Children of Darkness: Chapter 14
Do you need to get caught up? Read Chapter 1 here
The perimeter alarm shrieked. Marcus nearly dropped his mug of stim-tea. He could hear the auto-guns tracking whoever had arrived in the hangar.
“Who is it?”
Solomon had gone to the cockpit to answer the comm and he hadn’t heard anything from him in ten minutes. He got up and took a step toward the cockpit.
“Don’t worry, it’s Iaka,” Solomon shouted back.
Marcus went back and deactivated the external defenses and opened the loading ramp.
“You could have killed me,” she said as soon as the ramp touched the floor. “When I saw those guns tracking me I thought I’d had it.”
“Relax, I had the proximity sensors on. As long as you didn’t get too close you were safe enough. Now get in here so I can turn them back on.”
She hurried up the ramp without an argument. Would wonders never cease.
“We have to get out of here,” she said.
“Fine with me. How’d your meeting with the council go?”
She briefly outlined what had happened. “We need to go to Alpha 114 and bring one of the natives back.”
“Wait,” Marcus said. He felt like he was getting dragged deeper into a hole rather than getting pulled out of it. “You said if I brought you here you could make everything go away. Now I need to take you to some planet in the ass end of the galaxy, maybe find a native willing to come with us, then bring you all back here again. Maybe we should just take our chances outside Earth-controlled space.”
“I haven’t told you the worst part.”
“There’s more? Wonderful.”
“An assassin’s been sent to kill us.”
“Oh, that’s been dealt with.”
She stared at him. “Dealt with?”
Marcus jerked a thumb over his shoulder. Iaka looked where he pointed and gasped. “You told me I was too untrusting. You said we’d be safe here, no one would try and hurt us. Lucky for us I assumed you didn’t know what you were talking about.”
They walked over to the dangling, unconscious alien. “What happened?” Iaka asked.
“He showed up about half an hour ago. Hardly seemed to know which end of the blaster to hold. Still, if I hadn’t had my gauntlet we might both be dead.”
Solomon came back to the cargo hold and joined them by the assassin.
“Did you find anything?” Iaka asked.
“Nothing incriminating. I didn’t expect to find much. The security on that computer was a joke. She probably has another computer she uses for the important stuff.”
“Someone want to tell me what you’re talking about?” Marcus asked.
“I hacked the Earth Force computer for Iaka. It was a waste of time.”
The alien groaned. “Maybe we can get something useful out of this guy. You know that holorecorder you bought?”
“Yeah,” Solomon said.
“Go get it. I want this on disk.”
They gathered around as the alien slowly came awake. It blinked at them. Solomon set up the recorder on a tripod then nodded.
Marcus smiled. “Hello.”
It groaned, then started flailing its arms.
“You’re not going anywhere, so you might as well calm down,” Marcus said. “Who sent you to kill us?”
“The masters. We serve the masters. Whatever they say we do.”
“He means the councilors,” Iaka said. “He’s a Terrin Minor. They’re a servant class on their world. Trained from birth to obey the Terrin Majors. The council seems to use them as servants here as well.”
“Which master told you to kill us?” Marcus asked.
“The one like you,” it said. “The master said to come and kill you. You weren’t supposed to have a weapon. It’s against the rules.”
“I don’t suppose anyone told you killing guests was also against the rules?” Marcus asked.
“We obey the masters.”
“Yeah, I got that.” Marcus turned to Iaka. “He’s not going to give us anything more of use, is he?”
She shook her head.
“I didn’t think so.” He stunned the alien back into oblivion. “Give me the disk.”
Solomon popped it out of the recorder and tossed it to him. Marcus snatched it out of the air and tucked it into the alien’s robe. He deactivated the ship’s defenses and opened the loading ramp. “Herc, follow.”
He went down the ramp and opened the door to the hall leading away from the docking bay. The huge robot plodded along toward him, the unconscious alien dangling from his fist. When Herc reached him Marcus pointed to a spot just inside the door.
“Drop him there.”
Herc extended its arm and opened its fist. The alien thudded to the floor. Marcus reached for the door then stopped. He drew a breath and held it. He could just hear boots slapping on the floor. Sounded like they’d have company soon.
He looked up at Herc. “Return.”
The robot turned and clomped back toward the ship. Marcus shut the door and fried the control panel with his gauntlet. That might buy them a few extra minutes.
He turned and ran up the ramp past the robot. “Company coming.”
“I’ll warm up the power core,” Solomon said. He turned and trotted up toward the cockpit.
“What should I do?” Iaka asked.
“Close the ramp behind Herc then join us up front.” Marcus left her in the cargo hold and ran behind Solomon.
Solomon had the core up and running when he arrived. “I’ll take over the preflight. Can you access the station system through the data link Iaka established?”
“We need to get loose of the docking claw and open the door.”
“Right, I’m on it.”
Solomon typed furiously at his keyboard. Marcus powered up the engines.
Not long now.
He tapped another button and activated the antigravity generator. The door to the hanger started to glow red.
Iaka appeared in the doorway. “They’re cutting through the door,” she said.
“I can see that.”
Something clunked and the ship floated free. “Good job, now the door.”
“Not a chance,” Solomon said. “The controls for the outer doors are heavily encrypted. It’d take me days to hack them.”
“See those panels?” Iaka asked. She pointed at the little square panels at the top and bottom of the doors. “Blast ’em and the doors should pop open.”
“How do you know?”
“I’ve seen this design before. Those panels are for maintenance access. Would you please trust me?”
Marcus looked at Solomon who shrugged. Marcus brought the main cannon online, targeted the panels and fired two blasts. The doors popped open, six inches. Marcus looked back at Iaka.
“They must be a different model.”
Hell with it. Marcus cranked the shields to full power and opened up with every canon on the ship. The doors melted, warped, and finally blasted out into space. He followed them out at full speed.
Five seconds later they shot into hyperspace. “Where are we headed?” Marcus asked.
“Nowhere in particular. I just set a short jump to put some distance between us and them.”
“I can program the jump coordinates to Alpha 114,” Iaka said. “We need to find a native and bring it back to the council.”
* * *
The intercom on Adam’s wall beeped. A moment later the captain said, “We’re approaching the planet, sir.”
Thank god. The churning in Adam’s stomach settled at the mere mention of landing. He crawled out of his bunk and shambled over to the intercom. “Very good, Captain. I’m on my way.”
Adam took a few breaths to try and steady himself. It wouldn’t help his image with the crew if he looked like he might puke at any moment. When he could stand up straight and see clearly he left his room and went to the bridge.
The crew didn’t bother to rise, which spared him the need to wave them back to their seats. Captain Wen stood by the tactical station and Adam went to join him. “Has ground control made contact yet?”
“No, sir, but we should be within range soon.”
A few seconds later the comm station came to life. “Unidentified ship, you have entered space owned by Omni Corp. Please identify yourself and your purpose.”
The communications officer transmitted the requested information and a moment later a live voice came on. “Welcome to Alpha 114. If we’d known you were coming we’d have prepared a proper greeting.”
Adam frowned and walked over to the comm station. He waved the tech aside. “We were told Omni headquarters would let you know of our arrival.”
“They may have tried, but our hyperspace relay has been on the fritz.”
Adam scrubbed a hand over his face. “Just give us the landing coordinates and I’ll talk to whoever’s in charge.”
“Roger, transmitting now.”
“Coordinates received, sir,” the helmsman said.
Adam nodded to the captain.
“Take us down,” Captain Wen said.
The transport ship shook as they passed through the upper atmosphere. The Omni camp amounted to little more than a large clearing in the jungle, filled with a variety of temporary buildings. Patrolling the perimeter Adam spotted a pair of mark-six light-duty combat mechs.
Their transport landed at the far edge of the camp. The ship barely settled on its landing gear when Adam opened the ramp and stepped outside, and took a deep breath of the hot, humid air.
How long since he’d breathed fresh air? He spent most of his time in ships or domes. The air always tasted stale. Here the air seemed alive. He could smell flowers and decay.
Adam sighed and shook his head. He could enjoy the flowers later. A whip-thin man in a lab coat emerged from the largest building and stalked toward him, eyes narrowed, and jaw clenched. Adam met him halfway. The scientist, at least Adam assumed the man was a scientist, had a stooped posture and sunken, hawkish face. What Adam wanted to know was how he managed to have such pale, pasty skin on a hot, sunny world like this.
“Good day, Agent…?”
“Adam Wright.” They shook hands. “This is a beautiful planet.”
“Yes.” The scientist frowned and flicked a bug off his hand. “You aren’t the first to say so. It’s a bit humid for my taste, but I’ve worked in worse places. I’m Dr. Miles O’Hare, Omni’s chief xenobiologist, and I’m in charge of this facility.”
Adam glanced at the collection of tents and modular buildings. Maybe facility was a little generous. The doctor was going to get angry enough when he heard what Adam had to say so no need to argue the point.
“We need to talk, Doctor.”
“Certainly, my tent is this way.”
Dr. O’Hara led him past a collection of modular units gathered in a circle and connected by enclosed walkways. He must have noticed Adam’s interest. “That’s the lab. I can show you around later if you’d like.”
Adam nodded. He wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
Dr. O’Hara led him to a small round tent with a flap for a front door. Not what Adam expected for the leader of this operation. He pushed through the flap and the hairs on his arm stood up.
The inside reminded Adam of his dorm room in college minus the mess: an air mattress, two folding chairs, a chest for clothes, nothing extra, everything spotless.
“Have a seat,” Dr. O’Hare said. “I’d offer you a drink, but I don’t keep anything here.”
“Where are the bugs?” Adam asked. He hadn’t noticed one since they passed through the tent flap.
“The tent gives off a mild static field. Enough to keep away insects, but barely noticeable to humans. Agent Wright, I hardly think you came all this way to enjoy the view or discuss how to keep vermin out of a tent.”
“No.” Adam decided to cut straight to the point. “We’re shutting you down. The camp needs to be broken down and out of here in three days. We’ll seal the caves where you found the natives. No trace must remain to indicate we were ever here.”
“I’m afraid that’s impossible. In another six months, perhaps a year, we’ll have the cure.”
Adam shook his head. “No six months, and certainly no year. Three days, maybe four, and you need to be gone. Those are my orders. You’d best tell your people.”
“No. The soldiers here are under my command and I doubt you have enough fire power in that transport to force the issue. We’re staying and we’re finishing the work we began.”
Adam rubbed the bridge of his nose. Why did everything have to be so hard? The doctor had a point. There was only the shuttle crew and him, certainly not enough to fight the Omni mercenaries. “Listen, in a few days a group of heavily armed and antisocial men will arrive. Their job is to make sure nothing remains to link Earth Force to this planet. Their preferred method to accomplish this is flame throwers and carpet bombing. If you and your people are still here they’ll kill you all.”
Dr. O’Hare jumped up, his chair falling to the tent floor. “I didn’t invest half a decade on this project just to quit when I’m so close. Your orders be damned, we are staying.”
Adam shrugged. “Suit yourself. I tried to warn you.”
“Your concern is noted and appreciated. Now, do you still wish to see the lab?”
Adam blinked, not entirely sure he heard right. Did Dr. O’Hare still want to show off his lab after what Adam told him?
It seemed he did. Might as well have a look. He didn’t have anything better to do. “Sure, why not?”
They crossed the clearing to the modular units. They were constructed of metal and had round doors that made an air-tight seal like the airlock on a ship. The outer door had a number pad mounted next to it. Dr. O’Hare punched in a five-digit code and the door dilated open. They stepped in and the door sealed behind them. A pale blue mist began to fill the room.
“What’s going on?” Adam reached for the sidearm he’d left on the transport.
“Relax. It’s just a simple decontaminating mist. It won’t harm you in the least.”
Adam’s pulse slowed. “You might have warned me.”
Dr. O’Hare shrugged. “I come in here so often I didn’t even think about it.”
The hint of a smile creased the scientist’s face. Prick. The mist receded and the inner door opened. Adam followed the doctor through.
“The tunnel goes all the way around the lab so you’ll only need to get decontaminated once.”
The first lab held several tables covered with a variety of bubbling beakers and a centrifuge. There were many other items Adam had never seen before. Two white-coated scientists stood around one table stirring a steaming mixture and taking notes.
“This is the chemistry lab,” Dr. O’Hare said. “Those two are studying the properties of various native plants. We’ll be filing several patents in the next month.”
They left the chemistry lab and continued down the tunnel bearing right. The next room held six cylinders filled with liquid, each cylinder holding a small, wrinkled, hairy humanoid. If Adam hadn’t seen their chests moving he would have assumed they’d died and begun to decay.
They must be the planet’s native species. Not exactly what he expected. “What’s wrong with them?”
“These specimens have been infected with the Vencar wasting disease. They’re each at a different stage and will be injected with our latest serum. They don’t last long in captivity so the life support tanks are necessary. Even so this batch will expire in another week, so we won’t see the full effects of the serum. If they show some improvement before death we’ll know we’re moving in the correct direction.”
Adam stared at the man. He considered himself fairly cold, but the casual way Dr. O’Hare described the slow death of what Adam had been told were sentient beings stunned him. What were the requirements for winning a humanitarian award anyway?
“This way.” Dr. O’Hare led him to a connected room. If the doctor noticed Adam’s reaction it didn’t show. The next room held a pair of steel tables. One held the dissected corpse of one of the aliens and the other surgical equipment.
“Why did you skin it?” Adam asked.
“Ah, very observant,” Dr. O’Hare said. Adam felt like a student again, Unethical Biochemistry 101. “We remove the skin to study their muscle tissue. One of the symptoms of the disease is a breakdown of muscle mass. Our recent effort has greatly reduced this problem in the voluntary muscle groups. Unfortunately, it doesn’t help with the involuntary muscles.”
Adam looked away from the mangled corpse. “Can we move on?”
“Certainly, this way.” Dr. O’Hare led him back to the tunnel and then outside. “The rest of the lab is entirely devoted to working on the cure.”
“It’s an impressive setup, Doctor.” Horrible, but impressive. “It’s a shame you have to dismantle it.”
Dr. O’Hare frowned. “I have thirty mercenaries that say otherwise. Return to your ship and stay there. I don’t wish to see you again.”
Adam started back to the ship. He needed to update the director.