Kran’s Fall: Kira’s Struggle
Being a scientist on the ISV-Kran wasn’t a bad job. It was a job that paid well, and the other crewmembers were friendly – Tatiana the chief medical officer was a delight to work with. The ship itself, Inuit Science Vessel Kran, was a pretty fine beast – capable of warp speeds, and all sorts of other statistics that the engineers were very proud of but that basically bored the science team.
Kira Argmanov was no exception to this rule. Ship statistics were of no relevance to her. What mattered to her was that the ship was capable of taking the crew from planet to planet, enabling her and the other scientists to carry out their examinations of extra-terrestrial life and non-life.
What Kira also suspected was that the science deal was just a front. If the Kran were just a science vessel, then why would it carry so many weapons? She knew that at least half of the ship’s cargo was weaponry and ammo. The fact was, that behind its clean exterior, Inuit Corporation was a much shadier outfit than it seemed. However, only the captain and a select group of his staff knew about these matters, and it wasn’t for her to interfere. Captain Leatham wasn’t a bad man, so, she thought, he couldn’t be doing anything too dreadful (although she did have nagging doubts).
One would have thought that Kira would miss Earth, her home planet, but this was not the case. Technology had grown at a great rate in the one hundred and fifty years since the turn of the millennium, but so had the population of her ancestral home planet; the last portion of wild land had become a part of the planetary city thirty years ago, and the authorities were now working on “reclaiming” the oceans. Kira was much happier travelling on the Kran – out here, there were always new things to discover… and best of all, there was Nikolai.
Nikolai Onalopov and Kira were due to me married in three months. A small ceremony followed by a reception was to take place in the observation lounge; not the most romantic of places for a wedding, but following that she and Nikolai were to be dropped off at the rugged planet of Corran for their honeymoon. There, they would remain for three weeks of paid leave, until the ISV-Kran retrieved them twenty-one Terran days later.
Kira was dreaming. In here dream she and Nikolai were enjoying their honeymoon; they had been married five days previously, and were sitting outside their small hut admiring a Corranian sunset.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Nikolai was saying. Kira only nodded. She was entranced; swirling mauve clouds intertwined with a fading sky of a magnificent red hue. And behind that, distant stars twinkled brightly. She couldn’t imagine anywhere she’d rather be. Soon she felt Nikolai’s hand take hers. They locked eyes and he prepared to speak.
“Science Officer Argmanov please report to Chief Medical Officer Zimna in the science research lab immediately.”
“Wha…?” Kira sat up suddenly, bashing her head on the bunk above with a “thud”. There was a chuckle from above.
“You okay down there, Kira?” Corporal Onsov asked from the top bunk where he was reading some technical journals. “Been dreaming about your honeymoon again?”
“Yeah,” Kira smiled ruefully, rubbing the rapidly swelling lump on her head.
“Save the honeymoon experience for the real thing, if you want my advice. Anyway, that was the intercom, you’re wanted in Science Research, Tatiana’s probably found some new kind of space weevil or something.”
“Okay, thanks Pelli, I guess I’d better get down there.” Kira replied.
“Have fun.” Onsov said, returning to his journals.
“Roger that, sir.” Kira responded, snapping a mock salute.
Onsov waved distractedly as Kira headed for the doors to the crew berth corridor.
Kira emerged from the recreation area on to the deck 1 hub. The ISV-Kran had four decks, but Kira rarely had reason to go down below to the other decks unless she was taking a shuttle off-ship from deck 4. Down there was mostly engineering; there were the containment field generators as well, but this didn’t have a great deal of significance for Kira either. Deck 1 had everything she needed; recreation, science, crew berths and, of course, Nikolai, who spent most of his time on the observation lounge when he was off-duty from Engineering down on decks 3 and 2.
The science and research lab was right in the middle of the deck 1 hub. As she looked through the glass, her curiosity was aroused; the two containment fields were active and appeared to contain a bunch of amorphous amoeba-like blobs. Tatiana was down at one of the panels entering a log. Kira knocked on the window to get her attention. Tatiana looked up and nodded, pressing a button on an adjacent panel. Round the front of the lab, the large doors began slowly to open. Kira walked round and approached them.
Kira arrived at the doors, but as she started to pass through them, they began to close again. Kira drew back hurriedly. Tatiana looked up and hurriedly pressed the button on the panel again. The doors resumed their opening and Kira walked through.
“I’m sorry about that, Kira, we’re having some trouble with those doors today… I’ve requested a maintenance team to come and fix them but they haven’t arrived yet.” Tatiana said apologetically.
“That’s okay, Tatti, I seem to be in one piece. Now what are these things?” Kira gestured to the creatures in the containment fields.
“Fascinating, aren’t they? As you can see, they’re some kind of amoeba… they came in through the space matter intakes and practically clogged the whole system. When one of our technicians tried to clear them out manually, he got a nasty acid burn.”
“Acid burn? These things are acidic?”
“Yes, it’s built right into their genetic structure. Incredible…”
Kira nodded her agreement and examined the creatures through one of the containment fields. Behind the field, the amoeba started to pulsate as she approached.
“It seems to notice me. Are these things conscious?”
“Very difficult to say… but they certainly react to stimuli.”
There was a rumble from somewhere else lower down the ship.
“What was that?” Kira asked.
“Sounds like an engine thrust.” Tatiana replied, frowning.
“Are we scheduled to make a change in course?”
“Not that I’m aware of. Must just be a minor course correction I suppose.”
“Why would we be making one of those?”
“I don’t know.” Tatiana shrugged.
The intercom crackled. Captain Leatham’s voice spoke out.
“This is your captain speaking. All hands prepare for emergency engine thrust. There is an uncharted planet pulling us in. This is no drill.”
Kira and Tatiana exchanged startled glances, then quickly approached two emergency seats by one wall and buckled themselves in.
Captain Mikail Leatham pressed frantically at buttons on his pilot’s panel. He took a quick glance at the co-pilot, seated in the other chair on the bridge.
“Maximum engine thrust! Get on to the blower to the people in engineering and tell them to give us more power!”
“I’m sorry sir, but we are at maximum. Any further and she’ll blow up in the air! We can not escape from the gravitational field of this planet.”
“This can’t be happening. Why wasn’t it charted?”
The co-pilot, Kelvin Teraniov, looked up at the viewing window just for long enough to see a large blue planet looming alarmingly ahead of the ship.
“Looks like we’re going down.” Leatham said grimly. He reached for the intercom microphone once again.
Kira and Tatiana were sitting tensely in their emergency seats. The engines had been fired up to and beyond maximum; they were a deafening roar in the scientists’ ears. The ship, not designed for these forces, was juddering all over the place.
“Think we’re getting out?” Kira asked Tatiana. Tatiana shook her head.
“I don’t know. I’ve never been in a situation like this. Not in my twenty-five years of service!” Tatiana replied, head bowed down.
“This isn’t good.” Kira muttered.
There was a crackle over the intercom. “All hands brace for emergency landing. Repeat: all hands brace for emergency landing. We are going down! Impact in two minutes and counting. We will try to land as softly as we can.”
Tatiana looked up, horrified.
“Going down? Crashing? This is bad…”
“You heard the Captain,” Kira said, “brace yourself.”
Tatiana nodded and placed her head in her arms in the brace position, the same expression of anxiety on her face. “What do we do now?”
“Pray to whatever gods you believe in.”
“Ninety seconds and counting. All hands, prepare for impact.” The intercom announced.
The next ninety seconds seemed like an age to Kira. The announcements counted slowly down. It was possibly the longest minute and a half of her life. Sixty seconds… fifty seconds… forty seconds… thirty seconds… twenty seconds… ten seconds… nine… eight… seven… six… five… four… three… two… one…
There was a sickening crunch as the ship hit terra firma. Kira was shoved back in her seat with the inertia as the ship’s motion suddenly slowed. But the ship didn’t stop… it continued to move for at least fifteen seconds, with a horrible juddering, wrenching motion. Eventually, the motion slowed. But as the ship finally ground to a halt, there was a terrible groaning, tearing sound as the ship’s hull was torn open somewhere off towards the recreational area.
Silence. The ship had stopped, and Kira was still alive. At least, she thought she was. But it wasn’t silence, was it? As her ears re-tuned to the sudden reduction in noise, she heard other sounds. Running water… why running water? Had some pipes burst somewhere? Somewhere distantly, she could hear a cry of pain. How bad was it? What about the other crew? Some of the lights had gone out, and the room was semi-darkened. The ship had taken quite a beating. One light sparked and became detached from the ceiling, falling down and bouncing off one of the containment fields in the centre of the room which seemed, mercifully, still to be intact. She looked at Tatiana, who appeared to be unconscious.
Kira moved, stiffly, to unbuckle herself from her emergency seat. She wasn’t unharmed, she realised. She felt bruised all over, and sudden lances of pain from her chest that made her catch her breath suggested several cracked ribs. With the belt unbuckled, she climbed carefully out of her seat, and reached for Tatiana’s hand, taking here pulse. She breathed a sigh of relief as she felt Tatiana’s life force still beating away.
Kira reached out and put a hand on Tatiana’s shoulder. She whispered, “Tatti? Are you still with us?”
Tatiana breathed deeply and shook her head, keeping it bowed down. Kira crossed the lab and fetched a cloth, damping it with a bottle of distilled water. She bathed Tatiana’s forehead.
“What happened?” Tatiana whispered, keeping her eyes closed, “Did we land?”
“Yeah, we landed.” Kira replied gently, “Are you all right?”
“I’m okay.” Tatiana said. She opened first one eye, then the other, looking up. “What about you?”
“Just some bruises and a cracked rib or two.”
“Let’s get you over to the medical scanner.” Tatiana said. She unbuckled and started to climb out of her seat, but stumbled forwards, nearly falling over but being caught by Kira, who winced.
“You first, I think, Officer Zimna.” Kira smiled.
Captain Mikail Leatham groaned and looked up. He looked through the view windows ahead, trying to see where they had landed, but from his angle all he could see were some tall cliffs and a night sky. He turned his head and looked across to co-pilot Teraniov, who was also regaining consciousness. Teraniov was hurt; he held one arm awkwardly, wincing with pain.
“Break?” Leatham asked.
“Something like that.” Teraniov muttered.
Leatham pulled forward the intercom microphone and opened a channel to the Science and Research lab. “Officer Zimna, are you there?”
“Roger that, captain.” Zimna’s voice crackled over the speaker.
“Is anyone there with you?”
“Yes sir, Ensign Argmanov is here; she is part of the science team. I was hurt, but Ensign Argmanov has patched me up.”
“What is your status?”
“We’re getting casualty reports in sir, mostly just cuts and broken bones, but there’s something nasty going on up in the Observation Lounge, reports have been garbled; I think the hull might have been breached.”
Teraniov was collecting damage reports at the other console. He looked at Leatham and nodded when he heard this.
“Understood, Officer Zimna, we have an injury up here too, Teraniov has broken his arm.”
“Better get him down here sir, we’ll take a look at it.”
“I’m okay,” Teraniov responded, “I’m more use up here. I’ll come down later.”
Leatham opened his mouth to argue, but then realised that Teraniov was right, they were both needed on bridge to deal with the incoming reports. “Catch that Zimna? Keep taking those casualty reports, I want a full personnel damage report later.” Leatham closed the channel.
“Getting some bad damage reports here, sir.” Teraniov said from the other console.
“What’s up so far?” Leatham asked.
“Ship’s hull breached at observation lounge. Engine coolant leaks all over the ship. Containment field generator is using too much juice but is stable for now. One of the three engine cores has blown out – the engines have been shut down to prevent any further overheating.”
“Understood. Anything else?” Leatham said dully.
“Not so far sir. We seem to have come out fairly well.”
Leatham almost felt like laughing at the idea that anyone could possibly find anything good in the current predicament. Not only was the ship in tatters and half the crew injured and possibly dead, but also another thought was nagging on his mind. The ISV-Kran was going to miss its rendezvous on the planet of Sirania Major. The Mercenaries were going to go ballistic.
Things were getting busy down at the Science and Research lab. Not only were casualties still being reported over the intercom, but people had started turning up outside the lab itself. The worst arrival had been an engineering technician who had been on the wrong end of the exploding engine core. A mate had carried him up all the way from engineering, tears marking clear channels through dirt stained over his face. The casualty was burned over most of his body, and half of his face was covered in blood.
Kira had felt like vomiting at the sight when the engineer was brought in, the carrier elbowing his way through the crowd, but somehow she had retained her breakfast. Tatiana worked on the unfortunate Ensign with dogged determination, but he had died within ten minutes. Two willing security personnel had carried out the body on a stretcher.
Tatiana had been on the intercom since then and had dispatched any medical personnel who weren’t themselves severely hurt to the various parts of the ship from which casualty reports had been numerous or severe. A whole team had been dispatched to the observation lounge, where people were reported to be trapped under rubble and debris from the hull breach.
At last the rush had started to die down. Kira had had to attend to several crewmembers arriving with injuries – and she wasn’t even medical personnel. Exhausted, she finally got a chance to sit down and have a rest. Tatiana interrupted her.
“Kira…” Tatiana called from by a console.
“Yes?” Kira sighed, expecting another casualty.
“Looks like you have a visitor.”
Nikolai Onalopov arrived at the Science and Research Lab approximately an hour and a half after the ISV-Kran crashed. He passed through the doors, which had been clamped open for easy access, and saw Kira sitting on one of the beds, looking pooped. She looked up and smiled.
“Hi there.” She said.
“Hey love, I’m sorry, I would have come sooner but we had a crisis in engineering. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine Nik, just a couple of cracked ribs.”
“Ah, ok, I’d better not hug you too tight then.”
“You can hug me as tightly as you want. I can take it, you big softie.”
The intercom crackled. A tired-sounding Captain Leatham spoke out over the speakers. “Chief Medical Officer Tatiana Zimna, Security Officer Sergai Dubrov, and Biological Researcher Kira Argmanov, please report to the bridge.”
Nikolai raised an eyebrow. “Sounds serious.”
Tatiana called to a couple of medics who had returned from helping casualties elsewhere in the ship to hold the fort in the lab. “We’d better go then.” She said.
Kira nodded. “Catch ya later!” she said to Nikolai, and gave him a peck on the cheek.
As Kira walked out into the corridor with Tatiana, they were joined by Security Officer Dubrov. Dubrov was a young man who kept himself busy in the gymnasium when he was off-duty. Tattoos covered his arms, visible when he was wearing his short-sleeved recreational gear. He nodded at Kira and Tatiana. “Any idea what this is about?”
Tatiana shook her head. “None.”
They reached the bridge access ramps and climbed them, passing through into a small room with two lifts. The three of them stepped on the lift, which activated automatically. Reaching the top, they arrived at the bridge access corridor and walked through. Leatham and Teraniov turned round to greet them.
“I have a little job for the three of you.” Captain Leatham announced.
Tatiana tended to Teraniov’s broken arm while Leatham spoke. Teraniov looked at her gratefully. “What job is that, sir?” she asked the captain.
“As you are aware”, Leatham explained, “We have grounded out on an uncharted planet.”
“Not much of a way we could miss that.” Dubrov agreed.
“Well, part of the ISV-Kran’s briefing as a scientific vessel is to investigate new life we come across. I want the three of you to carry out an investigation into this planet we have landed upon.”
Kira looked up sharply.
“Zimna and Argmanov,” Leatham continued, “your brief is to investigate all forms of life on this planet, and to see if anyone else has landed here before us.”
The scientists nodded their understanding.
“Dubrov, you have two tasks. You are to ascertain any security risks to this vessel, and if necessary, to protect the lives of yourself and the others.”
“Understood, sir. What equipment will I be issued with?”
“We will supply you with a Dispersion Pistol, an Automag and a supply of Clips. Zimna and Argmanov, you are to take whatever equipment you require.”
“You will depart at nineteen hundred hours. We would provide you with bio suits but they are inoperable. We have scanned the atmosphere and found it to be breathable. Dismissed, unless you have any further questions.”
“That’s all clear sir, thank you.” Kira replied.
At nineteen hundred hours, Kira, Tatiana and Officer Dubrov were back on the bridge, with their equipment packed in backpacks. Teraniov activated a panel near his console that caused the console to slide back, revealing a transporter room below through a hole in the floor.
“We have set the emergency transporters to take you out just in front of the ship; in a place where we have detected structures shaped like houses.” Teraniov said, “We believe that there may be indigenous intelligent life on this planet. All we can detect behind the ship is the huge trench we left when we crashed.”
“I hope we didn’t flatten any houses when we landed…” Tatiana started.
“We’re all hoping that, Officer Zimna.” Teraniov said, rather curtly, “Now time is pressing on, you’d better be going.”
Tatiana nodded quietly. Teraniov pressed another button, and a ladder was extended upwards from the transporter room. Leatham got up and helped the research team climb down into the transporter room.
“Good luck. Keep in radio contact with us at all times, and alert us immediately if you have any problems.”
“Understood, sir.” Dubrov responded.
In the transformer room, Dubrov and Kira stepped onto the transporter pad and helped Tatiana join them. With a humming noise, the transporter system was activated, and they felt their component particles being disassembled as the transporter took them off the ship.
Even after the crash, the ISV-Kran’s environmental systems had been basically functional, keeping the temperature comfortable. Now, as Kira materialised outside the ship, she felt the cold, and she shivered. It was night… or at least Kira assumed it was, because it was dark. It wasn’t raining (if it ever rained here), which was good, but she could hear wind rumbling above.
She looked around. They appeared to be in some kind of large valley, with high cliffs all around. Beneath them was grass… there was life on this planet. Ahead, the ISV-Kran loomed above, transfixed in a mountain crevice. Man, that ship was big. One barely saw its size when inside… the huge cargo bays on decks 5 and 6 took up a great amount of room, and were off-limits to most personnel. That was where Inuit kept most of the weapons they were transporting, Kira thought.
What Kira saw next excited her the most. The wall she had been leaning against after she materialised… it was the rear wall of a stone-built hut. So there was intelligent life down here.
“Come on, let’s go and see…” she said to the others, who were gawping around in much the same way as she had done. This snapped them out of their reverie, and they nodded at her.
Dubrov readied his Dispersion Pistol… “Just in case.” He said, and the others didn’t argue. He took the lead, and they walked round the side of the house.
The three of them emerged in front of the house. Looking around, they found themselves to be in a small cluster of four houses. There was no sign of life, but a torch on a post in the centre of the clearing burned brightly, illuminating the fronts of the houses.
“What do we do? Knock on the door?” Dubrov asked.
“There’s no sign of life…” Tatiana said, “Shall we just go in?”
“They may be hiding.” Kira pointed out.
Dubrov strode up to the house they had materialised behind and rapped on the door.
“Sergai what are you doing!” Tatiana said, “That’s not the way to go about it.”
“There’s no response.” Dubrov said. He started to open the door. The others ran up to him to stop him, but it was too late, the door was open when they reached him. Curiosity overcame them; they looked around through the open door. It was a single, wood-lined room. Ahead, a fire burned brightly in a small hearth. In the corner, a four-armed creature was cowering. It called something out in its native tongue.
“Qupada! Qupada! Mouhaga!”
Dubrov had raised his gun. Tatiana saw and hurriedly pushed his arm down. “Activate your Universal Translators.” she said to Kira and Dubrov. All Inuit personnel had translator chips implanted when they joined the company; it allowed them to understand what new species were saying. Kira activated hers; slowly, what the creature was saying came into focus.
“Stay away! You’ll bring the Sky Demons down upon us!”
The three explorers glanced at each other. Sky Demons? Dubrov raised an eyebrow.
“What do you mean?” Kira asked.
“Calm down! We mean you no harm. We come in peace.”
Kira offered her hand to the cowering native. The native shrank back.
“How can we trust you? All of the great thunderbirds have seeded pain and destruction for the Nali.” The native said dramatically.
“This one won’t.” Kira said gently.
The native cautiously took Kira’s hand and allowed her to help it stand up. When it was upright, it stood fully eight feet tall. It didn’t look like a fighting creature though. It bore tattoos that Kira thought suggested religion. It had buff-coloured leathery skin, faintly luminescent green eyes, a small mouth and a worried look on its face. It was without clothes, except for a loincloth around the waist. This one appeared male. “How can you be so certain? The Sky Demons are bound to investigate the chaos you have caused.”
“Who are the Sky Demons?” Tatiana asked.
“The Sky Demons are terrible creatures. They have two arms like yourselves, but their skin is green and their hands bear great claws. They have bright, evil eyes and launch terrible fire from their hands.”
Kira, Dubrov and Tatiana shook their heads at each other. It did not sound like a race with which they were familiar.
The native continued to speak. “We, the Nali, are the ancestral natives of this planet. The Sky Demons came down from the stars in their terrible metal chariot many years ago. We are enslaved now.”
“Why did they come?” Kira asked.
“Our priests tell us that they came as a punishment for the sins of the Nali. We live in fear now. Any day or night, we might be taken to work in their terrible mines or to be slaughtered. The Sky Demons are bestial. They have no compassion.”
“How do you respond?”
“We are not a fighting people. We can only pray. Our great sanctuary, the Sunspire, given to us by the gods of the good lore, has been desecrated by the Sky Demons. It is truly the foulest of terrors now.”
From somewhere in the distance outside came a loud and prolonged roar, and the ground shook. The Nali cringed, uttering a cry that slipped through the Universal Translator, sounding something like “Bywonda!”
“What is it? The Sky Demons?” Tatiana gasped.
“No, it’s not… come.” The Nali led them out of the hut and on to the grass of the clearing, where he looked to the left, the explorers following suit. A small rabbit-like creature uttered a squeak and leapt past them, fleeing away behind them. Striding down the valley towards them in the distance was a huge creature that was at least thirty feet tall.
“It is a Titan!” the Nali cried in terror, “They don’t normally bother us here! It must have been attracted by the crash.”
The Titan’s stride was enormous, and it was approaching the village with alarming rapidity. As it approached them, it tilted back its head and whacked its chest with its fists. As it drew closer, Kira saw that it was somewhere between a dinosaur and a gorilla… and it certainly looked nasty.
Two Nali spilled out of the other two huts in the clearing and saw the Titan approaching. They uttered screams of terror as the Titan bent down and picked up a boulder, hurling it at the village. One of the Nali darted back into its house, but the other stood transfixed as the boulder flew towards it. Kira, Tatiana, Dubrov and their Nali looked away as they became aware of the inevitable. There was a thud and a splash, and when they looked round, the Nali was nowhere to be seen. A leg was visible bouncing off across the clearing.
Kira felt sick. The Nali ushered them hurriedly back into his hut and shut the door behind them. Inside, he sat on a stool by a table at one end of the hut, head in his hands.
The whole hut was vibrating to the paces of the huge Titan as it reached the village outside. Dubrov was the first to speak. “We have to call the Kran for reinforcements.” He said, “They can send out personnel with weapons to take that creature down.”
“You cannot kill a Titan!” the Nali said.
“Just you watch us.” Dubrov said. The Nali shook his head.
Dubrov took a radio out of his backpack. He pressed a button and spoke into the microphone, “Dubrov to ISV-Kran. Come in, please.”
“Roger that Dubrov, receiving you loud and clear.” Captain Leatham’s voice replied.
“Captain, we have a problem down here. There is a huge beast outside capable of hurling rocks that kill instantly. We are sheltering in a hut with a native, but we are pinned down under siege. Request assistance. Over.”
“Understood, Dubrov, a security team is being dispatched to assist you with Eightball Guns. Over.”
“Acknowledged, sir. Over and out.” Dubrov put his radio away with satisfaction. “That’ll take him down.”
“Hope so.” Tatiana said. The Nali looked impassive.
There was a sound of the transporter activating outside, and the sound of Eightball Guns being readied and loaded. There was a roar from the Titan. Kira and Dubrov hurried to the door and opened it, trying to see how the fight was going. Tatiana remained inside with the Nali.
Three Inuit security personnel had Eightballs locked onto the Titan. There was a red stain on the ground where there had presumably been a fourth. As Kira watched, one of the guards got too close and received a whack that sent her flying like a rag doll up onto the top of a large rock nearby. The remainder of the battle was short but conclusive; Titan four, humans nil.
Dubrov tapped Kira on the shoulder. “Look.” He said, pointing to one side of the valley. Kira followed his extended arm. A row of lights was appearing where a band of creatures carrying burning torches were descending from a mountain pass.
“Who are they?” Kira asked.
The Nali came to the door and looked out at the band of creatures. “Qupada! The Sky Demons are coming!”
The Nali retreated back inside. The creatures had broken formation and were running towards the village, firing projectiles at the Titan. The Titan roared with pain and anger and turned its boulders upon the incoming creatures, which simply dodged out of the way of the flying rocks.
As the creatures approached, Kira could hear them calling to each other in a series of growls and gurgles.
The Universal Translator brought the words into focus. One of the creatures was directing the assault.
“Flank the creature. Take advantage of its slowness!” it was calling in a guttural voice. The other creatures obeyed, lunching energy balls and spinning razor discs at the Titan. The Titan didn’t know whom to attack first.
One of the creatures reached the village and saw Dubrov pointing his Dispersion Pistol at it. “Sir!” it called to the lead creature, “We have hostiles in the Nali habitations.”
The lead creature whipped around to face Kira and Dubrov. Kira looked observed it; it was a lizard-like humanoid. Where many of its soldiers were bare-chested, showing their heavy green skin, this leader creature and a few of the others wore full body armour. All of the creatures had lizard-like tails, and those not fully armoured had straggling ruffs rising from the top of their heads. These unarmoured creatures wore huge prosthetic claws that seemed to be producing the energy ball projectiles with which they were showering the Titan out of nowhere.
It was impossible to see an expression on the leader creature’s face, since it was covered by the body suit. It appraised them briefly then spoke to the soldier that had sighted them.
“Capture these creatures. They are certain to be from the crashed ship.”
The lead creature turned back to direct the fight, motioning for some of the others to assist in capturing the intruders. Three of the soldiers broke off and approached Kira and Dubrov, joining the first one.
Kira and Dubrov backed towards the entrance to the hut. The soldiers formed a half-circle around them, penning them in. Somewhere out of the corner of her eye, Kira saw the Titan slowly collapse, the lead creature holding out an energy shield and gesturing victory with it, uttering a guttural call. Dubrov raised his Dispersion Pistol and fired it at one of the soldier creatures. The creature barely reeled as the blast hit it in the chest. The others, all of the bladed type, extended their prosthetic claws and pointed them at the humans. Dubrov charged his pistol and fired again. This time, the soldier did reel, stumbling backwards.
One of the other soldiers fired. An energy bolt hit Dubrov in the chest and he was slammed back against the wall of the hut, where he lay.
Kira backed right up against the hut door, carefully closing it behind her as she did so. When she could back up no further, the lead creature elbowed through the surrounding soldiers and grabbed Kira roughly by the left arm. The grip was vice-like; Kira could not struggle against it.
“I think you’ll come with us.” The creature said. It drew back its fist and whacked Kira hard across the face. Kira saw stars, and then slid inexorably into unconsciousness.
“Have they gone?”
Tatiana watched anxiously from the table as the Nali pushed the door slowly open. The village had fallen silent a few minutes ago, and Tatiana had heard the sounds of the creatures moving away.
“The cost is clear.” The Nali replied.
Tatiana followed the Nali as he stepped outside. She looked to the left and saw Dubrov slumped on the ground against the wall of the house.
“Sergai! Are you all right?”
Tatiana bent down and shook Dubrov gently. He stirred.
“They took Kira.” He mumbled.
“We know.” Tatiana replied gently, “We’ll have to get help.”
“I think they thought I was dead.” Dubrov replied.
“It’s a good thing. If they had thought you weren’t, they would have made sure of it.” The Nali responded morosely.
“Why did they do it?” Tatiana asked.
“The Sky Demons are brutal and greedy.” The Nali replied, “That was a hunting party that had come to investigate the crash. I believe the Titan and your Kira sidetracked them. But they will tell the others and the Sky Demons will return in force to attack your craft.”
“I don’t give a shit about the craft.” Dubrov said, trying to sit up. “We have to get help for Kira.”
“I’ll get on the radio immediately to Captain Leatham.” Tatiana told him reassuringly, “You have to rest.”
Tatiana took a radio out of her backpack and opened a channel to the ship.”
“Leatham here.” The radio crackled.
“Sir, your security team were wiped out. But a group of alien creatures arrived and destroyed the beast for us. They captured Kira. Officer Dubrov has been injured.”
“What race were these creatures?”
“Unknown, sir, but they are not native.”
“Understood. I shall dispatch further personnel to assist you. Out.”
Tatiana stashed the radio away in her backpack again, and retrieved a medical kit. She tended to Dubrov while the Nali prayed by the fire. “We’ll set out to rescue Kira once you’re fully healed. We’ll chase those gangsters to hell and beyond if we have to. I just hope they don’t harm Kira in the mean time.”
And so, an hour later, Tatiana and Dubrov led a team of Inuit personnel up the mountain pass from which the hunting party had emerged. The two of them had been joined by Nikolai Onalopov. Once he had heard that Kira had been captured, no one could persuade him to stay behind. They were backed up by three other personnel from the ship; security officers picked by Captain Leatham, armed with Automags and Stingers. As they left, the Nali had wished them luck and prayed that Chizra protect them. Whoever Chizra was, Tatiana though that personally she would be glad of any protection they could get.
The mountain pass was not a steep climb. It was a wide, gently sloping chasm that crested about half way along at another Nali hut. Beyond that location, they passed through a gap in a wall and saw ahead of them a huge spire-shaped mountain. Lights twinkled on a walkway somewhere half way up the mountain’s height.
“That’ll be that ‘Sunspire’ the Nali was talking about…” Dubrov said.
“My guess is Kira’s in there.” Tatiana replied.
The six of them started to descend the second part of the chasm towards a pair of gates in a wall at the bottom.
Kira wondered if she was dead. Then she opened her eyes and realised that she wasn’t. She was restrained on a hard wooden bed of some kind by some metal clamps. She sat up as far as she could, held down as she was. The room she was in was fairly dark, lit only by a dimly glowing blue crystal on the wall. It looked like Tarydium. The room was stone-lined; it looked like Nali work to Kira, but there were no Nali to be seen. To one side, she saw in the dim light that one of the soldier creatures was dozing on another wooden bed.
“Asleep at the post? I don’t think your commanders would thank you for that.” Kira said coldly.
The creature stirred and sat up, looking at her disdainfully.
“The only reason you are still alive is that you might have information of use to the Skaarj. If I had it my way, I’d kill you on the spot, right here and now. Don’t push your luck.”
“Come on then.” Kira snapped, “Kill me. It’d give you some satisfaction, wouldn’t it?”
The creature uttered a guttural laugh. “Our commander Ssja’Rath would have my eyeballs slowly removed if I did anything like that. Immensely satisfying as I admit it would be, I have no desire to spend the rest of my life a blind creature. Then, I’d almost be as helpless as you.”
“Helpless?” Kira asked levelly.
“You are no better than the Nali. What a worthless lot you all are.”
Kira chose not to respond. She turned over sullenly and tried to get some sleep.
A rough arm held her down and she felt the clamps being loosened. Kira tried to struggle but couldn’t escape the grip of the pinning hand. She opened her eyes and saw that they had been joined by one of the Skaarj in full body armour. This creature looked on as the guard removed the restraints.
“The captive is to see base commander Ssja’Rath at Outpost 3J” the newly arrived Skaarj Trooper informed the guard.
“What does our commander want with a puny creature like this?” the guard muttered.
“Commander Ssja’Rath believes from our description that this creature is a Terran. Our informants have indicated that the Terrans have been supplying the Mercenaries with weapons.”
“Then they are enemies of the Skaarj.” The guard responded.
“Do you have anything else?” Kira muttered under her breath.
The guard cuffed Kira across the face. “The Skaarj are the superior race. We have no need for allies.”
“Everyone needs a friend sometimes.” Kira responded.
“Friendship has no meaning. Order is the truth.”
Kira was grabbed by both Skaarj – the guard took her left arm, the Trooper her right – and dragged forcibly off the bed. She was taken out of the small cell which, Kira supposed, had once been a Nali sleeping chamber, and lead down a darkened corridor. The three of them descended a lift at the end and emerged into a foyer lit brightly by a hanging lantern; the sudden light made Kira screw up her eyes, but the Skaarj seemed not to notice.
Kira was dragged down a winding buff stone corridor until the three of them emerged into a larger foyer that looked to Kira like a main entrance hall of some kind. There, she was taken through a door at one end of the hall and into a huge lift shaft. The Skaarj led her on to a lift platform in the centre and the three of them rode it up to the top of its travel. Two… three… four cavernous floors, how tall was this place?
Stepping off at the top, Kira was led through a maze of corridors and upward lifts, so many that she lost count. Every so often they passed another Skaarj; the Skaarj they passed often paused in their activities to look curiously at Kira, but none of them exchanged any words with her escort. On one occasion, they passed an exit to an oudoor ledge at which Kira looked yearningly, but her captors led her past the exit and onto yet another lift.
When she seemed to have been going upwards forever through this ancient Nali stronghold, the lifts finally stopped and Kira was led through a long corridor culminating in a door at the end. Passing through the door, they emerged into a kind of barn with a grassy floor. She was dragged up a flight of steps, after which they stepped out on to a small balcony. She had given up resisting the Skaarj by now, instead simply looking around at the surroundings.
They had emerged on top of an almost impossibly tall and narrow mountain. The cliffs that had seemed so tall when she had been in the Nali village with the others were now a long way down below; and further down below a narrow causeway at ground level, lava roiled in the distant depths.
The Skaarj Trooper growled something at the guard and set off back down the steps. The guard held Kira firmly in place while the trooper went back through the doors below. Shortly, there was a strange whining noise and a blue beam streaked up into the sky from the top of the mountain. And shortly, to Kira’s astonishment, a small stone chamber descended out of the sky, a hatch opening at the front. The Skaarj Trooper returned, and the two Skaarj dragged her into the chamber. As the hatch closed and the chamber started to float up into the sky with them aboard, Kira gave up trying to understand the situation and went limp in the Skaarj’s arms.
Tatiana, Dubrov, Onalopov and the others were crossing the long causeway to the Sunspire. The gates had been locked, but their attempts to open them had attracted the attention of a Nali in the gatehouse beyond, who had let them in.
The Nali had explained that he had been hiding from the Sky Demons in the gatehouse since they had first taken the Sunspire, afraid that if he tried to return to the village he might be captured by the Skaarj and taken to work in the mines. He had also told them of the Sky Elevator at the top of the spire, and how it led to a Nali sanctuary, they would be wise to flee to there. The Nali was uncertain whether the Sky Demons had taken the so-called Na Pali haven as well; he merely said that he prayed that he had not, for his family lived there. He told them that he had seen a Sky Demon hunting party return, and that they had indeed been carrying a creature like themselves.
The Nali had retreated into his gatehouse to pray and write in his diary. He too had wished them Chizra’s blessing as they had moved off. And now, as they approached the towering mountain, they had felt confident and with purpose, for they felt sure that they would find Kira inside.
Kira was not in the Sunspire. The Nali Sky Elevator had arrived in a network of underground tunnels lit by Nali lanterns, and the two Skaarj had dragged the limp form of Kira out across a wooden bridge that extended to meet them. Kira had regained some of her strength by the time they had ascended the next sloping tunnel, and she was conscious enough to observe a creature of another unfamiliar alien species with a concussion staff in one hand approach the Skaarj. It made a subservient gesture and spoke to the Skaarj Trooper.
“What are your instructions, sir?” the creature asked.
“This creature is to be taken to commander Ssja’Rath at Outpost 3J. I want your Krall soldiers to inform the others on the surface to send down the skimmer to meet us when we arrive.”
“I shall get to it immediately, sir.”
The Krall scampered off up a side tunnel. The two Skaarj followed it at a more leisurely pace, with Kira still held between them.
“Who is this Ssja’Rath you keep talking about?” Kira asked her captors quietly.
“Commander Ssja’Rath is in charge of our installation in the mountain on this sky island.” the guard informed her, “You can be certain that he will not be as lenient as us.”
Kira was dragged through the following tunnels. She had time to notice the beautiful tarydium crystals glinting in the rock walls and the subtle mist around them, and wondered if they were why the Skaarj were on this planet. Tarydium was a valuable fuel resource; even the ISV-Kran ran on refined Tarydium crystal power.
At one point, upon leading a large cave, the three of them had to wade through a stream. When they climbed, dripping, out of the stream further on, the three of them took a lift to an upper level and followed another tunnel. They passed a Krall on the way, which saluted by smacking a fist into its chest. The Skaarj ignored it. The tunnel shortly led them out on to a balcony. Kira ventured a look over the edge and was disoriented to see only cloud above and below. What was this place?
The Skaarj took no notice of this beautiful spectacle and lead Kira on along the length of the sky island, or whatever it was. They passed a waterfall that cascaded down into the clouds. Kira wondered vaguely what it was like where it landed. A short stretch later and she was being led back in through a tunnel. They crossed a bridge inside a larger cave, and arrived at a set of doors that were guarded by a pair of Skaarj in body armour similar to that of the Trooper holding her, but of a bluer colour with a greater sheen. One of the Skaarj stepped forwards and addressed her escort.
“Commander Ssja’Rath has acknowledged your request.” The Skaarj said, “You will be greeted on the surface by scout skimmer 3J-1A.”
“Understood.” The Trooper replied.
The other officer opened the wooden doors the two had been guarding. Kira’s escort led her through into an attractively decorated corridor; definitely not of Skaarj creation, Kira thought. There were more doors, and then a couple of flights of steps and lantern-lit corridors, and they emerged through a hatch on to the surface.
Kira was taken aback by what she saw. This place was a beautiful Nali town… although whether there were any Nali here now was doubtful. A plateau behind her position carried a church within a perimeter wall. Ahead, some kind of barn was illuminated gently by the moonlight and lanterns on posts. The light from the lanterns gave off a gentle corona in the cloudy haze. Distantly she could hear a waterfall, from somewhere in the direction of a large white obelisk that dominated the roofs of the houses. It was cold up here, but Kira was too distracted to notice.
The Skaarj stood in position, waiting for something. Now Kira switched her attentions to potential means of escape. She felt certain that if she could get away she could lose the pursuers in this place, as long as she didn’t come up against any dead ends. To the right, Kira saw a garden behind a low, ankle-level fence up on a raised area. If she could get up there she might be able to make a break for it. She waited for an opportunity.
A loud jet engine sound emanated from somewhere to the left, and Kira looked up to see a small shuttle craft of some kind wheeling around above the houses from the other side of the island. The Skaarj were distracted watching it too, loosening their grip on her arms slightly, and Kira seized the opportunity. She shook herself roughly free and started to sprint towards the raised area of grass. The Skaarj that had guarded her in the spire mountain uttered a curse, and the two of them started to chase her. She scrambled up on to the raised area and turned round to see the guard clambering up after her. She kicked it in the face and it fell back, almost taking the Trooper with it and causing the Trooper to dodge sideways.
Kira took advantage of this diversion and ran off across the garden. She checked herself when she realised she was about to run off the cliff edge of the island and darted back inland with the Trooper in hot pursuit. She rounded the corner of the barn and entered a clearing where two cow-like creatures were grazing. One of them looked up at the sound and uttered a startled call; seeing the furious Skaarj, it panicked and started to run straight towards Kira. Kira dodged out of the way, narrowly avoiding trampling by the two-legged bovine, causing the creature to barrel straight into the Skaarj. The startled Skaarj was sent flying, landing about a metre short of the cliff edge.
Kira saw a barn door ahead and made for it. She tried to slide it aside on its runners but it was locked, and she headed up a nearby staircase as the guard rounded the corner of the barn with the Trooper a close step behind. Kira reached the top of the staircase, stepping on to a balcony that had another door into the building. This one was locked too.
Kira looked around frantically but could see nowhere to go. The Skaarj guard reached the top of the staircase, blocking off her exit.
“You insignificant heap of Krall-shit!” the Skaarj guard cursed, “What did you think you were doing?”
The guard punctuated “doing” with a hard smack about the side of Kira’s head that sent her flying, dazed to the balcony floor.”
“That’s enough,” the Trooper said, reaching the top of the stairs, “we don’t want to destroy the worm’s brains before it can answer the commander’s questions.”
There were Skaarj voices below as backup arrived from the shuttle that had landed. Two of the bladed type of Skaarj started to climb the steps.
“Commander Ssja’Rath is ready to see the captive now.” one of them announced, reaching the top of the steps.
The guard grabbed Kira and handed her to the new arrivals with gratification. “I hope our commander makes it nice and painful for you.” It sneered.
The skimmer pulled into the main hangar of Skaarj Outpost 3J. Kira had been dragged to the shuttle by the two Skaarj scouts and manhandled into a rear seat, where she was restrained by a metal belt. The two Skaarj had set in the front of the vehicle and piloted it on the short hop to the mountain base entrance; not a word had been exchanged between them on the way. Didn’t these Skaarj know anything about friendship and relaxation?
Now, in the hangar bay, Kira was pulled out of the skimmer by the two Skaarj and manhandled into a lift that took them down to a lower level. This base was dimly but adequately lit, and it was warm and humid. The climate was a stark contrast to the cool, misty weather outside. She was led through a double door and into a central room with a water pool at the centre. Kira thought about how much she would like a bath right now.
The Skaarj led her round the pool and through another double door into a chamber where a Skaarj in officer uniform was operating a console on a raised podium at the far end. It looked around.
“Sir!” one of the Skaarj announced, saluting, “We have brought in the captive from the crashed ship.”
“Good. Dismissed.” The officer told the scouts. The scouts exchanged a glance and threw Kira to the floor, where she remained in a sitting position, then left.
“I take it you are Ssja’Rath?” Kira asked quietly, not disguising the hate in her voice that she felt for these Skaarj creatures.
“Ssja’Rath, 10th Talon of Ssa’Rath, and commander of this base.” the Skaarj officer replied, the slightest tinge of irritation in its gutteral voice.
“Why am I here?” Kira asked.
“I shall ask the questions.” Ssja’Rath said. “Now, I believe your ship crashed, did it not?”
“It did.” Kira replied.
“Unfortunately for you and your ship’s crew,” Ssja’Rath said, “it is standard Skaarj procedure to ‘investigate’ all new arrivals of this nature. Our scouting parties successfully boarded your ship soon after your left.”
“What did you find?” Kira said sullenly.
“Many creatures not unlike yourself. They got in our way, and had to be disposed of. You’ll understand that, won’t you?”
Kira nodded. Her stomach lurched as she thought of Tatiana and Nikolai. She wondered if they had been on the ship when the Skaarj intruders boarded.
“And even more interesting,” Ssja’Rath continued, “we discovered this and many others like it in your cargo holds.”
Ssja’Rath held up a device that looked like a launcher of some kind. A tank of green fluid was linked by a pipe to a nozzle with a trigger.
“What is it?” said Kira, who was genuinely unfamiliar with the device.
“It is a Biorifle.” Ssja’Rath snapped, “A powerful weapon of Mercenary design. What was it doing on your ship?”
Ssja’Rath brought his fist down onto a nearby console with a whack.
“I don’t know what you are talking about. I have never seen that before. And I don’t know who your ‘Mercenaries’ are either.” Kira said.
“The Mercenaries are galactic enemies of the Skaarj.” Ssja’Rath said, pacing slowly towards Kira. “This biorifle is of Mercenary design, but it has not been built by the Mercenaries. It seems that your ship has been providing them with weapons.”
“I don’t know anything about it!” Kira protested, and she was not lying. She had had no idea that Inuit were trafficking weapons, although she had suspected that they were up to something.
Ssja’Rath grabbed Kira by the shoulder and hauled her roughly up so that he could look down into her eyes. Kira winced as she felt a stab of pain from her ribs. Ssja’Rath growled. “You MUST know! You were a member of the crew, were you not?”
“I swear. I had no idea this was going on!” Kira replied.
Ssja’Rath studied her eyes for some time. At length, he said, “Perhaps you are telling the truth. However, I would be foolish to take a chance on that, after all, you just might be lying to me… I shall have to pursue this matter further.”
“Are you going to torture me?” Kira asked, glaring directly into Ssja’Rath’s eyes.
“Not yet.” Ssja’Rath replied.
“You won’t get anything out of me. Why not just kill me now? Isn’t that what you’d like to do?”
“No, that would be far too easy.” Ssja’Rath replied calmly. He let go of Kira, allowing her to collapse back to the floor, and walked over to his console. He pressed a button and spoke into a microphone. “I have finished interrogating the captive for now. Take her to the prison in the bluff monastery on the planet’s surface. I will see her again when she is ready to talk.”
Something in the Skaarj language was spoken at the other end of the connection – Kira’s translator didn’t quite pick it up – and the two scouts marched back in. They grabbed Kira by the arms, and hauled her out again.
Kira spent the journey through the Skaarj base in a daze. She was wrapped up in her own thoughts. Had Inuit Corporation really been trafficking weapons? She had always respected Captain Leatham as a good man, but he knew what was going on behind closed doors and he didn’t try to stop it. Right now, Kira wondered is she had a friend in the world.
Yes, she did, she realised. Tatiana and Nikolai; they were true friends. Kira wondered if she would ever see either of them again. So much for the marriage and the honeymoon on Corran… but right now, these things only seemed frivolous anyway. She would gladly give anything just to have her freedom back.
They had emerged from the base and were on the plateau with the church that Kira had seen from below.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“We are taking you to the surface.” one of the scouts replied.
They went around to the far end of the church and in through the entrance. Arriving in the central room of the church, they were greeted by a pair of Krall.
“Open the catacombs.” One of the scouts instructed the Krall, who saluted. One of the Krall hurried off do a door on one side of the church, while the other led them to an opposite door, by which there was a control panel. Shortly there was a bleep from the panel as security clearance was granted, and the Krall with them punched a button on the panel to open the doors. The scouts led Kira down a flight of steps and into a misty tunnel that headed off in a crescent to either side. They followed it round, soon arriving at a metal door into an inner area.
The inner area turned out to be a large cellar room outfitted with Skaarj equipment. A huge Skaarj was operating a panel at the far end.
“Activate the transport pad.” One of the scouts instructed the huge Skaarj. The huge Skaarj glared at them and pressed a button on his panel; a device recessed in the centre of the room whirred into life and glowed with a bright white ball of energy. The scouts lead Kira along a balcony round the edge of the central recess and down a lift into the recess itself.
“Step on to the central pad.” One of the scouts instructed Kira. Still held between them, she stepped on to the pad from which the glowing ball was emanating. “Prepare for transport.” The scout said, and she was lead into the ball of light.
Tatiana, Dubrov and another security officer had made it as far as the Nali town on the cloud island. With a combination of stealth and fighting, they had ascended the Sunspire, but had not found Kira.
The three of them all had haunted looks on their faces. Radio contact with the ISV-Kran had been lost not long after they entered the spire mountain, and they could only imagine what was going on back at the ship. Half way up the spire, they had run into a pair of Skaarj troopers. Short of ammo and unable to do anything to help, they had witnessed the slaughter of Nikolai Onalopov and the two other security personnel who had accompanied them. They couldn’t hang around even long enough for Tatiana to retrieve Onalopov’s log for Kira; they had fled up a ledge outside the spire and eventually lost their pursuers.
Eventually they had found the Sky Elevator, with the help of an Eightball Gun that Drubrov had taken from a Skaarj he had killed as they climbed the spire. The Eightball Gun had kept them alive through the sky caves, but now it was out of ammo as they reached the surface of the rock.
The three of them were exhausted, and there was still no sign of Kira. Tatiana began to wonder if she was still alive.
The locks on the door were pulled back. ‘Great’, Kira thought, somewhat sarcastically, ‘Back for more Hranging action.’
Hrang was her Krall jailer in the dungeon where she had been placed. After her tense meeting with Ssja’Rath, Kira had been brought back to the surface of the planet. She and her Skaarj escort had passed through a drab rock canyon, and then upon passing through a stone tunnel, had arrived at a beautiful lake valley. She had been led up a causeway on to a tall bluff at the centre of the valley, on which there stood a Nali monastery.
Kira hadn’t had much time to admire the scenery though. They had descended a ridge and had entered an underground room of Nali construction; shortly after that, she had been handed to a bunch of Krall who had brought her to this cell. Hrang, the head jailer, had not wasted much time in attempting to beat her up, but she had kicked him hard between the legs and the pained Krall had been forced to instruct his amused lackeys to lock her up.
Time had passed in the darkened cell, which was located at the end a balcony above the main floor below. She had heard the Krall playing some kind of gambling game outside. Occasionally, she heard scuffling noises or a cough from the cells below and to the right; she wondered who was imprisoned in there.
After what had seemed like three or four hours, Hrang had returned to get his balls kicked again, it seemed. She readied herself and made sure that the toe of her right boot felt suitably solid. The door swung open to reveal not just Hrang, but two of his lackeys as well.
“This should teach you to beat your jailer.” Hrang said in the croaky Krall language, which Kira’s translator interpreted accordingly. Hrang and his lackeys raised their concussion staffs and started to whack.
Kira was knocked to the ground. Her single kicking foot was no use against the concussion staff onslaught.
“Why are you doing this!” Kira yelled.
“Didn’t I make it clear? You need a lesson in respect.” Hrang replied scornfully, continuing to whack.
Hrang’s staff clouted Kira across the face. She slumped sideways, dazed.
“JAILER!” a Skaarj voice called from outside. Hrang and one of the other two stopped beating. Hrang nudged the third, muttering a name that sounded like “Dorro!”. Said Krall stopped too.
“Yes sir?” Hrang said subserviently.
“Leave that lump of meat alone. We need it in one piece so it can give us answers.”
Hrang looked disappointed. “Yes, sir.” He replied. The door swung shut.
Kira struggled into a sitting up position. She was hurting in several places; one arm felt broken from when it had received a whack from a staff while protecting her face. She couldn’t take much more of this; she wasn’t sure what the Skaarj had planned for her, but she hoped it was soon.
A quiet scrabbling that she had been hearing from the left for some time intensified. Kira listened, trying to figure out what it was. Some of the stone bricks on the left wall started to shift. Kira backed against the far wall, surprised. One of the bricks slipped out of the wall completely and clunked to the floor, revealing a pair of green eyes peeping through the hole.
“I’m a friend.” A Nali voice said.
“Hi… what are you doing here?” Kira whispered.
“My name is Kruun.” The Nali said, pushing more bricks out of the hole. Kira helped with her good arm. “I have been hiding in the sewer tunnels. I have seen the Krall’s treatment of you and I am here to help.”
“Thanks.” Kira said. She winced as her broken arm bashed against one of the bricks on the floor.
“You are injured.” Kruun said.
“Don’t worry about it.” Kira replied.
Kruun completed his hole and backed away a bit. He gestured for Kira to follow. She passed through the hole and emerged in a rough tunnel. It curved round a short distance, leading Kruun and Kira past some green leaved plants growing out of the rock walls.
“Mind out.” Kruun warned Kira. Kira stopped; the tunnel has reached its end, emerging half way up the cliff of the bluff. Below, the lake water shimmered in the moonlight.
“I have to climb down there?” Kira asked, indicating her broken arm.
“Not necessarily,” Kruun replied, picking up a rough rope from a shadowy part of the tunnel floor, “I can lower you down most of the way with this. You can drop the remaining distance. When you reach the water, head for the bell tower to the right. It’s normally locked but one of the Krall left it open earlier. You can hide in the loft. Watch out for Devilfish in the water.”
“Thanks,” Kira said again, gratefully, as Kruun tied the rope gently round her waist, “but why are you doing this?”
“I could not stand the way you were being treated by the Krall. And you remind me of the ancient prophecy of the avenging angel.”
“The avenging angel?” Kira asked sceptically.
“Our holy books tell of the avenging angel who will come from the stars to help the Nali in their time of strife.”
“Wow…” Kira began.
“Quickly, there is no time to waste. The Krall will notice your absence and I must return to the sewers.”
Kira nodded and let Kruun hoist her carefully over the edge. To her relief, the rope held her weight and Kruun began to lower her down. She used her good arm to stop herself from bumping into the rock of the sheer cliff.
Most of the way down, the rope suddenly went slack and Kira fell the remaining distance to the water. She heard a yell of “Qupada!” from above mixed up with some Krall curses.
“Kruun!” she tried to shout but she was winded from the fall and it came out as a hoarse gasp. She ducked as a Krall fell out of the cliff tunnel and splashed lifeless into the water inches behind her. She watched and listened impotently as she heard a scuffle above. She heard running feet and the sounds faded out as they receded up the tunnel.
Kira treaded water for a moment, dumbfounded. Had Kruun just died to save her? Her contemplations were interrupted when she became aware of a black shape approaching underwater from somewhere off to the right. She remembered Kruun’s warning about Devilfish and looked around for the bell tower. It was on a rock outcrop not far off to the left; she swam as best she could with her one good arm and headed for it.
Reaching the outcrop, Kira pulled herself painfully out with the Devilfish not far behind. As she sat in safety on the rock, the Devilfish writhed around in frustration in the water. Kira was tiring rapidly now - the beating injuries were taking their toll – but she forced herself to get up and climbed the wooden ramp to the bell tower entrance.
Inside, a large metal grille lift sat at the bottom of the tall, hollow stone structure. Kira pulled herself on to the lift and pressed a nearby lever; the lift creaked to a start and moved fairly rapidly upwards. At the top, the lift stopped in the bell tower loft. Kira limped slowly off the lift and slumped against a wall. Here in this room were some strange electrical devices and a sign that through her translator said something about “Static Discharge Nodes”. Kira was too tired to worry about it. She recorded a brief note in her voice log, and then just let her head hang loosely.
Kira spent the next eight hours in an intermittent state of semi-consciousness. She was tired, battered and weak. She drifted in and out of a blurred awareness. At one point, she thought she heard shooting from up on the bluff. Soon after, she was aware of another being in the loft with her. It wasn’t a Skaarj, it wasn’t a Krall… could it have been human? It dropped two white objects beside her. She didn’t move, and didn’t speak… she wasn’t even fully conscious.
Kira woke. Had she dreamt about the human? Had she imagined it? She couldn’t be sure. She looked slowly to the right and felt a moment of disorientation. Where the human had dropped the white objects were two small plants, each with two plump orange fruits on them, seemingly growing out of the stone floor.
Kira shrugged. If the fruits were poison what did it matter, she was probably going to die here anyway. She was still weak, but she picked the plants, separated the large berries from the stems, and ate them. The fruits tasted good. She felt a warmth spread through her body as she swallowed the berries, and soon her wounds felt less painful. This was good stuff. Whether it was a painkiller or a healing agent, Kira didn’t really care. She just felt a whole lot better.
Kira sat back more comfortably and let the fruit do their work. Her hand landed on something metal, which she picked up; it was an Automag, and nearby were a couple of clips. The human must have left them behind, she thought. The weapon was reassuring to her. She was not an accomplished marksman, but she felt she could use this device if it came to the crunch.
There was a creaking of gears and Kira heard someone coming up the bell tower lift. She hurriedly loaded a full clip into her Automag and pointed it at the top of the lift shaft. She was about to shoot when she saw that the figure emerging was not a Skaarj or a Krall, but a Nali. The Nali saw her weapon and cringed.
“Mouhaga!” it cried.
Kira hurriedly lowered her weapon, “It’s ok, I’m not going to hurt you.” She reassured the terrified creature, “I was expecting a Krall.”
“The Sky Demons are gone,” The Nali said, “I was here to ring the bell of celebration.”
“Gone?” Kira asked in surprise.
“A two-armed creature like yourself came, with many powerful weapons. All the Sky Demons were destroyed.”
“All of them?”
“We only found one Krall, and he fled. It was the cowardly jailer.”
“Good old Hrang.” Kira said, amused.
“I am to ring the bell to relay the good news to the people in the area.”
“But the Skaarj are bound to be back.”
“Do you think so?” the Nali said, an expression of concern crossing its mild face.
“I know so, if those Skaarj are as unpleasant as they seem.”
“We must tell the others. We must prepare to hide.” The Nali said, distraught.
“Why can’t you fight?”
“The Nali are not a fighting people! We are peaceful.”
Kira paused for a moment. She thought of Kruun. “Well I can fight. And if your people have any sense, you’ll help me.”
“We know nothing of warfare!” the Nali protested, “Velora the Nali god of war has been dormant for centuries. His dark arena has gone untrodden by Nali foot for many hundreds of years!”
“Well I think it’s time you woke him up. Do you have any weapons?” Kira said, standing up.
“The Sky Demons left many behind but their function is alien to us.” The Nali replied.
“Take me back to the monastery.” Kira said, “If your people don’t learn to fight now you will always be repressed.”
The Nali no longer tried to argue. He led Kira quietly back to the lift and they started to descend.
Kira had never seen such inept fighters. She was no warrior herself, but the Nali people’s understanding of combat made Kira seem like Velora himself.
Scouring the monastery and attached Skaarj installations, Kira and a group of willing Nali had requisitioned substantial supplies; many weapons including Flak Cannons, Assault Rifles, Eightball Guns and strange Skaarj devices which fired spinning razor disks. Kira even found a Biorifle that reminded her with a shudder of the Skaarj commander Ssja’Rath and his interrogation of her about the human involvement with the Mercenaries.
Day had broken over the bluff and the lake and cliffs were bathed in a cloudy morning glow. Now, Kira was attempting to train eight Nali monks in the use of basic weapons, standing outside the monastery’s front gates. Of all the things she had thought over the course of her life that she may end up doing, this had definitely not been on her list. One of the Nali she had been attempting to train had almost shot his foot off with a Dispersion Pistol, and then had dropped the gun in disgust, claiming that he would rather pray than attempt to fight. When other Nali had started to say the same things, she had been forced to bring them a harsh reality check by telling of how Kruun had died rescuing her. This had distressed the rebellious Nali monk; Kruun had been is brother, along with another Nali called Kriin who had died in his cell. This Nali had reluctantly returned to the Dispersion Pistol and picked it up, and that had silenced any further argument.
“No,” she was telling a confused Nali, “You use the scope for tackling long-distance targets.” She demonstrated, taking the Nali’s Assault Rifle and scooping in on a crucifix on one of the lake’s outer cliffs. Keeping the aim on target, she handed the rifle back to the Nali. The Nali looked through the scope and nodded. Kira hurried over to another Nali who was pointing a Flak Cannon in the wrong direction such that he would have shot himself, and corrected his holding of the gun. She looked around in consternation, looking for other potential nasty mishaps… but some of the other Nali seemed to be getting a better grasp on the weapon concepts, and were firing off a few shots at the rocks sticking out of the lake to practice.
From somewhere down beyond the main causeway there was an explosion sound. Kira looked around sharply. All eight of her fighters were accounted for up here; there were none down there at the valley entrance.
“Sounds like we’ve got company.” Kira said.
Kira grabbed a Flak Cannon and an ASMD from their pile of weaponry and loaded a shell into the device. She holstered the ASMD and watched the bottom of the causeway from her vantage point. The eight Nali watched tensely from behind. The large causeway doors were open and she could see right down to the base of the rock structure; distantly, five forms appeared round the corner and headed up the causeway. Kira raised her hand at a few Nali who were aiming Assault Rifles nervously and told them to hold their fire, but to be ready.
The band approaching seemed to be a group of five Skaarj. An officer in full body armour was leading the way and was being followed closely by two assassins in assault vests and basic scouts. Kira advanced slowly down the causeway, Flak Cannon held out in front. Then she recognised the officer.
“Ssja’Rath… it seems we meet again?” Kira said.
“Your futile kind is not worth the oxygen they consume.” Ssja’Rath replied bitterly.
“Well we must be, since it seems that one of my kind cleared out all of your Skaarj and pathetic Krall minions from this monastery.”
“They were foolish and unprepared for an assault.” Ssja’Rath replied, “Your comrade had an undeserved run of luck.”
“Well I’d have to agree with the foolish part.” Kira replied. She flicked her head at the eight Nali, who raised Assault Rifles and pointed them shakily at the group of Skaarj. Ssja’Rath laughed gutturally.
“Well I have to say I’m impressed.” he said, “You actually got those worthless creatures to wield weapons! I seriously doubt though that they will do us much damage.”
“You never know,” Kira replied, “some of them might just get a few lucky shots.”
“But equally, they may well decapitate you accidentally. Although I have to say, that would be an improvement. Come on,” Ssja’Rath said, turning his attention to his soldiers, “let’s deal with this joke.”
The Skaarj started to advance up the cliff. Ssja’Rath raised the razor blade weapon he was carrying and launched a few shots up the causeway. Kira dodged the blades, but the Nali behind weren’t so fast and one of them was knocked aside, blood running from his shoulder. Kira raised her Flak Cannon and fired a spread of shrapnel at the advancing Skaarj. One of the scouts was hit on one arm and staggered to one side, going too far and falling off the causeway. Ssja’Rath looked incredulously at the space where the Skaarj had been. “What an idiot!” he said.
“Ok, GO!” Kira cried, raising an arm in the air. The Skaarj charged and the band of Nali started popping rifle shots into the oncoming ranks. Kira helped with her Flak Cannon. The first casualty was a Nali who blocked a few too many of Ssja’Rath’s razor disks. Kira retaliated with a whole Flak Shell that smacked into the chest of Ssja’Rath, who had no room to dodge, and sent him flailing back into the Skaarj assassins behind him. The assassins and remaining scout advanced around him as he scrambled up and readied his weapon again. One of the Assassins fell to some well-placed shots by a Nali but that Nali was then totalled by some energy bolts from the other Assassin’s prostheses. Kira took out this assassin with her Flak Cannon but was then repelled by a whack from the scout as it charged past her into the Nali crowd and started striking out with its claws. The Nali monks panicked and started firing wildly at the creature; at least one of them fell to friendly fire before the scout was taken down.
That left just the injured Ssja’Rath, who pounced on the reeling Kira, sending her Flak Cannon flying over the cliff edge. Ssja’Rath floored Kira and dragged her to the edge of causeway, preparing to push her off.
“You can’t win now.” Kira said, “You are completely outnumbered.”
Ssja’Rath’s eyes blazed furiously. “True, but I can take you out first, you meddling little freak.”
The Nali were looking on, aghast. None of them were attempting to shoot Ssja’Rath. “I could use some help here!” Kira shouted, still nothing.
Ssja’Rath laughed madly. “You see why these pitiful creatures were never be fighters! This planet is ours for the taking.”
“You’d be surprised.” Kira said, reaching for her holstered ASMD. She grabbed it and shoved it into the surprised Skaarj’s gut.
“What the…” Ssja’Rath had time to say before Kira squeezed the trigger and a focused energy bolt struck him right in the stomach. Ssja’Rath was sent flying backwards, and was launched over the causeway and down into the waters below. Kira, winded from the recoil, struggled over to the far side of the causeway and looked down into the water to see Ssja’Rath’s body floating serenely while Devilfish attacked from below.
One of the Nali hurried down the causeway to help Kira get up. The other survivors burst out into excited babble. Kira stood up and looked into the eyes of the Nali who had found her in the bell tower.
“You did it! Truly you are the avenging angel.”
“I ah…” Kira said, but then she slumped back down to the ground, exhausted.
The excitement had died down and the Nali had set to taking away the casualties. Weapons had been discarded back into the pile and the dead were being carried to the cemetery for burial. Kira was sitting at the monastery’s main gatepost, resting. She was in a conflict of interests. Up to now, she had been trying to escape the planet and head home. But now she thought about it, the Nali needed her here. And what really had become of the others from the ISV-Kran? What about Tatiana? What about Nikolai?
One of the Nali who had been down at the bottom of the causeway to investigate damage caused by the Skaarj blasting their way through the doors from the barren canyon beyond was returning up the causeway. He headed for Kira and looked solemnly at her. She looked up and made eye contact with the Nali.
“What is it?” she asked.
“I’ve found something that you ought to see.” The Nali replied.
The Nali led Kira down the causeway. At the bottom of the valley, at the base of a large crucifix, three human forms lay on the floor. Kira fell to her knees as she recognised the twisted and contorted forms of Tatiana and Dubrov, along with another security officer she recognised.
“These were my friends before the crash,” Kira said, “look what the Skaarj bastards have done.”
The Nali said nothing, merely crossing his heart. Kira took Tatiana’s hand. It was cold; she had been dead for some time, so it wasn’t the latest attack that had been responsible, but Kira had little doubt who was responsible. She read Tatiana’s log… they had been killed in searching for her. Nikolai wasn’t here… but she could guess his fate.
“What are you going to do?” the Nali asked.
Kira looked up. “I’m going to help you battle these Skaarj bastards.” she said, a new resolve coming over her.
Earth could go to hell. Nikolai and Tatiana were gone. There was nothing for her back with her own people. Here she had a purpose. She could fight for Tatiana, Nikolai and the others, and for Kruun, the brave Nali who had saved her life.
Avenging angel… why not?
All text herein is © 1998-2004 Michael Wilberforce. All characters, events, place names and creatures, barring those previously appearing in the work of and priorly © to Epic Games, Digital Extremes and associated authors, are also © 1998-2004 Michael Wilberforce unless otherwise stated. The text herein may NOT be reproduced for any form of distribution without the prior written consent of the author.