Disclaimers and such: Original work, characters are fictitious, copyright is mine, blah, blah, blah. This one’s a bit dark, and it’s also a stab at something science-fiction-ish, so if that’s not your thing, you might want to take a pass. Thanks to Renee and Meghan, and as always, Deb.
Capt. Eden Youngblood, Regis Company, 3rd Special Expeditionary Unit, World Unity Protectorate Marine Corps, dropped through a small hatch and onto the narrow metal walkway running above the cargo hold of the Class III cargo shuttle Verum. She landed lightly in the low gravity and moved quickly to the side to allow for the eventual arrival of the short, slightly rotund form of 1st Academic Emanuel Crist who was slowly climbing down the hatch ladder behind her.
She eyed his progress with well hidden impatience, silently cursing her CO, Lt Col. Guran, for caving to Crist’s insistent and obnoxious demands to accompany her team on this pick-up mission. Crist was an obnoxious, arrogant prick, and even the admittedly comical view of his pale, chubby form stuffed into a polymesh lightsuit and tentatively climbing down the ladder didn’t overcome her annoyance at Guran for letting politics overcome good sense.
“Technically, he outranks us both,” Guran had told her, “and has pull in places you and I can’t even dream of reaching. So you keep a civil tongue in your head, let him do what he likes, but don’t take your eyes off him, understand? He’s your responsibility, Captain. I don’t want the SaRCs up my ass because their First Academic broke his neck falling out of a cargo bay on some boundary system moon.”
The Academic finally thudded onto the walkway beside her and swung wide, mildly panicked eyes in her direction as the intake regulators of his half-mask struggled to adapt to the new mixture of compounds in the air of the open hold, forcing his breaths into short, quick gasps.
“Take a few deep breaths, Sir,” she told him calmly, not mentioning that she had already told him this, several times in fact, before they came through the hatch. “Give the mask time to adjust with the air mix. It’s a little thin, and has a few extra compounds the body doesn’t quite know what to do with…”
“I’m well aware of the atmospheric composition of this planetoid, Captain, and the function of my equipment,” Crist gasped, the arrogance in his tone audible even with his breathlessness and the mask’s distortion.
“Of course, Sir,” she said neutrally, noting that despite the scorn in his tone, he had taken her advice and was attempting deep breaths.
“Where’s yours?” He demanded after a few moments of deep breathing, when his face went from a mottled red to its more normal pale shade.
Youngblood forced a polite, inquiring look. “Sir?”
“Your mask,” he clarified, motioning to her face where no half-mask was hooked into the sleek hood of her lightsuit. “You’re not using one, and neither are they…” he swept an arm towards the gray clad soldiers of the loading crew who moved about in rushed but orderly activity below them on the floor of the cargo hold, cataloging and stacking items coming in off the loading conveyor. “Why do I need to?”
She regarded him quietly for a moment and gave an internal sigh, steeling herself for the usual response. As a scientist, she imagined that Crist’s reaction would fall into the repulsed fascination category, rather than the outright repulsed.
She wasn’t sure which was worse.
Straightening imperceptibly, she tapped her chest with a gloved hand. “Scrubbers, Sir. Standard for Special Expeditionary GCU soldiers since the epidemic on Martek.”
“Scrubbers…” He blinked in surprise. “You mean…nanites?”
“Indeed,” he said curiously, his arrogance replaced momentarily by clinical interest, just as she’d suspected. “Just the lung tissue, or blood, too?”
“Blood, lungs, heart, certain large muscle groups…” she listed mechanically.
“Since Martek…over two years ago. I didn’t realize,” he said thoughtfully and ran his eyes down her spare, lean form as though she were a specimen in a dish. She bore the scrutiny silently. “Injections?” he asked.
“Yes, Sir.” she said in the same, even tone.
He raised an eyebrow when she didn’t elaborate. “Talkative one, aren’t you?”
She returned his look with a level stare. “I’m sure Medical can answer any questions you have once we get back to the Conscientia, Sir.”
“Indeed,” he murmured, still eyeing her as though he could actually see the tiny engineering marvels careening around in her lungs, working diligently to transform each breath into something her body could use. When his examination reached her face, he tilted his head to the side slightly. “Side effects that are obviously not pleasant, yet still you allow them to do it.”
“Why?” He tilted his head the other way and seemed genuinely curious.
She met his gaze and remained silent.
After a few moments he shook his head. “Psych must have a field day with you stoic, military types.”
“Yes, Sir, I would imagine so,” she said truthfully. “Shall we continue on to the floor?”
“Of course, Captain. Lead the way.” The condescension was back, tinged with amusement.
They followed the narrow metal catwalk until they reached another ladder near the loading bay doors. Youngblood paused and gestured below them at a hulking man standing at the head of the loading conveyor.
“Gunnery Sergeant Delebrise is loadmaster, in charge of load balance and manifest reconcile,” she explained, swinging nimbly onto the ladder, her movements graceful and fluid in the negative grav environment. She let go after the first few rungs and dropped the rest of the distance, landing easily beside Delebrise and smiling at the surprised expression on the big man’s face. His eyes widened further as he looked up to see the unmistakable form of the SaRC 1st Academic lumbering slowly and carefully down the ladder behind her.
“Captain.” He said with a nod of greeting as Youngblood stepped up next to him. “Didn’t expect to see you down here.”
“First Academic Crist is quite interested in experiencing all the workings of the mission first hand,” she replied dryly, and glanced around to gauge the loading crew’s progress. “Am I hallucinating, Luce, or are we actually on schedule?”
He glanced furtively at the Academic’s painfully slow progress on the ladder. “Surprises the hell outta me too, Cap,” he said quietly, and looked down to check the tags on a large crate coming off the belt. “Who knew a bunch of SaRC big-brains could be so well behaved?”
She smiled slightly, agreeing with his sentiments about how well this deploy was going. For the most part, these researchers were surprisingly well behaved, with a few glaring exceptions. Two weeks ago, when Guran had assigned Regis Company to play escort to a group of Science and Research Corps personnel on a stint to Leontas, Youngblood had expected the typical trouble that came with a mixed civilian-military operation, but so far, things had gone very smoothly. Or they had been going smoothly, until Crist and his entourage had shown up.
“DZ-9,” Delebrise told two crew members as they picked up the crate and started hauling it away. “And step it up, boys. Don’t want the Captain to think you’re slackin’.” He looked at his chrono and shot Youngblood a smug smile. “We should make it back to Conscientia in plenty of time to watch this big lunar geo whatever the hell it is all the SaRCs are so keen about.”
“Geo-nebular, Gunnery Sergeant,” Crist said in a patronizing voice, stepping up beside them after having finally negotiated his way down the ladder. “Unexplained lunar geo-nebular phenomena,” the Academic continued in a lecturing tone that set Youngblood’s teeth on edge. From Delebrise’s expression, she wasn’t the only one. “An unusual yellowish luminosity and energy fluctuations on the surface of Quantal-Re’s closest moon, Leontas, within the penumbral and umbral shadow of the planet during a total solar eclipse. Or if you’ve forgotten,” he gave them both a look, “the reason that we are all here.”
Or in terms us stoic, stupid military types could understand, Youngblood thought derisively, moon mist.
A full company of Protectorate Marines, a fully staffed class VI Fleet research vessel, and thirty-eight members of the esteemed Science and Research Corps, all for yellow moon mist.
Crazy effing SaRCs. I’ll never understand them.
She kept her thoughts to herself and smiled politely. “Of course, Sir.”
Delebrise raised bushy eyebrows at her mild tone, and she shot him a warning look before turning her attention back to Crist, who was frowning at the latest cluster of lading trundling up the belt, all of which was covered in a fine black dust. He ran a gloved finger along the top of one of the metal boxes, frowning in distaste at the smudge of black on his gloves. He wiped his fingers on the leg of his suit, his frown deepening at the trail of black grit his gloves left along the pale gray polymesh.
“Can’t do nothing about it, Sir - once it’s in, it’s in,” Delebrise announced in a cheerful voice that drew another sharp look from Youngblood.
Crist scowled and Delebrise wisely went back to studying the manifest.
A small gathering of people on the ground at the foot of the conveyor caught Crist’s attention. “Ah. I see several of my colleagues. Would you mind if I spoke to them a moment before we continue on, Captain?”
“Not at all, Sir. I need to talk with Gunnery Sergeant Delebrise for a moment, and I’ll be right with you. There’s a ramp along the right side of the conveyor that you can walk down. Watch your step.”
He nodded, looking suspiciously at the narrow ramp and then back at the captain before starting down it carefully.
Youngblood watched him go and wiped her palm across the top of a specimen box as Crist had done, looking at the resulting mess on her gloves. She wondered why Crist seemed so damn annoyed by the black dust. From what Dr. Harrogan and other SaRC’s had said, it was fairly normal on a moon of Leontas’ size and class. Regolith, the doctor had called it. A fine, powder-like substance created by the impact of micro-meteoroids on the basalt covered surface of Leontas over hundreds of millions of years.
A bloody nuisance, is what she called it.
The stuff seeped into every conceivable crack and crevice, had caused major machinery failure, and was a bitch if it touched bare skin – something about the lack of water and wind in the atmosphere leaving the nearly microscopic particles with jagged edges like tiny barbs…
A damn, bloody nuisance.
Delebrise seemed to read her thoughts and shrugged. “The stuff’s a curse, but it’s better than dragging around on that crap-hole, you ask me.” He gestured out the bay doors at Quantal-Re, the planet where Regis Company had spent the last three months and whose hulking form now took up a good portion of the horizon.
She nodded absently in agreement as she looked out at the massive sphere, remembering with no fondness the last few months of slogging around on that planet, helping with the ‘colonization effort’. Ship loads full of the system’s desperate, suicidal, and just plain stupid, willing to risk the dangers of the Tzanite mines for the big payoff that waited at the end of an eight-month contract.
If they lived that long.
It was a dismal, high grav, low atmosphere, hyperarid environment that was far too harsh for the nanites to do any good, and they’d had to endure it in full AR gear; unpleasant at the best of times, and for three full months…hell.
Her gaze dropped to sweep the rugged, black landscape of their current deploy. Leontas might be bleak and cold, but it was negative grav, the air was breathable with mechanical aid, and the temperatures were tolerable with the right gear. Compared to Quantal-Re, Lenontas was like a holiday.
She looked down at her grit covered gloves and hid a sad smile. Eden, if this is your idea of a holiday then we’ve got some serious problems.
1st Lt. Wynn Briss heaved a bulky metal specimen box off her shoulder with a grunt and maneuvered it neatly onto a stack of similar boxes piled on a small grav skid, absently going through the motions of securing the box as her blue-gray eyes scanned the surrounding vicinity, finding the area deserted.
She glanced at her chrono and ground her teeth together in frustration. They were already going to be late getting back to the shuttle, and now Harrogan had wandered off, ignoring her specific instructions to stay with the skid. Youngblood was not going to be happy, and she’d heard that Youngblood was already in a mood from having the SaRC 1st Academic stuck to her ass like a blood tick for the last two days.
“Damnit, Harrogan… I should have strapped you to the damn railings,” she muttered, and began a wider visual search of the barren, black landscape around her, looking for the tell-tale flash of gray polymesh that would signify the presence of Jones Harrogan, the frighteningly intelligent and just as frighteningly absentminded SaRC mission leader who was currently Briss’s responsibility.
Briss’s other charge, Dr. Tomo Kimura, stepped up to the skid with another box, the low, melodic tone of her voice distorted but not completely hidden by her half-mask. “I know for a fact that the gravity here is negative standard, Wynn, but these damn things are still heavy. I don’t know how you can toss them around like they were loaves of bread,” she finished breathlessly and gave a sigh of relief as Briss slid the box off her shoulder and lifted it easily onto the skid.
“If you’d like to endure a schedule of regular injections that make you violently ill for hours, sometimes days; excruciating muscle cramps; and a shortened life-span, you too can have nanites in your blood that enhance the transfer of oxygen to your muscles,” Briss said flatly as she secured the box to the skid with quick, efficient movements. “But I don’t recommend it.”
Curious, but noting the edge in the other woman’s tone, the scientist let the subject drop. She glanced around the surrounding area and frowned. “Where’d Jones get off too?”
“The good doctor appears to have decided my instructions to stay put did not apply to him,” Briss said tightly and gave the box fastener one final yank. “Imagine that.”
Kimura glanced at shorter woman apologetically, knowing exactly how trying Jones could be. “He can’t have gotten far,” she mused, glancing around while Briss finished with the skid. “We’ve only been gone…ah.” She pointed over Briss’s shoulder. “There he is.”
Briss turned to look where Kimura was pointing, sighing in exasperation as she picked out the doctor’s small, gray-clad form clambering jerkily up the side of a large basalt outcropping at least a half klick away.
“Damnit.” She sighed again.
Both women winced as he lost his footing and slid a few steps backwards, his arms waving wildly.
“Man’s going to kill himself one day,” Briss muttered with a shake of her head, glancing at Kimura who was watching the doctor with a fondly indulgent look. “You SaRCs are all crazy sons of a bitches…you know that, right?”
Kimura’s smile wasn’t visible behind her half-mask, but her dark eyes flashed with humor as she glanced over at Briss. “Annoying as hell, aren’t we?”
Briss snorted in agreement and slapped the com patch on her arm, opening the local communication channel. “Dr. Harrogan, this is Lieutenant Briss. Sir, I need you to start back this way… Captain Youngblood has arrived with the shuttle and called for load-in. We need to be back at the shuttle ASAP.”
There was no response, and the two women watched as the tiny form reached a wide, ledge-like outcropping and turned to wave enthusiastically. Briss rolled her eyes, but couldn’t help a slight smile at the doctor’s exuberance, her sentiment echoed by Kimura’s light laughter.
Briss shook her head and spoke again, trying to sound respectful and authoritative at the same time. “Dr. Harrogan, Sir…”
“Yes, yes, Lieutenant, I hear you,” Harrogan’s reedy voice came over the small receiver nestled in Briss’s ear. “I’ll just be…” She watched as he scrambled up a few more meters, and then heard his sharp intake of breath. “Oh my, this vista is breathtaking…”
Briss raised a skeptical eyebrow, having seen nothing but unrelenting black rock since their landing on Leontas eight days ago. Breathtaking seemed a bit of a stretch, although she did admit the looming brown-orange sphere of Quantal-Re filling up the horizon was quite impressive. Quantal-Re as a planet was a nasty, unpleasant, piss-poor place to spend three months of a tour, but from here on Leontas, two moons away, it seemed almost pretty.
“Doctor,” she said again after a moment. “Captain Youngblood is expecting us back…”
“I know, Lieutenant, and we certainly wouldn’t want to anger the Captain…Oh…” Harrogan’s voice trailed away, sounding surprised. “Oh my.”
“Dr. Harrogan? Sir?” Briss asked in concern, but the sound of scrambling footsteps and Harrogan’s labored breathing were the only response. She gritted her teeth and swore softly. Harrogan was sounding intrigued by something, and Harrogan was prone to do stupid things when he was intrigued. Several near-disastrous incidents came to mind, and Briss swore again, quickly scanning for the best route through the basalt flows to get to Harrogan, preparing to physically retrieve him if he didn’t start back. “Sir…”
“It’s gold…” Harrogan’s voice came moments later, hushed and awed as though he was looking upon the divine. “The regolith…Tomo, it’s gold. Like the phenomenon. This must be…”
There was rumble, followed by a tremendous crack and a high pitched scream, and then silence.
“So, what’s left?” Youngblood motioned to a partially unloaded skid at the bottom of the ramp while keeping one eye on Crist and his group of scientists to make sure the Academic didn’t wander off. “That the last of it?”
“I think so, hang on…” Delebrise peered at his manifest and then looked up, following the direction of her gaze. “What’s he doing out here anyway? Seems a bit gritty for his type, don’t it?”
“He wanted to go, the Lieutenant Colonel said let him. The end.” she answered absently with a frown, gauging the aggravation level of the group around Crist. A few had already drifted away – she guessed she had about five minutes before they all abandoned him and she’d need to be down there to entertain him.
Delebrise snorted softly. “At least you didn’t bring that smarmy little assistant of his, Leets…did you hear what that squicky little bastard said to Maddy at mess last night?”
The gunny’s disgusted tone got her attention and she glanced over at him with a shake of her head.
“He walks up to her where she’s sittin’ with Ralphy, Briss, and Cord, right? Tells her she’s an ‘acceptable specimen’, and invites her back to his rack like he’s doing her this big favor.”
Youngblood raised a pale blond eyebrow. “Did he?”
“Yea-huh,” Delebrise continued, nodding his head. “The whole table goes, like, quiet, right? And he’s just standing there like she should thank him, or lay right down there on the table for him or something, then there’s Briss, putting her arm around Maddy with that crazy-scary grin of hers, all casual like, and telling the squick to ‘lay off her meat’, or something like that…” His face broke into a grin and he chuckled gleefully. “I dunno who looked more smacked, Leets or Maddy.”
Although she was vaguely worried about a civy with a supreme being complex trolling around the ship, propositioning her marines, Youngblood couldn’t hide a smile. Briss had a knack for getting into the middle of things, but always managed to get herself out again by doing or saying something completely unexpected.
“Sounds like Briss,” she said with a nod.
“Oh yeah.” He laughed again. “Love that girl, I do indeed.”
“Don’t we all,” Youngblood murmured with a furrowed brow, realizing she hadn’t seen the petite lieutenant since the team had arrived with the shuttle. She searched the milling group of scientists and marines on the ground for a glimpse of Briss’s compact form. Not seeing her, she glanced at Delebrise. “Where is Briss, anyway? I didn’t see her with the crew up-deck…do we still have teams out?”
“I don’t think so…” Delebrise tapped the datpad a few times and frowned. “Son of a bitch…you’re right. We’re missing a whole skid…eight spec boxes, three tool kits, three tanks…yeah, Briss is still out.” He gave a disgusted snort. “With Harrogan.”
“Dr. Harrogan?” Briss called as she scrambled quickly but carefully down the steep wall of the caved-in lava flow that Harrogan had fallen into, keeping her voice calm despite the panic that hit her at the first sight of the doctor’s unnaturally sprawled body amidst the debris.
She picked her way through the jagged rubble and nearly fainted in relief when she saw movement – a pale, gloved hand raising slowly and then dropping.
“Doctor Harrogan, it’s Lieutenant Briss,” she called as she approached. “I’m going to get you out of here, just stay still for now and let me get some of this off you.”
Skin flap hanging from his cheek, arm at an odd angle, suit’s a mess but it must have stopped the worst of it… She automatically cataloged the visible damage as she reached the injured doctor and began moving debris off his body, stopping abruptly when her examination reached the doctor’s torso. Two sharp, thin, knife-like shards of basalt that once had been the top of the tunnel now pierced Harrogan’s side, just below his ribcage, the black pieces jutting out of the fleshy expanse like the spines, slick with blood and gleaming wetly in the dim light.
“Shit on a biscuit…” she whispered softly, blinking in shock.
The doctor’s hand moved again, and Briss forced her gaze away from the grisly sight up to Harrogan’s face. His eyes were open and focused on her, the pale blue surrounded by pristine white startling against the black-smudged, blood streaked skin of his face and the dull black of his half-mask.
“Lieutenant…” The voice was barely a whisper, and his breathing was labored. “I…” He coughed, the sound low and gurgley. “I seem…to have…gotten…myself into a…predicament,” he wheezed, and a grimace as he coughed again.
“Well,” she forced an encouraging smile and crouched down beside him, pushing a few more loose chucks of basalt off of his body. “Maybe just a tiny one, Doctor.”
She fumbled in a pocket of her vest for a strip of med-tape and pushed the hood of his lightsuit back off his forehead slightly, gently laying the tape across the exposed strip of skin. The tape turned from a light blue to a yellowish green and a tiny spark of hope she’d been nurturing flamed higher. He was moving, talking, and not yet critical, according to the tape…maybe it wasn’t as bad as it looked.
“You’ll be back on your feet and irritating the piss out of Captain Youngblood in no time,” she said with another smile and ran her hands across his body, quickly checking for other damage. The arm is definitely broken, shoulder possibly dislocated…
“Ah…” He made a raspy sound somewhere between a laugh and a cough. “I always…did…find…your honesty…refreshing, Lieutenant….”
She chuckled and sat back on her heels, reaching into another pocket of her vest and pulling out a small, black med-kit. “Be sure to share that with the Captain…I think she finds my honesty irritating, rather than refreshing.”
“The Captain…” his words were stopped by a spasm of coughing.
“Shh…” Briss laid a gentle hand on his head. “Let’s save the talking for later. You can buy me a drink on Q-1 and tell me everything you know about astroidian fractals and I’ll tell you about the time I saw Captain Youngblood get ripping drunk and take on four Tzanite miners at once. For now, just be still. I’m going to give you a sedative for the pain.”
He nodded, watching with surprisingly alert eyes as she pulled a set of small vials and a hypo-spray out of the med-kit. She loaded a sedative and administered it with another reassuring smile, watching as the sedative took effect and doctor’s body slowly relaxed.
When his eyes finally closed, she took a shaky breath. Shit.
This was bad – really bad. They needed to get Harrogan out of here, and soon.
She put her hands on her thighs to push herself to her feet, noticing the yellowish marks her hands left on her lightsuit. She looked down at her hands and frowned at the yellow dust covering her palms.
“The regolith…Tomo, it’s gold. Like the phenomenon…”
The words Harrogan spoke before his fall came back to her and she glanced around where Harrogan was sprawled, noticing a dusting of yellow over the rubble from the collapse.
She looked at her hands again, rubbing some of the dust between her fingers and thumb before looking back at Harrogan.
High price to pay for yellow dust… She shook her head and watched Harrogan’s uneven breathing for a moment before a rattle of rocks above her drew her attention.
“Tomo…” she began as she spotted the other scientist on the lip of the collapse, staring down at her battered colleague and friend in shock.
“Holy Mother…” Kimura’s wide, frightened eyes met Briss’s. “I know you said to wait at the skid, Wynn, but…I…you were gone so long…” she said faintly. “Is he…” Her voice broke. “Oh, Jones…”
Briss rose quickly to her feet and held her hands out in a calming gesture. “He’s alive, Tomo. Banged up, but alive. I just gave him a sedative to keep him still and help with the pain…”
“Holy Mother,” the woman repeated again, her eyes once again on Harrogan’s still form, her body beginning to shake.
“Tomo!” Briss said sharply, realizing how close the scientist was to breaking. She waved to pull the other woman’s attention away from Harrogan. “Stay with me, Kimura…I need you, okay?”
The doctor nodded slowly, and took a deep breath. “What do you need me to do?” she said quietly.
“Can you make it down here?”
The woman nodded.
“I don’t want to move him without some help…I need to contact the shuttle, and get a med team out here. There’s a booster on the skid. I’m going to go back and call in, then come right back, okay? I want you to come down here and sit with him…talk to him, hold his hand…just be with him.”
“I don’t think…” Kimura blinked furiously and looked away.
“I need you to do this Tomo,” Briss said softly. “He needs you. Please…”
“I…” She took a deep breath and let it out in a slow sigh, meeting Briss’s gaze for a long moment before beginning to carefully make her way down the steep wall.
“Goddamn Harrogan,” Youngblood said irritably and pursed her lips. Harrogan was one of those glaring exceptions to the well behaved researchers – the only one, actually, before Crist had shown up – and Youngblood wasn’t at all surprised that Harrogan was going to be the entity that threw their schedule all to shit.
She looked at her chrono. There was no way to make it back to the Conscientia on schedule if they had to go chasing after Harrogan. “Damnit, that’s why I put him with Briss this time.”
Delebrise let out a short bark of laughter. “Briss is good, Cap, but even she can’t sweet talk Harrogan into behaving himself. I don’t think it’s possible.”
“Damn that man…” she fumed. “Probably did this on purpose, to be the first to experience the phenomenon up close and personal like. This is going to…”
“Captain Youngblood?” The voice of the communications officer came over her ear receiver, interrupting her rant.
She automatically hit the com patch on her shoulder. “Youngblood here. Go ahead, Corporal.”
There was a pause. “Ma’am, it’s Dr. Harrogan. He’s out with Dr. Kimura and Lieutenant Briss…”
“I’m aware of that, Corporal,” she said tersely.
“Uh…Captain?” Palley’s tone was nervous…worried. “I think you need to come up here, Ma’am.”
She felt a knot form in her stomach, but kept her voice calm. “On my way.”
“Report, Corporal,” Youngblood barked as she cleared the last two rungs of the ladder onto the bridge moments later, pulling back the hood of her lightsuit to reveal a bristly shock of white-blonde hair.
Corporal Jarrod Palley jerked slightly at his console and spun towards her in surprise, holding up his hand in a gesture for her to wait. “Lieutenant,” he said into the tiny mic attached to his headset, “Captain Youngblood is here. I’m putting you on open.” He tapped the console and nodded at Youngblood.
“This is Youngblood…Lieutenant, what’s going on?”
“Captain… it’s Harrogan, Ma’am,” Briss said after small pause. “He’s badly hurt – fell through one of the lava tunnels and it sliced him up pretty bad. He’s down about ten meters, a steep grade, and he’s…impaled…on the debris from the collapse. I’ve given him a sedative so he keeps still, and I got near-green with the tape, but we need a med team from the Conscientia. This is way beyond my training, Ma’am. It’s bad.”
“I’ve contacted the Conscientia, Captain,” Palley broke in quietly, turning back to the console and pressing a few more buttons, “and asked them to get together a med team…”
“What’s the ETA?” she asked, glancing at her chrono.
“They’re on hold…Woral wants to talk with you first.”
Her lips tightened in anger. Lyris Woral was a World Protectorate Fleet captain, and helmed the Conscientia, the lab vessel assigned to transport Regis Company and the SaRC team to Leontas. Who outranked who between Fleet, SaRC, and WPMC on this mission was not completely clear, and she’d been aware of Woral’s wary, antagonistic regard from the moment she stepped on his ship. “That stupid ass…”
“Captain?” Briss interrupted quietly. “Whatever happens has to happen fast. Blood loss doesn’t seem to be too bad, but his breathing is weak, and kind of…wet. I think it would be worse if I tried to get the shard out so I just left it…” she trailed off hesitantly.
“You did the right thing, Lieutenant,” Youngblood said immediately, and heard Briss let out a slow breath.
“Thank you, Ma’am. I hope so.”
“You did.” she repeated with conviction, and looked over at Palley. “Corporal? Get Cregson up to speed on what’s happening and tell him to pick two people and load up an ATR and get out there to help when the med transport arrives. Then get Goral on the com.” Palley nodded and turned his eyes back to the console, speaking quietly into his mic.
“Lieutenant.” Youngblood returned her attention to Briss. “Sergeant Cregson came on the shuttle with me, and he’s got level three medic training. I’m sending him out with a team to help until the transport gets to you. We have your coordinates…” she glanced at Palley and got a nod in confirmation, then asked him, “Do we have an ETA, Corporal?”
Palley listened to his earpiece for a moment before answering. “Cregson’s gathering his team now, Ma’am…I’d say fifteen to twenty minutes.”
“Did you get that, Lieutenant?”
“Yes, Ma’am…thank you,” came the quiet reply.
Youngblood planted her feet firmly and clasped her hands behind her back, her demeanor belying nothing of the internal turmoil she was experiencing. “Anyone else hurt, Lieutenant? Are you alright?”
“I’m…” Briss paused and cleared her throat. “I’m fine, Captain.”
Youngblood closed her eyes briefly, the knot in her stomach easing a little, and took a soft breath, surprised at the intensity of her relief. She’d ponder that later. “Glad to hear it. And Dr. Kimura?”
“Tomo…Dr. Kimura is fine. She was with me at the skid. We were loading up when Harrogan saw something that got him all stirred up – he must have headed towards whatever it was and tried to shortcut over the tunnels…oh,” she said, as though she’d just remembered something. “You might want to send a SaRC team out, too…there’s a kind of yellowish dust I saw, and I think that’s what Harrogan was so excited about…”
“What’s that?” Crist’s eager voice, very close to Youngblood’s ear, caused both she and Palley to start in surprise. “What’s that about yellow regolith, Lieutenant?”
“Uh…Captain?” Briss’s voice was uncertain.
How did he get up here so effing quietly? Youngblood thought, but recovered quickly and just managed to quell the urge to deal with Crist the quickest way possible – a quick elbow to the throat would surely drop him for at least ten minutes. Instead she turned to him with a tight smile. “Sir, I have a matter here that needs my attention. Corporal Palley will call someone to escort you back to the lower deck or the hold, if you’d like to continue supervising load-in…”
He waved her words aside, his eyes alight with excitement. “Lieutenant…what did you say about the regolith?”
“Sir, I must ask you…” Youngblood tried again.
Crist turned to stare at her, giving her a moment to remember who he was, and to think about what she was doing.
She did. She also contemplated the elbow to the throat again, but only for a moment. “Go ahead Lieutenant. Answer the 1st Academic’s question,” she said finally, the evenness of her tone in direct contradiction to the anger flashing in her pale blue eyes.
“Wise choice, Captain,” Crist said softly, smiling his triumph. “Tell me what you saw, Lieutenant,” he continued, his gaze shifting to stare with unfocused intensity at a spot beyond Youngblood’s left shoulder.
“Nothing much to tell, Sir. Just before he fell, Harrogan mentioned something over the com about the regolith being gold, and when I was down with him, where the tunnel caved in, I noticed it on my hands. Gritty, just like the black stuff, only yellow…” she stopped, and there were several moments of silence before she said hesitantly, “Captain Youngblood? I’d like to get back. I left Dr. Kimura alone…I’ll take the booster with me and keep in contact…”
“Of course, Lieutenant,” Youngblood said quickly, deliberately not looking at Crist for approval. He’d gotten enough. “Cregson’s team will be there soon. We’ll expect call-in at,” she glanced at her chrono, “fifteen twenty-five. Youngblood out.”
“Thank you, Ma’am. Briss out.”
Youngblood turned to Palley, still ignoring Crist. “Did you get Woral?”
Palley nodded, tapped at his console then spoke into his mic. “Captain Woral, I have Captain Youngblood for you. Go ahead.”
“Youngblood?” Woral’s deep voice filled the bridge. “What the pith is going on? Your Corporal called in, asking for…”
“Captain Woral,” Youngblood interrupted, the bite in her tone stopping the other captain immediately. “Is the med team ready?”
“Yes, of course. I just wanted…”
“Send them,” she said quietly. “Now.”
She gritted her teeth at the unwelcome familiarity. “Now, Lyris.”
The com clicked, and went quiet for a moment. Youngblood felt Crist’s interest behind her, and caught Palley’s furtive look, but ignored them both, staring straight ahead through the bridge’s narrow view port at the black landscape.
Eventually, Woral came back on com. “They’re on their way. Now would you please tell me what…”
“Lyris,” she interrupted for the second time. “This will not happen again. You will never, ever delay again when one of my people calls in an emergency. I don’t care if it’s the goddamned kitchen crew…you take it seriously, and you damn well get them what they need. Immediately. Do you understand me, Captain?” Not waiting for an answer, she made a chopping motion to Palley, who ended the communication.
She stood for a moment, her jaw clenching and unclenching, before turning to Crist.
“I suppose you’ll want to be part of the SaRC team that goes out,” she said matter-of-factly, “which means I’ll be joining you. How fortunate that we’re already suited up.” Her smile was brittle. “The ATRs are housed on the port side of hold three…we’ll be leaving in five minutes, you can take one other researcher with you.”
“The transport supposedly had ‘mechanical difficulties’,” Palley said with noticeable sarcasm before his tone turned apologetic. “I’m sorry Lieutenant, I can’t give you an ETA on the transport…we’re getting mixed messages from the com room on the Conscientia, and I can’t even say for sure it launched again.”
After making her way back to the cave-in site with the communications booster strapped to her back, Briss had checked on Harrogan and Kimura before calling in as instructed at fifteen twenty-five. Palley’s news was definitely not what she wanted to hear and she closed her eyes and took a deep breath, blowing it out in a long sigh.
“Damnit.” She opened her eyes and glanced quickly down into the collapsed tunnel where Kimura knelt, talking quietly to the still, pale form of her colleague. “Harrogan doesn’t have time for Woral to be playing at shit like this. Does the Captain know?”
“Uh…yes, Ma’am. I caught her just before she went out of com range…and between you and me, Ma’am, I would not want to be Woral when we get back. The Captain was…displeased.”
Briss smiled slightly, despite her growing anger at the situation and getting caught up in what amounted to a juvenile game of King of the Mountain with someone who should know better. “Diplomatic of you, Palls,” she said with a quiet laugh. “What you really mean is that if the Captain finds out the transport was delayed on purpose, she’s going to want Woral’s balls on a platter, and he’d better start learning to sing soprano or invest in metal pants, ‘cause Cap usually gets what she wants.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Palley replied, trying and failing to disguise a snort of laughter.
Briss smiled wider, allowing herself a moment to savor the picture of Youngblood chasing after Woral with a thirty centimeter duty knife, her icy blue eyes flashing in anger…
The smile faded when she realized something about Palley’s previous statement. “Wait…you said you caught the captain before she went out of com range…she’s coming out with Cregson?”
“No Ma’am, not with Cregson, but soon after. First Academic Crist wants to take a look at the yellow dust you saw, and Captain Youngblood is accompanying him.”
She grimaced, but kept her tone neutral. “Captain Youngblood is coming out with First Academic Crist?”
“Yes Ma’am.” Again, Palley’s tone was apologetic. “They left just a few minutes after Cregson, Hoyt and Varachne.”
“Right. Lovely. Guess I’ll see them shortly, then. Thanks, Corporal. Briss out.”
“Yes, Ma’am. Verum out.”
The lieutenant yanked the booster’s headset off in annoyance and ran a gloved hand through dark, short-cropped hair. She’d pulled back the hood of her lightsuit to use the headset and could feel the cold starting to bite at her ears, but left the hood off, preferring the cold to the confining feeling she got with the hood on. A glance at chrono told her it had been twenty-six minutes since she’d given the doctor the sedative and about twenty-one minutes since she’d first called the accident in and requested a med team from the Conscientia. Considering Palley’s news, it was likely now that Cregson’s team, and Youngblood and Crist, would beat the med transport and she hoped Cregson could help. She looked down the slope at Harrogan and shook her head. They’d better make it soon; she could hear the doctor’s labored breathing even at a distance.
She sighed and took a few steps away from the lip of the collapse, looking down the flows at the distant shape their grav skid, then turned curious eyes towards the large, irregularly shaped splash of yellow spreading out from the jagged edge of the collapse and running along the outcropping for five or six meters.
The color was jarring against the unremitting black dust and rock of the surrounding terrain, and Briss wondered how she hadn’t noticed it when she first made the ledge. Hard to miss, she thought with a shake of her head. Hell, it practically glows. She frowned and took a step closer. It was, in fact, glowing. Like a solar light at dusk…Briss looked around carefully, assuring herself that her eyes weren’t playing tricks on her. It was getting darker.
She stepped back towards the collapse and called out hesitantly, “Uh…Tomo? Does it seem…darker to you?”
Kimura looked up at her, blinking. “Sorry?”
“Does it seem,” Briss waved a hand at the surrounding area vaguely, “darker.”
The scientist’s brow furrowed, then her eyes widened and she stood up. “It’s the eclipse…” She glanced quickly at her chrono. “We’re just inside the penumbral shadow now…gods, I completely forgot about that.” She looked up at Briss with dark, worried eyes. “You know, once we move into the umbral shadow, Quantal-Re is a large enough mass that we’ll probably experience near total darkness for the duration of umbral, which is an hour and twenty-seven minutes.”
Briss took a look at the slow creeping darkness around them, and then back down at the scientist, noting the disquiet in the other woman’s voice. “And how long until this umbral shadow?”
“A little over twenty minutes.”
“Right.” Briss thought for a moment and nodded. “Cregson should be here soon – I’m going to meet them and see if they need help with carrying. I’ll bring this down to you, so you can answer any call-ins,” she secured the headset and swung the communications booster onto her back by its strap, settling it into place with a few jumps and then picking her way down the slope to the floor of the collapse. “You know how to use it, right?” she asked as she lowered the slender, rectangular box to the ground.
“I’m sure I can figure it out,” Kimura said with a wan smile.
Briss returned the smile. “I’m sure. Hopefully, I won’t be long…” she glanced down at Harrogan’s still form and stopped. “Tomo,” she said slowly, reaching out to pull the woman back from the injured doctor. “What’s that?”
“What’s what…” The other woman followed Briss’s gaze, her mouth opening slightly in surprise when she saw what had disturbed the lieutenant. “Oh.”
Like a thin, golden mist, the yellowish dust around Harrogan wasn’t just glowing; it was floating. Rising from the debris to form a haze over the doctor’s body, it eddied back and forth as if blown by a non-existent breeze.
Briss took another step back and stopped Kimura from moving towards the mist. The scientist stopped without protest, her eyes never leaving the floating haze, her expression full of wonder.
The darkened cave-in suddenly brightened, and they looked up to see streams of golden mist begin to flow over the lip of the collapse from above, a waterfall of glowing color in the gathering darkness.
“It’s beautiful,” Kimura said in awe.
On the floor of the collapse the streams met and swirled, joining with the haze to create a translucent cloud of yellow that seemed to pulse above the doctor’s body. Wisps of mist from the cloud descended to skim along Harrogan’s still form before rising again, as though mapping the injured doctor’s body.
“It’s studying…almost as though it’s…sentient,” the scientist breathed in wonder. “And do you feel that? It’s like a current, an energy…”
“Yeah, I feel it,” Briss said softly. The hair on the nape of her neck stood up and she suppressed a shiver. What Kimura called a current, Briss called a bad, bad feeling and she wasn’t about to start ignoring her gut now. It had saved her ass on far too many occasions.
“Tomo, get away from it,” she said flatly and pulled her KX-70 out of it’s leg holster, doubting it would do much good against something like this but finding the weight of the weapon in her hand comforting. She trained the weapon on the swirling haze and began to back away faster, grabbing Kimura’s arm and pulling the scientist along with her.
Her actions startled the doctor out of her enthralled observations, and she frowned at Briss and shook her head. “Wynn, we don’t know that there’s anything dangerous…”
“Fuck that,” Briss said harshly, bodily turning Kimura around and pushing her up the slope. “Go. Now!”
“I’ll get the doctor…go!” She pushed Kimura again towards the slope.
The woman hesitated and then began to climb obediently; Briss watched for a moment then turned back towards Harrogan, holstering her weapon and approaching cautiously, hoping she was making the right decision in trying to move him. If she was wrong, it might mean the doctor’s life, but if she was right, leaving him wasn’t a better option.
She knelt next to the doctor, contemplating the best way to lift him off the shards while keeping herself away from the mist. She reached under his body and began to lift gently when she realized the drifting mist on the edges of the main mass had floated down to Harrogan’s face and with every labored breath, more and more of the mist trickled into his mouth.
The doctor’s body jerked in Briss’s arms and he flailed wildly, striking her across the face and knocking her backwards. His eyes flew open in panic and his mouth opened in a blood-curdling scream…a scream that went on and on as the chaotic mass above him coalesced into something more solid, almost serpent like, and poured down into his open mouth. The lieutenant scuttled backwards, crab-like, and watched helplessly as Harrogan arched his back, writhing in pain, his shrieks echoing against the walls of the collapse.
Realizing there was nothing she could do for the doctor, Briss scrambled to her feet and started up the slope, catching Kimura who had turned around and was stumbling back down.
“Jones!” Kimura tried to lunge past the lieutenant but Briss held her tightly from behind as the doctor struggled and fought against her. “Do something, Wynn! Gods…” she sobbed, “please, do something…”
“I’m sorry…it’s too late,” Briss said, her voice breaking “There’s nothing we can do. I’m so sorry…”
Kimura’s struggles weakened and Briss took the opportunity to push her farther up the slope, Harrogan’s desperate screams chasing them, urging them on. After interminable minutes, the screams began to fade into pain-wracked whispers, then silence. Briss paused and risked a look back, wishing she hadn’t when they saw his shriveled, crumpled body, the skin of his face stretched impossibly tight against the protruding bones, as though his flesh had been eaten from the inside, leaving only skin and bone behind.
“Jones?” Kimura said in a childlike voice, and tried to pull away, back down the hill.
“Tomo...” Briss began, but Kimura jumped back quickly when Harrogan’s deformed head fell to the side, bulging eyes open and staring unblinkingly at them in a final plea, his mouth stretched wide, frozen in terror and pain. A tendril of yellow mist escaped his mouth, rising lazily for a moment and then faster and faster as the shrunken body poured forth a pulsing, swirling cloud of gold in a last guttural sigh.
The roiling, glowing mass hovered over the doctor’s body, seeming larger and brighter than before, casting Harrogan’s withered face and last, terrified scream in an eerie, unnatural light. It hung for a moment before beginning to drift slowly, almost imperceptibly, towards the slope where they stood.
It was enough to snap Briss out of her temporary paralysis. “Tomo, move,” she hissed, and tried to turn the other woman around.
The doctor only stared at the cloud as though mesmerized, her face slack with terror.
“I said move!” Briss roared, pushing her roughly. The doctor finally responded, moving clumsily up the last few meters of slope in front of Briss, scrambling over the lip and onto the outcropping.
“Keep going,” Briss panted with a push as they stumbled across the flat area, lifting the doctor and bodily dragging her when she tripped and fell to her knees. “Come on,” she pulled Kimura to the edge of the outcropping and kept a steadying hand on her arm as they began to pick their way down the ledge face towards the flows, the encroaching eclipse shadow casting a surreal, reddish light over the landscape.
As they moved down the incline, Briss slapped the com patch on her arm. “This is Briss. Who’s on com?” There was no response save her own, labored breathing. “This is Lieutenant Briss…is anyone on com, over…” she tried again.
“I thought…they were sending a team…” Kimura said hesitantly after Briss tried several more times to raise someone on com, swearing bitterly when there was no response to her calls.
“They were. Must be some kind of glitch with the coms,” Briss replied, glancing furtively behind them, relieved to see nothing but black rock and quickly darkening sky. Their pace slowed as the falling darkness and odd light made it hard to gauge the terrain under their feet, but they kept moving, casting frequent, apprehensive glances behind them.
Briss tried the com again to no avail, pausing to allow the now limping doctor to lead the way as they squeezed through a break between two boulder-like chunks of basalt. Kimura was out of sight for only moments when she let out a strangled shriek and leapt backward into Briss.
The lieutenant had her weapon in her hand and aimed over the doctor’s shoulder without a conscious thought, wrapping the other arm around the trembling scientist and pulling her backward. “What was it?”
“A light,” the woman whispered faintly. “It was right in front of me…”
Briss tightened her grip on the gun and kept backing away, risking a quick glance behind her as she maneuvered them out of the rocks. “Was it…”
“Lieutenant?” came Cregson’s questioning voice, just before he stepped out between the rocks, his lanky form almost indistinguishable behind the bright light of his headlamp. He was followed by two other soldiers, all of whom raised startled hands when they found themselves staring down the barrel of Briss’s KX-70.
“Ma’am?” Cregson croaked, flicking his gaze from the gun up to Briss’s face, slowly reaching a hand over to dim his headlamp. “Ma’am, we heard screams…”
“Turn around,” Briss said tightly. “We need to get the hell out of here.”
He blinked and glanced at his two team members before looking back at her. “What about Dr. Harrogan, Ma’am?”
“Dr Harrogan is dead,” she said bluntly, pulling Kimura upright as she re-holstered her weapon. “Let’s go.”
When none of the men moved, Briss stepped forward quickly and grabbed Cregson’s arm, pulling his face close to hers. “Harrogan was killed by something very, very nasty,” she said intensely, “and whatever it was might be looking for its next meal. Trust me, that’s not something any of us want to be. You’re going back down that hill, soldier, that’s a goddamn order!”
“Yes, Ma’am,” the three soldiers said in unison, automatically snapping to attention.
Briss shoved a dazed Kimura at Cregson. “You and Varachne help her. Hoyt, you’re point…move fast but don’t lose us – we only have the three lamps between us, and this light screws with vision.” The stocky man received the instructions with a nod, frowning when she added, “And yell bloody murder if you see anything hinky.”
“You’ll know it when you see it,” she said grimly. “Now move out.”
They started back down the incline, the white light thrown by the lamps and extra help for Kimura allowing them to move quickly.
“Sergeant,” Briss called to Cregson after they had gone several meters, “were you in contact with Captain Youngblood? Palley said she was coming out with Crist.”
“We had some trouble with the coms, Ma’am, but from what I heard before we cut out, they were behind us by a few minutes. In fact, I imagine that might be them.” Cregson pointed his lamp in the direction of the flows where several hundred meters in the distance, lights bobbed and the dim outline of three shapes could be seen.
Briss nodded and slapped her com patch. “Briss to Youngblood. Captain, can you hear me?”
“Like I said, Ma’am, we had trouble with the coms and haven’t been able to hail her,” the sergeant said respectfully when there was no response.
“Ma’am?” Hoyt called from the front, “if that is the Captain, it looks like they might have come up a different way, maybe got their ATR further. We couldn’t get ours much further than your skid, and that’s down and to the left a ways…do you want us to intercept them, or go straight to the rover?”
Briss glanced at Youngblood’s group, and called for a stop. “Hoyt, you and Varachne take Dr. Kimura to the ATR and get your asses back to the shuttle. Cregson, you’re with me…we’ll intercept the captain and ride back with them.”
“When you get to the shuttle, contact the transport, or the Conscientia if you need to, and divert them from going to Harrogan’s coordinates.” She laid a hand on the Kimura’s shoulder and squeezed gently. “They’ll want to know what happened, Tomo. I know it’s hard, but they need to know it all, to know how to respond.”
The woman nodded mutely, and Briss gave her an encouraging smile. “You’ll do fine.” Briss stepped back nodded at Hoyt and Varachne. “See you at the shuttle, gentleman. Take good care of the doctor.”
“We will, Ma’am.”
“I don’t doubt it. Just keep moving, and if you see anything that’s not black like the rest of this damn moon, stay the hell away from it. Got me?”
“Good. Now go.”
“Be careful, Wynn,” Kimura whispered as the two soldiers led her away. Briss gave her encouraging smile and watched the three until they disappeared over a rise. She turned to Cregson, who was watching her carefully.
“What the hell happened, Briss?” he asked quietly.
“Nothing good, Creg…” She shook her head and glanced back the way they’d come. A glowing, golden stream was visible in the distance, flowing in column-like precision down the sheer rock face of the outcropping. “Ah, shit!” She turned Cregson roughly and pushed. “Move!”
“What the hell is that?” he stopped, staring stupidly at the sight.
She pushed again, hard enough to almost knock him over. “Nothing you want to tangle with, so get fucking moving!”
Finally perceiving the urgency in her tone, Cregson spun and headed down the slope at a good clip, forcing Briss to scramble after him to keep in the illumination of his light. Thankfully after about thirty meters, the rough incline took one final, steep drop down onto the flows where the going was much smoother and Cregson increased the pace to a jog.
Briss stayed on his flank, glancing back occasionally to keep track of the glowing cloud, dismayed to see that it had dropped straight onto the flows, bypassing the twisted route she and Kimura had been forced to take, and was moving towards the bobbing lights of Youngblood’s team.
“Fuck!” She grabbed Cregson and broke into a full out run. “Move it, Sergeant! Move!”
Youngblood glanced back to check on the two men behind her, doing her best to hide her impatience at their glacial pace. Wilton, the researcher Crist had chosen to accompany them, kept stopping every few steps to pick up rocks, and Crist had a long, involved opinion on each and every chunk of black stone that Wilton handed him.
As if they’re not effing identical, Youngblood thought, pursing her lips in annoyance. If Crist would just shut the hell up for ten seconds, maybe Wilton would stop trying to please him by picking up pebbles…
She glanced ahead briefly, then down at the small nav unit in her hand, automatically checking that they were still heading in the right direction. She slowed, doing a double-take when she noticed a faint glow illuminating the craggy terrain ahead of them, and stopped dead when the faint glow developed into a glowing, amorphous, yellow mass that seemed to bubble up from the landscape and spill down the sloped terrain, pooling into a dense, swirling cloud for a moment before continuing its slow but steady progression down the slope.
Crist let out an aggravated bark when he ran into her back, but his annoyance was immediately forgotten in a sharp intake of breath.
“It’s magnificent,” he said in astonishment, reaching up to fumble with the switch on his head lamp. “Turn your lamps off,” he gestured impatiently at Youngblood and Wilton, his eyes never leaving the luminous, ethereal stream of gold in the distance. “Are you seeing this, Wilton?”
“Oh yes,” the younger scientist said in a hushed whisper, switching off his lamp and stepping up beside Crist to stare in awe.
Youngblood stared also, but in disquiet rather than awe. She’d never seen anything like it, and that made her extremely uneasy. “Doctors…any idea what we’re looking at?” She took a step back and unconsciously put out an arm, attempting to move the doctors back with her.
“No idea,” Wilton said, a silly grin plastered on his face, “but isn’t it wonderful?”
Crist gave his colleague an irritated glance and pushed disdainfully past Youngblood’s outstretched arm. “It’s obviously an energy field of some sort…this must be what’s been causing the energy fluctuations. My dear Captain Youngblood, we are witnessing the phenomenon first hand!” He flung his arms wide in a dramatic fashion and started forward.
“Sir,” Youngblood caught up with him in a few quick strides and laid a hand on his arm. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to get any closer. We don’t know what that thing is, and until we have more information, it’s best to err on the side of caution, don’t you agree?”
“No, Captain, I don’t.” He jerked his arm away with a glare. “I don’t think you realize the portent of what we are seeing…this is something a scientist like Dr. Wilton and I wait a lifetime to see, and I’m not going to miss it because of your misguided caution.”
He walked on with purpose, Wilton on his heels, and Youngblood let them go, her attention momentarily caught by a jerking, white light careening down the flow towards them. She recognized the light as a headlamp, and the faint outline of two lightsuited soldiers, but why were they coming this way? Briss was with Harrogan and Kimura; and Cregson, Hoyt and Varachne should have reached her by now…why would anyone be coming down?
She looked back at the glowing mass. To her eye, the meandering of moments ago was gone, replaced by a dark, ominous intent.
She started forward after the two scientists, just as a yell came to her from the vicinity of the bobbing headlamp. “Captain! Stay away from it! Get back!”
She slowed for a moment in surprise at hearing her lieutenant’s voice, and then picked up the pace as comprehension of the message sunk in.
She wasn’t the only one to hear Briss’s shout; Crist looked in Briss’s direction, then over his shoulder at the gaining Youngblood and broke into a run, lumbering toward the glimmering mass.
“Goddamn fucking idiot,” Youngblood swore, and was still swearing when she caught up with Wilton, grabbed him by the neck, and yanked him to a stop. She spun him around, turned on his headlamp, and pushed him forcefully back down the flow. “Go back. If you turn around, I’ll blow out your kneecaps.”
She didn’t wait to see what effect the threat had – she’d done what she could for him, and if he was stupid enough to come back, then so be it. She turned and raced after Crist, spotting his form thirty meters ahead, moving much faster than she thought possible.
The mass was close enough now that its pulsing glow illuminated the doctor’s lurching progress; close enough that Youngblood could see the roiling, chaotic movement inside the cloud; close enough to feel energy pouring off of it in waves, like something wet and slithery crawling up her spine and pounding in her skull.
“Doctor!” she yelled and put on a last burst of speed when Crist stopped and reached both hands towards the cloud, his smile beatific. A snake of mist shot from the cloud and coiled around him, yanking him off his feet…and then she was falling, tumbling to the ground as Briss barreled into her at a full run.
Youngblood heard the crack of her headlamp against a rock and her light went dark; they rolled several times and as soon as they stopped, Briss hooked an arm under hers and began scrambling backwards, pulling Youngblood with her. “Come on, Captain…we need to get away from it. That thing killed Harrogan – sucked him dry and…”
A high-pitched scream cut Briss off mid sentence, and Youngblood jerked her head to look, eyes widening in shock as the coiling entity swirled around Crist and poured into his mouth. She barely registered that Briss had pulled her to her feet and was dragging her backwards until they toppled into a shallow depression and Briss finally released her and wiggled up to peek over the edge.
“Creg!” she called, her voice nearly lost in Crist’s screams.
“Fine, Lieutenant,” came the reply. “Dr. Wilton is with me.”
“What the hell is that thing,” Youngblood whispered as she maneuvered herself up next to Briss, her gaze drawn unwittingly to Crist’s writhing form. His back was bowed, his eyes wide with terror, his arms thrashing violently as the last of the cloud entered him. There was a moment of silence, before another piercing shriek filled the air, and Youngblood unconsciously moved toward the sound of distress, stopped only by Briss’s firm grip on her arm.
“Don’t. It’s too late…I saw this happen before, and there’s nothing you can do.” The younger woman looked at her intently. “We need to get back to the ATR, and back to the shuttle. Let’s just get the fuck away from it…Ma’am,” she added as an afterthought.
“Where’s Kimura?” Youngblood asked after a moment, setting aside her horror and smoothly switching into command mode.
“I sent her on with Hoyt and Varachne…they should be halfway to the shuttle by now.”
Youngblood knew where Cregson and Wilton were – in the cloud’s glow she could see them about twenty meters away, inching backwards slowly.
Youngblood nodded. “Let’s get to them, and then get the hell out of here.”
Youngblood couldn’t help a glance at Crist; his screams were fading now and his movements weakening. Just as Briss had described, his body was shrunken and twisted grotesquely as though sucked dry. Youngblood shuddered.
“We need to move, Ma’am. It’ll be done soon, and looking for something else,” Briss spoke quietly in her ear.
Youngblood turned her head, finding herself inches away from the other woman. They stared at each other for a long moment, and then in a move that surprised them both, she leaned forward and brushed her lips across the lieutenant’s softly, realizing as she did that she had wanted to do that for quite some time.
Briss blinked in surprise, and then a slow smile spread across her face. “Glad it’s not just me, Ma’am.”
“No, Lieutenant, it’s not just you.” She smiled slightly and cupped the woman’s cheek before her expression turned serious. “Thank you…for before. You could have gone for Crist…” she let that hang in the air between them, not a condemnation, just a statement.
Briss grinned. “Matter of priorities, Ma’am.”
Youngblood smiled back, holding Briss’s gaze for a moment before turning and peering into the yellow-red darkness. “Cregson!”
“Ma’am!” came the immediate reply.
Location determined, Youngblood touched Briss’s arm before she rose and sprinted over the broken rock, confident Briss would follow.
“We’re getting the hell out of here, Sergeant,” she said as she dropped down beside the Cregson and Briss settled herself on the other side of Wilton.
“Yes, Ma’am,” he said with feeling, and she hid a smile despite the circumstances.
“We’ll need to move fast, and to do that, we’ll need light…Sergeant, you have a light, and you too, Dr. Wilton…Briss, what happened to yours?” she asked.
“We expected to be back at the shuttle before the eclipse – didn’t bring one along.”
“Wilton…Doctor, let me have yours, please.”
The bewildered looking doctor hesitated a moment before pulling off his headlamp and handing it over to Youngblood.
“Okay.” She pulled her useless one off and tossed it to the side, looping the working lamp over her head and securing it tightly. “The ATR is straight that way, about a quarter klick,” she pointed down the flow into the darkness. “Cregson, you lead and keep Dr. Wilton close. Briss, you follow, and I’ll be right behind. On my count. Clear?”
“Ma’am,” Briss said quietly, “let me take up the rear. I’ll stay close, and use your light.”
“Ma’am, it’s my job. I should be behind you.”
The two women held each other’s gaze for another long moment before Youngblood nodded. “Alright, but you’re right on my ass, Briss, understand?”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Briss smiled slightly.
Youngblood refocused her eyes on Cregson and Wilton, straightening slightly. “Okay. We ready?” She received nods in response, and settled her gaze back on Briss. “You call it, Lieutenant, you’re rear-guard.”
Briss nodded, and glanced up to see the glowing, golden mist begin to flow out of the husk that had once been First Academic Crist, trailing out of his open mouth in a steady stream. “Now!” she yelled. “Go, go, go!”
They were up and running instantly, darting down the flow at a dead run. After a hundred meters, the flows broke into a jagged slope that dropped off sharply, and Youngblood forced herself to concentrate on the terrain in front of her, lit erratically by her headlamp, not daring to look back until they reached the relative flat where they’d left the ATR. When she did look back she stopped in her tracks, horrified by what she saw.
The dark haired woman had stopped fifty meters back, her arms outstretched, laughing wildly at the seething yellow cloud roiling towards her, illuminating her in a sickly, yellow glow. “Come on, fucker! Come and get me!”
“Wynn, no!” Youngblood yelled, lunging back towards her, but the cloud had already reached the lieutenant, surrounding her, its misty edges coalescing into the coiled, serpent like shape Youngblood had seen wrap around Crist. Briss turned with the coiling entity, another wild laugh ringing across the silent landscape and changing to a scream as the cloud struck, pouring into her open mouth and driving the woman to her knees. The scream went on as her body jerked and arched, nearly lifting her off the ground and then the scream cut off abruptly as the last of the cloud entered her and she slowly crumpled to the ground.
“No…” Youngblood repeated in a broken whisper, staring at the motionless form of her lieutenant in disbelief. Beside her, she could hear Cregson swear softly.
“Captain, we need to go,” Cregson said after a moment, the quiet words were accompanied by a gentle but firm hand on her arm, pulling her toward the ATR. “If it’s…if it’s like before, we’ve only got a few minutes.”
Youngblood closed her eyes for a moment and nodded, knowing what he meant but couldn’t say. With Crist, after the entity had flowed into him, it had taken a few minutes to…drain him. “Let’s go,” she rasped. Briss had done this to give them the extra time, to give them a chance, and she wasn’t about to let that sacrifice be for nothing.
She grabbed Wilton’s arm and they began moving slowly towards the ATR, looking back every few steps.
“Wait…” Wilton stopped suddenly, forcing Youngblood to a halt as he twisted out of her grasp and turned around.
“Dr. Wilton,” Youngblood said gently but firmly, grasping his arm again. “We can’t stop. That…thing…”
“No!” Wilton said and took a few limping steps away, back towards the entity and Briss. “Something is…different.” He pointed with a shaky hand. “Look!”
Youngblood looked. Briss lay still now, a faint glow surrounding her motionless body…
No writhing, no screaming, just…stillness as the glow around her slowly faded.
Youngblood took a hesitant step towards her, then another.
“Captain…” Cregson called warningly.
“He’s right…” Youngblood looked back at the Sergeant pleadingly. “It is different. It’s not…taking her…like it did Crist.”
Cregson shook his head. “Ma’am, we can’t be sure. Her physiology is different from the others. The nanites…” His voice trailed off and his eyes widened in surprise as Briss let out a low moan, followed by a series of wet, hacking coughs.
They all watched in concern as Briss rolled onto her side and then onto her hands and knees, her body convulsing painfully as wads of black, gritty phlegm spewed from her mouth at each wracking cough.
Youngblood made her decision instantly. “Dr. Wilton, stay put. Cregson, you’re with me.” She glanced at the Sergeant, expecting a protest, but he only nodded and started towards Briss.
When they reached her, she had collapsed onto her side and curled in a fetal position, her breath coming in short, choppy gasps. Youngblood approached carefully, slowly kneeling beside her and gently touching her shoulder.
Briss’s eyes snapped open, wide with fear, and then softened in relief. “Cap,” she croaked, and winced as another cough shook her body, sending another plume of blackened mucous across the ground. After a moment she rolled slowly onto her back, blinking blearily at Youngblood and wiping ineffectually at the trail of spittle running down her chin. “What the fuck happened?” she whispered, her voice rattling in her throat.
Youngblood removed a glove and wiped tenderly at the younger woman’s face with her thumb. “Looks like you managed to get out of another scrape by doing something completely stupid. Again.”
“Well, that certainly sounds like me…” Briss murmured, and coughed again. “My chest hurts like a sonofabitch…” she said dimly and her eyes fluttered shut.
The unique smell of sterility was the first thing she noticed as she blinked back to consciousness; sterility and the faint, tangy smell of another human…a female. She turned her head stiffly one way, and then the other, taking in her bright, quiet surroundings.
She sat up abruptly and swung her legs over the side of the bed, her movements jerky and uncoordinated. She paused, looking down to where her hands lay flat on the bed, and slowly raised one hand in front of her face, making and a fist, watching the play of muscles in her arm as she rotated her wrist, her expression curious.
“Lieutenant!” a voice said in surprise. “You’re awake!”
She turned towards the voice, blinking rapidly. Brown hair. Brown eyes. Dark blue uniform. “Ensign Ferron,” she said after a slight hesitation. “Hello.”
The woman looked at her strangely, but smiled. “Hello to you, too. You should lay back down, Lieutenant. Coming out of four days of unconsciousness isn’t easy, even if most of it was medically induced. You need to give your body some time to adjust.”
Briss allowed the woman to push her back onto the bed. “Four days?”
“Uh-huh.” The medic glanced at a machine by the bed, and reached out to press a button. “You’ve missed all the excitement. Whatever it is you found on Leontas, it sure caused a stir. That and losing Dr. Harrogan and the First Academic, of course. All the brass has been running around like they don’t know which way is up.”
Briss was silent for a moment, absorbing the information. “Where is…Eden?”
“Eden?” The woman frowned, and then nodded in understanding. “Ah. You mean Captain Youngblood?”
“Yes…Captain Youngblood. We have…unfinished business.”
Ferron gave her a curious look. “Actually, you just missed her. She came by after shift…she’s probably on her way back to quarters now. She’s been coming by often…I think you gave her quite a scare.”
Briss sat up abruptly. “I will find her.”
“Oh no you don’t,” Ferron put her hands on Briss’s shoulders to push her back onto the bed. “I’ll leave a message for the captain, and she can visit later.”
Briss looked at the hands on her shoulders curiously, then raised her own hand and placed it on Ferron’s chest.
She felt nothing inside this woman, only the pulsing of blood, and the warmth of flesh and muscle.
This woman did not have what she sought, but she would use her, feed off of her, and then she would find Eden.
Eden had what she sought.
She hooked her hand behind the young medic’s neck, slowly drawing their faces together.
“Lieutenant?” The medic tried to pull away, her eyes wide with surprise.
Briss smiled and slowly opened her mouth, releasing a stream of yellow mist.
The big man grunted in irritation at the intrusion of the summons chime, waving to his companion to stay seated as he rose to his feet and lumbered to the door of his quarters, preparing to give whoever it was a scathing reprimand for interrupting. He arranged his face into the glower he used to intimidate junior officers and slapped the latch plate; the door slid open and the glower transformed into a blink of surprise.
“Captain Youngblood. Lieutenant Briss. This is…unexpected.”
“Captain Woral.” Youngblood said with a mechanical nod. “I believe you and I have some unfinished business.”
“Captain,” Woral snapped, “if this is about the transport being delayed, I’ve told you, there were problems with the aft thruster…”
“Yes, you have told me this.” Youngblood agreed politely.
The big man frowned. Calm, polite Eden Youngblood was not what he was expecting. Where was the spitting, snarling, hell cat who had hounded him for the past four days?
“What’s this about, then?” he said suspiciously, his gaze jumping back and forth between the two women. Something was off about them…something he couldn’t quite put his finger on.
Youngblood stepped forward, opening her mouth as though to scream, and Woral took and unconscious step back.
“Lyris, who is it?” came a petulant voice and a slim, sandy-haired man stepped up behind the Fleet captain.
Youngblood’s mouth closed slowly as Briss stepped forward and laid a hand on her arm.
“Dr. Leets,” Briss acknowledged, regarding him with a ghost of a grin. “How lovely to see you.”
She glanced over at Youngblood and the two shared a smile that had Woral taking another step back. There was something feral about that smile; something inexplicably wrong that sent a tendril of fear shooting through his gut, and his heart pounding. He moved back another step, pushing Leets behind him.
Youngblood followed, an eerie glow of yellow-gold flickering in her pale blue eyes.
She opened her mouth again, and this time, it was Woral who screamed.