Iíd like to thank Bre Tyler with all my heart for the science vocabulary she graciously provided for Dr. Scottís autopsy. Thanks, Bre, youíre one in a jillion!
A Terrible Truth
Kyle met Kayla and Jill at the brightly-lit spaceport. Kayla welcomed him with a warm hug and Jill wiggled her fingers in greeting as Steve stepped up, now wearing his black armor. Kyle didnít see him and Jill exchange an eye wink.
Kyle reshouldered his back pack as a shuttle touched the landing strip not far from where they stood. He half wished either Midnight or Voodoo would take them instead. But Midnight had his hands tied in a legal battle between a newer member of the intersystemary alliance and a band of supposed space pirates. Voodoo was unavailable, working on the more dangerously damaged areas in the south continent. That was alright but Kyle couldnít understand why Voodoo kept a shield between them most of the time now. Lately it resulted in a series of headaches, but not so that Scott couldnít tolerate the pain. Kyle frowned to himself and figured Voodoo must be in another bad mood.
"Here comes the bus." Parker joked. The four of them turned to face the shuttle as it lighted beside them not more than three yards away. The hatch lowered and the ladies boarded first, Kyle, then Steve followed. Kyle took a seat across from Kayla and snapped his safety harness together and watched her gracefully apply her own.
She gazed up and he sent her a wry smile. "You didnít have to come, Kayla, really."
She slowly blinked her lovely dark, sparkling eyes. "I know." she answered with the same leveled voice. She swept her dark hair from the horns curling round her cheeks. "But since you and Steve got into trouble last time, I thought me and Jill should tag along and try to keep you out of it. Besides, Jill said she wanted to go with you to the excavation site."
Kyle blinked, very grateful.
After talking with the pilot for several moments, Steve found his seat and strapped in. "I thought it might be a good idea to tell our driver exactly where to drop us off." He announced.
"And whereís that?" Jill asked as she tied her white hair.
"That museum-place where Beth DíChlavic mostly worked."
Jill touched her right temple, trying to recall: "Rychal." She guessed.
"Right." Parker nodded.
Kyleís eyes fell to the floor. He hadnít even thought of going to the museum. He gazed at Steve whose face was locked in an aimless stare as he communicated with Midnight. Kyle decided to let go of his feelings of inadequacy. His friends werenít there to do anything more than support his decision.
The museumís lobby smelled of stale paint and old books. The smooth marble floor bore the museumís business label and three huge paintings dangled from the right side of the room, the left side displayed a menu of offices, rooms and staff members. Kyle and Steve stared at the menuboard while Kayla and Jill raised their heads to the ceilingís lofty height.
"Here," Kyle pointed. "They still have Rychalís name on here."
"Slow progress." Steve muttered. "Room 394. I hope they have elevators here." He adjusted his backpack and moved ahead of his three friends. Kyle slid the hat back over his head and walked beside Kayla. Jill slowly tagged along, her brown eyes taking in every little detail around them.
They were forced to take the staircase. Steve had to stop on several occasions to catch a breath that yet reminded him of his wounded shoulder. Kyle remained with him while the ladies traveled ahead, chattering about this patient or that, catching up on Jillís operetta hobby or Kaylaís latest pen pal. They took their time, finally reaching the third floor and passed through a pair of stainless steel automatic doors. A huge reception area yawned before them, lined in rich velvet burgundy walls and three hand-made tapestries. At the opposite end of the room a great corridor stretched out of eyesight. In front of that squatted an old wooden desk. A round-faced receptionist tapped at a keyboard.
Steve drew a deep breath, a little weary from their climb. taking on his leadership responsibility he approached the receptionist. "Hi." He greeted through the translator.
She slowly peeled her eyes off the monitor, staring at him over a pointy little nose bridged by a set of tiny reading glasses. "Do you need something?" Kyle thought he was going to die laughing. The woman practically spoke through her nose.
"Uhh . . . weíre hoping to find someone we can talk to in regards to a Mister . . . Rychal?"
She stared at him like a vulture then smiled like one too. "Iím sorry. Doctor Rychal died two months ago. Youíll have to go elsewhere."
Kyle stepped up and set his fingertips on the old desk. "My name is Doctor Kyle Scott. I was in the process of treating Beth DíChlavic when-"
The receptionist took to her feet, her face a distortion of emotion. "DíChlavic committed suicide. End of story. Now please leave."
"She didnít commit suicide; something killed her." Kyle sternly replied. "Weíre here to find out whatís responsible."
Her dark grey lips pursed in a taut little circle, her eyes, colored in make up, darted from one Interface to the other. The receptionist sat back in her chair, her temper fell just a notch. "You can talk to Donner Klank. Or to Donner Zhaíahn or Donner Miggs. But theyíre hard to catch. They might be able to help you."
Steve blinked slowly, recognizing what she was doing. "We donít have time to Ďcatchí people." He said simply. "Time is running out."
The receptionist opened a drawer and plucked up a piece of chocolate candy. She popped it in her mouth and slowly, rudely chewed it in front of them. "Youíll simply have to go through channels." She drained a glass of iced water.
Steve was not in the mood for this kind of treatment. "We need something more direct than Ďchannelsí."
The receptionist threw her hands in the air. "Direct channels? You?" She smirked, mocking. "Youíre not even from this planet. What makes you think youíll get a hearing?"
Parker set a hand on either side of the old desk and leaned right in her face. "Yeah, well, we either go through direct channels, or we go directly through channels." His striking blue eyes shot right into her.
The receptionist considered his expression, then his armor, then his three companions. Then she reached for the phone. "Donner Shindricks? Sir, thereís someone who would like to talk with you."
Shindriks didnít exactly welcome them with open arms either. Steve and Kyle led the ladies down the hall and through door number 390. They entered a room piled floor to ceiling in books and newspapers, artifacts and shelves overflowing with more reading material. Three over-filled wastebaskets stood around the desk and behind the heavy dark brown desk sat a tall lanky man with a pale grey face and white hair. He ignored them initially, tapping at a key board and glancing once or twice at a notepad.
"I suppose youíre the rude people who harassed my receptionist."
Steve gave him a Ďguilty-as-charged look and silently crossed his arms. The four Tentchi remained still, silent.
When Shindriks grew tired of his silent-treatment game, he sighed loudly, impatiently and turned to them. "What do you want? If youíre after a grant, you will have to go through other channels. We donít give grants here."
Jill folded her arms defensively. "You gave Beth DíChlavic one." she replied coldly.
Shindriksís grey face flushed darkly and his jaw moved from one side to the other. "That was differing circumstances." He answered.
Steve raised his left brow. "I donít suppose that has anything to do with Rychal, does it?"
"Or the government contract." Kyle muttered quietly.
Shindriks glanced from Steve to Kyle and back. A thin smile smeared his lips across his long face. "Who are you people?"
He led them down the hall into what was Rychalís office. He fumbled for keys while the four waited. "Rychal knew Beth was on to something and he begged the museum to fund their work for another full year while Bethís sister scrounged for other grants and loans. Then one day some government worker came to Bethís house looking for her and talked to her husband." He found the key and undid three locks.
Jill searched his face with her dark eyes, finding only the truth in his expression. "But Whyler didnít really know what was going on, did he? He was just hoping his wife could get enough of a grant so he and the kids could be with her on the site."
"Right." Shindriks answered. He opened the door to a small dark room cramped with books, tools, computers, artifacts and paperwork. He stepped in so the others could follow then closed the door behind Kayla. He smiled grimly at the tall dark lady and latched one lock. "Thereís so much stuff here I donít know which of my staff I should assign this mess to. Thereís just no way of finding a place to start. Rychal loved books and papers and such. Heís been known to steal ancient scrolls and texts from sites. In fact, wanna hear something weird?"
Shindriks grabbed all their attention and they stared at him expectantly. The museum currator stood straight, proud. "Rychal brought in this one scroll from an early dig. He translated it in three days and read it outloud to me as a joke." Now Shindriks smiled grimly. "I lost my hair the next day."
Kyle and Steve flinched in surprise. Jill blinked. Kayla heard only half the story, her eyes swept from one end of the room to the next, looking for anything regarding their problem.
"Donner Shindriks," she called politely. "What about the space ships?"
Shindriks blinked. "S-space ships?" He forced a light laugh. "Where did you hear about space ships? What space ships?"
"The ones Beth remarked about in her journal." Jill answered. She watched as Kyle plucked up a small vase and turn it over in his hands while Steve read a book from a nearby stack.
The curator shook his head. "There must be an inaccurate piece of information. They never said anything about space ships."
Kyle, Kayla and Steve all stared at him, their eyes, dark and striking, shot him with suspicion. "No." Shindriks repeated. "No ships. Sheís found cities. Wonderful cities filled with old tapestries and bones and dishes and alters and-"
"Whatís the significance of the dog in the ancient world?" Kyle interrupted.
"S-significance? Well . . . predator, naturally."
"With the eyes and stomachs removed." Doctor Scott added.
The thin man forced another laugh. "You canít be serious! I have no idea what youíre talking about."
"Thatís funny." Steve instantly answered. "If I didnít know any better, Iíd say you were trying to hide something, Donner Shindriks." He heard the curator swallow convulsively. "Tell you what: you tell us the location of the site and weíll leave you all alone with your little secrets and fears. Sound good to you?"
The four Interfaces exited the taxi two hours later. Their armor-shot feet scraped across broken blacktop and approached a rickity ancient building decorated with bright lights and large posters. Jill entered the bar and grill restaurant first. Her eyes scanned what she thought as a filthy run-down establishment. The old wooden walls and tables smelled of oil, the wooden floors crunched and grounded under her feet, indicating more filth than the medic/technician care to think about. Yellow lighting touched all their eyes, the stench of alcohol and roasting meat mingled with the sharp eye-watering smells of tobacco, or Chenobisí equivalent thereof. She turned to her male companions with a scrutinizing eye.
"Are you guys sure weíre going to find a guide here? Look at this place! No descent guide would dare step foot in here."
Steve smiled confidently at her, his blue eyes sparkling. "Nonsense." He answered smoothly. "This is where all the good business is. See, people inhabit these places because they know only the desperate are willing to come here and spend really good money. I should know, I did it a few times myself. Come on."
And Parker moved ahead of the others. Jill stared pointedly at Kyle. "Heís nuts!" She whispered.
Doctor Scott smiled smoothly and replaced his hat. "Yup."
Parker took a stool at the bar and glanced right, then left. All the patrons were tough, large grey men anywhere between their teens and seniors. The bar tender handed two over-weight bearded men their drinks and accepted a private tip. Three other men engaged in conversation called for the check and another young man with a woman attached to his arm approached the bar, sitting at the stool while she remained standing. She clung to him and giggled at every word he had to say.
Finally the bar keep attended Parker and Scott, nodding once at their lady companions. Jill scowled at him while Kayla glanced nervously about, surprised no one had said anything regarding her alien looks. She squirmed uncomfortably and inched a little more closely to Kyle. Even her armor gave her no security in a place like this.
"Whatíll it be, people?" The bar tender asked directly.
Steveís left brow shot up. "Sunsets?" He asked.
The keep nodded. "Sunsets. All of you?"
"Water." Kyle corrected for himself.
"Me too." Kayla hurriedly added.
The keep snorted and smiled loppidly. "You come to a bar and donít order drinks? You folks arenít from around here, are you? Looking for information?"
Steve gave him a flashy grin. "What was your first clue?"
The Keep nodded again and jotted their order on a tablet and passed it through a window behind him. "Whatís the question?" He asked, laying hands on the counter.
"A guide to an archeological site." Kyle answered flatly.
The keep puckered his lips. "Interesting."
Steve decided to add to that: "Beth DíChlavic?"
The Keep gave him a deeper nod, seeming to understand. "Thatís the spooked site, isnít it?"
"Spooked site?" Kyle echoed.
"Yeah. Every one of those archeologists died from the curse. Every one of them. So youíre heading that way, hu? Think youíre going to find treasure there?"
"Not looking for treasure." Steve replied as an older waitress served their drinks.
The keep harumphed and turned right, towards the door. "Thereís a couple of guys, kind of mean sort, who might help you. But their feeís not too palatable."
Steve and Kayla glanced in the pointed direction and found two burly men huddled in a corner, absorbed in a small hand-held computer. Kayla assumed they were playing video games.
Jill shouldered her back pack a little more securely. "You know," she announced, "I think this requires a ladyís touch." She handed the pack to Kayla and walked away before Kyle could utter a sound of protest.
The three hung back while Jill wove her way around three tables and avoided bumping into the couple as they made their way out the bar. She stepped to the table and got the two menís attention. But from across the room, their voices could not be heard. Kyle and Steve waited, watching, more than prepared to jump to her rescue should the moment call for it. They watched as the nurse/technician flipped her silky white hair once, her right hand resting comfortably on her hip. Even in the armor, Jill projected a kind of undaunted charisma. The two men seemed to remain polite to her. One of them put his mini computer away and folded his hands on the table. The other glanced around her to her companions and nodded.
Then McKennan returned with a smile. "Theyíll take us." She reported. "But they want fifty percent of the fees up front and the rest when we reach the site."
"Done." Steve answered swiftly.
Kyle remained silent, still not comfortable that his friends were putting themselves in danger on his account. He drank his water and wondered what Voodoo was doing.
The shuttle they took resembled something a little less safe than an ancient Earth jalopy. Steve could not recall a time when he was more than happy to be standing on firm ground again. He checked his equipment and belongings, then made sure his friends were alright and more or less prepared for the four mile hike down the cliff side. Kyle fidgeted constantly, rubbing his hand and glancing over his shoulder as though expecting something or someone to jump out and attack them. He was spooked. But Scott would not admit it.
Kayla noticed Kyleís behavior too and with a glance at Steve, she linked Kyleís arm in hers and the two followed their guides to the edge of the cliff.
Kyle gave her a grateful smile but said nothing. Steve followed them, Jill taking up the backside, daring to glance over her shoulder now and again, just to be sure.
The site was everything Beth DíChlavic mentioned in her journal. The sea rushed in a roar, forcing all conversation to be held in loud voices. Clean air, washed in sea spray, cleared their heads and kissed their armor-clad bodies with tiny droplets.
Down, down and the light faded slightly. Kyle paused once, his eyes spotted the camp through the visor in his helmet. Memories of a blood-splattered wall rushed through his mind. The blood smeared and formed an eerie mark, as though it were writing an alien alphabet. He trembled slightly.
"Kyle?" Kayla called softly. "What is it?"
His heart beat faster and Kyle batted his eyes in the sudden rush of cold air. Kaylaís dark brown hair flew to life in the gentle breeze, her large eyes unmoved from his expression. She watched as Doctor Scott swallowed his fear, blinking again under the stern self control developed by many centuries of training.
He drew two deep breaths, shook his head then pressed forward. Kayla stared at him until Kyle offered her his arm. Obviously he didnít want to talk about it. She laced her arm with his, this time entwining their fingers and resumed the descent.
Left untouched by either police or government investigators, the camp stood in disarray, a chaotic graveyard. Rumors of people dying every time the camp was disturbed had more or less discouraged trespassing. Cooking ware lay in a tumbled heap. Clothes dotted the ground now soiled and soaked with rain and high waves. Three automobiles stood as monuments to what was a worth-while money-making venture. One automobile rested topped-over on the ground, its chassis charred and black. Two tents still stood, dutifully protecting the property within. Many items, including the eastern wall of one tent, were stained with blood.
Jill proceeded their guides. The two burly men, clad in bullet-proof vests and climbing equipment, made no move to hold her back. She aimed for the nearest tent, an ugly green expanse with entrance flaps that whisked in and out with the hardy ocean breeze. Jill deactivated her helmet, waiting just long enough for it to slip into subspace then glanced back at her companions. "It seems everything is still here." She announced. "But I thought authorities were supposed to be here to clean everything up. Why is it still here?"
Parker moved on ahead of Scott and Kayla, not so much as glancing at their guides. He peeped into one car then scanned the area. The ocean roared and splashed another half mile from the cliff side. There might have been a total of three miles worth of wilderness before the sea claimed that side of the world. Why did the scientists bring vehicles? Steve decided to let Jill investigate the tent while he approached a car, mindful that Kyle settled enough to scrounge and mull over blood samples and clothing. Their guides started a camp fire and contacted their base.
Deep ugly scratches desecrated the car Parker examined. It stood roofless and weathered. Holes peppered the vinyl seats in the front and back and a shoe sat in the back seat; someoneís foot still in it. Steve winced and opened the driverís side to Ďpopí the trunk. But the car was a bit old, even for Chenobis and no trunk lever could be found in the front. Steve slammed the door a bit loudly and swished through tall grasses to the trunk. He took extra note how the back end suffered minor damage. But he could not determine whether it was from an attack or an older accident.
Steve merely blew the lock with his gun, not bothering to pick it. The car opened like an unwilling clam and revealed a trunk stuffed with boxes and sleeping bags. Steve hauled out the sleeping bags, tossing them carelessly in the back seat and sat on the fender and opened the first of four boxes. Computer readouts, manuals, maps, a small box of tools, a first aid kit and someoneís private supply of chocolate was all he found there.
"Steve?" Kyle called.
Parker stood abruptly and just missed hitting his head on the hood. He found Scott to the right and Kyle waved him over. Steve closed the trunk and approached, hoping Kyle wasnít going to show him anything gross.
Kyle poked a stick at a pile of small bones. Steve squatted beside him and stared at the eerie site. "What is it?"
"A cat . . . of sorts." Doctor Scott answered simply.
"A cat? What would eat a cat and leave the skeleton in tact?"
Kyle shook his head. "Insects are known to do things like that. Or maybe the animal died of natural causes and insects came and finished the job. But that usually takes months and months."
"Well, the incident here happened over two months ago."
Kyle met his gaze and Steve could tell his friend was very nervous. "The bones are soft, Steve. That means this creature didnít die that long ago. Iíd give it a week, if that-" a flash hit Kyle, blanking his mind. The vision of a wind pressed itself hard against him and he remembered a voice, someone screaming. And the wind had teeth.
Steve saw Kyleís eyes widen, his face turned blank and stared at the rockface before them. Parker gripped Kyleís upper arm and tried to read his friendís expression when the doctor blinked as though recovering from a seizure. "What?" Steve asked softly. "Did you remember something?"
Kyle sorrowfully turned away. He shook his head and stood straight, unable to meet Steveís puzzled face. Steve watched him make distance between them. He had half a mind to tranquilize Kyle, call Midnight and have them taken back to Cybertron. Parker was right on insisting Kyle did not come here alone.
Kayla screamed. Both the men took off toward her direction, leaping over damaged goods, boxes and rounding an old campfire site. Kayla turned and hid her face against Steveís shoulder while Kyle knelt next to a worm-infested corpse. Scott recalled the armor covering his hands into subspace and snapped on a pair of latex gloves.
Steve swallowed his revulsion, wrapping his arms protectively around Kayla. He heard Jill stomp through the grasses. She passed them and did the same as Kyle, producing a pocket scanner from subspace.
"Investigator." Kyle announced over a rush of sea waves. "Looks like the government and local investigators might have been here after all." He gazed over his shoulder at Steve who raised his left brow. "Question is, whereís the rest of them and their equipment?"
"Probably in the very same place as this guyís stomach." Jill answered plainly. She took her turn glancing over her shoulder. "Kayla, itís okay. Heís been dead for a while." She assured gently.
Kayla turned to her, her dark eyes wide. "I thought he was someone who was here before us and when I touched his shoulder, he fell over."
Kyle slowly stood, not breaking eye contact with her. "The corpse was still standing?"
Kyle and Steve stared at one another. Parker winced. "Perhaps we should camp up the cliff tonight, rather than here. Just to be on the safe side."
Kyle rounded them and swept up a wet blue tarp from the ground and laid it respectfully over the body. He shot a sharp gaze at Steve, but it wasnít really aimed at Steve at all. Kyle was angry at himself for not taking more time to read through Bethís journal first. Damn sloppy, he thought to himself. He laid several large rocks over the tarp to keep the wind from tossing it away. His companions stood by in silence, concerned for his sullen behavior.
Steve struck up the campfire. Their guides sat with them quietly discussing current events in their own native tongues. Steve concerned himself with a map of the continent while Kayla made dinner. Parker kept a close eye on Kyle who had fallen far too quiet. He longed to reach out to his friend much like Midnight did for him when despondency hit.
<<Agreed.>> Midnight answered quietly. <<Iíll see if I can get a hold of Voodoo.>>
<<Kyle says Voodoo has kept a shield between them all day. I think thatís part of his problem.>> Midnight vibrated puzzlement down their link and Steve only gave him an inward shrug.
<<Voodoo accused Kyle of the very same thing.>> Midnight said at length. <<He said heís had a headache the last couple of days. He used a few choice words, too.>>
Parker frowned deeply and watched as Kyleís right hand twitched then rested. <<I should have just chained him to his quarters.>> he moaned.
<<What?>> Mid asked.
Steve caught himself and smiled sheepishly. <<Nothing. Has Ashtar called yet?>>
<<No. She and Cathy are still on assignment.>>
Steve stared into the fire. He watched as Kyle started tossing small pebbles at the coals. The fireís light shot off the doctorís eyes, lighting his face in a frightful fashion. Kyle tossed another series of rocks into the fire. He seemed unaware of everything around him. He tossed again until his hand twitched and he held it in mid air for a moment. Parker caught Kayla glancing at Kyle too and they met eyes.
"Kyle." Steve quietly called, knowing Midnight was listening in.
Kyle didnít look at him.
Steve decided to just keep talking. "What do you want to do tomorrow?"
Kyle stared unblinking at the fire. It danced hypnotically in front of him. It helped relieve a growing pain in his head. It promised death and destruction. Fire kills and it dances the most beautiful of dances.
Something cold caressed his cheek. A pair of icy lips touched him. A set of poisoned arms embraced him. Kyle considered suicide just then. *They* would have to find someone else to torture and tease. *They* would have to find another host. Distantly he heard Steve call his name.
But all he could think of was Voodoo. Pain phased into his head behind his eyes as though someone slid a slab of thick metal through his skull. Pain throbbed in his temples, but Kyle did not move. His hand also started hurt.
Something cold kissed his face again like a spider kissing a fly before feeding on it.
It was only a matter of time.
Then Doctor Scott realized Steve had said something and he used his native subconscious trait to pull information forward and recall what Parker asked just then.
"I think we should pick around just a little bit more." He answered quietly. "Then we should check out the cavern."
One of their guides leaned forward over Jill, staring at Kyle who did not look back. "Place is cursed. You do not want to go there." He warned.
Jill gave him an annoyed look, holding the journal close to her bosom until he moved away. She glanced at Steve, but his eyes had not left Kyle.
Kyle said nothing. He just stared into the fire. A flash passed his mind. Something vague like a dragon, or a dragonís fire. There was a building full of children and the dragon spat fire and flames swept the room and he could hear children scream while he and other people carried them out. He remembered voices, but could not make out what they said.
Kayla added another log to the fire and brushed her hands of dirt. "Steve, have you heard anything from Ashtar?"
"Not yet. She and Cathy are still gone."
New names. Kyleís attention snapped out of his daze and he glanced from Steve to Kayla. "Who?" He asked.
They stared at him in mute surprise, then guilt shadowed their faces. Kyle realized the names were people he should have already known. He threw up his hands and took to his feet. "Oh no! I donít want to know!" and he turned away.
"Kyle!" Steve called as Scott walked off. But the doctor refused to turn back. Parker cursed himself and jumped to follow. "Kyle!" He called again.
Kyle leaned against a tree, pressing his forehead against an arm and shook his head. "Leave me alone, Steve. Just leave me alone."
Steve stepped beside him, glancing just over the cold starless horizon. He felt just as bleak as the sky. He reached out to lay a hand on Scott, but decided against it. "Kyle, Iím sorry. I . . ." he shook his head, unable to think of anything else to say.
Kyle fought to control his emotions. The throbbing pain in his head didnít help matters. He swallowed hard, his eyes fell into the terrible darkness before them. In the distance, the ocean roared and slammed itself against the cliffs. He wondered briefly how far down those cliffs went, how long it would take for him to die if he jumped off. He swallowed again. "So what else am I supposed to know?" He asked with a broken voice. "What else has been stolen from me? Who is Ashtar? What of all those other people you mentioned . . . Ryan or something."
Kyle really didnít want to know. Not now. He longed for something simple, for some kind of easy answer. No, he longed to wake up suddenly and find this whole thing a terrible dream and he would get out of bed and go about his life.
Steve dreaded answering. "Ashtar is my wife." He said quietly.
Kyleís eyes shot at him, a fierce light reflected in them and Steve felt even worse. Kyle squeezed his eyes tight then opened them in disbelief. "Youíre married, and you didnít bother to tell me? What kind of game are you playing?"
"Iím not playing at any kind of game." Steve answered levelly. Kyle trembled now and he turned wholly toward Parker, the light in his eyes died. Steve drew another breath. "You have been in and out of shock in the last three weeks, I donít know how much information you can handle all at once-" he interrupted himself and held up his hands. "Okay, I made a mistake." He added carefully.
Kyle fell to his knees and bowed over, overwhelmed with frustration. He laced his fingers in his white-blonde hair and longed to dig his hands through his own skull and pull it apart. He almost couldnít cry.
Steve knelt in front of him, still unsure whether or not to touch him. "Kyle, Iím sorry." He whispered.
"It . . . isnít you, Steve!" Kyle wept. "I just want my life back! Every morning . . . I wake up and hope to God I will remember and nothing . . . nothing comes! I donít know who I am! I donít know anyone around me! And I listen to my journal . . . and itís just dates and names and events! I just want my life back!"
Steve struggled to think of something, anything to say to help ease Kyleís pain. He finally laid a hand on Kyleís head, his own heart ached. "Kyle . . . it hasnít been any easier for us." He said as soothing as he could. "But we are here to take care of you."
Kyle slowly sat up, hiding his face in his hands. "Iím sorry." He whispered.
"No!" Steve shook his head. "Donít be sorry! Donít be sorry."
"I come dragging you guys here . . ." Kyle could not finish the sentence. His body shuddered with grief and Steve tightly embraced him.
"It doesnít matter." Parker murmured quietly.
"It does," Kyle argued, "If Iím going straight to Hell." he laid his head on Steveís shoulder, feeling the cold armor against his face. His right arm weakly fell. He could do nothing now except lean against Steve. He thought about staying awake and wait until everyone was sound asleep before finding his way back to the cliffs.
He was talking about death. Steve knew that was not how Kyle usually talked. This was not the Kyle Scott he knew. And Parker suddenly suspected Kyle did not come back to Chenobis to find an answer, but to die. He held his friend closely. "Then thatís where Iíll go, too." He whispered. But he doubted Scott heard him. Kyleís arm fell of its own accord and Steve guessed Scott had passed out. Whether it was from emotional overload, or other ailment, Steve could not tell-at least not here. He pushed himself off his knees, easily managing Kyleís weight. Steve swept under Scottís knees and carried him back to the campfire.
The sun yawned an expanse of colors, painting the sky in golds and pinks. Kyleís eyes snapped open the moment sunlight touched him. He sat up and took inventory of his surroundings. Their guides had passed out a few yards from the rest of the camp. Kayla slept nearby Steve, Jill lay opposite of Kyle, the journal under her arm. He stood, drawing a cold breath and wondered how he was able to sleep with his armor on.
The back of his mind screamed for something but Doctor Scott could not tell what it was. He carefully picked his way toward Jill and slipped the journal out from under her. He paced some distance from the rest of the group, his footfalls cushioned by soft ground and long grasses. He stood at the edge of the cliff and gazed down at the campsite. He recalled thinking about dying the night before, but he felt nothing of it now. For the millionth time, Kyle tried to reach Voodoo, only to find a cold empty expanse in the link.
Kyle realized that was one of his problems. Separation from Voodoo in this manner has caused an emotional imbalance. He struggled to recall what he did last night but all he could remember was being upset about something.
Did he and Steve have an argument? Kyle searched hard, struggling to recall words, but nothing came to mind. The corners of his mouth tightened in frustration and he sat in the cold tall grasses. Everyone was still asleep, giving him a little time to consider what to do from here. He knew they should have studied the journal first. Doctor Scott opened the book and flipped through the pages, seeking passages regarding the site and Bethís experience.
"I call them the Watchers." One passage claimed. Kyle recalled that one clearly enough, though he didnít remember whether Jill told him that or not.
"The two dogs have empty eye sockets and their stomachs have been carved out . . . the skin scroll tucked away in the little ceramic box . . . The word ĎZhagkí in the ancient language means Ďdemoní. Could this be a contract with a demon?" Kyle thought hard about this. All his clues were right here and he wondered why he came back to Chenobis at all. What a crazy idea! What was he hoping to accomplish? What was he after? He needed more than answers; he needed a weapon.
The doctorís dark brown eyes scanned the expanse of the ocean before him. It was no later than fifteen minutes past sunrise and already clouds gathered in the distance. Desperation urged Kyle to keep thinking, to plan exactly what he needed to do. He needed to know what he was up against, that much was clear. There was no way they could combat the creatures unless they had more knowledge.
What troubled Kyle more then anything else was how Jill mentioned that Chenobis suffered from plaques every so often. Their answers were here. Not just in the journal, but here at the site. Why didnít the government do anything about the deaths here? Why was everything still here, even when someone said it was cleaned up?
They did say it was cleaned up, didnít they? Kyle blinked. No! Whyler said the site was closed off after the government investigators disappeared.
And then there was the discovery of the space ships Jill mentioned. What would the space ships have to do with this? Kyle dove back into the book, looking for the passages dealing with the space ships.
" . . . we found the space ship!" He scanned further, finding Bethís team was divided between opening the ship, or leaving it in peace. But to Scottís dismay, her group decided to leave it be.
He turned back to the description of the dog statues and wondered about the missing eyes and carved-out stomachs. Why? And the answer might lie with the dead investigator Kayla found yesterday.
Symbolic? Beth mentioned about the skin scroll as a contract with a demon. Perhaps someone along the line made a contract with a creature-in this case what was considered a demon to them-and perhaps the result was the dog-beasts?
Kyleís eyes narrowed. "No," he said softly. "Somethingís missing from the picture. Somethingís not right." He sighed and settled a little more comfortably and started reading the journal straight through.
Parker rolled over and groaned. The ground was too unforgiving for his liking. The morning light greeted him in dulled grey colors, the cold breeze bit his face. He lay on his back, lazily staring up at the clouding sky. They needed to get moving and get back to Cybertron as soon as possible. He didnít know what was wrong with Kyle. Were they losing him somehow? Steve fought that notion with every shred of his will. Thatís precisely why he came with Kyle.
Parker sat up and found Kyle already gone.
"Shit!" He exclaimed and took to his feet.
"Whatís wrong?" Kayla asked sleepily.
"Get up. Scottís already gone." Steve ordered sternly.
"What?" Kayla and Jill both sat up, their eyes wide.
"Damn him!" Jill spat. She stood and threw her blanket down.
Kayla immediately shot off toward the pathway leading to the site. Parker followed with a last glance at their sleeping guides. They should be alright where they were. He dashed to catch up with Kayla and they ran right for the cliff ridge, both of them nearly sliding in their tracks when they found their companion sitting, reading the journal.
Steve approached Kyle first, Kayla tagging behind. Steve squatted beside the doctor. "Iím going to kill you." He threatened.
Kyle calmly stared at him and Steve swallowed air. Kyleís eyes were a gun-shot grey then they faded back to dark brown. "I didnít want to wake anyone up." He answered in a small voice.
Parker forgot his anger and settled on his knees. Kayla did the same, producing a med scanner from subspace. She scanned Kyleís life signs and frowned. He had a slight temperature and his blood pressure was a little too high. They needed to get him back to Cybertron. She turned to replace the scanner when it lit up on Steve and the same symptoms registered from him. Her face twisted in puzzlement and she glanced from one man to the other but decided to keep her discovery quiet until Jill arrived.
Kyle returned to the journal, holding it up a little higher to read out loud. "According to the Vemanese, the whole world nearly died. The great army of evil descended and their filth contaminated the world from one side to the other. First striking the educated then the under-developed parts of the world." Kyle lowered the book and studied Kayla and Steve as Jill joined them. "Jill was trying to figure out why the space ships werenít more of a discovery, more of a culture-wide phenomenon than they are. The answer is, the Chenobians have known about the space ships throughout the centuries. Steve, Chenobians arenít the same people they were over two thousand years ago. They are a hybrid of Chenobian and alien races. These people were conquered by another race. In fact, according to this journal, we are standing on top of a temple that houses a space ship."
Jill knelt beside Kayla, her face reflecting shock. "Youíre saying that maybe the things that have hunted you down are aliens?"
"No." Kyle shook his head. "They are a result of the initial invasion. I donít know what the correlation is, except that about twelve hundred years after the first invasion, the dog-beasts appeared. They started killing indiscriminately at first. Then they started killing only certain populations. They attack every so many decades or hundreds of years, as though they are cast into prison and somehow escape each time."
Kaylaís gaze stretched across the ocean as Jill joined the group. The seaís beauty seemed so calm, so peaceful, it was hard to believe a site filled with death could even be here. "Do you think Beth and her team are responsible for the dog-beasts escaping their prison?"
"Most likely." Kyle replied. He leafed through the book, searching for other things, other phrases. "But itís hard to say because after they entered the Room of Alters, her writing becomes erratic, filled with single-phrases or just notes like: "We found them, or rather their skins."
"Rychal." Steve automatically assumed.
"I think so, too." Kyle nodded slowly. "I thought that by reading through the journal, we might be able to retrace Bethís steps and find out exactly what happened and maybe find a way to correct it."
They all fell silent. Steve stared at his friend while Kyle kept turning page after page in the journal. Steve didnít want to go through with this. He didnít want to go into the site itself. But he knew full well thatís where Kyle was headed. And there was no way to talk Scott out of it. But he knew too that Kyle wasnít doing this for himself. He was acting out of a physicianís perspective-find the cause, create the cure.
"Okay," Parker sighed heavily, "We go down in teams, we stay in constant contact. I want to hear chatter. Nobody stays silent. First sign of trouble, we leave. Deal?" And he stared meanfully at Kyle.
Kyle nodded solemnly, knowing it would do no good at this point to argue with Steve. Steve was willing to do this out of respect for Kyle. And the doctor knew he had to play by these rules; well, this was a better deal than ending up chained to his bed-or whatever worse situation Steve could invent!
Leaving word with their guides, they took up their back packs and made the three-mile descent in less time than it took the day before. Kayla tried not too look at the site. Listening to Kyleís translation of the journal, she could guess what happened here: the poltergeists, or ghosts or whatever other entity was responsible for Kyleís dilemma, killed everyone here.
The four approached the mouth of the cave, the siteís main entrance. Solid metal government seals crossed the mouth of the darkness but Steve dispensed with that by a single laser shot. He activated his helmet from subspace and headed in first, followed by Kyle then the ladies.
The descent proofed further than they thought. Down, down into the gut of the plateau itself.
"I think this is the reason for the cars outside." Kyle suggested. He couldnít get over the wonderful night vision capabilities of his armor. He dragged his fingers over the sandstone walls, taking extra care not to touch drawings and graffiti along the way.
"This is weird." Steve agreed. "If this place is this far down, how the hell did they even know of its existence?"
"Folklore?" Jill suggested. "If you recall, Shindriks was very nervous when you asked about Beth mentioning space ships."
Steve grinned, rather glad no one else saw his expression. "Itís Kaylaís charm." he answered. "I think heís rather fond of you, Kayla."
"Keep wishing, Steve." The healer answered quietly. "Iíll try to set up a date between you two."
Steve spotted a strange black object protruding from the left wall. He paused to examine it a little more closely. "Heís too young for me." He joked. Parker made room for Kyle to examine the strange object also and the two stared at one another through the visors in their helmets.
"Booby trap?" Kyle asked.
Steve stared at him indecisively. He recalled something Shangyn said about traps a long time ago. He glanced around and plucked up a rock. "Letís hope not." He replied. He tossed the rock out in front of them, watching as it rolled some distance then sat still.
"Steve," Jill called, "I think we should look at this from a technological standpoint."
Parker nodded. "Good idea." He called his laser guns from subspace and aimed them at the rock, heating it until it glowed red. Then from no visible sight, a laser shot out and blew the rock to pieces.
"Thermo-seekers." Parker assessed. "Guess that requires reflection procedures."
Kyle rolled his eyes. "Reflection procedures?" He asked.
Kayla lifted his left arm and undid a control panel located in the upper wrist region. She pressed a sequence of buttons and the armor reacted with a coat of finely-polished shielding. Kyle glanced at it then at her. "Thank you."
She smiled at him and laid a hand on his shoulder before following Steve down the cave.
Steve wanted to make sure he pressed forward before the rest of them. He took three steps and pain jabbed his left shoulder. He winced and rolled his shoulder twice. But it would not let up.
Then the words and photographs on the cave walls stood out and made perfect sense to him. Steve lost his breath. "Oh gods." He swore softly.
"What?" Kayla asked behind him.
"Do you know what all this says?"
"What?" Jill walked around Kyle, staring up at the strange Chenobian writing.
Parker pointed a finger at the dark insidious writing above them: "Warning: Sterile Zone ahead. Fourth level clearance only. Trespassers will be shot on sight."
"Sterile zone?" Kyle glanced from the graffiti to the odd pictures, realizing the styles were completely different, as though done by two different intellects. "Sounds like a science lab rather than a space ship."
Jill turned to him. "But Bethís journal says there is a ship down here."
"Yes." Kyle agreed. "But . . . why would it be sterile?" He thought hard, "Unless they were . . . running experiments."
The girls stared at him. But Steve did not bother. His face twisted slightly. The pain in his shoulder started to travel down his arm and he wondered if Kyle felt anything.
They moved on, their conversations grew shorter and shorter until all four walked in silence. The tunnel, as straight as it was, didnít seem to end and the markings on the walls repeated every few meters.
After another forty-five minutes, Kyle decided they should just turn back. Maybe they should have used one of the vehicles. Obviously that was why they were brought to the camp. But when he was about to make the suggestion, the tunnel ended in a right turn and a wide cavern shot right open before them.
Steve produced an antigrav-light from subspace and tossed it in the air. It clicked three times and flared, producing enough light to allow them to shut off the night vision from their visors. The room lit up like a house of mirrors. Every surface, every wall and panel on floor and ceiling was plastered with stainless steel plates. The shock of brightness forced them all to lower eyeshields on their visors. Once their eyes adjusted, they glanced from one side of the room to the other in silent shock.
Three huge, square, liquid-filled tanks lined one end of the room. Large control panels stood dutifully before them, one of the instruments still bleeped with life. Four rows of file cabinets and shelves jammed with books and memory crystals ran along the other side of the room. Above them dangled several skeletons of creatures none of them had ever seen. And against the far wall stood a lone cubical. The device, or whatever else it might have been called, stood as a perfect cube, made up of gold metal bricks. Letters of an alien alphabet inscribed across each brick. A metal trench surrounded it, giving the object the appearance of an alter. The center of its topside had been carefully removed and set to the right side of the floor. Broken hand lights, charred equipment and three damaged notepads littered the immediate area. And against the wall behind the Ďalterí dangled a pair of humanoid skins.
Kayla turned away from the sight, not daring to guess whose skins they were. Kyle looked away also, turning his attention to the tanks. each of them encased a perfectly preserved specimen. He struggled to guess what the hell was going on here.
Jill stared up at the skeletons suspended in the air by strong cable. She couldnít tell if they were real or facsimiles. But they were not Human/Humanoid by any definition. The skeletons were biped, after a fashion. The heads were oversized, the eye sockets enlarged and the chest area bulky. The back legs were triple-jointed, giving the creature tremendous jumping/running power.
She followed Kayla to a control panel where a very ancient notepad lay undisturbed. Its pages long since yellowed still bore numbers and notes. Pencil etchings could be barely made out. Someone had scribbled out depictions of Humanoid females without the mid sections. Kayla pointed with her taloned finger and Jill silently nodded.
"Itís as if they were cursing the femaleís ability to procreate." She mused over the comline.
"Whatís that?" Steve asked.
"We found a notepad here containing images of females missing their abdomens." Jill left the notepad and tried the file cabinets.
"That makes sense." Kyle mused. He decided the specimens in the containers were different stages of the same creature. "If you were female and raped by an alien invader and you knew you were going to have its offspring, youíd want to cut out that part of your physiology, wouldnít you?"
Kayla shook her head and flipped through other pages in the pad. "How very sad."
Kyle moved around the panels to inspect the creatures more closely when something crunched underfoot. He stopped and stared down at a small pile of catís bones. Kyle squatted to study them further, taking careful note how they were arranged in about the same pattern as the pile outside. He glanced about and found six other piles around them.
"Whatís with the bones?" Parker asked, pointing at the pile. He tried to roll his aching shoulder again and forced his mind to concentrate on the moment.
"I donít know, Steve. The funny thing is, we havenít seen any wildlife since we got here."
"Oh gods." Jill breathed. All eyes turned to her as she slowly yanked on a heavy cabinet drawer, crammed with files and papers. Kyle, Steve and Kayla approached apprehensively. Each took a folder or a piece of paper as she could pull them out. But the paper was brittle with age and she had to tear several sheets before getting to a folder. She handed that to Kyle first, then a second one to Kayla. She almost gave one to Steve, but he simply stared at the one in Kyleís hands.
Kyle leafed through his, finding an ancient photo of a dark Humanoid of undetermined age. Other papers, written in some Chenobian dialect, were more or less official forms filled out with dates and personal data. The file came complete with a thin metal plate containing pockets of organic substances and labels scribbled with handwriting. Kyle instantly recognized the plate as a collection of blood, DNA and brain cell tissue samples. Fascinated, he silently flipped through other pages while Steve took the samples plate and raised a brow.
"Most likely." Kyle muttered.
"Tests? Documented cases of a disease? I donít know, Steve. Iím guessing this whole place was once a quarantined area. Perhaps unknown to the public."
Steve flipped the plate over and found a dark heavy letter laying over the backside, clearly displaying some form of classification. He protruded his lower lip and almost set it back in the folder when his eyes caught the brick face on the cubical Ďalterí and instantly, Steve made a connection. He knelt before the alter and tried to match the plate with each brick on the alter.
Kyle watched until Parker found the exact match. The two met eyes. "Wanna tell me what this means?" Steve asked.
Kyle slowly shook his head and brought out a scanner from his back pack. The corners of his mouth tightened. "Iím getting energy readings." He reported. "But theyíre pretty low." Steve didnít answer. Another thought occurred to Kyle. He produced the journal and searched for the drawing. He unfolded it and held it up. He found the exact matching symbol on the spot.
"What does that mean?" Steve asked.
Kyle mutely shook his head. "But you know, Iíve seen it somewhere else, too, Steve." At his very words, the memory flashed back, splattered in blood. He flinched and blinked his eyes, ordering himself to remain in control. "I remember seeing it in blood."
Parker gaped at him. "What blood?" He asked sharply. The pain in his shoulder slowly increased, making him a little cranky.
Kyle shook his head. "Something I recalled in the reference room at Medbay while Jill was telling me what she found. I donít know, I just remembered it; something to do with a sword fight. I donít know."
The anti-grav light above them fluctuated and all four Interfaces made eye contact. Steve shook his head. "Thatís it. Letís get out of here." He stood as Jill left for the tunnel first, closely followed by Kayla. Steve took three steps.
Kyle put the journal and his back pack into subspace. He started to stand when pain shot through his hand and raced up his arm. He dropped the file and its contents and the scanner tumbled to the floor. Freezing iron sunk into the stigma and he gripped his hand, unable to say anything. He bowed over, sinking to his knees as sharp pain ran from his shoulder down his back and through his head.
"Kyle!" Steve was about to leave when he realized the doctor wasnít shadowing him. Parker found Scott still on his knees, doubled over. He cursed inwardly and tried to get Kyle to stand. He knew they had to leave now.
Kyle staggered to his feet. His head throbbed and he lost all sense of direction.
Kayla paused and when Kyle and Steve were able to move three steps, she exited the cave, following Jill through the tunnel.
But the men never made it to the exit. The second Kaylaís foot left the room, a solid sheet of metal slammed, separating the two teams and the antigrav light burst in a final glory of brightness and the room plunged into blackness.
Pain weakened Kyle so that he sank to his knees and rather than try to get his friend to move, Steve activated the light from his helmet and drew his weapon from subspace. He gazed in every direction, his breath held tightly. His shoulder throbbed sharply but he sternly ordered his mind to ignore it.
Silence hung like the death knell tolling in an unheard dream. Steve could feel something close by but he could see nothing. He glanced from one side of the cavern to another, swinging right to left and back. A voice whispered deep and cold. Parker could not make out the words and they left him unnerved. His heart raced and he tried to contact Midnight with no success. That left him even more unnerved and chills raced down his back. His shoulder ached unmercifully and his breath almost didnít come at all.
A clinking sound caught his attention and Steve swung to his left and watched in shock as the six piles of Ďcatí bones reorganized themselves, standing and pulling together. They spat in a hissing sound and a skin of luminescence energized from the center of their rib cages. A set of wings made of razor-sharp metal materialized and their eyes glowed an eerie yellow-green. The creatures resembled more of small dragons than cats now, but whatever they were, Parker was sure they saw he and Kyle as food.
They took flight, swung once, cawing like old crows and attacked, their little jaws nipping at Steveís armor. But they could not penetrate it. Relief flooded Parker. He could deal with flies. He put the gun away to tend to Kyle.
The pain almost pushed Kyle to the point of unconsciousness. He weakly leaned against Steve and moaned softly when Parker tried to get him to sit up. One cat-dragon darted at Steve and pestered him, pecking at his helmet, gnawing on the armor, flapping its wings in his face. Annoyed, Steve batted at it.
"Kyle, you have to get up!" Steve insisted. "Come on." But for all his effort, Parker could only lay Kyle on the floor. He was about to scan Scottís life signs when a thomp followed by an eerie scratching of bone against metal echoed dully in the cavern. Steve swallowed air and swung around, seeking what could be an attacker.
He really didnít see anything until a terrible mouth crowded with unrealistically large teeth came right for him and knocked Steve to the floor. It growled and pounced on him then left as quickly as it attacked. Steve rolled and tried to get up but the pain in his shoulder traveled down his arm and stole his energy.
It came back and toppled him again, growling and clawing at his armor. Parker tried to back away to get a better look at it. It backed off first, however, revealing its shape as that of an ancient, freakish canine. It stood on oversized claws that scraped the metal flooring like fingernails on a chalkboard. Its oversized mouth dripped with a light-colored saliva. And while its body fleshed out in water and blood, its teeth were clearly an iridescent white. It stared at him, growling and chills raced down Parkerís back. He wondered if it would attack if he moved toward Kyle.
"Just let me take care of my friend." He begged softly.
It snarled a reply and grounded its teeth.
"Please . . . " Parker repeated softly. "Let me take care of Kyle." He held his hands up and moved one foot then the other. He watched the monster watch his every subtle move as he inched toward his friend. Steve knelt, wishing he could see Kyleís face under the helmet. He couldnít tell if Kyle was even conscious.
"Kyle," Steve called. "Come on. "
The pain receded, but not fast enough for Scott to move under his own power. He heard Steve and struggled to give him an answer. Steve tried to help him get back on his feet, but the moment he tucked his hands under Kyleís languid form, the dog pounced, striking hard into Parkerís chest and slamming Steve into a file cabinet.
Steve lost his wind for a moment but caught it just as the dog-beastís terrible maw opened to engulf his right leg. Steve kicked his leg up, knocking it hard against one tooth, but did the dog no damage. He rolled and sprang back to his feet and called his weapon back from subspace. The dog barked, the sound shot painfully down Parkerís spine and he winced. It growled and pounced for him again.
Steve ducked and threw himself in the dogís direction, sliding under the beast as it landed on all fours. It skidded along the plated flooring and spun around.
Kyle was vaguely aware of what was going on. He couldnít figure out why the girls werenít helping Steve. He sat up with great effort and struggled to force the cobwebs out of his head. He watched as the dog-beast pounced on Steve only to be held off when Parker slipped out from underneath.
They had to get away and there was nothing around them to ward the monster off. Kyle glanced all around the room, searching for anything that might help Steve. His eyes drifted to the three holding tanks, standing so dark behind their control panels. The tanks were made of glass and as groggy as Kyleís mind was, he almost didnít make the connection. He tried to stand, finding the pain attack had left him very weak.
He simply remained where he was while the beast shoved Steve against the wall. If it really wanted to, it could have simply opened its mouth and bitten off his head. But it was playing with him. Kyle drew his own weapon from subspace and set it on maximum. He fired at the first tank and not only did the glass shatter, it sprayed on impact, sending water and glass shards sailing in a million different directions. The beast howled and bellowed in protest. It spun around and leapt for Kyle.
Steve swept up a large slice of glass as water flooded the room. He swiped it in the dogís hind quarters, distracting the creature before it attacked Kyle. It yelped and fell short of pouncing the doctor. It turned back but Steve was ready for it this time. He swept in a diagonal direction and sliced the monsterís lip.
The monster shrieked and Kyle shuddered from the resonating pitch. His head cleared a little more and Kyle forced himself to his feet as the beast melted into a stream of water and blood. It split in half and shot in opposite ends of the room.
Steve reached over and grabbed Kyleís left hand with one hand and shot at the wall behind the tanks with the other. Kyle didnít realize a door stood there. Their feet slipped and crunched on water and glass while the two streams of water and blood inched closer and closer together. The men made it to the door and found it had not budged.
"Combination lock!" Steve snarled.
Kyle found a keypad next to the door and glanced behind them as the streams of water and blood made yet another round in the room. It was as though the beast were throwing a temper tantrum, too angry to attack them at that moment. He looked back at the pad, and instead of finding numbers, he found the same symbols as indicated on the so-called alter.
"Kyle." Parker whispered urgently. "Please hurry."
Kyle switched his visor to pick up temperature differentials and found the button on the far left bottom corner was slightly warmer than all the others. He pressed that one and the door slid open so fast, it almost seemed to disappear.
Steve wasted no more time. He grabbed Kyle and passed through. The door slammed right behind them and plunged them not only in a deeper darkness, but in dead silence.
Kayla and Jill swung around the second the great door thudded behind them. Jill reacted instantly, drawing her weapon and fired.
No result. The ladies tried it together this time, but the solid metal remained perfectly steadfast. Jill kicked the door and fumed silently as her actions echoed down the long corridor. "Any ideas?" She asked her companion."
"No. Kyle has it."
Kayla thought hard and careful. "That canít be the only thing with a map in it, Jill."
McKennanís brown eyes shot at her friend, considering carefully. "You mean we should go back to the camp site and pick around." She assumed.
Kayla slowly nodded.
Jill moved on ahead of her. "Steve?" She called via comlink. "Steeeevee!" She sang. They trudged back through the long dark tunnel. "Please answer me."
She and Kayla climbed through the darkness, neither lady realized the original walk through the tunnel was a steady subtle descent. They finally left the cavern, greeting a dark grey sky and cold wet air. Kayla switched her visor scanner, seeking anything with heat or radiation spikes. She found nothing and recalled her helmet into subspace. She moved on ahead of Jill, aiming for the second tent.
Jill managed to pick up something the moment she stepped outside. Her eyes narrowed, puzzled over what they had just witnessed. Was that room part of the spaceship? She tried to reach Steve and Kyle again with no better success. Frustrated, she glanced around searching for Kayla. Kayla nosed about in the tent, tossing clothes and papers in different directions. Jill peered through the flaps, watching Kayla as she rummaged through files.
"Kayla?" She asked softly.
Kayla paused a moment, drawing herself under control. She turned to Jill after wiping her cheek. "I thought if these guys were scientists, they would have picked up something from the spaceship, right? I mean, even if it was just radiation leaks or reverberation from the engine room. There had to be something they picked up."
Jill blinked then nodded.
"Well, if youíre going to explore an area, you need to know how big it is and Iím willing to bet somewhere here they have a map that could tell us whether or not thereís another exit."
Jill snapped her fingers. "Youíre right! Iíll go look in the other tent."
Kayla shook her head as Jill departed. She didnít want everyone to think her so childish as to cry. Had she realized the men would not have made it out, she would have stayed. She should have stayed and helped Steve.
<<Kayla? Kayla, whatís wrong?>> Spellbinder asked gently.
<<Kyle and Steve are trapped in the space ship and we canít get to them.>>
<<WHAT? Are you alright?>>
Kayla stood in the middle of a mound of papers and clothes, books and camping gear and started to cry.
<<Weíre coming, Kayla. Me and Midnight and Voodoo. Just . . . just hold on, Little One.>>
Spellbinderís use of her pet name did help to cheer Kayla up. She dried her cheeks of tears, though her eyes wouldnít stop making them. She delved into her search, pulling beds apart, rummaging through a mini dresser. She blew the lock off a safe and examined the contents-a bottle of wine, a leather tube tied carefully with gold string, a photograph of two males and a female all standing with arms across one antoherís shoulders and a date scribbled at the corner. Kayla also found several documents on parchment paper and somebodyís private supply of chocolate. She took one of those and smiled. It wasnít as though the owner was coming back to claim his chocolate anyway.
Kayla thought of her cookies and how she had not made any in a long, long time. Kyle would have to try them all over again-he never tired of them! Steve . . . Steve was a cookie thief. Kayla knew exactly what he wanted for his birthday every year-two dozen cookies. The Kshi vowed to make a platter of cookies for Kyle the moment they got home. At least sheíd get to see the look on his face when heíd try them.
Her lips trembled and tears skipped over her dark cheeks, jumped over the curves of her horns and splattered her hands. Kyle was touched by an evil for which they had no name. He meant so much to her and he was changing. He clung so closely to her as they made their first descent. She wondered if they should have left Cybertron at all. Then he freaked as they came down the first walk and Kayla could tell he saw something in his mind. It distressed him greatly. "Kayla?" Jill called softly over the comlink.
"Yeah?" Kayla snapped up, hoping. "Did you find something?" Her trembling voice betrayed her.
"No." Jill answered softly. "Kayla, itís going to be okay. Weíll make it."
Kayla pressed her lips tightly as she paused in her search, wiping tears as they fell. She felt so silly. She wiped her eyes and drew a deep breath. Then her eye caught sight of an aerial photograph taken of the whole plateau. She stood amid the disarray of papers and files and dislodged the photo, encased in plastic and pinned to the roof of the tent. Tucked behind the photo was another piece of paper, carefully folded and labeled with a date. Kayla unsealed the covering and opened the paper with cold trembling hands.
Sure enough, the paper displayed readouts and mapped the entire region, diagraming a huge space ship. "Jill!" She cried loudly, "I found it! I found it!"
The girls made their way back to the upland and found their guides had long since broken camp and disappeared. They stared at each other and Jill set her fists on her hips and shook her head.
"What now?" Kayla asked quietly.
"Well, we still have our personal rations. Thatíll last us a good five days. But the problem is, Kyle and Steve are still underground and until someone comes looking for us, weíre on our own."
Kayla somberly drew the map in front of her and studied it carefully. She hoped it would help her keep her mind off their problems and concentrate on finding a way to get Kyle and Steve out. Her taloned finger traced the area they were in and swung down along a dotted coastline and east toward a ravine. She gazed up, trying to size the difference between the mapís distance and the actual time it would take to reach the ravine.
"Whatíd you find?" Jill asked as she glanced back toward the western sky.
"There is a ravine some ways from here. We might make it in a good run before nightfall." Jill eyed her, not liking the idea of leaving the men behind. But Kayla shook her head, assuming what Jill was thinking. "If I know Steve, he wonít sit still. Heíd find another way out. If this ravine is the only other exit/entrance, all of us will find our way there eventually."
"Kayla," Jill added gently. "Thereís only so much air available in the suits. That place has obviously been sealed for hundreds of years. Even if they find their way to the ravine, they might not make it in time."
Kaylaís cheeks flushed in frustration and she bit back new tears. She wondered what was going through Kyleís mind to insist on coming alone. He would never have made it this far. She swallowed hard.
They may not make it any further.
"We need to let them know where to go. We need to tell them to meet us there."
Jillís brows raised and she tucked her white hair behind her ear. She pursed her lips. "Letís assume theyíre in the space ship."
"Okay." Kayla followed.
"Letís assume the ship needs power to run and can be activated remotely."
Kayla blinked. "Okay."
"What if we were to create some kind of signal that would force the ship to somehow respond and echo our signals."
Jill didnít answer. Her mind raced as she tried to come up with an idea that would or might work.
"Jill, weíre talking about alien technology here." Kayla advised. "We donít know how it works, on what basis."
Jillís lips turned up in a smile and her four-fingered hand pointed at Kaylaís map. "Yes we do!" She answered eagerly. "Remember Scott read something regarding the government demanded any artifacts dealing with crystalized technology?"
Kayla stared then nodded slowly, recalling the incident at the library.
"Thatís our clue! All crystals operate at a certain frequency. All weíd need to do is find the right frequency to get them activated!"
The corners of Kaylaís mouth tightened and her large gold-flecked eyes stabbed at the map. "Jill," her voice came so soft, "We donít have any samples."
Jillís eyes narrowed. She thought hard. Then let up. "No. But we can look."
Kayla glanced at her friend, then at the sun as it passed into afternoon. They would have to work swiftly and make a night-run across the plateau. She nodded reluctantly.
The ladies returned to the site and searched for two solid hours, finding not much more than a journal accounting the science groupís activities and a few translations of the ancient language enscrolled on the walls in the tunnel. Kayla sighed and decided to break for a moment, staring at a sun that now headed toward late afternoon. Their search seemed futile as not one sign of a crystal of any sort could be found amid the campsite. Perhaps the science team found nothing. Perhaps they never got the chance to explore. After all, the killings occurred after they landed here on the shelf, but who knows how far they might have gotten before the attacks began?
Then Kayla recalled how Donner Shindriks said Rychal had been known to take things home. If she could figure out where he camped, maybe, just maybe there might be something they could find-another map, if nothing else. She searched the tent she tore up earlier and found it previously occupied only by the geologist and a reporter.
Kayla moved to the next tent while Jill examined the one car Steve examined earlier. The medic tied her white hair back and snapped on a set of latex gloves and analyzed the one foot. There was virtually no blood and no evidence that it dried up. The shoe didnít have much dirt underneath, either. She set it back and decided to try the glove compartment.
Jill was forced to resort to violence to get the compartment to reveal its contents. Inside lay photos of someoneís family, registration forms for the automobile and a wallet stuffed with plastic cards and a money order made to one of the scientists.
Jillís eyes narrowed again and she searched through more paperwork, finding bills and many, many unmailed letters. She opted to open one and out tumbled a flat trapezoid crystal the size of a playing card attached to a letter written in large, hasty words:
YOU WIN. GET US OUT OF HERE
Jill swept out three other letters and made her way around the messy camp toward Kaylaís location. She remained outside the tent while Kayla scrounged inside.
"Kay," she called. "Listen to this:"
Kayla crawled over the mess she made and poked her horned head outside, taking note the sun was close to setting.
"You win. Get us out of here. And I found this attached to the letter." Jill handed her the crystal. Kayla accepted it in silence, flipping it over one side, then the other.
"Iíve never seen a crystal like this before. Whatís it based on?"
"I donít know. But it seems to be what the government was after. Apparently, the group did find what their benefactors wanted, but somebody made sure the package never arrived." And here Jill waved the empty envelope in the air. "I found others, too." And she swiftly opened another letter and held it taut against a slow breeze.
"To Donner Mizhan of Department of the Interior."
"Itís a letter to the government?"
Jill nodded. "One of several, obviously." She continued, "Events and circumstances have forced us to abandon our original plans until better equipment and defenses can be instigated. Rivs and Cornor have disappeared entirely and yesterday, one of the vehicles blew up." McKennan glanced at Kayla who gasped, remembering what Bethís journal said about one of the cars mysteriously shifting out of park and killing someone.
"I know the crystal is of great importance to you, but we ask to be allowed to study it a little further. In the meantime, please send us back-up and equipment to continue the investigation in safety. Sincerely, Doctor Beth DíChlavic, archeologist."
Kayla swallowed fearfully. "They were set up." She whispered.
"I think itís more a case of betrayal." Jill corrected. "I think someone here didnít realize they were all going to die. And I think that maybe that foot in the car is all thatís left of him."
Kayla remained silent a long moment, trying to grasp what these people suffered to reveal an age-old secret buried in a past they themselves had forgotten. Then she pulled herself together and smiled. "Guess what?" She asked
"What?" Jill smiled back.
"Looks like Donner Shindriks was right. Rychal loved to snitch documents." And she produced a scroll wrapped gently in a leather pouch-the very same tied with a string of gold. "Itís a little unnerving to look at, though. Iíve never seen anything like it." She handed the object to McKennan and stood from the mess. The sun kissed the horizon and soon the world would be blanketed by darkness. Chenobis had no moon, a great distant planet acted as a natural satellite but it made little impact as far as light was concerned.
Jill undid the pouch and pulled out the skin scroll, wound tightly about a wooden roll and bound by a silk red string. She opened it and gasped. A shimmering surface met her gaze. The scroll, so ordinary-looking outside, glittered in luminescence inside and it moved as though magical liquid rippled across the surface. And with each movement Jill made, the words on the skin changed and to her horror, the words suddenly slid together and formed a terrible ugly face that glared contemptuously at her. Jill cried out and dropped the scroll. She flinched and stepped back, laying her hand on her chest.
"Gods, what is that thing?"
"I donít know." Kayla picked up the fallen object, careful so as not to look at it again. She rolled it up and sealed it, placing it back in the pouch. "Shindriks was right, though. Rychal did like to collect things."
Jill struggled to recall her lost nerves and concentrated on the tent Kayla raided. "Thatís Rychalís tent?"
Kayla mutely nodded and stood. " I was looking for a crystal when I found this."
Jill gazed at the one slice of technology for which the Chenobian government was willing to sacrifice a fine group of scenists. "Well, letís head back up and see what this puppy can do, shall we?"
Kayla grimly nodded and the sun kissed the world good-night.
Resident senior physician. It was a pretty title. But titles were only as strong as the authority behind them.
*Senior physician.* this woman, maybe his mother, repeated softly. *what fineness, Kyle.*
*Not so fine, Mother.* Kyle answered her. *Iíve lost my soul. Theyíve taken it all away from me.*
She smiled grimly while a song faded into his mind. The song repeated at first in ambiguity, the words jumbled and slurred until * . . .let it be.* came clear.
* . . .And though the broken-hearted people living in the world agree . . . thereís a chance they might see . . . there will be an answer. Let it be.*
Kyle hummed the little tune, trying desperately to recall all the lyrics and phrases, trying to recapture something he had forgotten. A memory wrapped itself in a vision of blurred images and faded words. He rolled over on his back, his head throbbing with the remains of a headache. His eyes greeted a terrible all-encompassing darkness. He faded from light into death. He lay in a limbo of forgetfulness and not even Voodoo could pull him out.
Kyle sat up and found his body encased in a flexible exosuit. He half-lay on a pile of rocks, or at least they seemed to be rocks. Their texture felt funny for something that should be solid. More like large thick eggshells, he thought to himself. "Steve?" He called through the comlink. The darkness isolated him and he hoped he wasnít as alone as his eyes told him.
"Hmm?" Parker drew a breath and realized he had fallen asleep. "Crap, what am I doing?" he jumped. "Kyle. Are you alright?"
Doctor Scott tried to take inventory of his body, finding most of the pain faded into memory. But his cheeks were wet and he trembled. He wished he could wipe his face but dared not try to breathe the air. His groggy head struggled to clear. "I think for the most part Iím okay." He answered slowly. "What happened?"
Steve sat up and turned to Scott. "I honestly donít know. Some booby trap was triggered and we were separated from Kayla and Jill. Those cat-bones you examined turned into little creatures and tried to attack me."
Kyleís face twisted in puzzlement. Something wasnít quite right. Not that Steve was lying, but there seemed to have been more to the story. Gods, was he losing his memory again? Scott forced himself to stand but he staggered and nearly lost his balance when Steve jumped to help.
"Maybe you should rest a little longer." Parker suggested.
"No." Kyle answered weakly. "Itís not that. My equilibrium is off slightly." He sighed and tried to reach Voodoo to no result. Something flashed in his mind, an image, maybe two, maybe six, he couldnít count as they shot past his perceptions. He moaned miserably, mournful that the one person from whom he sought comfort wasnít there. "I think Voodooís mad at me for something."
Steve eyed him suspiciously. "Why? For what?"
"I donít know." Depression touched Kyle and he felt very isolated. "I shouldnít have come without telling him. I mean, I know heís so easily mad and-"
Steve struggled to see his friendsí expression, dying to find out what was going on inside Scottís head. "What makes you say that?"
Kyle did not answer. He pattered about the area for a moment before his night-vision returned to Steve. "Donít these things work in absolute darkness?" He asked irritably. "Youíre all I can see here."
"Even good technology has its limits, Kyle." Parker answered patiently. I donít know if we can go back the way we came. I doubt we can get through that door. I shot it once, before we entered. I doubt the effects would be any different on this side."
"So all we can do is press forward." Kyle guessed gloomily.
He turned away, not sure what they would run into; a wall or another door; another room or . . . another dog-beast.
Steve activated the lights from his suite and laid a reassuring hand on Kyleís shoulder. "Iíve always liked spelunking. Come on." He tried to sound more cheerful than he honestly felt. Relief touched Steve when he heard Kyle snort. Kyle at least smiled at his bad joke.
They moved on for quite some time, treading a metal-covered floor in silence. The two men wandered down a corridor meant for creatures with stature not much taller than themselves. All along the metal walls stretched long glass-covered control panels and to their curiosity, spray-paint zig-zagged indiscriminately all over the panels and walls in what looked like obscene graffiti.
"Can you make any of this out?" Kyle asked as they pressed down another long stretch of dull windowless hallway.
Steve paused at one point and had to step back to read one large phrase. "Itís weird, at best." he announced.
"Oh. Just foul language?" Kyle asked.
Parker blinked. "No . . ." He dragged slowly. He back-tracked several yards and clenched his jaw. "You know, most of this stuff is pretty repetitious. I guess weíve both been so concerned about getting out of here, we havenít bothered to look around."
Kyle frowned, guilty as charged. "Whatís it say, Steve? Can you read it?"
"Yeah. Most of it is just directions. Level 2. Blood separation, room 24, 27, 29. Sterilization, room 34. Conference room 2-B, room 44." Steve turned to Kyle and wished for the millionth time he could read Scottís expression.
Kyle gazed at the spray-painted graffiti with a face of twisted bewilderment. "What the hell is going on here? If this is a spaceship, and the aliens are intelligent enough to use crystalized technology, why the hell are they using spray paint to write out directions?"
Steve ran his hand alongside the strip of black lining the walls on either side of the corridor. "If the aliens bred with the Chenobians, what do you think they looked like to begin with? Wouldnít you think they would also have their own system of communication? I mean, in writing?"
"Yes." Kyle answered, not really concentrating along Steveís train of thought.
Steve turned partially to his companion. "Kyle, know what I think?"
"I think this ship was commandeered for another reason. I think it was abandoned by its original owners and someone else moved in."
Kyleís brows furred in a daring thought. "And someone conducted experiments here." He added.
"Illegal experiments." Parker corrected.
"The skeletons hanging from the ceiling, the file cabinets and the tanks at the entrance . . . they were there for a special reason."
"Sorta like a front office if you ask me." Steve stole a few steps back to his friend and moved a little ahead. He allowed his palm to trace the wall, wondering how many people worked and lived here and what they were doing that made the very atmosphere, the very vibrations of the ship feel as though something evil created and resulted in evil.
The two traveled on for a few more hours. Darkness painted the corridorís terrible length as though Kyle and Steve were taking a one-way trip into non-existence. They said almost nothing, each man struggled with his own drear thoughts of isolation from his Dokiah. Each dealt with pain neither wanted to discuss with the other.
Then the inevitable slammed them in the face: they came to a dead end.
Kyle and Steve turned this way and that, searching in vain for another hallway or an exit. But that was all there was: a long corridor and millions of doors leading to department chambers and rooms.
"Great." Steve snarled. "So what are we supposed to do now? Go through everybodyís bedroom and look for a window?"
Kyle said nothing, glancing from one unmarked door to another. He trailed one hand along the dark strip as he passed one door, then two, the other hand hung in his coat pocket. "I guess so, Steve." He answered softly. "Unless youíd rather sit out here and fume for the next few hours until our air runs out."
Captain Parker sighed impatiently. "No." He growled. "I can think of better things to do than waist air." He followed Kyle, examining each door, looking for something resembling an access point. "Donít these things come with doorbells?"
Kyle stared at the black strip for a long silent moment. "I would think these doors open only for retina scans or palm prints. Maybe even voice-activated codes." He suggested.
Steve ran his tongue over his teeth. "Gee, I left mine at home."
Kyle produced his laser pistol and set it on low frequency. "I brought mine." He fired several short bursts at the doorís seams until the edges along the doorposts turned white-hot and Kyle viciously kicked it down.
Steve smiled, although he knew Kyle couldnít see it. "Nice job, Doctor Scott." He teased.
"My pleasure." Kyle purred, replacing the gun.
"You donít intend to do that to my apartment anytime soon, I hope."
"I donít make house-calls, Steve. You know that."
Steve laughed lightly and passed through first. He tried to decide whether to use another anti-grav light or the lights on his armor.
Kyle stepped through the threshold and snapped on his head lights, glancing in places Steve was not. They found several beds and a couple of tables. Shelves reaching floor to ceiling contained small slots wherein sat thin iridescent plates. Steve nosed toward a small cage sitting on a table in one corner of the room while Kyle examined the plates.
"Looks like someoneís bedroom." Steve mused.
"Several Ďsomeoneísí bedroom." Kyle agreed. He plucked out several flat plates and found them labeled on one side. Grooves swirled lined the other side and flashed in brilliant colors when the plates were tilted just so.
Steve stared into the cage, finding the bony remains of a rodent of some kind. "Looks like Fido died a long time ago." He glanced at Kyle, a smile stretched his lips. "Whatcha looking at, Kyle?"
"Somebodyís book library, I think." Doctor Scott answered quietly.
"How do you know?"
"The shelves. At least, if I had a book library of any kind, Iíd need shelves to put them in."
"Can you tell what they are?"
"No. Itís not Chenobian at all."
Steve approached and plucked a plate out of Kyleís hand. "Hey, didnít somebody mention how the Chenobians were looking for crystalized tech or something?"
Kyle silently shrugged. He couldnít remember.
"Is there a way we can play these?"
Kyle glanced up, finding only Steveís helmet replacing a face heíd rather see. "Not unless you want to take the whole ship back to Cybertron with us."
Parker frowned and handed the plate back to Kyle. "Letís get out of here." He moaned.
Kyle pocketed the plates and followed Steve out. Parker wasted no more time and he shot down the next door.
If it were a bathroom, it was the strangest bathroom Parker ever encountered. Tall stalls lined the room in fashionable rows. Some showers were completely sealed off, others seemed to have no door at all, and a cris-cross glass grating made their flooring. The showers and stalls didnít match the rest of the ship, as though there were an after-thought, added on by a completely different designer.
The worst of it was the bodies that lined, lay and dangled every part of the room. Parker recognized the type of room on the spot and blocked Kyle from entering.
"Steve!" Kyle crossly called.
"Itís not a good place to look into." Steve turned to him and wished he had never opened the proverbial can of ooze.
Kyle insisted and Steve allowed him only a glance. It was enough. The doctor moaned. "Oh gods, Steve. You would think that with the advancement of technology would come an advancement of sapience. You would think people who are so book-smart, would be more compassionate than that." Kyle shook his head and turned away.
Steve clenched his jaw, sorry Kyle had to see it. He remembered some of Braintrustís torture chambers and wondered why such an advanced race as the Chenobians had need of such places. Gas chambers and acid showers. There were other horrible devices in there too, but what Steve saw was more than enough for him.
Kyle fired at the door to the next room and headed in as though running from the torture chamber. Steve followed and both men glanced at one another, then back at rows and rows of drawers racing back in the distance as far as they could see.
"What the hell . . ." Parker proceeded his friend and stared at one such drawer, reading a clear label. "This says Subject 22."
Kyle approached and read the one above "Subject 19." He scanned another. "Subject 15."
Steve stared at Kyle and swallowed hard. "Are you thinking what Iím thinking?" He asked carefully.
In answer to his question, Kyle yanked on the handle and out slid a metal sheet with a dead non-Humanoid alien laying flat on its cold dark surface.
Both men flinched.
"I think, " Kyle answered slowly, "Weíve just confirmed Chenobisí secret dirty war."
Kayla and Jill jogged three miles across the plateau in the middle of the night. Two hours passed before Jill was satisfied with their position. The grass swacked their knees, making it hard to run any faster than a medium pace. The ladies recalled their helmets and huffed in the cold night air. Kaylaís large gold-specked eyes scanned a landscape virtually untouched by star or moonlight. Soft rolling hills rose and sank, forcing them to run up and down constantly. It was maddening.
Fortunately they encountered nothing along the way. Unfortunately, that included their guides. But even the shuttle was gone and both ladies assumed the cowards got tired of waiting and stranded them.
Somebody was going to hear it from Midnight.
Jill produced the flat crystal and examined it closer when it started glowing softly. Kayla gazed over her shoulder. "What is that thing?"
Jill shook her head. She held it out in front of her, not really sure what she was doing. But her action was rewarded when the crystal tugged at her arm and drew her in a north-by-northeastern direction.
They walked some distance, using the night vision in their helmets to keep from stumbling. Then the piece stopped at the lip of a crater-shaped area. Kayla and Jill exchanged glances, wondering what to do now.
The ground lit up under them and the lights rotated, racing faster and faster. They could hear machinery snap and clank three times before silence claimed the night sky again. Then the ground lit up again, this time blazing a blue trail straight east, right toward the ravine.
Kayla undid her helmet and shook her hair free. "What was that?" she asked again.
Jill shook her head. And without another word, adjusted her back pack into subspace and took off, following the trail.
Kayla thought she heard footsteps behind her. She turned right but saw nothing. Her brows wrinkled. "Steve?" She dared. But nothing was there. A little spooked, she raced to catch up with Jill.
The ladies moved as fast as they dared in the late of night. Even with their night-vision supplied by their armor, it was difficult to see everything. The long thick grasses and infrequent trees interfered with their speed. Finally Kayla and Jill slowed their pace to a walk and five miles later, they were forced to rest.
"According to the map, weíre about half way there." Jill informed her tired companion. Kayla scrunched on her knees and wrapped her arms about herself. They had run twelve miles non-stop and it caught up with her. She glanced about them, still finding the mounds that ran up and down . . . she noticed for the first time how they were all uniform in shape and size. Almost as though they were made. To their right stood a large thicket of huge trees. But strangely enough, the rest of the plateau did not support more of a forest-like environment. Perhaps someone had committed a clear-cut job a long time ago and the forest failed to reclaim the land.
Jill sank next to her, concerned. "Kayla, are you alright?"
Kaylaís gold sparkling eyes met her friend and she forced a smile. "Iím just worried, thatís all." She admitted. "Kyle was terrified when we made that first descent. Something seemed to bother him but he didnít want to talk about it."
Jill remembered he and Kayla held hands on the way down. At first she thought it was sweet, but now McKennan realized the reason was not flirtatious. She wrinkled her brows. "Do you think heís having problems with Voodoo again?"
Kayla shrugged. "Who knows, Jill. You know how those two are: they feel they have to handle everything privately. Kyle takes his own problems inward and Voodoo insists on solving his alone. I thought Midnight was going rip Voodoo a new intake valve when Voodoo showed up at the ward with Kyle and a set of damaged wings."
Jill looked away, thoughtful. "Yeup." She agreed with a sigh. "He is a handful."
Kayla stared at Jill, apt to smile, "Which one?"
And both ladies giggled.
"Iíll take Kyle anytime." Jill answered. "At least weíve been around him long enough to count on his moods."
Kayla didnít answer. Sometimes Kyle did turn to her in frustration. Sometimes he would confide in her. Sometimes he felt comfortable enough around her to let down his facade of grim professionalism and act like himself. Kayla knew much of his personal history, how both his parents were workaholics and had little time for him. She knew he had lost close friends in an accident while he attended medical school. But there must have been something else, something other than Voodoo to drive Kyle into seclusion. Kyle was very likable, very kind. But he seldom socialized. KyleĎs work provided a comfort zone. He was so busy, he didnít need to make any other excuse not to go when invited to Ďhang out.í
Then she frowned. All this time, she was noticing Kyleís faults and she realized she had much the same habit. It was so easy to get wrapped up in work. Kayla realized she could not recall the last time all the Interfaces had sat down together for coffee and conversation.
At least, not since leaving Alean.
The Tji war seemed to have changed everything.
A snapping noise called the ladiesí attention and Kayla and Jill sprang to their feet. Kayla drew a vibro-bladed sword and Jill drew a sonic rifle. They stood back to back, their eyes and ears wide open and alert.
The muffled sound of a low growl caught their attention and glancing between trees to the immediate right, Kayla and Jill confronted a mountainous, almost dragon-like creature, its head and back crested with horns and when it opened its mouth, jagged teeth gleamed white in the darkness.
At first it did nothing. Its nose flared and relaxed with each breath and the ladies stood very still, very cautious. Perhaps it was not going to attack.
Then it snarled and snapped at Jill and a second head rose from atop the first and roared with a series of piercing grunts. Kayla winced. Her horns picked up the frequencies and echoed painfully in her head.
Jill dropped and rolled as the first head swung in her way and snapped its teeth. McKennan charged up her rifle, but hesitated. The thing still didnít attack, making more noises than moves.
She waited, her breath not even drawing.
Then the creature stood on six stout legs and thwacked a spiked tail into the ground. The first head swung at Jill again, the second slammed itself between trees toward Kayla. Kayla instinctively parried and sunk the blade deep into its muzzle. It roared, the sound vibrating hard in Kaylaís head and knocked her off her feet.
Jill reset the weapon just as the first head opened its maw and descended over her. She shot it clear through the roof of its mouth and leapt as the head came crashing to the ground, a muffled, pitiful sound followed. The second head roared and Kayla whimpered, a migraine throbbed hard against her temples. She doubled over, struggling to control the pain. Jill shot at the second head then screamed when the first head picked itself back up and tried to snap at her again.
Kayla drew strength from somewhere deep down and hefted up the sword. With all her might, the Healer threw it at the base of the creatureís neck. One head thunked to the ground, heavy like a huge tree, the other squealed as the vibro blade sunk deep into its strange, iridescent hide. It swung in Kaylaís direction. She would have ducked, but the pain in her head blurred her vision so that she could not tell what the monster was doing until it was too late.
It cuffed against her, its sharp, saber-jagged teeth scraped hard against the metal of her armor, denting it one second, puncturing it the next and tossed her several yards away and hard against a large tree.
The creature rounded its neck and pulled the weapon out of its hide and dropped it. Its six legs lumbered loudly across the terrain, aiming for Kayla. Jill activated her helmet and dashed in between two running legs, retrieving the sword as the monster thundered right above her. Jill shot the thing from the underside and using the blade, sliced deeply into its tail. And while she could not cut the tail off (not enough leverage), she succeeded in getting its attention from Kayla.
It barked in a high-pitched tone and curved around, one leg snapping out at its attacker. Jill ducked and fired, finding the laser had no affect on the stump once occupied by the missing head. She dropped the rifle and spread her legs for better support. Kayla was an excellent marksman. Jill on the other hand . . . wasnít. But she knew the weapon and decided not to try to throw it. She waited until the very second when the creatureís mouth descended like a great mountain and Jill expertly whacked off the front part of its upper jaw.
The creature responded with a terrible yelp and it threw itself on the ground like a whipped animal and thrashed. Jill dropped the sword and back-flipped just as the tail whipped one side to the other and back and two seconds later, it did not move again.
Jill waited. She had been on enough worlds to know that Ďdeadí didnít mean no reflex motility.
The beast thrashed again, howling with all its might as though surrendering its soul to the wind. And then it fell limp.
Certain that was the last of it, Jill glanced amid the darkness and the tall trees, looking for Kayla. But she saw nothing. Maybe Kayla had fallen somewhere or maybe she wandered off. "Kayla?" She called though their comlink.
"Ji . . ."
"Gods, where are you?" Jill called, stepping this way, pace over there, leaping over a broken tree. But Kayla did not answer. Jill swished through the knee-high grasses, rounding the creature and its pool of blood to the right then she double-backed round the left. She turned again and spotted a little huddle of a figure a little further off than she thought. Jill bee-lined for Kayla and produced a med scanner the moment she came within the six-foot range.
She knelt beside Kaylaís crumpled form and took to heart that the puncture wound wasnít fatal. The impact forced a hole into the suit and the metal shards bent painfully into Kaylaís arm. They would have to remove the entire arm section of the suite in order to repair it.
The scanner also indicated strained blood vessels close to Kaylaís brain. The pain was such that all Kayla could do was lie as still as possible. Jill debated whether to give her something for the pain or not, whether to give her something for the swelling-she did have something for that but the rest of it would have to recover with rest.
Literally thousands of bodies lay packed away in cabinets like so many files. Kyle and Steve checked about five drawers each with little or no success in discovering what exactly killed them.
"Autopsy." Steve waited until Kyle returned his gaze through the faceless visor.
"Autopsy?" He echoed. "Now?"
"Youíre the expert between us."
Kyle shook his head. "Steve, have you any idea how long it takes to do an autopsy?"
"I want to know what killed these people, Kyle, in case any pathogen might have decided to grace us with its presence. I donít know about you and Voodoo, but I think that Midnight would be pretty upset if I let myself be infected with a potentially terminal contaminant."
Steveís point was valid from both a common-sense and a medical point of view. Glancing and wondering as to the age of the lined up, well-preserved organisms, Kyle figured that they could very well be of any age considering the complete desiccation of their bodies. He sighed and spotted a nearby counter complete with an overhead mirror. "Well," he sighed. "I donít like the accommodations, but Iíll see what I can do. Help me move this one over there, would ya?"
Steve obliged and they hefted a seven-foot tough-skinned creature to the counter. Producing a small box of laser powered autopsy tools from subspace, Kyle picked a small laser scapel, activated its red beam and proceeded to fracture the xenoformís sternum. Parker cringed at the sound of cracking bones and looked away.
"Kyle," he called after several silent moments.
"Yes." Kyle replied quietly.
Kyle snorted with a smile. "Iím dissecting a body and all you can do is think of food? That jokeís an old one, Steve"
"Well, yeah." Steve answered smoothly. "But I donít know how long weíve been down here."
Kyle looked up from his present, careful extraction of the alienís main pulmonary organ. "I donít know, either." He confessed.
"Whatcha got so far?" Parker asked, trying to sound cheerful.
"Well, so far Iíve discovered that this alienís cardiovascular system is quite similar to humans, having the necessary heart, the main pumping artery, the aorta, and the accompanying arteries, arterioles, veins, and venules. The bloodís main oxygen-carrying protein structure is haemoglobin-based but it has several nucleoside mutations, which separate it from the human norm. Overall, I would say that it captures and utilizes oxygen in at least a ten percent increase of a typical Homo sapiens system. Iíve also been able to partially extract some inorganic and organic material from its pseudo-stomach from which I can tell its primary ingestion mode was as an omnivorian."
"It eats everything."
"I knew that."
"Yes, I know."
Steve smiled and leaned back against the nearby wall. "How about a good-sized steak or roast? We can add Ďtaters to that, a nice salad, maybe-"
Kyle examined the creatureís organs one by one, finding nothing. Then he moved to slice open a vein and batted his eyes. He called for a closer view through his visor and bent over for a closer look: the vein was literally bursting with myriads of oatmeal-colored flukes. Doctor Scott sliced open the heartís superior vena cava and found additional worms. Finally, cutting through a tiny venule draped over the liverís bile duct, he found more of the same creatures.
"Well," he announced after a long moment. "Either this creature carried parasites that eventually killed him, or Iím looking at a clue that possibly destroyed his whole species."
Parker pushed himself off the wall and stood next to Kyle, swallowing his revulsion. "Do you think itís contagious?"
Kyle turned to him. "I donít know. I would hazard a guess that these creatures are related to the human liver fluke, Clonorchis sinensis, since they share characteristics similar to the other Terran trematodes, but they have distinctly unique features setting them apart as alien in nature." He paused for a moment. "Letís look at a few others."
But the results were similar, although each of the five creatures Kyle examined were at different stages of infestation. Three bodies bore evidence of death by torture more than death by infestation. But Kyle felt sure the infestation wasnít far behind. He stripped off his gloves and called his armor gloves back from subspace.
"Whatís this picture say?" He asked Steve, breaking a long silence.
"Whatís that?" Steve asked, blinking behind his visor.
"Neither of us has seen one Chenobian in this ship. Yet we have signs they were here. No bodies other than these aliens."
Parker lined his teeth with his tongue. "So you think that whatever they set out to do was accomplished and they merely closed business and moved on?"
Kyle mutely nodded.
"Germ warfare." Steve guessed.
"Exactly. And Iíll bet it was DNA-encoded germ warfare on a parasitic level. The parasites were designed to target the alienís specific genome and, perhaps, mutate the organism over several decades. Think of it, Steve, evolution within a century instead of millions of years. I would think that as the propagation progressed, the Chenobian genetic code would be completely changed, but that evolutionary stage was halted when the Chenobians instigated their underground movement of which these numerous corpses are testament. The Chenobians raced against the clock to eliminate the aliens the only way they could: using a counter-agent to the mutation factor and turned it against their oppressors."
Steve thought about it for a long moment, trying sort it all out. But he came back to the one root question: "Where in all this do the dog-things come into play?"
Kyle shook his head. "I donít know, Steve. I honestly donít know."
They abandoned the room, retracing earlier steps and one by one, blew down each door they encountered, hoping for a way into another level.
But one hour led to another and Steve became acutely aware of their depleting oxygen levels. The armor was designed for temporary combat situations, allowing them to move and work up to a solid ten-hour period. But according to Steveís logs, he and Kyle had been trapped close to eight hours now.
He said nothing as Kyle shot down another door leading to yet another collection of beds and shelves lined with personal belongings. Neither Tentchi had interest in taking anything with them. Their only goal was to get out.
By the time they reached the fifteenth door, Kyleís patience had worn out. He fired at the (damnedable) thing and stared into the darkness, dreading what they would find.
Steve entered first and flinched. "Oh." His voice pitched. "Looks like someoneís front office."
Kyle entered. A large white desk met their sensors. Several dead potted plants leaned against a far corner and several machines lined the walls. There were ancient telephones and a huge computer and something resembling a copy machine. Papers and pens, someoneís unused coffee cup sat in the same place.
"This is all too creepy." Kyle finally quipped.
"Hmm?" Steve asked.
"Well, how old is this stuff? How long has it just been sitting here? This whole thing is too creepy. If all this is even remotely as old as the craft, and the Chenobians have not advanced much in the last several hundred years, something has caused a stunt in the planetís technological growth patterns."
Steve didnít answer him. To the left of three tall file cabinets stood a set of double doors. Above them perched a pair of arrows. One pointed up, the other pointed down. Steve glanced over his shoulder. "Wanna go for a ride, Kyle?" He asked.
Kyle approached and stared up.
"Up or down." Steve chirruped. "You get to choose."
"Iím too cranky to care, Steve." Kyle frowned.
"Mmm, okay." Steve forced his fingers as far into the crevice between the doors as he could and pulled. Kyle shook his head, knowing Parker wasnít able to do it by himself. He took the other side and they pried the doors apart then peered down a dark abyss. "Looks dark." Parker joked.
They glanced one side to the other, finding emergency ladder rungs posted against the backside of the elevator shaft. The two stepped back to stare at one another.
"Which way do you suggest we go?" Kyle asked.
"I donít know." Steve answered simply. "If we knew exactly what level we were on in the ship, we could possibly decide whether to find the control bridge, or engineering."
Kyle sighed. "Split up?"
"Nu-uh!" Steve adamantly disagreed. "Iím not letting you out of my sight. Iíll get lost and then you guys would have to come back and look for me."
Kyle smiled. "Alright then. We go down."
Kyle only shrugged..
"Never mind." Steve shook his head. "It sounds like a plan."
Kyle gave an unamused smile. Parker jumped first, grabbing the rungs and started climbing down. Kyle followed a moment later.
They climbed in near blind darkness. The only sounds in the shaft were footfalls and metal-gloved hands hitting the ladder rungs in a morbid rhythmic stanza. The shaftís end reached far out of visual range, yawning in a one-way descent to nothing. Finally both men simply had to take a break.
Steve closed his eyes, longing to be outside. Kyle had offered no means of conversation and Parker wished he could think of a question that would give him some clue into what was going through the doctorís head. But he couldnít think of anything off hand. Kyle was irritable. It could be from exhaustion, or several other factors. Steve knew he was cranky himself. While he wasnít seriously injured by any measure, he started to feel the effects of the fight between he and the dog-beast. That promised to leave him sorely bruised for the next few weeks.
Kyle flinched above him and clung tightly to the rails.
"Kyle?" Steve called.
"Okay." Kyle answered immediately. "Iím okay." But his body betrayed him when he flexed his right hand in pain.
Steve didnít like it. He waited a beat, wondering if Kyleís hand just hurt from the long descent, or if it were a warning. Steve expected to be affected in the same manner. He waited several moments more before drawing a deep breath and moving down seven more rungs and found a door. Not that it was a big deal, he and Kyle had passed several doors on their way down. But this door was clearly marked with a symbol.
"Kyle?" He asked.
"I think . . . I think we might have found the bridge."
Kyle stared at Parker over his shoulder, hoping Steve was right. He was fatigued, thirsty and hungry. The Interfaces had the remarkable ability to continue to function long after a normal person would have collapsed in exhaustion. But he and Steve had long since passed even that point. "What do you want to do about it?"
Steve considered his options for a moment. "Iím going to blow it open." He answered.
"Steve, if something should catch on fire . . ."
"Nah." Parker almost sang. "Iíll just use that goo-stuff. It works great in space. It should do okay down here, too. Move up about fifteen rungs. Iíll join you in a minute."
Kyle moved up three then glanced back down. "Steve, just to let you know, Iím not in the mood to put you back together."
Steve smiled. Kyle was crankier than he thought. He produced a tightly-packaged tube from subspace. "Out of scotch tape?" he finally asked.
"Thatís not funny." Kyle growled.
Steve lined the elevator door posts and quickly sprang up the rungs, standing just two rungs under Kyle. He drew his laser pistol and shot one point of the gel.
It ignited in a well-controlled plasma burn, eating right through the metal and a few moments later, the door fell inward with a clang.
"I was right!" Steve called excitedly as he entered first. "Weíre here-your guess was right, Kyle! Are you happy?"
Darkness tried to hide alien technology the likes of which neither Interface had ever seen. Steve scanned the bridge from one side to the other, the light projecting from his suite could not create large enough a picture to give an accurate description of what they were observing. He stared in mute shock. But for all its wonders, Kyle did not take notice.
A distant memory flooded Scottís mind and someone projected terrible hatred toward him. Kyle couldnít tell if the event was past or present but it oppressed him with such emotion that Kyle caught himself on a rail. Despair ate deeply into his heart and threaten to overwhelm him. He fought it down, willing his mind to control his emotions. The past, he told himself, itís all in the past. He didnít see Steve descend a walkway to the front of the room.
Kyle searched for his companion when he caught his breath. His eyes shot wide when his visor registered a shape of blinding white energy passing through the far right-hand wall. He stepped back as the energy took on form, a leg connected to the body of a dog.
"Steve!" The word barely escaped him when the blinding figure of light pounced Parker face-down. It opened its gaping mouth and licked the back of Steveís neck.
Kyle leapt over the bannister and drew his weapon from subspace, instantly setting it on high.
The dog-beast would have licked Steve a second time. Noise from the charged laser gun interrupted its activity and the thing snarled. "DO NOT INTERFERE, DOCTOR. THIS DOES NOT CONCERN YOU."
"Let him go or so help me I will blow my OWN head off!"
The dog-beast growled, but did not move.
Kyle pressed the gun barrel to the flexi-metal protecting his neck. He pressed as hard as he could as if to alleviate the pain in his heart. "One! Two! Th-"
The dog retreated and forced itself up on its hind legs. Itís luminescent body folded like poured liquid and there stood a faceless humanoid with a set of dark empty sockets for eyes. "YOU ARE A CLEVER MAN, DOCTOR. YOU HAVE MANAGED TO INTERVENE AT OUR EVERY OPPORTUNITY. IT IS A RUDE THING. WE DO AS WE PLEASE. YOU WILL PROFOUNDLY SUFFER FOR YOUR RUDE INTERRUPTION."
"No one gave you a right to hurt and murder people." Kyle snarled, lowering the weapon.
"WHY? THATíS A PRETTY SPEECH COMING FROM SOMEONE WHO HAS KILLED SENTIENT ROBOTS."
"OH. I SEE. ITíS ACCEPTABLE FOR YOU TO KILL CREATURES BASED ON INORGANIC MATERIAL, BUT NOT PERMISSIBLE FOR ME TO KILL ORGANIC CREATURES."
"I never killed for pleasure." Kyleís mind raced with ideas. He desperately needed to check Steve. But he was not about to approach the creature. As if it picked up on Doctor Scottís thoughts, the beast stepped several feet away. At first Kyle wasnít sure if he was being set up for an attack but when the dog-beast did not move for several seconds, Kyle decided to chance it. He slowly knelt beside his friend and scanned.
Steveís blood pressure and temperature were drastically low. Kyle needed to give him a hypo, but couldnít do it in a virtually airless, possibly poisoned atmosphere. He searched for a way out, discovering he had paid no attention to their surroundings at all. Foreign objects for which he had no names met his scant gaze. Kyle hoped to find an exit or a tunnel of any kind. What he found were tall monoliths and strange furniture positioned at flat boards and tables.
Absent-mindedly, Kyle reached into subspace and produced an anti-grav light. He tossed it in the air and it snapped open, the sphereís casing slid back behind itself to reveal a globe of brilliant white light.
The creature watched in amusement and smiled maliciously. The dark pits of its eyes reflected no light and Kyle looked everywhere but there. "YOU COULD ACTIVATE THE SHIPíS CONTROLS TO CREATE OXYGEN, DOCTOR." It finally said.
Kyle refused to reply as he stepped up to a large panel of transparent controls. The chairs (if thatís what they were) had no backs attached. The control panels rippled like water when he reached out to touch them. Whatever technology the ship was made of, Kyle knew it was nothing they had encountered before. What were these creatures?
The dog-beast approached Kyle, but did not come too close. "FUNNY THING ABOUT BEING ORGANIC: SO MANY VULNERABILITIES. I KNOW HOW TO RUN THESE CONTROLS YOU KNOW."
Kyle couldnít look it in the eye. He knew it was tempting him to allow it to possess his body. "I donít think so." He answered stubbornly.
"OH, GROW UP, DOCTOR!" THE CREATURE EXPLODED. "QUIT YOUR DAMNED SULKING!" It leaned toward him, its voice oily and dark, "WE ALREADY OWN YOU. MIND AND BODY. YOU BELONG TO US. I KNOW YOU WOULD DIE TO SAVE YOUR FRIEND. BUT HEíS NO GOOD TO THE OTHERS IF HE IS DEAD, NOW IS HE?"
Kyle lifted his head slightly, but closed his eyes to avoid facing the creature. His hand throbbed painfully when the it leaned even closer, meaning to get a straight answer. "I know what you will do to me." Kyle answered with a shaking voice. Something like this, that killed for pleasure, that derived joy from torturing people, could not possibly have an ounce of honor.
On the other hand, the dog-beast was right, Steve needed help. And obviously, the Thing wanted him alive, though Kyle could not figure why. "Only for Steve." He agreed. And Doctor Scott bowed his head, knowing it was going to hurt.
The dog-beast passed into him and Kyle thought his chest would implode. Pressure crushed the skin on his back and his knees weakened. The first instinct was to lean against the watery control panel, but he stopped himself in time. Kyleís body straightened out before he could order it to do so. He helplessly watched as his arms and hands flowed over the control panel. Ripples waved over the watery surface and his fingers touched them as they danced outward. The ripples to the right turned one color, while the left side vibrated more quickly and turned another.
Light flashed on followed by an influx of air, blowing dust in every direction. The air circulated, sucking out most of the dust and blew in a cleaner atmosphere. Kyle felt the alien smile within him, though the doctorís own face made no expression. The beast undid Kyleís helmet and forced Kyle to breathe in the artificially produced oxygen. Scott blinked at the coldness and felt violated; the monster inside him had so much power over his own body.
"SOMEONE HAS FOUND A POWER CHIP DISLOCKER FOR THE HYPER-DRIVE." He said smoothly. "IN FACT, UNLESS IíM MISTAKEN, ITíS THAT PRETTY GIRL WITH THE WHITE HAIR. SHEíS VERY INTELLIGENT. TOO BAD SHE WONíT PROCREATE ANYMORE. THE TWO OF YOU COULD PRODUCE A CHILD PROGENY."
"Thatís enough." Kyle snapped.
It smiled again. "NOW I UNDERSTAND WHY PTYSAR CHOSE YOU. YOUíRE QUITE THE SPIT-FIRE. BUT IíM ALWAYS UP FOR THE CHALLENGE. I HOPE THE CAPTAIN WILL BE JUST AS FUN TO WORK WITH."
Doctor Scott silently fumed and searched for a way to kick the demon out.
Like liquid fire, agony shot clear down Kyleís body but he could not so much as quiver. The creature rammed its way into his mind, lashing at him in a way Kyle did not think was possible. Scott flinched within and withered as the ghost bit deeply into his soul. It ripped a piece off and Kyle could not cry out. Its terrible teeth made a second gash, mercilessly ripping his immaterial being and then it spat the broken pieces back at him. Kyle trembled with the inability to move or react. The thing in him pressed its face close to the face of his spirit, its steel-white teeth gleamed cold and wet with soul-blood.
"DO NOT DEFY ME AGAIN, KYLE SCOTT. OR I WILL PUT YOU IN A VEGETATIVE STATE. YOU WILL BE TENDED TO DAY AND NIGHT BY FRIENDS WHO HAVE TO FEED YOU AND WIPE YOUR ASS, HOPING IN VAIN FOR THE DAY WHEN YOU WILL COME OUT. BUT YOU WILL BE THERE PERMANENTLY. DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR?"
It abandoned his body and Kyle gasped for air, collapsing. His head slammed against the control panel and he lay as though dead, having no ability to move or speak. His mind raced with shock. No amount of training could have prepared him for such an attack.
Kyle thought he was bleeding to death and his mind simply shut down.
The sun kissed the landscape with a cheerful brilliance. Kayla rolled over on her back and stared up as the sky lit in a soft rose hue. Early morning light peeked through tree branches and pine needles. But Kayla really saw none of it. Darkness shadowed her mind and the Kshi empath envisioned masses of armies marching in perfect rhythm over hills and across great valleys. Pillaged cities burned in their wake. Great dark ships hovered above them like giant birds of prey. One name came to mind: Aoung. He wore a crown of wood over his huge dark head.
Kayla blinked, wondering from where her head picked that up. She hadnít watched any movies or read any books that reflected the vision. But there it was. She frowned and tossed the whole thing aside as she slowly sat up.
The buzzing in her head quieted, but her arm throbbed. She found Jill nearby, sound asleep. A smouldering fire lay between them. Kayla nabbed her back pack and rummaged through it, hoping everything remained in tact.
To her relief, nothing was damaged or missing. She swallowed half a canteen of water and ate a couple food bars. She found the map near Jillís hand and slipped it out from under her. The two ladies lay in a small depression resembling a footprint or a meteor crater. Tall trees, several of which lay broken after the battle, surrounded them in a semi-protective glade. Kayla searched for it there on the map. But the news wasnít all that great. They were still at least a good dayís worth of walk from the ravine. Kayla resisted the temptation to wad the map up and toss it away. She folded it and stood, finding the food she ate hadnít quite caught up with her bodyís weakness yet. She leaned against a nearby tree and gazed across the landscape. Two huge trees lay splintered like so much rotted wood. And not far off lumped the largest land animal Kayla had seen in her life. Its carcass reposed in a twisted fashion, missing one head and it stank.
a strange look patterned over its skin; reflecting the sky and the ground. Kaylaís curiosity got the best of her and she crawled out of their safety zone and approached the body.
Sure enough, it mirrored her form too. Millions of tiny plates acted as individual mirrors, slanting light, reflecting it or absorbing light altogether, making the beast nearly invisible. Which would explain why neither Kayla nor Jill saw it the night before.
Kayla wondered if this creature really was native of Chenobis, or some other alien import. For all she could tell, it might have been a lab accident.
Spellbinderís presence pressed gently at the link and Kayla wearily informed him of their present situation. She frowned when Spellbinder explained what was delaying their arrival.
<<Just please get here soon!>> she begged.
<<Weíre coming, Little One. Weíre coming.>>
"Kayla?" Jill called. "Kayla?"
"Here." Kayla answered. "Iím here. Iím okay." She waited until Jill joined her a moment later.
McKennan wrapped her arms about herself, stepping carefully over broken tree branches. She made a face at the beheaded monster before them then tossed her gaze toward the early morning sky. "Bronto burgers, anybody?" She joked.
Kayla shook her head. "Who would have known?" She asked herself more than her companion. "Letís get out of here." And she turned immediately away.
"Not until I have a look at your arm again." Jill argued as the empath picked her way back to their campsite.
Kayla knelt before her back pack again then moaned softly. "Iíd give my teeth for a descent cup of hot chocolate."
Jill knelt beside her friend and plucked a scanner from subspace to examine Kaylaís bounded wound. "Iíll treat you to the very best when we get home." She promised. "Howís it feel?"
Kayla rummaged through her bag as Jill chattered. She slumped, her eyes fell in a slight pout. "You know, we came here to keep the guys out of trouble. We werenít supposed to get into trouble ourselves."
Jill shrugged. "Steve thought his looney idea would work. None of us thought Kyle would actually be insane enough to come back here." The scan came up clear and Jill snapped it closed. "No infection." She announced.
Kayla ignored it. "He was going to come here by himself, Jill." Kaylaís voice fell soft and sad.
Jill smiled lightly. "He wouldnít have gotten far." She answered, thinking of Steveís threat.
"I know." Kayla replied, thinking of the terrible reactions Kyle had to the excavations site.
"Well, letís see if we canít get further now. Are you up to a slow jog?" McKennan pushed to her feet and plucked up her back pack.
Kayla wordlessly shrugged. The scanner might have said she didnít have an infection in her wounded arm, but it did not register pain. It made her weary and she felt more tired just considering jogging a while longer. "No," she answered at length, "I donít think so."
Jill stood nearby, her back pack dangling from her hand. At this point, she didnít want to pressure Kayla into more than what her friend could handle. She stared at the dead beast, rotting slowly in the cold ocean air. Its size rivaled the brathrons from her home world. It might even be the same size as one of the Dinobots. She glanced back at Kayla and found the healer was already picking her way over and in between trees, due east. Jill ran a few steps to catch up to the taller lady. "You know, you really need to show me how to throw those vibro-blades."
"Hmmm . . . I donít know, Jill. I recall a certain nurse trying to learn once and nearly hacked off my head."
"Iíll be more careful this time." Jill promised.
Kayla grinned. "If I teach you, Steve will want to learn. And if he learns, he will learn how to do it better than I and then he will show it all off and invite people-"
"Okay!" McKennan laughed. "I get the picture!"
They trudged forward, tall slender grasses swacked at their knees as they walked, sometimes stumbled across the uneven terrain. Trees grouped together swayed in the chilly ocean breeze and from the roar in the distance, the ladies guessed the sea was in an ugly mood.
The walk stretched off into late afternoon when they finally decided to stop and rest. They said little at first, both locked somewhere in her own contemplation. Jill felt uncomfortable finding nothing to say. But Kayla was glad for the silence. She produced a blanket out of subspace and lay flat, staring at a cloudy sky. Then little by little, she drifted to sleep.
Kayla woke later, finding Jill sleeping nearby, a small fire snapped and danced before them. Jill didnít sleep very deeply because when Kayla moved, the medic snapped up then relaxed, realizing it was just her friend.
"Move on now?" McKennan suggested.
Kayla drank more water and nibbled on another bar first. She hoped they wouldnít have to resort to living off the land before their partners came to their rescue. Quietly she wondered why no one had either bothered to contact any of them, or why no one from even the cities and foreign diplomatic offices had tried to rescue them.
The whole affair was fishy.
They decided to travel on through the night, utilizing the night-vision in their suites. Both ladies had slept long through the late afternoon, early evening and now they had to weave their way carefully about sloping mounds and terrainal depressions.
Dawn came early and breathed across the landscape just as the girls reached their destination. Gazing down with her eyes alone, McKennan judged the ravine to be about a quarter of a mile wide and about half a mile down.
"Shan would come in handy about now." Kayla sighed.
Jill produced rope and grappling hooks from her suite and tied them securely about the nearest boulder. "Perhaps. But we can climb down." She answered.
Kayla waited until Jill descended first. "Yeah, but wings would be easier than climbing. And you know, itís far easier going down than coming up. What if Kyle or Steve are injured? How would we carry them?"
Jill paused in her descent a moment and simply stared at Kayla for a moment.
Kayla frowned. She wasnít really in the mood to climb, not with her arm still hurting. She wrapped the rope about her body and slid down the lip of the drop-off, jumping and sliding two more times to catch up with Jill. "Next time Kyle pulls a stunt like this, remind me to pack a tranquilizer."
Jill smiled silently and moved on.
Fifteen minutes later the ladies touched ground. Early morning sunlight had not yet flooded the ravine, but enough light trickled down to reveal their suspicions correct: a cave crouched to one side of the ravine walls, possibly an entrance back into the darkness of the plateau.
The rest of the area, encased in solid rock, revealed ancient skeletons and damaged machines long since rusted and weathered. Every square inch of the rockfacing was colored in pictographical depictions of battles, people and a great deal of graffiti. Kayla and Jill walked in a silent daze, astounded over their find.
"I donít think anyone has been down here in a very long time." Jill surmised. "Beth never ever mentioned this place."
"Oh, Primus." Kayla gasped.
"What?" Jill turned left and three steps over to examine the graffiti Kayla found. Kayla didnít have to even point to it. There in red and white paint was the face and body of a dog. The very same thing that attacked them at Medlab. An angry snarl twisted its face. Someone had written all around the painting, some parts could easily be identified as swear-words. Jill unslung her back pack and searched for her translator.
Kayla examined other drawings and graffiti. As she moved from one wall to the next, the Kshi realized what she was scanning was a journal of sorts. Drawings of several figures stood in a group one minute, then they all lay on their faces the next, as though some terrible catastrophe had struck them down. Kayla found drawings resembling space ships and then a creepy depiction of a monster. It had over-sized eyes, its body drawn in heavy dark lines, long arms and a very large, almost insect-like head.
"Kay," Jill called softly.
Kayla returned to her and glanced at the ugly dog drawing then trained her eyes on Jillís scribbles as she translated the markings. "This is freaky."
"This tells the story of a prince and how he made a contract with what was considered at the time, a demon. In actuality, the demon was another alien. The demon agreed to give the prince eternal life so that the prince could combat the alien invaders that had conquered his people. But it seemed the alien required payment and so the prince gave it sustenance-people, Kayla."
Kayla blinked. "I . . . donít quite understand. Whatís that mean? Is the dog representative of the demon? Was Nick right?"
Jill looked up from her work, staring at her friend. "About what?"
"The keepers. Remember? Beth mentioned the dogs were keepers. Maybe there was more than one demon at work. Maybe the dogs are the demons, the keepers."
Jill nodded. "And they broke their contract with the prince-and have been hunting Chenobians for centuries." She assumed.
Kayla snapped her fingers. "The scroll! Iím willing to bet anything that the scroll Beth talked about was the very same one I found in Rychelís tent. He had already planned to steal it. It must be the contract."
Jill seldom lost her face color. But in light of Kaylaís guess, McKennan paled. "How . . . did blood do that . . . Oh gods, Kayla. This is freaky."
Kayla nodded toward Jillís back pack. "What of the crystal? How does that fit in?"
Jill shrugged. "A bargaining tool to get the government to give them more funding, I suppose. I want to take it back with us so Nick can examine it, give us a little more insight to the technology the Chenobians are trying to acquire."
They fell silent and their eyes searched high and low, glancing at the artwork and scribbles. Jill shook her head. There was far more here than what she could translate in a day. She hauled out a 3-D camera and started taking photographs for future analysis.
Kayla kept browsing, taking in all the ugly or badly-drawn art, trying to read what the artist was saying. It seemed the alienís infiltration into Chenobian society was every bit as devastating as Kyle mentioned-how the people cursed the femaleís ability to procreate simply because the aliens were able to breed with the Chenobians. Kayla realized the little figures often drawn next to the alien picturers, must be indicative of what the Chenobians once looked like. They must have been a much taller people, once had a different color skin and . . .
Kayla couldnít believe what she was staring at: four eyes? She called Jillís attention at that point. Jill complied after photographing another section. Kayla pointed to the drawing. "Do you think this might mean the Chenobians once had four eyes, Jill?"
McKennan shrugged. "I dunno. Let me see." She hauled out her little translator materials and jotted down the few lines of text on the rockface. She checked and double checked. "From what I can tell, this says Ď . . . and they were no more. Their soft dark complexion turned ash, their dark hair now polluted with colorless grey. Their eyes, once lifted to the sky toward the sun, once pierced the darkness at nightí-wow."
"Youíre right. According to this, Chenobians had four eyes. They used one set for day-vision, the other for night. But all that has changed."
Kayla glanced from Jill to the drawing. "So . . . that thing that attacked us was normal for this world? Iíd hate to find out what else is normal for Chenobis."
Jill put her materials away. "Watery man-eating dogs, for one thing."
Kyle came to, wondering why the bed was so uncomfortable. Bright light painfully shocked his vision. His left cheek pressed against the surface of a metal-plated floor. Cold air pushed thin layers of dust along, drying his eyes and sinuses. Kyle dragged his knees closer to his body and every muscle and joint hurt with the slightest effort. Pressure pounded against his head. Despair ate into him and reluctance kept Kyle from doing anything.
What happened? And why was he on the floor?
<<Voodoo?>> he called automatically. <<Voodoo?>> Kyle thought about rolling over on his back, but feared pain and exposure.
Where was he?
"Voodoo?" He called weakly.
Kyle shuddered. His mind drew a terrible blank and the first thought was another bout of amnesia. Gods, what memories did he loose this time? Who and what did he forget?
<<Voodoo?>> Isolation tore at him. Did anyone know he was here?
Several undecided moments flitted by in a silence only outer space could match. Unfamiliar surroundings told Scott no one was nearby. How long was he unconscious?
More uncalculated time passed along before Kyle decided to push himself over. The bottom side of two large backless chairs and a high domed ceiling filled his vision. Light circled the top and corners of the room rather than dropping directly from the ceiling. The constant hum of circulating air vibrated in the background, alleviating only a little silence.
Kyle felt like a rat abandoned in an old science lab where all the workers had already left for a holiday, forgetting to water and feed their subject.
He tried to swallow, but his mouth, dried by several hours without water, could do nothing. Slowly Doctor Scott forced himself to sit. His aching body complained, his muscles strained to obey his will. The world spun and tilted and he closed his eyes, trying to ignore pain. All he wanted to do was find his own bed and collapse.
Where was Voodoo?
Kyle waited another minute for his eyes to adjust. The surroundings consisted of control stations, metal walls, and wall panels all made of the same strange watery surface as the control panel hovering over him.
Then he found Steve.
Kyle crawled along the metal flooring and sat on his knees beside his friend. At first he had no idea what to do, where to start. Then he remembered his hand scanner. He pulled that from subspace first and waved it in the air. The scanner said the air was clean and breathable. There was no sign of pathogens or detectable air-born viruses.
He lowered over Steveís crumpled form and carefully turned Parker on his back. Kyle deactivated Steveís helmet and passed the scanner over him. He gently wiped blood from Steveís ears and sighed in despair. There was no telling what damage the dog-beast did to Steve. No telling how much it devoured.
Kyle made a pillow of his coat and carefully tucked it under Steveís head while he checked his friend. Fresh blood slowly leaked from Parkerís ears and it took everything Scott had to keep concentrating.
Steve responded to no stimulation.
Kyle finally sat back, defeated. Anger touched him. This journey was meant for him alone. He came here to find a weapon and instead, his friends were paying a terrible price because he couldnít be more cautious about his plans! This was a one-way ticket and they insisted on coming! Worse still Voodoo was unwilling to communicate with him. Kyle felt himself slowly wither inside. Where was Voodoo? Why was he so mad? Why wonít he talk? At least, Kyle assumed Voodoo was angry. He really had nothing to prove Voodoo was. But the lack of presence left him empty and alone.
And even with Steve there, Kyle felt horribly secluded. He forced himself to his feet, pacing the room. He could do nothing else for Steve at this point. He knew even the technology at Medbay was incapable of helping his friend.
Kyle bowed his head. He didnít want any of them to go through this! No one deserved what he went through and he told Steve . . .
Kyle fussed indecisively. He knew he had to force himself to move on, no matter how horrible he felt. Then he berated himself. He needed to get out of there and what was he doing? Moping about like a child! Kyle stared at the anti-grav light and wondered how long it would continue to function. He had forgotten all about the portable lights until Steve used his. Kyle was tempted to pull all the items out of whatever other subspace pockets he had just to see what all he owned. So far everything he had produced he did so through Ďautomatic memoryí-Voodooís memory. The whole ordeal was frustrating because he knew he should remember. It was like catching a spec of dust in the wind. It was there, but grasping it with bare hands was impossible.
Kyle paced. His dark eyes scanned aimlessly around the room, flitting from one strange little control station to another. He took more time staring at the water-like monoliths standing fast against the walls. This was technology far above and beyond anything he could remember seeing. No wonder Chenobian governments demanded knowledge regarding crystal technology! Nick would have a hay-day here.
But with all the weird and fascinating technology around him, Kyle did not see one door in or out of the room. There was the elevator shaft, certainly. But that could not be the only way on or off the bridge.
Kyle circled the room twice, examining each water-like monolith. Then two-and-two snapped together like a pair of magnets: perhaps the monoliths WERE the doors!
Kyle glided his fingertips over the watery surface, watching in fascination as a rippling effect bounced from his finger points to the edges, never bouncing back. The panels were soft and pliable when he just touched them, but when Kyle pounded into the surface with a fist, it resisted the exertion just as though it were made of metal. Scott tapped it with his index finger and memory of the dog-beast shot swift and cold. Kyle blinked.
Thatís right, it possessed him! Was that why he had passed out? Why was he on the floor? What did that thing do to him? Kyle gazed back at the control panel under which he woke. A small puddle of drying blood marked the spot where he lay. Kyle touched his left temple and brought back his hand. The fingers glistened with fresh blood. No memories came to mind.
He frowned. There were other problems needing attention. He tapped the watery door again. Ripples of soft reds and purples pricked and faded as they skipped over the surface. Kyle tapped it again and this time recalled the creature had placed his fingers in the ripples themselves.
Could it really be that easy?
Kyle tapped the monolith once more and set his fingers along the ripples to the right as they faded.
The monolith graciously split apart, revealing a long dark hallway. Kyle flinched, wondering how long the doorway would stay open. He turned to Steve, half lifting his friend and levering his own frame, unsure how much weight the armor could take.
Steve moaned as Kyle lifted him in a sitting position. He whimpered Midnightís name in a weak, plaintive voice and faintly wept like a lost child. Kyle drew the coat over Steve, hushing him softly. He supported Steveís back with one hand, tucking his other hand under Parkerís knees and to his surprise, Kyle lifted Steve with no difficulty at all.
The moment his feet touched the adjoining pathway, the door milked back together and blue light trailed ahead of him, snaking down a long corridor. The air was just as cold and dusty here and Kyle did not know if the creature did that on purpose, or if that was the way the ship was designed.
In dead silence Kyle strayed for an undetermined amount of time. He carried Steve until his knees folded under him and he nearly dropped Parker. Kyle finally yielded to his exhaustive state and collapsed against the wall behind him. He didnít dare fall asleep, although nothing moved in the ship. There came no end to the corridor. It stretched onward for miles and Kyle hoped it was leading to an exit of some kind.
A map would be a wonderful thing right now. He had thought about seeking a control panel and searching for such a thing, but he barely understood how to open the door let alone use the long band of water-like controls that lined the hallway walls.
Another thought touched him: Beth and her team never made it this far. They never made it past the initial room.
Kyle tried to recall everything they had found up till now. Nine spaceships had been located across the planet, or so it was said. Beth had discovered many, many cities. The Chenobians were a hybrid species. Was the alien influence slowly being bred out after all this time?
There was the government demand for any crystal technology Beth might have encountered. There were scant notes about strange diseases wiping out most of the population from time to time. Something, some part of the story was missing.
The frightful vision he had earlier shot into Kyleís mind. The splattered blood dripped and formed a symbol.
He realized now they murdered his mother.
They murdered her right in front of his eyes. He watched as they sliced her body on one side, then the other. She screamed with her eyes, never uttering a single sound. She fell to her knees and mouthed ĎI love youí before they sliced into her head.
Kyle could not even cry. And it was the last thing he remembered before falling asleep.
Steve woke drowned in darkness. A long trail of soft blue light filtered through the dead silence, unveiling a long corridor that stretched far beyond eyesight. Cold air burned the back of his throat and hurt his face. His head rested on a metal pillow and when he moved his right arm, he realized he was sleeping on his left side. Something heavy draped over his body, pinning him down. a long heavy blanket covered him, giving the impression that he might be dead. A figure lay behind him and at first Parker thought he was laying next to a corpse. He turned just slightly and realized it was Kyle who slept soundly beside him, and it was Kyleís arm his head rested on and Kyleís coat that covered him. And Kyleís other arm rested over him.
At first Steve felt silly finding himself sleeping in someone elseís arms. Then he realized Scott did what he could to take care of Steve, even if it meant holding him while they slept. Captain Parker settled back down, not wanting to disturb Kyleís sleep. He about drifted off when he thought he saw something pass along the metal plates and shadows of the walls. It came then went, leaving no trace. Steveís first instinct was to seek it out and destroy it, do whatever it took to protect Kyle. He waited, reaching out as far as he could with his senses, hoping he would not see it again.
Monsters in the dark, he thought.
Steve still wished he had used a tranquilizer on Kyle and called for someone to come pick them up. Inwardly, he smiled-albeit grimly. In a small way, this little expedition was kinda fun. They hadnít really done anything like this in decades and now, they might well all loose their lives. Why hadnít they taken the time to do more things together? Had they all really been that busy? Steve decided that was going to change. They needed to grow together, to trust and rely on one another. He trusted Kyle with his life, and yet as well as he knew the man, Steve realized he and Kyle never really spent a lot of time together. Steve wondered if Kyle ever spent time with anyone outside his work.
Doubtful, Parker thought darkly. It was time to change things. The war was long since over and they still hadnít changed their behaviors. Cathy and Jeff had formed a relationship. Shan and Nick . . . Steveís face twisted in puzzlement. Wasnít he missing someone? Wasnít there someone else and if so, who? Steve searched his memory for several long moments and found himself coming across gaps. What was missing? What had happened to him?
And that led to another thought: what the hell were he and Kyle doing in a corridor?
Parker was half tempted to wake Kyle and ask. But he firmly squelched the desire. He didnít want to wake Kyle. Instead, Steve settled back into Kyleís arms and vowed to include Kyle in the rest of his life.
A rush of cold dust-ridden air filled Parkerís lungs and he coughed before consciousness called him from dreamland. He sat up and coughed again, his throat painfully dry. The coat fell from him and he heard Kyle moan.
A burden leadened Steveís heart and he bowed over, fighting the temptation to just lie down and remain there. The oppressive darkness threatened to crowd out whatever amount of optimism he had left.
For the first time in years, Steve was met with a shield. He stared into the empty blackness before him with unseen puzzlement. That wasnít like Midnight.
Didnít Kyle complain of Voodoo keeping a shield between them earlier? Steve turned right and found Kyleís form washed by the soft blue light. Kyle had simply rolled to his right, knees brought tightly in. Steve drew another cold breath to say something but he coughed again. The dust was worse than he thought. He drew a bottle of water from subspace and drank as little as he dared.
"Kyle." Although he spoke softly his voice boomed over the terrible silence.
Parker waited three beats and forced himself to stand. His head tipped and fell and he nearly lost his balance were it not for the wall. He waited for his body to fight back its strength. His chest hurt. His head hurt and he felt weak all over. He willed himself to move and he stepped over Kyleís inert form and knelt. "Kyle, whatís wrong?"
Scott knew he had to pull himself up and move on. His heart traveled in a greater darkness than the trap they were in. He saw things . . . faces and witnessed terrible events. The sounds of millions dying, the cries of women as they gave birth to misshapen children. His rational side fought fiercely for control, his emotions battling to react to the visions passing through his mind.
His training conquered the moment and he managed to pull himself up and against the wall. But all he could do from there was stare into nothing.
Steve dragged himself closer and tried to read Kyleís face in the dark. Kyle was always silent. But unresponsive usually meant something was wrong. "Kyle." He called again, "Whatís wrong?"
"I saw it, Steve. I remembered."
His voice came only a little louder than a whisper. Steve clenched his jaw. "What?" He asked softly. "What did you see?"
"I saw her die. I remembered how my mother died. They killed her, Steve. They sliced her up right in front of me." Kyleís emotions won this round and he could not stop the tears. The picture played over and over in his mind; the weapons, the blood splattered wall.
Steve looked very confused. "Kyle . . . you told me your folks died of natural causes. And that was a very long time ago. How could you have remembered an event Voodoo didnít recall?"
"I was there!" Kyle softly insisted. "I was there. They sliced her to pieces in front of me-"
"Who are Ďthey,í Kyle?" Steve asked carefully.
Scott was ready to refute any objections Parker had regarding his memory, but Steveís question threw him off. He never thought of that. He concentrated, trying to conjure the memory under more rational control. Then Kyle used his photographic memory to recall every detail, every part of the dream, the feel of the spring-day air, the corrosive smell of death and distant fires as cities burned one by one. He counted other dead family members: cousins, two aunts, three . . . sisters.
And his rational mind put all his distress at ease. Kyle was an only child. He relaxed and put his trust in Steveís endless patience. "Ever since the library incident, Iíve had this vision that keeps returning. Something about blood splashing a wall. It happened again when we descended the excavation site for the first time."
"That was with Kayla?" Steve asked carefully.
"Yes. And I had it again later, but . . . I canít remember when it happened." Kyle gazed left, struggling to regain his missing time. All he could recall was waking to find himself on the floor. But he could not remember why.
Steve drew closer and laid a hand on Kyleís. "Kyle," he called gently. "Tell me everything. Tell me everything you can remember. It might be a clue. It might give us some insight."
Kyle blinked and slowly nodded. He drew a deep cold breath, wishing he had something to drink. "Uhm, Iím ten years old. These people came . . . aliens. They pulled us all out of the castle and started killing all the servants. Then they . . ." he paused a moment, struggling to recall more. Kyle shook his head. "The city is burning, Steve. I can smell it in the air. There are dead bodies everywhere and the creatures move so fast and-" Kyle struggled to keep up with the thoughts and emotions. The images flitted by so fast. The corners of his mouth tightened. "I remember they used swords and they forced her down on her knees and they just started to cut her to pieces right in front of me and her blood splattered the wall and-" he couldnít continue. Kyleís breath came ragged from overwhelming emotions.
Steve affectionately squeezed Kyleís upper arm. "Okay." He whispered. "It does seem to be more than just a dream, wouldnít you say?"
Kyle gazed at him and weakly shrugged.
Steve fell silent a moment, allowing Kyle time to gain his composure. "What were the creatures like, Kyle?" He softly asked again.
Kyle concentrated. "They were dark. Biped. In fact, Steve, I think they were the very ones I dissected earlier."
Steve thought it over, wondering how this vision reached his friend. Maybe . . . maybe Kyle was possessed? Could that be true? Could it be possible? Is that what Parker saw that morning when he found Kyle sitting on the cliffside with the journal?
Then another question came to mind: "Kyle, did DíChlavic mention anything about bad dreams or visions in her journal?"
Kyle slowly shook his head. "I hadnít read the whole journal yet, Steve. I donít know."
Steve shook his head and looked annoyed, but it did not translate through the darkness. "You know, Kyle, I really should have just chained you to your quarters."
He could just barely see his remark earned a weary smile from the doctor.
"So . . ." Parker added after a long momentís pause, "where are we?" Steve glanced down one dark end of the tunnel to the other. "Kyle?"
"Did you . . . carry me all that way?"
"And how far is that?"
Kyle shrugged. "I donít know. Hours."
Silence dropped between them again. Steve marveled at Kyleís resilience. In two moves, he sat against the wall next to Kyle and tried to read Kyleís expression in their little lightless world. "Thatís amazing." He said quietly.
Kyle smiled grimly, but did not make eye contact. He longed for light and water and something to eat. He longed to just get back home. "You know, I was so upset when Voodoo showed me all the photographs in my house. Faces of people I was supposed to know were just faces, just strangers. Itís like waking up in a completely different universe. Heh, Voodoo was so mad when I told him I was going to go back to work at Medbay part-time."
"Heís annoyed with your obsession over work." Parker confirmed quietly. "I know itís hard to believe, Kyle, but sometimes, Voodoo just wants you to himself."
"He did say that he wanted to take me to Alean."
Steve fell quiet a moment, carefully choosing his words. "Would you go if he asked you again?"
"I think so." Kyle responded in his usual quiet voice.
"Youíll like Alean." Steve smiled a little. "It has some real weather patterns. Earth storms canít hold candles to Aleanís storms. Even the Sentinels canít fly in those high winds."
Kyleís smile died. "Sounds great." He answered unenthusiastically.
Steve sighed, wishing he could say or do something to cheer Kyleís downed spirit. "Well, how about we try moving on? Are you up to it?"
"Are you?" Kyle asked in turn. He didnít care one way or the other, if he were to be honest with himself. He moved on only because of Steve.
"For a while." Parker replied with an inward shrug. He really wasnít up to anything. Weariness called him to lie down and sleep his pain off.
Kyle shut every complaint out of his mind and forced himself to his feet. The rest did him a great deal of good and he helped Steve to stand. He swept up his coat and waited to see if his friend could move on his own.
Steve proved he could not walk without leaning against the wall and Kyle moved in, gently pulling Steveís arm across his shoulders. "Should have left you home." Doctor Scott muttered.
"Keep it up, Kyle." Steve mockingly warned. "I have a tranquilizer handy when I need it."
"You do not." Kyle argued. And they pressed forward.
"Wanna bet?" Parker dared.
Kayla and Jill examined the ravine until it grew dark. More and more drawings scrawled over walls appeared with every turn. But the ladies found the further north-east they traveled in the ravine, the more erratic and less coherent the artwork became. The text accompanying the pictures became sparse, the letters grew in size and Jill started having trouble translating the language.
"I donít know." She moaned. Most of this is gibberish."
"Whatís that?" Kayla asked. The light began to dim and she searched for a reasonable place to stay.
"Well, the words go into ellipsis, that is to say the language turns into a series of nouns and verbs. ĎHe poisoned.í Or ĎThey . . .í I donít even know what that word is. Itís not translatable."
Kayla scanned the canyon as the sun sunk far beyond the plateau. She recalled her helmet from subspace and activated the night vision. "This place gives me the creeps. Itís like something is staring at us from the grave."
Jill snapped her equipment shut and activated her helmet. She led Kayla back to their landing point. All the information swirled in her head; a jumble of phrases and words. "You know, what Iíd like to know is what really took place here. Why wasnít this place mentioned in the journal? Or if DíChlavic did mention it, it wasnít in any place I read. What about that junked equipment we passed?"
Kayla sighed. They had been going all day and as tired as she was, she did not want to sleep, fearing they might miss Kyle and Steve. "Iíll take first watch." She said in turn.
Jill gave her friend a cursory glance. Kayla was less concerned about the ravine than their safety. And, naturally, with good reason. McKennan smiled warmly. "How about a nice fire and a little food?"
Kayla would rather have left her helmet activated, but nodded in agreement just the same.
They managed to scrounge together dead brush and tumble weeds. Jill examined a couple pieces of abandoned machinery along the way. They were ancient, rusted beyond use. But she found they must have been similar to her own recording equipment. After lighting the campfire, McKennan hauled one such hunk of junk toward the fire and grinned at Kayla.
"Like to look at a piece of Chenobian history?" She asked.
"What is it?"
"Donít know." McKennan produced a small box of handy tools and applied a light anti-corosive spray to her project. She waited while the rust bled away from seams and openings. Kaylaís gaze drifted from the equipment and the fire to the walls around them.
Some drawings seemed to glow in the firelight. Dark colors illuminated with a strange phosphorus reflection. While Jill cleaned and undid the outer casing of the machine, Kayla took to her feet and peered more closely at the walls. Tiny marks not visible in the daylight presented themselves in the form of claw marks. And as though their little fire encouraged a bit of magic through the ravine, Kayla noticed how little by little more and more of the claw-marks opened. She cautiously fingered one mark. It lay over the rocky surface as though the walls were wounded. Silently the empath called her helmet from subspace for examination in night-vision.
Nothing. It wasnít there.
Kayla switched to light radiation frequencies.
Nothing there, either.
She switched her visor again to ultraviolet and found the very things she was staring at through the fire.
How? Why? Fire was a thermodynamic light medium. How was it that she was seeing these Ďcutsí through ultraviolet light? What were they?
"Oh Primus." Jill swore softly. She attained her friendís attention and Kayla snapped back her helmet and returned to the campfire while McKennan tossed the empty casing off her new toy. A complex recording mechanism stood cold and unusable in the flickering firelight. "This thing utilized crystal technology, Kay."
Kayla blinked. "Why wasnít it retrieved?"
Jill opened a fissure and carefully tugged at a thin metal plate. She flipped it one way then another. "You know, judging by the looks of things here, Iíd dare say someone just dropped it and fled. They didnít think about retrieving their data."
"Do you think it might have something to do with the slits in the walls?" Kayla asked.
"What slits?" Jillís eyes snapped from the Ďtoyí to Kayla.
Kayla nodded toward the wall behind McKennan. Jill turned and lowered the machine carefully. She approached the wall and stared at the drawings and text, not seeing what Kayla described. Jill shook her head. "I donít see anything."
"Set your visor on UV. Youíll see it there."
Jill complied and softly gasped. "What the hell?" She fingered one slit then produced a pick and screwdriver. She carefully set the pick inside, hoping some weird animal wonít come out and attack them.
Nothing happened. She applied a pen light and tried to peer in but still saw and found nothing. She stood straight and turned to Kayla. "Iím willing to bet the whole ravine is just like this."
Kayla swept up a small log as a brand. "Wanna find out?"
Before Jill could answer, the click and resounding thud of machines snapped and whirred under the rocks and dirt around them. Jill called her helmet back, preferring to see what they were facing with her own eyes. Kaylaís eyes swept around them, always returning to the nearby cave. She wanted to investigate that but from the sounds, she would rather wait until morning.
"Shit." Jill swore. "I hope I didnít set something off."
The ravine echoed in hisses from one end to the other as the holes in the rock walls spewed huge amounts of dust particles followed by a gaseous fume that blotted out the firelight and sprinkled the ground in tiny drops. Kayla and Jill crumbled to unconsciousness as a cloudy white mist filled the ravine bottom to top.
"Tennnnnt . . . chi . . . Tentchi!"
Steve opened his eyes and gazed right. Not more than a few minutes ago, Kyle very nearly fell in exhaustion. Steve suggested they sleep just for a little while. He himself was not that tired. His shoulder ached his mind spun, restless with urgency.
Something called to him in a tiny soft voice. Across the way, the wall moved as a liquid figure rushed along its dark surface. It paused and its fluid movements pointed onward. Steve could not tell if he were hallucinating or not. He sat up and found Kyle soundly sleeping. Scott shuddered in his sleep, his right arm twitched.
"Kyle." Parker softly called. "Kyle, wake up."
Kyle moaned, annoyed and sick. He stirred, bringing his knees closer to his body.
"Kyle!" Steve called again.
"We need to get out of here."
"Do you want me to be cranky?"
"Then let me sleep."
The Ďliquid figureí caught Parkerís attention again. He slammed his eyes shut then opened them again. It was still there. Steve was torn between the urgency to move on and allowing his friend much-needed rest. He himself was far too weak to even consider carrying Kyle, if thatís what he had to do. He propped his back against the wall and watched as the figure danced and slipped down the hallway, always returning.
Eventually Parkerís head drooped and he fought sleep until he decided a few minuteís rest couldnít hurt. His aching shoulder pressed pain down his left side and for a long while, Steve didnít remember much else.
Terrible cold sank into him and Steve woke with a start. He huffed freezing air and shuddered. His eyes shot wide and he glanced everywhere, searching the unfamiliar surroundings. The corridor had not changed. The darkness had not changed. And Kyle was still soundly asleep.
But the liquid figure trapped in the wall in front of him had not left. It leapt for his attention and pointed onward in an urgency Steve could not mistaken. Steve turned right and laid a hand on Kyleís face. Kyle suffered from a fever and waking him would make him very irritable. Steve forced himself to Kyleís side and gently shook him.
With great effort, Kyle managed to open his eyes. He was cold and hot and moving cost too much energy.
"Kyle?" Steveís voice filled the thick silence and Kyle was glad to hear something other than his own heartbeat. "Kyle, get up. We need to move on."
At first, Kyle thought about telling Steve to just move on without him. But his rational mind told him Parker would never do such a thing-both or neither. That was the policy. Doctor Scott shuddered silently and slowly forced himself to sit up. He thought Steve was going to rush him, but Steve said nothing, allowing Kyle the time he needed to regain his balance.
Several dead moments passed along and neither Tentchi said anything to the other. This was it. It had to be it. They either made it out, or died trying.
Kyle staggered to his feet, his eyes finding nothing but the blue light ever guiding them along. He waited for Steve who also stumbled and turned up on Kyleís left hand side. His eyes sought Kyleís expression, finding a disturbed resignation. Parker about took on some of Kyleís weight to help him along but Kyle shook his head.
"No, I can walk, Steve." The same despair that touched his eyes filled his voice and Captain Parkerís own heart sank. Kyle still insisted on fighting alone. He laid a silent hand on Kyleís shoulder and they pressed forward.
The oppressive darkness shut out all conversation between them. Steve said nothing of the strange liquid figure swimming in the wall beside them. It flowed eerily, as soundless as Kyleís demeanor. Steve kept glancing to the right, first at the liquid figure, then at Kyle.
Kyle and Steve stared at the wall. They said nothing for agonizing moments. No words could convey the terrible truth before them. They were hopelessly lost and no way out-
Except. . .
Except . . .
Steve gazed to his right, searching for the liquid figure. And it came through for him, proving it was not a hallucination after all. It slid from the side wall, to the front and swam around a square panel. Parker glanced at Kyle who said and did nothing. He stepped in front of his friend and examined the square panel.
A huge sharp freezing needle sank into his left shoulder and Steve hissed inward, sinking to his knees. He leaned against the wall and squeezed his eyes tight. "Kyle." He called. "I think this is it. I think we can get out-but . . . I canít read the panel."
Kyle was a million miles away. His heart hurt more than his body. He felt filthy; a demon squirmed inside him and drank his blood. It laughed at him and tears stung his dusty-dry eyes. "Itís eating me alive." He barely whispered. "Iím sorry." His lips trembled. He was so sorry for Voodoo. He was so sorry for Steve. He let them both down.
ĎTo do no harm. To endanger no life. To respect and uphold and praise . . . to put another life before my own.í that was the oath he had taken and now it lay in pieces at his feet.
"Kyle?" Pain crippled Steveís ability to stand. He reached up and grasped Kyleís left hand, hoping to shake his friend out of whatever sorcery affected Scott. But the moment he touched Kyle a flash of darkness passed over him and through him and for a moment, Steve felt something invade his link. But it passed harmlessly and he blinked. "Kyle?" He called again. Slowly Doctor Scott turned to him, but it was like someone who sleep-walked. "The panel." He insisted.
NO YOU DONíT. Something else said in the back of his head. Kyle almost agreed.
YOU DONíT HAVE TO DO EVERYTHING HE SAYS. JUST STAY. LET ME LOVE YOU.
Kyle blinked. Voodoo loves me too, he told himself. Then he narrowed his eyes, realizing what was going on. With what shred of will he had left, Kyle forced himself down and studied the panel in the dark.
Steve broke out in a sweat. The pain in his shoulder ebbed down his legs and he rested his head against the wall. "Please donít say itís DNA-activated." He begged.
But honestly, Kyle could not make anything out of it. He saw a pad of twelve symbols and other buttons and levers. The corners of his mouth tightened and he squeezed Steveís hand.
The monster was charging straight down the hall. He could feel it screaming for him.
So he took a wild guess and punched in a sequence of numbers.
He tried another sequence.
One more time-and this time, with a little more thought to it.
A clang thundered down the hall and pressured air flushed hard between the corridor and whatever else lay on the other side of the door.
The beastís voice blasted with the cry of a million screams, all of them pounded into Kyleís mind and he fell forward, holding his head. The great wall lifted and he and Steve lost their balance and dropped seven feet from the corridor. Their armor contacted solid ground, knocking the wind out of their lungs. The beast stopped just shy of the ravine and howled in contempt of its failure. It did not fail because it could not chase its prey into the ravine. It failed because three Cybertronian jets landed into the mist-filled crevice and transformed into creatures it could not touch. The beast retreated back to its haunt.
Steve blinked, took one breath and passed out cold.
To Be Continued in Part 3