J. E. Bruce
Copyright 2014 by J. E. Bruce, all rights reserved. No portion of this novel may be duplicated, transmitted, or stored in any form without the express written permission of the publisher.
Warning: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.
This is a work of fiction. All characters, events, and locations are fictitious or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or people is coincidental.
This novel is dedicated to the memory of my beloved Robert
What we do for ourselves dies with us.
What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal.
~ Albert Pine
Ensign Sirin Corsali peered through her grit-hazed goggles at the bleak, wind-rippled vastness of Rasal Ghul Seven’s equatorial desert and made a face. Not a happy face. In fact a sweaty, tired and very frustrated face. For five long, tedious hours she’d been slowly roasting inside a protective softsuit with absolutely nothing to show for her misery, and worse, no end in sight for it, either—
And I volunteered for this! She shook her head as she made yet another slitted-eye scan of the scattered remains of the craft whose automated distress call had drawn the patrol ship Baidarka to this desiccated corpse of a planet.
It was obvious almost from the moment they’d made planet-fall that the wreck was not the hoped-for lifeboat of the missing passenger liner, Herrick. Too small, far too old; all that remained was the tiresome but—now they were here—requisite duty of determining, if possible, who had been piloting the craft, what it was doing so far off the beaten path… and why it had crashed.
Hate as she did to admit it, if only to herself, she was beginning to suspect the Baidarka’s acting second in command, Edwin Teague, had been right all along. Smugglers—gotta be.
As for why it had crashed, she only needed to look into the dazzle that was the binary of Rasal Ghul. Through the planet’s thick atmosphere the sinuous contact ribbon that shackled the two stars together was clearly visible. So were the massive flares that spurted unpredictably from the cauldron-like surfaces of the mismatched suns.
She looked to her left, to the looming hulk of the wreck itself.
Split open by the force of the impact and coated in ocher dust, it suddenly reminded her of an overripe melon that had been carelessly dropped.
Helluva place to die.
She suppressed a shudder at what she’d seen inside, then turned and squinted into the late morning’s glare, straining the limits of her goggles’ ability to react and darken accordingly. To the east, row upon row of low dunes formed up like so many schooling eels, and beyond them rose the weathered spine of an ancient escarpment. To the west, more desert; desert for as far as the eye could see.
Helluva place, period.
Orbital scans suggested that this area had once been a massive lagoon—but that was before the system’s unstable suns began their slow deaths, before the Rasal Ghul Seven’s vast and life-giving oceans shrank under the binary’s relentless cannonade—oceans that were now no more than shallow, salt-soupy seas.
With a weary sigh, she trudged over to a shoulder-high, wind-smoothed outcrop then used her boot to irritably kick at a fluttering scrap of insulation the wind had trapped against its ink-black, shadowy base. Nothing. Not a goddamned thing—
She smiled and nodded as two of the landing party’s marines, Lundgren and Gislasen, and the medtech, Jarvis ambled towards her. All were breathing hard.
“Anything?” Jarvis asked as she stopped in front of her, arms akimbo.
“Nope,” she exhaled.
“Us neither,” Gislasen grumbled. “How long do ya think the commander’s gonna to make us search? It’s pointless. And I’m damned hot.”
“Me too, and I don’t know,” Corsali replied.
Jarvis pointed to a nearby swale between dunes. “We haven’t looked over there.”
“Yes, we have,” Lundgren muttered wearily as he dusted off a rock with his gloved hand, clearly intending on sitting down.
“No, we haven’t,” she said, and started off, tossing over her shoulder: “Sooner we finish, the sooner we get flicked back aboard and the sooner I can buy you two whingers a round of cold beers.”
The two marines clearly took heart in that—the cold beer part, not the whinger part.
Lundgren said, “You heard the lady, Neil,” and with a tired wave of his hand, began plodding after the medtech. “All the ice cold beer you can drink’s on Julie.”
“I never said that,” came Jarvis’s quick rejoinder.
“Make sure you stay in sight of us or the wreck,” Gislasen said to Corsali.
“Of course.” She smiled.
With a shake of his head, he reluctantly followed the other two.
Corsali braced her back against the rock then turned her attention back to the debris field, this time making only a token effort at searching for any clues not blown away on the ceaseless wind or covered by drifts of the loose, talc-like sand. Her eyes were tired, she was tired. And hot. And really thirsty—the mention of cold beer had only made it worse. And there was a spot at the base of her back that itched almost to the point of distraction. She carefully wriggled against the rock, hoping for a little relief, at least from the sweat-itch, but the softsuit’s padding was just too effective. If anything, her actions made the spot itch even more.
She exhaled, slowly. All for nothing. All this effort for a worthless bunch of smugg—
A faint, metallic twinkle caught her distracted gaze. It hadn’t been there a moment before, she was sure of that. Well, almost.
Just another scrap of insulation. She shook her head and shifted her narrowed gaze, then looked back at it as it dawned on her that unlike the other bits and pieces of metallic foil, this wasn’t fluttering in the wind.
She took a step, and another as she kept her eyes fixed on the spot as the wind-blown sand quickly re-covered whatever it was. Then she knelt and brushed away the sand to reveal the tip and, despite its gritty coating of blackened sand, the razor edge of what was clearly a dagger. And a damned big dagger at that. The blade alone was over half the length of her forearm. What the…? Another anxious flick of her gloved hand sent fine grit swirling in the stiff, bone-dry breeze and exposed more of the blade and part of an intricately carved and inlaid handle.
She no sooner reached for it when an impatient voice crackled from her tac-pac: “Corsali!”
She flinched, startled, jerked her head up and glared at the wreck as she slipped the tac-pac from her belt. She pressed it to her filter mask and replied, “Yessir?”
“Where are you?” Aquila’s disembodied voice demanded.
“Just outside, sir. And sir? I’ve found—”
“We need you and your data reader in here—pronto!”
“Coming, sir.” Corsali looked back at her find. Maybe this is the clue we need. A clue, anyway…
With a shrug she snatched it up, lurched to her feet… and froze.
Was it her imagination, or did she really feel the faintest of icy tingles running from the dagger’s handle into her gloved hand and up her arm? Despite the almost unbearable heat, the elaborate grip felt uncomfortably cold to the touch, even though the thick gloves.
She dropped the blade, jumped back and grimaced. Oh… ICK!
“On the double, Ensign…!”
“Yessir.” She shoved the tac-pac in its holster then yanked a collection bag from her belt. Biting her lip and after a moment’s hesitation, she gingerly snatched up the dagger and stuffed it in the bag. Just your imagination, Sirin, that’s all. Nevertheless, she wiped her gloved palm on her softsuit, and rather than reattaching the collection bag to her belt, she held the bag at arm’s length as she started towards a largest hole in the wreck.
As she reached the ruined craft, she reluctantly attached the bag to her belt—the last thing she wanted was for one of the marines to notice and make a remark about her letting the situation getting the better of her—then she glanced over her shoulder at the desolate landscape and was relieved to find that the nearby marines in question had their backs to her and were clearly fully engaged in a heated, albeit private discussion, going by the hand gestures.
Truth be told this place’d give anyone the creeps. She hugged herself against a sudden chill, hurriedly clambered into the wreckage through the exploded remains of the airlock, then fought her way through dangling insulation and wiring to reach the pilot pod.
Aquila, hunched over the ruined nav console, peered over his shoulder at her then jerked his chin towards the small craft’s largely intact computer interface. “Niebuhr’s got some juice flowing. See if you can access the data.”
She nodded and pushed her way over to the interface. “Might take a while.”
He replied with a preoccupied grunt as she mated the data reader with the computer’s data port. She wasn’t particularly surprised when nothing happened. She jiggled the connection, waited a moment then jiggled it again, this time with more vigor. Come on, damn you!
Finally a green telltale flashed, signaling the start of a download.
She exhaled. ‘Bout time.
Satisfied the connection was solid—at least for now—and with morbid curiosity getting the better of her, she risked a look around. The planet’s fine sand powdered everything in a dull ocher mantle: the surrounding desolate landscape, the wreck, even the interior of the relatively intact pilot pod. Inside it was thick enough to camouflage the pools of dried blood on the impact-twisted decking—until a misplaced footstep sluiced it away.
It even clung to the blood spatter on the walls and on the ceiling where it formed grotesque miniature stalactites…
There had been a good reason she’d been so relieved when Aquila had ordered her to assist the others outside. A damned good reason. Even the desert’s sweltering air, thickly populated by eerie, shimmering apparitions, was better than this claustrophobic tomb.
Curiosity more than satisfied, she again fixed her gaze on something familiar, something safe: her portable data reader.
It didn’t help. Her filter mask, able to scrub the stifling air free of the fine grit, was unable to completely remove the faint, sickly sweet stench of burnt electrical wiring and flesh.
“What’s taking so long?”
She glanced sidelong at Aquila. “The craft’s data packs were damaged on impact—”
The startled oath from under the pod’s nav-console drew Aquila’s attention as well as Corsali’s anxious stare.
A moment later and as Aquila stepped aside, Owen Niebuhr’s lanky, soft-suited frame wriggled from under the tangled mass of crushed and burned composite. “Sir, you won’t believe what I just found.”
Oh, yes I would, Corsali thought with anticipatory dread as a host of extremely unpleasant surprises instantly came to mind. Damned straight I would.
He held up a soot-blackened object.
Aquila snatched it from his gloved hand and hissed, “A goddamned Hahtooshan maser pistol!”
Corsali, her nerves already frayed, repeated unsteadily, “Ha-Hahtooshan?” as her mind swiveled on its hinges. She’d been expecting a body part, something yuckily recognizable. A hand maybe... or the burnt-to-a-crisp head of one of the smugglers.
A Hahtooshan anything had not been on her exhaustive list of unhappy finds. Maybe because a Hahtooshan anything was far, far more than an unhappy find. It qualified as a stupendously alarming find.
She gave the very alien-looking weapon a wary look and swallowed, hard. Hahtooshan! More the stuff of rumor than reality, it was nevertheless a name rarely spoken aloud, as if by doing so the speaker risked conjuring up one of the dreaded mercenaries in the flesh, shadowy creatures alleged to be shape-shifters or from a different dimension entirely, able to appear and disappear at will—
Suddenly the tiny pilot pod seemed very crowded indeed, filled with ghosts of all descriptions. “Are you sure?”
“Yup.” Aquila’s intense gaze never wavered from the very alien appearing pistol. “If you’ll excuse the expression, Ensign, dead sure.”
Niebuhr scrambled to his feet. “And sir, didya notice?”
Corsali braced herself as she looked first at the engineer, then Aquila, only to find the officer running his fingers over the weapon’s smoothly curved surfaces while nodding in grudging admiration. A sidelong glance at Niebuhr confirmed he too seemed enthralled by the pistol, seemingly oblivious to its potential ramifications.
“Notice?” Aquila asked, briefly looking up.
Niebuhr tapped the heavy weapon’s power pack with a soot-blackened gloved finger. “Drained. Completely.”
Corsali leaned forward for a closer look. “So?”
Niebuhr answered, “Not like mercs to drain a weapon, Ensign, not like ‘em at all.”
“Maybe they were desperate.” She looked around again. It hadn’t taken a scanner to confirm that something horrific had happened within the cramped confines of the pod—something that had happened after the crash. In many places the blood spatter had been smeared before it had dried, as if licked. And most obvious of all: no bodies.
After spending an entire morning searching a twenty-kilometer square area, not even a scrap of clothing had turned up. Debris from the crash, yes—any signs of her ill-fated crew? No. Not a trace—
The dagger! Corsali pulled the collection bag from her belt. “Sir?”
“Mercs are never that desperate,” Aquila muttered as he reluctantly returned the pistol to its finder.
“Besides,” Niebuhr said, “their weapons, or at least what someone’s claiming are genuine Hahtooshan weapons, have been known to turn up on the black market on rare occasions, huge demand for ‘em, as you can well imagine—” Corsali’s impatient squint prompted his quick rejoinder, “—or so I’ve been told.”
“Sir.” Corsali held up the transparent bag, “I found—”
“Where’d you get this?” Aquila took it from her hand.
“Just outside, not ten meters—”
The loud chirp from her data reader drew her attention. Perfect timing. She picked it up and scowled at its small display. What she saw was not what she’d been expecting, not that she’d been at all sure what to expect. An archaic version of the Coalition standard, followed by lines of encrypted data would not have made the list. Like the Hahtooshan pistol, this was a completely unexpected—not to mention unwelcome and potentially ominous—find. What were smugglers doing with encrypted Coalition data—and outdated data too—close to seventy-five years out of date, she figured.
She tapped a series of commands into her reader, sending it off to search for a corresponding cypher within its own databanks. Then, overhearing hushed voices, she turned to find Aquila and Niebuhr standing huddled together not far away. Niebuhr still held the alien pistol while Aquila pointed to and speculated on various functions. Both were clearly transfixed by the exotic weapon.
She pursed her lips, then, hearing another beep, turned her attention back to her reader. The small machine had finally deciphered a few fragmentary pieces of information recovered from the tiny ship’s stores and as she absorbed the data, her throat muscles tightened. “Sir….”
Aquila looked up from the pistol, alerted by her tone.
“You’d better see this.” She handed him the reader and he swept his suddenly apprehensive eyes down its tiny screen.
Niebuhr leaned close and gave the readouts a quick study as Aquila whispered, “Gods!”
“But biological weapons research was outlawed after Tindari!” Niebuhr gasped.
“Guess someone wasn’t told,” Aquila replied, “or more likely wasn’t listening.” He smacked his gloved fist against the console, knocking loose a shower of fine ocher dust. “Damn it to hell!”
Corsali found herself staring at the maser pistol Niebuhr clutched, temporarily forgotten, in one gloved hand, the bagged dagger in the other. “Sir, you don’t think the Hahtooshans—”
“Are involved in this?” Aquila interrupted heatedly. “Let’s hope to hell not!” He paused, took a deep, steadying breath, then added, “As Niebuhr said, merc pistols like this have been known to crop up on the black market—and of course there’s no guarantee, no way to prove they really are merc weapons—which tells me we won’t have to look any further than one of the non-aligned worlds and this certainly isn’t a merc boat—looks to be Gorm, maybe Thalamian.” He glanced sidelong at Niebuhr, who eagerly nodded his agreement, then he tapped the data reader with his gloved forefinger. “The instant this damned interference abates, I want this information transmitted to the Baidarka.”
Corsali started to acknowledge the order, but was cut off by a faint, throbbing, pop… pop… poppoppoppopop.
Niebuhr wheeled towards the pod’s open hatch. “Sounds like—”
“Weapons fire!” Aquila finished for him. Shocker in one hand, tac-pac in the other, he used his elbows and forearms to fight his way through dangling insulation and loops of scorched wiring to reach the open hatch. Niebuhr followed.
Corsali hesitated just long enough to unholster her own shocker before she too stepped through the hatch.
“Gianakis! Arctoi! Report!”
The two marines had kept themselves out of Aquila’s sight and mind, as well as out of the harsh sunlight by making an unhurried search of the craft’s small staging bay. Now they crouched on either side of another gaping wound in the hull, weapons at the ready.
Gianakis motioned with his shocker to the sliver of desert visible beyond. “Came from that dir—”
He was interrupted by a high-pitched staccato, poppoppoppoP! and he tucked himself into an even tighter ball as the rest took cover behind a bulkhead.
“There,” Corsali pointed as she spotted a flicker of red among the heat ripples.
Aquila and Niebuhr followed her finger and squinted into the glare beyond the gash in the hull.
“Jarvis!” Niebuhr gasped. “It’s Jarvis, sir!”
And it was. The medtech was running full out towards the wreck but as a rolling curtain of dust caught up with her, she vanished from sight; an instant later, they heard a distant, muffled scream.
“Jarvis…? Jarvis!” Aquila snarled into his tac-pac. “Jarvis, answer—”
“Listen!” Corsali grabbed his hand. “Do you hear that?”
The others glanced around the ruined bay, their ears now drawn to the same faint thrumming sound Corsali had heard; at first it was barely noticeable over the faint rasp of wind-blown sand across the hull, but it was getting louder with each passing second.
Aquila looked back at her. “Recall Gislasen and Lundgren; tell ‘em to get back here on the doub—”
Another scream rang out from somewhere outside and behind them and as one they turned to face whatever new menace was headed their way. Through the ragged hole that had once been the exterior airlock, they saw the two blue-clad marines running pell-mell towards them, a curtain of dust following. One was clutching his shoulder while the other, following closely behind, was firing wildly back the way they’d come, into another wall of dust.
Arctoi, Niebuhr and Gianakis sidled closer to the airlock, then raised their shockers and took aim—at a dust cloud.
“Hold your fire!” Aquila barked as he too took up a defensive position. “They’re outta range.” He squinted into the glare. “Just a little closer…” he whispered, his finger on his shocker’s trigger as his eyes and those of the marines desperately searched for something to shoot at. “Come on! Come on!”
The two marines never made it. Less than twenty meters from the wreck they abruptly disappeared as the ground beneath their feet suddenly opened, swallowing them whole, and just as suddenly closed again. The roiling wall of dust continued barreling towards the wreck as if it had a mind of its own.
For a moment no one moved, no one breathed. The deep thrumming grew louder, stronger, enough to loosen the caked dust on the ceiling of the wrecked craft.
Aquila turned to Corsali. “Pilot pod, go!”
She scrambled to her feet as the staging bay filled with the thick, swirling ocher grit. It poured from above and spilled in through the rents, leaving her nearly blind. She activated her emergency locator then felt her way across the buckled deck, but she’d no sooner wrapped her fingers around the hatch’s lock-seal when the ship shuddered, almost knocking her to her knees.
A blood-curdling chorus of high-pitched screeching followed.
“Gianakis, Arctoi, Niebuhr!” she overheard Aquila bellow, “In the pod!”
She stumbled through the hatch, through the tangle of twisted composite and wiring and over to the nav-console. Bracing herself against it, she brought her tac-pac to her breather mask and over the cacophony of screeching, over the near-deafening pop-pop-pop-poP! of weapons fire, shouted, “Baidarka, we’re under attack! Baidarka, respond!” She tried again, louder, her voice bordering on a scream: “BAIDARKA!”
The ship rocked again, violently. A moment later Aquila, gripping his side, stumbled through the hatch. Gianakis was right behind him, covering their clumsy retreat with wild sweeps of his shocker’s targeting beam. Once inside, the trooper smacked the airlock release with his gloved fist.
For an instant nothing happened, then, with a protesting groan the lock closed, muffling the enraged squeals.
“That,” Gianakis gasped as he sagged against the lock frame, “...that’ll... hold ‘em.”
“But not for long,” Aquila forced out through clenched teeth as Corsali helped him to the pilot’s chair.
He slumped onto it, looked down at himself and grimaced: his quilted softsuit was in tatters and his flank was soaked in blood. “Well... crap.”
Corsali knelt beside him and checked to make sure his locator was activated before she began rummaging around in Jarvis’ field triage kit, left by the medic once it was clear that there were no survivors.
“Niebuhr?” Aquila asked thickly. “Arctoi?”
Corsali glanced at up Gianakis; the marine corporal, still gulping hungrily for breath, managed a sharp shake of his head.
“Bugs… fuckin’ bugs….” Aquila shivered involuntarily as Corsali pressed a dressing pack against his side. “The Baidarka…were you able—”
Another violent shudder ran through the wreck.
From every direction they heard frantic scraping and scratching noises, and then, abruptly, silence. Even the thrumming sound stopped.
Corsali looked at Aquila, then up Gianakis. The corporal clutched his shocker in both hands as his nervous gaze darted around the cramped pilot pod, the glitter of his wide eyes visible through his grit-hazed goggles and the suspended dust.
Seconds stretched into minutes.
“I think they’ve given up.” Gianakis leaned heavily against the wall, steadied his breathing.
No sooner had he smiled a relieved smile when a faint metallic clink drew their startled stares to a buckled deck plate not far from the hatch.
A flurry of scratching was followed by high-pitched squealing and even more determined scraping.
He backed up an unsteady step as the plate bulged, ever so slightly. “They’re trying to break through! Get behind that,” he motioned to the ruined nav-console with his chin as he pointed his shocker at the deck plate, “I’ll cover you!”
Corsali slipped her arm around Aquila’s waist, helped him back to his feet and together they stumbled over to the console.
No sooner had the two hunkered down behind it than a deep, concussive thawhump-thawhump-thawhump! vibrated through the pod, shaking loose more dust.
She flicked Gianakis a hopeful look.
He replied with a confirming grin and, “About time the damned cav—”
The hatch exploded and he was hurled against a nearby bulkhead by the force of the blast.
“What?” Doctor William Amalfitano gasped.
Teague fastened his uniform collar, snatched back the data disc the flickerstage tech held out for him, stuffed it into his breast pocket then strode out of the flickerstage chamber, tossing over his shoulder, “You heard me, Doctor.”
The Coalition patrol ship Baidarka’s CMO looked around. The seven marines and their sergeant, Delatorre, the remaining members of the second landing party still in varying stages of getting out of their armor—no soft suits this time, this time it was full battle kit—stared back at him, equally stunned.
Amalfitano muttered, “Doctor Fleming’s waiting for you in sickbay.” Then he hurried after Teague, up the gently rising corridor towards the control room. “I heard you, Edwin, I just didn’t believe my ears.”
Teague stopped just short of the control room’s blue-framed airlock and wheeled around to face him, eyes flashing. “Then I’ll repeat what I just said. I see no point to yet another search.”
“But those are our people down there!”
“Where? Where, exactly? Need I remind you I just flicked back from the surface? That I just spent over three hours personally directing the search, a search that turned up absolutely nothing in that time, not one clue as to the fate of our missing, and which was called off only because the conditions on the surface had so deteriorated that you yourself considered it unsafe to remain—”
“But you saw Niebuhr and Arctoi—or should I say what’s left of them!”
“Which is why I won’t risk sending another search party to the surface until this current phase of stellar activity dies down and—”
“But that could take hours—days!”
“Or until those rescued recover sufficiently to tell us what happened.”
“You’re assuming they’re going to survive, much less regain consciousness.”
“I’m depending upon your skills for both, Doctor. Meanwhile, I won’t risk any more lives, something I thought you, of all people, would understand.”
“Normally I’d agree with you but in this case time is of the essence!”
“Then the sooner the injured regain consciousness, the better. True?”
Amalfitano started to open his mouth then thought better of it. Much as he hated to admit it, Teague was right—
“Now, perhaps you should go tend to them?” He tapped the airlock activator.
Amalfitano ran his fingers through his thick, graying hair and in a suddenly weary voice said, “I’ve done all I can for them.”
“Then I suggest you try harder.” Teague stepped through the now open airlock, into the ship’s control room, leaving Amalfitano to stare, incredulously, after him.
“Why you fu—”
“Stoker,” Teague asked, “any break in the interference?”
“No, sir,” the com-op replied. “Still unable to send your message to HQ.”
Teague seated himself at his console then looked up to find Amalfitano standing beside him. “Aren’t you supposed to be somewhere else?”
Amalfitano, as a reply, held a small, hand-held scanner close to Teague’s left wrist and its bio-band then gave the device’s readouts a quick study.
“I asked you a question.”
“I’m picking up some unexpected fluctuations in your basal metabolism.” Amalfitano looked up from the scanner, smiled sweetly and whispered, “Maybe being an autocratic bastard doesn’t suit you. Perhaps you should stick with just being a bureaucratic bastard and not try to rise above your level of incompetence?”
Teague’s glare turned frigid.
“If you remember, you agreed to my stipulation that immediately upon your return—”
“I’m well aware of what I agreed to, Doctor, and I’ll present myself as soon as I deem it convenient.”
“Well that’s not what I agreed to. We don’t know what the hell we’re dealing with—”
“I just underwent full de-con in the flickerstage. You were there, supervising.”
“Yes, yes,” Amalfitano angrily waved off the remark, “but—”
“And as the acting captain, I have the privilege of changing the rules if the situation warrants it.”
“And how does the situation warrant it, Lieutenant?”
Teague blinked in feigned astonishment. “Do I need to remind you that our commanding officer is missing? As are five crewmembers? That we’re out of contact with HQ and in orbit around a planet whose binary is dangerously unpredictable? If any situation warranted changing the rules, this would be it.”
Amalfitano stared back, arms crossed and unimpressed.
“In your medical opinion, do you believe I’m truly incompetent, unfit for command? You do have the power to remove me, you know.”
Amalfitano’s eyes opened wide as his arms fell to his sides, genuinely shocked Teague had actually called his bluff. “I said nothing about being unfit for command—”
“Yes, you did.”
He wet his lips and tapped the scanner. “It’s just these readings—”
“Your concerns and wishes have been noted and unless you plan on exercising your right as CMO and declare me unfit for command, your duty’s been done. Now let me do mine. Besides, as Captain, I don’t have to discuss the reasons for any of my actions with you, unless, as I just said, you can medically declare me unfit for the job, in which case my replacement would tell you exactly the same thing.”
Amalfitano pursed his lips and began slowly counting to ten as his narrowed gaze made a slow circuit of the ominously silent control room; the crew were trying to look like they weren’t listening, but the absence of any talking gave ample evidence that all ears had been tuned into their heated, albeit softly-worded conversation.
“Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear,” Teague continued, drawing Amalfitano’s sidelong stare. “Your presence here is neither needed nor wanted. If that’s not clear enough, I’ll have no choice but to have you escorted to sickbay.”
“Don’t be such an ass—”
“Do I have to call security?” Teague rested a finger on a toggle on his console.
“Of course not—”
“Then leave, and do not return unless I specifically order it.”
Amalfitano swallowed the obscenity that had formed on his tongue, spun on his heel and stalked through the airlock.
— ii —
Corsali opened her eyes, awakened by an odd, faintly pungent and totally unfamiliar smell—No, not unfamiliar. Out of place.
For a moment, she wasn’t sure if she was indeed awake or dreaming—but it was just a moment, until she tried to move only to find that her hands and feet were tightly bound. She fought down a surge of panic as she glanced around; at first she was only able to make out dim shapes in the surrounding gloom then ever-so-slowly details began to emerge.
The rough, wood plank floor on which she lay was crisscrossed with dusty slivers of faint purplish light. Above was a crudely thatched roof and suspended from it soft, loosely woven walls swayed in cadence with the floor’s gentle rocking. Beyond the walls something glittered.
The air too was odd. It was cool and damp.
She took another cautious sniff and her nose immediately identified the sour smell as that of brine. What the—
A muffled moan drew her startled gaze and her full attention to a shadowy mound nearby.
—hell. She hesitated, then with a mental shrug wriggled closer and, gently bumping it with her feet, hissed, “Hey you, wake up!”
The mound stirred and slowly turned a bruise-mottled face towards her.
Aquila stared blankly at her for a moment before mumbling groggily, “Corsali…?”
“Yessir.” A glance confirmed her worst fears: his shocker and tac-pac holsters were empty. The emergency locator too was gone, ripped from the shoulder of his softsuit. She didn’t have to look to know that the same was true of hers.
Aquila lifted his head. “What—” His eyes cleared as he too realized he was tied up. “Where… where the hell are we?”
“Not sure, sir.”
“Last thing I remember—the wreck!”
“Yeah,” she replied uneasily as his startled comment instantly evoked her own last cogent memory. “And Niebuhr—”
“Niebuhr...” Aquila swept their dimly lit surroundings with narrowed eyes. “Where is he? Where the hell’s the rest of ‘em?”
“Don’t know,” she replied. “Just woke up, saw you—”
“First things first, let’s get out of these bindings.” He began working his arms down his back. Half way down, he suddenly grimaced and grunted softly.
“Sir—you all right?”
Instead of answering, he drew his legs tight against his body and wriggled his arms down to his ankles.
As he did so, Corsali gave him a quick once over with her eyes. In the shifting light, it was impossible to tell if the dark stains on his face and clothing were blood or just a combination of grime and shadow. “Sir…?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m all right!”
Corsali wiggled closer. Now she was sure. It was blood. “But—”
“How ‘bout you worry about that bump on your head, and I’ll worry ‘bout my side, ‘kay?”
She bit back an equally snippy retort then watched in silent frustration and growing worry as he resumed his now frantic struggle against the bindings.
Finally, and with an explosive release of breath he slipped his arms from under his feet then fixed her with a triumphant look and between heaving breaths, managed, “Didn’t… th-think I c-c-could d-d-do it, d-d-did ya?”
She replied with a skeptical arch of a brow. “No. Sir.”
He steadied his breathing, managed a half-hearted chuckle and said, “Captain Vildur always said, if really you want an honest answer, go to Ensign Corsali.” He motioned to her with his bloodied and bruised chin. “Come on, let’s get those off you.”
She wiggled closer and he began tugging at the ropes. His off-the-cuff remark, clearly meant as a compliment, had had the opposite effect and she found her vision blurring.
Gildun Vildur… mentor, friend… surrogate mother. Dead—killed in the Matarran ambush that had cost the Baidarka twenty eight of her crew. She tried to blink away the hot, angry tears. And now this, whatever the hell this is—
She squinted over her shoulder.
“Don’t you start falling apart on me.”
She stiffened. “I’m not falling apart, sir.”
“Good.” He gave the ropes another sharp tug. “Have these off you in a sec.”
While he pulled and yanked and cursed to himself, she made another uneasy sweep of the small room’s interior, confirming they were indeed alone and as she did so, all of the pieces—the gentle rocking motion, the out-of-place smell, the oddly familiar sparkle beyond the slat-work—abruptly fell into place.
“Commander, we’re on a boat.”
Aquila stopped his tugging. “A boat?”
“That’s water out there, and the air, it’s salt air.”
He took a test sniff, and as he too recognized their surroundings for what they were, replied charily, “Yeah… you’re right—but wasn’t the closest body of water a good twenty kilometers from the crash site?”
“Forty at least. And sir? The Blatto didn’t possess the technology to build anything like this when this planet was last surveyed.”
“The Blatto, the sentient insectoids native to this—”
“Right. Bugs.” He made a face as he worked on a knot. “Don’t like bugs, ‘specially bright bugs.” He suddenly stopped what he was doing and gave her a sharp look. “So?”
“They were very low on the technological ladder when this system was surveyed one hundred and forty six years ago—”
“There,” he interrupted. “See if you can pull your hands free.”
After a moment’s struggle she managed to slip one bony hand from the loosened ropes then the other.
“That’s a long time.” He held out his hands as she rolled over to face him. “Your turn.”
She peered at the bindings then began working the unfamiliar knot.
“Things can happen,” he added.
“Agreed, but it’s doubtful they could’ve made this sort of progress within that amount of time without outside help—it’d be like making the technological leap from the paleolithic to the bronze age in the same period of time—there.”
“I’ll take your word on that.” He jerked his hands free of the now loosened ropes, tossed them aside and together they started on their leg bindings.
“Well,” he said a moment later as he kicked his feet from of the tangle of rope, “I think the first order of business is… to…”
Hearing Aquila’s voice trail off, Corsali looked at him, then, following his wide-eyed and now slack-jawed stare, glanced over her shoulder. A burly humanoid stood in the doorway, the limp body of the equally bulky Gianakis in its thickset arms as if the man weighed no more than a vac-bag of hot air.
The alien’s swarthy face was covered in a complex and grotesque pattern of black swirls, barbs and dots, all framed by a lank black mane that fell almost to its waist. The rest, from neck to feet, was an all-over dull black—and she couldn’t tell if it was a trick of the shifting light, but what she could see of its attire appeared to be... writhing, as if covered in tiny snakes. What the...
Its thick lips drew back into a gap-toothed grin, clearly pleased by her and Aquila’s stunned reaction. “Tah. Badathsu tanhah.” With that, the alien unceremoniously released its burden and Gianakis hit the deck with a substantial thud. “Hehtak tooq.”
Far from hot air, she winced as she risked a quick glance at Gianakis, then she looked up as the humanoid stepped over him.
“Edu hai-ti, uuman?” It reached for a small knife strapped to its forearm, but before it unsheathed it Aquila launched himself at the creature.
The startled alien stumbled back, tripped over Gianakis and tore through the fabric walls only to land spread-eagle on the deck with a meaty thwump!
Aquila followed, throwing himself on top of the creature before it could recover and scramble to its feet; the two grappled, then together they rolled across the deck, punching and kicking at each other.
Corsali pulled her horrified stare off them long enough to look for something, anything she could use as a weapon, then a flash of movement drew her darting, panicky gaze: more of the creatures had clambered up from below-decks, drawn by the sounds of the struggle—five in all and from all sides, seemingly in the blink of an eye. Oh… gods!
They quickly spread out to form a loose ring, then grunted and hooted in apparent delight as a punch sent Aquila sprawling. But their glee abruptly changed to surprise when he quickly recovered, tripped his attacker and using the combined force of his upward swinging fists and the falling alien, delivered a blow squarely against the creature’s exposed throat.
It crumpled with a strangled gurgle.
Aquila sank to his knees beside the now loudly wheezing humanoid and laboring for breath, stared up at his audience of stunned faces.
With a chuckle and gesture from one, the five began to close in.
Corsali shook herself free of the terror that had frozen her in place, snatched up a splintered, meter-length piece of what a few minutes before had been a wall support then stumbling out onto the deck, screamed, “Get away from him!”
The aliens’ shaggy heads swiveled towards her and the two closest, seeing her take a defensive stance, immediately positioned themselves between her and Aquila.
Corsali looked at one, then the other as she tightened her grip on the length of wood while sizing up her chances of getting past them. They glanced at each other and grinned in reply, as if sharing a private joke.
Then, hearing a soft cough behind her, she wheeled around and found herself face to chest with a seventh alien, the biggest of the lot. Oh... fuck. She looked up… and up, until she reached its truly bizarre face.
The creature drew back its lips in a grotesque parody of a human smile then backed up a step and beckoned with its gauntleted hands, urging her to make her move. She suddenly wanted nothing more than to wipe that challenging smirk off its horrific face and took a swing at it just as Aquila yelled a hoarse, “NO!” but too late.
It kicked out, knocking the makeshift weapon from her hands with enough force to send it flying overboard and her sprawling on the deck at its feet. Then, before she was able to scramble away, it seized her by her uniform, lifted her bodily and pulled her tightly against its chest.
Corsali squirmed; the creature easily pinned her arms painfully against her back and burst into a strange, barking laughter. The others quickly joined in.
The aliens’ laughter instantly died on their lips and Corsali, following her captor’s now surly gaze, looked to her left to find that two more of the creatures had climbed up from below decks. Oh… Gods!
The taller and heavier of the two remained at the ladder and turned its piercing stare on the now grim-faced troopers as its companion strode across the deck towards Aquila. As it passed Corsali, it flicked her captor a sidelong, icy glance and hissed, “Hoi-tu.”
The alien gently lowered her to the deck and let go; it even tried to smooth her hair with its gauntleted fingers.
Glaring fiercely at it, she slapped at its gauntleted hand while backing well out of easy reach.
The latest arrival stopped in front of Aquila and looked down at his still wheezing opponent. “Jaipuu ta-ar quuf.” It pointed to the ladder. “D’juuk!”
The creature grabbed the nearby railing, pulled itself to a rubbery-legged stand, flicked Aquila a murderous glance, then clutching its throat backed—stumbled—away.
The alien scowled at the rest and motioned to the ruined cabin. “Ta’ak. Lehsuh!”
They immediately scattered, snatching up bits and pieces of wood as the creature’s silent companion strode over to the cabin to assess the damage.
Satisfied, the alien turned to Aquila and offered him its gauntleted hand, but Aquila pointedly ignored the gesture and staggered, unassisted, to his feet.
It dropped its outstretched hand with a shrug of its shoulders, gestured to the cabin, and pivoting on its heel, started for it, clearly expecting them to follow.
Aquila remained where he was, as did Corsali.
Realizing they were not following, the alien stopped and turned back to them. “Come.”
“Go to hell,” Aquila grumbled as he wiped his profusely bleeding nose on the tattered sleeve of his softsuit.
The humanoid looked around, then again fixing its gaze on Aquila and in perfectly accented trade-use Standard said, “We’re already there. Now, do as I tell you—or, if you insist, I can force the issue.”
Aquila glanced around. The other aliens, having overheard the remark, had stopped what they’d been doing to stare menacingly at him. With a shake of his head and a resigned albeit angry sigh, he began to limp after the creature, blotting his nose.
Corsali wasted no time in following. Once they were past the gauntlet of sullen-faced creatures and back inside the cabin, Aquila leaned close to her. “You okay?”
“Yessir, just a little shaken up, that’s all.” Corsali hugged herself as she gave the nearby alien a sidelong glance. Okay, okay, she admitted as she realized she couldn’t stop trembling, a lot shaken up. “Sir, are you—”
“As for your crewman,” the humanoid began, “my medical officer has stabilized his injuries.”
Aquila gave the unconscious Gianakis a quick glance before meeting the creature’s gaze. “What the hell’ve you done with the rest of my crew?”
“We found only two others... and they were beyond our limited ability to help.”
“So you just left them to those bugs?” Aquila snarled.
“We were under attack at the time, Commander. By those same... bugs. I was not about to lose any more of my—”
“You goddamned...” his voice trailed off as his face contorted in a wince. He visibly wobbled.
“Sir?” Corsali grabbed his arm to steady him as she eyed his bruise-swollen and now blood-smeared face. Then she dropped her gaze to his flank and her eyes widened. More fresh blood darkened the already blood-caked fabric of his tattered softsuit. “Sir—”
“Leave it.” He favored her with a warning look.
Undeterred, she gently pressed her hand against his side. To her surprise, she felt not only the warm, sticky wetness of blood, but also the bulk of a bandage. “But—”
“I said leave it,” Aquila hissed as he roughly pushed her hand away, placing his own over the area in preference to staunching the blood trickling from his nose.
Corsali mumbled, “Yessir,” then steeled herself and looked at the alien to find the creature watching the interaction with what on a human’s face would pass for an amused smile. But this wasn’t a human’s face, and the expression was far more sinister than friendly, surrounded as it was by what she now realized was a complex combination of elaborate scarification overlaid with black tattoos, tattoos that appeared, in the filtered light of the cabin, to float eerily just above the surface of the alien’s olive-brown skin. And its eyes… the pupils were surrounded by bluish-gray irises, made all the more startling by the creature’s swarthy complexion.
It extended its gauntleted hands, palms up. It was a near universal gesture of salutation among the diverse cultures that made up the Rim as it was one that could be easily adapted to almost all shapes of appendages. “I am Chercjengh’khusaaq Abhijit’tischinjgra, Signals and Sensors Specialist of the A’tuu’shahn Orthodoxy.”
A’tuu’shahn...? Now it was Corsali’s knees’ turn to wobble. As in... Hahtooshan?
Aquila stared back, mouth agape, his hand falling from his side, his injuries instantly forgotten.
“You’re both staring at me like you’ve seen a wraith,” the creature said, clearly delighting in their stunned, bordering on horrified, reaction. “Then again, it’s not every day you Rimmers come face to face with a... what do you call us? Oh, yes, mercs? Among other things.”
Hahtooshan. Corsali tried to get her still reeling mind around the heart-thumping fact that she was staring at a living, breathing Hahtooshan—assuming the creature wasn’t just claiming to be one. An easy enough deception after all, but that begged the question: why would anyone want to claim to be a Hahtooshan? If the aim was to terrify, the Rim was chock full of fearsome creatures, many of whom were known only by name, or rumor. Assuming it was being truthful, what was even more unsettling was that behind the hideous mask of tattoos and scarification was a face, and not just any face. A human looking face.
But, she quickly reminded herself, Hahtooshans were shape-shifters, yet another terror weapon in their truly astonishing repertoire when it came to wreaking havoc, and what better way to keep an enemy unbalanced than to take that enemy’s form… but with a decidedly alien twist? Sneaky fucking bastard.
Thus bolstered, she met its gaze squarely and with as much defiance as she could muster, which in truth wasn’t a lot, desperately supporting her rapidly crumbling bravado with, Don’t believe what you see, Sirin—it’s all just an act. But that begged the question, what did it really look like under that bizarre smokescreen of scarification and tattooing? She suppressed a shudder at the shape-shifting possibilities—and shivered again at the sudden, horrifying realization that this being might, in fact, not be the first Hahtooshan she’d met.
As if reading her thoughts, the alien’s amused smile turned into a pleased, bordering on leering grin, which made the disconcerting situation even more intensely uncomfortable—and frightening.
She’d long ago accepted what she looked like: despite being in her mid-twenties, her body had never filled out the way her mother had repeatedly promised her it would, given time—to which her elder brother had jokingly disagreed, suggesting she would be perpetually mistaken for a gangly, prepubescent boy. The painful comparison had then been tempered with the hasty addition of the dreaded adjective, “cute”. And then, the most damning of all: “really smart”. Her unruly white blond hair, deathly pale skin and watery blue eyes had not helped, not one damned bit.
Okay, so a cute, really smart albino prepubescent boy.
She had also long ago stopped envying women who stopped men in their tracks just by breathing. Now she had a Hahtooshan—of all creatures—looking at her like she was about to be served up as the main course. Maybe this is something akin to a sailor looking at a manatee and seeing a mermaid?
Before her mind could take that analogy and run with it, the Hahtooshan shifted its unsettling gaze to Aquila and she breathed a silent sigh of relief.
“And now… I apologize, but in all the excitement, I never caught your name?”
Aquila, recovered from his initial shock, forced out through a grimace, “My name’s none of your goddamned business.”
“Indeed? Well,” it looked down at the unconscious Gianakis and nudged him, none-too-gently, with the toe of its heavy campaign boot, “Commander None-Of-Your-Goddamned-Business…”
Aquila’s scowl crumbled into a frigid glower as he dabbed his oozing nose with his fingers.
“…as I was saying, my medical officer has tended to his injuries and has assured me that none are immediately life-threatening.”
“How… fortunate,” Aquila growled.
The alien lifted its gaze, said, “A human philosopher once said ‘attack is a reaction. If one hits hard, one must expect it to rebound’.” It prodded Gianakis again, lightly. “We wouldn’t have found it necessary to sedate him so heavily had he not tried to strangle one of my escort while my medical officer was treating his injuries. You really must train your people in restraint—”
“The same could be said for yours,” Aquila replied.
“Gienah was only following orders—”
“And you expected me to do nothing, just let it kill us?”
“Kill you?” the Hahtooshan gasped with mock horror. “Why would I order Gienah to kill you?”
“You need a reason? You’re a goddamned mer—”
“A’tuu’shahn. And we kill for the pleasure of killing, yes?”
“You said it, merc, not me,” Aquila glared at the alien as Corsali rubbed her rope-raw wrists.
The Hahtooshan’s strange eyes flicked to her hands before returning to Aquila. “I regret having you bound, but I was concerned you might—”
“Try to escape?” Aquila finished for it.
“Yes. And in the process, further injure yourselves.”
“So you sent one of your thugs—”
“I sent one of my most trusted soldiers to cut your bindings, after returning your crewman to you.”
Corsali looked down at Gianakis and noticed for the first time that he wasn’t bound. Her startled eyes cut to Aquila.
“And I’m supposed to believe that?” He gave the soldier’s rank insignia a quick glance and after an instant of uncertainty, sneered, “Ruk... tak?”
The mercenary looked down at its dusty, medallion-encrusted panoply, then lifted its gaze and grinned. “I had am impressed, Commander—”
“That makes one of us.”
“—I was unaware that you Rimmers are, to some extent, knowledgeable of our rank insignia. But in fact I am not a Ruh’ta’aq, but rather a Sha’ashahn.”
Aquila couldn’t fully conceal his surprise. “A battle commander.”
“Yes.” It again extended its gauntleted hands, palms up. “You may call me Khusaaq...”
Aquila made no move to reciprocate, physically or otherwise, instead he kept one hand firmly pressed against his side, the other occupied dabbing at his nose.
“...currently assigned to the research ship, Makhaira.”
Aquila growled, “You mean warship.”
“I’m fluent in your language, Commander,” the alien replied, undaunted and in the same maddeningly affable tone. “I meant research ship. Despite what you’ve been told, not all of our energies are directed towards warfare. We too indulge in scientific research.”
Aquila snorted, “But only as a means to an end, and that end being further aggression,” but the contemptuous effect was somewhat diminished when his nose, which had just stopped oozing, started bleeding again. He blotted it angrily, scowling at the merc over his sleeve.
“Science has always been the tool of aggression, Commander.” With that it unclipped a small device from its belt and turned its back to them, a subtle but at the same time blatant signal as to who was in control despite its outwardly friendly demeanor.
As the creature stared intently at the device it held, seemingly utterly absorbed, Corsali was struck again with the obvious yet utterly astounding fact that she was standing less than two meters from a living, breathing Hahtooshan—yes, she believed it now—not a facsimile of a Hahtooshan in full panoply put forth by a Looper claiming to be an expert on the matter and based on very sketchy reports several centuries old, but which truthfully, she grudgingly admitted to herself, wasn’t all that far off the mark. Not a training sim based on that infamous, yet obviously heavily doctored vid of the one and only known time humans and Hahtooshans had come face-to-face, so to speak, and where humans lived to tell about it, but the real thing—well, okay, maybe what I’m seeing isn’t the real thing, but rather what this creature wants us to see. Something familiar, something marginally less threatening—something we can relate to on some level—but why? That in itself might be the key as to why it took us prisoner…
And the alien indeed appeared—at least superficially—to be human, not just humanoid under the guise of its truly alien-appearing attire. Now that her eyes had fully readjusted to the patterned and shifting gloom of the cabin she noted that all of the visible parts were in the correct place, of the correct proportion and the correct number for a human. And though the distracting mask of scarification and tattoos made it difficult to accurately judge its face, it clearly had a mouth, lips, teeth and nose, with high cheekbones, browridge capped with thick brows, intense, deep-set eyes, and a head crowned by a mane of black hair that had been gathered at the base of its skull and elaborately plaited, the long, thick braid falling almost to the hem of its mid-thigh length hauberk. And while strapping by human standards, this one wasn’t quite as brawny and broad-shouldered as its companions—likely integral to the illusion it wants to create, so focus on the illusion and maybe what’s underneath will reveal itself.
She ran her own narrowed gaze across the creature’s broad back then down, following the diagonal sash of its wide bandoleer to an equally wide belt—a belt that sported a now all-too-familiar looking pistol, along with a host of other, even more malevolent-looking items, the functions of which she could only guess.
Not that I care to, she thought as she went about firmly affixing each and every detail of the creature and its uniform, no matter how seemingly mundane or insignificant, in her mind—‘cuz eventually you’ll slip up, all shapers do, forget some minor element in a moment of distraction—my memory against yours, merc—may the real human win.
As she continued to keenly study it, study its panoply, she realized that what she was attempting was no easy task: almost every square centimeter of its hauberk, bandoleer, belt, trousers and knee-high campaign boots bore some ominous-looking appendage—just what one would expect from a merc, just what you expect us to expect: a veritable walking arsenal. Then with a wry, private smile: Gods help you if you ever trip...
Worse, it was no trick of the cabin’s shifting light: the surface of the underlying uniform indeed kept shifting, changing texture and appearance, from utterly smooth and iridescent black, to matt black and suddenly covered with tiny bumps and peaks only to flatten out again, all within the space of a few blinks of the eye. The ultimate ghillie suit... or conjurer’s clothing. This instantly reminded her of another epithet often attributed to mercs, especially by newly settled colonists who were by nature exceedingly jumpy and willing to credit Hahtooshans with any unexpected disappearance, any lurking shadow caught out of the tail of the eye: yowies.
Her brother had frightened her, frightened her friends during sleepovers by telling tales of yowies snatching silly girls from their beds, never to be seen again—and she’d believed him.
“I had no idea scientific research paid so well,” Aquila commented testily as he wiped his oozing nose on his sleeve.
The remark broke her train of thought, her intense scrutiny and painstaking cataloguing of the alien’s remarkable uniform and she flicked the man a sidelong, exasperated look. Thanks! Now I’ll have to start all over—
The merc slowly turned around to face them and she dearly hoped she looked innocent of gawking, but its interest wasn’t with her, it was with Aquila. Its unblinking gaze was fixed on him to the exclusion of all else, instantly reminding her of a snake preparing to strike; clearly the alien was becoming exasperated with Aquila’s dogged, albeit clearly pain-induced impudence—not that she could really blame it, Hahtooshan or no. While Aquila had a lot of admirable traits—Vildur wouldn’t have hand-selected him for her second in command if he wasn’t an extraordinarily capable officer—and he was very popular with the crew, he also had a peculiar knack for pissing off people he didn’t like and in amazingly quick order; not that he was the first person she’d dealt with who possessed this particular skill.
Her own father had been known to tweak people just for the sake of tweaking them and the more powerful or pompous the person the better. But a Hahtooshan? Even her father wouldn’t have had the audacity to pick a quarrel with one.
Aquila, as far too many within the Coalition, had lost loved ones to acts credited to Hahtooshans. If that wasn’t enough, he had audacity in spades and she briefly speculated that if one looked up the word “audacity” on a data reader in the very near future, one would see an image of the man standing next her, along with a terse, wholly unsympathetic obituary. Add to the mix that he was clearly in a lot of pain and scared and, well... he wasn’t thinking all that rationally. She could only hope he wouldn’t push his luck too far, or that this particular merc had more patience than a proverbial saint—a concept that was difficult if not impossible to square with its very malevolent appearance and its species’ truly fearsome reputation.
“Pure research always has its rewards,” the Hahtooshan replied evenly as it reclipped the device to its belt, drawing her attention and her gaze back to the matter at hand. “Even you should know that.”
“So what rewards would’ve brought an Orthodoxy warship to this backwater system, and a merc battle commander to this planet?” Aquila persisted as he tried to adjust his hold on his flank without wincing.
The merc slowly arched a brow. “I would like to ask the same question of you, Commander None-Of-Your—”
“Aquila, all right?”
“Aquila?” This time both brows went up in a perfect parody of human bafflement and Corsali had to hand it to the merc; it had made a truly sincere effort at getting human facial expressions just right. “I don’t understand—”
“My name. It’s Aquila.” He angrily wiped a fresh trickle of blood from his nose. “Robert Eugene Aquila, commanding officer of the Coalition Expeditionary Forces Patrol Ship Baidarka.”
The merc stared at him for a moment then let loose a sharp, startled bark of laughter. “Commanding officer?” it repeated incredulously. “Of an entire vessel and her crew?”
Corsali inwardly cringed at the alien’s tone of amused disbelief—another dead-on mockery of a response Aquila, whose features teetered perilously close to the baby-faced, had become inured to; even Vildur had indulged in some friendly teasing of her at times headstrong second-in-command. But in this instance, it was painfully obvious to her that Aquila found the predictable reaction particularly galling—
“Yes,” he hissed through clenched teeth.
“Well then, Commander Aquila, as I was about to say, I would like to ask what a Rim patrol vessel was doing here. Perhaps you were curious as to what we A’tuu’shahn’i were up to, yes? What we found so interesting in this… backwater system?”
“We diverted here in response to a distress call—”
“Indeed? I didn’t think Rimmers performed missions of mercy when it involved A’tuu’shahn’i.”
Corsali blinked. What?
Aquila’s lips parted in surprise then he quickly recovered and replied a little too vehemently, “Despite what you’ve been told, merc, we don’t differentiate when it comes to calls for help. As far as we’re concerned, a distress call is a distress call—”
“You didn’t realize the distress call was from one of our craft, did you?”
Aquila stared back at the creature but said nothing. He didn’t need to.
“Ah, yes. Truth always has a way of slipping out at the most inconvenient of times, doesn’t it? Lies, on the other hand are so much better behaved—”
“So what’s your warship doing here in the first place?” Aquila interrupted. “This isn’t disputed territory.”
“Neither is it Coalition. As for what our research ship is doing here, consider yourselves very fortunate that we were not only on this planet, but very close to the crash site when you were attacked. You and your companions would have been dead within minutes had we not driven off those creatures—at the cost of the lives of two of my soldiers I might add.”
“We also picked up a distress call. Yours.” The merc chuckled at Aquila’s poorly concealed shock. “Yes, Commander, we saved you. Ironic, yes? So be grateful that we—to use your term, ‘mercs’—aren’t the cold-blooded monsters your Coalition propaganda would have you believe.”
Aquila replied with a loud, derisive snort and a sneered, “Yeah, right. You’re just a bunch of damned boy scouts. Try telling that to the victims of the Torthah-Gaal massacre,” he added with more than a little heat, “or how ‘bout Raumalle or—”
“Cotopaxi?” The Hahtooshan, catching Aquila’s flustered blink, smiled coldly. It also briefly, slipped its hand under its bandoleer, drawing Corsali’s curious gaze to the wide strap. But it wasn’t whatever it was fingering—hidden from her view—that drew her attention. It was what the bandoleer sported: a sheathed dagger. Only the grip was visible, but its elaborately carved and inlaid haft suddenly brought to mind the dagger she’d found near the wreck. In fact the more she looked at it, the more it looked if not identical, then at least very similar. So that’s—
“As you no doubt know,” the alien continued, and, for the first time, its voice held a decidedly sharp edge and the sudden change in tone drew her preoccupied gaze to its no longer friendly face, “had it not been for our timely intervention, our unquestioned bravery and our enormous sacrifice, your precious colony on Cotopaxi would now be in the hands of the Matarii—”
“Fat lot of good it does anyone—the entire planet’s now a damned radioactive wasteland no one wants!”
“That was not our doing, and you—”
All three wheeled towards the new voice, Aquila and the merc in visible anger at the untimely interruption, Corsali in relief.
Another humanoid was now standing, silhouetted, in the hastily repaired doorway. “…I heard a commotion—”
“Ah, Suhjai,” the officer purred, its voice once again easygoing. “I was just about to send for you. Commander, Ensign, this is Mihr-Suhjai’baldah, junior medical officer of Makhaira.”
The alien responded to the introduction with a contemptuous nod as it stepped out of the doorway’s glare and as it did so, Corsali suddenly found herself the sole object of the creature’s mica-cold gaze.
She ignored its unblinking stare in preference for taking in the alien as a whole only to find it, like its more substantial companion, cloaked neck to toe in identical panoply—minus only the bandoleer—its skull crowned in an unruly, shoulder-length mop of black hair that in this alien’s case was also adorned with a scattering of silvery beads, and its face was likewise covered in a grotesque pattern of tattoos and scars—
“Do not be fooled by Suhjai’s… um, fragile appearance,” the soldier continued amiably. “She could break your neck before you even knew she was within striking distance.”
So, so, so. An unintentional slip that appearances are deceiving. Or maybe not unintentional, maybe you suspect I’m on to you and are trying to throw me off? And—she? That’s a she? A female? Corsali gave the alien another sidelong look just in time to catch Suhjai flicking its—her?—companion a venomous glance as it—she?—knelt beside Gianakis.
She, not it—that was going to take some getting used to. Corsali had never wondered if Hahtooshans had genders. In fact she’d always tried really, really hard not to think of Hahtooshans at all. But… since we’re on the subject… She risked a furtive glance at the taller, heavier officer. I assume this means you’re male—a classic case of sexual dimorphism? Or is this just another ruse? Is this all for appearance? But if it is a ruse, then it’s a ruse for a reason, and I’d be smart to start thinking of you two as male and female to better understand what makes you tick. And if it isn’t….
Suddenly her private joke about manatees seemed a tad bit too apropos.
She suppressed a shiver then turned to find Suhjai examining Gianakis’ crudely splinted leg while shaking her shaggy head and clicking her tongue. “I see my ministrations have been given the proper respect by one of your most trusted men, Sha’ashahn. I do hope you’ll bear this in mind?”
The merc shrugged, but said nothing as its—his, dammit, Sirin, his!—fingers toyed with the haft of the dagger that protruded from his bandoleer.
A nervous tic? Corsali wondered. Gods, I hope so.
Suhjai rose and unshouldered a satchel, then turned to Aquila and motioned to his softsuit. “Remove your clothing.”
He looked sidelong and wide-eyed at Corsali as if expecting an explanation—or protection—and despite the situation Corsali struggled not to laugh.
“I cannot examine your injuries with you fully dressed,” Suhjai added impatiently. “Strip to the waist—no further,” she added, as if just as uncomfortable about the matter as Aquila.
He scowled warily at her then slowly, carefully and with a minimum of wincing, managed to pull one arm free of the tattered softsuit, then the other.
Suhjai impatiently finished the job by roughly jerking the top of the suit down around his hips and for a moment he stood there, the center of attention, bare-chested and clearly very unhappy about it.
Corsali was shocked by what she saw, from the livid bruising that darkened his entire torso, to fresh bruises on his arms and throat and the bulky and blood-soaked dressing on his flank.
He followed her startled stare and what he saw was clearly worse than even he’d imagined, then he tensed but stood his ground as Suhjai ran her bare, elaborately tattooed fingers over his badly mottled but otherwise utterly unadorned skin with a blatant mixture of curiosity and revulsion.
“You’ll live.” She didn’t need to add “unfortunately”. It was obvious in her voice as she opened the satchel.
Corsali’s eyes widened in instant recognition: Jarvis’s field triage kit—
“Where’d you get that?” Aquila snapped, clearly grasping at anything to get the attention off of him and his battered body.
Suhjai flicked her companion another sharp, sidelong look.
“I found it beside you,” the merc answered evenly. “I thought, considering your injuries—”
“Your wound needs to be repacked and redressed,” Suhjai interrupted, motioning to Aquila’s flank.
He reluctantly looked down at himself and replied, almost pleadingly, “But the bleeding’s stopped.”
Suhjai ignored the remark and ripped the blood-stiffened dressing from his side.
Aquila visibly paled and Corsali reached out to steady him, but he waved her off as Suhjai immediately slapped a clean dressing over the now oozing wound. She sealed it then stepped back and Aquila gingerly touched the freshly applied bandage as if it were a bomb strapped to his side.
“The evening meal should be ready,” the merc said pleasantly, drawing Corsali’s distracted gaze. “I know I speak for Suhjai when I say that we would both welcome your company.”
Suhjai expression’s left little doubt what her true feelings were on that subject.
Aquila glared at him as he angrily shoved one arm into a sleeve, followed by the other, clearly startled and, just as clearly, greatly annoyed that at least this particular merc was not acting as he thought a merc should.
“You’d prefer bread and water?” The Hahtooshan chuckled, “Come, Commander! We’re all civilized beings here.”
Suhjai muttered something unintelligible under her breath as she again knelt beside Gianakis, her back to the others.
Aquila eyed her as he hastily ran his finger up his softsuit’s seal seam. He even fastened the collar tight under his chin for good measure.
“Sir,” Corsali said, “I think getting some food into you would be a really good idea.”
Aquila stared sidelong at her for what seemed like an eternity then finally muttered very grudgingly, “I suppose you’re right.”
“Excellent.” The mercenary smiled. “I’ll inform our hosts.” He strode from the cabin.
Corsali gave Suhjai another quick glance to find her still tending to Gianakis then turned to Aquila. His face had still not regained its color under its false blush of smeared blood and fresh bruising and he was noticeably swaying.
“Perhaps you should sit down, sir.”
“Yeah,” Aquila nodded and with her help, eased himself down onto the rough planking. Corsali had no sooner seated herself beside him than the officer returned with one of the planet’s natives in tow.
So, that’s what you really look like, she noted with some relief, while out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Aquila watching the newest arrival with a look of poorly concealed disgust. In a world where outward appearances were no longer trustworthy, where everything was suspect, it was almost comforting to be confronted by something concrete, even if that reassuring solidity came guised in a rather off-putting form: records from the only known Coalition survey of the planet contained a few very sketchy verbal descriptions and a handful of blurry images of the reclusive insectoids.
The creatures had never displayed any hostility towards that survey team—quite the contrary. They always fled into their soft-walled and steeply angled burrows at the approach of a survey party—burrows that were deemed far too unstable for the surveyors to enter, burrows that scanners determined turned into a maze of tunnels that stretched for kilometers in every direction and reached depths of well over two hundred meters. But those records and what she now saw closely matched what one surveyor had jokingly described as something akin to acromegalic cockroaches—hence the name the surveyors gave them, Blattos, short for Blattodea.
This particular Blatto had brought a small lantern, four mugs, a small platter mounded with food and lastly, a pitcher that looked like it weighed more than the multi-armed creature carrying it.
“Commander,” the Hahtooshan said as he took the pitcher and a mug, “might I interest you in something hot to drink?” He filled the cup and offered it to him but Aquila only stared at it.
“It’s perfectly safe to drink. I wouldn’t have gone to all the trouble of rescuing you only to poison you, now would I?” To prove his point, he took a large gulp from the mug. He swallowed, wiped the froth from his lips with the back of his gauntleted hand, then picked up another mug and filled it, but this time offered it to Corsali.
She took it awkwardly, wanting to avoid his gauntleted fingers then she looked to Aquila as he reluctantly accepted another from the alien.
The Hahtooshan sat, crossed legged and facing them then held up his cup. “I believe the proper Rimmer expression is…’prosit’?” With that he emptied his mug in several loud gulps.
When he failed to clutch his throat and keel over dead, Corsali decided to risk a sip of the thick, foamy liquid.
It was warm and bitter and had a distinctive musty aftertaste, but it wasn’t unpleasant, in fact it produced an almost instantaneous warm glow in her stomach. She took another small sip as she watched him drain his mug in a series of loud, wincing gulps. But keep that up and you just might keel over dead drunk—
“This ale,” the merc said, noticing Corsali’s cautious stare, “is one of the few small pleasures this forgettable world has to offer.”
“Even small pleasures can be overdone, Sha’ashahn,” Suhjai muttered as she gathered up her supplies.
He grabbed the pitcher and ignoring the remaining mug, poured himself another. “Perhaps.” He took a more measured sip as he favored Corsali with another inquisitive look, gray eyes glittering from within the elaborate swirl of tattoos.
She willed herself to meet his intense stare with one of her own and was surprised when he immediately turned his gaze to the gathering darkness beyond the open doorway.
Interesting reaction. Realizing that perhaps mercs considered it the height of bad manners to stare, or at least to be stared at—a very reasonable reaction for a shape-shifter, whose outward appearance might not stand up to prolonged scrutiny—and that it wouldn’t be a good idea to offend a merc, even accidentally, she followed suit and fixed her eyes on the mug she held in her hands.
After a thorough examination of its contents, she found her curiosity getting the better of her and resumed her sidelong study of the distracted alien. The fact that no one had ever been this up close and personal with a Hahtooshan, at least no one who knew they were this up close and personal with a Hahtooshan—if you discounted those at the award ceremony and as far as she was concerned, that really didn’t count—and had lived to tell the tale was not lost on her at that particular moment.
But here she was, up to her figurative eyeballs in them—a claim to fame she would have preferred to have avoided altogether—yet she, Aquila and Gianakis were still alive and as a direct result of merc intervention—if one believed his claims, and she wasn’t entirely sure she did; he was a shape-shifter after all, a creature whose physical appearance was often as not a lie.
Yet… if he was telling the truth, the perversity of the situation was almost laughable. Almost—there was something very sobering about having a creature of the Hahtooshans’ horrifically thuggish reputation seated within striking distance, even if at that moment said merc appeared to be far more interested in dispatching the contents of his mug.
So, yet again, she used his distraction to her cautious, curious advantage while praying Aquila would keep his mouth shut for a few precious minutes: first, a quick, discreet look-see to see if some minor detail in the merc’s disguise had gone missing.... nope. If one ignored the skin-crawling, ever-changing texture of the underlying uniform, its multitude of extremely lethal-looking trappings were exactly where she remembered them to be.
And now that he was even closer, with his features illuminated by the steady glow of the nearby lamp even more details immerged: the elaborate tattoos on his face perfectly matched the scarification patterns, giving the bizarre ornamentation an unsettling three-dimensional effect. While the scarification appeared to be limited to his face, the tattoos disappeared into his hair and down his neck, to the collar of his uniform, suggesting they went even further. Suhjai’s hands were tattooed after all, so likely his were, too.
Before her mind could follow that train of thought to its likely and not particularly appealing destination, she realized something else, possibly something critical: his uniform wasn’t dusty, it was filthy, as was his long, thick black mane. It clung to his skull in thick, greasy strands and along with the pungent odor of the merc himself, she also smelled the strong reek of the native alcohol. While he wasn’t blatantly drunk, he was far from sober and she wondered how much of the potent liquor he’d already consumed, assuming this wasn’t yet another deliberate contrivance on his part, to appear disheveled and intoxicated and therefore—
An impatient clacking drew everyone’s startled attention to the native.
“Of course,” the merc murmured and the Blatto promptly stepped forward, into the flickering lamplight, and thrust out the tray.
Corsali grimaced; whatever it was offering her looked like withered lumps of meat. At her hesitation, it fluttered its iridescent wings and stepped even closer to hold the tray directly under her nose and she felt her stomach lurch in protest. And it smells just like—
“You don’t find it appetizing?” the Hahtooshan asked with just a hint of deliberate innocence.
Corsali managed a quick, sharp shake of her head.
The merc waved his hand and much to her relief the tray was immediately withdrawn, but not without a decidedly offended wing rustling from the Blatto.
“It’s a native delicacy—or so they tell us.” He leaned forward, glanced first at Aquila, then Corsali and added in a conspiratorial whisper. “I suspect it’s actually their dung.” He chuckled at her horrified blink. “But,” he shrugged as he flicked the Blatto a sidelong, slightly wicked smile, “it’s only a suspicion and they do so enjoy preparing it for us.” He untied a small pouch from his belt, said, “Here,” and tossed it onto the deck between Corsali and Aquila.
“What’s this?” Aquila said, not touching it.
“Field rations. Ours. They may not be up to your refined Rimmer tastes, but—”
“For some reason, I’ve lost my appetite,” Aquila grumbled.
“Perhaps?” The merc looked hopefully at Corsali; she shook her head. “As you wish.” He rose in one fluid movement, catlike, utterly and eerily silent, and with a challenging glance at Suhjai, picked up the pitcher and wandered over to the doorway. Bracing his shoulder against the frame and squinting into the stiff breeze, he brought the pitcher to his lips and began gulping down its contents.
Corsali squinted at him. Damn, you can sure pack it away, can’t you? She gave Suhjai a glance to see her staring sidelong at her companion with a look of utter revulsion. Clearly no love lost between the two of you. That bit of potentially useful information was filed away as well—along with the possibility that this too was an act for their benefit—make us think the two of you are at odds.
She absently rubbed the side of her head—all this guessing what was real, what was ruse was giving her a serious headache—or maybe that was due to the liquor. Or maybe it’s not liquor… maybe, she thought with a private grimace, it’s their pee… Oh, ick! She looked down at her own barely touched mug and quickly set it down, then, noticing that Aquila had brought his mug to his lips, she gave hers a slight nudge, pushing it towards him, hoping he’d get the hint. Here, sir… all yours, sir.
The native scuttled over to the door with the untouched tray, but as it tried to slip, unnoticed, around the merc, he suddenly thrust out the pitcher, briefly pinning the hapless Blatto against the doorframe. It reacted by dropping the tray then wriggling all of its appendages wildly and chittering pleadingly.
The Hahtooshan leaned close and muttered something to it in its strange, clicking tongue then released it and the startled Blatto took the pitcher and scuttled across the deck to the ladder, leaving the tray and its scattered contents behind.
When the creature reappeared a few minutes later with the replenished pitcher, the merc snatched it without so much as a nod then sent the Blatto away with a preoccupied flick of his hand—not that it looked like it needed much encouragement, Corsali observed as it half-scurried, half-flew back to the ladder.
Then, as he sauntered back to them Suhjai squinted up at him. “You’ve decided to rejoin us?” She dropped her gaze to the pitcher as he squatted beside her. “Ah. I see you come well-armed.”
“So, Commander,” the merc began as he refilled his mug, and then, almost as an afterthought, sloshed some into Suhjai’s as if to shut her up, “you’re the captain of a patrol vessel.”
Aquila hesitated an uncomfortably long time before answering, “Yes.”
“That’s quite a responsibility, and at such a young age?” When it became apparent that Aquila was not going to reply at all this time, he prodded, “You must be very ambitious—or very lucky?”
Aquila’s uneasy stare darkened into a scowl.
“Not much of a conversationalist, are you, Commander?” He turned to Corsali and his expression instantly brightened. “What about you, Ensign?”
“What about her?” Aquila grumbled as he shifted around in search of a more comfortable position.
This time the Hahtooshan’s unsettling pale eyes never wavered from Corsali’s. “I’m curious as to what role you fill aboard your vessel.”
“She’s the captain’s adjutant,” Aquila said before Corsali could even open her mouth and Suhjai snorted derisively.
Aquila glared at her then turned to the soldier. “How ‘bout you answer some of my questions?”
“Of course.” He sat on the deck facing them and shrugged. “I for one have nothing to hide.”
“Why take us captive? That’s not exactly standard merc doctrine.”
“Ah. That’s quite a long story. Perhaps one best told once we—”
“You do have a captive audience,” Aquila said sourly.
The Hahtooshan smiled, leaned back against a roof support and, cradling his replenished mug in his lap, stretched out his long legs as he nodded, “True…”
Corsali glanced down at the booted foot that ended up right next to her and swallowed, hard, as her imagination replaced a human-shaped foot with all sorts of hideous, alien appendages—it didn’t help that the surface of the knee-high boot, just like the mercs’ uniform, seemed to have a mind of its own. While she wasn’t exactly a xenophobe—she wouldn’t have been accepted in the forces if she had—she still harbored the usual human unease of aliens who looked, well… alien. But even worse, she now realized, were, paradoxically, aliens who looked human.
“…and I shall start by telling you that I disobeyed a direct order by rescuing you,” the Hahtooshan continued, drawing her uneasy gaze back to his equally unsettling face.
Undaunted by Aquila’s suspicious squint or Suhjai’s muffled oath, he said, “Why, you ask? A’tuu’shahn’i aren’t known for their mercy, and for good reason. We’re mercenaries and mercenaries cannot afford to be merciful—”
“Unless you’re paid to be,” Aquila interrupted, the mounting discomfort of sitting on the hard deck tainting his already tetchy voice.
“Or we deem it to be in our best, long term interest, yes,” the alien replied, unoffended.
“I assume our capture…”
“Rescue,” he interjected politely.
“…falls into the latter category, since I’m unaware of any bounty—”
“The latter, Commander, definitely the latter, although my commanding officer wouldn’t see it that way. You see—”
“You’ve said enough, Sha’ashahn,” Suhjai growled. “The alcohol’s affecting your tongue.”
He smiled at her, picked up the pitcher and topped off his mug.
Her eyes widened to bulging proportions and she scrambled to her feet.
“Leaving so soon?” he asked sweetly.
She hissed, “Your excesses are your problem, I won’t have you make them mine!” With a snort of disgust, she stalked out of the cabin.
Corsali followed her with her eyes until Suhjai vanished down the ladder, then she turned back to the merc to find him staring after her as well.
He chuckled softly then promptly sank into what seemed a vast and vacant pause as his body sagged heavily against the roof support.
After a moment Aquila impatiently cleared his throat.
The Hahtooshan slowly shifted his gaze back to them and Corsali wondered if Suhjai had been right, that the alcohol had finally caught up with him as his strange eyes had taken on a dull, exhausted and decidedly bleak look.
“You were saying…?” Aquila prompted irritably.
“I was?” The merc squinted at him then wincing straightened himself up. “Yes… yes, I was.” He fixed his bleary-eyed stare on his mug and for a moment Corsali thought he’d drifted off again, lost in his own drunken distraction, then: “We found something,” he began, his voice barely above a whisper, his gaze never wavering from the mug he clutched in his hand, “something in this system. If it were to fall into the wrong hands…”
“Some might say that’s already happened,” Aquila grumbled and before she could stop herself Corsali shot him an ‘I don’t care if you’re in pain, just shut the fuck up!’ glance. For once he took the hint and clamped his mouth shut—not that it mattered as the merc appeared oblivious to his testy remark or the silent and silencing exchange.
“…it would mean the end of us all. I rescued you because…” He hesitated, took a deep, unsteady breath then squarely meeting Aquila’s suspicious gaze added, “I… I need your help.”
“Assuming you’re telling us the truth.”
The Hahtooshan studied Aquila’s taut face for a moment before replying, “I’m not so naïve as to expect you to believe me, Commander. I have proof, proof even you—”
“What proof?” Aquila grunted as he clutched his side.
“This backwater system—as you called it—has much to offer. Not just to us, surely not, but at least at one time to your Coalition.”
“I don’t follow.”
“You’re unaware of the Coalition base on the fourth planet?”
Aquila turned a perplexed stare on Corsali; she shook her head.
The merc also briefly shifted his gaze to her then back to Aquila before adding, “Perhaps it’s not so surprising. You are, after all, only the captain of a patrol vessel. And this base was—what do you Rimmers call such things? A deep, dark secret? A very dark secret indeed.”
“For what purpose?” Aquila waved his free arm about as he forced a laugh, a laugh cut short by an involuntary grimace before he added tightly, “There’s nothing in this god-forsaken system anyone wants!”
“It had one thing: its isolation—and isolation was vital.”
“For what?” Aquila countered.
“To create a weapon, Commander, a weapon the likes of which this part of the Rim has not seen in thousands of years. That was the base’s sole purpose, and why it was located in what you so aptly called a backwater system, where no one would come snooping and your Coalition could work its mischief completely safe from detection.”
Gods! Corsali’s stomach muscles tightened into a knot and she turned to Aquila, but he had no quick denial on the tip of his tongue.
After a moment to gather his thoughts, Aquila said, “You said there was a base on the fourth planet—meaning it no longer exists?”
“It was abandoned one hundred and thirty Standard years ago. As for what we’re doing here, on this planet, we uncovered more evidence of the Coalition’s hidden agenda here, specifically on an island—”
“And that’s where you’re taking us?”
“Yes. And it is there you’ll see the proof of my claims.”
“Proof or no proof, I don’t see…” Aquila’s voice trailed off as he found himself in the path of the Hahtooshan’s suddenly fierce gaze.
Still holding Aquila’s stare, he crushed the heavy mug with his armored fingers.
Corsali swallowed convulsively. Point made—
“Didn’t you hear me?” he hissed as he hurled the ruined mug aside. “I’ve uncovered the ultimate weapon! If you don’t help me stop this madness, here and now, it will be the end of us all!”
Corsali shrank back as the soldier lurched unsteadily to his feet, then he spun on his heel and stalked out of the cabin, over to the ladder and quickly descended, leaving his human captives to stare after him in stunned silence.
Corsali finally let out the breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding in one spasmodic rush of air, gave herself a hug and turned to Aquila.
He tried and failed to look unruffled as he cleared his throat and gave his softsuit’s collar a tug.
“Sir, this weapon must be the same one mentioned in the data stores in the wreck.”
“My thoughts as well…” Aquila’s suddenly suspicious eyes cut to the ladder. “But then again, this all might be some sort of elaborate ruse.”
“To what end?”
He grabbed his mug and downed what remained before replying, “Hell if I know, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to take anything one of those fuckin’ butchers says, if you’ll excuse the pun, at face value—goddamned shapers, hiding behind this human-like façade of theirs—makes me wonder what else are they hiding? My guess—the truth.”
“I do know that right now I’m freezing cold and bone-tired.” Aquila gave his upper arms a vigorous rub for emphasis.
And in a whole lot of pain I’d wager, Corsali added to herself as she watched him ease himself down onto the deck, grimacing as he did so.
“If I were a betting man,” he said, cupping the back of his head in his hands, “I’d say those mercs liberated that craft from some smugglers, brought it here and deliberately crashed it into the desert, then activated the distress call, luring us here to investigate in order to get us off the scent of that missing liner.” He nodded to himself, added wearily, “Yeah. Bet that’s it.” He closed his eyes, exhaled slowly, clearly trying to force his battered body to relax. “Needed a diversion, a way of keeping us occupied. Gotta be it.”
“But… but what about the data, the maser pistol, the dagger?”
“All part of an elaborate cock and bull story, Ensign.”
“And we—correction—I walked right into it.”
She raised a startled brow at his admission, exhaustion, pain and ale-induced it might be.
Oblivious to her reaction, he shook his head and muttered, “Shit.”
She crawled on hands and knees over to Gianakis, pressed her finger to his throat and relieved to find a strong pulse, she looked back at Aquila. “But sir, why rescue us? Why not—”
“What better way to keep the Baidarka here, in orbit, instead of out there, looking for the Herrick?”
“Get some sleep.”
“But sir, I—”
“Enough, Ensign.” With that he rolled onto his side, away from her.
With a clipped, “Yessir,” she scooted back against the cabin wall, next to Gianakis.
She leaned her shoulder against the wall and peered through its loose weave to the starlit ocean beyond as her frustration at the man, at their situation, abruptly drained away, leaving her feeling exhausted, not to mention rather stupid. What he’d suggested made sense. Damned if it didn’t.
She hugged herself against a shiver, her skin suddenly turning to gooseflesh despite the softsuit as the salt-laden breeze picked up, cutting through the porous walls and bringing with it a hint of a much, much chillier night ahead. A quick glance around turned up nothing she could use as makeshift covers, not even a scrap of torn reed matting as the soldiers, she realized to her great annoyance, had been very efficient in tidying up. She forced a smile—who knew yowies were neat-freaks?
Her private attempt at humor fell flat.
Another shiver left her teeth chattering and she vigorously rubbed her upper arms. Damn, it’s gonna be cold—wait a minute. Her eyes darted to the doorway and to the open, star-lit deck beyond. Maybe they just left it outside—definitely worth a look-see. “Be right back, sir.” She snatched up the now sputtering lamp, lurched to her feet, turned back to the doorway and started violently.
A merc now stood in the hastily repaired opening, his bulk blotting out most of the night sky. He hadn’t been there a heartbeat before—at least she hadn’t heard him approach—for all she knew, he could have been standing there for some time, undetectable, watching her and she grabbed onto that, tried to use indignation to trump her fright. Fucking cowardly shaper!
Didn’t work. Truth was she was alone with a merc and scared to death. “Wh-wha-what d-d-do you w-w-want?” she stammered an instant before she realized she really might not want to know.
In reply he stepped into the cabin, visible only by his movement, of the odd glimmer of starlight on his ghillie suit and in absolute silence, specter-like in his advance. And as the faint lamplight washed over his exposed face, it created an even more bizarre appearance of a negative image, where only the underlying skin was visible, the inky black markings not. If she thought the tattoos were disturbing, this cutwork effect was doubly so as it completely obscured his features.
She backed up, promptly bumped up against a roof support pole and unable to retreat any further, swallowed hard as he stopped less than a meter away.
“What do you want?” she managed this time without stammering; she even managed to sound angry—at least to her own ears.
In response he shoved something against her with enough force to knock her back into the pole. She fearfully glanced down, to her shock realized by feel alone that she was now clutching several rolled up blankets. Then she looked up at the shadowy alien who loomed over her and this close, and with the faint glow of the dying lamplight alone she was able to just make out the baleful set of his mouth, the intricate patterns carved into his face, the glitter of his pale eyes, and a thick mane of coarse long hair, every bit as long as the officer’s. Loose—caught by the night breeze, it eeled around him to brush against her cheeks, her throat, its light tickle leaving her with a severe case of gooseflesh.
“Gift from Sha’ashahn,” he grumbled, breaking the awkward silence.
Taken aback by his fetid breath and truly rank body odor, she couldn’t immediately find her voice and tried to hide her reaction by fumbling, one-handed, with the blankets, unwilling to free her other hand of the lamp, worthless as it was as a steady source of useable light.
He grunted in matched disgust then walked back to the doorway where he abruptly stopped and glanced over his shoulder.
She tightened her hold on the lamp. It might not be much when it came to a weapon, but it was slightly better than nothing, certainly better than trying to pummel him into submission with the rolled up blankets.
“Remain on this deck. Understood?”
She managed a quick nod then watched as he strode across the deck and over to the ladder, his uniform glimmering in the starlight, in absolute and eerie silence despite his bulk. With belated bravado she whispered, “Don’t you mercs ever knock?” She wrinkled her nose. “Or bathe? Peewhewww!”
She gave herself a shake then knelt and setting the sputtering lamp aside, quickly untied the rolled up blankets—three in all. How… convenient—
She glanced back at the doorway, suddenly fearful the soldier might have returned but the doorway again appeared empty, the starlit deck beyond seemingly deserted. But, as she reminded herself, he could have just as easily slipped back into the cabin. He could be standing right next to her. He could be—STOP IT!
Realizing she could drive herself crazy if not into a total panic with such thoughts, she decided she was going to believe he really had left. Still… As far as she knew shape-shifters weren’t smell-shifters too, and the alien’s overpowering body odor definitely trumped the salt-sour smell of the surrounding sea, at least up close. So she sniffed the cold air, just to be on the safe side, tentatively at first—just in case he was nearby and took umbrage at her tactic—then emboldened, a little more vigorously. Nothing. Finally satisfied she was in fact alone, she grumbled, “Damn, shapers give me the creeps.”
She turned to Aquila, murmured, “Here, sir, this should help,” and drew one of the blankets over him. When he didn’t answer, she touched his shoulder. “Sir?” Realizing he had lapsed into an exhausted, ale-assisted sleep, she grabbed another roll and covered Gianakis.
She snatched up her mug, picked up the remaining blanket then resuming her seat next to Gianakis, drew the blanket around her chilled shoulders. She stared down at the mug she held, tempted to follow Aquila’s example and down it in a few gulps and then get some much needed sleep—but more she stared at it, the less the thought appealed. Someone needed to keep her wits about her—and there was still the nagging worry that it really was Blatto urine, or some other body fluid.
She set it aside with the less than convincing thought, Maybe later, then tugged the blanket tighter around her as she looked down at Gianakis. Unlike the always affable Lundgren, or the overly somber Gislasen, she only knew the bombastic Gianakis in passing but the young marine had always shown her deference, mindful of her position as the captain’s adjutant and as irrational as it was, she found some small comfort in his nearness—as if you could protect me—
The lamp, starved of fuel, suddenly sputtered and went out, plunging the cabin into total darkness... until her eyes adjusted to the faint starlight that filtered in through the gaps in the walls and through the doorway.
Within the darkness and without warning she began to shake uncontrollably; tears welled up in her eyes. She hugged herself tightly then flicked Aquila a sidelong glare. I’m not falling apart!
Really? An inner voice asked. Certainly looks like you are.
I’m just tired! She wiped her eyes and nose on her grubby sleeve. But so what if I am?
The commander needs you. He’s depending on you.
What about me? She angrily wiped her nose again. Who the hell can I depend on?
When no answer beyond the obvious was forthcoming, she took a deep, steadying breath. I need to get ahold of myself.
She leaned back into the cabin wall then concentrated on putting some order to her chaotic thoughts by asking herself the same question she’d asked herself countless times in the past two weeks, since the Matarran ambush: What would Captain Vildur say? It was a question that, just by its asking, evoked the woman’s reassuring, calming presence. Tell me what to do!
This time the answer was immediate: Survive. Do what you have to to survive—
How? Tell me how! There are at least ten mercs out there, any one of ‘em would happily slit my throat just for breathing their air—
If that were the case, wouldn’t they have done it already?
But what if the commander’s right? What if this is all an elaborate ruse?
And what if it isn’t?
A chill gathered around her shoulders that had nothing to do with the dropping temperature, goose-pimpling her flesh anew as she recalled the disturbing look in the alien’s strange eyes and the noticeable inflections in his voice. Fear. Desperation. Despair.
Not the sort of thing one would expect in a Hahtooshan—a merc.
Don’t believe everything you think—that had been one of Vildur’s favorite comebacks.
She burrowed down into the blanket as another shiver ran up her spine then whispered, “Yeah…”
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