The Secret of Arias - Chapter 3
By Sel Vecantie
Janet Petrilli woke to find her cell once more shrouded in darkness. She felt around with her hands, searching urgently for the globe she had left beside her bed. As soon as her fingers came in contact with the smooth, glass-like surface of the object she sought, a soft light began to fill the room, slowly growing brighter until it shone with the same strength that had the previous night. Curious, she ran her hands over the device, looking for some sort of sensor or control that might have activated it, but there was nothing visible to her eyes.
Before she had time to wonder about this, a sudden faint grating noise diverted her attention to one of the walls. Where there had been nothing but a flat metal wall, a large oval alcove had suddenly appeared. It was as if a large section of the wall had moved inward, creating the alcove. Janet tossed off the blanket and walked cautiously over to the depression, examining it from a distance before approaching closer. On the way she picked up her coat and slipped it on, wanting to look her best for her captors, just in case the alcove turned out to be the door she had searched for the previous day.
The alcove was only shallow, an oval depression about two centimetres deep. It stretched from the floor to a height of a little over two metres, and was about a metre and half across at its widest point. There were no distinguishing marks of any kind, that might signify its purpose, but its shape suggested to Janet that it could possible be a door. She wanted to be sure though, just in case it was some kind of trap and she spend the next two minutes examining it from every angle, trying to identify if anything dangerous lurked inside the shallow depression.
Finally, after she had exhausted all other options, Janet summoned up her courage and reached out hesitantly to touched the smooth metallic surface of the alcove. Feeling a faint vibration beneath her hand she quickly pulled back, but it was too late. Her brief contact had created network of lines, spiralling out from where she had touched the metal. The lines became cracks and before her eyes an opening appeared in the metal, creating a large oval shaped doorway. Janet began to edge away, a little fearful of what might be waiting for her on the other side of the door.
She soon found out. A large scaled arm reached through the newly created door and latched on to her shoulder with a powerful clawed hand. She shrieked in fear and dropped the light globe which, a little surprisingly, didn't break. Instead it bounced across the floor and rolled under the bed. The light gone, she was unable to see the creature the arm belonged to, but its outline filled the entire doorway, towering above her. Suddenly fearful of what it wanted, she tried to wriggle out of its grasp and flee back into the cell. Her struggles were in vain though, the creature holding her proved far to strong and she found herself being pulled from the room into the dimly lit corridor beyond.
As soon as Janet had been removed from the room the creature turned to the wall and said, "Close and lock." If its appearance had shocked her, its voice was even more surprising, as it spoke in almost prefect English, without even the slightest trace of an accent. It was as if the creature had grown up with English as its native language. Her attention snared by the sound of the creatures voice, Janet didn't have time to notice that the door to the cell had closed. That task done the creature turned back to her, and in the dim light of the corridor Janet had her first glimpse of one of her captors.It wasn't just its height, about two and a half metres, but the overall massive power of its alien shape that made her feel instantly intimidated. Its thick skin was covered in coarse, dark violet scales, a little like those of an Earth snake. Those scales seemed to gleam in the dim light, as if they had been polished until they shone, reminding Janet a little of Captain Lawton's boots. Like her, it had two arms, two legs and a single head, but that's where the resemblance ended. Its legs were a lot thicker than hers, and well muscled, similar to those of a runner. It also had a thick tail that brushed the ground behind it, obviously used for support when it wasn't moving. Its arms were even more muscular, and ended in wickedly clawed hands, which were opening and closing menacingly as Janet observed them.
Her eyes flicked downwards, towards its waist, and she saw it was wearing a short kilt made of a black leathery material. Several gemstones had been set into the leather, possibly as decoration, or maybe as a symbol of rank, Janet couldn't tell for sure which it was. Above the kilt was a thin metallic belt, from which hung a wide variety of objects, including several curved knives, two large pouches, and a strange spherical object. Further up, across the creature's broad chest, were another two belts, arranged like bandoleers. There was nothing attached to these belts, but each had a large green gemstone set into it, sparkling in the dim glow of the corridor's lights.
Finally, Janet looked up, straight into the creature's face. For a moment the alien's head reminded her a little of an upside down bowl, rounded and smooth. There were no visible ears or nose, but a large fanged mouth dominated the face. She noticed, with a little fascination, that each of the four fangs had been carved with strange symbols and a scattering of tiny rubies had been somehow attached to the teeth. Above the mouth were two small snake-like eyes, which were currently watching her with undisguised interest.
Seeing that Janet had finished her scrutiny the creature spoke again. "Come," was all it said. As it spoke a thin, forked tongue flickered over its scaled lips, as if it were sensing the air in front of it. Then it spun around and began to stride down the corridor, its upper body tipped forward as it was running, and its tail slicing through the air behind it like a club. After a second or so it noticed that she hadn't moved and it looked around at her again. "Follow me," it said, a little louder than before. "The Mistress wishes to meet with you."Realising that she had little choice in the matter, Janet followed the creature. As she walked, she examined the corridor, noting a line of alcoves on either side of the corridor. They were like the one that had appeared in her room, so obviously they were also doors. Janet wondered if these doors led to cells like hers or if there were other, more interesting, rooms behind them. Above, widely spaced crystal globes like the one she had found in her room provided a dim light, barely even enough to see by. Janet noticed that as they left each section of the corridor the globe behind them dimmed, and then eventually faded, so that back by the door to her cell there was now nothing but darkness.
The corridor was reasonably long, and fifteen doors had passed by on either side before they reached the end. The creature guiding her reached out and touched an alcove at the end of the corridor, which quickly opened, exposing a small room. Turning around to face Janet, it said, "enter." As soon as she had walked into the small room beyond, the alien followed. Then, after a short wait while the door spiralled shut again, he said, "palace level."
An almost imperceptible vibration in the floor was the only sign that the room was moving and perhaps five seconds later the creature reached out and touched the door again. As soon as the alien had exited, Janet looked out to discover that the long corridor was gone, and in its place was a wide passage leading to two large doors made of a dark metal. Her guide didn't hesitate and walked straight towards the doors, which opened before him. After a quick glance down two dark side passages that led off the main corridor, Janet hurried after the alien into another corridor beyond.
As she hurried along behind her guide, she looked around to search for the mechanism for opening the doors. What she found instead though, were two smaller versions of her guide, who were already pulling the door closed again. They were dressed similarly to the alien leading her, but their kilts and belts lacked any gemstones, so they were obviously of a lower rank, at least that is what Janet assumed. They also looked less muscled, leading Janet to wonder if they weren't part of another caste, like worker ants compared with soldier ants. Her guide had spoken about a Mistress, so she began to wonder if she wasn't being led to see the queen of the alien race.
As she worried over what to say when she met the alien queen, Janet lost track of the maze of corridors she was being led through. Several times she passed more of the aliens, all of varying sizes, but with the same general body structure. Most were like the ones she had seen back at the doors, but several were similar to her guide, and others seemed to be a cross between the two. She couldn't see any female aliens, unless of course the one leading her was female, so she assumed that like a colony of ants there was only the one queen.
Finally, following several confusing minutes of zigzagging, and after climbing several flights of stairs, the journey ended. Janet's guide led her to a large set of golden doors, guarded by five wary looking aliens, similar in size and ornamentation to the one with her. The largest, a dangerous looking creature with ten huge rubies on the bandoleers crossing his chest, nodded once as she approached and tapped on the door behind him. As it opened, her guide turned to her. "Follow Azrak," the alien said, again in perfect, unaccented English. "He will take you to the Mistress."
Janet eyed her new guide curiously. At first glance he appeared similar to the alien that had opened the door to her cell, apart from the minor difference in clothing, but looking closer it was possible to see a lot more. By his stance, and the way the other aliens deferred to him, this Azrak was obviously of much higher rank. As he tuned away from her to walk through the now open doors, Janet noticed he had something none of the other aliens possessed. Strapped across Azrak's back was a large sword, made of a yellow-green metal that seemed to shine, almost as if it possessed a hidden energy.
"Go," her guide said, tapping her gently on the shoulder with one of his massive claws, and pointing in the direction of the doors. "Follow Azrak. The Mistress is waiting for you."
Nodding hurriedly, and eyeing the clawed hand on her shoulder, Janet edged her way past the guards, through the golden doors, and into the room beyond. There she pulled up, a little in awe of the chamber she had entered. It was huge, larger than anything she had seen so far, but its size was not what made it so magnificent. High above, the vaulted ceiling glittered with a thousand tiny lights, and for a moment Janet imagined they were stars. Then she looked at the wall nearest her, and realised that they were actually gemstones, tens of thousands of emeralds, diamonds, and other, equally valuable gems. They all appeared to be arranged into a vast mosaic, but the order of the arrangement escaped her at the moment.
Despite her awe at the fortune that decorated the walls and ceiling, she glanced around at the rest of the room, searching for the alien queen. The room was semi-circular in shape and despite its size it appeared almost empty. In fact, the only furnishings she could see were a line of silver metal stands, each bearing a large crystal globe like the one she had been given in her cell. They appeared to be the only light sources visible, and the rest of room was hidden in thick layers of shadows. When Janet searched harder though she suddenly spotted a throne, or something very similar, towards the middle of the room and just beyond the range of her vision.
Seeing that Azrak was waiting, and not wanting to appear disrespectful to the alien's queen, she hurried to catch up with the large warrior. Janet was both excited and terrified over what she was going to find. Once she had got over the shock of being dragged out of her cell, she had soon grown used to her guide's appearance. Working for IPX meant that she had come into contact with a wide variety of alien life, and this species even spoke her language, which made communication a lot easier, and made them seem less alien. She was a little worried about meeting their queen though. Her job on the Sturt was to work with alien technology, not alien races. There were other, far more qualified specialists on board to handle first contact situations. She only hoped she didn't make an error of protocol or some other mistake that would lead to a violent reaction from her captors.
As she approached the throne, she quickly glanced around the room again, a sudden movement along the walls catching her attention. For a second it looked to her as if walls were moving, but after a closer examination she realised that what she was seeing were tall curtains gently swaying due to a hidden breeze. It was only then that she noticed the gigantic windows that lined the walls and ceiling of the room. Through them she could see outside into the dark night, the flashes of green lightning informing her than she was still beneath the storm cloud. After a particularly violent lightning strike, she suddenly spotted the looming shape of the cliff face towering above the room, indicating that wherever this building was located, it was in a valley or deep depression. It also seemed to be located somewhere near the centre of the storm, if the ferocity of the lightning was any indication.
Despite her interest in her surroundings, Janet pulled her attention back to the throne that was now in front of her. As she approached, Janet suddenly frowned in confusion, realising that despite the presence of the light globes, the throne remained hidden in shadows, the figure resting on it hidden from her view. What little she could see, gave her the impression that the alien's Mistress was a lot smaller than them, perhaps even smaller than herself.
Janet's skin began to crawl, and she got the impression that the creature on the throne was watching her very closely indeed. In fact she could just see two dark eyes peering at her, almost hidden by the shadows. The eyes seemed to project a powerful presence that filled the room. She felt short of breath, as if the alien's presence was choking the life from her body. Pulling her gaze away from the dark eyes she felt the feeling pass. She turned her attention away from the throne, noticing movement off to one side.
Standing near the throne, unseen until now, was another of the aliens. This one was smaller than the powerful Azrak, and appeared hunched over, almost as if it were an old man. Janet couldn't see any differences in skin colour, or anything else to indicate a different species or gender. However, this alien's clothing was completely different. Instead of the short kilt-like garment that the rest of the alien's wore, this one was clad in a long, voluminous robe. It was also leaning on a large staff, again made of the strange yellow-green metal that she had seen throughout this place. The creature's stance, and the way it clutched at the staff, made Janet think that it relied on it to walk, and the staff was not a symbol of rank.
Finally finishing his walk to the throne, Azrak bowed low in the direction of the shadowy figure that waited there. Unsure exactly what she was supposed to do now, Janet followed the warrior's movements and bowed as well. Then, Azrak walked over to stand on the opposite side of the throne to the robed alien, watching Janet suspiciously, as if preparing to pounce in case she tried to harm his Mistress.
Janet fidgeted nervously, wondering if she should say something now. Then, before she could speak, a soft, feminine voice whispered its way across the darkened throne room. "Who are you?" it said. Unlike the other alien's this voice spoke English with an accent, one that was achingly familiar. But, try as she might, Janet couldn't quite place it, although she knew she had heard a similar accent before, only very recently.
Suddenly realising that all three aliens were waiting for her answer she quickly rushed out, "Dr. Janet Petrilli." She kept her gaze lowered, not really wanting to make eye contact with the queen again. There was no response from the aliens, and the seconds seemed to drag by. Finally she realised that they were waiting for her to add to her statement. "I am a mission specialist on the Sturt," she continued. "It is a research vessel. We landed here to conduct research into this planet and then we crashed..."
"I know all about your starship," the figure on the throne said suddenly, the queen's soft voice cutting into Janet's explanation. "I am more interested in you. What do you do?"
She didn't sound displeased with Janet's words, but the scientist got the distinct impression that she should tell this alien queen exactly what she wanted. The fact that the warrior Azrak was still glaring at her didn't help either. She paused for a second, working out a way to explain her job to the aliens. "I study alien technologies," she said finally. "With a company called IPX. We travel to alien worlds to discover new technologies that can help our world. I help work out how to adapt and use what we might discover."
"So we can make Earth a better place for future generations," Janet replied nervously, hoping that was what the alien wanted to hear. "And in the hope that one day we might uncover something that could cure diseases back home, or make life better for everyone."
Then, in the silence that followed her reply, Janet nervously fiddled with her coat, waiting for a response from the alien. Finally, just as Janet was about to open her mouth to speak again, the reply came. "Is that why you came here, to Arias? Do you seek knowledge from this world."
"Yes," Janet said, nodding furiously in agreement. "We came to peacefully explore this world in the hopes of finding something that would improve life on Earth."
The alien seemed to move forward, and with it the shadows gathered around the throne also moved, as if they cloaked her and protected her. When it spoke again its voice was lighter, almost as if the queen were amused by Janet's words. "You will find nothing of interest for your world on Arias, Dr. Janet Petrilli. However your presence here may serve me." The alien queen paused for a second as if she were thinking then, when she continued her tone carried an edge of authority. "How did you get to this world?"
"On the Sturt..." Janet began.
The figure on the throne waved a shadowy limb in Janet's direction, cutting her off before she could finish the sentence. "I don't mean your vessel, I want to know how you made it to this world. This planet is not open to visitors, they made sure of that. How did your ship make it past the defences around this system."
"We didn't see any defences," Janet said.
"What!" The alien sounded shocked. "No ships? You located nothing at all."
"The Vorlons are gone..." Janet tried to explain, thinking that perhaps the queen did not know of the First One's departure. In fact she knew little about it herself, only that there had been a war and the Vorlons, along with some other ancient race, had tried to kill everyone. They had lost though, so as far as she was concerned that was the only important fact.
The reaction of those gathered around the throne to her words came as something of a shock though. There was a sudden, hissing intake of breath from the two aliens on either side of the throne. The warrior, Azrak, glanced nervously at the throne, and even edged away slightly, as if he expected a bad reaction, and the other alien's hand shook where it held on to its staff. Then the queen suddenly seemed to lean forward, and the dim light around Janet began to fade even further. She felt her eyes being drawn towards the queen's eyes, and her gaze was quickly captured by those dark orbs. When the soft voice came again, it had a dark, menacing tone to it, as if what Janet had just said had been the gravest insult. "You will not mention their names again. Never will their cursed name be spoken in my halls. I am not a violent creature by nature Dr. Janet Petrilli, but if you mention them again and I will drain every molecule of energy from your body and toss your lifeless corpse to the scavengers. Do you understand?"
Janet nodded hurriedly, her face going pale with fright. Inside she wished that someone else could be here instead of her. She wasn't trained for this sort of thing. "I understand," she said quickly, dragging her gaze back down towards the floor once more.
The queen seemed to accept this and sat back on her throne. "Good," she said, her voice back to its normal calm whisper. "Your vessel encountered no trace of them then. Your journey here was untroubled by defences of any kind?"
"The Vor..." Janet began, before quickly correcting herself. "They have left the galaxy. Their worlds are empty now."
"Where did they go?" the queen asked suddenly.
"I do not know," Janet replied, looking nervously at the throne, while at the same time trying to avoid gazing into the alien's eyes. "It is said that they went beyond the rim, to a place known only to them and a few others."
"Do you know any of these others?"
Again Janet was forced to shake her head. "I don't know a lot about what happened. I was on Earth at the time, and we didn't get a lot of news about the war."
"I am aware of that," the alien queen replied, waving a shadow cloaked limb in the direction of the ceiling. "I have been watching for many years. I am aware of much that goes on, including the fact that your vessel would be coming here. I did not think, however, that you would arrive here intact. I had thought they would have put in more defences than the ones I destroyed. Perhaps they are less of a threat than I thought."
The alien's words seemed to trail off after that, as if she were musing over the comments she had just made. For several seconds the throne room was quiet, just the faint rustle of the drapes along the walls and a distant rumble of thunder breaking the silence. Then the voice of the alien queen cut into that silence, although to Janet it seemed as if the alien's soft voice was as much a part of the natural order of things as the wind and thunder outside. She hadn't noticed it first, but the queen's voice seemed to fit into this world, while the other aliens seemed out of place. That discovery both confused and worried her.
"What was that device my scouts saw you fire into the clouds last night?" the alien asked Janet, changing the topic completely from what they had been discussing only moments earlier. "It did not come down again. I find that most curious. That is why I asked to speak to you, instead of sending you to join your companions straight away."
"They are alive?" Janet gasped. "We thought they were all dead."
"You will be joining them soon enough," the queen replied, not directly answering Janet's query. "Now answer the question. What was that device, and why did it not return to the surface. Is there something up there, somewhere beyond the clouds, that you seek to contact?"
Janet shook her head, not wanting to let the alien's know about the rescue ship yet. If it was a Earthforce vessel up there, then she didn't want to give up the hope that she and the rest of the crew could still be saved from their imprisonment on this planet. "It was a test rocket," she decided to say. "We were testing to see if we could use older means of propulsion to get back into orbit."
On the throne the alien seemed to move slightly, and then her next question came, this time carry a note of displeasure with it. "You were not trying to signal anyone then?"
"No," Janet replied, trying not to betray the truth. She didn't like having to lie like this, but until she knew more about these creatures she didn't want to give away any possible advantage, especially to their queen. Despite her caution there was something about the alien that both attracted and frightened her. It wasn't anything tangible, just a feeling of comfort, as if the alien was here to help her. She felt as if she were in the presence of some angelic being, but at the same time came the terrible feeling that something very dark and evil lurked on the shadowy throne.
"You may go then," the alien said suddenly. "This audience is over. Azrak here will take you to your companions."
Janet jerked her gaze up to look at the throne in surprise. She had though the alien would interrogate her for much longer. After all, she had been kept inside that cell for at least a day, and now her audience with the alien leader had lastet little more than ten minutes. Any words she might have uttered though were quickly cut off as a clawed hand clamped down on her forearm and Azrak began to lead her away from the throne. With quick bow in the direction of the queen she allowed herself to be led away, confused and troubled by the creature she had just met.
The two remaining figures in the throne room watched Janet slowly being led out of the doors. The hunched figure of the old servant, Morkazz, shifted nervously as he considered his Mistress. He was the oldest of his kind, more ancient than even the old warrior Azrak, and for many cycles now he had served as the Mistress' personal servant. He took care of all the things that she did not wish the rest of the Chosen to know about, and in that time he had seen much, and had learned to read the Mistress' moods unlike any other.
Today she seemed reflective, as if she were considering the alien creature she had just questioned. This was the first time she had confronted one of the aliens face to face. Before she had always sent her questions to an interrogator, who then asked them for her. Morkazz was not even sure that she had been that concerned. When the signal from the alien world had vanished though, all that had changed. The Mistress had suddenly become interested in the aliens, ordering her interrogators to ask new, strangely puzzling questions.
He had spoken to Azrak, who as head of warriors also controlled the interrogators, who were actually just normal warriors that the Mistress had given new positions to. The old warrior had been as confused as he had, and neither had been able to determine what the Mistress wanted from the strangers. Her question seemed random and confused, and Morkazz had begun to worry that perhaps something was wrong. Like Azrak, he had also noticed the change in the mistress since the stranger's ship had arrived on this world. She had become restless, as if disturbed by their presence and her moods were beginning to effect everyone she came into contact with, from the warriors who guarded her throne room to the sightless females who served in her personal quarters. It seemed that everyone was on edge, wondering what the Mistress' next move would be. Morkazz could only hope that this malady did not spread, and that the Mistress would soon return to her normal calm self.
The doors to the throne room closed with barely a whisper of sound. Morkazz turned back to the throne. "Bring me the elixir, Morkazz," the Mistress said, not diverting her gaze from the golden doors at the far end of the room.
The old servant nodded and limped across the throne room to a hidden alcove. There he activated the control that opened the hidden door into the small room beyond. He ducked inside and with a look of awe creeping onto to his face, walked over to the pedestal that dominated this room. On top of the dark metal structure sat four small glass phials, each glowing with brilliant white light. Even after all this time as her servant, Morkazz was still amazed by this room. Carefully he reached out and picked up the closest of the phials, his hands gripping it tightly to ensure that he didn't drop it.
Inside, he knew, was the secret of the Mistress' existence. Each one of the phials contained enough of the elixir to kept the Mistress alive for one whole cycle, and without them she would fade away and die. This was the most sacred duty she had entrusted him with, ensuring that he bought the elixir safely to her each day. She could probably have done it herself, but the elixir was highly addictive and, with only three doses in reserve, she didn't trust herself to perform the task. Should anything happen to the energy collection network then she would be forced to rely on those reserves until it was repaired. If they were not available she would be lost.
Leaving his staff resting against the wall of the throne room, Morkazz carried the precious elixir across to the throne, both hands grasping it firmly to ensure it didn't slip out of his grasp. Each step he took filled him with fear, as his imagination played out a thousand different scenarios where the phial dropped to the floor and shattered. Unlike everything else in the palace, the phials were made of a strange material the Mistress called glass. The metal that all other utensils had been grown from had the tendency to drain away the elixir before it could be used. This glass kept it safe, but it was fragile and a single false step could result in disaster.
Today though, as on every other day, Morkazz made it safely. Reaching the throne he slipped the phial of elixir into its holder and stepped back, awaiting the Mistress' next command. He already knew what it would be, but he knew he could not leave until he was dismissed.
"You may go, Morkazz," she said softly, and he quickly hurried off, pausing only long enough to pick up his staff from where he had left it. The Mistress watched him leave, and as soon as the golden door had closed once more, reached out with a trembling hand and picked up the phial. Cautious not to spill even the tinniest drop, she removed the stopper and raised it to her lips, letting the glowing liquid ooze slowly into her mouth. A shudder ran through her, and she gasped as the tiredness that had filled her melted away.
With limbs that were suddenly strong again, the Mistress stood, leaving her throne behind. As she stood, the shadows that had cloaked her slipped away, exposing her dark robes, and a few small exposed areas of pale flesh. For a second she glanced in the direction of the room where the other three phials were kept, but with great effort dragged her attention away. They were still needed, at least for now. If what she suspected was true, then she would soon never need to rely on this method of staying alive ever again. Soon, if everything went her way, the clouds would finally clear and she would walk once more in the sunlight. Until then though, she had to rely on the small amount of energy collected each day by the lightning towers, just enough to fill one phial and supply the energy needs of the fortress.
Tossing the now empty container behind her, onto the cushioned seat of the throne, she walked across to the far end of the room, drawing aside the soft material of the curtains to glance out at the storm above. This time though, she didn't see the cloud that kept her imprisoned. Instead, she saw opportunity, a chance at last to break the shackles that bound her to this world. Outside the lightning still flashed across the sky, drawn against its will into the four gigantic towers that surrounded the fortress. She didn't see it though, looking past the lightning, past the dark cloud that generated it, as if she could see into the cold darkness of the void above.
"You are out there somewhere," she said softly, her breath forming a faint mist in the cool, early morning air. "Soon you will come down here to seek your companions, and then I will have trapped you like I did them. You will have no choice but to free me."
She stood there for several seconds, letting the gentle breeze wash across her, and watching the lightning growing ever more violent, signalling the coming of another dawn. Then she turned away, leaving the outside world behind her again, and walking back to her throne. She wanted to be free now, but after so long she had learned to wait. Whoever was up there, above the clouds, would come soon enough. All she had to do now was be patient, and after eight centuries patience was something she possessed in abundance.
Nicolai Luchenko looked up as the tunnel doors slid open with a faint hissing sound. However, instead of the expected aliens bringing the latest meal rations for the prisoners, a familiar brown-haired woman was pushed into the mines, tripping over her own feet and falling into Nicolai's arms. "Dr. Petrilli," he gasped as his eyes widened in surprise. Then his voice lost his amazement over her presence and turned sombre. "So they got you as well."
"Where are we?" Janet Petrilli asked, as she straightened up and smoothed out her clothing, while at the same time looking around the darkened tunnel. Gone was the smooth metallic walls of the fortress, she now found herself in a tunnel hewn from the surrounding rock instead. There was a line of dim lights along one wall, and through the darkness she could just make out the shapes of other humans. All around came the clanging sound of metal tools striking solid rock.
"We think it is some sort of mine," Nicolai explained as he helped Janet dust off her clothing. "Everyone who has been captured has been bought here."
"Have you been badly treated," she asked, looking him over for signs of bruising or other mistreatment. Even in these dim conditions, the handsome nephew of the Earth Alliance President still look calm and unfazed by his imprisonment.
The tall language specialist shook his head. "No, they have looked after us all right... all except for the telepaths." He pointed across the tunnel towards one of the crystal light globes. Just inside the circle of light the globe created, Janet could see three figures sitting slumped up against the wall. Around them the others continued working, hacking at the walls of the tunnel with their tools. Janet noticed that none of the three telepaths moved during the short period of time that she observed them.
"What's wrong with them?" she asked.
Nicolai shrugged. "We don't know. Dr. Abbado has taken a look at them, but he can't find any physical problem. All I know is that a day after the each arrived the aliens singled them out and took them away. When they came back they seemed to be in a daze, and none of them have spoken since. They just sit there all day, looking off into space."
"What do they want with us," Janet asked, unconsciously drawing closer to Nicolai at the same time. "The queen never mention anything about this. I didn't know you were all prisoners here."
Nicolai looked at her in amazement. "The queen?" he queried. "What queen?"
Janet pointed towards the ceiling. "In the big throne room up there. There was a warrior called Azrak and they took me before their queen. However, she asked only a few specific questions, and I was dismissed within minutes."
"I have heard of Azrak," Nicolai said. "The guards talk about him a lot. I think he is some sort of big shot general or something like that. I haven't heard anything about a queen. The only females we have seen are the ones who bring us food."
This time it was Janet's turn to look surprised. "You mean there are other females? I though we were dealing with some sort of ant-like race, you know like the Gaim. I assumed that this queen was the only female alien."
Nicolai shook his head. "No, they are a bit like us in that respect. The females are smaller and have light green scales instead of purple or black. They seem to do a lot of the work around the fortress, while the male workers do the construction and labour jobs in the mines and outside. At least that is what we have deduced by observing what goes on down here."
"This queen must be their leader then," Janet mused, mostly to herself.
"Perhaps. What did she ask you?"
"It was strange," Janet replied. "First she started asking me who I was, then she wanted to know why we were here. Then I told her about the Vorlons leaving and she nearly jumped off her throne and strangled me. After that she started questioning me about the rock..." Janet's voice quickly trailed off and she looked around for guards. Spotting two aliens lounging against one wall she grabbed Nicolai's arm. "Is there somewhere quiet we can go to talk. There is something very important that I need to tell everyone, and I don't want them to overhear."
He nodded and quickly led her along the tunnel, past the curious captives, who put down their digging tools for a second to observe her, and into a shadowy recess near the end of the tunnel. There, two men sat quietly talking. They looked up as Janet and Nicolai entered, and Janet recognised them at once. One was the short, stocky figure of Jeremy Curran, the Sturt's first officer, and the other was the tall and muscular Italian, Stefano Candelli, who also served as the Sturt's the security officer. They were both among the first to go missing.
"Petrilli," Curran said in surprise as she entered. "I wasn't aware they had caught you."
"I am afraid so," she replied, taking a seat on a chunk of rock that had obviously been positioned just for that purpose. She quickly told him the tale of what had happened to her, and then after checking to make sure none of the alien's were around passed on the information about the rescue ship.
The three men looked relieved and excited about the news. "I told you they would send someone," Nicolai said. "My aunt probably had half of Earthforce out looking for us."
"I only hope they don't think we're dead," Curran said, a lot more cautiously. "If they don't know we are still alive down here then they may just take everyone on the Sturt and then leave again. We might be left behind."
"They wouldn't do that," Janet said nervously. "They will look for us, won't they?"
"I hope so," Curran replied. "I really do, but I wouldn't hold out too much hope. Perhaps with Nicolai here, they will continue to look for us."
Nicolai suddenly held up his left hand, cutting off any further conversation. He inclined his head toward the tunnel entrance where several massive warriors and a small group of shorter aliens was approaching. Janet and the others nodded to show they understood, and kept their mouths shut. It wouldn't do to discuss the rescue ship around the aliens, especially when they could speak English as well as the humans in the room. None of the four gathered near the end of the tunnel, however, noticed the tiny protrusion on the ceiling though, a small stalk-like shape that rotated to follow their every move.
In the throne room of the palace, far above the mining tunnels and the rest of the fortress, a slim, pale-skinned hand reached out and touched the image of Janet Petrilli on the screen. "So, you were lying to me," the alien's Mistress said softly to herself, while slowly tracing the outline of the scientist with one finger. "A rescue ship has come, just as I suspected. Humans are so predicable, they haven't changed at all in eight hundred years."
Seeing one of mining supervisors coming over to the small group, she deactivated the screen and turned away, realising that the humans would not talk openly with one of her servants nearby. As the display screen retreated towards the distant ceiling, she made her way over to her throne and took her seat. There she sat for several minutes, contemplating what her next move would be.
There were going to be many difficult choices to make over the coming few days. She didn't want to hurt anyone, especially not the crew of the survey ship or their rescuers. But, if she was going to proceed as she had originally planned, there would be many chances for death and injury to occur. She didn't know what kind of ship was up there, but she hoped it was a warship. If it was just another vessel like the one stuck on the surface then her plans would have to change considerably. For a second she wished she could see above the clouds and learn what was occurring, but if she could do that then she wouldn't be trapped here.
Knowing that the rescuers would be coming soon, she reached out and tapped a control embedded into the arm of her throne. "Morkazz," she said as soon as the communication system activated. "Bring Azrak to the throne room at once."
"Yes Mistress," came the response from her personal servant.
It would be at least two minutes before the warrior and her servant arrived up on this level of the palace, so she leaned back against the padded surface of her throne. Around her the dim light began to fade even further, and her form disappeared into the thickening shadows, becoming one with the darkness. Whenever she met with the Chosen she had made sure to cloak herself from view, and now it was even more important that ever. After all, it wouldn't pay for them to see her as she truly was, not now anyway. It would raise too many question that she wasn't prepared to answer just yet. Later, when she was certain of her freedom, that would be the time for questions and revelations. Now, she still needed the assistance of the Chosen to stay alive, and to make her plans work successfully.
As the lift came to a gentle stop, Susan zipped up the jacket of her uniform and glanced over at Talia, who was looking back at her with a faint smile on her lips. "You're sure you still want to come," she asked, trying again to dissuade Talia from joining the landing party, although she knew by now that she would have little chance of that. "It is going to be a difficult mission, and if we run into trouble you could be injured."
Talia could have been easily been annoyed by Susan's continued attempts to convince her not to join the team going down to the planet, but she knew Susan was only trying to protect her. "I am still coming, Susan," she replied, without even the slightest hint of aggravation. "You are not going to leave me here to spend days worrying about you. I would prefer to be down there doing that, at least then I know what is going on. Now come on, I think Commander Petrov is waiting for us down in the shuttle bay."
The previous night It had taken Talia nearly an hour before she had finally been able to convince Susan to include her in the landing party. Finally, Talia had told her that she wasn't going to sit around on the Rasputin for nearly a week wondering if she was ever going to see Susan again, and that she was going and that was that. Faced with that argument, even the stubborn captain had been forced to agree that she had no choice but to include Talia, if only to stop her worrying during the mission.
"I only wish I knew how I was going to explain your presence to him," Susan said with a wry grin. "I think he was hoping you would convince me not to go, not join the landing team yourself."
"What about what we discussed last night," Talia suggested. "Tell him that you need a telepath for this mission. He will probably agree with that, after all, the Vorlons were powerful telepaths and my presence might be of assistance. The Sturt included three telepaths in their crew."
"I don't think that is going to convince him," Susan replied.
"Well, you can always explain why I won't let you leave me behind," Talia offered, mischievously.
Susan looked pained. "I don't think that is an option."
"I didn't think so," Talia said with a smile, before turning her gaze forward again as the lift doors opened.
Outside the quiet lift, the Rasputin's shuttle bay was a scene of pure chaos, as it was every time a shuttle was being prepared for launch. This time, however, the chaotic whirl of men and cargo loaders seemed to lack even the slightest indication of organisation. In the very centre of the chaos, various members of the IPX team were all trying to shout orders at once, while a harassed Commander Petrov tried to restore some sort of order and get the two shuttles loaded on time.
Behind the Commander the main lift doors opened with a faint noise, and looking around he saw the person he had been waiting for. "Captain," he said, sounding relieved that she had finally arrived. "I was wondering where you had got to."
"Are the shuttles ready for launch, Commander?" She asked, looking out over the chaotic shuttle bay with a faint frown on her face.
To Susan's surprise he made no mention about her intention to lead the landing party. Instead he replied, "Nearly ready, Captain. We have loaded most of the cargo, and just have to get those rovers on board. I have been having some trouble with the IPX team though, not that that is really a surprise."
Susan looked over to where the two shuttles were gathered, and watched as one of the massive IPX rovers was driven up the ramp leading inside the shuttle. This was the first time she had seen one of the rovers, and found herself a little surprised by what she saw. She didn't really know what she expected, but they looked more like military vehicles, instead of civilian. At least they looked sturdy. Susan didn't know what she was going to find down on the surface, but had the strangest feeling that they were going to need all the protection they could find.
"I have the latest report on the planet," Petrov said, passing over a data pad to Susan. "It is looking fairly calm down there, with no sign of activity from the landing site."
"Good," Susan said. "I want everyone on board as soon as possible then. If I am reading this correctly, it looks like it will be dawn soon, and I want to be on the surface by dawn."
Standing beside the two Earthforce officers, Talia was looking across the shuttle bay. "It looks like Dr. Melis could be a while yet," she commented, drawing Susan's attention away from the data pad Petrov had handed her and across the bay, towards the spot where the IPX team had gathered.
"Damn," Susan swore. "They are supposed to be tucked up in the second shuttle by now." Quickly, she scanned around the bay looking for someone to take care of the problem. Then her eyes fell on Major Logan. The Major, like the rest of the marines, was fully prepared to depart at a moment notice. She had a PPG rifle slung over one shoulder, and a large pack over the other. Logan seemed to be looking in her general direction, so Susan waved briefly and called out, "over here, Major."
After lowering the heavy pack to the ground, the Major hurried across to the gathered officers. "Captain," she said, saluting Susan. "My team is ready to leave. Just tell us what to kill and we will take care of it."
"Hopefully there won't be any need for killing today, Major," Susan replied, hoping that Lily was only joking. "However I do need you to do something important for me." She looked over at Dr. Melis and his team. "I want you to take charge of the second rover, instead of Melis. I need someone I can trust running it, just in case they decide to stop and look at an interesting artefact or something like that."
"You can count on me, Captain," Lily replied. "I will make sure they don't get out of line."
Susan nodded, looking pleased with Lily's comments. "Good, Major. Right now though, I want to make sure they get on board their shuttle. According to Commander Petrov, it will be dawn over the landing zone in just under two hours. I want to be on the surface before then, to make sure we make the most of what little daylight we have. Make sure that Melis and his team are on the shuttle in the next ten minutes, if not we will be going without them."
Lily saluted sharply, before marching across the deck towards the gaggle of scientists gathered around the IPX team's leader, Dr. Melis. A couple looked up as she approached, but most continued to listen to Melis, who was busy describing the use of one of a hundreds of scanners and data collectors that he thought it necessary to bring on the mission to the surface. Lily eyes narrowed as she watched her charges speaking and then, fingering her PPG rifle, she cleared her throat.
Melis glanced around. "What do you want?" he asked, sounding annoyed at being disturbed, especially by someone from Earthforce.
"The Captain wants everyone on board now, and that includes your lot." Lily gestured towards the open hatch leading into the second shuttle. "So, grab your equipment and move it onto that shuttle at once. You have five minutes, and then we leave without you."
"That is intolerable," Melis replied. "I need at least an hour to explain the use of all this." he waved his hand towards the collected electronic equipment scattered across the floor and piled up on nearby crates. "We need everyone to know what they are doing."
"I already do, Dr. Melis," Lily replied. "If you thought you needed to give your team a lecture, you should have done it last night. Right now we don't have the time. As you well know, this planet has a much shorter day than Earth, and the Captain wants to arrive just after dawn, so we can travel during the day to start with, just in case there is something lurking out there."
"I want to speak to Ivanova," Melis said, his voice starting to rise. He stared over in the direction he had last seen Commander Petrov. But, although the Commander was still there, Susan was nowhere to be seen.
Seeing his eyes wandering, Lily also glanced across the shuttle bay to the first shuttle, which was just finishing loading all the marines who were going with the first landing party. "Very well, Dr. Melis," she replied. "But you will need to hurry. Her shuttle, which I believe is also the shuttle you are supposed to be on, is almost ready to depart."
Melis frowned in annoyance. But, instead of continuing to argue, he quickly gathered together his scattered equipment and ran across the bay, just making it into the shuttle before the outer doors began to close. Lily smiled, and then ordered the rest of her charges to gather up their equipment and board the second shuttle. Two minutes, and several well worded threats later, the entire team had been hurried on board the second shuttle and everyone had taken their seats.
After making sure they were all strapped in for the journey, Lily tapped her link and signalled to the first shuttle to inform them her shuttle was ready to depart. After receiving the confirmation of her message from the other shuttle's pilot, Lily took her own seat and prepared for what was bound to be a bumpy ride. Second later she felt a jerk, as the shuttle was gripped up the huge magnetic clamp suspended from a shuttle bay roof. Then came a faint swaying motion as the shuttle was moved into the airlock, ready for departure.
Quickly, Lily reached up and switched on the monitor, which was mounted on the wall above her seat. On it, she could see the outer doors to the airlock opening, and then the green curve of Arias came into view far below. Before she had time to drink in the exhilarating view, the shuttle shuddered as its thrusters lifted it out of the airlock and into space. Then the stabilisers kicked in and for nearly a minute the flight was smooth and peaceful, the two shuttle slowly making their way from the Rasputin, down towards the moon below.
From her seat in the second of the two shuttles, Lily could see the beautiful green jungle stretching out below them. It seemed never ending, a vast expanse of greenery and life. But then, as the shuttle headed towards the northern hemisphere of the small world, the dark cloud came into view. It looked to Lily as if a dark blanket had been drawn across a huge section of the moon, blotting out not only the light, but the life of the world. The huge storm, lightning continually arching through it, was like some vast, turbulent sea. It even seemed to have waves running through it, although these were waves of wind displaced clouds, instead of water.
No-one on the shuttles had long to contemplate the storm though. Almost together the two shuttles struck the upper atmosphere, sending a jolt running through the metal of their structure. Although modern shuttles were a great improvement on models from the early 21st century, they still were not immune to the dangers of atmosphere entry. Some of the other races, notably the Minbari and older races like the Vorlons, had atmospheric shielding that enabled there vessels to slide through the atmosphere with no visible effect. Earth, however, had no such technology, and their ships still had to plough through a planet's atmosphere like they had for centuries. The bumpy ride didn't last long though, as the shuttles' stabilising thrusters compensated for the turbulence and the flight began to smooth out. Soon there was only a faint vibration to indicate that they were even in the atmosphere at all.
Like they were one, both shuttles dipped lower, turning towards the very edge of the cloud. There, almost hidden among the surrounding jungle, it was just possible to see several large clearings, the landing party's destination. Looking at the approaching clearing on the monitor, Lily wondered what they would find down on the planet. Somewhere, hidden beneath the dark cloud was the trapped survey vessel, and she could only hope the Sturt's crew was still alive.
The difference between the two regions was so pronounced it was obviously not a natural phenomenon. In fact, it appeared as if a line had been drawn across the surface of the jungle moon, and on one side was a dark, cloud covered swamp, while on the other, bright sunlight shone down on a leafy green jungle. The change from one region to the other took place over less than thirty metres, with the trees vanishing soon after crossing the beneath the cloud's shadow.
Of course there were still trees and shrubs beneath the cloud, but they were not the same varieties as those in the sunlight. Instead they were larger versions of the small bushes and vines that grew in the shadows of the thick jungle canopy. They had evolved millennia ago to survive on little light and now thrived with their larger cousins long dead. Most of the old jungle trees had died during the fiery storm of the Vorlon's attack on the planet, and the rest had slowly rotted away, leaving behind only their trunks. Scattered throughout this dark imitation of the normal jungle, these rotting trunks could be seen, held up only by the vines that had wrapped themselves around them.
Standing beneath one of these ancient dead trees, two figures waited, looking anxiously out into the sunlight world, now barely a hundred metres from their location. One was a tall warrior, smaller of frame than the mighty Azrak, but leaner and possessing a wiry body that gave him great speed when he needed to run. He rested uncomfortably against the old tree, munching on a piece of fungus he had picked earlier, while trying to determine his next move.
The other figure was the small feathery shape of a sword hawk, perched on the warrior's shoulder. Sword Hawks were birds of prey that could be found across Arias. While easy to spot with their bright yellow, blue and green plumage, they were fierce fighters, with long, razor sharp beaks that could slice through even the leathery skin of the masters with ease. Fortunately they were easily trained, and rarely attacked their trainers any more. Both the hawk, and its master were members of the scouts, send out by their Mistress to scour the sunlight lands for signs of newcomers.
Jarz, one of the few Chosen scouts who patrolled these borders, continued to look nervously out into the jungle before him. His people were nocturnal and rarely ventured outside the cloud covered lands during the day. But the Mistress had sent the order, and as a warrior he must obey. Reaching down to his belt, Jarz pulled out the large goggles, designed to shield his sensitive eyes from the blinding light of the system's distant sun. Then, after securing them on his round head, he gingerly took his first step out into the sunlight. Ahead, through the scattering of trees and bushes along the edge of the Mistress' domain, the scout could see the large clearing he had been ordered to watch.
Like all of the Chosen he had heard the stories about how the clearing was created. It happened nearly a fifteen years ago now, when the Mistress designed the first of her solar collector devices. Before these new collectors were built, the Chosen had been forced to depend of collecting the energy from the lightning generated by the great storm. Now, they had a device that could drain sunlight and store it as raw energy, capable of powering almost anything. Unfortunately, however, the new collectors had a fatal flaw. While they had a limited storage capacity, they hadn't stopped collecting energy once the limit had been reached.
What had happened was a great disaster, still remembered till this day. Twenty scouts had been sent out, all carrying the new collectors. The Mistress herself had spoken to each of them, wishing them well, and telling them that if they were successful then her freedom, and that of the Chosen would come soon after. However, all had not gone well. The collectors malfunctioned when they reached the limit of the energy they could hold. Instead of shutting down they released all that energy in a single, massive explosion.
Where before there had been twenty scouts, there were now only twenty smoking holes in the ground, patches of land that never recovered. The Chosen had been shocked by the death, but more so by the failure of the devices. Until that day everything the Mistress had given them had worked perfectly, and they imagined that these collectors would as well. Even the Mistress herself was shocked, refusing the speak to anyone, even her personal servant, for several days. She had locked the throne room doors and lived in seclusion, contemplating the failure of her machines
When she had finally allowed the Chosen back into the throne room, there was no mention of the solar collectors, and wisely her counsellors chose not to raise the matter. Although her body always remained hidden from sight by the shadows she called up around her, the counsellors could see in her eyes the sadness over the loss of the scouts. They knew that she blamed herself for their deaths, although she could not have foreseen the flaw. Until the coming of the strangers the disaster had never been mentioned in the throne room again, although the story was often whispered among those in the lower halls.
However, for some unknown reason, that had all changed when the alien ship landed on the planet, in this very clearing in fact. Jarz had been on patrol that day as well, and had watching in amazement as the giant alien craft had settled down in the clearing, crushing the trees in the surrounding jungle. When the outer doors opened and strange, pale-skinned creatures had emerged, he had fled, running back to the fortress as fast as his legs could carry him. Even to this day, he still cursed himself for not having the courage to remain and observe the alien's further.
Despite his concern about what he saw as his cowardice, Jarz had returned to the fortress to inform Azrak and the other leaders on what he had seen. To his surprise he hadn't been reprimanded, or stripped of his rank. The news he carried was of great importance to the Mistress for some reason, and she had listened very closely when he had described the creatures Jarz had seen, even asking him a question personally at one point. What he had thought might be the end of his existence as a scout, and reduction of his rank to that of a worker, had turned out to be the greatest day of his short life.
Then, after his meeting with the Mistress was over, he had been ordered back to the border, only this time he had been given an energy collection device to carry. Remembering the stories of the disaster he had been very nervous as he crept through the dark jungle, sneaking up on the alien ship. But the device did not explode with the coming of dawn, instead it drained energy out of the alien ship, enough to ensure that it remain on this world until the Mistress was finished with the aliens. He had never understood what that mission was about, and why the Mistress wanted the aliens to remain, but on his return he had again been praised for his work. He had even been given a promotion, Azrak increasing him to the rank of Pathfinder, a high as he could go before becoming one of the Chosen's leaders.
Now he had a new mission, one that made just as little sense as the last. But, after the results of his last encounter with the aliens, he wasn't about to argue. So it was that he found himself sneaking through the jungle once more, looking for another alien ship. The Mistress had told him and the rest of the scouts that it would come soon, and had ordered all the pathfinders, and lower ranked scouts out to the borders. Their mission, to find this new alien vessel, and record what happened.
Reaching the edge of the clearing, Jarz sudden halted, hearing something strange off in the distance. It was a loud roaring sound, as if some mighty beast was coming his way. Nervously, he crept back into the jungle, ducking under a large bush and hoping to stay out of sight of whatever was approaching. Still perched on his shoulder, the sword hawk started screeching, the piercing sound slicing into the scout's sensitive hearing like a knife. He tried to shut it up, but it refused to stay quiet, and pecked at him when he came too close, slicing open a small wound in his hand.
Then the roaring sound grew louder, and the sunlight disappeared. Looking up, Jarz saw the sun eclipsed by two huge flying creatures. At least that what he thought they were for a second, but then he realised they were similar to the alien's craft, only smaller. He tore a leaf off a nearby plant and held it in his hand. Then, with the leaf as protection, he reached out and grabbed the sword hawk's beak, cutting off its shriek. That worked for all of five seconds, and then the hawk suddenly started to flap it powerful wings. Unable to hold on, Jarz was forced to let go of allow it to cut open his hand even further than it had already. The sword hawk lifted off his shoulder and flew out into the clearing, just as the alien ships were beginning their descent.
The Chosen had no curses in their language, but Jarz invented several as he watched his hawk fly into the path of the two shuttles. Then, he realised he was in the open, and therefore visible to any of the aliens who might happen to be watching, something the Mistress had been careful to tell him must never happen. Annoyed at himself, the scout dived back under cover, just as the shuttle retro's began to fire.
Flames lit up the clearing for a moment as the powerful thrusters slowed the shuttles until they were almost hovering. The trees of the jungle were too damp to catch fire, but several were scorched by the fiery blast. They held their positions for what seemed like forever, before the landing struts on the two shuttles extended, and they dropped lower, coming to a rest in the centre of the clearing. Then, everything was still, with only a distant squawks and screeches of jungle birds breaking the silence.
Beneath his bush, Jarz pulled out the sword hawk's control box. While the hawks were organic in nature, those tamed by the Chosen were fitted with specially designed controllers, that allowed their handlers to see through their eyes, as well as keep their dangerous personalities in check. To the scout surprise, the controller still worked, and it was showing a perfect view of the far side of the alien ships.
With a sigh of relief, Jarz leaned back against the trunk of a nearby tree, and turned to watch the screen. Now that the dust had settled, it was possible to see the shape of the alien craft, and although they were like nothing the scout had ever seen before, they still looked somewhat similar to the first alien vessel. For a second he wondered what these new aliens were going to do, but then his attention was focused back to the two shuttles, as the rear of one of the vessels began to move.
Gently, the large hatch at the back of the first shuttle swung open, slowly lowering itself down to the ground. Several small shrubs growing out of the clearing splintered under the weight of the hatch, and then it was down, coming to rest of the flat ground. After a wait a nearly a minute, four marines appeared at the top of the newly created ramp, carefully scanning the surrounding jungle for signs of hostile life forms. When none appeared they slowly made their way down to the ground, stopping twice to look around again, their PPG rifles always at the ready.
Once on the ground they hurried across the clearing, towards the jungle's edge. Finding nothing dangerous there either, they spent the next five minutes circling the clearing, just in case. Discovering no visible threat, their leader walked back to the shuttle and shouted out, "all clear, Captain."
That simple statement created a flurry of activity from the shuttle's cargo bay. Susan, and the rest of those in the landing party quickly made their way down the shuttle's ramp, while behind them the huge shape of the first of the IPX rovers slowly appeared, being carefully driven down to the ground. Across on the other side of the clearing the second shuttle was lowering it's loading ramp, while the figure of Major Logan could be seen shouting orders at the IPX scientists, who were already being to disperse to examine the surrounding jungle.
Susan looked annoyed, and shout over to Lily, "Major, make sure everyone doesn't wander too far. I want to be gone from here as quickly as possible.
Major Logan waved to show she understood, and started shouting orders with more gusto, and included several hand gestures in the speeches, leaving the scientists with no illusions about what she was saying. Susan smiled and turned around the see what her own team was doing. She then frowned as she noticed Talia was missing, and for a second wondered if anything had happened to her.
Then she felt the gentle touch of Talia's mind inside her own. <I am over here, Susan.> Susan turned, and saw Talia waving at her from the other side of the shuttle. <I thought I would stay out of the way,> the telepath explained.
Susan nodded, and sent a quick thought of agreement into Talia's mind, before turning back to survey her team. As she knew they would, the marines were already working hard to unload the rest of the team's equipment. She tossed her own bag onto the pile that was being created, and then looked around as a new voice called out to her.
"Is the rover all right over here, Captain?" Dr. Melis asked her from the hatchway of the huge rover.
"That's fine, doctor," she replied, before turning to the marines and saying. "As soon as everything is loaded on the rovers, I want everyone to stand clear so the shuttles can take off again."
The small force of soldiers signalled their understanding and went back to work with added urgency, loading the stack of equipment onto the rover. Fortunately there was not a lot. Susan had ordered most equipment loaded the previous day, and all that was left were a few items that had been decided on at the last minute, and the personal bags of the team members. Neither Susan nor Talia had a lot in their bags, just a few necessities and couple of changes of clothing. Dr. Melis' bags on the other hand, was the largest of the lot, literally overflowing with equipment that the doctor had insisted were absolutely necessary for him to work at peak efficiency. Susan wasn't exactly sure why a portable hologram player and a collection of the latest holovids counted as an absolutely necessary item, but had reluctantly agreed to allow the doctor to bring along what he thought he need. Of course, she hadn't told him that if they found the Sturt then most of his possessions might have to be left behind to make room for more passengers on the return journey.
It only took the force of marines two minutes to load everything, so Susan ordered them to help out the second team, just to ensure the job was complete before any serious power drain could occur. Actually, the pilots of the shuttles were still reporting the reactors at full power, but she wasn't about to take any chances. Something had drained the power out of the Sturt's systems, and she didn't want it to happen again.
Another two minutes, and both of the landing teams were scurrying for cover behind their rovers, as the two shuttles lifted off. Susan watched as they climbed up into the sky, waiting until she was sure they were going to make it before turning back to her team and saying, "All right everyone, time to go."
"Susan," Talia suddenly called out, her voice sounding excited. "Come and take a look at this."
Susan looked around and saw the blonde telepath pointing towards something that was resting on a nearby tree branch. She walked over to Talia's side to get a better look, and saw that it was some sort of bird. It was fairly large, perhaps the size of a small eagle, and its feathers were a riot of colours, clashing violently with the surrounding jungle. "What is it," she asked Talia.
The telepath shrugged. "Some sort of local bird life I guess. It looks pretty though, doesn't it."
"I wouldn't touch it," Susan warned, suddenly noticing the sharp looking beak on the creature. "It might be dangerous." Then she noticed something strange and very out of place, two small metallic looking cylinders that appeared to be mounted on either side of the head. Before she could make a closer examination, however, the creature suddenly spread its wings and with a sudden flurry of feathers leapt into the air and quickly disappeared into the jungle.
Talia looked disappointed. "I think you scared it off, Susan," she said. "I wanted to get a holo."
"You're lucky it didn't try to chew your hand off," Susan replied, still looking in the direction of the now vanished bird. Something troubled her about the creature, a strange feeling in the back of her mind that something wasn't right. She could pinpoint the feeling though, so decided to forget about it for now, there were other things of importance to worry about. "Come on," she said to Talia. "We had better get aboard our rover. There may be other dangerous creatures out here."
Then Susan noticed Dr. Melis staring at her from the hatchway of the rover, an annoyed look on his face. "On second thoughts, it might be safer out here. There are dangerous creatures inside as well as outside."
"Captain," Melis called out loudly. "When are we going to depart. I thought you wanted this mission over as soon as possible."
Susan sighed, and turned back to Talia. "I guess we had better get moving. I don't think we are going to find out anything new around here. And, if what Melis thinks caused the power drain on the Sturt is correct, we don't want to hang around too long."
Talia nodded, and together the two women made their way back to the rover. Beyond their ride, the second of the rovers was already prepared, Major Logan hurrying all the scientist away from the jungle and into the massive armoured machine. Seeing Susan watching her, Lily waved, before closing the hatch on the second rover. Reaching her rover, Susan reached up, and permitted Melis and one of the marines to help her and Talia aboard.
Noticing the soldier's rank she said, "Sergeant, do you have any experience with these sort of rovers?"
The sergeant looked a little surprise by the question, but quickly replied. "Yes, Captain. I served for two years in the cavalry, driving Janos-10 battle tanks, which have a similar design to these machines. That was a few years ago now though."
Susan nodded. "Good," she said. "You can drive this thing then. I am used to shuttles and fighters, and wouldn't have a clue how a land vehicle like this works."
"I will get right on it, Captain," the sergeant replied, making his way towards the command cabin of the rover.
Beside her, Dr. Melis looked a little put out. "I know how to drive a rover, Captain Ivanova," he said. "Probably a lot better than that jar-head as well."
"But I need you elsewhere, doctor," Susan replied, not wanting the IPX team leader anywhere near the controls. He might be better qualified, but she would still prefer to have a marine driving, at least they were reliable. "We don't know what we may encounter out there, so I will need you free in case we encounter something unusual."
"I see," Melis replied. "Just one question though, Captain. How exactly are we going to find the Sturt? I have determined that most of our instruments will be useless once we enter the region covered by that cloud."
"I had the Rasputin's technicians program in the location the rocket was launched from. All we have to do is find our way to that location and hopefully we should find the Sturt there as well."
"And if we don't?" Melis prodded.
"Then we will have to fall back on more traditional methods," Susan replied.
"We drive around until we find something," Talia cut in, answering for Susan. She smiled sweetly back at the doctor as he glared at her for interrupting.
"Exactly," Susan said, with a faint smile also on her lips. "Now, I think we had better get to our seats, I don't want to spend any longer than is necessary in this clearing. If it is responsible for draining the energy out of the Sturt, I don't intend on giving it the chance to do the same to us."
Melis nodded in agreement, and hurried away towards the command cabin. Talia looked around for a second, and then asked, "um, where do I sit, Susan?"
Susan blinked, realising that she hadn't made a place for Talia when she had arranged the seating the previous night. "You could sit in the cargo section with the marines," she mused. The look on Talia's face quickly showed Susan what she thought of the idea, and Susan quickly added, "or you could sit up in the command cabin. I think there is an empty seat. I was going to put Major Logan there, but she is on the other rover now."
"Sound good to me," Talia replied, walking down the passage towards the front section. Susan quickly followed, making her way along the narrow passageway. Although it looked large from the outside, inside the rover was cramped, with little wasted space. It's powerful reactor and sensors took up a lot of space, and very little had been left behind for creature comforts. Sleeping quarters were one of the things missing. Everyone on board would be sleeping in their seats, or not at all.
Located at the very front of the rover, just behind the protective armour plating, the command cabin was just as cramped as the rest of the rover. There were five seats, two located at the very front for the driver and sensor operator, and three others for passengers. Susan noted, with some aggravation, that Melis had already taken the middle seat, leaving her on the other side of the cabin from Talia.
She shoved aside her annoyance, however, and concentrated on the job at hand. Looking down at the sergeant she had collared for the position of driver, she said, "All right, Sergeant..." Susan paused for a second to read the marine's name tag. "Drake. Take us out of here, following the path as indicated. Let me know if you have any trouble."
"Roger that, Captain," the burly soldier replied, placing both his hands on the rover's steering column, before realising that he hadn't started the engine yet. He quickly flushed with embarrassment as Melis leaned forwards and flicked the starter switch. The engine started with a guttural roar, but was soon purring nicely, the noise dropping to a low background throb.
Susan quickly took her seat, just behind Drake and the marines who was in command of the rover's powerful sensor array. "Lets go, Sergeant," she said.
Drake nodded, and gently pushed the steering column forward. However, unlike the superbly engineered and balanced tanks he was used to driving, the rover was used to rougher handling, and it rumbled forward at the slowest possible speed. Drake quickly realised what he was doing wrong though, and shoved the column forward again. This time, the rover certainly started moving. It leapt forward with a rush of acceleration, almost throwing Susan and the rest of the passengers in the command cabin out of their seats.
Ahead the jungle seemed to lurch towards them, and then the rover smashed into it, its armoured exo-skeleton shattering any trees that got in their way, in other words almost all of them. Crouching beneath a bush in the rovers path, a thoroughly frightened scout leapt aside as the giant machine tore through his hiding place, before watching as it rushing off into the jungle. The second rover quickly followed, although it was travelling at a more sedate rate.
As soon as the two rovers had left, the scout reached down to his belt and pulled out the communications device mounted there. The communicator was only supposed to be used in emergency situations, but Jarz realised that this was indeed an emergency. He looked over at the path of devastation the rover had torn through the jungle, and found to his amazement that the recording unit was still intact, somehow having survived the destruction of his hiding place. He quickly hurried over and plugged it in to the communicator, transmitting the recording from the sword hawk as well as his own spoken report.
Minutes later, in the distant fortress, the warrior Azrak walked into the throne room looking very worried about something. Spotting the shadowy form of his Mistress near the one of the windows that ran along the edge of the room, he hurried over. "Mistress," he called out as soon as he drew near. "I have just received a report from Pathfinder Jarz, one of the scouts you ordered sent into the lands of light."
"And what does he say?" a slightly bored voice asked.
"He says that more of the aliens have arrived," Azrak quickly informed her, his voice sounding worried about this new development. "Two of their ships landed in the same clearing as the first one, and they have sent strange machines into our lands."
The Mistress turned around and looked at the general. In her dark eyes, Azrak could see a gleam that hadn't been present before. "Good," she said, before walking slowly back towards her throne, which was located in the very centre of the room.
"Isn't this bad, Mistress?" Azrak asked, his voice betraying his confusion. "They must have come to rescue the others, and they may even have warriors of their own with them."
"I am sure they will, Azrak," she replied, sitting down on the cushioned throne with a sigh of pleasure. "I wouldn't go into an unknown, possibly hostile, land without some form of protection. Now pass me the scout's report. I will examine it."
Azrak nodded, and placed the recording device on the ground in front of him. Then, with a quickly worded command from the warrior, the device glowed and a holographic image appeared, displaying the recording taken from the sword hawk's cameras. It clearly showed the two alien shuttles landing, followed by the unloading of the rovers and crew, and then the subsequent departure of the ships and the rovers. Throughout the whole report, the Mistress sat quietly, observing what was happening, while beside her Azrak looked on nervously, especially when the EAS marines made their first appearance.
Despite their fearsome countenance, the Chosen were not a violent species. Before the Mistress had arrived they had been nothing more than a loose collection of tribes, who survived by hunting for food during the jungle's night. Now, they were an army, but one that had never fought a true battle. They had chased a few unarmed Humans around the swamps, but they had never come up against an army with real weapons.
However, the Mistress didn't seem to notice her general's distress, or if she did, she gave no sign of noticing. Instead, as soon as the report finished, she sat back and began to contemplate what she had just seen. Azrak wasn't willing to let the matter drop just yet though, and moved around to the front of the throne. As soon as the Mistress had noticed him, he said, "Mistress, I am concerned about this. If these warriors bear powerful weapons, as it appears they do, then many of my warriors may die if we confront them."
"I see, Azrak," she replied, a faint undertone of amusement running through her voice. "You are fearful of death. I understand, I have lived with the daily threat of death for nearly eight hundred years. I expected more from you though, my faithful general. Perhaps you are not up to the task I require of you."
Whatever fear Azrak may have felt over confronting the aliens and their strange weapons, that was all swept aside by the thought that the Mistress might loose faith in him. "I am ready to die for you, Mistress," he quickly replied. "I will carry out your orders without question, and will not fail you."
She nodded. "I know, Azrak. But, I don't need you to die for me. There will be no deaths this day, or any other. That is not my way." Then, her voice started to grow sadder. "That was their way, not mine. I never wanted to kill anyone. It was always them, pushing me to fight, to kill."
"What do you want us to do then, Mistress," Azrak asked, quickly changing the subject. He remembered other times when she had spoken of "them." Each time she had been sad, as if remembering tragic moments from her former life, and like all the Chosen, Azrak wanted nothing more than for his Mistress to be happy. After all, she had spent centuries making their lives better, teaching them skills they could have never even imagined before her arrival. Compared to what they owed her, providing a little happiness should not be above her servants.
The Mistress stayed quiet for moment, thinking over her next move, before saying, "Tell your scouts they have done good work, Azrak." When he looked pleased, she continued. "Now summon your best warriors, the top twenty or thirty. Bring them here, I have a special mission for them."
Azrak bowed low. "Yes, Mistress," he replied. "I will chose the very best for your mission."
"Good," she said. "Now go, I have much to think about. Return with your warriors in two hours time." With that she stood again, and wandered slowly across the room towards the windows once more.
After only a moment of hesitation, Azrak rose from his crouching position and started to make his way towards the throne room door. He was troubled by what the Mistress might be planning, imagining that it could involve an attack on these new warrior aliens. While he was by no means a coward, but the thought of going up against one of these aliens with just a sword and spear, was not something he relished. However, he would obey, that was his place in things. Reaching the door, he signalled for it to be opened, then he left for the barracks to carry out his Mistress wishes.
Behind him, the Mistress padded softly across the throne room on her bare feet. Despite her weakened condition, she felt a feeling of exhilaration running through her. Everything was falling into place, just as she had planned. The presence of soldiers with the rescue party gave her renewed hope that a warship waited in orbit above the planet. All she had to do now was convince these newcomers of her plight. Then, freedom awaited, and so did the Vorlons, wherever they had fled to.
Of course, she had to ensure that, no matter what else happened, no-one died. She knew that if anyone were to die, the Humans would be more difficult to deal with. It had been eight centuries since she had last been on Earth, but she still remembered how wars had begun over a single death. Actually they had often begun over a lot less than that, but she imagined that Humanity had progressed somewhat since her departure.
While she stood there, one hand against the window frame to stop herself from collapsing with fatigue, she suddenly remembered something she had to do. Azrak had been right about the dangers of his warriors fighting the Humans. They would quickly be killed against projectile weapons like the ones she had seen in the hands of the marines. However there was a way they could still survive. Reaching into her robe she pulled out a small device and pressed the only button that marred its smooth surface.
Second later, hobbling out from a hidden side door, the wizened figure of Morkazz approached. "You called for me Mistress?"
From her position by the window, the short figure of his Mistress didn't look around instead she said, "Yes Morkazz. Contact artisan Kaj. Tell her I have need of the special project I ordered her to begin. Then, escort her, and her apprentices, here. If their work is too heavy for them to carry alone, then get some servants to help you. Also, tell her I want at least twenty suits, and thirty if she has made that many."
"Yes Mistress," Morkazz said with a bow. He had no idea what she was talking about, but then lately a lot of the things she had been saying and doing had been unfathomable. He knew that Kaj was the oldest and most respected of the females, nearly as old as him. In the Chosen's society the females were generally did most of the tasks requiring nimble hands, while the males hunted. It had been that way for thousands of years, even before the fiery arrival of the Mistress. However, before they had done little more than cook the food, built huts and raise the hatchlings. Now, they worked on the vast projects the Mistress had designed, building the delicate circuits and devices that the male warriors would use.
Morkazz didn't know exactly what project that Kaj could be working on now, but knew that the artisan had been to see the Mistress not long ago, back when the aliens had first arrived. The Mistress had kept her in the throne room for several hours, and when she left, Kaj had been carrying several sheets of hari paper, the thin paper made of hari reeds that was commonly used for blueprints and other design work.
Since that day, many of the warriors, and even Morkazz himself, had tried to see what the artisan and her apprentices were working on, but Kaj had shooed them out of her workshop whenever they approached, so no-one knew what exactly what going on in there. Even Morkazz, who was the highest ranked of the Mistress' personal servants, knew little. Now, however, he was going to find out, and already he could imagine the new wonder the Mistress had designed to make the Chosen's life better. Eagerly, he closed the small side door leading into the throne room and made his way towards the lower levels, which housed the artisan's quarters.