The dream becomes reality... - The Covenant
The dream becomes reality... -
PHOENIX RISING INFINITOLOGY
Book One
THE COVENANT
by Angela Timms
Available on Amazon

When the Followers arrived they were the answer to everyone's prayers. Planets had fallen into decay due to over use of natural resources and governments were struggling with overpopulation.

The Followers arrived with resources and within three years they began to solve long term problems on many of the mainstream planets within the galaxies. They were the new eco-heroes. Welcomed by all and they were the solution to problems.

Gradually governments were disbanded on many planets, leaving the Followers in control.

Then everything changed for many people on the backspace planets.

Those who stood against them were removed.
Those who found out what they shouldn't were "re-educated".

The people then needed a saviour from the saviours. This came in the dashing form of Prince Anathorn. A charismatic character who is definitely not proud of his gutter pirate history. Prince by birth, pirate by nature but someone who can get a job done with a very hands on approach.

The story also revolves around a pair of lovers. They cannot be together because of beliefs and race but their love has lasted for decades. One a healer, the other a blood sucking assassin.

This is their journey to find the truth and to try to stand against what seems like an impossible force. Is it too late? Do they stand a chance?

THE COVENANT on AMAZON

CHAPTER ONE
Kel hesitated outside the door and took a deep, dry and slightly dusty breath.  He held it for a moment to calm his nerves and then breathed out. Anticipation and doubts ran through his mind in a spiralling twist of excitement and fear. He looked over his shoulder for a moment as his body tensed. His hand involuntarily brushed his side where one of his Kerillian Blasters hung underneath his coat.  He found it reassuring. There was nobody on the street nearby and he was alone on the dusty windswept veranda that circled the building. He could see both ways clearly as light flooded from the windows illuminating the windswept sun bleached boards as the storm shutters were open. The only other illumination on the street came from the houses between the shops, the whore house down the road and the livery stable. The doors of the stable were open, inside the lanterns were lit and the owner was busily bedding down the horses as the last of them came in for the night, their riders trail worn and dusty.
Kel turned to focus on the weather beaten bare wood door in front of him.
He was a tall man, broad shouldered and muscular. His black curls tumbled down his back over his black leather duster coat. Now that he was momentary stationary the crow feathers woven into his hair were blown about by the howling wind that blew down the street.
The scent of old wood, stale alcohol and smoke filled his senses mixed with a vague aroma of sweetgrass. He hesitated for a moment, his eyes flashing from left to right, trying to penetrate the darkness that hung between every building. Something in a latent memory was troubling him but nothing he could grasp so he translated it as a feeling that someone was watching him.  Deep down he knew it was just being outside after so many months of being cooped up on star bases so he mentally brushed it aside as irrelevant though it lingered disturbingly on the peripherals of his consciousness.
His six foot six frame almost brushed the top of the doorway. His muscular shoulders blocked the light from flooding out as he took a deep breath, opened the door and strode inside. His initial glance scoured the room, assessing the threat level before he turned slightly and closed the door behind him. He didn’t hesitate once inside. He took a step, his heavy metal shod boots made little noticeable sound over the hum of conversation. He looked around the bar, his dark menacing eyes taking it all in as he did a visual sweep of the area. His determined expression accentuated his heavy brow and thick set, handsome, slightly primitive features. Those who noticed him fell silent and looked away, trying not to get noticed. Others continued their conversation oblivious to the imposing, menacing stranger.
He strode to the bar, his coat sweeping just above the dusty sawdust strewn floor. As he walked it swung away to reveal his blasters which looked to anyone who was paying attention like a pair of Colt Peacemakers, one on each side.  The bandana of daggers across his chest glinted in what little light there was. Some saw the guns, some the daggers, any who saw either instinctively fingered weaponry to experience the reassurance of their proximity.
The candlelight cast an eerie glow over the faces of those who sought solace and entertainment at the Black Lamb Tavern. The wind outside howled around the buildings making the tavern sign swing. There was little left of the painting of a black lamb, it was blasted by the weather and bullet holes. The gusts of wind blew rubbish and vegetation down the street and around the small tavern in an outback town known as Whitewater on the planet of Kulak. It was a tiny planet almost lost in its solar system. It was an insignificant green and blue ball that nestled precariously between two far larger planets as the three jauntily orbited their shared sun.  It was insignificant in the grand schemes of the universes but the only world for those who lived there.
On the tiny planet in a tiny mining town the buildings were generally built of wood and they clung tenaciously to the wide main street. Some had obviously been constructed in a hurry a long time ago and the planks of wood that had been nailed to make repairs gave the buildings a patchwork appearance. Paint appeared to be rare as most of them were made of the same unpainted weather beaten planks. The only paint that was visible was on the shop fronts where their owners had made a real effort. These were freshly done and a stark contrast to the shabby thrown together appearance of the rest of the town.
Across the road from the Black Lamb and on almost every corner there was a shop eager to supply those who travelled many miles for their specialist stock. The hand painted signs proclaiming that the shops when they were open were selling the famous bottled white water or strange concoctions involving it in some way or the other.
Inside the tavern Kel was looking around the room again and taking in faces.  That made the inhabitants nervous and many tensed and their hands involuntarily or voluntarily moved to where concealed or not so concealed weaponry was kept. Conscious that he was alone in a bar full of strangers who were probably all armed he couldn’t help but be cautious. He looked and he looked again. His body was tensed, expecting trouble any moment. He looked, he evaluated and he adjusted his first impressions and guide book influenced expectations of this being a non-technological back water to something a little more realistic considering what he was seeing. To even the casual observer it was obvious that what was considered a low level of technology by many was actually quite the opposite. Although not overtly obvious as Kel took in the scene it didn’t take him long to spot the technology. He noticed a watch here, a terminal there, a keypad in an open bag. He noticed one or two eyes that were too bright in the darkness, hands moving small black boxes around on the wooden table tops or wearing black gloves, their owners staring into space with an intent expression as their fingers moved almost undetectably. There was enough for him to realise that the outward appearance concealed an underlying level of development he had not been expecting. He raised an eyebrow when it occurred to him that he was being scanned and a chill ran down his spine as he realised that he was probably being lined up with many weapons that were carefully concealed.
Inside the tavern, each table was lit by a candle dug into a mound of wax from previous candles and roses of candles hung from the ceiling at strategic points around the room. The tables were old, their wood worn by countless customers over the years and obviously mended many times. The tavern itself was rustic, the windows dusty and the floorboards coated with a dusting of dirty wood shavings that concealed the wooden floor.
The bar stretched across the far wall of the room. Behind it the barman had been busying himself with washing glasses. Kel watched him as he broke off from his task to serve a couple of customers with a shot of whisky and a glass of a blue local drink before sitting down to chat with the lone customer seated at the bar. He had obviously noticed Kel but he was either being subtle or overtly ignoring him. As Kel got to the bar the barman hesitated, came over and put his hands on the bar, cloth in hand to meet Kel’s stare.
The barman was a tall thin man in his mid thirties sporting a neatly trimmed moustache and short close cropped hair. He had a friendly expression and there was something reminiscently weasel like about his features and he looked very nervous. The box of broken glasses behind the bar wasn’t lost on Kel. The lacerations on the barman’s face and hands had all been noted.
The customer seated at the bar was a tall, portly individual dressed in a well worn voluminous buckskin jacket and fringed trousers. His full beard and moustache enveloped his glass as he raised it to drink with a work hardened and scarred hand. The brown colouring of his jacket had long been lost in the grey dust from the road and the mongrel dog curled up at his feet was apparently asleep. He cast a sideways glance at Kel and went back to his drink, still keeping an eye on him and his hand cautiously moved to his side where there was a tell-tale slightly angular bulge under his coat.
The bar was crowded, every table was full or nearly full and the hum of conversation filled the air. Most of the customers were smartly dressed. The men favoured black suits, waistcoats and thin ties fastened around mandarin collars. The women elegantly fluttered about in wide hemmed and frilled long dresses which were held out by hoops. The women’s hair was generally dressed in curls which fell neatly to their shoulders.
In the corner a piano player was hammering out a tune and customers around the room involuntarily tapped out the rhythm with their fingers.  It was only when the pianist reached for his drink and the piano carried on playing, the keys depressing by themselves, that Kel realised he wasn’t playing at all. To the right a poker game was in full flow. Some customers were playing, some watched and the chips were piling up in the middle of the table. To the left was a roulette table, the wheel spinning, the resident’s financial fate hanging in the balance.
The barman took a deep breath and spoke in a broad accent. “And what can I get you sir?”
Kel looked about him, taking in the nervous expressions of those who were watching him, either overtly or covertly. “I’m looking for the Eridian Mercenary, Erasmus Deck. We received your narrowcast earlier today. I’m here to help.”
The barman looked relieved. “Thank the gods that someone was paying attention. He is upstairs, room seven. He has my barmaid with him. Please be careful, she’s a good girl. He arrived earlier today, demanded food and busted up a couple of my customers.”
Kel nodded once and the customers in the bar who had overheard what he had said now visibly relaxed and went back to their drinks. He could almost hear those safety catches going back on guns around the bar.
Kel took the stairs two at a time, pulling his blasters from their holsters and kicking the door in as he sprang cat-like into the room. He fired two shots before Erasmus knew he was there. The red beams cut through the darkness and ripped into the semi naked man who fell back onto the bed. The barmaid screamed and rolled away from the now dead corpse, grabbing what was left of her torn clothing she covered herself and ran for the door, past Kel and down the corridor.
Kel crossed the room and rolled the man over immediately taking in that everything about this man was expensive. He went through the pockets of his clothes that were strewn around the room, pulling out ID cards and other items which he swiftly pocketed. Then he caught sight of a case in the corner. It was open and the contents lay on the table beside it. A radio transmitter and a small black box, a small book and what looked like a pen. Kel slipped these into his deep pockets, turned on his heels and left the room. He strode down the stairs and threw a glance at the bar which was now silent.  All eyes were on him.
The barman looked up and opened his mouth as if he was going to say something, hesitated then spoke in a broken voice. “Thanks.”
Kel strode on out of the bar, leaving a stunned silence as the door swung closed behind him.
The street outside was almost empty. Pockets of people stood around shop doorways and speeders which looked like carts without horses hovered along the dusty road. Kel stepped around the corner of the building as a Planet Hopper de-cloaked and the rear access ramp lowered. Its cylindrical chrome exoskeleton was starkly modern in contrast with the weather beaten wood of the buildings around it. A cat that had been stealthily stalking a mouse gave a loud meow and leapt to safety up a wooden wall and disappeared into the gloom.
Kel ran up the ramp as it closed behind him and the engines jumped into life. As he took his seat it glided effortlessly away with an almost silent swishing sound. Kel clipped on his seatbelt as the Hopper climbed sharply up out of the atmosphere, leaving the planet a blue and green ball ever decreasing in size.
The slight orange glow as they exited the planet’s atmosphere played on Kel’s face and illuminated the passenger hold. Everything was chrome and black, immaculately clean and efficiently stowed with the panels labelled to show what they contained.
The ship levelled out, inertial dampeners compensating for the acceleration of speed as it sped away from Kulak on the edge of the Nimbus Galaxy.
Kel smiled to himself as the intercom sprang into life and a silvery female voice spoke. “Welcome home Kel. I trust everything went smoothly?”
“Indeed, without a hitch. Style and grace Shantara, style and grace.”
“No loose ends? Did you get what you were looking for?”
“He won’t be carrying any more messages and I did thank you. I trust the wait wasn’t too tiresome.” He smiled to himself. His sullen features brightened as he raised an eyebrow and waited for her to answer.
“Not at all, always a pleasure. After all I had Rowland for company.” Unseen Shantara scowled and contemplated the switches and buttons on the control panel.
A thicker male voice chipped in. “Thank you, very kind of you to say so.”
Kel nearly choked and stifled his laughter. He knew that even Shantara with all her meditation and training sometimes had difficulty around Rowland and his constant irrelevant chatter. “Our informant was right. He did have the communication devices. Now it’s up to the tekkies to see what they can get out of them. What’s on the screen Shantara, it’s just figures to me. Anything I should worry about? The figures are red and they are counting up.”
The intercom crackled slightly. Rowland’s voice chipped in. “Nothing to worry about, I left it doing a power reading and forgot to switch back, it will just keep on ticking up until the numbers go green. That’s the battery recharging its particles as we gather them on leaving the atmosphere and entering the inter-dimensional space.”
Kel stared into space blankly and he didn’t answer. The intercom crackled and Rowland’s voice came over it again, this time broken up. “It’s showing the recharge rate of the Eion Drive. I really must fix that intercom. Hold on a second.” It crackled and fell silent.
Kel cursed under his breath and shouted at the now dead intercom. “Rowland just leave things alone. Great, now the intercom is broken and you are going to spend the next few hours trying to fix it. So what do I do now?” Then he realised he was actually talking to the dead intercom and shut up.
Shantara piped up. “Use the secondary intercom which only links to my headset. Its Rowland’s one that is broken. He is not getting his hands on mine. So, what do we do now to pass the time until we get back?”
Kel smiled. “No idea. I prefer the Hoppers where there’s a connection between the passenger hold and the crew cabin. Why didn’t we take one of those?”
Shantara took a while to answer. “Sorry, just removing some wires from over my control switches. Thank you Rowland, leave that alone or I swear I will shoot you. Right, that was in case we had trouble. The shielding between the crew cabin and passenger hold on the other Hoppers isn’t very strong, if you came in hot we could have been caught in the crossfire.”
Kel shrugged. “Can’t see why, they never worried on other missions. So, how long until we get back then?”
Rowland was mumbling something as Shantara clicked her intercom to speak. “Not long. So what are your plans for this evening?” Then she coughed nervously.
Kel looked down at the blaster in his hand and slipped it back into its holster and took the other one out. “I’ve booked the meditation room for a bit of unbridled sentimentality. It has been two years since the Followers raided my village. I thought I’d mark the anniversary. But I’m guessing you remembered that.” Kel paused in contemplation, staring at the window. There was a lost look in his eyes. “Well, its time I did the Ceremony of Remembrance. Yes I am fine and no I don’t need any company.”
Shantara’s voice was gentle, soft. “You want to talk about it? You’ve never said much about it.”
Kel looked down the sight of his gun. “I don’t talk about it but that doesn’t stop me thinking about it, but that is my business. It’s not something I’m going to forget in a hurry is it? Me and the rest of Mission Command I would guess. There isn’t one person there who hasn’t lost someone. You included.”
Shantara clicked the intercom. “I doubt I’m the last of my species, someone had to survive. We were spread through many planets, as were your people. Don’t think you are the only one and you know you aren’t alone. I know it’s hard to accept but there has to be more of us out there. The Followers take prisoners and they take slaves as often as they convert. Who knows the information in that box might give us a lead on where some of these people are.”
Kel took a deep breath. “Your sentimentality is quite charming but I’m afraid your words are lost on me. It just might. Even if it doesn’t it will give us the opportunity to even the score a little and perhaps get some people out before the Followers get to them.”
In the cockpit Shantara was pouting and Rowland looked up momentarily then thought better of speaking. He went back to sorting out the bundle of wires on his lap.
The hours rolled by, broken up by the occasional crackle from the intercom as Rowland attempted to fix the problem. Kel passed the time by checking over his guns.
Shantara broke the silence. “What are you thinking?”
Kel looked annoyed. “I don’t do much by way of that thinking lark. I leave that to you technological and sensitive types.”
In the quiet solitude of the metal shell flying effortlessly through space Kel did think. In his mind he was back home where the camp fires burnt brightly in the chilled evening air. The smell of cooking and the smoke from the wood fire, fur and leather mingled with the smell of animals and people to build such a strong memory that he could almost smell it now.
The ghosts of his life wandered again, laughing and living like he remembered them. But even in that moment of solace where he could imagine everything was alright, images came to remind him how far it was from reality. Unbidden came the images of its destruction, of his people dead. He was almost glad when Shantara’s voice crackled across the intercom. “What was it like being a hunter in your tribe? Did you enjoy it?”
There was a pause which hung in the silence as Kel scowled. “Look, what do you think? Life was simple back then. I liked my life. I didn’t have people asking stupid questions. You’ve seen enough films where the hero loses his home and his family. Well, there you go. Yes I loved my life but it’s gone. I’m not going into all that again, I’ve told you about it enough. You know very well that I liked the constant trips out to hunt Arlyx as that was the true test of a warrior. Life could have been a pleasure if that had been allowed to continue. So yes, I was happy back then, it was my life and I wish with every waking moment that it hadn’t changed.” His last words were almost growled.
Shantara smiled, her lilac skin slightly flushed darker since Kel’s last words. She was slightly built, almost boyish in her looks which contrasted dramatically with her ample breasts. Her standard issue blue boiler suit clashed slightly with her skin and was unflattering. She looked at the tubby dishevelled individual who was still welding wires from the impossible tangle in front of him. He wasn’t looking at her, he was trying to balance a manual on his knee and put out the small fire he had caused by igniting its pages with his soldering iron.
She looked away when the fire was out. “So what was your home world like? What was your village like? I saw it in a book I found in the library on base. Those pointed tents looked amazing with their poles ascending to the sky and the smell of the campfire and roasting meat must have been a regular thing. I went camping once on my world, just a night but I’ll never forget that smell, the smoke, the fresh grass.”
Kel scowled and clenched his fist. “All I remember now are those same tents burnt to the ground, my people lying dead and dying and me along with them. And yes I do wish I’d died there too and no I don’t want to talk about it. They are all gone. My family, my wife and my two children, their bodies blackened and charred by the time I came around. I will never know what my unborn child would have looked like. I will never again feel Shakar’s gentle touch and hear her mild wisdom both to me and to those who came to her for her words. Look these aren’t memories I really want. I know you mean well but for now, can we just be silent.” He thrust his other blaster back into its holster and watched the lights of the void between dimensions rushing past the window. He focused on his new home, Mission Command.
Within the hour the thrusters changed their sound and the sparkles of the inter-dimensional space elongated as they re-entered normal space and he could see the star shaped base out of the window in the distance as they made their descent. Its silver tendrils spread over the moon’s crust leading from one room to another.
Shantara piped up. “So how is life different from your life back where you came from?”
Kel looked to the ceiling. “You never give up do you? Not much has changed really. I train people and then I see empty seats when their crews come back without them sometimes.”
Shantara spoke gently. “I don’t know how you cope.”
Kel laughed. “I bet you don’t or you wouldn’t keep asking and reminding me of everything. Nothing really makes me feel that much better but I have a need for revenge, it is my life. If that shocks you, stop asking.”
Shantara’s brow furrowed. “That kind of attitude can’t be healthy. Haven’t they sent you to the base psychologist?”
Kel bit his lip in frustration. “Shantara, not everyone needs to talk about things and not everyone sees it as a problem. Commander Zack no longer sees it as a problem. I’ve proven myself to be loyal and I am in control. They are as happy for me to kill Followers as I am. It makes me an effective killing machine, they appreciate it and they ask little more of me. I have a room, food and that is about the best I can ask for now. They don’t have a problem with it, so why do you? You are going to have to stop trying to understand me. It is not the road to a deep and meaningful relationship. It was one night. You’ll have to get over it.”
She looked down at the controls as the ship brought them down to land. “Ok, I’ll concentrate on landing, we’ll speak later.”
Rowland looked up. “Don’t be silly.  There’s little to concentrate on as the computers handle all the minute calculations and adjustments. I can’t see why you…” Her glare silenced him.
Shantara was a slim woman who, if she had been human, would have been placed in her mid thirties. Her hair and skin were a pale lilac, her eyes a vibrant purple. She was focusing on a terminal, her flawless skin furrowed by the scowl. Her belt was pulled in to accentuate her slim waist.
Rowland was a middle aged balding man whose boiler suit mostly fitted him but the zip struggled slightly to keep his copious waistline in check. His thinning dark brown hair was unkempt as he constantly ran his fingers through it and his pudgy face was fixed in an almost constant smile. In front of him the communications array lay in pieces where he had taken it apart looking for the problem. Tools lay on the floor around him and wires pointed without purpose into the air.
Shantara cast a cautious sideways glance and almost sighed before she caught herself, focused forwards, relieved that she hadn’t attracted his attention.  Thinking that silence was golden.
“Fixed it.” Rowland’s voice almost squeaked over the intercom which crackled into life.
Shantara’s voice sounded strained. “We will be landing presently, better buckle up.”
The Hopper lurched slightly as it negotiated the other traffic heading on and off base. Hoppers and other craft came and went. Transporters, supply ships and all manner of other civilian and military craft navigated their way around each other. They hovered slightly as Rowland keyed in the password and codes and then they waited, and waited.  They were all waiting expectantly for that moment when the Controller gave them the go ahead to land.
When they got the landing code Shantara brought the Hopper effortlessly in on the outdoor landing pad. The clamps raised and the Hopper was securely grasped and moved forwards, sliding through the open doors of the hangar bay to be placed against the airlocks, one beside the cockpit the other covering the back bay door. There was a hiss as the pressures equalised and the back and side ramps descended to meet the immaculately clean white walkway of the Mission Command docking bay.
Kel sprang to his feet and strode out and down the corridor stopping in the glass booth at the end. Medical and other scanners sprang to life when they sensed movement. A red beam of light ran over the length of this body. He stood stock still as the intercom and recorded message sprang to life. “You are being scanned by the Inselink Medical Scanner, Reference Number SC2341566. Please stand completely still. This will not hurt and your personal rights are not being violated by this and the procedure does not infringe your rights as an individual but it is an essential requirement for entering the base. Should you wish not to be scanned please return to your vessel and await further instructions. Thank you, you have been scanned and you are completely healthy. There is a slight strain of your right ankle and this has been logged on your medical record. Please attend a medical officer to have this attended to at your convenience. Welcome back to base KE237 Kel Elyn.” The red light on the control panel switched to green and the door in front of him slid silently open.
He stepped out onto the polished blue floor on the other side of the compartment and his eyes ran along the photographs of planets. He’d done this walk a hundred or so times but he always managed to notice something new. He breathed in deeply, the citrus smell of the floor polish filling his nostrils. The smell of home which conjured up many of the memories he had formed since he had been on the base. He took a moment to think about them, filed them in his mind and strolled off down the corridor. The glass door closed behind him.  As he looked back the Hopper’s ramps closed and large metal clamps reached down to encircle it before they took it off to maintenance.
At the second glass door which opened and closed in front of him he stepped out into the pristine white corridor which denoted he was in the main hub of the station.  There were no photographs or pictures here, just white walls. He followed it as it turned the corner and there he met up with Shantara and Rowland who had just come through the pilots’ arrival lounge. Both wore military boiler suits with their rank and insignia of their planet of origin. Shantara wore the insignia of a pilot and combat medic, Rowland that of engineer. Rowland bore the insignia of Mission Command while that panel on Shantara’s boiler suit was empty.
Shantara smiled broadly at Kel and took a step closer while Rowland kept his distance and fell slightly behind. He froze slightly and looked uncomfortable.  He kept well behind as they strode off down the corridor. Shantara didn’t notice, she was busy reaching into her pocket for a notebook. She fell in step beside Kel and they strode in silence down the corridor until they came to double doors on the right. Shantara tapped in her code with her elegantly painted fingernails, 4568, and the chrome doors swished effortlessly open.
The slightly damp air that met them carried the aroma of perfume and bath products. The room they entered was bustling with members of Mission Command. Rows of shiny black lockers lined the walls. Some open, most locked shut. There where twenty soldiers and civilians who were gearing up, dressing down or fetching things from their lockers. It was a communal room. Some individuals came and went from the showers, wrapped in towels or bath robes, retrieving clothes from their lockers before changing in the cubicles to the right of the room.
Kel went to his locker and ran his hand over the identification pad. The locker door swung open. Where other lockers were decorated inside with photographs and mementos of previous happy times Kel’s was bare. He hesitated for a moment, turned and reached into his deep pockets and pulled out the items he had taken from the room on the mission. He looked at them for a moment and then handed them to Shantara. She took them from him, looking more at him than what she was doing, her other hand brushing his as she pretended to steady the pile of things he had placed on her hand.
Kel was oblivious to this, he took out his towel, buckskin tunic and leather trousers and disappeared through the door to the shower room.
Shantara and Rowland went to their lockers and took out their mission logs in silence. Rowland kept looking as if he was going to speak but as Shantara appeared busy and glared when he caught her eye he shut his mouth again. They left in silence and re-entered the corridor. A little further on they stopped outside a door to the right and again Shantara entered her code and the single door slid silently open.
The large room beyond was in two halves. The closest half was painted gunmetal grey. Pictures of different types of shuttle and ship hung on the wall. The light grey floor was a contrast to the white of the floor outside. Three long tables were set out parallel to each other and surrounded by chairs. A low wooden wall divided each table in half. The wooden dividers set at intervals provided private cubicles where terminals waited patiently for someone to use them.  Their screens displaying the standard Mission Command screensaver. Some were occupied, most were empty.
The far side half of the room had been partitioned off by a glass wall and a single glass door was shut. It was a smaller room and its main feature was a large black stone table with chairs around it which stood regally in the centre. The room was currently empty and the table was set with notepads, bottles of water and glasses awaiting the next meeting.
They walked in silence to a pair of terminals next to each other, sat down and logged in their passwords. The logo disappeared and a screen appeared offering a list of choices. They both clicked on “Mission Report”, the report template appeared, already filled in with the mission brief and as they began typing the boxes filled up and the auto correct kept their reports roughly readable.
Shantara stopped typing and hesitated. “Why doesn’t Kel have to file a report?”
Rowland smiled. “Kel can’t read or write. The Commander got him a teacher but they gave up in the end. He’ll do a verbal debrief later if there is anything worth reporting. He’s not one for noticing detail anyway and his reports were very uninformative or so I am led to believe.”
They sat in silence and typed, hit send and the job was done. They were about to log off when Shantara looked over at Rowland. “Isn’t it about time that you told me a bit more about the Followers? Come on you are keen enough on your stories. We’ve got a little time while we wait for our next orders to come through.”
Rowland looked a little stunned. “You know about the Followers.  Come on, what is behind this? Everybody does so why are you asking? You mean you actually want me to tell you something? That makes a change. Well, ok then but I can’t think that I know anything that you don’t. But fair enough. I’ll have to miss out specifics as sorry, you don’t have full clearance yet.  You will probably know as it is pretty much common knowledge that the Followers came to the Galaxies a few years ago. There was no record of them before then and most people welcomed them initially as a curiosity and then as a new and exciting ideal.  They seemed to have good ethics which most people weren’t that bothered about but they adapted it to make people’s lives better.  People always like that and they tend to overlook a lot of they feel they are better off that way.
Looking back on it now they took what was seen as a healthy interest in the galaxies and many of their people stood for positions in local government and eventually they got into positions which real influence on intergalactic affairs.  I won’t bore you with it all but basically they worked their way into every level of government and their policy of having as many children as possible made sure that in a few generations they had control at all levels.
While they were the saviours of the galaxies that wasn’t a problem but a few years ago things changed.  Many people couldn’t see it but those who did started to realise that perhaps these people were not the salvation they were made out to be.  But of course by then it was too late.  Of course Mission Command was here for those who realised the problem to flock to.  I think the rest is pretty much history.
Some planets had lived in peace for thousands of years without major technological advancement. They were progressing at their natural pace. Suddenly they had technology thrust on them which in the most part wasn’t a huge problem while everything was peaceful.  But, when the Followers started having opposition they needed more resources and places to take them from where they wouldn’t be noticed.  They wanted to keep any conflict very quiet. This did not go well for the planets they harvested as they needed more materials and food to feed and provide for an ever growing population as well. They were left with an ecological wasteland as the planets were over farmed and didn’t have the capability to replenish the soil.  Many of them are dustbowls now, their inhabitants scratching a living where once they had rich pastures.
Wherever the Followers landed they went and “converted” new followers and those who would not convert were left as burnt corpses. Well that is what we know now. At the time it was all done very quietly. It was a join or die philosophy and often there wasn’t anyone left to report what happened if you didn’t convert.  Of course once they had an uninhabited planet they moved their own followers there as new colonies. That much I think everyone knows now since there was a major broadcast by rebels a year or so back. Of course that had different effects in different places. Many planets rose up against this but most planets have just caved in and capitulated. The broadcast had terrified the inhabitants into believing if they stood up to the Followers they would die.  Which in effect meant that the broadcast had backfired.  Rather than weakening the Followers it strengthened their position and effectively neutralised the opposition.
In some places where the inhabitants joined them freely they are still heralded as the heroes who saved the worlds. Where they weren’t so welcome they destroyed villages as a lesson to those who would stand against them and as their numbers grew and as they acquired better technology whole cities and even planets were wiped out. Their control of the media meant they were able to explain this away as a natural disaster or even as a good thing that was beneficial to the planet. That was the power of positive propaganda. Then they could impose their rules and regimes and as these came into play people lost their will to fight for free will as on the face of it they had great lives and everything they needed if they did what they were told.
The first thing they got rid of were the meeting places so that anyone who did have rebellious ideas couldn’t spread them to others. Taverns on some worlds are banned. It is only on planets like Whitewater and the ones they haven’t really worried about that you can still meet with other people. Where free spirits had met in pubs and taverns on the planets these became a thing of the past. The Followers banned alcohol where they could and their strict religious doctrine forbade their believers to touch it. From our point of view and with a bit of knowledge you can see why they did. There is something in alcohol which lessens the effect of their mind effecting drugs. We aren’t sure yet how it works and it doesn’t work forever but there is something there. The only places left to meet were the Follower Meeting Houses where obviously it was not possible to say a word out of turn. This in turn destroyed various small economies. Many businesses supplied the now non-existent meeting places.  They went out of business overnight. In truth it drove drinking underground. People chose to drink in their own homes and this meant that they drank more and without social interaction there was a greater incidence of depression. This led people to reach for something in their lives and the Followers were more than happy to oblige.  It was a win, win situation.
Where they encountered a non technological planet they harvested it for its natural resources and left it a wasteland. Planets like Kel’s ended up that way. As most of these were under-developed for a reason, be it harsh climate or their location they were unsuitable for colonisation, harvested and abandoned.
Manipulating internal struggle for their own political advancement and using bureaucracy to slow everything down allowed them the opportunity to gain a foothold. Subterfuge and some incredibly ingenious minds allowed them to infiltrate all levels of government on those planets with a complex political structure and the resulting discussions they initiated meant that they could take over before there was a chance to rally ordinance and gather troops. In all it was a swift, well thought out and excellently executed take over that left governments in tatters and enough planets under their control on the initial invasion to quell any further organised resistance.
They also managed to manipulate other forms of technology which they managed to eliminate through the same use.”
Shantara looked confused. “I think you’d better explain that last bit. You lost me there.”
Rowland smiled. “Bad way of putting it. Basically we used to use teleport devices a lot. Matter was broken down to its basic particles, or strings, and then reformed at the new location. This was an ideal and very environmentally friendly way of travelling apart for the huge amount of energy required to break something down and reform it. Anyway, before we realised that they were tampering with it most of the major players were eliminated as they were scrambled when they reformed. That had a dual purpose. Firstly it eliminated people who were a threat without the followers getting the blame and secondly it meant that teleport transport was deemed too dangerous to use. That restricted people’s movement and ability to get together. They already had every form of communication bugged and logged so it effectively gave them full access to any information that was typed or spoken. The technology was scrapped and those who made it were put out of work.  Not strangely enough anyone who was in Research and Development disappeared shortly afterwards.
They have tried to cover their origins up but initially as you may have heard from Kel they were an environmentally friendly group. They brought about sweeping changes that were definitely for the better on some planets which were nearing extinction through overuse of their natural resources and pollution. They were known as “Fallow Earth” then. They took on the nickname “Fallowers” due to their preaching that it was better to leave planets and areas to recover, to be “Fallow” for a while and to let nature take over again and replenish its resources. I remember reading the writings of Erasmus James many years ago. He was an idealist and a visionary. He basically put into words what the rest of us were thinking. He was outspoken and I, like many people, believed he wouldn’t last the year but he did. His writings about a Utopian Civilisation where everyone could live in harmony with nature formed the basis of what is now the Followers’ philosophy, albeit corrupted and implemented by force. I don’t know what happened to him, he seemed to just disappear.  No record of it anywhere.  One day he was here, the next he vanished.  If you want my opinion he is in a Follower research establishment somewhere.  I can’t see them letting that one get away.  I can’t see them leaving him out there for anyone else to get a hold of either.
Way back they started removing some cities that were decaying after relocating their inhabitants and planting whole areas with trees and reintroducing wildlife. That was also how they got into such positions of power.  People liked it and even where they had to be voted in it was normally a landslide in their favour. Then it all changed.
They played on the mistrust that they could easily create. Followers look no different to anyone else and wear no insignia or use identifying equipment. Anyone could be a Follower and it was well known that they had “sleepers” everywhere who didn’t even know they were Followers until they were activated. So, who could be trusted?  It was mostly the conspiracy theorists that worried about this obviously.  The general public were pretty oblivious or were pretending to be.  They may have said they weren’t worried about the Followers being everywhere but in general I think that they were happy with their lives and didn’t want to rock the boat.  Not everyone wants to be an individual and their controlled lives were very comfortable.  It was hard to question them as well.  What could anyone really say?  They gave everyone a better standard of living.  No, I correct myself, they gave their chosen few a better life and those were generally those who were useful.
Only now that we think that they have progressed into genetic engineering do we have a distinct enemy and something that people find distasteful. Their bone soldiers are easy to recognise. Their exoskeleton makes them look like they are wearing a skeleton mask. Few have been caught and when they have their self destruct ensured that there was little to analyse. As to what they look like under the mask, or if that was a mask and not a part of them, that is unknown. What is known is that their great strength and speed made them a formidable enemy, totally loyal to the Followers and unstoppable other than destroying them when they were carrying out a command. We have lost a lot of good people to them.
Mission Command only survived because it was well hidden and the genius minds that had gathered here managed to keep it that way. It had been created against just such an occurrence, initiated by a lone scientist many hundreds of years ago. How he knew I cannot hazard to guess. He had been heralded as a nutcase by his peers but thankfully he had been a very rich nutcase with a very clear idea of what he wanted to create. He had set up “The Foundation” and they had then set up Command bases around the galaxies to protect against the event of an incursion such as that of the Followers. Each was a different design and hidden in a different way. There was no communication between them and each was unknown to the others until they were needed.
I remember it well and it had not been long ago that myself and Lex, a Sharathian Warrior, you know, the Lizard folk.”
Shantara looked blankly at him.
Rowland smiled. “Oh well, never mind, they have green skin and slightly reptilian features, anyway we had been seated in the Debriefing Room for a meeting with Commander Zack.  Just like any other day really. That was the day he had informed us that everything had changed. Where to start with the Followers had demanded conversion and had spent time preaching their beliefs, now they had another way of spreading the word. They had created a drug and an implant that cut that process out and removed any free will in the matter. Those who were taken were removed to their research facilities, put in pods, the implant was injected and they spent time being indoctrinated with the Followers’ belief system. That way they could guarantee loyal followers and they could also know if there was a spy in their ranks. The implant was not only detectable it was coded to the person it had been implanted in. They could track any of their followers at any time. Well that is how I heard it back then.
The implant was relatively small but the chemical that was also introduced has proven almost impossible to analyse as we have never managed to get hold of any in a large enough quantity to isolate its properties.
The only positive news that comes from this is that if we could develop the technology then we could possibly be able to detect who is a Follower. That doesn’t apply to the “Originals”, those who came to be Followers because they actually believed and those who had fully converted without the implant and the drug. It is hoped that on one of our missions we will find some intelligence that will give us a way to counteract the drug. Until today we had to work with what we had. That was why today’s mission was so important. That mercenary was an undercover Follower. What he carried was a report but I don’t know what was in it. So you’d better go and get that delivered to Commander Zack.” He pointed to her orders flashing on the screen to report to Commander Zack.
Shantara looked down at the items that Kel had given her. “I suppose I’d better.” She got up and left the room.
 
CHAPTER TWO
Commander Zack was in his office sitting at a desk piled high with files, looking through papers. The Commander was in his early fifties. His uniform was immaculately pressed. His grey shirt crisp and recently laundered, his grey military issue trousers ironed with a razor sharp precision. His shoes shone and his insignia was immaculately polished. His balding head was slightly shining, reflecting the light above him and what was left of his receding hair was immaculately cut. His deep blue eyes were sharp and took everything in and his face though round was decidedly bird like and predatory.  
The room was square, large and painted a pale military grey. The floor was practical black rubber with an anti-slip surface of raised rubber circles which matched the corridors outside. Behind his head there was a painting of a coniferous wooded valley with a Planet Hopper flying over it with a dramatic sunset highlighting its chrome metal hull with its oranges and yellows.
To the left of the room the wall was mostly filled by a five shelf bookcase which displayed procedural manuals. These were all blue with gold letters. A collection of legal books which were red with gold lettering filled the top shelf and other military handbooks which were a similar size but which were gathered in their colour coded subjects filled the bottom shelf.
To the right there was a long dresser filled with trophies and awards with the Commander’s name on them. The wall above this was almost completely covered with certificates and framed awards for bravery and other military honours.
As Shantara knocked and entered he looked up and smiled kindly as she stepped through the door. She stepped nervously across the expanse of floor, taking small calculated steps and stood to attention in front of his desk, holding out the items that Kel had given to her.
He was slightly rotund in his smart uniform which was a stark contrast to the pictures of the lithe young man that adorned the wall but the warm smile was the same. Now as then his collar was neatly buttoned, his tie just so. His military honours were pinned to a black pad in the centre of a frame amongst the other awards on his shelf. He wore the basic uniform and rank insignia.
He was surrounded by papers, piles of files and maps and looked up with a pen in his hand. Shantara’s file was open on the desk in front of him. She caught a glimpse of the rather strictly posed photograph of herself clipped to the top left hand corner and the printout of her skills that she had helped Elana, the Personnel Officer put together to fulfil the protocols.
Commander Zack cleared his throat. “Shantara, you have been with us for three months now and your contribution to the crews you have accompanied has been very much appreciated. I also appreciate your great skill in flying our Planet Hoppers and your contribution as a Combat Medic. In that respect it is felt by myself and Central Command that you should receive your full membership of this facility and that your probation period be considered over. So, it gives me great pleasure to be able to present you with your statutory insignia, making you a full time and permanent member of staff.
I realise that your information has been necessarily limited over this time. Our survival as you know depends on secrecy for us and our operatives. Rest assured you will be fully briefed on issues you need to be aware of now.
I trust in your time here your fellow crewmembers have brought you up to speed on the basics. I am not underestimating the value of your previous knowledge either. Your reports were extremely informative and detailed. But, recently information has come to light and you will now be granted access to it.
The Personnel Department will be speaking to you about allocation of a permanent room and you will receive full pay and pension rights as well as being able to access the amber restricted zones.”
The smile on Shantara’s face was like none that had been seen in many weeks. She stepped forward, held out her hand and took the offered pin and shook the Commander’s offered hand. She immediately unclasped the pin and attached it onto her uniform in the empty space that she had wanted to see filled since she had first set foot on Mission Command.
Commander Zack nodded and smiled. “I understand you are flying evac missions this afternoon. I would like to wish you every success. Thank you, you may go.  Congratulations and we are pleased to have you on board officially.”
She turned on her heels smartly and left the room, shut the door, leant against it and took a deep breath. The smile was still all over her face as she walked away.
 
The corridors were crowded with crew members going about their business. A siren went off, its tone alerting certain members that they needed to get to the Hopper Bay and prepare for an emergency mission. Two middle aged men in boiler suits immediately turned and ran in the Bay’s direction. Those in their path got out of the way, including Shantara.
She made her way along the maze of corridors until she came to a door marked “KR2316A CREW ROOM”. With her hand on the door she hesitated a moment, took a deep breath and opened the door and stepped over the threshold.
Rennon, the Science and Research Officer, the fourth member of their team was smiling his usual warm and inviting, bright eyed smile. It flashed through her mind as she entered and saw him that he always seemed to be smiling unless there was a real crisis. He was a striking looking man. He looked small compared to Kel but he was at least six foot tall. His elfin pointed features and wildly unruly spiked hair made for a handsome slightly mischievous, roguish look that he was happy to maintain and live up to. His face lit up as she came in. He had a selection of equipment laid out around him and a laptop which was scrolling down what looked like an endless list of figures. He smiled broadly and spoke quickly in his broad Scottish accent. “Shantara, our wee lassie, I see you’ve got a new piece of jewellery on that suit of yours. Welcome to the Unit.”
Kel was sitting by the window, his chair tipped back, his feet crossed on the table with a cup of steaming coffee in his hand. His blaster hung down by his side, his long coat was draped over the back of his chair and he looked relaxed as always in his native buckskins and leather trousers. He looked up, his deep brown eyes sincere as always.
Rowland the engineer was sitting on the other side of the table opposite Kel. He had been trying to fix a scanner and bits of it were set out on the table in front of him. His features were lost under an unkempt mop of dark brown hair, his beard was straggly and tatty. He looked up and grunted. “Well done.”
Rennon bounced from his chair and went over to congratulate her with a hug.
Rowland grudgingly stepped up to congratulate her.  He looked awkward then offered a hand which she shook politely.  But her eyes were on Kel.
Kel put his cup down, looked up and rolled his legs around, stood up and went over to her slowly. She looked up at him expectantly staring far too intently into his deep brown eyes so he was forced to look away as he smiled and in his deep voice spoke slowly. “Well done.” Although he pulled himself up to his full height as Shantara stepped far too close to him. “I am pleased for you.”
She looked disappointed and she froze in the middle of reaching to hug him. “So formal from our native hunter?” She laughed nervously. “You won’t be able to get rid of me now. I, like you have been accepted, we’re both aliens who found a home here. As I told you, I want to be part of the team. You’ll appreciate me one day, you know that. Perhaps we can all move forward now. I feel it, now that I’m no longer on probation, now that I’m one of the team. If it was that you feared I was going away?”
Kel scowled. “Do not spoil your special moment. I am pleased for you. You have a home here.” He caught her hand and gently pushed it down to her side. “I do not wish to get rid of you.”
Shantara looked hopeful while Rennon and Rowland gave each other nervous looks.
Kel looked from one to the other then back to Shantara. “You are a member of the team, a valued member. We are all pleased you are able to stay. I am sure Rennon here agrees with me too. After all he is in exactly the same position as we are.”
Shantara pouted and Rennon looked relieved but the smile soon faded when Kel looked at him expectantly.
Rennon swallowed hard. “We’ve all lost people but there are people out there who need to be found. Ours and others. Kel is right, don’t spoil your moment. Tonight when you get back we will celebrate properly, won’t we Kel?”
Unseen by Shantara, Rennon gave Kel a knowing look. Kel looked awkward. “Indeed, we can do that.”
Shantara looked a little deflated. “I’m due in the Hopper Bay right away anyway.  Thank you, I’d like that.” She gave Kel a meaningful look which lingered far too long, turned and left.
The door closed and the three sat in silence for a long time. Rennon went back to his scanners and Rowland to his bits and pieces.  They looked up occasionally, nervous.
Later Rennon looked over at Kel who was back sitting by the window. “It is good news, she’s a brilliant pilot and I can’t fault her as a medic either though we know who gets her fullest attention.”
Kel flushed a little red as Rennon smiled broadly at him. He almost grunted.  “She will get over it.”
Rennon frowned. “I’m not so sure. I looked up her race on the expanded Elofoalak database. They are long lived and form firm attachments. Especially after your little union the other month. You really didn’t help your arguments there did you?”
Kel growled. “Last thing I need to hear. Well she will have to un-form them. It was stupid, I accept that. I told her that. The more she annoys me the less likely I am to want her anyway. And no, no matter how much we celebrate I’m going to be a lot more careful about how much I drink and what I do this time. I thought she felt the same way. I thought it was just a bit of fun.”
Rennon pressed a button and the screen changed. “Do you want me to talk to her again?”
Rowland looked up momentarily.
Kel took a mouthful of coffee and swallowed. “It didn’t do much good last time. Why should it be any better now?”
Rowland looked up. “You could always date her and ditch her. Then she’d have to get over you. At the moment you are throwing excuses in her way. To a woman that is going to look like she’s got a challenge to fix the broken man and be the one who saves you from your enforced bachelorhood.”
Rennon glared. “If he dated her as well that would make it worse. Akashonians mate for life. If he takes that place in her life he will never get her to take a step back.”
Rowland shook his head and sighed. “Sounds a bit clingy to me. What was her psych evaluation like?”
Rennon looked shocked. “I haven’t looked.”
Rowland smiled. “Well perhaps you should. You could be playing with fire here. She’s a woman after all. They are dangerous by nature.”
Kel grunted. “Don’t remind me. Actually that’s not such a bad idea. Rennon, can you access her file?”
Rennon looked up for a moment. “Not officially but that has never stopped me before.”
Kel looked from him to Rowland. “It’s in all of our interests to know if she is going to take this to another level and turn psycho on us.”
Rennon was staring intently at his laptop. “On “us”? That’s an interesting way of putting it. Erm, perhaps not a bad idea considering what I’ve just read here. It says that despite a generally rational outlook it is necessary to keep a close eye on her in view of previous mental instability triggered by traumatic events in her life.”
Rowland laughed. “Kel, you had better remember to lock your door at night.”
Kel stared out of the window at the stars and blackness of space. “I don’t want to hurt or upset her. I just don’t want her in the way she wants me to. That night showed me that. Now I have to live with it.”
Rennon shut his laptop. “Well we had better come up with a way to gently convince her that she doesn’t stand a chance. If you are sure you don’t want her.”
Kel’s glare silenced Rennon.
After about an hour Kel got up and went off to the gym to spar and train. Rennon returned to his laboratory and managed to put Rowland off, sending him to the hanger bay to check on a faulty Hopper.
Kel was the first to get a message, it came over his personal pager and he laid down his weapons and picked it up. “Report to the Commander”. He bowed to his sparring partner, a tall, blonde haired man with regular features dressed in a regulation issue track suit and left for the showers.
Rennon got the message next. He was eagerly pouring over his computer screen analysing a list of data when his pager went off. He reached for it without looking down, clicked on the read button and raised it so he could see it and the screen then hit “save” and shut off the laptop before heading for the Commander’s office.
Rowland was in the hanger bay reading a novel. The Hopper he was supposed to be working on was in the bay in front of him, its components spread across the floor in untidy heaps. He heard the bleep of his pager and finished his chapter before lifting it from his pocket to read his message. Hastily he rammed the bits of the Hopper back into place and screwed the panel back. Finding a spare piece he unscrewed the panel again and reinstated the missing piece before screwing the panel back again. As he was hastily leaving he met a trainee engineer on the way in.  The trainee stood to attention and Rowland smiled as he spoke in his best authority voice.  “Hawkins, run a full diagnostic on Hopper seven, I think there’s a problem in the basal wiring.  I have set it up as a test for you.  I trust I will find it properly wired by the time I get back.” Too right there is a problem he thought as he strode off down the corridor, leaving Hawkins to redo his shoddy handiwork.
Rennon arrived at the Commander’s room first. There was a young Marine on the door who knocked for him, opened the door and let him in. The Commander was standing looking at the painting behind his desk and turned to face him. “Ah Rennon, good, take a seat son.”
There was a knock on the door and Kel came in. They then had to wait nearly a quarter of an hour for Rowland who stepped through the door, flustered and red faced.
The Commander cleared his throat and looked at them sincerely. “Now this is not good news. Shantara’s shuttle hasn’t returned after the evac run. She’s three hours overdue and I want to send a recon mission. As you are her usual crew I want you on this as soon as possible. I’ve allocated five Marines to go with you. There is a possibility that the planet was over-run. Our intel told us we had days before the Followers arrived, there’s a possibility this information was flawed or it was a trap.
The last report we had from our ship was that they were approaching the planet and everything looked normal. They were on final descent and due to report in within the next hour. They missed that report and they are now three hours overdue. We have reason to believe that we may have been compromised. Intel has reached me today that we may have a spy on the base. As you know everyone here is screened before entering and you all have regular evaluations. We thought we were clean but apparently not.
The shuttle came down and its transponder is still beaming a signal but they are not responding to the radio. I’m afraid I could be sending you into a trap and I want you to be aware of that.
Kel, I’m making you senior officer on this one as it’s more your expertise. Your tracking skills should be very handy.
When we scanned the planet about a month ago we didn’t see anything other than the settlement we have been trading with. It is not impossible that there are people living in the mountains but the people of the village denied any other occupation and we questioned them fairly extensively. We’ve also lost contact with the village. They are a primitive people but they did keep a radio there for communicating with us. There is no signal from this now.”
Rowland looked annoyed. “Don’t we have a long range scanner? Surely that would be safer than committing more people.”
Kel looked at him in horror. “What do you mean Rowland? Shantara is a team member.”
Rowland looked up at him. Their difference in height was very noticeable. “I meant that it is best to check if she is alive before we risk more resources. We don’t know what is happening there.”
Kel grunted. “No, that is why we need to find out. If you don’t want to go I’m sure the Commander will find someone else.”
Rowland smiled. “Well there is bound to be another engineer who will fill in. I’m not sure what use I’d be to you anyway.”
Rennon piped up. “Rowland, you have to be kidding me. You were keen to be part of this team, now you want someone else to step in. Either you are with us or you are not.”
Rowland didn’t look too happy. “Don’t be ridiculous, she wasn’t on a mission with us when it happened. We’re not joined at the hip. Well some of us aren’t.” He looked from Rennon to Kel. “I’ll go, alright, you win.”
Kel shook his head and cast a glance at Rennon. The Commander closed his file. “Gentlemen, you have a go. You have permission to go off base.” He picked up a pen and noted Rowland’s comments and attitude on his file.
Kel and Rennon were walking down a corridor. Rowland had gone another way to return to his room after mumbling that he needed to sort something out first.
Kel turned to the right and Rennon followed close on his heels. “Rennon, what the hell is it with that guy? Either he’s a member of this team or he’s not.”
Rennon shook his head. “When we were taking him on, before you joined I read his file. He’s just like that, he’s not a team player but his references were good and his qualifications astounding. Well according to his file anyway.”
Kel grunted.
An hour later their Hopper hovered over the planet and the smoke from the wreckage of the shuttle rose in a plume into the air. Debris was spread over a clearing and from the air they could see bodies strewn amongst it. They used their scanners but they could find no life signs in the area. Rennon held his new scanner cautiously and pointed it toward the ground. He pressed the on button and the machine began to beep and bleep. The screen flickered into action and a map of the ground appeared.
Rennon tapped it. “No biosigns, there’s nobody alive down there and there’s no sign of her subcutaneous implant. I’ve extended our scan to the village. No life signs there either. This is not looking good. There are bodies everywhere.  Look at that pattern, it looks like they didn’t get a chance to get to cover.  I’d say they were ambushed.”
Kel took the Hopper down and gently landed it next to the damaged shuttle. He used the ship’s scanner to scan from the ground but found nothing. The ramp slowly rolled down and the clear spring air rushed inside filling the inside of the Hopper with a fresh clean aroma of the countryside. Birds were singing and everything seemed peaceful and the perfect country scene other than the downed shuttle and the dead crew. The smoke was being blown by the breeze away from them and there was only the feint aroma of the burning ship.
Cautiously Kel took the lead, followed by Rennon. Rowland hung back and waited for the other two to step outside. Weapons were at the ready, safety catches off and they were ready to fire. Bodies tensed, pulses racing, looking around over the barrels of their guns they moved slowly, watching for any sign of trouble. Back to back they made their way forward while Rowland made his way backwards into the shuttle and checked the pre flight protocols. The Marines fanned out, covering the area and soon half were back in the Hopper wondering what to do next.
Rennon sent an encoded message back to Mission Command.
Kel was still outside searching around the debris with the rest of the Marines. Rowland was sitting in the passenger seat in the back of the shuttle reading his book. None of them saw or heard the cloaked ship as it hovered above them and then glided to land over the ridge. The scanners were unable to detect it. The only clue was a feint movement in the trees.
Kel was looking at the ground so he missed it. He spotted some tracks and an indentation which had bothered him from the moment he saw it. He looked at it again and again but could not work out what it was. He checked around the area and followed the tracks as they went to and from what he assumed was a shuttle or some sort of craft. He went over it and over it until he found the track he wanted. One set of returning boot marks was slightly heavier than the rest and he hadn’t detected a heavier one going out.
Kel stood at the bottom of the ramp. “I’ve found some tracks on the east side of the wreck. It looks like a Hover Shuttle may have rested there and another group have been in the area. They have left very little trace, they are very good. We haven’t been the first to this crash site. There are signs that one person may have been carrying something back.”
There was a sound outside and Kel turned as three figures strode from the treeline. All were six foot tall, muscular and identically dressed in long black robes. The attached hoods were pulled up but where he would have expected to have seen something of their faces there was only darkness. He didn’t have time for much more than this as he was immediately hit by a stunner from the closest one before he could react. He reeled but was hit by two more before he sank to the ground. The others were firing at the Hopper and blasts hit the inside, one very close to Rowland’s head. Rowland did not hesitate, he jumped into the cockpit and hit the emergency button and the Hopper shut its doors. Rennon made a leap to catch Kel’s unconscious body which slid over the edge of the closing ramp.  His fingers touched material but he couldn’t get a grip and the body fell. The hopper took off leaving Kel at the feet of the Followers as they approached blasting at the retreating craft.
Rennon leapt into the cockpit and tried to override the controls but it was too late. The system was automatic. Once the button was depressed the ship would only return to its hanger bay. Rennon screamed at Rowland who looked stunned at his response. Renon then punched him, knocking him back against the control panel before he slid unconscious to the floor. Rennon fumbled with the controls in a vain hope that he could override the auto-return. Then he fell back hopelessly into the pilot’s chair and grabbed the radio.
Rennon’s voice was broken. “Rennon, S4542, Recon Mission. Rowland aborted mission with auto return when Kel got stunned. Kel has been abandoned on the planet. Three Followers in attendance so immediate assistance is requested.”
Kel woke up somewhere cold and dark and tried to move. It felt like every part of him hurt. He was not restrained but that didn’t help his limbs which seemed determined not to move. He sat up and waited for his eyes to adjust to the dim light and took in the stale, damp and slightly metallic aroma. As his eyes focused the only illumination was coming from a small window located high up in a bare metal wall. It cast a bright square on the floor and gave off an eerie glow which illuminated just a small part of the room.
Once he was accustomed to the dim light he could see that the room appeared to have solid metal walls on three sides although the back of the room was difficult to see. The fourth was constructed from sturdy bars behind which he could just make out a dark corridor and a blank wall beyond. There was an old light fitting high above him but the bulb was broken. He could see that there were items of furniture near the back wall and these cast dark shadows.
Immediately he sprang to his feet. Nothing seemed broken but he staggered a little. He ran to the bars and cautiously tested them to make sure there wasn’t a current running through them. He then rattled them wildly with all his strength but they held firm. In desperation he threw himself at them but all he got was a badly bruised shoulder as the bars vibrated but held firm.
As he slid to the floor clutching his bruised shoulder he noticed something move in the shadows. It was only a slight flicker out of the corner of his eye. He moved across the floor with lightning speed and grasped into the darkness. His hands met warm soft skin. He grasped what turned out to be an arm and pulled a woman out from her hiding place behind a pallet bed.
He could feel her trying to resist him, then she stopped and let him pull her from the shadows. He tried to see what she looked like in the fading embers of the sun but it was almost impossible. He could see that she was dressed in a thin white dress which was covered in dirt and blood.
She looked fragile but he felt muscles like iron in that delicate arm. Her voice was silky and gentle. “Easy Tiger, I am a prisoner too, they brought you in yesterday morning unconscious. I am no threat to you. I have medical training and I’ve checked you over. You are in pretty good shape, they must have just stunned you and brought you here. You were lucky.”
He released his grip and she relaxed. He offered her a hand, she took it and he helped her over to a bench and they both sat down. He spoke as gently as he could. “Sorry. You spooked me. I’m not in the habit of grabbing women that way.”
“I’m glad to hear it. It is truly a spooky place though, you are forgiven. I am Kyla Deralis of the Eltalashi. May I ask who you are?” Her voice was a little more assured now and she rubbed her arm where he had grabbed her.
“I am Kel Elyn of Eldoria.” He bowed his head slightly and smiled at her.
“I have known quite a few of your race over the years, many have been good friends.” Her voice was sincere and her expression gentle.
“So, what can you tell me about this place? How did you get here?”
“I don’t know how long I’ve been here. I was stunned a lot when I first came here so I don’t know how long I spent unconscious. I was on a pilgrimage to Ha’Ka’Tash when the village I was staying in was attacked. I have taken a vow of non violence until I attain the final order of enlightenment as a healer. So I was taken without a fight. There were four of the villagers in here with me but one by one they have been taken away and they weren’t brought back. They took them down the corridor dragged unconscious.
This cell is sound locked by what I can guess as I have tried various ways to call out or get someone’s attention but I haven’t managed it. There is no echo and as the place is silent where I would have expected to have heard at least sounds from the building or dripping water or something. I would guess there is something going on like that. So even if there are others in this building we wouldn’t hear them. I would assume there must be others but I can’t tell how many. I have seen many carried past the bars by the soldiers though.
The guards are the Soltari Death Knights, the genetic creations of the Followers.”
Kel had heard the name but was struggling to think what he knew about them.
Kyla smiled. “You look puzzled. They are the same usual skeletal faced warriors but they have been mutated or manipulated in some way. They use them as guards and for basic tasks. They aren’t particularly bright but they don’t need to be. They fulfil a function and they can be very nasty.” She involuntarily rubbed her shoulder and he could see the black bruise which covered much of her neck and chest.
“The walls are metal as you can see and they can run a charge through them so you were right to be cautious. The charge is high voltage but obviously not lethal. It will give you a serious jolt and knocks you out. I don’t know how long I was out for when I first tried it.
They don’t open the bars without stunning you first. There’s no point hiding as the stunners have an area effect.”
Kel was watching her intently. A cloud had passed from over the fading sun so he could see more of her and the room. Her eyes were red from lack of sleep, her dark brown hair was matted with dirt and her face streaked with mud and dried blood. Despite the dirt she was still classically attractive. Her green eyes were intense but her whole aspect was that of one who was totally exhausted.
She looked directly at him, meeting his stare without fear. “I don’t know what planet we are on or where we are. They speak a language I don’t understand so I don’t know what else I can tell you.
They haven’t tried to convert me as far as I know but I’ve no idea if they used their drugs on me as I’ve been stunned often. I have to assume that they have as should you.
By what I’ve seen that skeleton like bony carapace is actually joined or fused to their face. I haven’t been conscious when they have been too close but from what I have seen it looks like it. How about you? How did you get here?”
“I was on a mission to recover some of our people lost on an evac mission and got stunned when we were overrun.”
“Welcome to wherever this is then. I’m afraid I can’t offer any hospitality. It’s a bit cold, it gets worse at night.”
“We won’t be here long, my people will rescue us. Aren’t you cold? That dress isn’t exactly warm.”
“That is the best news I’ve had. I have no intention of staying here any longer than I have to. Neither do I want to turn my back on two years of pilgrimage by being forced to fight them so I’m not much help. I have been colder than you can possibly imagine. You are right, this dress is pretty damn useless but then I didn’t exactly get a choice, they took me from a warm planet.” She gave him a tired smile.
“You won’t need to fight when my people get here. We’ll soon get you out of here to somewhere warm.”
“They check on us about once a day, not at any regular time. They don’t come in and if they do they stun first.”
“My friends will get us out, don’t worry.” Without thinking he put an arm around her. She didn’t flinch although he hesitated just before he made contact. She felt like ice. “We’ll get out.”
She looked up at him and smiled then rested her head against him. “I hope so, I really hope so.”
The hours passed by and the light from the small window faded to dusk and then night. They spoke about many things, of Kel’s home world, of Kyla’s. They talked about happy memories, feasting, hunting and fishing. Kel kept his arm around her and tried to warm her up by rubbing her hands which were like ice. As the last light faded Kel turned to Kyla. “I think we ought to try to get some sleep. I will keep watch.”
Kyla put a hand on his arm. “If they are coming for us they will stun us so there is nothing we can do about it. I’ve been too scared to sleep properly and it feels like I haven’t slept for a lifetime.”
Kel rolled onto a stone pallet and fell asleep. The sound of his snoring rumbled in the darkness and echoed off the walls.
Kyla smiled to herself, the snoring was somehow reassuring and for the first time in ages she drifted off to sleep despite the biting chill of the room.
Kyla woke up. The room was bright as day. The light had been fixed and was on and there was no sign of Kel. The room looked the same, only a little different. She couldn’t place what was wrong with it.
There were skeleton warriors all around her. They stood in a circle. As they stepped forwards they raised bony hands and removed their skeleton masks. The face beneath was blackness, the only feature she could see was an open mouth filled with long pointed fangs.
As they bore down on her they ripped the flesh from her bones while she watched, unable to move. She tried to scream, she couldn’t as she was paralysed with fear. She focused, gathered her inner calm and called on her training.
The scream she let out was blood curdling. Kel fell off his pallet bed in his haste to get up. He leapt to Kyla’s side as she screamed in her sleep. He lifted her from the bed and shook her awake.
In her dream Kyla had been eaten to the bone before a robed figure stepped through the parting sea of skeleton warriors. He carried robes and a mask. The mask was outstretched in his hand and he reached towards her. It went dark as the mask covered her face despite her desperate struggling.
The mask fell off as the skeletons shook her then she realised they were gone. It was all gone. There was only Kel there.
Tears rolled down her face. He wiped them away with his thumbs while cradling her head with his hands.
Kel smiled at her as her eyes glistened with tears. “You are awake now. It was only a nightmare, only a dream.” She looked up at him and he pulled her head to his chest and wrapped his arms around her. “You are not alone. Come on, lay down, you will be fine. Come on, rest now. You need the sleep. Do you want me to stay with you?”
She rested her head on his chest, the tears running down her face and she was still shaking. “Yes.”
They lay down together and she finally drifted off to sleep again. All night he held her, both waking occasionally, jolted into wakefulness before drifting off to sleep again.
They woke when the light flooded through the tiny window. Kel woke first but stayed where he was as Kyla was still asleep. He lay there watching her sleeping. She awoke with a start, looked up at him and smiled.
The guards came and went, once a day, every day for nearly two weeks. In that time Kel and Kyla had plenty of time to talk and to share experiences from the past. They laughed, they cried and they started to become friends. Every night he held her in her sleep and tried to keep her warm despite the cold. He found comfort like he never had before just having her there beside him. Her straightforward conversation with no demands on him or agenda in what she was saying was welcome and despite his surroundings he actually began to enjoy it. The guards seemed to be leaving them alone other than bringing them food and although he was still on edge he had dropped his guard a little.
She for her part enjoyed his company and having someone she could talk to. She liked the straightforward way he saw the world and that he didn’t expect anything from her other than her company.
Then one afternoon down the hallway a metal door swung open, grating on the uneven floor.  It was unnerving as they heard it happen when normally there was silence. Marching feet stamped towards them and five Follower Skeleton Warriors stood in the dim light. Their bone faces glowing white. They did look like they were wearing masks as the bone carapace seemed to stand away from what looked like a face underneath. Their black shiny metal insect like armour reflected what little light there was. One raised a stunner, fired and both Kel and Kyla fell unconscious.
Kel awoke in a brightly lit white tiled room. He tried to move but he was restrained with metal bands across his wrists which held him down to a metal table. He wildly tried his strength against them, growling at his captor as the skin on his wrists broke with the ferocity of his attempt to escape. He looked around the room wildly in a panic, looking for Kyla. She wasn’t there. There was blood on the floor, he saw that and fought ever harder driven on by his anger.
A small man with a bald head and very bird like features walked cautiously across the room. “I wouldn’t struggle, those bands will hold you. You might as well relax and accept this. Do you know what this is? No of course you don’t.” He giggled. “It’s something new and you are going to be the first person to try it. This is a drug I have perfected. It will suit you perfectly. One dose of this and you will attack anyone. What do you think of that?”
Kel stopped struggling and managed a smile. “I think if you take these bands off I’ll happily attack you drug or no drug.” Kel growled at the man.
“No, I’m afraid that I’m not the subject. There’s no point me trying this out with someone you might want to attack. I thought it would be much more appropriate if you attacked someone you might not be so keen to take your anger out on. Like your cell mate. She is a much more suitable opponent for you. I heard your conversation, of course your cell was being observed. You are a man of honour from a planet well known for its vicious fighters. She is a healer and defenceless. It couldn’t be more perfect. This will be fun to watch. You won’t have any control over yourself but she won’t know that. Just to make it even more upsetting for you we are going to chain her to the floor as well. Then we’re going to put you back in with her and you can watch her suffer with the injuries you have given her and the only medical assistance she will have will come from you. You are more than likely going to have to watch her die. What do you think about that?”
“Bastard.” Kel fought the bands like he’d never struggled before, willing them to break.
“I thought as much. Well, here we go. No point in making this difficult. Nightie night.” He picked up a stunner and fired the green beam and Kel fell back unconscious.
Kyla came around in a concrete room. She immediately tried to stand up and found her ankle was chained to the floor. She tried to get free of it but the chains were too thick and the band on her ankle too tight to slip out of. She could vaguely see that there were people above her, high up the wall in a room behind glass panels. “Let me go, what do you want me for?” She shouted as loudly as she could but nobody answered. She stood there for what seemed like hours then she sat down again and tried to keep herself calm.  She stood up again as they brought Kel’s unconscious body in and lay him on the floor the other side of the room.
She tried to get to him, pulling at her chains and called to him but he didn’t wake up straight away.  Finally she sat back down and watched him, waiting and hoping he would wake up.
Kel woke up in that circular room with no windows and no apparent door. The walls were white concrete, blood stained in places. There was no visible door or escape route. The concrete went up about fifteen feet. Above him around the walls well out of reach there were glass panels and he could see faces pressed to the glass and sitting watching him in a room beyond.  He noticed these first and didn’t look any further.
Uncontrollable anger arose in him and he wanted to kill them, a wild feral feeling and the need to inflict pain on anyone in his path ran through him. He reached for his blaster, it was gone. On the floor in front of him there was a baton, about a meter long and studded with nails. He grabbed it and tried to jump to break the glass. The onlookers cheered. He could hear them clapping and commenting to each other in anticipation and they were all now on their feet trying to get the best view they could. Kel growled and howled but there was nothing he could do. He ran at the wall and tried to climb but his hands could find no purchase on the smooth stone. He tried again and again but that just made him more and more angry.
Kyla tried to reach him but he was the other side of the room. She knew that something was wrong. He looked wild, his eyes were staring and his veins were standing out on his face. He started howling at the people behind the glass. Then she got to her feet. He had not yet noticed her. She had a few feet of movement but no further. She moved towards Kel, reaching out she put a fingers on his arm, just a touch as he got close enough. He was looking towards the windows and ranting at the onlookers after trying to climb the walls so he hadn’t seen her.
He felt the touch of her fingers on his arm. His feelings were confused. Then a red mist seemed to come down over everything and all he could think of was that she was his enemy, she was dangerous and he had to kill her. He growled at her and balanced himself and pulled his arm back to take a swing.
Kyla looked at him in horror. “Kel, you know me. I’m no threat to you.” In a rush of movement that seemed to happen in slow motion she looked into his wild eyes, his pupils were still dilated and his veins standing up with the strain of the extra blood pumped around his system by the drug. She knew there was something wrong with him and her body tensed immediately. Thoughts rushed through her head, trying to control herself so she didn’t look like she was going to attack in any way, calling on all of her discipline as she took a defensive stance. All she could think about was what she would lose if she failed this great test of her own resolve. She must not fight back.
He took a swing at her, well aimed and if she had not moved with seemingly unnatural speed he would have taken her head off. She screamed at him to stop. He ignored her and hit her full force on the shoulder with the baton knocking her to the ground, her blood spilling in an ark around her. Then he leapt on her, punching before standing up and kicking her. She lay still, feeling the pain from each blow. She feigned unconsciousness, using all her calm and skill to try not to react to the pain from the blows until he stopped when he was getting no more reaction. He lifted her now limp body over his head until the chain that bound her pulled her down. He reached down, pulled with all his strength and broke the chain before swinging her around and throwing her to the edge of the room. She hit the wall with a sickening crunching sound and could feel her bones breaking. She wanted to cry out but she bit her tongue rather than do that, knowing that if he thought she was still alive the punishment would continue. Above the crowd went mad. They were standing and applauding as white gas filled the room and Kel and Kyla lapsed into unconsciousness. Kyla’s last thoughts were of the healing she pulled into herself in the hope of staying alive as she felt the life slipping away from her.
She woke up back in the cell. As she opened her eyes her head felt like it was going to split in two. The pain she felt was unbearable and she was about to move when she caught sight of Kel sitting on a bench the other side of the room. His head was in his hands and his hair fallen down over his face. His crow feathers lay in a broken pile on the floor in front of him and he stared down at them. Seeing he wasn’t looking she tried to move but the pain was so great it made her cry out. That got Kel’s attention and he looked up at her. She froze, terrified that he was going to attack her again. He didn’t, he got up and rushed across the room to her. She tried to get away but that just caused more pain. Flashes of light nearly blinded her and she could feel the sharp rasping pain that told her that her legs were broken. She tried to move her arms but they were broken too. The pain in her back was sharp and she felt cold, everything from the neck down hurt but somehow that was reassuring. All that she could hear ringing in her ears was that horrible crunching sound as she had hit the wall. Kel crouched over her as she lay on the pallet. From the intense pain she had felt when she cried out she could feel that her jaw was broken. The sight of him looming over her took the words away and the pain was unbearable.
There were tears in the big man’s eyes. “I didn’t mean to. It wasn’t me in there, it was the drug. They drugged me, they made me hurt you.” He put a hand on her arm and the pain was terrible.
She took a deep breath and summoned all of her strength. She was about to speak but the pain silenced her. She opened her mouth but at that point everything went black.
The evening passed into night. Kel wanted to hold her, to keep her warm but he knew that every touch was agony for her. He sat on the pallet with her and watched her as she slept. Occasionally she would wake, wide eyed and in pain. He gently stroked her forehead and reassured her.
The days passed by and he did what he could for her. He had no medical supplies but he fed her as gently as he could around her broken jaw and gave her water when she needed it.
Kel heard an unfamiliar sound and looked up. He felt an excitement of hope which became intense when he saw Rennon and four Marines, armed to the teeth and just about to blast the lock off the cell bars. “Boy am I glad to see you guys.”
Rennon smiled. “I thought you might be. We had to get you home in time for Rowland’s Court Martial. I thought you might like to give evidence about how he left you for dead on this planet.”
“He what? That snivelling little weasel. I hope they throw the book at him.”
Rennon stepped into the room and rushed over to Kyla. “Don’t worry, they will. Commander Zack will see to that. Now, let’s get you out of here and this wee lassie too. It looks like they did a real number on her. All the other cells in this block seem to be empty.”
Kel looked at his feet. “Be careful with her, she’s had a rough time. It was me, I did that to her. They drugged me Rennon, I had no control at all over what I was doing.”
Rennon looked up, his brow furrowed. “Look my friend you aren’t going to like this but I’m going to have to cuff you. We have no way of knowing if you’ve been brainwashed and there is a command word to set you off. That drug is probably still in your system. When we are back to the base I’ll get a diagnostic run on you and find out. If it is then we’ll get it out of you. For now, I’d rather get us out safely than you start turning on us.”
Kel held his hands out. “I’ll come quietly but can I carry her? You haven’t got a gurney and I’d like to. I can’t harm you if I’m carrying her. It will leave one of the marines free to fight.”
Rennon slapped two sets of hand restraints onto him and joined them together to give him more flexibility so that he could carry Kyla. Rennon bent over her and took out a knock out shot from his belt. He broke the cap off of the needle and inserted it into her arm as she looked up at him pleadingly. He squeezed the rubber ball which contained the fluid and watched as she drifted back into a painless sleep. “That should make it easier on her if it gets a bit rough on the way back.” He then lifted her gently into Kel’s arms. Kel looked down at her blood stained dress, her pale face streaked with the blood from the many deep cuts he had inflicted on her. He took a deep breath and followed the others.
They were met by five skeleton faced armoured warriors coming down the corridor. The marines fired and before the assailants could get a shot off they were on the floor. They were slow and no match for Rennon and the marines. The crew stepped over them and continued down the corridor to the now open door. Outside they encountered another twenty warriors who died in the same way. They were passing a door and Kel caught a glimpse through the glass window. “Rennon, stop a minute. This is the lab, this is where he’s making the drug.”
Rennon reached into his bag and put a hand on Kel’s arm as he heard sirens going off around the base. “Stay back. No time to deal with it any other way. The research guys are going to kill me but…” The Marines formed up around him as he opened the door, his body to the side so that all anyone firing randomly through the door would hit was the back wall. The scientist looked up from his table where he had been grinning insanely as he mixed two vials together. The resulting green liquid foamed slightly. He was about to drink it as a small round metal object rolled across the floor. He looked at it, the shape and recognition that the object was a grenade occurred to him just after Rennon had called to the others “Fire in the Hold”. Rennon shut the door and as it went off the scientist, the room, his experiments, notes and chemicals were blown to pieces. The blast blew the door open and burning debris flew out into the hallway and fell ineffectually on the stone floor. Inside the lab everything was burning.
Rennon waved them on. The crew ran around a corner where they came to an open window. Rennon turned to Kel, “Now this is where we came in. The Hopper is outside and it will uncloak when they see us. I’m going to take her from you. You climb out and I’ll pass her out to you. When you have her run and don’t stop. Get in, buckle her up and yourself. We’ll all get out if we do this as smoothly as possible. Now go.”
 
Chapter Three
Dr Samson looked at the readings on the screen and shook his head. His sandy short cropped hair was neatly combed. He had gentle “boy next door” with a touch of the rogue features. His face was set in concentration. He ran his fingers through his hair, messing it up before pressing a button and calling up more readings. He was in his early forties, his white coat immaculately clean, his retro stethoscope hung decoratively around his neck.
In the isolation room Kel was screaming at the walls and trying to break his restraints. He bellowed and screamed and fought with a ferocity that was moving the restraining bed. Red bands were appearing on his wrists and ankles despite the amount of padding and bandages that were there to protect him. His eyes were wild, the veins standing up in his neck and face.
Commander Zack strode up to the exhausted doctor and looked over his shoulder. “So, what is the diagnosis Samson? Can you isolate the drug?”
Dr Samson looked up, his features worn with care and too many hours looking at the screen. “The drug is definitely ravaging his system but that is pretty obvious to everyone. The strange thing is that this time there is no device.  Normally when the Followers use a controlling substance there is a mechanical device which synthesises what it needs and introduces it into the system gradually.  That could be a good thing as this may be a short term situation that will stop when the drug literally runs out. It seems to have a part of it that has reacted with the part of the brain that produces adrenaline, the basic fright flight part of the brain triggering an almost constant need to go into a form of kill frenzy which we can’t bring him out of. Isolating the drug has become a problem as it seems to involve a protein which has bonded with his genetic structure. It is a shame that the laboratory it came from has been destroyed so getting any more is unlikely. I ran a full scan and I have the technical readout for the drug, it seems to be multiplying in his system. If I can’t check its multiplication he is going to be locked in a constant rage and the corresponding wear and tear on his organs will lead to shut down. In short, it’s going to kill him if I can’t come up with something fast.”
The Commander looked at the nearby computer screen with the technical readouts displayed. “Is he lucid at all?”
Dr Samson turned around. “He knows that there are people near him and reacts violently but as to whether he knows who they are or not, I don’t know. Everyone seems to be the object of his hatred, fear and need to attack. I think there was more going on there than we originally thought. Rennon was in here earlier and he too thinks that the rescue was too easy. The base seemed empty and it was all too quiet. That the scientist was still there is bemusing but by what Rennon said he was pretty nuts anyway. I think we were either expected to rescue Kel or he was going to be turned loose at this point, probably at some location where we would be sure to pick him up and bring him back here. That drug makes him a bomb waiting to go off. He was lucid for nearly a day and then he just flipped into what you see now. It is also possible they were using some form of neural inhibitor to keep him manageable. The effect of that has now worn off. For now all I can do is try to administer a similar neural inhibitor and buy ourselves more time. That is him with the inhibitor, that’s the best I can do. It does at least make him lucid on occasion. Whether that is going to be any better for him emotionally I don’t know. He’s pretty cut up over what he did to that other prisoner.”
The Commander put his hand on the table and turned around. “I know you are doing all you can. You can only do your best. If you need any resources or equipment just let me know. What about the woman. How is she?”
“Unfortunately Kel is a very efficient killing machine and I have no idea how she has survived her injuries. She has her arms and legs broken, most of her ribs, two lumbar vertebrae and her lower jaw has had to be wired. Her fingers were broken and she has a shattered pelvis. Most of her internal organs have sustained severe damage. But she’s still with us and strangely enough her vital signs are strong. I put her in a chemical coma to give her body a chance to heal. With that amount of injury the pain was just unbearable and any painkillers I was able to give her were just not enough. She’s resting now and the body can do its work. I’ve set the bones, pinned and wired what needed to be pinned and wired and we will have to see how she comes on. I got a chance to talk with her before I put her under and despite the pain she was very logical about it all. Her main concern was to let Kel know that she knows it’s not his fault and she doesn’t blame him. She made me make a recording of her forgiving him and explaining it all just in case she doesn’t make it through. I found it quite remarkable that her only thoughts were so practical considering the pain she was in.”
“Did you find out anything about her?” The Commander looked concerned. ”Do we know where she came from?”
“Yes, I’ve written it in my notes. It could be worth making contact with her people and letting them know she is alive. She’d been there a little over six months.” He picked up his notes and looked at them. “Not a lot else to say really but we have her home world so that is a start.”
The Commander left the room and sent a communiqué to Kyla’s home world. It was answered and three hours later Rennon was dispatched in a Planet Hopper with a couple of Marines.
The Hopper flew over the lush woodland and rolling plains until it settled in a clearing next to a village made up of mud huts. They did the post flight checks and the ramp lowered. As they were stepping outside they noticed a party of people advancing towards them. They were walking, slowly and deliberately. It took a while but eventually the party got to them. The woman who seemed to be in charge was elderly.  Feathers hung from her long white plaited hair, animal skins and trinkets hanging from her woven brightly coloured loose fitting clothing which swayed as she walked with the aid of a stick. She was being supported by two muscular young warriors armed with spears and blasters.  They were dressed in buckskin tunics and trousers and similarly had feathers hanging from their hair. Two middle aged men walked behind. They moved to stand either side of the elderly woman when she got close enough to the Hopper to speak to them.
The woman looked them over and spoke in a slow and mellow voice which was somehow calming.  “Welcome to our village. I am Maran, Onoshari of the tribe. This is Erlis and Ren, she indicated the middle aged men and these are my helpers Sher and Irol. I have been expecting you and if you would join us we would like to invite you to enjoy our hospitality.”
Rennon stepped forward. “I am Rennon. I believe we spoke over the radio. Thank you for your hospitality. We would be delighted.”
He fell in behind the welcoming party, the Marines fell in behind him and they walked to the village which mostly consisted of dome topped mud huts constructed in various shapes with added wood and materials. Each was elaborately decorated with feathers, painted wood and carved bone. Many had mobiles which fluttered and clattered in the wind. The wood that supported the roof structures had been intricately carved where they could see it through open doorways. In the centre of the village there was what looked like the main meeting building, another dome. It was colossal and towered over them as they approached. They were invited inside by Maran and as they entered the huge vaulted ceiling took Rennon’s breath away. It was completely painted in rich colours, the light which filtered through canvas panels creating an atmosphere inside that was distinctly magical. In the middle of the room there was a raised platform on which there was a large fire burning in an ornate metal fire pit. Behind this there was a large throne. Benches and tree trunks were set out around the walls and the central area in two concentric circles around the outside of the room. A table had been set up beside the fire and drinks were brought on a wooden tray for them. Maran seated herself at the head of the table and they were brought food which looked like a cake made of meat and vegetables.
Rennon bowed his head slightly as a good sized portion was put in front of him and a drink placed to the side of it. “I thank you for your hospitality.”
Maran smiled. “Eat, drink young one it has taken courage to come here. You must be very hungry.”
When they had eaten their fill and were relaxing with a warm drink Maran waved the rest of her people away. Rennon did similarly, leaving the two of them in the silence broken only by the crackling of the fire.
Maran looked at him earnestly “I thank you for taking care of Kyla, she is like a daughter to me. You have done much for her but I’m going to have to ask you to do more.
I will be direct.  You said in your message if there was anything you can do. I know that usually this is a pleasantry intended to convey your sadness at the situation and willingness to put it right without it being actual physical help.  In this case I do actually need your help.”
Rennon looked confused and a little worried.  “I can’t see what we can do but I am happy to listen.”
Maran shifted her position in the chair and sat forwards.  “You may or may not know that Kyla has for many years been our leader.  I am very proud of her as she could not have done any better had she been a true born daughter of this tribe. That is the problem, she is not.
Since she has been away Andalon has taken her place. He took over her rule temporarily by right of birth. He would have been leader had it not been for Kyla and her prior claim. He has faced a minor challenge from Desash who also feels he should command the throne but what little resistance there has been was not substantial as he fears Kyla’s return. It will not be so once the truth comes out. I’m telling you this as there is nobody else I can think of who can help with this situation. Either way I will have to tell the tribe now that she will not be returning before the moon is at its full tomorrow night. That is when she must reaffirm her right as ruler or it will pass to open contest unless it passes to the true heir.  Andalon is now a member of the Order so he must not take up arms until his first initiation.
This could not have happened at a worse time. She has been away on her pilgrimage which was supposed to finish with her return for the full moon. The White Lady would then have granted her full mastery of the last order and all would have been well.
Kyla cannot be here for the reaffirmation so her rule is at an end. There is nothing we can do about that. Nobody can take that promise for her.
Kyla is not of this tribe. The elders know of this but it is unknown to the rest of the tribe. It was decided many moons ago to leave the situation as it was when she proved to be such an effective leader. Her mother died giving birth to her but she was a visitor here. I took her under my protection when she arrived in a damaged shuttle. I did all I could to save her, much as I did for Tyrannon’s baby who also died that same day. It seemed such a harmless thing to do, I took the baby without a mother and gave her to the mother who had lost her baby, she never knew.
But, all actions have repercussions. At that time the Followers were unknown to us and her position in the family was so insignificant it was deemed as a mercy to allow the childless mother to have the baby. But by the time Kyla came of age all her adopted family were dead and that left her next in line for the tribe leadership.
This is the only plan I can come up with.  Andalon must assume leadership of this tribe at the full moon tomorrow night.  It will be challenged. Then the title would most likely pass by rite of combat. They should fight it out but that is not possible unless Andalon abandons the first order.  He is a fierce warrior.
I had planned to reveal the truth to Kyla on her return after she had completed the rite of the healer and been given her sword. As High Priestess of the White Lady she would have taken her place within the Higher Order.  Sorry, I’m going a bit away from what I am trying to say.  I was trying to put things right as by her healer status she would have responsibilities elsewhere so it would have been easy for me to talk her into letting Andalon take over. 
Andalon must not ascend the throne with blood on his hands or an ancient prophecy will be fulfilled and whether it is true or not there will be dissention within the tribe. Once he is safely on the throne, reinforced by right of birth, then I could have revealed the full truth or let it be forgotten. Once he has taken the oath at the appointed hour nothing can be done to change that and my deception may well in time have been forgiven if the truth comes out.  Now it is all just a mess.
What I need you to do is to find someone who will fight for her. I intend to ensure that this is the only way that the throne can be taken. This is not to be undertaken lightly as the battle will be bloody and to the death as to leave that viper in our midst would ensure trouble for years to come. It is undertaken in the mountains in a cave which provides a natural amphitheatre and there will be no quarter given. The challenger is an accomplished warrior even though he is a coward. He is good and will fight very dirty as this is everything he has ever wanted. I need you to find me someone who will be able to fight him with no mercy, he must die. Can you do that? You explained to me the situation and how she came to be harmed. Will her attacker take on the fight that she now cannot?”
Rennon looked thoughtful. “I’m going to have to return home before I can make any decision as it is not my choice to make. We cannot speak with Kyla, her injuries are too severe. We have put her in a chemically induced coma and it is not known whether she will survive. If she does we are unsure what sort of a life she will have left.”
Maran’s eyes filled with tears. “If she had not been on her quest the result would have been very different. She is a fine warrior. She has truly proven herself worthy of mastery and I would ask you to take her sword back with you, whether she lives or dies. She must die a warrior. But for now the one who harmed her must take her place for that fight. I can only ask you but considering the situation I would be very disappointed if you refused.”
Rennon looked down at his hands. “He has taken the drug and the effects of it could kill him. Its effect on his system is taxing and he cannot take much more.”
Maran smiled. “Bring him here and I will heal him if I am able. We will work on bringing him back to his old self once the safety of the tribe is assured.” The smile fell from her face. “Return to your people and make the arrangements and make your decision. I will be waiting for you.” She got up and left. Rennon followed her and found his men outside the door.
In the Hopper on the journey home Rennon piloted the craft solo so that the Marines could take part in a game of Battlestones in the back. The Hopper glided effortlessly into the docking bay and the passengers disembarked.
Rennon went to the mission briefing room. There empty chairs were not lost on him. It was merely days since they had been filled. Now there was just him, Dr Samson and the Commander sitting there discussing what was to be done.
The Commander took a drink of his coffee and put the mug carefully down. “What they are asking is for me to put Kel’s life on the line. What is your medical opinion on this Dr Samson?”
Dr Samson looked down at his notes. “In my opinion Kel is under more strain because he isn’t fighting. It is in the drug’s nature to make him want to fight and holding him back is putting strain on his body. If we can restrain him and take him there then he could well do what they want but it is exposing him to the possibility of being killed. It is also putting him in a position where he can in some way make amends for the damage he has already done, albeit not his fault. It will give him a better chance of healing himself mentally and forgiving himself.”
The Commander looked up, surprised. “Well, under those circumstances you have a go. Arrange containment for him, fetch his weapons and return to the planet. I want you to go with him Dr Samson and at the first sign of trouble sedate him and get him out of there.”
Dr Samson closed his file. “I will get him contained and moved this afternoon, by what you say there is little time to lose. I am assuming here that Maran is going to do all the talking.”
Rennon smiled. “Maran might be able to do the talking for all of us.”
The Hopper touched down gently on the planet and a tracked vehicle rolled down the ramp, carrying the containment unit with Kel inside. His weapons were strapped in a box to the side of the unit and Rennon and Dr Samson walked beside the vehicle, checking on the readouts and making sure that everything was working.
Maran came out to meet them, accompanied by her two helpers. “I am glad that you have come. I have been using the Orb this afternoon and I have discovered much. The signs are good. This was all meant to be. It will work out for the best, I am sure of it. Bring him, the gathering is about to commence. I will do all the talking. All you need to do is to let him out of the box at the correct time and all will be well.”
She led them around the outskirts of the village and up into the mountains. They followed a narrow track which was just about wide enough for the vehicle to cautiously make its way along. Below them they could see the vast coniferous forest that surrounded the village stretching out into the distance and the mountains on the other side of the valley rising to their snow capped tips. The air was fresh, it was slightly chilly and the wispy clouds scooted across the turquoise sky.
Up and up they went following a well worn track. Occasionally there was a flat stone, placed against the wall and carved with a symbol.  Beneath them the village got smaller and smaller, the stream snake like stretched into the distance and the trees became like toys.
Finally Maran stopped in front of an opening in the rock.  It looked like it had been slashed by a knife and formed an upside down V shape.  Around it there were carvings which were weather worn and obviously ancient depicting stick men undertaking acts of combat.  Maran led the way inside allowing them mere moments to take in what they were looking at. They followed with the vehicle and Rennon stopped in his tracks as the cavern opened up. It was vast. In the middle there was an arena circled by a high slatted fence and then seats which rose like an amphitheatre to the back wall. On the far side there was a raised platform made of piled stones.  Along its ridge there was a line of chairs where the elders sat and beside it a platform.  In the centre of the ridge there stood a large chair made of wood, some driftwood, some carved wood.  The back of which was covered in a moss which seemed to glow in the darkness of the cavern.
The cavern was full of hundreds of people waiting expectantly as they rolled the vehicle inside. The elders of the tribe stood facing them. The two contestants stood facing each other in the centre of the arena.
Maran walked into the centre of the arena and raised her walking stick. “People, I have much to say and I will say it if it is the will of the elders.” She looked at the line of elders, dressed in fine embroidered silk robes. One by one they raised their ornamental stick and said “Aye” in agreement.
“That is good.” Maran walked up the steps and took her place on a stone balcony beside the elders. “Now, we shall begin. As you know as oracle for this village I have the right to speak at these gatherings.” The candlelight was flickering and it cast shadows on her face making her look even older. “As you know the Chieftain cannot be here tonight to oversee the handover of her rule. As is our law she may appoint a voice to speak for her. By right of position I have taken on the right of speech. By virtue of my age I have waived my right to fight for her. We must adhere to Kyla’s wishes spoken through me. Step forward Andalon, come and take your rightful place on the throne.”
Andalon stepped up to the throne and stood in front of it. He was a tall and well built man, about six foot two and muscular. His dark features were somewhat similar to Kel’s heavy brow but he had a lighter bone structure. Immediately he was challenged by the other man, a sword was thrown to the ground, its tip dug deep into the impacted soil. “I challenge!” The challenger was a smaller man, his frame lighter and he had long light brown hair which was braided with feathers and animal skulls.
Maran raised her stick and all fell silent. “The Challenge has been issued. If fighting is necessary it shall be done by the creature who took her strength, who violated her and who put her in a state of near death.”
Rennon had made his way to the seat that had been set aside for him. He went to stand up when he heard her words and he felt a sharp blade against his spine. Maran’s bodyguard leant forward and whispered in his ear. “Move and you are a dead man.”
The room was in uproar. Warriors hurled loose masonry at the box, most hit, making it rock precariously.
The challenger looked stunned. “I challenged Andalon.”
“Your challenge to Andalon has been accepted by Kyla, the one who harmed her must fight in her place as punishment for his crimes. That is the law. Are you standing against me?”
“No Maran, I would not do that.”
“Good, then you will fight the beast. What honour would you have left if you refused to fight the one who violated your leader?”
Rennon relaxed. The bodyguard leaned forwards. “I trust you can see why.”
The gates were closed so the Challenger and Kel were fenced in. Rennon pressed the button on his remote control device and the lock released. The door fell down to make a ramp.
Kel came out of that box like a wild thing and his weapons were released onto the floor. The Challenger was hit full force and flew backwards against the pit wall twenty feet away. Before he could get to his feet Kel was upon him, unleashing the frustration and all the pent up aggression running through his veins. The Challenger literally did not know what hit him, again and again. He was thrown about, punched, kicked and thrown off balance. But then he managed to roll clear, which gave him time to find his footing and the fight became much more evenly balanced. Kel was knocked back, rolled but he rolled onto his weapons, grabbed them and from punching the injuries escalated. The Challenger had managed to regain his and they both used their swords and daggers to good effect. An hour passed, and another, and another. Both men were tiring and the blows became less and less ferocious. The weight of the swords and tired limbs slowed them down but they still kept slashing and beating each other whenever they found an opening. It was a fight to the death and that was how it had to be. For the Challenger that was his goal, for Kel just the way things were with the drug in his system. But, his body was under less strain now that he could vent his feelings and actually put the adrenaline to good use. He was tiring far more slowly than his adversary.
Kel scored blow after blow on his opponent as he gained the advantage of adrenaline counteracting his exhaustion. The other fought with a ferocity that matched his but he was tiring. They were evenly matched when it came to skill. Blow after blow was dealt, blood was spilt and the sand ran red with it. Neither would stop and there was no chance of surrender or mercy.
Finally the Challenger made a mistake. He sidestepped into a punch and then slipped on one of the ever growing pools of blood on the floor. Kel saw his opportunity, caught the opponent’s head and neatly snapped his neck. He roared and dragged the corpse until it fell lifelessly to the floor. Rennon had his stunner ready and as Maran stood up and nodded to him he blasted Kel a few times. Kel fell to his knees, fell forwards into the dirt and lay still.
Maran raised her stick. “Now I proclaim Andalon leader of this tribe. Does anyone else challenge?”
There was silence.
“Good, well I would ask the Elders, is Andelon leader of this tribe?” One by one they stood up, raised their stick and shouted “Aye”.
“So for the second and final time I proclaim Andalon to be leader of this tribe.”
Andalon took his place on the throne and Maran placed a circlet on his head. He then stood up and everyone cheered. He raised his hand and the room fell silent. “People, I will do everything in my power to be a good leader to you as Kyla and others have been in the past. As my first act I would call for Kyla’s attacker to be brought to justice. This uncontrollable beast should pay for what he has done to one of our people by the Rite of Ast. I also call for the Aionarie. I would claim Kyla as my mate by ancient law and by all that I hold true.”
Maran looked stunned. It took her a moment to gather her thoughts before standing and raising her stick to silence the raised voices of the assembled host.
Maran’s assistant leant forwards and spoke into Rennon’s ear. “Aionarie hasn’t been declared in centuries. It is an oath bond which states that the woman is being asked for as an equal. That would have made Kyla co-leader of the tribe. We expected him to ask for her as his mate but not with that level of status.” Rennon was reaching for his blaster and his Marines were doing the same.
Maran spoke, slowly and clearly. “People, much as I would have dearly loved to have seen Kyla with such a worthy mate sadly it cannot be.”
Andalon looked thunderstruck and genuinely upset.
Maran gave him a moment for it to sink in then carried on. “For the sake of the tribe a great secret was kept from you for many years but it must be revealed now. Is it the will of the Elders?”
Again they stood up in order and shouted “Aye”.
Maran looked around the assembled people and waited until the murmurings and mutterings were silent. “Then I will speak my truth. It was before Kyla was born that her mother came to this planet by shuttle. It crash landed in the Kasakarin Mountains while I was on a retreat before I attained the Third Order. It had been badly damaged by the Antastari when she had left her home world. Kyla’s father was killed before they left Eldorian.”
Rennon gasped and looked at Dr Samson who raised an eyebrow.
Maran carried on. “He was part of the security force trying to keep the Followers from overrunning the planet. They were one of the last shuttles off of the planet, their guidance system was faulty and they ran into the  Antastari when they neared our third moon. Her mother arrived here injured and despite my best efforts the injuries were too great, she died in childbirth. Kyla’s given mother had just lost her baby that same day. Then as now I was midwife to the tribe. I went to the Elders and explained and asked that the child be given by the ancient rite of Brala. It was agreed that she should be given the baby as it was preferable to the child growing up without a mother and the mother grieving for her lost child. She never knew that Kyla was not her natural child so she spoke her truth all the days of her life. May she rest in peace with the spirits.
By our law that means that Andalon may not claim her as his mate as it is forbidden for a Chieftain to claim any mate who is not of the tribe. He also may not claim the blood of her attacker as she is not of our blood so no retribution is necessary. It is known to me that her attacker was under the influence of the Followers when he exacted such damage on her and violated her body by breaking her limbs. I would also ask of those who brought him here, where is he from?”
Rennon had not seen this coming. He was stunned when all eyes were upon him. He stood up and cleared his throat. “He who you see before you is not usually the ravening beast you saw tonight. He is a loyal and honourable friend who would sooner kill himself than harm an unarmed woman who was bound before him. But, this is the result of an experiment carried out by the Followers. They have given him a drug which is binding with his own body to make him the beast you see before you. Despite our best efforts we have no way of unbinding this drug which is multiplying in his system. He will die if we cannot do anything about it but rather than him die in vain we brought him here so that what may be his last breaths may be used to defend the woman he would never have wished to harm. Not least because she is of his people, one of the few left. He too is of Eldorian.”
The cavern had fallen silent. Then two of the guards unlocked the pit gate and entered. They carried Kel out and Rennon followed. Maran followed on behind and Andalon was left to speak with is people.
They carried Kel higher into the hills and as it got steeper the path got narrower until it was merely a goat track. Still they ascended until they came to a small cave entrance. The mouth was covered by thick animal skins and as they stepped into the darkness inside and Maran hastened to light candles.
“Here, lay him here. I will see what my medicine can do. Now tell me, what did you find out about this drug?” She brought over stuffed animal skins and fleeces to make Kel as comfortable as his unconscious body could be.
Dr Samson who had kept silent until this point stepped forwards. “It is chemical based and is multiplying in his system, growing and linking with his organs and glands to produce adrenaline.”
Maran furrowed her brow and reached for a leather bag. Dr Samson was about to stop her but he hesitated when she pulled out a bioscanner and ran it over him. She looked up at him and smiled. “What you thought I was going to pull out a magic stick and make it all better?” She ran the scanner over him and waited for the results. “Alstoic, they’ve used Alstoic, how cunning. I’ve never seen it used in this way. Its from the Alstoic Bug which has a sting which makes the victim angry, afraid and more likely to leave the insect alone and go off and attack something far larger. It’s a cunning little bug too, hates sunlight and tends to move into other animals’ dens. Of course if it’s challenged it simply bites them. It is unlikely in their rage that they will see a small bug and they go and attack someone or something else. That then gives the bug something to feed upon. Very cunning. Now, what to do with it? You are going to need an antidote.
The bug’s eggs are carried in the sting venom. The venom also has a symbiotic component which is a parasitic algae which forms the bond between the venom and the body. We need to break that bond. Very well, so now we’ve got to find an antidote to egg cells floating around a system, latching on to anything that creates adrenaline. Ah, I’ve got it, a bit of healing could go a long way here. If you would be so kind as to lay him on his back I’ll use healing energy to bring his adrenaline levels down. Once they fall below a certain level the eggs will not be able to feed on the adrenaline so they will start to deteriorate and will certainly stop multiplying. I would make yourself comfortable, it’s going to be a long night.”
They all sat down and Maran arranged herself in a position where she was propped up and could keep her hands over Kel without having to strain muscles over the many hours she had to sit there pumping her healing energy into him and keeping him calm. From time to time Dr Samson administered sedatives and combining the two by dawn Kel’s heart and breathing rate were far lower and he was beginning to lose the tight veins that had been showing all over his body.
Dr Samson picked up the scanner and ran it over Kel’s prone body. All sign of the eggs had gone, his system was clean. They had broken down in the night and been flushed by the blood stream and into the kidneys. So, gradually he reduced the sedation so that Kel could have a chance to come around.
Kel opened his eyes and looked around blinking. “What hit me, I feel like I’ve been run over by a shuttle.”
Maran put a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “Don’t you worry, you’ve had a rough time of it over the past few days but hopefully the worst is over now. You are going to be weak for a while. You may want some help to get back down the mountain but in a day or so you should be fine. I’m sure that Dr Samson here will take good care of you. Now, if you don’t mind I’d better be getting back to see what is going on in the village. We will go down the mountain together but I suggest you leave this place and do not return until you have Kyla with you. The people of this village may have believed what I said but they have a strange sense of justice sometimes and may see you as their enemy until she personally puts them right. I will try to contact a friend of hers who will be able to help. He may well visit you.”
Kel grunted. “Thank you for what you did though.” He looked up at her, his expression peaceful.
Maran smiled. “You are welcome. You still have the hardest task ahead of you.” She put a hand on his shoulder.
Kel looked confused. “What’s that?”
Maran gave a really enigmatic smile. “Telling Kyla.”
Kel swallowed hard. “I guess so. Do you think she will ever forgive me?”
Maran looked at each of them. “Kyla will forgive you, it is in her nature. But will you forgive yourself? Now it is time for you to leave if you wish to get back to your craft before the hunters start out for the day.”
They followed Maran down the mountainside in silence at her slow pace. They parted with her at the village and went back to their Hopper and glided away into the infinite depths of space.

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