Dominar Rygel the sixteenth paused a microt in order to unleash a string of Hynerian obscenities at the small, harmless-looking but completely intractable object lying in front of him. It glistened in the golden light, seeming almost to wink at him, to mock him and his inability to unlock its secrets, a dark, frustrating source of mystery and almost unreachable profit. It looked so innocent; a simple sphere of metallic, reflective black, refracting rays of colour as though it were some incandescent ball of dark matter, a single silver curve etched along one side, jutting slightly from the polished perfection of the whole, a swipe of almost colour in a wall as black as night. That had to be the key, Rygel had concluded. It was the only part of the frelling thing that seemed to have a purpose. It was obviously a locking mechanism of some kind but thus far it had eluded all attempts to yield to his superior intellect. What the yotz was in the frelling thing?
It had been a mistake. It was a rare admission for Rygel to make, but he had no choice but to face up to it. He should never have bought it. When he had acquired the sphere ten solar days before, he had encountered some difficulty in understanding the speech of the traders of the city market – translator microbes it seemed, were no fonder of strong dialects than he was – but he had managed to establish that these dull looking spheres contained an incredibly valuable commodity, a commodity that many in this area of space would trade their very souls to obtain. What exactly this commodity was, Rygel could not be certain – the speech of the traders had at this point become incomprehensible. He had caught something about great light, about value beyond counting and some illusive and ridiculously poetic references to “shards of power” and “ripples in the air.” He had come to conclude that the sphere probably contained some kind of magnificent gemstones or jewels, probably cut to refract the light in some spectacular fashion and, never one to miss an opportunity, had decided it might be prudent to get his hands on some before he left – preferably at bargain prices. That was when the trouble had started. The traders only ever seemed willing to trade the spheres off in pairs and at a fairly obscene rate that lay well beyond Rygel’s irritatingly modest means. At last, in a dark pocket of the market square, he had found a seedy looking trader willing to part with a single sphere for a very reasonable price and although he now had every intention of selling it on, the Dominar at least wanted to know what exactly it was that made these indestructible containers so special.
That however, was looking increasingly unlikely. Rygel had tried every means at his disposal to open the thing – rubbing it with his hands, heating it, cooling it, even hurling it to the ground – but stubbornly, maddeningly, it would not yield. Out of breath from his latest effort, Rygel slumped back in his thronesled and stared balefully at the source of his wraith, the single silver line curling up slightly across the spherical surface. Staring at the merry profile, Rygel became suddenly and irrationally convinced that the frelling thing was laughing at him. “Frell you then!” he exclaimed angrily, batting the dark ball with one small fist. It rolled in a gentle circle across the golden table, rotating, spinning before it came to rights, fixing Rygel once more with that same infuriating suedo-grin.
Rygel was less than amused.
He was right on the verge of delivering a retribution that would have inanimate objects across the quadrant quaking in their boots when the grinding of the door lock announced the arrival of the last thing he needed; company.
“Hey Ryge!” Chiana bounded into the room with sickening enthusiasm, her grey skin gleaming and her white hair wet from recent washing. It was probably a rub down from her latest encounter with D’Argo – not a thought Rygel especially wanted to dwell on. With a grin that almost matched the spheres for irritation value, she hurled herself onto his bed, sprawling across the golden sheets as she rolled onto her back and hung her head down one side, cocking it as she gazed at him upside down. “Watcha doing?” she exclaimed. She was bored. That much was obvious. And she’d come to him for entertaining. Rygel sighed; he was in no mood for the Nebari thunderbolt today. But a part of his subconscious was poking rather pre-emptorially at his mind, prompting him to realise there could be a benefit to this turn of events. Much as it goaded him to admit it, Chiana was far his superior in matters of breaking and entering – as a professional thief she’d had a great deal more experience than a once pampered Dominar who was at best a gifted amateur. Maybe Chiana could unlock the riddle of the sphere where he could not. But then, Rygel’s possessive streak kicked into high gear. Any one who expected nothing for nothing was a fool. What price would the Nebari demand for her services? What if she insisted on a share of the contents? Such a transaction ran the risk of halving his profit when he came to sell it on – although he had noticed that buyers tended to buy the spheres without inspecting the insides, so it might not be a total loss. He could even keep part of the contents himself. But what would sharing do to his profit margin? He made a quick decision.
“Mind your own business!” he snapped. “How dare you charge into my royal bedchamber uninvited! If this were Hyneria, I’d have you flogged!” “Okay, okay! Don’t get your thronesled in a twist!” Chiana rolled onto her front, resting her chin in her hands as she casually waved her legs in the air. “I only dropped in to say hi!” “You’ve said it!” Rygel growled antisocially. “Now leave!” But the sharp black eyes of the Nebari had already fixed on the awkward shape of the sphere that Rygel had been unobtrusively trying to herd into concealment behind his thronesled. She frowned, her porcelain features wrinkling.
“What’s that thing?” she asked curiously. Rygel did his best to look innocent. Unfortunately, the expression was so unnatural to him that he failed spectacularly in his attempt to pull it off.
“This worthless object? Who knows? I just acquired it on a commerce planet. I’ve been trying to decide how to get rid of it.” He pulled a face. “If I try to sell it on, I’ll almost certainly lose out. I’m at my wits end.” Chiana shrugged, her expression deceptively casual. “I’ll take it off your hands if you want. I like it. It’s pretty.” Rygel bit back panic; he realised too late that he had overplayed his part. “No, no, that’s quite alright, Chiana. I couldn’t ask a friend to take a loss! I’ll deal with it!” Chiana’s piercing eyes darted to his face; the edge of a smile tugged at her lips. “Oh, I don’t want to sell it, Ryge. I want to keep it. As an ornament.” Rygel floundered. “Well… I…” Inspiration struck. “Chiana, I have no idea what this thing is. What if it proves to be dangerous? I couldn’t bear the thought that I’d put you at risk…” Chiana’s hint of a smile spread into the genuine article. “How valuable is it?”
“I just told you…”
“A pile of dren.” Chiana grinned. “An impressive pile of dren, Ryge, I’ll give you that, but it’s still dren. I saw those things selling for thousands on that planet we stopped at. How you get hold of any? Pawn Moya?”
Rygel sighed. Clearly the game was up. “I found a dealer who let me have one in exchange for that Rojite shell I picked up on the Royal planet. He seemed fascinated by the thing for some reason. He was more than willing to give me a sphere in exchange.”
Chiana frowned. “Just the one?”
“I think you’ve been had.” Chiana pulled herself into a sitting position as she shrugged. “From what I could tell, those things are useless on their own. They have to be in pairs to be worth anything. And you need some kind of key. At least, that’s what I understood. But if the guy sold you the one…” She grinned. “Maybe I was wrong.” Abruptly the agile Nebari flicked to her feet. “I’m outta here. I wonder what Crichton’s doing…” With a quick cheeky glance back, she vanished out of the latticework door and away down Moya’s golden corridor.
Rygel had the self-composure to wait until Chiana was out of earshot before he filled the air with colourful curses. Stupid! How could he have let himself be duped by a backcountry trader on an insignificant commerce planet? Why hadn’t he realised something was wrong when he got the sphere at such a bargain price? For a moment he poised on the brink of ordering Pilot to turn Moya around so that he could go back and gain some kind of retribution on the smug little prabakto. Yotz!
But all was not lost. After all, Chiana was hardly the fount of all knowledge and they’d all had communication problems on that planet. It was possible the Nebari had misunderstood. And just because the sphere had eluded his logic, it didn’t mean it was beyond all reason. All he needed was to solicit help from someone who would expect nothing in return….
Smiling to himself, Rygel reached for his comm.
“What was that all about?”
Aeryn Sun leaned easily against the imposing welter of flashing lights, pulsating readouts and rippling panels that made up Pilot’s console, watching as the giant navigator made simple sense of what to almost everyone else on board was an incomprehensible jumble of information. She had to admit that she liked Pilot’s chamber – there was something comforting about watching Moya’s rhythms skip playfully across the controls and indeed about the navigator who monitored them. He was a constant, a reliable source of information that could always be found without a search, who was always prepared to listen and help where he could and who, she was sure, would never let them down if he had any kind of choice in the matter. And he was her friend, without reservation or demand. That meant the most of all.
He was also looking rather put upon.
“I beg your pardon, Officer Sun?” he said, glancing up at her with wide orange eyes. Aeryn pulled herself up next to him, settling comfortably into her usual position on his panels as she watched the gentle motions that guided Moya safely across space.
“I said, what did Rygel want?” she asked again.
Pilot sighed substantially. “He wants me to examine an object he obtained on a commerce planet several days ago. He appears to be experiencing difficulty establishing its purpose.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“I don’t believe so. Moya’s sensors would have detected its presence long before now if that were the case.”
Aeryn adjusted her position. “Then why does he want you to do it?”
Pilot’s features fluctuated; Aeryn couldn’t be certain but she thought she caught a flicker of annoyance cross his face.
“Because I’m here, I suppose.” Pilot’s voice was moderate, even bland but Aeryn was not fooled for a microt. “I just wish he could have chosen a time when I wasn’t so busy.”
“Still calibrating Moya’s systems?” Pilot had never adequately explained why he had felt it necessary to do such a thorough examination of all of Moya’s systems after leaving the Royal planet. He had been unusually evasive about it but at Zhaan’s urging, the crew had accepted his request, even though it had meant facing many solar days of erratic systems failures. Pilot had assured them that it would only take a few more days before the check up was complete and things would get back to normal. He had been working extremely hard to finish up the work as rapidly as he was able.
“It is not that the work is too much for me,” Pilot commented with something close to resignation, his voice no longer so carefully controlled to shield out any stray emotions. “It would just make things a little easy if I wasn’t always being distracted.”
Aeryn sat up at once, half-raising herself. “I can go, if you want. I don’t want to get in your way…”
But Pilot had already raised his claw. “Officer Sun, your presence is not a distraction.” He smiled slightly. “It is a pleasure.”
Aeryn smiled back as she resumed her place. “Thank you.”
If he had been capable of it, Pilot would have shrugged. “I have no objections to company. I just do not appreciate the extra work.” He sighed again. “I suppose I’d better get on with it.”
Aeryn raised an eyebrow. “Why?”
“Dominar Rygel wanted the assessment done at once.”
“So? Ignore him.”
Pilot stared at her. Aeryn stared right back. “Well, what’s he going to do?” the peacekeeper commented. “Storm your chamber?” She read his blank look and frowned. “That’s the problem with you, Pilot. You let people take advantage of you. You need to learn to stand up for yourself.”
Pilot was already shaking his head. “That would not be a good idea.”
The navigator’s stare was pointed – even forceful. “Assertive pilots die,” he said bluntly. “The peacekeepers taught me that.”
Aeryn felt a brief stab of pain. She was certain that Pilot had not meant the comment as a personal insult – indeed she noticed a sudden flicker of consternation cross his features as he realised the implications behind what he’d just said – but there was no denying that it hurt all the same. Her memories of her time aboard Moya three cycles before were still too raw to be safely discussed and she knew that Pilot shared those sentiments. She caught his gaze, read the unspoken apology in his eyes and nodded her wordless acceptance. The tension lessened perceivably.
Aeryn let the silence linger a moment longer – she carefully considered the words she would speak next.
“This ship is no longer a slave of the peacekeepers. You have no reason to fear for your life.”
“I behave as I am expected to. I have no illusions about my fate should I become an inconvenience.”
“I won’t let that happen.” Aeryn’s tone was flat. “And you know it.”
“You won’t, perhaps. The others might.”
“Do you trust us so little?”
“I have not always had reason to trust you.”
Aeryn took a deep breath. “Pilot, that was a long time ago. Things have changed a great deal since then.”
Pilot fixed her with his intense golden gaze. “Have they?”
It was a disturbing question – and Aeryn wasn’t sure that she had an answer for it. She could assert her own opinion certainly – but could she speak for the hearts of the others?
She decided to try.
“Yes, they have. You know they have. None of us are the same people we were back then. You’re a servicer, not a slave and we all know it. No one is going to be angry if you stand up for yourself. We might even be pleased.”
Pilot regarded her uncertainly. “Do you really think so?”
Aeryn bit back a small exultant surge. “I wouldn’t have said so if I didn’t. Trust me, Pilot. Trust us all. No one will think the worse of you if you start standing up for yourself.”
Pilot was gazing thoughtfully into space. “It would make my life easier if I was no longer required to perform tasks not relevant to Moya,” he mused almost hopefully.
Aeryn bit back a smile. “Then say no. Take a stand. If it’s not for Moya, don’t do it.”
Pilot cast a speculative glance at the Sebacean. “I may have to think about this.”
“Take all the time you need.”
Pilot almost smiled. “I might just…” A flash of his console caught both their attention. Pilot broke off his sentence at once, skimming his arms over his panels with rapid efficiency as he examined the readouts. Aeryn was at his side instantly.
“What is it?” she asked.
Pilot’s expression was uncertain. “I don’t know. It appears to be some kind of transmission – on a leviathan frequency.”
“A message? From another leviathan?”
“It is possible. The signal is badly fragmented. I am attempting to clarify it.”
A distorted crackle rended the air – the disjointed, halted tangle of a voice flickered tantalisingly between bouts of interference. Clipped, jerky words were spat into the air, gasping and almost incomprehensible. Pilot’s arms worked quickly as he fought to clean up the signal.
“…nder attack fr….” The first clear word burst through the whining hiss, disjointed, frantic but comprehensible. It was not a word Aeryn had hoped to hear. She exchanged a long look with Pilot, trying not to dwell on the ominous implications of what she had just heard.
“Can you make any more sense of it?” she asked.
Pilot shook his head. “Very little. This signal was not transmitted by conventional means. It appears to have originated from a DRD.”
“A DRD?” Aeryn was astonished. “Is that possible?”
“If you know what you’re doing.” Pilot was still working hard. “And it confirms that this transmission originated on a leviathan.”
“A leviathan in trouble, by the sound of it.”
“How far could a signal transmitted by a DRD have carried?”
Pilot looked up, his features etched with tension. “Not far. A few thousand metras at most.”
The peacekeeper felt the blood drain from her face. “Then they’re in the immediate area.”
Aeryn was on her feet almost at once. “Alert the others and scan the surrounding space. If it’s so close, why can’t we see it?”
“There is a large gas giant approximately seven thousand metras from our current position, orbited by six large moons. It is possible that the other ship is concealed behind one of them.”
“Find it. Trace the signal.”
“I am already doing so.”
“Then you don’t need me here. I’ll be in command.”
Pilot nodded as Aeryn leapt down from his console and strode across the walkway towards the door, her mind already fixed on the potentially impending confrontation.
Aeryn turned at once, recognising the tone of Pilot’s voice. “What?” The navigator didn’t answer. He was staring down at his panels, his eyes wide, his features etched with a combination of apprehension, fear and horror. One of his arms was trembling.
Aeryn felt a chill. “What is it?” she repeated, more forcefully.
Still Pilot did not answer. His expression was unchanged.
The peacekeeper wanted an answer and she was not prepared to risk waiting around for Pilot to compose himself. Determinedly she strode back into the chamber. Her hand gripped firmly around Pilot’s nearest arm – startled, the navigator’s head jerked up to be faced with an implacable gaze.
“What have you found?” Aeryn restrained herself from shouting at the last moment, but her voice contained an edge that was unmistakable. Pilot stared at her for a microt, but then he seemed to get hold of himself. He took several deep breaths. When he spoke, his voice was shaking only slightly.
“I have found the other leviathan.”
Aeryn because immediately alert. “Where?”
Pilot glanced down, checking over his readings. “On the surface of one of the moons.”
Aeryn stared. “The surface? What’s it doing there? Is it trying to hide?”
“Unlikely. The moon is solid rock, with little atmosphere and no vegetation. It would have him offered no concealment.”
“Would have?” Aeryn caught the past tense almost at once. “Are you saying this happened a while ago?”
Pilot nodded. “The leviathan crashed approximately twenty solar days ago.”
“How can you be so sure?”
The navigator met her gaze; there was pain in his eyes.
“Because that is how long Moya believes he has been dead.”
“This…Capt…..Brax of….viathan Kaalene…..nder attack fr….no reason for…he just went craz…killing us one by ....he’s gone insa….trying to kill us all…. no way to esc….please help us….we’re trap…..ave to fight bac……nly hope we hav…..”
The crew listened in silence as Pilot played over what little of the distress call he had been able to salvage. The discovery had shaken them all – they had gathered together in the command to run over the facts and decide what, if anything, they were going to do about what they had found.
“That’s all there is?” Crichton leaned against the wall, his expression grim as he gazed at Pilot’s ashen face in the clamshell.
“That is all I was able to recover.” The navigator still looked shaken even several arns after he had made the grim discovery and John had a feeling that his disturbed state was probably a reflection of Moya’s feelings upon stumbling across the corpse of one of her kind. “The transmission appears to be on a repeating loop originating somewhere within the deceased ship.”
Aeryn sighed. “I think it’s safe to assume there was no one left to switch it off.”
“Those poor souls.” Zhaan muttered a quiet incantation to the goddess.
“But what happened to the ship?” Chiana was lounging against a console but her dark eyes betrayed a worry not evident in her posture. “From what that guy said, it sounded like they were being hunted from within. So if no one shot the ship down, why did it crash?”
Good question, Pip.” Crichton turned to the clamshell. “Any ideas, Pilot?”
Pilot sighed. “I can tell you what did not cause it. There is no exterior damage to the hull of the leviathan that cannot be attributed to the force of impact. And Moya’s scans have found no trace of illness or technical malfunction that could have been responsible, although it is hard to be sure at this range.”
“You want us to move in closer?”
Pilot’s expression became pained. “With due respect commander, that would not be wise until we have established what happened. He was a fairly young vessel and seemed to be in good health. That implies a more sinister reason for his death and I have no wish to risk exposing Moya until I can decipher what it was.”
“Wouldn’t it have been the impact that killed him?” D’Argo straightened himself as he walked into the centre of the command.
Pilot shook his head. “He was already dead before he fell, D’Argo. You can tell by the pattern of damage on the surface. A living leviathan is more pliable, less prone to splintering. A dead one is rigid and splits apart. Kaalene split on impact. Whatever killed him happened in orbit.”
“In which case, Moya should definitely keep her distance.” Crichton rubbed his chin thoughtfully with one hand. “But all the same, it might be a good idea for us to find out what we’re dealing with. I say we take a transport over and check it out.”
“Are you insane?” Rygel thrust himself forward on his thronesled, his expression furious. “Didn’t you hear what that captain said? They were under attack! What if whatever killed them is still alive?”
“My scans indicate no life signs aboard the other vessel.” Pilot interjected. “His hull has been compromised – all atmosphere has escaped. It is highly improbable that any life form could have survived so long without air or sustenance, even assuming they could have lived through the impact.”
“There you go.” Crichton shrugged. “Alien no longer walks. Pilot, fuel up a transport pod.” He paused, grinning at Aeryn. “Care to join me, Ripley?”
“Ripley?” Aeryn fixed him with a hard stare. Crichton shrugged.
“Just a babe I used to know. She used to get herself into jams like this all the time.”
“This is hardly the time to discuss your old conquests, Crichton.”
“What? No…never mind.” John gave up without bothering to try. “So who wants to join me on the Marie Celeste?”
“Count me out!” Rygel exclaimed at once. “I have no desire to go poking around on some worthless corpse.”
Sparky, I’m surprised at you.” Crichton rested his hands on his hips, a sardonic twist to his lips. “You do realise you’ll be missing out on a prime looting opportunity, don’t you?”
Rygel snorted. “What items of values could there possibly be aboard a dead leviathan in the middle of this galactic backwater?”
John smiled softly. “Pilot says he’s found evidence of orbital mining operations on the moon’s surface. Leviathans are cargo ships, Buckwheat. What else do you think he was doing out here?”
Rygel’s eyes had widened noticeably. “Mining what?” he asked with obviously feigned indifference.
Crichton shrugged. “Pilot didn’t say, but it’d have to be valuable to get them all the way out here. Gold, jewels, ore – who knows?” He paused. “Still want to miss the boat?”
Rygel paused, his eyes gleaming thoughtfully. Finally he looked up, his expression artfully reluctant. “All right, I’ll come. But only to keep an eye on Chiana.”
“Hey!” Chiana’s squeal of protest echoed across the command. “You wanna watch me? Why don’t you watch yourself, you slimy little….”
“Can we save the happy families until later?” Crichton stepped in to head off hostilities. “So are we all going?”
“I will remain here to watch Moya.” Zhaan’s voice was sad. “There are no survivors left for me to heal. I would sooner be spared the sight of such a noble beast fallen.”
Crichton nodded quietly. “Pilot, is the transport ready?”
“It is awaiting you in the transport hanger, commander.”
“Thanks.” Crichton sighed. “Then I guess we’d better go get some answers.”
“Hey, Zhaan. I think you had the right idea. This trip is a pleasure I could’ve done without.”
Crichton’s voice reverberated over the comm system, made breathy and shallow by the echo from the helmet of the space suit he had donned in order to enter Kaalene’s broken corridors. He glanced around at the jagged remains of what had once been the leviathan’s docking bay, his eyes inevitably drawn to the gaping hole directly over head, a ruthless, sharp-edged gash that seemed to bleed stars down from the dark sky into a place that should have been inviolate to their glow. The shining golden walls, so familiar to him, were no longer gentle, swelling curves, but twisted wreckage, torn asunder, it’s bright beauty dimmed and tarnished by the unwelcome encroachment of space.
The decision not to land the transport pod inside the cracked remnants of this once vast chamber appeared to have been a wise one – the harsh rocks of the moon had bent and swollen the floor into impossible shapes and the piles of fallen debris would have made landing safely all but impossible. Instead they had alighted a dozen or so metras away in the smoothed basin of a meteor impact and over the protests of Rygel and Chiana, who resented the decision that they should remain in the transport pod, he and Aeryn had donned flight suits and with D’Argo, who was using breathing apparatus, they had set out across the rocky landscape to the tangled remains of the ship.
And now they were here. It was a strange and eerie sight – so much that was familiar, so much that he had come to love and think of as his home, was here a broken wreck. John picked his way carefully over a twisted pile of what looked to have been machinery, glancing to his right where Aeryn and D’Argo stood together, examining the sealed door that led into the maintenance bay.
“It’s jammed tight.” D’Argo’s voice was oddly hushed within the breathing mask – the uninvited image of a Luxan Darth Vader flitted through John’s mind. “Something on the other side must be blocking it.”
“Is there another way round?” John stumbled on a broken DRD, fighting to retain his balance as he made his way to their side. This place was a death trap!
Aeryn was looking doubtful. “We could try one of the access shafts, but they might have been crushed in the impact. None of the other hangers are even remotely intact. We could try and cut our way in.”
“That could take arns,” D’Argo retorted impatiently. “And it could bring down the rest of the ship on our heads.”
“What about down there?” John’s eye had been caught by a rent in the wreckage a little way to his left. “If it follows the line of that crack, we may be able to sneak through into the maintenance bay.”
“And mostly likely puncture our suits on a sharp edge and suffocate.” Aeryn stood braced, hands on hips, her mouth a firm line. “It’s too much of a risk for the sake of satisfying your morbid curiosity.”
John felt a surge of annoyance. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I think this is a mistake. We should have left this ghost ship well alone and got out of the area.”
“I was trying to help Moya. If we find out what killed Kaalene, we’ll be able to protect her from it.”
“We’d have protected her better by staying away.”
“Well if you feel so strongly, why didn’t you just stay with Zhaan and Pilot?”
“Someone has to keep an eye on you.”
That was the last straw. “Me? What the Hell do you mean by that?”
Luckily D’Argo stepped in. “Stop it, the pair of you! This is hardly the time for this!”
John was too angry to care. “Well, I think it’s the perfect time for…”
“Crichton, shut up!” D’Argo loomed large and dangerous in front of him, muscles flexing. Crichton almost retorted but bit back the ill-tempered words just in time. He fought down a rush of unpleasant thoughts about his two companions. He had a sudden urge to lash out, to strike, to flare up in a surge of violence that would make them regret speaking to him that way for the rest of their pathetic lives. He caught the thought, stopped it cold and examined it with horror. What the Hell was the matter with him today?
“I’ll go through the hole.” D’Argo was already moving forward. “I have nothing to lose but a layer of skin anyway.” He lifted a large piece of debris and pushed it aside, ducking his head as he slipped into the narrow passage. He was gone from sight a moment later but the Luxan’s occasional grunts of effort implied he was making some headway.
“Is everything okay down there?” Chiana’s nervous voice echoed over the comm, making John jump. “I can still join you, if you need me…”
“We’re fine, Pip.” John cut her off. The last thing they needed right now was another player in their bad-tempered little soap opera. “You just stay in the pod with Rygel. We’ll call if we need you.”
“Frell!” D’Argo’s voice echoed down the comm link, a breathy combination of awe and apprehension.
“What is it?” Aeryn leaped on his exclamation at once. “Is something wrong?”
“No,” The Luxan seemed to be fighting for breath. “I’m in the maintenance bay. We were right about these people being miners. The room is packed with cutting equipment.”
“What’s so frell-worthy about that?” John forced down his disgruntlement in favour of his curiosity.
“What they were mining.”
“What do you see?” Rygel’s eager voice intruded on the commentary.
“Rock. Golden shards of rock. Piles of it, everywhere.”
”Rock?” There was an affronted tone to the Dominar’s voice. “That’s it? You dragged me down here for worthless rock?”
“I’m not so sure it’s worthless. It’s… glowing.” “Glowing?” Aeryn and Crichton exchanged a glance.
“Well, sort of. It’s hard to describe. There’s a kind of golden dust that rises off it and hangs there. It shimmers like – I don’t know. It almost seems to ripple in the air. It makes me feel strange.”
“Strange how?” Aeryn was alert at once.
“I’m not sure. All I know is that it’s giving me a headache.”
“Get out of there. Now,” Aeryn ordered flatly.
“In a microt.”
“No!” There was an abruptness to the Luxan’s response. “There’s something else. A machine of some kind…”
“D’Argo, I think Aeryn’s right. You don’t know what that stuff’ll do to you.” John added his voice to the peacekeeper’s. D’Argo ignored them both.
“I’ve found something. They look like – do you remember that commerce planet we visited ten solar days ago?”
“Yeah. What about it?”
“You know those black spheres they were selling in the market?”
“The ones with the price tag that could bankrupt Bill Gates?”
“Whatever.” D’Argo brushed off Crichton’s comment without bothering to ask for an explanation. “Well, there’s more of them here – except they’re empty.”
“How can you tell?”
“Because they’re open.”
Rygel’s gasp was audible down the comm link. John ignored him.
“What d’you think it means?”
“There are various machines scattered around. It looks like they make these things here – or they did.”
“Are there any spheres intact?” There was a hunger to Rygel’s voice that John didn’t understand.
“Not here. I’m going into the corridor.”
“D’Argo, come back.” Aeryn half started towards the entry. “Wait for us!”
“Don’t come through!” The Luxan’s response was firm. “That passage half tore me to shreds. I can live with it. Your suits couldn’t. Stay there. I’m trying to find another way for you to come.”
Aeryn’s face flashed with rage for a moment – John almost started forward, convinced she was about to disobey D’Argo’s command. But the peacekeeper stepped back, her face set, her expression angry. In a flicker of insight, John quickly realised that he wasn’t the only one having trouble with his temper today.
“I’m the cargo bay.” D’Argo’s voice echoed out of nowhere. “It’s full of crates. It looks like…” There was the sound of breaking wood. “I was right. Spheres – completed ones. It looks like they’ve been packaged for sale.”
The gasp of Rygel’s voice was positively awestruck. “How many?”
“Hundreds. Maybe thousands. The room is jammed with boxes.”
Down the distant comm link, Rygel sounded as though he was going into a mild seizure.
“Aeryn. I think I’ve found a way through.” D’Argo’s voice was calm now, even measured. He seemed to have got over his spell of annoyance. “Look to your left. Can you see a grate a little way off the ground?”
The Sebacean stepped back. “Yes.”
“Can you reach it?”
“Probably, if we pile up some debris. Does it go through?”
“Straight to the cargo bay. I suggest you join me and we get this over with.” There was tension in the Luxan’s voice. “There’s something about this place that stinks of death. I want to get out of here and back to Moya before that stink catches up with us.”
“It won’t take you very long, Chiana.” Rygel’s tone was pleasantly reasonable. It always was, the Nebari had observed, when the Hynerian was trying to get his own way. “All you have to do is slip on that space suit, go down to the ship and bring back one of those crates.”
“Why should I?” Chiana rose indignantly, stalking across the small command of the transport pod to slump against the wall. The nerve of the little slug, expecting her to do his dirty work! “If you want a crate so bad, go snurch one yourself.”
“I can’t.” Rygel’s patient front began to slip a bit. “Aside from the fact that space suit won’t fit me, how the yotz am I supposed to carry a full sized crate on my own?”
“And you think I can? Do I look like D’Argo?”
Rygel wisely refrained from the less than suitable remark hovering on the verge of his lips.
“You heard what D’Argo said,” he replied instead. “Hundreds, thousands of those spheres, all there for the taking. Do have any idea of the profit I could make? I could buy that miserable commerce planet three times over with that kind of wealth!”
Chiana crossed her arms. “And why should I help you get rich?”
“Out of friendship?”
Chiana snorted. “What friendship?”
Rygel sighed. He had very much hoped it wouldn’t come to this.
“A cut of the profits?” he offered with obvious reluctance.
There was a flicker of interest in Chiana’s eyes. “How big a cut?”
The Nebari laughed out loud and waved a disdainful hand. “Forget it! I want sixty percent or nothing!”
Rygel’s eyes bulged. “Sixty percent? That’s robbery!”
Chiana grinned. “I call it my handling fee. I handle – you pay up.” She grinned. “You don’t expect me to do your heavy lifting without ample compensation, do ya?”
“Manual labourers do not get a better cut than the salesman.” Rygel retorted loftily. “It’s a founding principal of economics.”
“Who says I need you to sell it? I can go it alone, if I need to. That way I get a hundred percent to myself.”
“You don’t know the buyers.”
“Neither do you.” “ I have connections. I can find out. You can’t.”
“I could cope.”
Rygel sighed. Well, he had no choice. He needed the little trelk, whether he liked it or not. And one crate of those spheres could wield a large enough profit that he could afford to share. With a sigh, he made a concession.
“All right,” he said wearily. “I’ll go fifty-fifty. But that’s my final offer.”
Chiana paused, her monochrome features wrinkled thoughtfully. Then she smiled.
“Deal,” she said.
“Can you guys still hear us?”
John’s voice echoed out of the golden console, made hushed and distorted by the enclosure of his face in his helmet. Zhaan wrinkled her perfect brow, fighting to subdue the dull, throbbing spot of pain that had encircled her left eye as she examined the readouts with misplaced professionalism. This Goddess-cursed headache that had plagued her ever since they had arrived in this system was starting to become a nuisance. She had tried to mediate it away, but it imposed even on her solitude of prayer, a slow, insidious, menacing ache that refused to be dispelled. Shaking her head, and trying without much success to ignore the ripple of pain that resulted, she turned her attention to business and endured.
“Perfectly, John. Where are you?”
“Good question.” John sounded fraught, his inflections unusually serious – this unpleasant task had shaken them all. “You know our plan to find the command? Useless. There is no damn command, just a great hole in the wall with a view most astronomers would kill for. Every way we try, we find great heaps of damage – some of these passages aren’t even recognisable any more. We can’t make sense of squat –there’s no points of reference left in tact to use. Aeryn’s all for risking our necks in a trek down to the pilot’s chamber but with this mess, she can’t even be sure where that is. We could kinda use an overview. Pilot, you listening?”
“Yes, commander.” The navigator’s response was immediate.
“Can you make any sense of this maze with Moya’s scanners?”
The pale hologram flickered to life – Zhaan couldn’t help but notice how worried he looked and the Delvian had to admit that she shared his concern. Lingering so close to a leviathan that had died of unspecified but obviously unnatural causes was unsettling both Moya and her symbiont.
“I can try.” Pilot’s arms worked rapidly. For some reason, Zhaan felt he looked unusually tired. “I am having some difficulty with Moya’s sensors at present. There appears to be some form of natural radiation emanating from the moon itself. It is interfering with my readouts.”
“Is this radiation dangerous?” There was a note of concern in Crichton’s tone.
“I do not believe so. I have detected a similar signature on several planets we have orbited in the last few solar days. It appears to be the raw form of a local power source.”
“Maybe that’s what the glowing rocks are.”
“It is more than possible, commander.” Pilot paused. “I cannot get a clear reading on the interior structure of Kaalene. The radiation is too intense around his hull. I’m sorry, commander. I’m afraid you will have to find your own path.”
“That’s okay, Pilot.” The tone of Crichton’s voice lacked sincerity – he was clearly disappointed. “Thanks for trying. I was just hoping for a quick escape. This place feels like a tomb.”
“It is a tomb, John.” Zhaan’s tone was hushed. She fought to maintain her composure – her head pounded. “Have you seen any sign of the crew?”
“Not yet. Maybe they got away after all.”
Aeryn’s tone was sceptical. “Or maybe they died in corridors that we are unable to access. D’Argo, can you smell anything?”
“In this mask?” The Luxan huffed. “Hardly.”
“Then we’ll have to make an educated guess.” The peacekeeper’s distant tone was decisive but there was more – a snappish edge that Zhaan noticed at once. “That way.”
“You sure?” Crichton sounded unconvinced. “If this is the corridor leading to command, I would’ve said we go left.”
Zhaan could almost sense the long, slow, pointed look that Aeryn must have fixed on Crichton – she bit back a smile, wincing at the pain the movement caused.
“Haven’t you been paying attention?” There was something akin to scorn in Aeryn’s voice, a tone she had not heard the Sebacean use in almost a cycle. “From what I can tell, that side took the brunt of the impact and is the focus of the damage. If we bear the other way, we stand a better chance.”
“Well, there’s no need to be like that about it.” John sounded almost hurt.
“For frell’s sake!” From the tone of D’Argo’s exclamation, the two had been bickering for a while. “Dispute it on the move! Let’s find the frelling Pilot and get this over with!”
“Agreed. This place is starting to wear.” Crichton addressed Zhaan once more. “Keep a channel open for us, Blue. And make sure Chi doesn’t try to come and play. Three of us desecrating a corpse is enough.”
“I will, John.” Zhaan looking up and gasped, fighting a wave of disorientation. She stumbled, grasping the console for support as she fought to bring her madly spinning head to a standstill. What the frell was the matter with her?
“Zhaan?” Pilot’s quiet voice drew her attention at once – the navigator’s holographic image was staring at her, eyes filled with concern. “Are you all right?”
“To be honest, Pilot, I’m not sure.” The wash of dizziness faded, dimmed by the resurgence of the persistent spot of pain. “I have been feeling unwell ever since we entered this system.”
Zhaan wheeled on him in astonishment, ignoring the surge of agony in her eyeball.
“Pilot? Are you feeling ill?”
“I am fine.” The navigator was quick with his reassurance – almost too quick, Zhaan thought. “It’s Moya. She’s….dozy.”
“Dozy?” The Delvian forced back an up swell of concern. “What do you mean?”
“She has complained to me of an unnatural tiredness, almost a numbness at times. She does not like it. She believes it may be caused by the radiation.” Pilot sighed.
“Although I am not afflicted directly, I am having to work a great deal harder to compensate for her weariness. It is… draining.”
She had not been mistaken earlier– the navigator did indeed look worn. “I wish to leave orbit as soon as possible. Neither Moya or I are comfortable with this feeling, especially in light of…”
He did not elaborate. He didn’t need to. Zhaan forced herself to stay calm.
“Keep an eye on her condition, Pilot. If it worsens, tell me at once.”
“I will.” The clamshell flickered and Pilot was gone.
Zhaan sighed deeply, fighting to concentrate over the pain. Could something so simple have been the culprit? Had Kaalene just fallen asleep?
But no; Pilot said he had been dead on impact. And it did not account for the desperate last message of his crew. There was something deeper going on here – something more sinister. Zhaan repressed a shiver. Just what terrible secrets lurked beneath that shattered hull?
It was more than a headache. It was a throbbing, pounding ache of almost migraine proportions that had wormed its way into his skull not long after setting off on the Godforsaken trip into the tangled depths of the leviathan’s interior, and expanded in his brain until his head felt ready to swell and explode. John forced himself to keep moving, to focus on something, anything rather than the excruciating pain in his head. He finally fixed on Aeryn, her dark figure weaving her way through the half wrecked corridor before them, the light gleaming from her arm a beacon that forced back the terrible darkness that threatened to engulf them all. Behind him, D’Argo was a hulking shadow at his shoulder, Qualta blade held firm and strong in case of sudden danger.
And it was a possibility. Pilot’s confession about the radiation had thrown doubt on his earlier proclamation that there was nothing alive in the ruins. No one had openly said as much, but the looks on all their faces as the same thought struck at once had been more than words enough. Their movements now were wary, even tense. All eyes darted from shadow to shadow, searching for the illusive and as yet unidentified danger that had so panicked Kaalene’s crew as they wound their careful and circuitous way to the depths of the Pilot’s chamber. John struggled to stay alert, filled with concern that Aeryn had been right, that this stupid excursion was one big, fat, unnecessarily risky waste of time as he fought to dispel the demons in his head as much as any external danger. What the frell was it with this place? First it had them snapping at each other like pissed-off wolves and now his skull was on the verge of cracking open. Was it just his headache making him paranoid, or could there really be something more sinister going on?
Damn! He wished they’d never come!
“Over here.” Aeryn’s low whisper dragged him out of his miserable reverie. She was standing a few yards ahead of him, peering into an open doorway as she swept her torch back and forth over the room. “Look at this.”
D’Argo and John joined her. A cargo bay opened out before them, seemingly intact and undamaged and piled from end to end with a vast expanse of rock. It was dull yellow in colour, cut into sharp, vicious edged shards and scattered, seemingly at random, across the floor. The room was silent and black.
“Is this the same rock you saw earlier, D’Argo?” Aeryn’s voice was husky within her helmet as she glanced at the Luxan. The warrior gazed at the spilled out ore, his expression puzzled. “It looks the same,” he replied dubiously. “But it doesn’t glow.”
He stepped forward over the bumpy threshold and wandered into the room. Exchanging a glance, Aeryn and John reluctantly joined him. The Luxan crouched, lifted a piece of rock and hefted in his hands and he turned it over, examining it in the light of his torch.
“What the frell?” he muttered suddenly.
John came to his side. “What?”
The Luxan rose, holding out the rock in the glow of Aeryn’s searchlight. “Look at this,” he said brusquely, pointing at the surface. Two dark blazes, almost like burn marks scarred its surface. “The rocks I saw before did not have these marks.” John took the stone from D’Argo’s hand, looking it over. There was a washed out paleness to the stone’s colouration, almost as though the colour had been leached out of it.
“Maybe these are the duds,” he suggested. “Or maybe they’ve been used already.” He handed the rock back to D’Argo. “Hold onto that. We’ll take it back to Moya, have Pilot run some scans. If nothing else, it’ll give the big guy something to do.” He turned, running his light over the room once more. Aeryn was picking her way over the loose rock to examine the far corner of the room; D’Argo was already moving towards the door. John was with the Luxan. They’d pretty much exhausted the possibilities of this little corner of Kaalene.
“Hey, Aeryn, what say we move on?” he called out, half turned towards the door. “I really want to get on with this.”
The peacekeeper was facing the other way, her torch shone at the wall. D’Argo was already outside, sweeping his light over the passageway. And Crichton’s own light was pointed at the floor. There was no possible way that those lights could have been responsible for what he then saw.
The light glimmered in the corner of his eye then was gone, an incandescent flash behind an ornate grate a half-dozen yards to his right. Like a photographer’s flashbulb, it pulsed once and then vanished, lost before he could even raise a murmur.
“What the Hell?” John wheeled at once, his torch instantly trained where the brief light had been, his pulse pistol instantly drawn. Shadows loomed behind him – Aeryn and D’Argo were at his side at once, their own weapons cocked and ready for action.
“What?” snapped Aeryn, sweeping her light over the dark corner on which the human had fixed, both hands wrapped around her gun as though she meant to break it in two.
“You didn’t see it?” John took a careful step towards the grate, not relaxing his fix with his weapon.
“See what?” Aeryn’s tone was impatient. “Get to the point, Crichton!”
“Something flashed, a light, a torch, I don’t know. But it came from in that vent.”
“I saw a flash.” D’Argo had converted his Qualta blade from sword to rifle. “I thought it was you.”
“I had my torch down the whole time.” Step by step, John began to edge towards the latticed bars. “Cover me.”
“Don’t be stupid, Crichton.” Aeryn was a step behind but John waved her back at once.
“Keep some distance,” he told her sharply. “If I get jumped, you’ll need time to react. You’ll get a better shot from there.”
Aeryn started to protest, but then apparently thought better of it and resumed her position. John wasn’t sure if he was glad or sorry.
The grate loomed ahead, dark and imposing, a black hole into a lightless oblivion. Crichton dropped to one knee, his pistol still grasped in one hand as he slowed reached up and eased back the catches that held the vent in place.
One, two, three….
Crichton jumped a mile, tumbling back over himself as he flung the latticed grate aside, scrambling back from the leering pair of eyes that had swung into his face out of nowhere. Aeryn leapt forward at once, her light a dazzling beam as she searched for an enemy with her pistol drawn. After a moment, her eyes widened and she stepped back, lowering her weapon. Beside her, D’Argo did the same, his expression grim.
“What’s the matter?” Zhaan’s anxious voice collided with Chiana’s – John had forgotten they were on an open comm. Pulling himself to his feet, he followed Aeryn’s gaze and bit down a sudden urge to crawl into a corner and retch.
“We..ummm… we just found some of the crew. Or parts of them anyway.”
“What do you mean?”
John stared at the dismembered pile of remains with revulsion – the face that had so startled him hung upside down from a broken lattice, rocking gently at the disturbance. The man’s eyes were wide, his face, a hideous, bloody rictus. His body stopped at the waist in an abrupt tear – John didn’t like to think what had happened to the rest of him. The remains beyond him, thankfully unrecognisable, appeared to belong to someone else and were splattered across the half-shattered components of a damaged DRD. The human fought valiantly against a rising surge of vomit.
“You don’t want to know, guys,” he said with feeling. “Trust me, you don’t want to know.”
END OF PART ONE.