Copyright 2000 by Paul S. Gibbs. All rights reserved. Any reproduction, reuse, reposting or alteration, without the express written permission of the author, is strictly prohibited. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

"THE CHOSEN FEW" BY PAUL S. GIBBS

 

CHAPTER TWENTY


In the end, Raven spent two weeks orbiting Hellhole.

Had I been consulted, it would have been closer to two days--or two hours. True, the planet was a fascinating collection of paradoxes; but that did not even begin to compensate for the sheer misery of exploring it. We made a dozen landings, all over the planet, avoiding only the barren and lethally-hot equatorial regions--and we discovered no place, not one, that fell anything short of horrible, no place where we could escape those three pitiless suns. Even the arctic and the antarctic were only a shade less than brutal.

As long as I live, I doubt I will ever see another place as terrifying as the shores of those small, hypersaline seas. The salt flats on the floor of Terra's Death Valley are rainforest-lush in comparison. Little more than puddles--even the largest was only fifty kilometers across and ten meters deep--they were so salty as to be instantly lethal to any known life-form, even algae and bacteria. And they contributed in no small way to the mysteries surrounding Hellhole: because at one time they'd obviously been much larger. They lay in the center of huge sinks, hundreds of kilometers wide; once sea-bed, now no more than glaring saline flats. Threading into the pans were a number of bone-dry river beds, which--as both Gaetano and I noticed immediately--ended at the edges of the flats. There was no sign that the rivers had followed the recession of the evaporating seas. Meaning that the seas dried and the rivers ceased to flow simultaneously--and with incredible rapidity. Another mystery for our growing list.

But despite the horrid conditions, there was life on Hellhole, as our biomass sensors indicated. How it had gotten started, and how it continued to exist, we still couldn't say. In the higher latitudes and at the poles grew titanic expanses of grassland, millions of square kilometers covered with tough, fibrous, light-green stems up to three meters tall. Looking down upon those fields, rippled by the constant high wind, was like watching a storm-tossed sea. In other places--high plateaus where the nights were as brutally cold as the days were hot--there were large stands of forest, both evergreen and deciduous. And that was it: there were no other major ecosystems, much to Commander Delaney's disgust.

The animal life was somewhat more elusive. We knew it existed; our bioscans proved that. But other than a few dark shapes--some of them unnervingly large--fleeing the dawn, we'd seen nothing. Something ate the grass; there were huge expanses where it had been grazed to a nub. But we never saw what did it. Just their droppings--and Delaney endured quite a ribbing for her "dung collection." She at least had something to work with; that's more than I could say. Her theory--that most of the animals were nocturnal--made sense: anything to avoid the heat. But we'd never know for certain: not even Captain Antilles would order night landings.

Yes, the planet was fascinating, jam-packed with mysteries, worth many years' study. But that wasn't our job. We weren't equipped for it, in materiel, personnel, or time. Our mission was to locate intelligent life and search for colony sites--nothing more. Of the former there was none; and it was obvious at a glance that Hellhole was a miserable prospect for colonization. According to our mission profile, we should have packed up and moved on long ago. But Captain Antilles wouldn't leave. Why, I didn't know; but he refused to listen to reason, and he continued to order us down, day after day, mission after mission. He seemed almost a man possessed, like Ahab--and like the captain of the Pequod, he seemed to be searching for something. For what exactly, I also couldn't say. But as the days passed, and as we failed to bring him what he wanted, his temper became steadily worse. I tried to avoid him as much as possible, but unfortunately that was becoming almost impossible. Suddenly he was everywhere: he attended our daily science briefings, all of them; he demanded our logs and our raw data--and at the end of every landing party, when we returned to the ship hot, exhausted and empty-handed, he met us in the hangar.

Stranger yet, I had become certain that my colleagues knew exactly what the captain wanted them to find. I saw the harried glances they exchanged as the captain sat down to watch our briefings--and I saw their anxiety grow a hundredfold as I rose to give my reports. I'd had that feeling before, of course: the sense of an undercurrent, of a conspiracy no one dared share with me. More and more now, it was accompanied by growing feelings of unease and unsafety.

In retrospect, I should have followed the advice given me by Joel and Gaetano: to let it go, to mind my own business. But of course I couldn't--and at the end of our first week at Hellhole, I finally screwed up my courage and asked. Once again I learned nothing--but in a way that frightened me greatly.

We'd touched down that day in a place that almost reminded me of home: a wide rolling plain covered with a shorter, grey-tinged version of that ubiquitous grass, and studded with trees. Not tatak, nor even oaks, but somewhere in between: tall and twisted, with rough brown bark and tiny avocado leaves. The very picture of a semi-tropical savanna…except that it lay ten degrees above the arctic circle. Even at that latitude it was hot, and the wind fierce.

That morning I found myself, as had been happening more and more often, working alongside Gaetano. Logical, I suppose, our specialties being so closely related; and too, he had been ordered by the captain to keep an eye on me. But of course there was more to it than that. Against all reason, I had begun to develop a genuine fondness for the geologist. There were many reasons why I shouldn't have; but deprived of almost all emotional contact, I literally couldn't help myself. I always tried to remember, though, that I could only trust him so far.

The morning had not been a rewarding one for either of us. We poked around, examining outcrops of volcanic rock which protruded through the grass; discussed the planet's origins yet again, without coming to any conclusions; and failed--as I had failed for the past six days--to find anything resembling a fossil. Finally Gaetano wiped the sweat from his forehead and pointed to a sprawling tree some twenty meters distant. "Let's take a break."

"Fine with me," I said. We trooped over and sank down onto a large flat rock near the trunk, gratefully resting our tired feet. The tree's canopy was sparse, its shade spotty at best; but any shade at all was a relief, and we made the most of it. Gaetano unclipped a water bottle from the back of his belt, took a swig, wiped the rim casually on his sleeve, and passed it over to me. What had been ice-water that morning was now tepid, going on warm, but still it tasted better than srall-nectar. I'd been panting hard for hours, and my mouth was dust-dry. I was feeling a little dizzy, too; probably a touch of heat exhaustion again.

"Thank you," I said, handing the bottle back.

"You're welcome," Gaetano said, and such was the warmth in his voice that I glanced up at him quickly. He was smiling at me; not grinning, and certainly not smirking or sarcastically leering, as so many others did. Not for the first time; so why did I find my heart suddenly melting?

You can become so starved for affection, I'd found, that even the smallest act of kindness can fill your cup to overflowing. Surrounded by disdain and outright hostility; ignored or dismissed as if I had nothing to contribute; confused and angered by the actions of the man whom I'd once called my best friend…is it any wonder that I'd reached such a state? Any wonder that I occasionally wondered if I would die from loneliness? Any wonder that an honest, uncalculated smile could seem a blessing from the Goddess herself? I still didn't trust him, and I still didn't know which side he was on--if any. But at the moment his smile was enough to make me contemplate hugging him. I might have--but before I could act on the impulse he broke the spell, by reaching into his sample bag and handing me a meat bar. The mundane does have a way of supplanting the sublime.

For several minutes we sat in silence, munching the unpalatable--but guaranteed nutritious--emergency ration. Finally, having reached a decision, I cleared my throat. "Commander," I said, "what does the captain expect us to find down here?"

The effect of that simple question was astounding. Gaetano's ruddy features went dead white, and he swallowed hard. He looked quickly around, as if for eavesdroppers; but we were alone. "What do you mean by that?" he demanded harshly.

Alarmed, I retreated--but only a little. "He's devoted inordinate time and energy to a planet that isn't worth the expenditure. Obviously he's fascinated by the place--I'd simply like to know why."

Gaetano set the remainder of his lunch aside. Then, with breathtaking suddenness, he grabbed my left wrist and pulled my face close to his. His voice was a raspy whisper, taut with anger, his accent thickening. "Don't ever ask me that again, Lieutenant. Or any of the other Scispecs either. Do you understand me? It is not your business."

The grip on my wrist was beginning to hurt, but I couldn't pull free "How can I do my duty--" I began, but he cut me off, squeezing my wrist so tight the bones ground together. In his face I no longer saw anger, but fear.

"The best way you can, Lieutenant," he said. "You'll investigate what the captain tells you to, and in the way he tells you. No more, no less. And you will not ask why." He shook my arm, causing my hand to flop back and forth. "This isn't the worst thing that could happen to you."

He was referring to my claws, trimmed again that very morning, and tender--but of course he was wrong. I might have pressed him further, asked him what he meant…but the look in his eyes stopped me. That, and the fact that he was about to fracture my wrist.

So, "All right, Commander," I said simply. "Thank you for clarifying that."

If he heard the irony in my tone, he chose to ignore it; but he did release me. Seeing my grimace of pain, he took my wrist between both hands and gently massaged it. "I'm sorry," he said, and I had the feeling he was referring to something other than hurting my arm.

"That's all right, sir."

He reached for his sample bag. "We'd better--uh--get back to work now."

"Yes, sir," I said, and I hauled myself to my feet, perplexed and frustrated. Once again I'd been warned…but I still had no clear idea what of.

###

I'd overslept.

For me, a rare occurrence; but life on Raven had disturbed all my internal rhythms to a greater or lesser extent. I'd neglected to set an external alarm, and by the time I finally woke, I had less than half an hour to get ready for yet another landing-party.

The previous day had marked the end of our second week orbiting Hellhole--and by now I was not the only one anxious to move on. No one had said so, not in so many words…but I knew. I saw it in crewmates' eyes, heard it in their voices. Most especially, I saw it in the exhausted faces of my colleagues as we assembled in the hangar deck every morning. Only our beloved captain seemed unwilling to let the place go.

Tired and disgusted, nonetheless I hurried. I wolfed down a plateful of liver with a rapidity certain to cause heartburn later; I threw on my field gear and stuffed a few necessities into my pockets and my sample bag. I had just clipped the all-important water bottles to the back of my belt when the doorbell chimed.

I sighed. Who the hell--? "Come in!"

He stood in the doorway with his hands behind his back and a hesitant look on his face. As usual. I sighed again. "Make it fast, Joel. I'm about to be late."

"Five minutes?" he asked.

I came close to kicking him out again…but I owed him one. Ever since our last confrontation, weeks ago now, I'd been suffering little stabs of guilt for the way I'd treated him. "All right," I said, my tone softening. "Five minutes."

Seating himself on the edge of my unmade bunk, he took a deep breath and let it out slowly. When he spoke again, his voice was calm and steady--more so than I'd heard for a long time--and a little sad too. "First of all, I want to apologize to you. When I came to see you after the…incident, I was only trying to help. But obviously I didn't do a very good job, and I'm sorry."

As he spoke I continued to work, not looking at him. Now I set aside my bag and turned. And as I did, I was amazed to see how much he'd changed. All these weeks, since our chance meeting on Outpost Four, I'd grown used to seeing him anxious, twitchy, afraid of his own shadow; now, suddenly, he seemed to radiate a kind of beatific--or perhaps resigned--calm. The same look you'd see on the face of a man who has put his affairs in order, written his will, and sat down to wait for death. "No, Joel," I said. "I'm not the one who's due an apology. You are. Of all the people on this ship, you're the only one who can begin to understand what happened to me. My emotions needed an outlet that day, and you had the misfortune of being the first sentient being who crossed my path. I understand now that I should have accepted what you were offering--uncritically."

"I appreciate that," he said, with a tiny, morose smile. He patted the bunk beside him. "Please--sit down."

I did, and he grasped my hands. I didn't try to pull away. A few seconds later he went on, speaking words that were obviously long-rehearsed. "I've been doing a lot of thinking too, these last few weeks. About our friendship, and why it used to work so well. Of course it helped that we had a lot in common, liked the same places and things. But that's not the real reason why we were so close. It was the fact that we were always honest. We didn't hide things from each other."

"I can't argue with that," I said, wondering uneasily where this was headed.

"Since you came aboard, really since that night on Outpost Four, our relationship has been going downhill fast."

"Can't argue with that either."

"I don't know how you feel, Ayla, but that isn't something I can just let happen. We were good for each other--and I won't give that up without a fight."

"I…suppose you've got a point there too."

"So I've been trying to figure out what went wrong--and it didn't take me long. One thing was obvious: it wasn't your fault--none of it. You haven't done anything wrong; you've just been…you. The blame is entirely mine. The simple fact is, since you came aboard I haven't been honest with you. You know me too well not to have been aware of that, as I would be if you were dishonest with me. And I don't blame you for being angry. You had every right to expect honesty, at very least--and in that I've failed you.

"I want you to believe, though, that it has never been my intention to harm you. Far from it. I've been dishonest with you, yes; but not because I wanted to, and certainly not because I've enjoyed it. But I had no choice. Believe it or not, what I've tried to do is protect you. There are things going on aboard this ship, Ayla--things that have nothing to do with our assigned mission. You've known that for weeks. At first I hoped I could keep you in the dark--but I couldn't. And after that conversation you overheard…well, at that point I couldn't deny the truth any longer. I could only try to convince you that you'd be better off not knowing the details."

I nodded tiredly. "And that's where we part company," I said. "You said the knowledge you possess could only hurt me. I don't believe that. Ignorance isn't bliss, Joel. Not in this case." I lifted my hands. "I've been blundering around in the dark, not knowing what I dare do or say…and this is the result. After this happened…I tried, Joel. I really tried to curb my curiosity, to mind my own business. But I can't. I know enough to recognize that I'm in danger, and I have to know why."

"I know you do," he said sadly. "And I'll be honest: a part of me still wishes that wasn't the case. I still think you could have gone through this entire mission without knowing, and in many ways been better off.

"But I know that damned feline curiosity of yours. You need to understand what's going on, whether it's good for you or not. I knew that--but I ignored it. I should have realized that I was only making you more determined. But I did have your best interests at heart. And mine too; I can't deny that. To be truthful, it was our mutual safety that concerned me. Still does."

I felt a sudden rush of adrenaline, and my heart began to pound. I tried to keep the excitement out of my voice as I said, "So?"

"So…I can't stonewall you any more, Ayla. Our friendship is too valuable. I just hope telling you the truth won't be as hazardous as I think it might."

"Go on," I said impatiently.

Again he took a deep breath. Looking deep into his eyes, I saw no hint of evasion--for the first time since our reunion on Outpost Four. His gaze held mine without wavering. "Bottom line," he said, "There is a conspiracy aboard Raven. Commander Edgeworth is involved, and so are a few others…but the captain calls the shots. He has an agenda, Ayla. That's the only word for it. He's using this mission to pursue a search of his own. And he's serious about it--deadly serious."

"What's he searching f--?" I began; but the intercom interrupted me.

"Lieutenant Ehm'ayla, report to the hangar deck immediately!" The voice was Nakamara's, and sounded testy.

Goddess, not now! I leaned across Joel and pressed the button. "On my way, Commander."

"Listen," Joel said quickly. "It's long story--I can't condense it into thirty seconds. And we don't dare attract attention by making you late. Tell you what: come to my quarters tonight, about nineteen hundred. Make sure no one sees you--"

"Of course."

He smiled. "Sah'aaran stealth. Good. We'll talk then. And you'll hear the truth, Ehm'ayla--the full, uncensored truth about Raven. You won't like it--but at least you'll know the score. And maybe you'll understand why I've acted as I have."

"I'll be there," I promised. The Goddess help me if I won't!

"All right," he said. He began raise his arms, but hesitated. "May I?"

"Please do."

We embraced briefly, and he kissed me. And that, at long last, was the Joel Abrams I remembered. "I'll see you later, Ayla," he said. "And until then--watch your back, huh?"

###

They were waiting for me on the hangar deck: my colleagues, our pilot Ensign Mayer…and Lieutenant Harris.

Nakamara looked up quickly as the airlock cycled; but the frown he turned upon me had more of concern than anger in it. "You're late, Lieutenant."

"Sorry, sir," I panted. "I overslept a bit."

He nodded, smiling faintly. "We're all a little tired," he agreed. "No harm done. Let's get this over with, shall we?"

The others gathered their equipment, and we trooped toward the pod, every bit as eager as kits on the first day of school after a long naked summer--and it was then that I noticed our extra team member. The Security crew chief wore field gear, with a line of water-bottles across the back of his belt; he already looked constricted and hot. On his face was a scowl worthy of our captain, and cradled in his arms was a large and wicked-looking stinger rifle, many times more powerful than my standard-issue sidearm. "Lieutenant!" I said in surprise. "You're coming with us?"

His reply was a grunt; Delaney's was more articulate. "Captain's orders," she told me. "My bio-scans show a concentration of large animals around our landing area. Mostly nocturnal, but…" she smiled and shrugged.

I nodded. "I understand."

"--So the captain wants me to protect you," Harris said. He chuckled bitterly, jerking a thumb over his shoulder at me. "I guess that isn't at bad idea at that--since Miss Kitty here has been rendered harmless."

I heard a gasp--it might have been my own. Mayer, far outranked, suddenly became very interested in his preflight--but the others suddenly froze in their tracks, their jaws flopping open. I remember very well how I felt at that moment: it's one of the few "flashbulb" memories imprinted indelibly on my synapses. I ought to have been mad enough to rip Harris' gizzard out--but somehow I couldn't manage it. All I felt was…tired. I turned away, my remaining ear reddening with shame.

Gaetano got angry for me. At the foot of the ramp he whirled, his face livid and his jaw working. He strode over and grabbed a fistful of Harris' field gear, pulling the younger man's face close to his. His voice was low, tightly controlled, dangerous. "Lieutenant Ehm'ayla is a Combined Forces officer, Mister Harris. When you speak to her, you will watch your mouth. And for that crack, consider yourself on report."

Harris' eyes were blazing as he twisted himself free. He began to speak…but he was interrupted. By me. Or at very least, someone using my voice. "No," I said quietly. I glanced at Gaetano. "No, Commander," I went on. "That won't be necessary. Lieutenant Harris was only joking--I'm sure he meant no offense."

Even now, I have no idea why I said that. Perhaps Gaetano's advice had finally begun to sink in: don't make waves. Or perhaps it was Joel's words, still ringing in my ears. "A few others" were involved, he'd said; did that number include Harris? Looking at him I had a feeling that it did--which made him even more dangerous than I'd thought. Until I knew more, it was best perhaps to--as my ancestors had it--offer up my other flank as well.

Gaetano gazed at the two of us several times, his eyes narrowed in suspicion. Finally he sighed. "Are you sure, Lieutenant?" he asked me, and I nodded. "All right." He waved his hand. "It's not getting any cooler down there."

Once again we headed for the pod--but at the top of the ramp Gaetano stopped me, his hand on my arm. "I think I know why you did that," he said softly. "But you didn't have to. There are limits--even here. Nobody should have to put up with that…"

I nodded. Whatever he thought he knew, he was almost certainly wrong. "Thank you, sir," I said simply.

He cocked a curious eye--then released my arm and continued inside.

I took a seat as far from Harris as I could--my colleagues made sure of that--and as the pod fell toward the planet I closed my eyes and forced myself to relax. Just get me through this day, I thought wearily. Another five hours in the heat; a quick shower and a meal, a short post-survey briefing…and then Joel. You won't like it, he'd said, and I had the feeling he was right. But to know, to finally understand what was going on all around me…those hours could not pass quickly enough.

There was a shudder of turbulence then, as we dropped into the atmosphere; I opened my eyes to see the porthole beside me begin to glow red. Time to face Hellhole again; and this might well be the most difficult landing of all. For more reasons than one.

###

It was a little after thirteen hundred--and the heat was stifling--when the order to pull out finally came.

Our work that day had taken us to a spot in Hellhole's far north--and, as that planet went, the most bizarre place I'd seen so far. On Terra the equivalent latitude would have been that of British Columbia, with everything that implies: cool, damp, lush, pleasant. No such luck here. We were examining a plateau, thirteen hundred meters above theoretical sea level, and when we arrived just after dawn the thin dry air had actually been uncomfortably cold. A short-lived phenomenon, that: half an hour after sunrise the temperature was over thirty-five and climbing fast.

We'd landed in a wide grassy clearing on the edge of a major forest, beyond which lay a dry and deadly plain of cracked rock and baked soil. The wide-spaced trees reminded me a little of the Giant Sequoias on Terra: immense trunks and crowns that seemed to comb the sky. But unlike Sequoias, they were dead black in color, their bark hard, smooth and glossy. Their branches began much closer to the ground too, only some five meters up. The lower limbs were huge, almost three-quarters the diameter of the trunk, and lay absolutely horizontal, their upper surfaces broad and nearly flat. Eight meters from the trunk they terminated in dense bunches of dark triangular leaves. Hellhole had no seasons, and whether the trees were truly deciduous I don't know; but they did drop leaves: in some places they were ankle-deep. Clustered around the bases of the trees were thick patches of scrub, impenetrable bushes with long and wicked thorns.

Through the forest ran a number of trails, wide, dusty…and crisscrossed with the clear and obvious tracks of many animals. They ranged in size from tiny--made by the pattering feet of something the size of a shrew--to alarmingly large and sharp-clawed. We saw no signs of the creatures themselves, and it seemed likely, as Delaney believed, that they were nocturnal or crepuscular. But as I worked I kept all my senses alert--even my skewed hearing--and my stinger very handy. It was the only defense I could count on. Occasionally I caught a glimpse of Lieutenant Harris, stalking through the forest with his rifle cocked and an expression that could have stripped paint. Whenever he saw me he veered off, deeper into the woods--which suited me fine. His protection I could do without.

…And in fact, despite the (as I saw it) minor danger, I'd chosen once again to work alone--for obvious reasons. I spent the day in a curious and unpleasant state of bilocation. Though physically I was on that hot and hostile planet, struggling to do my job while my brain slowly fried, mentally and emotionally I was still aboard Raven. Joel's words echoed through my head, over and over, utterly ruining my concentration. My mind kept leaping ahead, bridging the hours until our meeting. That evening when I made my stealthy way to his quarters…would I finally learn the truth? Or--as had happened too many times already--would he flake out again? He'd seemed so sincere, so calm…I could not bring myself to believe that he would disappoint me. Not this time. If he did…well, being clawless, I wasn't sure what I would do. But one thing was certain: it was now or never. I'd given him too many chances already; this was absolutely the last.

When the order finally came, I'd been at work for several hours, following the meandering bed of a small tepid stream. Yes, stream. Apart from the dead seas, it was the only open water we'd encountered on Hellhole--and the only fresh water period. Stumbling upon the creek earlier, entirely by accident, I'd stood looking at it for several minutes before I realized what I was seeing. It emerged chattering from somewhere in the forest, and flowed out across the wasteland to die a tortured death in a rocky sink a few kilometers away. I'd lingered beside it all morning, not for any practical reason, but simply because I enjoyed the sight, sound and smell of running water in that Goddess-forsaken place. The sharply-cut banks were sandstone, sprinkled liberally with chunks of obsidian. That gave me an excuse for being there; but as far as I could tell, the sandstone was utterly devoid of fossils. This whole damn survey has been a bust…

Abruptly then my commpak beeped, breaking into my thoughts. "Nakamara to Ehm'ayla." I straightened up, ran the back of my hand across my dazzled eyes, and reached for the microphone.

"Ehm'ayla here."

"Lieutenant, the captain has ordered us to return to the ship," Nakamara said. "Meet us at the landing site as soon as possible."

"Are we pulling out, sir?"

"Indeed we are," Nakamara wearily. "Apparently he's decided we've spent enough time here, and we're unlikely to find anything more. We'll leave a sensor buoy in orbit to record the magnetic fluctuations, and then we'll move on."

About time! "On my way, sir."

Hurriedly I snatched up my sample bag, empty except for my rock hammer and a few odds and ends. Struggling a bit, wishing yet again for my claws, I clambered up the bank. The stream skirted the edge of the forest, and from it there was a wide and well-used trail leading through the woods to the clearing where we'd parked the pod, about a kilometer distant. It was too hot to run, so I settled for a rapid walk. In the thin air, with those suns beating down, even that was almost too much.

And in fact…I was perhaps halfway to the clearing, moving steadily, when I caught a glimpse of movement among the dense shadows to my right, and a faint crackle came to my good ear. Still moving, I turned my head sharply…and everything went black.

In my hurry that morning I'd forgotten my wrist chrono, and so I have no idea how long I was out; but when I finally came to and levered myself up onto my elbows, the triple suns appeared to have shifted slightly toward the horizon, and the multicolored shadows were a little longer. I found myself lying prone in the middle of the trail, my sample bag beside me and my scanpak and commpak a pace or two farther on. Turning over onto my side, I quickly took stock; but other than a mouthful of trail dust, I seemed to be unharmed. Just dizzy--a feeling which intensified steadily as I got my legs underneath me and stood.

What happened? I asked myself, as I bent to retrieve my equipment.

The heat, I decided finally. In my eagerness to reach the pod, I'd started out at too rapid a pace after all; and overcome by the suns, I'd passed out and fallen full-length in the dirt. Several times in the past two weeks I'd come close to fainting; I suppose it was just a matter of time before the temperature caught up with me. Thank the Goddess we're getting out of here… And the movement I'd seemed to see--? Might have been anything…or nothing. Certainly the shadows were empty now.

I took a quick drink of water--of which I had little left--and splashed my face as well. That revived me somewhat, though I remained slightly disoriented as I started out again, a little slower this time. And as I did, a troubling thought came rushing up to grab me by the throat: Why didn't anyone come looking for me?

Fearful of blacking out again, I resisted the impulse to break into a run. And in any event I had almost reached the clearing. I skirted the final tree, stepped into the sun-washed dusty glade…

…And stumbled backwards, gasping for breath as black spots formed before my eyes and my heart tried to pound its way through my ribs. The clearing was empty: the pod was gone.

###

Unable to breathe, I sank to my knees, and the world rocked back and forth before me, the dark patches that occluded my vision temporarily dimming the blazing suns. This is not happening, I told myself. You took a wrong turn; this isn't the right clearing. But that morning I had memorized the landmarks, and there they all were, including a range of low volcanic hills some distance across the waste, framed precisely between a solitary tree and a distinctive jagged boulder. This was the correct clearing--and with that realization came a cold wave of horror, stiffening my spine and my tail. No, I thought. No, he wouldn't. Not that My colleagues wouldn't allow it--or would they?

With trembling hand I reached for my commpak. "Ehm'ayla to Raven," I said; I heard the fear and desperation in my voice. "Come in please!"

What I received was not a reply; not exactly. Just a noise--but one that hardened the chill dread in my stomach into a solid knot. A high-pitched warble, almost a shriek, distinctive and unmistakable: the automated disaster beacon of a Combined Forces vessel in deadly peril. For just a second or two it blared into my ear, before it was consumed by a blast of static, so loud that I snatched the commpak from my ear. And then…out of the corner of my eye I caught a tiny sparkle, and I whirled, gazing up into the sky.

What I saw then I will always remember; it haunted my nightmares for a long time after. A bright white flash, low on the southern horizon: a tiny spot at first, but quickly growing, blossoming into a world-consuming disk of intolerable brightness. Streamers of orange flame reached out in all directions, shedding sparks. There was no sound at all; just that horrible spreading brightness, growing until it outshone the three suns and cast harsh shadows of its own. Slowly it faded and was gone, leaving only the purple afterimage on my retinas. I had been unable to tear my eyes away--or even to blink.

I fixed my commpak to my ear again, and into it I spoke pleading, babbling words; exactly what, I don't know. But there was no response. None at all: just silence, punctuated by random crackles of static.

My head in my hands, I fell forward onto my face. "No," I said softly. Then again, louder: "No!" And finally I howled it to the uncaring heavens: "NO!"

And that was all; except that before merciful oblivion took me, I looked down at my blunt claws--and wondered if I could outrun death until they grew back.


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