Chapter One – ANOTHER ON THE SAME
E'er half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
To serve therewith my Maker and present,
My true account, least he returning chide,
Doth God exact day-labour, light deny'd,
I fondly ask; but patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts, who best
Bear his mild yoak, they serve him best, his State
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.
On His Blindness, John Milton, 1608 – 1674
They weren't really any closer to home… Not since the last time they'd checked anyway. Something was wrong with the ion glide, and while that was usual, Thelma constantly reminded them that they were adding hours onto their trip home. In fact, every now and then she'd relay the exact second count to the crew, which did get annoying after a while.
It was that, plus a combination of the students' cabin fever that led Commander Goddard to the decision that the next planet or outpost they came upon, they'd stop to get supplies, and set Suzee up with whatever she needed to fix their protomix. Unfortunately, none of the crew actually had any money, so they were going to have to barter with the supplies they had. Plus, there was a whole range of alien food in the biosphere, and Seth was sure that would at least be worth something. Still, there was a nagging feeling that he refused to convey to the rest of them… Something seemed wrong. Every time they went on an extravehicular activity, such as boarding a sister ship or exploring an outpost… Something went wrong.
"I'm starting to sound like Bova," he mused to himself.
Harlan turned to him. "What was that?"
Seth shook his head, and Harlan continued piloting the Christa down to the landing strip on the surface of the small planet. "Look, Commander," the earther said. "This is our first real vacation, you know? You really don't seem that excited about leaving the ship, willingly, in a safe environment."
"We don't… know if it's completely safe," Radu said from the navigation console just behind the helm. "I mean, no one in… No one in the UPP has ever been here before." He spoke hesitantly, and rightfully so. He could tell that he was dampening Harlan's mood with every single word he spoke. Their friendship was tumultuous at best, and ruining it – or avoiding its ruination, rather – was always at the forefront of the Andromedan's mind. "But… you know, Commander Goddard, I do think Harlan's right – at least in saying that you should try to relax a bit. You've… been really stressed since we talked about landing."
"There. See?" Harlan asked, completely ignoring both Radu's and the commander's fears.
"I'm cutting power to the secondary rear thrusters," Suzee droned. "We're in the planet's atmosphere."
"Picking up a transmission," Rosie said. Her tone was considerably more cherry that Suzee's. Then again, she tended to make everything fun. It was both what the crew loved about her and hated about her, though everyone had their faults. "It's just audio. Playing it now."
The voice came over loud and clear, though it was obvious the computer's translators were working overtime. "Starship Christa, we presume? We received your transmission ninety-four standard En'hegian hours ago, and have cleared you for landing. We've also taken the liberty of securing a translator for each of your crew… I'm hoping you've got one on your ship, or else I suppose this message is rather pointless."
"We read you, En'hegia," Seth said, realizing after the fact that he, too, hoped the En'hegian official had some sort of translation device. After a second of mental deliberation, he added, "We thank you for your hospitality."
"It was nothing at all," the official continued. "My name is Gzzart. I will be part of the landing party crew that will be meeting you at the terminal."
"Ninety-four hours?" Bova wondered outloud, if for no reason at all than to provide a break in a conversation that was boring him to tears.
"When will you be landing?" Gzzart continued. "We've detected you in our atmosphere…"
"One moment," Seth said, signaling to Rosie to cut the outgoing transmission. She did so, and the Commander turned to Suzee. "Suzee, do you think you can make a calculation taking into account how long ninety-four hours of their time is? I want to make a good first impression."
Suzee shrugged, rolled her eyes back a bit, thought a while, then answered. "Probably about twelve En'hegian hours. That's just a little less than an hour for us, at the engine's current speed, though—"
"That's fine, Suzee. Rosie?" Seth turned away from the rather affronted Yensidian. Rosie instantly opened up the channel again, and the commander answered confidently, "Just about twelve hours, sir."
"Ah!" Gzzart exclaimed. "We look forward to your arrival, then! We have preparations to make, so you'll excuse me if I cut his conversation short? I'm terribly sorry."
"We… understand. Christa out."
Rosie cut the channel once again, and silence became the predominant sound in the room.
Finally, Bova spoke. "You know, for some reason I just don't trust them."
"You don't trust anyone, Bova," Rosie responded, though she didn't sound too sure, either.
"Nice landing, Band," Seth commented disinterestedly to the Christa's pilot. He'd actually been quite impressed, considering the last landing Harlan had made had been a crash landing some year or so back.
"Actually, it was, wasn't it?" Miss Davenport commented, smiling. "I see someone's been paying attention in class. Well done, Harlan." The earther turned to her, almost expecting to receive brownie points, or whatever T.J.'s equivalent was. Merits? Whatever. The fact was, Starcademy's assistant principal looked all-too-happy to get off the ship, so she was in a particularly good mood at the moment. Harlan wasn't about to spoil it by inserting a random jab in her direction. Probably wise, considering.
"Thanks, Miss Davenport," he finally said. It kept everyone happy, and… well, it would probably get them out of the ship faster.
"Now," Seth started, causing everyone to turn to him. "You're to be on your best behavior here. The people here seem quite friendly… though I don't want you to go completely trusting them." His eyes turned pointedly to Harlan. "It's just as you would do with any people. You act in a professional manner, and hopefully they will act as such to you. Got that?"
Everyone muttered their agreement.
"Band?" Commander Goddard prompted.
Harlan saluted. "Got it, Sir. You don't have to worry about me."
"I've paired us off so that if one of us gets in trouble, the other can go back for help. It's also safer. Rosie, you'll be with Bova. Suzee—"
"Cat's with me," she said, matter-of-factly.
"Yes, but she can't help you if you get into trouble, so I'm putting you and Catalina, with Miss Davenport."
Neither of them looked exceptionally thrilled.
"I will be with Thelma, mostly because we'll be sticking around the ship. That leaves…"
"Me and Radu," Harlan said. His voice wasn't exactly ecstatic, but it wasn't quite offended, either. Harlan had a feeling he'd be stuck with the Andromedan again. They got along fine, but it was a deep-rooted hate of the species that caused him to still be uneasy around Radu. Friends? Yes. It was just something he couldn't place…
"…You okay, Harlan?"
Harlan turned to Radu, fixing him with a momentarily blank expression before he blinked his eyes to clear it away. "Yeah, yeah, I'm fine."
"We're gonna be meeting the En'hegian party first, then I suppose we'll have free-time for as long as it takes to get what we need… Make sure you meet back at the Christa by an hour before sunset, though, alright?" Seth started moving toward the door. It would be the first time in a year they were on lengthy shore-leave, and everyone followed closely, anticipating. "There's probably stuff to do at night, but I just want everyone to check in."
"Alright, alright…" Harlan rolled his eyes. "Look, some of us aren't children anymore."
Goddard continued down the hall, not dignifying Harlan with a glance back over his shoulder. The boy was right; recently, he'd turned twenty-one, which pretty much meant he was an adult. "No, you aren't children. None of you here are. But the fact remains that you are my responsibility, and should something happen to any of you—"
The Christa's airlock opened.
"Nothing is going to happen…" Harlan began, just about the same time everyone got their first look at the En'hegians.
They were wholly inhuman. That was perhaps the best way to describe them at first glance. Tall and impossibly plump, each of them had two yellow eyes on what could be considered a face… Except it was directly in the center of their bodies. Their arms numbered four, and while they had shoulders and elbows, they ended in a small dexterous tentacle instead of a hand. Their skin was reptilian, each a slightly different shade of yellow or green, and their bodies ended in a snake-like tail that was mostly hidden under the bulk of their bodies.
Harlan was too busy being surprised to comment. And that was a good thing, too, because as soon as he thought about commenting, he'd already remembered that they'd been instructed to be as polite and as dignified as possible.
One of them slithered forward. Actually, it oozed forward was a word more worth using. One set of "hands" planted themselves in the ground and pulled the creature forward, while the other two remained clasped in front of it, somewhere at eye-level.
The first thing it did was pull a small object out of a pouch that must have been around its belly area. That was vaguely disturbing, Seth thought, as he reached forward to take the object offered to him. It was incredibly small. In fact, it looked as if it would…
The En'hegian moved aside a grayish green flap of skin on its face to show that a similar object had been placed into its ear. Oh! It was the translator! Seth put it into his own ear… and the reptilian creature offered a smile and a nod before distributing similar objects to the rest of the crew. It paused when it reached Thelma.
Thelma said something in a totally unrecognizable language, which the translator instantly translated to "Greetings, fellow potatoes!"
Confused, though smiling, the En'hegian moved away.
Seth massaged his temples.
"…We did not speak until you could understand us, for obvious reasons. Welcome to En'hegia. I am Gzzart. I… believe we spoke over your communications unit earlier."
It was a strange mix of the common language, and the same growling, unrecognizable series of syllables that Thelma had demonstrated seconds earlier. That would be hard to get used to, but at least they could all understand it.
"Yes. I'm Commander Seth Goddard… This is my crew. Harlan Band from Earth. Radu from Andromeda… T.J. Davenport, from the Earth colony on Mars. Rosie and Bova from Mercury and Uranus respectively, and Suzee, from Yensid." He considered adding Catalina. After all, she was likely standing there with them, however, he didn't want to complicate matters. Yet. "I've told the crew that they have shore leave. That is, of course, with your permission."
Gzzart smiled. At least, everyone thought it was a smile. "Of course. Just be very careful."
Seth narrowed his eyes. Was that genuine concern, or a warning?
He looked over his shoulder. "First things first. Suzee, you and T.J. search out some information. See if you can barter for engine components…"
"…You do know we can't even begin to read this language?" Suzee quested, pointing to one of the signs tacked to the floor of the landing strip.
Gzzart smiled, turning and calling what must have been a name. The translator didn't bother speaking up. Another one of the En'hegians approached, this one a yellowish color. Suzee couldn't help thinking it appeared to be the shade of fresh vomit. It was careful to keep from fully turning its back to them, yet was doing its best to face Gzzart. If anything could be said for this race, they sure were polite.
"Terbrin. You'll go with these two ladies and see to it they are able to read our language and acquire a fair price on anything they need," Gzzart began. "And if there's trouble, you know what to do."
Terbrin nodded. "If it pleases you, you may come along with me. I know wonderful places to barter…"
Its voice was slightly higher. Seth wondered if it was a female as it led Suzee and Miss Davenport off into the center of the port city. Hopefully they'd be okay… Why couldn't he shake the feeling that something was going to happen?
And what did Gzzart mean by "You know what to do…"?
"Rosie, Bova, I want you to collect some native samples for study in the Christa. Maybe we can find something for the biosphere…" The Commander turned to Gzzart as Rosie dragged a reluctant Bova off in the same direction in which Suzee and Miss Davenport had gone. "I'll be staying near the ship, with Thelma, so if you need anything…"
Gzzart pointed to the two remaining crewmen. "And they?"
"They'll be looking for supplies," Goddard offered. But I needed to talk to them before sending them off. If you'll excuse me…"
Gzzart nodded. Seth turned to face Harlan and Radu. "I'm sending you off to look for supplies. Crystals, food, clothing… whatever you think will be important or maybe add a little comfort to—"
"I doubt we'll be finding clothing," Harlan remarked, looking at the En'hegians. Radu couldn't help but laugh, though the Commander remained quite serious.
"I'm warning you, Band. I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt here. You said you weren't a child. Prove it to me."
"Alright. Don't worry, we'll be fine." Harlan's expression fell considerably, his brows knitting over his eyes. It was an expression he wore when something actually got to him, and for that, Seth was glad. He wasn't going to tell Radu to keep an eye on him, but that was probably understood. The two turned to walk off.
"Harlan," Goddard called, "Be careful."
"Harlan, be careful," the Earther echoed, turning toward Radu. "You know…"
Radu actually rolled his eyes. "Why don't you try to stop thinking about that, and attempt to enjoy yourself. You know, this is an entirely different culture, altogether."
"Entirely different." Harlan seemed to have a thing for repeating things today, Radu thought, shaking his head. Harlan continued. "I can't even tell the streets from the sidewalks here. I mean, I think this is a walkway. But then there's this narrow strip next to it…"
Radu had to consent to that. Both of them had seen things that resembled cars at times, though they, too, traveled along what seemed to be sidewalks. "I'd say we could read up on it, but…"
"Yeah. I wish these translators actually translated writing." Harlan tugged on his ear a little, looking toward Radu. The Andromedan couldn't actually wear it, as it wasn't designed for Andromedan ears. Thankfully, he could easily pick up its whispered translations from the pocket in his jacket.
The two of them walked along the strip that Harlan had previously indicated, occasionally trying to make sense of what was sold in any particular establishment. The buildings themselves were seemingly carved into rock… Not exactly inviting, and neither of them saw any that looked enticing enough to enter.
Eventually, they passed one of the En'hegians that seemed to be walking some sort of pet. As it attempted to walk directly between them, Harlan sidestepped into the narrow strip next to them.
Radu heard the vehicle approaching before either of them saw it, though by the time he was able to call out a warning, Harlan had already been hit.
"We're actually not doing bad, considering…" Miss Davenport stated, attempting to make conversation with the girl walking not too far in front of her. T.J. hadn't really harbored any malice or direct dislike toward Suzee, unless one counted all those times that she'd literally called the Yensidian imaginary (likely to her face!) …That was a whole different story, though. How could she really be expected to simply know that invisible friends existed when there was no premise for them? She'd always been a very by-the-books person, though so much had happened to turn her idea of a perfect world upside-down.
"No, we're not," Suzee agreed, her tone midway between conversational and annoyed. She couldn't help it if she was still bitter about all that time Davenport had ridiculed Cat; called her a dreamer and a misfit in front of the other students. There was the whole interesting 'imaginary' speech, too. And the long talks about 'Suzee.' And—
Basically, they tolerated each other.
Davenport was a proud woman. Frantic at times, and prone to fainting spells, but proud. She wasn't about to directly admit to Suzee that she'd been wrong, though perhaps this would be a good time to talk things over… Away from the crew in a place where few would probably be around to overhear them. Yes, that would definitely be best. They could keep it between themselves.
"Terbrin?" T.J. hailed the En'hegian that slithered along quite slowly in front of them. It turned, exhibiting an enormously defined sense of balance. Both Suzee and Davenport winced, expecting their guide to simply fall over.
"Yes?" she responded.
"…I was wondering if you… perhaps have anything to eat around here that would be palatable for… Well. Us." T.J. didn't want to be rude, it was just that she'd already pictured in her mind what creatures like the En'hegians might eat… And it wasn't pretty. To her surprise, Terbrin laughed.
"…I'm sorry, but that could take some doing. I shall see what I can do, if you care to wait…?"
T.J. nodded. The En'hegian dragged itself off.
Once Terbrin was out of earshot, Suzee looked up to the older woman. "You know, we were making pretty good time. Is there any reason why you wanted to just stop in the middle of nowhere?" She leaned against one of the rock walls that made up the side of a repair bay, allowing color-streaked hair to fall in front of her eyes so she could glare up through it. Admittedly, it did make her look slightly more menacing, but T.J. had long ago gotten used to that expression. Suzee wanted a fight. The best way to dispel that was to smile.
So she did.
The expression turned to curiosity. "…Alright, so…?"
"I just thought we could talk for a while, over lunch. I was getting a bit hungry."
"Yeah. I was, too." She paused, and even considered for a moment sitting on the ground. In addition to a nagging hunger, she was also quite tired. Suzee, too, was proud, and still wasn't done being bitter at Miss Davenport. If anything, at least the anger gave her something to feel besides homesickness. "Look, they're gonna deliver the glide components. I should be there."
T.J. fought back the urge to say that she was still the superior officer, but bit her tongue.
Suddenly Suzee pushed off the wall, eyes narrowed and focused on some point ahead of her.
"…Something wrong?" Davenport asked.
"…I don't smell anything," Suzee responded.
"That's hardly out of the ordinary…"
Annoyed, Suzee shook her head, holding up a hand to indicate silence. Again, Davenport refrained from saying anything as Suzee removed one of the gill covers on the front of the Starcademy-issue jumper.
"You think something's wrong?" T.J. asked after what she considered to be a reasonable enough silence.
Holding nothing but concern and curiosity in her voice, without any of the snappish tone of before, Suzee replied, "…No. I don't think so." She paused, before folding the gill cover back in place. "…Just got the strangest… I don't know. A feeling."
Rosie Ianni leaned over a completely unremarkable plant, in the center of a totally unremarkable patch of dirt, and had just made a perfectly unremarkable discovery. "This isn't edible, either."
"Oh, that figures," Bova grunted, rolling his eyes. "It looks like it's just another weed. But hey, what did I tell you? I said it didn't look edible, and you had to waste a full minute of our time analyzing that. So, was I right?"
"Yeah… doesn't that bother you?" Rosie stood up, looking Bova in the eyes.
"Yeah, it bothers me! I'm hungry!"
Rosie chuckled. "No, I mean as a whole. First there's this thing, right? And the last couple plants we looked at… Well, I suppose those would have been first…"
"Point?" Bova asked. He was actually vaguely interested. This scientific stuff was, after all, his forte. He could tell at a glance whether or not something would be edible or not, or, alternatively, whether or not it would kill them if they ate it. It was the fact that Rosie insisted on analyzing every single one of his statements that was literally working him into a starved stupor.
Okay. Not quite. But a hungry Uranusian is a dramatic Uranusian.
"Nothing's edible. We would have run into something by now. I mean, even you said that the berries on that vine were so acidic they'd… Well, you know."
"You'd have really bad ulcers, that's for sure," Bova shrugged, looking at the tiny plant on the ground. As much as he didn't want to admit it, Rosie was pretty accurate. They'd checked out several dozen different species of plantlife, and not one of them was remotely edible. Some, in fact, were highly poisonous enough that a touch would make someone sick for days.
"And there's hardly any plantlife on this planet to begin with," Rosie added. Bova arched his eyebrows, turning toward her. Her face was rather downcast, which was certainly not a normal expression for a Mercurian. Rosie's shoulders sagged, and she rested her hands on her hips. "…What do they eat? Seriously, Bova? There's nothing here to eat!"
Bova's worst nightmare had come true. Almost. At least he wasn't dead yet, and there was also the recurring dream he had about the Arcturian Bugbear…
"I think we should get back to the ship."
"Couldn't agree with you more," Bova droned. There was food at the ship. The one thought that kept him going.
They hadn't gone ten steps when Rosie turned to look at him, the downcast expression turned to confusion.
"What?" Bova asked. Rosie pointed, and Bova crossed his eyes, looking upward.
His antennae were sparking.
"Hit" was both an understatement and an overstatement. Harlan had been trained in some sort of human fighting technique… Thankfully, the sound Radu heard wasn't Harlan being jammed against the fender of the fast-moving yet silent vehicle. It was the sound of the Earther's foot coming into contact with the front of the car as he jumped to avoid it, however, which turned out to be just as bad. To Radu's Andromedan ears, the snap was painfully audible, and anyone could see that Harlan's knee was bent at an unnaturally outward angle.
As he went flying.
As he went flying some fifteen feet.
Harlan's shoulders slammed into the ground, his head coming into contact with the packed dirt not too long after. He lay there, unmoving, though in the sudden silence, Radu could easily hear Harlan's breathing. It was slow, hollow. Hopefully he'd just been knocked out, and not something worse.
"Harlan? Harlan, are you alright?" It was an automatic response to the situation. Obviously, he was far from 'alright,' though ironically enough, the silence was becoming deafening. People that had previously been walking down the street turned to stare in silence at the now prone form of the alien creatures. The driver of the car that hit Harlan was standing outside of it now, watching without saying a word. Yellow eyes everywhere… Some had even appeared that hadn't been there before. Radu approached uneasily, kneeling in front of the other, who'd landed on his side. There was a little blood in the dirt where he'd slid across the ground, but that wasn't what he was worried about.
Tentatively pressing a hand into his friend's shoulder, he was not too surprised to find that there was no resistance, and Harlan flopped down onto his back without protest. There was a gash just above his temple where his head struck the ground, but it seemed to be shallow. It bled a lot, but head wounds tended to.
"Can I have a little help?" Radu called.
They continued watching. Staring. There was a sudden snap in his consciousness, and a calling throughout his limited psionic abilities.
It wasn't so much that Radu heard the whispered phrase carried on the wind so much as felt it.
"Let the hunt begin. Let the hunt begin. Let the hunt begin."
All around them were piles of stone and sand, cleared some time ago in order to fashion the crude city out of the same material. Dirt. Rock. Sweat, blood, and tears. It had taken years to build the city. Years.
Not their years.
"Suzee…" T.J. gently laid a hand on the Yensidian's shoulder as she rocked back and forth. Any second, thought T.J., and the girl's rocking would simply cause her to fall over.
Shuddering, Suzee snapped out of the trance, gasping for air. "What the hell was that?" She demanded, rounding on Davenport, wide-eyed.
T.J. took a step back. "…I was hoping you knew," she answered meekly, inadvertently turning her eyes away from Suzee's. She considered all of them under her watch, and she cared for each of them, but something just wasn't right about being afraid of one of your charges.
The frantic episode passed as quickly as it had begun. "I… I saw something. Memories. Almost like I'd pitched into someone… One of them!" Suzee's expression was unreadable, her tone indistinguishable between excited and afraid. "And I couldn't help it, either. It was like… I could feel them in my mind. I can hear something…"
She turned to the empty air next to her, then to T.J. "You hear it, too, right?" She asked, and the woman finally recognized that tone as fear. For one that heard at least one voice all the time, Suzee certainly seemed scared of whatever new one she heard.
Truthfully, though, Miss Davenport was concerned as well. No longer did she take invisible friends or inaudible voices for granted. "No, Suzee… What do you hear?"
"The same thing over and over…" Her eyes widened. "Let the hunt begin. Let the hunt begin."
"I have an incoming transmission!!" Thelma announced, wearing her normally cheerful smile. She shuffled toward the commander, who was currently looking out one of the monitors to the ground below. Something was definitely going on. Something big. It had caused literally the entire population to stop and face inward, toward the center of town. And that included everyone… Even those whom Goddard had determined to be women and children.
Those working on ships and transports suddenly stopped working. Those inside buildings and within quarters had emerged onto the street. As far as the monitor would show, there were En'hegians all over the place. More than he could hope to count, almost like a pack, or a swarm.
"Go ahead and play it," Goddard said, leaning toward the monitor as if it would give him a better view. He only succeeded in adding a nose print to the glass covering it.
Perhaps this was some sort of cultural thing. Maybe once a day all the natives decided it was just time to step outside and look at the sky… Maybe it was just today.
"I told you to play that transmission, Thelma," Seth said, somewhat perturbed.
"I have been," Thelma responded.
Rolling his eyes and offering a tolerant smile, the Commander clarified, "So I can hear it?"
Thelma reached up, turning the dial on the plate that covered her head. Suddenly static filled the room, though there was a voice in it. No… it was the voices that were making up the static. It was impossible to hear it.
"Thelma, can you single out one of the voices?"
The android nodded, her eyes rolling back a little. Gradually, the voices died off until only one remained.
Goddard stared. "What…?"
Thelma offered helpfully, " I believe whomever it is, is clearly stating 'Let the hunt begin,' Sir."
"Let the hunt begin. You hear that?" Bova turned to Rosie, who shied back away from him. The miniature lightning bolts arching around her friend's antennae were a little too dangerous for her liking. Bova told her they wouldn't hurt her.
"No, I don't," she said skeptically. Her eyes traveled up the hill they'd descended not too long ago. So far, more of the plants they'd checked had come up poisonous, or contained other means of deterrent, such as spiny leaves. Those that looked to at least be decent were covered with swarms of insects.
"Hm. C'mon. I think we need to stop detouring and bet back to the Christa."
Her friend's tone was casual, as if he didn't care that he was sparking for no reason, or that there was nothing useful to eat growing in the ground, or even that he was hearing voices that Rosie herself couldn't hear. Rosie knew how to read into him by now, though, and Bova was worried. Granted, Bova always knew something would go wrong at the least convenient of times, but it was very unlike him to be worried about it.
She followed him up the hill. The incline was steep, and she also had to be careful to avoid touching any of the plants that relied on contact-toxin as a predator evasion tactic. Using the rocks as handholds, she slowly ascended just behind Bova. Upon reaching the top of the hill, Bova hoisted himself up and seemed to stare outward, past the rocky barrier they'd crossed.
"What, Bova? What do you see?"
Rosie pulled herself up, standing next to the Uranusian. She looked first at him, then followed his line of sight outward.
Rosie was about to respond, when suddenly they all started moving forward, in unison.
"Harlan, you gotta wake up."
Radu continued kneeling next to Harlan, one hand on the earther's shoulder, and the other planted in the ground. His eyes remained on the throng of the planet's population gathering around them. They hadn't moved yet. Hadn't even done anything besides stare. They seemed passive. Calm. In fact, Radu could actually hear as their heart rates slowed.
Their hearts were slowing to beat on the exact same rhythm.
Let the hunt begin. Let the hunt begin.
Harlan moaned, reaching for the gash on his forehead. Just about the same time, the En'hegians started moving forward and an incredibly slow pace. Radu calculated that at the rate they were going, it might even take the closest of them an hour to reach the center.
Not wanting to take the chance that their advance would suddenly pick up, Radu lifted Harlan and rested the Earther on his shoulder. The hundreds of pairs of yellow eyes turned to stare at him as he carted the boy off, but no one made any quick move to attack. In fact, none even reached out for them.
That was rather odd.
Radu leaped over the stone barrier that seemed to separate the city proper from the dusty, spare wilderness beyond. Having put some distance between them and the weirdly tranced aliens, Radu set Harlan down, propping him against the barrier.
"You alright? C'mon. Say something."
Harlan's eyes remain squinted tightly closed, and he moaned in pain. Radu tilted his head, looking toward the odd position of the dislocated knee. Before Harlan knew what was happening, or could protest, Radu reached toward the injured join and deftly popped it back into place. It probably wasn't the most medically sound thing to do, but it would certainly take away a lot of the pain.
Harlan's eyes shot open. He started to scream in pain, but the cry died in his throat. His eyes stared ahead, straight ahead, right at the side of a wall.
"Harlan…?" the Andromedan prompted.
The Earther blinked. Rubbed his eyes. Stared again. "…Radu. I can't see."
WHEN I CONSIDER HOW MY LIGHT IS SPENT
Harlan Band was visibly shivering, one hand hovering just below his eyes, and the other digging into the dirt upon which he was sitting. The one hand grasped at the stony ground with such strength that the fingertips bled.
Radu, though, for once in his life was sure he'd heard his friend wrong. "…You… what?"
"Are you deaf?!" Harlan spat angrily. "I can't see! I'm… I'm…"
Radu's didn't know what to say. He could only stare at the Earther's unmoving eyes. He waved his hand in front of them. No response. "Y… you're… you're bleeding. Let me… Uh…"
There were no bandages, of course.
Jacket. Shirt. Sleeve? Sleeve! In some of the old Earth movies that Harlan had forced him to watch, Radu noted that when someone was bleeding and there were no bandages, one of the other actors used their sleeve as a bandage. Radu tore at the shoulder of one of the dress jacket's sleeve, and the seam easily came undone with a loud tear.
Harlan's head jerked toward it. The empty expression in his eyes caused the Andromedan's belly to flip-flop. There was no confidence there anymore… They were lifeless. Dead. And scared. "What are you doing?"
"Making a bandage," Radu responded, ripping the seam that ran along the side of the sleeve. Realizing it still wouldn't be long enough, he then tore that partially down the center. It would be crooked, but at least it would work as a temporary dressing. Starting to reach for Harlan's wound, he thought better of it, drawing back. "I'm going to tie this around your head now, okay?"
Harlan nodded, never looking at Radu. Not even glancing in his direction. Radu reached forward again, and even though he'd been warned, Harlan jumped at the contact.
Radu looked up. "Yes… I know."
"Radu, I'm blind."
The Andromedan remained silent for a moment as he tied off the bandage. "You hit your head really hard." Pausing, he looked over the rocks to gauge the progress the En'hegians had made. They still hadn't moved too far, though, which meant they still had a little time. The hardest part was being able to concentrate when the strange chant continued to filter through his head. "We have to find a way to get you back to the Christa."
"Find a way to get me back…?" Harlan's eyes narrow a bit. "…Can't we just walk? I mean, if you could support me a bit…"
"No… No, you don't… understand. After you were hit, the En'hegians went crazy. I… I don't know."
Angrily, the other boy shook his head. "You don't know what?"
"Their hearts are beating in unison. It's like a drum. It's hard to concentrate… And they're talking about… about a hunt." Radu listened again for a moment. "Let the hunt begin."
"I don't hear it."
Radu nodded, before realizing it was a futile gesture. "I hear it in my mind."
The voice continued broadcasting over the Christa's speakers. It was sort of eerie, like if one didn't know they were listening for something, they might not know they were listening to anything at all. Eventually, Goddard allowed it to blend into the background as he thought.
"Thelma, let's go see if we can figure out what's going on."
Commander Goddard had a really bad feeling. And not just the kind he got when he knew one of his students was in trouble. Trouble was often easy enough to fix, but this seemed somehow… worse than that. With the entire population slowly moving inward, Seth had a feeling that something very bad was going to happen.
Or had already happened. Or a combination of the two. "You can turn off the transmission now."
The sound of the static rose again before dying away entirely.
"I cannot get it to shut off, Commander."
Seth turned, narrowing his eyes at her. "What do you mean? It's off."
Thelma's eyes rolled back. "Hm. Yes. However, it still seems to be continuing in my mind. Perhaps a malfunction. I shall perform maintenance at the next possible opportunity."
Great. First the ship's engineers heard voices. Now the android, too. Who next? Bova? "Okay, that's fine. I just think we oughtta get outside and look around. Just to see what's going on."
"If you are as worried as you sound, Commander, I believe you think leaving the Christa would be… dangerous."
Commander Goddard turned, though his eyes remained on the screen. "I have a duty to this crew, Thelma. I can't stay here while they're out there. Do you understand?"
"Good. Let's go."
"I'm hearing voices, Rosie."
"Uhm. Well." She tilted her head, looking not at Bova, but at the advancing aliens. Or were they retreating? It was hard to tell. Rosie hadn't ever looked quite so confused in her life. "…At least we know what's going on, right?"
The Uranusian arched his eyebrows and looked at her. Sometimes, her logic was infallible, but this certainly wasn't one of those times. "No. I'm hearing voices telling me that there is a hunt starting. I have absolutely no idea what is going on. Unless you're an expert on this culture, you don't either—And I know for a fact that you're not. Wow! What an awesome day to be lost in the middle of an alien city. Perfect. I needed to add this to my List of Things I Never Want to do Again."
"I think we should follow them."
Bova considered this. Pondered for a while. Looked at his shoes, then at the En'hegians. Then at Rosie. "Yeah. Alright."
She stared at him. That was too easy.
He smiled that sarcastic smile he was so good at. "May as well choose how we're gonna die, huh?"
Rolling her eyes and offering a more sincere smile of her own, Rosie grabbed Bova's elbow and let him away… despite the fact that the little bolts of electricity between his antennae were becoming more and more apparent.
Miss Davenport and Suzee were nestled in a rather unpopulated area of the city. Sure, there were a few denizens present, though none of them seemed very willing to talk. In fact, tapping them on the shoulder and inquiring about what was happening just got the two women completely ignored.
Suzee clutched her hands over her ears. Removed them. She uttered a very interesting expletive. "This is getting really annoying."
She turned to look at T.J., who jumped back in alarm and suddenly turned her eyes away.
"…What?" Suzee asked, trying and failing to keep the bite out of her voice. Unfortunately, the only person to whom she could direct her anger was Miss Davenport. They were on somewhat shaky ground already, she knew, but sometimes she couldn't help it. When the voices of what seemed to be a billion people were running through her head, it wasn't exactly the best time to catch Suzee at her nicest.
T.J. continued to look away. Tilting her head, the Yensidian stepped forward. "Your… eyes are closed. Oh. You… don't trust me."
"Your eyes are glowing," T.J. countered.
"Uh… I didn't… I wouldn't… Look, Miss D., I'm not… going to take over your mind, okay? So relax. It must be some sort of side-effect of…" Suzee quirked a brow, nodding her head once toward one of the En'hegians that was passing them by. "…Whatever's going on."
She relaxed, and turned back, though she still wouldn't meet Suzee's eyes.
"Why are you afraid of me?"
"I'm not," T.J. offered.
"Uh, yeah. Sure. When you're ready to talk, just let me know." Frustrated, Suzee crossed her legs and suddenly sat down very hard on the ground. The motion was enough to cause Davenport to actually look up at her. Like a child throwing a tantrum, she thought, as she started to move toward the girl. Sometimes she had to remind herself that these were still just children… Well, not really children anymore…
Suddenly, she was on her feet again, glowing violet eyes wide, smiling. "Wait. I have an idea."
"…The current status of the atmosphere is not allowing me to get a solid trace on the crew," Thelma commented, "Though all of them seem to be alive. Commander Seth Goddard seems to be the closest."
"Really," the Commander replied. "Wouldn't have guessed."
"I believe Miss Davenport and Suzee are the closest. Bova and Rosie seem to be moving away from the ship."
Which left two. "And Radu and Harlan?"
Thelma's eyes rolled back, lidding partially as she calculated. "Radu and Harlan are stationary. Their current position: Unknown. Distance: Unknown. They are off the Christa's scanners."
Commander Goddard scratched his chin. "Hm. How could they have gone that far? Or why, rather?"
"They could have walked, sir."
Seth considered this. "….Yes. Or they could be hiding. Thelma, continue tracing them as best you can." He started forward, meaning to search the city for them, calling them if he had to. With the recent silence, and the En'hegians not caring whether or not they shouted, it would be easy to call for them.
He stopped. Backtracked. Grabbed Thelma's arm. "I meant for you to come, too."
Thelma smiled. "Ah!"
Somewhere in the city, Radu attempted to remain calm, himself… He was shivering, though. Cold, almost as if he was sick. He could feel his internal atmosphere dropping in pressure, too. Likely just a cold… But why now? He wasn't hallucinating, thankfully, but in addition to the constant voice in his mind, this was just another annoyance.
"What are they doing now?" Harlan asked. Some time ago, he'd closed his eyes, and while he was still in the same position, at least Radu didn't have to look into that blank expression anymore.
The Andromedan stood, finding it to be a task that was a bit more difficult than normal. Almost as if he was heavier…
Or …losing his strength?
"They're coming this way," Radu answered. "Really slowly… Though I think they're picking up speed, and their heart rates are increasing. Just a little, though." Pausing, he took a step over the rock.
"I'm right here, Harlan."
There was a bit of a scuffling behind the Andromedan, and when next Radu turned, he saw Harlan standing, heavily favoring his right leg. His eyes were open, just a little, revealing the drifting pupils underneath them. As the Earther concentrated, they synchronized, though they still carried that dead expression. His face wore a determined grimace.
"I don't know where I am."
"There's rocks in front of you. I can't… I don't think I can lift you over. Something's weakening me. Something in the air, I think." Radu stepped back over the barrier. "Look, just lean on my shoulder. I'll help you over."
"I think I can—" Harlan stepped forward, his foot slipping on one of the loose rocks at the base of the barrier. It rolled out from under him, and he fell backward, landing on his tailbone and shouting a surprised and pained "Damn it!"
Automatically, Radu turned toward the En'hegians to gauge their reaction, but they just continued steadily forward at a slowly increasing pace. There had to have been two or three hundred he could actually see, and likely more behind the rock shelters and stores. There was, at least, no vegetation for them to hide behind, though that was an incredibly small comfort.
Reaching down, he grabbed Harlan's wrist to help him up, but the stunned Earther lashed out, kicking Radu in the ribs with his bad leg. Another cry of pain, this time from both of them.
This was not going to be easy.
"Okay. Okay." Radu attempted to regain his breath. "I'm going to help you up now, alright?"
"Yeah," Harlan answered.
She slowly paced herself in front of the En'hegian. That wasn't hard, considering how slow it was moving… Though she was walking backwards, and had to glance behind her every now and then to make sure she wasn't going to trip over anything. "Alright," Suzee said, eyes looking once to Miss Davenport. It had become a game, sort of. If she looked up at the teacher, she would nearly always turn away. Not this time, though. This time, T.J. offered Suzee a reassuring smile.
There was little physical change this time, as her eyes were already glowing. However, her shoulders did slump a bit as the violet spirit separated from her, melting easily into the En'hegian.
And she felt the drive. Suddenly, an overpowering mental call. A signature. They all communicated through signals in the air, relayed through tiny waves of electricity that were inherent on the planet. That was why Suzee could 'hear' their message. Anyone with any sort of psionic power would be able to pick it up.
And because they had that mental power, this particular En'hegian was able to grasp onto Suzee's spirit and forcefully propel it from his body.
Unexpectedly, Suzee tumbled, rolled a little way, and landed on her belly. The En'hegian continued on, slowly, as if nothing at all had happened.
"Guh," she stated, intelligently.
T.J. kneeled next to her. "What did you see?"
Wrinkling her nose, Suzee pushed herself up into a seated position. Pain. "…They… They don't really eat. That's why there's no food on the planet. But…" She seemed to concentrate, glowing eyes intense, focused on the retreating alien. "…They… Uh… There's really no delicate way to put this."
T.J. steeled herself. "…Go on."
"They eat those that have become injured. Or sick. They can all tell… It's passed through the air…" Suzee was shivering. Miss Davenport put a hand on her shoulder, and after a moment, she continued. "They're smart, but short-lived… That's why their hours are so short. This technology… It's all been donated to them. Creatures… took pity on them. Tried to… help them."
"Suzee, calm down."
"…They… uh… The crew. Of the ship… It's all in their collective memory… They crew that donated the stuff… They got sick."
Miss Davenport paled, noticeably. "…Suzee, there's something you're not telling me."
"They're after Harlan."
Chapter Four – Friends Departed
Call to the soul when man doth sleep:
So some strange thoughts transcend our wonted themes
And into Glory peep…
John Milton – Excerpt, Friends Departed
"I'm never gonna… Never gonna see them again…" Harlan leaned heavily on Radu's arm, his own hand holding tightly to the Andromedan's shoulder on the other side. He wasn't making it easy at all… Half delirious with the thoughts that were finally catching up with him, Harlan wasn't even trying to support his own weight. Radu, his strength all but gone, was doing his best to keep the Earther from crashing down as he helped him over the rocks.
"You'll be fine."
Harlan whimpered as Radu finally gave into his own annoyance and half dragged him over the top of the barrier. To his credit, though, he didn't complain. Maybe he was in too much pain to complain.
Radu paused. Thankfully, his direction sense wasn't affected by whatever it was that had sapped his strength. They'd gotten turned around at least a dozen times since leaving the Christa, though for him, it would be easy to find their way back. It wouldn't, however, be easy to get there. They'd come a long way, after all, and Harlan was pretty much dead weight.
"What am I gonna do?" Harlan's weight shifted. There was less pressure on Radu's shoulders now, so at least he could stand straight.
"I don't know. I can't carry you. I can… hardly support you."
The Earther's eyes opened a bit as he absorbed that bit of information. "You can't…?"
"Something happened. I'm not sure what it was… The En'hegians started… Well, they're still coming this way." Radu looked toward them. "Their heart rates are collectively increasing… I don't know what to make of it." Radu neglected to mention that somewhere in the course of the past twenty minutes, his own heart had first slowed, and was now beating in time with theirs. He'd first noticed it when massaging his ribs where he'd been kicked… And had focused an ear on it to confirm the fact that it matched. Almost perfectly, in fact.
"I'd settle for making it back to the ship," Harlan said through clenched teeth. "I can hear them… I can hear them really well. They're close, aren't they?" He remembered reading something back at Starcademy that when one sense failed, the others would take over stronger, to compensate. His hearing seemed much more acute.
"Yeah, they are, but they're just kinda staring."
"Is there a way we can go?"
Radu looked around. Automatically, his mind sorted out possible paths that would lead them to dead ends, or more En'hegians.
Harlan tensed. "There's gotta be a way."
Radu opened his mouth to speak, but closed it again.
"No, we're surrounded."
The sun was setting rapidly, though the sky wasn't darkening as much as one would expect. There was a smaller star rising in the East, almost as if the setting yellow sun was pulling the little white dwarf along with it. A binary system… Quite interesting, really, or it would be, if Miss Davenport wasn't focusing on the Yensidian walking along in front of her.
Suzee weaved back and forth, as if drunk. In fact, had T.J. not been with her since they left the Christa, she almost would have believed alcohol was to blame. As it was, something was playing with the girl's mind.
"'Sh getting' dark—" Suzee noted, her words slow and slurred. "Mm. Sun's goin' down. 'Nother one o'er there. No, I'm fine, Cat."
"Suzee, are you alright?" Miss Davenport asked. She realized she was probably mirroring Catalina's question.
"Shure. Just told you I was. You deaf or invishible?"
T.J. couldn't hold back a chuckle, and though she was quite concerned about exactly what it was that was happening, she felt she could spare a little bit of laughter. In front of her, Suzee stumbled a bit, and fell on her knees. Seconds later, she fell forward on her face.
That was nothing to laugh about.
Crouching down next to her, T.J. took Suzee's shoulders and turned her over. She was surprised to see that the girl was smiling… Laughing, even. "Hey, Miss D! Tol'ja I was invishible. You said I wasn't, but I am!"
"Oh, yah. Guess you're right." Suzee's head slammed back onto the ground, and despite her current state, she winced in pain. "Ground just keepsh coming right up n' hittin' me. Weird, huh? And theresh this voice…"
T.J.'s eyes widened, her brows knitting over her eyes at the same time. There was no way she was going to be able to get Suzee back to the ship without help… And the only help around was the tranced En'hegians… They certainly weren't going to be of much use. As the Yensidian's eyes cast a purple light on the rock structures around them, T.J. heard footsteps that seemed to be very close. Not knowing whether or not there was any other bipedal species on the planet, she dragged Suzee back against a wall, as far into a shadow as she could get. It wasn't easy; it wasn't that she was fighting being dragged. It was more like she wasn't attempting to help at all.
"Suz, close your eyes, dear."
"Mmmkay." She did.
Then she continued talking.
"Y'know, Miss D., I never 'pologized to you. N' I'm really sorry. But you gotta understand, talkin' in classh is kinda fun, 'speshuly when no one can see you."
Frantically, Miss Davenport attempted to silence the girl by putting a hand over her mouth. "You gotta be quiet, okay? I'll take my hand away."
Suzee nodded. Miss Davenport removed her hand.
There were about three seconds of silence, then, "And I know I've been hard on you, but you weren't fair, either."
"M'shuttin' up right now. Right now! Not gonna shay anozzer word—"
"Stop shutting up!"
Finally, the girl fell silent, but T.J. didn't think it was in time. She could still hear the footsteps… One a shuffling, quick pace. The other seemed to be walking a little more slowly… Both were heading in their direction.
"Hm. How odd. Commander, my scanners show that both Miss Davenport and Suzee should be in this area, but they seem not to be!"
"That's Thelma!" Suzee belted. Miss Davenport visibly relaxed against the wall.
"Thelma, we're here. Commander? Is that you?"
Seth Goddard rounded the structure behind the android. "Yeah… what are you two doing hiding? The En'hegians don't seem to be dangerous… At least, not to Thelma or I. We passed a bunch of them. They didn't even look at us."
"Just… being careful," T.J. said.
Suzee giggled. "Oh, Harlan is so in for it when they catch up with him."
Seth tilted his head. "…What's she mean? What the hell's wrong with her?"
"…Suzee pitched consciousness into one of them… She found out a lot. I really think Harlan's in trouble…" She paused, briefly sucking in a breath as she pondered what to say. "I don't know what's wrong with her… But before she… well, before, she told me that… En'hegians are cannibalistic. They eat their injured. Or sick."
Seth made the connection. "You think Harlan's injured."
Suzee giggled again, pointing to Seth and T.J. while speaking to no one in particular. "Those two like each other."
They stood in the middle of them all. Some of them were getting closer, and as they did, Radu would guide Harlan further toward the center.
"…God. I can hear their heartbeats. I can hear yours!" Harlan pushed away from the Andromedan a bit.
"I know… For some reason, mine is matching theirs. It's gotta have something to do with the fact that I can hear them. They… they just keep repeating the same thing over and over…" Radu and Harlan stood back to back, and while Harlan couldn't see them, he could hear their scaled bellies as they slithered across the ground. Could even sense their yellow eyes on them.
"…How close are they?" Harlan asked.
"Close. You could probably reach out and touch one." Radu looked back toward the rock barrier. "There's more space over the wall… I think we should go back. How's your head?"
"I'm dizzy," Harlan answered. He reached up to touch the bandage, suddenly feeling a tearing in his forearm. It took him a couple seconds to get it. To understand.
"Hell. It bit me!"
Radu turned, looking at the four or so puncture wounds in the earther's arm. They were actually rather deep, and blood was spreading on the already tattered grey uniform jacket, being soaked up like water into a sponge. Oddly enough, Radu could easily reach out to them without the En'hegians reacting at all… Which didn't make any sense. Why would they want to hurt one, and not the other?
Without a word, he took Harlan's arm, guiding him back toward the pile of rocks that served as some sort of barrier. Whenever they got too close to one of the creatures, it would lash out with teeth or claws, but only at Harlan. It seemed that to the aliens, Radu was entirely invisible.
Besides the fact that it was getting dark, Radu didn't want to venture too far from the city. Currently, he had his bearings, but what would happen if he lost his sense of direction, too? Would they ever find their way back? "They're increasing their pace," he explained as he helped Harlan back over the wall. It was difficult… The wall wasn't steep to climb, but the human's knee was possibly very badly damaged. Plus, he was blind… And had to rely on touch for footing. "As their heart rate increases, they speed up."
"Yeah, and they're after me."
"We don't know that."
Harlan had his hand wrapped around his arm, trying his best to stop the bleeding. It was much worse than the injury to his head. Deeper. He almost slipped on the looser rocks and fell several times, though Radu's arm was there to steady him. By the time they were on the other side, Harlan was exhausted… The best cure for that was to sit down, and he was about to… Except that same steady arm kept him standing.
"We can't stop now," Radu said. They're coming. "And we have to get down this hill… I think we can walk along there. It leads back into the city, but all the En'hegians are heading this way. If we're fast enough, we can get ahead of them."
They walked in silence for a while. The effort Radu put forth to keep Harlan from falling, and the effort Harlan put forth to keep his knee from crumpling, pretty much sapped their energy for conversation. It seemed like a huge amount of time passed, when Radu suddenly ceased walking. Harlan nearly toppled.
The Earther tried a good-natured jibe, despite the situation. "Warn me before you do that."
Radu pointlessly held up a hand. "Wait… do you see…" He stopped himself as Harlan shot him a vacant-eyed stare that could have frozen lava.
"…What," Harlan asked.
Radu squinted, looking into the darkness at the bottom of the hill. The single white dwarf star that served as the planet's moon shed a little light on the packed earth, but he didn't need the light to reveal to him what it was he saw. A figure, wrapped in electricity, was heading toward them… And walking next to that figure at a safe distance was a young, pink-skinned girl.
"It's Rosie and Bova," Radu said, relief creeping into his voice.
Harlan's blank stare turned away from Radu and toward the electrostatic noise he heard coming from not too far away. "Rosie! Bova!" He called out to them, limping forward while keeping a hand on Radu's shoulder for both support and guidance. He wouldn't admit that if he wasn't in contact with the Andromedan, he felt completely lost. There was also the fact that he felt like his head was spinning, and he had a migraine to end all migraines. There was a certain numbness there, though, that allowed him to push the pain aside.
As the two younger cadets got closer, Radu could see that Rosie's face was slightly burned, and that her uniform jacket was charred. How was that possible? Electricity. She may have been able to absorb heat, but Bova's electrical charge had hurt her. Why was he sparking?
"Harlan?" It was Bova's voice.
"Yeah, yeah… I'm here," Harlan had to stop when he reached the end of his arm's-length distance from Radu.
"Don't get too close," Radu warned. "Something's wrong with Bova."
Harlan's eyes lidded. "The electricity?"
Rosie started running forward toward Harlan… Or toward him, he wasn't sure. The thing was, Radu couldn't let her tackle Harlan. Not now. He pulled away from the Earther, intercepting Rosie in a bear hug, minus the strength, before she could do the same to Harlan. Surprised, the Mercurian pulled back, and looked into Radu's eyes.
"Radu! You're here, too! There's these aliens… You know. The En'hegians. And then Bova said he heard them… They were sayin'…"
"Let the hunt begin."
Rosie brightened. "You hear it too? I wonder why I can't. And then we decided to follow them and Bova just kinda electrocuted me even though we're not sure why but I'm okay so don't worry and now we found you and Harlan and now we can go back to the Christa!"
Radu smiled, hugging Rosie close again. "Why didn't you go back? You shouldn't be out here right now."
Bova stepped forward, lightning arching across the ground before it died for lack of conductivity. "…Rosie and I discovered that there's no edible plants. Anywhere. At least, none that we can find."
Rosie nodded. "So we were tryin' to figure out what they ate… And we found you."
Harlan chuckled, limping forward into the light cast by Bova. "Hey, that's kinda interesting that you would say that. Because we think you found what they want to eat."
Rosie shook her head, confused. Then she noticed the limp. "Harlan…? What's wrong?"
Harlan smiled. It was not a pleasant smile.
Radu looked to Rosie and Bova in turn. "…Harlan was in an accident. He can't see."
"…You're…" Rosie stood, taking slow, deliberate, and noisy steps toward the Earther. Harlan could feel the slight heat from the girl, and reached out to her. Rosie took his hand, noticing the emptiness in his eyes.
"Yeah, Rosie. I'm blind." He tried to smile for her. He really did. "…Can you help me get back to the Christa?"
Rosie gently embraced her friend, careful not to knock him over. "…Of course, Harlan! Everything'll be alright!"
Bova looked up toward the rock barrier. It was lined with En'hegians. "Well, now. I wouldn't say that."
Thump. Thump. Thump.
Their hearts beat faster, the instinct inside each mind and body taking over. Soon, the steady rhythm would break, and it would be each for themselves. Others would be injured in the fray, and there would be a feast then it was all over.
Whomever had started it, they did not know. They did not care. All they could sense was the injury.
It was a cycle.
They were born. They lived. Without fail, one day, one of them would slip up.
They surged forward, pausing only now and then to feast on those that had fallen before them.
"Stop laughing at me."
"Stop laughing at me."
"Stop laughing at—"
"Does anyone else think it's really weird when she carries on like that?" Commander Goddard asked, crossing his arms. Miss Davenport simply shrugged, and Thelma, expression blank as ever, divided her attention among the three of them. Her crystal blue eyes glanced here and there, toward the Commander, toward T.J., toward Suzee. The android was well aware of the 'invisible' end of the conversation, even though she couldn't hear it. Thelma understood a lot more than anyone gave her credit for.
Suddenly, at the exact same time, both Suzee and Thelma said, "The voices stopped."
Actually, Suzee managed to slur the last couple words so that they mashed together, and ultimately succeeded in making even less sense than Thelma. For once.
The Yensidian narrowed her brightly glowing violet eyes. "Stop laughing at me," she said, before quietly slumping over on her side. Miss Davenport, who was closer, once more kneeled next to the unconscious girl.
Just to check, just in case, T.J. pressed a hand to the girl's throat, and felt an impossibly rapid pulse. Drawing back, she looked up at the Commander and Thelma. "You said the voice stopped, Thelma?"
"Yes. And I instantly experienced an interesting pace adjustment in my circuitry. All my processes are currently running very quickly! Hm. I wonder if this is what one would call 'A Rush.'"
T.J. shook Suzee's shoulder. The girl moaned, but remained otherwise unresponsive. "Do you think you could wake her up, Thelma?"
The android nodded, holding out a hand toward Suzee. There was a brief whirring of mechanical components before an opening near the Thelma's wrist suddenly splashed both women with cold – very cold – water.
T.J. shrieked in annoyance. Seth laughed. Most importantly, though, Suzee opened her eyes. They were still glowing faintly, but at least they weren't purple anymore. She reached up to push soaked blue and purple hair out of them.
"How do you feel, Dear?" Miss Davenport asked.
Suzee groaned, closing her eyes again. "Like I have the hangover from hell," she commented, attempting to roll over, and failing… Mostly because there was a wall on the other side. Commander Goddard kneeled next to her, as well.
"Suzee, do you have any idea where to find Harlan? When you pitched into that En'hegian… Did it know where Harlan was?"
Her eyes fluttered open. "He was… in the middle of the city. That's all I know… I only got the memory from that moment. I can't continue to trace it after I leave."
"Alright," he said. "But at least we have a starting point. Do you think you can walk?"
He smiled. "Well, you're gonna have to. Up with you, now…" Grabbing Suzee's shoulders, he hauled her to her feet, where she stood unsteadily for several seconds before unceremoniously falling to her knees and retching.
The entire area quite suddenly lit up with lightning. White-hot bolts arched among the cadets, around legs and arms, around shoes… even right in front of their eyes. Radu was too stunned to say much, and only felt a mild heat from the crackling ozone. Harlan had absolutely no idea what was happening, until Rosie pulled away from their embrace. She screamed.
The electric discharge ended then, leaving a rather rotten-smelling silence behind. Among the four of them, Harlan was the only one still standing. Rosie had fallen to the ground, covering her head. Radu had done likewise.
Bova, too, was on the ground, but seemed to be unconscious.
"Someone want to tell me what just happened?" Harlan asked, unable to keep the tremor of panic out of his voice.
He heard something, like a million snakes slithering. The noise was getting closer, and without the ability to see, he had to fight back the urge to run away. Harlan Band, he told himself, would not run away.
Besides. There was the little matter of the knee injury…
"Don't have time to explain…" Radu said. Unexpectedly, Harlan felt himself lifted off his feet. Something heavy was nestled next to him… By the static he felt, the Earther surmised that it was probably Bova.
"I see you got your strength back," Harlan said, still having absolutely no idea what was happening.
Radu ignored him. "Rosie, we have to run. You think you can keep up?"
Harlan's face fell. "Run? Why are we running?"
He heard Rosie's voice. "I think so."
And just like that, they were running. Harlan found himself thrown over the Andromedan's shoulder, and as it was jabbing into his lungs, he couldn't ask why they were abruptly on a hasty retreat.
Several minutes passed in the same fashion. Radu continued running. Harlan could hear the sound of slithering somewhere behind them. When he finally had a second to think, he finally put two and two together… They were being chased, and by Radu's pace, they were being chased very quickly.
The mad sprint ended. Harlan found himself being turned around, and being carried backwards.
Radu set him down, and set Bova next to him. "Rosie, are you alright?" he asked.
She was breathless, Harlan could tell, by listening to her breathing. "I'm fine. I'm fine," she managed to gasp. "There's a lot of distance between us now, see?"
Radu looked up, seeing that it was true. They weren't quite as fast as he'd originally anticipated… Maybe when they'd climbed the barrier and toppled down the hill… Maybe that had given them the illusion of speed. Still, they were closing fast, and they'd have to run again, soon.
"Can someone at least tell me what happened?" Harlan asked. "I'd settle for the abridged version!"
Radu's own breaths came in gasps, and he spoke hesitantly between them. "…I stopped hearing the voice… Bova's electricity went crazy… that's the only… way I can describe it. It didn't touch us, but it took down about thirty En'hegians."
"…I think I'd have enough control not to hurt you guys…"
"Bova?" Rosie hurried to his side. "Bova, you're okay!" She ignored the faint discomfort of an electrical charge as she aided the Uranusian into a sitting position, then pulled him into a hug.
"Of course I am. That was a lot of energy I expended back there. Had to recharge." He paused. "And I'm still hungry."
"How, though?" Radu asked. "I mean, it happened as soon as I stopped hearing the voices."
"Same here," Bova countered. "I didn't have time to think to reabsorb the energy, so I had to direct it somewhere."
That somewhere had been into thirty-some sentient people. Of course, they were currently enraptured with some sort of murderous rage, but they were people. No one wanted to say anything about that. No one wanted to admit what Bova had done… And as he'd said, at least it wasn't Rosie, Harlan, and Radu. There was a brief silence after Bova's statement.
Finally, Harlan said something. "We enrolled in Starcademy with the understanding that… Sometimes we were gonna have to fight our way out of a situation. With the understanding that sometimes… Sometimes some of us were going to get hurt."
Harlan could not see the soft, subtle, grateful smile that appeared on Bova's face. No one else saw it, either, though. Rosie and Radu were monitoring the advance of the En'hegians.
Yellow and green bodies pressed in on them on all sides, totally ignoring them. Skirting around them, and nearly running into them… Slowly, the group made their way out of the horde of En'hegians.
Suzee leaned against a wall, heavily lidded eyes blank, tired. She smiled slightly, and for a moment, T.J. thought she might have another drunken episode like before. The Yensidian merely shook her head, though, turning to watch the retreating herd.
"If they're following Harlan," Suzee said, "We're going the wrong way."
"They must be heading back toward the Christa," Seth pondered.
"That'd be my guess," Suzee confirmed, doubling over so that her hands were on her knees. Addressing the air next to her, she snapped, "No, you don't have to look away. I'm not gonna puke again."
"Not funny, Cat."
Again, Radu was running. This time, it was at a slower pace, and the only person he was carrying was Harlan. Rosie and Bova trailed behind, and every once in a while, Radu would have to slow his pace even more to allow them to catch up. He, likely, could run for hours. They had, in fact, already been running for at least one. He hadn't remembered himself and Harlan getting that far away from the Christa.
Finally, he sensed the junction that would take them back into the city. They were nearly back, he thought. Now if only there were no En'hegians at the top of the…
It was too much to ask, and he very well knew it. Looking up toward the rocky barrier, he could already see the En'hegians crawling over it.
They'd be on them in minutes.
"Something's wrong," Harlan muttered.
"Yeah… they're… uh… They're waiting for us. Somehow they got ahead of us." Radu backed up a little ways. At least ten pairs of yellow eyes looked down at them. None of them looked very intelligent now.
"…I don't want to die…" Harlan added.
Annoyed, Radu snapped, "We're doing our best!"
"Wait," Harlan said. There was a calm in his voice. A resignation that none of them had ever heard before. "…I don't want to die. But they seem to be after me… I don't want you hurt… if they get to me. I think you should get back to the Christa."
"With you," Rosie said.
Harlan shook his head. "Rosie… I'm blind. I'm injured."
Bova aimed in front of the mass of En'hegians and fired a warning shot. It didn't hit any of them, and it didn't even cause them to back off.
"We're gonna make it," Radu said. And then he tore off, right into the group of them.
Harlan felt claws and teeth tearing into his uniform. Every once in a while, something bit into his flesh, and it hurt. But Radu never stopped running, and Rosie and Bova never fell behind.
He was grateful, but confused. Never would he have thought of leaving any of them behind… But out of all of them, he expected that Radu would have obliged Harlan's request and left the Earther on the ground. Loyalty be damned… Radu, out of all the Space Cases, had been the one Harlan had picked on the most.
Harlan would have left himself behind. Besides, he was blind. Desperation was sinking in… He couldn't imagine living a life without sight. Last he checked, there was no miracle cure for blindness… Not even with today's medical breakthroughs. Regaining one's sight could take years… And the only medical specialist on the Christa was Rosie. Could Rosie cure blindness? Not likely. If she could, Harlan had the feeling that she would have excitedly told him already.
Finally the En'hegians stopped attacking him. He got the impression that they were out of the fray.
"I can see the Christa," Radu said, nearly out of breath.
The only way Harlan knew Rosie and Bova were still running behind them was the fact that he could hear their frantic footsteps… And behind that, the slithering, grating sound of En'hegians against dirt.
"I see Commander Goddard!" Rosie suddenly piped up.
Despite the imperative situation, Radu slowed his pace long enough to turn and confirm that they were indeed in proximity to the Commander. And along with him was Miss Davenport. Trailing a little farther behind was Thelma, who seemed to be supporting a rather ill-looking Suzee.
"Keep running!" the Commander called.
Radu didn't have to be asked twice. His pace quickened again. Behind him, Rosie and Bova groaned, but offered no other complaints.
The landing strip looked eerily like a ship's graveyard at night. As the Andromedan made his way through them, he realized that they were arranged in a very odd pattern. Earlier in the day, he suspected they'd been empty for some time due to their disrepair With the new perspective he had, often from underneath the ships' hulls, he could see why they were arranged as they were.
The arrangements the En'hegians had spoken about. They'd been talking about moving the ships so that the holes they'd torn through the hulls wouldn't show. So that the crew of the Christa wouldn't ever suspect that this race was docile enough… Until suddenly, they weren't.
The best part about having a partially sentient ship was that they didn't have to ask the Christa to open for them. It sensed them, and without a word from any of the approaching crew, the airlock opened. And since it was some dozen feet off the ground, it even extended a spaceway connection they could climb.
Andromedans were not invincible. They were not without weakness. And they certainly got tired. Radu found that it was becoming increasingly hard to both stay on his feet and support the Earther. Digging his toes into the translucent dome, he ascended it as quickly as possible, hoping that Rosie and Bova were close behind.
The pair was actually waiting just outside the spaceway, watching the approach of the final four crewmembers. Rosie had actually volunteered for the task… She didn't want the Christa to close up, and then have to spend the time opening again. The ship seemed to know what she was doing, as it remained open.
Bova didn't know why he stayed. Maybe he was concerned. Maybe.
"I told you to get into the ship!" Commander Goddard spat when he was in close enough range. He paused next to Rosie, waiting until T.J. had boarded. He indicated for Rosie and Bova to go next, and they did. It seemed to take forever for Thelma and Suzee to reach them, but then they, too, were ushered inside. Finally, Seth made his way up the spaceway, and the Christa's airlock closed behind him.
By the time they made it to the Command Post, Radu had already laid Harlan out on the floor. The human's eyes were closed, his knee slightly bent. Despite the fact that he hadn't been running, the whole ordeal left him exhausted, breathless. And they still had to tell the others about the accident that was the cause of all this.
Harlan felt that like Commander Goddard and Admiral Cody, he would end up going prematurely grey.
He heard Commander Goddard's voice in the corridor. "Alright Band…" The ComPost's door slid open. "What did you…"
Someone must have cut him off, because the Commander's voice stopped abruptly.
There was silence for a long time… Not complete silence, though. He could hear footsteps shifting uncomfortably. Could hear their breathing coming in short gasps as they tried to catch their breath. He could even hear the hammering of Radu's heart. The Andromedan wasn't too far away, though without contact, Harlan felt incredibly alone. Automatically, he opened his eyes…
Seconds later, he heard a voice. Suzee.
"He's looking right at me. He's looking right at me and he…"
"Oh, gods. You don't see me, do you?"
Radu was the next to speak, his uncharacteristically rough voice surprising Harlan, and causing him to turn toward it. "Harlan was… in an accident. He was directed into the street… Where he was… hit by a car."
Someone gasped. It sounded like Rosie, even though she knew about the accident. No… Harlan thought. She didn't know how it had happened.
"Band…?" He could hear the Commander approach.
"Commander," Harlan responded.
He didn't say anything else.
"They're… after you because you're injured. They're cannibalistic." Suzee stood, leaning on Thelma's arm and guiding them both toward Harlan. She sat down next to him.
"And there's holes in the ships out there," Radu added.
Harlan felt a hand on his shoulder… A slight touch. It wasn't warm. Suzee was in front of him. It had to have been Miss Davenport. Grateful, Harlan reached up to set his hand on hers.
"You think they can tear through the hull of the Christa, Mister Radu?" Goddard inquired.
There was a pause, before Radu nodded. "Yes. I do."
"Then let's get out of here."
Suzee spoke up next. "…We can't. I… I bartered the old engine parts for the new… Unless the En'hegians didn't make the delivery yet…"
Goddard had to fight to remain standing. He couldn't allow the students see him slump to the ground in despair. He had to be their support. Their strength. "They delivered the new parts just before they… Before they started going after Harlan. They asked about the payment, and I told them to just take what you'd offered."
Harlan bit back a comment about the whole trust issue that Goddard had addressed before they even left the ship… But one other person on the ComPost wasn't so passive and silent.
"We might as well write our own epitaph," Bova said. He laughed, sardonically. "Heh. No one else is gonna be around to do it for us."
Chapter Six – They also Serve who only Stand and Wait
Suzee fell off her seat.
Granted, she was still somewhat dizzy from the hangover feeling she'd gotten for whatever reason, but it did serve to break up the tension from Bova's most recent statement. Nobody laughed. Nobody remembered how at that moment… But at least the crew started breathing again.
"First things first," Commander Goddard said, looking to each of them in turn. He watched as Suzee struggled to sit up, the decided perhaps remaining on the floor was a much better option. Bova crossed his arms in front of him… Seth could count on the Uranusian to come up with any tactical flaws in their plans… They'd need everyone, really… Rosie would have to be Bova's foil when he got too hopeless. Radu's strength was indispensable. Suzee would need to install the new engine components, and run diagnostics through the computer – hopefully with T.J.'s help - if she didn't faint.
After the Commander had everyone's attention, he repeated himself for emphasis. "First things first. We put together what we know about these people. Their strengths, their weaknesses… And what happened. Thelma?"
"How long before the En'hegians reach the ship?"
Her eyes rolled back momentarily as she spoke to the Christa. "Given their current speed, they will be in contact range of the Christa within twenty minutes."
"And Radu… You noticed holes in the hulls of the ships outside?"
Seth pondered for a moment. "Harlan… What were the conditions of the accident?"
Their pilot turned blind eyes toward the Commander's voice. His eyes fell somewhere in the general vicinity of where they were meant to, though never met the other man's eyes. "…Radu and I were walking down what we thought was a sidewalk. I stepped over to avoid one of the En'hegians walking some sort of pet."
"And the vehicle was just there," Radu added.
"It wasn't quite an accident…"
They all turned toward Suzee. She was lying on her side, on the pedestal where her console was situated. Her dark, streaked hair fell over the side and trailed on the floor. "…It was staged. I could feel it when I was in that one En'hegian's mind. They didn't just outright plan it… It's hard to explain… Someone thought of it, and the hive mind agreed."
Everyone absorbed this information. Rosie finally asked, "Why?"
Suzee's eyes opened just a bit. "…Think about what they eat. Now. Think of what they may realize when another race… Or several different races… Land on their planet willingly."
"We invited ourselves to dinner," Bova said.
Suzee nodded, then instantly regretted it, and closed her eyes again. "…Exactly."
There wasn't any time left to talk. Seth turned away, warily eying the view screen. They seemed close… "Thelma. Time."
"Fourteen minutes, eight seconds."
No time. No time!
"Rosie. I want you to keep an eye on the monitors. If they start boring through the hull, I need you to reinforce it. Just like you did when we were on the planet, you remember?"
Goddard continued. "…Radu, Bova… I want you to take the power fence. Set it up around the perimeter of each of the supports that are holding the Christa upright. If they can't destroy those, they can't get to the hull. But do it quickly, then get back inside the ship."
They nodded, and hurried off to comply.
"T.J., you and Suzee head down to engineering. Suzee, I need you. You have to do this."
She pushed herself up, eyes opening. "I know, Commander."
Miss Davenport was visibly shaken. High stress situations weren't the best for her; however, the voyage so far had already made her stronger than she ever knew she could be. Helping Suzee up, she then guided the Yensidian to the jumptubes. Suzee looked as if she were about to be sick (again), though she didn't complain as T.J. half shoved her into the entrance tube, then followed after.
That left Harlan. He looked at the floor… Or rather, bowed his head toward it. "And I wait," he said.
"It's the best thing you can do right now, Harlan," Seth said.
The night was calm. Empty. Except for the approaching noise from the En'hegians, it was peaceful. All around the Christa were ships from who knew where, and who knew when. Empty shells, unused for years, their technology ripped from then and integrated into a society of people that lived by eating other people.
It made Bova sick. And now that he knew that Harlan's accident hadn't been a mistake, he didn't feel so bad about what he'd done before. Of course, it would always bother him… Better he than Rosie, though. Or Radu. At least he could claim indifference, and actually believe it.
The two cadets stood around one of the Christa's supports. The installation of the power fences was quite easy… It was just the fact that the order in which they set up the posts was complicated by the shape of the supports. Each post had to be able to 'see' another, and since the supports flared outward in back, they had to use four for each, instead of three.
That left them with one undefended support, as they only had three posts left. It figured, Bova thought. There was probably another one somewhere in the cargo hold, but they didn't have time to look for it.
"How much time… would you say we have?" Radu asked.
"Does it really matter?" Bova countered.
Radu remained silent on that issue. "So what do you think we should do?"
Bova remained silent on that issue.
"…I can't… I can't think. I can't do this."
Miss Davenport shook Suzee's shoulder. "You have to. You have to get the engine running. Suzee…!" Her voice rose with every word she said. T.J. fought to keep from panicking, but it seemed like exactly the thing to do in a situation like this. She couldn't help it. And what was worse, she already felt light-headed.
Suzee leaned on the Protomix. "This is Cat's department. I've never worked on this one before."
"So let Cat tell you what to do!"
The girl nodded, seemed to listen… Reaching forward, she removed an access plate, which fell out of her hands and dropped to the floor. Seconds later, Suzee dropped to the floor as well.
Suzee said something very inappropriate.
Davenport kneeled next to her. "Okay, then tell me what to do. I'm not bad with computers. I'm sure I can figure this out."
"Cat says… Cat… says… God Damnit!"
Miss Davenport doubted very much that Catalina had said that. "Okay, I know your head hurts. But we're all going to be very dead in a few minutes." She was shaking. Couldn't control the fear. Any second now, she was gonna…
"Suzee… Could you pitch into me? Would that give you more control?"
One eye opened. She looked up at the older woman and shook her head. "No, because it's still my mind. And it's still connected to me. You get it?" She fumbled with the panel again, forcing herself to her feet to look at the wiring behind it. Suzee knew what they were, of course, but at the moment, she couldn't make sense out of them.
"Okay, okay… Would I be able to talk to Cat?"
The Yensidian's eyes widened. "I think so. Yeah. Uh… it's worth a try." She turned to face the teacher, then decided it probably wasn't a great idea to remain standing. Crossing her legs, she sat down. Miss Davenport followed… Subconsciously, she averted her eyes.
"I hate doing this," Suzee said. There was a pause. "Miss D., you have to look at me."
Hadn't she wanted to face her fears? She turned her eyes toward Suzee's, which started to glow violet.
There was an uncomfortable cold sensation, and then an incredible calm. Confidence. Almost unshakable… But there was fear, too. And pain.
This is Suzee's mind?
Yeah, this is my mind.
The thought hit her, and she realized she was communicating telepathically with the engineer.
You have work to do.
In front of her, Suzee fought to keep her eyes open.
"Hey, Miss Davenport…" Came an uneasily cheery voice from behind her.
T.J. turned. For the first time in over a year, she was face to face with Catalina.
Rosie placed ungloved hands on Harlan's knee, concentrating heat into it. She was a natural healer, and actually enjoyed medicine. Not, she thought, a practice, but an art. There was a specific way… Not many people had that knowledge. Rosie did, and it was one of the few things she really prided herself on. Of course, she never spoke about it. That would be rude.
As she concentrated, she forced the heat to pass through Harlan's skin, and wrap around the damaged ligaments. The one on the inside was snapped. The one across the front was merely stretched… That one would be easier to repair. A comfortable warmth enveloped it, and for perhaps the first time in the past several hours, the Earther found himself smiling a genuine smile.
"The other one's gonna take more work," Rosie said. "I can't just heal that one. But the good news is that I'm sure you'll be able to walk again within a week or so."
"Thanks, Rosie." Harlan didn't want to ask about his eyes. He didn't want to hear the bad news.
"I'm gonna take a look at your head injury now, okay?" Rosie gave Harlan time to nod before she touched him. As they were in the ComPost, she only had a first aid kit… She'd have to offer better medical attention when they got back up into space.
When. She put her gloves back on.
Rosie removed the sleeve Radu had used as an impromptu bandage, wincing at the sight of the injury underneath. "I'm gonna have to clean it, and it's gonna hurt. You might wanna lay down." Harlan did so, lying on his back, dead eyes looking straight upward. Rosie tried not to pay attention to them.
She slid the first aid kit toward her, removing from it a small bottle of clear liquid in a strangely labeled bottle. Removing the top, the Mercurian smelled it and smiled, having confirmed the fact that it was rubbing alcohol. Retrieving what looked to be a piece of gauze or some other type of absorbent cloth, she poured the alcohol onto it, before pressing it to Harlan's head.
He yelled, digging his fingernails into the floor to keep from lashing out.
"Sorry!" Rosie offered, meekly.
"No, it's alright… Just… Ow."
She worked at the wound, trying not to hurt Harlan too much as she carefully removed bits of dirt and stone that had worked their way into the injury. It wasn't as deep as she first thought, which was good. It meant there was less of a chance of infection.
Startled, the girl turned around to look up at Thelma. "What's up?" she asked the android.
"I should inform you that the En'hegians should be nearing the Christa in approximately four minutes and thirty-eight seconds."
Rosie looked beyond Thelma, to Commander Goddard, who had been monitoring the viewscreen, before addressing Thelma again. "Alright. Let me bandaged this up."
Satisfied with the answer, Thelma turned, shuffling back toward the Commander.
"I wish there was something I could do," Harlan said.
Rosie smiled… she wished that he could see that smile. "Don't worry, Harlan! Everything's gonna be fine."
He could hear the smile in her voice as she re-wrapped his injury… And that was enough.
"I'm gonna have to be the fourth post," Bova finally said. Radu looked at him, thinking for the second time that day he hadn't heard someone right.
"Okay… the fourth post. Uh…"
Bova rolled his eyes. "It'll buy us a little time, at least. Of course, it'll be a hell of a lot easier to get through a living post than a non-living one, so… they'll probably come after this one first. Stand inside the power fence, then activate it."
The aliens were so close. In the scant light of the lesser sun, they looked to be something out of nightmares. Horrifying creatures with staring yellow eyes… It was hard to believe that they'd been so polite before… So inviting. It was hard to believe that such an intelligent race could have such a lust for blood.
It was also hard to believe that they were less than a minute away.
Radu stepped into the field area of the power fence, and leaned against the Christa's support before activating it. Bova face inward, and reached his arms out toward the two posts on either side of him. Radu couldn't see it, but he could hear the fence hum to life around them.
"Don't reach between the posts," Bova said needlessly. "It's live."
The Andromedan looked away from Bova, through the invisible electric barrier. The first En'hegians were quite close. He heard a proximity alarm go off inside the Christa… The ship was warning the rest of the crew.
A hand reached out toward Bova, the single claw on the end of the tentacle reaching to test the boy's shoulder. It received a nasty shock, and the creature fell back, instantly set upon by the others of its kind.
Radu looked away. It bought them time, but it was far too awful to watch.
"This is how they live, Radu," Bova said. It was meant to be a comforting statement, but it fell flat. The Uranusian winced as one of the creatures managed to contact his back before being propelled backward by a strong shock. He didn't have to turn around to know that that one was probably being torn apart now, as well.
The alarm went off. Miss Davenport dropped the wrench she was holding, glowing eyes looking everywhere she could for the source of the problem. She wanted to back away. Wanted to hide somewhere.
"Miss D.," Catalina said. She was trying to be patient… She really was. The fact of the matter was that this would be done by now if she was talking to Suzee. Every little noise was setting the teacher off… And yet, Cat had to admire the fact that T.J. was not yet passed out on the floor. "You're almost done. Stay with it."
Miss Davenport picked up the wrench. "Okay, now what?"
"You're gonna have to move the forward thruster wiring aside to get to the connection junction for… this." Cat pointed to a round plate-like chip on the floor next to Suzee. "See the green series? Yeah." She paused as Davenport pushed them aside. "Okay, now back there… You see the link where the old one was removed? Fasten the new one in there."
She'd been a fool to think she could do this. There wasn't any way it would work… Already, she could feel Suzee's consciousness slipping, and knew that they didn't have too much time. "I should have stuck to teaching," T.J. said under her breath.
"You're doing fine, Miss Davenport… See? Look, that's right. It's connected." Cat turned her eyes to Suzee momentarily. "Suzee, stay awake, okay? We're almost done… This is gonna work. Both of you, stay with me."
Suzee muttered something, but her eyes opened a little wider.
"Now what?" Davenport asked.
"Relays," Cat said. "All the components are installed, you just have to tell the engine that they're installed. The Christa should take care of most of it, but you're gonna have to manually do the data entry on that terminal over there."
T.J. arched thin eyebrows. "On the computer?"
Catalina nodded. Miss Davenport smiled. "Well! This, I can do!"
Bova was, by nature, a rather indifferent creature. Things happened as they happened, and that had always been his general philosophy. It was what they were born into. It was what they were brought up to believe… Uranusians liked to be alone. They didn't like to rely on other people. They believed that everything that could go wrong would, and that each and every one of them would ultimately come to an untimely, if expected, demise.
Having lived with the Christa's crew for a few years, Bova found that some of his instinct for the negative had slipped away. Yes, he still believed they were all going to die. He still imagined that their current endeavor was absolutely hopeless.
The difference was, he wanted to do everything in his power to prevent that from happening… Even though he was just delaying the inevitable.
And… he'd been far too lucky for too long. Something bad was going to happen.
He hated it when he was right.
Instead of the featherlight testing contact he was used to, suddenly Bova felt one of the En'hegian hands go right through his shoulder. In fact, before the shock knocked him back, he could see the clawed tip sticking out the other side.
His concentration lapsed. The field around the support failed. The En'hegians leaped forward to attack, but Radu already had Bova in his arms. The Andromedan wasted no time; running toward the airlock, he shouted as loud as he could.
She extended the spaceway passage from the airlock… Bova knew they wouldn't make it in time. He was watching as some of the creatures devoured their brethren, while others gave chase to the two retreating cadets.
Radu found himself struggling up the passage for the second time that day, and was spurred on by the fact that the Christa was slowly shutting down the spaceway behind him. Every once in a while, his foot would slip, dangling momentarily in mid air before he was able to pull it back in.
Against odds, they reached the airlock. It closed behind them.
Meanwhile, the En'hegians turned their attention to the now unguarded support.
Chapter Seven – Paradise Regained
He watched the screen intently, not even noticing as Rosie looked over his shoulder. They were going to make it. They had to make it…
"Radu and Bova are inside the Christa," Thelma announced.
Seth Goddard visibly relaxed, though they weren't out of the woods yet, so to speak. "Thelma, what happened to Bova?"
"Well, first he was born…"
Seth waved a hand. There just wasn't time for this. There wasn't any time for anything! "No, tell me what happened to him in the last five minutes!"
Thelma nodded, smiling… Concentrating on fastforwarding her story to the appropriate time frame. "Radu and Bova were standing around the Christa's support beam, when Bova was punctured through the shoulder by an En'hegian Drone claw. Radu and –"
"They're on the ship, though…" Seth interrupted. He had to be sure.
"Yes, they are in the airlock. Hm." Her eyes rolled back. "It seems like Bova has been injected with an anticoagulant."
Rosie, who'd been silent for a while, finally spoke up. "…He'll bleed to death! Commander, we have to get down there."
Seth shook his head slowly. There was no question that the crew came before the ship, but if they couldn't get off the planet, there wouldn't be a crew at all. Or for that matter, a ship. "Thelma. If you need to, can you reinforce the Christa's hull from the inside?"
Thelma nodded, jerkily. "…I can pinpoint the most likely areas the En'hegians will attempt to bore through, and direct the Christa to build up her walls there."
"Okay. Thelma, you come with me. Rosie, head to the airlock. Take care of Bova." He paused… there was something he was forgetting. Something he'd overlooked…
"Let's move, people!"
Seconds later, Commander Goddard and Thelma were heading down the corridor to the places she'd specified. Rosie programmed the jumptube to take her to Radu and Bova. The Command Post fell eerily quiet, and Christa, sensing no one working, dimmed the lights. Harlan didn't notice… All he could do was lay his head back against the Helm. "…I'll just… sit here and wait."
There was blood all over the floor, and though Radu pressed his hand into the wound as best he could, there was little he could do to stop the bleeding. The green light from the floor shined up through it, illuminating the airlock in a faint, almost sickly yellow glow.
"Don't bother," Bova said. His voice was distant, and calm.
The injury shouldn't have bled that much, and it certainly should have slowed down by now. Radu narrowed his eyes, determined. But he still had no idea what to do; he wasn't a medical expert. Hell. He was barely interested in medicine at all. He did know that he had to keep Bova conscious… For some reason, that struck the Andromedan as being important. So he prompted the slightly older cadet into speaking a little more. "…Don't bother? Why?"
"We knew something like this was gonna happen. Admit it, Radu. Did you really think all seven… eight of us could make it home alive? That's a real long shot, you know. Just let me die. You know. Give me that much dignity."
"There's no… there's no dignity in death." Radu's voice wavered. There was a lot of blood on the floor. "Uh… Tell me what you'd do… When you got home."
Bova smiled vacantly. "I'm still hungry. I've been hungry since we landed. I could probably clean out the biosphere right about now…"
Radu looked upward, having heard the faint sound that signaled someone using the jumptubes. He waited for the sound to carry away, half expecting whomever was in it to be heading to another part of the ship. There was no way anyone could have known they were down here… Unless Commander Goddard had been monitoring the outside…! Damn. That was an entirely different situation. They were supposed to have retreated back into the Christa immediately after setting up the fence. Surely they were going to catch hell for that later. If there was a later. When he looked back down, Bova's eyes were closed.
The Andromedan couldn't help allowing negativity to slip into his thoughts. The situation was bad. He didn't remember it ever being worse than this…
The sound came closer. Suddenly, Radu heard the jumptube's airbrake, very close, and then Rosie arrived, a medkit cradled in her arms. She landed on her feet, though nearly stumbled in her attempt to reach Bova before regaining her balance.
"I didn't think anyone knew we were here…" Radu said. He propped Bova up so that the Mercurian medic could get a better look at the wound.
"Take off his jacket," she said, as she dug through the medkit. Radu did so, laying the blood-soaked thing aside in a heap.
"It's slowed a little, but not enough," he continued, as he attempted to get the blood off his glove by wiping his hand on his own jacket. It was pointless. Meanwhile, Rosie turned some sort of bottle upside-down, drawing a strange dark blue liquid into a syringe. Radu watched as she injected it near the puncture site.
"It's a styptic," she explained, as she set that syringe aside and assembled another. "Made from a kind of herb that's grown on several planets in the Sol system. Apparently the Lumanian system, too, because this was already made up."
Again, she injected Bova with the substance, this time, through the back of his shoulder.
"He should probably have a blood transfusion, but there's no other Uranusians on the Christa, let alone one of his type. He's gonna have to go into the healing—"
Without warning, the ship suddenly lurched.
Radu's eyebrows knitted. "What was that?"
"What was that?" Commander Goddard asked, looking up at Thelma. She was entering some codes into the terminal in front of them, while adjusting some crystals. She was far too calm.
"The En'hegians appear to be chewing through the Christa's support."
"…I thought they were going to climb it!"
Thelma pondered this, then asked, "Would you like me to open the airlock? Perhaps you can ask them."
Seth wondered if the android had chosen now to develop a particularly bad sense of humor. "Can you direct the Christa to reinforce that?"
Thelma shook her head. "I am sorry, Commander. While the Christa's hull is partially organic, her supports are compost entirely of various metals." I can send weak electrical shocks through the cores of the beams, but my guess is that it will hardly phase the En'hegian attackers."
Seth could allow himself to show his frustration in front of the android. Rattling off a few choice expletives, he pounded a fist on the wall. Thelma's eyes widened… Never had she seen the Commander so worked up. Had she been able to feel, surely she would have been worried!
Maybe she was worried. Her processes were crossing wires in the most inopportune places.
"What's the damage report on the support?" Commander Goddard asked.
"About forty-point-one-eight percent."
"Do what you can, Thelma. And open up a channel to the engine room. I need to speak to Suzee."
Catalina rattled off processes that Miss Davenport had never heard of before. Frantically entering the commands and hoping she wasn't making any mistakes, T.J. could feel Suzee's headache working its way into her own mind. The link didn't allow her to see the Yensidian's thoughts, but they shared a sort of telepathic connection. She could sense that Suzee was transferring some of her pain… But if it kept them both conscious and able, so be it.
When the voice came over the intercom, Miss Davenport jumped about ten feet.
"Suzee? How's the engine?"
It was commander Goddard. Attempting to keep her eyes fixed, the Yensidian answered, "Ask Miss Davenport."
On the other end, there was a definitive pause. "Miss Davenport?"
"…Catalina's talking me through connections and diagnostics. I can't talk now!"
Vaguely, Seth remembered thinking something along the lines of what the hell, But due to the growing absurdity of their situation, he was surprisingly comfortable with the idea that T.J. was communicating with Catalina. How? He didn't care. As long as it was getting things done.
"Look, how long do you think before we can be in the air?" Commander Goddard asked.
The ship lurched again… This time, T.J. swore that they were standing on more of an angle. "I don't know," she answered. Her hands were trembling. There was sweat dotting both her forehead and the terminal.
"…We need an out. They're out there chewing… chewing… through the Christa's support beams. If we…"
Seth ignored her. "…If they get through it, the Christa's going to collapse. That's where we stand right now."
No one had to say that if the Christa fell, she'd be damaged beyond repair. Actually, it might actually be reparable, except for the fact that there were murderous aliens outside…
"I'm working on it," T.J. stated.
"There!" Cat exclaimed. "That's it!"
"Cat says we're ready to go," T.J. relayed.
Seth breathed a sigh of relief. "Alright. Now all we have to do is get one of the students up to the Helm…"
Unfortunately, the broadcast was cut off by the sound of metal grinding on metal as the remainder of the support twisted and shifted, unable to withstand the weight of the ship. Christa slid over a few degrees, dropping a few feet on one side. The motion tripped T.J. up at her terminal, and she stumbled. The eye contact with Suzee was broken, and as the Yensidian spirit withdrew, T.J. also felt a good portion of that confident strength slipping away. Not that it really mattered anyway. She had about two seconds to cry out before she struck her head against one of the ion collectors and mercifully passed out.
To Suzee, it looked like a remarkably good idea. In some far corner of her mind, she knew how bad the situation was. But on the surface, she was totally oblivious… And thought that no one would probably mind if she just took a nap…
The Christa shifted more, and Harlan had to hold on tightly to the Helm to keep from falling. His knee still hurt, but Rosie was a wonderful healer. At least he could put some weight on it… enough to propel him forward. He nudged the step up to the controls with his toe, and slid his boot up until it rested on top of the short pedestal. That way, he could gauge the height so he could lift and place his other foot.
He'd been able to hear the conversation Miss Davenport had with Commander Goddard. It had carried up the jumptubes, and while the Earther had to listen very closely, he could just make out the fact that Catalina was pretty sure the ship was ready to go. Harlan, too, was a little confused about how Miss Davenport was talking to the now-invisible Saturnian, though it wasn't really the time to question anything. If the ship was ready to go, it was ready to go.
Admittedly, he was frustrated that he wasn't able to see the controls, but if he concentrated, they were quite clear to him. His sense of touch was also heightened, and as his hands passed over the individual crystals and levers, he recognized specific irregularities upon each one that he'd never really bothered to notice before. Irregularities that were actually quite important now.
The crystal on the right… he remembered its color. Red. He pushed that, and he could feel as the engines powered up. The sound was a very welcome one… Whatever Miss Davenport had done, she'd done it correctly.
The lever next to it. That would engage the primary thrusters… He looked back to Suzee's podium… where she should be to tell him when he could launch. No… He didn't need her right now. He could count the seconds himself.
The support jerked again. Had Harlan not been holding on to the Helm, he would have gone flying.
Finally, it snapped. Unbalanced, the ship began to topple. Somewhere on the ship, someone screamed.
Seven. Six. Five…
The horrible groaning sound was next, as the now-upset Christa continued on her course groundward.
Four. Three. Two.
The wing touched the ground. They could all feel it… It would snap off. It would leave them stranded.
Harlan punched the thrusters up to full power, feeling the incredible satisfaction of the Christa traveling first along the landing strip, and then into the air.
They were all gathered in the MedLab, except for Thelma, who'd been left to pilot the ship. Considering the injuries, it seemed like an appropriate place for an impromptu meeting. Several hours had passed. Rosie had been able to check out both Harlan and Bova; the latter of the two was resting, awake and alert, in the open healing chamber. Apparently, Rosie observed, he'd be fine. As Uranusians were naturally lethargic, Bova would just need to sleep a bit more.
And Eat. Bova was very happy to hear that he was finally permitted to eat.
"I'm very proud of all of you," Seth began. He smiled. How to deliver this speech without sounding cheesy? It wasn't exactly easy. "But then again, you probably knew that. What you did on that planet… That was definitely STARDOG material. You've come a long way."
"Cat wants to know if she passed, too," Suzee said. She was sitting on the floor, back-to-back with Miss Davenport, as both of them nursed the shared effects of a terrible headache. With a little difficulty, she even managed a smile.
Seth chuckled. "All of you did."
Radu pushed off the wall upon which he'd been leaning. "There's a couple things I don't understand. I think I get why Suzee and I were connected to… to them. And I guess Thelma as well… But why Bova? I… didn't think he had any psychic abilities. Er… no offense, Bova."
"…My antennae acted as a receptor. I was a walking radio tower." Bova's eyes opened a little. "Kinda like Thelma. I suppose. They were communicating using psychic waves that are derived from radio waves. Anyone notice that the small star at night is a pulsar?"
"A pulsar?" Miss Davenport removed the cold compress from her eyes long enough to turn and look at Bova. Instantly regretting it, she turned back around.
"It amplified the psychic effects," Rosie guessed.
"Negatively for us," Suzee added. "We weren't used to it."
Rosie moved a small light in front of Harlan's eyes, smiling a smile that he couldn't see.
"At least it worked out," Harlan said. "For all of us. I think I can still even pilot the Christa, if you'll let me. I'll need you all…"
After thoroughly cleaning out the wounds on Harlan's head and arms, Rosie worked on bandaging them. "Harlan, I'm pretty sure you have a concussion. It's affecting your visual cortex… This part back here. The Occipital lobe." She gently trailed a gloved hand through Harlan's hair, and he winced as Rosie contacted his skin. She continued. "Your retinas are still responding, very well, actually. Your eyesight has just shut down to let your brain heal."
There was a joke waiting to happen there. Suzee refrained from saying anything.
"So… I'm gonna be alright?" Harlan asked, trying to keep the hope out of his voice.
Rosie nodded, then remembered to add, "Yes. You told me you had a migraine. Probably post-trauma stress. That's why you can't see now. Watch."
She turned on the overhead lamp, and shined it directly into Harlan's eyes. Then she moved her hand across it.
Harlan's face lit up. "…I can see it! It was a shadow!"
"I'm not sure how long it's gonna take. May take a while for you to get back to one-hundred percent," Rosie warned gently, reaching out to Harlan's hand and pressing an object into it.
"Sunglasses. You're going to be really photosensitive when your vision returns. I'd suggest wearing them for a while."
Suzee managed to look up from her position on the floor in order to add, "Besides. Your eyes look really creepy right now."
Harlan chuckled. "They're all telling me your eyes are still glowing, Suzee. Maybe you should wear sunglasses to keep the light in."
"…Stop laughing at me," she said, attempting and failing to keep the laughter out of her own comment.