Five Arns, Nine Hundred Thirty Four Microts
Perin led the small group through the city, keeping to the shadows. They moved as quickly as possible considering the burden they carried. Had Aeryn Sun not been the reason they attacked the Peacekeeper command center, Perin would have left her behind. Instead they raced to reach the safe house to get medical help for her while avoiding the Peacekeepers combing the city for them.
The field medics had stabilized her the best they could in the time Perin allowed. The pressure bandage appeared to have stopped the bleeding, at least temporarily, and the painkillers had done their job, allowing them to move her. They carried her now on a makeshift stretcher thrown together out of a couple of outer garments and some Jinka poles whose owners would never need them again.
Perin raised his left fist, signaling them to stop. They crouched low, slipping into the relative safety of the shadows. As the last of them melted into the darkness, a contingent of Peacekeepers swept past. When they had moved out of sight, Perin signaled to his best scout and sent him ahead. He returned a few microts later.
"They've taken up a surveillance position, fanning out to cover as much ground as possible. We'll never be able to get to the safe house. They have all routes blocked."
Perin cursed softly. If it weren't for the Sebacean woman he would order them to scatter, but he couldn't abandon her. And he knew Varga wouldn't let him even if he dared. She felt she owed her a life-debt. He turned to his patrol, studying their faces. He knew these men, knew their families. What he was going to ask of them was difficult. It couldn't be an order; it had to be voluntary.
"You've heard the report, we'll never make it to the safe house. But there is an alternative." He paused, allowing the full import of his words to sink in. "We can take her to the caves."
"That could well kill her." Varga snapped.
"What's our alternative?" he hissed angrily, "Stay here in the shadows until the Peacekeepers stop looking for us? That will surely kill her." He looked at each of them in succession before continuing, "I won't order you to do this. You know the risks, if you disappear from the city the Peacekeepers will suspect you were involved in this raid and your families could be targeted. Any of you who want to return to your homes may do so. No one will hold it against you."
He looked away, allowing them to decide their course without any pressure from him. As he stared at his feet, he prayed silently that some of them would remain. After what seemed like arns, he looked up. To his relief, he found that every one of them had stayed. He grinned his thanks.
Terror emanated from every pore of Rygel's body. He struggled for breath as D'Argo continued to press him against the wall, his hands around the Hynerian's throat.
"Let me go! Get him off me! Please!" he begged, his voice a mere squeak.
As if in answer to his plea, D'Argo released him and he slid to the floor in a heap. Wheezing loudly, he struggled to his feet while rubbing his bruised throat. He franticly searched for his throne sled and stumbled toward it. Seating himself, he activated it and scooted out of D'Argo's reach. Only then did he notice that several Pahkma were restraining the giant Luxan.
D'Argo glowered at Rygel, growling low in his throat and Rygel thought that he had never heard a more menacing sound. For the time being it appeared that he was safe, but he knew that could change at any moment as D'Argo could easily overpower the Pahkma. He hovered closer to D'Argo, rising to eye level.
"What is the matter with you, Luxan?" he asked, his voice hoarse.
"You will die for what you did to Aeryn. I will see to it personally," D'Argo snarled. His voice was low and menacing and Rygel backed away, reacting unconsciously to the threat.
"What I did to Aeryn? I didn't do anything to Aeryn. I told you, the Peacekeepers took her prisoner."
"After you set her up."
"You are mad! I did everything I could to protect her. Ask them if you don't believe me," he replied, indicating the Pahkma.
D'Argo continued to struggle against the men who held him but turned his gaze toward Tammat. An angry visage greeted him. It was obvious to everyone that he had pushed the limits of Tammat's patience.
Tammat stopped mere denches from D'Argo. He straightened his shoulders and raised to his full height. Even so, he had to raise his eyestalks a considerable distance to look D'Argo in the eye. He stood silent for several microts, seemingly unable or unwilling to speak. The muscles in his jaw stood out as he ground his teeth in anger. When he spoke, his voice was low and cold.
"You will not touch the Hynerian again. Is that understood?"
D'Argo stared at Tammat. He was shocked that he seemed to be corroborating Rygel's story without saying it in so many words. He inhaled, a deep growling sound rumbling in his throat then said simply, "Yes."
Rygel was stunned. No one had taken his part in such a way since he had been deposed and he realized that before that fateful day he had probably been defended only because of his rank. His first inclination was to gloat over his apparent victory, but as he looked from Tammat to D'Argo he realized it would be a mistake. A big mistake. And I've made enough of those in the past few arns to last a lifetime. Even a lifetime as long as mine.
"I did not betray Aeryn to the Peacekeepers," Rygel said, "I was as surprised as you when she was taken."
"But Chiana heard you tell someone to take care of her when you reached the surface." D'Argo replied. His voice held a note of suspicion, but had lost its anger.
"Oh, and you believe everything that tralk says, don't you?" Rygel sneered. "I didn't think she was still leading you around by the mivoncks, Luxan."
"Enough," Tammat snapped, interrupting. It seemed clear that if he didn't intervene they would come to blows again and that was unacceptable. He nodded to the men holding D'Argo. When they released him, he continued, "I assume that this Chiana is a shipmate of yours and she overheard Dominar Rygel's communication with me. What you heard was his request that your friend, Aeryn, be given an escort for her protection while on the planet."
"Then how could this happen?" D'Argo demanded.
"I'm afraid that is my fault," a young man said, coming to stand before D'Argo. "I was assigned to watch her, but I lost her in the marketplace. When I tracked her down she was already in Peacekeeper custody. There was nothing I could do to help her."
"And did you try?" D'Argo snapped. "She is Sebacean, perhaps this was your way of ridding the universe of another one."
The young man's face reflected his anger as he struggled to control it. He inhaled deeply several times before saying, "That is unfair. I do not relish killing. I am not a warrior; I am a potter. But my people deserve to be free to govern themselves." He paused, looking from Tammat to Rygel to D'Argo. "I have taken an oath that if your friend's life is forfeit, so is my own."
"And well it should be," Rygel snapped.
D'Argo glared at him then turned back to the young man. "No. That is not necessary. Your people need fighters like you."
"Perin," Varga whispered fiercely, "how do you propose we transport her to the caves without exposing ourselves?"
"There are ways little sister. There are ways." He smiled enigmatically, knowing that she would be frustrated with his answer, but he couldn't afford to tell her more. Not yet. Not until her loyalty was proven again. He hated the fact that he had to test his own sister, but he had to know that she hadn't been turned by the Peacekeepers.
She cocked her head and looked at him curiously. "You don't trust me, do you?" she asked. Her voice sounded shocked and hurt.
Perin looked up and met her eyes. He didn't like the pain he saw there, and even more, he didn't like that he had caused it. Deep down, he trusted his sister, but he knew the other members of the resistance wouldn't be as accepting. They'd been taken in before and had learned the hard way to be cautious of people who'd spent an extended time in Peacekeeper cells.
"It's not that I don't trust you Varga. I have to be ... we have to be cautious."
"I do not believe this," she whispered harshly. "You have no idea what I've been through in that rat-hole of a prison and now you question my loyalty. You have more compassion for this woman than you do for your own sister." She flashed him a look of anger that made him quail inside then turned and stalked away.
"Varga, listen to me," he pleaded. She didn't move; didn't acknowledge that he had spoken. He wanted to wrap his arms around her as he had when they were children and comfort her, tell her he understood, that everything would be all right, but he couldn't. He couldn't show weakness. He was in command of this patrol and he had to behave as such. Compassion wasn't a weakness, he knew that, but he also knew that compassion at this juncture could get them all killed, or worse. It could land them all back in that Peacekeeper prison.
Every fiber of his body ached from fatigue, both physical and emotional, but it was time to press on. They were running out of time. Dawn would be coming within the arn and they needed to be at the caves by then or risk everything. He pushed himself up readied his weapon then turned to the rest of the patrol.
"It's time. Move out." He melted into the darkness ahead without looking back. The patrol would follow. Of that, he had no doubts.
"Zhaan, you'd better get up here!" Chiana shouted into the comms. "Now!"
The Delvian priest sighed and lowered her hands, which held her prayer crystals. She longed to spend time with the Goddess, praying for the success of Rygel and Aeryn's mission and for Pilot's life. But that apparently was not to be. "Calm yourself child," the Zhaan said softly. "What is the problem?"
"We're losing orbital stability. I can't control Moya," Chiana cried. Panic was evident in her voice.
"Blue, this is Crichton." John's voice sounded over the comms. "I'm on my way to Command. You go to Pilot. I'll see what I can do to help Chi."
"Thank you John." Zhaan replied as she pulled her garments about her slender figure. She gathered her medical supplies and hurried from her quarters. As she raced through the corridors toward Pilot's den she hoped that she wasn't too late. Ever since the encounter with Kahaynu she had felt responsible for Moya and, by extension, Pilot. While she welcomed the responsibility, watching them suffer as they had due to the Metalites' attack and now this was tearing at her heart.
The door to Pilot's den was closed when she arrived. She activated the access control and as she waited for the hatch to swing open, said a silent prayer that she would be able to help Pilot. The prayer was cut short as a terrible stench assailed her nostrils followed by a cold blast of air on her legs.
She raced up the access to Pilot's station terrified by what she saw. The massive symbiont was slumped over his console. He was breathing, but barely. His back and head were covered with open sores where the plague was starting to eat away his flesh. No wonder he's unconscious. The pain must be intolerable.
"Chiana, John. Pilot is much worse," she said raising her comms to her mouth. "You must contact Rygel or D'Argo. Tell them to hurry. We may not have as much time as I first calculated."
Five Arns, Two Hundred Twenty One Microts
Wet leaves and rain dampened air swirled into the dank atmosphere of the safe house as the door opened. A hush hung over the room and heads turned to see who had entered. Seeing the solitary figure, everyone returned to his or her task without comment, grateful that no more wounded or dying had been brought for treatment.
Tammat recognized the young man immediately. He was one of Perin's patrol. Fear quickened his heart as he hurried across the room to welcome him. Where was Perin? Had he been taken? And the Sebacean woman? He helped the young man out of his rain soaked coat and guided him toward the brazier that warmed the small room. When he was seated and had been given a warm drink Tammat could wait no longer.
"Where are they?" he asked, almost afraid of the answer.
"Perin's leading them to the caves," he replied as he edged closer to the warmth of the fire. "Peacekeeper patrols are everywhere. I had to dodge three of them just to get back here. And no, I wasn't followed. I made certain of it."
"How many? Who was with him?"
"Eight total. The woman is with them. She's hurt." His voice was edged with fatigue and something more painful.
Tammat recognized the sounds of horror in the man's voice. He'd heard it many times before in men and women who'd experienced their first real battle. This night had changed this young innocent into a battle-scarred warrior and, Tammat thought, he isn't the only one. He wondered how the events of this night would change his people.
"There is good news though." The young man's voice cut into Tammat's self-pity. "Your daughter, Varga. She was among the prisoners. She is with Perin now."
"Varga?" Tammat's voice was breathless. His heart pounded as he tried to understand the news. He had reconciled himself to her death monens ago though there had been no confirmation, no body. It would have been better, he thought, for her to have died than to have suffered in the Peacekeepers' prison. There were stories of the atrocities meted out by the Peacekeepers on their prisoners. To picture his sweet little girl being brutalized at their hands filled him with a rage such as he had never known.
The war with the Peacekeepers had always been something of a mental exercise for him than anything despite the losses he had suffered. Though he had lost many people close to him the reality of the war had never touched him personally. Not until today. Yes, he thought he'd lost his daughter, but that was an abstract concept to him. He'd never dealt with the reality because he'd never had to identify a body. Never had to attend a burial rite. Never had to face the cruelty of the Peacekeepers head-on. Until today.
He could feel deep-seated anger welling up in him. Anger against everything the Peacekeepers were doing to his people, to him. He had never felt this kind of rage, having prided himself on his calm detachment. But as he pictured his daughter, his little girl suffering Gods knew what at the enemy's hands he began to tremble and all the rage poured out of him in a primal scream that ripped through the hushed chaos around him.
"We will go to the caves. All of us," he said through clenched teeth. "Gather your families. Gather your weapons. We are no longer a hit-and-miss militia. We are going to take this fight directly to the Peacekeepers and we are going to drive them from this planet. I make you this promise. We will avenge the blood that has been spilled tonight and so many nights before this one. The Peacekeepers will rue the day they set foot on Pahk."
Across the room D'Argo and Rygel watched the emotions play across Tammat's face with interest. They had heard the report that Aeryn was safely delivered from the prison, but injured with mixed emotions. Rygel lobbied for a prompt return to Moya with the Veriten Ore for Pilot while D'Argo insisted they stay to fight.
"Listen to me Luxan. She would want us to save Pilot then return to help her," Rygel said in a hushed tone.
"You can run if you want Rygel, but I am not a coward."
"This has nothing to do with cowardice you fool," Rygel said. "We have a limited timeframe to save Pilot. What good will it do to find Aeryn if Pilot dies before we can get back to Moya with the ore?"
D'Argo looked at the diminutive Hynerian. There was truth to his words, but he sensed there was more to it. Something didn't seem right about Rygel's sudden concern for Pilot but he couldn't put his finger on it.
"Rygel." Chiana's voice on the comms interrupted. "Rygel, can you hear me?"
"Keep your voice down," he hissed glancing to see if anyone had heard her. He hadn't told anyone that he was still in contact with the ship and now didn't seem the right time to break the news. "What is it?"
"You have to get back here Ryge. Pilot's getting worse." It was clear from her shaking voice that she was upset. "D'Argo's on the planet - "
"Yes, he is," Rygel interrupted. "He's right here. We'll do what we can Chiana. Tell Zhaan to expect the ore soon."
D'Argo glared at his companion as he cut the connection with Chiana. "Just how do you expect to get the ore back to Moya?"
A smug smile spread across Rygel's face as he said, "They're heading for the caves in the desert. We're going with them. Your transport is in the desert. I'll take it back to Moya with the ore. You can come with me or you can stay. I don't much care which."
The first hint of daylight was coloring the horizon as the small patrol crested a low ridge. They had been traveling fast and were desperate for a rest, but they didn't dare slow their pace. With the coming of daylight the Peacekeeper fly-overs would start. They needed to get to the safety of the caves before then or all of their work would be for naught.
They paused briefly to hand off their burden. Perin and another of the patrol took their turn carrying Aeryn's stretcher. By sharing the burden they found they could all travel faster. As they lifted her and started down the slope she groaned low in her throat. The painkillers must be wearing off, Perin thought. Thankfully they would be out of sight soon.
Their trek through the wastelands had been accomplished largely in darkness, but now as the sun began to rise they could see the desolation through which they were traveling. Low scrubby bushes and rocky escarpments dotted the landscape. There was nothing to provide cover, which added urgency to their pace.
"Stay together," Perin urged. The group was starting to straggle as fatigue affected their discipline. That would be dangerous. "Head for the rocks about half a metra ahead."
Seven figures hurried through the rosy light toward the pile of rocks Perin had indicated then suddenly disappeared without a trace, not even leaving any footprints to tell of their passage.
Lieutenant Baryn Tal paced angrily around his office. The Peacekeepers had suffered an ignominious defeat at the hands of a rag-tag militia and he took it personally. Fortunately he wasn't in command, but that would be little consolation when First Command heard about the debacle. He knew the only way to salvage his career would be to personally bring in the leaders of the Resistance. And, he hoped, in so doing to find the traitor Aeryn Sun as well.
A cold smile spread across his rugged face as he considered the woman who had been a thorn in his side for several cycles. He was angry that she had managed, yet again, to escape from him. But he had seen the blood on the cell floor and knew from the quantity that she was seriously hurt. A wounded animal is easier to track, he thought. And he intended to track her. Track her right to the rabble that had attacked the garrison just a few arns earlier.
He considered the rebels with grudging admiration. They had planned and executed an attack that was not only successful, but was demoralizing for the Peacekeepers stationed on Pahk. Many of the soldiers who found themselves on the planet were in positions much like his, hoping to rebuild damaged careers. This latest frell up would not help them return to duty on the front lines where most of them felt they really belonged. If they survived this grot assignment they would probably be shipped to another even less appealing duty station. That is, unless they turned this defeat into a major victory, which was exactly what Tal intended to do.
A loud buzz sounded from the access panel on the office door returning Tal's mind to the present. The surviving members of his squad had arrived. What he was planning was tantamount to mutiny but he trusted these soldiers enough to include them. They had proven their loyalty many times over. He pressed the switch allowing them access. As they filed into the office, he activated the dampening field permitting them to speak without fear of being overheard.
As the last man entered the office and the door slid securely closed they snapped to attention. Eyes locked. Shoulders back. Only six of the twenty members of his squad remained. They were all battle hardened warriors. He knew without question that each of them would die for the others and take down as many of the enemy as possible before that happened. They were Peacekeepers. Born and bred to service. Which made what he was going to ask of them even harder.
"At ease men," he barked then smiled warmly as they shifted to parade rest. "No need to stand on formality here. We've known each other too long for that. We've lost a lot of good soldiers tonight. Barkyn. Zanad. Adnyl. Too many to name." He paused, looking from man to man. These were the survivors. These were the best of the best. "But we are not here to mourn our fallen comrades. I summoned you to ask you to join me in a mission to bring the Pahkma who killed them to justice."
The men before him shifted nervously as he finished. He could tell they wanted vengeance, but were uncertain of his intent. After several microts Officer Tarax Nal stepped forward.
"Sir. Permission to speak freely?" Tal nodded and he continued, "We've had no orders to that effect. If we go out on our own, we could face court martial or worse."
"Agreed. But our miserable excuse for a commanding is so busy covering his ass that by the time he gives the order the rebels will be in hiding again. We are going to pursue the rabble that attacked the prison. I want them found and I want the prisoners returned. It is imperative that we act now, before we lose our advantage."
"Our advantage sir?"
"Yes, Nal," he whispered, a smile lighting his face, "I have an agent planted inside the resistance."