Ike approached the control chair of the shuttle and looked at it before sitting. He had heard stories of Ternian engineers constructing seats that used body heat to conform to the bodies of whoever sat in them. From initial appearances, this was not one. A black, synthetic type of leather stretched out over rows of rigid padding. Small armrests rose out of the sides.
“Well?” Tris’ voice interrupted Ike’s thoughts. He locked eyes with her, then looked at the control console. He was embarrassed as to why he was lost in thought. Such a silly thing to wonder about the seats.
Ike’s fingers touched the control display, causing it to light up as he settled into the chair. The basic tenants of navigation were there, although the layout was different than his Council shuttle. It might take a few minutes to gather his bearings, but he could fly it. As he began inputting commands into the system, Ike paused as a thought came into his mind. He swiveled around in his chair to face the others.
“How do you intend to get onto the ship?” he said.
Tris paused and looked at him. She had been in the middle of instructing Kyri and Anod to fasten their safety belts, lending assistance as needed since they had never seen such restraints before. “You will fly us there.”
“Flying the shuttle is only part of the equation,” Ike replied. “Normal operations would require us to communicate with the ship before docking. I don’t know the clearance codes. Not to mention that the ship sensors would pick up on three Eltari—make that four Eltari and no human life signs. We’d be blown out of the sky before we got within a thousand kliks of the ship.”
There was a moment of quiet collective reflection before Ike continued, “And if we do manage to dock, how do we anticipate moving through the ship—”
“You are beginning to sound like Anod!” Kyri interrupted.
“Since you foresee the problems, perhaps you can foresee a solution.” Tris said, staring into him. Ike thought for a good minute before reestablishing eye contact.
“Actually,” he said. “I think I do.”
* * *
“Sir, Captain Altair’s shuttle is exiting the planet’s atmosphere.” The junior officer turned around from his station on the bridge to face the first officer, Marius. He was thankful that things had calmed down in the day since they had shot down the Council ship, but also glad that there was something to actually do on the ship. Years of watching this planet from afar had limited them to mostly drills and maneuvers aside from brief excursions out of the system here and there. “Their plotted course will return them here to the Gauntlet.”
“Have they radioed ahead?” Marius asked.
“Not yet, sir.”
“Is the entire crew aboard?”
The junior officer turned back around to his console, inputting a few commands. The machine beeped and chimed in response. Within moments, he had his answer for Marius. “No, sir. I’m reading three humans and one Eltari.”
Silence filled the bridge as officers looked at the senior officer. The memories from early the previous morning were still etched in their minds. There was no knowing how Marius would respond again. Hopefully, the tongue lashing Captain Altair had given him before going down to the planet had wisened him up.
“Ready the EMP cannons,” Marius stated.
“Sir?” The junior officer stared at him. In the back of his head, he knew that the first officer was making the appropriate call, but he still didn’t trust the young man in this situation. He glanced at Marius’ hand. The slight trembling betrayed the calm demeanor of the command.
“I said to ready the EMP cannons. Until they have established proper docking procedure—”
A chirp from the junior officer’s console interrupted Marius. The officer looked at his alert, then back to his superior. “It’s them.”
Marius simply nodded. The junior officer pressed a button that caused the speaker system to instantly come to life. Tris’ voice began to cut through the air. “Gauntlet, this is the shuttle. We need to dock immediately.”
“Please state the clearance code.” Marius responded as he slowly walked toward the monitor that displayed the incoming shuttle. “And where is the rest of the crew?”
“I am returning with sick crew members. We need a…” Tris’ voice paused momentarily before returning. “Quarantine. We need the area around the docking port quarantined. These men are contagious with Larna swamp flu and need medical attention.”
“Please state the clearance code,” Marius repeated, turning to the junior officer. “Arm the EMP cannon and ready the plasma coils.”
A chill went up the junior officer’s spine. He closed his eyes and swallowed his saliva. He could feel the knots forming in his stomach as he input the command to lock weapons on the shuttle.
“Mister Marius,” Tris objected, the tone of her voice elevated. “I do not need a clearance code. You know my voice and that I have Captain Altair’s ear.”
The junior officer glanced over as Marius placed his hand on the back of his chair. The tension of the moment was causing full trembles now. He wasn’t sure how Marius was able to contain his voice to sound so calm.
“Halt your approach and state your—”
“We will do no such thing!” Tris exploded over the intercom. “I have three marines here that will die if we do not get them to sickbay. And if you do not clear the docking port, the entire ship could become infected. I am on direct orders from Altair to save the lives of these men. Do not make me tell him who caused them to perish simply because I was not given a clearance code to relay to you.”
Marius’ hand gripped the fabric on the back of the junior officer’s chair. He paused there for a moment as sweat began to bead along his forehead. Slowly turning back toward the central chair, he sat down.
“Power down weapons, quarantine docking port two, and dispatch medical personnel.” Marius spoke to his junior officer, who immediately did as commanded. “Shuttle, you are cleared to dock.”
“Thank you, Mister Marius.” Tris responded before the channel closed.
A collaborative sigh of relief spread through the bridge. Officers looked up at the ceiling and then to each other, joyous that the previous day’s incident hadn’t repeated itself. Except for Marius, who sat in his chair with his hand on his fist as he contemplated the situation.
* * *
Kyri could hear the latches of the docking port click into place. The sound caused her to turn her head from the viewport and toward the door at the rear of the shuttle. The entire trip from the surface of the planet—her first trip off the planet—had felt like a surreal dream. She glanced over to her older brother. He would never admit it, but she knew he was feeling exactly the same way.
“Human looks good on you.” Ike’s voice pulled Kyri out of her trance. She looked at him, a smile across his face as he leaned over the back of the control chair. His human characteristics were back in place. “Of course, it helps that you were beautiful to begin with.”
“Enough of this,” Tris interrupted. “You are not Eltari. It is inappropriate—”
“Inappropriate?” Ike rose from his seat. “Listen here, guffalo breath. I was just paying a compliment. Besides, last I checked, you and the guy that shot me down have a thing going on and he’s no more Eltari than I am!”
“Guffalo breath? Not only are you…”
For Kyri, the voices of Tris and Ike faded away as she slipped back into her mind. Her focus was on a reflection of herself on a shiny bulkhead. Her silver hair now black and her amber eyes now a deep blue. She looked down to her now-pink hands and stared at the Cyrex unit on her wrist. The same unit they had removed from two of the unconscious marines guarding the shuttle.
“How in Rell could this be possible?” Kyri thought. So much had happened within the past day that challenged her concept of demons and magic. She couldn’t grasp how this transformation could be possible outside of spiritual possibilities, and yet her aunt had assured her that it was not.
“Stop this, now!” Anod had quickly stood, pushing Ike and Tris apart. He, too, was in human form with a Cyrex on his wrist. He held a knife to Ike’s throat and his bandaged stump against Tris’ shoulder. “In your fighting, you do not realize that we are no longer alone.”
Kyri finally snapped out of her gaze as she heard what Ike and Tris now could: a knocking on the rear door. She stood and faced it as Anod lowered his knife from Ike’s neck. They could hear a muffled, male voice call out through the dense metal.
“Hello? This is Doctor Cornell.” the voice said. “We are hear to treat the wounded. The corridor has been cleared. Unlock the door so we can enter.”
Tris took only a step toward the door when Anod put his abbreviated arm across her way once more.
“How do we know this isn’t a trap?” he asked. “There could be a dozen soldiers on the other side.”
“We don’t.” Ike responded. “But either way, we have to open the door or there surely will be a military response.”
Anod paused, then nodded at his aunt and lowered his arm.
“Everyone, remember the plan.” Ike said. “Like the marines guarding the shuttle, we subdue and move on in secret. With any luck, we can get back to the shuttle and embark again before any alarms are raised.”
Kyri nodded, raising an arrow in her bow toward the door as Ike raised his blaster. Tris looked back one last time to make sure everyone was ready, then input the command to unlock the inner door.
The two parts of the reinforced aluminum slid open to reveal an elder gentleman in a Terne military uniform and a white coat on top. On his face where a pair of thin-framed, gold-colored eyeglasses. Next to him was a young woman in her twenties, similarly dressed. As the two of them looked into the cabin to see weapons trained on them, the elder man’s jaw dropped.
“Are you alone?” Anod asked, moving closer to the both of them.
“Ye—yes.” Doctor Cornell replied, his voice trembling.
“Get in.” Ike said coldly. Cornell and his nurse complied, stepping up onto the shuttle deck, which was about a foot higher than the corridor outside. Ike directed them to two of the jump seats farthest away from any instruments and sat them down.
“Tris, what is this? I do not understand.” Cornell said as he looked at her. Tris closed her eyes and turned away, unwilling to make eye contact.
“No talking, doc.” Ike said as he fastened their wrists to the seats with adhesive.
“You’re the pilot we shot down, aren’t you?” the nurse said, defiance in her voice. Ike didn’t respond as she continued. “I can tell by your treacherous Council uniform.”
Kyri gasped as Ike backhanded the nurse across the face. Although she barely knew him, this action did not seem to be in his nature. Her mind raced to understand why he would strike this woman for a simple comment.
“I said,” Ike began as he placed a strip of tape over the nurse’s mouth. “No talking. Besides, your government is the one that split the Terran Union sixty years ago and caused that bloody civil war. All because of your bloodthirsty desire to conquest planets instead of allying with them. The Council of Worlds today is a fraction of what it could have been under the Union.”
“What are you talking about?” Tris said. “I have lived on this ship for ten years. I haven’t heard anything about this civil war.”
“If I may?” Cornell looked up Ike before continuing. At Ike’s nod, he looked back over to Tris. “Tris, there are certain things that Altair has asked us not to discuss on the ship. Especially in front of you. Besides, that was the war of my parents, most of the crew their grandparents. Both sides lost many family members.”
“Like my grandfather.” Ike said to Cornell, who looked back at him.
“You should know,” Cornell continued. “Not all Terne desire conquest. Some of us are Ternian by birth and heritage. That is why I practice medicine, it’s how I can help change things in my own, little way.”
“He lies.” Anod said. “He is trying to get you to lower your guard—”
Ike simply raised his hand toward Anod to interrupt him, still keeping his eyes on Cornell. “What’s your name, doc?”
“Doctor Hubert Cornell.”
“Alright, doc—Hubert…” Ike paused as he knelt down to eye level with him. “I believe you, but I’m going to leave Anod here to keep guard over you. I can trust you to behave?”
Cornell nodded. Ike stood and walked past Anod toward the door. Tris and Kyri followed him, stepping down into the corridor as Ike looked back.
“Anod,” he said. “Why don’t you tell him how you lost your hand?”
As Anod sat down in a jump seat across from Cornell, he smiled and said, “I lost it defeating your metal man.”
Kyri saw Cornell’s eyes widen just before the doors to the shuttle closed behind them. The hallway was suddenly quiet. No one stirred nearby. She didn’t care for the quietness of space. In the forest, there was always a bird chirping or a lema cat growling in a nearby bush. She wasn’t sure how her aunt had put up with ten years of this silence.
“You’ve been pretty quiet lately, “ Ike said, once again snapping Kyri out of a daze. “I miss the old you.”
“The old me?” Kyri said, anger welling up. “The old me died along with my twin. The old me didn’t have her world shattered overnight. The old me—”
Kyri paused as Tris put a hand on her shoulder. The elder Eltari didn’t need to say a word; Kyri knew that she was overreacting to Ike’s comment. She didn’t understand why these emotions were ruling her, but her words did ring a certain amount of truth: part of her did die with Geneth.
“We should move quickly,“ Tris said, pointing down the corridor. “The cargo bay is not far in this direction.”
The three of them walked in near silence for several minutes. They turned a handful of corners, both to the left and to the right. If Tris were not with them, Kyri surmised, there would be no way to prevent getting lost in this maze. Finally, they came upon a doorway somewhat larger than the others they had passed. Tris input her access code and the doors slid open to reveal a massive room with high ceilings. Crates of various sizes were arranged in rows and blocks. At the far end of the room sat a long crate by itself. Tris made her way straight for it.
“Sister…” a voice whispered to Kyri. She turned around to see who said it, expecting to see Anod behind her, but only seeing the empty room. She turned back around to continue following her aunt when she heard it again. “Sis…”
Kyri stopped this time and stared at the space she heard the voice. She recognized it this time, although that was impossible. It was Geneth. And for a moment, she thought she saw movement amongst the crates. If it was her brother’s voice, she had to investigate.
At the far end of the room, Tris and Ike arrived at the crate. It was several feet long with a transparent window on the top. A simple button press by Tris activated an internal lighting system. Inside were several eggs, each the length of Ike’s forearm.
“These are the dragon eggs of the pale ones,” Tris explained before Ike even had a chance to ask. “They are the last of their species and we have kept them in stasis for the last ten years to prevent them from hatching.”
“Okay,” Ike simply said instead of asking more questions. “Let’s get this on a maglev cart and move it to the shuttle—”
Ike was cut off by a blood curdling scream coming from the other side of the room. It was then that he and Tris realized that Kyri was no longer with them. Running toward the sound, they found Kyri standing in front of an opened container with her bow drawn fully out. Inside was a C.O.R.M. unit, powered down.
Memories of yesterday’s battle flashed through Kyri’s mind. Tears streamed down her face as she pulled the arrow back in the bow further and further, even though she stood mere feet away from it. Her arm quivered violently as the images flashed through her mind. As if she were there again, she saw the beast sever Anod’s arm and cut Geneth down.
“It’s alright, Kyri.” Ike said. “He’s not turned on.”
“Listen to me, my niece,” Tris added. “It is going to be okay.”
“No, it’s not.” came a voice behind all three of them, followed by the powering up of a small blaster. Tris froze as Ike slowly raised his hands. Kyri, immersed in her experience with the disengaged Corm, failed to notice what was going on.
“Marius?” Tris said as she turned around to face their new captor. Ike slowly turned around, his hands still raised into the air.
“I knew something wasn’t right with your story,” Marius offered, keeping his blaster trained on them. “Ten years on this ship at Captain Altair’s side and now you betray us?”
“It is Altair that has betrayed the Eltari,” Tris responded. “And now we take that which has belonged to the Eltari all along.”
“I take it that you know this kid.” Ike said to Tris, causing Marius to target the blaster at his face. “Easy now, you don’t have the safety on.”
“Give me a reason to shoot you, Council.”
“This is the first officer,” Tris explained. “He is the one who shot down your shuttle.”
“Him? This pipsqueak shot me down?” Ike raised his eyebrows toward Marius. The first officer’s face began to redden at the antagonization. As Ike taunted, Tris backed up slowly toward Kyri. “I liked that ship, it was a good ship. I can’t believe you managed to shoot it down. You don’t even know how to tie your own boots!”
Like a moron, Marius looked down momentarily at his feet. Realizing that his boots were not, in fact, untied, he looked up just in time to see Ike’s fist rushing into his face. Making contact with his nose, Marius flew backward and tears immediately welled up into his eyes to cloud his vision. He fired his blaster, only to miss Ike and hit a wall. Sparks flew as the red alert klaxons immediately began to wail.
Ike looked over to a stack of materials nearby and pulled out a medium-length pipe from the mess. Swinging it around, he knocked Marius’ blaster out of his hands, causing it to slide far across the room. Another swing to Marius’ head caused the young officer to fall to the ground.
“Get Kyri and the eggs and get back to the shuttle!” Ike exclaimed, turning his attention from Marius for only a moment. That moment was all the younger man needed to rush him, knocking him onto his back. The two of them wrestled on the ground for control of the pipe as Marius pushed down in an effort to choke Ike with the blunt instrument.
Tris stepped between Corm and Kyri, who still had her bow stretched out. If she released, it would go straight through Tris before hitting its target. Her eyes looked through her aunt, still trained on the lifeless metal body of the cyborg.
“Listen to me,” Tris said calmly. “This is not the same beast that killed your brother. Honor his death by living.”
Kyri focused on Tris’ face and slowly lowered her bow. She didn’t know why, but that made sense to her. Honor Geneth’s death by living. Reliving the memories was not living, it was a form of dying inside. Then she looked over to Ike.
“We have to help him,” Kyri said.
“He will buy us time,” Tris responded. “Let us do our part before more people come.”
* * *
Ike watched from his back as Tris and Kyri ran over to the crate and began pushing it out the door. As soon as they left the cargo bay, Ike brought his knee forcibly up to Marius’ crotch and bought his freedom.
As Ike backed away, massaging his neck with his free hand, his opponent covered his groin. For the moment, Ike had forgotten about his previous wounds. Adrenalin was coursing through his system, overpowering every pain receptor that tried to fire. With any luck, this encounter would end much quicker than the last one.
“You shoot down my shuttle, then try to shoot me in the back?” Ike taunted Marius again. He found that to be as great a weapon as anything he could hold in his hand. “Your captain should take away your keys to the ship.”
Ike partially caught his breath and made his next move, swinging the pipe toward Marius’ head and missing. He landed against a stack of crates, leaving his back open for an uppercut from Marius. Pain shot through his nervous system once more.
“I’ve got a secret for you,” Marius said as he punched Ike in the back again before being pushed away. “I didn’t fire upon your ship because I thought we had been discovered.”
Marius, standing next to the pile Ike had gotten his pipe from, pulled out one of his own and charged at Ike. Their pipes clanged against each other as if they were swords. Ike pushed back and swung again, his pipe hitting the metal of Marius’ pipe.
“Don’t tell me that you were trying to make friends,” Ike goaded. “Because you did a poor job of that. Or were you just bored?”
Ike faked a swing up, causing Marius to attempt a block. The move caused the Ternian officer’s side to be exposed, as designed. Ike swung hardly into his ribcage. The scream of pain likely meant that Ike had managed to break at least one, if not two of the man’s ribs. As Marius grabbed his side, a single stream of blood trickled down his forehead and down past his split lip. He managed a laugh.
“No, you idiot.” Marius said, spitting blood onto the floor. “I wanted to kill you. Simply because you are Council.”
Gathering momentum, Marius swung at Ike again, connecting their pipes against each other. The metallic clangs echoed throughout the room as they fought. After a couple strong blows, Marius once again had Ike pinned.
“I hate to generalize,” Ike said, his back against a large stack of crates. “But you people really are bloodthirsty, aren’t you? And what is it with you people and swordplay?”
“After I kill you, I will kill Altair’s mate and shoot her out an airlock,” Marius stated. Ike could sense a shallow coldness in Marius’ eyes assured by his callous voice. Apparently, he had unlocked the officer’s inner sociopath. “And after I kill her, I’ll kill your little girlfriend… as I penetrate her.”
Ike screamed out in defiance, striking blow after blow toward Marius. The first two were easily blocked, but then he knocked the Ternian’s pipe away and kept swinging. Marius raised his arms to block the blows, only to have the bones in his arms shattered. Ike drove his adversary onto the ground. Each swing became more intense than the last.
Finally, Ike swung down one last time. His energy was spent and pain coursed through his entire body. He limply dropped the bloody pipe onto the floor and looked down at Marius—his eyes wide open and his skull shattered into pieces with bits of brain laying about.
Ike stepped back, ashamed at how far he had gone. But he was alive and that was all that mattered. He knew he had to go; it was only a matter of moments before the doors would open with more marines coming after him. As he ran toward the door, he picked up Marius’ blaster and took it with him.
Running through the corridors, Ike tried to remember how to get back to the docking port. The hallways twisted and turned, causing him to become bewildered. He stopped at an intersection and looked around, not recognizing which way to go. Each path looked similar, but none of them looked correct. Down one hall, he could see a hydroponics bay. Down another was an external viewport. A third revealed a small room with terminals.
It dawned upon Ike that those terminals could be his salvation. Running down that direction, he stopped at the first terminal and brought it to life. A ship schematic quickly showed him where he was and where he needed to go. As he turned to run off again, he paused and wondered if he could access the communications grid through this station.
* * *
“What do we do with them?” Anod asked about Doctor Cornell and his nurse as Tris settled into her seat on the shuttle. Kyri stood by the door, looking down the corridor for any sign of Ike. If they didn’t leave soon, she worried that they would not be able to.
“I do not know,” Tris responded. “Probably throw them into the corridor before we leave.”
Kyri turned around and took a couple steps further into the cabin. She traced her fingers over the crate they had placed against the wall. “What if he does not return?” she asked.
“Then we pray to Rell,” Tris responded just as a figure appeared in the doorway.
“Anyone miss me?” Ike said as he leaned against the frame. Kyri turned around and smiled at him. She could see the bruises forming on his face and the blood that stained his uniform. For some reason, she had been worried about him. She stretched out her hand to guide him up the step onto the shuttle floor.
As Ike made the movement, a blue pulse of energy shot through the corridor and hit him in the back. The force of the blow knocked him forward, halfway into the shuttle entryway. Time seemed to slow down for Kyri, as it had the day before when her brother died. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Anod stand up and throw his knife at the approaching marine. The blade embedding itself into the man’s chest and sending him to the hallway floor.
Kyri glanced out the door and could see three more men with large guns running toward her. They fired their guns, hitting various bulkheads while missing their targets. With her brain on auto-pilot, Kyri pulled the unconscious form of Ike fully into the shuttle and pressed the button to close the doors, locking all of them inside the shuttle with no way to escape.
Looking up from Ike, Kyri locked eyes with Anod, then Cornell, and finally with Tris. Desperation filled her gaze as she didn’t know what to do, not only to save them, but to save Ike if he was even still alive.