Worlds Apart, Book One: Below
by Katia Davis and Stephanie Peters
Legal Disclaimer: The characters in this book are fictional. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is mostly coincidental.
©2000-2004 All rights remain with the authors. No reproduction of this material is allowed without the express, written permission of one of the authors.
Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 (final)
Chapter Four: Contact
"So, you've dealt with our little ... research problem?"
Hackyll barely suppressed a self-pleased grin. "By the time the cleanup squad arrives, there should be nothing left of the specimen except a glob of rotting, stinking goo."
"Getting a but enthusiastic, are we," Aljye said sharply, and watched the head officer cringe in a most satisfactory way.
"Yes, Esteemed Ruler, sorry, Esteemed Ruler."
"The specimen is destroyed, then? What about contamination?"
"The UVS will have taken care of that, Esteemed Ruler. We emitted a double dose."
Aljye rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "Just to be sure... flood the entire laboratory with hydrogen cyanide, before the squad enters. And I want any remains of the body dissolved in an acid bath."
Hackyll's head bobbed in shock. This was unheard of! "But I don't -"
"Did I ask your opinion, Hackyll?"
"No, Esteemed Ruler. "
"What do you know of ancient Abover microbes?"
The CMI officer scratched his throat. His jugular vein was throbbing visibly, bulging starkly under the pale skin; an outward sign of the depths of his discomfort.
"Not very much, Esteemed Ruler. They were quite potent, or so I have heard." His large eyes were staring sightlessly; his head did not move. He was mortified. Good.
"Then you should trust my judgment. The only safe way to study the Above is through fossilised remains, and the library. A fully preserved body carries too much potential danger. I will not have my city exposed to such danger. Is that clear?"
"Yes, Esteemed Ruler," Hackyll mumbled. "It will be done as you command."
Aljye leaned back in her chair and tapped an impatient finger on the desk. She had revealed more information than the man needed, but she wanted to drive this particular point home as forcefully as possible. Finding out new truths about the Above could only cause unrest. The last thing she needed was people going off by the score to explore. All the known passages to the Above had been closed - except for the one, secret passage reserved for the harshest punishment - exile to the Above, meaning, of course, certain and painful death. It had not been used in decades. Any cave-in during the tunnelling into new territory was instantly sealed off and the workers ... quarantined, to make sure they had not sustained any physical or mental damage. She personally saw to it that these measures were carried out with the utmost care, as had her predecessors in the last centuries. In this way was her community safely shielded.
The Ruler turned her attention back to the man fidgeting in his chair across the room. So you are saying I do not have to worry about Abover remains and this ... Gabba ... getting carried away with Abover research? You do realise she should never have been allowed to lift the specimen in the first place?"
Hackyll cleared his throat harshly. "Yes, I do realise that. And no, Esteemed Ruler, you do not need to worry. The situation is fully under control."
The situation was horribly out of control.
Standing up, the monstrous Abover was even bigger than she had appeared lying down, dwarfing even Flax, who was tall by all current standards. The glaring light of the inner lab bathed her in a horrible brilliance, outlining her harshly against the bright white walls.
Gabba looked like a porcelain doll next to her, as rigid with shock and as fragile. Feet dangling above the ground in the humanoid's steel-tight grasp, the biologist's head still barely cleared her captor's shoulder.
The other two could only stare, petrified, at the big female, rooted to their spots by the wild expression in those harsh features. Her dental ridges were incredibly white, as if she had just cleaned them, and she bared them in what almost looked like a grin - a rather feral one, at that.
The whites in her eyes were just as impressive - flashing this way and that as the strange, pale orbs moved about while her head remained nearly still. None of them had ever seen eyes that moved in their sockets. Their own, of course, like all those of their species, were immobile in their heads to ensure maximum performance. Some said the eyeballs were simply too large for the skull to accommodate the muscle and tissue necessary to make them mobile - thus offering superb vision but needing the constant, ever so slight shifting of head in order to create a visible image that the brain could render. As everyone learned as soon as they were weaned, an eye in an immobile head was effectively blind. Flax could almost hear Gabba lecture him on this anomaly in the Abover, and what it might signify.
"Convince her we mean no harm," Gabba said in a strangled whisper, flinching as the Abover pricked her skin with the scalpel in warning.
Flax did a double take. Gabba. The Abover. There wasn't really time for such musings, even though these thoughts had flashed through his mind in the blink of an eye.
"Aah, um..." Flax stuttered, his hands jittering by his sides as he looked hopelessly back and forth between Nexia and the Abover holding Gabba.
"Do something!" Gabba pleaded, her voice rising to a higher register as a thin trickle of her blood drizzled down her pale neck. Flax felt unwell.
"Step away from her." It was Nexia's voice in a whisper. Flax glanced at the young student hesitantly.
"Step away from her, Flax. It's clear she sees us as a threat and is using Gabba as a shield. If we step away, perhaps she'll relax. She's only trying to protect herself."
"For Aljye's sake, stop postulating and move back," Gabba squeaked, catching on to Nexia's thinking. Only the corners of her mouth moved as she spoke; fear of the scalpel pressed to her jugular kept her stiller than stone.
Slowly, Flax and Nexia backed up a pace. It seemed as if the girl had been right in her observations; Laddie's grip seemed to loosen. A little.
"Ergh! Ar lorgh ung!"
"Terror Above us! What was that?" Nexia swore, grasping at her ears to block out the horrid sound. Her head swayed nervously as she glanced at Flax.
"I... I don't know."
"I don't care! Just get this bloody thing off of me!" Gabba shrieked, her ears ringing with the force of the vocalisation from the Abover. It had been harsh and guttural; Gabba's hearing might well have taken permanent damage from its sheer volume. What made matters worse was that she was, for the moment, blinded, being unable to move her head. The horrid noises combined with her precarious position both served to heighten her terror.
Flax's mouth gaped open in astonishment. He had never heard Gabba talk like that before about anything, let alone one of her precious specimens. But then she had never been held captive by one, either. He shook his head to clear his ears.
"All right, Gabba, just keep calm," Nexia said, backing away farther towards the door. She glanced through the opening and into the lab proper. Perhaps there was something in there they could use. They needed to subdue the creature, but Gabba kept no anaesthetising drugs in her lab as all of her research involved dead objects... usually. Her eye caught sight of the main doors, but they may as well have been in another tunnel.
They were stuck in the lab with the Abover. Gabba's mind raced. There must be something they could do. She grimaced against the pain in her neck. She could barely breathe past the creature's tight grasp. They had to convince the Abover that they were friendly. There was no doubt that this was a matter of life and death. Muscles so hard they felt like rock rippled against her body, and Gabba had no doubt the big humanoid could break her neck with about as much effort as it would take to draw breath. There must be something they could do to get through to the beast!
Then there was a glimmer of hope. Somewhere in the back of her mind...
"Make yourselves small!" Gabba hissed. "Go curl up in the corner. Try to look like you're harmless."
"But we are harmless," Flax put in, only to receive a withering look from Nexia.
"She doesn't know that! Come on, over here!" Nexia slid along the wall, away from the Abover, gesturing for Flax to follow carefully. Those frightening eyes followed her although the figure stood stock-still.
Flax emulated Nexia's small movements and backed up into the student as they hit the far wall. They slid to the ground in unison and curled against each other, trying to look as small as possible.
A grunting, ponderous tirade came from the Abover. It sounded disgusted. "Argh!" Gabba cringed at the sound right in her ear, but was gasping in pain a moment later as the huge Abover threw her across the room where she collided in a heap with Flax and Nexia. She lay there for a moment, winded, not daring to turn her head.
The three of them huddled there transfixed as the Abover stalked with staggered movement from one side of the specimen table to the other, seeming to keep one eye on them whilst the other ranged around the room looking for something. All the while a horrid noise came from her throat. Suddenly the beast was upon them, looming above the group and gesturing wildly.
Flax tried to squeeze himself into a tighter ball behind the two women. He had never declared himself a hero, and now was not the time to become one. He heard Gabba mumble beside him, "Dear Below, the thing is completely bestial. Whatever was I thinking?"
Over the roar of the creature, Gabba's excellent hearing picked up the sound of boots followed by a muffled, "Security override, Hackyll A One." Not sure whether to be relieved or even more alarmed, she waited with bated breath. The main lab doors swished open and in strode the Head of Central Military Intelligence followed by a half dozen members of the cleanup squad.
If it wasn't for the pain, she would have shrugged everything off as a strange dream. As consciousness gradually returned, she became aware of soft footfalls around her, and low, thin voices that she could not seem to understand.
Keeping very still, she waited for her chance to strike. One of the newcomers was close; apparently making sure she was dead. A foolish mistake; and the bad guys did it every time.
As sluggish as her senses still felt, she knew she was catching them by surprise as she made a grab for the nearest person and pulled out her new blade while jumping to her feet.
The light weight and small size of her catch startled her; she felt as if she would break every bone in that slight body if she was not careful. At first she thought she was holding a child, but then she realised that these beings were completely alien to her.
The other two were standing like deer caught in the torchlight, impossibly huge, red eyes riveted on her. She could not see very well in the dim light, but those eyes seemed to almost glow in the dark, much like a cat's. She also noted that, while their pale bodies were standing still as statues, their heads never stopped moving, slight, jerking, side-to-side or up-and down motions. Combined with their very small, short noses and lip-less, pointed mouths, she was reminded of owls - rather ugly, featherless ones at that.
Gnomes, she decided finally. The descriptions from the fairy tales fit perfectly: slender, grey- skinned creatures that came about to your waist - well, these stood a little taller than that, but not much - with large eyes that glowed red in the dark and wispy white hair. They usually lived inside mountains or underground, and myth also had it that they liked to build all sorts of strange and wondrous devices of dubious functionality. There was more, but right now her still sluggish mind would not yield it. One thing she did remember - apart from the fact that their inventions had a reputation for backfiring with sometimes disastrous consequences, they were reported to be harmless.
Then again, it never hurt to establish right away who was the stronger. They had confined her, after all. Until she knew their motives, she would consider them enemies.
The creature in her grasp spoke. It was a soft, hissing chitter, barely audible - and completely incomprehensible.
She pushed her strange new knife warningly into the soft skin of the being's neck, and was fleetingly surprised at how easily it drew blood.
There was an exchange between the creatures, then the two others - a male and a female, if their vaguely human-looking shapes were any indication - backed off a few steps. Their unblinking stares were unnerving, but the gesture seemed to mean they were willing to parley.
From out of nowhere, a memory stirred. "Keara, where are you?" she said softly. It was the first time she had spoken since waking up, and her voice felt strangely raspy, as if it had not been used in years.
She had not expected them to understand, but seeing them flinch and cower at the sound of her voice was confusing. The captured creature shrieked - at least it sounded like a shriek, but the volume was wrong - and the others retreated further, until they finally cowered in a corner. No help here, it seemed. And no danger, either. With an impatient grunt, she hurled the little body at them, and watched it land on top of them with a satisfying thud.
"Okay, what in the Underworld is this place?" She stepped forward slowly, wondering if there was any way these... gnomes ... would understand what she was saying. Wondering how much of this she was dreaming. That body felt been warm and alive, and there was the trickle of live, red blood from the small wound she had caused.
But, try as she might, she received no response besides unintelligible squeaks - very frustrating. Where was the slave girl? There had been that blizzard... Before she could think about what to do next, a sound at the far end of the room alerted her to trouble.
Hackyll's mind was in chaos as he tried to comprehend what he saw before him. He motioned for the cleanup squad to stay back while he surveyed the scene. Something wasn't right. His head swayed from side to side as he built up a picture of what was going on. The door he had sealed gaped open like a monstrous wound and instead of being dead and obliterated by the UVS, the Abover creature filled in the gap and began moving towards him in a threatening manner.
The sight nearly loosened his bowels. With shaking hands, he unholstered his weapon and discharged it in the direction of the creature.
Too late he realised his mistake. His weapon was nothing more than a handheld version of the UVS device they had already used on the Abover. The grotesquely large woman screeched alarmingly and a thin vapour of steam rose from her sodden clothing, but otherwise she seemed unharmed and now completely incensed. Hackyll was faced with the creature as she hurled herself across the space of the lab through the open door in a daring leap. He took the full force of a raggedly covered foot against his left ear and went down like a tunnel collapse. Behind him, the cleanup squad shoved the lab door closed. There was a brief hissing noise as they effectively sealed the room.
Gabba, Flax and Nexia had taken the opportunity of distraction to scuttle from the specimen room and now crouched huddled beneath one of the lab tables.
"Heavens Below," Nexia whispered excitedly, "Did you see that? His weapon had no effect... and the way she launched herself...Gabba, this is the find of the Millennium!"
"I have no idea how you can sound so excited," Flax exclaimed, "What in the Ruler's name are we going to do? We are STUCK in here with that ... THING!"
He hazarded a glance out from under the table only to discover a pair of oddly pale eyes staring back at him.
Gantar ran down the tunnel as he had never run before. His breath came in harsh gasps. What he had seen back there was beyond unreal, and he was uncertain whether he was running to get away from it or to inform the Esteemed Ruler of the terrible events. He had never imagined in his wildest nightmares that he would ever witness such a thing. He burst through the doors leading into the audience chamber, only to be stopped by a pair of crossed ceremonial spears.
"I must see the Esteemed Ruler!" he babbled with agitated body language.
"The Esteemed Ruler is no longer taking audience," he was informed by an immaculately uniformed guard.
"It is a matter of national security!" he tried.
A brief flicker of annoyance.
"To do with the Abover humanoid," Gantar hissed, hoping that his meaning was clear.
The guards glanced at each other for confirmation. They had been informed of the incident in Gabba's lab and had been told that any developments were of the highest priority. After a silent communication the crossed spears parted, allowing Gantar to pass. He hurried through the guards with a backward glance. Soon thereafter he found himself grovelling on the floor before the Esteemed Ruler.
"Who dares intrude on our privacy?!" The Esteemed Ruler smelled very annoyed, and her fearsome posturing only added to that impression.
"Gantar, Esteemed Ruler, I was heading the cleanup squad sent into Gabba's lab-"
"I know who you are, fool! Why are you here, then? To tell me that the remains of the creature are destroyed, I hope."
"Uh ..." Gantar tried unsuccessfully to find his voice, his hands motionless by his side.
"Out with it! I am very busy." The Esteemed Ruler adjusted her robes slightly.
"The creature is not dead, Esteemed Ruler, it assaulted Hackyll," Gantar burbled in a rush.
"WHAT?!" Aljye's cry almost rivalled that of the Abover.
Gantar winced, "The creature is not dead-"
"I know what you said! But that's IMPOSSIBLE, I ordered its destruction! You must be mistaken." The Esteemed Ruler sniffed, her chin rising in defiance of the news.
Puzzlement crossed Gantar's eyes. How could the Esteemed Ruler NOT believe him; it wasn't exactly something he would lie about. "I do not understand, Esteemed Ruler, it was flooded with UVS and I saw Hackyll shoot it; it should be dead. Not to mention it should have been dead to begin with, after all that time..."
"I ORDERED it," Aljye stormed, "why have you come here now to tell me otherwise?" The Ruler leaned forward, her head making small movements in her heightened state of annoyance.
"I thought you should be made aware of the circumstance, Esteemed Ruler." Gantar babbled.
"You have come to tell me you have failed, this is not acceptable." The Esteemed Ruler wandered about her audience chamber, her fingers jittering in annoyance, "Hackyll was meant to deal with this."
"He did, Esteemed Ruler, but-"
"Do not interrupt me, you lupide loving idiot!" Aljye snarled.
Gantar flushed beneath his translucent skin, "My apologies, Esteemed Ruler."
"The man is a fool," Aljye took a deep breath, the situation was becoming idiotic. She had people to protect from the creature, obviously it was a danger to all. Then there was her rule to think of. She turned to Gantar. "Perhaps you can do a better job?"
Hackyll's second-in-command bristled, "The room is sealed. To ensure a kill, I recommend hydrogen cyanide... but Hackyll and the lab team are in there. We'd kill them too."
Aljye looked down her nose, "No buts, Gantar, do it!"
Gantar swallowed at the order. "I think..."
"Do not think, Gantar! I said do it, and I mean do it."
"Yes, Esteemed Ruler," Gantar said, scrabbling away from the audience chamber before finally standing to run back down the corridor to the lab.
"Gabba!" Flax's whisper was frantic in his urgency to gain the biologist's attention.
"What?" Gabba was concentrating on her huddling, hoping the Abover would just go away. She never thought she would think that, but after her ordeal, it was all she COULD think. She felt Flax' hands grasp at her lab coat and she turned her head to form an image only to jump back in fear. Those pallid orbs stared back at her, shifting strangely in their sockets between Flax and Gabba's terror stricken features.
"I...I think it's okay," Flax continued as the eyes disappeared.
"What exactly is okay with this situation?" Gabba asked, rubbing her head where it had collided with the underside of the table. She took a deep breath to steady her pulse. With a mild tinge of annoyance, she wondered why she had ever uncovered the creature in the first place. What business had Flax had, leaving his work and come running to her, anyway?
"Well, she's going away." Flax followed the Abover with his head as she stalked around the lab, occasionally picking up this item or that, holding it up, sniffing at it and then discarding it. "Plus, she saved us from Hackyll."
Gabba snorted. "She saved herself from Hackyll. He posed more of a threat than we did."
"Exactly," Nexia chimed in. For once, the tunnel digger was thinking with his brain. "Look at what she's doing. She's not interested in us, and she neutralised the only other perceived threat. It means she's not threatened by us anymore!"
The biologist nodded slowly in agreement. Her companion's line of thinking made sense. Slowly her panic and fear faded, new thoughts of interest and study trickled into her mind. She shifted her two companions out of the way to get a clearer view of the lab. She squatted, long fingers clinging to the edge of the table as she slowly levered herself out.
"What are you doing?" Nexia whispered urgently.
"Shh!" Gabba hissed back, twisting her head. A sharp, stinging pain assaulted her neck from the wound she had received from the Abover. She winced, but Nexia fell silent. The biologist turned back to face the lab. She shifted her head and a clear image swam into focus. The Abover still wandered between the tables, oblivious to Gabba's presence. Clearly Nexia was right, they were no longer the threat. It seemed to Gabba that the Abover was exploring, familiarising herself with the surrounding area.
Gingerly, the biologist rose from her squatting position, making herself clearly visible to the Abover. Her fingers twitched as she focused her vision on the back of the dark-haired creature. It turned, swiftly, arms raised in an aggressive posture. Gabba froze, only her head shifted in minute movements so she was able to keep the Abover in her sights. Behind her, she heard Nexia and Flax gasp. She shushed them with a tiny hand movement before raising her arms, palms of her hands facing upwards in a gesture of peace and submission. The strange eyes of the Abover flicked down in their sockets, taking in Gabba's hand movement. The eyes narrowed to slits, but the creature made no movement towards her. Slowly, Gabba dropped her hands and moved forward half a step. The Abover tensed and Gabba breathed deeply, hoping Nexia was truly right in her assumptions. At least she had the creature's attention.
Her mind raced. The Abover seemed intelligent enough, and Gabba was almost certain that the terrible sounds coming from Laddie's throat were an attempt at communicating in a primitive language. She must have had so many questions, no wonder she reacted the way she did. Gabba flushed slightly, remembering her fear. That was a reaction too, perhaps she had something in common with Laddie after all. She swallowed down her doubts, "Gabba," she spoke strongly, tapping at her chest with the palm of her hand.
The Abover's eyes narrowed further, cocking her head to one side. The biologist repeated her name, a little louder and slower, "Gab-ba," she said. The Abover blinked and Gabba wondered if she had understood her meaning. Perhaps Laddie's brain was not developed enough to comprehend the complexities of verbal and physical communication. Then without warning, the Abover opened her mouth.
"Ngkweee-uh-raa?" The aural retort was so loud that Gabba could not help but raise her hands to her ears. She glanced back at Flax and Nexia, a smile slipped across her thin lips.
"She's trying to communicate," Gabba whispered, "it must be her name." She turned back to the Abover, "Gee-rah," she imitated.
A strangled sound came from the dark female, and if Gabba hadn't known better, she would have said she was being laughed at. The noise was cut off sharply when a groan rose from the floor. Hackyll was stirring. The big woman strode with confidence to the collapsed form, hauled him upright one-handedly and stared into the dazed features. Slowly, Hackyll shook his head, a startled look crossing his face as he realised his predicament.
Gantar paced in the tunnel outside Gabba's lab. He had been given a direct order by the Esteemed Ruler. He could not disobey it. However, carrying out the order would mean murdering everyone in the lab, including Hackyll.
He could accept that Gabba and the others must be stopped, might truly have to de destroyed. They had been in direct contact with the creature; they were bound to be contaminated, but Hackyll... he was Gantar's commanding officer. Yet he had been struck by the creature, perhaps he was contaminated as well. If they were even still alive. The monster had very likely killed them already. But what if it hadn't?
Gantar heaved a sigh and paced some more. Was he capable of doing it? All he had to do was issue a command to the computer and the hydrogen cyanide would disperse through the ventilation system. The lab was equipped with a failsafe device that would prevent leakage of the toxic gas, and he would be saving Below from possible infection from the creature. He pulled his lower lip between his chewing plates and mulled over his problem a little longer.
Sharp pain sliced through Hackyll's awareness. Something was pulling at him. The last he remembered was the huge form of the Abover flying towards him, then everything had gone black. He opened his eyes and focused, only to find himself staring into the flattened features of the creature that had attacked him. He jerked in the vice-like grip, but escape was unthinkable. He glanced about him, desperate to secure his release. His shaky gaze fell on Gabba, standing close by one of the lab tables.
"You!" he spat between clenched chewing plates, "This is your fault!"
"Now would not be a good time for placing blame, Hackyll," Gabba said very quietly. Evidently their communication was upsetting Laddie. The Abover appeared agitated and half raised a fist against the Head of Military Intelligence.
Hackyll shut his mouth with a click. He was well aware of the damage the Abover creature could inflict upon him. His facial expression fluctuated between hot rage and fear.
"Don't say a word," Gabba hissed at Hackyll. Once again they were in a precarious position with the volatile Abover.
Hackyll grimaced as a vice-like grip squeezed into the sensitive flesh of his shoulder. Gabba took another step towards Laddie, her arms still outstretched, palms up.
Her voice was low, soothing. "It's all right, Laddie. We're friends."
"Speak for yourself." Frantic Hackyll mouthed the words soundlessly.
Laddie cocked her head as if listening hard, before making another grunting sound and throwing Hackyll to the floor. He landed with a dull thud, head connecting with one of the lab table legs.
Gabba stalled in her movement to cast a horrified expression in Hackyll's direction, then back to Laddie. How was she going to deal with the violence of this creature? Was it inherent in her species? That was after all how they supposedly became extinct, by killing themselves off. Looking at Laddie now, she could understand how that had come about. If all Abovers had been like her in the old days, then no wonder humanity's ancient ancestors had never stood a chance.
The biologist was at a loss for what to do; once again they were at a stalemate. Laddie had taken on an almost comical posture, her hands resting on her hips. She glared defiantly at Gabba. It seemed to Gabba that the Abover was daring her to make the next move.
"Think quickly," Nexia murmured, trying not to flinch when the monstrous creature's head whipped around to fix her with a glare. "We've got to make her understand our situation."
"Yes, I know that, Nexia, but I don't think any of us speaks her particular dialect, do you?" Gabba said acidly, even as Flax mumbled, "what's not to understand about this situation?"
"No, I... I'm sorry, I was just... " The young woman's head flitted jerkily in agitation.
Gabba was instantly sorry to have snapped; such was her tension that she just needed to lash out at something, and the big brute of an Abover hardly seemed a wise choice for that. "Never mind," she said apologetically. "Check on him." She indicated Hackyll's unconscious form. "See how badly he's hurt. I... I'll think of something." Frantically, she cast around for anything that might help them.
"And for Aljye's sake, keep cowering," Gabba added when she saw Flax tentatively stretch his cramped muscles after being crammed into the tiny space under the table - on the far side, of course. The man gave her a mortified look and promptly dropped down out of view.
Behind him, Gabba saw a possible solution to their problem, in the form of a little-used flip chart that still had some scribblings and sketches from a long-forgotten archaeological project on it. If she remembered correctly, it still had some blank sheets underneath. And, with a little luck, at least one of the markers had not completely dried out.
Slowly, she edged towards it, taking care never to raise any doubts in Laddie that she was perfectly harmless. Her benign smile was a little forced and her hands shook like roots in an earthquake, but she seemed to be succeeding. Those eerie eyeballs followed her curiously, but the big Abover made no hostile move. For now, at least. Although Gabba noticed that Laddie kept looking suspiciously across to where Nexia was kneeling by Hackyll, taking his pulse and gingerly dabbing at an ugly wound on his temple that was bleeding profusely.
There was a tense moment when Gabba slowly picked up one of the markers and removed the cap with a loud popping sound. Instantly the scalpel was back in Laddie's hand, and she was shaking it threateningly at the scientist.
She eyed the device warily as Gabba ever so slowly lifted it to the flip chart, after carefully tearing away the used page. Pulling the corners of her mouth up in what she hoped would be taken for a reassuring smile, Gabba waited for the large sheet of paper to come to rest on the ground with a hollow rustle.
Laddie never moved, but she made Gabba think uncomfortably of a lupide ready to go in for the kill. This had better work. If this creature was not as sapient as she suspected, they were in deep trouble.
Gantar had stopped his pacing in front of the sealed lab door, staring at it forlornly as if it held the answer to his dilemma.
He was unable to put off the Esteemed Ruler's order any longer. He would have to flood the lab with cyanide or else it was likely that the Ruler would have his head. It was essential he carried out the order, but to assuage his conscience, he could do something about warning the people in the lab.
With a little calculated stalling, he could buy Hackyll some time. Although how he would be able to make use of it, Gantar did not know.
He pushed a button on his wrist to activate his communicator, and surreptitiously tuned it to Hackyll's frequency. It came alive with a soft crackle. He listened intently, hoping for signs of life, but of course the other communicator was not set to send.
There was nothing for it; he had waited as long as he dared. With a sigh, he unlocked a panel just outside the lab door that hid the high security controls for emergency procedures. He slid his card through the slot for authorisation, and the cover swished aside. As the system booted and flickered to life, he raised his wrist to his mouth so Hackyll could hear him activate it.
Then another thought struck him. Perhaps... well, it was worth a shot. Straightening his shoulders a little, he proceeded with the activation.
Carefully, Gabba placed the marker on the paper and prayed that it would yield enough ink. To her relief, a darkly glistening line appeared with a soft screech. Laddie's eyes widened a fraction. Encouraged by this reaction, Gabba proceeded to sketch a stick figure.
Tilting her head, the big Abover stepped closer. The hand holding the scalpel dropped to her side. With her free hand, she gingerly touched the fresh line. A puzzled look crossed her face when the ink smeared and left a matching stain on her fingertip. She bared her strikingly white dentals and rubbed the finger against her sodden garment.
Flax whistled softly through his dentals. "This is good, Gabba. She's interested."
He covered his ears reflexively when the Abover emitted another vocal blast, but she showed no further aggression, and he relaxed. Marginally.
"I think she wants you to go on," said Nexia, catching on. She was still bent over Hackyll's unmoving form, trying to wake him up by patting his cheek.
Drawing a deep breath, Gabba continued to draw a second and third figure, and then another, much larger with curly hair. Recognition dawned on the Abover's face.
Gabba smiled hopefully; this time she did not have to fake it. Laddie did understand! She encircled the three small figures and the tall one with a line, showing that they were friends.
Laddie raised an eyebrow; her gaze flicked to Hackyll. "Whynf ghurz gmh?" she inquired.
"Well, I guess he's in the same cavern now," Gabba said wryly, and added a lying down figure to the picture, which she put only half inside the line encircling the other figures. The Abover nodded slowly.
Excitement rising, the scientist continued her dubious work of art. She quickly sketched four walls, pointing around them to indicate the room they were in, then more figures outside the walls. Then she pointed to the new figures, and drew a line to cross out the figure representing the Abover. This was the critical point; Laddie needed to understand that there were people out there intent on her destruction. Not that Gabba herself had not toyed with the thought once or twice during their recent ordeal...
The Abover extended her hand, palm up, and looked at her questioningly.
It took Gabba a few seconds to realise what the woman wanted. With an embarrassed laugh, she handed over the marker.
Laddie weighed it in her hand, then she experimentally touched it to the paper, giving a pleased grunt when it left a mark. With skill that left Gabba dumbfounded, the Abover added to the impromptu sketch. First, she put a large object into her own effigy's hand. From its shape, it must be the large metal and wood device - a weapon presumably - they had discovered with the body.
She proceeded to draw a line that went straight from the weapon to the group outside the room, and through their necks. She looked at Gabba and bared her teeth. The scientist swallowed hard. "Uh, that's not a good idea-" she began.
They were interrupted by a hissing crackle. Gabba glared down, eyes wide, at the fallen form of the Head of Military Intelligence. It was his communicator. Laddie reacted too, a look of interest crossing her features. "Secured message, security clearance ten. Prepare for hydrogen cyanide flooding. Initiate countdown."
"Gabba," Nexia said tersely. "I think we've got problems."
Chapter Five: Alliance
"Operation requires clearance level thirteen. Please reissue in ninety seconds."
As he had hoped, Gantar's first attempt at activating the cyanide flooding resulted in an error message - by 'accidentally' setting the clearance level too low, he had blocked the process for a few more precious seconds. Added to the countdown, Hackyll would have just over eleven minutes to save himself.
There was one more thing. He glanced around furtively; no one seemed to be near. For the safety of the people, the complex housing most of the area's major research facilities, microbiology, genetics, archaeology and paleontology to name a few, had been evacuated. The people had been told there was a possible contamination - no more. It was a testament to the nature of research taking place here that no-one had seemed particularly uneasy or surprised. Or maybe it was the blind awe the Esteemed Ruler was held in - no-one dared question her orders.
The lab door would be locked and airtight for the duration of the flooding itself, but he could remove the seal the cleanup squad had left; he would then seal the door that led out of the section instead. If Hackyll could flee into this corridor...
"Lupide droppings!" he swore when he reached to his hip to find the sealing gun missing. He must have lost it somewhere. That meant the lab door would remain sealed from the outside - his shoulders drooped. All his efforts to buy time for the commander he had served loyally had been in vain.
The ninety seconds were up; a blinking light on the control panel showed the system was online again. Gantar drew a deep breath and reissued the command.
"Security clearance thirteen. Prepare for hydrogen cyanide flooding. Initiate countdown."
The machine hummed. "Countdown initiated. All personnel MUST evacuate to Section 2a. Process starting in ten minutes. All personnel MUST evacuate..."
With a final salute to the man behind the sealed door, Gantar turned and left for Section 2a, deemed a safe distance in the unlikely case of leakage. He had done all he could. Now he had to hope the Esteemed Ruler never suspected him of the near-treason he had committed.
Bemused, Cair watched the reaction of her new companions to the strange sounds that seemed to come from the unconscious one's hip, of all places.
They seemed friendly enough, except for the one who had attacked her. Whatever the thing was he had pointed at her, and whatever it had done, it had HURT! She had not seen anything fly from it, but it must be some very strange form of sling. She hoped the creature woke up with a splitting headache, to say the least.
She certainly appreciated their efforts at communication. At least they seemed to be somewhat intelligent. Maybe she would get used to the constant shifting around of their heads, although it still put her in mind of owls rather then gnomes. She had ascertained that the three who had first come to her meant no harm; not only was it obvious that they were trying to make her understand this, but her instincts were kicking in and told her she needed them as allies.
She hoped they could tell her what had happened to her, and most importantly, where Keara was. She had thought the older female had mentioned the slave girl's name, but of course, with their unfamiliar language, she could not be sure.
Memories were flooding back now; she pushed them down firmly for the moment. She wanted to be in control of the situation before she allowed herself to grieve. She had seen her young soul mate die - she was sure of it. She knew her own last thought as she had slipped into oblivion had been that she would be joining her soon. Her brow creased as she forced her attention back on here and now; wherever that was. Apparently all five of them were in trouble - she could see no obvious way out of this room, and there had already been one attack. It was safe to assume the attackers would be back to free their captured comrade. Unconsciously, she was already looking around the room for anything she could use to tie up the prisoner. She wished there was more light in this place.
The gnomes almost seemed to have forgotten her presence, which was a little surprising considering the way they had reacted to her earlier - she had, after all, made sure they knew she was not to be trifled with. There was a certain urgency in their stances as they desperately tried to wake up their fallen companion. Something unsettling must be going on.
She walked over to where some kind of rubbery rope was sticking out of the wall and connected to one of the strange devices that seemed to be all over this place. That would do. She pulled her blade and bent down to cut it free.
"Nngfh erth smachth!" the male said, gesturing a fervent "no" with both hands. He seemed agitated, and she noted fleetingly that even in this state, he spoke at a very low volume. When they talked normally, it was so soft she had to strain to hear.
Puzzled, she straightened up and looked at him. He twitched nervously, but persisted in his movements until she spread her hands to show him she would not touch the rope.
Satisfied, his attention went once more to the prone figure on the ground as he joined his two companions in milling around and generally panicking. What in the Netherworld was going on?
"Gabba," Flax squeaked. His voice had a definite hysterical pitch. Considering they had approximately nine minutes left to live unless something close to a miracle happened, that was no surprise. Even under normal circumstances, Flax was no hero. Now, he was no help at all, standing there helplessly clenching and unclenching his hands.
"Yes, Flax, we're sort of busy here," Gabba said, barely looking up from rummaging in her drawers for anything they could use to wake Hackyll up. He had to have a way to cancel the countdown, he certainly outranked the officer who had initiated it.
"Well, someone had better watch this creep, or she'll take the lab apart," Flax said nervously. "Well, at least we wouldn't have to worry about dying by poison... " His giggle had a crazed quality.
"It's no use," Nexia called from Hackyll's side, lifting the senseless man's eyelid yet again in the hopes of catching a reflex of the pupil. "He's out cold."
"There has to be a way!" Gabba caught Laddie's eye. The Abover looked interested and mildly worried; of course she did not realise the gravity of the situation. There was no easy way to communicate, so she would just have to be left in ignorance - which was probably for the best, when the time came. Gabba tried her best to give the Abover a reassuring look, but could tell from the raised brow she got in response that she was failing miserably.
Hackyll was down; their only hope of escape rendered unconscious. She could hear Nexia frantically patting the man's cheek and talking to him. The door was sealed, and a countdown was telling them every ten seconds how many minutes they had left to live. Flax was hysterical, and Laddie had no clue what was going on, even if she could have done anything to save them.
The situation was desperate; Gabba decided it was time to panic.
Something in Flax's voice shook the scientist up. She looked at her friend. "What?"
"That suit you made me wear when we were excavating near that fissure..."
Gabba slapped her forehead. "Aljye bite me, I forgot all about that! The inner lab is equipped with everything needed in case of a contamination - that includes full body-protective suits..."
"What are we waiting for?" Flax all but sprinted through the door into the little lab that had been Laddie's wake-up room and yanked open the cabinet at its far end. The two women followed more slowly, but not by much. They barely noticed the huge Abover ambling after them curiously, watching their every move.
"Oh my." Flax, having had a look inside the cabinet, stepped aside to let the others see what had just made his own heart sink. Three sterile suits were neatly hung inside, airtight and equipped with oxygen masks. Three Belower-sized suits. They were two pieces short, and it seemed unlikely that the giant Abover would fit into one anyway.
"Damn, damn, damn," Gabba mumbled, clenching her fists until the blood vessels showed.
"It will save some of us," Nexia said carefully.
"But Laddie will never fit into one," Gabba said plaintively. "We can't just let her die!"
"So, do you suggest we all die with her?"
"No, of course not." Gabba's shoulders sank. "But it's so unfair!"
Nexia patted her mentor's shoulder; she had no reply.
"Decontamination procedure launching in five minutes and twenty seconds," the comm system told them emotionlessly.
Seconds ticked away, and the three companions just stood and exchanged horrified looks.
Once again it was Flax, of all people, who managed to form a coherent thought.
"Nex, that sealing gun you, er, found... do you think it would work to...?"
"Oh my goodness!" It was Nexia's turn to slap her forehead, " Flax, you're brilliant! We should have thought of that sooner. Gabba, do you know where the outlets are?"
" I know this lab like the back of my hand. "Fierce hope rose in the scientist." Quickly, we've got less than five minutes!"
A grunt from the Abover stopped them all in their tracks. She stood glaring at Nexia, who was holding the sealing gun, and pointed furiously with her scalpel.
Gabba caught on. "She thinks it's a weapon. Let me handle it, you go seal the first valve. Over there." She pointed, even as she moved her body between Nexia and Laddie, spreading her arms wide in what they had established as a friendly gesture.
The Abover craned her neck to look past her, watching as the student efficiently sealed one of the outlets. "I think it might work," she said as she watched the material harden, " Let's get the rest!"
The countdown voice announced the final minute. A blaring sound started up, drowning conversation in rhythmic blasts of unbearable noise.
By the time they were working on the final outlet, the sealing gun's charging meter was low; a warning light was blinking on the handle. "Lupide droppings!" Nexia swore. The valve was sealed, but the coat of plastimer was irregular and looked brittle. "That's not going to last."
Gabba was now a good deal calmer, but she had to think quickly before panic had a chance to rise again. "At the very least, it should buy us some time," she yelled over the noise of the alarm bells.
With a loud hum, the machinery that was to set free the hydrogen cyanide came to life; the countdown was up. They would soon know if the seals would hold. If not... they had a problem
"You two get into these," Gabba ordered briskly, thrusting two of the suits at her companions before grabbing the third suit and starting towards the Abover.
"Gabba, you're not-" Flax began.
"Are you out of your-" Nexia said on top of him, as both realised what she had in mind.
Gabba ignored them as she approached Laddie. Thoughts were whirling in her head, but one thing she knew - she was not letting this amazing creature die, not after it had just awoken from its age-long slumber.
"And what about Hackyll?" Flax tried again.
"I don't know!" Gabba flared. "It's not like I ever expected anything like this to happen while I was in the lupide-ridden room!" She shoved the suit towards the Abover, who accepted it doubtfully. Her brows knit together in puzzlement as she turned it this way and that, examining it. Then she grinned triumphantly and held it, correct way up, in front of her chest.
This was when it became clear that their previous assessment was correct; there was no way the large humanoid would fit into the suit.
"Whatever we do, we better do it quickly," Nexia said. Unlike Flax, who was still standing there rather dumbly holding his suit, she was already shrugging into hers and zipping it up. "The seal on that valve is about to go."
She was right. Already, a telltale whine coming from the valve keened softly in their ears; the gas was forcing its way past the imperfect barrier, slowly but surely.
"The waste compartment!" Gabba cried, dashing to one of the closets and hitting a button on the counter. "It's airtight." A panel slid open soundlessly, revealing three cylindrical metal containers, which she pulled out before gesturing to the Abover.
"Get her over here," she said. As an afterthought, she added, "and Hackyll, too."
"What? In there? They'll never fit!"
"They'll have to," Gabba said curtly, and took the suit back from the Abover's hands, who had approached, watching with interest. "It's all we've got. And we're running out of time!"
With practised ease, she worked her way into the bulky suit, half an ear cocked for any changes in the sound from the faulty seal; only traces of the deadly gas seemed to be getting through at the moment.
At the same time, she was gesturing to Laddie to make her cower inside the tiny compartment. Amazingly, the creature seemed to sense the urgency of the situation, and was crouching in order to eye the small space appraisingly, rubbing her chin.
However, when Flax and Nexia, both now encumbered by their own protective suits and breathing heavily through the oxygen masks, came dragging Hackyll's unconscious form and prepared to shove him into the same space, the tall Abover raised herself to her full height and gave Gabba a raised eyebrow. One hand on her hip, she pointed the other at the senseless officer and shook her head vehemently, no. She was not getting into that place with that person!
There was a hitch in the keening, then the sound got louder.
"For Below's sake, hurry," Flax said.
"You're not helping," Gabba said through clenched dentals, the airtight hood of her own suit muffling her voice to a dull mumble.
She made a pleading gesture, and drew her hand across her throat, hoping to convey the terrible danger both Laddie and Hackyll were in. Then she pointed to the compartment, and made a gesture of breathing a sigh of relief, to show that their salvation lay within that little closed space. She even opened and closed the panel to demonstrate how they would be sealed in safely until the danger was past.
The Abover seemed unconvinced.
"Oh please, for the love of all that's dear to you, get in there!" Gabba finally pleaded, wringing her hands and generally all but falling on her knees and begging. "Please, trust me on this!"
With a loud plop, the sealing on the valve finally gave way, and the valve poured its vile freight into the lab.
Gabba was aware that the brute could not understand her speech, but something in her voice must have gotten through, for suddenly the creature shrugged, and hunkered down to crawl into the cramped space, and she even reached out a hand to help pull Hackyll's body inside. The last sight Gabba had before she closed the panel that would save their lives was Laddie's nose wrinkling in disgust at the way her own body was squashed against that of the officer who had tried to kill her earlier.
She hoped they would be all right in there. They had to be!
Hackyll smacked his lips as consciousness slowly returned. His head felt about to explode, and even with his eyes open, he could see nothing. In part this was due to the fact that he seemed to be mostly immobile, his body pressed against and half tucked underneath something fleshy and warm. His right cheek rubbed against a leathery surface that was moving evenly back and forth with the rhythm of human breathing.
A wave of nausea came over him when he realised he could hardly move his limbs at all. What was happening? His last memory was of being lifted up like a rag doll by... he gasped. The musty smell of the leather under the skin of his cheek was awfully familiar...
Furtively, he tried to wriggle free his hand that was trapped at an awkward angle underneath his buttock, hoping to feel for an exit. A nasty, painful tingle was coming up from his legs; he realised he must have been stuck in this unfortunate position for some time.
An angry, guttural growl that rumbled against his ear froze him, save for a rather nervous and uncontrollable twitch in his eyelid. This was not good. He was, it appeared, squeezed into some tight hole with the creature he least wanted to be near, and who would certainly have a grudge against him for trying to shoot her. A creature as strong as a tunnel wyrm and twice as volatile. Not to mention smellier than a long-dead lupide.
Outside of the closed space, dulled, presumably, by the panels trapping them, was the sound of the Alarm announcing a decontamination in progress. "What on-?" he began, only to be jabbed into the gut by a sharp elbow - at least he hoped that was what it was. With virtually no freedom to move his head and no light to see by, he could not be sure.
"Thwof frsh nf thay gmph," the creature roared indignantly.
Hackyll did not need to understand; despite the pain in his head and the overpowering desire to shift his aching limbs, he kept as still as stone. He felt more like jelly in an earthquake, though.
Meanwhile, he tried to listen beyond the walls of this place to find out what in Earth was going on. However, he could hear nothing beyond the muffled blare from the speakers. It must be a gas flooding, he realised, because he doubted this compartment, whatever it was, would protect him from the ultrasonic component of a broadband UVS flooding.
He wondered briefly what had happened to the three scientists; if they had not found similar shelter in time, they were probably dead. Why they had bothered with him remained a mystery; but certainly, putting him in here with a monster that had every reason to carry a grudge bordered on homicide - or a cruel sense of humour.
Unfortunately, his musings were interrupted by a sudden narrowing of his already severely limited space, accompanied by the sound of his fellow prisoner inhaling. He gasped for breath when the creature sucked in yet more air, squeezing him even tighter.
"What are you doing?" he squeaked plaintively, to receive a wicked little chuckle in response. The thing was actually enjoying making him miserable, despite the fact that they shared the same predicament! This was going to be rough.
Firmly keeping his mind off his neighbour and the sometimes drastic invasions of his already cramped personal space, Hackyll concentrated on listening to the sounds outside their prison. He even managed not to flinch too much whenever the big brute shifted and grunted at him in its rugged voice.
After what seemed like three quarters of an eternity, the alarm outside cut off, and an eerie silence followed. For the longest time, nothing stirred.
Then, abruptly, one of the compartment walls slid back, taking away Hackyll's support on one side, and he was unceremoniously dumped on the lab floor. The sudden, bright light of the laboratory was blinding, but before he could blink his eyes twice, his breath was knocked out of him by a massive hunk of something landing on top of him.
"Watch it, you big ugly brute," he wheezed as he extricated himself from underneath the massive humanoid. He wondered fleetingly if the horrid odour of the creature would ever wash off his skin. When he looked up at her, she bared her dentals at him. It might have been a grin, but he refused to take it for one, even if the expression dripped with malice.
As he heaved and strained to remove himself from underneath the mountain of muscle - he noticed that the Abover was just lying there nonchalantly, making no move to help him - he became aware of Gabba and her friends watching him silently. All were apparently unhurt, each clothed in one of the full-body protective suits required in every bio-chemical laboratory. Gabba carried the face-part under her arm, while the other two were still struggling with the numerous straps and zippers.
Only when he had completely freed himself did the creature get slowly to its feet, stretching lazily and flashing those dentals in a most irritating fashion.
"What happened here?" Hackyll cleared his throat loudly and vainly tried to smooth down his sadly crumpled uniform. "I demand to know-"
Gabba cut him short before he could work up into full commander-mode. "You are hardly in a position to demand anything, Hackyll." A hoarse bark from the Abover added emphasis to her words. "You'd better thank Laddie for agreeing to share her shelter with you, or you'd be dead."
"Agreeing?" he snorted. "You mean to tell me that you discussed this with that... thing?"
"I suggest you reevaluate your opinion of her, and quickly," Gabba said sharply. "Because whatever happens, you are stuck with us. And since it looks like we're disposable, we don't intend to stick around. Not to mention I won't let any harm come to Laddie - she's been through so much..."
"Not to mention it's tried to kill me, it seems to be immune against our most powerful weapon, and who knows what else it's capable of."
"Did she hurt you in there just now?" Gabba demanded. "Did she?"
"Uh, not precisely," Hackyll had to admit, "but-"
"Well, we've no time for this in any case," Nexia cut in, finally free of the cumbersome face gear. "As soon as they figure it's safe, the cleanup squad will be in here to pick up the leftovers."
Behind her, Flax was hopping on one foot, hopelessly entangled in the suit he was trying to remove. As Nexia finished speaking, he crashed into the lab table and tumbled to the floor.
"How much time?" Gabba asked, her gaze flicking to her clumsy companion with a touch of exasperation.
"Don't know," Nexia said. "All the valves but one held, so there wasn't nearly as much gas as they will think. We should have about ten to fifteen minutes before they'll consider it safe."
"And then we'll be in deep droppings," Flax said, picking himself up laboriously.
"Not if we can help it," Gabba said. Her mind was working in overdrive.
"Okay, here we go, "she said after a while. "Let me tell you what I've got in mind. Stop removing that suit, Flax, put it back on."
"Oh, nonono, I don't think so," Hackyll said after Gabba had explained her plan. A hopeless, breakneck plan, but secretly he admitted grudgingly that it was so crazy it might just work.
The lab table, which doubled as a cart to ease the transport of larger, heavier specimens, had been rolled out into the front room and positioned at the door. After some coaxing and explanatory hand signs, the Abover monster had draped itself on top of it, convincing them that it could be a credible corpse. He began to be convinced that it actually did possess some intelligence. Some.
"I will not play dead, and I will certainly not lie on top of his thing! I just spent ages crushed against it in the dark."
"Yes, but there is no time for you to exchange suits with one of us, so you must have died in the flooding, right?"
"What interest do I have in helping you? You openly oppose Aljye's will, you harbour a dangerous creature, you sabotage laboratory equipment..."
"You forgot physical attack of a high-ranking officer," Nexia said dryly.
"You are in here with us," Gabba pointed out. "How are you going to explain that? Especially if we were to be full of praise and thanks for how you've saved us..."
"I could just jump up and tell them the truth," Hackyll said rebelliously.
"I don't think she'd like that," said Gabba dryly, pointing to the creature who had the most evil grin on its face. Those pale, mobile eyeballs were positively unnerving! How the thing was able to see anything at all while keeping its head so still was a mystery to him, but her vision unfortunately appeared to function all too perfectly.
Outside, the footfalls of the approaching cleanup squad could be heard growing louder.
"Quickly!" Flax whispered urgently.
Hackyll swallowed convulsively and draped himself over the prone Abover. Before relaxing into its role of recently deceased, the thing actually lifted a hand to pat his rear!
Gabba nearly choked on a held-back laugh. It came out as a strangled snort. Flax looked at her askance as he draped a plastic sheet over Hackyll and the Abover, hiding them from too close inspection.
"Let's get ready," Gabba said quickly." Remember, surprise them, overwhelm them, don't give them a chance to think. They expect us to be dead so we've got that working for us."
When the cleanup squad unsealed the door to the lab, wielding buckets, pressure cleaners, plastic bags and assorted contraptions to handle hazardous materials, they expected to find death and tragedy. It caught them entirely unaware to have three humans in protective gear push a loaded cart at them.
"About time you showed up," one of the suits snapped at them. "Any longer, and these would have started to decompose. Do you have anything to say in your defence?"
The squad members looked at each other, at a loss. Their instructions had not spoken of this.
"Make way now, so we can get this cremated. Or do you want a new contamination?" Gabba shoved that cart another notch in their direction and watched them shrink away from it.
Just then, a loud, rumbling noise erupted from Laddie's stomach underneath the cover. Gabba realised that the poor thing must be ravenous; she hadn't eaten in millennia! She vowed to find food for her as quickly as possible. What was it that they had eaten again, back then...?
Now, though, she had a set of gazes directed questioningly at her from the squad, with heads bobbing slightly as they focused on her.
"Gas," Gabba said, thinking quickly, "Corpses do that. What? You don't believe me? Want to take a look?" The scientist moved to lift the corner of the sheet, but the members of the cleanup squad shook their heads and took a step back. They knew the effects of cyanide gas on a body, and it wasn't pretty.
Relieved beyond measure that her bluff had worked, Gabba decided not to give the cleanup squad time to regroup.
"You clean up in there, we'll take care of this," she called to them as Nexia and Flax pushed the cart swiftly down the corridor, leaving the squad to gape after them.
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