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Captain D’rog released a low, raspy groan. “I’ll take it in my quarters, Lieutenant.”
The centrally located chair swiveled and rocked as D’rog stood and headed for the door at the rear of the bridge. As he approached, the pneumatic door swished open, revealing the Captain’s quarters. Its strategic location directly off the bridge was a design common to all Dragoran vessels. The feature gave the Captain quick access to command in case of an emergency.
D’rog made his way through the hot and humid room to his desk, where he sat down and activated his vid-link. The reddish glow of an overhead infrared light bathed him in warmth as he sat in his extravagantly decorated chair.
A strong, deep, computer-synthesized voice requested his security clearance. “Priority authorization required,” the voice prompted.
D’rog answered without hesitation. He was well accustomed to the routine precautions. “Hektura tok neth.” He stared at the monitor while the system scanned his large, scaly reptilian head.
“Voice print and facial identification recognized.”
The monitor displayed the image of an impatient Commodore Tawyk. “Why haven’t you secured my prize, Captain?” The Commodore’s sharp teeth showed through his sneer.
“Sir, they have eluded capture. They are—”
Commodore Tawyk interrupted with a guttural roar. “You mean they’ve eluded you! I’m not interested in excuses, Captain! I chose you because your records indicated you were the perfect choice for this mission. Was I wrong?”
“No, Sir. I will capture that ship. You have my word.” D’rog’s posture straightened.
The Commodore’s lip rose on one side as he leaned into the vid-screen. A stream of saliva slipped from his upper teeth, falling onto his lower jaw as his lip quivered in anger. “You better, Captain. Your life depends on it, as well as the lives of your family. And you have my word on that!” The screen went blank, leaving the Commodore’s final angry words reverberating off the walls of the room. The remarks circled around in D’rog’s head as he sat staring at the blank screen. Anger and fear welled up from inside him until he was bursting at the seams with rage.
D’rog jumped up from his chair and swung his powerful reptilian arm. The objects on his desk went flying across the room, shattering into small pieces as they impacted the wall with intense force. “This small Resistance cell is cunning, but they will not embarrass me again!” he snarled.
Lying there, glowing eerily in the thick fog, was a corpse. The body almost appeared to move as the misty fog surrounding it danced through the light. The jaw of the corpse hung open in a terrible, silent scream―now forever frozen on its gruesome face. The alien’s stiff hands were reaching out into the inky blackness of the room as if it had been begging for its life in its final moments. From the look on its face, it had experienced a horribly painful death.
Arya stood up and checked her gun while the males surveyed the corpse. Karg circled the body, as if studying it from another angle would help explain why it was there.
“Why does he have that look on his face?” Nick asked, wincing at the sight. “I just can’t stand to look at him anymore. It gives me the creeps.” He grabbed a nearby cloth and threw it over the body. Despite his attempts to squelch it, a shiver raced along his spine and the hair on the back of his neck stood straight up. He hadn’t felt that since the night he’d hung out in the graveyard with his buddies. How old was he at the time? Fourteen, maybe? This had that same feel. Creepy.
“Your calendar is made up of twelve munse, your clock is divided by twelve, but your math and currency is based on ten? That’s the most backward thing I have ever heard,” Karg announced in his deep voice.
Nick scratched an itch on the back of his neck. “To start with, it’s months, not munse. And what else would math be based on? Math is math.”
“Yes, one plus one equals two, but basing it on ten is inefficient. We base it on twelve.”
Nick was still perplexed.
Karg looked at him across the table. “Look, ten can only be divided by one, two, five and itself. Twelve is divisible by one, two, three, four, six and itself.”
Karg cut him off. “What’s three quarters of ten? Seven and a half. A fraction. What’s three quarters of twelve? Nine.”
“How much is that currency you carry?”
“It’s a quarter.” Nick pulled the coin out of his pocket and flipped it over in his hand. “This is an old one, from back when they still had some silver in them. It equals twenty-five cents,” Nick replied.
“Is that a lot?” Karg queried.
Nick laughed. “No, it’s not much. A penny is the smallest currency on my planet. This only equals twenty-five pennies. Why?”
“What is half of that? Twelve and a half. A fraction! See, your system is very inefficient,” Karg boasted.
Nick glanced up to see Arya standing there grinning. She had been watching their discussion from the side of the room. Arya raised her eyebrows and cocked her head as if to say well, he’s right you know. Nick just shook his head, trying to grasp the strange alien concepts.
“So, instead of a dollar being one hundred pennies, it should be ninety-six? And a quarter would be twenty-four?” Nick said, narrowing his eyes in thought.
Karg laughed and banged the table hard with his hand, causing Nick to jerk so abruptly that he almost fell out of his chair. “Now you’re getting it,” Karg said. “There’s hope for you, after all.” Karg gulped down the purple gorbin juice from his cup and stood up to go get some more, letting out a deep burp as he went.
“Well, Karg seems to be warming up to you,” Arya remarked, as she approached the table. “I came to tell you that Captain Argos wants you to answer some questions later.”
Nick nodded as he stared off into space. He’d known it would only be a matter of time before Argos would want answers.
Arya glanced down at Nick’s plate of uneaten food. “You okay there? Don’t like the karesh meat?”
Nick’s gaze panned over to Arya. “Oh, yeah, I’m fine, just didn’t sleep much.” He looked down at the not quite identifiable food in front of him. “The food is pretty good actually. What is Karesh anyway? No, wait…maybe it’s better you don’t tell me.”
Arya sipped some juice from her cup. “Have you tried the gorbin juice? That will make you feel better. You should get some before it’s gone. It’s not often that we have it.”
“Thanks, I will.” Nick poked around on his plate with the two-prong fork that came with his tray of food. “Can you tell me where I am?”
“You’re in a star system called Garanta Orionis. Some still call it by its ancient Arisian name, Back Of The Giant,” Arya answered. “Which, by the looks of it, is very far from your home.”
Nick stared at her for a long moment. “That doesn’t really help me a bit.” He sighed and scrubbed a hand across the back of his aching neck. “It sucks being lost and not knowing where the hell I am. I mean, I didn’t plan on being here. I’m really not supposed to be here at all. Wherever here is. Don’t get me wrong. If your ship hadn’t picked me up, I’d be dead. So, I am very grateful you brought me aboard. And you have been very kind to me, but my coming here was just an accident. I don’t even know how I got here.”
Arya set her cup down on the table. “I can see you are missing your home…. I too miss mine. It has been such a long time since I have been to my home-world.” Arya looked almost wistful as she thought about her planet. “I really miss the Sarlansis trees. There are huge forests of them. At least there used to be, before the war.” Arya lifted her gaze back to Nick. “Your home must be awfully far away for us not to have some record of your species in our databanks. You really don’t have any idea how to get home?”
Nick shook his head no as he toyed with his food.
“Well, Captain Argos will have the final say, but maybe we can help you find your home planet.”
Nick stared down at his plate.
Arya leaned down to get his attention. “You should eat. You’ll need your strength. I’ll get you some juice. It’ll help your energy.” Arya left the table to round up a cup of juice, leaving Nick still staring at his plate, lost in his thoughts.
Moments later, she returned and plopped a cup down on the table. “Here you go. Taste it.”
Nick agreeably lifted the cup to take a sip. “Wow. That is really good. Kind of like fruit punch, only better. Thanks.”
Arya sat down and shoved some karesh into her mouth.
Nick glanced around at the almost empty room. In one corner, a couple of aliens were gathering some food containers. The two creatures were completely covered with what appeared to be spacesuits. He only caught a hint of their creepy faces through their masks as they turned to leave. They appeared to be four-legged with two arms and a bizarrely shaped head. The aliens were definitely odd, and it was even odder that they were wearing spacesuits inside the ship. It made him realize that overall he hadn’t actually seen many crewmembers. Only a handful since being brought on board.
“I’ve noticed that there seems to be a very small crew for a ship this size,” he said, still watching the two spacesuit-clad aliens exiting the room.
“What?” Nick turned to Arya with a befuddled look.
“We call them Meths. The two Coranii you were looking at over there. They’re methane breathers. Whatever you do, steer clear of areas marked with red and yellow ‘METH’ signs.”
“Oh, um, right. I’ll do that.” Nick’s brain was still stuck on the whole methane breather thing as Arya continued.
“The Resistance is spread pretty thin. We only have enough crew to run the ship. That way we reduce our losses if one ship falls to the enemy,” Arya explained through her mouthful of food.
“The Resistance is formed out of all the indigenous races in this sector. We have banded together against our common enemies. We are the ones that were lucky enough to escape the war between the Mok’tu and the Dragoran Empire. We were just in the right place at the right time to be spared. But we are few. The Resistance tries to rescue any survivors that it can. We stay in the shadows, attempting to fight the enemy any way possible. I feared our fight was a hopeless cause. But then you showed up with that ship of yours. You destroyed a Planet-Killer and a Dreadnought in one swoop. I knew then that the Divine One had answered our pleas. You are our salvation.”
“Look out!” Nick warned, as another Mok’tu rounded the corner behind Arya. The huge mechanical soldier towered over Arya’s small frame. With her so close to it, Nick would never get a clean shot in time.
Arya spun around to bring her gun to bear, but she was too late. The enemy swung its powerful arm, sending her pistol flying across the bay, and knocking her to the ground. Without a second of hesitation, the metal soldier was over her. It bent forward and grabbed Arya with its robotic arm, picking her up off the floor and raising her to eye level. Its long, cold, metal fingers wrapped all the way around to the back of her neck, clutching her tightly in an icy grip.
Arya was now face to face with the Mok’tu, staring into its unsympathetic visual receptors. As she hung there frantically kicking at it, she tried desperately to pry its huge fingers loose with her hands. It was no use, the metal monster was going to squeeze the life from her body and there was nothing she could do about it.
Nick’s finger was poised on the trigger, ready to shoot, itching to kill the bastard. But he hesitated as he assessed the situation. Arya was so close to the Mok’tu that the plasma blast from his pistol might kill her. But if he didn’t act quickly, the mechanoid soldier could snap her head clean off.
“Shoot!” Arya screamed, her muffled voice barely leaving her tightly clamped throat. “Shoot the freking thing!”
Nick squeezed off eight rounds in one rapid burst. As the rounds met their target, smoke poured from the Mok’tu’s metal skull, but the beast didn’t move. Nick sprinted toward the towering hulk, emptying another five rounds into its head as he drew closer. The Tac Soldier seemed unaffected.
“Why isn’t it dying?” Nick yelled.
The soldier just stood there motionless with Arya flailing around in its grip. Nick pushed his legs into a flat out run, planning on using the momentum and his own body as a ramming device. When he was close enough to the Tac Soldier, he lunged feet first into the beast, kicking it square in the hip in an attempt to knock it off its feet. The monstrosity didn’t budge. It was like hitting a brick wall. The impact jarred Nick’s spine and sent him bouncing off. He landed hard on his left shoulder. The impact pushed the air out of his lungs and caused him to bite his lip by accident. He barely missed hitting his head on the floor beneath him.
“Crap!” he cursed. The damn thing was solid as a granite mountain. No wonder everyone was so afraid of them.
Ignoring the pain in his body, he rolled nimbly and was back on his feet in seconds. With precision born of instinct and training, Nick aimed his pistol at the eight foot tall Mok’tu’s head and fired another burst of rounds. A stream of hot liquefied brains flowed out of the skull and dripped down the Mok’tu’s body. But the massive, silver hulk remained standing.
Arya still hung helplessly in the hulk’s grip, staring at the metal soldier’s expressionless face while steamy red liquid oozed down its neck and dripped onto the hangar bay deck. She struggled uselessly against the Mok’tu’s grasp as the beast’s metal legs began to buckle. The Mok’tu slowly collapsed to the floor with her neck still held tightly in its powerful mechanical hand. Pinned under the heavy, lifeless monster, she lay on the floor, fighting to get free. “Get this thing off me!” she screamed in a panic.
“I’m on it!” Nick pushed at the dead soldier’s torso. He had to strain every muscle in his body just to push the thing off of her. It rolled over onto the floor with a metallic clank. Nick stared down into Arya’s frantic face. She looked up at him in desperation, still hopelessly trapped by the Mok’tu’s huge metal hand clasped around her neck. A tear rolled from the corner of her eye. She was scared. She was actually scared. Nick was surprised by her sudden show of vulnerability. Until this moment, she had always been strong and in control. He’d never seen fear in her before.
“I guess we’re not so different, after all,” Nick mused.
Arya whimpered as she gazed up at him.
“It’s alright. I’ve got you,” he soothed as he bent forward to help her.
Nick pried the lifeless mechanical hand loose from Arya’s throat. As soon as she was free, she rolled away from the thing and lay gasping on the floor, struggling for air.
The sight and smell of the Mok’tu’s liquefied remains pooling on the cold metal deck was enough to make Nick wince in disgust. The choking stench was somewhat like burnt hair mixed with vomit. He pulled away, throwing his arm over his nose to block the stomach-turning stink. “Ugh, they even smell bad.” He wouldn’t forget that aroma anytime soon.
“What took you so long? It could have killed me.” Arya held her throat and coughed several times, still trying to get a good breath.
“I was af—” The sound of weapons-fire stopped Nick from finishing.
Concerned for Karg’s safety, they both jumped up to see where the shots originated. They peered over the crates. Two Mok’tu stood in an open section of the bay. One of the beasts fell immediately to the floor, its skull billowing smoke. The other swung its rifle around to fire at Karg who stood nearby.
Before his friends could react, Karg ran and leapt into the air, his feet flying in the direction of his adversary. The Mok’tu released a barrage of rounds from its rifle, trying to get a bead on the advancing target, but Karg’s amazing speed didn’t give it the chance. The shots flew under Karg, one barely grazing his leg as he soared through the air.
Karg’s foot landed square on its mark, forcing his prey’s head down to the floor. His massive weight smashed the Mok’tu’s armor skull against the hangar deck, crushing it almost flat. Red gunk squirted out onto the deck from under Karg’s huge foot as the Mok’tu’s brain was squashed like a watermelon that had been run over by a tank.
“That’s four,” Arya said. She quickly surveyed the hangar. “Where’s the last one?”
Loud metallic sounds echoed through the bay, like a huge metal door being unlocked.
Arya looked around, her ears twisting as she listened intently to the strange noises. “I’ve never heard the ship make that noise before.” As she turned back to Nick, her eyes widened. “I have a bad feeling about…this…. Frek! Run!”