Book: Orion Uncharted
J. N. Chaney
Orion Uncharted and Renegade Star Copyright © 2018 by Variant Publications
Book design and layout copyright © 2018 by JN Chaney
This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living, dead, or undead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from JN Chaney and Jonathan Yanez.
Books in the Renegade Star Universe
Renegade Star Series:
Renegade Children (Out Now!)
Renegade Union (January 2019)
Renegade Empire (March 2019)
Nameless: A Renegade Star Story (Out Now!)
The Orion Colony Series:
Orion Awakened (January 2019)
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Orion Important Characters and Terms
Orion Uncharted Map
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About the Authors
Book 2 in the Orion Colony Series
J.N. Chaney Jonathan Yanez
Book Description Orion Uncharted: Orion Colony Series #2
The Orion has fallen.
After barely escaping with their lives, the crew of the Orion has scattered across an unknown world. With a diminishing hope of returning home, they have no choice but to band together.
But between the local wildlife, lack of supplies, a missing crew, and a strange, ominous door that can't be opened, Dean and his new friends will need everything at their disposal to survive.
This isn't the home they expected, but they didn't come this far to give up and die.
Explore a strange new world and fight for the future in this second entry to The Orion Colony series. If you’re a fan of Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, or Indiana Jones, you’ll love this epic, space opera adventure.
And the many adventures to come.
To everyone who’s gotten knocked down following their dreams.
You get back up. You don’t give up. That’s not who we are.
Orion Important Characters and Terms
Dean Slade : Former gladiator world champion fighting under the name Dean “Steel Hands” Slade, current mechanic on the Orion.
Stacy Wilson : Civil Authority Officer Special Agent. Stacy infiltrated the mechanic ranks on Earth acting as an undercover agent for the Civil Authority. Her mission was to acquire information working in the yards where the seed ships were constructed. After the Orion’s crash she has taken a more active role as a Civil Authority Officer.
Ricky Matthews (Rick) : Dean’s only friend going into the events of Orion Colony. Ricky is a mechanic and has a gambling issue. He also has a crush on Arun Drake one of the Eternals leading the Orion.
Boss Creed : In charge of the mechanics on Earth as well as on the Orion. Boss Creed is a fare but stern foreman.
Dr. Kelly Allbright (The Professor) : Gifted doctor well versed in caring for the injured and sick. Doctor Allbright has cared for Dean a handful of times already despite their short term of affiliation.
Dr. James Wong (Al) : Head of technology on the Orion. Doctor Wong was responsible for treating the technology that allowed Dean and the rest of the team to find the second Disciple on board. His receptionist was in fact the second Disciple discovered on board the Orion and the one that brought the seed ship down.
Maksim Aleksandre Kuznetsov Petrov: Disciple, AKA Jeffrey Hooke, AKA Trevor Bishop, AKA the Assassin. Discovered while trying to sabotage the Orion. Captured and imprisoned in the prisoner cell block aboard the Orion.
Mutt : Genetically engineered to be larger, stronger and faster than normal canines. Mutt met Dean on the Orion when Dean stumbled on Maksim trying to infect the animals with a violent strain of rabies. Mutt found Dean again once the Orion crashed.
Arun Drake : Arun is one half of the sister, brother team leading the Orion. Belonging to a wealthy Eternal family, Arun’s passion is to help those less fortunate than herself. She sees this trip on the Orion her chance to offer aid to Transients she sees as equals. She’s loyal to a fault and ferocious when it comes to protecting others.
Elon Drake : Much like his sister he sees this trip as an opportunity to aid the Transients he sees as his fellow man. Pilot of the Orion, Elon sacrificed his own life to stay aboard the Orion and land the ship. In the process he lost his leg.
Iris : Cognative in charge of the Orion, Iris is one of the sentient Artificial Intelligences coupled with the twelve seed ships leaving Earth. After the Orion’s crash, Iris has been given limited power. The long range scanners, navigation, and communication sections of her ship are currently down.
Eternals : Advanced humans who have been genetically modified with advanced healing and extremely long lifespans. After a few centuries, an additional mutation caused the Eternals to develop albino features, giving them a distinct appearance. They are responsible for most of Earth’s advanced technology, including the seed colony ships, such as Orion, as well as Tritium Cores, slipspace drives, and Cognitives.
Transients : Normal humans who do not posses the Eternal gene. After Eternals arose on Earth, Transient humans were delegated to the lower class, unable to accumulate wealth or obtain high-level positions in either business or politics. This stagnation led to a rebellion in which the Transients demanded equal opportunity. To satisfy this need, the Eternals offered them a deal: venture out into the far-flung reaches of the galaxy and colonize distant worlds, taking their lives into their own hands. The Transients agreed, and so began the greatest mass exodus in Earth’s history.
Slipspace : A dimension beneath our own in which faster-than-light travel is possible. While it is not fully understood, many theorize that slipspace tunnels are in a constant state of nuclear fusion and fission, destroying and creating atoms simultaneously at all times. It was believed that slip tunnels were a naturally occurring phenomenon, but this is incorrect. In truth, the slip tunnel network was created by ancient ships from Earth as they expanded across the galaxy. While some tunnels collapsed over time, many remained to this day, providing modern ships with a faster-than-light means of transportation. Since modern ships cannot create their own tunnels, they must continue to rely on the existing network to travel. The Orion is able to create these tunnels.
Kronos Five : The original planet the Orion was headed to before it was sabotaged and taken off course.
The Orion : One of the twelve original seed ships made to take Transients off Earth. It is shaped like a small moon. It is capable of carrying one hundred thousands passengers. With hundreds of levels including storage, housing and recreation the Orion is a small city in itself. When it crashed the Orion was broken in two. The front half of the ship was landed by Elon, the back half broke into multiple sections scattered around the planet.
Civil Authority : The ruling power policing Earth at the time the Orion launched. Stacy Wilson is Civil Authority Officer, she acted as an undercover agent until the Orion crashed. The Orion was accompanied by a strong presence of Civil Authority Officers upon launch. Only a handful of Civil Authority officers survived the Orion crash.
The Disciples : The first and oldest cult to oppose the Eternals. The Disciples believe that any genetic mutation or evolution of the human body is evil. They’re an underground terrorist group responsible for multiple attacks on Eternal businesses and Eternals themselves.
The Orion crashed. Like the ancient ship of old, the Titanic, the impossible had happened. Those of us who survived the crash were deposited on a strange planet that grew stranger and stranger every day.
This last bit rang truer than even I could have imagined. Boss Creed and I led a team north from the Orion. The idea was to get a decent perimeter set up around the ship in order to get a proper read of the land.
Turned out the planet’s ecosystem allowed for a variety of habitats to coexist in a relatively small area. Not more than five kilometers from the Orion, a vast jungle lay before us.
“Are we going to go in there?” Ira asked. He was one of the few suits aboard the Orion to make it out alive after the crash. He was a good kid but a little whiny if you asked me.
I was surprised when he directed the question at me.
“Don’t look at me,” I said before motioning over to Boss Creed. “Ask him.”
Boss Creed’s hard eyes roved over the perimeter of the jungle. The leaves were so green they looked fake, like something from a painting, while the bark of the trees had gone black. A variety of foliage greeted us in all directions as if the land were trying its best to hide its true face.
“We should probably go in. I mean, at least a few meters,” Meenaz, the last human member of our scouting party, suggested. She was average height with short curly hair, a grim look settling in her eyes. A familiar look, I recognized. Oh, yes. She’d lost someone in the crash. I would have bet my life on it. She turned to look at me. “That’s why we came here, right?” she asked, and I sensed a coldness in her voice, as though all the emotion in her had gone out.
Mutt trotted over to the jungle and growled. The wolf-like dog wasn’t really the needy kind. He came and went as he pleased. He never left my side too long, as if he were worried about me doing something stupid and came to check in on me from time to time. When we geared up for this mission, he decided to grace us with his presence.
Boss Creed looked down at the dark grey blaster he carried in his hands. He turned the safety off before motioning us to do the same.
“Let’s go take a look,” Boss Creed said, taking time to look at us each in turn. “Safety’s off.”
I looked down at the blaster I held in my hand. The weapon still felt unfamiliar, even awkward. I’d used a blaster only a handful of times in my life before my journey with the Orion. To be honest, I’d always felt better about using my hands than a gun, but I also couldn’t deny the benefit of having one. No matter how talented a fighter I might have been, there was just no comparison. If there really were alien creatures roaming around the planet, I’d need more than my bare-knuckle fists to protect myself.
Boss Creed took the lead with me on his right, Ira and Meenaz following behind.
One of the weirdest parts of the planet—and that was already saying a lot because the place was like something out of a dream—was the lack of noise up until this point.
Both in the woods where Ricky and I crashed and at the Orion crash site itself, there were no birds, no insects, nothing living beside us. For some unknown reason, this all changed once we entered the jungle.
As soon as we crested the line of trees marking the entrance to the jungle, a cacophony of noise hit our ears, from the chirping and squawks of birds overhead to the clicks and ticks of insects on the ground.
“Did you see that? There!” Ira shouted, pointing his rifle into the air above us.
The thick foliage blocked out the suns at certain points of the jungle interior. The spot Ira indicated sat a few meters to our left in a thickly shaded portion where two trees met.
What looked like a fat monkey with three eyes stared at us as if we were the strange ones. It just sat there unmoving with its three weird eyes, judging us. It cocked its fuzzy head to the side as if it were discerning our intent.
Mutt sniffed the air, noticing the creature too, and wagged his tail.
“Hold your fire,” Boss Creed warned. “This is its home. Live and let live.”
Instinct told me to raise my own blaster at the animal. I lowered it to my side slowly.
“He’s not that bad,” I said. “If he were bigger, he’d remind me of a crime boss I knew back on Earth.”
Boss Creed looked over at me with a raised eyebrow.
“Trust me, it’s a long story,” I told him.
He seemed content with that as our small party moved deeper into the jungle. Mutt padded along with me, sniffing anything and everything he could get his nose on.
A few minutes later, Ira stopped us again.
“I don’t think we should go any deeper.” Ira was looking down at the smart pad in his left hand. “We’ll risk losing communication with the Orion if we do. We might be out of range already.”
“Report in to Iris,” Boss Creed said, wiping a line of sweat from his brow. “Let’s see how far we are.”
“Orion, this is Expeditionary Force One,” Ira said into the device. “We’ve discovered a jungle, and we’re checking in to test our range of communication. Do you copy?”
“Expeditionary Force One,” Iris’ familiar voice came through the opposite end. “This is Orion. We can hear you, but you’re on the outer limits of our range at the moment. I would advise that you don’t travel much farther.”
While the conversation was going on, I looked at the fourth member of our group. Meenaz was looking up at the jungle canopy above us. Motion at her feet caught my eye at the same time a low rumble came from Mutt.
Something long and black slithered just behind her boots. Whatever it was, it was nearly the same color as the jungle ground itself.
“Hey, watch out!” I shouted, already lifting my blaster to take aim at whatever the thing was behind her.
In the space of a heartbeat, a creature that resembled a giant snake with a mouth full of sharp teeth and spines coming out of the sides of its head reared up behind Ira.
The creature was so long in length, what I had seen behind Meenaz was actually the middle of its body. Its serpentine head came up towering over Ira as it struck out with vicious intent.
The creature had to be twelve meters in length, probably even more. It was as thick as my torso with blackish-brown scales covering it from head to tail.
“What the f—”
The alien snake creature came down on Ira as we opened fire, taking half of Ira’s body from the head down in one vicious bite. Meenaz roared in a mix of fear and hate at the creature.
I gritted my teeth, aiming at the thing’s body, and let loose with a volley of red blaster rounds.
The jungle exploded with ear-shattering sounds of our rifles going off in unison.
Pulling the trigger, I aimed for the section of the creature on the ground beside Ira. I didn’t trust my marksman skills enough to try and take it in the head without hitting Ira himself.
Meenaz and Boss Creed seemed more comfortable as rounds hit the alien animal in its skull and neck area, flinging its dark scales and blood in every direction.
Ira screamed from inside the snake’s gullet, and then it was over. Within the space of a few seconds of firing, the snake creature slumped dead.
As soon as the monster went down, we ran to Ira.
The carcass of the alien monster was still over him. If I thought for a minute about what I was doing, I might not have the courage to pull the creature off Ira. I couldn’t allow myself to stop to think about how gruesome the act was or what I might find.
Boss Creed and I slumped to the ground, grabbing at the burn holes in the creature’s head and neck. We forced the jaws open and struggled to pull it up and off Ira’s still body.
Mutt was still barking like a maniac. I couldn’t blame him. I wanted to yell in anger and frustration at the moment too.
“Meenaz, Meenaz!” Boss Creed screamed at the woman. “Snap out of it and help us.”
Meenaz swallowed hard. She looked like she was in some kind of daze.
“O-okay,” she muttered, then nodded briefly as she finally moved to help.
As one, we pulled the head and neck section of the snake off of Ira. There was so much of the dark alien blood covering him, I couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began.
I couldn’t believe it, but when we pulled the impossibly heavy monster’s head off, Ira was still alive and breathing.
Boss Creed went to work on the med kit he carried on his back, ripping open the zippers. I grabbed Ira’s groping hand, trying to steady him as he lay there shaking.
The snake had sunk its fangs deep into Ira’s chest bones, breaking his sternum and ribs. I wasn’t a doctor, but years of being around injuries had taught me a few things. Ira was losing blood, and I suspected he probably wasn’t going to make it. Red poured from the open wounds across his chest like water from a broken pipe.
“Are—are we—I—” Ira said in short, painful pulls of air.
“Hey, I’m here, buddy,” I said, grabbing his hand.
Meenaz fell to her knees. She placed Ira’s head in her lap and grabbed his other hand. Tears were already in her eyes.
Boss Creed had taken out a Heal Aid from the pack. He started scanning Ira’s wounds with it. We all knew what was happening, but no one had the heart to say it. Not even a full staff at a hospital with all their equipment and doctorate degrees could save Ira now.
“I—I just want to—I just want to—go home,” Ira said, still quivering. “I just want to—go home.”
“I know,” I said, gripping his hand tighter. “I know. We’re going to get you home. You hear me? We’re going to get you home.”
“Promise—promise me,” Ira said, moving his eyes from the sky above to meet my own.
“I promise,” I said. I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep that promise, but I wasn’t about to sit here and deny him what he wanted to hear. I wasn’t going to tell him I had no idea if any of us were ever going to get off this rock.
Ira let out a final, slow breath from his lips.
And then he was gone.
The Heal Aid in Boss Creed’s hand came with a readout. A syringe extended from the device filled with what I could only guess were pain Inhibitors and something to stop the bleeding.
“Here we go, Ira,” Boss Creed pressed the syringe into Ira’s left arm. “Hang on. Hold on!”
Meenaz was rocking back and forth, crying. She still held Ira’s head in her lap. His unseeing eyes were open.
Mutt’s barks turned into whines.
I released Ira’s hand and moved my fingers to close his eyes.
“What are you doing?” Boss Creed snarled in anger. “I can save him. I just injected him. The meds are going to kick in.”
“He’s gone,” I said, rising to my feet. “Let it go, he’s gone.”
“No.” Boss Creed shook his head. The big man sat back on his heels, looking at the mess of the corpse that had once been Ira.
Meenaz rose to her feet, grabbing her blaster.
“I hate this place!” she roared, free of all reason. She raised her blaster at the corpse of the alien snake and laid into it with round after round of red blaster fire. With each round placed, she obliterated a new section of the monster.
“Meenaz,” Boss Creed said, rising to his feet.
She didn’t answer. Instead, she kept pumping rounds into the mutilated alien corpse, eviscerating it beyond recognition.
The noises reverberated into the interior of the jungle like deep drum rolls.
“Meenaz!” Boss Creed yelled again. This time, he placed a hand on her shoulder. Meenaz finally stopped, but it wasn’t because of Boss Creed’s shout. A roar came from deep within the lush jungle so loud, it drowned out the sounds of the blaster.
I was still trying to get over what just happened to Ira when the thought struck me that there was something else more menacing on the way.
We all looked toward where the sound was emanating. The roar came again, a sound unlike anything I had ever heard. The animals in the jungle that had been chirping or squawking before silenced or maybe they were all smarter than we were and had already fled.
“We should get going,” I said. “We should get going, right now.”
Boss Creed scooped up Ira’s smaller frame and swung him across his shoulders. As one, we began to run back the way we came. As I turned to go, I caught sight of something large in the jungle. A tree crashed as the trunk splintered. Roots ripped upward as another tree was overturned.
Get moving, you idiot, I told myself. Get moving, if you want to live.
“Come on, Mutt,” I said as I turned to run. “Let’s go, boy.”
The dog didn’t need to be told twice. He turned and retreated along with us, back outside of the jungle’s depths. The ground shook beneath our feet as some impossibly large creature made its way in our direction.
My heart pounded in my ears as loud as the blaster fire Meenaz used on the alien snake. I forced my legs to run faster. My arms pumped on either side of my torso.
We broke through the jungle tree line a few minutes later. Boss Creed panted hard as he carried the extra weight of Ira on his shoulders.
We reached the open grassy field in front of us and kept going. Whether the beast chasing us lost our scent, decided to stay in the jungle, or something else, it stopped.
Boss Creed wasn’t the type of man to ask for help, even when it was clear he needed it. Ira was just a kid. He couldn’t have weighed more than a buck fifty, but I could see the toll it was taking on the larger man.
“I’ll take Ira for a bit,” I volunteered.
Boss Creed looked at me for a moment as if he were going to refuse the offer. Then he rethought his answer and nodded. He transferred Ira over to my shoulder with all the care as if he were transporting a newborn baby.
I could see everything in his eyes he wasn’t saying. Boss Creed had been in charge of his expedition to the north. He blamed himself for Ira’s death.
I wanted to console him, but I didn’t have the words. I wasn’t exactly the nurturing type myself. Heck, I just straight-faced lied to a dying man that we would get him home.
We walked the rest of the way back to the Orion in silence. Meenaz kept her eyes on the ground in front of her. Boss Creed took the lead again. Mutt kept pace by my side, looking at me and Ira’s body over my shoulder in turn with sad, soft whines.
Ira’s blood and the blood of the snake creature he still carried on him soaked into my clothes. I ignored it and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other.
The smart pad used to communicate with the Orion was destroyed in the attack. We had no way of reaching them now. Halfway back to the Orion, we caught sight of figures moving toward us on the horizon.
I recognized three of the four figures. Stacy, Ricky, Doctor Allbright, and a tall man I hadn’t seen before. They all came toward us at a jog.
All of them besides Doctor Allbright had blasters in their hands.
“What, what happened?” Stacy asked as they ran the rest of the way to meet us.
Doctor Allbright immediately came to my side to look at Ira.
I shook my head at her, gently placing Ira on the ground.
“We were attacked in the jungle by a creature that looked like some kind of giant snake,” Boss Creed answered. “It got Ira before any of us could stop it.”
Ricky walked over, checking me for wounds. There was a concerned look on his face.
“No one else got hurt,” I told him, rising to my feet again.
I caught Stacy’s eye and gave her a sad smile.
She returned my look with a nod.
“How did the creature get the drop on you?” the one man in the group I didn’t recognize asked. He spoke with the authority of someone who was used to being obeyed. “Why weren’t you better prepared?”
I knew his type. I already didn’t like him. He had the same look in his eye I’d seen so many times before from trainers at the gym. It was the look that weighed you and passed judgment even before you opened your mouth.
“It’s my fault,” Boss Creed said, shaking his head. “I didn’t see it.”
“None of us could have seen it,” I added. “How are we supposed to see creatures that blend into the jungle interior that we don’t even know exist in the first place? How can we prepare for that?”
“We’ll get a full report from you once we get back to the safety of the Orion,” the man said, already turning to go.
I stood stunned for a minute. I was about to open my mouth and lay into the guy. Tell him we just lost a man not far out from being a kid, when Meenaz did it for me.
“While you’re worried about your report, we’ll be burying Ira,” Meenaz nearly screamed. “That was his name, by the way. You don’t look like you even care, but that’s his name.”
The man stopped and turned toward Meenaz. A predator’s grin crossed his lips. I looked at him this time, really looked at him. He was taller than me. His arms were slender but muscular. If I had to guess, he was somewhere in his mid-forties. A shock of grey and white hair rested on his head.
“I care more than you know, Meenaz Grey,” he said with the same dangerous look in his eye. “I cared for Civil Authority Officer Ira Stone as much as anyone. But he’s dead now. He’s gone, and there’s not a thing we can do about that. What I can do is debrief you. We can learn from this and make sure it doesn’t happen again. Now control your emotions, channel your aggression, and let’s get back to the Orion.”
The man didn’t wait to see if his words would be obeyed. He made a tight turn and walked back to the ship.
I didn’t disagree with him, but this soft side of me that was beginning to grow felt for Meenaz. I knew what she was going through. Not everyone was an apathetic son of a gun like this character barking orders and me. Part of me hated him for seeing what he did to Meenaz.
She slumped forward, tears still streaming down her face. Ricky and Doctor Allbright went to her before anyone else did. I could hear their words as they placed their arms around her.
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Doctor Allbright said.
“Let’s get you back home,” Ricky said.
Boss Creed picked up Ira once more. This time, he held the kid in his arms like he would a sleeping child and slowly moved on.
I found myself walking side by side with Stacy. Her gait matched mine perfectly. I could tell she wanted to ask how I was but waited until I broke the silence.
“Who’s that guy?” I asked, motioning with my chin to the man now leading our group. “He walks like a suit and talks like someone who’s been in the military.”
“Captain Ezra Harold,” Stacy said without a hint of joy in her voice. “He’s the highest-ranking Civil Authority Officer that made it through the crash. He’s organizing the rest of the Civil Authority Officers now. I don’t know him, well, except for the fact that he has a reputation as a hard-nosed suit.”
“You don’t say,” I said, still figuring out how I felt about him.
“Give him a shot,” Stacy said. “We’re all trying to figure this out.”
I just nodded as we moved forward. What remained of the Orion loomed in front of us. Half of the moon-shaped ship, from the middle up, was what remained of mankind’s greatest achievement to date.
The Orion was one of twelve seed ships destined to bring Transients to new worlds ripe for colonization. Only one thing. Our ship was sabotaged by an insane group of cult members calling themselves Disciples.
When we crashed, the Orion’s captain stayed onboard to land the ship on the planet. If it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t have anything of the Orion left. Escape ships and pods ejected from the Orion before impact. Survivors were scattered around this god-forsaken planet.
Our group walked the rest of the way to the ship in silence. When we got close enough for the guards at the perimeter to see us, Stacy started the conversation again.
“Arun wants to hold a meeting. She wants you to be there,” Stacy said, waiting to see what my response would be.
“Do I have a choice?” I asked.
“You always have a choice, Dean,” Stacy said.
I remained quiet for a minute. My eyes traveled over to where Boss Creed carried the kid in his arms, then to the group of surviving colonists around the Orion carrying out their daily tasks.
Some worked on building a massive wall around the perimeter of the open Orion hull, others ran errands to and from the ship.
Most of these people weren’t survivors. They hadn’t been hardened by the world yet. They were colonists, families, too young and too old to be a part of this. The middle-aged adults did the best they could. We understood we had all stepped in it together.
“Yeah, I’ll come,” I said.
The Orion lay cracked open like some gigantic metal egg. It lay on its side, never to rise again. The room I found myself in was the bridge of the ship. It had been repurposed and set up to be a kind of meeting room. The entire level now rested on its side with the massive screen of the ship pressed against the ground.
It was strange to traverse the room as it was. We walked on what used to be the wall as our ground and what used to be the floor was now our left-hand wall.
I was the last one to enter through the elevator shaft. Arun, Iris, Stacy, Captain Harold, and Doctor Wong were all there already, discussing our next plan of action.
They stood around a portable holo table. Everyone greeted me with smiles and hellos, except for Captain Harold, who gave me a single hard nod. It didn’t bother me. This guy didn’t know me from Adam.
“It’s been three days since we’ve landed and what do we have to show for it?” Captain Harold picked up the conversation once more. “I need more resources to build the wall around the open section of the Orion. First and foremost, we need protection, then we can go about on expedition missions to explore and aid other possible survivors.”
“We can certainly discuss that option,” Arun said in her always-diplomatic way of speaking.
I had only seen the Eternal lose her cool once before when we were interrogating a Disciple saboteur on board the Orion. Right now, she was back to her normal composed self, clean grey uniform, white hair pushed back behind her white ears. Her bright blue eyes looked down at the circular holo table in front of us.
“Before we go on to make decisions on what to do next and where to go from here, I’d like Iris to give us an update on the current situation of our resources,” Arun said, looking from the holo table to the Cognitive that stood with us.
Iris looked like Arun herself, short hair with white skin and a grey uniform of her own. Despite this, you could immediately tell she was different. A faint blue glow wafted off her, clearly calling out her artificial intelligence origin.
“In the last few days since our crash, all of our efforts have been in getting our water and food supply up and working again. Shelter hasn’t been a problem since we are able to use the Orion as our home. We’ve also been able to construct tents in the area right outside the Orion. Some of the colonists prefer to live there instead of in a room turned on its side. Although I would like to bring up a plan in our future that would see the Orion righted once more,” Iris said, waving her hand over the holo display as she spoke. Green holographic images popped up, showing us 3D pictures of the Orion. “Communication with Earth is hindered at the moment. That entire floor of the Orion was destroyed in the crash as well as our supply level.”
“So, there’s no way to call home with what we have now?” Doctor Wong asked. The shorter man with glasses was in charge of the technology department on the Orion. He tapped his right pointer finger on his chin as he spoke. “Iris, what do your scanners tell you?”
“My scanners are only working on a very limited basis as of this moment,” Iris said with a frown. “If we are able to get them up and running again, I would be able to give us a better view of the planet. Perhaps we can even pinpoint the locations of where different sections of the Orion and even escape crafts landed on reentry.”
“I appreciate the need and want to find other ships and various sections of the Orion,” Captain Harold said. “However, I must insist that the defense of the Orion be paramount to our needs. We’ve already had reports of creatures in the mist down south as well as giant alien serpents in the jungles to the north.”
Captain Harold nodded toward my direction this time. He made eye contact briefly.
I’m not sure if he wanted me to back him up here or not. Honestly, I saw the value in both plans. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one.
“Maybe the answer isn’t one or the other,” Stacy said speaking up for the first time.
“What do you mean?” Arun asked.
“Maybe we can work both on building a defensive wall around the Orion as well as getting Iris’ long-range scanners back online. They both seem equally as important right now.”
The room silenced as Arun thought over the plan.
I sure wasn’t going to say anything about the alien doors we’d found two kilometers from the ship. Arun knew what was out there as well as Stacy and Iris. The second day after we crash landed, Iris’ short-range sensors picked up the structure. It wasn’t really even a structure. It was a pair of doors set into the side of a mountain, a set of very large, very old doors.
As far as I knew, there had been no activity from the doors in the past few days. Thus far, Arun had kept the matter silent.
“I would have to agree with the need for both and as fast as we can,” Arun said with a sigh.
I knew she was about to tell them about the doors. There was a heaviness in her shoulders, a fatigued look of worry in her bright, blue eyes.
“Doctor Wong, Iris, and I will work on getting her long-range scanners back online in the hopes of finding other survivors as well as the communication section of the Orion if it wasn’t completely destroyed on impact. But there is more you all should know.” Arun stopped. She looked over to Iris and nodded. “Show them.”
Iris waved her hand over the green holo display again. This time, the image in front of them transitioned from the downed Orion to a giant pair of stone doors set into the side of a mountain.
Everyone in the room was quiet.
I looked over to gauge Doctor Wong’s and Captain Harold’s response. Doctor Wong’s chin dropped. He stared at the image, bug-eyed.
Captain Harold, to his credit, didn’t seem fazed whatsoever. The only indication that he processed the image in front of him at all was the bulging muscle in his jaw.
“Is that—what exactly are we looking at here?” Doctor Wong adjusted the glasses on the bridge of his nose. “Is that what I think it is?”
“We haven’t examined it in great detail as of yet,” Arun said. “As far as we can tell, it’s alien-made. It looks old, hundreds, maybe thousands of years old.”
“When did you discover this door?” Captain Harold asked.
“Two days ago,” Iris answered. “One day after the Orion crashed.”
“I should have been made aware of this threat to our colony as soon as it was discovered.” Captain Harold glared at Arun and Iris. He turned to Stacy and then to me. “Did you two know about this?”
“I did,” Stacy said without blinking.
“This is going to piss you off even more, but I knew too,” I said to the captain.
Now I could tell he was really going to lose it. A vein in his forehead and another in his neck popped out. He looked like he was going to explode at any moment.
It hadn’t been easy for me either. I knew what he was going through. To go from thinking you’re the only species in the universe to discovering that you’re not alone is a strange, scary, and wondrous gamut of feelings.
“If there are any other findings or developments of this nature, I need to be among the first to know,” Captain Harold said just below a yell. His hands were clenched into fists at his sides. “How am I expected to keep this colony safe if I don’t even have all the facts of what is out there?”
“I understand your concern,” Arun said in an equally aggressive tone. “Know that you were only selected as the head of the Civil Authority yesterday. We’re all trying to figure this out together. In the future, you’ll be among the first to know when we uncover new information.”
Although Captain Harold didn’t exactly look happy, Arun’s words seemed to pacify him and the vein in his forehead pulsed slower.
“While we are working on reactivating Iris’ long-range scanners,” Arun picked up the conversation once more, “Stacy, Dean, and Captain Harold will see to the construction of a barricade around the Orion as well as a perimeter defense.”
Great, how do I get roped into these things? I asked myself. Now I have to work with Captain Ahab over here.
“The—I can’t believe I’m actually going to ask this question, but the alien door,” Doctor Wong said, licking at dry lips. “It hasn’t been opened yet, has it? Are there any other doors that we can see?”
“You know everything we do at this time,” Arun reassured the man. “We haven’t found any other sign of intelligent alien life. Iris is monitoring the door around the clock. If it budges, we’ll know at once.”
“And your brother? Elon?” Doctor Wong added. “Is he well?”
Arun immediately tensed.
The act wasn’t lost on Captain Harold or me.
Arun was a stoic, clear-headed leader until it came to the people she loved. Her brother received a serious injury to his right leg during the crash. His Eternal genes would regrow the limb. For now, the brother and sister team decided to keep his healing a private matter.
I understood that. We were in a very delicate situation at the moment. The last thing people needed to hear was that Eternals were growing their limbs back. Even if they had a working knowledge of that ability, it would be something else to see it.
“He’s fine,” Arun lied. “He’ll be up and around soon.”
“And what are we telling the colonists?” Captain Harold asked. “I’m gathering we’re not telling them about the alien door. Sooner or later, someone is going to stumble across it.”
“I am going to tell them,” Arun said with a heavy sigh. For the briefest of moments, I could see how tired she really was. The weariness in her eyes, the way her shoulders shrugged forward. As soon as it was there, it was gone again.
“We need some time to provide them with anything that looks like stability before we drop this next bomb,” Arun said. “We just gave them water and food. If we can give them safety and tell them we have the long-range scanners in place to find the communication level of the ship, we can give them hope. I won’t crush them with this knowledge now, not yet.”
I got that. I understood it all. Still, standing there in the inner circle of the colonist leaders, I knew what we were doing was wrong. We were deciding what truth the rest of the Transients knew.
“Let’s get started,” Stacy said, ready to put our words into action.
The others were starting to talk and discuss the best place to begin when Arun motioned me to the side.
She lowered her voice to something just above a whisper.
“My brother asked that you would stop in to see him,” Arun said. “He didn’t say what it was about.”
“Sure, I can do that,” I said, reading the Eternal’s eyes but not finding what I was looking for. “Is he okay?”
“Health-wise, I know he’ll be fine,” Arun said, searching for the right words. “His spirit, on the other hand, could use a boost.”
“Got it,” I said, running a hand through my long, tangled hair. I really needed to get it cut. “I’ll check in on him. What level is he on?”
“He—he wanted to stay on level ninety-three,” Arun said in a voice so low I could barely pick out her words.
“Level ninety-three?” I repeated. “But that’s the—”
“I know,” Arun said in a harsh whisper. She looked at the others still carrying on their conversation behind us. “He’s in a dark place right now. Help him, Dean.”
Level ninety-three was no longer a habitable level. Originally, it was one of the many levels designated for recreation for the Transients on board the Orion. Prior to the crash, there had been large sprawling lawns with rich soil, tall trees, and even a running brook of water.
It was a place for the Transients to go and relax, for those who were claustrophobic to have a place to unwind and forget they were traveling through slip space in a steel globe.
After the crash, the entire level had been turned into a mess of dirt, broken trees, and plants. Lying on its side now, it looked more like the jungle I had just been through.
Lighting had been restored, as well as the cylinder-shaped elevators I had used to travel to the level. Moving around in the elevators that now traveled on their sides was strange, but it sure was a heck of a lot faster than walking up and down the one hundred and fifty levels of the ship that remained.
My feet hit the soft soil as I exited the elevator and moved deeper into the level of the Orion. The moist smell of earth filled my nose. That was a smell I knew I’d missed. We didn’t get it much back in the city I lived in or the yard where I worked. The rich, almost palpable odor of earth was comforting in a way I always took for granted.
I moved around shrubs and piles of upturned dirt. I was about to call out to see if Elon was on the level at all when I heard singing.
“Give us your survivors, your strong of will. We’ll lead them to the promised world. On and on, we’ll work the earth. On and on, we’ll toil,” Elon’s sad voice rang out.
I couldn’t see him yet, but I pinpointed his voice coming over from a section of the upturned level to my left. There was a spot where a tree erupted from the dark soil and a mound of dirt beside it.
I moved closer. I could tell he was drunk. His tune went up and down, his pitch was all over the place. I was no opera singer myself, but let’s just say Elon wasn’t going to win any awards.
“We’ll rule the wind and land and sea,” Elon sang on. “We’ll create a family that’s free.”
I turned the corner, clearing my throat out of respect for him. I didn’t want to sneak up on the guy. When I finally found him, I knew he couldn’t have cared less who saw him.
Elon sat propped against the mound of dirt. He wore his familiar dark grey uniform. A metal crutch lay next to him on his left. His white hair was a mess, falling down his face. A crate of champagne lay open, an empty bottle on his left and another near-empty bottle in his hand.
If he was surprised at all at my appearance, he didn’t show it. He gave me a crazy grin and lifted his bottle in the air.
“Glad you could join the party,” Elon said, motioning for me to take a seat on the dirt with him. “Can I offer you a drink? You know this champagne was being saved for our safe arrival to Kronos Five. Arun and I had it all planned. We were going to toast and cheer to a new world. We were going to give one hundred thousand people a new life. We were going to make a difference. We were going to help so many people. We were going to…”
Elon’s voice trailed off. He forgot whatever he was going to say next and lifted the bottle to his lips again.
I wasn’t familiar with champagne, not really my thing, but the bottle looked expensive.
“Come on.” Elon offered me the bottle again. “Come drink with me.”
“I’m not really a champagne kind of guy.” I refused the bottle but took a seat on the crate next to him. “I’ve been to the bottom of too many bottles myself. I’m not that great of a drunk.”
“I wish I could stay drunk more than a few minutes at a time,” Elon said with a loud, very non-Eternal-like belch. “My metabolism makes it so I process the alcohol four times quicker than the normal person. It takes a lot to get me drunk, and then I don’t stay that way for long.”
“How’s your leg healing?” I asked, looking down to the injured appendage under his grey uniform. I couldn’t see much, but there was definitely a leg there where one wasn’t just a few days before.
“Oh, that,” Elon said, lifting up the pants leg to his right leg. It was skinny and sickly-looking, white with a fair amount of scarring on it. “It’s moving along nicely. A few more days and I’ll be able to show my face again. The general populace won’t have to be disturbed at seeing an Eternal’s leg grow back.”
“If that’s not what’s bothering you,” I asked, “what is?”
I already had a good guess at what was bothering Elon, but I wanted to hear it from him.
“I uh, I let them down. I let all of them down.” Elon swallowed hard. He stared off across the level at nothing in particular. “Most of our passengers died. Those that haven’t are just waiting to do so. Communication is gone, we have no idea where we are in the galaxy, and it seems this planet was built to kill anything that crosses its path. Oh, and I forgot to mention the aliens that either are here or were here before and died off for some reason, doesn’t bode well for us either.”
“You didn’t do this,” I said, shaking my head. My hair, a tangled mess behind me, swung from side to side. I really had to cut it soon. “The Disciples did this. You saved half the Orion by landing it here on the planet and the Transients still on board. You saved them, Elon.”
“I had Iris run numbers on how many died, the odds of how many were still alive, and how many men, women, and children were estimated dead.” Elon lifted the bottle to his lips and took another long pull. “Do you know it’s estimated fifteen thousand children under the age of twelve died in the crash? I was responsible for them. My sister and I took responsibility. Do you know what that’s like? Do you know what it feels like to let someone down to the point they die?”
I felt my chest constrict. A wave of nausea passed over me as memories I fought with on a daily basis pushed their way to the surface once more. I tried to block them out. I knew I couldn’t. Forgetting them meant forgetting her. I would never forget her, even if I wanted to.
“Yeah, yeah I do,” I said, fingering the medallion on the necklace I wore. “I know exactly what that feels like. I know the emptiness you feel inside. The hole you’ll try to fill with alcohol, drugs, anything that will give you temporary relief from the pain you feel eating you from the inside out.”
Her face pushed its way to the surface. The way the dimples formed on her cheeks when she smiled that silly little grin. The way her eyes twinkled when she was being mischievous.
“Dean, I—I’m sorry,” Elon said. “I forgot. I read your file. I know you lost your wife.”
“She was more than that,” I said, clearing my throat. I reached into the crate underneath me and pulled out one of the champagne bottles. It was in a dark green bottle with a gold label. It was a brand called Devine. I bet people who drank champagne ate that name up. “She was my best friend. She was the best part of me, and when she was taken from me, the best part of me died with her.”
“What was her name?” Elon asked.
“Natalie,” I said, rising from my seat with the bottle.
“I’m sorry she passed,” Elon said from his seat.
“She didn’t pass,” I said, reaching down for another bottle of the champagne. “She was taken from me. She was murdered.”
I removed the second bottle from the crate.
“I’m so sorry,” Elon said, eyeing the two bottles in my hands. “Maybe if you have a problem with alcohol, though, you shouldn’t drink.”
“Oh, they’re not for drinking,” I said. I reeled back. I flung the bottle in my right hand as hard as I could against the far wall that was actually the floor of the level before the Orion had been tipped on its side.
The bottle slammed into the hard wall of the Orion with enough force to not only explode but send shards of glass and the nasty bubbly fluid painting the impact zone.
Without waiting, I sent the next bottle through the air. It smashed against the wall, sending another spray of glass and bubbly liquid in every direction. It didn’t take the pain I felt away, but it sure felt good to give my pain an outlet.
“You should try it,” I said, looking back to Elon. “It feels good to physically let go of your anger. It feels great, actually.”
Elon looked at me like I was crazy for a second. I was used to seeing that look. Then he hobbled to his feet, grabbing another bottle from the crate on his way over.
He reared back, a bit off balance, and then flung the bottle forward with his left hand. It didn’t strike the wall with the same violent impact as my own, but it was enough to do the job. The bottle broke on impact.
Elon’s face turned into a huge smile. “It does feel good.”
“There’s nothing we can do about the past,” I said as I watched him hurl his second bottle at the wall. “We just have to learn to live with the pain somehow.”
“How?” Elon asked, panting a bit from the exertion of his throws. “How do you live with the memories?”
“I can’t really answer that for you, but I know that Natalie wouldn’t want me to kill myself, and I’m not going to let her down again. My only other choice is to keep on living,” I said. “For me, it’s as simple as that.”
Elon slowly nodded.
“Don’t put too much stock into what I say,” I said with a grin. “I’m sure there’s some sort of priest or holy man or something on board that could give you better advice than letting go of your pain through violence.”
“Thank you, Dean,” Elon said as if he were seeing me for the first time. “Thank you.”
“Anyone could have told you to break stuff.” I shrugged.
“No, I mean for being willing to open up and share about your wife,” Elon answered.
“Yeah, well, I don’t talk about her much these days.” I paused, fighting back emotions while I searched for the right words. At the same time, it was painful and great to talk about Natalie again. I didn’t know which feeling was winning at the moment. “She’s gone, and there’s nothing I can do about it now.”
“I think she would be proud of the man you’ve become, and the one you are becoming,” Elon said as we walked back to the crate. “You’ve helped and are helping a lot of people here.”
My temporary lapse in trust had quickly come to an end. I nodded toward Elon. “Well, I’m going to get back to work. There’s a suit captain that thinks he’s in charge of a military invasion out there. I’m supposed to help him build a wall or something. You good here?”
“Yeah, I think so,” Elon said, looking down at the crate of bottles. “I think I’m going to stay here a while and destroy some more bottles. That felt really good.”
“All right, good talk,” I said, turning to go.
“Thank you, Dean,” Elon said to my back.
I didn’t turn around. My eyes were misting. Had to be my allergies. I needed to get out of my own head and throw myself into some physical labor.
It was already getting late in the day. I ate my midday meal on the go. One of the cafeteria levels on the Orion had been repowered and was serving food once again.
Out of the one hundred thousand Transients, two Eternals, and Cognitive that made the trip from Earth, only two thousand nine hundred and seventy-three of us had landed safely and found the Orion.
Not two thousand nine hundred and seventy-three, I reminded myself. We lost Ira today. Two thousand nine hundred and seventy-two.
The sandwich I put into my mouth and chewed as I traveled back out of the Orion wasn’t bad. I knew the taste was there. It was the mood I was in. It was hard to enjoy any kind of meal while thinking of someone’s death and not just Ira’s. Natalie, who was always a second away from being in my thoughts, was pushed to the forefront of my mind since my talk with Elon.
Riding in the cylinder-shaped elevator that traveled on its side was something I was still getting used to. The elevator was barely wide enough now for me to stand straight. My hair touched the top of the wall that now served as the roof.
When I reached the last available level, the elevator came to a rough halt. The doors dinged open, and I was given a view from the last level on the Orion. A hastily constructed staircase had been made traveling down to the ground.
Three stories of rough metal steps reminded me of the scaffolding I used to work on back on Earth. Scaffolding always made me think twice. The steel bars—put together like a child’s toy—never looked like they could hold as much weight as they could.
Three stories below me, the colonists were already at work. Captain Harold had every available hand searching for scrap metal from the Orion crash, gathering the pieces in a single location. Another group had already begun working on constructing a wall. They had started on one corner of the Orion and were working in a semicircle to come around and connect to the opposite side.
The Orion itself would serve as one fortified side. The exposed end of the ship would be protected by the metal wall. I traveled down the steps, speed-chewing the last of my meal, not necessarily for enjoyment, but rather the fact that I knew I needed the fuel to keep going.
The twin suns overhead were at their high point in the sky, beating down on us with harsh rays, as if to say, “I know you don’t belong here. Get off my planet.”
I fell into work, gathering steel pieces with the rest of the crew. A line of debris followed the deep indentation in the planet’s surface that the Orion had created when it had crashed.
It was a miracle in and of itself that Elon had managed to pull the craft up at the last minute so that it slowed enough to endure the crash. Rather than obliterate itself upon impact, major sections of the ship had survived well enough for its crew to walk away. Not all of us, sadly, but enough to start anew. The man had saved more lives than I could fathom. Better still, if the Orion had been allowed to strike the planet head-on, our food, water, and shelter would be entirely gone.
Thousands of metal parts ranging from giant sections of the ship’s outer hull to small metal chairs and tables littered the landing zone. About ten meters out in every direction, there was a suit stationed as a lookout. Each wore a dark blue uniform and black body armor. They held an assortment of rifles and blasters in their hands.
There were far too few of them to stop any serious threat, should something come our way. Still, I understood the reason for why they were there. The illusion of protection could often be just as important. It kept people working and allowed them to focus on the task at hand. Maybe that was all that mattered right now—getting the job done so we could move forward.
Something caught my eye in the rubble, buried between the dirt and a sheet of metal. It looked to be a pad—small, probably meant for a child. The screen was still active, although there were cracks running through the glass. I reached down and pulled it out, sliding the device from beneath the sheet and dusting off the screen.
“Draw me a sheep,” I read aloud. I touched the corner of the screen to see the title. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry. I’d never heard of it but wondered who could have been reading it and how such a fragile device survived the crash. The screen was cracked in multiple spots, but the fact that it was still active was surprising, to say the least.
I flipped the digital pages forward with a swipe of my finger, avoiding the cracks in the screen, until I was at the second chapter of the book.
“So I lived my life alone, without anyone that I could really talk to, until I had an accident with my plane in the Desert of Sahara, six years ago,” I read, then lowered the pad and looked around. With a slight smirk, I glanced back at the pad. “Too familiar.”
After flipping through the book for a short while, I encountered a glitch that caused the screen to freeze. I sat it down with some other salvaged pieces of tech, not wanting to completely trash it. Whether we could fix it or use it for parts, I figured the little pad still had some use left in it.
I found myself alongside an older man that had to be in his seventies. He was working on pulling a curved piece of metal across the dirt and back toward the workers constructing the wall.
He was covered in sweat, his thin arms struggling to slide the piece of metal that was as large as he was across the ground.
“Here,” I said, grabbing on to the steel piece with him. “I’ll give you a hand.”
“Thank you, my son,” he said with warm eyes and more cheer in his voice than had a right to be there. “I was praying for help and you came.”
“Yeah, well, if you can pray for help to come and get us off this planet, that may be a better use of your time,” I said as I gripped the cold steel in my hands. We pulled together, sliding the piece along the ground like a sled.
“Everything that has happened, has happened for a reason,” the man said with a crooked smile. He wiped a wide sleeve across his bald head glistening with sweat. “Even if we can’t see that reason now, we will one day. You just have to have faith.”
Great, I thought to myself. The one time I decide to help someone carrying parts back to the Orion, and he turns out to be a religious nut. Good work, Dean.
“Not everyone believes what you do, Padre,” I said, throwing out the term not because I actually believed that he was a pastor. It just seemed to fit. “Maybe this didn’t happen for any reason at all other than hate from a few people.”
“You’re hinting at the rumor going round that this was sabotage?” Padre asked.
It wasn’t widely known that the Disciple sabotaged the ship. Arun and Elon had not given that information out as of yet. Right now, the survivors were left to speculate on their own.
“That’s what the word on the street is,” I said, playing dumb. “I saw a kid die today. You think that was some part of a master plan as well?”
“I know it’s difficult to wrap your mind around, but you must keep faith,” the old man said. He looked up at me to make eye contact.
I avoided his stare. I knew how these religious nuts worked. You give them an inch and they wrap you up in some long-winded conversation that feels more like an argument. Next thing you know, you’re standing in a circle with them wearing deeply hooded cloaks and sacrificing virgins.
There was a religious group called the Church of Saints that used to go door to door in my housing block. I made the mistake of answering my door the first time they came around. What followed was twenty minutes of my life I would never get back. I felt like I was being interviewed for a job I didn’t even want.
“I have faith that we’re going to drag this hunk of steel over to that pile and others are going to use it to construct this wall,” I said, finally looking down at him. “How’s that for faith?”
He smiled with a genuine grin I wasn’t expecting. Crooked teeth waved to me behind his white beard. “We have to start somewhere.”
I was beginning to think this guy might not just be some kind of religious member but actually crazy himself.
We made it the rest of the way to the pile of scrap metal and placed our deposit down. He rubbed his dirty hands together, trying as best he could to clean them before extending his right hand.
“My name is Lou Ruiz. It is nice to meet you,” Lou Ruiz said.
“Dean Slade,” I said, taking the offered hand. I knew I should just break the conversation there and then, but my inquiring mind got the best of me. “You some kind of priest or something? Church of Saints?”
“No, no, nothing like that,” Lou said. He gave my hand a firm squeeze then released my grip. “Just someone who has faith in a higher power. Someone who believes this place we landed on is special in a way we have yet to discover.”
“It especially wants to kill us, if that’s what you mean,” I said, thinking about what happened to Ira and the report Doctor Allbright had come back with when we first found her. Doctor Allbright’s story about the monsters in the mist to the south of our position was one I remembered well.
“No, that’s not what I mean.” Lou shook his head. “There is more to this place than meets the eye. I believe—”
“You two going to start moving?” Stacy’s familiar voice sounded behind me. “Or does a girl need to do all the work around here?”
I turned in time to see Stacy lift a hunk of metal the size of her upper body and toss it onto the pile of scrap metal. She wore a blaster on her hip. Sweat trickled down her brow.
“Yes, of course,” Lou said, nodding to Stacy and then to me. “We’ll talk later, Dean Slade.”
“Right,” I said.
Lou moved on to grab another piece of metal.
“You looked like you could use some saving,” Stacy said with a wry grin on her lips. “I thought you didn’t like people. You sure are chatty around strangers for a guy that wants to be left alone.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not sure being left alone is an option for me anymore,” I said, walking with Stacy back out down the trough-like indentation of dirt the Orion had made.
“How’s Elon?” Stacy asked in a low tone. “Arun said he was pretty down and you went to go talk to him.”
“I think he’ll be alright,” I said as memories of the limping Eternal hurling bottles at the wall came to mind. “He just needs some time to get his head straight.”
“I think we could all use some time for that,” Stacy said with a weary sigh. “Most everyone has been laboring around the clock to get the water and food supply working again. Now it’s building this wall and getting Iris’ long-range scanners up and running again. I don’t think any long-term rest is in store for us anytime soon.”
“Are you trying to cheer me up right now?” I asked, arching a brow at Stacy. “Because if this is your pep talk, it sucks.”
“Not a pep talk.” Stacy grinned. “You’re just one of the few people who knows all of the truths around here. Really, you’re the only one I feel like I can talk to honestly about any of this.”
“Really?” I asked, surprised. “You seem pretty close with Arun.”
“Don’t get me wrong. Arun and Elon are my friends, but they’re keeping the truth of what happened to the ship and what’s really on this planet a secret. I don’t agree with that,” Stacy said. “Captain Harold knows now, but that man’s something different. I don’t know if he feels he has something to prove or what.”
I searched the area around us for any sight of the captain. I didn’t see him at the moment. I had no doubt he was out there somewhere doling out orders and giving instruction.
Stacy and I worked side-by-side for the rest of the day. Soon the yellow and orange suns had fallen, and we chose to call it. Dinner, a shower, and sleep came soon after.
I knew I was in a dream. I knew this wasn’t happening right now. It had happened before. It was an event I was forced to live over and over again. I couldn’t wake up. I could never wake up from this dream. Maybe I didn’t want to. It was the closest to her I would ever get again.
I was in the locker room of the largest stage in gladiator history. The Titan Coliseum roared overhead as thousands of fans readied themselves to witness the fight for the championship belt.
I was with my trainers and coaches, staying loose, checking and rechecking the wraps around my hands and ankles.
“Just do what you do best.” Jonny Bones, my head coach, was saying from his spot behind me where he worked over my shoulders. “Do what you were born to do. Ain’t nobody got your talent or spent the hours dedicated to the craft of hand-to-hand combat like you.”
I nodded along with his words. Going through my pre-fight routine, I saw the fight happen in slow motion in my mind’s eye. I saw the strikes come from my opponent. I saw them miss and batted away. I saw myself winning the fight and holding the belt over my head.
I smelled the stale sweat of the locker room. The harsh vinegar tang touched my nostrils and strangely comforted me. This was the world I knew well. I heard my coaches talking to one another in the corner.
The sound of knocking at the locker room door drew me out of this deep level of concentration. My eyes snapped open, taking in the worn rows of lockers in front of me. Around the left end of the lockers, two security guards stood at a wide grey door.
The door was cracked open at first as words were exchanged, then widened all the way. An older man with thick hair and a mustache to match walked into the room with his own entourage of security. He wore an expensive tuxedo and bowtie. He walked right over to me with a wide grin on his lips.
“Mr. Dell.” My coach removed his hands from my shoulders and shook the right hand of our visitor. “Thank you for stopping by. This is quite the Coliseum you have here.”
“You’re too kind,” Mr. Dell said with a sideways grin. “I know the lockers aren’t much, but they’re next to get remodeled. Wait until you get upstairs and see the Coliseum with those fans cheering for you. There’s nothing in the world like it.”
Mr. Dell looked at me with that same sideways smile. “And you must be the man of the hour, Dean ‘Steel Hands’ Slade.”
I rose from my seat, knowing exactly who stood in front of me. Mr. Dell was a multi-billionaire, owner of the Titan Coliseum and heavily involved in the sports industry. He was respected as a capitalist, known for his ruthless business strategy and questionable tactics.
“Mr. Dell,” I said, accepting the offered hand. “Thank you for putting on the fight.”
“Of course, it’s what I do,” Mr. Dell said, releasing my hand. “Your reputation precedes you, Dean. I’ve seen every one of your fights. There hasn’t been a fighter like you since Rio the ‘Riot’ McClain. You don’t go down easy and you don’t stay down for nothin’. You’ve won the hearts and minds of a lot of fans. Especially in that last fight of yours. What was it? All ten rounds?”
“He went all ten rounds and knocked out his opponent seconds before the bell rang,” Jonny Bones said the same way a proud father would when speaking about his son. “Dean was knocked down in the third, fifth, and eighth rounds but kept getting back up. That’s who he is.”
“That’s what people love about you.” Mr. Dell looked behind him to the handful of coaches as well as security members. “Do you think we can speak a few moments in private?”
I looked at Jonny. The fight was going to take place in twenty minutes. This meeting wasn’t planned nor was it protocol.
Jonny had a worried expression on his wrinkled face. Wise eyes told me something was wrong. “All right, Mr. Dell. With all due respect, we have to prepare for the fight, but for you, we can give you a few minutes if that’s all you need.”
“Thank you, yes. It’ll only take a few minutes. You have my word,” Mr. Dell reassured Jonny. He looked over his shoulder. “Gentlemen, if we could have the locker room, please?”
Despite his position, our own staff of coaches and trainers looked at Jonny. It was years of respect that led them to defy the most powerful man in business if Jonny asked them to.
Instead, the old trainer nodded for them to go. “It’s okay. It’ll just be a few minutes if you wait outside for us.”
They nodded, looking at me, then to Jonny again. They understood this was out of the ordinary for all of us. Instead of asking questions, they made their way from the room along with our own security and that of Mr. Dell.
A moment later, it was only the three of us in the room: Mr. Dell, Jonny, and I. Mr. Dell waited half a beat after the door was closed to begin. He alternated looking between Jonny and me, laying out his business proposition.
“You two may be the greatest coach-gladiator combo we’ve seen in a long time, maybe ever. Time will tell.” Mr. Dell was still all smiles, flashing his white teeth in that signature sideways grin of his. “What I’m about to ask you will go against everything in your core as competitors, but I assure you if you look at the long game and the future in this industry, you’ll realize that there is really only one choice in all of this. I would like you to throw the fight tonight.”
My stomach tilted inside my gut. I felt like I had been hit by a two hundred and fifty-pound brawler. I knew I had heard him right. I just couldn’t believe it. There were whispers and rumors of course that some of the top-level fights were fixed. I had yet to experience this firsthand, let alone by one of the most respected and powerful men in the industry.
I looked at Jonny. The old man had a dangerous look in his eye. He didn’t say anything yet. I’d been with Jonny for enough years to know we were thinking the same thing. What would happen if we refused?
“I know, I know.” Mr. Dell lifted his hands, palms facing toward us. “It’s a big thing to ask, and it’s blindsided you. You’re going to have to trust me on this one. It’s going to sting to have to go down, but we can make it look good. You’ll go down in the last round, and you won’t get up. In a few years, you’ll fight your way back to another title shot, and we’ll make sure you win then. You have my word on that. Right now, the money is too good to have you win. You’re heavily favored in this fight and me, and a few of my colleagues have money that you’ll go down. You will go down, Dean.”
Along with the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, a cold sweat broke out over my brow, and a wave of anger washed over my entire body. I’d spent my life getting to this point in my career. I’d put my body through hell and fought my way to the top. Taking a dive would not only go against everything I stood for, it would be throwing away years of hard work.
“We appreciate your request, Mr. Dell,” Jonny said.
“It wasn’t a request,” Mr. Dell answered.
“Okay.” Jonny met Mr. Dell’s gaze head-on, not combative yet unwilling to be intimidated either. “I understand your position. If we were to feel strongly otherwise, that Dean can win this fight, could there be another way to work this out? Maybe you could move your money over to betting on him.”
“It doesn’t work like that,” Mr. Dell said, losing his cool, pleasant personality. It was as if a switch had been flipped. Instead of the congenial smile that graced his lips a moment before, a snarl escaped his throat. “You go down in the tenth round. That’s all there is to it. You will go down. If you decide anything otherwise, things won’t go well for you.”
I didn’t like the way he was talking to the man who had been like a father to me. Anyone else and I would have stepped in right there and then. They’d be talking to Jonny through a mouthful of broken teeth and a splintered jaw.
Instead of violence, I took a step toward Mr. Dell, clenching my fists. In the short time I’d known him, I’d lost all respect for the man.
“May I have a moment to speak with my gladiator?” Jonny asked politely. He placed a hand on my shoulder. “You have to understand adrenaline is flowing freely right now.”
Mr. Dell stared into my eyes. He must have finally realized that an animal lived inside of me. He took a step back and nodded. “You two take whatever time you need. My mind isn’t going to change. You go down, or you two are finished. It’s as simple as that. Make the right decision for not only you but for your families right now. Your time will come to hold the belt. Tonight is just not that night.”
Jonny’s grip on my shoulder tightened to hold me in place. I could rip free from his hold if I wanted, but I was still having a hard time processing the turn of events the night had taken.
Mr. Dell left the room.
A second later, our trainer and security staff reentered.
“We just need a moment, fellas,” Jonny said with a smile. He guided me to the restroom in the rear of the locker room. It was all white tile and bright lights.
“Is this guy serious?” I said once we were safely out of earshot. “I can’t believe what he just asked us to do. No, not even asked. I can’t believe what he just told us we were going to do. I was about to lay him out right there.”
“Hey, you forget about that right now,” Jonny said, holding my stare. He spoke in a tone just above a whisper. “You go down just like he said. You hear me? You go down in the tenth.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. The same man that had pushed me to break through my limits every day, the same man who was always in my corner in and out of the ring was telling me to lose the fight.
“What? No,” I said, shaking my head. “We’re not going to let him take from us everything we’ve worked so hard for all these years: all the fights, all the sacrifice. No way. He can lose his money. I’m not going down. I don’t go down, and if I do go down, I don’t stay down. You taught me that.”
“This isn’t about fighting anymore,” Jonny said, clenching his teeth. There was a pain in his eyes I’d only ever seen once before. “This is about living and dying, Dean. This is about surviving. We go against Mr. Dell, and we’re dead men.”
“We’ll go public with his threat,” I said, refusing to believe the only option we had was losing or death. “We’ll tell everyone who will listen. We’ll expose him.”
“No one’s going to listen to dead men,” Jonny said, firmly taking me by my shoulder. “Even if we could spread the word before he got to us, he and his friends own half the reporters in the city. They’ll bury our story, and then they’ll bury our bodies. This isn’t about us anymore, Dean. Think of Natalie. Think of the baby she’s holding in her belly.”
“I am thinking about them,” I said, refusing to give in to Jonny’s advice. “This is why I’m going to win tonight. I’m going to win for them, for you, Jonny. We both came from nothing, and we have the chance to do something great tonight. Mr. Dell is every single bully who threatened me growing up. He’s every single person who told us we were nothing. We don’t give in to them, Jonny. That’s not who we are.”
“You’re not going to listen to me, are you?” Jonny’s face told me he already knew the answer. “If I can’t change your mind, maybe she can. At the very least, you need to talk to her about this. You two are a team, even more so than you and I. Promise me you’ll talk to her about it before you go through with it.”
I looked at the clock on the wall of the bathroom. It read sixteen minutes until I was supposed to be walking to the ring.
“I’ll talk to her,” I agreed, seeing the wisdom in Jonny’s words. “I’ll talk to her.”
“Good. I’ll go get her,” Jonny said with a hint of relief in his voice. Apparently, he thought Natalie was going to talk me into throwing the fight. I knew better. She was more of a warrior than I was.
Jonny practically ran from the bathroom on his way to the next room to go get my wife. She usually gave me space before the fight to get my head right. In the last few minutes before I was to head to the ring, she would come in and tell me exactly what I needed to know.
This varied from fight to fight. Sometimes it was a kiss and telling me that no matter what happened, we were in this together. Sometimes it was a wink, and she’d tell me to go kick my opponent’s ass. Whatever she decided on, it was always just what I needed to hear.
She was amazing like that. It was like words of encouragement were her superpower.
I took the few minutes I was alone to walk over to the mirror and look at myself. Clean shaven with a short buzz and Mohawk made me an intimidating figure. Forget about the muscles rippling over my body. Heck, I wouldn’t want to get in the ring with me. I stared into the mirror for a moment longer, still realizing I was in a dream. I begged my unconscious mind to wake up. I didn’t want to see what came next.
“Hey, you. You okay?” I woke to Ricky shaking my arm. “I heard you moaning something.”
It took me a minute to realize I was out of my nightmare and in the makeshift tent erected for our quarters. Or maybe I was only escaping one nightmare to live in another.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I lied, pushing my long hair out of my face. “What time you get in last night? I didn’t hear you.”
“Oh, yeah.” Ricky yawned and stretched his arms over his head. “It was the early hours of the morning. I’m not sure. I had a late night with Arun.”
I swung into a sitting position in our bunk bed. We shared a tiny tent barely large enough to hold our bunk bed and meager belongings. The tent was pushed up against the side of the overturned Orion.
“You’re not a liar, but you do have problems relating the truth.” I looked over at Ricky with a raised brow. “You had a date with Arun?”
“First of many, my friend, first of many,” Ricky said, practically beaming with happiness. “She needed my mechanical skills working on a section of the interface that will get Iris’ long-range scanners up and running.”
“That doesn’t sound like a date,” I scoffed. “That sounds like you’re a mechanic and she asked you to do a job.”
“Let’s not split hairs here.” Ricky shrugged on his dirty sleeveless shirt. His head popped out the top. “All I know is that when Arun needs help, she’s calling me and she stuck around for a bit once I started working. Don’t worry. You’ll be invited to the wedding. I’ll need someone to hold the rings.”
I couldn’t help but crack a smile. The best part was that Ricky was dead serious. Maybe somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew he was being ridiculous, but maybe we could all use a little more of his brand of humor if we were going to get through this alive.
I busied myself getting dressed in my boots, cargo pants, and shirt. With the heat of the dual suns overhead, I decided to rip the sleeves off of my long sleeve shirt, mirroring Ricky’s move. It would be another day of manual labor on the wall.
“I can’t wait to shower tomorrow,” Ricky said as we exited our tent into the cool morning air. “I feel like I have a layer of grime over me right now.”
Water was still being rationed. However, with less than three thousand people to care for now, we had more than we needed. We had all the water we could drink, but showers were spread out to every other day and only a quick five minutes at that.
In space, the main water supply had been poisoned, making it difficult to allow showers for any of our one hundred thousand colonists. With our numbers cut down by ninety-seven percent, we could afford ourselves some luxuries with the reserve water supply.
Ricky and I crossed the short patch of ground in the tent city erected outside of the Orion. We made it to the showering tent to wash our faces and brush our teeth. The men’s room had been a maelstrom of activity while we were in space. There had been men at the locker section to our left, in the showers to our right, and waiting in line to use the sink in front of us.
The bathroom was a ghost town now. It was a fraction of the size. Dark green tent walls provided shelter for a line of toilet stalls on the left, showers on the right, and three portable sinks in front of us. A single elderly man stood at the sink brushing his teeth. He nodded to us as we approached.
A silver lining in the Orion accident was that the ship was equipped with everything we needed to survive. Sure, we lost half the ship in the crash, but things like portable sinks, tents—everything a new colony would need to live while they erected a proper town—were stored on multiple levels.
This fact, coupled with the idea that we had supplies enough to provide for one hundred thousand, meant that even with the loss of fifty percent of our ships, we had more than we needed.
“Weird, right?” Ricky asked as we found our own sinks.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“I mean, I remember thinking that there were way too many guys having to use the same restroom on our level while we traveled in space.” Ricky splashed water on his face. “I remember wishing there weren’t so many guys trying to cram into such a small space. Be careful what you wish for, I guess.”
I worked my hair into a ponytail behind me. I went through the mechanical routine of brushing my teeth and washing my face, all the while thinking about Ricky’s words.
He was right. The saying the grass is always greener on the other side came to mind. There were a few times when we traveled through space that I wished the Orion hadn’t been so full. This was what the opposite end of the spectrum looked like.
The older man to my right wasn’t full-on staring, but he tried to sneak in a glance at me every time he thought I was too busy to notice. Through my peripheral vision, I caught him squinting at me.
“Can I help you with something?” I asked, turning to him. Already I had a good idea why he was looking at me like that. It was something that happened to me less and less through the years but still came up every now and again. Usually, I ignored it and moved on. I don’t know what came over me. Maybe it was the dream I had just woken from, maybe it was something else.
“Sorry, sorry to bother you,” he said, clearing his throat. “You just bear a striking resemblance to a gladiator I used to watch. I followed the sport religiously back on Earth.”
“I’m just a mechanic,” I said with a shrug.
“Of course,” he said with a bob of his head. “I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have to be sorry,” I told him.
He gave me a polite smile and walked away.
“Man, this other guy people keep thinking you are must be your doppelganger,” Ricky said, slapping me on my back. “Didn’t that Warlord leader back on Earth think you were the same guy?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” I said, heading out of the bathroom with Ricky, back to our tent to deposit our toiletries and then to breakfast. “You never followed the gladiator fights?”
“Oh, you know, I bet on them, sure, but it really wasn’t my thing,” Ricky said with a shrug. “I’m more of a dice or card kind of guy.”
“Right,” I said as we made our way to the cafeteria tent.
The twin suns of the planet were just making their ascent to take their places in the sky and blaze their wrath down on us. All around the outside of the Orion, colonists were making their way either out of their tents or descending from the levels of the Orion, where they chose to sleep.
Not everyone felt comfortable on the ground floor in a tent. A large number of the colonists had chosen to sleep in the Orion. Despite their rooms being turned on their sides, they were willing to accept the discomfort if it meant having walls around them.
I understood that. I had been tempted to stay in my old room back on the Orion. If it hadn’t been so far from the food and a bathroom that wasn’t sideways, I might have.
One of the cafeterias on the Orion had been powered and was up and running. It was decided the food would be cooked there and run down to the cafeteria tent below.
I wasn’t part of the team tasked with righting the cafeteria level, so all the refrigerated and frozen lockers stood upright, but I had heard a group of mechanics complaining about how much work it had been unhooking and figuring out how to reconnect all the ovens and stoves used for cooking.
Ricky and I entered the long cafeteria tent to the smell of bacon and eggs. One thing I knew about life was that whatever position you found yourself in, bacon could be the healing balm for a lot of it. We fell in along a table where we were ladled a spoonful of steaming eggs onto a plate and two pieces of bacon.
To drink, we had an option of water or coffee. It wasn’t much, but only a few days after crash landing on an alien planet, people were coming together. Everyone was finding a way to pitch in.
Everyone’s helping fine right now, but I wonder how they’d feel if they knew the truth, I thought to myself. I wonder what they’d say if they knew the Orion was sabotaged and there was an ancient alien-made door on the planet leading to who knows what.
We sat in silence, eating our breakfast in two chairs facing one another. There were no tables yet. Compared to everything else going on, tables for eating didn’t seem like a top priority at the moment.
My mind wandered to the alien door we had found. It was obvious it was made by someone or something else, but who? What was behind it? Should we be doing more than just having Iris monitor it? What could we do? We were barely surviving ourselves.
“You look lost in your own head,” Boss Creed said, pulling up a chair beside us. “And I don’t think I’ve ever heard Ricky so quiet.”
“Moufful,” Ricky said, pointing to his packed lips dripping with bacon grease.
“I see,” Boss Creed said.
He looked better. When we lost Ira the day before, I knew he was in a tough spot, mostly because Boss Creed was the type of leader who would blame himself for something like that, even if it was entirely out of his control.
“There’s going to be a service this morning for everyone who knew Ira,” Boss Creed said in a matter-of-fact tone. “If you two would like to attend.”
“I’ll be there,” Ricky said, swallowing a mouthful of food.
“I’ll come too,” I said.
“Thank you.” Boss Creed exhaled loudly as if he were holding his breath until the conversation was over.
The dark green tent flaps to the cafeteria opened. In walked Captain Harold along with a pair of suits.
Captain Harold strode to the center of the cafeteria flanked by his suits carrying pulse rifles. He wore the same dark blue uniform and black tactical armor. A blaster rested on his hip.
“Good morning,” he said in a loud voice as he looked around the room.
With shifts working around the clock to get the wall and essential living functions back online, a series of mumbled responses were returned to him as a few hundred colonists looked to one another for answers.
Captain Harold found an empty chair and used it to stand on. He looked over the egg and bacon eaters with a measured stare.
“For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Captain Ezra Harold. I’m in charge of the Civil Authority Division while we’re here,” he said, taking a moment to pause and let his words sink in. “It’s come to my attention that we are severely undermanned at the moment. Only eleven Civil Authority Officers stand and protect our encampment. I’d like to see that number tripled at the very least.”
“He’s recruiting?” Ricky asked, putting the puzzle pieces together.
“Looks like it,” I said.
“Times being what they are, we are accepting applicants of all ages,” Captain Harold said, looking to a group of chairs where a young boy no older than fourteen sat, as well as another table, where an old man with a bald head looked back at him.
I realized it was Lou, the same religious nut I had spoken to the day before.
“We need your help to protect this compound,” Captain Harold went on. “Everyone needs to do their part at this time. We will give you the training and equipment you need to protect yourself and your loved ones.”
“We get to carry blasters?” a rough voice asked from the opposite end of the cafeteria.
I couldn’t see who was speaking, but I recognized the question. Anyone joining up just so he or she could carry a blaster was probably joining for all the wrong reasons.
“After you’re trained to handle a firearm, you will be allowed to carry one, yes,” Captain Harold addressed the question. “I know this may be uncomfortable for a few of you, but I’d like you to stand up and join me right now if you are willing to do your part. We need to start recruiting immediately and now is as good a time as ever.”
An uncomfortable pause fell on the room. It reminded me of when I was a kid, and I would go to church to witness an altar call. The preacher would invite everyone up to the front who needed prayer or to receive a free gift. This felt a lot like that.
“You’ll be compensated, of course, once we have a system to do so,” Captain Harold coaxed. “Retroactive pay included.”
“Well, I’m in,” the hard voice said from the other side of the room. The man finally stood up so I could get a look at him. He was a big fellow. Years at the gym coupled with an unhealthy diet gave him round muscles covered by a layer of fat. He wasn’t exactly tall, maybe six foot, or just under. He made his way to where Captain Harold and his pair of suits stood.
“Glad to have you.” Captain Harold nodded down at him. “You’re making the right choice.’
“Asking about carrying weapons and then joining after the promise of payment,” Boss Creed said under his breath. “All the wrong reasons, if you ask me.”
I was thinking the same thing, but I kept my mouth shut and sipped on my coffee. I had enough to worry about, and there was no way I was going to join.
“Is that it?” Captain Harold looked around the silent cafeteria. Anger began to lace his words. “Everyone needs to do their part. We need more officers to secure and make our camp safe from who knows what’s out there. Stand up, become the patriot your people need you to be.”
A short woman from the far end made her way over to Captain Harold, then a middle-aged man with glasses, and finally, that same young boy Captain Harold had looked at before, stood up.
“Yes, you’re making the right decision.” Captain Harold encouraged them all to come to him. “You’re doing the right thing.”
“Jackson, no!” A woman stood up next to the young boy who was making his way over to Captain Harold. “You go when you’re older if you still feel like it’s the right thing to do, but not now.”
“It’s my choice,” the boy said in a shaky voice.
He was tall for his age and lanky. Awkward as boys are supposed to be at that pubescent age. His hair was orangish-red, with a sprinkle of freckles tossed against his fair skin.
“That’s right, welcome,” Captain Harold said, encouraging the boy.
The boy’s mother wasn’t about to give up. She followed her son all the way to Captain Harold, nearly screaming as she went. “Jackson, no. We lost your father in the crash. I’m not going to lose you, too! You’re too young.”
“I’m going to join, Mom.” Jackson had tears in his eyes. His voice cracked. “I’m going to join for Dad.”
The two suits on either side of Captain Harold moved to intercept the mother.
Blocked by the suits, she looked up at Captains Harold, hoping the man would agree with her. “Please, please, Captain Harold. He’s only thirteen. I know he looks older, but he’s just tall for his age. Please, he’s too young. He can help the colony in other ways. He can run food and water or build the wall or whatever else needs to be done. But he doesn’t need to be around blasters or in harm’s way. Please don’t take my only child from me. He’s all I have left.”
The way the woman begged even tugged at my cold heart-strings, and that was saying something. I looked along with everyone else to see what Captain Harold would say.
The captain looked down at the woman before stepping down from his chair.
I could still see the exchange between the two as everyone else in the cafeteria remained seated. He placed a comforting hand on the woman’s shoulder.
“What’s your name?” Captain Harold asked her.
“My—my name?” the woman asked.
“That’s right,” he said. “What’s your name?”
“Martha, but why does that—”
“Martha,” Captain Harold interrupted her. “Your son is doing the right thing. I know you can’t see that because he’s your son and you want to look out for him, but he’s doing the right thing here. In fact, you should join too. You can be with him every step of the way. Doesn’t that sound good? You and your boy can both help the colony together.”
Martha’s face went from tears of sadness to confusion and then anger. “You’re not going to take him from me,” Martha screamed. “This trip has taken enough from my family. You’re not taking my son!”
Captain Harold took a step back as Martha lunged at him. The pair of suits grabbed her, wrestling her to the ground as she continued to scream for her son.
People were beginning to feel uncomfortable. They quickly rose from their seats, some backing away.
I had to admit, even I didn’t know how to feel. The kid was too young in my book to serve in any official capacity as a suit. If we were about to be overrun by some alien threat, then that was something else, but there were plenty of adults left who could pick up arms and defend the group. Far as I could see, we were a long way from recruiting kids to do the heavy lifting.
“Leave her alone!” someone yelled.
“Get off of her!” Someone else in the cafeteria threw a coffee cup at one of the suits.
Jackson saw the whole thing through horrified eyes.
Boss Creed was already on the move. The large man shouldered his way through the crowd. Ricky and I followed. I took one step then another, not really having a plan of what I was going to do but knowing that I needed to do something if no one else would.
It was hard to see exactly what was happening between the pair of suits and Martha on the ground. What I did see was one of the suits put a foot into the back of her neck while the other tried to secure her hands behind her back with a pair of magnetized cuffs.
Boss Creed was there a moment later, grabbing the suit with his boot in the back of Martha’s head. He lifted the suit completely off the ground and threw him across the room like a rag doll.
Captain Harold was speaking into an earpiece. My guess was he was requesting backup. His right hand rested on the butt of his blaster.
The other suit working on Martha’s hands succeeded in securing her with a pair of magnetized cuffs. He reached for his stun baton. The stun baton extended with crackling blue sparks erupting from the end.
Boss Creed was built for brute strength, not necessarily speed. He blocked the first swing of the baton then fell victim as the baton came back and struck him across the left side of his arm.
An electric current ran through Boss Creed’s body. It was enough to take the large man down to his knees. The suit Boss Creed threw across the room recovered. He came back with his own stun baton. Another pair of suits entered the cafeteria at a run. They also reached for their stun batons.
Boss Creed was regaining his feet when the two suits around him swung their batons down on him again. His body spasmed. He fell to the ground.
I knew I couldn’t just stand here and watch. I think Ricky knew the same thing.
“Okay, okay, he’s had enough,” Ricky said, placing a hand on one of the suits’ shoulders.
I honestly don’t think the suit even thought about what he was doing. He just reacted to someone grabbing him. He reached back with his stun baton and caught Ricky in the middle of the stomach.
Ricky went down in a heap.
There was so much jostling and yelling going on, I couldn’t hear what Captain Harold was saying. I think he was shouting to both sides of the conflict to stand down. It was a little bit too late for that.
“You need to get out of here before things get worse,” I told the suit who had cracked Ricky. I had my hands at my side as non-threatening as I could be.
By now, the other pair of suits that entered the cafeteria was on crowd control. They pushed the mob of colonists back away from the conflict.
“Is that a threat?” the suit in front of me asked.
“That’s whatever you take it as,” I said, shaking my head.
It was probably adrenaline, maybe too much testosterone that made the suit in front of me lunge forward with his baton. Either way, I wasn’t going to stand there and get stunned.
The suit in front of me lunged with a straightforward jab. The baton crackled with blue electricity as I sidestepped the attack. I moved to my right, allowing his forward motion to carry him a step farther.
I turned sideways, striking out with my right hand. I used the blade of my palm, pinky forward to smash into his neck. I really didn’t mean to hit him that hard. He dropped the stun baton, falling to his knees. He grabbed at his throat with both hands.
“You’ll be alright. Just give it some ti—”
The suit Boss Creed had thrown rushed forward. This one was a bit smarter and came at me with an overhead swing.
I telegraphed the blow, grabbing his hand holding the weapon as it descended on me from above. I held the weapon at bay with my left hand, using my right to send two bone-crushing hooks into the space below his left arm where the armor came together.
After the strike landed to his left side, I ripped the baton out of his temporarily weakened grip. We looked at one another.
I tased him.
He fell to the ground spasming.
“Watch out!” someone in the crowd yelled.
I turned in time just as the two new suits who arrived late to the party rushed me together. One was a short man with a wide belly, the other, a woman who couldn’t be out of her early twenties.
I dropped the stun baton I was holding, choosing to trust my own hand-to-hand combat skills instead of using a weapon I wasn’t used to. They were running at me. I raced to meet them.
I took two large steps, building momentum, then leaped into the air, bringing my right knee up with me. My knee cracked the underside of the male suit’s chin with all the weight of my body behind it.
He went down like a sack of beets, and I landed on top of him. I looked over to the woman who was charging with him. She had stopped moving and was looking at me stunned along with everyone else.
She dropped her baton and took a step backward.
Smart girl, I thought. That’s the most sense any suit has shown in here today.
“That’s enough, Dean Slade,” Captain Harold said. He pushed the barrel of his blaster against the back of my head. “Get up.”
I went through my options. I could give up here or press the fight. There was a chance I could spin faster than he could pull the trigger and knock the blaster out of his hand.
“You are clearly very highly trained,” Captain Harold stated. “You have assaulted multiple Civil Authority Officers. I would be within my rights to kill you where you stand. You pose too much of a threat to the colony. Turn around slowly. If you try anything, I will kill you.”
I lifted my hands into the air and obeyed. Something he said tickled the back of my mind. I turned to look at him.
Captain Harold took a step back to create separation between himself and me. He held his weapon in a two-grip stance, eyes trained on mine, finger on the trigger.
“Died a long time ago,” I said with a sardonic grin. “You’re fighting a ghost.”
Captain Harold’s hard eyes betrayed his surprise and confusion. The barrel of his weapon never left my chest, but I thought for a moment I recognized empathy in his expression as if he understood exactly what I was saying.
He’s lost someone, too, I thought, noticing the same, tired expression I’d found on my own face so many times before.
“What is going on here?” Arun’s voice echoed into the silent tent. “Who is responsible for all of this?”
I didn’t turn my back on Captain Harold. There was still a chance he would pull the trigger. If I was going to go out, I wanted it to be with my eyes open and in the chest, not the back.
Whether it was luck or fate that had other plans for me, Captain Harold holstered his weapon. He looked over my shoulder at Arun.
“We were recruiting new Civil Authority Officers for the Orion Colony when a mob mentality broke out.” Captain Harold explained the events as if he was talking about Sunday brunch instead of the circumstances that put half a dozen people on the ground.
I turned as Arun pushed through those gathered with Stacy beside her. Both women wore angry scowls on their faces.
I knelt down next to Ricky’s side as they began to sort things out. Ricky was already coherent. He was on his back looking up at the tent ceiling.
“That was a really strong current,” he said, breathing out deeply. “I feel like those stun batons have to be recalibrated or something. That much charge shouldn’t be legal.”
“Can you stand?” I asked.
“Let’s see,” Ricky said, taking my hand.
I pulled Ricky to his feet. He took two unsteady steps then evened out. Boss Creed was already on his feet. Stacy knelt down and helped Martha out of her cuffs.
Arun and Captain Harold were having a heated debate just above a whisper.
I couldn’t catch much, but I did hear Arun say, “Not here, in private.”
While the suits were getting to their feet, those gathered in the cafeteria began to trickle out now that the fun was over. The large man who had volunteered to become a suit to begin with, came up to me with knowing eyes.
“I know who you are,” he said. “I saw you use that same flying knee move against Victor ‘The Vice’ Crane. Knocked him out in the first round. The stands went crazy. I still remember his teeth flying from his mouth.”
I didn’t say anything. It was pointless to try and lie my way out of this one, not after the show I’d just put on.
“You’re good at dispatching a couple suits who went through a few months of hand-to-hand training. I wonder how you’d do against another gladiator, someone who’s been in the ring himself,” he said.
I understood what he was getting at, although I didn’t recognize him. His large nose and meaty figure didn’t ring any bells. This wasn’t that much of a surprise. There were thousands of gladiators across the globe all working their way up from neighborhood gyms to city fights and state exhibitions.
“Well,” I said, looking straight into his dark eyes. “If you see another gladiator around, I’m not hard to find.”
“Right,” the man smirked before retreating with the suits out of the tent.
“I’m not dumb, Dean,” Ricky said, placing his hands on his hips. “I get now that you used to be a fighter or maybe even a gladiator before you were a mechanic. I want the truth.”
My cover was blown sky high. I might as well be wearing a bright neon sign saying that I was a trained fighter. But who knew? Maybe that would actually be better. Maybe people would stay away from me now.
“I was a gladiator, Rick,” I said, coming clean. “It’s a life I wanted to leave behind, but I guess some parts of you, you just can’t shake. I’m sorry for lying to you. I guess I was lying to myself that I could ever really be rid of this past.”
Ricky’s scowl disappeared after my apology.
“What?” I asked.
“Nothing. I’ve—I’ve just never heard you apologize to, well, anyone ever before,” he said, cracking a smile.
“Yeah, well, I guess I’m not really sorry for much these days,” I said. “So, we good?”
“I mean, yeah,” Ricky said, lifting his hands to his face and throwing a few wild punches. “Maybe you can show me a few moves sometime soon. Or—”
“You two okay?” Stacy came up to us.
I turned to see Boss Creed being treated by Doctor Allbright. A shallow cut alongside his forehead was letting loose a slow trickle of blood. Martha had been freed and was crying softly alongside some friends who knew her. The suits along with Arun and Jackson were all gone.
“Tased but still standing,” Ricky said.
“I’m good,” I answered Stacy. “What happens now? I mean, with everything that just went down here.”
“Not exactly the best way to start recruiting for the Civil Authority Unit.” Stacy shrugged. “I guess now Arun and Captain Harold have to work out this situation. I don’t mean just what happened here in the tent, but how they’re going to move forward in the future.”
I knew what Stacy was getting at. Arun and Elon genuinely cared about the Transients under their care. Despite my not liking the man, I thought Captain Harold cared for them as well. He just had a different way of showing it.
The captain showed his level of commitment to the colony by doing whatever it took to protect it. This meant recruiting as hard as he could, training his officers and fortifying the position.
I understood all of this. What I disagreed with was his ideology that the end justifies the means.
“You all going to be able to make it to the funeral?” Boss Creed asked. He joined our group with a fresh new scar on his forehead, courtesy of the Heal Aid in Doctor Allbright’s hand.
“I told him he needs to be evaluated for further treatment but…” Doctor Allbright extended her hands to Boss Creed, taking him in up and down as if that were explanation enough.
“Yeah, we’ll go with you,” Stacy said, looking to Ricky and me for confirmation.
“Of course,” Ricky said.
I nodded too. I didn’t know Ira well, but I knew enough.
Together, we exited the cafeteria tent, ready to bury yet another colonist this planet stole from us.
The patch of ground chosen to act as the new cemetery was half a kilometer from where the Orion rested. A single tree rose from the brightly colored grass and dark soil on a sloping hill.
A hole had already been dug for Ira. His body was wrapped in a white cloth and lay beside the grave. The group gathered there was smaller than I expected, but I guess we were all still just getting to know one another.
I was surprised to see Elon there, still with a heavy limp but no pain on his face. He looked a hundred times better than the would-be drunk slinging bottles against the wall.
Lou, the older, bald, religious man, led the ceremony. He was dressed in a dark grey, high-collared shirt, a pair of matching pants, and dress shoes that looked as out of place in the alien grass as anything I’d ever seen. I guess we were all out of place at the moment.
A handful of other colonists I didn’t know came as well, and finally, right before the ceremony began, Arun and Captain Harold.
The two didn’t speak to one another, nor did they even look in each other’s direction.
“I want to thank all of you for coming,” Lou began. “I know many of us didn’t get to know Ira well. It’s a testament to his character that you showed up at all. I only spoke with Ira once in passing. We were on the Orion in those first few days. I was lost trying to get to one of the viewing levels. I didn’t even have to ask for directions. Ira was the kind of soul who saw others in need and came to help. He noticed the confused expression on an old man’s brow and offered assistance. That’s what kind of person Ira was.”
Lou paused for a moment to let the words sink in.
I placed my hands in front of me uncomfortably. It had been a long time since I had been to a funeral or any kind of religious gathering, for that matter. It took a lot to make me uncomfortable, but here I was.
Instead of making eye contact with Lou, I looked past him, surveying the landscape. To our right, the hull of the Orion rose on the horizon. In front of us and a good kilometer away, a line of trees dotted the landscape.
I caught movement. The trees were so far away, it was hard to tell if I had seen a person or maybe some kind of animal. It could have even been a breeze pushing against one of the many bushes. The only thing I knew was something moved out there.
I fought down panic or the need to tell anyone yet. I wasn’t sure what I had seen. I wasn’t going to interrupt a funeral to tell everyone I might or might not have seen a person hiding in the trees.
Lou went on about the life after and forgiveness. I ignored him for the time being, squinting and craning my neck forward to see if I could spot anything.
Once again, a figure that looked like a man dressed in black shifted deeper into the bushes.
A feeling of dread descended on me like a bucket of cold water. Someone was out there. The hairs on the back of my neck rose in unison. I went through the checklist of the reasons anyone would be hiding in the bushes while we held a funeral ceremony.
Most colonists were eager to find one another and traveled outside the Orion and the erected tents in pairs or even groups for safety. I was positive I had seen a figure and nearly sure it was a man.
I wasn’t about to interrupt Ira’s funeral to go off running to the trees now. It would have to wait. My eyes never left the area where I had seen the person moving, but no other signs appeared.
The call for anyone to share a story about Ira came. Two people I didn’t know had nice things to say about him. How Ira was always looking to help and that we had lost a great man.
Boss Creed came last.
He looked down on Ira’s still form under the white sheets. His eyes never left him. “I wish I could have known you longer, Ira. You were a good kid with a smile on your face, always willing to do what needed to be done. This planet has taken a lot from all of us, and for some of us, it’s taken everything. All I can promise you is that we’re going to get off this godforsaken rock. We’re going to get off, and people will remember you and what you did here. Rest easy, Ira. We’ll take it from here.”
Boss Creed never looked up at those gathered while he spoke. It was as if his entire speech was just a private conversation between himself and Ira. You’d think Ira was alive and well. I half expected him to respond.
As Boss Creed moved aside to allow Lou to begin the closing remarks, I felt a tickle on the tips of the fingers on my right hand. I looked down to see Mutt grinning up at me. His ears made the brush against my hand.
“Where were you an hour ago?” I whispered to him. “I could have used you back in the cafeteria tent.”
Of course, Mutt didn’t respond. Instead, he went down to all fours, placing his head in his paws. His eyes rested on Ira’s still form, and he gave a tiny whine.
The ceremony soon ended with people awkwardly heading back to the Orion and the steel wall being constructed. I didn’t blame them for not knowing what to say. I didn’t know how to transition from a moment of somber reflection on death to what was for lunch either.
Boss Creed and Ricky stayed behind with Lou to lower Ira’s body into the grave and cover his corpse. I would have offered a hand, but my interest had never swayed from the copse of trees beyond the cemetery grounds.
I still didn’t want to mention it to anyone. It could have been a kid playing or maybe someone who had gotten lost and retreated back into the brush when they saw they were about to interrupt a funeral.
Mutt jogged alongside me, sniffing the air with his long snout.
“Where you going?” Stacy asked, catching up to me. “The Orion’s back that way.”
“Not headed to the Orion,” I answered. “I think I saw something in the brush over there during the ceremony. I’m going to go check it out.”
“What did you see?” Stacy asked. She kept pace with me and scanned the trees in front of us.”
“Don’t know exactly. Someone was in there,” I said, searching for the right words to express the feeling I didn’t want to push out into the world.
It couldn’t be him, I said to myself. He died in the crash. The holding cell with the two prisoners in the Orion broke off upon descent to the planet. Odds were whoever was on that section struck the ground like a meteor and died before they knew what was happening.
Stacy placed a hand on the blaster on the right side of her hip. We crossed the rest of the grassy field in front of us without an issue. There was a grouping of trees in front of us with bushes on either side. This was where I had seen someone. The thin foliage pushed further back, interspersed with wide open plains.
Whoever had been snooping around in here was a professional at sticking to shadows. After the two times I had seen him, he disappeared using the sparse terrain as cover to retreat.
Stacy and I entered the brush searching for any sign of who I might have seen poking around. Mutt lowered his head to the ground, sniffing hard both in and out on the dirt soil.
“I’m just going to be honest with you here,” I said, examining the ground for footprints, broken leaves from the plants, or anything else that might signal someone passing in the brush. “I don’t really know what I’m looking for. I’m not a tracker.”
Stacy smirked. She was bent over low to the ground, her right hand still on the handle of her blaster. “You know, the normal stuff: tracks, threads of clothing that may have been tugged off, bent or pushed down grass as the person passed.”
We both spent another ten minutes scouring the area. There was nothing there except the eerie feeling we were being watched. It was the same feeling I used to get in the arena when my opponent thought they had the upper hand on me.
It was Mutt who finally stumbled on something.
A low growl came from the beast’s throat. Both Stacy and I exchanged glances and headed over to where the dog stood snarling at a piece of cloth caught deep in a prickly bush that looked more like cactus than anything else.
My heart seized in my chest as I realized what the piece of cloth was. It was a red handkerchief, the same kind someone could wear over the lower half of their face to conceal their identity. Memories of both Disciples on the Orion flashed in front of my eyes. It was the same one they wore. The same crimson red Disciples used to conceal their identities.
I had come up against the cult twice so far, the first time with Maksim Petrov and the second time with Marcy Knot. Marcy was dead from the explosion she set off that took the Orion out of slip space. Maksim had been in the cell block of the ship when it broke apart on reentry. We assumed his section of the ship exploded on impact. Maybe we assumed too much.
“What are the odds this has nothing to do with Maksim?” Stacy asked with a heavy sigh as she took in the same article of clothing I did. “What are the odds this is some random handkerchief blown in by the wind? I mean, there’s debris everywhere.”
“I wish,” I said, looking at her with a raised eyebrow. “I want to believe all that, but I saw someone. I know I saw someone.”
I turned, suddenly scanning the woods behind us. I half expected to see the crazed Disciple running at us from some hidden location, a rock in his hand to use as a weapon. There was no such attack at the moment. But I still felt like we were being watched.
“You feel it too, huh?” Stacy asked as she reached down to retrieve the handkerchief. It was burned on one side, dark smoke stains on the other. “Like we’re the fox and the hound is about to pounce?”
“I feel it all right,” I said. “There are no tracks, but he would be well-trained at hiding those anyway. He’s too good to have dropped his handkerchief. He’s playing with us.”
“I’ll get a couple of suits in here,” Stacy said, eyeing the terrain behind us. “If he is here, we’ll find him. I think we should get you a blaster to permanently carry—”
Stacy stopped talking as the earpiece squawked to life. I couldn’t make out what she was listening to, but I got the general sense of doom by the look of dread on her face.
“Yes, I understand, Iris, but isn’t that a good thing?” Stacy pressed her right hand to her ear. She looked at me with large eyes as she listened to what the Cognitive had to say. “Okay, I’m with Dean now. We’ll head back.”
“I don’t even want to know,” I said shaking my head. “Something tells me you’re going to tell me anyway.”
“Danger, Will Robinson,” Stacy said, jerking her head back to the Orion. “Doctor Wong got Iris’ long-range scanner up and working again. They’ve found something.”
I made my way back to the Orion with Stacy and Mutt. We traveled through the sideways elevator again to the bridge of the ship.
Arun, Elon, Iris, and Captain Harold were already present. Everyone in the room was waiting for Stacy and me to begin. Their eyes were grim. If Captain Harold and Arun held any animosity toward one another for the events that morning, neither of them showed it.
“There they are.” Iris nodded toward us with her ethereal blue glow. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt your date. The data we received once the long-range scanners were active required a meeting as soon as possible.”
“Uh, we weren’t on a date,” Stacy said, scrunching her nose as if she just smelled something bad.
“Definitely not a date,” I said as I tossed the crimson red handkerchief on top of the holo table.
Everyone stared at the item. I watched as realization touched their eyes.
“Where did you find this?” Elon asked, reaching for the cloth. He lifted it and frowned.
“It was in a copse of trees just outside the funeral ceremony,” I answered. “I think he was watching us.”
“No, he’s dead,” Arun said, searching everyone’s expression in the room for a consensus. “His portion of the Orion broke off upon descent. It had to have struck the ground like a meteor. He’s dead.”
“Just to be clear, who are we talking about? A Disciple?” Doctor Wong asked nervously, adjusting his glasses.
“We caught and imprisoned a Disciple on the Orion who was trying to sabotage the ship,” Elon explained. “He was in the cell block of the Orion that broke off when we crashed.”
“What are the odds that the wind blew the handkerchief in?” Stacy asked.
“The odds that an article of clothing from a portion of the ship twenty kilometers away could travel this close to our location in a matter of days are exactly zero point zero, zero, two, nine, nine percent,” Iris answered. “Otherwise, very unlikely.”
“Well, that’s a very exact number, Iris,” I said, understanding she would have to know where the cell block of the ship impacted on the planet to figure out that very complicated portion of math. “We know where the cell block of the ship landed?”
“Indeed, it’s about time we had some good news.” Iris smiled. She waved a hand over the holo table. A green planet appeared in front of us. “With my long-range sensors now active, I’m able to see half of the planet, where different escape ships and pods landed as well as where various sections of the ship ended up.”
We all watched as Iris zoomed in on the view of the planet in front of us. A miniature Orion showed up on the planet’s surface. All around and in sporadic intervals across the terrain, dots appeared labeled as “ship” or “pod”. My mind tried to calculate how many there were. There had to be hundreds of escape crafts dotting the landscape like some kind of disease.
Along with the markers on the map showing the location of escaped pods, there were other much larger chunks of debris of the actual Orion itself. Massive sections of the ship that had broken off during descent now showed on the holographic display.
“How many escape crafts are there?” Captain Harold asked.
“There are five more escape ships unaccounted for as well as over two hundred of the single and double escape pods,” Iris said, pointing to the larger portions of the Orion. “As far as I can tell from our long-range scanners, there are also two smaller portions of the Orion still somewhat intact.”
Iris moved her hands over the hologram, enhancing the view. She focused on the east side of the map to where the red mountains rose with their jagged edges. “The section of the ship holding the communication equipment landed here, while the section of the ship housing the prisoner cell block landed closer to the water to the west. There are other sections of the Orion scattered around, but these are the two that I can say landed intact, to some extent.”
“And were your long-range scanners able to detect any… alien activity?” Arun asked, pausing on the word as if she were having a difficult time speaking it into existence.
“No intelligent life that I can discern.” Iris shook her head. “No buildings either, except for those closed doors set into the mountain wall. I do have more information on the planet itself, however.”
Iris zoomed out of the close-up hologram of our section of the planet. A green ball, more of an oval instead of a perfectly round planet, met our eyes.
“Although I can only see half of the planet due to my scanners, I can mock up what the other half looks like based on the size and shape of our side. Lucky for us, this planet is rather small, almost the size of a moon.”
“Can you tell us where in the galaxy we are?” Stacy asked another of the many questions we all had.
“Unfortunately, no.” Iris gave a very human frown. “It’s something that has been bothering me for quite some time. I’ve run all the calculations, over and over again. I’ve noted the stars that appear in the night sky as well as the suns and where we might have fallen out of slip space. All I know for sure is that we are in an uncharted portion of the galaxy. If we are able to gather some of the communication equipment, I might be able to get a signal out for anyone searching for us to hear.”
“Iris, can we get that enhanced view of our location again, please?” Elon asked.
“Certainly,” Iris said. Her hands moved in a flurry as she enhanced the view of our side of the green holographic planet in front of us.
“I think it’s clear what we have to do,” Arun said, nodding toward all the ships and escape pod dots on the map. “There are people out there right now, lost, maybe hurt who need our help.”
“We could help more people if we were able to get to the communication section of the Orion and bring back the gear we need,” Captain Harold said, eyeing Arun. “That would not only allow us to send out a broadcast to anyone listening for us but also allow us to communicate with all the survivors on the planet. If they are alive and out there looking for the Orion, we could give them directions on where to find us.”
I didn’t really want a part of what was about to happen. I could see Arun’s eyes narrow as she considered Captain Harold’s words. She took a moment to think about what she was going to say before she continued.
“I see the wisdom in that plan, Captain Harold.” Arun surprised us all as she validated the captain’s plan. “Perhaps like before, we can focus on two goals at once.”
While Arun and the rest of those gathered worked out the details, I took a closer look at the map of the planet in front of us. The section of the Orion that Iris pointed out holding the prisoner cell block had crashed down on a beach area of the planet, northwest of our location. Just to the north of this was also where one of the five remaining escape ships had touched down.
I had to know for my own sanity if Maksim was still out there or if he had, in fact, died in the crash. I could hear his voice in my head calling me brother and grinning with that maniac-like look on his face.
“We’ll need to send two larger teams.” Captain Harold was already putting together the logistics of the trips. “One will go to the east, where the communication equipment landed in the mountains. The other will start with the crafts and secure any survivors who may be injured or lost.”
“I’m not sure if we’re going to have enough personnel for all of this.” Doctor Wong shook his head. “I mean, I don’t know how many more Civil Authority Officers we can spare to ensure the encampment is safe, not while there may be a Disciple in the shadows and an alien doorway only kilometers from us.”
“There has been absolutely zero activity from the doors,” Iris reminded us all. “My data points to a civilization that died out hundreds of years ago.”
“Be that as it may,” Captain Harold looked over at Arun and Elon, “I’d like to agree with the doctor on this one.”
“Really?” Doctor Wong looked surprised.
“The Civil Authority ranks are depleted. Getting new officers hasn’t exactly been easy,” Captain Harold said, looking over at Arun and me. “The ones we did get to join still need to be trained.”
“I’ll go, check on this escape ship, and while I’m out there, see for myself whether our Disciple friend died on the ship or is out here playing hide and seek,” I volunteered. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to sleep until Maksim was in the ground or in custody again, preferably in the ground.
“I’ll lead the second expedition to the communication section of the Orion,” Captain Harold said. “I’ll take volunteers and leave my Civil Authority Officers here to maintain order. Arun, they’ll answer to you.”
I wasn’t really sure if Mommy and Daddy were going to play nice after this morning, but it seemed like they buried the axe to some extent.
“I hate the idea of sending untrained civilians out there,” Arun said, shaking her head.
“We’ll only ask for volunteers that have some kind of wilderness or military experience,” Elon reassured her. “We’ll send them out in larger groups with at least a handful of trained survivors with them like Stacy and me.”
Arun eyed her brother. “I should have guessed you’d want to go. Even with that limp, huh?”
“It’s barely a limp at all anymore.” Elon grinned. “I’ve been cooped up in the Orion for too long. It’ll do me some good to get out.”
Arun slowly nodded. “Okay, we have our plan. One team led by Elon will go secure the escape ship on the west coast and check on the cell block section of the Orion. Captain Harold’s team will travel east to secure the communication equipment. We’ll need it to get the signal out here on this planet to any survivors as well as to the galaxy and anyone searching for us.”
Everyone in the room seemed to be in agreement. We were about to go our separate ways to prepare for our journeys when Iris called us back to the hologram.
“One other thing I wasn’t going to bring up because I’m not sure if it is an anomaly or something wrong with the system, but I feel like I should tell you just in case,” Iris said, enhancing the portion of the jungle area to the north of us. “There’s something large in the jungle, maybe more than one that keeps popping in and out of my scanners.”
“Wonderful,” I said. “I think we were running away from your mystery creature when we left the jungle. Whatever’s in there, it’s massive.”
“It would have to be to appear on my scanners at all,” Iris agreed. “Stay away from the jungle at all costs. Follow the coast when you go.”
“We will,” I said, looking at Elon. “Let’s go test out that new leg of yours.”
A call for volunteers was sent out amongst the survivors. To my surprise, more people were willing to come than I initially thought. I guess they were getting bored of tent life and working on the wall.
My group consisted of Elon, Stacy, Lou, Boss Creed, and three other survivors I didn’t yet know. Ricky was jonesing to join us, but as soon as Arun asked him to stay back because she needed a capable mechanic to help aboard the Orion, he couldn’t pull his name out of the running soon enough.
We were set to be off as soon as possible. I found myself waiting for the others in the cafeteria tent. We were supposed to meet there then depart after the noonday meal.
The food was simple but did the job of fueling our bodies. I was grateful to have any food at all. I didn’t know how the cooks or whoever it was getting the food was managing to work in a kitchen that was on its side in the Orion.
Part of me wanted to go back into the Orion and look to see how they had managed to right the equipment they needed. Instead, I focused on my chicken, vegetables, and roll.
I chose a seat close enough to the tent entrance to be able to see the others when they walked in. Lou was the first to arrive from our party. The bald man saw me and greeted me with a grin.
“Dean, it’s so good to see you,” he said, extending a hand.
I wasn’t sure why he was so happy to see me. We’d only spoken once and seen each other twice. Regardless, I gave the man a handshake.
“How’s it going, Lou?” I asked more out of politeness than really wondering how he was doing.
“Every day is a gift, my friend,” he said with a sigh as if he were actually thinking about all the things he had to be grateful for. “This place, this planet is full of energy and wonder.”
“It’s full of something all right,” I said around a mouthful of chicken.
“Oh, you must feel it,” Lou said, taking a seat next to me. “You must feel the magic that lives in this place. I don’t mean magic like witchcraft or sorcery, but you have to feel something. Wonder? Awe? A sense that we were always meant to be here? That something great is about to happen?”
“I feel like you should probably get some food in you,” I said, motioning with my head to the line of tables with the steaming midday meal. “We have a long hike to the first escape ship.”
“Oh, ye of little faith.” Lou still had that happy grin spread across his lips. His eyes twinkled with excitement. “I don’t know why we’re here yet, but there’s a purpose. You’ll see that in time. I know you will. This planet has great things in store for you.”
I was trying to figure out how to get out of the conversation when Stacy and the rest of our crew showed up. There had been a last-minute addition to our team. Doctor Allbright was going to be coming with us. If anyone in the escape ship we were headed to was injured, it would be helpful to have someone with us who knew what she was doing.
Boss Creed and the others brought backpacks full of supplies with them. He tossed one to me.
Soon we were all eating our meal together. The three other survivors I didn’t know introduced themselves as Mark and Hannah, a husband and wife team who wanted to do their part to help, and a middle-aged man named Tom with a ready smile and bulging belly.
They seemed kind enough and had their heads on right. Stacy selected them from the many volunteers who offered to join us. I trusted her judgment.
We sat in nine circled chairs, eating and getting to know one another. Stacy leaned forward with a data pad in her hands. Iris sent the information her long-range scanners picked up to us as well as the other team Captain Harold led. A short communication distance wouldn’t allow us to speak with the Orion, but we’d have the map pulled from the scanners.
“The trip to the escape ship should take two days if we push hard,” Stacy was explaining to the rest of the team. “We’ll need to cover fifteen kilometers a day, so if you don’t think you can do that, it’s better you bow out now.”
We all looked at one another. None of us moved.
“Good,” Stacy said, looking over to Tom. “Tom will be a great asset for us, as well as Mark and Hannah. Tom taught wilderness survival for over a decade. Mark and Hannah were both in the military before they retired to run their own business. We have a great group with us. We’ll move quickly, find the survivors, and be back in four days. Questions?”
I didn’t have any questions, but I did notice Stacy omitted the part where we were going to be traveling past the downed section of the Orion that held the prison cell block. As of this moment, only half of our group knew the real reason we were headed for this particular escape craft when there were four others we could have gone to.
“Do we know if the survivors on the escape ship are injured?” Hannah asked. “Have they been able to communicate with us at all?”
“Unfortunately, not,” Stacy answered. “The Orion’s communication ability is handicapped right now. It’s something we’re working on fixing.”
“So, the survivors could all be dead or even moved on from the ship trying to find us?” Mark asked.
“That’s a possibility,” Stacy answered. “We won’t know until we get there.”
“Weapons are on short supply, but I managed to procure a few rifles and a blaster for our trip,” Elon said, pulling a duffle bag forward from under his seat. He unzipped the bag, showing two dark grey pulse rifles and a heavy handheld blaster. “In addition to Stacy’s and my own blaster, we’ll be able to arm half our party.”
Elon passed a rifle to me.
I shook my head and motioned to our two military veterans. “I think we’ll be safer with our firepower in the hands of those trained to use them. I’m all thumbs these days.”
“I see your point,” Elon said, handing the weapons over to the husband and wife team. He gave the last blaster to Boss Creed.
“I don’t know.” Mark gave me an appreciative nod. “I saw the way you handled yourself in the cafeteria when they were beating on that woman. You look like you can handle yourself. What was that? Some kind of karate or Krav Maga?”
“A mixture of a few different fighting styles,” I said, moving the conversation along. “We should get started if we’re going to put in a few kilometers before dark.”
“My thoughts exactly,” Stacy agreed.
Plates, utensils, and cups were placed in a washbasin by the tent flaps as we exited into the heat of the noonday suns. Part of me wanted to ask Lou how the wondrously glorious heat felt radiating off his bald head, but I didn’t want to get into another long conversation with the man about how magical the planet was.
I shouldered my pack, which had to weigh a good forty pounds. The straps fit on my shoulder comfortably for the time being. We’d revisit that conversation once I’d been hiking all day.
“Food, water, knife, sleeping bag, and tent,” Boss Creed said, walking beside me. “I gave you the light one.”
“Always looking out for me,” I said, thinking about how far Boss Creed and I had come. He went from a foreman I never talked to, at a job I didn’t love, to someone I’d consider a friend and would look to when these harsh times became impossible.
These thoughts were taken from my mind at the sound of heavy hammering. The wall around the open side of the Orion was coming along quickly. A third of all the survivors were working on it now. Sheets of metal three stories tall acted as a barrier to secure our meager spot of land on the alien planet. Heavy beams on the inside of the wall were secured and acted to anchor the structure to the ground. A catwalk was taking shape higher up along the inside of the wall for lookouts to pace back and forth.
As far as I could tell, they were doing a heck of a job. Even my mechanic’s eyes couldn’t find any flaws in the way the wall was being built.
“By the time we come back, they may even finish this thing,” Tom said, joining us on the other side of Boss Creed. “They’re working like machines on that.”
“Fear can be one hell of a motivator,” Boss Creed said, eyeing the man who was sweating profusely already. “You said you were a wilderness survival expert?”
“Who me?” Tom asked. “Oh, right, yes. I worked in the civilian sector providing guided walks and trips for the rich and famous. You know, teaching them how to pitch a tent, start a fire, live off the land, and all of that.”
“Right,” Boss Creed said. “Well, I’m glad to have you with us on this trip. There’s no telling what we’re going to run into out here.”
“Be safe,” one of the workers on the wall called down to us.
“Bring them back home,” someone else said.
I found myself thinking over their well wishes somewhat surprised. Strangers didn’t really wish each other well anymore, at least not while we were back on Earth. Usually, when you passed by people you didn’t know, you either didn’t make eye contact at all or, if they turned in your direction, you just looked away.
It was obvious the crash of the Orion brought these people together in a way only going through a traumatic experience with someone else could. In that way maybe this colony did stand a chance.
Stacy and Elon led the way, using a smart pad to plot out our course. The husband and wife team of Mark and Hannah brought up the rear.
I got the lucky position of being stuck in the middle with Tom, Lou, Boss Creed, and Doctor Albright. The first two talked on and on, and the latter two seemed content to let them carry on the conversation.
Mutt decided to join us on this one, falling in line with us as we departed the supposed safety of the Orion. He stayed close to the group, sometimes going off to sniff a bush or piss on a tree but always within sight. It was as if he too understood we were going into uncharted territory and was wary of straying too far.
We walked until the hot suns disappeared over the horizon. Flashlights were distributed among the group as we prepared to make our camp in a wide clearing. The plan was to skirt the edge of the jungle and to make it to the ocean without pissing anything off that wanted to kill us. Once there, we would follow the beach up to the section of the Orion holding the prison cell block. From there, the escape ship would be just a couple of kilometers up the beach.
The stars across the night sky were breathtaking. We never got to see this many stars on Earth, and even when we escaped the lights of the city, they were never like this.
Mark and Hannah took the first watch, while the rest of us set up a meager camp and readied our dinner. I helped Elon erect the tents while the others worked on starting a fire and preparing the food.
“Your limp is almost completely gone,” I said to the Eternal. “How’s the pain level?”
“Manageable,” Elon said with an approving nod. He had shaved and straightened himself out since I had seen him in his semi-drunken state. He looked a lot better.
“We’re making good time. Although we’re out of range of communication with the Orion, I believe Captain Harold and his expedition team will be doing the same,” Elon said, back to his optimistic outlook on life. “We’ll figure this out, Dean. We’ll figure this out together.”
I was about to respond when the first scream cut through the cool night air.
We all looked at one another to make sure we weren’t imagining it. But how could we? The shriek was so loud, there was no way any of us had missed it. Like a fact we didn’t want to acknowledge, we came together, looking to Elon and Stacy for a plan of action.
The howl of unnatural agony came again. It was coming from the right of our encampment in the thick folds of the jungle foliage. The light of the stars and giant moon in the night sky made seeing anything in the dense jungle brush impossible.
My imagination was running away with me as I swore I saw a silhouette of trees transformed into nighttime monsters. Shadows from bushes turned into coiled alien snakes, and swaying leaves into slender alien monkeys that wanted to suck the eyes from our sockets.
“What is it?” Tom asked, aghast.
“Aliens or human?” Boss Creed asked.
“I don’t know, and I don’t intend on any of us finding out unless it comes out here,” Elon said, shaking his head. “I read the report of what happened last time an expeditionary force entered the jungle. We don’t need a repeat of that. We’ve skirted the jungle so far for a reason.”
“I agree,” Stacy said, keeping her eyes peeled on the jungle tree line where the intermittent screams were coming from. “There’s no way we need to go in after whatever that is.”
“It—it sounds like a tormented soul, nearly human or perhaps it used to be human,” Lou added.
“Comforting thoughts,” I said, scratching at the back of my neck. “So, what are we supposed to do? Pretend we don’t hear Casanova over there serenading us through the night?”
“Exactly,” Elon said, looking over at Mark and Hannah, who stood ready to aim their weapons at anything exiting the jungle interior. “We stand guard through the night in rotating shifts, two at a time.”
Mutt came and sat down next to me. He put his left forepaw on my right boot as if he were silently claiming me, telling me that I was his and I was under his protection.
I scratched the dog’s neck, feeling his soft gray and white fur against my calloused palm.
The rest of the night, including our shared meal, was miserable to say the least. Whenever a long pause would have us thinking it was the end of the macabre noise, another shriek would assault our ears. It never grew closer or farther, just stayed the same. Somewhere just out of sight.
“Still think this is a magical place, Padre?” I asked before I turned in for the night.
“Magic? Who said this place was magic?” Doctor Allbright asked from her seat around the fire.
“Maybe not magic, but special,” Lou said. He stared into the orange flames of the fire, his face painted in an eerie glow of yellow. “Something about this place is different, and I don’t mean it’s an alien planet. No one feels anything?”
Lou finally broke his gaze and looked up at us around the fire. I almost wanted to agree with him, he looked so desperate for an answer.
“I’ll bite,” Mark said, sitting at the edge of the fire with his wife. Boss Creed and Stacy were on watch. “During my time in the military, my unit entered a city. From the beginning, we knew something was off. I don’t mean dangerous off, although that was certainly a possibility—just different, somehow, special. There were birds that had no right to make that kind of climate their home, people were living to incredibly old ages, and the water, the water was so sweet.”
Hannah reached over and grasped her husband’s hand. She gave him a squeeze.
Mark was lost in thought. His eyes didn’t see the fire in our camp, the tents beyond, or even the jungle. He was back in that city with his unit.
“We found out from a local religious shaman that the city rested on a converging intersection of energy.” Mark licked his lips and continued his story. “I did some research once we got back. I guess there are running sources of energy that intersect across the Earth, on points that those crossing beams of energy meet, strange things happen. I mean, if you believe in all of that stuff.”
“But we’re not on Earth, unless…” Tom’s voice trailed off before coming back again. “Unless this entire planet is some meeting point for these energy paths that exist across the galaxy.”
“I’m not saying anyone is right or wrong,” Doctor Allbright chimed in. “However, none of this is validated. We’re only speculating here.”
“A lot of what we take as fact now was once speculation,” I said, mulling over the idea. “I don’t know if I believe all of this energy converging mumbo jumbo, but this place is pretty weird. It’s hard to argue against that. Whether it’s just normal alien planet weird or there’s something else going on here is yet to be seen.”
Heads nodded around the fire as everyone thought back to his or her own impressions of the planet we landed on so far.
“Hey, we don’t have a name for this place yet, do we?” Elon asked. The Eternal had been quiet while we spoke of the possibilities of the planet. “I mean, we don’t even know where in the galaxy we are, so we can’t say if this planet has even been named yet.”
“Are you saying we get to name a planet, right here, right now?” Tom asked, surprised.
“I don’t know if it’ll stick and how official this is, but we can make an unofficial name. Suggestions?” Elon asked.
At that exact moment, another shriek echoed from the jungle interior.
“No, we’re not calling it that,” Tom said back in the direction of the jungle.
We all got a chuckle out of that one.
“Something like ‘havoc’ or ‘mayhem’ would fit well,” Hannah suggested.
“Planet Mystery or Wonder,” Tom added.
“Planet X,” I said, looking into the fire.
All eyes turned to me.
“I was just throwing it out there,” I said, shrugging.
“We should all vote on a planet name once we get back to the Orion,” Elon said as another ear-piercing screech came from the jungle. “Well, I’m not sure if we’re going to be able to get any sleep, but we better try. We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow.”
Elon was right. I lay in my tent for the majority of the night, falling in and out of sleep thanks to the banshee at our doorstep. The thing never stopped either. After a handful of hours of broken sleep, Doctor Allbright woke me.
“Dean, it’s our watch,” the older woman said through the tent fabric. “Are you awake?”
“I’m up,” I said, thankful at the very least that the sleep I did get was uninterrupted by nightmares of my past.
I spent a few seconds pushing my feet into my boots. I slept in my clothes, so there wasn’t much to put on that I wasn’t already wearing. I zipped the flap to our tent open and headed out into the chill morning air.
Doctor Allbright motioned for me to follow and we both made our way just outside of our camp to where Tom and Lou stood guard. The early morning darkness was just giving way to the twin suns on the horizon. It was the time of morning when the sky was neither black nor yellow but rather grey.
There would be a few hours until the camp was ready to be broken down and we would move on. Tom handed me his rifle, grateful to be rid of it. Lou did the same to Doctor Allbright.
“Nothing to report, really,” Lou said, eyeing the area of the jungle where the latest screech came from. “There was one point in the night I thought I saw someone running through the jungle, a young girl. I can’t be sure, though. It was too dark. Once I used my flashlight, whatever I thought I saw was gone.”
“We’ll keep an eye out for it,” I said, placing the thick black strap on the rifle around my shoulder. “Get a little more sleep if you can.”
Lou nodded a tired head and moved back into the camp.
Tom followed close behind. The man looked dead on his feet. He limped when he walked as if he weren’t used to doing this much hiking.
“Anything seem a bit off to you about our new friend, Tom?” Doctor Allbright asked as we watched him go. “For someone who’s supposed to be trained to live in the wild, he didn’t look like he knew what he was doing yesterday when he was starting the fire.”
“It does seem strange,” I said with a shrug. “But, if an outdoor man having a hard time starting a fire is the worst of our issues, I’ll take it.”
“I hear you there.” Doctor Allbright craned her neck forward to look into the jungle interior. “What do you think it is? Lou said he thought he saw a little girl.”
“It sure doesn’t sound like any little girl I’ve ever heard of,” I said.
I hadn’t noticed, but Mutt followed me from where he lay outside my tent to where I stood with Doctor Allbright. The giant dog that looked more like a wolf lifted his nose to the morning air to get a sniff of his surroundings. He licked a pink tongue around his maw.
I thought he was onto something for a moment when he trotted off. A second later, he was squatting and defecating.
I moved my attention back to the jungle as another screech came again. I still couldn’t see anything.
Doctor Allbright and I spent the rest of our shift making small talk and going long stretches in comfortable silence.
The morning of our second day found us with our camp packed and eating breakfast on the road. It wasn’t more than water with protein bars and coffee, but I liked it well enough.
Two hours into our hike, we came across the first fallen escape pod. This wasn’t the craft marking our final destination, rather a smaller two-person escape pod, the same model Ricky and I used on our own trip down from the Orion.
Stacy and Boss Creed took the lead with their blasters out.
The terrain hadn’t changed much, still, grassy fields interspersed with a few trees or bushes here and there, and the jungle a half kilometer to our right.
The white pod was circular in shape with the escape hatch open. It looked like it had descended onto the planet as designed using its thrusters, then a landing bag before it touched down.
“Hello?” Stacy asked as she held her blaster in a two-handed grip, barrel down. “Hello, is anyone in there? We’re survivors from the Orion as well. We’re here to help.”
As we moved forward, I caught the stench of death before anything else.
Stacy held her left hand to her nose as she approached the pod. One look inside and she covered her entire mouth and nose. She turned away, shaking her head.
“You don’t want to look in there,” she gasped.
Boss Creed disobeyed her warning. I could see him nearly get sick as he too looked away and shook his head.
“What’s in there?” Doctor Allbright asked. “Does someone need medical attention?”
“No, they’re gone,” Stacy said, spitting on the ground beside her. She shrugged off her pack and used a shirt inside as a handkerchief around her nose and mouth. “We might need you to examine the bodies to confirm the cause of death, but they’re gone.”
The way Stacy was choosing her words made me understand something was very wrong. Curiosity won out, and I steeled myself as I walked forward to peek into the circular white escape pod.
What I saw I knew was no ordinary death.
Bile raced to my mouth. The stench was nearly impossible to bear. Two corpses sat facing one another. Both were unstrapped in their seats. One was slumped into the seat, his neck broken. His head hung off his shoulders like a drooping ear of a puppy. A knife was still firmly gripped in his right hand.
The dead man’s counterpart was a woman in her twenties. She had blonde hair pulled back. Black streaks ran just under her skin like new veins recently added. The veins ran outward from her mouth, eyes, and hands. I looked at the side of her head. More ran from her ears.
She was also slumped in her chair with multiple stab wounds in her chest and throat. I wasn’t a detective, but it didn’t take a specialized Civil Authority Officer to realize the two had killed each other.
Doctor Allbright appeared next to me with her own mask in place. Tom and Elon came next.
“Oh, Father, save us all,” Tom said before turning and puking out his guts on the ground beside me.
Lou, Boss Creed, Mark, and Hannah all seemed content to not look into the sphere.
“What was wrong with her?” Stacy asked, joining us. “What are those markings coming off of her mouth and ears?”
“It looks like dark ink coming through her veins,” Elon mused out loud.
“I don’t know what it is.” Doctor Allbright removed a small kit from a hip pocket. She gently lowered herself into the tight space between the two corpses.
I wasn’t the squeamish type, but even I had respect for Doctor Allbright at that moment. There was barely room enough for one other person to move around in the sphere with two bodies. I understood they were dead, but to be so close with the stench and death itself was a lot for anyone to handle.
To her credit, Doctor Allbright handled herself with an expertise I didn’t know she possessed. She placed light blue gloves on her hands and went to work examining the bodies.
“It looks like they killed one another. Judging by the bloat of the bodies and level of deterioration, I would guess that it was sometime in the last two to three days,” Doctor Allbright spoke to us as she maneuvered her way around the bodies. She gently examined the wounds, trying not to disturb the bodies at all. “Broken neck on one victim and blood loss on the other from multiple stab wounds.”
“How could they have only been dead for two to three days?” Elon asked no one in particular. “That means they landed and either stayed alive in the pod for a few days before killing one another or—”
“Or they landed, got out of the pod, and then came back for some reason,” Stacy finished the thought.
“Why would they come back?” I asked.
“Maybe there was something out there they were running from,” Stacy answered.
“I don’t know what this is,” Doctor Allbright said, examining the woman who had the black streaks coming from her mouth, eyes, and ears. “I could guess some kind of blood poisoning, but honestly, we’re dealing with an alien substance here so it could be anything. I’ll need to take a sample back to the Orion. With Iris’ help, we should be able to get a fairly good read on what it is.”
“Do it and let’s go,” Elon said, turning his head to take in a long pull of fresh air. “There’s nothing we can do for them now.”
I watched fascinated as Doctor Allbright removed a handful of plastic bags. Next, she began to gather the black residue from the dead woman’s corpse. Doctor Allbright swabbed her ears, nose, and hands.
The black liquidy substance reminding me of motor oil was most plentiful in her ears. Doctor Allbright was able to secure a large amount of the liquid there.
Stacy didn’t move inside the sphere as there was no room. She did, however, remove a pen-sized camera from one of her pockets, taking pictures of the scene.
“Whatever happened to this woman, whatever happened to both of them could happen again,” Elon said, thinking out loud the ramifications of such an event. “Doctor Allbright, how do we know whatever this is isn’t contagious?”
“We don’t,” Doctor Allbright answered. “However, the fact that the male body doesn’t have the same markings makes it improbable that whatever this virus is, is communicable through air or touch.”
She had a point. The dead man in his seat would have also had the black marks on his face and hands if the disease or virus or whatever it was transferred through the oxygen we breathed at the moment.
“Whatever that blackness is inside of her had to make her stronger, or she was a trained killer from the beginning,” I said, looking at the woman. She was average build and muscle tone.
“What do you mean?” Elon asked.
“That man’s broken neck,” Stacy said, catching on to my train of thought. “It looks like she did it with her hands. I don’t see any other weapon.”
“The trauma around his neck and marks would say the same,” Doctor Allbright said, finally finishing her task and removing herself from the sphere.
Elon and I reached inside to help her out.
“Like Dean said, she would either had to have been very strong to snap his neck or trained,” Stacy said.
We all took a minute to think over what we saw in front of us. The most disturbing part, even more so than the blackness coming from the woman, was the idea she had strangled him and broken his neck either while he was stabbing her or very soon thereafter.
“We should close the hatch and get going,” Stacy said.
Elon and I moved to obey.
“What was it?” Mark asked from his spot three meters from the pod. “I’ve seen enough death to last a lifetime. By the look on your faces, this wasn’t a natural event.”
“Two Transients killed each other in there,” Doctor Albright said bluntly. “One snapped the other’s neck and one stabbed the other to death. One of the corpses was infected with a foreign body. I won’t know for sure what it is until I can get back to the Orion to examine it.”
“So, what’s the plan?” Tom asked a little too eagerly. “We should head back, then, right? I mean, we should get going back to the Orion to figure out whatever it is.”
“No, we press on,” Elon said as he secured the hatch on the pod. He brought out his smart pad and looked at the map. “We move forward. Tomorrow, we’ll reach the escape ship we came for.”
Everyone seemed to understand.
Lou performed the sign of the cross over his torso then reached into his shirt to kiss a metal cross that hung from a chain around his neck.
His movement made me think of my own medallion that hung around my neck. I moved my right hand up to feel the cool metal in my hand. I looked down on what symbol I knew would be there. I’d seen it a thousand times before, two blades facing away from one another, a sword with a circle around the blade between them.
“What’s that?” Hannah asked as our expeditionary force moved on. “You religious?”
“No, it’s not that,” I said, showing her the circular medallion I wore around my neck. “It was a present from someone—from someone I used to know.”
“Sounds like it’s special to you.” Hannah smiled. “It’s important we keep memories like that close now more than ever.”
I nodded, and we moved on.
Throughout the day, we came across escape pod after escape pod. They were a mix of the one-and two-seater crafts. Unlike the one we had first discovered, these were empty. Their survivors had hopefully gone on to find one another and create some kind of group. There was safety in numbers.
Boss Creed was more silent than usual. I found myself walking behind him when Lou asked what was wrong.
“These people who landed in these crafts should have seen the smoke coming from the Orion,” Boss Creed answered. “Why didn’t they head there as fast as they could?”
“Maybe they couldn’t?” Lou worked through the idea out loud.
“Maybe they wanted to, but there was something blocking their path?”
“Maybe they tried and didn’t make it,” Tom added.
“Or maybe there was a reason for them to head in the opposite direction, like they saw something else,” Mark said.
“You guys ever read that story about Roanoke Island?” I asked.
Everyone looked at me, surprised. Even Stacy looked back at me with a raised eyebrow.
“What?” I asked. “I read.”
“Are you talking about that colony early on when Northern America was still being settled?” Elon asked. “I remember that story from grade school. There was a settlement of colonists left on Roanoke Island. The rest of the colonists departed to get help and supplies. When they came back, all the colonists were gone. No bodies, no answers, nothing.”
“So, you think we have a Roanoke Island on our hands?” Doctor Allbright asked.
“I don’t know what to think,” I said, motioning with my chin to yet another escape pod on the horizon. “I just know with this many escape pods dotted around the area, there had to be a dozen, maybe even two dozen survivors around.”
The group quieted as we all tried to work out the problem under the heat of the noonday sun. We took a brief rest for a lunchtime meal before heading out again.
The planet’s terrain was shifting now from meadows and the random tree or bush to open fields and the sound of waves splashing against the shore. The sound was the first thing reminding me of home this planet had to offer.
I’d grown up on the coast listening to the steady splashing of water as waves made an impact with the shoreline. For the briefest of moments, I was home again without a care in the world. I wished I could stay and enjoy that fleeting moment longer, but no such luck.
“What’s that?” Elon asked, pointing to a white sphere with red markings on it.
I couldn’t see what the red markings were. It was still too far away. Maybe words?
“Careful,” Stacy warned, reaching for her blaster again. “We have to be ready for anything.”
I moved forward, Mutt by my side. He wasn’t growling, so that was a good sign. I came upon Stacy and Elon, who led the group. Their weapons were drawn, ready to be discharged at a moment’s notice.
The white sphere in front of us sported red letters marked on the side of the circular windows placed on each side of the pod.
The crimson letters looked like they were written in dried blood. One word was clear as we approached. RUN.
I took a minute to study the area immediately around us. There was no other life. The only sound came from the waves in front of us and distant chirps from the alien birds resembling blue sparrows.
We all took a moment to gather our thoughts.
“Is that—is that blood?” Tom asked.
“Looks like it,” Doctor Allbright muttered.
I traded glances with Stacy. Her brow was knit in a line of worry.
“We should have brought more guns,” I said.
“We should have brought a militarized unit,” Stacy said, checking her blaster.
“We’re almost to the ship,” Elon reassured everyone. “ Just one more night. There are people there that need us.”
Yeah, one more night to the ship, but we’re about to find the section that broke off from the Orion holding the prison cell block, I thought to myself.
We pressed on as the suns began to descend until we reached the ocean and the mound of metal rising from the water like some ancient monument long forgotten. It kind of reminded me of some sort of interpretive art. I hated that stuff.
The ocean itself was brighter than the bluest water I could ever remember seeing. The waves glistened like magic in the sun. For the first time, I thought the view was beautiful. Maybe Lou was onto something. Maybe we had seen so much bad here, we needed to take a minute to see the good as well.
Alien birds winged through the sky. Here and there, sea life leaped and played in the water.
This section of the Orion was actually three or four levels of the ship that had broken apart and splashed down just inside the ocean’s borders. It stood there like a massive metal housing unit reaching from the water’s cold embrace.
“What’s that?” Tom asked.
“It’s a section of the Orion that broke off on descent,” Elon answered.
“We should search it,” Mark added. “There could be supplies we need, maybe even survivors on board.”
“I’ll go,” I said understanding what we were really looking for. “No need for everyone to possibly get hurt on there if it’s unstable.”
“Stacy and I will join you,” Elon said, already doling out instructions. “The rest of our force will take up a defensive position on the shore.
No one argued. I had a sneaking suspicion that if Hannah, Mark, or even Boss Creed really knew why we were searching the ship, they’d insist on coming as well.
We traveled up the beach, my boots sinking in the soft sand. A half kilometer to our right, the tree line of the jungle coaxed us in as if it were trying to apologize for its screaming during the night.
“We have a few hours before the suns set,” Stacy said as we drew up parallel with the metal hulk of the Orion. “Why doesn’t everyone who’s staying behind set up a camp on the beach. We’ll search this section of the Orion today. Tomorrow, we’ll make the last push for the escape ship. It should just be a few more kilometers to the north. Just inside of the jungle border.”
Everyone went to work setting up camp, while Stacy, Elon, and I prepared to enter the water and wade to the broken Orion.
Mutt came with me, looking at me and then the water and back again as if to say, “Really? You’re going in there?”
“I know,” I said, shaking my head. “I can’t believe it either.”
We waded into the warm, clear water as one, Stacy on my right and Elon on my left. We all kept on our boots and pants. Once we reached the Orion, we’d need the protection against exposed edges and the metal surfaces.
Stacy and Elon kept their weapons out and ready.
My eyes scanned the water in front of me for any sign of alien sea life. I half expected for some kind of hydra or kraken to grab us and pull us under. It seemed that the planet wanted to kill us and this would make sense. Lucky for us, we made it to the Orion undisturbed.
The only thing I saw was a school of silvery fish, each the size of my palm, lazily flailing through the water. If they took notice of us at all, they didn’t show it.
“It’s almost beautiful,” Stacy said, looking out over the water. “Like those pictures you see of tropical beaches, clear water, and white sand.”
“Big fan of the ocean?” I asked.
“I guess so,” Stacy answered. “I’ve never seen it in real life. I mean, I’ve never seen Earth’s ocean.”
“What?” I asked in disbelief. I never thought about the possibility of someone growing up never seeing an ocean before.
“There, we can ascend there,” Elon interrupted our conversation, pointing around the side of the Orion facing us.
We were looking at the exterior of the curved section of the Orion now. Just around the left corner, the familiar levels of the ship opened up. If the main section of what was left of the Orion back on dry ground looked like a cracked egg, this portion looked like a small section of the eggshell.
I said “small,” but in reality, it was still the size of half of a sports stadium. It was just relatively small for us compared to being in the actual ship when it was whole and now having half of it back on the planet.
Dark smoky edges and soot painted a section of the exterior as we turned the corner. The water was waist level on us now as it lapped higher and higher.
“It looks like there was a fire on board,” Stacy said, pointing to the dark smoke stains on the metal. “I don’t know if we’re going to find any survivors.”
Memories of Maksim and what he was capable of touched at my mind.
“Either way, be ready,” I said.
“I agree.” Elon gripped his blaster even tighter. “We know what Maksim can do. If he is still alive, he’s capable of anything.”
We turned the left corner of the exterior hull, climbing onto the first of three levels of the cell block section of the Orion. There were four intact levels total, but the first one was mostly submerged in ocean water.
I pulled myself up, feeling the weight of the added water that soaked my clothes. I gave a grunt but made it up despite carrying the extra water weight.
I reached behind me and offered a hand to Elon and Stacy. A few seconds later, we were all dripping wet on board the ruined Orion. There wasn’t much to see. To our left, the level fell away to the ocean. In front of us, the level continued on in a slight curve as it followed the shape of the ship.
Just like the exterior of the ship, the level was darkened with smoke stains and scorch marks. I couldn’t even tell what the level we were on had been before.
Elon looked down at his data pad. “We’re in a storage level now. The prisoner cell block should be one more level above us.”
I was going to suggest we look around for supplies since this was the storage level and all, but there was nothing here. Everything had either been destroyed in the fire or fell off into the water and was carried away.
“One more level up, then,” Stacy said, heading to the edge of the Orion and climbing up.
I followed behind, and Elon brought up the rear.
We were now two stories above the water. The level we were on already looked different from the open floor plan of the storage level below us. This one had cells set into the wall to our right.
Three meters to our left, the level fell away to the ocean once more.
The cells were also burned. The idea that the prisoners were burned alive invaded my thoughts. That would have been a hell of a way to go. Although, when I remembered that Maksim was trying to kill one hundred thousand people on board the Orion, I didn’t feel so bad anymore.
“Maksim was in cell zero, zero, two, and the Warlord thug who tried to kill Ricky when we first began our journey was held in cell zero, zero, one,” Elon informed us. He consulted his data pad one more time then looked up with a nod. “Let’s get some answers.”
I traveled down the line of cells to my right. There were only nine altogether. I guess whoever designed the Orion didn’t imagine more than nine people could get into much trouble in a planned six-week trip. Boy were they wrong.
All the cells were fashioned the same way, a small square room with a metal door and square peephole.
I looked into the flamed-out cells as we passed. All the doors were closed. From cells nine to three, we saw the same thing: empty rooms ravaged by fire.
I held my breath, looking into cell number zero, zero, two where Maksim would have been. Whether it was right or wrong, I hoped to god I saw a blackened corpse lying on the ground. The alternative was sure to cost more than a few lives.
Part of me already knew what I would find. Maksim was a survivor like I was. Maybe we were more alike than I wanted to admit. I looked into his cell. It was empty.
Stacy reached for the darkened metal knob and swung it open. The barrier that was trusted to keep the monster inside came open as easily as unscrewing a lid from a loosened can.
We all stared into the empty cell. There was nothing there besides the blackened soot that fire brought. How he managed to get out was a mystery to me, but apparently not Elon.
“I should have thought about this before,” Elon said under his breath. “The cells have a safety feature that if a fire is detected in the prison block, the doors are opened so they don’t burn alive.”
“Because we couldn’t have that,” I said.
“So, he’s out there,” Stacy answered back. “It was him you saw, Dean.”
“Arun is already taking every precaution,” Elon reassured us. “As soon as Dean brought back the news that Maksim might still be out there, we treated the situation like he was. This is only confirmation.”
“Should we see what’s behind door number one?” Stacy asked.
I nodded, going over to the next door. I was already mentally preparing myself for the next engagement with Maksim. It was as inevitable as a number one contender getting his championship match.
The next cell, unlike the first, held a dead body. The familiar form of the Warlord whose name I didn’t know lay on the ground of his burned-out room. His body was charred and blackened from the flames, which was strange if his door was set to open when Maksim’s did.
“Something’s wrong,” I said, trying to put my finger on what it was. Something itched at the back of my brain.
“What is it?” Elon asked.
“Well, let’s take a look at what happened here,” Stacy said, reaching for the door.
“No!” I screamed, trying to stop Stacy from opening the door at all.
It was too late.
Stacy opened the prison door in front of us. We heard a light click.
The last thing I remembered was being thrown into the air, the warm embrace of the water, and then my wife’s face.
“So, Jonny told me Mr. Dell paid you a visit. He wanted you to throw the fight.” Natalie came into the restroom area with concern in her eyes. “Jonny wants me to talk you into obeying.”
I turned from gazing in the mirror to looking at the woman my heart beat for. I was finding her more and more attractive as the years passed. I loved her now more than when I married her if that was possible.
She wore a black dress with high heels and a simple necklace with a bronze medallion around her slender neck. Her eyes sparkled mischievously.
“And what do you think?” I asked her.
“I think Jonny doesn’t know me very well if he thinks I’m going to take anyone’s side besides my husband’s,” Natalie answered. She took a step forward, closing the distance between us. “You’ve worked your entire life to get to this point. I’ve seen the literal blood and sweat you’ve poured into this. You’re not going to throw this fight. I’m not going to let you.”
I stood there admiring her for her strength. Natalie wasn’t petite or skinny by any means. She was only two inches shorter than I was and worked out with me a few times every week. Despite this, in that moment as she stared at me with the intensity of a Valkyrie, I wanted to protect her.
Whether she actually needed protecting or not was a different question. At that moment in time, every fiber in my body told me money, the belt, and the title all came second to the woman I loved and the woman who carried our child.
“It could be dangerous,” I told her. “I don’t know what Mr. Dell will do. Jonny thinks things could get violent.”
“Then we run together, we go to the Civil Authority, we do whatever needs to be done, but we don’t stand down from bullies. Not us,” Natalie said. “Never us.”
I couldn’t help but smile.
“What?” She raised her right eyebrow. I loved how she did that when I was in trouble.
“I basically said the same thing to Jonny,” I said, taking her into my arms. “I’m going to win tonight. I’m going to win for us, for our future, and for our child. We’ll figure out what comes next together.”
I pressed my lips against hers, losing all thought to the ecstasy the act brought. I released her faster than I would have liked. Her eyes were still closed when I took a step away.
“Keep kissing me like that, Mr. Slade, and we’re going to have another baby before you know it,” Natalie teased, opening her eyes.
“Ten minutes,” Jonny said, reentering the bathroom. “You able to talk some sense into him, Nat?”
“You chose the wrong woman for the job, Jonny,” Natalie said, looking at him with determined eyes. “I know you’re only looking out for us, and I love you for that, but tonight’s Dean’s night.”
“You want me to beg, is that it?” Jonny asked. “Don’t do this, Dean. Go down. Take a dive and live to fight another day.”
The crowd in the Coliseum erupted above us as the entrance music for my opponent blared out loud and clear.
“We got to get going,” I said, placing another kiss on Natalie’s soft lips before I prepared my mind for the violence to come. “Let’s do this.”
Jonny opened his mouth again, but I was already past him. The other trainers in the room who had no idea what Mr. Dell said were ready to go. They clapped me on the back, shouting words of encouragement. We walked from the locker room to the coliseum above.
The reigning champion was Jason “The Judge” Anspoc. He had a good reputation amongst fighters as a hard worker and a stand-up guy. Right now, he was walking out to some old school rock and roll.
I bounced up and down on my toes, blocking out every other idea in my mind besides the acts of savagery and brutality. Jason could have been a saint, but in the ring, we were enemies. That was all there was to it.
My trainers walked with me in a tight circle. The Coliseum security encompassed all of us in another layer of protection should the fans get unruly. Or even if they didn’t get unruly but excited to the point they wanted to reach out and touch me.
It was strange, the type of electricity a fight like this held. I could hear the fans roaring with anticipation as I ascended the steps to the floor level of the arena. The rock music died away, and my own came on.
I was also a fan of the old classics. AC/DC’s song TNT came on, blaring over the loudspeakers. The lights in the arena went out. I stood at the mouth of the Coliseum, about to enter the main floor. It was so loud now. Between the music and the screaming fans, I could barely hear myself think.
Flames erupted from the center of the pit. That was the cue to start our walk to the ring. My heart was pounding like a war drum as I made my way through the crowd, accompanied by my trainers and security staff. The lights in the Coliseum went on, revealing a packed stadium of yelling fans. I couldn’t pick out what they were saying outside of a few shouts like “Steel Hands! Steel Hands!”
We maneuvered through the crowd to the pit that wasn’t much more than a sand floor with a square cage on four ends. Jason was already in the ring. An announcer was holding a voice amplifier to his throat preparing to introduce us.
A referee dressed in yellow and blue stood ready to begin.
I wasn’t wearing anything besides my shorts. They were a simple design of black and red. I never understood why gladiators wore robes or clothes to the ring, only to disrobe right before they entered the pit. I came ready for a fight. I was always ready to fight. There was only one thing in my head at the moment: go.
I entered the pit with last-minute instructions from my coaches. I ignored Jonny’s stare, but I still heard his last words when my feet traveled from the cement floor to the sandy fighting floor.
“Don’t do it,” Jonny warned again. “Dean, please don’t do it.”
I ignored him, already staring my opponent down.
“In the far corner,” the announcer started in his golden voice, “your champion with a record of sixteen knockouts, ten submissions, and one loss, the master of disaster, the killer incarnate, Jason ‘Theeeee Juuuuudge’ Anspooooc!”
Screams ripped through the air. Cheers came in waves. All of it took a second seat to the focus I felt. I was generally a pretty happy guy, but in the pit, I was something else. The driving force that lived inside me was called upon to see me through to the end. I imagined it as a beast within. I chose when to let the beast out of his cage. That hour was here.
“The challenger in the near corner with an impressive record of twenty-seven recorded knockouts and zero losses is the Dean of Mean, the one who carries death in his hands, Dean ‘Steeeeeeel Hands’ Sllllllllllade!”
The crowd erupted again. It didn’t take much to get them going.
Again, I blocked it out of my mind. The announcer left the ring, giving me a nod in parting.
The referee looked over at Jason, who nodded before looking at me. I also gave him a jerk of my head. My eyes never left Jason.
The referee lifted his right hand into the air before dropping it dramatically. A bell rang, signaling the beginning of the fight.
I could barely hear the announcers from their booth. The fight would be broadcast on every major network.
I jogged to the middle of the pit. I bounced side-to-side, ready to move in any direction at a moment’s notice.
“Let’s make it look good,” Jason said as he met me in the middle of the pit.
He was larger than I was, a few inches taller, more muscle wrapped around his body, adding on an extra ten pounds or so.
“I’m not lying down on this one,” I told him, sending a light jab to the side of his body, then his face. I barely made contact. If I was going to win, I didn’t want any cheap shot to count. I wanted to beat the champion at his best.
A look of confusion swept over Jason’s face, then one of determination.
The fight was brutal. Jason was the reigning champion for a reason. Even not expecting to actually fight, he was a beast to handle. He knocked me down in the second round. I spat blood and got to my feet again. I knocked him down in the fourth, then again in the fifth. In the sixth, he didn’t get back up.
There were a lot of people smarter than I was, and there were a lot of people stronger too. But I didn’t know a lot of people who were more relentless than I was. I didn’t stay down. That was how I lived my life, that and the ferocity in Natalie’s eyes was what got me through the fight.
My memory of that night skipped forward, past the fight, past the belt being wrapped around my midsection and the celebration. The next thing my memory showed me was driving back to our house in the city. Natalie drove. I sat in the passenger side seat, a huge smile plastered on my bruised face.
I hadn’t broken any bones, but I was black and blue. A few days of recovery would see me in fighting shape again.
It was in the early hours of the morning when we finally got home. It was dark. We were both exhausted and drunk with happiness. Natalie clicked our automatic gate, and we pulled through our short driveway to our home.
“You were amazing in there, my love,” Natalie said, bringing the car to a stop and leaning over to give me a peck on my cheek. “You’ve always been my champion.”
I grinned, so happy and full of joy, I didn’t have words to express. We exited the vehicle. Walking to our front door, I didn’t see them waiting for us until it was too late. Two figures stepped out of the shadows of the house with heavy repeating blasters in their hands.
They wore black masks with openings for their eyes and mouth.
“Mr. Dell says you should have taken the dive,” one of the men said in a thick Hispanic accent.
That was it. They opened fire on us with their blasters.
BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM!
I threw myself in front of Natalie, but the thing about blaster rounds is they move a lot faster than a body. Red light streaked through the empty space between us. Pain erupted into my abdomen, shoulder, and leg.
I fell to the ground, gasping for breath.
I heard the men running from our home. I didn’t take the time to look over and see which way they went. Natalie was lying on the ground, shaking. A blaster round had hit her in the neck, another in the chest.
I crawled through the pool of my own blood to where she lay. She was clawing at her throat, trying in vain to stem the bleeding.
“Nat—Natalie, no, Natalie.” I could barely get the words out. Not because my own pain ravaged my body, but the dread of losing her and our child had taken hold. “No, Natalie, stay with me.”
I finally made my way over to her. I held her head in my lap.
“Help! Someone, help! Help us!” I lifted my head to the dark night sky and screamed. Only the stars were present to witness my plea.
Natalie’s throat was a smoking mess. Somehow, the necklace around her neck had managed to dodge the blaster round. I didn’t know what she was doing until she placed the medallion in my hand. She was trying to mouth something I couldn’t hear.
“I got it, I got it,” I said, taking the medallion she was so desperately trying to give me. “Hold on, Nat. You hold on. It’s your time to fight right now. You’re going to make it.”
Tears fell freely down my cheeks as I screamed for everything I was worth, hoping a neighbor, a passing car, anyone would hear me. “Help us! Please, help us!”
“You—you don’t give up,” Natalie said. I don’t know to this day how she got the words out. “You don’t give up when I’m gone. That’s not—that’s not us. That’s not who we are. They’ll need you.”
That was it. She was gone. They were both gone.
My lungs filled with warm water as I came to after the blast. I was so disoriented, I didn’t know which way was up. My lungs burned and panic set in. I looked all around, finally reorienting myself and seeing the light glistening off the surface of the water.
The last words my wife spoke to me echoed in my mind as I fought my way to the surface. My lungs felt like they were going to explode in my body. My mind was a foggy mess by the time I began swimming to the surface. Lucky for me, I was only a few feet from the top.
A furry mouth reached into the water. It grabbed a maw full of my shirt and drew me up the rest of the way. I gasped for air, sucking the much-needed oxygen into my lungs and the rest of my body.
Mutt growled and licked my face as if to ask if I was all right.
I wasn’t the world’s best swimmer, but it had been part of my training when I was a gladiator. It promoted overall muscle health and lung strength. I was able to tread water, even wearing my clothes.
The events surrounding how I came to be in the water collapsed on my mind. I looked up to people screaming on the beach and in the water.
“Something’s in the jungle!” Mark yelled over his shoulder.
“Stay back!” Boss Creed ordered. “Whoever you are, stay there. We’re here to help!”
More than anything, I wanted to look to the beach and try and figure out what was happening. I couldn’t afford even the few seconds I’d need to do that. Stacy’s body was floating in the water, her back to the sky overhead. Elon sat on the prison cell level, dazed. He had been the one farthest from the blast when we opened the door. Apparently, he had been thrown backward into the level while Stacy and I catapulted into the water.
I swam toward Stacy’s still body as fast as I could, the shouts from the beach still echoing in the back of my mind.
Come on, Stacy, come on. Not you too, I thought to myself as I crossed the distance between us. You’re all right. Just be all right.
I grabbed her with Mutt barking and swimming by my side. I flipped her over on her back. Her eyes were closed, wet lips not breathing.
“Here, bring her here,” Lou was halfway to us, already waist-high in the water.
More shouting came from the beach, someone’s voice I didn’t recognize.
“You fools! You idiots! We’re all dead now! That explosion will bring every single one of them here!”
“I’ve got her,” Lou said, reaching us at the same time my feet made contact with the sandy floor of the ocean.
“I don’t—I don’t think she’s breathing,” I gasped. “Hurry, get her on the beach.”
Together, the padre and I carried Stacy’s limp form to the beach. We placed her on her back.
Doctor Allbright was by our side a moment later. She checked Stacy’s pulse then listened for her breathing.
“Stay with her. I’ll get Elon,” Lou said, rushing off again.
Tom stood at the edge of the beach with his mouth open, his face a picture of shock.
I knelt next to Doctor Allbright, helpless as she performed chest compressions and CPR on Stacy.
More screaming erupted from the beach about ten meters away, right between the water line and the edge of the jungle. A man exited the jungle. A stranger, clearly a transient, but there was a look of wild fear in his eyes. He was the one yelling.
On the opposite side, Boss Creed, Hannah, and Mark leveled their blasters at him.
“They’re coming now, you idiots,” the man yelled with frustration. “They’re coming, and they’re going to kill us all. Why don’t you make more noise and tell the jungle monsters we’re out here too? Why don’t you just tell the whole damn world?”
I saw but didn’t fully comprehend what was happening at the beach. My focus was on Stacy.
“Is there something I can do?” I asked, hating the feeling of sitting by and not being able to do anything to help someone I had begun to care for.
“Chest compressions, one hand over the other, here.” Doctor Allbright showed me. She placed her hands on Stacy’s chest and gave a brief compression. “Like this. Give me thirty and then let me breathe into her.”
My hands shook as I counted to thirty out loud and provided the needed compressions. Flashbacks of Natalie dying in my arms wavered in and out of my mind as I counted along with the compressions.
“One, two, three…” I rattled off. “Don’t you die on me too, Stacy. You come back. You come back. You’re not allowed to leave!”
“They’re coming!” The lunatic from the jungle fell to his knees in the sand sobbing. “And hell’s coming with them.”
“Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen…” I continued on.
Stacy’s body felt cold and lifeless under my hands. There was no way in hell I was giving up on her. I just wondered if she was there at all to keep fighting.
“What are you talking about?” Mark shouted. “Keep your hands where we can see them. Who’s coming?”
The man who came from the jungle was performing a laughing kind of sob as the first shriek echoed from the jungle interior. First just one, then more and more screams added to the call as if a hundred voices rose together at once answering Mark’s question.
“Twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty,” I said, resting back on my knees to let Doctor Allbright lean in and perform mouth to mouth.
The doctor tilted Stacy’s head back and made sure the airway was clear. She pressed her lips around Stacy’s and blew twice.
“Again.” Doctor Allbright’s voice was firm and commanding despite the circumstance we found ourselves in.
“One, two, three…” I said. On the third compression, Stacy trembled. Coughing, she spat up a lungful of ocean water.
“There you are,” I said, rolling her onto her side so she could expel the water from her lungs without fear of choking on it again.
“I found Elon!” Lou shouted from his place on the Orion. “He’s breathing, but I could use a hand.”
“Stay with her,” Doctor Allbright ordered and ran off to assist.
“What—what happened?” Stacy panted, sucking in the oxygen she so desperately needed. “Did I—did I die?”
“You’re all right,” I told her, pushing my long hair from my eyes. “You’re okay. You’re going to be okay.”
There were so many shrieks coming from the jungle, it was hard to talk. They were still distant but growing both in quantity and volume as they approached.
“My blaster, I lost my blaster somewhere in the water,” Stacy said, fighting her way to her feet to try and take in the scene unfolding around us. Stacy directed her attention at the man laughing and crying in the sand. “Who are you?”
For the first time, I was able to give him my full attention. His hair was greying, and he wore some kind of armored suit designed for walking outside the hull of the Orion while in space, or that was what it looked like. His face was filthy. Hair askew, trails of tears cutting through the dirt on his cheeks.
“Who are you?” Stacy demanded, joining Boss Creed, Mark, and Hannah, who trained their weapons on him.
“My name’s David. I’ve been running from the infected since we landed on this hell hole,” David said, leaning back to sit on the sand like a child who had given up. “I managed to survive against all odds. Even found this suit of armor in a crashed section of the Orion in the jungle. I even managed to escape the monsters in the jungle. Then you people show up. Set off an explosion to tell the entire infected population where we are and now, I’ll tell you where we all are, we’re dead.”
The entire time David was speaking, the frantic shrieks and howls in the jungle came closer. I caught movement in the woods behind David. Not just one person—a hundred, a thousand running bodies.
“We need to get to high ground,” Hannah warned.
“Too late,” Mark said as we caught sight of the first howling maniac to emerge from the jungle.
It looked exactly like the woman we had seen in the pod. The one who had strangled the man in front of her. This person who exited the jungle, if you could still call it a person at all, had the same black veins coming from his mouth and eyes. His shirt was ripped in a dozen different places, showing black lines crisscrossing his body. His hair was falling out in clumps.
“Stand down!” Boss Creed yelled at the maniac. “Don’t come any closer!”
It was obvious the crazed man wasn’t going to obey. He did talk, however, and that was more than I expected.
“No!” he yelled through broken teeth. “No! Get off our planet!”
With that war cry, he shrieked again and ran at David’s back with extended arms.
“I’m going to take him,” Mark said, half in permission, half as a statement.
“Do it,” Stacy answered.
Whatever branch of the military Mark had been in taught him how to shoot. A single red laser blast shot forward, catching the running man in the chest. He fell with a smoking hole in the center of his body, blood oozing over his charred flesh where the impact of the round hit him.
“Get up, you moron, and get behind us,” Stacy yelled to David. “We have a chance here! Get up!”
I’m not sure if it was the force in Stacy’s words or seeing that we had a trained marksman and weapons with us that changed David’s mind. Whatever it was, he actually did struggle to his feet and began to run toward us.
“More inbound!” Hannah yelled as an entire mob of the crazed Transients exited the jungle.
Whatever happened to them between landing and now had to wait to be explained. Right now, we needed to focus on survival.
Mutt was barking beside me. Hannah, Mark, and Boss Creed opened up, sending bright red beams into the oncoming horde of infected transients.
They charged us en masse. There was no way we were going to get out of this alive. Maybe with a dozen blasters on our side, but not with three. I looked around, desperate to get into the fight. The sandy beach was littered with small stones and random pieces of driftwood here and there.
Blasters roared behind me, minglinging with the shrieks of the infected as I spotted a piece of driftwood to use as a weapon. I ran to it, grabbing the solid piece of wood. About a meter in length and slightly curved, it was notched on the top like a hammer or hatchet.
“Fall back!” Stacy ordered. “Fall back to the Orion!”
I turned in time to see the impossible. Mark, Hannah, and Boss Creed were laying into the enemy, dwindling their numbers, but there were just too many of them. Every single round of their blasters seemed to find a target. Still, the infected came howling their manic war cries.
David made it behind our lines a second before I joined the group.
Already our expedition members were beginning to back into the water. The crazed Transients were already on top of them. They were close enough for me to lay into. I positioned myself on our right flank and prepared to do what I did best.
The first unlucky one to find my tomahawk-sized club was an older man with a balding head and a limp. He screamed something at me I didn’t understand before lunging with open hands aimed at my throat.
He never got the chance to touch me. I brought my weapon sideways, landing a blow on the left side of his head that would be enough to give him a concussion, maybe even splinter his skull.
The infected Transient went limp in front of me. Whatever was wrong with them, it was comforting to know they went down with a swift blow to the head like any other normal human.
I was surprised to find myself grateful. A tiny voice in the back of my head had been telling me stories of zombies, that they were out to eat my flesh, that they wouldn’t be put down.
The second and third came at me. I decided to further test the limits of these infected people.
I struck out at the next one with a boot to the chest. I heard a crunch as my foot made contact with his sternum. The infected went down on impact. The next was a younger teen raving about me getting off of his planet.
I took out his knees with my club, then the next one and the one after that. I didn’t think about my moves. I just reacted. Spinning this way and that, I used my body as a weapon. The club in my hands was just an extension of me. My hair flew wildly all around me as I struck out, crushing the infected.
Before Natalie’s death, I wasn’t an angry person. Even when I got into the pit, I didn’t hate my opponent. They were just an obstacle, a day at the office at a job I loved.
I wasn’t angry then, but I did channel anger to use as a driving force. Flash forward years later on the beach of an alien planet, and I was angry. I channeled that anger in my blows and used it as fuel for my actions.
I thought about Natalie, Mr. Dell, the thugs who killed her. I fed off my anger and my frustration. I thought about Stacy nearly dying, Maksim loose on the island somewhere, of Ira dying for no other reason than the planet was filled with horrific creatures.
Over and over again, I cracked skulls, broke bones, and put these maniacs down for good.
“Dean! Get back to the Orion!” Stacy yelled.
By the tone of her voice, I knew she had been yelling at me for a while now. My arms felt like they had lead in them instead of blood. My lungs burned almost as bad as when I was drowning in the water.
I looked back for a second to see that I was the only one on the beach. The rest of the team had retreated, still shooting from the water. They were waist deep and about to ascend the platform to get into the Orion.
Stacy had her knife out, impaling one of the infected through the eye. Boss Creed, Hannah, and Mark fired rounds into the enemy like red hail falling from a particularly deadly storm.
My look back cost me. A hand grabbed me around my right arm, which held my club, and another infected tackled me to the ground. The air was knocked out of me as I fell backward.
You knew better than that, I told myself. Never take your eyes off the opponent.
I released my hold on my club, deciding to deal with the one on top of me first. An older woman clawed at my throat trying to find a solid hold before squeezing the life out of me.
A white and grey blur crashed into her, taking her own throat in his jaws and ripping outward. Mutt hit that infected bat like a bulldozer.
One moment she was on top of me trying to end my life, the next she was getting hers ended for her, courtesy of my four-legged friend.
I’ve really got to be nicer to him, I thought to myself as I regained my feet and fell back deeper into the water with the others. Get him a bone or something.
My eyes stayed on Mutt as he finished his kill. If the infected went for him next, I was prepared to throw myself back into the beach to get him out of there. As silly as it sounded, he was my friend now too. I wasn’t going to abandon him when he refused to do the same for me.
Strangely, the infected had no desire to go after Mutt despite the fact that he was tearing through them like a buzzsaw. Not only that, their eyes didn’t even stray to him. It was like he was of so little interest, he didn’t even deserve a second look.
“Go, get up,” Mark was yelling to his wife and the others to ascend the side of the submerged section of the Orion. “I’ll cover you.”
David and Tom were first, followed by Boss Creed and Stacy.
“I’m out!” Boss Creed yelled as he assumed a firing stance on the second level of the Orion, where the cell block was located
“I got it,” Mark yelled to Hannah and me. “I’ll cover you! Go!”
Hannah gave him a fierce kiss and climbed the edge of the Orion. I was next. I’ll never forget the pause in the fight, the moment where Mark’s weapon clicked dry.
I looked down, preparing to go back. I saw a particularly large infected Transient grab Mark around the head and twist. Two others grabbed his arms, preventing him from fighting back.
He sank into the water, never to rise again.
“No!” Hannah’s scream was one I knew well. The sound of complete and utter heartbreak.
“Don’t!” Stacy and Lou were holding Hannah back as I reached the second level of the Orion. “Hannah, he’s gone. I know it’s hard, but he’s gone.”
Hannah wasn’t going to take no for an answer. I didn’t blame her. I wouldn’t have either.
“Let me go. I’m going after him!” Hannah screamed, leveling the last working blaster at the rest of us.
I was the last to ascend the side of the ripped-open Orion. I looked behind me to see the first infected reach the edge of the Orion and begin to climb. There were still so many of them crowding the water and the beach.
“He’s gone,” Lou said as Hannah passed him on the way to edge. “Hannah, he’s gone. What would he want you to do right now?”
Hannah was beyond words. Tears streaked from her eyes as she reached me and the edge. I knew what she was going to do. She was going to do what I would have done. Go down swinging and take as many of the infected with her as she could.
I rested my arms at my side as unthreatening as I could be. I took a step back from her as if I were going to let her pass. As soon as she turned her eyes and the barrel of her weapon from me, I acted.
I snapped forward in a single motion, knocking her grip free of the blaster. I took a step behind her and placed as gentle a headlock on her as I could manage.
She was sobbing now. I pulled her back and sat down with her in my arms.
Boss Creed sprang forward, grabbing the blaster. Along with Stacy, the two defended the side of the Orion the infected were ascending. Lucky for us, the side of the blasted-out level the infected climbed was only large enough for one, maybe two to very awkwardly climb.
Boss Creed saved the rounds now, striking out with the butt of his weapon, while Stacy used her knife to fend off infected after infected.
I held on to Hannah, who only halfheartedly struggled. The realization of the death of her husband was setting in now, along with shock. Her entire body shook with grief. I made sure my grip around her was only firm, not choking.
“I know,” I told her as she cried. “I know exactly how you feel.”
Pep talks weren’t really my strength. In that moment, I wished I had more to say, better words to comfort her, but I didn’t. When I realized she wasn’t going anywhere, I released my hold. Doctor Allbright came over to comfort her along with Lou. The padre looked at me with mournful eyes.
I wanted to ask him how special his planet was now. I wanted to remind him of the magical energy running through the galaxy that converged here to be so wondrous. Maybe I would another time. Maybe I never would.
I passed Elon, who rested against the side of the cell level with a bandage on his head. He looked at me grimly.
“Concussion,” he said, pointing to his head. “I’ll be fine. I lost my blaster in the explosion.”
I nodded, making my way to the edge of the level, where Boss Creed and Stacy looked down on the infected. The infected Transients were smarter than they first appeared. That fact alone sent another chill down my spine. Their ascent had been brief. With Boss Creed and Stacy raining blows down on them, they lost another handful of their number before they realized this tactic was useless.
If they were going to kill us all, they would have to do it another way. The infected retreated as if a single hive mind had them under its control. There were still hundreds of them lining the water around us and the beach.
For the moment, they remained content to let us be. Whether they were thinking of how to get us or something else was yet to be seen. All I knew was that we had a moment of rest.
The suns in the sky were already setting. The bottoms of the yellow and orange globes touched the edge of the horizon. We had an hour of daylight left. Maybe less.
“We have any flashlights or a fire starter?” I asked, motioning to the setting suns. “I’m not sure what our friends on the beach are waiting for, but if I were them, I’d come at us again at night.”
“I’ve got a flashlight,” Boss Creed said, reaching into the side pocket of his cargo pants.
“Me too,” David said, extending a small handheld device from the belt around the suit of heavy blaster armor he wore.
“I need to know everything you know,” Stacy said almost angrily as she stalked toward David. “What the hell are those things on the beach, because they sure aren’t human.”
David allowed Stacy to tower over him without standing to meet her onslaught. He shook his head, gathering his thoughts. “I still don’t exactly know. None of it makes sense.”
“Tell us what you’ve seen, please,” Elon said.
David nodded slowly and began weaving a tale I would never believe had we been anywhere else.
“I landed in a single escape pod when the Orion went down. I disembarked in a grassy field with the jungle on my left, the ocean behind me, and the bulk of the crashed Orion in the distance. I decided to travel through the edge of the jungle for cover.” David paused here to lick at dry lips. “That was the worst mistake I ever made. I came across another escape pod. It must have landed just after mine. A woman was climbing out. She fell in a bush of some kind of black plant I’ve never seen. Before I could call out to her, she started coughing and gagging. Some kind of pollen was coming from the plant she fell into.”
David stopped again, this time not to lick his lips, but to think back on the horrific sight he had been privy to. No one rushed him as he thought about the implications of his next words.
“By the time I had gotten to her, she was already showing those black marks on her eyes,” David continued. “That’s where they start first. She was hysterical and violent. She chased me into the jungle and I’ve been hiding there, living day to day ever since. I found a stockpile of armor that must have fallen from the Orion on impact. It was still in its crate. I put it on, thinking it would protect me somehow, but, well, you see how useless it’s been. I’ve survived this long by staying quiet and out of sight. When the explosion went off here, I knew we were done. You’ve managed to grab the attention of every infected in the jungle.”
“You said there were bushes that let off the spores?” Elon was the first to find his voice. “What did they look like?”
“Kind of like a moldy, black cauliflower that’s soft,” David answered. “It’s spread out all over the jungle. I would have stepped in it unknowingly a dozen times if I didn’t know what I was looking for.”
“They can still talk when they’re infected with whatever this thing is?” Lou asked. “They’re not mindless, it seems.”
“Oh yeah, not mindless. Just freaking crazy and violent,” David answered. “I’m not sure what that alien pollen does to them once it’s in their system, but it messes with their minds to the extent they can’t think straight. I’ve heard them talking to one another like you and I are talking now. Other times, they’re shrieking in the jungle like banshees.”
“We’re not going to get out of here alive. He’s right,” Tom said, rocking himself back and forth. There was a one-hundred-mile stare in his eyes as he got deeper and deeper into his own head. “We’re all going to die here. I should have never come. I should have never come.”
“Hey, we don’t need to hear any of that talk right now,” Boss Creed said with a frown. “You’re a survivor specialist. Start acting like one.”
“But I’m not,” Tom said, shaking his head. “I just said that so I could go on this excursion with you. I thought we were going to find some Transients and then head back, all done in a few days. I lied to come along. I just wanted to be the hero for once. I just wanted to help. I don’t belong here.”
“You lied about what you did for a living?” Stacy clenched her hands into fists.
I half thought she was going to move over to Tom and give him the beating of a lifetime. I wasn’t going to stop her. In fact, I couldn’t say I was wholly surprised by Tom’s revelation. He never struck me as the hardcore live-off-the-Earth kind of guy.
“Wonderful, freaking perfect.” Stacy set her jaw, stopping herself from saying more. As frustrated as she was, she understood the only way we were going to get out of this thing was with one another working together.
“Food and the rest of our supplies are on the beach,” I said out loud, already thinking about our options. “We’ve got a single rifle with a handful of rounds left, two flashlights, and a knife.”
Mutt barked from the beach, where he had taken up a position apart from the infected.
“Oh, and a Mutt,” I said with a smile on my lips. “I’ll take those odds.”
“How are you smiling at a time like this?” Tom asked.
“What other option do we have?” I asked. “I’m not going to lie down and die. That’s not who I am. That’s not who we are. We’ll figure this out. Mark didn’t sacrifice himself for us to give up now.”
I said this last part looking over at Hannah. Doctor Allbright and Lou were still with her. At the mention of her husband’s name, she looked up at me. Her red eyes could have bored holes through me. Instead of anger or tears, she gave me a resolute stare and nodded along with my words.
“There has to be hundreds of them,” Elon said, already working out a plan. “A head-on fight isn’t going to get us anywhere. We need a diversion or a way to sneak past them.”
“Maybe both,” Boss Creed said.
“What’s above this level?” I asked. “I know below us was a storage level and it’s pretty much been emptied by the crash, but what’s in the level above us?”
Elon thought a moment, trying to remember the schematics from when the Orion was whole.
“I don’t remember,” Elon said with a shrug. “I lost the data pad along with my blaster in the explosion.”
“I think it’s just another storage level,” Boss Creed said, searching back into his memory. “Maybe work supplies. I doubt any of it would still be there after the crash.”
“Only one way we’re going to find out,” Stacy said, motioning to me with her chin. “Let’s go check it out.”
“The rest of us will keep watch on the infected,” Elon said. “We’ll call to you if there’s any movement.”
“Be careful,” Boss Creed said, handing me his flashlight.
“Will do,” I said, taking the flashlight. I placed it in between my teeth as I scaled the side of the Orion.
The oncoming darkness didn’t help. The edges of the Orion were sharp and curved, footing from our soaked-through boots was slippery. After a few minutes of slowly ascending the edge of the Orion, Stacy and I made it to the next level.
This one was the third and uppermost level to have remained intact in this section of the Orion. Boss Creed was right. It was another storage level. The black crates that were strapped onto the sides of the wall had mostly been ripped from the level upon descent. There were two black crates left intact still held on to by the straps anchored into the wall. Stacy and I headed for those to see what was inside.
“Hey,” Stacy said. Something in her voice stopped me in my tracks. I gave her my full attention.
“Yeah?” I asked.
“I uh, I just wanted to say thank you for saving my life.” Stacy held my eye. “I’m not trying to get all mushy on you here, Slade. Just in case we get our necks broken by alien spore-infected colonists, I wanted to say I’m glad you got stuck on this insane planet with me.”
“Well, Stacy,” I grinned, “I think that might be the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.”
“You need better friends,” Stacy commented as we headed over to the first of the two crates.
“Naw, I got Mutt now. He likes me,” I said.
“You’ve got a lot more friends than Mutt now,” Stacy said as she unstrapped the heavy fabric holding the black crate in place. “I hope you know that.”
“Now who’s getting mushy?” I asked.
We opened the first black crate. I shined the flashlight down on the contents, not really knowing what we were going to find. It was a power core for a rover. Rovers were small four-wheeled vehicles on board the Orion. They were going to be used as transportation for when we made it to Kronos Five. We all knew how that went.
“What is it?” Stacy asked, looking at the strangely shaped power unit and the cables running from it.
“It’s a power unit for a rover,” I explained to her. “Not going to do us any good here.”
“I guess asking for a crate of blasters was a little too much, huh?” Stacy asked.
“Yeah, that or a plate of sandwiches,” I said, patting my stomach.
“How can you think of food at a time like this?” Stacy asked.
“How can you not?” I answered.
We moved on down the level toward the last crate. Like the first, we unstrapped it from the wall and cracked it open. This one held twelve Lestrium canisters. Unlike the contents of the first crate, Stacy and I both knew what Lestrium was.
Lestrium was a fuel source. Highly combustible, Lestrium was stored in the canisters for use in the new colony. It would provide the fuel for everything we needed from cooking to heating.
“Hey, can we do something with this?” Stacy asked. Hope filled her words. “Won’t these explode if we were to puncture the outer casing?”
“Sure will,” I said, running through the possible scenarios in my mind of how we could best use them. “I think I might have an idea.”
Stacy screwed up her face as if she had just smelled Mutt’s hindquarters.
“What?” I asked.
“Well, no offense, but you’re really not the idea guy,” Stacy explained. “You’re like the guy who we have execute the idea.”
“Just because you say ‘no offense’ doesn’t mean you can just say anything you want after that,” I said.
“Fair enough,” Stacy said, closing the crate lid. “Let’s get this crate down to the others below. You can tell us all your genius plan then.”
We worked in silence, carrying the crate to the edge of the level.
“Coming down,” I whispered to Boss Creed and Elon below. “We found a crate of Lestrium.”
“You found a case of what?” Elon asked too loud.
“Shhh…” Stacy warned. “I’m not sure if the infected are listening or if they can even hear us, but let’s keep this to ourselves.”
“Right,” Elon whispered back in an excited tone. “Did you say Lestrium?”
“Yep, an entire case,” I said as Stacy and I tipped the end of the black crate over the edge. It was heavy but not impossible to maneuver. We released our end of the crate when we felt Boss Creed and Elon tugging on their end below.
A few minutes later, we were reunited once again on the second level.
All was quiet on the beach, almost eerily so. The only thing we could hear was the gentle lapping of the water. The stars, along with an impossibly large blue moon overhead, made it bright enough to see without our flashlights. We used them anyway as everyone on the level crowded around the crate to see what we scavenged.
“Holy Toledo,” David said when we opened the crate. “Is that what I think it is?”
“If you think it’s our ticket out of here, then yes,” I answered back. My time as a mechanic taught me how flammable Lestrium was. We generally stayed away from the stuff unless we used it in minor dosages for our cutting torches.
“Was there anything else on the level?” Doctor Allbright asked. “Anything we could use?”
“Nothing,” Stacy said. “Well, I mean there was this power core thing, but it’s not going to do us any good without a rover.”
“A rover?” David asked. “Would it work to power a crawler?”
The way he asked the question made me think he had seen a crawler recently. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one.
“Why would you ask that question?” Elon looked at David. “Have you seen a crawler here on the planet? Did one survive the crash?”
I looked over at David with everyone else. A crawler could be our ticket out of here if David knew where there was one in the jungle. Much larger than its rover counterpart, a crawler was used to transport not only people over short distances but equipment as well. If a rover was a golf cart, a crawler was a flatbed truck.
“Answer the question, David,” I said, staring at him intently. “Do you know where a crawler is in the jungle?”
“Yeah, there’s one still in its drop container.” David hurriedly explained the rest before someone throat punched him for omitting this vital piece of information. “I didn’t say anything about it because it’s dead. I didn’t think it would matter.”
I caught Boss Creed’s eye in the dark. We were both thinking the same thing. As the two mechanics on the expedition, it would be up to us to get the crawler working if we could.
“You think we can squeeze enough juice out of the rover power core to charge a crawler?” Boss Creed asked. “The better question is can we do it with no tools.”
“There’s only one way to find out,” I answered. “I think I have an idea everyone is going to like.”
“I hate that idea,” Stacy said after I explained my plan.
“I have to agree with Stacy on this one.” Elon shook his head. “I’m not a fan either.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked with a raised eyebrow. “It’s a solid plan. I’m the one most qualified to go up against a horde of these infected more than anyone here. I’ll buy you all some time and meet you in the jungle next to the crawler and crate of armor David found. Just be ready once I get there because I’m going to have a few angry—well, whatever we’re calling these infected now.”
“You don’t have to sacrifice yourself for us, Dean,” Lou said, solemnly.
“Who said anything about sacrificing?” I asked with wide eyes. “Do I really put out the suicidal vibe that strong?”
“I just met you, and I’d have to say yes, you kinda do,” David answered.
The cat was already out of the bag with my display at the tent. Everyone here besides maybe David knew that whatever my past entailed, I was a trained fighter. Maybe, in this case, it would be okay to stop running from who I was, just for once.
“Who else here holds the record of twenty-eight knockouts? Who else here has over a decade of training under their belt at putting people down and making sure they stay down? Who else here—”
“We get the point,” Boss Creed interrupted. “You’re one bad man. But I doubt whoever trained you taught you how to fend off an entire crowd of hostiles. This isn’t going to be a fair fight.”
“Who said anything about fighting fair?” I asked, tapping the crate in front of me holding the Lestrium. “I’m going in guns blazing. One of the mechanics back on Earth used to make a show of using this stuff as a flamethrower. I can fashion something with what we have here and that last blaster.”
Boss Creed actually began to buy into the plan. He nodded solemnly.
“He has a point.” Doctor Allbright shrugged. “I would volunteer to make the distraction, but Dean has more experience than all of us combined. If it comes down to someone fighting their way out, it’s Dean, hands down.”
“I’ll let him do it,” Tom said, trying not to sound too eager.
We all stopped to stare at him for a moment.
“What?” Tom withered under our gazes. “He said he wanted to.”
“We can create a distraction for them by blowing most of the Lestrium canisters. I’ll use the rest for the flamethrower,” I said. “When I get on the beach and start laying into them with the flamethrower, they’ll be confused and disoriented. You all swim around the opposite side of the Orion. Once you get to the beach, start running for the crawler. I’ll meet you there.”
At this point, I could tell by their body language only Stacy and maybe Elon were the ones set against my plan.
“I can do this,” I said, looking at Stacy. “Let me do this, please.”
Stacy didn’t say anything.
David, on the other hand, stepped up and began removing his armor. “It’s lightweight, and you should be able to run pretty well in it. It saved me a few times in the jungle. Maybe it’ll do the same for you.”
“Thanks,” I said, still holding Stacy’s gaze.
“All right, but if you don’t make it to the crawler, we’re coming back for you,” Elon said as if this was the only way he was going to let me do it. “We’re not leaving you behind.”
“I don’t intend to get left behind,” I said.
We jumped into action with everyone pitching in. Hope was something on the verge of the abyss when I came up with my plan. Now that everyone had something to do, they went about their work excitedly.
Truth be told, I really didn’t know if I was going to make it out of the crazy plan alive. Odds were there were so many of the infected, I’d run out of Lestrium cooking them all, and they’d still get to me. I just knew this was something I was the best suited for. To be honest, I meant what I told Captain Harold before. I was already dead. If this was my time to go and I could give others the chance to live, I knew Natalie would be proud.
I told Boss Creed how to create the flamethrower out of our last blaster using the Lestrium. He, Lou, and Elon went to work creating the weapon as well as tweaking the Lestrium canisters. The plan was to get them to explode on impact when we threw them at the horde on the beach.
Stacy and Doctor Allbright kept watch while David removed his armor. He and Tom helped me get strapped into the new armor. David was right. The armor was really light. The red and grey suit made me feel like I was some kind of soldier in a futuristic militia. I guess we were living in the future, and I was a kind of soldier now.
“I really admire what you’re doing here,” Tom said as he strapped in my right shoulder. “I—I don’t know if I’d ever have the courage to do something like this.”
“You do,” I told him, not really trying to be nice to the guy after he lied to us, but rather matter of fact. “You can if you choose to. You just haven’t yet. But it’s there.”
I’m not sure what Tom expected me to say to him, but it wasn’t this. He just nodded and continued strapping me in.
“When was the last time you had a haircut or shave?” David asked as he worked my chest plate into place. “You trying to be trendy or something?”
“Nothing like that,” I said as I brushed back my hair for the hundredth time that day. “Until recently, I guess I was trying to hide my past. Be someone else.”
“Well, if the old you can get us out of this mess with his skills, I say we go back to that,” Hannah said, appearing from our left.
The woman had been quiet since the death of her husband and understandably so. I didn’t know how many others here could understand what she had gone through, what she was going through, but I sure as hell did. It felt like someone tore you open then hollowed out your insides with a spork. You were numb, angry, sad, and empty all at once.
She handed me a knife, handle first. “I think it’s time for a haircut.”
I accepted the blade, thinking she wasn’t half wrong. The last thing I needed during the fight with the infected was my hair getting in my eyes, or worse, catching on fire.
“I’m not really big into grooming myself with a knife,” I said to her with a grin. “But thanks. Maybe once we get back to base.”
“Here, let me,” Tom said, opening his hands for the blade. “It’s not exactly what I would use back home at my shop, but I’m well-versed with a straight razor.”
I exchanged looks with David and Hannah. “You were a barber back home?”
“Yep,” Tom said as I handed him the blade. “I know—I know, a far cry from a survivalist expert, I have to admit, but I know my way around a head of hair.”
“If you say so,” I said.
David and Hannah finished suiting me up while Tom worked his magic cutting off my hair and trimming my beard. I had to admit it was strange releasing that part of me.
I had been hiding who I was for so long, I wasn’t even sure if I’d recognize myself without the long hair and beard anymore.
“Like Stacy said,” Hannah chimed in once they were done with my armor, “if you’re not at the crawler by the time Boss Creed has it up and running, we’re going back for you.”
“I’ll be there,” I said.
“Wow, who’s this?” Stacy asked, coming up to us as Tom sliced through my hair with the sharpened blade. “Where did Dean go and who’s this movie star in his place?”
“I guess I never really was that old Dean,” I said, trying to get out of my own head. “Don’t make me think about it too much.”
Boss Creed let out a low whistle as he approached. “You clean up nice, Slade.”
“That’s what I said,” Stacy answered back.
“Enough, you two,” I growled.
We all got a chuckle out of it. I think to some extent or another, everyone there understood what was happening. We were about to set off on a risk that could see us all dead at the hands of alien-infected Transients. Instead of sitting and dwelling on it, we were all trying to do our best to laugh in the face of danger.
Eventually, the moment of mirth passed. When the last chuckle escaped our lips, it was back to staring the grim future in the face.
“I’m about to go above and get the power core from the upper level, but I wanted to show you what we came up with before we do.” Boss Creed motioned to follow him down our level.
I complied, moving in the lightweight armor. Not only was it much lighter than it had any right to be, but it was also maneuverable. It felt like I was wearing no more than an extra twenty pounds dispersed around my body.
I crossed the darkened level to see Elon and Lou grinning down at the modified rifle.
“If I had to guess, you’ll have ten maybe fifteen minutes of use out of it if you use it sparingly,” Boss Creed said as Lou handed me the blaster.
I examined the weapon. Boss Creed had worked a small miracle, using whatever he could find to fit the cylinder of Lestrium to the place where the clip of the blaster’s magazine used to be.
“It’s not a solid job, so you should be careful with it,” Boss Creed warned. “Give me a welding torch and fitting and I’d say it’s a new weapon, but we had to make do.”
I knew what he meant. Securing the Lestrium to the underside of the blaster was stripped cloth and medical tape Doctor Allbright had in her possession for first aid.
“We’ll be right back,” Elon said as he, Lou, and Boss Creed climbed to the upper level to retrieve the power core.
I looked at the tip of the blaster turned flamethrower where the igniter from one of our two flashlights had been secured. It would be a small miracle if this thing lasted even ten minutes, but I was grateful for what we had at the time.
“Here,” Stacy said, bringing the knife Tom used to cut my hair over to me. “You didn’t even get a chance to see what you look like yet.”
She held the knife up to my eyes in the light of the stars. I stared at the man I had been over five years before. Tom hadn’t done a half bad job on the cut. The sides were close with the top a little longer. My beard was still in place but now short and somewhat groomed instead of the wild man look I had before. I recognized the man staring back at me.
“I’m going to leave you with the knife as well,” Stacy said, placing the handle of the blade on the back of my left palm. Next, she secured it there with more of the white first aid tape. “I’ve seen you fight. You have a mean left jab. Now you’ll be cutting with each one of these jabs as well.”
Stacy leaned down to do her work on my hand. I wanted to tell her that I was coming back, that I’d see her again soon, but Stacy wasn’t the type that needed reassurance. She knew the odds just as well as I did.
She wrapped the tape tight around my hand, giving me flashbacks to the many locker rooms I had been in and the way the trainers would tape my hands before a fight. I guess, in many ways, I was preparing for a fight. Except losing this one meant my death.
“I know by now you’re not a spiritual man,” Lou said to me as we prepared to embark on my crazy plan. “But I want you to know that I’m praying for you.”
“Doesn’t bother me any,” I said, rolling my neck from side to side. I examined the beach around the curve of the Orion. “Boss, you ready to ignite those canisters of Lestrium and get this party started?”
“We’re ready,” Boss Creed confirmed.
It was clear Lou wanted to talk more about his faith, but he understood there was no time left.
“Care about yourself as much as we care about you,” Lou said, resting a heavy hand on my shoulder. “We’ll see you soon.”
“See you soon, Padre,” I said.
“Remember where the crawler is—”
“I know, I know, I got it,” I interrupted David. “One kilometer east into the jungle and veer left at the rock outcropping that looks like a lightning bolt. I got it.”
I looked down at my gear one last time as Boss Creed and the others began igniting their Lestrium cylinders. They opened the canisters of the gas, quickly stuffing the open end with cloth. The idea was to light the cloth like a Molotov cocktail and send the impromptu bombs to detonate on the beach. It sounded good in my head. But like all good plans, there was bound to be a hitch in the process. We’d have to adjust on the fly. If nothing else, I was good at making things up as I went.
The rifle in my hands was heavy, the knife on the back of my left hand strangely comforting.
The roaming crowd of infected on the beach were calm, even quiet. There were only the rare mumbles or sporadic shrieks rising from one of their infected throats. Every once in a while, I could pick up a few words from them or a phrase.
“Just wait for them here,” a raspy voice said.
“We’ll kill them soon,” another voice answered.
“The invaders must die,” a third voice added, followed by an inhuman shriek.
“Buy as much time as you can without putting your safety in jeopardy,” Elon said as everyone lit their Lestrium canisters using the second light source from the flashlight we had. “Just give us a few minutes.”
“I got it,” I said as my eyes found Stacy’s.
The woman was as hard-nosed as they came. There were no tears in her eyes, just a resolute gaze. She nodded to me. “Let’s get it done.”
I leaned out around the corner of our level and let out a low whistle. “Mutt, Mutt, buddy, you’re going to want to stay where you are for this one. Stay.”
Mutt had taken up a place down the beach away from the group of infected but still within seeing distance. He gave me an excited bark. I doubted he understood what I was saying, but he did understand the command “stay,” and right now, he was far enough away to be out of the danger zone once we started lobbing these things.
“All right,” Boss Creed said. “One by one, start hurling the Lestrium. Spread out your throws as far as possible. When you make the toss, run to the opposite side of the Orion. Jump into the water and swim for shore.”
Everyone nodded in the light of the starry sky. My stomach rumbled and told me that I was not only hungry from missing a meal but nervous as well. Everyone seemed a bit jumpy and understandably so. We had no idea if this was going to work, let alone if we would survive the night.
“Light ‘em up,” Boss Creed said.
One by one, the members of our expeditionary force lit the cloth on top of the canister of Lestrium. Hannah held the exposed power core of the flashlight that would act as the fire starter.
Boss Creed and David went first. They were the two who were going to carry the rover power core back through the jungle. Stacy and Elon would act as their front-runners, fending off any infected that noticed their escape.
It was my job to make sure they weren’t noticed.
Boss Creed lit his canister of Lestrium. The glare of the fire bathed his face in shadows. The man I had known as a foreman for the better of four years looked like something from a nightmare. Muscles bulging, face stern, he walked to the side of the Orion where I stood and chucked his canister of Lestrium so far, it nearly ended up past the beach and into the jungle itself.
The first canister exploded in a billow of angry red and yellow flames. The infected screamed in anger.
“Kill them!” one of them shouted.
More took up the cry as they surged forward.
Lucky for us, we had more canisters to keep them busy before they were able to charge into the ocean again. David, Elon, Tom, Hannah, and Doctor Allbright came next. They each threw their canisters at the approaching throng in quick succession, choosing different parts of the beach to light on fire.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
Each explosion rocked the beach, sending sand flying through the air as well as the bodies of the infected. A small part of me felt bad for the infected that were getting fire-bombed on the beach. As soon as that feeling made its way to the surface, I thought of the strangled man we found in the escape pod and Mark. I didn’t feel so bad anymore.
Lou was second to last as he hurled the canister of Lestrium at the monstrous horde rushing the water.
“Just because you don’t believe doesn’t mean there’s not a plan for us,” Lou said after he hurled his canister. “You’re going to survive this.”
I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that the crazy old man was still trying to convert me at a time like this. Before I could form a response, he was running down the level. Boss Creed had already reached the opposite end and jumped into the water. Everyone else besides Stacy was in the process of doing the same.
Stacy aimed her canister right where the water met the beach. It was a perfect shot.
A wall of flame caught the first infected who gathered themselves, rushing this side of the Orion. They went up in a burst of fire.
Stacy turned and planted a kiss on my cheek. “Hurry.”
That was all there was time for. She joined the rest of our expeditionary force, running down the level and jumping into the water.
Damnit, I thought to myself. One’s trying to convert me, and the other is giving me a peck on the cheek. I needed to focus.
I pushed away anything from my mind except for what I had to do. Like a fight, I saw the events happen in my mind’s eye. Then it was time to act. I made sure the last four canisters of Lestrium were secured to the back of my belt. I climbed down one level then leaped into the water. It was a fall of nearly eight feet. I held the flamethrower above my head when I landed to make sure the spark on the end stayed lit.
As soon as my boots hit the ground, I began to roar into the night.
“Hey! Hey, you infected spore-fed aliens, whatever you are,” I yelled as loud as my lungs would allow me. “I’m right here. Here you go. You want me off your planet then come and get me!”
I moved slowly through the water, leveling the flamethrower in front of me. What I saw now was something out of a nightmare. Burning bodies ran this way and that up and down the beach. Those unable to walk or run crawled toward me. The strangest thing was there were no cries of pain, only of anger and the need for revenge.
Burning bodies ran at me with a single purpose: to kill.
If I looked to my left and down the beach, I knew the others would be heading for the jungle interior. I refused myself the act of turning my head. I needed all the infected attention on me at the moment. I couldn’t give Stacy and the others away, even if it meant not witnessing their sprint to safety.
As I stalked toward the beach, the first group of infected rushed me.
They didn’t get far. I pressed the trigger on my impromptu flamethrower. A line of fire ten meters long whipped out like the breath of some ancient dragon. It lit them on fire, and for those already burning, intensified the heat.
There were plenty of screams of anger and violence, but none of pain, even when they were on fire. I hosed the first wave of infected, melting both skin and flesh.
I knew I should be more disturbed by what was happening in front of me, but the honest truth was that this wasn’t the first time I had burned someone to death. Memories of what I did to my wife and unborn child’s killers tried to suck me back into the void. I refused, focusing on moving forward and saving the lives I could at the moment.
What I’d done in the past could never be forgiven. Good thing I wasn’t looking for forgiveness.
“I thought there were more of you!?” I bellowed into the night. “Where are you now? You want us so bad? Well, here we are!”
The heat of the inferno licked at my face, making me blink as I finally reached the shore and began to maneuver through the walls of flames. The armor I wore kept the worst of the heat from my body at bay. My face, on the other hand, was another story. I found myself wishing David had picked up the helmet that went with the suit when he found it.
The beach was a fiery blaze of scorched sand, dying bodies, and other bodies that were either on fire and running at me or had somehow remained out of the blasts. These were still headed my way.
I used the flamethrower as sparingly as possible. Traveling up the beach was more difficult than I expected. The infected were coming from every direction. While being on fire didn’t seem to stop them, the act of the fire eating at them finally would.
A scream from my left warned me of danger as an elderly woman ran at me. I sent a shot of flame in her direction. The initial force of the flames only made her pause for a second before she was running at me again. A second burst of flame at her legs ate away at her muscle enough for her to fall and burn.
And so it went over and over again until the worst possible case scenario came to fruition. The flamethrower broke.
I still had four canisters of the Lestrium strapped to my belt. If the flamethrower had just gone out, it wouldn’t have really been an issue. Seeing the brief pause in my attack gave the infected courage. They came at me in a rush. Hands reached for me from all directions. They ripped the flamethrower from my hands. At the same time, I was wrapped up from behind.
“You will not kill us. We are many,” the man’s voice in my ear screamed.
I leaned forward, then sent my head back into my attacker’s face with all the force I could muster. There was a crunching as the back of my skull made contact with his nose. This didn’t cause him to fully let me go, but I did feel a moment where his grip on me loosened.
I took the opportunity to tear free. I was about to take a gamble. I unsnapped my belt and held up the last four closed canisters of Lestrium.
“You know what this is?” I asked. “You know what this will do to us all?”
My ploy worked at least for the moment. The infected surrounding me stopped their advance. Out of the group of infected staring at me, a young girl stepped forward.
She was the poster child for one of those old horror movies. Dark hair over half her face, black eyes, black veins running from her mouth and hands. Ebony liquid dripped from her ears.
“You think there aren’t more of us?” the kid from the horror movie asked. “You can kill us all here on the beach, and we will live on. We are spreading through your people, and we are many.”
“I’m not really sure who ‘we’ are, but we are about to get blown to kingdom come if you don’t get back,” I said, letting the belt sway in my hand.
“You cannot kill us.” The little girl gave me a creepy smile. “You may kill the hosts, but you will not kill us.”
“I know we came to your planet uninvited, but we don’t want trouble. We’re just trying to live long enough to find a way off,” I said, taking a chance. “I don’t know who or what you are. I don’t understand the hold you have on my people, but if you think we’re here for you or your planet, you’re wrong.”
“That’s what the others said.” The little girl was working her way into a frenzy. “The others burned us and banished us to the jungle! We will not let you do the same.”
Peace talks were suspended upon further notice as the little girl, and those around her rushed me again. All around me, flames were still licking the beach sand. I chose a patch of flames just five meters from my right and threw the belt of Lestrium toward it in a high arch.
I turned and sprinted like the dogs of hell were on my heels.
Seconds, I told myself. You have seconds before not one, but four Lestrium canisters go off.
The jungle line was in front of me. With every step, I got closer. A passing thought yelled at me. I put my gloved hands behind my head to shield me from the blast.
The canisters exploded in a wall of heat. For the second time in as many days, I was picked up off my feet and hurled forward. I could feel the heat touch my armor. The back of my head and neck not covered by the gloves I wore blistered.
As luck would have it, my landing pad was a thick tree trunk two meters in front of me. I flew through the air like some superhero still learning to fly. I struck the trunk of the tree with a thunk.
I fell backward, staring up at the night sky. At least I hadn’t lost consciousness this time. I couldn’t breathe. The blow from the tree, even with my armor on, felt like a punch in the gut from a heavyweight gladiator.
I lay on my back, just laboring to breathe.
Mutt appeared over me. He looked down at me, cocking his head to the side as if to say, “What are you doing? This isn’t the time or place for a nap.”
I didn’t have the oxygen to say something sarcastic back.
Get up, Dean, I said in my head. At least I thought it was my own voice. The tone in my head sounded very much like Natalie. Get back up.
I rose to my feet, testing my aching body. Oxygen was being forced into my lungs again. The back of my head and neck felt like they were on fire. The good news was my legs still worked, and that meant I could run.
I looked out at the beach in front of me. It was littered with dead and dying bodies. The infected still able to walk did so in my direction. I didn’t know how many were still left, but with a quick count, I saw there were dozens, too many for me to make a final stand against.
I hope I bought you enough time, I thought to myself, understanding all these events had probably only taken ten to fifteen minutes to pass. I can buy you a few more.
I wanted to give Boss Creed at least a twenty-minute head start to figure out how to power the crawler. I could buy him another five minutes, I hoped.
“I don’t even really know your name,” I shouted. I made sure my back was to the tree. At least they could only come at me from three ways now. “You were saying ‘we’ a lot when we were chatting. Should I call you ‘we’”?
To my left, a young man in his early twenties stepped out of the shadows.
Mutt’s hackles rose on the back of his neck. He lowered to the ground, ready to pounce.
“We are called by a name that your kind have no words for.” The man took a step closer. The light of the fire showed the same black inky veins on his face. “Legion would be the closest word for what we are.”
“And you’re some kind of plant or spore that infects its host?” I asked, trying to put rational thinking behind the nightmare I found myself in. “Like a parasite?”
“Nothing like a parasite.” The young man chuckled. “We have more of a symbiotic relationship. We were dormant, asleep until your kind invaded our planet. When we woke, we were overjoyed to find your kind provided the perfect vehicle for us.”
As we spoke, I noticed more and more of the infected coming out of the shadows. Just like I was using this conversation to buy more time, Legion was doing the same. In minutes, I would be completely surrounded with no chance to escape.
“You will all fall victim to us when we introduce you to the spore,” Legion went on. “You will all eventually be brought into the—”
I had enough of his talk and I sure wasn’t going to allow myself to get hedged in. I lunged forward with my left fist, planting a punch to his face that sent the knife on the back of my hand into his right eye. The blade sank deep. He quivered then fell to the ground.
The infected around us sprinted forward.
Mutt went to work ripping out throats and snarling like an animal possessed.
For whatever reason, whether they didn’t deem him a threat or realized if they killed me, he would go, they ignored Mutt and focused on me.
I sidestepped the first infected that lunged at me, sending my right fist into the face of the next infected so fast I broke his nose before he knew what was happening.
The knife on the back of my left hand worked better than I thought. I slashed out left and right, aiming for vital organs and killing shots that would put them down for the count.
I know it doesn’t sound like a long time, but anyone who’s been in the ring, or any fight really, will tell you even a few minutes of nonstop fighting is exhausting, and I was out of shape.
I fought, always giving ground to the superior numbered force in front of me. I retreated where I had to, struck out as much as I could.
“Mutt!” I yelled. “Let’s go!”
I turned from fending off my attackers and bolted into the jungle. To say I was tired would be an understatement to how I really felt. My body felt like a punching bag after a long day at the gym. The back of my head and neck burned along with my lungs. Trying to see anything past a few meters in front of me in the jungle was pointless.
I used what little light came through the thick jungle canopy to guide myself as I recalled David’s instructions.
What if you didn’t give them enough time? The voice in my head was back. What if you get there and they’re not ready?
There wasn’t anything I could do about it now. I heard the crashing of the infected behind me as they gave chase. Mutt appeared by my side then began to run in front of me as if he knew where we were going.
The two of us booked it through the jungle, hopping over tree roots and dodging around bushes. My lungs burned more as oxygen came in short, quick breaths. I thought about trying to remove my armor to run faster, but there was no time.
Shrieks followed behind me. Whatever these Transients were now, they weren’t going to let me go. The most disturbing part was that they still seemed intelligent. I pushed these thoughts out of my mind to be gone over at a different time and ran.
Soon I saw the lightning-bolt-shaped outcropping looming in the jungle in front of me. It was clear the rocks were not natural. Someone or something had moved them here to stand in that exact formation.
I wished I had more time to look it over, but with a mass of infected colonists behind me, I thought I’d give the lightning bolt a look another time. I veered to the left, remembering David’s instructions.
My legs were beginning to give out. No sleep, no food, and my energy nearly spent. I began thinking of a place to make a final stand. If I was going to go out, then I was going to go out taking as many of those infected with me as I could.
“Dean!” A shout from somewhere high overhead ripped me from my thoughts.
I looked up to see Stacy in a tree to my left. She held a fist-sized rock in her hand as a weapon. The sky was just beginning to lighten as the twin suns of the planet transitioned from night to day.
Stacy jumped out of the tree. She landed hard then ran to me, hugging me so tight, it was only thanks to my armor I could still breathe.
“Stacy,” I said, then gave up and gave her a brief hug back. “We’ve got to go. They’re behind me.”
As if to punctuate my words, another shriek came from the jungle depth behind me.
“Right,” Stacy said, releasing me and waving me to join her as she plunged into the jungle. “This way, hurry.”
I followed to where the rest of the expeditionary force stood to help Boss Creed as he shouted orders. They were all wearing armor now, found in the crate David had discovered.
“Fire it up and see if it works,” Boss Creed said to Hannah.
She sat in the driver’s seat of the crawler, a massive vehicle with enough room for three to ride in the front cab. There was also a flatbed in the rear for hauling supplies, but it could easily fit another six passengers.
Hannah tried pushing the ignition button, but there was only a click. The sounds of the infected behind me grew closer. Then a new sound: a roar I was familiar with. The same roar that spurred on our retreat the last time I was in the jungle.
Everyone quieted for a moment. Doctor Allbright looked as if all the blood drained from her face. Tom’s mouth dropped.
“We’ve got to hurry,” Elon said, snapping everyone from their frozen panic.
“Dean, you made it!” David said as he worked with Lou and Tom to load the crate of armor onto the flatbed.
“Yeah, and not a minute too soon,” I said, running over to the front of the vehicle. I wanted to see if there was anything I could do to help.
The shrieks from the infected were not dying out compared to the cavernous roars of the beast that ran us out of the jungle just days before.
The sounds of the infected must have woken the slumbering monster from its section of the jungle.
“Hannah, try it again,” Boss Creed shouted.
This time the crawler sputtered to life.
“Good to see you,” Boss Creed said from his position over the front of the crawler. “I knew you’d make it back.”
“Let’s get out of here,” I said, running with him to the rear of the vehicle.
“Everyone, load up,” Boss Creed yelled as he and Elon jumped into the front with Hannah.
If it weren’t for adrenaline, I knew I’d be dead. There was no way I should still be able to jump into the back of the crawler, but I did. Adrenaline was a hell of a drug.
I leaned down to help Lou up in time to see the first infected break through the brush. There was only a handful of them now, the front-runners to the rest of the pack.
They came shrieking like maniacs, jumping onto the bed of the crawler with us.
“Go, go, go!” Stacy yelled at Hannah.
“Hold on!” Hannah yelled back.
The crawler jerked to life, and we were on our way.
Three of the infected managed to get aboard before the tires under us started to move. I caught the first one with my knife as the guy vaulted into the bed. I stuck him through his neck before planting a boot into his chest and hurling him off.
Mutt, who was also aboard, was barking up a storm as he fought for traction on the vehicle bed while he tried biting at our enemies.
Stacy was grappling with a second attacker, and to my surprise, Tom with the third. His infected had gone for Doctor Albright. Tom stepped in the way, and the two were on the ground wrestling with one another. David and Lou, who also rode in the back with us, reached down to help.
It sounds easy since we had the numbers with only two of the infected onboard. It would have been a cakewalk throwing them off had it not been for the rough bouncing platform we all used as a fighting pit.
Hannah was doing her best, but the jungle terrain was uneven, and she had to maneuver around the larger trees. The crawler was a colossus, able to go over brush and smaller saplings, but the last thing we could afford was getting stuck going head to head with one of the larger trees.
Behind the crawler, the infected still gave chase. I couldn’t focus on them now. Giving aid to the rest of our party and throwing off the infected on the crawler had to be my main concern. I could see them springing across the jungle through my peripheral vision.
Stacy finally flung hers off while the rest of those aboard helped Tom wrangle his and do the same.
I understood Hannah was doing her best. I didn’t think any of us could drive any faster trying to maneuver through the jungle, but the infected were catching us. Already the bulk of the mob could be seen only meters behind us. More of the faster ones were already catching up, grabbing on to the side of the crawler and pulling themselves aboard.
I lashed out with my blade, taking one in the skull and the next in the throat as it tried to pull itself up.
All around, those in the crawler bed were fighting, doing everything they could to make sure we didn’t pick up any more last-minute hitchhikers.
“Hannah!” Stacy yelled. “If you can go faster, this would be a good time!”
“I’m trying!” Hannah yelled back.
Boss Creed and Elon were in the cab doing their best to keep Hannah safe from any of the infected who were now running alongside the vehicle and trying to grab at her through the windows.
Doctor Allbright screamed as she was nearly pulled off. Lou grabbed her at the last minute. Tom jumped into action, attacking the infected who had a grip on Doctor Allbright’s short hair.
I saw in slow motion as the infected let loose of Doctor Allbright and settled for the barber instead. It grabbed on to him and fell backward, taking Tom with it. There was a sickening buckle in the crawler as we ran over them both.
“Tom, no!” David screamed. “We have to go back!”
I wanted to agree with him. I was about to yell the same thing, even though it meant dooming us all when I saw Tom’s body lying in the jungle behind us. One of the infected stopped to lift a boulder-sized rock over Tom’s head, then he let it drop.
“He’s gone,” Stacy yelled as she flung another infected from the rear of the crawler. “Keep going!”
“We’re not going to outrun them!” I shouted to Boss Creed. “We’ve got to go back to where Ira died and get some help.”
“What!?” The tone in Boss Creed’s voice told me he had no idea where I was going with this.
“We’ve got to lead them in that direction to get some reinforcements,” I yelled toward the cab. “Bring in the big guns in the jungle.”
“Oh, right!” Boss Creed said, finally catching my meaning. “Hannah, take a hard left here!”
Hannah swung the steering wheel to the left, following Boss Creed’s directions. The bellow coming from deep in the jungle began to grow in intensity. The infected chasing us didn’t seem to notice.
“Shouldn’t we be going the other way?” Lou asked. “I mean, opposite the terrifying roar in the jungle depths?”
“We’re going the right way,” I said, stabbing at an infected who managed to gain a grip on the tailgate of the crawler. “Trust me.”
The crawler rocked and bounced again. The case of armor in the rear of the crawler slid back and forth, even threatening to fall out at one point. Against all odds, Hannah kept us moving forward.
I could hear Boss Creed telling her the plan somewhere past the shrieking and growing roar we were headed to.
Finally, we burst through a thick throng of trees in the jungle interior and came face to face with what was making the roaring sounds in the jungle depth. It was massive, even larger than the crawler itself.
The closest thing I could relate it to was a gigantic rhinoceros with black and red skin. Three horns came from its head. One in the center of its forehead and one on each side of its cheeks, curving in.
It bellowed at us through hate-filled eyes.
Self-preservation told Hannah to let her foot off the acceleration. I didn’t blame her, except that her lack of will to go forward meant more infected were catching up.
“Hannah, go!” I screamed.
Snapping out of her wonder-stricken state, Hannah stomped on the gas again. We were headed in a beeline for the mountain of a creature.
It pawed the ground with one of its giant front hooves. A roar escaped its black lips as it charged us, head down and horns aimed straight at us.
Caught between a horde of infected and the King Kong of this jungle planet. I shook my head. I should have stayed on Earth.
“Hannah!” Boss Creed yelled as we rocketed toward the creature.
“I got it,” Hannah said.
“Hannah!” Stacy screamed.
“Not yet!” Hannah yelled back.
Despite our situation, I found myself liking Hannah. She was crazy. I could understand crazy.
We were so close now, I could see the creature’s eyes, dark orange orbs filled with anger and hate. At the last possible moment, and I really mean the last possible moment, Hannah swerved right.
The left side of the beast clipped the left side of the crawler ever so briefly as we shot past one another.
I could have reached out and touched the thick hide of the alien animal if I wanted.
“Oh, thank Esu we made it through that one.” Lou made some kind of symbol across his body I didn’t recognize but figured it was religious.
I turned to look back at the creature, who tried skidding to a halt. It failed, acting like a bowling ball crushing the infected, who followed in a trail behind us.
It was like watching a train wreck in slow motion. I knew what I saw on some scale was horrific, I just couldn’t bring myself to look away.
The alien beast ran on four legs, crushing the infected under its massive bulk. Each of its legs was roughly the height of one of the infected colonists and twice as thick.
The infected seemed as surprised to see it as the alien animal did them. One minute they were crashing into one another and the next tearing into the other. The alien animal wasted no time trampling and skewering them with its giant horns.
Hannah drove a safe distance then left the crawler idling as we watched the battle unfold. Some voice reminded me that we should probably get going, although I wasn’t going to be the one to give this idea a voice. I wanted to watch like everyone else.
At first, it looked impossible for the infected to win. Every time the creature turned, it trampled another infected under its hoof. Dozens of them fell. What the infected lacked in size, they made up in number. I had vastly under-guessed how many infected there were. We had to have killed a hundred, maybe more at the beach. I thought that was all of them. I was wrong.
More and more of them came from the jungle interior, jumping and clawing at the alien animal with their hands. They used rocks and sticks to take it down. Over and over, they tried, sacrificing many of their own number for the sake of victory.
Finally, they took down the beast like a swarm of ants attacking a scorpion. I watched on, dumbfounded as a pair of infected holding something that looked like moldy cauliflower ran up and threw it on the alien beast.
They wrestled the animal down to its left side. It still kicked out and bit anything it could get its mouth around.
A billow of black spores erupted on impact. The black cloud descended on the animal like it was given a tranquilizer. The beast stopped squirming. The infected holding it down released their hold on the animal, allowing it to rise.
Like a drunk after a long night out, it stumbled its way to its feet once more. Instead of bright orange eyes, black orbs looked around. Ebony veins began spreading from its mouth and ears.
“Uh, Hannah?” I said, still not daring to move my eyes from what I saw in front of me. “Now would probably be a good time to go.”
The ride back to the colony was finally quiet. Once we were out of the jungle and back on the plains to where the main part of the Orion rested, I allowed myself to relax.
Relax might not even be the right word. More like I collapsed from exhaustion. No one had slept the night before. As the suns rose, I was just grateful not to run into anything crazy on our way back. The ride would have been nearly peaceful if the memories of what we had all just been through weren’t so fresh.
“So much chaos and so beautiful all at the same time,” Lou said under his breath as those in the back of the crawler looked at the landscape around us.
I couldn’t disagree with him. The twin suns of orange and yellow, the vibrant greens of the grass and foliage—hell, even the alien chirping of the birds—it was all strangely beautiful.
“They—whatever the infected are now—they turned that beast into one of them,” Doctor Allbright said out loud as she worked the problem over in her mind. “What if they turn other animals? Other colonists? How many of them were there?”
“All great questions we don’t have answers to,” Stacy added.
“However, they’re able to turn animals, they didn’t seem interested in Mutt for some reason,” David pointed out. “Maybe there’s something in that we can use to our advantage.”
“A bigger question is, are they going to remain content to stay in the jungle or will they come looking for us?” I asked, musing over those thoughts as I looked down at my hands and armor. The knife on the back of my palm was covered in black blood and gore. My chest plate was spattered with the same, as were my arms and legs. I ached in a dozen different places, and the back of my neck and head felt like they were on fire.
“Look on the bright side,” David said, lying down flat on the crawler as if he were going to take a nap. “We’ve got a working crawler and armor now. All we need is a few weapons, and we can give those things a fight to remember.”
After that comment, we all remained quiet. Each of us lost to his or her own thoughts of the future.
I looked up to catch Stacy’s eyes on me. She didn’t look away, as if she were embarrassed I caught her. She just stared into my eyes with a silly grin on her lips.
I couldn’t help but grin back. Despite what we had just been through, I found her smile intoxicating.
I was about to ask her what she was smiling about when she answered the question for me.
“That haircut looks good on you, Slade,” Stacy said. “There’s an actual human being under there. I wasn’t sure what we’d find once we trimmed it all off. An animal, maybe.”
“The animal’s still there,” I told her. “Maybe I’ll let him out later.”
“Well, tell him he’s welcome any time,” Stacy said. “We’ll need more of him before this is all over, I’m betting.”
I thought about the kiss she had given me on my cheek. Of how right it felt, of how long it had been since I had kissed someone. Heck, how long it had been since I’d let anyone get close to me.
Everyone in the crawler snapped to attention besides Lou, who had drifted to sleep. The words crackled from the crawler cabin, where a radio sat next to the passenger side seat.
Even though it was only three cracked words that came in, I thought I recognized Iris’ voice. Were we really that close to the Orion already? We’d only been traveling that morning. It wasn’t even noon yet.
“This is Expeditionary Force One,” Elon said, grabbing the radio and clicking the button on the side of the communication unit. “Do you read us?”
“Just coming—into range,” Iris said. “Good—hear from you.”
“Good to hear from you too, Iris,” Elon said in a weary voice. “We’re returning to the Orion today. We should be there soon.”
“Understood—hurry,” Iris answered.
For the first time, I picked up a hint of worry in her voice, if Cognitives could be worried at all. I felt the icy hand of fear snake down my spine. Instinct told me to look behind us.
I did, half expecting to see something macabre following us: the infected, that creature they turned, or something else. There was nothing coming for us at the moment, just the bright green grassy fields.
“Is everything okay?” Elon asked.
“Yes, just a new development to go over with you,” Iris said. “Hurry.”
I knew something was very wrong. It was like when Mom and Dad were worried about something but didn’t want to talk about it in front of the kids.
Part of me didn’t even want to know what was going on. I just wanted to eat my weight in bacon and pass out for the next week. A hot shower might be nice too, one of those ones where you stay in there way longer than you need to be clean.
The rest of the trip went quickly, and for the most part, in silence. I tried to catch a few minutes of rest, but every time I closed my eyes, I saw images of the infected.
The crawler made great time back to the Orion. Just after midday, we saw the metal husk of what we now called home.
We were met with smiles and waves of the Civil Authority officers standing watch at the perimeter. The wall was nearly half completed in the time we were gone.
We pulled into the area inside the wall. Colonists surrounded us, eager to find out what we had seen and if there were more survivors on the strange planet. I saw it all in their faces even before they asked. So many of them had loved ones and friends they had not seen since the Orion broke apart upon descent and crash-landed on the planet.
“Did you find anyone out there?” an eager-eyed woman asked as I jumped off the crawler.
“What happened?” another man asked.
“Are there any survivors? Please, I’m trying to find my wife,” a middle-aged man asked.
The idea I had killed people these colonists were asking for crossed my mind. Who knew if some of the infected were the very people those looking at me now were so desperately searching for.
Lucky for me, Elon took charge.
“Please, the members of the expeditionary force are exhausted,” Elon said, moving from his area in the cab to the back of the truck. “We will have a full meeting tonight and tell you everything. For now, take heart that we have not only found a crawler and a case of armor but yes, there are survivors out there, and we will keep looking for more.”
Elon motioned toward David when he said there were survivors still out there on the planet. This was enough for a few of the colonists. Others bombarded David with questions.
I saw Elon whisper something to David, who nodded.
I could guess that the Eternal was asking the man to keep the whole infected thing under wraps for the time being.
“Would you mind overseeing the storage of the crawler and armor?” Elon asked Boss Creed.
“I’m on it,” Boss Creed answered.
Elon motioned to Stacy and me to follow him through the crowd.
I didn’t really want to. Something told me we were about to step in it right now. Iris’ cryptic message over the radio was enough for me to guess that things were about to go from bad to worse.
Arun popped out of a wide tent set against the base of the Orion as we made our way to the ship. She motioned us inside.
The look on her face said it all, stern and serious, and with a hint of happiness at seeing us returned alive.
Arun embraced her brother as we entered the tent.
“I want to hear about it all,” Arun said to Elon and then turned to Stacy and me to take us in. “I’m glad you’re safe, and for the time being, that has to be enough. We have a very serious situation on our hands.”
“More serious than a zombie tribe of aliens?” I said under my breath.
Stacy elbowed me in the ribs. My body was so battered, even in the armor, it still hurt.
The tent Arun erected at the base of the Orion was longer than it was wide. A kind of office had been set up with hard light emitters stationed in the corners of the chamber to give Iris physical form.
“This is Mr. Slade’s heads-up warning before I appear in the room,” Iris said.
“Thanks, Iris,” I said. “You’re always so thoughtful.”
Iris appeared as if by magic. She stood in front of us with her ethereal blue glow emanating from her body. Her fair skin and white hair gave her the appearance of an Eternal, but the blue glow around her and her bright blue eyes gave her away as something else entirely.
The room was Spartan with a desk and chairs on one side, a holo table in the middle, and the far end of the room stacked with crates.
“We should really go over what we found in the jungle,” Elon told Arun and Iris. “I’m not sure if we should be preparing for an attack soon or perhaps even a war.”
“I want to hear it all and we will plan, but first, we have a more pressing matter.” Arun ushered her brother inside. The way she waved off the warning of an attack or even a war threw so many warning signs up in my mind, I knew whatever Iris and Arun were going to tell us would rock the very foundation of our survival.
“Arun,” Stacy interrupted the brother and sister. “I’m not sure you heard Elon right. We came across a group of crazed colonists that are infected with some kind of mutant spore. We should be preparing the colony now on how to deal with the threat.”
“I heard you,” Arun said, motioning to Iris. “And that all sounds horrific, and trust me, on the inside, I’m as worried about it as you, but not in light of the news. Iris, tell them.”
“This morning, we received a message that I have been unable to translate,” Iris said, waving a hand over the hologram display. A holographic green image appeared showing the same mountain face where the alien door was discovered.
Everything on the display looked exactly like I remembered. The rock face of the low mountain, the door set inside. One distinct difference took my breath away.
The doors were open.
“When—” Elon started but didn’t finish.
“Just as the suns rose,” Iris explained. “I am proficient in every language of the human tongue. I can communicate with machines, and the message I received from within the doors are none I have ever come across before. I can only make a guess at the short message I intercepted.”
“How can you make a guess if you don’t know what letters or symbols or whatever is being used?” I asked Iris.
“Based on the composition of the message and a series of algorithms I created to decipher the message, and considering the open doors, I believe an educated hypothesis is due.”
“And the that is?” Stacy asked.
“Welcome,” Iris answered.
“Well, at least if we die in here, it’s just us, and we can give the others some time to prepare,” I said as we stood in front of the open doors leading deeper into the mountain.
“Don’t be too eager to die,” Stacy warned me as she checked her rifle. “Things were just starting to look up—you know, what with the discovery of all those infected maniacs and all.”
“If the infected don’t kill us, maybe the aliens will.” I smiled at her with a shrug. “I got no plans for tomorrow.”
“Although I understand the human need for humor when matters seem dire, I would recommend staying focused,” Iris said through the earpiece. “Studies have shown that keeping a positive outlook can go a long way in survival situations. Your lives may very well depend on your ability to hope. In fact—”
“Boring,” I said as I checked my rifle. I patted the knife at the side of my right hip. It was the same knife Stacy gave me to fend off the infected earlier that morning.
A few hours of food and rest were all we got before we’d suited up in armor we’d found in the jungle. The same jungle that seemed to want to kill us at every turn.
It had taken a small miracle to keep Elon back at the Orion with Iris. He finally gave in, understanding his leg was only just back to normal, and Arun had sat the last one out.
If anything happened to us, it would be up to Elon to lead the colony now, and he would do a fine job of it, because that was the kind of man I knew him to be.
The suns’ orange and yellow glow set behind us. I had been given a rifle that I knew how to use, more or less. If things went south, I’d stand a chance at living. I’d do what I did best—what I had always done. I’d find a way to survive.
Was it really only that morning that we’d been running for our lives? And now, as the twin suns set behind us, Arun, Stacy, and I were making our way through a set of mysterious alien doors, the likes of which no human being had ever witnessed. I wondered for a brief moment if Neil Armstrong had ever felt this claustrophobic when he first stepped out of his ship and set his foot down on the moon’s surface. What about Yuri Gagarin, the first man to ever journey into space? We were a far cry away from all of that now, standing here on this alien world, staring at doors carved by otherworldly hands, but this sense of fear mixed with intrigue mixed with excitement—it must have been with them, too. I was hardly the first person to feel any of this, and I certainly wouldn’t be the last. The unknown would always be there, always ahead of humanity, and we were always stupid enough to run blindly into it, like a suicidal cow off the side of a cliff.
And yet, my foot edged closer to the darkness.
We stared at the open doors, looking through the dark interior for anything we could see at all. I was mentally preparing myself for every possible outcome to this insane situation. Whether Iris was correct or not in assuming the aliens had given her a welcome message was beside the point.
Whatever we found in this place—whatever secrets it held—nothing would change the simple fact that our lives were about to change.
They’ve already changed, I told myself, trying to find some kind of comfort in it.
But it was true. Every second of every day we’d spent on this world had brought its own challenges, its own revelations. If we could survive a trip across the galaxy, a planetary crash, a cult, and whatever the hell those things were in the jungle, then why couldn’t we handle this?
“I think—I’m not sure if it’s my imagination or not, but I think I see light farther into the chamber,” Arun said, taking the lead.
We were lucky that we had flashlights at the end of our rifles. I clicked mine on as we pointed our barrels into the tunnel.
“Stay in constant communication.” Elon sounded nervous over the other line. “If you see anything even remotely dangerous, you head back to the Orion as soon as possible. I’ll have the Civil Authority Officers ready.”
“We’ll be alright,” I said more for Elon than me actually believing that. “I mean, what are the odds whatever is in here opened its doors because it didn’t want to see us?”
“6673 to 1,” Iris answered.
“What?” I asked.
“The odds,” Iris explained.
“Oh,” I said, and then decided I needed to choose my words more carefully when in the presence of a Cognitive.
“Come on,” called Stacy. “The sooner we find out what’s going on in there, the sooner we can get back and start figuring out a course of action for the infected.”
“And for our Disciple friend who’s still skulking around the colony,” I reminded her.
“Maybe the infected will get to him first,” she replied.
We passed through the open stone doors, entering a long corridor that slanted down ever so slightly. In a few meters, we were able to see that Arun had been right. There was a faint yellow glow coming from somewhere farther down the hall and to the right.
“I’m going to take point,” Arun said. Her voice left no recourse for argument. “Dean, behind me. Stacy, you bring up the rear.”
“You sure you don’t want me to take the lead?” I felt compelled to ask. I knew Arun was better versed in these types of things. Still, I had to offer.
“No, just maintain trigger discipline and stay focused.” Arun jerked her chin to the finger on my trigger. “Finger only touches the trigger when you’re about to discharge your weapon.”
“Yeah, sure,” I said, edging my finger away.
We continued down the sloping walkway, one at a time. There was no sound. There was nothing but darkness, and in the darkness, the faintest glowing yellow light.
My heart continued to pound in my chest, maybe even faster than it had been while I was racing away from the mob of infected. The walls of my mouth were dry as we turned the corner and came face to face with the source of the yellow glow.
To our right, a chamber opened in a massive circular room. The walls were smooth—even more than crafted steel. I knew the entire chamber was fashioned from stone, but I couldn’t tell how. There were no imperfections, no lines or breaks in the rock. It was smooth and shiny, almost reminding me of marble.
As far as I could tell, we were alone. The lights on our rifles swung this way and that, examining every corner of the chamber.
In the middle of the room was a circular control station. On the control station, a yellow symbol pulsated with life.
“Can you still hear us? What are you seeing?” Elon asked over the comm unit.
“We’re in a large room with some kind of device in the center,” Arun answered. “No contact with anything or anyone yet. I—”
A wheezing sound from the far wall brought all our rifles up at once.
A panel in the far wall lifted from the ground in a hiss of steam. A panel extended from the stone, as though from nothing, and in a place where there had been no indication of such a thing.
The fight or flight instinct swept through us all, so much that I could feel it emanate from every single one of my friends. Adrenaline pumped through my veins like I was about to be in the fight of my life. I lifted the rifle to my shoulder, ready for anything.
But I could never have prepared myself for what appeared next.
It had two legs and two arms, but that was where the similarity between humans and whatever this was had ended. Thick, hide-like skin covered its body and a reptilian face blinked back at us.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. Maybe I should have expected it. I mean, so far, I’d heard of monsters snatching people out of the mist and seen infected colonists and rhino-like creatures in the jungle. But despite all of that, this was altogether different.
It was truly alien.
The creature stepped out of the chamber with his arms held wide. I guessed that was its way of trying to seem non-threatening, but who could even say? I knew absolutely nothing of its culture or communication. There was no way to know what it wanted or how it would react to us.
There were three fingers and three toes on each of its appendages. A thick tail followed behind. It wore a tight-fitting suit that left an opening for its hands and feet. It looked like the suit was made of one piece of material.
Yellow eyes blinked at us. A thin tongue snaked out of a wide mouth with short, stubby teeth.
We stood there staring at each other for far too long.
“What is it?” Elon asked. “Have you made contact with anything yet?”
“Yeah, I guess you could say that,” I answered.
I ripped my eyes from the face of the reptilian creature that stood about four meters tall. It didn’t seem to be carrying any kind of weapon.
“Can you understand us?” Arun asked. “Can you communicate?”
The alien cocked his head to the side. It looked us up and down as if he were as shocked and awestruck to see us as we were to see it.
“Tch tch te shay,” it said, making a slithering sound in the back of his throat. “Shen tsya sith.”
“Nope,” I said. “Definitely don’t understand alien.”
“May I try?” Iris asked over our comms. “If I can speak with the alien, perhaps I can work out some common language patterns. At least enough to begin a dialogue.”
“Be my guest,” Arun said, removing the earpiece. She extended the small device toward the alien.
It took about an hour, but it felt like minutes.
Back and forth the alien clicked its teeth and made the sounds from the back of his throat. Iris began to mimic the sound, repeating them back and at times coming up with words of her own. The Cognitive was not only learning a language from scratch, but it seemed as if she was doing so in record time.
After the first few hours, the little alien began motioning furiously and talking with Iris. What looked like a grin passed over the creature’s thin lips and spread across his face. I had to remind myself that every action could mean something else. A smile wasn’t necessarily a smile. A nod wasn’t necessarily a nod. They could both mean the opposite to this creature or they could mean nothing at all.
“How we doing, Iris?” Stacy asked after a while, still aiming her weapon at the alien.
“Very good,” Iris said. “The dialect he’s using is fairly simple once you work out the verb conjunctions. Their noun placement is also unlike most modern languages, but—”
“English, Iris. Can you translate whatever it’s saying into something we can understand yet?” I reminded the Cognitive.
“Oh yes.” Iris paused for the briefest moment. “I think in time I will be able to not only teach the alien our tongue, but as of this moment, I believe I can relay a simple question to him.”
“You called it a him,” said Stacy.
“Correct,” replied Iris. “This one is a male. At least, I am 93% certain of it. I’m still perfecting certain translations.”
“Great, good work, Iris,” Arun said with a nod toward our alien friend. “Can you ask him if he’s alone?”
Iris and the alien went back and forth for several minutes, giving no indication of progress. I also couldn’t tell from the variety of facial gestures whether or not this person was actually happy or pissed. The way I saw it, he seemed to be both at the same time, often giving something between a snarl and a smile.
Iris was doing her best, but I began to wonder if asking the most advanced sentient artificial intelligence in the history of mankind to learn an alien language in the matter of a few hours was actually too big of an ask.
“He says he’s alone,” Iris said, pulling me out of my thoughts. “His name is Tong, and he’s part of a race called the Remboshi.”
At the mention of his name, the alien placed a three-fingered hand on his chest and snapped its jaw furiously.
The rest of my team stared at him, saying nothing.
I cleared my throat. “Can you ask Tong what he’s doing here and why he’s alone?”
Iris spoke with Tong again, this time getting the answer much faster than before.
Whatever Iris and Tong were talking about had evoked a new expression from the reptilian alien—rigid eyes and an agape mouth, only slightly showing his fangs. He motioned to the three of us in the room. He looked and pointed directly at me.
Come on, I thought to myself. What is it now?
“Tong says his people were killed in this section of the planet. He says he was put to sleep until—” She paused. “I’m not certain of the translation, but my best assumption is—visitors. Yes, until the visitors awoke him.”
“What else?” I asked, sensing more to this unraveling thread. “What’s the rest of it?”
She paused. “He says he believes we were sent to save him. No, I’m sorry. I mistranslated. Not him. All of them.”
Arun looked around the room. “Who else is there?”
“The rest of his people,” explained Iris. “Thousands of them, and they’re sleeping all across this world, buried deep beneath the ground.”
Tong slammed his hand on his chest and made another strange gesture with his fingers. “Tse gu kal!”
Iris translated immediately. “The Great Dawn has come!”
Dean, Ricky, and Stacy will return in ORION AWAKENED, coming January, 2019!
Check Out the Renegade Star Series
Taking place 2000 years after the Orion Colony Series, experience the bestselling series from J.N. Chaney.
They say the Earth is just a myth. Something to tell your children when you put them to sleep, the lost homeworld of humanity. Everyone knows it isn't real, though. It can't be.
But when Captain Jace Hughes encounters a nun with a mysterious piece of cargo and a bold secret, he soon discovers that everything he thought he knew about Earth is wrong. So very, very wrong.
Climb aboard The Renegade Star and assemble a crew, follow the clues, uncover the truth, and most importantly, try to stay alive.
Experience the beginning of a sprawling galactic tale in this first entry to The Renegade Star series. If you’re a fan of Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, or Indiana Jones, you’ll love this epic, space opera thrill ride.
Warning: This book contains action, cussing, and general badassery. Read at your own risk.
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Books in the Renegade Star Universe
Renegade Star Series:
Renegade Children (Out Now!)
Renegade Union (January 2019)
Renegade Empire (March 2019)
Nameless: A Renegade Star Story (Out Now!)
The Orion Colony Series:
Orion Uncharted (Dec 2018)
About the Authors
J. N. Chaney has a Master’s of Fine Arts in creative writing and fancies himself quite the Super Mario Bros. fan. When he isn’t writing or gaming, you can find him online at www.jnchaney.com.
Jonathan Yanez is the author of over 30 books. He has worked as a personal trainer, model, and life coach, not to mention a wide array of other professions. When he’s not writing, you can find him online at https://www.jonathan-yanez.com/