turns back to his lieutenant. “Remember my order – when the Doghan are fifty meters out signal the cavalry!” The lieutenant nods and rides off.
Groo turns and faces the advancing ghoulish army. He pulls out his laser rifle, sets it to ‘ten’ and fires at the closest skeleton. The blast catches it square in the chest, blowing it apart. Limbs and parts are scattered over a wide area. They twitch where they lie for some time before becoming still.
“There! You see?” Groo yells to his soldiers. “They CAN be destroyed!” He holds his Zamra aloft, trying to project an Azran-like image. “This is our hour, Quatro – in the name of Azran, CHARGE!!!!”
Chaos sets in. Five platoons of Quatro, plus a sixth mounted on Vrada, surge forward whirling their long, bladed staves. The air is filled with a howling sound from the hollow tubes that make up the staves. The tall four-armed natives charge wildly into the carrion company, tearing into the bodies and sending parts flying. As the first wave of skeletons crumbles under their assault the Quatro seem to regain their courage.
Groo turns, knowing the real enemy still lies ahead. The Doghan are charging at full tilt now, seeing the battle met by the skeletons. Groo looks and sees his cavalry charge off to each side, leaving the main group and swinging around to out-flank the Doghan. A critical moment comes now, as Groo waits to see if the Doghan turn to counter the cavalry, taking them into the mine fields, or press forward to meet his main army, drawing them into his ambush.
The Doghan charge does not waver. It drives forward, closing the gap between them and Groo’s main force. Groo raises his Zamra again, this time towards the Doghan. “Quatro forward platoons – stand your ground!!!”
Out of the corners of his eyes Groo can see the Vrada cavalry racing across, then down the base of the mountain range. Soon they will be behind the Doghan, cutting them off from the main gate and breaking their ranks. Ahead, the Doghan close to within thirty meters, then twenty. They charge fearlessly, a battle cry building in their throats. Groo feels another chill watching three hundred pairs of glowing eyes come racing toward him through the mist.
“Come on, you bastards”, Groo whispers. “Come and get it.”
Then, it happens. Out of nowhere four platoons, two on either side of the road, leap up out of their hiding places beneath the sand and rock. The sight is impressive. Even Groo is surprised, so well the Quatros hid themselves. The Doghan charge does not stop, but the battle suddenly becomes one on three fronts for the marauders. Wild-eyed and confused, they break into three directions just as they reach Groo’s convoy.
A loud clash goes up. Ferocious, maddened Yazirian cyber warriors smashing into a solid Quatro wall. Immense Quatros lash out with their blades, slicing into the Doghan drive, tearing at cables, skeinsuits, and finally flesh. The Doghans, for their part, do not let the route affect them. Moved to the berserker rage common to Yazirians, the howling horde leaps forward with wild abandon.
Groo has never seen such carnage. Even surrounded on all three sides, the Doghan warriors put up a terrible fight. Quatros are cut down where they stand, the berserker rage urging the Doghan to great feats of battle. Slender simian arms feint and slash with their Zamra, evading the hulking four arms of the Quatro. The gloom seems to favor them and their damnable cybernetic eyes. The Quatro press in with cool heads, using two hands and their staves to ward off Zamra blows while grasping their foes with the other two hands. Their sheer strength is barely a match for the cybernetically enhanced foes. Regardless, Groo sees more than one Quatro seize his foe and rend him apart with his bare hands. In one spot he even catches a glimpse of the two Azran warriors fighting alongside the Quatro. Their golden Zamra glint spectacularly as they lock with Doghan blades, striking fear in the enemy and cutting them down.
A dozen Doghan vault over the head of the Quatros, sailing into their midst and chopping and hacking with their Zamra in an effort to weaken their front line. The Quatros buckle, unaccustomed to such foolhardy fighting. Gaining their wits, the Quatro make short work of the invaders, pulling them under with their massive arms and crushing them. Cybernetic parts are literally ripped from the twisting, gnashing bodies. A bloody Yazirian head tumbles from the fight and rolls off the road.
Groo himself fights valiantly, locking Zamra with any Doghan that dares to near him. One such fighter pauses too long in a back-hand swing and Groo stabs at the Yazirian’s exposed midsection. He pulls his Zamra back to find his foe’s bowels spilling onto his feet. But then Groo pauses, growing concerned. The battle is lopsided. Even given his three-front attack on the Doghans, he is wise enough to realize his plan assumed twice as many Quatro. Half of his forces are preoccupied with the skeletons. Until the cavalry arrives, his Quatro front line is actually outnumbered.
Remembering his rear platoons, Groo turns. He is shocked to find the battle turning. Before the Quatro were smashing the ghouls to pieces with ease. But now he sees a mass of jumbled forms. Quatro struggle as the skeletons close ranks and grapple. Screams go up from their midst as Quatro are grabbed by the grisly carrion and a sizzling sound can be heard. Terrible red burn marks appear on the skin of the Quatro where the skeletons are affixed. Try as they might, the Quatro can’t seem to shake the horrible creatures. Eventually, their nerves shaken and the front line routed, the Quatro rear guard breaks formation and scatters.
Panic ensues. The skeletons, slow but predatory, begin pairing off with the fleeing Quatro and leaping at them. Horrible images burn into Groo’s brain – a gangly Vrusk corpse running down a Quatro and entwining him in its rickety legs, flesh searing as the Quatro screams helplessly. Elsewhere a Yazirian skeleton, strange and looking almost human for its lack of wing membranes, stalks a bewildered and pleading Quatro, eventually seizing it and cooking its flesh. Everywhere he looks are terrified warriors, fleeing through the darkness as if hell itself is after them, shouting and yelling until they too are caught and devoured in the grisly embrace of the skeletons.
Groo is everywhere in the battle, hacking at the Doghan at the front, then racing to the rear to try and marshal his men. Two skeletal Quatro reach for him with crusty boned hands. He swings hard and wide, avoiding their touch and watching his back. It takes several chops with his blade before one of them bends in two and collapses. He is amazed to see how tough the creatures are to break, given their bony structure. If it were not for the battle, perhaps he would notice the sticky, translucent goo that clings to his blade. But he is too lost in trying to time when his cavalry will arrive.
The ground shakes. Groo whirls to see the large guns atop the compound firing. Four platoons of Quatro cavalry to the west wheel around and head for the fight. In horror he watches as the heavy lasers fire over and over, their barrels pointed down at his Vrada riders. Bright, high-powered blasts detonate the ground beneath them, sending up showers of rock and sand. Vrada and Quatro are blown to bits, their screams intermingling. Riders are thrown through the air as their steeds are pulverized. Though the charge is a valiant one the massacre is awesome, their flight over open ground too easy for the lasers to track. Within seconds the mounted forces are almost gone.
“By Azran indeed”, Groo snarls through his gritted teeth. A surge of fury and indignation flows through him as he sees his men cut down and hunted by the horrors from the mountains. His pulse builds as he can feel the berserker rage take him, as well. He no longer thinks. He can only see the Doghan and the skeletons and his vision turns red with murderous energy. Groo charges, his Zamra swinging wildly.
Flush with excitement at their discovery, the fellowship of Azran eagerly set to plundering the weapons and supplies they find in the aged Crimson Pirate trove. Crates are opened to reveal blasters, automatic rifles, grenades, ammunition, and explosives. Other crates open to delectable stashes of rare and exotic foods.
Cymon ignores the crowd and wanders to the back of the cave, all the while glancing nervously at the ceiling for the tentacled creature and holding his Kohinoor aloft. As he walks his face is met with a steady warm breeze. He removes his sungoggles and peers into the gloom of the cave with his nocturnal eyes. The boxes and crates thin towards the back of the cave. There is an open space here. Cymon notices a trap door in the floor. After careful inspection he opens it to find a small cellar beneath the floor.
The room is small and dark and dusty. Chained to a side wall are two skeletons, one Yazirian and one Human by their appearance. Cymon eyes these with interest. They are dressed in low quality tattered spacer garments. Crude writing on the wall above them reads:
Here lie Norgash and Nodgash Two backstabbing and murderous thieves May they treat the worms Better than they treated their friends
Cymon closes the trap door and rises. An interesting feature of a pirate lair, no doubt, but not what he is looking for. He approaches the back wall and touches it. It is very warm. Just then he notices the warm breeze wafting against his legs. He looks down. A crack runs along the length of the wall at its base. Hot air is pouring out of it.
Spurred on by his discovery, he feels along the wall. Sure enough he finds a small hole, similar to the one at the entrance to the cave.
“Gentle Azran!” he calls, getting the attention of the Yazirians as they plunder the hideout. “Gather your weapons and be ready to travel. I have found the way of Seera. We will be joining battle soon.” The Yazirians look puzzled. “Keela, find a demolitions expert in the group and tell him there is work to be done.”
Cymon sets to work reading the Azran. After half an hour they are prepared, weapons strapped to their backs and their wing membranes unfurled.
“Cymon, why do we unclasp our wings?” one Yazirian asks.
Cymon approaches the back wall and brings out the small totem. “Because”, Cymon declares, shoving the totem into the hole in the wall, “we glide to our destinies today.”
Another deep rumble ensues. A hairline crack appears along the wall, widening ever so slowly until dim light pours through. Finally the two halves of the wall separate like two great doors and swing open. Suddenly the company is staring out over the vast reaches of the moon ‘G’ landscape far below. A blast of heat hits them like a wave. Directly beneath the open cliff face they see a bubbling and churning field of molten rock. A gasp goes up from the crowd.
“The leap of Seera”, Cymon intones calmly. “This is what the Den Qritsa spoke about.” His voice drops to a whisper: “This is what my dreams were about.” The Azran look skeptically to one another. At last one of them speaks up.
“You want us to jump? Down THERE!?”
Cymon smiles. Here stood the fruit of the faithful, and yet their faith couldn’t see the clear science behind it all. He says nothing, turning to the edge of the cave opening and spreading his wing membranes.
His mind wanders. ‘Is this a religious experience?’ he thinks. Then his mind goes back to memories: of his bearer’s death, of his faltered career and his disillusions, of his renouncement as an unworthy among his people and his ultimate quest for his mother’s life enemy or Ka-Chada - ignorance of the mysterious precursor races that had laid the strange foundation for the entire frontier region.
He had begun this adventure out of a sense of honor. Could he finally have found it here? He laughs at the absurdity of life and how it carries a person from one place to another with no sense to it at all.
Then, without another thought, Cymon jumps.
Ty steps back, leaning against the bulkhead of the engineering compartment. His face remains calm, though his eyes dart here and there to refresh his memory of the ship’s layout. The short human nick-named Weasel is still ranting, shaking his blaster with each sentence as if to drive his message home.
“…and that time on Yast! When you lost all that money in that bar and told them I was your money holder!”
Ty suppresses a chuckle at the memory, trying to keep an impassive look on his face to buy time. “How long did they chase you, again?” he asks, unable to stop himself.
“SIX DAYS ON THE RUN! And dressed as a WOMAN!” Weasel screams, smacking the wall and shaking the blaster harder.
“Gee, sorry, Wea-.. uh, McFarlane”, Ty replies, choking back a tear of laughter, “I can’t imagine what happened to your real clothes…”
“And that time on Inner Reach when you told me the locals would take issue with my bald head and… and… “
Ty’s lower lip quivers from a burgeoning guffaw. “…and you wore that Creon mold I gave you as a toupee.”
“YOU SAID IT WAS REPLICATED HUMAN HAIR! I HAD MOLD GROWING OUT MY ASS FOR HALF A YEAR!!!”
At the mention of this Ty can no longer contain himself. He doubles over in an uncontrollable fit of laughter. “HAHAHAHAHAHAHAH…oh, if you could’ve only SEEN the look on your face later when the transit authority suspected you were smuggling fauna in your pants! HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!”
Weasel’s left eye begins twitching wildly. His grip tightens on the pistol, which he slowly brings up to level on Ty’s head. A hoarse whisper escapes his clenched lips. “No more jokes, Ty. You ruined every one of my get-rich schemes. You always were too principaled for your own good – you made a terrible smuggler!”
Ty’s face straightens at this remark. He slowly rises, making a casual and subtle shift to the left as he stands. His hand feels for the wall again. “What I was, Weasel”, Ty says, emphasizing the moniker, “was too smart to peddle Ixiol dust for the Outer Reach Syndicates. Something that would have killed thousands in Dramune and gotten us all shoved out an airlock for the trouble!”
“Sanctimonious pretty boy, that’s what you were! See where it got you? You don’t even have enough sense to stay on the right side of a blaster!”
The ship lurches slightly as it changes direction in its aerial search pattern. Ty feigns a loss of balance and shifts once more to his left, putting him directly in front of a SCRAM panel. There, arranged in a row, are located the emergency cutoff switches that are used to blow the atomic core in case of a meltdown.
“Maybe. But at least I know what a SCRAM switch does.”
Ty punches a button, causing the engine reactor doors to close, isolating its fission material. The ship heaves backward as it switches from main to reserve power. Ty loses no time. As Weasel stumbles into an acceleration couch, Ty dashes headlong across the compartment and opens the radsuit locker.
Weasel spins and fires, hitting the ceiling. He rises just in time to see Ty grinning from behind a plasteel portal, his hand reaching out to another console. Ty slams his identicard into a slot on the panel and mashes another button. Heavy shutters rumble open at the rear of the engine room. Red alarm lights begin blinking everywhere as klaxons sound.
Weasel ignores the commotion. He blasts furiously at the radsuit locker. Ty ducks inside, closing the door behind him. Just then reserve power kicks in. The ship abruptly returns to its previous speed. The room lurches forward, sending every unsecured object flying aft.
Too late, Weasel realizes what has happened. The sudden jerk throws him backwards. He tumbles over a safety rail and through the heavy shutters. A bright glow envelopes him as he rolls headlong down the main service duct and deep into the bowels of the engine reactor.
“NOOOOOOOOOOO…….!!” His cry fades as he drops into the atomic pellet chamber.
Seconds pass. Emergency systems detect the opening and automatically close the shutters. Before long the lights and klaxons fade. Ty steps out of the radsuit locker and mashes another set of buttons. Power switches from reserve back to main. Even if the ambient radiation hadn’t killed Weasel, Ty thinks to himself, stopping the SCRAM procedure before the pellet is dumped opens the core up again. Whatever’s inside is vaporized.
“Well, you always wanted the ship, Weasel.” Ty says grimly as he activates the intercom. “You and her will make a great couple.”
“What the heck is going on down there!?” Damral yells from the bridge.
“Nothing major” Ty replies. “Just flushing some crud out of the lines. Hold course – I’m coming up.”
V’Sndyk’s mandibles flutter wildly, his ovoid eyes staring with fright at the sight of thirty hovering security robots rising out of the ground and slowly moving to surround him and his commando party.
“Damn!” Kekroo spits, next to him. “A trap! I should have seen this!”
The twenty Quatro warriors accompanying them begin shifting nervously, hunkering down in a defensive posture all around the radio tower. Their large, brawny hands grip their wooden cudgels tightly in an open act of defiance to the machines that have invaded their world.
Explosions sound hundreds of meters to the north. V’Sndyk and Kekroo look to see tall laser cannons emerging from the building rooftops and blasting away at something beyond the front gate. Only then does V’Sndyk remember the battle raging between Groo’s army and the Doghan forces. A pang of horror overcomes the entire group as they view the distant carnage. Even so far away, the image is clear enough to see dozens of Quatro mounted on Vrada being blown to bits.
One of the Quatro among them begins to chant something low and solemn. As he does so, he shakes his staff threateningly at the hovering secbots. His single eye seems to burn with rage. Another Quatro joins him, then another. Soon all twenty Quatro are chanting a rhythmic song and stomping the ground.
“W-w-what are they DOING?” V’Sndyk sputters.
“War chant”, Kekroo replies dryly. “This could get ugly. I shouldn’t have taken us this direction – they see their brothers getting cut down out there…” The Yazirian hastens his work on setting the demolition charges around the radio tower base.
V’Sndyk is frozen, watching the Quatro and their defiant display. “Well, what do we do now?”
“Get your techkit out – we need to haul ass and get inside that main building!”
The secbots seem to answer the Quatro song by hovering lower and moving into attack position.
“What about them?” V’Sndyk asks, looking around at the Quatro. He begins looking around for a place to run.
“Are you kidding? They’re seeing blood-red. There’s no talking to them.” Kekroo finishes the last of the charges, then mutters something out loud in Quatro that sounds like a warning. One of the warriors nods in response, his eye never leaving the secbots.
Without warning the Quatro stand and charge, cudgels flailing and emitting a haunting howl. “YAAAAAAAAGH!!!”
Laser bolts burst forth from the line of secbots, burning the ground, blasting bits of the radio tower base, and tearing into the charging line of Quatro. Half a dozen Quatro drop instantly. The rest hurl themselves headlong into the company of metal sentries. A number of them pause long enough to hurl their home-made hand grenades, pelting the robots before picking up their staves and charging again. The line of secbots falters at the explosions, a third of them rocking and smoking, then returning upright and bringing their guns back to bear on the warriors. Soon the distance is closed between the squads. A terrible clang of wood on metal sounds. Lasers flare. Battle cries melt into screams. More smoke. Four of the robots fall to the ground, never to rise again. Very few Quatro still standing.
V’Sndyk feels a tug on his arm.
“C’MON!!! We can’t afford to stop now!” Kekroo yells over the din. “Your buddies are waiting on us!”
His eyes still wide with amazement at what he’s witnessing, V’Sndyk turns to follow Kekroo. The two make a dash across thirty meters of open ground northward. As easy as this would be normally, darkness seems to be settling at an alarming rate over the entire area. Clouds continue to build overhead from the blackish smoke issuing from the large cylindrical building to the north. V’Sndyk isn’t sure where they are going, but the sounds of explosions are enough to encourage him to vault over a low wall behind which Kekroo disappears. Suddenly he finds himself sitting in a bank of solar panels towers.
None of the secbots seem to notice their flight. V’Sndyk can hear the fight continuing to the south, but none of the robots are visible. Before he can ask another question Kekroo is gone again, running in a low crouch to the northern lip of the panel field. V’Sndyk groans and follows. When he reaches the Yazirian he is already eyeing something in the distance with his magnigoggles.
“There!” Kekroo whispers, pointing northward to the huge cylindrical building.
V’Sndyk frowns. “The storage center? What are we going to find there? Surely the admin building is the best place to interface…”
Kekroo cuts him off. “Come off of it! Haven’t you been paying attention? This is no storage depot! Where do you think that bright light has been coming from every night? If that’s not where they’re storing their weapon of mass destruction then I’m a sonuvabospor!”
V’Sndyk looks again at the tall cylindrical building. Doghan reinforcements pour from a side entrance and charging towards the main gate. Even though the battle is some distance beyond the main gate, the din of battle is alarming. Then V’Sndyk notices something else.
“The gate! It’s closing!”
Kekroo grunts. “Groogash didn’t smash through in time to secure the main gate. Why? Surely his army outnumbers the Doghan, and those cannon are only so effective against swarming infantry. Is there another force out there?”
Before V’Sndyk can answer a loud rumbling noise erupts from the storage building. High above, heavy metal doors swing outward along the rim of the rooftop. A long, metallic cylinder can be seen rising out of it, pointing to the heavens. Lights blink along the length of the shaft. The barrel sits atop a bulbous metallic sphere that pulses and glows.
Through the gloom of the clouds above, V’Sndyk sees the star of Scree Fron barely shining. The tall barrel seems to be pointing directly at it.
“Um…what is that?” V’Sndyk points, dumbfounded.
“Curse our luck!” Kekroo shouts, checking his chronocom. “Twenty-five minutes until zero-hour! They’re prepping the weapon!”
Without another word, Kekroo jumps over the low wall and begins running for the storage building. V’Sndyk follows, still unsure of where they are going. No one seems to notice their flight, however. Doghan continue to emerge from the building and run eastward. A small craft begins taking off from one of the landing pads nearby.
As he runs for the storage center, V’Sndyk notices several large openings in the ground scattered throughout the northern part of the compound. He remembers them from the map, but is surprised to realize he never thought to put a function to them. A network of rail lines emerges from the mouths of the holes and runs over the ground and into the storage center. One such car appears from one of the holes, carrying a single Doghan and large containers marked ‘Tsorium’. He gasps.
“Kekroo! Kekroo!” he yells after the charging Yazirian. Kekroo doesn’t reply. Instead he seems to be running on an intercept course with the rail car. As he runs his hand goes to his belt and comes back gleaming an aura of golden light. Without breaking stride, he leans back then hurls his arm forward. V’Sndyk watches the scene as if in slow motion. A beautiful golden Zamra flies across the compound yard at the car. The Doghan driver catches the movement out of the corner of one eye and turns. Too late, his mouth opens and his arms go up in a defensive posture. The Zamra seems to barely miss, flying at the Doghan then continuing on to lodge into a far wall. V’Sndyk stops running, worried at the alarm the Doghan will ring. Then, to his surprise, he sees the Yazirian’s head loll to one side and drop off with a sickening thud, a silent scream still etched on his face.
“Agh!” V’Sndyk exclaims, shocked by the sight. “You…you…you…”
Kekroo vaults into the rail car to bring it to a stop. He then runs to dislodge the Zamra from its resting place.
“C’mon!” Kekroo barks, hauling V’Sndyk onboard and mashing the accelerator. The car races forward, clearing the small opening into the building and plunging them into near-darkness. Soon they are in a large hangar. Machinery can be heard running all around, people rushing here and there, orders blaring over a loud speaker.
“T-MINUS TWENTY TWO MINUTES AND COUNTING… PREPARE TO INITIALIZE TERTIARY PARTICLE AGITATORS… SCREE FRON REACHING ZENITH ANGLE ZERO-ZERO-SEVEN DEGREES…”
Without warning Kekroo turns the wheel hard and the car disappears down a side tunnel. He brings it to a stop and jumps out.
“We’ve got to find a terminal around here somewhere!” the Yazirian yells behind him, not waiting for V’Sndyk to free one of his eight legs from the cart. The service tunnel seems to stretch on forever. Kekroo’s eyes dart overhead and side-to-side desperately. V’sndyk catches sight of an obscure panel on one wall and stops.
“Here!” he shouts, pulling out his robcomkit. In seconds the panel is off and he is plugging in a dozen leads to his computer access computer. He then produces another module that he plugs into the CAC.
“What’s that?” Kekroo asks, pointing at the module.
“Oh, just a little something a crime syndicate hacker loaned me”, V’Sndyk replies coolly, remembering their visit to the Moonwatcher’s Cave Saloon back on Histran. “I’m not sure how all of it works, but it comes packed with all kinds of neat decryption algorithms I’ve found handy.” V’Sndyk’s mandibles click nervously in the darkness. The multifaceted orbs of his eyes glisten brightly from the light of his computer terminal. His hands work feverishly over an accordion-shaped device especially suited for the hands of a Vrusk. With furtive movements he turns the knobs of the device, pulls them in and out of a cylindrical housing, and mashes the buttons as they change color. Images flash by on the viewscreen almost too quickly to read.
“Well?” Kekroo asks, impatiently, after several minutes. It is the first time the Yazirian has looked helpless during this whole escapade.
“I’m in!”, V’Sndyk chirps. “Floorplans, okay… subterranean levels, okay… ductwork, okay… “
“Look for some way in that your friends can use.”
“Way ahead of you. We got this map off of a dead Doghan’s hovercycle computer. Shows underground rail lines running from every Denai temple site in the region straight back to here. If Marcus and company managed to find anything at temple site three then maybe… AHA!”
Far below Denai Temple Site #3
The tunnel is endless. The ground gently slopes upward, promising a return to the surface. The Yazirian staggers onward, his ragged breathing echoing in the darkness. The walls have grown more smooth in the last few minutes. A sign of civilization? he wonders to himself, then gathers his long gray cloak about him. Blood smears the stone floor as he drags one foot behind him like a stubborn child. He winces in pain, holding his side gingerly. His fur is smoke-black, covered in ash and singed from flame. His large black eyes blink wearily, peering through the stygian darkness for any sign of hope.
At last, he sees it: a faint patch of paleness on a distant bend in the tunnel. Light! He grins and chuckles, picking up his pace. The chuckle turns into a cough as he remembers how much smoke he has choked back to get this far. Soon he would be free, clear of the tunnels under this cursed planet. Soon he would be back at his aircar, able to radio for help and continue the chase. His quarry couldn’t be far away. He had never lost his prey yet – he wasn’t about to do so now. He tried not to think of the Humma head he would have to do without.
Finally he reaches the bend where it opens up into a small cave. A rope dangles from somewhere above. He laughs at it and instead steps over to one side where six floater disks rest in a corner of the cave.
“Six? Where’s the seventh disk?” he wonders to himself. He shakes his head, imagining he’s finally lost all senses after the explosion. He steps onto the disk and grabs the vertical control stick. The engine purrs to life. The disk rises slowly. Presently he emerges from a circular hole ringed by stones. He looks about at the ancient temple around him, admiring for a moment the ancient paintings on the walls. They depict the last battle between the serpent demon Srytra that the locals fear so much and the noble Azran that look mysteriously like everyday Yazirians. He takes a long look at one image showing Srytra’s long bright body piercing a glowing yellow orb that looks like the sun. He chuckles and shakes his head.
The Yazirian limps from the disk and approaches the front door of the temple. He does not seem surprised to find the mid-day desert landscape cloaked in shadow. He brings his chronocom to his mouth.
“Hound, this is Hunter. Come in, Hound.”
The chronocom sputters with static. A robotic voice answers. “This is Hound. Go ahead.”
“Ready for immediate pick-up. Alpha-one-seven-yellow.”
“Roger. ETA ten minutes. Hound out.”
The Yazirian drops his weary arm and leans against the side of the doorway. A light wind picks up outside. He doesn’t notice the figure behind him, waiting for the chronocom to switch off. A high-pitched whine suddenly tells him a blaster is powering up. His hand tightens around the Krik-bone handle of his custom-made laser pistol.
“I wouldn’t do that”, a surly voice says over his shoulder. “Drop the fancy piece. Keep your hands where I can see them.”
The Yazirian grudgingly tosses the pistol to the ground and raises his arms. He turns to face the voice, but he already knows to whom it belongs.
“Mrylinax.” He spits the name out through clenched teeth.
“Berdax”, Mrylinax answers somberly. He stands ten meters away, barely upright, holding a laser rifle with grim determination. His fur is burnt and smeared with dried blood. One eye is swollen shut. Half of one ear is missing. He says nothing more, letting the silence testify to the hatred between the two enemies. A quick jerk with the rifle tells Berdax to drop all the other weapons he’s carrying. He complies, albeit in a state of shock.
“How? How did you… ?”
Mrylinax coughs and narrows his eyes as if straining to stay conscious. “Your boys were amateurs. That wasn’t my body they were scoping out. If they’d looked more carefully they’da noticed that was just a coupla’ their buddies stripped bare and piled up to look like a Humma. Funny. I never thought it would work…”
Berdax’ look of disbelief moves to one of apoplectic rage.
“I left them a nice going away present, don’t you think?” Mrylinax continues, never smiling. “Then hurried up that there rabbit-hole just in time to get here afore you.”
Berdax nods slowly, beside himself for letting Mrylinax get the drop on him.
“You murdered countless Humma in your raids on Fochrik, you sonuvabitch. And for what? A deal with the Sathar? Anyone in the Frontier would be right in carving you up, feeding you to some bloodworms for what you did.”
Berdax begins to smile a sly smile. “But you’re smarter than that, aren’t you? You know my connections. I’m worth at least a million credits to my old Sathar connections at least. And you certainly don’t want the trouble that’ll follow if my guild finds out I’ve been taken out.”
Mrylinax drops the laser rifle and pulls out a vibroknife.
“I told you I’d see your carcass hang from the walls of Ch’Thri.” He activates the knife. A nasty humming noise fills the ancient temple.
“Where is this thing going, anyways?” Marcus mutters from the back seat of the tiny rail car. Details of the tunnel pass by in a blur. He can only make out the long, silver line of the rail stretching back behind them forever.
“Does it matter?” Dr. Leinso replies from the front seat. “Anything is better than that furnace we just left!”
Sitting beside Leinso at the controls is Freya. “At the rate the car is accelerating I’d say we are 3.5891 kilometers away from the explosion…now.”
Suddenly the tunnel opens up into a massive black cavern that stretches beyond visibility. With no visual cues as reference the car seems to be standing still. Only the marker lights along the track give away any sense of motion: they blink into view below the car at an astonishing rate.
Marcus is relieved and sickened at the same time. The thought of leaving Mrylinax behind to fight those bounty hunters, as well as watching Ruby disappear into a puddle of goo seeping into the alien craft’s walls, was hitting him hard. He was never the official leader of the team, but he always felt like the group was his responsibility. His natural sense of leadership and code of honor had driven him to see this mission through and get through it with his team intact. That wasn’t possible now. He couldn’t help but think of all the good people he’d seen die in the line of duty. Two more gone. Two friends.
Leinso lets out a yelp. “Look!” He jabs a long finger at the glass.
On either side of the car they can see distant corners of the cavern illuminated by thousands of glowing pods. Their unnatural yellowish glow seems to be emanating from something deep within the containers. Strange letters similar to those seen in the alien craft mark the outsides of the canisters. Barely visible from the light can be seen long, twisted black stalks gnarled and snaking around large greyish spheres half-buried in the ground.
“What the hell?” Marcus breathes to himself.
“The spectrographic characteristics of the light match those we saw from the Tsorium pellet. The large spheres and stalks can only be…”
“… from one of those huge spider-shaped robots like the one we faced in the temple. Look at how many there are! They look like they’ve been torn apart! What could…?” Marcus trails off.
“I tell you, those Muurancha Development stooges played a part in this!” Leinso says emphatically. “Told you they were snooping around, bullying us archaeologists whenever we got near the Denai temple sites! Them and those Pan-Galactic goons were here, digging around. They must have found the motherlode of Tsorium and found these spiderbots guarding it!”
Freya interjects. “The recording onboard the ship tells us that the Drennidians tried in vain to rid the universe of the Tsorium for fear it would mutate any ecosystem into which it was introduced. It seems that after their ship crashed here there only recourse was to hide it and dispatch these sentries. The Denai religion seems to revolve around the stories the aliens fed to the Quatro to keep them from disturbing the Tsorium. The Doghan… “
“The Doghan merely traced the religion’s roots back to its source and found this place. So why is Pan Galactic involved?”
Marcus pipes in, “Pan Galactic knows nothing about this. It’s Jurgen Saribalis, the PGC exec who signed the orders to send us here. The records show that after the first expedition to this moon there was a viral outbreak. Samples of the soil were taken back to the Prenglar system and forgotten. Years later an apsiring virologist discovers the samples, finds the organisms we now know as mutated Ix, and started her own company developing these super-ferocious bio-organisms capable of scouring bio-waste clean. Months later she disappears and guess who buys out the company?”
Leinso looks confused. “Um.. the Saribalis guy?”
“That’s right, Saribalis. He buys out the company, traces the virus back here, and authorizes Pan Galactic to start a ‘storage’ facility on a barren moon. Little does the company know he’s figured out how powerful Tsorium is and he’s mining the stuff using their equipment!”
Leinso begins to nod his head. “Okay, okay.. but what about manpower? Who’ve they got doing all of this work? And where is all the digging equipment coming from?”
“You said it yourself, doctor”, Freya says dispassionately. “Muurancha Developers came in to do the job. They’re here even now. We found a large encrypted database that allowed us to trace transactions between Saribalis, the Yazirian clan of Hooris, and several companies that are Hooris holdings.”
Marcus grits his teeth. “Saribalis has been running this show from his office in Prenglar the whole time! Remember the file that showed Saribalis had asked for a transfer to the materials division? Why would anyone take a demotion like that? He was putting himself into position. It got him this facility when he needed it most.”
“Okay. I see now.” Leinso says slowly. “But I don’t get it. Where do you guys come in? Didn’t you say Saribalis hired you to come here and investigate the communications blackout on Calas? Why would he jeopardize his own operation?”
“Ha!” Marcus laughs bitterly. “It was a set-up. All along it was a set-up. They were testing the Tsorium and something happened – the experiment inadvertently wakened the Ix mutants. They had long since gone dormant on this planet. The radioactivity jump-started them into another feeding frenzy. When all hell broke loose I’m sure Pan Galactic asked Saribalis to send someone to check on his project.”
“Explaining why he chose free-lancers like you and the others.” Freya says.
“But why us? We’re a pack of nobodies.” Marcus replies. “Pan Galactic would want professionals, someone they know is up to the job.”
Freya is silent, then continues. “I never told you or any of the rest of Detachment 2551. But when I first joined your group I looked up your files. I found something very interesting. Your records have all been altered to show much higher levels of professional experience than you truly have. Service records, certifications, job experiences… all augmented to very high levels.”
Marcus’ eyes widen as the truth hits him. “That sonuvabitch! He was feeding us to the wolves! He told PGC we were seasoned professionals when all along we were in way over our heads!”
Freya continues “Apparently to cover his bets. If he could demonstrate to PGC that he was taking care of the problem then that would give him time. In the meantime, he figured you posed no real threat. Just like the unfortunate band of operatives that went before you.”
“Detachment 2490”, Marcus whispers. More unwitting victims in Saribalis’ scheme. “They disappeared too soon for Saribalis’ liking, putting the pressure back on him to solve things. So he got us, framed us for some crime to get the whole of Yazirian space after us, and even sent Streel after us over some fabricated megacorp war. Dammit. DAMMIT DAMMIT DAMMIT!!!” Marcus slams his fists into the sides of the railcar. “We’ve been played like suckers from the beginning!”
“And yet”, Freya says, “look at how far you’ve made it. The Crimson Pirates under Gardus were on to the scheme and helped you to get here to fight it. Even now the Quatro army is storming Calas compound and hopefully V’Sndyk has found a way into the compound so that we, too, may gain entry. It appears Saribalis did not account for one very important variable when hiring you and the others.”
“What’s that?” Leinso asks, scratching his head.
Marcus smiles. “Dumb luck.”
The cave disappears as the rail car races back into another artificially-lit tunnel. The sudden change back to light leaves Leinso wincing, his Yazirian eyes sensitive to light. With his sungoggles on, Freya isn’t bothered by the transition.
Marcus frowns. “I think there are more secrets you’re holding from us, Freya. How is it you can see in pitch darkness even with sungoggles on? And access computers so bloody fast? And figure shit out like where we are to a thousandth of a kilometer when nothing on the control panel tells you that? And… “
Freya turns in his seat, his heavily bandaged face and concealed eyes revealing nothing of his expression. “You are going to ask how I survived being ejected into a vacuum while on Charon Tavis and returned to normal so quickly once I got back on the Vercingetorix?”
Marcus nods slowly, his eyes staring at Freya with stark suspicion.
Freya turns in his seat to face the front again. “Some secrets we keep to ourselves. Don’t you agree, Marcus? Isn’t that why you carry that katana and seek out others like you, others who have partial amnesia, others who have some enhanced battle sense built in them that somehow allows them to sense one another from a distance, something that drives you to murderous intent?”
There is a long and uncomfortable silence in the car. Leinso squirms, then says “Um… I still have a information disk I checked out from the University of Zebulon twenty three years ago. Does that count?”
The rail car comes to a sudden stop. In the heat of the discussion, no one seems to have realized the car was slowing down. The trio exits the pod and finds themselves standing before a large freight elevator. Service corridors twist off in every direction, dimly lit and filled with smoke.
“Come on, we’ve got to hurry”, Marcus says, pushing the conversation out of his head. He jabs a finger at the elevator control panel. Nothing happens. “Dammit. No way in this way. I wonder…”
“Hello?” A familiar Vruskan voice emanates from a nearby intercom on the wall.
“V’Sndyk!” Marcus cries. “We’re here below the compound. Can you get us in?”
“Can I get you in?” V’Sndyk says wryly as the elevator door opens. “Only if I get a raise.”
“When we are making any money, consider yourself in for a raise”, Marcus laughs.
Freya and Leinso enter the elevator. Suddenly, Marcus’ expression becomes very grave. He looks all around, as if hearing a noise no one else can hear. His eyes dart from corridor to smoke-filled corridor. He unsheathes his katana and holds it before him in a defensive posture.
“Freya, the two of you go on ahead”, Marcus says, his eyes never leaving the corridors beside the elevator. “I.. I’ve got something I have to do.”
Freya doesn’t seem surprised by this news. He merely nods.
“How?” Marcus whispers. “How do you know about what I am? What do you know about the Avatar? Can you tell me anything about how this happened to me? What’s it all about!?”
Freya shakes his head. “I am afraid I only know what you know, Marcus. Your kind have gone deep underground and are wandering the Frontier. For what reason, I do not know.”
Marcus looks intently at the cloaked and bandaged Yazirian. “Good luck, Freya.”
“And you, Marcus.”
Freya pushes the release button. The elevator doors close. Silence descends upon the corridor as Marcus readies his weapon and steps carefully into the smoke.
Groo charges headlong into the company of Doghan, his Zamra swinging. His attack is without thought – he is caught up in the throes of complete battle rage. His eyes are dliated completely, his muscles quivering with ferocious energy, his muzzle drenched in a froth of saliva that pours from gnashing, snapping teeth. A primal force is unleashed through his mind and body. He no longer sees Doghan or Quatro or anything else. He sees only enemies with the glowing demonic eyes and he lunges forward with a bloodlust he’s never felt before.
The screams of the dead and dying are great. But nothing can be heard over the clashing of metal Zamra against Quatro staves, the sizzling of flesh scorching at the touch of the skeletons, the steady thunder of the compound cannons finishing off the Quatro cavalry. Howling jaws of bared fangs charge on all sides, punching through the tall defensive line of four-armed warriors. The strength of the Doghan seems to build with every passing second.
Groo slashes at every Yazirian that nears him. Metallic limbs are hacked off and thrash about in the sand. Screaming maws are filled with blood as his Zamra eviscerates savage after savage. Whipping manes of hair are caked in gore. A Doghan bearing the bright orange sash of a commander points his Zamra at Groo and yells in the Gnarsh tongue:
“DEATH TO THE GENERAL OF FOOLS!”
The commander lunges forward, plowing a way straight towards Groo. With incredible speed the Doghan swipes at Groo, tearing a large gash in his side. Groo roars in pain and stumbles. The Doghan brings his blade up for the kill. But Groo manages to bring his own Zamra up in time, blocking a mighty blow. The commander bears down hard, trying to force Groo to his knees. His strength is incredible. Groo’s arms strain under the weight of the Yazirian’s steady pressure. He looks up to see mad, glowing eyes peering at him over a slavering grin. Muscles in his back begin to spasm as he feels himself buckling.
“HA HA HA YOU WILL ALL DIE IN THE SHADOW OF SYTRA THIS DAY! HA HA HA!!!”
Groo’s mind reels. This would be a good death for any Yazirian, he thinks. But not good enough. Through the glare of his battle fury he remembers a lesson about reeds bending in the wind rather than breaking. He checks his footing. Then, without warning, he tumbles back and spins off to one side. His Zamra follows, staying locked with the enemy’s Zamra until the last possible second. The Doghan falls forward, still pushing on his blade. But before he can react Groo is standing and twisting. Just as the commander wheels and turns Groo is ready. His Zamra swings hard and wide.
The Doghan’s head is split in two, separating where jaw meets skull. The top half flies off, leaving the sickly visage of Yazirian lower teeth and an exposed tongue wagging wildly in its cavity.
Groo lets out a victory growl and dives back into the fray. The desperate state of the battle compels him and his army to fight with an unknown fury. He turns to see the road to the mountains filled with skeletons. Almost no Quatro can be seen. Ahead, the front gate to the compound is closing slowly. Through it pour a mass of a hundred fresh Doghan reinforcements. They are charging on his front line before he can even turn to face them.
Then a cry goes up. Half a dozen Quatro outstretched fingers point up.
“AZRAN!! AZRAN COMES TO SAVE US!”
The Doghan horde freezes in its tracks, staring skyward. Quatro and Doghan alike cease their fighting and turn to look. Even in his fury, Groo takes pause. He stares open-mouthed at this latest addition to the otherworldly battle. High above, coming over the mountains to the east, are the distinctive shapes of thirty Yazirians gliding in on the warm updraft of the nearby volcanic region. Their gliding membranes stretched wide, they each carry a gleaming golden Zamra: the Kohinoor as it is known in the Denai lore.
The host of Yazirians sails quickly towards the battle site. As they descend, Groo looks to the gun towers. Their long barrels slowly rise. But it is too late. In no time the first wave of Yazirians sails past the battle and beyond the main gate. They angle their descent towards the guns, dropping small objects as they pass. Explosions erupt across the rooftops throughout the compound. The gun towers are engulfed in billows of smoke, falling silent forever.
More explosions erupt from behind. Groo turns to see Azran sailing low to the east and dropping satchels into the midst of the swarming skeleton army. Enormous clouds of flame erupt throughout the ghoulish horde. Skeletal bodies blow apart like dried twigs, sending a shower of bony fragments clattering for hundreds of meters.
A cheer goes up from the Quatro army. The Azran descend to the ground on the other side of the compound fence. Their entrance has glorious effect. The Doghan are taken completely by surprise by their arrival. Without thought, they charge away from the main gate and into the surrounding area. Their flight is brief: as soon as they cross the field between Groo’s army and the fence they stumble into the mine fields. A whizzing sound is heard as a hundred grasshopper mines deploy their payload three meters into the air where they explode over a wide area. Another symphony of explosions sounds as the unwitting Yazirians are blown to bits by a gauntlet of grasshopper mines.
Freya and Leinso step out of the elevator into a dark service corridor. They are greeted warmly by a Vrusk hunched over a computer terminal.
“Hi guys!” V’Sndyk beams.
Freya brushes past him. He proceeds to a ladder affixed to a nearby wall.
“We must hurry!” Freya declares, climbing up the ladder. “The doomsday weapon is about to fire!”
“Oh, right!” V’Sndyk unplugs his C.A.C. and rushes to follow. “Is this the best route? I can pull up a plan of this place… where do you wanna go?”
Freya leaps from the ladder onto a catwalk leading to a smaller elevator lift platform. V’Sndyk hurries to catch up to him.
“There – up on that landing”, Freya points as the elevator clears the catwalk. As the elevator rises, the enclosed area suddenly opens up into a massive circular chamber rising fifty meters above them. Machinery lines the walls all around. Catwalks extend from computer bays in the walls into the center where a thick translucent column rises the height of the complex. The column pulses with an eery glowing yellow light like that seen in the Tsorium containers. Figures in lab coats can be seen rushing here and there. At the top the glowing is brightest where the roof has opened up and the column terminates in a huge bulbous barrel. Directly above the barrel can be seen the sun of Scree Fron, shining faintly through the black clouds overhead.
V’Sndyk is awestruck by the discovery. “This is no warehouse!” is all he can squeak out as the lift comes to a stop near the top. Freya dashes off the platform and rushes along a catwalk towards the column.
“Come! I have need of your computer proficiency!” Freya pulls out a pistol and fires. A technician on the catwalk grabs his chest and slumps to the floor.
“EEEK!” V’Sndyk inches out onto the catwalk, nervously staring at the drop on either side. “W-w-where are we going?!” he cries.
Freya clears the other side of the catwalk and reaches a computer panel affixed to the glowing column. “Quickly! Hurry!” he says, motioning for V’Sndyk to follow.
V’Sndyk swallows hard and rushes across with his eyes closed. When he gets to the other side Freya is working on a service panel leading directly into the column’s interior.
“What the hell are you doing now?” V’Sndyk yells, eyeing the Yazirian in disbelief.
Freya ignores him. “Plug into that station and get me a schematic to work with. The light will be incredible in there – I need you to walk me through it.”
V’Sndyk hastily plugs his CAC into the terminal jack and begins calling up the files he had open downstairs. His mind is reeling as he looks back and forth from the screen to his companion. He barely notices shouts coming from other levels and laser fire ricocheting off of the catwalk. Freya produces a tool from one of his many pouches and continues working on the panel. At last, with a great tug, the panel swings open. Freya disappears into the opening and closes the door behind him.
V’Sndyk shakes his head and continues working. He looks down to see his toxy-rad guage registering the column interior off the scale. Nothing today has made sense, he thinks to himself.
“I got it!” he cries, not knowing if Freya can hear him inside the column. “Plans for the whole thing, right here! Not hard, seeing as we’re HERE and the files are stored locally. Piece of cake, really… GULP!”
V’Sndyk looks up to see another panel opening from inside the column and Freya entering the heart of the reactor. Citrine light cascades over the body of the Yazirian, giving him a ghostly aspect.
Freya’s voice is a muffled yell. “I’m inside! Tell me how the refraction panels are arranged at this level!”
“FREYA!!! Get out of there! You’ll be killed instantly!!!” V’Sndyk screams.
Freya looks in V’Sndyk’s direction and shakes a fist at him. “FORGET ME! WE’RE RUNNING OUT OF TIME! GIVE ME THE SPECS!”
V’Sndyk shakes his head and looks back at the computer. The countdown clock reads only five minutes until zero-hour. “This is a standard third-stage refractor”, he stammers. “Helical arrangement with every third rod at a –28 degree azimuth.”
The figure behind the plasteel goes to work, his hands moving quickly over a bank of crystals.
“Uh… the third disk is going to require a ninety-degree counter-clockwise…” V’Sndyk stops short when he looks up. Within the chamber the intense energy of the Tsorium reactor pours over Freya’s figure, burning away all clothing and bandages. Soon he is engulfed in a coccoon of flames. Yet he doesn’t pause. His hands continue to work as determinedly as ever. Within seconds the bright yellow light begins to send up a shower of sparks all over Freya’s body. A loud sizzling sound is heard and a blackish smear splatters all over the plasteel cover.
More seconds pass, then the black smear too is burned away. Beyond this, standing where Freya once was, stands the gleaming metallic exoskeleton of a Mechanon. Nimble actuators move over the crystals like a musician’s hands. V’Sndyk stands awestruck, not knowing what to make of what he sees. The Mechanon’s bright red photoreceptors look up to stare him in the eyes. A cold chill runs through his carapace.
“V’Sndyk – I don’t have time to explain” the robotic figure says in Freya’s voice. “The crystal lattice is frozen – I can’t realign the gun while power is running through it. You have to shut down the power!”
V’Sndyk stands catatonic on the catwalk.
“V’Sndyk! If we let this weapon fire it will unleash a terrible solar storm into this system, the effects of which can’t possibly be calculated! The aliens who came here gave me a message! You have to help me get this thing realigned! The fate of this world counts on it! The fate of the whole Frontier!”
Marcus steps from the corridor into a nearby doorway. He has wandered these catacombs for several minutes, feeling out the strange sensation in his head. The indescribable feeling that someone is nearby, somewhere. And he knows who it is.
The door closes behind him. He is in a tall cylindrical room. Large boxes line the walls, electrical and photonic cabling running from them into massive plugs in the walls. A deep hum emanates throughout the cluttered chamber.
‘Power station’, Marcus thinks to himself.
“Cole.” A voice beckons from the other side of the room. A human emerges from the shadows, an elegant sword in hand. Marcus’ eyes narrow.
“Vega”, he replies, bringing his katana into a defensive posture.
Nothing more is said. The two rush forward, crossing swords with a loud clang. A rapid succession of blows follows, strike and counter-strike. Vega swings relentlessly, forcing Marcus into a cluster of wiring on the floor. Marcus trips, falling over a monitoring console and rolling into a heap beyond. His sword clatters from his hand onto the floor.
Vega runs and vaults over the console. By the time his feet hit the floor Marcus is up and gone, his sword with him. Vega eyes the room warily. He crouches and begins walking forward slowly.
Marcus stifles a cough. The wind knocked out of him, he can barely breathe. He strains his eyes and tries to listen for footsteps. At last he takes a deep breath and steps out from behind a huge terminus of wires.
Vega appears out of nowhere, swinging his sword. Just in time, Marcus ducks. A shower of sparks erupts from the wire bus as Vega’s sword slices into it. The bounty hunter yells, feeling the jolt of a live wire. Marcus is quick to act on the opportunity. His foot comes up in a high kick and catches Vega square in the chest.
“OOFH!” Vega yells, tumbling backwards. His sword is wrenched from the box by the blow and flies into the darkness. Marcus is on top of him in no time. His sword comes down again and again, narrowly evaded by Vega as he clambers under another work station.
Silence again. Marcus grips his katana hard, eyes darting about for any clue as to the whereabouts of his foe. Something clatters to the floor a few meters behind him. Marcus whirls and swings. Nothing. Only the pulsing of indicator lights on control panels nearby.
“Aaaaagh!” Vega screams, charging him from the shadows.
The fight is intense. Ready for Vega this time, Marcus lets loose with a barrage of his own offensive strikes. The swords flash in the dim light, splitting cables and raking the ceiling. Each of the swordsmen grunts with the effort of keeping up pace with the lightning-fast fight. Vega swipes and cuts into Marcus’ arm. Marcus grits his teeth and feints to his left, returning for a strike that cuts deep across Vega’s chest. Vega retaliates, throwing a three-blow set-up that leaves Marcus wide open. His blade swipes savagely, tearing into Marcus’ mid-section.
“GAH!” Marcus yells, feeling his insides burn like fire. He reels from the blow, fumbling over a chair and more cables before turning and dashing into the darkness. Vega is nowhere to be seen. He readies himself, setting his feet and bringing his sword back to a solid defensive stance in front of him.
A flicker catches his eye. Marcus looks to see a bank of monitors at a work station. On one of them he sees V’Sndyk standing on a catwalk at the heart of the complex, working furiously at a computer while a tall glowing column pulses behind him. Marcus checks for any sign of Vega then squeezes out of sight under the workstation. He picks up an earpiece and punches the button for the audio feed.
"V’Sndyk – I don’t have time to explain. The crystal lattice is frozen – I can’t realign the gun while power is running through it. You have to shut down the power!”
Marcus looks at his chronocom. One minute left. They’d never make it. The floor rocks beneath his feet as another explosion goes off somewhere outside the compound. The battle rages, he thinks to himself, but no clear victor yet and no time for it to matter anyway. He eyes the monitor and thinks back to the alien craft and the terrible weapon above. His mind goes over their discoveries of the Tsorium, the effect the bright light had on distant stars, the fact that Scree Fron is experiencing Solar Major right now.
“V’Sndyk! If we let this weapon fire it will unleash a terrible solar storm into this system, the effects of which can’t possibly be calculated! The aliens who came here gave me a message! You have to help me get this thing realigned! The fate of this world counts on it! The fate of the whole Frontier!”
Marcus swallows hard. Time is running out, he thinks. Too many people lost on this mission already, and for what? He grits his teeth in anger, thinking of the hundreds who have died already. Then his stomach sinks as he thinks of the countless more that could die.
Somehow he remembers the words of the old Yazirian that visited him in the Charon Tavis infirmary. He remembers the Avatar, mysterious warriors prowling the Frontier in secret, carrying out a mission of blood no one recalls, taking the heads of other Avatar. He remembers the holographic report on Avatar, how they possess cybernetic implants that contain their life memories and how those memories are passed from victor to victor in a contest for what he still doesn’t know. Then he remembers the brilliant electrical storms that accompany such beheadings, apparently a result of the implants being severed. Such futility, he thinks, and no one to explain it all. Who was this Vega and why did the two of them feel so compelled to carry out this destiny?
Then it hits him. He looks around him, studying the forest of wires running throughout the room. He looks back at the monitor and V’Sndyk working in vain to stop the massive weapon in time. Thirty seconds, his chronocom reads. How comforting it would be, he thinks, to avenge the deaths of so many with a single honorable act.
“An honorable death”, he whispers to himself, swallowing hard. Then he stands and throws the earpiece aside.
“VEGA!” he cries, and strides out into the middle of the room with his sword held high. He can only hear his heart beating loud and fast, but he knows the bounty hunter is near.
“VEGA! I defy you!” Marcus yells again, his jaw set. He thinks of his family and of his comrades in this ill-fated mission. He tries to remember every precious second of his short but weary life. He throws his long black hair back and fixes his steely gray eyes on the darkness around him. “Great maker”, he whispers, “let this act buy the lives of many.”
A blur moves from the shadows. The dim light gleams briefly off of a silver sliver of steel. There is a rush of wind and a whistling sound.
The robotic figure is pounding on the plasteel windows.
“V’Sndyk! It’s too late! You have to cut the power now!”
V’Sndyk trembles at the computer console. “I can’t! It’s just too complicated!!”
Suddenly the console bursts forth in a shower of sparks. V’Sndyk steps back, covering his eyes. Large arcs of electricity curve upward and snake up the floor and walls. Tendrils of energy cascade throughout the entire weapons complex in a brilliant fireworks display. Fiery bolts shoot outward from the glowing central column, scorching the walls. Power boxes everywhere go up in a staccato deafening explosions. A great wind picks up, blowing throughout the chamber and throwing loose objects everywhere.
“WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?!” the robotic figure yells from inside the column.
But before V’Sndyk can answer the storm is over. Silence falls like a weight, leaving only the echoes of the thunder ringing off the walls. The Vrusk collapses in a heap. People all over the place are stunned into silence. The machinery throughout the complex, to all appearances, seems inactive.
The robotic figure looks back at the crystal display. “The power! The power is off – I can realign the weapon!” Quickly, he begins moving the modules into a complicated arrangement. He barely manages to place the last module into its socket when a faint glow reappears in the column. Within seconds lights come back up on machinery everywhere and the massive weapon begins to hum again. The robot hastens to the access hatch and exits the column as the hum builds steadily.
“Close your eyes!” he warns V’Sndyk, leaping on top of him.
The humming builds to a crescendo. Intense white light engulfs the entire complex. A roar like a starship engine overwhelms V’Sndyk as he crouches low, eyes squeezed shut. The catwalk beneath him shakes like an earthquake. For what seems like an eternity the air feels charged with palpable energy, the throbbing sensations in V’Sndyk’s ears timed with the massive pulses of energy being funneled up through the weapons column and out into space.
At long last there is silence. V’Sndyk reluctantly opens his eyes, still shaking. He sees the gleaming metal skeleton that once belonged to Freya standing over him, looking skyward. There is no emotion on the mechanon’s face, but V’Sndyk thinks he can sense satisfaction coming from it as it studies the heavens.
“W-w-what happened?” the Vrusk asks with a tremor in his voice.
The mechanon never takes its eyes from the opening in the complex roof. “The weapon systems went offline just long enough to allow me to realign its targeting mechanism.” He points to the dim ball of light overhead that is Scree Fron’s sun. “It seems the weapon was intended for this system’s sun. But I pointed it elsewhere…”
V’Sndyk thinks about this for a minute. “Where?”
The mechanon helps V’Sndyk to his feet, rambling on as if ignoring the question.
“I deciphered a recording made long ago by aliens who crashed on this planet. Their payload was the dangerous material that fueled this weapon and incited the viral outbreak seen here recently. The recording told me that the aliens had at one time sought to save this planet’s life forms from extinction by converting this world to a healthy biome. Have you ever heard of the snowball theory of water placement on worlds that support life?”
V’Sndyk shakes his head, still dazed. Freya continues, “Many worlds that support indigenous life are thought to have, over millennia, attracted enough ice asteroids since their creation to provide the water needed for carbon-based evolution. There happens to be an enormous pocket of ice asteroids located in this system’s oort belt. The aliens proposed to draw this water matter in and convert moon ‘G’ into a lush home for the Quatro and the other races. That is why Cymon detected the latent second string of DNA in all the creatures of this world – it was grafted there by the Drennidians as a genotype more suited to the less arid climes to come. The viral outbreak apparently was anticipated as a means to break down the DNA of the native life and activate the evolution to the redundant DNA code.”
V’Sndyk shakes his head. “So, this world is one big crock-pot for cooking up a kinder, gentler planet for its mutant population? And all this because of some radioactive crap a less-than-tidy alien race dumped here eons ago?”
Freya nods, then looks skyward again.
“I don’t understand”, V’Sndyk continues. “How do you know all this? And who the hell ARE you?! You’re some kind of mechanon, right? Freya was just some Yazirian face you put on to creep around normal Frontier society? What the hell is your angle in all this?”
“No angle, per se”, the mechanon responds gently. “I am here in search of a higher intelligence. Something or someone that transcends any scale of measurable cognition that you or I or anyone else in the Frontier has ever experienced. My people have long suspected its presence in this quadrant, but we knew the UPF would never tolerate my operating out in the open.”
“A higher being?” V’Sndyk stammers. “What?! Now that we’ve conquered an army of cyborgs and knocked over their big bad gun, not to mention helped kick-start an ancient game-plan for cooking up Quatro-Eden, you’re telling me there’s a higher being involved in all this?”
“Of course. Who do you think has been watching you all this time, V’Sndyk? Who do you think has been sending you all those messages, slipping you solutions to your problems, making ways for you to get through obstacles when there were no viable answers?”
V’Sndyk looks stunned. “The messages on the computers… they came from…?”
The complex is bathed in light once again. This time it is a soft pinkish glow projected from above. There is another hum, this time of massive pressor beam projectors coming from outside the complex, somewhere high above. V’Sndyk shields his eyes with one arm and looks up.
“It is here”, the Mechanon says. There is a hint of awe in its voice.
V’Sndyk’s eyes widen in bewilderment. “…oh my god….”
Eddies of smoke drift lazily from the buildings of the Calas compound. The great storage facility lies in smoking ruins where a demolition teams has brought it down, along with the great gun it contained. Sunlight slowly fades from the landscape as the Scree Fron sun sets to the west. Small fires burn throughout the compound grounds and the surrounding fields. Quatro soldiers police the aftermath of the recent battle, gathering up their honored dead and placing them in ceremonial rows as well as cleaning up the Yazirian Doghans and dumping them into a distant fire pit. The Azran warriors move in and out of the compound, freeing prisoners and rounding up Hooris technicians. Here and there Quatro battle songs can be heard as a celebration begins.
Groo sits on a roadside barricade, visibly exhausted. The battle has left him with many wounds. He barely notices as a medic treats him. Cymon appears and sits down next to him. His fur is dark, tainted by the smoke of the skies he’d glided through earlier. He says nothing, preferring to let out a relaxing sigh and finger his gold zamra pensively. Groo smiles at seeing his friend. He is secretly relieved to see that Cymon’s involvement with the Azran and the Denai prophecies had not excluded him from the real mission at hand, that of stopping the Calas threat. He lays a long hand on Cymon’s shoulder and chuckles.
“What are you laughing at?” Cymon asks, smiling himself.
“At you, my brother. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes: you, soaring through the sky at the head of a glorious host of warriors, arriving in the nick of time to rescue the forces of good. The glory of it!”
Cymon looks uncomfortable with the praise. “It is indeed ironic how life turns. I signed up for the Pan Galactic mission to find a sense of duty, of traditional Yazirian honor, to atone for the shame I felt when my bearer died. How utterly… fortunate I’ve been to be thrust into this most honorable of quests. It is almost comical.”
Groo frowns. “Hey, take it easy on yourself, would you? You weren’t chosen for anything you couldn’t handle. Just look around – we won! And you”, he says, jabbing a finger at Cymon, “You’re a hero whether you like it or not.”
“And you”, Cymon says, looking a little reassured, “are a hero as well. General of a noble army, no less. I watched a little of the battle from the sky. Your tactics were exceptional. Though the enemy foiled your attack plans, it was your mine field we drove them into that finished the battle for good. My congratulations.”
“Thank you. Talk about your life’s ironies – here I am a grizzled smuggler and I end up a war chief. The Quatro fought well, I give them the credit. They are a noble people. Even when the horrors from the mountains appeared they did not retreat. I am proud to have been counted among them.”
“About that”, Cymon says, pulling up a leg from one of the skeletons. He probes a viscous, translucent gel coating the bones. “Fascinating creatures. It seems they are a strange form of prokaryotic life that invades the muscle tissue of vertebrates, slowly intertwining their way around the bones and replicating the synergistic action of the muscles. Over time they in effect learn to use the vertebrate skeleton as a platform for mobility.”
Groo curls a lip at the sight of the thing. “You mean those are animals moving those skeletons around? Just blobby little critters?”
“Of sorts. These nodules along the surface appear to be light-sensitive receptors that allow the creature to see in every direction, tracking its targets by movement. Very sensitive receptors, for that matter. I suspect that is why they only came out at night. It also explains why the compound released the smoke screen prior to the creatures’ appearance from the mountains.” Cymon eyes the remnant with interest for a second, then chucks it over his shoulder.
“Well, they sure scared the crap out of us coming up that road. No wonder there were legends of the dead walking. Ow!” Groo winces as the medic cinches up a bandage. “Any word from the others?”
“One of our radio techs picked up a transmission from Ty earlier. He has retrieved your ship and is looking for the head scientist, Dr. T’Prinna, that Jurgen Saribalis no doubt strong-armed into working for him. Everyone else is still missing. Everyone except…” Cymon’s voice trails off. He looks at the ground.
Cymon pulls out a long colorful piece of cloth embroidered in the tradition of Yazirian clan sashes. Groo instantly recognizes it as the one Marcus wore for being an honorary member of a Yazirian clan. “An Azran scout found this while searching the main building. Marcus was nowhere to be found but blood matching his DNA profile was on the scene. He also found this.” Cymon reaches behind him and produces Marcus’ katana. “My files show that Marcus had a distant relative to whom he wanted this sword delivered in the event of his death. I suppose I should send it to him.”
Groo is too shocked to speak for several minutes. Only the crackle of a nearby fire can be heard. He takes the sword and examines it as if trying to see Marcus in it. “How do you know for sure?”
“That he’s dead? I’m afraid the sheer volume of blood guarantees Mr. Cole received a mortal wound. It was found in a sub-level power station, no identifiable cause of death could be ascertained. The electrical connections to the room were fused into slag, suggesting a power overload in that section. That is all we have to go on.”
Just then a whipping sound is heard in the air above. Cymon and Groo look up to see a jetcopter descending slowly onto the sandy plain nearby. There are no markings to the copter except a single gray emblem that resembles a horse. Upon landing, the copter opens and a large Humma hops out. Almost instantly the pilot guns the engine and the jetcopter screams skyward.
“MRYLINAX!” Groo yells, forgetting his wounds and rushing to greet him.
Mrylinax looks terrible. His fur is burnt and covered in blood, his body covered in gashes and scars. He approaches slowly, barely able to walk and squinting through only one open eye. Most of his weapons and equipment are missing, but he clings resolutely to a small sack at his side. Cymon pulls out his medkit and immediately begins working on him.
“Mrylinax, it’s great to see you!” Groo exclaims loudly. “Where have you been? Where are the others? Freya? V’Sndyk? Ruby?”
“Haven’t the slightest”, the Humma’s voice croaks weakly. “I got pinned down by Berdax and his bounty hunters at the temple site. I was covering our retreat into the alien space ship and got separated from the others. Before I knew it, the whole place went up like a powder keg. I think something went atomic. I barely got out alive, but I managed to finish some old business at least.” At this he tucks the sack away so that no one can inspect it more closely. “I caught a ride with a friend of a friend”, he says, pointing back to where the jetcopter once was. “Looks like you kicked some ass here, Groo.” He smiles, then surrenders to his pain and lies down.
“Azran!” A shout goes up behind them. Two Yazirians approach, one an Azran warrior, the other an older Yazirian wearing an explorer’s tunic with digging tools hanging from its belt. He is carrying what looks like V’Sndyk’s portable memory module. “Azran, we found this one wandering through the central chamber of the main building, near the great gun!”
“Dr. Leinso!” Cymon says, recognizing the archaeologist. “You were with Marcus and Ruby at the temple – what became of them?”
Dr. Leinso looks quite shaken. “I-I-I’ve seen things today I’ll never believe!”
Cymon frowns and injects the Yazirian with a mild tranquilizer. “Please, tell us what happened.”
“Your Dralasite friend… id… id… id was absorbed into the alien ship!”
Groo looks skeptically at the archaeologist. “Is he cracked up or something?”
“What do you mean ‘absorbed’?” Cymon persists.
“The alien craft – a ship left behind millenia ago by an alien race called the Drennidians – it was one big organism carrying the Ix. Ruby… Ruby coalesced with the Ix, ids body merged into them. Right before my eyes! Id joined the Ix virus – fused id’s body into the matrix that the Ix had formed inside the ship!”
Cymon ponders the news. “Crazy as it sounds, it adds up. Ruby’s unique body chemistry somehow reverted the Ix into its native state. Id told me on numerous occasions that id carried the hope for all the Ix to return to normal. The fusion of ids body with the ship must have triggered a chain reaction, a genetic reversion. A breakdown in matter like that could easily free up untold energy, causing…”
“An explosion! I told you!” Mrylinax says from his spot on the ground.
“The Ix. Are they truly returned to normal?” Cymon thinks out loud. “Is this planet clean of the virus now? What form has the Ix taken, if it still survives at all? And the native life here – what can explain the redundant strands of DNA code found in their genetic profiles?” Cymon begins working on his CAS but Groo pushes him aside.
What of Freya and Marcus and V’Sndyk, doctor?”
“The human left us at an elevator below this facility. He seemed to act strangely – told us he had to do something – had his sword out and was looking cagey! Started babbling about Avatar and wandering the Frontier. I never saw him again. The bug and Freya…” At this the doctor pauses again. “They went up into the central firing column of that building – tried their best to stop the weapon from firing. Your friend Freya… he went inside the column! He got all burned up! It burned away all his clothes, all his skin – but he lived! The Yazirian lived! The Yazirian was a MECHANON!!!”
Groo and the others gasp. Even Mrylinax looks up, squinting in disbelief through his one good eye.
“I knew there was something funny about that guy!” Mrylinax says, spitting in disgust.
“There he was – this incredibly advanced-looking mechanon standing in the radioactive chamber, working in all that heat! He realigned the entire weapon – made it fire off-target! It missed the sun completely! Only…”
“Only the power outage allowed him to do it! Electrical storm hit us, right there in the middle of that huge chamber! Sparks flying! Explosions everywhere! It was incredible!”
“And the day was saved, we get it”, Groo says, frustrated at the pace of the conversation as well as its exaggerated tone. “What about Freya and V’Sndyk?”
Leinso becomes quiet and looks to the sky. “There was this bright light! It engulfed every corner of the building! It shined straight down onto your friends. There was this chatter I couldn’t make out, like it was talking to them or something! Light was everywhere, taking shape, making sounds…” Leinso clutches Groo’s tunic and eyes him with a maddened look of fear. “The light – the light TOOK your friends! Next thing I knew the light was gone and so were they! Just WHOOSH! TOOK THEM! GONE! WITHOUT A TRACE!”
Cymon hits Leinso with another shot of tranq, knocking him out.
“Great”, Groo mutters, staring down at the unconscious Yazirian, “Leinso’s bananas, our buddies are missing, what next?”
As if in answer, the sound of landing jets roars into earshot. High above the Talon appears and descends slowly onto the sands nearby. The jets send sand flying in every direction, but Groo can still make out Ty’s grinning face through the cockpit window of their old converted scout ship.
Groo grins back. “Leave it to Ty – he sure knows when to make an entrance.”
Early morning. The sky is a beautiful azure color. The Scree Fron sun shines gratefully over the peaks to the east. Cymon and the others emerge from an abandoned barracks located within the Calas compound. The base is eery in its vacant state, but makes for a much more comfortable night’s sleep than any enjoyed since coming here. The entire group is bleary-eyed and half-asleep. The Quatro celebration the night before had been a big one – tribes from kilometers around gathering to revel at the fall of Srytra and the passing of the dark prophecies. Yazirian ale was handy in great quantities, thanks to the pirate cache in the mountains. Song and dance of the Quatro were enjoyed long into the night. Each of the adventurers was regarded a hero of legendary status and inducted as honorary members of the Quatro grand council. It was a night none of them would soon forget.
Outside the barracks they find the Quatro awake and in formation, standing in lines on either side of the trail leading to the compound launch pads. Their arms are held high, holding forth their bladed staves in a group salute. In the distance the Talon sits ready for departure, trails of exhaust drifting from her engines.
“Geez, will you look at this?” Mrylinax mutters from a floating stretcher. “Someone musta told ‘em we were buggin’ out.”
The group walks slowly along the path to the ship. As they do, the Quatro chant a heartfelt war song in their honor. Groo smiles and leads the way.
At the end of the walk, they are met by the assembled Quatro chieftains as well as the entire company of Azran warriors. One of the Quatro chieftains approaches.
“Friend Groo”, the chieftain says in his Quatro tongue, placing a hand on Groo’s shoulder. “You led our people into the greatest battle of our time. This day the prophecies came to bear and good defeated evil, light overcame shadow. You led us into the mouth of fear and because of you all we prevailed. We salute you as our brother and fellow warrior. Know that you will always be welcome here.”
The chieftain presents Groo with one of their bladed staves and a clump of circuits ending in a pair of red lenses, apparently stripped from a fallen Doghan. As he does this the female Azran named Keela steps forward.
“Friend Cymon, you came bearing the true Kohinoor of Azran. And in his spirit, led us with wisdom and courage to face the ancient worm Srytra on the world of Amradar, home of the Den Qritsa. Though the mysteries of the Denai religion seem elementary now, the battle for freedom and the lives of the innocent are timeless concerns. We salute you as one of us, the Azran, protectors of the Yazirian people and of the Frontier. May you always be ready with your Zamra in the fight for truth. We hereby ordain you with your Azran title.”
Keela turns and presents Cymon to the rest of the Azran company.
“This day we recognize Cymon Ak’Barruda as Targrith Cha’Kudsch – ‘Truth-Seeker who Strikes the Worm’. ”
A mighty cheer goes up from the Azran and the Quatro. Cymon smiles and lets the praise wash over him. He feels a surge of relief, as if a great weight is lifted from his shoulders. He looks to the sky as if to find his homeworld and the grave of his bearer. He imagines what she must think of him this day and he smiles again.
“Okay, guys, let’s head out!” Ty yells over the ship’s external speaker. “Long-range scanners are picking up a LOT of weird activity in the orbital plane of this moon, and it’s closing fast! We need to dust off soon if we’re going to get clear of it!”
Groo pushes Mrylinax up the passenger ramp into the ship. Cymon turns to the Quatro and holds his hands aloft in a sign of greeting, then turns and follows his friends. Short minutes later the engines are roaring and the brown terrain of moon ‘G’ quickly falls away.
After seeing to Mrylinax in the Talon’s makeshift infirmary, Cymon climbs up to the bridge to join Ty and Groo. The two are working enthusiastically at the controls, happy to be back on their ship once again. Ty is busy plugging V’Sndyk’s portable memory module into a data port. Groo seems a little less than enthusiastic about the wreck Weasel has left of one set of controls.
“Dammit! What does all of THIS do? None of this was here before! And what’s this light indicate?”
A monitor to one side shows a curious sight: countless specks of matter moving through space along the orbital plane of moon ‘G’ on an intercept course with the moon’s surface. A scanner feeds an instant update on the composition of the matter and its trajectory.
“Ice” Cymon whispers, trying to comprehend this latest mystery. “That cloud of matter – frozen water?”
“Yeah. Thousands upon thousands of chunks of ice. Snowballs in space. From the looks of them they appear to have been blown apart into these chunks and pushed this way. I don’t know how that…”
“The great gun,” Cymon answers, half to himself. “Not a weapon at all. The entry Freya left on V’Sndyk’s module said it all. The Drennidians wanted to give this world a second chance at life, something they would never have.”
“What are you talking about?” Ty asks over his shoulder.
“Don’t you see? The snowball theory is a popular one among geophysicists to explain how life-sustaining planets may have come across their abundant supplies of water. Over millions of years, ice asteroids crash to the surface of these worlds. Those with the proper atmospheric envelope and heat are able to transform the ice into water and breathable air. The Drennidians must have designed a massive tractor beam – something not far from our own pressor beam technology. It was to be built by the Quatro when the time was right, built to draw this storehouse of water from the skies and onto the moon. Amazing.” Cymon pulls out his CAS again.
“I don’t get it. Dump a bunch of water onto the planet overnight? Isn’t that a bit extreme?”
Cymon calls up the flora and fauna of moon ‘G’ as catalogued by the first expedition to the planet decades ago. He rifles through a hundred files detailing the genetic code of the native life, entering search parameters as he goes.
“That’s it! The redundant strands of DNA inherent to every form of life found on moon ‘G’! They’re back-up genotypes! Genetic blueprints for the plant and animals of moon ‘G’ to adapt to a drastically more humid ecosystem! The virus – it acted as a catalyst! The Tsorium that caused the Ix to mutate in the first place was used to make the gun – that caused a return of the mutant Ix. The Ix attacked the organisms of moon ‘G’ on a cellular level! That’s the trigger designed to kick in the switch from one set of genetic code to another! Life as we know it on moon ‘G’ was evolving right in front of our eyes and we didn’t even know it!”
“What’s all this got to do with a gun pointing at the sun?”
“I’m not sure. Perhaps there are electro-magnetic properties of the beam created by the Tsorium that the Doghan were exploiting. I do not know why they were trying to fire it at Scree Fron’s sun.”
The discussion is interrupted suddenly when a light flashes on the pilot’s console.
“Proximity alert!” Ty yells, scrambling to bring up a report display. “HOLY COW! How could we have missed that! I’m reading a dozen or more vessels ranging from hull size three all the way to hull size twenty! Geez! What is that thing?”
A screen lights up to show a huge vessel emerging from the far side of moon ‘G’. It is long and slender in shape, with orb-like modules every so many meters along its hull. The rear of the ship swells into a large cylinder that glows bright yellow. The front of the ship ends in a narrow opening that also glows. The effect is similar to looking at an enormous cannon floating in space. A convoy of ships buzzes all around it, some with Scree Fron militia markings on them. Others have the mark of the Crimson Pirates.
The light at Groo’s workstation that he was recently fussing about begins flashing.
“Incoming message over this station, Ty” Groo says, bewildered. “Looks coded.”
A monitor flickers to life. Nothing prepares them for what they see. The slimy, oozing head of a Sathar greets them. It is fortunate they are shocked to silence, for the Sathar does not seem surprised to see them.
“Sssstatussss report, McFarlane” the Sathar hisses out of the monitor. “Where issssss T’Prinna?”
Ty looks at Cymon and Groo then shrugs. “Um… he’s…. he’s right here. We have him.”
“Exsssellent. But what of you, McFarlane? You sssseem healthier-looking than before. What hassss transssspired?”
“Huh? Oh, I got some vitamin injections.”
“No matter. All of you humanssss look the sssame to me. And what of Yardua Kal-Kree? Are you giving him sssafe passsage assss Sssssaribalisssss ordered?”
“Um, yeah. Sure am. You betcha. He’s asleep right now.”
“Ssssspaccccce him. He issss ussselesss to usssss now.”
“Huh? I mean, okay.”
“The battle on the planet turned againsssst usssss before we could resssspond. Who knew the accurssssed team Sssssaribalissss assssssured ussss would fail would insssstead locate our gun and make it misssssfire? The beam will doubtlesssss attract unwanted attention now. The tesssst is a failure. The UPF fleet asssssembled for the Frontier cccccelebration at Prenglar will ssssscatter in ressssponssse. Our plan to drop into the sssssysssstem with the Heliosssss platform and fire into the Prenglar ssssssun will be too late to pulssssse the ssssyssstem and cripple the fleet. You are ordered to kill T’Prinna and eliminate any evidenccccce that we were ever here. Do you underssstand?”
“Yeah. Will do.”
“Oh, and McFarlane, I am keenly aware of your intellectual level. You will no doubt want to be paid before meeting usssss at the rendezvous point? Sssssimply press the big red button on the consssssole and you will recccceive your payment. Sssssaribalissss ssssendsss hisss regardsssss.”
The monitor flickers and goes dead. Cymon, Ty, and Groo exchange awestruck looks. Through the forward view port they can see the cluster of ships pull away from moon ‘G’ and begin accelerating for Void jump out of the system.
At last Groo breaks the silence. “Um… I’ll go below and start disconnecting the red button from our ‘payment’.”
“Good idea,” Ty responds, still frozen in his seat. “I’ll just warm up the engines and get us out of here.”
“Where are we going?” Cymon asks.
“Anywhere but here.”
Cymon affords one last look at the brown sphere below them. Amradar, place of legends. He sighs, knowing a great chapter has come to an end, a chapter no one would hear about. Would anyone ever know how close the Frontier had come to being invaded? Would anyone know how much his team had sacrificed to keep the innocent safe? He thinks back to the day he stepped onboard the assault scout Vercingetorix, and of the beautiful human female Breanna who died trying to protect the ship. He thinks of the ragged team of adventurers thrown in over their heads, a team called Detachment 2551 by Pan-Galactic bureaucrats, and how he and the Humma are the only known survivors of their only adventure. It fills his heart with sorrow to be so alone. He tries to comfort himself with the knowledge that Saribalis will be on the run and evidence in the memory module will restore their good standing. But most of all, his heart is glad to have fought alongside the greatest heroes he’s ever known. His eyes look to the stars. So many endless possibilities lie beyond them. Only time will tell…